Animating Franz Kafka's Nightmares

Plus: global animation news and retro ads.

Welcome back! It’s Sunday — and that means another edition of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Thanks for tuning in. Here’s our agenda for today:

  • One — how Kōji Yamamura animated the greatest Franz Kafka film.

  • Two — animation news from around the world.

  • Three — the retro ad of the week.

  • Four — the last word.

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With that out of the way, let’s begin!

1. Kafka’s vision in motion

It’s hard to adapt writing into a visual medium. So much of what makes fiction great lies between the lines — it’s an atmosphere insinuated by word choice, and often by what’s left out entirely. Once you can see the story, it’s easy to lose the magic.

Things get tougher still when the original story has no tidy, literal meaning. This is the problem with adapting Franz Kafka, one of the 20th century’s most mysterious and hard-to-pin-down authors. Yet Kōji Yamamura went for it. And he succeeded.

Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor is a film as strange and haunted as the Kafka story it draws from. Yamamura released it back in 2007, but there’s still nothing quite like this warping, seething mass of animation. Everything shivers. Characters bend and twist out of perspective, smearing across the screen. The unnatural voices and music only add to the surreal feeling of it all. It’s horrifying.

Yamamura started as a fan of the original story. “I also had a very strong visual impression when I read it,” he said, “which I thought could only be put across using animation.”

If animation was the only medium that could’ve captured A Country Doctor, the only animator who could’ve pulled it off remains Yamamura. He might be Japan’s greatest indie animator, with a career stretching back to the ‘80s that includes Mt. Head (2002), an Oscar nominee.

A Country Doctor was set in motion after Mt. Head came out. A large film company in Japan offered to fund Yamamura’s next animation — and gave him a list of possible ideas. “I wasn’t so keen on the others,” Yamamura said, “but when they proposed Kafka, I immediately agreed.”

The company, Shochiku, gave Yamamura no oversight in how to proceed.1 Between Mt. Head and his many, many children’s projects for NHK during the ‘90s, he had a proven track record. The contract just set a rough deadline and stipulated that Yamamura’s Kafka film should be “about 30 minutes.” Yamamura replied that it would be closer to 20 minutes.

He began storyboarding in spring 2005.2 It was the start of a fast, crushing production — one that would see Yamamura writing, directing, designing and key-animating the entire film himself. He was also behind the backgrounds, the editing and more.

It was a largely traditional process. Yamamura said that animating and coloring in 2D, on paper, was the “most effective and quick” option. Many of the strange visual effects were made physically, too. Smoke overlays were 2B pencil scribbles — and he spent an inordinate amount of time scanning liquid glass cleaner. “I did it so much, I ended up breaking a scanner,” he remarked.

Yamamura’s goal was to get as close to Kafka’s story as possible, and to the feeling it instills. This led him down unexpected rabbit holes. In Yamamura’s reading, Kafka’s work isn’t just bleak — there’s a dose of dark humor in it. And an ancient form of comic theater in Japan, kyōgen, would become central to the film’s style.

Yamamura gave the main voice roles in A Country Doctor to famous kyōgen performers, creating an uneasy tension between the voices and what happens on the screen. (The behind-the-scenes recording-session footage is something to see.) Kyōgen helps to replicate the structure of Kafka’s original, too, as Yamamura explained:

In a kyōgen performance you also have periphery characters who stand at the back of the stage wearing black, who sing and provide narration.

In Kafka’s story, the doctor’s monologue is split between the things he actually says to others, the things he says to himself and the things that probably only happen inside his head, and so from watching kyōgen I had the idea of using different characters who are still the same doctor all saying different lines that come from this main character’s monologue.

These types of solutions for evoking Kafka’s words abound in A Country Doctor. Another is Yamamura’s refusal to give us a clear look at anything. He tried to ensure that “the screen is always blocked,” he said — it’s covered in smoke, snow and grime that pointedly obscure our view of what’s happening.

Then there are the jittery, distorting characters. Yamamura noted that even the way he drew the lines was meant to “enhance the feelings of fear and anxiety.” As the Japanese critic Nobuaki Doi recalled from a conversation with Yamamura, the director was going for animation that “expresses the inner world”:

Since the world is seen by a quivering heart, the perspective changes in an unstable manner, and the characters constantly distort their appearance. They suddenly become big or small. The identity of things and humans themselves becomes uncertain.

