27 February 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