May 10, 2008
If there were awards for truth in advertising, then Kino International would have to win something for the use of one adjective. The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto contains the bulk of the animation master's work, seven short films made between 1968 and 1979.
Kawamoto is considered a stop-motion animator, and his recent feature-length masterpiece, The Book of the Dead, features gorgeous sets to accompany his beautiful puppets. However, this DVD serves as a reminder that his shorts were rarely quite so straightforward. All of the films on the DVD involve the manipulation of physical objects—if not puppets, then cutouts—but Kawamoto freely mixes them with drawn animation and flat paper cutouts with varying degrees of abstraction.
In earlier films like 1972's The Demon, Kawamoto plays with this stylization by having characters move in sync with the background music's rhythm, almost as if they were performing the story as a dance. By the time of the final film, 1979's House of Flames, he's also using stark lighting and elegant compositions to suggest, at times, a stage play. The three middle films in the collection, An Anthropo-Cynical Farce, The Trip and A Poet's Life (from 1970, 1973 and 1974) all break from the use of puppets and the use of ancient Japan as a setting, but are no less compelling. They are perhaps a bit more obtuse in that unique way that independent animation from the 1970s could be.
Kino has also released the feature-length The Book of the Dead, which features some of Kawamoto's most exquisite—there's that word again—stop-motion work to date. Like his best-known short-form films, the movie features Buddhism in ancient Japan. However, this time Buddhist teachings are central to the film, as it takes place in the eighth century, around the time that Buddhism was being introduced to Japan from China. Unlike his shorts, Kawamoto has chosen here to fill out his sets with physical objects and far more characters, all realized with considerable detail. It's hard to watch a sequence with a room full of elegantly dressed puppets with their clothes blowing in the wind and not be awestruck by both the scene's verisimilitude and its poetry.
As lovely as these releases are, there are a few things I'd have liked to have seen. The Book of the Dead uses the English narration with no option to hear the original Japanese (though all the dialogue is still in Japanese, with optional subtitles) and neither disc includes any kind of extras. While Kawamoto's work speaks for itself, the level of craftsmanship on display on both DVDs leaves you wanting to see and hear more. Finally, completists are likely to wag their fingers: The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto lacks four shorts that were included on the Region 2 Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection DVD.
Where to Get It
Buy The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto from Amazon.com
Buy The Book of the Dead from Amazon.com
Buy Kihachiro Kawamoto Work Collection from YesAsia.com