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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

11:53:00 pm , 2120 words, 9164 views     Categories: Movie, Studio: Ajia-Do, 1980s

Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa

On the evening of August 22, 1944, 767 schoolchildren perished when a US submarine mistakenly sank the transport ship Tsushima Maru in the waters of Okinawa as it was evacuating the children from Naha in southern Okinawa to Nagasaki.

Of the vessel's 1661 passengers, only 156 survived, 56 of them children.

Many years later, the survivors of the incident approached Group Tac to produce an animated film retelling the events of the incident. The result was a film entitled Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa (1982) based in part on a book by Akutagawa Prize-winning author and Okinawan history expert Tatsuhiro Oshiro.

An animated documentary in spirit, the film faithfully retraces the events of the sinking. It uses survivor testimony to recreate the events through the eyes of a young boy, a female teacher and a male teacher who survived to tell what happened. The female teacher, named only Hiroko in the film, is obviously modeled on Hiroko Ishikawa, who in testimony on the site of the Tsushimamaru Memorial Museum relates that she was attending to a child with appendicitis at the time of the attack, exactly as occurs in the film. The other characters also have their real-life analogues.

Visually, the film does not strive for assiduous visual realism like Grave of the Fireflies. The characters are drawn in a uniquely pared down, loose style that is cartoony and caricatural. But it succeeds well in evoking the paraphernalia and atmosphere of the period and of the locale through a more stylized kind of realism that is quite appealing in its own way.

Neither is the film as multilayered and complex in its treatment of its subject as the more sophisticated Grave of the Fireflies (which Takahata has stated is not an anti-war film). But the unsentimental, truthful script of Tsushima Maru makes it one of the more compelling examples of the genre of anti-war children's anime. It lets the harrowing event speak for itself rather than attempting to wring tears from the audience by unnecessarily manipulative tactics.

Without being gory, the film is unflinching in depicting what makes this such a difficult incident to think about, much less watch: the violent death of hundreds of children. Even knowing what is coming, the sequence depicting the sinking of the Tsushima Maru is gut-wrenching.

Japan's troubling history of denying its crimes looms as specter over this and all anti-war anime, but the children here are a proxy for victims of war everywhere - doubly innocent as children and civilians - and the film treads carefully around blame.

The deftness with which the narrative has been woven from shards of survivor testimony is the film's greatest asset. The two screenwriters - both writers for live-action films - keep the film true and real without falling back on anime storytelling conventions. Innumerable animated films have been made in Japan on the subject of W.W.II to teach children of the horrors of war, including The Song of Liang Chu Li, Zoo without an Elephant, and Who's Left Behind. But Tsushima Maru feels distinct from these.

The lightness with which the material is handled visually surprisingly doesn't feel like it is doing a disservice to this inherently very troubling material. Nowhere else in the world would it have been acceptable to make a cartoon out of such a tragedy. But it's the survivors who led the project. They clearly felt this to be a legitimate way of telling their story to future generations. Japan indeed has a very different conception of what stories are acceptable in animation. War, bartending, office life, motorcross racing, mahjong, ping pong - just about every conceivable human occupation, vice, sport or hobby has been dramatized in anime.

The film's unique visuals come courtesy of Ajia-Do, whose trademark simple but lively and pleasingly stylized animation is surprisingly convincing in a more realistic context. Ajia-Do appears to have been sub-contracted by Tac to handle the actual animation. Atsumi Tashiro is the only Tac name in the credits. More specifically, the film was directed and presumably designed by Ajia-Do co-founder Osamu Kobayashi. The characters have the distinct lumpy, pared down approach to form as his contemporaneous New Dokonjo Gaeru (op). The animation was supervised by co-founders Michishiro Yamada, Tsutomu Shibayama and Hideo Kawauchi. The animators are all Ajia-Do staff. It's likely that Tac was approached due to their work on the children's anti-war film Zoo without an Elephant (1982), while Tac probably approached Ajia-Do due to their previous work for Tac on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.

The story of the Tsushima Maru incident

The story begins in a place far removed in culture and history from the center of the country: at the southern end of Okinawa. The film unfortunately does not place much emphasis on the specifics of the locale. One of the few signs of the Okinawan setting comes when we see a circle of girls singing a song in Okinawan on the Tsushima Maru. Okinawa's deep-rooted history in opposition to the dominant Japanese culture could have enriched the film's treatment of the incident, but perhaps it was felt that losing the focus on the story of the survivors would have done the tragedy a disservice.

