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Hark fellow northwesterners: A new animation festival comes to our shores!
Festival Director Sven Bonnichsen writes me with the following:
NW ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2011: Call For Submissions
The NW Animation Festival is now accepting entries for 2011. Films from anywhere in the world are welcome. Deadline is May 1, with discounts for students and films received by April 1. The festival will be held on June 3-4-5, in the heart of downtown Portland Oregon at the historic 5th Avenue Cinema. See website for details and submission form: nwanimationfest.com
This is a festival created by animators, for animators, and all lovers of animation.
We are people who hunger to see MORE. Not just the year's top 10 shorts... We want to feast on the year's top 100!
We've thrown the door wide open for submissions. Films may come from anywhere in the world. You may submit films made at any time during your life. And you are free to simultaneously show your work online or at other festivals.
We know that great animation comes from all levels. Contributions from students, independent artists, and professional studios are all valued equally.
All types of animation are encouraged: hand-drawn, computer-generated, stop-motion... We attempt to program shorts blocks focusing on each method separately—both to educate, and to satisfy each methods' enthusiasts.
We strive to pack the weekend with as much animation as possible. But the festival is still bigger than just this. Select films go on to become part of our "Best of the NW Animation Fest" traveling show, which will tour the region during the following year.
For more, visit: nwanimationfest.com
Rainy and gloomy the rest of the year, the northwest is a lovely place during summer, so head on up. This will be a good excuse for me to visit Portland.
I turned on Shigeyasu Yamauchi's new show for J.C. Staff called Yumekui Merry not knowing what to expect, and was amused when the very first shot seemed to be art by Kenji Matsumoto, the awesome artist he had working for him on his last show Casshern Sins. (I wrote about his involvement on that show here and here) I immediately checked the credits and indeed, Kenji Matsumoto and Yukie Yuki are the only two credited with background art. I'm guessing Yukie Yuki did the stuff in the cat world at the beginning. She was also involved in Casshern Sins and is a great background artist in her own right, one of the best. Matsumoto's paintings are for the most part fairly obvious. They have a very similar gritty feeling to what he did in Casshern Sins. There are some sections that seem to be painted over photos that don't look too great, but otherwise it's mostly very nice BG work in the episode.
The episode itself was a mixed bag of horrible stock anime character cliches, some decent animation here and there, a few creative world design ideas, all of it held together by Shigeyasu Yamauchi's usual easily identifiable peculiar directing style that keeps things constantly slightly off-kilter with odd camera angles and frequent unexpected close-ups. Will be worth enduring the annoying anime characters to see what Shigeyasu Yamauchi does with it.
Good animators in the episode include Maru Kanako (who did a solo episode in Casshern Sins), veteran ex-Giants animator Tadashi Shida, Kensuke Ishikawa (who did a solo episode on Wold Destruction ep 3), Minky Momo 2/Detective Conan CD Mari Tominaga, Casshern Sins CD/AD and regular Yamauchi partner Yoshihiko Umakoshi, Yoshihiko Umakoshi associate Terumi Nishii, ero animator and Afro Samurai CD Hiroya Iijima, and Hercules animator Ken Otsuka.
Thank you all for reading for another year. Here's wishing all of you out there the best in 2011.
"What do you want to see in anime?" was maybe my favorite post this year. It was fascinating hearing so many varied dreams and hopes about anime - proof that anime fans aren't monolithic.
I doubt I'd still be blogging after 6 years if it weren't for all the stimulating feedback I receive, so a sincere thanks to all of you for being there.
As usual, I don't have a goal with this blog. I write about whatever fascinates me at the moment. Luckily the ocean of anime is vast. There is much that remains to be explored. I'll keep shining an eclectic light on things here and there.
Piercing 1 is a new indie feature film from China that has been making the rounds of the world's festivals over the last year. A lot has already been written about the film's relevance and importance as an indie feature produced completely independently without any government support, so to avoid repeating what's already been said, I'll just write my thoughts about the film, which I saw in LA two weeks ago. Refer to this interview with director Liu Jian to learn about the film's background and visit the film's web site for more information.
The circumstances surrounding the making of the film have justifiably garnered as much, if not more, interest as the film itself. All made by one man, over the span of several years, on the funds earned by selling his home - truly putting his livelihood on the line. Risking everything to make the animated film of his dreams. And this without any kind of support whatsoever. Anywhere else, this might have justly inspired admiration. Doing so in China, where there's the added pressure of possible censorship and reprisal, is unprecedented and clearly brave. And Liu Jian isn't drawing funny animals. He's depicting the hard reality of life in China today without softening the edges. The whole endeavor is downright gutsy.
The first thing that popped into my head when I heard he'd sold his home to finance the film is simply that it was reckless. Short of being picked up for international distribution and becoming a cause celebre overseas, he'd wind up without anything, much less the means to make two more such films. Was such a drastic step really necessary to make the film? Obviously, it must have been. The very making of the film seems to be part of the story - a newsworthy act of self-immolation shedding light on what it takes to be an indie animator in China.
Obviously, I think the film is important and Liu Jian has achieved something incredible even if Piercing 1 isn't completely successful as a film, which I think it's not. I liked the film. But judged objectively, a lot nagged me about it. Considering the mitigating circumstances, I think most of the things that nagged me about it are eminently trivial and don't change the fact that this film a must-see to connoisseurs of Serious Animated Filmmaking. But I'm still going to put them out there, just to express my honest opinion.
You can see that it's a one-man film in a lot of ways. First of all, the animation is spare. The drawings are awkward. Even before I knew the story behind the film, the drawings immediately attracted me to the film. They're realistic and caricatural, capturing the look of Chinese nationals in a convincing way. The look reminds me slightly of what Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa did in Hamaji's Resurrection. Having seen the film, I still like the basic approach to the drawings. I'd like to see more films like this that actually draw people they way they are in reality. That's not to say I'd like to see rotoscoped animation. Liu Jian has done a good job of drawing the faces in a way that is interesting as a drawing and suited to animation. It's a much more interesting style than 'merely' rotoscoping a human face. There's thought put into how to express the defining features of each face, while at the same time it's not over-stylized the way much animation is. The problem is that a lot of the drawings don't quite work. Sometimes a chin will be foreshortened, or a pose feels a little off. It's partly because he had to do it all himself, and his skills aren't quite up to the task of drawing the bodies the right way.
I came away feeling I wish he'd had the backup of someone like Masaaki Yuasa, the way Shinya Ohira did in Hamaji. It's thanks largely to Yuasa that that Ohira was successful in that film in creating characters who felt real and yet were animated in a way that was exhilirating and groundbreaking as animation. Without those drawings and animation, Hamaji wouldn't have half its impact. I liked the realism of the drawings in Piercing 1 and their tactile, hand-drawn rendering of realistic human bodies and faces, but felt they needed to be a little better technically to achieve the right impact. They don't need to be Jin-Roh perfect or anything - I hope this doesn't come across as being anal. It's just that some of the awkward drawings threw me out of the 'zone' and made the drawings stick out in a way that I felt hindered their successfully bringing alive the characters and hence communicating the story.
Another part of me thinks the drawings are fine the way they are - rough around the edges and obviously the product of one man slaving away for a few years, doing the best he could, and doing a damn good job for the most part, considering. Involve someone else and kiss the one-man mystique goodbye. So it's a bit of a trade-off.
All of this is technical - stuff most people probably won't even think of when they see the film. What about the film itself? The story? It's essentially the story of a disaffected youth who loses his job due to the economic downturn, gets dragged into some shady business, and finds himself in over his head. The story focuses on a handful of different characters - the poor youth, a successful but unscrupulous and shady businessman, and some brutal and corrupt police officers. Their stories unfold separately until they converge in the climax to hilarious and darkly tragic effect. It's a convincing depiction of modern-day China as today's youth experience it, and at the same time it's a witty and ironic tragicomedy about the darkness and apathy and greed that animate people in China. It's a fascinating conundrum - an animated film that's a hard-hitting depiction of modern-day China. It's not an express criticism of China, but it's an uncompromising vision from a creator with a harsh view of the world he lives in. It's also an entertaining indie film in the spirit of Blood Simple. A bunch of losers with nothing to lose become embroiled in a bungled caper, and in the end, things spiral way out of their control, with bloody consequences.
The characters were each individuals. That's one area where the film excelled. They each felt like real, fully-developed people with back stories and personalities, not animation characters. The voice-acting was superb and went a long way towards bringing the characters alive as well as making the atmosphere of the film realistic and convincing. It was impressive feeling like I was seeing the real Chinese youth of today in this film - the way they talk amongst each other, the way they behave when they're just hanging out, the way the streets feel, the very specific interpersonal rules that govern social life in mainland China. The film was admirably convincing in its specific social grounding.
I usually hate it when people watch an animated film like Jin-Roh or Grave of the Fireflies and say "It would have been better as live-action". Saying this seems, if anything, to prove the high level of artistry of the film and vindicate the film's achievement. With Piercing 1, though, for once, I'm the one who felt that way. That's never occurred to me before. Not with Waking Life, not with American Pop, and certainly not with Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday.
I guess I felt the animated aspect didn't contribute enough to Piercing 1 to make it absolutely crucial to its effect. Sure, the unique drawing style devised by the director, combined with the realistic backgrounds, is genuinely interesting and does contribute considerably to the film's success. It's just that the layouts, pacing and narrative style seemed somewhat based on the style of live-action indie filmmaking. There's nothing like Taeko running up an invisible staircase to express her elation in Only Yesterday or the superb, horrific detail of the gunfights in Jin-Roh, both of which could only have been done in animation and are crucial to the success of these films - animated artistry put to the task of depicting reality, and achieving an effect that couldn't be duplicated in a live-action analogue.
Piercing 1 felt essentially like an indie Chinese film that happened to be animated. Which isn't necessarily a liability, I suppose. It's certainly an interesting new kind of animated film the likes of which I've never seen, and that's a good thing. The spare, raw, realistic tone and slow pace reminded me of many indie Chinese films I've seen like Parking and Platform. The good thing about the film is that you can appreciate it as a film and don't have to lower your standards the way you usually do with Disney films or anime films. You don't have to stoop to saying, "It's a good animated film." It's a bold, fascinating creation from a fearless animator. We've already seen the emerging talent of Chinese indie animator Lei Lei. This is a great new addition to the vanguard of Chinese indie animation. Hopefully Piercing 1 is just the start of a wave of new new indie animation from China, although the odds seem stacked against animators over there more than they are in other parts of the world. That only makes the achievement of the film all the more impressive.
I just discovered the nice little film Lizard Planet created in 2009 by Tomoyoshi Joko. Tomoyoshi Joko has uploaded Lizard Planet and a number of his other films to his Youtube account. Watch it here.
I like the film for any number of reasons: the rich coloring, the bizarre but playful imagery of lizards and octopuses and other stuff floating around in space, the densely layered texture of the visuals, and the ethereal story. It's both beautiful visually and fun to watch, warm and playful, yet it also has a sting in its tail. At the end, the lizard planets plunge into the sun in a cataclysmic orgy of self-destruction. It's a bizarre and creative allegory about how the planets like ours are actually living organisms and we need to take care of them because they can easily be killed.
It's great to see new creators popping up like this creating independent films with an artistic but approachable style. Alongside creators like Mizue Mirai and the animators of Robot's Cage studio, there's a whole generation of indie animators creating accessible and genuinely original and creative new animation in Japan today. They show by their example that it's possible to go it alone the shadow of the industry and create more free and individualistic work. There are a number of talented animators working in the industry who I wish would follow this example and go indie so that they can create films entirely in their own style and not be forced to suppress their irrepressible personalities.
Tomoyoshi Joko was born in 1984 and graduated from Tokyo Polytecnic University's Faculty of Arts in 2007. He then entered graduate school and finished his graduate studies in March 2009. While there, he studied under legendary indie animator Taku Furukawa.
He made four other films before Lizard Planet, which was his graduate school project. In 2006 he made two brief films: Afro, about a guy who suddenly grows an afro and flies off into the sky, and God's Gift, which shows how god took a piss one day and humanity sprung from the ground where his holy water landed. The second film shows considerable improvement over the first.
He made a longer film in 2007, the nearly 7-minute Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. This is quite a nice film, beautifully animated and genuinely interesting to watch at every moment as you follow the two curious characters and their interaction. It has a creative concept, thematic unity and strong animation. It took him a year to make and some 5000 drawings. He depicts the first meeting of Mr. Cloud and Mr. Rain. Mr. Cloud is overbearing and beats up Mr. Rain, but in the end when Mr. Rain falls to the ground, Mr. Cloud disappears too. Afterwards we realize that the two are inextricably intertwined. Again, I love the rich colors and how well he brings the characters alive, so that we understand what the two characters are feeling and thinking at every moment despite them not having any features other than a weird cyclops eye.
Next he made Buildings in 2008 as his graduation film. Again he chooses some interesting objects to bring alive - after clouds and water, this time buildings. It's hard to appreciate the film from the linked video, which is footage of the film being played to a live musical score, but it's clear that he gives each building a unique design and personality. The film tells the story of a single building that arrogantly towers above the rest but in the end saves the other buildings from a flood and reconciles with everyone by using his height to bring everyone together rather than towering above them. His films typically have rich animation and creative design work coupled with an incisive moral message or theme, be it about nurturing the living being that is our planet, about the interaction between clouds and water, or about getting along with others in society.
In April of this year, Tomoyoshi Joko formed the group Decovocal together with his partner Hiroco Ichinose (Decovocal web site, where you can see a photo of the adorable couple here). The two of them went to the same school and have been working together since Tomoyoshi Joko's very first film, Afro. As they mention on their site, the name Decovocal was devised by Taku Furukawa. It combines a number of ideas: It's a neologism from the word dekoboko 凸凹, which means uneven. The characters suggest a male-female duo. "Deco" plays on Art Deco. It evokes the notion of singing one's personality in animation with a loud, colorful voice.
Decovocal reminds me of another couple team making whimsical handmade animation - Uruma Delvi. Decovocal is close in spirit to the animators of Robot's Cage studio, creating art animation that's accessible and entertaining, soft and warm, creative visually and full of lush character animation. Decovocal has been very active doing commercial work, as witness the long list of commissions they've already accrued in their first year on their home page. These include a music video for Keiichi Suzuki and two episodes of the French Rita et Machin for NHK.
Hiroco Ichinose was born in 1985 and studied with Tomoyoshi Joko at the Tokyo Polytecnic. She has also been making short films since she started studying. First came A Sad Breakfast (2006), Ushinichi (2007) and Ha P (2008). All three won the best selection on NHK's Digital Stadium - no mean feat. Her latest films since graduating are YOKOHA-MAMAN (2009) and TWO TEA TWO (2010).
A Sad Breakfast tells the story of a dog eating breakfast while crying about a dead bird. Ha P seems to be about a couple who appear happy but in fact are in the grips of despair about not being able to have a child. They are drawn on different animation layers, so despite their closeness, an insurmountable distance separates them. Ushinichi is a bizarre slice-of-life about a group of characters filled with sardonic touches.
All of her films stand at the crossroads between happiness and grief, seeming to tell comical stories but actually being about pain and suffering. Stylistically, the influence of Taku Furukawa is much more obvious in Hiroco Ichinose's work than it is in Tomoyoshi Joko's work. She draws the same kind of spare stick figures with no backgrounds and little movement. Even the tone and storytelling style is similar. Her work also strikes me as having a sense of the surreal slightly reminiscent of Atsushi Wada's work.
What little is shown of her latest film TEA TWO TEA in her showreel (linked below) is quite impressive and shows a new level of stylistic achievement. You can see considerable improvement in each of these still young animator's successive films. Having accrued some experience now, you can see that they're both getting better technically as well as becoming more creatively flexible. Alone they make great films, but they also make a great team. They have a strong synergy. I look forward to seeing what Decovocal does in the future.
I rewatched the old video for Ayumi Hamasaki's Connected recently. What a peculiar video. The bizarre mechano-sexual imagery is amusing. I'm not imagining the homage to Akira, right? I was surprised to notice some of the animation was obviously by Shinya Ohira. I don't remember noticing that the first time I watched it, and I've never heard anyone mention this, so I thought I'd point it out. I haven't seen the credits, but it's one of those times when it seems pretty obvious just looking at it. It's a bizarre combination - this kind of crude CGI and somewhat generic anime-style designs, all of a sudden shifting to Ohira's animation. The faces of some of his shots appear to have been corrected, so it's not as obvious as it might have been, but some of them seem more 'pure'.
Also, note that I'll be out for the next two weeks on a little pre-holiday season vacation, so it will probably be quiet here. I'll be seeing Midori-ko and other movies this weekend in LA at the Animation Festival International. Looking forward to that. And the warm weather.
Jack and the Beanstalk (1974) is usually seen as Group Tac's starting point. But in fact their very first production was a film they made in 1973 about the history of insurance. It was commissioned by the Japan Institute of Life Insurance, an organization aimed at promoting understanding of life insurance among the general public.
Its title: Tasukeai no Rekishi: Seimei Hoken Monogarai or The History of Mutual Aid: The Story of Life Insurance.
This film has been one the more obscure items on Group Tac's filmography, but it's actually readily available. Not in a cheap consumer format, but educational institutions in Japan can borrow it from the JILI. Not being in Japan, I doubt I'll ever get to see it unless someone rips it, but the JILI has been kind enough to upload a short trailer for the film on their page for the video, and this is more than I ever expected to see. They also offer a free pamphlet version of the story, which they've made available in PDF format here.
The visuals of that clip were a surprise to me. I was expecting something pedestrian and boring for a commission about the history of life insurance, but it looks way more creative, lively and well-animated than I expected. It actually looks really entertaining(!). Some of the shots, like the shot of the horse-drawn carriage racing towards the screen at the beginning of the clip, are animated with an amazing degree of fluidity and detail. I actually thought I was watching the wrong clip for a second when I saw that shot. It wouldn't be out of place in an old Disney short. I know Disney made numerous educational shorts like this.
The film is filled with tons of creative design ideas, adopting a different look and visual scheme for each era of history covered. And it's not just the variety of designs that's impressive, it's the style. Some of the stylization has a very pleasant simplicity that reminds me simultaneously of mid-century UPA work and its Japanese descendants in the shorts of Tezuka and Hiroshi Manabe. Looking through the pamphlet, it's almost hard to believe all of the images in there are from the same film.
It looks like a great film from an animation and directing standpoint, so I would like to have the chance to see this sometime. It appears to be the classic definition of a lost masterpiece - almost unseen in the west for almost 40 years because of its subject matter, but actually one of the studio's best pieces. And now the studio is gone. It's so sad.
Staff-wise, the film was directed by Group Tac co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, but I don't know anything else, like the animators, except that Kyoko Kishida (Moomin and many Tadanari Okamoto films) is the narrator.
Gisaburo Sugii had directed the amazing Goku's Big Adventure for Mushi Pro in 1967. Gisaburo Sugii is an awesome director - one of the few uncontested geniuses in anime. He was one of the great minds of the early period of anime history. Goku still has not received the recognition it deserves as one of the most daring, smart, edgy, ahead-of-its-time anime productions ever. The same could be said about everything he touched back then - Dororo, Belladonna and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Thus, The History of Mutual Aid appears to be not just a lost Group Tac film but a lost Gisaburo Sugii masterpiece, as full of visual flair and inventiveness as his best work. All the more reason why it deserves to be re-discovered. It's a good companion piece to Jack and the Beanstalk - the bridge between his Mushi Pro and his Group Tac period.
The PDF pamphlet gives a good overview of the story of the 25-minute film, as well as providing a few more visuals from the film.
Love it or hate it, insurance is a necessary part of our lives. Auto insurance, health insurance, life insurance, fire insurance, home insurance, credit default swaps - the sheer variety of flavors of insurance we've managed to invent is astounding. Insurance has existed in some form or another since the beginning of organized society.
The film traces the history of insurance in human society. The very development of human society - moving from a nomadic to a farming lifestyle to ensure against starvation - is in itself a form of insurance against nature. Eventually, people began working together, and insurance evolved from informal means into organizations using concepts prefiguring our modern notions of premiums and policies. Guilds in the middle ages evolved through to the work of people like 18th century British mathematician James Dodson, one of the innovators of modern insurance, into the modern insurance industry.
What I want to know is when they invented the concept of the pre-existing condition. That's surely one of the great breakthroughs in the history of insurance - for the insurance industry. That's one thing about this film - it's one of those films that's a message film rather than an even-handed educational film made by a neutral third party, so immediately I'm suspicious. Insurance today is associated in the mind of many with usurious practices and trying to weasel out of paying claims, and I'd like to see a film that covers the negative aspects as well.
As a concept, it may be flawed, but beyond that, you can look at the film in terms of what Gisaburo Sugii and Group Tac were able to do within the confines they were given. It's not like it's war propaganda. For a film about the history of insurance, which could have been like watching paint dry, it looks like they made an incredibly fun and creative film that at the same time is educational, which is in itself quite impressive. You also do sense a bit of gentle irony in the images about the nature of what's happening - people essentially placing bets on whether you're going to die or not.
The company Sakura Eigasha is credited as producing the film. I suppose they must have been contracted, and they then sub-contracted actual production to Group Tac, the way they did with Shin-Ei's first production, Tenguri (1977). Interesting that the first productions by two of my favorite studios were contracted by Sakura Eigasha. On top of that, they were the co-producer of two of Tadanari Okamoto's best late-period films: Okonjoruri (1982) and The Restaurant of Many Orders (1990). They also produced Kihachiro Kawamoto's Book of the Dead (2006).
You can buy this film on VHS directly from Sakura Eigasha for the reasonable price of ¥45,000 ($550). I suppose it's meant for educational institutions. Sakura Eigasha were started in 1955 and were primarily occupied with producing educational documentaries about traditional Japanese arts and foreign cultures. In addition to this, they did animation films on occasion. A large proportion of these happen to be very good films, but by their nature, they've remained on the fringes of recognition.
I miss Group Tac, and it's films like this that are the reason.
The 11 Cats is a wonderful film - an exuberantly animated, colorful, imaginative, zany, witty, freewheeling adventure about a group of 11 cats out on an odyssey to find a giant fish for dinner.
For some baffling reason, this lovable and lovingly crafted film has fallen into complete obscurity, like several other great films from this era. It was never released on VHS or LD or any other consumer format. Thank the magic of the internet for bringing it back from the dead. (watch it here)
This is another film I never expected to see. But I'm glad I finally got the chance. It's the definition of a buried gem. It's hard to understand why it was so willfully neglected. Unlike many a film from 1980, this one doesn't show its age. Seen thirty years later, it still feels fresh and new. It's got a timeless sensibility and unique, universal design style. It's fun to watch from start to finish.
