Thursday, February 25, 2010
Haven’t heard yet of Sukima no Kuni no Polta (Polta: A Country Between The Worlds)?
There’s some doubt that you soon will, given that the title’s initially short run on Japanese national broadcaster NHK in 2006 generated such a hugely positive response from critics and TV viewers alike that it prompted production company Aniplex to generate a new batch the following year - but it's since seemingly disappeared so far as I know, save for the occasional rerun.
Which is sad because, while ostensibly aimed at kids no taller than most people’s kneecaps, Polta is such a gamely surreal romp that it comes across as deliriously upbeat and gloriously quirky all at once - due in no small shrift to the original character designs by Ryoji Arai, a man rightly considered the best kids’ book artist in Japan right now and a winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in this field.
I recently got to interview Arai and will be running with that non-fireside chat shortly on this site.
But now to veer wildy back to this TV series for now: It's narrated by actor Hidetaka Yoshioka (a veteran of Japan’s exceptionally long-running Tora-san movies, and the 2006 Japanese Academy Award-winner for Best Actor in Always) and a superb, off-kilter score has been rendered by Tomoko Kataoka, a member of Instant Cytron.
The bonus surprise here?
That the animator and director of Polta is one Toshikatsu Wada. While his moniker may currently be less renowned than those of Arai, Yoshioka and Kataoka, this is very likely to change.
At the 2006 10th Japan Media Arts Festival, Polta was a runner-up in the Animation Division to Mamoru Hosoda’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time - a movie cited by many Japanese critics as the best animation to emerge from this country last year, despite stiff competition from Satoshi Kon's Paprika and Tekkon Kinkreet.
None of those other movies made the cut at the festival, but Polta did - and it received a coveted prize for excellence along the way.
In giving the award, the festival organizers were obviously smitten: “This is, without doubt, a masterpiece,” they waxed lyrical on their website.
“[No] previous animation has previously achieved a feeling as relaxing, heart-warming and cozy as this work… Wada’s outstanding technique reminds of the sharp, avant-garde edge of Norman McLaren and Břetislav Pojar... he is an exceptional animator.”
In a short statement upon acceptance of the award, Ryoji Arai paid similar homage to Wada. “I would like to give my heart-felt applause to the director, who successfully captured and animated the hand-made quality of the original individual elements of this story.”
Wada, born in 1966, was nourished as a wee tacker on a steady diet of Lupin III (“Especially Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro,” he interjects), and Tex Avery’s 1950s cartoon Deputy Droopy. But he is in fact a relative newcomer to making animation.
“I was 30 years old when I started,” he advises. “I was attracted by director Tadanari Okamoto’s work, and this encouraged me to enter a production company making short films - then the direct trigger was buying an Amiga.”
He also stresses that major creative juices were inspired by the work of Kihachiro Kawamoto (Shishi no Sho), Taku Furukawa (Hashimoto), and Koji Yamamura (Mt. Head).
For NHK, Wada made a show titled Bip and Bap, a comedy-action series of 5-minute episodes (like Polta) that told the yarn of two detectives and their archenemy burglar.
Already his signature-style was starting to emerge.
“It’s the classic paper-cutting cutout technique, with 3DCG computer software,” Wada says. “I’m also using Light Wave 3D, gouache and watercolor paper.”
Before the collaboration with Ryoji Arai on Polta, Wada was “Doing script, continuity, direction and animation all by myself, but for this series I’ve done the animation with two other staff-members, since Polta was our first extended TV series.”
Wada’s animated cutout approach and Arai’s deliberately naïve-style imagery work together in brilliant synchronicity in the new show, and there’s some truly innovative 2D cut-up techniques reinvented as a three-dimensional aesthetic.
Polta relates the tale of the laid back, itinerant package-delivering central character, his trusted steed (the guitar-strumming donkey Roba-Roba, who Wada says is his favorite character), and a cluster of escapades involving fugitive hot-air balloons, crazed soccer-playing penguins, a talking bus with a penchant for fishing, and a girl - Accel, who just so happens to have a head of helicopter hair.
“In Arai's pictures, there’s a unique half-three-dimensional perspective,” Wada suggests, perhaps alluding to the characters’ personas as well.
“I thought the paper-cutting technique matches that rather well. Also, I found it was easy to understand the personalities of characters, and that they moved around in the background space seemingly without permission, or any real rules of reality - and so I didn't have to think so much as director.”
A taste of the future indeed. Just a pity this particular series seems to have been forgotten before its time.
© Arai Ryoji/NHK/NEP, Aniplex Inc.