08 April 2016

Kasa Jizō (かさじぞう, 1960)

Kasa Jizō (かさじぞう, 1960) is a black and white puppet animation by Gakken, who are celebrating their 70th anniversary this year.  This short film was produced by Haruo Itoh (伊藤治雄) and directed by Kazuhiko Watanabe (渡辺隆平).  Along with his Gakken colleague Matsue Jinbo, Watanabe is one of Japan’s puppet animation pioneers.  He is not as well known as Tadahito Mochinaga, Kihachirō Kawamoto, and Tadanari Okamoto, but hopefully Gakken’s decision to make his work available on YouTube during their 70th anniversary celebrations will boost his profile.   Disc 10 of Kinokuniya’s Japanese Art Animation Film Collection: 12 Volume Set also features Watanabe’s work including The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (1959), Princess Kaguya (1961), The Jakata Tale of the Golden Deer (1962), The Tale of the Crane (1965), The Little Match Girl (1967).

Kasa Jizō is adapted from the traditional Japanese folk tale (日本むかし話) of the same name (笠地蔵).  There are several regional variants of this story, but the one chosen by Gakken is the most common.  It is set in the winter a long time ago in rural Japan.  An elderly couple are doing chores in their thatched house.  New Year’s is the following day, but they are running low on rice.  The elderly man decides to head to town to sell some of his handmade kasa (woven straw hats) so that may have enough rice to celebrate Shōgatsu (the New Year).  The wife helps her husband to dress for the snowy conditions on the long trek to town.

Along the way the elderly man stops to pay his respects to a row of Jizō (the Japanese version of Ksitigarbha, the bodhisattva usually in the form of a Buddhist monk).  The snow continues to fall heavily.  After a while, the man passes by the Jizō again on his return from town, trudging slowly and steadily through the deep snow.  It occurs to him that the Jizō must be getting cold in all this snow, so he puts his remaining kasa on their heads.  He discovers that he is short one kasa and decides to donate his own kasa to the last Jizō.

The elderly man returns to the comfort of the wood burning fire of his hearth.  His wife is patiently sewing.  He is covered with snow.  As he is hat-less, his eyebrows and the small tufts of hair above his ears are full of frost.  His wife asks about the kasa and the man is tells her about the Jizō.  She agrees that he did the right thing and they laugh cheerfully together. 

There is a lovely cutaway to a full moon glowing between the trees to indicate that night has fallen.  The camera pans over curious prints in the snow and male voices can be heard singing in the distance.  The singing awakes the couple and they sit up on their futons.  The man sees the shadow of men wearing kasa passing the window.  The volume of singing increases and their door opens.  To their shock, gifts come flying through the door.  To show their gratitude, the Jizō have brought supplies for the New Year.

The animation tells the story in a straight-forward manner with a couple of overhead shots and interesting shot compositions.  It appears that the film has been transferred from 16mm to digital without restoration (and possible via a video copy first) so some of the scenes are lacking in sharpness.  I really enjoy the character design of the elderly couple.  They are depicted as cheerful and sympathetic, in spite of their penniless circumstances.  It is a lovely tale for sharing with family over the New Year holiday. 

2016 Cathy Munroe Hotes