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Saturday, November 13, 2010

04:57:28 pm , 4654 words, 5577 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Koichi Motohashi and Nippon Animation

There's been a spate of more deaths in the industry. I don't know whether it's because we are more informed in this day and age about these things or because it's been a particularly bad year for luminaries in the anime industry, but I'm getting tired of hearing about people who died.

Two producers who had a major impact on the industry have died.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki (1934-2010), the controversial producer of the Yamato series, died after falling off his yacht and drowning. This comes just before the release of the live-action remake of Yamato. I just wrote about his first attempt to revive the franchise with Yamato 2520.

Koichi Motohashi (1930-2010), the president of Nippon Animation and executive producer of Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater series, died of MDS, a bone marrow disease. Nippon Animation and its pre-incarnation Zuiyo Eizo pioneered the yearlong animated literary adaptation concept in Japan, which was quite unheard of and revolutionary at the time.

The World Masterpiece Theater was instrumental in getting me back into anime fandom as an adult, so it has special meaning to me. One of the first things I ever wrote about anime was about the WMT. I doubt I would have gotten into anime as much without the WMT. Other obituaries merely recite a list of shows produced by Nippon Animation, so I thought I would go into a little more detail about why I felt Koichi Motohashi's studio was significant.

I don't know much about Koichi Motohashi himself. All I know is that without his studio, many of my favorite anime wouldn't have gotten produced. On top of that, his studio represented something unique in anime, something no other studio was doing.

Their productions were different from that of any other studio, with a more international and family-oriented bent deliberately tailored to make them safe for audiences the world over. Their productions were intended from the start for a global audience, which is why most of their shows like Maya the Honeybee (1975, German op) were aired in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. They also collaborated with Europe on numerous productions. Maya the Honeybee was a co-production with Germany and Little El Cid (1984, French op) was a co-production with Spain. Where most studios' productions feel very much like anime no matter what they're doing, most of Nippon Animation's productions felt very deliberately un-Japanese and international.

Their shows seemed deliberately aloof from the trends of the industry, at least in the 70s and 80s (their policy seems to have changed in the 1990s). They followed their own muse. Their shows were somehow kinder and gentler than anything else being produced at the time. They had a kind of European sensibility in the look and feel. The designs weren't as anime influenced. The directing was laid back and easygoing. Their shows weren't about heavy drama or robot action or saving the world. They were lighthearted and easy to watch, with a breezy charm.

Their early work shared a particular styling that is still appealing today, with these simple designs and basic layouts. Sindbad's Adventures (1975, German op) seems to be a good example of the early Nippon Animation style, with the spare, simple characters reminiscent of Yoichi Kotabe's drawing style. Sindbad was designed by Shuichi Seki, who would go on to be one of the studio's main character designers. It's partly his design sensibility that created that Nippon Animation look.

Future Boy Conan (1978) / Spaceship Sagittarius (1986) / Dorataro the Hobo (1981)

Jacky the Bearcub (1977) is another good show from their early period. (French opening with animation by Toshiyasu Okada from ep 1) It was designed by Yasuji Mori, also with these simple designs. It couldn't have been produced by any other studio, with its realistic yet adorable bearcubs animated in a realistic way and shown as actual wild animals, not anthropomorphized bears. A young Indian boy befriends the bear cub, but the story remains realistic in concept - the cub is a wild animal who eventually has to return to nature. Rascal did this material in an even more realistic way. It wasn't just a happy-go-lucky fantasy land; it taught youngsters about the tension between human society and the natural world of the animals. Nippon Animation's shows were wholesome but grounded and realistic about the world.

Among mid-period works, Spaceship Sagittarius (1986) was memorable, and a new direction for the studio. It was like nothing else out there, yet somehow still quintessentially Nippon Animation. The odd and homely alien designs were kind of refreshing for not looking like typical anime. The humor of the show was subtle and witty, the stories smart satire like a bizarro version of the real world. It was a quirky, fun kind of sci-fi that's never been seen before or after - not about pitched battles and space operatics, but sci-fi as whimsical fantasy and a satirical lens on our world.

Chibi Maruko-chan (1990) was another one of their more memorable productions. It signaled a change for one because it was based on a manga. Momoko Sakura's manga was about the everyday life of a grade-schooler growing up in Japan, but told with wry, ironic humor from the perspective of an adult reminiscing about the experience. It had a certain something that belied the childish style and made it appealing to the whole family. It was simultaneously realistic in the details of the specifically Japanese experience of growing up, which made it appealing to me, and stylized in the designs and look in a unique way, not a typical anime way.

Chibi Maruko-chan was produced with the assistance of Ajia-do, which is the studio that then employed the person who did many of Chibi Maruko-chan's creative opening and ending sequences - Masaaki Yuasa. Nippon Animation capitalized on the show's success by producing two Chibi Maruko-chan films around the same time. Another subcontracting studio long affiliated with Nippon Animation was Oh Production.

The 90s saw them shifting in style, keeping up with the times, adopting more popular styles and doing more obviously Japan-centric work based on manga and the like. The range was much broader than before. There was fantasy adventure like Pigmalio (1990, op) and Yamato Takeru (1994, op) and Mahoujin Guruguru (1994, op), cute shows about daily life in Japan like Mikan Enikki (1992, op) and Mama Likes Poyopoyosaurus (1995, op) and then unclassifiable oddball slapstick shows like Shonen Papuwa-kun (1992, op) and Tonde Boorin (1994, op) and Hanasaka Tenshi-kun (2000, op).

I watched a lot of their shows that came out in the early 1990s. They were actually quite original and different and appealing. Poyopoyosaurus is one I particularly remember liking - a family drama with a fun, hip contemporary vibe and style. Mahoujin Guruguru was also fun, a crazy slapstick fantasy adventure with cute SD characters. Tonde Boorin was just strange - a bizarre story about a superhero pig. Nippon Animation had clearly changed their policy in a very drastic way, striving to create series that would appeal to young viewers in Japan by following the stylistic trends of the day rather than being conceived for international audiences. I think a lot of these shows were quite fun and appealing, so in a way it was an improvement, while in other aspects they lost something that set them apart. It was still Nippon Animation in that the shows were good family entertainment. The style was just more trendy.

I didn't watch much of what they made post-2000, but I noticed there are some very bizarre items like Hanasaka Tenshi-kun that seem inconceivable for the company that produced 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.

Then there are all of the World Masterpiece Theater shows. Nippon Animation is rightly remembered for the WMT. The concept of a serious yearlong animated literary adaptation was a real innovation and produced some of the best long-form storytelling ever made in TV animation.

The World Masterpiece Theater through the years: Marco (1976) / Annette (1983) / Tico (1994)

The WMT was a staple of Fuji TV's Sunday evening programming for more than 20 years, bringing to the screen a new classic of world literature every year. Their shows took a new approach towards animation - neither shoujo nor shounen, not just for children but also for the parents, without superheros, robots, magical girls, or ninjas. The one thing that united the WMT was that they were about everyday life: the excitement, drama, sorrow, happiness and transcendent beauty to be found in the prosaic things we tend to take for granted.

Isao Takahata directed three series that launched the WMT and set the tone for the rest of the series - Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976) and Anne of Green Gables (1979). They are also easily the best in the series, and for having produced these series alone, Koichi Motohashi's studio would have a firm place in anime history. They're unsurpassed masterpieces in the TV animation format, achieving depth of characterization, power of storytelling and realism of detail and directing that will probably never be surpassed in TV animation (if only because nobody seems willing or capable of doing down-to-earth realistic stories like these). See end of post for an ancient writeup I did on what makes Marco great.

Takahata & co. were a tough act to follow. None of the subsequent shows had quite the depth, attention to detail and assiduous realism of Takahata's shows. Despite the later shows still having the trappings of being realistic drama, the WMT evolved in a subtly different direction fairly quickly after Anne. However, the early series that followed Marco, namely Rascal Raccoon (1977) and Perrine (1978), did an admirable job of creating a similar level of quality and realism under the direction of Seiji Endo, Saito Hiroshi and Shigeo Koshi, who would become the main directing figures at Nippon Animation in the ensuing years.

Rascal Raccoon in particular, despite sounding extremely lame going by the title, was one of the most affecting real-life stories in the series. It was even more realistic than Marco in the sense that it wasn't a grandiose continent-trotting adventure. It was just a small-scale story about a boy in rural America in the early 1900s and his day-to-day experiences. It also happened to benefit from a considerable amount of animation from one Hayao Miyazaki.

