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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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

08:50:17 pm , 2157 words, 4456 views     Categories: Animation

Ken the Wolf Boy

As rumored, one of the questions on the "enquete" in the Toei Monochrome Kessakusen Vol. 1 is which show you'd like to see released in its entirety of the shows in the set. They'll be releasing one as a box based on the results. After seeing the set, I'm hoping for Ken the Wolf Boy (November 1963-August 1965, 86 eps) myself, much to my own surprise as a Yasuji Mori fan. Hustle Punch (November 1965-April 1966, 26 eps) was great as well, but Ken seems the more historically important and substantial.

Both first episodes are must-see to fans of historical animation. I think people would be surprised how interesting and well-done they are. The humor holds up and there's literally about four times as much animation per ep as the Mushi Pro animation that was being made at the same time, say about 4000 cels at Toei Doga to 1000 at Mushi Pro. Which is a bad thing for the company, but good for us.

Not to reveal my age, but I was watching the first episode of Ken for the first time. Show of hands: How many people out there saw it when it first aired, as suggested by the catchphrase on the cover? ("The animation we grew up with") As for how I liked it, I was surprised to find that I absolutely loved it. I haven't laughed so much watching an anime episode in a long time. Simply put, it worked great as an episode in every respect. It wasn't camp laughter either. The script was very funny (Takashi Iijima of Animal Treasure Island) and the humor still works. The animation was incredibly active and always interesting. The situation and characters were original and interesting. Overall it held my interest at all times. I can't say that for most anime being made nowadays.

The situation and characters were interesting and original because they weren't based on a manga. They were created by Sadao Tsukioka. Yasuji Mori did the same for Hustle Punch in 1965. Soon enough Toei would start basing their shows on manga, for obvious synergy reasons. And Tsukioka, as I've mentioned before, was the main pillar of the series, animating and directing many of the episodes almost single-handedly. Considering the effort this requires, I was always suspicious if the episodes would work, but my suspicions were misplaced.

Tsukioka is probably the first truly great animator of the early limited era, and he exemplifies what's best about Toei's take on limited. Where with Mushi Pro we were really talking limited - stills for most of the time - Tsukioka focuses on coming up with interesting movement rather than pretty drawings, as you'd expect from an animator raised at a studio that had focused on full animated features up until that point. In the interview with Yoichi Kotabe and Reiko Okuyama on the Hustle Punch disc Kotabe talks about how the animators didn't really approach the job as real animation - they were just having fun, biding their time until they could get back to their real job as feature animators (they started working on Punch right after Horus was put on hold). I don't know whether it's despite or because of that, but the result is that these early shows are probably among the most interesting of the period in terms of the actual animation. This was the most active limited money could buy at the time.

Tsukioka seems to have taken hints from lots of places that were doing limited at the time, including Mushi Pro but also overseas studios, to come up with his own take on limited that feels unlike anything that was being done elsewhere, and that connects to what Yasuo Otsuka would go on to do in Lupin and so on. Otsuka himself was involved as an animator throughout the series, and Tsukioka is obviously one of the major figures contributing to his stylistic maturation. Interesting since just before Tsukioka had done the inbetweens for Otsuka's scene in Little Prince, yet here he's the one showing the way.

Otsuka is the only animator credited on two episodes on the disc, including one directed by Isao Takahata (14). I don't know how many other figures managed to do solo episodes like that, but Otsuka was definitely one of the first. There are three inbetweeners listed on the first ep (including Teruto Kamiguchi and Toshio Hirata, who soon went over to Mushi Pro) which works out to about 1000 drawings/person. Now you can imagine the powerhouse that was Otsuka - that's 3000-4000 drawings entirely by himself per episode. There was probably nobody else at the time who singlehandedly managed to packed this much animation into a single episode besides Otsuka. I assume there must be episodes done entirely by Tsukioka as well, though I'm not sure if anybody else did the same.

Otsuka's work is great as well, but Tsukioka already felt fully mature in his work in the first episode. The drawings are amazingly free and loose and constantly full of intersting ideas and movement. It's like he's been doing limited for years already. He knows all the little tricks and shortcuts. The episode feels like a textbook example of how to do limited animation. Tsukioka in fact wrote some animation textbooks recently, so perhaps it's no surprise. His achievement is notable because it was really one person approaching a new form and situation and coming up with his own approach. There was no past history to copy, the way people nowadays have a long history to consult. You can feel him groping for his way in the dark with the work, and that makes it feel really alive and full of unexpected answers.

I'm not sure why Tsukioka himself wasn't interviewed for the set, but I'm not going to complain because the interview with Takahata and Otsuka was one of the main reasons I got the set in the first place, and it was just as informative as I hoped. Takahata has a few gray hairs now, but he's still just as articulate and eloquent about the techniques and the history. Anecdotes abounded about the figures active at the period, about the pranks they played, technical talk about the animation and how it was done by Otsuka, talk about Takahata's virgin experience as a director on the show. Tsukioka was a notorious prankster - there'd be nobody in the studio, and he'd tiptoe up to an animator totally absorbed in his work at his desk and just stand there behind him. When the person turned around he'd get the shock of his life to see Tsukioka standing there with his face taped into strange shapes. That spirit comes through in his playful animation.

