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Winter Days interview with Yuriy Norshteyn

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drawing, old man

Winter Days interview with Yuriy Norshteyn

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drawing, old man


In 2004, the Russian journal Kino Art published a lengthy interview with director Yuriy Norshteyn about his segment for the 2003 Japanese film "Winter Days" (the interviewer was Tatyana Iensen). Here's some more info about the film:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_Days

You can see his segment on Youtube over here.

Yuriy Norshteyn is perhaps the most revered animation director in Russia. He may be considered the conscience of the artform. He's been working intermittently on a feature film adaptation of Gogol's classic story "The Overcoat" since 1981 (half an hour of which, by the way, will be released by the end of this year). He works with his wife, Francesca Yarbusova, who does all of the final designs and art for his films (he directs, animates, and writes the scenario). For more information, here are two wikipedia articles about them (though they are a little misleading and not quite up to date):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuriy_Norshteyn
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francheska_Yarbusova


Last month, Anipages Daily (an excellent animation blog which focuses mostly on Japanese animation, but also on obscure gems from other places) published a translation of the interview. Most of the translation work was done by member Mihai Luchian, and it was touched up by Benjamin Ettinger (the webmaster). I've also gone over it (making a few changes to be more faithful to the original words), and translated the last question which was omitted from the version on Anipages. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I found the right words for the last question, so feel free to correct me.

This is a very long interview, so you should probably have an hour or so of free time. But I think it's worth it.

I'm also working on translating another interview with Norshteyn - hopefully it'll be finished within a week or two.

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Powerful Verses or The Sound of Pine Trees on a Sumi-e

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Where did this idea to make a film out of Bashō’s haiku come from?

Actually, the idea to make a film based on a cycle of Basho’s poetry, called “renku” or “linked verse”, was proposed by the Japanese. The "renku" cycle comprises 36 strophes, so the concept of the project was to give each strophe to a different director. Each director was to do a small piece without any limits on style, script or form, meaning completely in accord with his individuality. After that, the small pieces would be strung together.

The Japanese decided that it was to be an international project, so they had invited different directors from Canada, Belgium, China, England, Russia and so on, 35 in total. Each director had to make a 30-second piece with no attempts to conform to a Japanese style. Later, the artistic director of the project, Kihachiro Kawamoto, combined the different pieces, bridging them each by a narrator reading the verses.

I was assigned the first three verses that open the whole “Winter Days” cycle. Immediately I thought out a winter plot: A boy is cooking a meal on a brazier. He throws on some coal. The shoji screen is open, and through it you can see the mountains in the distance. It’s snowing, blanketing the rust-colored hills. The boy turns away from the brazier, intensely admiring the view. The food is burning a little. The father (or some other grown-up) enters the room. He senses that the food is burning. Swearing, he grabs a teapot, pours water over the brazier, and slaps the boy over the head. The boy is scared. Still swearing, the father lifts his head and freezes, as he sees the snow slowly covering the hills. The water continues to pour from the teapot. The boy looks at the teapot, the father and the snow.

At this point, the producer and artistic director waved their hands - "What are you thinking? The movie must start with autumn. Winter comes along later." So I had to compose a new plot. I don't compose easily. Later, as the little details come to life, the plot begins to take on a life of its own.

What does "linked verse" mean exactly? What is renku?

The poets sit around in a circle, and the verses travel from one poet to the next. The 1st one writes the first three verses (called the “hokku”), then the 2nd poet adds his two verses, and so on down through the 3rd, 4th, 7th, 32nd, etc, each poet in turn borrowing the previous poet’s last verse and adding 2 verses to it to construct a new poem.

That is where the expression “linked verse” comes from. You could say that the basic poetic idea wanders around the circle of the poets and in the end locks onto somebody, maybe even the first poet. Each one has 2-3 verses. Basho composes the first 3. He’s the teacher, the respected master. The first three verses provide the energy for all the later ones. The system for writing the hokku, or the haiku, is fairly well-known: 3 verses, each one with a specific number of mora or Japanese syllables: 5-7-5. The couplet that follows is 7-7.

A translation can’t have the same effect as the original, because the number of mora will be different, thus changing the rhythm. A Japanese hieroglyph does not equate to its Russian translation; it can have one syllable while its translation can have two or three. A literal translation is ruled out, though there are sometimes happy coincidences. Vera Markova, who translated Basho, is a great albeit underappreciated poet. It’s laughable to say that someone can translate Japanese poetry without being a poet. Same with film - transferring haiku to the screen is equally hopeless. Especially under the condition that each strophe must be only 30 seconds long.

