Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: July 2004, 25

Sunday, July 25, 2004

10:42:13 am , 3312 words, 11011 views     Categories: Animation

Toei Doga

"Well we knocked the bastard off."

Only Alouette isn't Everest, and I wasn't the first one. Spent 8 hours walking the round-trip 40 kilometer Alouette peak trail yesterday, and made it to the top this time. While at the top I gazed down on the ants swarming on the shore of Garibaldi lake far below filled with feelings best passed over in silence and suggested with a picture:

Él (Buñuel, 1952)

Not really, but I love that scene.

Perhaps not coincidentally in a year that sees the release of an unprecedented number of major new anime films, this summer Tokyo offers a number of interesting events dealing with the history of anime. As an adjunct to the MOMA screening series I mentioned before, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo is currently showing an exhibition entitled 日本漫画映画の全貌 (Nihon Manga Eiga no Zenbo / A Survey of Japanese Animated Films), which proposes to shed an intimate light on the history of the animated film in Japan from its earliest beginnings in 1917 to the current day by offering visitors an opportunity to get up close and personal with a range of the original materials used to create these films, including key animation, image boards and storyboards.

Excerpts from a large sampling of these films will be shown in the viewing room together with a rarely-seen documentary on the history of anime made by one of Japan's preeminent authorities on the subject, Takashi Namiki, who has long been famous as a serious collector of historic anime films. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi will also be shown, and even more surprisingly so will Howl's Moving Castle (the first screening anywhere?), to illustrate the continuity between the old anime films and the new.

This begs the question. Why Miyazaki's films and no others? The answer is: The broadly accepted interpretation of Studio Ghibli is that it is the only studio with a direct link to anime's past by reason that its founding members were trained at Toei Doga; hence in theory making it the only authentic inheritor of the mantle of the manga eiga. The weight of truth in the assertion is obvious, and I don't deny it, but it feels a little forced and too obvious. I think there's no reason to be so dogmatic. The question is rather more complex than one of mere personal connections.

That said, I happen to be a big fan of the Toei Doga films, so far be it for me to disagree.

When I speak of "Toei Doga films" I mean the films made between roughly 1958 and 1972, which is the period when these movies were good, being that during which Mori, Takahata, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Kotabe et al. were working at the studio.

Hence it seems a little odd, Studio Ghibli being the king of the hill among western fans and all, that the Toei Doga films should remain so utterly unknown. Aside from a few fansubs -- and how many people see those?? a drop in the bucket, that's how many -- consciousness of the films remains about as low as it was when I saw my first Toei Doga film almost a decade ago. It took that long for ME to see one, so I can't really blame others. The narrowness of American anime interest obliterates the chances of anything appearing on the market that doesn't fit within the confines of accepted taste.

Let it be noted that in this case the French retain the moral high ground (in more ways than one at the moment). Late last year I recall hearing stories from my French connection about an incredible anime festival showing many of the old Toei Doga films along with lots of other obscure stuff I would never have associated with an anime festival in the US. Only recently did I run across the website of the Nouvelles Images Du Japon 2003 and see for myself the incredible lineup: the five most important Toei Doga films, Gauche the Cellist, Jarinko Chie, Oshii's obscure Nils Holgersson, Ideon (IMO the greatest robot anime of all time), the international premiere of Winter Days, plus all the most interesting recent anime films, and a long selection of independent shorts, to say nothing of the incredible guest panel: Isao Takahata, Satoshi Kon, Yoichi Kotabe, Koji Yamamura, Kihachiro Kawamoto.

I'm honestly disappointed that the Ottawa Animation Festival 2004 opted for a Miyazaki retrospective rather than something else with at least a shred of originality. Don't get me wrong. Getting Miyazaki as a household name in the west has been every otaku's wet dream for years. But who the bloody hell hasn't seen these films by now? Surely other films are more deserving of the precious publicity of an animation festival. But I gather this is a question of the delicate balance between garnering supporters and attracting crowds.

