Monday, October 03, 2011

Japanese Animation I : Gems of Japanese Silent Animation, tributes to Yasuji Murata, Junichi Kouchi

Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano (gong, bell, triangle, accordeon): Mie Yanashita, 3 Oct 2011.

NAMAKURA GATANA [La spada smussata / A Blunt Sword] (Kobayashi Shokai, JP 1917) D, anim: Junichi Kouchi; 35 mm, tinted, 91 ft, 2’ (16 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. One Japanese intertitle.
Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström (GCM Catalogue): "Junichi Kouchi (1886-1970) was one of the first three professional Japanese animated filmmakers. Along with fellow pioneer Oten Shimokawa (1892-1973), he worked for the satirical magazine Tokyo Puck. Both directors made their debuts in 1917, with Shimokawa’s Mukuzo Imokawa the Janitor (Imokawa Mukuzo, Genkanban no maki), apparently released in January of that year, long considered to be the first Japanese animated film (it is probably accurate to call it the first made for public screening). Kouchi’s debut A Blunt Sword (Namakura gatana), also sometimes known by the alternative titles of Hekonai Hanawa: Famous Swords (Hanawa Hekonai meito no maki) and Trying Out the Sword (Tameshi-giri), followed in June, and has happily survived. It is a comic short about a samurai with a blunt sword ironically bested by his intended victim. Whereas Shimokawa’s film used chalk on a blackboard, Kouchi used cut-out and silhouette animation, and his technique was widely considered superior to that of his contemporaries. Kouchi went on to direct political cartoons, including the extant Ethicizing Politics (Eiga enzetsu: Seiji no rinrika: Goto Shinpei, 1927), for Home Minister Shinpei Goto, who was substantially responsible for the reconstruction of Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Kouchi continued to work in animation until 1930, when he made his last film, Chopped Snake (Chongire hebi). Along with Seitaro Kitayama’s Taro Urashima (see below), A Blunt Sword was rediscovered in July 2007, when film historian Natsuki Matsumoto bought a 35 mm nitrate print at an antique fair in Osaka. The films had been stored in well-ventilated paper containers, which had helped to prevent them from deteriorating. This digitally restored print of A Blunt Sword was tinted in yellow, using a traditional tinting technique." – Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA:  The habit of switching from drawing to silhouette is already in use. A humoristic samurai animation.

Seitaro Kitayama
URASHIMA TARO [Taro Urashima] (Nikkatsu, JP 1918) D, anim: Seitaro Kitayama; 35 mm, 96 ft, 2’ (16 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. No intertitles.
"The fisherman Taro Urashima is the hero of a celebrated Japanese folk-story. He saves a turtle from mistreatment by children, and subsequently learns that the turtle was in fact the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea. He is invited to visit the grateful Emperor’s undersea domain, where he meets the princess, but decides after a few days to return home. He is sent back with a box which the princess tells him never to open. On reaching his native village, he finds that 300 years have passed while he has been away. He opens the box, only to be turned abruptly into an old man, since the box contained his old age. Seitaro Kitayama’s film, rediscovered by Natsuki Matsumoto alongside A Blunt Sword, was the earliest animated version of the story. The print, digitally restored from the 35 mm nitrate original, was tinted in pink using a traditional tinting technique. Seitaro Kitayama (1888-1945) was a watercolour artist before beginning to work on animated films, again in 1917, when his debut, Monkey Crab Battle (Saru kani gassen), was released. Jasper Sharp comments that he was significant because of “the diversity of his output: advertising films, animated sequences for live action films, political propaganda and later educational films intended for the classroom”. He directed about 30 animations, initially favouring the technique of drawing moving figures over paper backgrounds, though he later used cut-out animation too. In 1921, he founded Japan’s first animation studio, Kitayama Eiga Seisaku-sho. After the Great Kanto Earthquake, he moved away from animation, working primarily on newsreels and documentaries. But he was credited as animator on Circle (En, 1932), an educational film exploring geometry." Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: Simple animation with switches to silhouette. A charming fairy-tale.

Tomu Uchida
* KANIMANJI ENGI [Il racconto del tempio dei granchi / The Tale of Crab Temple] (Asahi Kinema Gomei-sha, JP 1924) D, anim: Hidehiko Okuda, Tomu Uchida, Hakuzan Kimura; 35 mm, 983 ft, 11’ (24 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. Japanese intertitles, with English subtitles.
"This charming animation is a religious fable focusing on a girl who builds a Buddhist temple in order to give thanks to the crabs that saved her from a snake in human form. It is most notable historically for the participation as one of its three directors of Tomu Uchida (1898-1970), who would become one of Japan’s outstanding commercial filmmakers during the following four and a half decades, working in a variety of genres, from literary adaptation to social satire, but most notably on period films such as Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (Chiyari Fuji, 1955). His Policeman (Keisatsukan, 1933) was screened at Pordenone in 2001. Co-director Hakuzan Kimura, whose dates are unknown, studied animation at Kitayama Eiga Seisaku-sho, and went on to work mainly for Asahi Kinema. The most notorious moment of his career occurred in 1932, when he made the independently produced Summer Boat (Suzumi-bune), a pornographic animation reminiscent of the sexually explicit ukiyo-e paintings known as shunga. In consequence, he was arrested, and the film was confiscated by the police." – Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: A masterpiece. A sensitive, lyrical touch in drawings that switch into silhouettes. The father promises his daughter to a snake if the snake lets go of a frog. But the daughter is saved first with a Buddhist scripture roll and then with a swarm of crabs. There are radiant inserts of pure abstraction and kaleidoscopic figures (like with Harry Smith). *

