Wednesday, October 6, 2010

INTERVIEW: CALF founder Nobuaki Doi talks Japanese indie animation

Interviewed by Chris MaGee

In the present economic climate when niche DVD distribution companies like New Yorker Films, Arts Magic and Wellspring have gone out of business and taken their catalogues with them it's a very bold and brave move to start a new distribution company. Thankfully there are bold and brave film lovers out there like Stephanie Trepanier at Evokative Films, Adam Torel at Third Window Films and Nadav Street at Pink Eiga who are bucking the current tighten-the-belt climate. All have established DVD companies that are bringing great foreign and art house (specifically Japanese films) to audiences in the West. One newcomer to this already new crop of film entrepreneurs is Nobuaki Doi. 29-year-old Doi has joined forces with such world-renowned Japanese animators as Kei Oyama, Atsushi Wada and Mirai Mizue to create CALF, a new DVD label that is redefining what animation in Japan is and can be. CALF has already released DVDs of the work of 29-year-old animator Mirae Mizue and light-animation collective Tochka (above) and plans for DVDs of the films of Kei Oyama and Atsushi Wada are in the works.

Recently I was very lucky to discuss CALF with Doi, who is getting ready to come to Canada with Oyama, Wada and Mizue for the 2010 Ottawa International Animation Festival (running between October 20th and 24th), but he was quick to point out the difficulty with the term "Japanese art animation". "I never use the word 'art animation'," Doi explained,"I always use 'independent animation'. In Japan you know the commercial animation scene is really flourishing and everyone knows about it. In fact they only know [commercial animation]. They never take a notice of animation except 'anime'." While Doi and his colleagues at CALF want to differentiate the work they make and release from commercial anime they don't like the hierarchy of dubbing the films of its animators as "art animation".

Doi was so forthcoming and gave so much insight into the indie animation scene in Japan during our discussion that I thought I would post verbatim his answers. It's such a treat to talk with someone who is so passionate about what they do that to edit down our discussion just seemed criminal. So sit back and enjoy (and learn from) the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow's chat with CALF founder Nobuaki Doi.

"Handsoap" Kei Oyama, 2008

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in the Japanese animation scene? You have a background as a critic, is that correct? When you were first exploring animation did you have any favorite animators who particularly inspired you?

ND: When I was a student in Tokyo University, I studied Russian language because of my love of Dostoevsky (Japanese people really like him). At one Russian class, a teacher showed us some Russian animation. Among the films was "Tale of Tales" by Yuri Norstein. This literally changed my life. I decided to go to graduate school and research Norstein. (I’m still in a doctorial course and preparing a doctorial dissertation on him. To think about his films, you need to know much more about short animation, which seems to have a different logic than features or productions for TV. It was then that I started to watch independent works from all around the world, but it was a very hard to find the information on animation other than anime. One of the most important sources was Koji Yamamura's blog called “Unknown Animations”. Koji was the only one who had often visited international animation festivals all around the world at that time around 2002. He introduced Japanese to many great foreign animation films. I contacted him and handed to him my academic paper on Norstein because I know his films are his favorite. In 2006, Koji sent me an e-mail saying “Let’s do something with me to improve the world of independent animation in Japan”. You know “Animations Creators and Critics”? [Check it out here] This is a group of animators and critics [whose goal is] to make a new wave in the Japanese indie scene. We wrote reviews, did interviews of great animators (Norshtein, Priit Parn, Don Hertzfeldt…), held screening events… I think that through this group young animators started to be conscious of international animation scene. I write a blog for this group and this is why young independent animators in Japan took notice of me. I am (almost) the only one who writes about indie things. Among the members Koji chose [animators] Kei Oyama and Atsushi Wada. We became friends and we have respect for each other’s works. Now "Animations Creators and Critics" is broken up for various reasons and the only active members are Koji and me. I’m still doing web things. (blog, interview, reviews…) Sorry for my very long answer! I want to tell you the real back ground of CALF. CALF is not a product of an accident or a whim. It has a long history to be realized.

CM: "CALF" is not a name people would relate to animation. Can you explain why you chose the name?

ND: The founders of CALF are Kei Oyama, Atsushi Wada, Mirai Mizue, and I. We had difficulty deciding the name of the label. At that time Kei said “What part of a woman’s body do you like the most?” Kei’s favorite was a calf, a part of a leg. I saw an Oxford Dictionary and found it had a meaning of “a young animal of some other type such as a young elephant or whale”, and, of course, a baby cow. Other dictionaries said “calf” is a symbol of foolishness and naïve. We were very sure that this name is perfect for us because we are all still young (I believe) and we are like foolish babies trying to prove our value by founding a label. I like the fact that calf can suggest different kinds of animals. Our logo designed by Atsushi is really symbolic. You can’t say what kind of animal it is. It means we are no one now, but we will be someone in the future. It can be everything. CALF also symbolizes the possibility of the (promising?) future of indie animation in Japan.

"Jam" Mirai Mizue, 2009

CM: Has it been difficult to start an independent DVD label to showcase Japanese animation? What special challenges have you faced?

