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: February 2006, 01

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

08:40:01 pm , 665 words, 3112 views     Categories: Animation

The Red Bird

Illustration from Hakushu Kitahara's TOMBO NO MEDAMA, 1919, a collection of children's songs first published in AKAI TORIThe 70s saw a wave of literary/folktale-inspired animation in Japan. Moomin started it all in 1969, leading to Heidi in 1974 and the World Masterpiece proper at Nippon Animation. In 1975 Group Tac started their Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, and Madhouse followed with Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi in 1976. About a month before the latter show ended its roughly two-and-a-half-year run, in February 1979, Shinei Doga joined the fray. Shinei had been formed not long before when Daikichiro Kusube's A Production split away from Tokyo Movie after a long relationship. From 1980 on they earned their keep producing Doraemon and then Crayon Shin-chan. But before the shows that the studio became known for came one small series that tends to be forgotten these days: Nihon Meisaku Dowa Series: Akai Tori no Kokoro, or Classic Japanese Children's Stories: The Heart of the Red Bird.

The title made little sense to me until I discovered that The Red Bird or Akai Tori was the name of a seminal children's magazine published between 1918 and 1936 by Miekichi Suzuki. Suzuki, a student of Soseki Natsume, was fed up with the pandering tone of children's literature and the inanity of government-sanctioned children's songs, and determined to create a magazine that would breathe an artistic and literary tone into literary production for young people. A panoply of the major literary figures of the day either published works in the magazine or voiced their support for it, including Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, Kyoka Izumi, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Haruo Sato, Takeo Arishima and Hakushu Kitahara. The magazine published many classics, including stories like Akutagawa's Spider's Thread and Tu Tze-Chun, and paved the way for a slew of similarly inclined children's magazines that appeared on the scene over the next decade. The children's songs published in the pages of Akai Tori, especially those by Yanagawa-born poet Hakushu Kitahara (who was evoked in Isao Takahata's documentary on the canals of Yanagawa), were precursors to those published in Kodomo no Kuni, one of those follower magazines.

Suzuki's magazine was also the first children's magazine to bring foreign children's literature to Japan in translation. A famous anecdote surrounds poet and watakushi-shosetsu writer Sato Haruo's translation of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, which appeared in the magazine starting February 1920. At one point he lent an English translation of the book to an acquaintance, who translated the story into Japanese after dinner to read to his children as a bedtime story. Upon finishing the book he spurred his daughter, Aya Nishimura, to write out what she could remember of the story, which she promptly did - with amazing accuracy. So much so that they decided to published it, and it appeared in book form in May with illustrations by the author herself. It was an instant hit, in the face of which the hypochondriac Sato abandoned his effort in September. And so it was that Pinocchio was first introduced to Japan not by one of the Taisho period's leading translators and poets, but by a twelve-year-old girl. As a longtime fan of Sato's, I really feel for the guy.

The series was short-lived, running for only two seasons. Stories adapted include the two mentioned by Akutagawa, as well as one based on a poem by Hakushu, but they're not limited to actual stories published in Akai Tori, as Osamu Dazai's Hashire Melos is also there, so the series is therefore a precursor of Nippon Animation's Seishun Anime Zenshu. The show won numerous awards including a Monbusho recommendation, and was released on video a few years back. It's mainly of interest as the liminal piece bridging the A Productions period with the Shinei Doga period. Ironically, it was the first thing produced at the company after all the famous staff left for Nippon Animation to work on the World Masterpiece Theater. Tenguri, the final piece featuring Kotabe et al, came immediately before. It would be interesting to see what kind of work the staff did at this stage, as Kusube has said that they enjoyed the work and put great effort into it.