Kihachiro Kawamoto, who died on 23rd August, was a world away from what most fans consider to be “anime”, and had conspicuously little to do with the cel-based industry that dominated Japanese animation in the twentieth century. Kawamoto made his living on what he called “horrible” jobs in advertising, while scraping together a little money so that he could make art films in his spare time. While Osamu Tezuka was charming the media and dominating the airwaves, Kawamoto was renting out town halls so he could show his short films to passers-by. But when Tezuka died in 1989, it was Kawamoto who took over his chairmanship of the Japan Animation Association – a position he held for the next 21 years. His tenure served as a reminder of how truly broad the animation medium can be. In Kawamoto’s case, it embraced claymation, paper collages, stop-motion, and stop-motion’s distaff cousin: old-fashioned puppetry.
Dolls were Kawamoto’s first love. He wrote a magazine column about them during the US Occupation period, when young Japanese girls were forced to make do and mend with their worn-out toys. In the 1950s, he fell in with the maverick animator Tadahito Mochinaga, newly returned from China, where film had been in such short supply that he had taken to shooting puppet shows one frame at a time so as not to waste footage. This method, of course, turned Kawamoto’s dolls into stars, as part of the multiple award-winning Beer Through the Ages (1956) a 12-minute compilation of adverts celebrating the half centenary of the Asahi Brewery.
“Dolls are children’s toys, or things you dress up and display,” he told Jasper Sharp at Midnight Eye. “Puppets, or marionettes, are things that act. This is a crucial difference. There’s no such thing as doll animation.”
Kawamoto learned how to make such “dolls that act”, journeying to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s to study under the international master of puppets, Jiri Trnka. This was not as easy as it sounded – travel restrictions on the Japanese had only just been lifted in time for the Tokyo Olympics, and Kawamoto had to bend the truth by claiming to be coming to interview Trnka for a Japanese newspaper.
Under Trnka, Kawamoto began making his own short, stop-motion films, often influenced by Japanese mythology and theatre. He became renowned for his ability to use motion and posture to imply emotion in puppets whose expressions were otherwise unchanging. He remained resolutely small-scale, making films that scooped festival awards, but rarely travelled beyond the tiny circuit of festival aficionados. It is only in the last few years, with the release of a number of his shorts on the DVD Kihachiro Kawamoto Film Works, that a wider audience has stood the remotest chance of seeing his idiosyncratic, meticulous works of art.
In Japan in the 1980s, he became known as a puppeteer once more, producing two long-running adaptations of classics: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Tale of the Heike. While foreign audiences were lapping up Akira and Legend of the Overfiend, Kawamoto’s puppet shows were all over Japanese telly. In 1990 he returned to Czechoslovakia to make Briar Rose, a darkly shaded reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. The culmination of his work came in the form of the feature-length stop-motion film, The Book of the Dead (2005), which finally brought him a degree of international recognition, scant years before his death.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #77, 2010.