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Animators Unearthed - Tadanari Okamoto

Every Monday, Chris Robinson serves up Animators Unearthed, a short profile of prominent and not-so-prominent indie animators.

Tadanari Okamoto was a pretty impressive fella, the renaissance man of Japanese animation. Like Prince, Okamoto could play all the instruments. He animated with puppets, wood, yarn, clay, pencil, marker, cel, plastic. He made educational films, public service announcements, commercials, TV shows, music videos and short films. His short films - made for children and adults - use folk tales and modern stories to convey the complexities of the human soul. With utmost ease Okamoto frequently jumped between folk tales, modern cautionary stories and children’s stories. His stories set in the past are often based on traditional forms of Japanese storytelling.

What amazes me is that despite an impressive body of work (both quality and quantity), Okamoto is not as well known internationally as Kawamoto, Kuri and Tezuka. Rich in content and technique, many of Okamoto’s works stand tall beside any of the international animation ‘classics.’

So why isn’t Okamoto more known outside of Japan? Might be due to language. His films are loaded with dialogue and narration. Even with subtitles, you’d be hard pressed to fully comprehend the nuances of Okamoto’s deeply Japanese films.

The marvelous Mochimochi Tree (1972) uses paper/collage and a gidayu narrative, a form of singing narration performed by a chanter (Gidayu comes from ancient bunraku (traditional puppet) plays) to tell a story about a young boy who lives with his grandfather.

Praise Be to Small ills is another Okamoto masterpiece. A song is sung to a sick young girl. The song sings of two hunters: a weak hunter with a blue demon and the stronger hunter with the red demon. The weak hunter ends up the stronger of the two. He goes with the flow of life, accepting and overcoming life’s setbacks (ie. demons/ills). He leaves life peacefully. On the other hand, the strong hunter, overconfident about his strength, perhaps feeling somewhat indestructible, dies a tragic death.

Technically, Praise Be to Small Ills, is another work of inspired innovation that draws on Japanese traditions. Inspired by Ema, small wooden plaques that hang in a shrine (on the plaques Shinto worshipers write their prayers and desires to the gods), Okamoto uses cedar planks combined with raw drawings.

In Okamoto’s final film, The Restaurant of Many Orders (he died before the film was completed. Kawamoto finished directing the film.), he attacks the frivolousness of a society that kills animals for nothing but pleasure. Based on a story by the famous Japanese writer, Kenji Miyazawa, and in the vein of Battle Royale and The Most Dangerous Game, The Restaurant of Many Orders is about hunters who become the hunted.

Visually, the film is another innovative success for Okamoto. Using copper coloured drawings that bring to mind the work of Polish animator Piotr Dumala, Okamoto creates a claustrophobic Kafka-esque nightmare.

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A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.