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I talked about Nippon Animation's Jacky the Bearcub before. It was a 26-episode show about a bearcub raised by a native american boy in the Sierra Nevadas at the end of the 19th century. It aired June 7 to December 6, 1977. Despite being neglected compared with its more famous World Masterpiece Theater cousins, it had some quality work in it that made it worth revisiting - most notably character designs by Yasuji Mori, animation by Toshiyasu Okada, art by Nizo Yamamoto and Kazue Ito, and even some storyboarding by Isao Takahata.
Well, Nippon Animation came back with another sally in the Seton Animal Chronicles series two years later. This time they adapted Seton's Bannertail, the Story of a Gray Squirrel. It was another 26-episode show that aired April 7 to September 29, 1979, also on TV Asahi as opposed to Fuji TV, the home of the WMT, where Anne of Green Gables was airing concurrently.
I just had the opportunity to watch the first episode of Bannertail for the first time, and it was a very nice piece of work fully the equal of Jacky - as it should be; the production staff is nearly identical. The story is about a boy in the northeastern U.S. in the late 19th century who finds baby squirrel abandoned in the forest one day. Back home, their housecat just gave birth, but her kittens were given away, so she takes to Banner and raises him as her own. Banner grows up thinking he's a cat until one day he's forced to return to the wild and re-discover his natural instincts.
Though aimed at a younger demographic, this episode had some quality production that makes it far more enjoyable than shows of a similar ilk, whose crude production makes them of zero interest to older animation fans such as myself. The episode mostly consists of Banner running around being a silly little baby squirrel, harassing the dog, playing with a frog, discovering fire, etc. - the squirrel version of what happened in episode 1 of Jacky the Bearcub. But there's something endearing and enjoyable about the whole thing. It's like a kid's version of the World Masterpiece Theater, with the same realistic style of the directing, which doesn't play up the antics for cuteness, rather playing it more straight than the designs seem to suggest; fluid and nuanced animation; and realistic background art.
I didn't expect to enjoy the show. Judging by the designs, I was anticipating something with the token realism and plain animation of the tepid outings of this ilk that Nippon Animation produced in the 1980s. But in style and sensibility this episode felt similar to the early classic shows in the World Masterpiece Theater.
During the first few years after its founding, between 1974 and about 1980, Nippon Animation was at the height of its powers. It's the shows they made during this period that made them such a unique studio. Those shows are unique because of the particular combination of talent working at the studio at the time. It's not just Takahata and Miyazaki, though they undoubtedly were the magnets attracting the good staff. Their work also clearly had an influence on Nippon Animation's other shows.
The two Seton shows are also quintessential Nippon Animation shows in that they have the same basic sensibility as the World Masterpiece Theater shows: a faithful, reverential portrayal of nature; a progressive but humanistic sense of morality; and a narrative always driven by natural events that could believably occur in the natural world.
The aesthetics are the same, too. The background art and layouts are pared down due to the constraints of the TV format, but naturalistic and believable just like the World Masterpiece Theater. While watching the first episode of Bannertail, I was surprised to find that, despite the talking animals and the cartoony designs, the basic world view felt the same as the WMT.
The way Bannertail is animated is surprisingly accurate, if you go beyond the design. He zips around on the ground in a way that's unexpectedly precisely timed for effect. Finely tuned movement is not what one would expect based on the designs, but that's precisely what Yasuji Mori was about: investing those simple round designs with delicately nuanced personality. Most of Nippon Animation's post-1980 work in the same vein is indeed far more perfunctory and uninspired in its movement. The animation in Bannertail has a feeling similar to Yoichi Kotabe's animation - deceptively simple in its form, but surprisingly nuanced, elegant and refined in its sense of timing. During the first few years of Nippon Animation, even the minor shows like the Seton shows felt great to watch because there was this unique sensibility in the animation. Contemporaneous Toei staff didn't develop in this direction at all.
The movement reminds me slightly of the way the animals move in Gauche the Cellist - pared down but fundamentally true to their species. When you see the mother cat galloping away, you recognize it because you've seen cats running that way. When the house is burning, the flames have a way of flickering and roving that feels familiar and real. It's a style of animating that evolved around this time in the natural course of things through the WMT, and disappeared because there were no shows on which it was needed, or the times called for new styles of animation. It's probably because the material and the characters were so simple here that the animation was able to be made so nuanced. There's no need to waste energy on needless details. You can imagine that each cel in the ep has just one little blob of drawing.
Nippon Animation's basic approach during these years eventually evolved into the Ghibli movies. This series, though not directly touched by either Takahata or Miyazaki, feels inevitably influenced by what they did on the WMT. That's what makes the early Nippon Animation work special - they did all this finely observed realistic work within the confines of TV schedules, which if anything makes it an even more impressive achievement than the more permissive schedule of a big-budget movie.
Yoshio Kabashima came up with a very different way of moving little creatures in Osamu Dezaki's Gamba's Adventure from 1975 that serves as a nice contrast: Kabashima's creatures move in a more dynamic, expressive, limited, staccato way, whereas the animals in the Seton shows more in a more fluid and realistic way. Both are well-realized approaches in their own right.
I've only seen episode 1, and I have my doubts as to whether the rest of the show remains as impressively detailed in its animation, because there's one person to thank for what makes the animation of episode 1 so good: Toshiyasu Okada. Without his touch, this should could very easily fall into the mire of being merely a cutesy kid's show.
I love Yasuji Mori's work both as an animator and designer/illustrator - even his more kiddy later stuff - but his designs for Jacky and Bannertail go in a very different direction from Seton's original. It's testament perhaps to the flexibility and the deceptive richness of his designs that, despite looking so kiddy on the outside, when they're brought alive properly in animation, they feel very realistic. Even if you haven't seen these two series you can imagine what I'm talking about by thinking of the rich movement of his animals in the classic Toei films of the late 50s/early 60s.
Of course, by this time Yasuji Mori wasn't animating anymore. Who is it that brought his animals alive here? Toshiyasu Okada. He wasn't the only person animating the two shows, of course; that would be impossible. But he did a tremendous amount of work, and he did numerous solo episodes, and his episodes are the ones that bring the characters alive in a way that you can never forget.
Toshiyasu Okada is one of the unjustly forgotten animators of yesteryear. He had a genius for rich, realistic movement in the realm of limited TV animation that was quite unlike any other. It's thanks to his animation that Jacky and Bannertail feel like real animals despite their cartoonish designs.
Like episode 1 of Jacky, episode 1 of Bannertail was animated solo by Toshiyasu Okada. His animation lays the framework for Bannertail's style of movement: zippy and fun to watch, but surprisingly nuanced and infused with a realistic sense of timing at the right moment, depending on the shot. It's a different kind of quality from what we're used to seeing today, but just as valid, if not more. The closest current analogue to Okada's style I can think of is Okiura. He uses lots of drawings to create minute acting instead of falling back on inserting deformed drawings to achieve an effect. Much of today's animation by younger hotshot animators feels too self-consciously 'sakuga', striving above all for cool effect. Looking cool has replaced solid acting skills. Flash is in (in both senses of the term), traditional animation knowhow is out. I think Okada's animation has a lot to teach young animators in the Japanese animation industry today.
Also impressive is how Okada manages to do the entire episode himself and there isn't a moment that feels like a throwaway. And he uses a lot of drawings. It's very fluid and rich animation, considering the context.
Toshiyasu Okada was primarily active as an animator in the 1970s, and as a designer in the early 1980s.
Okada started out at Toei, eventually quitting and moving to a subcontracting studio called Ad 5, where he continued to work on Toei shows. He quit Ad 5 in 1973 after doing a lot of sakkan work on Babel II in order to go work under Takahata and Miyazaki on Heidi at Zuiyo. From there, he presumably moved straight to Nippon Animation when it was founded soon thereafter, as he can be seen working on most of the 'big' Nippon Animation productions that followed.
Many people the world over will know Okada, if not by name, from his character designs for the beloved show The Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982-83). He was also the character designer of The Fantastic Adventure of Nils (1980-81).
But personally, it's for his work as an animator that I wish he would be remembered. He isn't necessarily easily identifiable like Yoshinori Kanada (also an ex-Toei animator who developed over pretty much the same period), but he's also a very talented animator, just of a very different kind. His work stands out in the way that I think good animation should stand out: not because it has a self-indulgent, flamboyant visual style. It stands out because of its fundamental quality of movement, his ability to breathe life into characters, not just draw crazy drawings. That's one thing I particularly like about him: he found a completely different and equally valid answer to the question of how to create good animation in a limited TV environment, and his answer bore no resemblance whatsoever to that of the Kanada school. No jagged lines, silly poses, split-second insertions, or effects just for the sake of looking cool - just solid character animation. Deformation is used way too often nowadays to cover up for lack of animation skills or simple impatience to sit down and do the work of animating a character in great detail. This is one of the things I appreciated about Kaiba. Its use of simple, pared-down character designs, intentionally or not, forced more nuanced character animation. Ryotaro Makihara is a rare example of a latter-day animator skilled in this kind of animation.
Episode 1 of Jacky and Bannertail are probably the best place to start to begin to appreciate Toshiyasu Okada's work. I'm not sure if he worked on any other episodes in the rest of the shows. Other places to see work by Okada: He did animation in episodes 1-4 and 9 of Heidi in 1974, even-numbered episodes between 6 and 34 on 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in 1976, and episode 7 of Future Boy Conan, and he alternated as sakkan on A Dog of Flanders in 1975.
Ernest Thompson Seton in Japan
Ernest Thompson Seton was a great naturalist and writer who published books about animals in the early decades of the 20th century. His stories explained the workings of the natural world to children through the seasoned eyes of a naturalist. He achieved the remarkable feat of conveying the rich personality of his animal protagonists entirely through stories built around their natural behaviors. They speak human because Seton was human, but you can sense that it's just a translation for convenience. He illustrated his own books with lively and realistic drawings that make his books a pleasure to read even now, more than 100 years since their publishing. You can read Bannertail, the Story of a Gray Squirrel online on the Internet Archive, as well as other Seton books including Monarch, the Big Bear of Tallac, which formed the basis of Jacky the Bearcub. Monarch was one of his early books, from 1904, while Bannertail was one of his later, from 1922.
Seton's work has had a lasting appeal in Japan starting around the time of his late books in the 1930s, when his books finally began to be translated into Japanese. None other than Shirato Sanpei made a good gekiga-style manga version of his stories in the 1960s, and an omnibus anime adaptation was made by Eiken in 1989. The Eiken version appears to be drawn in a more realistic style closer to Seton's original drawings than the two Nippon Animation adaptations. But comparing the opening of the Eiken version with the movement in the two Nippon Animation versions is a good lesson in the dynamics of realism in animation: you can have realistically drawn animation that doesn't feel real, and cartoonish drawings that feel real. The more realistic and studied animation of the Nippon Animation shows makes them feel more real than the literal but empty surface realism of the Eiken show.