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I just discovered the nice little film Lizard Planet created in 2009 by Tomoyoshi Joko. Tomoyoshi Joko has uploaded Lizard Planet and a number of his other films to his Youtube account. Watch it here.
I like the film for any number of reasons: the rich coloring, the bizarre but playful imagery of lizards and octopuses and other stuff floating around in space, the densely layered texture of the visuals, and the ethereal story. It's both beautiful visually and fun to watch, warm and playful, yet it also has a sting in its tail. At the end, the lizard planets plunge into the sun in a cataclysmic orgy of self-destruction. It's a bizarre and creative allegory about how the planets like ours are actually living organisms and we need to take care of them because they can easily be killed.
It's great to see new creators popping up like this creating independent films with an artistic but approachable style. Alongside creators like Mizue Mirai and the animators of Robot's Cage studio, there's a whole generation of indie animators creating accessible and genuinely original and creative new animation in Japan today. They show by their example that it's possible to go it alone the shadow of the industry and create more free and individualistic work. There are a number of talented animators working in the industry who I wish would follow this example and go indie so that they can create films entirely in their own style and not be forced to suppress their irrepressible personalities.
Tomoyoshi Joko was born in 1984 and graduated from Tokyo Polytecnic University's Faculty of Arts in 2007. He then entered graduate school and finished his graduate studies in March 2009. While there, he studied under legendary indie animator Taku Furukawa.
He made four other films before Lizard Planet, which was his graduate school project. In 2006 he made two brief films: Afro, about a guy who suddenly grows an afro and flies off into the sky, and God's Gift, which shows how god took a piss one day and humanity sprung from the ground where his holy water landed. The second film shows considerable improvement over the first.
He made a longer film in 2007, the nearly 7-minute Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. This is quite a nice film, beautifully animated and genuinely interesting to watch at every moment as you follow the two curious characters and their interaction. It has a creative concept, thematic unity and strong animation. It took him a year to make and some 5000 drawings. He depicts the first meeting of Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. Mr. Cloud is overbearing and beats up Mr. Rain, but in the end when Mr. Rain falls to the ground, Mr. Cloud disappears too. Afterwards we realize that the two are inextricably intertwined. Again, I love the rich colors and how well he brings the characters alive, so that we understand what the two characters are feeling and thinking at every moment despite them not having any features other than a weird cyclops eye.
Next he made Buildings in 2008 as his graduation film. Again he chooses some interesting objects to bring alive - after clouds and water, this time buildings. It's hard to appreciate the film from the linked video, which is footage of the film being played to a live musical score, but it's clear that he gives each building a unique design and personality. The film tells the story of a single building that arrogantly towers above the rest but in the end saves the other buildings from a flood and reconciles with everyone by using his height to bring everyone together rather than towering above them. His films typically have rich animation and creative design work coupled with an incisive moral message or theme, be it about nurturing the living being that is our planet, about the interaction between clouds and water, or about getting along with others in society.
In April of this year, Tomoyoshi Joko formed the group Decovocal together with his partner Hiroco Ichinose (Decovocal web site, where you can see a photo of the adorable couple here). The two of them went to the same school and have been working together since Tomoyoshi Joko's very first film, Afro. As they mention on their site, the name Decovocal was devised by Taku Furukawa. It combines a number of ideas: It's a neologism from the word dekoboko 凸凹, which means uneven. The characters suggest a male-female duo. "Deco" plays on Art Deco. It evokes the notion of singing one's personality in animation with a loud, colorful voice.
Decovocal reminds me of another couple team making whimsical handmade animation - Uruma Delvi. Decovocal is close in spirit to the animators of Robot's Cage studio, creating art animation that's accessible and entertaining, soft and warm, creative visually and full of lush character animation. Decovocal has been very active doing commercial work, as witness the long list of commissions they've already accrued in their first year on their home page. These include a music video for Keiichi Suzuki and two episodes of the French Rita et Machin for NHK.
Hiroco Ichinose was born in 1985 and studied with Tomoyoshi Joko at the Tokyo Polytecnic. She has also been making short films since she started studying. First came A Sad Breakfast (2006), Ushinichi (2007) and Ha P (2008). All three won the best selection on NHK's Digital Stadium - no mean feat. Her latest films since graduating are YOKOHA-MAMAN (2009) and TWO TEA TWO (2010).
A Sad Breakfast tells the story of a dog eating breakfast while crying about a dead bird. Ha P seems to be about a couple who appear happy but in fact are in the grips of despair about not being able to have a child. They are drawn on different animation layers, so despite their closeness, an insurmountable distance separates them. Ushinichi is a bizarre slice-of-life about a group of characters filled with sardonic touches.
All of her films stand at the crossroads between happiness and grief, seeming to tell comical stories but actually being about pain and suffering. Stylistically, the influence of Taku Furukawa is much more obvious in Hiroco Ichinose's work than it is in Tomoyoshi Joko's work. She draws the same kind of spare stick figures with no backgrounds and little movement. Even the tone and storytelling style is similar. Her work also strikes me as having a sense of the surreal slightly reminiscent of Atsushi Wada's work.
What little is shown of her latest film TEA TWO TEA in her showreel (linked below) is quite impressive and shows a new level of stylistic achievement. You can see considerable improvement in each of these still young animator's successive films. Having accrued some experience now, you can see that they're both getting better technically as well as becoming more creatively flexible. Alone they make great films, but they also make a great team. They have a strong synergy. I look forward to seeing what Decovocal does in the future.
The manga Sukeban Deka about the yo-yo-wielding delinquent detective was adapted into a two-episode OVA in 1991 after having been adapted into live-action movies in the late 80s. The live-action stuff appears to have been done by Toei, but the OVAs seem to have been the product of a consortium that outsourced much of the work to different studios, among them chiefly Osaka's Anime R.
Anime R is a subcontracting studio founded in Osaka in the late 1970s by Moriyasu Taniguchi and Hiromi Muranaka. It was one of the first Japanese animation studios to be located outside of Tokyo. They are best remembered for their contribution to raising the quality of Ryosuke Takahashi's first two 'real robot' shows for Sunrise Dougram and Votoms. They had a unique style in the 1980s, with exciting and detailed animation like no other studio. They were one of the most relied-upon studios for mecha animation. That flavor receded in the 1990s, after many of the 1980s staff left, but they're still a prolific and relied-upon studio.
The credits don't mention Anime R. But it's obvious that they're involved if you read between the lines. There are a bunch of Anime R animators involved.
Anime R president Moriyasu Taniguchi is credited as an animator in Sukeban Deka alongside Anime R animators Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida, Takahiro Komori, Takashi Fumiko, Masahide Yanagisawa, Hiroshi Osaka, Hiromi Muranaka, Masahiko Itojima, Takahiro Kimura and Kazuchika Kise. Masahiro Kase, another Anime R member at the time, is the sub-character designer and the main animation director (sakkan).
This OVA thus seems like a good place to get a sense of what kind of work Anime R was doing at this mid-period in their history, after their most famous period but before all of the cool animators had quite left. I've heard of Anime R forever and known who was involved there, but I couldn't put my thumb on their defining look.
Nobuteru Yuuki is the character designer of Sukeban Deka, but he's not the sakkan, so it doesn't have that patented Nobuteru Yuuki density of animation and highly worked drawings. Masahiro Kase was the sakkan of episode 1, assisted by Yuka Kudo and Hiroyuki Okuno. All three are credited as sakkans in episode 2.
The drawings in Sukeban Deka are actually all over the place, maybe not as much as Hakkenden, but still pretty uneven. That's actually one of the things I most liked about these two OVAs. The story is otherwise quite stupid and obviously not meant to be taken seriously. It's a kind of shoujo action mystery, and it's mildly entertaining, but nothing about the characters or story ever grips you. It's about a cute girl in a sailor fuku kicking ass, and hey, that's enough for me. It's a shoujo anime, but it feels more like a shounen anime. The action scenes are actually fairly nice, with an appealing looseness and rawness appropriate to the style of this period, so it's a pretty decent action show.
The main characters aren't drawn in a particularly interesting way, but the crowd drawings I really like. The faces have a surprisingly appealing, quasi-realistic style that kind of comes out of nowhere. They look nothing like the protagonists. They seem to have had more freedom with the sub-characters. The bystanders vaguely remind me of the bystanders by Koichi Arai in 3x3 Eyes from the same year. I like that they don't look like the sort of cliche'd anime/shoujo designs you'd expect in an adaptation of a shoujo manga. I don't know who would have been responsible for these. I thought maybe Masahiro Kase, since he's credited as the sub character designer in episode 2, but he's not credited with that in ep 1.
I know Masahiro Kase had started out at Nippon Animation in 1978 and worked on Pelline (1978), Anne (1979), Tom Sawyer (1980) and Lucy (1982) before leaving to join Anime R. While there, Kase was one of the main animators of Votoms alongside Anime R animator Mouri Kazuaki. Kase left Anime R around 1990 to form his own subcontracting 'studio' called Studio Curtain, from which he went on to continue to be involved in Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater shows. He was character designer of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair as well as Mahoujin Guruguru.
Tadashi Hiramatsu had joined animation subcontractor Nakamura Production sometime around 1986 and done his first key animation in 1987 in Mister Ajikko, where he met Masahiro Kase, who was the character designer and chief sakkan of the show. Hiramatsu joined Studio Curtain when it was founded in 1990 and from there worked on the WMT for a bit. I suppose that's the reason Hiramatsu is involved, because he never worked at Anime R. Normally, Kase was at Curtain by the time this was done, so presumably he got the work because of his Anime R connections. Strangely, Studio Curtain gets a small 'assistance' mention in the credits, but there's no mention whatsoever of Anime R.
Anyway, the only sequence that I felt right away I could pin down to an animator was the opening scene of episode 1, where the girl is chased through the market and into the alleyway by the group of thugs. I'm guessing this part was done by Hiroyuki Okiura. What makes me think so is first of all just the skill of the drawings, layouts and movements. It's not super-detailed like his more recent work, but every detail is just right - the folds of the clothes, the way the girl's shoulders arch up realistically when she's struggling. Little things like this just show the hand of someone who has an uncommon skill at accurately visualizing the body in motion and being able to execute it in a way that feels nice as animation.
Also, I get the feeling I sense a bit of a distant echo of both Akira and Peter Pan in the way the baddies are drawn - their mouth, their expression, the way they gesticulate - which Okiura had just participated in recently. There's even an overhead shot here that has a similar layout as a shot in the mob scene he did in Akira. The smirk of the baddies and the way of drawing the eyes reminds me of Peter Pan, while Akira comes through in the more detailed folds of the clothing, the Takashi Nakamura-esque faces and hands, and the more realistic poses. It actually doesn't feel much like the great action sequence he did in The Hakkenden OVA 1 around the same time, but it's the only sequence in the episode that stands out to me as having good enough animation that seems a fit for him.
I can't pin down any other sequences to any particular animator - except for one. It's the main reason I sought out this episode. Discovering the Anime R connection was actually a surprise and a bonus. The sequence in question sticks out something incredible. I've seen a lot of crazy animation from Japan in my day, but this one was up there with the craziest. And it's ironic because up until a while ago I'd never heard of the animator who did it.
It's the action sequence on the school grounds, which you can see here. It was animated by an animator named Masayuki Kobayashi, who did a lot of similarly styled action in Ranma 1/2 around the same time.
Just look at these drawings. You don't notice that they're this insanely deformed when the animation is in motion - all you notice is the incredibly awesome effect the drawings achieve. Like many good animators, Masayuki Kobayashi is a great action animator who knows how to effectively insert deformed images at the right moment to heighten the impact of the animation. People have criticized Norio Matsumoto's animation on Naruto by picking out a single drawing that seems deformed out of an amazing shot of animation, and criticizing him for not being able to draw. Not only is it not true - he can draw really well - it betrays astounding ignorance of how animation is made. The skilled use of deformation within a movement like this is something not many animators can pull off. All the more so when it comes to really extreme deformation of the kind Masayuki Kobayashi busts out here.
As soon as Masayuki Kobayashi's action scene starts, it's like a different show. Everything is suddenly extremely fast and fluid - and rubbery. I love the way the characters limbs seem to bend under the very momentum of their superhuman leaps and lunges. The characters leap and stretch something incredible. It's really exciting to watch, as an action sequence should be. It's full of verve, momentum, punch, and insanity. It's the kind of action that made me fall in love with anime in the first place. You don't find this kind of action animation anywhere else in the world.
And the particular style of Masayuki Kobayashi's animation seems like something that couldn't have emerged at any other period. It seems the product of the various tendencies floating around in the air at the time. You've got a bit of Akira-esque realism, leavened with Satoru Utsunomiya's elastic style, multiplied by the wackiness of mid-80s TV action animation from wild children like Masayuki and Hideki Tamura. I like that it's not just a mere copy of Yoshinori Kanada or Satoru Utsunomiya - he's cooked together all these various tendencies into his own crazy stew. We're seeing a resurgence of the influence of Yoshinori Kanada these days among young animators like Jun Arai, but what I don't like is that it feels like they're just imitating him outright instead of coming up with their own style like Masayuki Kobayashi did.
I don't know where he came from or where he went. This is all I've been able to find that he's done:
Ranma 1/2 Nettohen 2, 4, 6, 10, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 31, 39 (1990)
The Hakkenden 2, 3, 5 (1990-92)
Sukeban Deka 1 (1991)
Rojin Z (1991)
Run, Melos! (1992)
Nana Toshi Monogatari (1994)
Another scene I liked was the brawl in the arcade near the end of episode 1. The drawing style is really distinctive and totally unlike everything else in the episode, but I can't identify who did it.
It had some fast, fluid and excitingly animated action, without being wildly deformed like the Masayuki Kobayashi scene. It's a classic example of the sort of animation I most like in the productions of this early 90s period like Hakkenden. In fact, the movement seems suspiciously similar to the demon army scene animated by Hiroyuki Okiura in episode 1 of Hakkenden. It's got the same style of pared down drawings combined with really quick action with lots of movement constantly going on. I started wondering, maybe Okiura did this part?? But I notice the same kind of movement near the end of episode 2, and Okiura isn't credited in that episode, so I suspect both may have been done by the same animator.
This is another good example of the unique style of movement that so many animators were doing at this time. Realistic, but not Jin-Roh realistic - more fun and exciting and action-packed. Everyone seemed to be trying their hand at this style. One of the things I remember seeing pretty often in the early 1990s was this thing where the arms kind of hung down limply and wobbled around, as if they were asleep. I loved that. This whole style faded away pretty quickly moving into the mid-90s.
The reason I checked this out was to see Masayuki Kobayashi's work, because I'd heard he was involved. But when I checked the credits on the AD Vision release, I didn't find his name. I found only one "Masanori Kobayashi". I figured it had to be him and the translator just goofed a little. Then I noticed other names that seemed suspiciously familiar. Hironori Okuno? That couldn't be Hiroyuki Okuno, could it? Satoshi Hiramatsu? I only know one Hiramatsu, and that's Tadashi Hiramatsu. I was really curious to know what was going on, so I got my hands on the Japanese credits and did a comparison.
My jaw dropped at what I found. Now, Japanese names are a pain to translate. Often, if you don't have information directly from the person in question, you can't know for sure how a name is read. After all these years, there are still names I'm not sure of. And there are names that I thought I knew how to read for many years that turned out to be read differently. So in that sense, I don't really blame the translator. But on the other hand, there are some names whose readings are clear. The translator who did these credits didn't just goof, he f*ed up big time. In the case of 'Hironori Okuno', "Nori" isn't even a possible reading of that character. Worse than that, Tadashi Hiramatsu appears in both episodes, and is translated differently in each episode - Satoshi Hiramatsu in the first episode and Eiji Hiramatsu in the second episode.
Here are the credits, with corrections, to serve as an example of how important it is to properly translate credits, and how misleading and useless a bad translation can be. Who would have known that Koji Ayazaka was in fact Hiroshi Osaka? But hey, at least they translated the credits and didn't omit the key animators. That's already better than most releases I've seen.
Sukeban Deka Episode 1 animators
|Makoto Yoshida||Megumi Abe|
|Yukio Nishimura||Naoko Yamamoto|
|Kei Takeuchi||Masahiko Itojima|
|Masahide Yanagisawa||Yukio Iwata|
|Haruo Ogawara||Hidenori Matsubara|
Sukeban Deka Episode 2 animators
|Sumomo Okamoto||Hiroyuki Okuno|
|Hiroko Kazui||Keiichiro Katsura|
|Yuka Kudo||Takahiro Komori|
|Ken Sato||Takuya Saito|
|Moriyasu Taniguchi||Shinya Takahashi|
|Makoto Furuta||Miki Furukawa|
|Hiromi Muranaka||Masahide Yanagisawa|
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.
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 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.
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)
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
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
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)
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)
A movie compiled from episodes of the TV series was released in theaters on 19 July1980 in Japan.
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.
This 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...
...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.
But 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.
One 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."
A 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.
This image is from the "Growing Up" episode of Nippon Animation's 1986 TV show Animated Classics of Japanese Literature. I watched most of the show way back when. What was most appealing about it was its omnibus approach to the production, with a different team heading each episode. It even features work by ex-A Pro folks like Osamu Kobayashi and Yoshio Kabashima.
The Growing Up episode was by far my favorite of lot for its unique drawing style. The characters had this stately elegance that I'd never seen in any anime before. The designs were classy and classic, and the movement more weighty and calculated and beautiful. It was all so graceful and lovely, every line so delicate and perfect, kind of like Seiichi Hayashi's drawings come to life. (Seiichi Hayashi incidentally drew the drawings for the end credits) It was also directed very sensitively, complementing the low-key and emotionally subtle story of a young girl and her friends growing up in the late 1800s in Japan. It was one of the best animated literary adaptations I'd seen. I haven't rewatched it in a while, but I suspect it still probably holds up fairly well.
Isamu Kumada was the director, character designer and animation director of this episode. I looked for more work by him because I wanted to see more in this vein, but I couldn't find anything quite like this, though as I discovered upon looking into it, he has been prolific doing all sorts of other things.
Isamu Kumada's start in animation is still a mystery to me. All I know is that he was born in 1940, graduated from Tokyo University of the Arts and started out working on anime in the 1970s and 1980s for the likes of Nippon Animation and Topcraft, and then shifted to doing TV ads from his independent studio Studio Arrow, which was just himself and Susumu Shiraume. Isamu Kumada is today best remembered as a TV ad director. He was very prolific in the 90s and 00s in advertising. It was right before he made the switch to doing ad work, at the end of at least a good decade of working in the industry, that he made the wonderful Growing Up episode.
Studio Arrow appears to go back at least to 1976. I found Studio Arrow credited with the animation for the following six early episodes of Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi AKA Tales of Old Japan.
Waterfall for the Aged (#19A, 1976)
The God of Wind and the Children (#22A, 1976)
The Dragon in the Swamp (#33A, 1976)
The Ghost Ship (#45A, 1976)
The False Idol (#61A, 1976)
The Treasure Geta (#67A, 1977)
I don't know whether Kumada and Shiraume had an official studio at this time or they were just using the title as a collective pen name the way Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama did around the same time on the same show with "Ajia-do" (their actual Ajia-do studio wasn't founded until 1978). But Kumada was 35 at the time, so it's hard to believe he was just starting out in animation. Thus there seems to be something missing, something before this - how he got into animation I'm still not sure.
Kumada and Shiraume were involved with Topcraft for a while around this time, because at the very least I've found them credited with layout on The Flight of the Dragons (1982).
