30 November 2006

Indigo Road (藍の路, 2006)



This 13 minute puppet animation belongs to the Michi (Road) Series directed by Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰). As with all of the short animations by Murata that I have seen, the film is without dialogue. It relies on elements of “pure cinema”, visuals combined with sound effects and music, to relate the melancholy story of a pianist who has lost someone that he loves.

The fact that the main protagonist is a pianist is only hinted at in Indigo Road (藍の路) by a pan shot that connects the man to an empty piano in the scene in the empty bar. The piano is also featured strongly in the soundtrack. This is a film that needs to be seen more than once in order to understand everything that is going on.

The film moves, almost seamlessly between the past and the present. The past, which is inhabited by the woman, is imbued with warm shades of ochre, orange, and red. Many of the scenes have also been shot in such a way as to give the impression of real daylight coming in through the windows. In the present the woman’s absence is highlighted through the use of greys, indigo blues, and lots of shadows.

The man and the woman are also connected through the act of sweeping. The man is shown sweeping an empty corridor that is cluttered with litter, and the woman is shown sweeping the apartment. The motif of emptiness is everywhere, from the hollow sound of the wind ruffling the man’s coat to the empty streets, empty chairs, and empty corridors of the setting. The whole ambiance of the film reminded me of the Don McLean song “Empty Chairs” in which he sings:

Morning comes and morning goes with no regret

And evening brings the memories that I can’t forget

Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs

And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs.


As in the Don McLean song, we don’t understand why the woman has left, only that she is gone. The music emphasizes this with its dramatic crescendo in one scene when we think the man and the woman will meet only to stop suddenly when the man opens the door and she is not there. The only sign that remains of her presence is the lone red flower blooming on the windowsill, but the brilliantly coloured blue butterfly that once hovered by the flower is now dead and broken on the floor when he sweeps the corridor.

In 2002, Murata won the Prize in Excellence for his early puppet animation Nostalgia that he made during his student years at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. The Japan Times has described his puppet animation as resembling “fine paintings in every frame” that “feature heart-warming stories with humble characters.” Indeed, the combination of the sets and the way that they are lit in Indigo Road do have a painterly feeling about them, but they are not static. Murata enjoys a moving camera and there are several dramatic tracking and panning shots in the film that emphasis the emptiness of the space.

Towards the end there is an interesting moment where the pianist is split in two and we see him watching himself cleaning the toilet. In the next scene, as he walks past a bathroom mirror, he pauses and then splits into two people, with one image of himself walking off-screen and the other image remaining standing still. I wasn’t sure what to make of this part of the film at first, but upon further reflection it seemed to me that this scene visually represented the feeling a person has that they have lost a part of themselves when someone they love dearly leaves them. The wonderful thing about this film is that it is open to multiple interpretations.

Indigo Road can be ordered from tomoyasu.net

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

27 November 2006

Tomoyasu Murata 村田朋泰


Last week, I discovered the work of Tomoyasu Murata (村田朋泰) at a small gallery on Hongo Dori, just across the street from Tokyo University. The display window featured a tongue-in-cheek Japan-themed installation which caused many passersby to pause for a moment’s reflection. Small figures of men in army uniforms swam, their feet fluttering and their arms swirling through the sea under an iconic hinomaru-themed background. In the foreground, next to a figure of Ultraman, were two old-fashioned portable televisions, one on top of the other, playing animated shorts. Another amusing touch was an old coin-operated candy machine. For 100 yen you would receive a numbered ball that you could turn in at the desk for a Murata souvenir. The artist himself was there and autographed our souvenir with his name and one of the stars of his animated shorts: handstand boy.

There was a nostalgic feel to the installation inside the gallery. On an old bookshelf, several old-fashioned small televisions were tucked side-by-side with books on the shelves. Each little screen was playing a different image. Two old church pews sat in front of the bookshelf, their backs to the televisions. On the floor in front of them was an unusual piece of art involving model houses and a huge tongue lolling out onto the floor.

