by Chris MaGee
The work of many of the current generation of Japanese manga artists and animators is filled with instantly recognizable imagery. From the high-art/ bad taste aesthetic of Shintaro Kago, through the twisted kawaii of Junko Mizuno, to the pastel wonderlands of Oscar-winner Kunio Kato Japanese visual culture continues to be one of the richest in the world; but one woman’s singular artistic vision, both on the printed page and onscreen, has made her one of the most recognizable artists and animators working today. Though not all fans of Japanese film, animation, and art have heard Akino Kondoh’s name it’s almost guaranteed you have seen her work.
Whimsical yet darkly haunting, boldly blocked out in black and white but with brilliant hints of colour, Kondoh’s work has gained international acclaim and garnered many awards including the Grand Prix for animation at the 2002 DIGISTA AWARDS and the 2d Ax Manga Newcomer’s Award in 2000. With gallery exhibitions from New York to Stockholm and her two short animated films, 2002’s "The Evening Traveling" and 2006’s "Ladybirds' Requiem", being screened at festivals and galleries worldwide (including here in Toronto at the 2009 Shinsedai Cinema Festival and at the upcoming Plastic Paper Festival of Animation happening in Winnipeg) Kondoh is fast becoming one of Japan’s most important contemporary artists; but the 29-year-old Chiba Prefecture native is modest about her artistic journey, " I loved to draw since childhood so at first I wanted to be a childrens’ picture book writer," Kondoh explained to the J-Film Pow-Wow from her home studio in Queens, New York where she is currently based, "When I was 18 and a high school student I drew manga for the first time and then I wanted to be a manga artist."
It was at this same time that Kondoh first encountered the main character of most of her manga, paintings and films, Eiko. "She is the image of the ideal girl for me," Kondoh says of bob-haired young woman with the knowing smile who makes up the core of Kondoh’s creative output, "Maybe an ideal version of myself." Throughout Kondoh’s manga, such as 2003’s "Ladybirds' Requiem" and "TUMEKIRI MONOGATARI", Eiko's "Alice in Wonderland"-like adventures start out with simply observed events: clipping fingernails, buying an umbrella, sewing buttons, or accidentally killing an insect, "The stories start from daily life. Sometimes I notice an interesting point in daily life and start to make the story," reveals Kondoh; and even though so many of her paintings seem to exist in a darkened twilight world Kondoh is reticent to draw the obvious comparison between Eiko’s rich fantasy world to that of dreams. "No, I never use them," she states, "They influence me a lot and inspire me, but the story of dream is just dream. Dream gives me a hint sometimes, but most hints come from memories and daily life. I construct a story from all of them."
Kondoh also takes inspiration from nature, ("Insects influenced me a lot. I loved them and looked for them when I was a child. i love them still now. "), childhood memories, and her love of antiques, especially antique opaque glass, but it was the music of Japanese folk/ pop band TAMA that had a special impact on Kondoh. It was while studying at the Tama University Department of Graphic Design under Professor Masahiro Katayama that Kondoh was inspired to animate "The Evening Traveling", around TAMA singer Toshiaki Chiku’s solo single "Densha kamo shirenai". "I was so happy, "Kondoh explains, "but I was a student and the work was an assignment, so first I used the song with no permission." Kondoh ended up receiving top marks for the film, which features Eiko in a surreal song and dance number, and permission was sought directly from Chiku for the use of his song; but surprisingly his initial reaction wasn’t entirely positive, " The first time he didn't like it," Kondoh admits, but she feels it might have had something to do with Chiku’s similar interests (Chiku himself had loved insects as a child) and his concept of his song, "Sometimes we don't like someone who is like ourselves." Eventually Chiku warmed to "The Evening Traveling" and his doubts about the project didn’t taint Kondoh’s admiration for his work, "I was a great fan of him. I was happy just to see and talk with him."
The experience of animating "The Evening Traveling", which Kondoh says involved six months of hand drawing each image, scanning them as computer image files, and then using Adobe After Effects to edit them together, kept her cloistered away by herself for hours on end, "That style is good for me, but my mother helped me to scan the drawings." Despite the intensity of the process it hasn’t deterred Kondoh from continuing to make animated shorts. In 2003 she adapted her manga "Ladybirds' Requiem" into a 5-minute short (a project she attempted in 2003, but that version was not completed), but when the topic of conversation turns to the increasing number of underground manga, such as Kazuichi Hanawa's "Doing Time", Yoshiharu Tsuge's "Neji-shiki", and George Asakura's "Heibon Ponchi", being adapted into live-action films and whether her manga could survive the same treatment she has mixed feelings, "I think I would be happy, but I don't know whether I should admit or not. It depends on who asks me and his plan. My stories are very simple and short. They would be hard to change for a movie."One thing is certain, though. Akino Kondoh is not interested in transitioning from animated short films to live-action short films, "Not at all. I don’t think I will do that in the future. I like to draw."
Kondoh has had, and will continue to have, plenty of opportunities to draw. Not only has she had three drawings included in this year’s Brooklyn Armory Show, participated in the Tokyo Anima! exhibition of contemporary Japanese animation last month in Roppongi with such artists as Kunio Kato, Atsushi Wada, and Kei Oyama, but she is also currently prepping for a solo exhibition of her work at the Mizuma Art Gallery in Meguro-ku, Tokyo later next year, plus Kondoh is in the process of making her third animated film (drawing above right), "The title is KiyaKiya. I am working on it now. I plan to finish it next year."
You can read more on Akino Kondoh at her official site as well as at the Mizuma Art Gallery website. Also, look for Akino Kondoh's 2006 version of "Ladybirds' Requiem" to be screened at this year's Shinsedai Cinema Festival in Toronto. Until then check out excerpts from the film below.