27 February 2008

Bettina Lockemann


If you are in Berlin in the coming weeks, I recommend that you check out Bettina Lockeman's exhibition of photographs that she took in Japan between April and July 2006. The exhibition is called Contact Zone and you can find a preview of the exhibition here and here. The photographs for the exhibition were all shot on black and white film, which she tells me is becoming a scarcer and scarcer commodity these days. While Bettina was in Japan, she also kept a blog of the digital photographs she took. Here's a link to her first blog entry.

Bettina's main project when she was in Japan was her research about European photographers in Japan. It was fascinating to read some of her material and see how, often without even realizing it, many photographers are unable to shed certain stereotypes about Japan. Somehow, a collection of photographs labeled 'Japan' just isn't complete without shots of torii and the cosplay kids in Harajuku.

It's pretty clear that in her black and white photographs, Bettina tried to steer clear of these pitfalls. Armed with a guidebook to architecture in Tokyo, she sought out urban landscapes to photograph. As always, I am impressed by her eye for perspective. Her photographs show us everyday cityscapes that we might otherwise consign to the background of our day, and asks us to look again at the details of the world around us.

Loris Gallery, Berlin, 23 February - 29 March 2008


© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

25 February 2008

Miyoshi Umeki (ミヨシ・ウメキ)


Watching the Oscar highlights this morning, I was saddened to discover that Miyoshi Umeki (梅木御代志 or ミヨシ・ウメキ) passed away last summer at the age of 78. Although her career in Hollywood was brief, the highlight came early on when she and Red Buttons (1919-2006) both won Oscars for their supporting roles in the Marlon Brando vehicle Sayonara (Joshua Logan, 1957). Umeki was the first Asian actor to win an Oscar... which makes me wonder: has another Asian actor ever won again? Sessue Hayakawa made some of his finest work pre-Oscars (the 1910s) and his chance with Bridge on the River Kwai was nipped at the post by Red Buttons. Anna May Wong was never even nominated for an Oscar.

I have a soft spot for Umeki, not just because she was lovely and an extremely gifted singer, but because she is from one of my favourite places in the world: Hokkaido. It really is too bad that her career as a film actress could not blossom much further after Sayonara, due to the stunning lack of roles for Asian actors in Hollywood -- a shameful tradition that continues to this day. I find it difficult to watch Umeki stereotyped in Flower Drum Song (1961), though her beautiful singing means that it is not as painful an experience as when Mickey Rooney tries to act "Chinese" in Breakfast at Tiffany's. The American entertainment industry was clearly going through an Oriental Phase in the late 1950s / early 1960s.

In tribute to Umeki, a fan has posted this wonderful clip of her as a guest on the Gisele MacKenzie show on March 29, 1958, just days after winning her Oscar. Click here to watch it. As was standard practice at the time, the 'interview' seems heavily scripted. I have the impression that Umeki might be exaggerating a Hollywood 'Asian accent' during the interview with Gisele. Contrast her perfect intonation and pronunciation when she sings in English with the pigeon English she speaks in the interview. I think she's playing a role, not herself. I bet that in real life her English was much better than she's letting on - her perfect distinction between r's and l's gives her away.

Umeki was clearly smart enough to know her limitations in Hollywood, and she made a name for herself through cameos on talk shows and TV series including The Donna Reed Show, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, Mister Ed, and finally her successful stint as Mrs. Jefferson in The Courtship of Eddie's Father. From what little is known about her life after retirement, it sounds as though she enjoyed living the remainder of her life out of the spotlight. I really admire her fortitude in choosing her path in life.

SAYONARA / Movie

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008


23 February 2008

Ducktators



I recently watched a Dutch documentary called Duckators (Guus von Wavern & Wolter Braamhorst, 1998) about animated propaganda done in Hollywood during the Second World War. I recall vividly some of the anti-German propaganda by Disney of swastikas crawling like spiders across Europe that I saw when I was a film student. I can’t recall the name of the film let alone the rest of the film, but that iconic image and its intended message branded itself in my memory. The animated propaganda from this period, in places like the States, Canada, and Japan, played a very important role in the home front war effort because they produced entertaining shorts that were extremely memorable.

