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, 26

Monday, July 26, 2004

09:19:12 pm , 3514 words, 12775 views     Categories: Animation

Toei Doga -- pt. 2

(Continued from the previous post)

1963: Doggie March (わんわん忠臣蔵 / Wan wan chushingura)

Regular hirings had by now inflated the number of employees at Toei Doga to over 450, so the animation department was split into two sections, and from here on out two films were in production at the same time. This film and the next film were the first two slated for production under the new system, but while Doggie March went ahead on schedule, due to the unexpected arrival of TV anime in the form of Tetsuwan Atom at the same time, Gulliver wound up being pushed back so that the second section could focus on coming up with a competitive response. That response came in the form of Sadao Tsukioka's Ken the Wolf Boy (狼少年ケン / Okami shonen ken), which was followed up by Yasuji Mori's Hustle Punch. The TV era was here. And it signalled the beginning of the end for Toei Doga's traditional feature animation.

Interestingly enough, the very film produced while the other section of Toei Doga was working on a counterpunch to Tezuka's Atom Boy was based on a story idea by Osamu Tezuka himself. This goes to suggest that there was a certain respect for Toei Doga's acheivement on Tezuka's part, a willingness to learn what they had to offer and to put it to use, and not merely the spirit of rivalry and opposition that seems to get emphasized whenever the Toei Doga-Mushi Pro story gets talked about.

Hayao Miyazaki, who was an inbetweener in this film, was picked up in the last wave of hirings done in April of 1963. From here on out Toei Doga stopped hiring and switched to a "Unit Production System" -- meaning they began outsourcing animation to small production companies.

This is probably the only major Toei Doga film of the period that I haven't seen. While it is certainly one of the minor films, it's not without its merits, as at the very least the animation of the water by Yoichi Kotabe in his scene in the film (his first full-fledged key animation) reportedly remains one of Toei Doga's strongest pieces of animation.

1965: Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon (ガリバーの宇宙旅行 / Garibaa no uchu ryoko)

Production on this film was restarted in March 1964. Not one of Toei Doga's best films, but neither is it one of their worst. I thoroughly enjoyed the film for its refreshing sci-fi subject matter, a first for Toei Doga, and the wonderful Little Prince-influenced geometric robot designs by Hideo Furusawa. And by now everybody knows the justly famous story about how a certain hotheaded young upstart, just hired, just doing his first inbetween animation, came up with a totally different ending for the climactic scene in the film where the hero rescues the princess, and successfully managed to convince the director to use it, despite still technically being a lowly inbetweener. That one additional shot completely changed the meaning of the entire film, which revealed this newcomer's uncommon gifts. (The scene in question was animated by Makoto Nagasawa.)

Not only does this speak volumes about Miyazaki's talent, but I think it speaks volumes about the climate of artistic openness at Toei Doga during this early period. One of the things that most impressed me about their production system was that every staff member, regardless of rank, was actively solicited for ideas and encouraged to make suggestions if they felt they had any ideas that might be beneficial to the film; if people liked the idea, it was put to use, simple as that. That's how most of the characters in Little Prince got designed.

Although I've never read anything to confirm this anywhere, I've always suspected that the scene on the spaceship where the characters go through a bunch of wacky deformations in zero gee was inbetweened by Miyazaki, because it's like no other part in the film, and stylistically feels very much like him.

1967: Jack and the Witch (少年ジャックと魔法使い / Shonen jakku to mahotsukai)

If this section 2 production comes across as decidedly lacking in the animation department, it's because most of the important animators were busy at work on Horus, on which production had been progressing since October 1965, when the project was given the green light. The strain of the two-section production system begins to become evident. In fact, I'd say this is the worst animated of the classic Toei Doga films. But it is a fairly good film, in its own unique way. Despite the uncharacteristically stodgy animation, we have here a film with interesting character designs, good music, a fun story, but most of all very daring abstract background art by Reiji Koyama, the famous modern art painter hired here for another stint as the art director after the excellent work he did for Little Prince. The animation, full of strangely cartoonish touches like the undulating car, is quite unique for a Toei Doga film, and does have a certain appeal, though it feels like a failed experiment more than anything.

