27 February 2014

Berlinale 2014 Portrait: Tamaki Okamoto

Earlier this month, ARTE ran an interview with Tamaki Okamoto in order to learn more about her Paris-based production/distribution company CaRTe bLaNChe which has become a sensation at European film festivals.  She is the European distributor of a new wave of Japanese independent animators and experimental filmmakers like Atsushi Wada, who won the Silver Bear in 2012 for his animated short The Great Rabbit (2012).  She also represents some of the films of young artists such as Mirai Mizue, Isamu Hirabayashi, Tadasuke Kotani, Yoriko Mizushiri, Shin Hashimoto, and TOCHKA, among others.  CaRTe bLaNChe also distributes the recent works of more established experimental filmmakers such as the legendary Keiichi Tanaami (see: Chalet Pointu DVD) and Keita Kurosaka (Midori-ko).  Their catalogue also features some non-Japanese artists such as Hakhyun Kim’s Greeum and Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz’s exploration of the Tokyo music scene We Don’t Care About Music Anyway (2009).

I have embedded the interview below.  It can be viewed in German or French.  For those of you who speak neither, I have translated the interview into English below, beginning with the introductory blurb from the ARTE website:

The Great Rabbit and other films by [Atsushi] Wada are part of the catalogue of works distributed by the Paris-based Japanese Tamaki Okamoto.  Far from her native land, she has developed a unique perspective on animation.  Artists and filmmakers who make works that are a far cry from mainstream manga, but also a far cry from the well-worn Kafkaesque paths of the usual festival and television markets, have found in her both a supporting voice and a producer/distributor.

Who is this woman whose company CaRTe bLaNChe has become such a talking point [at the Berlinale]?  How does she work, and what motivates her work? 

Interview by: Catherine Kohler (sp?)  and Daniel Pfeiffer

Narrator: Three years ago, Tamaki Okamoto established her own production company called CaRTe bLaNChe in Paris.  She is known for excellence and originality and has a unique taste for extraordinary aesthetics.  Like the owner of an art gallery, she looks after her artists and promotes their projects to great international acclaim. 

Tamaki Okamoto (TO):  I try to keep a small catalogue.  That’s not always easy to do.  At the same time, it’s not easy to find films that one really falls in love with.  I struggle to find artists whose work really moves me.  That only happens once or twice a year, and that’s fine by me.  It’s a bit like human relationships.  Our criteria for selecting films has to do with feelings.  With too many films, it would be hard for me to be in love with all of them.  That’s the reason why I don’t have such a thick catalogue like other production companies.   

TO:  I work mainly with young filmmakers, but there are a couple of exceptions.  For example, Keiichi Tanaami.  He is the eldest artist that I work with, but also the most open.  Tanaami is 74 years old, is extremely well known in Japan, and has had an exceptional career.  His work inspires me because he’s so truly open and fresh in his ideas.  He’s so curious and doesn’t set any boundaries for himself.  That’s why at 74 he has created his own artistic world.  That’s my dream.  After all, he’s the first artist that I worked with [when I established CaRTe bLaNChe]. 

TO:  It’s a bit like the mise-en-scène in cinema.  Daily, I toil with the mise-en-scène and I love it.  I love to help create a certain creative voice that gives people a kind of desire to live life.  People need that.  The possibility of that is the function of cinema for me and I think it is reflected in the films that I select.  And it perhaps affects the kind of films that I decide to produce.  I greatly value the production process of my auteurs – I am very sensitive to the needs of the artist at work and I concern myself with all the small details.   I must admit that I love directors who are workaholics, even slightly obsessive.  In my daily life as a cineaste I am also a bit obsessive. 

[Okamoto drinks tea in a split screen with a tea-drinking scene from Yumi Joung’s Love Games (2012)]

TO:  I think some of the big festivals take short films as a kind of a test.  A short film before a long film as a kind of apprentice piece.  In my view, that’s not the right way to look at it.  This format is perfect for demonstrating true creativity.  That is particularly the case with animation.  I often find that the truly creative and extraordinarily interesting animated films are all short films.  When one makes long films, one needs a script and a certain kind of format.  It’s a much more conventional medium [than short films].  It constrains creativity.  From my point-of-view, it’s easier for filmmakers to express themselves using the short film format.  As I said, there are festivals who understand the trailblazing nature of short films, and there are festivals who don’t get it.  I think the Berlinale totally gets it.  That’s why the Berlinale is a natural fit for my films.  And for the past three years I have been lucky to have the chance to show films at the Berlinale. 

Narrator:  The film WONDER by Mirai Mizue is currently competing in the Shorts category.  Here [5:58-] is an exclusive sample of the film for our audience. 

