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The news came out a few months back that Tomonaga Kazuhide heads a new Lupin III TV series starting this spring. The show seems poised to be a return to the sensibility of Cagliostro-era Lupin, with its breathless car chases, lighthearted atmosphere, good-guy Lupin and caper-centric stories. Visually, too, as the Japanese like to word it, it's monkey-headed Lupin (Fuma Clan) rather than horse-head Lupin (Part III).
Acting as a kind of bridge between the Takeshi Koike-designed Fujiko Mine TV show of a few years back and the upcoming reboot is a recent movie entitled Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone. In two 30-minute parts, it feels less like a movie and more like an OVA, or two gussied up TV episodes. The story feels lifted straight out of the second TV series in sensibility. It feels much closer to the Lupin of old than Fujiko Mine, feeling like a lead-in to the upcoming TV series, yet finally does justice to Takeshi Koike's unique interpretation of the characters thanks to some truly excellent animation quality, which the previous TV show was lacking due presumably to bad scheduling.
Telecom handles the animation, so it can be assumed to be a preview of what's to come from the TV series, in terms of the animation if not the designs. It's an odd pairing: Takeshi Koike and Telecom. But it works great. We finally get to see Koike's designs animated properly. I'm not sure what happened between Fujiko Mine and this movie in terms of Takeshi Koike's involvement, but it feels like he wanted to make this movie so that he could vindicate himself and show how his Lupin should have looked. Because here he's involved full-bore, in classic Koike style, handling character design, storyboarding, directing and even sakkaning (with no assistance).
The animation pops thanks to some very talented folks, both in-house and outside animators. Hisao Yokobori and Kazuhide Tomonaga head the animator list as the star in-house animators, while presumably Takeshi Koike brought in folks like Takefumi Hori, Kanako Maru, Satoru Utsunomiya, Hiroshi Shimizu, Kenichi Shimizu and Toshiaki Hontani. I was surprised to see such faces in a Telecom production, but I hope that the upcoming TV show will continue to use talented outsiders, because otherwise I don't see how they can fill the show with good animation just with in-house staff.
The car action in episode 1 was spectacular, if slightly different in feeling from the classic car chases. Takeshi Koike's genius shines through in this spot, whereas otherwise the show felt pretty restrained for him - less him showboating than doing the material justice. The Telecom chases favored long shots regaling you with characters plowing through scenery, whereas here it's all fast cutting and dynamic camera angles. It would be pretty cool if Tomonaga Kazuhide animated a car chase storyboarded by Takeshi Koike. I couldn't identify who did what, except for Satoru Utsunomiya's scene, but the whole episode felt tight animation-wise, with Takeshi Koike's drawings filling in the more quiet scenes nicely. Incidentally, great to see Satoru Utsunomiya. He always seems on the verge of disappearing and then shows up in some random show. Hard to believe that in the 10 years since I started this blog he never had an opportunity to helm a big project. But that goes for a lot of talented people (e.g. Yasuhiro Aoki)...
In sensibility the two episodes felt like they could have been taken straight out of the early Lupin (perhaps why the new jacket is a color that seems midway between blue and green), from the way Fujiko shows up and interacts with the Lupin gang to the combination of assassin bad guy and international intrigue and fanciful spy tech. The bad guy assembling the gun was animated in loving detail as befitting classic Lupin, and Lupin's car this time around was different from any before but also a charming but punchy mid-range classic car - the Alfa Romeo GTV? The only thing that felt a little uncomfortably weird and closer to Fujiko in spirit was the bizarro sexbot scene with Fujiko scampering around completely naked avoiding an enormous drillbit penis. It's like they want to have the sex aspect in the show, but they've divorced it from the character of Lupin and pinned it on the bad guys. The juvenile bit between Lupin and Fujiko on the motorcycle captured Monkey Punch's jokey attitude towards matters sexual, but even then it still feels toned down, albeit still farther than they'd go in the early shows.
The scriptwriter Yuuya Takahashi did a good job recreating the spirit of the old Lupin, although his experience predominantly as a mystery screenplay writer comes through in the somewhat excessively expository denouement, which consists of about 10 minutes straight of 'tane-akashi' explanation. Even the way it was obvious that there's no way Jigen was dead felt true to the transparent ploys of early Lupin. My favorite bit in the movie may have been the part where Lupin walks off screen from his table and then, after a pause, drops some coins on the table. Now that's the classy wit I like to see in Lupin. I liked the Broadway joke - perhaps it's a stretch to imagine this as a reference to the Yoshio Urasawa Broadway series in red jacket Lupin. Also true to old Lupin is the fact that there's no unnecessary killing. Even the assassin gets off with just a shot to the arm. And the Lupin gang comes away empty-handed save for the satisfaction of having done the right thing according to their rules.
The only problem was the complete omission of Goemon and Zenigata. Is it because they didn't know whether to go with the new personalities or the old? Or to save the trouble of writing them into the story? Seems a bit lazy. They even credited Zenigata's voice actor in the credits even though he doesn't have any role, much less dialogue.
SPOILERS: But the ultimate kicker of the movie was the last sequence, which had my jaw dropped. Is this setting things up for Mamo to be a player in the TV series? Or just a treat for fans of the first movie? (considered by many to be the best of the bunch) It seems a bit capricious and random to be the latter, so I'm guessing the former. I can't get enough of Mamo, so I'm all for more. But if you bring Mamo back, come on, you've got to bring back either Yuzo Aoki or Yoshio Kabashima, or preferably both. You want to see a grown man beg?
Many years on from Manga Kodomo Bunko and Manga Ijin Monogatari, Group Tac produced an unusual magical girls show called Yadamon (1992-1993). The show was produced for NHK, and was hence a somewhat high-profile gig with more personality and verve than your usual template majokko anime. It injected a bit of style and cool into the genre, which gave it broader appeal.
The show announces itself as different right from the opening (watch), with its appealing, somewhat international character designs and driving alt rock song by Lindberg. The show's name also drops the lengthy, cliche'd "Mahou no..." format for a more cool and succinct impact. Although different from the work produced by Group Tac in its early years, the show still had their patented cleverness and personality.
Set in the near future, the show has an optimistic vision of the future in which man uses science to establish a harmonic balance with nature. A boy named Jean lives in a man-made ecological preserve called only the "Land" with his parents Maria and Eddie, scientists and veterinarians who run the preserve. There are mild sci-fi elements that are not too outlandish to be unbelievable. The structure of the show starts off with standalone 5-episode-long arcs, later moves to standalone episodes, and in the latter half gradually becomes serial leading towards the cataclysmic climax. This apocalyptic and openly interpretable climax is also somewhat novel, perhaps reflecting the greater freedom of creators not tied to source material. Yadamon is a great example of a show not based on source material.
The concept for "a new kind of magical girl show" originated in 1991 with NHK production arm Sogovision producer Hiroshi Kubota and screenwriter Minami Oi. Kubota in particular devised the idea of inverting the standard setup of magical girls shows. Instead of a magical girl who lives among ordinary humans but has to keep her abilities secret, the mischievous Yadamon tells everyone she's a witch, but nobody believes her.
In early October 1991 NHK began seeking production companies by competitive bidding. They did this by providing production concept documentation and asking for each company to visualize the characters and their environment in a few illustrations. Group Tac submitted illustrations by Suezen and won the bidding in mid-October. Group Tac producer Kenjiro Kawando is the one who chose Suezen, having worked with him on The Tale of Genji (1987) and then met him in various places since.
I enjoyed the show back when it first aired for its nice style and western atmosphere. It was also one of the first anime I saw in the 10-minute format. (It was aired Monday through Friday in 10 minute chunks.) Revisiting it recently, I found that it's a pleasant show if far from perfect. The animation is a base tone of lackluster with occasional spikes of awesome. The characters and stories are endearing if simplistic and childish.
Although on the surface the show follows the template of a magical girl from a magical land who visits the earth and engages in adventures there, the show's underlying theme is notable for being more based on child psychology. Rather than taking the child's perspective and projecting a fantasy life onto reality, Yadamon seems to take an adult's perspective by placing the crux of the drama on Yadamon's emotional growth from pure self-interest to empathy.
Helping to maintain interest are Suezen's designs. Suezen is the pen name of Fumio Iida, who just prior had acted as animation director of Rojin Z (1991). He's a great animator, and he animated the opening. His designs go a long way to making the show watchable, if just because they're so refreshing. Unfortunately he didn't animate anything else in the show.
Luckily there were spurts of good animation in the show, most of it from subcontractors. To be able to produce so much animation, Group Tac outsourced much of the production work to around 30 different subcontractors. Roughly 20 in-house and outside directors handled the task of storyboarding and episode directing.
Although the subcontractors are not credited in the show, the Roman Album provides a rare glimpse into the specifics of how the contracts were doled out, so it's worth reproducing here. I've often managed to piece together the various subcontractors involved in a show, but I've never seen it laid out explicitly like this. This is a great artifact highlighting the subcontractor-heavy nature of anime.
Group Tac essentially doled the work out to 9 production coordinators, including an in-house team, and these 9 subcontractors either handled the directing/animation tasks themselves or in turn sub-subcontracted the work out to another studio. Inbetweening and finishing was then handled by an inbetweening studio chosen by the subcontractor, except in the case of studios like Anime Spot that handled their own inbetweens.
|1. Group Tac (53 eps)||In-house|
Directors: Koichi Takada, Takuya Sato
Sakkans: Masahiko Murata, Yoshiko Imano
Sakkan: Morio Hitoshi, Akira Takeuchi
Director: Shigeru Ueda
Sakkan: Masami Abe, Masatoshi Isshi
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house
Sakkan: Toyami Sugiyama
Key Animation: In-house
Sakkan: Hiroko Kazui
Key animation: In-house
Sakkan: Kazuaki Mouri, Tadashi Abiru, Kahoru Hirata, Rie Nishino
|2. Aubeck (43 eps)||Group Zen|
Director: Hiroshi Ishiodori
Sakkans: Masayuki Fujita, Yasuyuki Noda
Directors: Johei Matsuura, Masashi Ikeda
Sakkans: Harumi Muranaka, Yasuhiro Ohshima
Director: Noriyuki Nakamura
Sakkan: Kenichi Shimizu
Sakkan: Shinichi Shoji
|3. Tanasawa Office (12 eps)||In-house team A|
Director: Takashi Tanasawa
Sakkan: Daijiro Sakamoto
|In-house team B|
Director/Sakkan: Yoshiko Sasaki
|In-house team C|
Director/Sakkan: Toshiaki Kamihara
|4. Jupiter Film (9 eps)||Individual|
Director: Takuo Suzuki, Kenichi Kuroki
Sakkan: Kanji Hara
Director: Hitoshi Namba
Sakkan: Keiko Hattori
|5. Ajia-do (12 eps)||In-house|
Director: Kazuhiro Sasaki
Sakkan: Masayuki Sekine
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house
|6. Sunshine (3 eps)||In-house|
Directors: Shigeru Ohmachi
Sakkan: Isao Kaneko
Key Animation, Inbetweens & Finishing: In-house
|7. Project Team Sara (13 eps)||Studio Liberty|
Director: Akitaro Daichi
Sakkans: Chuji Nakajima, Ryoko Hata
|8. Doga Kobo (8 eps)||In-house|
Director: Kiyoshi Fukumoto
Sakkans: Yuji Takahashi, Tadashi Tsubokawa
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house
|9. Mu Film (14 eps)||In-house + Animatronics|
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Sakkans: Akihiko Yamashita, Miho Shimogasa, Takashi Yamazaki, Hiroki Umeda, Chikayo Nakamura
Inbetweens & Finishing: In-house & Animatronics (Philippines subsidiary)
I wrote about Aubec in my posts on Garaga (1989) and Capricorn (1991). They outsourced everything except finishing (which I noted as being the weakest link in Aubec's productions), which they sent to their subsidiary Studio Bogie.
