Since winning the Oscar prize for Best Animated Short in 2009 for La maison en petits cubes (つみきのいえ, 2008), Kunio Katō (加藤久仁生, b. 1977) has been relatively quiet on the international festival circuit. At home; however, he has been busy making animation in his capacity as an animator at the commercial and graphic design company ROBOT. In 2010, he made a beautiful series of animated shorts as part of the promotion of the 40th anniversary of the Japanese housing company Sekisui Heim (セキスイハイム). In 2011-12, an exhibition of his work went on the road starting with the Towada Art Center in Aomori, followed by the Hachioji Yume Art Museum in Tokyo (Feb. 10 – March 25, 2012), the Kariya City Art Museum in Aichi (April 21 – June 3, 2012), and the Nagashima Museum in Kagoshima (July 21 – Sept. 17, 2012).
The centrepiece of these exhibitions was a new work created by Katō called Scenes (情景/Jōkei, 2012). Reviews of the exhibition indicated that this new work consists of seven animated vignettes, with each vignette animated in a different style. According to animeanime.jp’s review of a Kunio Katō screening event at Ebisu Garden Place last fall, the vignettes (or “omnibus”) are called: Holidays (休日 / Kyūjitsu), Snow (雪 / Yuki), Potage (ポタージュ / Potāju), Them (あいつ / Aitsu), Morning (朝 / Asa), Nap (昼寝 / Hirune), and Curtain Call (カーテンコール/ Kāten kōru) (my title translations and transliterations). The press screener that I saw had only 5 of these 7 vignettes, so my review is based on those.
Each of the vignettes has a minimalist style. Instead of the fully coloured foregrounds, mid-grounds and backgrounds of The Diary of Tortov Roddle (2003-4) and La maison en petits cubes, Scenes looks more like an animated sketchbook with backgrounds either non-existent or merely hinted at. As is typical for Katō, each of the vignettes, or “scenes”, feature a mix of the familiar and the playfully surreal.
The “scenes” have no dialogue, only sound effects accompanied by music composed by frequent Katō collaborator Kenji Kondō (近藤研二, b. 1966), who also composed the soundtracks to The Diary of Tortov Roddle and La maison en petits cubes. Although I couldn’t spot them in the rather sparse credits, I am pretty sure that the soundtrack was performed by Kondō’s band, the Kuricorder Quartet (栗コーダーカルテット). The screener that I have gives four options for the soundtrack. Three rotate the music between different “scenes”, which changes the mood of each “scene” from playful to reflective, while the fourth soundtrack option is without music (ie sound effects only).
I have already used the adjective “playful” twice in this review because that is my overall impression of Katō’s approach to these animated “scenes”. Rather than present a fully fleshed out story, as he did in La maison en petits cubes, these vignettes are more about hinting at stories and characters and allowing the audience to make their own connections. It has a much more spontaneous feel to it than his earlier work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Katō took a free-form, stream-of-consciousness approach instead of storyboarding as he usually does (I will update when/if I find out how he planned the film).
Holidays / 休日 / Kyūjitsu
Opening with clouds against a blue sky, this “scene” is a series of mini-scenes of people on holiday. There is an over-arching mini-story about a father and son who create a puddle at a water tap (the kind one might find in the backyard or a Japanese playground) then pick it up (the “playfully surreal” that I mentioned earlier) and play with it until finally releasing it into the sea like a captured fish. Interspersed with this mini-story are scenes of other people enjoying their leisure time: girls playing jump rope, a couple flying a toy remote control plane, a father and daughter kicking a red ball, all culminating in a wide shot incorporating all the people as if they are in the park together.
Snow / 雪 / Yuki
The snow in this “scene” looks more like autumn leaves, but then it is difficult to draw white against white. This vignette suggests the feeling of winter with the crunch of snow underfoot, the activities people do indoors and out to keep warm on a cold day, people having a snow fight, tinned fish, and other associations the artist has made with his wintry theme.
Potage / ポタージュ / Potāju
Potage comes from the French and refers to thick soups, stews, and porridges that have their origins in medieval French cuisine. Potage, particularly corn potage, is quite a popular dish in Japan. This “scene” explores associations surrounding this homey meal: girlfriends hanging out together, family meals, a couple with their backs to each other reading, and a surreal sequence with a fish that leads to an image of typical potage ingredients (fish, onions, potatoes, etc). The vignette evokes a feeling of togetherness and shared experience.
Them / あいつ / Aitsu
It was quite hard to translate the title of this “scene” because the word “aitsu” is a very colloquial one that depends on the context. It most often means “that one” / “him” / “her”. This vignette is once again a series of associations, but the background has a yellow hue (my guess is that it has been painted onto different paper than the earlier vignettes) and it looks more like watercolours than pencil on paper. There is a summer theme to this vignette (cicadas on the soundtrack, the drinking of Ramune soda, the playing of baseball). I interpret this mini-story as concerning a schoolgirl’s friendship with a yellow creature, and a schoolboy’s jealous reaction to this relationship.
Morning / 朝 / Asa
This vignette begins in a style associated with experimental films: a black background thickly painted with white onto which Katō has overlaid a series of pencil sketches of breakfast items. There is a wonderful sequence in which a liquid poured into a glass metamorphoses into a series of different drinks associated with breakfast. This is followed by montage of the diverse array of breakfasts available in Japan from the western influence of toasts and pancakes to traditional Japanese breakfasts of fish and rice. From the minimal to the decadent, this vignette is a feast for the eyes.
Not yet screened:
Nap / 昼寝 / Hirune
Curtain Call /カーテンコール/ Kāten kōru
This is a fascinating collection of animated short-shorts. I would imagine that the overwhelming success of La maison en petits cubes put a lot of pressure on Kunio Katō to follow that project up with something spectacular. Scenes is not a film designed to wow, instead it feels like the work of an artist who is looking inward. It is a reflective and observant piece that subtly explores the craft of animation and its ability to express the inner workings of the human mind. Instead of presenting a fully formed story, it unfolds like a piece of music with a theme and variation pattern. It will be interesting to see where Katō’s creative mind will lead him next.
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014