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A Judge’s Review of the Japan Digital Animation Festival

Dr. Toon investigates the gender role cultural values that children and tween animation present to the world of young spenders.

Tom and Pat Sito arrive at JDAF 2005. All photographs courtesy of Tom Sito.

Tom and Pat Sito arrive at JDAF 2005. All photographs courtesy of Tom Sito.

On June 1 my wife Pat and I flew out to Japan to be a judge in the JDAF, the Japan Digital Animation Festival, in Nagoya, Japan, which ran from June 3-5, 2005.

Nagoya is a picturesque city where the first Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa was born, although today it is better known as the headquarters of the Toyota Corp. and the center of that uniquely Japanese preoccupation, Pokeno games.

JDAF Nagoya is a competition for 3D student films that has been run every two years since 1999. It is supported by The Nagoya Chamber of Commerce, The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, The NHK Japan Broadcasting Group, the Chunichi Shimbun newspaper and the AnimeExpo of the U.S. among others. A number of prizes were given and the Grand Prize is one million Japanese yen, or about $10,000. Out of 150 entries nineteen were pre-selected to be finalists. Besides Japanese work this year animated films were submitted from France, China, Thailand, Spain and Hungary.

Joining me on this years judging panel was famed filmmaker Mamoru Oshii (Patlabor, Jin Roh, Kokaku Kidotai aka Ghost in the Shell). Also part of the panel was producer and Production IG founder Mitsuhisa Ishikawa (Spirited Away, Ghost in the Shell), Professor Takami Yasuda of the Univ. of Nagoya and Prof. Yasuki Hamano, who is on the board of Ghibli Studios, in addition to being director of the Akira Kurosawa Foundation. I had been a judge at this festival before, in 2001. Other past JDAF judges included Disney animators Duncan Marjoribanks and Eric Goldberg, and Studio Ghiblis Yoshiyuki Momose. In 2001 one of the prizewinners was a student of mine, Van Phan, who did the film Values.

Grand Prize winner, Tough Guy! (left), and the Gold Prize winner, Blues Stories. All film images courtesy of JADF 2005.

Grand Prize winner, Tough Guy! (left), and the Gold Prize winner, Blues Stories. All film images courtesy of JADF 2005.

The winner of this years Grand Prize was Tough Guy!, by Shintaro Kishimoto. It s about a kung fu butt-kicking Preying Mantis. The big green guy kicks holes in soda cans and tangles with a nasty flying beetle. Oshii said he was impressed with how the filmmaker mixed digital animation with live action and photo stills to let us experience the world from the Mantis point of view. I enjoyed his comic timing. The Gold Prize went to Blues Stories by French animator Roux. It had a very witty soundtrack of manmade sounds.

The Silver Prize winner, Heart (left), and the 2005 World Exposition Prize winner, Michild.

The Silver Prize winner, Heart (left), and the 2005 World Exposition Prize winner, Michild.

The Silver Prize went to the film Heart by Tomomi Moriyasu. The Nagoya Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairmans Prize went to Maestro by Geza Toth from Hungary. The Japan Association for the 2005 World Exposition Prize went to Michild by Sohei Saito of Japan. Oshii, Ishikawa and I were invited to create our own special prizes and award them to films we liked in particular. The Oshii Prize went to Le Regulateur by Phillipe Gramaticopoulos of France. It was a dark, stylized film that to me harkened back to the grand old days of animated filmmaking from Pannonia and Zagreb. When animated shorts were more about provoking discussion than just making a buck.

The Ishikawa Prize was given to Natsu To Sora To Bokura No Mirai by Yoshihide Ibata. This film brought to life a typical Japanese manga comicbook, even having the characters jump from panel to panel and turn the page on one another. The Tom Sito Prize went to Spiral Rhythm by Mayu Inose of Japan, a film with soaring dances of abstract shapes and figures.

Besides the film competition there was a screening of Production IGs as yet unreleased film, Dead Leaves, by Hiroyuki Imaishi. Oshi and Ishikawa had an in-depth interview with Prof. Hamano about their early years in animation. In another program the judges were asked to give public critique to student submitted works. I admired the courage of the students to get up on stage in front of a large audience and take sometimes strong hits from such important animators.

The judges look at the student work.

The judges look at the student work.

I gave a lecture on Hollywood Character Animation to about 150. My students would recognize my standard catechism learned from past masters like Art Babbitt, Richard Williams and Bennie Washam. I also critiqued storyboards submitted on an assignment I gave out several weeks earlier. Oshii and Ishikawa did me the honor of sitting in on my talk. The idea of lecturing before such august persons is daunting to say the least, but no one nodded off during my talk, so I guess it came out all right.