Tom Sawyer hit the air in 1980. It was an entertaining romp that is actually memorable if light and insubstantial compared to the previous outings. It benefited from great animation by Yoshifumi Kondo. It was an entertaining version of Mark Twain's classic, although the satirical fire and brilliant prose was lost in translation.

The mid-80s shows that followed were more melodramatic and less hard-edged, dropping the brutal neo-realism of Marco to create more accessible and child-friendly period dramas. I've only watched one series in its entirety from this middle period - Pollyanna, which seems typical of the WMT in this middle period with its saccharine tone and overwrought, unrealistic melodrama.

In the early 90s, the tone began shifting again, presumably due to dropping ratings. The first shift was the most drastic one in the series - Peter Pan. Based on literature, maybe, but a far cry from the realistic material that was the whole purpose of the series at the beginning. Yet it turned out to be one of the best WMT shows. It had strong animation thanks to Takashi Nakamura, who was fresh from his stint on Akira and itching to do something freer and more imaginative, and the animators he brought in (viz these old posts). It also happened to stand up fairly well on its own as an entertaining adaptation of this classic story that, despite veering from the story, did its spirit justice in tone and style.

Unfortunately the later shows didn't hold up as well. They desperately tried various measures like creating an action drama that wasn't based on a work of literature with Tico of the Seven Seas (1994), going against the premise of the series, and then switching the gender of Hector Malot's Sans Famille (1996) to a girl to play up to audiences. But ratings kept dropping and the series was finally cancelled afterwards.

Tico of the Seven Seas was, in itself, a fairly entertaining and well-produced series that the whole family could enjoy. Romeo's Blue Skies (1995) came perhaps the closest in spirit to the early WMTs of the 1970s, with its historically believable story about chimney sweeps in a late 19th century Italy at the turn of the century, but zany antics and childish melodrama trumped realism to the series' detriment.

Lassie (1996) was a valiant effort directed sensitively by Sunao Katabuchi. It benefited from the appealing, Yasuji Mori-esque character designs of Satoko Morikawa and nuanced animation work by the animators under her like Osamu Tanabe and Hisashi Mori. But it was sabotaged by the station, Fuji TV, who, dissatisfied presumably by unsatisfactory ratings, kept substituting baseball shows in the show's time slot and forcing the studio to change the story of the remaining episodes accordingly.

Remi Sans Famille (1997), which followed as if in a panic, was a disaster from the start, and was cancelled fairly quickly. With its cancellation, the glorious long-running WMT franchise came to an ungraceful conclusion. You can read an embarrassing little piece I wrote 15 years ago about Lassie and the end of the WMT here.

Ten years later, Nippon Animation returned to their roots, trying to revive the World Masterpiece Theater with adaptations of Les Miserables (2007), Porfy's Trip (2008) and Before Green Gables (2009), but these had little in common with the early WMT, and I don't know if the shows were successful with audiences. A Dog of Flanders earned 22.5% ratings in 1975, while ratings declined with each year until Remi Sans Famille in 1996 earned only 8.5%. It seems to indicate that demand for this material has all but evaporated amidst growing sophistication and variety of animated programming and variety of other, more flashy and exciting, competing forms of entertainment.

Even aside from the WMT, Nippon Animation was a prolific studio since it began with A Dog of Flanders in 1975. As of this year, it has produced roughly 100 TV series, including the 26 World Masterpiece Theater shows.

Besides what they produced, Nippon Animation was important in that it had a lot of talented staff who did great work. Many of the Toei luminaries moved to Nippon Animation after leaving Toei. It was there that Hayao Miyazaki had a chance to flower as a director with Future Boy Conan in 1978.

In addition to hosting Isao Takahata, Yoichi Kotabe and Hayao Miyazaki, the most notable ex-Toei figure to grace Nippon Animation's productions in the late 1970s and 1980s was Yasuji Mori, the mentor figure of many of those same ex-Toei figures. He provided delightful character designs for many series including perhaps most notably Jacky the Bearcub, known as Bouba in Europe. Jacky is one of the few animated productions that brought Yasuji Mori's uniquely rounded characters to life in a satisfying way, as witness the delicate animation in the opening. He also designed Banner the Squirrel (German op) and Dorataro the Hobo (op) and later on acted as layout supervisor on shows like Animal Three Musketeers (op) and Alice in Wonderland (op). He was the character supervisor on the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature show. He stayed at Nippon Animation until his death in 1992.

