For the first few years of his independent career, Tadanari Okamoto largely stuck with stop-motion; even during this early period, however, he already had a penchant for experimenting with different materials and designs. In his first three films alone, based on stories by science fiction writer Shinichi Hoshi, the rather pedestrian puppets of his Noburō Ōfuji Award-winning A Wonderful Medicine, which nevertheless featured delightfully sloppy-looking, mostly hand-drawn FX animation, gave way to the plastic toy-like puppets of its follow-up Welcome, Aliens and then the low-relief wooden puppets of Operation Woodpecker. His desire to try different forms of animation and subject matter became more apparent in the three animated music videos he created for the Song Series from 1968 to 1970, as evidenced by the rugged, wooden aesthetic of Back When Grandpa Was a Pirate and the unabashedly paper-constructed (and also Ōfuji Award-winning) Home, My Home, and said videos reflected the increasing importance of music in his films; his sleek Ōfuji Award-winning 1970 film The Flower and the Mole, meanwhile, featured brief sequences of 2D hand-drawn animation, indicating a willingness to extend into different animated mediums.
1971 would be a landmark for Okamoto in that regard. All three of his works that year—Chikotan, My Bride and two more music videos—were his first to be produced entirely in drawn animation, and Chikotan would be the first of his extended films in which the music was truly on an equal footing with the animation. Moreover, these musical works were the first in which a pronounced melancholic tone was prominent, with Chikotan, in particular, becoming outright tragic at its climax, in contrast to the relative lightheartedness of his earlier films. These works remain among the most unappreciated of Okamoto’s early career, with memorable scores, a heartfelt atmosphere, and beautifully-crafted art design and animation that, over 45 years later, continue to impress in their vitality.
Chikotan, My Bride was originally a children’s choral suite composed by Yasuo Minami with lyrics by Taizō Hōrai in 1969. This particular suite was an attack on the then-increasing death toll in Japan caused by traffic accidents alone that would reach its peak in 1970, termed a “traffic war” (交通戦争, kōtsū sensō), in this case depicting the emotional and mental trauma wrought upon a lonely little boy by the death of his first love after she is, in a shocking twist, suddenly struck and killed by a dump truck. Notably, the lyrics were written in Kansai dialect, its melodic, sharp, and emotional cadences heightening the impact of the childhood tragedy that starts out so idyllically over the first four movements only to become a nightmare in the fifth and final (and longest) movement. The film’s soundtrack is taken from a Nippon Columbia record of the suite as performed by the Nishirokugo Boys and Girls Choir.
Interestingly, whereas most of Okamoto’s films are credited to his studio Echo Inc., the production of Chikotan is credited to the publisher Gakken, the animation division of which had itself produced several unique stop-motion films for educational purposes in the preceding years; a key figure in several of those films, Matsue Jinbo, was in charge of the production, with fellow Gakken staffer Shōji Hara as planner and producer. Nevertheless, the main staffers were all regularly involved with Okamoto at this period, most notably animators Fumiko Magari, Hiroshi Jinzenji, and Kōichi Oikawa, cameramen Ken Yoshioka and Minoru Tamura (the latter of whom also co-wrote the adaptation with Okamoto, Masako Sakama, and Michiko Rai), and art designers Takashi Komae, Masami Tokuyama, and Masami Sudō. (I should add that the opening Gakken logo is snipped out of the film as presented on Geneon Universal’s 2009 boxset of Okamoto’s films, leaving a disconcerting blank where the opening marimba music begins, though other copies leave it intact.)
The film’s most prominent element is its cute, colorful, charmingly crude art direction, styled after children’s paintings and crayon drawings to reflect the perspective of the boy telling his story. Its most consistent trait is its inconsistency: the characters never look the same from moment to moment, their outlines and detailed crayon shadings fluctuate in a deliberately sloppy manner, the backgrounds are painted in such a manner that every unique brush is discernible—and the film is all the better for this child-like chaos, executed as it is by Okamoto and his artists with such consummate sophistication and, most crucially, humanity. The animation in turn has an appealingly pliable, lively quality; by this time, the animators were experts in manipulating puppets for Okamoto’s stop-motion films, and they clearly had fun here playing around with the characters’ forms, actions, and emotions using the extra freedom brought by drawn lines.
What is truly striking about Chikotan, however, is its sheer abundance of creativity, with a variety of catchy, inventive, metaphorical visual schemes and ideas that, bolstered by Okamoto’s loving, humanistic approach to filmmaking, make the music and lyrics—and the story they tell—all the more meaningful and impactful. For instance, during the first movement in which the boy wonders why he likes Chikotan, at one point the inside of his head is shown to be a collection of neural waves with signals traveling through them, representing his constant pondering over the issue; the boy is then shown drowning in this figurative ocean of thoughts. In the second movement, where he formally proposes to Chikotan and promises to become a better person in several ways, he briefly imagines himself to have become so smart as to have invented a quirky contraption that lets him rub himself on the head for being a good boy; the movement also features some fun scenes of the two as butterflies, cranes, worms, and squirrels. The third movement thematically touches upon the difficulties of being an only child, and on top of that having to inherit the family business (in this case a fishmongery), especially when they get in the way of one’s own aspirations; the boy is shown aging over time, and then literally having to carry the fishmongery (and his elderly parents) on his back. After going as far as to flip over the television (and the woman inside it!) in his rage, he reveals that Chikotan doesn’t like fish; in the scene recounting Chikotan’s rejection, even the way in which the boy is drawn becomes wrinkled-up as a way of depicting his heartbreak. The fourth movement provides an upbeat update as the boy decides he will sell only shrimp, crab, and octopus (one of which squirts ink at him from…its mouth) when he grows up—all seafood that Chikotan likes to eat—and, thus freed, the two pinky-swear to marry when they grow up; at the end of this segment, the boy is depicted bouncing all over Japan joyously, finally landing on Mount Fuji, underlining his sung intention to become Japan’s best fishmonger (without selling fish, ironically).
The visual ingenuity in CHIKOTAN’s first half alone cannot be overstated.
While the first four movements are certainly Okamoto at his most playful, his delicate, sensitive touch and mastery of visual storytelling are also critical in how deftly he handles the tragic material of the final movement—material that can easily become lurid and exploitative in the hands of a lesser director—in a genuinely powerful manner. His use of slow-motion during the opening montage, in which the boy sorrowfully recounts with vivid imagery what he thought he would be able to do, gives what could have been happier scenes an ominous, foreboding tone, as well as making it clear they are dreams that can come true no longer; afterwards, the dim lighting and muted, grayed color styling of the classroom, along with the use of fading to depict the departures of the teacher and the other students in place of animation, convey the boy’s blank-faced mental-emotional incapacitation to where he has lost any sense of passing time and surrounding, struck as he is by the feeling that his efforts to become a better person have been rendered worthless.
The sudden, whispered reveal of Chikotan’s death, preceded dramatically by a flash of light, heralds a stark stylistic change as moving ink blotches and a tire track enter the frame. In less than a second, as the boy recounts what happened, the crudely-drawn, cute, flat world of the film before gives way to sketchy perspective animation of the dump truck and its surroundings as it hurtles towards Chikotan, all rendered with a frightening amount of detail, and the actual impact is depicted with abstract circles and then shots of the yellow flag she was carrying (indicating she was volunteering to help pedestrians cross the road safely), observers looking down on Chikotan, and a flashing ambulance light; the rapidly-cut sequence is made all the more impressionistic by the grotesque layers of dotted, brushed, and sponged ink and blurred, lit-up cracks throughout, emphasizing the nastiness and destruction of the events. Okamoto recognizes that there is no need to show the unfortunate Chikotan’s mutilated body; indeed, in one of the film’s most memorable images afterwards, as the music reaches a dramatic height, tire tracks run over her pedestrian flag, leaving blood splotches in their wake to represent the fatality.
This is followed by a lyrical scene in which a portrait of Chikotan smiling is seen within a field of flowers, with Ken Yoshioka and/or Minoru Tamura turning slow camera zooming into a set piece in itself; the boy’s angst twists the innocent portrait into a thought that Chikotan is oblivious to his pain, culminating in him throwing flowers at it and demanding she not smile. It seems unnecessary at first, but it brings light to the uncomfortable fact that those suffering from the death of a loved one often want to blame the victim for their agony.
The film’s terrifying conclusion fulfills the original suite’s intent far more effectively than the music alone possibly could. When the boy begins demanding to know who killed Chikotan, the film cuts away to an angry crowd that becomes ever-more enraged as the boy’s demanding grows more insistent and desperate, the music increasing in tempo and intensity, to the point that their dot eyes become traffic lights and black gunk begins to consume them until they have all become red-eyed monsters; consumed by his own rage, the boy can only let out a final anguished cry of “aho” (“idiot” in Kansai dialect), the tragedy ending inside his blood-red mouth. In effect, the boy who would have been Chikotan’s husband becomes a symbol for all the Japanese who lost loved ones to the country’s then-raging “traffic war”, and found themselves deeply traumatized and resentful at the injustice of the situation.
The boy’s pain is projected onto the populace at large, in a metaphor for the trauma caused by the “traffic war” of Japan’s post-WWII period.
As an interesting side note, the young lad’s saga seems to have continued three years later, when he (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) was cast as the main character of the 2nd segment in Okamoto’s “Five Small Stories” (1974).
The two short music videos, meanwhile, may not come close to reaching the operatic levels of tragedy seen in Chikotan, My Bride, but nonetheless have a wistful, gently sad tone, with songs composed and sung by folk singer Hitoshi Komuro and performed by his folk-rock band Rokumonsen. I’ve long been a fan of Komuro for his rocking, funky score on Group TAC’s forgotten 1980 classic The 11 Cats (watch here), as well as his catchy music for the UPA-styled women’s guerilla sequence in Mushi Pro’s intriguing 1970 misfire Cleopatra (a sequence said to be animated by Osamu Tezuka himself, with Rokumonsen as a whole performing and singing); the songs showcased in these mini-films, by contrast to his 11 Cats music, are gentler, more acoustic, and less bold, but emotional all the same.
December Song was penned by the female poet Noriko Ibaragi. The lyrics observe, in a bitterly humorous manner, how humans continue to be unbearably busy and hurried even as nature begins hibernating with the onset of winter, and how, in the end, this busyness will only cause heartbreak (emphasized by the “potopoto” onomatopoeia, representing the heart shattering to pieces); Komuro’s music and singing lend the words an appropriate warmth and sadness.
The music video’s credits are unusual with regards to the art design: Takeshi Kojima (小島武), who appears to have been a songwriter-composer in his own right (he even wrote at least one song composed by Komuro), is credited for design, while then-regular Okamoto designers Takashi Komae and Hiromi Wakasa are credited for 作画 (sakuga)! I would take this to mean that Kojima did the original designs, with Komae and Wakasa, in turn, creating what probably amounted to animation layouts; the actual animation is credited to Hiroshi Jinzenji. As usual, Ken Yoshioka and Minoru Tamura were the cameramen, with Okamoto writing the film in addition to directing it.
In stark contrast to the colorful, chaotic world of Chikotan, December Song is austere and minimalist, perhaps as a means of conveying of winter’s bleak barrenness. Takeshi Kojima’s designs, as refined by Komae and Wakasa, are simplistic, largely colorless sketches with rough linework; what appears to be marker colors are applied only to skies or to certain pivotal elements and characters, particularly the animals. Still, Okamoto’s point-of-view comes through in the occasionally playful, at times biting imagery: towards the beginning, after a squirrel is shown nearly falling out of its tree in its sleep, the animation cuts to what appear to be the tree’s branches, only to reveal they are in fact the antlers of a deer sleeping with its fawn. The emotional heartbreak at the end is depicted literally, in a way only Okamoto could pull off: a teacher who is earlier mentioned as (and shown to be) one of the most hurried people is seen staggering and crawling weakly on the ground, and this cuts to a scene of a literal blanket of snow floating through the air and landing on the hills, which turns out to be the sheet laid over his body as hospital workers carry him away! His strikingly red-colored heart, after a few final violent beats, falls out from beneath the sheet, bounces off the ground, and cracks and shatters to pieces; a dog walks by and kicks one of the pieces away, ending the music video on a gently stinging note.
As another interesting side note, Takashi Yanase would use the motif of a blanket of snow settling down on the hills years later in his own delicately tragic, unpretentiously artistic gem “Joe and the Rose” (1977).
Hiroshi Jinzenji’s animation is inconsistent in its quality and execution. He does manage to pull off a rather complicated zoom-in to the sleeping squirrel from a low-angle shot of its tree, and his cycle of various people’s legs running across the screen is well-done; additionally, his rapid, choppy cycle of the teacher hopping like a madman from building to building is funny simply for how bizarre it is. However, his animation of the dog entering and exiting the frame at the end is off-puttingly weightless: the dog’s walk cycle barely registers on the screen, and as a result it looks more like the dog is simply sliding in and out, jittering slightly as it does so.
