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: November 2010

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

11:47:42 pm , 187 words, 4669 views     Categories: Animation

Ayumi Hamasaki's Connected

I rewatched the old video for Ayumi Hamasaki's Connected recently. What a peculiar video. The bizarre mechano-sexual imagery is amusing. I'm not imagining the homage to Akira, right? I was surprised to notice some of the animation was obviously by Shinya Ohira. I don't remember noticing that the first time I watched it, and I've never heard anyone mention this, so I thought I'd point it out. I haven't seen the credits, but it's one of those times when it seems pretty obvious just looking at it. It's a bizarre combination - this kind of crude CGI and somewhat generic anime-style designs, all of a sudden shifting to Ohira's animation. The faces of some of his shots appear to have been corrected, so it's not as obvious as it might have been, but some of them seem more 'pure'.

Also, note that I'll be out for the next two weeks on a little pre-holiday season vacation, so it will probably be quiet here. I'll be seeing Midori-ko and other movies this weekend in LA at the Animation Festival International. Looking forward to that. And the warm weather.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

05:16:00 pm , 1145 words, 3873 views     Categories: Animation

The History of Mutual Aid

Jack and the Beanstalk (1974) is usually seen as Group Tac's starting point. But in fact their very first production was a film they made in 1973 about the history of insurance. It was commissioned by the Japan Institute of Life Insurance, an organization aimed at promoting understanding of life insurance among the general public.

Its title: Tasukeai no Rekishi: Seimei Hoken Monogarai or The History of Mutual Aid: The Story of Life Insurance.

This film has been one the more obscure items on Group Tac's filmography, but it's actually readily available. Not in a cheap consumer format, but educational institutions in Japan can borrow it from the JILI. Not being in Japan, I doubt I'll ever get to see it unless someone rips it, but the JILI has been kind enough to upload a short trailer for the film on their page for the video, and this is more than I ever expected to see. They also offer a free pamphlet version of the story, which they've made available in PDF format here.

The visuals of that clip were a surprise to me. I was expecting something pedestrian and boring for a commission about the history of life insurance, but it looks way more creative, lively and well-animated than I expected. It actually looks really entertaining(!). Some of the shots, like the shot of the horse-drawn carriage racing towards the screen at the beginning of the clip, are animated with an amazing degree of fluidity and detail. I actually thought I was watching the wrong clip for a second when I saw that shot. It wouldn't be out of place in an old Disney short. I know Disney made numerous educational shorts like this.

The film is filled with tons of creative design ideas, adopting a different look and visual scheme for each era of history covered. And it's not just the variety of designs that's impressive, it's the style. Some of the stylization has a very pleasant simplicity that reminds me simultaneously of mid-century UPA work and its Japanese descendants in the shorts of Tezuka and Hiroshi Manabe. Looking through the pamphlet, it's almost hard to believe all of the images in there are from the same film.

It looks like a great film from an animation and directing standpoint, so I would like to have the chance to see this sometime. It appears to be the classic definition of a lost masterpiece - almost unseen in the west for almost 40 years because of its subject matter, but actually one of the studio's best pieces. And now the studio is gone. It's so sad.

Staff-wise, the film was directed by Group Tac co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, but I don't know anything else, like the animators, except that Kyoko Kishida (Moomin and many Tadanari Okamoto films) is the narrator.

Gisaburo Sugii had directed the amazing Goku's Big Adventure for Mushi Pro in 1967. Gisaburo Sugii is an awesome director - one of the few uncontested geniuses in anime. He was one of the great minds of the early period of anime history. Goku still has not received the recognition it deserves as one of the most daring, smart, edgy, ahead-of-its-time anime productions ever. The same could be said about everything he touched back then - Dororo, Belladonna and Jack and the Beanstalk.

Thus, The History of Mutual Aid appears to be not just a lost Group Tac film but a lost Gisaburo Sugii masterpiece, as full of visual flair and inventiveness as his best work. All the more reason why it deserves to be re-discovered. It's a good companion piece to Jack and the Beanstalk - the bridge between his Mushi Pro and his Group Tac period.

The PDF pamphlet gives a good overview of the story of the 25-minute film, as well as providing a few more visuals from the film.

Love it or hate it, insurance is a necessary part of our lives. Auto insurance, health insurance, life insurance, fire insurance, home insurance, credit default swaps - the sheer variety of flavors of insurance we've managed to invent is astounding. Insurance has existed in some form or another since the beginning of organized society.

The film traces the history of insurance in human society. The very development of human society - moving from a nomadic to a farming lifestyle to ensure against starvation - is in itself a form of insurance against nature. Eventually, people began working together, and insurance evolved from informal means into organizations using concepts prefiguring our modern notions of premiums and policies. Guilds in the middle ages evolved through to the work of people like 18th century British mathematician James Dodson, one of the innovators of modern insurance, into the modern insurance industry.

What I want to know is when they invented the concept of the pre-existing condition. That's surely one of the great breakthroughs in the history of insurance - for the insurance industry. That's one thing about this film - it's one of those films that's a message film rather than an even-handed educational film made by a neutral third party, so immediately I'm suspicious. Insurance today is associated in the mind of many with usurious practices and trying to weasel out of paying claims, and I'd like to see a film that covers the negative aspects as well.

As a concept, it may be flawed, but beyond that, you can look at the film in terms of what Gisaburo Sugii and Group Tac were able to do within the confines they were given. It's not like it's war propaganda. For a film about the history of insurance, which could have been like watching paint dry, it looks like they made an incredibly fun and creative film that at the same time is educational, which is in itself quite impressive. You also do sense a bit of gentle irony in the images about the nature of what's happening - people essentially placing bets on whether you're going to die or not.

The company Sakura Eigasha is credited as producing the film. I suppose they must have been contracted, and they then sub-contracted actual production to Group Tac, the way they did with Shin-Ei's first production, Tenguri (1977). Interesting that the first productions by two of my favorite studios were contracted by Sakura Eigasha. On top of that, they were the co-producer of two of Tadanari Okamoto's best late-period films: Okonjoruri (1982) and The Restaurant of Many Orders (1990). They also produced Kihachiro Kawamoto's Book of the Dead (2006).

You can buy this film on VHS directly from Sakura Eigasha for the reasonable price of ¥45,000 ($550). I suppose it's meant for educational institutions. Sakura Eigasha were started in 1955 and were primarily occupied with producing educational documentaries about traditional Japanese arts and foreign cultures. In addition to this, they did animation films on occasion. A large proportion of these happen to be very good films, but by their nature, they've remained on the fringes of recognition.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

01:41:00 am , 2708 words, 6962 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

The 11 Cats

I miss Group Tac, and it's films like this that are the reason.

The 11 Cats is a wonderful film - an exuberantly animated, colorful, imaginative, zany, witty, freewheeling adventure about a group of 11 cats out on an odyssey to find a giant fish for dinner.

For some baffling reason, this lovable and lovingly crafted film has fallen into complete obscurity, like several other great films from this era. It was never released on VHS or LD or any other consumer format. Thank the magic of the internet for bringing it back from the dead. (watch it here)

This is another film I never expected to see. But I'm glad I finally got the chance. It's the definition of a buried gem. It's hard to understand why it was so willfully neglected. Unlike many a film from 1980, this one doesn't show its age. Seen thirty years later, it still feels fresh and new. It's got a timeless sensibility and unique, universal design style. It's fun to watch from start to finish.

The 11 Cats was Group Tac's second movie, completed fully six years after their first, Jack and the Beanstalk. In my opinion, this is one of their best films alongside Jack and the Beanstalk (1974), Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985), Bonobono (1993), Spring and Chaos (1997) and A Stormy Night (2005). Alongside Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, these are the films that you should watch to get a sense of the unique style and sensibility of Group Tac.

The film was based on the first book in a long-running series of picture books about 11 cats who go on various adventures written/drawn by one Noboru Baba between 1968 and 1996. Group Tac even adapted the second book in the series, The 11 Cats and the Albatross, in 1986. The books are perennial best-sellers, so it's baffling that nobody thought to make these films available for viewing after their theatrical release. I'm sure there would have been continuous interest in these two animated adaptations of the books even if they weren't good films in their own right, which they are.

Though you wouldn't know it based on the anime that gets focused on by fans, there have been a lot of films of this kind produced over the years. Films that don't adhere to the anime aesthetic. It's heartwarming to think that this film was made smack in the midst of the anime boom. That's why I like Group Tac.

What is it that makes this film so delightful? It's partly the heavy use of music. It's kind of a musical anime. There's not so much a score as interludes. The narrative alternates between the story of the cats moving along on their journey towards the ocean to find the big fish and musical set pieces that showcase fun animated antics and creative visual flights of fancy.

For example, in one scene, the cats find an island of catnip. The cats all get high on catnip and don't want to leave. Their eyes look all drugged out, and the bizarre visuals - the cats flying around and hallucinating about flying whales - have the obvious undertone of an acid trip. Group Tac made another film a few years later called (ahem) Noel's Fantasic Trip. And let's not forget the trippy tone of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Sanrio Films had been making great films in this vein in the 1970s, with films like Little Jumbo and Joe and the Rose. Of course, Group Tac had themselves made a musical with Jack and the Beanstalk in the 1970s, but the inspiration of The 11 Cats seems to harken back to the same kind of freewheeling, colorful, psychedelic graphic style seen in The Yellow Submarine that was a clear inspiration for Little Jumbo. The 11 Cats has that same very hand-drawn style and overall focus on creative animation and eye-poppingly colorful storybook visuals, rather than on more typical character-based narrative storytelling like Jack and the Beanstalk. Group Tac kind of took over that role in the early 1980s for a short time with these films.

The art is really colorful and imaginative thanks to the work of Minoru Aoki, who also rendered services on the second installment six years later. His vivid, simple, beautiful backgrounds make the film look like a moving picture book. The oasis scene in particular has some of the film's most pleasing visuals, with the vibrant color schemes of the flowery jungle. The villages, meanwhile, are painted in a lovely and pleasing naif style that reminds a bit of the style of Night on the Galactic Railroad.

This film was actually novel technically in the sense that everything was done on cels. The backgrounds were painted on cels rather than on regular paper. That's what gives the film such a sense of visual unity. It's all the same flat colors as the original picture book. Minoru Aoki adapted himself brilliantly to this style, with its reduced color palette and solid colors.

The music itself isn't just any music, it's by Hitoshi Komuro, who was one of the lead figures behind the legendary folk-rock band Rokumonsen that was active in the early 70s and beyond in various configurations. Their song Ame ga Sora Kara Fureba (If Rain Falls from the Sky) (1970) was one of their big hits. Komuro's music has a great funky folk-rock vibe that goes a tremendous way to making the film's animated sequences so fun. I think it must have been Atsumi Tashiro who was behind this, both as the producer and the audio director of the film. Jack and the Beanstalk also had an outstanding, ripping soundtrack.

Atsumi Tashiro was creative in his role as audio director. In addition to doing great work with the music, he chose interesting people to voice-act the films. Jack had a host of unusual names in the voices, which he presumably either learned or first did while working on the Animerama films at Mushi Pro, which had a lot of strange ideas for casting and unexpected cameos. For example, novelists Endo Shusaku, Sakyo Komatsu and Yasutaka Tsutui have cameos in Cleopatra. One of the things that makes Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi so great is that Atsumi Tashiro came up with the idea to use only two voice-actors in every episode - Etsuko Ichihara and Fujio Tokita - and to let them improvise much of their dialogue rather than reading from a script.

The film has a unique sensibility overall that's hard to put your finger on. It's a combination of everything - unique cat characters, the lively animation, the good directing, the funky music, the vivid art, the smart script and natural voice-acting. The simple layouts and cartoonish visuals especially go a long way towards giving the films its character, with the reduced detail in the lines and especially no shadows.

I'm guessing the voices were recorded presco rather than afreco - i.e. before rather than after, as the dialogue sounds very different somehow from the usual anime voice-acting. The voice's impetus comes from the dialogue, not from the visuals. It sounds very different when you get an actor to play out a script using only his or her imagination than when they have to read the dialogue while watching the animation and make it fit. There's one voice I particularly like - Hiroko Maruyama. She played the boy Gon in Hajime Ningen Gyators. I can't get enough of her high-pitched, raspy, squealy voice. Every word she says puts a grin on my face.

I love the cat characters. They're just so fun to watch. The dynamic between the 11 cats is great. They usually get along, but occasionally they'll have fights. But when they go their separate ways, they can't get anything done. There's obviously a message buried in the story about sticking together to accomplish things.

I didn't like Noel's Fantastic Trip as much as this film because it feels kind of too kiddy and patsy. The 11 Cats doesn't feel like that at all. It's got a witty and wry sense of humor that makes it appealing to adult viewers. That's what I think is great about it - it's just naturally appealing to all ages. They didn't strive to bridge the divide or something.

The simple designs allow the animators to get into moving them. The very first shot of the film where the cop cat picks up the slips of paper in a flurry is great in that regard, though not much of the film is quite as lovingly animated as that first shot. But it's quite remarkable how much more animation they pack into this film than into most anime. The fun of the film is about watching the cat characters zoom around doing things.

It's a thoroughly animated film. There's always something fun going on with the animation from shot to shot, be it a gag or one of the cats doing some little thing off to the side different from everyone else. The scenes are creatively choreographed, and the different cat characters all have different expressions and behavior.

I assume it's Teruto Kamiguchi we have to thank for the good feeling of this film's animation. It's very much in his style - highly movemented and fun simple character animation. He doesn't get much recognition, but I think he was one of the cooler animators of the 1970s, with a really unique style not too influenced by most of the typical things that influenced other industry animators - robots, big-eyed shoujos or what not. His animation feels much more influenced by cartoons, if anything.

Kamiguchi is credited as the "chief animator" rather than as the animation director, which would seem to suggest that his role wasn't correcting the drawings but rather guiding the animators spiritually in his own very unique approach to animation. And clearly it worked, because the whole film feels infused of his sensibility towards movement.

I'm not familiar with many of the animators, but presumably they were Tac people. For example, Group Tac's Iga no Kabamaru from 1983-84 had character design by Akio Hosotani, and the opening was animated by Tameo Kohanawa and Takamitsu Yukawa. Tameo Kohanawa directed the second 11 Cats film for Group Tac. Eguchi Marisuke and Jiro Saruyama both worked on Night on the Galactic Railroad. Many of the other animators worked on Noel's Fantastic Trip in 1983. Hideo Kawauchi and Michishiro Yamada, meanwhile, were both Ajia-Do animators.

Takamitsu Yukawa is an interesting case. I've known him as the guy who helped animate indie animator Taku Furuyama's films. It turns out he was one of the leaders of the legendary animation group Anido, and the one who came up with the idea for their seminal animation magazine Film 1/24. He also ran his own group called Flafra. I don't know whether he was an employee of Tac, but he appears to have been a regular on their productions. He storyboarded and animated the stork catcher scene in Night on the Galactic Railroad, and was even one of the "special animators" in Spring and Chaos.