Kumada and Shiraume also worked together on numerous Nippon Animation productions around this time, including Cuore: School of Love (1981) and Hey! Bunbu (1985-86), on which they were credited together with character design. In a solo capacity, Kumada was the character designer of Nippon Animation's Diary of Anne Frank TV special (1979), Meesha the Bear Cub (1979-1980), Alice in Wonderland (1983-84), Blinky the Koala (1984), Aesop's Fables (1985) and 80 Days Around the World (1987-88) while Shiraume designed Mori no Tonto-tachi (Forest of the Elves, 1986) for Shaft. Isamu Kumada and Susumu Shiraume are together credited for the animation of Growing Up.
After this, sometime in the late 80s, Studio Arrow appears to have shifted focus to work mainly on TV advertisement. Kumada designed posters and wrote picture books, and even published a guidebook called Textural Expression for Designers in 1987. From Studio Arrow, he and Susumu Shiraume produced a large number of TV ads for the likes of Daihatsu and Nissan. To name but a few examples, they did the Notte Kangaroo series for Nissan; the Lismo series for mobile phone company KDDI; and this Badger ad from 1990 for Tokyo Electric. I also discovered that Kumada directed two OVAs released in 1992 adapting classic picture books with engravings by Jiro Takidaira - one entitled The Mountain of Flowers and the other entitled Mochimochi no Ki. (Tadanari Okamoto also adapted Mochimochi no Ki.)
In the course of researching this post, I learned that Isamu Kumada died on September 4, 2009 at age 69.
Kumada also participated in this series of 10 "video book" adaptations of classics of Japanese literature. Each story is read aloud by a narrator to a backdrop of illustrations by different illustrators. Many of them besides Kumada are animators. In fact, most of the people seem to be people who worked on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi - Gisaburo Sugii, Marisuke Eguchi, Hidekazu Ohara, Mitsuo Kobayashi, Takamitsu Miwa, Hirokazu Fukuhara - so it appears to be kind of an offshoot of that show.
Incidentally, Studio Arrow helped launch the advertising career of Hidekazu Ohara, the great animator responsible for Cannon Fodder and Professor Dan Petry's Blues, not to mention a bunch of episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. (The delightfully stylized razor blade kitsune episode he did, which I talked about before here, was in fact what got him the job to do Cannon Fodder - Eiko Tanaka showed a tape of the episode to Katsuhiro Otomo, and that is what got him the job offer.) Ohara worked at Studio Arrow for a while before going independent and going on to become equally creative and prolific and sought-after a creator of animated TV ads. It's from them that he learned the stylistic versatility and blend of techniques that makes his work stand out. He did the whole Qoo series, the Gohan ga Susumu-kun series and the famous Aleph ad that vividly brought to life the Slam Dunk characters.
Isamu Kumada and Hidekazu Ohara are an example of a type of animator we don't hear about much in anime - a more flexible animator who is able to switch between radically different styles depending on the subject matter, who doesn't just work as a cog in one post, but switches around doing different things depending on the project, trying out different styles. They're much more rounded and flexible. It's this experience that paved the way for the creative and unusual styles of Cannon Fodder and Professor Dan Petry's Blues. Young animators today who know nothing but anime style drawings could use this kind of exposure to different styles to expand their palette. A large amount of creative animation work in Japan has been done in advertising work, and therefore is mostly hidden away and disappears quickly and doesn't get attributed to the artists, so it's hard to keep track of. It's a whole hidden side of the animation industry that doesn't get talked about as much.
As a supplement to this post, reproduced below is what I wrote about the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature series some 10-odd years ago in the old WMT database I used to run. Just now I tried looking online for information about the staff for each episode of this series, but I couldn't find anything, which is why I dug this up. For some reason, back then I transcribed the credits of all the episodes I had rented. A few episodes are missing, but it's still better than nothing.
Looking over this, I noticed that the Asunaro Story episode that I also liked was done by the Ajia-do team of Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama and Yumiko Suda.
青春アニメ全集 Literary classics animated
Started airing April 25, 1986
Produced by Nippon Animation/Dentsu Osaka Branch, aired on Nihon TV
Chief Director: Kurokawa Fumio
Character Supervisor: Mori Yasuji
Ending Illustrations: Hayashi Seiichi
An omnibus of famous works of Japanese literature. Each episode of this series was done by a different creative staff, like Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, an anthology of Japanese folk tales, resulting in a refreshingly different look and feel from episode to episode, something which is unusual in anime. The resulting variety of styles well complements the different authors represented. Several episodes stand out from the rest, foremost the well-crafted and stylish Growing Up episode by Kumada Isamu. Asunaro story is one of the more lyrical and affecting stories in the series, and Hoichi, again the work of Kumada Isamu, is also good; but even taking the less well done episodes into account, the fact that this series is original and genuinely interesting to watch makes this one of Nippon Animation's best works of the 1980s, a decade which was otherwise downhill for this studio which created masterpieces like 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and the other early WMT series in the late 1970s.
Student Days is not listed as having been aired at the time of the original Japanese broadcast in the Japanese database I've consulted for the episode listing. Two previously unaired episodes were aired at the end of 1987, a year after the TV series finished broadcasting, so presumably this is one of those.
English sub: The whole series was released with English subs on VHS by Central Park Media. Their credit translations are incomplete and incorrectly list the same animators and art director in each episode; I've made an accurate episode-by-episode credit list (still in progress).
#1: The Izu Dancer
Original work: Kawabata Yasunari
Director: Takasuka Katsumi
Animation director: Kabashima Yoshio
Character design: Kabashima Yoshio
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Kawamoto Shohei
#2: Sea Roar Part one - Spring awakening
#3: Sea Roar Part two - Summer storm
#4: The grave of the wild chrysanthemums
Original work: Ito Sachio
Director: Kumada Isamu
Animation director: Iimura Kazuo
Character design: Kumada Isamu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Mukuo Takamura
#5: The wind rises
Original work: Hori Tatsuo
Director: Morita Hiromitsu
Animation director: Yanase Joji
Character design: Tsutsui Momoko
Screenplay: Matsuda Shozo
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Shibata Chikako
#6: The fruit of Olympus
Original work: Tanaka Hidemitsu
Director: Matsushima Akiko
Animation director: Yazawa Norio
Character design: Yazawa Norio
Screenplay: Matsuda Shozo
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Yamamoto Junko
Storyboard: Kasahi Hiroshi
#7: Botchan Part one - The new professor gets mad!
Original work: Natsume Soseki
Director: Kondo Eisuke
Animation director: Kitahara Takeo
Character design: Motomiya Hiroshi
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Kudo Ken'ichi
#8: Botchan Part two - Defeat Red Shirt!
Original work: Natsume Soseki
Director: Kondo Eisuke
Animation director: Kitahara Takeo
Character design: Motomiya Hiroshi
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Kono Masamichi
#9: From "Harmonium and fish town" in Wandering Days
Original work: Hayashi Fumiko
Director: Okabe Eiji
Animation director: Iimura Kazuo
Character design: Ishino Hirokazu
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Kawano Jiro
#10: The dancing girl
Original work: Mori Ogai
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shimada Hideaki
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Kaneko Hidetoshi
#11: Asunaro story
Original work: Inoue Yasushi
Director: Suda Yumiko
Animation director: Shibayama Tsutomu
Character design: Kobayashi Osamu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Tanaka Shizue
#12: A roadside stone Part one - Dreams of middle school
Original work: Yamamoto Yuzo
Director: Okabe Eiji
Storyboard: Kurokawa Fumio
Animation director: Ishino Hirokazu
Character design: Mori Yasuji
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Tojo Toshihisa
#13: A roadside stone Part two - Hard days
Original work: Yamamoto Yuzo
Director: Okabe Eiji
Storyboard: Kurokawa Fumio
Animation director: Ishino Hirokazu
Character design: Mori Yasuji
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Tojo Toshihisa
#14: Growing up
Original work: Higuchi Ichiyo
Director: Kumada Isamu
Animation director: Kumada Isamu
Character design: Kumada Isamu
Screenplay: Kuni Chisako
Music: Koroku Reijiro
Art director: Kawamoto Shohei
Key animation: Kumada Isamu, Shiraume Susumu
#15: The priest of Mount Koya
#16: Kwaidan: The tale of Hoichi
Original work: Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn)
Director: Kumada Isamu
Animation director: Kitahara Takeo
Character design: Kumada Isamu
Screenplay: Miyazaki Akira
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Kubota Norio
Biwa: Tsuruta Kinshi
#17: Akagawa Jiro: Hometown casebook
#18: Akagawa Jiro: Voice from heaven
#19: The theater of life
Original work: Ozaki Shiro
Director: Okabe Eiji
Animation director: Kon Shinnosuke
Character design: Murao Mio
Screenplay: Nakanishi Ryuzo
Music: Shimazu Hideo
Art director: Uchida Tatsuhiko
#20: Season of the sun: A dangerous youth
Original work: Ishihara Shintaro
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shimada Hideaki
Screenplay: Nagahara Shuichi
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Kanemura Katsumi
#22: Sugata Sanshiro Part 1: Child of fate of Kodokan
#23: Sugata Sanshiro Part 2: Mountain storm special attack
#24: Sugata Sanshiro Part 3: Showdown at Ukyogahara
#25: The harp of Burma Part 1: Noplace like home
Original work: Takeyama Michio
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shiraume Susumu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Ito Shukei
#26: The harp of Burma Part 2: Song of separation
Original work: Takeyama Michio
Director: Ishikuro Noboru
Animation director: Shimada Hideaki
Character design: Shiraume Susumu
Screenplay: Yoshida Kenji
Music: Sakata Koichi
Art director: Ito Shukei
#27: Akechi Kogoro: A walker in the attic
#28: Akechi Kogoro: A psychological test
#29: Akechi Kogoro: The red room
#30: The New Story of Tono
#31: Love climbing to heaven
#32: Shiro returns to the north
Original work: Togawa Yukio
Director: Matsushima Akiko
Animation director: Abe Masaki
Character design: Abe Masaki
Screenplay: Kuriyama Shizuyo
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Yamamoto Junko
#?: Student Days
Original work: Kume Masao
Director: Matsushima Akiko
Storyboard: Kuzuoka Hiroshi
Animation director: Kiyoyama Shigetaka
Character design: Kiyoyama Shigetaka
Screenplay: Matsuda Shozo
Music: Yamamoto Junnosuke
Art director: Yamamoto Junko
A lot of OVAs were produced in the 1980s, most of which have been forgotten today, usually for the best. Some have been forgotten undeservedly. Cool Cool Bye (1986) is one of the ones that's been undeservedly forgotten.
Not only does Cool Cool Bye boast one of the most awesome titles ever, it also boasts some of the best and most unique animation to ever grace any anime. Cool Cool Bye is one of those OVAs I like to call a 'karisuma animator OVA', referring to a handful of OVAs made in the 1980s as a showcase of a particular animator's genius that remain essential viewing as perhaps the densest example of that animator's style. Birth was Yoshinori Kanada's karisuma animator OVA, and Cool Cool Bye is Tomonori Kogawa's karisuma animator OVA.
Kogawa has left behind a number of other items for which he is better known, foremost among these perhaps his work on Yoshiyuki Tomino's Ideon (1980-82) and Xabungle (1982), but Cool Cool Bye in many ways represents the pinnacle of Kogawa's evolution as an animator. It came at the end of several years of experimentation with Kogawa's approach, and at the period when his studio, Bebow, was at its zenith, and was soon to scatter to the four winds.
Perhaps the thing I like best about Cool Cool Bye is that its animation and designs are a unified whole. The designs were conceived with motion in mind, and in the final product every line of the characters comes alive vividly at the hands of the animators in a boundless variety of exciting movements and poses. It's not just that the action sequences are excitingly choreographed, which they are. It's that every line feels right in every drawing of every movement. The animation feels like the creation of a master animator who not only knows how to draw a character well from any conceivable angle, but who can freely bend the lines used to draw the limbs and and facial features any number of ways in order to heighten the emotion of the expression or the velocity of the limbs in action. Every single line always feels just right and controlled in every drawing, even in drawings that are extremely deformed. It's pretty common to see deformation in anime, but usually it falls at one of two extremes: It's either taken from conventional symbols used throughout the industry, or is deformed too much, in a way that destroys the unity of the character. Kogawa's Cool Cool Bye is one of the best examples I know of a design specifically giving rise to an approach to movement.
Kogawa actually made another 'karisuma animator OVA' before this, Greed (1985), but its animation is somewhat low-key and not nearly as emphatic as the animation in Cool Cool Bye. Partly this is because Greed is twice as long, and they were able to pack every moment of the shorter Cool Cool Bye with great animation. But more saliently, the animation is the specific purpose of Cool Cool Bye, which it wasn't really in Greed. Cool Cool Bye strikes me as a kind of experiment to see how far he could push his animation in a certain direction - in the direction of vivid movement as opposed to low-key acting. It feels like a pilot film also in the very clipped storytelling, which seems there to pitch the world view to a prospective sponsor more than to be comprehensible.
Kogawa is often remembered as one of the proto-realistic animators of Japan due to his more realistic rendering of the character in Ideon and so on (which were even more realistic in the original concept, before Tomino turned them down and told Kogawa to make them more accessible, i.e. cute). But Kogawa struck out in a very different direction right afterward in Xabungle, with its more cartoony and pliable designs and very fast and exciting animation. Cool Cool Bye strikes me as an attempt to perfect that style of animation. Episode 1 of Xabungle (which used 9000-some drawings) is perhaps the closest comparison in Kogawa's oeuvre. They're both one-of-a-kind creations and among the most exciting 30 minutes of anime out there, packed full of exciting animation in a style like no other. So I find it a shame that we never got to see Kogawa build on what he achieved in Cool Cool Bye. Even the people who learned under Kogawa never made anything that pushes the style and approach developed here, which is among the most appealing I've ever seen in anime. A 13-episode TV series made at this steady level of quality would have been a classic for the ages - though it might have bankrupted whatever studio made it. Of course, what makes Cool Cool Bye great is not budget; it's talent. The animation is actually somewhat limited a lot of the time. It's just that what drawings there are are extremely skillfully manipulated.
Simply put, Cool Cool Bye is great animated entertainment. Kogawa showed with this OVA what real animation is supposed to be about. It is extremely fun to watch from start to finish, has a variety of interestingly designed characters, and is filled head to toe with great animation and inventive action sequences. Not a minute is wasted or boring. The characters are fun to watch, and each moves in a way that is unique to their character design and personality - something all too rare in anime. The action sequences are cleverly choreographed, and the characters go through some incredibly entertaining calisthenics, all expertly rendered by the animation. Bodies twist and turn about in all manner of ways, run and leap, stretch and squash. This is a movie that is all about characters running around doing things, reminding a lot of Yasuo Otsuka's Future Boy Conan. But whereas Otsuka's drawings had a sort of loose, anything goes freedom, Kogawa's animation is far more logical, deliberate, thought through. They both, in their very different way, created extremely fun character animation that more than ever seems to have a lot of lessons to offer animators in today's Japanese animation industry. Kogawa's animation strikes a masterful balance between having fun with the animation and maintaining a sense of unity.
We often speak of schools of animation in anime, such as the Kanada school, but Kogawa is interesting because he has been a big influence, but his influence can't be pinpointed to any one style the way Kanada's can. The innovation he brought to anime was more in relation the to technical aspects of how to draw characters, many of which were gradually adopted in the natural course of the overall improvement in the base level of drawing skills over the years in the industry. Kogawa seems to have been one of the people who where there kind of pointing out the little mistakes that people didn't realize were mistakes. Rather than trying to lord a style over people, he was just drawing things right, the way they're actually supposed to be drawn.
The most famous example of Kogawa's innovation is the simple act of looking up. The image here pretty much sums it up. Kogawa was one of the first people to actually think through and properly draw how a face should look from any angle, particularly when it's tilted up like this. Before going on, let me backtrack a little. Kogawa actually came to animation kind of late. The art that interested him growing up had been oil painting, at which he was pretty adept by the time he graduated with a degree in oil painting from the famous Musashino Art University. Nowadays sculpture is what really interests him, an interest clearly reflected in his very three-dimensional characters. Needless to say, most animators working either back then or today don't have degrees in art, and this training in the fundamentals of art undoubtedly permitted him to see things that the veterans with whom he worked had never realized. One of these things is how to draw a face when a person is looking up.
Kogawa started out in animation in 1970 at age 20, when he joined the Tokyo Movie studio. He stayed there for under a year before quitting and going on to do a lot of freelance work for Tatsunoko. It was during his time doing work for Tatsunoko that he began to notice that the veteran animators who were working on the same shows didn't know how to draw a face when it was looking up. The proportions would be messed up. And the funny thing is, when he drew the face the right way, it would often get corrected back to the wrong way, simply because that's how those animators had grown accustomed to drawing things in anime. That's one of the pitfalls of not learning the fundamentals of art, and not observing the world around you and basing what you draw on that (at least in a very basic sense of knowing how it's supposed to be done, and then modifying that appropriately based on the need).
It doesn't take much to get the proportion of the nose, eyes and mouth right. For example, you can draw a box, tilted at the desired angle, and place the features on one surface to get a basic sense of how they should be drawn. If you try to eyeball it without doing this, the features can come out skewed and wrong-looking, which is obviously what was happening with the veteran animators. Kogawa was, then, among the first to draw a character in various poses in a way that actually made physical sense. This is one of the things, I now realize, that made his work feel so different to me back when I first discovered it. Cool Cool Bye is interesting because the animation is very loose and exaggerated, yet at its core it feels solid and real and plausible. It's a perfect example of how grounding in the fundamentals can make even unrealistic animation more convincing.
It was his dissatisfaction with this contradiction -- that the animators who were supposed to be inspiring him knew far less than him about the very basic things -- that led him, in 1979, to found his own animation studio, Bebow. It was from this now legendary studio that Kogawa would go on to provide the animation for which he is most famous today, in Ideon, Xabungle, El Gaim and Dunbine. In the course of this work, he personally trained many of the more important animators of the next generation, including Ichiro Itano, Akihiko Yamashita and Naoyuki Onda, to name but some of the more striking examples.
My favorite work by Kogawa is without hesitation Ideon, particularly the final movie, in which his animation brought the characters alive and made them feel real like virtually no other anime I've ever see, especially back then. His work on this show was revolutionary in its dispassionately real rendering of expressions and poses, even if the designs and situation were not particularly realistic in an obvious sense. This is perhaps one of the first times I'd ever seen an anime in which I always felt I understood why the character was doing any given pose. It always made sense to me. There were other well-animated shows, but this is the first one where the actual drawings and the content of the drawings felt real to me in both the rendering of the drawings and in their psychology. His drawings also had a raw power that I'd never seen before. The characters' emotions came through very powerfully, and their acting was simultaneously more restrained and more believable than anything I'd seen before then.
Another aspect that made Kogawa's characters in Ideon unique is that he determined their color, and did something that was unheard of back then - he based the enemy side (the so-called 'Buff Clan') on a white base, and did daring things like using no highlights in the eyes and using colors rather than black to trace their outlines. This accentuated the already strong drawings to create a truly memorable impression. The Buff Clan's angular hairstyles were distinctive and cool looking, and a match with the appealing design of their clothing, which was rather ahead of its time with its sharp, minimalistic, tasteful style.
One of the things I admire about Kogawa, besides his incredible skill as an animator, is the fact that he always changed his style from show to show, and he challenged himself to try new things every time. He went from the realism of Ideon to the opposite pole in Xabungle right afterward, drawing very soft and loose characters with more heavily stylized features and proportions. In both cases, however, the spirit behind the character designs was suited to the material at hand, as well as playing a major role in determining the show's atmosphere and its impression on viewers. Kogawa's characters in both cases were striking and like nothing that had come before, and in both cases they were extremely beautiful to watch, either still in motion. Kogawa's drawings have the fundamental strength of a sketch by a master's hand. In both El Gaim and Dunbine afterward, Kogawa would again change his vector by 180 degrees each time.
From the very beginning, Kogawa had intended to keep the studio only for about a decade, so that he could train animators for a while and do a few things in commercial animation, and then move on. That is exactly what wound up happening. For a few more years after Cool Cool Bye, the studio switched from doing contract work for Sunrise to doing contract work for Tatsunoko on various shows like Southern Cross, but the most talented animators appear to have left either before or immediately after the last big bash that was Cool Cool Bye. Hence, this OVA comes across also as the final summation of what the studio stood for. Kogawa had achieved his goal of training a lot of talented animators, and those animators scattered to the four winds. A number of these animators went on to do a lot of very nice work in the late 80s and beyond, and remain among the more important animators active today. It's somewhat shocking to hear of the names who passed through the doors of Bebow, because it's a fairly large swath of the most talented animators of the 1980s - Hidetoshi Omori, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Toshihiro Hirano, Ichiro Itano, Naoyuki Onda, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Narumi Kakinouchi, Akihiko Yamashita, Atsushi Yamagata, Tomokazu Tokoro, Junichi Watanabe, Masami Kosone, Keiichi Sato, Satoru Nakamura, Toshihiro Yamane and Shino Masanori. If you watch anime regularly, chances are you've seen work by at least one of these guys in the last week on some show somewhere, old or new.
Akihiko Yamashita is one of the names that jumps out at you these days as being among the most obviously talented of the ex-Bebow staff. He has become one of the pillars of Ghibli's animation since Howl. Hidetoshi Omori and Hiroyuki Kitazume were perhaps the two most prominent Bebow animators in the years immediately following Cool Cool Bye, with their work on Robot Carnival and Urotsukidoji. Robot Carnival is a good place to start to get a quick sense of the style of Kogawa's two biggest disciples, as both created a short in their own patented style. Omori's style is very close to Kogawa, with its angular shapes and more limited animation, while Kitazume is more rounded and cute and fully animated.
Many people in Urotsukidoji used a pen name, so for a long time I wasn't too sure who was behind this show. It's actually very well animated despite the content - it's quite possibly one of the best animated adult titles ever. It turns out that most of the staff were probably ex-Bebow, so it's one of the more important pieces featuring work by the Bebow animators after leaving the studio. At the very least, it included Hiroyuki Kitazume, whose distinctive designs give him away, Hidetoshi Omori using the pen name Zen Kingoji, Yamashita Akihiko, Masami Kosone and Keiichi Sato. It probably included others.
Ero anime was in the air in 1987 for the ex-Bebow staff, because they also made a short OVA called Body Jack, this time virtually 100% using pen names. The only person I know for sure was involved is Hidetoshi Omori, because the characters are unmistakably his. But I'm sure there must have been a bunch of other Bebow people. For an OVA probably nobody has ever heard of over here, it's a surprisingly decently done piece, with a few fun action scenes. Hiroyuki Kitazume, who formed a short-lived studio called Atelier Giga together with some other ex-Bebow staff, is perhaps best remembered for his work on Gundam ZZ and the Char's Counterattack movie. The latter included quite a number of Bebow staff, including Hidetoshi Omori, Shinichiro Minami and Naoyuki Onda. Onda did a lot of good work in his very identifiably refined and lush style after leaving Bebow, especially on OVAs like To-Y, Ai no Kusabi and Armitage, and to this day continues to be very prolific and very talented.
Many of the staff behind Giant Robo were ex-Bebow staff. Tomokazu Tokoro directed one of my favorite series ever - Haibane Renmei. Toshihiro Hirano and his wife Narumi Kakinouchi worked at Bebow in the early 80s before migrating to AIC, where they defined the look of that studio in classic OVAs like Iczer 1, Dangaioh and Vampire Princess Miyu. The late Junichi Watanabe was the monster designer in a lot of these shows. Atsushi Yamagata is perhaps best known as the character designer of AIC's Hakkenden OVA series. You pretty much can't swing a stick without hitting an anime involving Bebow alumi (only slightly exaggerating).
Besides the quality that Bebow stood for, it also comes across as having been very much of a family, with a very warm and healthy atmosphere at the studio. For example, to keep the animators in good physical shape, they all did regular exercise together and had their own baseball team. (though this is of course a very typical thing for Japanese companies) The Cool Cool Bye tape came with a great little 15-minute documentary at the end showcasing a dozen or so of the animators at that time, with brief interviews and playful animations. Some of the interviews were done at one of the studio's baseball games, so in the shots from their interviews above you can see a number of them wearing the studio's baseball uniform.
After Cool Cool Bye Kogawa moved away from being a full-time industry animator. Over the period that Cool Cool Bye was in production he published a set of books on animation techniques (which were recently republished in a new edition), and from then on out seems to have focused more on his work as an educator. He mostly did isolated work here and there, often using pen names, such as Legend of Galactic Heroes (1989), Casshan (1993) and Medarot (1999). His only real big job was Ashita Genki ni Nare (2005), a movie about the experiences of a sister and brother living in the ruins of Tokyo after the end of the war, on which he served as character designer and animation director. He also recently did all the key animation for episode 5 of Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (2008). He was heavily involved in the old Yamato series back in the late 70s, most notably as the character designer and animation director of the second movie version made in 1978, and he is reportedly serving as the character designer and animation director of a new movie version that is in production and slated for release in the near future.
GREED (1985, 57 minutes)
Creator/Script/Storyboard/Character Designer/Animation Director/Director: Tomonori Kogawa
Art board: Shinichi Hirao
Animation Directors: Hidetoshi Omori & Hiroyuki Kitazume
|YAKI Masayuki||SAKAMOTO Hideaki|
|SAWADA Masato||KUBOOKA Toshiyuki|
|ENDO Eiichi||TERAHIGASHI Katsumi|
|ONDA Naoyuki||ONISHI Kiyomi|
|YAMAUCHI Kimiko||YAMAMOTO Masafumi|
|USAMI Koichi||TOKORO Tomokazu|
|MINAMI Shinichiro||NAKAMURA Satoru|
|SHINO Masanori||AKUTAGAWA Yoshiaki|
|MIYAHARA Takao||OCHI Hiroyuki|
|WATANABE Junichi||NAKA Morifumi|
|KAWAKAMI Yutaka||OMORI Atsuko|
|SOGA Hiroko||YAMAMOTO Masakazu|
|YAMASHITA Akihiko||YUMOTO Yoshihisa|
COOL COOL BYE (1986, 30 minutes)
Creator/Script/Character Design/Director: Tomonori Kogawa
Animation Directors: Tomonori Kogawa & Hidetoshi Omori
Mechanical Design: Katsuya Nozawa
Concept Assistance: Akihiko Yamashita
Art Director/Backgrounds: Kenji Matsumoto
|YAKI Masayuki||SAWADA Masato|
|TSUJI Kiyomitsu||YAMAMOTO Masafumi|
|MINAMI Shinichiro||SHINO Masanori|
|YAMASHITA Akihiko||NOZAWA Katsuya|
|KAWAKAMI Yutaka||TAKAGI Hiroyuki|
|OMORI Atsuko||SAITO Akiko|
|SOGA Hiroko||YAMAURA Maeko|
|USAMI Koichi||MASA Tomoyasu|
|KOSONE Masami||SUMIKAWA Toshihiro|
|YAMANE Masahiro||TERAHIGASHI Katsumi|
|ONDA Naoyuki||KUBOOKA Toshiyuki|
An omnibus called Visions of Frank was released last year. It consists of nine animated shorts by nine different Japanese artists inspired by the work of Jim Woodring's comic Frank. Each of the films in the set has a very different style, and I hadn't heard of many of the artists, so it was interesting viewing. The one that stuck with me since I first saw it a few months ago was the one entitled Hi-Rise Hopper, with its vivid full animation, unusual for a Japanese production, and wild amorphous transformations in the Akira blob tradition. Besides being a blast to watch, I felt it did the most justice to the characters and atmosphere of the comic. I was inspired to re-watch it today after reading a great article on Frank (thanks Alan), and got curious to figure out who exactly was behind this piece, as the only credit I could find was "Tamapro/Drop", which meant nothing to me. After a bit of digging, I found the answer, and learned a few other things along the way.
The film was storyboarded and directed by one Saburo Hashimoto with art directing and colors by freelance graphic designer Mizuki Totori, and it dates from 2003. As far as I can gather, Saburo Hashimoto belongs to a small but venerable subcontracting studio called Tama Production, which is where the animation was produced. It made sense to discover that Tama Pro has been involved in a lot of western subcontracting, as that partly accounts for the unusual feeling of the animation. The film represents a curious intersection of Western and Japanese vectors in terms of style, ideas and production, which all converged to brilliant effect here. Studios like this that bridge the Western and the Japanese have always fascinated me. Other examples include Sanrio Films, Telecom, Answer Studio and Topcraft. The results can often be quite interesting when their knowhow acquired through years of working on foreign productions are applied to their own in-house productions, as was the case with Flag more recently.
Tama Production is one of Japan's most venerable animation-only subcontractors, having been around since 1965 and having worked on innumerable shows for all of the major studios. They're still quite active and currently employ 30 people, according to their home page. Tama Pro is more than anything remembered for their close association with Tatsunoko Productions, as they regularly handled the animation for entire episodes of Tatsunoko's shows in wholesale style, and their animators consequently developed a pronounced Tatsunoko influence and understanding of how to render the characters.
The studio was founded by an animator named Eiji Tanaka, who started out at Mushi Pro working on Tetsuwan Atom in 1963. He didn't remain long before leaving to found his own studio, which would go on to work as a subcontractor for not only Tatsunoko but also many other large studios, from Tokyo Movie to Toei Doga to Mushi Pro to Madhouse. Eiji Tanaka himself was quite active as an animator on the front line while also training his studio's animators himself. He had a long career before passing away recently, having been an animator in many shows including Tatsunoko's Speed Racer (1967), Kurenai Sanshiro (1969) (chief animator) and Gatchaman (1972) before moving on to working as an animation director on a slew of shows including, most famously, the first few shows in Tatsunoko's Time Bokan series (1975-). He also managed to do some work as a character designer, having designed Astroganger (1972), Chargeman Ken (1973), Don Chuck (1975) and Little Prince (1978).
The two earliest and most prominent animators to have trained directly under the tutelage of Eiji Tanaka were Takashi Saijo and Jushi Mizumura, who have been involved in almost all of the studio's projects over the years and remain active today. They regularly alternate between working as animation directors and animators. In Tanaka's absence, they are clearly the leading lights at the studio. Other animators who can be seen in the studio's recent work include Akira Watanabe, Hiroaki Kawaguchi, Yoshiaki Matsuda, Naoki Takahashi and Kuniko Yano. Recent episodes they've handled include Black Lagoon #7, Death Note #9 and Otogizoshi #2. I haven't found any credits for the animation of Hi-Rise Hopper, but it seems probable that some combination of these names may have been responsible. I'd particularly like to find out who animated that mind-blowing transformation shot.
Tatsunoko stood out from their peers back in the day for what was known as their "butter stench", as they say in Japan, i.e. their American comic-book stylings. Tama Pro was therefore already steeped in a more or less Western-ish mood when they began taking on subcontracting work for Disney TV and video productions in the 1990s. Whether it's true or not I don't know, but they were apparently known as the only subcontracting studio in Japan up to the task of working in the Disney style, which suggests the unique position they occupied. It's clear that this experience underpins the animation that we can see in Hi-Rise Hopper, which is one of the few entirely Japanese-produced films I've seen whose animation successfully emulates the look and feel of conventional Western 'traditional animation'.
Although I'm not too familiar with the original comic, based on what little I've read about it the virtuosic display of horrific bodily transformation in Hi-Rise Hopper struck me as being exactly what was called for, going back to the cartoon style of animation that is the inspiration for the characters of the comic, where emotions transform directly into stretched bodies, bulging eyes and other extreme deformations. It takes Woodring's whole sophisticated re-interpretation of the classical Western cartoon aesthetic and plugs it right back into an animation mode of expression, completing the loop. The wild card is that it should have come not from some Western studio, but from Japanese animators trained working on Japanese-produced shows that emulated American styled comics using Japanese limited animation knowhow, rather than the sort of traditional full animation tradition that gave birth to the cartoon aesthetic that inspired Frank. Ultimately, they're all connected in the grand scheme of things, and the march of progress continues to this day, with those Japanese animators now emulating Western animation and vice-versa. It's so convoluted a situation that it almost makes perfect sense, like some beautiful ironic comment on the evolution of animation.
Around 2004 a studio called Drop was opened on the third floor of the building in Higashi Kurume that houses Tama Pro, which occupies the first two floors. This new studio was founded by producer Takeshi Hagiwara, who up until that point had been working for Tama Pro. A number of clips from the projects they've undertaken since 2004 can be seen on their home page, including Hi-Rise Hopper. Tama Pro is credited with the animation elements of a number of Drop's other films as well, which seems to suggest that Drop is a production/planning off-shoot of Tama Pro. I that's the case, the naming would make sense - Drop is the English word for Tama. ('drop' as in 'candy drop') Mizuki Totori, who designed the art and colors of Hi-Rise Hopper, more recently singlehandedly created a new short for Drop entitled Drop-kun, which seems to be a sort of mascot character for the studio. Drop-kun was one of the Jury Recommended Works of the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival.
Two years ago one of the most important figures of the Toei Doga generation passed away: Daikichiro Kusube. People over here might not be familiar with him, but he was easily one of the most successful and influential of the Toei Doga figures in many ways. Many of the great Toei Doga animators like Miyazaki and Otsuka worked at his studio at one time or another after leaving Toei during its transformation at the beginning of the TV era in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and the studio he founded and ran for more than 30 years was extremely prolific, producing some of the most beloved and watched TV anime ever seen in the country, including Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan, to name but the two longest-lived. Beyond that, even today the animation that Kusube's studio created way back in the 1970s continues to resonate with many of the most interesting animators active today, both influencing and inspiring. The unique style of animation that A Production pioneered at this early period in the history of the medium remains alive to both animators and fans alike in a way that few other productions then or now do.
To continue to think back on this important generation and what they did for animation in Japan, today I thought I would highlight the achievements of the studio created by Kusube Daikichiro, in both its incarnations: A Production, which was active from 1965 to 1976, and its re-incarnation, Shin-Ei Animation, which was founded in 1976 and is alive and well today. I've mentioned both studios often in the past, as I'm an avid fan of the older A Production shows and Shin-chan, but only in scattershot fashion. I wanted to get everything down in a more clear and accessible form so that people over here could finally have a clear idea of the historical significance of this studio.
Daikichiro Kusube: Beginnings
Born in 1934 in occupied Manchuria, Daikichiro Kusube grew up interested in the arts. Upon graduation he decided that he wanted to become a sculptor. However, practical considerations forced him to revise his plans in favor of something more profitable, so he decided to try going into manga, which was booming. One day he visited publisher Kobunsha to see if they needed his services, and met an editor who seemed interested in giving him a chance. But a fateful thing happened. As Kusube was leaving, the thoughtful editor mentioned that a company called Toei Doga was looking for people who could draw. To cover his bases, Kusube headed over to Toei Doga that same day and happened to run into the president, Zenjiro Yamamoto, who gave him a tour of the studio. He wound up passing the entrance examination given a few days later, which forced him to give up his ambitions in manga. In later days he wondered if he might not have been happier working in manga. It was a crossroads in his life, and his future course was set.
Kusube was hired in 1957 in the first wave of public hirings for the purpose of finding animators to work on Hakujaden (1958). Reiko Okuyama came in briefly afterwards in the second wave of hirings. At this early stage, Akira Daikuhara and Yasuji Mori were the only two competent animators in the studio. On the first few films including Hakujaden, Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (1959) and Saiyuki (1960), Daikuhara and Mori drew they rough keys, which they then handed to seconds to clean up. The seconds consisted mostly of younger animators such as Yasuo Otsuka who had joined Nichido prior to the re-organization into Toei Doga. The seconds cleaned up the rough keys, which they in turn carried to the inbetweeners for inbetweening - which is where Kusube found himself after breezing through basic training in an unusually short time span.
Kusube was full of spunk and stood out right from the start. As an inbetweener he was working alongside people who had joined the studio well before him, and therefore had seniority, but that didn't keep him from making comments about a key animator's drawing being off. If his fellow inbetweeners had seniority, the key animators were considered gods, but Kusube barreled right through the hierarchical mindset of Toei Doga to go where he wanted to go. Soon enough he was modifying the timing of seconded keys by Daikubara, or adding extra actions to a sequence, and people stopped coming to him with seconded keys. So he took matters into his own hands. One day when he was sitting there without work between Daikubara and Mori, the only two people with a copy of the storyboard, he took a red pencil and ticked off five shots of the storyboard, asking Mori to let him animate them. A shocked Mori consulted with president Zenjiro Yamamoto, and they decided to let him have a go at it. If it wasn't usable, they could just throw it away. So it went that, a mere two months after his training period, and without going through a seconding stage, Kusube became a key animator. Otsuka was promoted alongside him, although neither got credited as keys until they turned 25. President Zenjiro Yamamoto, who ran Nichido for many years and was himself a veteran animator with decades of experience in animation under his belt by the time Toei Doga was formed, had a hangup that nobody under 25 should be credited as a key animator. Otsuka is first credited as a key animator in Saiyuki in 1960, and Kusube in Anju in 1961.
In Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke in 1959, Kusube worked with Yasuo Otsuka on the animation of the monster salamander in the lake. Working on action scenes like this got Kusube (like Otuska) pegged as an action animator, and in Saiyuki in 1960 he again animated a big action scene alongside Otsuka. They animated the climactic fight with the bad guy, Kusube doing the first half and Otsuka handling the second half, the bullfight part. Kusube had by this time accumulated an entourage of other studio rebels, including Gisaburo Sugii, who though technically supposed to be his second he allowed to draw key animation. Kusube ignored the seconding system at the studio, handing his keys directly to inbetweeners. After working on both Sindbad and Anju, Kusube was finally given the chance to design and animate his own character. He designed and animated the sequence with the fire god on Yasuji Mori's breakthrough piece as animation director, Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon. Working under him at the time was newcomer Yoichi Kotabe, who had trained under Kusube since his arrival in the studio. Kusube allowed Kotabe to draw his first key animation on this scene, namely the horse. Keiichiro Kimura, an animator who later became known for his free and rough animation in Toei shows like Tiger Mask and later founded Studio Neo Media (which trained animators like Yoshiyuki Momose), also learned the ropes under Kusube, as did Takao Kosai of Gyators fame, who later founded Studio Junio (which trained animators like Toshiyuki Inoue). Both Kotabe and Kimura had been rejected from Toei after their entrance exams, and Kusube was responsible for talking the company into letting them in.
Although Kusube might at first glance seem to have developed more under the influence of Daikuhara than of Mori, Kusube asserts that this was not the case, and that he learned things his own way, watching both Mori and Daikuhara, without being specifically taught by anyone. I think that is the case generally at this early stage in the modern period of commercial Japanese animation. Animators weren't trained to animate a certain way; they developed in the direction of their own proclivities by watching those around them. Kusube and Otsuka, his senior at the studio, happened to live next door to each other, and together helped found the studio's first union, so there was almost certainly a degree of influencing going on there as well.
After this film, Kusube said goodbye to films and set to the task of working on Toei Doga's second attempt at a TV series. Immediately before had come Toei Doga's first TV anime, Ken the Wolf Boy (November 1963-August 1965), headed by Sadao Tsukioka. The follow-up was a ninja anime based on a Shirato Sanpei manga: Kaze no Fujimaru (June 1964-August 1965). Senior animator Yasuji Mori would head the third sally the next year: Hustle Punch (November 1965-April 1966). I wrote about these shows back in 2005 (see last three paragraphs for Kusube's work on Fujimaru). Kusube was character designer and animation director, and was aided by Kotabe as co-animation director handling the sub-characters. Kotabe stayed on at Toei Doga for a few more years before leaving, working not only on the films but also on the TV shows like Hustle Punch, Rainbow Sentai Robin and Mahotsukai Sally, but this would prove to be Kusube's last Toei Doga project. After finally leaving Toei Doga following Ali Baba in 1971, the first place Kotabe went was A Pro to join Miyazaki et al on Pippi, which morphed into Panda Kopanda. After then working at Nippon Animation for a few years with Miyazaki & Takahata, he left, and would have helped out Kusube on The Red Bird, but wound up instead having to do Taro the Dragon Boy for Toei. That was the last intersection in the careers of the two once closely tied Toei Doga animators.
The road to A Production
Around the time Fujimaru was ending in 1965, Toei Doga was incorporated into a separate company. Prior to then Toei Doga had been merely the animation arm of film studio Toei. Now they were a separate company, and management changed as well. I mentioned how conditions had been very tight during production of Fujimaru, with barely anybody trained in animation working under Kusube, and Kusube consequently having to take on a tremendous workload. Conditions were so severe that, a one point, Kusube was asked to singlehandedly animate two entire episodes a month. This meant a lot of work, but also a lot of pay for doing so much work. The pay situation had presumably been considerably ameliorated by the formation of a union at Toei Doga. Kusube reports that he was earning somewhere in the vicinity of ¥1.5 million a month, which I figure works out to something like $20,000 USD a month in today's terms. It's a figure that's hard to believe at first sight, especially compared to what animators earn today (most reportedly earn less than minimum wage). It's a little easier to swallow when one learns that, upon a review of the books following incorporation, management ordered Kusube to take a pay cut because he was earning more than the president. Kusube, unlike the president, had worked for every penny with every stroke of the pencil, so he rightly felt affronted. By that time Kusube was already feeling he was ready to call it quits, so he used the opportunity to tell them what was on his mind and left, despite the fact that they still wanted and needed him to stay. They offered him the next film after Horus, which was in production at the time, but he refused. He took his money and quit in September 1965, the month after Fujimaru ended. Three months later, in December 1965, Daikichiro Kusube founded his own company: A Production Ltd.
But the story of A Production begins the day Kusube quit Toei. Osamu Tezuka had been involved with the studio for some time in preparation for the founding of his own studio, first on Saiyuki in 1960 and then on Wan Wan Chushingura in 1963. Tezuka had used the experience to acquaint himself with not just animation but also with the animators, and many Toei animators defected to Mushi Pro over the first few years of the 1960s - from Kazuko Nakamura to Toshio Hirata to Teruto Kamiguchi to Norio Hikone to Chikao Katsui. The day Kusube quit, he received a phone call from Tezuka as soon as he got home, inviting him to join Mushi Pro. Tezuka was nothing if not a good scout of talent. But Kusube wanted a challenge, and he felt that the animation production system at Mushi Pro already had a good solid foundation thanks to the work of the Toei Doga figures who had defected there like Gisaburo Sugii and Kazuko Nakamura. So he declined Tezuka's offer.
Not long after hanging up with Tezuka, Kusube received another phone call, this time from one Yutaka Fujioka. Fujioka, once the head a puppet theater troupe, had in August 1964 founded an animation production studio named Tokyo Movie at the behest of the TV station TBS. TBS wanted to expand their anime lineup to attract more viewers by capitalizing on the new fad for TV animation created by Atom Boy. They engaged Fujioka to put together an animation studio, which he did by grabbing anyone he could find with experience in animation. The result was Big X, and it was a disaster. Despite featuring early work by figures who would later go on to become great creators elsewhere like Osamu Dezaki and Murano Moribi, most of the people hired, such as Renzo Kinoshita (creator of the classic indie short Pika-Don and founder of the Hiroshima International Animation Festival), had no traditional animation experience, having only dabbled in animation for the likes of independent animator Kuri Yoji. Upon starting production of his second series, Fujioka was eager to find some competent animators, so he jumped on the chance to call Kusube when he was informed by TBS's agency that Kusube had quit Toei Doga.
Kusube and Fujioka had in fact met a year prior to this, in 1964, while Kusube was still employed at Toei Doga. The agent in charge of getting the animation studio set up for TBS had organized a meeting between a number of animation people, trying coercively and craftily to round them up into a team. Most didn't know what the meeting was about, but upon arrival were introduced to one another by the agent, much to their own surprise, as senior management of the new organization. Among the people there at the time were the members of Studio Zero, the legendary group of manga artists formed in 1963 including people like the Fujiko Fujio duo, Shotaro Ishinomori and Shinichi Suzuki. (Suzuki had served as the main animator of Yokoyama Ryuichi's Otogi Pro films in the preceding years.) It was a fateful meeting, although nothing was finalized until after Kusube quit Toei Doga. Studio Zero would go on to be involved in animating the first few TV series for Tokyo Movie alongside A Production, all of which were adaptations of manga by Studio Zero residents Fujiko Fujio, whose works would later play a central role for Shin-Ei Animation.
Kusube and Fujio were in fact prior acquaintances. They had met once before that same year, when Studio Zero had asked Toei Doga to produce Shotaro Ishinomori's Rainbow Sentai Robin. Toei Doga wasn't interested, so Kusube had been sent by the studio to decline. Kusube remembers noting at the meeting where he informed Studio Zero of Toei Doga's decision that the half of the team later known as Fujiko F. Fujio (real name Hiroshi Fujimoto) was the only one nodding in understanding when Kusube suggested that the project was perhaps ahead of its time, and something with simple characters and a comical atmosphere like The Jetsons might be a better project. Fujiko F. Fujio himself was just setting out as a manga artist at the time, but already each was aware of the other as someone with a compatible approach.
1965-1976: A Production
Kusube decided to accept Fujioka's offer, but not in the way that Fujioka had intended. Fujioka had invited Kusube to run the animation department of Tokyo Movie, but Kusube would have no part of it. Kusube never again wanted to be a pawn in someone else's company. Kusube wanted to form his own company to take care of actual animation production, leaving management and planning to Tokyo Movie. Fujioka agreed, and so it was that the two companies entered into what would be one of the most fruitful tie-ups in the history of anime.
The name of Kusube's studio, A Production, had various meanings - A for Ace, A for Animation, and simply A the first letter of the alphabet. When he left Toei Doga, Kusube invited a number of animators to come with him. These animators who were the earliest members at the studio went on to provide the backbone of A Pro over the next ten years, afterwards remaining key players at Shin-Ei from a distance at the studios each of them had founded for themselves. Easily the three most important members at the studio right from the beginning and on through the years were taken from Toei Doga by Kusube at this time: Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama, and Yoshio Kabashima. These are the three names that define what came to be appreciated as that special flavor A Pro brought to all of their work. It was all about an unparalleled instinct for creating appealing and exciting animation with limited TV animation. These three were among the first genuine geniuses of limited in Japan, and through their work at A Pro they influenced a bevy of other animators who worked on the same shows either at the studio alongside them or at other studios contracted by Tokyo Movie to help on the same shows. Other figures like Eiichi Nakamura and Hideo Kawauchi were among first wave hired afterwards, while others drifted in over the years, like Yoshifumi Kondo in 1968 and Hiroshi Fukutomi in 1971.
Kusube's experience on Fujimaru had provided him with first-hand experience working with this new medium of limited animation, and that know-how undoubtedly provided the foundation for the approach at A Pro in the early years, when these younger animators had their own first chance to play around and figure out how limited animation was made. Unlike Kusube, they weren't trained on the feature films, and therefore had their foundation laid completely within the context of limited animation. They were limited animators through to the bone, and they became experts in the medium like none we've ever seen since.
At the beginning A Pro almost exclusively handled animation and directing, with only a few animators and directors at Tokyo Movie. Right from the start with Obake no Q-Taro in 1965, Fujioka used his puppet theater connections to find prospective directors. Masaaki Osumi, who later went on to direct the breakthrough first Lupin series at A Pro, was there since Obake no Q-Taro, and participated in most of the early A Pro shows up until the debacle with Lupin. Early on in my blog I wrote a bit about A Pro, and in the comments to this post I talked a bit about what happened with Lupin. Another of the important directors of the early years of A Pro was Tadao Nagahama, who also came from a background in the puppet theater. In this case Nagahama had been driven out of Tokyo Movie for some reason or other, and Kusube was the one who wrangled him back into anime, taking him under his wing at the studio and teaching him the ropes in directing. He went on to become one of the great directors of sports anime that A Pro began producing right around this time, starting with Kyojin no Hoshi in 1968 and all the way through Samurai Giants in 1975, when he left the studio and left anime altogether. He was eventually to return and make a name for himself directing giant robot shows at Sunrise.
Eiji Okabe, born in 1931, already had a respectable career behind him in special effects working at movie studio Shin Toho on films like Senkan Yamato ("Battleship Yamato", 1953) and Meiji Tenno to Nichiro Daisenso ("Emperor Meiji and the Russo-Japanese War", 1957) before being dispatched to Tokyo Movie, a subsidiary of Kokusai Hoei, when Shin Toho was reorganized to Kokusai Hoei. Other directors like Shigetsugu Yoshida and Tomekichi Takeuchi, who went on to become mainstays at Tokyo Movie, were trained at Toei Doga on the mid-60s productions after Kusube had already left, and joined Tokyo Movie a little later.
The early shows
Fujioka had originally called on Kusube because he was looking for better animators to staff his next project, Obake no Q-Taro. This series, which ran from August 1965 to June 1967, was the first collaboration between the two studios. It was in fact co-animated with Studio Zero, as was the case for almost all of the anime produced by Tokyo Movie between 1965 and 1969, most of which were anime adaptations of Fujiko Fujio manga. In addition to establishing the precedent of adapting Fujiko Fujio manga, Obake no Q-Taro is the series that set the tone for the rest of the work done by A Production over the decade that followed, with its simple drawings, lighthearted tone and fast-paced slapstick humor. This was the first successful show of its kind on TV in Japan, and was a big hit with audiences, continuing for almost three years. It was also one of most successful early instances of character goods related marketing, with more than 2000 different Q-Taro-related products released by the time the TV series had finished airing. This savvy for successful franchise marketing is something that would reach its apotheosis with Doraemon.
The next Tokyo Movie series that was aired on TBS was Paa-man, which aired for exactly a year from April 1967 to April 1968. Tokyo Movie also began production of another series called Chingo Muchabee at nearly the same time, based this time not on a manga by Fujiko Fujio but on a manga by Kenji Morita, but it was not aired on TV until February-March 1971, when it was belatedly rushed by on TV one episode a day on weekdays for a month. The reason had to do with the fact that, by 1967, it was already becoming difficult to find airtime for black and white programs. Muchabe wound up being the last black and white Tokyo Movie series to be broadcast on TV, although the last black and white TV anime produced by Tokyo Movie was Umeboshi Denka, which aired in 1969. 1967 was the year of Mushi Pro's color breakthrough Goku's Big Adventure, directed by onetime Kusube protege Gisaburo Sugii. Paa-man was co-produced with Studio Zero and A Pro, while Muchabee was co-produced with A Production. Episodes were alternately produced by Tokyo Movie and A Production, with Shinichi Suzuki acting as the animation director in order to address with the variation in drawing style between the two studios.
A new Fujiko Fujio series took over the airwaves immediately after Paa-man - Kaibutsu-kun, which was broadcast from April 1968 to March 1969. It was just as successful as the previous two shows. All three of these Fujiko Fujio series would go on to be remade into successful color series by Shin-Ei Animation in the 1980s, and just a few years later Tokyo Movie would themselves re-make Obake no Q-Taro. It seems clear that this early success with this formula is what led to the studio eventually becoming almost exclusively devoted to the production of Fujiko Fujio anime adaptations. The last in this series of early black and whte Fujiko Fujio anime adaptations came with Umeboshi Denka in 1969. Umeboshi was the first flop of the four, coming as it did at a time when audiences were becoming bored with the formula, which had by that time undoubtedly been copied by other shows on other channels. The series ran for only thirteen episodes, becoming the shortest-lived of the four - one of the few such flops in the history of A Pro.
A change for the studio came in 1968 with a new show called Kyojin no Hoshi, which ran from March 1968 to September 1971. It was a change for one because it was for a new station, Yomiuri TV, but more importantly it was a big change in terms of the content and style - not a gag anime by Fujiko Fujio with simple characters and stories, but an anime about baseball players featuring realistically designed characters and gripping humanistic drama. This was the show that pioneered the fad for so-called "spo-kon" sports anime, as copycats soon overtook the airwaves in droves in the wake of the tremendous popularity of Kyojin no Hoshi. A Pro themselves went on to work on several more shows in this vein for Tokyo Movie. Fujioka's Tokyo Movie was a very interesting studio because so many times they came up with shows like this that went in a totally different direction from everything else out there. Kusube himself was behind the character design and animation directing of the show, and his more realistic characters in the 'gekiga' style were a real innovation in the day. One of the main figures behind the directing side of the show was the abovementioned Tadao Nagahama, whose patented melodramatic style was a perfect match for the material here. Several years later Nagahama would revisit the same material with Samurai Giants, and in 1977 Tokyo Movie made a continuation of Kyojin no Hoshi.
Into the 1970s
Tokyo Movie continued to branch out to new stations and to try new kinds of material never before seen on TV, unleashing the Scandinavian literary fairy tale Moomin on Japan from October 1969 to March 1970 on Fuji TV. The show was a breath of fresh air on the stations, with its slow pace, otherworldly atmosphere, fantastical creatures and refined sensibility - one of those rare moments when something truly new appeared in commercial animation. While it was popular with audiences, the creator Tove Jansson disapproved of the changes made to her work upon being shown a few episodes, and production was switched from Tokyo Movie/A Pro to Mushi Pro after 26 brilliant episodes. The popularity of the show eventually led not only to two separate continuations being made in Japan, but perhaps more significantly to the establishment of the tradition for this kind of literary fare at the Sunday 7:30 time-slot on Fuji TV, which would go on to host similar shows by various studios in the same slot for a few years until Nippon Animation took over the slot for 25 years with the World Masterpiece Theater. The most important early of these, Heidi and Marco, were produced by Miyazaki & Takahata in 1974 and 1976 in the immediate aftermath of their brief involvementat with A Pro from 1971 to 1973.
In charge of Moomin were Masaaki Osumi, director, and Yasuo Otsuka with the character designs and animation directing. Osumi's unusual background in puppet theater was perhaps one of the keys that enabled Osumi to so convincingly convey the uniquely disjointed fantasy logic that underpins the world of Moominvalley. He really got into the characters' minds in a way no other director with thorough technical training in animation would. It was a fundamentally different, more intuitive approach to directing, and one that impressed the more technically inclined Otsuka. While not strictly hewing to Jansson's world and atmosphere, it was an excellent approximation leavened with good doses of the more hardy and biting slapstick humor of A Pro. Otsuka's characters brought the world to life like none ever before, combining limited animation knowhow with his training in traditional full animation to create some of the most polished limited seen yet. He was also active in training the younger animators at the studio. Otsuka's characters were not only completely different but more organic and alive than any seen on TV up until that point. Helping Otsuka in his task were Tsutomu Shiabayama and Osamu Kobayashi, who greatly contributed to the quality of the show with their knack for nuanced acting, and who would go on to become perhaps the two most important animators at A Pro in the coming years.
Otsuka had himself just quit Toei Doga on December 6, 1968 after having helped maintain the quality of the studio's feature films for a decade by that point. The studio was changing focus, moving away from taking the time to carefully craft high-quality feature films, and now all but tripping over itself to keep up with the competition on TV, and Otsuka felt his priorities lay elsewhere. Kusube was one of the pioneers of Toei's new path with Fujimaru. Keiichiro Kimura, who worked under Kusube at Toei, was one of the animators who helped cement the importance of TV work at Toei after Kusube left with the popularity of the work he did for them on Pyun-Pyun Maru in 1967 and then Tiger Mask in 1969. Like Kusube, it was after his experience working on these Toei TV shows that he jumped ship and formed his own studio, Neo Media, in 1969. Neo Media would go on to work on many of the same Tokyo Movie shows as A Pro.
The production floor of TV animation was a new experience for Otsuka. Unlike at Toei Doga, where he worked alongside people he knew very well and established a sort of understanding and camaraderie with his co-workers that benefited the quality of the film, with TV work he was meeting people he'd never seen day in and day out, receiving work from animators not even on site, the quality of which varied tremendously and was basically unpredictable. The production tasks had by this time become atomized by outsourcing as a measure of economy in order to survive in the new market, and A Pro was on that front line.
The day after Otsuka quit Toei Doga, Otsuka set to work at A Pro on the Lupin pilot. Otsuka had originally come to A Pro in order to produce a movie version of Monkey Punch's Lupin, a project that Gisaburo Sugii and Chikao Katsui of Mushi Pro (prior to that both ex-Toei Doga) had brought to A Pro to get produced. They began producing the pilot in order to show prospective distributors. Working on the pilot were Masaaki Osumi as director, Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi as animation directors, Gisaburo Sugii drawing storyboard and helping design the characters, and Otsuka helping out with the animation. Sugii also animated the shogi scene and Mineko Fuji's dance scene. Prior to this, Osumi had directed the pilot for Obake no Q-Taro, and the quality had been good enough that Kusube decided to give him the job of directing this pilot. Sugii had wanted to direct it himself, so he left afterwards, and it wasn't until more than 25 years later that the originator of the project finally got his chance to direct, in 1996, with the Twilight Gemini TV special.
It was in July 1969, after completing the pilot, in the fallow period while they were waiting for something to happen to drive the project forward, that the Moomin project came in and occupied Otsuka for the next half-year, from October 1969 to March 1970. Kusube in the meantime was busy working on the ever-popular Kyojin no Hoshi. Just after Moomin started, A Pro worked on Attack No 1, a shoujo manga updating of the sports anime fad, also for Fuji TV, that aired in the time-slot just before Moomin from December 1969 to November 1971. After Moomin ended, Otsuka occupied himself with various tasks, among them helping Kusube on Kyojin no Hoshi and animating the pilot for Tensai Bakabon (used as episode 32), the show based on a manga by the guru of nonsense gags, Fujio Akatsuka. Bakabon marked a long overdue return to the kind of material A Pro did best. There was probably trepidation to do this kind of material after the failure of their last attempt. They tested the waters by finally broadcasting A Pro's black-and-white Chingo Muchabe in February-March 1971 on TBS, fully four years after it had been produced. Chingo featured directing by Tadao Nagahama and characters by Kusube, who had both since gone in a different direction in Kyojin no Hoshi.
Back to the roots
Late 1971 seemed to signal the start of a new phase in the work of A Pro. The early developmental years were now behind them, and the head animators began to come unto their own with an easy mastery of the form and a new playfulness thanks to a return to old territory. Three new and significant shows for A Pro started at this time. The studio's debut series, Obake no Q-Taro, was remade into Shin Obake no Q-Taro, airing from September 1, 1971 to December 1972 on Nihon TV. Yoshio Kabashima was animation director and Tadao Nagahama director. Shin Obake no Q-Taro marked a return to the style of A Pro's early years, upon which they continued to develop over the next few years in what are considered the canonic A Pro shows. The series was again remade by Shin-Ei in later years, but this version is still considered the best of the three by fans. Next came Fujio Akatsuka's Tensai Bakabon, which replaced Kyojin no Hoshi on Yomiuri TV and ran from September 25, 1971 to June 1972. Akatsuka's edgy/silly nonsensical humor was somewhat blunted by sponsor demands to make the stories more family friendly in this adaptation, and a continuation would be made a few years later, when the animators of A Pro et al. were at the height of their powers, that finally did the material justice. But already in Tensai Bakabon we can see many of the animators who would go on to be the main figures behind the next few classic A Pro series: designer Tsutomu Shibayama and animators like Yoshiyuki Momose and Osamu Kobayashi.
