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Re-watching The Biography of Gusko Budori today I got to wondering why they don't make more films like this anymore. Down-to-earth, simply made films that have a universal appeal and actually make an attempt to create honest, moving drama. I'd particularly like to see director Ryutaro Nakamura doing something more in this vein. What is immediately apparent when watching the film is that the motivation behind it is what sets it apart from the majority of productions. The motivation is that of Gauche - a small subcontracting studio gathers its forces in one spurt in order to make what they consider a quality film that they want children to watch, and to represent what the studio stands for in terms of content and quality. What Gauche was to Oh Production, The Biography of Gusko Budori was to Animaru-ya, a small subcontracting studio founded in 1982 by 7 ex-members of Shinei Doga including Toshiyuki Honda and Hiroshi Fukutomi.
Both Honda and Fukutomi joined A Production in the early years, working as inbetweeners on Kyojin no Hoshi and Lupin III, and were two of the figures behind all of the classic A Production shows that followed. After working for several years as an inbetweener, Fukutomi soon became more interested in directing, drawing his first storyboard on Yasuo Otsuka's Samurai Giants and going on to direct episodes of many classics of the 70s including Ganso Tensai Bakabon, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi and some particularly well-regarded episodes of Hajime Ningen Gyators. Honda, on the other hand, was bumped up to key animation in his first year while working on Kyojin no Hoshi, and stayed focused on animation throughout his career, working together with Honda throughout the period on the same shows - doing some excellent work on 1975's Gamba's Adventure that makes me want to see the rest - right up until the formation of Shinei in 1978. Both Honda and Fukutomi were deeply involved in the early TV and movie Doraemon, including the classic first film, which had Fukutomi as director and Honda as animation director. After then seeing through Shinei's next two Fujio F Fujiko productions, Kaibutsu-kun and Pro Golfer Saru, the two left Shinei to form their own studio, Animaru-ya, moving into the old Shinei studio.
At Animaru-ya, Fukutomi was very active directing a variety of productions for other studios while Honda focused on layout for the Doraemon films. By 1990 the staff had grown to the point that they were able to handle all major aspects of production on their own. In 1993 the studio produced The Biography of Budori Gusko to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the poet's death. Honda was involved as an animator alongside Shinei mainstays like Hiroshi Kugimiya and Yuichiro Sueyoshi. (Even Manabu Ohashi was there with a fantastic cloud shot.) In 1996, on the occasion of Kenji's centenary, the two finally came back together to work on one of the three episodes of the three-part Kenji Miyazawa omnibus Kenji's Trunk, Fukutomi directing and Honda providing the designs. The other two shorts were directed by Setsuko Shibuichi and Ryutaro Nakamura, the latter of whom had directed the 1993 film. The experience of working together again on the short, entitled The Cat's Studio, is presumably what led to the drive to do more productions of their own, outside of the commercial system, in a way that allowed them complete freedom over content and distribution. This in turn is what resulted in the studio's first 100% in-house production, the Daruma-chan series for young children.
As Oh Production had done before with Gauche the Cellist more than two decades earlier, the studio adopted a completely open production style for the series, begun in 2001, which consists of 6 15-minute episodes. The work was done completely on the side of commissioned productions, with no schedule and no sponsors. Since there was no schedule to speak of, they could afford the unheard-of luxury of putting exactly as much effort as they felt necessary to produce the film that satisfied their goals. Once the films were completed, the problem remaining was: Where to show them? Since the films had been produced outside of the circuit of commission and distribution, naturally the studio would have to cover the costs of showing the films if they wanted them to be seen by anybody. Following in the footsteps of Tanaka Yoshitsugu, director of Perrault the Chimney Sweep, since 2001 Animaru-ya has organized free screenings of the films at elementary schools and community centers throughout the nation. Why would they do all of this for free? In the end their motivation for leaving Shinei was to produce the films they wanted, and after twenty years of work that's finally what they're doing. The films represent their entire reason for working in animation.
Building on this experience, Honda took it to the next level with the next in-house production, deciding on a mid-length feature that would have a broader audience appeal. When Honda was growing up, he and his friends would each buy a comic and circulate them among the circle of friends to save on money. One of those friends being a girl, he got to read some girl's comics too, all of which left little impression on him. Except for one - a comic written by Toshiko Ueda entitled Fuichin-san. Born in Tokyo in 1917, Ueda spent her formative years in Manchuria, repatriating after the end of the war. In 1957, at age 40, she began drawing her comic based on her experiences in Manchuria. The comic told colorful stories about the ever-cheerful protagonist, who must have been a beacon of light to children who had grown up surrounded by poverty and privation. The designs were unusual for the day, with a modern, stylish look that stood apart from everything else. Looked at today the designs haven't aged at all and still look wonderfully alive and contemporary, which can't be said for much of the manga of that era.
Tired of the ordinary look of most current projects, and nostalgic when he rediscovered the comic when it was reprinted, Honda decided that this would make a perfect next project. The project had in fact been in planning since 1998, well before the Daruma-chan series. The current director, Yoshitaka Koyama, came onboard in 2001. Together they started hammering out the script in January 2002, and the hour-long film finally hit theaters in 2004. Already a small, in-house production to begin with, the film was completely buried beneath the deluge of big films that year and eked out a few showings at small theaters like the Tollywood short film theater, which holds a screening of Canadian animated shorts every spring and fall. Nonetheless, Animaru-ya continued to hold their own free screenings of the film, and recently put out their own videos of the Daruma-chan series and Fuichin-san, which can be ordered online from within Japan.
Animaru-ya isn't just anime. In addition to putting together screenings of their films, they also put on shows with various kinds of performances to entertain kids. Honda has been known to say that what he most wishes that kids will get from his films is the urge to stop watching TV and go outside and play. The studio is unique in that everything they do seems to be governed by a uniquely holistic vision about the nature of what they do and the effect they have on their audience. Animaru-ya's productions breathe the air of another era, with a fresh simplicity and clarity that has disappeared of late. They're among the few small studios nowadays with the devotion to put so much effort into producing and distributing their own projects like this, so they're a precious commodity.