All of the main staff were Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regulars. And not coincidentally, all of them worked at Mushi Pro before transferring to Group Tac after Mushi Pro went out of business. Atsumi Tashiro had worked on all of the same Mushi Pro shows. Thus, from a staff perspective, like Gon, the Little Fox, The 11 Cats is another theatrical companion-piece to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.

Director Shiro Fujimoto was born in 1942. He joined Mushi Pro in 1965, and worked on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi from 1976 to 1982. After this he left animation to focus on painting and picture books, which had been his real passion all along. In addition, for many years now, he has been travelling around the world painting the landscapes he finds in different countries and holding exhibitions of his work in Japan. Apparently he confided in someone at a later date that he had done directing on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi against his will and really wanted to be doing art. Which is ironic, because the episodes he directed are among the best in the show, and helped define the show's spirit.

During his Mushi Pro days, Shiro Fujimoto was the art director of Goku no Daiboken (1967), directed by Gisaburo Sugii just one year before Sugii co-founded Group Tac with Atsumi Tashiro. He was the layout man on Ribon no Kishi (1967), which featured Teruto Kamiguchi as the animation director - one of their earliest collaborations. At Group Tac, one of the fist things Shiro Fujimoto did was to act as one of the art directors of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Chief animator Teruto Kamiguchi began his career in animation as an inbetweener on Toei Doga's third feature film Journey to the West (1960). He continued working as an inbetweener on Toei Doga's first TV anime Wolf Boy Ken (1963).

He soon left to join Mushi Pro. While there, he was the animation director of Ribon no Kishi (1967) and Dororo (1967). He was an animator in the first two Animerama films, 1001 Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). In Cleopatra he did a great job animating the character Lupa. Lupa was a scene-stealer right from his first appearance. I love the gag where his spots fall off later on in the boat. You don't see cartoonish gags like that very often in anime. His animation was so much looser and freer and more imaginative and playful than any of his peers. He was clearly one of the most talented animators of that generation in Japan.

He soon moved to Group Tac, where he animated the giant Tulip in Jack and the Beanstalk (1974). Tulip is a great character, doltish yet menacing, and you can see a lot of the very same kind of playful, imaginative, flexible character animation that made Lupa so fun in the animation of the giant, particularly the funny climactic chase.

Two of Shiro Fujimoto's picture books and a collection of his watercolor landscape paintings

Both Teruto Kamiguchi and Shiro Fujimoto were very active on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi as soon as it started in 1975. Kamiguchi was probably one of the show's most prolific animators. He animated and/or directed more than 100 episodes. (some of Teruto Kamiguchi's episodes) His episodes also happen to be among the ones that move the most. A lot of the show's episodes are quite still, but his are incredibly fluid and have fun action sequences. The Three Charms is a good example of his more movemented style of animation. The designs are great, too. This episode was directed by Gisaburo Sugii and features art by Minoru Aoki, the art director of The 11 Cats. Minoru Aoki also was a prolific contributor to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. He did well over 100 episodes. (some of Minoru Aoki's episodes)

Shiro Fujimoto did a more diverse array of things on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi than most people. He mixed it up, doing directing sometimes, art sometimes, both sometimes, and even animating a bit. (some of Shiro Fujimoto's episodes) For some reason he also used the pen name Shiro Marufu on some episodes. Shiro Fujimoto worked with Teruto Kamiguchi and Minoru Aoki at various times on different episodes.

A second film adapting the second book in Baba Noboru's picture book series was released by Group Tac in 1986. I haven't seen it, but judging by the opening and ending, it's fairly different in animation tone, albeit subtly so. I assume the difference is because Night on the Galactic Ralroad and Stormy Night designer Marisuke Eguchi was at the head of the animators this time around.

The 11 Cats (1980, 83 mins)

Based on the 1967 picture book of the same name by Baba Noboru

Produced by Group Tac

Director: Shiro Fujimoto

Animation Director: Tsuneo Maeda

Music: Hitoshi Komuro

Art Director: Minoru Aoki

Title Design: Takao Kodama

Audio Director: Atsumi Tashiro

Chief Animator: Teruto Kamiguchi


Takamitsu Yukawa
Tsuneo Wakabayashi
Nobuko Abe
Akatsuki Fukuda
Hiroshi Tsuchihashi
Michishiro Yamada
Hideo Kawauchi
Kazuko Hirose
Koichi Tsuchida
Yasuo Mori
Akio Hosotani
Marisuke Eguchi
Jiro Saruyama
Masateru Yoshimura
Kaoru Ishiguro
Jun Kiguchi
Asahiko Yanagita
Hiroko Sawada
Akiko Kawata

The 11 Cats and the Albatross (1986, 90 min)

Based on the 1972 picture book of the same name by Baba Noboru

Produced by Group Tac

Director: Tameo Kohanawa

Animation: Marisuke Eguchi

Script: Yoshitake Suzuki

Art Director: Minoru Aoki

Music: Hideki Shinozaki

Key Animators:

Kaoru Nakajima
Seiji Nomura
Yukinari Senda
Kazushige Yusa
Masahiko Murata
Kazuko Shibata

Michishiro Yamada
Kazuya Hayashi
Kumiko Tsukada
Etsuko Iiguchi
Hironori Iida
Yuji Shigekuni

Inbetween check: Jiro Saruyama

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

10:04:00 pm , 363 words, 1765 views     Categories: Animation

Yoshiyuki Momose vid for Yui Aragaki

Yoshiyuki Momose's new piece, Piece, was finished earlier this year, but I just now saw it for the first time. It's a nice film, but more low-key than his Capsule trilogy. This one is set in the real world and not a dayglo retro future. Visually it's just as rich as the previous films, though it's more Ghibli feeling. It purveys a very Ghibli kind of sunny vibe.

I prefer what he did in the trilogy, as each of those films was a perfect little gem of electricity, colors and speed, creative design work, superb animation and exuberant wordless storytelling. But Piece is definitely a high-quality film with just as much attention to detail as the previous shorts. It has that same visual density, with the bright, washed out color scheme, simple retro designs, fashionable sensibility, lush character animation and chippy atmosphere.

It's the real world, but it feels like a fantasy land, with people zig-zagging everywhere leaving magical trails in their wake. It's a warm, colorful, optimistic, happy version of the real world. For some reason Yoshiyuki Momose's recent work, including Piece, reminds me of the atmosphere of Fumiko Takano's manga Ruki-san in this respect - the girl character has the same happy-go-lucky optimism, and is designed in a similar stylish retro way.

The camera swirls around in a masterful combination of hand-drawn and CG. It's a simple story about a girl who breaks a heel but also a creative visualisation of love as a string that trails behind wherever we go. (Ivan Maximov had a more sardonic take on the ties that bind us in the wonderful Strings)

I wonder what happened to Studio Cajino? They're no longer credited as they were in the capsule trilogy. Instead this is simply a Ghibli production.

The animation is backed up by a strong team, as usual. Momose always assembles an incredible team for his shorts. This time it's only three people, but each of them is an incredible animator: Takeshi Honda, Hideki Hamasu and Osamu Tanabe. They were each involved in almost every episode of the trilogy. (only Tanabe was missing in the last one - see the credits for the trilogy here for comparison)

Monday, November 22, 2010

11:24:00 am , 1575 words, 13182 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

The Fox of Chironup

To continue on the same theme, here's another fox movie: Chironuppu no Kitsune or The Fox of Chironup, released in August 1987. (watch here)

This one is actually a bona fide Group Tac production, supervised by Tsuneo Maeda (animation director of Night on the Galactic Railroad) and featuring Group Tac president Atsumi Tashiro as the audio director. It was directed by Tetsuo Imazawa of Studio Junio.

The story takes place in the Kuril islands north of Hokkaido, specifically on the island of Urup, which in the movie has been renamed to Chironup. (Chironup in Ainu means Fox Island)

(Spoilers in this paragraph) Set during W.W. II, Chironup tells the story of a pair of foxes with a litter of two pups. One of the playful baby foxes gets estranged from its parents. An old couple praying in front of an old Jizo statue near their hut discover the little guy, and take him in out of pity. They tie a red bow with a bell around its neck to keep track of him. After a storm destroys the couple's home, the little fox gets reunited with its family. But soon, the outside world intrudes. Japanese soldiers in search of fox pelts land on the island. They shoot and kill the father fox and one of the babies. The baby fox with the bell gets caught in a trap. The mother fox stays by its side trying to free it, to no avail. The next spring, the old couple are wandering through the forest when, in a flower patch, they run across a trap. Next to the trap is all that's left of the little fox - a red collar with a bell.

The story was inspired by an event in the life of the author of the novel on which the film is based. The author, Hiroyuki Takahashi, visited the island of Urup in the spring of 1944. He ran across traps in the woods set by poachers. One of these had the tiny skeleton of a baby fox in its clutches. This novel was his way of voicing his anger at the practice of trapping.

This film is a good contrast with Gongitsune. Where Gon was stylized, whimsical and quirky, this film is much more realistic. The tone is grounded and the directing is naturalistic. The film feels much more like the a typical realistic animated film for children about serious subject matter like Who's Left Behind (Ushiro no Shomen Daare).

The film is much heavier than Gon - it tries to move its audiences with the relentlessly depressing and bleak story. Which is why it's ironic that I find Chironup to be far inferior to Gon from both an animation and filmmaking perspective. The story is indeed quite sad and heartbreaking, but only at a surface level. The directing is bland, lacks nuance, and has little to appeal to adults or animation fans. It feels too lightweight for the denouement to have real impact. To truly tap the emotions, good artistry is a must, and that's lacking in this film.

I like the idea of realistic, down-to-earth animation like this. My problem is that the directing is very weak. The designs are cute in a bland and blatantly audience-coddling kind of way that I don't like. They give the mother fox long eyelashes to distinguish her sex. The eyes of the foxes are as big and round. Nothing in the design creatively renders the distinguishing features of a fox. The humans are the same. The have these beady round eyes and plain features that simply aren't very interesting or communicative, just obviously there to be cute looking.

The way I see it, if you're going to do a realistic anime, you have to have the guts to go as far as Isao Takahata did, or there is no point. You have to be assiduous with the realism of the details. You have to make the acting and the designs realistic and believable. None of that is done in this film. They go only as far in the direction of realism as is convenient, which really isn't very far. So the film doesn't hold up from an adult perspective. It's clearly kids' fare. Gon is also kids' fare, but it holds up really well because it's actually interesting as animation. It's not about whether it's kids' fare or not - it's about whether it's good artistry.

Despite its shortcomings, I kind of like the film. Or I want to like it. At the very least, it's a welcome change from conventional manga-based anime material and styling. In that sense it's a breath of fresh air. It's a gentle, warm film with a good heart. It's entirely based in the natural world, observing the actual way that foxes live in nature. Being naturalistic is one of the hardest things to do in animation because the details are familiar to us all and it's easy to notice any inaccuracies. Most of all, the story is heartbreaking, as intended.

Though this was a Group Tac film, the actual production seems to have been largely handled by Takao Kosai's Studio Junio. Director Tetsuo Imazawa, character designer/animation director Fukuo Yamamoto, co-animation director Hiroshi Azuma and assistant animation director Keiko Imazawa were all at Studio Junio, as were some of the animators.

I mentioned Studio Junio in the past in the articles on A Pro and Hajime Ningen Gyators, and Toshiyuki Inoue talks a bit about how things worked at Studio Junio in an interview I translated. (part 1 and part 2).

Like Group Tac, Studio Junio had a regrettable downfall. After a scandal in 1999 in which they were unable to complete the animation for the movie Gundress on time and the film was released in a half-complete state, they took a hit from damage claims. Takao Kosai gradually disbanded his staff, changed the studio's name to Junio Brain Trust, and the studio ceased operations in 2000. Junio Brain Trust manages the rights to the studio's past work.

Several splinter studios were formed by ex staff. Kanbe Mamoru co-founded Studio GaRan in 1997. Minoru Okazaki, Hiroshi Azuma and Minoru Maeda founded Synergy SP in 1998. Tetsuya Hayazaka founded Studio Flag in 1999.

In its heyday, Junio did a lot of nice work. In the 1970s, they were a subcontractor primarily for Toei Doga and Tokyo Movie, working on shows like Ikkyu-san, Mazinger Z, Majokko Megu-chan, Majokko Limit-chan, Babel II and The White Whale of Mu. This is when Takao Kosai did the work I remember him best for - Tokyo Movie's Hajime Ningen Gyators. In the 1980s, they did subcontract work mainly for Toei Doga, Group Tac and Tokyo Movie on shows like Iron Man 28, Dr. Slump, Stop!! Hibari-kun, Dragonball, Dragonball Z, Nine, Touch and Hiatari Ryoko.

Animators associated with Studio Junio over the years include Minoru Maeda, Ginichiro Suzuki, Toshiyuki Inoue, Osamu Horiuchi and Katsumi Matsuda.

The name that jumps out at you in the animator credits of Chironup is Toshiyuki Inoue. He was just another animator back then. It was at Studio Junio that Toshiyuki Inoue learned the ropes. People first became aware of him for the good work he did on Toei Doga's Gu-Gu Ganmo TV series and movie in 1985, which he worked on from Studio Junio.

The animation of Chironup is pretty bland for the most part, but two scenes immediately impressed me for their animation when I watched the film, so I'm suspecting these might have been by Toshiyuki Inoue.

The first scene is the storm scene, which you can see here. The contrast is pretty jarring. It's like the movie suddenly becomes ultra-realistic. The waves are rendered in considerable detail, and with a good feeling for the dynamics of water. I suspect Inoue must have studied Yoichi Kotabe's waves in Animal Treasure Island. It reminds me a bit of the water Toshiyuki Inoue did for Satoru Utsunomiya's Peek the Whale, although he was much better by the time of Peek. There are two more shots of the ocean a little bit later in the film (here) that look similar. The spray has an incredible feeling to the timing. I assume he must have done this too.

The second scene is the scene where the owl attacks the foxes, which you can see here. I'm not as sure this was done by Toshiyuki Inoue, but all I know is that it's amazingly realistic. For a movie about wild foxes, I was mostly disappointed at the movement of the foxes. It isn't that realistic or well done. Only in this scene does it really feel like you're seeing how a wild animal would move. The owl's pose as he attacks the foxes is amazingly well observed. It feels like the animator based their footage on reference video of owls.

I don't think all of the animators in the credits are Junio people. Jushi Mizumura and Takashi Saijo are from Tama Pro, but I'm not sure about the others. Takeo Kitahara, Yoshiji Kigami, Yoshiyuki Hane and Yoshiyuki Momose are all well-known talented animators.

