August 25, 2008

While much of the flavour of the Japan Media Arts Festival is Japanese (duh), they actively look for contributions from around the world, and indeed foreign entries have won top awards in the past.

The Japan Media Arts Festival is very open in what they look for; when they say media, they include animation, manga art, Web works, photographs, installations, still photos, commercial work, independent work, amateur work, etc. (What I cover for Frames Per Second is just a fraction what they display every year.) This is what makes their categories so rich and interesting, in my opinion.

Like last year, the Festival is again seeking recommendations from people about works they may have missed. Complete details for people who want to enter or make recommendations can be found on the Japan Media Arts Plaza. Better hurry, though: while submitters have until September 26 to get their works in, aficionados only have until August 29 to submit their recommendations.

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August 17, 2008

Every year there's something in the Japan Media Arts Festival's Entertainment Division which also happens to be animated, and worth a mention. (The categories are porous like that.) This year that honour goes to the music video for Ryukyudisko's "Nice Day."

The entire video is a progression of still photographs starting somewhere in the 1970s, with a couple getting busy under the covers and producing a young boy. We watch him get older, get a job, and then he hits the clubs and meets a girl–and the whole starts going into reverse, as we go back into the girl's history. However, we find ourselves going back even farther than her parents, for reasons that eventually become apparent—and the eventual trip forward again carries its own surprises.

There's a lot of whimsy in this video, and the pity of the Flash-based video above is that you lose some of the detail in the historical photos, as well as the deliberate colour choices to replicate older film (up to a point—director Junji Kojima skimps a little when he starts getting into the 1930s and earlier).

By the way, if you think the tune is catchy you can drop a couple of sawbucks for an import of the single at Amazon.

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Veterans of animation festivals know that the term "short film" is pretty elastic, from Malcolm Bennett's 30-second Rocky to Yuri Norstein's 29-minute Tale of Tales. They also know that the longer films are usually programmed at the tail end of a given screening, and that prior to the end of the Cold War many of those films were from Eastern Bloc countries—often gorgeous, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes dark.

What's surprising about the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival's award-winning works is that there are four films that pass the twenty-minute mark. The longest, Love Rollercoaster, is the most straightforward. The remaining three are reminiscent of those old Eastern Bloc films.

I'll start off with the 21-minute Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor because (a) director Koji Yamamura pretty much roped me in with his Mt. Head and The Old Crocodile a few years back; (b) it's actually based on the work of the Jewish-Czech Kafka, which gives it that weirdness that can be supplied only by Eastern European creators in general, and Kafka in particular; and (c) I can't help re-watching it whenever I can. Like any Kafka story, A Country Doctor starts with a seemingly normal premise combined (a country doctor is summoned at night to take care of a young patient) with some bizarre aspect ("unearthly horses" transport him there instantly). As in Kafka's better-known The Metamorphosis, the introduction of the preternatural element marks the moment the protagonist can never go back to the way things were. As in Yamamura's Mt. Head, the pace, sketchy images, and hand-drawn transformations complement the story nicely. At the rate A Country Doctor has been racking up awards, I think Yamamura's going to have to put serious thought into new shelving.

Ryu Kato's The Clockwork City also mines the surreal with traditional tools. The film is pretty much wordless, and you should expect to have to work at sorting some aspects of it out. A young visitor comes to a new city, and it's quickly apparent she doesn't quite fit in—every person, every bird, and even a few buildings have these wind-up mechanisms stuck in them, and she doesn't. After exploring the city for a little while she meets with the town's honcho (who wears a wind-up crown) and exchanges fruits and other goods. Soon after the city goes to war with an unknown enemy, its soldiers identically featureless and wearing blue ties and white shirts. In the aftermath, our protagonist confronts the top man and his flunkies over the discovery of a giant wind-up key; what mysteries does it hold? This is definitely on my "must rewatch" list.

Yusuke Sakamoto's The Dandelion Sister takes us into the realm of stop-motion animation, where a young girl has to contend with her older, sick sister—who happens to be a giant dandelion. There's a lot going on here: There's the younger sister missing out on social activities because of her responsibilities; her resentment of how much attention is heaped on her sick sister; her inability to draw, and express her feelings; and her fear of her sister's death. Like The Clockwork City, The Dandelion Sister is wordless, but as its concerns are more grounded in reality it's open to a number of interpretations about adolescence, caring for sick relatives, and acceptance.

