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: September 2014, 08

Monday, September 8, 2014

Here is a selection of some of my favorite episodes from Group Tac's masterpiece of a TV show Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi (1975-1995). You can dip into MNMB just about anywhere and not be disappointed due to the different staff and styles, but there are certainly standout episodes mixed into the huge list of nearly 1500 episodes that can be hard to find without guidance.

What distinguishes MNMB from its many imitators is its earthy, painterly, traditionally-inspired aesthetic. It base tone is organic as opposed to stylish, inspired by the rugged life of the peasants that inhabit most of the traditional tales, with their varying thick regional accents. The pace is accordingly leisurely and calm. The two voice actors who perform all of the voices in each episode, Fujio Tokita and Etsuko Ichihara, bring a tasteful gravitas to the proceedings, especially Fujio Tokita with his otherworldly gravelly voice that seems to embody time itself. There are the classical fairy tale style stories of Urashimataro, with their fairy tale trope characters, but also more obscure local tales of flawed and real characters that drop us into the everyday life of ancient Japan, in which disease takes away loved ones and farmers toil the fields until they drop. Some episodes are didactic, but others can often not be boiled down to a pat lesson - they simply observes the tragedies and contradictions of life. We see how Buddhism's myths served to relieve the tensions of everyday life and explain its mysteries. Pathos and empathy are important threads in the often Buddhism-inspired tales. In the end it's all about the simple everyday pleasures like having a sip of sake around the irori at the end of a hard day of work.

On the staff side of things, MNMB is a mix of industry and indie. You find surprising names here and there due to the period in which it was made, which was a somewhat transitional period after Mushi Pro went out of business and just after its animators were establishing other studios elsewhere. Many of the Mushi Pro (or even Toei Doga) animators had indie proclivities to begin with, as what had attracted them to Mushi Pro was its more creator-centric approach, and Group Tac's show proved to be a great ground for letting them explore those proclivities. Sadao Tsukioka is the prototypical industry animator turned indie animator, and he provided the opening for Group Tac's early masterpiece Jack and the Beanstalk (1974), presaging the indie aspect of MNMB.

Group Tac had produced only two films prior to MNMB: The History of Mutual Aid (1973) and Jack and the Beanstalk (1974). Almost all of the main staff from these two films went on to become mainstays of MNMB. The only exception is the people who were picked off by Sanrio in 1974 after Jack and the Beanstalk when Shintaro Tsuji was looking to build an animation studio.

The History of Mutual Aid (1973)
Director:Giaburo Sugii
Script:Masami Murayama
Shuji Hirami
Animation:Kazuko Nakamura
Shigeru Yamamoto
Art director:Takao Kodama
Backgrounds:Yoshiyuki Uchida

Jack and the Beanstalk (1974)
Director:Gisaburo Sugii
Script:Shuji Hirami
Coloring:Mihoko Magori
Background Art:Takao Kodama
Yoshiyuki Uchida
Koji Abe
Shiro Fujimoto
Animation:Shigeru Yamamoto (Jack)
Tsuneo Maeda (Margaret)
Teruto Kamiguchi (The Giant)
Kazuko Nakamura (The Witch)
Toshio Hirata (The Mice)
Takateru Miwa (Crosby the dog)
Mikiharu Akabori (The Beanstalk & The Harp)

Kazuko Nakamura went elsehwere, mostly helping Osamu Tezuka, and Shigeru Yamamoto and Mikiharu Akabori went to Sanrio and became the main figures behind their important movies, as did most of the inbetweeners at the time (Junji Kobayashi, Maya Matsuyama, Shinmi Taga, Teruo Handa, Takahashi Haruo). Hirata went to Sanrio and helped direct their first film Little Jumbo and then directed the Unico pilot. (I suspect he moved to Madhouse afterwards and directed the first film from there, as the first film is a Madhouse production unlike the pilot.) But the rest remained at Tac and became pillars of MNMB: Director Gisaburo Sugii, animator Teruto Kamiguchi, writer Shuji Hirami, art directors Yoshiyuki Uchida, Mihoko Magori, Takao Kodama and Shiro Fujimoto, animator/director Tsuneo Maeda.

It wasn't just a one-way street, though. Some Sanrio people eventually went freelance and participated in MNMB at a later time. Takahashi Haruo did an episode in 1980 and Takateru Miwa, after going away for a few years, came back and became one of the show's most talented and prolific artists.

As time went on, people gradually accrued to the show, including both indie and industry-trained animators. Madhouse people like Rintaro and Yoshiaki Kawajiri were only involved in a small capacity, as their strong auteur leanings seems to have made them too edgy for the show, but the A Pro school became a prominent pillar in the form of Ajia-Do animators Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, and they proved a great fit. Some of the more unruly ex-Toei figures had produced some crazy TV shows at a short-lived studio called Hoso Doga Seisaku around 1967, and many of these people found their way to Group Tac: Tameo Kohanawa, Eisuke Kondo, Mitsunobu Hiroyoshi, Norio Hikone. Art directors Takao Kodama, Yoshiyuki Uchida and Koji Abe were also ex-Hoso Doga Seisaku. Indie animators from various parts with very strong personal styles like Nobuhide Morikawa, Tadahiko Horiguchi, Hirokazu Fukuhara and Kazuaki Kozutsumi were added over the years.

For the most part the show remained remarkably isolated from industry trends, but you can identify different stylistic periods in the animators who were involved for the longest periods such as Tsutomu Shibayama and Takateru Miwa.

八つ化け頭巾   The Hat of Many Transformations#31/14/1975

DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
Teruto Kamiguchi
Koji Abe
Shuji Hirami

A mischievous priest plays a prank on a kitsune, trading his worthless hat for the kitsune's transforming cloth. He then uses the cloth to prank some visiting priests.

The attraction of this early episode is the entertaining character animation of Teruto Kamiguchi, who would go on to be the show's most prolific animator (earning him the credit of chief animator). He had just come from animating the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, and his animation here retains a lot of the unique Disney-influenced but not-quite-Disney style of that film's animation. Over the decades Kamiguchi's style would become more refined and evolve in a different direction more his own. This is a great sampling of his early work. It's close in spirit to what made his animation of Lupa in Cleopatra entertaining - exuberant, silly, pliable character animation.

The character animation is more rich than most episodes of MNMB, which tend to move more sparely due presumably to imposed limitations on the number of drawings per episode. The drawings look more Tezuka influenced than usual for Kamiguchi. Compare his style here with his more mature style on display in the masterful The Three Charms (#1165, 2/3/1990) from 15 years later, with its hairpin-turn-precise modulation between subtle character animation and broad action. The character shapes in this episode are rather loose, whereas in the later episode the stylization is firmer and more precise.

桃太郎    Momotaro#92/4/1975

DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
Takao Kodama
Shuji Hirami

This early episode tells the protoypical and widely-known Japanese folktale about the boy born from a giant peach who goes to defeat a gang of oni on an island with his faithful companions, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant.

This is one of the early masterpieces of the show, with aggressively stylized art direction and detailed animation contrasting with the abstract character designs, which at first glance make you expect UPA-style super-limited animation. The episode was the first of the show's "solo" outings, in which one person handled directing, animation and background art, and as such it is one of the more distinctively personal productions in the early part of the show, and set the stage for other ambitious animators to do solo episodes.

Rather than being a straight animated telling of the Momotaro story, it's more of a modern version told with a wink and a lot of artistic licence. It brings a modern sensibility to the material.

The ep was handled by the great art director Takao Kodama, perhaps best known in animation circles for the hyper-stylized, gleefully anachronistic 60s pop art-style sequence in Belladonna (1973), done under the aegis of Gisaburo Sugii just before they both left Mushi Pro for Group Tac.

In the early days, Gisaburo Sugii laid down the basic rails for the show's direction - two stories per episode, using only two voice actors for the whole show, using a more limited animation style to bring out animator individuality. But Sugii left on what would prove to be a 10 year journey almost immediately after and handed the task of supervising the show to chief director Tsuneo Maeda. Mitsuo Kobayashi became chief director after a year or so and handled the show for the rest of its run.

In the case of Momotaro, although uncredited, Maeda may have either altered the animation or done it mostly himself, as he reportedly felt the storyboard was headed in a direction too strongly stylized for the show and lacking in the kind of warmth necessary to bring the old folktales to life. Whatever the case, the lively animation certainly helps to mollify the potential coldness and distancing effect of such abstract designs. Although the show permitted animator individuality, it wasn't anarchy. There were clear requirements that wound up streamlining the look over the course of the series into that identifiable MNMB look.

浦島太郎    Urashimataro#233/25/1975

DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
Gisaburo Sugii
Tsuneo Maeda
Mihoko Magori
Shuji Hirami

A boy named Urashimataro gets taken to an underwater palace, where he spends a delightful afternoon only to return and find that many years have passed while he was gone.

