This Week: The Nighthawk Star (Yodaka no Hoshi).
“Even with an ugly body like mine, I should emit a small light when I burn.”
Ryu Kato is one of my favorite animators working today.
I have touched a bit on his work before, via his “Nimrod” music video for the group People in the Box. Created by painting on a book between shots on a stationary camera, it is a solid representative of the wonderful visual energy he can bring to a project.
Going along with this, I would like to work towards having more posts which cover his creative output. If only every now and again. He by all means works quite a lot if you examine the chronology he keeps on his website. He was even handed the task to do the opening prologue of The Last: Naruto the Movie! Which is such a massive shift in who would get to see his work under most circumstances. Kato often operates in the more music video, television commercial, and short film areas of the industry. Often painting on nontraditional surfaces like glass, books, and so on. In many cases animating solo and flying alone. In turn, it can be tricky to find the right project for getting his work out in front of kids.
But a bit in a Naruto movie would also not be the first time.
The Nighthawk Star (Yodaka no Hoshi) is a short children’s story written in the early 1920’s by Kenji Miyazawa. He is now most famous for Night on the Galactic Railroad (Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru), despite never finishing the book in his lifetime. But the ex-teacher produced a mammoth quantity of other stories, poetry, and assorted writings before his death in 1933 at age thirty-seven. While not a popular literary figure in his own lifetime, Miyazawa’s works have since well spread and become part of the national canon.
All of which is to say: Much like Shakespeare or Twain elsewhere, there is always opportunity seen in adaptations.
Ryu Kato’s 2013 animated version of The Nighthawk Star found life as part of an NHK series honoring the eightieth anniversary of Miyazawa’s passing.
The movie clocks just around ten minutes in length. The short story is breezy and completable in even less time, amounting to just a few pages and paragraphs. So there is little left on the cutting room floor in the attempt here at bringing it to a short film format.
As the opening quote may have given some inclination of, the narrative touches on probable familiar territory for many. The Nighthawk Star hits similar notes as The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. But there are key differences.
Rather than a baby “duck” who grows up to turn out to be a beautiful swan envied by others, Nighthawk is Nighthawk. Full grown, and his name is his species. Considered to have an ugly beak structure, as it is wide, stretches far back, and hooks somewhat. They nest on the ground, and eat by catching bugs in the air. Furthermore, they can cry a bit like a hawk and their great wings can make them look like a proper hawk. This is despite the two not sharing a relation. Nighthawk, in turn, finds himself bullied and threatened by the stronger Hawk. His anger is immense and has boiled for a long time. Hawk sees only insult in these things beyond either of their control. Nighthawk as a living being is vulgar to Hawk, and seeks to purge them. Nighthawk has some some soul searching to consider about what to do, where to go, or who to be.
So the adaptation of the work at hand here is rather straightforward on the narrative end. The running time kept to a brisk pace befitting the original story. Characters are not re-imagined into some other form for any new twist on metaphorical or symbolic purposes. The question then turns to what Kato’s approach to The Nighthawk Star brings to the table. What makes his vision for Nighthawk stand out and stand up on its own.
While nowhere near surprising, the biggest strength in my eyes comes from the visual flair. Kato is the sole animator credited in this piece, allowing him incredible control and idiosyncrasy for each moment. Brushwork is often fat and bold. Colors do not flat fill surfaces or bodies with even tones. Rather they are quite uneven, mix together, and become chaotic in motion. The lack of outlines emphasize this all the more, as clouds streak over skies or the various selection of bird characters move their wings. With cosmic, existential and other subject matters laced through Miyazawa’s body of work, Kato’s style complements his textual messages well. It evokes not only the struggles, confusion, or even fury of contending with such matters.
But also the liveliness they can grant and the assortment of experiences from which we build ourselves. How we in turn engage with the people and places around us.
Another aspect I see as critical here, and easy to overlook, is in the soundtrack.
Sure, adding any audio always leads to a different experience versus a core written text (and the voice cast will find no fault from me). But music does go a long way for atmosphere. It is what we get to sink in to us when Nighthawk flies around on his own to think. What plays us out on even after the last voice as anything in particular to say. The soundtrack is also Kato’s work, and again the sole person credited to such efforts.
Kato is a talented musician in his own right, which flies under the radar a lot. After all, his primary professional accomplishments are in animation. But, as I mentioned in trying to even begin to unpack his task on “Nimrod,” his music background gives him a varied artistic perspective to pull from. It gives him an armory of a mental workbench when animating music videos for others. Unfortunate for the time of this post, it is far more difficult to find examples of Kato’s musical work. Even most of his YouTube channel has implemented region locks since the YouTube Red service, as per many things relating to various Japanese media industries. But, I can provide at least one example. “Traveler’s Dream,” or “Dream of Traveling People,” gets close to demonstrating the kind of orchestration and temperament deployed in The Nighthawk Star.
While there may not be a whole album worth of music allowed by the short film, the songs present hit at many of the same notes. A matter of tastes and aesthetics like everything else of course, but this is the kind of thing I enjoy listening to while driving to work at night or on the way home in the early morning.
Perhaps then it may be some of the mental muscle memory talking.
But, I find this approach dovetails quite well with Nighthawk having a lot on their mind. Trying to consider where they can go, and what may be for the best.
The Nighthawk Star is a narrative I have a lot of time for, in its original form or otherwise.
Hawk may operate as the villain of the piece. But they are not someone who our hero must slay or dominate to find victory. Nighthawk runs themselves ragged, on mental and physical fronts alike. They are in desperate search for a way beyond their present situation. However, there is no fated solution to what is bothering them, unlike the more uncomfortable aspects to the superior beautiful breed situation inherent to The Ugly Duckling story. Nighthawk is Nighthawk. Scared and struggling a lot to figure out how to both get above their perception by others. Where to aim to find peace in their own mind.
It is an enduring little fairy tale for good reason, remarkable in its modern qualities.
Ryu Kato did not tinker with the core strengths and pacing beats of a story almost a century old, which I feel is to its great benefit. Rather than try to shake up The Nighthawk Star or turn it on its head, as adaptations of classic literary works can find temping nowadays, these parts find themselves left well enough alone. His seeks most to consider his own distinguishing traits honed in other disciplines. The end result is one aiming to compliment and find personal expression through the artistic voice of the existing body of work. Outside of a select handful of outside support roles, such as the character cast, Kato is more or less alone. Allowed immense leeway to meditate on the work and its world. What he saw and what that cocktail sensation felt like. How to convey this to others with wonder, even if they know where Nighthawk goes.
I am certain there were various approval processes to clear for the network. What they wanted as part of their special Miyazawa celebration, and so forth. But the project does not leave the impression of straining for more or finding itself held back. The written story is well known, and Kato could explore and push how to present it in the style and aesthetic sensibilities he has become ever more well known for.
He allowed Nighthawk to cry out and keep their name, as it were, rather than smother their presence with his own.
I feel Nighthawk would appreciate some in-flight camaraderie.
Mothballs posts are write-ups 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.