The walls of the gallery featured photographs on one side and paintings and illustrations on the other. The photographs were all old black and white snapshots that had a cut-out of a white cloud-like object that came down from the top of the photos, like slime in a B-Horror movie, and obscured the faces of the figures in the photos. Large, pillow-like versions of these clouds were also liberally placed about the room, most hanging from the point where the wall meets the ceiling like snow hanging over the eaves of a roof.Upstairs, one could view a selection of short animated films directed by Murata. As in the gallery downstairs, the animated shorts demonstrated a wide range of methods. Murata has done a series of stop-motion puppet animation shorts called the My Road Series. There is a European feel to these shorts, particularly in the style of the main protagonist’s apartment. The main protagonist, a pianist, is suffering from some kind of a loss, possibly his partner, and emotion and mood is conveyed through character movement, music, sets, lighting, and other special effects such as winds blowing and sound effects. Murata’s films have no dialogue, but he seems to work in collaboration with musicians and composers.

Murata also dabbles in cel animation and computer animation among other techniques. Tokyo Montage, for example, combines a wide range of techniques in a style that reminded me of the experimental work of Norman McLaren. Although the My Road Series has a melancholic feeling to it, most of his films do not take themselves too suriously. One motif found in almost all his films is the butterfly, a creature that I feel captures the beauty and playfulness of Murata’s work.

Tomoyasu Murata Sakuhinshu - Ore no Michi / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

21 November 2006

My Neighbour Totoro (となりのトトロ, 1988)


If you’re a parent and the studios have got you down with the current vogue for high-paced, action-packed animated films that lack the innocent charm of early Disney films, then I highly recommend that you introduce your child to the world of Hayao Miyazaki. For the very young, you can do no better than Tonari no Totoro (となりのトトロ、My Neighbour Totoro, 1988).

Set in an idealized 1950s Japan, the film is told from the perspective of two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe, aged 11 and 4 respectively. Their mother has taken ill and is in the hospital indefinitely and their father, a university professor in Tokyo, moves them to a new home in the countryside to be closer to the mother’s hospital. As the girls explore their new home, a traditional Japanese house, they discover that it is inhabited by little black balls with google eyes called kurokurosuke, a term which has been translated variously as dust bunnies or soot sprites. When the children tell their father and the obaasan (grandmother) from next-door, the adults do not accuse the children of seeing things. In fact, the obaasan says that she, too, could see sprites/fairies when she was a young girl. I love that the adult figures in this film encourage the children to use their imaginations and to believe in things that they can see that perhaps not everyone can.

While Satsuki is at school one day, Mei is playing alone in the garden when she discovers a giant Totoro living at the foot of the giant camphor laurel tree near their home. Totoro seems to be a kind of spirit or fairy related to the camphor tree. Although Miyazaki himself has denied any connection to religion, the tree does have a rope around it that in Shinto indicates that the tree is a kami, or sacred spirit. The giant Totoro and the two smaller Totoros have a playful relationship with the girls at first: flying in the sky and playing ocarinas together, but later in the film when Mei runs away and gets lost, Totoro and a Catbus help Satsuki find her again.

The thing that makes this such a wonderful film for children is its simplicity. Unlike a typical American animated feature, there are no bad guys, no violence, and no chase scene at the end. Instead, the film shows the children experiencing joy, fear, anger, and other emotions as they deal with the trials of growing up as well as their underlying fear that their mother may die of her illness. The imaginary creatures act as helpmates on the children’s journey of discovery, but they never speak (there is no condescending adult moral imposed on the film), rather the children intuit what Totoro wants to show them.

My children have fallen in love with the theme song and Totoro. Even my one and a half year old sings the song to herself when she plays. That said, I want to emphasize that this is a film that can be enjoyed by people of any age and I highly recommend it as an antidote to over-the-top CGI features.

STUDIO GHIBLI / Animation Soundtrack

Ghibli no E Shokunin kazuo Oka Ten Totoro no Mori wo Kaita Hito. (English Subtitles) / Special Interest

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

11 November 2006

Love Affair (邂逅, 1939)



I was prepared to fall in love with Leo McCarey’s 1939 Oscar-nominated romance but in the end found myself disappointed. Charles Boyer has a lot of charm (who can forget his chilling performance in the 1944 George Cukor version of Gaslight when he does his best to make Ingrid Bergman believe she’s insane!) and finesse as an actor. Boyer was one of the few actors of his generation in Hollywood with a pronounced accent who demonstrated great versatility in his performances. He’s terrific in Hold Back the Dawn (Litchel Liesen, 1941) opposite Olivia de Havilland and Paulette Goddard and he has a fascinating chemistry with Bette Davis in All This and Heaven Too (Anatole Litvak, 1940).