The classic Japanese Rip Van Winkle story gets the Gisaburo Sugii treatment in this pleasant early episode of the show. This can serve as a good pair with Momotaro - two of the most well-known classic Japanese folk tales, in stylish adaptations that show the uniquely modern spin that MNMB put on the tales. The other Taro to complete the triumvirate would be Kintaro, which was adapted shortly after this by Norio Hikone in his patented cute style in episode #59 (and later remade by Takateru Miwa in episode #1184).

In the early years MNMB adapted the tales everyone knows such as these, but as the show ground on for years they were forced to dig deeper and uncover more obscure regional tales from different parts of Japan.

What elevates this adaptation of the fairly pedestrian story is the very formalistic directing approach of Gisaburo Sugii. The directing is closer to the style of an indie short than naturalistic. It's not about making the character believable; it's about telling the story at a remove with a sly modern sensibility. And yet it doesn't try too hard to be clever or witty; it still remains a pleasant and cute film that tells the story in a warm and gentle way.

The character design seems inspired more by European animation than Disney with its round shapes, unchanging smiling expression and rigid body movement. He's more a symbol than anything, never given any voice or personality. The framing is never ostentatious, usually keeping the protagonist smack in the middle. It seems very crude and simplistic, and yet the film somehow comes across as sophisticated and clever, with the way the protagonist's thoughts are all conveyed by thought bubbles. Sugii later came to realize that what interested him in animation is not expressing outwards movement but inwards movement, and you can sense the seed of that here. There's a reason why Gisaburo Sugii was Osamu Tezuka's most trusted animator.

There's almost a stubborn unwillingness to try to embellish the story, or to unravel its contradictions. The princess of the bottom of the sea sends Urashimataro back to his home with a magical box and instructions to only open it if he should ever feel sad. When he returns home to find all that he knew and loved gone, and opens the box in desperation, all it does is turn him into an old man rather than relieving his sadness. It's a somewhat baffling ending but somehow appropriate to the nonsensical nature of many folktales.

After having laid down the tracks for the show and directed a handful of episodes including this one, Gisaburo Sugii left on a peregrination around Japan and did not return for 3 years. During that time, Gisaburo continued to work on the show by mailing in storyboards. Then-chief director Tsuneo Maeda, Sugii's protege of sorts (with whom Sugii would continue to work for the rest of his career, right down to The Biography of Gusko Budori) would then handle the processing of the episode. This was permitted only for Sugii, of course. During this time, Sugii used the pen name Minoru Sugita, which is an amalgamation of his own name with Tsuneo Maeda's and producer Mikio Nakata's, in deference to the two people who made it possible for him to continue working from that remove. Episode #67 (7/10/1976) 耳なし芳一 Hoichi the Earless with early art Mihoko Magori is an example of such an episode. Sugii began using his real name again after returning, and went on to direct around 45 episodes in total.

Sugii had of course begun his career at Toei Doga as a first-generation hire in 1958, working under Yasuo Otsuka. He quit in 1962 and moved to the newly founded Mushi Pro, where he animated the moths on Mushi Pro's first production Aru Machikado no Monogari (1962) under director Yusaku Sakamoto. He left Mushi Pro soon and founded his own studio, Art Fresh, from which he produced his early masterpiece Goku's Big Adventure in 1967. When Mushi Pro went out of business after Belladonna in 1973, he migrated to Group Tac and set about working on their first two films. Most of the Tac staff in those early years can be traced directly to that lineage as either Mushi Pro or Toei Doga acquaintances.

Urashimataro was incidentally remade by Osamu Kobayashi many years later in episode #1174 (3/17/1990) in his own unique style, but few other MNMB episodes quite achieve the simple sophisticated of Gisaburo's adaptation.

Other recommended Gisaburo Sugii episodes:

  • #611 (3/12/1983) かくれんぼ Hide and Seek
  • I wrote about this episode here.

  • #693 (3/17/1984) あぶないあぶない Look out! Look out!
  • One of the most entertaining of Sugii's episodes, with lively animation by his frequent collaborator Teruto Kamiguchi, and the patented characters of his later episodes. Brilliant directing combines horror and comedy. The beginning where the people describe their impressions of the old lady is very funny, with each one describing something completely different a la Rashomon.

  • #1165 (2/3/1990) 三枚のお札 The Three Charms
  • One of the classic ghost stories in the show, with dynamic character animation and a clever ending that you don't see coming.

    初夢長者   The first dream of the year#291/17/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tadahiko Horiguchi
    堀口忠彦, 岩崎治彦
    Tadahiko Horiguchi, Haruhiko Iwasaki
    Tadahiko Horiguchi
    Isao Okishima

    Tradition has it that the first dream of the year foretells that year's fortune. One boy refuses to describe his dream to the lord of the manor, even for a small fortune, so he's sent home. He even refuses to tell his father, so he's packed into a box and thrown in the ocean, and winds up going on a wild adventure that eventually plays out as foretold in his dream.

    This is one of the show's most entertaining episodes, and may also be one of the most richly animated episodes in the show's history. The bright, flat color scheme is pleasing, the animation vibrant and lively, and the story seems to go on and on to somewhere new every minute. Indie animator Tadahiko Horiguchi did a dozen or so episodes early on in the show, but this is his best, with witty storytelling, unpredictable settings, and surprisingly detailed and rich animation that works well despite the crude, wobbly-lined 'indie' style characters. The storytelling style and animation are far removed from the previously described Teruto Kamiguchi episode, which was more linear and naturalistic in its shot framing and storytelling. Horiguchi is well known for his animated commercials such as the Kuroneko Yamato campaign. Other work includes Rudolph and Ippaiattena, and he has made dozens of music videos for Minna no Uta. You can see his June 1974 Minna no Uta video here.

    Usually the episodes only credit one animator, so this is a rare instance when two are credited. No doubt the presence of that second individual, Haruhiko Iwasaki, helped to provide this episode with its rich animation.

    Shuji Hirami was the main writer very early on, writing The Hat of Many Transformations and Momotaro, but Isao Okishima credited here soon became the show's main writer/adapter of the original folktales. Other writers were sporadically involved, but he was the main one. I believe the process was thus: The director would choose which story he wanted to work on, would write the adaptation, and Isao Okishima would revise the script for consistency and dialect, as each of the folktales are verbally situated in a specific locale at the beginning of each episode, and the dialects vary tremendously.

    力太郎   Taro the Mighty#321/31/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu
    Akira Kawashima
    Shiro Marufu
    Isao Okishima

    A poor old couple without a child fashion a mud doll out of loneliness, and the gods bring it to life. The boy, Taro the Mighty, heads out into the world to test his strength, and encounters adversaries whom he befriends. Together they take down a demon terrorizing a town.

    The appeal of this episode is in its deliberate retro styling. It appears to be styled after old cartoons from the 1930s in terms of the scrolling action, retro character designs, talkie-era theatrical acting, and primitive story structure. The animation and technique are otherwise not particularly impressive, but the approach makes it a refreshing aberration in the series, which otherwise was rather earnest in its avoidance of postmodern parody concepts of this kind. I don't know if there's a specific influence or model for this episode, but the characters remind of Shigeru Sugiura.

    Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu was an ex-Toei animator who would become active as a director at Tsuchida Production (studio active 1976-1986), directing the original Hisaichi Ishii adaptation Ojamanga Yamada-kun (1980-1982, also a movie) and Captain Tsubasa (1983). He only directed a few episodes of MNMB, as around the same time MNMB was starting he was appointed director of Group Tac's first serial TV show Huckleberry's Adventure (1976).

    A note about pen names: There are a lot of pen names in MNMB. Shiro Marufu, as I noted in my post on The 11 Cats (1980), is a pen name of Shiro Fujimoto, one of the regular directors of the first few years.

    雷さまと桑の木 The Thunder God & the Mulberry Tree#474/10/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Oi Kumo
    Takemasa Kikuta
    Shunichi Ozeki
    Isao Okishima

    A young boy goes out and buys an eggplant seedling that grows into a huge stalk leading into the clouds. One day, he climbs up the stalk despite his mother's objections and finds the castle of the lightning oni. They go out and make a storm on the village below, but the boy gets caught up in the fun and trips and falls to the ground. Luckily a mulberry tree catches his fall. In gratitude to the mulberry tree, the lightning oni swore to never again strike a mulberry tree with lightning.

    This Japanese version of Jack and the Beanstalk falls into the 'popular belief' category: It's a folktale explaining a popular belief. In this case, the popular belief is that lightning never strikes a mulberry tree, which is why people will pick a mulberry branch and hang it from their eaves to ward off lightning strikes. The show had various patterns like this.

    A viewing should make it obvious, but this is an Osamu Dezaki episode. Oi Kumo is one of his many pen names, obviously chosen in this case inspired by the clouds of the episode. And it's an absolute delight of a Dezaki episode at that. Dezaki made three more episodes near the end of the series' run in the 1990s, but this one has the most punch of the lot. Dezaki was at the height of his powers in this kind of fantastical material featuring cute short-stature characters and more loose and free animation and art design. Just two years earlier in 1974 he had produced The Fire G-Men, an educational short about avoiding fires, which perhaps his crowning achievement in this style, and his classic Gamba's Adventure came just before in 1975.

