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Archives for: January 2005, 09

Sunday, January 9, 2005

02:33:09 pm , 5074 words, 21909 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Tadanari Okamoto: The Heart of Animation

Tadanari Okamoto and Bretislav Pojar
(Czechoslovakia, 1969)

Anything is possible in animation. You can animate junk (Legend of the Sky Kingdom), food (Svankmajer), dead critters (Brothers Quay) - whatever tickles your fancy. The single person who did probably more than any other Japanese independent to prove that anything is possible in animation is Tadanari Okamoto. From one film to the next throughout his 25-year career as an independent animator, spanning from 1965 to the year of his death in 1990, he continuously experimented with a huge range of methods and styles for creating films. His tenet was 'never the same thing twice'. He never allowed himself to repeat the same method twice in a row, always adding some new little touch to an old method or completely changing direction and adopting a medium that he had never attempted to animate before.

Beginnings: 1932-1963

To tell Okamoto's story from the beginning, we have to make a short detour to talk about Tadahito Mochinaga, the legendary father of Japanese stop-motion animated filmmaking. Mochinaga had started out working under Mitsuyo Seo, and had left Japan for Manchuria just before the end of the war, where he found himself in demand for his animation knowhow. (To learn more about his fruitful China period, I refer you to an outstanding article on Mochinaga by Kosei Ono on AWN.)

Upon returning to Japan around 1953 after nearly a decade in China, Mochinaga made several TV advertisements using the stop-motion technology he had developed in China, thus becoming the founder of Japanese stop-motion puppet animation. In January of 1956 he completed his first Japanese-produced stop-motion puppet film, Uriko Hime to Amanojaku (18 minutes). The film proved popular enough that he was able to produce another, 5 Monkeys (17 minutes), completed in June 1956, which reportedly showed definite technical improvements over his first.

Not long after his return from China Mochinaga had taken on a protege, a young person named Kihachiro Kawamoto, whose first job as the puppet maker for Mochinaga was a television advertisement made in 1953. Kawamoto seems to have created the puppets for many of Mochinaga's films made between this year and the founding of Mochinaga's studio MOM Productions in 1960, including a promotional film about the history of beer commissioned by the Asahi Beer Company, completed in July 1956, and Little Black Sambo, completed in November 1956, which is the film that brough Mochinaga to the attention of Videocraft International in 1959 at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The technical strides made since the previous year must have been quite something, because Videocraft was so impressed by the polish of the film, probably in no small part thanks to Kawamoto's puppets, that it convinced them to commission a handful of stop-motion TV series from the studio, including The New Adventures of Pinocchio and Willy McBean & His Magic Machine.

Which brings us back to Tadanari Okamoto. Born in Osaka in 1932, Okamoto graduated from the law school of Osaka University in 1955, and worked in the legal profession for two years before quitting and entering the film school of Nihon University in 1958. After graduating in 1961, Okamoto entered the MOM production, where he worked on several of the TV series commissioned from the studio before finally quitting and forming his own company, Echo Incorporated, in 1964. Along with Kawamoto, then, Okamoto is one of the more famous of the figures who followed in the footsteps of Tadahito Mochinaga and continued to develop the possibilities of stop-motion animation.

Echo Inc: 1964-1990

Over the next few years Okamoto produced his first few films, most of them using puppets. It's well known that Kihachiro Kawamoto had made the pilgrimage to Czechoslovakia to learn under his idol Jiri Trnka. Similarly, during the first few years of Echo Incorporated, Okamoto made a symbolic visit to Czech stop-motion puppet guru Bretislav Pojar in his native land. Most likely consciously influenced by the great Czech animator, the puppets of Okamoto's early films bear some stylistic similarity to the Czech school. But already the seed of his experimental desire is there, as he is already trying out different techniques with each film, most notably the sturdy, rugged wooden blocks of Back when Grampa was a Pirate (1968). His first film at Echo, A Wonderful Medicine (1965), won him the prestigious Ofuji Prize at the Mainichi Film Concours and the Silver Prize at the Tokyo Educational Film Festival. It was a sign of things to come, as Okamoto went on to win the Ofuji Prize a total of eight times over the length of his career, more than any other individual in the history of the prize, and to win more than two dozen other prizes.

