The Collected Works of Tadanari Okamoto

Original title
Okamoto Tadanori Sakuhin Shu
Japanese title
  • 岡本忠成作品集
Running time
418 minutes
29 March 2010
The Collected Works of Tadanari Okamoto The Collected Works of Tadanari Okamoto The Collected Works of Tadanari Okamoto


Throughout his career as an independent animation artist Tadanari Okamoto (1932-1990) challenged himself never to do the same style of animation twice. Along with his mentor Tadahito Mochinaga (1919-1999) and his friend and colleague Kihachiro Kawamoto, Okamoto is considered one of the pioneers of puppet animation in Japan. Unlike Mochinaga and Kawamoto, his work is rarely shown outside of Japan. Geneon Universal's release in June 2009 of a 4-disc box set of Okamoto's complete works made his films more widely available again for the first time since the 1996 re-release of films on laserdisc. The National Film Center in Tokyo held an exhibition of artworks from his animated films (ie. storyboards and the puppets and sets that he used to make his films) in 2004, but as far as I'm aware no retrospective of his works has ever been held outside of Japan. I was lucky enough to see a couple of his films at Nippon Connection in 2008 together with films by Kawamoto.

The first three discs in the box set are also available for purchase individually. Volume 1 contains work from the early days of Echo Incorporated, the independent studio that Okamoto founded in 1964. The twelve films on this DVD date from 1965 to 1973 including three films that Okamoto produced for the Uta no Shiriizu (Song Series). Already at this early stage of his independent career, Okamoto was using a wide range of techniques including puppets made of wood and leather, paper cutouts, multi-screen cel animation, and in Chikotan (1971) he employs a mixture of stop motion and cel animation techniques. The highlights of disc one include three films adapted from the writings of the celebrated science fiction writer Shin'ichi Hoshi (1926-1997) as well as Okamoto's acclaimed adaptations of the traditional tales Nihon Mukashi-banashi: Saru-kani (The Monkey and the Crab, 1972) and Mochi-Mochi no Ki (The Mochi-Mochi Tree, 1972).

With Saru-kani, Okamoto strips the folk tale of the softening it had acquired through modern retellings and lays bare the original brutality of this morality tale. It has all the grimness and nightmarish qualities of the original versions of the Grimm fairy tales. As if to emphasize this lack of softening, the figures of the central characters have been hewn from wood. Similarly, Mochi-Mochi no Ki evokes strong emotion using the traditional puppet storytelling method of gidayu which artfully combines a narrator with shamisen music. The mood of the story is emphasized by Okamoto's use of painted and scratched traditional Japanese paper in a bas-relief 2D style. The result is a nightmarish tale that perfectly synchronizes character movement and expression with the musical and gidayu performances.

Volume 2 contains seven films dating from 1974 to 1979 as well as the four films Okamoto made for the Ningen Ijime Series. The Ningen Ijime Series animate rakugo performances by Chomaru Katsura about antisocial behaviour such as drunk driving, noise, hogging public telephone booths, and the discomforts of train travel during the cherry blossom viewing season. The 4-minute shorts are comically entertaining but also get across public service messages. The highlight of this disc is Okamoto's delightful animation for children using figures made out of yarn. As the 'Making of' feature on the bonus disc informs us, in order to keep the shapes from blowing off the animation table between shots, the pieces of yarn were carefully threaded with thin wire painted to match the yarn. The ten short tales of Are wa dare? (Who's That?, 1976) demonstrate Okamoto's gift for using innovative animation techniques to tell simple but effective stories.

Other highlights in Volume 2 include two great puppet animations: the atmospheric ghost story Chikara Bashi (The Strong Bridge, 1976) and the love story Niji ni Mukatte (Towards the Rainbow, 1977). The historical detail paid to the design of the sets and costumes for both of these tales is stunning, particularly in the latter film which tells the tale of a girl and boy from rival villages divided by a river. The love brings the villages together both spiritually and physically in the form of a new bridge. A ballad sung by Kohei Oikawa complements the story perfectly.

Volume 3 features six films dating from 1980 to 1991 plus the six films that Okamoto contributed to the NHK's Minna no Uta (Everybody's Song) series. Music, including jazz, folk, and traditional, plays an integral role in all of Okamoto's work. Nowhere is this more evident than in Okonjoruri (The Magic Ballad, 1982) which tells the story of a magic fox who has the power to heal through music and his friendship with an elderly woman. By this time, Okamoto was an old hand at puppet animation, but instead of using the same kind of puppets that he uses in Chikara Bashi and Niji ni Mukatte, Okamoto chose this time to use a new material: papier-mâché. The characters have a shine and roundness to them that reminded me of papier-mâché dogs (inuhariko) and daruma dolls. The stunning animation combined with Mami Soga's remarkable jyoruri performance resulted in one of Okamoto's most expressive films.

The third disc also features Okamoto's final masterwork Chumon no Oi Ryoriten (The Restaurant of Many Orders, 1989) which was left incomplete when he died. Okamoto's longtime friend Kihachiro Kawamoto completed the film and it went on to win numerous awards including the Noburo Ofuji Prize. The film is an adaptation of a story by the great Showa poet and children's writer Kenji Miyazawa. Okamoto wanted this film to have the look of a moving copperplate engraving. In order to accomplish this, he used the skills of Reiko Okuyama, an animator who had worked for many years at Toei Doga. The influence she had on the look of Chumon no Oi Ryoriten can be seen if one compares it to the film she and her husband Yoichi Kotabe contributed to Kawamoto's Fuyu no hi (Winter Days) in 2003. This adaptation of a surreal, psychological story has been highly influential many younger animators. Most notably its influence can be seen in Koji Yamamura's multi-award winning Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (Kafuka Inaka Isha, 2008). Like The Restaurant of Many Orders, Yamamura's A Country Doctor adapts a classic piece of literature, using animation to depict a psychological state.

The bonus disc in the boxset contains a documentary about that making of Are wa dare?, which was produced as an educational video by Okamoto himself. There are also pieces that had been screened at special screening events but had never been widely screened before. The most impressive is Oshibishi Tani no Wakare Uta (1971), which had originally been projected onto multiple screens. Other gems on the bonus DVD include Okamoto's adorable O-tenki Mama-san advertisements for Kirin (shown on TBS) and his very first animated film Kagami (1960) which was his student project. For animation historians this is a very important work. Not only does it demonstrate how advanced Okamoto's techniques as an animator were during his student years, but if one compares it with Okamoto's first professional work A Wonderful Medicine (1965) one can see how Okamoto's time working under Mochinaga influenced his character design and movement.

My only fault with this box set, as with all of Geneon's releases, is the lack of English subtitles. While I realize that this is a time-consuming procedure that would add to the price of the DVDs, as these films are attractive to the niche markets of collectors and educators, it seems to me that it is a shame that they have not been more accessible to a wider audience outside of Japan. Okamoto is highly acclaimed by his peers. Eight of his films received the prestigious Noburo Ofuji prize at the Mainichi Film Concours, besting the totals of Osamu Tezuka (3), Kihachiro Kawamoto (6), and Yoji Kuri (6), and even Hayao Miyazaki (6). Surely the time has come for the delights of his complete oeuvre to be enjoyed by more than just a Japanese-speaking audience. While his films are certainly informed by Japansese culture, the universality of their themes and their technical brilliance can be appreciated by all.