Between his early A Pro period and his late Ghibli period, Yoshifumi Kondo did much good work for Nippon Animation. As the animation director of Anne of Green Gables, he was the person responsible for doing what has never been done (or at least done so convincingly and realistically) in a TV animation, gradually modifying Anne's design to match her physical maturation over the course of the series. In Tom Sawyer he provided lots of great animation. In Little Women he was the character designer. Nippon Animation also trained a number of producers who would go on to work at other studios, most notably Eiko Tanaka.

I'm not painting a hagiography here, just trying to point out the high points. They had plenty of lows. The World Masterpiece Theater in the 1980s was more a showcase for kitschy melodrama than for serious realism, and by the end in the 1990s, it had degenerated into something of a parody of itself. Their anodyne style could be viewed more harshly as being spineless and conservative, and most of their productions are aimed at small children and are fairly unremarkable. In the 1970s, they produced their fair share of generic spokon and shoujo manga adaptations, and even produced some forgettable robot shows. Their productions in the 1990s became much more tailored towards popular tastes in content and style, so they became kind of like every other studio out there and lost a little of what had once made them so unique. They had to survive.

But all that said, they did produce a series like Takashi Nakamura's Fantastic Children in 2004, which was a sincere attempt to create a series of genuine quality divorced of market considerations. Nakamura had previously been involved with Nippon Animation on their 1989 WMT Peter Pan, which was one of the series' late successes.

TV shows were Nippon Animation's main field of activity, but they also produced a number of TV specials sporadically up until the late 80s. In the early 90s, they produced a series of movies, most of which seem unremarkable. The second Chibi Maruko-chan movie (1992) notably featured some creative animation sequences from Ajia-do animators like Masaaki Yuasa. After the WMT ended, they even tried to revive the franchise with some fanfare by releasing remakes of Marco and A Dog of Flanders, the highest-rated shows in the series, but presumably these films didn't do so hot at the box office, because the series didn't continue afterwards.

One of their recent projects that looks intriguing is a 2007 TV special entitled Miyori no Mori (trailer). It was directed by veteran art director Nizo Yamamoto. It appears to have a more classical look indicating an attempt to return to something of the tone of their earlier work with material with a more broad appeal, an epic fantasy on the subject of ecology and nature.

The really remarkable thing about Nippon Animation is that this post doesn't even do justice to the range of their work. This post only covers a fraction of the shows they did, and briefly, and those other shows are quite wide-ranging in style, far more than almost any other Japanese studio except for maybe TMS. Over the span of 35 years, Nippon Animation has produced a handful of masterpieces and a slew of highly entertaining and unique TV series. They represented an alternative vision of anime far removed from all the cliches that have come to define Japanese animation in the imagination of the world. Many of their shows were watched and beloved by millions of kids the world over during the 1970s and 1980s. Kids of my generation grew up on Nippon Animation anime. They've been a one-of-a-kind presence in the anime industry for well over three decades. For running such a studio, Koichi Motohashi, thank you, and rest in peace.


Click on to see an old thing I wrote about 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.


3000 Leagues in Search of Mother:
From the Appenines to the Andes


Produced by Nippon Animation, aired on Fuji TV
52 episodes, aired Jan-04-1976 to Dec-26-1976
Based on Cuore (1878) (Translated in English as: Heart: an Italian schoolboy's journal, a book for boys) by Edmondo de Amicis (1846-1908, Italian)

STAFF
Executive producer: Koichi Motohashi
Producer: Nakajima Junzo, Matsudo Takaji
Director: Takahata Isao
Character design & animation director: Kotabe Yoichi
Assistant Animation Director: Okuyama Reiko
Written by: Fukazawa Kazuo
Art director: Takamura Mukuo
Music: Sakata Koichi
Layout & Scene Design: Miyazaki Hayao
Storyboards: Tomino Yoshiyuki (3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29, 33, 36, 39, 40, 42, 44, 46, 48, 50, 52), Okuta Seiji (9, 11, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 32, 34, 37, 38, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51), Kuroda Yoshio (13, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 35), Takahata Isao (1, 2, 4, 5, 7)
Assistant directors: Yokota Kazuyoshi, Baba Ken'ichi, Kageyama Yasuo
Audio director: Uragami Yasuo
Photography director: Kuroki Keishichi

