30 November 2014

Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA Wissembourg, Part 3: Tadanari Okamoto

Second Screening / Programme 2e partie                   25 Nov- 2014, La Nef, Wissembourg

The 1970s to the Present / Des années 1970 à nos jours

A Great Unrecognized Figure: Tadanari Okamoto
Une grande figure méconnue : OKAMOTO Tadanari

Ten Little Indians /十人の小さなインデイアン (1968)
December Song / 12月のうた (1971)
Chikotan / チコタン ぼくのおよめさん (1971)
The Monkey and the Crab (excerpt) /日本むかしばなしさるかに (1972)
The Soba Flower of Mt. Oni (excerpt) /鬼がくれ山のソバの花  (1979)
Making of: "Are wa dare" (1985)
The Magic Ballad / おこんじょうるり(1983)

Ilan Nguyen’s second programme of Japanese Auteur Animation opened with the animation of Tadanari Okamoto (岡本 忠成, 1932 – 1990), an animation genius whose work has been little recognised overseas.  As Okamoto made educational films aimed at Japanese children and adaptations of Japanese folk tales and legends, many of which are challenging to translate, Nguyen speculated that this may have been the reason his films were not distributed overseas.  In Japan, Okamoto is recognised as one of their top animators, having won the prestigious Noburo Ofuji Award for innovation in animation more times than any other animator.   

Nguyen presented an overview of Okamoto’s career, beginning with his decision to return to university (an unusual thing to do in Japan, even today) to study filmmaking after seeing Czech puppet animation.  After completing his studies at Nihon University, Okamoto was mentored by Tadahito Mochinaga at MOM Productions where he worked on the Rankin/Bass productions The New Adventures of Pinocchio (ピノキオの冒険, 1960-1) and Willy McBean and his Magic Machine (1965).  He then set up his own studio Echo Productions in 1964 where he was to make nearly 40 films before his untimely death at the age of 58.  Nguyen spoke about the dedicated team of people who Okamoto employed at Echo Production who worked well together and contributed to the excellence of his films.  This team included puppet artisan Sumiko Hosaka (保坂純子, b. 1930), puppet maker / animator Fumiko Magari (真賀里文子), who both teach at the Laputa Art Animation School, and cinematographer Minoru Tamura (田村実).

Nguyen also spoke about the special friendship between Okamoto and his fellow puppet animator Kihachirō Kawamoto (川本 喜八郎, 1925-2010), with whom he collaborated on the Kawamoto+ Okamoto Puppet Anime-Shows (1972-1980).  Kawamoto is an internationally recognised animation auteur, but as his work is widely available on DVD, Nguyen chose to shine his spotlight on Okamoto for the RICA audience.  He did; however, show a five-minute clip from a recording of a theatrical presentation of a scene from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国志/Sangokushi, 1982-4) which was performed as part of the homage to the great puppet master after his death in 2010. 

All of the Okamoto films Nguyen presented were on 35mm, which was a special treat.  Although the complete box set of Okamoto presents the films in their restored glory, there is something wonderful a about seeing the films in their original format.  The films were not subtitled, so Nguyen did live French interpretation.  The short documentary Making of Are wa dare , is a real treasure because it demonstrates in brief how Echo Productions makes a film from storyboard to character and set design to filming on an impressive multi-plane animation table in order to create depth of space. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014 

Coming Soon:

Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA Wissembourg, Part 4 : Auteurs of the 2nd and 3rd Generations

Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA Wissembourg, Part 2: The Invention of the Animation Auteur

Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA Wissembourg, Part 2: The Invention of the Animation Auteur
« L'animation japonaise d'auteur » presented by Ilan Nguyen

Screening One / Programme 1ère partie                  22 Nov. 2014, La Nef, Wissembourg

The Invention of the Animation Auteur
L'invention de "l'animation d'auteur"

Clap Vocalism / Human Zoo /人間動物園 (Yōji Kuri, 1962)
Love /   (Yōji Kuri, 1963)
Mermaid / 人魚 (Osamu Tezuka, 1964)
The Flower / (Yōji Kuri, 1967)

The idea of a Japanese animation auteur was arguably invented by experimental artist Yōji Kuri (久里洋二, 1928) in the 1960s.  A member of the Animation Group of Three (アニメーション三人の会), who inaugurated a series of animation festivals at the Sōgetsu Art Center in Tokyo, Kuri was also the first indie animator to actively promote his work at international festivals.  Kuri was a part of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and his avant-garde, racy animated shorts shocked and delighted festival audiences in equal measures.  Nguyen screened Kuri’s 1962 film Clap Vocalism, which won the Special Jury Prize at the third Annecy (1963) and the bronze medal for animation at the 24th Biennale in Venice (1963).  Click here to read my full review of the film.  The programme also included the Kuri classics Love (read review) and Flower (review forthcoming).  Nguyen described Kuri’s style as anti-commercial and minimalist, with musique concrète.  His style and themes need to be understood in the context of the 1960s era of counter-culture that were formative for him. 

