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Category: TV

Sunday, October 25, 2015

05:28:00 pm , 6993 words, 58737 views     Categories: TV, Studio: Mushi Pro, Studio: Hoso Doga Seisaku, Studio: Toei Doga, 1960s

Fight da!! Pyuta

Fight da!! Pyuta is an obscure black and white show from 1968. It was produced not by one of the major studios of the era but by a short-lived studio going by the generic name Hoso Doga Seisaku (Broadcast Animation Production). You'd be forgiven for assuming it to be one of the many throwaway shows produced at this time. But in fact it happens to be one of the best, featuring some of the most edgy comedy and vivid animation of any TV show of the era.

From psychedeila to pop art, political satire to parody, Pyuta incorporates themes and techniques that made it ahead of its time in its day, probably contributing to its short two-season run. It's a shame that the show was produced in black and white or its appeal would be more immediately obvious, but it's a tribute to the artistry of the animators that it nonetheless remains tremendously entertaining and watchable after nearly 50 years.

All you have to do is look at the opening theme to see just how out of this world this show is, with its profusion of subliminal inserts, pop sensibility, alternately rich and cartoony animation, and most of all the incredibly fast cutting. That is quite possibly some of the fastest cutting I've ever seen in an anime. This opening was a clear statement of intent from the staff that they were out to break the rules and do something special. Although not all of the episodes in the show itself live up to this promise, the remarkable thing is that even the less impressive parts are a cut above, and the best episodes are among the best TV episodes of the era.

Pyuta picks up where Mushi Pro's gag comedy masterpiece Goku no Daiboken (1967) left off, and in some ways goes even further. Like Goku, Pyuta was clearly the product of industry animators fed up with being bottled up by the constraints of the industry coming together to put their foot down and make some crazy animation the way they wanted for once. Pyuta ditches running story altogether and uses only the most rudimentary setup as a coathanger to allow its animators the most possible freedom in storytelling.

The world of Fight da!! Pyuta

One of the major factors behind the show's freedom is that, despite the claim of being based on the manga by Tsunezo Murotani, the show is in fact almost completely original. The previous anime produced by the studio was based on a manga by Tsunezo Murotani. This time they basically took the idea of Dr. Tsururi from the Dr. Tsururi manga by Murotani, but completely changed his design and personality and added Pyuta as the actual protagonist, along with inventing all of the other characters. It's essentially an original show, not actually based on a manga. This certainly helped give the animators more freedom to do their thing.

In coming up with the setup, the 1965 slapstick comedy movie The Great Race was an inspiration to the staff in terms of tone and gadgetry. Thus you get the amusing contraptions flown by Warusa & gang in the opening theme. This sets the basic tone for the show - slapstick and silly struggle between the protagonist and the bad guys piloting crazy contraptions, with the bad guys being kind of ridiculous and laughable.

The show's hero is Konno Pyuta (inspired by the recently introduced word computer), who lives with his grandfather, the bald genius inventor Doctor Tsururi (tsururi is the onomatopoeia for smooth). The Doctor actually just sits around sleeping all day, but when he gets hit on the head with a hard object, he goes into hustle mode. Signaled by the Kentucky Derby fanfare, his true genius comes out, and he assembles a brilliant invention. It's a staple of the show that there's at least one hustle scene per episode.

The show's heroine is Kakko-chan, who appears in a different guise in every episode - astronaut, painter, reporter, etc. Kakko-chan is in fact a completely different character in each episode, making Pyuta's acquaintance anew each time, which is a novel approach.

Pyuta rides around in his barrel helicopter taking orders for repairs and inventions. Meanwhile, the evil Warusa the 7th sends his sidekick Braky to spy on them and steal their inventions at the behest of a computer inhabited by the ghost of his ancestors. At the end of each episode, after his schemes are foiled, Warusa is punished by his ancestors. Voice actor Kyoji Kobayashi does much to bring Warusa's comically snobbish personality to life.

Thus, the show establishes a set of formulae, but the characteristic thing about Pyuta is that the staff used these formulae not as corner-cutting techniques but as challenges. Notably, the hustle would normally have been a "bank", but in a kind of protest against the notion of this kind of animated laziness, each and every instance of a hustle by Dr. Tsururi is animated anew - and with considerable verve - in every episode. Part of the show's fun thus becomes seeing how Dr. Tsururi will appear in his hustle scene, as the animators come up with increasingly outlandish hustle scenes.

The show starts off a little slow, as the animators were still getting used to the material early on. Episode 1 is hesitant and lacking in spark, and functions mainly to present the basics of the setup to the audience. But fairly quickly the animators loosen up, and midway through we start getting some truly memorable episodes as animated playfulness begins to trump rote storytelling. I've picked out a sampling of the best episodes below.

Episode highlights

Episode 10: 南太平洋メチャクチャ大戦争 Crazy War in the South Pacific
Director:倉橋こうじ Koji Kurahashi
Animators:林静一 Seiichi Hayashi
鈴木欽一郎 Kinichiro Suzuki

Warusa wins a free trip overseas, which impresses Kakko-chan, who dreams of visiting the west. The jealous Pyuta builds a submarine to take her overseas, but instead of hitting up glamorous Paris, they wind up getting stranded on an island in the South Pacific. After they land, Pyuta accidentally steps off a cliff while showing off to Kakko-chan and falls into the water, barely escaping alive from the shark-infested waters. The natives see this feat and promptly crown him king. Meanwhile, Warusa accidentally falls off the plane after mistaking the exit door for the bathroom, and is rescued from the middle of the ocean by the Seventh Fleet. A spy has infiltrated the fleet, and Warusa helpfully points out that his nemesis Pyuta is the spy they're looking for. So begins a pitched battle between Seventh Fleet and the natives, armed with rocks and bows and arrows. The natives seem doomed, but a strange thing happens...

This is hands down the best episode in the series, and luckily it's available for viewing online, albeit without subtitles (watch). Even without understanding the episode, the remarkable amount of work that went into the animation, and the craziness of it all, comes through clearly. From the lively acting in the opening sequence to the insane hustle scene where Dr. Tsururi rips off his nose and eyes, to the remarkable battle sequence at the climax, the episode is filled head to toe with clever ideas and fun animation. The crazy sequence where an army of comic book superheroes appear out of nowhere and descend on Warusa is a particular highlight, underscoring the liberties the staff were able to take with the animation in this show. An incredible amount of work also went into animating the water, which splashes about realistically in the ocean scenes.

This episode is the crowning example of how the staff of Pyuta took a stand and decided to put all their effort into the animation for once, schedule and studio be damned. The episode took twice as long to make as the other episodes, and they used twice as many animation drawings. And this was not sanctioned by the studio. They did it because they were determined to do it, and it created friction with the studio because they were taking so long. Seiichi Hayashi reportedly almost got into a fistfight with producer Ken Saito over the whole thing because of Hayashi's brazen attitude. When asked by Saito when on earth they were going to finish, Hayashi essentially responded, "Damned if I know."

The director of the episode is Koji Kurahashi, who later changed his name to Tatsuji Kurahashi. The animators were Seiichi Hayashi and Kinicihro Suzuki, who were both at Studio Knack at the time, recently formed by Sadao Tsukioka. Indicating how special this episode was, Hayashi and Suzuki commuted to Hoso Doga Seisaku for their work on this episode, but for the other episodes did the work from Knack, like a regular subcontractor. There were two other subcontractors involved - Art Fresh and Jaggard - but I'm not sure where the work would have been done by those other subcontractors. It probably varied on an individual basis.

Kurahashi actually animated a considerable amount of the episode, uncredited. There appears to have been a rule that only two people could be credited for the animation for some reason, as there are actually a lot of other uncredited animators in the episodes. Kurahashi also did uncredited animation in episode 13, as did Studio Knack founder Sadao Tsukioka on the Studio Knack-outsourced episode. Kinichiro Suzuki did uncredited work on episode 23. Daizo Takeuchi animated the hustle scene in episode 1 uncredited. Even Manabu Ohashi reportedly did uncredited work on an episode, although I'm not sure which.

Kurahashi animated the opening sequence of the episode, which is a good intro to his style. He likes to move characters fluidly, doing lots of poses and acting, and avoids breaking down the characters into parts. Kakko-chan has a more vivid personality in this episode thanks to his animation, doing all sorts of interesting mischevious poses and actions. The playful "Hai Kancho-sama!" is particularly memorable.

The contrast with the Art Fresh episodes of Pyuta is instructive on the difference between animators of the Toei Doga vs Mushi Pro lineage: The characters in the Art Fresh episodes are broken down into parts, with the bodies being static and the arms being the only thing moving, in order to save labor. Instead of movement, clever compositions and stylish drawings help maintain interest. In contrast, Kurahashi refuses to do this, as he felt that in order to be able to create truly interesting body posing you had to keep it all integral and draw the body with every frame, otherwise it leads to static acting. Aside from having done a great job directing this entertaining episode, Kurahashi's acting animation is very lively. He was a great discovery for me in this series. Unfortunately, after Pyuta Kurahashi seems to have moved away from commercial animation. It seems Pyuta was his ultimate expression in the commercial anime format, although he continued doing more indie work down to the present day.

Just as The Great Race inspired the series as a whole, the 1967 slapstick spy flick spoof Casino Royale inspired Kurahashi with this episode. You can see this clearly in the climactic battle, where there are so many different things going on at the same time in one giant ridiculous melee. The game of hot-potato with a live warhead has a nice classic cartoon sensibility, and the subplot of the spy trying to kill the Commander is amusingly subtle. The comically diminutive child Commander remains throughout oblivious to the spy trying to kill him. After he falls overboard, we get regaled with a whole hilariously irrelevant sequence of him running into the bathtub to warm himself up because the water was so cold.

The story has a healthy streak of surrealism and black humor. Pyuta knows the natives are doomed, and doesn't want to fight because he knows he'll die, but by some strange miracle, every rock they throw and arrow they sling winds up blowing up a battleship. It's a magnificently surreal and inexplicable denouement that betrays expectations in a way only possible in animation. Probably my single favorite shot in the entire show comes in this sequence - the bewildering trompe l'oueil shot where the Queen points to the ships on the horizon, telling Pyuta to destroy them all, and dunks the ships in the water by way of example.

Seiichi Hayashi, who debuted as a manga-ka the previous year just a few years later in 1970 published his classic manga Elegy in Red, shows some early signs of his stylistic flexibility and pop-art-infused leanings with that remarkable sequence of the horde of superheroes descending on Warusa. Hayashi animated most of the part where Warusa is washed up on shore, and he also has a very interesting style of movement. Kinichiro Suzuki animated the memorable hustle sequence. The work of all three is intermingled throughout the episode, so there's no clear part breakdown. Both did work on only two more episodes, episode 13 and 22. Episode 13 is directed by Norio Hikone and the story is characteristically somewhat bland if workmanlike (the same can be said of his other episodes, 2, 6 and 25), but the episode is packed with movement thanks to their animation, assisted by Tsukioka. Episode 22 has more fun and characteristic drawings, again being an episode situated on an island in the South Pacific. Unfortunately episode 10 is the only episode directed by Koji Kurahashi, although he contributed animation to a few other episodes.

Episode 11: ねむれる宇宙のカッコちゃん Sleeping Kakko-chan in Space
Director:小華和為雄 Tameo Kohanawa
Animators:林政行 Masayuki Hayashi
斉藤博 Hiroshi Saito

Kakko-chan brings glory to the great scientifically advanced nation of Japan in this what-if cold war farce that poses the question: What if Japan was the first one to send an astronaut into orbit? Kakko-chan experiences difficulties in space and disappears, that's what. Japan sends out a plea to the nations of earth for help, and the POTUS responds with a vow to bring Kakko-chan back safely - "We'll spend anything it takes! Don't let Russia beat us!" In response to this provocation, Moscow vows in the name of the great Soviet republic not to let the US beat them. France in its turn vows to show the world its true scientific might. The UK, not to be left out, steps in and vows on the Queen's name to bring Kakko-chan back to safety. So begins a global struggle for dominance of the skies.

This episode is easily the funniest in the show, with almost every moment perfectly hitting its satirical beat. It's the most overtly political of the episodes as well, not just casting a satirical light on cold war geopolitical power games but also commenting on Japan's comparative technological backwardness.

Initially Pyuta builds a rocket to go save Kakko-chan, but as usual his inventions suck. The rocket has boosters pointing every which way. It takes his grampa's hustle to get a real rocket built. The hustle scene combines parody with political satire, depicting Dr. Tsururi as Tetsujin 28 blithely landing on and destroying the National Diet. While the nations of the earth parade the rocket ships they've built to rescue Kakko-chan in grand processions, Pyuta & co strut down the street in a Chindonya costume while harried housewives look on in bafflement from the sidelines and complain about the noise.

In an earlier scene, when everyone in Japan is celebrating Kakko-chan's new world record of having orbited the earth 150 times, we see a montage sequence of different groups celebrating. In one shot, the crooks have just escaped from a prison, but they're so elated by the news that they give their tied up jailer a cheer. The crooks all look the part - striped prison uniform, black mask, ball and chain... LDP candidate sash.

The best episode of Gokuu no Daiboken, episode 4 by Osamu Dezaki, was a geopolitical metaphor for the cold war in which various gangs fought over a treasure map. This episode is a lot more direct about the butt of its joke.

This episode was directed by Tameo Kohanawa and animated by Jaggard's Hiroshi Saito and Masayuki Hayashi. Jaggard actually has more of a Mushi Pro lineage than a Toei Doga one. Hiroshi Saito worked at Otogi Pro and then Mushi Pro before founding his studio, and Masayuki Hayashi had only worked at Mushi Pro. But Jaggard was primarily an advertising animation studio, which made it a fit with the ad-trained staff of Pyuta. This perhaps shows up in the episode's many caricature drawings, including some amusing big-nosed caricatures of an irate Lyndon B. Johnson and a sad Charles de Gaulle. The episode has the feeling of a moving political cartoon, a rarity in anime, in which any political commentary is usually very oblique.

Episode 21 about air conditioners is another good Jaggard episode, this time directed by none other than a young Toshio Hirata. The episode has some stylish drawings and pithy visual jokes that are clearly the product of animators steeped in the lingo of advertising presentation. Leo from Jungle Taitei even makes a cameo appearance - in a zoo. (Hirata had worked on the show a few years earlier.) It's ironic that three years after working on the first color anime Hirata again worked on a black and white show.

Tameo Kohanawa is exemplary of the show's directors who came from Toei Doga but distinctly did not share the studio's professed Disney-inspired traditional approach to animated filmmaking, preferring instead the more cartoonish and edgy alternatives like UPA and Warner Brothers. In his work you get a feeling of an animator having fun and not just merely rotely regurgitating a manga. Kohanawa had actually spent 5 years working at an ad agency prior to joining Toei Doga, underlining his stylistic leanings. He soon directed episodes of Tensai Bakabon and Akado Suzunosuke for Tokyo Movie before becoming involved with Group Tac and directing the Jean-Henri Fabre episode of Manga Ijin Monogatari and the Oni of Setsubun episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. And that's just the early years of this very prolific director who is still active today.

Masayuki Hayashi is actually the little brother of Shigeyuki Hayashi, better known as Rintaro. Art Fresh's Koji Sugii, meanwhile, is the little brother of Gisaburo Sugii. Both got their start as animators on their elder brothers' respective shows during the early years. The same can be said of Satoshi Dezaki, Osamu Dezaki's little brother.

Episode 15: ワタ―シ天才きみ気ちがい Me genius, you idiot
Director:竹内大三 Daizo Takeuchi
Animators:金沢孝義 Takayoshi Kanazawa
尾根英夫 Hideo One

Warusa seeks to learn the secret of Dr. Tsururi's hustle, and invents a machine to transfer his brain into a helmet. This turns Dr. Tsururi into a brain-dead zombie. Warusa then uses Dr. Tsururi's hustle abilities to frame Pyuta for having turned Dr. Tsururi into a zombie, but Pyuta comes back for revenge...

This is perhaps the most outrageously fun episode in the series. It's the ultimate expression of the slapstick nonsense side of the show, with every moment packed with some kind of gag or creative visual idea - from the opening parody of North by Northwest, to the silent movie sequence set in early 20th century Japan, to the multiple hustle scenes featuring Warusa's capitalistic vampire ID going on a rampage sucking blood from women and selling it at the local blood bank for cash.

I talked about Daizo Takeuchi in my post on Tensai Bakabon, noting the freedom and craziness of his animation in that show. Well, already three years earlier he had some some even crazier work in Pyuta, as he had far more freedom with the material here. In contrast with someone like Norio Hikone, who makes proper drama with proper characterizations and proper animation, Daizo Takeuchi seems to refuse to take the work seriously. Animation to him seems to be nothing but something to do for fun - and that's what makes it so great.

The idea to insert the North by Northwest reference was Daizo Takeuchi's - it wasn't in the script. He similarly inserted a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference in episode 18. The characteristic of Takeuchi's episodes is that they build and build to wild, raucous climaxes, and you never know what's going to happen next. Takeuchi is also one of the freest animators in the show in terms of deforming the characters. Warusa goes through some impressively insane deformation clearly inspired by cartoons, not only squashing and stretching improbably but exploding into little pieces and turning into abstract art.

Daizo Takeuchi directed two other episodes for the show, episode 18 about gangsters and 24 about a beauty contest. Both are packed with crazy drawings and bold deformation of a kind only Daizo Takeuchi could have come up with. Episode 24 seems to have been animated by Mushi Pro people and hence is more static in the movement, but the climax features some of the most insane drawings in the whole show as the masks turn into bizarre abstract faces on the contestants. The bizarre Warusa face at the top of the post is from episode 24.