[there is also a short clip of Yoriko Mizushiri’s Futon (2012) at the very end]

Programme: Kurzschluss #677
Broadcaster: ARTE France - ZDF - Deutschland 2014
First broadcast: Sunday, 7 February 2014, 23:25

English translation by Anna Maria Hotes and Catherine Munroe Hotes
Additional text by Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014. 

KurzSchluss #677: Berlinale Special – Mirai Mizue

Mirai Mizue (MM) was interviewed by ARTE as part of the KurzSchluss short film programme at the Berlinale earlier this month with his CaRTe bLaNChe producer Tamaki Okamoto (TO) acting as his interpreter.  You can currently watch the six-minute interview at Zoom – Die Kurzfilme der Berlinale Shorts.  But, as television stations have a habit of deleting the online content after a certain period of time, I have written up an English transcript of the interview. I  have omitted Okamoto's interpretation and done my own translation of Mizue's answers (with assistance, as ever, from my fluently trilingual husband)   I have also eliminated “ums” and other non-essential expressions to cut to the essence of the answers.

The highlights of this interview for me are Mirai Mizue’s kimono featuring a print of images from WONDER and Tamaki Okamoto’s stunning hairstyle.  The questions are rather pedestrian – they seem to be a list of questions to be asked of all the animators – but Mizue’s answers are fascinating.  I love how his face transforms into an expression of mischievous delight at the end when he is asked to draw something for them and he whips out a handful of markers from the sleeves of his kimono.  Priceless. 

ARTE: Are you living animation?
MM:  I think that everything I do in my daily life is related to animation.  I feel animation all the time, whatever I do.

ARTE:  What was the first image of your film?
MM:  It is just a simple black point.  It signifies the starting point of drawing. 

ARTE:  How much did your film cost?
TO:  20,000 - 25,000€

ARTE: Who are you inspired by?
MM:  For classic animation, I admire animators like Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren.  I also like animators like Georges Schwizgebel for the way they use music in their work. 

ARTE: What’s the story?
MM:  The story does not necessarily have to come from me.  The audience can make the stories themselves after seeing my films.  I just want to make animation with colour, form, and music in order to make people feel happiness or some other emotion.  The story will be different for each audience member because they will each react uniquely to their experience of the film.

ARTE:  Do you draw every day?
MM:  Yes, WONDER, was a project where I actually had to draw every day for 365 days.  Initially, I had to force myself to draw every day for the project.  At the beginning, the goal was just to complete the daily task for the animation film, but after a while - and this was a new experience for me - the situation changed.  I was no longer drawing just for the film but I was overcome with a sensation of taking great pleasure from drawing and I wanted to feel that sensation every day.    

ARTE: Can you make a drawing for us?
[MM pulls markers out of his kimono sleeves and sets about drawing on a sheet of plain white paper]

Interview ©2014 ARTE /Berlinale

Transcription and additional text by Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

Snow Hut (かまくら, 2013)

A snow-covered house is situated in the middle of a rice field.
What should one do, in a space of white and quietude?
By spring, the snowy hut melts and loses its appearance.
The Japanese MA, the in-between state of time and space –
an animation, a haiku”  - Berlinale 2014 programme

For her latest minimalist animation, Snow Hut (かまくら/ Kamakura, 2013), Yoriko Mizushiri has returned to her roots in Aomori Prefecture.  Kamakura snow huts are synonymous with the northern reaches of Tohoku.  Dug out of a mound of tightly packed snow, kamakura range in size from small nooks for a candle and some small offerings to the gods to large snow huts for people to enjoy a winter dish such as nabe (hotpot) or grilled dishes (see: Yokote Kamakura Matsuri, Restaurant Kamakura-mura, and Iizama Ouedan).

Snow Hut screened at the Berlinale earlier this month as part of the Shorts Mix (KurzSchluss) programme.  On the ARTE television screening the film followed Atsushi Wada’s The Great Rabbit (2012) which won the Silver Bear in 2012.  Aesthetically, Yoriko Mizushiri’s work has much in common with that of Atsushi Wada.  They both share an interest in the concept of “ma” () – in art this is often referred to as negative space.  In art that concerns itself with “ma”, the objects in themselves are less important than the space that they inhabit / defines them.   The concept of “ma” is best described by the Chinese philosopher and poet of the Zhou Dynasty Laozi (aka Lao Tsu) in the following poem:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
but the empty space between them
is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
but the empty space between it
is the essence of the pot.

Walls with windows and doors form the house,
but the empty space within it
is the essence of the house.

People whispering loud
no tangible sense
body language
food for thought
this is the essence of  the negative space
- Laozi (老子)

Mizushiri and Wada both express this using very thinly drawn lines and minimalist settings.  Mizushiri’s unique, abstract approach to her work plays with our expectations as spectators.  Objects are shown in close up and are often ambiguous – what looks like a snow hut from an extreme long shot looks more like a person with a mushroom-shaped head curled up in a ball in a closer shot.   The perspective changes as if the camera were circling around the figure.  An extreme close-up a few beats later shows a needle and thread sewing through the figure suggesting it is not really a person after all. 