In October 1971, just 6 years after the launching of his career as an independent, Okamoto's first retrospective took place. The fact that it was possible to put together a show entirely showcasing the work of one creator is significant, because it indicates the breadth of his oeuvre, which in itself is what had the most impact on animation enthusiasts of the day. While other creators may have been making more individual films, none could boast the variety of Okamoto's films, whose variety made them ideally suited to back-to-back appreciation. Okamoto thus established a reputation early on for constant creative renewal, and never let up.

In October 1972, exactly one year after his first show, Okamoto joined together with Kihachiro Kawamoto, with whom it can be assumed he had become acquainted during his MOM Pro days, to put on the first "Puppet Animashow", which over the next 8 years would showcase the latest films made by the two animators. The first program consisted of Okamoto's Chikotan (1971), Sarukani (1972) and Mochimochi no Ki (1972) and Kawamoto's Oni (1972). As should be obvious by the time proportion (49 minutes by Okamoto : 8 minutes by Kawamoto), each program was overwhelmingly dominated by the creations of the extremely prolific Okamoto. The two had a diametrically opposite style, which made their works an ideal pairing: Kawamoto with the same unified style from one piece to the next, mood serious and subjects traditional; Okamoto more laid back and humorous and stylistically unpredictable, dealing with real life issues. The shows were among the most successful events of their kind in Japan at the time, and were held in various cities including Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. Other independent animators managed to hold one-off events, but none had the lasting power of the Puppet Animashow.

Okamoto produced some of his best pieces in the years immediately following the start of the Puppet Animashow. Below is a sampling of a few of those.

Monkey and Crab (1972)
In Sarukani (1972) he created a wonderful folk tale full of the grim vitality in the tales of old, without softening anything, as tends to be done when folk tales are adapted to animation. The puppets are among his most memorable, hewn from blocks of wood with bold, rough jabs in a way that perfectly matches the elemental nature of the story. Sarukani has been retold before, but usually in softened form, since the protagonists in effect viciously kill the monkey in the original story. Okamoto shows that he understands the nature of the folk tale by retaining the hard edge of the original. Part of the appeal of folk tales is that they're the product of an age that seemed to be more in touch with the elements, which is perhaps why death is often sudden and brutal in folk tales. This film well captures that atmosphere. The hair-raising climax uses dynamic animation, camera work and sound effects to achieve a riveting effect. This is one of Okamoto's most memorable and tactile creations. It's one of the only animated adaptations of a folk tale I've ever seen that successfully captures the hale vigor of these old stories. It's also the stop-motion puppet film with the most unique and appealing puppets I've seen, bold and blocky creations far-removed from the typical clean and sleek forms that for some reason seems to dominate the genre.

The Mochimochi Tree (1972)
One of Okamoto's running obsessions is with narrated stories - stories in which a single speaker narrates the story and the various characters instead of various voice actors standing in for the characters. Mochimochi no Ki (1972) is one of his earliest and best in this grouping. One of the direct inspirations for his using gidayuu narrative to tell this story was having recently seen a performance of traditional bunraku theatre, in which gidayuu is used, and been tremendously moved by the emotive power of the form. Based on his fragmented memory of hearing gidayuu as a child, Okamoto rewrote the story into a semblance of the traditional 5-7 gidayuu form, and sought out the gravelly voice of gidayuu master Rodayu Toyotake to read the story to the accompaniment of the shamisen. Animation then as now tended to be eternally focused on the now, so Okamoto's film was unusual in that it went in the diametric opposite direction, towards a traditional form. Okamoto realized that using this music was the obvious answer for the story, and came up with a way of integrating it in a way that melds perfectly with the animation, so that in effect the two are inseparable in the finished film, a perfect hybrid. Traditions are in constant evolution, and here Okamoto has provided his own contribution to that evolution. For the characters, Okamoto put together pieces of traditional Japanese paper, which he animated by connecting the pieces with wire, as he would often do later with his semi-relief animation. In all of his films Okamoto constantly experimented with his materials to achieve the desired effect. In this film he found that using back-lighting allowed him to acheive the right texture for the tree that is the central element of the film.

