Here is a project — a pair of projects, really — that I know might well be a difficult sell to casual audiences, but which are such distinct animals I feel bound to speak for them. There might well have been any number of ways to film Shinobu Orikuchi's 1934 elegiac historical novel The Book Of The Dead, but in 2005 Kihachirō Kawamoto chose to realize it by way of a mix of stop-motion animated puppetry and computer graphics. The result is summed up, I fear, by that entirely too precious adjective exquisite; it's a splendid example of how animation as an art form continues to manifest in ways that have nothing to do with the anime projects that commandeer the airwaves and constitute one of its single biggest cultural exports.
A speaker for the dead
Orikuchi's original novel was inspired, as the title implies, by one of the key myths of death and resurrection from ancient Egypt, filtered and channeled through Japanese history and sensibilities. I was reminded a little of the gothic fantasy of Izumi Kyōka, for instance, but Dead is of a different flavor and aim.
Set in the Nara period (around 750 C.E.), it deals with Iratsume, a daughter of a noble house who knows about little but the sheltered life she's led inside her family's house. One day she is given a copy of a Buddhist sutra — a relative novelty, since Buddhism was just then being introduced to Japan — and is spellbound by it. Over the next year, she makes a thousand copies of the scroll by hand, and is distracted — tempted? seduced even? — by visions of a buddha appearing over the nearby sacred mountain.
Iratsume sneaks out of her house to follow her vision, and ends up blundering onto the grounds of a temple forbidden to women. Such a transgression demands atonement, and so Iratsume must stay in a nearby household until her karmic burden is alleviated. It's during this time that the storyteller of the temple, a wizened old woman, relates to her the tragic history of Prince Ōtsu. Popular and handsome, he was framed the Empress Jitō on false charges of insurrection and put to death, only to have his soul restlessly wander between this world and the next ever since.
Not long after hearing this story, Iratsume realizes she's being visited at night by an apparition. It's Ōtsu's spirit, longing for peace. Her initial terror at being haunted by a spirit of the dead turns to pity and compassion, and she sets about weaving a great garment for him that in time becomes a mandala, painted by her hand, for the respite of his soul.
Until very recently Book Of The Dead was not available in English, but last year Jeffrey Angles released a fine translation of the work. Much of what is special about it to Japanese audiences is esoteric enough that even Japanese readers would need footnotes to extract the maximum possible meaning from it; Angles provided an introductory essay that showed how the work evolved out of its moment in time (Japan's militarism and eventual involvement in WWII), and how he was able to get away with things that would have been censored in a more ostensibly contemporary work by setting it in Japan's distant past.
In the details
One thing Angles mentioned in passing was Kawamoto's adaptation of the book. On reading this I was abashed: I had a copy of an English-language DVD of the movie sitting in my own collection, unwatched and all but forgotten about! The film itself is not long, only about seventy minutes, but entrancing from beginning to end, both for the way it extracts and arranges the essences of Orikuchi's novel — which is written in a somewhat fragmentary, non-linear fashion — and for the matchless technique it uses to bring it to life.
Animated projects pull me in all the more when they demonstrate how much physical effort went into their making. Stop-motion and hand-drawn animation both take great effort, and both create a space where we are allowed to pre-emptively suspend our disbelief about what we see. That said, stop-motion does it in a way that relies all the more on our sense of physical reality. Example: The first shot is the capitol city of Nara as seen from a height, and it is very clearly a model. In a live-action film, we'd wrinkle our noses at how cheap and cheesy that was. Here, because it's part of a consistent whole, the effect is magical; someone sweated blood to cast this spell. Sometimes the level of painstaking detail expended only comes to us in an offhand way, as in an early shot when a rider turns on his horse and we realize the choice of material to create the horse's coat has just the right sheen and gloss to it.
Kawamoto occasionally uses digital effects to composite or enhance what we see, but not as a cheat. At various points, such as when the storyteller recounts the tragedy of Prince Ōtsu to Iratsume, we see what look like stylized clouds painted over the image, a stylization reminiscent of a picture scroll. I was reminded of a similar variety of stylization in Katsuhiro Ōtomo's jaw-dropping short film "Combustible", although here it's more toned-down. But the most dazzling effects are always the analog ones, as when Iratsume waves about her raiment. In both CGI and hand-drawn animation, that's not hard to do; in stop-motion animation, it's downright sorcery.
A couple of things about the film may put people off. First is the way the movie at times tries to reproduce parts of the original story that seem like they will be most resonant with scholars (not even fans, really) of the original story and few others. But most of those things are confined to the first reel or two. The second issue, the more troubling of the two, is the English-language narration, something I suspect was slapped onto the film as part of the localization process. It's a bad idea, in big part because the rest of the dialogue was not redubbed, and so it clashes badly with everything else in the film.
Kawamoto has a grand-master's reputation in Japan, even if he has relatively little recorded output to go with it: a dozen or so shorts, and two feature-length films, Book Of The Dead among them. A collection of his shorts has also been released for English-speaking audiences on DVD, and after watching Dead I'm making it a priority to track that down and talk about it as well. I also hope more of Orikuchi's work will come our way in time, but at least with this one we also have the film to go with it.