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: April 2006, 15

Saturday, April 15, 2006

06:10:44 pm , 1418 words, 2568 views     Categories: Animation

Jungle Kurobée

Back-catalogues are always an interesting thing to explore. Whether it be discovering how much of a difference a great storyboard can make upon viewing Isao Takahata's storyboard for Jacky the Bearcub #5 of 1977, or seeing the faint outline of his later style in his earliest work on Ken the Wolf Boy from 1963, or discovering Osamu Dezaki's crazed early work on Goku in 1967 after having only been familiar with the trademark Dezaki style of Blackjack or Cobra or Aim for the Ace... There are always little side-jobs a creator has done over the years that can be interesting to discover for the insight they can offer on a person's evolution or hidden, unexplored possibilities.

No one offers a better example of this than Dezaki, who was rather prolific on a variety of TV shows during the early 70s after the breakup of Mushi Pro, leaving behind a healthy stock of material waiting to be rediscovered by an intrepid fan. While at Mushi Pro Dezaki worked alongside many of the people who he would go on to take with him when he left the studio to form Madhouse with Masao Maruyama et al., most prominently Sugino Akio, who worked with him on Tomorrow Joe. Masami Hata stayed at Mushi Pro until the very end in 1973 and did his earliest work for TMS under Dezaki that same year.

The decade of the 70s for Dezaki consists almost exclusively of work for TMS because Yutaka Fujioka provided the funding for the founding of Madhouse, so there was a sort of obligation relationship there. Dezaki was one of the people to whom Fujioka turned to provide a pilot for Nemo, the project that was essentially the reason Fujioka got into animation in the first place, which should make it clear how close they must have been. Dezaki was one of the pillars of TMS, even while not technically being a TMS person. It was for TMS that Dezaki directed the bulk of his most famous TV work - Aim for the Ace (1973), Gamba's Adventure (1975), Treasure Island (1978), etc. All of these are still fairly popular today, as is his very first show, Tomorrow Joe (1970). But between the two came his very first job as TV series director for TMS in 1973 - Jungle Kurobée - which still remains a mystery item to most people, for the unique reasons outlined below.

A Pro is more famous as being the force behind those distinctive TMS shows with fast-paced action and simple designs like Dokonjo Gaeru and Ganso Tensai Bakabon. This is the style that eventually led to Doraemon, albeit in watered-down form, sapped of the zing and animated frenzy that made these early shows so memorable. Jungle Kurobée falls into that line at first sight, but it was directed by Dezaki with animation from the still young Madhouse, rather than A Pro. The Madhouse of this era is permanently associated with Sugino in my head, so the stylistic disconnect is a little hard to fathom. But the fact is, there's a lot of overlap in the staff in these early formative years, accounting for the similarity - first and foremost Yoshio Kabashima, who would go on to be one of the main A Pro people, also working one more time with Dezaki on Gamba's Adventure in 1975, which is the last time we see Dezaki doing this sort of material. So Kurobée sort of acts as the missing link between Goku (1967) and Gamba (1975) for the gag vein of Dezaki that I've always loved. Dezaki recently directed a film of Hamtaro that I'd be curious to see, as the material seems an obvious extension of this stylistic line. I've heard it's quite dynamic, which is exactly what I'd expect, knowing his early work. This material seemed to liberate him to get in touch with a primitive inner energy that you don't see in his other more 'realistic' work, and that's something I'd have liked to have seen more often, but I think it started to be out of tune with the times from the 80s on.

Stills from: ep 1a (Dezaki storyboard); 5a; 3b (Hata storyboards)

Kurobée was cancelled after only 31 eps, while Dokonjo ran for more than two years, but this had more to do with the fact that Ultraman was airing in the same time slot as Kurobée on another channel than because of an inherent difference in quality. Kurobée shares most of the qualities that made and make Dokonjo and A Pro's later shows so exhilirating and fun, from the dynamic cutting and simple layout and designs to the vivacious and characterful animation that pushes the medium of limited animation to its limits. Kurobée further benefits from the acid wit and manic pacing that characterized Dezaki's work on Goku. Dezaki himself admits to having a particular soft spot for this series. This was his first job for TMS after Fujioka had gave him the money to found his own studio, so he really put the effort in to do the best work he could to pay back the favor, and it shows. The first ep, which Dezaki storyboarded (he did 8 other storyboards and a lot of correcting), bursts with an inexplicable frenzied energy. He achieves a sort of nirvana state in the pacing, with events unfolding less based on logic than on a sort of genius instinct for what will create the most viscerally exciting flow of unexpected action.

The story itself is simple, as the series is purely episodic, with only the vaguest running narrative. In that it's like all of the other shows that followed. But the basic story is at the root of the show's woes. It's why Kurobée has been banned from ever being shown on TV or released on video in Japan. Kurobée is the story of a boy from the imaginary country of Pirimi in Africa. By mistake one day he stows away on a plane heading to Japan and overnight finds himself in an alien land unlike anything he's ever seen. A Japanese family finds him and offers him shelter for the night, and in return he vows to repay the favor. He digs a large hole several meters deep, indicating that he will have repaid the favor once he has filled the hole with rocks, one rock for each good deed, as is the custom in his land. The rest of the series relates his escapades trying to repay the favor, one good deed at a time. It's a classic clash-of-cultures setup, with Kurobée acting as a sort of naive cypher there to spotlight the foibles of Japanese society. Walkabout came out two years earlier, and must certainly have been an influence on Hayao Miyazaki when he came up with the basic premise just before leaving A Pro for Nippon Animation.

The problems started when the manga version by Fujiko Fujio was reprinted in 1989. (The manga was written while the anime was airing, but only loosely parallels the anime.) An activist group formed to combat discrimination against Africans in Japan successfully petitioned for the banning of Little Black Sambo on the basis of its racist portrayal of Africans, and subsequently brought the same accusation against Jungle Kurobée. The publishers, and Fujio himself, decided to play it safe to avoid litigation, and the book was retracted. The anime version was not technically implicated in the whole debacle, but by association it is effectively banned as well, meaning no reruns or DVD release.

I support this group's fight. Discrimination is alive and well in Japan and elsewhere, not only against blacks but against native Ainu, burakumin and others. It just doesn't seem like banning Jungle Kurobée is the solution. For one, it's highly debatable whether the accusation is true. It seems fairly obvious that Kurobe is not a vehicle to caricature a specific culture or race. Kurobe could have been a fairy from a magical kingdom and the clash-of-cultures setup would have functioned just as well. The anime itself hasn't even been impugned. Cowardice and/or laziness to address the accusation on the part of the publishers and creator are largely responsible for its disappearance. The show's inherent quality and historical value make it regrettable that any circumstance should prevent it from being seen. Rather than allowing a third party to make the decision for us, the most satisfying solution would seem to be to give posterity the opportunity to judge the matter with its own eyes.