Released in 1966, this Osamu Tezuka directed anime film makes use of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s ten movement suite from 1874 to guide us as viewers through a series of dialogue-free shorts.
With the framing device of the audience being led through a museum art gallery, we are shepherded through a choice selection of professional occupation portraits as we then come to explore their perceived nature and impact. A reflecting pool on the march of modern society and what it champions as the heroes of today.
While such an introduction may sound heavy (and indeed, I find the film to be a weighty piece with much to say), Mussorgsky’s composition does itself have its own unfortunate history. In more ways than one, at that.
The musician’s friend Viktor Hartmann, a Russian architect and painter by trade with whom they had become fast friends with only a few years earlier, died of a sudden aneurysm at the age of 39. In memory and celebration of the young man’s work, an exhibition of hundreds of Hartmann’s works was created and ran between February and March 1874 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg. Mussorgsky, who had donated some of these works from his personal collection, had a passionate personal artistic takeaway from the event. The entire suite that would come to be entitled Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in a scant six weeks, while so much of the showcase remained fresh in his mind and seeking to embody the visual experience to an audio format. To, in a sense, make the exhibition more relivable or provide fresh insight and contemplations as a mental walking tour, as well as to of course honor the deceased.
The composition would not see spreadable publication for wider professionals to take up until 1886, by which time Mussorgsky had already passed away (having departed in 1881). Even so, the result was a radically edited release, and the full composition would not receive a proper printed debut faithful to the original to distribute until 1931 (though various selections or artistic licenses taken from it were performed prior), almost sixty years after Hartmann’s death and a half century since Mussorgsky’s. Not only that, but of the direct works the composer had in mind when making his songs and would name the individual movements after, only a few remain or have been identified properly. However, The vibrancy and auditory spectacle of the work made it gain significant traction from orchestras and composers around the world.
Osamu Tezuka, a grand force in the development of manga and Japanese animation on a scale that virtually everyone in those industries today owes their line of work to him on one level or another, would team up with composer Isao Tomita just about thirty five years after the wider release of the full score. With the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra performing, Tomita would arrange Mussorgsky’s suite into what one would now call the soundtrack to a film.
A field of media that can, in different turns of phrase, be called motion pictures.
This would not be the only time Tomita would arrange the richly formatted suite either, coming to do so all over again just shy of a decade later for synthesizer play and his 1975 “Pictures at an Exhibition” album.
But, if one is reading this blog, one is perhaps most interested in Tezuka and the animated shorts which constitute the movie that aimed to reinterpret Mussorgsky’s idea of an audio tour of a gallery and bring it back in a new visual life.
While approximately a half hour in length, it is a compact but exceedingly sharp series of considerations towards modern society. One is barely left with even three minutes per short, and that is before accounting for transitional sequences down the gallery set to Mussorgsky’s varied Promenade interludes or two small live action bookends. At times darkly humorous, at others sad, and yet also even thunderous or acidic at points, as a film Pictures at an Exhibition walks many lines and jumps between assorted tightropes in locomotive succession. Tightly edited, Tezuka and his team generated a vibrant tapestry that never feels rushed and yet never lacks for an avalanche of content to contemplate in various ways, some of which I will aim to do so with here.
For purposes of creating some intriguing reads between the visual content and the movements of the Mussorgsky’s suite, I will be including the names of the short segments in addition to both the original and English translated song titles for you to consider.
Finally, I would greatly encourage you to watch this film, either after reading this post or coming back around when you have the opportunity. As with so much art, I could describe or provide unto you my passing interpretations of what it is up to, but my kneejerk eye is but a small fraction of what someone else may engage with from a work such as this.
No. 1 “Gnomus”
[Latin, The Gnome]
I have seen others refer to this as “Critic” at times as well, so this may depend on a particular language difference somewhere across the decades this film has been out. My copy says “Journalist” however, so I will go with that. In either event, both names are on the mark, given the content of the work.
Our scowling and short stature lead traverses through all manner of media with his judgmental temperament. His long arms strike down written reports, photographs, and other works sitting before him. He provides numerical scores to crowds before him, and shakes the hands of those in other positions of power. There are faults to find, comparisons to make, and people to condemn all in the pursuit in making a better story. To come off as more objective, knowable, or refined, even as his steals away a photograph of a nude woman for himself. In the end having pushed someone just a bit too far however, and being confronted with the universally understandable notion of “If you do not like it, do it yourself!” He scurries at the thought.
