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: May 2008, 23

Friday, May 23, 2008

12:30:49 am , 1211 words, 2592 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Tama Pro

An omnibus called Visions of Frank was released last year. It consists of nine animated shorts by nine different Japanese artists inspired by the work of Jim Woodring's comic Frank. Each of the films in the set has a very different style, and I hadn't heard of many of the artists, so it was interesting viewing. The one that stuck with me since I first saw it a few months ago was the one entitled Hi-Rise Hopper, with its vivid full animation, unusual for a Japanese production, and wild amorphous transformations in the Akira blob tradition. Besides being a blast to watch, I felt it did the most justice to the characters and atmosphere of the comic. I was inspired to re-watch it today after reading a great article on Frank (thanks Alan), and got curious to figure out who exactly was behind this piece, as the only credit I could find was "Tamapro/Drop", which meant nothing to me. After a bit of digging, I found the answer, and learned a few other things along the way.

The film was storyboarded and directed by one Saburo Hashimoto with art directing and colors by freelance graphic designer Mizuki Totori, and it dates from 2003. As far as I can gather, Saburo Hashimoto belongs to a small but venerable subcontracting studio called Tama Production, which is where the animation was produced. It made sense to discover that Tama Pro has been involved in a lot of western subcontracting, as that partly accounts for the unusual feeling of the animation. The film represents a curious intersection of Western and Japanese vectors in terms of style, ideas and production, which all converged to brilliant effect here. Studios like this that bridge the Western and the Japanese have always fascinated me. Other examples include Sanrio Films, Telecom, Answer Studio and Topcraft. The results can often be quite interesting when their knowhow acquired through years of working on foreign productions are applied to their own in-house productions, as was the case with Flag more recently.

Tama Production is one of Japan's most venerable animation-only subcontractors, having been around since 1965 and having worked on innumerable shows for all of the major studios. They're still quite active and currently employ 30 people, according to their home page. Tama Pro is more than anything remembered for their close association with Tatsunoko Productions, as they regularly handled the animation for entire episodes of Tatsunoko's shows in wholesale style, and their animators consequently developed a pronounced Tatsunoko influence and understanding of how to render the characters.

The studio was founded by an animator named Eiji Tanaka, who started out at Mushi Pro working on Tetsuwan Atom in 1963. He didn't remain long before leaving to found his own studio, which would go on to work as a subcontractor for not only Tatsunoko but also many other large studios, from Tokyo Movie to Toei Doga to Mushi Pro to Madhouse. Eiji Tanaka himself was quite active as an animator on the front line while also training his studio's animators himself. He had a long career before passing away recently, having been an animator in many shows including Tatsunoko's Speed Racer (1967), Kurenai Sanshiro (1969) (chief animator) and Gatchaman (1972) before moving on to working as an animation director on a slew of shows including, most famously, the first few shows in Tatsunoko's Time Bokan series (1975-). He also managed to do some work as a character designer, having designed Astroganger (1972), Chargeman Ken (1973), Don Chuck (1975) and Little Prince (1978).

The two earliest and most prominent animators to have trained directly under the tutelage of Eiji Tanaka were Takashi Saijo and Jushi Mizumura, who have been involved in almost all of the studio's projects over the years and remain active today. They regularly alternate between working as animation directors and animators. In Tanaka's absence, they are clearly the leading lights at the studio. Other animators who can be seen in the studio's recent work include Akira Watanabe, Hiroaki Kawaguchi, Yoshiaki Matsuda, Naoki Takahashi and Kuniko Yano. Recent episodes they've handled include Black Lagoon #7, Death Note #9 and Otogizoshi #2. I haven't found any credits for the animation of Hi-Rise Hopper, but it seems probable that some combination of these names may have been responsible. I'd particularly like to find out who animated that mind-blowing transformation shot.

Tatsunoko stood out from their peers back in the day for what was known as their "butter stench", as they say in Japan, i.e. their American comic-book stylings. Tama Pro was therefore already steeped in a more or less Western-ish mood when they began taking on subcontracting work for Disney TV and video productions in the 1990s. Whether it's true or not I don't know, but they were apparently known as the only subcontracting studio in Japan up to the task of working in the Disney style, which suggests the unique position they occupied. It's clear that this experience underpins the animation that we can see in Hi-Rise Hopper, which is one of the few entirely Japanese-produced films I've seen whose animation successfully emulates the look and feel of conventional Western 'traditional animation'.

Although I'm not too familiar with the original comic, based on what little I've read about it the virtuosic display of horrific bodily transformation in Hi-Rise Hopper struck me as being exactly what was called for, going back to the cartoon style of animation that is the inspiration for the characters of the comic, where emotions transform directly into stretched bodies, bulging eyes and other extreme deformations. It takes Woodring's whole sophisticated re-interpretation of the classical Western cartoon aesthetic and plugs it right back into an animation mode of expression, completing the loop. The wild card is that it should have come not from some Western studio, but from Japanese animators trained working on Japanese-produced shows that emulated American styled comics using Japanese limited animation knowhow, rather than the sort of traditional full animation tradition that gave birth to the cartoon aesthetic that inspired Frank. Ultimately, they're all connected in the grand scheme of things, and the march of progress continues to this day, with those Japanese animators now emulating Western animation and vice-versa. It's so convoluted a situation that it almost makes perfect sense, like some beautiful ironic comment on the evolution of animation.

Around 2004 a studio called Drop was opened on the third floor of the building in Higashi Kurume that houses Tama Pro, which occupies the first two floors. This new studio was founded by producer Takeshi Hagiwara, who up until that point had been working for Tama Pro. A number of clips from the projects they've undertaken since 2004 can be seen on their home page, including Hi-Rise Hopper. Tama Pro is credited with the animation elements of a number of Drop's other films as well, which seems to suggest that Drop is a production/planning off-shoot of Tama Pro. I that's the case, the naming would make sense - Drop is the English word for Tama. ('drop' as in 'candy drop') Mizuki Totori, who designed the art and colors of Hi-Rise Hopper, more recently singlehandedly created a new short for Drop entitled Drop-kun, which seems to be a sort of mascot character for the studio. Drop-kun was one of the Jury Recommended Works of the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival.