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: November 2004, 06

Saturday, November 6, 2004

08:29:59 pm , 1231 words, 3245 views     Categories: Animation

Running man

Anime Kai no Chimimouryou na Hitobito
by Yusui Taiga
191 pages

This book published just under a year ago goes into some depth about a subject that isn't heard of very much: the early interaction between the Japanese animation industry and the Korean animation industry during the mid-1980s. Today it's common to see entire episodes of high-profile anime series produced almost entirely in Korea. So it's a timely book in the sense that it sheds a little light on an early stage of this interesting new relationship between the ancient neighbors.

The author got his start in the anime industry in 1982, when he was hired by Madhouse midway through production of Unico on the Magic Island. He's a representative example of the half of the anime industry that we don't hear as often about: the production side. Probably like many of his compatriots, he came to this line of work because he saw anime as a kid and wanted to do that as an adult. But when he got to the animation school in 1982, he couldn't draw, and consequently couldn't do what most people would have done - namely, study to become an animator. So he set his sights on directing. Isao Takahata is an example of an anime director who doesn't draw. But, running up against the difficulties of acceding to that high position when you can't draw, he was forced to give up on that ambition, at least temporarily, and start where most people in his position did - as an animation runner - with the hope of eventually working his way up. And so it was that Yusui Taiga entered the world of anime production.

Before going on to the section of his experiences in Korea, he writes about his beginnings working as a runner for Madhouse on the Sanrio-produced Unico, after which he quit and joined Sanrio Films proper, where he worked on Oshin (1984) and then Fairy Florence (1985) before the breakup of the studio.

There's little information generally available about Sanrio Films, one of the more unique studios in anime history, which was in existence only for about the decade spanning 1975 and 1985, but unfortunately the author does little to change that, only providing some curious anecdotes in passing. For example, the fact that the life-sized models of the various places depicted in Oshin, which had been created for reference purposes, were appropriated by staff to serve as sleeping quarters during the final burst of work over the last few months of production, when it was common for people not to go home (to shower, say) for weeks on end.

Sanrio Films was unique in many ways. It was essentially a side-enterprise run by the massive parent company, so production always remained entirely in-house, and projects tended to look really different from most anime because they were either co-productions or made with a worldwide audience in mind. The system was closer to the western system, with effects animation directors and character animation directors. Different groups handled the animation for each section of Oshin. There was a background runner, an animation runner and a finishing runner. As if to mirror all these differences, the studio was located at a distance from the nexus of anime studios in Suginami. There's a lot that remains to be examined about Sanrio Films. Hopefully someone will do that one day.

Madhouse today is known for extensively using Korean studios, but back in the day when Yusui Taiga came in it was still a relatively young studio mainly doing subcontract animation for bigger fish like Tokyo Movie Shinsha and Sanrio Films, which is what was happening with the two Unico films. At this time, a handful of bigger studios like Toei Doga and Tokyo Movie Shinsha had the means of handling all of the production tasks, but otherwise smaller studios like Madhouse outsourced to specialized studios - inbetweening studios, finishing studios, etc. - which is where Yusui Taiga comes in. He paints a fairly vivid picture of the experience of being a runner at this time, which in extreme cases involved driving more than 300 kilometers a day. It gives a sense of the part-heroic, part-drudge nature of the job. Everything really depended on these guys. Just from seeing the final product it's hard to get a sense of the amount of behind-the-scenes legwork that was involved in coordinating the various parts of the production.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is the description of his first experience running between Japan and Korea during the last month of production on Florence, when finishing work was sent to Korea. This was a first for Sanrio Films, though other studios like Toei Doga had already started outsourcing to Korea. Not knowing any other way to do it, they just sent a runner over on a flight with all the material. They tested various convoluted schemes to reduce taxes and surcharge fees for the dozens of boxes he had to carry over as luggage - all because Sanrio used their own specially-designed painting equipment that nobody else in the industry used, and they had to bring the tools over along with the cels. The tricks of the trade became more sophisticated later on, and he relates colorful tales about certain runners who became experts at scanning the crowd in the lobby and picking out people who would be most likely to be willing to go along with a request to carry boxes for them.

After Sanrio Films closed, he started getting involved in overseas coproductions, eventually participating in a project to establish a Korean studio that would be able to handle all stages of Japanese-Korean coproductions with only minimal oversight, thus excising the middleman and all the problems inherent to 'international running'. His various experiences in the process - translation mishaps, cultural misunderstandings - are probably a fairly accurate snapshot of the typical Japanese businessmen experience during the bubble, so it's interesting especially for that. It's always instructive to see how a person from another culture views the rest of the world.

Rather than being an objective history of the period, this is a subjective first-person narrative that does not go into much detail beyond the author's own experience, so there is not much in the way of background history or balance. The main focus of the book is in fact on descriptions of the many colorful people the author met over the length of his career in animation. A good example is his one-time partner/full-time military buff, who on the occasion of his first trip to Korea with the author was detained by the authorities at Kimpo Airport for questioning regarding the reason for his being attired in the regalia of a US Army General. The people are vividly described, the anecdotes interesting. The book works nicely as an entertaining Dickensian picaresque novel, but lacks the clear organization, factual substance and insightfulness of Yasuo Otsuka's narrative of his own career, Sakuga Ase Mamire (Cels Covered in Sweat), rather falling closer to ex-Mushi Pro director Eiichi Yamamoto's heavily fictionalized autobiography Mushi Pro Koboki (The Rise & Fall of Mushi Pro), a famously problematic book that never bothers to demarcate where truth ends and fiction begins. But insofar as it's an honest expression of another person's different experience, to me it's a satisfying creation. It offers a perspective we don't get to hear very often.