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I miss Group Tac, and it's films like this that are the reason.
The 11 Cats is a wonderful film - an exuberantly animated, colorful, imaginative, zany, witty, freewheeling adventure about a group of 11 cats out on an odyssey to find a giant fish for dinner.
For some baffling reason, this lovable and lovingly crafted film has fallen into complete obscurity, like several other great films from this era. It was never released on VHS or LD or any other consumer format. Thank the magic of the internet for bringing it back from the dead. (watch it here)
This is another film I never expected to see. But I'm glad I finally got the chance. It's the definition of a buried gem. It's hard to understand why it was so willfully neglected. Unlike many a film from 1980, this one doesn't show its age. Seen thirty years later, it still feels fresh and new. It's got a timeless sensibility and unique, universal design style. It's fun to watch from start to finish.
The 11 Cats was Group Tac's second movie, completed fully six years after their first, Jack and the Beanstalk. In my opinion, this is one of their best films alongside Jack and the Beanstalk (1974), Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985), Bonobono (1993), Spring and Chaos (1997) and A Stormy Night (2005). Alongside Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, these are the films that you should watch to get a sense of the unique style and sensibility of Group Tac.
The film was based on the first book in a long-running series of picture books about 11 cats who go on various adventures written/drawn by one Noboru Baba between 1968 and 1996. Group Tac even adapted the second book in the series, The 11 Cats and the Albatross, in 1986. The books are perennial best-sellers, so it's baffling that nobody thought to make these films available for viewing after their theatrical release. I'm sure there would have been continuous interest in these two animated adaptations of the books even if they weren't good films in their own right, which they are.
Though you wouldn't know it based on the anime that gets focused on by fans, there have been a lot of films of this kind produced over the years. Films that don't adhere to the anime aesthetic. It's heartwarming to think that this film was made smack in the midst of the anime boom. That's why I like Group Tac.
What is it that makes this film so delightful? It's partly the heavy use of music. It's kind of a musical anime. There's not so much a score as interludes. The narrative alternates between the story of the cats moving along on their journey towards the ocean to find the big fish and musical set pieces that showcase fun animated antics and creative visual flights of fancy.
For example, in one scene, the cats find an island of catnip. The cats all get high on catnip and don't want to leave. Their eyes look all drugged out, and the bizarre visuals - the cats flying around and hallucinating about flying whales - have the obvious undertone of an acid trip. Group Tac made another film a few years later called (ahem) Noel's Fantasic Trip. And let's not forget the trippy tone of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Sanrio Films had been making great films in this vein in the 1970s, with films like Little Jumbo and Joe and the Rose. Of course, Group Tac had themselves made a musical with Jack and the Beanstalk in the 1970s, but the inspiration of The 11 Cats seems to harken back to the same kind of freewheeling, colorful, psychedelic graphic style seen in The Yellow Submarine that was a clear inspiration for Little Jumbo. The 11 Cats has that same very hand-drawn style and overall focus on creative animation and eye-poppingly colorful storybook visuals, rather than on more typical character-based narrative storytelling like Jack and the Beanstalk. Group Tac kind of took over that role in the early 1980s for a short time with these films.
The art is really colorful and imaginative thanks to the work of Minoru Aoki, who also rendered services on the second installment six years later. His vivid, simple, beautiful backgrounds make the film look like a moving picture book. The oasis scene in particular has some of the film's most pleasing visuals, with the vibrant color schemes of the flowery jungle. The villages, meanwhile, are painted in a lovely and pleasing naif style that reminds a bit of the style of Night on the Galactic Railroad.
This film was actually novel technically in the sense that everything was done on cels. The backgrounds were painted on cels rather than on regular paper. That's what gives the film such a sense of visual unity. It's all the same flat colors as the original picture book. Minoru Aoki adapted himself brilliantly to this style, with its reduced color palette and solid colors.
The music itself isn't just any music, it's by Hitoshi Komuro, who was one of the lead figures behind the legendary folk-rock band Rokumonsen that was active in the early 70s and beyond in various configurations. Their song Ame ga Sora Kara Fureba (If Rain Falls from the Sky) (1970) was one of their big hits. Komuro's music has a great funky folk-rock vibe that goes a tremendous way to making the film's animated sequences so fun. I think it must have been Atsumi Tashiro who was behind this, both as the producer and the audio director of the film. Jack and the Beanstalk also had an outstanding, ripping soundtrack.
Atsumi Tashiro was creative in his role as audio director. In addition to doing great work with the music, he chose interesting people to voice-act the films. Jack had a host of unusual names in the voices, which he presumably either learned or first did while working on the Animerama films at Mushi Pro, which had a lot of strange ideas for casting and unexpected cameos. For example, novelists Endo Shusaku, Sakyo Komatsu and Yasutaka Tsutui have cameos in Cleopatra. One of the things that makes Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi so great is that Atsumi Tashiro came up with the idea to use only two voice-actors in every episode - Etsuko Ichihara and Fujio Tokita - and to let them improvise much of their dialogue rather than reading from a script.
