For much of the twentieth century, utility poles and their wires have cluttered Japan’s narrow city streets. It has only been in the past decade or so that municipal governments have begun to move the wires underground in an effort to “broaden the skies”, as the Tokyo government has called it.
In this age when wireless, rapid communication has become the norm, there has been some nostalgia for the not so distant past when rotary phones, radios, and snail mail were the main forms of long distance communication. Like the films of fellow puppet animator Tomoyasu Murata, Hideto Nakata’s 2009 puppet animation Elemi (電信柱エレミの恋い/Denshinbashira Eremi no Koi, 2009) evokes the atmosphere of the Shōwa era (1926-1989).
In the film, Hideto Nakata imagines what it would be like if utility poles could talk and feel like people do. This unusual idea was inspired by a story his college friend Hideki Inoue related to him about being drunk dialed by a young woman. As the woman spoke, Inoue was looking out the window at a utility pole and imagined that the woman’s voice belonged to the pole.
This idea appealed to Nakata and his animation studio Sovat Theater and they began work in 2001 to adapt this unusual idea into an animated film. Formed in 1997, the Sovat Theater team includes three skilled model makers Kenju Matsuo, Hirokazu Hosoi, and Shigeaki Masuda, but none of them had any experience in making a feature length puppet animation. As a result, the making of Elemi took eight painstaking years of trial and error work and cost 7 million yen (about €63,000) in production costs. (Source: Filmsprung)
The resulting 45 minute film beautifully recreates a typical urban Japanese neighbourhood in miniature using wood, clay, paper, and paints. Each clay figure has its own distinctive character, from the elderly utility pole Mokubei with his aging wood features to the playful child-like pole Akiapi, and of course, the more feminine, modern concrete pole Elemi, who is the central figure in the story.
The film opens by introducing us to the characters of the utility poles through their movements and expressions. Elemi is experiencing a kind of depression and dreams about trying to escape the confines of her wires in order to be free. As she is slumped over asleep, Takahashi and Kariya, two utility workers, are called to repair her. Elemi opens her eyes to see Takahashi’s handsome young face as he repairs her wires and falls in love with him at first sight.
Elemi's crush on Takahashi leads her to break with the code of the utility poles not to interact directly with humans. She contacts Takahashi secretly by phone and begins having nightly chats with him. Takahashi is a lonely soul himself, living alone with his pet turtle, and after his initial wariness about chatting with a stranger on the phone he soon finds himself enchanted with Elemi. With Takahashi’s birthday approaching, Elemi is faced with the growing realisation that she cannot keep up this pretence forever. At some point or another, Takahashi will want to meet her. She wonders if she should tell him the truth and whether or not there is any future for a relationship between a human being and a utility pole.
While the concept of an anthropomorphic utility pole seems at face value like a surreal concept, Hideto Nakata and his team have managed to make the utility poles seem very human and believable. We see their conflicting feelings as they witness both the cruelty (a cat being hit and run by a reckless driver) and tenderness (a little girl finding the cat and giving it a shroud) of the day-to-day life of the people who use their street. While Elemi is quite literally stuck in one place, her physical situation serves as a metaphor for the situation many people find themselves in real life: of the interconnectedness of individuals in society sometimes being a system of support, and sometimes feeling like an inescapable situation.
Sovat Theater gave a lot of attention to the creation of atmosphere in Elemi, from the small bird singing on the telephone wire to the colour of the sky. The film’s atmosphere is enhanced by original music by tico moon, a duo who are known for their mixing of Irish harp (Yuka Yoshino) with acoustic guitar (Toshihiko Kageyama). Elemi is a beautiful, contemplative film and was the winner of both the 2009 Japan Media Arts Festival Excellence Prize and the 2009 Noburo Ofuji Award.
Elemi is available on DVD in Japan from Pony Canyon. The menu and extras are in Japanese but the film has very good English subtitles. Extras include a 4 minute Making Of featurette (image and music, no narration), the trailer, a slideshow of stills and photographs of individual puppets and sets, cast and crew information, and a character guide. For some behind-the-scene photos, check out the Sovat Theater website.
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011
This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.