These uncertainties and instabilities are all in the original text. Against the odds, Yamamura found a way to express them as moving images — without sacrificing any of their mystery.

A Country Doctor took 15 months to finish — “a really tight schedule,” Yamamura said. Compositing the art together was grueling enough that he reacted by moving away from the process afterward. For his next major film, Muybridge’s Strings, he did almost everything on single sheets of paper.

During A Country Doctor’s production, Yamamura was open on his old blog that the film was breaking him. He had two in-betweeners, two inkers and help with the sound and music, but doing so much himself was daunting. As he put it, with 160 unique shots in the film, the math broke down to a finished shot every few days, including weekends.

By the end, Yamamura wasn’t sure how close he’d gotten to Kafka’s story. He didn’t know whether anyone would take to it. But A Country Doctor became one of his best-known films and won major awards — like the Grand Prize at Ottawa.

It’s not hard to see why, though. Yamamura did something here that few directors, either in live-action or animation, could hope to achieve. Whether or not you’ve read Kafka’s original story, the full force of his words rushes at you through the screen. A Country Doctor represents the unrepresentable. It latches onto you. We first encountered this film in the 2000s — and we haven’t forgotten it since.


If you liked our main feature this week, have you considered becoming a member? You’ll get access to our Thursday bonus issues, where we go even deeper into animation.

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Our latest bonus-dive digs into the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s fateful visit to Disney in the late ‘30s. He brought a Russian cartoon — and set the stage for the creation of UPA. We reconstruct what happened from eyewitness accounts, lengthy transcripts of the visit and more. Hope you’ll consider checking it out!


2. News around the world

An animation festival blitz

It was a big festival week around the world. Our favorite animation from Annecy, The Shaman’s Apprentice, was named the Best Independent Film at Canada’s Festival Stop Motion Montréal. Likewise, it picked up two major awards from the prestigious Ottawa Film Festival.

In an unexpected twist, Ottawa also gave Kōji Yamamura his first Grand Prize since A Country Doctor. (It’s amazing how things lined up this week.) This time, though, Yamamura is just producing. The short is A Bite of Bone, directed by Honami Yano, and it’s done in a vibrant, pointillist style. See the trailer here.

Beyond Canada, there was China’s International Comics Festival, which hosted another edition of the Golden Dragon Awards. Jiang Ziya cleaned up. Meanwhile, the prize for overseas animation went to Wolfwalkers, which has had a warm reception in China.

Coming up, we’ve got the Manchester Animation Festival — Britain’s premier animation event. On Monday, it announced its schedule for 2021. Among the offerings are a screening of the documentary Flee, a behind-the-scenes look at Aardman’s Robin Robin and a Fellowship Award for Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua, in honor of Maya and the Three. Animation Magazine has more.

Dozens of Norths approaches

Speaking of Kōji Yamamura, this week he released the trailer for his surreal Dozens of Norths. It’s his first feature-length project, co-produced with Miyu Productions in France. The film was just selected to compete in Japan’s New Chitose Airport International Animation Festival.

As Yamamura explains it, Dozens of Norths developed out of a “series of cover illustrations and short texts” he did for a Japanese magazine between 2012 and 2014. They were a way to make sense of the terrible earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan’s northeast. Yamamura describes the film project like this:

Disasters can happen anytime, derailing people’s hopes for the future and leaving them stuck in their current situation.

This film does not depict the specific reasons, but rather people whose lives have become stuck for some reason. The concept of “north” is an important motif because of the disaster of the Tōhoku (Northeast) region and the image of emotional coldness. North as a direction is one thing, but in this film, I made north plural. North is ubiquitous, it is both that place and the north beyond it.

Dozens of Norths has another purpose, too. Yamamura says that “religious meanings of suffering feel less real” to people than in the past — and so he’s trying to find a way to “mythologize” the way people view suffering in modern times. By exploring these ideas, Yamamura’s goal is to give people hope.

Dark as it sounds, we’re looking forward to it. Dozens of Norths will premiere in early November at the aforementioned New Chitose Airport festival.

