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A DVD compilation of stop-motion and paper-cut animation by Kihachiro Kawamoto, released with English subtitles in the Japanese market-although many of the works on the DVD require no subtitles at all, with the action and drama conveyed through sign language and impressive expressions. Kawamoto's work impressively bridges East and West, with some films relying heavily on the conventions of kabuki and noh-such as the stylized backgrounds and movements of Breaking of Branches is Forbidden and Demon. His Self-Portrait is very short indeed and largely comprises a film loop of a plasticine Kawamoto alternately squashing and being squashed by a plasticine demon.
Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (1968, Hanaori) features a classic setup from Japanese drama, in which a young apprentice, left to pray and contemplate blossoms in a temple precinct, is persuaded to let a drunken samurai and his squire into the garden. In scenes of earthy comedy, the apprentice steals alcohol from the drinkers by dipping his prayer beads into the bowl and wringing out the sake. In one moment, the apprentice's head is drawn to the smell of fresh sake poured by the samurai, the head drifting several paces ahead of the body in a setup that owes more to the cartoonish deformations of Warner Bros. cartoons than puppetry.
Based on a story by Riichi Yoshimitsu, Anthropo-cynical Farce (1970) mixes paper cut-outs and stop motion for the tale of a betting man. It is not the only Kawamoto animation to use paper cut-outs on the disc; once a major component of all Japanese animation in the days before cels, cut-out animation now finds its last repose in some of Kawamoto's other work, most notably Travel (1973, Tabi), which can be found in two versions on this DVD. Using a collage style most likely to evoke Monty Python in modern audiences, Travel seems rooted in Kawamoto's own experiences of foreign countries. Its protagonist, a Japanese girl, heads away from home and experiences a Europe that is both museum and inner monologue, until the arrival of tanks symbolizes the upheavals in Czechoslovakia that so shocked Kawamoto after his happy experiences there. The final message, however, reflects a burgeoning sense of Buddhist struggle that would become ever stronger in Kawamoto's work-here, it is the journey itself, not the destination, which makes the titular travel worthwhile.
In Demon (1972, Oni), two Japanese brothers go out hunting for deer, only to be attacked by a demon in the forests. They cut off its arm and report home to their mother, but discover that the old woman's arm has itself been cut off, in a Japanese fairy tale adapted from the Konjaku Monogatari-the same "Tales of Past and Present" collection that also supplied the inspiration for Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. A similarly Japanese theme can be found in Dojoji Temple (1976, Dojoji), in which a young monk's love for a fair maiden is thwarted when she transforms into a sea monster, all told in a scrolling form with a watercolor background. Comparable warnings about the fair sex can be found in House of Flames (1979, Kataku), in which the ghost of a young girl tells a fearful traveler about her torment in hell-having allowed two men to fight and die for her love, she suffers eternal agony for having given herself to neither of them.
Kawamoto's A Poet's Life (1974, Shijin no Shogai) is supposedly based on a story by Kobo Abe, although Kawamoto himself has suggested in interviews that its origins lie with his own experience of being fired from an animation studio in his youth. In it, a sleepy old woman factory worker accidentally weaves herself into the fabric of a jacket. When her son attempts to sell the jacket, old lady and all, he is fired and reduced to accosting his former workmates at the gate. Another strange career path can be found in Shooting Without Shooting (1988, Bushe zhi She), made by Kawamoto as a Chinese coproduction and set in an idealized ancient China, in which an expert archer seeks to learn from a master even better than his own, only to be told that he should put down his bow and shoot without shooting.
In Briar Rose or the Sleeping Beauty (1990, Ibara-hime mata wa Nemuri-hime) a princess in an unspecified European country is shocked to discover that a prophecy predicts she will prick herself on a spindle and die, but that the action of good fairies has altered the curse so that she will merely fall asleep. Despite beginning like one of Grimm's Fairy Tales, the story soon takes a new direction, when Briar Rose reads a secret diary, revealing that her mother the queen inadvertently broke a betrothal in order to marry her father the king. Wishing to break the curse, Briar Rose tracks down her mother's jilted lover, finding him living alone in the forest, bitterly lamenting that the queen did not wait for him when he went to fight in a war. Briar Rose offers herself in her mother's place, only to be abandoned in turn by the nameless old soldier once he has taken her virginity. Back at the palace, she is bereaved by her mother's death and lives in a daze, leading some gossips to refer to her as the "Sleeping Beauty." Eventually, she agrees to a loveless marriage with a handsome prince, in a sinister retelling of the fairy tale that highlights its Freudian subtexts.
The Film Works DVD is not exhaustive-it does not, for example, include Kawamoto's feature-length puppet animations Rennyo and His Mother (1983, Rennyo to Sono Haha) and The Book of the Dead (2003, Shisha no Sho). But it is a vital part of any core collection of Japanese animation-it may be Japanese and animated, but it is often a world away from what the mainstream often conceives as "anime."