Yadamon pre-dates the concept of the chief animation director, so one of the things that makes the show nice to watch is seeing what different touch each subcontractor brings to the drawings. The drawings look pretty different from episode to episode.
One of the show's best subcontractors was Studio Curtain, the informal gathering of animators active 1990-1995 about which I talked in my posts on Sukeban Deka (1991) and Dragon Slayer (1992). Directors Noriyuki Nakamura, Hitoshi Namba and Kazuaki Mouri and animators Tadashi Hiramatsu and Kenichi Shimizu each did very nice work in the show. The fast-paced directing that made Noriyuki Nakamura's Dragon Slayer so memorable is on full display here. I'm not sure why Kazuaki Mouri is credited separately from Studio Curtain, as I'm pretty sure he was at Curtain during this time. Kazuaki Mouri and a few other Curtain people actually moved to Group Tac in the years after Yadamon. Many of the same people who worked on Yadamon went on to work on Group Tac's later Earth Defense Family (2001).
I was aware that Studio Curtain was involved in the show, but not that there were so many other sub-contractors. The two-stage subcontracting system also surprised me. I imagined Curtain had been contracted entirely by Tac, but according to this they were contracted by different groups.
As best I've been able to gather, here is a list of the projects Studio Curtain worked on and the staff who were definitely involved with the studio (there may have been more).
Studio Curtain projects
Dragon Quest (1989-1991) TV eps & op/ed for part 2 aired 1991
Gatapishi (1990) TV (Mon-Fri 10 min format)
Nadia of the Blue Water (1990) TV ep 11 & 15
Yusha Exkaiser (1990-1991) TV ed (Kazuaki Mouri, watch), eps 24, 30, 35, 40, 43
Pigmario (1990-1991) TV op 2 (watch)
The Two Lottes (1991) TV op/ed (watch)
Sukeban Deka (1991) OVA (production assistance credit)
Jarinko Chie Funsenki (1991-1992) TV op/ed (watch)
Tanoshii Moomin Ikka Bouken Nikki (1991-1992) Mouri chief sakkan, sakkan 1, 12, 18, 22, 26 / Hiramatsu genga 10, 16, 22
Dragon Slayer (1992) OVA
Calimero (1992-1993) TV op (Kazuaki Mouri, watch) & ed (Yuka Kudo)
Yadamon (1992-1993) TV (Mon-Fri 10 min format)
TwinBee: WinBee's 1/8 Panic (1993) game video (Kazuaki Mouri, watch)
Jungle no Oja Taa-chan (1993) TV
Moldiver (1993) OVA ep 1 (production assistance credit)
Metal Fighter Miku (1994) TV ep 2
Tobe! Isami (1995) TV
Alice Investigative Bureau (1995-1997) TV
Studio Curtain staff
加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
灘波日登志 （三條なみみ） Hitoshi Namba (Namimi Sanjo)
中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura
毛利和昭 Kazuaki Mouri
平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu
清水健一 Kenichi Shimizu
奥野浩行 Hiroyuki Okuno
工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo
宮崎なぎさ Nagisa Miyazaki
数井浩子 Hiroko Kazui
山本直子 Naoko Yamamoto
小川瑞恵 Mizue Ogawa
田口広一 Koichi Taguchi
服部圭子 Keiko Hattori
Other animators who did good work on the show were Shoji Shinichi and Rie Nishino, contracted on an individual basis, and ex-Bebow animator Akihiko Yamashita, who around that time was working on Giant Robo. Masao Okubo did some of his patented Kanda-style effects in episode 52. Satoru Utsunomiya even makes a surprise appearance in episode 164. The climactic last three episodes are quite well animated, but seem to have been made by people from various studios in the final dash.
Below is a selection of some of the animation by the show's best animators. Rie Nishino and Kenichi Shimizu's personality comes through in their eccentric drawings, whereas Tadashi Hiramatsu and Akihiko Yamashita are more about the movement, although their exceptional drafting abilities come through in the drawings.
Tadashi Hiramatsu #27, 55, 90, 114, 135
One of Tadashi Hiramatsu's earliest pieces at Studio Curtain was the crazy animation of King eating a spicy fish in Nadia in 1990. He returns to work on another Tac-NHK production here, and this time turns in some very nice effects and action animation. He worked mostly under director Namba Hitoshi. His uncommon drafting skills come through in the delectable hand drawings in episode 135, which is a good episode overall featuring work by Kazuaki Mouri and Hitoshi Namba. His strong layout skills and detail-oriented sensibility comes through well in this episode. Hiramatsu has admitted to joining Nakamura Pro in the hope of getting to draw Lupin III, and in episode 55 here he draws some action with the canoe dirigible that seems clearly inspired by Kazuhide Tomonaga's work in red jacket Lupin.
Kenichi Shimizu #11, 26, 46, 68, 76, 90, 105
The first appearance of "data thief" brothers Eddie and Butch in episode 26 is one of the best eps in the show thanks to the combination of Noriyuki Nakamura's fast-paced directing and Kenichi Shimizu's eccentric and dynamic drawings that meet the demands of the fast storyboard with some extreme ghosting and deformation and fast actions. The directing was so fast, in fact, that it reportedly gave the voice actors trouble timing their dialogue during the dubbing session. Episode 68 features some of his most fun animation of the family as they're trapped in the grampa's spaceship and start going crazy. You can see some extreme stretching/ghosting above that reminds of the extreme stretch and squash in Dragon Slayer, so those parts of Dragon Slayer may have been of Shimizu's hand. The hands are a dead giveaway in anime when uncorrected, and Shimizu's way of drawing hands is as distinctive as Hiramatsu. Shimizu's hands are blocky and roughly drawn, and he draws the knuckles as a single line. He draws some of the funniest faces in the show.
Shimizu and Hiramatsu recently teamed up again after many years and produced some wonderful work in episode 1 of Parasyte.
The year after Yadamon Curtain director Hitoshi Namba directed Jungle no Oja Taa-chan at Group Tac with largely the same team as Yadamon, including a few episodes featuring the power combo of Noriyuki Nakamura + Tadashi Hiramatsu.
Kazuaki Mouri #68, 92, 135, 159
Episode 92 is a solo episode entirely storyboarded/directed/animated by Curtain's Kazuaki Mouri and is hence the best spot to get a sense of his style. His drawings aren't idiosyncratic like Kenichi Shimizu, but he can draw some extreme deformation/ghosting as in the sequence of Eddie on the table above, or the cartoonishly exaggerated drawings of Shinui. He can also draw very strong traditional straight-through movement with a great sense of body weight as in the sequence of Yadamon doing a triple lutz above. Mouri is one of those all-powerful animators who can do anything, as evidenced by his huge filmography. Mouri did a lot of openings/endings as well as other special projects like Time Gal (1985) and Pony Metal U-Gaim (1986). He settled at Group Tac for a few years after Yadamon.
Rie Nishino #67, 83, 131
Rie Nishino didn't do much in the show but her few episodes feature some tremendously fun drawings and over-acting. The shot of Yadamon at top from around the 8:30 mark in episode 131 is pretty innocuous, and you can't tell how good the movement is from the still drawings, but it's possibly my single favorite shot from the whole series. Yadamon is basically saying "That's not true!" and she does a full-body swing of the arms to emphasize the words. It's some of the best acting in the show, capturing her stubborn, willful personality and emotion perfectly through believable and realistic body movement. And it does so pretty efficiently, with just a few drawings. The episode where we're introduced to Jean's grandfather, #67, is packed to the brim with very fun exaggerated reaction shots.
I'd never heard of Rie Nishino before this, but her work here makes me want to see more. She was animator in Tatsuyuki Tanaka's Tojin Kit, which gives some indication of her skills - not to mention Arietty. It's not clear if she was at Studio Curtain, but she was involved in a lot of projects alongside Kazuaki Mouri over the 1990-1995 time period, designing Carimero with an opening animated by Kazuaki Mouri as well as Jungle no Oja Taa-chan. Many years later she even directed a few episodes of the cute show Zumomo & Nupepe directed by Curtain star director Noriyuki Nakamura.
Akihiko Yamashita #65, 80, 98
Ex-Bebow animator Akihiko Yamashita did some of the show's most virtuosic animation. He didn't do many episodes in the show, but each one features a certain amount of very impressive animation. Ep 65 features some skating animation that has Yadamon and Eddie dashing around the screen with great energy. Yamashita uses a lot of drawings and moves the characters through screen in a three-dimensional way. His action has the thrill of classic Telecom. Ep 80 meanwhile features almost Hakkenden-inspired molten animation of the sand monster Bagdo zooming around the screen with a transforming silhouette, and some of the most 'kakkoii' Yadamon action scenes in the show. Ep 98 is less impressive but features a few shots of effects work, notably a sand explosion and a splash of water that although short are impressively executed, with an almost Toshiyuki Inoue-esque realistic style.
Kumiko Takahashi? #133
Episode 133 featured some of the most boldly deformed drawings and extreme ghosting of any episode in the show. I can't identify the work based on the style, but if I'd have to guess based on the credits, I would guess maybe Kumiko Takahashi, if only because she's immensely talented and I wouldn't put it past her to have this kind of range. She's an animator whose other work at this period I'd like to explore. I've seen her Tetsuwan Birdy OVA series from this period and it's quite lovely.
I haven't seen the actual show, and it doesn't look very interesting visually, but someone brought to my attention an interesting Kickstarter project that will be probably one of the most meticulous making-ofs ever:
Luckily it looks well on its way to being funded. I also noticed that Japanese indie animator Ryo Hirano is crowdfunding his latest film, except this one is on a Japanese site:
Am I reading this wrong though or is the Blu-Ray only available at the 50K Yen level? That's pretty absurd. Otherwise a talented indie creator worth supporting.
Urbance though is the most interesting currently-running crowdfund animation and I hope it gets funded:
This is a little late, but this past June 9 marked the blog's 10 year anniversary. I never thought I'd continue writing it for this long. I fully expected to stop after a few months when I started writing out of boredom in summer of 2004. The community support is what kept me going for this long. So I'll take this opportunity to thank all the commenters who have voiced in with always welcome insights. 10 years is a long time and many of you have come and gone, but I hope things are well wherever you are in life now. Thanks also to everyone in the forum for making it a good place for nitty-gritty animation discussion. Last but not least, thanks to all the readers for reading my meandering writings about random obscure/ancient subjects all these years. I hope it's been of some interest.
