04 June 2014

The Portrait Studio (寫眞館, 2013)

It is rare that an animated film moves me to tears, but Takashi Nakamura’s tender depiction of the passage of time during one of Japan’s most turbulent eras in The Portrait Studio (寫眞館 / Shashinkan, 2013) truly left me reaching for a handful of tissues.  This 18-minute short tells two stories: one of the relationship between a photographer and one of his subjects and, intertwined with it, a visual tale of the modernization of Japan. 

It begins amongst the lush greenness of Meiji Japan (the late 19th century), when photography was in its infancy.  A rickshaw brings a newly married couple across a spring meadow to the foot of a hill.  The man is dressed in a military uniform and the woman in an elegant European-style gown with a large hat.   They ascend a stone staircase to a lovely European-style wooden house that is home to the Hinomaru Portrait Studio.  The woman sits for her portrait but is too shy to raise her face to the camera, so the friendly photographer picks a bouquet of flowers for her.  His intuition proves correct, for the woman raises her head smiling and the photographer successfully catches the woman’s smile on film.

Thus begins the relationship between the photographer and this family.  Time passes, and the woman brings her infant daughter for a photograph.  The woman has lost her shyness in front of the camera but the baby startles the photographer with the angry expression on her face.  The photographer does his best to cajole the baby girl into smiling but it is all in vain.  As the baby grows up into girlhood and then womanhood, she comes back again and again for portraits of herself, her students, and her son, but she never smiles.  Despite this, a bond grows between subject and photographer and Nakamura creates suspense in us as spectators as we watch with growing anticipation to see if the woman will finally relent and smile for the camera.   

It is a moving tale that explores how photographs in the modern era have become such an important part of how we remember both our personal and collective histories.  I was reminded of something the renowned American photojournalist Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) – who lived during the same period and is famous for her photographs of the Depression and of the WWII Japanese relocation centres – once said: “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering it by holding it still.”

Photographs are reminders of happy times that have passed, and the bonds of friendship between the photographer and his subjects – the central character in this film is really a symbol of the whole community – remain steadfast in the face of a rapidly changing landscape.  Shot in glorious widescreen (21:9), Nakamura – who wrote, directed, and did the key animation for this labour of love – depicts the dramatic changes that happened in Tokyo and environs during this period from the Edo times through the devastation of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, the rise of nationalism in Japan, the second devastation of Tokyo due to American bombing, and into the modern trains and buildings of the immediate post-war era.  The film has no dialogue, with additional aural context provided by special effects (incidental noise) the lovely classical piano score composed by Jun Ichikawa.  This animated short is a visual delight with each frame a piece of art in its own right. 


Direction, Story, Key Animation:
Takashi Nakamura

Art Director:
Shinji Kimura

Animation Check:
Mitsunori Murata

Colour Designer:
Terumi Nakauchi

Director of Photography:
Mitsuhiro Satō

CGI Director:
Daisuke Oyabu

Jun Ichikawa

Sound Director, Sound Producer:
Yoshikazu Iwanami

Sound Effects:
Yasumasa Koyama

Sound Mixer:
Takayuki Yamaguchi

Production Company:
Studio Colorido

Takashi Nakamura (中村たかし, b. 1955) is a seasoned Japanese animator and director from Yamaguchi.  He began his career in animation as an inbetweener in 1974, and his debut work as an animation director on Golden Warrior Gold Lightan (黄金戦士ゴールド・ライタ, 1981-2) was influential to many of his peers including Kōji Morimoto.  More recently, his anime feature A Tree of Palme (パルムの樹, 2002) made the official selection at the Berlinale.  Nakamura is a founding member of the Japan Animation Creators Association (JAniCA) labour group. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

I saw this film at Nippon Connection 2014 #nc14