Daizo Takeuchi drew key animation on the studio's previous show Pikkari B and made his directing debut under that show's director, Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu, who is the unofficial director of Pyuta. Incidentally, Daizo Takeuchi drew the last part of the opening theme - the bizarre part where multiple Pyuta and Warusa heads appear on the screen and Warusa motions to the screen "OK? We done yet?". He inserts a similar meta gag in episode 15 with Warusa telling viewers to tune in next week for Fight da!! Warusa and later pointing at the screen and saying how "They understand my plan." The previous section in the opening theme with the alligator and the lion was drawn by Koji Kurahashi and is in a vivid full style contrasting with Daizo Takeuchi's more staccato and playful animation. The opening was storyboarded by series director Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu.

Episode 23: よみがえるノ―タリン部隊 The Return of the Dumbass Squad
Director:永沢詢 Makoto Nagasawa
Animators:金沢孝義 Takayoshi Kanazawa
倉橋孝治 Koji Kurahashi

Near the end of W.W. II, a unit in the Japanese army attacks a secluded farming village in China and massacres all the inhabitants, carrying away the bodies for some unknown purpose. It turns out that the army is attempting to use human brains to create an army of cyborg soldiers. The army invites a young Dr. Tsururi and Warusa to carry out the research, but Dr. Tsururi refuses, saying the plan is against human rights, and is thrown in prison. Meanwhile, Warusa brings the research to fruition and succeeds in creating a cyborg soldier that will do whatever it is commanded. Unfortunately, the war ends before it can be put to much use, and the research facility is destroyed to hide the evidence of war crimes. Fast-forward to the present day, and the leader of the project comes out of hiding to attempt to revive the plan so that he can sell the cyborgs to a certain other rich country that needs soldiers for its own war in Southeast Asia...

This episode is based on the real-life story of Unit 731, which carried out horrific human experiments in China during the war. The Japanese public had just learned of the truth in a recent newspaper expose, which led to this episode on the subject. This is the most powerful episode in the series by a long shot, and it packs an impressive wallop. It's the best example of how Pyuta was used by the staff as a vehicle for social commentary and not merely for childish gags.

Right from the start this episode stands out, as it plunges you headlong into a scene of innocent civilians being mercilessly slaughtered by Japanese troops. It's hard to believe you're watching the same show. The episode is notable for its firm stance in acknowledging Japanese atrocities during the war, and doing so at a fairly early stage in the industry at that.

Although the nature of the actions of the commander of the unit have been changed for the anime, the parallel to Shiro Ishii and his Unit 731 is obvious. The cyborgs he creates are clearly a symbol for Ishii's research. The most powerful and unforgettable image of the episode is the creepy image of the permanently smiling faces of the cyborg soldiers as they go about massacring people.

The anime goes beyond merely placing a spotlight on the acts of Unit 731; the ultimate irony is that, like the commander in this episode, the people who perpetrated the crimes not only got away, but were rewarded for their actions. Shiro Ishii himself escaped prosecution largely because the Americans wanted his research data. Others received cushy posts at universities. Similarly, the commander in this episode resurfaces to get Warusa to build his soldiers again because his cyborgs are needed by another country in its war endeavors. In the end, war is about profit, and profit trumps justice and human life. At this point we are regaled with more battle scenes showing innocent civilians being bombed from the sky and shot on the ground. The theater has shifted south, but it's more of the same.

The animation of the war scenes is surprisingly realistic and detailed, and is clearly the work of Koji Kurahashi. He put a lot of work into the animation in this episode. This is his best work on the show after his own episode 10.

This episode couldn't have been made by anyone but Makoto Nagasawa. He is the one who brought the social commentary aspect to Pyuta. Nagasawa had been heavily involved in organizing unions at Toei Doga during his time there, so he was very much in touch with the world and politics, and this world view is reflected in his work. Nagasawa once said, "Gag anime is about exposing reality." Gag anime shouldn't be a self-reflexive parade of pratfalls and meaningless routines meant to evoke hollow laughter. It's when gag anime sheds light on the real world through humor that it becomes truly meaningful.

Credit should also go to MBS producer Ryo Inokuchi, who acted as the liaison between the studio and the station. He actively supported Nagasawa in his use of gag anime to do more meaningful storytelling in this episode. It's hard to imagine any other station approving this kind of story. We don't see behind the curtain for most anime, so there's no telling what wasn't produced, despite the best intentions of the staff, due to the requirements of the station or sponsor. Goku no Daiboken provides a concrete example of this. The brilliant first season shows what they wanted to produce; the rest of the show illustrates what they were forced to produce at the behest of the station and sponsor. This just goes to show the importance of not only good anime staff but a cooperative sponsor and station.

Various other episodes commented on war either specifically or in general. Episode 19, a satire on the subject of the bomb, includes a rather brilliant scene that obliquely satirizes Japan's apathy about world events. Pyuta is casually watching a newscast about a country being bombed by a newly developed bomb as strong as the A-bomb. As he works on his toy model of a Zero fighter, he comments that Japan doesn't have anything to do with war. After Pyuta leaves, Dr. Tsururi changes the channel to some dancing girls.

Self-references by Art Fresh

The staff

How did this show come about? Essentially, Pyuta was a product of the early tricklings of the Toei Doga diaspora. Most of the staff of Pyuta came from Toei Doga, although a few are from Mushi Pro. So although in spirit Pyuta is similar to Goku, in style its lineage is slightly different, with its best animators more interested in creating dynamic movement than catchy drawings. So whereas Goku was at all times stylish and clever, Pyuta is more rough around the edges stylistically but richer in movement and experimentation.

Several subcontractors were involved in Pyuta in addition to the main production studio Hoso Doga Seisaku:

KNACK (fd 1965):Seiichi Hayashi, Kinichiro Suzuki
JAGGARD (fd 1966):Hiroshi Saito, Masayuki Hayashi, Toshio Hirata
ART FRESH (fd 1967):Koji Sugii, Masanobu Kozo, Soji Yoshikawa, Kazuhiko Utagawa, Mitsuru Suzuki, Seiji Okuda

There are thus several connections to Goku no Daiboken. In addition to the overlap of Art Fresh staff, Toshio Hirata, and Norio Hikone directed episodes of Goku, and Yoshitake Suzuki was one of the writers. Although the Mushi Pro-lineage staff did good work here, Pyuta is overall dominated more by the Toei Doga inflection of Koji Kurahashi and Daizo Takeuchi. I suspect that only the Art Fresh episodes were farmed out wholesale, as those episodes (5, 8, 9, 16, 20) have Art Fresh directors, whereas the episodes with Jaggard (3, 11, 17, 18, 21) or Knack (10, 13, 22) animators have Hoso Doga Seisaku directors.

Many animators skipped around at various small studios during the 1960s after leaving Mushi Pro or Toei Doga. It was bit of a nomad life in those days. Pyuta is a reflection of this, with its mix of Mushi Pro and Toei Doga figures. After quitting their alma maters, they briefly worked at a studio whenever there was work to be had. Even studio-tied animators took work from other studios as part-time work to make ends meet. When work dried up at one studio, as it did after Pyuta ended, they moved elsewhere. Hoso Doga Seisaku shut its doors after Pyuta, so this exact team didn't work together again.

That said, a few of these same figures went on to work on the classic Tokyo Movie gag shows of the early seventies, providing an element of continuity. Seiji Okuda, Soji Yoshikawa, Daizo Takeuchi and Hiroshi Saito went on to work on Tensai Bakabon (1971), while Takao Kodama, Tameo Kohanawa, Eisuke Kondo, Mitsunobu Hiroyoshi and Norio Hikone went on to work on Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi (1975-1995). Otherwise, people like Koji Kurahashi, Makoto Nagasawa and Seiichi Hayashi soon left the world of commercial animation for more personal modes of expression.

This also has to do with the fact that many of these people became independent animators afterwards; Pyuta didn't merely gather together ex-Toei Doga staff, it gathered together those with a more indie mindset, which is what helps account for the show's unique nature. And Makoto Nagasawa is the main person responsible for assembling this rebellious crowd of artistically-inclined, independent-minded animators.

Makoto Nagasawa, creative leader

It was in large part through the connections of Makoto Nagasawa that the show's talented staff came together.

The credits of Pyuta are confusingly ambiguous. Of the three people credited with the "Structure", Makoto Nagasawa can be said to be the show's guiding spirit, if not its director per se. Essentially, Ken Saito was the producer, Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu was the director, and Tameo Kohanawa was the character designer, although these were hardly hard and fast roles, and episode directors had a great deal of control over their episodes.

Nagasawa joined Toei Doga in 1957 and quit in 1965. After working his way up through the ranks as an inbetweener, he became a key animator on Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon (1963) and Gulliver's Space Vacation (1965), in which capacity he designed and animated some of the best sequences in these movies (namely the dance sequence in Little Prince, which in a first for a Toei Doga film was pre-scored, and the scene on the alien planet in Gulliver). Nagasawa also happened to be the director and animator of the short Motoro the Mole (1962), which is one of the most stylistically daring of Toei Doga's shorts, done in a limited UPA-inspired style at odds with everything else the studio did.

Nagasawa was something of a creative leader at the studio. He was the representative figure of the other side of Toei Doga that we don't hear as much about, the more artistically-inclined side, urging his comrades to open their eyes to the work of talented foreign animators, and even organizing group watches of screenings of foreign animation by the likes of Norman McLaren, Jiri Trnka and Paul Grimault. This influences comes through clearly in his Motoro the Mole short. Although Toei Doga is best remembered for its features, it also had an advertising section housing animators with more artistic proclivities. Partly through his exposure to this foreign animation, Nagasawa was in fact more interested in the artistic side of animation rather than being interested in animation as theatrical entertainment, and it's this that led him to quit Toei Doga in dissatisfaction in 1965 to pursue more personal means of artistic creation.

Before I can continue about Nagasawa's involvement, I have to detour a bit to the early years of TV anime.

Osomatsu-kun (1966) / Lightning Boy Pikkari B (1967)

The origins of gag anime

The first three years of TV anime, 1963-1965, were dominated by sci-fi anime inspired by the space race and hero shows. After Fuji TV pioneered TV anime with Tetsuwan Atom, the station TBS had joined the fray immediately in 1963 with sci-fi hero actioner 8 Man produced by TCJ. For their next show, they wanted to build on this success by producing their own show, so in 1964 they hired Yutaka Fujioka to put together the animation studio Tokyo Movie and produce Osamu Tezuka's Big X. Perhaps noting the fact that the hero fad was becoming stale, for their next production they opted to adapt the wildly popular daily life comedy manga Obake no Q-taro by the Fujiko Fujio duo. This is when Yutaka Fujioka scouted Daikichiro Kusube after he quit Toei Doga, leading to A Pro producing Obake no Q-taro. The huge popularity of Obake no Q-taro led to a fad for comedic/gag anime for the next few years up until around when Kyojin no Hoshi ushered in the spokon boom in 1968. Pyuta thus comes at the very tail end of that boom, bringing it to a fitting conclusion in the ultimate expression of that era's gag sensibility. It was also one of the last black and white anime.

The Fujiko Fujio due were at a studio called Studio Zero at the time together with a few other manga artists, including Fujio Akatsuka, later of Tensai Bakabon fame. It was witnessing the popularity of Obake no Q-taro that Osaka broadcaster MBS sent a producer in September 1965, the month after Obake no Q-taro premiered in August, to Studio Zero to ask them for permission to air an animated version of their Osomatsu-kun by Fujio Akatsuka. They wanted in on the game too. Studio Zero this time wanted to be the ones doing the animation, so they moved to a new, bigger building and hired staff, but when MBS came back to continue discussions, they had already found a studio they wanted to use: Children's Corner.

Children's Corner was a studio that had just been founded in 1964, a year before Nagasawa quit Toei Doga. Rather than being a brand new studio per se, it was essentially the Omori branch of Toei Doga, which up until that point had been responsible for animator training, but from this point on was reformatted into an independent studio under the aegis of its branch manager, erstwhile Nichido studio head Sanae Yamamoto. The studio only wound up lasting a few years before disbanding in 1966, but it acted as a nexus bringing together many of the ex-Toei Doga figures over the next few years.

Luckily for Studio Zero, MBS were more than happy to allow Studio Zero to also participate in the production - perhaps by way of insurance, as Children's Corner had no track record as of yet. Thus it was that the show came to be produced 1/2 1/2 by Studio Zero and Children's Corner.

This leads back to Makoto Nagasawa.

Makoto Nagasawa's freelance studios

After quitting Toei Doga, Makoto Nagasawa rented an apartment in the Hyakunin-cho section of Shibuya in Tokyo as his temporary base of operations while he taught at the Joshibi Junior Art College. Other Toei Doga staff who quit in the ensuing months wound up joining him to do part-time work there, and the space organically developed into an ad-hoc studio called Hyakunin-cho Studio. When Children's Corner received the commission to produce Osomatsu-kun, Sanae Yamamoto called on Makoto Nagasawa to help direct the show. In the process, he wound up getting the animators working in his studio to help him produce the show, including animator Koji Kurahashi, director Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu and art director Takao Kodama, who would go on to join him as the main staff of Pyuta. As other people quit Toei, he called on them to help him produce Osomatsu-kun.

Thus, many of the people who went on to work on Pyuta began their association with the group through Makoto Nagasawa and Osomatsu-kun. In addition to early joiners Koji Kurahashi, Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu and Takao Kodama, Eisuke Kondo also left the Toei Doga CM section to join the Osomatsu-kun crew. Latter-day manga artist and illustrator Seiichi Hayashi began working on Wolf Boy Ken under Sadao Tsukioka and then, after working on pre-production for Horus, accompanied Tsukioka in 1965 when he quit to form his own studio, Knack. Kinichiro Suzuki may have followed him to Knack at the same time. It's from Knack that Seiichi Hayashi and Kinichiro Suzuki participated in Pyuta.

When Osomatsu-kun ended, many of the same staff continued to work on Lightning Boy Pikkari B. This time production was split between Children's Corner and MBS's in-house animation production studio, Hoso Doga Seisaku, which was newly reorganized to accommodate TV anime production. Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu took on the role of series director, and in the process he brought on some more talent that would go on to work on Pyuta, namely Daizo Takeuchi, who had similarly worked on Wolf Boy Ken and then Horus as a second under Yasuo Otsuka before quitting in 1967, and Tameo Kohanawa, who had originally joined Toei Doga in 1959 before quitting to work at an advertising company for a few years and re-joining Toei Doga in 1964. He quit around 1966 to work on Osomatsu-kun and then was brought back by Mitsunobu to work on Pikkari B in 1967 and Pyuta the next year. Hiroyoshi Misunobu himself had worked in the advertising section of Toei Doga before quitting. Thus, Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu was another element bringing in the more ad-centric talent into these productions that helps account for their more indie sensibility.

Makoto Nagasawa meanwhile was not involved in Pikkari B but had in the interim formed yet another studio for the purpose of working on the movie Sesshoseki. It was located in the Sakuradai neighborhood, whence the name Sakuradai Studio. Many of the same people joined him there to help, as well as new faces such as Norio Hikone, who would work on Pyuta. During this time, Nagasawa was invited by Gisaburo Sugii to participate in the "idea brain" meetings held at Sugii's studio Art Fresh to come up with ideas for Goku no Daiboken. It was here that he met writer Yoshitake Suzuki, which led to him being invited to be the script chief of Pyuta. This is also presumably what led to the invitation of Art Fresh to produce several episodes of Pyuta, which is the full extent of the involvement of Mushi Pro figures in the show.

Another ex-Toei Doga figure who participated was Toshio Hirata, who attests to having been influenced by Makoto Nagasawa during his time at Toei Doga. Hirata quit Toei Doga in 1966 and went to Hiroshi Saito's ad studio Jaggard. It's from here that he worked on Pyuta.


It's unfortunate that Pyuta was canceled after two seasons, as by the end of the second season the staff were in full control of their approach to the show, and would certainly have produced more classic episodes if they'd been given the chance. But it's not surprising. Overly gag-centric shows tended more often than not to get canceled in the 1960s, which led to the ascendancy of the home dramedy format of the 1970s as a more acceptable compromise. Goku and Pyun Pyun Maru experienced a similar fate, although I suspect that this has more to do with the sponsors not wanting their products associated with unwholesome programming than with audience demands. After all, even the hugely popular Obake no Q-taro was still getting 30% ratings when it was cancelled because the sponsor felt demand for Q-taro toys had run their course.

After Pyuta, Makoto Nagasawa formed a joint studio with Norio Hikone from which he worked primarily on the long-running "Monoshiri" series produced by Studio Uni for Kirin. The show was a nightly 5-minute piece of animation highlighting an interesting subject. An example can be seen here. Several Pyuta staff migrated to this show alongside Makoto Nagasawa, including Koji Kurahashi, Eisuke Kondo and Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu. After a stint in New York in the early 80s, Makoto Nagasawa came to focus primarily on watercolor sketching. He was something of a pioneer of the sketchwalk, travelling around the world and documenting what he saw in watercolor sketches. He has published numerous books of his illustrations, most recently an introduction to sketchwalking.

Gag comedy anime died off somewhat after Pyuta until around 1971 when Tokyo Movie made Tensai Bakabon as a more straight-up gag show and Shin Obake no Q-taro as more of a home comedy. There were never any shows quite as unhinged as Goku or Pyuta made again, although certain directors did manage to experiment a little in certain episodes of shows like Gyators and Gamba, and Ganso Tensai Bakabon in 1975 set a new standard for nonsense gags. But even the best of these episodes never had the satirical sting of the best episodes of Goku and Pyuta.

