06 July 2016

GAKI Biwa hōshi (GAKI琵琶法師, 2005)

In feudal Japan, biwa hōshi, “lute masters” or “lute priests”, were travelling performers who earned their living performing vocal literature with the accompaniment of biwa music.  The biwa is a Japanese short-necked, fretted lute traditionally used in narrative storytelling.   Biwa hōshi were often blind and wore robes and had shaved heads in a similar style to that of Buddhist monks.  The style of their musical performance is known as heikyoku (平曲 / Heike music) as the biwa hōshi are believed to have been the first performers of the Japanese epic story The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 / Heike Monogatari, c. 1180-1185). 

Reiko Yokosuka’s 2005 ink brush (sumi-e) animation GAKI Biwa hōshi (GAKI琵琶法師) depicts the performance of such a biwa hōshi.  However, this is no historical figure but a gaki – a type of ghost or yūrei (幽霊) common in Japanese and East Asian folklore.  Not only is this clear from the title of the film, but Yokosuka’s depiction of the gaki as a bent, elderly figure with a bloated stomach resembles very closely the depiction of of gaki in traditional art (see examples).  According to Japanese Buddhist legends, gaki (hungry ghosts) are the spirits of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger for something (often something disgusting) as a punishment for their mortal vices. 

In the Oxford University Press’s Handbook of Japanese Mythology (2008), Michael Ashkenazi describes a myth of such a lute-playing gaki that appears after the defeat of the Taira Clan at Dan-no-Ura (p. 156-157).  I suspect that such a myth must have inspired Yokosuka’s animation.

That being said; however, Yokosuka does not employ a contemporary biwa musician to accompany her film.  Instead, she modernizes the gaki biwa hōshi, transforming his traditional instrument into an electric biwa.  He plugs his instrument into an electricity source and the old fashioned setting of a traditional Japanese house transforms into a modern landscape of electricity poles.  Although the poles are modern, they are painted with in the sumi-e brush painting style used in the depiction of bamboo in traditional art.  To the accompaniment of electronic music by Kenji Konishi (小西健司, b. 1955), also known as Ironbeat, the brush strokes become performers in the animation.

The pika pika of electricity comes alive as a dancing figure on the electricity wire.  We return to the lonely figure of the gaki biwa hōshi for a moment as the sound of wind transforms the brushstrokes of sumi-e paint into a beautiful abstract animation.  The brushstrokes swirl like cloth around a spinning top, they fill the screen with waves as the music crescendos again until we finally return to the gaki musician, worn out by his efforts.  As he sits once again, two little figures like the one dancing on the electricity line bring the hungry ghost some refreshment in the form of a drink and a snack.  "Sigh.  .   ."  a wonderful blend of traditional art and mythology with contemporary art and music. 

You can get a glimpse of the animation in the trailer here.  This animated short screened as part of A Wild Patience – Indie Animated Shorts by Women at Nippon Connection 2016.

Artist: Reiko Yokosuka (横須賀令子)

2016 Cathy Munroe Hotes

1961: Best Japanese Animated Shorts

Year in Review

April 3, 1961 marked the beginning of the enduringly popular NHK TV program Minna no Uta (みんなのうた), or “Songs for Everyone”.  A precursor of what would be called “music videos” starting in the 1980s, Minna no Uta is a television show that introduces new songs from both established and new singing talent, while at the same time promoting the talent of a variety of directors and animators.  The program airs several times every day as a filler between other programs on the public broadcasting network.  The music videos are animated, live action, or mixed media. 

Minna no Uta was a vital source of income for independent animators who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.  The most prolific of these animators were Yōji Kuri, Taku Furukawa, Sadao Tsukioka, Shūichi Nakahara, among many others.  Other big names in Japanese manga and animation to take part included Makoto Wada, Norio Hikone, and Tadanori Yokoo.  The program continues successfully until this day, with upcoming animation videos listed monthly in popular animation magazines such as Animage and Newtype.  Learn more at the Minna no Uta Offical Website.