As the leading short of the collection, full of potential hiccups or issues in modern society, it is a very intriguing blow to land first. As Pictures at an Exhibition is completely lacking in dialogue, set to the musical suite of a Russian composer from decades ago, and trying to provide a series of critiques, this anthology is by all accounts something one would consider as an “art” film. It certainly is not as even questionably commercially viable as Walt Disney’s Fantasia, and that had Mickey Mouse and popular classics like the Nutcracker Suite selections of Tchaikovsky’s work.
For it to fire direct shots at what one would consider to be the initial if not primary audience for this sort of film is a bold move, especially for an animated work out of Japan’s still growing anime industry. It sets a strong artistic tone for everything that is to follow, that there are gradients to consider and things should not be taken on merely thumbs up or down merits alone.
No. 2 “Il vecchio castello”
[Italian, The Old Castle]
This may well be my personal favorite of the shorts in this collection, though that by no means is to throw the others overboard.
Here we have a modern or near future cityscape, full of lifeless concrete and steel, and a lone bug wandering around with a hobo handkerchief on a stick. There is nothing for him to eat or take nourishment from. Stumbling upon a city garden park, he is at first ecstatic, only to learn that everything in it is fake. The flowers are artificial, the other insects are merely decorative figures, and even the drops of water on the leaves are nothing more than glass and crystals. It is as soul crushing for him as it is a picturesque collection celebrated by the wealthy and maintained by an artist who excels in creating the illusion of life.
There is a definite autobiographical facet to this work if one wanted to go that route. Osamu Tezuka did himself find it fascinating as a child that “Osamushi” was a sort of bug that resembled his own name somewhat, to the extent he would even go on to use it as the inspirational name for Mushi Production. That his career in manga and animation does come down to cultivating artificial life is itself another aspect. There are notions at odds with each other, though we are by design to feel more sympathetic for the starving bug. The lifelike realism the landscaper of the piece is able to generate dazzles the finely dressed crowds, though they all lack the vitality or visual richness one could get out of the bug or the weed he is eventually tossed under.
There is a balancing act, in essence, and merely because one could replace real plants with an entirely artificial and perfectly replicated garden does not necessarily mean one should cast aside the strengths the real thing has in its imperfections. Likewise, one could see too the struggle that exists between having more lifelike comics or animation, and more stylistic or organic works that may retain some technical quirks. Rather than viewing them exclusively as “errors”, they can also been appreciated as providing it life and an individual quality all its own, and should be not fully stricken down.
No. 3 “Tuileries” (Dispute d’enfants après jeux)
[French, Tuileries (Dispute between Children at Play)]
We move from the artificial flowers of the preceding work to a profession which excels in redesigning human bodies. In turn, it is also the most “crudely” drawn short of the bunch, looking more like a pencil sketch flip-book more than anything else.
It is important to note that the surgeon of the piece exclusively deals in more superficial beauty work than, say, reconstructive surgery after a serious accident. A comedic bit, he slims a woman’s large legs via a pencil sharpener device, another has breast enhancement performed by having her rear slammed with a hammer and hurling the tissue upward, and so on. Drawn as they are though, as they appear to us, these women look fine.
These are cartoon characters in essence seeking to be refined more towards a reality based fashion magazine aesthetic. They feel lacking, in one way or another, just as some who come to real world cosmetic surgeons with similar concerns. And yet, as a simple sneeze is enough for our surgeon to rupture his own facial work from over the years, it is all tenuous and potentially quite temporary. That if so much work is done to the surface, the foundation is at risk of breaking down or not having its core needs met. In fact, perhaps even compromising them in the process.
It dovetails well with the previous short on artificial honing versus more lively imperfections, while transferring the lens to a different social point.
No. 4 “Bydło”
The name of this selection by all means stings a bit, as a managerial tycoon oversees a vast labor force of identical human workers shepherded around and confined for almost all aspects of their day. They are very much industrial livestock as cogs in a machine far larger than themselves.
This piece also makes use of a rather particular visual style is drive this message home all the further, where everyone and everything is made of hard and angular geometric shapes. There is no bending, no curvature or grace in their actions, but instead more indicative of stop-start clanking motions or the movement of pistons. Efficiency at the cost of all else, and even the manager of the title makes use of machines to move his arms at dinner so as to lessen his own personal workload. That the human staff comes to systematically replaced by machines to squeeze every little bit of productivity should come as little surprise, though it certainly was not the intention of the proprietor that he would end up downsizing himself in the process.