Farewell Song of the Lonely Valley is by far the more impressive of the two music videos. Its lyrics, penned by Kōji Kaze, express sadness at the sight of people leaving the titular valley one-by-one, with the singer asking the moon to hide the road as the first person leaves hidden in the night, the snow to pile up on the road as the second departs without waiting for spring, the lilies not to forget the valley as the third leaves with the wind beating against him, the village to acknowledge the singer’s crying while making a rice ball as the fourth person leaves with nothing, and once again the moon to give way to an early dawn against the fifth person leaving in the night. Komuro’s music features a pan flute, evoking the mystique and desolation of the valley.
What immediately sets this video, also scripted by Okamoto, apart from any of his previous work is its daring use of multi-screen projection, which would be used again to even more brilliant effect in his beautiful 1975 film The Water Seed. The space is split into three different screens, each one blank or depicting different animation at any given point; this gives Okamoto (and cameraman Ken Yoshioka; this time, Minoru Tamura is credited for the opening titles) the freedom to depict the events from up to three different points-of-view at once while creating the impression of moving between locations within the wide valley, allowing the gorgeous, painterly animation, designed by Takashi Komae and Takeshi Kojima with limited yet tasteful color styling, to be staged for maximum dramatic effect.
The music video’s animator, Fumiko Magari, is one of the more eminent stop-motion animators to have arisen in Japan in the latter half of the 20th century, remaining fairly active even today; as her fine work on Chikotan and this video makes clear, she was more than capable of animating in unconventional forms of 2D as well. While her animation is more sparse than in Chikotan, what little there is brings the art and the typically Okamoto-esque visual metaphors instilled in it to profound life, fulfilling the director’s vision of an impeccable, evocative animated song.
A recurring motif throughout the video at the beginning of each verse is that of a lone, shadowy person walking off into the distant hills, with the moon shining above; during the first four verses, this motif gives way to scenes of a young woman beautifully enacting the lyrics.
- On the leftmost screen, smoke is shown covering the moon, with the middle and right screens revealing it is rising from fish burning on a grill, the young woman fanning the flames (“O moon of the lonely valley, if you have pity, hide the road”).
- In the video’s most breathtakingly-animated sequence, the young woman modestly covers her face and suddenly transforms into a white-colored snow spirit that majestically ascends the sky, hair flowing, and douses snow across the three screens, remaining fully animated in the middle one.
- On the right screen, the wind beating against the leaver is represented by having the woman’s kimono blow gently in the wind, while she hesitates for a bit before, in a rather off-putting moment, she finally goes and lets her kimono up so she can feel the wind blowing against her bare bottom; in the meantime, on the left screen, a dashed-line moves along a path beginning from a lily (“O lilies of the lonely valley, do not forget this valley”).
- Moving from right to left with each shot, the young woman is seen molding a rice ball. When she is finished, she has a look of satisfaction, but also of sorrow, perhaps regretful that the fourth leaver left with nothing and wishing she had been able to give the rice ball to him; she tries to wipe the tears in her eyes away, but one lone tear falls anyways.
In a subversion that indicates how thoughtful Okamoto was in crafting his works’ visuals, the recurring motif becomes the centerpiece of the final verse. The moonlit night sky is replaced with a transitional one between purple and white; indeed, as the singer asks the moon to give way to an early dawn so as to foil the fifth leaver’s tottering off, the sun rises and overtakes the sky, and the film fades out to white. This intelligent structuring, whereby the music video’s most pivotal image—which begins each preceding verse—is undone in the final verse, brings the lonely work to a satisfying conclusion.
A recurring motif in the video is that of a lone, shadowy figure tottering away from the valley under the moonlight.
In the most lavishly-animated sequence, the maiden transforms into a snow spirit and spreads snow across the screens.
A curious weak spot is this fanservicey shot of the maiden exposing her bare bottom to the wind (and to the viewer).
While not without their flaws, these three works deserve recognition as prime early examples not only of Okamoto’s drive to find unique visual and thematic means of animated expression but also of his increased attention to the importance of music in animation, in addition to being endearing, finely-crafted works of Japanese art animation in their own right. The combination of creative visuals and operatic sensibility behind Chikotan, My Bride, especially, easily makes it one of the most innovative animated films to have originated in the early 1970s, and one of Okamoto’s greatest films period. The two music videos from the same year are not up to the same level (especially not December Song), but they share with Chikotan a timelessness in the design and execution of the animation that allows their melancholiness to resonate even today. Beneath the tragedy of these three musicals, one can sense the loving care and vitality that Okamoto and his crew put into every frame of film.
Lest I forget, the opening credits of “Chikotan, My Bride” feature some quirky visuals in themselves. A delightful start to a stellar film.