Looking over the first month's posts I'm reminded that initially this was really just a place for me to scribble down unorganized thoughts about anime and whatever else was on my mind. Over the years the post volume dropped considerably, with a few long silences, but I've moved towards focusing on properly written posts on a specific topic in the hope of improving the quality. I don't know how long I can keep it up, but I'll probably try to continue to write as long as I can.
I got to see Isao Takahata's latest film on the big screen a week or so ago and wanted to get down some impressions before I forget.
On the surface, Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is a gorgeous film that carries on where My Neighbors The Yamadas left off, doing for ancient Japan what the previous movie did for modern Japan. But deep down, it's more of an enigma.
I've been immersed in Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for weeks now, so it was inevitable for me to compare the two. This story has in fact been told not only in MNMB but elsewhere in movies and shorts. But the idea to make the movie isn't new. Takahata came up with the original idea for the film way back in the Toei Doga days, and in retrospect it does look like the kind of film that would not have been out of place beside Anju and Zushiomaru and Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon.
Kaguya Hime or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter as it's alternately known is believed to be Japan's oldest story - it's even referenced in The Tale of Genji. It's known as "the ancestor of stories" in Japan. The story itself, like many folktales, is fantastical and obviously not realistic. Gisaburo Sugii's approach to the conundrums and non-sequiturs of Japan's folktales seemed to be to embrace them, not to try to bridge their logical gaps. The MNMB version of Kaguya Hime (watch), which is directed by Takao Kodama with animation by Masakazu Higuchi and art by Koji Abe, is a truly beautiful rendition of the story, but faithful to the bare-bones original and much more closely stylzed after scroll paintings.
Isao Takahata is a very different filmmaker. His entire ethos towards filmmaking is based on logic. Every element of his films is meticulously conceived to achieve a particular end within the whole. So it was intriguing to wonder how such a filmmaker would not only tackle a story as enigmatic and illogical as Kaguya Hime but turn its brief length into a 2+ hour movie.
Takahata's logical approach produces a curious beast - a folktale that attempts to make up for the inherent illogic of the original story by making its characters as believable as possible, and yet at every moment reminds of you that it is not real.
The uncomfortably weird, if beautifully animated, early segment depicting Kaguya Hime having literal 'growth spurts' is the product of Takahata visualizing what was only a vague sentence in the original story. Myths and folktales are full of stock situations and characters not meant to be taken at face value. MNMB features dozens of stories about childless elderly couples who find a child, or a pot of gold, or a child who turns into a pot of gold, by supernatural agency. By their very nature these stories seem meant to be taken metaphorically, which is at odds with the way this film pedantically fleshes everything out.
On the other hand, this tactic of blending unnatural moments seamlessly into the flow of things harkens back to Pompoko (1994) with its tanuki who switch forms between realistic raccoons, cartoon raccoons and humans, and even further back to Jarinko Chie (1981), with its cats that occasionally get up to walk on their hind legs like humans. If the secret to anime's success is in the blank faces of its static anime characters, which prompt viewers to read the appropriate emotion and hence experience the character's world vicariously, Takahata seems to deliberately push you out of the characters to force you to view them from an objective remove.
In the broad strokes, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the original story. It doesn't cheat by being "based on" the story. It basically just pads it out with a tremendous amount of padding in the form of incredibly beautiful character animation and scenes of natural beauty.
Certain elements of the original story didn't make sense, and the movie fills in the holes as best it can. The movie's key contribution is in explaining the reason why Kaguya Hime was banished to the earth in the first place, something the original story conveniently forgot to explain. It's not like she was sent to save us from our sins. Or maybe it is. The heavenly abode on the moon is interpreted with historical verisimilitude as a Buddhist paradise devoid of the suffering and color and emotion and pleasure. Kaguya Hime's sin was to wonder, an enlightened soul, what it was like on earth. Her punishment was to be sent there in order to experience life firsthand - and to become attached to the people she loved, only to be torn away from them. This simple tweak completely changes the meaning of the story, and turns it into a tragic affirmation the whole complicated mess of human experience, including, love, joy and beauty, but also pain and suffering.
The padding isn't just padding, then. It's the whole point of the movie, both thematically and technically. If the padding gives the ending the requisite weight, having an animator like Osamu Tanabe makes it possible to bring it to life. The whole point of this movie is basically to give Osamu Tanabe something to do. That something is what he does best: create realistic character animation in an unrealistic shell.
I wrote a post about Osamu Tanabe in 2007 in the period after Yamadas, when he was pumping out one wonderful short after the next. It certainly took a lot longer than I was hoping for his next project to appear.
Isao Takahata had apparently been struggling to get Osamu Tanabe excited about a theatrical project around that time. Yoshiyuki Momose had drawn lots of image boards for Grave of the Fireflies, as did Shinji Otuska for Ponpoko, in the pre-production stage, so Takahata was apparently expecting Tanabe to do the same. First he tried with a project based on a Ainu 'Yukar' folktale (Hols was originally conceived based on an Ainu Yukar, and was supposed to be an Ainu story, but Toei Doga didn't allow that, so this was obviously a follow-up), and then for a version of the Tale of the Heike, and then a story called The Birth of the Lullabye about babysitters in pre-war Japan, but to no avail. Only after another producer introduced Tanabe to a 1964 book by Shugoro Yamamoto entitled Yanagibashi Monogatari, a love story set among the lower classes in Edo-period Japan, did he begin drawing. Takahata essentially captured that creative momentum and veered it towards Kaguya Hime.
Even in the early stages of production on Kaguya Hime things didn't go smoothly, as apparently a pilot film was produced that was so avant-garde that they had to start all over and go in a new direction. Takahata has written books about scroll paintings, positing them as the ancestors of animation, so I would love to have seen what Takahata could have done with this story in short form, in a style more closely patterned after scroll paintings. For example this image just begs to be brought to life. Perhaps this pilot went in that direction. All this to say that the film had a protracted pre-production stage, even by the standards of the uncompromising Takahata.
One of the key technical details that helped define the film's visuals was devised by Tanabe: draw everything small and enlarge it. He did this for the characters, and art director Kazuo Oga followed suit with the art. What this did is to create lines whose grain is visible, and produce lots of white space. Kaguya Hime's realism captures the beauty of the natural world in a few quick strokes rather than through overwhelming detail.
Although known as a realistic director, Takahata's wisdom is knowing that merely adding more detail and trying for photorealism isn't the answer. Inspired partly by his encounter with Frederic Back, he has since at least Only Yesterday (1991) been working towards a kind of haiku realism, a realism of omission. This started with the flashback segments of Omohide Poroporo, with their white space that highlighted the superficiality of the moment rather than attempting to deceive the audience with overwhelming verisimilitude, and culminated with his actual haiku in Winter Days (2003). The defining trait of Takahata's work is that it is anti-fantasy, and the fascinating thing is that this comes through loud and clear in this film adaptation of Japan's oldest fantasy.
At the behest of Takahata, Tanabe played a particularly large part in defining the film's animation style as the lead animator, rather than merely as the sakkan there to correct animators' drawings. Animators were instructed to adapt to his style so it could seem like the whole film was animated by Tanabe. The beauty is that you can still identify certain animators' sections (Norio Matsumoto, Shinji Otsuka, Shinji Hashimoto, Hideki Hamasu) through the nature of their movement, but the film overall feels unified in its movement style despite featuring work by many different talented animators.
Shinji Hashimoto's powerful section of Kaguya Hime running was featured in the preview and is indeed the film's animation highlight. He also animated a few other shots of Kaguya Hime spinning around. A spattered brushstroke style was adopted for the running sequence that gives it its impact. This was actually a style originally devised for the climactic battle sequence of The Tale of the Heike, but when that project fell through Takahata adapted it here, indicating how determined he was to create this kind of animation. The brush stroke style not only expresses Kaguya Hime's emotions well, but is a match with the ancient setting, and the very visible grain of the strokes in the rest of the movie resulting from magnification.
Takahata's basic approach of keeping the audience at an objective remove can best be seen in the film's final moments. Kaguya Hime is being taken away to the moon, and her parents are bawling because the girl they raised from a child is being taken away. Kaguya Hime has become attached to life in the world, having experienced all the beauty and emotion that it offers, and doesn't want to leave. Precisely at the moment when the audience instinctively wants to feel emotional catharsis, Takahata wrenches us out of the false reality of film with the loudly joyous music of the heavens. The clash is discomfiting and captures the ironic tragedy of the situation, prompting us to think more than feel.
Another defining trait of Takahata's approach to realistic directing is the emphasis on long shots of character acting to make the characters feel real, rather than necessarily trying to be realistic per se by drawing things photorealistically. This film is without doubt the summum opus of this aspect of Takahata's filmmaking language thanks to the synergy of Osamu Tanabe & co.'s remarkably rich character animation. Kaguya Hime's rapid aging is very odd to observe, but it is lovingly depicted by the animation. The original story is terse about why Kaguya Hime was exiled to earth, and almost entirely omits the every detail of her life on earth. All of a sudden, she's being taken away, and her parents are bawling. There's no weight there because we haven't followed her life closely enough to know what led to those feelings. Presented with this, Takahata made the decision to meticulously depict Kaguya Hime's life on earth as a way of giving weight to her and her adopted parents' unwillingness to part. Osamu Tanabe's animation bears the entire burden of this task and makes the character's plight believable.
Takahata has experience directing adaptations of stories about children growing up, most notably Heidi (1974), although Anne of Green Gables (1979) is perhaps the most obvious reference point for its actual depiction of Anne's physical maturation over the course of the series. Here that maturation is depicted on fast-forward in the span of a few minutes. Another reference point is 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976), the intermediate step between these two, and the first place where Takahata took steps towards his mature style of objective realism. Heidi still depicted an idealized world, whereas 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother was a documentary in spirit.
It could be in a nod to this that Takahata quotes himself in Kaguya Hime. The scene where Sutemaru gets beaten up is lifted verbatim from episode 45 of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, in which Marco watches in silent horror from the train on which he has snuck as his friend Pablo runs out to divert the driver, and winds up getting beaten up and left stranded in the middle of the pampas. It's definitely the most powerful scene in an already powerful series, but the scene must have had special meaning to him beyond that for him to quote it in this way. Maybe it's that this scene, which forces the protagonist to become the observer of events beyond his or her control, is meant to remind us of our own position as spectators.
The beautiful art courtesy of Kazuo Oga and his team of background artists is another major draw of the film. Oga is a master of painting the natural world, and with Kaguya Hime he's created one of the most vivid depictions of the natural world yet in anime. He used watercolor to help create the feeling of a living picture scroll. Enlarging the paintings created white spaces that add to the impression by emphasizing the white base. This was his first time as art director for a major film since Pompoko in 1994. He now works mainly as an illustrator, also doing anime background art on a solo basis. The film is thus welcome for getting this great artist to do one more big job.
This approach of having one talented animator and one talented background artist spearhead their respective sections in a very individualistic way goes back at least to Gauche the Cellist (1982), in which animator Toshitsugu Saida drew all of the key animation and artist Takamura Mukuo drew all of the background art.