Whereas Kuri sought to shock and surprise with his art, his fellow animation auteur Osamu Tezuka ( 治虫, 1928-89) sought to impress.  When the Animation Group of Three expanded into the 1st Animation Festival, Tezuka was one of a handful of animators to present their cutting edge works.  Nguyen showed Mermaid, one of two films that Tezuka presented at that festival.  Inspired by Claude Debussy’s symphonic poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (arranged by Isao Tomita), Mermaid is an Orwellian tale of a young man’s unwavering desire for freedom in the overwhelming face of modernism.  The character design in minimalist, with Shigeru Yamamoto doing the original art and Kiyomi Numamoto assisting with the animation.

Independent production of the 1970s 
La production indépendante dans les années 1970

Made In Japan (Renzō Kinoshita, 1972)
Stone (Nobuhiro Aihara, 1975)
Karma / カルマ (Nobuhiro Aihara, 1977)
Coffee Break  / コーヒー・ブレイク(Taku Furukawa, 1977)
Pica-Don   / ピカドン (Renzō Kinoshita, 1978) 
Bubble   / バブル (Shin’ichi Suzuki, 1980)

Another artist acutely aware of the changing face of Japan was Renzō Kinoshita (木下蓮三, b. 1936-97) who founded the Hiroshima InternationalAnimation Festival in 1985 together with his wife and artistic collaborator Sayoko Kinoshita (木下小夜子, b. 1945) (learn more about him).  Kinoshita’s films are concerned with social issues and Nguyen chose to open and close this section of his talk with key works by this innovative cutout animator.   Made in Japan (1972) is Kinoshita’s critique of the rapid modernisation of Japanese culture.  With tongue firmly in cheek, this film mocks the commercialism of 1970s Japan and explores controversial themes such as the Americanisation of Japanese culture, the destruction of traditional values in the pursuit of money. 

Made in Japan was followed by two films by Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋, 1944-2011), an experimental animator who hit his stride in the 1970s.  Although Aihara loved to travel overseas and meet fellow artists abroad, his works are rarely shown outside of Japan. The only works that are readily available are the collaborations he did with pop artist and colleague at Kyoto University of the Arts Keiichi Tanaami, which appear on DVDs released in Japan and FranceStone (1975) is an experimental animation shot using pixilation and other avant-garde techniques during a six-month stay in Sweden.  Key images include Rorschach paintings on paper shot on natural stones and a time-lapse sequence of a brick house being painted shot with a fisheye lens.   Karma (1977) has a more psychedelic feel to it, thanks in part to the soundtrack – “Aegean Sea” by Greek psychedelic / progressive rock band Aphrodite’s Child.  The swirling, mandala-like imagery is a characteristic motif of Aihara’s work, appearing in many of his animations, paintings, and illustrations (see: Hiroshima 2010 poster).  Learn more about Aihara in the obituary that I wrote in 2011.

Taku Furukawa (古川タク, b. 1941) is one of the best known independent animators in Japan.  He began his career being mentored by Kuri, but then went on to found his own studios.  His pared-down caricature style was heavily influenced by the style of the New Yorker cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg.  Furukawa won the Special Jury Prize at Annecy in 1975 for his innovative film Phenakistoscope and the Bungeishunjū Manga Award for his publication The Takun Humour in 1978.  A few years ago he succeeded Kihachirō Kawamoto as the president of JAA (the Japanese Animation Association).  Nguyen presented one of Furukawa’s classic work Coffee BreakRead my review of it here.

Shin’ichi Suzuki, who featured in the first part of Nguyen’s presentation for his work at Otogi Pro, went on to found his own production company Studio Zero in 1963.  Nguyen was unable to get his animated short Bubble as originally planned, so he showed The Gourd Bottle (ひょうたん, 1976) instead.  It’s a very funny, caricature style short about a drunk with a magic gourd bottle (aka calabash – a squash-like fruit that can be dried and used as a bottle).  Suzuki has been the director of the Suginami Animation Museum since 2005.

Nguyen chose to close the 1st of his 2 programmes with Kinoshita’s 1978 film Pica-don.  I thought that this was a good idea because the experience of watching Pica-don, an animated depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima based upon witness testimonies and drawings, is very intense.  One really needs some quiet time afterwards to process the horror that the film evokes.  Read more in my full review of the film and accompanying picture book. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014


28 November 2014

Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA Wissembourg, Part I: The Beginnings of Auteurism

Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA Wissembourg
Part I : The Beginnings of Auteurism 
« L'animation japonaise d'auteur » presented by Ilan Nguyen

RICA (Rencontres Internationales du Cinéma d’Animation) is an international animation festival in Wissembourg, France.  It has been held every 2-3 years since 1995 by the local cinema club.  Located in a small Alsatian town nestled on the border with Germany, the festival has a warm atmosphere and spectators both young and old who share a passion for the craft of animation. 