A new development of this period was the involvement of various small studios in the Tokyo Movie productions alongside A Production. Figures who had worked at Toei Doga in the early years had quit and started their own studios, and now young animators who had seen their work on TV were beginning to be attracted to these new studios to learn under the animators they admired. Animators from a number of such small studios worked alongside A Pro on the Tokyo Movie shows of the early 70s, and were in turn influenced by the work they saw being done by A Pro animators Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, who by that point had a definite sense of how to create thrilling animation using the absolute minimum of means. A Pro members active on these shows throughout this time include: Tsutomu Shibayama, Osamu Kobayashi, Yoshio Kabashima, Toshiyuki Honda, Takeuchi Tomekichi, Yoshifumi Kondo, Tadao Nagahama, Hideo Kawauchi, Eiichi Nakamura, Tsutomu Tanaka, Yuzo Aoki, Hiroshi Fukutomi, Michiyo Yamada and Hisatoshi Motoki.
Another studio of importance alongside A Pro was Studio Neo Media, which was founded by Keiichiro Kimura in 1969 after he quit Toei Doga. All animators from Studio Neo Media were involved in Tokyo Movie shows in the early 70s. Keiichiro Kimura and Yasuhiro Yamaguchi were involved in the more serious, sports-oriented or dramatic shows headed by Kimura's erstwhile mentor, Kusube, such as Akado Suzunosuke, Judo Sanka and Koya no Shonen Isamu. Yoshiyuki Momose and Masayuki Uchiyama, meanwhile, were involved in all of the more gag-oriented shows on which Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama worked, such as Tensai Bakabon, Dokonjo Gaeru and Hajime Ningen Gyators. Momose in particular produced some of the most interesting and vivid animation of the period that was a contrast with the work of the A Pro animators in terms of his freer use of drawings. He relates that the work he saw being done by not just Kobayashi and Shibayama but also the younger Yoshifumi Kondo at A Pro was an influence to many of the animators working at other studios on the same shows.
Other small studios involved in these shows included Studio Junio, formed in 1969 by Takao Kosai following the disbanding of Hatena Pro, a studio formed in 1964 by himself and four other ex-members of Toei Doga. Junio animator Minoru Maeda (later Group Tac) and director Minoru Okazaki were involved in the later shows like Ganso Tensai Bakabon and Hajime Ningen Gyators. Director and erstwhile Hatena Pro co-founder Tetsuo Imazawa along with studio head Takao Kosai were involved in Akado Suzunosuke, Kouya no Shounen Isamu and Gyators. Studio Mates was formed in 1969 by Kenzo Koizumi and Azuma Hiroshi, who in 1972 defected to Studio Junio. Koizumi was involved in the first Bakabon series and Gamba no Boken. Oh Production was formed in 1970 by Koichi Murata, Kazuo Komatsubara, Koshin Yonekawa and Norio Shioyama. Yonekawa and Shioyama were involved in the first Bakabon series, and Yonekawa and Joji Manabe were involved in Dokonjo Gaeru. I wrote a bit about Oh Pro last year on the occasion of Koichi Murata's death. Animator Sadayoshi Tominaga had formed a small studio called Tomi Production in 1970 that did work on a few of the A Pro shows at this time such as Shin Obake no Q-Taro and Dokonjo Gaeru. He would later become one of the main individuals behind Doraemon alongside Tsutomu Shibayama, Eiichi Nakamura and Toshiyuki Honda. Shingo Araki's legendary Studio Z (which went through several incarnations, some of which I talked about here) was even present at various times - in Dokonjo Gaeru episode 42B with animation by Yoshinori Kanada and inbetweening by Kazuo Tomizawa, and later in Ganso Tensai Bakabon with animation by Kazuo Tomizawa in many of the early episodes.
The Lupin gang
Lupin finally saw the light of day, not as a movie, but as a TV series, just one month after the start of Tensai Bakabon, airing from October 1971 to March 1972, when it was cut short. Besides launching of anime's most successful franchises, the series was significant for any number of reasons, from the seminal dark adult atmosphere of the early episodes by Masaaki Osumi, who carried on in the direction of Moomin by bringing new levels of nuance to characterization - to the more atmospherically straightforward and less gothic but more thrilling and catchy later eps by the "A Pro Directing Team" of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who replaced Osumi at Kusube's request (under pressure from the station) - to Yasuo Otsuka's maniacal attention to detail in drawing the cars and guns and other implements. Otsuka wouldn't tolerate vague drawings of "cars" or "guns", instead basing everything on actual, existing models or brands, and bringing his unsurpassed drafting skills to the task of drawing them in vast quantities. Lupin also benefited from work by many great animators including Neo Media's Keiichiro Kimura and A Pro's Hideo Furusawa, Yuzo Aoki and Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo had debuted as an animator just before on Kyojin no Hoshi after joining the studio in 1968, but quickly developed into one of A Pro's most interesting animators. Hiroshi Fukutomi can be seen as an inbetweener on the show in one of his earliest jobs. He soon switched paths and moved to directing on shows like Ganso Tensai Bakabon and Hajime Ningen Gyators, where he became one of A Pro's most interesting directors.
Miyazaki & Takahata had just joined the studio after leaving Toei Doga in the hope of doing Pippi Longstockings, but found themselves forced to do Lupin first. Miyazaki had in fact helped Otsuka out on episode 23 of Moomin the year before while still employed at Toei Doga, so this wasn't his first job at A Pro. Astrid Lindgren wound up refusing to let them do the project, and Kusube couldn't afford to let them sit around since he was paying them a hefty salary (having lured them to A Pro with a promise to pay them three times what they were earning at Toei), so he decided to let Miyazaki run with a new idea he'd come up with based loosely on the vast body of material that he (image sketches), Takahata (directing plan) and Yoichi Kotabe (character sketches) had thrown together for Pippi. The two Panda Kopanda short films that followed were also the result of a shrewd idea to capitalize on a fad for anything panda in Japan following a goodwill donation from China to a Japanese zoo. The project was a first for A Pro - not based on a manga, and feature films (albeit shorts). The films were each produced in the span of about one month, but are inspired gems. Yoichi Kotabe designed, Yasuo Otsuka supervised as animation director, Takahata directed, Miyazaki did script and layout, and A Pro's talented animators like Hideo Kawauchi, Yoshifumi Kondo and Yuzo Aoki helped Miyazaki, Kotabe and Otsuka bring the characters of the films to vivid life. The films were shown without fanfare in the theater, respectively, in December 1972 and March 1973, preceding Godzilla films.
Miyazaki, Takahata and Kotabe spent a few more months helping out on miscellaneous shows like Kouya no Shounen Isamu, Akadou Suzunosuke and Samurai Giants before moving to Nippon Animation to set to work on a new project devised by Shigeto Takahashi of Zuiyo Enterprise, who had planned Moomin. Yasuji Mori had already done Rocky Chuck at Nippon Animation, and Takahashi wanted to get the other key Toei Doga figures for a bigger project in that same vein. Takahata and Miyazaki had felt a certain amount of pride in the success of their Panda Kopanda project - not for any kind of commercial success, which the films didn't have, but simply because they had witnessed the children in the theaters paying their films the ultimate respect of not running around during the screening in boredom, but sitting intently and watching in genuine fascination. They felt they wanted to continue build on that. The direct result of their experience working at A Pro, then, was three of the very small handful of towering masterpieces in the history of the TV medium - Heidi, Marco and Anne.
Kusube, in the meantime, had finally finished working on Kyojin no Hoshi and had set to work on a new show called Akado Suzunosuke. It ran from April 1972 to March 1973 on Fuji TV, after a blank of a few months following the end of Attack No 1. Kusube is here credited as "animation supervisor". Kusube would go on to be credited as "Supervisor" on the Doraemon TV series and all of the films. From 1972 to 1974, Kusube was credited as "animation supervisor" on a total of four shows. What the credit means exactly I'm not sure, but presumably he was responsible for the character designs and for overseeing the work of the various animation directors. The first of the other three shows was Kouya no Shounen Isamu, a western drama that ran from April 1973 to March 1974. This series, like many of the A Pro shows around this time, saw the participation of a number of interesting transitional figures. Masami Hata storyboarded the first episode, which boasts thrilling dramatic tension and excellent animation quality. Hata had just left Mushi Pro and this was probably his first job ever for another studio. Isao Takahata storyboarded a later episode. Three animation directors alternated work on the show - Studio Junio head Kosai Takao, Oh Pro head Koichi Murata, and A Pro animator Hideo Kawauchi. The next was Karate Baka Ichidai, which ran from October 1973 to September 1974, and the last was Judo Sanka, which ran from April 1974 to September 1974. These two were a return to old territory for Kusube. Like Kyojin no Hoshi, they were both based on stories by manga writer Ikki Kajiwara, famous for his macho sports epics, but Judo Sanka wound up being the most short-lived of the series, perhaps because the spokon fad was beginning to fade. Kusube in fact became ill as a direct result of working on Karate Baka Ichidai. The show was partly outsourced to Taiwan, and most of the work that came back was so bad that he was forced to redraw considerable amounts, and wound up overworking himself. As a result, he was unable to do any work for about the next two years.
A Pro produced quite a number of classic spokon series around this time. The next big job that Yasuo Otsuka did while at A Pro was another spokon series called Samurai Giants. The series ran from October 1973 to September 1974 on Yomiuri TV, and was directed by spokon veteran Tadao Nagahama and again based on a story by Ikki Kajiwara. Hayao Miyazaki did some animation in the first episode, probably the last thing he did at A Pro before leaving for Nippon Animation. Unfortunately, this was the series that convinced Otsuka that he never wanted to work under a director with whose approach he didn't agree - Otsuka had learned what a director could be working under Takahata on Hols at Toei, and Tadao Nagahama had nothing of Takahata's detail-oriented and logical qualities - but Otsuka nonetheless delivered his usual quality, and brought a different look and take on this material that had previously been dominated by the look of Kusube's characters. The series remains one of the best of Tokyo Movie's sports shows.
The classic A Pro shows
One of the three or four supreme classics of the genre of sports anime is Ashita no Joe, a boxing anime produced from 1970-1971 by Mushi Pro and directed by Osamu Dezaki in his first job as chief director of a TV show. Immediately afterwards, Dezaki quit and became one of the founding members of Madhouse. From there, he and animation director Akio Sugino would go on to be involved in a handful of classic TV series for Tokyo Movie throughout the decade of the 70s. The very first of these came in 1973 with Jungle Kurobee (March-September 1973), a project that had been developed at Tokyo Movie by Kusube's younger brother Sankichiro Kusube, who throughout the years provided a link between planning at Tokyo Movie and production by Daikichiro Kusube himself at A Production. Sankichiro would eventually leave Tokyo Movie and join his brother at Shin-Ei when the split occurred. Dezaki accepted to direct the project partially in thanks to Yutaka Fujioka for having provided Dezaki et al. with the funding to found their studio. The project was co-headed by animation director Yoshio Kabashima alongside Madhouse's Akio Sugino. The project was significant in that it was the first original TV project not based on a manga - the Fujiko F. Fujio duo was actually asked to write a manga based on the idea, and the anime was based on that manga. This established a precedent for the Fujio shows of the Shin-Ei years.
The month after Kurobe, the Sugino-Kabashima-Dezaki team set to work on another project for Tokyo Movie, this time another sports anime - Aim for the Ace, which ran from October 1973 to March 1974. The series was reportedly popular enough with audiences that it caused an explosion in tennis playing among students. The series represents one of Dezaki's supreme achievements. Ashita no Joe presented excellent drama, but with this series Dezaki continued to push the stylistic aspects that had made Ashita no Joe unique. The stylistic daring of this series went further than any anime before and retains its impact to this day, with the vivid, bold, expressionistic use of color and animation, and the hyper-emotional directing that pushed the staple of the genre to new heights. Dezaki was one of the first auteurs of anime, and this series was his first masterpiece. Many of the staff who worked on this and the previous show, such as Masami Hata and Yoshiyuki Tomino, were similarly ex-Mushi Pro figures who would go on to work on the Tokyo Movie shows of the next few years.
The start of two new A Pro gag series in September 1971 - Shin Obake no Q-Taro and Tensai Bakabon - marked a return to old territory for A Pro, territory that was their specialty and forte. Over the next four years they would work on the three shows for which the studio is now perhaps best remembered - the shows where the A Pro staff perfected their unique approach to TV animation, and reached the height of their powers. Those three shows were Dokonjo Gaeru, Hajime Ningen Gyators and Ganso Tensai Bakabon.
Dokonjo Gaeru, an episodic slapstick comedy about the misadventures of a boy and his friends, is the quintessential A Pro anime. One day a young boy, Hiroshi, accidentally trips onto a frog and is bewildered to find that the frog is alive and well but flattened and stuck on his t-shirt. The story is firmly rooted in the atmosphere of lower-class Showa-era Japan, with the characters frequenting sushi shops and getting into fights and flinging foul language left and right. Most of the action takes place alternately on neighborhood streets and the construction sites dotted with piles of concrete piping that were a common sight in postwar 'kodo seicho' Japan. The series was inspired by the spirit of the long-running Otoko wa Tsurai Yo ("It's tough being a man") movie series directed by Yoji Yamada and starring Kiyoshi Atsumi as the gruff but perennially heartbroken traveling salesman Tora-san. The potty-mouth aspect of the series in fact made Dokonjo Gaeru a hard show to re-broadcast after it ended, as stations gradually became more uptight about offending anyone.
Dokonjo Gaeru, though based on a manga by Yasumi Yoshisawa, shares a similar setup, atmosphere and character group to most other Fujiko Fujio series that Shin-Ei would go on to produce, and can perhaps be deemed the spiritual predecessor of Doraemon. Doraemon kind of took up the space left empty by Dokonjo when the studio set off on its own as Shin-Ei Animation, providing the studio with a new vehicle to go on creating work in the same mold. Dokonjo Gaeru features some of the freest and most thrilling animation ever produced by the studio's animators. Yoshifumi Kondo, Osamu Kobayashi (who designed the characters in each episode) and Tsutomu Shibayama were at the height of their powers here, and from episode to episode these characters move with a freedom and inventiveness that has disappeared in TV work today. Some of the most impressive work done on the show was done not by an A Pro animator but by an animator influenced by the A Pro animators - Yoshiyuki Momose of Studio Neo Media. Where Yoshifumi Kondo's work was very effective using a limited number of drawings in the vein of Kobayashi's and Shibayama's work, Yoshiyuki Momose used lots of drawings and created richer movements. As a house animator, Yoshifumi Kondo stayed on at A Pro and worked on all of the shows until the studio disbanded, but the last credit I can find for Yoshiyuki Momose is on episode 44 of the next series, Hajime Ningen Gyators, aired August 9, 1975. Well before they became known for their work as directors, these two were already among the most talented animators of their generation.
Hajime Ningen Gyators began right after Dokonjo Gaeru (although on a different station - on Asahi Hoso/Asahi TV rather than TBS/Mainichi Hoso), running from October 1974 to March 1976. I talked at length about Gyators here, so I won't do so again. The last of the great A Pro series was Ganso Tensai Bakabon, a remake of the 1971 A Pro series based on the nonsense manga by onetime Studio Zero member Fujio Akatsuka. The series ran from October 1975 to September 1977. While Gyators certainly had its fair share of bizarre goings on, Ganso Tensai Bakabon was easily one of the most outrageous and unhinged gag shows to ever grace the airwaves in Japan, at least since Goku's Big Adventure in 1967. Under certain directors and scriptwriters, the episodes attain sublime levels of absurdity tinged with a healthy hue of black humor. The animators truly did the original manga justice in this adaptation, which remains surprisingly funny even after all these years, although there are times when the humor is a little too true to the sort of intentionally inane humor that defines Akatsuka's original manga. The moments where his humor is pushed to a more sophisticated level, particularly in the episodes storyboarded by Osamu Dezaki, are among the best achievements of the studio, with brilliant humor and directing combined with inspired animation by the usual A Pro suspects, joined by new faces like a young Manabu Ohashi and Kazuo Tomizawa. Shibayama Tsutomu again provided the character designs, as he had for the first Tensai Bakabon series, but this time his designs were much more polished and brilliantly stylized in a way that differed from the very loose and soft style of Osamu Kobayashi on Dokonjo Gaeru. His character sheets for this show are among the most delightful and inventive of all the A Pro shows.
I mentioned Osamu Dezaki's work on Ganso Tensai Bakabon. Well, just before this series, Dezaki had in fact directed one of the most brilliant A Pro series, the classic Gamba no Boken, aired April to September 1975. The series, based on a novel by Atsuo Saito about a group of mice who set out to defeat a band of weasels ravaging the area, benefited not only from Dezaki's thrilling directing and great use of a jazzy score by Takeo Yamashita, but more than anything from the work of the main staff. The key elements of the screen were handled by two A Pro veterans - layout was done by Tsutomu Shibayama and animation directing was by Yoshio Kabashima. Each episode was alternately animated by Madhouse staff and A Production staff, so that one episode might feature work by Yoshifumi Kondo and Osamu Kobayashi, and the next episode would feature work by Manabu Ohashi and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. It was a historic meeting of the two schools of animation - Toei Doga versus Mushi Pro - by the descendants of those studios after a decade of battling it out in different corners of the industry, and the results speak for themselves. It is one of the best and most watchable anime TV series of the 1970s. The brilliant light mood of the early episodes was unfortunately curbed for a more serious mood due to pressure by the sponsors, but Dezaki nonetheless managed to make good of both approaches, creating inspired action, adventure and levity in the first half and dark, epic drama heading towards the conclusion.
From A Production To Shin-Ei Animation
For some time now, Tokyo Movie president Yutaka Fujioka had been drifting away from the Japanese market and beginning to make overtures at the American market, ultimately hoping to realize a Japanese-American co-production of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo. Around the time Gamba was starting, he and Otsuka even visited the Fleischer studios in Burbank, CA in a bold sales pitch that local staff later characterized as "Fujioka's raid". By the time of Ganso Tensai Bakabon in 1976, A Production only had one show on the burner, and Kusube was growing worried for the future of his studio because people were leaving for lack of work. Fujioka's neglect had been causing some instability in the management of Tokyo Movie, too, that Kusube feared might leach over into A Production. Tokyo Movie, meanwhile, was finding it more difficult to maintain dealings with another studio like A Pro under the circumstances. This led Daikichiro Kusube to finally make the decision to break relations with Tokyo Movie. By calling back his brother, the Tokyo Movie producer Sankichiro Kusube, A Production would have someone who could manage the company without having to rely on another company for management. Kusube now saw a clear need for his studio to produce its own projects in order to survive as a company, so the answer was obvious. Fujioka was in the process of restructuring the company, which would soon be re-named Tokyo Movie Shinsha or TMS, and he offered Kusube the opportunity to head the animation department of the new studio. Kusube declined and told Fujioka his decision. Fujioka agreed that it was probably best for both companies. As a parting gift, Fujioka presented Kusube with the movie rights to Fujiko Fujio's Doraemon, commenting prophetically that it would probably provide work for everyone at A Production for the rest of their lives.
The break occurred in the midst of Ganso Tensai Bakabon, which was then the last Tokyo Movie production A Production worked on. Tokyo Movie animator Tateo Kitahara took over Tsutomu Shibayama's job as character designer on the show. Kitahara had been at Tokyo Movie since the very beginning, working as an inbetweener on the first few shows. He would go on to be the character designer and animation director of TMS's New Lupin right afterwards.
