31 March 2016

A Poet’s Life (詩人の生涯, 1974)

A Poet’s Life (詩人の生涯/ Shijin no Shōgai, 1974) is the only non-puppet animation of Kihachirō Kawamoto to win the Noburo Ofuji Award.  Apart from his Self Portrait (1988), Kawamoto’s adaptation of modern tales tended to be done using cut-outs or drawn animation styles such as Farce Anthropo-cynique (1970) based on the short story by experimental modernist Riichi Yokomitsu (横光 利一, 1898-1947) or Kawamoto’s original screenplay Travel ( / Tabi, 1973).  In interviews, Kawamoto usually explained that he was a firm believer in finding the right animation materials for telling the story.

This animated short is an adaptation of a story of the same name by the great modernist writer Kōbō Abe (安部 公房, 1924-1993), who is known for his surreal stories that explore the modern angst of individuals in society.  Unlike the colourful world of Kawamoto’s puppet films, A Poet’s Life is drawn in morose shades of grey and brown.  The flatness of the cut-out aesthetic mirrors the one-dimensionality of the dreary life of the factory workers in this modern tale of inequality.  The male main protagonist loses his job when he dares to complain to his boss about the terrible conditions that he and his fellow factory must endure. 

The man lies passed out on the floor of his home while his aged mother works diligently away on her squeaky spinning wheel.  The dialogue is related through the use of title cards, and we learn that the old woman feels as worn out and limp as a thread of cotton.  The cotton flies from her hands and as she reaches for it, she finds herself being terrifyingly turned into thread as well. 

The son awakes to find his mother has disappeared.  All that remains of her is the clothes that were on her back, but he is too exhausted to do anything about it.  A neighbour arrives and takes the newly spun yarn and knits it into a sweater.  But no one will buy the sweater, not only because they are too poor but also because it cries out as if in agony.  The young man, who continues his protest against the factory, has a feeling that the sweater should not be sold.  Eventually, the sweater ends up in a pawnshop.

High up on the hill overlooking the town, the factory owner lives with his family.  The wealthy man polishes his rifle while his wife wears a fur coat indoors.  Winter comes in the form of a beautiful sequence of falling snowflakes “made of crystallized dreams, spirits, and desires.”  The snow keeps falling and the temperatures drop steeply.  The families with foreign made sweaters manage to survive at first, the storybook-like title cards tells us, but the shelves of shops become empty.   As the situation becomes critical, the wealthy man order another 5000 foreign sweaters in “a new pattern ideological tiger stripes in black and white. . . or 50 atom bombs instead?”

The crisis is averted when the young man puts on the sweater knitted by his mother – now red with her blood.  He looks and the snow and comes to the realization that he is a poet: “Look! Aren’t these beautiful snowflakes the forgotten words of the poor? . . .  their dreams, spirits, desires. . .  ”  As he writes down these words, the snow melts, and the sun comes out.  Owner-less storerooms are opened and all the people get sweaters.

Visually, the film does an excellent job of representing the settings and characters of Abe’s story.  Compared to Kawamoto’s later puppet animation, however, this animation is less expressive with too much reliance on the text than on the visuals.  Although the text is very poetically written, I think the film would have been a lot stronger if it had relied on the animation to tell the story.  The red sweater is a particularly compelling visual motif because it is the only object that is brightly coloured in an otherwise monotone film.  Two decades later, Steven Spielberg would use this same technique in his Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (1993) with the memorable image of a girl in the red coat.

Based upon a short story by
Kōbō Abe

Joji Yuasa

Aki Takahashi
Yasunobu Yamaguchi

Takashi Komae
Masami Tokuyama

Minoru Tamura

Isamu Katto

Sound Effects
Iwao Takahashi

Hisako Aizawa

Kihachiro Kawamoto
Yutaka Mikome
Takao Ishikawa

With the Assistance of
Akiko Konishi
Chitose Nasu
Hiromi Wakasa
Seiya Maruyama
Satoru Yoshida
Echo Studios

Kihachiro Kawamoto

Sato no Chihiro (さとうのちひろ, 2014)

In recent years, thanks to digital computer editing technology, there has been a marked increase in the use of split-screens, not only in music videos but in feature films.  Films like Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) or Bruce McDonald’s The Tracey Fragments (2007) use split-screens to show simultaneous action in different spaces or the same scene from different points-of-view. 

In Sato no Chihiro (さとうのちひろ, 2014), her graduate work for her degree at Tokyo Polytechnic University of Arts, the up-and-coming young animator Chihiro Sato (さとうちひろ, b. 1991) uses the idea of the split-screen, but instead of rendering it through computer technology, she draws each of the individual frames by hand.   This animated short was made using pencil and pencil crayon on paper. 