Seriously, it’s naive to think that such a short piece can even compare to Basho’s poetry. Only when the power of a verse lies in its conciseness can 30 seconds of film hope to come close to the verse. But in this case we were in a rather restrictive situation, proposed by a different creator. And, willing or not, you swim in this channel of verses and you can’t run away. Everything that you create is bathed in the glow of the energy of the verses. I’m a slow-witted person, so I wasn’t able to capture the essence of the verse in 30 seconds, or even 3 times 30 seconds - even though I could have probably made a short film consisting of just one scene. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used exposition, plot, tying up of loose ends, a thorough design, and truly have made do with one scene. But it’s too late now.

It’s hard to imagine that such a thing could be possible, but the work on this film was actually harder than the work on “The Overcoat”. I was not so thorough when creating the whole artistic environment of “The Overcoat” as I was here. Compared to how long it took me to adapt Basho, the work on “The Overcoat” seems like the speed of light compared to the speed of sound. 2 minutes of screen time took me 9 months of work or even more. And the result? I feel like everything I did is beyond hope, though the Japanese liked it. But I feel that I didn’t achieve the intonation that was needed... I’m not talking about technical mastery or surface attributes, but about the intonation of those 3 verses, through which I was hoping to achieve tranquility. Mastery is when one needed path replaces a whole bunch of unneeded paths. You come to the truth only when you achieve mastery.

Could you recite Basho’s verses in your own words?

“Mad verse”
In the withering gusts,
a wanderer ...
How much like Chikusai I have become!

Basho precedes these lines with the words: “I have suddenly remembered the master of the wild verse, Chikusai, wandering in the old days on these paths.”

Who exactly is Chikusai?
Chikusai (character for the film)
Chikusai (character for the film)

An imaginary character of popular lore. He exists in the imagination of the Japanese in such a high level of reality that they settled him in some small town. He even owns his own pharmaceutical store. But he doesn’t treat anybody. He’s a charlatan and everybody understands that he can’t treat. He is at the same time a joker, a holy fool and idler, like our little fool Ivanushka [a character from the traditional Russian fables]. He is a blessed little fool, not an idiot or a simpleton, but a very sharp and clever thinker who plays the game of stupidity, thereby freeing himself from some of the conventions imposed by life itself. However, Basil the Blessed [holy fool during the time of Ivan the Terrible and Russian Orthodox saint] also didn’t care about the church or the rich.

The Japanese were very surprised when they saw that Chikusai and Basho meet in my script; they had never imagined such a thing. In my case, they met thanks to my ignorance. It didn’t even occur to me that there is no way the two could have met. My plot wound up as a kind of circus side-show – the antics of a clown in white and a clown in red. The white one is, of course, Basho/Pierrot, and the red one is Chikusai/Harlequin, the one who might pinch the white clown or steal his hat, which is just what he does.

A journalist once told me about a meeting she had with the poet Marietta Shaginyan not long before her death: she saw before herself an old but very lively lady – already almost 100 years old, or at the very least 90. Imagine the scene: There she was, seated near Blok’s grave! [Alexander Blok, one of the greatest Russian poets after Pushkin] It’s moments like these that bring history closer to home. Shagiyan, withered and bent, sprang out from behind the table, ran to the journalist, grabbed her by the hair, pulled the hair and asked: “Are these natural?” After that she pinched her cheek, sat down and only then began to answer questions. For Shaginyan it was totally natural behavior. She wasn’t a dying old lady who behaved the way people around her expected an old lady to behave. When she was asked where her vitality came from, she answered using the words of Stravinsky: “I want to live the time I am given, not to die it.”
Chikusai (preliminary sketch)
Chikusai (preliminary sketch)

In your film, Chikusai goes around listening to the trees with his medical horn in the same way a doctor might listen to a patient’s lungs with a stethoscope. That’s all - you don’t have to say anything more, or explain his buffoonery in some artistic way.

Well, there are many other sounds there besides that – a woodpecker, a magpie’s flight, a worm gnawing a tree. This crescendo builds to the moment when the wind starts to blow. Chikusai must be introduced with the help of the underground rumble - the way with an earthquake you first feel the earth take a deep breath, and this is followed by a slight shudder. I even think that this short segment, where Chikusai listens to the trees, could become a whole separate film. You could make a film about how old trees breathe, how they creak, how they asthmatically suffocate (the action takes place in autumn), how the branches tremble from the cold and the trees freeze, entering their winter slumber... although the winter in Japan is not our hard frost and blinding snow.
Chikusai (preliminary sketches)
Chikusai (preliminary sketches)

However, the paths on which Basho walked rhyme in a way with our Russian paths. He is like a poet, an eternal wanderer. His way of life is to always wander. The road returns him to himself. Try for a second to imagine what this is like – Basho’s never-ending journey. It’s not like driving a car or hitch-hiking. Imagine the darkness. Not even a small fire or a living soul near you. The only light is your torch. If the torch burns out, the darkness will devour you. Also, there are robbers, who don’t care if you’re a great person or not. They just see a poor wanderer who might have something good. Maybe there’s something in his bag. The great Polish sculptor Wit Stwosz created a famed altar-piece in Krakow and died on his way to Hamburg. Where are his bones? Maybe in somebody’s pit for beggars and cripples. And what about Mozart or Rembrandt?

Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who owned nothing and lived in the wilderness, where he stood on a rock for 1000 days and nights and ate only grass, was beaten almost to death by some robbers.

Yes, and he didn’t even fight back while they were beating him.

When Seraphim was attacked, he had with him an axe that he used to cut trees. But he not only didn’t use it, he didn’t fight. Even though he was very strong. The Diveyevsk Monastery still retains the extra-large rags he wore, and his heavy hoe. After he was beaten and they hit his head, he became even more hunched. When the robbers were found, he forgave them and asked for their freedom.

Now that is a feat. Or maybe not a feat, just a way of life. He didn’t think about it as a feat. It was the natural course of action for a holy man. Basho, too, couldn’t be lured by money or good conditions or with the words: “Why are you walking in your rags upon roads, under rain and snow?” His words roamed the paths. His verses were his messengers. He himself walked barefoot. Nobody had the power to make him settle down, find a home, enjoy a nice fire and write poetry. He kept walking and walking on his roads and paths. Sometimes a helper would assist him, help him with the load. More often, Basho walked alone. The burdens of the road weighed heavily on his swollen feet. His hands were freezing. After all, you are the only one who can feel the burdens of your own life. You can’t feel the pleasure of a walk if you send someone instead of you to do it. It has nothing to do with money. You yourself have to overcome these burdens, the pain in your feet, with your own power, and no one can take it away. But too often modern man relies on his possessions, which in the end separate him from the essence of life and devour him, so that he loses even the tiniest amount of knowledge about life and feelings for other humans.
Basho from the back (character for the film)
Basho from the back (character for the film)

I recently saw a documentary about a new living complex in Moscow called "Scarlet Sails". I don’t think the people who chose this name [after the story by Alexander Grin] realize the price Grin paid for the book! “A high-comfort community”, announced the presenter excitedly, as if in an attempt to convince us that comfort can be bought by cutting down trees, cementing rivers, creating isolated communities, and the like. A kind of a capitalist bunker with "a high level of comfort". As they said, the region has everything a man could need. I really wanted to ask: "a cemetery too?" But then this complex is itself a cemetery because it isolates a person from creation itself. A dead place for poets. Only computer faces with a high level of comfort. A piece of river just for the district. Maybe the sky will also be divided into pieces, proportionally to a person’s bankroll. What do you think? Will the people of this district want to understand Basho’s life and his verses? This unnatural way of life leads to dependency and impossible expectations. The result – lack of social consciousness. The poets will cease to exist, nobody will hear the trees. And really, today the forest is more readily seen as square units of wood by which to measure sales. The forests were privatized; soon you will be able to see them only by special admission, and independent travellers will be shot.

But there will always be a need for poets like Basho!

Yes, there will always be this need. I remember Natasha Guttmann’s story about Richter [Svyatoslav Richter, the pianist], who used to walk 45 kilometers a day. He was so powerful. When he walked towards his grand piano, the crowd before him would split in two, like the water before a ship. Like Basho, he was a wanderer who didn’t gather money, didn’t try to gain anything. He didn’t even need fame. He surpassed it. He had more subtle and great things in his life. He surpassed his mastery and life wasn’t about playing the piano anymore. He didn’t want to play in his last 2 years. Only, from time to time his eyes would light up. His destiny was somewhat similar to Michelangelo’s. To me, these two giants are united in their understanding, or rather, their gradual realization about life. And that bitterness they felt about the absurdity of their lifelong struggle for perfection, once they had attained the heights of the humanly possible in their later years. I think for Michelangelo it was death. He craved it, he'd screamed about in his sonets almost since the age of 16. Basically, Richter discovered a similar thing. “I don’t like myself” – this is how he speaks about himself in the documentary “Richter – The Enigma” directed by Bruno Monsaingeon. There he sits in a cowboy shirt, sharp elbows on the table, before him a writing-book, his expression overwhelmed by an unspeakable melancholy: “I don’t like myself”. What bad taste emanates from that musician (an outstanding one, by the way), who introduces this film about Richter. How can you hold yourself so, knowing how the Maestro will hold himself in the very next frame? But it seems that today is the age of showing off before the public, as if it is giving points for social somersaults.

