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Two years ago one of the most important figures of the Toei Doga generation passed away: Daikichiro Kusube. People over here might not be familiar with him, but he was easily one of the most successful and influential of the Toei Doga figures in many ways. Many of the great Toei Doga animators like Miyazaki and Otsuka worked at his studio at one time or another after leaving Toei during its transformation at the beginning of the TV era in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and the studio he founded and ran for more than 30 years was extremely prolific, producing some of the most beloved and watched TV anime ever seen in the country, including Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan, to name but the two longest-lived. Beyond that, even today the animation that Kusube's studio created way back in the 1970s continues to resonate with many of the most interesting animators active today, both influencing and inspiring. The unique style of animation that A Production pioneered at this early period in the history of the medium remains alive to both animators and fans alike in a way that few other productions then or now do.
To continue to think back on this important generation and what they did for animation in Japan, today I thought I would highlight the achievements of the studio created by Kusube Daikichiro, in both its incarnations: A Production, which was active from 1965 to 1976, and its re-incarnation, Shin-Ei Animation, which was founded in 1976 and is alive and well today. I've mentioned both studios often in the past, as I'm an avid fan of the older A Production shows and Shin-chan, but only in scattershot fashion. I wanted to get everything down in a more clear and accessible form so that people over here could finally have a clear idea of the historical significance of this studio.
Daikichiro Kusube: Beginnings
Born in 1934 in occupied Manchuria, Daikichiro Kusube grew up interested in the arts. Upon graduation he decided that he wanted to become a sculptor. However, practical considerations forced him to revise his plans in favor of something more profitable, so he decided to try going into manga, which was booming. One day he visited publisher Kobunsha to see if they needed his services, and met an editor who seemed interested in giving him a chance. But a fateful thing happened. As Kusube was leaving, the thoughtful editor mentioned that a company called Toei Doga was looking for people who could draw. To cover his bases, Kusube headed over to Toei Doga that same day and happened to run into the president, Zenjiro Yamamoto, who gave him a tour of the studio. He wound up passing the entrance examination given a few days later, which forced him to give up his ambitions in manga. In later days he wondered if he might not have been happier working in manga. It was a crossroads in his life, and his future course was set.
Kusube was hired in 1957 in the first wave of public hirings for the purpose of finding animators to work on Hakujaden (1958). Reiko Okuyama came in briefly afterwards in the second wave of hirings. At this early stage, Akira Daikuhara and Yasuji Mori were the only two competent animators in the studio. On the first few films including Hakujaden, Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (1959) and Saiyuki (1960), Daikuhara and Mori drew they rough keys, which they then handed to seconds to clean up. The seconds consisted mostly of younger animators such as Yasuo Otsuka who had joined Nichido prior to the re-organization into Toei Doga. The seconds cleaned up the rough keys, which they in turn carried to the inbetweeners for inbetweening - which is where Kusube found himself after breezing through basic training in an unusually short time span.
Kusube was full of spunk and stood out right from the start. As an inbetweener he was working alongside people who had joined the studio well before him, and therefore had seniority, but that didn't keep him from making comments about a key animator's drawing being off. If his fellow inbetweeners had seniority, the key animators were considered gods, but Kusube barreled right through the hierarchical mindset of Toei Doga to go where he wanted to go. Soon enough he was modifying the timing of seconded keys by Daikubara, or adding extra actions to a sequence, and people stopped coming to him with seconded keys. So he took matters into his own hands. One day when he was sitting there without work between Daikubara and Mori, the only two people with a copy of the storyboard, he took a red pencil and ticked off five shots of the storyboard, asking Mori to let him animate them. A shocked Mori consulted with president Zenjiro Yamamoto, and they decided to let him have a go at it. If it wasn't usable, they could just throw it away. So it went that, a mere two months after his training period, and without going through a seconding stage, Kusube became a key animator. Otsuka was promoted alongside him, although neither got credited as keys until they turned 25. President Zenjiro Yamamoto, who ran Nichido for many years and was himself a veteran animator with decades of experience in animation under his belt by the time Toei Doga was formed, had a hangup that nobody under 25 should be credited as a key animator. Otsuka is first credited as a key animator in Saiyuki in 1960, and Kusube in Anju in 1961.
In Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke in 1959, Kusube worked with Yasuo Otsuka on the animation of the monster salamander in the lake. Working on action scenes like this got Kusube (like Otuska) pegged as an action animator, and in Saiyuki in 1960 he again animated a big action scene alongside Otsuka. They animated the climactic fight with the bad guy, Kusube doing the first half and Otsuka handling the second half, the bullfight part. Kusube had by this time accumulated an entourage of other studio rebels, including Gisaburo Sugii, who though technically supposed to be his second he allowed to draw key animation. Kusube ignored the seconding system at the studio, handing his keys directly to inbetweeners. After working on both Sindbad and Anju, Kusube was finally given the chance to design and animate his own character. He designed and animated the sequence with the fire god on Yasuji Mori's breakthrough piece as animation director, Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon. Working under him at the time was newcomer Yoichi Kotabe, who had trained under Kusube since his arrival in the studio. Kusube allowed Kotabe to draw his first key animation on this scene, namely the horse. Keiichiro Kimura, an animator who later became known for his free and rough animation in Toei shows like Tiger Mask and later founded Studio Neo Media (which trained animators like Yoshiyuki Momose), also learned the ropes under Kusube, as did Takao Kosai of Gyators fame, who later founded Studio Junio (which trained animators like Toshiyuki Inoue). Both Kotabe and Kimura had been rejected from Toei after their entrance exams, and Kusube was responsible for talking the company into letting them in.
Although Kusube might at first glance seem to have developed more under the influence of Daikuhara than of Mori, Kusube asserts that this was not the case, and that he learned things his own way, watching both Mori and Daikuhara, without being specifically taught by anyone. I think that is the case generally at this early stage in the modern period of commercial Japanese animation. Animators weren't trained to animate a certain way; they developed in the direction of their own proclivities by watching those around them. Kusube and Otsuka, his senior at the studio, happened to live next door to each other, and together helped found the studio's first union, so there was almost certainly a degree of influencing going on there as well.
After this film, Kusube said goodbye to films and set to the task of working on Toei Doga's second attempt at a TV series. Immediately before had come Toei Doga's first TV anime, Ken the Wolf Boy (November 1963-August 1965), headed by Sadao Tsukioka. The follow-up was a ninja anime based on a Shirato Sanpei manga: Kaze no Fujimaru (June 1964-August 1965). Senior animator Yasuji Mori would head the third sally the next year: Hustle Punch (November 1965-April 1966). I wrote about these shows back in 2005 (see last three paragraphs for Kusube's work on Fujimaru). Kusube was character designer and animation director, and was aided by Kotabe as co-animation director handling the sub-characters. Kotabe stayed on at Toei Doga for a few more years before leaving, working not only on the films but also on the TV shows like Hustle Punch, Rainbow Sentai Robin and Mahotsukai Sally, but this would prove to be Kusube's last Toei Doga project. After finally leaving Toei Doga following Ali Baba in 1971, the first place Kotabe went was A Pro to join Miyazaki et al on Pippi, which morphed into Panda Kopanda. After then working at Nippon Animation for a few years with Miyazaki & Takahata, he left, and would have helped out Kusube on The Red Bird, but wound up instead having to do Taro the Dragon Boy for Toei. That was the last intersection in the careers of the two once closely tied Toei Doga animators.
The road to A Production
Around the time Fujimaru was ending in 1965, Toei Doga was incorporated into a separate company. Prior to then Toei Doga had been merely the animation arm of film studio Toei. Now they were a separate company, and management changed as well. I mentioned how conditions had been very tight during production of Fujimaru, with barely anybody trained in animation working under Kusube, and Kusube consequently having to take on a tremendous workload. Conditions were so severe that, a one point, Kusube was asked to singlehandedly animate two entire episodes a month. This meant a lot of work, but also a lot of pay for doing so much work. The pay situation had presumably been considerably ameliorated by the formation of a union at Toei Doga. Kusube reports that he was earning somewhere in the vicinity of ¥1.5 million a month, which I figure works out to something like $20,000 USD a month in today's terms. It's a figure that's hard to believe at first sight, especially compared to what animators earn today (most reportedly earn less than minimum wage). It's a little easier to swallow when one learns that, upon a review of the books following incorporation, management ordered Kusube to take a pay cut because he was earning more than the president. Kusube, unlike the president, had worked for every penny with every stroke of the pencil, so he rightly felt affronted. By that time Kusube was already feeling he was ready to call it quits, so he used the opportunity to tell them what was on his mind and left, despite the fact that they still wanted and needed him to stay. They offered him the next film after Horus, which was in production at the time, but he refused. He took his money and quit in September 1965, the month after Fujimaru ended. Three months later, in December 1965, Daikichiro Kusube founded his own company: A Production Ltd.
But the story of A Production begins the day Kusube quit Toei. Osamu Tezuka had been involved with the studio for some time in preparation for the founding of his own studio, first on Saiyuki in 1960 and then on Wan Wan Chushingura in 1963. Tezuka had used the experience to acquaint himself with not just animation but also with the animators, and many Toei animators defected to Mushi Pro over the first few years of the 1960s - from Kazuko Nakamura to Toshio Hirata to Teruto Kamiguchi to Norio Hikone to Chikao Katsui. The day Kusube quit, he received a phone call from Tezuka as soon as he got home, inviting him to join Mushi Pro. Tezuka was nothing if not a good scout of talent. But Kusube wanted a challenge, and he felt that the animation production system at Mushi Pro already had a good solid foundation thanks to the work of the Toei Doga figures who had defected there like Gisaburo Sugii and Kazuko Nakamura. So he declined Tezuka's offer.
Not long after hanging up with Tezuka, Kusube received another phone call, this time from one Yutaka Fujioka. Fujioka, once the head a puppet theater troupe, had in August 1964 founded an animation production studio named Tokyo Movie at the behest of the TV station TBS. TBS wanted to expand their anime lineup to attract more viewers by capitalizing on the new fad for TV animation created by Atom Boy. They engaged Fujioka to put together an animation studio, which he did by grabbing anyone he could find with experience in animation. The result was Big X, and it was a disaster. Despite featuring early work by figures who would later go on to become great creators elsewhere like Osamu Dezaki and Murano Moribi, most of the people hired, such as Renzo Kinoshita (creator of the classic indie short Pika-Don and founder of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival), had no traditional animation experience, having only dabbled in animation for the likes of independent animator Kuri Yoji. Upon starting production of his second series, Fujioka was eager to find some competent animators, so he jumped on the chance to call Kusube when he was informed by TBS's agency that Kusube had quit Toei Doga.
