06 May 2014

Harbor Tale (ハーバーテイル, 2011)

In an historical district, an English-speaker is likely to say “if these walls could talk.  .  .” in order to express one’s desire to have a glimpse into the people and events that once occurred in the same place that one is experiencing in the present day.  The animator Yūichi Itō must have had such a thought one day in Yokohama – the city where he lives and teaches at Tokyo University of the Arts – while looking at one of the city’s famous red brick historical buildings.  The most famous of these are the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse (横浜赤レンガ倉庫), The Jack (one of the Yokohama Three Towers / 横浜三塔), and  the Toda Peace Memorial.

In this mixed media stop motion / CG animation short Harbor Tale (ハーバーテイル, 2011), Itō anthropomorphises a red brick who has resided on the corner of a red brick building since the times when the clack of geta could be heard on the busy streets of Yokohama.  The building is only a couple of blocks from the harbour and when the building was new the red brick recalls seeing a white sailboat coming into port. 

The decades pass, streetcars come and go on the street in front of the building, and low-level neighbouring buildings are replaced by modern structures.  The red brick pries himself out from the corner of his building and decides to explore the harbourfront.  Passing ships – based on actual ships that frequent the port – transform into characters inspired by the contents or home ports of the ships. The red brick seems to envy these ships for their ability to travel and see the wonders of the world.  After accidentally rescuing a seagull from a predatory fish, the seagull rescues the red brick back and flies him to safety – offering him a bird’s-eye view of the city that inspires his desire for adventure further.  He also spots the sailboat he recalls from the past, docked in the harbour.  Those familiar with Yokohama will recognise the ship as the Nippon Maru (日本), a sailing ship which is permanently docked in Nippon Maru Memorial Park as a historical museum. 

One day, the red brick stumbles upon an ancient brick from a faraway land who tells him his story and warns him not to leave his home.  The grizzly old mustachioed brick seems to suggest that the joy of the adventures are a sorry replacement for home.  The old brick then crumbles into pieces.  Undeterred, the red brick puts the old brick in the corner of the building and sets off for the Nippon Maru.  This is the transition into an unexpected finale that shows off the marvellous possibilities of mixing clay animation with CG animation. 

Letterboxing the central story of this animated short is a fascinating animation of the geography of the port of Yokohama.  Flipping the map upside down (with north at the bottom), the outline of the city is made to resemble a face, with the port a mouth that swallows up ships like a whale consuming small fish.  Upon first viewing, I didn’t quite get the significance of these sequences, but after viewing again and some reflection, I realised that with this ode to Yokohama the animator is expressing the view that when one lives in a harbour town, the world comes to you in all its wonder and variety. 

Yūichi Itō (伊藤有壱, b. 1962) was born in Tokyo and in 1998 established his own animation studio I.TOON Ltd.   He uses a variety of animation techniques but favours clay animation.  He first came to my attention in 2005/6 when I saw his delightful animation series Knyacki!  (ニャッキ!, 1995) about a little caterpillar on the NHK.  In addition to his own animation projects, Itō teaches animation to graduate students at the Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai).  Harbor Tale won the Golden Slipper for best animated film at the 52nd Zlin Film Festival in the Czech Republic in 2012.  It also made the Jury Selection at the 16th Japan Media Arts Festival.  

Official website: http://harbortale.com//
Follow Itō on twitter: @knyackiii

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014