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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« Tsutomu Mizushima's Blood COsamu Kobayashi directed Dantalian no Shoka #9 »

‹ Saturday, October 1, 2011 ›

01:57:00 pm , 1603 words, 3026 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Movie

Licca-chan & Burabura

Ajia-Do, the studio founded by ex-A Pro animators Shibayama Tsutomu and Osamu Kobayashi in 1978, produced an interesting series in the early 90s based on toy maker Takara's Licca-chan doll.

Licca-chan, despite being presumably aimed at little girls, was a quality production with a unique style of low-key, imaginative fantasy that I found very appealing for being so different in nature from all other anime out there.

I looked back on it recently and found that there's still a lot to appreciate in the series. Beyond its conventional blandly cute anime style character designs, and despite its intended demographic, it's packed with creative ideas in the world design.

Just take a look at some of the design ideas that grace the first outing in the series, the two-part Yunia OVA series released in 1990:

Licca-chan: Wondrous Yunia Story (1990)

It's a breath of fresh air from most anime. Fantasy anime is pretty common, but few anime look anything like this. This anime is about pure imagination. This is a more primordial kind of fantasy in the vein of Little Nemo, or Alice in Wonderland via M. C. Escher, rather than yet another dungeons and dragons anime.

The story is of little consequence, but is obviously inspired by Alice in Wonderland, with Licca-chan finding herself transported to this fantasy land where she travels around various bizarre locales meeting the strange denizens of an illogical world. Clues are littered here and there suggesting it's all a dream and the various elements (like the nefarious cat) are inspired by her own life.

In recent days there have been a few shorts by Shigeru Tamura - notably Glassy Ocean and Ursa Blue Minor - that are similarly pure fantasy creations, where the the world is dictated not by logic but by whimsy, but it's rare to see something in anime that is so pure in spirit.

I wondered who could have been behind this approach, and figured it must have been the two people credited with "concept art and creature design": Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto.

A quick search turned up a web site that answered the question succinctly: The two of them appear to have worked as partners under the moniker Studio Burabura since the 80s.

The many wonderful illustrations by Hiroyuki Kato featured on this web site (which is presumably run by himself, as he also has a diary there) are exactly in the same style and spirit as all the elements in the Yunia OVAs that I most liked. And he's got many drawings of fanciful bikes that look just like the flying bike that features at the end of the Ring OVAs. So this is the guy. It was gratifying to be able to single out the brain responsible for all those wonderful ideas.

Hiroyuki Kato is still very productive and has refined his style considerably over the years. I've spent hours enjoying his illustrations. He appears to hold several exhibitions of his recent work at galleries and cafes every year. Here are two of the recent ones: Platypus Government in Exile and Ringing Flowers, Trembling Stars.

Hence, Yunia represents exactly the kind of collaboration that I think produces the best results in anime: Someone of talent from outside of the industry bringing in fresh new ideas.

The Yunia OVAs were followed by two more OVAs next year in 1991: the two Magic Ring OVAs. This time the setting is Licca-chan's real life in Japan, but she finds a magic ring that allows her to see the creatures that lurk in the night when everyone is sleeping. The inspiration this time is clearly Peter Pan, as Licca-chan flies above the nighttime city with the aid of a strange visitor.

The visuals for these two OVAs were more low-key, without the wild imagination of the Yunia OVAs, but they did a great job of creating an atmosphere of mysterious nighttime in this arc, which takes place entirely at night.

Licca-chan: The Wondrous Magic Ring (1991)

I actually preferred this outing to Yunia when I originally saw the set many years ago, because this episode creates a beautiful, delicate atmosphere with the spare, tinkling soundtrack (by a young Kenji Kawai) and the quiet, empty urban nightscapes through which Licca-chan travels.

The atmosphere is one of eerie excitement. Strange ghostly animals go around gobbling up stars, and a dark miasma lurks waiting to pounce on unwitting visitors. When we were children, the darkness of the night inspired in us dreams of adventures and strange creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to be discovered. I liked this episode because it captured exactly how I used to feel about the night as a child.

