Hello there, and welcome to another issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. Typically in these columns, the topics chosen reflect a broad range of subjects related to live-action Japanese cinema, my choice being driven by a desire to give greater insight into a particular topic or highlight something that may otherwise be overlooked. Anime isn’t a part of that discussion. We discuss anime regularly and in great depth here at OTAQUEST, and we’re not alone in that discussion, so it feels unnecessary to spend my time highlighting it in this column.
When I say I want to highlight Japanese animation in this week’s column, it’s not my desire to highlight anime. The first thing that comes to mind for many people when you hear the phrase ‘Japanese animation’ are anime productions like Akira, Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, or Attack on Titan. I want to explore beyond that.
This week, I want to center this column on alternative forms of animation within Japan. While in TV anime and feature film productions you’re seeing a greater proportion of anime productions produced using CG animation alongside hand-drawn animation, in recognition of the success of Pui Pui Molcar, I want to highlight productions that tackle animation in different forms. Japan has a history of producing works using techniques like stop-motion animation, and more unusual styles like gekimation. This week, I want to highlight this unseen side of animation in Japan.
Gekimation, Stop-Motion and More: Expressing Creativity Through Alternative Forms of Animation in Japan
As is the same everywhere, independent animation freed from the constraints of studio expectations is also free to expand on what is possible within the medium of animation, albeit on smaller budgets. While itself limited in scope by smaller teams and heavier responsibilities on those involved, being less reliant on commercial success gives creators greater leeway for creativity.
Animation has a storied history in Japan that makes the medium’s infancy scarcely recognizable to the likes of Demon Slayer or Weathering With You. Due to the limitations of the technology available and the relative infancy of the medium at the time, the earliest attempts to bring animated content to Japanese audiences have more in common with puppet theater than they do what would come to mind as ‘anime’. To explore the alternative forms of animation still thriving in Japan today, a brief understanding of the history of the medium is required.
While the oldest existing example of animation as we recognize it today would be the Matsumoto Fragment, also known as Katsudou Shashin, a short hand-drawn 4-second clip of a guy lifting his cap, the basis of using successions of drawings or images to create a moving picture can be traced to emakimono scrolls and the 12th-century works of the likes of Toba Sojo. These were illustrated scrolls that were used to tell a story, and while not ‘animated’ per se, it was artistic storytelling such as this that inspired much of early animation without international examples or prior works to take inspiration. In this vein, much of early Japanese animation takes the form of animation using puppetry and paper cut-outs, inspired by older Japanese art forms and theatrical productions like bunraku theater.
Early pioneers of animation include the likes of Kitayama Seitaro, a creator working at Nikkatsu who made a series of animated films using paper cut-outs like Urashima Taro, who worked by moving it-out figures along hand-drawn background to create something not too dissimilar to a Punch-and-Judy show. Similarly, early Noburo Ofuji films like A Story of Tobacco take advantage of this same technique, and while these represent something far closer to modern 2D animation than Seitaro’s work, the clear use of cut-outs and interspersing of live-action footage makes them altogether unique.
It was only once we reached the 1930s when the number of animated movies released in theaters began to increase, which most notably saw the release of the first feature-length animated Japanese film, the propaganda feature Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors in 1945, that other formats fell into obscurity as hand-drawn animation became the dominant form of animation in Japan. This later led to the rise of TV animation with Astro Boy and the industry we recognize today.
Still, what should be noted about the early days of animation is how much the medium’s initial growth relied on taking heavy amounts of inspiration from the history of art within Japan. While these older techniques may have faded into obscurity due to the efficiency and easier scalability of 2D animation, these forms of animation, and animation inspired by these ideas, persevered and still exists today in limited form.
Puppet animation continued to thrive in a limited capacity throughout the 20th century through animators like Kawamoto Kihachiro and films like Dojoji Temple. Animated productions such as these deserve separate classification to stop-motion productions due to their aesthetic and creative differences, and the use of puppeteering alongside stop-motion animation techniques, but they do share similarities.
Charting the history of stop-motion animation in Japan is reliant on your definition of stop-motion. While not representative of what modern audiences would associate with the term, many early works of animation made using cut-out paper figures, and the like, were created using the same techniques used to craft the more three-dimensional fully animated works typically associated with the term today, as seen from Western studios like Aardman and Studio Laika. The success of the Molcar TV anime has given stop-motion animation renewed attention in Japan, yet the techniques used have always been a part of Japanese animation and have existed in Japan, and can be seen used in many of the early cut-out and puppet animations that exist.
Even Godzilla, in limited circumstances in some early Showa-era films, would rely on stop-motion animation to achieve certain effects.
It would be remiss at this point not to mention one of the oldest examples of Japanese studios working in stop-motion animation, MOM Productions, who among other things worked on US co-productions like the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie. More recently, it’s in smaller, independent studios where stop-motion animation has been able to carve somewhat of a niche.
Few dedicated studios exist that dedicate themselves to creating stop-motion animation in Japan today. You have Dwarf Studios, perhaps best known for their work on the Domo-kun shorts for NHK or on the first Beastars anime opening, but their work in stop-motion has also seen them work with companies like Nintendo on Yoshi-themed shorts and their own productions, such as the cute short film Mogu and Perol. Then you have TECARAT, who blends stop-motion and puppetry to create luscious and detailed works as found in the stunning Gon, The Little Fox, and short movies like Moon of a Sleepless Night.
The director of many of TECARAT’s work is an animator called Takeshi Yashiro, whose work over the years has pushed the medium forward in Japan and led him to awards success for much of his stop-motion filmography since 2012.
