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, 06

Monday, September 6, 2004

08:04:20 pm , 3461 words, 16878 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

The first wave of independent animators in Japan

Having provided an overview of the development of independent animation, this time I though I would focus on the individual figures who emerged during the first decade of independent animation.


It was in the midst of the artistic ferment of the early 1960s that Japan's first independent animators got their start. At a time when nobody even knew the word "animation" in Japan -- they still used the slightly derogatory term "manga eiga" -- and animation was synonymous with Disney (there was no TV anime yet), three young men began making their own small, handmade animated films, revolutionizing the idea of what was possible in animation with a completely new paradigm for distribution and production, and adult themes and visual ideas far removed from everything that had come before. Inspiration came from various corners including contemporary graphic design and the animated film titles of Saul Bass, but the spark to this sudden blaze was their encounter with the films of Norman McLaren.

The trio first came together to provide animation for a special weekly TV broadcast that had been demanded by young radical intellectuals and artists like Kenzaburo Oe and Takemitsu Toru to provide a platform for voices against the US-Japan security treaty, and thereafter the three decided to continue working together. The newly refurbished Asakusa theater, known for its modern classical, jazz and foreign film festivals, provided the venue where these three figures would go on to unleash their films on astonished and delighted audiences over the next four years in three groundbreaking screenings held annually starting in 1960.

The first of these festivals, christened the Animation Sannin no Kai (Animation Group of Three), occurred on November 26, 1960; the second roughly one year later on January 19, 1962; and the third on April 3, 1963. The explosive success of their innovative idea to create independent, individual, artistic animation had the effect of pushing many of the budding artists and animators of the day into independent animation, which seemed to offer hitherto unseen artistic possibilities. Many of these young people -- including Taku Furukawa -- knocked on the door of the acknowledged leader, Yoji Kuri, to learn under his tutelage, thus establishing a direct link between many of the figures of the period.

As a result of this burst of interest, from the fourth year on (1964) the event took on the guise of what could rightfully be called an Animation Festival, which is what it was renamed. It now showcased the latest animated works not only by the original three but also by an assortment of graphic artists and mangakas-cum-animators. The number of new faces increased each year until, by the time of the last event in 1971, the more than 50 films programmed that year could not be contained within one screening, and the event had to be spread out over several days.

And so: We now have the basic format of the animation festival. Although this particular event finished in 1971, from this point on imitators began to pop up around the country, with new features and events being added each year, right down to the present day. Intriguingly, though, due to various factors including the rise in popularity of commercial TV animation, the number of independent animators creating the sort of experimental, artistic films that were seen in the heydey of the Asakusa event saw a steep drop immediately afterwards, with only a handful of major new figures like Keita Kurosaka and Koji Yamamura appearing on the scene over the last three decades.

Here is an overview of the main figures in the order in which they appeared, beginning with the original three.

Animation Sannin No Kai (1960-1963)

Yoji Kuri 久里洋二
Born 1928 in Fukui prefecture.

Kind of like Pavarotti and the Three Tenors, Yoji Kuri tends to be the one most easily remembered when it comes to the Animation Sannin no Kai. He was not only the most prolific of the three, producing more than two dozen films over two decades; his films also exhibit the most variety of the three, as in each film he consistently tackled new approaches and methods. His erotic, witty films embody the spirit of experimentation of this early period of independent animation.

Besides his creative work as an animator, Yoji Kuri's diverse artistic endeavours encompass painting, picture books, manga, sculpture, writing, and shell painting. His films have been shown all over the world and won numerous awards including the special prize at Annecy and the bronze medal at Venice; and exhibitions of his art have been held in cities including Ghent and New York. In addition to his films shown at festivals, Kuri also contributed a large number of short animated films to NHK's long running TV series Minna no Uta and Nihon Terebi's 11PM. In 1996 he was awarded a Blue Ribbon and a Purple Ribbon by the Prime Minister, a sort of lifetime achievement award.

A selection of Yoji Kuri's films is currently available on DVD from Geneon: Yoji Kuri Film Works, 154 mins, ¥6090.

