What does traditional Japanese poetry have in common with animation? Quite a lot, it turns out! Please read this, it's a fascinating thing...
Two years ago, I posted a translation of the first part of a wonderful interview that Yuriy Norshteyn gave to Tatyana Iensen for the sophisticated Kino-Art magazine in 2004. Now, I finally finished translating the second part (originally published in Russian, Kino-Art 2004, 4th issue).
Note: translation of verses are taken from various places; some from the internet, some my own translation of the Russian translations.
What can you say about the condition in which your characters find themselves, in relation to life philosophy?
Both Basho and Chikusai are in that condition of having no fear of anything. One may say that they are in a state of total harmony. And so in the second half of this small film, there has to be an intersection of the beginning of terror and the humorous start. Not by accident does the wind rise and rip the kimono, and the hat fly above the trees with the leaves, in the finale of the film.
|Sketch of Basho going against the wind|
I was filming this little scene (Basho going against the wind) and thinking of King Lear. Why not film Lear in animation? The construction, clearness and fantastical conception of this story make it very suitable for animation. The construction is almost ballet-like; it is very natural for animation. Basically, the phenomenon of animation is based on how well you can find in a simple composition - not so much details and embellishments, but complex relationships which you will see as both the question and the answer to life, and maybe even as inculcation into as yet unknown territory. It seems to me, that in this sense "The Overcoat" is also very much a story-focused thing; clear and precise, like folklore that is molded into a parable-shaped state. The story of "King Lear" is parable-shaped, so you are freed of unneeded dramaturgical confusion (by the way, the Fool in this sense adds a lot to the composition). As soon as you begin to inquire into the details in Shakespeare, it all vanishes. I think that this is the precise reason for why when you are dealing with Japanese poetry, in which the action is clearly and unambiguously written in three lines, you are free; you do not need to rediscover the already disclosed action, but to find in it that which is hidden between the lines.
It is by no accident that the Japanese paintings of the Middle Ages, which are directly tied to Basho's poetry, developed rigid canonical images, for example: branches of white pine in a clean empty space. It was prescribed for the artist in which perspective to paint it; with what inclination; how thick should the inked brushstroke be. The sole task remaining to him was what to insert into this, and how to achieve it.
I don't remember who has the following verses: "How could one say what 'heart' means? The sound of a pine on a sumi-e?" Sumi-e is a style of painting in which only one detail is portrayed, surrounded by empty space. The sound of a pine for a Japanese is everything. Especially when the pine is in the mountains, where the air is clean... And how could I not recall here the verses from Heine: "I want to climb into the mountains, into the spruce trees, dark and majestic..." or from Pushkin: "There, in a celestial cell, I would hide myself near God..." Anyway, these exchanges are endless.
I read Basho for the first time when I was fifteen years old, so in '56. I accidentally bought a small collection of poetry, and I don't even know why. The book was lying on my table when my friend from class came by, looked at it, and asked: "So what's here, then?" I didn't know, but I began to read and at once came upon the poem that is considered a classic in Japan.
At the ancient pond
a frog plunges into
the sound of water.
On a barren branch
a raven has perched --
Much later, I understood: here was the clearness of film and at the same time its inconceivability. If one were to put it literally onto the screen - a silhouette of a raven on a barren branch - it would be awful. For poetry it is enough, but for a visual it is useless. Furthermore, it is pointless to develop the action of the film by following the narrative part of the poem: its story. Here, it is important to bring everything to a parable-shaped state. Not by accident, after all, did Christ speak in parables and give such clear, childishly clear examples. If that which he came to say was not clear, what would be the point of his words? But behind the seeming simplicity is hidden such depth that, despite the apparent clarity of the parable-shaped form, that which is inside is for you shrouded in a mystery that no amount of digging will uncover. Japanese poetry possesses untold hidden meaning.
The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish.
A huge picture of life behind three lines.
The boy nestles in the saddle seat;
the horse waits.
