A Japanese Boy Who Draws (Japan, 2018) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Masanao Kawajiri’s experimental animated short depicts the life of a boy aiming to achieve his dream of being a manga artist. It took the Runner-up Award for the Grand Prize at last year’s Pia Film Festival awards (missing out to Orphan’s Blues) but did win the Gemstone Award, which is given to, “the most progressive and daring film made beyond the common ideas of filmmaking”. A Japanese Boy Who Draws definitely fits this bill as it marries the magic of art and animation and their many different styles to the mockumentary format.

The film follows the life and career of Shinji Uehara who pursues his passion for drawing from the age and becomes a professional enduring the vicissitudes of the manga industry. The genius here is the way that Kawajiri uses the materials and tools that Shinji works with and the cultural trends that he experiences, while incorporating his level of experience and style of art, to depict his life, environment and artistic development. It’s a breathless 20-minute dash through a vast array of styles that are all seamlessly woven together to make a beautiful story of pursuing art as an occupation.

Everything starts off as childish crayon scribbles on newspapers and squiggly lines on an Etch a Sketch before becoming watercolours, collages and crayon drawings, then increasingly refined pencil sketches in school notebooks. The character designs grow in sophistication from boyish, rough-hewn shounen-style moppets to seinen action heroes as he matures and his skill blossoms. Eventually, Shinji makes it to the pages of a major manga with designs reminiscent of Kengo Hanazawa’s I Am a Hero before drifting out of the industry and winding up in a grey, live-action world.

Every frame segues perfectly to the next. There is a compelling passion that captures the spirit of every image on screen with the collection of pictures from Shinji’s childhood have a wonderful innocence in their depiction of the world compared to the more cynical production-line drawings of his life and there is a daring experimental phase using claymation. Even the jump into live-action is more or less seamless as it uses a match-cut from animation to the drabness that Shinji feels once he quits his dream.

The varied use of mediums and influences is a brilliant reflection of Shinji’s development as well as a tool for tracking his status in society while also serving as a time capsule that invokes nostalgia in audience members who lived through the 1980s and 90s. They will recognise characters from Doraemon, Evangelion, and Final Fantasy VII and through these reference points film derives a sly sense of humour.

The film’s playful plethora of styles really hammers home the evolution of an artist and aids the narrative in creating a reflection of the way we perceive the world through media ephemera as well as cherished entertainment. It’s all packed together in a breezy narrative that scoops us up as we watch as Shinji’s enthusiasm wax and wanes as he experiences the reality of drawing for a living. The view it offers of the creative life is an unvarnished one, complete with selfishness and compromises, and also underlines how art and the memories associated with it help us discover passions that give meaning to life and urging us to keep going no matter what.

A Japanese Boy Who Draws is showing as part of the ‘Experimental Spotlight: Palm of the Hand Cinema’ program at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 27.