04 December 2014

Stone (1975)

Oh peace in our day, peace in our day
Our day in the sun
You got lost in a time gone by
A day in the sun

- the last lines of “Prayer”, by Spooky Tooth and Pierre Henry, 1969

Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋, 1944-2011) is a unique individual in Japanese animation history.  In the early part of his career he worked as an animator on many renowned anime series and films from Obake no Q-tarō (Masaaki Ōsumi, 1965-67) and Kaibutsu-kun (Masaaki Ōsumi, 1968-69) to Gauche the Cellist (Isao Takahata, 1982), Night on the Galactic Railroad (Gisaburo Sugii, 1985), and Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988).

At the same time; however, he was active in the avant-garde art and experimental film scene, frequently travelling overseas to meet like-minded artists.  Stone (1975) is an early experimental work by Aihara that he made during a six-month visit to Sweden.  It opens with a montage of Rorschach-style inkblot paintings.  As the camera distance widens between the camera and the paintings, we see that the paintings are not being shot in a studio, but are taped to a large stone with a forest in the background.  The camera distance continues to change with great regularity, as does the lighting as the series was clearly shot over an extended period of time.  Clouds pass through the sky, winds increase, and the camera continues to widen the expanse of landscape, eventually tipping up to a pixilation view of the sky altering sky shot through a fisheye lens.   The sky darkens and opens on another day.  We can see hints of a person, perhaps the artist, slightly off camera.  The camera eventually moves back into a close-up of the series of inkblot paintings and the soundtrack alters from other-worldly sounds to the lyrical strum of a guitar.

The haunting soundtrack is uncredited, but it is the song “Prayer” by UK progressive rock band Spooky Tooth in collaboration with the French electronic and objet trouvé (found-object) composer Pierre Henry.  It is the final track on their join album Ceremony (1969), which was designed to be listened to as if it were a church service.  The lyrics to “Prayer” are derived from “The Lord’s Prayer” with the additional refrain: “Deliver us, we pray, from every evil / that's here, and to come, through the Virgin Mary / peace in our day, our day in the sun”. 

The camera changes locations to a square structure made of large stones.  Figures come and go, appearing to paint colourful abstract art on the stones using a ladder.  The third setup uses the side of a red barn for the pixilated drawings.  This time the camera goes in close enough for us to see that the artists are actually using chalk rather than paint.  As the camera moves back from a close-up on the chalk to a fourth setup.  This time it is a tall brick house with the date 1926 on its façade.  Over the course several days, the chalk drawing continues with the artists coming and going.  A young blond girl dressed in typical 70s fashion with a poncho and headscarf, dances occasionally in and out of the house.  She helps with the chalk drawing, dances in the street, and runs up to put her face into the camera.  It is in this sequence that it becomes obvious that Aihara did not take each frame at a constant rate.  Sometimes the girl appears to move at a regular 24 fps, while at other times the frames are temporally much further apart. 

The film is an expression of art and temporality.  The ephemeral nature of chalk art is contrasted with the more enduring qualities of natural stones, brick houses, and the heavens above.  Yet, as the use of pixilation demonstrates, these things that seem permanent are also changing over time.  The film reminded me very much of Lejf Marcussen’s similarly named Stones (Sten, 1982), which also screened at RICA Wissembourg 2014 as part of an hommage to the late Danish animator.  Instead of drawing directly on the stones, Marcussen superimposed images on stones – finding animal and human shapes and faces among the natural faces of rock.  As Henry David Thoreau is oft quoted as saying: “This world is but a canvas to our imagination” (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 1849). 

I have not been able to find any information about the choice of music for the soundtrack. I think it was chosen more for its style than for the Christian text of the poem.  Aihara regularly used psychedelic and progressive rock for his soundtracks.  That being said, the feeling of spirituality that the music evokes likely appealed to Aihara.  The refrain “You got lost in a time gone by / A day in the sun” also poetically expresses the interplay of time in this unique experimental work.

Stone was shot on 16mm and appears on the DVD Japanese Art Animation Film Collection 11: The Animation Group of Three and Experimental Anime (日本アートアニメーション映画選集11 アニメーション三人の会と実験アニメ, 2004), which can be found in the video archives of university libraries such as Musabi and Tamagawa.  The entire 12 DVD collection 日本アートアニメーション映画選集 全12巻 can be ordered from Kinokuniya, but it is unfortunately well out of the price range of the average individual. 

Cathy Munroe Hotes 2014