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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

01:36:00 pm , 2304 words, 3422 views     Categories: Animation

Seton Animal Chronicles: Bannertail, the Story of a Gray Squirrel

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.

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4 comments

h_park
h_park [Member]

I’ve read about anime about Seton’s animal stories when I was doing my own Sakuga@wiki. I need to check it out eventually and fix the title translation.

Anyway, you’re right about young animators being flashy. Sometimes we need something toned down. That’s why I stopped watching monthly Sakuga showcase videos. Those young guys are doing the same flashy animation with same old expression.

I think I understand why Masahiro Ando said that doing action is not good his health. They’re great, but too much visual stimulus is draining and less emphasis on diverse expression of character’s emotions.

I do like action sequences, but recent visuals look like copies rather than original expression derived from real life observations.

01/19/12 @ 21:19
pete
pete [Member]

I remember you mentioned the series a few months back in a previous article.

Very informative article Ben (again).
The series is not as great as Bearcub Jackie but has high quality nevertheless. I like the detail they put on the cat during the fire. In most animated series a cat would just run without stopping. Yet here she stops in front of the fire to lick her fur, probably because of a slight burn! I could not believe what I saw! Such attention to detail.

The first episode and later the episodes where the squirrels leave the forest and wander to the city are most noteworthy. Also the episodes where Banner parts with a dear friend and meets another one, stand above the rest.

I’d rewatch most episodes of Bearcub Jackie anytime but only a few episodes of this series.

Havent seen any episodes of Rocky Chuck the Hill Mouse by Zuiyo Ent. (based on Thornton W. Burgess’ Fables of the Green Forest) but it seems the series has a different approach to Banner and Jacky, not so realistic. Was dubbed in the USA as Chatterel the Squirrel.

On a side note, I just watched the series Nell and that series is in stark contrast with most Nippon Animation titles of that time. It is based on Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop but has very few things in common with the novel, changing names, places and dates and most importantly plot.
Compare this to the faithfulness to the source material of Nippon Animation series such as Perrine or Anne of Green Gables during that time.
Characters in Nell are much more whimsical and funny, unlike the seriousness of the WMT characters. I watched a few years ago the anime adaptation of Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird. More or less, same things there with an even wackier plot. Despite that those series also include some dramatic and sad moments. I have to say they include more ingredients than the WMT for a good recipe, even if they lack in the art department.

This is an approach Nippon Animation would never use at that time. Yet each adaptation had its charm. Beside, the important thing is to read the book first.

Also I watched Les Miserables and Porphy. First in Japanese, second in Italian. Les Miserables was….miserable. If it were not for the richness of the source material, I’d have dropped it from the first episodes. As for Porphy, the series is saved thanks to the Italian dub. Actors put a lot of effort and the Italian voice of Porphy sounds much more natural (dubbed by a male voice this time). Half of the series takes place in Italy. Not surprisingly the episodes concerning Sicily were edited in the dub and I had to watch the Japanese original. Plot there is very good for an adventure series. Settings have very good quality too. There is attention to detail in them. Unfortunately the animation, the most important factor, is so stale as if you are reading a picture book. It seems impossible or very expensive to reach the greatness of the 70s series. Porphy cost Nippon Animation a lot and had not the assets they expected.

01/23/12 @ 10:03
Ben [Member]  

H Park:

I only used the original title because the anime title translates to “Banner the Squirrel", which I find a little too lacking in the florid loveliness of the original title.

I agree about recent action sequences… so much of it looks like a copy of something rather than something original. And it’s all hyperactive in exactly the same way. It gets boring pretty quickly.

Pete:

Great call, I agree - that bit with the cat suddenly turning around to lick her fur because it was singed was great and really made me go ‘wow’. Such great attention to detail in little things like that.

So you’ve seen the whole show? I guess they showed it in Europe. I’m still trying to find the whole show. I’d like to see it all, even if just to see how much more animation Toshiyasu Okada did. I’ve also only seen the first few episodes of Jacky and would love to see the rest. Yeah, I can see that Jacky is probably better overall than Banner. Jacky seems more grounded in reality, with much of the cast being humans and there being some really believably directed drama (Takahata’s episode is awesome), whereas Banner goes a little further towards ‘kiddy’ fare, with all of the main characters being cutesy animals seeming to play out cutesy adventures in the forest.

Yes, Rocky Chuck is probably the origin of this vein at Nippon Animation… also with Yasuji Mori character designs. It’s probably very similar in spirit to Banner. I bought an old VHS tape of some of the Fables of Green Forest a long time ago and watched some of the English-dubbed episodes, and I felt it gave me a decent sense of what it was like. Not bad, but nothing remarkable. If anything, Wickie and Sinbad are two other obscure Nippon Animation titles from around the same period that I would like to see more of… I’ve seen a little bit of each and they both have a very nice visual/animation style.

So you just watched Nell… I was just about to start watching that. I’ve peeked at a few episodes and I personally love the visual style - very stylized, very different from the Nippon Animation WMT. The drama also looks much more whimsical, as you say, with more exaggerated and not as realistic a drama style. Personally I love Yoshio Kabashima’s drawings and he’s the primary reason why I can’t wait to watch the show. I’m very curious to see it, because as you say, despite being so different from the WMT, it seems like it might be more successful in the same vein than many of the later WMT. So you read the original for Nell, too. Good to know it’s very different. Marco was mostly made up by the writer of the TV show, so I guess it’s not necessary that a WMT be completely faithful as long as it’s well done.

I caught bits of Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird, but haven’t watched the whole thing…. I suspect it would not be able to hold my attention, despite being a big fan of Maeterlinck and having read almost all of his books/poems/essays, because the visuals don’t look that strong. In comparison, Nell seems a better quasi-WMT. On the subject of quasi-WMT, I tried to watch Paris no Isabelle a few months back because I’m a big fan of Takeshi Shudo and it looked like good subject matter, but it was so bad… so bad… I couldn’t even get past episode 5. I was very disappointed. It’s not even that the animation and directing were bad, which they were; the story was terrible and laughably predictable and cliche, which was very disappointing for a writer who has written some of my favorite stuff in anime. It was like the most clumsily amateurish and superficial generic attempt to imitate Great Literature Like War and Peace you can imagine.

Another quasi-WMT I’m going to watch as soon as I can is La Seine no Hoshi, though it seems more like a cross between WMT style literary adaptation and Rose of Versailles-style kaito-shoujo material. I’m interested in it mostly because it was an early Yoshiyuki Tomino series. I’m sure I’m going to get a laugh at how realistically they reproduce the environs. That’s perhaps the thing no quasi-WMT ever got right. There are lots of ways in which these shows were inferior - animation, directing, writing - but the trappings of the era and locale are something none of them came even close to getting right, or even bothering to try, it seems.

Wow, you actually watched all of Les Miserables and Porphy…. I think I watched the first episode of each and wasn’t able to watch any further. Beyond simply being BAD stuff, it was sad to see how much Nippon Animation had fallen. You’re right that the 70s series may seem ‘dated’ to many fans today, but there is no denying how much great animation was packed into every episode, and how much more lovely and pleasing the animation was back then. The animation in the recent WMT imitations is just generic animation that you can find in any program today. Back then the WMT animation was something special. I don’t think it’s that they spent more money on the episodes either, it was just a different spirit back then, and a different team of animators and directors. I wish Nippon Animation had stopped trying to revive the WMT a long time ago.

01/24/12 @ 08:32
pete
pete [Member]

I watched the German dub of Banner and the French dub of Bearcub Jackie. Amazing how many great titles are available in other languages and not English, even though they are adaptations of English or North American literature. For those not knowing Japanese, knowing Spanish, French or Italian would probably be enough to watch most classics.

Regarding Nell you will not be disappointed. I got the French DVD very cheaply (Japanese DVD is 320 $, no way!). Unfortunately some songs of Nell were not dubbed. When she sings she holds a cat that intentionally raises her ear and covers Nell’s mouth while she sings. I guess this was intentional since the show was made for export (title “Dax International” tells a lot) and it was up to the dubbers whether to include the song or not. They could even add their own I guess. I havent read the book, just a synopsis. I prefer Dickens’ later and more mature works. Little Dorit comes to mind and also Sissy Jupe from Hard Times. Last episode holds a few surprises, despite knowing the outcome from the middle of the series.

I did watch Isabelle of Paris too and I agree. I expected something as epic as Rose of Versailles. But seeing Thiers having a bold ninja and The Creature as bodyguards (Marx appeared too later) I lost all faith. Rose of Versailles just made Saint Juste a ninja assassin and nothing more….

I watched Blue Bird because characters were designed by Matsumoto and script was by the Yamato and Galaxy Express staff. It had few things to do with the novel but it was fun and surreal nevertheless, focusing on surreal gags (eg a sparrow wounded in war and ready to die) or drama (when Tyltyl and Myltyl visit the children that were never born). Last few episodes are more serious. As a children’s show it was one of the best and can be watched if you dont expect something serious like Galactic Railroad.

I wanted to watch La Seine no Hoshi too but it is one of the series I’ll skip (I cant watch everything). Also Alpen Rose seems like a quasi-WMT title too, set during WWII in Switzerland. I’ll watch this definitely. Current classics I am watching is Smart-san. Probably one of the best and funniest shoujo anime ever. Later I plan to finish Tokimeki Tonight. Sometimes I feel that had the animators made the manga it would have been much better.

I agree about the new WMT but unfortunately sometimes you have to lower your standards or else there will be nothing to watch. Of course I never pretend that they are on par with the classics of the 70s. Interesting though that with Porphy they try to make it similar to Marco: Lone boy travels alone this time in Italy and France in search for his sister. While first episodes took place somewhere in North Western Greece instead of Genoa. Even some of Porphy’s dreams allure to Marco’s dreams. Then after watching it completely I realized the difference: I’d see Marco any day and any episode. As for Porphy, I’d never see it for a long time. Just the agony what will happen next is the one that keeps you. In Marco there is so much more. Now this is why it is a classic

01/25/12 @ 13:07