In Mizushiri’s director’s statement, she explains some of her artistic intentions:  "The snow in my hometown is very soft and innocently beautiful. This film is calm and clean as much as the snow that I remember. There is no questionable or hidden meaning. All the movements and expressions in the film are simple and universal" (Source).  The ambiguity of Mizushiri’s imagery; however, will have spectator’s wondering at its meaning.  As with her sensual film, Futon (2012), each spectator will have their own unique response to Snow Hut, which is much more likely to be a sensory experience than an intellectual one.  Adding to the mysterious beauty of the film is the music by Kengo Tokusashi (徳差健悟, b.1980). Like Mizushiri, Tokusashi is also a native of Aomori Prefecture – most famous for his work composing instrumental tracks for the video game Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2011).

Keep an eye out for future international screenings of Snow Hut via CaRTe bLaNChe’s twitter feed.  Next week, the film will be screening at the Anima Festival in Belgium.  Earlier works by Mizushiri can be found on the DVD/BR L'Animation Indépendante Japonaise, Volume 1 (FR/EN/JP, 2013).

Yoriko Mizushiri (水尻自子, b. 1984) is a freelance film director who graduated from Joshibi University of Art and Design.  You can follow Mizushiri on tumblr and twitter, or check out her official website shiripro.  Her film Futon won a number of prizes in Japan including the prestigious Renzo Kinoshita Prize at Hiroshima and the New Face Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival. It has also been a big hit at international festivals, making the short list for Cartoon Brew’s most well liked animated short of 2013 and winning Best of the Festival at LIAF 2013.  Snow Hut made the Jury Selection at this year’s Japan Media Arts Festival.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

19 February 2014

WONDER (2014)

“Dedicated to my teacher Masahiro Katayama, 
who opened up my eyes to the WONDER of animation.” 
- Mirai Mizue, WONDER, end credits

“Wonder” is the word I would use to describe the emotion that I felt when I first discovered the animation of Norman McLaren as a child exploring the NFB video tape collection in my local library.  I had been exposed to NFB animation in school, but this was something new and exciting, and it changed my understanding of animation forever.  I imagine that feeling of wonder is what Mirai Mizue and his peers (Kunio Katō, Akino Kondoh, among others) felt when Professor Masahiro Katayama (read: In Memory Of) introduced them to the world of independent animation as undergraduates at Tama Art University in the early 2000s.  Thus, it was moving to see that Mizue had dedicated his latest animated short, the aptly named WONDER (2014) to his late sensei.

I am reminded of that sense of wonder whenever I see a new film by Mirai Mizue because like Norman McLaren, he is constantly challenging himself with innovative animation projects.  WONDER is the end result of the WONDER 365 ANIMATION PROJECT executed by Mizue between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013.  In this project, Mizue set himself the goal of producing a one-second film – 24 images – per day for 365 days with the support of sponsors.  At the completion of that year, Mizue’s producers, CaRTe bLanChe, set up a kickstarter campaign to transform the resulting sequence of 8,760 images into a complete film (8 minutes in length) – including a 35mmm print and a soundtrack by the acoustic band the Pascals – that could be sent to international festivals.  So far, WONDER (see: official website) has made the Jury Selection at the Japan Media Arts Festival, and last week it competed in the shorts competition at the Berlinale 

Mizue animated WONDER using his signature “cell animation” technique that he has been wowing audiences with since his debut animation Fantastic Cell in 2003.  The cells in question refer not to celluloid (as in the traditional animation technique “cel animation”), but to organic cells which make up the basic structures of the weird and wonderful creatures that Mizue brings to life in his abstract films. In the programme to the Berlinale, Mizue’s technique is compared to a colour organ (Farbenklavier), “in which visual effects are produced when a musical key is struck,” they describe Mizue’s latest film as “a journey to the world of cells and structures.” (Source: Berlinale).  In addition to the cells animation, WONDER features a wide range of abstract paintings that by turns complement and contrast with each other. 

Mizue does not use storyboards in planning his films, but instead improvises using his intuition.  This imparts a lyrical quality to his work and results in a film in which every new transformation surprises the viewer like fireworks exploding in the sky.  When presented on a programme with his fellow CALF animators, whose work often explores deep and troubling psychological issues, Mizue’s films lift up the spirits with their warm colour palettes and they inspire audiences with their creativity.  Thanks in part to the Pascals’ upbeat soundtrack, WONDER is Mizue’s most joyous film to date.  The colours dance across the screen with an ease that belies the tremendous amount of hard work and dedication that went into its meticulous execution. 

