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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Sunday, August 8, 2004

10:52:01 am , 1100 words, 5660 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Kazuo Komatsubara

Galaxy Express 999 Movie climaxToday I just had a few things to say about Kazuo Komatsubara (小松原一男). I apologize, this is a pretty rambling post. I'm hardly an expert on him, so if anyone who knows more than me spots any mistakes or can provide a better overview, feel free to post a comment.

After an illustrious career spanning three decades, Komatsubara passed away in 2000. His death was a second blow to the anime world, coming as it did two years after the equally premature death of Yoshifumi Kondo, whose career overlapped almost exactly with that of Komatsubara.

To summarize his career, during the seventies he focused on giant robot shows like Go Nagai's Mazinger and Grendaizer (1975) and then on Leiji Matsumoto series like Captain Harlock (1978). At the end of the decade he did one of his most famous series, the TV and movie version of Galaxy Express 999. In the eighties he was involved in a variety of projects, notably Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984), Tongari Boushi no Memoru (1984), and Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988), while in the nineties he was less prolific, his main works being Junkers Come Here (1995) and Chinese Ghost Story (1998). His last work was Dynamic Robot Taisen (1999), apparently some sort of homage to those early robot shows.

The early robot shows were big in France for a long time, and must have left their mark on French animation fans, because there was an exhibit of his key animation in Toulon, France in 1995, and another in April 2001 as a memorial, and there's a French web site that provides a detailed biography.

To most people Komatsubara is perhaps best known as the animation director of Nausicaa. Among Japanese animation buffs, however, his fame rests perhaps even moreso on his work as the animation director of these 70s anime, particularly Galaxy Express 999, especially the film version of 1979. The latter is perhaps one of the earliest and best crystallisations of the Komatsubara style, with its rough and dynamic lines and delicate attention to detail in the animation, and therefore presents a truer picture than Nausicaa of what it was that made Komatsubara unique and great as an animation director.

In addition, this film features one of the best pieces of animation by two of the best animators of the period: Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga. Together they animated the catastrophic climax. Kanada was perhaps the most influential animator of his generation, and would go on to work under Komatsubara as one of the animators in Nausicaa. Tomonaga, on the other hand, while a fellow animator of Komatsubara's at animation studio Oh Production, went in a very different direction, and there is little overlap of their careers other than this.

Komatsubara had the ability to bring out the best in an animator like Kanada, because he understood how to integrate Kanada's idiosyncratic style into the fabric of the film's animation without compromising the unique flavor of Kanada's drawings and motion. During his time at Toei Doga apparently Komatsubara had been taught by Yasuo Otsuka, which is where this ability may have sprung from. Otsuka also taught Komatsubara the value of variety, of forcing yourself to do lots of different projects with different styles so as not to grow moribund in your little niche, and the large variety of the projects in which he was involved in the 80s and 90s is certainly indicative of his continued efforts towards this end.

Komatsubara's name will perhaps be remembered among western fans due to one of his last jobs as an animation director, Junkers Come Here (1995), directed by Jun'ichi Sato, with whom Komatsubara has been associated at least since Tongari Boushi no Memoru (1984). Personally I have mixed feelings about the film due to certain aspects of its production history, but Komatsubara provided the film with a compellingly universal character design and an incredibly even level of animation, showing that he retained his magisterial skills right up until the end, so it would be ridiculous to dismiss the film, which is a very good film with solid directing and a good story and deserves to be seen. The film was lost in obscurity for too long and fully deserves the attention it's finally getting.

Junkers Come Here Pilot

My problem was that this film could have been the feature debut of Shinya Ohira, who did the pilot. Ohira was removed from the job and replaced by Komatsubara because he spent too long on the pilot and was deemed unfit for the job. If Ohira had had the chance, this film would almost certainly not have been merely the good film that it is now, but instead might have become downright revolutionary. But you never know when misfortune may lead to fortune, and as it happens, this misfortune gave Ohira the opportunity to create one of the most important films of the 90s, episode 10 of the Hakkenden OVA series, and afterwards to go on exploring the new frontier of realism that he had pioneered in the pilot. Instead, we are left with a truly worthy parting gift from one of the great masters of the last 30 years. And that's good enough for me.

The film's animation is obviously altogether different from that of the pilot due to the different animation director, but it nevertheless features all of the animators from the pilot providing high quality work: Osamu Tanabe (dinner scene), Shinji Hashimoto (Hiromi coming home from school), Mitsuo Iso (Hiromi confessing on the beach), Manabu Ohashi (flying over the city) -- even Shinya Ohira himself is there (the extremely detailed animation of Hiromi riding the bike that accompanies the credits). Oddly enough, I noticed that Takashi Nakamura is listed as one of the animators. How did he get involved in this??

There used to be a really cool page at that provided a bunch of key animation scans, including yellow-paper corrected key animation by Komatsubara. It was a really great site, but it seems to be gone now, perhaps due to the intervening release of the DVD in Japan about a year ago. Up until that it was a fairly unknown film. It had been badly treated on its original release, with just a few weeks in the theaters and virtually no publicity, so almost nobody had seen it, which was a shame considering the high quality work that went into it. Because of that there was a big fan movement behind the film right up until the DVD release, with lots of web pages devoted to getting the film better known, fans holding screening of the film, petitioning for its release on DVD and so on, which I guess finally bore fruit.



neilworms [Visitor]

I got to see this film about a year ago at Otakon in the 35 mm room, and one of the things that stuck out about it was its resemblence in aesthetics to Only Yesterday (Omohide Poro Poro). Is this something that is only coincidental, or was there a good reason for it?