On the other end of the coin, you have the likes of Ujicha, who has created films using an animation style known as ‘gekimation’, a style that is somewhat of an evolution of early cut-out animation from the industry’s infancy. His gekimation films mix practical effects of fire and goo alongside handcrafted 2D paper cut-outs that need to be replaced and amended for each scene to create a visually distinct limited form of animation.
Gekimation is defined by how detailed cut-outs are puppeteered around miniature sets to create the illusion of movement. It’s limited and somewhat jarring at first glance, but it works within the context of his films. Ujicha uses the style to help build a sense of the unusual that allows for the wilder twists into science fiction to seem believable and acceptable in the wild worlds the director creates.
While gekimation as a style may have its origins in the 1970s with series like Cat-Eyed Boy, it’s also a style that has mostly fallen into obscurity, with Ujicha the only prominent independent creator continuing to work within the unusual limitations the format provides. Whatever you think of his work, there’s no denying it stands out from the rest, while also proving gekimation to be a medium worthy of acclaim. Ujicha’s debut film The Burning Buddha Man won the excellence award at the Japan Media Arts festival in 2013.
This leads to the grim reality of the situation: as cool as these alternative forms of animation are, the reality is that they remain a niche within a niche. Success stories like Molcar are exceptions and not the rule, and while major studios in the international market like Studio Laika have found a market for their stop-motion work, similar levels of support don’t exist to finance these creators to create bigger-budget productions within Japan.
Outside of limited independent studio productions, the best way to experience Japanese animation at its most creative and unique comes in the form of student animation. Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai) regularly upload student productions on YouTube that allows the creativity of the students to reach a wider audience. Molcar director Tomoki Misato’s early short film Candy.zip can be found through their YouTube channel, while plenty of other up-and-coming stop-motion animators, and other animators working in conventional or experimental forms of animation, can share their work with the world in this manner.
The market may not exist for larger productions to take advantage of the wealth of creativity being shown through just these few creators I’ve highlighted here, never mind the countless other up-and-coming creatives I haven’t been able to highlight, but the work exists. Not only that but work like Gon, The Little Fox combines stop-motion with Japanese culture and animation history to create something truly unique. It’s a notable, yet small, subsection of Japanese animation worth acknowledging.
Film Flashback: Violence Voyager (Ujicha, 2018)
As I discuss gekimation, it would be remiss of me to ignore the film that cemented Ujicha’s place as a creative force with a unique voice and style: Violence Voyager.
While his debut may be messy and flawed, this follow-up is much stronger from both technical and entertainment standpoints. Violence Voyager centers on two young boys, Japanese-American Bobby and Akkun, who, along with his friend Akkun, sneak into the mountains by their village in the hope of finding a fun place to play and perhaps visiting their former friend who moved away. As they do, they stumble upon a seemingly abandoned theme park that, upon closer inspection, is operated by a father-daughter duo who let them play in the park for free. Donning the Voyager Suits and water pistols provided they venture forth, but a park filled with robot warriors, mutated creatures and imprisoned children awaits them when they enter.
Compared to his previous gekimation film, The Burning Buddha Man, this is a still-bizarre yet somewhat-constrained movie that draws the viewer in better as a result by giving us greater reasons to care about the two children at the film’s center. The film exudes an air of childhood nostalgia in its opening scenes that introduce a relatively quaint life that only gets bizarre once we enter the park itself. Once we’re in the park, we meet a girl who’s been trapped for days, and the tension builds as we see more and more of the park’s secrets.
The body horror is the greatest appeal of the film as it’s slowly revealed that the park is drawing in unsuspecting children for human experimentation and worse, but to go too far into detail on these aspects of the story spoils what is arguably the film’s greatest asset. Ujicha understands the unnerving appeal of gekimation due to how it looks unnatural alongside other forms of animation. We expect to see a character’s mouth move as they speak, yet a limitation of the paper cut-out format means characters only change their expressions and positions when the camera cuts away.
This would be enough, but the director enhances this by drawing faces that themselves look artificial, with proportions distorted and expressions somewhat pained and awkward. It unsettles the viewer and hints at something unnatural existing underneath the surface.
The gekimation style truly comes into its own during body horror sections as these static cut-outs are brought to life through practical effects like the firing of various liquids representing blood and other bodily excrements. The drawings also give a detailed, gruesome quality to the disfigured bodies as distinctly alien creatures are created out of human flesh in ways that bring obvious similarities to the cyberpunk metamorphosis found within Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Not having characters immediately react to the gruesome acts being inflicted upon them almost makes them more disturbing and elevates these aspects of the film as a result.
That’s not to say Violence Voyager is perfect. Much of the middle section of the film meanders after the shock of the initial reveal of the truth behind the park, and I feel the subplot involving Bobby’s father attempting to save the kids isn’t implemented as well as it could be. Compounding this is the film’s somewhat rushed ending.
Still, this is a fascinating film unlike anything else you’ve seen before, and that alone is enough of a reason to check it out. Due to its gory nature and the unusual premise, I can’t say the gekimation style or the film itself is for everyone, but it is worth experiencing. Deliberately uncanny and taking advantage of a limited form of animation inspired by early Japanese animated cinema and Japanese puppet theater, this gekimation adventure is a nightmarish, extreme, intriguing proposition.
Violence Voyager is now available as part of a double-pack with The Burning Buddha Man from Third Window Films in the UK, and is also available on VOD in the US.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !