I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

An Introduction to the Films of Kousuke Sugimoto

by Jody Elphick
May 10, 2015

There is almost no information about Kousuke Sugimoto in English on the internet. Thank goodness for Google Translate, you might think. After reading such enlightening quotes as “I did finely overstatement (laughs). Chest until the pupil or from internal ones”, though, you might think again. I eventually found a human to help with translation, but some mystery around Sugimoto endures. Therefore I present the following introduction, based on an email interview I did with Sugimoto and an article on the Japanese website White Screeni as a ‘based on a true story’ scenario rather than rigorous fact. At the end of the article you’ll find a brief clip-by-clip run-through of the videos in the reel so you can read along while you watch.

Sugimoto had always enjoyed watching animation, but it wasn’t until he was at university in Kyoto, where he chanced upon a computer pre-loaded with video-editing software, that he decided to learn it himself. Since 2004, he’s taught himself everything he knows. “I search for my own technique,” Sugimoto says. “It might not give me legitimate ways of working, but I develop my own strange ways of doing things. I believe that strangeness helps me to produce unique work.”

His fate changed again several years later when he received an email from the producer friend of a musician called Handsome Ken’ya (a man whose hair becomes more fascinating each time you look at it), who’d been impressed by Sugimoto’s award-winning animation The TV Show. They arranged a meeting to discuss a possible collaboration. According to Sugimoto, his first impression of Handsome Ken’ya when the three men met at Kyoto Station was that he was very pale. Beyond that, though, they soon realised they had much in common. All saw themselves as outsiders, producing work on the periphery of the mainstream. They were traditionalists of sorts, into retro styles and visiting Kyoto’s old bath houses (not a gay thing in Japan, by the way). Sugimoto wanted to work together, but asked if he could interpret the music his own way rather than being directed. Trusting Sugimoto, Ken’ya and his producer agreed, and the long-term collaboration began.

“I can’t create music, but I can create videos that mesh well with music,” says Sugimoto, “so I need music from other artists in order to do my own work. But that doesn’t mean their music is background music – I don’t ignore their beats, rhythms and melodies.” In fact his animation is very synchronised with the structure of the music, picking up unfolding loops and cycles so neatly that a YouTube commenter on one of his videosii asks: “Kousuke-san, do you have an Asperger Syndrome?” (and then gets told off for it).

“One of my themes is a circle structure,” says Sugimoto, “the way that everything in the world rotates. I want to express that by using structures and series.”

Another Sugimoto signature is his use of colour – most of the videos here (with the exception of the monochromatic video for Decision Speed) are saturated with rainbow shades. “The ordinary-coloured real world is too perfect for me to recreate in my work,” he says. “In my imaginary world, I want to see different colours and figures.”

Sugimoto’s influences are eclectic; he says he’s interested in all styles of music video, film and TV drama as well as anything else he can find, although he names Fujiko F Fujio’s Doraemon series and Michel Gondry’s music videos as favourites. This diversity is evident in his work, and Sugimoto is clear about treating his videos as separate entities, as if someone different had made each one. But he also threads his work with recurring motifs he sees as private jokes with his fans, references that only people who are familiar with all his work will understand. Here’s a guide to the accompanying reel so you can see for yourself…

Viewing guide

1. Video for Handsome Ken’ya’s Arahara

Begins gently with a genteel, Speedo-sponsored Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it) vibe, and degenerates from there.

Fun fact: the TV set in this video is playing Sugimoto clips

2. The first video Sugimoto made for Handsome Ken’ya (for the song Lonely Town)

After meeting at the station, the three men spent half a day bowling around Kyoto finding locations that were meaningful to Handsome Ken’ya.

Fun fact: at the start, when he comes out of his room, that’s the room Handsome Ken’ya really lived in while he was a student.

3. Video for Decision Speed

Sugimoto’s usual bright colours are replaced by monochrome kinetic typography.

Fun sort-of-fact: Sugimoto had seen this style done well in English but never using Japanese characters, so he broke from beginning-middle-end storytelling and focused on what the lyrics look like as images, making them more memorable for the viewer.

4. Video for Sigh of Insects

Sugimoto says he wanted to create a dark fairytale vibe here, and indeed this is where things start getting really Gilliam-bonkers.

Fun fact: the song is about irresponsible behaviour.

5. Video for Sing in My Own Way, 2011

According to Sugimoto, the story of an ordinary day where, as a result of a series of small choices the main character makes, small things keep going wrong.

Activity: play Where’s Wally with the yellow guy.

6. Here begin three of Sugimoto’s solo works. This one, 100, takes its title from the running length.

Activity: watch closely and you’ll spot the numbers counting up to 10.

7. The TV Show (music by Takayuki Manabe)

Not-fun-but-still-impressive fact: this video was shown at many film festivals and won a lot of awardsiii.

8. Full Moon Party (2006)

Fun fact: I don’t have any, so we’re ending on a low. Sorry.

Special thanks go to Kengo Oshima (follow him at www.twitter.com/@djkengosan), without whose translation this article would have been one paragraph long.

Sparse thanks to Google Translate, with whose translation that paragraph would’ve read: “Talked to Handsome Ken’ya you upgrade to a blonde from mushroom cut Brown era indie and potato, Arai and producer.”

i http://tinyurl.com/cydh8em

ii http://www.youtube.com/all_comments?v=iDMXNTKX2-Y

iii http://sugimotokousuke.net/contents/profile.html

Jody Elphick is an editor and writer who lives in London. Her hibernating blog is at www.guardiangirl.com and you can follow her on Twitter @theguardiangirl, although don't expect any tweets.