Minna no Uta animation highlights of 1961 included Yōji Kuri doing the simple cutout animation for Awate Tokoya (あわて床屋) as performed by the quartet Bonny Jacks (ボニージャックス), and Punpun Polka (プンプンポルカ), Keiko Osone’s animation for Reron Reson Shinta (レロンレロンシンタ) and the very simplistic animation Makoto Wada made for Dare mo Shiranai (誰も知らない).  In addition, Ii Yatsu Mitsuketa (いいやつみつけた), a Japanese rendition of the English nursery rhyme Pop Goes the Weasel by the quartet Dark Ducks (ダークダックス), was animated by Ryohei Yanagihara and Takehiko Kamei.

Although the Animation Group of Three (learn more), Kuri, Yanagihara and Hiroshi Manabe, were busy making animation both independently and for the NHK, they did not hold their second screening event until January 19, 1962.  Yanagihara did however release his Commotion at Ikedaya in 1961, a comic adaptation of the famous Ikedaya Incident, which has inspired many fictional re-tellings in both cinema and manga/anime such as Nanae Chrono’s manga The Peace Maker (1999-2001), the Studio Deen anime series Hakuōki (2010), and Kon Ichikawa’s Shisengumi (2000).

The first serialised anime appeared on television in 1961.  In its first season on Fuji Television, it was called Instant History (インスタントヒストリー, 1961-1962), but after it moved to TBS in 1962 it changed its name to Otogi Manga Calendar (おとぎマンガカレンダー, 1961-1964).  The series was directed by the manga-ka Ryūichi Yokoyama, author of the first successful yonkoma manga (4 cell manga) Fuku-chan (フクちゃん, 1936-1971) which ran in the Mainichi Shimbun.  Using the archives of that newspaper, Instant History was a series of 3-minute shorts based on the premise of a character who was ignorant of what had happened on a particular day in history.  Employing a mixed media approach of combining animation with archival photographs and film footage, the animation gives a capsule summary of the historical event.

The 1961-62 season featured 312 episodes made by Yokoyama’s independent animation studio Otogi Pro.  According to Jonathan Clements in Anime: A History (2013), not every episode was animated and each episode was “almost swamped with advertising and announcements that took up another sixty or eighty seconds.”  The animation style itself was not ground-breaking but “with the broadcast of Yokoyama’s history lessons, a new opportunity opened up for pioneering animators to explore the possibilities of the ever-growing medium of television” (Clements, 90).  Fans of manga and anime can learn more about Yokoyama from the Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum in Kochi City.

Shin’ichi Suzuki (鈴木 伸一, b.1933), worked at Otogi Pro at this time, before going on to co-found Studio Zero in 1963. In 1961, Yokoyama and Suzuki co-directed Plus 50,000 Years (プラス50000年), a comic animation short which speculates about how humankind will evolve in the next 50,000 years.

Manga-ka Osamu Tezuka founded Mushi Pro in 1961, although it wasn’t fully incorporated until 1962.  Mushi Pro is famous for producing the first series of Astro Boy (1963-55) and Kimba the White Lion (1965-66), as well as the Animerama anime feature films, which though artistically ground-breaking and unique, led to the financial collapse of the company.  Tezuka himself was the acting director of Mushi Pro until 1968 when he left to form Tezuka Pro.  Mushi Pro declared bankruptcy in 1973 and was later revived under new management in 1977.  (see: Tezuka Pro Offical History).  

Tōei Dōga released its fourth anime feature film in July 1961: The Littlest Warrior (安寿と厨子王丸 / Anju to Zushiōmaru), an adaptation of a story by Ogai Mori directed by Taiji Yabushita and Yugo Serikawa with Isao Takahata (who joined Tōei Dōga in 1961) working as assistant director. The animators included Sanae Yamamoto, Akira Daikuhara, Yasuji Mori , Yasuo Otsuka , Hideo Furusawa, Masao Kumagawa, and Daikichiro Kusube – many of whom were unsatisfied with the project (learn more).  The film was shot in Eastman Color on widescreen Toeiscope – it looks amazing but the story was not popular with audiences.  

Also in 1961, Tōei Dōga produced the animated short The Mouse Marries (ねずみのよめいり/ Nezumi no Yomeiri), co-directed by Daisuku Shirakawa and Sadao Tsukioka.  This 13-minute animation appears on the 9th DVD of the Japanese Art Animation Film Collection.

The great animation pioneer Noburō Ōfuji, who was the first animator to achieve international acclaim at Cannes and the Venice Biennale, passed away in 1961 leaving behind the unfinished work The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (竹取物語 / Taketori Monogatari) – an adaptation of the fairy tale known in some re-tellings as Princess Kaguya.  He had screened the first part of another unfinished work, The Life of Buddha at Cannes under the title Taisei Shukon (Le Grand Boudha) in 1952.  At this point it was 6 reels long (52’).  After his death in 1961, the film was completed with a final length of 10 reels (72’). 

The Life of Buddha
Shaka no Shōgai
1961年/ 72’
Noburō ŌFUJI (大藤 信郎, 1900-61)

Kazuhiko Watanabe at Gakken Film also adapted Princess Kaguya as an educational stop motion animation for children in 1961.  It is an innovative modern version of the classic tale using cutouts and puppets.  The film was recently released on YouTube, alongside Matsue Jinbo’s other excellent puppet animation adaptation for Gakken from the same year: Kamotori Gonbee (learn more).

Best Japanese Animated Shorts of 1961

Commotion at Ikedaya
1961年 / 7’
Ryohei YANAGIHARA (柳原良平, 1932-2015)

Plus 50,000 Years
Shin’ichi SUZUKI (鈴木 伸一, b. 1933)
Ryūichi YOKOYAMA (横山 隆一, 1909-2001)

The Mouse Marries
Nezumi no Yomeiri
1961年 / 13'
(白川大作, b. 1935 / 月岡貞夫, b. 1939)

Kamotori Gonbee
1961年 / 15’02”
Matsue JINBO (神保まつえ, b. 1928) / Gakken

Princess Kaguya
1961年 / 26’14”
Kazuhiko WATANABE (渡辺和彦)/ Gakken
official website

05 July 2016

Geidai Animation: First Year Works 2011 (YouTube Playlist)

The first year short animation works by Tokyo University of the Arts' (Geidai)  MA Animation class of 2012 can now be screened on YouTube - see the playlist below and click here to learn more about the students and to read film summaries.   Tatsuhiro Ariyoshi and Yuka Imabayashi graduated a year later with the class of 2013Fans of Geidai Animation should order the DVD which comes with a full colour booklet:

The first film, Island of Man (人の島, 2011) by ALIMO is not in the playlist but does appear in ALIMO's Vimeo channel:

The Playlist:

Geidai Animation 03 Talk Trailer:

First Year Films

Island of Man
Hito no Shima 
2011 / 6'32" 
ALIMO (b. 1977) 
official website

From the Dolphin
Iruka kara 
2011 / 2'09"

 Tatsuhiro Ariyoshi (有吉 達宏, b. 1985)

2011 / 3'34"
Senri Iida (飯田千里, b. 1987) 
official website

Fully Cooked for You
おにしめ おたべ 
Onishime Otabe 
2011 / 今林 由佳 / Yuka IMABAYASHI / 3'44"

2011 / 2'27"
Masanori Okamoto (岡本 将徳, b.1985) 
vimeo / twitter

Ants in the Sky
Sora no ari 
2011 / 6'05"
Kazuya Karasawa (唐澤和也, b. 1985)  

Spots Spots
2011 /  4'15"
Yuanyuan Hu ( 嫄嫄/コ・ユェンユェン, b. 1986)

The Grouse in Snow Mountain
Yukiyama no Raichō 
2011 / 5'19"
Hiroko Satsuma (薩摩 浩子, b.1987) 

Inai inai baa ba 
2011 / 5'15"
Keiko Shiraishi (白石 慶子, b. 1985) 
twitter / official website

The Life of the Weed
Kusa no isshō
2011 / 2'53"
Sonomi Takada (高田 苑実, b. 1982) 
official website

Imamura Store
Imamura Shōten
 2011 / 5'16"
Aya Tsugehata (告畑 , b. 1987)

2011 / 4'58"
Toyomi Morishita (モリシタ トヨミ

Fleeting Dream
Yamayura no yume 
2011 / 4'01"
Mayuko Yamakita (山北 麻由子, b. 1986) 
official website

Al Dente Tango
2011 / 4'08"
Maho Yoshida (吉田 まほ, b.1986)  
her blog


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