Tokyo Movie was in the process of re-organizing itself, with a new company called Tokyo Movie Shinsha (meaning "New Tokyo Movie") being founded to act as the managerial brain of the group, and Tokyo Movie itself being relegated to the production arm of TMS. A new company called Telecom Animation was also formed for the purpose of eventually animating Little Nemo, although they became better known for the work they did on foreign co-productions and Lupin films and TV episodes. Kusube broke with Tokyo Movie and founded his new company in September 1976. Taking a hint from Tokyo Movie's new name, he named the company Shin-Ei Doga, meaning "New A Animation". A Production had been a private limited company, but Kusube decided that his new company would have to be a stock company in order to enable it to grow as needed over time. On the occasion, Shin-Ei moved from Yoyogi to Tanashi City.
Shin-Ei began its life as a subcontractor, although Kusube undoubtedly already had plans to develop his own in-house projects. Shin-Ei was occupied with subcontract work for about the first two years of its existence. The first commission Shin-Ei received was for a promotional film for a milk company called Snow Brand Milk Products, to be shown to children visiting their factories. Shin-Ei was actually a last resort. The company had first asked Tezuka Productions to do the film, through documentary production company Sakura Eigasha, but after Tezuka dragged his feet for two years, they lost patience and turned to Tac, who wound up doing the same. Finally Shin-Ei was contacted, with only a single month left until the deadline. Yasuo Otsuka was appointed the job of director. It turned into a bitter experience for him, one that taught him the struggle of a hired gun - having to balance meeting the client's demands and satisfying his creative instincts. The film, entitled Sougen no Ko Tenguri, was completed in April 1977. Yoshio Kabashima was animation director. He animated the cow, and Yoshifumi Kondo animated the traveling priest. The other A Pro animators involved were Eiichi Nakamura, Hisatoshi Motoki, Yuzo Aoki and Noriko Yazawa. Otsuka had maintained contact with Miyazaki and Takahata while they were at Nippon Animation, and Miyazaki in fact drew 1/3 of the layouts for the film. Yoichi Kotabe and his wife Reiko Okuyama even helped with the animation. All of them requested not to be credited. Takahata himself would also later help out by writing the original synopsis for Doraemon when it was in planning at Shin-Ei. Thanks to Otsuka's ties, most of Shin-Ei's subcontract work over the next few months consisted of work on Nippon Animation shows like Ore wa Teppei, Ikkyu-san and Yakyu-shi no Uta. (Otsuka did layout for Ore wa Teppei and Kusube did animation directing on Ikkyu-san.)
One day Otsuka received an offer he couldn't refuse from Miyazaki to join him working on a new TV series he was to direct at Nippon Animation - Future Boy Conan. Otsuka remained employed at Shin-Ei while working as animation director on the project, but Tenguri wound up being his last job at Shin-Ei. Midway during production of Conan, Otsuka received yet another offer he couldn't refuse. Yutaka Fujioka was looking for someone to head Telecom, and he wanted Otsuka for the job. Otsuka was faced with a decision: stay at Shin-Ei to work on Doraemon, which was already in planning at the time, or go to Telecom to help train the animators and, according to Fujioka, probably get to work on another Lupin movie. Otsuka could easily have remained at Shin-Ei, where he had a cushy executive chair waiting, but he wasn't ready to retire his pencil yet, and Lupin had a special appeal to him that Doraemon did not. In the end, despite Kusube wanting him to stay, he wound up going over to Telecom, where he remained from then on out.
Shin-Ei lost a number of other key players from the A Production era at this time. Yoshifumi Kondo, one of the studio's star animators, left with Otsuka to help on Conan, but also wound up never coming back. Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, the two figures who helped to create what became known as the A Pro style through their innovative work on shows like Dokonjo Gaeru and Ganso Tensai Bakabon, left in 1978 to form their own studio, Ajia-Do. In addition to the above-mentioned Nippon Animation shows, Shin-Ei had also subcontracted some work on Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, and Ajia-Do is the collective pen-name under which Shibayama and Kobayashi had been credited for their work on the show, hence the new studio's name. Both would, however, continue to be intimately tied to Shin-Ei. Other animators who left with them to join Ajia-Do included Michishiro Yamada, Hideo Kawauchi and Yumiko Suda.
The studio's first project to bear fruit after this transitional period was a project conceptually similar to the aforesaid Group Tac series - The Red Bird, an omnibus of Japanese children's stories that ran from February to July 1979. One of Osamu Kobayashi's last contributions to the studio as an animator was the very distinctive opening sequence of the "Red Oni" episode. Kusube himself directed one episode, and this would wind up being the last time he was credited with any kind of direct work on the animation side of things. From here on out he focused on his duties as president of the studio, and would only be credited as "Supervisor" on the Doraemon TV series and movies. (With one exception: An avid fan of the Romance of the Three Kindgoms books, Kusube was deeply involved in the animation side of the studio's TV specials of the series a few years later.) The Red Bird was broadcast on Asahi TV, the station that became the home of all Fujiko Fujio anime produced by Shin-Ei.
The first of the Fujiko Fujio anime to be produced by Shin-Ei was Doraemon, which started airing on April 2, 1979. New weekly episodes continue to be produced, making Doraemon the longest-running TV anime after Eiken's Sazae-san, which is thought to be the world's longest-running weekly TV animation, having been on the air continuously since October 1969. Doraemon tells the story of the inept elementary student Nobita Nobi and his friend Doraemon, a cat-shaped robot sent back from the future by a distant descendant to take care of Nobita. Doraemon's fourth-dimension pouch produces and endless stream of imaginary gadgets from the future capable of anything and everything. The format was three 7-minute stories per episode for the first four years, and then two 10-minute stories per episode from then on out. The characters, animation style and sense of humor were all reminiscent of previous A Pro series like Dokonjo Gaeru, but with more of a down-to-earth and less chaotic tone than the earlier material. Shin-Ei brought the formula to a simple sort of perfection in Doraemon. Doraemon made the studio's name not only in Japan but across the entire Asia region and many other parts of the world, where Doraemon, with his big, blue round head, was probably one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable animation characters of the last 30 years.
Doraemon was first created by the Fujiko Fujio duo in 1969 as a manga, just after Tokyo Movie and A Production had finished producing a number of TV series based on their previous manga such as Kaibutsu-kun and Obake no Q-Taro. A Production soon came back to Fujiko Fujio's manga with a new version of Q-Taro in 1971, and immediately afterwards, Kusube's younger brother Sankichiro Kusube, a producer at Tokyo Movie, approached the duo to have them develop a manga out of a basic concept that Hayao Miyazaki had come up with after arriving at A Production. Fujiko Fujio serialized the manga for Jungle Kurobee, and the anime was aired concurrently. This is a pattern that would come back with the Doraemon films - Fujiko Fujio releasing a manga to coincide with an animated adaptation of that manga.
Doraemon was first adapted to anime in 1973 by an anime studio called Nihon Terebi Doga, which was apparently a makeshift studio set up by the TV station Nihon Terebi for the purpose of producing the series. Various other studios were also involved, and most of the staff consisted of ex-Mushi Pro figures. The series was cancelled after two seasons (26 episodes), but continued to be re-run over the next few years until the start of the new version by Shin-Ei in 1979. Curiously, the cancellation had nothing to do with ratings, but rather to the fact that the president of the studio resigned suddenly after the books showed that the company was no longer in the red. Animation apparently was of no interest to him except as a means of getting the company out of debt. Once in the black, he decided to shut down the company. This resulted in the company's assets having to be sold off in order to pay off various subcontractors. Most of the materials used to produce the show were disposed of when the studio's building was sold. It is therefore highly unlikely that the series will ever see the light of day again in remastered form. Besides this, Fujiko F. Fujio apparently disapproved of the series and refused to even acknowledge its existence.
The staff who worked on Shin-Ei's Doraemon naturally changed over the years due to its long duration. The very first director of the series was Ryo Motohira, who after leaving the job went on to focus on scriptwriting for the studio in various productions from Doraemon to Esper Mami to Crayon Shin-chan. He entered a monastery and became a monk in 2005 following his mother's death. The chief animation director from the very beginning was Eiichi Nakamura, and he remained in the post until just recently when the series went through a big overhaul. Within a few years, Ryo Motohira was replaced by Tsutomu Shibayama of Ajia-Do as chief director. The early episodes of Doraemon TV series retained a bit of the flavor of the earlier A Production shows, like a somewhat sparer and less worked version of the sprightly and inventive movement of Dokonjo Gaeru. But the freedom and excesses of the early shows were unmistakably toned down for a more homogeneous and even atmosphere. Animation production of the series was shared among a handful of subcontractors including Ajia-Do.
The TV series was a big hit, which led to the making of a movie version in 1980 - Nobita's Dinosaur. The original story was a short from 1975, which was expanded into a full-length manga by Fujiko Fujio in late 1979 in advance of the screening of the film version in March 1980. The film itself was a big hit as well, and a new Doraemon film became a yearly staple from here on out, always preceded as here by a manga version by Fujiko Fujio. The director of the first film was Hiroshi Fukutomi. Tsutomu Shibayama handled layout, and Toshiyuki Honda was the animation director. Animators included Sadayoshi Tominaga and Yoshio Kabashima from Shin-Ei and Minoru Maeda and Ginichiro Suzuki from Studio Junio. Just prior to this, in 1979, Tsutomu Shibayama had debuted as a film director with Gambare!! Tabuchi-kun!!, which was also co-produced by a mix of Ajia-Do staff (Shibayama and Kobayashi) together with Studio Junio staff (Takao Kosai, Okazaki Minoru). In 1982, Honda and Fukutomi would leave Shin-Ei and a total of 7 other Shin-Ei animators to form their own studio, Animaru-ya. Animaru-ya was a subcontractor, and from the new studio Honda continued to be involved in subcontracting work for Shin-Ei, primarily Doraemon, while Fukutomi focused on productions from other studios. Honda wasn't involved in the movies during this transitional period. Instead, Hideo Nishimaki was director, Yoshio Kabashima handled layout and Sadayoshi Tominaga was animation director. Honda came back with the fourth movie in 1983, which established the pattern than remained in place for the duration of the 21 films made from 1983 to 2004:
Director (& storyboard): Shibayama Tsutomu (from Ajia-Do)
Layout: Toshiyuki Honda (from Animaru-ya)
Animation Director: Sadayoshi Tominaga (from Tomi Production)
Shibayama became permanent director because Fujiko Fujio had requested Shibayama as director for the Doraemon films upon being pleased with the results of the 21-Emon film he had directed in 1981 (storyboard by Kobayashi/Kawauchi/Yamada and animation director Yamada, all Ajia-Do). Surprisingly, then, the main figures behind the bulk of Shin-Ei's Doraemon films were all at different studios, albeit all being united in spirit by the fact of having long worked together on A Pro productions. Hiroshi Fukutomi, previously one of A Production's most interesting TV episode directors, directed the very next Shin-Ei TV series, Kaibutsu-kun, which ran from September 1980 to September 1982. A remake of the very first A Production project from more than 20 years ago, it was their second in-house Fujiko Fujio production, and their third original TV production. After the series ended, Fukutomi moved to Animaru-ya and went on to focus on directing shows for various other studios. Animaru-ya studio co-founder Toshiyuki Honda, on the other hand, kept working on Doraemon for Shin-ei. Before leaving, Fukutomi also storyboarded the first two Doraemon openings.
Shin-Ei in the 1980s
Buried in the list of inbetweeners at the end of the first Doraemon film was one Masami Otsuka. Masami Otsuka would go on to develop into one of the most heavily relied-upon of Shin-Ei's in-house animators, and a very interesting animator by any standard. The Doraemon films were his training ground. Otsuka drew his first key animation for the second Doraemon film in 1981, and was an animator in each film until the 1989 film. Otsuka then moved to working on Chinpui, which ran from November 1989 to April 1991 and was directed by Mitsuru Hongo. Immediately afterwards he worked on the shortest-lived of Shin-Ei's Fujiko Fujio anime, 21-Emon, which aired from May 1991 to March 1992, before then setting to work on the series that would occupy him from there on out - Crayon Shin-chan. The long-running Doraemon wound up being a training ground to several other great figures in later years, as was Shin-chan.
Shin-Ei went on producing anime based on Fujiko Fujio works throughout the 1980s, up until the start of Shin-chan in 1992, when they became busy with TV episodes and movies for the two runaway hits they had on their hands. Of the 23 extant TV anime series based on manga by Fujiko Fujio, only five were not produced by Shin-Ei. The longest-running of these exceptions was Kiteretsu Daihyakka, which ran from 1987 to 1996, and was produced by the animation studio Gallop, formed in 1983 by ex-members of Telecom.
A figure deeply involved in Chinpui and 21-Emon as well as Shin-chan was Keiici Hara. Hara had his start in the film industry at a studio that produced TV ads. In April 1982 he joined Shin-Ei after being told about the job opportunity by his boss, an understanding person who realized that Hara's true interest was in animation. Hara had no experience in animation, so he did like most people in his situation do - he started out as a "seisaku shinko" or animation runner. He worked as a runner first on Shin-Ei's second Fujiko Fujio anime, Kaibutsu-kun, and then on Fuku-chan, an adaptation of a long-running (1936-1971) "yon-koma" or 4-panel manga by Ryuichi Yokoyama of Otogi Pro fame. Fuku-chan aired from November 1982 to March 1984 and featured character designs by Shin-Ei animator and A Pro veteran Michishiro Yamada.
More interested in directing than animation, Hara was given his first opportunity to draw a storyboard for Doraemon starting 1984, and soon became one of the regular episode directors when Tsutomu Shibayama took over as chief director of the series in place of Ryo Motohira. Shibayama was engaged in any number of other projects and had limited time to deal with the Doraemon workfloor, so he was also appointed to assistant director on the Doraemon films, in which capacity he worked from 1984 to 1987. This gave Hara ample opportunity to hone his skills as a director and storyboarder. During the process, he got to get up close and personal with Shibayama Tsutomu's storyboards, the quality of which both awed and humbled him.
Meanwhile at Shin-Ei, two other new series started around this time. One was another remake of an anime from the early A Pro years: Paa-man, which ran from April 1983 to July 1985. The other was another non-Fujiko Fujio series that replaced Fuku-chan: Oyoneko Buu-nyan, which ran from April 1984 to March 1985, and was based on a manga by Misako Ichikawa. Oyoneko Buu-nyan was replaced by yet another remake - this time the third remake of Obake no Q-Taro, which ran from April 1985 to March 1987. That same month, Shin-Ei also had another new series, and in a first, it was based on a manga written by the half of the Fujiko Fujio team better known for his darker comics. Pro Golfer Saru ran from April 1985 to June 1988. Another Fujiko Fujio series entitled Ultra B started in April 1987 and ran to March 1989. In this way, Shin-Ei kept up a pretty much constant flow of Fujiko Fujio adaptations throughout the 80s to supplement the already successful Doraemon franchise.
In 1987, after having worked on Doraemon for several years under Tsutomu Shibayama, Keiichi Hara was finally given the opportunity to direct his own TV series, Esper Mami, which ran from April 1987 to October 1989. After then going on a tour of Southeast Asia, Hara returned to work as a director on Chinpui under Mitsuru Hongo, and then to direct his second series, the unfortunate 21-Emon. Over the length of time that these two tasks occupied Keiichi Hara between Esper Mami and Crayon Shin-chan, between 1988 and 1991, Shin-Ei produced 8 individual TV series in addition to Chinpui and 21-Emon, which marked the height of variety in their programming. 21-Emon was not only the last new Fujiko Fujio anime they produced, it was also one of the last new TV series they produced. The 1990s marked a period of settling for Shin-Ei, when they became focused on the two shows of theirs that remained popular from year to year. The only new TV series they have produced since the start of Crayon Shin-chan in 1992 are Ninpen Manmaru (July 1997 to March 1998) and Jungle wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu (April to September 2001).
The 1990s: Crayon Shin-chan
Shin-Ei was jumping around trying various shows for a few years while still doing Doraemon on a regular basis. On April 13, 1992, another new show started: Crayon Shin-chan, based on a mature audiences comic written by Yoshito Usui. Few people were watching the first episode, but after a month the audience had doubled to garner more than 10% ratings, and by the end of the year that rating had doubled again to more than 20%. Shin-Ei settled on producing Shin-chan and Doraemon on a regular basis from here on out. They have only produced two TV series since then: Ninpen Manmaru, which ran from July 1997 to March 1998, and Jungle wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu, which ran from April to September 2001. Since 2002, Shin-Ei has also produced a yearly one-shot hour-long TV special aired in August around the date of the surrender entitled Children's War Stories. Each is based on a story by Akiyuki Nosaka, writer of Grave of the Fireflies.
The Shin-chan TV series was directed by Mitsuru Hongo. Keiichi Hara joined him as one of the regular episode directors after having worked under him in the preceding years on several projects, and Masami Otsuka joined him as one of the regular animation directors/animators after having worked first under Hongo on Chinpui and then under Hara on 21-Emon. Both wound up devoting most of their time from then on out to working on Shin-chan. As was the case with Doraemon more than a decade earlier, Shin-Ei quickly had a hit on their hands and started preparing a movie version. Mitsuru Hongo was director and storyboarder, and Keiichi Hara was co-storyboarder and co-director. This pattern continued for the first four films, with Hongo storyboarding the sections with more fantastic elements and Hara the more down-to-earth sections.
Animators on the first film included Shizuka Hayashi, Yoshihiko Takakura, Masaaki Yuasa, Hiroyuki Nishimura, Masami Otsuka, Masakatsu Sasaki and Yoshiji Kigami. Others who came in later included Yuichiro Sueyoshi and Masahiro Ando. All of these figures would go on to provide some of the best work in the Shin-chan films of the next few years, pushing the animation to never-before-seen heights of quality for a Shin-Ei production. Whereas Doraemon around this time and throughout the 90s seemed to be stuck in a lower gear, basically following a yearly pattern, with no extra effort ever put into the animation or into coming up with something new and interesting, right from the start the Shin-chan films acted like an outlet for all of the imagination and energy of the animators at the studio who were dying to create some more exciting animated films. There was dynamism and real invention in the animation and the directing and the storytelling.
Mitsuru Hongo had an open style of directing where he welcomed input from all of his staff. This is why he had Keiichi Hara co-storyboard the films, and in probably one of the key elements of the films' success, why he appointed an ex-Ajia-Do animator who'd never even worked on Shin-Ei productions before to the unheard-of post of "Settei Design": Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa had prior to then worked on shows like Chibi Maruko-chan for Ajia-Do under the aegis of his mentor Tsutomu Shibayama. Yuasa grew up a big fan of the classic A Production shows, and he joined Ajia-Do for the chance to work with the people who produced those shows. Those shows were Yuasa's single greatest influence, and his early work was closely based on that style, as he actively studied his tapes of the early A Production shows while he was learning the ropes at Ajia-Do. The influence of these shows then extended far beyond simply those animators from other studios who worked alongside A Production at the time. Many animators like Yuasa grew up watching those shows, and decided they wanted to become animators because of the quality and unique thrill of those shows. In this way, A Pro's legacy continues to be felt all these years later.
Hongo Mitsuru had undoubtedly seen Yuasa's incredibly imaginative animation on Chibi Maruko-chan and was perhaps the person who invited him to the show. Yuasa remained freelance after quitting Ajia-Do around 1992, working on the Shin-chan films and TV series as a freelancer. Each year Yuasa would draw lots of sketches of interesting ideas that could potentially be used in the film, and Hongo would use the ideas he felt could be used. Each year Yuasa also drew a brilliant section of animation in each of the films he was involved in, namely the first 8 films. He also intermittently worked on the TV series right from the very first year, 1992, and after a few years drew his first ever storyboard for the TV series, right after having collaborated with Shinya Ohira on Hamaji's Resurrection in 1994. In Yuasa's work on the movies and TV show the spirit of A Production was alive.
