Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Saturday, April 15, 2006

06:10:44 pm , 1418 words, 2569 views     Categories: Animation

Jungle Kurobée

Back-catalogues are always an interesting thing to explore. Whether it be discovering how much of a difference a great storyboard can make upon viewing Isao Takahata's storyboard for Jacky the Bearcub #5 of 1977, or seeing the faint outline of his later style in his earliest work on Ken the Wolf Boy from 1963, or discovering Osamu Dezaki's crazed early work on Goku in 1967 after having only been familiar with the trademark Dezaki style of Blackjack or Cobra or Aim for the Ace... There are always little side-jobs a creator has done over the years that can be interesting to discover for the insight they can offer on a person's evolution or hidden, unexplored possibilities.

No one offers a better example of this than Dezaki, who was rather prolific on a variety of TV shows during the early 70s after the breakup of Mushi Pro, leaving behind a healthy stock of material waiting to be rediscovered by an intrepid fan. While at Mushi Pro Dezaki worked alongside many of the people who he would go on to take with him when he left the studio to form Madhouse with Masao Maruyama et al., most prominently Sugino Akio, who worked with him on Tomorrow Joe. Masami Hata stayed at Mushi Pro until the very end in 1973 and did his earliest work for TMS under Dezaki that same year.

The decade of the 70s for Dezaki consists almost exclusively of work for TMS because Yutaka Fujioka provided the funding for the founding of Madhouse, so there was a sort of obligation relationship there. Dezaki was one of the people to whom Fujioka turned to provide a pilot for Nemo, the project that was essentially the reason Fujioka got into animation in the first place, which should make it clear how close they must have been. Dezaki was one of the pillars of TMS, even while not technically being a TMS person. It was for TMS that Dezaki directed the bulk of his most famous TV work - Aim for the Ace (1973), Gamba's Adventure (1975), Treasure Island (1978), etc. All of these are still fairly popular today, as is his very first show, Tomorrow Joe (1970). But between the two came his very first job as TV series director for TMS in 1973 - Jungle Kurobée - which still remains a mystery item to most people, for the unique reasons outlined below.

A Pro is more famous as being the force behind those distinctive TMS shows with fast-paced action and simple designs like Dokonjo Gaeru and Ganso Tensai Bakabon. This is the style that eventually led to Doraemon, albeit in watered-down form, sapped of the zing and animated frenzy that made these early shows so memorable. Jungle Kurobée falls into that line at first sight, but it was directed by Dezaki with animation from the still young Madhouse, rather than A Pro. The Madhouse of this era is permanently associated with Sugino in my head, so the stylistic disconnect is a little hard to fathom. But the fact is, there's a lot of overlap in the staff in these early formative years, accounting for the similarity - first and foremost Yoshio Kabashima, who would go on to be one of the main A Pro people, also working one more time with Dezaki on Gamba's Adventure in 1975, which is the last time we see Dezaki doing this sort of material. So Kurobée sort of acts as the missing link between Goku (1967) and Gamba (1975) for the gag vein of Dezaki that I've always loved. Dezaki recently directed a film of Hamtaro that I'd be curious to see, as the material seems an obvious extension of this stylistic line. I've heard it's quite dynamic, which is exactly what I'd expect, knowing his early work. This material seemed to liberate him to get in touch with a primitive inner energy that you don't see in his other more 'realistic' work, and that's something I'd have liked to have seen more often, but I think it started to be out of tune with the times from the 80s on.

Stills from: ep 1a (Dezaki storyboard); 5a; 3b (Hata storyboards)

Kurobée was cancelled after only 31 eps, while Dokonjo ran for more than two years, but this had more to do with the fact that Ultraman was airing in the same time slot as Kurobée on another channel than because of an inherent difference in quality. Kurobée shares most of the qualities that made and make Dokonjo and A Pro's later shows so exhilirating and fun, from the dynamic cutting and simple layout and designs to the vivacious and characterful animation that pushes the medium of limited animation to its limits. Kurobée further benefits from the acid wit and manic pacing that characterized Dezaki's work on Goku. Dezaki himself admits to having a particular soft spot for this series. This was his first job for TMS after Fujioka had gave him the money to found his own studio, so he really put the effort in to do the best work he could to pay back the favor, and it shows. The first ep, which Dezaki storyboarded (he did 8 other storyboards and a lot of correcting), bursts with an inexplicable frenzied energy. He achieves a sort of nirvana state in the pacing, with events unfolding less based on logic than on a sort of genius instinct for what will create the most viscerally exciting flow of unexpected action.

The story itself is simple, as the series is purely episodic, with only the vaguest running narrative. In that it's like all of the other shows that followed. But the basic story is at the root of the show's woes. It's why Kurobée has been banned from ever being shown on TV or released on video in Japan. Kurobée is the story of a boy from the imaginary country of Pirimi in Africa. By mistake one day he stows away on a plane heading to Japan and overnight finds himself in an alien land unlike anything he's ever seen. A Japanese family finds him and offers him shelter for the night, and in return he vows to repay the favor. He digs a large hole several meters deep, indicating that he will have repaid the favor once he has filled the hole with rocks, one rock for each good deed, as is the custom in his land. The rest of the series relates his escapades trying to repay the favor, one good deed at a time. It's a classic clash-of-cultures setup, with Kurobée acting as a sort of naive cypher there to spotlight the foibles of Japanese society. Walkabout came out two years earlier, and must certainly have been an influence on Hayao Miyazaki when he came up with the basic premise just before leaving A Pro for Nippon Animation.