This documentary, named after a famous propaganda film starring Donald Duck, looks at the output of Disney and Warner Brothers during the war. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, both companies threw themselves whole-heartedly into the war effort not just out of patriotism but, as one of the interviewees emphasizes, because it was profitable for them. By 1943, 94% of Disney’s output involved war-related material.



I really enjoyed the documentary because the filmmakers allow their material to speak for itself. The cartoons themselves are intercut with interviews with Sody Clampett (widow of Bob Clampett), Chuck Jones, Eric Smooden (film historian), Elfriede Fischinger (widow of Oskar Fishinger), Bob Clampett, Jr, and a number of other critics and historians. This lack of narrator really works in the film’s favour because it contrasts nicely with the heavy voice-of-god narration of the times (à la Lorne Greene).

The selection of propaganda footage in Ducktators demonstrates how effective animation, which at this time as TV critic Karl Cohen explains precedes the “ghetto-ization of cartoons to kids only”, was at ridiculing and de-humanizing the Axis forces. They poke fun at Hitler’s concept of himself as being a heroic, superhuman figure, and they deliberately make the Japanese as ugly and inhuman as possible. The Japanese are depicted as being small with buckteeth, glasses, and insect-like.

Here is Tokio Jokio, an example of Warner Brother's anti-Japanese propaganda:



I have read a great deal about the Japanese animation done as a part of their war effort, but have yet to see the films. Ducktators does contain a clip of an anime of the bombing of Pearl Harbor that certainly whets my appetite to search down more of these films.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

21 February 2008

Tomoyasu Murata Event


If you are in Tokyo this spring, you should check out the Tomoyasu Murata exhibition called "Yume ga shagan de iru" (夢がしゃがんでいる, Squatting Dreams?) at Hiratsuka Museum of Art in Kanagawa from April 12th to May 25th. He's been very busy this past year and has several new short films to show for it, including the latest film in the Road Series called Lemon Road (檸檬の路), tomorrow, Samurai Squid, and a new series called Dekki Family. If you go to Murata's homepage, an advertisement with lots of cool stills comes up as a pop-up.

Unfortunately, I cannot go to this exhibition so if one of my readers does, please post a comment or send me a message about it!

19 February 2008

Rinpa Eshidan





Collaborative art has a long history in Japan. Woodblock artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro have garnered international acclaim as individual artists, but their art actually involved a team that included an artisan block carver, a printer and a publisher. Similarly, film directors like Hayao Miyazaki tend to get all the credit in the press, but I’m sure Miyazaki would be the first to tell you that his films would not be as successful as they are without the team of animators working behind the scenes at Studio Ghibli.

Rinpa Eshidan is an exciting team of artists who, according to their website, were brought together by common interest in creative expression. Rinpa (輪派) is a term they have created from 輪 meaning wheel or ring and 派 meaning group. On their website they define rinpa as meaning “to bring people together”, while eshidan (絵師団) means an art team. The term rinpa may also be a reference to the rinpa (aka rimpa; same pronounciation, different kanji: 琳派), the school of decorative painting founded in the seventeenth century by the artists Honami Koetsu and Tawaraya Sotatasu and brought to further prominence half a century later by Ogata Korin and Kenzan.

For me, this reference to rinpa (琳派) suggests that the members of Rinpa Eshidan wish to emulate the way in which these early artists staged a revival of a certain style of traditional Japanese art. Some of the art that they have featured in their online gallery such as 松波 (possibly pronounced matsuba or ‘pine wave’) does have some resemblance to a traditional rinpa (琳派) aesthetic.

Rinpa Eshidan was formed in November 2005 by Noiz-Davi (the nom de plume of Yoshiaki Kusunoki) and Daisuke Yamamoto. The team of artists work together on video projects that document the process of artistic creation. They believe that the creative process is “where art come to life” and they want to use their videos to engage the spectator in that process. They post their videos online rather than display them in galleries in an act that democratizes art. They cleverly brought attention to themselves online with their video ようこそ、Youtube Japan へ (Welcome, to Youtube Japan) which was featured on the Youtube Japan homepage and is quickly approaching the three million views mark after only being online for eight months.