Around 1996, several important things happened at Shin-Ei. First, Shin-chan changed hands from Mitsuru Hongo to Keiichi Hara in 1996. Hara would remain director of the TV series from October 1996 to June 2004, and was the single person who has directed the most films in the history of the series. He directed the 6 films from 1997's Tamatama Chase film to 2002's Warring States film. Second, Fujiko F. Fujio died in 1996 in the middle of writing the manga for the next year's film. Two years later, Daikichiro Kusube's name would no longer be seen in the credits of the Doraemon films as Supervisor. This signaled the beginning of changes that would overtake the Doraemon films heading into the new millennium.
The change from Mitsuru Hongo to Keiichi Hara brought about changes to the Shin-chan films in terms of the style and content. The wild fantasy elements and catchy gags of the first four films were replaced by a more realistic focus, a more even tone, and a more filmic atmosphere. The previous films had something of a cult following among animation fans for their manic energy, but were otherwise seen mostly by children. By the end of Hara's reign, and in particular with the last two films, he had expanded the audience for the films to the entire age range from young to old, achieving a universal, age-neutral appeal that even the Doraemon films had not achieved.
After the explosive success of Keiichi Hara's 2001 Adult Empire and award-winning 2002 Warring States films, the studio in no way wanted to get rid of Keiichi Hara, who had ensured the success of the series of the last 8 years. But Keiichi Hara had other plans. He had had enough, and decided to call the series quits. The loss of Keiichi Hara in 2004 in many ways spelled the end of the most creative period of Crayon Shin-chan. The 2003 and 2004 films were directed by Tsutomu Mizushima, who had a definite talent in the arena of deranged humor, as proven by his cult hit Hare Nochi Guu, which came back as two OVA series after the successful TV run of 2001. However, he also had a definite lack of experience and interest in making feature films that held up dramatically in the way Keiichi Hara's films did, and his two films, like the next three films by Yuji Mutoh, who had taken over from Keiichi Hara in 2004, shared the same problem - they didn't hold up as films. Yuichiro Sueyoshi continued to provide each of these films with the same sort of energy and ideas that Masaaki Yuasa had provided the films in the early years, but it was not enough, and the films had lost the spark that they once had.
2000 and beyond: Doraemon's comeback
As it happens, just as that spark appeared to be draining out of the Shin-chan films, it appeared to slowly be migrating back into Shin-Ei's other big franchise: Doraemon. Since the death of Fujiko F. Fujio in 1996, the studio had been forced to change how they operated with the films, which prior to then had been based on a full-length manga written for the purpose by Fujiko F. Fujio. The 17th film in the series, Galaxy Super-Express from 1996, was the last film to have a full manga written by Fujiko F. Fujio. Fujio died that same year after the release of the film, before completing the manga version of the 18th film, Spiral City, for release in 1997. Starting with the 19th film from 1998, South Seas, the process was reversed. The manga would be written afterwards by Fujio's studio, Fujiko F. Fujio Pro, based on the film version produced by Shin-Ei. This obviously had the effect of suddenly giving the studio much more freedom with the material than before, and the films from here on out began to change in character. The 1998 film was the last Doraemon film on which Daikichiro Kusube's name was seen in the credits as Supervisor. With first Fujiko F. Fujio and now Kusube no longer behind the Doraemon films, it was the end of an era.
Following these events, the once firmly established staff behind the films also began gradually changing over the years. Like Shin-chan, Doraemon had its share of talented in-house staff devoted to the show. One of those was Ayumu Watanabe. Ayumu Watanabe had originally joined Kenzo Koizumi's Studio Mates, mentioned above, in 1986 after dropping out of the Yoyogi animation school. While there, he had a chance to debut as an animator drawing inbetweens on Doraemon, as the studio had become a sub-contractor of Shin-Ei after having worked alongside A Production during the Tokyo Movie era. Two years later, in 1988, he moved to Shin-Ei, where he debuted as a key animator on Doraemon while learning the ropes under the TV series' chief animation director, Eiichi Nakamura. He drew key animation on the 1988 and 1989 films, Parallel Journey to the West and Birth of Japan, and was soon bumped up to helping out movie animation director Sadayoshi Tominaga as the co-animation director. The very next year, in a series first, he was credited alongside Sadayoshi Tominaga as one of the animation directors. For the next six years, Watanabe devoted himself entirely to the TV series, doing every task imaginable - drawing key animation, storyboarding, directing and doing animation directing. He did everything in his power to make the most interesting Doraemon he possibly could, and became known for his devotion and perfectionism.
The next step in Watanabe's career came in 1998, when he was bumped up to directing the short films that accompanied the main features each year. He did this four four years, from 1998 to 2002. The films were undoubtedly an extension of what he was doing on the TV series, as well as a first step towards feature directing. He acted as both director and the animation director of his films, indicating the extent of his technical mastery, feeling for the series, and his strong sense of what he wanted to do with the material. You can sense that he was finally letting loose with the movement and making it as rich as he had wanted to up until then but been constrained by the limits of the TV format. The films, in particular 1999's Night Before the Wedding, are a good place to start to get a sense for what Watanabe brought to Doraemon. Having worked exclusively on Doraemon all his career, Watanabe has a good feeling for the nuances of behavior of each of the characters, making them more three-dimensional and human than ever before. He also has a great feeling for catchy pacing and efficient presentation, an eye for detail, and invests each shot with meaning. The film is a miracle of economy that crams in much material in a way that comes across as not feeling rushed. The animation has a dynamic and catchy feeling that makes ample use of the simply shaped characters to invest each moment with fun movement. His handling of the father-daughter relationship in the film in particular was sensitive, heartfelt and touching in a way that was unusually sincere and went beyond the conventions of the genre. He showed that he had the ability to create drama that had human warmth and depth as well as being exciting and well paced.
While he was doing these shorts, Watanabe was also helping on the theatrical Doraemon films as co-animation director. He then directed and wrote two of the Paa-man theatrical shorts over the next two years, 2003-2004, while becoming ever more involved in the Doraemon films. In 2003 he became the chief animation director for the Windmasters films, supervising the four animation directors, and in 2004 he again acted as chief animation director over the four animation directors, while also being put in charge of enshutsu or line directing.
The 2004 film Wan-Nyan Space-Time Odyssey wound up being the last directed by Ajia Pro head Tsutomu Shibayama, who retired from the series after having directed the films for two decades. The staff of the films had changed in various ways over the preceding years since the death of Fujio F. Fujiko, as exemplified by the accession of Watanabe to higher tasks in the series and the change to a system involving four different animation directors. One of the other big changes was that talented animators from elsewhere began to participate in the movies. In the 2003 Windmasters film, for example, you can find Telecom animators Atsuko Tanaka, Hiroyuki Aoyama and Yuichiro Yano, as well as Yuichiro Sueyoshi from Shin-chan, and even Oh Pro animator Koichi Murata. The 2004 Wan-Nyan again features Koichi Murata and Yuichiro Sueyoshi and various other new faces, one of whom was Ken'ichi Konishi, an ex-Ghibli animator perhaps best known for his work as the animation director of My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). He had gone freelance after Yamadas and participated in various interesting projects, having just done Tokyo Godfathers prior to working on Wan-Nyan. It was here that Ayumu Watanabe made Konishi's acquaintance, although Watanabe was already aware of Konishi's work in past films such as Whisper of the Heart (where Konishi animated the recital).
One of the other new faces who became a regular in the films around the time of Fujiko F. Fujio's death in 1996 was an animator named Masaya Fujimori. Masaya Fujimori joined Ajia-Do around the same time as Masaaki Yuasa, around 1988. He debuted inbetweening Studio Pierrot's Kimagure Orange Road under director Osamu Kobayashi, and then drew his first key animation on Shin-Ei's Esper Mami under Keiichi Hara right afterwards. Ajia-Do had always maintained ties with Shin-Ei in some form or manner, with their animators working on one another's projects, hence his and Yuasa's later involvement in Shin-Ei's two major series. In 1992, Yuasa and Fujimori worked together on Ajia-Do's video series Anime Rakugokan and on the second Chibi Maruko-chan movie, where they each animated special segments in their own personal styles. Fujimori's first big project came with Ajia-Do's Nintama Rantaro for NHK in 1996, on which he was very active as the main character designer and as an episode director, storyboarder, animator and animation director. His style of very active, fast-paced action flourished on the show. That same year he animated the special pencil-styled animation in Shoji Kawamori's OVA Spring and Chaos.
Starting the next year in 1997, Fujimori began working on the Doraemon films, and was involved in every film right up until Wan-Nyan in 2004. He first started out as just another animator, but soon acceded to animating the openings of the films, first animating the openings for the 1999 and 2000 films. His unique style of animation was on full display in the openings, with strongly angled lines reminiscent of Yuasa, vivid motion, and a great sense of timing. In 2001, he storyboarded the Icarus race that takes place near the end of the film, and just through his 'boarding created one of the most memorable action sequences yet seen in the films. That same year he directed, wrote and designed one or two of the China-san shorts for Ajia-Do, a follow-up to the Melancholy of Miss China OVA from 1992. Finaly in 2002 and 2003 he did the openings for the films again, while also co-storyboarding the 2002 film and acting as co-animation director of the 2003 film. Just afterwards, from 2003-2004, he provided animation for every episode of Ajia-Do's Futatsu no Spica on NHK, directed by Tomomi Mochizuki. The next year, Fujimori would provide the opening for Mochizuki's Zettai Shonen TV series.
Fujimori had already storyboarded an action scene in a previous Doraemon film. With the 2004 Wan-Nyan film, he took it to the next level. As Yutaka Nakamura did the next year for the 2005 Full Metal Alchemist film, he storyboarded, directed and was animation director of the climactic action scene, which remains perhaps the most exciting extended action sequence to grace any of the Doraemon films. Fujimori had already been active as an extremely talented animator for a decade in various places by that point, but this outstanding sequence showed him at the height of his powers. Fujimori created a miniature film within a film that seemed to announce the arrival of a major new figure on the scene. Two years later, Fujimori continued to build on this approach and created another superb film within a film of an action sequence for the 2006 film version of Ajia-Do's Kaiketsu Zorori. Fujimori is undoubtedly one of the most exciting animators active today, creating animation that has the air of nonchalant, simple bravura of the best moments of the last few Toei Doga films, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next.
Doraemon: A new beginning
The 2004 film marked the 25th anniversary of the start of Doraemon. The staff had already changed considerably over the years since Fujiko F. Fujio's death, and the studio undoubtedly felt that it was time to go ahead with some fundamental changes to the staff lineup and production style in order to bring the series up to date with the very different conditions of the industry all these 25 years on. The production staff, voice actors, and overall approach to the series were completely overhauled during 2005, for which reason no film was released in 2005 for the first time since the inception of the series. Kusuba Kozo, once a director of shows like Romeo's Blue Skies at Nippon Animation, was appointed chief director of the new Doraemon TV series, and Ayumu Watanabe was appointed character designer. In this capacity, Watanabe brought about considerable changes to the look of the characters. He made them more round and simple and expanded their expressive possibilities in order to break out of the stale patterns that had become ingrained into the old characters through years of habit.
This would also be Watanabe's goal with the next film in the series, Nobita's Dinosaur, slated for 2006, which he was appointed to direct. As a way of returning to the roots of the series in order to start anew with a clean slate, they would re-make the very first Doraemon film from 1980, re-casting the characters in a more contemporary light and mustering every ounce of their energy to show audiences how far production quality had come in 25 years. Watanabe was determined to go in a completely different direction with the film to show a new way forward with the series that would keep its spirit meaningful.
To meet the demands that Watanabe knew he was going to be placing on his animators and animation director, Watanabe knew that he would have to find someone very special for the job. So it was that he decided to invite Kenichi Konishi to act as animation director of the film. Based on his past work and the short scene he had done for the 2004 film, Watanabe knew that Konishi was an animation director who could probably not only understand what he was trying to achieve with the animation of the film, but even more importantly, be able to do the incredible amount of work that would be required to achieve it within a 6-month animation schedule. Anyone who has seen the film would not be surprised to hear that it took two years to animate, so it seems miraculous that such quality was achieved in just six months.
Viewed from any angle, Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 is easily the strongest film in the history of the series. First and foremost is that Watanabe brought to this film a strong love of the material that no previous director had. He was 100% committed to doing everything in his power to translate the original story into a visual form that spoke what needed to be said through animation first and foremost, and he went through a laborious process of thoroughly thinking about every single element of the story and the screen and the organization of the material to determine how he could best improve it by addition or subtraction to make a screen version that conveyed the story as flawlessly as he could.
Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 is different from every previous Doraemon film in many ways, and truly sets a new benchmark for the series in terms of quality, in terms of how the characters can be interpreted and made to act, and in terms of the more detail-oriented and involved style of the director. In terms of the animation, the most obvious difference is the very hand-drawn style that was adopted for this film. You can clearly see the lines of the animators in almost every scene. Konishi had, of course, been animation director of My Neighbors the Yamadas, where he was presented with a similar task: Bring alive very flat, 2-D characters in a very three-dimensional and realistic fashion. Konishi does exactly that in this film, and he does it by keeping the hand of the animator visible through the line.
Watanabe himself was a brilliant animator in his own right who had his own unique approach to animating these characters, with lots of nimble and fun fast-paced movement with zippy timing in the spirit of the old A Production shows. But Konishi goes in a different direction from Watanabe here, to the benefit of the film. Rather than using spare but catchy movement and clean lines, as Watanabe had done, Konishi's focus was on filling out each moment of the film with richly nuanced realistic acting of a density that had never been seen before in the series. As Watanabe had done before him, he wanted to make the characters more expressive, to make it easier for the animators to move them freely in various configurations and use their bodies as the main vehicle for the communication of emotion.
One of Konishi's strategies for doing this was to keep the line alive. Konishi actually used his corrections of key animators' drawings directly as inbetweens, and had the inbetweeners draw their inbetweens based on those drawings. This can best be seen in the scene Konishi was deeply involved in, the first appearance of the villain. Although not all inbetweeners were up to the task, this process made it possible to retain the animator's line into the final product most of the time. Konishi also called in a handful of very interesting freelance animators who themselves had a very personal style of movement and line - including Shinji Hashimoto, Yasunori Miyazawa and Hisashi Mori - and they provided just the sort of idiosyncratic animation that one would expect. This is a sort of animation that went against everything anyone had ever seen in Doraemon, so it was a big chance to let it through uncorrected, but that is just what Konishi and Watanabe did. This unusual animation brought new richness to the film, and showed the director that more freedom was possible with the characters than he had thought. He realized that bringing in animators like these expanded the expressive possibilities of the series by showing new ways of bringing the characters alive. Their work pointed a new way towards the future. That is one of the most significant aspects of this series - the way it expanded the expressive breadth of the characters thanks to the willingness of Konishi and Watanabe to see their conceit through to its logical conclusion. Their choice to do so created a loop of inspiration that infinitely expanded the impact of the film. This is perhaps the ultimate achievement of the film, that it has created a new paradigm for the animation of the films.
This film is perhaps the first film in the series where every scene in the film comes across as interesting purely in terms of the animation. Watanabe has the eye for detail of an animator, with the ability to make every split second convey something meaningful. This applies to the directing, where every element of the screen conveys something, as well as to the animation, which is consistently interesting as movement as well as effectively conveying the character's emotions. Under his direction, animators who had worked on the series prior to then turned in work of a very different nature from everything they had done up until then. Tetsuro Karai animated the extremely delicate and subtle scene where the egg hatches, and Shizue Kaneko animated the dramatically acted and moving farewell at the end of the film, which reminded me in its boldness of Yoshifumi Kondo's farewell in Future Boy Conan. Shin-Ei regular Masakatsu Sasaki animated the scene where Nobita and Doraemon are attacked in the time vortex and the scene in the valley with the winged dinosaurs. Young animator Ryotaro Makihara animated the second appearance of the villain. Masami Otsuka was given two big scenes involving the dinosaurs, so his patented approach to the characters isn't on display, but his genuine skill as a mover is. The film also includes brief scenes by outside animators like Hideki Hamasu, Takaaki Yamashita and Norio Matsumoto, in addition to the remarkable work by Hisashi Mori, Shinji Hashimoto and Yasunori Miyazawa. So at a more basic level, the film is quite simply a feast of good animation.
Entirely aside from the animation, Watanabe has created a very solid film that stands up to viewing in a way that the previous films did not. Watanabe's film is well balanced dramatically, and is extremely entertaining, with a great variety of tone and excellent sense for pacing. Watanabe is a very detail-oriented director. He has a keen eye for arranging every little detail and piece of information in a particular shot in such a way as to make it meaningful and heighten the feeling of reality in the situation. It is clear that Watanabe has thoroughly thought through every aspect of the material. To convey the notion that Nobita spends more time playing around than studying, in an early shot we see a pink ball lying on the floor, as if it had just been thrown there after recent use, and his desk lamp under the desk. It's all done very subtly but shows the amount of thought Watanabe has put into every detail. Combined with the vivid animation by Konishi, all of these details serve to endow the characters with a strong feeling of presence and weight, something they never had prior to this. It feels like the first time that someone has really thought things through and made a film not as a Doraemon film but as a film. Thematically, too, Watanabe has a made a film that makes up for some of the inconsistencies of the series and that is through-conceived. The original often had the kids being saved in the end by some form of adult supervision. Watanabe's film is emphatically the story of how Nobita, a usually lazy and indecisive elementary school student, is driven to a decision to do something, and takes the steps necessary to achieve his goals, achieving those goals of his own strength, without simply relying on the help of his parents or Doraemon. It's in that sense that this film was perhaps most important to the renewal of the series.
Daikichiro Kusube died on August 27, 2005, at age 70, during production of the film.
The next film continued in the spirit of Nobita's Dinosaur 2006、with the characters animated in a very loose and expressive fashion. In a first in the series, two women were put in charge of the film: Yukiyo Teramoto was appointed director in just her second year working on the series, and Shizue Kaneko, who provided the excellent farewell scene in the previous film, was appointed animation director. Teramoto brought a good sense of pacing to the film and a delicate feeling for the quiet everyday moments, and Kaneko brought to the film a focus on filling out the film with nuanced acting animation and making the characters speak eloquently through body language. Though necessarily not quite up to the level of its predecessor, it was an eminently watchable film, and a step in the right direction for the series. Yukiyo Teramoto had a particular conceit with this film, which she encapsulated by the phrase "soft Doraemon". Her goal was to build on the expressive freedom of the last film by making the characters, particularly Doraemon, much more pliable and malleable and prone to deformation. The opening scene best exemplifies this approach. It is a sharp contrast with the Doraemon of old, where the characters were very static and barely ever veered away from their basic shapes. Here Doraemon is stretched, pulled, pinched and squashed every which way in a manner that is very expressive and fun as animation.
Again the film benefited from numerous very nice sequences by in-house animators, including many portions by Masami Otsuka and an excellent scene by Masakatsu Sasaki. The young animator from the last film, Ryotaro Makihara, provided probably the most impressive contribution of the entire film here. He obviously did numerous sections including the climax, which is full of very subtle character animation, and the very exciting bit where Doraemon is scared by the mouse midway into the film, with an excellent sense of timing combined with daring deformation. Prior to this he provided an impressively dense, very graphically expressive scene in Keiichi Hara's Summer with Coo the Kappa film, so Makihara is obviously one of the most talented young new faces at the studio, capable of creating great work at the extremes of the scale. New faces continue to appear at Shin-Ei taking up the torch of the studio's legacy.