They're picking radishes.
And of course, I really love the following lines by Basho:
The sea slowly darkens
and the wild ducks' plaintive cries
grow faintly white.
The cries fading to white - this is wondrous.
Well, there is a powerful poetic image there. But there are also quite simple verses. Really, formally quite ugly.
They barely woke me up today. The spring rain murmurs.
Yes, Japanese poetry has many different, wonderful schools. There is also haiku; the execution of humour. Here, for example, are verses of Issa that might as well be from the XX century:
A man, just one -
also a fly, just one -
sit in the huge drawing room.
Or here is humour of a completely different type:
I sit by my cozy brazier,
and watch as the rain
drenches a passing warlord.
Just how they are able to convey the state of life from such simple compositions is, of course, a riddle and a wonder. I would like it very much if the action in "The Overcoat" was made up of literally 2-3 elements.
Is there any connection between your screen adaptation of Basho and your adaptation of "The Overcoat"?
Not just "any" connection, but a very clear one. First of all, there is a certain common paraphrasing: Basho sits and looks over holes in his kimono just like Akakiy Akakievich looks his overcoat over in the light. In general, the development of this scene was to a large extent inspired by that which was already done in "The Overcoat". I have the right to cite my own self. All the more so because there are only formal similarities here; psychologically, the characters are in quite different states. Basho's poverty is of a wholly different sort than Akakiy Akakievich's, who counts out just what the making of a new overcoat would cost for him. If you put a new kimono on Basho, he would still remain Basho, whereas Akakiy Akakievich would never be the same again in a new overcoat. For the time being, he also does not pay attention to his poverty; he has his own job, in which he is absorbed. But Akakiy Akakievich automatically transcribes others' work; he was not even able to change verbs, as Gogol wrote. For some reason, this was never noticed by the critics, even by Belinskiy himself, who, otherwise, wrote wonderfully about Gogol. Akakiy Akakievich lived in the prescribed conditions in the prescribed manner, and should have died in the prescribed manner. Of course, the theft of the overcoat is for him a horror, his downfall, and the end of his life. For Basho, the theft of his kimono is impossible. Though I should add, I don't know how he would have behaved in the conditions of the brutal Saint Petersburg cold.
Something specific can be said only about the direct borrowings. The scene in which Chikusai twirls Basho's torn hat, and then throws it upward, came together for me thanks to a story from the remembrances about Gogol: he was walking through Rome with his Russian friend after a hearty meal, in a good mood and twirling his umbrella, explaining something or other. The umbrella broke, and Gogol immediately threw it away.
It seems to me, that the sky in the final frames of "Winter Days" is similar in condition to that which is present in the lighter scenes of "Heron and Crane". Is this the case?
However strange this may sound, technically the sky both here and there was made in exactly the same manner. It was not drawn, but was actually created with light. And though it is windy, yet it has to not contain a leaden weight. In the finale, the sky has to be warm.
Other than the formally similar scene - the looking-over of the torn clothes - is there anything in common between "Winter Days" and "The Overcoat"? For example, the minimalism of visual devices?
I don't know which word would be best suited here; considering the whole horridness of work on "The Overcoat", can one really call it visual minimalism? I have a desire to bring the whole breadth of the work down to very simple things. Exchanges between these two films happen in the technical sense and perhaps even in the visual sense, in one way or another. For example, in the "Department" scene, the physical size of the characters will come close to the size of the characters in the Basho film, and the testing of the same technological constructions and problems has already generally been realised in "Winter Days". But who knows what awaits me in "The Overcoat", how the knowledge from the Japanese work will later reflect in the filming, and what will become of it?
So after Basho, you will come back to "The Overcoat" changed?
I can't escape from it - I'm the same as I was, and yet I am not. Although, while I was filming "Basho", the artists working on "The Overcoat" were doing something as well. But my work with them did not have the necessary gravity. I looked on and "gave orders" indirectly, supplementally.
