The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto

by Michael Barrett

20 May 2008

Striking and beautiful; clearly indebted to the Czech school, but applied to Japanese traditions such as Bunraku puppet theatre, Noh masks, and ghost stories

Kihachiro Kawamoto is a stop-motion animator who uses three-dimensional puppets or flat paper figures in combination with various background effects, such as drawn animation and multi-plane layering. The results are striking and beautiful, clearly indebted to the Czech school (he studied under the master Jiri Trnka) but applied to Japanese traditions such as Bunraku puppet theatre, Noh masks, and ghost stories. Seven diverse examples are in The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto.

The Breaking of Branches Is Forbidden (1968) and The Demon (1972) are puppet animations taken directly from Japanese legend and theatre. The first is a slim, rather drawn-out tale of a Buddhist monk who gets drunk and is made a fool of by two passers-by. He’s supposed to guard a cherry tree. This wordless film is based on traditional cultural situations that may baffle some viewers who don’t have at least a general acquaintance with them and may not quite grasp what the fuss is about. Liner notes or explanations would have helped. The second film (actually the third film on the disc) is a brief bit of rip-roaring spookery whose story wouldn’t be out of place in Kwaidan. It’s based on the harshness of a poor woman’s life and old age.

cover art

The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto

Director: Kihachiro Kawamoto

US DVD: 22 Apr 2008

An Anthropo-Cynical Farce (1970), in French, is a black-and-white combination of puppets and drawings with a contemporary setting and philosophical commentary about the parallels between human and dog-racing. There’s one spot of color at the end. The Trip (1973), which focuses on a young female tourist, is a Japanese artist’s salute to European influences. It begins as a series of black and white photographs, telling its story in the manner of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), then it bursts into a phantasmagoria of colorful paper animations and collages based on surrealist art.

We spotted nods to De Chirico, Ernst, Escher, Dali and Brueghel’s Tower of Babel. Whereas Kawamoto’s traditional stories use Japanese music, this employs a modernist Western score. The closing epigraph by 11th Century Chinese writer Su Dongpo reminds us that uniting elements in Kawamoto’s work are literary sources and allusions and a Buddhist acknowledgement of the transitory nature of earthly existence.  An interview published on Midnight Eye tells how Kawamoto met Trnka and also refers specifically to this film:

The director says: “A lot of people say ‘I don’t get it’, but I know very much what it means. In the Spring of 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Prague and killed a lot of Czech people. The film is about the Life of Suffering.
Buddha says that life is suffering and there are four basic sufferings: birth, disease, aging and dying. These are the four major sufferings in a person’s life. There are a further four sufferings that Buddha spoke about. These are having to meet people you find annoying, being parted from a loved one, not getting the things you desire, and the sufferings of the mind and body. In order to get rid of those sufferings one must achieve a state of ‘satori’, or enlightenment. This is the theme of Travel.
All of these elements of the eight sufferings are contained within that movie. The main character of the girl wonders if the Indian man she meets might be her lover from a former life. There’s a scene where she drops the statue she is holding.”

That gets a little cryptic at the end, but so does the film.

A Poet’s Life (1974), based on a story by Kobo Abe, is more paper cut-out animation over what look like glum, monochromatic charcoal drawings. It’s a fairy tale set in a town oppressed by capitalism and snow (their spirits and dreams are frozen), rescued by sweaters woven with maternal flesh and blood. All of these films are about transformation in some way or other. In the interview, Kawamoto says he abandaned cut-outs because he doesn’t think he did them very well.

The last two films on the disc return to 3-D puppets over gorgeous, delicate watercolors. A traditional story, Dojoji Temple (1976) recounts a chase between a monk on a spiritual pilgrimage and a tempting, lovesick woman who turns into a dragon. House of Flames (1979), with music by the master Toru Takemitsu, is probably the strongest story here and has lovely, traveling depth effects plus dollops of drawn animation. It floats between past and present in recounting a tale of spiritual quests, jealous lovers and suicide. (The package describes it as a “Drama of the Absurd” in reference to a Japanese genre but we don’t see the connection.)

Arriving simultaneously from Kimstim is Kawamoto’s extraordinary The Book of the Dead (2005), a feature-length extravagance (one hour plus ten minutes of credits). It indeed seems like a summation of the artist’s concerns. Like House of Flames, the central character is an accomplished young woman who is a scholar devoted to Buddha, but who is distracted by would-be lovers, though in this case she never meets them. It’s a tale reminiscent of Isak Dinesen in its easily unwinding, serene flow of events and digressions that hold the reader effortlessly spellbound and yet end sometimes on a philosophical epiphany rather than a coherent wrap-up of events, thus reminding us that there are deeper, eternal meanings under the surface forms. Meanwhile, the viewer’s eye is bathed in beauty.

The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto


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