    The episode is a cascade of Dezaki techniques expertly grafted together to create an irresistible flow. The episode is grounded in white, using patches of color in the center of the screen as background a la Only Yesterday. The background fades out to pure white occasionally to highlight the child's frolicking around the screen. We switch between dialogue one second, to a montage of the boy checking on the growth of the eggplant in repeated shots obviously over days, to the narrator commenting on the boy's thoughts, to the boy responding to the narrator. When the narrator explains that the man upstairs and the boy walked along the clouds, the shot pans across the screen horizontally as the two slide over hills of clouds in a particularly nice sequence. Explaining what makes Dezaki's technique so delightful is challenging. He's the genius poet of visual storytelling in anime.

    Unfortunately not many of the other episodes were quite this freewheeling with the technique, usually opting for a more straightforward and linear storytelling style without the sophisticated technique of this episode. Rintaro is another Madhouse figure who was tentatively involved early on but never became a fixture. He drew the storyboard for episode 25 about Issun Boshi (the Japanese Tom Thumb), but chief director Tsuneo Maeda found it so contrary to the direction he wanted to go with the show that he scrapped the storyboard and drew it anew. That episode is Tsuneo Maeda's debut on the show. It would have been nice to see more work from this crew on the show. As it stands, many of them worked instead on Madhouse's Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, which aired shortly after.

    Other recommended Osamu Dezaki episodes:

  • #1254 (4/20/1991) 赤鬼からもらった力 The Strength of the Red Oni
  • #1462 (7/30/1994) 天狗と赤かぶら The Tengu and the Radishes

  • さだ六とシロ   Sadaroku and Shiro#626/19/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Kazuko Nishimura
    Isao Okishima

    A hunter tracks a boar into foreign territory, but forgets the scroll proving he has permission to hunt there, and winds up getting arrested for the crime of poaching a wild boar. His smart dog runs home to fetch the scroll, but arrives too late and the poor hunter is beheaded. The dog drags his owner's body back into his own territory before giving one last howl of grief and being transformed into a stone at the top of a peak in his last breath. This is how the peak got it's name: Inueboe Toge (Dog's Howl Peak).

    This story falls into the 'origin tale' category, telling the origin of a place's name. MNMB had its fair share of tragic tales that don't shy away from death and killing, and this is a potent one. It seems unnecessarily tragic, but its theme is karma and the tragic cycle of life. The hunter is doomed to kill the boars even though he hates his lot, but he has to pay the price and is cut down like an animal in the end.

    The story is made all the more heartbreaking by the episode's beautiful artistry courtesy of Tsutomu Shibayama, working under the pen name Ajia-Do. All the more impressive is the fact that this was his directing debut.

    Ajia-Do is the pen name collectively used by Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi for a short while at the beginning of MNMB, shortly before they left to found their own studio of that name, after which they switched to using their own names for the rest of the series. These two A Pro animators were there from the beginning to the end of the series, each directing (and sometimes also animating) on the order of 60-70 episodes throughout the show's 20 year run. Both did their first directing for the show, so this is where both honed their skills as directors. Their episodes are among the most consistently well made in the whole show. I mentioned Osamu Dezaki's Gamba's Adventure above; Shibayama had just come from drawings the layouts for each of its 26 episodes, helping to make it into the masterpiece it is.

    I'm particularly fond of Tsutomu Shibayama's work, and this episode is my favorite of his in the show. It's the earliest and the purest expression of his style, as he gradually moved away from animating his own episodes and moved towards using the animators at his own studio to animate his episodes. Here you see his drawings at their peak, with sharp and tasteful stylization, revealing one of the unsung geniuses of limited animation in Japan, quite possibly its most perfect practitioner. Using something like half as many drawings as other episodes (say, 1000 instead of 2000) he manages to nevertheless create an episode that is rivetingly beautiful as animation from start to finish, and that never comes across as being parsimonious on the animation front. In fact, by some strange alchemy, his episodes are more satisfying as animation than other episodes that move more. He had unparalleled instinct for how to use the absolute minimum number of drawings to the maximum effect.

    Every shot is a breathtakingly beautiful minimalistic painting. The color palette is reduced to express the snowy landscape, whose masses are a handful of elegant lines. Despite this, the compositions have perfect perspective and you can tell exactly which way you are facing in each shot. The figure of the hunter and dog are rendered as a big blocky shape, more symbol than flesh. Not a line is out of place, and yet the drawings don't feel overly stylized. As the hunter regrets having to kill the boar as its children huddled by its side, the cave is a jagged shard of white light in the middle of the black screen of the night, superimposed with flecks of snow from the blizzard howling outside. Each image is like a perfect zen distillation of the necessary image.

    Other recommended Tsutomu Shibayama episodes:

  • #72 (7/31/1976) 猿神退治 Defeating the Monkey Gods
  • With the help of a fierce dog, a wandering priest defeats a band of monkey monsters that have been terrorizing a village with demands of a human sacrifice. One of Shibayama's most compelling creations, with extremely stylized and abstract animation, an unusually dark and anguished atmosphere and powerfully pared down visual approach. He did the art as well, which consists of washes of color with a few thick lines painted over to depict the environs. Later remade into a very different but also compelling episode by Susumu Shiraume (see below).

  • #138 (5/21/1977) みょうがの宿 The Ginger Inn
  • The first episode in which Shibayama is credited by name, and it's a fun little episode about two greedy inn hosts who try to bilk their customers by feeding them only with ginger from their garden. The highlight is the comical character drawings that show off the caricatural side of Shibayama's talent. He is one of the best animators I've seen in terms of creating faces that are full of personality, realistic yet pleasingly stylized.

  • #642 (7/30/1983) 雪姫・紅葉姫 Princess Snowflake and Princess Red Leaf
  • One of the last episodes he animated himself. It's a beautiful and atmospheric episode that pushes the minimalism of Sadaroku and Shiro even further. The story about two ghost fish barely requires dialogue to be understood.

  • #1168 (2/17/1990) さるかに合戦 The Battle of the Crab and the Monkey
  • A good example of one of the later episodes with animation by one of his Ajia-Do proteges. In this case, Toshihisa Kaiya does a nice job animating the animal protagonists. Other animators featured in his episodes include Yoshiaki Yanagita and Masaya Fujimori.

    熊と狐   The Bear and the Fox#636/19/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Yusaku Sakamoto
    Yusaku Sakamoto

    A sly fox convinces a slow-witted bear to plant a field of daikon on the condition that they split the crop 50-50: the part above ground for the bear, and the part below ground for the fox. Having never seen a daikon before, the bear falls for the trick. After being tricked a few more times, the bear gets wise to the fox's deception and devises a trick of his own to get back at the fox.

    This is a fairly straightforward Aesop-like fable that has pleasantly full animation by Toei Doga veteran Yusaku Sakamoto and Yasuji Mori-inspired animal characters. None of the other episodes have animation quite like this, and the episode has a clever sense of humor that makes it work despite its somewhat spare design work (the backgrounds are perfunctory washes of ink and the two animals are the only characters in the film).

    The narration is somewhat inspired by rakugo comedy, and much of the humor comes from how well the two narrators pull off this style of speaking. This winds up giving the animals lively personalities in the short run time. The black and white opening section describing the Chinese Zodiac is a novel idea, and is presented with amusing touches like having Tora-san as the symbol for the tiger.

    This is unfortunately the only MNMB episode done by Yusaku Sakamoto. It would have been nice to have more, as he brings to the work an older sensibility clearly a product of his early Toei Doga upbringing, and very different from what his contemporaries trained entirely in the environment of limited TV anime were coming up with.

    He must have been invited by Gisaburo Sugii, as the two have nearly parallel career paths, having joined Toei Doga to work on Hakujaden and left for Mushi Pro to work on Aru Machikado no Monogatari, Yusaku Sakamoto as director and animator of the girl and mice and Gisaburo Sugii as the animator of the moth. Yusaku Sakamoto deserves a special place in anime history as having been one of the people (alongside Eiichi Yamamoto) who proposed to Osamu Tezuka to turn Tetsuwan Atom into a TV show. In another parallel move, he left Mushi Pro to found his own studio, Studio Jack, in 1967, the same year Gisaburo Sugii left to found Art Fresh. The studio still exists today (Studio Jack web site).

    Yusaku Sakamoto appears to have focused running his studio apart from this, as he is disappointingly not very prolific for someone so talented. I can only find a few spotty projects here and there such as Xiongmao Monogatari: TaoTao (1981), a Chinese-Japanese co-production about a panda, and Eiken's adaptation of The Glass Mask (1984), directed by Gisaburo Sugii.

    羅生門の鬼   The Oni of Rashomon#8710/9/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tsuneo Maeda
    Takateru Miwa
    Isao Okishima

    Back in the days when Kyoto was the capital, more than 1000 years ago, a group of warriors defeated a band of marauding oni that were terrorizing the capital. But it seems one may have been left out, as rumor has it that an oni haunts the old abandoned gate of Rashomon. A hotheaded member of the team, Tsuna, heads to the gate to find the oni. The only person he finds there is a young woman, who asks for a ride. Just as he's pulling her onto his horse, she transforms into a giant oni and tries to pull Tsuna into the sky. Tsuna strikes off its arm, and the Oni vanishes into the sky bleeding, vowing that it will visit the capital within 7 days to retrieve its arm.

    This episode is notable for not just being one of the earliest 'art only' episodes, but for being drawn in the style of an old Japanese scroll paintings to match the material. It adapts an old story from the Konjaku Monogatari collection of tales from the Heian period, and adopts a more classical narrative style quite different from the gentle and light-hearted children's storytelling of previous episodes. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the Akira Kurosawa film, which despite its title was in fact based on a Ryunosuke Akutagawa story In the Grove.

    A notable aspect of MNMB is the variety of approaches to animation adopted. At the extreme end of the spectrum, many of the episodes consist entirely of background art. This is one of the first such episodes. Gisaburo Sugii appears to have pioneered the approach in some earlier episodes such as the previously-mentioned episode #67 Earless Hoichi and episode #82 (9/18/1976) 赤神と黒神 The Red God and the Black God. Both had art by Mihoko Magori, who would go on to direct several other such art-only episodes. The latter in particular is one of my favorite of hers.

    The drawings are provided by Takateru Miwa, who similarly would go on to be prolific, going even further and not only animating but doing the background art for almost all of his episodes. Takateru Miwa appears to have begun his career at Mushi Pro, working on W3 (1965), Pictures at an Exhibition (1966), Ribon no Kishi (1967), and Ashita no Joe (1970). He was involved on and off with Sanrio, working on their first production Little Jumbo (1975) and their big extravaganza Legend of Sirius (1981), but also doing work for Tezuka during that time on Fumoon (1980) and Phoenix 2772 (1980). He even directed a film entield Yasuji no Pornorama - Yacchimae!! in 1971. He falls roughly into the same pattern as many of the folks here, but appears to have been freelance during the whole time, since he was alternating between doing work for Sanrio, Tezuka and Tac.

    Simply put, Takateru Miwa is quite possibly my single favorite individual who worked on the show. He is a powerhouse who not only always made it a point to do everything himself on his episodes, but he switched up the style constantly, the animation is always very lively, and the backgrounds are always beautiful. Plus, he was doing this on a regular basis always up until the end. He produced over 35 'solo' episodes, more than anyone else on the show.

    He had a fairly peculiar and identifiable drawing style with loose and free drawings full of strange shapes and folds, very different from the clean and simple character designs of most MNMB episodes. Drawing and animating animals is a challenge on any day, but he did so over and over again - horses, cows, whales, crabs, dragons. He was particularly good at depicting the creatures in moments of extreme exertion. His episodes have some of the most exciting moments of the whole series.

    Other recommended Takateru Miwa episodes:

  • #620 (4/16/1983) 空を飛んだ黒駒 The Flying Black Horse
  • #900 (9/27/1986) 円海長者と牛どん The Priest and the Cow
  • #932 (2/14/1987) お不動さま The Acala Icon
  • #1347 (8/1/1992) 墓場の犬 The Graveyard Dog
  • Almost all of Takateru Miwa's episodes are worth checking out, but here are a few to start with. The giant red cow of The Priest and the Cow is one of the high points of his episodes. The cow is a great character, lazy but mustering incredible power as it struggles to pull up the giant log. The animation does a fantastic job of conveying the exertion through the cow's intense expression. The mad visage of the horse in The Flying Black Horse is appropriately hair-raising. The Acala Icon episode reaches an intense conclusion as the wooden carving of the god Acala (Ofudou-sama) sets the house on fire to chastise the arrogant lord. His late episode The Graveyard Dog features some intense animation of beast dogs fighting that brings to mind Ringing Bell.

    オオカミと娘   The Girl and the Wolves#10012/11/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Shiro Fujimoto
    Isao Okishima

    A mother and child on a pilgrim's voyage beg for shelter in a snowstorm, but are turned away due to a village law prohibiting the harboring of strangers. They then ask at the temple, but the heartless priest only lets them shelter under the floor of the house. They reminisce about old times, and the girl wonders what happened to her old dog Goro, who escaped to the wild after nearly being killed. Wolves can be heard in the night, and in the morning the two are nowhere to be found. Not long afterwards, the priest who turned the mother and child away is found killed by wolves. A hunter returning from the hunt one day relates having been attacked by a pack of wolves, and been saved when a girl called out the name "Goro" to the alpha male of the pack.

    This is a beautiful and haunting episode. The story is a compelling tale of karma and retribution, and the stark visuals do a great job of establishing an atmosphere of cold and tragedy. No source is cited, so I'm not sure if this is a folk tale, a loose adaptation or an original story. In any case, it feels distinct from obvious folktales like Urashimataro, and indicates the breadth of storytelling of MNMB.

    This is one of the show's earliest solo episodes as well as one of its earliest BG-only 'no animation' episodes, and presages similarly styled later episodes by the likes of Tsukasa Tamai. The images appear at first to be woodblock prints, with the monochromatic palette (with splashes of watercolor) and thick and angular lines, but they are likely to have merely been painted in that style.

    Another reason why I like this episode is that it highlights the individualistic bent of the Mushi Pro/Tac figures, who valued personal expression over conventional animation and industrial mass-production of animation. I wrote about Shiro Fujimoto in my post on The 11 Cats and how, despite having been tapped as a director early on in MNMB, he really wanted to be doing painting. I think this episode captures his essence well, as it's the only one in which he handled all of the tasks. Nowadays he has moved away from animation and focuses on painting, as can be seen in this book of his watercolors. The traditional Japanese form of brush ink painting seems to attract a lot of the ex-Tac figures including Kosei Maeda (some of his work) and chief director Mitsuo Kobayashi (some of his work). Numerous episodes were drawn with brush ink to evoke a traditional feeling, the pioneer of which was the above-mentioned Rashomon episode by Takateru Miwa.

    Another indication of the extent to which MNMB figures had a painterly and individualistic approach to the form rather than a traditional animation approach is the fact that many of them participated in an NHK TV show called Picture Books of Classic Stories on TV that was essentially an audio book reading of a famous Japanese stories accompanied by paintings.

    落ちた雷   Lightning Fell#1284/2/1977

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Osamu Kobayashi
    Minoru Aoki
    Nobuhiro Sakai

    A red oni falls from the sky and becomes trapped on the earth after a priest intones its name. The oni goes on to do good deeds for the temple, in reward for which the priest allows the oni to return to its home in the sky

    This is one of the most stylish episodes in the series, with a beautiful flat color scheme and brilliantly timed sprightly character animation courtesy of A Pro's Osamu Kobayashi, who was fresh off of working on the classic Dokonjo Gaeru. He used the pen name Ajia-Do on a few previous episodes, but this was the first in which he used his real name. Kobayashi was prolific on MNMB, directing upwards of 60 episodes.

    The animation of this episode is interesting for having the the dynamism of his iconic early 1970s animation, but with that flat color scheme and no outlines, which makes the characters look like paper cutouts. This makes the visuals somewhat reminiscent of Tale of a Streetcorner. The minimalistic and geometric backgrounds are like a Japanese UPA.

    This is far removed from the style for which Osamu Kobayashi is best known, and which can be seen in most of his other episodes. In the later episodes in particular he appears to have developed a fixed set of strangely designed characters that recur in each episode. This episode is interesting for being a beautiful aberration from his early experimental period as a director. Later on, like fellow Ajia-Do co-founder Tsutomu Shibayama, he got the studio's animators to animate his episodes, and his episodes became more stylistically consistent.

    Other recommended Osamu Kobayashi episodes:

  • #10 (2/4/1975) 豆つぶころころ   Peas Rolled into a Hole
  • This was Osamu Kobayashi's debut episode in MNMB and features a more conventional drawing style that makes his hand immediately obvious. This episode is filled with delectable A Pro character animation. (The episode was later remade by Hirokazu Fukuhara in episode #1179.)

  • #173 (10/29/1977) みちびき地蔵 The Guiding Jizo Statue
  • One of the most affecting episodes in the series, this is a dark and tragically prophetic story with a muted color palette and sketchy, fine art-influenced character drawing style. Legend has it that the souls of the living come to visit a certain jizo statue the day before they die. A woman witnesses hundreds of souls visiting the statue, and the next day a tsunami hits the town, killing hundreds. The name of the town? Kesennuma, the hardest hit town of the March 11, 2011 tsunami. The second episode using his real name again shows Kobayashi experimenting with different styles trying to find himself. The episode is interesting for bridging history and folktales. Kobayashi would go on to cover darkly tragic material later on with Sayonara Tsushima Maru.