VOICE ACTORS
Marco: Matsuo Yoshiko
Peppino (Fiolina's father): Nagai Ichiro
Conchetta (Fiolina's sister): Ohara Noriko
Fiolina: Nobusawa Mieko
Tonio (Marco's brother): Sogabe Kazuyuki
Pietro (Marco's father): Kawakubo Kiyoshi
Leonardo: Kamiyama Takuzo
Anna (Marco's mother): Nikaido Yukiko
Julietta (Fiolina's sister): Chijimatsu Sachiko
Pablo: Higashi Mie
Fana (Pablo's sister): Yokozawa Keiko
Mario: Tomiyama
Clara: Takefuji Reiko
Fernadez: Miyata Hikaru
Narrator: Tsuboi Akiko

OPENING THEME: Sogen no maruko (Marco on the Grasslands)
ENDING THEME: Kaasan ohayo (Good Morning, Mother)
Vocalist: Osugi Kumiko
Lyrics: Fukazawa Kazuo (op), Takahata Isao (ed)
Music: Sakata Koichi
Arrangement: Sakata Koichi (op), Oroku Reijiro (ed)

Adaptation
This TV series is an adaptation of only one tiny portion of Cuore; namely, the story for the month of May, 'From the Appenine to the Andes'. The anime resembles the original story only in outline, as most of the story elements and characters were created specifically for the anime by writer Fukazawa Kazuo (whose only other anime credits are the screenplay of Hols, Prince of the Sun and the cinematization of 1001 Nights)

TV-comp.
A movie compiled from episodes of the TV series was released in theaters on 19 July1980 in Japan.


On the novel

Written following the Italian war for independence by a sub-leutenant who had fought in the seige of Rome in 1870, Cuore is the fictional diary of a boy's third year in a Turin municipal school. It was written to foster juvenile appreciation of the newfound Italian national unity, which the author had fought for in the recent war. The book is often highly emotional, even sentimental, but gives a vivid picture of urban Italian life at that time. A master, introducing a new pupil, tells the class, "Remember well what I am going to say. That this fact might come to pass--that a Calabrian boy might find himself at home in Turin, and that a boy of Turin might be in his own home in Calabria, our country has struggled for fifty years, and thirty thousand Italians have died." The author established a reputation as a writer in various genres after his experience as a soldier, and after having been translated into English in 1895 as Heart and then four years later as Enrico's Schooldays, the novel became internationally popular, and has been translated into over twenty-five languages.

Scattered thoughts about the anime

AnnaThis anime, the second sekai meisaku gekijo series, starts off in Genova, Italy1, and ends up far away across the Atlantic in Cordoba, Argentina2. At the beginning of the series we meet a family of four living in Genova, the Rossis: mother Anna, father Pietro, eldest son Tonio and young Marco... and Amedeo, their little pet monkey. The father runs a free clinic for the poor, as times were tough in Italy at the turn of the century, and there was a national work shortage. The Rossis find themselves in debt because Pietro's work is certainly charitable, but unprofitable. Tough times require tough measures, and Marco's parents are forced to make the difficult but obvious choice between sending mother to Argentina to find work, and starving: she agrees to go for a year. However, Anna and Pietro keep Marco in the dark about their plans until the last minute, for fear of his reaction. On the last day before Anna is to set out, the whole family spends one last idyllic day on the beach together, before revealing the truth to Marco...

Genova...And thus the series begins. After the mother's departure, the series moves on into a number of episodes about daily life in Genova. This development section introduces the father and brother and many other characters not in the book. We meet not just the Rossi family and friends, but perhaps just as importantly, the fin-de-siecle city of Genova. We're ushered through its every nook and cranny through the eyes of Marco, giving us a glimpse of daily life going on all around him. These episodes bring the city alive in a way no other anime does. For the first time in an anime, the city was not a backdrop but an active part of the story. The city of Genova has many faces: dark alleyways which only get five minutes of sunlight a day3, marble plazas where a priveleged minority lounge in the sunlight above the crowded, towering tenements of the inner city4, the splendid and colorful facade of the city looking out on the sea. This series brought documentary realism to anime, and this is a big part of what makes it so much more powerful than typical anime (as is the case with Takahata's other work). Anime dealing with such mundane subject matter, and dealing with its characters in a realistic way had never been attempted before (excepting the earlier Takahata project Heidi). But though Heidi was an anime about everyday life, Marco is more than that.