The problems started when the manga version by Fujiko Fujio was reprinted in 1989. (The manga was written while the anime was airing, but only loosely parallels the anime.) An activist group formed to combat discrimination against Africans in Japan successfully petitioned for the banning of Little Black Sambo on the basis of its racist portrayal of Africans, and subsequently brought the same accusation against Jungle Kurobée. The publishers, and Fujio himself, decided to play it safe to avoid litigation, and the book was retracted. The anime version was not technically implicated in the whole debacle, but by association it is effectively banned as well, meaning no reruns or DVD release.

I support this group's fight. Discrimination is alive and well in Japan and elsewhere, not only against blacks but against native Ainu, burakumin and others. It just doesn't seem like banning Jungle Kurobée is the solution. For one, it's highly debatable whether the accusation is true. It seems fairly obvious that Kurobe is not a vehicle to caricature a specific culture or race. Kurobe could have been a fairy from a magical kingdom and the clash-of-cultures setup would have functioned just as well. The anime itself hasn't even been impugned. Cowardice and/or laziness to address the accusation on the part of the publishers and creator are largely responsible for its disappearance. The show's inherent quality and historical value make it regrettable that any circumstance should prevent it from being seen. Rather than allowing a third party to make the decision for us, the most satisfying solution would seem to be to give posterity the opportunity to judge the matter with its own eyes.

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7 comments

Slappy
Slappy [Visitor]

“It seems fairly obvious that Kurobe is not a vehicle to caricature a specific culture or race.”

Does he come from Africa or not? The screencap you used on the top clearly caricatures a specific race.

“Kurobe could have been a fairy from a magical kingdom and the clash-of-cultures setup would have functioned just as well.”

How does this logic counter the racism charge? He could have been a hook-nosed beast with dollar signs for pupils and the clash of cultures premise would have been intact, eh? Maybe a yellow person with slanty eyes and a tiny penis could visit america for some amusing clash-of-cultures antics? Still not racist? WTF?

04/16/06 @ 19:56
Ben
Ben [Visitor]

Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I apologize that my writing was hasty and sloppy and I didn’t make my point clearly enough. It was not my intention to argue for or against one side on the issue, which I am not smart enough to do, only to point out that it existed. But I seem to have put my foot in my mouth and taken sides, so I will attempt to clarify my point of view.

You are right. The screencap I used on the top would clearly seem to be a caricature of a Pygmy, which indeed clearly caricatures a person of a specific race. I apologize if the sentence you quoted gave you the impression that I was attempting to deny that the screencap I used on the top caricatured a person of a specific race. I am not a particularly intelligent person, but I am not so stupid as to attempt to deny that the screencap I used on the top was intended to be a depiction of an African. The character Kurobe is clearly an African, and the screencap I used on the top is clearly a depiction of him. I do not deny it.

The nationality of the character is not proof of racism. If so, any anime with a foreign character in it would be racist. Proof of racism has to be sought elsewhere. Please bear with me as I try to explain what I meant in the sentences you quoted.

These are the sentences you quoted.

“It seems fairly obvious that Kurobe is not a vehicle to caricature a specific culture or race.”

“Kurobe could have been a fairy from a magical kingdom and the clash-of-cultures setup would have functioned just as well.”

What I was maladroitly attempting to do when I wrote the two sentence you quoted is to reason through how and why the creators of this show could have come up with the premise for the show; I was not attempting to whitewash Kurobe or the creators, or to deny that the character Kurobe was an African. I apologize that my feeble brain was unable to come up with the proper words to give this delicate subject the proper examination it deserves.

When I saw this show, and when I wrote this post, even though I was shocked by what I saw, I wanted to believe and I still want to believe that the creators are not racist and that the show was not created with racist intent. I could be wrong about these things, but I want to see the good in people.

Looked at today the design of the character is clearly racist. But I could not believe that the creators could have come up with the premise or the design with malicious racist intent, ie, specifically to skewer the Pygmies out of a hatred of the Pygmies, which is what you seem to be suggesting. I just can’t see why they would have done that.

I am not saying that I don’t find this particular design to be a malicious caricature of the Pygmies, nor that being a racist unconsciously is any better. I was not addressing the design of the character Kurobe. It is hard to justify the design on any grounds. (Though if you look at the way Africans are caricatured in manga at that period, you’ll see that most are caricatured similarly to Kurobe, so most elements of the specific design would seem to come from convention rather than intent. Osamu Tezuka used stereotyped caricatures in stories he wrote specifically about racism against African Americans.)

