Reviews

The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto

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


The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto

Director: Kihachiro Kawamoto
Distributor: Kino
MPAA rating: Unrated
Subtitle: 1968-1979
US DVD Release Date: 2008-04-22
First date: 2008

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.

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image