Ghostly Apparitions: Nishiki Kag-E at the Japan Foundation

On Wednesday 30th October 2013, I was lucky enough to be present at the London Premiere of Nishiki Kag-E, a Japanese magic lantern performance based on a reconstruction of how the work would have been presented during the Edo period (1603-1867). These ghost stories were put on by the Japan Foundation to celebrate Hallowe’en.

Nishiki Kag-E performers
Nishiki Kag-E performers

In the European tradition, magic lantern projectors were large, unwieldy and held in a static position although a little movement could be introduced to the images through manipulating and swapping the slides (and in some instances a form of dolly was used to zoom the images in and out). In Japan, however, a different tradition evolved whereby a number of performers held and manipulated mobile wooden projectors behind a paper screen. The performers wear straps to attach the projectors to their bodies. I was fascinated to see this, since in a piece of work I made at the Centre for Drawing in Wimbledon in 2009 with the artists group formerly known as Drawn Together, I made myself a similar contraption so that I could walk around the room with a moving projection of animation that echoed the process of drawing being carried out by the other artists.

Handheld projector, Drawn Together, 2009
Handheld projector, Drawn Together, 2009

The Fantasmaglia Japonica Ikeda-Gumi  group from Osaka, Japan use a much more comfortable and ergonomic system than I used myself. Professor Mitsue Ikeda from Osaka University of the Arts has researched and reconstructed projectors from the Edo period.

Professor Mitsue Ikeda, Osaka University

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The wood that the ‘furo’ projectors are made of is light and heat resistant so the performers don’t burn their hands with the heat of the light source. Through back projection onto a paper screen, each performer manipulates a separate character or element in the story. They can also swap and flip slides from the ‘taneita’ (slide carrier). Through the actions of their bodies and switching between different character poses on slide, a great range of expression is possible including distortion effects when the slide is projected at an extreme angle.

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The performance that I saw was a ghost story Sakura-shiranami hyoito-bukuro (Cherry Blossoms, Foaming Waves, Flicking Bag). The plot concerned a burglar who was extremely disturbed to discover that objects he tried to steal had become ghouls behind this back. A live narrator recounted the story and made sound effects behind the screen. As we were seeing the show in London, we benefitted from digitally projected subtitles in English at the top of the screen.

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The roots of the stories that were performed in Nishiki Kag-E came from traditional bunraku and kabuki theatre. This work is considered to be hugely influential on the development of Japanese animation as the performer is creating the animation of a hand painted character in a live scenario. Professor Ikeda informed us that this form of entertainment became popular after the first magic lanterns were imported from Holland during the Edo period. They were hugely popular until cinema began to replace them at the turn of the Showa Era (1926-1989).

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I found the following clip of another troupe on You Tube, however, the performance lacks the subtlety and complexity of movement created by Professor Ikeda’s group.

Ghostly Apparitions: Nishiki Kag-E at the Japan Foundation

The evils of alcohol: early French cut-out animation by Marius O’Galop and Robert Lortac

Marius O’Galup (1867 – 1946) was an illustrator and animator who created around 20 short films using paper cut-outs. The public information films shown below from You Tube were made around 1918.

Robert Lortac (1884 – 1973) created around 20 films for Pathé, which were either educational or children’s stories. He went on to work in animated commercials until the late 30’s. The quality of these films he made in 1922 is not good, but still interesting to look at in terms of style.

For more information about the early French animators Marius O’Galup, Robert Lortac and Emile Cohl, see Valérie Vignaux’s interesting article in the Animation Interdisciplinary Journal: Entertainment and Instruction as Models in the Early Years of Animated Film.

The evils of alcohol: early French cut-out animation by Marius O’Galop and Robert Lortac

Charles-Èmile Reynauld’s Théâtre Optique, 1892

An interdiscplinary background in engineering, photography, sculpture and watercolours proved to be a fertile ground for the innovations in moving image technology developed by Charles-Èmile Reynauld, arguably the first person to create frame-by-frame animation in the classic form that we understand today.

Deriving from a praxinoscope that he had invented in 1876, Reynauld’s patented a Praxinoscope Théâtre in 1879 and then an improved version, the Théâtre Optique, was patented in 1888. This invention was able to project hand-painted, animated, moving images and was adopted commercially by the Museé Grévin in Paris in 1892. The Museé Grévin was a famous museum of waxworks, which also featured a Cabaret Fantastique, a small theatre with shows from magicians. The Théâtre Optique opened there in 1892 – three years before the Lumière Brothers had perfected the first film camera and demonstrated moving, photographic images in 1895. The Théâtre Optique was open until 1900, when it was superseded by cinema and closed down. Before his death in January 1918, in a fit of depression, he smashed the surviving Théâtre Optique mechanism and threw all but two of his picture bands into the Seine.

Here is a reconstruction of Théâtre Optique by the Museum of Cinema in Girona.

Here is a reconstruction of one of the two surviving Pantomimes Lumineuses that were screened at the Théâtre Optique, Pauvre Pierrot from 1892.

Charles-Èmile Reynauld’s Théâtre Optique, 1892