31 January 2016

Blue Eyes -in Harbor Tale- (ブルーアイズ イン ハーバーテイル, 2014)

Blue Eyes -in Harbor Tale- (ブルーアイズ イン ハーバーテイル, 2014) is a sequel to stop motion animator Yūichi Itō’s 2011 animated short Harbor Tale (read review), which saw a brick from one of Yokohama’s famous red brick buildings come to life and lead us on a fantastic adventure through the history of the port city.  Spectators who watched Harbor Tale will be brought right into the location immediately as it starts with Mr.Brick rowing in Yokohama Harbor close to Yokohama Marine Tower

The scene then shifts to a wide-eyed dancing bisque doll, the “Blue Eyes” of the title.  When the performance comes to an end, a woman applauds.  The woman expresses admiration for the dancing doll, but the doll exerts her independence by going out for a walk.  As she walks from the ship to the shore, a strong wind blows her into the lap of Mr. Brick rowing in the canal. 

Mr. Brick and Blue Eyes go out for a drink to a bar that features some of the imported culture for which Yokohama is famous: the barman is a cocktail shaker who prepares their drinks in his own “body”, while a mustachioed beer stein sitting at the bar chuckles.  Blue Eyes talks to Mr. Brick, who seems a bit overwhelmed by the situation.  She reveals that she, like the brick, came alive about a hundred years earlier and was a witness to the ships in the harbor coming alive (a reference to the events that took place in Harbor Tale).  She gets out a giant smart phone in order to show Mr. Brick a video of the theatrical troupe she wants to join on the other side of the ocean.  She is saving money in order to go.  When the doll tells the woman her plans to travel, the woman traps her in a birdcage and Mr. Brick and his seagull friend try to rescue her. 

There is no doubt that the stop motion animation mixed with computer After Effects is top notch in this film.  In particular, Itō’s mixing of a live actor with a stop motion character is artfully done.  However, the story is not nearly as strong as in Harbor Tale, where Itō was able to tell the story with less dialogue.  I am also not sure that the story in this film makes much sense if one has not seen Harbor Tale first. 

The live action performer in this work is the actress Michiko Godai (五大 路子), b. 1952, whom fans of Death Note (2006) will recognise for playing the role of Sachiko Yagami in the live action adaptations of the popular manga.  Godai has a special relationship with Yokohama.  Not only is it her birthplace, but she has deep roots in its arts community as the co-founder of the theatrical troupe Yokohama Yumeza in 1999 to bring high quality theatre to the city. 

The casting of Godai is a nod to the theatrical traditions of Yokohama and the bisque doll represents the interchange of technologies and cultural practices between Japan and other countries.  Particularly in the 19th century, when bisque dolls imported from France and Germany had their heyday, Yokohama was the epicentre of that cultural exchange.  With Blue Eyes -in Harbor Tale-, Itō continues his homage to the culture of the city that he calls home.

Blue Eyes -in Harbor Tale- won the Best Animation Award at Universe Multicultural Film Festival in 2015.  It has played at many festivals around the world.  I saw it at Nippon Connection 2015 where Itō was our guest.

Director, Story and Character Design:
Yūichi Itō

Maria Kawamura (doll)
Yūichi Itō (Mr. Brick)

Michiko Godai
Yokohama Yumeza
Offside Incorporated

Sayaka Yamamoto (composer, synthesizer)
Kazuha Takahashi (violin)
Kazune Koshikawa (cello)
Hidehito Naka (clarinet)
Kenji Furukawa (recording)
MicroMacro Studio

Sound Design:
Masumi Takino

Puppet Animation / Assistant Director:
Fumi Inoue

Clay Animation:
Yuko Yamada

Model Crafts Crew:
Hideto Miyazaki (Chief of Model Crafts)
Fumi Inoue
Mayumi Yamamoto (Bisque doll, clothes, modelling assistant)
Kiyomi Aoyagi (assistant)

Special Modelling:
Kanao Yamaguchi

Assistant Model Makers:
Masami Tsurumi
Yuko Yamada
Masahito Ohara
Yuri Nakamoto
Ataru Sakagami

Shouta Horiuchi

Cathy Munroe Hotes 2016

31 December 2015

Best Japanese Indie Animation Shorts 2015

The first indie highlight of 2015 for me was the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.   I went this year because they featured a retrospective of the career of experimental filmmaker Takashi Itō, who is renowned for his innovative use of stop motion.  I also got a chance to meet the artist / filmmaker Isao Yamada and enjoy the work of many Japanese artists whose work was in the official competitions including Tochka’s PiKA PiKA animation Track (2015), Yoriko Mizushiri’s latest minimalist work Veil (2014), and up-and-coming young animator Chihiro Satō’s hand drawn animated short Satō no Chihiro (2014).  Akira Tochigi of the National Film Center in Tokyo presented a selection of films by pioneering amateur filmmakers such as Shigeji Ogino and Kurenai Mori (learn more).

