My recently discovered love for obscure titles within the world of Japanese animation pointed me in the direction of independent moviemaker Yoji Kuri who’s made several short animated features primarily during the 70′s. There’s nothing I love more than independent filmmaking, and I was therefore eager to explore some of his movies and learn more about his life and the cultural legacy he left behind. I ended up watching one of his shortest movies titled ‘Human Zoo’ and afterwards I just sat down, staring absently on my screen, unable to comprehend any form of explanation to what I had just seen.
I wouldn’t expect visual splendor from such an old independent feature, but I would expect some form of redeeming quality. Not only does the movie look like the creation of some 5 year old thought it would be funny to do some sketches on the back of his napkin, but there’s no story or meaning to be found anywhere. The entire movie takes place in a cage where a man takes the role of several different animals while some mysterious woman (supposedly his wife) treats him abusively by hitting him with a broom and sitting on him. Am I to interoperate this as some sort of symbol for female empowerment? Or is Yoji trying to state that despite our definitions of sophistication and humanity, we can still lower ourselves to the barbaric and impulsive depths of animals? I hardly think so. What I do believe, on the other hand, is that this is exactly the kind of material that some pretentious people will defend with arguments about some sort of hidden message or symbolism. Like many people firmly believe that featuring any form of symbolism is a redeeming quality in itself while a coherent storyline is pretty much unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Mindfuck genre where you’re led to conclusions that later turn out to be false, and where there are moments when you feel like you can’t understand anything. This isn’t the case here; Human Zoo is nothing complicated at all. It’s just pointless. Some may believe that it’s trying to state some fundamental truth of life, or convey some form of hidden message, but in reality it’s just a pointless piece of animation. I’ve now watched all the shorts of Yoji Kuri that are available, and the same insults I’ve used here can be applied to all of his shorts except for one. I can hardly call any of his movies “an overlooked gem” as I like to do whenever I stumble upon something rare of brilliance.
I know that this is a very old independent feature, but still...
However, before I full heartedly bash Yoji Kuri verbally, I’d like to acknowledge that he’s made one movie that I actually liked. Or well, he’s made about 400 titles, where almost all of them are either unavailable or unreleased, and I’ve only seen the ones accessible, but you get the point. Stamp Fantasia is the title of the movie I liked and it features a narrative, scenery and content that’s all based on… you guessed it. Stamps! Just the concept of it is one that I find very innovative and interesting, and the movie managed to win my heart with great execution. Not only is the animation surprisingly beautiful, but the way Kuri stages scenarios in which stamps dominate the chain of events is just admirable. If I had seen Stamp fantasia first, I would have expected more enjoyable titles from the same director, and I would have been disappointed. Yet, if you’re going to watch one of his movies, Stamp Fantasia is definitely the right one!
Admit it; you need to be creative in order to make stamps seem interesting!
Yoji Kuri will likely be appreciated by lovers of abstract art and filmmaking, and by all means that is understandable. My personal affection for abstract and surreal art is extended to the point where I enjoy work like ‘Cat Soup’, but what we’re dealing with here can’t really be compared to anything else. These movies are all extremely fucked up tales that self-proclaimed psycho bitch Yoko Ono would love to be a part of (which she is, in the short movie titled AOS). If you have a fetish for independent and surreal animation, then you may find yourself enjoying this, but other than that I cannot recommend this at all.
Out of his 400+ movies, the number of available Yoji Kuri shorts is limited to around 10. On Anime-ranking websites like Myanimelist.net and Anime-planet.com his movies tend to get scores from about 15 users, while some of his more famous one may be able to pass the 100 limit. Very few people know about his existence, and very few of those who know what he does have no interest whatsoever in his creations. Most of his movies were made in the 60′s and 70′s and have now been subdued to oblivion. The only thing that further increases the deranged aspects of his work is the appearance of Yoko Ono as she provides truly bizarre voice acting in one of his features, and this really proves what kind of obscure genre of animation we’re dealing with here. The Obscurometer gives the work of Yoji Kuri an obscurity rating of 8/10, which would be equal to “very unknown, but still available if you’re willing to spend a few hours searching”.
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