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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Monday, January 30, 2006

11:34:16 pm , 1026 words, 7864 views     Categories: Animation

Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi

By chance I noticed that a new book involving Yasuo Otsuka comes out tomorrow: Otsuka Yasuo Interview: Animation Juo Mujin 大塚康生インタビュー アニメーション縦横無尽. It appears to be a book-length interview. Otsuka's interviews never fail to be fascinating, so I'll have to check this out.

Apparently the classic Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi AKA Once Upon a Time in Japan has begun re-airing from the beginning on NHK. I'm not sure of the total episode count, but since the show aired for twenty years I suppose they must be showing an episode a day if they want to get through it within a reasonable amount of time. I'd very much like a chance to revisit the show, as I remember being so impressed by the handful of episodes I managed to find at a Japanese grocery store long ago that I recorded every one. Other fans seemed to look at me cockeyed at the time for recording the show, but the show's spirit of experimentation is unrivalled in anime as far as I'm concerned. Even then I already knew: To me this is what was animation is all about. As an avid reader of folktales I was already predisposed to liking the stories, and the stories are indeed wonderful in their simplicity and directness - and the delivery by the two voice-actors who narrate/voice-act every character in every episode is magnificent - but it's the variety of graphic/storytelling styles that makes the show so irresistible. Only later did I learn about the big names involved, headlined by Group Tac co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, but each episode is interesting without even knowing who made it.

The basic concept of the series - and this is what makes it unique - is that a completely different design and look is adopted for each story. Each broadcast episode consists of two ten-minute stories, and in each story, a single person handles the animation, the directing and the art - sometimes the same person, sometimes a different person for each task, but always a single person. The animation is necessarily spare, but the visuals are always inventive and refreshing as a result, and the show never becomes monotonous. That perpetual renewal is surely the secret of the show's longevity, running as it did to nearly 1000 episodes from 1975-1995.

As happens every time I do so, going through the list of credits makes me begin watering at the mouth. There are many names I know very well - Gisaburo Sugii, Rintaro, Tsuneo Maeda, Norio Hikone. Hidekazu Ohara was involved later in the series. There are a lot more names I remember seeing in the past and wondering where they'd gotten to. Teruto Kamiguchi was involved heavily throughout the series right from the beginning. Just before beginning production on this series, Group Tac produced their first full-length feature, Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Maeda animated Margaret and Kamiguchi animated the giant. Like many of the main staff, Kamiguchi came from Mushi Pro. I remember his name primarily from his exhuberant animation of Lupa in Cleopatra, several years before Jack. Hiroshi Kanezawa I don't know much about but remember being impressed by an episode of Gamba (1975) that he animated singlehandedly. I've long suspected that Oh Production animator Kin'ichiro Suzuki, who's involved heavily here, is the person who did the wonderful FX in the Little Twins movie. Yusaku Sakamoto was one of the leading animators at Mushi Pro, co-directing Tale of a Streetcorner with Eiichi Yamamoto. Like Sakamoto, the late Chikao Katsui started out at Toei and moved to Mushi Pro when it opened. At the time he was famous for animating the birds at the beginning of the Jungle Taitei opening. He was also chief director of Ribon no Kishi. I particularly remember his work on Gisaburo Sugii's typically ill-fated Dororo. As in Goku, Sugii only managed to do things his way for the first season, and the rest is unwatchable. Another person I recognize is Hideo Nishimaki, who did a number of episodes in Goku. I've always kind of felt sorry for him, because clearly a lot of effort went into the episodes, but having your episodes shown side by side with those of Hata and Dezaki acts as a kind of cruel litmus test of whether you've got it or you don't, and Nishimaki don't. But he's really the only other person in the show who actually understood what Gisaburo was doing besides Hata and Dezaki. Curiously enough, Yoshiyuki Tomino even did an episode in the fallow period right before Gundam.

Particularly interesting is that a number of episodes are credited to Asia-do. This is interesing first of all because the studio was founded in 1978, yet they're credited right from the beginning, in February 1975. Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi are also credited alone on some episodes, so presumably they must have used the title as a collective pen name of sorts for a while before formally establishing the studio of the same name. Second of all it's interesting because Shibayama and Kobayashi came from A Productions, the studio formed by Toei expats that sort of carried on the Toei spirit of creating interesting movement in the TV era. So here we have the best representatives of the latter-day incarnation of rivals of old Toei Doga and Mushi Pro working side by side on the same show - the best of both worlds. A Productions was renamed to Shinei Doga right around the time the show started, and was also involved here and there.

One of Sugii's episodes is entitled Hyaku Monogatari. Hyaku Monogatari was a sort of pasttime in Edo Japan where people would get together, light 100 candles and tell ghost stories throughout the night, blowing out a candle for each story. A ghost was expected to appear after the last candle was blown out. My favorite book by Sugiura Hinako is a Hyaku Monogatari of her own. The animation in the episode was done by Marisuke Eguchi and the art by Mihoko Magohri, and the episode was aired in September 1983, so it would seem to have been a sort of warm-up for Night on the Galactic Railroad for the team.

Related: Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi

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4 comments

LJ Clark
LJ Clark [Visitor]

I agree that Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi is one of he most original and innovative shows I’ve ever seen, children’s programming or not! Does anyone know if it’s available on DVD or even VHS? I would pay an arm and a leg to get it.
LJ Clark
ljclark2006@hotmail.com

03/30/06 @ 12:10
Ben
Ben [Visitor]

Sixty VHS tapes containing (this is hard to believe) ONE episode (two stories) on each tape were released at one time, and though they’re currently out of print you can still find them used in packs of ten on Amazon.jp.

04/05/06 @ 20:19
jim
jim [Visitor]  

i am also one of those who would love to see this series on dvd… i used to watch it on japanese TV, but i would love to see it released for sale in the US.. it was a great show…

03/02/09 @ 17:13
pete
pete [Member]

I saw also recently the movie Gonkitsune (Gon, the little fox), where Maeda was director of the movie. It was screened in Japan 4 months prior to Night on the Galactic Railroad. Based on the children’s story of Niimi Naiki, which he heard and wrote when he was 17.

While certainly not so heavy as the other movie, it has also a tragic ending and the impressive sequence where the village children dance wearing masks is very similar to the one of Galactic Railroad. Very different from European fairytales. I was not surprised to learn that the author was called the H. C. Andersen of Japan

04/08/09 @ 05:47