Although I found the movie somewhat less satisfying than previous Takahata outings, it is still a superbly beautiful film and I am eager to rewatch it again as soon as possible. It's sad that this may be the last major film by this genius, but it's a blessing we have it, as it was a long time coming. Good on Ghibli for being patient over its reported 7 years of production. I'm glad to find with this film that he stayed true to his guns to the last, continuing with his hand-crafted, lushly traditionally animated, anti-heroic, anti-epic brand of animated filmmaking. It's films like this that show that hand-drawn animation still has plenty of life left in it.
|Animated Tales of Great People||Animated Classics of Children's Literature|
In the wake of the success of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi (1975-1995), Group Tac produced two other omnibus-format TV series that were not as long-lived and essentially disappeared into the pit of anime history, but were equally creative and appealing. These shows are not mere educational throwaways; they're everything you would expect from the creative minds at Group Tac, capturing them at the height of their powers in the studio's stylistically more flexible early days.
The first TV show produced by Tac after MNMB was an adaptation of Huckleberry Finn (1976) directed by Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu. This series was the product of Fuji TV wanting to expand its lineup of animated adaptations of western literature or 'meisaku' anime, but Nippon Animation being at full capacity already. Fuji TV asked film distributor Herald, and Herald in turn appointed Group Tac to the task on the merit of the Jack and the Beanstalk film they had produced for Herald shortly prior. The series did not have good ratings and was canceled early, and Tac was never asked to do another Fuji TV show.
Mainichi Broadcasting, on the other hand, was happy with the ratings of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, which led to them getting Tac to produce two shows in a similar vein that carried on the 'manga' nomenclature: Manga Ijin Monogatari (1977-1978) and Manga Kodomo Bunko (1978-1979).
Other studios caught on and promptly copied the educational 'manga' format with shows such as Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi (Dax, 1976-1979), Manga Nihon Emaki (World Television, 1977-1978), Manga Hajimete Monogatari (Dax, 1978-1984), Manga Isoppu Monogatari (Nippon Animation, 1983) and Manga Nihonshi (Tsuchida Production, 1983-1984). But where Tac's two shows carried on the artistic and creator-centric approach of MNMB, many of these copycats were merely opportunistic children's pap piggybacking on Tac's example, and have little artistic merit.
'Manga' in this context was of course used to signify 'animated' and not comic books. At this period they still referred to TV animation as 'terebi manga' and animated movies as 'manga eiga'. This usage must have died out around this time.
Unfortunately neither of these shows are currently available in Japan, nor I assume anywhere else. It's a shame. Although definitely for children, they're still visually appealing after all these years and their more compact scale makes them more suited to a DVD release than the MNMB, and even the MNMB has gotten a partial DVD release. Manga Ijin Monogatari at least got a partial VHS release at one point, but that is long gone and the show's delicate visuals would benefit immensely from a pristine transfer. In the case of Huck Finn this may be impossible. It seems that the original stock of the TV show may have been lost in the process of editing together a movie version in the early 1990s. Normally nothing of this sort happened with Manga Ijin Monogatari or Manga Kodomo Bunko, so it would be great if these could see the light of day sometime.
|Clockwise from top left: Alfred Nobel, Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel and Robert Koch|
MIM is self-explanatory: it tells the story of great historical figures, two 10-minute stories per episode, just like MNMB. Despite telling stories all inspired by reality, the style is never anything close to realistic. Whimsical and imaginative animation is the order of the day. The episodes are like picture books come to life, favoring free-wheeling and playful invention over real-world linear narratives. The stories are thus almost never straight-faced and textbook dry, but rather embellish the stories however necessary to make them entertaining. You can clearly see the hand of the artist interpreting the tales. Their interpretation is the whole point. That's why this series is still worth watching almost 40 years later. Otherwise it would just be another one of the scores of unremarkable educational children's animation made in the decades since.
One of the identifying traits of Group Tac is striking use of sound effects and music. The creativity of Group Tac co-founder and audio director Atsumi Tashiro in this role is presumably to thank for this. MIM is a classic example of how Group Tac's musical creativity helped set its shows apart. The show not only looks but also sounds like no other show out there due to the novel idea to use synthesizer music by synth pioneer Shoji Osamu. Although at moments the primitive synth can sound dated, Shoji Osamu has a remarkable range and isn't limited to cheap imitations of conventional arrangements. The score is quite powerful when it uses the unique capabilities of the synth to create eerie and otherworldly sounds.
The director of the series is Masakazu Higuchi, an ex-Mushi Pro figure who worked at Group Tac between 1975 and 1979 on all of Tac's omnibus shows of this period. The producer is MNMB producer Mikio Nakata and the art director is MNMB regular Koji Abe. The episode directors, animators and artists are a mix of MNMB faces and new faces.
Masakazu Higuchi obviously used his connections to bring in people he knew. In my recent MNMB post I noted how Masakazu Higuchi is the one who invited Studio Arrow's Susumu Shiraume onto the show (his first job was animating episode 35 directed by Masakazu Higuchi). For MIM he got Studio Arrow's Isamu Kumada to animate the show's two openings in the shrewd realization that someone with expertise in ad work was a perfect candidate to produce a catchy opening. I haven't seen the second, but the first is quite lovely and unlike any other anime opening out there (watch). His ad man expertise is evident in the op's economy of means, with its Steinberg-esque line figures and striking minimalistic visual schemes. In spirit it feels closer to the experimental films of the Animation Sannin no Kai than to typical anime.
Susumu Shiraume of course is also present as an episode director. I've only seen his Alfred Nobel episode, but it has the same pleasing animation style as can be seen in his early MNMB work. The character drawing style is closer to something like a cross between Yellow Submarine and Peanuts than to anime. Sharply designed shots like the one of the generals pictured above betray his experience in ad work and working on Topcraft foreign co-productions.
The series is also unique for its creative title cards. The title cards for each episode of MNMB were all done by Hideo Takagu, who also handled the main titles for MIM (pictured above). Normally he was to handle the title cards for MIM, but Masakazu Higuchi convinced the studio to let him do the title cards himself because he had creative ideas for each title card that he wanted to use. Higuchi's title cards each adopt a different visual scheme relevant to the story at hand. It's a nice little touch that adds to the overall impression of the show being very much a handmade product, with careful thought put into what visuals would be appropriate for each figure. For example, the Hans Christian Andersen episode has the letters of his name float down like snowflakes to remind of The Little Match Girl, and the Gregor Mendel episode has peas pop out of a pod and spell out his name. You can see an image of each title on Higuchi's own home page here along with their original pencil designs. (The page also has a lot of his design sheets for MNMB and MKB.)
A nice surprise in the recent reboot of Cosmos was the use of animation to tell the stories of several historical scientific figures, which it did by dramatizing the key moments of their lives. MIM also devotes a large proportion of its episode to scientific figures. Also included are writers, composers and painters who are obvious choices. The series' Japanese origin is evident in the large proportion of Japanese figures. Lacking are more contemporary figures, religious leaders, or otherwise divisive figures. Gandhi is a glaring omission. I thought initially they were put off by all the massacres that are unavoidable in describing his life, but then they do an episode about the deadliest mass murderer in history, Genghis Khan. The laudable omission of other commonly glorified military figures such as Napoleon is less impressive in this light.
One odd name in the list is Babe Ruth. If it doesn't seem to fit in, it's because it was the pilot episode produced before chief director Masakazu Higuchi came onboard. The rest of the list is fairly more 'serious' in its choices (only scientific and artistic figures, no athletes or movie stars or the like), although his inclusion does say something about his popularity in the 1970s.
The series' asset is that it isn't primarily concerned with education, but with visual creativity. This is mostly a good thing, but has a downside. Some of the stories focus on entertainment to the point of obscuring the historical figure's importance. The episode about Wilhelm Roentgen, the winner of the first Nobel Prize in physics for discovering X-Rays, for example, uses a cute mouse character to summarize the discovery, but goes overboard and borders on becoming an episode of Tom and Jerry. The episode about Thomas Edison focuses on his childhood and only briefly mentions his later inventions as a closing afterthought.
The more satisfying episodes manage to effectively convey the figure's importance by dint of the good artistry of their directors and animators, of which a few examples are highlighted below.
|Episode #42a: Helen Keller directed by Katsui/Higuchi/Abe|
Helen Keller's story is well known and a staple of this kind of show. I was prepared to shrug the episode off as emotionally manipulative schmaltz, but instead I found it honestly and truly moving. The episode went beyond the call of duty in visually dramatizing her plight as a child. I found the episode to be great visual storytelling. A succession of poetic and creative visual schemes are used to represent her isolation and loneliness and the gradual discovery of meaning in the world around her.
For example, in one shot, prior to Helen discovering the meaning of words, a small child sits immobile at a desk in the center of the screen. Dwarfed by her surroundings, the seasons come and go. Children run around playing, and couples blithely walk around on Sunday strolls in their finery. Later, when she discovers the meaning of words, Helen is represented as a wind-up doll walking blindly through a dark room full of abstract shapes, eventually bumping into one and falling on her side. It's a striking visual expression of her powerlessness.
The episode was co-directed, unusually, by a trio: animator Chikao Katsui, series director Masakazu Higuchi and art director Koji Abe. The designs and animation were by Toshiyasu Okada, one of the great unknown animators of the 1970s. (I talked about him a bit in my post on Bannertail.) I'm not sure how the collaboration between the three directors worked, but obviously pitting their collective creativity is what produced such a visually dense episode. The other episodes have more of the quality of a personal creation, with commensurately less of the deliberate and honed quality that comes of the collaborative process. Even though the designs are not particularly realistic or appealing, and are somewhat blandly generic, the animation never feels cheap or inadequate. The episode isn't about animation grandstanding or realistic movement. It's a great example of Mushi Pro-school image-based storytelling.
Shoji Osamu's scoring of this episode is also very effective. His music is at its most dissonant and abstract during the early parts of the episode, and gradually shifts in tone towards more harmonic and melodic sounds as Helen's world opens up. The score is a big part of why the episode is so affecting.
The episode also appears to use Helen Keller's actual writing to narrate the events, which helps to make the episode work. Even in translation the quality of her writing comes through. Jun Sogabe often receives credit for "bungei" in this series. I'm not positive what this entails, but I've translated it as dialogue, to contrast with the episodes in which someone is credited with the more conventional term "kyakuhon". A bungei credit would mean that a plot was written and dialogue was adapted from the source material, whereas a kyakuhon credit would mean the scriptwriter came up with everything himself as would be the case in a conventional scenario. For example, MNMB writer Shuji Hirami is credited with script for the Hans Christian Andersen episode I've outlined next.
|Episode #27b: Hans Christian Andersen directed by Tsutomu Shibayama|
This episode takes a very different tack from the previous. This episode is an original story based in the real world, featuring an elderly Hans Christian Andersen as the protagonist. He has come to a Mediterranean port city somewhere in Italy on vacation. He notices a young boy waiting on the steps below his window each day. He discovers that the boy is waiting for his father, a seaman, to return home, refusing to believe the news that he was killed. Andersen comforts the boy with by relating the story of a boy named Hans who overcame loss as a young boy by holding out hope and using his creativity to translate adversity into stories.