This is a somewhat natural extension of the idea of George Jetson’s Digital Index Operator title at Spacely’s Space Sprockets, which boils down to him just pressing a button all day to produce very nebulously defined industrial goods. Except in this case, we see things from the manager’s perspective, and the Spacely figure actually went the distance to replace his one note employees with full on machines. A very real concern, especially today, with increasingly removing human elements from the workplace. While the boss in the short does get his comedic comeuppance due to not envisioning the effect his decisions would have on himself, one is left to hope that a real live individual in that position would not make the same choices as him.
A dark hope, it may seem at times when looking at the news, but a hope nonetheless and a cautionary message here.
No. 5 “Балет невылупившихся птенцов” [Balet nevylupivshikhsya ptentsov]
[Russian, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks]
Of all of focal subjects for these shorts, this may well be the one to come off as potentially anachronistic in a modern context. As a sort of subculture or media stereotype, one can see today “beatnik” as an identity was actually on the tail end of its prominence by the time Tezuka’s Pictures at an Exhibition was released. Like many a young movement before it, the influence and accomplishments it had in art or elsewhere has morphed into other developments in the decades since.
It seems especially appropriate then that our focus here is on baby chickens.
This serves multiple ways to read into the work quite handily. Images of the young birds, eggshells still firmly planted on their bottoms, acting in combination of rough and tumble theatrical fighting or butting on tough airs can easily look as though the film is mocking those whose persona’s were birthed via attaching themselves to the beat generation writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. That these were children, unwise in the ways of the world but playing at being more adult than they really are.
One could also though see it as more embracing or celebrating many aspects of representing beatnik culture. The notion that of course it is young, and taking the trappings of elements such as its concerns for socio-political action and representing that by having chicks of different colors perform together. That there are strife’s which can be channeled into something more unified, that something good could come out of, and beatnik considerations of rejecting traditional social or racial rules. Yet also, a fragility, as the chickens run away back to their separate shells at the end. Or alternatively, if one wanted a more condemning read of the piece, that perhaps it was not all that strong to begin with.
At the same time, it is also a short where little birds, still fuzzy after emerging from their shells, dance around and smack each other around a bit in ways that could be considered amusing. In that respect, perhaps then in that it retains its ability to be timeless for all ages regardless of what social thought they wish to apply to the work, whether one wanted to argue the beatnik culture grew into something greater or not.
No. 6 “Samuel” Goldenberg und “Schmuÿle”
[Yiddish, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle]
The modern professional athlete, able to rake in seemingly unfathomable sums of money, is a complaint that bubbles up in opinion columns and internet comment sections time and again. Especially now, with the spread of global financial wealth being as limited and restricted as it is as an increasingly popular topic and activism subject.
The short itself follows the arc one would almost come to expect as the default artistic narrative for a piece such as this. Our boxer, in this case embodied by an elephant, rises up through the ranks to great success and extravagant fortune. For a time, everything is seemingly going his way, as his physical stature rises to meet his growing accolades and fame. Everyone else seems as though they are insects. Slowly, it all has gone to far, and he has brought himself to personal and professional ruin.
I would not fault anyone too much were they to find Boxer a somewhat disappointing short in that respect, in that it does not pull any unexpected punches. It is straightforward, and does everything one would think it would do, right to the former fighters and even our leading elephant’s previous trainer able to smack him around by the end. There is even the hint he may have been physically abusive or even murdered their relationship partner. His championship days are long gone, his time in the limelight is beyond past, and he is left with nothing due to how poorly he managed himself in his heyday.
It is still a keenly relevant topic to want to bring up in a collection like Pictures at an Exhibition. Even college level sports, seemingly amateur in nature, are increasingly affected by professional level concerns or drama in the fame and fortune department.
No. 7 “Limoges”, le marché (La grande nouvelle)
[French, The Market at Limoges (The Great News)]
As our field of view turns to this piece, we actually pass over a gallery image of Charlie Chaplin on the wall right next to this one. A significant rise and fall, his ambitious career took, which I see as important to consider when juxtaposed against this.
