25 September 2014

While the Crow Weeps (カラスの涙, 2013)

Crows are an ever present feature of life in Japan.  They are a nuisance to many city-dwellers with their loud caws and their habit of riffling through garbage that has not been put under a protective net.  At the same time, there is much to admire in the crow.  They are clever birds who adapt well to new environments, from making their nests out of wire coat hangers to placing walnuts on the road so that they can be cracked open by cars running them over.


Because crows will feed on the carrion of animals, they have often been associated with death in the myths and legends of many cultures.  Their mysterious nature has also inspired many great works of poetry and other literature.  The corvid family appear frequently in Shakespeare, not to mention great poetic works like Ted Hughes’s collection of poems Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970), Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven” (1845), Vachel Lindsay’s poem “Two Old Crows” (1917), and Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow”:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

- Robert Frost, New Hampshire, 1923

The young, Osaka-based animation duo of Makiko Sukikara (鋤柄真希子, b. 1982) and Kōhei Matsumura (松村康平, b. 1980) were inspired by stories, both literary and scientific, for their poetic animated short  While the Crow Weeps (カラスの涙 / Karasu no Namida, 2013).  The film first came to my attention when they won the New Face Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival 2013.  Jury member Toshikatsu Wada (和田 敏克, b. 1966), of Kakio 24 Animation Studio and adjunct professor at Tokyo Zokei University, praised While the Crow Weeps as “a powerful new work.  .  .  that depicts the grim reality of living in the wild. The brilliant texture and the accuracy of the portrayal is overwhelming, patiently depicting a cloudy sky at dawn, the thickness of a mist, or how crows rise up one-by-one into the air. And there is no anthropomorphic emotional interpretation whatsoever in the countenance of the crows. The uniform inclusion of a sense of strain in this world, and living and dying in it, is a single large idea, and the crows that live based on this are depicted with majesty. We can expect much from artists who create this kind of self- produced work.” (Source: j-mediaarts.jp)

Speaking to Sukikara and Matsumura at Hiroshima 2014, where While the Crow Weeps screened as part of the showcase Japanese Animation Today (現代日本のアニメーション), I learned about how the film was made.  Sukikara did the drawings, animation, and direction while Matsumura wrote the screenplay, and did the cinematography and editing.  They worked in collaboration with the experimental artist and composer Nobukazu Takemura (竹村延和, b. 1968), who is also a native of Osaka, though he is currently based in Germany.  Takemura was an inspired choice of collaborator as he has experimented with his own original animations. 

The film begins with the caw of crows and the camera appears to push through heavy fog and fronds of rice plants to settle on a large tree covered in crows.  Images of the crows at rest on the tree are interspersed with the skeletal form of one of their brethren on the ground.  The tranquil scene comes to an end when one of the crows lets off a loud caw and a spectacular overhead perspective shows the crows flying away from the tree.  This is followed by a view from below as the crows circle above in the cloudy sky.

A naturalistic sequence transforms into an artistic one as the crows form an unnatural circle and rotate in a formation that brings to mind a spinning Phenakistocope – an early animation device.  This sets up the dichotomy that evolves throughout the film: naturalistic observations about the behaviour of crows are interwoven with artistic interpretations of the bird.  Realistic imagery of a cat with a dead crow in its beak contrasts with surreal impressions of the spirit of a dead crow chasing off the cat and unrealistic scenarios such as crows flying in an unlikely formation like planes going to battle.  In his notes for the film, Matsumura writes of his fascination with cannibalism and crows, and how it challenges human ethics.  Like many animals, crows are opportunistic feeders and in rare cases have been known to even prey upon their own.  With such imagery, While the Crow Weeps is at once a celebration of the beauty of nature while acknowledging its savagery.   

The dissonance of Nobukazu Takemura’s soundtrack adds a sense of unease to the atmosphere of the film.  For me, the most beautiful aspect While the Crow Weeps is Makiko Sukikara’s artwork and animation.  Using a combination of techniques – sumi-e, watercolour, and cutouts – on a 12-layers animation table, she has created some striking images.  The beautiful but eerie opening sequence of the crows on the tree has lingered in my memory since I screened the film. 

Follow @sukimaky on twitter to learn about future screenings of this animated short.

Animation & Director: Makiko Sukikara

Photography & Writer: Kōhei Matsumura

Music: Nobukazu Takemura

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014