by Chris MaGee
I find some of the best films by going on internet spelunking trips as I like to call them - vague Google searches on filmmakers, topics, or sometimes just keywords and then I spend a good hour our more just clicking links and following leads. On a recent spelunking trip searching out "Japanese indie animators" I came across a documentary on one of Japan's most respected independent animators, Yoji Kuri.
Now 81-years-old Kuri was the defacto leader of a trio of animators which included Hiroshi Manabe and Ryohei Yanagihara who first introduced animation as art into the Japanese mainstream during the 1960's. Sounds absurd, I know, seeing that anime is one of Japan's leading cultural exports now, but before 1960 animation wasn't nearly as respected as it is today. According to this wonderfully informative article over at Anipages Daily (make sure to read it) before 1960 the Japanese didn't even have a word for animation or anime. Animated films were entirely a commercial endeavor and were refered to studios and producers as simply "manga eiga", but once Kuri, Manabe, and Yanagihara started up their Animation Sannin no Kai (Animation Group of Three) as they called themselves in late 1960 this quickly began to change. These three men proved through their innovative, playful, and independently produced films that animation was equal to live-action filmmaking or any traditional fine art.
In 2008 documentary filmmaker Ryo Saitani produced a film about those pioneering days titled "Here We Go With Yoji Kuri!" that showed how Kuri, Manabe and Yanagihara's animated collaborations also drew in poets, musicians, authors, and actors into what Saitani refers to as an artistic bomb whose effects are still being felt in Japan today. The film screened at the Holland Animation Festival and the Hiroshima Animation Festival in 2008, but sadly my internet spelunking did not produce any trailer for it, but I can give you the next best thing - Kuri's 1964 short film "Ai (Love)" which won both the Best Animated Film at that year's Poland's Cracow Film Festival and the Lion of San Marco Prize at the Venice Film Festival.