Attention to detail could be said to be the unifying concept of this series. Every image of the city is designed to seem as realistic as possible, and comes across as intense and vivid. The city isn't just a backdrop; rather, watching the series gives you an impression of walking around a real city you've never been in before. No part of the city exists to fill in space, unlike in other anime. Sounds in the background are also realistic. Now and then you can hear the children singing a game in the distance, or a wife calling to her husband in the distance. And instead of each episode being an adventure story, this series tells of the things which occur every day in real life. The buildings of the city seem like organic creatures affected by the rain and sunlight of the environs. Using sound and lighting, the city's people and edifices are brought alive by these many small nuances, and as a result the 'foreignness' of the city seems very authentic. The real-to-life backdrop itself makes the action seem naturalistic and spontaneous. The fact that one single person wrote the entire script, and one single person directed every episode goes a long way to accounting for this series' sense of unity... because each is an auteur. Keeping the creative power within the hands of one person seems rarer in anime these days, probably because the industry has changed. But I think this tight creative control is precisely what made it possible to create a series which is certainly as much of a masterpiece as any of the other more well-known Miyazaki or Takahata films - but on an tremendously bigger scale. However, the director was not the only person whose creative work went into on this series. Credit should go equally to the various staff members: Director Takahata Isao, screenwriter Fukazawa Kazuo, layout artist Miyazaki Hayao, music director Sakata Koichi, art director Mukuo Takamura, animation director Kotabe Yoichi, and all the storyboarders - all without whose brilliant work these disparate elements would certainly not have come together with such glorious results.

MarcoBut what about the 3000 League journey? It doesn't come until relatively late in the series, after a long exposition; so I think it's clear that the real journey is in fact one of Marco's inner growth. What is it that compels Marco to leave Genova for faraway Buenos Aires5 6, all the way across the Atlantic? In part it's his character: Marco is a stubborn little boy. But he's justifiably worried in light of the sudden lapse of communication from his mother. By the time of the departure, it's obvious to the viewer that these episodes have served to mentally prepare Marco for the real journey ahead. But it's also clear that he has a long way to go. The often heated disputes had with his father, his skipping school to work as a bottle washer - all are symptoms of acute juvenalia. When the father finds out what Marco wants to do, he only naturally refuses even the thought of putting his son alone onto a ship for someplace as far as South America. But as for Marco, the little boy, he is still immature and stubborn. A stigmatized longing for the impossible seems to have a long tradition as as one of the beauties of youth, and Marco fits in nicely in that tradition. Marco takes his anxieties to an extreme that's frightening, even downright pathological, but for all his violent outbursts, he seems like just a normal little boy going through that phase in life. I think this is where Takahata shines - in making young Marco a bona fide, authentic, flawed human being. In fact, this is the part of the series which delves most effectively into the realm of Marco's mind, I think. At certain points in these episodes Marco rebels with an intensity of emotion and mental anguish that would make Jim "Rebel" Dean/Stark quake in his boots. No other anime before this has such a powerful screenplay which put effort into realistically portraying the a child's unstable emotional state during that roller-coaster time called adolescence.

This viewer only recently had the opportunity to experience watching these episodes for the first time, and without hesitation I would say in earnest that no anime tv series has ever been more emotionally riveting to me than merely the first fifth of this tv series. (and that'snot to discount the rest of the series) One could say that 3000 Leagues is the emotional prototype for Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata's film from a decade later. In her article on Isao Takahata in Kinema Jumpo No. 1166, Emiko Okada makes it a point to draw a parallel between the indifferent and cruel adults in Grave of the Fireflies and those in 3000 Ri. While I think such a parallel is partly true, I don't feel that the characterisations of the adults in 3000 Ri were taken to the extreme to which they were taken in Grave of the Fireflies. I think Grave suffers more than anything from this problem. People who lived through this period say that people were charitable and supportive of each other during this time and that the hardship-induced greed and self-interest characteristic of most characters in this film is all wrong. 3000 Ri is more than well balanced by its share of compassionate adult characters, and doesn't suffer any such handicap. The creators of the anime would be to thank for this, because in almost all respects the anime version of this novel is an original story. (One of the more important differences being that the anime version was stripped of the patriotic undercurrent of Cuore the novel.) Whereas Grave, as Okada points out, betrays its origins inautobiography by its sometimes wooden depiction of characters. It's easy to understand that liberties would need to be kept to a minimum in a 90 minute adaptation, whereas liberties would needs be taken in abundancein order to flesh out a 52-episode adaptation.