The film consists of 7 vignettes, which each use different colour schemes and varying sized “frames” or mini-scenes within a scene.  The title is a play on the name of the director and suggests an autobiographical element to the subject matter. 

The film was originally made as Sato’s 2013 graduating work for Tama Art University’s animation program.  The version that I saw at Oberhausen 2015 had cleaned up the animation a great deal and had edited out 2 of Sato’s original 9 vignettes: “I Can’t Sleep / 眠れない / Nemurenai” and  “A Desire Towards Red / 赤への欲求 / Aka e no Yokkyu.” The vignette titles were in Japanese only and the translations to English are my own. 

Story 1
Underarm Hair Party / わきげのうたげ / Wakige no Utage

The predominant colours of the opening vignette are red, black, and yellow.  The screen is divided into
6 frames (3 top / 3 bottom), which appear to be drawn freehand in similar but not exactly measured sizes.  The scene depicts a girl with recently regrown armpit hair.  One of the frames features a close-up of the arm pit hair and we see that each hair are small figures sitting in a row with long hairs growing out of their heads.  When a figures is plucked out of the armpit hair they are then placed into gyōza (Chinese pot-stickers) wrappers and folded, then placed on a tray.  An amusing, but surreal vignette.

Story 2

A Memory of 10 Yen Coins / 10円玉の記憶 / 10 Yen-dama no Kioku

This vignette is black pencil on white and opens with the funeral picture of a middle aged woman, which the vignette suggests is the girl’s mother.   There are again 6 frames.  A ten yen coin falling to the ground prompts surreal images of ten yen coins floating in the air, followed by 10 yen coins falling to the ground, arms of people in black reaching forwards, hands collecting coins.  A fat middle aged woman grabs the girl’s leg. The girl moves her foot, woman takes 10 yen from under it. 

There is a tradition in Japan of giving a grieving family money, but for me this sequence conjured up memories of how grasping people can be when a family member dies.  Whether bickering over an inheritance or property, sometimes the grieving family feels like everyone wants something from them.

Story 3
Cooking again Today / 今日も料理 / Kyō mo Ryōri

This vignette is predominantly green with black outline. Multiple frames (8) of varying sizes show food preparation: peas out of pod, cracking egg, toaster, and so on.  There are faces on the food like in an NHK children’s show, except the vignette features sound effects without any music.

Story 4
From the Telephone / 電話から / Denwa kara

This vignette opens with a girl in a pink dress curtseying. The frames within the frame are drawn in a mauve pencil. A man in green has an old fashioned black telephone with the curling cord.  When it rings, he picks it up immediately, however, instead of speech, a small hand pokes through one of the holes on the part of the phone where one speaks.  The arm falls out and lands limply on the floor.
A finger through curl of phone cord in a rather suggestive fashion, and many more arms come out of the phone.

A red puddle.  A leg struggles to get out of phone as well and is helped by hands.  Two legs come out, when they land, they transform into the girl in the pink dress.  A fish (possibly a sardine?) comes out of phone, lands, and slices in two. The girl picks up the top half and takes it away.  The phone transforms into face and the girl feeds it raw fish.  The man picks up the picks up bottom half of the fish and eats it.  The sound effects more like crunching of a carrot than of a sardine.

Story 5
Octopus and Doctor / 蛸と医者 / Tako to Isha

Six frames drawn in orange pencil.  A labyrinthine setting in which surreal imagery suggests a sensual relationship between a doctor and an octopus. 

Story 6
Eat the Stars / ほしたべよ/ Hoshi Tabeyo

A boy in blue trousers and green t-shirt frame top left looks up to sky with a handheld telescope. At the top there is one long rectangular frame titled on its side (!) and 4 small frames are along the bottom. 
The night sky is dark blue and the frames are a greeny-yellow frame colour (same muddy yellow as the star colour). There is the sound of a ringing bell.  The boy uses what looks like a paint roller to capture one of the stars and eats it like it’s a cookie.  The other star rings like a bell. The boy tries to capture it as well but this time he cannot reach it.

Story 7
The Tide Comes In / 海が来る/ Umi ga Kitaru

A girl sits on ground bare legs tucked up.  In this scene the pencil frame fills almost the entire frame available.  There is a sand dune behind the girl and water laps up until it reaches the girl’s bare legs.

This animation is drawn in a very innovative style.  Although the meaning of each vignette is not always clear to me, they unfold like a kind of surrealist visual poetry.    I am very excited about the future prospects of this young animator.

Sato no Chihiro (さとうのちひろ, 2014) had its international festival premiere at Oberhausen 2015 and won the top prize at the ASK? Film Festival 2014 (ASK? 映像祭2014).  The film was produced by Amica Kubo for her production company Super Milk Cow


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