|<< <||> >>|
One of my favorite animated films of the last few years, the Danish-French co-production The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear, directed by Jannik Hastrup, is playing in theaters in Japan at the moment (official site). It's a really nice all-ages film, safe for kids and at the same time a stimulating fable for adults, very well directed, original in its approach to the animation, down-to-earth in its story, and truly moving, without the insipidness and manipulation of US animated features. A film like this, with its very personal and handmade feel, could only have been possible with an independent, low-budget approach at the opposite end of the spectrum from the titanic, homogenized, lobotomized blockbusters Hollywood is churning out these days.
Will be receiving my yearly batch from Amazon.jp soon. Lots of new releases including all the recent Mind Game items, which I'm not going to look at until I've seen the movie. Also Koji Morimoto's Eternal Family, which I will be watching immediately and with great relish (no mustard).
Quote of the day, from this opinion piece on the St. Petersburg Times web site, regarding the fate of Yuri Norstein's 20-year-old work-in-progress, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat:
When an offer for all his past and future work came from Hollywood shortly after he'd lost his studio - and with it any chance of continuing "The Overcoat" - he refused. He said that he had been a serf to communism all his life, and he wasn't ever going to be a serf again, even if he had to starve.
Apart from this Japanese page dedicated to Norstein on the site of the Japanese publisher Comic Box, which recently released a 250-page deluxe edition volume of Norstein's animated art, it almost comes as a surprise to think that Norstein is considered one of the all-time great animators considering how little material of substance there is on the web about his work. Norstein has been a regular attendee at the Laputa Animation Festival over the years. And with Winter Days recently, and the lithographs being sold by Comic Box to support production of The Overcoat, it gives me a warm feeling to think that Japan is probably the country that has been most supportive and understanding of Norstein for the last decade.
In deference to Alan's request, I thought I'd throw together a list. I love lists. But "best" is so general, so I feel the need to be more specific. There are anime that I value tremendously for their animation but that aren't necessarily "great" overall. Then there are anime that I like but aren't necessarily "great". Then there are anime that are historically important but that don't necessarily mean that much to me personally. Then there's the question of whether a list including titles that are unavailable in a particular place will be of any use to the audience the list is written for. Take that Animage Top 100 list; half the titles mean nothing to an American audience.
So first of all, here's a personal list.
Goku's Big Adventure
Horus, Prince of the Sun
3000 Leagues in Search of Mother
Gauche the Cellist
Kondo's Nemo pilot
A Night on the Galactic Railroad
Hakkenden: Hamaji's Resurrection episode
Not necessarily the top ten, just the ten that come most readily to mind because I've returned to them over and over, or they really bowled me over the first time I saw them.
Here are some other lists.
Animal fight in Legend of the White Snake
Hilda in Hols, Prince of the Sun
Battle with giant fish in Hols, Prince of the Sun
8-headed dragon in Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon
Pirate attack in Animal Treasure Island
Castle chase in Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves
Various scenes in Tom Sawyer
Conan greiving in Future Boy Conan episode 2
Building collapsing in Akira
Skateboard chase in Animatrix: Kids Story
Opening sequence in Peek the whale
Rocks crumbling into water in Rahxephon episode 15
Eva fighting Shito in Evangelion episode 19
Popolocrois (1997) episode 3
Naruto episode 30
Drag Race & Shopping Boogie segments in Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song
Castle chase in Crayon Shin-chan: Adventure in Henderland
Chase through the bazaar in Spriggan
Breaking into Murano's house in Tokyo Godfathers
Watch these to learn what makes Japanese animators unique. Each is great in his own way. Although it may take some effort, like learning to savor great wine, the reward is a sharper palate and an enriched experience. (continue your studies on my Karisuma Animators page)
Aru Machikado no Monogatari (1962)
Goku's Big Adventure (1967) #4 Osamu Dezaki
Fight!! Pyu-ta (1968)
Dokonjo Gaeru (1972) #73A Kan-Kan Aki Kan no Maki
Ganso Tensai Bakabon (1975) #15A Manabu Ohashi
Zany Knight Don De La Mancha (1980) #6 Yoshinori Kanada
Tetsujin 28 (1980) Masahito Yamashita eps
Gold Lightan (1981) #41 Takashi Nakamura
Ideon: Be Invoked movie (1982)
Urashiman (1983) #26 Takashi Nakamura/Koji Morimoto/Atsuko Fukushima
Radio City Fantasy (1984)
Bobby's Girl (1985)
Machine Robo: Revenge of Chronos (1986)
Captain Power Battle Training game (1988) Shinya Ohira/Shinji Hashimoto
Yumemakura Baku's Twilight Theater (1991) Shinji Hashimoto
Download (1992) Tatsuyuki Tanaka part
Crayon Shin-chan TV series: Buriburizaemon episodes (1995) Masaaki Yuasa
You'll need luck to find these. But if you do you'll be rewarded with something special.
All the Ghibli films
The Sea Prince and the Fire Child
The Mouse and His Child
Jack and the Beanstalk
Junkers Come Here
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Serial Experiments Lain
The Wings of Honneamise
This is a self-explanatory list. You'll have to look on eBay for several of the all-ages films.
(Continued from the previous post)
1963: Doggie March (わんわん忠臣蔵 / Wan wan chushingura)
Regular hirings had by now inflated the number of employees at Toei Doga to over 450, so the animation department was split into two sections, and from here on out two films were in production at the same time. This film and the next film were the first two slated for production under the new system, but while Doggie March went ahead on schedule, due to the unexpected arrival of TV anime in the form of Tetsuwan Atom at the same time, Gulliver wound up being pushed back so that the second section could focus on coming up with a competitive response. That response came in the form of Sadao Tsukioka's Ken the Wolf Boy (狼少年ケン / Okami shonen ken), which was followed up by Yasuji Mori's Hustle Punch. The TV era was here. And it signalled the beginning of the end for Toei Doga's traditional feature animation.
Interestingly enough, the very film produced while the other section of Toei Doga was working on a counterpunch to Tezuka's Atom Boy was based on a story idea by Osamu Tezuka himself. This goes to suggest that there was a certain respect for Toei Doga's acheivement on Tezuka's part, a willingness to learn what they had to offer and to put it to use, and not merely the spirit of rivalry and opposition that seems to get emphasized whenever the Toei Doga-Mushi Pro story gets talked about.
Hayao Miyazaki, who was an inbetweener in this film, was picked up in the last wave of hirings done in April of 1963. From here on out Toei Doga stopped hiring and switched to a "Unit Production System" -- meaning they began outsourcing animation to small production companies.
This is probably the only major Toei Doga film of the period that I haven't seen. While it is certainly one of the minor films, it's not without its merits, as at the very least the animation of the water by Yoichi Kotabe in his scene in the film (his first full-fledged key animation) reportedly remains one of Toei Doga's strongest pieces of animation.
1965: Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon (ガリバーの宇宙旅行 / Garibaa no uchu ryoko)
Production on this film was restarted in March 1964. Not one of Toei Doga's best films, but neither is it one of their worst. I thoroughly enjoyed the film for its refreshing sci-fi subject matter, a first for Toei Doga, and the wonderful Little Prince-influenced geometric robot designs by Hideo Furusawa. And by now everybody knows the justly famous story about how a certain hotheaded young upstart, just hired, just doing his first inbetween animation, came up with a totally different ending for the climactic scene in the film where the hero rescues the princess, and successfully managed to convince the director to use it, despite still technically being a lowly inbetweener. That one additional shot completely changed the meaning of the entire film, which revealed this newcomer's uncommon gifts. (The scene in question was animated by Makoto Nagasawa.)
Not only does this speak volumes about Miyazaki's talent, but I think it speaks volumes about the climate of artistic openness at Toei Doga during this early period. One of the things that most impressed me about their production system was that every staff member, regardless of rank, was actively solicited for ideas and encouraged to make suggestions if they felt they had any ideas that might be beneficial to the film; if people liked the idea, it was put to use, simple as that. That's how most of the characters in Little Prince got designed.
Although I've never read anything to confirm this anywhere, I've always suspected that the scene on the spaceship where the characters go through a bunch of wacky deformations in zero gee was inbetweened by Miyazaki, because it's like no other part in the film, and stylistically feels very much like him.
1967: Jack and the Witch (少年ジャックと魔法使い / Shonen jakku to mahotsukai)
If this section 2 production comes across as decidedly lacking in the animation department, it's because most of the important animators were busy at work on Horus, on which production had been progressing since October 1965, when the project was given the green light. The strain of the two-section production system begins to become evident. In fact, I'd say this is the worst animated of the classic Toei Doga films. But it is a fairly good film, in its own unique way. Despite the uncharacteristically stodgy animation, we have here a film with interesting character designs, good music, a fun story, but most of all very daring abstract background art by Reiji Koyama, the famous modern art painter hired here for another stint as the art director after the excellent work he did for Little Prince. The animation, full of strangely cartoonish touches like the undulating car, is quite unique for a Toei Doga film, and does have a certain appeal, though it feels like a failed experiment more than anything.
1968: The World of Hans Christian Andersen (アンデルセン物語 / Anderusen monogatari)
The next film fully exposes the pattern of decline. The animation for this film is fuller than that for Jack, but the story, the character design, and the execution of the film are all incredibly devoid of taste, and the film is eminently forgettable. We have here, for the first time, a film slavishly patterned after the Disney musical, after Toei Doga had already clearly shown that they understood that slavish imitation was not what made great animated films. The concept is not necessarily a bad one (though it is very self-limiting), but it is badly executed. Again the two saving graces are the art directing and the music, both by the same two people as in the previous film. With a little generosity the film can be watched and enjoyed, but it takes great patience to endure the design of characters like Uncle Ole, and for me that's the film's fatal flaw.
1968: Little Norse Prince (太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険 / Taiyo no oji horusu no daiboken)
After a few years in the desert, we arrive in Canaan.
What to think of the film? For Toei Doga it was an albatross. Over budget, over schedule, not a chuckle in the entire film. Instead, a deep and dark meditation on the duty of the individual in society. Disgusted, with no idea what they had on their hands, they shirked on the publicity, and it flopped at the box office. Takahata was ousted for good.
For the rest of us, though, Horus was and remains a symbol of everything that is great about anime; the first harbinger of its true potential. A film that simultaneously broke the mold of the Toei Doga film and crowned its apotheosis.
Rarely in the history of the animated film has there been a more cogent example of the content of a film mirroring the ideals and experiences of the people on the production floor. Here we had a studio packed with a new generation of fervent young animators fresh from the experience of having grown up amid the desolation of the surrender, fueled by the new ideals of democracy and socialism, eager to express their values in their work, to make a difference.
Toei Doga furnished them with a compatably democratic workplace that offered the promise of a genuine share of the artistic input into the final product. That doesn't mean that the path towards enlightenment was strewn with roses. It meant a give and take learning process on the part of both parties, with times of tentative testing of the new relationship (Magic Boy) followed by tragic but inevitable momentary losses for the workers/wins for the bosses (Littlest Warrior), swiftly followed by a backlash of angry demands for improved conditions on the part of the workers, abutting in negotiations leading to new and greater gains for the workers (Little Prince), only to be followed by ominous doldrums during which both parties could only stand by and watch helplessly as the social conditions providing the groundwork for their cooperative idyll crumbled down around them (Andersen).
Horus arrived at the end of this string of tribulations like the handshake that closes Metropolis.
The struggle portrayed in Hols was a symbolic expression of the union activities that Takahata, Otsuka and many of the other employees had been extremely passionate about since their entry into Toei Doga. Soon after joining the company in 1963, Takahata proved his mettle to the execs by his dynamic attitude and masterly directing in Ken the Wolf Boy, and earned the unqualified trust of his fellow employees, leaving little doubt that he was soon to be appointed to the task of directing one of the feature films -- an uncommonly rapid accession to that post in the stricty heirarchical Toei.
Starting from the choice of a text, a puppet play called The Sun Above Chikisani based on the legends of the Ainu -- the oppressed and nearly obliterated First Nations of Japan -- it becomes clear that Takahata approached this task with the utmost seriousness, as an opportunity to express solidarity with the colonized and the oppressed, to express the themes of his generation: democracy, egality and solidarity, and finally to create a damned incredible moviegoing experience like nobody had ever seen before.
With the entire staff enthusiastically behind him and ready for the task, his sub-lieutenant Yasuo Otsuka by his side, he set off on this mad quest to drag a steamboat over a mountain, to build an animation pyramid leading to the heavens. They were ready to follow Takahata to hell to get this film done. And that's just where they found themselves.
Takahata had to fight tooth and nail for every scrap. The first loss was the title, followed by the Ainu trappings. The execs feared that a story about Ainu would either bore or scare people, so they were forced to change the setting to Scandinavia. Then they were behind schedule. They were using too many cels. Takahata was losing credibility fast, and the clock was ticking. By the end he'd been forced to cut more than half an hour off of a film where every second was absolutely essential, because the execs feared people wouldn't come to a 120 minute animated movie. Add to this the two scenes they simply didn't have time enough to animate, and Takahata was feeling roundly defeated by the time the film was released.
Whatever flaws it may have, the film towers above any contemporary anime film -- and above most that are made today -- in terms of entertainment value, in terms of philosophy, in terms of character depth, in terms of animation, and most of all in terms of directing. Needless to say, Takahata's ambition has since been vindicated hundredfold by the rise of Ghibli and the admiration and praise his films there have garnered around the globe.
To me, this extraordinary film is more than just a first step towards Ghibli. It's one of the most incredible directing debuts in animated film history, and still one of the handful of great anime films of all time, for its unsurpassed inherent quality and its historical significance.
In terms of the animation, no contest: Horus has the best animation of any Toei Doga film, by lightyears. To mention only the most stunning examples: The fight with the big fish animated by Otsuka Yasuo is in the opinion of many of today's most important animators (including Satoru Utsunomiya) one of the greatest fight scenes ever drawn in anime. And Hilda, designed by Yasuji Mori and animated entirely by Yasuji Mori throughout the film, was the single most psychologically penetrating animation of a character to grace any Japanese animation up until that point. She still is. Her performance is Oscar-worthy and then some. If Mori was the soul of Toei Doga, then Hilda is the soul of Horus.
1969: Puss 'n Boots (長靴をはいた猫 / Nagagutsu wo haita neko)
Following Horus there was a hiatus in the decline as the vast momentum built up by the staff during production of Horus was unleashed with full force into three of Toei Doga's most outrageous and entertaining flicks.
This first film is the one that benefited most directly from the momentum. The style of production for Puss was the diametric opposite of that for Horus. In Horus Takahata controlled every moment of the visuals in the film -- the layout, the placement of the characters, the pacing of the scenes. In this film, on the other hand, the animators were let loose to do what they wanted like children running outside screaming joyously after a hard day at school.
That feeling really comes through in the film. There's more freedom in the animation in this film than in probably any of the other Toei Doga films, and at the same time this is one of the films with the most unified animation of any of the Toei Doga films because of Yasuji Mori's assiduous correction of the drawings to maintain an even look throughout.
However, little should be expected of this film beyond entertainment, because the characters are largely ciphers and there is no depth or development there at all. But who cares? It's such a fun and joyous film that there's no reason to nitpick. They obviously set out to make exactly that sort of film, and succeeded eminently in the task.
And topping the film off is the most famous sequence of all the Toei Doga films, the chase through the castle ramparts, a sequence that is a perfect seamless little miniature film in itself. Miyazaki and Otsuka animated the whole thing in tag-team style.
Around this same time Toei Doga started releasing a large number of low-budget sci-fi films and dismissible things of that ilk that I will not cover here but to note them in passing as the fate that befell the giant that once was Toei Doga. The 1969 Flying Ghost Ship actually featured animation by Miyazaki and animation directing by Kotabe, but I found the film to be so distractingly tacky and unwatchably bad that I pretty much forgot the whole thing after seeing it, out of mercy.
1970: Nobody's Boy (ちびっ子レミと名犬カピ / Chibikko remi to meiken kapi)
This was another of the low-budget films they churned out, and, although its animation attains a moderate level of quality that deserves to be acknowledged, the horrendous directing, wretched humor and abominable character designs combine to make this a good representative of the films that followed after Miyazaki et al. flocked out from Toei Doga around 1972 looking for broader horizons. Among the worst Toei Doga films ever made should be counted the 1973 Panda's Adventures, probably the most soulless film made by the studio. Properly speaking, I was only able to watch the first five minutes, being unable to continue out of disgust with what I was seeing and hearing.
Starting with this one, Toei Doga made a series of films based on world literature throughout and beyond the 70s (The Little Mermaid, Swan Lake, The Swan Princes, Thumbelina, Twelve Months), all of which are totally deserving of the memory hole into which they have fallen. The Little Mermaid deserves note, however, because it was the first anime film anywhere to feature a female animation director, namely Reiko Okuyama, longtime Toei Doga animator and wife of Yoichi Kotabe.
1971: Treasure Island Revisited (どうぶつ宝島 / Dobutsu takarajima)
While the other section was churning out the previous film, the staff that had worked on Horus and then Puss were hard at work on this wonderful and little-known triumph of slapstick and action adventure, the last of the classic full-length Toei Doga films.
Hayao Miyazaki provided many of the ideas for the film and was consequently given the novel credit of "Idea Man", and this time Miyazaki is the one who gives the film its character, not only because of the little touches he adds that feel 100% Miyazaki, like the wonderful scene early on at the Benbow, but even more importantly because of the incredible animation he provides for the film. The pirate attack scene he animated in this film is one of my favorite in all the Toei Doga films, and is the hilight of the film. It's an incredible scene, packed with a vast number of ideas and a whole movie's worth of action. Although Miyazaki's previous work in the Toei Doga films was already notable, particularly his important contribution to providing the many images that built up the universe of Horus, this is the one that really stands out, for one because it's all concentrated into under five minutes, making it handy for study purposes. For study it deserves. This scene should be required study for every aspiring animator in the world.
Aside from Miyazaki's animation (and he also did a lot of the animation of Hook on the ship, which is also incredibly good) this film is an eminently rollicking ride from start to finish, and is the most obvious direct link between the films of Toei Doga and Miyazaki's subsequent work, in terms of the overall structure of the film.
1971: Alibaba's Revenge (アリババと四十匹の盗賊 / Aribaba to yonjuppiki no tozoku)
This short film tends to be overlooked in discussions of the classic Toei Doga films due to the zany designs and the correspondingly kooky story. But I personally find it to be a wonderful (albeit light and insubstantial) and perfectly fun-filled ride that absolutely deserves to be seen by more people.
Gone are any concerns about creating an epic storyline; instead we have a surprisingly witty and biting satire that turns the original Ali Baba story on its head, and focuses on the gags and action sequences. The voice-acting is great all around (the king and his attendant are unbeleivably hilarious in the original Japanese) and the character designs are wonderfully loose and cartoonish in a way that feels truly refreshing and original for a Toei Doga film. It feels like a good direction. The sad thing is, they didn't continue to do anything as original afterwards. Toei Doga president Hiroshi Okawa died after this film was completed, effectively marking the end of the era of classic Toei Doga films.
To top it all off, the animation hilight of this film is in fact one of the great sequences in any of the Toei Doga films, a chase through the castle ramparts animated by Miyazaki -- in homage to himself? In any case, it's an absolutely superb scene that merits being seen by any lover of good, fast-paced cartoonish action animation. Masaaki Yuasa noted in a recent interview that this was his favorite of Miyazaki's scenes because of the incredible variety of the stuff going on; plus the fact that it's the longest of his scenes stretches out the enjoyment all that much longer. No disagreement there.
1972: Puss 'n Boots II (長靴三銃士 / Nagagutsu sanjushi)
If the previous film tends to be overlooked, then this film tends pretty much never to even get mentioned. Which I find to be a shame. A masterpiece it's not, and the script development problems that left the film hobbled with a rather straightforward and bland western story in the final count are disappointing, but it's still an eminently watchable film, which all of the subsequent films are not, so it deserves the benefit of the doubt.
The story is simple but entertaining because, well, when have you ever seen an anime western? The characters are credible, the directing is good, the story is fun. It has a very nice action sequence that I quite like, the covered wagon chase. The shootout at the end is very convincingly choreographed. And with Yasuji Mori in the helm as the animation director, the animation in this film is truly a fine, delectable thing to behold. Not the banquet of the previous Puss film, but more of a power lunch. No, really, this is one of the most underrated of the Toei Doga films. This film is truly enjoyable, and deserves more credit than it gets.
Miyazaki, Takahata, Otsuka and Kotabe had all left Toei Doga already by the time Mori did this film. Mori even went on to do animation in the wretched Panda's Adventures, undoubtedly a thoroughly depressing and lonely experience that finally drove him to leave Toei Doga and join the rest of the gang at Nippon Animation.
That's it. All of the key figures having left Toei Doga, for some mysterious reason the subsequent films are no good. And so we reach the end of the lime.
1979: Taro the Dragon Boy (龍の子太郎 / Tatsu no ko taro)
Actually, not quite. Toei made a comeback of sorts a few years later with this film, which is truly a very good film, albeit quite different from what had come before. But really it's just an isolated relic of a tone and a quality that would never be regained at Toei Doga and had by that time already been transplanted to other studios, namely A Productions, Telecom and then Studio Ghibli, that inherited the mantle of the manga eiga; that being the assertion of the Survey of Japanese Films exhibition, and that with which I bring this survey of Toei Doga films to a close.
"Well we knocked the bastard off."
Only Alouette isn't Everest, and I wasn't the first one. Spent 8 hours walking the round-trip 40 kilometer Alouette peak trail yesterday, and made it to the top this time. While at the top I gazed down on the ants swarming on the shore of Garibaldi lake far below filled with feelings best passed over in silence and suggested with a picture:
Not really, but I love that scene.
Perhaps not coincidentally in a year that sees the release of an unprecedented number of major new anime films, this summer Tokyo offers a number of interesting events dealing with the history of anime. As an adjunct to the MOMA screening series I mentioned before, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo is currently showing an exhibition entitled 日本漫画映画の全貌 (Nihon Manga Eiga no Zenbo / A Survey of Japanese Animated Films), which proposes to shed an intimate light on the history of the animated film in Japan from its earliest beginnings in 1917 to the current day by offering visitors an opportunity to get up close and personal with a range of the original materials used to create these films, including key animation, image boards and storyboards.
Excerpts from a large sampling of these films will be shown in the viewing room together with a rarely-seen documentary on the history of anime made by one of Japan's preeminent authorities on the subject, Takashi Namiki, who has long been famous as a serious collector of historic anime films. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi will also be shown, and even more surprisingly so will Howl's Moving Castle (the first screening anywhere?), to illustrate the continuity between the old anime films and the new.
This begs the question. Why Miyazaki's films and no others? The answer is: The broadly accepted interpretation of Studio Ghibli is that it is the only studio with a direct link to anime's past by reason that its founding members were trained at Toei Doga; hence in theory making it the only authentic inheritor of the mantle of the manga eiga. The weight of truth in the assertion is obvious, and I don't deny it, but it feels a little forced and too obvious. I think there's no reason to be so dogmatic. The question is rather more complex than one of mere personal connections.
That said, I happen to be a big fan of the Toei Doga films, so far be it for me to disagree.
When I speak of "Toei Doga films" I mean the films made between roughly 1958 and 1972, which is the period when these movies were good, being that during which Mori, Takahata, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Kotabe et al. were working at the studio.
Hence it seems a little odd, Studio Ghibli being the king of the hill among western fans and all, that the Toei Doga films should remain so utterly unknown. Aside from a few fansubs -- and how many people see those?? a drop in the bucket, that's how many -- consciousness of the films remains about as low as it was when I saw my first Toei Doga film almost a decade ago. It took that long for ME to see one, so I can't really blame others. The narrowness of American anime interest obliterates the chances of anything appearing on the market that doesn't fit within the confines of accepted taste.
Let it be noted that in this case the French retain the moral high ground (in more ways than one at the moment). Late last year I recall hearing stories from my French connection about an incredible anime festival showing many of the old Toei Doga films along with lots of other obscure stuff I would never have associated with an anime festival in the US. Only recently did I run across the website of the Nouvelles Images Du Japon 2003 and see for myself the incredible lineup: the five most important Toei Doga films, Gauche the Cellist, Jarinko Chie, Oshii's obscure Nils Holgersson, Ideon (IMO the greatest robot anime of all time), the international premiere of Winter Days, plus all the most interesting recent anime films, and a long selection of independent shorts, to say nothing of the incredible guest panel: Isao Takahata, Satoshi Kon, Yoichi Kotabe, Koji Yamamura, Kihachiro Kawamoto.
I'm honestly disappointed that the Ottawa Animation Festival 2004 opted for a Miyazaki retrospective rather than something else with at least a shred of originality. Don't get me wrong. Getting Miyazaki as a household name in the west has been every otaku's wet dream for years. But who the bloody hell hasn't seen these films by now? Surely other films are more deserving of the precious publicity of an animation festival. But I gather this is a question of the delicate balance between garnering supporters and attracting crowds.
With this long preamble out of the way, I'll get to the point of this post. I thought I would take this as an opportunity to talk about all of the Toei Doga films, from the first (Hakujaden) to the last good one (Puss 'n Boots II), since I gather I'm one of the few fans in the west who's had a chance to see them all. And doing so took no small effort, from bidding for LDs on Yahoo! Auctions Japan to digging up obscure English dubs on VHS on eBay.
Although a book could and eventually should be written in English about Toei Doga and its place in animation history, here I'll have to content myself with some passing comments about what makes these films interesting using the little bit of knowledge I've managed to remember from perusal of the few Japanese sources I've run across, the main one being Yasuo Otsuka's essential and excellent autobiography Sakuga Ase Mamire, which absolutely deserves to be translated into English. In this book we get the honest lowdown on what the staff thought about what they were doing, not just the hagiography of the old Toei-published history -- useful though it is for statistics.
Really I could start at any point following the end of the war, with the short films produced by animation studio Nippon Dogasha, aka Nichido, but not having seen any of them, I will skim over them and jump to the first film produced after Nichido was purchased by the film studio Toei, namely Kitty's Graffiti (こねこのらくがき / Koneko no Rakugaki, 1957).
This film probably gives a good idea of what the Nichido films were like, because the staff is essentially the same (Yasuji Mori, Taiji Yabushita, Akira Daikubara, etc.), whereas the next film, the full-length feature Panda and the Magic Serpent, benefited from the first wave of animator hirings, which included luminaries like Gisaburo Sugii, Reiko Okuyama, Makoto Nagasawa and Taku Sugiyama (one exception being Yasuo Otsuka, who came in a bit earlier; his first work as an animator was drawing the cat instructor walking around the corner after scolding Kitty in Kitty's Graffiti).
Don't let the fact that it's in black and white deter you; this is one of the most delightful, charming and unforgettable animated shorts I've ever seen, and remains one of my favorites. There is so much SOUL in this film. Watching this one film makes it perfectly clear why Yasuji Mori is renowned as a master animator. The story is eminently simple, but full of tons of warmly humorous and imaginative ideas that are carried off flawlessly: little Kitty (think little Jimmy) draws some scribbles on the wall of the school, and in his guilt-ridden daydreams they come alive and lead him off into a series of wonderful adventures involving runaway graffiti trains, chicken scratch traffic jams and an army of mice in bubbles!
The great thing is that it's not just cute, there's a brilliantly self-deprecating, knowing, gentle irony lurking there behind the delicate humor at all times, so that despite the simple subject matter there's real depth there -- sort of akin to that profoundly moving gentle irony in Ozu's films.
This film is in fact the perfect starting point for an appreciation of Toei Doga films because Mori was one of the most important staff members throughout the entire period, as an animation director, character designer and animator. Not only was he responsible for the animation of all the animal characters in the early films, but he was the first person in Japan to design all of the characters in a film, and also the first person to supervise the animation of an entire film as the sakuga kantoku or animation director.
In my opinion, Yasuji Mori is the soul of the Toei Doga films.
(Note that I'm using the common English dub titles for these films to keep things consistent, even though there are some that I'm not happy with, like "Little Norse Prince" - feh. What a shit-ass title for one of the greatest anime films ever. You can see the translated titles by clicking on the link to see more details about the film.)
1958: Panda and the Magic Serpent (白蛇伝 / Hakujaden)
What makes the first full-length color anime feature great? Besides the fact that it works as a movie after all these years, the animation is thoroughly engaging and well-crafted, the atmosphere is beguiling, the characters are interesting, and the story is universal (Romeo & Juliet), the ambition with which it was made still comes through loud and clear. To strike a tone of reconciliation with the Asian neighbors Japan had so brutally treated in the recent past, Toei president Hiroshi Okawa decided on a Chinese story for this film, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of Japan, the historic implications of which he fully understood.
Starting with this film Okawa set out to make Toei Doga the Disney of the East, but what impresses is that he really understood what that meant; that it meant not just copying Disney, but beginning from scratch as Disney had done and building up a store of animation knowhow from which to build a legacy upon. That meant hiring real animators who knew their craft, having these animators transmit their knowhow to newcomers, and continuing this process in order to discover new techniques and continuously improve their films. And that, ultimately, is the legacy that comes down to us to this day in the form of the films of Studio Ghibli.
Though the animation is understandably lacking in the refinement and detail that would come bit by bit with the films that immediately followed, it should be remembered that all of the key animation here was drawn by TWO PEOPLE, the two main animators from Nichido: Yasuji Mori, who did the animals, and Akira Daikubara, who did the humans. Lest one think that asking two people to provide all the ideas for a film's movement would result in a thinness of ideas, I need merely point to the fight scene, animated entirely by Yasuji Mori, which is quite possibly the single best piece he ever did, and in my opinion the best in the film; and to any number of other scenes like the part where the wooden dragon takes off, and the fight in mid-air, which are breathtakingly beautiful to behold even after all these years.
I've seen both the dub and the original for this one, and the dub is pretty good, as I recall. The original is impressive because two voice-actors provided all of the voices. It's part of the mystique of the original: All these twos.
1959: Magic Boy (少年猿飛佐助 / Shonen sarutobi sasuke)
The second Toei Doga film has been seen on cable TV in the US in recent years, so it obviously achieved a measure of the international appeal Toei Doga was looking for, though I'm guessing there's a degree of simple exoticism behind this.
The film tells the story of a country boy in medieval Japan who sets out to learn magic with a sennin, mountain ascetic, to defeat a gang of marauding bandits led by an evil witch.
Here we find Toei Doga plunging into the realm of the historical fantasy adventure spectacular, and the film is just plain fun to watch, great entertainment with lots of variety and action, but strangely, while it's a step forward from Hakujaden in terms of the animation, it seems to be a step backwards in terms of the content. Apparently this is attributable purely to Toei politics. The original script was transformed at a late stage in production into a simple bad-guy-vs-good-guy story at the behest of Toei execs who wanted to cash in on the popular formula Toei had been putting to use at the time in their live-action jidaigeki movies. There was widespread discontent among the animators because of this.
Standout scenes in the film include the banquet of the animals, drawn by Yasuji Mori, and the giant salamander & the witch's skeleton, both the work of Yasuo Otsuka. Right here in his first assignment as a key animator he draws scenes that distinguish themselves from those in the rest of the film by their minute attention to detail, density of animation, and strict realism of movement and drawing.
Unfortunately this one I've only seen in dubbed form, so I'm missing a lot of the nuance in the animation that arose from the very specific reactions that each animator brought to his animation of his scene from instant to instant based on each word of the dialogue recorded by the voice-actors, which is definitely a major aspect of the appeal of the animation in this film. (This equation has since changed now that dialogue is recorded after the animation.) Another reason to always watch anime in the original. Whether the dub is "good" or "bad" is hence irrelevant. It's a senseless burden that cripples proper appreciation of the animation.
1960: Alakazam the Great! (西遊記 / Saiyuki)
(Mike Toole wrote a good review of this film for Anime Jump, so I refer you to his review to learn more about this film.)
With this third installment we reach the zenith in quality in the very early Toei Doga films. Not only were there more animators involved in this film, but they had now made definite progress, and were motivated by Tezuka Osamu's appealing designs (slightly modified to make them easier to animate) to produce even more interesting and free animation than before.
Animation hilights include the various sections animated by Yasuo Otsuka, who had by now been pegged as the guy to turn to if you've got something really hairy and complicated and violent to animate. These include the volcanic eruption, the swordfight with the scorpion, and the bullfight at the end. Sadao Tsukioka, one of the genius animators of this early period, also did his first key animation in this film -- the striptease by the female monster near the end.
The most important hilight of the film, though, in terms of inherent quality, and in terms of having had a fateful determining influence on the choice of what to do for the next film, was the section animated by Yasuji Mori, where Rin-Rin visits Goku in his prison. The pathos and the remarkable degree of life and presence that Mori manages to breathe into the depiction of Rin-Rin trudging through the snow before toppling over in exhaustion and cold -- the feeling that you're really watching a living being there on the screen, not just a two-dimensional drawing -- has lost none of its power to amaze after more than 40 years, and is truly one of the best scenes to grace any Toei film.
This scene in fact so impressed the execs at Toei that they decided they wanted to go in that direction for the next film. They wanted to make a human tragedy featuring more realistic characters moving in a realistic fashion, just like Mori's scene. This is what led to...
1961: The Littlest Warrior (安寿と厨子王丸 / Anju to zushiomaru)
Which is why it's so interesting that the main animators involved in the film, including Mori, repudiated the film immediately upon its completion with a vehemence bordering on anger for having been duped into taking part in the project. I actually enjoyed it on first watching, but they make so many good points in their statements (reproduced in Sakuga Ase Mamire) that it kind of makes you embarrassed for not having noticed them. About the way it glorifies passive acceptance of injustice. About the way it tells kids that the best thing you can do is bear suffering stoically rather than try to do something about it. That it's OK to step on others to achieve your goals. That the ruling class is all-knowing -- trust them, they know what's best for you.
A downright infuriating film if you think about it. And Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, a version of the same Ogai Mori story, is a brilliant, complex and multilayered film that treats the very same material in an entirely compelling and humane and moving fashion, so it's not accountable to the material. There was something rotten in the planning of this film, with its shit-for-brains adaptation and laa-dee-daa ending, and it smells like money. I like the basic premise, and I think there's something in there that could make a good animated film, if you had someone who only knew what they were doing at the head, say, Takahata, so it's all the more disappointing.
1962: The Adventures of Sinbad (アラビアンナイト·シンドバッドの冒険 / Arabian naito shindobatto no boken)
The next film, on the other hand, I disliked right on the first viewing. It's probably my least favorite of the classic Toei Doga films. It's just plain boring. They tried to develop the realism of Anju further in this one, but it's a half-assed realism and consequently totally misses the mark, neither fish nor fowl. Despite that, certain gains were made in terms of animation technique with this film that would go on to feed the later films, and that is probably its main virtue. Specifically, the animation of the water in the climax, by (who else?) Otsuka Yasuo, acheived a degree of detail that was a new watermark for the studio, which had until then not been particularly known for its effects animation.
1963: Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon (わんぱく王子の大蛇退治 / Wanpaku oji no orochi taiji)
Now we come to one of the all-time anime masterpieces, a film that holds the distinction of being the film that introduced the animation director system into anime (whereby one person corrects all the drawings by the key animators in order to eliminate minor differences and keep the characters looking the same throughout the film). But that's not necessarily what's great about it to anybody who watches it. The designs are great. The color is great. The music is great. The story is great. The animation is great. The finale is incredible. It's probably the first Toei Film film that comes together as a totally satisfying and integral whole.
The animation hilight of this film is the final scene of the hydra, animated by Yasuo Otsuka together with Sadao Tsukioka. Otsuka had pursued realism since he began as an animator, basing his animation on close observation of the reality around him -- for example, observing and drawing actual catfish in preparation for animating the scene with the giant fish in Magic Boy. But there are no 8-headed dragons in the real world to study, so how to draw one? Reality in this scene is evoked by the tension produced by careful timing and framing of the action unfolding on the screen in one continuous flow over the course of several minutes.
There are many other great scenes -- the fight with the tiger early on, the dance scene. This is the first film in which most of the film is totally satisfying in terms of the animation, with interesting movement and appealing and original designs.
...well it looks like I bit off more than I can chew, so I'll finish this tomorrow.
I was practically hyperventilating from laughter and amazement and sheer unmitigated YYYYEEESSSSSS!!!!! for about about ten minutes after watching a short 30-second sequence in Samurai Champloo #9.
No, I wasn't on anything. Though all the characters in the episode were.
Masaaki Yuasa animated a sequence in Champloo!
Everyone who can't wait to see Mind Game, RUN, DON'T WALK, and watch Samurai Champloo episode 9 right now.
This is a mere foretaste of the great revelation to come.
And to top off the bliss, Hiroyuki Imaishi did the storyboard for this episode.
No hestitation the single best animated sequence I've seen in any anime in years. God bless you, Masaaki Yuasa.
Apart from that, generally speaking it was a very well animated and funny and fun episode. There was so much going on all the time with the drawings, little amusing touches everywhere, with nice quirky movements all over the place. (Pay attention to the drawings where Mugen is running through the forest.) Great stuff. And why? The animation director of this episode, Nobutake Ito (joined by Kazuto Nakazawa) is one of the main animators in Mind Game. (He was also an animator in the Digimon movie I talked about earlier.)
(On Memory and Recollection)
I'm typing at you through shades because I lost my glasses while swimming in a lake today.
A few random bits before getting down to business.
It turns out Canada is about to rectify the slip of having let Japan beat them to the McLaren DVD set -- in a big way. Not three, four, five or six, but SEVEN DVDs. The NFB is going to be releasing The Master's Edition DVD set sometime in early 2005. This is going to be way better than the Japanese set. (The Japanese aren't very good with extras.)
I had a chance to watch the first episode of Soul Taker the other day, and was duly impressed. I had no idea Shinbo Akiyuki had managed to go this far with his style already. I mentioned his work in Yu Yu Hakusho in a previous post, and it was great to see that he has continued to develop his style. The first episode was fantastic. I get the impression the later episodes get a little watered down, which is only natural; he only storyboarded the first ep. The first ep was enough. At least here's a guy who's doing something moody and stylish and original on TV and it's not just another rip-off of Evangelion. I was actually disappointed to find out there was a story to the first episode upon further viewings. I so loved the bewildering randomness and colorfulness of it all that hits you on that first viewing.
As promised, here's a rough translation of that Newtype interview with Masaaki Yuasa, Koji Morimoto and Shin'ichiro Watanabe. Many thanks to Manuloz! Anyone else?
Morimoto: We'd been thinking of doing Mind Game at Studio 4C for a while when I saw Cat Soup, and I knew right then and there that Yuasa was the only man for the job. It was like a marriage made in heaven. (laughs)
Yuasa: My reaction was: Are you sure you want ME to do it?? Hey, so long as you're sure, I'll do it. But just don't come crying to me afterwards! (laughs) The original manga has a really improvised feel to it, like someone just wrote it in one sitting without thinking it out ahead of time. I wanted to transfer that feeling into the movie. To keep the images really loose and unpredictable, almost slapdash. Like I just decided to throw in some live action here, some CG there, without any thought, just for kicks. (laughs) That's what I hope the movie feels like when you're watching it, sort of unfinished, improvised, like a brainstorm in progress.
Morimoto: Rough drawings can have a lot more charm, but it's hard to make them work in a film. On the other hand, if you worry too much about how a drawing will look on the screen, it comes out looking too clean, without any life, without zip. It's hard to find the right balance between the two.
Watanabe: Just because you go and draw a half-assed picture doesn't mean it'll look "rough" on the screen. (laughs) You really have to calculate every line to get that rough feeling right.
Morimoto: The tension was palpable over in Yuasa's section. The two of us were next door working on Animatrix, and it looked like they were having so much fun over there. (laughs)
Watanabe: What with all these bizarre pictures they had pasted up all over the walls, it was like, what the heck kind of a movie are they making over there?! (laughs) I read the manga and it was great. But I thought, it would be such a shame to put just your everyday ordinary movie music for a manga like this! That would ruin it! (laughs) But nobody seemed to know who to get to do the music, so I sort of elected myself to the post of Music Producer. (laughs)
Yuasa: It's funny, I only heard about that much later. (laughs) One day they say to me, "Oh yeah, by the way, Watanabe's taking care of the music." "He is!?" (laughs) I had a certain idea of what I wanted, but I just didn't know who to turn to...
Watanabe: Yuasa-san had made a sort of compilation tape of songs to give a sense of what he wanted... and man, it was just all over the place! (laughs) From one scene to the next you'd jump from one song to something wildly different. Really not the sort of thing a normal person would request. (laughs) So I thought the only person for the job was the almighty Seiichi Yamamoto, the king of the alternative music scene. He'd done just about every sort of music imaginable. And his music has just the sort of rough-edged feeling that would fit the film. Plus they're both from Osaka! (laughs)
Morimoto: The music was perfect, it was just amazing. You know, my kids were watching the film the other day, and my wife turned it off at a certain point. It was the sex scene. She was pissed. "What the hell are you showing our kids!?" (laughs)
Yuasa: Aw, it's not that bad. (laughs)
Watanabe: That's an incredible scene.
Morimoto: I was amazed you'd reveal so much about yourself on the screen like that: "So this is the kind of sex Yuasa-san has!" (laughs)
Yuasa: No, trust me, I haven't revealed anything. (laughs) I'm much more... (pauses)
Watanabe: Not like that. (laughs)
Yuasa: I'm hoping the film is good entertainment, that's all... If people leave the theater feeling they had a good time, then I'll be satisfied. With a little luck maybe they'll see the world a little differently afterwards, but basically it's good, old-fashioned entertainment to appeal to the whole family. (all three burst out laughing)
Watanabe: I wonder... (laughs)
If anyone can send me any of the articles covering Mind Game, I might see my way clear to translating them (in part or in whole) in return. ~`
Motion Image Psychedelia, a rotating Mind Game exhibition
An exhibit of key animation, inbetweens and sketches together with a making-of video are going to be viewable at Logos Gallery in Shibuya from August 8-16. The exhibit will then be travelling to "digmeout CAFE" in Osaka from August 19-29.
Seiichi Yamamoto & Fushigi Robot Concert
The band responsible for the music in Mind Game will be playing live in concert on August 13 in Shibuya to memorialize the release of the soundtrack CD.
More Mind Game Media Coverage
Yuasa interview in August MAC POWER; 8p special feature in August SWITCH; Yuasa interview in August CUT; Yuasa/Watanabe/Morimoto interview in July NEWTYPE.
Official Site Update
Staff comment section added to Special Contents area.
Today I thought I'd throw together a little Mind Game primer for those of you who might have read past entries of this journal wondering what the heck this Mind Game thing is that I'm always going on about.
Mind Game is the first great anime film of the 21st century.
Mind Game explodes the boundaries of "Japanimation".
Mind Game is a revolution unto itself.
Mind Game is the latest full-length feature film from independent Japanese animation studio (official home page), a studio founded in 1986 by Eiko Tanaka, Koji Morimoto and Yoshiharu Sato that has gone on to produce several of the most significant anime films of the last decade, including Memories (1995) and Animatrix (2003).
Studio 4°C has distinguished itself among its peers for its willingness to push the boundaries of anime in new, unforseen directions, without being constrained by passing fads or profit margins. Their creations are consistently on the cutting edge of Japanese commercial animation, stylistically as well as technically; they were among the first studios in Japan to create films successfully integrating 3DCG with conventional animation. They are the dogged independent of the anime industry.
A large proportion of their output has been dedicated to quasi-experimental short films, the preferred medium of the studio's star director, , who has been responsible for most of these wonderfully esoteric, extremely refreshing, beguilingly odd gems, many of them music videos, like Ken Ishii's Extra (1995) and the Bluetones' Four Day Weekend (1998).
One of the exceptions was Morimoto's 1997 15-minute featurette . Building on a history of fruitful collaboration, Morimoto made the bold decision of inviting rising star to design and animate a large portion of the film. The collaboration was extremely successful, and the film remains one of Studio 4°C's strongest.
The choice was not without reason. Yuasa had proven himself to be a creator to watch right from the beginning of his career as a key animator in the 1992 film , for which he provided two remarkable short musical pieces that are still every bit as thrilling and exceptional as when they were first created. For the next ten years his energies were primarily expended on the popular and prolific series, which unfortunately had the adverse effect of hiding his talent from the view of many, particularly in the west, to whom these films and TV episodes were (and remain) unavailable or simply of no interest.
This is unfortunate because his work on this series is one of the great individual achievements of the 1990s in anime, and deserves greater recognition. The films are probably the high point of traditional, family-oriented anime filmmaking of that decade, and Yuasa played a major role in making them the instant classics they are. In a role analagous to that played by Hayao Miyazaki in Toei's 1971 film Animal Treasure Island (where Miyazaki was credited as "Idea Man"), as the "Set Designer" Yuasa furnished each film with a vast array of crazy designs and freespirited ideas that contributed tremendously to their unique and compelling atmosphere. As well, he provided an animated sequence in almost every film. Entirely on their own merits, these brilliantly animated sequences are required viewing for anyone who considers him or herself a fan of just-plain-great animation.
When in 2001 Studio 4°C producer Eiko Tanaka was tossing around the idea of turning into a film, it was this record, combined with the success of their previous collaboration and Yuasa's unprecedentedly rough and free approach to animation, that brought Yuasa to mind as the only person in the world who could possibly find a way of translating the mad imagery and story of this cult comic into equally mad and compelling animation.
Yuasa himself had already read the comic at the urging of Koji Morimoto during the production of Noiseman, and he gladly accepted the offer. In the intervening years Yuasa had begun to test his wings as a director, having just finished his artistic 'coming-out' statement Cat Soup, and, encouraged by the enthusiastic reception his work had received from colleagues and audiences alike into thinking he wasn't entirely worthless, he leaped at the offer as an opportunity to put into concrete form many of the deep-down urges that had been begging for release all these years.
Tanaka originally wanted to create a film from the comic, but later decided to do it half-animation/half-live action, with Yuasa directing the animation parts. After starting on the project, Yuasa thankfully managed to convince Tanaka to let him exercise complete control over the project and decide how to integrate the live action bits, relegating the latter to a smaller role, kind of the reverse of music videos where you have live-action interspersed with short bits where the actors turn into animated characters.
Bringing into the fray as his animation director the immensely talented , after two years of animation production Yuasa has produced nothing short of a miracle: an unprecedentedly powerful and revolutionary film fashioned from an explosive mixture of live-action, 3DCG and traditional animation that I guarantee is unlike anything anyone has seen before in any film -- live-action or animated.
The film is literally a revolution for anime: It breaks down previous technical boundaries, artistic boundaries and entertainment boundaries, telling an extraordinary story by means of visuals of unthinkably raw power.
And to all of you worried that there's no possible way anyone could sit through a whole film as crazy as the , or conversely, worried that you've seen all the good bits in the trailer, rest assured: Yuasa has reportedly done the impossible, creating a breathless, hyperkinetic film in which not only is every moment just as eye-popping and heart-thumping as the trailer (it's not a "hypertension" movie for nothing!), but the film also stands soundly on its own two feet as a profoundly stirring drama with a message of universal appeal, boasting a story that is the essence of simplicity and clarity and a host of interesting and well-fleshed-out characters.
Not only this, but Yuasa proved decisively that he has the instincts of a director by making the unusual decision to cast comedian Koji Imada and other young non-voice-actor from the Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo, the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the Kansai region, sensing that the very particular brand of humor native to this region was just what was needed for the characters in the film.
And the simple fact that , an ex-member of the Boredoms, provides the film's score speaks volumes in and of itself about the nature of the film. I think I've been waiting all my life for a film that would by its very nature require music from an ex-member of the Boredoms!
Yes, folks. Look forward to it. No matter how high your expectations, I can guarantee that they will be left coughing and hacking in the dust as this film soars into the history books.
Written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Based on the manga by Robin Nishi
Animation Director Yuichiro Sueyoshi
Original Score by Seiichi Yamamoto
Voice acting by Koji Imada, Takashi Fujii, Yamaguchi Tomomitsu
Total Runtime: 104 minutes
Opens in Japan on August 7, 2004
- Robin Nishi's Mind Game Comic (reissued June 23)
- Mind Game Original Soundtrack CD (TB released July 16)
- Mind Game Remix DVD (released June 25)