For the 10th edition of the RICAs, the French animation historian and interpreter Ilan Nguyen was invited to present two screenings of Japanese Auteur Animation accompanied by a talk about the history of independent animation production in Japan from the post-war period until the present day.    

Screening One / Programme 1ère partie                  22 Nov. 2014, La Nef, Wissembourg

An Overview of Japanese Auteur Animation
Un survol de l'animation japonaise d'auteur

Post-War – 1970s / De l'après-guerre aux années 1970

The Beginnings of Auteurism
Prémices à l'auteurisme

Piggyback Ghost /おんぶおばけ (Ryūichi Yokoyama, 1955)
Little Black Sambo /ちびくろさんぼのとらたいじ (Tadahito Mochinaga, 1956)
Plus 50000 Years /プラス50000 (Ryūichi Yokoyama, Shin’ichi Suzuki, 1961)
50,000 Insects (1 Episode) / 五万匹 (Ryūichi Yokoyama, 1962)

Nguyen began with by introducing the work of Ryūichi Yokoyama (横山 隆一, 1909-2001), a popular satirical cartoonist with a museum, the Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum, dedicated to his memory.  Although his cartoons, such as the Fuku-chan (1936-71) and Hyaku-baka (1968-70) series are well known, less attention has been paid to Yokoyama’s intrinsic role in the development of Japanese animation.  Nguyen presented a short, silent clip from Yokoyama’s 25-minute ghost tale Piggyback Ghost (おんぶおばけ/Onbu Obake, 1955).  The film title has also been variously translated to English as Knapsack Ghost and Ghost in a Knapsack.  The story is based on a popular folk legend.  From what his research, Nguyen believes that Yokoyama was the first Japanese animator to go to Hollywood to visit the Disney studios and study the animation methods used there.

Piggyback Ghost was believed lost until relatively recently.  The clip that Nguyen showed was of poor quality and in desperate need of restoration.  However, it was pretty clear that the film was an exercise for Yokoyama in trying out the various cel animation techniques he witnessed at Disney.  The scene was a chase scene and Yokoyama plays with using different perspectives to create drama.  One shot that was particularly notable was a chase scene where the protagonist is running straight at the camera.  A bit rough around the edges, but it certainly piqued my interest in seeing the film fully restored.

Another notable pioneer in post-war Japanese animation was the puppet animator Tadahito Mochinaga (持永只仁, 1919-99).  Mochinaga and Yokoyama had a connection because one of Mochinaga’s animated film was an adaptation of Yokoyama’s Fuku-chan cartoon – the 1944 film Fuku-chan’s Submarine (フクちゃんの潜水艦 / Fuku-chan no Sensuikan). 

Mochinaga played a crucial role in the founding of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in China, and upon his return to Japan would end up producing the puppet animation for America’s much-beloved Rankin/Bass Christmas specials such as Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and The Little Drummer Boy (1968).  Little Black Sambo (ちびくろさんぼのとらたいじ, 1956) was the film that brought Mochinaga to Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass’s attention at the Vancouver International Animation Festival in 1958, where it won Best Children’s Film.  As there were many young people in the audience, Nguyen was careful to give the background of the racist history of the story that Little Black Sambo is based upon.  I will write about this more fully in my forthcoming review the film, but in the meantime, you can learn more from my review about Mochinaga’s sequel Little Black Sambo and the Twins (1975).
Ilan Nguyen being introduced by Edmond Grandgeorge

Next, Nguyen introduced the animator Shin’ichi Suzuki (鈴木 伸一, b.1933), who worked at Yokoyama’s studios Otogi Pro at the time, before going on to co-found Studio Zero in 1963.  Yokoyama and Suzuki co-directed Plus 50,000 Years (プラス50000, 1961), a comic animation short which speculates about how humankind will evolve in the next 50,000 years.  He also screened one short episode from Otogi Pro’s series 50,000 Insects (五万匹, 1962).  The episode was comic in nature and told the story of a boar’s encounter with a sika deer.  The mean-spirited boar knocks the deer off a log into a ravine then goes on his merry way until a lump in the shape of the deer appears on his nose.  This forces the boar to reconsider his actions and he returns to the scene of the incident in the hopes of rescuing the deer.  Otogi Pro films and television series are not easy to come by, so this was a particularly special treat. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014



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