ファイトだ!!ピュータ Fight!! Pyuta
26 eps, Hoso Doga Seisaku, 4/6/1968-9/28/1968, MBS Sat 7:30-8:00 PM

Based on the manga by:ムロタニ・ツネ象Tsunezo Murotani
Structure:斎藤賢Ken Saito
光延博愛Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu
永沢詢Makoto Nagasawa
Animation Director:小華和ためおTameo Kohanawa
Music:萩原哲晶Hiroaki Hagiwara
Art:児玉喬夫Takao Kodama
Script chief:鈴木良武Yoshitake Suzuki

Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu
Eisuke Kondo
Daizo Takeuchi
Norio Hikone
Nobuhiro Okaseko
Moto'o Kumano
Makoto Nagasawa
Masayuki Hayashi
Hiroshi Saito
Eisuke Kondo
Takayoshi Kanazawa
Hideo One
Soji Yoshikawa
Seiji Okuda
Koji Sugii
Norio Hikone
Nobuhiro Okaseko
Moto'o Kumano
Eisuke Kondo
Takayoshi Kanazawa
Hideo One
Kazuhiko Utagawa
Koji Sugii
Soji Yoshikawa
Kozo Masanobu
Mitsuru Suzuki
Seiji Okuda
Koji Kurahashi
Seiichi Hayashi
Kinichiro Suzuki
Tameo Kohanawa
Masayuki Hayashi
Hiroshi Saito
Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu
Nobuhiro Okaseko
Moto'o Kumano
Norio Hikone
Seiichi Hayashi
Kin'ichiro Suzuki
Eisuke Kondo
Nobuhiro Okaseko
Moto'o Kumano
Daizo Takeuchi
Takayoshi Kanazawa
Hideo One
Kozo Masanobu
Kazuhiko Utagawa
Koji Sugii
Yoshifumi Seyama
Masayuki Hayashi
Hiroshi Saito
Daizo Takeuchi
Masayuki Hayashi
Hiroshi Saito
Tameo Kohanawa
Nobuhiro Okaseko
Moto'o Kumano
Toshio Hirata
Masayuki Hayashi
Hiroshi Saito
Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu
Seiichi Hayashi
Kinichiro Suzuki
Makoto Nagasawa
Takao Kanazawa
Koji Kurahashi
Daizo Takeuchi
Nobuhiro Okaseko
Moto'o Kumano
Norio Hikone
Eiji Suzuki
Yukihiko Iseda
Eisuke Kondo
Koji Kurahashi
Takayoshi Kanazawa

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

12:41:00 pm , 606 words, 11365 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #24

An old flame from the fourth dimension warps into Dandy's life, bringing with her some baggage from the second dimension.

Writer Toh Enjo of episode 11 returns with another cerebral and high-concept episode. The appeal of his script this time around is in how he makes the conceptual leap between animation, with its 2D and 3D modes of expression, and the theory of the multiverse, with its many different taxonomies of universes. These theories can be difficult to wrap your head around, and Toh Enjoh is the only writer on the show who seems to have a grasp of them and is able to integrate them into the Dandyverse. Which is a shame, since that's the whole concept of the show. It would have been nice to get a more detailed exploration of the numerous multiverse hypotheses. They inherently suggest so many dramatic possibilities.

Visually, I felt the episode was a little lacking. I think it would have required more ingenious and experimental animation to adequately explore this subject of 1D vs 2D vs 3D vs 4D than the TV anime format permits. Hidekazu Ohara did a good job with this subject matter in his Professor Dan Petry's Blues short by mixing all sorts of techniques. But that's not to say there weren't a lot of interesting visuals. It was clever expressing the four-dimensional Catherine as a tesseract (The Avengers didn't invent that), and it was an amusing idea to create a melodrama out of the love triangle between the two-dimensional Paul, the three-dimensional Dandy and the four-dimensional Catherine - and to imagine the repercussions of the meeting of their universes. Expressing the clash as a real-life Life Force-esque Konami scroller (with a bit of Space Invader thrown in) was a clever touch, especially as someone who grew up on those, although I would have preferred something more serious and less metatextual.

After Dr. Gel and his ship were transported into the 2D world, they look the same, but can only slide around like sprites. Shadows are lost, like they entered the Hosoda dimension. The layouts suddenly seem very flat and compressed because it's a world without perspective. Maybe this is what it would look like if Michel Ocelot directed a space opera. It's an interesting attempt to convey that they were transformed into 2D, but it felt a little half-hearted. I started to feel sorry for Bii, who is doomed to die every episode due to Dr. Gel's fanatical determination to uncover the secrets of the universe, no matter the personal cost. The denouement where they turn into lines was an elegant expression of one-dimensionality using the historical building block of animation, the line. Dandy, despite heading out like a hero, wound up having zero effect on the outcome, which is perhaps appropriate.

The animation side of things was fairly restrained overall, without any real standout scenes, which is maybe a first for the series. Luckily the script was able to maintain interest throughout, although as a result the episode wound up coming across as a bit talky. This is probably the last we'll see of Toh Enjo in this series, but I hope we get to see more of him some other time in anime. He's got exactly the sort of sensibility anime needs. He brings in some fresh ideas and unusual narrative concepts from outside the anime industry. He's been the big discovery of the series for me. Literary works have been adapted before in anime, but it's a good idea to actually bring such a writer onto a creative team to see what they can come up with expressly for the medium of animation.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

08:11:00 am , 643 words, 9520 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #23

Dandy becomes Scarlet's pretend boyfriend to help her ward off a stalker ex.

This is the romance episode. Shinichiro Watanabe usually has at least one such more mellow and sentimental episode in his shows, and this is the one. I can understand why they buried it late in the show, because it's perhaps the least remarkable episode of the lot. It doesn't have the over-the-top gag humor of the usual episodes, nor the interesting artistry of the auteur episodes. I personally would have preferred to watch a whole episode about the romance of the two aliens pictured above.

Kimiko Ueno's humor is much more subtle this time around, as she focuses instead on creating a conventional dramatic arc evoking the feelings between two characters. As usual with this kind of setup, Scarlet and Dandy predictably begin hitting it off and then when the week is over there's almost a budding spark there. Just when you think they're too cowardly to try to do something about it, they try, but annoying circumstances keep them apart. It nails that irritating cliche setup that was so common in 1980s romance anime. Kimiko Ueno's touch comes through in little spots here and there: What brings them together is realizing they're both otaku after they discover the tape in the rubble and begin bantering about embarrassing nerd stuff. I like the fact that it's a VHS tape. Even in the far future the hardcore nerds still cling to their rare VHS collections. (I've still got a few tubs of those lying around somewhere)

The fact that it's still a parody of a romance episode and not a romance episode comes through in the sporadic incongruous moment of absurdly over-the-top action. It's like they planted little bombs of good animation throughout the episode as gifts to animation fans for being patient. The first was the skiing bit where Dandy is chased by a group of rare aliens including a giant Santa Claus and snowman, presumably by Akira Amemiya. There's a bit more Kanada-school animation where Dolph Lundgren goes berserk, so maybe he did that too. I suspected Chiharu Sato at first, as Chiharu Sato is a veteran Studio Z animator, but apparently there's another person with the same name, so maybe the person credited here is the other one. (edit: Chiharu Sato did the skiing, so Amemiya presumably did berserk Dolph)

There's the sudden Itano circus, which really had no reason to happen and was never even rationalized and was promply forgotten by the narrative. Not sure who did this; maybe this episode's sakkan himself, Chikashi Kubota. Aside from being good at drawing character acting, he's long been an Itano circus fan (he drew the Itano circus in Dead Leaves). And then there's the human-faced spider bit by Bahi JD. Bahi's bit was certainly the most enjoyable part of the episode, the only place that I actually laughed. He even designed the spider character. Bahi seems to have learned a bit from his associates working at Bones, as his animation is becoming more catchy and controlled. I see he's integrated Yutaka Nakamura's tactic of inserting a 'subliminal' black and white frame to emphasize explosions.

The scene design for the space colony was done by a person named Junichiro Tamamori with a pretty impressive pedigree as a hard sci-fi conceptual artist/set designer (Yamato 2199). The weird thing is, his designs are impressive to look at on paper, but they don't have much of an impact in the final product. I guess it wasn't necessary to emphasize the sci-fi setting; it was just meant to be there as a background. Still, it feels like a bit of a waste. It was completely unnecessary for the stalker ex to be a Gundam pilot, too; it's just funnier that way. The Gundam mecha was designed again by Kunio Okawara, so it looks pretty convincing.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

08:38:00 am , 776 words, 7319 views     Categories: Animator: Yoshinori Kanada, TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #22

Dandy heads to planet Grease to enter a dance competition, which predictably winds up bringing about the apocalypse.

This is the disco episode. Retro Italodisco being where it's at in the world of pop music right now, it makes sense for the show to have such an episode. Luckily the staffing is strong, so it's an entertaining and well-animated episode. In fact, this episode probably has the most dynamic and playful animation in the whole show, which is saying a lot.

The animation comes courtesy of Yoshimichi Kameda, who acts as sakkan and the character designer of most of the episode's aliens. Kameda brings in a more Kanada-school touch to this material than has been seen before, which means characters flying all over the screen in strange poses. But the nice thing is that he mixes it up with the styles a bit, and doesn't go as extreme as someone like Hiroyuki Imaishi, so it still sits well within the Dandy universe. The dance animation is fun and well animated without relying on reference material as in the previous dancing episode. We get to see hand-drawn animation of the Aloha Oe ship.

Kameda's Kanada-school lineage wasn't as obvious in his previous gigs such as FMA because the material was a little more serious, and his animation correspondingly more sharp and ferocious, but it's nice to see him let his hair down and have a go at more silly material for once. You can see the sporadic brush ink drawings that are something of his trademark here and there in this episode.

I like that Kameda's Kanada-school influence seems to harken back to the original. This feels like the good old Kanada, not so much the Gainax version. So you get character designs like Miranda, who looks like a character straight out of some Kanada's 1980s anime like Don De La Mancha episode 6. And things like a face drawn on the tonsils when Dandy screams, which is just generally a very 1980s gag. The dancing meanwhile reminds of the dance scene Kanada drew for Devilman episode 1. Other little details get the feeling right. For example, there's one shot around the midpoint where we see Miranda from the back looking at Ton Jravolta, and the way her hand is drawn really nails the way Kanada or Masahito Yamashita would have drawn it. It's one of their classic identifying traits.

Other characters are designed in a totally different way that's amusingly random. For some reason the head of the planet and his wife look like Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert from Isao Takahata's Anne of Green Gables (though they looked like Dokonjo Gaeru characters when the rejuvenated), while the record shop owner is the weird kid from Yoshiharu Tsuge's classic Neji-Shiki. They even put the word 'memekurage' on the record label in the ident. The three-headed bikini-clad dragon seems to be a Ghidora reference, so maybe he's a classic Godzilla fan to boot. And it's funny how every planet they seem to go to, even the ones light years away in some backwater of the universe, seem to wind up looking exactly like Japan. Matthew Cuthbert even wears geta.

The episode features a slew of playful animators drawing things in their own style - Kiyotaka Oshiyama, Michio Mihara, Toshiyuki Sato, Shingo Fujii, Hokuto Sakiyama, Yutaka Nakamura. I'm guessing Mihara drew at least part of the first meeting between Dandy & the Cuthberts, Oshiyama the record store scene, Nakamura the handful of crazy fast weird dance moves right before the Akira-esque apocalypse, Hokuto the black and white bits afterwards. Not sure about Toshiyuki Sato but maybe the dancing in the ring?

The weirdest part of the episode is the fact that Katsuhiro Otomo was involved. He came up with the whole concept of the seaweed-like organisms whose growth is accelerated to form the rings of light that destroy the planet. He's easily the biggest guest name yet, but the irony is that you would never have been able to guess that it was him based solely on the final product. He seems to have written at considerable length about the whole process in the design sheets posted on the home page, although they're too small to read. It's a weirdly earnest sci-fi concept sitting next to the silliness of Kameda's animation.

I suppose writer Nobumoto Keiko was saddled with the job of wrangling the two together and she did the best she could. Storyboarder Yoshitomo Yonetani does a great job cooking the episode into an entertaining stew. He previously did episode 9 of Lupin III: Fujiko. His trademark of always having a foreigner speaking bad Japanese is present in dancing alien Ton Jravolta.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

08:24:00 am , 1098 words, 5246 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #21

Dandy wakes up on a strange planet and can't remember how he got there. He meets a clown-like creature and a mysterious girl who reveal to him the truth about the planet and his own fate...

This episode is basically a visual poem about death, and features some of the series' more surreal and enigmatic imagery. It's very different from any other episode, with its dark mood, disjointed storytelling and almost total absence of all the side-characters. Dark yet creative, melancholy yet whimsical, it's my kind of episode. The impenetrable imagery also happens to make it one of the more rewarding episodes to re-watch and try to figure out.

The great Yasuhiro Nakura is the force behind this delightfully aberrant vision of Dandy as character designer, storyboarder and director, although the episode was written by series director Shinichiro Watanabe. Yasuhiro Nakura was one of the first animation artists about whom I dedicated a whole post in this blog way back in 2004, as I was a huge fan of his work, particularly on less-well-known outings like Moomin, Memole (I translated the movie years before), The Acorns and the Wildcat and the Rampo short.

So again we have in the episode an artist-driven episode like Eunyoung Choi's episode 9, Masaaki Yuasa's episode 16 and Oshiyama Kiyotaka's episode 18. The series has a fantastic approach to delivering variety: the base pattern of Kimiko Ueno-style gag episodes is occasionally interspersed with more artist-driven episodes. It's the best of both worlds - an accessible show that nonetheless gives a handful of talented animators free rein.

The overarching story is relatively easy to parse, but the words (images) with which it's told are poetically opaque and impenetrable. Dandy was killed when the ship shifted and he hit his head as they approached planet Limbo, which is inhabited by the souls of the dead killed many centuries ago in a global war that wiped out the population. The girl he (his soul) meets is the incarnation of the world. The rest of the details are murky and probably aren't meant to be logically explained. Why does Dandy find himself floating down a river in a boat? Who are the two mysterious figures discussing how everything is headed towards destruction? The lutenist with no mouth who instead speaks through her instrument? What does that shell necklace represent? There were many fascinating scenes, but the one in the desert where Dandy's face is replaced by a skull and his boat goes up in flames was particularly striking.

I like that none of these have an explicit explanation but are more there to contribute to the lugubrious, oneiric atmosphere. In this sense it reminds me of the Licca-chan: Wondrous Yunia Story (1990) by Ajia-Do, whose fantastical and creative images don't need (indeed don't have) explanation. It's a rare treat to find an episode based purely on fanciful visual storytelling in a conventional studio-produced series.

The series has had its fair share of enigmatic endings, and this episode's ending is among the more memorable, with Dandy's ghost resigning itself to being dead and settling down on the planet, while his doppelgangers continue on their merry way in another dimension (another episode).

I liked that the song played by the lutenist is Pavane pour une enfant défunte by Ravel, which ties in perfectly to the theme of the episode not only musically but even in its inspiration. Also, since this is technically a sci-fi show, I appreciate when the episodes of Space Dandy have something of a sci-fi aspect, and aren't just slapstick parody episodes. This episode could be said to fall into that category, more or less, in the sense that it's about an advanced alien civilization that destroyed itself, and what happened to the world afterwards. It plays out as something of a bleak cautionary tale, on a scale far grander than the Mihara episode.

Of special note are the backgrounds, headed by immensely talented French artist Santiago Montiel, who recently worked as background artist for a film entitled Giovanni's Island that was released earlier this year. I can't think of another anime that has made better use of international talent. From the mysterious spires that are like antennae of a long-lost civilization, to the beautiful purple clouds rising above a red desert, his backgrounds create an incredibly vast and fantastical otherworldy space that you don't want to leave. He was kind enough to post a few of the backgrounds on his blog. I can't wait to see his work in Giovanni's Island. This is one of the standout episodes in the series in terms of background art. The importance of the background art makes sense for Nakura, who made a short entitled The Acorns and the Wildcat consisting entirely of background art and who in his latter years focused on illustration.

The episode would not achieve half its impact without his incredible images, as the animation is somewhat less convincing. The animation does not seem as creatively conceived as the background art. Yasuhiro Nakura is best known for his amazing work on Angel's Egg (1985) and then to a lesser extent The Tale of Genji (1987), but there is not much of the delicate grace of those films here, as he was not in charge of the animation. Nonetheless the episode is filled head to toe with beautifully immersive images, and the episode is the closest he's come to re-capturing the feeling of his brilliant Rampo short in the intervening 20 years. It's criminal negligence on the part of the anime industry to allow an animator as talented as Yasuhiro Nakura to languish for decades without a project into which to funnel his incredible imagination.

In terms of the animation, notable names included Hiroyuki Aoyama, Kenichi Fujisawa, Chikashi Kubota and Eddie Mehong, but the animation of the episode was for the most part fairly low-key without any real standout sections. It's probably for the best that the episode was lacking in animation grandstanding, as it would have been inappropriate for the episode's somber tone. I felt that Dandy looked different in this episode for some reason. Of course, he was given an expression of dead exhaustion presumably to mirror his mortal state, but he's also not very recognizable without his hair and clothes as identifiers.

I didn't notice this until now, but the music credits get switched up in every episode to indicate the contributors to that particular episode. That's something I've never seen before. Credit in this case should also go to Ogre You Asshole for the fantastic Popol Vuh-esque reverb-laden solo guitar music that helps give this episode its serene and chill atmosphere.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

09:22:00 pm , 936 words, 2821 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #20

Dandy forms a rock band with his new friend Johnny (the Dropkix because they're always drop-kicking each other) and sets out to become the #1 rock star in the universe.

This is the rock episode. There really doesn't need to be much more to the synopsis than that. It does exactly what you'd expect such an episode to do. That said, it's terrific fun and the quality is as good as ever.

