07 October 2014

A Visit to Tochka’s Studio in Kyoto

After Hiroshima 2014, I jumped on the Shinkansen to Kyoto to meet up with my family and some of the researchers headed to the Satoyama Concept gathering with us in Fukui Prefecture.  Of course, I could not stop in Kyoto without paying a visit to one of my favourite animation teams: TOCHKA.  I have been following their projects for many years (see: Tochka Works 2001-2010) and had the chance of participating in one of their PiKA PiKA Workshops at Nippon Connection 2011.

Tochka (トーチカ) is a collaborative art team led by Takeshi Nagata (ナガタタケシ, b. 1978) and Kazue Monno (モンノカヅエ, b. 1978).  The couple met as art students at Kyoto College of Art where they were mentored by the late experimental animator Nobuhiro Aihara (相原信洋, 1944-2011).  Tochka are renowned stop motion animators who have won acclaim at international festivals including Ottawa (Honorable Mention, 2006), the Japan Media Arts Festival (Excellence Award, 2006), and Clermont-Ferrand (Grand Prix, 2008).  Nagata also works in the Moving Image Lab at the Osaka Electro-Communication University.  They are best known for their innovative PiKA PiKA (Lightning Doodle) animation technique. 

Tochka has recently moved to new studios in a former elementary school which the local government has converted into studio spaces for artists.  With its high ceilings, oversized windows and beautiful hardwood floors, it is the perfect location for artists to work.  There are a number of other artists working in the building including sculptors and painters. 

Takeshi Nagata showed me some of their recent work including a stop motion using objects they had around their studio for a collaborative work for the Korean Indie-Anifest and the trailer for the Nara Arts Festival (奈良県大芸術祭, Sept 1 – November 30), which has been playing on video screens throughout Nara Prefecture’s transportation system since August.  The trailer features three dimensional PiKA PiKA animation dancing around some of Nara’s most famous historical and cultural sites starting with a beautiful pixillation sequence of the sun setting on the legendary Ishibutai Tomb (石舞台古墳), one of the ancient stone monuments in Asuka.    The sun appears to light a flame inside the tomb, which gives birth to a PiKA PiKA animation of the Chinese character (big), which features in the title of the festival (the literal translation of the festival name is Nara Prefecture Big Arts Festival).  This character has a lot of significance in Nara because it is home to the oldest Daibutsu (大仏/ “Big Buddha”) statue at Asuka-dera and the most famous Daibutsu at Tōdai-ji.

There a glorious pixilation sequence of the Daibutsu at Tōdai-ji in which PiKA PiKA Lightning Doodles appear to dance around the Buddha as the camera sweeps in a 180° rotation around the pedestal and wood beams housing the statue.  Colourful PiKA PiKA characters also swirl around the spiral in Muro Sanjo Park Art Forest.  No advertisement for a festival in Nara would be complete without an appearance of the mascot Sento-kun (せんとくん ), designed by Nara City Office to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the completion of Nara Heijō-kyō (the ancient capital of Japan) in 2010.  The character looks like an infant Buddha with antler representing the deer for which Nara is famous. 

Tochka were a great choice for this trailer, because the collaborative nature of PiKA PiKA animation – as demonstrated in the sequences showing participants of all ages – really captures the kind of inclusive atmosphere one expects at a festival.  It certainly made me wish I was in Nara to enjoy the sights and festival events.

At Tochka’s studios we also saw footage from a recent installation project they did near their Kyoto Studios which allowed children to experience a Mission Impossible style space.  Using movement sensitive lights, they rigged up a room with “laser beams” that the children had to try to navigate without toughing the beams of light.  It looked like a lot of fun for the participants.

Nagata-san gave me a copy of his feature film Okappa-chan Travels Abroad (おかっぱちゃん旅に出る/ Okappa-chan Tabi ni Deru, 2011).  This a feature film adaptation of the autobiographical illustrated book of the same name by the writer/artist Boojil (ブージル, b. 1984).  Boojil stars as her quirky self as she recreates her journey of self-discovery in Thailand and Laos.  The film is in Thai, Japanese, and English and the Japanese DVD release comes with subtitles in all three languages plus Korean and Chinese.   The DVD includes a postcard featuring art by Boojil, Boojil stickers, and a detailed booklet.  You can order a copy through cdjapan.