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August 16, 2008

Another odd little parallel shared by some of the award-winning animation shorts in the Japan Media Arts Festival: three of them had to do with birthdays—after a fashion.

My least favourite of the trio was also the longest: Hiromasa Horie's Love Rollercoaster unfortunately has nothing to do with the Ohio Players song, but is instead about a cutesy young bear cub named John trying to solve the mystery of a mysterious birthday present left behind my his late mother. Involved in the search are his friends, and they soon drag in the creepy Lovegun, an eyeless, sharp-toothed green-skinned critter who lives half in and half out of a rocketship. I like the idea behind some of the characters (especially the pair of mischievous panda siblings), and the overall story idea is a solid one—the ending is particularly sweet. But the whole thing is killed by the execution.

As a clay animation fan it shouldn't bother me that a CGI film tries to emulate a plasticine look for its characters. And I've never had a problem with Japan's cult of kawaii. But whenever the characters talk or scrunch their eyes, their skin wrinkles and folds in an a way that quickly renders them uncute. I'm sure John's initial concept drawings were very cute, but his textured skin, along with the bags under his eyes and all that wrinkliness just made me ill. Throw in excessive camera movement, the same kind of needless bobbing and weaving that bothered me in Skyland, and a half-hour–plus running time, and, well... let's just say that sometimes I watch these things so you don't have to.

(As an aside, I should mention that Love Rollercoaster is one of several projects generated from a Japanese talent incubator called Anime Innovation Tokyo. I'd rather have seen just about anything else their creators have put together.)

The much shorter, lo-fi Ushi-nichi (or, as the English titles say, Happy Birthday) is pretty much Love Rollercoaster's exact opposite. Created with pencil and paper (complete with smudges) by Hiroko Ichinose, the nine-minute short features a motley crew of characters each going through their own machinations. A man stands in the desert waiting to hitch a ride, but turns down almost everyone who stops for him; a man wakes up every morning transformed in some way (extra-long arms, a huge 'fro) and cheerily skips to the employment office to find new work based on his condition; a woman starts eating pieces of her pet giraffe, mindless of the transformations it causes to her own body. Everything comes together in a whimsical denouement. Deep meaning? Who cares? The jittery, rough and utterly charming style makes the whole film a pleasure.

Meanwhile, Toshiaki Hanzaki's Birthday puts another spin on the word, relating the evolution of life on Earth from one-celled organisms to man and, it seems, beyond. Working mostly with silhouetted forms, it's slicker than Ushi-nichi, but it is, if anything, more whimsical, with its portrayal of a giant fanged asteroid killing the dinosaurs and aliens accelerating our evolution. (It's also in the opposite direction of Hanzaki's earlier Birds, my favourite of the Digital Content Association of Japan's 2005 Digital Creators Competition's award-winning works.) Finally, at about a minute and a half, it's more compact. It gets where it needs to go, and then ends. Brevity really is the soul of wit.

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One of the pleasures of film festivals, whether you're watching them or organizing them, is in discovering unintended themes in the films. Sometimes it's inevitable, such as when social or political issues are on everyone's mind, but these are so unsurprising as to almost be banal. It's the small, quirky and sometimes trivial themes that are the most interesting to discover, and this year's award-winning short animation offerings from the Japan Media Arts Festival has a few worth mentioning.

One thing I look forward to in any compilation is when people take a backward step, especially when it comes to CGI. There's such a tendency to lard on the detail, be it photorealistic or natural-media or whatever, that few make the deliberate choice to step back and pare things down.

This year three films made a point of dialing down the detail, each in different ways. Youhei Murakoshi's Blockman goes the furthest. The viewer peers through a telescope to a strange world where everything is made up of identically sized cubes. Some are black, most are white, some make larger blocks, and some of the larger blocks have faces, courtesy of dots or lines on individual blocks. The curious lifeforms walk, fly, float, combine and come apart in a variety of ways, with the telescope lazily floating from one vista to another. The effect is similar to that of the even more minimalist Dice—an earlier Japan Media Arts Festival honoree—but perhaps more mesmerizing.

