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Kihachiro Kawamoto, RIP

It’s not a good week to be a Japanese animation legend. Stop motion animator and puppeteer Kihachiro Kawamoto, passed away last Monday at age 85. The cause of death was pneumonia.

From Wikipedia:

Born in 1925, from an early age Kihachiro Kawamoto was captivated by the art of doll and puppet making. After seeing the works of maestro Czech animator Jiri Trnka, he first became interested in stop motion puppet animation and during the 50s began working alongside Japan’s first stop motion animator, the legendary Tadahito Mochinaga.

In 1958, he co-founded Shiba Productions to make commercial animation for television, but it was not until 1963, when he traveled to Prague to study puppet animation under Jiri Trnka for a year, that his puppets truly began to take on a life of their own. Trnka encouraged Kawamoto to draw on his own country’s rich cultural heritage in his work, and so Kawamoto returned from Czechoslovakia to make a series of highly individual, independently-produced artistic short works, beginning with Breaking of Branches is Forbidden (Hana-Ori) in 1968.

Heavily influenced by the traditional aesthetics of Noh, Bunraku doll theatre and Kabuki, since the 70s his haunting puppet animations such as The Demon (Oni, 1972), Dojoji Temple (Dojoji, 1976) and House of Flame (Kataku, 1979) have won numerous prizes internationally. He has also produced cut out (kirigami) animations such as The Trip (Tabi, 1973) and A Poet’s Life (Shijin no Shogai, 1974). In 1990 he returned to Trnka’s studios in Prague to make Briar Rose, or The Sleeping Beauty.

In Japan, he is best known for designing the puppets used in the long-running TV series based on the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sangokushi, 1982-84), and later for The Story of Heike (Heike Monogatari, 1993-94). In 2003, he was responsible for overseeing the Winter Days (Fuyu no Hi) project, in which 35 of the world’s top animators each worked on a two-minute segment inspired by the renka couplets of celebrated haiku poet Matsuo Basho.

This is a link to a news story in Japanese about his death. Here’s an interview with Kawamoto that offers more details about his career. Also, be sure to check out the fantastic imagery in his short film The Trip.

(Thanks, Chris Robinson)

  • How unfortunate! I was just wondering if he had been working on anything recently. Sad.

  • Sat

    Crazy sad week.
    He was a reminder that there was something outside of the “anime-style” type of animation in Japan. A proof that this country have potential to explore. Even more, his films were focused of a rich folklore not enough seen.
    I can think of very few people like him (Tadanari Okamoto maybe, who really, really needs people to translate his work), and that’s what makes it so sad.

  • Totally a bad week for the Japan film industry :P

    Also, it’s weird that the brew didn’t mention that Disney pulled out of the Annie Awards… is that not ‘Brew News’ worthy?


    Of all of the recent losses to animation, this one really hurts. What an incredible film maker.

  • The really sad thing is not that plenty such independent (both in the sense of being self-funded and of stylistic independence) animation hasn’t been done in Japan – it has, and continues to be – but that an entire nation’s animated works have been stereotyped in order to sell it as a brand, misleading many a foreigner into believing they’ve general idea of the big picture when they’re ignorant to almost the first half of their history and many of the most interesting examples since then, with the language barrier and people stuck on one side writing about it enforcing and spreading these… Not so such much outright falsities as a very skewed, blinkered idea of what is significant and notable and where and when it is to be found (though with a lot of work it could be part of the solution, Wikipedia and it’s fan- rather than artist or scholar-skewed editorship and the easiness of not looking beyond it when it appears to offer a succinct answer can be part of the problem with such matters). But on the other hand, if it weren’t for this success-by-stereotyping leading to the establishment of distribution channels, would we have even the small token of the licensed and subtitled streams of KATÅŒ Kunio’s films and a YUASA Masaaki series that some of us have today? There is nothing quite like even this for such works in other foreign languages (unless of course there’s some wonderful site out there I’m ignorant of myself; iTunes has a few subbed short films but the last I downloaded was insultingly low-resolution).

    On a positive note, Catherine Munroe Hotes has since posted the most thorough Kawamoto biography this side of the divide at – including links to uploads of his early Shiba Pro commercial work and her equally revelatory earlier notes on individual films. There’s naturally also plenty of mentions at if one does a search for his name, though the titbits – such as that his Book of the Dead feature was at least half-funded by fan contributions – are scattered amongst many entries; there’s rather more there on Tadanari Okamoto, whom Kawamoto often comes up in connection with.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      That’s pretty much been my problem with the way animation from Japan is always classed or stereotyped into because of that branding and the people who still tag it as such for things outside the mainstream such as this (let alone the early works that have been discovered in Japan going back to the early 20th century). It’s still very closed-minded and and broaden enough for anyone here to get a clue outside the appreciated few.

  • Tamu

    This is so odd. I was thinking of The Breaking of Branches is Forbidden this morning on the bus.

    I have a huge admiration for his work, but what I liked best was finding out what a warm, decent man he was. A great talent and great person.

  • GhaleonQ

    God, Wei Te, Satoshi Kon, and Kawamoto in 1 year?

    And, yeah, I always preferred Okamoto, but I’ll always look fondly on Kawamoto for finishing Okamoto’s last film.

  • Oh my… what a sad day. He was a wonderful director and a good man.

    May he not be forgotten.