Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Saturday, May 28, 2005

12:23:27 pm , 450 words, 767 views     Categories: Animation


The question was asked if there are any anime set to a live-action background à la... the obvious examples. The opening sequence of Cleopatra, during which I recall hearing even Eiichi Yamamoto groaning in the audio commentary, and Toshio Hirata's Twilight of the Cockroaches were evoked. My contribution is Dai Ninjutsu Eiga Watari, which as far as I know was the first film to use the blue background system to combine animation with live-action in Japan.

I'd heard about this film long ago when putting together the Yasuji Mori filmography. It's the only live-action film in his filmography, so naturally it got me curious, but there was no way to see it, and there was pretty much no detailed information about it, so I wasn't sure what it was for a long time. It's now out on DVD, and though I haven't seen it yet, I know basically what it is.

The film was released July 21, 1966. There was a big fad for SFX movies at the time, with monster movies of all sorts coming out. At the same time there was a ninja fad among the younger set, partly due to Sanpei Shirato's manga. So the natural thing for Toei to do was to combine the two. Toei subsidiary Toei Doga had already done a job on Shirato's Kaze no Ishimaru in 1964, including renaming it to Kaze no Fujimaru because the sponsor was Fujisawa Yakuhin (the end of the credits has a chorus going "Fujisawaaa, Fujisawaaa, Fujisawaaa Yakuhiiin). Shirato should have learned his lesson, but he let Toei (actually Toei Kyoto) adapt his manga Watari into a film this time. As he should have expected, the result did away with everything brutal, dark and meaningful about his manga, focusing more on creating good entertainment. Supposedly he left the theater furious, and that was the last time he let Toei touch his stuff.

What the film did was to focus on the "ninjutsu" or special ninja technique aspect of his manga, using fast cutting and trick photography, basically all the means available to the studio - including their recent acquisition, Toei Doga. To add extra spice to the film, one fight scene was filmed on a blue screen and a few of the better animators at Toei Doga, namely Yasuji Mori, Sadao Kikuchi and Shoetsu Hane, were called in to provide the animation with which the live action would be combined.

This probably doesn't count, but Shirakawa Daisaku (who's also the one who came up with the disastrous idea of splitting Toei Doga up to work on several movies at once) had the loopy idea of tacking on a live-action "ninja lesson" at the end of each ep of Kaze no Fujimaru.



Josh [Visitor]

The opening sequence of Cleopatra, during which I recall hearing even Eiichi Yamamoto groaning in the audio commentary

Thank God! I had seen Ceasar’s Kabuki-style death scene seperately and loved it, but when I tried watching Cleopatra straight through I couldn’t make it past the opening scene and wondered why you liked this Yamamoto guy so much. Nice to know that even he considered it a mistake.

This post also reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to ask you about for a while. Have you seen/have any good info on Nagisa Oshima’s Band of Ninja? Don’t know much about it other than that it was his only foray into anime and that it’s done manga style with no proper motion. Was this considered Imaishi’s inspiration for his manga scenes in Kare Kano and FLCL, or has it completely slipped into obscurity? Hell, is it even available anywhere? Naturally I’m not expecting it to be another La Jetee or anything, but still seems like it could be interesting.

05/28/05 @ 19:41
Ben [Visitor]

That’s what Cleopatra is - a patchwork, though it only gets better after the opening scene. The reason for that is because Yamamoto purposely stepped back and let Tezuka have a lot more say in the film, because he felt bad that Tezuka had kind of been pushed aside with the first film, 1001 Nights. Which explains why Cleopatra is dramatically the weakest of the three films, because it’s the most Tezuka. Not to say Tezuka can’t do drama, but it’s an example of his, shall we say, unique throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to animation.

One thing I kind of like about this scene, and about these films, is that we’re dealing here with young people experimenting, and it’s painfully obvious sometimes, as quite obviously some of the things they tried just flat out don’t work. I don’t remember specifically what he said for that part, but I remember him talking about how they had real problems getting that scene to work, and in the end that was just the best they could do with their knowhow at the time. Hey, they tried. Freaky scene, but kind of interesting. Can’t say I’ve seen that anywhere else. Thankfully they didn’t make the whole movie like that.

If you really want to know why I like Eiichi Yamamoto (and I don’t think he’s the bee’s knees, he’s just one of the best anime directors of the period) then you should watch Belladonna and Tale of a Streetcorner, which are IMO his best films. His Kimba series was also an impressive achievement for its day.

