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, 27

Saturday, November 27, 2010

05:16:29 pm , 1155 words, 3834 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.