In the town of Naha, a boy named Kiyoshi plays in the ocean with his friends. A teacher urges his students to evacuate to help support their country, and visits Kiyoshi's home to convince his parents.

The allies are encroaching on the mainland after victory in Saipan, and the army has ordered all women, children and elderly - anyone unable to fight - evacuated to the mainland to make way for looming full-scale combat. The army is pressuring local officials to evacuate everyone, so the officials in turn pressure teachers to convince parents to let their children leave. Parents resist, worried about the safety of the waters, and ask for their children to be transported by battleship. The navy is strained, however, and can only obtain a transport vessel.

The male teacher urging the pupils to evacuate in the name of the war is conflicted: patriotic, but honestly believing that he is acting the best interests of the children - to move them to a place where they can be educated in safety - not out of patriotism. Hiroko is more troubled and skeptical. Hiroko Ishikawa recalls, "I've always regretted the fact that all thirteen of the children who applied to be evacuated on my recommendation lost their lives on the Tsushima Maru."

Most of the children have never been on the mainland, and Kiyoshi (inspired by Kiyoshi Uehara, who relates the same anecdote) is excited about the prospect of seeing snow for the first time. He treats the evacuation as a vacation.

People were only informed where to gather on the day before departure. The next day, thousands of parents sat waiting in the scorching sun for hours before finally ushering their children onboard the giant ship.

Mitsuko Ishikawa recalls, "It was the middle of summer, and several children collapsed with heat exhaustion. It was such a miserable experience, especially for those who were about to be separated from their families. It was terrible that they had to say good-bye to their children in such awful circumstances."

Even the dizzying staircase leading to the deck of the Tsushima Maru reflects survivor accounts. The chaos is such that, amid all these people, a man falls into the water and disappears, but nobody notices.

Onboard, conditions are squalid. Children are crammed into bunks and huddle against one another on deck, sleep deprived and hungry.

The incident occurred only two days after the Tsushima Maru set sail. There are controversies surrounding the cause, one regarding the course of the ship. The captain of the Tsushima Maru wanted to tack a zig-zag on the perilous last stretch to Nagasaki, but the commanding officer overruled him because it would waste too much time. The other is regarding whether the US sub knew that children were onboard. Hinting at this, Kiyoshi appears to spot the sub's periscope observing him.

After the first torpedo hit, the ship tilted on its side. Teachers threw rafts overboard and screamed at children to jump in, but many children clung to the boat and refused to jump. Teachers resorted to throwing children overboard. Many children fell to their death against the railing or were swept out to sea as the water rushed in. The film depicts this whole sequence in harrowing detail.

Rescue didn't arrive for days. Mitsuko Ishikawa was rescued after a day drifting at sea, but Kiyoshi Uehara drifted for six days before being rescued. He recalls seeing sharks circling his raft and hallucinating from dehydration and hunger. The film shows an old woman fainting after days on the raft and slipping off the raft and being devoured by sharks.

Those who survived and returned to their homes were warned that they would face a firing squad if they spoke of what had occurred. Kiyoshi Uehara recalls, "When I got back to Naha, I was taken to the police station and was again told to keep my mouth shut. I got back home from experiencing the war at sea, and then experience war on land."

Traumatized and harried by neighbors demanding to know their children's whereabouts, Kiyoshi takes to hiding in the closet. Many of those who returned were killed in air raids that soon overtook Okinawa. Kiyoshi's father is killed in the first air raid, and Kiyoshi barely escapes with his life. The innocent civilians of Okinawa were in a hopeless position, caught between forces greater than them.

The film closes with a list of the names of every one of the children who died on the Tsushima Maru. The magnitude of the death toll sinks in as the names scroll by for a full minute.

Osamu Kobayashi's directing debut

This movie marked the directing debut of Osamu Kobayashi and simultaneously, sadly, the end of a great career as an animator. He had been the figure behind the exhilirating, influential and timeless animation of Dokonjo Gaeru from 1972 to 1974. The updated New Dokonjo Gaeru he worked on right before this movie in 1981 proved to be his last big job as a designer/animator/animation director. After Tsushimamaru he focused on directing TV shows, mostly for Pierrot. He never returned to this kind of hard-core material, however. He directed Creamy Mami (1983-1984), Onegai! Samia-don (1985-1986) (clip), Kimagure Orange Road (1987-1988), Moeru Oniisan (1988) (clip), and Nontan to Issho (1992-1993) (op), as well as the movie Kakkun Cafe (1984).