Andersen apparently traveled to Italy often during his lifetime, the last time at age 67, 3 years before death in 1875. Shuji Hirami must have built up the story around this factual nugget. It's easy enough to dramatise Andersen's stories, but to come up with a way of conveying Andersen's achievement that isn't merely didactic is more of a challenge. The 1971 Mushi Pro TV series Andersen Monogatari animated the stories, while the 1968 Toei version of the same name wove the stories together into a single story, turning Andersen into a kind of Mary Poppins character.
Shuji Hirami's approach is a more low-key and tasteful way of depicting Andersen's legacy. Before his death, an elderly Andersen looks back on his life work through the lens of a chance encounter with a younger version of himself. The message is subtle and not overly sentimental: Creating stories can help us overcome and find meaning.
The narrative style of this episode is more conventional than the Helen Keller episode, which was abstract of necessity to depict Helen's world of darkness and silence. Here, instead, characters are grounded in a specific locale. A few deft establishing shots depict the fishing port environs and its inhabitants. The framing of shots and cutting is more cinematic. Short interludes interrupt the narrative illustrating Andersen's stories in a more colorful and stylized way. Ajia-Do's Tsutomu Shibayama does a fantastic job with the material. His drawings are delectable, as they all are at this period in his career, thanks to great layouts and a brilliant sense of stylization.
The style of the characters is basically in line with the other episodes, but Shibayama's visuals are more technically proficient than most of the other episodes. The characters have the usual bulging, rounded forms, with hatch mark accents here and there. For the section relating the story of the little match girl, he switches to a stark black and red color scheme with flattened perspective and stylized forms like silhouette animation. The ugly duckling section features highly stylized bird forms and scribbly but colorful crayon drawings of vegetation for the backgrounds. Shibayama produced probably his best short-form work for Group Tac on their omnibus series of the late 1970s.
|Episode #11b: Vincent van Gogh directed by Hisashi Sakaguchi|
The turbulent life of Vincent van Gogh is told in one of the show's most dynamic and intense episodes. Gogh's tempestuous character comes through vividly in this adaptation by the late great manga-ka Hisashi Sakaguchi.
This episode makes for another great contrast with the previous two episodes, indicating the breadth of MIM's graphical and storytelling styles. The pace here is fast and the atmosphere intense. The narrative covers Gogh's entire life from childhood to suicide, and of course dramatizing the events that led to him cutting off his own ear. In the short span of a few minutes the episode does a remarkable job of making us understand the state of mind that led him to make that decision.
The episode also clearly shows how his little brother Theo supported him throughout his life. In someone else's hands, the suicide might have been skipped over, but Sakaguchi knows it's the only possible ending to his story. The scene is depicted tastefully, without being lurid. We see Gogh painting amidst fields of gold. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and crows are startled into the sky. Gogh's own painting of crows flying in a golden field pans across the screen, as if he had captured in painting the last beautiful sight of his life. This episode is a case of an already moving and tragic story with inherent dramatic potential, given the kind of dramatization that does it justice.
The drawings are particularly interesting. The lines are extremely loose. I don't think there's a single straight line in the entire episode. This seems to evoke Gogh's style, without mimicking it, as if everything in Gogh's vicinity were expressively deformed by the intensity of his passion. The animation by Izumi Watanabe is not particularly remarkable, and is in fact somewhat crude, but is a perfect match with the loose background drawings, which often are drawn in the style of his paintings. The design of Gogh himself is perfect - recognizable and yet loose and free.
Hisashi Sakaguchi had a poetic and romantic sensibility that is a perfect match with Gogh. He joined Mushi Pro and worked under Tezuka on all of the classic Tezuka shows of the 1960s starting with Atom and began drawing manga on the side in 1969. Around 1980 he began to devote himself exclusively to manga. His work blended the humanistic passion of Tezuka's manga with the more modern graphic sensibility of new wave manga-kas like Katsuhiro Otomo.
Sakaguchi was high school friends with Masakazu Higuchi, and is in fact the one who invited Higuchi to Mushi Pro after Higuchi had quit Tatsunoko in 1966. The two worked together for a few years before Higuchi quit Mushi Pro and the two went their own way. Many years later, for his debut as a series director, Higuchi called on his old friend to help him out directing a few episodes of his show. The episodes he turned in, from what I've sampled, are brilliant without exception. It makes me wish he could have done more instead of focusing exclusively on manga.
Series director Masakazu Higuchi himself had aspirations of becoming a manga-ka since the beginning, and in the late 1980s shifted towards manga. These are but two examples - many of the early Mushi Pro figures in fact drew manga at Mushi Pro, including Hideaki Kitano, Moribi Murano, Masaki Mori and of course Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. Even Osamu Dezaki drew a manga version of Goku's Big Adventure in 1967 for Mushi Pro's famous COM magazine.
Thus this episode captures the dual nature of the ex-Mushi Pro figures, whose creative wiring was a seamless blend of manga and animated expression. The result is some of the most graphically pleasing and dynamic animation of the period.
Incidentally, Hisashi Sakaguchi did his episodes of MIM from his artist collective Garakuta (meaning rubbish), which is credited with the animation in his four other MIM episodes. This is the only time an animator (Izumi Watanabe) was credited by name. The two later married.
As for Hisashi Sakaguchi's other episodes, I've only seen the Gregor Mendel episode, but I can confirm that it is equally brilliant. Hisashi Sakaguchi is one of the few people I've found to have an instinctive understanding of animated expression on par with Osamu Dezaki. He was otherwise not very prolific due to his focus on manga. MIM wound up being one of the few places he had the opportunity to create films from the bottom up. His episodes make me wish he'd had more opportunities in animation. It's high time this tragically short-lived genius got his due.
|Clockwise from top left: The Lily of the Valley, The Friend's Dog, The Fox's Window, The 5 Sen Coin|
A new omnibus series from Group Tac started without pause after the end of MIM, this time adapting classics of Japanese children's literature. The director this time was Tsuneo Maeda, who had just handed over the reins of MNMB to Mitsuo Kobayashi. The producer was MNMB's other producer, Ippei Onimaru. The audio director remained, as in all Tac productions, Atsumi Tashiro.
Even moreso than MIM, this series is a beautiful series with tremendous stylistic variety and quality work by talented animators. It has broad appeal and deserves more recognition than it has received. However, it is reported that the original prints of the show may have been lost, which does not bode well for its revival.
Due to the different main staff, and of course the different requirements of the material, the tone and style of Manga Kodomo Bunko is quite different, more realistic than the very cartoony and light-hearted MIM. Many of the stories take place in the early part of the 20th century in rural Japan, and the series has something of a nostalgic, elegiac, bucolic quality. The visuals are earthy, refined, painterly in a way that reminds of MNMB - just without the fantastic elements, and with more sophisticated stories.
The series is steeped in the atmosphere of Taisho-era Japan. It feels like a 1920s children's book come to life, with its simple, rounded characters and pre-modern vision of a simpler Japanese life. Specifically, MKB seems to carry on the spirit of the paintings of artists like Shotaro Honda in the seminal children's magazine Kodomo no Kuni. Even the episodes set in the immediate aftermath of the war still seem pre-war in spirit, as the postwar boom that epitomizes the Showa period had yet to set in.
Visually, the series is a feast of beautiful art thanks to the work of MNMB regulars like Tatsuro Kadoya, Koji Abe and Kadono Mariko. Most of the stories are realistic stories about the everyday life of children in Japan in the early part of the 20th century such as The Lily of the Valley and The 50 Sen Coin (pictured at left above), but there are also a few stories about the war such as the magnificent Song of Hiroshima and The Escaped Monkey, and a few more fantastical stories such as The Adventures of Rainbow Cat and The Fox's Window. This makes for a good variety, and keeps the series from becoming too one-note.
The staff each bring a completely different style to each story. Shinichi Tsuji shines with his more formalistic and highly stylized work in the show. Ajia-Do's Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi create some of their best work of the period in MKB. I've highlighted an episode of each of the latter three below. Even the less technically noteworthy episodes by directors such as Norio Yazawa, who has less of a striking style, remain eminently enjoyable due to the classy style, and the great stories by well-known authors such as Yuzo Yamamoto, Sakae Tsuboi and Takeo Arishima as well as many that I'd never heard of. Reportedly at least some of these stories were culled from the pages of The Red Bird, so it seems probable that Shin-Ei Doga took the idea for their 1979 Heart of the Red Bird series from Group Tac's Manga Kodomo Bunko.
There are even a few surprise faces in the bunch, such as the Shingo Araki-Himeno Michi duo, whose cute drawings of the rambunctious children of The Pee Inari (#18b) work very well against the beautiful bamboo forest paintings of Kazunori Shimomichi. Tatsuro Kadoya similarly produces gorgeous paintings of the countryside in the Brothers episode (#13b). MIM director Masakazu Higuchi directs a few episodes, bringing a notably more retro and cartoonish style to his characters in The Town without a Clock (#11b). His whimsical and colorful Rainbow Cat episode (#42b) is a delight and a real change from the more realistic episodes.
Atsumi Tashiro is presumably the one responsible for the remarkable musical scores that grace both shows. The previous series had benefited from a novel synth music score, and this time they did something equally daring and creative, but going in a different direction. Usually a TV series will have a single person scoring it. To match the omnibus format with different authors being adapted by different staff groupings, this time they called in ten famous modern classical composers to each produce an individual score for each episode.
Composers called in include: Noda Teruyuki, Katsuhiro Tsubono, Shigeaki Saegusa, Tokuhide Niimi, Roh Ogura, Koichi Sugiyama, Komei Hayama, Akihiro Komori, Michio Kitazume and Seiji Yokoyama. Some of these were involved in anime later such as Shigeaki Saegusa (Gundam ZZ), Koichi Sugiyama (Ideon) and Komori Akihiro (Jacky the Bearcub), but many of these are pure classical composers with a harshly dissonant modern style that is at odds with the usual harmonic world of anime. Many of the pieces were played by the Tokyo Quintet, so you can listen to the Tokyo Quintet performing a piece by Noda Teruyuki and a piece by Katsuhiro Tsubono to get a sense of the thoroughly uncompromisingly modernist music these guys produced for MKB.
The scores they produced are some of the most remarkable I've heard in anime. They're so good that it's a shame they haven't been released separately so they can be appreciated on their own. The notable thing is that the scores aren't used as 'accompaniment' in the typical way; they're actual 10-minute pieces of music that play continuously in the background from start to finish, without moments of silence. This gives the episodes a more sophisticated atmosphere than the episodes might otherwise have had.
Among the best of these scores are the solo scores, as this heightens the impact of the music. Episode #1a The Fox is a great story to begin with, about a group of children who go out one night to a festival and fear that one of the kids may have been possessed by a kitsune, and features an incredible marimba score, although I don't know who scored this one. Episode #1b The Festival Kimono features a great solo flute score by Teruyuki Noda to accompany a story about two beggar children who get adopted by a temple. Seiichiro Uno produced a beautiful solo piano score for episode #2a The Lily of the Valley to match the story about a girl who sneaks into a school to play piano at night.
