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: August 2004, 10

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

02:57:25 pm , 2015 words, 3544 views     Categories: Animation

The Otsuka School

For those of you looking to learn about the animation that came after Toei Doga from the people who were influenced by the style pioneered by Otsuka, here is a rudimentary outline of what could be termed the "Otsuka School", which is centered around shows that represent what is usually termed the "A Pro Style".

The studio progression can be summarized:

Toei Doga -> A Pro -> Telecom -> Ghibli

The representative anime are:

Moomin (1969)
Lupin III (1971)
Dokonjo Gaeru (1972)
Ganso Tensai Bakabon (1975)
New Lupin III (1977-80) Telecom eps (72, 77, 82, 84, 99, 105, 143, 145, 151, 153, 155)
Sugata Sanshiro (1981)

Moomin (1969)

Before I can go on, first I have to mention how A Pro came about. First, Yutaka Fujioka formed the anime studio Tokyo Movie in 1964. After years of various problems including a bad production system and the company changing hands several times, in 1966 Fujioka decided to form an alliance with A Production, a small independent studio recently formed by Daikichiro Kusube after he quit from Toei Doga, to stabilize the animation. From here on out Tokyo Movie would have only a few animators, and would focus on production and planning, leaving directing and animation up to A Production. A Pro was a tiny company without the vast heirarchy of superiors at Toei Doga, and it was in this atmosphere that Yasuo Otsuka did his first job as animation director outside of Toei Doga, having quit the previous year immediately after Puss 'n Boots.

After years of doing full animation (2 frames/cel) at Toei Doga, the limited animation of a TV series (3 frames/cel) was a big change for Otsuka, but he discovered the special appeal of limited animation, which Japanese audiences almost seemed to prefer to full animation, with the ability to appreciate every drawing it affords, and the special clunky but catchy type of movement it can allow you to create. But there was still that part of him that missed the full style, and here and there he would revert to full where he felt it was justified, such as in action scenes. This is one of the characteristics that would have a major influence on later Japanese animation, this modulation. Otsuka had done the reverse in Horus: He hit on the idea of using 3 frames/cel for the Golem and Mammoth scenes to heighten the sense of massiveness. Interesting to note is that the maximum cel count for anime at this period was between 6000 and 8000, whereas the average nowadays is between 3000 and 5000. TV anime was much 'fuller' then than it is now.

In terms of the content, despite disputes with Zuiyo producer Shigeto Takahashi about how to do the adaptation (Takahashi wanted "No guns, no money, no fights" to be able to sell it overseas - he only got the "no money" part), the animators did it their own way and adapted the story to Japanese tastes by putting in elements they felt would be necessary to allow the series to compete with the action and thrills of standard TV anime fare. The result was a series quite different in tone from Tove's original, and it was never sold overseas. Nonetheless, the series paved the way for anime that would eventually prove that it was possible to do attract audiences with an interesting story without necessarily having to throw in superficial frills. Takahata and Miyazaki, who were still working at Toei at the time, and were highly skeptical that someone like Otsuka could do a series like this, were the ones most surprised and inspired by the final product, and it was one of the main factors that led them to leave Toei Doga.

Two people who helped Otsuka maintain a high level of quality were Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, who are the central figures behind the two anime that are considered the embodiment of the A Pro style: Dokonjo Gaeru and Ganso Tensai Bakabon, about which more later. So what we have in this series is really still pure Otsuka, albeit different from everything we had seen from him up until now, and it paves the way for the A Pro style to come, which makes a virtue of the limits of TV anime to create some of the most appealing movement to have come out of Japan.

Lupin III (1971)

The reason Otsuka had quit Toei in the first place was to make a Lupin movie. To that end he and Masaaki Osumi, a person who was until then known mainly as a puppet theater director (an interesting figure who recurs at several points in anime history, about whom I'll say a bit more in a later post), had made a pilot and been going around trying to find interested parties. Not finding any, they did Moomin together. After two seasons it was transferred to Mushi Pro, and Otsuka then did various things including teaching the first Taiwanese animators and helping on the pilot episode of Tensai Bakabon (later broadcast as alternatively episode 1 or 32) until finally Lupin was picked up -- not as a movie, but as a TV series.

Again Otsuka was the main figure behind one of the pivotal anime series that affected everything that came afterwards. The first anime TV series with sophisticated storylines that could be appreciated by adults, it was so far ahead of its time that nobody knew what to make of it, and it failed dismally and was cancelled after two seasons. Not long afterwards it built up a huge cult following that resulted in another TV series and then a movie etc. etc. etc. and paved the way for the "anime boom" of the late 70s, which was the period when anime began to attract huge numbers of fans and became a social phenomenon worthy of being talked about in the news due to the overwhelming response to shows like Heidi and Yamato.

Needless to say, Lupin was a series much better suited to Otsuka's predilections for machinery and realism, and it's in this series that we have the first chance to see him fully putting his talents to use. Naturally there are many things going for the series -- appealing characters, stylish directing, variety of stories -- both in the early hardboiled, sexy Osumi episodes and the lighter but more dramatic late Miyazaki/Takahata episodes.

