Yuri Norstein and Winter Days

I've never wanted this weblog to focus purely on the careers of Miyazaki and Takahata. In order to appreciate their work, you also need to learn about and discover other great animators and filmmakers throughout the world. I've written much about their peers and friends back in Japan, each of whom have contributed immensely to animation. And now I'd like to discuss someone who needs no introduction.

Yuri Norstein is seen in the eyes of many as the greatest living animator. I happen to be one of them. It's an astonishing claim to make when you examine his career, only to discover that his entire creative output as animator and director spans less than 90 minutes. Most of his movies run around 10 minutes or so, and Tales of Tales, Norstein's undisputed masterpiece, runs for 30 minutes.

If you haven't yet discovered Yuri Norstein, what awaits you is one of the truly great artists of our lifetimes. His is a style of filmmaking that has nearly completely evaporated, based upon old techniques of animation from the former Soviet Union. Everyone else has moved on to the computer age; yet here sits Norstein, stubbornly resisting time and following his own path.

Most Yuri Norstein fans have been waiting endlessly for his great unfinished project, The Overcoat, which he has been working on for the past quarter-century. But many of you are not aware that he created a brilliant animation short for the 2003 Japanese movie Winter Days.

Winter Days is something of an omnibus film, a massive collection of shorts from many of the finest animators in Japan and around the world. It is based on one of the poems by the great Japanese poet Basho, in which each person (or team) animates one short stanza, and then passes along to the next person. It's a wickedly smart idea, and an immensely varied film. There probably isn't a better example of the sheer breadth of animation techniques and styles in many years, apart from Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game, which is another genre-buster.

Yuri Norstein is revered immensely in Japan, so he was given the honor of the first stanza. He created a two-minute segment as vivid, as imaginitive, as brilliant as anything in his career. Considering that his last completed film is 1979's Tales of Tales, this is a great achievement. A great relief. Any fears that the master has lost his powers are quietly put aside.

I purchased the Winter Days DVD earlier this year, and it includes seperate interviews with each of the filmmakers involved in the project, as well as considerabe air time for Norstein. Unfortunately, English subtitles are not included, although I have been tempted to throw some of these segments on YouTube and let someone else translate.

The DVD also includes paper cards of illustrations. I don't know if the same cards are included, or if (like Pearl Jam's No Code album) different cards are mixed around. In any case, my cards include those by Norstein. The above photo shows the first one, a terrific little sketch.

As a final note, I should add that Isao Takahata contributed a stanza for this movie. This was, after all, the reason I bought the DVD in the first place. It remains his only film work after My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. The husband-wife team of Yoichi Kotabe and Reiko Okuyama also created a segment; it's no surprise that these shorts are the best of the entire anthology.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this! I have the Yuri Norstein collection dvd (The Complete Works of Yuri Norstein) and it had a short clip from this film on it. Since then I've really wanted to see the whole thing, and now I can at least get a youtube-flavored taste of it!

Glad to find that a fellow Miyazaki/Ghibli lover is also a Norstein fan! They're easily my two favorite animators.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this post and for posting this video. Norstein's output is so slim that every frame is precious. He, Miyazaki and Kihachiro Kawamoto are the great masters still working today. Art at its most brilliant.

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