Partial filmography:

1960 ◈ Fashion ファッション [16mm, 3 mins, B&W]
1961 ◈ Stamp Fantasy 切手の幻想 [16mm, 7 mins]
1961 ◈ Two Pikes 二匹のサンマ [16mm, 20 mins, B&W]
1962 ◈ Human Zoo 人間動物園 [35mm, 3 mins]
1963 ◈ Love 愛 [16mm, 4 mins]
1963 ◈ A Man and a Woman and a Dog 男と女と犬 [35mm, 3 mins]
1963 ◈ The Discovery of Zero ゼロの発見 [35mm, 20 mins]
1963 ◈ Miracle 軌跡 [35mm, 4 mins]
1964 ◈ AOS アオス [35mm, 10 mins, B&W]
1964 ◈ The Seat 椅子 [35mm, 10 mins, B&W]
1964 ◈ The Button ザ・ボタン [35mm, 3 mins]
1965 ◈ The Guy Next Door 隣の野郎 [35mm, 3 mins]
1966 ◈ A Small Sound 小さな囁き [35mm, 10 mins]
1967 ◈ The Room 部屋 [35mm, 5 mins]
1967 ◈ What Are You Thinking? あなたは何を考えているの? [35mm, 3 mins]
1968 ◈ Au Fou! 殺人狂時代 [35mm, 3 mins]
1969 ◈ Tragedy on the G Line G線上の悲劇 [35mm, 3 mins]
1974 ◈ POP [35mm, 3 mins]
1977 ◈ MANGA 漫画 [35mm, 3 mins]

Ryohei Yanagihara 柳原良平
Born 1931 in Tokyo.

After graduating from the Tokyo Bijutsu Daigaku (Tokyo Art School) Yanagihara immediately entered the company Suntory (then called Suya), where he played an important role in the advertising department as the editor of the magazine Yoshu Tengoku (Spirits Heaven), the company's PR magazine, which had a considerable cultural impact at the time, featuring as it did writing by big figures of the day like Takeshi Kaiko (who would take over as editor of the magazine after Yanagihara left). Its sexy, hip tone struck a chord with young hepcats and harried salarymen, who crowded to Suntory's hugely popular Torys Bar to read the magazine, wash down their worries with Torys Whisky and chat about democracy and literature with their buddies. Yanagihara got his audiovisual start around this time, producing a commercial for Suntory that featured a character called Uncle Torys who was quite popular with audiences, and remains an icon of the postwar boom period.

It was soon after he left the editorship of the magazine that he got into animation with the Animation Sannin no Kai. Like his fellows, he was heavily influenced by Saul Bass's film animation work and contemporary graphic designers, and these had a major influence on the look of his animation, which is characterized by its clean lines, striking colors and highly stylized, pop designs. After his involvement in the Animation Sannin no Kai he drifted away from animation, and up until the present day focused on advertising and book cover designing. An avid boat buff, he currently resides in the port city of Yokohama, where he spends most of his time engaged in various activities associated with his passion.

Partial filmography:

1960 ◈ Sea Battle 海戦 [2 mins]
1961 ◈ Commotion at Ikedaya 池田屋騒動 [? mins]
1963 ◈ Two Samurai 両人侍誉皮切 [7 mins]
1963 ◈ Viking ヴァイキング [7 mins]
1963 ◈ Jubei the Braggart ほらふき十兵衛 [1 reel]
1963 ◈ Bug Story 虫のはなし [6 mins]
1963 ◈ The non-flying carpet 飛ばないジュータン [6 mins]
1964 ◈ The Strange Tale of Ichijonosuke 女一余の助異聞 [7 mins]
1964 ◈ Moon Story 月のはなし [3 mins]
1964 ◈ The Chanda チャンダ号 [8 mins]
1964 ◈ The Hole 穴 [5 mins]
1966 ◈ The Baikaru ばいかる丸 [15 mins]

Hiroshi Manabe 真鍋博
1932-2000. Born in Ehime prefecture.