In the archives of the Oberhausen festival I was also finally able to watch Ryō Hirano’s Paradise (2013), which was much praised by animation professionals in 2014.  I didn’t include Paradise in my list last year because I had not seen the film yet.  For those of you new to Nishikata Film Review, this list always includes some films from the previous 2 years because I live in Europe.  Unless an artist has sent me their work or it is available online, I don’t see it until it comes to a festival near me.  That means that Ryo Ōkawara’s latest film Sugar Lump (ディス イズ マイ ハウス, 2015) has not made this list – it makes its European premiere at Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival 2016 in February.  I am a huge fan of Ōkawara’s previous work (Wind Egg, Animal Dance) so I am looking forward to seeing Sugar Lump sometime in 2016.

The other big highlight of my animation year was Nippon Connection, where my guest was the animator Yūichi Itō (i.toon / Geidai).  My children enjoyed his workshop very much and it was wonderful learn more about this multi-talented artist.  Our other guest was Yuki Hayashi, whose music video for Moskitoo Fragments of Journey (2014) featured in the programme that I curated called Everything VisibleNippon Connection 2015 also featured innovative works such as Sleep Tight My Baby, Cradled in the Sky (ねむれ思い子 空のしとねに, 2014) by Naoya Kurisu and Taxi Driver Gion Taro THE MOVIE – To All You Deserted Dudes (タクシードライバー祗園太郎 THE MOVIE すべての葛野郎に捧ぐ, 2014) by Munenori NaganoTaxi Driver Gion Taro (see trailer) is not really an animation, but a puppet drama made with paper cutout figures.  This was a nice tie-in with this year’s JVTA sponsored film: Ichikawa Kon’s Shisengumi (新選組, 2000), which was also made with paper cutouts.

The following list is in no particular order.  Each has something interesting or unique that caught my attention this year.  Where possible, I have included links to official websites and places to see the film.

Dark Mixer (2014)
Hirotoshi IWASAKI / 岩崎宏俊 (Official Website)

Satō no Chihiro (さとうのちひろ, 2014)
Chihiro SATŌ /  さとうちひろ (Interview with Satō)

Veil (/Maku, 2014)
Yoriko MIZUSHIRI /水尻自子 (tumblr / Shiripro)

Track (2015)

Paradise (パラダイス, 2013)
Ryō HIRANO /ひらのりょう (Official Website / FOGHORN)

Fragments of Journey (2014)
Yuki HAYASHI/ 林勇気
Music video for Moskitoo – watch it here.

The Fox of Shichigorosawa (七五郎沢の狐, 2014)
Tune Sugihara /すぎはらちゅん

I and i (2014)
Shuhei NISHIZAWA / 西澤周平 / Tamabi (tumblr)

A Place to Name (その家の名前, 2015)
Ataru SAKAGAMI / 坂上直 / Geidai
See the Geidai 06 Trailer for a glimpse of this film

 L’Oeil du Cyclone (2015)
Masanobu HIRAOKA / 平岡 政展
Music video for the French band EZ3kiel – watch it here

Sleepless Castle (不夜城, 2015)
Manami WAKAI / 若井麻奈美 (Official Website)
Music video for Un-Amin (アンアミン) – watch here. 

Fox Fears (きつね憑き, 2015)
Miyo Sato/ 佐藤 美代 / Geidai

Okikurumi Kor Turesi (2015)
オキクルミの妹 - オキクルミ コッ トゥレシ
Shoh ISHIGURO / 石黒

 The Lost Breakfast (失われた朝食, 2015)
Qrais / キューライス (website)

 Chorus (2014)
Akihiko TANIGUCHI / 谷口 暁彦
Music Video for Holly Herndon – watch it here

Macky and Eucky in Midnight Gallery
(マッキーとユッキーのミッドナイトギャラリー, 2015)
Rushio Moriyama/ 森山 瑠潮

Green Glows (2014)
Asuka SHIRATA /白田 明日香 (website)

Ran (, 2014)
Eri KINOSHITA /木下絵李 (website)

Dreaming White (ゆめみるシロ, 2015)
Keigo Takenaka + Yuki Nomoto / 武中敬吾+野本有紀 / Tokyo Polytechnic

Scutes on my mind (かたすみの鱗, 2015)
Megumi Ishitani /石谷恵 / Geidai

09 October 2015

Being Good (きみはいい子, 2015)

The port town of Otaru on Ishikari Bay is a popular tourist destination in Hokkaido because of its unique 1920s canal with its picturesque Victorian-style gaslights.  However, a stone’s throw away from the tourist traps are average communities of working and middle class people, many of whom commute into nearby Sapporo for work.  While we do get glimpses of Otaru’s famous port as the backdrop of Mipo Oh’s latest feature film Being Good (きみはいい子 / Kimi wa ii ko, 2015), the director focuses her camera intently on the lives of the common people of Otaru. 