As for Oshima’s film, regrettably, I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve also wanted to see it for the longest time. I noticed it’s out on DVD (link). I’ve never heard of Imaishi or any other animator mentioning that as being an influence. I thin one simple reason is that I’m guessing that not many people have seen it over there, though I could be wrong. And I don’t think most animators would go for what he’s done - just filming Shirato’s actual manga. I mean, it’d be nice if there was an animator who was open enough to the possibilities of the medium to find it interesting enough to cite as an influence, but unfortunately there just aren’t many who are that open. All I can say is, I’m not sure. I would find it surprising if it was an influence. But it’s certainly a precedent. I haven’t seen Ebangelion, but people say the last episode of that show is also similar to this film.

In any case, as a fan of Shirato, I’d like to see it one day. I’ve always wanted to read the original manga, but it’s so expensive to buy new I never got around to it.

Personally I think it’d be worth seeing just because, from the sound of it, it’s just one of the oddest hybrid animated films ever made, and who wouldn’t be curious about that? I love it when non-animators take an approach to ‘animation’ that regular animation folks would never have imagined.

My god, I just had a look at the running time… 131 minutes?! I was wondering how he’d edited down the rather long original. I guess he didn’t!

05/28/05 @ 23:20
Josh [Visitor]

Yeah, I figured it would improve afterwards, just couldn’t get past that opening scene. And I have been wanting to see The Belladonna of Sadness for forever (well, ever since I heard of it on this site) if only because Gisaburo Sugii is the bee’s knees and I was really interested in watching it if just for his animation direction, which sounded absolutely brilliant.

I’m not really up to paying the price of a Japanese DVD with no subtitles, but maybe it’s approach is odd enough that it’d still make an impact without them…? I remember watching an untranslated version of Noiseman over and over before I found a fansub, maybe this would be similar.

It’s not really something I can afford right now in any case, so I suppose there’s no use wondering.

05/29/05 @ 08:42
Ben [Visitor]

I don’t think it would give you much to watch it unsubtitled anyways, because the real interest of the film is the story. The technique might be interesting on its own for five minutes, but watching the entire 131 minutes just to see what the technique was like would probably be pointlessly redundant. Something like Noiseman is rich enough visually and in terms of the music that watching it unsubbed can still be fun, but here we’re just dealing with one shot after another of black and white manga. If I get desperate enough one of these days I might just order it myself. It’s nice to know it’s out on DVD finally.

05/29/05 @ 09:20
winston [Visitor]

Hey guys just wondering if you could help me out. I have been looking for this japanese classic film and just wanted to know some information. Well, I’ve searched the web for Watari and this is the only film about Ninjas and samurai type fantasy movie that I came up with. I remember when I was a small child watching a movie about a boy who has the ability to fight and do battle with monsters. Is there a scene where he fights some monster in a cave somewhere?
If this is the film can you please tell me where I can buy this in DVD?
Thanks for you help.
Winston Corcuera
(Tamuning, Guam)

09/05/05 @ 03:52
Ben [Visitor]

I haven’t seen the film, so I’m afraid I can’t respond to your question, but you can buy the film from CDJapan or any other importer of region 2 DVDs.

09/08/05 @ 12:22
Random person
Random person [Visitor]

Would this: count? I heard it was animated by Yasuo Otsuka but I’m not entirely sure. I found this: but the huge amoutn of text is beyond me… Apologies if you’ve mentioned it in another post…

09/27/06 @ 05:46
Ben [Member]  

No, that’s okay. I haven’t mentioned this before and it’s a perfect choice. I might’ve seen it once before, but I’d forgotten about it and it was completely off my radar, so thanks for mentioning it. That text was Yasuo Otsuka reminiscing about his experience working on the spot, and it was incredibly fascinating stuff, as Otsuka’s writing always is, full of keen observations on the differences between Japan and the US in terms of the approach to animation. It was apparently produced by a Japanese company but actually animated in the US because they thought it would be cheaper since the US had more experience combining live action with animation. Supposedly they were aiming for an “old Lupin” look, but the US approach to animation is totally at odds with the animation of the old Lupin, so the results are very…

09/27/06 @ 14:08
Tsuka [Visitor]

For those who were not very attentive : I shared the original genga animation of this spot

10/04/06 @ 00:25