29 June 2004

Film Review: Winter Days

Review for 冬の日(Fuyu no hi), also known as Winter Days
Dirs. Kawamoto Kihachiro et al.
Runtime: 105 mins

"Trust the Japanese to make a one-hour documentary about a 30-minute animation."

Fuyu no hi marks its debut in the English-speaking world with its screening at Singapore's Animation Nation minifestival in June 2004.

The animation film is a print-to-screen adaptation of the seminal renku (連句 chain poem) written by the mid-17th century master haiku poet Matsuo Basho (松尾芭蕉) and his fellow poets. Just as Basho et al take turns to compose verses for the lyric poem in 1684, 36 master animators - including 3 Oscar winners for animation - around the world take turns to visually interpret each verse of the original poem.

Drawing from specialities as diverse as coppperplate engraving, bunraku (traditional puppetry), calligraphic drawing, stop motion filmming, as well as traditional and modern cell-animation, the creators of Fuyu no Hi adopt the aesthetics and production techniques of the original renku literary form and make it a wholly new, as well as a captivating feast for the senses.

On its own, the animation film manages to capture the abstract and impressionistic effects of chain poetry and haiku, but like all obscure poetry, a reader might actually gain a better understanding of what IS going on in the original interpretive community the poets operated in, by reading the footnotes. Hence, the (page-long) footnote is to a 3-line poem, what the hour-long documentary is to the 30 minute animation.

And this is what Fuyu no Hi (the documentary) achieves, in its alternating show-and-tell and interview segments for each verse of the poem/film.

From the simplest explanation of a renku, its structure, and its rules of composition and reading, one understands how each animated sequence relates to the previous, and sets the mood for the next, and how much leeway for free, unique, and personal interpretations each animator has in his/her adaptation of their assigned verse.

It is nevertheless apparent from the interview segments that the understanding of the literary allusions and codes of the renku is not a consistent value in each and every animator. The average pieces came from contributors who had an adequate cognition of the original verse; the best and most original from the artists' re-cognition and re-interpretation of the poetry to their own modern understandings; and the really boring and bland ones came ironically from mis-recognition.

If the animation portion sought to place the animators in a parallel position to the poets, the documentary seeks to recreate the film audience as the 'reading community' of the period, who understood the same literary rules, codes, and allusions which the poets worked within.

Of course, it is precisely because such a community of readers no longer exists that we need to have copious footnotes to even the shortest traditional poems, and why a film made in the philosophy of a traditional poem would need a much longer documentary to make sense of it.

It is then a marvel to realise at the end that it actually works, and works beautifully.


Notes. This reviewer is frankly disturbed by the fact that many in the audience chose to leave the cinema after the 30-minute animation concluded, without bothering to watch the documentary. Perhaps these Singaporeans were expecting to watch an anime instead of an animation piece.

冬の日 is also showing this month at the World Festival of Animated Films in Croatia, and will screen at the New York Asian American Film Festival later next month.

Official website for 冬の日: http://www.fuyunohi.com/

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