Deciphering PUPARIA
Review by Natasha P.

PUPARIA by Japanese animator Shingo Tamagawa is a three-minute independent animation film, available on Youtube. After three years in the making, the film was released on 20 November, 2020. It was worth the wait, as Tanagawa’s fresh take on modern anime has amassed over a million views since its release.

The film does not have any discernible plot or dialogue. The entire short film feels like a series of paintings or manga on physical paper coming to life and staring back at you, and the viewer is made to feel like a voyeur, peering into the world of the film. The introductory scene is a stream of psychedelic patterns that look like what could be the inside of a chrysalis. As a matter of fact, the title ‘PUPARIA’ is derived from “puparium” - the hardened last larval skin. The surreal pattern stream marks the beginning of a rich visual journey, heightening our curiosity.

Stares play a huge role in the short film: a girl stares back at me, accompanied by a strange, unidentifiable mammalian-insect creature which also stares while it sits gracefully with its feelers flying in the wind. In a room of endless kitschy-wallpapered corridors, a man stares back for a split second before a giant moth speedily glides through each doorway, steadily maintaining eye contact with the viewer. I feel like the artist intentionally strengthened each character’s gaze as none of them could speak or show any expression. In doing so, he allowed each character’s emotions to come through. It seems to me like the man in the corridor is debating whether or not to pursue his passions at his age, with the patterned corridors each representing the different demands and responsibilities that adulthood brings. The blank, yet scary, expression of the moth could possibly symbolise a fast-approaching death, reminding the man of the brevity of life and the urgency in pursuing one’s passions.

The character design in the film is stunning. Most memorable for me is the final scene, which features a moth alien-like humanoid creature with beautiful symmetrical patterns cascading down each side of their body. Once again, we exchange eye-contact but for a longer period. In the next frame, I find myself part of the sea of spectators staring right at them. The short film then ends with this beautiful character smiling – the only time any form of direct emotive expression is shown. I find myself particularly hypnotised by the way Tamagawa captured their eye movements.

There is a supernatural undertone to the short film seen through the various unidentifiable creatures. They aren’t scary in the traditional sense, but because they are so unfamiliar to the human eye, I immediately fixate on them. The distinct lack of overt communication adds to the ominous aura. The ominous undertones were further amplified by the steady-paced xylophone music that accompanies the short film “Mallet Quartet Fast” by Steve Reich.

At the end when the moth being shifts their focus to the side, it seems like a reaction to something. We don’t know what, though. Their smile, however, does not carry an ounce of malice. The ambiguity of that exact reaction elicits a sense of suspense, leaving us alone with that question as the credits roll.

It has been a long time since I’ve watched anime that made me feel the way PUPARIA did. The art style and character design remind me of Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli - a personal early favourite of mine. As in Princess Mononoke, the characters are stoic, leaving space for contemplation once the film is over. Both also use similar imagery of flora and fauna to deliver the creators’ messages of a dying earth and an appreciation for nature. PUPARIA was completely hand-drawn, much like the works of Miyazaki himself, further drawing similarities between the two. Its unconventional art style, which deviates from the norm of modern anime, paired with an equally impactful story, also reminds me of the more recent Netflix-created manga adaptation, Devilman Crybaby.

In the documentary by Archipel, “Shingo Tamagawa - Three Minutes, Three Years: Making PUPARIA”, Tamagawa talks about why he laboured so painstakingly over three years to create the three minute short film, completing every part of the process himself and re-doing each frame until it was perfect. He knew nobody else would want to work on something as intense and experimental as that.

At a time when anime is created solely for marketability, PUPARIA proves to be a form of rebellion. It is the artist’s stand against the consumerist culture that Japan’s entire entertainment industry has fallen victim to, and it is an important one.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Natasha P. is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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