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: December 2006, 29

Friday, December 29, 2006

01:09:44 am , 1151 words, 6743 views     Categories: Animation, Studio, Animator

Koichi Murata & Oh Pro

I found another rather nice Koji Nanke video I'd never seen before: the second ending for Studio Pierrot's 1987 TV series Norakuro-kun. It's interesting to have Nanke take his place in the line of various adaptations, which span the entire history of anime. The manga dates from 1931, and the first animated adaptation was a theatrical short made only four years later by Japanese animation great Mitsuyo Seo (best known for the first full-length anime feature, 1945's Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors). He also made two other Norakuro shorts in the next three years. The second adaptation was a TV series by Eiken dating from 1970, and the third was Pierrot's version. A year prior to this Nanke also designed and animated the opening/ending for Pierrot's Anmitsu Hime.

About a month and a half ago, one of the more significant Japanese animators of the last forty years passed away: Koichi Murata 村田耕一. He died at age 67 on November 7, 2006. Koichi Murata probably isn't as well known to westerners as fellow Oh Production co-founder Kazuo Komatsubara, who was the man behind the animation of such films as Galaxy Express 999, Nausicaa and, near the end of his life, Junkers Come Here. However, both animators, as the resident masters at subcontracting studio Oh Production alongside the younger Toshitsugu Saida, were leading figures behind many of the TV series that graced European TV screens in the 70s and beyond. These series were produced by other studios, but Oh Pro was behind much of their animation. I remember watching both Harlock and Heidi growing up as a kid in France - both series in which the two men, respectively, played a large part. Koichi Murata was an animator in almost every episode of Nippon Animation's Future Boy Conan and literally every other episode of Marco.

I later became a fan of Nippon Animation's long-running World Masterpiece Theater, of which Koichi Murata remained one of the central pillars right up until the very end, for over 20 years helping to provide the stable quality for which the series was known. If that weren't enough, Oh Production produced one of the true great animated films of the last half-century in Japan: Gauche the Cellist. Koichi Murata was the driving force behind getting the film made over the six years it was in production (entirely pro bono, on the side, as a labor of love). Although I'm not too familiar with the specifics of his history or work, I know that we've lost one of the great animators of our day, one of the anonymous craftsmen behind a good number of the more memorable shows many of us grew up watching. Oh Production stood for something unique in animation in Japan, and Murata was the guiding light behind this unique studio. At least in my eyes, Murata stood for Oh Production, and I mourn his passing.

Unlike Kazuo Komatsubara and many other animators of his generation, Koichi Murata didn't start out at Toei Doga, but instead at an unknown studio called Anaguma (Badger) Production, proceeding through various small studios before founding Oh Production with Komatsubara, Norio Shioyama and Koshin Yonekawa in 1970. Toshitsugu Saida came in soon afterwards and became one of the studio's star animators. (Gauche was in part a vehicle for his skills. He singlehandedly drew all of the key animation for the 63-minute film.) The first projects at the studio were Tiger Mask for Toei Doga and Attack No1 for A Production (for TMS). Komatsubara worked on Tiger Mask and Murata on Attack No1, which became the set pattern at the studio - Komatsubara leading half of the studio on the Toei shows, Murata leading the other half on the A Production shows. In 1973 they did work on Rocky Chuck for Nippon Animation back when they were still Zuiyo, after which the A Pro section animators all went to work for Takahata on Heidi. From then on out Murata et al. devoted themselves to Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater and other shows.

From about 1975 onwards, work at Oh Production was split about halfway between Toei and Nippon Animation. Around 1980, after helping out on Conan and Miyazaki's Lupin eps, some animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga defected to Telecom. Oh Pro helped out on the early Telecom (TMS) productions like Jarinko Chie and Sherlock Hound. From the mid-1980s onwards, Oh Pro then started helping out on the Ghibli films. Obviously a relationship had formed with the two founders because of all the work they'd done together over the preceding decade. Oh Pro has been involved in almost every Ghibli film since, along with the core Telecom members. From the 1990s onwards, they continued to do work for Nippon Animation and Toei, but had diversified and were no longer split down the middle. The original team effort style of the studio seems to have given way to a more atomized approach, with each member working on his own project, a la Studio Hercules.

Besides their great work as an animation studio, Oh Pro has also been an important training ground, sending out into the world a number of great animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga. In 1970, a teenage inbetweener named Yoshinori Kanada came knocking on the doors of Oh Pro to ask Koichi Murata for an autograph because he adored Murata's way of drawing the protagonist of Attack No1. The first studio Masahito Yamashita applied to was Oh Pro. Fatefully, the person he met there was Kazuhide Tomonaga, who instead directed Yamashita over to Studio Z to work alongside Yoshinori Kanada.

Oh Pro was one of the more prominent success stories among the small studios that began popping up in the 1970s to feed on the abundant subcontracting work. Many came and went, but Oh Pro are still around and kicking. They've left behind lots of great work. But sadly, due to the nature of the work, they remain obscure. Gauche was conceived precisely for this reason - to escape from obscurity. They had pride in their work, and wanted something definitively of their own creation to be able to proclaim to the world as their calling card. The results were fantastic. I only wish they had continued on that tack and built on the success of the project to continue to make personal films of that sort on the side of their subcontracting work, as did another small studio, Animaru-ya. Little Twins is one example of them having done this, but I can't get enough and wish there were more.

Among the last places I remember seeing Murata Koichi's name was in Stormy Night. He had a full and extremely prolific career as an animator spanning three and a half decades, each and every year chock full of work, but I still can't help but feel that he died too young and had more work in him. I admire the way he worked right up until the very end. He was the picture of a lifelong animator.