This week has been a terrible one for the world of animation, with two of Japan’s pioneering contributors to the field passing away within a day of each other, Kihachiro Kawamoto on Monday, August 23, and Satoshi Kon on the Tuesday. Both of them had a profound effect in steering my tastes and interests within Japanese cinema and both will be sadly lost.
The news came through of Satoshi Kon’s sad passing on the Wednesday, with the director of Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoid Agent and Paprika succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the tragically young age of 46. I won’t go over the details of his career here, as there have been a host of obituaries already to him, and so I’ll just refer you to this one on the Guardian website, and for those who wish to know more about his work, I advise you to check out Andrew Osmond’s book-length study Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. What I will say is that Kon had a considerable impact with his films, pushing the field of animation into entirely new territory. I have often expressed certain misgivings about elements of his work, but I won’t deny he made exceedingly complex films, rich in narrative and visual detail and beautiful to look at. Certainly, I had never seen anything like Perfect Blue when it played at the ICA in 1998, and it was one of the catalysts for my wanting to study Japanese cinema in more detail. The film has a deeper resonance for me also, as my chapter about the film in the anthology The Cinema of Japan and Korea was the first time I ever saw anything I’d written published in book form. Kon was working on The Dream Machine when he died, which looks set to be completed by the staff of Madhouse Studios with whom he made his startling work.
I never met Kon during his lifetime, but I count myself has truly privileged for even that brief hour or so I spent with Kihachiro Kawamoto interviewing him at his makeshift studios at Tama University of Fine Arts in Hachioji in 2004 when he was working on his magnum opus, The Book of the Dead. As mentioned, Kawamoto passed away on Monday of pneumonia, a day earlier than Kon, although the news only seems to have filtered through today. He was 85 years old.
I first encountered the name Kawamoto in March 2003 at an event held by the Japan Animation Association of which he was then president. As much of an epiphany as it was for me, I soon discovered that his film that screened there, his surreal collage animation The Trip from 1973, was far from typical of his oeuvre. The subtitled DVD of his short films then out in Japan was the clincher for me though. From that moment I knew that more people had to know about these beautiful pieces of stop-motion animation as possible, and so I brought them to the attention of 100 Meter Films, who introduced them to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, who held a retrospective of his work in July 2005. It was a symbolic moment, as it marked Kawamoto’s return to the city where he’d studied at the studios of Czech puppet master Jirí Trnka over 40 years before.
Much later, when I organised the tour of his films across the UK, I noticed quite a few audience members came back for the repeat screenings. We launched the tour at the Watershed in Bristol on March 2008, with a whole weekend dedicated to the art of stop-motion and a panel discussion involving Peter Lord of Aardman Animation and the creator of Morph, David Borthwick of the Bolex Brothers, best known for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, and the amazing Barry Purves, a huge fan of Kawamoto’s films and probably the closest equivalent to the Japanese maestro anywhere in the world. The first part of this panel was videoed and can be seen on Youtube. As you can see, it was a fairly “animated” discussion and I struggled to get a word in edge-ways, but nevertheless, a wonderful weekend. And Kawamoto’s most recent screenings were put together by me for Toronto’s Shinsedai Festival in July. Missed them? Well, console yourself with the knowledge that Kimstim has put out both a compilation of his short works and his final feature Book of the Dead on DVD.
If you want to know a bit more about Kawamoto, there’s the interview I did with him for Midnight Eye and a longer article I wrote for Film International, which appeared in January 2007 and was available online at one point, but for now you’ll have to it track down in print yourselves. And for those who have never seen a single film by Kawamoto, Dojoji Temple and House of Flame are about is sublime as animation gets.
Book of the Dead was always intended to be Kawamoto’s final animated work, but nevertheless, his death comes as particularly sad news. As I said, I only spend a very brief time talking with him, but I was amazed by his friendliness, his energetic spirit and his positive world view, and I am certain that the world was a better place for having him in it.