Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the mercilessly relentless marvels of Koji Yamamura's animated shorts, now on DVD

It’s deep winter, and the old doctor’s horse lies dead in the snow. His assistant goes door to door asking neighbours to lend out their horse so that the doctor can make the ten-mile journey to call on a sick child, but it’s only when the doctor decides on a whim to investigate the contents of his own forgotten pig stall that he finds transportation. Led by a mischievous stable hand, two enormous black horses with ivory marbles for eyes squeeze out of the cramped stall like newborns spilling from a womb. You never know what you’ll find on your own property, the assistant, soon to become the stable hand’s potential rape victim, exclaims, and the doctor is on his way to an apparently healthy patient that politely requests that he be allowed to die and a mass of villagers that seem to be conspiring against the doctor for reasons unknown. They take off all his clothes and stuff him into bed with the peculiar boy now in his care.

The titular 20-minute animated film that constitutes the centerpiece of
Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor & Other Fantastic Films by Koji Yamamura is an extremely faithful, which is to say oddly literal, adaptation. It diligently realizes each and every event relayed in Kafka’s seven-page story through colour-deprived images of figures whose limbs and heads balloon randomly as they move about and a first-person narration read by not one but two voices, evoking demonic possession. The doctor’s facial expression and body language do little to enhance our understanding of the character however. Yamamura seems content to illustrate Kafka’s strange tale in a distinctively dreamlike, compelling style and leave it at that, which seems perplexing when you compare ‘A Country Doctor’ (2007) to the bulk of the 13 films in Zeitgeist’s collection, which are nothing if not restlessly imaginative, so much so that watching just a few in a row can prove a tiresome experience.

The multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated ‘Mt. Head’ (2002) is probably the most well known of the films here. It tells the story of an old miser who eats so many cherry pits that a cherry tree sprouts from his head and becomes a beloved gathering place for families and weekend warriors. It’s a clever, enjoyable, slightly spooky piece, though like most of the more recent films seems less characteristic of Yamamura’s work as a whole. The early ‘Aquatic’ (1987) finds a young Narcissus studying his reflection in a river until his reflection reveals a bizarre sea creature to be staring back. The water’s surface and the sky above become interchangeable. Amorphous life forms constantly come into being. The result is an essentially formless mediation in fluidity and visual depth that just sort of grooves along until it doesn’t anymore. In the more urban-themed ‘Perspektivenbox’ (1989) the parade of imagery seems to finally end for no other reason than it eventually gets dark outside.

In ‘Your Choice!’ (1999), made in collaboration with students in the US and Japan, a barber with a half-moon head seeks a light bulb. In ‘Bavel’s Book’ (1996) two kids find a book at a bus stop that transports them to another realm. In ‘Child’s Metaphysics’ (2007) a boy sneezes, blowing out his candle nose, while a literal birdbrain hovers trapped within a skull cage. The author of these works is clearly some kind of a genius. No ten seconds of screen-time in any of Yamamura’s films are anything less than inventive—the only problem is that so little of it adds up to very much, so sometimes ten seconds feels like enough. So in a sense, you might say that
A Country Doctor & Other Fantastic Films, or at least the earlier works that constitute the bulk of the collection, makes ideal viewing for people with extreme short-term memory loss. There’s always something new!

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