Ken is still interesting seen today, and it was also an important training ground for the development of many of the most important figures in anime, and you can see their work in generous helpings here. Tsutomu Shibayama, who later founded Asia-do, got his start under Tsukioka on Ken, and Isao Takahata had Seiichi Hayashi provide an animated sequence for one of his episodes, allowing him to do it entirely in his own style, which he later did again in Belladonna.

Takahata's episode on the disc is interesting because right from the start of his directing career you can see the basic style - meticulous planning and research - that would come to characterize his work. Rather than a simple story that focuses on one character, the episode comes and goes between two sides of a battle, jumping between various points of view, yet managing to convey the information in a way that is not confusing. The range of the action is all planned out and kept track of on a map. The complex situation goes far beyond the simple comic or tragic stories that were usually played out in the series. Apart from that the series is interesting because there's no chief director - each director stands alone and does what he wants how he wants. Toei has long been known for this system, which started here. That's one of the things that makes this series so interesting when compared with anime today. You have one person playing around making an episode how they want, so each episode has a uniquely personal flavor.

Hustle Punch also features many of the great figures of the Toei Doga period, including Yoichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama and Miyazaki. The first episode is truly wonderful and shows Yasuji Mori's work at its most characteristic, both in terms of the animation and the mood. The humor is just as good as the first ep of Ken, but now it's even more honed and witty. The writer was Hiroshi Ikeda, the other writer of Animal Treasure Island, who got his start directing and writing episodes of Ken, and his writing is very well suited to Mori's characters. Mori was animation director of the first ep, in which Otsuka, Kotabe, Okuyama, Akemi Ota (credited as Akemi Miyazaki by ep 14) and two others were key animators.

Okuyama was the animation director of a later ep on the disc, and she speaks of how it was a pleasure to animate Mori's characters, unlike many other designs. Her first AD was an ep directed by Yugo Serikawa near the end of Ken. This was probably a first for a woman at the time. Okuyama was valued for her exceptional skill at drawing characters on-model. Kotabe discusses what it was like to animate Mori's characters, and speaks of how the designs seem deceptively simple, but are incredibly difficult to draw. In the end nobody was really able to draw Mori's characters in a way that retained the right spirit, though Mori is reported to have stated in his later years that he considered Kotabe's drawings the closest in spirit to his own.

After doing his first work as an animation director on Ken, Kotabe worked as the "assistant animation director" on Toei's second b/w TV series, Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimari (June 1964-August 1965, 65 eps), handling mostly the guest characters that didn't appear in the original manga like the women and animals, leaving Daikichiro Kusube to handle Sanpei Shirato's characters. The series was the first of its kind in the rough ninja manga style, and the only person in the staff who had experience as a key animator was Kotabe. As a result, Shirato himself reportedly was unhappy with the drawings, saying they didn't look like his drawings at all, and asked for his name to be removed from the credits.

Kusube also had to handle the training for the inexperienced directors as well as animators, which included big Toei names of later years like Tomoharu Katsumata and Kimio Yabuki. Kusube wasn't interviewed for this set, but elsewhere Kusube relates how ridiculously tight the situation was in terms of schedule and staff. At one point a Toei person was coming around offering him large sums of money to animate two episodes a month. This highlights how well paid animators were at the time, presumably due to union activity. That money later went to help him found A Production. He was working night and day for the show until it got to the point that he was forced to quit Toei, though he continued to do contract work for Toei from his apartment. Takahata relates that there are lots of anecdotes about his legendary skills as an animator, for example the way a runner would come asking him for some urgent work and he would draw entire scenes right there on the spot - and complete inbetweened animation at that, not just keys.

Kusube also talks about the various specific technical discoveries that he made along the way as he tried to figure out a workable method of creating animation in such a short time frame. Kotabe animated a sequence in the opening where leaves are blown up by the wind and blow around in a whirlwind. For the part where the leaves are blowing around in the whirlwind, he animated the entire thing in sequence. Kusube felt that something was wrong when he saw that part, but he was completely shut off from the new techniques that had been developed in the Ken section because he wasn't involved, so it was only on studying the sequence afterwards that he came to the conclusion that rather than spending all those cels to animate the whirling part, it would be not only more efficient but also more impressive to animate it with a loop of three cels. By making a virtue of the limits of the medium, he could create a sort of movement that was unique to limited, an approach that has since become the norm in TV anime. These were the shows where most of the basic limited techniques were discovered on the spot to meet these particular circumstances. In the 1970s A Production would continue to build on the knowhow obtained during these shows.


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