14 January 2014

Beluga (ベルーガ, 2011)

Hans Christian Andersen’s pitiful Christmas tale “The Little Match Girl” has inspired several animators from Charles Mintz’s colourful 1937 cartoon to Roger Aller’s sentimental The Little Matchgirl (2006) for Disney.  There was even a kawaii anime short as part of Mushi Pro’s 52 Hans Christian Andersen Stories (アンデルセン物語) for Fuji TV in 1971.  Yet, no matter how hard one tries to make “The Little Match Girl” lovely, there is no avoiding the fact that it is a truly grim story. 

Thus, it is fascinating to watch Shin Hashimoto throw sentiment aside in his film Beluga (ベルーガ, 2011), which opens and closes with the traditional tale of the girl with the matches - but with a surprising, open-ended twist at the end.  Bilingual intertitles at the opening inform us that the girl could not sell any matches and so “takes shelter in a nook and lights the matches to warm herself.”  We see her hand, drawn almost as if scratched away from black celluloid, as she reaches into the box for a match.  As she lights it, instead of being warmed by memories of happier times from the past as in the original story, we are plunged into the stuff of nightmares. 

A man appears to be hanging in terror upside-down, chicks peck rapaciously at a worm brought by their mother, a barely dressed women runs frantically through a blood red forest possibly in search of her lost child.  It is a series of grotesque scenes of desperation and horrific violence with a short reprieve in the middle in which a prickly little creature and the young child stroll together in the sun.  But this moment of cheer is short lived.  They come across a man urinating on a tree and are moved to commit acts of violence on him.  The film crescendos, with the aid of an impressively dark piano and violin score by Marei Suyama (NGATARI), into an orgy of senseless violence before returning us to the cold world of the match girl alone on the street. 

The biggest mystery of this film is its title.  There are no sea creatures depicted in the film and the imagery in my mind of belugas are quite sweet à la Raffi.  I suppose it can be a brutal world for beluga as well – particularly if they encounter a polar bear or an orca. Yet the world depicted in Hashimoto’s dream sequence are not those of natural predators in the wild.  They are terrifying acts of violence for the sake of violence.  There is no denying Shin Hashimoto’s talent as an animator, but be warned, his subject matter is not for the fainthearted. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Shin Hashimoto (橋本新, b.1979) is a member of the CALF animation collective.  A Tokyo-based artist, Hashimoto did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Tama Art University (aka Tamabi). Hashimoto is known for his nightmarish animated shorts such as The Undertaker and the Dog (2010).  Beluga played widely at both domestic and international animation festivals and received a Special Jury Mention at Animafest Zagreb 2012.  Check out his work on Vimeo.  To see the film in full resolution check out the new DVD/Blu-ray L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume 1.

Shin Hashimoto

Nobuaki Doi
Shin Hashimoto

Marei Suyama (NGATARI)

Taro Honma

Eyuko Suzuki

MIMICOF aka Midori Hirano