  • #242 (9/16/1978) 千石田長者 The Rich Man of Sengokuda
  • A fish returns in the form of a woman in gratitude to a man who saved her from being eaten, and leaves the man after making a giant field for him to farm. This is a variant of the common 'ongaeshi' trope, of which the next episode is another example. The style of this episode is closer to the style that came to define Osamu Kobayashi's work, with its quasi-realistic but pared down characters and cinematic framing and dramaturgy. You can still sense Kobayashi's uncommon skill at animation in the wonderfully timed flipping of the fish, which bespeaks the influence of Yasuo Otsuka. Tsutomu Shibayama continued working in slightly more stylized animation, but Osamu Kobayashi moved towards more straightforward dramatic storytelling, although his characters looked very strange in a different way.

    蛙の恩返し   The Frog's Gratitude#1355/7/1977

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hiroshi Fukutomi
    Hisatoshi Motoki
    Saki Studio
    Isao Okishima

    An old man saves a frog from a snake, carelessly promising to give the snake his daughter's hand in marriage in exchange. A few days later, the snake returns in human form to take him up on his promise.

    This is one of the show's many 'ongaeshi' pattern episodes. What distinguishes this episode is the highly stylized art directing courtesy of Ajia-Do director Hiroshi Fukutomi and animator Hisatoshi Motoki. The stylization of the animation here is reminiscent of Tsutomu Shibayama's work, with the flat color scheme and tastefully stylized forms with an emphasis on unique outlines. The animation is spare, but holds your attention on the strength of the design work and the occasional burst of movement.

    Hiroshi Fukutomi directed some of the best episodes of Hajime Ningen Gyators around this time, and here the more formalistic and experimental approach he took on those episodes is translated to more stylized fantastical material. Hisatoshi Motoki is one of the less well known of the A Pro animators, but he was in all the canonical works and is one of the most talented of the second generation A Pro animators hired after the original members Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama.

    This is the only episode either of them did on the show. Another A Pro animator, Sadayoshi Tominaga, who later went on to be the main animation director of Doraemon for many years, also handled only one episode: #177 (11/19/1977) The Idiot Brothers. Yoshifumi Kondo, who was at A Pro at the time, even did one episode: #107 (1/2/1977) 十二支の由来 The Origin of the Zodiac. This is the same year that he did two episodes for Madhouse's version of the show, which I wrote about here. The only A Pro person other than Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi who handled numerous episodes is Michishiro Yamada.

    Incidentaly, I suspect that A Pro founder Daikichiro Kusube himself animated episode #125 (3/26/1977) 鬼からもらった力 Strength From the Oni, as the animation is credited to the newly-formed Shin-Ei Doga, and Kusube also animated one of the early episodes of his own studio's version of MNMB, The Red Bird, which I wrote about here and then here.

    猫岳の猫   The Cats of Mt. Nekodake#17911/26/1977

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Mitsuo Kobayashi
    Shinnosuke Kon
    Minoru Aoki
    Isao Okishima

    A traveler passes through a mountainous area reputed to be a refuge for wild cats, and runs across an inn. He gratefully takes a room, but an old lady warns him of the danger he faces if he bathes in the water there, and he runs as the monster cats transform into their true form and chase him, attempting to turn him into a cat by splashing water on him.

    This episode is interesting because they apparently attempted to reproduce the characteristic look of Shigeru Mizuki's manga in animation form: Goofy, buck-toothed scribble of a character against hyper-realistic, hyper-detailed monochrome pencil drawings of the natural surroundings. It's not based on a Shigeru Mizuki story, but perhaps the director felt that the supernatural material seemed like a good fit with the kind of material the great manga-ka usually handles. This is indeed one of the few anime I've seen that captures the look of Shigeru Mizuki's original manga.

    The animation is not particularly remarkable, but it's enough for the character to be there and be drawn right. The austerely beautiful background art for the barren mountain terrain and the eerie interior of the inn, courtesy of Minoru Aoki, goes a long way to making the episode work. Minoru Aoki was one of the show's most prolific background artists, handling upwards of 80 episodes. He focused strictly on background art, never directing, unlike some of the other background artists like Koji Abe, who also directed over a dozen of the episodes for which he did art. Minoru Aoki is the one who did the art for Group Tac's 1980 movie The 11 Cats and its continuation.

    Many of the episodes that are not particularly amazing nevertheless have beautiful background art that makes the episodes a pleasure to watch. The show featured early work by several great background artists who would go on to make a name for themselves, including Toshiharu Mizutani, Takamura Mukuo, Yamako Ishikawa and Hiromasa Ogura.

    たぬきのしっぽ   The Tail of the Tanuki#4442/28/1981

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Chikao Katsui
    Kazuko Nishimura
    Isao Okishima

    A tanuki gets his kicks by waking up a young acolyte at a temple in the middle of the night. Driven to the edge, the young acolyte comes up with a ploy to get back at the tanuki: tricking him into thinking he can fish koi from the temple's pond with his tail. He tries, and gets his tail stuck in the ice.

    This episode is a delight thanks to the playful animation of Mushi Pro veteran Chikao Katsui. The priest, acolyte and tanuki in this episode turn into great characters in his hands despite being folktale cyphers. The acolyte adopts a haughty expression and imitates the priest's sermons whenever he gets the chance. The tanuki's expressions as he eavesdrops on the acolyte pretending to talk to the priest are varied and funny.

    The drawings are sparely used, with choppy frame rates up to the 12s, and the lines are varied in thickness as if he was using a brush pen or the like, perhaps to match the traditional Japanese setting. The drawings are not technically good in a conventional sense, but this is a great example of how playfulness and the ability to come up with lots of fun poses and expressions can overcome that handicap. It's similar to the feeling of Takeuchi Daizo's animation in Tensai Bakabon (1970). Despite not being cleanly drawn, the characters are appealing because the drawings have so much personality.

    Surprisingly given the looseness and technical crudity of the animation in this episode, Chikao Katsui is excellent at realistically animating animals. He was known as "Katsui the bird man" during his days at Mushi Pro thanks in part to the still-impressive animation of flamingos alighting that he drew for the opening of Jungle Taitei (1966). In MNMB he directed six episodes, animating most of them. Unsurprisingly, several of those are stories about birds, and they feature technically very skillful animation of birds, showing that the animation here isn't crudity born of lack of skill, but a creative choice.

    Other recommended Katsui Chikao episodes

  • #390 (7/5/1980) かっぱとひょうたん The Kappa and the Gourd
  • The Kappa in this episode is another naughty but lovable prankster character like the tanuki. The section near the climax where he fights with the gourd is particularly fun and full of classic crazy Katsui drawings.

  • #468 (6/13/1981) 井手のお宮の片葉の葦 Why the Reeds Have Leaves on Only one Side
  • A paean to the beauty of nature, this is one of the series' most beautiful, lyrical episodes. Unusually for the show, it has essentially no story or characters. It simply traces the migration of wild geese in Japan through the seasons from fall to winter to spring. It is the summum opus of Chikao Katsui's bird animation. Background artist Toshiyuki Ozeki provides many beautiful images of the natural world that help make the episode work.

  • #521 (1/30/1982) 鶴の子観音 The Crane Chick Kannon
  • This episode features beautiful animation of cranes in flight, but is different from the previous episode. This is a moving cautionary tale about four young people in a village who perform an act of disrespect towards the natural world that has supported their village for eons, and whose act of penitence eventually absolves them. The very Osamu Tezuka-looking human characters reveal the lingering influence of Chikao Katsui's Mushi Pro days.

    狩猟の四天王   The Four Master Hunters#5232/13/1982

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Masaki Mori
    Yoshiaki Kawajiri
    Hiromi Ando
    Nobuhiro Sakai

    Four master hunters test one another's skills in the woods.

    There is no moral to this story, or really any narrative at all, and the characters are not developed into individuals. But the visuals are so beautiful and the story so amusing that it's one of the show's more irresistible episodes. The background art by Hiromi Ando uses a pointillistic stroke to create scintillating scenery with striking, expressive color schemes - purple and blue for nighttime, bright yellow and orange for daytime. The characters animated by Madhouse animator Yoshiaki Kawajiri are highly stylized in a sketchy way, almost reminding of European animation by the likes of Priit Parn, with tiny heads and hands on enormous puffy bodies. The framing of shots is formalistic and the storytelling is subtly witty, with the onlookers providing comic relief as they react to the exploits of the master hunters.

    The director is Masaki Mori, who although primarily known as a manga-ka has been sporadically involved in anime. Usually his presence indicates an exceptional project, such as Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae (1967), Barefoot Gen (1983), Harmageddon (1983) and Kamui no Ken (1985). These are always Mushi Pro-Madhouse projects due presumably to the fact that he started out as a manga-ka and moved to the artist-friendly Mushi Pro when it opened, and continued to work as a manga-ka on the side.