Sayo Yamamoto storyboards and directs and Kimiko Ueno writes. It seems like almost a no-brainer that the team of Yamamoto & Watanbe should produce a rock episode. Their very attitude towards anime is rock - Watanabe with his rock star sunglasses, Bebop's affected cool and various western influences, not to mention the actual music. Watanabe is known for going to special lengths for the music side of his productions, bringing in actually interesting musicians from various corners, rather than just falling back on whatever generic J-Pop is being produced by the parent corporation. Yamamoto carried on the cool factor in her Michiko & Hacchin, with exotic locales and flamboyant fashion displays. The show had a general air of urbane hipness that is the antithesis of anime. The two seem to be on a lonely mission to inject a little cool into the image of anime in the eyes of the world.

Yamamoto's presence was felt mainly in the episode's more graphical sensibility, not least the manga-like onomatopoeia for musical sounds that appear on the screen during dramatic 'kime' poses. She even uses halftone dots to accentuate the 80s rock manga parody aspect of the episode. Her episodes tend to have a strong visual flair like this, as well as beautiful and stylishly dressed protagonists, in this case Johnny. She also makes striking use of colors, and does a lot of digital processing with faux lens flares and the like to make the screen feel richer and to bring alive the whole rock concert feel.

Kimiko Ueno's humor is unmistakable. I couldn't imagine the episode working without her touch. Dandy's pathetic wannabe rock band mimics everything about rock greats - the squabbling over contracts, the self-serving interviews - except the music, and winds up saving the universe from intergalactic war, unbeknownst to all. There were any number of memorable elements. When they were squabbling over drugs, it was actually a drug store... The quip about Dandy not having washed his hands when he grabs Johnny by the scruff of his neck... Johnny and Dandy hitting it off because they visit the same shrine on New Years Eve. Meow had a lot of memorable 'tsukkomi'-style comments, though he and QT were otherwise relegated to the sidelines. The best part was that Dandy & co never figured out Johnny's real identity, even after he outright told them. They just thought he had become the manager of his convenience store. There were so many other nice touches. Dandy setting his hair on fire with a ray gun. The Ideon giant turning out to have a Voltron-like lion's face. The hilariously forced Honey fanservice. The episode just kept on giving.

All in all, an awesome episode by an all-female creative team.

Initially I thought the episode reminded me vaguely of To-Y in terms of the character design as well as the setup about two beautiful biseinen struggling to put together a rock band, right down to the final concert where one of them has said he won't go but arrives at the last minute to join in the concert. Even the whole storyline about a scout is there, though here it's a dude. It had been a while since I'd seen To-Y, so I thought maybe I was imagining things. But I started to re-watch it and finally realized that it was intentional: the character designer of Johnny is in fact the guy who made the To-Y manga, Atsushi Kamijo. Now that is typical of the extra mile that the Space Dandy staff will go. They will get the original designer of whatever they're parodying to draw the parody design.

The episode featured lots of alien designs by other folks, as usual, but they played second fiddle to the rockers and were relegated to a drawing or two. Takuhito Kusanagi regularly provides these wild and intricate designs that look amazing but only turn up as a crude still drawing totally lacking the feeling of his original design. This is no doubt partly because his designs are pretty damn intricate and would be difficult to move. Johnny's design, on the other hand, is mostly white space, which makes it easier to move and render the features correctly. I liked the extra touch of giving the the record company president (by main character designer Yoshiyuki Ito) devil's horns.

The drawings throughout were nice thanks to Yamamoto's good visual sense, and there were even a few spots giving the animators a chance to play around - the human bowling scene where Johnny and Dandy first meet had some great drawings. The final concert scene had plenty of nice movement. I particularly liked the part from where we see Dandy's six pack (accompanied by screams from the female fans) to where the two get into a fencing match. I suppose it was by Norifumi Kugai and/or Gosei Oda.

More Pocari Sweat product placement near the end of the episode when the crew is waiting backstage. And more Ideon. I love the scene where the Ideon giant takes off from the Solo Ship (I'll just assume that's what it's called) while laser beams are firing every which way. Looks like a scene ripped straight out of the original show.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Here is a selection of some of my favorite episodes from Group Tac's masterpiece of a TV show Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi (1975-1995). You can dip into MNMB just about anywhere and not be disappointed due to the different staff and styles, but there are certainly standout episodes mixed into the huge list of nearly 1500 episodes that can be hard to find without guidance.

What distinguishes MNMB from its many imitators is its earthy, painterly, traditionally-inspired aesthetic. It base tone is organic as opposed to stylish, inspired by the rugged life of the peasants that inhabit most of the traditional tales, with their varying thick regional accents. The pace is accordingly leisurely and calm. The two voice actors who perform all of the voices in each episode, Fujio Tokita and Etsuko Ichihara, bring a tasteful gravitas to the proceedings, especially Fujio Tokita with his otherworldly gravelly voice that seems to embody time itself. There are the classical fairy tale style stories of Urashimataro, with their fairy tale trope characters, but also more obscure local tales of flawed and real characters that drop us into the everyday life of ancient Japan, in which disease takes away loved ones and farmers toil the fields until they drop. Some episodes are didactic, but others can often not be boiled down to a pat lesson - they simply observes the tragedies and contradictions of life. We see how Buddhism's myths served to relieve the tensions of everyday life and explain its mysteries. Pathos and empathy are important threads in the often Buddhism-inspired tales. In the end it's all about the simple everyday pleasures like having a sip of sake around the irori at the end of a hard day of work.

On the staff side of things, MNMB is a mix of industry and indie. You find surprising names here and there due to the period in which it was made, which was a somewhat transitional period after Mushi Pro went out of business and just after its animators were establishing other studios elsewhere. Many of the Mushi Pro (or even Toei Doga) animators had indie proclivities to begin with, as what had attracted them to Mushi Pro was its more creator-centric approach, and Group Tac's show proved to be a great ground for letting them explore those proclivities. Sadao Tsukioka is the prototypical industry animator turned indie animator, and he provided the opening for Group Tac's early masterpiece Jack and the Beanstalk (1974), presaging the indie aspect of MNMB.

Group Tac had produced only two films prior to MNMB: The History of Mutual Aid (1973) and Jack and the Beanstalk (1974). Almost all of the main staff from these two films went on to become mainstays of MNMB. The only exception is the people who were picked off by Sanrio in 1974 after Jack and the Beanstalk when Shintaro Tsuji was looking to build an animation studio.

The History of Mutual Aid (1973)
Director:Giaburo Sugii
Script:Masami Murayama
Shuji Hirami
Animation:Kazuko Nakamura
Shigeru Yamamoto
Art director:Takao Kodama
Backgrounds:Yoshiyuki Uchida

Jack and the Beanstalk (1974)
Director:Gisaburo Sugii
Script:Shuji Hirami
Coloring:Mihoko Magori
Background Art:Takao Kodama
Yoshiyuki Uchida
Koji Abe
Shiro Fujimoto
Animation:Shigeru Yamamoto (Jack)
Tsuneo Maeda (Margaret)
Teruto Kamiguchi (The Giant)
Kazuko Nakamura (The Witch)
Toshio Hirata (The Mice)
Takateru Miwa (Crosby the dog)
Mikiharu Akabori (The Beanstalk & The Harp)

Kazuko Nakamura went elsehwere, mostly helping Osamu Tezuka, and Shigeru Yamamoto and Mikiharu Akabori went to Sanrio and became the main figures behind their important movies, as did most of the inbetweeners at the time (Junji Kobayashi, Maya Matsuyama, Shinmi Taga, Teruo Handa, Takahashi Haruo). Hirata went to Sanrio and helped direct their first film Little Jumbo and then directed the Unico pilot. (I suspect he moved to Madhouse afterwards and directed the first film from there, as the first film is a Madhouse production unlike the pilot.) But the rest remained at Tac and became pillars of MNMB: Director Gisaburo Sugii, animator Teruto Kamiguchi, writer Shuji Hirami, art directors Yoshiyuki Uchida, Mihoko Magori, Takao Kodama and Shiro Fujimoto, animator/director Tsuneo Maeda.

It wasn't just a one-way street, though. Some Sanrio people eventually went freelance and participated in MNMB at a later time. Takahashi Haruo did an episode in 1980 and Takateru Miwa, after going away for a few years, came back and became one of the show's most talented and prolific artists.

As time went on, people gradually accrued to the show, including both indie and industry-trained animators. Madhouse people like Rintaro and Yoshiaki Kawajiri were only involved in a small capacity, as their strong auteur leanings seems to have made them too edgy for the show, but the A Pro school became a prominent pillar in the form of Ajia-Do animators Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, and they proved a great fit. Some of the more unruly ex-Toei figures had produced some crazy TV shows at a short-lived studio called Hoso Doga Seisaku around 1967, and many of these people found their way to Group Tac: Tameo Kohanawa, Eisuke Kondo, Mitsunobu Hiroyoshi, Norio Hikone. Art directors Takao Kodama, Yoshiyuki Uchida and Koji Abe were also ex-Hoso Doga Seisaku. Indie animators from various parts with very strong personal styles like Nobuhide Morikawa, Tadahiko Horiguchi, Hirokazu Fukuhara and Kazuaki Kozutsumi were added over the years.

For the most part the show remained remarkably isolated from industry trends, but you can identify different stylistic periods in the animators who were involved for the longest periods such as Tsutomu Shibayama and Takateru Miwa.

八つ化け頭巾   The Hat of Many Transformations#31/14/1975

DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
Teruto Kamiguchi
Koji Abe
Shuji Hirami

A mischievous priest plays a prank on a kitsune, trading his worthless hat for the kitsune's transforming cloth. He then uses the cloth to prank some visiting priests.

The attraction of this early episode is the entertaining character animation of Teruto Kamiguchi, who would go on to be the show's most prolific animator (earning him the credit of chief animator). He had just come from animating the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, and his animation here retains a lot of the unique Disney-influenced but not-quite-Disney style of that film's animation. Over the decades Kamiguchi's style would become more refined and evolve in a different direction more his own. This is a great sampling of his early work. It's close in spirit to what made his animation of Lupa in Cleopatra entertaining - exuberant, silly, pliable character animation.

The character animation is more rich than most episodes of MNMB, which tend to move more sparely due presumably to imposed limitations on the number of drawings per episode. The drawings look more Tezuka influenced than usual for Kamiguchi. Compare his style here with his more mature style on display in the masterful The Three Charms (#1165, 2/3/1990) from 15 years later, with its hairpin-turn-precise modulation between subtle character animation and broad action. The character shapes in this episode are rather loose, whereas in the later episode the stylization is firmer and more precise.

桃太郎    Momotaro#92/4/1975

DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
Takao Kodama
Shuji Hirami

This early episode tells the protoypical and widely-known Japanese folktale about the boy born from a giant peach who goes to defeat a gang of oni on an island with his faithful companions, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant.

This is one of the early masterpieces of the show, with aggressively stylized art direction and detailed animation contrasting with the abstract character designs, which at first glance make you expect UPA-style super-limited animation. The episode was the first of the show's "solo" outings, in which one person handled directing, animation and background art, and as such it is one of the more distinctively personal productions in the early part of the show, and set the stage for other ambitious animators to do solo episodes.

Rather than being a straight animated telling of the Momotaro story, it's more of a modern version told with a wink and a lot of artistic licence. It brings a modern sensibility to the material.

The ep was handled by the great art director Takao Kodama, perhaps best known in animation circles for the hyper-stylized, gleefully anachronistic 60s pop art-style sequence in Belladonna (1973), done under the aegis of Gisaburo Sugii just before they both left Mushi Pro for Group Tac.

In the early days, Gisaburo Sugii laid down the basic rails for the show's direction - two stories per episode, using only two voice actors for the whole show, using a more limited animation style to bring out animator individuality. But Sugii left on what would prove to be a 10 year journey almost immediately after and handed the task of supervising the show to chief director Tsuneo Maeda. Mitsuo Kobayashi became chief director after a year or so and handled the show for the rest of its run.

In the case of Momotaro, although uncredited, Maeda may have either altered the animation or done it mostly himself, as he reportedly felt the storyboard was headed in a direction too strongly stylized for the show and lacking in the kind of warmth necessary to bring the old folktales to life. Whatever the case, the lively animation certainly helps to mollify the potential coldness and distancing effect of such abstract designs. Although the show permitted animator individuality, it wasn't anarchy. There were clear requirements that wound up streamlining the look over the course of the series into that identifiable MNMB look.

浦島太郎    Urashimataro#233/25/1975

DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
Gisaburo Sugii
Tsuneo Maeda
Mihoko Magori
Shuji Hirami

A boy named Urashimataro gets taken to an underwater palace, where he spends a delightful afternoon only to return and find that many years have passed while he was gone.

The classic Japanese Rip Van Winkle story gets the Gisaburo Sugii treatment in this pleasant early episode of the show. This can serve as a good pair with Momotaro - two of the most well-known classic Japanese folk tales, in stylish adaptations that show the uniquely modern spin that MNMB put on the tales. The other Taro to complete the triumvirate would be Kintaro, which was adapted shortly after this by Norio Hikone in his patented cute style in episode #59 (and later remade by Takateru Miwa in episode #1184).

In the early years MNMB adapted the tales everyone knows such as these, but as the show ground on for years they were forced to dig deeper and uncover more obscure regional tales from different parts of Japan.

What elevates this adaptation of the fairly pedestrian story is the very formalistic directing approach of Gisaburo Sugii. The directing is closer to the style of an indie short than naturalistic. It's not about making the character believable; it's about telling the story at a remove with a sly modern sensibility. And yet it doesn't try too hard to be clever or witty; it still remains a pleasant and cute film that tells the story in a warm and gentle way.

The character design seems inspired more by European animation than Disney with its round shapes, unchanging smiling expression and rigid body movement. He's more a symbol than anything, never given any voice or personality. The framing is never ostentatious, usually keeping the protagonist smack in the middle. It seems very crude and simplistic, and yet the film somehow comes across as sophisticated and clever, with the way the protagonist's thoughts are all conveyed by thought bubbles. Sugii later came to realize that what interested him in animation is not expressing outwards movement but inwards movement, and you can sense the seed of that here. There's a reason why Gisaburo Sugii was Osamu Tezuka's most trusted animator.

There's almost a stubborn unwillingness to try to embellish the story, or to unravel its contradictions. The princess of the bottom of the sea sends Urashimataro back to his home with a magical box and instructions to only open it if he should ever feel sad. When he returns home to find all that he knew and loved gone, and opens the box in desperation, all it does is turn him into an old man rather than relieving his sadness. It's a somewhat baffling ending but somehow appropriate to the nonsensical nature of many folktales.

After having laid down the tracks for the show and directed a handful of episodes including this one, Gisaburo Sugii left on a peregrination around Japan and did not return for 3 years. During that time, Gisaburo continued to work on the show by mailing in storyboards. Then-chief director Tsuneo Maeda, Sugii's protege of sorts (with whom Sugii would continue to work for the rest of his career, right down to The Biography of Gusko Budori) would then handle the processing of the episode. This was permitted only for Sugii, of course. During this time, Sugii used the pen name Minoru Sugita, which is an amalgamation of his own name with Tsuneo Maeda's and producer Mikio Nakata's, in deference to the two people who made it possible for him to continue working from that remove. Episode #67 (7/10/1976) 耳なし芳一 Hoichi the Earless with early art Mihoko Magori is an example of such an episode. Sugii began using his real name again after returning, and went on to direct around 45 episodes in total.

Sugii had of course begun his career at Toei Doga as a first-generation hire in 1958, working under Yasuo Otsuka. He quit in 1962 and moved to the newly founded Mushi Pro, where he animated the moths on Mushi Pro's first production Aru Machikado no Monogari (1962) under director Yusaku Sakamoto. He left Mushi Pro soon and founded his own studio, Art Fresh, from which he produced his early masterpiece Goku's Big Adventure in 1967. When Mushi Pro went out of business after Belladonna in 1973, he migrated to Group Tac and set about working on their first two films. Most of the Tac staff in those early years can be traced directly to that lineage as either Mushi Pro or Toei Doga acquaintances.

Urashimataro was incidentally remade by Osamu Kobayashi many years later in episode #1174 (3/17/1990) in his own unique style, but few other MNMB episodes quite achieve the simple sophisticated of Gisaburo's adaptation.

Other recommended Gisaburo Sugii episodes:

  • #611 (3/12/1983) かくれんぼ Hide and Seek
  • I wrote about this episode here.

  • #693 (3/17/1984) あぶないあぶない Look out! Look out!
  • One of the most entertaining of Sugii's episodes, with lively animation by his frequent collaborator Teruto Kamiguchi, and the patented characters of his later episodes. Brilliant directing combines horror and comedy. The beginning where the people describe their impressions of the old lady is very funny, with each one describing something completely different a la Rashomon.

  • #1165 (2/3/1990) 三枚のお札 The Three Charms
  • One of the classic ghost stories in the show, with dynamic character animation and a clever ending that you don't see coming.

    初夢長者   The first dream of the year#291/17/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tadahiko Horiguchi
    堀口忠彦, 岩崎治彦
    Tadahiko Horiguchi, Haruhiko Iwasaki
    Tadahiko Horiguchi
    Isao Okishima

    Tradition has it that the first dream of the year foretells that year's fortune. One boy refuses to describe his dream to the lord of the manor, even for a small fortune, so he's sent home. He even refuses to tell his father, so he's packed into a box and thrown in the ocean, and winds up going on a wild adventure that eventually plays out as foretold in his dream.