After our studio tour, Tochka took us to the Kyoto International Manga Museum where we could browse their extensive collection of manga, learn about the history of manga, and explore the fascinating exhibit of 43 Years, 18,000 Pages – The Complete Works of Tsuchida Seiki (土田世紀全原画展――43年、18,000).  Seiki (土田世紀, 1969-2012) was a highly respected manga-ka who won the Excellent Prize at the Media Arts Festival in 1999 for Under the Same Moon (同じ月を見ている) which was adapted into a film of the same name by Kenta Fukusaku in 2005.  Seiki was due to contribute to Shueisha’s new Grand Jump Premium magazine in 2012 when he died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of only 43 (Source: ANN).  The Manga Museum’s exhibit demonstrated the astounding output of this artist who was cut short at the height of his powers.  The most moving sections for me were the room with a glass floor where you could walk over scattered pages of his work, and Seiki’s plain, empty desk covered in scratch marks and ink spills. 

By this time, our tummies were growling, so Tochka took us out to Kyoto’s unofficial "Ramen Street" – the approximately 30+ ramen restaurants on and around Hagishi Oji Dori.  The reason for the congregation of reasonably priced Chinese noodles is the proximity to Kyoto’s university campuses.  As the more popular spots had giant line ups, we went for a simple family run place that really hit the spot.  

After lunch, we popped around the corner to Keibunsha Ichijoji (恵文社一乗寺店) Bookstore, Gift Shop, and Art Gallery.  We could have easily dropped a fortune on lovely things at this amazing shop.  They even had unusual works like Kōji Yamamura’s Muybridge’s Strings Flip Books (a tie in to his NFB co-production) and pins of Uncle Torys  (トリスおじさん) – the animated character designed by indie animation pioneer Ryōhei Yanagihara to advertise Suntory’s Torys Whisky.  I got a pin, while the kids bought books about Kaiju. 

We concluded our day with Tochka with Nagata-san taking us to the Sagano Romantic Train (嵯峨野観光鉄道).  Particularly popular in autumn, the train took us along the Hozu River with views of the gorge and a glimpse of Satoyama at the end before we headed back.  It was a wonderful day and Tochka’s hospitality is hard to beat.  I hope we can return the favour by having them as our guests in Germany in the near future.  

Cathy Munroe Hotes 2014

Pecora’ped (ペコラペッド)

Pecora’ped (ペコラペッド)
I was quite taken by the enthusiasm of two young animation entrepreneurs, Miyako Nishio (西尾都) and Ikue Sugidono (杉殿育恵) at Hiroshima 2014.  Working as an animation team since 2006, Nishio and Sugidono use the name Pecora’ped (ペコラペッド / Pekorapeddo). 

I should point out that the apostrophe in their official name has been inserted by me to aid English speakers with pronunciation of their unusual name.  As is often the case with Japanese artists, their use of English can sometimes lead to unfortunate choices in names and titles.  As it seemed unlikely that these two bright-eyed women with such a kawaii aesthetic intended to use a violent word like “raped” in their name, I dug a little deeper and found that the name Pecora’ped is the result of bringing together the words “Pecora” and “moped”.  “Pecora” is from the Latin (and modern Italian) for sheep (in English it is also used by scientists for the infraorder of mammals to which sheep belong).   Apparently, Nishio and Sugidono wanted their name to bring together the fluffiness of sheep and the rapid movements they associate with mopeds.  I am not sure how effective the name is in Japanese, but if they want to market themselves abroad with their cheerful and fluffy image, they may want to consider re-branding their romaji name. 

Nishio and Sugidono met as students at Hiroshima City University’s Department of Design and Applied Arts.  Since graduating in 2006, Nishio worked as a designer for five years for Nintendo, while Sugidono has worked as a freelance animator and artist.  Sugidono’s indie work Madly in Love (メロメロ, 2013) has screened widely at international festivals from ASK? Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize, to Tricky Women, Image Forum Festival, and most recently Fantoche.  

According to their official website, Pecora’ped aim to provide their viewers with “ukki-uki and wakku-waku experiences” (うっきうき!わっくわく).  I am not exactly sure why they have altered the spelling slightly, but uki-uki (うきうき) and waku-waku (わくわく) are common onomatopoeia in Japanese meaning “cheerful / lighthearted” and “exciting / thrilling”.

Their DVD The Films of Pecoraped 2007-2014.7 starts off with their earliest film together, Straying Little Red Riding Hood (迷走赤ずきん, 2007), an amusing over-the-top retelling of the classic fairy-tale done in a cutout-style with simple animation movements. SPONCHOI Pispochoi (2010) is a colourful little film featuring cheerful humanoid insect-like creatures who giggle and chat.  When they start growing moles on their faces they start to sing about this, determined to remain cheerful about this potential flaw in their otherwise perfect lives.  More and more disturbing things happen to these poor creatures but they remain resolute in their determination to remain cheerful.

