Sunday, October 12, 2008

TJSFF'08 REVIEW: Ringo Programme featuring films from Open Art

by Chris MaGee

I have to be totally honest and say that I feel very conflicted about writing up a review for the Ringo programme of this year's Toronto Japanese Short Film Festival. The films in the programme are culled from Open Art, a fantastic online resource for free streaming short Japanaese films. The work that they are doing is invaluable for Japanese film fans and cinema fans in general. I want to stress that because despite my enthusiasm for Open Art I have to admit that this was my least favorite of all the programmes at this year's fest. Weighing heavily on animation the majority of the films in Ringo left me less than impressed, but there were some stand outs. In keeping with the old adage "If you can't say anything good don't say anything at all" I contemplated just focusing on what I perceived as the successes of the programme while leaving the others out, but as I've given a film by film breakdown for all the other programmes it didn't feel fair to leave anyone out. Keeping that in mind some of the reviews below will be brief, not necessarily because I felt the films were bad, but because they provoked no reaction in me good or bad. If that means they failed... well, I'll leave that decision up to those who caught them at TJSFF.

"Around" - Ryu Kato (2007)

Sketchy, brushy animation pulses with life, morphing from image to scene to image to carry us on a day in the life of a young boy in the city. By the end of "Around's" 3-minute run time viewers will be wondering if the boy's day was dream or reality, or if there's really that clear a definition between the two.

"Shigeo is handsome" - Takashi Taniguchi (2007)

TJSFF veteran Takashi Taniguchi is a true auteur, adhering to the dictionary of a filmmaker who exercises complete control over their films, from writing, directing and editing. In the case of Taniguchi, he not only writes and animates his absurd short comedies, but he also provides the voice talent for all the characters. This hasn't changed with with "Shigeo is handsome," the story of a useless young man (his mother describes him as "a mosquito's fart in the Sahara Desert") who's coasted by in life simply because he's handsome. Everything changed though when he thwarts an airplane hijacking using only his good looks. This one left me chuckling for minutes afterwards and wondering why someone doesn't release a collection of Taniguchi's films on DVD.

"Helmut" - Isamu Hirabayashi (2003)

Isamu Hirabayashi's 9-minute experimental short starts out as a sight gag and turns into a public service announcement for proper helmut safety. A man with a helmet painted to look like a toothy, smiling head loads up his motorbike with a cargo of freshly laid eggs and prepares to transport them through the country, but will he reach his destination with his cargo intact? This one would have easily made it's point in a third of its running time.

"A day of the spiral castle" - Hiroshi Matsumoto (2007)

The innate beauty of a human fingerprint is extrapolated into a fantasy journey through a maze-like world with a spiral castle at its center. Microcosm and macrocosm are explored through highly detailed stop-motion animation.

"Tabako" - HOPPE (2006)

An old woman enjoys a leisurely smoke on a park bench and gets lost (literally) in this momentary reverie. She and all the other characters in this stop-motion animated short reminded me of those dried apple head dolls that used to get sold at craft markets. Is that really a good thing? Hmmm...

"The tale of the shadow" - Takuya Fukui (2008)

Filmmaker and Open Art staff member Takuya Fukui balances thing wonderfully in his 10-minute black-and-white short "The tale of the shadow". On the one hand the voiceover narrative tells the story of a man who makes a deal with a magician to receive immortality if he agrees to live seven lifetimes as a shadow to various objects and animals: a frog, a carrot, a pine tree, a deer, a cat, a praying mantis. This folk tale story is contrasted with footage of a young man who carries on a series of relationships with various women. In his 7th and final life the young man/ shadow makes the mistake of being noticed by his host, a woman who he finally has a reciprocal relationship with. Bittersweet and touching this film definitely stood out for me.

"Straying Little Red Riding Hood" - Pecoraped (2007)

About two minutes into "Straying Little Red Riding Hood's" 6-minute run time I started to wonder if someone had slipped me a couple hits of acid. In terms of plot this animated film is a straight retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood", but to say that it visually "strays" from its source material is an understatement. This is a classic fairy tale cranked up to full volume with Little Red Riding Hood skipping through landscapes bursting with rainbows and buttercups and tweeting birds and smiles. Things shift in size and colour on a whim and even the wolf's belly is filled with rejects from Lewis Carrol's "Alice in Wonderland". Imagine a super cheery kindergarten teacher reading a story to her class while having a nervous breakdown and you might just start to grasp the insanity of this fantastic little film.

"The dandelion sister" - Yusuke Sakamoto (2007)

Another stop-motion film, this time featuring rather dead looking characters, specifically a little boy whose sister is a wilting dandelion. Why Sakamoto would use character designs that looked like something out of a gloomy Tool music video to tell a sweet kids story is something I just can't understand.

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