There is nothing particularly outstanding in terms of the animation, but every shot of this film is a pleasure to watch in terms of the drawings because of Osamu Kobayashi's delectably loose style, put for once to a more realistic and serious purpose. He has a great instinct for drawing characters, and a style like nobody else. His loose drawings work surprisingly well in a realistic setting, even though the characters features are stylized in an extreme way, to the point that some of the characters' heads are a huge cube or sphere. They seem more realistic than more detailed characters drawn in a more stereotypical style. They have the simplicity of a good caricature. The shapes of the characters look random and slapdash, but they're a fascinating blend of exaggeration and delicate nuance. They strike me as designs that make great use of negative space.

Probing deeper than the animation, one of the things that makes the Ajia-Do team's work feel so good is the layouts. Tsutomu Shibayama in particular was great at layouts. The early parts of the film have a great flat style of layout that feels like his work. The layouts are never very complicated or flamboyantly artsy - they mostly straight up frame a character's torso - but the drawings are so spontaneous and organic and the movement so honest and free of cliche that each shot is gorgeous. This is one of the last pieces by Ajia-Do that retains the stylistic spirit of the A Pro days.

Several scenes that pass by as stills may have been a victim of schedule. Notable names in the credits include Yumiko Suda, who went on to direct Chibi Maruko-chan, and Masako Goto, whose did nice work on Licca-chan. Two Ajia-Do graduates who went on to make a name for themselves as directors can be seen in an early inbetweening credit here: Mitsuru Hongo and Tomomi Mochizuki. Incidentally, it's on Osamu Kobayashi's shows that Mochizuki learned directing and began to establish his unique style. And Mochizuki later married Masako Goto.

Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa 対馬丸 ―さようなら沖縄― (1982, movie, 75min, Group Tac/Ajia-Do)

Director:小林治 Osamu Kobayashi
Script:大久保昌一良 Shoichiro Okubo
千野皓司 Koji Chino
Music:槌田靖識 Yasunori Tsuchida
Animation Directors:芝山努 Tsutomu Shibayama
河内日出夫 Hideo Kawauchi
山田みちしろ Michishiro Yamada
Art:清水一利 Kazutoshi Shimizu
Color Design:渋谷瑠美子 Rumiko Shibuya
Audio Director:田代敦巳 Atsumi Tashiro
Key Animation:須田裕美子 Yumiko Suda
吉本桂子 Keiko Yoshimoto
後藤真砂子 Masako Goto
大塚典子 Noriko Otsuka
若山佳幸 Yoshiyuki Wakayama
若山佳治 Yoshiharu Wakayama
志村宣子 Nobuko Shimura
鏡子加藤 Kyoko Kato


aaron_long [Member]

This sounds very interesting. I’ll have to search for it. You’re completely right about Japan probably being the only place where this kind of project would be made in animation.

03/28/12 @ 16:15
pete [Member]

reminded me a lot of Barefoot Gen. Just like Gen, it was not that interesting till the scenes of the sunken ship and the rafts later on. Unfortunately they devoted just a few minutes to those woefull scenes, which were the most memorable in the movie.
In the end credits when I saw the list of the children victims I couldnt bring myself to watch anymore.

In the list you mention I’d also add Rail of the Star and Futatsu no Kurumi. I think Rail of the Star has some of the better and more tense moments of the films I watched, since it also takes place in Korea, where the feelings towards the Japanese change.

03/29/12 @ 05:16
Ben [Member]  

Aaron -

You can find it on Youtube, I think, but it’s not subbed. Seems unlikely that someone will sub it. Not the type of thing most anime fans are into.

Pete -

It’s true, I was surprised how much time was spent on the sequences before and after the event… I would have thought it would be more of a Poseidon Adventure thing, with most of the film detailing the event. Instead it seems like a blip in the chronology of the film. But I think it works for this film. Lingering too long on that sequence would have been exploitative. It’s a film that’s impressively sanguine about the flow of time and that doesn’t overdramatise.

I’ve seen Rail of the Star. The material is very interesting, but I was disappointed by it, despite being directed by Toshio Hirata. Futatsu no Kurumi I haven’t seen. Worth seeking out?

04/02/12 @ 17:03