Sejiro Kubo, Ichiro Tanida and Katsunori Aoki collaborated on Copet, a series of shorts starring a cast of animals that are all straight lines and simple curves, plugged together like deranged Lego. At first glance it's appallingly cute, but little touches like camera shake and nifty bits of business (like a gorilla who repeatedly shivers himself out of a stupor) are at odds with the simplistic motion, and the tension works. But what really kept my attention were the bits that didn't follow the simple-is-better formula, like an erupting volcano, a meteor streaking toward Earth and water that looks, well, watery. The characters' occcasional forays into the live-action world, along with incomprehensible but still amusing storylines were also bonuses. If you can read Japanese you can check out the Copet website, which goes into the shorts' world in considerable depth and pimps Copet merch, including a DVD.

Hiroshi Chida's Boneheads was produced by Polygon Pictures, which I mention because it shares a certain aesthetic sensibility with Polygon's Polygon Family shorts, in which the characters' blockiness is celebrated, rather than smoothed and textured to death. But Polygon Family is mostly monochrome, whereas Boneheads' colour pops with Day-Glo intensity. The latter's characters are also ever so slightly asymmetrical, which just makes them kookier.

Moreover, where Polygon Family's animated used the anime and fighting videogame idioms, Boneheads is pure, non-stop Tex Avery-style mania (it's running time of seven minutes makes it even more reminiscent of a Golden Age cartoon). Roccos and Bone are two primitive creatures fighting over bananas—between themselves, and between other critters who get wind of the tasty fruit (or them). The whole thing is really just an escalating chase scene, but as every Blues Brothers fan knows, that's not really a bad thing. Radar Cartoons reps Polygon in the U.S., and Boneheads was produced for Viacom, so here's hoping that it pops up on our screens soon.

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September 14, 2007

Ever since I first discovered CG-Arts and the Japan Media Arts Festival, I've been delighted to find that every year the festival features at least one short that looks and feels unlike any film I've ever seen—my criterion for an excellent film fest. This year one of the most striking was Tomonori Hayase's Mix a Miniascape.

Set to music by Jumpei Yamada, Hayase's film uses Adobe Photoshop and After Effects to create a funky, unusual Tokyo travelogue. Hayase took hundreds, if not thousands, of photos of people, places and thing as he passed by them, or they passed him. He then assembled the images into a collage, animating his travels through the city by erasing the image of, say, a building piece by piece at the same time as the next image of the same building is being built piece by piece. The effect is of moving through a fractured urban landscape, propelled by Yamada's breakbeats while navigating periods of both chaos and calm.

While Mix a Miniascape was an example of something new, there were also some nice reprises. Tochka Factory's Pikapika made its Japan Media Arts Festival debut—if you haven't already heard about this literally brilliant short, you should read my earlier praise—and Hikaru Yamakawa followed up last year's Oh Hisse (itself a followup to the previous year's Tope Con Giro) with La Magistral.

In Oh Hisse, Yamakawa presented a surreal world in which hundreds of faceless schoolboys marched in increasingly outlandish geometric processions, to the utter disregard of a man sitting on a bench and three schoolgirls talking among themselves. Oh Hisse's hypnotic appeal lay in its minimalist colour palette (black, white, a few shades of grey and spots of red), the mannequin-like quality of its characters, and its rhythmic and only vaguely natural movement. In La Magistral, Yamakawa explores the same concepts, but opens things up a little bit. The range of colours has expanded to include blues, greens and browns, as seven nearly identical men in grey tracksuits ride unicycles along a slender beam, observed on by swaying figures in coloured tracksuits, all of whom have spheres, cubes and cones for heads, and often casually defying gravity.

Not only does La Magistral have more colour than its predecessor, it also has a more dynamic cameral and yet, it's just as mesmerizing. Another distinction, however, is that Yamakawa decided to give La Magistral an actual ending—one that induces a chuckle, maybe, but otherwise doesn't offer much.

A more compelling film, however, was also perhaps more modest, at least in its tone. Naked Youth is directed by Kojiro Shishido, who coincidentally composed the music for La Magistral. As the film starts, a young man emerges from a school's shower stall. His towel falls, and just as he pulls it back up someone steps out of another stall. The two wordlessly face each other, and the camera cuts away to another scene. We soon see the boys training together and learn that they're members of a boxing team. There's little in the way of linear narrative here; the camera lingers with equal summer laziness on the sunlit trees and blue skies in their Japanese suburb, the mundane scenes of road trips, and the boys' vigorous exercise and practice regimen.

