Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Spring and Chaos

Spring and Chaos (1996, Shôji Kawamori)

Back in the first few decades of the 20th century lived a Japanese poet and author named Kenji Miyazawa. Born in a relatively well-to-do family in which his father acted as a money lender for the poor farmers in his native region, Kenji was at an early age disgusted with the practice his father had mastered, seeing it rather as a nasty, one-sided and hopelessly selfish affair. A bright man, he graduated easily in the agricultural sciences program at university, but rather than taking over his father’s business (there was a nasty rift between the two) or becoming an assistant teacher at the university he graduated from, he chose to write stories and poems instead.

He was deeply concerned by the plight of countryside farmers and many of his writings, while perhaps seemingly childlike upon a surface reading, were layered with many thoughts and ideas about those afflicted in the lower economic strata of society. He taught agricultural sciences at high school for a short period before eventually becoming the head of a farmers association, introducing new techniques and tools to the farmers and working on some land himself. A colourful, sometimes eccentric man, an admirer of the arts and of nature, he died of pneumonia at the devastatingly young age of 37.

A touching story, no doubt, one clearly filled with potential for a dramatic feature length film that could be gunning for whatever the Japanese Oscars are. Well, director Shôji Kawamori and his team of artists created their own short length film back in 1996, Spring and Chaos, but with some twists. First and foremost, it’s an animation film mostly in 2-D but with a few sequences featuring CG technology. Secondly, instead of transplanting Kiyazawa’s life to paper in ordinary fashion, this world is populated by humanoid cats. Lastly, the film focuses very much on Miyazawa’s often deemed eccentricity. He is certainly a go getter, a man with his own views and ambitions, but is also a bit of an oddball at times and enters elaborate hallucinations influenced by his emotions, thoughts and experiences.

As was the case with so many of the films watched thus far in the Far East brackets, I was unsure of what to expect (which, in my opinion, is the reason why I give this bracket perhaps one extra push over the U.S. one). It was a peculiar viewing experience to say the least, but one that, once it was all over, I certainly appreciated. Spring and Chaos attempts to juggle the more straightforward biopic aspect associated with a story of this nature, the fantasy element that a filmmaker can create with an animation, it here being the world inhabited by humanoid cats, and an extra layer still, this one exploring the fantastic hallucinations experienced by the titular character. When you mix those three together and see what you get, the results are pretty darn good.

Granted, the film’s running length is a paltry 56 minutes, including credits, therefore limiting the amount of story director Kawamori could possibly cram in. This becomes a double-edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, I applaud the filmmakers for avoiding just that: not cramming in too much information in such little time, which would have, in my opinion, risked making the film a tad dry. On the other hand, despite some mesmerizing scenes, by the end, I actually wanted to see a bit more. Before watching the film I took it upon myself to discover who this man was and what constituted the storyline of his life in general terms. He was an activist, let there be no mistake about it. He was also a highly intelligent man and, lest I forget, a creative one as well. I was certainly no biographer by the time I viewed the film, but I also knew that certain things were a bit rushed. By the end of the film, I felt that a newcomer to this man’s life would have gotten the gist of pretty much all the important aspects that he did and of what influenced him. However, I was nagged by the feeling that with perhaps 15 or 20 more minutes of running time, the film would have fleshed out some aspects of his life, would have given time for them to breath a little bit more. It felt a bit like classes one takes in university or in college (at least in what I studied): by the end of the hour or so, you’ll have pretty much understood the topic of the day, but to really have a feeling for it, you know you’re going to have to do all those readings once at the library if you’re going to pass that exam.

What the film does remarkably well is transform all the human people into cats. Now, for the life of me I wouldn’t be able to explain why exactly this stylistic choice was chosen (he had stories with animals, another film adaptation of a story of his featured humanoid cats,…), but it did make the world peculiar and fun. The filmmakers paid close attention in providing these characters with physical characteristics that were indeed akin to felines. When Miyazawa argues with his father over his future and that of the family business, they both start hissing at each other. When a character is taken by surprise, their tail rises quickly. When the wind blows, their whiskers move slightly. It’s all pretty cool, that is, if you care to watch a film with humanoid cats. The detail in the animation is quite impressive. The film may not last very long by the standards we are accustomed to, but there a few shots in Spring and Chaos that don’t impress. It’s drawn in what I assume to be, based on my whity perception of Asian cartoons, anime style, and it looks great. There were a few moments during which I didn’t feel the meshing of 2D and CG animation felt genuine however. It’s 1996, the technology wasn’t what it is today, and maybe the budget on the film was nothing spectacular, I honestly don’t know for sure, but when something sore stuck out, which was rare anyways, it usually had CG in it.

Many sequences provided sheer brilliant animation however. Miyazawa goes through two intense hallucinations (or dreams perhaps, it’s all in his head anyways) and both feature some really inventive creations and even some rather dark imagery, as in not ‘kid friendly’ dark imagery. Another scene involves Miyazawa telling one his stories to his ill sister and the animation jumps from one style to another, from one image to the next…it’s this fascinating mishmash of ideas. I suspect that many of the images are nods to the actual stories Miyazawa wrote in his day, but since I haven’t read any, I can’t say for sure unfortunately.

Overall, Spring and Chaos is a surprising little movie. It has a solid story, an intriguing character and features creative imagination, both for the more straightforward narrative aspects and for some of the psychedelic moments. If the story had been allotted more time to breath, this would be a home run hitter.

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