WONDER will be screened along with 14 other shot by Mirai Mizue at the Human Trust Cinema Shibuya on February 22nd.  They are also hosting an exhibition of the animator’s illustrations called WONDER FULL until the end of the month.  Learn more at the official website WONDER FULL.  Clips of the film from the WONDER 365 ANIMATION PROJECT can be found of Mizue’s official Vimeo and Youtube profiles.  Keep an eye out for WONDER at international festivals because it is a real treat for the senses when seen on the big screen.

2014 Catherine Munroe Hotes

12 February 2014

Soliton (2013)

The devastation that the Tōhoku tsunami and its aftermath wreaked on the communities on the Pacific coast of northeastern Honshu in March 2011 has been described by many observers as resembling a war zone.  In his latest experimental short film, Soliton (2013), Isamu Hirabayashi uses this motif as a metaphor to express the lingering trauma left in the wake of the tsunami.  Soliton had its international premiere this this week at the Berlinale as part of its Generation 14plus Short Film programme.

Most of the film is shot from the perspective of a man looking downwards as he walks over uneven terrain.  The man’s legs, garbed in military camouflage, move at a slow, deliberate pace.  The sound of his feet crunching as he walks is interspersed with the sounds of gunfire, high-pitched buzzing, and garbled radio noises that create the impression of a modern war zone.  It is a disorientating and unusual perspective. The lurching of the camera creates a sense of unease to the point of near nausea.

Hirabayashi denies us an establishing shot of the landscape for the first 7 minutes of this 12 minute film.  Instead, he forces us to examine the minutiae of the terrain to see the scars left by disaster: beach interrupted by corrugated tin that may once have been a roof or shed of some kind, concrete with rivulets worn into it by water, concrete interrupted by vegetation, the earth cluttered with debris.  Finally, the man's leg is freeze framed and turned into an animation of dots next to the formula for a soliton wave. 

In the world of mathematics and physics, a soliton is a self-reinforcing / non-dissipating wave that was first observed by the Scottish civil engineer John Scott Russell (learn more about solitons here and here) in a canal.  Although they are difficult to observe in mid-ocean, many speculate that a tsunami wave is an example of a naturally occurring soliton.    For me, Hirabayashi’s use of this scientific term for the title of his film brings up many of the thoughts and feelings I had as I watched the Tōhoku tsunami footage on March 11, 2011.  When one lives in coastal Japan, one is acutely aware of the theoretical threat of tsunami.  There are markers of the levels that previous tsunami reached, regular evacuation drills, tsunami and earthquake resistant shelters, and man-made tsunami barriers.  But knowing the scientific likelihood that a severe tsunami may come during one’s lifetime is not the same as the reality of the experience of the event itself.  Scientific knowledge cannot prepare an individual or a community for its physical and psychological impact.  I found myself reacting viscerally to Hirabayashi’s film as it brought up the shock I felt at the human impact of the tsunami on 3/11 all over again.  There is this wonderfully contemplative shot of the ocean as if looking down from the sky.  The deceptively calm-looking ocean gives no hint in that moment that when the conditions are right it can wield an unimaginable, deadly force.   

The man continues to walk, through puddles and ragged earth, through thicker and thicker piles of debris littered with the signs of lives destroyed including a lone tatami mat, a single shoe, an open photo album, a child’s doll.  The walk continues until the man encounters the feet of a child in shoes with a heart pattern on them holding a stuffed toy (the Berlinale description of the film differs from the screener that I saw – I noticed no black and white in the opening and they also describe the girl as being barefoot). The man stops and places the shovel we did not see he was carrying until now gently into the sand, suggesting that he is part of the recovery effort. 

In case any spectators were uncertain as to the setting of this film, the closing credits make it clear with a series of still images of buildings destroyed by the Tōhoku tsunami.  The text of the closing credits are artfully shaped around these monuments to lives once lived.  The images chosen for the closing credits reminded me of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) – the skeletal remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall destroyed by the A-bomb.  These shells of buildings are poignant symbols of humanity's frailty:  for all of our technological advances, we have still so much to learn.  The emotional impact of Soliton’s imagery is heightened by the excellent music of Takashi Watanabe – a long-time Hirabayashi collaborator.

Many short film fans will be familiar with Hirabayashi’s Noburo Ofuji Award winning animation 663114 (2011), which tackled the long-term consequences to the environment due to the nuclear disaster that came on the heels of the tsunami.  Soliton continues Hirabayashi’s consideration of the impact of these events but from a new and unique point-of-view.  Definitely keep an eye out for Soliton at international festivals in the coming year.  It is the kind of film that will affect you on more than one sensory level.  If you are unfamiliar with Hirabayashi’s experimental work, I recommend checking out his YouTube channelA Story Constructed of 17 Pieces of Space and 1 Maggot (2007) is a personal favourite of mine.  663114 appears on the DVD/BD L'Animation indépendante japonaise - Volume 1

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014 


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