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To continue on the same theme, here's another fox movie: Chironuppu no Kitsune or The Fox of Chironup, released in August 1987. (watch here)
This one is actually a bona fide Group Tac production, supervised by Tsuneo Maeda (animation director of Night on the Galactic Railroad) and featuring Group Tac president Atsumi Tashiro as the audio director. It was directed by Tetsuo Imazawa of Studio Junio.
The story takes place in the Kuril islands north of Hokkaido, specifically on the island of Urup, which in the movie has been renamed to Chironup. (Chironup in Ainu means Fox Island)
(Spoilers in this paragraph) Set during W.W. II, Chironup tells the story of a pair of foxes with a litter of two pups. One of the playful baby foxes gets estranged from its parents. An old couple praying in front of an old Jizo statue near their hut discover the little guy, and take him in out of pity. They tie a red bow with a bell around its neck to keep track of him. After a storm destroys the couple's home, the little fox gets reunited with its family. But soon, the outside world intrudes. Japanese soldiers in search of fox pelts land on the island. They shoot and kill the father fox and one of the babies. The baby fox with the bell gets caught in a trap. The mother fox stays by its side trying to free it, to no avail. The next spring, the old couple are wandering through the forest when, in a flower patch, they run across a trap. Next to the trap is all that's left of the little fox - a red collar with a bell.
The story was inspired by an event in the life of the author of the novel on which the film is based. The author, Hiroyuki Takahashi, visited the island of Urup in the spring of 1944. He ran across traps in the woods set by poachers. One of these had the tiny skeleton of a baby fox in its clutches. This novel was his way of voicing his anger at the practice of trapping.
This film is a good contrast with Gongitsune. Where Gon was stylized, whimsical and quirky, this film is much more realistic. The tone is grounded and the directing is naturalistic. The film feels much more like the a typical realistic animated film for children about serious subject matter like Who's Left Behind (Ushiro no Shomen Daare).
The film is much heavier than Gon - it tries to move its audiences with the relentlessly depressing and bleak story. Which is why it's ironic that I find Chironup to be far inferior to Gon from both an animation and filmmaking perspective. The story is indeed quite sad and heartbreaking, but only at a surface level. The directing is bland, lacks nuance, and has little to appeal to adults or animation fans. It feels too lightweight for the denouement to have real impact. To truly tap the emotions, good artistry is a must, and that's lacking in this film.
I like the idea of realistic, down-to-earth animation like this. My problem is that the directing is very weak. The designs are cute in a bland and blatantly audience-coddling kind of way that I don't like. They give the mother fox long eyelashes to distinguish her sex. The eyes of the foxes are as big and round. Nothing in the design creatively renders the distinguishing features of a fox. The humans are the same. The have these beady round eyes and plain features that simply aren't very interesting or communicative, just obviously there to be cute looking.
The way I see it, if you're going to do a realistic anime, you have to have the guts to go as far as Isao Takahata did, or there is no point. You have to be assiduous with the realism of the details. You have to make the acting and the designs realistic and believable. None of that is done in this film. They go only as far in the direction of realism as is convenient, which really isn't very far. So the film doesn't hold up from an adult perspective. It's clearly kids' fare. Gon is also kids' fare, but it holds up really well because it's actually interesting as animation. It's not about whether it's kids' fare or not - it's about whether it's good artistry.
Despite it shortcomings, I kind of like the film. Or I want to like it. At the very least, it's a welcome change from conventional manga-based anime material and styling. In that sense it's a breath of fresh air. It's a gentle, warm film with a good heart. It's entirely based in the natural world, observing the actual way that foxes live in nature. Being naturalistic is one of the hardest things to do in animation because the details are familiar to us all and it's easy to notice any inaccuracies. Most of all, the story is heartbreaking, as intended.
Though this was a Group Tac film, the actual production seems to have been largely handled by Takao Kosai's Studio Junio. Director Tetsuo Imazawa, character designer/animation director Fukuo Yamamoto, co-animation director Hiroshi Azuma and assistant animation director Keiko Imazawa were all at Studio Junio, as were some of the animators.
I mentioned Studio Junio in the past in the articles on A Pro and Hajime Ningen Gyators, and Toshiyuki Inoue talks a bit about how things worked at Studio Junio in an interview I translated. (part 1 and part 2).
Like Group Tac, Studio Junio had a regrettable downfall. After a scandal in 1999 in which they were unable to complete the animation for the movie Gundress on time and the film was released in a half-complete state, they took a hit from damage claims. Takao Kosai gradually disbanded his staff, changed the studio's name to Junio Brain Trust, and the studio ceased operations in 2000. Junio Brain Trust manages the rights to the studio's past work.
Several splinter studios were formed by ex staff. Kanbe Mamoru co-founded Studio GaRan in 1997. Minoru Okazaki, Hiroshi Azuma and Minoru Maeda founded Synergy SP in 1998. Tetsuya Hayazaka founded Studio Flag in 1999.
In its heyday, Junio did a lot of nice work. In the 1970s, they were a subcontractor primarily for Toei Doga and Tokyo Movie, working on shows like Ikkyu-san, Mazinger Z, Majokko Megu-chan, Majokko Limit-chan, Babel II and The White Whale of Mu. This is when Takao Kosai did the work I remember him best for - Tokyo Movie's Hajime Ningen Gyators. In the 1980s, they did subcontract work mainly for Toei Doga, Group Tac and Tokyo Movie on shows like Iron Man 28, Dr. Slump, Stop!! Hibari-kun, Dragonball, Dragonball Z, Nine, Touch and Hiatari Ryoko.
Animators associated with Studio Junio over the years include Minoru Maeda, Ginichiro Suzuki, Toshiyuki Inoue, Osamu Horiuchi and Katsumi Matsuda.
The name that jumps out at you in the animator credits of Chironup is Toshiyuki Inoue. He was just another animator back then. It was at Studio Junio that Toshiyuki Inoue learned the ropes. People first became aware of him for the good work he did on Toei Doga's Gu-Gu Ganmo TV series and movie in 1985, which he worked on from Studio Junio.
The animation of Chironup is pretty bland for the most part, but two scenes immediately impressed me for their animation when I watched the film, so I'm suspecting these might have been by Toshiyuki Inoue.
The first scene is the storm scene, which you can see here. The contrast is pretty jarring. It's like the movie suddenly becomes ultra-realistic. The waves are rendered in considerable detail, and with a good feeling for the dynamics of water. I suspect Inoue must have studied Yoichi Kotabe's waves in Animal Treasure Island. It reminds me a bit of the water Toshiyuki Inoue did for Satoru Utsunomiya's Peek the Whale, although he was much better by the time of Peek. There are two more shots of the ocean a little bit later in the film (here) that look similar. The spray has an incredible feeling to the timing. I assume he must have done this too.
The second scene is the scene where the owl attacks the foxes, which you can see here. I'm not as sure this was done by Toshiyuki Inoue, but all I know is that it's amazingly realistic. For a movie about wild foxes, I was mostly disappointed at the movement of the foxes. It isn't that realistic or well done. Only in this scene does it really feel like you're seeing how a wild animal would move. The owl's pose as he attacks the foxes is amazingly well observed. It feels like the animator based their footage on reference video of owls.
I don't think all of the animators in the credits are Junio people. Jushi Mizumura and Takashi Saijo are from Tama Pro, but I'm not sure about the others. Takeo Kitahara, Yoshiji Kigami, Yoshiyuki Hane and Yoshiyuki Momose are all well-known talented animators.
The Fox of Chironup (1987, 72 minutes)
Produced by Group Tac
Directed by Tetsuo Imazawa
Supervisor: Tsuneo Maeda
Script: Zenzo Matsuyama
Character Design: Fukuo Yamamoto
Animation directors: Fukuo Yamamoto, Hiroshi Azuma
Assistant animation directors: Keiko Imazawa, Kiyoshi Matsumoto
Production Assistance: Studio Junio, Takao Kosai