Good writeup as always :).

08/08/04 @ 16:13
Ben [Visitor]

Thanks! I didn’t notice any resemblance, personally, and I don’t think the people who made the film had that sort of thing in mind, but I don’t know for sure. I can certainly see where comparisons with Ghibli might come up, but I think those are entirely surface-level. The narrative sophistication and superhuman attention to detail in the animation and art of Only Yesterday are on another plane altogether from a rather simplistic film like Junkers, well constructed though it is. At least in my opinion. Maybe you mean the fuzzy pastelish backgrounds. Yeah, maybe they did borrow a bit from Omohide there, even if unconsciously, though that sort of thing was used in Omohide with a very specific effect in mind, whereas here it doesn’t feel like it has much of a purpose at all other than to just look soft and pretty.

08/08/04 @ 17:11
neilworms [Visitor]

I’d have to agree with you, its probably just the fuzzy pastel colors with an emphasis on lighter shades. That was probably all, I was only curious if there was some staff shared between the two.

Only Yesterday is light years better than Junkers, its my favorite anime film, but I appreciated Junkers for trying to break the otakuish norm of anime. Only Yesterday though not only breaks otaku norms, it subverts the very idea of what animation should be and shows how animation is capable of portraying humanity in ways that live action cannot touch. Junkers was just a better than average anime production.

08/08/04 @ 18:15
Ben [Visitor]

You’re absolutely right. Junkers is indeed an exceptional film. And Omohide is undeniably one of the films that paved the way for Junkers, so the lineage is definitely there.

The only connections are in terms of the animators. Osamu TANABE, Shinya OHIRA, Shinji HASHIMOTO, Shinji MOROHASHI, Mitsuo ISO and Akiyoshi HANE are all familiar names in the Ghibli films.

Incidentally, Iso uses a pseudonymn in this film. I’m not sure which one it is. Kai SHIONO maybe? Sounds like a suspicious name. For those of you who don’t know Japanese, there’s a pun hidden in what part Iso animated in this film. He animated the scene on the shoreline. Iso means shoreline. “Shiono Kai” sounds like “Salty Sea".

08/08/04 @ 18:44
Ben [Visitor]

While we’re talking about Junkers, here’s a memo of the key animators.

Kenji Mizubatake, Akihiro Yuki, Michiyo Suzuki, Tsutomu Kurita, Kazutaka Ozaki, Mikio Odagawa, Mamoru Kurosawa, Shinji Morohashi, Kahoru Hirata, Yuko Ito, Masayuki Kobayashi, Takashi Nakamura, Sakayose Takateru, Kyoko Matsuhara, Shigeto Tsuji, Eiko Miyamoto, Shinji Hashimoto, Masahiro Ando, Osamu Tanabe, Kune Motoki, Akiyoshi Hane, Hiroyuki Morita, Tsutomu Yabuki, Kai Shiono, Mamoru Konoe, Hideki Futamura, Shinya Ohira

Special animator: Manabu Ohashi

原画:水畑健二/結城明宏/鈴木美千代/栗田 務/尾崎和孝/小田川幹雄/黒沢 守/諸橋伸司/平田かほる/伊藤郁子/小林正行/なかむらたかし/逆寄隆輝/松原京子/辻 繁人/宮本栄子/橋本晋治/安藤正浩/田辺 修/木本久年/羽根章悦/森田宏幸/矢吹 勉/塩野 櫂/近衛真守/二村秀樹/大平晋也

スペシャルアニメーター:大橋 学

08/08/04 @ 20:00
Ben [Visitor]

I picked up my Junkers DVD from storage. Here are a few corrections and additional comments.

Iso wasn’t Shiono but Mikio Odagawa. And apparently three other well-known animators used nicknames in this film. Which perhaps accounts for why so many seem unfamiliar. It’d been a while since I’d seen the movie when I wrote that post, so I had forgotten that the scene Takashi Nakamura animated was the puppet scene, which is stylistically unmistakable as his work. And if you thought the bubbles were CG, perish the thought. They were painstakingly drawn by Mamoru Kurosawa. Apparently there was a whole cardboard box full of his drawings for this scene. And finally, one of the unique things about the animation in this film is that animation was assigned to animators on a per-scene basis. In conventional anime, animation is assigned to animators on a per-shot basis. So you might get one animator doing one shot, then another doing the next. This helps to give the film’s animation a stronger feeling of stability.

Another thing I forgot to mention is that this film, like Whisper of the Heart, made the same year, is closely modeled on an actual place, in this case the neighborhood around Matsuhara station in the Setagaya ward of Tokyo, which is about ten minutes from Shinjuku by train. I suppose all this may already have been talked about in the US release, but I haven’t seen that.

And finally, Komatsubara’s last job before dying of cancer at 56 was in fact key animation for Metropolis.

08/14/04 @ 11:58