ND: We have faced mainly two difficulties: lacks of money and popularity. Although the cost to make a DVD is now getting cheaper, it still takes a lot of money if you want to start a label. Each of the founders invested their own money for CALF, but we don’t think this money will end up coming back. It’s an investment for the future. Another difficulty is that almost all Japanese are unfamiliar with our animators even though their films are shown in festivals all around the world. Being shown in a festival doesn’t mean popularity, especially for short filmmakers. One of the good things when we gather as a collective is we can have as a long program as a feature film. It will help us when doing a screening event or promoting our films at festivals or movie theaters. Now things are changing due to the internet. We can promote ourselves with no money by using SNS or Twitter. Our launch event in Tokyo gathered more than 250 people even though an admission fee was charged. It was an unprecedented case for indie animation. In events of short films the audience had been the filmmakers themselves and their friends so far. Our event was not like that. We wanted and still want “general” people to come. I feel everybody wants to see something new and unknown. CALF can attract such people. So far, it's succeeded.

CM: You've already released two DVDs through CALF, one of the work of Mirai Mizue and one of Tochka. How did you become affilitaed with these artists? Do you have other animators that you wish you could work with and release DVDs of?

ND: As I said before, CALF is consisted of me and young animators. Kei, Atsushi, and I knew each other very well because of "Animations". In the case of Mirai, I became friends with him when we went together to Annecy last year. His efforts to keep making his own films and submitting them to the festivals is amazing. I think he is the first to be conscious of an international animation scene among young independent animators. In the case of Tochka, their PiKA PiKA films have received awards many times including the Grand Prize in Clermont-Ferrand. Kei and Atsushi know them very well and they also love Kei and Atsushi's films. So we decided to release their DVD. Our affiliation is based on friendship really.

We will release more DVDs in the future. Our criteria for the decision is very simple: Does he/she keep making films? Are her/his films shown and have they received awards at festivals all around the world? We don’t think we can earn much money if we sell DVDs only for domestic people. I think every country has a small amount of short animation lovers so if we take a look at a globe the number of customers is getting bigger. If each of the countries has 10 fans, we can discover about 2000 people in the world!! This is what we want to do.

If we find someone good, we are very glad to release their DVDs. I know there are so many talented student animators in Japan. The problem is most of them stop making films after graduation because short animation doesn’t make money. One reason why we decided to make a label is to be a guideline for student animators after graduation. It can serve as motivation for them to keep making films. We will offer their films the opportunity to be shown at an event and, of course, to be released as a DVD. Shin Hashimoto, Saori Shiroki, Ayaka Nakata, Masaki Okuda, Ryo Okawara… these are some of the names you should take notice of. Of course there's Aico Kitamura, our webmaster. She is a school mate of Atsushi from graduate school where Koji teaches [Tokyo University of the Arts, Department of ASnimation]. If they continue to make films, we want to release their DVDs.

Plus, we are not a label especially for animation. We want to release live-action films, maybe even short pieces. Things major companies won't release. At our event in Tokyo we invited guests like [short filmmaker] Isamu Hirabayashi and Tetsuya Mariko [director of "Yellow Kid"]. Now we are negotiating with some filmmakers whose films have been well received on the festival circuit.

"In a pig's eye" Atsushi Wada, 2010

CM: CALF has already attended and screened work at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, The Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films and at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The CALF artists are known worldwide, but did you notice any differences between the audiences in Hiroshima, Zagreb and Annecy? Did you notice that people interpreted the work differently from country to country at all?

ND: I’m sorry I've never been to Zagreb, but I know Annecy and Hiroshima very well. The audiences in Annecy are sometimes very good but they can be really disturbing at the same time. They seem to come to the screening hall to make noise. Pretending to be an animal or flying a paper plane. At midnight screenings most of the audience was drunk. If you make a funny film, Annecy is the best place. They will laugh when you want them to laugh. If you make a film which needs contemplation… I’m sorry for that. Sometimes they laugh at a point when you don’t want them to laugh. It can destroy a film sometimes. On the contrary people in Hiroshima are very silent. They see the films silently and carefully, even if a film is really boring. They are very modest in a good and bad way. You can see whether your film is good or bad from the audience’s reaction. Hiroshima people seem to like something beautiful and dream-like. Short animation lovers in Japan like such people.

CM: You have programmed a selection of Japanese animation for the Ottawa International Animation Festival this month. Will this be your first time in Canada? Is there anything you are looking forward to about your trip to Canada?

ND: No, I visited Ottawa last year to see the retrospective of Don Hertzfeldt. For me, Hertzfeldt is one of the major motivating factors which made me found a label. He once did "The Animation Show". He not only makes great films, but he also makes an effort to improve the circumstances around the world for independent animation. In spite of the fact he makes short animation, he is very popular. It’s unbelievable for us.

I’m really excited that I can visit the National Film Board of Canada studio this year. For independent animators, NFB is a kind of a mecca. I like the city of Ottawa. Ottawa was silent and beautiful. There are many squirrels there. It's a little bit cold at the end of October, but the red and yellow maple leafs are beautiful with the contrast of the blue sky.

CM: This might be a difficult question, but can you explain the current Japanese art animation scene in just three words?

ND: Just exciting, period!

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