Best of the rest

  • Sara Barackzay, billed as Afghanistan’s “first female animator,” is safely out of her home country. She’s been accepted to the Vancouver Film School. “My biggest goal was to build an animation studio and school in Afghanistan,” she wrote on Instagram. “I was not allowed to, but I will not give up.”

  • The French animation school Gobelins is still rolling out its graduation films. Check out Contretemps, a fascinating piece about a woman with OCD.

  • A number of big names from Soyuzmultfilm made the list of Russia’s top 1,000 managers for 2020, per Kommersant and the Russian Managers Association.

  • Vaibhav Studios of India won two big prizes at the Asian Academy Creative Awards for Lamput Meets Tuzki, a TV special.

  • Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov is opening animation schools in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to Russia’s state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Students will help on his upcoming stop-motion feature.

  • Meanwhile, the Russian government looks set to revise a law that prevents it from funding more than 70% of a film project. It’s going for 100% now. Soyuzmultfilm’s CEO agrees with the plan.

  • On Wednesday, Japan’s government gave a special award to Yutaka Chikura, an animation editor known for Toei Doga classics like Horus: Prince of the Sun.

  • On Friday, Kidscreen took a look at the best of MIPCOM 2021, the TV trade show and pitch market in France.

  • Lastly, voting is underway within IATSE for a massive labor strike — the “first nationwide strike in the union’s history,” Variety reports. The Animation Guild supports the effort, but cannot itself legally strike until October 30.

3. Retro ad of the week

We’re looking at one of our all-time favorite TV commercials this week. Faith and John Hubley oversaw it at their studio Storyboard around the first half of 1956. It advertises Van Camp’s Tenderoni — a pasta product discontinued decades ago.

Visually, this is among the Hubleys’ most ambitious ads. Right from the chicken’s ballet at the start, it jumps from one set piece to the next, introducing new design elements throughout. Whether it’s how the firework-words fall from the sky, or how slick and lively the pasta gondola sequence comes off, it’s always taking another exciting turn. Little is reused and no corner is cut.

This spot was part of a series that Van Camp’s ordered from the Hubleys. The deal entailed “nine 20 second and nine one minute” ads, per a report at the time. Storyboard got $100,000 in return — over $1 million in today’s money, for around 12 minutes of animation. Billboard highlighted the campaign as it aired:

This series that Storyboard is doing for various Van Camp products combines selling with entertainment to a jazz beat, the jazz being provided by Benny Carter, Teddy Wilson, Charley Shavers, Joe Jones, Lucky Thompson and others. The commercials step into the realm of fantasy with letters becoming musical instruments, [and] beans turning into “boppers” to join a little porker in a bop-styled Lindy Hop.

That jazz soundtrack is a high point of the Tenderoni ad. The Hubleys flew Benny Carter to New York to record it, alongside the music for several other Van Camp’s spots, according to DownBeat. Carter was a regular Hubley collaborator — even the music in The Adventures of * is his.

All that aside, this commercial really needs no context to be enjoyed. Just feel the way it flows:

4. Last word

That’s all for this Sunday! Thanks for reading. We’ll be back next week with more animation highlights from around the world.

One last thing. We’ve been blown away by the positive feedback our newsletter has received over the past month — and we wanted to share some of it with you here.

Nick Francis, creative director of the design house Picture of a Fish, wrote that our newsletter “might be one of the single best things to come from art Twitter.” We’re very grateful for his kind words. Similarly, the writer and historian Matteo Watzky wowed us when he tweeted this:

Most recently, after last week’s feature on Sesame Street, we got a wonderful comment from one of our favorite voices in the animation community. “Everyone should be reading up on this newsletter,” wrote Bob Flynn of FableVision, “Yet ANOTHER excellent history piece.”

These are just a few of the comments we’ve received — sorry to anyone we left out! And thank you to everyone who’s read and enjoyed our work so far. There’s a lot more where this came from. We’ll be back on Sunday (and on Thursday, for members) with more.

Hope to see you again soon!

1

Information from a series of roundtable interviews that Yamamura did in 2007. Find them here and here.

2

From Yamamura’s old production blog. We reference posts from here, here and here.