    Yoshiaki Kawajiri's animation here is perfect in bringing alive the characters, but not extravagant. Kawajiri was one of the first people in the show to take on the task of directing, animating and doing the background art for his episodes. He produced four such solo episodes in 1978 and then, several years later in 1982, this episode. Afterwards he became focused on Madhouse projects leading to his own feature debut.

    Yoshiaki Kawajiri's episodes reveal an animator of great versatility, which you would be unable to guess based on the style into which he became exclusively pigeonholed after his directing debut in the mid-80s. In the early days he created dynamic and lively animation with cleverly designed and, indeed, cute characters that looks nothing whatsoever like his later work. What remains identifiable is a kind of rigidness in the forms and symmetricality in the designs. He was actually much more prolific in the Madhouse version of MNMB, Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, producing 10 'solo' episodes. The King Lear episode is exemplary of how he was able to go much further with the angular, gothic, sinister stylization that is his forte in the Madhouse show. There was only so far the stylization and personal expression was allowed to go in MNMB.

    Other recommended Yoshiaki Kawajiri episodes:

  • #190 (1/14/1978) 大蛇の塔 The Giant Tower of the Snake
  • The flat, angular designs of the characters in the episode are perhaps the most identifiable of all of those made by Kawajiri for MNMB. The geometrically shaped lord with his parallel lines and cuboid head is a perfectly designed brutal character, and is indicative of Kawajiri's stylistic inclinations.

  • #201 (3/4/1978) エビの腰はなぜまがったか Why the shrimp has a curved back
  • This is the most bare-bones and fable-like of the episodes he did for MNMB, with highly simplified backgrounds and cute animal mascot-like characters and spare movement. He does a good job with the material, and his technical animation skill peeks through here and there in things like the waves, but his personality doesn't come out as much as in the former episode.

  • #217 (5/13/1978) キツネの化け玉 The Kitsune's Transforming Balls
  • Kawajiri's most MNMB-looking episode, with lovely picture book winter vistas and cute and rounded SD kitsune and bonze characters engaged in playful and lively antics. The giant ghost kitsune reminds of the evil weasel in Gamba's Adventure.

    シシとり太郎   Taro the Boar Hunter#5516/12/1982

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tatsuya Hiramatsu
    Kazuaki Kozutsumi
    Minoru Aoki
    Isao Okishima

    Two hunters, one lazy and one hard working, head into the woods to hunt a boar. The lazy one turns back because it sounds like too much of a hassle. The other figures out a clever trick and manages bag a giant boar. He heads back home and tells his friend about it. The lazy one runs out, thinking he now knows a trick to bag a boar easily, but winds up being punished for his craven attitude.

    The story is a simple fable about the rewards of hard work, built on the oft-used scaffolding of the hard-working vs. greedy character trope. This eminently simple story is told through bright, clean visuals that pop off the screen. More cartoon than stuffy old folktale, it's one of the more visually memorable episodes in the show thanks to its backgrounds painted as geometric blobs of color and stick figure characters animated in a far more lively and fluid manner than one would expect for those designs. The visuals bring to mind old Eastern European animation, or even old Shanghai shorts.

    The animator to thank for the animation is Kazuaki Kozutsumi, who is now one of the more prominent indie animators on the scene. (his twitter) Just a few years ago he directed the delightful Rita and Whatsit TV show, bringing onboard a number of other indie animators, in the process bringing indie animation to a wider audience. His 2009 short Organic retains the playful animation of his early work here but is coupled with an environmental message.

    Other recommended Kazuaki Kozutsumi episode:

  • #545 (5/15/1982) そうめん地蔵 The Somen Jizo
  • Packed with crazy character animation where the bonze is forced to eat bowl after bowl of somen.

    節分の鬼   The Oni of Setsubun#6021/29/1983

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tameo Kohanawa
    Yoko Tsukada
    Toshiyuki Ozeki
    Isao Okishima

    On the night of Setsubun, the traditional mark of the new year and the start of spring, families are celebrating in their warm homes by throwing beans to drive out the oni of the last year and to bring fortune into the home. An old man watches from afar, reminiscing how he used to celebrate the festival with his wife and son. Both are now dead, and he wishes he was with them. Combined anger and sadness drives him to put on the old mask he used to wear and call for the oni to come into the house and happiness to go out. The oni hear his call and come join him in a raucous party.

    This is one of the episodes I like largely for the story. The story is touching and convincing in its portrayal of loneliness in old age. The moment where he puts on the mask reminiscing about old times and, tears streaming down his face, metaphorically becomes an oni is genuinely moving. There are no gimmicks or villains or forced happy endings. At most, the old man regains his will to live as long as he might in the hope of having another wild party with the Oni. That said, the story doesn't bash you over the head with melodrama or try to wring tears. It's all done with a fairly light and warm touch.

    もちの白鳥   White birds of mochi#82110/5/1985

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Kazuhiko Miyoshi
    Yoshiko Shimura
    Koji Abe
    Isao Okishima

    A lord rules over his subjects without pity, albeit without excessive cruelty either. The only exception to his coldness is his daughter, on whom he spares no expense. When the time comes for her marriage, he has the peasants cook up thousands of rice cakes and has them arranged in a line from his castle to his daughter's new home. The peasants look on in fury as the girl steps on each rice cake, sewing the seeds of revolt.

    This is one of the most visually and thematically sophisticated episodes in the series. The episode is all long shots without close-ups, and the tiny heads mean there are no individualizing faces. This creates a very abstract and distancing effect.

    The striking symmetries that define the episode are unforgettable and among the show's most forceful artistic moments. The symmetries are closely tied to the theme - a single straight row of farmers planting crops moving slowly across the screen, the lord as a small figure at the top of the screen looking down over his subjects below, casting a long shadow. The lord is almost always positioned above the subjects, either on a veranda, or raised on his horse, until the last moments of the episode when this relationship is reversed. This is one of the few episodes in which the visuals are intrinsically tied to the theme, enriching the story in the way that the best visual storytelling should.

    The lord is not just a black and white evil character, either. He is humanized by his love of his daughter. The climax combines these two into a contradictory moment that serves as a metaphor for oppression everywhere: the lord performs the most ostentatious possible expression of his love and his wealth, but it's done with total disregard for the toil of the laborers who made the mochi. Indeed, it's a symbol not just of his wealth but of their subjugation.

    The director behind this brilliant episode is Kazuhiko Miyoshi, who had a brief career as an animator in late 1970s before becoming largely focused on MNMB and assorted Tac productions like Noel's Fantastic Trip (1983) and Penguin's Memory (1985).

    Kazuhiko Miyoshi was involved in MNMB from its fourth year in 1979 to its last in 1995, starting with animation and then gradually adding tasks starting with episode direction, until by the end he was singlehandedly producing entire episodes. And he was doing so more comprehensively than others. Other people might handle the animation and background, but in Miyoshi's case he handled everything up until photography, including the carbon transfer, the painting, and the paper material formatting. In his desire to constantly try some new approach, he produced some of the series' most technically ambitious and inventive episodes. He brought the mindset of indie animated filmmaking to its peak in MNMB.

    Kazuhiko Miyoshi actually worked on the show not from Group Tac but from various small studios he co-founded with other MNMB artists. From 1980-1985 he ran Bob Animation Film with Atsuko Hotta, and from 1985-1987 he ran Link Collection with Yoko Tsukada and Shinichi Ohtake.

    The success of this episode is also indebted to background artist Koji Abe, one of the show's most prolific and talented art directors, who produced the remarkable images that define the episode. The intricate backgrounds sometimes look like they are made from patterned paper, but they were all painstakingly hand-painted. Koji Abe had been there from the beginning and produced a varied array of beautiful art over the span of the show. I've focused on one of his episodes next.

    Other recommended episodes by Kazuhiko Miyoshi:

  • #1038 (6/25/1988) うどんと殿さま The Lord's Udon
  • A fat lord goes out for a walk one day and asks for some food. His vassals don't know what to do, as they're in the mountains. They worriedly bring back a bowl of udon from a local vendor to the picky lord. The lord is unexpectedly delighted by his meal and from then on eats nothing but udon, much to the benefit of his health. The visuals of this episode are clean and simple, the characteristic being the unusual flat color scheme used for each character. This was done partly inspired by indie animator Sadao Tsukioka's recent Minna no Uta video Konna Ko Iru Ka Na to help distinguish the samurai characters, which can be hard to set apart due to the similar dress.

  • #1155 (12/16/1989) 夜中のおとむらい A Funeral Under the Moonlight
  • A samurai sees a ghostly funeral in the night, and later realizes that it's his own. He had seen a presentiment of his death, for he dies the next day. The episode has a mindbending twist at the end when the friend he told about this is walking in the procession and sees the same scene play out again. This is the first episode in which Miyoshi handled every single task except for the photography. For the backgrounds he used a photocopier to create the sketchy texture by drawing with a grease pencil on charcoal paper and copying the images onto lightly colored paper. For the characters he used a similar process, cutting out the copied character drawings, glueing them onto animation paper, and using a trace machine to copy the drawing onto a cel. In the days before digital when it was tremendously difficult to achieve this kind of image, he put a remarkable amount of thought and work into it, and it pays off, producing images that seem old and fragile, like daguerreotype photos, appropriate to the time period. It's one of the most stylistically inventive and unified episodes in the series. The tone is also remarkably somber for a show that had such lighthearted beginnings, indicating how the show's matured over the years.