Irene Dunne is simply lovely in her 1930s films like Roberta (William A. Seiter, 1935) and The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937). Despite her major star status in the 1930s, Dunne hasn’t remained an icon like many of her peers (Garbo, Dietrich, Crawford et al.). This is partly because of her early retirement from Hollywood in 1952, but it also due to the fact that so many of her films were remade into even bigger box office successes that get shown on TV much more often than the original films. For example, everyone’s heard of the Walter Lang musical The King and I (1956) with Yul Brynner, but hardly anyone goes out of their way to see Anna and the King of Siam (John Cromwell, 1946). Dunne also stars in James Whale’s 1936 version of Show Boat (1936) which features amazing performances, including Paul Robeson’s show-stopping rendition of “Ol’ Man River” but it often gets overshadowed by George Sidney’s 1951 Techinicolor remake starring Ava Gardner.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d seen one of the many remakes of this particular movie – An Affair to Remember (1957) starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. An Affair to Remember was then memorably referenced in the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan vehicle Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) which in turn seems to have inspired to the abominable Love Affair (Glenn Gordon Caron, 1994) starring Warren Beatty and Annette Benning. This latter film is only worth viewing if you’re interested in seeing Katherine Hepburn’s final appearance in a movie.

The realization that this film had been remade led to me making the inevitable comparisons between the two, which may have detracted from my enjoyment Love Affair. I usually watch Classical Hollywood films twice -- once just to immerse myself in the pleasures of the experience and then during the second screening I turn on the analytic mode and take notes. This film didn’t merit an immediate second screening, but it does have some really good moments. At first, my constant comparisons with An Affair to Remember didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film. Dunne plays an American woman called Terry McKay who meets French playboy Michel Marnet (Boyer) on board a ship bound for New York from Europe. During the course of their journey they fall in love and arrange to meet in six months at the top of the Empire State Building, but fate intervenes and delays their reunion. The witty repartee between Dunne and Boyer during the shipboard romance is superb. The set-up for the gags is convincing: everyone on the ship is interested in Michel Marnet’s love-life and the couple have to try to hide their growing fondness for each other from their nosy fellow passengers. I laughed out loud at a number of the jokes and gags. Sadly, the will-they-won’t-they sequences at the end of the movie is less compelling. Boyer had some moments where I really saw the emotion in his eyes but Dunne was a real limp fish in those final scenes. I kept having flashbacks to Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, who had me holding back the tears during those final scenes, not because of what they were saying but because you could really feel the emotion on their faces and in their eyes. 

The original Love Affair is certainly worth viewing for all you fans of Classical Hollywood romances, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to someone unfamiliar with movies from this period.

© cmmhotes 2006

10 November 2006

Nana (ナナ, Episode 3)


Episode 3

奈々と章司、恋の行方 Nana & Shoji, Love’s Whereabouts

This episode continues the first chapter of the manga with Nana Komatsu (she hasn’t acquired the Hachi nickname yet as the two Nanas have not yet met) determined not to fall in love with Shouji. The group of four friends (Junko & Kyosuke, Nana-chan/Hachi & Shoji) go on a holiday to the sea together and Shoji can barely keep his frustration under wraps. Rather than just tell Nana-chan that he fancies her, he berates her with lectures about her naivety about men. Any enjoyment Nana-chan was having on the trip is cut short when she finds out that all her friends are planning to move to Tokyo to continue studying art. When Shoji suggests that Nana-chan apply to colleges in Tokyo as well, she hits the books with a determination to get herself to Tokyo no matter what. It is difficult to sympathize with her because she has no passion for the study of art, she concerns herself only with keeping her circle of friends intact. Nana-chan and Shoji’s state of denial about their lust for each other comes to a boiling point when the friends are in Tokyo checking out schools and places to live.