The visual style is like a more refined linework style than the Cosmetic Surgeon short, with clean lines though with the characters having breaks in them. Were one to use the “Fill” tool in an image manipulation program, the selected color would spill everywhere. It gives a hollow quality to affairs, which I feel is appropriate. While the animation is lively, things like the famous woman careening through traffic, are harder to feel a personal connection with as a viewer. Those held up at the television station are generally more blob-like in appearance, denoting their lack of critical impact to what they are working on. The dry humor in what the nature of their recording actually is has a resounding quality in the amount of stress this all created for something so simple as an advertisement.
And yet in those moments they are without the star, they have nothing, and upon arrival she is everything. It should not be so problematic and prone to the whims of a egotistical celebrity to make something as unassuming as our production team is working on, and yet it is. On the business end, on the recording set, for preparatory folks like makeup artists working on parts of her body that the camera will not even see, and so on.
That even her car, with a back trunk designed to look like a large butt and the front hood engineered to look like a woman’s breasts and torso, is designed to evoke an immediate reaction regarding her character in the mind of the viewer and what stratospheric levels she much consider herself to be on.
And yet she and her whims must still be accommodated, because the crew needs her so as to be able to continue to do their jobs and maintain their own lives.
No. 8 “Catacombæ” (Sepulcrum romanum) and “Con mortuis in lingua mortua”
[Latin, The Catacombs (Roman sepulcher)] and [Latin, With the Dead in a Dead Language]
By far the easiest of the shorts to animate on a technical level, our primary visual focus is locked on to a nearly rock-like man of spiritual leadership.
The world, gray around him as it is, full as it is for many of us as one of mystery and doubts about what roads to take and where to look to for guidance. Here he sits though, battered by stormy downpours, howling wind, and even fire in the wide scope of creation around him. He is focused and meditative despite these tribulations. We get, at best, a small nod of his head from time to time.
…until we realize he had actually been alseep. Himself shocked at our having discovered this, he returns to a contemplative position we had perhaps originally seen him as in.
Like a Zen poem, it may be simple on the surface but there are great details to take from it. One could without question see this as a condemnation oriented short. That religions or faith organizations have come to neglect their core duties despite external optics. Not just this monk specifically, as he is but a representative of the whole culture that has not been able to provide adequate guidance or has become lazy in applying itself further. Given things like the shattering child sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic church in recent years, it is still a highly resonant message to take.
However, one can also take a degree of heart in the priest resuming his duties, should they so choose. While but the tail end before the piece transitions back to the museum, after having been caught being delinquent our robed leader does return to operating in that meditative fashion we had considered him to be in all along. In this then, a viewer can consider that despite the reveal, this upheaval is not itself the end. Regardless of being caught red handed and literally napping on the job, we ourselves as external people can also move these practitioners back towards what we expect and desire from them.
That there is a synergistic relationship and it is only through our own vigilance, be we ourselves of that particular faith or otherwise, that we too keep those spiritual leaders on their toes and engaged with the world today. Lest they too, perhaps, be left by the wayside as the song says to speak to a world in only but a dead language.
No. 9 “Избушка на курьих ножках” (Баба-Яга) [Izbushka na kuryikh nozhkakh (Baba-Yagá)]
[Russian, The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yagá)]
The final short focusing on a specific profession or culture, and as a penultimate piece to the broadside canon blasts Pictures at an Exhibition has made thus far in the journey Tezuka’s anthology film turns its targeting reticule on modern warfare.
Fittingly, it is a bombastic short, made all the more so after the more quietly resolute and generally unmoving Zen Priest bit preceding it. Here, angular shapes hurl stark explosions of color at each other. Vehicles that our brain processes as airplanes, tanks, and artillery launchers seem familiar and yet alien. On the infantry level, hard brushstrokes of ink give a gritty and shadow engulfed tone to their affairs. The ninth movement of Mussorgsky’s suite bellows and falls to near whispers before cascading at us all over again as the action rises and falls to meet it.
An important takeaway from this part of the film, I feel, comes down to the infantryman sequence. In it, a military man comes upon a bedridden woman and it is shot in a rather imposing matter. That perhaps he has the most vile of intentions. The audio provides tension by backing away as those visuals key up. Yet, he only wants to give her a drink of water, but find he has none in his canteen. It is a perspective play, in that it is a tender battlefield moment of human consciousness in a stark and gloomy situation.
