Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor and Other Fantastic Tales (Zeitgeist Video, NR)

 It’s almost as if Yamamura managed to remain a child in terms of being willing to take chances and imagine impossible things.

 
 
 
If your knowledge of Japanese animation is limited to the popular anime series and the hit feature films then you owe it to yourself to check out something different: the work of independent artist Koji Yamamura. He’s the only Japanese artist other than Hayao Miyazaki to have an animated film nominated for an Academy Award, and his work has won the top prizes at all the major international animation festivals.
 
This month Zeitgeist is releasing a DVD devoted to Yamamura’s work, and it’s a must-see for anyone interested in modern animation. The twin centerpieces of this collection are Mt. Head (2002) and Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (2007), but 13 other works (from the years 1987-2007) are also included for a total running time of 124 minutes. The first thing that struck me when watching these films was how many different techniques Yamamura uses in his animations, including drawing, still photography, modeling clay and painting. The second was how, even in the simplest films, his offbeat sensibility is always present. It’s almost as if Yamamura managed to remain a child in terms of being willing to take chances and imagine impossible things, no matter how silly. At the same time, though, he developed the skills and maturity of an adult that allow him to communicate his ideas through art.
 
Mt. Head(2002) is based on a short story by Shoji Yonemura about a man so cheap he eats cherry pits rather than letting them go to waste. Then one day leaves start sprouting out of his head. After pruning them back for a while, he decides that’s too much trouble and the leaves become an entire cherry tree. The tree blossoms, drawing a crowd of picnickers who set up camp atop his bald noggin. The plot continues in that vein, with each step logically flowing from the last while the story as a whole becomes utterly fantastic. Yamamura’s art is deceptively simple—basically layers of flat drawings given the squiggle-vision treatment—which supplies just enough reality to ground the story in our world while also providing room for unreal aspects to develop. Mt. Head won the top prizes at the Annecy, Hiroshima, and Zagreb animation festivals, despite losing the Oscar to The Chubbchubbs!, a boneheaded decision I can only attribute to studio clout and/or fear of the truly creative.
 
Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor (2007) is based on, you guessed it, the short story of the same name by Franz Kafka. The story’s sensibility is similar to that of Mt. Head—in fact I had to stifle my urge to describe Yonemura’s story as Kafkaesque—but much grimmer. I can’t really summarize the narrative except to say that it’s about a doctor summoned to attend to a sick child, but it’s also about guilt and the impossibility of doing the right thing or even making sense out of life (it’s Kafka, OK?). The animation style is the same basic flat/squiggle technique used in Mt. Head with the addition of some fantastic distortion (the doctor’s head changes size alarmingly, for instance), and it can be truly menacing when the story takes its darker turns.
 
The videos on this disc are arranged in reverse chronological order so you start with Yamamura’s most polished films and move backwards in time to his earlier work. This is a good choice because while the early films are interesting and show the spark of the accomplished artist Yamamura would become, they are also characterized by a lot of experimentation with different styles for their own sake, something typical of any young artist. My favorite among the early films is Japanese-English Pictionary (1989), which doubles as a vocabulary-building program (not necessarily for children since it includes words like “nuclear war” and “ersatz”) while also providing an encyclopedic overview of animation styles.
 
The only extra included with this collection is a short essay by Chris MaGee printed on the inside of the box liner. Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor and Other Fantastic Tales will be released by Zeitgeist on December 7, 2010. | Sarah Boslaugh
 
Further information is available from the Zeitgeist web site (http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/videocatalog/product_info.php?products_id=175). You can read a big more about the author on the Yamamura Animation web site (http://www.yamamura-animation.jp/e-profi.html) which also includes some clips of his work (http://www.yamamura-animation.jp/eWT00.html).

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