SlumOne WMT fan at one time astutely pointed out the very noticeable and considerable decline in grittiness in the WMT as the years go by. I think this is a fairly important point, because it helps understand why the WMT was cancelled. Basically, earlier series seem to be a lot tougher and less patronizing than the later series. The harder-hitting and more sober, seminal series from the beginning of the WMT (Heidi, Marco, Flanders, Rascal, Perrine and Anne) got ratings above the 20 mark, whereas the series in the latter half (post-Sara) more light-hearted and formulaic forays into "childrens' anime" suffered a continual decline in ratings (and arguably quality), and that is what eventually led to the demise of the WMT when it was cancelled by its longtime host station, Fuji TV, due to low ratings in 1997. Suffice it to say, perhaps there's more wisdom than meets the eye to a remark made by Shudo Takeshi (creator of Minky Momo) in 1993: "We made the Minky Momo series not by pandering to the kids, but rather with a feeling that if adults could follow, then surely kids will be able to follow as well."

ImmigrantsA film which was an influence on Takahata in 3000 Ri, and seems to have exerted some influence on stylistic aspects of the series, was Vittorio De Sica's film The Bicycle Thief (1948). This movie was the origin of the Italian post-war "neo-realist" film movement, and is considered to be one of the hallmarks of western cinema. There are a number of striking similarities between 3000 Ri and The Bicycle Thief, for example the unobtrusive, longer-than-usual camera shots and scenes depicting characters going through menial daily rituals, which would usually have been skipped over in anime and film alike. The pacing in 3000 Ri is also similar: slow, but always focused and never boring. We follow Marco throughout a whole day, and get to feel as if we were in his shoes. As he goes through the streets, we see the details which make every street and building unique, and we see things from his perspective yet also simultaneously from a detatched 3rd person perspective. Whilst looming buildings are characteristic of Genova, when Marco moves from one town to another later in Argentina, what characterises the cities there is different - they're flat. The cities - and its inhabitants - come alive in both places by fleshing out these radically different conceptions of landscape. Also the director doesn't spare the cities by making them pretty and making Marco's misery into an adventure. The cities are shown to be realistically if unflatteringly dirty and shabby, where needed, and daily life no more glamorous7. Marco's journey itself is authentic, as many Italians fled Italy in search of work around the turn of the century. Oftentimes this assiduous attention to realism is tempered by symbolist touches. At one point a squalid immigrant ship upon which Marco has been forced to board is approaching Buenos Aires (the city where Marco beleives his mother to be) and a hull-level camera-shot displays an object bobbing slowly along the waves towards the ship. It bumps into the hull, then tilts over to one side, and sinks beneath the waves, revealed to be the corpse of a horse. Later on, a grimy slum is ironically juxtaposed with a pristine white city. Scenes like this with more meaning than meets the eye are not uncommon, as are rather creative expressionistic nightmare sequences revealing Marco's psychic state. On the surface these are literary devices. And while not an integral part of plot, they serve, rather, to produce a sense of foreboding, and introduce borderline surrealist elements into the story. This innovative combination of authentic, sparse background music, background art establishing realistic but sometimes symbolically desolate landscapes, and script obsessively fleshing out the psychology of a single character, results in a powerful atmosphere unique to this series. Marco's experiences on the new continent reveal to the viewer people living sad but determined lives upon the vast, flat Argentinan pampas8 9, a place where the grass is no greener than in Marco's remote and overpopulated homeland.

The series is called Marco in the German-broadcast version. It receives frequent reruns in Japan and in Europe (as do many of the World Masterpiece Theater series). However, ironically, in Argentina the series was cancelled before even a third of the series had been aired, though this apparently had more to do with fickle viewers channel-surfing for Dragonball Z than the uncompromising way Argentina is portrayed.

This anime tv series was based on only one chapter of Cuore, not the entire story. The original was a "story within a story", the rest of the book being but a diary-novel about the life of an Italian elementary school student. The chapter on which the anime was based, From the Appennines to the Andes, was a story read by a teacher to the students who are the main characters in Cuore. (Note that the entire story was animated by Nippon Animation five years later in 1981, was the last "Calpis Playhouse" series). On the other hand, the other WMT series which to be based on a diary-novel, Daddy Long-Legs, follows the whole of the original, fleshing the diary entries out to produce a more tangible narrative, a sort of growing-up sitcom.

