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: September 2004, 02

Thursday, September 2, 2004

10:48:12 pm , 1305 words, 7187 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Otogi Pro and the rise of independent animation in Japan

Most of us think the first TV anime was Tetsuwan Atom, right? Well, it was the first in the 30-minute format that would come to be the norm, but Otogi Pro's Instant History (1961-2), clocking in at 5 minutes per episode, was the first TV anime (although it was preceded in 1960 by a cutout animation called Three Stories (三つの話) in NHK's long-running Minna no Uta). Otogi Pro is an interesting studio that I know little about, so I thought I'd jot down some basics here.

Hyotan Suzume (1959)
Hyotan Suzume (1959)

Ryuichi Yokoyama (横山隆一) began drawing the comic Fuku-chan in 1936, and continued drawing the series in various different newspapers until 1971, when the series ended on episode 5534. In January of 1955 he realized the long-held dream of founding his own animation studio, and began production of his first animated film, Piggyback Ghost, with 8 other staff members. Ryuichi handled most of the tasks including photography and animation. The completed film was shown in a small hall that December to an audience including Yukio Mishima and Hideo Kobayashi.

The very next year he founded Otogi Production, and completed a 16mm trial version of Gourd Sparrow, which was never shown anywhere. The following year, in 1957, came his first 32mm film, Fukusuke, which marked the beginning of his distribution contract with Toho. Two years later, in 1959, he completed his next film, a 32mm remake of Gourd Sparrow, and in 1960 he completed his first and last full-length feature, Otogi's World Tour, an omnibus of 7 shorts, which was only to be released theatrically two years later. Otogi Pro never made a film again (with the exception of one isolated three-minute short ten years later).

1955 - Piggyback ghost (おんぶおばけ / Onbu obake) 25 mins

1957 - Fukusuke (ふくすけ) 18 mins

1959 - Gourd Sparrow (ひょうたんすずめ / Hyotan suzume) 55 mins

1961 - Plus 50,000 Years (プラス50000年) 9 mins

1962 (1960) - Otogi's World Tour (おとぎの世界旅行 / Otogi no sekai ryoko) 96 mins

1970 - An incident in Earth village (地球村の出来事 / Chikyu mura no dekigoto) 3 mins

Otogi no Sekai Ryoko (1960)
Otogi no Sekai Ryoko (1960)

Worthy of note is the presence of Eiichi Yamamoto and Hiroshi Saito in these films. Both began their careers here. Saito was an animator in Instant History and Otogi's World Tour before joining Mushi Pro a few years later. Yamamoto visited Osamu Tezuka in 1960 right after participating as an animator in Fukusuke and Otogi's World Tour. Yamamoto wound up taking part in the founding of Mushi Pro that year, going on to direct its first film, Tale of a Streetcorner, which came out in 1962, the same month Otogi's World Tour belatedly hit the theaters.

Tale of a Streetcorner was not shown theatrically but in halls, whereas Yokoyama's film was shown in theaters a month after Toei's Sinbad. Perhaps if Yokoyama had taken that route he might have been able to continue making films. As it happens, the only route he knew was to sell them to big studios for distribution, and consequently his independent, creator-oriented films had to compete with Toei's big Disney-style commercial animated films, with obvious results. Otogi's World Tour was paired with King Kong vs Godzilla, perhaps indicating how much of a hoot Toho gave about his films.

The year of the completion of this film, 1960, marked the first year of the animation festival at Annecy, and also the first year of the epoch-making independent animator film showcase Animation Group of Three (アニメーション三人の会 / Animation sannin no kai), which featured works by Yoji Kuri, Ryohei Yanagihara and Hiroshi Manabe. This event marked the beginning of independent animation in Japan - animation made in various different formats by individual people experimenting with the medium and expanding its borders well beyond the conventions (and mannerisms) of Disney and the other purveyors of commercial animation.

Two of Yoji Kuri's films showcased at these events, Love and Human Zoo, were the first Japanese animated films to win awards and gain recognition outside of the country aside from the films of Ofuji Noburo, a truly exhilirating development that gave the figures of this new movement a major boost of confidence. Over the next few years not only did Osamu Tezuka produce most of his experimental films, but most of the figures who went on to become the mainstays of the circuit appeared on the scene via the "Animation Festival" spawned from the original three Animation Group of Three festivals held from 1961-1963: Taku Furukawa, Seiichi Hayashi, Tatsuo Shimamura, etc. (Each of the latter contributed a short to Winter Days.)

Kataku (1979)

The last of these events, held in 1971, happened to feature a film called Breaking Branches is Forbidden (花折り / Hanori, 1968), the debut film of one Kihachiro Kawamoto (川本喜八郎). The next year, Kawamoto joined forces with another puppet animator, Tadanari Okamoto (岡本忠成), who had been active since 1965, to create an animation forum that would serve to showcase their latest films on a yearly basis over the next 8 years: The Puppet Animashow (from Puppet Show + Animation). While numerous other private amateur animation screenings were held during this period, none had the lasting power and wide-ranging appeal of the Animashow, which tended to attract general audiences even more than typical animation fans.

Okamoto and Kawamoto are probably the two most important figures to have emerged from this early period of independent animation, by reason of the quality and originality of their films no less than their popular success with audiences. And yet, no two filmmakers could be more different. Kawamoto with his classically modeled Japanese puppets and aesthetically refined wabisabi poesy, Okamoto with his relentless pursuit of new challenges and warm sense of humor.

Due to the influence of the Animation Festival, staring around 1967 animation appreciation groups or "circles" like Anido began to appear for the purpose of holding their own small screenings for members, in many cases acquiring the rare films by borrowing them from collectors like the famous Goro Sugimoto. These circles soon began publishing group activity newsletters and then animation research zines, and finally, thanks to the advent of 8mm technology and the widespread availability of animation equipment like cels, they even began producing their own amateur films. The appearance in 1972 of the animation magazine Pia, which published information about animation showings at cinematheques as well as fan screenings nationwide -- the first of its kind in Japan --, helped to solidify this fan movement by making it easy for fans to locate screenings of sought-after titles, thereby increasing interaction and communication between fans in distant locales.

The next step in this evolution was the Private Animation Festival or PAF, started in 1975, where the policy was to show every film that was submitted. With the arrival in 1974 of the "anime boom" due to the epoch-making TV shows Heidi and Yamato, and the promulgation of consumer video technology, which allowed fans to study their favorite TV shows in detail, the overwhelming majority of amateur animation production of this period began to look less by Kuri Yoji and more like commercial TV anime.

Jobu na Taiya (1981)

For the next few years PAF provided a platform for amateur and pro independent animation screenings alike, but the surprise development was the rapid improvement of fan animation, which often wound up eclipsing the pro works, as best exemplified by films of Group SHADO, an obscure fan group that appeared out of nowhere from Yamaguchi prefecture at the end of the decade to surprise the animation world with the incredibly high level of quality of their fan productions. Among the films produced by the group was one called Jobu na Taiya (Solid Tires), animated by a young Hideaki Anno.

In 1977 Pia opened the doors on its own festival, the Animation Summer Festival, which showed not only films by fans and pros but also new foreign animation. Its major acheivement was at the 1980 festival, where Ishu Patel was the invited guest of honor, holding workshops that were extremely well received. A few years after this international success story, in 1985, the most important animation festival yet in Japan opened its doors to the world: the Hiroshima international animation festival.