A new Doraemon film is in production at the moment, and rumor has it that Ayumu Watanabe may even be coming back as director. Recently, Keiichi Hara directed what is perhaps the studio's most impressive feature yet with his Kappa film. Forty-some years on, with Kusube now gone, the studio continues to evolve thanks to the work of dedicated individuals like Ayumu Watanabe and Keiichi Hara, who carry on the spirit of A Production in their work. Shin-Ei remains a thriving studio after many changes over more than four decades, which is in itself perhaps the studio's greatest achievement. It has influenced, trained and been home to many of the most important of Japan's animators, produced innumerable classics of TV animation, and today continues to speak to audiences while striving to re-invent itself.
I remember enjoying The Last Unicorn when I was younger, so I rewatched it a while back to see how it would compare with memory. I must have been quite partial to it because I remembered many of the details quite clearly. This time around what fascinated me was the animation, which was a very strange beast. Usually it's easy to tell with one glance whether a piece of animation is from the west or Japan, but here it's like your senses are confused by conflicting information. Some elements scream western, while other elements scream Japan. Stylistically and in terms of the storytelling and visuals and pacing it's very western, but something about the animation strikes an odd note that doesn't seem to jive with that information. It's got a sort sheen to the drawings and approach to timing that doesn't seem western. It's clearly presco rather than afureco, i.e. the music & voices are recorded first and the animation follows, rather than after as is usual in Japan, but it doesn't feel natural somehow.
Clearly a lot of work is being put into interpreting the voices and coming up with movement, but there's something fundamentally different about it from everything else that was being made in Japan at the time. It's like a small pocket of animators developed completely isolated from the history of the development of animation in Japan, doing things their own way. Rather than focusing on using few drawings, well timed, to achieve good effect, they use lots of detailed drawings to try to create fuller animation than what came to be typical of the rest of Japanese animation. The downside is that the animation doesn't have that good 'feeling' that developed out of that need to focus on the timing to make up for the lack of drawings. The animation is full, yet the movement isn't particularly appealing. It's lacking a feeling of weight and zip, the movements seem added for the sake of moving rather than for any real purpose.
The contrast is thrown into sharp relief by the film they did soon afterwards - Nausicaa. Here a person who had seen all of those developments and advances in the approach to commercial feature animation in Japan since its inception was brought in to a studio that had a completely different approach - western, yet not quite western. It seems like an odd choice, because I couldn't imagine a studio producing animation more different from Miyazaki's, but presumably they must have chosen this studio because Topcraft was one of the few studios in Japan at the time equipped with all of the material to create a final product, i.e. they could do the animation as well as the photography and final editing.
The Topcraft animators who had worked on Unicorn and Hobbit and everything else worked on the film, although many other outside figures like Takashi Nakamura and Yoshinori Kanada were brought in from elsewhere, so that it's not really a purely Topcraft production. Topcraft animator Kazuyuki Kobayashi did the scene where Nausicaa meets Teto, but apparently the scene went through a considerable amount of reworking and touching up, so we're not seeing his work in the raw. Tadakatsu Yoshida did the Ohmu running towards the screen near the end. The keys are incredibly detailed and precise, and the work seems to better represent what the studio's animators would have been better at - much denser and heavily worked drawings. That's the feeling I get from their other films, that the drawings are very detailed and the images are very rich and painterly. There's more of an emphasis on traditional drafting skills than in other domestic productions, but on the other hand, the animation works better as drawings than as animation, as movement. The drawings have a bit of a cold and impersonal feeling to them. The contrast is sharpest with folks like Kanada, whose drawings are very loose and free, but create an incredible feeling of exhilaration in motion. Yoshida points out that he was impressed by the great feeling of the timing of the explosions in Kanada's work. It must have been a real eye-opener to the studio's animators to work on that film with figures whose approach was much more individualistic and focused on creating movement that felt good.
Topcraft was a unique studio in Japan and they left behind films with a different approach from the other domestic studios, so it's intriguing to look back on how their work differs from the rest of the industry. Telecom was a near analogue of about a decade later, a Japanese studio focused on foreign co-productions for overseas viewers. But if Telecom was Toei Doga based, grounded in the fundamentals of movement and teaching its animators realistic weight and careful timing, keeping the drawings spare and simple, then in that sense Topcraft had a decidedly Tatsunoko tinge to it very different from Telecom, with a more photorealistic, 'western' look, detailed and liberal use of drawings, without that grounding in the fundamentals of movement and realistic timing. There's a surface of flashy poses and carefully rendered drawings, but underneath there's a feeling of spinning the wheels, so to speak.
Most of the work they did wound up not being seen by their own countrymen, but they clearly put a lot of effort into their films, and had pride in what they were doing. There must have been the feeling at the studio that they were among the few studios in Japan making real animation. Telecom later had that similar image of being the place where you have to go first if you want to learn how to create real movement. They were apparently free from the constraint of having to work in excessively tight schedules, giving them the time to pack in as much movement and detail as they wanted. Commercial animation in Japan in the 70s had a cheap image, so like Telecom in later years, people must have been attracted to the studio for the opportunity it offered to create a different kind of animation, more labored, with fuller movement. A notable case is Hidekazu Ohara, who drew the opening sequence of Nausicaa. One of the main things that attracted Ohara to the studio was the intricate, realistic, finely drafted look of the studio's characters, the work of Tsuguyuki Kubo.
was the main figure behind the character design side of Topcraft's work. He had started out at Tatsunoko in 1965, where he famously animated the opening of Speed Racer, before leaving to form his own studio, Studio Bees, where he did subcontracting for Toei and Tatsunoko, working notably on the likes of Rainbow Sentai Robin, finally arriving at Topcraft in 1972. Topcraft had been founded that year by Toru Hara, a Toei Doga expatriate who after Nausicaa would become Ghibli's early executive producer. Before the company was founded officially they had done a promotional video for Rankin/Bass, which presumably is how Topcraft came to focus almost exclusively on foreign subcontracting for them. Kubo was the character designer of the first of these, the TV series Kid Power, and he would go on to do much of the studio's character designing, giving the studio's work its unique look. Perhaps because of his past experience at Tatsunoko, he was also involved in the handful of the studio's domestic projects, most of which were for Tatsunoko. He also animated a number of TV advertisements for the studio starting 1973. The work for which he is probably best known was for the handful of feature films that occupied the studio in the second half of its decade-some lifespan. Kubo was animation director/co-storyboarder of The Hobbit in 1977; co-animation director/co-layout man/supervisor of Return of the King in 1980; co-character designer/co-storyboarder/supervisor of The Last Unicorn in 1981; and co-character designer/co-animation director of Flight of the Dragon in 1982. After leaving the studio, Kubo went on to work at a studio first called Masaki and then PAC (Pacific Animation Corporation), where he worked as animation supervisor on Wind in the Willows among other things, finally settling down at Studio Pierrot, where he remains quite active still today, 40-some years after he first began working as an animator, his most recent work being on Emma.
If Kubo was the face behind the drawings, Katsuhisa Yamada was the layout man and line director for many of the studio's productions. The main animators were the two mentioned before - Kazuyuki Kobayashi and Tadakatsu Yoshida - along with a few others like Hidemi Kubo. But I'll stop there, as there's already an excellent page outlining the history of Topcraft.
I've been going through Telecom's 2002 series lately. The big find was a nice bit of animation by Hiroyuki Aoyama in episode 7. Apart from that he also drew a bit in 2 and 25 and storyboard for 3, 17, 19, 23. Ep 3 had a more measured and dramatic atmosphere that stood apart from the others, so I look forward to the rest of his eps. As seems typical with latter-day Telecom, the story is unfortunately the weak link in the chain, and things aren't helped by the fact that just about every other episode is a nearly unwatchable outsourced catastrophe that looks like a different show. Fortunately Tomonaga Kazuhide and Atsuko Tanaka are involved later on, so there should be some nice work near the end. (Tanaka is first in 12 and storyboard + first in 22 and 26, and also did a bit in 13 & 25) Aoyama's part was quite something. Aoyama's work is what I associate with the Telecom at its best - incredibly nuanced, exciting, fun, lively movement with a brilliant sense of timing. Shojiro Nishimi also seemed identifiable in 7 with slightly more limited but still nicely timed movement that had a nice feeling to it, not quite to the extent of Aoyama, but still nice. His Yuasa-influenced forms were also identifiable and well suited to the simple Telecom look. It's also impressive to see that Yoshinobu Michihata is still creating the same incredibly fun and free movement he has been since at least Sherlock Hound. His animation is a joy to watch.
I found another rather nice Koji Nanke video I'd never seen before: the second ending for Studio Pierrot's 1987 TV series . It's interesting to have Nanke take his place in the line of various adaptations, which span the entire history of anime. The manga dates from 1931, and the first animated adaptation was a theatrical short made only four years later by Japanese animation great Mitsuyo Seo (best known for the first full-length anime feature, 1945's Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors). He also made two other Norakuro shorts in the next three years. The second adaptation was a TV series by Eiken dating from 1970, and the third was Pierrot's version. A year prior to this Nanke also designed and animated the opening/ending for Pierrot's Anmitsu Hime.
About a month and a half ago, one of the more significant Japanese animators of the last forty years passed away: . He died at age 67 on November 7, 2006. Koichi Murata probably isn't as well known to westerners as fellow Oh Production co-founder Kazuo Komatsubara, who was the man behind the animation of such films as Galaxy Express 999, Nausicaa and, near the end of his life, Junkers Come Here. However, both animators, as the resident masters at subcontracting studio Oh Production alongside the younger Toshitsugu Saida, were leading figures behind many of the TV series that graced European TV screens in the 70s and beyond. These series were produced by other studios, but Oh Pro was behind much of their animation. I remember watching both Harlock and Heidi growing up as a kid in France - both series in which the two men, respectively, played a large part. Koichi Murata was an animator in almost every episode of Nippon Animation's Future Boy Conan and literally every other episode of Marco.
I later became a fan of Nippon Animation's long-running World Masterpiece Theater, of which Koichi Murata remained one of the central pillars right up until the very end, for over 20 years helping to provide the stable quality for which the series was known. If that weren't enough, Oh Production produced one of the true great animated films of the last half-century in Japan: Gauche the Cellist. Koichi Murata was the driving force behind getting the film made over the six years it was in production (entirely pro bono, on the side, as a labor of love). Although I'm not too familiar with the specifics of his history or work, I know that we've lost one of the great animators of our day, one of the anonymous craftsmen behind a good number of the more memorable shows many of us grew up watching. Oh Production stood for something unique in animation in Japan, and Murata was the guiding light behind this unique studio. At least in my eyes, Murata stood for Oh Production, and I mourn his passing.
Unlike Kazuo Komatsubara and many other animators of his generation, Koichi Murata didn't start out at Toei Doga, but instead at an unknown studio called Anaguma (Badger) Production, proceeding through various small studios before founding Oh Production with Komatsubara, Norio Shioyama and Koshin Yonekawa in 1970. Toshitsugu Saida came in soon afterwards and became one of the studio's star animators. (Gauche was in part a vehicle for his skills. He singlehandedly drew all of the key animation for the 63-minute film.) The first projects at the studio were Tiger Mask for Toei Doga and Attack No1 for A Production (for TMS). Komatsubara worked on Tiger Mask and Murata on Attack No1, which became the set pattern at the studio - Komatsubara leading half of the studio on the Toei shows, Murata leading the other half on the A Production shows. In 1973 they did work on Rocky Chuck for Nippon Animation back when they were still Zuiyo, after which the A Pro section animators all went to work for Takahata on Heidi. From then on out Murata et al. devoted themselves to Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater and other shows.
From about 1975 onwards, work at Oh Production was split about halfway between Toei and Nippon Animation. Around 1980, after helping out on Conan and Miyazaki's Lupin eps, some animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga defected to Telecom. Oh Pro helped out on the early Telecom (TMS) productions like Jarinko Chie and Sherlock Hound. From the mid-1980s onwards, Oh Pro then started helping out on the Ghibli films. Obviously a relationship had formed with the two founders because of all the work they'd done together over the preceding decade. Oh Pro has been involved in almost every Ghibli film since, along with the core Telecom members. From the 1990s onwards, they continued to do work for Nippon Animation and Toei, but had diversified and were no longer split down the middle. The original team effort style of the studio seems to have given way to a more atomized approach, with each member working on his own project, a la Studio Hercules.
Besides their great work as an animation studio, Oh Pro has also been an important training ground, sending out into the world a number of great animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga. In 1970, a teenage inbetweener named Yoshinori Kanada came knocking on the doors of Oh Pro to ask Koichi Murata for an autograph because he adored Murata's way of drawing the protagonist of Attack No1. The first studio Masahito Yamashita applied to was Oh Pro. Fatefully, the person he met there was Kazuhide Tomonaga, who instead directed Yamashita over to Studio Z to work alongside Yoshinori Kanada.
Oh Pro was one of the more prominent success stories among the small studios that began popping up in the 1970s to feed on the abundant subcontracting work. Many came and went, but Oh Pro are still around and kicking. They've left behind lots of great work. But sadly, due to the nature of the work, they remain obscure. Gauche was conceived precisely for this reason - to escape from obscurity. They had pride in their work, and wanted something definitively of their own creation to be able to proclaim to the world as their calling card. The results were fantastic. I only wish they had continued on that tack and built on the success of the project to continue to make personal films of that sort on the side of their subcontracting work, as did another small studio, Animaru-ya. Little Twins is one example of them having done this, but I can't get enough and wish there were more.
Among the last places I remember seeing Murata Koichi's name was in Stormy Night. He had a full and extremely prolific career as an animator spanning three and a half decades, each and every year chock full of work, but I still can't help but feel that he died too young and had more work in him. I admire the way he worked right up until the very end. He was the picture of a lifelong animator.
Re-watching The Biography of Gusko Budori today I got to wondering why they don't make more films like this anymore. Down-to-earth, simply made films that have a universal appeal and actually make an attempt to create honest, moving drama. I'd particularly like to see director Ryutaro Nakamura doing something more in this vein. What is immediately apparent when watching the film is that the motivation behind it is what sets it apart from the majority of productions. The motivation is that of Gauche - a small subcontracting studio gathers its forces in one spurt in order to make what they consider a quality film that they want children to watch, and to represent what the studio stands for in terms of content and quality. What Gauche was to Oh Production, The Biography of Gusko Budori was to Animaru-ya, a small subcontracting studio founded in 1982 by 7 ex-members of Shinei Doga including Toshiyuki Honda and Hiroshi Fukutomi.
Both Honda and Fukutomi joined A Production in the early years, working as inbetweeners on Kyojin no Hoshi and Lupin III, and were two of the figures behind all of the classic A Production shows that followed. After working for several years as an inbetweener, Fukutomi soon became more interested in directing, drawing his first storyboard on Yasuo Otsuka's Samurai Giants and going on to direct episodes of many classics of the 70s including Ganso Tensai Bakabon, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi and some particularly well-regarded episodes of Hajime Ningen Gyators. Honda, on the other hand, was bumped up to key animation in his first year while working on Kyojin no Hoshi, and stayed focused on animation throughout his career, working together with Honda throughout the period on the same shows - doing some excellent work on 1975's Gamba's Adventure that makes me want to see the rest - right up until the formation of Shinei in 1978. Both Honda and Fukutomi were deeply involved in the early TV and movie Doraemon, including the classic first film, which had Fukutomi as director and Honda as animation director. After then seeing through Shinei's next two Fujio F Fujiko productions, Kaibutsu-kun and Pro Golfer Saru, the two left Shinei to form their own studio, Animaru-ya, moving into the old Shinei studio.
At Animaru-ya, Fukutomi was very active directing a variety of productions for other studios while Honda focused on layout for the Doraemon films. By 1990 the staff had grown to the point that they were able to handle all major aspects of production on their own. In 1993 the studio produced The Biography of Budori Gusko to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the poet's death. Honda was involved as an animator alongside Shinei mainstays like Hiroshi Kugimiya and Yuichiro Sueyoshi. (Even Manabu Ohashi was there with a fantastic cloud shot.) In 1996, on the occasion of Kenji's centenary, the two finally came back together to work on one of the three episodes of the three-part Kenji Miyazawa omnibus Kenji's Trunk, Fukutomi directing and Honda providing the designs. The other two shorts were directed by Setsuko Shibuichi and Ryutaro Nakamura, the latter of whom had directed the 1993 film. The experience of working together again on the short, entitled The Cat's Studio, is presumably what led to the drive to do more productions of their own, outside of the commercial system, in a way that allowed them complete freedom over content and distribution. This in turn is what resulted in the studio's first 100% in-house production, the Daruma-chan series for young children.
As Oh Production had done before with Gauche the Cellist more than two decades earlier, the studio adopted a completely open production style for the series, begun in 2001, which consists of 6 15-minute episodes. The work was done completely on the side of commissioned productions, with no schedule and no sponsors. Since there was no schedule to speak of, they could afford the unheard-of luxury of putting exactly as much effort as they felt necessary to produce the film that satisfied their goals. Once the films were completed, the problem remaining was: Where to show them? Since the films had been produced outside of the circuit of commission and distribution, naturally the studio would have to cover the costs of showing the films if they wanted them to be seen by anybody. Following in the footsteps of Tanaka Yoshitsugu, director of Perrault the Chimney Sweep, since 2001 Animaru-ya has organized free screenings of the films at elementary schools and community centers throughout the nation. Why would they do all of this for free? In the end their motivation for leaving Shinei was to produce the films they wanted, and after twenty years of work that's finally what they're doing. The films represent their entire reason for working in animation.
Building on this experience, Honda took it to the next level with the next in-house production, deciding on a mid-length feature that would have a broader audience appeal. When Honda was growing up, he and his friends would each buy a comic and circulate them among the circle of friends to save on money. One of those friends being a girl, he got to read some girl's comics too, all of which left little impression on him. Except for one - a comic written by Toshiko Ueda entitled Fuichin-san. Born in Tokyo in 1917, Ueda spent her formative years in Manchuria, repatriating after the end of the war. In 1957, at age 40, she began drawing her comic based on her experiences in Manchuria. The comic told colorful stories about the ever-cheerful protagonist, who must have been a beacon of light to children who had grown up surrounded by poverty and privation. The designs were unusual for the day, with a modern, stylish look that stood apart from everything else. Looked at today the designs haven't aged at all and still look wonderfully alive and contemporary, which can't be said for much of the manga of that era.
Tired of the ordinary look of most current projects, and nostalgic when he rediscovered the comic when it was reprinted, Honda decided that this would make a perfect next project. The project had in fact been in planning since 1998, well before the Daruma-chan series. The current director, Yoshitaka Koyama, came onboard in 2001. Together they started hammering out the script in January 2002, and the hour-long film finally hit theaters in 2004. Already a small, in-house production to begin with, the film was completely buried beneath the deluge of big films that year and eked out a few showings at small theaters like the Tollywood short film theater, which holds a screening of Canadian animated shorts every spring and fall. Nonetheless, Animaru-ya continued to hold their own free screenings of the film, and recently put out their own videos of the Daruma-chan series and Fuichin-san, which can be ordered online from within Japan.
Animaru-ya isn't just anime. In addition to putting together screenings of their films, they also put on shows with various kinds of performances to entertain kids. Honda has been known to say that what he most wishes that kids will get from his films is the urge to stop watching TV and go outside and play. The studio is unique in that everything they do seems to be governed by a uniquely holistic vision about the nature of what they do and the effect they have on their audience. Animaru-ya's productions breathe the air of another era, with a fresh simplicity and clarity that has disappeared of late. They're among the few small studios nowadays with the devotion to put so much effort into producing and distributing their own projects like this, so they're a precious commodity.