Meanwhile, as he runs off to acquire some water, another solider from elsewhere happens upon the woman’s hut and he too seeks to provide her water out of concern. In this case, he does happen to have some still on his person, resulting in him still being there for where the original solider returns and they proceed to viciously attack each other before the woman. The resulting struggle is messy, chaotic, and terrifying for the one they each sought to help only moments prior.
Due to the color palate, there is no way to tell these men are on different sides of the conflict. There is no difference in uniform or visible insignias. We know they had similar humanity, insofar as seeking to support the lady and provide a bit of water in a difficult time. And yet even so, they are divided, for larger socio-political or national reasons above them. They are all, in the end, lost to the flames of war.
It is not so much that the soldiers themselves are bad people, or that their actions were hopeless (either in seeking to provide water, or fight back against a perceived enemy). But the nature of conflict is that it is an inherently complex beast with a number of players and viewpoints in play, as well as the historically and socially assembled backings to color them even further. Even the faceless entity that dropped the bomb which killed our small scale cast did themselves likely consider they were doing the right thing at the time. There is despair, and there is hope, and despair again.
This is the only gallery painting in Pictures at an Exhibition that, when we return to the museum, does not leave its original staring back at us.
We see instead a contorted animated mess of colors, discordant and at odds with one another.
No. 10 “Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве) [Bogatyrskiye vorota (V stolnom gorode Kiyeve)]
[Russian, The Bogatyr Gates (in the Capital in Kiev)]
The final short of this film field trip, and for an anthology collection to deploy a rhetorical device such as this is certainly itself of note. That it feels the need to have one, to tie a neat little bow on the entire operation. Or, perhaps, in the event one did not “get” an overarching message from the preceding works, and not wanting to leave such folks without a demonstrable finale to wrap up with. In which case, the notion of if the preceding movements have been successful or not in intent and delivery.
Mussorgsky’s final movement in this suite is akin to a kind of grand parade procession, and indeed that is very much what we have here. Figures representative of wide swathes of human history and civilization walking through to the gates of heaven or eternal fame, through a large stone arch held up by Greco-Roman figures. Many pass by, all under the watchful eye of those holding the arch, and for a while we do not even see anyone from the preceding shorts at all. The line is indicative of human history up to that point. When those we know do arrive, they are the only ones in vibrant color. They are, after all, the most recent entries up until this point in time. They are thus at the end of the line, and when they pass by no others are behind them.
Is that indicative of this being the begging of the end of human civilization or achievement as we have celebrated in the times past?
As with so much else in the film, it depends. The statue figures, considering their place after the procession of TV stars, cosmetic surgeons, etc, do abandon their posts to head off towards the gates themselves. Many of the classical figures who came to establish the beginnings of philosophical, governmental, mathematical, and all other manner of systems by which the world still uses today are certainly not as celebrated popularly or passingly as folks like the woman of the TV Talent segment. They head off to what they think then they may perhaps deserve. The archway crumbles and begins to collapse without them.
Yet, they do return to their duties. The arch, cracked though it has become, is saved. To still be upon their strong shoulders and backs, as their work is not done. The arch remains open to those who may come in the future, from the times that have yet to be.
Is all this good, is it bad?
Well, the choice of Greco-Roman figures does seem perhaps exclusionary to a modern eye, though the visual notion of the strong stone arch is a simple and powerful visual as a reminder of the civilizations of yore. Beyond that however, is the dominant question of how much this conclusion is lambasting modern society as the, well, the Allegorical Conclusion. Certainly there is the feeling folks may have that, say, a passing egotistical celebrity gets far more attention and credence in the popular consciousness than those who have established the blocks by which society as we know it today is able to function and carry on. Those whose works have come to be such critical facets of our human society would perhaps want to get their due rewards as well, in the sense of being able to finally cast off the weights they have championed for us all throughout the millenia.
That the arch did come to be saved, fractured though it may be, does strike a positive note. That despite all which has transpired, the march will be able to continue through the ages. A notion that despite any passing pain when reflecting on such matters as the potential decay or end of modern civilization, there are still elements to consider as aspects of goodness in a flawed and indulgent humanity.
That there is a hope for the future, despite any supposed cracks which have developed in the present. Strong foundations that both can and must be upheld for others.
Which, for Mussorgsky’s suite originally intended for reflecting on the memory and collected works of his dear friend, does still seem wholly appropriate.