Being Good is an adaptation of the bestselling book of the same by Hatsue Nakawai (中脇初枝, b. 1974).  The original book is a collection of five short stories set in the same town that are linked by the themes of abuse and people dealing with mental illness.  Oh has taken three of these stories, “Santa no konai ie” (The House that Santa does not Visit), “Beppin-san” (Pretty Girl), and “Konnichi wa, sayonara” (Hello, Good-bye) and interweaves them in one Otaru neighbourhood. It’s a familiar setting which really could be found in any town in Hokkaido. 

The “Santa no konai ie” thread tells the story of rookie elementary school teacher Tasuku Okano (Kengo Kora) who is struggling both to keep discipline in his rowdy classroom and to deal with difficult parents.  He soon starts to suspect that a troubled child in his class may be suffering neglect and even abuse at home.  His efforts to help the boy are consistently thwarted but he continues to look for a solution. 

Meanwhile, Masami (Machiko Ono) of the “Beppin-san” story is struggling to look after her 3-year-old daughter Ayane on her own because her husband is away on long business trips abroad.  Her isolation is compounded by the fact that she was abused as a child and her frustration erupts in violence towards Ayane.  She tries to hide her nasty secret from the mothers she meets with at the playground, but one of the moms (Chizuru Ikewaki) is more perceptive and understanding than she could ever imagine.

 Another lonely woman in the neighbourhood is the elderly home owner Kazumi (Michie Kita) who never married.  She is known locally as suffering from mild dementia, which sometimes leads her into difficult situations such as when a supermarket employee, Mrs. Sakurai (Yasuko Tomita), catches Kazumi unintentionally shoplifting.  One day Kazumi finds that an autistic boy (Amon Kabe) who always greets her with “Konnichi wa, sayonara” is in a panic because he has lost his house key.  Kazumi invites him into her home and he reminds her of the younger brother she lost during the firebombing of Tokyo.  By chance, his mother turns out to be the supermarket employee who is shocked to discover that this woman she thought was crazy actually is full of a wisdom and love beyond anything she has experienced from the “normal” members of her community.  She begins to realize that she has been focusing too strongly on her son’s tics instead of recognizing the goodness in him.

I saw the EU premiere of this film at Camera Japan 2015 in Rotterdam.  The film is not an easy one to watch, especially for people who have experienced or witnessed abuse in their own lives.  I gave a talk on Japanese Women Behind the Scenes immediately after this screening and found that many audience members were still reeling from the disturbing abuse depicted or suggested by the film.  I say “suggested” because Oh is careful not to show the worst of the abuse on screen by having the girl’s body blocked by her mother’s body shot from behind; however, this doesn’t not really lessen the emotional impact of the scenes.  The sound of the violence and of the child screaming are traumatic.  As are the evidence of bruises on her skin afterwards.   The performance of the children in this film are truly amazing to behold and if I ever have a chance to interview Mipo Oh I would ask her about how she worked with the child actors.  It must have taken a great deal of sensitivity in order to get these heartbreakingly realistic performances from them. 

There are no easy answers or real happy endings in this film.  In fact, many of the key issues remain frustratingly unresolved.  While many audience members that I chatted with said they felt deeply disturbed by the child abuse scenes, I believe that these were very realistically portrayed stories that need to be told.  Unfortunately abuse is much more common than we would like to believe and we need to educate ourselves and not try to sweep it under the carpet.  Being Good imparts the message that we should connect with our neighbours and communities so that people who need help know that there are people out there who do care.  As Okano’s sister tells him, we need to treat our children well, so that world peace can become a reality. 

Mipo Oh (also written as Mipo O / 美保, b. 1977) is third generation Korean-Japanese.  She grew up in Mie prefecture and graduated from Osaka University of Arts.  She began her career as a screenwriter to Nobuhiko Obayashi and went on to make commercials and short films before directing her first feature in 2005.  Her 2014 film The Light Only Shines There won her numerous awards at international film festivals and was Japan's entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.  Most recently, Being Good won the NETPAC Jury Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival 2015 for “being seeing, insightful and incredibly sincere.”  Learn more about Oh’s work at Japanese Women Behind the Scenes.

2015 Cathy Munroe Hotes


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