Anime: Japanese-English Pictionary.
Let’s play a game, even if the outcome is already predetermined.
I made use of notions regarding game like qualifiers in the Kōji Yamamura headed 1999 short film Your Choice! (Dottini-Suru?), though to introduce that into any conversation regarding his filmography necessitates the injection of this particular piece.
Many readers may be familiar with the rules of Pictionary, which true to its name blends aspects of drawing skills and vocabulary shenanigans. For the uninitiated, the general play of the game involves two teams trying to move around on a board, a significant enough space for drawing, and a deck of game cards. Though rotation, an active player draws a card from the deck, which has several words corresponding to colors on the board and the types of words indicated. Orange for terms denoting an Action, for instance, for blue for an Object. They then have to select the color for where on the board their team needs to go next, and hastily draw a representation of the given word as their team guesses.
With the combination of a timer and how most folks are not trained speed artists, chaos and confusion ensues, and there is the game in a nutshell.
Pictionary was introduced to the market in 1985, though it would be a bit before it started trading hands between groups like Hasbro.
Kōji Yamamura’s Japanese-English Pictionary, where he tries to apply the general lay of the game to an animated film format, debuted in 1987. This makes it his second film, after 1985’s Aquatic, but at twelve minutes Japanese-English Pictionary is two and a half times as long. His proximity to experiencing the ideas in Pictionary is fascinating as a matter of circumstance. To say nothing of then turning around to get his own independant short and take on the idea out there as soon as possible with generous content, during the earliest days of his independent animation career.
Japanese-English Pictionary, being an experience premade rather than organic and in the moment, has the opportunity to take some leeway and advancements with the concept at hand.
With the director getting free reign to select the words and how they chain together one after another, there are various moods that can be walked through.
The visual progression can advance the camera downward into the sea, tackle a bit there, and after handling some more ethereal forms of life down there in the darkness descend further into basic shapes before working back outward again, for instance. Darker or heavier subject matter words can be rolled together more tightly, telling something of their own narrative in the process. These are events which can be difficult to impossible to have happen in the emergent gameplay of Pictionary, given the ruleset, but in adapting it for a film version I believe is a keen choice to enhance viewer experience.
It allows for reflection on the relationship some words may have together. The connotations they can have when apart, and then how things change.
Another change Yamamura makes is how he choose these words. As he is both able to select his own terms for this film, in addition to him being a drawer for all teams at once, each word begins with the last letter of the preceding word. This merges the aspects he is taking from Pictionary with the Japanese word game shiritori. This gives a generic objective for the work, starting at A and wanting to eventually work itself all the way down to Z, but there is a bit more to it than that. This serves as a built-in and immediately understandable rule set for the viewer to follow through, as the start and end of the words are highlighted during their transitions. With there being a lack of cards as well as wanting the short to keep moving along, this visually explains everything the audience needs to know, even if they are not familiar with shiritori.
Pictionary has a tendency to stall out at points, in moments of brain knotted confusion or the drawer not getting their point across. Which can be potentially amusing or exciting in a party setting. But not necessarily as a more passive film experience, which again I feel Yamamura was warranted in trying to reduce in favor of speed and having more imagery.
Given the significant variance between how one can perform any form of written Japanese versus English and its Latin script, this too is put to purpose.
It allows for juxtaposing differences in the amount of size they take up, the dual visual flow they can have entering the screen, sometimes desiring to integrate them into the activity of the animation, and so on. As these two languages also form what could be considered to be teams in this format, they are also always kept in pace with each other in their movement. This sometimes requires significant spacing on the Japanese side, but the effect is that the languages have an equality. Between themselves, for their capacity for expressing the same ideas, fears, silliness. Between us, and being able to process the visuals regardless of language. .
I thought about Osamu Tezuka’s Pictures at an Exhibition (Tenrankai no E) a fair amount. An anthology film where the God of Manga selected various modern professions and the amount of dread and venom spitting the film contained regarding what mankind was becoming. And, to reiterate, I think that is a very powerful piece of animation. Japanese-English Pictionary has its concerns as well, to be sure, given some of the transitions and subjects it aims to tackle. But it is also very interested in wonder and awe as much if not moreso than all that. What we have identified in the world. How impressive complex parts like eyeballs are. Our capacity for silliness and humor, as well as our ability to wreck the planet or each other.
There is an interesting and alluring thread in that. Mixed up in a seemingly wackadoodle picture game animation of blended rules and wildly divergent languages, that there are still elements we can consider universalities. How we have words and concepts for dreadful things, by all means. They tend to be some of the absolute fastest to identify. But the film itself purposefully, through the order it selected the very words that drive its flow, we also have a lot for a full spectrum of other emotions and scenes as well.
Pictionary is not exactly The Game of Life. I feel Kōji Yamamura realized that, even if that specific other game may not have been on his mind. Which is to say, I can see how Pictionary would have resonated much more sharply with him. A more poetic or organic experience, when taken in a certain light. Trying to bottle those notions in a vessel, to turn that into something fitting his own kind of art and expression.
It makes the final product that much more enjoyable beyond its mere concept, which could have been handled alone in far less time if he was just gunning after the idea in isolation. Japanese-English Pictionary is closer to a love letter status driving him though, some kind of fire inside of him. To this day it still ranks as one of the longer independent films he has ever made. While longer is itself not always indicative of better (editing is a virtue), it does on a base level speak towards passion projects. Especially when one could have been working on up to three other full shorts, given Yamamura’s usual timings.
It is often said there are forces of inspiration around us at all times. If we do indeed take that to heart than party games usually played with other people by all means count as something to reflect on the human experience with. It is a nice sentiment and goal for the piece, at its core.
Even if any of that may be tricky to keep in mind in the heat of the moment during social competition.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.