The film has a unique sensibility overall that's hard to put your finger on. It's a combination of everything - unique cat characters, the lively animation, the good directing, the funky music, the vivid art, the smart script and natural voice-acting. The simple layouts and cartoonish visuals especially go a long way towards giving the films its character, with the reduced detail in the lines and especially no shadows.
I'm guessing the voices were recorded presco rather than afreco - i.e. before rather than after, as the dialogue sounds very different somehow from the usual anime voice-acting. The voice's impetus comes from the dialogue, not from the visuals. It sounds very different when you get an actor to play out a script using only his or her imagination than when they have to read the dialogue while watching the animation and make it fit. There's one voice I particularly like - Hiroko Maruyama. She played the boy Gon in Hajime Ningen Gyators. I can't get enough of her high-pitched, raspy, squealy voice. Every word she says puts a grin on my face.
I love the cat characters. They're just so fun to watch. The dynamic between the 11 cats is great. They usually get along, but occasionally they'll have fights. But when they go their separate ways, they can't get anything done. There's obviously a message buried in the story about sticking together to accomplish things.
I didn't like Noel's Fantastic Trip as much as this film because it feels kind of too kiddy and patsy. The 11 Cats doesn't feel like that at all. It's got a witty and wry sense of humor that makes it appealing to adult viewers. That's what I think is great about it - it's just naturally appealing to all ages. They didn't strive to bridge the divide or something.
The simple designs allow the animators to get into moving them. The very first shot of the film where the cop cat picks up the slips of paper in a flurry is great in that regard, though not much of the film is quite as lovingly animated as that first shot. But it's quite remarkable how much more animation they pack into this film than into most anime. The fun of the film is about watching the cat characters zoom around doing things.
It's a thoroughly animated film. There's always something fun going on with the animation from shot to shot, be it a gag or one of the cats doing some little thing off to the side different from everyone else. The scenes are creatively choreographed, and the different cat characters all have different expressions and behavior.
I assume it's Teruto Kamiguchi we have to thank for the good feeling of this film's animation. It's very much in his style - highly movemented and fun simple character animation. He doesn't get much recognition, but I think he was one of the cooler animators of the 1970s, with a really unique style not too influenced by most of the typical things that influenced other industry animators - robots, big-eyed shoujos or what not. His animation feels much more influenced by cartoons, if anything.
Kamiguchi is credited as the "chief animator" rather than as the animation director, which would seem to suggest that his role wasn't correcting the drawings but rather guiding the animators spiritually in his own very unique approach to animation. And clearly it worked, because the whole film feels infused of his sensibility towards movement.
I'm not familiar with many of the animators, but presumably they were Tac people. For example, Group Tac's Iga no Kabamaru from 1983-84 had character design by Akio Hosotani, and the opening was animated by Tameo Kohanawa and Takamitsu Yukawa. Tameo Kohanawa directed the second 11 Cats film for Group Tac. Eguchi Marisuke and Jiro Saruyama both worked on Night on the Galactic Railroad. Many of the other animators worked on Noel's Fantastic Trip in 1983. Hideo Kawauchi and Michishiro Yamada, meanwhile, were both Ajia-Do animators.
Takamitsu Yukawa is an interesting case. I've known him as the guy who helped animate indie animator Taku Furuyama's films. It turns out he was one of the leaders of the legendary animation group Anido, and the one who came up with the idea for their seminal animation magazine Film 1/24. He also ran his own group called Flafra. I don't know whether he was an employee of Tac, but he appears to have been a regular on their productions. He storyboarded and animated the stork catcher scene in Night on the Galactic Railroad, and was even one of the "special animators" in Spring and Chaos.
All of the main staff were Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regulars. And not coincidentally, all of them worked at Mushi Pro before transferring to Group Tac after Mushi Pro went out of business. Atsumi Tashiro had worked on all of the same Mushi Pro shows. Thus, from a staff perspective, like Gon, the Little Fox, The 11 Cats is another theatrical companion-piece to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.
Director Shiro Fujimoto was born in 1942. He joined Mushi Pro in 1965, and worked on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi from 1976 to 1982. After this he left animation to focus on painting and picture books, which had been his real passion all along. In addition, for many years now, he has been travelling around the world painting the landscapes he finds in different countries and holding exhibitions of his work in Japan. Apparently he confided in someone at a later date that he had done directing on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi against his will and really wanted to be doing art. Which is ironic, because the episodes he directed are among the best in the show, and helped define the show's spirit.