Kusube and Fujioka had in fact met a year prior to this, in 1964, while Kusube was still employed at Toei Doga. The agent in charge of getting the animation studio set up for TBS had organized a meeting between a number of animation people, trying coercively and craftily to round them up into a team. Most didn't know what the meeting was about, but upon arrival were introduced to one another by the agent, much to their own surprise, as senior management of the new organization. Among the people there at the time were the members of Studio Zero, the legendary group of manga artists formed in 1963 including people like the Fujiko Fujio duo, Shotaro Ishinomori and Shinichi Suzuki. (Suzuki had served as the main animator of Yokoyama Ryuichi's Otogi Pro films in the preceding years.) It was a fateful meeting, although nothing was finalized until after Kusube quit Toei Doga. Studio Zero would go on to be involved in animating the first few TV series for Tokyo Movie alongside A Production, all of which were adaptations of manga by Studio Zero residents Fujiko Fujio, whose works would later play a central role for Shin-Ei Animation.
Kusube and Fujio were in fact prior acquaintances. They had met once before that same year, when Studio Zero had asked Toei Doga to produce Shotaro Ishinomori's Rainbow Sentai Robin. Toei Doga wasn't interested, so Kusube had been sent by the studio to decline. Kusube remembers noting at the meeting where he informed Studio Zero of Toei Doga's decision that the half of the team later known as Fujiko F. Fujio (real name Hiroshi Fujimoto) was the only one nodding in understanding when Kusube suggested that the project was perhaps ahead of its time, and something with simple characters and a comical atmosphere like The Jetsons might be a better project. Fujiko F. Fujio himself was just setting out as a manga artist at the time, but already each was aware of the other as someone with a compatible approach.
1965-1976: A Production
Kusube decided to accept Fujioka's offer, but not in the way that Fujioka had intended. Fujioka had invited Kusube to run the animation department of Tokyo Movie, but Kusube would have no part of it. Kusube never again wanted to be a pawn in someone else's company. Kusube wanted to form his own company to take care of actual animation production, leaving management and planning to Tokyo Movie. Fujioka agreed, and so it was that the two companies entered into what would be one of the most fruitful tie-ups in the history of anime.
The name of Kusube's studio, A Production, had various meanings - A for Ace, A for Animation, and simply A the first letter of the alphabet. When he left Toei Doga, Kusube invited a number of animators to come with him. These animators who were the earliest members at the studio went on to provide the backbone of A Pro over the next ten years, afterwards remaining key players at Shin-Ei from a distance at the studios each of them had founded for themselves. Easily the three most important members at the studio right from the beginning and on through the years were taken from Toei Doga by Kusube at this time: Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama, and Yoshio Kabashima. These are the three names that define what came to be appreciated as that special flavor A Pro brought to all of their work. It was all about an unparalleled instinct for creating appealing and exciting animation with limited TV animation. These three were among the first genuine geniuses of limited in Japan, and through their work at A Pro they influenced a bevy of other animators who worked on the same shows either at the studio alongside them or at other studios contracted by Tokyo Movie to help on the same shows. Other figures like Eiichi Nakamura and Hideo Kawauchi were among first wave hired afterwards, while others drifted in over the years, like Yoshifumi Kondo in 1968 and Hiroshi Fukutomi in 1971.
Kusube's experience on Fujimaru had provided him with first-hand experience working with this new medium of limited animation, and that know-how undoubtedly provided the foundation for the approach at A Pro in the early years, when these younger animators had their own first chance to play around and figure out how limited animation was made. Unlike Kusube, they weren't trained on the feature films, and therefore had their foundation laid completely within the context of limited animation. They were limited animators through to the bone, and they became experts in the medium like none we've ever seen since.
At the beginning A Pro almost exclusively handled animation and directing, with only a few animators and directors at Tokyo Movie. Right from the start with Obake no Q-Taro in 1965, Fujioka used his puppet theater connections to find prospective directors. Masaaki Osumi, who later went on to direct the breakthrough first Lupin series at A Pro, was there since Obake no Q-Taro, and participated in most of the early A Pro shows up until the debacle with Lupin. Early on in my blog I wrote a bit about A Pro, and in the comments to this post I talked a bit about what happened with Lupin. Another of the important directors of the early years of A Pro was Tadao Nagahama, who also came from a background in the puppet theater. In this case Nagahama had been driven out of Tokyo Movie for some reason or other, and Kusube was the one who wrangled him back into anime, taking him under his wing at the studio and teaching him the ropes in directing. He went on to become one of the great directors of sports anime that A Pro began producing right around this time, starting with Kyojin no Hoshi in 1968 and all the way through Samurai Giants in 1975, when he left the studio and left anime altogether. He was eventually to return and make a name for himself directing giant robot shows at Sunrise.
Eiji Okabe, born in 1931, already had a respectable career behind him in special effects working at movie studio Shin Toho on films like Senkan Yamato ("Battleship Yamato", 1953) and Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso ("Emperor Meiji and the Russo-Japanese War", 1957) before being dispatched to Tokyo Movie, a subsidiary of Kokusai Hoei, when Shin Toho was reorganized to Kokusai Hoei. Other directors like Shigetsugu Yoshida and Tomekichi Takeuchi, who went on to become mainstays at Tokyo Movie, were trained at Toei Doga on the mid-60s productions after Kusube had already left, and joined Tokyo Movie a little later.
The early shows
Fujioka had originally called on Kusube because he was looking for better animators to staff his next project, Obake no Q-Taro. This series, which ran from August 1965 to June 1967, was the first collaboration between the two studios. It was in fact co-animated with Studio Zero, as was the case for almost all of the anime produced by Tokyo Movie between 1965 and 1969, most of which were anime adaptations of Fujiko Fujio manga. In addition to establishing the precedent of adapting Fujiko Fujio manga, Obake no Q-Taro is the series that set the tone for the rest of the work done by A Production over the decade that followed, with its simple drawings, lighthearted tone and fast-paced slapstick humor. This was the first successful show of its kind on TV in Japan, and was a big hit with audiences, continuing for almost three years. It was also one of most successful early instances of character goods related marketing, with more than 2000 different Q-Taro-related products released by the time the TV series had finished airing. This savvy for successful franchise marketing is something that would reach its apotheosis with Doraemon.
The next Tokyo Movie series that was aired on TBS was Paa-man, which aired for exactly a year from April 1967 to April 1968. Tokyo Movie also began production of another series called Chingo Muchabee at nearly the same time, based this time not on a manga by Fujiko Fujio but on a manga by Kenji Morita, but it was not aired on TV until February-March 1971, when it was belatedly rushed by on TV one episode a day on weekdays for a month. The reason had to do with the fact that, by 1967, it was already becoming difficult to find airtime for black and white programs. Muchabe wound up being the last black and white Tokyo Movie series to be broadcast on TV, although the last black and white TV anime produced by Tokyo Movie was Umeboshi Denka, which aired in 1969. 1967 was the year of Mushi Pro's color breakthrough Goku's Big Adventure, directed by onetime Kusube protege Gisaburo Sugii. Paa-man was co-produced with Studio Zero and A Pro, while Muchabee was co-produced with A Production. Episodes were alternately produced by Tokyo Movie and A Production, with Shinichi Suzuki acting as the animation director in order to address with the variation in drawing style between the two studios.
A new Fujiko Fujio series took over the airwaves immediately after Paa-man - Kaibutsu-kun, which was broadcast from April 1968 to March 1969. It was just as successful as the previous two shows. All three of these Fujiko Fujio series would go on to be remade into successful color series by Shin-Ei Animation in the 1980s, and just a few years later Tokyo Movie would themselves re-make Obake no Q-Taro. It seems clear that this early success with this formula is what led to the studio eventually becoming almost exclusively devoted to the production of Fujiko Fujio anime adaptations. The last in this series of early black and whte Fujiko Fujio anime adaptations came with Umeboshi Denka in 1969. Umeboshi was the first flop of the four, coming as it did at a time when audiences were becoming bored with the formula, which had by that time undoubtedly been copied by other shows on other channels. The series ran for only thirteen episodes, becoming the shortest-lived of the four - one of the few such flops in the history of A Pro.
A change for the studio came in 1968 with a new show called Kyojin no Hoshi, which ran from March 1968 to September 1971. It was a change for one because it was for a new station, Yomiuri TV, but more importantly it was a big change in terms of the content and style - not a gag anime by Fujiko Fujio with simple characters and stories, but an anime about baseball players featuring realistically designed characters and gripping humanistic drama. This was the show that pioneered the fad for so-called "spo-kon" sports anime, as copycats soon overtook the airwaves in droves in the wake of the tremendous popularity of Kyojin no Hoshi. A Pro themselves went on to work on several more shows in this vein for Tokyo Movie. Fujioka's Tokyo Movie was a very interesting studio because so many times they came up with shows like this that went in a totally different direction from everything else out there. Kusube himself was behind the character design and animation directing of the show, and his more realistic characters in the 'gekiga' style were a real innovation in the day. One of the main figures behind the directing side of the show was the abovementioned Tadao Nagahama, whose patented melodramatic style was a perfect match for the material here. Several years later Nagahama would revisit the same material with Samurai Giants, and in 1977 Tokyo Movie made a continuation of Kyojin no Hoshi.
Into the 1970s
Tokyo Movie continued to branch out to new stations and to try new kinds of material never before seen on TV, unleashing the Scandinavian literary fairy tale Moomin on Japan from October 1969 to March 1970 on Fuji TV. The show was a breath of fresh air on the stations, with its slow pace, otherworldly atmosphere, fantastical creatures and refined sensibility - one of those rare moments when something truly new appeared in commercial animation. While it was popular with audiences, the creator Tove Jansson disapproved of the changes made to her work upon being shown a few episodes, and production was switched from Tokyo Movie/A Pro to Mushi Pro after 26 brilliant episodes. The popularity of the show eventually led not only to two separate continuations being made in Japan, but perhaps more significantly to the establishment of the tradition for this kind of literary fare at the Sunday 7:30 time-slot on Fuji TV, which would go on to host similar shows by various studios in the same slot for a few years until Nippon Animation took over the slot for 25 years with the World Masterpiece Theater. The most important early of these, Heidi and Marco, were produced by Miyazaki & Takahata in 1974 and 1976 in the immediate aftermath of their brief involvementat with A Pro from 1971 to 1973.
In charge of Moomin were Masaaki Osumi, director, and Yasuo Otsuka with the character designs and animation directing. Osumi's unusual background in puppet theater was perhaps one of the keys that enabled Osumi to so convincingly convey the uniquely disjointed fantasy logic that underpins the world of Moominvalley. He really got into the characters' minds in a way no other director with thorough technical training in animation would. It was a fundamentally different, more intuitive approach to directing, and one that impressed the more technically inclined Otsuka. While not strictly hewing to Jansson's world and atmosphere, it was an excellent approximation leavened with good doses of the more hardy and biting slapstick humor of A Pro. Otsuka's characters brought the world to life like none ever before, combining limited animation knowhow with his training in traditional full animation to create some of the most polished limited seen yet. He was also active in training the younger animators at the studio. Otsuka's characters were not only completely different but more organic and alive than any seen on TV up until that point. Helping Otsuka in his task were Tsutomu Shiabayama and Osamu Kobayashi, who greatly contributed to the quality of the show with their knack for nuanced acting, and who would go on to become perhaps the two most important animators at A Pro in the coming years.
Otsuka had himself just quit Toei Doga on December 6, 1968 after having helped maintain the quality of the studio's feature films for a decade by that point. The studio was changing focus, moving away from taking the time to carefully craft high-quality feature films, and now all but tripping over itself to keep up with the competition on TV, and Otsuka felt his priorities lay elsewhere. Kusube was one of the pioneers of Toei's new path with Fujimaru. Keiichiro Kimura, who worked under Kusube at Toei, was one of the animators who helped cement the importance of TV work at Toei after Kusube left with the popularity of the work he did for them on Pyun-Pyun Maru in 1967 and then Tiger Mask in 1969. Like Kusube, it was after his experience working on these Toei TV shows that he jumped ship and formed his own studio, Neo Media, in 1969. Neo Media would go on to work on many of the same Tokyo Movie shows as A Pro.
The production floor of TV animation was a new experience for Otsuka. Unlike at Toei Doga, where he worked alongside people he knew very well and established a sort of understanding and camaraderie with his co-workers that benefited the quality of the film, with TV work he was meeting people he'd never seen day in and day out, receiving work from animators not even on site, the quality of which varied tremendously and was basically unpredictable. The production tasks had by this time become atomized by outsourcing as a measure of economy in order to survive in the new market, and A Pro was on that front line.
The day after Otsuka quit Toei Doga, Otsuka set to work at A Pro on the Lupin pilot. Otsuka had originally come to A Pro in order to produce a movie version of Monkey Punch's Lupin, a project that Gisaburo Sugii and Chikao Katsui of Mushi Pro (prior to that both ex-Toei Doga) had brought to A Pro to get produced. They began producing the pilot in order to show prospective distributors. Working on the pilot were Masaaki Osumi as director, Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi as animation directors, Gisaburo Sugii drawing storyboard and helping design the characters, and Otsuka helping out with the animation. Sugii also animated the shogi scene and Mineko Fuji's dance scene. Prior to this, Osumi had directed the pilot for Obake no Q-Taro, and the quality had been good enough that Kusube decided to give him the job of directing this pilot. Sugii had wanted to direct it himself, so he left afterwards, and it wasn't until more than 25 years later that the originator of the project finally got his chance to direct, in 1996, with the Twilight Gemini TV special.
It was in July 1969, after completing the pilot, in the fallow period while they were waiting for something to happen to drive the project forward, that the Moomin project came in and occupied Otsuka for the next half-year, from October 1969 to March 1970. Kusube in the meantime was busy working on the ever-popular Kyojin no Hoshi. Just after Moomin started, A Pro worked on Attack No 1, a shoujo manga updating of the sports anime fad, also for Fuji TV, that aired in the time-slot just before Moomin from December 1969 to November 1971. After Moomin ended, Otsuka occupied himself with various tasks, among them helping Kusube on Kyojin no Hoshi and animating the pilot for Tensai Bakabon (used as episode 32), the show based on a manga by the guru of nonsense gags, Fujio Akatsuka. Bakabon marked a long overdue return to the kind of material A Pro did best. There was probably trepidation to do this kind of material after the failure of their last attempt. They tested the waters by finally broadcasting A Pro's black-and-white Chingo Muchabe in February-March 1971 on TBS, fully four years after it had been produced. Chingo featured directing by Tadao Nagahama and characters by Kusube, who had both since gone in a different direction in Kyojin no Hoshi.
Back to the roots
Late 1971 seemed to signal the start of a new phase in the work of A Pro. The early developmental years were now behind them, and the head animators began to come unto their own with an easy mastery of the form and a new playfulness thanks to a return to old territory. Three new and significant shows for A Pro started at this time. The studio's debut series, Obake no Q-Taro, was remade into Shin Obake no Q-Taro, airing from September 1, 1971 to December 1972 on Nihon TV. Yoshio Kabashima was animation director and Tadao Nagahama director. Shin Obake no Q-Taro marked a return to the style of A Pro's early years, upon which they continued to develop over the next few years in what are considered the canonic A Pro shows. The series was again remade by Shin-Ei in later years, but this version is still considered the best of the three by fans. Next came Fujio Akatsuka's Tensai Bakabon, which replaced Kyojin no Hoshi on Yomiuri TV and ran from September 25, 1971 to June 1972. Akatsuka's edgy/silly nonsensical humor was somewhat blunted by sponsor demands to make the stories more family friendly in this adaptation, and a continuation would be made a few years later, when the animators of A Pro et al. were at the height of their powers, that finally did the material justice. But already in Tensai Bakabon we can see many of the animators who would go on to be the main figures behind the next few classic A Pro series: designer Tsutomu Shibayama and animators like Yoshiyuki Momose and Osamu Kobayashi.
A new development of this period was the involvement of various small studios in the Tokyo Movie productions alongside A Production. Figures who had worked at Toei Doga in the early years had quit and started their own studios, and now young animators who had seen their work on TV were beginning to be attracted to these new studios to learn under the animators they admired. Animators from a number of such small studios worked alongside A Pro on the Tokyo Movie shows of the early 70s, and were in turn influenced by the work they saw being done by A Pro animators Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, who by that point had a definite sense of how to create thrilling animation using the absolute minimum of means. A Pro members active on these shows throughout this time include: Tsutomu Shibayama, Osamu Kobayashi, Yoshio Kabashima, Toshiyuki Honda, Takeuchi Tomekichi, Yoshifumi Kondo, Tadao Nagahama, Hideo Kawauchi, Eiichi Nakamura, Tsutomu Tanaka, Yuzo Aoki, Hiroshi Fukutomi, Michiyo Yamada and Hisatoshi Motoki.
Another studio of importance alongside A Pro was Studio Neo Media, which was founded by Keiichiro Kimura in 1969 after he quit Toei Doga. All animators from Studio Neo Media were involved in Tokyo Movie shows in the early 70s. Keiichiro Kimura and Yasuhiro Yamaguchi were involved in the more serious, sports-oriented or dramatic shows headed by Kimura's erstwhile mentor, Kusube, such as Akado Suzunosuke, Judo Sanka and Koya no Shonen Isamu. Yoshiyuki Momose and Masayuki Uchiyama, meanwhile, were involved in all of the more gag-oriented shows on which Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama worked, such as Tensai Bakabon, Dokonjo Gaeru and Hajime Ningen Gyators. Momose in particular produced some of the most interesting and vivid animation of the period that was a contrast with the work of the A Pro animators in terms of his freer use of drawings. He relates that the work he saw being done by not just Kobayashi and Shibayama but also the younger Yoshifumi Kondo at A Pro was an influence to many of the animators working at other studios on the same shows.
Other small studios involved in these shows included Studio Junio, formed in 1969 by Takao Kosai following the disbanding of Hatena Pro, a studio formed in 1964 by himself and four other ex-members of Toei Doga. Junio animator Minoru Maeda (later Group Tac) and director Minoru Okazaki were involved in the later shows like Ganso Tensai Bakabon and Hajime Ningen Gyators. Director and erstwhile Hatena Pro co-founder Tetsuo Imazawa along with studio head Takao Kosai were involved in Akado Suzunosuke, Kouya no Shounen Isamu and Gyators. Studio Mates was formed in 1969 by Kenzo Koizumi and Azuma Hiroshi, who in 1972 defected to Studio Junio. Koizumi was involved in the first Bakabon series and Gamba no Boken. Oh Production was formed in 1970 by Koichi Murata, Kazuo Komatsubara, Koshin Yonekawa and Norio Shioyama. Yonekawa and Shioyama were involved in the first Bakabon series, and Yonekawa and Joji Manabe were involved in Dokonjo Gaeru. I wrote a bit about Oh Pro last year on the occasion of Koichi Murata's death. Animator Sadayoshi Tominaga had formed a small studio called Tomi Production in 1970 that did work on a few of the A Pro shows at this time such as Shin Obake no Q-Taro and Dokonjo Gaeru. He would later become one of the main individuals behind Doraemon alongside Tsutomu Shibayama, Eiichi Nakamura and Toshiyuki Honda. Shingo Araki's legendary Studio Z (which went through several incarnations, some of which I talked about here) was even present at various times - in Dokonjo Gaeru episode 42B with animation by Yoshinori Kanada and inbetweening by Kazuo Tomizawa, and later in Ganso Tensai Bakabon with animation by Kazuo Tomizawa in many of the early episodes.
The Lupin gang
Lupin finally saw the light of day, not as a movie, but as a TV series, just one month after the start of Tensai Bakabon, airing from October 1971 to March 1972, when it was cut short. Besides launching of anime's most successful franchises, the series was significant for any number of reasons, from the seminal dark adult atmosphere of the early episodes by Masaaki Osumi, who carried on in the direction of Moomin by bringing new levels of nuance to characterization - to the more atmospherically straightforward and less gothic but more thrilling and catchy later eps by the "A Pro Directing Team" of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who replaced Osumi at Kusube's request (under pressure from the station) - to Yasuo Otsuka's maniacal attention to detail in drawing the cars and guns and other implements. Otsuka wouldn't tolerate vague drawings of "cars" or "guns", instead basing everything on actual, existing models or brands, and bringing his unsurpassed drafting skills to the task of drawing them in vast quantities. Lupin also benefited from work by many great animators including Neo Media's Keiichiro Kimura and A Pro's Hideo Furusawa, Yuzo Aoki and Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo had debuted as an animator just before on Kyojin no Hoshi after joining the studio in 1968, but quickly developed into one of A Pro's most interesting animators. Hiroshi Fukutomi can be seen as an inbetweener on the show in one of his earliest jobs. He soon switched paths and moved to directing on shows like Ganso Tensai Bakabon and Hajime Ningen Gyators, where he became one of A Pro's most interesting directors.
Miyazaki & Takahata had just joined the studio after leaving Toei Doga in the hope of doing Pippi Longstockings, but found themselves forced to do Lupin first. Miyazaki had in fact helped Otsuka out on episode 23 of Moomin the year before while still employed at Toei Doga, so this wasn't his first job at A Pro. Astrid Lindgren wound up refusing to let them do the project, and Kusube couldn't afford to let them sit around since he was paying them a hefty salary (having lured them to A Pro with a promise to pay them three times what they were earning at Toei), so he decided to let Miyazaki run with a new idea he'd come up with based loosely on the vast body of material that he (image sketches), Takahata (directing plan) and Yoichi Kotabe (character sketches) had thrown together for Pippi. The two Panda Kopanda short films that followed were also the result of a shrewd idea to capitalize on a fad for anything panda in Japan following a goodwill donation from China to a Japanese zoo. The project was a first for A Pro - not based on a manga, and feature films (albeit shorts). The films were each produced in the span of about one month, but are inspired gems. Yoichi Kotabe designed, Yasuo Otsuka supervised as animation director, Takahata directed, Miyazaki did script and layout, and A Pro's talented animators like Hideo Kawauchi, Yoshifumi Kondo and Yuzo Aoki helped Miyazaki, Kotabe and Otsuka bring the characters of the films to vivid life. The films were shown without fanfare in the theater, respectively, in December 1972 and March 1973, preceding Godzilla films.