Looking back on both now, I still appreciate the Ring arc for its atmosphere, but I prefer the Yunia arc for all the many creative ideas that were packed into it by Hiroyuki Kato.

Another thing I admire both arcs for is how they make a virtue of having very few animators. They don't feel cheap even though they have very few animators and don't move all that much. The Ring arc in particular only has four animators in each episode. Akemi Takada's characters retain an air of stately grace throughout. Akemi Takada is incidentally the one who invited Hiroyuki Kato to work on the show.

One more OVA entitled Licca-chan's Sunday was released in 1992, but it's less appealing than these two arcs. It's set in the real world without any fantasy elements, so it doesn't feature any creative ideas on the design side from Hiroyuki Kato. The story is cute and it comes across as a polished version of the classic Pierrot magical girl shows like Emi and Pelsha. But there's little of interest from a technical point of view except for the solid but unremarkable layouts and drawings.

Licca-chan and the Wildcats: Journey to the Stars (1994)

I recently discovered that Ajia-do even produced a full-length feature released in 1994 under the name Licca-chan and the Wildcats: Journey to the Stars. It was nice discovering this because it's a return to the standards of the first four OVAs with its imaginative designs.

It has a strong staff right from the top with Tsutomu Mizushima and Tatsuo Sato directing, concept work from Fujimori Masaya, key animation supervisors including Yoshiaki Yanagita, a story by Tomomi Mochizuki and some animation by Masaaki Yuasa. Despite the impressive staff list, it's not a masterpiece, but it's an enjoyable if slightly underwhelming and uneven film. But it's very different in tone and style from the earlier OVAs.

Most of the creative work comes at the climax, which features a battle between the wildcats of the title and a miasmatic adversary. Unlike the previous OVAs, this movie features some impressive names on the animator front, including Masaaki Yuasa, Susumu Yamaguchi and Hiroyuki Morita. Yuasa's work clearly comes in the climax, which has a lot of exciting fast-paced and imaginative shots. For example, the shot with the horses pictured above seem like his work.

I think Ajia-do was at something of its peak in the early 90s with this series plus Chibi Maruko-chan and a number of one-shot OVAs where they gave staff a lot of creative freedom like the Rakugokan series of which Yuasa directed an episode.

I'd love to see Hiroyuki Kato do some more work in animation, but he's primarily an illustrator. The only anime he ever worked on after Licca-chan was Zettai Shonen (not coincidentally also at Ajia-do under Tomomi Mochizuki), for which he designed the mecha. I'd like to see something that's a pure animated expression of the lovely, creative illustrations up on his site.

More generally, I'd like to see more anime in the spirit of pure fantasy of the Yunia OVAs. Cat Soup comes to mind as being the sort of thing I'm talking about: Something where the driving force isn't character-driven narrative but visual creativity.


Licca-chan: Wondrous Yunia Story (OVA, 1990, 2 x 30 mins)

Script: Kazunori Ito
Storyboard & Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Masako Goto
Concept Art and Creature Design: Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto
Art Director: Satoshi Miura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Music: Norio Maeda
Key Animation:
   Tetsuhito Saito
   Hiroshi Kawaguchi
   Ayako Nishio
   Mitsunori Murata
   Issei Kume
   Mitsuko Moriyama
   Hiroki Takagi


Licca-chan: The Wondrous Magic Ring (OVA, 1991, 2 x 30 mins)

Script: Kazunori Ito, Michiko Yokote
Storyboard & Director: Fumiko Ishii
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Takuya Saito
Concept Art and Creature Design: Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto
Art Director: Mitsuki Nakamura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Music: Kenji Kawai
Supervisor: Tsutomu Shibayama
Key Animation:
   Hiroshi Kawaguchi
   Akihiro Shibata
   Hiroyuki Nakamura
   Ayako Nishio
Assistance:
Studio Live


Licca-chan's Sunday (OVA, 1992, 30 mins)

