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: May 2005, 15

Sunday, May 15, 2005

06:40:59 pm , 947 words, 1201 views     Categories: Animation

Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne

As a longtime Masami Hata fan, I was quite happy to find out that his Andersen TV series had been released on DVD. Watching it, the first few episodes left me a little worried, but after getting attuned to the pace, and accepting the fact that it was aimed at a phase of myself that flourished some two decades ago, I was able to see that the later episodes were possessed of the unusual but surprisingly convincing combination of self-deprecating irony and deep-felt pathos that I've come to associate with Hata's best work, so I was satisfied to have seen it.

The series is an omnibus that retells all the famous Andersen stories. There are two invented characters who act as guides through the series, purportedly there to do good deeds. Their presence as comic releif and foil to the otherwise unrelievedly tragic stories that unfold is typically Hata in that their every effort to do good falls flat on its face. Every easy way out is met with a smirk. Throughout his career, Hata, like Yasuji Mori, consistently put his talent as an animator to the service of young audiences, without pandering or abandoning his desire to do drama that addressed the complexity of the human situation. That's how I interpret Hata's work, though there's a lot that puzzles me in what he's done over the years. In the end there's no way of really understanding what drives him short of asking him.

Taku Sugiyama directed and Shun'ichi Yukimuro wrote the final episode, which adapts the most famous story, itself recently turned into "music with pictures" by the great German Helmut Lachenmann, who, in one of those curious instances of cultural cross-fertilization that I so enjoy discovering, himself got inspiration for the project from a hearing of "a Japanese radio play version" in 1975, a few years after the last volley in Masami Hata's interpretation of the great Dane's oeuvre had finished vibrating in the airwaves above the archipelago.

The German's version had moved me more than any other version I've come across prior to this one. Where Lachenmann's forbiddingly beautiful music invests this otherwise banal and maudlin children's story with multiple layers of interpretation that shed new light on the serious modern implications of the story, this anime version provides the more basic emotional wringing one expects (and no small dose of Lachenmann's "Japanese stylized cheerful sadness"). I was watery-eyed, to put it simply - and I only cry when I see good art. The match-striking sequence proved to be the most interesting scene in Toei Doga's Andersen movie of three years earlier, and so it is here.

The drama is not overdone, and the images are left to convey the sequence of events without overly explanatory dialogue. The balance is perfect within the given limits of the medium. This is a good example of Mushi Pro's limited movement being put to good effect. The lack of movement is not felt like a lack of movement. It feels like a picture-book, with the animation there to enhance the strikingly composed images. The layout is always interesting and the dramatic flow is just right. This episode acts as a good example of what it was that set Mushi Pro apart from Toei Doga in the TV format - the emphasis on storytelling and artistic presentation over movement.

The scene is buoyed by great music by Seiichiro Uno, whose music throughout the series is of extremely high caliber, going far beyond the insultingly unmusical fare one is accustomed to hearing in children's shows of this kind. I knew of his talent from Mushi Pro's 1967 Goku no Daiboken, where he provided music specifically for each episode, not just a series of tracks to be used by the directors as they saw fit, and his work on this show is equally impressive, with an almost improvised, bebop quality at times.

TV animation at this date was still in the experimental stage, so different companies had different ways of crediting staff, reflecting different production styles, which can make it hard to figure out how the work was divided. The credits on this show are hard to figure out for just this reason. Supposedly the credit of "character design" only came into use two years later in 1974 with Yoichi Kotabe and Heidi, and on my DVD the only corresponding credit I'm able to find is either "genga design" (key animation design), which goes out to Keiichi Makino, or "sakuga settei" (animation planning), which goes out to Masami Hata. Confusing things is the fact that elsewhere I've seen a different version of the ending not on these eps where Hata is credited as "animation director" and Shuichi Seki as "character design", both credits I thought only came into play later. Also, I've always thought Hata was the chief director of this series, but in fact nobody is credited as director, even though it seems obvious that Hata must have been the one in charge.

After this series ended in December 1971, for the first three months of 1972 Mushi Pro didn't have a TV show on the air for the first first time since the studio was founded. Eiichi Yamamoto's Wansa-kun started in April and in November the studio went out of business. A more stark contrast with Mushi Pro's last film there couldn't be, which sort of shows the strange beast this studio was, as if torn between commercialism and experiment. Of what has yet to be released of Andersen I'm particularly curious about Osamu Dezaki's Psyche episode, as I actually prefer Dezaki's youthful work (or at least what I know of it from Goku) to the mannerisms of the rest of his career.