During his Mushi Pro days, Shiro Fujimoto was the art director of Goku no Daiboken (1967), directed by Gisaburo Sugii just one year before Sugii co-founded Group Tac with Atsumi Tashiro. He was the layout man on Ribon no Kishi (1967), which featured Teruto Kamiguchi as the animation director - one of their earliest collaborations. At Group Tac, one of the fist things Shiro Fujimoto did was to act as one of the art directors of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Chief animator Teruto Kamiguchi began his career in animation as an inbetweener on Toei Doga's third feature film Journey to the West (1960). He continued working as an inbetweener on Toei Doga's first TV anime Wolf Boy Ken (1963).
He soon left to join Mushi Pro. While there, he was the animation director of Ribon no Kishi (1967) and Dororo (1967). He was an animator in the first two Animerama films, 1001 Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). In Cleopatra he did a great job animating the character Lupa. Lupa was a scene-stealer right from his first appearance. I love the gag where his spots fall off later on in the boat. You don't see cartoonish gags like that very often in anime. His animation was so much looser and freer and more imaginative and playful than any of his peers. He was clearly one of the most talented animators of that generation in Japan.
He soon moved to Group Tac, where he animated the giant Tulip in Jack and the Beanstalk (1974). Tulip is a great character, doltish yet menacing, and you can see a lot of the very same kind of playful, imaginative, flexible character animation that made Lupa so fun in the animation of the giant, particularly the funny climactic chase.
Both Teruto Kamiguchi and Shiro Fujimoto were very active on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi as soon as it started in 1975. Kamiguchi was probably one of the show's most prolific animators. He animated and/or directed more than 100 episodes. (some of Teruto Kamiguchi's episodes) His episodes also happen to be among the ones that move the most. A lot of the show's episodes are quite still, but his are incredibly fluid and have fun action sequences. The Three Charms is a good example of his more movemented style of animation. The designs are great, too. This episode was directed by Gisaburo Sugii and features art by Minoru Aoki, the art director of The 11 Cats. Minoru Aoki also was a prolific contributor to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. He did well over 100 episodes. (some of Minoru Aoki's episodes)
Shiro Fujimoto did a more diverse array of things on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi than most people. He mixed it up, doing directing sometimes, art sometimes, both sometimes, and even animating a bit. (some of Shiro Fujimoto's episodes) For some reason he also used the pen name Shiro Marufu on some episodes. Shiro Fujimoto worked with Teruto Kamiguchi and Minoru Aoki at various times on different episodes.
A second film adapting the second book in Baba Noboru's picture book series was released by Group Tac in 1986. I haven't seen it, but judging by the opening and ending, it's fairly different in animation tone, albeit subtly so. I assume the difference is because Night on the Galactic Ralroad and Stormy Night designer Marisuke Eguchi was at the head of the animators this time around.
The 11 Cats (1980, 83 mins)
Based on the 1967 picture book of the same name by Baba Noboru
Produced by Group Tac
Director: Shiro Fujimoto
Animation Director: Tsuneo Maeda
Music: Hitoshi Komuro
Art Director: Minoru Aoki
Title Design: Takao Kodama
Audio Director: Atsumi Tashiro
Chief Animator: Teruto Kamiguchi
The 11 Cats and the Albatross (1986, 90 min)
Based on the 1972 picture book of the same name by Baba Noboru
Produced by Group Tac
Director: Tameo Kohanawa
Animation: Marisuke Eguchi
Script: Yoshitake Suzuki
Art Director: Minoru Aoki
Music: Hideki Shinozaki
Inbetween check: Jiro Saruyama
I’ll watch that movie too and ‘I am sure I will like it.
Noel’s Fantastic Trip was broadcasted abroad in some countries, also in mine.
watching all these now obscure films is like watching Japanese animation history itself.
Those years television for children and adults regarding animation was much more experimental and open to such films.
I saw that both 11 cats films were also dubbed into German and were available on vhs. And some viewers desperately want to rewatch the films.
Some Europeans distributors had the same thoughts with you Ben, it seems
I agree, many of my favorite anime films are films made for children in the 70s and 80s. They were so much more creative and free to play around and try different looks and styles in those films. I’ve always hated that anime always has to look like anime. This film is so un-anime-looking it’s awesome.
Thanks for that link. That’s bizarre that they’d not be released in Japan but be available in Germany.
It’s nice to see another clip from the second movie. I don’t know, though, the second movie doesn’t look as good. Nice, but doesn’t feel the same as the first. Feels more ordinary and not as edgy. It’s probably partly Tameo Kohanawa’s directing in addition to the absence of Teruto Kamiguchi’s way with the character animation.
Talking about old and obscure films from past decades:
Ben, are you familiar with this film?
Yes, I noticed that one on Youtube. I’d heard of it and always been curious to see it, but again that one is really hard to find so I never expected to be able to see it. I was considering writing about it too. :) There are a few notable names in the credits. Though honestly it doesn’t look as interesting as some of the other obscurities. Amazing what is turning up these days.
The same guy even uploaded Little Jumbo. I’m tempted to send him my English translation so he can add the subs and it can finally be seen by western people.
I believe Little Jumbo has already been fansubbed. Joe no Bara remains untranslated.