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This was my first exposure to the work of world-renowned Japanese animator Koji Yamamura. Yamamura has been hailed as an important auteur of animation, and this program of shorts makes it easy to see why — his distinct style is unmistakeably his and his alone. This program is showing on Saturday, November 13th at noon at the NFB, as part of this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival. I have to come right out and say that I fell in love with Yamamura’s work at first sight, so you’ll forgive me if my reviews sound a bit gushy at times. But I’ll definitely continue to follow this talented artist’s work. Another note: I am not generally a fan of animation, although I’ve been known to appreciate some of its more oddball or avant-garde manifestations. Yamamura’s work transcends medium and format; it is a true pleasure for any cinephile to watch Yamamura’s films, whether you are interested in animation or not.

What follows is a brief description and review of each of the program’s shorts:

Aquatic (1987, 5 min.) is one of Yamamura’s earlier and shorter works, but the prevalent themes which he repeatedly addresses are already clear. What does it mean to be conscious, have dreams, imagine things? What is our experience of the natural world and ourselves as mediated through our subjective, creative, unreliable brains? In this short piece, fish and birds fly around in constant battle with the confused and curious protagonist. The animation appears to be a finger-painted one, childlike yet thought-provoking for adults.

Imagination (1993, 5 min.) continues to explore Yamamura’s dominant themes and introduces what will become his major stylistic marker: the surrealistic play of dream-logic. Two cute and curious creatures exchange and colonize each others’ dream-bubbles. They eat some fruit. Fish fly through the air. Impossible, you say? Not in this realm.

Your Choice (1999, 10 min.) was made with materials collected from children’s animations workshops in Japan and the United States. Yamamura’s hand is, of course, central, but the children’s ideas and images come through. Would you rather go to the dentist or get a haircut? It depends which one you fear more. (And what if the dentist and hairstylist both have the faces of half-moons?) Your choice. Another pressing concern here is a pesky cockroach who loves to eat shattered lightbulbs. What do you do about this guy? Your choice.

Mt. Head (2002, 10 min.) is perhaps one of the more stylistically detailed animations in the program. The images are sharp, intricate, and constantly morphing and moulding into delightfully unexpected things. A man who hates wasting things finds a tree growing out of his head. Soon, people want to hang out up there, on his head, and they end up partying and drinking so heavily that they wreck the dude’s head! Shameful. In the end, our protagonist will be confronted with such a mind-blowing existential conundrum that I dare not reveal it here. It’s a real head-spinner.

The Old Crocodile (2005, 13 min.) is one of the more clearly narrative pieces in the program, and runs much like a folk story or fable. An old crocodile is exiled from his community, and ends up making friends with an octopus. He succumbs to temptation and eats one of the octopus’ legs every night while the octopus sleeps (thankfully, the octopus cannot count and so does not notice that its legs are   slowly going missing). Overcome with regret, the crocodile sadly waits for death. But what’s this? He is raised on a pedestal as a sort of demi-god by a worshipful rural tribe? What will happen? This piece is a charming and instructive tale of what it means to be a friend.

A Child’s Metaphysics (2007, 5 min.) is exactly what the title makes it seem to be. Remember when you were a child and you actively wondered things like: “Is this my face in the mirror?” and “How many numbers does it take to get to infinity?” This simple and charming animation is the kind of thing one would want to show to one’s ten-year-old in order to begin her instruction in existential philosophy. That may sound like a cruel parenting tactic, but Yamamura’s incredibly astute and sensitive animation would make anyone, child or adult, fall in love with The Big Questions In Life.

Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (2007, 21 min.) is Yamamura’s adaptation of the famous Czech writer’s short story. Anyone who has read Kafka knows that there is a certain atmosphere of disquiet and haunting that comes across in his works, and Yamamura’s expert hand makes these feelings come across brilliantly. Not only do we see the human and animal figures stretch, warp, and mutate unfathomably, but we also get treated to a beautiful soundtrack on which a choir of precocious boys acts as narrator to the existential drama at hand.

Conclusion: Yamamura is not only an incredibly creative and curious artistic mind, but also one of the most talented animators I’ve ever encountered. This program is an absolute must-see for (slightly older) kids and adults alike. If your kid has ever asked you something like “What is life?” then s/he is definitely old enough to understand and appreciate Yamamura’s work.

Visit the Reel Asian site for info on schedules, sites, prices, etc.

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