Thursday, February 14, 2008

Review: "Dawn of Japanese Animation" at Japan Society

(Yoshitaro Kataoka's "Danemon's Monster Hunt at Shojoji." Credit: Matsuda Film Production, Digital Meme.)

The film series “Dawn of Japanese Animation,” screening at Japan Society from February 13-16, is a lively, impressive collection of films that is a fascinating glimpse of Japanese pop culture from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, as well as a needed corrective for those who think of Japanese animation as only the stereotypical fare of science-fiction and fantasy stories populated by characters with saucer eyes, the most well-known names being Akira, Miyazaki, and (worse), Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z and those of its ilk. This series reveals that Japanese animation has a long and storied history, stretching back to the earliest days of the cinema. Each day of this four-day series is devoted to a different genre: “Chambara Action and Adventure,” “Horror and Comedy,” “Propaganda,” and “Music and Dance.” As an added bonus, each program of animated short films will be followed by a live-action film of the same genre. Many of these films are silent, and will be accompanied by live-action narration by Midori Sawato, a modern-day practitioner of the art of benshi narration. Benshi were live narrators who accompanied silent films in Japan’s early cinemas.

(Yasuji Murata's "The Bat." Credit: Matsuda Film Production, Digital Meme.)

Long before such figures as Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, Satoshi Kon, and Mamoru Oshii made their names in the field of film animation, Japanese filmmakers of the 1920’s and 1930’s developed styles drawing from both Japanese folktales and legends, as well as Western influences such as Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, experimenting freely with drawing methods and approaches to subject matter and genre. One early pioneer was Yasuji Murata (1896-1966), who began his career creating intertitles for animated and educational films before creating his own, and who has several films featured in the series. Murata is a major discovery of this series, revealed as an innovator with a beautiful sense of composition. Animals were major characters in his animations, which were less overtly anthropomorphized than in Disney’s films. In “The Bat” (1930), the smooth-talking title character maneuvers his way through a war between birds and beasts. In “Over a Drink” (1936), a drunk fantasizes an underwater adventure. “Our Baseball Match” (1931) is a play-by-play of a game between tanuki (raccoon dogs, familiar creatures of Japanese legend) and rabbits. In “Sanko and the Octopus” (1933), a fish merchant pursues buried treasure. In a way that was true of much of the animation of this period, Murata’s films emphasize the decorative uses of the animated image, their flat visual fields privileging composition over perspective, and emphasizing smooth, lateral movement rather than the exaggerated motion of American animation. Murata’s cut-out animations were remarkable in the nearly endless variations he discovered in black-and-white lines and shadings. In Murata’s and other animators’ works, there is the heady feeling of an art form being invented and experimented with before our eyes. It is interesting to compare these more freewheeling works with others featured in the “Propaganda” program. In such works as “Momotaro’s Sky Adventure” (1931) and “Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure” (1932), in which the title character of Japanese folklore is pressed into the service of promoting the virtues of Japan’s military, and “Corporal Norakuro” (1934), the playfulness is still evident, but there is a palpable tension between this fun, anarchic spirit and the scenarios involving the cute animals of earlier films now fighting each other to the death.

(Noburo Ofuji's "The Black Cat." Credit: Matsuda Film Production, Digital Meme.)

Another great animator was Noburo Ofuji (1900-1961), whose music-based films were more overtly experimental and built around pure decorative patterns. Such works as “The National Anthem Kimigayo” (1931), “The Black Cat” (1929), “Harvest Festival” (1930), “Spring Song” (1931), and “The Bear Dodger” (1948) were both visually and aurally musical, their animation styles often built around printed song lyrics, and movement of objects, silhouettes, and masks.

(Torajiro Saito's "Kid Commotion." Credit: Matsuda Film Production, Digital Meme.)

The live-action films chosen to accompany the animations also fit the wildly comic nature of many of these films, making use of cartoon-like humor and sight gags. Takeshi Yashiro’s “Fighting in Asura Town” (1936) combines the genres of adventure and romantic comedy, as two journalists save an engineer and his feisty daughter from a gang’s clutches. Torajiro Saito’s “Kid Commotion” (1934) uses class-based satire to tell the tale of its Chaplinesque protagonist’s struggle to find ever more unusual ways to make money for his large family, and to find a midwife for his wife, about to give birth to their seventh child.

(Buntaro Futugawa's "Orochi." Credit: Matsuda Film Production, Digital Meme.)

Another highlight of the series is a rare screening on February 16 at 7:30 of Buntaro Futagawa’s Orochi (1925), an early chambara (sword-play) samurai film featuring Tsumasaburo Bando, one of the most famous actors of early Japanese cinema, who starred in many jidaigeki (period dramas) of this period. This screening will be accompanied by live English benshi narration by actor Leon Ingulsrud.

Additional reading:

Reviews by Grady Hendrix in the New York Sun and David Wilentz in the Brooklyn Rail.

Jasper Sharp's article "Pioneers of Japanese Animation" on the Japanese film site Midnight Eye provides a valuable overview of early Japanese animation. (Part 1 and Part 2)

No comments: