31 January 2014

Combustible (火要鎮, 2012)

Fires and quarrels are the flowers of Edo, yet the greater essence is the fireman

The ancient city of Edo was known as the City of Fires because of the frequency and ferocity of its fires.  This was due to a combination of factors from the high flammability of the densely built wooden nagaya (長屋/row houses) to arson.  Between 1601 and 1867 alone, the city suffered nearly 1800 fires – 49 of them considered “great fires” that killed hundreds, if not thousands of people. 

The record of these fires appears in paintings, wood cuts, and scrolls – many of which can be viewed on the Institute for Fire Safety and Disaster Preparedness website – and the popular legends surrounding many of the fires have inspired everything from kabuki plays about the arsonist Yaoya Oshichi of the Great Fire of Tenna to Laura Joh Rowland’s mystery novel The Fire Kimono, which is set during the Great Fire of Meireki.  Popular manga-ka and animator Katsuhiro Ōtomo and his design team at Sunrise used woodblock print artists the inspiration for his unique animated short Combustible (火要鎮/Hinoyōjin, 2012).

Set in the 18th century, the story begins with the unfurling of a cloth-bound emakimono (scroll painting).  The camera tracks slowly left, in the direction that one reads a scroll, over a highly detailed depiction of 18th century Edo from the busy river, over the working class Shitamachi (low city) to the more affluent Yamanote (“foot hills” – or “high city” as in Edward Seidensticker’s 1984 book).  A male chorus sings a kiyari – a ritual song which was sung by hikeshi (Edo firefighters).  Traditional kiyari would list the tools needed by the firefights but with the words all drawn out like a chant. 

During the slow tracking shot, a hinomi-yagura (fire lookout tower) appears in the foreground to foreshadow the events to come.  The camera pauses in a large garden of the affluent home of a young girl called Owaka-chan (Saori Hayama).  Bored on her own in the garden, her spirits are lifted by the appearance of the boy next door, Matsuyoshi (Masakazu Morita), on the tiled garden wall.  A lyrical sequence ensues showing their varied play together, their agile figures dissolving in and out to show the passage of time as the garden subtly changes seasons. 

The children’s cheerful voices become a memory of the past as the camera dissolves to a red room with a hanging scroll painting of the garden on the wall.  Owaka is now a young lady in a formal kimono sitting with her mother.  The women’s response is interrupted by the sound of hanshō (alarm bells) in the distance.  Owaka’s mother sends a boy up onto the roof to the lookout to discover the location of the fire.  All across the black sky of Edo, men have climbed onto their roofs to observe the fire – all except Matsuyoshi.  He surprises the women by climbing the wall, running through their garden to escape from his family. 

The next scene shows Owaka as the dutiful daughter, serving her family’s guests under their watchful eyes.  As soon as she is in the privacy of her room, she weeps.  Owaka is much more adept at hiding her displeasure from her family than Matsuyoshi whose father has become violent with rage.  Matsuyoshi kneels on the floor in front of his father, his shirt sleeve torn off to reveal a tattooed arm.  The hikeshi firefighters – who normally came from the lower classes – were as heavily tattooed as today’s yakuza with water symbols such as dragons to give them courage and bring them good luck on the job.  It seems that Matsuyoshi has run away from home to become a heroic firefighter.

We hear Owaka and Matsuyoshi talking about the contrast between their childhood and their present situation against still scenes from Owaka’s empty house and garden.  Owaka is then seen reclining in apparent misery next to her koto – the stringed instrument she has doubtless had to learn to play in part of her training to be a nobleman’s wife.  Night falls and Owaka sits in her room with a beautiful wedding kimono and her elaborate trousseau.  A voice-over of her father’s bragging tells us that they are just waiting on the final touch: the obi for her wedding kimono.  Owaka sighs in misery and throws a fan across the room.  She doesn’t notice until it is too late that the fan has landed in her lantern.  Before long, the lantern bursts into giant flames.  Owaka’s first instinct is to run for help but then she reconsiders.  Perhaps this fire can alter the inevitability of her fate?  The drums and hanshō thrum loudly as the hikeshi firefighters gather to fight the fire as it rages through the Yamanote district.  Matsuyoshi is one of the brave men who nimbly ascend tall ladders onto the rooftops to assess the situation.  Will he be able to rescue Owaka or will her foolishness lead only to tragedy and devastation?

12th Century Animation (12 seiki no animation) / Isao Takahata
Isao Takahata

Watching Ōtomo’s short but masterful film, I was reminded of Isao Takahata’s fascinating illustrated book 12th Century Animation (十二世紀のアニメーション, 1999) which examines how the composition of Heian picture scrolls prefigure the techniques used in modern animation.  It even includes examples from picture scrolls that dramatically depict Heian era fire – a scroll that Ōtomo may be referring to in an interview with Asian Beat last summer.  Using a complex mixture of traditional and CGI animation techniques, Ōtomo and his team have created a film combines the quiet beauty of 18th century emakimono (picture scrolls) with the dynamism of CGI movement.  I particularly love the added touch of the letterboxing using traditional Japanese cloth instead of black bars.

This duality is expressed in the dramatic structure of the film.  As Ōtomo explains in Asia Beat, the first half of the film represents “stillness” and the second half “movement” with its “intense fire and action sequences”.  The slow tracking camera using mostly long and extreme long shots used in the first half contrasts with the fast cutting action shot from a variety of angles in the second half.  Similarly, the quiet sounds of garden birds of the early scenes are replaced by the drums and bells of the traditional dance music employed during the fire sequence as the film rages towards its abrupt end.  My two favourite shots in Combustible employ very different techniques: the glorious slow tracking opening establishing shot of Edo and the exciting CGI sequence of Matsuyoshi and his fellow firefighters flying up onto the rooftops by ladder.  As our POV ascends the tall building like a weightless crane shot, I believe I even said “wow” out loud at the sight of the rows of houses up in flames.  Fire and water are notoriously challenging for animators to get right and this film is a tour de force in the animation of fire. 

Available on the Short Peace DVD (JP only)
Short Peace BD (JP only)

Katsuyoshi Ōtomo won the Noburō Ōfuji Award for Combustible at the Mainichi Concours last year.  The film was also shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Animated Short and was nominated for the prestigious Annecy Cristal.  Although it started making the festival rounds in 2012, Combustible was theatrically released as part of the omnibus Short Peace alongside Shuhei Morita’s Oscar-nominated animated short Possessions (九十九/Tsukumo, 2013) as well as shorts directed by Hiroaki Ando and Hajime KatokiShort Peace was released on DVD and BD in Japan this month.  No word yet on any English DVD/BD/download release dates.  For fans of animation, the special limited edition BD is well worth the investment if you don’t mind the lack of English. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Katsuhiro Ōtomo
Makoto Kubota

Masakazu Morita (Matsuyoshi)
Saori Hayama (Owaka)

Character Design:
Hidekazu Ohara

Animation Director:
Tatsuya Tomaru

CGI Director:
Shūji Shinoda

Hidetsugu Ito
Hiroyuki Horiuchi
Koji Watanabe
Kouichi Arai
Mari Tominaga
Masaaki Endou
Shuichi Kaneko
Takahiro Tanaka

Background Art:
Junichi Taniguchi
Yoshiaki Honma

Effects Animation Director:
Takashi Hashimoto

Visual Concept:
Hidekazu Ohara