The animated films of Kansai artist Mika Seike (清家美佳, b. 1975) are a rare treat. Information about her is even harder to come by as she has very little web presence. As far as I am aware, Face to Face (Omukaisan/お向かいさん, 2007) is the most recent animated work released by Seike. As in her previous films, she uses scanned objects and photographs of her actors (in this case Natsuko Miyata and Yoshiro Togami) for the basic forms of her animation, which she manipulates, colours, and animates on her computer. As in her previous films, the people and backgrounds in Face to Face have a grey, textured tone similar to that of newsprint. In contrast to the grey and black of the human forms, elements of the natural world, such as leaves, butterflies, and flowers have been vividly coloured.
A female hand enters from screen left and puts a green leaf down on a flat surface and it grows roots and transforms into a small tree that leans to the left. Then a male hand enters from screen right and places a red leaf on the tree. This leaf sprouts into a branch giving the tree a more balanced shape. The camera then cuts to a wider angle and we see that the surface on which the tree is growing is not earthen, but a small wooden card table. A man and woman sit at the table, hands on their laps, heads bent forward in rapt concentration as if they were playing chess with one another.
The woman raises her head, and a green leaf pops out of her mouth, like a ticket out of a vending machine and she places it on the tree, causing a new branch to form. The man does the same with a red leaf. And so the “game” continues, with the man and woman staring intently at one another across the branches of the tree. Their faces have a rough quality to them as if they were made out of corrugated paper.
When the tree is full with entangled branches of green and red, one of the green leaves suddenly pops off the tree and begins to fall. The man looks surprised and the woman’s expression suggests that she is crestfallen by this – her eyes lower to watch it fall. When the green leaf touches the table, it begins growing into a vine which rapidly wraps itself around the woman’s neck and head. Another leaf comes out of her mouth and she places it on the tree. As the green leaves grow higher, close ups show us that the leaves are now almost blocking out eye contact between the woman and man.
Two red leaves fall to the ground and transform into vines that wrap themselves around the neck and face of the man. Another red leaf comes out of his mouth, but instead of placing it on the tree, he plants it on the woman’s side of the table, where it grows into a red-leafed vine that wraps around the woman. She opens her mouth and a green vine grows out of it, wrapping itself around the man’s face. He releases another red leaf, but instead of planting it, holds it up defiantly between their lines of vision and it transforms into a red flame. He sets the vine alight, and the flame travels, as if up a dynamite cable, to the woman’s mouth. Consuming the flame causes a small stone to fall out of the woman’s mouth. She then raises her head and a stone shoots out of her mouth, hitting the man on his forehead.
The woman looks over the man’s shoulder at a butterfly fluttering past the window, set against a red sky. Her gaze then shifts to the floor, where there are three stones – suggesting that this has happened before. She then removes the vines from her face. She walks to the window to peer outside. As she does so, the red butterfly comes to greet her on the windowsill and a rumble of thunder can be heard. Outside, there are some of flower-boxes – some full of colour, some empty – and a giant stone appears to have fallen at some point on the ground causing fissures in the concrete. The woman’s gaze follows the butterfly as it soars into the sky, joining other butterflies against a ruddy sky. This establishing shot reveals a landscape of dull grey apartment buildings, each with flowerboxes giving the scene some colour. In some of the apartment windows other people can be seen sitting at tables performing the same ritual of planting leaves on tables.
As the butterflies continue their soaring, the sound of leaves rustling in the wind joins the low rumble of a distant thunderstorm. Eventually, the butterflies plant themselves on the floor of a small wood of red-leafed trees, causing another red-leafed tree to sprout. This tree also produces a fruit, out of which is born another butterfly.
The butterfly flies to the woman and lands on her hand, then journeys into the sky. The camera pulls back to reveal that the urban landscape seems to be walled. The camera pulls back further to show that these walls are actually the walls of a box that juts out from the chest of the man. Back inside the apartment, the woman returns to the table. The sky is now green and the red butterfly has joined them. The man looks down, then removes the vines from himself, stands and closes the box into his chest, as if it were a bureau drawer. He walks to gaze out the window on the opposite side of the room, where a green butterfly lands on the window sill. Between the apartments out this window is a much less bleaker scene: a garden full of greenery and colour. Some purple butterflies plant themselves in the grass causing a stone to grow out of the earth. The green butterfly returns to the man who looks at it intently before watching it fly away again. The camera then pulls back to reveal more of this garden community, and then to show that it too is inside a box, but this one is jutting out of the woman’s chest. When she closes it into her chest, a green butterfly escapes from it and joins the red butterfly on the tree on the table. The red butterfly then lands on the woman’s forehead, then enters the woman’s mouth.
Inside the woman, the butterfly flies downwards and arrives in the garden where the man is gazing out the window. It plants itself in the ground in front of the man and sprouts into a red-leafed tree. The green butterfly then flies to the man’s forehead, then into his mouth and appears on the stormy side of the house, where it plants itself in the empty flower-box. Unlike the red butterfly, which sprouted a tree of its own colour, the tree that the green butterfly creates has both green and red leaves. The man returns to the table and the couple stare at each other over the original tree. Each pulls a leaf from their mouths and plants them on the tree, causing butterflies to emerge – the red butterfly lands on the woman’s forehead and the green on the man’s forehead. As the camera pulls silently away, we see the butterflies then enter their mouths again. The camera continues to pull back, out of the window. The final image is of the man and woman, framed in a window, staring at each other over the green and red tree on the table.
Seike’s characters inhabit a monochrome world and the only signs of nature – the leaves and the butterflies – seem to represent communication between men and women. But, instead of being a beautiful organic process, the relationship between the two sexes has been reduced to a game of strategy. It is a bleak vision of the modern world with the vibrant butterflies being the only signs of a possible transformation of the relationship into something more beautiful.