These early episodes with solo scores are perhaps the pinnacle of Group Tac's early work of this period, in the sense that they are the ultimate expression of the 'solo' approach pioneered by MNMB, in which one person handles each creative task. Add to this the fact that the great Kyoko Kishida performed all of the voices in the first season and you have probably one of the most extreme solo anime of all time.
Indicating how important the musical aspect is to this series, the composer and performer/soloist are credited alongside the director, animator and artist at the beginning of each episode. They were part of the creative team, not merely there to provide accompanying tunes.
It seems the station may not have liked the modern music, though, because from season 3 onwards Seiichiro Uno did the music for every episode in a more conventional style. Although he is a great composer (he did fantastic work on Goku's Big Adventure in 1967), it's a huge change and a step down in the musical quality. The show feels more conventional afterwards. The first season therefore seems to capture the show at its height. (which is not to say there weren't great episodes produced later)
The opening is a beautiful and strange creation directed by Gisaburo Sugii, animated by Tsuneo Maeda, with art by Mihoko Magori. (watch) The series is notable for having 12 different endings, one for each month. Again, each is by a different composer. This is yet another indication of the unusual amount of effort that went into the musical side of things for this show.
|Episode #43a: Song of Hiroshima directed by Osamu Kobayashi|
One of the most moving stories in the series is given a convincingly cinematic treatment by Osamu Kobayashi.
A man is seen riding a train. He reminisces that he is on his way to meet a girl whom he has met twice before in his life: once when he saved her as an infant from the arms of her dying mother after the atomic bombing on August 6, 1945, and the second time seven years ago when he was summoned by a missing person announcement on the radio. It turns out the woman who summoned him is the one to whom he had handed the child that day in desperation. She had raised the child as her own, naming her Hiroko after the daughter she lost that day. Hiroko grew up ignorant of the events of that day, or what happened to her mother.
The story is based on Sukeyuki Imanishi's experiences as a soldier sent to Hiroshima to provide emergency relief on the day after the bombing. This is possibly one of the first treatments of the atomic bombings in anime, pre-dating the anime version of Barefoot Gen by four years.
This story doesn't focus on the bombing itself but uses it as a backdrop to tell a story about the country's recovery following the war. The innocent little girl represents hope that a new generation untouched by the events of the war will bring life back to the decimated country. The Genbaku Dome is an everpresent reminder in the backdrop throughout the episode's three time periods: on the day after the bombing, seven years later when the narrator tells Hiroko's new mother what happened, and ten years afterwards when he meets the 17 year old Hiroko to tell her about her past. After discovering Hiroko on that day, the narrator's first assignment was rebuilding the train station. 17 years later he meets Hiroko at the pristine new train station that shows no sign of the past.
Osamu Kobayashi displays a mastery of film language here that clearly presages his shift towards directing. His formal, tasteful layouts seem like they could have been framed by a lens, and go a long way towards giving the story its requisite gravitas. The film feels very realistic despite his character drawings being loose and far from photorealistic thanks to his brilliantly timed animation. He had a unique genius for stylizing the body and facial expressions with a minimum of lines and yet making the characters feel real. None of the other directors in the show would have been capable of doing this story justice.
The art by Tetsufumi Oyama has a reduced palette that not only conveys the grayness of the aftermath, but also gives the episode a more cinematic feeling.
Episode #20a Stuck on a Cliff is equally brilliant in terms of showcasing Kobayashi's remarkable talent as a director as well as his unique style of cartoonish yet somehow realistic animation. The montage sequence where the children are playing around has an almost documentary detachment and attention to detail. The drawings of the children swimming around at the beginning are brilliant snapshots that capture their lanky bodies thrashing about with a sketchbook realism. The shot around 6 minutes in where the boy walks towards the cliff and starts climbing is drawn with a spare rate that appears to be 3s or 4s, but the timing of the movement is completely realistic, and the poses all natural and believable. You sense a kind of proto-full limited in his work of this period. Kobayashi will mix up the frame rate dynamically depending on the shot. Walking "follow" shots in Song of Hiroshima, in contrast, are in 2s to convey a more cinematic feeling.
Even the strangely shaped, blobby heads feel somehow caricatural, and not randomly shaped out of laziness or lack of drawing skill. Every character in Osamu Kobayashi's episodes feels like an individual. Tsutomu Shibayama was also a brilliant caricaturist, but his style of caricature was more technical and detailed, more about precise comic exaggeration of feature elements. Osamu Kobayashi manages to capture a person's essence in just a few broad and loose strokes.
Episode #3a The Escaped Monkey is one of the other good wartime stories. It starts out looking like a lighthearted story about monkeys in a zoo but turns into a wrenching observation of the misery of homeless children. The monkey escapes from the zoo, but sees the terrible life the kids are living on the outside, and returns to the zoo realizing he has it better in the zoo. Chikao Katsui directs and Toshiyasu Okada animates.
|Episode #18a: The Red Shoes directed by Tsutomu Shibayama|
A boy named Hiroshi is playing baseball with his friends one evening when the ball goes flying into the bushes and falls into someone's yard. His friend warns him that the place is haunted, but he goes in anyway and meets a little blond-haired girl named Marie. They become friends, and Hiroshi finds out that her parents passed away just a month ago, and she lets a red balloon go every day with a letter attached for her parents in heaven. One day he goes over to play and finds out that she has been taken by her uncle on a ship to go back with him to the US.
Obviously, this is not based on Andersen's famous story. This is one of the episodes that is actually based on an old children's song rather than a story, in this case a song written in 1922 about a girl with red shoes taken away by a foreigner on a boat. Tsutomu Shibayama expands this fragment into a sad, beautiful little story about friendship between a boy and a girl of different cultures.
What makes the episode truly unforgettable is the stunning visuals. This is one of the most highly stylized of the show's episodes, every shot a striking composition fit for framing - from the eerie house in the woods surrounded by the black outlines of tall trees, to the abstract black shapes of the tankers and cranes against the sunset-red water, to the graveyard through which Hiroshi runs on his way to the port to say farewell to Marie. Shibayama's mastery of layout is on full display here, backed up by the beautiful art of Mariko Kadono.
The episode uses its simple visual scheme to create some clever visual tricks, such as when Hiroshi is looking for his ball in the grass, and we see a shot of the red setting sun beside a black outline of a tree. A little later, we see the same shot again, but the sun suddenly rises quickly, and the little girl steps out from behind the tree. What we thought was the setting sun was in fact her red balloon.
Helping to make the episode work is a lovely score by Akihiro Komori that starts out with a children's choir singing the first verse of the song itself. The music then goes on to use the melody as thematic material throughout the episode, making for a through-conceived episode. This score was clearly written closely tied to the visuals, unlike the early scores which come across as being independent compositions that don't directly comment on the twists and turns of the narrative in the conventional sense.
Tsutomu Shibayama directed/animated at least five other episodes for the show, so he was quite busy with Group Tac shows around this time, presumably returning to MNMB after taking time off to focus on Manga Ijin Monogatari and Manga Kodomo Bunko.
Episode #25a The Fancy Dragonfly is a pure fantasy with pared down visuals and cartoonish insect designs that plays out like an Aesop's fable. Episode #45b The Cow Thief is another brilliantly stylized episode about a bumbling cow thief who winds up leading the cow back to its own home. Episode #50a The Rail Car is an enigmatic story about a boy who sets out on a trip by rail car but finds it takes him far from home. Episode #34b The Musical Clock is a more realistic tale that follows a man and a young boy walking along a dark pre-dawn road. Episode #40b The Snowy Wharf is a dark tale about a group of homeless children living in a shanty on the wharf in the immediate aftermath of the war.
All of these episodes are brilliant episodes to be expected of Shibayama, but The Musical Clock and The Snowy Wharf in particular are two of the show's best episodes for their combination of visual prowess and subtle literary sensibility. Whereas many of the show's stories are understandably childish, with a simplistic thematic treatment that can lack depth for an adult viewer, these two episodes are among the more satisfyingly morally complex and gritty. They go in the opposite direction of the more purely visuals-oriented The Red Shoes and The Fancy Dragonfly, showing that Shibayama wasn't limited to picture-book style abstract visual animation. He could handle realistic material just as well. Both stories deal with challenging subjects in a classy and tasteful way.
The Musical Clock is a realistic but somewhat formal morality play of innocence versus guilt. It all takes place in the span of a walk one morning before dawn. A man and a boy meet on the road and converse along the way. The man seems jittery and evasive. As the episode progresses, we begin to suspect that the man is a thief, but the boy remains oblivious to this in his innocence. The beauty of the episode is in how we can follow the man's train of thought at every step of the way as he gradually comes to regret his actions. It comes across as one of the most psychologically probing episodes as a result. It could be my imagination, but Seiichiro Uno's score for this episode seems to quote the Dies Irae, which if it does is a brilliant touch that underscores the themes of doing the right thing or being judged for ones misdeeds.
The Snowy Wharf tells of a woman who visits a group of orphaned children who huddle together in the cold in a shack by the wharf. The episode features devastatingly beautiful visuals of the deprivation of that period. The episode opens with a image that succinctly conveys the setting and situation in the most effortless way imaginable: a faucet juts out from a pile of rubble, the ocean in the background, dripping water into an overturned army helmet. The setting is a port city in postwar Japan, and the overturned helmet placed there by some desperate soul symbolizes how that era was a struggle to survive amid the chaos of devastated infrastructure and lack of material goods.
Ajia-do actually receives an assistance credit in the ending credits, indicating how valuable Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama were to the show. Their episodes are easily the best in the whole show.
|Episode #8a: The Illusionist directed by Shinichi Tsuji|
The Illusionist is based on a story by literary master Ryunosuke Akutagawa about a man who falls prey to a hypnotist's powers without realizing it.
This episode is like a woodblock print come to life. It has one of the most original and confidently executed visual schemes of the series. The backgrounds are full of the telltale hatch marks of a wood carving, and the characters are also drawn with hatch marks as shadows. The animation is spare 5s or 6s most of the time, and character movement is slow and limited to small motions.
Director/animator Shinichi Tsuji draws the characters in a very stiff, clean way with thick, solid lines. It makes them seem like porcelain dolls. His characters are the diametric opposite of Osamu Kobayashi's dynamic and loosely drawn characters. The story is set smack in the middle of Taisho-era Japan in 1920, so everything is a curious mixture of traditional and modern - rickshaws and automobiles, kimonos and bowler hats. The architecture and furnishings all have a somewhat Victorian feeling. On top of that, the protagonist is an Indian national dressed like a Maharajah, so overall the episode feels very exotic in a disorienting way that is a good match with the mystical subject matter.
The story at first seems to simply be about magic, but its on closer inspection it appears to be a metaphorical tale cautioning against Japan's greedy haste to adopt western appurtenances. At the time, Japan was flush with wealth after choosing the winning side in W.W. I, but India wasn't so lucky. It participated in the war on the promise of independence, but the promise wasn't kept. The protagonist of this episode is actually an Indian freedom fighter named Hassan who uses Japan as his base of operation. Magic just happens to be his hobby. He promises to teach his Japanese friend some magic on the condition that he swears to not use it for personal gain. Hassan then hypnotizes his guest and makes him see a dream in which he is tempted to go against his vow. He finally succumbs to the temptation, and realizes that his greed is too strong.
