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A few months before Group Tac's Night on the Galactic Railroad hit the theaters in June 1985, a film entitled Gongitsune or Gon, the Little Fox was released.
Group Tac had by that time made a name for themselves with Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, which had begun airing in 1975 and become a runaway hit. Gon was released to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the show.
I just had a chance to watch Gon for the first time. You can do the same here. (Note: no subs) I never thought I'd see this. Such are the wonders of the internets.
It's a very nice little film. In style and spirit it's close to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, but with much better production quality. It's stylish and charming in an offbeat kind of way.
Gon reminds me a bit of the Unico pilot directed by Toshio Hirata - the sad tale of a forlorn little creature wandering the world alone looking for acceptance and finding only rejection. The Japanese are good at making heavy movies for kids like this. Ringing Bell is an extreme example of this kind of movie - ultra dark and bleak children's movie with superb artistry. Gon isn't nearly as dark as those Sanrio films, but it's got something of the same heavy, tragic theme. Like these, it's a creative, well-crafted children's film with a unique style. Its neutral and original style makes it hold up better than many films and OVAs from this era, whose use of popular styles makes them look dated now.
Kosei Maeda directed the film, Shinichi Ohtake was the animation director, and Tatsuro Kadoya was the art director. Each of them had worked extensively on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.
I was surprised to find that Group Tac isn't explicitly credited anywhere with producing the film, even though Atsumi Tashiro is the audio producer and all of the main staff are people who worked on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for Group Tac. So it's not technically a Group Tac production. Ai Kikaku Center is credited with planning, and a few other studios are credited with production assistance. Ai Kikaku Center is the studio that planned Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. It's kind of confusing, because Gon feels like an extension of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, and that show is synonymous with Group Tac.
Gon might look to be just another generic kiddy animal flick, but unlike most of those lackluster productions, this one isn't just pure emotional manipulation and melodrama; it's actually pretty satisfying as visual storytelling. It has an original style and atmosphere.
Gon is refreshing because it doesn't have the typical anime look or feel. It's got a style and vibe that was unique to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi - poetic and mythical, yet whimsical and playful. Classical and elegant, yet modern and edgy. Characters creatively stylized and unlike anything else being done in anime.
The story of Gongitsune is about a little fox who is left to fend for himself after his mother is killed by hunters. A fire drives him from his home, and he eventually finds his way to a human village that he makes his new home. There, he plays tricks on the villagers until one day he does something that causes him to regret his actions and change his ways.
The story meanders randomly towards its conclusion rather than having a conventional story arc with predictable dramatic milestones. (In this and other ways, it's reminiscent of another good Tac film: Bonobono.)
We just follow the fox around as he goes about his daily business of fooling with the villagers. We observe village life - kids running around playing, women washing potatoes, men going fishing. Eventually, after we've come to know the characters, things come to a head in the natural course of things. It's a nicely effortless, unforced story.
An amusing sequence shows Gon walking behind a pregnant woman on his hind legs, holding his tail in front of him as if he were pregnant too. Gon is mesmerized when he discovers the blacksmith, with his loud clanging sounds, and he comes by regularly to watch in fascination. Most of the villagers don't take Gon's antics too seriously. They're more amused than anything. One of them is a jerk, though, so Gon sneaks into his warehouse to eat his potatoes. The interaction between the fox and the humans is entertaining but also moving. Gon is lonely and attracted to humans, but the tension between wild animal and human keeps them apart. He's a playful trickster but also lonely and sad.
The part where Gon loses his mother at the beginning of the film was actually added for the movie. It wasn't in the book. The reason becomes clear later on. Gon is traumatized by the loss of his mother. He relives her loss when he sees a tree struck by lightning erupt in flame before his eyes. One day, he plays a trick on a nice villager who protected Gon. Later on, he discover that it may have caused the death of the villager's mother.
This movie goes to the root of the Japanese myth of the trickster, shapeshifting fox. Gon is a regular fox, not a magical creature. Foxes are playful and curious creatures. Gon is irresistibly drawn to humans, and delights in exploring their world. Sometimes he's naughty, but more often than not he means no harm.
They could easily have handled this material in one episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, but they put a lot of tender loving care into the details of the production to make it feel like a movie and not just a glorified TV episode. The put extra-special care in animating natural elements like flowers, insects, fire and fish. The natural world acts as the substrate of the film's narrative.
Many of the film's most beautiful moments are simple moments observing life going on - dragonflies dipping their abdomens into the water of the river, kids running around playing. Or just watching the fox wandering around the environs, exploring the landscape created by humans - the old stairs leading to the temple, the tattered footbridge across the creek. Kosei Maeda is good at bringing alive the little details of everyday life in old Japan.
My favorite thing about the film is that it's good visual storytelling. Pretty much the whole first 20 minutes are pure visual storytelling without any dialogue. There's a particularly memorable sequence where the little fox falls into a river and is swept over a series of rapids down from the mountains into the valley where he discovers the village. The rapids are geometrical and stylized, showing the fox travelling down a labyrinthine series of channels between rocks.
After this adventure, the little fox floats down the river on a log. The scene where he floats into the village has a lovely atmosphere - the air is filled with dragonflies, the sky is purple with sunset, the water glitters, the village in the distance is like a painting.
The backgrounds have a kind of picture book quality - stylized and formal, like in Night on the Galactic Railroad, as opposed to purely naturalistic. I like the peculiar mix of real and cartoonish in Gon. The eels are drawn and move ultra-realistically, but then the villager capturing the eel has a huge cartoon head.
The designs are simple and cartoony. I like that Gon's design is cute but also kind of bizarre - those huge vertical eyes, his unchanging expression. He looks the same whether he's sad or happy. He looks cartoonish, spits out pumpkin seeds like a human, and even occasionally walks on his hind legs and dances for fun, but otherwise maintains a completely straight face, like an animal would. I can imagine another production would have had him doing all these crazy faces. His straight face keeps the character grounded in his animal-ness.
The heads of the humans are big circles, the eyes a little dot, and the hands a few squiggles. They're cute in their own peculiar way, but diametrically opposed to 'anime' type cuteness. It's a kind of cuteness that was Tac's exclusive purview. Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi is an astounding achievement as a repository of character design ideas. Every one of its 1000-some episodes had a different set of designs. Group Tac was better than any studio in Japan at coming up with amusing and creative new character designs that weren't just based on industry template.
The animation does a good job of bringing alive the antics of the fox as he runs around exploring things. I like how he skids from side to side out of excess momentum as he's running away, and he does an adorable little dance imitating the humans. The animation looks basic, but it can be quite detailed at the right moment. For example, the eel is animated twisting around with considerable care to make it look realistic, and the thunder and fire is quite realistic and detailed in comparison with the very stylized and unrealistic fox and humans.
The voice-acting is natural and laid back, and doesn't have the typical anime voice-acting sound, thanks no doubt to audio director and Group Tac president Atsumi Tashiro.
Yasunori Tsuchida's jaunty, offbeat score is a great match with the directing and helps give the film its unique tone.
Kosei Maeda in 2009
Kosei Maeda was born in 1950. He joined Mushi Production in 1969. He started working on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi in 1979. He animated and directed no less than 90 episodes for the show over the next 15 years. You can see quite a few of these up on Youtube here. You can also see a lot of those of Shinichi Ohtake.
After Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi was cancelled in 1995, Kosei Maeda continued making films. He directed features, made some indie shorts on his own, and made a few short films in the same vein as Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for a series produced for Niigata broadcaster BSN called Tonton Attato: Niigata Mukashibanashi (2005-2006).
Kosei Maeda also holds exhibits of his paintings on a yearly basis. You can see some of his paintings here.
He was the storyboarder (and animator?) of the Pliocene Coast scene in Group Tac's masterpiece, Night on the Galactic Railroad.
Kosei Maeda has his own personal home page, where he has kindly uploaded not only a list of his works but also four indie short films he made, and some making material. You can see six pages of the storyboard he drew for Gongitsune. You can see the character designs and a bit of storyboard he did for the Sakura Daimyoujin episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, and you can watch the actual episode here. This episode incidentally also features backgrounds by his longtime associate Tatsuro Kadoya.
The Flying Person was his first independent film, made in 1993. It's perhaps his most unusual and most beautiful short film. It's a brief visual poem about a woman, birds, and flight. He makes good use of watercolor washes to create a beautiful shifting array of lines and colors in the scene where the bird transforms into a woman.
The Ibis was part of a 2003 Mushi Pro omnibus about the Japanese eras. It feels the most reminiscent of the show and Gongitsune - the simple, small-proportioned characters with round heads, and the setting in the Edo period. It's a little story about a trio of sisters who capture a hapless ibis to feed to their sick mother, because legend has it that ibis meat cures sickness. But they're stopped along the way by some government officials and get into trouble. The drawings of the government officials and the samurai have a nice caricatural quality. Everything here including the backgrounds was drawn by him, so it all feels very hand drawn. The drawings are loose and the lines uneven. The soft texture of the screen is nice to look at, kind of reminiscent of Ghiblies. I love the bizarre grinning stray dog.
A Cat's Sunday was made for fun in 2004. It's a fun, silly little music video set to lyrics written by Kosei Maeda himself. It's about the delight of staying home relaxing with your cat on a Sunday. Until your cat gets tired of your bored taunting and exacts revenge, that is! It's got the same visual look as The Ibis - no backgrounds, only a spare coat of light watercolor wash, and simple characters drawn with a few loose lines.
The Snow Woman of Ginzandaira was one of the films he made for Tonton Attato: Niigata Mukashibanashi during 2005-2006. Only a clip is available, but you can also see some of his watercolor character and background roughs for the short. It appears to tell the story of a hunter in the snowy north who becomes involved with a demon disguised as a beautiful woman. The designs here are not quite as cartoony as those of The Ibis, and the mood and story are more serious and atmospheric. The color tone of the film is subdued - black, white, and lots of grey and tan.
I don't know how it came to be that Group Tac isn't credited in Gon, because the main staff were people who worked at Group Tac on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. Perhaps they were temporarily dispatched to work on the film, or else just did it as a side-project at Group Tac.
It's tragic what has happened to Group Tac. Following the death of president and spiritual leader Atsumi Tashiro in July, they filed for bankruptcy in August. It's a sad way for a great studio to come to an end.
Group Tac was one of the best and most original and artist-driven studios in Japan. They produced a number of masterpieces over the years, and had a style all their own informed of the artistic sensibility of their artists, notably among them co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, who directed two of the studio's best films: Jack and the Beanstalk (1974) and Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985).
Group Tac and Madhouse were the two big Japanese artist-driven studios in my mind. They didn't always produce artsy stuff - Tac produced lots of manga adaptations and things like Street Fighter II - but they left behind a handful of very unique anime films that no other studio would have dared to produce. Their occasional vanity project showed that you could produce genuinely creative work that gave artists freedom to do what they do best, and still make it as a studio.
Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi is definitely their biggest legacy as a studio. It was a huge hit, one of the longest running anime TV series ever. Most importantly, I like this show because it was artistic and idiosyncratic in the extreme, produced with seemingly nigh-complete freedom on the part of its artists, yet remained accessible and appealing to audiences. It shows that you don't have to fall back on popular manga or trendy story tropes and design styles to be a hit. In many ways, I find it to be the ideal relationship between producer and viewer. Artist could be satisfied of having creative control, and audience was willing to appreciate what the artist threw at them.
Production studios that worked on this movie
Like most productions, the animation was produced by a collection of different studios. Notably, Tsukasa Tannai of Studio Gallop heads the animator list. (He worked on numerous Miyazaki productions.)
Studio Gallop (home page) was formed in 1978 by Akio Wakana, who had started out working at Mushi Production before moving to Tokyo Animation Film and then leaving to form his own studio. Studio Gallop was exclusively devoted to photography up until 1983, when animators and directors from Telecom including Tsukasa Tannai, Toshio Yamauchi and Keiji Hayakawa left to join Gallop. They were a subcontractor for a few years before they began producing their own shows. They produced Fujiko F. Fujio's Kiteretsu Daihyakka and well-loved shoujo shows like Hime-chan no Ribon and Akazukin Chacha. More recently, they produced the TV special Light of the River directed by Shinei animator Tetsuo Hirakawa. Other staff involved with Gallop over the years include Hatsuki Tsuji, Hajime Watanabe, Nobuyuki Tokinaga, Kazuyuki Kobayashi and Kuniyuki Ishii. Gallop also helped out Group Tac on Touch and Hiatari Ryoko around the same time as Gongitsune
Anime Friend was a subcontractor founded in 1977 that ran until 1990. They were almost exclusively involved in Tatsunoko productions, being something of a subsidiary of Tatsunoko. Anime Friend was one of the pioneers of outsourcing to Korea.
Studio Lions was the inbetweening subsidiary of Studio Giants. Studio Giants was founded in 1975 and Studio Lions was founded the next year in 1976. Studio Giants is best remembered among anime fans for their work in the 1980s. They produced episodes with lots of crazy movement on shows like Sasuga no Sarutobi. Studio Giants had numerous talented animators during the 1980s included Masayuki, Tadashi Shida, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Shoichi Masuo, Satoshi Ishino and Toshiyuki Tsuru.
Magic Bus was founded in 1977 by Tetsu Dezaki, who had worked at Gisaburo Sugii's studio Art Fresh, the studio that produced Goku's Big Adventure for Mushi Pro in 1967. (Tetsu Dezaki also happens to be Osamu Dezaki's older brother.) Magic Bus started out as a subcontractor but went on to produce their own shows. I personally remember them best for the small handful of OVAs and movies they produced in the 1980s: Carol, Kasei Yakyoku, Open the Door and There were 11. We have Magic Bus to thank for Mad Bull 34. Ahem. They've been a prolific studio other than this as a subcontractor on other studios' shows. One of their most recent projects was the new Cobra series.
Gongitsune main credits
1985, 76 minutes
Original story by Nankichi Niimi (1913-1943)
Director: Kosei Maeda
Animation Director: Shinichi Ohtake
Art Director: Tatsuro Kadoya
Audio Director: Atsumi Tashiro
Music: Yasunori Tsuchida
Script: Naohisa Ito
Tatsunoko Doga Kenkyujo
BONUS: A few of Kosei Maeda's characters from Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.