With this long preamble out of the way, I'll get to the point of this post. I thought I would take this as an opportunity to talk about all of the Toei Doga films, from the first (Hakujaden) to the last good one (Puss 'n Boots II), since I gather I'm one of the few fans in the west who's had a chance to see them all. And doing so took no small effort, from bidding for LDs on Yahoo! Auctions Japan to digging up obscure English dubs on VHS on eBay.

Although a book could and eventually should be written in English about Toei Doga and its place in animation history, here I'll have to content myself with some passing comments about what makes these films interesting using the little bit of knowledge I've managed to remember from perusal of the few Japanese sources I've run across, the main one being Yasuo Otsuka's essential and excellent autobiography Sakuga Ase Mamire, which absolutely deserves to be translated into English. In this book we get the honest lowdown on what the staff thought about what they were doing, not just the hagiography of the old Toei-published history -- useful though it is for statistics.

Really I could start at any point following the end of the war, with the short films produced by animation studio Nippon Dogasha, aka Nichido, but not having seen any of them, I will skim over them and jump to the first film produced after Nichido was purchased by the film studio Toei, namely Kitty's Graffiti (こねこのらくがき / Koneko no Rakugaki, 1957).

This film probably gives a good idea of what the Nichido films were like, because the staff is essentially the same (Yasuji Mori, Taiji Yabushita, Akira Daikubara, etc.), whereas the next film, the full-length feature Panda and the Magic Serpent, benefited from the first wave of animator hirings, which included luminaries like Gisaburo Sugii, Reiko Okuyama, Makoto Nagasawa and Taku Sugiyama (one exception being Yasuo Otsuka, who came in a bit earlier; his first work as an animator was drawing the cat instructor walking around the corner after scolding Kitty in Kitty's Graffiti).

Don't let the fact that it's in black and white deter you; this is one of the most delightful, charming and unforgettable animated shorts I've ever seen, and remains one of my favorites. There is so much SOUL in this film. Watching this one film makes it perfectly clear why Yasuji Mori is renowned as a master animator. The story is eminently simple, but full of tons of warmly humorous and imaginative ideas that are carried off flawlessly: little Kitty (think little Jimmy) draws some scribbles on the wall of the school, and in his guilt-ridden daydreams they come alive and lead him off into a series of wonderful adventures involving runaway graffiti trains, chicken scratch traffic jams and an army of mice in bubbles!

The great thing is that it's not just cute, there's a brilliantly self-deprecating, knowing, gentle irony lurking there behind the delicate humor at all times, so that despite the simple subject matter there's real depth there -- sort of akin to that profoundly moving gentle irony in Ozu's films.

This film is in fact the perfect starting point for an appreciation of Toei Doga films because Mori was one of the most important staff members throughout the entire period, as an animation director, character designer and animator. Not only was he responsible for the animation of all the animal characters in the early films, but he was the first person in Japan to design all of the characters in a film, and also the first person to supervise the animation of an entire film as the sakuga kantoku or animation director.

In my opinion, Yasuji Mori is the soul of the Toei Doga films.

(Note that I'm using the common English dub titles for these films to keep things consistent, even though there are some that I'm not happy with, like "Little Norse Prince" - feh. What a shit-ass title for one of the greatest anime films ever. You can see the translated titles by clicking on the link to see more details about the film.)

1958: Panda and the Magic Serpent (白蛇伝 / Hakujaden)

What makes the first full-length color anime feature great? Besides the fact that it works as a movie after all these years, the animation is thoroughly engaging and well-crafted, the atmosphere is beguiling, the characters are interesting, and the story is universal (Romeo & Juliet), the ambition with which it was made still comes through loud and clear. To strike a tone of reconciliation with the Asian neighbors Japan had so brutally treated in the recent past, Toei president Hiroshi Okawa decided on a Chinese story for this film, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of Japan, the historic implications of which he fully understood.