Sanae Yamamoto
* UBASUTEYAMA (Tokyo Manga Club, JP 1925) D, anim: Sanae Yamamoto; 35 mm, 1,070 ft, 16’ (18 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. Japanese intertitles, with English subtitles.
"The term ubasate (or obasute) refers to a legendary Japanese custom whereby the elderly or ailing were abandoned on a mountain to die. The folk-tale of Ubasuteyama (or Obasuteyama), the “mountain of abandonment”, is widely known in Japan in various versions, one of which forms the basis of this film, made to promote respect for the elderly. The film celebrates the wisdom of an old woman who saves her country. In later years, the legend of abandonment became the basis of Shichiro Fukazawa’s novel The Ballad of Narayama, which was to be adapted for live-action film by Keisuke Kinoshita in 1958 and by Shohei Imamura in 1983. Both films are acknowledged masterpieces of Japanese cinema. Director Sanae Yamamoto (1898-1981), who had trained with pioneering animator Seitaro Kitayama, also retold Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare in another extant silent anime. During the prewar years, he worked for the Japanese government, producing over a dozen animations at the behest of various ministries. He was later to became a founder and head of Japan’s first major animation studio, Toei Doga, responsible for such classics as Japan’s first feature-length animated cartoon in colour, Legend of the White Serpent (Hakujaden, 1958)." – Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: A masterpiece with an original approach to animation: drawings, paintings, and the intertitle design grow into a whole. The old mother's wisdom is instrumental in helping solve the riddles (how to pull a thread through the crooked path in the crystal, how to tell the mare from the foal which look identical). *

Director unknown
CHAPPURIN TO KUGAN [Chaplin e Coogan / Chaplin and Coogan] (?, JP, ca. 1921-25?) D, anim: ?; 35 mm, 940 ft, 16’ (16 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. Japanese intertitles, with English subtitles.
"Little is known about this mysterious film, whose director and exact date remain unknown; indeed, since the title card is missing, even the real title is unknown, and the designation Chaplin and Coogan is a tentative one. The film was made some time during the 1920s, evidently after Chaplin made The Kid (1921), in which he played opposite child star Jackie Coogan. Chaplin, as Joseph Anderson and Donald Richie have commented, “is the personification of the Japanese comic ideal”, and it is no surprise that tribute should have been paid to him by Japanese theatre and film. City Lights (1931) was adapted months after its release for the Japanese stage as Komori no Yasu-san, with a sumo bout substituted for the boxing match; while Torajiro Saito, a prolific director of comedy shorts, made Chaplin, Why Do You Cry? (Chappurin yo naze naku ka), about a Japanese sandwich-man who dresses like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, in 1932. In the same year, Chaplin made his first visit to Japan, and narrowly escaped death when his host, Japanese Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, was assassinated while the comedian attended a sumo match in the company of Inukai’s son." Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: Submarine imagery is recurrent in early anime, also here. An underwater movie is being shot. There are metacinematic dimensions here, including the appearance of Charles Chaplin, and the production of swordplay movies.

Akira Iwasaki
SANBIKI NO KOGUMA-SAN [I tre orsetti / Three Little Bears] (Fujin no Tomo-sha, JP 1931) D, anim: Akira Iwasaki; 35 mm, 828 ft, 12’ (18 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. Japanese intertitles, with English subtitles.
"This amusing animation, which in Akira Tochigi’s words “celebrates the playfulness of enfants terribles à la Jean Vigo”, is based on a story by Kazuko Murayama, the wife of the avant-garde artist and playwright Tomoyoshi Murayama. Murayama was a noted left-winger, who devised versions of Robin Hood and Don Quixote informed by Marxist philosophy. His left-wing sentiments were shared by the uncredited director of this animation, Akira Iwasaki (1903-81), who, during the late 1920s and early 1930s was one of the leading members of the Proletarian Film League of Japan (Prokino), an organization responsible for newsreels and documentaries, along with some fiction and animated films, that was finally suppressed under the terms of the notorious Peace Preservation Law. Iwasaki himself, who was also a noted film critic, would go on to be arrested in 1940 for his opposition to the 1939 Film Law, which cemented state control over the industry." – Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: Disney's Laugh-o-Grams with the three little bears have just been shown in Pordenone, and here is a Japanese interpretation with some similarities (not imitation). The modernized fairy-tale is a springboard for absurd inventions and adventures via train, through the world of snow (snow white bears), via zeppelin, and through the chimney (soot black bears).