In conclusion, the DVD features four short-shorts completed by Pecorap’ed this year: Baking Mochito (ぷぅっと もち彦, 2014), an animated haiku dedicated to the New Year’s tradition of roasting mochi (rice cakes), Evolutionary Tree (進化の樹2014), a cutout celebration of the natural world, Human Gene Pool (人間の遺伝子プール, 2014) an unusual take on humanity with some very unexpected twists, and Model Organisms Collection (モデルの生物コレクション,2014) a fashion show featuring various organisms, real and imaginary, with Darwin himself taking the stage as if he were the designer.

The DVD is not a complete works.  For a taste of their work so far, check out their Show Reel and other films on Vimeo.  You can also check out their contribution to the award-winning NHK omnibus Shinichi Hoshi Short-Shorts (星新一ショートショート調査, 2008) by ordering the DVD.

What really impressed me at Hiroshima was Nishio and Sugidono's entrepreneurial spirit.  In addition to the DVD, they had made beautiful jewelry, stationery, and other lovely gift ideas using characters from their animations.  They also make picture books and illustrations and are enthusiastic about collaborating with other artists and running animation / art workshops.  The tree-shaped brooch that I bought made a lovely souvenir of the animation festival and tied in well to the Satoyama Concept workshop that I attended in Fukui Prefecture after the festival.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014 

03 October 2014

The Last Air Raid Kumagaya (最後の空襲くまがや, 1993)

In 1978, Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita, made the powerful ground-breaking film Pica-Don (ピカドン, 1978) which depicts the bombing of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945 from the perspective of the victims of the atrocity.  An early example of an animated documentary, the Pica-Don was based on the testimonies and drawings of the survivors.  This use of animation to depict the unimaginable was done with the intent of educating people around the world about the horrors of war in effort to bring about world peace.  It is this same desire for “love and peace” that led the Kinoshitas to become involved in the founding of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in 1985 (Source: hiroanim.org)

With The Last Air Raid Kumagaya (最後の空襲くまがや / Saigo no Kūshū Kumagaya, 1993), Renzō and Sayoko Kinoshita continue to drive home the message about the futility of war.  As they did with Pica-Don, they based this 29-minute long animated film on historical records, interviews with witnesses/survivors, and the documents belonging to survivors. 

The first part of the film is critical of domestic propaganda.  A female narrator says that the common people of Japan were ignorant of the “evils of war”, such as the atrocities’ committed by their military in the South Pacific and Okinawa.   The film suggests that people believed the propaganda, which hid from them the fact that the Japanese were fighting a losing battle.  The narrator says that in the closing days of the war, the general populace believed the myths of their country’s victories abroad and were oblivious that their emperor was on the verge of surrender. 

It is in this context that the story of the last American air raid on Japan unfolds.  The central character is a 7 year old girl called Sachiko.  She has just lost her immediate family in the firebombing of Tokyo and takes the train to her uncle’s family in Kumagaya in Saitama Prefecture.  She is not out of danger yet, for the train gets shot at by a plane along the journey.  Her uncle meets her at the station and he and his whole family welcome her with open arms.  With her cousins, Sachiko explores the beauty of the natural landscape around Kumagaya. 

Sadly, these beautiful days of late summer are not to last.  The final movement of the film depicts the final air raid of the war.  The city descends into fear and chaos and Sachiko gets separated from her family with tragic results.  This film has no happy ending, for war brings no happy endings except in schmaltzy Hollywood features.  Just when you think the film has served up more sadness than you can bear, the shock ending is a real kick in the gut.  Along with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, 1988), this film not only has a strong anti-war message, but it also the highlights the suffering of children in times of war.   

The terrible irony of what happened in Kumagaya on August 15, 1945, was that as the people were reeling in shock in the ashes of the attack, Emperor Hirohito’s speech announcing Japan’s defeat came on the radio.  It is hard to imagine how the people of Kumagaya, and other cities bombed that final day (Osaka, Tokoyama, Isesaki) felt about the futility of their suffering at that moment.

This short film, animated beautifully with handmade cutouts, can be screened at the Peace Museum of Saitama (埼玉県平和資料館).  It is a useful educational film, but I would not recommend it for children under the age of 14.  It has deeply distressing imagery and raises some important political debates that require careful guidance by educators.  Although we do glimpse the American planes responsible for the air raids, I would argue that the film actually points the blame for the suffering of the Japanese people during the war on the Japanese government itself.  It is not easy material, but certainly useful when taught in the greater context of propaganda and war.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014


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