And then there's that shower scene, which appears and disappears like a metronome tick, four times throughout the film. Like the rest of Naked Youth, the scene is wordless and features just the right sounds to establish a sense of place and mood. But that mood is ambiguous, and increasingly charged with tentative eroticism whenever the boys face each other.

Are there clues to their relationship in other scenes? The boys sometimes work out together, sometimes alone; and they look away from each other as often as not. When one of them changes out of his shorts next to the boxing ring—a seemingly common occurrence, as no one really pays him any mind—is the other boy looking at him, or you know, looking at him? The delight of Naked Youth is that it obeys the maxim of "show, don't tell," but it doesn't go out of its way to show everything, either. Subtlety is king here, and the audience still has to work to figure out what it can.

From the standpoint of technique, Naked Youth presents its story in a way that seems very traditional, and yet unconventional. It's hand-drawn in what we consider the anime style, though its characters are perhaps a little less streamlined and a little more detailed—closer, one might say, to more of a manga style. The animation direction also favours a look and feel that's less flat than most commercial anime. Athletic scenes feature a moving, "handheld" camera, with figures looking more as if they're moving through three-dimensional space, with little of the exaggeration that's common in anime. Much of this look is a result of strikingly stylized integration of 3D computer animation, hand-drawn animation and beautiful lighting and texturing effects.

Shishido gives Naked Youth space to breathe by providing many moments of figurative, if not literal, silence, in which nothing more happens than, say, the team waiting out a summer downpour or sunlight filtering through the trees as crickets chirp. Of course, these kinds of moments aren't new to anime; for decades, this appreciation of stillness has been part of the medium's appeal. But in Naked Youth these scenes are even more engaging, as Shishido uses light CGI touches and careful audio work to effectively place the viewer in the scene. That downpour, for example, is pretty convincing, and while one nightttime scene is a just a little CGI-flashy—since when do moths flitting around a street light cast such stark shadows?—it beautifully conveys that feeling of being out alone on a quiet summer night.

It's films like Naked Youth that put the lie to the sentiment that animation must necessarily be simple, childish, or fantastic in subject matter; the complicated yet simple Naked Youth's exploration of a slice of adolescent life could well have been told in live action, but it would have been all the poorer for it.

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September 8, 2007
One of SIGGRAPH's (many) hidden gems is the collection of digitally animated shorts from the previous Japan Media Arts Festival. Hidden because in the middle of the constantly repeating Animation Theater, the 90 minutes or so of selected Japan Media Arts Festival shorts are each shown exactly once, across three half-hour programs. However, those screenings represent just a slice of all the films shown during the nine days of the festival. (For that matter, films are just one part of the fest, which includes manga, artwork and installations.)

A case in point is that the two films lodged most firmly in my brain were in the festival's Entertainment Division, and both are rooted in live action. In Tadashi Tsukagoshi's Arrow, a man notices that the cigarette butts he's extinguished under his shoe form an arrow, which points straight to a procession of ants marching... in the shape of an arrow. Digital trickery (as well as creative prop placement and hair gel) creates the procession of pointers that the man follows first out of curiosity, then out of dark compulsion.

Koichiro Tsujikawa's dreamy music video to Cornelius's "Fit Song" spends its entire time in the confines of a house, where CGI brings everyday items to a strange sort of life. Strange because aside from a few objects (most amusingly, a discus-throwing action figure and a top-heavy, ambulatory magnifying glass), almost none are anthropomorphized—and many replicate themselves with more of an eye to what looks good and, above all, what works with the music, rather than any strict adherence to physics. I'm a lifelong puzzler, so I was delighted to see a ball of matches explode into a floating array of early 20th-century Japanese matchstick puzzles, some of which solved themselves as the camera floated by. And is it just me, or is the rolling (and, yes, self-reproducing) sugar cubes' initial dance a nod to Norman McLaren's 1964 film, Canon?

The Entertainment Division did have some fully animated works, however. Satoshi Tomioka's Exit online ads for Taito are frantic and deliriously absurd, both involving noisy and chaotic chase scenes with characters looking for a way out of predicaments they've brought on themselves. (A naked man with a bored, negligée-clad girl in tow flees a woman—her mother? his wife?—down a hotel corridor; a cat tries to liberate a fish from the dinner table of an elderly couple. Oddly enough, in both cases the pursuers have glowing laser eyes and preternatural abilities.) Every time I watch these one-minute ads I think about the buckets of money companies like Dreamworks spend trying to make 3D CGI more cartoony, while smaller studios just sit down and do it—sometimes with better results.

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July 23, 2007
I've given much love to the Japan Media Arts Festival in the past (and my review of this year's works is coming up soon), so I should mention that the 11th annual festival's Call for Entries site is now open. While most of the festival's work is from Japan, don't let that discourage you from entering: two of this year's prize-winners were Alexandre Petrov's My Love and Vladimir Bellini's The Crane and the Giraffe.

In something of a twist on the concept of audience participation, this year the festival is launching Open Form, where the public can recommend works that they believe deserve recognition. As with the rest of the festival, there aren't really any subdivisions like shorts, features, advertising and so on—just the basic four categories of Art, Entertainment, Animation and Manga.

Open Form's submission deadline is August 31, and the call for entries is open until October 5.

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August 1, 2006
This year's Computer Animation Festival is crammed to the hilt with material—a nearly two-hour Electronic Theater (which premiered last night and featured, among other things, a giant game of Pong controlled in real-time by the entire audience), and three hours of the Animation Theater. Unfortunately, the Japan Media Arts Festival's annual presentation of award-winning works from the previous year's fest was, as usual, about 75 minutes. I say "unfortunately" because some works that deserved to be seen in full (chief among them Koji Yamamura's The Old Crocodile) were edited down to provide a mere taste, or (like The Consultation Room) weren't shown at all. But what was shown was generally strong.

The Animation Division segment led off with Sumito Sakakibara's Flow (pictured above), in which we see one woman's life in eight phases, from baby to obaasan (grandmother). However, the entire journey takes place in one frame, and the phases all occur simultaneously, sometimes interacting with each other. I've always been a fan of shorts that bring the mechanical aspects of the craft to the fore, where the director has to plan how the various pieces will interconnect. Usually, the method is used when you want to show how seemingly distinct events are interconnected; in Flow, it can be seen as illustrating how we interact with our descendants, or how we interact with different generations in general.

Kazuhiro Hotchi's Anima, which took the Excellence Prize in the Art Division, features a nude woman dancing, her moves as wild, raw and physical as the music—it almost perfectly matches how I've always imagined the orgiastic Maenads dancing. As the woman leaps, twists, and writhes, the camera follows her with just as much energy, sometimes coming to rest on its side or even upside down. Animated dance is, at its best, as enthralling as live dance performances, but even the best of them tend to emphasize only grace (I'm thinking of Erica Russell's Feet of Song, and even Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood), and rarely explore its raw physicality. I also commented that it looks completely unlike what most people perceive as "the Japanese animation style."

Wamono, the music video for breakbeat duo Hifana's track of the same name, took the Excellence Prize in the Entertainment Division. Directed by +cruz (how do you pronounce that?), it has two fishermens' animated alter egos out navigating the waves, spinning tunes, riding inside giant fishes and hanging out with mermaids—all in the ukiyo-e style. We're featuring the clip in its entirety in this week's Flicker newsletter, so you can see it with your own eyes.

Bip & Bap tells the story of a boy and his dog, pint-sized adventurers who are always ready to grab trouble by the tail. Imagine Hergé mashed up with Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka, rendered to look like cutouts that flip 180 degrees when someone looks the other way or changes expression. Pretty neat stuff that completely captures the boy's adventure vibe of decades past.

Finally, in the Art Division, the only short I'll mention here that can only be done on a computer: Yoshinao Sato's desktop is entirely animated using screen shots of a computer's desktop. Sato moves, resizes, and scrolls through the contents of a multitude of windows, creating dizzying mosaics, optical illusions and assorted visual tricks, all set to music. desktop goes on just a little too long, but it's forgivable as Sato wants to show off every last trick he could think of. (One of my favourites was when he made the windows shimmy when the music was it its most rump-shaking. André also pointed out that you should pay attention to the clock in the corner to get an idea of how much time it took to make each sequence.) At last, a film where "made on a computer" has a different meaning.

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