So who, besides Frencheska Yarbusova, is currently working as an artist on "The Overcoat"?
Larisa Zenevich and Lena Sharapova, and now also Valentin Olshvang. But many efforts are spent on the defence of simplicity against visual tomfoolery. Most often, the artist feels a need to rely on various impressive strokes, curls, shadow effects, or light effects. I'm amazed that nobody has yet written a book called "Self-improvement for the Artist". I have always admired the story of how once, during a rehearsal of Stanislavski with Michael Chekhov, whose acting made the master simply itch with excitement, someone, leaning over to him, said: "Konstantin Sergeyevich, it's not by the system", and he replied: "What system! Michael is his own system!" So, in other words, Stanislavski answered, just who exactly needs this system. It is needed during the learning stage for those who are not able to unleash themselves; to forget about themselves, because in the acting career this is the most important thing. But Chekhov did not need this training; he immediately entered into the part. He who is his own system needs no others.
|Farcical sketch. By T.Usvayska (text says: Right now, Yuriy Norshteyn is immersed in making the storyboard for "Basho and Chikusai".|
Or Kachalov, an actor who also, in this sense, doesn't fall behind. For example, Stanislavski presented the following assignment: "The bank is burning. Your money could be lost. What are your actions?" The actors began to rip out their hair, or try to salvage something from the flames, while Kachalov sat calmly on a chair, looking at the whole scene with interest, and smoking. Stanislavski asked him: "Vasily, why aren't you participating?" "I am participating;" he answered, "my money's in another bank".
Talent is, first of all, independent. And when Stanislavski told Michael Chekhov to depict the Eiffel Tower and a giant, he did so, almost without thinking, in one motion.
But in animation, this ample (single-motion) gesture is constantly sought for in each frame, throughout the whole period of the film's creation?
Literally, in each frame. For example, let's say I see Akakiy Akakievich walking, the wind blowing at his back, and his neck becomes exposed. He covers it up, pulling up his collar and exposing his legs. Then he covers his legs, pulling down the overcoat, and exposing his neck. It looks like a circus number - then he covers himself with a rag; a headscarf. The viewer should receive an instant picture of the entire life history of Akakiy Akakievich, and this gesture that should have neither time, nor distance, nor depth; it must be like an explosion, like a shock, and continue in a chain reaction. In reality, it is only such moments -
|Japanese poster for a festival to Norshteyn's films. Tokyo, 2002|
from one little part to the next, and the one after - that matter for the perception of a film, rather than a continuous chain of endless hardship or continuous deafening laughter.
The director's screenplay for "The Overcoat" is filled to the brim with various added texts, and new written-out actions. I have tried to anchor all of the fleeting thoughts that spring into my head. If I don't do it, they go away. Sometimes I fail to anchor them within ten seconds and, feeling scorned, they vanish. Like in a computer: it vanishes and you don't know in which corner to look for it... Then some association can once again bring it back. I remember how in "Heron and Crane", when the wind picks up and the Heron is sitting by herself in the arbour, I kept telling myself: "When we make the soundtrack, I must not forget to add a metallic sound here - like how they beat the rails in villages, to give the feeling of humid air." The severed rail that hangs from the cross-beam, covered with frost, is a terrible thing. I kept telling myself: "Don't forget, don't forget". And I forgot. And once everything was already recorded, I remembered, but it was too late. I slapped my forehead, but I couldn't do anything else. And there you go; I'll never do it now.
For myself, I find that Norshteyn's words help me understand not specifically animation, but the essence of art itself.
Also, I may get quite a verbal bruising for saying this, but does anyone else see the similarities between traditional Japanese poetry and LOLcats? I'm seeing a connection between the old and the new; people, after all, don't really change much. Both forms strive for economy of expression, both are extremely simple on the surface, both can be humorous, both are or were very popular with the general public, and both are similarly light-footed and rely heavily on the listener/viewer making connections that are not self-evident if one looks at merely the obvious.