Such masters as Basho and Richter are united through their philosophy: constant motion. Never allow oneself to remain the same - like a river, always renew yourself. I’m always wondering about the paths that would open animation to become a real dramatic art. Mastery is simply a question of mechanics. Mastery is nothing in comparison with the subtler things, the things that you can’t even imagine or postulate. You feel it in your breath, like a kind of fine matter, when something that looks rough and awkward possesses an ineffable hidden compassion and tenderness. Here’s an interesting idea: the physics of fine matter, intangible matter. Matter that can only be apprehended by means of photographic plates and careful experimentation. The physics of intangible matter is beyond imagining, but you can at least get a sense of the form of this unthinkable, holy substance. To paraphrase Lev Landau’s wonderful words: “Physics has allowed us to calculate the unimaginable.” Niels Bohr described the quality of a discovery with the words: “An idea not crazy enough to be something true”. In general, physicists are people who calculate the unthinkable. Mathematics becomes more and more abstract, and logic ceases to be pure logic. These concepts merge when it comes to the act of artistic creation. Basho would translate everything he had seen and felt into his verses. Essentially, he would grasp the world with his poetry, and the world would become substantial in order to convey something invisible to the eye.

When you compose a frame, you inevitably think about these things. But I was still unable to achieve the intonation I wanted. That’s why, despite the fact that the Japanese accepted the film, I began to make a different version of the main episode, the meeting of Chikusai and Basho. I doubt the producer would agree to remaking everything, as doing so would take money and time, and I’m not even sure that the new version would be what I wanted this time either. The eternal problem in art (including animation) is taking the risk of following your instinct in seeking the right intonation, and not worrying about financial discipline (for you know that money is of no value compared to your answers). To be exhausted with suffering and apprehension that the final result is on film and no editing knob can save it. You cling to false hope, pleasant self-deception. (can you admire a ragged wound when you bandage it?) Wave after wave of anxiety washes over you, and you only begin to see the true value of your work upon examining it as a whole.

You must feel the wind that rustles the rusted leaves, that travels through space rearranging the fallen leaves. Every leaf harbors the energy, the pull of the wind. With artistic creation it’s like with a stove: you’ll get burned if you don’t pull strongly enough, and you'll pull the viewers in with you. With a stove there’s clearly an energy present; but what about when two people meet? Their communication attaches itself to your life. They become your every step. They inhabit your thoughts. They are the continuation of your suffering. The energy of discovery happens here, during the filming, during the endgame and not during the writing of the script. In poetry your creation is the product of hours of madness and a drop of ink. It’s the same in film, but only with more money. A writer takes a pen and writes a line. If it’s bad, he crosses it out and writes a new one. But in cinematography, to make a line you need lights, cameras, time, film, and so on and so on.

Action sketches for Chikusai
Action sketches for Chikusai

You say that you couldn’t find the right intonation in the main episode. Could you be a little more specific about what went wrong?

Maybe I should retell the episode first. Chikusai is having a walk, listening to the trees, and kicking about the fallen leaves when suddenly he sees a stranger doing something which is very important to him. Chikusai approaches the stranger. What’s it to him if it’s Basho or not? You can even presume that he doesn’t know who Basho is. In real life the two wouldn’t have been able to meet, not just because one is a fictional character, but also because these two lived in different periods. I already mentioned how the Japanese were surprised to see them meet. They said that nobody had thought about such a simple situation. Clearly I happened upon this idea thanks to my ignorance and freedom from the burden of historical facts. I just knew that Basho, when writing his verse, said of himself: "I walked the path which was once walked by master Chikusai". That’s why the genial poet Basho and the holy fool Chikusai exist on the same level for me.
Storyboard of the meeting of Basho and Chikusai
Storyboard of the meeting of Basho and Chikusai

Of course, they are also formally united through their poverty – both of them have holes in their kimonos, which they present to each other. But in reality the interchange between them happens on a different level. By no means is their meeting limited to the physical. Yes, they wear rags, but this shabbiness must be funny and should not evoke feelings of sorrow and compassion in the viewer. The essence lies in this ordinary exchange between two ordinary human beings who have a taste for life and the aspiration towards harmony. And despite the fact that Basho is a master poet, he preserves his sense of humor towards his clothes and confrere.

He doesn’t have the pride that often accompanies with such talent.

Does the person who wrote these lines have pride?

"Perhaps the wind
will whiten your bones",
breathed the cold into my soul.
Storyboard of the meeting of Basho and Chikusai
Storyboard of the meeting of Basho and Chikusai

Does this verse reveal room for pride? There is no place in his heart that would let in pride, not even for a moment.

But returning to the subject. Chikusai sees this strange fellow we call Basho and observes how the stranger is seriously engaged in removing lice from his kimono. Chikusai is fascinated, like a small baby. He sits down and helps Basho in this serious matter. Then when Basho finds holes in his clothes, Chikusai also finds some in his. In the end, they start showing off the holes in their clothing – who has the biggest one? Chikusai acts like he is an equal, like a hero who, just like that traveler over there, has something to brag about. Then, having exchanged hats, they separate. Chikusai sees that Basho’s hat is completely torn and his is better, so he gives his hat to Basho, takes Basho’s hat, puts it on and continues on his way. The wind starts to blow, tears the hat from his head and blows down the hillside. Chikusai runs after it, trying to catch it. Finally he catches it with his stick, sees that the hole has gotten bigger and throws it into the sky. A gale force wind rises, and the hat flies in the sky for a long while. Meanwhile Basho has gone in the opposite direction and he’s attacked by a powerful squal of wind and leaves that dishevel his clothes. But he goes on, facing the wind. The hat flies through the sky.
From the storyboard
From the storyboard

That, in essence, is the whole plot. When I spoke about the intonation of the film, what I meant was that I think I didn’t achieve the needed subtlety in their buffoonery, which was intended to have the effect of intensifying the feeling of fate – the fate of one who creates, the fate of a simple traveler, of a simple man who embraces nature and can die at any given moment in its embrace. I wanted to create the effect of going from a naive, comic situation to a tragedy. I even used sound to achieve this effect. When this powerful wind arises and practically rips apart Basho's clothing, you hear a monastery bell. At first I wanted it to ring just in the background, but in the end I put it in the foreground. The bell strikes with full power, like the blow of fate.
Sketch of the final scene
Sketch of the final scene

Why the tragedy? Isn’t it enough that the two met, despite it being impossible? Why does everything have to be given tragic proportions?

But at the same time the two are at the mercy of the elements. “Kings are powerless in God’s element.” What about poets then? They are higher than kings, but all are equal in the embrace of the elements. Basho’s last verses are all tragic. One gets the impression that he was aware of his coming death. He would write that death was near and he was free and captive at the same time. He can only laugh at his rags, but there is something more – something that is connected to memory and death or to what we call “a poor soul”. You can’t say it more precisely. The phrase “Blessed are the poor souls” is true.

In the first centuries of Christianity, two monks lived on Mt. Sinai in a small monastery. One was always praying and crying for his sins. The other enjoyed life and thanked God for his mercy. When both died, both having lived a righteous life, the other monks didn’t know what to think. Which of the two was right? Then the father superior had a revelation: All the paths that lead man to God are right. It’s well known that Saint Seraphim of Sarov greeted everyone with the words “My joy”. Constant grief for your sins doesn’t imply a constant low spirit. Those humble “poor souls” have the same attitude toward life as they do towards death. A tragic point of view is something a simple man might have, whereas Basho was a monk, an ascetic.

I agree but nevertheless, not long before his death, his verses became truly tragic.

To grieve hearing a monkey’s scream!
But do you know a baby’s cry
thrown on the autumn wind?

Or here’s another one: [this is Basho's death poem, his last]

Sick on a journey,
only my dreams will wander
these desolate moors.

You get a feeling of both grief and dignity in his portraits...

Without question. I read an interesting anecdote once. One day an Aztec ruler was being burned alive by the Spanish. Sitting near him was his servant, who was screaming in pain. The ruler asked his servant: “Why are you screaming? I'm not lying on roses myself.” It’s natural that I would want to represent this hidden dignity in my film with humor. Chikusai understands that his presence amuses Basho. And when they are changing their hats, Chikusai roars with laughter, while Basho is just slightly smiling. But I just couldn’t find the right pose.

Maybe instead of a Japanese pose, Basho should have gotten on his knees like a Christian monk praying? After all, ascetics are always praying, even when they are sleeping or talking.

But I don’t know how to do it. I wouldn’t want such an obvious emphasis on the pose. I tried to draw it, but I would always find something wrong. There was always something wrong or unnatural or fake.

In that sense, is there any parallel between Basho and the traveler in “Tale of Tales”?
Chikusai (character for the film)
Chikusai (character for the film)

He is in a different light, a different space. He’s different. In "Tale of Tales", the traveler isn’t necessarily a tragic figure. He doesn’t expect some robbers or other dangers, he just walks into the distance. He is free of convention and as free as a human can get whilst walking on a warm autumn road and being sure that nothing can harm him. Basho’s way involves a kind of intense and dramatic effort. Basho’s image is probably closer to a Russian ascetic who has voluntarily thrown himself into a different life. Basho is a poet and at the same time a monk.

What exactly is the difference between the poet-monk Basho and the poet from “Tale of Tales”, who sits at the table in front of the shining paper?
Chikusai. Sketches, trying to find the character
Sketches, trying to find the character

First of all, the two find themselves in different ‘elements’. Basho is in the element of restriction and self-restriction, while the Poet, like the Traveler, is a stoic and a hedonist. He loves life in all its manifestations.

A stoic and a hedonist in one person?

Yes, because a stoic can suppress his desires and at the same time live in reality. John Galsworthy has a story called “The Stoic”, where an old feeble man orders a dinner of good wine and the finest meats. He truly enjoys the meal, because it’s the last thing he possesses. A man who lived an austere life, deliberately refraining from worldly pleasure, organizes a wonderful feast at the end of his life. In this way he creates a bridge between the pleasures of the world and its madness. The Poet from "Tale of Tales" is the same. And like all poets, he can restrict himself, and at the same time... I understand Brodsky, who knew that he had a bad heart, but still smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. [Joseph Brodsky, “Russian poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987)” – Wikipedia] He just couldn’t stop even to prolong his life for a few more months. This act was a part of his poetic system. Or for example, he would enter a restaurant and order everything prohibited to him. For him, this represented the pleasures of life, its zest, even on the edge of an abyss.
Work table. Basho
Work table. Basho

Basho was different. He restricted himself completely. Although he was a great poet and had a large circle of friends, admirers and students who would happily have supported him so he could lead a peaceful life. But it’s hard to imagine that his talent would have blossomed fully under such circumstances. As I understand it, he cut himself off from everything that would have harmed him as a poet. There’s this one watercolour painting where the students are seeing off Basho in a boat. They throng on the shore while he sits there with a pouch and a staff in his hand, a proud expression on his face, looking exalted - just like Christ. Even the way the edges of his sleeves hang down bring to mind a Russian icon. Here he is the epitome of a great man.

Basho has a very subtle sense of humor.

The cold penetrates my bones.
Maybe I should ask the scarecrow
for a pair of sleeves!

Hear me merchant!
Want to buy a hat?
The one in the snow.

On the way!
I will show you how the cherry blossoms in distant Yoshino,
you old hat of mine.
Watercolours. Japan, XVII century
Watercolours. Japan, XVII century

While I was preparing for the film, I was taken to a town where Basho would often stay at one of his friend’s places to sleep. They rebuilt the shack where he used to sleep. They showed me one of Basho’s drawings: a drawing of reed or cane. Just a few strokes of the brush and the paper comes alive, as if the characters had seeped into in the paper’s structure. All of the Japanese are painters because drawing Chinese characters trains the hand. The essence of drawing these characters is such that every time they show me something or draw a scheme I’m in awe of the pencil’s movement. In Basho’s case there is also his poetic thinking. It’s obvious that, on a subconscious level, the sense of sound is fused with the sense of the physical in the great poets (Pushkin also possessed these abilities). I was also shown a drawing where Basho graphically represented the snoring of his friend. It was so funny! This kind of graphical representation of the abstract is somewhat similar to what the painters of the 20th century did, but they did it seriously, whereas here you have a sense of humor, without the tragic element or the pathos. You could write a whole article about this drawing, about the concept of poetic vision. Mayakovsky once wrote: “Burlyuk came madly climbing from his screaming, torn eyes.” So visually expressive!

But you weren’t hired to make a Japanese film!

No, I wasn’t. From the very beginning I said: “Francesca, let’s use the least amount of detail possible for the costumes. Aim for a vague image. No one should care whether the sleeve is sewn or structured correctly. That isn't the point. We’ll fail if we insist on ethnographic or local accuracy. Details must be blurred to the point that only the stain remains, like Kandinsky, where the color is more important than the details. But at the same time, the color must not dominate.”

I remember how we would sit with Francesca and make the colors. The colors weren’t working, weren’t fusing with the models. And then bang! Everything fit. A short deep-brown shirt, a long, gold-ish kimono for Basho and a dirty, bluish one for Chikusai. Then I said: “Franya, we used a classic color scheme, just like Rublev’s Trinity.” It had the same blue, gold and deep-brown. We came up with many variants, so why did we choose this combination? The situation wasn’t similar – there was no castle, or castle rock supporting the cup. And then suddenly everything sparked and a fire ignited – just like when a strong wind blows a conflagration, expelling a stream of air that speeds up the fire in a self-perpetuating cycle. When this happens in film, instead the fire begins to produce more and more details. The color stains begin to expel a frantic energy. Rough, dirty, offhand images gain purity and lucidity. I’m not talking about color anymore, but about something stronger than color.

All the fuss over the image evaporated the moment this harmony materialized. The next phase of the work was the animation, that’s why the movement of the color masses is important. But here, you have again a double task: You must develop the movement of the characters, and support it with color movements. The balance between these two elements is important. The challenge is that the action must not lose itself in a kind of plastic illusiveness. It shouldn’t be empty. It shouldn’t be distracting. The balance between these two elements mustn’t weigh upon the characters. The color mustn’t shout like a street market vendor, “You there! Get over here with the rest of these colors! There isn’t enough for everybody!” The challenge lies in the fact that every action, every gesture, must be absent of unnecessary accents; it shouldn’t overwhelm the viewer or distract attention to the screen. It’s a real challenge to construct the mise-en-scene of two characters in such a way that their every movement plays out over a sort of unseen grid. The result of this is what creates the ‘intonation’ of the film.

You didn’t use any specifically Japanese elements in the film. Only the woods, the sky and the fallen leaves. You once said that when working on “The Overcoat” you deliberately avoided using historical elements or topographical signs like street signs so the viewer wouldn’t be able to mark the location. In the film about Basho, you not only avoided showing elements depicting the Japanese way of life, you even refused to adopt the basic Japanese drawing style, the way rocks and water and so on are drawn.

We refused to use the obvious stylistic elements, but nevertheless there is a Japanese feeling to the ‘drawing masses’ in the film. Kandinsky wrote that even belonging to a certain nationality can be represented at an abstract level. Every developed culture has its own color scheme. For example, Greece’s colors are white, black and brown. Russia’s are red, blue, gold and white. When you see Japanese landscapes, the color masses are very clearly delineated. The whole effect of the drawing makes you think: “Maybe time did all this. Maybe time dipped this piece of paper into the wind and streams and rain, spilled a little fog here and there, a little mud. Even the effect of reverse perspective adds its own voice.” Even though we talked about the French, about Corot’s landscapes and how he drew the wind, we had this general feeling about the surrounding scenery. Corot has a famous drawing of the wind. When we finished filming, I suddenly realized that the film is really similar to that particular drawing. How could this be? Why? Well, it’s only natural! At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the French themselves were fans of Japanese art. Émile Zola introduced French artists to Japanese prints. As a result, the impressionists began to see things differently. The impressionists weren’t the only ones influenced. Van Gogh also saw them. The blooming apple-trees – that’s Japan. I believe Cézanne was also influenced, and Lautrec, and many, many others.

You see, to me this kind of (often unconscious) cultural interchange is more important than trying to understand the specifics of a certain culture, which will never be fully developed by you anyway, and attempting, with these surface elements, to show the meaning behind them.

So you weren’t out to express a Buddhist or Zen Buddhist view of the world?
Work table. Chikusai
Work table. Chikusai

No, I wasn’t. At least, these ideas didn’t influence my creative process. The characters' behavior must express what I didn’t formulate. I mean, what kind of idiot would go and listen to trees? A French doctor would visit his patient only with a practical goal. He collects the urine in the test tube, checks the patient’s pupils and tongue, feels the pulse, writes out a prescription with an intelligent look on his face, and then proceeds to fleece the money off his patient - all without any hint of emotion, except maybe for the money part. The Japanese doctor, on the other hand, would speak at length about chrysanthemums, about the snow, about how many moons have passed since he first met the patient. He recalls how the drops of dew trembled in the rays of the sun. In this way the doctor tears the fantasy from the passing body. The disease, distraught by the lack of attention, loses its memory and fades away.

So in reality, you think that your movie contains something clearly Japanese?

I believe so. In any case, the Japanese said that if they hadn’t known that a European had made the film, they wouldn’t have believed it.

And what about their ecstatic, even religious, contemplation of the tracks on the first snow, of the frozen waterfall in the fog, the blooming tree bathed in the sunset? These serve something the same role as our icons. Were these things also important to you?

No. It would have been disingenuous of me to pretend that I naturally felt these Japanese expressive symbols. For me, what was more important was to be in a state of mind were I could readily answer why I like Japanese poetry, art and philosophy. But at the same time, I will never be able to create an ikebana. Well, maybe, if nobody is around I could do it, but in public I would get scared and probably do something awful. With this film it’s the same – if I’d have attempted to show off by flaunting some kind of touristy Japanese chinoiserie, I would have been laughed at by the Japanese themselves. I once brought to Japan some drawings made by a painter for a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. My friend, Saitani-san, was indignant: “What is this? This is all China!” That’s why I would never have succeeded if I had tried to work with explicitly Japanese motifs.

When Francesca was drawing the trees, I didn’t bother with whether they were European or Japanese. I just knew that the wind must be here, and the trees which catch the wind. Even when we were filming the scene with the hat, I didn’t make any attempt to study Japanese prints closely, in spite of the fact that I had a lot of reference material at my disposal. I intentionally refrained from doing something Japanese, but nevertheless I understood that it must have Japanese coloring, a Japanese air. Francesca and I were trying to distance ourselves from the obvious symbols and come up with something more subtle.