Omaggio a / Tribute to Yasuji Murata
"Yasuji Murata (1896-1966) was one of the most distinguished Japanese animators of the silent era. His work, based mainly on scripts by Chuzo Aochi, drew on both Western and Japanese folk-tales, but also tackled themes such as sport. He worked initially for Yokohama Sinema Shokai (the Yokohama Cinema Company), where he was given the task of creating intertitles, a function he performed both for educational films and for imported American animations. The latter, in particular those produced by Bray Studios, became one of his models, along with the Japanese cartoons directed by Sanae Yamamoto (see above). His debut, in 1927, was a remake of Seitaro Kitayama’s own debut, Monkey Crab Battle, and he went on to make Animal Olympics (Dobutsu Orinpikku taikai) in 1928, inspired by the Amsterdam Games that took place that year. He specialized in cut-out animation, and The Queen of the Moon Palace (Tsuki no miya no ojosama, 1934) demonstrated his mastery of that technique. In addition, Murata was a technical innovator, collaborating on the invention of a motor-driven shooting table for animation which permitted increases in shooting speeds and adjustments to uneven exposure speeds. Murata left Yokohama Sinema in 1937, but continued to work thereafter on educational and promotional films. His career in filmmaking stretched into the 1960s." Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström

* KOBUTORI [Il bernaccolo rimosso / His Snatched-Off Lump] (Yokohama Sinema Shokai, JP 1929) D, anim: Yasuji Murata; 35 mm, 938 ft, 14’ (18 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. Japanese intertitles, with English subtitles.
"This funny and at times poetic morality tale is arguably one of the finest surviving Japanese silent animated films. Its subject is drawn from legend: an old man dances with the tengu (bird-like goblins) in the hope of having a lump removed from his face [in the movie it's otherwise: the goblins believe that the lump is especially valuable for the old man and keep it as a pledge - AA]. Jasper Sharp has praised the film’s “fine, intricate line drawings”, and indeed, the film’s creation of milieu is admirable: the imagery of pouring rain, parting clouds and moonlight has a touch of the atmospheric loveliness that Hayao Miyazaki was to bring to his depictions of nature." Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: A masterpiece. There is a beautiful touch in the pen and the paintbrush. After nightfall the old man with a lump in his face visits the camp of the beaked goblins. The goblins take away his lump as a pawn. Next day, another old man with a lump wants to have the same treatment... *

FUTATSU NO SEKAI [Due mondi / Two Worlds] (Yokohama Sinema Shokai, JP 1929) D, anim: Yasuji Murata; 35 mm, 988 ft, 15’ (18 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. Japanese intertitles, with English subtitles.
"Aesop’s fables, with their animal characters and brief, pointed narratives conveying clear moral messages, constitute ideal material for animated shorts. In the United States, Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fables straddled the silent and early sound eras, running from 1921 to 1933. Japanese animators too seized on the Greek writer’s sardonic stories, which had been known in Japan since the late 16th century, when they were introduced to the country by Portuguese missionaries. Sanae Yamamoto, the director of Ubasuteyama, had realized a version of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare entitled Kyoiku otogi manga: Usagi to kame in 1924. Two Worlds is a version of another of Aesop’s best-known fables, The Ant and the Grasshopper, contrasting the industrious ant with the idle grasshopper, and concluding that “He who sings in summer will cry in winter”. This tale, or its retelling by the French fabulist La Fontaine, also formed the basis for animations by George Méliès, Ladislas Starewitch, and Lotte Reiniger." Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: An original visualization of the story of the Grasshopper and the Ant. "Summer fun leads to winter misery". The butterfly, the ants, and the grasshopper are interestingly designed.

OIRA NO YAKYU [La nostra partita di baseball / Our Baseball Game] (Yokohama Sinema Shokai, JP 1930) D, anim: Yasuji Murata; 35 mm, 900 ft, 13’ (18 fps); from: National Film Center, Tokyo. Japanese intertitles, with English subtitles.
"Baseball was one of the many aspects of Western culture imported to Japan in the modernizing Meiji Period (1868-1912), with the country’s first baseball team being established in 1878. By the 1930s the game had achieved widespread popularity, staking a claim to become Japan’s national sport. This film depicts a baseball game between a team of badgers and a team of rabbits, which ends in disaster. It was distributed as part of the Yokohama Cinema Company’s Athena Film Library, which consisted of films intended as part of a touring national education film programme." – Alexander Jacoby, Johan Nordström
AA: Highly stylized and inventive. The baseball has to be retrieved from a frog's belly where it has already started to be digested, turning into a limp cordon.

No comments: