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Independence in Japan

by Gigi T. Y. Hu

View a Quicktime movie clip of Koji Yamamura's 1999 film, Your Choice!

Asserting Independence
Despite the large-scale commercialization of Japanese animation beginning in the '60s, which led to the birth of a new genre, anime, there were animators who remained independent, working from their home-studios and small offices. Others formed small groupings of enterprising studios, serving the needs and interests of the non-commercial sector. Most of these independent animators were specialized artists often from the non-cel animation fields and preferring to animate with clay, puppets and so on.

A shot from indie director Koji Yamamura's 1999 film Your Choice! © K. Yamamura/Dentsu, Inc./Y.A., Inc.

Historically, the urge to assert independence began to take shape in the '70s with the formation of JAFA (Japan Animation Film Association) in 1971. JAFA's aim was "to promote animation culture in Japan." This period also saw the creation of two independent 16mm films, History of Japanese Animation Part I and II (Dir. Taiji Yabushita, 1970, 1972) charting the rise of Japanese animation from the early 20th century. JAFA was later renamed JAA (Japan Animation Association) in 1978 and has since thrived to hold annual or bi-annual film festivals providing space for independent animators to exhibit their work. The association currently has 130 members with job descriptions ranging from animators to film researchers, producers, screenwriters and educators. As JAA is a non-profit organization, most of its members volunteer their services to raise funds for the organization's events.

The '70s also saw the formation of an avant-garde group under the prestigious premises of the Tokyo Image Forum. Linked to this group were also student and amateur animators looking for a platform to produce and screen their individual works. Then the inauguration of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in 1985 created a trend, encouraging members of JAA and the Image Forum to produce high quality independent works for participation and competition.

Japan's New Breed
My first encounter with independent animators Keita Kurosaka and Koji Yamamura was at a fringe cinema, Box Higashi Nakano in the western part of Tokyo. The cinema is known for its non-mainstream, "underground" film selections catering to special interest audiences. At this particular exhibition, MTV Japan's (now known as vibE) animated shorts were shown which included works created by Kurosaka and Yamamura.

Director Keita Kurosaka in Tokyo, October, 1999. © Gigi T. Y. Hu.

Director Koji Yamamura in Tokyo, October, 1999.
© Gigi T. Y. Hu.

They are current JAA members and both were active once at the Tokyo Image Forum. Yet each treads an independent path in the tightly-knitted media industry of Japan. Working from home, Kurosaka excels in producing avant-garde art animation and teaches part-time at Musashino Art University. Yamamura excels in producing children's animation and owns a neatly set up studio which frequently provides part-time jobs to young freelance animators. Both are married with two children and occasionally baby-sit when requested! Both are also currently working on feature-length animations and looking for investors and overseas distributors.

During their interview sessions, both artists on separate occasions candidly volunteered information about their personal "industry rival," and each acknowledges the close competition. In short, they represent the new breed of Japanese animator who dares to take the less trodden path in the heavy corporate world of Japan. Each does not deny his wife's strong support of his career, and both women often double up as assistant animator and adviser when projects advance.

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Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.