Tomoyasu Murata and Company
- 17 May 2008
One could easily walk past the non-descript door of the Tomoyasu Murata Company in the Arakawa district of Tokyo without realising it contains the studio of one of the most prolific independent animation artists in Japan. The only glimmer of uniqueness on the outside is that the normally red mailbox has been painted white. Tomoyasu Murata is perhaps most famous for his stop motion work, such as his award winning film Nostalgia (2000), the My Road series, and his video work for J-pop band Mr. Children, but his output encompasses a wide range of other media as well.
Murata's work nestles somewhere between high art and popular culture. Some of his films have a modern look to them, but others are influenced by Japanese traditional art and nostalgia for an earlier time. The exact time period is hard to pin down. The mise-en-scene of many of his films seems to come out of 1950s or 1960s Japan, but the My Road series has a more European look to the architecture. Some of his manga and anime work have a modernist aesthetic. For example, Rurikakesu, the main protagonist in Murata's new comic book has a look reminiscent of German Expressionism. Murata's nostalgia manifests itself in the use of old-fashioned objects (furniture, old technologies) as well as props and settings that have a slightly aged or worn look. In the Slow Life exhibition last year at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, curator Takehisa Yuu described Murata's hand-made, imperfect style as an expression of 'human warmth'.
In addition to animation and manga, Murata dabbles in painting, collage, installation art, and photography. He started his career via the art college route. In 2000, he completed his BFA at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music, followed by his MFA in 2002. In that same year he founded Tomoyasu Murata Company. Apart from a select few who can live off their art, most artists live from grant to grant, or subsidy their work through teaching at art schools. By incorporating himself, Murata has found a way to profit from the fruits of his own artistic work while retaining complete control over the way in which his art is disseminated.
In Europe and North America, when an artist commodifies his or her work, particularly for commercial purposes, whispers of the artist 'selling out' begin to be heard. Not so in Japan. Popular art has a long and venerable history in Japan, with perhaps the most famous example being the mass-produced work of ukiyo-e artists which made art available to those outside the samurai aristocracy. In an example from contemporary art, Takashi Murakami founded the company Kaikai Kiki with the explicit intent of supporting artists not only in the production but in the proliferation of their art domestically and abroad.
The self-produced DVDs of Murata's short films are beautifully packaged and the featured films have been professionally transferred to disc. The DVDs include documentary footage of the artist at work and interviews with him. These 'making of' shorts, while providing fascinating insight into Murata's methods, unfortunately are quite poorly produced, particularly in the area of sound. This is surprising because sound plays such a vital role in Murata's animation. The films balance sound and silence in a very precise manner that adds a layer of meaning to the resulting animated film.
Murata's company also produce a wide variety of other merchandise using his artistic motifs: postcards, stickers, pins, and figurines of quirky characters like Sakadachi-kun and the robot in Memory (2001). These he markets at his regular solo exhibitions. These exhibitions usually include his paintings, many of which relate visually and thematically to his films, as well as installations that reveal his nostalgia for objects from the past. At Varieté Honroku Gallery on Hongo-dori in Tokyo in November 2006, he had placed an old bookshelf with several old-fashioned small televisions spaced among the books and each small screen was screening a different image. There was also an old-fashioned vending machine. For 100 yen one would receive a ball with a slip of paper inside that could be redeemed for a Murata souvenir.
Murata's stop motion work, paintings and pastels tend to have a rather melancholic theme. The My Road series - Scarlet Road (2002), White Road (2003), Indigo Road (2006), and the most recent instalment Lemon Road (2008) - can be read as meditations on loss and mourning. These poetic films tell their story through motif, character expression, music and montage and require repeated viewing for one to absorb the subtly evoked layers of meaning. Perhaps the only flaw with the use of music in these claymation films is that over-sentimentality occasionally rears its head.
Murata's other animation ranges from lyrical mixed media work like Winter Rainbows (2005) and Nuance (2006) to comical cel animation like the Sakadachi-kun films, which feature a small boy running about on his hands. Sakadachi-kun reminds me of the fourth section of Donald Richie's experimental film Five Filosophical Fables (1967) in which a man wanders through Tokyo walking on his hands. This sense of humour is also apparent in Murata's manga work, installations and mixed media art. For example, he has a series of photographs of people in which their heads have been obscured by blobs, and some of his installations also include large white blobs.
In the spring of 2007, the Hiratsuka Museum of Art in Kanagawa prefecture presented a wide range of art and installations by Murata. It included screenings of his new films as well as seminars featuring Murata in conversation with photographer Katsuhito Nakazato, filmmaker Nobuhiro Yamashita, and Akutagawa award-winning novelist Tetsushi Suwa.
Those who missed out can virtually visit Murata's art on his website where he has albums of photographs he took in Vietnam, Okinawa, Yanaka, and the Czech Republic. It also features a generous selection of stills from his films as well as examples of preparatory sketches and storyboards for his animation. Several DVDs of his work are available for purchase online (see links below).
Tomoyasu Murata filmography
- Tug Tug (4.30 min.)
- A Chorus of Cicadas (Semishigure, 9 min.)
- An Introduction to Human Zoology (7.30 min.)
- Burp (2.30 min.)
- Tokyo (5.30 min.)
- Nostalgia (Suiren no Hito, 16 min.)
- Memory (Omohide, 4.30 min.)
- Scarlet Road (Shu no Michi, 12.58 min.)
- Ponyu Town (for NHK, 5 min.)
- Keep on smiling (Itsu demo Hohoemi wo, for Mr. Children tour, 5 min.)
- White Road (Shiro no Michi, 14 min.)
- Talking to Myself (Hitorigoto, documentary, 19 min.)
- Fire-blowing Bamboo (Hifukidake, 2 min.)
- Tooryanse (7.18 min.)
- Four Brothers (Yonin Kyodai, 1 min.)
- Handstand Boy Intently Running (Sakadachi-kun, Hitasura Hashiru!, 2.40 min.)
- Winter Rainbows (Fuyu no Niji, 4.30 min.)
- Metropolis (6 min.)
- Handstand Boy Intently Eats! (Sakadachi-kun, Hitasura Ku!, 2.24 min.)
- Handstand Boy Intently Strange Phenomenon! (Sakadachi-kun, Hitasura Kaiki Gensho!, 4.12 min.)
- Indigo Road (Ai no Michi, 13.30 min.)
- Nuance (section of Tokyo Loop, 4.10 min.)
- Peach-Coloured Ryokan (Hyakushoku ryokan, 0.55 min.)
- Kazoku Dekki vol. 1 Haru-hen (4.30 min.)
- Kazoku Dekki vol. 2 Natsu-hen (5.17 min.)
- Tomorrow (3.08 min.)
- Shayou (3.20 min.)
- Kazoku Dekki vol. 4 Fuyu-hen (5.17 min.)
- Lemon Road (Remon no michi, 13 min.)
- Space Circus (Speesu Saakasu, 5 min.)
- Merry-go-round (Meriigouraundo, 4min.)
- Kazoku Dekki vol.4 Haru-hen (6.14 min.)