But the characters themselves had to be recognizable...
Alleged portrait of Basho, end of the XVII century
Alleged portrait of Basho, end of the XVII century

Yes, that’s why it took a long time to work out their faces. It was especially hard in Basho’s case, because many variations of him exist. There are no detailed portraits, but it is known that, say, one painting is probably more accurate than another, and these two are so different as to practically look like two different people. But this had the effect of freeing me from a lot of background work. The face concealed by time can be reconstructed through the creator’s work. We can visualize Rublev’s face through his paintings. In this case, we weren’t striving for an accurate representation. A film about Pushkin would be harder to make because we know what he looked like. It’s even harder in Gogol’s case, because we have photographs of him. Rublev’s appearance is lost in the fog, and his own drawings of himself are the only way to reconstruct his image. But not every painter is able to draw a poet. We can paint his exterior, but not all painters can evoke the small details that cannot be seen by a normal eye. It was extremely challenging to find Basho’s image.

In your film he has a big, heavy head, like Socrates.
Basho (character for the film)
Basho (character for the film)

You see, he has to feel physically present to the audience. It’s like when you see the neck of a boy covered in a ragged shirt thrown over his gaunt shoulders. On looking at him, you feel a powerful wave of pity. But suddenly you see his face, filled with dignity and hidden humor, and understand that his poverty is precisely what gives his face those traits. It’s enough to uncover just a little of Basho’s shoulder and you suddenly realize that he could have been a slave in Greece, a convict in Russia. He could have been a prisoner in a concentration camp, or equally well a fool at some royal court who was allowed to speak freely and remained free, like Socrates or Diogenes. It’s this situation when a man becomes invincible not because he isn’t afraid of death, but because he is so in touch with reality that nothing can move him; he has become one with reality.

I was filming the scene where Chikusai is sitting next to Basho, and was silently horrified. When we finished the scene, I just couldn’t watch it. It’s always like this. At first I just can’t watch it. Then after a while I get used to it. Not because it’s good or bad. I just get used to it and can’t evaluate its merits. The results don’t match the concept. When we finished the scene, which we shot in a silent delirium, I could barely sit still. As I watched the scene, I could see it physically, but I felt nothing.

How can one explain the difference between the physical state and the soul?

The work of an animator is revolting in that the creative process must be separated into different phases, in each of which you are under pressure. You energize them with that pressure. And the built-up physical effort is released only with the pressing of a camera button. Metaphorically speaking, you haven't been grounded, there is no place for the energy to go. Then you receive a reel of film, look at it, and see that all of your creative effort is contained in such a small thickness - where grass, soil, clay, sand, stones, shrink to a thin, thinner than blotting paper, sheet of five or more seconds. And it is impossible to get used to this.

As for the difference between the physical manifestation of a living being and his soul, I recently watched an Aleksandr Gordon programme [Russian radio and tv journalist], which was about the existence of a death gene; in other words, a gene which holds the manifestation and meaning of the term "death", and about how this moment is specifically planned, included in the genetic memory at all levels.

Three scientists received the Nobel Prize for the fact that they looked, at the genetic level, at all the meaningful traits of the smallest - the size of a few millimeters - worm. (By the way, my Francesca says that she will place a monument to the worm in her own garden. And she writes whole poems about this.) These scientists traced the genetic makeup of this worm, including his scheduled death. Indeed, one might say - a kind of hidden suicide.

If the scientists find a way to artificially extend the life of this worm, the result may be the death of his whole population. After all, in those limits, in that unnaturalness which they will imbue him with, changing the direction of the gene or giving him immortality - his life in this unnatural state, upon coming into contact with the naturalness of other lives, will destroy them.

But one can look at these issues in terms of social consciousness. For example, I have worried for a long time now about what kinds of books are read by rich people today; what exactly is their interest in life. If they read serious books, which force them to think, then by doing so they realize that their life is unnatural and that it has to be changed. It does not follow that they should stop doing business, but they must be aware of where and for what they use their capital: for the public or for their own personal enrichment. In the end, after all, everyone dies anyway; death is prepared for all. And great art speaks on the one hand, of death, and on the other, of the strong internal energy of life.

The question of life and death is solved in the religious and philosophical areas of human thought, and the state of a society depends upon its level of understanding it. So today's nearly universal distribution of the worldview of the rich (by no desire of theirs, by the way) stunts the lives of unprepared/immature people, who have not reached the same social and economic status, but have this thirst for obtaining it.

As a result, today society is dominated by the philosophy of the rich, untouchable and sacrosanct, with devastating effects on its development. Thank God that they cannot escape from death, or life would be catastrophic. Remember those worms.


(here's part two of the interview, which is translated as of June 18, 2009)
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