Petals Swirling in the Shimmering Rainbow: Animated films in Vietnam today and the memories of director Satoshi Kon

Huynh Vinh Son
Director of animated films

The Japan Foundation invited a group of young cultural leaders from Vietnam to visit Japan between late March and early April 2010. One of the visitors, a leading Vietnamese animation director Huynh Vinh Son, met with the Japanese film director Satoshi Kon of MADHOUSE Inc., and exchanged views about animation production.

Sadly, Satoshi Kon passed away on August 24, 2010. Hearing the news of the director's death, Huynh Vinh Son contributed this article that summarizes the current state of animated films in Vietnam, and a short screenplay, Petals Swirling in the Shimmering Rainbow, which he wrote as a tribute to the late director.

Animated films in Vietnam

An eternal state of hibernation--this sums up the current state of the Vietnamese animated film industry. The stagnation is evident not just in the state-run production company in the north of the country, which lacks any effective mechanism to promote opportunities or nurture the creative drive of artists, but also in the more vibrant south.

The courageous achievements of the earlier generation of artists--who displayed a fierce creative spirit that defied the harsh conditions and ravages of war--were not successfully passed on to the subsequent generations. The strong foundation left by our forefathers was not inherited by the peacetime artists, nor was there any driving force to build on that legacy. Unable to meet the expectations of a new generation of viewers, home-grown animated films became increasingly unappealing in the cultural life of Vietnam.

Since 2000, however, the gathering speed of socio-economic development in Vietnam brought about a renewed effort to promote the animated film industry. This was helped by an interest shown by the authorities. While this effort has yet to succeed in creating a fresh dimension in the industry, it allowed Vietnamese animation fans to be more optimistic about the future of domestic animated films.

It was great news that, in addition to the state-run production company that is the pioneer of animated films in Vietnam, an animation production center was established in the early 2000s. The aggregate hours of film the center has produced so far is less than 400 minutes annually--a meager output--but these two companies are the only producers that have kept up a certain volume of output. It should be emphasized that for the first time, our country gained an operation base where we could create our own animated films and have them directly broadcast nationwide. This new experience and the latest equipment imported from overseas brought a fresh breeze into the world of Vietnamese animation that had for so long resembled a parched, lifeless land.

At first, we assumed that the creation of the new production center would serve as a catalyst for the rapid, robust development of Vietnamese animated films. The industry, particularly in the north, however, was not equipped to keep up with the remarkable progress in the technologies of other entertainment industries, and stalled. If the artists working for the state-run company in the north strike you as unmotivated, you would naturally expect the more developed south, with its bustling activity and excitement, to offer a more promising outlook. But the south has its share of drawbacks, such as lack of an operation base, and unlike their northern counterpart, the production companies in the south are not in the position to receive periodical investments or regular orders from the government. For this reason, very few films made specifically for domestic viewers are produced in the south. Granted, some of the companies are large and successful, receiving foreign investments and staffed with skilled artists who have had the benefit of formal training, but because of the absence of a viable domestic audience, most of these production companies resign themselves to processing animated films, partial or in their entirety, farmed out by foreign companies.

The companies in the south have developed the capacity to produce quality work and boast a large number of artists, but these things do not ensure the industry's stability. The series of global economic crises and ensuing hardships have had a direct impact on the companies that specialize in animation processing. The closings of Ho Chi Minh's two leading companies SamG and Sparx are a clear testament to this fact. The sad tune of their demise was ingrained in the hearts of anxious animation fans.

Will the gloom continue for much longer? I do not think so. I believe we are now in a transition period where we are waiting for new talent and skilled artists to emerge. Along with the new environment comes a change in animated films. The qualified, talented professionals who previously worked for the video game and advertisement industries will likely join us in droves. From the outside it may seem that most of the films in Vietnam are made by the state-run production company, but in fact private companies have been going through some dynamic changes in order to respond to actual market demands. While most of these companies are facing tight finances, they are trying to take a huge step forward.

br_0013.jpgThe efforts made by young domestic artists on the one hand and by expatriates with working experience abroad seeking new opportunities at home on the other are proving to be the driving force behind the development of the industry. It is important for companies to find reliable broadcasting outlets for the films in order to allow artists to focus on their careers, free from worries about job or financial security. This is a prerequisite for building a steady foundation and long-term stability. In the light of recent new developments in Vietnam, all we need are adequate investments and the effort to fulfill our ambitions. I believe Vietnamese companies will receive orders from such prominent television channels as Cartoon Network and Disney Channel in no more than two to three years time. A challenging goal like this is what creates the opportunities for talent to blossom, encourages a new team of artists to emerge, and leads to serious endeavors that will one day put Vietnam on the world map of animated films.

Huynh Vinh Son and the young cultural leaders observing the exhibition "Christo and Jeanne-Claude: LIFE=WORKS=PROJECTS" at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT in Roppongi, Tokyo.

Memories of my meeting with director Satoshi Kon

I was in Hanoi when I heard about director Kon's death. The news came as a shock, as he was still very young, and I was filled with sorrow. Director Kon was just two months shy of his 47th birthday.

It occurred to me then that it was during the last days of his life that I met him, in early April 2010, at the animation production studio MADHOUSE. He seemed to be in good shape and it did not occur to me to question his state of health. I regret I had not been more considerate. Our afternoon meeting in Tokyo lasted no more than two hours, but in that short time he opened up to me and gave me advice about my career and the films I had been working on. His words left a profound impact on me.

Later, I read the director's farewell blog message that was translated into Vietnamese by Erisa Mori. I learned that even the director himself had not known about his illness until May, when his doctor gave his prognosis and said there was nothing he could do about it. He was given three months to live. Reading the message he had written during those months helped me to get to know him better. It convinced me he was a man of great character and integrity.

