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: January 2008, 19

Saturday, January 19, 2008

11:59:55 pm , 1025 words, 2127 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Joe and the Rose

I now turn to an older classic of children's animation about a little dog: Joe and the Rose, directed by Takashi Yanase at Sanrio Films in 1977. This film has in fact been for the most part buried from view of the public since its creation. It was first released on a consumer format on the recent Japanese DVD release of Sanrio's more well-known Ringing Bell, on which Joe was included alongside Little Jumbo. Together, these three films comprise what you might call the Takashi Yanase Trilogy - films based on stories by Takashi Yanase produced by the same Sanrio Films team over the span of several years in the latter half of the 1970s. (Mushi Pro's charming Gentle Lion of 1970 might be included as a precursor) Little Jumbo was the first, begun in 1975. It was followed by Joe and the Rose in 1977 and then Ringing Bell in 1978. The first two films are styled similarly, in Yanase's vivid picturebook style, while the more realistic Ringing Bell marks a change leading towards the epic style of Legend of Sirius.

For quite a long time up until seeing Joe and the Rose for the first time tonight, I had only heard rumors of the film's existence, and had forgotten about it by now. I never imagined I would see it. Little Jumbo had for a long time similarly been an obscurity about which I remained skeptical it was worth the effort to hunt down. I nevertheless bought the VHS tape on a whim, watched it with low expectations in view of the film's obscurity, and left feeling overjoyed for finally having been able to see such a brilliant, delightful buried gem. The same has happened again. While it's not quite up to the level of Little Jumbo, Joe was far better than I'd expected, and I'm happy to have been able to put off the delight of seeing this wonderful companion piece to Little Jumbo for the first time for this long.

Very few animated films I've ever seen come close the unsullied purity and innocence of these two films. They can't be compared to what Sanrio evolved into in later years, churning out money in the shape of saccharine, brightly colored character copyrights. These are honest, heartfelt films made by a team of brilliant animators. There's a vein of primordial inventiveness and imagination tapped in the films that seems to have completely disappeared from the face of animation in Japan. There are certainly a number of ingenious creators active even today, but what's made these days seems different in nature somehow, more knowing. Animation made today seems burdened by a sort of self-reflexiveness. In these two films, it feels like every faculty of these animators' creativity is channeled in a very selfless way to the sole task of coming up with beautiful and creative ideas at the service of the children watching the films.

The style of the films is quite unique, and remains very fresh seen today. They're both musicals, but musicals of a different sort from what might be seen in western animation, and certainly very different from anything of the sort being made in Japan at the time. Little Jumbo is not even so much a musical as an ingenious sort of animated opera, with a score by Taku Izumi and lyrics by Takashi Yanase that function perfectly together. Joe is less sung and more music-driven, with a score by Naohisa Terajima featuring swaths of music alternating with sung narrative. The films would be unthinkable without their unforgettable, catchy scores, which are interlinked with the drama and help to drive it forward at every moment. Little Jumbo in particular boasts a great variety and range of color that makes it work great as a piece of music drama. Animation has always seemed a rather operatic medium to me, and these films adopt the trappings of opera to brilliant effect.

These unusual, unlikely films were obviously the product of a team who wanted to try to go in a new and interesting direction that was at odds with what was being done by the whole of the industry, to create something genuinely inventive as animation. There is a tremendous amount of creative thinking funneled into the films, which are crammed with inventive and catchy animated ideas. The animation/visuals aspect of Little Jumbo, in particular, is among the most original and memorable of that entire period in my estimation, with fantastic use of color and incredible freedom in the animation. Every shot presents a new visual scheme or idea, and it all ties in with the tone and rhythm and story. Joe was animated by only three individuals, but has an impressive vitality in spite of the obviously more limited means, and maintains the same simple but satisfying balance in the designs and art schemes. I venture to guess that the dog may have been animated by Shigeru Yamamoto, due to the characteristic bouncy movement, the rose by Kazuko Nakamura, and the vivid and dynamically moving crows by Toshio Hirata.

What makes these films stand apart in the field of films for children is perhaps the consistently hard-edge nature of the stories, which are, each and every one, tragedies of Greek proportions with a truly brutal sting. They go back to the root of children's stories, bringing back the fatality of the Grimms. Who would be able to forget having seen Ringing Bell for the first time as a kid? Little Jumbo ends with the island decimated and the population being annihilated, caught in the middle of a war between two neighboring countries, while Joe and the Rose is a bitterly stoic fable about the nature of mortality and love, and how both are doomed to die in each other's arms. Takashi Yanase was obviously of the hard knocks school of children's lit, telling stories that at the core are basically about facing the truth of what it means to be human. The protagonists are pitted against nothing so much as the human condition and mortality. These are truly beautiful children's stories, but with a solid core that makes them resonate more profoundly with age.