Koji Yamamura

By Nancy Harrison

mt-head-koji-yamamura.jpgMount Head, 2002

Recently the subject of a retrospective of his work at the Norwich International Animation Festival, Koji Yamamura has been producing animation films and shorts for TV since the late 1980’s. Not widely known of outside of Japan, his animation combines 3D and 2D techniques within many of his films, but contrary to what many assume of Japanese animation, he has never used CG techniques, preferring to work in drawn animation and claymation. Internationally, his most well-known work Atamayama (Mt. Head) – based on an old Japanese folktale – was nominated for an Academy Award in the Short Film Animation category in 2003 and his most recent film, The Old Crocodile, is based on an early 20th century French tale. He is currently working on a short animated version of Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor, commissioned by Shochiku.

Nancy Harrison: Can you talk about your use of traditional stories and folktales instead of original stories, or modern stories.

Koji Yamamura: I have used a lot of older stories or folk tales for my more recent works, but when I started off I used to use a lot more of my own original stories for my material. Although even when my pieces are using older stories, such as Atamayama (Mt. Head), in which that particular story goes back 200 years, as a rakugo, which is a sort of comic tale, I didn’t choose this story because it was old – I found it very fascinating, and also sort of contemporary in its themes, and its appeal to contemporary people. It contains a lot of truisms, and that is why I chose this story. I transformed the old setting of 200 years ago to a contemporary setting, and it now depicts modern life. Also, for example, The Old Crocodile is an old story – it goes back 80 years in France, written by Leopold Chauveau – but again I didn’t choose this story because it is old, but also because I liked the story, I find that the story contains a lot of universality about our society, and that nothing is too different from how life is in current times. A good story is timeless, like Shakespeare. I believe that such a timeless story is very, very adaptable into animation, because when you see a story told in animation it dates much less than live action.

NH: You use a lot of music in your films, in many cases as a replacement for dialogue. Do you prefer to use a specific type of music, or do you let the story and the animation lead the choice?

KY: I don’t choose the music because that is my taste, I choose the music which actually is the best suited to the story and the expression in animation that I am making. So it depends on the story and depends on the work – I tend to choose the style of music that goes best, whether it is different styles of music, and also I have used all kinds of different instruments, and different composers. It is just up to what is best for the story.

old-crocodile-koji-yamamura.jpgThe Old Crocodile, 2005 

NH: Your use of combined animation techniques is very interesting. Have you always used a variety of techniques, or has that evolved throughout your work?

KY: I tried to be very flexible from the beginning. And then tried to adapt to what type of media that is going to be used, and what kind of message I wanted to make and based on that what I want to express. In animation, there are quite a lot of techniques you can use to create – whether sketches or clay or whatever. I often do a number of different options, depending on what impression I want to make. Every time therefore I think about which one would be best for that particular work, although every time I feel it is a bit trial and error also.

NH: Within your work there seems to run a theme of metamorphosis – things and characters changing within your films – such as Atamayama and The Old Crocodile – or the series of gifs on your website.

KY: I like very much when an image is transformed into something else, and changing into something else – I like the pattern of that and the feeling of that. I think that the changing into a different image is the very basis of animation – you can’t really do it in live action. So perhaps unconsciously I did choose animation, because metamorphosis is possible in animation.

NH: So do you think that this interest in metamorphosis has affected your choice of stories?

KY: Yes, I think that is probably right to say that.

NH: There also seems to be a lot of quite dark humour in your films, as a distinct difference to a lot of animation in a lighter vein of humour.

KY: I don’t want my animation just to be for the purpose of entertainment. I want to produce animation that gives the viewer time to consider or to reflect with themselves after they have seen one of my works. Of course it is good to have a happy ending – and there are happy things in life – but my view of life is that when you try to make everything realistic, there is always something that has a dark side of it. I can’t actually avoid having the dark side to my work, because I want it to reflect life.

NH: Which animators have had the biggest influence on you and your work?

KY: I would say that Yuri Norstein from Russia and Priit Pärn from Estonia have both had a big effect on me. And earlier also I was influenced by Ishu Patel, who did a lot of work for the NFB (National Film Board of Canada) When I started off as a student, I saw his work and I was very inspired by him.

With thanks to Junko Takekawa of the Japan Foundation London for acting as translator during the interview.

For more information on Koji Yamamura visit http://www.jade.dti.ne.jp/~yam/