The Fox of Chironup (1987, 72 minutes)

Produced by Group Tac

Directed by Tetsuo Imazawa

Supervisor: Tsuneo Maeda

Script: Zenzo Matsuyama

Character Design: Fukuo Yamamoto

Animation directors: Fukuo Yamamoto, Hiroshi Azuma

Assistant animation directors: Keiko Imazawa, Kiyoshi Matsumoto

Key Animators:
Keiko Imazawa
Toshiyuki Inoue
Takashi Saijo
Jushi Mizumura
Takeo Kitahara
Jin Hasegawa
Yumi Machida
Tomihiko Okubo
Kazuko Kozu
Yoshiji Kigami
Shigetaka Kiyoyama
Nobumichi Kawamura
Yoshiyuki Hane
Masayuki Hirooka
Mitsuru Aoyama
Yoshiyuki Momose

Production Assistance: Studio Junio, Takao Kosai

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

12:05:00 pm , 3032 words, 5451 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Gon, the Little Fox

A few months before Group Tac's Night on the Galactic Railroad hit the theaters in June 1985, a film entitled Gongitsune or Gon, the Little Fox was released.

Group Tac had by that time made a name for themselves with Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, which had begun airing in 1975 and become a runaway hit. Gon was released to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the show.

I just had a chance to watch Gon for the first time. You can do the same here. (Note: no subs) I never thought I'd see this. Such are the wonders of the internets.

It's a very nice little film. In style and spirit it's close to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, but with much better production quality. It's stylish and charming in an offbeat kind of way.

Gon reminds me a bit of the Unico pilot directed by Toshio Hirata - the sad tale of a forlorn little creature wandering the world alone looking for acceptance and finding only rejection. The Japanese are good at making heavy movies for kids like this. Ringing Bell is an extreme example of this kind of movie - ultra dark and bleak children's movie with superb artistry. Gon isn't nearly as dark as those Sanrio films, but it's got something of the same heavy, tragic theme. Like these, it's a creative, well-crafted children's film with a unique style. Its neutral and original style makes it hold up better than many films and OVAs from this era, whose use of popular styles makes them look dated now.

Kosei Maeda directed the film, Shinichi Ohtake was the animation director, and Tatsuro Kadoya was the art director. Each of them had worked extensively on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.

I was surprised to find that Group Tac isn't explicitly credited anywhere with producing the film, even though Atsumi Tashiro is the audio producer and all of the main staff are people who worked on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for Group Tac. So it's not technically a Group Tac production. Ai Kikaku Center is credited with planning, and a few other studios are credited with production assistance. Ai Kikaku Center is the studio that planned Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. It's kind of confusing, because Gon feels like an extension of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, and that show is synonymous with Group Tac.

Gon might look to be just another generic kiddy animal flick, but unlike most of those lackluster productions, this one isn't just pure emotional manipulation and melodrama; it's actually pretty satisfying as visual storytelling. It has an original style and atmosphere.

Gon is refreshing because it doesn't have the typical anime look or feel. It's got a style and vibe that was unique to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi - poetic and mythical, yet whimsical and playful. Classical and elegant, yet modern and edgy. Characters creatively stylized and unlike anything else being done in anime.

The story of Gongitsune is about a little fox who is left to fend for himself after his mother is killed by hunters. A fire drives him from his home, and he eventually finds his way to a human village that he makes his new home. There, he plays tricks on the villagers until one day he does something that causes him to regret his actions and change his ways.

The story meanders randomly towards its conclusion rather than having a conventional story arc with predictable dramatic milestones. (In this and other ways, it's reminiscent of another good Tac film: Bonobono.)

We just follow the fox around as he goes about his daily business of fooling with the villagers. We observe village life - kids running around playing, women washing potatoes, men going fishing. Eventually, after we've come to know the characters, things come to a head in the natural course of things. It's a nicely effortless, unforced story.

An amusing sequence shows Gon walking behind a pregnant woman on his hind legs, holding his tail in front of him as if he were pregnant too. Gon is mesmerized when he discovers the blacksmith, with his loud clanging sounds, and he comes by regularly to watch in fascination. Most of the villagers don't take Gon's antics too seriously. They're more amused than anything. One of them is a jerk, though, so Gon sneaks into his warehouse to eat his potatoes. The interaction between the fox and the humans is entertaining but also moving. Gon is lonely and attracted to humans, but the tension between wild animal and human keeps them apart. He's a playful trickster but also lonely and sad.

The part where Gon loses his mother at the beginning of the film was actually added for the movie. It wasn't in the book. The reason becomes clear later on. Gon is traumatized by the loss of his mother. He relives her loss when he sees a tree struck by lightning erupt in flame before his eyes. One day, he plays a trick on a nice villager who protected Gon. Later on, he discover that it may have caused the death of the villager's mother.

This movie goes to the root of the Japanese myth of the trickster, shapeshifting fox. Gon is a regular fox, not a magical creature. Foxes are playful and curious creatures. Gon is irresistibly drawn to humans, and delights in exploring their world. Sometimes he's naughty, but more often than not he means no harm.

They could easily have handled this material in one episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, but they put a lot of tender loving care into the details of the production to make it feel like a movie and not just a glorified TV episode. The put extra-special care in animating natural elements like flowers, insects, fire and fish. The natural world acts as the substrate of the film's narrative.

Many of the film's most beautiful moments are simple moments observing life going on - dragonflies dipping their abdomens into the water of the river, kids running around playing. Or just watching the fox wandering around the environs, exploring the landscape created by humans - the old stairs leading to the temple, the tattered footbridge across the creek. Kosei Maeda is good at bringing alive the little details of everyday life in old Japan.

My favorite thing about the film is that it's good visual storytelling. Pretty much the whole first 20 minutes are pure visual storytelling without any dialogue. There's a particularly memorable sequence where the little fox falls into a river and is swept over a series of rapids down from the mountains into the valley where he discovers the village. The rapids are geometrical and stylized, showing the fox travelling down a labyrinthine series of channels between rocks.

After this adventure, the little fox floats down the river on a log. The scene where he floats into the village has a lovely atmosphere - the air is filled with dragonflies, the sky is purple with sunset, the water glitters, the village in the distance is like a painting.

The backgrounds have a kind of picture book quality - stylized and formal, like in Night on the Galactic Railroad, as opposed to purely naturalistic. I like the peculiar mix of real and cartoonish in Gon. The eels are drawn and move ultra-realistically, but then the villager capturing the eel has a huge cartoon head.

The designs are simple and cartoony. I like that Gon's design is cute but also kind of bizarre - those huge vertical eyes, his unchanging expression. He looks the same whether he's sad or happy. He looks cartoonish, spits out pumpkin seeds like a human, and even occasionally walks on his hind legs and dances for fun, but otherwise maintains a completely straight face, like an animal would. I can imagine another production would have had him doing all these crazy faces. His straight face keeps the character grounded in his animal-ness.

The heads of the humans are big circles, the eyes a little dot, and the hands a few squiggles. They're cute in their own peculiar way, but diametrically opposed to 'anime' type cuteness. It's a kind of cuteness that was Tac's exclusive purview. Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi is an astounding achievement as a repository of character design ideas. Every one of its 1000-some episodes had a different set of designs. Group Tac was better than any studio in Japan at coming up with amusing and creative new character designs that weren't just based on industry template.

The animation does a good job of bringing alive the antics of the fox as he runs around exploring things. I like how he skids from side to side out of excess momentum as he's running away, and he does an adorable little dance imitating the humans. The animation looks basic, but it can be quite detailed at the right moment. For example, the eel is animated twisting around with considerable care to make it look realistic, and the thunder and fire is quite realistic and detailed in comparison with the very stylized and unrealistic fox and humans.

The voice-acting is natural and laid back, and doesn't have the typical anime voice-acting sound, thanks no doubt to audio director and Group Tac president Atsumi Tashiro.

Yasunori Tsuchida's jaunty, offbeat score is a great match with the directing and helps give the film its unique tone.

Kosei Maeda in 2009

Kosei Maeda

Kosei Maeda was born in 1950. He joined Mushi Production in 1969. He started working on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi in 1979. He animated and directed no less than 90 episodes for the show over the next 15 years. You can see quite a few of these up on Youtube here. You can also see a lot of those of Shinichi Ohtake.

After Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi was cancelled in 1995, Kosei Maeda continued making films. He directed features, made some indie shorts on his own, and made a few short films in the same vein as Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for a series produced for Niigata broadcaster BSN called Tonton Attato: Niigata Mukashibanashi (2005-2006).

Kosei Maeda also holds exhibits of his paintings on a yearly basis. You can see some of his paintings here.

He was the storyboarder (and animator?) of the Pliocene Coast scene in Group Tac's masterpiece, Night on the Galactic Railroad.

Kosei Maeda has his own personal home page, where he has kindly uploaded not only a list of his works but also four indie short films he made, and some making material. You can see six pages of the storyboard he drew for Gongitsune. You can see the character designs and a bit of storyboard he did for the Sakura Daimyoujin episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, and you can watch the actual episode here. This episode incidentally also features backgrounds by his longtime associate Tatsuro Kadoya.

Kosei Maeda's short films A Cat's Sunday and The Flying Person

The Flying Person was his first independent film, made in 1993. It's perhaps his most unusual and most beautiful short film. It's a brief visual poem about a woman, birds, and flight. He makes good use of watercolor washes to create a beautiful shifting array of lines and colors in the scene where the bird transforms into a woman.

The Ibis was part of a 2003 Mushi Pro omnibus about the Japanese eras. It feels the most reminiscent of the show and Gongitsune - the simple, small-proportioned characters with round heads, and the setting in the Edo period. It's a little story about a trio of sisters who capture a hapless ibis to feed to their sick mother, because legend has it that ibis meat cures sickness. But they're stopped along the way by some government officials and get into trouble. The drawings of the government officials and the samurai have a nice caricatural quality. Everything here including the backgrounds was drawn by him, so it all feels very hand drawn. The drawings are loose and the lines uneven. The soft texture of the screen is nice to look at, kind of reminiscent of Ghiblies. I love the bizarre grinning stray dog.

A Cat's Sunday was made for fun in 2004. It's a fun, silly little music video set to lyrics written by Kosei Maeda himself. It's about the delight of staying home relaxing with your cat on a Sunday. Until your cat gets tired of your bored taunting and exacts revenge, that is! It's got the same visual look as The Ibis - no backgrounds, only a spare coat of light watercolor wash, and simple characters drawn with a few loose lines.

The Snow Woman of Ginzandaira was one of the films he made for Tonton Attato: Niigata Mukashibanashi during 2005-2006. Only a clip is available, but you can also see some of his watercolor character and background roughs for the short. It appears to tell the story of a hunter in the snowy north who becomes involved with a demon disguised as a beautiful woman. The designs here are not quite as cartoony as those of The Ibis, and the mood and story are more serious and atmospheric. The color tone of the film is subdued - black, white, and lots of grey and tan.

Kosei Maeda's short films The Ibis and The Snow Woman of Ginzandaira

Group Tac

I don't know how it came to be that Group Tac isn't credited in Gon, because the main staff were people who worked at Group Tac on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. Perhaps they were temporarily dispatched to work on the film, or else just did it as a side-project at Group Tac.

It's tragic what has happened to Group Tac. Following the death of president and spiritual leader Atsumi Tashiro in July, they filed for bankruptcy in August. It's a sad way for a great studio to come to an end.

Group Tac was one of the best and most original and artist-driven studios in Japan. They produced a number of masterpieces over the years, and had a style all their own informed of the artistic sensibility of their artists, notably among them co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, who directed two of the studio's best films: Jack and the Beanstalk (1974) and Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985).

Group Tac and Madhouse were the two big Japanese artist-driven studios in my mind. They didn't always produce artsy stuff - Tac produced lots of manga adaptations and things like Street Fighter II - but they left behind a handful of very unique anime films that no other studio would have dared to produce. Their occasional vanity project showed that you could produce genuinely creative work that gave artists freedom to do what they do best, and still make it as a studio.

Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi is definitely their biggest legacy as a studio. It was a huge hit, one of the longest running anime TV series ever. Most importantly, I like this show because it was artistic and idiosyncratic in the extreme, produced with seemingly nigh-complete freedom on the part of its artists, yet remained accessible and appealing to audiences. It shows that you don't have to fall back on popular manga or trendy story tropes and design styles to be a hit. In many ways, I find it to be the ideal relationship between producer and viewer. Artist could be satisfied of having creative control, and audience was willing to appreciate what the artist threw at them.

Production studios that worked on this movie

Like most productions, the animation was produced by a collection of different studios. Notably, Tsukasa Tannai of Studio Gallop heads the animator list. (He worked on numerous Miyazaki productions.)

Studio Gallop (home page) was formed in 1978 by Akio Wakana, who had started out working at Mushi Production before moving to Tokyo Animation Film and then leaving to form his own studio. Studio Gallop was exclusively devoted to photography up until 1983, when animators and directors from Telecom including Tsukasa Tannai, Toshio Yamauchi and Keiji Hayakawa left to join Gallop. They were a subcontractor for a few years before they began producing their own shows. They produced Fujiko F. Fujio's Kiteretsu Daihyakka and well-loved shoujo shows like Hime-chan no Ribon and Akazukin Chacha. More recently, they produced the TV special Light of the River directed by Shinei animator Tetsuo Hirakawa. Other staff involved with Gallop over the years include Hatsuki Tsuji, Hajime Watanabe, Nobuyuki Tokinaga, Kazuyuki Kobayashi and Kuniyuki Ishii. Gallop also helped out Group Tac on Touch and Hiatari Ryoko around the same time as Gongitsune

Anime Friend was a subcontractor founded in 1977 that ran until 1990. They were almost exclusively involved in Tatsunoko productions, being something of a subsidiary of Tatsunoko. Anime Friend was one of the pioneers of outsourcing to Korea.

Studio Lions was the inbetweening subsidiary of Studio Giants. Studio Giants was founded in 1975 and Studio Lions was founded the next year in 1976. Studio Giants is best remembered among anime fans for their work in the 1980s. They produced episodes with lots of crazy movement on shows like Sasuga no Sarutobi. Studio Giants had numerous talented animators during the 1980s including Masayuki, Tadashi Shida, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Shoichi Masuo, Satoshi Ishino and Toshiyuki Tsuru.

Magic Bus was founded in 1977 by Tetsu Dezaki, who had worked at Gisaburo Sugii's studio Art Fresh, the studio that produced Goku's Big Adventure for Mushi Pro in 1967. (Tetsu Dezaki also happens to be Osamu Dezaki's older brother.) Magic Bus started out as a subcontractor but went on to produce their own shows. I personally remember them best for the small handful of OVAs and movies they produced in the 1980s: Carol, Kasei Yakyoku, Open the Door and There were 11. We have Magic Bus to thank for Mad Bull 34. Ahem. They've been a prolific studio other than this as a subcontractor on other studios' shows. One of their most recent projects was the new Cobra series.

Gongitsune main credits

1985, 76 minutes

Original story by Nankichi Niimi (1913-1943)

Director: Kosei Maeda

Animation Director: Shinichi Ohtake

Art Director: Tatsuro Kadoya

Audio Director: Atsumi Tashiro

Music: Yasunori Tsuchida

Script: Naohisa Ito


Tsukasa Tannai
Tsukasa Abe
Takaya Ono
Tetsuya Yamamoto
Toru Sato
Shinya Takahashi
Mitsuru Suzuki
Toyoko Hashimoto
Sanae Ohkubo
Yutaka Oka
Nobuyuki Koyanagi
Atsushi Ishiguro
Ikue Matsuzaki
Hiroko Sawada
Yumiko Shimamura
Mieko Takagi
Takeshi Okiyama
Yumiko Kaneumi

Animation assistance:
Tatsunoko Doga Kenkyujo
Magic Bus
Studio Lions
Radical Party

Production assistance:
Studio Gallop
Anime Friend

BONUS: A few of Kosei Maeda's characters from Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

08:44:00 pm , 620 words, 5271 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Music Video, Animator, Art, Short

Takuya Inaba

I just discovered Takuya Inaba's Minna no Uta video from this summer for actress Juri Ueno's song Egao no Hana (The Smile Flower).

