The head monk orders a young acolyte to guard a beautiful cherry tree in the monastery garden while he goes out. But the older man underestimates his colleague’s fondness for sake. As it so happens, a samurai warrior and his servant decide to have a picnic feast in the same garden under the blossoming tree. The acolyte refuses to let them in, but when he smells their sake, his determination is put to the test.... Made in 1968, director Kawamoto’s first puppet film is a moral tale about a disciple who was justly punished for a momentary lapse.
This is my third Kihachiro Kawamoto review. Each inspection of his work only reinvigorates the passion and utter awe I hold for his outstanding oeuvre.
Deceased in 2010 at the age of 85, Kihachiro Kawamoto presided over the Japanese Animation Association from 1989 to his death, succeeding Osamu Tezuka. Kawamoto's importance to the Japanese Animation industry is undeniable. Although his works are internationally renowned by critics, they still seem to be alien to the average anime viewer.
Kawamoto, born 1925, developed an interest in dolls and puppetry before he had even entered elementary school. In 1946, after the end of the war, Kawamoto became an
assistant art director for the Toho movie company. This would affect Kawamoto's future work deeply, as he himself puts it "the main difference between a regular animator and myself is that I started from this film background". In 1953, Kawamoto produced his first puppet animation, a television advertisement, under the aegis of his newly created company, Shiba Productions, co-founded with Tadasu Iizawa. Kawamoto would continue to work in television for most of his professional life; it is from sales of television merchandise (such as from the insanely popular television adaptation of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms") that Kawamoto funded most of his projects, Hanaori being no exception.
Kawamoto was, however, to change his life, and his artistic output, in 1963. In this year he travelled to live in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to train under the auspices of master puppet animator Jiri Trnka. Trnka "opened my eyes and only then did I begin to understand everything there was about the puppet world [...] the reason why I was so into Trnka's animation was that he was able to tell a story in a poetic style through the use of puppets". Although Kawamoto would be forced to work in television instead of producing his own artistic works for many years, in 1968 he finally got to showcase his creative genius in 'Hanaori'.
'Hanaori', or 'Breaking of Branches is Forbidden', is a short jidai-geki (period-piece film) depicting a bonze left to watch over an ancient Sakura tree in temple grounds, after the head monk leaves for a short period. He is disturbed however, by a travelling samurai and his retainer, who wish to picnic within the temples grounds. Beguiled by Sake, the inexperienced acolyte is tricked into letting the two wanderers in, at a terrible cost...
This almost bucolic story would form the base of Kawamoto's creative vision. The antiquated period setting is a common occurence within Kawamoto's canon, but more important are the poetic themes that Kawamoto manages to express. In a very real sense Kawamoto expresses Buddhist concerns and desires, mixed with a healthy Shinto naturalism. While stopping short of a religious allegory, Hanaori instead is a touching display of humanism. This is the key to Kawamoto's work. Kawamoto used folk stories and period settings in the same way as he would adapt key pieces of literature, even going so far as to in "Tabi" represent Buddhist sins as an extended pictorial metaphorical journey, to express his very concrete, very personal, and very evocative messages.
Retrospectively looking at Hanaori critically, one finds oneself quite surprised at the high level of clarity in thought Hanaori achieves, as well as having no technical errors, seeing as it is a debut work. This is quite an astounding result from an independent animator. Hanaori being a simple physical extension of Kawamoto's overarching humanistic legacy, elevates this animation to something above the almost purely facile displays of Barthes' coded entertainment all too common in the mainstream veins of Japanese animation.
To achieve his poetic message, Kawamoto uses both kirigami and his puppetry, with inclusion of props and a traditional musical accompaniment. Kawamoto's puppets interact with each other solely by kinaesthetic action and movement. There is no dialogue, save for the Bonze at one point reciting mantra. Later in his career, Kawamoto transitioned to puppets with Noh-like faces. In hanaori however, the Bonze's face does have some essential movements, including a complete seperation from the body. While Kawamoto did not believe in the superiority of Noh masks, perhaps this usage does reveal a slight weakness in confidence, the main difference between Hanaori and, say, his later "Dojoji Temple".
The viewer is further drawn into the setting through the use of excellent music accompaniment. Traditional matsuri or gagaku-style music is used with the flute being very effectively exploited. While not in and of itself the carrier of Hanaori's message, this musical accompaniment attunes the viewer to the setting and subsequent message Kawamoto conveys.
Admittedly not the peak of Kawamoto's work, Hanaori is still a very strong animation, in execution as well as in message. Kawamoto seems at the moment to be losing popularity, as the accessability of other independent Japanese animators becomes higher. However, even in this debut piece, Kawamoto proves his absolute deservence of President of the Japanese Animation Association. Indeed, in his later life Kawamoto campaigned for the voices of the younger animators to be heard. Various judgments have been drawn over Kawamoto's canon, including that "there is a degree of obscurantism running through his body of work". Yet the content that grounds this "obscurantism"- his compulsion of Buddhist and naturalistic themes such as found in Hanaori- is that which enables the promotion of his overarching spiritually humanistic message into poetic brilliance.