But in terms of the animation, in addition to the never-before-seen precision with which vehicles and weapons are drawn, there was a true feeling of newness there, something totally different from Moomin or any other anime up until that point: the way every drawing speaks and works on its own as well as within a movement; the attention to detail in every drawing; the improbable yet refreshingly new and convincing character movement; the rollicking, thrillingly choreographed action. Here we have animators finally doing something because they feel it's right, because it's how they'd do it, not just drawing characters because the character chart says that's how to draw them. That's one of the main things that makes the series feel convincing even after all these years. The animator lineup is one of the best of any anime in that period, including Toshitsugu Saida (head animator of Gauche), Osamu Kobayashi, Toshiyuki Honda (later to form studio Animaruya), Keiichi Kimura (Tiger Mask), and a still young Yoshifumi Kondo. Many of these animators would go on to work on the famous A Pro series of the next few years.

Dokonjo Gaeru (1972)

This was the series in which Osamu Kobayashi, who worked as a key animator on Tensai Bakabon over the preceding year, established his unique style of extremely simplified drawings and vigorous movement that would come to define the A Pro style. Key animators who provided great work in this series include Kune Motoki, Yoshifumi Kondo and Yoshiyuki Momose. The limits of the medium here are fully turned to an advantage, with the animators producing some of the most interesting and variety-filled limited animation ever seen in TV anime. Many of today's major animators, including Hiroyuki Imaishi, cite this as one of the anime that decisively influenced their decision to go into animation, and find it to be a continued source of inspiration. Kobayashi's co-animation director Tsutomu Shibayama would go on to perfect his own take on the A Pro style a few years later in the series Gamba no Boken, where he created an original and dynamic way of expressing the speedy movement of the small protagonist animals. One of the great classic episodes of the series is #146, Kan Kan Akikan no Maki, which reportedly combines artistic directing and the A Pro animation style to great effect.

Ganso Tensai Bakabon (1975)

The old Bakabon series had been affected by station demands in such a way that the gags, which were the heart of the series, were edged out to make way for more conventional drama as the series progressed. Dissatisfaction with this dénouement on the part of the animators as well as creator Fujio Akatsuka, combined with the popularity of Dokonjo Gaeru, led to this continuation, which is the other anime that is considered exemplary of the A Pro style. This series went further with the gags than ever before, replacing the fun but rather harmless slapstick of Dokonjo with absurdist humor often bordering on black and surrealistic. The animators really got a free hand on this series, with veteran Ohashi Manabu providing a lot of his most memorable work, including one of the true cult classic episodes of this period, the infamous "Gekika Bakabon" episode, where he decided to draw all the characters in super-realistic yakuza-manga style.

New Lupin (1977-80)

The studio Telecom was formed in 1978 by Yutaka Fujioka for the purpose of eventually animating a full-length feature adaptation of Little Nemo. They hired animators by placing major ads in the newspapers, and Veteran Sadao Tsukioka went through hundreds and hundreds of applicants, weeding out anime fans, whom he considered "tainted". They started training these inexperienced animators by having them help out on the animation of the first Lupin movie, and in 1978 Telecom started handling some episodes of TMS's New Lupin series, overseen by Otsuka. The first of these, #72, Otsuka says flat out is the worst animated film he's ever been involved in. Horrified by the quality, he started recruiting people with experience, and gradually with each episode great animators -- most of them A Pro veterans -- came into the studio to work on these episodes, which get better as time goes by, culminating in the famous Miyazaki episodes. First Atsuko Tanaka and Eiko Hara came in, then Kazuhide Tomonaga, Nobuo Tomizawa, Tsukasa Tannai, raising the bar higher and higher... These would stay on to help turn Cagliostro, produced immediately after these episodes in the still record-holding span of four months, into the classic it is, in which Tomonaga handled the opening car chase, Tanaka the famous rooftop leap and the spaghetti scene, and Tomizawa the appearance of the assassins. In the TV series, besides the animation at the beginning of the last episode, Tomonaga also provided animation for episode 143.

Sugata Sanshiro (1981)

Yoshifumi Kondo, who got his start way back in 1972 with Dokonjo Gaeru and then contributed greatly to the original Lupin series as well as Panda Kopanda (which certainly fits within this flow, but is already quite well known) and then Future Boy Conan, was one of the figures who continued to breathe new life into the style he'd learned at A Pro as he moved from first Nippon Animation and then to Telecom. His animation in Tom Sawyer is perhaps the ultimate acheivement of this evolution. Immediately afterwards he provided one of the last examples of work that can be clearly placed on the A Pro evolutionary timeline, his animation for the TV special Sugata Sanshiro, which can be said to have pushed the A Pro style to its culmination. Afterwards he changed direction, and the age of A Pro, which was appropriately renamed to Shinei or "New A Pro" around this time, came to an end. This film also features animation directing by another of the great Telecom figures, Nobuo Tomizawa, and so it seems an appropriate punctuation mark for this sketch.