It's a delightful piece of animation, befitting an artist working at Robot, the studio that gave us Kato Kunio's Oscar-winning House of Small Cubes. They're one of the coolest new studios on the scene in Japan, doggedly going their own way in the vast shadow of the industry, making colorful, lovingly animated, creative little confections. Their films have a sense of wonder and whimsical fancy that sets them apart from every other studio in Japan.

I love this film's unique style. And it's sumptuously animated, unlike many Minna no Uta animated videos, which often aren't satisfying as animation. The characters are great - the designs are cute and appealing, and they're animated with great care. The domino sequence at the beginning is amusing and well done. The backgrounds are beautiful - early on the street looks like a child's drawing, and later on the forest is painted in bright, colorful strokes.

Then there are the little touches here and there that are unexpected and fun like the faucet in the sky that fills the ocean with water, and those little round guys walking on the fence having their own mini parade. There are strangle little characters doing things everywhere you look. And I just love the television cat with the chicken family inside.

I like the story of the film, too. The sun, the moon and a cloud come alive to help take a lost fairy back to her flower house. Behind the colorful fantasy, it's about cheering up a little girl who's feeling down in the dumps and making that 'smile' flower bloom.

Takuya Inaba was born in 1976 and graduated from the Kyoto Seika University Faculty of Design. He has been active as an animator since at least 2001, when he made an independent film called Haru-chan. He was hired by Robot in 2002, presumably on the merit of his film. Since then he's been quite active making short pieces of animation here and there on commission, as well as drawing picture books and other things.

He had already made a Minna no Uta music video in 2006 with Koi Tsubomi, which again has two layers - the song appears to sing of a girl who had to leave her boyfriend for the big city, while this is translated in the visuals into a little girl being seen off at a train station by her polar bear friend. The visuals are soft and mellow and pleasant, but it's not as creative and original as his most recent video.

The next year, in 2007, he directed a music video entitled Song of Sunrise for the band Sukima Switch. It shows a little girl and a hulking robot walking around in a desert landscape. I like the designs here much better, and the story is also quite interesting. It hints at a back story involving the robot either escaping from a robot city or being the only survivor, but doesn't make everything obvious. I like how it leaves it to your imagination to connect the dots.

Just before Egao no Hana, Takuya Inaba completed a 7-minute independent short film entitled Kuro. You can see a few shots from it on his home page. It's in black and white and appears to feature more fun creature animation like what was seen in Egao no Hana. Hopefully it's in the same vein as this film, but even more densely packed with nonsense antics from odd creatures, because this one left me wanting more of that sort of thing - something even crazier and more freewheeling, really letting loose with his unique style.

Takuya Inaba's blog and home page.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

11:51:00 pm , 2465 words, 4647 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Studio, Studio: Anime R, post-Akira, Studio Curtain

Sukeban Deka and Anime R

The manga Sukeban Deka about the yo-yo-wielding delinquent detective was adapted into a two-episode OVA in 1991 after having been adapted into live-action movies in the late 80s. The live-action stuff appears to have been done by Toei, but the OVAs seem to have been the product of a consortium that outsourced much of the work to different studios, among them chiefly Osaka's Anime R.

Anime R is a subcontracting studio founded in Osaka in the late 1970s by Moriyasu Taniguchi and Hiromi Muranaka. It was one of the first Japanese animation studios to be located outside of Tokyo. They are best remembered for their contribution to raising the quality of Ryosuke Takahashi's first two 'real robot' shows for Sunrise Dougram and Votoms. They had a unique style in the 1980s, with exciting and detailed animation like no other studio. They were one of the most relied-upon studios for mecha animation. That flavor receded in the 1990s, after many of the 1980s staff left, but they're still a prolific and relied-upon studio.

The credits don't mention Anime R. But it's obvious that they're involved if you read between the lines. There are a bunch of Anime R animators involved.

Anime R president Moriyasu Taniguchi is credited as an animator in Sukeban Deka alongside Anime R animators Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida, Takahiro Komori, Takashi Fumiko, Masahide Yanagisawa, Hiroshi Osaka, Hiromi Muranaka, Masahiko Itojima, Takahiro Kimura and Kazuchika Kise. Masahiro Kase, another Anime R member at the time, is the sub-character designer and the main animation director (sakkan).

This OVA thus seems like a good place to get a sense of what kind of work Anime R was doing at this mid-period in their history, after their most famous period but before all of the cool animators had quite left. I've heard of Anime R forever and known who was involved there, but I couldn't put my thumb on their defining look.

Nobuteru Yuuki is the character designer of Sukeban Deka, but he's not the sakkan, so it doesn't have that patented Nobuteru Yuuki density of animation and highly worked drawings. Masahiro Kase was the sakkan of episode 1, assisted by Yuka Kudo and Hiroyuki Okuno. All three are credited as sakkans in episode 2.

The drawings in Sukeban Deka are actually all over the place, maybe not as much as Hakkenden, but still pretty uneven. That's actually one of the things I most liked about these two OVAs. The story is otherwise quite stupid and obviously not meant to be taken seriously. It's a kind of shoujo action mystery, and it's mildly entertaining, but nothing about the characters or story ever grips you. It's about a cute girl in a sailor fuku kicking ass, and hey, that's enough for me. It's a shoujo anime, but it feels more like a shounen anime. The action scenes are actually fairly nice, with an appealing looseness and rawness appropriate to the style of this period, so it's a pretty decent action show.

The main characters aren't drawn in a particularly interesting way, but the crowd drawings I really like. The faces have a surprisingly appealing, quasi-realistic style that kind of comes out of nowhere. They look nothing like the protagonists. They seem to have had more freedom with the sub-characters. The bystanders vaguely remind me of the bystanders by Koichi Arai in 3x3 Eyes from the same year. I like that they don't look like the sort of cliche'd anime/shoujo designs you'd expect in an adaptation of a shoujo manga. I don't know who would have been responsible for these. I thought maybe Masahiro Kase, since he's credited as the sub character designer in episode 2, but he's not credited with that in ep 1.

I know Masahiro Kase had started out at Nippon Animation in 1978 and worked on Pelline (1978), Anne (1979), Tom Sawyer (1980) and Lucy (1982) before leaving to join Anime R. While there, Kase was one of the main animators of Votoms alongside Anime R animator Mouri Kazuaki. Kase left Anime R around 1990 to form his own subcontracting 'studio' called Studio Curtain, from which he went on to continue to be involved in Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater shows. He was character designer of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair as well as Mahoujin Guruguru.

Tadashi Hiramatsu had joined animation subcontractor Nakamura Production sometime around 1986 and done his first key animation in 1987 in Mister Ajikko, where he met Masahiro Kase, who was the character designer and chief sakkan of the show. Hiramatsu joined Studio Curtain when it was founded in 1990 and from there worked on the WMT for a bit. I suppose that's the reason Hiramatsu is involved, because he never worked at Anime R. Normally, Kase was at Curtain by the time this was done, so presumably he got the work because of his Anime R connections. Strangely, Studio Curtain gets a small 'assistance' mention in the credits, but there's no mention whatsoever of Anime R.

Anyway, the only sequence that I felt right away I could pin down to an animator was the opening scene of episode 1, where the girl is chased through the market and into the alleyway by the group of thugs. I'm guessing this part was done by Hiroyuki Okiura. What makes me think so is first of all just the skill of the drawings, layouts and movements. It's not super-detailed like his more recent work, but every detail is just right - the folds of the clothes, the way the girl's shoulders arch up realistically when she's struggling. Little things like this just show the hand of someone who has an uncommon skill at accurately visualizing the body in motion and being able to execute it in a way that feels nice as animation.

Opening scene in episode 1 by Hiroyuki Okiura?

Also, I get the feeling I sense a bit of a distant echo of both Akira and Peter Pan in the way the baddies are drawn - their mouth, their expression, the way they gesticulate - which Okiura had just participated in recently. There's even an overhead shot here that has a similar layout as a shot in the mob scene he did in Akira. The smirk of the baddies and the way of drawing the eyes reminds me of Peter Pan, while Akira comes through in the more detailed folds of the clothing, the Takashi Nakamura-esque faces and hands, and the more realistic poses. It actually doesn't feel much like the great action sequence he did in The Hakkenden OVA 1 around the same time, but it's the only sequence in the episode that stands out to me as having good enough animation that seems a fit for him.

I can't pin down any other sequences to any particular animator - except for one. It's the main reason I sought out this episode. Discovering the Anime R connection was actually a surprise and a bonus. The sequence in question sticks out something incredible. I've seen a lot of crazy animation from Japan in my day, but this one was up there with the craziest. And it's ironic because up until a while ago I'd never heard of the animator who did it.

It's the action sequence on the school grounds, which you can see here. It was animated by an animator named Masayuki Kobayashi, who did a lot of similarly styled action in Ranma 1/2 around the same time.

Action scene in episode 1 by Masayuki Kobayashi

Just look at these drawings. You don't notice that they're this insanely deformed when the animation is in motion - all you notice is the incredibly awesome effect the drawings achieve. Like many good animators, Masayuki Kobayashi is a great action animator who knows how to effectively insert deformed images at the right moment to heighten the impact of the animation. People have criticized Norio Matsumoto's animation on Naruto by picking out a single drawing that seems deformed out of an amazing shot of animation, and criticizing him for not being able to draw. Not only is it not true - he can draw really well - it betrays astounding ignorance of how animation is made. The skilled use of deformation within a movement like this is something not many animators can pull off. All the more so when it comes to really extreme deformation of the kind Masayuki Kobayashi busts out here.

As soon as Masayuki Kobayashi's action scene starts, it's like a different show. Everything is suddenly extremely fast and fluid - and rubbery. I love the way the characters limbs seem to bend under the very momentum of their superhuman leaps and lunges. The characters leap and stretch something incredible. It's really exciting to watch, as an action sequence should be. It's full of verve, momentum, punch, and insanity. It's the kind of action that made me fall in love with anime in the first place. You don't find this kind of action animation anywhere else in the world.

And the particular style of Masayuki Kobayashi's animation seems like something that couldn't have emerged at any other period. It seems the product of the various tendencies floating around in the air at the time. You've got a bit of Akira-esque realism, leavened with Satoru Utsunomiya's elastic style, multiplied by the wackiness of mid-80s TV action animation from wild children like Masayuki and Hideki Tamura. I like that it's not just a mere copy of Yoshinori Kanada or Satoru Utsunomiya - he's cooked together all these various tendencies into his own crazy stew. We're seeing a resurgence of the influence of Yoshinori Kanada these days among young animators like Jun Arai, but what I don't like is that it feels like they're just imitating him outright instead of coming up with their own style like Masayuki Kobayashi did.

I don't know where he came from or where he went. This is all I've been able to find that he's done:

Ranma 1/2 Nettohen 2, 4, 6, 10, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 31, 39 (1990)
The Hakkenden 2, 3, 5 (1990-92)
Sukeban Deka 1 (1991)
Rojin Z (1991)
Run, Melos! (1992)
Gunm (1993)
Nana Toshi Monogatari (1994)
X2 (1999)
Jin-Roh (2000)

Action scene at the end of episode 1

Another scene I liked was the brawl in the arcade near the end of episode 1. The drawing style is really distinctive and totally unlike everything else in the episode, but I can't identify who did it.

It had some fast, fluid and excitingly animated action, without being wildly deformed like the Masayuki Kobayashi scene. It's a classic example of the sort of animation I most like in the productions of this early 90s period like Hakkenden. In fact, the movement seems suspiciously similar to the demon army scene animated by Hiroyuki Okiura in episode 1 of Hakkenden. It's got the same style of pared down drawings combined with really quick action with lots of movement constantly going on. I started wondering, maybe Okiura did this part?? But I notice the same kind of movement near the end of episode 2, and Okiura isn't credited in that episode, so I suspect both may have been done by the same animator.

This is another good example of the unique style of movement that so many animators were doing at this time. Realistic, but not Jin-Roh realistic - more fun and exciting and action-packed. Everyone seemed to be trying their hand at this style. One of the things I remember seeing pretty often in the early 1990s was this thing where the arms kind of hung down limply and wobbled around, as if they were asleep. I loved that. This whole style faded away pretty quickly moving into the mid-90s.

The reason I checked this out was to see Masayuki Kobayashi's work, because I'd heard he was involved. But when I checked the credits on the AD Vision release, I didn't find his name. I found only one "Masanori Kobayashi". I figured it had to be him and the translator just goofed a little. Then I noticed other names that seemed suspiciously familiar. Hironori Okuno? That couldn't be Hiroyuki Okuno, could it? Satoshi Hiramatsu? I only know one Hiramatsu, and that's Tadashi Hiramatsu. I was really curious to know what was going on, so I got my hands on the Japanese credits and did a comparison.

My jaw dropped at what I found. Now, Japanese names are a pain to translate. Often, if you don't have information directly from the person in question, you can't know for sure how a name is read. After all these years, there are still names I'm not sure of. And there are names that I thought I knew how to read for many years that turned out to be read differently. So in that sense, I don't really blame the translator. But on the other hand, there are some names whose readings are clear. The translator who did these credits didn't just goof, he f*ed up big time. In the case of 'Hironori Okuno', "Nori" isn't even a possible reading of that character. Worse than that, Tadashi Hiramatsu appears in both episodes, and is translated differently in each episode - Satoshi Hiramatsu in the first episode and Eiji Hiramatsu in the second episode.

Here are the credits, with corrections, to serve as an example of how important it is to properly translate credits, and how misleading and useless a bad translation can be. Who would have known that Koji Ayazaka was in fact Hiroshi Osaka? But hey, at least they translated the credits and didn't omit the key animators. That's already better than most releases I've seen.

