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, 12

Sunday, September 12, 2004

09:20:34 pm , 1986 words, 6032 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Spotlight on Toshio Hirata

One of the few Mushi Pro figures who did not settle down at any of the obvious places was Toshio Hirata 平田敏夫, who over the last thirty years has left behind a highly varied body of work for a large number of animation studios. Hirata is easily one of my favorite anime directors, even though I've only seen a small fraction of his oeuvre. The little I've seen is enough to reveal just how special a figure he is.

Toshio Hirata is a perfect instance of a director whose fame is inversely proportional to his talent. His body of work is one of the most unique and admirable of the last thirty years, yet nobody has heard of him. Why? Because his work has never been ego-driven; because, indeed, the defining attribute of his directing style is its very lack of ostentation. His style is the diametric opposite of the flamboyantly individualistic auteur style that has been the hallmark of ex-Mushi Pro figures, perhaps best represented by Rin Taro. Hirata Toshio the director never shouts, never gesticulates wildly; he is all nuance and simplicity -- Continental as opposed to Hollywood, Le Roi et L'Oiseau as opposed to Disney.

Hirata's best work is characterised by its visual richness and invention, and by directing that is always cool and aloof, without the neuroses and the striving for effect of other anime auteurs. You'll never find in his films the sort of overwrought drama that is typical of the large proportion of conventional anime projects -- even when he's involved in one of those projects -- because he hates that sort of thing. He maintains his integrity and individuality as a creator without needing to bash people over the head with it.

Hirata's approach to directing is uniformly meta: unlike many, he is not under the misconception that animation can be nothing more than a second-rate copy of live-action cinema; his animation is always animation first and foremost. The pleasure of watching his films comes precisely from seeing the various elements only possible in animation coming together to form a beautiful and satisfying whole. Hirata is also balanced as a filmmaker: His work exhibits artistic flair that sets it apart from conventional anime, and yet it fits entirely within the framework of commercial animation, being completely devoid of the sort of avant-garde posturing that can be found in the work other, better-known directors.

Like many of the figures of this period, Hirata started his career as an animator at Toei Doga as an inbetweener in the features made from 1960 to 1963: Journey to the West, Anju, Sinbad, Little Prince. Specifically, he was under the tutelage of Yasuji Mori. Hirata still speaks extremely highly of the experience and of Mori in particular, going so far as to say that if it hadn't been for Mori, he probably wouldn't be in animation today. Mori was a major influence on Hirata -- as well as many of those who worked with him like Miyazaki and Takahata -- not only because he was a great teacher and animator himself, but also because he was a gentle person who, legend has it, never got angry at anyone. He took animation seriously, and approached it with rigor and love. Mori's legacy is clearly at the root of Hirata's pliant, honest, soulful approach to animation.

One of the things that is unique about this early period is the variety of origins of the animators. In other words, today people come to anime because they've seen anime; but back then, during the early Toei Doga period, there was no TV anime, so many of the people who entered Toei Doga did so because they had seen a few Disney pics in the theater, or animated ads on TV, or Hakujaden, etc.. Yet other people simply happened to wander in almost by accident, having studied art at school, and maybe having casually seen an animated film or two, but otherwise knowing nothing about animation. Toshio Hirata falls into the latter group.

Anime then was not yet anime; it was a bunch of young people making tentative steps to figure out what they could do with animation. They were blissfully free of the burdensome history that nowadays blinkers many in the anime industry. Thus could we get films like Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon and Gulliver's Space Travels that are full of inventive artistic ideas. Hirata was one of the many people just out of art school who happened to find their way to Toei Doga for whatever reason. Together with a lot of those people, he was drawn to the Animation Sannin no Kai during his Toei Doga period, 1960-1963. If he learned the traditional approach to animation at Toei Doga, the experience of seeing those films broadened his understanding of animation and added an artistic side to his approach. The graphically-oriented aspect of his subsequent output can definitively be traced to this experience.

Hirata began his Mushi Pro period in 1966 directing episodes of Jungle Taitei immediately after his involvement in Ken the Wolf Boy at Toei Doga in 1965. His experience at Mushi Pro was a fateful one for him, second to his experience at Toei Doga only in chronological order. Interestingly enough, at Mushi Pro he was automatically started out as a key animator, and the very next year, for Jungle Taitei in 1966, he was bumped up to directing! Ironically, when he helped out on Toei Doga's Gulliver around the same time in 1965, he was bumped back to inbetweening. Apparently credit wasn't transferrable between studios. This is basically attributable to the rather unique system at Mushi Pro that reflected Tezuka's creator-based approach. Tasks weren't clear-cut and heirarchically organized the way they were at Toei Doga; people did various things as necessary, and consequently accession to key animation and directing could be absurdly fast (though, really, the reason for the ad-hoc nature of the studio basically comes down to the shortage of staff).

