Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Thursday, October 26, 2006

01:19:28 am , 958 words, 2380 views     Categories: Animation, TV

The Red Bird

A while back I mentioned the first series produced by Shinei Doga, Akai Tori no Kokoro (1979). Well, I ran across a copy in the public libary, of all places, so I can finally say that I've seen it, or at least a bit of it. I was excited to be able to see the piece just because it's the missing link between the A Production period and the Shinei Doga period. I was curious whether there would be the patented dynamism of movement of the classic A Production stuff, and was hoping there might be some interesting figures. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of either. The series is basically what I expected - a pale imitation of Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. Madhouse's Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi seemed a bit more successful an imitation, with more daring abstraction and excitement. Here things are somewhat tame and soft, talking down to the children. I think part of the problem is also the format - rather than keeping the stories short with the two-story format of Group Tac's series, each episode of Akai Tori is one story. For the most part it doesn't feel like the directing is up to the task of holding the stories up for that long. Also, I recognized very few of the staff. At the most we can see names like Shigetsugu Yoshida and Hideo Nishimaki. It was actually nice to see something by Nishimaki from this period. I'd wondered what happened to him after his work on Goku in 1967. Here he did the episode I was most curious about, Akutagawa's Spider's Thread. As lackluster as his work may have seemed placed side by side with genius like Dezaki and Hata, placed side by side with lesser figures he shines. He's among the few who manages to invest his episode with enough rhythm and drive to sustain interest, though only barely. I'd expect nothing less from someone who'd worked under Gisaburo Sugii. The way the designs change with each episode is one of the series' main assets. The clean simplicity of the designs is refreshing, especially seen in this day an age when there seems so little freedom to design out of the box.

Among the few people I recognized from A Pro was Osamu Kobayashi, in the first episode about the red oni. The avant was animated in a style very different from the episode itself, so I assume it must have been by him, although the credits are confusing and don't help to clarify things. The avant features catchy, stylized drawing and dynamic, exciting movement, while after this the episode suddenly and jarringly shifts to dull, uninspired movement of a kind that I would not expect to see from a master of limited like Kobayashi. The drawings are done in a brush style. It's impressive that they tried to do this on a TV episode. This was the same period as Taro the Dragon Boy and Tadanari Okamoto's Onigakureyama no Soba no Hana, so brush-styled animation was in the air something serious at the time. Unfortunately after the first episode I don't see any of the A Pro luminaries from the old shows like Dokonjo Gaeru (Kusube notes wryly how Yoshifumi Kondo left to help out on Conan in 1978 and never came back), and the first episode is representative of the rest of the episodes in terms of the dull movement and drawn out content. It seems to suggest that Shinei made the right choice in focusing on long-runners like Doraemon and Shin-chan from there on out rather than going in a more stylistically varied direction, as that is the format in which they were in their element.

We also see the head of the studio himself, Daikichiro Kusube, stepping in to do one of the episodes. Perhaps not coincidentally, the episode in question is an episode about children on the Mongolian steppes, like the Tenguri pilot Shinei produced around the same time with the last of the good A Pro staff. Too bad none of them stayed on for this show. Perhaps not surprisingly, the episode feels very meisaku, in terms of the pacing and storytelling, and even in terms of the drawings. It feels like Kusube might even have been influenced by Yoichi Kotabe's drawings. (I thought Kotabe was much younger, but he's only two years younger. Kotabe was born in 1936, Kusube in 1934.) There was no credit for key animation, so Kusube must have omitted it to be humble. It was nice to see this veteran of early limited animation stepping up to the plate again after a decade and a half to show he could still do it. In all probability this was the last thing animated by Kusube, so it's of considerable value. (After his landmark work on Kyojin no Hoshi in 1969 he is almost exclusively vaguely attributed as "animation supervisor", as he is here.) Being quite late in his career, the ep doesn't have the sort of vigor I bet there was in his early Toei TV animation. Instead we see the steady, balanced hand of a veteran. His focus isn't on packing in as much movement as possible, like Otsuka would have done, but rather the opposite - showing how to draw an episode by yourself using the least amount of drawings possible. The results convince, though in the end it's hardly Marco, as Kusube is neither Kotabe nor Takahata. But that's not what A Pro/Shinei is about anyway. In the end this is a fascinating little outing for the studio, and I'd be curious to see what would be made of a folktale omnibus setup like this today. I get the feeling it might tap some of the imagination that's being left untapped today in the industry.

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