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I just had the chance to watch Toshio Hirata's 1993 feature version of Shigeru Mizuki's classic manga from the 1960s, Kappa no Sanpei or Sanpei the Kappa. This has long been one of my all-time favorite manga, so I was really looking forward to the film, especially since it was directed by Toshio Hirata, and I thought he would understand what it was that made Mizuki's manga great, and might be able to transfer that to the screen.
The film was a major disappointment. Not because that feeling wasn't there, but because the script veered completely away from the original about a third of the way in, in the process turning into a pedestrian defeat-the-monster story completely bereft of all the beauty and pathos and wry humor of Mizuki's original classic. I haven't read the original in many years, so I don't remember the details very clearly, but a detail that would be hard to forget, because it defines the experience of reading the manga, is the fact that Sanpei dies and is taken by the god of death to the land of the dead in the end. It's a tremendously moving sequence in the manga. The manga itself is a bit of a patchwork, seguing seemingly almost randomly at times from vignette to vignette, but the book nonetheless hangs together and forms a convincing whole, even has a strange sort of solidity and feeling of inevitability thanks to the unusual dramatic form. The odd form of the story attains a sort of completeness with that odd and unexpected ending. In the movie, all of that is destroyed. The story starts out fairly close to the original, and has some of the original's meandering, random feeling to the flow of the narrative, but that is soon replaced by a lame-brained quest to defeat an oni to save Sanpei's mother, after which mother, father and son live happily ever after. It's an appalling betrayal of the original. It feels like the scriptwriter is the one who took the initiative of re-writing the story as he pleased, and the results are execrable.
The god of death was a truly memorable and interesting character in the original story - the god of death re-interpreted as a inept lower-class salaryman struggling to get by to feed his family. The story itself was very powerful because it was seeped in Mizuki's own mixture of dread/longing for death after seeing very tough times after the war trying to get by. His trademark stoic irony in the face of appalling circumstances has a great impact in this story. The manga was drawn at a time in his life when he wasn't sure how long he would be able to survive himself. Without even knowing that, you sense it in the images and words of the manga. You sense that you're reading the words of someone who has gone through tough, tough times, and whose only recourse is to laugh in the face of death. It's a manga that has that kind of conviction. That's what makes it a classic. To me, the god of death in this manga sort of sums up all of that. Reducing him to a mere sidekick, as the scriptwriter did here in the last half, shows an appalling lack of understanding of the original. The scriptwriter, Shunichi Yukimuro, is no hack. He's a real veteran, having been involved in most of the Gegege no Kitaro anime series, but he managed to destroy the flavor of this story by needlessly veering away from the material and making the baffling decision to turn it into nothing more than a episode of Gegege no Kitaro, instead of letting the story tell itself. I would like to know what Toshio Hirata thought of this.
The film was produced not by Madhouse but by a no-name studio called Takahashi Studio, and the animation is not remarkable. I actually have no problem with the animation. With a Mizuki story, anything more than the standard TV level of animation of this film would feel excessive and out of place. It's a joy just to see Mizuki's characters move a little. I would have been happy to be an animator on the film just for the chance to be able to draw his characters. The designs thankfully remained faithful to Mizuki's drawings. A notable exception is the mother, who appears near the end. I don't remember if she appears in the original manga, or what she looked like if she does, but here she was clearly not drawn in Mizuki's patented loose, unprettified style, but drawn as a pretty anime character, completely clashing with every single design in the film up until that point, which is a grave flaw.
As usual, Hirata's touch was light, almost invisible. He did not engage in any sort of directorial grandstanding, but kept things very simple and focused. That is the Hirata I admire. The ending featured a series of stills of masks of kappas taken from a kappa museum somewhere or other called the Itahisa Kappa Collection. The masks were truly beautiful, and oddly enough it felt like the sequence where Hirata's unique genius shined through the best of the entire film - his ability to find something of beauty like these lovely masks, and present it in a truly compelling way that expands the experience of watching the film, showing that there are forms of beauty out there beyond animation, if you expand your horizons a little. Even when working with animation, his thinking isn't limited to animation. He's got a wonderful eye for seeing beauty wherever it lies.