Animation Production: Ajia-Do
Director: Tatsuo Sato
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Masako Goto
Script: Yumiko Koda
Music: Kohei Tanaka
Art Director: Satoshi Miura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Supervisor: Tsutomu Shibayama
Layout: Hiroyuki Nishimura
Key animation:
   Akihiro Shibata
   Hiroshi Hara
   Hiroshi Kawaguchi
   Hiroyuki Nakamura
   Masaya Fujimori

   Mitsunori Murata
   Shigeko Sakuma
   Masashi Abiru
   Takeko Mori? (杜孟子)


Licca-chan and the Wildcats: Journey to the Stars (movie, 1994, 78 mins)

Produced by: Ajia-do
Animation production assistance: Group Tac

Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Art Director: Shichiro Kobayashi
Music: Kohei Tanaka
Animation Director (アニメーション監督): Tatsuo Sato

Storyboard/Line Director/Dialogue: Tatsuo Sato
Scenario: Tomomi Mochizuki
Key Animation Supervisors (作画監督): Yoshiaki Yanagita, Hiroki Takagi, Ikuko Kusumoto
Concept work: Masaya Fujimori
Sub-character Design: Yoshiaki Yanagita
Ending animation: Kazushige Yusa

Animators:
Toshihisa Kaiya
Susumu Yamaguchi
Yoshiaki Tsubata
Akihiro Shibata
Shoichi Nakayama

Yoshihiko Takakura
Hiroyuki Morita
Mitsunori Murata
Masaaki Yuasa
Hideyuki Funagoshi

Hiroshi Kawabata
Yoshiyuki Kishi
Mayumi Hirota
Testsuhito Saito
Kari Higuchi
Hikaru Takanashi

Toshiyuki Yoshida
Hiroko Kazui
Toshiyasu Okada
Yuri Chiaki
Masaru Fukumoto
Nobuhiko Yamada
Toshiko Konno
Ei Inoue
Masahiko Ota

Permalink

8 comments

inactive
inactive [Visitor]  

Thanks for reviews, as always! Hope to see one on Dead Heat someday: http://www.megaupload.com/?d=9N6Z8NCS

10/02/11 @ 16:50
Régis
Régis [Visitor]  

Hey Ben! Great to see you back on track! And what a great article! Been perusing the paragraphs here and there, but just learning about another small Japanese studio from years ago is exciting in its own right; even though the images are small, the line work already makes me think of what Topcraft was doing back then (though perhaps your examples are a little later than the heyday of Topcraft). Either way, I gotta catch up on your past recent posts now, but, I just thought of dropping by and saying hi! ;)

10/03/11 @ 10:57
Ben [Member]  

inactive -

Thanks for another rarity. I’ll check out Dead Heat when I have a chance.

Regis -

Hey good to hear from you. Hope things are well. Hopefully I’ll have more for you to read in the coming days. Need to get back into the groove of posting regularly.

10/05/11 @ 10:58
Tim Drage
Tim Drage [Visitor]

Thanks for this post, these look great!

10/06/11 @ 07:47
aaron_long
aaron_long [Member]

Wow, what an article! I’ve got to find a way to watch these films. It may sound odd, but I’ve been looking for exactly this sort of anime lately, so this is perfect timing. Your blog is fantastic, I’ve been turned on to so many amazing anime films thanks to you! Keep up the great work!

10/10/11 @ 16:39
Ben [Member]  

Thanks Aaron, glad to have been of help! I hope you can see this someday and let me know what you think. Nice work on the Lupin posts.

10/11/11 @ 16:13
Anonymous
Anonymous [Visitor]

Speaking of Ajia-do, there’s a loosely-related book that popped up recently that might interest you as an anime fan:
http://twitter.com/#!/megatenhongo/status/130996237645258752
http://www.style.fm/as/02_topics/book/top_book124.shtml

Just thought I’d put this here!

10/31/11 @ 18:48
Ben [Member]  

That sounds like an incredibly interesting book. Thank you for mentioning it. I will definitely be getting that. For those who can’t read Japanese, it’s the memoirs of a person who used to work at Ajia-do. It’s about his struggle with schizophrenia.

10/31/11 @ 20:28