Miyazaki, Takahata and Kotabe spent a few more months helping out on miscellaneous shows like Kouya no Shounen Isamu, Akadou Suzunosuke and Samurai Giants before moving to Nippon Animation to set to work on a new project devised by Shigeto Takahashi of Zuiyo Enterprise, who had planned Moomin. Yasuji Mori had already done Rocky Chuck at Nippon Animation, and Takahashi wanted to get the other key Toei Doga figures for a bigger project in that same vein. Takahata and Miyazaki had felt a certain amount of pride in the success of their Panda Kopanda project - not for any kind of commercial success, which the films didn't have, but simply because they had witnessed the children in the theaters paying their films the ultimate respect of not running around during the screening in boredom, but sitting intently and watching in genuine fascination. They felt they wanted to continue build on that. The direct result of their experience working at A Pro, then, was three of the very small handful of towering masterpieces in the history of the TV medium - Heidi, Marco and Anne.
Kusube, in the meantime, had finally finished working on Kyojin no Hoshi and had set to work on a new show called Akado Suzunosuke. It ran from April 1972 to March 1973 on Fuji TV, after a blank of a few months following the end of Attack No 1. Kusube is here credited as "animation supervisor". Kusube would go on to be credited as "Supervisor" on the Doraemon TV series and all of the films. From 1972 to 1974, Kusube was credited as "animation supervisor" on a total of four shows. What the credit means exactly I'm not sure, but presumably he was responsible for the character designs and for overseeing the work of the various animation directors. The first of the other three shows was Kouya no Shounen Isamu, a western drama that ran from April 1973 to March 1974. This series, like many of the A Pro shows around this time, saw the participation of a number of interesting transitional figures. Masami Hata storyboarded the first episode, which boasts thrilling dramatic tension and excellent animation quality. Hata had just left Mushi Pro and this was probably his first job ever for another studio. Isao Takahata storyboarded a later episode. Three animation directors alternated work on the show - Studio Junio head Kosai Takao, Oh Pro head Koichi Murata, and A Pro animator Hideo Kawauchi. The next was Karate Baka Ichidai, which ran from October 1973 to September 1974, and the last was Judo Sanka, which ran from April 1974 to September 1974. These two were a return to old territory for Kusube. Like Kyojin no Hoshi, they were both based on stories by manga writer Ikki Kajiwara, famous for his macho sports epics, but Judo Sanka wound up being the most short-lived of the series, perhaps because the spokon fad was beginning to fade. Kusube in fact became ill as a direct result of working on Karate Baka Ichidai. The show was partly outsourced to Taiwan, and most of the work that came back was so bad that he was forced to redraw considerable amounts, and wound up overworking himself. As a result, he was unable to do any work for about the next two years.
A Pro produced quite a number of classic spokon series around this time. The next big job that Yasuo Otsuka did while at A Pro was another spokon series called Samurai Giants. The series ran from October 1973 to September 1974 on Yomiuri TV, and was directed by spokon veteran Tadao Nagahama and again based on a story by Ikki Kajiwara. Hayao Miyazaki did some animation in the first episode, probably the last thing he did at A Pro before leaving for Nippon Animation. Unfortunately, this was the series that convinced Otsuka that he never wanted to work under a director with whose approach he didn't agree - Otsuka had learned what a director could be working under Takahata on Hols at Toei, and Tadao Nagahama had nothing of Takahata's detail-oriented and logical qualities - but Otsuka nonetheless delivered his usual quality, and brought a different look and take on this material that had previously been dominated by the look of Kusube's characters. The series remains one of the best of Tokyo Movie's sports shows.
The classic A Pro shows
One of the three or four supreme classics of the genre of sports anime is Ashita no Joe, a boxing anime produced from 1970-1971 by Mushi Pro and directed by Osamu Dezaki in his first job as chief director of a TV show. Immediately afterwards, Dezaki quit and became one of the founding members of Madhouse. From there, he and animation director Akio Sugino would go on to be involved in a handful of classic TV series for Tokyo Movie throughout the decade of the 70s. The very first of these came in 1973 with Jungle Kurobee (March-September 1973), a project that had been developed at Tokyo Movie by Kusube's younger brother Sankichiro Kusube, who throughout the years provided a link between planning at Tokyo Movie and production by Daikichiro Kusube himself at A Production. Sankichiro would eventually leave Tokyo Movie and join his brother at Shin-Ei when the split occurred. Dezaki accepted to direct the project partially in thanks to Yutaka Fujioka for having provided Dezaki et al. with the funding to found their studio. The project was co-headed by animation director Yoshio Kabashima alongside Madhouse's Akio Sugino. The project was significant in that it was the first original TV project not based on a manga - the Fujiko F. Fujio duo was actually asked to write a manga based on the idea, and the anime was based on that manga. This established a precedent for the Fujio shows of the Shin-Ei years.
The month after Kurobe, the Sugino-Kabashima-Dezaki team set to work on another project for Tokyo Movie, this time another sports anime - Aim for the Ace, which ran from October 1973 to March 1974. The series was reportedly popular enough with audiences that it caused an explosion in tennis playing among students. The series represents one of Dezaki's supreme achievements. Ashita no Joe presented excellent drama, but with this series Dezaki continued to push the stylistic aspects that had made Ashita no Joe unique. The stylistic daring of this series went further than any anime before and retains its impact to this day, with the vivid, bold, expressionistic use of color and animation, and the hyper-emotional directing that pushed the staple of the genre to new heights. Dezaki was one of the first auteurs of anime, and this series was his first masterpiece. Many of the staff who worked on this and the previous show, such as Masami Hata and Yoshiyuki Tomino, were similarly ex-Mushi Pro figures who would go on to work on the Tokyo Movie shows of the next few years.
The start of two new A Pro gag series in September 1971 - Shin Obake no Q-Taro and Tensai Bakabon - marked a return to old territory for A Pro, territory that was their specialty and forte. Over the next four years they would work on the three shows for which the studio is now perhaps best remembered - the shows where the A Pro staff perfected their unique approach to TV animation, and reached the height of their powers. Those three shows were Dokonjo Gaeru, Hajime Ningen Gyators and Ganso Tensai Bakabon.
Dokonjo Gaeru, an episodic slapstick comedy about the misadventures of a boy and his friends, is the quintessential A Pro anime. One day a young boy, Hiroshi, accidentally trips onto a frog and is bewildered to find that the frog is alive and well but flattened and stuck on his t-shirt. The story is firmly rooted in the atmosphere of lower-class Showa-era Japan, with the characters frequenting sushi shops and getting into fights and flinging foul language left and right. Most of the action takes place alternately on neighborhood streets and the construction sites dotted with piles of concrete piping that were a common sight in postwar 'kodo seicho' Japan. The series was inspired by the spirit of the long-running Otoko wa Tsurai Yo ("It's tough being a man") movie series directed by Yoji Yamada and starring Kiyoshi Atsumi as the gruff but perennially heartbroken traveling salesman Tora-san. The potty-mouth aspect of the series in fact made Dokonjo Gaeru a hard show to re-broadcast after it ended, as stations gradually became more uptight about offending anyone.
Dokonjo Gaeru, though based on a manga by Yasumi Yoshisawa, shares a similar setup, atmosphere and character group to most other Fujiko Fujio series that Shin-Ei would go on to produce, and can perhaps be deemed the spiritual predecessor of Doraemon. Doraemon kind of took up the space left empty by Dokonjo when the studio set off on its own as Shin-Ei Animation, providing the studio with a new vehicle to go on creating work in the same mold. Dokonjo Gaeru features some of the freest and most thrilling animation ever produced by the studio's animators. Yoshifumi Kondo, Osamu Kobayashi (who designed the characters in each episode) and Tsutomu Shibayama were at the height of their powers here, and from episode to episode these characters move with a freedom and inventiveness that has disappeared in TV work today. Some of the most impressive work done on the show was done not by an A Pro animator but by an animator influenced by the A Pro animators - Yoshiyuki Momose of Studio Neo Media. Where Yoshifumi Kondo's work was very effective using a limited number of drawings in the vein of Kobayashi's and Shibayama's work, Yoshiyuki Momose used lots of drawings and created richer movements. As a house animator, Yoshifumi Kondo stayed on at A Pro and worked on all of the shows until the studio disbanded, but the last credit I can find for Yoshiyuki Momose is on episode 44 of the next series, Hajime Ningen Gyators, aired August 9, 1975. Well before they became known for their work as directors, these two were already among the most talented animators of their generation.
Hajime Ningen Gyators began right after Dokonjo Gaeru (although on a different station - on Asahi Hoso/Asahi TV rather than TBS/Mainichi Hoso), running from October 1974 to March 1976. I talked at length about Gyators here, so I won't do so again. The last of the great A Pro series was Ganso Tensai Bakabon, a remake of the 1971 A Pro series based on the nonsense manga by onetime Studio Zero member Fujio Akatsuka. The series ran from October 1975 to September 1977. While Gyators certainly had its fair share of bizarre goings on, Ganso Tensai Bakabon was easily one of the most outrageous and unhinged gag shows to ever grace the airwaves in Japan, at least since Goku's Big Adventure in 1967. Under certain directors and scriptwriters, the episodes attain sublime levels of absurdity tinged with a healthy hue of black humor. The animators truly did the original manga justice in this adaptation, which remains surprisingly funny even after all these years, although there are times when the humor is a little too true to the sort of intentionally inane humor that defines Akatsuka's original manga. The moments where his humor is pushed to a more sophisticated level, particularly in the episodes storyboarded by Osamu Dezaki, are among the best achievements of the studio, with brilliant humor and directing combined with inspired animation by the usual A Pro suspects, joined by new faces like a young Manabu Ohashi and Kazuo Tomizawa. Shibayama Tsutomu again provided the character designs, as he had for the first Tensai Bakabon series, but this time his designs were much more polished and brilliantly stylized in a way that differed from the very loose and soft style of Osamu Kobayashi on Dokonjo Gaeru. His character sheets for this show are among the most delightful and inventive of all the A Pro shows.
I mentioned Osamu Dezaki's work on Ganso Tensai Bakabon. Well, just before this series, Dezaki had in fact directed one of the most brilliant A Pro series, the classic Gamba no Boken, aired April to September 1975. The series, based on a novel by Atsuo Saito about a group of mice who set out to defeat a band of weasels ravaging the area, benefited not only from Dezaki's thrilling directing and great use of a jazzy score by Takeo Yamashita, but more than anything from the work of the main staff. The key elements of the screen were handled by two A Pro veterans - layout was done by Tsutomu Shibayama and animation directing was by Yoshio Kabashima. Each episode was alternately animated by Madhouse staff and A Production staff, so that one episode might feature work by Yoshifumi Kondo and Osamu Kobayashi, and the next episode would feature work by Manabu Ohashi and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. It was a historic meeting of the two schools of animation - Toei Doga versus Mushi Pro - by the descendants of those studios after a decade of battling it out in different corners of the industry, and the results speak for themselves. It is one of the best and most watchable anime TV series of the 1970s. The brilliant light mood of the early episodes was unfortunately curbed for a more serious mood due to pressure by the sponsors, but Dezaki nonetheless managed to make good of both approaches, creating inspired action, adventure and levity in the first half and dark, epic drama heading towards the conclusion.
From A Production To Shin-Ei Animation
For some time now, Tokyo Movie president Yutaka Fujioka had been drifting away from the Japanese market and beginning to make overtures at the American market, ultimately hoping to realize a Japanese-American co-production of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo. Around the time Gamba was starting, he and Otsuka even visited the Fleischer studios in Burbank, CA in a bold sales pitch that local staff later characterized as "Fujioka's raid". By the time of Ganso Tensai Bakabon in 1976, A Production only had one show on the burner, and Kusube was growing worried for the future of his studio because people were leaving for lack of work. Fujioka's neglect had been causing some instability in the management of Tokyo Movie, too, that Kusube feared might leach over into A Production. Tokyo Movie, meanwhile, was finding it more difficult to maintain dealings with another studio like A Pro under the circumstances. This led Daikichiro Kusube to finally make the decision to break relations with Tokyo Movie. By calling back his brother, the Tokyo Movie producer Sankichiro Kusube, A Production would have someone who could manage the company without having to rely on another company for management. Kusube now saw a clear need for his studio to produce its own projects in order to survive as a company, so the answer was obvious. Fujioka was in the process of restructuring the company, which would soon be re-named Tokyo Movie Shinsha or TMS, and he offered Kusube the opportunity to head the animation department of the new studio. Kusube declined and told Fujioka his decision. Fujioka agreed that it was probably best for both companies. As a parting gift, Fujioka presented Kusube with the movie rights to Fujiko Fujio's Doraemon, commenting prophetically that it would probably provide work for everyone at A Production for the rest of their lives.
The break occurred in the midst of Ganso Tensai Bakabon, which was then the last Tokyo Movie production A Production worked on. Tokyo Movie animator Tateo Kitahara took over Tsutomu Shibayama's job as character designer on the show. Kitahara had been at Tokyo Movie since the very beginning, working as an inbetweener on the first few shows. He would go on to be the character designer and animation director of TMS's New Lupin right afterwards.
Tokyo Movie was in the process of re-organizing itself, with a new company called Tokyo Movie Shinsha (meaning "New Tokyo Movie") being founded to act as the managerial brain of the group, and Tokyo Movie itself being relegated to the production arm of TMS. A new company called Telecom Animation was also formed for the purpose of eventually animating Little Nemo, although they became better known for the work they did on foreign co-productions and Lupin films and TV episodes. Kusube broke with Tokyo Movie and founded his new company in September 1976. Taking a hint from Tokyo Movie's new name, he named the company Shin-Ei Doga, meaning "New A Animation". A Production had been a private limited company, but Kusube decided that his new company would have to be a stock company in order to enable it to grow as needed over time. On the occasion, Shin-Ei moved from Yoyogi to Tanashi City.
Shin-Ei began its life as a subcontractor, although Kusube undoubtedly already had plans to develop his own in-house projects. Shin-Ei was occupied with subcontract work for about the first two years of its existence. The first commission Shin-Ei received was for a promotional film for a milk company called Snow Brand Milk Products, to be shown to children visiting their factories. Shin-Ei was actually a last resort. The company had first asked Tezuka Productions to do the film, through documentary production company Sakura Eigasha, but after Tezuka dragged his feet for two years, they lost patience and turned to Tac, who wound up doing the same. Finally Shin-Ei was contacted, with only a single month left until the deadline. Yasuo Otsuka was appointed the job of director. It turned into a bitter experience for him, one that taught him the struggle of a hired gun - having to balance meeting the client's demands and satisfying his creative instincts. The film, entitled Sougen no Ko Tenguri, was completed in April 1977. Yoshio Kabashima was animation director. He animated the cow, and Yoshifumi Kondo animated the traveling priest. The other A Pro animators involved were Eiichi Nakamura, Hisatoshi Motoki, Yuzo Aoki and Noriko Yazawa. Otsuka had maintained contact with Miyazaki and Takahata while they were at Nippon Animation, and Miyazaki in fact drew 1/3 of the layouts for the film. Yoichi Kotabe and his wife Reiko Okuyama even helped with the animation. All of them requested not to be credited. Takahata himself would also later help out by writing the original synopsis for Doraemon when it was in planning at Shin-Ei. Thanks to Otsuka's ties, most of Shin-Ei's subcontract work over the next few months consisted of work on Nippon Animation shows like Ore wa Teppei, Ikkyu-san and Yakyu-shi no Uta. (Otsuka did layout for Ore wa Teppei and Kusube did animation directing on Ikkyu-san.)
One day Otsuka received an offer he couldn't refuse from Miyazaki to join him working on a new TV series he was to direct at Nippon Animation - Future Boy Conan. Otsuka remained employed at Shin-Ei while working as animation director on the project, but Tenguri wound up being his last job at Shin-Ei. Midway during production of Conan, Otsuka received yet another offer he couldn't refuse. Yutaka Fujioka was looking for someone to head Telecom, and he wanted Otsuka for the job. Otsuka was faced with a decision: stay at Shin-Ei to work on Doraemon, which was already in planning at the time, or go to Telecom to help train the animators and, according to Fujioka, probably get to work on another Lupin movie. Otsuka could easily have remained at Shin-Ei, where he had a cushy executive chair waiting, but he wasn't ready to retire his pencil yet, and Lupin had a special appeal to him that Doraemon did not. In the end, despite Kusube wanting him to stay, he wound up going over to Telecom, where he remained from then on out.
Shin-Ei lost a number of other key players from the A Production era at this time. Yoshifumi Kondo, one of the studio's star animators, left with Otsuka to help on Conan, but also wound up never coming back. Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, the two figures who helped to create what became known as the A Pro style through their innovative work on shows like Dokonjo Gaeru and Ganso Tensai Bakabon, left in 1978 to form their own studio, Ajia-Do. In addition to the above-mentioned Nippon Animation shows, Shin-Ei had also subcontracted some work on Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, and Ajia-Do is the collective pen-name under which Shibayama and Kobayashi had been credited for their work on the show, hence the new studio's name. Both would, however, continue to be intimately tied to Shin-Ei. Other animators who left with them to join Ajia-Do included Michishiro Yamada, Hideo Kawauchi and Yumiko Suda.
The studio's first project to bear fruit after this transitional period was a project conceptually similar to the aforesaid Group Tac series - The Red Bird, an omnibus of Japanese children's stories that ran from February to July 1979. One of Osamu Kobayashi's last contributions to the studio as an animator was the very distinctive opening sequence of the "Red Oni" episode. Kusube himself directed one episode, and this would wind up being the last time he was credited with any kind of direct work on the animation side of things. From here on out he focused on his duties as president of the studio, and would only be credited as "Supervisor" on the Doraemon TV series and movies. (With one exception: An avid fan of the Romance of the Three Kindgoms books, Kusube was deeply involved in the animation side of the studio's TV specials of the series a few years later.) The Red Bird was broadcast on Asahi TV, the station that became the home of all Fujiko Fujio anime produced by Shin-Ei.
The first of the Fujiko Fujio anime to be produced by Shin-Ei was Doraemon, which started airing on April 2, 1979. New weekly episodes continue to be produced, making Doraemon the longest-running TV anime after Eiken's Sazae-san, which is thought to be the world's longest-running weekly TV animation, having been on the air continuously since October 1969. Doraemon tells the story of the inept elementary student Nobita Nobi and his friend Doraemon, a cat-shaped robot sent back from the future by a distant descendant to take care of Nobita. Doraemon's fourth-dimension pouch produces and endless stream of imaginary gadgets from the future capable of anything and everything. The format was three 7-minute stories per episode for the first four years, and then two 10-minute stories per episode from then on out. The characters, animation style and sense of humor were all reminiscent of previous A Pro series like Dokonjo Gaeru, but with more of a down-to-earth and less chaotic tone than the earlier material. Shin-Ei brought the formula to a simple sort of perfection in Doraemon. Doraemon made the studio's name not only in Japan but across the entire Asia region and many other parts of the world, where Doraemon, with his big, blue round head, was probably one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable animation characters of the last 30 years.
Doraemon was first created by the Fujiko Fujio duo in 1969 as a manga, just after Tokyo Movie and A Production had finished producing a number of TV series based on their previous manga such as Kaibutsu-kun and Obake no Q-Taro. A Production soon came back to Fujiko Fujio's manga with a new version of Q-Taro in 1971, and immediately afterwards, Kusube's younger brother Sankichiro Kusube, a producer at Tokyo Movie, approached the duo to have them develop a manga out of a basic concept that Hayao Miyazaki had come up with after arriving at A Production. Fujiko Fujio serialized the manga for Jungle Kurobee, and the anime was aired concurrently. This is a pattern that would come back with the Doraemon films - Fujiko Fujio releasing a manga to coincide with an animated adaptation of that manga.
Doraemon was first adapted to anime in 1973 by an anime studio called Nihon Terebi Doga, which was apparently a makeshift studio set up by the TV station Nihon Terebi for the purpose of producing the series. Various other studios were also involved, and most of the staff consisted of ex-Mushi Pro figures. The series was cancelled after two seasons (26 episodes), but continued to be re-run over the next few years until the start of the new version by Shin-Ei in 1979. Curiously, the cancellation had nothing to do with ratings, but rather to the fact that the president of the studio resigned suddenly after the books showed that the company was no longer in the red. Animation apparently was of no interest to him except as a means of getting the company out of debt. Once in the black, he decided to shut down the company. This resulted in the company's assets having to be sold off in order to pay off various subcontractors. Most of the materials used to produce the show were disposed of when the studio's building was sold. It is therefore highly unlikely that the series will ever see the light of day again in remastered form. Besides this, Fujiko F. Fujio apparently disapproved of the series and refused to even acknowledge its existence.
The staff who worked on Shin-Ei's Doraemon naturally changed over the years due to its long duration. The very first director of the series was Ryo Motohira, who after leaving the job went on to focus on scriptwriting for the studio in various productions from Doraemon to Esper Mami to Crayon Shin-chan. He entered a monastery and became a monk in 2005 following his mother's death. The chief animation director from the very beginning was Eiichi Nakamura, and he remained in the post until just recently when the series went through a big overhaul. Within a few years, Ryo Motohira was replaced by Tsutomu Shibayama of Ajia-Do as chief director. The early episodes of Doraemon TV series retained a bit of the flavor of the earlier A Production shows, like a somewhat sparer and less worked version of the sprightly and inventive movement of Dokonjo Gaeru. But the freedom and excesses of the early shows were unmistakably toned down for a more homogeneous and even atmosphere. Animation production of the series was shared among a handful of subcontractors including Ajia-Do.
The TV series was a big hit, which led to the making of a movie version in 1980 - Nobita's Dinosaur. The original story was a short from 1975, which was expanded into a full-length manga by Fujiko Fujio in late 1979 in advance of the screening of the film version in March 1980. The film itself was a big hit as well, and a new Doraemon film became a yearly staple from here on out, always preceded as here by a manga version by Fujiko Fujio. The director of the first film was Hiroshi Fukutomi. Tsutomu Shibayama handled layout, and Toshiyuki Honda was the animation director. Animators included Sadayoshi Tominaga and Yoshio Kabashima from Shin-Ei and Minoru Maeda and Ginichiro Suzuki from Studio Junio. Just prior to this, in 1979, Tsutomu Shibayama had debuted as a film director with Gambare!! Tabuchi-kun!!, which was also co-produced by a mix of Ajia-Do staff (Shibayama and Kobayashi) together with Studio Junio staff (Takao Kosai, Okazaki Minoru). In 1982, Honda and Fukutomi would leave Shin-Ei and a total of 7 other Shin-Ei animators to form their own studio, Animaru-ya. Animaru-ya was a subcontractor, and from the new studio Honda continued to be involved in subcontracting work for Shin-Ei, primarily Doraemon, while Fukutomi focused on productions from other studios. Honda wasn't involved in the movies during this transitional period. Instead, Hideo Nishimaki was director, Yoshio Kabashima handled layout and Sadayoshi Tominaga was animation director. Honda came back with the fourth movie in 1983, which established the pattern than remained in place for the duration of the 21 films made from 1983 to 2004:
Director (& storyboard): Shibayama Tsutomu (from Ajia-Do)
Layout: Toshiyuki Honda (from Animaru-ya)
Animation Director: Sadayoshi Tominaga (from Tomi Production)
Shibayama became permanent director because Fujiko Fujio had requested Shibayama as director for the Doraemon films upon being pleased with the results of the 21-Emon film he had directed in 1981 (storyboard by Kobayashi/Kawauchi/Yamada and animation director Yamada, all Ajia-Do). Surprisingly, then, the main figures behind the bulk of Shin-Ei's Doraemon films were all at different studios, albeit all being united in spirit by the fact of having long worked together on A Pro productions. Hiroshi Fukutomi, previously one of A Production's most interesting TV episode directors, directed the very next Shin-Ei TV series, Kaibutsu-kun, which ran from September 1980 to September 1982. A remake of the very first A Production project from more than 20 years ago, it was their second in-house Fujiko Fujio production, and their third original TV production. After the series ended, Fukutomi moved to Animaru-ya and went on to focus on directing shows for various other studios. Animaru-ya studio co-founder Toshiyuki Honda, on the other hand, kept working on Doraemon for Shin-ei. Before leaving, Fukutomi also storyboarded the first two Doraemon openings.
Shin-Ei in the 1980s
Buried in the list of inbetweeners at the end of the first Doraemon film was one Masami Otsuka. Masami Otsuka would go on to develop into one of the most heavily relied-upon of Shin-Ei's in-house animators, and a very interesting animator by any standard. The Doraemon films were his training ground. Otsuka drew his first key animation for the second Doraemon film in 1981, and was an animator in each film until the 1989 film. Otsuka then moved to working on Chinpui, which ran from November 1989 to April 1991 and was directed by Mitsuru Hongo. Immediately afterwards he worked on the shortest-lived of Shin-Ei's Fujiko Fujio anime, 21-Emon, which aired from May 1991 to March 1992, before then setting to work on the series that would occupy him from there on out - Crayon Shin-chan. The long-running Doraemon wound up being a training ground to several other great figures in later years, as was Shin-chan.
Shin-Ei went on producing anime based on Fujiko Fujio works throughout the 1980s, up until the start of Shin-chan in 1992, when they became busy with TV episodes and movies for the two runaway hits they had on their hands. Of the 23 extant TV anime series based on manga by Fujiko Fujio, only five were not produced by Shin-Ei. The longest-running of these exceptions was Kiteretsu Daihyakka, which ran from 1987 to 1996, and was produced by the animation studio Gallop, formed in 1983 by ex-members of Telecom.
A figure deeply involved in Chinpui and 21-Emon as well as Shin-chan was Keiici Hara. Hara had his start in the film industry at a studio that produced TV ads. In April 1982 he joined Shin-Ei after being told about the job opportunity by his boss, an understanding person who realized that Hara's true interest was in animation. Hara had no experience in animation, so he did like most people in his situation do - he started out as a "seisaku shinko" or animation runner. He worked as a runner first on Shin-Ei's second Fujiko Fujio anime, Kaibutsu-kun, and then on Fuku-chan, an adaptation of a long-running (1936-1971) "yon-koma" or 4-panel manga by Ryuichi Yokoyama of Otogi Pro fame. Fuku-chan aired from November 1982 to March 1984 and featured character designs by Shin-Ei animator and A Pro veteran Michishiro Yamada.
More interested in directing than animation, Hara was given his first opportunity to draw a storyboard for Doraemon starting 1984, and soon became one of the regular episode directors when Tsutomu Shibayama took over as chief director of the series in place of Ryo Motohira. Shibayama was engaged in any number of other projects and had limited time to deal with the Doraemon workfloor, so he was also appointed to assistant director on the Doraemon films, in which capacity he worked from 1984 to 1987. This gave Hara ample opportunity to hone his skills as a director and storyboarder. During the process, he got to get up close and personal with Shibayama Tsutomu's storyboards, the quality of which both awed and humbled him.
Meanwhile at Shin-Ei, two other new series started around this time. One was another remake of an anime from the early A Pro years: Paa-man, which ran from April 1983 to July 1985. The other was another non-Fujiko Fujio series that replaced Fuku-chan: Oyoneko Buu-nyan, which ran from April 1984 to March 1985, and was based on a manga by Misako Ichikawa. Oyoneko Buu-nyan was replaced by yet another remake - this time the third remake of Obake no Q-Taro, which ran from April 1985 to March 1987. That same month, Shin-Ei also had another new series, and in a first, it was based on a manga written by the half of the Fujiko Fujio team better known for his darker comics. Pro Golfer Saru ran from April 1985 to June 1988. Another Fujiko Fujio series entitled Ultra B started in April 1987 and ran to March 1989. In this way, Shin-Ei kept up a pretty much constant flow of Fujiko Fujio adaptations throughout the 80s to supplement the already successful Doraemon franchise.
In 1987, after having worked on Doraemon for several years under Tsutomu Shibayama, Keiichi Hara was finally given the opportunity to direct his own TV series, Esper Mami, which ran from April 1987 to October 1989. After then going on a tour of Southeast Asia, Hara returned to work as a director on Chinpui under Mitsuru Hongo, and then to direct his second series, the unfortunate 21-Emon. Over the length of time that these two tasks occupied Keiichi Hara between Esper Mami and Crayon Shin-chan, between 1988 and 1991, Shin-Ei produced 8 individual TV series in addition to Chinpui and 21-Emon, which marked the height of variety in their programming. 21-Emon was not only the last new Fujiko Fujio anime they produced, it was also one of the last new TV series they produced. The 1990s marked a period of settling for Shin-Ei, when they became focused on the two shows of theirs that remained popular from year to year. The only new TV series they have produced since the start of Crayon Shin-chan in 1992 are Ninpen Manmaru (July 1997 to March 1998) and Jungle wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu (April to September 2001).
The 1990s: Crayon Shin-chan
Shin-Ei was jumping around trying various shows for a few years while still doing Doraemon on a regular basis. On April 13, 1992, another new show started: Crayon Shin-chan, based on a mature audiences comic written by Yoshito Usui. Few people were watching the first episode, but after a month the audience had doubled to garner more than 10% ratings, and by the end of the year that rating had doubled again to more than 20%. Shin-Ei settled on producing Shin-chan and Doraemon on a regular basis from here on out. They have only produced two TV series since then: Ninpen Manmaru, which ran from July 1997 to March 1998, and Jungle wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu, which ran from April to September 2001. Since 2002, Shin-Ei has also produced a yearly one-shot hour-long TV special aired in August around the date of the surrender entitled Children's War Stories. Each is based on a story by Akiyuki Nosaka, writer of Grave of the Fireflies.
The Shin-chan TV series was directed by Mitsuru Hongo. Keiichi Hara joined him as one of the regular episode directors after having worked under him in the preceding years on several projects, and Masami Otsuka joined him as one of the regular animation directors/animators after having worked first under Hongo on Chinpui and then under Hara on 21-Emon. Both wound up devoting most of their time from then on out to working on Shin-chan. As was the case with Doraemon more than a decade earlier, Shin-Ei quickly had a hit on their hands and started preparing a movie version. Mitsuru Hongo was director and storyboarder, and Keiichi Hara was co-storyboarder and co-director. This pattern continued for the first four films, with Hongo storyboarding the sections with more fantastic elements and Hara the more down-to-earth sections.
Animators on the first film included Shizuka Hayashi, Yoshihiko Takakura, Masaaki Yuasa, Hiroyuki Nishimura, Masami Otsuka, Masakatsu Sasaki and Yoshiji Kigami. Others who came in later included Yuichiro Sueyoshi and Masahiro Ando. All of these figures would go on to provide some of the best work in the Shin-chan films of the next few years, pushing the animation to never-before-seen heights of quality for a Shin-Ei production. Whereas Doraemon around this time and throughout the 90s seemed to be stuck in a lower gear, basically following a yearly pattern, with no extra effort ever put into the animation or into coming up with something new and interesting, right from the start the Shin-chan films acted like an outlet for all of the imagination and energy of the animators at the studio who were dying to create some more exciting animated films. There was dynamism and real invention in the animation and the directing and the storytelling.
Mitsuru Hongo had an open style of directing where he welcomed input from all of his staff. This is why he had Keiichi Hara co-storyboard the films, and in probably one of the key elements of the films' success, why he appointed an ex-Ajia-Do animator who'd never even worked on Shin-Ei productions before to the unheard-of post of "Settei Design": Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa had prior to then worked on shows like Chibi Maruko-chan for Ajia-Do under the aegis of his mentor Tsutomu Shibayama. Yuasa grew up a big fan of the classic A Production shows, and he joined Ajia-Do for the chance to work with the people who produced those shows. Those shows were Yuasa's single greatest influence, and his early work was closely based on that style, as he actively studied his tapes of the early A Production shows while he was learning the ropes at Ajia-Do. The influence of these shows then extended far beyond simply those animators from other studios who worked alongside A Production at the time. Many animators like Yuasa grew up watching those shows, and decided they wanted to become animators because of the quality and unique thrill of those shows. In this way, A Pro's legacy continues to be felt all these years later.
Hongo Mitsuru had undoubtedly seen Yuasa's incredibly imaginative animation on Chibi Maruko-chan and was perhaps the person who invited him to the show. Yuasa remained freelance after quitting Ajia-Do around 1992, working on the Shin-chan films and TV series as a freelancer. Each year Yuasa would draw lots of sketches of interesting ideas that could potentially be used in the film, and Hongo would use the ideas he felt could be used. Each year Yuasa also drew a brilliant section of animation in each of the films he was involved in, namely the first 8 films. He also intermittently worked on the TV series right from the very first year, 1992, and after a few years drew his first ever storyboard for the TV series, right after having collaborated with Shinya Ohira on Hamaji's Resurrection in 1994. In Yuasa's work on the movies and TV show the spirit of A Production was alive.
Around 1996, several important things happened at Shin-Ei. First, Shin-chan changed hands from Mitsuru Hongo to Keiichi Hara in 1996. Hara would remain director of the TV series from October 1996 to June 2004, and was the single person who has directed the most films in the history of the series. He directed the 6 films from 1997's Tamatama Chase film to 2002's Warring States film. Second, Fujiko F. Fujio died in 1996 in the middle of writing the manga for the next year's film. Two years later, Daikichiro Kusube's name would no longer be seen in the credits of the Doraemon films as Supervisor. This signaled the beginning of changes that would overtake the Doraemon films heading into the new millennium.
The change from Mitsuru Hongo to Keiichi Hara brought about changes to the Shin-chan films in terms of the style and content. The wild fantasy elements and catchy gags of the first four films were replaced by a more realistic focus, a more even tone, and a more filmic atmosphere. The previous films had something of a cult following among animation fans for their manic energy, but were otherwise seen mostly by children. By the end of Hara's reign, and in particular with the last two films, he had expanded the audience for the films to the entire age range from young to old, achieving a universal, age-neutral appeal that even the Doraemon films had not achieved.
After the explosive success of Keiichi Hara's 2001 Adult Empire and award-winning 2002 Warring States films, the studio in no way wanted to get rid of Keiichi Hara, who had ensured the success of the series of the last 8 years. But Keiichi Hara had other plans. He had had enough, and decided to call the series quits. The loss of Keiichi Hara in 2004 in many ways spelled the end of the most creative period of Crayon Shin-chan. The 2003 and 2004 films were directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, who had a definite talent in the arena of deranged humor, as proven by his cult hit Hare Nochi Guu, which came back as two OVA series after the successful TV run of 2001. However, he also had a definite lack of experience and interest in making feature films that held up dramatically in the way Keiichi Hara's films did, and his two films, like the next three films by Yuji Mutoh, who had taken over from Keiichi Hara in 2004, shared the same problem - they didn't hold up as films. Yuichiro Sueyoshi continued to provide each of these films with the same sort of energy and ideas that Masaaki Yuasa had provided the films in the early years, but it was not enough, and the films had lost the spark that they once had.
2000 and beyond: Doraemon's comeback
As it happens, just as that spark appeared to be draining out of the Shin-chan films, it appeared to slowly be migrating back into Shin-Ei's other big franchise: Doraemon. Since the death of Fujiko F. Fujio in 1996, the studio had been forced to change how they operated with the films, which prior to then had been based on a full-length manga written for the purpose by Fujiko F. Fujio. The 17th film in the series, Galaxy Super-Express from 1996, was the last film to have a full manga written by Fujiko F. Fujio. Fujio died that same year after the release of the film, before completing the manga version of the 18th film, Spiral City, for release in 1997. Starting with the 19th film from 1998, South Seas, the process was reversed. The manga would be written afterwards by Fujio's studio, Fujiko F. Fujio Pro, based on the film version produced by Shin-Ei. This obviously had the effect of suddenly giving the studio much more freedom with the material than before, and the films from here on out began to change in character. The 1998 film was the last Doraemon film on which Daikichiro Kusube's name was seen in the credits as Supervisor. With first Fujiko F. Fujio and now Kusube no longer behind the Doraemon films, it was the end of an era.
Following these events, the once firmly established staff behind the films also began gradually changing over the years. Like Shin-chan, Doraemon had its share of talented in-house staff devoted to the show. One of those was Ayumu Watanabe. Ayumu Watanabe had originally joined Kenzo Koizumi's Studio Mates, mentioned above, in 1986 after dropping out of the Yoyogi animation school. While there, he had a chance to debut as an animator drawing inbetweens on Doraemon, as the studio had become a sub-contractor of Shin-Ei after having worked alongside A Production during the Tokyo Movie era. Two years later, in 1988, he moved to Shin-Ei, where he debuted as a key animator on Doraemon while learning the ropes under the TV series' chief animation director, Eiichi Nakamura. He drew key animation on the 1988 and 1989 films, Parallel Journey to the West and Birth of Japan, and was soon bumped up to helping out movie animation director Sadayoshi Tominaga as the co-animation director. The very next year, in a series first, he was credited alongside Sadayoshi Tominaga as one of the animation directors. For the next six years, Watanabe devoted himself entirely to the TV series, doing every task imaginable - drawing key animation, storyboarding, directing and doing animation directing. He did everything in his power to make the most interesting Doraemon he possibly could, and became known for his devotion and perfectionism.
The next step in Watanabe's career came in 1998, when he was bumped up to directing the short films that accompanied the main features each year. He did this four four years, from 1998 to 2002. The films were undoubtedly an extension of what he was doing on the TV series, as well as a first step towards feature directing. He acted as both director and the animation director of his films, indicating the extent of his technical mastery, feeling for the series, and his strong sense of what he wanted to do with the material. You can sense that he was finally letting loose with the movement and making it as rich as he had wanted to up until then but been constrained by the limits of the TV format. The films, in particular 1999's Night Before the Wedding, are a good place to start to get a sense for what Watanabe brought to Doraemon. Having worked exclusively on Doraemon all his career, Watanabe has a good feeling for the nuances of behavior of each of the characters, making them more three-dimensional and human than ever before. He also has a great feeling for catchy pacing and efficient presentation, an eye for detail, and invests each shot with meaning. The film is a miracle of economy that crams in much material in a way that comes across as not feeling rushed. The animation has a dynamic and catchy feeling that makes ample use of the simply shaped characters to invest each moment with fun movement. His handling of the father-daughter relationship in the film in particular was sensitive, heartfelt and touching in a way that was unusually sincere and went beyond the conventions of the genre. He showed that he had the ability to create drama that had human warmth and depth as well as being exciting and well paced.
While he was doing these shorts, Watanabe was also helping on the theatrical Doraemon films as co-animation director. He then directed and wrote two of the Paa-man theatrical shorts over the next two years, 2003-2004, while becoming ever more involved in the Doraemon films. In 2003 he became the chief animation director for the Windmasters films, supervising the four animation directors, and in 2004 he again acted as chief animation director over the four animation directors, while also being put in charge of enshutsu or line directing.
The 2004 film Wan-Nyan Space-Time Odyssey wound up being the last directed by Ajia Pro head Tsutomu Shibayama, who retired from the series after having directed the films for two decades. The staff of the films had changed in various ways over the preceding years since the death of Fujio F. Fujiko, as exemplified by the accession of Watanabe to higher tasks in the series and the change to a system involving four different animation directors. One of the other big changes was that talented animators from elsewhere began to participate in the movies. In the 2003 Windmasters film, for example, you can find Telecom animators Atsuko Tanaka, Hiroyuki Aoyama and Yuichiro Yano, as well as Yuichiro Sueyoshi from Shin-chan, and even Oh Pro animator Koichi Murata. The 2004 Wan-Nyan again features Koichi Murata and Yuichiro Sueyoshi and various other new faces, one of whom was Ken'ichi Konishi, an ex-Ghibli animator perhaps best known for his work as the animation director of My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). He had gone freelance after Yamadas and participated in various interesting projects, having just done Tokyo Godfathers prior to working on Wan-Nyan. It was here that Ayumu Watanabe made Konishi's acquaintance, although Watanabe was already aware of Konishi's work in past films such as Whisper of the Heart (where Konishi animated the recital).
One of the other new faces who became a regular in the films around the time of Fujiko F. Fujio's death in 1996 was an animator named Masaya Fujimori. Masaya Fujimori joined Ajia-Do around the same time as Masaaki Yuasa, around 1988. He debuted inbetweening Studio Pierrot's Kimagure Orange Road under director Osamu Kobayashi, and then drew his first key animation on Shin-Ei's Esper Mami under Keiichi Hara right afterwards. Ajia-Do had always maintained ties with Shin-Ei in some form or manner, with their animators working on one another's projects, hence his and Yuasa's later involvement in Shin-Ei's two major series. In 1992, Yuasa and Fujimori worked together on Ajia-Do's video series Anime Rakugokan and on the second Chibi Maruko-chan movie, where they each animated special segments in their own personal styles. Fujimori's first big project came with Ajia-Do's Nintama Rantaro for NHK in 1996, on which he was very active as the main character designer and as an episode director, storyboarder, animator and animation director. His style of very active, fast-paced action flourished on the show. That same year he animated the special pencil-styled animation in Shoji Kawamori's OVA Spring and Chaos.
Starting the next year in 1997, Fujimori began working on the Doraemon films, and was involved in every film right up until Wan-Nyan in 2004. He first started out as just another animator, but soon acceded to animating the openings of the films, first animating the openings for the 1999 and 2000 films. His unique style of animation was on full display in the openings, with strongly angled lines reminiscent of Yuasa, vivid motion, and a great sense of timing. In 2001, he storyboarded the Icarus race that takes place near the end of the film, and just through his 'boarding created one of the most memorable action sequences yet seen in the films. That same year he directed, wrote and designed one or two of the China-san shorts for Ajia-Do, a follow-up to the Melancholy of Miss China OVA from 1992. Finaly in 2002 and 2003 he did the openings for the films again, while also co-storyboarding the 2002 film and acting as co-animation director of the 2003 film. Just afterwards, from 2003-2004, he provided animation for every episode of Ajia-Do's Futatsu no Spica on NHK, directed by Tomomi Mochizuki. The next year, Fujimori would provide the opening for Mochizuki's Zettai Shonen TV series.
Fujimori had already storyboarded an action scene in a previous Doraemon film. With the 2004 Wan-Nyan film, he took it to the next level. As Yutaka Nakamura did the next year for the 2005 Full Metal Alchemist film, he storyboarded, directed and was animation director of the climactic action scene, which remains perhaps the most exciting extended action sequence to grace any of the Doraemon films. Fujimori had already been active as an extremely talented animator for a decade in various places by that point, but this outstanding sequence showed him at the height of his powers. Fujimori created a miniature film within a film that seemed to announce the arrival of a major new figure on the scene. Two years later, Fujimori continued to build on this approach and created another superb film within a film of an action sequence for the 2006 film version of Ajia-Do's Kaiketsu Zorori. Fujimori is undoubtedly one of the most exciting animators active today, creating animation that has the air of nonchalant, simple bravura of the best moments of the last few Toei Doga films, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next.
Doraemon: A new beginning
The 2004 film marked the 25th anniversary of the start of Doraemon. The staff had already changed considerably over the years since Fujiko F. Fujio's death, and the studio undoubtedly felt that it was time to go ahead with some fundamental changes to the staff lineup and production style in order to bring the series up to date with the very different conditions of the industry all these 25 years on. The production staff, voice actors, and overall approach to the series were completely overhauled during 2005, for which reason no film was released in 2005 for the first time since the inception of the series. Kusuba Kozo, once a director of shows like Romeo's Blue Skies at Nippon Animation, was appointed chief director of the new Doraemon TV series, and Ayumu Watanabe was appointed character designer. In this capacity, Watanabe brought about considerable changes to the look of the characters. He made them more round and simple and expanded their expressive possibilities in order to break out of the stale patterns that had become ingrained into the old characters through years of habit.
This would also be Watanabe's goal with the next film in the series, Nobita's Dinosaur, slated for 2006, which he was appointed to direct. As a way of returning to the roots of the series in order to start anew with a clean slate, they would re-make the very first Doraemon film from 1980, re-casting the characters in a more contemporary light and mustering every ounce of their energy to show audiences how far production quality had come in 25 years. Watanabe was determined to go in a completely different direction with the film to show a new way forward with the series that would keep its spirit meaningful.
To meet the demands that Watanabe knew he was going to be placing on his animators and animation director, Watanabe knew that he would have to find someone very special for the job. So it was that he decided to invite Kenichi Konishi to act as animation director of the film. Based on his past work and the short scene he had done for the 2004 film, Watanabe knew that Konishi was an animation director who could probably not only understand what he was trying to achieve with the animation of the film, but even more importantly, be able to do the incredible amount of work that would be required to achieve it within a 6-month animation schedule. Anyone who has seen the film would not be surprised to hear that it took two years to animate, so it seems miraculous that such quality was achieved in just six months.
Viewed from any angle, Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 is easily the strongest film in the history of the series. First and foremost is that Watanabe brought to this film a strong love of the material that no previous director had. He was 100% committed to doing everything in his power to translate the original story into a visual form that spoke what needed to be said through animation first and foremost, and he went through a laborious process of thoroughly thinking about every single element of the story and the screen and the organization of the material to determine how he could best improve it by addition or subtraction to make a screen version that conveyed the story as flawlessly as he could.
Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 is different from every previous Doraemon film in many ways, and truly sets a new benchmark for the series in terms of quality, in terms of how the characters can be interpreted and made to act, and in terms of the more detail-oriented and involved style of the director. In terms of the animation, the most obvious difference is the very hand-drawn style that was adopted for this film. You can clearly see the lines of the animators in almost every scene. Konishi had, of course, been animation director of My Neighbors the Yamadas, where he was presented with a similar task: Bring alive very flat, 2-D characters in a very three-dimensional and realistic fashion. Konishi does exactly that in this film, and he does it by keeping the hand of the animator visible through the line.
Watanabe himself was a brilliant animator in his own right who had his own unique approach to animating these characters, with lots of nimble and fun fast-paced movement with zippy timing in the spirit of the old A Production shows. But Konishi goes in a different direction from Watanabe here, to the benefit of the film. Rather than using spare but catchy movement and clean lines, as Watanabe had done, Konishi's focus was on filling out each moment of the film with richly nuanced realistic acting of a density that had never been seen before in the series. As Watanabe had done before him, he wanted to make the characters more expressive, to make it easier for the animators to move them freely in various configurations and use their bodies as the main vehicle for the communication of emotion.
One of Konishi's strategies for doing this was to keep the line alive. Konishi actually used his corrections of key animators' drawings directly as inbetweens, and had the inbetweeners draw their inbetweens based on those drawings. This can best be seen in the scene Konishi was deeply involved in, the first appearance of the villain. Although not all inbetweeners were up to the task, this process made it possible to retain the animator's line into the final product most of the time. Konishi also called in a handful of very interesting freelance animators who themselves had a very personal style of movement and line - including Shinji Hashimoto, Yasunori Miyazawa and Hisashi Mori - and they provided just the sort of idiosyncratic animation that one would expect. This is a sort of animation that went against everything anyone had ever seen in Doraemon, so it was a big chance to let it through uncorrected, but that is just what Konishi and Watanabe did. This unusual animation brought new richness to the film, and showed the director that more freedom was possible with the characters than he had thought. He realized that bringing in animators like these expanded the expressive possibilities of the series by showing new ways of bringing the characters alive. Their work pointed a new way towards the future. That is one of the most significant aspects of this series - the way it expanded the expressive breadth of the characters thanks to the willingness of Konishi and Watanabe to see their conceit through to its logical conclusion. Their choice to do so created a loop of inspiration that infinitely expanded the impact of the film. This is perhaps the ultimate achievement of the film, that it has created a new paradigm for the animation of the films.
This film is perhaps the first film in the series where every scene in the film comes across as interesting purely in terms of the animation. Watanabe has the eye for detail of an animator, with the ability to make every split second convey something meaningful. This applies to the directing, where every element of the screen conveys something, as well as to the animation, which is consistently interesting as movement as well as effectively conveying the character's emotions. Under his direction, animators who had worked on the series prior to then turned in work of a very different nature from everything they had done up until then. Tetsuro Karai animated the extremely delicate and subtle scene where the egg hatches, and Shizue Kaneko animated the dramatically acted and moving farewell at the end of the film, which reminded me in its boldness of Yoshifumi Kondo's farewell in Future Boy Conan. Shin-Ei regular Masakatsu Sasaki animated the scene where Nobita and Doraemon are attacked in the time vortex and the scene in the valley with the winged dinosaurs. Young animator Ryotaro Makihara animated the second appearance of the villain. Masami Otsuka was given two big scenes involving the dinosaurs, so his patented approach to the characters isn't on display, but his genuine skill as a mover is. The film also includes brief scenes by outside animators like Hideki Hamasu, Takaaki Yamashita and Norio Matsumoto, in addition to the remarkable work by Hisashi Mori, Shinji Hashimoto and Yasunori Miyazawa. So at a more basic level, the film is quite simply a feast of good animation.
Entirely aside from the animation, Watanabe has created a very solid film that stands up to viewing in a way that the previous films did not. Watanabe's film is well balanced dramatically, and is extremely entertaining, with a great variety of tone and excellent sense for pacing. Watanabe is a very detail-oriented director. He has a keen eye for arranging every little detail and piece of information in a particular shot in such a way as to make it meaningful and heighten the feeling of reality in the situation. It is clear that Watanabe has thoroughly thought through every aspect of the material. To convey the notion that Nobita spends more time playing around than studying, in an early shot we see a pink ball lying on the floor, as if it had just been thrown there after recent use, and his desk lamp under the desk. It's all done very subtly but shows the amount of thought Watanabe has put into every detail. Combined with the vivid animation by Konishi, all of these details serve to endow the characters with a strong feeling of presence and weight, something they never had prior to this. It feels like the first time that someone has really thought things through and made a film not as a Doraemon film but as a film. Thematically, too, Watanabe has a made a film that makes up for some of the inconsistencies of the series and that is through-conceived. The original often had the kids being saved in the end by some form of adult supervision. Watanabe's film is emphatically the story of how Nobita, a usually lazy and indecisive elementary school student, is driven to a decision to do something, and takes the steps necessary to achieve his goals, achieving those goals of his own strength, without simply relying on the help of his parents or Doraemon. It's in that sense that this film was perhaps most important to the renewal of the series.
Daikichiro Kusube died on August 27, 2005, at age 70, during production of the film.
The next film continued in the spirit of Nobita's Dinosaur 2006、with the characters animated in a very loose and expressive fashion. In a first in the series, two women were put in charge of the film: Yukiyo Teramoto was appointed director in just her second year working on the series, and Shizue Kaneko, who provided the excellent farewell scene in the previous film, was appointed animation director. Teramoto brought a good sense of pacing to the film and a delicate feeling for the quiet everyday moments, and Kaneko brought to the film a focus on filling out the film with nuanced acting animation and making the characters speak eloquently through body language. Though necessarily not quite up to the level of its predecessor, it was an eminently watchable film, and a step in the right direction for the series. Yukiyo Teramoto had a particular conceit with this film, which she encapsulated by the phrase "soft Doraemon". Her goal was to build on the expressive freedom of the last film by making the characters, particularly Doraemon, much more pliable and malleable and prone to deformation. The opening scene best exemplifies this approach. It is a sharp contrast with the Doraemon of old, where the characters were very static and barely ever veered away from their basic shapes. Here Doraemon is stretched, pulled, pinched and squashed every which way in a manner that is very expressive and fun as animation.
Again the film benefited from numerous very nice sequences by in-house animators, including many portions by Masami Otsuka and an excellent scene by Masakatsu Sasaki. The young animator from the last film, Ryotaro Makihara, provided probably the most impressive contribution of the entire film here. He obviously did numerous sections including the climax, which is full of very subtle character animation, and the very exciting bit where Doraemon is scared by the mouse midway into the film, with an excellent sense of timing combined with daring deformation. Prior to this he provided an impressively dense, very graphically expressive scene in Keiichi Hara's Summer with Coo the Kappa film, so Makihara is obviously one of the most talented young new faces at the studio, capable of creating great work at the extremes of the scale. New faces continue to appear at Shin-Ei taking up the torch of the studio's legacy.
A new Doraemon film is in production at the moment, and rumor has it that Ayumu Watanabe may even be coming back as director. Recently, Keiichi Hara directed what is perhaps the studio's most impressive feature yet with his Kappa film. Forty-some years on, with Kusube now gone, the studio continues to evolve thanks to the work of dedicated individuals like Ayumu Watanabe and Keiichi Hara, who carry on the spirit of A Production in their work. Shin-Ei remains a thriving studio after many changes over more than four decades, which is in itself perhaps the studio's greatest achievement. It has influenced, trained and been home to many of the most important of Japan's animators, produced innumerable classics of TV animation, and today continues to speak to audiences while striving to re-invent itself.