Sukeban Deka Episode 1 main credits

Created & Supervised by:和田慎二 Shinji Wada
Chief Director & Script:ひろた たけし Takeshi Hirota
Character Design:結城信輝 Nobuteru Yuki
"Animation Director":難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
"Sakuga Kantoku":加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase

Sukeban Deka Episode 2 main credits

Created & Supervised by:和田慎二 Shinji Wada
Chief Director & Script:ひろた たけし Takeshi Hirota
Storyboard:三條なみみ Namimi Sanjo
"Animation Director":難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
Character Design:結城信輝 Nobuteru Yuki
Sub-Character Design:加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
"Sakuga Kantoku":加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo
奥野浩之 Hiroyuki Okuno

Episode 1 animators

Koji Ayazaka Hiroshi OsakaHironori Terada Hiroyuki Terada
Yasunori Okiura Hiroyuki OkiuraToru Yoshida
Takahiro KomoriTakanori Kimura Takayuki Kimura
Tenshi Yamamoto Takashi YamamotoHironori Okuno Hiroyuki Okuno
Makoto YoshidaMegumi Abe
Sanae Ohe Sanae ChikanagaToshiki Yamazaki
Yuka KudoTabae Ogawa Mizue Ogawa
Kinuko Waizumi Kinuko IzumiNagisa Miyazaki
Takao YoshinoSatoshi Hiramatsu Tadashi Hiramatsu
Asami Kondo Asami EndoSumomo Okamoto
Masanori Kobayashi Masayuki KobayashiShinya Takahashi
Satoshi Murase Shuko MuraseTerumi Muto
Yukio NishimuraNaoko Yamamoto
Kei TakeuchiMasahiko Itojima
Yoko Kadowaki Yoko KadogamiFumiko Takashi Fumiko Kishi
Shinichi Tokairin Shinichi ShoujiKazuaki Mouri
Masahide YanagisawaYukio Iwata
Haruo OgawaraHidenori Matsubara
Keichi IshiharaKazuya Ose Kazuchika Kise
Atsuko Nakajima

Episode 2 animators

Masahiko ItojimaShinji Ishihama Masashi Ishihama
Kinuko Kazumi Kinuko IzumiKazue Ogawa Mizue Ogawa
Sumomo OkamotoHiroyuki Okuno
Hiroko KazuiKeiichiro Katsura
Fumiko Takashi Fumiko KishiNorifumi Kiyozumi
Yuka KudoTakahiro Komori
Ken SatoTakuya Saito
Hirohide ShikijimaMitsuru Shigeta Satoshi Shigeta
Kenichi Kiyomizu Kenichi ShimizuKazuhiro Sasaki
Moriyasu TaniguchiShinya Takahashi
Noriko Nakajima Atsuko NakajimaEiji Hiramatsu Tadashi Hiramatsu
Makoto FurutaMiki Furukawa
Kazuhiro FuruhashiAkiichi Masuo Shoichi Masuo
Nagisa MiyazakiHiroaki Maroki Hiroaki Korogi?
Terumi MutoTakashi Murase Shuko Murase
Hiromi MuranakaMasahide Yanagisawa
Akihiro Ketsushiro Akihiro YukiHitsuji

Saturday, November 13, 2010

04:57:00 pm , 4634 words, 10119 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Koichi Motohashi and Nippon Animation

There's been a spate of more deaths in the industry. I don't know whether it's because we are more informed in this day and age about these things or because it's been a particularly bad year for luminaries in the anime industry, but I'm getting tired of hearing about people who died.

Two producers who had a major impact on the industry have died.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki (1934-2010), the controversial producer of the Yamato series, died after falling off his yacht and drowning. This comes just before the release of the live-action remake of Yamato. I just wrote about his first attempt to revive the franchise with Yamato 2520.

Koichi Motohashi (1930-2010), the president of Nippon Animation and executive producer of Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater series, died of MDS, a bone marrow disease. Nippon Animation and its pre-incarnation Zuiyo Eizo pioneered the yearlong animated literary adaptation concept in Japan, which was quite unheard of and revolutionary at the time.

The World Masterpiece Theater was instrumental in getting me back into anime fandom as an adult, so it has special meaning to me. One of the first things I ever wrote about anime was about the WMT. I doubt I would have gotten into anime as much without the WMT. Other obituaries merely recite a list of shows produced by Nippon Animation, so I thought I would go into a little more detail about why I felt Koichi Motohashi's studio was significant.

I don't know much about Koichi Motohashi himself. All I know is that without his studio, many of my favorite anime wouldn't have gotten produced. On top of that, his studio represented something unique in anime, something no other studio was doing.

Their productions were different from that of any other studio, with a more international and family-oriented bent deliberately tailored to make them safe for audiences the world over. Their productions were intended from the start for a global audience, which is why most of their shows like Maya the Honeybee (1975, German op) were aired in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. They also collaborated with Europe on numerous productions. Maya the Honeybee was a co-production with Germany and Little El Cid (1984, French op) was a co-production with Spain. Where most studios' productions feel very much like anime no matter what they're doing, most of Nippon Animation's productions felt very deliberately un-Japanese and international.

Their shows seemed deliberately aloof from the trends of the industry, at least in the 70s and 80s (their policy seems to have changed in the 1990s). They followed their own muse. Their shows were somehow kinder and gentler than anything else being produced at the time. They had a kind of European sensibility in the look and feel. The designs weren't as anime influenced. The directing was laid back and easygoing. Their shows weren't about heavy drama or robot action or saving the world. They were lighthearted and easy to watch, with a breezy charm.

Their early work shared a particular styling that is still appealing today, with these simple designs and basic layouts. Sindbad's Adventures (1975, German op) seems to be a good example of the early Nippon Animation style, with the spare, simple characters reminiscent of Yoichi Kotabe's drawing style. Sindbad was designed by Shuichi Seki, who would go on to be one of the studio's main character designers. It's partly his design sensibility that created that Nippon Animation look.

Future Boy Conan (1978) / Spaceship Sagittarius (1986) / Dorataro the Hobo (1981)

Jacky the Bearcub (1977) is another good show from their early period. (French opening with animation by Toshiyasu Okada from ep 1) It was designed by Yasuji Mori, also with these simple designs. It couldn't have been produced by any other studio, with its realistic yet adorable bearcubs animated in a realistic way and shown as actual wild animals, not anthropomorphized bears. A young Indian boy befriends the bear cub, but the story remains realistic in concept - the cub is a wild animal who eventually has to return to nature. Rascal did this material in an even more realistic way. It wasn't just a happy-go-lucky fantasy land; it taught youngsters about the tension between human society and the natural world of the animals. Nippon Animation's shows were wholesome but grounded and realistic about the world.

Among mid-period works, Spaceship Sagittarius (1986) was memorable, and a new direction for the studio. It was like nothing else out there, yet somehow still quintessentially Nippon Animation. The odd and homely alien designs were kind of refreshing for not looking like typical anime. The humor of the show was subtle and witty, the stories smart satire like a bizarro version of the real world. It was a quirky, fun kind of sci-fi that's never been seen before or after - not about pitched battles and space operatics, but sci-fi as whimsical fantasy and a satirical lens on our world.

Chibi Maruko-chan (1990) was another one of their more memorable productions. It signaled a change for one because it was based on a manga. Momoko Sakura's manga was about the everyday life of a grade-schooler growing up in Japan, but told with wry, ironic humor from the perspective of an adult reminiscing about the experience. It had a certain something that belied the childish style and made it appealing to the whole family. It was simultaneously realistic in the details of the specifically Japanese experience of growing up, which made it appealing to me, and stylized in the designs and look in a unique way, not a typical anime way.

Chibi Maruko-chan was produced with the assistance of Ajia-do, which is the studio that then employed the person who did many of Chibi Maruko-chan's creative opening and ending sequences - Masaaki Yuasa. Nippon Animation capitalized on the show's success by producing two Chibi Maruko-chan films around the same time. Another subcontracting studio long affiliated with Nippon Animation was Oh Production.

The 90s saw them shifting in style, keeping up with the times, adopting more popular styles and doing more obviously Japan-centric work based on manga and the like. The range was much broader than before. There was fantasy adventure like Pigmalio (1990, op) and Yamato Takeru (1994, op) and Mahoujin Guruguru (1994, op), cute shows about daily life in Japan like Mikan Enikki (1992, op) and Mama Likes Poyopoyosaurus (1995, op) and then unclassifiable oddball slapstick shows like Shonen Papuwa-kun (1992, op) and Tonde Boorin (1994, op) and Hanasaka Tenshi-kun (2000, op).

I watched a lot of their shows that came out in the early 1990s. They were actually quite original and different and appealing. Poyopoyosaurus is one I particularly remember liking - a family drama with a fun, hip contemporary vibe and style. Mahoujin Guruguru was also fun, a crazy slapstick fantasy adventure with cute SD characters. Tonde Boorin was just strange - a bizarre story about a superhero pig. Nippon Animation had clearly changed their policy in a very drastic way, striving to create series that would appeal to young viewers in Japan by following the stylistic trends of the day rather than being conceived for international audiences. I think a lot of these shows were quite fun and appealing, so in a way it was an improvement, while in other aspects they lost something that set them apart. It was still Nippon Animation in that the shows were good family entertainment. The style was just more trendy.

I didn't watch much of what they made post-2000, but I noticed there are some very bizarre items like Hanasaka Tenshi-kun that seem inconceivable for the company that produced 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.

Then there are all of the World Masterpiece Theater shows. Nippon Animation is rightly remembered for the WMT. The concept of a serious yearlong animated literary adaptation was a real innovation and produced some of the best long-form storytelling ever made in TV animation.

The World Masterpiece Theater through the years: Marco (1976) / Annette (1983) / Tico (1994)

The WMT was a staple of Fuji TV's Sunday evening programming for more than 20 years, bringing to the screen a new classic of world literature every year. Their shows took a new approach towards animation - neither shoujo nor shounen, not just for children but also for the parents, without superheros, robots, magical girls, or ninjas. The one thing that united the WMT was that they were about everyday life: the excitement, drama, sorrow, happiness and transcendent beauty to be found in the prosaic things we tend to take for granted.

Isao Takahata directed three series that launched the WMT and set the tone for the rest of the series - Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976) and Anne of Green Gables (1979). They are also easily the best in the series, and for having produced these series alone, Koichi Motohashi's studio would have a firm place in anime history. They're unsurpassed masterpieces in the TV animation format, achieving depth of characterization, power of storytelling and realism of detail and directing that will probably never be surpassed in TV animation (if only because nobody seems willing or capable of doing down-to-earth realistic stories like these). See end of post for an ancient writeup I did on what makes Marco great.

Takahata & co. were a tough act to follow. None of the subsequent shows had quite the depth, attention to detail and assiduous realism of Takahata's shows. Despite the later shows still having the trappings of being realistic drama, the WMT evolved in a subtly different direction fairly quickly after Anne. However, the early series that followed Marco, namely Rascal Raccoon (1977) and Perrine (1978), did an admirable job of creating a similar level of quality and realism under the direction of Seiji Endo, Saito Hiroshi and Shigeo Koshi, who would become the main directing figures at Nippon Animation in the ensuing years.

Rascal Raccoon in particular, despite sounding extremely lame going by the title, was one of the most affecting real-life stories in the series. It was even more realistic than Marco in the sense that it wasn't a grandiose continent-trotting adventure. It was just a small-scale story about a boy in rural America in the early 1900s and his day-to-day experiences. It also happened to benefit from a considerable amount of animation from one Hayao Miyazaki.

Tom Sawyer hit the air in 1980. It was an entertaining romp that is actually memorable if light and insubstantial compared to the previous outings. It benefited from great animation by Yoshifumi Kondo. It was an entertaining version of Mark Twain's classic, although the satirical fire and brilliant prose was lost in translation.

The mid-80s shows that followed were more melodramatic and less hard-edged, dropping the brutal neo-realism of Marco to create more accessible and child-friendly period dramas. I've only watched one series in its entirety from this middle period - Pollyanna, which seems typical of the WMT in this middle period with its saccharine tone and overwrought, unrealistic melodrama.

In the early 90s, the tone began shifting again, presumably due to dropping ratings. The first shift was the most drastic one in the series - Peter Pan. Based on literature, maybe, but a far cry from the realistic material that was the whole purpose of the series at the beginning. Yet it turned out to be one of the best WMT shows. It had strong animation thanks to Takashi Nakamura, who was fresh from his stint on Akira and itching to do something freer and more imaginative, and the animators he brought in (viz these old posts). It also happened to stand up fairly well on its own as an entertaining adaptation of this classic story that, despite veering from the story, did its spirit justice in tone and style.

Unfortunately the later shows didn't hold up as well. They desperately tried various measures like creating an action drama that wasn't based on a work of literature with Tico of the Seven Seas (1994), going against the premise of the series, and then switching the gender of Hector Malot's Sans Famille (1996) to a girl to play up to audiences. But ratings kept dropping and the series was finally cancelled afterwards.

Tico of the Seven Seas was, in itself, a fairly entertaining and well-produced series that the whole family could enjoy. Romeo's Blue Skies (1995) came perhaps the closest in spirit to the early WMTs of the 1970s, with its historically believable story about chimney sweeps in a late 19th century Italy at the turn of the century, but zany antics and childish melodrama trumped realism to the series' detriment.

Lassie (1996) was a valiant effort directed sensitively by Sunao Katabuchi. It benefited from the appealing, Yasuji Mori-esque character designs of Satoko Morikawa and nuanced animation work by the animators under her like Osamu Tanabe and Hisashi Mori. But it was sabotaged by the station, Fuji TV, who, dissatisfied presumably by unsatisfactory ratings, kept substituting baseball shows in the show's time slot and forcing the studio to change the story of the remaining episodes accordingly.

Remi Sans Famille (1997), which followed as if in a panic, was a disaster from the start, and was cancelled fairly quickly. With its cancellation, the glorious long-running WMT franchise came to an ungraceful conclusion. You can read an embarrassing little piece I wrote 15 years ago about Lassie and the end of the WMT here.

Ten years later, Nippon Animation returned to their roots, trying to revive the World Masterpiece Theater with adaptations of Les Miserables (2007), Porfy's Trip (2008) and Before Green Gables (2009), but these had little in common with the early WMT, and I don't know if the shows were successful with audiences. A Dog of Flanders earned 22.5% ratings in 1975, while ratings declined with each year until Remi Sans Famille in 1996 earned only 8.5%. It seems to indicate that demand for this material has all but evaporated amidst growing sophistication and variety of animated programming and variety of other, more flashy and exciting, competing forms of entertainment.

Even aside from the WMT, Nippon Animation was a prolific studio since it began with A Dog of Flanders in 1975. As of this year, it has produced roughly 100 TV series, including the 26 World Masterpiece Theater shows.

Besides what they produced, Nippon Animation was important in that it had a lot of talented staff who did great work. Many of the Toei luminaries moved to Nippon Animation after leaving Toei. It was there that Hayao Miyazaki had a chance to flower as a director with Future Boy Conan in 1978.

In addition to hosting Isao Takahata, Yoichi Kotabe and Hayao Miyazaki, the most notable ex-Toei figure to grace Nippon Animation's productions in the late 1970s and 1980s was Yasuji Mori, the mentor figure of many of those same ex-Toei figures. He provided delightful character designs for many series including perhaps most notably Jacky the Bearcub, known as Bouba in Europe. Jacky is one of the few animated productions that brought Yasuji Mori's uniquely rounded characters to life in a satisfying way, as witness the delicate animation in the opening. He also designed Banner the Squirrel (German op) and Dorataro the Hobo (op) and later on acted as layout supervisor on shows like Animal Three Musketeers (op) and Alice in Wonderland (op). He was the character supervisor on the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature show. He stayed at Nippon Animation until his death in 1992.

