August 17, 2008


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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