  • #1207 (8/18/1990) ごんぞう虫 The Gonzo Bug
  • A boy borrows 100 coins from a greedy moneylender to pay for his mother's medicine, and upon returning is charged 500 coins in interest. A spirit appears as he returns home dejected and gives him magical geta that produce a coin every time he falls while wearing them. The greedy money lender catches wind of this and steals them for himself, but fails to heed the warning that he gets a little smaller each time, and in his greed to produce as many coins as possible winds up as small as a flea. Miyoshi again used a novel technique. The characters were drawn as normal and transferred to a cel, but rather than being colored with paint, he cut out traditional Japanese dyed paper into the shape of the character and placed it on a cel underneath the character. The background was also made from dyed paper to unify the look, with lines added using poster paint.

  • #1340 (7/4/1992) 月夜の果報者 Luck Visits on a Moonlit Night
  • A nonsense fable about a lazy couple who enact the popular saying "All things come to those who wait" by lying around doing nothing. This time Miyoshi used cutouts of traditional Japanese paper for the characters, drawing only the hands, feet and facial expressions using conventional ink on a cel, and combining Japanese paper with dyed paper for the backgrounds.

  • #1446 (4/9/1994) ふしぎなひょうたん The Fantastic Gourd
  • Miyoshi creates perhaps the most abstract characters in the entire series in this episode about a grampa and grandma who are mere geometrical blobs of color. He had often been criticized by the show's producers for being too refined and urbane in his design sensibility, and so for his last episode on the show he decided to go all the way with exactly what he had been criticized for doing. The common trope of the kindhearted but childless grampa and grandma who find a child by divine providence is here boiled down to its absolute minimum, excising all pretense of individuality and creating a truly pure visualization of a Japanese folktale.

    座敷童子   The Home Spirits#9505/9/1987

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Koji Abe
    Teruto Kamiguchi
    Koji Abe
    Isao Okishima

    A pilgrim stops in the house of a welcoming man for the night, but sees strange ghosts of children throughout the night. Years later, when the pilgrim stops by again, he encounters the children leaving the house, and winds up being turned away by the new, less hospitable, owner. The children were zashiki warashi, or spirits of children fabled to protect good households.

    From the delicate pink sakura petals against the backdrop of a yellow country hillside in the opening shot to the imposing facade of the giant house where the pilgrim stops for the night, the backgrounds define this episode. They're the protagonist. The animation is somewhat of an afterthought. This is a good example of one of MNMB's many more 'background'-centric episodes.

    This episode was directed by art director Koji Abe of The White Birds of Mochi. It was clearly chosen by him to give him the opportunity to paint the Japanese countryside and traditional home interiors. He painted the background art for upwards of 80 episodes throughout MNMB's 20 year run, and directed a good portion of them in the last ten years.

    Gisaburo Sugii previously made an episode about the eponymous spirits in episode #106 (1/1/1977) 座敷わらし Home Spirits. His episode adopts a more anthropological tone, explaining the spirit's different modes of manifestation.

    Other recommended episodes by Koji Abe:

  • #979 (9/26/1987) 亀割石 Split Turtle Rock
  • Again a woodblock-esque visual scheme with lightly colored near-monochrome palette emphasizing the natural forms. Rather than being completely still, there are touches of animation such as the burning flame that are integrated with the look of the background and create the feeling of a moving woodblock print.

  • #1126 (8/5/1989) アズバタの木 The Tree of Azubata
  • A naif painting of the Japanese countryside telling the story of a young couple's first year together.

  • #1265 (6/8/1991) 阿古耶の松 The Pine of Akona
  • The world of ancient Japan is depicted like a painting come alive. Refined and delicate image-making with flattened perspectives and ritualistic repetition.

    蛇と蛙   The Snake and the Frog#9515/16/1987

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hirokazu Fukuhara
    Hideo Koide
    Isao Okishima

    One day the animals decide they're tired of eating nothing but morning dew and go see god to ask him to assign them each a food. God, displeased with how the frog mistreated the snake, assigns the frog to eat insects and the snake to eat the frog.

    This episode is interesting for being styled after children's drawings, with the crayon-like line texture and simple color scheme. The style is somehow a perfect match for the simple Aesop-like fable about animals.

    The director and animator of the episode, Hirokazu Fukuhara, represents the more indie side of MNMB. He has a distinct style that is present in all his episodes. This is actually one of the exceptions to that rule, the only episode he did that doesn't look like his patented style. His trademark is a cute little white cat that accompanies the protagonist of each of his episodes (absent here), and a very unique animation style that uses crude drawings and very spare animation. His timing is interesting: He alternates almost randomly between very spare rates such as 6s and 12s to create an unmistakable feeling. The crudity of his technique is belied by its consistency. His work is a curious combination of heta-uma and iyashi-kei.

    He is representative of many of the artists whom I have not discussed but who have a consistent if undistinguished style. His episodes are consistently pleasing for their whimsical, lighthearted atmosphere. Once you get used to his unusual animation, you begin to appreciate its gentle, subtle silliness. MNMB is not all tragic tales and beautiful artistry; it's also in large part whimsically designed characters going through amusing antics, and Fukuhara Hirokazu is a good representative of that side of the show.

    Other recommended Hirokazu Fukuhara episodes:

  • #16 (2/25/1975) 天福地福 Riches from the earth and sky
  • #1179 (4/14/1990) おむすびころりん The Rolling Rice Ball
  • #1459 (7/2/1994) 猫と犬 The Cat and the Dog
  • Fukuhara was there throughout the show's 20 year run, and his style evolved accordingly. His first episode #16 looks very different from his later work, with its beautiful collage aesthetic and use of paper cutouts. The story is also reminiscent of episode #13 I discussed above. His last episode #1459 shows his style in its fully mature form.

    猫の恩返し   The Cat's Gratitude#12412/15/1991

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Susumu Shiraume
    Tatsuro Kadoya
    Isao Okishima

    An old cat has been living at a run-down temple with its old priest for years. But food runs low, and it looks like the end is near. The cat decides to repay the favor of the priest's good care for all those years by playing a trick on a funeral procession and making it seem like the priest helped solve the problem.

    This episode has delightful drawings of the cat and priest at the beginning of the episode as they loll about with sleepy eyes, simultaneously cute and pathetic. The drawings have a warm, tactile, picture-book quality. They're highly stylized but still soft and warm. Each of the people in the funeral procession is an individual and each is a delight to behold. The animation is not extravagant, but when it moves, the movement feels good. The whole episode has a gentle humor to it thanks to the skilled character drawings.

    This is one of the later episodes produced by Studio Arrow's Susumu Shiraume, who also straddled the two sides of the animation industry, doing TV ad work as well as character designs for the likes of Nippon Animation co-productions like Topo Gigio. His drawings have a decidedly European feeling very different from typical anime drawings. His are the kind of drawing that would not be out of place in Moomin or Memole. He never moves his characters dynamically but instead opts for small touches of animation that make the character feel alive.

    I'm not sure where Susumu Shiraume started out, but his earliest work is as a rotation animator in Tokyo Movie's early show Kaibutsu-kun (1968) and Toei Doga's Tiger Mask (1970-1971). Not long afterwards he moved to Topcraft, where he worked as an animator on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1972) and Frost's Winter Wonderland (1974). He founded a small workspace named Studio Arrow with Isamu Kumada shortly thereafter, and the rest of his career worked from there. It's at Studio Arrow under Susumu Shiraume that Hidekazu Ohara learned about more creative styles of animation, which is what made him the artist he is today. ((I wrote a post about Studio Arrow before.)

    Susumu Shiraume began doing work for Nippon Animation beginning with the character design of Maya the Honeybee (1975). He later helped out on Topcraft's last production The Flight of Dragons (1982) doing layout. Presumably he must have been doing ad work throughout this whole time in addition to the MNMB episodes. Some recent examples of his ad work include this Hot Pepper ad from 2009 and this Kirin beer ad from 2014.

    Other recommended Susumu Shiraume episodes:

  • #110 (1/15/1977) 宝の下駄 The Coinmaking Geta
  • A young boy gets a pair of magical geta that produce coins, but they're stolen by a greedy uncle who winds up getting shrunken down to a flea by overusing them. This story was later remade by Kazuhiko Miyoshi in episode #1207 The Gonzo Bug. The drawings are soft and fluffy and the animation slightly more active than in his later work. I wonder if the American influence in his drawings didn't enter around this time from his work on early Topcraft productions.

