The Naoyuki Tsuji Animation Collection
Running time: 60 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
The unique films assembled on the Facets Video DVD "The Naoyuki Tsuji Animation Collection" make an incredibly strong case for simplicity over heightened photo-realistic detail in animation. Most of them employ the most fundamental animator’s tools: a blank canvas and drawn charcoal lines and shapes that, when movement is evoked through the erasure and re-drawing of the subjects on the same surface, leave visible, shadow-like traces behind them as they shift across the frame. The designs for humans, animals and other creatures are almost comical in their child-like appearance, and their facial expressions are often restricted to the lines of a mouth and the black dots of tiny eyes. Yet with these simple components, Tsuji proves himself to be some kind of twisted genius, managing to create a look and feel that is entirely his own. As you begin a fresh film of his, you come to realize, with joy, that anything can happen in the white frames where his bizarre thoughts and fantasies come to life.
The first three short films on the DVD comprise a small series entitled "Trilogy About Clouds" ("Mittsu no kumo," 2005). "Breathing Cloud" focuses on a cloud that steadily expands in the sky, its texture becoming more enhanced. Soon, recognizable shapes emerge from its puffy surface: intertwined hands, smiling faces, the naked bodies of two cloud beings locked in acts of passion with one another. "Looking at a Cloud" is more comically whimsical in its portrayal of a student distracted by yet another growing cloud during class. The cloud sprouts out of his opened notebook, then enters his nostrils and transforms him, from there moving from one student to the next like a hungry virus. "From the Cloud" envisions a group of idle little cloud children who fall to the ground as raindrops, then evaporate and gather in the sky once more, preparing to repeat the cycle. Possibly the most enigmatic and epic film in the collection, "A Feather Stare at the Dark" ("Yami wo mitsumeru hane," 2003) tells the tale of a boy with one arm and a strange, antenna-like stalk of sentient hair(?) protruding from his head. As he pursues an alluring female companion, mythical imagery abounds: a cloaked skeleton figure, amorous angels, an erect penis that spews out tiny children, a giant whose head is a circular landscape of trees and mountains, and so much more. "The Rule of Dreams" ("Yoru no okite," 1995) fittingly follows, providing a shorter but no less imaginative collage of violent and potentially symbolic images. The final two films on the disc, "For Almost Forgotten Stories" ("Kiekaketa monogat aritachi no tame ni," 1994)) and "Wake Up" ("Samero," 1992) exchange the fuzzy drawn animation for stop motion in the style of Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay, using detailed environments and models of fantastical, patched-together characters: stone giants, a plasticine elephant being, a creature that looks like a cross between a scorpion and a baby carriage.
While trying to logically break and lock down the specific meanings contained within these fantastic works would constitute a terrible folly, it can be safely said that they explore universal subjects like sex, death, children, creation, innocence, maturation and time. The world that Tsuji plays in is frequently dark, even nightmarish, with characters falling victim to violent acts or undergoing surreal transformations. It is fairly clear that sex and birth exist with these darker forces side by side, illustrated by the refreshingly frank scenes of lust and reoccurring motif of procreation and children. The doodle-like nature of the drawn animation and almost obsessive fixation with private parts and acts may give the impression that a gleeful school kid is wielding the pencil. However, the stark quality of both the smoky illustrations and the music, provided by Reiko Tsuji, Jun Yamaguchi and especially Makiko Takahashi in the form of minimalist notes played on flute, piano and guitar, create a haunting, otherworldly tone.
Indeed, it sometimes seems as if these shorts came not from Tsuji, but rather an ancient, mysterious transmission from outer space or the bowels of the Earth. The vague humanoid forms, clockwork creatures and god-like beings all star and act in original creation myths, cautionary fables and fanciful yarns that, by way of dream logic and whimsy, create whole other worlds that only faintly resembles our own. As far as artists’ personal renditions of their preoccupations, fears and daydreams go, I highly doubt you can get any more original or pure than Naoyuki Tsuji’s.
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