Several English bloggers have referred to Rinpa Eshidan’s videos as examples of time-lapse photography, which is not accurate. In time-lapse photography, each film frame is captured at a rate much slower than normal playing speed. To my eye, what Rinpa Eshidan have actually done is either shoot frame-by-frame or to remove frames from a video-taped painting session. This results in examples of stop motion animation and pixillation. Stop motion, such as when the clay becomes animated and changes form, consists of individually shot frames that together give the impression of movement. Pixillation, an animation technique pioneered and named by my all-time favourite animator Norman McLaren, also involves shooting one frame at a time objects or characters (people) whose movement is entirely controlled by the filmmaker. Rinpa Eshidan do not use these animation techniques ‘purely’ – I have a feeling that they shoot at regular speed, then choose certain frames to use rather than shooting frame by frame – but the resulting films certainly do foreground process over product.

Some discussion online has also referred to them as street artists, but from their website I had the impression that they also do display their art in more traditional gallery spaces. I think what is exciting about Rinpa Eshidan is that they are clearly interested in creating a bridge between traditional art forms (painting, sculpture, pottery, animation, rimpa, Nihonga), avant-garde art (expressionism, street art) and contemporary modes of representation (music video, online video).

For more information about Rinpa Eshidan check out their homepage and their Youtube Channel.


© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

18 February 2008

Hokusai: An Animated Sketchbook (1978)


The influence of ukiyo-e master Hokusai (1766-1849) is pervasive in Japanese culture. Not only are his iconic images found on everything from stationary to beer mats, but I have noticed nods to Hokusai in a wide range of contemporary Japanese art. The most amusing of these is in Tabaimo's short film Public Convenience when she alludes to Hokusai's The Great Wave Off Kanagawa inher animation of waves of water flushing through a Japanese squat toilet in a public WC.
In looking for more references to Hokusai in animation, I happened upon this animation by Tony White. It won the BAFTA Film Award for Best Factual Film in 1978 and uses 60 Hokusai prints to animate this wonderful tribute to the artist who called himself the "old man mad about drawing."



There's an extensive interview with Tony White about 2D animation at Toon Zone. Tony White currently teaches full-time at DigiPen on whose website you can find a biography and list of awards he has received. White has also published books on the art of animation and he is the founder of the Animaticus Foundation which is dedicated to preserving and teaching 2D animation art.


Hokusai Manga / Japanese Movie


© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

14 February 2008

Kon Ichikawa


I was saddened by the news that Kon Ichikawa died yesterday (Japan Times obituary). He was one of the most talented directors of his generation. I had been thinking about his work a lot recently, as I had noticed that Criterion has released DVDs of The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain and added them to my wish list.

I treasure my Criterion DVD of Tokyo Olympiad (1965), not only because my Aunt Marian makes a cameo appearance in it -- in one of the montages of unfortunate mishaps at the Games, my aunt is shown being carried off the track in a stretcher -- but also because it is the greatest sports documentary ever made. My Dad is a big sports fan so I saw my share of sports documentaries growing up, but none of them rivals Tokyo Olympiad in its widescreen glory. It reminded me of the first time I saw The Band's The Last Waltz (Martin Scorcese, 1978) on the big screen and was transported back in time to the event itself.

Among the extras on the DVD there is a rather oddly shot interview with Ichikawa sitting in the stands of the stadium. Ichikawa is shot in profile and he avoids addressing the camera directly. At the beginning of the interview, the odd framing and lack of engagement is distracting, but after a while he warms up a bit and shares some fascinating information about the way in which they shot the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

The best moment comes when the interviewer asks Ichikawa the obvious question: "How much were you influenced by Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia?" Ichikawa reveals that he watched Olympia repeatedly and treated it as a textbook in documentary filmmaking. He even recounts meeting Riefenstahl at a festival after making Tokyo Olympiad and shaking her hand and thanking her for making a film that had taught him so much. I wonder if he told her the truth about how her film influenced him: that he had studied the minute details of how she made her film and decided that his film about the Olympics would be the antithesis of hers. Olympia, he explained, had been made by a conquering nation, but Tokyo Olympiad was being made in a post-World War II world in a defeated nation. Olympia had depicted the Olympics as a celebration of god-like sporting champions. Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad is not just about the champions, but about the losers as well. It is also about the spaces in which the events were being held and it also foregrounds the spectators and the city itself. There is surely no better document of how the city of Tokyo looked in 1964 than the marathon sequence in this film.

