20 February 2010

Kihachiro Kawamoto: Self Portrait (1988)


Some background information

In 1987, American animation artist David Ehrlich, an active member of ASIFA (Association Internationale du Film d'Animation), came up with the idea of assembling a collection of very short self portraits by ASIFA members. The resulting 8 minute film opened a window into the minds of the animators and how they view the creative process. In addition to his own contribution, he assembled the work of 18 other animators representing five countries: the United States (Ehrlich, Sally Cruikshank, Candy Kugel, Bill Plympton & Maureen Selwood), Estonia (Mati Kütt, Priit Pärn, Riho Unt & Hardi Volmer) , Yugoslavia (Borivoj Dovnikovik, Nikola Majdak, Joško Marušić & Dušan Vukotić,), Czechoslovakia (Jiří Barta, Pavel Koutský & Jan Švankmajer) and Japan (Renzō Kinoshita, Kihachirō Kawamoto & Osamu Tezuka). Animated Self Portraits premiered at Annecy, the city where ASIFA was born, at their animation festival in 1989.

Renzō Kinoshita’s involvement in this project was quite logical as he and his wife Sayoko founded the Japanese branch of ASIFA in 1981. As Kinoshita’s films are quite scarce in digital format, I have not yet tracked down a copy of his contribution to Self Portraits. Like Kinoshita, Osamu Tezuka was also very involved in the animation community. Up until his death in 1989, Tezuka was the president of the Japan Animation Association (JAA), when Kawamoto took over the presidency. Tezuka’s Self Portrait (自画像 / Jigazou, 1998, 12 seconds), is available on the Geneon DVD of his Experimental Films and the Australian and U.S. versions of this collection. Kawamoto’s Self Portrait (セルフポートレート, 1988, 1’27”) is available on the Geneon DVD of his short films, but sadly did not make it onto the U.S. edition. As far as I am aware, the film in its 8 minute entirety is not yet available on DVD.

Kihachirō Kawamoto’s Self Portrait

Kawamoto’s film begins with music over the opening credits: Eiko Segawa (瀬川瑛子)’s 1986 enka classic Inochi Kurenai (命くれない) about an inseparable couple. A clay figure of Kawamoto sits at a table moulding white clay with his hands. Kawamoto is most famous for his bunraku-style puppet animation, though he has experimented with other techniques in his long career. For the design of the doll of himself, Kawamoto enlisted the help of animator and illustrator Masahiro Katayama (片山雅博). Katayama currently works as a professor at Tamabi. It is a perfect caricature of Kawamoto with his trademark spectacles and goatee.


The camera shifts to a profile view of the artist moulding the clay into the beautiful figure of a woman. Just as the details of her face are realized, the woman becomes animated and struggles angrily with the artist as if to free herself from his artistic will. She then transforms into an oni (demon). The artist squishes down the head of the clay figure, trying to regain control of his creation, but the oni reforms itself and does the same to the clay figure of the artist. When the artist reforms himself, he has acquired the fangs and horns of an oni. He shakes his face back to its natural state. The fight continues between the artist and his creation as the credits run and the screen fades to black, suggesting this is an on-going power struggle.

This film reminded me of Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, which also played with the notion that works of art or literature take on a life on their own after the artist has created them. In the case of sculpture – part of the process when Kawamoto creates his ningyō dolls (人形) – the materials play as much of a role as the artist’s intentions themselves. Many artists can relate to Kawamoto’s notion of the creative process as a struggle between intention and its realization. The film also demonstrates the fine line between beauty and its opposite, just as tragedy and comedy are inextricably entwined together).   It may only be a minute long but this little film is intriguing in a variety of ways.

For more on Kawamoto’s creative process, Japanese and French speakers should check out this clip from an Arte documentary, or read Jasper Sharp’s interview with him in Midnight Eye.

UPDATE OCT 9, 2010:  I just got ahold of a copy of the original film Animated Self Portraits (1989) and have discovered that Kawamoto's contribution has a different soundtrack in the original version.

Kihachiro Kawamoto Sakuhin shu / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010

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