Starting with this film Okawa set out to make Toei Doga the Disney of the East, but what impresses is that he really understood what that meant; that it meant not just copying Disney, but beginning from scratch as Disney had done and building up a store of animation knowhow from which to build a legacy upon. That meant hiring real animators who knew their craft, having these animators transmit their knowhow to newcomers, and continuing this process in order to discover new techniques and continuously improve their films. And that, ultimately, is the legacy that comes down to us to this day in the form of the films of Studio Ghibli.

Though the animation is understandably lacking in the refinement and detail that would come bit by bit with the films that immediately followed, it should be remembered that all of the key animation here was drawn by TWO PEOPLE, the two main animators from Nichido: Yasuji Mori, who did the animals, and Akira Daikubara, who did the humans. Lest one think that asking two people to provide all the ideas for a film's movement would result in a thinness of ideas, I need merely point to the fight scene, animated entirely by Yasuji Mori, which is quite possibly the single best piece he ever did, and in my opinion the best in the film; and to any number of other scenes like the part where the wooden dragon takes off, and the fight in mid-air, which are breathtakingly beautiful to behold even after all these years.

I've seen both the dub and the original for this one, and the dub is pretty good, as I recall. The original is impressive because two voice-actors provided all of the voices. It's part of the mystique of the original: All these twos.

1959: Magic Boy (少年猿飛佐助 / Shonen sarutobi sasuke)

The second Toei Doga film has been seen on cable TV in the US in recent years, so it obviously achieved a measure of the international appeal Toei Doga was looking for, though I'm guessing there's a degree of simple exoticism behind this.

The film tells the story of a country boy in medieval Japan who sets out to learn magic with a sennin, mountain ascetic, to defeat a gang of marauding bandits led by an evil witch.

Here we find Toei Doga plunging into the realm of the historical fantasy adventure spectacular, and the film is just plain fun to watch, great entertainment with lots of variety and action, but strangely, while it's a step forward from Hakujaden in terms of the animation, it seems to be a step backwards in terms of the content. Apparently this is attributable purely to Toei politics. The original script was transformed at a late stage in production into a simple bad-guy-vs-good-guy story at the behest of Toei execs who wanted to cash in on the popular formula Toei had been putting to use at the time in their live-action jidaigeki movies. There was widespread discontent among the animators because of this.

Standout scenes in the film include the banquet of the animals, drawn by Yasuji Mori, and the giant salamander & the witch's skeleton, both the work of Yasuo Otsuka. Right here in his first assignment as a key animator he draws scenes that distinguish themselves from those in the rest of the film by their minute attention to detail, density of animation, and strict realism of movement and drawing.

Unfortunately this one I've only seen in dubbed form, so I'm missing a lot of the nuance in the animation that arose from the very specific reactions that each animator brought to his animation of his scene from instant to instant based on each word of the dialogue recorded by the voice-actors, which is definitely a major aspect of the appeal of the animation in this film. (This equation has since changed now that dialogue is recorded after the animation.) Another reason to always watch anime in the original. Whether the dub is "good" or "bad" is hence irrelevant. It's a senseless burden that cripples proper appreciation of the animation.

1960: Alakazam the Great! (西遊記 / Saiyuki)

(Mike Toole wrote a good review of this film for Anime Jump, so I refer you to his review to learn more about this film.)

With this third installment we reach the zenith in quality in the very early Toei Doga films. Not only were there more animators involved in this film, but they had now made definite progress, and were motivated by Tezuka Osamu's appealing designs (slightly modified to make them easier to animate) to produce even more interesting and free animation than before.

Animation hilights include the various sections animated by Yasuo Otsuka, who had by now been pegged as the guy to turn to if you've got something really hairy and complicated and violent to animate. These include the volcanic eruption, the swordfight with the scorpion, and the bullfight at the end. Sadao Tsukioka, one of the genius animators of this early period, also did his first key animation in this film -- the striptease by the female monster near the end.

