While it might surprise some, this year’s Japannual also featured one short-movie in its line-up: Masanao Kawajiri’s award-winning A Japanese Boy Who Draws. While most awards are awards won at Japanese festivals, its track record is reason enough to give Kawajiri’s narrative the international exposure it deserves.
A Japanese Boy Who draws, as the title implies, tells the story of a boy, Shinji Uehara, who draws. Put more concretely, Kawajiri’s narrative focuses on Shinji’s life – from his birth to his thirties, and the importance drawing has for his subjective trajectory – a trajectory oriented by his childhood desire of becoming a mangaka.
Kawajiri starts his narrative in a rather refreshing way. While in common cinematographical narratives imagery and speech are combined within the visual frame in order to unfold its narrative, A Japanese Boy Who Draws uses imagery, initially, to visually support the narrating speech of Shinji’s mother. In other words, as the narrating speech of the mother is the narrative frame as such, the visual support, which functions on another plane than the plane of narration, is guided by the signifiers present in that narration.
Beyond the mother’s narrating speech, there is another element that structures the concatenation of images: intertitles. The use of intertitles reveal Shinji’s age and gives the narrative a more clear temporal structure.
The aforementioned way of staging Shinji’s narrative ultimately changes into a more typical staging (Cine-note 1). This change is in line with the temporal structure, with Shinji growing up and getting a voice for himself – ‘I want to be a mangaka’. While the narrating voice of the mother remains present throughout the narrative, Shinji’s growing up introduces, besides his own voice, a multiplication of voices, like the voice of his friend Masaru, the voice of Shinji’s teacher, the voice of Masaru’s mother, … etc.. These voices do not function as narrating voices, but function as ‘voices’ within the visual frame as such. These voices, these interacting voices, evoke the important moments, the important scenes, in Shinji’s personal trajectory.
The narrative of A Japanese Boy Who Draws is brought to life by an interesting eclectic mix of animation, stop-motion, photography as well as live-action. This highly creative collage does not only bring variety, but is also instrumental in bringing Shinji’s subjectivity visually to the fore. The inclusion of a black-white live-action sequence, for instance, is thus not just for the variety’s sake, but to visually empower a certain (negative) stage in Shinji’s trajectory (Cine-note 1, Narra-note 1).
But there is more. Beyond supporting the unfolding of Shinji’s narrative – a touching narrative of struggling to realize one’s dream, the eclectic art-style also directly communicates some of the themes A Japanese Boy Who Draws deals with.
The visual style of the narrative ensures that the ‘subjectivity’ of each subject is reflected in the visual representation of the characters within the narrative space as such. Shinji and Masaru, for instance, are each represented in the visual space by their own style of drawing. By representing each character by their own way of drawing, we also get a variety of visual references to pop-culture, like Dragon ball’s Son Goku, Kirby, … etc.
The diversity of styles, an eclecticism filling the visual frame of Shinji’s narrative, forms a beautiful illustration of the way in which children approach themselves in their drawings and which imaginary elements they choose to represent themselves – e.g. the strength of the Super-Saiyan, the beauty of the Shojo-manga-girl, … etc (Cine-note 2, general-note 1).
In line with the temporal dimension of the narrative, Shinji’s drawing-style (as well as the drawing-style of some other characters) evolves over time. In Shinji’s case, his style becomes, in line with his dream of becoming a mangaka, more manga-like – at one point his narrative is even told through animated manga-pages as such. (Cine-note 3). By framing the evolution of Shinji’s style, Kawajiri underlines the persisting importance of drawing for Shinji as subject, but also art’s ultimate purpose: expressing subjectivity. A Japanese Boy Who Draws shows that art is the ultimate tool for the subject to express his singularity.
A Japanese Boy Who Draws is a wonderful narrative about the importance of art for human subjectivity. While this importance is already evoked at the level of Shinji’s and Masaru’s narrative, it only becomes truly sensibly in the eclectic art-style by which their subjectivity – and the subjectivity of various others – becomes framed and expressed. Kawajiri has delivered a highly original narrative that communicates its powerful statement on art through its modulation of its eclectic art-style.
Narra-note 1: The shift to black and white live-action is meaningful in the context of Shinji’s narrative. One could say that it evokes his disillusionment with his unfruitful attempts to make it as a Mangaka in Tokyo.
Cine-note 1: Even though cinematographical movement is implied by the animation, the short-film is largely framed with a concatenation of fixed shots. In the live-action part of the narrative, a sequence framed with shaky following shots and (semi-)fixed shots, we find true cinematographical movement.
Cine-note 2: The spatial frame staging Shinji’s trajectory is dictated by Shinji’s drawing style as such. Nevertheless, when Masaru forms the narrative focus, the narrative space is drawn according to his style of drawing. His style of drawing has, for reasons explained in the narrative, remained childlike.
Cine-note 3: Do note that within Shinji’s narrative space, the other characters are generally represented by their own style. So while the narrative space of Shinji is manga-like, the children present in that space will be represented by their own drawing-style.
General-note 1: At various points in the narrative there is a visual reference to the god of manga: Osamu Tezuka as well.