The result of this approach was that, rather than animation based on the fundamentals taught at Toei Doga, the Mushi Pro figures learned the ropes themselves, and went on to make animation how they wanted, which accounts for the extreme individuality of Mushi Pro expats like Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Rin Taro. Hirata is individual in a different, less obvious, more mature fashion. While Yasuji Mori was Hirata's major influence at Toei Doga, Eiichi Yamamoto was his main influence at Mushi Pro. It was working with Yamamoto that Hirata learned that meta approach to animation filmmaking.

After Goku and 1001 Nights, things started to get a bit tight at Mushi Pro, so Hirata left the studio for the freedom of commercial animation, where he was able to indulge in the artistic side that he had tasted at the Animation Sannin no Kai. The four years he worked on commercials were the next major learning experience of his early period. The creative gains of the experience can be seen in the unusual story structures and visual ideas of films like Bobby's Girl, The Acorns and the Wildcat and The Golden Bird.

During this period he also participated in various anime, notably Jack and the Beanstalk, where he animated the mice. He then embarked at Sanrio for a few years. Hirata was director or animator on what I consider the three best films of the early Sanrio period: Little Jumbo, Ringing Bell and the Unico pilot. He himself considers the pilot a youthful mistake, but I find it hard to understand why. It's one of the most perfectly honed anime films I've seen, with nothing in excess, reaching great depths of drama and emotion in under half an hour. He did Jumbo just before, and although a wonderful film as well, it was co-directed with Takashi Yanase and Masami Hata, so the Unico pilot serves as a good starting point for his mature period as a director.

Before the first full-length Unico film he played an interesting role in Sanrio's offbeat stop-motion film The Nutcracker. He's given the unusual credit of settei kyoryoku, which can roughly be translated "development assistance". What it essentially means is that he provided image boards and ideas for the film. Over the next few years at Madhouse (the Unico film was actually animated by Madhouse although produced by Sanrio) he was involved in a similar capacity in films like Floating Clouds and The Door to Summer, for which he drew storyboard for only a few scenes. This rather unique approach to film production is attributable to producer Masao Maruyama, who tended to set the basic framework of the films he was involved in by this sort of hand-picking of people according to the needs of the moment.

It was at Madhouse in the 1980s, starting with Unico in 1981, that Hirata came unto his own and gave us some of his best and most personal films: The Golden Bird (1984), A Small Love Story (1984), Bobby's Girl (1985), The Acorns and the Wildcat (1988), Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988).

Bobby's Girl can perhaps be singled out as the film that best captures what makes Hirata unique. It is a dense summation of Hirata's experimental visual proclivities, although on the other hand it is perhaps not representative of the more reserved side of Hirata that dominates his oeuvre. Given a short allotted running time and a rather conventional adaptation that filled out the mundane details of the elliptical, poetic original story, Hirata decided to scrap the adaptation and stick to the original story, which he felt could be interesting as is if adapted with flair. And that it was, as story takes a back seat in favor of a succession of imaginative visual sequences incorporating music-video-like montages of photographs and sketchy illustrations.

The Golden Bird in particular is one of the most interesting films of the decade. Hirata managed to create a film that successfully preserves the individual character of the various talented staff members who provide the film's visuals: designer Manabu Ohashi, who created wonderful SD characters with deliberately disconnected lines; animator Atsuko Fukushima, who animated the spindly witch; and artistic director Yamako Ishikawa, joined by famous background painters like Nizo Yamamoto and Kazuo Oga, who provide the incredibly intricate and lush fantasy backgrounds that define the film. His unique visual sense and predilection for graphic experimentation also comes through in the way he called in independent animator Koji Nanke for one of the musical scenes and gave him carte blanche to animate it. The result is a film of incredibly visual richness that is like nothing else seen in Japan.

The personality of the animators comes through in a lot of Hirata's other films like Hadashi no Gen 2, where apparently certain good animators were given a degree of liberty with their scenes that would be unheard of with most other directors. Yoshiaki Kawajiri was one of those animators, as was Yoshinori Kanemori. Kanemori has been a regular in many of Hirata's films, including Twilight of the Cockroaches and Anne's Diary. Most recently, for the memorable opening of Hanada Shonen Shi, Kanemori provided the animation drawings, which were then colored by Hirata, who drew the storyboard and took the photographs seen in the op. Hirata has always done unusual things like this; in Azuki-chan a few years back he provided the illustrations shown at the end of each episode, even though he refused to allow himself to be credited because he considered it an insignificant contribution.

Hirata is incredibly prolific, and he directed or storyboarded more than twenty films and TV series in the last decade alone, so I could go on and on, but I'll close by just mentioning two other films that could be sought out to see Hirata at his most individual, namely: Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988), which is another one of those films that acts as a vehicle for the animator in charge, Kazuo Komatsubara; and A Small Love Story (1984), with its unusual four-season structure and illustration-composed musical sequences.