On 21 August I introduced two short films for the Japan Foundation at Deptford Cinema. This is the text of that introduction.
We’re going to see two very interesting short anime tonight, both pieces from directors who are developing into auteurs with strikingly individual and rather unsettling visions. Both are working in CGI, computer generated imagery, but using it in very different ways. Both tell a story involving monsters, horror, sacrifice and loss, but the directors approach their material in very different ways.
Shuhei Morita’s Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek was released in 2004 and seems to have marked the way for his career. Born in 1978, he was working in digital video production in high school and worked for MTV and Japan’s national broadcaster NHK while still at university. His professional credits include video series Freedom and TV series Tokyo Ghoul and Gatchaman Crowds, but his best work has been done in short films. In 2010 he made Coicent, a hallucinogenic future tour of Nara. In 2014, his short film Tsukumo/Possessions was nominated for the Animated Short Film Oscar. Hayao Miyzaki’s The Wind Rises was nominated in the same year. Neither won. In my opinion this was more unfair to Morita than to Miyazaki.
Kakurenbo is based on Morita’s own manga and he wrote, storyboarded and edited the film as well as directing. He uses computers to imitate the look and feel of traditional cel-shaded animation. Produced by his company Yamatoworks and CoMix Wave Inc., Kakurenbo is a dark, densely textured work with a disturbing subtext hinting that love and family are the things that make us into mere utilities for greater powers. Its characters are children inhabiting their own worlds, building loyalties and alliances to try and keep out the night.
The characters are simple, their faces hidden behind masks, so all the emotions are left to the voice actors and the wonderfully eerie score to convey. Using traditional Japanese instruments and sounding like half-remembered folk songs, it veers between sounding like Oriental nursery rhymes and the calls of wandering ghosts.
Most of the film’s artistry and passion goes into the scenery and the mechanised monsters. The ruined town in which the action takes place Is magnificently detailed, rich and redolent with menace. The monsters are equally magnificent, a marriage of steampunk charm with evil foreboding. The light and shadow are almost characters in themselves, almost entirely responsible for the pace of the story. Building through the twists and turns of the night-time game in the darkened streets, to the final twist as dawn breaks, it’s a tiny gem of disturbing nastiness.
Wakusei Daikaiju Negadon – Negadon the Monster from Mars – was written and directed by Jun Awazu as a homage to the special effects films of Japan’s Showa era, mainly from the 1950s and early 1960s. The big boss of Showa SFX movies is, of course, Gojira, who made his earth-shattering debut in 1954 in a sombre allegory of technological inferiority, massive defeat and nuclear devastation. The same stark, brooding atmosphere pervades Negadon, although the action is set in the future and the canvas is much more restricted.
Awazu, born in 1974, is a VFX artist whose industry credits include work on 2001’s Godzilla Mothra King Ghidorah Big Monster All Out Attack and 2002’s Godzilla x Mechagodzilla as well as Masked Rider Ryuki and Ninpuu Sentai Hurricanajer. You can find him on Twitter @Jun_Awazu
Negadon was produced by Awazu’s independent production company Studio Magara and co-produced by publishers CoMix wave Inc. It was released in Japan in 2005 and in the USA a year later. In 2010 Awazu made a longer CGI movie, the 53-minute PLANZET, for CoMix Wave. It was also shown as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers season.
The film is made entirely in the computer, and Awazu’s most striking achievement here is his use of CGI technology to recreate, with the minutest precision and grandest passion, the world of the Showa monster movie. The film itself is aged with a convincing array of dirt and scratches. The robots, monster and vehicles all have the feel of plastic model stopmotion or suitmation – actors filmed in rubber suits, like Godzilla and his monster friends.
The lesser characters are less than convincing at times. Yet it’s modern where it counts – even after a decade of technological advances in CGI, flourishes like a slowmoving moth, beautifully rendered textures and some of the best animated rain you’ll ever see, are impressive.
But ultimately it’s not about the technology, it’s about the story, and the story comes from a genre with a pitiless purity of outline that wouldn’t be out of place in an ancient myth. Man defies the gods, or greater forces, with his feeble powers, and the greater forces take their revenge. Kaiju eiga, or monster movies, have been popular staples of Japanese cinema ever since Gojira first appeared, and have even taken root in the West with the release in 2014 of Pacific Rim. But Pacific Rim, fun flick though it was, showed why we occidentals don’t really get the kaiju eiga. For a western director, the point is defeating the monster, like Saint George with a particularly awkward dragon. For a Japanese director the point is losing to the monster, and learning from the defeat, and ensuring that your people survive it: sacrifice and humility before nature, not triumphalism and self-celebration.
These two films, made just a year apart, take the same amount of time to tell their stories and use the same technology. Yet they are very different in style, in tone and in approach. Which will you prefer, I wonder?