  • #1154 (12/16/1989) どうもこうも Domo & Komo
  • Two famous doctors name Domo & Komo decide to have a contest to see who is the best doctor. The soft, loose drawing style of the early years makes way for a more sharp and graphical design. Komo's beard a geometric pattern covering his entire face. But the style is much more refined and the animation more controlled. The silly, strong-willed characters give the episode a gently comical tone.

  • #1335 (6/6/1992) 播磨のめっかい Mekkai of Harima
  • A powerful dog named Mekkai is brought in to take down some oni inhabiting a house. This is Shiraume's only solo episode, and the episode has a great graphical touch with lots of hatching and solid character drawings. Shiraume's drawing style comes through particularly in the very three-dimensional, bulbous noses where the features are otherwise simple and flat. Otherwise this is something of an anomaly for Shiraume, more hard-boiled and realistic, as it were, as he is best known for his cute, fluffy, rounded character animation and whimsical tone.

    三本枝のかみそり狐 The Kitsune and the Razor#12838/31/1991

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hidekazu Ohara
    Isao Okishima

    A man heads into the woods nearby to confront rumors of a marauding kitsune. He spots what he suspects to be the kitsune transformed as a woman carrying a child heading into a house, and runs to warn the old lady of the house. When he throws the baby in the fire, expecting it to be a fake, it turns out to be real, and he runs for his life...

    This is one of the best episodes in the series, a perfect creation in every way, with a totally novel visual scheme for the series and riveting directing of a terrifying tale. This is the most genuinely horrifying of the show's many ghost stories, and at the same time it's not graphic but still playful and exaggerated with its drawings. The old lady transformed into a hag is both horrible and hilarious, and her choppy running animation terrifying and comical. Contrasting with the white base of the earlier Dezaki episode, this episode has a black base color matching the subject matter and the night setting.

    This is one of the last MNMB episodes done by Hidekazu Ohara, and for the first time he handled all the tasks including the background. This allows him to unify everything around the sketchy pencil drawings of the character animation. This episode shows that Ohara has great control over all of the elements of animated filmmaking.

    It would be easy to comment that Hidekazu Ohara is the most skilled animator to have worked on MNMB in view of his subsequent work, but the notable fact is that this can be said based entirely on the merit of his work in the show. He evinces a technical versatility and mastery of the medium, an ability to adopt radically different visual schemes suited to any given narrative, that few of the other MNMB animators do. Most are limited to one style, or if they are versatile, their animation is more technically limited. Not so Ohara. He seems to be able to do it all, and execute it perfectly in a way that is exciting as animation. From everyday acting to action to comical character antics to caricatural facial expression to graphical experimentation, nothing seems beyond his reach.

    MNMB is the first place where Hidekazu Ohara's true talent first came to light. He had an unusual training, having been trained at Topcraft under the great animator Tsuguyuki Kubo on the likes of The Hobbit and then under Hayao Miyazaki on Nausicaa, and then moved to Studio Arrow. He got his basic training in animation knowhow from the masters of Topcraft, and then got his focus on more indie styles and a comprehensive approach to the art of animated filmmaking from Studio Arrow.

    Studio Arrow's Susumu Shiraume was heavily involved in MNMB right from its start, having been invited there by his associate Masakazu Higuchi. They did work for Topcraft during the same period, and it was this that led Ohara to knock on Arrow's door after Topcraft went under following Nausicaa, as he presumably needed a place to go. Ohara came along at a time when Susumu Shiraume had been animating for the show for a decade. Ohara's first involvement in MNMB was as animator of episode #831 directed by Susumu Shiraume, and you can in fact see a clear kinship between the drawing style in Ohara's episodes of MNMB and those of Susumu Shiraume.

    Other recommended episodes by Hidekazu Ohara:

  • #1031 (5/21/1988) 日高峠の大きな手 The Big Hand of Hidaka Pass
  • A hunter is about to make an offering to the mountain god when his dog catches scent of a boar and leads him off in a hurry, leaving the offering a mess in front of the shrine. A while later, still unable to find the boar, the hunter is forced to take cover when rain moves in. He finds an old lady in a house, but something strange begins to happen to her hand. It gets bigger and bigger... This episode is straight-up entertaining in a way few episodes of MNMB are. Essentially a ghost story, it's slow and suspenseful and then suddenly transforms into a chase scene that's both comical and scary. The moment when the old lady throws her big hand at the hunter is legitimately surprising, and the drawings of the old lady are particularly nice, being realistically inspired with the folds of skin but still caricatural and loose. This episode has something I find sorely lacking in most MNMB episodes: dynamism.

  • #1089 (2/11/1989) 雪むかし The Bell Charm
  • A girl gives a beggar some rice on the sly and is rewarded with a magical bell that cleans up the mountain of dishes she's forced to wash every day. It also has the side-effect of making her more beautiful. This episode features realistic layouts and delicate, nuanced character animation very different from any other Ohara episode. Small moments like the girl being kicked out of the house feature subtle but magnificently observed gestures and body language, revealing the depth of Ohara's talent. This episode was incidentally a remake of episode #56 (5/15/1976) 乞食のくれた手ぬぐい The Washcloth Given by the Beggar directed by Ryosuke Takahashi before he got into robots.

  • #1358 (9/26/1992) 犬と猫と狼 The Dog, the Cat and the Wolf
  • A dog enlists a wolf's help to get back into his family's favor, but then the dog has to enlist the cat's help when the wolf asks for a favor in return. This is the summit of Ohara's graphical experimentation, with some delightful and truly bold exaggeration in the designs. The wolf's snout fills the whole screen, the cat's eyes fill its whole face. The scene where the dog mock-attacks the wolf is comical and full of great dynamic movement. The calculating cat, the bristly wolf and shriveled dog are great characters.

  • #1373 (1/9/1993) 世間知らずの伊勢参り A Family of Bumpkins Visit Ise
  • A country family exhibit a comical level of ignorance of modern appurtenances and customs when they visit the big city. Rather than dynamic action or realism, this time Ohara flexes his graphical muscles in this episode, which is all about the comical, cartoonish, graphically extravagant character designs. They don't move much, but that makes each of their little gestures that much funnier as they struggle with each new challenge thrown at them.

    尻ぬき河童   The Butt-stealing Kappas#14525/21/1994

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Nobuhide Morikawa
    Kazuko Nishimura
    Isao Okishima

    A gang of kappas living in a river terrorize an old man with their attempts to steal the mythical 'shirikodama' in his butt. He shows them up by putting a metal plate in his pants and then tricks them by carving a piece of wood into the shape of a plant, placing it behind a waterfall and challenging the kappas: make the plant wilt with your farts or find somewhere else to live. They predictably lose and the old man triumphs.

    Full of bawdy kappa butt and fart jokes, this episode is characterized by its extreme simplicity: no perspective, no realism, primitively designed characters that practically slide across the screen. But it's still very entertaining and full of silly antics. It seems like the product of a young mind, but the remarkable thing is that the episode is the product of a great veteran of the anime industry. Nobuhide Morikawa was 76 at the time he directed this episode, his last for MNMB. This makes him the oldest active animator on MNMB or, very likely, most other anime for that matter.

    Nobuhide Morikawa is one of Japan's proto-indie animators, and his story is fascinating but little-known. In spirit he has been indie from the very beginning.

    Born in 1918 in Kyoto, his first experience with animation was hand-copying a reel of Bosko at age 10. He now had the bug, and made his first animation called "The Frog Swordsman" at age 12. It even got shown in a theater. He attempted to get into the commercial side of animation by visiting the then-master of animation in Japan, Kenzo Masaoka, but found that the industrial nature of the work was not suited to his more independent personality. He instead struck out on his own and during the 1950s was prolific making animated commercials. By the time the industry was in full swing with TV productions in 1965, he had his own photography studio in the Ginza district of Tokyo. He produced the animation for what may have been the first color anime aired on TV: Ginza no Sanzoku, a TV movie that was a seminal mix of live-action and animation. He was thus already an established animator before most of the Mushi Pro-gen animators in MNMB had even debuted.

    During the war he had been asked to visit Manchuria to help train animators there, and it was based on this experience that the government of Japan asked Morikawa in 1965 to go to South Korea to help train animators there as part of reparation activities (although deep down it was to get cheap animators, because animator wages in Japan had been surging since 1963). He went there and helped train the animators who produced two anime: Ougon Bat (1967-1968) and Yokai Ningen Bem (1968-1969). At the time he was the only person credited on the shows, so many people mistakenly assumed he was some godlike figure who had animated the entire show. Nameless Korean animators who paved the way for decades of fruitful animation collaboration between the two countries were to thank.

    After working on MNMB devotedly for 15 years starting in 1980, he went back to doing commercial animation. This Megane Drug ad is an example of his later ad work. An associate from his Korea days was Ryuya Matano, who would join him and become one of the regulars on MNMB. Ryuya Matano had perhaps the most extreme design aesthetic of anyone in the show, with characters heads' drawn as straight-up triangles or rectangles, as exemplified by episode #1150 (11/25/1989) 天から食い物 Food From Heaven.