Praise be to Small Ills (1973)
In Nanmu Ichibyo Sokusai (1973), which was shown at the second Puppet Animashow, Okamoto went one step further in the integration of tradition and innovation by combining a modern music form with traditional visual inspiration. While again a narrated story, this time the narration is much richer, like a one-man-show, mixing forms old and new. Folk singer Kohei Oikawa throws together a wide variety of elements from traditional Japanese music to modern folk, peppering the narration with poetry here, dialogue there and prose here to create a style of narration never heard before or since, and without which the film would be unthinkable. The visual inspiration of the film comes from the traditional ema votive picture hung at a temple by a visitor to make a wish - for example to find a boyfriend, or to get over an illness, or to pray for a safe childbirth. Okamoto uses cedar wood (the material used to create the ema) to put the characters together, effectively using the substrate of the ema to tell a story that represents the archetypal human story hidden behind these innocuous, crudely drawn objects. It tells the simple story of two hunters, one strong, the other weak, the lives they lead, and their eventual deaths. It's an extremely moving generational portrait, a reminder of all the stories of life and death buried in our past, reflecting the simple beauty of the mundane dreams invested in the ema.

A wide variety of forms and styles
Okamoto went on to continue working in all sorts of styles visual and audio, short and long. In The travelling companion (1973) and the two other shorts in the Ningen Ijime series, The phone booth (1975) and From cherry blossom with love (1976), he used ultrafast rakugo or Japanese traditional sit-down comedy narration by Chomaru Katsura to get across some biting social satire, drawing images with great vigor and velocity by using a fat marker. One of his most original and widely appreciated films is 5 Small Stories (1974), an omnibus of 5 shorts, each animated using a different medium, each sensitively and movingly treating an issue affecting people in contemporary Japan, from risutora or layoffs to bad housing conditions. Starting in 1975 Okamoto began setting songs to animation for the monthly music video program and independent animator favorite Minna no Uta, using various methods including cel, puppet and clay, eventually producing a total of 6 for the show. Who's That (1976), which could be called Okamoto's 'The Seasons', was a collection of 10 haiku-like shorts animated using characters made of yarn. Okamoto also produced a handful of films intended for multi-screen display: for the Okinawa Ocean Expo in 1975 he produced The Water Seed, which parodied ancient Japanese design motifs, and Deep Sea Fish, which used translucent materials; and for the Nagoya Anthropology Museum in 1982 he produced The Evolution of Mankind, which realistically recreated the lives of our pre-historic ancestors.

Towards the Rainbow (1977)
Among Okamoto's more memorable longer films of the latter half of his career can be counted Niji ni Mukatte (1977), which tells the story of two villages on either side of a river who come together to build a bridge to connect their villages and thereby permit a young couple in love to be joined in marriage. The story provides Okamoto with a chance to shed light on the technical ingenuity borne of necessity that the Japanese people traditionally put to use in their everyday lives in various areas. Okamoto did voluminous research and visited numerous bridges built in the traditional way to be able to accurately recreate the methods of old on screen. The music, again sung by Kohei Oikawa, blends traditional weaving songs from two actual locales that would have been in a similar relation to one another. A feeling of depth was achieved in the portrayal of the mountainous villages by using crepe paper to recreate an enshrouding mist, a method Okamoto had used the year earlier in The Strong Bridge (1976).

The soba flower of Mt. Oni (1979)
In Onigakureyama no Soba no Hana (1979) Okamoto achieved the ultimate feat of combining two diametrically opposed formats representing the traditional and the modern: watercolor and cel. Since cels by definition repel water, to combine the two he had to go through a time-consuming process of experimenting with various media in order to figure out a method that would allow him to paint onto cels and thereby recreate the characteristic look of old Chinese and Japanese landscape painting in the new medium. The solution he found was to place a layer of carpenter's putty on a cel to create a hydrophilic surface, over which he then painted. The result is a gorgeous and unified film that is one of his most technically innovative, visually rich and dramatically balanced. Toei released a film that took a similar approach the same year, Taro the Dragon Boy, in which Isamu Tsuchida provided beautiful traditional landscape-inspired watercolor backgrounds, but otherwise nothing was done to match the cels to the backgrounds, whereas Okamoto went that one step further and thereby attained the conceptual visual unity lacking in Toei's film.

The Magic Ballad (1982)
The masterpiece of Okamoto's late period is undoubtedly Okonjoruri (1982), which is also his last full-length film, and his longest, clocking in at nearly 30 minutes. It tells the story of the unlikely friendship of Itako, an old woman, and Okon, a kitsune (magical fox) with the power to heal illness by singing a magical song. Okamoto used papier mache to create the puppets, a new material to him, but one whose innate properties and unique forms he nonetheless managed to use to good effect in creating the simple but appealing protagonists of the film. The soundtrack is among the most studied and perfect in any of his films, with great variety and delicate balance using a minimum of material. The story is mostly spoken through dialogue between Okon, but occasionally we revert to narration by Itako, and then there are the various musical elements that come into play altogether naturally in the course of the story. The joruri of the film's Japanese title makes reference to the general term for Japanese musical theater, which often takes the form of just this sort of dialogue, alternating with various types of music like the shamisen-accompanied ballad that forms the centerpiece of the film. Okamoto's film is thus a sort of modern reinterpretation of joruri, kneading together various traditional elements of musical theater into an audiovisual form that is accessible to modern audiences. The film is dramatically one of Okamoto's heaviest, treating the issue of old age, loneliness and death, and his measured pacing of the dramatic moments is powerfully moving, but the film is not dreary and is narrated in an authentically inflected dialect leavened with dry humor that seems to spring from the soil of the peasant landscape that is the story's stage.

The Restaurant of Many Orders (1991)
Around 1988 Okamoto began production on what was to be his last film, an adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa's Chumon no Oi Ryoriten. The film was to break new ground for Okamoto yet again, as he now took up the challenge of creating a film that would look like a moving copperplate engraving, thus combining hitherto unseen density of texture with the appeal of two-dimensionality. One year into production Okamoto called on Toei Doga veteran Reiko Okuyama, who had recently taken up etching as a hobby after retiring with nearly 30 years in animation behind her, to help him animate the film. Okuyama had decided to finally call it quits after helping out longtime associate Isao Takahata on his film Grave of the Fireflies in 1986, apparently dissatisfied with the limitations of commercial animation and her own career. Through the experience of meeting with Okamoto while working on the film (she animated the protagonist hunters) Okuyama relates that for the first time in her life she felt that her long career in animation had not been completely wasted. For the first time she felt like she was doing animation that meant something to her. This experience is what led her to take an interest in independent animation, which is what led to her short in Winter Days. Restaurant was in fact intended as a study for what Okamoto hoped would become his first full-length film, to be called Hotarumomi, in which Okuyama had hoped to participate; but death interceded on February 16, 1990, putting an end to these plans and a premature end to the life of one of Japan's most original and beloved independent animators. Okamoto's friend and comrade Kihachiro Kawamoto took up the task of completing the nearly finished Restaurant from Okamoto's directions, and the film went on to win 6 prizes including the Ofuji Prize and the Minister of Education Prize. In 1991 Tadanari Okamoto was posthumously awarded a special prize by the Mainichi Film Concours. In 1994 Pioneer re-issued their two-LD set of his works. Last summer an exhibit of the materials Okamoto used to create his films was on display at the MOMAT to accompany the full screening of his entire body of work in the historic History of Japanese Animation series.


There have certainly been experimental animators before and after who broke new ground with method and style, but Okamoto's films were never purely experimental. Communication was always his first priority. So even though experiment with new methods was his driving motivation as an animator, the experimenting was always there as a means of finding out how best to communicate the subject matter, and as a result his films always felt completely natural and unforced, the experimentation perfectly integrated. In each film it's as if the method chosen were the only possible method for the subject in question. He had the intuition to realize that different subjects were better served by different methods, and the ingenuity to figure out what those methods were.

If Okamoto hasn't won many foreign prizes, it's probably due to one of the things that makes Okamoto so unique: the intextricable role language plays in his work. It's fair to say that one has to understand the language to fully appreciate Okamoto's acheivement, so Okamoto may never truly be appreciated outside of his native country. This most emphatically does not take away from the merit of his films, but does limit their reach. His best films are a totally unified whole that interweaves language, music, directing and the various materials used for the animation into a perfectly unified whole that makes them among the most perfect animated creations anywhere.

In an Okamoto film, everything is through-conceived. Each shot is first and foremost a satisfying composition that works on its own. The figures in each film are always designed in a new way, always with an eye for what works. The material used as the substrate for the movement is matched to the subject and the background. Different materials in turn call for a different kind of movement, so that each film is also an exploration of a new approach to animation. The subject is always treated with an understated warmth and humor not dissimilar to Ozu. And yet there is also an underlying bite and spirit of challenge, and an interest in the world around us, as in the 5 Small Stories (1974), one of the few of Okamoto's films that used an original story by Okamoto himself, indicating how important the world around us was to Okamoto.


One of the things that makes Okamoto a truly great filmmaker and not just a great animator is that his ingenuity at picking out the best method for the subject at hand reached beyond the visual material component to touch every other aspect of the production, most notably the soundtrack. The music and the narrative are two of the most important elements in an Okamoto film, without which the film would only be half what it is - be it the gidayu-narrative style of Mochimochi no Ki (1972); the folk-narrative style of Praise be to Small Ills (1973); the various musical pieces he has animated for Minna no Uta; or the shamisen solo of The Magic Ballad (1982).

In the latter, the solo in question is no throwaway interlude but a powerful creation in its own right that captures the theme and the feeling of the the magic ballad that is the pivotal narrative element of the original story. It's worth looking into how this solo came about to give an example of the typical amount of work that went into the musical side of Okamoto's films. When seeing the films, one senses the amount of work that went into the soundtrack, but knowing the details of how that soundtrack came about increases one's appreciation of the director's devotion to getting the most perfect music possible in each of his films.

For the song in question, there was only a short line describing it in the original story. One line may have sufficed amply in the medium of letters, but the question thus became what to do about it in the completely different medium of film. Okamoto's answer was that a full song had to be elaborated, and one that would not be a mere pretty distraction but the "pillar" sustaining the film. Okamoto's first idea was to use the traditional gidayuu form of musical drama for the song, as he had done in Mochimochi no Ki (1972). But he felt this brash-sounding style would be a mismatch with the slow, rural feeling of the thick Tohoku dialect spoken by the protagonist, grandma Itako, so he decided on the use of the shamisen instead. The shamisen is used, for example, in gozeuta, songs played by blind female beggars accompanied by the shamisen. After working with collaborator Yoko Higashikawa to invent lyrics for the song, taking hints from various traditional Japanese forms, he went to Yujiro Takahashi, a master carrying on the traditional performing practices, to compose the song itself. Takahashi also played various traditional forms for Okamoto's benefit, which helped to give Okamoto a more rounded idea of the musical background of the story. Okamoto had also listened to various records and watched various films to research the project, but otherwise had never studied traditional music in depth. The completed film integrates various musical forms used in the daily life of the pre-modern rural Japanese village subtly and skillfully, in a way that goes by all but unnoticed, but that helps to create the film's uncanny sense of authenticity. Okamoto's great contribution was to show that music can be the key to unlock our cultural past.

Tadanari Okamoto:                                      
                 What People Call Animation

I wanted to work in the movies. But I wanted to do something where the art side would be the major element. So I wound up in animation. But when I arrived, what people called "animation" seemed far removed from my own notion of art.

Young people who enjoy animation today seem less interested in the artistic aspect of the medium. Cute, trendy drawings designed in a nearly identical fashion, streamlined by identical production methods, appear to have become a veritable form of communication to this generation, a language of symbols like the stylized handwriting of adolescent girls.

To the animation industry, the notion of individuality that is championed by experimental animators is viewed as an obstruction standing in the way of communication, to be shunned in favor of conformity and accessibility. What's more important are interesting stories and novel situations.

It's futile to compare the rarefied creations of the so-called fine arts—where value is proportional to individuality—with the mass-produced goods of the animation industry—where value is proportional to quantity—, but as giant conglomerates enter the picture looking for a piece of the animation market, the animation industry will continue to grow, making it harder for small-scale individual animation to survive.

If I've focused obsessively on new stylistic methods and approaches to sound all these years, it wasn't out of some desire to show off or prove that I'm the best, but to be true to my personal vision. I always believed in the unlimited expressive potential of animation, ever since I started working in animation. That's why I never allowed myself to use the same style or method twice in a row in my films, but instead always forced myself to look for new expressive means. It's been a continuous process of trial and error that has resulted in major losses in terms of both time and money, but that has also made it possible for me to discover a tailor-made production style that enables me to circumvent a major chunk of the technical drudgery inherent in the animation production process. If I've been able to produce more than 30 films both short and long over the last twenty years (entirely apart from commissioned work), it's largely thanks to my rational simplification of the production process.