Shinichi Tsuji is another ex-Mushi Pro figure who has been a regular in Gisaburo Sugii's films, being listed at the top of the animation credits in movies as far separated in time as Belladonna (1973) and Stormy Night (2005). He is perhaps best known as the director of the delicate fantasy The Star of Cottonland (1984). He has also been involved with Nippon Animation productions on and off over the years.
Shinichi Tsuji made several other episodes for MKB, and they all benefit from his unique storybook drawing sensibility, with its clean, elegant, refined shapes. Episode #38b The Echoing Shoes in particular is a pleasing fantasy episode that looks very different from everything else in the show with its castles, princess and bright primary colors, almost like a western fairy tale.
Unfortunately the credits below are incomplete because only a handful of the episodes have been uploaded online. Hopefully if the shows ever get a proper release I will be able to complete these credit listings.
まんが偉人物語 Animated Tales of Great People
Group Tac, 1977-1978, 46 episodes (2 stories per episode)
|Chief Director:||樋口雅一||Masakazu Higuchi|
|Art Director:||阿部幸次||Koji Abe|
|Audio Director:||田代敦巳||Atsumi Tashiro|
|1a: The Wright Brothers|
|1b: Babe Ruth|
|2a: Ludwig van Beethoven|
|2b: Isaac Newton|
|Concept & Structure||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|3a: Amundsen & Scott|
|3b: Florence Nightingale|
|4a: Thomas Alva Edison|
|Concept & Structure||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|5a: Alfred Nobel|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
House of Lambs
|5b: Benjamin Franklin|
|6a: Marco Polo|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|6b: Hokusai Katsushika|
|7a: Heinrich Schliemann|
|7b: Paul Gaugin|
|8a: Tomitaro Makino|
|8b: Christopher Columbus|
|9a: Leonardo da Vinci|
|9b: Louis Pasteur|
|10a: Samuel Morse|
|10b: Matsuo Basho|
|11a: Johannes Gutenberg|
|11b: Vincent van Gogh|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|12a: Edward Jenner|
|12b: Alexander the Great|
|13a: Alexander Graham Bell|
|13b: David Livingstone|
|14a: Robert Koch|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|14b: Auguste Rodin|
|Concept, Directing & Animation||Dialogue||Art|
House of Lambs
|15a: James Watt|
|16a: Genghis Khan|
|16b: Madame Curie|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|17a: Galilei Galieo|
|Structure||Concept & Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|17b: Charles Darwin|
|Concept & Structure||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|18a: Jean-Henri Fabre|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
House of Lambs
|18b: Koizumi Yakumo|
|19b: Ferdinand Magellan|
|20a: Stephen Foster|
|20b: Gregor Mendel|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|21a: Sanzo Hoshi|
|21b: Captain Cook|
|22a: Sakamoto Ryoma|
|22b: Wilhelm Roentgen|
|Concept, Directing & Animation||Dialogue||Art|
|23a: Kinjiro Ninomiya|
|23b: Kobayashi Issa|
|24a: Yukichi Fukuzawa|
|24b: Jean-Francois Millet|
|25a: Hideyo Noguchi|
|Concept, Directing & Animation||Dialogue||Art|
|25b: Nicolaus Copernicus|
|Concept, Directing & Animation||Dialogue||Art|
|26a: The Brothers Grimm|
|Structure||Concept & Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|26b: George Stephenson|
|27a: Shibasaburo Kitazato|
|27b: Hans Christian Andersen|
|Directing & Animation||Script||Art|
|28a: Abraham Lincoln|
|29a: Sugita Genpaku|
|29b: Fridtjof Nansen|
|30a: Robert Fulton|
|31a: Auguste Picard|
|31b: Utagawa Hiroshige|
|32b: Miguel de Cervantes|
|33a: Ernest Thompson Seton|
|Concept, Directing & Animation||Dialogue||Art|
|33b: Li Bai and Du Fu|
|34a: Natsume Soseki|
|Directing||Conept & Dialogue||Art||Animation|
|34b: Yamanoue Okura|
|35a: George Washington|
|35b: Higuchi Ichiyo|
|36a: Mark Twain|
|37a: John Manjiro|
|37b: Franz Schubert|
|38a: Charles Lindberg|
|38b: Jigoro Kano|
|39a: Amadeus Mozart|
|39b: Katsu Kaishu and Saigo Takamori|
|40a: Sven Hedin|
|40b: Johann Pestalozzi|
|41b: Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy|
|42a: Helen Keller|
|Concept & Directing||Dialogue||Art||Animation|
Katsui, Higuchi, Abe
|42b: Ino Tadataka|
|43a: Jean Dunant|
|43b: Inoue Den|
|44a: Hiraga Gennai|
|44b: Shotoku Taishi|
|45b: Aoki Kon'yo|
|46a: Chikamatsu Monzaemon|
|46b: Murasaki Shikibu|
|Directing & Animation||Concept & Dialogue||Art|
まんが子供文庫 Animated Classics of Children's Literature
Group Tac, 1978-1979, 51 episodes (2 stories per episode)
|Chief Director:||前田庸生||Tsuneo Maeda|
|Music:||宇野誠一郎||Seiichiro Uno (credit appears starting season 3)|
|Audio Director:||田代敦巳||Atsumi Tashiro|
The festival kimono
The lily of the valley
The plate of pickled plums
The escaped monkey
The moon bear
The pony returns
Mouse hide and seek
Old man Daizo and the goose
The willow thread
The cow's joy
The friend's dog
The farmer's dream
Defeating the monster cat
The girl by the port
Letting air in
Town without a clock
March of the toys
The horse-driver boy
The loach and the carp
White and red rice cakes
The hasty barber
Dream of a wooden horse
Crow on a branch
The red shoes
The "pee" Inari shrine
Santa defeats a kappa
Stuck on a cliff
The bar dog
The old man on the mysterious mountain
Tired of waiting
The owl and Kokichi
The mysterious hat
The drunk star
The large deer with only one ear
The fancy dragonfly
The lost doll
A bunch of grapes
The army commander
Santa and the kitten
The tablecloth given by the north wind
Zenta's travels etc.
The man who hung on a new moon
The three calves
The vulture of the Caucuses
The golden footsteps
Santa's adventures: Santa visits the moon
The carp in the lake
While living somewhere
The musical clock
Kaya the dog
Seizo and the swamp
Pochi and the fire
The reeds by the creek
Santa's adventures: Baseball with Ms. Hanahagi
The echoing shoes
The crane's flute
The bear and the brake boy
The snowy wharf
Zenta and the train
Santa's adventures: Santa's animal experiments
The adventures of rainbow cat
Song of Hiroshima
The rice-washing monkey
The 5 sen coin
Sea in the pocket
Time nobody knows
The cow thief
Minoru Maeda & Takamitsu Yukawa
Santa's camping trip
Taikichi on the island
Shigeji goes to school
The staring contest
Mona Lisa's beard
The rail car
The blind flute player
Santa's adventures: Santa's dog Chobi gets sick
The fox's window
An old flame from the fourth dimension warps into Dandy's life, bringing with her some baggage from the second dimension.
Writer Toh Enjo of episode 11 returns with another cerebral and high-concept episode. The appeal of his script this time around is in how he makes the conceptual leap between animation, with its 2D and 3D modes of expression, and the theory of the multiverse, with its many different taxonomies of universes. These theories can be difficult to wrap your head around, and Toh Enjoh is the only writer on the show who seems to have a grasp of them and is able to integrate them into the Dandyverse. Which is a shame, since that's the whole concept of the show. It would have been nice to get a more detailed exploration of the numerous multiverse hypotheses. They inherently suggest so many dramatic possibilities.
Visually, I felt the episode was a little lacking. I think it would have required more ingenious and experimental animation to adequately explore this subject of 1D vs 2D vs 3D vs 4D than the TV anime format permits. Hidekazu Ohara did a good job with this subject matter in his Professor Dan Petry's Blues short by mixing all sorts of techniques. But that's not to say there weren't a lot of interesting visuals. It was clever expressing the four-dimensional Catherine as a tesseract (The Avengers didn't invent that), and it was an amusing idea to create a melodrama out of the love triangle between the two-dimensional Paul, the three-dimensional Dandy and the four-dimensional Catherine - and to imagine the repercussions of the meeting of their universes. Expressing the clash as a real-life Life Force-esque Konami scroller (with a bit of Space Invader thrown in) was a clever touch, especially as someone who grew up on those, although I would have preferred something more serious and less metatextual.
After Dr. Gel and his ship were transported into the 2D world, they look the same, but can only slide around like sprites. Shadows are lost, like they entered the Hosoda dimension. The layouts suddenly seem very flat and compressed because it's a world without perspective. Maybe this is what it would look like if Michel Ocelot directed a space opera. It's an interesting attempt to convey that they were transformed into 2D, but it felt a little half-hearted. I started to feel sorry for Bii, who is doomed to die every episode due to Dr. Gel's fanatical determination to uncover the secrets of the universe, no matter the personal cost. The denouement where they turn into lines was an elegant expression of one-dimensionality using the historical building block of animation, the line. Dandy, despite heading out like a hero, wound up having zero effect on the outcome, which is perhaps appropriate.
The animation side of things was fairly restrained overall, without any real standout scenes, which is maybe a first for the series. Luckily the script was able to maintain interest throughout, although as a result the episode wound up coming across as a bit talky. This is probably the last we'll see of Toh Enjo in this series, but I hope we get to see more of him some other time in anime. He's got exactly the sort of sensibility anime needs. He brings in some fresh ideas and unusual narrative concepts from outside the anime industry. He's been the big discovery of the series for me. Literary works have been adapted before in anime, but it's a good idea to actually bring such a writer onto a creative team to see what they can come up with expressly for the medium of animation.
Dandy becomes Scarlet's pretend boyfriend to help her ward off a stalker ex.
This is the romance episode. Shinichiro Watanabe usually has at least one such more mellow and sentimental episode in his shows, and this is the one. I can understand why they buried it late in the show, because it's perhaps the least remarkable episode of the lot. It doesn't have the over-the-top gag humor of the usual episodes, nor the interesting artistry of the auteur episodes. I personally would have preferred to watch a whole episode about the romance of the two aliens pictured above.
