restricted access Carbon as Creation: On Tsuji Naoyuki’s Charcoal Anime
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Carbon as Creation:
On Tsuji Naoyuki’s Charcoal Anime

Think about where to move the lines to next. Rip off a piece of bread and dab at the paper, pulling the carbon residue off the page. Pick up a stick of charcoal and draw some new lines a little to the side of the ones you just erased. Record this new image onto a few frames of film. Repeat once you decide where to take the lines next.

This is how you create a charcoal anime. This looping method takes anime back to the basics, rooting it to the manual encounter between hand, carbon, and paper. Tsuji Naoyuki (b. 1972) pioneered the style in Japan, at a time when most anime was pushing further into digital technology and increasing layers of electronic mediation. Charcoal anime strips these layers away instead.

After graduating with a degree in sculpture from Tokyo Zōkei University in 1995 and experimenting with stop-motion animation, Tsuji began developing short sequences of monochrome charcoal drawings and recording them on 16mm film. A Feather Stare at the Dark (1995–2003, Yami o mitsumeru hane) and Trilogy about Clouds (2005, Mittsu no kumo) both went on to screen at the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, securing Tsuji’s place as a central figure in the burgeoning world of Japanese art animation. Like many working in the field, Tsuji situates his work at a complex remove from [End Page 63] the commercial anime industry, presenting it at festivals, screenings, museums, and galleries, but without denying the influence of more mainstream trends in anime style. Inspired as a youth by the manga duo Yudetamago (Shimada Takashi and Nakai Yoshinori), Tsuji initially approached the pair to become their apprentice but, on seeing their original manuscripts in person, found himself overwhelmed by the size and complexity of series like Ultimate Muscle (1979–, Kinnikuman). Instead, he eventually turned to the more diminutive but carefully crafted world of charcoal anime. Operating at a similar frame rate to limited animation (with several frames of film per still image), Tsuji’s work adopts even greater material limitations. Tsuji’s turn to charcoal can be understood as 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.

As W. J. T. Mitchell writes, “drawing remains closest to the center of the vortex of image production [ . . . ] emanating from and returning to the body.”1 The hand drawn helps to slow down contemporary media’s rapid succession of images and renders the initial contact between body and paper perceptible once again. Rosalind Krauss notes “the upsurge of the autographic, the handwrought, in an age of the mechanization and technologizing of the image via either photography or digital imaging.”2 While shared by a number of Japanese art animators, this return to the hand drawn is nowhere more vivid than in Tsuji’s charcoal anime, where the residue of each gestural movement of the carbon remains on the page, the bread eraser never completely clearing the trace of what came before (Figure 1).

To make charcoal for drawing, pieces of wood are packed tightly in airtight containers and heated under the subsiding embers of a fire, then cooled slowly. The more prolonged the heating, the softer the charcoal that results. The sticks Tsuji uses are composed of the rough and impure carbon produced by the burnt wood of willow trees, producing particularly dark tones well suited for capture on film. When applied, this charcoal sits rough upon the page, its microscopic flakes splintering and scattering unevenly across the surface of the paper.3 Charcoal is too coarse a medium for sketching out fine detail or crisp lines, favoring instead broad, vigorous strokes emphasizing mass and movement. Drawing with charcoal often involves articulating not just the hand but elbow and torso as well. [End Page 64]

Figure 1. The boy in A Feather Stare at the Dark moves by being drawn, erased, and drawn again, leaving a trail of charcoal residue in his wake. Thinking and Drawing: Japanese Art Animation of the New Millennium (Image Forum Video/Daguerreo Press, 2005).
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Figure 1.

The boy in A Feather Stare at the Dark moves by being drawn, erased, and drawn again, leaving a trail of charcoal residue in his wake. Thinking and Drawing: Japanese Art Animation of the New...