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Jasper Sharp on how wonders will never cease

Mirai Mizue

One of the key markers for the development of the global phenomenon of anime came with the founding of the Toei Doga studio in 1956, intended as something of an Eastern answer to Walt Disney, adopting the same production-line labour practices and with similar international ambitions.

However, animation had existed in Japan for a near half-century before this transformation, chugging along as little more than a cottage industry, with numerous short works produced by a handful of dedicated practitioners working independently for little in the way of financial return – figures like Noburo Ofuji, known for his distinctive cutout animations from the 1920s onwards.

This tradition of the solitary animator continued past the establishment of an anime industry, with notable luminaries such as Yoji Kuri (see clip below), Kihachiro Kawamoto and Tadanari Okamoto positioning themselves outside it and creating works that challenged what could be done with the medium, often using other media such as stop-motion and silhouette.

This genre of independent art animation represents a whole new dimension to Japanese animation beyond anime, and is still going strong to this day. In 2003, Koji Yamamura was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short for his Mt. Head, the same year Miyazaki won the Best Animated Feature, while Kunio Kato eventually won in this category for La Maison en Petits Cubes in 2008. However, aside from such freak successes, the vast majority of such animation work often falls completely under the radar of foreign observers.

These independent individual practitioners exist in a completely different sphere from the commercial anime industry. They tend to work singlehandedly rather than overseeing a team of animators, and nowadays tend to disavow the term “Art Animation” in favour of “Independent Animation” to distinguish themselves from their counterparts in the commercial arena.  They work in the same field, for sure, but often exploring other media than cel or CG, including stop-motion or pencil sketches, and push their art in new directions – not so much thinking outside of the box as drawing new boxes, as a title like Koji Yamamura’s Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (2007) amply demonstrates.

Most make their livings primarily from other means, such as book illustration work, television commercials or pop promos, or university lecturing. Their art films don’t usually go on general release or air on television, but instead play the specialist circuit of animation festivals or at dedicated events. With such limited windows of exposure, how does one get to hear about them?

Well, a good place to start might be Japanese Animation: Time Out of Mind, written by Chris Robinson (Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival) and published back in 2010. Robinson’s book is not some esoteric analysis of such films and filmmakers, but a more impressionistic, almost poetic overview that perhaps best suits the works in question. Section by section, he takes in all the big players in the field, all lavishly illustrated with stills from their works – from the early pre-industry pioneers such as Noburu Ofuji, Yasuji Murata and Kenzo Masaoka through more contemporary figures like Keita Kurosaka, director of the nightmarish Agitated Screams of Maggots (2007) video for the Japanese metal band DIR EN GREY and that vegetarian’s nightmare, Midori-ko (2010)

My own personal favourite of the current crop of indie animators is Mirai Mizue, who goes further than most in exploring beyond the outer limits of the generic anime style, venturing well into the realms of complete abstraction. His films like Fantastic Cell (2003), Lost Utopia (2007) and Devour Dinner (2008) are all hand-drawn in a characteristically complex manner, their various alien shapes and creatures rendered as organic honeycombs patterns that occasionally approximate something recognisable, like gazing at multi-coloured microorganisms swarming across a microscope slide.  On the other hand, the Cartesian lines of Metropolis (2009) and the solid blocks of Modern (2010) sit at the other end of abstraction, one that is of purely human construction.

What many of these works share is an exuberant approach to colour, form and motion that is quite beautiful to behold yet nigh on impossible to convey adequately in words. Here’s how Chris Robinson attempts to get a hold on Mirai’s oeuvre:

“A distinctive, recurring image of a rectangular shape with what looks like an eye inside it. Is the eye a cel, revealing the interior of human and all things? Creatures and people roam around me beyond naked. No flesh. I feel like I’m seeing the world through a kaleidoscopic microscope, seeing deeper than my eyes often show me. X-rays, showing the essence of our bodies. See-through figures. Everything flows in and out of each other, ultimately one. In this randomness rests chaos and order.”

Mizue’s most recent film is Wonder (2013). It perhaps represents the most extreme end of independent animation practice, comprised of 365 seconds of hand-drawn animation realized on a daily basis across the course of an entire year. Every day, Mirai drew abstract doodles that metamorphose into a variety of coloured patterns and shapes in time with the accompanying soundtrack.

Wonder has been causing quite a stir on the International Animation Festival Circuit, playing with a number of his other works at Birmingham’s Flatpack Festival in March and winning the prestigious “CANAL+ Creative Aid” Award for a Short Film at the renowned Annecy Festival in June.

Mirai’s work is a welcome reminder that beyond the surface of the anime commercial business, there are hordes of animators in Japan creating works of all shapes and sizes that are well worth going out of your way to see, if you get the chance. In the meantime, a good place to start is Mirai’s own website []. Gaze in wonder!

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