Shoji walks off in a huff in what looks like the Ginza area, leaving the clueless Nana-chan to find her way back to the hotel on her own. Nana-chan runs into her former lover Asano and he takes her out to dinner to a restaurant with an amazing view of Tokyo at night. This turns out to be a positive experience for Nana-chan because she finally realizes that she is ready to put their relationship behind her and move on. Nana-chan parts ways with Asano and he points her in the direction of her hotel. While this is going on Junko and Shoji have an argument in which Junko reprimands Shoji for abandoning Nana-chan and points out the obvious to him: that Nana has fallen for him. As the two rush out Kyosuke notices that they have both left their keitei phones behind. He calls Nana on her keitei and tells her about Junko and Shoji’s fight. The episode ends with Nana realizing her affection for Shoji and running off in search of him.

In this episode, the theme of fashion starts to become foregrounded a bit more as the location moves to Tokyo. As Nana-chan is running about Ginza, for example, close-ups draw attention to her fabulous platform shoes with a funky flower design (taken directly from the manga). Nana Komatsu’s style, even though it originates in a manga that came out a few years back, is very common here in Tokyo: girly but with funky touches. The fashion theme really revs up a notch when Nana Osaki and the two bands make it to Tokyo as well so I’ll write more on that in a later review.

The transitions between scenes in this anime are beautifully rendered and are what make it such riveting viewing. When Kyosuke tells Shoji about his and Junko’s plans to move to Tokyo, the two young men are sitting on the beach facing away from the camera and between them in the background we see Junko and Hachi frolicking delightedly in the water. The animators then cut to an extreme close-up of Hachi balling and we know without being told that the news has now been broken to our over-emotional leading lady.


Perhaps the best transition in this episode comes when Hachi is dedicatedly studying for entrance exams to the Tokyo colleges. As the camera pulls away from her back as she sits at the desk, the screen goes dark except for a spotlight on Hachi. Sitting at her square desk in the triangle of the spotlight the scene resembles an onigiri (rice balls eaten for lunch or a snack in Japan). Against the black seasonal yellow ginko leaves begin to fall and then are replaced by the gently falling snowflakes that are a motif in this series. They seem to symbolize nostalgia and sentimentality. Another major motif is the iconic Tokyo tower, which is used to remind us about the location. Music is also used as a motif and also for transitions, but I will write more about that in a later review.

In closing I will say that this episode still does not completely endear me to Nana/Hachi. Her neediness is still annoying but fortunately it is offset by Junko’s sarcasm and Kyosuke’s dry wit. Although Shoji is cute and clearly cares about Hachi, his weakness in not being able to tell Hachi that he’s interested in her does not bode well. Hachi shows some potential for growing into a really lovable character as she does show some spunk when parting with Asano. Rather than cry (as she does all too often!) she jabs him in the chest with her finger and warns him not to cheat on his wife anymore. I will be watching episodes 4 & 5 next week as they are both concern Nana Osaki’s backstory.

Nana / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

09 November 2006

Anne of Green Gables (赤毛のアン, 1979)


Episode 1
マシュウ·カスバート驚く
Matthew Cuthbert is Surprised

I started watching 赤毛のアン (Akage no An: literally “Red-Haired Anne”) this week partly out of my ongoing curiosity about the Japanese fascination with Anne. I have been a fan of Lucy Maud Montgomery novels ever since I first learned how to read and have a collection of all her writing (I haven’t been able to get a hold of all of her published journals yet though) in storage in Canada so I can certainly understand the universal appeal of the character of Anne. People all over the world have fallen in love with this spunky orphan girl who is adopted by an elderly pair of siblings.