Between his early A Pro period and his late Ghibli period, Yoshifumi Kondo did much good work for Nippon Animation. As the animation director of Anne of Green Gables, he was the person responsible for doing what has never been done (or at least done so convincingly and realistically) in a TV animation, gradually modifying Anne's design to match her physical maturation over the course of the series. In Tom Sawyer he provided lots of great animation. In Little Women he was the character designer. Nippon Animation also trained a number of producers who would go on to work at other studios, most notably Eiko Tanaka.

I'm not painting a hagiography here, just trying to point out the high points. They had plenty of lows. The World Masterpiece Theater in the 1980s was more a showcase for kitschy melodrama than for serious realism, and by the end in the 1990s, it had degenerated into something of a parody of itself. Their anodyne style could be viewed more harshly as being spineless and conservative, and most of their productions are aimed at small children and are fairly unremarkable. In the 1970s, they produced their fair share of generic spokon and shoujo manga adaptations, and even produced some forgettable robot shows. Their productions in the 1990s became much more tailored towards popular tastes in content and style, so they became kind of like every other studio out there and lost a little of what had once made them so unique. They had to survive.

But all that said, they did produce a series like Takashi Nakamura's Fantastic Children in 2004, which was a sincere attempt to create a series of genuine quality divorced of market considerations. Nakamura had previously been involved with Nippon Animation on their 1989 WMT Peter Pan, which was one of the series' late successes.

TV shows were Nippon Animation's main field of activity, but they also produced a number of TV specials sporadically up until the late 80s. In the early 90s, they produced a series of movies, most of which seem unremarkable. The second Chibi Maruko-chan movie (1992) notably featured some creative animation sequences from Ajia-do animators like Masaaki Yuasa. After the WMT ended, they even tried to revive the franchise with some fanfare by releasing remakes of Marco and A Dog of Flanders, the highest-rated shows in the series, but presumably these films didn't do so hot at the box office, because the series didn't continue afterwards.

One of their recent projects that looks intriguing is a 2007 TV special entitled Miyori no Mori (trailer). It was directed by veteran art director Nizo Yamamoto. It appears to have a more classical look indicating an attempt to return to something of the tone of their earlier work with material with a more broad appeal, an epic fantasy on the subject of ecology and nature.

The really remarkable thing about Nippon Animation is that this post doesn't even do justice to the range of their work. This post only covers a fraction of the shows they did, and briefly, and those other shows are quite wide-ranging in style, far more than almost any other Japanese studio except for maybe TMS. Over the span of 35 years, Nippon Animation has produced a handful of masterpieces and a slew of highly entertaining and unique TV series. They represented an alternative vision of anime far removed from all the cliches that have come to define Japanese animation in the imagination of the world. Many of their shows were watched and beloved by millions of kids the world over during the 1970s and 1980s. Kids of my generation grew up on Nippon Animation anime. They've been a one-of-a-kind presence in the anime industry for well over three decades. For running such a studio, Koichi Motohashi, thank you, and rest in peace.

Click on to see an old thing I wrote about 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.

3000 Leagues in Search of Mother:
From the Appenines to the Andes

Produced by Nippon Animation, aired on Fuji TV
52 episodes, aired Jan-04-1976 to Dec-26-1976
Based on Cuore (1878) (Translated in English as: Heart: an Italian schoolboy's journal, a book for boys) by Edmondo de Amicis (1846-1908, Italian)

Executive producer: Koichi Motohashi
Producer: Nakajima Junzo, Matsudo Takaji
Director: Takahata Isao
Character design & animation director: Kotabe Yoichi
Assistant Animation Director: Okuyama Reiko
Written by: Fukazawa Kazuo
Art director: Takamura Mukuo
Music: Sakata Koichi
Layout & Scene Design: Miyazaki Hayao
Storyboards: Tomino Yoshiyuki (3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29, 33, 36, 39, 40, 42, 44, 46, 48, 50, 52), Okuta Seiji (9, 11, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 32, 34, 37, 38, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51), Kuroda Yoshio (13, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 35), Takahata Isao (1, 2, 4, 5, 7)
Assistant directors: Yokota Kazuyoshi, Baba Ken'ichi, Kageyama Yasuo
Audio director: Uragami Yasuo
Photography director: Kuroki Keishichi

Marco: Matsuo Yoshiko
Peppino (Fiolina's father): Nagai Ichiro
Conchetta (Fiolina's sister): Ohara Noriko
Fiolina: Nobusawa Mieko
Tonio (Marco's brother): Sogabe Kazuyuki
Pietro (Marco's father): Kawakubo Kiyoshi
Leonardo: Kamiyama Takuzo
Anna (Marco's mother): Nikaido Yukiko
Julietta (Fiolina's sister): Chijimatsu Sachiko
Pablo: Higashi Mie
Fana (Pablo's sister): Yokozawa Keiko
Mario: Tomiyama
Clara: Takefuji Reiko
Fernadez: Miyata Hikaru
Narrator: Tsuboi Akiko

OPENING THEME: Sogen no maruko (Marco on the Grasslands)
ENDING THEME: Kaasan ohayo (Good Morning, Mother)
Vocalist: Osugi Kumiko
Lyrics: Fukazawa Kazuo (op), Takahata Isao (ed)
Music: Sakata Koichi
Arrangement: Sakata Koichi (op), Oroku Reijiro (ed)

This TV series is an adaptation of only one tiny portion of Cuore; namely, the story for the month of May, 'From the Appenine to the Andes'. The anime resembles the original story only in outline, as most of the story elements and characters were created specifically for the anime by writer Fukazawa Kazuo (whose only other anime credits are the screenplay of Hols, Prince of the Sun and the cinematization of 1001 Nights)

A movie compiled from episodes of the TV series was released in theaters on 19 July1980 in Japan.

On the novel

Written following the Italian war for independence by a sub-leutenant who had fought in the seige of Rome in 1870, Cuore is the fictional diary of a boy's third year in a Turin municipal school. It was written to foster juvenile appreciation of the newfound Italian national unity, which the author had fought for in the recent war. The book is often highly emotional, even sentimental, but gives a vivid picture of urban Italian life at that time. A master, introducing a new pupil, tells the class, "Remember well what I am going to say. That this fact might come to pass--that a Calabrian boy might find himself at home in Turin, and that a boy of Turin might be in his own home in Calabria, our country has struggled for fifty years, and thirty thousand Italians have died." The author established a reputation as a writer in various genres after his experience as a soldier, and after having been translated into English in 1895 as Heart and then four years later as Enrico's Schooldays, the novel became internationally popular, and has been translated into over twenty-five languages.

Scattered thoughts about the anime

AnnaThis anime, the second sekai meisaku gekijo series, starts off in Genova, Italy1, and ends up far away across the Atlantic in Cordoba, Argentina2. At the beginning of the series we meet a family of four living in Genova, the Rossis: mother Anna, father Pietro, eldest son Tonio and young Marco... and Amedeo, their little pet monkey. The father runs a free clinic for the poor, as times were tough in Italy at the turn of the century, and there was a national work shortage. The Rossis find themselves in debt because Pietro's work is certainly charitable, but unprofitable. Tough times require tough measures, and Marco's parents are forced to make the difficult but obvious choice between sending mother to Argentina to find work, and starving: she agrees to go for a year. However, Anna and Pietro keep Marco in the dark about their plans until the last minute, for fear of his reaction. On the last day before Anna is to set out, the whole family spends one last idyllic day on the beach together, before revealing the truth to Marco...

Genova...And thus the series begins. After the mother's departure, the series moves on into a number of episodes about daily life in Genova. This development section introduces the father and brother and many other characters not in the book. We meet not just the Rossi family and friends, but perhaps just as importantly, the fin-de-siecle city of Genova. We're ushered through its every nook and cranny through the eyes of Marco, giving us a glimpse of daily life going on all around him. These episodes bring the city alive in a way no other anime does. For the first time in an anime, the city was not a backdrop but an active part of the story. The city of Genova has many faces: dark alleyways which only get five minutes of sunlight a day3, marble plazas where a priveleged minority lounge in the sunlight above the crowded, towering tenements of the inner city4, the splendid and colorful facade of the city looking out on the sea. This series brought documentary realism to anime, and this is a big part of what makes it so much more powerful than typical anime (as is the case with Takahata's other work). Anime dealing with such mundane subject matter, and dealing with its characters in a realistic way had never been attempted before (excepting the earlier Takahata project Heidi). But though Heidi was an anime about everyday life, Marco is more than that.

Attention to detail could be said to be the unifying concept of this series. Every image of the city is designed to seem as realistic as possible, and comes across as intense and vivid. The city isn't just a backdrop; rather, watching the series gives you an impression of walking around a real city you've never been in before. No part of the city exists to fill in space, unlike in other anime. Sounds in the background are also realistic. Now and then you can hear the children singing a game in the distance, or a wife calling to her husband in the distance. And instead of each episode being an adventure story, this series tells of the things which occur every day in real life. The buildings of the city seem like organic creatures affected by the rain and sunlight of the environs. Using sound and lighting, the city's people and edifices are brought alive by these many small nuances, and as a result the 'foreignness' of the city seems very authentic. The real-to-life backdrop itself makes the action seem naturalistic and spontaneous. The fact that one single person wrote the entire script, and one single person directed every episode goes a long way to accounting for this series' sense of unity... because each is an auteur. Keeping the creative power within the hands of one person seems rarer in anime these days, probably because the industry has changed. But I think this tight creative control is precisely what made it possible to create a series which is certainly as much of a masterpiece as any of the other more well-known Miyazaki or Takahata films - but on an tremendously bigger scale. However, the director was not the only person whose creative work went into on this series. Credit should go equally to the various staff members: Director Takahata Isao, screenwriter Fukazawa Kazuo, layout artist Miyazaki Hayao, music director Sakata Koichi, art director Mukuo Takamura, animation director Kotabe Yoichi, and all the storyboarders - all without whose brilliant work these disparate elements would certainly not have come together with such glorious results.

MarcoBut what about the 3000 League journey? It doesn't come until relatively late in the series, after a long exposition; so I think it's clear that the real journey is in fact one of Marco's inner growth. What is it that compels Marco to leave Genova for faraway Buenos Aires5 6, all the way across the Atlantic? In part it's his character: Marco is a stubborn little boy. But he's justifiably worried in light of the sudden lapse of communication from his mother. By the time of the departure, it's obvious to the viewer that these episodes have served to mentally prepare Marco for the real journey ahead. But it's also clear that he has a long way to go. The often heated disputes had with his father, his skipping school to work as a bottle washer - all are symptoms of acute juvenalia. When the father finds out what Marco wants to do, he only naturally refuses even the thought of putting his son alone onto a ship for someplace as far as South America. But as for Marco, the little boy, he is still immature and stubborn. A stigmatized longing for the impossible seems to have a long tradition as as one of the beauties of youth, and Marco fits in nicely in that tradition. Marco takes his anxieties to an extreme that's frightening, even downright pathological, but for all his violent outbursts, he seems like just a normal little boy going through that phase in life. I think this is where Takahata shines - in making young Marco a bona fide, authentic, flawed human being. In fact, this is the part of the series which delves most effectively into the realm of Marco's mind, I think. At certain points in these episodes Marco rebels with an intensity of emotion and mental anguish that would make Jim "Rebel" Dean/Stark quake in his boots. No other anime before this has such a powerful screenplay which put effort into realistically portraying the a child's unstable emotional state during that roller-coaster time called adolescence.

This viewer only recently had the opportunity to experience watching these episodes for the first time, and without hesitation I would say in earnest that no anime tv series has ever been more emotionally riveting to me than merely the first fifth of this tv series. (and that'snot to discount the rest of the series) One could say that 3000 Leagues is the emotional prototype for Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata's film from a decade later. In her article on Isao Takahata in Kinema Jumpo No. 1166, Emiko Okada makes it a point to draw a parallel between the indifferent and cruel adults in Grave of the Fireflies and those in 3000 Ri. While I think such a parallel is partly true, I don't feel that the characterisations of the adults in 3000 Ri were taken to the extreme to which they were taken in Grave of the Fireflies. I think Grave suffers more than anything from this problem. People who lived through this period say that people were charitable and supportive of each other during this time and that the hardship-induced greed and self-interest characteristic of most characters in this film is all wrong. 3000 Ri is more than well balanced by its share of compassionate adult characters, and doesn't suffer any such handicap. The creators of the anime would be to thank for this, because in almost all respects the anime version of this novel is an original story. (One of the more important differences being that the anime version was stripped of the patriotic undercurrent of Cuore the novel.) Whereas Grave, as Okada points out, betrays its origins inautobiography by its sometimes wooden depiction of characters. It's easy to understand that liberties would need to be kept to a minimum in a 90 minute adaptation, whereas liberties would needs be taken in abundancein order to flesh out a 52-episode adaptation.

SlumOne WMT fan at one time astutely pointed out the very noticeable and considerable decline in grittiness in the WMT as the years go by. I think this is a fairly important point, because it helps understand why the WMT was cancelled. Basically, earlier series seem to be a lot tougher and less patronizing than the later series. The harder-hitting and more sober, seminal series from the beginning of the WMT (Heidi, Marco, Flanders, Rascal, Perrine and Anne) got ratings above the 20 mark, whereas the series in the latter half (post-Sara) more light-hearted and formulaic forays into "childrens' anime" suffered a continual decline in ratings (and arguably quality), and that is what eventually led to the demise of the WMT when it was cancelled by its longtime host station, Fuji TV, due to low ratings in 1997. Suffice it to say, perhaps there's more wisdom than meets the eye to a remark made by Shudo Takeshi (creator of Minky Momo) in 1993: "We made the Minky Momo series not by pandering to the kids, but rather with a feeling that if adults could follow, then surely kids will be able to follow as well."

ImmigrantsA film which was an influence on Takahata in 3000 Ri, and seems to have exerted some influence on stylistic aspects of the series, was Vittorio De Sica's film The Bicycle Thief (1948). This movie was the origin of the Italian post-war "neo-realist" film movement, and is considered to be one of the hallmarks of western cinema. There are a number of striking similarities between 3000 Ri and The Bicycle Thief, for example the unobtrusive, longer-than-usual camera shots and scenes depicting characters going through menial daily rituals, which would usually have been skipped over in anime and film alike. The pacing in 3000 Ri is also similar: slow, but always focused and never boring. We follow Marco throughout a whole day, and get to feel as if we were in his shoes. As he goes through the streets, we see the details which make every street and building unique, and we see things from his perspective yet also simultaneously from a detatched 3rd person perspective. Whilst looming buildings are characteristic of Genova, when Marco moves from one town to another later in Argentina, what characterises the cities there is different - they're flat. The cities - and its inhabitants - come alive in both places by fleshing out these radically different conceptions of landscape. Also the director doesn't spare the cities by making them pretty and making Marco's misery into an adventure. The cities are shown to be realistically if unflatteringly dirty and shabby, where needed, and daily life no more glamorous7. Marco's journey itself is authentic, as many Italians fled Italy in search of work around the turn of the century. Oftentimes this assiduous attention to realism is tempered by symbolist touches. At one point a squalid immigrant ship upon which Marco has been forced to board is approaching Buenos Aires (the city where Marco beleives his mother to be) and a hull-level camera-shot displays an object bobbing slowly along the waves towards the ship. It bumps into the hull, then tilts over to one side, and sinks beneath the waves, revealed to be the corpse of a horse. Later on, a grimy slum is ironically juxtaposed with a pristine white city. Scenes like this with more meaning than meets the eye are not uncommon, as are rather creative expressionistic nightmare sequences revealing Marco's psychic state. On the surface these are literary devices. And while not an integral part of plot, they serve, rather, to produce a sense of foreboding, and introduce borderline surrealist elements into the story. This innovative combination of authentic, sparse background music, background art establishing realistic but sometimes symbolically desolate landscapes, and script obsessively fleshing out the psychology of a single character, results in a powerful atmosphere unique to this series. Marco's experiences on the new continent reveal to the viewer people living sad but determined lives upon the vast, flat Argentinan pampas8 9, a place where the grass is no greener than in Marco's remote and overpopulated homeland.