1968: The World of Hans Christian Andersen (アンデルセン物語 / Anderusen monogatari)

The next film fully exposes the pattern of decline. The animation for this film is fuller than that for Jack, but the story, the character design, and the execution of the film are all incredibly devoid of taste, and the film is eminently forgettable. We have here, for the first time, a film slavishly patterned after the Disney musical, after Toei Doga had already clearly shown that they understood that slavish imitation was not what made great animated films. The concept is not necessarily a bad one (though it is very self-limiting), but it is badly executed. Again the two saving graces are the art directing and the music, both by the same two people as in the previous film. With a little generosity the film can be watched and enjoyed, but it takes great patience to endure the design of characters like Uncle Ole, and for me that's the film's fatal flaw.

1968: Little Norse Prince (太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険 / Taiyo no oji horusu no daiboken)

After a few years in the desert, we arrive in Canaan.

What to think of the film? For Toei Doga it was an albatross. Over budget, over schedule, not a chuckle in the entire film. Instead, a deep and dark meditation on the duty of the individual in society. Disgusted, with no idea what they had on their hands, they shirked on the publicity, and it flopped at the box office. Takahata was ousted for good.

For the rest of us, though, Horus was and remains a symbol of everything that is great about anime; the first harbinger of its true potential. A film that simultaneously broke the mold of the Toei Doga film and crowned its apotheosis.

Rarely in the history of the animated film has there been a more cogent example of the content of a film mirroring the ideals and experiences of the people on the production floor. Here we had a studio packed with a new generation of fervent young animators fresh from the experience of having grown up amid the desolation of the surrender, fueled by the new ideals of democracy and socialism, eager to express their values in their work, to make a difference.

Toei Doga furnished them with a compatably democratic workplace that offered the promise of a genuine share of the artistic input into the final product. That doesn't mean that the path towards enlightenment was strewn with roses. It meant a give and take learning process on the part of both parties, with times of tentative testing of the new relationship (Magic Boy) followed by tragic but inevitable momentary losses for the workers/wins for the bosses (Littlest Warrior), swiftly followed by a backlash of angry demands for improved conditions on the part of the workers, abutting in negotiations leading to new and greater gains for the workers (Little Prince), only to be followed by ominous doldrums during which both parties could only stand by and watch helplessly as the social conditions providing the groundwork for their cooperative idyll crumbled down around them (Andersen).

Horus arrived at the end of this string of tribulations like the handshake that closes Metropolis.

The struggle portrayed in Hols was a symbolic expression of the union activities that Takahata, Otsuka and many of the other employees had been extremely passionate about since their entry into Toei Doga. Soon after joining the company in 1963, Takahata proved his mettle to the execs by his dynamic attitude and masterly directing in Ken the Wolf Boy, and earned the unqualified trust of his fellow employees, leaving little doubt that he was soon to be appointed to the task of directing one of the feature films -- an uncommonly rapid accession to that post in the stricty heirarchical Toei.

Starting from the choice of a text, a puppet play called The Sun Above Chikisani based on the legends of the Ainu -- the oppressed and nearly obliterated First Nations of Japan -- it becomes clear that Takahata approached this task with the utmost seriousness, as an opportunity to express solidarity with the colonized and the oppressed, to express the themes of his generation: democracy, egality and solidarity, and finally to create a damned incredible moviegoing experience like nobody had ever seen before.

With the entire staff enthusiastically behind him and ready for the task, his sub-lieutenant Yasuo Otsuka by his side, he set off on this mad quest to drag a steamboat over a mountain, to build an animation pyramid leading to the heavens. They were ready to follow Takahata to hell to get this film done. And that's just where they found themselves.

Takahata had to fight tooth and nail for every scrap. The first loss was the title, followed by the Ainu trappings. The execs feared that a story about Ainu would either bore or scare people, so they were forced to change the setting to Scandinavia. Then they were behind schedule. They were using too many cels. Takahata was losing credibility fast, and the clock was ticking. By the end he'd been forced to cut more than half an hour off of a film where every second was absolutely essential, because the execs feared people wouldn't come to a 120 minute animated movie. Add to this the two scenes they simply didn't have time enough to animate, and Takahata was feeling roundly defeated by the time the film was released.