The most important hilight of the film, though, in terms of inherent quality, and in terms of having had a fateful determining influence on the choice of what to do for the next film, was the section animated by Yasuji Mori, where Rin-Rin visits Goku in his prison. The pathos and the remarkable degree of life and presence that Mori manages to breathe into the depiction of Rin-Rin trudging through the snow before toppling over in exhaustion and cold -- the feeling that you're really watching a living being there on the screen, not just a two-dimensional drawing -- has lost none of its power to amaze after more than 40 years, and is truly one of the best scenes to grace any Toei film.

This scene in fact so impressed the execs at Toei that they decided they wanted to go in that direction for the next film. They wanted to make a human tragedy featuring more realistic characters moving in a realistic fashion, just like Mori's scene. This is what led to...

1961: The Littlest Warrior (安寿と厨子王丸 / Anju to zushiomaru)

Which is why it's so interesting that the main animators involved in the film, including Mori, repudiated the film immediately upon its completion with a vehemence bordering on anger for having been duped into taking part in the project. I actually enjoyed it on first watching, but they make so many good points in their statements (reproduced in Sakuga Ase Mamire) that it kind of makes you embarrassed for not having noticed them. About the way it glorifies passive acceptance of injustice. About the way it tells kids that the best thing you can do is bear suffering stoically rather than try to do something about it. That it's OK to step on others to achieve your goals. That the ruling class is all-knowing -- trust them, they know what's best for you.

A downright infuriating film if you think about it. And Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, a version of the same Ogai Mori story, is a brilliant, complex and multilayered film that treats the very same material in an entirely compelling and humane and moving fashion, so it's not accountable to the material. There was something rotten in the planning of this film, with its shit-for-brains adaptation and laa-dee-daa ending, and it smells like money. I like the basic premise, and I think there's something in there that could make a good animated film, if you had someone who only knew what they were doing at the head, say, Takahata, so it's all the more disappointing.

1962: The Adventures of Sinbad (アラビアンナイト·シンドバッドの冒険 / Arabian naito shindobatto no boken)

The next film, on the other hand, I disliked right on the first viewing. It's probably my least favorite of the classic Toei Doga films. It's just plain boring. They tried to develop the realism of Anju further in this one, but it's a half-assed realism and consequently totally misses the mark, neither fish nor fowl. Despite that, certain gains were made in terms of animation technique with this film that would go on to feed the later films, and that is probably its main virtue. Specifically, the animation of the water in the climax, by (who else?) Otsuka Yasuo, acheived a degree of detail that was a new watermark for the studio, which had until then not been particularly known for its effects animation.

1963: Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon (わんぱく王子の大蛇退治 / Wanpaku oji no orochi taiji)

Now we come to one of the all-time anime masterpieces, a film that holds the distinction of being the film that introduced the animation director system into anime (whereby one person corrects all the drawings by the key animators in order to eliminate minor differences and keep the characters looking the same throughout the film). But that's not necessarily what's great about it to anybody who watches it. The designs are great. The color is great. The music is great. The story is great. The animation is great. The finale is incredible. It's probably the first Toei Film film that comes together as a totally satisfying and integral whole.

The animation hilight of this film is the final scene of the hydra, animated by Yasuo Otsuka together with Sadao Tsukioka. Otsuka had pursued realism since he began as an animator, basing his animation on close observation of the reality around him -- for example, observing and drawing actual catfish in preparation for animating the scene with the giant fish in Magic Boy. But there are no 8-headed dragons in the real world to study, so how to draw one? Reality in this scene is evoked by the tension produced by careful timing and framing of the action unfolding on the screen in one continuous flow over the course of several minutes.

There are many other great scenes -- the fight with the tiger early on, the dance scene. This is the first film in which most of the film is totally satisfying in terms of the animation, with interesting movement and appealing and original designs.

...well it looks like I bit off more than I can chew, so I'll finish this tomorrow.