31 December 2014

A Look Back at 2014 in Japanese Animation

There was a fair bit of brouhaha this year surrounding the fact that for the first time in its 30-year history, no films by Japanese animators featured in the official selection of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival.  This state of affairs says more about the tastes of the selection committee – who had to whittle 2,214 films from 74 countries down to just 59 – than it does about the state of indie animation in Japan, which continues to thrive thanks in part to the efforts of animation schools who are attracting young animators from both inside and outside of Japan. 

Japanese animation and animators received nods from most international festivals this year, with Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, 2013) being a critical favourite.  Among its many accolades, the film screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, opened the Annecy festival, and screened at TIFF as part of its Masters’ Programme.  The big Studio Ghibli film of the year was of course When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー, 2014) directed by Hiromasa Yonebayshi.  The film opened in third place at the box office and has been warmly received by critics.  Studio Ghibli fans have something to look forward to as the film slowly makes its way around the globe.  The lucky French get the film next with a cinema release slated for the 14th of January.   

Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭, 2013), continued to do well at festivals for a second year by winning the AniMovie award for best feature at Stuttgart.  Mizuho Nishikubo and Production I.G. racked up many prizes for Giovanni’s Island (ジョバンニの島, 2014) including the Jury Distinction award at Annecy, the Satoshi Kon Award at Fantasia, and an Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival. 

In terms of franchises, the 22nd Crayon Shin-chan movie Crayon Shin-chan: Serious Battle! Robot Dad Strikes Back (クレヨンしんちゃん ガチンコ!逆襲のロボ とーちゃん, 2014), directed by Kazuki Nagashima was both a critical and financial success, winning an Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival.   The Doraemon franchise traded 2D for 3D in the computer animated feature Stand by Me Doraemon (STAND BY ME ドラえもん, 2014), directed by Takashi Yamazaki (of Always: Sunset on Third Street fame) and Ryūichi Yagi.  Pony Canyon will be releasing a deluxe edition Blu-ray of the film in February 2015.  The Naruto franchise celebrated its 15th anniversary with their tenth feature film The Last: Naruto the Movie (ザ・ラスト ナルト・ザ・ムービー, 2014) earlier this month and performed well at the box office.

The most popular forum for animation in Japan continues to be TV, and there were a number of innovative series this year.  I have long been a fan of Masaaki Yuasa, and his adaptation of Taiyō Matsumoto’s manga PING PONG (2014) for Tatsunoko Production did not disappoint with its bold colours and innovative use of split screens and interesting framing.  Trigger’s Kill la Kill (キルラキル, 2013 - present) has been very popular with anime fans this year with its compelling mix of comedy and action sequences.  Director Hiroyuki Imaishi is known for his frantic animation pace and the choreography of his fight sequences cannot be beat.  Other series that have caught my attention this year are Shinichirō Watanabe’s suspenseful series Terror in Resonance (残響のテロル, 2014), and Masaki Tachibana’s super-sweet adaptation of the manga Barakamon (ばらかもん, 2014)

My heart of course lies in independent animation and I treated myself with a trip to Stuttgart this year for the animation festival.  I got a chance to chat with the delightful Maya Yonesho, who does innovative Daumenreisen animation workshops, and her husband, the German animator Thomas Meyer-Hermann.    Kōji Yamamura was at Stuttgart with Hiromitsu Murakami (A boy who wanted to be a super-hero) and a group of Geidai students including Yuanyuan Hu (Sunset Flower Blooming), Mari Miyazawa (Decorations, Twins in the Bakery), Yantong Zhu (My Milk Cup Cow), Ayasa Kugenuma (The Blooms) and Saki Muramoto (It’s Time for Supper)

I was delighted to have Yamamura as my guest at Nippon Connection this year.   His presentation of the Geidai (Tokyo University of Arts) student film screening was sold out once again and we had a strong turnout for his retrospective.  The animation programme was very strong with Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Patema Inverted (2013), Shinichiro Watanabe and Shingo Natsume’s innovated series Space Dandy (2014), and the Short Peace (2013) omnibus by Katsuhiro Otomo, Shuhei Morita, Hiroaki Ando and Hajime Katoki rounding things off.

My trip to Japan for a Satoyama Forum in Fukui Prefecture coincided nicely with the Hiroshima International Animation Festival this year so I was able to catch up with many Japanese / Japan-based independent animators of all generations.  I came home with a big pile of sample DVDs that I have only just barely begun to work my way through.  Some of the highlights were meeting legendary puppet animator Fumiko Magari, who worked on the films of both Tadanari Okamoto and Kihachirō Kawamoto; meeting Osamu Tezuka’s son Macoto Tezka at the premiere of Legend of the Forest, Part 2.  Other faces at the festival included Masatoki Minami, who gave me a copy of his documentary on Wagorō Arai, Taku Furukawa, Yōji Kuri, Takashi Namiki and the Anido gang, Tamaki Okamoto and many of the filmmakers she represents, Geidai animators and staff, Tatsutoshi Nomura and Tamabi animators, Makiko Sukikara +  Kōhei Matsumura (While the Crow Weeps) and, of course, the great leader of the whole affair Sayoko Kinoshita and her tireless volunteers.  Needless to say, I came back with an armful of sample DVDs that I am slowly working my way through for 2015.  See: Japan Animation Today to learn more about the Japanese selection at Hiroshima 2014.

I also had a chance to go to Wissembourg, France to hear Ilan Nguyen give talks on Japanese Auteur Animation at RICA.  At Wissembourg I had a chance to interview Czech animator Jiří Barta about his Japanese co-production Yuki Onna (2014) – an adaptation of one of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan tales.  Interview and review to be published early in the New Year.  I am also hoping to write up my notes taken during Michèle Lemieux’s presentation on the pinscreen and Phil Comeau’s documentary Frédérick Back: Grandeur nature, which features interviews with Isao Takahata and Takashi Namiki.

I concluded my year in animation at the Deutsches Filmmuseum Frankfurt for the opening of Oscar-prize winner Thomas Stellmach and artist Maja Oschmann’s exhibition the Making of Virtuos Virtuell.  I had seen Virtuos Virutell at Hiroshima and was impressed by its pairing of animation and the music of Louis Spohr.  There is a hint of Japanese aesthetic with their use of a sumi-e brush for some of the technique.  The exhibition will continue until February 22, 2015. 

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014