05 June 2011

Saori Shiroki's Night lights (夜の灯, 2005)


The rooftops of a darkened city, a couple walking by a lone streetlight on an otherwise darkened street, an old man rocking in a creaky chair in the corner of a room lit only by the moon or the streetlight entering through the window.

The old man appears to be waiting for something. His fingers drum on his knee. He rises from the rocking chair and paces the shadowy room with the floorboards creaking under his feet. He reaches up and fumbles in the dark turning on the overhead light to reveal a baby crib. A close up on the baby sleeping, with its mouth agape. A moth flutters about the room and old man tries in vain to bat it away. His skeletal hands put a blanket on the baby. The moth still flits about until it lands on the baby’s face. A reverse shot reveals the old man’s shocked face, and then we see that the moth has moved to cover the baby’s face as if like a mask. An exhalation from the baby causes the moth to fly away again and we see a series of short reverse shots of the faces of the man and the baby.

The scene is interrupted by a display of fireworks over the rooftops of the town – which has a distinctly eastern European look to it. The old man now sits in the rocking chair with the infant and we hear the sound of someone returning to the dwelling and see the shadow of a figure entering the room. No words are exchanged as the smiling mother picks up the baby and takes it with her to the next room and we hear the sound of a television being turned on. The moth returns and sits on the windowsill next to the man. He captures it and puts it on his own eyes – smiling for the first time as if he too were a child. The moth escapes and flies out the window to land on the streetlight.

I first encountered Saori Shiroki’s Night lights (夜の灯/Yoru no hi, 2005) when it was posted on YouTube in 2009 as part of Yokohama ArtNavi’s feature on young animators. At the time, the film did not make as much of an impression on me as say Atsushi Wada’s Day of Nose (鼻の日, 2005), Ryo Ookawara’s Animal Dance (アニマルダンス, 2009), or Ayaka Nakata’s Cornelis (コルネリス, 2008). The main reason for this is that the extremely low resolution version of the film on YouTube (240p) does not do the film justice at all. The low resolution blurs the careful paint strokes that make up each image. Each sequence of the film is like a moving painting, rendered using a paint-on-glass technique. The distinctly eastern European look of Night lights recalls the films of the most famous practitioner of paint-on-glass Aleksandr Petrov.

Aleksandr Petrov's paint-on-glass film The Dream of a  Ridiculous Man (1992).  I was reminded of this film by Shiroki's use of the streetlight in Night lights

One of the most striking aspects of Night lights is Shiroki’s symbolic use of the moth. Insects are frequently used in Japanese art. In animation their appearance can be as innocuous as being a sign of summer – as in the case of cicadas in films like My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988). Or they can take on a much more darkly playful and mysterious role as in the art of Akino Kondoh.

Shiroki is using the moth as a kind of mask. When the moth is on the face of the baby – it looks like a sinister death mask, with the dark circles on the wings resembling strange eyes. But when the old man places the moth on his own face, it takes on a more playful meaning, suggesting youthfulness. The moth, like the butterfly, is an insect symbolically associated with the soul and reincarnation – the interplay between the moth and the old man and the baby suggest this association of the moth with the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. It is a beautiful and hauntingly rendered animation that reminds us that life can be as fragile as the fluttering wings of the moth.

This is the second of a four-part series examining the work of Saori Shiroki (銀木沙織, b. 1984).  To read more, click on the titles in the filmography below.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

Filmography

2004 Fumoto no Machi (麓の町, 6‘15“)
2005 Night lights (夜の灯/Yoru no hi, 3‘45“)
2005 The funeral (1’53”)
2007 MAGGOT (2’45”, silent)
2010 Woman who stole fingers (指を盗んだ女/Yubi wo nusunda onna, 4’15”)

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