Manabe is one of the most famous illustrators of the postwar period, having been the person who brought a certain degree of respectability to the art of the book illustration. He pioneered his own personal style characterized by highly colorful scenes full of clean, flowing lines, where both man and nature are uniformly stylized in a way that seems to speak of his very personal idealistic, hopeful stance towards the future. (This blazing 1960s vision of the future is lovingly recaptured in Mind Game.) He was extremely prolific as a book cover designer, designing the covers for many novels by famous alternative sci-fi writers Shin'ichi Hoshi and Yasutaka Tsutsui, and was outspoken on various issues, authoring numerous of his own nonfiction tomes. Born and raised in the rural city of Niihama on the north side of Shikoku, Manabe's art has become a part of the landscape of his hometown, both figuratively and literally, as his illustrations decorate various installations around the city, including the Niihama Women's Plaza and an anti-nuclear arms monument in the central park.

Partial filmography:

1960 ◈ Marine Snow マリン・スノー [16mm, 1 reel, B&W]
1962 ◈ Cinepoem No. 1 シネポエム作品No.1 [16mm, 7 mins]
1963 ◈ MARCH [16mm, 2 mins]
1963 ◈ Time 時間 [16mm, 7 mins]
1964 ◈ Submarine Cassiopeia 潜水艦カシオペア [16mm, 3 mins]
1965 ◈ Space Bird 宇宙鳥 [5 mins]
1966 ◈ Chase 追跡 [2 mins]

Animation Festival (1964-1971)


Mermaid (1964)Osamu Tezuka 手塚治虫

Among the first to present works at the newly rechristened Asakusa festival was Osamu Tezuka, who had of course had aspirations towards animation since his viewings of films like Momotaro Umi no Shimpei during the war. Even while drawing his early manga he eventually indended to get into animation, and had taken steps towards that end by his involvement in various of the Toei Doga films (Saiyuki, Sinbad's Adventures, Wan Wan Chushingura), finally founding his own studio, Mushi Pro, in 1961. Right from the start he intended to produce popular animation merely as a way of funding his creation of artistically innovative experimental films. Although market forces and staff opinion differences eventually crushed this idea and Mushi Pro with it, Tezuka continued to make his own animated films until his death, revealing the depth of his love of animation. Mushi Pro's first (and in my opinion best) film, Aru Machikado no Monogatari (Tale of a Streetcorner), directed by Eiichi Yamamoto, was in fact shown in 1966 at the third edition of the Animation Festival.

Mushi Pro had actually held its own screening in November 1962, a few months before the third edition of the Animation Sannin no Kai, to première the recently completed Aru Machikado no Monogatari in addition to the pilot episode of Tetsuwan Atomu and the studio's very first experimental short, Osu (Male). Interestingly, key animation for the second and third films, Memory and Mermaid, which were premièred in 1964 at the first Animation Festival, was by Shigeru Yamamoto 山本繁, latter-day animation director of films like Sanrio's Sea Prince and the Fire Child, who went on to make a few of his own shorts (like 1971's Work L 作品L), which were featured at subsequent Animation Festivals.

Makoto Wada 和田誠
Born 1936.

Another multitalented artist, Makoto has in fact only made two animated films: Murder 殺人, premièred at the first Animation Festival, which won the coveted Ofuji-sho, and Jigoma, Master Thief: The Musical 怪盗ジゴマ 音楽篇 (1988), directed by and featuring music composed by Wada. His main area of activity is illustration (he has illustrated the cover of the famous literary publication Bungei Shunju). He is also a designer, translator and writer. He has written numerous books since his award-winning debut in 1982 with Begin the Begin, and is also a renowned movie critic. Most recently, in 1984 he began his live-action directing career with the film Mahjongg Horoki. Jigoma was produced to accompany his second directing feature, Kaito Rubi.


Cigarettes and Ashes (1965)Sadao Tsukioka 月岡貞夫
Born 1939 in Niigata prefecture.

Tsukioka is one of the most important independents of the last forty years, but he is not generally well known because most of his work has been ads and shorts included in various TV programs. He was one of the more important animators at Toei Doga before changing course completely and becoming one of the more famous indie success stories.

