When thinking about Japanese animation, people mostly think of hand drawn or computer generated animation often characterized by colourful graphics and vibrant characters. That’s probably because most Japanese animation is in this form, however there are other amazing Japanese animators out there who work in their own forms and styles.
One of these animators is Kihachirō Kawamoto who has been called ‘the magician of puppet animation’. I don’t like this title because it implies that Kawamoto didn’t work his arse off to make his amazing stop-motion and mixed media films, instead he is somehow ‘magical’. Nevertheless Kawamoto is an amazing animator producing at least 11 short films, 2 feature length animations and a live-action puppet feature.
He began his career in the 1950’s as an assisstant to Tadahito Mochinaga who himself a pioneer in stop-motion puppet animation. In 1962 Kawamoto’s animation really took of when he travelled to Czechoslovakia to study under master animator Jiří Trnka for a year. On his return he began utilising Japan’s rich heritage and mythology in his own works with animations such as in ‘The Demon'(1972).
‘The Demon’ is based on a 12th century tale that says that when people grow old, they turn into demons who devour their own offspring. Two brother go hunting in the forest and they hear prey approaching. One of the brothers climbs a tree while the other hides in a bush, bows drawn. The brother in the tree is attacked by a demon and his sibling shoots an arrow severing it’s arm. Upon inspection of the arm, they realise it resembles their mother’s. They run home to discover their mother has transformed into a demon. Kawamoto draws heavily from Noh and Kabuki theatre and Bunraku puppetry. The mood and atmosphere created by Kawamoto is almost palpable, making it one of my favourite animations.
Another short from Kawamoto is ‘House of Flames'(1979), the tragic tale of a woman who comes between two suitors and the disastrous results. Heavily inspired by Noh theatre, Kawamoto combined watercolour background paintings with stop-motion puppets. The result is ethereal and dreamlike.
In addition to Kihachiro Kawamoto’s short animations, feature animation(The Book of the Dead, 2005), and live-action puppet feature(Rennyo and His Mother, 1981); he also directed a collectively animated film called Winter Days(2003) based on the 17th century renga of the same name by Matsuo Bashō. The 36 stanzas were independently created by 35 different animators from around the world. The film is an amazing collection of varied animation. One of my favourite stanzas is the first, created by master Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn(who I will talk about another day). The beautiful cut-out stop-motion animation shows his mind-boggling levels of perfectionism.
Kihachiro Kawamoto passed away in 2010 at the age of 85. In my opinion he was one of the greatest animators to have ever existed. Not because his animation was particularly painstaking or technical, but because his unique style and blend of influences led him to create some of the most atmospheric and mood driven pieces ever. We can learn a lot from the aspects of animation he concentrated on and used to depict his stories.
– Hamish .S