Pat Sito got up and talked about her experiences in animation and the opportunities for women in the global village of animation. Pat worked on films like The Little Mermaid, Cats Dont Dance and Shark Tale. Shes working at DreamWorks on Over the Hedge. There were also interviews with past JDAF winners Frederic Soumagnas and Keiko Hirose.

After a long day of animation judging, we all had several dinners in traditional Japanese style, seated on the floor, shoes at the door. Good thing I still had some fresh socks! Ladies dressed in traditional kimonos and the well-known Nagoya Obe, brought us the regional cuisine unagi (barbecued eel), ground chicken balls and spaghetti noodles. The gravy on the spaghetti reminded me of English HP Sauce, but the eel was killer!

We all talked a lot about animation. Ishikawa is fun to talk to and dresses like a rock star. Oshi is a soft-spoken man with a strong love for filmmaking and his pet Basset hound. He even put the dog in his last film Innocence, which played in North America as Ghost in the Shell II. Remember police Sgt. Bato had a pet basset hound? II. He autographed a copy of his American biography for me, Stray Dog of Anime, by Brian Ruh. Then he asked me to draw his dog in the Hollywood-style. He did a live-action film in Poland called Avalon, which is awaiting an American debut, and is writing a new film.

During the festival, Pat and I also traveled to the Nagoya Expo 2005, the Worlds Fair. It was situated several kilometers outside of town in a place called Aichi. The Expo started in March and has pavilions of 120 countries and companies. The theme of the Expo is Natures Wisdom, but another theme I could see was Robots are Cool! Some of the most advanced robot designs yet made were on display. In the Toyota Pavilion there were robots that walked and played musical instruments, advanced electric people movers and a robot that could waltz with a human partner. Sensors in the robot matrix could detect the human dancers every move and follow along.

Mamoru Oshii had designed an entire pavilion himself, called the Mountain of Dreams. The upper canopy of the pavilion is shaped to recall the crimson Mount Fuji by Hokusai, a potent symbol to the Japanese spirit. The inside is a multimedia extravaganza of light and sound. Oshii-san said he wants to open our minds there. Three different shows will play represented by the spirits of Bird, Hyakin Time Walker; Dog, Ku-nu Prehistoric Memory and Fish, Sho-ho The Ocean of Memory. That day we saw the show of the Bird. The floor of the exhibit is a 360-degree video wraparound and a field of 96 large plasma PDP screens synchronized to present a mass image. The aerial scenes of flight made one feel like you were in a flying machine.

A large sculpture of the three-headed god Pan dominated the center of the room. Oshii said this Pan is not the goat-footed Pan of Greek Myths, but Pan as omnipresence as in pantheism. The belief that God is on all things. He wanted to turn nature on its head, Heaven into Earth and Earth into Heaven. So the ceiling is dominated by large sculpts of groundcover and mushrooms, while the floor is the ever-changing sky. The walls of the pavilion are draped in silk and lined with 139 statues called Riku Shou guardian models whos heads are replaced with Oshii designs of bird, dog and fish. The installation is a personal vision meant to, inspire us to experience the unbroken chain of memory of the environment underscoring the profoundness of human existence.

All the winners and judges onstage.

All the winners and judges onstage.

Next door was the Matsui-Toshiba pavilion called Grand Odyssey, A Space Child Adventure. Legendary sci-fi illustrator Syd Mead (Blade Runner) designed a story animated in 3D about the human races quest to find its origins in space. A clever twist is, as you enter the exhibit in an anteroom, you are invited to place your head in a small-framed hole. Several cameras do a fast digital scan of your features and they are texture mapped on to the protagonist avatars of the story. So before you can say inverse kinematics, you are watching yourself and your friends zip around giant spacecraft and conquer the galaxy.

Animation Studio Ghibli also was represented at the fair. They built an exact scale replica of Sutsuki & Meis house from the 1988 hit film, My Neighbor Totoro, by Hayao Miyazaki. The Expo has its own cartoon mascots, Morizo and Kikorro, who adorn hats and pins. We didnt get to all the exhibits, but what we saw was pretty impressive. You still have time to see all these for yourself. The Nagoya Expo 2005 (www.mt-expo.com) will continue until Sept. 25, 2005. So go get some yen and fly over to Japan for the fair!

Pat and I would like to say domo arigato gosaimasu to our friends at the Nagoya JDAF and Nagoya Expo people for making us feel so welcome. We salute all the young filmmakers of the competition and look forward to seeing their future works.

Animation director Tom Sito, part-owner of the Hollywood-based company The Gang of Seven, teaches at USC and UCLA and is resident emeritus of the Hollywood Animation Guild Local 839. He is writing a book on the history of the labor movement in American animation 1914-2004.

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