Whatever flaws it may have, the film towers above any contemporary anime film -- and above most that are made today -- in terms of entertainment value, in terms of philosophy, in terms of character depth, in terms of animation, and most of all in terms of directing. Needless to say, Takahata's ambition has since been vindicated hundredfold by the rise of Ghibli and the admiration and praise his films there have garnered around the globe.

To me, this extraordinary film is more than just a first step towards Ghibli. It's one of the most incredible directing debuts in animated film history, and still one of the handful of great anime films of all time, for its unsurpassed inherent quality and its historical significance.

In terms of the animation, no contest: Horus has the best animation of any Toei Doga film, by lightyears. To mention only the most stunning examples: The fight with the big fish animated by Otsuka Yasuo is in the opinion of many of today's most important animators (including Satoru Utsunomiya) one of the greatest fight scenes ever drawn in anime. And Hilda, designed by Yasuji Mori and animated entirely by Yasuji Mori throughout the film, was the single most psychologically penetrating animation of a character to grace any Japanese animation up until that point. She still is. Her performance is Oscar-worthy and then some. If Mori was the soul of Toei Doga, then Hilda is the soul of Horus.

1969: Puss 'n Boots (長靴をはいた猫 / Nagagutsu wo haita neko)

Following Horus there was a hiatus in the decline as the vast momentum built up by the staff during production of Horus was unleashed with full force into three of Toei Doga's most outrageous and entertaining flicks.

This first film is the one that benefited most directly from the momentum. The style of production for Puss was the diametric opposite of that for Horus. In Horus Takahata controlled every moment of the visuals in the film -- the layout, the placement of the characters, the pacing of the scenes. In this film, on the other hand, the animators were let loose to do what they wanted like children running outside screaming joyously after a hard day at school.

That feeling really comes through in the film. There's more freedom in the animation in this film than in probably any of the other Toei Doga films, and at the same time this is one of the films with the most unified animation of any of the Toei Doga films because of Yasuji Mori's assiduous correction of the drawings to maintain an even look throughout.

However, little should be expected of this film beyond entertainment, because the characters are largely ciphers and there is no depth or development there at all. But who cares? It's such a fun and joyous film that there's no reason to nitpick. They obviously set out to make exactly that sort of film, and succeeded eminently in the task.

And topping the film off is the most famous sequence of all the Toei Doga films, the chase through the castle ramparts, a sequence that is a perfect seamless little miniature film in itself. Miyazaki and Otsuka animated the whole thing in tag-team style.

Around this same time Toei Doga started releasing a large number of low-budget sci-fi films and dismissible things of that ilk that I will not cover here but to note them in passing as the fate that befell the giant that once was Toei Doga. The 1969 Flying Ghost Ship actually featured animation by Miyazaki and animation directing by Kotabe, but I found the film to be so distractingly tacky and unwatchably bad that I pretty much forgot the whole thing after seeing it, out of mercy.

1970: Nobody's Boy (ちびっ子レミと名犬カピ / Chibikko remi to meiken kapi)

This was another of the low-budget films they churned out, and, although its animation attains a moderate level of quality that deserves to be acknowledged, the horrendous directing, wretched humor and abominable character designs combine to make this a good representative of the films that followed after Miyazaki et al. flocked out from Toei Doga around 1972 looking for broader horizons. Among the worst Toei Doga films ever made should be counted the 1973 Panda's Adventures, probably the most soulless film made by the studio. Properly speaking, I was only able to watch the first five minutes, being unable to continue out of disgust with what I was seeing and hearing.

Starting with this one, Toei Doga made a series of films based on world literature throughout and beyond the 70s (The Little Mermaid, Swan Lake, The Swan Princes, Thumbelina, Twelve Months), all of which are totally deserving of the memory hole into which they have fallen. The Little Mermaid deserves note, however, because it was the first anime film anywhere to feature a female animation director, namely Reiko Okuyama, longtime Toei Doga animator and wife of Yoichi Kotabe.

1971: Treasure Island Revisited (どうぶつ宝島 / Dobutsu takarajima)

While the other section was churning out the previous film, the staff that had worked on Horus and then Puss were hard at work on this wonderful and little-known triumph of slapstick and action adventure, the last of the classic full-length Toei Doga films.

Hayao Miyazaki provided many of the ideas for the film and was consequently given the novel credit of "Idea Man", and this time Miyazaki is the one who gives the film its character, not only because of the little touches he adds that feel 100% Miyazaki, like the wonderful scene early on at the Benbow, but even more importantly because of the incredible animation he provides for the film. The pirate attack scene he animated in this film is one of my favorite in all the Toei Doga films, and is the hilight of the film. It's an incredible scene, packed with a vast number of ideas and a whole movie's worth of action. Although Miyazaki's previous work in the Toei Doga films was already notable, particularly his important contribution to providing the many images that built up the universe of Horus, this is the one that really stands out, for one because it's all concentrated into under five minutes, making it handy for study purposes. For study it deserves. This scene should be required study for every aspiring animator in the world.

Aside from Miyazaki's animation (and he also did a lot of the animation of Hook on the ship, which is also incredibly good) this film is an eminently rollicking ride from start to finish, and is the most obvious direct link between the films of Toei Doga and Miyazaki's subsequent work, in terms of the overall structure of the film.

1971: Alibaba's Revenge (アリババと四十匹の盗賊 / Aribaba to yonjuppiki no tozoku)

This short film tends to be overlooked in discussions of the classic Toei Doga films due to the zany designs and the correspondingly kooky story. But I personally find it to be a wonderful (albeit light and insubstantial) and perfectly fun-filled ride that absolutely deserves to be seen by more people.

Gone are any concerns about creating an epic storyline; instead we have a surprisingly witty and biting satire that turns the original Ali Baba story on its head, and focuses on the gags and action sequences. The voice-acting is great all around (the king and his attendant are unbeleivably hilarious in the original Japanese) and the character designs are wonderfully loose and cartoonish in a way that feels truly refreshing and original for a Toei Doga film. It feels like a good direction. The sad thing is, they didn't continue to do anything as original afterwards. Toei Doga president Hiroshi Okawa died after this film was completed, effectively marking the end of the era of classic Toei Doga films.

To top it all off, the animation hilight of this film is in fact one of the great sequences in any of the Toei Doga films, a chase through the castle ramparts animated by Miyazaki -- in homage to himself? In any case, it's an absolutely superb scene that merits being seen by any lover of good, fast-paced cartoonish action animation. Masaaki Yuasa noted in a recent interview that this was his favorite of Miyazaki's scenes because of the incredible variety of the stuff going on; plus the fact that it's the longest of his scenes stretches out the enjoyment all that much longer. No disagreement there.

1972: Puss 'n Boots II (長靴三銃士 / Nagagutsu sanjushi)

If the previous film tends to be overlooked, then this film tends pretty much never to even get mentioned. Which I find to be a shame. A masterpiece it's not, and the script development problems that left the film hobbled with a rather straightforward and bland western story in the final count are disappointing, but it's still an eminently watchable film, which all of the subsequent films are not, so it deserves the benefit of the doubt.

The story is simple but entertaining because, well, when have you ever seen an anime western? The characters are credible, the directing is good, the story is fun. It has a very nice action sequence that I quite like, the covered wagon chase. The shootout at the end is very convincingly choreographed. And with Yasuji Mori in the helm as the animation director, the animation in this film is truly a fine, delectable thing to behold. Not the banquet of the previous Puss film, but more of a power lunch. No, really, this is one of the most underrated of the Toei Doga films. This film is truly enjoyable, and deserves more credit than it gets.

Miyazaki, Takahata, Otsuka and Kotabe had all left Toei Doga already by the time Mori did this film. Mori even went on to do animation in the wretched Panda's Adventures, undoubtedly a thoroughly depressing and lonely experience that finally drove him to leave Toei Doga and join the rest of the gang at Nippon Animation.

That's it. All of the key figures having left Toei Doga, for some mysterious reason the subsequent films are no good. And so we reach the end of the lime.

1979: Taro the Dragon Boy (龍の子太郎 / Tatsu no ko taro)

Actually, not quite. Toei made a comeback of sorts a few years later with this film, which is truly a very good film, albeit quite different from what had come before. But really it's just an isolated relic of a tone and a quality that would never be regained at Toei Doga and had by that time already been transplanted to other studios, namely A Productions, Telecom and then Studio Ghibli, that inherited the mantle of the manga eiga; that being the assertion of the Survey of Japanese Films exhibition, and that with which I bring this survey of Toei Doga films to a close.