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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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

02:05:14 pm , 948 words, 2608 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Yasuo Otsuka's Tenguri on DVD

I've been kind of out of it lately in terms of animation, but did manage to see one very notable item just recently. I remember three years ago writing a post about three rare curiosities that I hoped would become available one day. One of them was Tenguri, Boy of the Plains, a film directed by Yasuo Otsuka in 1977 at the newly formed Shin-Ei Doga. When I wrote that post, it was actually already out on DVD in an expensive collection of old Japanese animated shorts from mid-century intended for purchase by libraries, so I figured that master would eventually make its way retail, seeing the inherent demand for the piece.

That finally happened last month. I ordered the DVD as soon as I heard about the release, and now have the satisfaction of being able to scratch one of those obscurities off of the list. I'm still impatiently waiting for DVDs of Toshitsugu Saita's Sea Cat and Tsutomu Shibayama's Nesting Cranes, fully knowing the same is much less likely to happen for these films. I'll replace Tenguri with another obscurity that deserves to be released on DVD: Koji Nanke's Upon the Planet. (preferably accompanied by the full catalogue of his Minna no Uta videos, while we're dreaming)

The film itself is 22 minutes and was a joy to watch. It's clear why Otsuka abandoned ambitions to directing. The film is extremely derivative of Horus and Heidi and various other things in its particulars and atmosphere, and feels forced in various aspects of the narrative. But somehow that doesn't detract from making the film a joy to watch.

The animation is a delight from start to finish, full of wonderfully free movement of a kind that you just don't see today. It's a joy to re-discover a major piece by one of the great Japanese animators of the last 50 years, a missing piece of the puzzle as it were that we are finally able to appreciate. The film is a condensed overview of what it is that made Otsuka a great animator whose freeness of touch is sorely missed today more than ever. It's a good example showing by contrast the sort of animation that isn't being produced today, as constraints have seemingly made movement less and less free, and adherence to staid designs more and more strict, with new animators seemingly inculcated by stale ideas from the get-go by pervasive stylistic preoccupations. The short film maintains interest throughout thanks largely to the wonderful movement of the characters and their appealing, simple designs.

The movement is appealing because, besides Otsuka's hand in its creation, the film is animated by a slew of great animators, including A Pro regulars Yoshio Kabashima (who animated the early frolicking of the boy and the cow, as well as the farewell), Yuzo Aoki (who did the scene in the cave) and Yoshifumi Kondo (who animated the first appearance of the traveling priest) as well as people called in by Otsuka like Yoichi Kotabe, wife Reiko Okuyama and Hayao Miyazaki (who did the final chase through the boulders). Kotabe's hand seems to make itself felt in various sections that look like they could have come straight out of Heidi. I'm particularly partial to Kabashima's work here, with the wonderful realistic rendering of the calf's movement with the absolute minimum of drawings. The parting is a great scene.

If my understanding is correct, the film was produced in less than a month, so the high quality of the movement isn't the result of any extravagant budget or other means available then that aren't now. I guess it was more a generational thing. The film was based on an idea by Osamu Tezuka, who was originally contracted to produce the film but was obviously a little too busy with the three dozen manga deadlines he had to meet, but ironically wound up being produced entirely by people of Toei Doga vintage whose entire approach was grounded in creating this rich, pliant, exciting movement. The similarity to Horus is only to be expected, too. Otsuka was just a pinch hitter, so he was basing his experience of directing on the one film in which he's had the most experience with that side of animation. Otsuka is again the animation director, Michio Mamiya again provides the music, and the setting is again a colorful rural village like that seen in Horus, so it only goes to reason it would seem similar. Without knowing any of that it's surely an enjoyable film in its own right, and I think there's much to be gleaned by the younger generation from the old approaches on display here.

The DVD includes a thorough making feature lasting half an hour that interviews the key players, happily even including animator Yoshio Kabashima, whom I doubt has received such press before. I delight in seeing veteran animators like him finally being interviewed or given some press for their long years of work, although the interview here wasn't really about him but about his work on Tenguri. I would have wanted to hear more about his own past, as he was a key A Pro player for many years, supporting Osamu Dezaki's Tokyo Movie shows, being the main figure behind the catchy rodent action of the great Gamba. I've not known what he's been up to since the 80s, and would have enjoyed learning about his own history since the decline of A Pro, as he is one of the few of the main figures who didn't stay on at Shin-Ei after the split. The DVD also includes an audio commentary by Otsuka. All in all, an excellent release backed by a good solid swath of documentation.

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4 comments

pete
pete [Member]

Thanks for the info. A pity that the language barrier and the lack of interest by foreign distributors deprives so many viewers of learning more about Japanese animated movies from the past. The same does not occur with the animation of other countries.

01/16/08 @ 09:57
daniel thomas macinnes

I just watched Tenguri, thanks to our good friend, the internet (ahem). You are absolutely right on all points. I would also add that Otsuka adds a lot of comedy to this short film. I’m reminded of the goofy cartoon slapstick of Puss in Boots and Lupin III Series One.

The Heidi and Horus elements are also obvious, and that’s something I really expected. When four of the key players from Horus are involved, homage is practically required.

I loved the animation, which is very playful, free, and fun. I loved the backgrounds, full of that painterly touch that defined ’70s anime. I miss the paintbrush look.

The plot of Tenguri is beyond rediculous, like some crazy mashup of Horus, the Road Runner, Cheat Commandos, and an episode of Bonanza. Why exactly is there a band of renegade cows? They seem to be on a Bonnie-and-Clyde revenge spree against the humans who’ve developed a taste for hamburgers.

If only the people would learn the benefits of official dairy products, like Arrohead 2% milk and Land ‘O Lakes butter. Buy all our playsets and toys!

I wonder if the vengeful cattle stampede at the end inspired Miyazaki with his Ohmu stampedes some years later? I may be thinking it too far, but it’s an interesting idea.

03/25/10 @ 00:08
drmecha
drmecha [Visitor]  

Incredible! I no know this Miyazaki work!
Is a Shinei Doga production? but Miyazaki is not member of Nippon Animation these Years? His A Production is not before 1974?!!.

03/29/10 @ 04:34
Ben [Member]  

Daniel -

I don’t know about the stampede thing, but I suppose it’s not entirely out of the question.

As bad as the plot may be, I still wish there were more films like this. I wish Otsuka had continued working as an animator instead of switching to teaching. He was only really active as an animator/animation director for 20-some years. Seems short to me. Miyazaki started just a few years after Otsuka and he’s been at it now for nearly 50 years. Then again, Otsuka’s had a big influence as a teacher (not to mention historian and producer), and who am I to stick my nose into other people’s business.

drmecha -

Yeah, Shinei Doga. Yes, Miyazaki was at Nippon Animation, which is presumably why he asked not to be credited for his work. I think I talked about all this in more detail in my A Pro/Shin-Ei post, though I don’t remember for sure.

04/02/10 @ 21:00