Toyooka-Mura is a small village in Nagano Prefecture located between two spinal mountain ranges in the central Chūbu region of Japan. It is here that Kanto Ohara Maeda grew up before moving, at an early age, to East Sussex where the equally green and peaceful surroundings offered a childhood in close proximity to the natural world. A childhood in nature, along with frequent visits to art galleries with a mother who encouraged creativity, left a deep and lasting impression on Kanto. These influences have been foundational to Kanto’s work which spans art, architecture and animation in a rapidly changing world.
We were delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Kanto about channelling creativity his work and finding a meaningful place in a digital age.
AA/LM: Firstly, could you tell us a little about what you draw your inspiration from for your work?
KOM: That’s a tricky question to start with, simply because the answer is so broad… Mostly, I draw inspiration from the stories and observations from my own experiences. I believe the best work comes from what we know. It may be a story of pain, or immense joy. It may simply be the mundane everyday, and all the nuances within it. As humans we feel the vast range of life. I believe life itself is the best teacher of all. I would never want to tell a story that I didn’t feel compelled to tell. Art is as much a necessity for me, as simply being inspired to create. I don’t believe that great art can be created from just being cooped up in a studio. You need to get out, and live.
The most influential figure throughout my life has been my mum. She is really the person who took me to art galleries, gave me sketchbooks to draw in, and encouraged me to be creative. She is a very creative person herself, but didn’t have the opportunity to really pursue it, so in a sense I feel I am continuing her work too. Coming from a background in architecture, I am excited by the opportunity to create atmospheres, through world building, and to create ‘spaces’ in film, which slow down time. I’m attracted to animation as a formal medium, almost in an architectural sense, where an environment can be created, in which the complexities of our daily lives and emotions can be captured and seen.
I draw a lot of inspiration from filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu, and the subsequent writings by Paul Schrader on the ‘transcendental style’ in film, which leans towards the spiritual potential in film. Being Japanese, I have an affinity to the aesthetics and philosophies of Zen Buddhism, and in my work, I wish to pursue the value of ‘mu’, or emptiness. I am also drawn to the work of artists across various disciplines from film, illustration, design, and music, as well as the skill of craftspeople. I am always interested to see something beautiful, and carefully composed. I like being able to see when the work has been distinctly wrought by the artist’s hand, leaving some traces of their thinking through making. The works of William Kentridge, Michael Dudok de Wit, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, to name just a few, encourage me to see different, personal, ways of viewing the world.
AA/LM: What in nature draws you and inspires you?
KOM: I grew up in nature. I am originally from a very rural village in Japan, called Toyooka-Mura, in Nagano Prefecture, located in a valley between the two spinal mountain ranges of Japan. It’s a beautiful area, and I am always in awe whenever I return to those mountains. I then moved, with my mother, to the green and woody environments of East Sussex, England when I was 5 years old, to attend a Steiner School. The holistic education (which has a hands-on approach), amongst the context of nature all around me, meant I was always very close to the natural world. I did plenty of jumping over streams, splashing in mud and building outdoor dens in my childhood. I think this instilled a close empathy for nature, from a young age. Nowadays, I don’t get out as much as I want to, but whenever I do, I like taking the time to go for long walks. Being outside and experiencing the vastness of the world – looking out to the sea from Leith, being amongst the Scottish Munros, or the Ashdown Forest where I grew up, can be like a transcendental state. The reminder of how small we are, somewhat brings me an equal amount of awe and calmness. I love the solemn stillness of nature. I admire it and it gives me respite from the constant hustle and bustle of the human world.
AA/LM What is the fundamental drive behind your work?
KOM: I adore animation, for its process. For me, the world moves too quickly. In a rapidly moving digital age, where everything is instantaneous, driven by distraction, I feel an ever increasing need to slow down. Animation allows me to see the world, and to recreate it, at 24 frames per second and that gives me assurance. That’s how I would always want to live life if I could afford it. I want my films to be an antithesis to the rapid world we live in. I want them to create spaces for contemplation.
KOM: I mainly work with analogue materials. It’s important to me to physically feel the materials I am working with, which you can’t get from working digitally. For me, the tactile process lends itself to a much greater range of expression and nuance, and is more directly connected to the spirit. So far, I’ve animated using traditional pencil on paper, over a lightbox, and using ink and mixed media on different types of paper, like coloured tissue paper. I’ve also used charcoal, which is interesting as it can be easily rubbed out to create the next frame, so you are effectively working on the same sheet of paper. My favourite method has been to use coffee grounds, a makeshift form of sand animation, to create my latest film, Poco a poco. Over the next year I definitely want to branch out and experiment with more under-camera techniques like paint-on-glass, paper cut-outs with a multi plane, scratching onto film, and maybe also some printmaking. I think I follow the principle that the materials should be dictated by what the film needs, and the expressions that are created should enhance the theme or atmosphere of the film.
AA/LM: Tell us a little about your processes?