My first encounter with this 1979 anime was on German television where it had been dubbed into German. Yet no other country in the world has taken their love for Anne to the level that the Japanese have. Growing up in Canada, I had heard about the hoards of Japanese tourists that flock to Prince Edward Island every year to visit Green Gables in Cavendish. I myself took the same pilgrimage with my family when I was a girl. The extent of the obsession in Japan impressed itself upon me in 2001 when I was on a driving tour of Hokkaido with my husband and his parents. As we headed through the countryside towards the town of Ashibetsu we were startled by a large Pizza-Hut-style sign with an arrow pointing left that read ‘Canadian World’. Unable to resist, we followed the arrows until we found the theme park which had been abandoned in 1998 due to lack of profits. The park gates were open and the buildings were all still there so we could take a look around and get an idea what it had been like during its ‘glory days’. Some locals had set up stalls nearby where they were trying to sell their wares to any unwary tourists like us who had happened upon the site. Apparently the Anne-inspired theme park had opened in 1990 with the idea of bringing jobs and tourist dollars into Ashibetsu. According to an interesting article by Yuka Kajihara on the Anne phenomenon in Japan, they even imported Canadian staff to teach skills such as log-house construction and quilting and, of course, even had a ‘red-haired Anne’ brought in from P.E.I. to delight the tourists. It was not particularly surprising that the venture should have failed. Big-spending tourists from the main island of Honshu would have had to be flown in to Hokkaido then bussed in. Sure, it would have been closer than flying all the way to P.E.I., but their miniature Avonlea was pretty tacky and lacked the simple beauty of small-town P.E.I. I wondered if the cartoonishness of these overly-painted models came from the manga and anime versions of Anne in Japanese culture.

This Nippon Animation series also interests me because of its director Isao Takahata (高畑勲). Takahata is the director of the most powerful anti-war film I have ever seen, Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓、1988). He was also Hayao Miyazaki’s creative partner in the creation of Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki (宮崎 駿) worked on layout designs for Akage no An for the first 15 episodes of the series before leaving Nippon Animation altogether. Another major creative force on this series is the animation director Yoshifumi Kondo (近藤喜文), who also moved to Studio Ghibli and worked on some of their greatest films including his directorial debut Whisper of the Heart (耳をすませば,, 1995), but whose career was cut short by his untimely death in 1998. These three animators are all known for their sympathetic portrayal of strong shojo protagonists, so it is not surprising that they were all involved in the adaptation of Anne of Green Gables to an animated television series.

The animation series runs for 50 episodes, which means more than one episode for each of the 38 chapters in the original novel. They skip the title for the first chapter “Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Surprised” and use the title of the second chapter “Matthew Cuthbert is Surprised” for the first episode, though we do get to see Mrs. Lynde receiving her big surprise quite early on in the episode. The opening credit sequence demonstrates one of the reasons Anne is such a hit in Japan: they share Lucy Maud Montgomery’s romanticisation of nature. As the opening credits roll, Ann flies a horse drawn buggy through a dream sequence of the apple blossoms of the White Way of Delight which transforms into autumn leaves and then into a snowy scene, emphasizing the Japanese love of seasonal imagery. Sonja Arntzen has argued convincingly that part of the reason Anne became such a big hit when it was first published in English in 1951 was due to this tradition of seasonal imagery in Japanese literature. I am pretty sure many Japanese readers have delighted in Anne’s naming of the cherry tree at Green Gables the Snow Queen.


I found the realistic style of Akage no an quite refreshing as most of the fare on TV these days is so stylized. They haven’t made Anne into a round-faced cherub, but have kept her awkward skinniness. She is, after all, coming to the Island from a life of deprivation. I would not be surprised if by the end of the series she has, like she did in the book, become more soft and rounded in appearance. I can only hope that they don’t make her as fat as Mrs. Lynde (who I believe is depicted as bit chubby in the novels), Matthew, and even Marilla (though the latter not as much so). Matthew’s huge moustache is a bit comical – I don’t think it would have been proper to have such a very shaggy moustache in those days on the Island. I’m not convinced by Anne having blue eyes either – weren’t they green or hazel? I must dig up the dog-eared copy of the novel that is with me here in Japan and check some of the finer points. In terms of character and costume, however, everything seems to be spot-on. They must have done quite a lot of research in order to render the locations which such accuracy. The only real jarring point for me so far is the male narrator. Now I know that Japan has a tradition of benshi narration, but as the novel was so well known in Japan by the 1970s (it was even on school reading lists!), I don’t think that the narration was necessary. To be true to the novels, it would have suited much more to have a female voice as a narrator. LMM’s voice as narrator is present in all her novels adding humour and wit to her stories. As the story has been transferred to a visual medium, they should have dispensed with the narrator’s voice altogether though. Will have to check out more episodes to see if it continues in the same way throughout the series.

Anne of Green Gables / Animation

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006

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