All I was trying to do in the two sentences you quoted was to see if I could figure out their reasoning for coming up with the premise of the story, in the hope that doing so might shed some light on how a seemingly racist element could have appeared in a show made by creators with whom I was familiar enough through their work to know that there couldn’t possibly be any truth to the accusation.

The best I could do was to notice that the show seemed to fit into a fairly common pattern among this kind of show: Boy meets giant robot/magical being/etc, and they go through misadventures each episode. Looked at in that sense, Kurobe was just the modular element plugged into a time-tested formula, and not the raison d’etre of the show. Hence the word “vehicle".

That said, I realize that it doesn’t make it any less wrong to have depicted the character the way they did. I’m not about to deny that it’s about as bald a racial stereotype as you can find - both the design and the way the character acts - so I’m not going to try to justify it. What’s racist is racist no matter how you justify it.

All I’m saying is that you can’t pass judgment on something without having seen it for yourself. A summary of a story can make anything sound racist. Streetfight would go down in history as the most racist film ever made if people had to rely only on a summary of the film. Without seeing it for yourself you have no way of knowing. It should be available so that people can decide for themselves. Banning anything potentially offensive is not the way to end racism. A little insight and perspective can sometimes help to show that things are not necessarily as black and white as they might seem at first.

Part or all of what I’ve said here is probably wrong. If so, I apologize. I’ve always been interested in the topic of racism in animation, and I thought Kurobe was a fascinating example that people had never heard of and offered a lot of potential insights into various issues, so I thought I’d casually mention it here in passing, but I should have known that this issue would be controversial.

04/17/06 @ 12:24
Andrew
Andrew [Visitor]

Conflation of a drawing style from less enlightened times with the wonderfully broad and load-bearing concept of racism misses the point here. To commit the crime of extrapolating from a summary, Kurobe appears to be an African-themed Other, used to cast a mirror back upon Japanese society within the modest ambitions of the series’ genre. Imputing vicious racist intention to the animators of a light-hearted kids’ show of a few decades back is a stretch too far.

There is a significant difference between the example Jewish and Asian stereotypes and Kurobe: the former are explicitly and exclusively designed to be offensive and defamatory. Unlike Kurobe, they do not participate within a dialogue that points towards common humanity or shared values. To gloss over this distinction is to mistake medium for message and ire for liberalism.

Art creates representations of complex real-world entities, bringing some attributes to the fore and muting others. It simplifies, and yes, we can call these simplifications caricatures. Yet even these caricatures must be understood within context; we should view Kurobe understanding of the conditions of its times. Exaggeration of physical differences wasn’t always a political taboo that disqualified one as a racist, as the Osamu Tezuka example demonstrates.

Dismissing our artistic past is lazy judgment, and censoring it conceives the audience as incapable of autonomous moral discernment. Better to allow such works to remain as cautionary exhibits of benighted thought than to tread the path towards Cultural Revolution.

04/22/06 @ 19:02
Kwesi K.
Kwesi K. [Visitor]

“There is a significant difference between the example Jewish and Asian stereotypes and Kurobe: the former are explicitly and exclusively designed to be offensive and defamatory. Unlike Kurobe, they do not participate within a dialogue that points towards common humanity or shared values. To gloss over this distinction is to mistake medium for message and ire for liberalism.”

And here we have the true face of institutionalized racism. The history and definite defamatory direction it was created to portray is completly ignored. “Africna-themed Other"? Like a Pickanniy? Sambo? Jungle Bunny? The story and animation may be wonderful but by presenting an African character in that manner betrays a certain level of insensitivity and total ignorance in any time period.

Does this make the creators evil, vile oppressors or thugs? Probably not, maybe so. I don’t know them, so I can’t really say. Based on their artistic choice, what I can say that they have been influenced by and hold racist ideas about how to present Africans. So much so, that they didn’t see this as being equally offensive as the way the Japanese are portrayed in WWII cartoons.

But to get defensive when those that have intimate knowledge of the racism behind this type of caricature is foolish. In order to avoid directly dealing with the issue of racist imagery, both you and the original author have gone to some pretty grand extremes. Censorship and the creators intent have little to do with wether or not it is what it is.

04/23/06 @ 11:28
Muffin
Muffin [Visitor]

I’m pretty sure the creators of Kurobe didn’t *intend* to be defamatory in their protrayal of the charachter. The problem, I guess, is that they really didn’t seem to have considered the racist implications of their creation at all. In other words, it’s not hate-mongering, nor is it satire. Just a straightforward, innocent racist caricature.

Another thing is, as far as I’ve heard, Miyazakis original concept didn’t involve an african boy but rather a dwarf/hobbit creature from Ainu myth. Basically a less human race-specific magic creature.

04/23/06 @ 15:43
Muffin
Muffin [Visitor]

Ever seen the Osamu dezaki Lupin III tv specials btw? I’ve seen “Bye bye Liberty Crisis(aka Good-bye Lady Liberty)". Pretty funky stuff, with wonderfully stylized art.

05/14/06 @ 02:38
Ben [Member]  

No, I haven’t seen it, although I’m curious to.

05/14/06 @ 17:38