Kimiko Ueno's humor is much more subtle this time around, as she focuses instead on creating a conventional dramatic arc evoking the feelings between two characters. As usual with this kind of setup, Scarlet and Dandy predictably begin hitting it off and then when the week is over there's almost a budding spark there. Just when you think they're too cowardly to try to do something about it, they try, but annoying circumstances keep them apart. It nails that irritating cliche setup that was so common in 1980s romance anime. Kimiko Ueno's touch comes through in little spots here and there: What brings them together is realizing they're both otaku after they discover the tape in the rubble and begin bantering about embarrassing nerd stuff. I like the fact that it's a VHS tape. Even in the far future the hardcore nerds still cling to their rare VHS collections. (I've still got a few tubs of those lying around somewhere)
The fact that it's still a parody of a romance episode and not a romance episode comes through in the sporadic incongruous moment of absurdly over-the-top action. It's like they planted little bombs of good animation throughout the episode as gifts to animation fans for being patient. The first was the skiing bit where Dandy is chased by a group of rare aliens including a giant Santa Claus and snowman, presumably by Akira Amemiya. There's a bit more Kanada-school animation where Dolph Lundgren goes berserk, so maybe he did that too. I suspected Chiharu Sato at first, as Chiharu Sato is a veteran Studio Z animator, but apparently there's another person with the same name, so maybe the person credited here is the other one. (edit: Chiharu Sato did the skiing, so Amemiya presumably did berserk Dolph)
There's the sudden Itano circus, which really had no reason to happen and was never even rationalized and was promply forgotten by the narrative. Not sure who did this; maybe this episode's sakkan himself, Chikashi Kubota. Aside from being good at drawing character acting, he's long been an Itano circus fan (he drew the Itano circus in Dead Leaves). And then there's the human-faced spider bit by Bahi JD. Bahi's bit was certainly the most enjoyable part of the episode, the only place that I actually laughed. He even designed the spider character. Bahi seems to have learned a bit from his associates working at Bones, as his animation is becoming more catchy and controlled. I see he's integrated Yutaka Nakamura's tactic of inserting a 'subliminal' black and white frame to emphasize explosions.
The scene design for the space colony was done by a person named Junichiro Tamamori with a pretty impressive pedigree as a hard sci-fi conceptual artist/set designer (Yamato 2199). The weird thing is, his designs are impressive to look at on paper, but they don't have much of an impact in the final product. I guess it wasn't necessary to emphasize the sci-fi setting; it was just meant to be there as a background. Still, it feels like a bit of a waste. It was completely unnecessary for the stalker ex to be a Gundam pilot, too; it's just funnier that way. The Gundam mecha was designed again by Kunio Okawara, so it looks pretty convincing.
Dandy heads to planet Grease to enter a dance competition, which predictably winds up bringing about the apocalypse.
This is the disco episode. Retro Italodisco being where it's at in the world of pop music right now, it makes sense for the show to have such an episode. Luckily the staffing is strong, so it's an entertaining and well-animated episode. In fact, this episode probably has the most dynamic and playful animation in the whole show, which is saying a lot.
The animation comes courtesy of Yoshimichi Kameda, who acts as sakkan and the character designer of most of the episode's aliens. Kameda brings in a more Kanada-school touch to this material than has been seen before, which means characters flying all over the screen in strange poses. But the nice thing is that he mixes it up with the styles a bit, and doesn't go as extreme as someone like Hiroyuki Imaishi, so it still sits well within the Dandy universe. The dance animation is fun and well animated without relying on reference material as in the previous dancing episode. We get to see hand-drawn animation of the Aloha Oe ship.
Kameda's Kanada-school lineage wasn't as obvious in his previous gigs such as FMA because the material was a little more serious, and his animation correspondingly more sharp and ferocious, but it's nice to see him let his hair down and have a go at more silly material for once. You can see the sporadic brush ink drawings that are something of his trademark here and there in this episode.
I like that Kameda's Kanada-school influence seems to harken back to the original. This feels like the good old Kanada, not so much the Gainax version. So you get character designs like Miranda, who looks like a character straight out of some Kanada's 1980s anime like Don De La Mancha episode 6. And things like a face drawn on the tonsils when Dandy screams, which is just generally a very 1980s gag. The dancing meanwhile reminds of the dance scene Kanada drew for Devilman episode 1. Other little details get the feeling right. For example, there's one shot around the midpoint where we see Miranda from the back looking at Ton Jravolta, and the way her hand is drawn really nails the way Kanada or Masahito Yamashita would have drawn it. It's one of their classic identifying traits.
Other characters are designed in a totally different way that's amusingly random. For some reason the head of the planet and his wife look like Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert from Isao Takahata's Anne of Green Gables (though they looked like Dokonjo Gaeru characters when the rejuvenated), while the record shop owner is the weird kid from Yoshiharu Tsuge's classic Neji-Shiki. They even put the word 'memekurage' on the record label in the ident. The three-headed bikini-clad dragon seems to be a Ghidora reference, so maybe he's a classic Godzilla fan to boot. And it's funny how every planet they seem to go to, even the ones light years away in some backwater of the universe, seem to wind up looking exactly like Japan. Matthew Cuthbert even wears geta.
The episode features a slew of playful animators drawing things in their own style - Kiyotaka Oshiyama, Michio Mihara, Toshiyuki Sato, Shingo Fujii, Hokuto Sakiyama, Yutaka Nakamura. I'm guessing Mihara drew at least part of the first meeting between Dandy & the Cuthberts, Oshiyama the record store scene, Nakamura the handful of crazy fast weird dance moves right before the Akira-esque apocalypse, Hokuto the black and white bits afterwards. Not sure about Toshiyuki Sato but maybe the dancing in the ring?
The weirdest part of the episode is the fact that Katsuhiro Otomo was involved. He came up with the whole concept of the seaweed-like organisms whose growth is accelerated to form the rings of light that destroy the planet. He's easily the biggest guest name yet, but the irony is that you would never have been able to guess that it was him based solely on the final product. He seems to have written at considerable length about the whole process in the design sheets posted on the home page, although they're too small to read. It's a weirdly earnest sci-fi concept sitting next to the silliness of Kameda's animation.
I suppose writer Nobumoto Keiko was saddled with the job of wrangling the two together and she did the best she could. Storyboarder Yoshitomo Yonetani does a great job cooking the episode into an entertaining stew. He previously did episode 9 of Lupin III: Fujiko. His trademark of always having a foreigner speaking bad Japanese is present in dancing alien Ton Jravolta.
Dandy wakes up on a strange planet and can't remember how he got there. He meets a clown-like creature and a mysterious girl who reveal to him the truth about the planet and his own fate...
This episode is basically a visual poem about death, and features some of the series' more surreal and enigmatic imagery. It's very different from any other episode, with its dark mood, disjointed storytelling and almost total absence of all the side-characters. Dark yet creative, melancholy yet whimsical, it's my kind of episode. The impenetrable imagery also happens to make it one of the more rewarding episodes to re-watch and try to figure out.
The great Yasuhiro Nakura is the force behind this delightfully aberrant vision of Dandy as character designer, storyboarder and director, although the episode was written by series director Shinichiro Watanabe. Yasuhiro Nakura was one of the first animation artists about whom I dedicated a whole post in this blog way back in 2004, as I was a huge fan of his work, particularly on less-well-known outings like Moomin, Memole (I translated the movie years before), The Acorns and the Wildcat and the Rampo short.
So again we have in the episode an artist-driven episode like Eunyoung Choi's episode 9, Masaaki Yuasa's episode 16 and Oshiyama Kiyotaka's episode 18. The series has a fantastic approach to delivering variety: the base pattern of Kimiko Ueno-style gag episodes is occasionally interspersed with more artist-driven episodes. It's the best of both worlds - an accessible show that nonetheless gives a handful of talented animators free rein.
The overarching story is relatively easy to parse, but the words (images) with which it's told are poetically opaque and impenetrable. Dandy was killed when the ship shifted and he hit his head as they approached planet Limbo, which is inhabited by the souls of the dead killed many centuries ago in a global war that wiped out the population. The girl he (his soul) meets is the incarnation of the world. The rest of the details are murky and probably aren't meant to be logically explained. Why does Dandy find himself floating down a river in a boat? Who are the two mysterious figures discussing how everything is headed towards destruction? The lutenist with no mouth who instead speaks through her instrument? What does that shell necklace represent? There were many fascinating scenes, but the one in the desert where Dandy's face is replaced by a skull and his boat goes up in flames was particularly striking.
I like that none of these have an explicit explanation but are more there to contribute to the lugubrious, oneiric atmosphere. In this sense it reminds me of the Licca-chan: Wondrous Yunia Story (1990) by Ajia-Do, whose fantastical and creative images don't need (indeed don't have) explanation. It's a rare treat to find an episode based purely on fanciful visual storytelling in a conventional studio-produced series.
The series has had its fair share of enigmatic endings, and this episode's ending is among the more memorable, with Dandy's ghost resigning itself to being dead and settling down on the planet, while his doppelgangers continue on their merry way in another dimension (another episode).
I liked that the song played by the lutenist is Pavane pour une enfant défunte by Ravel, which ties in perfectly to the theme of the episode not only musically but even in its inspiration. Also, since this is technically a sci-fi show, I appreciate when the episodes of Space Dandy have something of a sci-fi aspect, and aren't just slapstick parody episodes. This episode could be said to fall into that category, more or less, in the sense that it's about an advanced alien civilization that destroyed itself, and what happened to the world afterwards. It plays out as something of a bleak cautionary tale, on a scale far grander than the Mihara episode.
Of special note are the backgrounds, headed by immensely talented French artist Santiago Montiel, who recently worked as background artist for a film entitled Giovanni's Island that was released earlier this year. I can't think of another anime that has made better use of international talent. From the mysterious spires that are like antennae of a long-lost civilization, to the beautiful purple clouds rising above a red desert, his backgrounds create an incredibly vast and fantastical otherworldy space that you don't want to leave. He was kind enough to post a few of the backgrounds on his blog. I can't wait to see his work in Giovanni's Island. This is one of the standout episodes in the series in terms of background art. The importance of the background art makes sense for Nakura, who made a short entitled The Acorns and the Wildcat consisting entirely of background art and who in his latter years focused on illustration.
The episode would not achieve half its impact without his incredible images, as the animation is somewhat less convincing. The animation does not seem as creatively conceived as the background art. Yasuhiro Nakura is best known for his amazing work on Angel's Egg (1985) and then to a lesser extent The Tale of Genji (1987), but there is not much of the delicate grace of those films here, as he was not in charge of the animation. Nonetheless the episode is filled head to toe with beautifully immersive images, and the episode is the closest he's come to re-capturing the feeling of his brilliant Rampo short in the intervening 20 years. It's criminal negligence on the part of the anime industry to allow an animator as talented as Yasuhiro Nakura to languish for decades without a project into which to funnel his incredible imagination.
In terms of the animation, notable names included Hiroyuki Aoyama, Kenichi Fujisawa, Chikashi Kubota and Eddie Mehong, but the animation of the episode was for the most part fairly low-key without any real standout sections. It's probably for the best that the episode was lacking in animation grandstanding, as it would have been inappropriate for the episode's somber tone. I felt that Dandy looked different in this episode for some reason. Of course, he was given an expression of dead exhaustion presumably to mirror his mortal state, but he's also not very recognizable without his hair and clothes as identifiers.
I didn't notice this until now, but the music credits get switched up in every episode to indicate the contributors to that particular episode. That's something I've never seen before. Credit in this case should also go to Ogre You Asshole for the fantastic Popol Vuh-esque reverb-laden solo guitar music that helps give this episode its serene and chill atmosphere.