    This is one of the show's most entertaining episodes, and may also be one of the most richly animated episodes in the show's history. The bright, flat color scheme is pleasing, the animation vibrant and lively, and the story seems to go on and on to somewhere new every minute. Indie animator Tadahiko Horiguchi did a dozen or so episodes early on in the show, but this is his best, with witty storytelling, unpredictable settings, and surprisingly detailed and rich animation that works well despite the crude, wobbly-lined 'indie' style characters. The storytelling style and animation are far removed from the previously described Teruto Kamiguchi episode, which was more linear and naturalistic in its shot framing and storytelling. Horiguchi is well known for his animated commercials such as the Kuroneko Yamato campaign. Other work includes Rudolph and Ippaiattena, and he has made dozens of music videos for Minna no Uta. You can see his June 1974 Minna no Uta video here.

    Usually the episodes only credit one animator, so this is a rare instance when two are credited. No doubt the presence of that second individual, Haruhiko Iwasaki, helped to provide this episode with its rich animation.

    Shuji Hirami was the main writer very early on, writing The Hat of Many Transformations and Momotaro, but Isao Okishima credited here soon became the show's main writer/adapter of the original folktales. Other writers were sporadically involved, but he was the main one. I believe the process was thus: The director would choose which story he wanted to work on, would write the adaptation, and Isao Okishima would revise the script for consistency and dialect, as each of the folktales are verbally situated in a specific locale at the beginning of each episode, and the dialects vary tremendously.

    力太郎   Taro the Mighty#321/31/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu
    Akira Kawashima
    Shiro Marufu
    Isao Okishima

    A poor old couple without a child fashion a mud doll out of loneliness, and the gods bring it to life. The boy, Taro the Mighty, heads out into the world to test his strength, and encounters adversaries whom he befriends. Together they take down a demon terrorizing a town.

    The appeal of this episode is in its deliberate retro styling. It appears to be styled after old cartoons from the 1930s in terms of the scrolling action, retro character designs, talkie-era theatrical acting, and primitive story structure. The animation and technique are otherwise not particularly impressive, but the approach makes it a refreshing aberration in the series, which otherwise was rather earnest in its avoidance of postmodern parody concepts of this kind. I don't know if there's a specific influence or model for this episode, but the characters remind of Shigeru Sugiura.

    Hiroyoshi Mitsunobu was an ex-Toei animator who would become active as a director at Tsuchida Production (studio active 1976-1986), directing the original Hisaichi Ishii adaptation Ojamanga Yamada-kun (1980-1982, also a movie) and Captain Tsubasa (1983). He only directed a few episodes of MNMB, as around the same time MNMB was starting he was appointed director of Group Tac's first serial TV show Huckleberry's Adventure (1976).

    A note about pen names: There are a lot of pen names in MNMB. Shiro Marufu, as I noted in my post on The 11 Cats (1980), is a pen name of Shiro Fujimoto, one of the regular directors of the first few years.

    雷さまと桑の木 The Thunder God & the Mulberry Tree#474/10/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Oi Kumo
    Takemasa Kikuta
    Shunichi Ozeki
    Isao Okishima

    A young boy goes out and buys an eggplant seedling that grows into a huge stalk leading into the clouds. One day, he climbs up the stalk despite his mother's objections and finds the castle of the lightning oni. They go out and make a storm on the village below, but the boy gets caught up in the fun and trips and falls to the ground. Luckily a mulberry tree catches his fall. In gratitude to the mulberry tree, the lightning oni swore to never again strike a mulberry tree with lightning.

    This Japanese version of Jack and the Beanstalk falls into the 'popular belief' category: It's a folktale explaining a popular belief. In this case, the popular belief is that lightning never strikes a mulberry tree, which is why people will pick a mulberry branch and hang it from their eaves to ward off lightning strikes. The show had various patterns like this.

    A viewing should make it obvious, but this is an Osamu Dezaki episode. Oi Kumo is one of his many pen names, obviously chosen in this case inspired by the clouds of the episode. And it's an absolute delight of a Dezaki episode at that. Dezaki made three more episodes near the end of the series' run in the 1990s, but this one has the most punch of the lot. Dezaki was at the height of his powers in this kind of fantastical material featuring cute short-stature characters and more loose and free animation and art design. Just two years earlier in 1974 he had produced The Fire G-Men, an educational short about avoiding fires, which perhaps his crowning achievement in this style, and his classic Gamba's Adventure came just before in 1975.

    The episode is a cascade of Dezaki techniques expertly grafted together to create an irresistible flow. The episode is grounded in white, using patches of color in the center of the screen as background a la Only Yesterday. The background fades out to pure white occasionally to highlight the child's frolicking around the screen. We switch between dialogue one second, to a montage of the boy checking on the growth of the eggplant in repeated shots obviously over days, to the narrator commenting on the boy's thoughts, to the boy responding to the narrator. When the narrator explains that the man upstairs and the boy walked along the clouds, the shot pans across the screen horizontally as the two slide over hills of clouds in a particularly nice sequence. Explaining what makes Dezaki's technique so delightful is challenging. He's the genius poet of visual storytelling in anime.

    Unfortunately not many of the other episodes were quite this freewheeling with the technique, usually opting for a more straightforward and linear storytelling style without the sophisticated technique of this episode. Rintaro is another Madhouse figure who was tentatively involved early on but never became a fixture. He drew the storyboard for episode 25 about Issun Boshi (the Japanese Tom Thumb), but chief director Tsuneo Maeda found it so contrary to the direction he wanted to go with the show that he scrapped the storyboard and drew it anew. That episode is Tsuneo Maeda's debut on the show. It would have been nice to see more work from this crew on the show. As it stands, many of them worked instead on Madhouse's Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, which aired shortly after.

    Other recommended Osamu Dezaki episodes:

  • #1254 (4/20/1991) 赤鬼からもらった力 The Strength of the Red Oni
  • #1462 (7/30/1994) 天狗と赤かぶら The Tengu and the Radishes

  • さだ六とシロ   Sadaroku and Shiro#626/19/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Kazuko Nishimura
    Isao Okishima

    A hunter tracks a boar into foreign territory, but forgets the scroll proving he has permission to hunt there, and winds up getting arrested for the crime of poaching a wild boar. His smart dog runs home to fetch the scroll, but arrives too late and the poor hunter is beheaded. The dog drags his owner's body back into his own territory before giving one last howl of grief and being transformed into a stone at the top of a peak in his last breath. This is how the peak got it's name: Inueboe Toge (Dog's Howl Peak).

    This story falls into the 'origin tale' category, telling the origin of a place's name. MNMB had its fair share of tragic tales that don't shy away from death and killing, and this is a potent one. It seems unnecessarily tragic, but its theme is karma and the tragic cycle of life. The hunter is doomed to kill the boars even though he hates his lot, but he has to pay the price and is cut down like an animal in the end.

    The story is made all the more heartbreaking by the episode's beautiful artistry courtesy of Tsutomu Shibayama, working under the pen name Ajia-Do. All the more impressive is the fact that this was his directing debut.

    Ajia-Do is the pen name collectively used by Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi for a short while at the beginning of MNMB, shortly before they left to found their own studio of that name, after which they switched to using their own names for the rest of the series. These two A Pro animators were there from the beginning to the end of the series, each directing (and sometimes also animating) on the order of 60-70 episodes throughout the show's 20 year run. Both did their first directing for the show, so this is where both honed their skills as directors. Their episodes are among the most consistently well made in the whole show. I mentioned Osamu Dezaki's Gamba's Adventure above; Shibayama had just come from drawings the layouts for each of its 26 episodes, helping to make it into the masterpiece it is.

    I'm particularly fond of Tsutomu Shibayama's work, and this episode is my favorite of his in the show. It's the earliest and the purest expression of his style, as he gradually moved away from animating his own episodes and moved towards using the animators at his own studio to animate his episodes. Here you see his drawings at their peak, with sharp and tasteful stylization, revealing one of the unsung geniuses of limited animation in Japan, quite possibly its most perfect practitioner. Using something like half as many drawings as other episodes (say, 1000 instead of 2000) he manages to nevertheless create an episode that is rivetingly beautiful as animation from start to finish, and that never comes across as being parsimonious on the animation front. In fact, by some strange alchemy, his episodes are more satisfying as animation than other episodes that move more. He had unparalleled instinct for how to use the absolute minimum number of drawings to the maximum effect.

    Every shot is a breathtakingly beautiful minimalistic painting. The color palette is reduced to express the snowy landscape, whose masses are a handful of elegant lines. Despite this, the compositions have perfect perspective and you can tell exactly which way you are facing in each shot. The figure of the hunter and dog are rendered as a big blocky shape, more symbol than flesh. Not a line is out of place, and yet the drawings don't feel overly stylized. As the hunter regrets having to kill the boar as its children huddled by its side, the cave is a jagged shard of white light in the middle of the black screen of the night, superimposed with flecks of snow from the blizzard howling outside. Each image is like a perfect zen distillation of the necessary image.

    Other recommended Tsutomu Shibayama episodes:

  • #72 (7/31/1976) 猿神退治 Defeating the Monkey Gods
  • With the help of a fierce dog, a wandering priest defeats a band of monkey monsters that have been terrorizing a village with demands of a human sacrifice. One of Shibayama's most compelling creations, with extremely stylized and abstract animation, an unusually dark and anguished atmosphere and powerfully pared down visual approach. He did the art as well, which consists of washes of color with a few thick lines painted over to depict the environs. Later remade into a very different but also compelling episode by Susumu Shiraume (see below).

  • #138 (5/21/1977) みょうがの宿 The Ginger Inn
  • The first episode in which Shibayama is credited by name, and it's a fun little episode about two greedy inn hosts who try to bilk their customers by feeding them only with ginger from their garden. The highlight is the comical character drawings that show off the caricatural side of Shibayama's talent. He is one of the best animators I've seen in terms of creating faces that are full of personality, realistic yet pleasingly stylized.

  • #642 (7/30/1983) 雪姫・紅葉姫 Princess Snowflake and Princess Red Leaf
  • One of the last episodes he animated himself. It's a beautiful and atmospheric episode that pushes the minimalism of Sadaroku and Shiro even further. The story about two ghost fish barely requires dialogue to be understood.

  • #1168 (2/17/1990) さるかに合戦 The Battle of the Crab and the Monkey
  • A good example of one of the later episodes with animation by one of his Ajia-Do proteges. In this case, Toshihisa Kaiya does a nice job animating the animal protagonists. Other animators featured in his episodes include Yoshiaki Yanagita and Masaya Fujimori.

    熊と狐   The Bear and the Fox#636/19/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Yusaku Sakamoto
    Yusaku Sakamoto

    A sly fox convinces a slow-witted bear to plant a field of daikon on the condition that they split the crop 50-50: the part above ground for the bear, and the part below ground for the fox. Having never seen a daikon before, the bear falls for the trick. After being tricked a few more times, the bear gets wise to the fox's deception and devises a trick of his own to get back at the fox.

    This is a fairly straightforward Aesop-like fable that has pleasantly full animation by Toei Doga veteran Yusaku Sakamoto and Yasuji Mori-inspired animal characters. None of the other episodes have animation quite like this, and the episode has a clever sense of humor that makes it work despite its somewhat spare design work (the backgrounds are perfunctory washes of ink and the two animals are the only characters in the film).

    The narration is somewhat inspired by rakugo comedy, and much of the humor comes from how well the two narrators pull off this style of speaking. This winds up giving the animals lively personalities in the short run time. The black and white opening section describing the Chinese Zodiac is a novel idea, and is presented with amusing touches like having Tora-san as the symbol for the tiger.

    This is unfortunately the only MNMB episode done by Yusaku Sakamoto. It would have been nice to have more, as he brings to the work an older sensibility clearly a product of his early Toei Doga upbringing, and very different from what his contemporaries trained entirely in the environment of limited TV anime were coming up with.

    He must have been invited by Gisaburo Sugii, as the two have nearly parallel career paths, having joined Toei Doga to work on Hakujaden and left for Mushi Pro to work on Aru Machikado no Monogatari, Yusaku Sakamoto as director and animator of the girl and mice and Gisaburo Sugii as the animator of the moth. Yusaku Sakamoto deserves a special place in anime history as having been one of the people (alongside Eiichi Yamamoto) who proposed to Osamu Tezuka to turn Tetsuwan Atom into a TV show. In another parallel move, he left Mushi Pro to found his own studio, Studio Jack, in 1967, the same year Gisaburo Sugii left to found Art Fresh. The studio still exists today (Studio Jack web site).

    Yusaku Sakamoto appears to have focused running his studio apart from this, as he is disappointingly not very prolific for someone so talented. I can only find a few spotty projects here and there such as Xiongmao Monogatari: TaoTao (1981), a Chinese-Japanese co-production about a panda, and Eiken's adaptation of The Glass Mask (1984), directed by Gisaburo Sugii.

    羅生門の鬼   The Oni of Rashomon#8710/9/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tsuneo Maeda
    Takateru Miwa
    Isao Okishima

    Back in the days when Kyoto was the capital, more than 1000 years ago, a group of warriors defeated a band of marauding oni that were terrorizing the capital. But it seems one may have been left out, as rumor has it that an oni haunts the old abandoned gate of Rashomon. A hotheaded member of the team, Tsuna, heads to the gate to find the oni. The only person he finds there is a young woman, who asks for a ride. Just as he's pulling her onto his horse, she transforms into a giant oni and tries to pull Tsuna into the sky. Tsuna strikes off its arm, and the Oni vanishes into the sky bleeding, vowing that it will visit the capital within 7 days to retrieve its arm.

    This episode is notable for not just being one of the earliest 'art only' episodes, but for being drawn in the style of an old Japanese scroll paintings to match the material. It adapts an old story from the Konjaku Monogatari collection of tales from the Heian period, and adopts a more classical narrative style quite different from the gentle and light-hearted children's storytelling of previous episodes. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the Akira Kurosawa film, which despite its title was in fact based on a Ryunosuke Akutagawa story In the Grove.

    A notable aspect of MNMB is the variety of approaches to animation adopted. At the extreme end of the spectrum, many of the episodes consist entirely of background art. This is one of the first such episodes. Gisaburo Sugii appears to have pioneered the approach in some earlier episodes such as the previously-mentioned episode #67 Earless Hoichi and episode #82 (9/18/1976) 赤神と黒神 The Red God and the Black God. Both had art by Mihoko Magori, who would go on to direct several other such art-only episodes. The latter in particular is one of my favorite of hers.

    The drawings are provided by Takateru Miwa, who similarly would go on to be prolific, going even further and not only animating but doing the background art for almost all of his episodes. Takateru Miwa appears to have begun his career at Mushi Pro, working on W3 (1965), Pictures at an Exhibition (1966), Ribon no Kishi (1967), and Ashita no Joe (1970). He was involved on and off with Sanrio, working on their first production Little Jumbo (1975) and their big extravaganza Legend of Sirius (1981), but also doing work for Tezuka during that time on Fumoon (1980) and Phoenix 2772 (1980). He even directed a film entield Yasuji no Pornorama - Yacchimae!! in 1971. He falls roughly into the same pattern as many of the folks here, but appears to have been freelance during the whole time, since he was alternating between doing work for Sanrio, Tezuka and Tac.

    Simply put, Takateru Miwa is quite possibly my single favorite individual who worked on the show. He is a powerhouse who not only always made it a point to do everything himself on his episodes, but he switched up the style constantly, the animation is always very lively, and the backgrounds are always beautiful. Plus, he was doing this on a regular basis always up until the end. He produced over 35 'solo' episodes, more than anyone else on the show.

    He had a fairly peculiar and identifiable drawing style with loose and free drawings full of strange shapes and folds, very different from the clean and simple character designs of most MNMB episodes. Drawing and animating animals is a challenge on any day, but he did so over and over again - horses, cows, whales, crabs, dragons. He was particularly good at depicting the creatures in moments of extreme exertion. His episodes have some of the most exciting moments of the whole series.

    Other recommended Takateru Miwa episodes:

  • #620 (4/16/1983) 空を飛んだ黒駒 The Flying Black Horse
  • #900 (9/27/1986) 円海長者と牛どん The Priest and the Cow
  • #932 (2/14/1987) お不動さま The Acala Icon
  • #1347 (8/1/1992) 墓場の犬 The Graveyard Dog
  • Almost all of Takateru Miwa's episodes are worth checking out, but here are a few to start with. The giant red cow of The Priest and the Cow is one of the high points of his episodes. The cow is a great character, lazy but mustering incredible power as it struggles to pull up the giant log. The animation does a fantastic job of conveying the exertion through the cow's intense expression. The mad visage of the horse in The Flying Black Horse is appropriately hair-raising. The Acala Icon episode reaches an intense conclusion as the wooden carving of the god Acala (Ofudou-sama) sets the house on fire to chastise the arrogant lord. His late episode The Graveyard Dog features some intense animation of beast dogs fighting that brings to mind Ringing Bell.

    オオカミと娘   The Girl and the Wolves#10012/11/1976

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Shiro Fujimoto
    Isao Okishima

    A mother and child on a pilgrim's voyage beg for shelter in a snowstorm, but are turned away due to a village law prohibiting the harboring of strangers. They then ask at the temple, but the heartless priest only lets them shelter under the floor of the house. They reminisce about old times, and the girl wonders what happened to her old dog Goro, who escaped to the wild after nearly being killed. Wolves can be heard in the night, and in the morning the two are nowhere to be found. Not long afterwards, the priest who turned the mother and child away is found killed by wolves. A hunter returning from the hunt one day relates having been attacked by a pack of wolves, and been saved when a girl called out the name "Goro" to the alpha male of the pack.

    This is a beautiful and haunting episode. The story is a compelling tale of karma and retribution, and the stark visuals do a great job of establishing an atmosphere of cold and tragedy. No source is cited, so I'm not sure if this is a folk tale, a loose adaptation or an original story. In any case, it feels distinct from obvious folktales like Urashimataro, and indicates the breadth of storytelling of MNMB.

    This is one of the show's earliest solo episodes as well as one of its earliest BG-only 'no animation' episodes, and presages similarly styled later episodes by the likes of Tsukasa Tamai. The images appear at first to be woodblock prints, with the monochromatic palette (with splashes of watercolor) and thick and angular lines, but they are likely to have merely been painted in that style.