This was Isao Takahata's second credit as TV series general director. His other TV series are Heidi (1974), Anne of Green Gables (1979) and Jarinko Chie (1981), the latter of which enjoys continual airtime in Kansai. The ri in the Japanese title is an antiquated nautical measure of distance, one ri being equivalent to 2.44 miles, transferring handily to our own nautical measure of distance, the league.

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6 comments

pete
pete [Member]

great post Ben.

What can I say, I’ve seen the WMT series from 1975 to 1997 and completely agree with your opinion on the 70s show. even the non-WMT 70s shows.

Really if it werent for Nippon Animation japanese animation would never have been so popular.

Sure, Takahata, Miyazaki and the other animators played their part but it also had to do with the successful leadership of K. Motohashi in this case and the opening of the borders. Because in the case of Ghibili some years passed before it was known abroad.

Though now Nippon Animation are of the pioneers in removing or blocking their videos on Youtube -they uploaded episodes of the WMT series- for audiences outside Japan…..

Currently I am watching the series Bannertail in German. Despite that it has a completely different approach to the novel (squirrels there were not anthropomorphic) it has a subtlety not easily found in a children’s series

Only problem is that that the word “tail” in German has also another meaning so when squirrels talk about their tails an adult cant keep from laughing.

11/14/10 @ 01:12
gaguri
gaguri [Visitor]  

There is an anime called Fantastic Children by Nippon Animation and the director Takashi Nakamura. I love the series. It has modern look, but the charm of old school animation.

11/14/10 @ 06:29
Cathy
Cathy [Visitor]  

Maya the Honeybee still airs regularly here in Germany - my kids love it.

11/16/10 @ 22:24
Ben [Member]  

Pete -

Thanks, good to hear from another person who knew and loved the studio and their WMT shows. I was in contact with a lot of European fans of the WMT back 15 years ago when I first discovered the WMT and was amazed how in Europe everyone knew these shows… Here, even 15 years later, they’re still mostly unknown, though by now at least some fansubs have circulated. I agree the NA helped pave the way for anime becoming recognized throughout the world, though I’d never thought about it that way.

Interesting to hear that about Puschel. I’d like to see the whole show one day. I don’t understand German, but I think now I understand what this is all about.

Gaguri -

I guess you missed the part in my post where I mentioned Fantastic Children, but yeah, I liked that show. I actually never made it through the whole thing, but I’d like to go through it all from start to finish some day.

Cathy -

That’s the ultimate compliment to Nippon Animation - that 35 years later, it’s still getting re-runs, and kids still love it.

11/16/10 @ 23:47
pete
pete [Member]

Yes they continue to be popular. Recently the series Porfy was dubbed into Italian.

The series Bannertail, though inferior to Bearcub Jackie, has a very good pace for a children’s series and never gets boring. Plus in the second half a lot of ecological messages appear when the squirrels are forced to abandon their home in search for a new one, after humans arrive and start to hunt animals and cut trees.

When the squirrels arrive at the place where their paradise is supposed to be, they only find that it has been replaced by a city.

I liked the episode where Pushel is reunited with his cat mother, something absent in the book.

Probably one of the best series with fluffly animals I’ve seen.

11/17/10 @ 07:23
pete
pete [Visitor]

Bumping this topic again!

While Nippon Animation series were quite popular, during the early 90s TMS tried to compete with WMT by producing similar series based on literature.

What is noteworthy is that character designer J.Seiki worked freelance on both studios! Some series of TMS and Nippon were broadcasted at the same year too. Same character design, yet different studio and under a different broadcaster!

Most notable series were adaptations of “The Twins at St Clare’s", “A Dog of Flanders” and perhaps their most notable work, the adaptation of “Lottie and Lisa".

While the first two were popular in mainland Europe, the latter remains unknown and there isnt even a Japanese DVD release. With 29 episodes instead of 26 to boot at.

I wanted to see this series for years and now that they uploaded it with mediocre VHS quality, I think this series is more WMT than the WMT series of that period. It is also noteworthy that it takes place simultaneously in Vienna and Munich.

though some inaccuracies are unavoidable, attention to detail reminds of the older Nippon Titles.

perhaps this is the most down-to-earth adaptation of the 90s. One reason probably it wasnt exported abroad. Unjust for such a high quality series.

02/09/14 @ 05:37