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: March 2006, 30

Thursday, March 30, 2006

05:48:21 pm , 981 words, 5593 views     Categories: Animation

Masami Hata returns to the big screen

As I was looking at the amazing list of creators Madhouse had on display at their booth at the Tokyo Anime Fair recently (here), my heart skipped a beat when I ran across the name of Masami Hata. Here was a photo of Masami Hata, looking dignified and noble and decidedly more weathered than in the last photo I'd seen of him circa 1980 working on The Legend of Sirius, and he was making a new movie for Sanrio at Madhouse slated for winter 2007. Crazy. I've had something of a fetish for Masami Hata for a long time now, and threw together a filmography a few years back to prove it, as well as to try to get his work more known. So needless to say, I'm super excited. The new film, entitled Nezumi no Monogatari or Story of a Mouse, will also be based on a story by ex-Sanrio Films executive producer Shintaro Tsuji, like Hata's masterpieces The Legend of Sirius and Fairy Florence. It looks to be aimed at very young audiences, as most of his stuff of recent years has been, but it'll still be nice to see some more work from Hata.

Since entering the new millennium I haven't seen much of his work, and began to assume he might have retired, so it was great news to me personally to see that this veteran active since the very beginning of anime who directed some of the best and most unique anime films of the last few decades was making a return to the silver screen. Hata has received scant attention for his work, which perhaps isn't surprising since most of his major work dates from more than two decades ago, and stylistically has generally been more international and less identifiably "anime". But that international quality is precisely what makes his work special. His low profile also seems to have been a deliberate thing. I've always found it hard to verbalize what it is about Hata's work that captivates me, but it has something to do with this - the fact that he had the humility to not make the sort of career decisions that might otherwise have turned him into an anime idol. Though he showed he could create serious, dark drama with real power, he always stuck to speaking to younger audiences. Hata reminds me of Toshio Hirata in that respect - he somehow manages the magic trick of creating boldly personal work that remains impersonal and unpretentious. He's the embodiment of what it means to be a pro. He went on creating work that seemed oblivious to passing stylistic fads within Japan, when almost no other director at any studio over there seemed to be able to do the same. He had his eye on the goal the whole time. I can't think of any anime director who strikes me as having a greater sureness of purpose.

Here is a representative sample of Hata at his very best, roughly divided into his various periods:

The Mushi Pro years

We'll begin with that show I've long gone on about to no end, Goku's Big Adventure. Hata directed eight episodes in total. Episodes 9 and 10 are easily the best, and show Hata at his career best right from the start. Hata was never this uninhibited again, which I guess is what youth is about. In 1001 Nights and particularly in Cleopatra we have a rare chance to see Hata the animator in action. He animated Caesar and Antonius, along with a few other characters and scenes, in Cleopatra. Clearly Hata prefers coming up with the ideas to the arduous labor of transferring them to paper, but here he shows that he could function brilliantly as an animator if need be. Right after this Hata directed a few episodes of Osamu Dezaki's Tomorrow Joe, of which #14 shows him at the height of his powers.

The TMS years

Immediately after leaving Mushi Pro Hata drew the storyboard for episode 1 of 1973's Wild West Sam, and this is a great showcase for the talents of Hata the storyboarder at this transition period. Other than this Hata was actually quite busy storyboarding many of TMS's classic gag shows, but they're impossible to find over here, so only worth mentioning in passing.

The Sanrio years

Hata's most famous work was done while he was at Sanrio Films, the now defunct animation arm of Sanrio. His first project was co-directing the brilliant Little Jumbo in the year or so before 1977, which is unfortunately not available here. What is perhaps Hata's most famous piece came the year after - the masterful Ringing Bell. In it he showed that it was possible to balance dark, suspenseful drama with cute characters, creating a finely balanced short film with a universal style and theme compelling to people of any age. We can see a return of Hata the animator in the equally brilliant Unico pilot and the odd but memorable Winds of Change. The next five years of Hata's time at Sanrio were occupied on the two most significant achievements of his career: The Legend of Sirius and Fairy Florence.

The freelance years

After Sanrio Films disappeared, Hata acted as a pinch hitter director for the colossal Nemo, and did the very best he possibly could given the very difficult circumstances, as Yasuo Otsuka relates. I don't know how it came to Hata to direct the gross-out TV series Ping Pong Club in 1995, but he was a surprisingly perfect choice, and he handles it with his usual deft comic sense. In 1997 he handled the very different Tamagocchi mini-series, which allowed him free reign to do what he does best, breathing wonderful life into the inhabitants of a made-up microcosm. Hata touched on a wide variety forms and also went back to storyboarding for various shows during this period. It's high time that he came back to direct another film!