    Another reason why I like this episode is that it highlights the individualistic bent of the Mushi Pro/Tac figures, who valued personal expression over conventional animation and industrial mass-production of animation. I wrote about Shiro Fujimoto in my post on The 11 Cats and how, despite having been tapped as a director early on in MNMB, he really wanted to be doing painting. I think this episode captures his essence well, as it's the only one in which he handled all of the tasks. Nowadays he has moved away from animation and focuses on painting, as can be seen in this book of his watercolors. The traditional Japanese form of brush ink painting seems to attract a lot of the ex-Tac figures including Kosei Maeda (some of his work) and chief director Mitsuo Kobayashi (some of his work). Numerous episodes were drawn with brush ink to evoke a traditional feeling, the pioneer of which was the above-mentioned Rashomon episode by Takateru Miwa.

    Another indication of the extent to which MNMB figures had a painterly and individualistic approach to the form rather than a traditional animation approach is the fact that many of them participated in an NHK TV show called Picture Books of Classic Stories on TV that was essentially an audio book reading of a famous Japanese stories accompanied by paintings.

    落ちた雷   Lightning Fell#1284/2/1977

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Osamu Kobayashi
    Minoru Aoki
    Nobuhiro Sakai

    A red oni falls from the sky and becomes trapped on the earth after a priest intones its name. The oni goes on to do good deeds for the temple, in reward for which the priest allows the oni to return to its home in the sky

    This is one of the most stylish episodes in the series, with a beautiful flat color scheme and brilliantly timed sprightly character animation courtesy of A Pro's Osamu Kobayashi, who was fresh off of working on the classic Dokonjo Gaeru. He used the pen name Ajia-Do on a few previous episodes, but this was the first in which he used his real name. Kobayashi was prolific on MNMB, directing upwards of 60 episodes.

    The animation of this episode is interesting for having the the dynamism of his iconic early 1970s animation, but with that flat color scheme and no outlines, which makes the characters look like paper cutouts. This makes the visuals somewhat reminiscent of Tale of a Streetcorner. The minimalistic and geometric backgrounds are like a Japanese UPA.

    This is far removed from the style for which Osamu Kobayashi is best known, and which can be seen in most of his other episodes. In the later episodes in particular he appears to have developed a fixed set of strangely designed characters that recur in each episode. This episode is interesting for being a beautiful aberration from his early experimental period as a director. Later on, like fellow Ajia-Do co-founder Tsutomu Shibayama, he got the studio's animators to animate his episodes, and his episodes became more stylistically consistent.

    Other recommended Osamu Kobayashi episodes:

  • #10 (2/4/1975) 豆つぶころころ   Peas Rolled into a Hole
  • This was Osamu Kobayashi's debut episode in MNMB and features a more conventional drawing style that makes his hand immediately obvious. This episode is filled with delectable A Pro character animation. (The episode was later remade by Hirokazu Fukuhara in episode #1179.)

  • #173 (10/29/1977) みちびき地蔵 The Guiding Jizo Statue
  • One of the most affecting episodes in the series, this is a dark and tragically prophetic story with a muted color palette and sketchy, fine art-influenced character drawing style. Legend has it that the souls of the living come to visit a certain jizo statue the day before they die. A woman witnesses hundreds of souls visiting the statue, and the next day a tsunami hits the town, killing hundreds. The name of the town? Kesennuma, the hardest hit town of the March 11, 2011 tsunami. The second episode using his real name again shows Kobayashi experimenting with different styles trying to find himself. The episode is interesting for bridging history and folktales. Kobayashi would go on to cover darkly tragic material later on with Sayonara Tsushima Maru.

  • #242 (9/16/1978) 千石田長者 The Rich Man of Sengokuda
  • A fish returns in the form of a woman in gratitude to a man who saved her from being eaten, and leaves the man after making a giant field for him to farm. This is a variant of the common 'ongaeshi' trope, of which the next episode is another example. The style of this episode is closer to the style that came to define Osamu Kobayashi's work, with its quasi-realistic but pared down characters and cinematic framing and dramaturgy. You can still sense Kobayashi's uncommon skill at animation in the wonderfully timed flipping of the fish, which bespeaks the influence of Yasuo Otsuka. Tsutomu Shibayama continued working in slightly more stylized animation, but Osamu Kobayashi moved towards more straightforward dramatic storytelling, although his characters looked very strange in a different way.

    蛙の恩返し   The Frog's Gratitude#1355/7/1977

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hiroshi Fukutomi
    Hisatoshi Motoki
    Saki Studio
    Isao Okishima

    An old man saves a frog from a snake, carelessly promising to give the snake his daughter's hand in marriage in exchange. A few days later, the snake returns in human form to take him up on his promise.

    This is one of the show's many 'ongaeshi' pattern episodes. What distinguishes this episode is the highly stylized art directing courtesy of Ajia-Do director Hiroshi Fukutomi and animator Hisatoshi Motoki. The stylization of the animation here is reminiscent of Tsutomu Shibayama's work, with the flat color scheme and tastefully stylized forms with an emphasis on unique outlines. The animation is spare, but holds your attention on the strength of the design work and the occasional burst of movement.

    Hiroshi Fukutomi directed some of the best episodes of Hajime Ningen Gyators around this time, and here the more formalistic and experimental approach he took on those episodes is translated to more stylized fantastical material. Hisatoshi Motoki is one of the less well known of the A Pro animators, but he was in all the canonical works and is one of the most talented of the second generation A Pro animators hired after the original members Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama.

    This is the only episode either of them did on the show. Another A Pro animator, Sadayoshi Tominaga, who later went on to be the main animation director of Doraemon for many years, also handled only one episode: #177 (11/19/1977) The Idiot Brothers. Yoshifumi Kondo, who was at A Pro at the time, even did one episode: #107 (1/2/1977) 十二支の由来 The Origin of the Zodiac. This is the same year that he did two episodes for Madhouse's version of the show, which I wrote about here. The only A Pro person other than Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi who handled numerous episodes is Michishiro Yamada.

    Incidentaly, I suspect that A Pro founder Daikichiro Kusube himself animated episode #125 (3/26/1977) 鬼からもらった力 Strength From the Oni, as the animation is credited to the newly-formed Shin-Ei Doga, and Kusube also animated one of the early episodes of his own studio's version of MNMB, The Red Bird, which I wrote about here and then here.

    猫岳の猫   The Cats of Mt. Nekodake#17911/26/1977

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Mitsuo Kobayashi
    Shinnosuke Kon
    Minoru Aoki
    Isao Okishima

    A traveler passes through a mountainous area reputed to be a refuge for wild cats, and runs across an inn. He gratefully takes a room, but an old lady warns him of the danger he faces if he bathes in the water there, and he runs as the monster cats transform into their true form and chase him, attempting to turn him into a cat by splashing water on him.

    This episode is interesting because they apparently attempted to reproduce the characteristic look of Shigeru Mizuki's manga in animation form: Goofy, buck-toothed scribble of a character against hyper-realistic, hyper-detailed monochrome pencil drawings of the natural surroundings. It's not based on a Shigeru Mizuki story, but perhaps the director felt that the supernatural material seemed like a good fit with the kind of material the great manga-ka usually handles. This is indeed one of the few anime I've seen that captures the look of Shigeru Mizuki's original manga.

    The animation is not particularly remarkable, but it's enough for the character to be there and be drawn right. The austerely beautiful background art for the barren mountain terrain and the eerie interior of the inn, courtesy of Minoru Aoki, goes a long way to making the episode work. Minoru Aoki was one of the show's most prolific background artists, handling upwards of 80 episodes. He focused strictly on background art, never directing, unlike some of the other background artists like Koji Abe, who also directed over a dozen of the episodes for which he did art. Minoru Aoki is the one who did the art for Group Tac's 1980 movie The 11 Cats and its continuation.

    Many of the episodes that are not particularly amazing nevertheless have beautiful background art that makes the episodes a pleasure to watch. The show featured early work by several great background artists who would go on to make a name for themselves, including Toshiharu Mizutani, Takamura Mukuo, Yamako Ishikawa and Hiromasa Ogura.

    たぬきのしっぽ   The Tail of the Tanuki#4442/28/1981

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Chikao Katsui
    Kazuko Nishimura
    Isao Okishima

    A tanuki gets his kicks by waking up a young acolyte at a temple in the middle of the night. Driven to the edge, the young acolyte comes up with a ploy to get back at the tanuki: tricking him into thinking he can fish koi from the temple's pond with his tail. He tries, and gets his tail stuck in the ice.

    This episode is a delight thanks to the playful animation of Mushi Pro veteran Chikao Katsui. The priest, acolyte and tanuki in this episode turn into great characters in his hands despite being folktale cyphers. The acolyte adopts a haughty expression and imitates the priest's sermons whenever he gets the chance. The tanuki's expressions as he eavesdrops on the acolyte pretending to talk to the priest are varied and funny.

    The drawings are sparely used, with choppy frame rates up to the 12s, and the lines are varied in thickness as if he was using a brush pen or the like, perhaps to match the traditional Japanese setting. The drawings are not technically good in a conventional sense, but this is a great example of how playfulness and the ability to come up with lots of fun poses and expressions can overcome that handicap. It's similar to the feeling of Takeuchi Daizo's animation in Tensai Bakabon (1970). Despite not being cleanly drawn, the characters are appealing because the drawings have so much personality.

    Surprisingly given the looseness and technical crudity of the animation in this episode, Chikao Katsui is excellent at realistically animating animals. He was known as "Katsui the bird man" during his days at Mushi Pro thanks in part to the still-impressive animation of flamingos alighting that he drew for the opening of Jungle Taitei (1966). In MNMB he directed six episodes, animating most of them. Unsurprisingly, several of those are stories about birds, and they feature technically very skillful animation of birds, showing that the animation here isn't crudity born of lack of skill, but a creative choice.

    Other recommended Katsui Chikao episodes

  • #390 (7/5/1980) かっぱとひょうたん The Kappa and the Gourd
  • The Kappa in this episode is another naughty but lovable prankster character like the tanuki. The section near the climax where he fights with the gourd is particularly fun and full of classic crazy Katsui drawings.

  • #468 (6/13/1981) 井手のお宮の片葉の葦 Why the Reeds Have Leaves on Only one Side
  • A paean to the beauty of nature, this is one of the series' most beautiful, lyrical episodes. Unusually for the show, it has essentially no story or characters. It simply traces the migration of wild geese in Japan through the seasons from fall to winter to spring. It is the summum opus of Chikao Katsui's bird animation. Background artist Toshiyuki Ozeki provides many beautiful images of the natural world that help make the episode work.

  • #521 (1/30/1982) 鶴の子観音 The Crane Chick Kannon
  • This episode features beautiful animation of cranes in flight, but is different from the previous episode. This is a moving cautionary tale about four young people in a village who perform an act of disrespect towards the natural world that has supported their village for eons, and whose act of penitence eventually absolves them. The very Osamu Tezuka-looking human characters reveal the lingering influence of Chikao Katsui's Mushi Pro days.

    狩猟の四天王   The Four Master Hunters#5232/13/1982

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Masaki Mori
    Yoshiaki Kawajiri
    Hiromi Ando
    Nobuhiro Sakai

    Four master hunters test one another's skills in the woods.

    There is no moral to this story, or really any narrative at all, and the characters are not developed into individuals. But the visuals are so beautiful and the story so amusing that it's one of the show's more irresistible episodes. The background art by Hiromi Ando uses a pointillistic stroke to create scintillating scenery with striking, expressive color schemes - purple and blue for nighttime, bright yellow and orange for daytime. The characters animated by Madhouse animator Yoshiaki Kawajiri are highly stylized in a sketchy way, almost reminding of European animation by the likes of Priit Parn, with tiny heads and hands on enormous puffy bodies. The framing of shots is formalistic and the storytelling is subtly witty, with the onlookers providing comic relief as they react to the exploits of the master hunters.

    The director is Masaki Mori, who although primarily known as a manga-ka has been sporadically involved in anime. Usually his presence indicates an exceptional project, such as Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae (1967), Barefoot Gen (1983), Harmageddon (1983) and Kamui no Ken (1985). These are always Mushi Pro-Madhouse projects due presumably to the fact that he started out as a manga-ka and moved to the artist-friendly Mushi Pro when it opened, and continued to work as a manga-ka on the side.

    Yoshiaki Kawajiri's animation here is perfect in bringing alive the characters, but not extravagant. Kawajiri was one of the first people in the show to take on the task of directing, animating and doing the background art for his episodes. He produced four such solo episodes in 1978 and then, several years later in 1982, this episode. Afterwards he became focused on Madhouse projects leading to his own feature debut.

    Yoshiaki Kawajiri's episodes reveal an animator of great versatility, which you would be unable to guess based on the style into which he became exclusively pigeonholed after his directing debut in the mid-80s. In the early days he created dynamic and lively animation with cleverly designed and, indeed, cute characters that looks nothing whatsoever like his later work. What remains identifiable is a kind of rigidness in the forms and symmetricality in the designs. He was actually much more prolific in the Madhouse version of MNMB, Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, producing 10 'solo' episodes. The King Lear episode is exemplary of how he was able to go much further with the angular, gothic, sinister stylization that is his forte in the Madhouse show. There was only so far the stylization and personal expression was allowed to go in MNMB.

    Other recommended Yoshiaki Kawajiri episodes:

  • #190 (1/14/1978) 大蛇の塔 The Giant Tower of the Snake
  • The flat, angular designs of the characters in the episode are perhaps the most identifiable of all of those made by Kawajiri for MNMB. The geometrically shaped lord with his parallel lines and cuboid head is a perfectly designed brutal character, and is indicative of Kawajiri's stylistic inclinations.

  • #201 (3/4/1978) エビの腰はなぜまがったか Why the shrimp has a curved back
  • This is the most bare-bones and fable-like of the episodes he did for MNMB, with highly simplified backgrounds and cute animal mascot-like characters and spare movement. He does a good job with the material, and his technical animation skill peeks through here and there in things like the waves, but his personality doesn't come out as much as in the former episode.

  • #217 (5/13/1978) キツネの化け玉 The Kitsune's Transforming Balls
  • Kawajiri's most MNMB-looking episode, with lovely picture book winter vistas and cute and rounded SD kitsune and bonze characters engaged in playful and lively antics. The giant ghost kitsune reminds of the evil weasel in Gamba's Adventure.

    シシとり太郎   Taro the Boar Hunter#5516/12/1982

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tatsuya Hiramatsu
    Kazuaki Kozutsumi
    Minoru Aoki
    Isao Okishima

    Two hunters, one lazy and one hard working, head into the woods to hunt a boar. The lazy one turns back because it sounds like too much of a hassle. The other figures out a clever trick and manages bag a giant boar. He heads back home and tells his friend about it. The lazy one runs out, thinking he now knows a trick to bag a boar easily, but winds up being punished for his craven attitude.

    The story is a simple fable about the rewards of hard work, built on the oft-used scaffolding of the hard-working vs. greedy character trope. This eminently simple story is told through bright, clean visuals that pop off the screen. More cartoon than stuffy old folktale, it's one of the more visually memorable episodes in the show thanks to its backgrounds painted as geometric blobs of color and stick figure characters animated in a far more lively and fluid manner than one would expect for those designs. The visuals bring to mind old Eastern European animation, or even old Shanghai shorts.

    The animator to thank for the animation is Kazuaki Kozutsumi, who is now one of the more prominent indie animators on the scene. (his twitter) Just a few years ago he directed the delightful Rita and Whatsit TV show, bringing onboard a number of other indie animators, in the process bringing indie animation to a wider audience. His 2009 short Organic retains the playful animation of his early work here but is coupled with an environmental message.

    Other recommended Kazuaki Kozutsumi episode:

  • #545 (5/15/1982) そうめん地蔵 The Somen Jizo
  • Packed with crazy character animation where the bonze is forced to eat bowl after bowl of somen.

    節分の鬼   The Oni of Setsubun#6021/29/1983

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Tameo Kohanawa
    Yoko Tsukada
    Toshiyuki Ozeki
    Isao Okishima

    On the night of Setsubun, the traditional mark of the new year and the start of spring, families are celebrating in their warm homes by throwing beans to drive out the oni of the last year and to bring fortune into the home. An old man watches from afar, reminiscing how he used to celebrate the festival with his wife and son. Both are now dead, and he wishes he was with them. Combined anger and sadness drives him to put on the old mask he used to wear and call for the oni to come into the house and happiness to go out. The oni hear his call and come join him in a raucous party.

    This is one of the episodes I like largely for the story. The story is touching and convincing in its portrayal of loneliness in old age. The moment where he puts on the mask reminiscing about old times and, tears streaming down his face, metaphorically becomes an oni is genuinely moving. There are no gimmicks or villains or forced happy endings. At most, the old man regains his will to live as long as he might in the hope of having another wild party with the Oni. That said, the story doesn't bash you over the head with melodrama or try to wring tears. It's all done with a fairly light and warm touch.

    もちの白鳥   White birds of mochi#82110/5/1985

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Kazuhiko Miyoshi
    Yoshiko Shimura
    Koji Abe
    Isao Okishima

    A lord rules over his subjects without pity, albeit without excessive cruelty either. The only exception to his coldness is his daughter, on whom he spares no expense. When the time comes for her marriage, he has the peasants cook up thousands of rice cakes and has them arranged in a line from his castle to his daughter's new home. The peasants look on in fury as the girl steps on each rice cake, sewing the seeds of revolt.

    This is one of the most visually and thematically sophisticated episodes in the series. The episode is all long shots without close-ups, and the tiny heads mean there are no individualizing faces. This creates a very abstract and distancing effect.