After entering Toei in 1959, he first worked as an inbetweener for three years on Alakazam (1960), Sinbad (1962) and Doggie March. But his skill was obvious from the beginning, as in 1961 Toei Doga set the more promising of the freshly hired young animators to the task of creating two short films as a way of quickly improving their skills, with Tsukioka heading The Mouse Marries ねずみのよめいり (written/directed by Daisaku Shirakawa/Sadao Tsukioka, animation by Tsukioka, Rin Taro, etc) and Makoto Nagasawa heading Motoro the Mole もぐらのモトロ (directed by Hiroshi Ikeda, key animation by Makoto Nagasawa).

For 1963's Little Prince, he helped Yasuo Otsuka animate the fight with the dragon that occupies the last ten minutes of the film. After the sudden arrival of TV anime the next year, 1963, he volunteered for the task of doing Wolf Boy Ken, since nobody else wanted to do it, and consequently went down in legend for the incredible feat of single-handedly writing, directing and animating many of the episodes. Although he was a blessing for Toei Doga due to his heroic efforts on Ken, his experiences creating entire films singlehandedly on this series was obviously a turning point for him, because after providing key animation for Gulliver the next year, in 1964, he left Toei Doga and officially embarked on his freelance career.

The very first film he made as an independent was 1965's Cigarettes and Ashes タバコと灰, premièred at the second Animation Festival. Although technically produced by Mushi Pro, it was written, directed and animated entirely by Tsukioka, like all of his self-produced subsequent films including The Story of A Man ある男の場合 (1966) and the minute-long The Creation 新・天地創造 (1970), each of which were also premièred at the Animation Festival. Although he had one relapse into commercial animation -- he provided the animation of the genies in 1001 Nights for Mushi Pro in 1969 -- his experiences in the Animation Festival fairly set the course for the rest of his career, and afterwards he has been completely independent.

Most famously, starting in 1970, for the next twenty years he provided numerous animated shorts set to songs for Minna no Uta, a show that has been a mainstay for many of the independents who debuted at the Animation Festival, including Taku Furukawa. Of particular note is Kantaro the North Wind Imp 北風小僧の寒太郎, which has become something of a classic, being rebroadcast every year in autumn.

Since the 70s Tsukioka has been active as an animation instructor and lecturer, and in recent years Tsukioka has published a series of books on basic animation techniques.

In TrainingShinji Fukushima 福島治次 (now 福島治)
Born 1941 in Shizuoka prefecture.

One of the other animators who debuted at the second annual Animation Festival was Shinji Fukushima, who has also since been a regular on Minna no Uta, having provided 11 shorts for the show between 1970 and 1999. For him everything started when he saw the second edition of the Animation Sannin no Kai in 1962, which showed him a whole new world he had never known and immediately determined the course of the rest of his life, he relates. He got his start with the animation for Hiroshi Manabe's Space Bird at the 1966 festival, and made his solo debut the next year with A Story of Planet Moston モストン星の話. Other films debuted at the Animation Festival include Cosmos コスモス (1969) and Door とびら (1971). Most recently Fukushima contributed a short to the Winter Days anthology, and finally completed a film called In Training 修行中でござる after several years of work. He is the founder of the studio Anime-ya.


from Winter Days (2003)Tatsuo Shimamura 島村達雄
Born 1934 in Tokyo.

The same year he graduated from the Tokyo Nation University of Fine arts and Music, Shimamura started his career as an inbetweener in 1958 on Japan's first full-length color animated feature, Hakujaden. For the next few years he worked on commercials, and in 1966 he took part in his first Animation Festival with Moonlight and the Glasses 月夜とめがね, made at Gakken, continuing to take part in the festival for the next few years. His 1967 film Illusion City 幻影都市 is considered one of the classics of this period. In 1970 he took part in Mushi Pro's Cleopatra, but the scene he animated in the film, the parade of famous paintings, makes it clear that his imagination could no longer be constrained by the confines of feature animation. In 1974 he founded his own studio, Shirogumi, which has gone on to create visuals for large displays and expos, digital effects work in movies, and more than 1000 TV commercials that have won awards at just about every festival in the world.

Phenakistiscope (1975)Taku Furukawa 古川タク
Born 1941 in Mie prefecture.