However, efficiency has not been so overriding a priority as to convince me that moving to a computer would solve all of my problems. Besides, at the current stage that's still too costly a step. There's something about working with a crew that I would miss if I were working alone on a computer. There's no telling what might happen in the future at the current rate of technological advance, but if the system becomes too efficient, I can envision it turning into an easy way of mass-producing animation—which might be a boon to the industry, but of questionable benefit to the medium as an art form.

An animated film comes about as the result of an inner need to express something. It goes on to be seen by its audience and receive a commensurate degree of recognition. At one extreme are films that aim purely to reach as many people as possible: they receive support, but run the risk of becoming standardized products. At the other extreme are experimental films produced entirely for personal satisfaction: they can be made in small numbers, but production will eventually become unfeasible for lack of funding.

The ideal as I see it would be to tread between the two extremes, speaking your heart to an audience of kindred spirits who would in turn go on to be your base of support for the continued creation of your films. Animators at both extremes will probably scoff at the idea as naive and idealistic, but how else could I possibly go on doing something as hard as animation without a dream to hold on to?

― Tadanari Okamoto, 1986


 1965 A wonderful medicineふしぎなくすり14'21"puppet (wood, leather)
 1966 Welcome, alienようこそ宇宙人14'27"puppet (wood, plastic)
 1966 Operation woodpeckerキツツキ計画14'35"low relief (wood)
 1968 Back when grampa was a pirateおじいちゃんが海賊だった頃3'51"puppet (wood)
 1968 Ten little indians十人の小さなインディアン1'39"puppet (wood, leather)
 1970 Home my homeホーム・マイホーム3'47"low relief (origami)
 1970 The flower and the mole花ともぐら15'29"puppet (wood, leather)
 1971 Chikotanチコタン10'54"cel (crayon)
 1971 Lonely valleyお淋し谷3'22"cel (multi-screen)
 1971 December song12月のうた1'58"cel (multi-screen)
 1972 The monkey and the crabさるかに19'12"puppet (wood)
 1972 The tree of Mochimochiモチモチの木16'51"low relief (J paper)
 1973 Praise be to small ills南無一病息災17'40"low relief (painted
cedar planks)
 1973 The travelling companion旅は道連れ世は情2'16"cel (marker)
 1974 Five small stories小さな五つのお話19'35"cel+puppet
 1975 The water seed水のたね18'57"low relief (cloth,
stencilled dye)
 1975 Deep sea fish深海魚4'9"relief (plastic, silicon)
 1975 The prince with the big bellyオナカの大きな王子さま2'20"cel
 1975 The phone boothうらめしでんわ2'49"cel (marker)
 1976 Symphonic variationsシンフォニック・バリエーション2'13"yarn
 1976 Who's that?あれはだれ?21'13"yarn
 1976 The Strong Bridgeちからばし10'47"puppet
 1976 From cherry blossom with loveサクラより愛をのせて2'32"cel
 1977 Towards the rainbow虹に向って18'26"puppet
 1978 Letter on a snowy day雪の日のたより2'24"cel
 1978 Panache the squirrelりすのパナシ21'32"yarn
 1979 Beautiful nameビューティフルネイム4'1"cel
 1979 The soba flower of Mt. Oni鬼がくれ山のソバの花22'55"cel
 1980 Forgotten doll忘れられた人形13'29"photo+puppet+cel
 1980 Shhh!お静かに4'14"cel (marker)
 1981 Grampa frypanふらいぱんじいさん20'56"clay
 1981 White elephant白い象22'32"low relief
 1982 The magic balladおこんじょうるり26'32"puppet (papier mâché)
 1982 Human evolution人類の進化19'40"cel+puppet
 1983 The surly donkeyロバちょっとすねた2'23"clay
 1984 Metropolitan museumメトロポリタンミュージアム2'21"full+low relief puppet
 1986 Coro's on the roofコロは屋根のうえ2'20"clay
 1991 The restaurant of many orders注文の多い料理店19'00"cel

Data gathered from the Animation Animation LD set originally released 8-24-1986 and re-released 9-25-1994.

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