Ichikawa transformed his Olympic documentary into a celebration of humanity in all its glory and misery, its triumphs and defeats. This is what made him such a truly great director, for in all his films he probes the difficult question of what is means to be human. For more information about the oeuvre of this director, I recommend Alexander Jacoby's article at Senses of Cinema.

A pet project I hope to do one day is to learn more about Ichikawa's wife and sometimes collaborator, Wada Natto (1920-1983). There are a lot of stories about Japanese wives who have collaborated with their director husbands (not many women have attained director status in Japan) so this may be a fruitful area of research.



Tokyo Olympic / Documentary


© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

04 February 2008

Koichiro Tsujikawa



Koichiro Tsujikawa (辻川来幸一郎) started out in graphic design and moved into directing short films in 1999. Like most animation artists, Tsujikawa funds his work mainly by producing commercial work and music videos. He was featured in Boards as one of 20 directors to watch in October of last year for his extensive creative output for everything from commercials for big brand names to mesmerizing videos for experimental music artists. The artist he most works in collaboration with is exploratory and experimental musical artist Cornelius (aka Keigo Oyamada /小山田圭吾).

Tsujikawa’s most recent project is Kimagure Robot (きぐれロボット). It is an adaptation of a story by acclaimed science fiction writer (and friend of Osamu Tezuka) Shinichi Hoshi (星新一). The film is only available by download onto keitais in Japan in eight 5-minute installments. This short film format suits the work of Hoshi, who is famous for his short-short story style. During his lifetime (1926-1997), he wrote over a thousand short stories. Kimagure Robot has been adapted into animation before (by Studio 4C in 2004), but this adaptation seems to mix animation and live actors, a technique Tsujikawa uses often in his work.

I don't have a full review of Tsujikawa's style for you yet, as I have only recently discovered his oeuvre and he has certainly been prolific. His style ranges from stop motion to CGI. His subject matter can range from playful animation of every day objects to the surreal. This filmography is a work in progress from information I found on Tsujikawa’s official website. If you click on some of the titles below you can watch his films on YouTube. I learned about Koichiro Tsujikawa’s work via PingMag’s postings of Tsujikawa’s recent foray into audiovisual performance. You can catch the first short clip here.

Filmography: Commercials

2007

Source Smirnoff (Smirnoff)

2006

Hop Field Documentary (Sapporo Namashibori)

Haku (Shiseido)

Foma Stick (Sony Ericsson)

Twenty-Four Hour Clock (24)

Majolica Majorca (Shiseido; with music by Cornelius)

2005

Search to Discover (Goo – the One Spot Project, NTT Resonant)

Meiji Milk Chocolate (Meiji)

Group Promotion (Hitachi)

Yebisu Beer (Sapporo)

Untitled (Parco)

Untitled (Kagome)

Morinaga Choco Ball (Morinaga)

2004

Daito Giken

Ripple of a Smile (NTT East Japan)

2003

Bed Merry (Tower Records)

Filmography: Music Videos (for Cornelius, unless otherwise noted)

2008

Blonde Friendly Collie Bear (Quantine Rabbit)

2007

Like a Rolling Stone

2006

Sleep Warm

Sensuous

Fit Song

Beep It

Gum

Breezin’

Music

2005

我は行く (Mikio Hirama)

2004

Wonderword (Supercar)

Galaxy (Rip Slyme)

2003

Mars (Sketch Show)

Ekot (Sketch Show)

Trapéziste (Kahimi Karie)

I hate hate

2002

閃光
(Flash of Light by UA)

2001

Tone Twilight Zone

Drop (Do It Again)

Short Films

2004

Eyes (Getty Images, music by Cornelius)

Untitled (commissioned by Panasonic for the 2004 Olympics)

Filmography: Other work for TV

2004

カチカチ アサラト パンチ (Space Shower TV Station)

琴篇 (Space Shower TV Station)

ギター篇 (Space Shower TV Station)

控室篇 (Nippon Television)

Red (Nippon Television)

Kimagure Robot / Original Video


© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

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