Presented as part of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, the National Film Board of Canada, CinÃ©mathÃ¨que QuÃ©bÃ©coise, and Japan Foundation sponsored a master class and special screening with award-winning animator, Koji Yamamura. Yamamura is an internationally recognized artist, arts educator, and a 2003 Academy Award nominee for his animated film shortÂ Atama-yama, or Mt. Head. The master class treated the subjects of Yamamuraâ€™s influences, methods, and favourite themes. The screening that followed, entitled “The Mastery of Form,” was a collection of seven of Yamamuraâ€™s short films, including his first public work, 1987’sÂ Aquatic, Atama-yama, and 2007â€™s Franz Kafkaâ€™s Country Doctor.
Continue after the jump to hear more about my morning with Koji Yamamura and his strikingÂ animations.
Presented as part of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, the National Film Board of Canada, Cinémathèque Québécoise, and Japan Foundation sponsored a master class and special screening with award-winning animator, Koji Yamamura. Yamamura is an internationally recognized artist, arts educator, and a 2003 Academy Award nominee for his animated film short Atama-yama, or Mt. Head. The master class treated the subjects of Yamamura’s influences, methods, and favourite themes. The screening that followed, entitled "The Mastery of Form," was a collection of seven of Yamamura’s short films, including his first public work, 1987's Aquatic, Atama-yama, and 2007’s Franz Kafka’s Country Doctor.
Continue after the jump to hear more about my morning with Koji Yamamura and his striking animations.
The master class was held at the National Film Board (NFB) building in Toronto, a wonderful resource for film-lovers where you can watch shorts and documentaries and take in fantastic events like the one I attended last weekend. Yamamura expressed his own indebtedness to the NFB, citing the animation produced by India-born NFB artist Ishu Patel as a major inspiration for his work, which takes a distinct departure from more traditional Japanese anime styles. Speaking through a translator, Yamamura said that Patel particularly influenced his debut animation, Aquatic. Though we did not specifically look at this piece in the workshop, after watching Aquatic in the screening, I could see that Yamamura began his relationship with the themes of water, nourishment (fruit), wild life, and impermeability early on.
The presentation started with a look at the artist’s Tokyo home and studio, during which Yamamura began to describe his process. He informed the class of about forty, that a five minute animation takes six to ten thousand illustrations to complete. Yamamura creates each image individually with graphite and ink, and colours them with pencils or oil markers. Yamamura used his short feature, Fig, to demonstrate this process, first showing the film, then a slideshow of the sketches, which he creates and assembles almost like a flip book animation, drawing one picture on top of the last to achieve the appropriate flow. Each image is scanned, then Yamamura uses Apple’s Final Cut Pro to create the animation. In the case of Fig — a celebration of Tokyo personified as a square-headed, moon-eyed, sprite — Yamamura drew and edited the animation simultaneously.
Next, Yamamura focused on his two most famous animations, Atama-yama and Franz Kafka’s Country Doctor. While each of the shorts we watched in the screening have their own distinct aesthetic — Aquatic is especially unique — these two pieces are the closest in style, though cinematically, much different experiences. Yamamura commented on the artistic variety in his body of work, stating “my style is no style,” that it’s always changing. Much like I experienced with these two films, Yamamura’s aim is to have the subject come through the style, not to impose on the subject; even though Atama-yama and Country Doctor were drawn by the same hand, they feel very different.
Atama-yama focuses on a nameless, stingy old man, an archetypal character in the ancient tradition of Rakugo storytelling. He gluttonously eats a peck of cherries, pits and all, only to later find a cherry tree sprouting on the crown of his head. The illustrations and story are very humorous but take a contemplative turn towards the film's conclusion. Tokyo becomes a character in Atama-yama once again, this time, as Yamamura takes us through the seasons, symbolized through the growth, flowering, and death of Mt. Head’s cherry tree. Yamamura also spoke about identity, like his style, another shifting element in his animation. He felt that it was important to give all of the supporting characters in Atama-yama their own personality and idiosyncrasies, as a way of illustrating the diverse and sometimes strange character of Tokyo. Takeharu Kunimoto provided the voice of Mt. Head, singing the narrative in the Rokyuko style, traditionally paired with an instrument called the shamisen.
Music is an important component of Yamamura’s animations. For Country Doctor, Yamamura sought older, unique instruments for the soundtrack, for example, the ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments ever made. The music adds greatly to the atmosphere of Country Doctor, easily the darkest of Yamamura’s films. The story follows a doctor who is called in the dead of winter to the deathbed of a young boy. However, more is at stake in this evening than a simple house call: fear is in the air, evil threatening, and anxieties at their peak. The tale is a psychological one, and so, Yamamura plays interestingly with the image of the head, skewing the physical boundaries of the skull as the doctor faces up to demons both real and imagined. I asked Yamamura what his thoughts are on the limits of the human mind. While remarking that it was a difficult question, he said that his films show the way his mind works and that one of the greatest mysteries in life is not knowing how other minds operate. If these animated visions say anything about the artist, it's that Yamamura has one beautiful and complex mind.
The screening consisted of 35 mm prints of Yamamura’s work, starting with Aquatic, followed by the whimsical and hysterical shorts Imagination (1993) and Your Choice! (1999), Atama-Yama, Old Crocodile (2005), Franz Kafka’s Country Doctor, and finally, A Child’s Metaphysics (2007). The last short was the most endearing, featuring content that Yamamura had workshopped with school children in various cities around North America. Here too, Yamamura illustrates the expansion and filling of young minds literally, pushing the boundaries of the imagination, as I am sure the school children themselves experienced.
Currently, Yamamura is in the final stages of completing a collaborative project with the NFB, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, and Tokyo’s Polygon Pictures, called Muybridge’s Strings. The film is about motion picture pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge, but something tells me it will be about much, much more in the skilled hands of Koji Yamamura.
For more on the Reel Asian festival, check out my previous post on the special presentation Suite Suite Chinatown.