    The striking symmetries that define the episode are unforgettable and among the show's most forceful artistic moments. The symmetries are closely tied to the theme - a single straight row of farmers planting crops moving slowly across the screen, the lord as a small figure at the top of the screen looking down over his subjects below, casting a long shadow. The lord is almost always positioned above the subjects, either on a veranda, or raised on his horse, until the last moments of the episode when this relationship is reversed. This is one of the few episodes in which the visuals are intrinsically tied to the theme, enriching the story in the way that the best visual storytelling should.

    The lord is not just a black and white evil character, either. He is humanized by his love of his daughter. The climax combines these two into a contradictory moment that serves as a metaphor for oppression everywhere: the lord performs the most ostentatious possible expression of his love and his wealth, but it's done with total disregard for the toil of the laborers who made the mochi. Indeed, it's a symbol not just of his wealth but of their subjugation.

    The director behind this brilliant episode is Kazuhiko Miyoshi, who had a brief career as an animator in late 1970s before becoming largely focused on MNMB and assorted Tac productions like Noel's Fantastic Trip (1983) and Penguin's Memory (1985).

    Kazuhiko Miyoshi was involved in MNMB from its fourth year in 1979 to its last in 1995, starting with animation and then gradually adding tasks starting with episode direction, until by the end he was singlehandedly producing entire episodes. And he was doing so more comprehensively than others. Other people might handle the animation and background, but in Miyoshi's case he handled everything up until photography, including the carbon transfer, the painting, and the paper material formatting. In his desire to constantly try some new approach, he produced some of the series' most technically ambitious and inventive episodes. He brought the mindset of indie animated filmmaking to its peak in MNMB.

    Kazuhiko Miyoshi actually worked on the show not from Group Tac but from various small studios he co-founded with other MNMB artists. From 1980-1985 he ran Bob Animation Film with Atsuko Hotta, and from 1985-1987 he ran Link Collection with Yoko Tsukada and Shinichi Ohtake.

    The success of this episode is also indebted to background artist Koji Abe, one of the show's most prolific and talented art directors, who produced the remarkable images that define the episode. The intricate backgrounds sometimes look like they are made from patterned paper, but they were all painstakingly hand-painted. Koji Abe had been there from the beginning and produced a varied array of beautiful art over the span of the show. I've focused on one of his episodes next.

    Other recommended episodes by Kazuhiko Miyoshi:

  • #1038 (6/25/1988) うどんと殿さま The Lord's Udon
  • A fat lord goes out for a walk one day and asks for some food. His vassals don't know what to do, as they're in the mountains. They worriedly bring back a bowl of udon from a local vendor to the picky lord. The lord is unexpectedly delighted by his meal and from then on eats nothing but udon, much to the benefit of his health. The visuals of this episode are clean and simple, the characteristic being the unusual flat color scheme used for each character. This was done partly inspired by indie animator Sadao Tsukioka's recent Minna no Uta video Konna Ko Iru Ka Na to help distinguish the samurai characters, which can be hard to set apart due to the similar dress.

  • #1155 (12/16/1989) 夜中のおとむらい A Funeral Under the Moonlight
  • A samurai sees a ghostly funeral in the night, and later realizes that it's his own. He had seen a presentiment of his death, for he dies the next day. The episode has a mindbending twist at the end when the friend he told about this is walking in the procession and sees the same scene play out again. This is the first episode in which Miyoshi handled every single task except for the photography. For the backgrounds he used a photocopier to create the sketchy texture by drawing with a grease pencil on charcoal paper and copying the images onto lightly colored paper. For the characters he used a similar process, cutting out the copied character drawings, glueing them onto animation paper, and using a trace machine to copy the drawing onto a cel. In the days before digital when it was tremendously difficult to achieve this kind of image, he put a remarkable amount of thought and work into it, and it pays off, producing images that seem old and fragile, like daguerreotype photos, appropriate to the time period. It's one of the most stylistically inventive and unified episodes in the series. The tone is also remarkably somber for a show that had such lighthearted beginnings, indicating how the show's matured over the years.

  • #1207 (8/18/1990) ごんぞう虫 The Gonzo Bug
  • A boy borrows 100 coins from a greedy moneylender to pay for his mother's medicine, and upon returning is charged 500 coins in interest. A spirit appears as he returns home dejected and gives him magical geta that produce a coin every time he falls while wearing them. The greedy money lender catches wind of this and steals them for himself, but fails to heed the warning that he gets a little smaller each time, and in his greed to produce as many coins as possible winds up as small as a flea. Miyoshi again used a novel technique. The characters were drawn as normal and transferred to a cel, but rather than being colored with paint, he cut out traditional Japanese dyed paper into the shape of the character and placed it on a cel underneath the character. The background was also made from dyed paper to unify the look, with lines added using poster paint.

  • #1340 (7/4/1992) 月夜の果報者 Luck Visits on a Moonlit Night
  • A nonsense fable about a lazy couple who enact the popular saying "All things come to those who wait" by lying around doing nothing. This time Miyoshi used cutouts of traditional Japanese paper for the characters, drawing only the hands, feet and facial expressions using conventional ink on a cel, and combining Japanese paper with dyed paper for the backgrounds.

  • #1446 (4/9/1994) ふしぎなひょうたん The Fantastic Gourd
  • Miyoshi creates perhaps the most abstract characters in the entire series in this episode about a grampa and grandma who are mere geometrical blobs of color. He had often been criticized by the show's producers for being too refined and urbane in his design sensibility, and so for his last episode on the show he decided to go all the way with exactly what he had been criticized for doing. The common trope of the kindhearted but childless grampa and grandma who find a child by divine providence is here boiled down to its absolute minimum, excising all pretense of individuality and creating a truly pure visualization of a Japanese folktale.

    座敷童子   The Home Spirits#9505/9/1987

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Koji Abe
    Teruto Kamiguchi
    Koji Abe
    Isao Okishima

    A pilgrim stops in the house of a welcoming man for the night, but sees strange ghosts of children throughout the night. Years later, when the pilgrim stops by again, he encounters the children leaving the house, and winds up being turned away by the new, less hospitable, owner. The children were zashiki warashi, or spirits of children fabled to protect good households.

    From the delicate pink sakura petals against the backdrop of a yellow country hillside in the opening shot to the imposing facade of the giant house where the pilgrim stops for the night, the backgrounds define this episode. They're the protagonist. The animation is somewhat of an afterthought. This is a good example of one of MNMB's many more 'background'-centric episodes.

    This episode was directed by art director Koji Abe of The White Birds of Mochi. It was clearly chosen by him to give him the opportunity to paint the Japanese countryside and traditional home interiors. He painted the background art for upwards of 80 episodes throughout MNMB's 20 year run, and directed a good portion of them in the last ten years.

    Gisaburo Sugii previously made an episode about the eponymous spirits in episode #106 (1/1/1977) 座敷わらし Home Spirits. His episode adopts a more anthropological tone, explaining the spirit's different modes of manifestation.

    Other recommended episodes by Koji Abe:

  • #979 (9/26/1987) 亀割石 Split Turtle Rock
  • Again a woodblock-esque visual scheme with lightly colored near-monochrome palette emphasizing the natural forms. Rather than being completely still, there are touches of animation such as the burning flame that are integrated with the look of the background and create the feeling of a moving woodblock print.

  • #1126 (8/5/1989) アズバタの木 The Tree of Azubata
  • A naif painting of the Japanese countryside telling the story of a young couple's first year together.

  • #1265 (6/8/1991) 阿古耶の松 The Pine of Akona
  • The world of ancient Japan is depicted like a painting come alive. Refined and delicate image-making with flattened perspectives and ritualistic repetition.

    蛇と蛙   The Snake and the Frog#9515/16/1987

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hirokazu Fukuhara
    Hideo Koide
    Isao Okishima

    One day the animals decide they're tired of eating nothing but morning dew and go see god to ask him to assign them each a food. God, displeased with how the frog mistreated the snake, assigns the frog to eat insects and the snake to eat the frog.

    This episode is interesting for being styled after children's drawings, with the crayon-like line texture and simple color scheme. The style is somehow a perfect match for the simple Aesop-like fable about animals.

    The director and animator of the episode, Hirokazu Fukuhara, represents the more indie side of MNMB. He has a distinct style that is present in all his episodes. This is actually one of the exceptions to that rule, the only episode he did that doesn't look like his patented style. His trademark is a cute little white cat that accompanies the protagonist of each of his episodes (absent here), and a very unique animation style that uses crude drawings and very spare animation. His timing is interesting: He alternates almost randomly between very spare rates such as 6s and 12s to create an unmistakable feeling. The crudity of his technique is belied by its consistency. His work is a curious combination of heta-uma and iyashi-kei.

    He is representative of many of the artists whom I have not discussed but who have a consistent if undistinguished style. His episodes are consistently pleasing for their whimsical, lighthearted atmosphere. Once you get used to his unusual animation, you begin to appreciate its gentle, subtle silliness. MNMB is not all tragic tales and beautiful artistry; it's also in large part whimsically designed characters going through amusing antics, and Fukuhara Hirokazu is a good representative of that side of the show.

    Other recommended Hirokazu Fukuhara episodes:

  • #16 (2/25/1975) 天福地福 Riches from the earth and sky
  • #1179 (4/14/1990) おむすびころりん The Rolling Rice Ball
  • #1459 (7/2/1994) 猫と犬 The Cat and the Dog
  • Fukuhara was there throughout the show's 20 year run, and his style evolved accordingly. His first episode #16 looks very different from his later work, with its beautiful collage aesthetic and use of paper cutouts. The story is also reminiscent of episode #13 I discussed above. His last episode #1459 shows his style in its fully mature form.

    猫の恩返し   The Cat's Gratitude#12412/15/1991

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Susumu Shiraume
    Tatsuro Kadoya
    Isao Okishima

    An old cat has been living at a run-down temple with its old priest for years. But food runs low, and it looks like the end is near. The cat decides to repay the favor of the priest's good care for all those years by playing a trick on a funeral procession and making it seem like the priest helped solve the problem.

    This episode has delightful drawings of the cat and priest at the beginning of the episode as they loll about with sleepy eyes, simultaneously cute and pathetic. The drawings have a warm, tactile, picture-book quality. They're highly stylized but still soft and warm. Each of the people in the funeral procession is an individual and each is a delight to behold. The animation is not extravagant, but when it moves, the movement feels good. The whole episode has a gentle humor to it thanks to the skilled character drawings.

    This is one of the later episodes produced by Studio Arrow's Susumu Shiraume, who also straddled the two sides of the animation industry, doing TV ad work as well as character designs for the likes of Nippon Animation co-productions like Topo Gigio. His drawings have a decidedly European feeling very different from typical anime drawings. His are the kind of drawing that would not be out of place in Moomin or Memole. He never moves his characters dynamically but instead opts for small touches of animation that make the character feel alive.

    I'm not sure where Susumu Shiraume started out, but his earliest work is as a rotation animator in Tokyo Movie's early show Kaibutsu-kun (1968) and Toei Doga's Tiger Mask (1970-1971). Not long afterwards he moved to Topcraft, where he worked as an animator on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1972) and Frost's Winter Wonderland (1974). He founded a small workspace named Studio Arrow with Isamu Kumada shortly thereafter, and the rest of his career worked from there. It's at Studio Arrow under Susumu Shiraume that Hidekazu Ohara learned about more creative styles of animation, which is what made him the artist he is today. ((I wrote a post about Studio Arrow before.)

    Susumu Shiraume began doing work for Nippon Animation beginning with the character design of Maya the Honeybee (1975). He later helped out on Topcraft's last production The Flight of Dragons (1982) doing layout. Presumably he must have been doing ad work throughout this whole time in addition to the MNMB episodes. Some recent examples of his ad work include this Hot Pepper ad from 2009 and this Kirin beer ad from 2014.

    Other recommended Susumu Shiraume episodes:

  • #110 (1/15/1977) 宝の下駄 The Coinmaking Geta
  • A young boy gets a pair of magical geta that produce coins, but they're stolen by a greedy uncle who winds up getting shrunken down to a flea by overusing them. This story was later remade by Kazuhiko Miyoshi in episode #1207 The Gonzo Bug. The drawings are soft and fluffy and the animation slightly more active than in his later work. I wonder if the American influence in his drawings didn't enter around this time from his work on early Topcraft productions.

  • #1154 (12/16/1989) どうもこうも Domo & Komo
  • Two famous doctors name Domo & Komo decide to have a contest to see who is the best doctor. The soft, loose drawing style of the early years makes way for a more sharp and graphical design. Komo's beard a geometric pattern covering his entire face. But the style is much more refined and the animation more controlled. The silly, strong-willed characters give the episode a gently comical tone.

  • #1335 (6/6/1992) 播磨のめっかい Mekkai of Harima
  • A powerful dog named Mekkai is brought in to take down some oni inhabiting a house. This is Shiraume's only solo episode, and the episode has a great graphical touch with lots of hatching and solid character drawings. Shiraume's drawing style comes through particularly in the very three-dimensional, bulbous noses where the features are otherwise simple and flat. Otherwise this is something of an anomaly for Shiraume, more hard-boiled and realistic, as it were, as he is best known for his cute, fluffy, rounded character animation and whimsical tone.

    三本枝のかみそり狐 The Kitsune and the Razor#12838/31/1991

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Hidekazu Ohara
    Isao Okishima

    A man heads into the woods nearby to confront rumors of a marauding kitsune. He spots what he suspects to be the kitsune transformed as a woman carrying a child heading into a house, and runs to warn the old lady of the house. When he throws the baby in the fire, expecting it to be a fake, it turns out to be real, and he runs for his life...

    This is one of the best episodes in the series, a perfect creation in every way, with a totally novel visual scheme for the series and riveting directing of a terrifying tale. This is the most genuinely horrifying of the show's many ghost stories, and at the same time it's not graphic but still playful and exaggerated with its drawings. The old lady transformed into a hag is both horrible and hilarious, and her choppy running animation terrifying and comical. Contrasting with the white base of the earlier Dezaki episode, this episode has a black base color matching the subject matter and the night setting.

    This is one of the last MNMB episodes done by Hidekazu Ohara, and for the first time he handled all the tasks including the background. This allows him to unify everything around the sketchy pencil drawings of the character animation. This episode shows that Ohara has great control over all of the elements of animated filmmaking.

    It would be easy to comment that Hidekazu Ohara is the most skilled animator to have worked on MNMB in view of his subsequent work, but the notable fact is that this can be said based entirely on the merit of his work in the show. He evinces a technical versatility and mastery of the medium, an ability to adopt radically different visual schemes suited to any given narrative, that few of the other MNMB animators do. Most are limited to one style, or if they are versatile, their animation is more technically limited. Not so Ohara. He seems to be able to do it all, and execute it perfectly in a way that is exciting as animation. From everyday acting to action to comical character antics to caricatural facial expression to graphical experimentation, nothing seems beyond his reach.

    MNMB is the first place where Hidekazu Ohara's true talent first came to light. He had an unusual training, having been trained at Topcraft under the great animator Tsuguyuki Kubo on the likes of The Hobbit and then under Hayao Miyazaki on Nausicaa, and then moved to Studio Arrow. He got his basic training in animation knowhow from the masters of Topcraft, and then got his focus on more indie styles and a comprehensive approach to the art of animated filmmaking from Studio Arrow.

    Studio Arrow's Susumu Shiraume was heavily involved in MNMB right from its start, having been invited there by his associate Masakazu Higuchi. They did work for Topcraft during the same period, and it was this that led Ohara to knock on Arrow's door after Topcraft went under following Nausicaa, as he presumably needed a place to go. Ohara came along at a time when Susumu Shiraume had been animating for the show for a decade. Ohara's first involvement in MNMB was as animator of episode #831 directed by Susumu Shiraume, and you can in fact see a clear kinship between the drawing style in Ohara's episodes of MNMB and those of Susumu Shiraume.

    Other recommended episodes by Hidekazu Ohara:

  • #1031 (5/21/1988) 日高峠の大きな手 The Big Hand of Hidaka Pass
  • A hunter is about to make an offering to the mountain god when his dog catches scent of a boar and leads him off in a hurry, leaving the offering a mess in front of the shrine. A while later, still unable to find the boar, the hunter is forced to take cover when rain moves in. He finds an old lady in a house, but something strange begins to happen to her hand. It gets bigger and bigger... This episode is straight-up entertaining in a way few episodes of MNMB are. Essentially a ghost story, it's slow and suspenseful and then suddenly transforms into a chase scene that's both comical and scary. The moment when the old lady throws her big hand at the hunter is legitimately surprising, and the drawings of the old lady are particularly nice, being realistically inspired with the folds of skin but still caricatural and loose. This episode has something I find sorely lacking in most MNMB episodes: dynamism.

  • #1089 (2/11/1989) 雪むかし The Bell Charm
  • A girl gives a beggar some rice on the sly and is rewarded with a magical bell that cleans up the mountain of dishes she's forced to wash every day. It also has the side-effect of making her more beautiful. This episode features realistic layouts and delicate, nuanced character animation very different from any other Ohara episode. Small moments like the girl being kicked out of the house feature subtle but magnificently observed gestures and body language, revealing the depth of Ohara's talent. This episode was incidentally a remake of episode #56 (5/15/1976) 乞食のくれた手ぬぐい The Washcloth Given by the Beggar directed by Ryosuke Takahashi before he got into robots.

  • #1358 (9/26/1992) 犬と猫と狼 The Dog, the Cat and the Wolf
  • A dog enlists a wolf's help to get back into his family's favor, but then the dog has to enlist the cat's help when the wolf asks for a favor in return. This is the summit of Ohara's graphical experimentation, with some delightful and truly bold exaggeration in the designs. The wolf's snout fills the whole screen, the cat's eyes fill its whole face. The scene where the dog mock-attacks the wolf is comical and full of great dynamic movement. The calculating cat, the bristly wolf and shriveled dog are great characters.

