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Japanimation: back to the future

Bill Bradley
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Given the recent surge in interest in "Japanimation," including the current, widely publicized U.S. run of Pokemon and Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, to say nothing of the way digital technology is taking animation to dizzying new heights of realism and fantasy, it seems a perfect time for a retrospective on the art form and its current state in Japan.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography has dedicated its basement space to exhibitions centered around the idea of eizo, or "the image," and is currently in the middle of "Animations...from the Past to the Future," a multistage exploration of animation from its cave-painting roots to the digital horizon.

Part II of this exhibition, "Pictures in Motion--Animations in Japan," focuses primarily on 19th-century animation techniques, spinning wheels and optical illusions that hold their relevance even to the jaded eyes of the Toy Story generation.

While computer animation is being hailed as a tool to wrest power from the major studios and put it in the hands of the average Joe, giving movement to illustrations was, just 100 years ago, a popular hobby for the masses. Anyone able to create movement from two or more images was assured a receptive audience on the basis of novelty alone. And as early as the 1830s, anyone with a mirror could make surprisingly vivid animations with a device known as a phenakistiscope.

The current exhibition is centered mostly around this handheld apparatus and variations of it. In its basic form, a phenakistiscope consists of a sequence of 10 or 12 separate images drawn radially on a flat disk. The illustrated wheel is then fixed concentrically onto a larger disk perforated with several narrow slits, one corresponding to each image. These disks are then attached through the center to a handle so that they may be spun freely.

If the spinning disk is viewed on its own, it becomes simply a whizzing blur of lines and colors. But when viewed through the perforations, each image is briefly isolated, and the result is a relatively seamless animation loop.

The exhibition space has several tables covered with these disks, and patrons are free to handle them as they wish. In a nation of tightly controlled public spaces, the freedom to manipulate and control the experience individually is refreshing in itself. But the real appeal of the show is the discovery that the bizarre, psychedelic qualities often attributed to modern animations are not so modern after all.

To underline this, the exhibitors recruited several members of the Japanese Animation Association to create phenakistiscope disks especially for this exhibition. The technically masterful yet irreverent approach of these contemporary young artists makes it hard to believe this technology is nearly 200 years old.

The exhibition also includes examples of 3-D image manipulation and dime-store flip boxes that draw a nostalgic chuckle from anyone who ever created an animation by illustrating the corner of a primary school text book.

Upon entering the exhibition space, the most striking piece is a permanent installation by famed Japanese graphic artist Tadanori Yokoo. Rising up out of a twisted blur of colored carpet is a massive mirrored cylinder reflecting the entire room. As the viewer approaches the cylinder, however, the reflected carpet snaps into perspective to reveal a richly detailed artwork titled "Earth Beat" (Amorphosis). This anamorphosis technique was perfected centuries ago, but, as with the spinning wheels, has been reinvented for this museum by one of Japan's leading contemporary artists.

"Pictures in Motion--Animations in Japan" continues through Feb. 6, 10 a.m-6 p.m at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Yebisu Garden Place. For more information, call (03) 3272-8600.

Daily Yomiuri, January 27, 2000

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