29 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