  • #1373 (1/9/1993) 世間知らずの伊勢参り A Family of Bumpkins Visit Ise
  • A country family exhibit a comical level of ignorance of modern appurtenances and customs when they visit the big city. Rather than dynamic action or realism, this time Ohara flexes his graphical muscles in this episode, which is all about the comical, cartoonish, graphically extravagant character designs. They don't move much, but that makes each of their little gestures that much funnier as they struggle with each new challenge thrown at them.

    尻ぬき河童   The Butt-stealing Kappas#14525/21/1994

    DirectorAnimationBackground artStory
    Nobuhide Morikawa
    Kazuko Nishimura
    Isao Okishima

    A gang of kappas living in a river terrorize an old man with their attempts to steal the mythical 'shirikodama' in his butt. He shows them up by putting a metal plate in his pants and then tricks them by carving a piece of wood into the shape of a plant, placing it behind a waterfall and challenging the kappas: make the plant wilt with your farts or find somewhere else to live. They predictably lose and the old man triumphs.

    Full of bawdy kappa butt and fart jokes, this episode is characterized by its extreme simplicity: no perspective, no realism, primitively designed characters that practically slide across the screen. But it's still very entertaining and full of silly antics. It seems like the product of a young mind, but the remarkable thing is that the episode is the product of a great veteran of the anime industry. Nobuhide Morikawa was 76 at the time he directed this episode, his last for MNMB. This makes him the oldest active animator on MNMB or, very likely, most other anime for that matter.

    Nobuhide Morikawa is one of Japan's proto-indie animators, and his story is fascinating but little-known. In spirit he has been indie from the very beginning.

    Born in 1918 in Kyoto, his first experience with animation was hand-copying a reel of Bosko at age 10. He now had the bug, and made his first animation called "The Frog Swordsman" at age 12. It even got shown in a theater. He attempted to get into the commercial side of animation by visiting the then-master of animation in Japan, Kenzo Masaoka, but found that the industrial nature of the work was not suited to his more independent personality. He instead struck out on his own and during the 1950s was prolific making animated commercials. By the time the industry was in full swing with TV productions in 1965, he had his own photography studio in the Ginza district of Tokyo. He produced the animation for what may have been the first color anime aired on TV: Ginza no Sanzoku, a TV movie that was a seminal mix of live-action and animation. He was thus already an established animator before most of the Mushi Pro-gen animators in MNMB had even debuted.

    During the war he had been asked to visit Manchuria to help train animators there, and it was based on this experience that the government of Japan asked Morikawa in 1965 to go to South Korea to help train animators there as part of reparation activities (although deep down it was to get cheap animators, because animator wages in Japan had been surging since 1963). He went there and helped train the animators who produced two anime: Ougon Bat (1967-1968) and Yokai Ningen Bem (1968-1969). At the time he was the only person credited on the shows, so many people mistakenly assumed he was some godlike figure who had animated the entire show. Nameless Korean animators who paved the way for decades of fruitful animation collaboration between the two countries were to thank.

    After working on MNMB devotedly for 15 years starting in 1980, he went back to doing commercial animation. This Megane Drug ad is an example of his later ad work. An associate from his Korea days was Ryuya Matano, who would join him and become one of the regulars on MNMB. Ryuya Matano had perhaps the most extreme design aesthetic of anyone in the show, with characters heads' drawn as straight-up triangles or rectangles, as exemplified by episode #1150 (11/25/1989) 天から食い物 Food From Heaven.

    Tuesday, August 12, 2014

    06:23:00 pm , 577 words, 4732 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

    Space Dandy #19

    Scarlet falls into the hands of a rare dandy gentleman alien, while Honey gets kidnapped by Dr. Gel, and Dandy comes running... for the reward money.

    We return to the more conventional style with this episode. Which is not to say it's a bad episode. It's a perfectly fun and diverting episode, just not offering up the sort of auteur spectacle of the previous ep. It takes a while to re-adjust, but it would admittedly get tedious if the whole show were an auteur-fest.

    Scarlet and Honey are the main characters this time around, joined by a guest associate of Scarlet, voiced by Megumi Hayashibara. This is the first episode with more of a focus on the show's women side characters, who have been pretty one-dimensional diversions prior to now. It took writer Keiko Nobumoto to try to elevate them beyond pretty comic relief and invest them with a little personality. Honey is quite the changed person. Instead of an airheaded bimbo, she's turned into a sharp-witted, pile-driving, chopper-riding Fujiko - an actually interesting character who you'd like to see more of. She's also conveniently revealed to be the sister of the episode's guest alien.

    As usual with Keiko Nobumoto, this is a more thematic episode than the usual Dandy zombie or racing episode. If Dandy is all about brainless boobies-chasing, this time we see the other side of the coin and look at what women want from a man. This episode brings a bit more of a woman's perspective into the proceedings. The city girl dynamic between Scarlet and her associate is enjoyable to watch and ever so slightly more nuanced for the show - they banter about the difficulty of meeting decent guys and head out to a mixer after work to try their luck (apparently in a neighborhood that looks a lot like Times Square).

    The so-called Cloud Alien who picks Scarlet up is an interesting character. He's both a gentleman with noble intentions and a pickup artist who preys on girls in distress. His spaceship - a giant castle enshrouded in a floating pink cloud that travels around the universe picking up signals from distressed women - is a bit silly even for this show, but the cloud is an interesting concept blending cloud computing and contemporary social media culture with the irresistible spell of mystification that he casts over women.

    Hiroshi Shimizu returns as storyboarder/director/sakkan. It's the same team that made episode 8, although there are a few more animators this time around, including more French animators. Yapiko animators Eddie Mehong and Cedric Hérole return and are joined by Achille Bibard and Antoine Antin. Also present are Hiroyuki Aoyama, Kazumi Inadome, Kazutaka Ozaki, Kumiko Kawana and Kenji Hachizaki. The opening scene of Dandy in his underwear is a standout scene, but overall there isn't much flamboyant animation on display. It's more a case of fun little reaction shots here and there.

    The presentation is not particularly exciting or original, but it's still entertaining. The episode has the same slightly more cartoonish drawing style than usual thanks to Hiroshi Shimizu's drawings, as in episode 8, but there are fewer scenes of well-animated character antics due to the more sentimental nature of the material. I know the opening wrestling scene is a setup for the payoff of Cutie piledriving Dr. Gel, but it reminds of the boxing scene that opens Hiroshi Shimizu's episode 11 of Kemonozume (watch), so I wonder if it wasn't either animated by him or added by him.

    Monday, August 11, 2014

    01:40:00 pm , 1466 words, 2270 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

    Space Dandy #18

    Dandy lands on a watery planet seeking a rare alien fish, and encounters an impish little girl and an old hermit. The hermit shoos him away, but the child tells Dandy of a legend that the fish will appear on the night of a blue moon. On the foretold day, they hit the waves, and encounter the beast for the first and last time.

    This episode blew me away. There have been a number of standout episodes so far, but this one is head and shoulders above the rest. It's a perfect creation in every way, a short film that stands on its own two feet thanks to its unique stylization, lush and lively animation, great directing, simple but universal story, fun guest characters, and richly fleshed out alien world. As of now, this is the show's must-see episode.

    We also have in this episode the show's first true solo animator episode (although there are seconds, and Michio Mihara nearly drew episode 6 by himself). This is one of those periodic one-man-show episodes that rolls around every few years announcing the arrival of a particularly talented individual. The individual in question this time is Oshiyama Kiyotaka, whose prior appearance in the show was as sakkan of Eunyoung Choi's episode 9 (plus designing a few things). I'm impressed that he had enough time to sakkan Eunyoung Choi's episode in addition to handling most of the tasks on this episode. Not surprising that he helped bring alive my previous favorite episode in the show.

    Here, Oshiyama Kiyotaka wrote, did scene and character designs, storyboarded, directed, drew all of the key animation, and sakkan'd (the seconds I guess). As is often the case when someone is given the opportunity of total creative control like this, the results aren't just bluster; he had it in him to make it work. This is a rare case when one dude is oozing so much talent that he can single-handedly produce something far superior to what a big team could. It's a beautiful, satisfying, entertaining and creative piece of animation in many ways. What's best about it is that it has an open-ended, malleable, personal touch in its sensibility and style, which to me shows a creator with the potential for greatness.

    The funny thing is that I knew his name before from Denno Coil among other places, but I had never known him to have such a strong personal style, nor to be capable of creating a film from the ground up like this. It appears that he created this style out of nowhere for the episode, which is very impressive. But you can also sense that what he's done in the preceding years has molded him into who he is today. Over the last seven years he's been involved in a number of films with a strong animated component, and I think it's transformed him from a talent with potential to a potent force.

    First there's the unjustly neglected Doraemon: Nobita and the Legend of the Green Giant film from 2008, which he worked on after Denno Coil. It's probably the most impressive film in the whole Doraemon franchise in terms of creativity and sheer force of animation, thanks to the combined forces of director Ayumu Watanabe and animation director Shizue Kaneko, who carries on the tradition of Kenichi Konishi's Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 reboot. It deserves to be better known.

    After that, he became sporadically involved at Ghibli, working on Arietty and the remarkably animated Mr. Dough and the Egg short in 2010 and The Wind Rises in 2013. Inbetween these he did animation on Letter to Momo and worked as animation director on the FMA: Milos film, which was probably one of the major formative experiences of the period. Not coincidentally, he worked under Space Dandy director Shingo Natsume on the FMA movie. Natsume himself had worked previously as assistant animation director on the Green Giant movie as well as doing key animation on the Nobita's Dinosaur 2006, so all of these folks fall under the Konishi umbrella. I think this core Konishi tribe and its various other associated people like Ryotaro Makihara are the most interesting people in the industry at the moment. If they got together, they could create a really amazing film. I could easily have seen Oshiyama going Ghibli if the studio hadn't taken its recent lamentable turn. When will we see a truly great movie from a studio other than Ghibli? It seems like it's been too long.

    His style feels like a blending of the best parts of Moebius and Miyazaki. The gruff old man and bubbly kid with popping features seem torn straight from a page of Miyazaki's playbook, while the various designs have the loopy, organic madness of Moebius. The animation has amazing flexibility and variety. He can switch from the realistic timing of the old man gripping the slipping rope to the abstract undulations of the waves. The thick, uneven lines have a lovely analog, tactile feeling that seems to harken back to Konishi. The coloring, animation, designs and characterizations combine to create an epic, fun, thrilling and immersive mood in the best Ghibli tradition. We switch from beautiful, still, bucolic scenes that dazzle with their natural eye for simple natural beauty, to dynamic action that soars through space in virtuosic animation. Along the way, we get to know a few colorful inhabitants like the gruff old fisherman Rudori and the Ponyo-like peppy androgynous Eshime who we fall in love with immediately. You come away wishing you could go on watching these people's adventures forever.

    The underwater dream sequence reminds of the Yoshiaki Kawajiri-animated shark sequence in the first episode of Future Boy Conan, the child's home looks like Howl's moving castle, and the abstract waves in the climax remind simultaneously of Ponyo and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. The episode comes across as the show's "fairly tale" episode, and indeed they explicitly mention the word "mukashibanashi" in the episode. I've often lamented the lack of a modern-day version of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi to give animators a regular opportunity to flex their muscles in more creative concepts and freer animation, and I think this episode gives a taste of what an episode from such a show could and should look like.

    Dandy looks totally different, but I like the new Dandy. It's the same one we saw in Choi Eunyoung's episode - his pompadour is a tower, he's more lanky, simplified, his lines thicker, drawn more loosely and roughly. He'd look out of place if he wasn't different. He wears a fisherman's fundoshi without any advance warning, in the style of traditional fishermen, as he would in a Mukashibanashi episode.

    As in the case of Choi Eunyoung's episode, the music is more beautiful and well-integrated than usual. It feels scored exclusively for this episode, with fewer of the regular tunes that recur in each episode. The eerie percussive bass guitar playing with spacey electronic sounds zooming in and out during the fishing scene was particularly nice and effective. I like that the art has plenty of opportunities to shine. Many of the shots of Dandy and the kid on the fishing boat alone during the first half create a lovely, delicate moment entirely thanks to the art.

    On top of all that, animating waves and people in boats on the waves in such convincing detail for a TV episode is quite impressive. The whole last few minutes are basically constant motion, so I can envision he must have spent at least 7000 drawings on the episode. At the same time, it doesn't feel like he's just throwing drawings out there randomly.

    The "moonagi" seems to be a cross between moon and unagi, since it comes to the surface when the moon approaches. It's somehow mythical and godlike yet deeply organic and animalistic in a way that reminds of the Daidarabocchi in Mononoke Hime, particularly the scene where it rises enshrouded by its kind into the sky.

    The fairy tale/fishing episode ends on nice, roundly satisfying thematic note that ties things together. Like many legends, it turns out the legend of the moonagi was a folk explanation of misunderstood animal behavior - an interstellar version of eel behavior in this case. Every few thousand years, the moonagi cross over to Eshime's planet to spawn, and when their freshwater planet returns after after eons on its elliptical orbit, they climb a water ladder (hence the Japanese phrase unaginobori) to return to the fresh water of their home planet to mature. It's a pleasingly seamless combination of folk tale and sci-fi.

    I hope to see more from Oshiyama Kiyotaka, but I'm thankful to team Watanabe for letting this talented guy make an episode just the way he wanted. I honestly would never have expected to see artistic work of this kind from Bones of all places.

    Sunday, August 10, 2014

    02:50:00 pm , 906 words, 1903 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

    Space Dandy #17

    Dandy transfers into the Beverly Hills-like Andromeda Academy for rich aliens in an attempt to find a rare alien, but winds up in High School Musical hell...

    This is the Space Dandy musical episode. Mover-school animator Takaaki Wada helms as storyboarder/director, accompanied by a bevy of similarly talented animators who bring the animation side of things to life in an impressive way under the aegis of sakkan Hiroyuki Aoyama. Wada does a great job translating the dramatic conventions of western musicals into the language of Japanese song & dance idol culture, but it makes for an almost lethal combo punch of cheese if you're allergic to both, as I am, so I found the episode more of a slog. The generous schedule really shows in this high-quality episode, which has a large cast of guest alien characters that are vividly animated. On the other hand, it feels like one of the more conventionally 'anime' episodes in its sensibility.

    Wada has a track record of working on song and dance style material, from Kaleido Star to Aria the Natural, so it doesn't surprise me that he'd helm this episode. He's obviously into this material, and good for him. He does a great job bringing it to life. I know Space Dandy as a show is going for a variety show style, but I'm curious whether it was Shinichiro Watanabe's idea to do a high school musical episode or Wada suggested it. I used to bemoan the fact that a talented animator was working on so and so show because I thought it was beneath him or her, until I came to realize that Japanese animators are people, too, and have different tastes, and some are perfectly happy working on material that I personally don't care for. After all these years I still forget that you can't use the same yardstick to judge all art or animation. It can be a challenge determining to what extent, if at all, you need to forego your personal tastes when evaluating the quality of an anime.

    They went to considerable lengths to make the episode work, hiring dorama writer Hayashi Mori to write the lyric-heavy episode as well as using dance footage of two street dance performers as reference for the dancing in the episode's finale. I can't say I'm very fond of referenced animation in general or here in particular, as I find it kind of lifeless, but I understand how hard it must be to create an episode full of dance animation without it. The episode also references in the other sense of the term, which probably reduces my appreciation of the episode as I just don't get a lot of the references (except for things like Slimer and ET, which seem kind of randomly thrown-in). One thing that nagged me was that, apart from an early shot showing the high school space ship, there is nothing in the episode that makes use of the trappings of the Space Dandy universe, which seems both lazy and a waste. This episode could have been part of any random anime show.

    I personally prefer seeing more unusual styles in the show like Masaaki Yuasa and Choi Eunyoung, but it wouldn't be a good variety show if it was entirely focused on more artistic styles - it would get too one-note. At least this way you really feel like each episode's creators are actually doing what they personally want to do.

    Wada doesn't head the animation as he often does in episodes he storyboards/directs, and as he famously did in Kaleido Star. Instead, Mamoru Hosoda regular Hiroyuki Aoyama does a great job on that front. His characters are minimally drawn and move a lot, and his acting is inventive without relying on idiosyncratic drawings or other crutches. It's just good, solid acting. Dandy has little reaction shots throughout the episode that are particularly tasty in that regard, like the shot just before the training montage where he says "Sometimes a man needs to dance even when he knows he's going to lose." Aoyama also animated the training montage.

    The roster of animators is among the show's most impressive - Gosei Oda, Yutaka Nakamura, Ayako Hata, Kenji Hachizaki, Takashi Mukoda, Hironori Tanaka, Chikashi Kubota, Hiroshi Shimizu, Takaaki Wada, Hiroyuki Aoyama... But despite all the movement, I wasn't particularly fond of the dance animation, mostly for reasons of personal taste. The only dancing bit I liked in the episode was the sequence animated by Gosei Oda where QT and Meow dance. It's the most idiosyncratic drawing in the ep, but I love the guy's style. He can bend and warp characters in a way that really works and feels kind of A Pro-school. His sequences are always a delight. Plus he shows that it's full well possible to create dance animation that's fun to watch without needing to use reference footage.

    Yutaka Nakamura took a stab at reference animation for the first time - you can spot his work from the characteristic folds and swooshes during quick movements - but he's honestly better coming up with movements on his own. What an irony that movements he created entirely out of his head seem more realistic and exciting than movements referenced from actual human footage. I liked the bit where Dandy is picked up by the giant robot, but I couldn't tell who did it. Chikashi Kubota maybe? I couldn't identify much else despite the impressive list of names.

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