A full seven years before Shin-ichirō Ikebe scored the film Kagemusha and many others for Akira Kurosawa, he watched the trippy stop-motion animations of Kihachiro Kawamoto and composed a continuous whimsical flute track that would underscore the dark beginnings of a new Japanese animation style, incorporating a European aesthetic into the rich myths of Asian traditions. Oh, and Kawamoto was also really into haunted puppets.
Before he was widely accepted as an artist, Kawamoto took an interest in Western stars of the 1950s and crafted intricate dolls of his favorites to sell to collectors. With the US occupation of Japan, it was difficult to ignore the influence of the West. According to Schoolgirl Milky Crisis and many other sources (but I wanted to cite that one in particular, because, what?!), Kawamoto’s dolls piqued the interest of my favorite brewer, Asahi, and one of his first jobs was crafting puppets and directing a 12-minute short film called Beer Through the Ages that was shown in theaters before the main theatrical attraction. Ironically, this commercial was actually groundbreaking, as it was Japan’s first stop-motion animation. How often is our commercial work a groundbreaking achievement now? By the way, he hated commercial work.
The Trip (1973) , which we see here, was not Kawamoto’s first experiment in artistic work. He had already completed three shorts previous to this one, but what separates this piece from the others is its distinctly Western feel, due in part to his time spent in Prague, studying under master puppeteer, Jiro Trnka. The setting of The Trip is the legendary Mount Lushan, a place renowned for its spiritual history, especially Buddhism. Countless poets have visited Mount Lushan and have come back with enough pastoral verse to fill the canon. The mountain itself has also been used to inscribe at least 900 poems wherever poems may be inscribed, making it an active historical record of Asian poetry. But one of the most striking descriptions of the famous Mount Lushan comes from a poem by Sue Shi: "Don't know the true faces of Lushan, only because being in the midst." Lushan is so huge and looming, in both physical form and in history, that no one can truly understand or see every face of Lushan. Apparently, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, and even though Buddhism had settled there hundreds (thousands?) of years ago, every practicing religious denomination in the past century has scrambled to set up a base station on the Mount to claim it as their own, resulting in a crazy amalgam of converging cultures. And this is where Kawamoto’s Trip takes us as well.
The short begins with live action—a woman looking at a tourism poster and words flashing on the screen, reading, “ Misty Mount Lushan / Flowing Yangze River / Regrets remain for not visiting.” The woman is Japanese, but looks distinctly Westernized. Suddenly, she’s turned into cut-paper and waiting at a train station, when a man who looks to be Caucasian comes to her and leads her to Mount Lushan, where some chaotic and layered scenes of historical artifacts and faces and images appear in heaps. On Mount Lushan, insanity ensues, but the cultural depictions represented run the gamut from Jesus to Grecian statues and golden Buddhas. The woman, apparently without strong attachment to her own culture, attempts to reclaim her history, but finds the tentacled histories of a thousand other people instead. Scenes of a European occupation destruct the narrative just when images have settled, tanks rolling through cobblestone streets, and it’s suddenly unclear if we’re in Prague or back on Mount Lushan, but in the end, does it really matter? Are they really all that different? For all their differences they’re just two contemporary tourist destinations whose schizophrenic identities reflect only what people have come to alter, not what they truly are.
Kawamoto died last year. The last film he made was entitled, The Book of a Dead Person.