For anyone raised in the West, the year-end holidays in Japan can be a jarring experience, at least for the uninitiated. Decorated trees, illuminated boulevards and carols in convenience stores coincide with Colonel Sanders statuettes remade into Santa Claus and mini-skirted chorus girls in reindeer costumes on TV. If you live in Japan for more than a few years, however, you might come to embrace this topsy-turvy, roller-coaster version of the holiday season. Just close your eyes and enjoy the ride.
This year, that ride took on a psychedelic technicolor glow in cinemas nationwide, courtesy of Sanrio’s “The Nutcracker” (“Kurumiwari Ningyo”), which was released on Nov. 29. The stop-motion animated film, loosely based on ETA Hoffman’s original story and the Tchaikovsky ballet, is credited to Sanrio founder Tsuji Shintaro, with additional writings and song lyrics by the late avant-garde author, poet, dramatist and director Shuji Terayama. It was originally released in 1974, and remains the only feature-length film ever produced by Sanrio.
The 2014 version has undergone a radical makeover at the hands of director Sebastian Masuda, founder of seminal Harajuku clothing boutique 6% Dokidoki, art director for pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and now a conceptual artist who has exhibited in New York and Miami, and whom many consider the father of the kawaii fashion movement. Veteran producer Masayuki Tanishima assembled a crack team to “re-create” the movie into something he considers completely new. This included digitally transforming a now-primitive and painstaking 2-D animation technique, stop-motion, into a more fluid and interactive visual experience in 3-D.
In October 2013, Shintaro proposed the idea of updating the 1974 film to Tanishima as a part of the company’s 40th anniversary celebration of Hello Kitty.
“The original took five years to film and cost ¥700 million,” Tanishima says. “What we decided to do was re-create the entire project with modern technologies. Everyone knows and loves “The Nutcracker,” but not many know the details of the story.”
For Masuda, who saw the original as a child, the film was a more personal project that made him question his own memories. He recalled it being “so colorful, full of light and wonder,” but when he reviewed the original 40-year-old print, he was shocked. “What I saw was dark and dull and full of dust and distraction,” he says.
The team, including 3-D director Kunihiko Mita, scanned the entire film and re-created it one frame at a time. A restoration crew cleaned off the dust and particles; colorist Makoto Imazauki worked with Masuda to add splashes of kawaii-like pink, yellow and green.
Masuda also reviewed the script and restructured it, highlighting key points of emphasis, cutting entire scenes (the original, viewable on YouTube, is sometimes densely convoluted) and adding others to enhance the sense of charm and child-like fantasy. For example: The original contained a darkly filmed segment showing human dancers performing a passage from the ballet; Masuda replaced it entirely with a colorfully animated 2-D sequence with butterflies flirtatiously dancing through sun-bathed air.
“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I just saw more colors when I was a child,’ ” Masuda says. ” ‘Maybe I saw colors that weren’t really there.’ So I tried to re-create more color in the new film, adding it everywhere I could, where it seemed natural and wondrous. In a way, I wasn’t just restoring the film. I was restoring my own childhood.”
Masuda was also concerned about the film’s running time. The original is a full 93 minutes — too long, he thought, for today’s children to sit still in a stuffy theater. Straight away he trimmed 30 minutes. With the newly added scenes, the final clocks in at 80 minutes.
At the capacity screening I attended just prior to the film’s opening last month, only one child among many families and legions of teens squealed uncomfortably midway through. Most of the film-goers were rapt; older attendees, in particular, seemed pleased to hear the strains of Tchaikovsky surfacing throughout the soundtrack.
For the younger crowd, Tanishima called upon Kyary, whose lilting, slightly melancholic music-box melody, “Oyasumi,” is the new film’s theme song.
“I didn’t choose (Kyary’s) song just for promotional purposes, which is common in our film industry,” says Tanishima. “I was looking for a song with a strong connection to the protagonist’s feelings. ‘Oyasumi’ is Kyary’s only ballad. It was released five years ago, so we remixed it and ‘re-created’ it as the closing song, using the same approach we took to the original film.”
The result is a Lewis Caroll-like Christmas fantasy, with a rabbit hole grandfather clock and multiple echoes of the original story and its choreographed battle scenes, romantic longing and fairy tale denouement, embedded in a Japanese pop mise-en-scene. And Western viewers of a certain generation may find it as nostalgic as Masuda does, though for a slightly different reason.
The stop-motion animation team and doll makers behind the 1974 original were also the creators of a series of Christmas specials aired on television in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s, and produced by Americans Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass (Rankin/Bass Productions). One of those specials, “Rudoph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, 10 years’ Kitty’s senior. To those raised on the Rankin/Bass specials, some of the dolls in “The Nutcracker” will look very familiar.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.