Yuurei Sen in Japanese or The Phantom Ship in English is a short animated film from 1956. It’s a film both directed and written by early 20th century, Japanese silhouette animation pioneer Noburo Ofuji. Telling a simple story without dialogue in eleven minutes. It’s the definition of a visual experience with a fantastic direction creating a visually striking piece of animation despite the limitations that came with the experimental storytelling and animation style.
The short film opens with director Noburo Ofuji cutting waves out of colored cellophane. Showing first hand the method he used when creating this film. For this film, he’s inventive by the way he uses lighting, shadows, and music for capturing the purest essence of atmosphere. In one scene, on a rugged seascape combined with the low vocalizing of the choir creates a feeling of unease. Within the same scene, the shadow of a phantom ship with brightly colored background shows corpses of what appears to be a grisly aftermath of a battle at sea. The wordless chorus increases in volume and pitch as the boat magically comes back to life. With these series of images Noburo Ofuji opens the short film. From then on, the rest is a perfect culmination of animations, filming, scoring, and editing.
Ofuji usage of color creates images that strike strong in their simplicity. Everything in the foreground from characters to objects they are on or hold are dark while everything in the background is colorful. Together in sync the colorful backgrounds make simple the act of a dark figure being stabbed visceral. When inside of another ship dancers are set against a kaleidoscope a complex design pulled off successfully. In another scene, seeing the present of a white phantom ship uses an experimental technique of overlaying animated swirling lines and other shapes. These techniques make are able to make white, ghostly figures that are also transparent when interacting with the other figures. It’s an incredible scene that epitomizes best usage of silhouette animation using it to its fullest potential.
The soundtrack is composed by Kozoaburo Hirai. His score consists of choirs, strings, and percussion instruments that sound by being struck or scraped by a beater. It is powerful how foreboding of an atmosphere the score creates in a short runtime. Further increasing it gradually grows louder and becomes more menacing strengthening the impact the visuals have. How his score is used when opening the film is masterful. Never does it overtake or overshadows what occurs on screen. It’s treated an equal story tool as much as the animation.
Without a single feeling of doubt I will say Yuurei Sen/The Phantom Ship is a short film worth seeing for all lovers of animation. It’s over fifty years old, but has lost none of powerful imagery and haunting score all those years. Standing proudly over time as a testament of quality. If you have never seen silhouette animation or want to appreciate how far animation has come Yuurei Sen/The Phantom Ship is a great place to start. A masterfully made film from a pioneer of Japanese silhouette animation.