At the end of our meeting in Tokyo we shook hands and said goodbye. Then he said to me: "You must believe in the path you are taking. I wish you well in your effort to help develop Vietnamese animated films." I remember how those words of encouragement deeply moved me and brought tears to my eyes.

Huynh Vinh Son with Satoshi Kon, April 2010

Petals Swirling in the Shimmering Rainbow

Huynh Vinh Son, My Linh

――How should we go on living after a loss? Life is not always a smooth journey. We know that, yet we all wish to be happy; we want good things to happen to us. This longing prevents us from overcoming the pain when a tragedy hits us. The only way to move forward, however, is to learn to accept the adversity and loss that life sometimes brings us. There is simply no other way to live. ――

1. A happy family home from which laughter escapes, like a magical sound. Inside, a father, mother and their two children, a girl and a boy, are sitting at breakfast. The dining table is dominated by a vase of splendid flowers. A puppy is stretched out on the floor, with its nose resting on the girl's feet. As soon as the girl finishes her breakfast, she grabs her satchel and leaves for school. Her family tell her to enjoy her day at school, as do the flowers glowing in their vase. The girl is greeted outside by the warm, bright sun and the air she breathes still carries the scent of the flowers. As she begins to walk cheerfully, she turns back to look at the laughter-filled house. She notices the puppy wagging its tail, as if to say, "See you later!"

2. As music plays, the house remains serene and beautiful. Then, all of a sudden, tragedy hits. A heavy truck and bus slam into each other on the road outside. The truck driver loses control of his vehicle and sends it crashing into the house filled with music and laughter. The happy voices and music are cut short. Soon, the house is a crumbling wreck. The puppy wails in anguish. The petals scatter everywhere. In one, sudden moment, the family's blissful life vanishes. All that is left is a horrendous mountain of debris.

3. Heaven has come tumbling down. The girl tries to run over to her house, but her legs are heavy, resisting each step. Her school books spill out of her satchel and her long black hair breaks loose from its ribbon and hangs down her shoulders, as if to express grief. She stumbles repeatedly, her eyes filled with horror. In front of what was once her home, she stops, paralyzed. Someone has lit an incense stick in mourning for the loved ones. The girl picks up the shredded remnants of the flowers.

The scene becomes chaotic with the wailing of ambulance sirens and people yelling and shouting; for the girl, a nightmare. She faints on the spot, not even noticing the puppy trembling at her side.

4. A classroom setting. It is now recess and happy laughter can be heard everywhere. Despite the cheerful chatting of the students, the girl sits alone in a corner, refusing to be noticed. Her black hair hangs down her face, intensifying her sadness. Her shoulders are trembling. Silent tears roll down her face and hit the ground. Everyone returns to the classroom at the sound of the drum, but the girl does not move and the tears continue to stream down her cheeks. In front of her is a vase of flowers, the same as those on the family dining table that morning. All she can see is a fragile blur and the flowers are drowned by the flood of tears.

5. The girl is standing along a highway with cars and trucks speeding by. Beside her is a tired old dog. Vehicle after vehicle passes by, cold and indifferent. One of these destroyed her happy family. Her long black hair blows in the wind, as if to tell her sad story. Her gaze is fixed on the cold wheels streaking by. She gets the urge to jump into their path, following the same fate as her family. Her legs inch forward... That moment, the dog growls and catches the hem of her skirt with its teeth, trying to pull her back with all its might. The girl looks down at the dog, her eyes filled with surprise and anger.

6. The years have passed and the girl is now a university student. Her sleek hair has grown long. She is always a quiet presence amidst noisy classmates. She has attracted the attention of a boy and the feelings are mutual. When their eyes meet, her cheeks become flushed and her mouth forms a tiny smile. They make a cute couple as they walk down the street. The girl's sadness has disappeared into the distance. One day the boy stops at a flower shop and buys her a small bouquet. As he hands her the flowers, she realizes they are the same as the ones on the family breakfast table that awful morning. She drops the bouquet and runs away, leaving him stunned and confused. She hurries back to her home. It has been rebuilt, but the new house looked nothing like the one filled with happy laughter. She slumps down on her knees in front of the house. The puppy is now an old dog. It approaches her. The girl and the dog embrace, as if to share their loneliness.

7. The girl goes for a walk with the dog. Her long black hair is still sadly draped over her shoulders. She walks with an impassive air as if she is trying to hide her emotions. Suddenly the dog stops. She pulls at the leash but it will not budge. It is staring at something--a house that looks exactly like the one she used to live in with her family, and she hears laughter pouring out of the house. Then the door opens and a young man sitting in a wheelchair comes out. He has lost his legs, but his face is radiant as he sets out down the road. She lets go of the leash and starts to follow the young man as though drawn by curiosity. It starts to rain and people run for cover, but the young man continues on his way, singing quietly all the while. He stops after a while to take shelter from the rain and she joins him at a distance. The girl realizes he is singing a love song as he stretches out his hand to catch the raindrops. She listens to his voice and the sound of the rain. Then she, too, stretches out her hand, hesitantly. Some raindrops land on her nervous hand. Then she dashes out into the rain. The sad memories have come flooding back, but she realizes she is now seeing the smiling faces of her family, encouraging her to be brave and to take the next step forward on her own. Despite the rain, the girl's face becomes calm and gentle. A ray of sunshine breaks through the clouds and a shimmering rainbow appears through the rain.

Translation (Vietnamese to Japanese): Erisa Mori

yg_046.jpgHuynh Vinh Son

Director of animated films

Huynh Vinh Son is a leading animated film director (only one of a handful) in Vietnam and winner of many awards. His Rabbit and Turtle was the first successful 3D animated film in Vietnam. He hopes to enhance animated film production in his country.

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