The series is called Marco in the German-broadcast version. It receives frequent reruns in Japan and in Europe (as do many of the World Masterpiece Theater series). However, ironically, in Argentina the series was cancelled before even a third of the series had been aired, though this apparently had more to do with fickle viewers channel-surfing for Dragonball Z than the uncompromising way Argentina is portrayed.

This anime tv series was based on only one chapter of Cuore, not the entire story. The original was a "story within a story", the rest of the book being but a diary-novel about the life of an Italian elementary school student. The chapter on which the anime was based, From the Appennines to the Andes, was a story read by a teacher to the students who are the main characters in Cuore. (Note that the entire story was animated by Nippon Animation five years later in 1981, was the last "Calpis Playhouse" series). On the other hand, the other WMT series which to be based on a diary-novel, Daddy Long-Legs, follows the whole of the original, fleshing the diary entries out to produce a more tangible narrative, a sort of growing-up sitcom.

This was Isao Takahata's second credit as TV series general director. His other TV series are Heidi (1974), Anne of Green Gables (1979) and Jarinko Chie (1981), the latter of which enjoys continual airtime in Kansai. The ri in the Japanese title is an antiquated nautical measure of distance, one ri being equivalent to 2.44 miles, transferring handily to our own nautical measure of distance, the league.

Friday, November 12, 2010

12:05:54 pm , 79 words, 1512 views     Categories: Animation

Koji Yamamura's upcoming Muybridge's Strings

If you're in Toronto and you're into weird Japanese animation, then head on over to the NFB Mediatheque tomorrow to experience a masterclass with the master himself, Koji Yamamura, plus a screening of his earlier films. Read an interview with the producer on the NFB blog. See a shot of the film on Yamamura's blog. Yamamura's latest film is being produced in collaboration with the NFB. It's a match made in heaven. I can't wait to see the film.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

02:27:00 am , 2282 words, 5630 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Isamu Kumada and Studio Arrow

This image is from the "Growing Up" episode of Nippon Animation's 1986 TV show Animated Classics of Japanese Literature. I watched most of the show way back when. What was most appealing about it was its omnibus approach to the production, with a different team heading each episode. It even features work by ex-A Pro folks like Osamu Kobayashi and Yoshio Kabashima.

The Growing Up episode was by far my favorite of the lot for its unique drawing style. The characters had this stately elegance that I'd never seen in any anime before. The designs were classy and classic, and the movement more weighty and calculated and beautiful. It was all so graceful and lovely, every line so delicate and perfect, kind of like Seiichi Hayashi's drawings come to life. (Seiichi Hayashi incidentally drew the drawings for the end credits) It was also directed very sensitively, complementing the low-key and emotionally subtle story of a young girl and her friends growing up in the late 1800s in Japan. It was one of the best animated literary adaptations I'd seen. I haven't rewatched it in a while, but I suspect it still probably holds up fairly well.

Isamu Kumada was the director, character designer and animation director of this episode. I looked for more work by him because I wanted to see more in this vein, but I couldn't find anything quite like this, though as I discovered upon looking into it, he has been prolific doing all sorts of other things.

Isamu Kumada's start in animation is still a mystery to me. All I know is that he was born in 1940, graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts and started out working on anime in the 1970s and 1980s for the likes of Nippon Animation and Topcraft, and then shifted to doing TV ads from his independent studio Studio Arrow, which was just himself and Susumu Shiraume. Isamu Kumada is today best remembered as a TV ad director. He was very prolific in the 90s and 00s in advertising. It was right before he made the switch to doing ad work, at the end of at least a good decade of working in the industry, that he made the wonderful Growing Up episode.

Studio Arrow appears to go back at least to 1976. I found Studio Arrow credited with the animation for the following six early episodes of Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi AKA Tales of Old Japan.

Waterfall for the Aged (#19A, 1976)
The God of Wind and the Children (#22A, 1976)
The Dragon in the Swamp (#33A, 1976)
The Ghost Ship (#45A, 1976)
The False Idol (#61A, 1976)
The Treasure Geta (#67A, 1977)

I don't know whether Kumada and Shiraume had an official studio at this time or they were just using the title as a collective pen name the way Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama did around the same time on the same show with "Ajia-do" (their actual Ajia-do studio wasn't founded until 1978). But Kumada was 35 at the time, so it's hard to believe he was just starting out in animation. Thus there seems to be something missing, something before this - how he got into animation I'm still not sure.

Kumada and Shiraume were involved with Topcraft for a while around this time, because at the very least I've found them credited with layout on The Flight of the Dragons (1982).

Kumada and Shiraume also worked together on numerous Nippon Animation productions around this time, including Cuore: School of Love (1981) and Hey! Bunbu (1985-86), on which they were credited together with character design. In a solo capacity, Kumada was the character designer of Nippon Animation's Diary of Anne Frank TV special (1979), Meesha the Bear Cub (1979-1980), Alice in Wonderland (1983-84), Blinky the Koala (1984), Aesop's Fables (1985) and 80 Days Around the World (1987-88) while Shiraume designed Mori no Tonto-tachi (Forest of the Elves, 1986) for Shaft. Isamu Kumada and Susumu Shiraume are together credited for the animation of Growing Up.

After this, sometime in the late 80s, Studio Arrow appears to have shifted focus to work mainly on TV advertisement. Kumada designed posters and wrote picture books, and even published a guidebook called Textural Expression for Designers in 1987. From Studio Arrow, he and Susumu Shiraume produced a large number of TV ads for the likes of Daihatsu and Nissan. To name but a few examples, they did the Notte Kangaroo series for Nissan; the Lismo series for mobile phone company KDDI; and this Badger ad from 1990 for Tokyo Electric. I also discovered that Kumada directed two OVAs released in 1992 adapting classic picture books with engravings by Jiro Takidaira - one entitled The Mountain of Flowers and the other entitled Mochimochi no Ki. (Tadanari Okamoto also adapted Mochimochi no Ki.)

In the course of researching this post, I learned that Isamu Kumada died on September 4, 2009 at age 69.

Isamu Kumada's Textural Expression for Designers, a recent picture book, and the video for The Mountain of Flowers

Kumada also participated in this series of 10 "video book" adaptations of classics of Japanese literature. Each story is read aloud by a narrator to a backdrop of illustrations by different illustrators. Many of them besides Kumada are animators. In fact, most of the people seem to be people who worked on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi - Gisaburo Sugii, Marisuke Eguchi, Hidekazu Ohara, Mitsuo Kobayashi, Takamitsu Miwa, Hirokazu Fukuhara - so it appears to be kind of an offshoot of that show.

Incidentally, Studio Arrow helped launch the advertising career of Hidekazu Ohara, the great animator responsible for Cannon Fodder and Professor Dan Petry's Blues, not to mention a bunch of episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. (The delightfully stylized razor blade kitsune episode he did, which I talked about before here, was in fact what got him the job to do Cannon Fodder - Eiko Tanaka showed a tape of the episode to Katsuhiro Otomo, and that is what got him the job offer.) Ohara worked at Studio Arrow for a while before going independent and going on to become equally creative and prolific and sought-after a creator of animated TV ads. It's from them that he learned the stylistic versatility and blend of techniques that makes his work stand out. He did the whole Qoo series, the Gohan ga Susumu-kun series and the famous Aleph ad that vividly brought to life the Slam Dunk characters.

Isamu Kumada and Hidekazu Ohara are an example of a type of animator we don't hear about much in anime - a more flexible animator who is able to switch between radically different styles depending on the subject matter, who doesn't just work as a cog in one post, but switches around doing different things depending on the project, trying out different styles. They're much more rounded and flexible. It's this experience that paved the way for the creative and unusual styles of Cannon Fodder and Professor Dan Petry's Blues. Young animators today who know nothing but anime style drawings could use this kind of exposure to different styles to expand their palette. A large amount of creative animation work in Japan has been done in advertising work, and therefore is mostly hidden away and disappears quickly and doesn't get attributed to the artists, so it's hard to keep track of. It's a whole hidden side of the animation industry that doesn't get talked about as much.

As a supplement to this post, reproduced below is what I wrote about the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature series some 10-odd years ago in the old WMT database I used to run. Just now I tried looking online for information about the staff for each episode of this series, but I couldn't find anything, which is why I dug this up. For some reason, back then I transcribed the credits of all the episodes I had rented. A few episodes are missing, but it's still better than nothing.

Looking over this, I noticed that the Asunaro Story episode that I also liked was done by the Ajia-do team of Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama and Yumiko Suda.

青春アニメ全集 Literary classics animated
Started airing April 25, 1986
35 episodes
Produced by Nippon Animation/Dentsu Osaka Branch, aired on Nihon TV
Chief Director: Kurokawa Fumio
Character Supervisor: Mori Yasuji
Ending Illustrations: Hayashi Seiichi

An omnibus of famous works of Japanese literature. Each episode of this series was done by a different creative staff, like Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, an anthology of Japanese folk tales, resulting in a refreshingly different look and feel from episode to episode, something which is unusual in anime. The resulting variety of styles well complements the different authors represented. Several episodes stand out from the rest, foremost the well-crafted and stylish Growing Up episode by Kumada Isamu. Asunaro story is one of the more lyrical and affecting stories in the series, and Hoichi, again the work of Kumada Isamu, is also good; but even taking the less well done episodes into account, the fact that this series is original and genuinely interesting to watch makes this one of Nippon Animation's best works of the 1980s, a decade which was otherwise downhill for this studio which created masterpieces like 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and the other early WMT series in the late 1970s.
Student Days is not listed as having been aired at the time of the original Japanese broadcast in the Japanese database I've consulted for the episode listing. Two previously unaired episodes were aired at the end of 1987, a year after the TV series finished broadcasting, so presumably this is one of those.

English sub: The whole series was released with English subs on VHS by Central Park Media. Their credit translations are incomplete and incorrectly list the same animators and art director in each episode; I've made an accurate episode-by-episode credit list (still in progress).

#1: The Izu Dancer
Original work: Kawabata Yasunari
Director: Takasuka Katsumi
Animation director: Kabashima Yoshio
Character design: Kabashima Yoshio
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Kawamoto Shohei

#2: Sea Roar Part one - Spring awakening
#3: Sea Roar Part two - Summer storm

#4: The grave of the wild chrysanthemums
Original work: Ito Sachio
Director: Kumada Isamu
Animation director: Iimura Kazuo
Character design: Kumada Isamu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Mukuo Takamura

#5: The wind rises
Original work: Hori Tatsuo
Director: Morita Hiromitsu
Animation director: Yanase Joji
Character design: Tsutsui Momoko
Screenplay: Matsuda Shozo
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Shibata Chikako

#6: The fruit of Olympus
Original work: Tanaka Hidemitsu
Director: Matsushima Akiko
Animation director: Yazawa Norio
Character design: Yazawa Norio
Screenplay: Matsuda Shozo
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Yamamoto Junko
Storyboard: Kasahi Hiroshi

#7: Botchan Part one - The new professor gets mad!
Original work: Natsume Soseki
Director: Kondo Eisuke
Animation director: Kitahara Takeo
Character design: Motomiya Hiroshi
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Kudo Ken'ichi

#8: Botchan Part two - Defeat Red Shirt!
Original work: Natsume Soseki
Director: Kondo Eisuke
Animation director: Kitahara Takeo
Character design: Motomiya Hiroshi
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Kono Masamichi

#9: From "Harmonium and fish town" in Wandering Days
Original work: Hayashi Fumiko
Director: Okabe Eiji
Animation director: Iimura Kazuo
Character design: Ishino Hirokazu
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Kawano Jiro

#10: The dancing girl
Original work: Mori Ogai
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shimada Hideaki
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Kaneko Hidetoshi

#11: Asunaro story
Original work: Inoue Yasushi
Director: Suda Yumiko
Animation director: Shibayama Tsutomu
Character design: Kobayashi Osamu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Tanaka Shizue

#12: A roadside stone Part one - Dreams of middle school
Original work: Yamamoto Yuzo
Director: Okabe Eiji
Storyboard: Kurokawa Fumio
Animation director: Ishino Hirokazu
Character design: Mori Yasuji
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Tojo Toshihisa

#13: A roadside stone Part two - Hard days
Original work: Yamamoto Yuzo
Director: Okabe Eiji
Storyboard: Kurokawa Fumio
Animation director: Ishino Hirokazu
Character design: Mori Yasuji
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Tojo Toshihisa

#14: Growing up
Original work: Higuchi Ichiyo
Director: Kumada Isamu
Animation director: Kumada Isamu
Character design: Kumada Isamu
Screenplay: Kuni Chisako
Music: Koroku Reijiro
Art director: Kawamoto Shohei
Key animation: Kumada Isamu, Shiraume Susumu

#15: The priest of Mount Koya

#16: Kwaidan: The tale of Hoichi
Original work: Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn)
Director: Kumada Isamu
Animation director: Kitahara Takeo
Character design: Kumada Isamu
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Kubota Norio
Biwa: Tsuruta Kinshi

#17: Akagawa Jiro: Hometown casebook
#18: Akagawa Jiro: Voice from heaven

#19: The theater of life
Original work: Ozaki Shiro
Director: Okabe Eiji
Animation director: Kon Shinnosuke
Character design: Murao Mio
Screenplay: Nakanishi Ryuzo
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Uchida Tatsuhiko

#20: Season of the sun: A dangerous youth
Original work: Ishihara Shintaro
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shimada Hideaki
Screenplay: Nagahara Shuichi
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Kanemura Katsumi

#22: Sugata Sanshiro Part 1: Child of fate of Kodokan
#23: Sugata Sanshiro Part 2: Mountain storm special attack
#24: Sugata Sanshiro Part 3: Showdown at Ukyogahara

#25: The harp of Burma Part 1: Noplace like home
Original work: Takeyama Michio
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shiraume Susumu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Ito Shukei

#26: The harp of Burma Part 2: Song of separation
Original work: Takeyama Michio
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shiraume Susumu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Ito Shukei

#27: Akechi Kogoro: A walker in the attic
#28: Akechi Kogoro: A psychological test
#29: Akechi Kogoro: The red room
#30: The New Story of Tono
#31: Love climbing to heaven

#32: Shiro returns to the north
Original work: Togawa Yukio
Director: Matsushima Akiko
Animation director: Abe Masaki
Character design: Abe Masaki
Screenplay: Kuriyama Shizuyo
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Yamamoto Junko

#?: Student Days
Original work: Kume Masao
Director: Matsushima Akiko
Storyboard: Kuzuoka Hiroshi
Animation director: Kiyoyama Shigetaka
Character design: Kiyoyama Shigetaka
Screenplay: Matsuda Shozo
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Yamamoto Junko

Saturday, November 6, 2010

07:46:00 pm , 1682 words, 5752 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu

I wrote a bit about Toei Doga's forays into the OVA market in my entry on Vampire Wars (1990). I just had the chance to see another outing from them from slightly earlier.

Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu (1988) is a light-hearted and half-hearted fantasy adventure in the same vein from Toei from a few years earlier. Both OVAs are mildly entertaining but forgettable fluff. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The saving grace of this generic outing is Koichi Arai. Xanadu is to Koichi Arai what Vampire Wars is to Hamasu Hideki - his first job as character designer and animation director. Both OVAs were one of the early stepping stones in these great animators' careers. They're one of the first places you can turn now to get a sense of the animator's style in these early years.

Koichi Arai is probably best remembered for his work on 3x3 Eyes (1991), which was another OVA foray from Toei, like Xanadu and Vampire Wars, but a somewhat better one. Not that he hasn't done outstanding work elsewhere. 3x3 Eyes was just his biggest gig. He's been a lone animator for the most part since then.

He's the reason I bothered watching this, and I was happy to find that even at this early stage his style is evident. Koichi Arai's drawings are more distinctive than Hideki Hamasu's. I could see a clear resemblance not only with 3x3 Eyes but even with the opening sequence Arai did for Kemonozume episode 8 in 2006.

It's kind of the nascent form of his style in 3x3 Eyes, as opposed to the more realistic style he showed himself capable of in Crying Freeman episode 1 (1988). He drew a unique and easily identifiable sequence in episode 5 of Shonan Bakusozoku in 1989, so I was expecting his style would probably already be identifiable a year earlier.

There were other animators drawing in a realistic style at Toei in the mid-80s when Koichi Arai was learning the ropes, for example Junichi Hayama. But Arai's work stands out as being particularly well observed - a new, more modern style of drawing. He seemed to represent a new generation emerging. It's probably not a coincidence that Arai worked as an animator on the baby room sequence in Akira around this time. He was one of the pioneer realistic animators of the day.

Even when he wasn't drawing realistic people like in Crying Freeman, the same basic approach seems to underpin his animation. Arai was able to combine more realistic timing and drawing with comical deformation and humor when necessary. His drawings were both more stylish and more real. You wouldn't necessarily call the designs of 3x3 Eyes realistic, per se, but somehow the movement was. He brought a new sensibility to the timing and conceptualization of a movement. Also, the faces of side-characters in the crowd were clearly stylized in a more realistic way. With just a few lines he managed to establish a unique facial form the communicated an individual - something I'd only seen from Katsuhiro Otomo before.

His realism wasn't the brute-force realism of the old guard of Toei, who pounded you with detailed drawings of muscle men. Just the opposite - he pared down the drawings to a minimum of lines and moved the body more three-dimensionally. He had a unique new way of making something seem real. Even if the design wasn't realistic, the movement would be, or a part of the drawing would be. For example, one of his trademarks is showing the teeth in detail and showing the gums, as in the shot below. It seems to have the effect of injecting a feeling of reality into an otherwise unrealistic drawing.

Koichi Arai / Naoyuki Onda?

The thing I wasn't expecting is that this OVA isn't pure Toei. Many of the staff are ex-Bebow. The top five names listed in the animator credits (Naoyuki Onda, Tomokazu Tokoro, Keiichi Sato, Hiroyuki Ochi and Koichi Usami) are all prominent expatriates of Bebow. More specifically, they were all involved in Relic Armor Legaciam, which came out just a few months before Xanadu.

Legaciam was made by Atelier Giga. In fact, it was their only production. Atelier Giga was a short-lived studio founded in March 1987 that brought together the animators who had left Bebow in the fall of 1984 to form a studio called Studio Pack with those who left after Cool Cool Bye in 1986. The studio went belly-up after Legaciam, sending all the Bebow animators scattering to the four winds. (many went to AIC)

I don't know how these Bebow animators came to be working on Xanadu together, but clearly it must have been one of the first things they did after Atelier Giga broke up.

Two distinct styles dominate Xanadu: That of Koichi Arai, and that of Bebow. I'd even say that most of the animation feels like Bebow. Koichi Arai doesn't dominate the proceedings like he did in 3x3 Eyes. Naoyuki Onda in particular is a big presence. He seems to have animated the masked baddie and his wife, not to mention the blue-haired character. The blue-haired guy and the woman baddie's face his this distinctive broad, oval shape that's unique to Onda, while the baddie has a more photorealistic style. I was wondering if the baddie might in fact be the work of Hideki Hamasu, who was the assistant animation director, but I'm not sure enough of his style to be able to ID it whereas the eyes do seem to be in Onda's style.

Many of the other shots have a certain Bebow vibe - a particular layout, pose or expression that gives me deja vu, as if I'd seen something similar in Cool Cool Bye or an earlier Bebow production. I can't pin it down to a particular animator except to narrow it down to one of those four other than Onda.

I like the drawings of Arai and the Bebows. Arai's got his own unique style, and so does Onda. The masked baddie I presume to be by Onda has an appealing realistic look, with a well-defined nose and lips and realistically proportioned eyes (as opposed to huge balloons), unlike all of the other characters in the show, who have more stylized 'anime features'.

This was Arai's first time designing characters, and he managed to carve out a fairly unique style without being too radical. The protagonist's expressions are vivacious and pliable and fun to watch. It's definitely not as extreme or exciting as 3x3 Eyes or Crying Freeman episode 1, but still nice for a Koichi Arai fan. I wonder if he designed the baddies too, because they have a completely different style.

Apart from these guys, I guess the rest of the people are Toei folks. Junichi Hayama is the only name I recognize. Well, also Michio Fukuda, who has gone on to focus on directing. Junichi Hayama is one of the better Toei animators of this period. I'm not positive, but I think this part of Shonan Bakusozoku episode 5 was done by him, to give an example of his work.

The interesting thing about the 'realistic' movement in animation in Japan in the late 80s/early 90s was that it's multifarious. It's not just about Akira. You've got a certain style that developed at Toei under folks like Takaaki Yamashita and Koichi Arai, then you've got the Bebow folks like Naoyuki Onda, then you've got Akira and the people it influenced. But even among the ex-Akira animators there's a big difference between the realistic style of, say, Shinya Ohira and Hiroyuki Okiura.

One of my favorite bits in the ep not from a character drawing standpoint was the swivel shot at the beginning where the mecha zooms off past a big lizard monster. It's well executed and stylish. Then there's a shot where the baddie has his face up close next to the captured heroine and tentacles emerge from his face. It's successful at being disturbing due to the realistic way the guy's face is drawn and his calm expression.

As for the story, it's a hodgepodge of fantasy tropes, a halfhearted effort at best. The setting mixes sci-fi with fantasy - you've got wizards and flying machines - but nothing in the story uses the trappings whatsoever.

We start out in the future in the middle of a battle between ambulatory robots in Europe. Suddenly, a bright light engulfs the protagonist's machine and everyone blacks out. When they wake up, they're in D&D land. No explanation is ever provided as to why this happened. There's a cute girl with a flying squirrel mascot, an evil wizard wearing a Char Aznable helmet trying to use black magic to enslave the world, an army of lizard men, and even a legendary sword in a stone destined for the one true hero. It's all there.

Don't come here expecting anything original, or for it to make sense, or to find well-developed characters or epic storytelling like in Lodoss Wars or something. They clearly set out to make a lighthearted D&D romp to capitalize on the popularity of Nihon Falcom's dungeon crawler game of the same name, and that's all this is. It's actually surprisingly entertaining and innocent, and the quality of the drawings makes it easy to watch. It has something of the spunky, playful quality of Xabungle. It's not completely over-the-top comedy, but it's rarely serious for more than a few moments. Even when it's serious it doesn't feel that serious.

This was an OVA in the 80s, and that can only mean one thing: tentacles! Out of nowhere, we even get a nude tentacle scene in this OVA - nothing explicit, but suggestive. If it was AIC I'd understand, but coming from Toei Doga, it feels a little forced. Clearly, Nausicaa was influential in more ways than one.

Not to be confused with this Xanadu.

(dir. Atsutoshi Umezawa, 50 min, released March 1988)

Character design & animation director:Koichi Arai

Assistant animation director:Hideki Hamasu

Key animators:Naoyuki Onda
Tomokazu Tokoro
Keiichi Sato
Hiroyuki Ochi
Koichi Usami
Joji Yanase
Yasuhiko Urata
Junichi Hayama
Masahiko Ohkura
Tetsuro Aoki
Tomoko Kobayashi
Yoshihiro Kowada
Yasushi Nagaoka
Hideyuki Hashimoto
Chiharu Sato
Michio Fukuda
Katsumi Tamegai

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

01:08:00 am , 1243 words, 6448 views     Categories: Animation

Panty & Stocking #5 part B

Osamu Kobayashi directed the second half of this episode. Merely knowing this fact should be enough to tell you that something is afoot. We've become used Osamu Kobayashi showing up every year or so in a nice animated television program from Japan, and proceeding to create an episode that clashes with the rest of the show. His latest does not disappoint in that regard.

Before reading this, if you have any intention of watching this series, or if you want to truly appreciate what Osamu Kobayashi has done with this episode, I'd advise that you watch the series in sequence up to this episode before reading this post or anything else about this episode on the web. Otherwise it'll ruin the impact of something special.

So watch it first. Or if you don't care, go right ahead. I don't use jumps often, but this time I will. My impressions after the jump.


Osamu Kobayashi just punked every viewer of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, that's what.

He gleefully dismantled the saccharine, stylized, cute, sexy, facile cartoon edifice of this show and replaced it with a bunch of sad, ugly, miserable Japanese men and women working in a drab, rust-stained slab of an office in the middle of Tokyo.

Welcome to the real world, people.

I love the way this show reels you in for five episodes with animation that epitomizes everything escapist and entertaining and fun about animation, and then punches you in the face with reality right when you've gotten comfortable.

I laughed quite a bit watching this episode. There's the whole suddenness of it all that's funny, of course. But once you look past that, it's actually very nicely done besides that. It's a fairly well done satire of office politics in Japan, grounded in real human behavior in a real human situation. The biggest irony is that, for all the work they put into packing every garish and hyperactive second of the previous episodes with all sorts of visual and linguistic gags, the understated irony of this episode comes across as funnier.

What makes this whole thing delightful is that it will probably get people up in arms. It would actually be disappointing if it didn't. It's pretty clear this episode is 100% troll.

The drawings are how they are on purpose - not because Osamu Kobayashi can't draw or whatever it is he's usually criticized for. The whole thing is clearly an elaborate joke, and I'm positive Hiroyuki Imaishi is totally onboard with it.

What's the joke here? The joke is quite simply: This is Hamaji's Resurrection.

Back when it came out in 1995, Shinya Ohira's episode of The Hakkenden shocked and dismayed the viewers of that OVA series by suddenly abandoning the sleek, conventional drawings that came before in favor of ultra-realistic, ugly characters with distinctly Japanese features. The drawings here are closely modeled after the drawings in Hamaji.

Hence it's both a visual homage and a play on the sudden stylistic contrast that so shocked viewers. The joke is immediately apparent to anyone who's seen that episode. Except that Shinya Ohira was simply doing what he wanted to do - create more raw and powerful human drama, to do which he had to re-design the characters into realistic and believable human beings so that the drama would feel real - whereas this episode sets out to mimic that impact in a playful and ironic way. Actually not too surprising coming from this studio, and from a show with such a sassy sense of humor.

This episode may well be able to replicate the impact of Hamaji to an extent, since many, if not most, people who watch this show will never have heard of Ohira or any of this stuff. So they may react quite naturally in dismay to what they're seeing. I hope so. But it should be pretty obvious that it's a joke to most people, because the stylistic contrast is so extreme - taking the whole impact of Hamaji and ratchets it up to the logical extreme.

"What if we suddenly had an episode that was ultra-realistic in the middle of this super-cartoony show, like Hamaji's Resurrection?" You can just picture Kobayashi and Imaishi tittering away at the idea as they hatched their secret plot in the back rooms of the studio.

They could have gone even farther by completely divorcing the whole thing from the show. But they even were nice enough to integrate it all with the running concept of the show - that there is a ghost that Panty & Stocking have to come along and defeat. And they did it in a surprisingly poetic and meaningful way.

The old guy turns out to be a ghost, transformed by years of pent-up anger at the persecution and goading of his crass co-workers. When he's plied against his will with a tower of beers as humiliation by his boss, the geyser of projectile-vomited beer that he unleashes is a metaphor for his breaking point - all the anger and punishment he's bottled up behind the meek facade, finally coming out. He's the kind of guy who's always been used as a doormat by everyone he meets, gliding through life like a ghost invisible to everyone, until one day everyone learns what his name was when they see him on the news for going on a shooting spree.

So beyond the obvious visual parody aspect of this episode, it's actually got some teeth - it's a realistic satire on contemporary Japanese social mores that wouldn't have been out of place on Paranoia Agent.

But the sweet thing about this episode is that it's got a happy ending. Nobody notices it was him who was the ghost, ironically, and he got those signatures to make his little girl happy. He goes back to work to pretty much the same afterwards, though his coworkers maybe don't quite look down on him as much as before now that he's shown he can flip if pushed too far.

The episode has a lot of hilarious Kobayashi touches throughout - the little UFO at the beginning, the poster for an old period drama called Showa Zannyo-den, the hilarious little girl who acts naughty at the dinner table because of the bad influence of a cartoon called Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, the ultra-realistic taxidermied sea turtle, etc. It's great because it actually doesn't look like Kobayashi - but it's clearly something only he could have done. In a way that's even better, because it shows off what he's really good at. In particular, the extended shots during of the dinner scene and the bar scene were really great. I love shots like this where he keeps the camera still and just observes all the little antics these characters go through.

Kobayashi, man, I love you. This was great. I'm so glad he's still getting to do his thing like this.

On the staff side of things, it should be mentioned that Osamu Kobayashi directed and stoyboarded and Takashi Mukoda was the animation director. Both were animators. Thus it's talented animator Takashi Mukoda whom we have to thank for the recreation of the look of Hamaji. Ayako Hata is present as an animator - she's well known for being good at doing scenes of nuanced everyday life acting, so her skills would have been put to good use here.

Animator list:

Masashi Karino, Emi Uehara, Chiaki Nakashima
Ayako Hata, Naoyuki Asano

Takashi Mukoda, Osamu Kobayashi

Groundwork: Osamu Kobayashi, Takashi Mukoda