Originally pulled towards manga after graduating from college with a major in Spanish due to his fondness for Steinberg and Tezuka, Furukawa's future was at first tentatively redirected upon seeing the stylish animated TV ads by Ryohei Yanagihara and Makoto Wada, and then firmly determined by his encounter with the mature experimental films shown at the Animation Sannin no Kai. Furukawa had done some part time work for TCJ on TV anime like Tetsujin 28 while studying at college (he says he had fun with the show, even drawing himself into a scene where a crowd is running from Tetsujin), but it was helping out with various independent animators including Kuri Yoji upon graduation that laid the foundation of his own independent approach.

After a few years of apprenticeship, it was while still working at Yoji Kuri's Jikken Kobo studio that Furukawa had the chance to write, direct and animate his very first film, Akatombo (Red dragonfly), which was premièred in 1966 at the third annual Animation Festival. Furukawa has since produced more than 20 short films, animated entirely by himself at his private studio founded in 1970, Takun Manga Box, funded largely by his work as an illustrator. His films have won numerous prizes around the world including the special jury's prize at Annecy. He has also left behind a large body of animated TV ads and shorts for Minna no Uta. This year he was awarded the Purple Ribbon for lifetime achievement by the Prime Minister. A DVD of his complete works entitled Takun-Films was issued by Anido in 1998.

By 1971 ...

... most of the major independents of the next thirty years had made their appearance in the Animation Festival:

Fumio Ooi 大井文雄 directed his first short while still studying at Tama Art University: F (shown at the 1968 Animation Festival). Since 1970 he has contributed about 20 films to Minna no Uta, and he has been one of the major advocates of CG animation, working at computer animation studio Studio 3D since its founding in 1971. His short in Winter Days is an atmospheric 3DCG film.

Goro Sugimoto 杉本五郎 provided a film to the last Animation Festival in 1971 enigmatically entitled 100 Years 1/20,000,000 100年2000万分の1 before going on to become a legendary film collector who would be one of the major forces supporting the growing fan circle movement.

Shin'ichi Suzuki 鈴木伸一, who just recently provided a warm and memorable short to Winter Days, lived with the manga artists of the legendary Tokiwa-So before starting his career as an animator at Otogi Pro. He was one of the founders of Studio Zero along with Fujio Akatsuka and Shotaro Ishinomori, a short-lived studio that nonetheless created shows like Rainbow Sentai Robin and nurtured animators like Keiichiro Kimura 木村圭市郎. He took part in at least the last Animation Festival with the short Dot 点, and went on to take part in films like Space Firebird 2772 and Legend of the Forest and Yuki before focusing on educational films.

Renzo Kinoshita 木下連像, one of the few independents beside Yoji Kuri to have gained a degree of recognition outside of Japan -- primarily for his satirical film Made in Japan and his film about the atomic bomb Pika-Don -- also contributed shorts to the last few Festivals. Over the years he produced many award-winning TV commercials, and in 1985 he conceived and planned the first Hiroshima International Animation Festival. He died in 1997.

Ryuichi Yokoyama 横山隆一, the founder of Otogi Pro, even contributed a few shorts to the festival including Flag 国旗 (1966) and 50,000 5万匹 (1966), both as an individual and under the banner of Otogi Pro.

Numerous people who would otherwise be mainly involved in traditional commercial TV or feature animation also provided shorts to the Festival, including Shin'ichi Tsuji 辻伸一, who subsequently did work on various Sanrio films and Nippon Animation series; and Taku Sugiyama 杉山卓, yet another animator who began his career as an inbetweener on Hakujaden, going on to do work for Mushi Pro and Nippon Animation. Ryosuke Takahashi 高橋良輔, known primarily as the director of the 80s hard sci-fi anime TV show Votoms, also contributed a short he made in 1969, after which he was involved primarily in anime at Mushi Pro and then Sunrise.

Seiichi Hayashi 林静一, on the other hand, after being involved in various Mushi Pro films (notably, he animated a memorable scene in Belladonna), and contributing a short to the last Animation Festival, left animation altogether to focus on a range of other activities including manga (his Red Elegy is a classic), illustration, and film directing, although he recently returned with a nice short for Winter Days. (He also did CD for fellow Mushi Pro expat Gisaburo Sugii's 1987 film The Tale of Genji.) Most recently he illustrated the poster for the 2004 Hiroshima International Animation Festival.