KOM: My working processes are heavily determined by the materials I am working with. The materials are chosen for the subject matter, so my process and my subject matter are always fundamentally in-sync with each other. As part of my graduate project in architecture, I wrote a self-inspired essay on how a working process, namely drawing by hand, influences not only the overall design of a project, but also the way we think. I am very much an advocate for drawing by hand, for the following reasons: scale, slowing down, memory, atmosphere, and mistakes. For an animation, I hold to many of the same principles. I like the randomness and surprises which results from experimenting, but my brain is actually quite rational. So for me, it is important to keep a good balance between storyboarding / planning, and experimentation, so that I don’t get too lost in either. A good experiment is only really useful when you have specific parameters to test within, and a hypothesis to test against. With that said, some of my best work, so far, has come from these experiments leading to unexpected results. In the end, I believe it is far more important to give full attention to the process, than the end goal, and the outcome will start to form itself.
AA/LM: What is the story behind your animation, ‘Poco a poco’?
KOM: This is a story of my memory of a dear pet duck I had. Crucially, it is not a story about my duck, it is a story about my memory of my duck. Therefore, the main theme I am exploring is memory, which I want to continue exploring further. I find it interesting how memory tends not to be structured chronologically, and it can be warped by our emotions and personal perceptions we have associated. That’s why I decided to choose a very fragile technique of animating under-camera, using coffee granules (otherwise, a sand-animation technique), backlit over a light box. I felt this could reflect the fragility and malleability of memory, as well as the impermanence of my subject matter. The story itself was one I had wanted to tell for a long time. It’s a true story. My mum and I hatched a duck egg under an electric blanket, and she imprinted on us and thought we were her family. She then became family to us too. For me, it is a part of my adolescence. I’ve always been an only child, with a single mother, and for once we had a new member of the family. Her death was my first experience of great loss. The film is not supposed to tell the life story of my duck. It is about capturing moments and capturing what has stayed with me. That to me is the real essence of what we carry with us. Like with many things though, I don’t consider it a finished piece. There were more scenes I wanted to add, some shots I would redo, and the ending was wrapped up in a bit of a rush. My mum and I have even argued over the ending. It just shows how personal it is. She wanted me to be factually accurate. I want to show the subjective and changeable nature of memory.
AA/LM: What are you currently working on and what are your hopes for the future?
KOM: I’m currently embarking on an Animation Masters at the Royal College of Art. It’s a big step for me, not just crossing into a new discipline, but also moving to London. It’s a very independently driven programme, I’m hoping to really refine my direction and my own practice on this course, and make full use of the facilities available to me. Currently, I really want to make a film which explores memory, and heartbreak. That’s all I’ll say for now. I don’t want to define what I’ll be doing in the future yet, but I think making it somehow as an independent animation director would be the dream. Obviously balancing things with the rest of life’s challenges will be difficult. I’m not fully stepping away from architecture just yet. I’m keeping an open mind….
AA/LM: When you pack a bag for the day, what are your essentials?
KOM: Whenever I go outside, I’ll have a bag and whenever I have a bag, I’ll always pack a sketchbook. That’s the first thing that goes in. I’ll always carry a sketchbook and a pencil case, even if I don’t use it all the time, because I feel somehow naked without the potential of capturing a moment. I have different sized sketchbooks, with different paper - I usually have a scrappy one and then sometimes also a watercolour one. I also have 3 levels of pencil cases. The smallest is a box which just has just my essentials - a 2B Mitsubishi Clutch Pencil, a 0.4 Pilot G-TEC-C4 pen, an eraser and sometimes a red pencil. A black brush pen is also great for drawing high contrast shadows. Recently I’ve been carrying around a box of charcoals, in an attempt to make me less precious about my work. The other pencil cases contain various pens and pencil collections, less used, but used, along with a scalpel for sharpening pencils, a fountain pen, and water brushes for using watercolours. Sometimes, if I’m out for a walk, I’ll carry my camera with me too. When I take photos, I try to compose them, like scenes I’d like to see in a film. I’ll also have something nice to read, in the hope that I find somewhere quiet to sit for a while. (Other essentials in my bag are lip balm, moisturiser, hair wax, a tape measure, headphones, chargers, and sunglasses if I’m optimistic).
AA/LM: What is most important to you in your work?
KOM: The honest answer is, I’m not sure yet. I suppose it’s authenticity. I don’t need my work to change the world. But I do need it to be honest. By that I don’t mean ‘realistic’ or creating documentaries. But I mean it has to come from the soul, and reach the souls of others. It’s a funny thing, because creating art which is seen by an audience, like animation, is always somewhat paradoxical, in that you create for others to experience, but you also create for yourself, and I think like with all artists, we do it to try to heal ourselves too. The irony is that if you create for others, you lose authenticity for both them and yourself. But if you try to stay true to what you know, you will more likely be able to connect with others too through your work. So I’d say staying authentic is most important to my work. If people can watch my films and feel moved, if my film can create a space for people to be empathetic, or reflective, just a little, that’s enough for me. I hope my films, in some way, could add value to someone's life. If it could make someone feel less alone, or to see things from new perspectives, or for them to experience catharsis, or for them to feel like they understood something they didn’t. Or if it can simply add some beauty or satisfaction to their life. Like I say, it’s about trying to stay authentic for me. And that means continuing to work on and for myself too.
AA/LM - Alli Abdelal in conjunction with Laura Meek
KOM - Kanto Ohara Maeda
Imagery: Laura Meek
Featured: Kepler Backpack in custom RUSKIN Tweed