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.
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)