Naoyuki Tsuji graduated in sculpture from Tokyo Zokei University in 1995. After experimenting with stop-motion during his student years he turned to charcoal animation, producing a series of independent 16mm short films throughout the late 1990s and 2000s (Roquet, 2014: 63). These films are about as stripped down and primal as it gets – consisting of rough and minimal drawings on paper, and accompanied by improvised bass solos by his partner Makiko Takanashi (Roquet, 2014: 68) – while also extremely evocative with their strikingly surreal imagery. Especially in Tsuji’s first major charcoal animation, A Feather Stare at the Dark, this contrast between form and content enters an eerie borderland between intimacy and sublimity.
A Feather Stare at the Dark tells a grandiose mythological epic about gods and demons, worlds and apocalypses, and the birth, death and cosmic transcendence of civilizations. Its dense and surreal narrative involves, among other things, two gods making love while flying through the air and then birthing a child, whose right hand later is transformed into a young woman. It also involves a god getting an uncontrollable orgasm from the hands of a demon, the seed from which gives birth to an entire civilization. Yet none of this is told through big, high-production visuals or the score of a large orchestra; only Tsuji’s simplistic charcoal drawings and the ambient tones of Takanashi’s somewhat cheaply recorded bass solos. Moreover, by virtue of charcoal’s physical quality, the materiality of the medium is readily apparent. Since its material isn’t nearly as controllable as for example ink, figures slightly morph for each frame of animation, never quite maintaining a figurative solidity. Additionally, traces of erased frames remain on the paper surface, like lingering shadows of the animation’s past. This is a grand, bizarre and eccentric tale, but it is portrayed through what is evidently just a guy drawing on paper.
Yet perhaps the borderland is more of a link than a contrast. Paul Roquet sees in Tsuji’s charcoal animations “a return to the hand, an attempt to insert the physical act of drawing back into the hyper-mediation and visual excess of contemporary anime production.” (Roquet, 2014: 64) Their instability and consequent transparency of form signifies to him the very manual labor behind it; the rawness and immediacy of hand on paper. Moreover, what drives the hand is not a pre-conceptualized script or storyboard, but pure improvisation. Tsuji’s method of shaping his stories is to simply sit down in front of the paper, draw what comes to mind and then come up with the subsequent frames as he goes along (Roquet, 2014: 68-69). The stories are thus conceived out of an intuitive stream of consciousness, which not only explains their surreal nature, but makes them pure products of the creator’s mind as immediately channeled through his hand. As Catherine Munroe Hotes notes, they “feel like an invitation into the poetic mind of the artist himself.” (Hotes, 2010) The immediacy of the mind is just as intimate as it is sublime, which is what A Feather Stare at the Dark so beautifully captures.
Hotes, Catherine Munroe, “Angel : The Place Where We Were (エンゼル, 2008)”, Nishikata Film Review: A Journey Through Visual Culture, 11/10/2010, <https://nishikataeiga.blogspot.com/2010/11/angel-place-where-we-were-2008.html#links>
Roquet, Paul, “Carbon as Creation: On Tsuji Naoyuki’s Charcoal Anime”, Mechademia, vol. 9, 2014, pp. 63-75