The 11 Cats was Group Tac's second movie, completed fully six years after their first, Jack and the Beanstalk. In my opinion, this is one of their best films alongside Jack and the Beanstalk (1974), Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985), Bonobono (1993), Spring and Chaos (1997) and A Stormy Night (2005). Alongside Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, these are the films that you should watch to get a sense of the unique style and sensibility of Group Tac.
The film was based on the first book in a long-running series of picture books about 11 cats who go on various adventures written/drawn by one Noboru Baba between 1968 and 1996. Group Tac even adapted the second book in the series, The 11 Cats and the Albatross, in 1986. The books are perennial best-sellers, so it's baffling that nobody thought to make these films available for viewing after their theatrical release. I'm sure there would have been continuous interest in these two animated adaptations of the books even if they weren't good films in their own right, which they are.
Though you wouldn't know it based on the anime that gets focused on by fans, there have been a lot of films of this kind produced over the years. Films that don't adhere to the anime aesthetic. It's heartwarming to think that this film was made smack in the midst of the anime boom. That's why I like Group Tac.
What is it that makes this film so delightful? It's partly the heavy use of music. It's kind of a musical anime. There's not so much a score as interludes. The narrative alternates between the story of the cats moving along on their journey towards the ocean to find the big fish and musical set pieces that showcase fun animated antics and creative visual flights of fancy.
For example, in one scene, the cats find an island of catnip. The cats all get high on catnip and don't want to leave. Their eyes look all drugged out, and the bizarre visuals - the cats flying around and hallucinating about flying whales - have the obvious undertone of an acid trip. Group Tac made another film a few years later called (ahem) Noel's Fantasic Trip. And let's not forget the trippy tone of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Sanrio Films had been making great films in this vein in the 1970s, with films like Little Jumbo and Joe and the Rose. Of course, Group Tac had themselves made a musical with Jack and the Beanstalk in the 1970s, but the inspiration of The 11 Cats seems to harken back to the same kind of freewheeling, colorful, psychedelic graphic style seen in The Yellow Submarine that was a clear inspiration for Little Jumbo. The 11 Cats has that same very hand-drawn style and overall focus on creative animation and eye-poppingly colorful storybook visuals, rather than on more typical character-based narrative storytelling like Jack and the Beanstalk. Group Tac kind of took over that role in the early 1980s for a short time with these films.
The art is really colorful and imaginative thanks to the work of Minoru Aoki, who also rendered services on the second installment six years later. His vivid, simple, beautiful backgrounds make the film look like a moving picture book. The oasis scene in particular has some of the film's most pleasing visuals, with the vibrant color schemes of the flowery jungle. The villages, meanwhile, are painted in a lovely and pleasing naif style that reminds a bit of the style of Night on the Galactic Railroad.
This film was actually novel technically in the sense that everything was done on cels. The backgrounds were painted on cels rather than on regular paper. That's what gives the film such a sense of visual unity. It's all the same flat colors as the original picture book. Minoru Aoki adapted himself brilliantly to this style, with its reduced color palette and solid colors.
The music itself isn't just any music, it's by Hitoshi Komuro, who was one of the lead figures behind the legendary folk-rock band Rokumonsen that was active in the early 70s and beyond in various configurations. Their song Ame ga Sora Kara Fureba (If Rain Falls from the Sky) (1970) was one of their big hits. Komuro's music has a great funky folk-rock vibe that goes a tremendous way to making the film's animated sequences so fun. I think it must have been Atsumi Tashiro who was behind this, both as the producer and the audio director of the film. Jack and the Beanstalk also had an outstanding, ripping soundtrack.
Atsumi Tashiro was creative in his role as audio director. In addition to doing great work with the music, he chose interesting people to voice-act the films. Jack had a host of unusual names in the voices, which he presumably either learned or first did while working on the Animerama films at Mushi Pro, which had a lot of strange ideas for casting and unexpected cameos. For example, novelists Endo Shusaku, Sakyo Komatsu and Yasutaka Tsutui have cameos in Cleopatra. One of the things that makes Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi so great is that Atsumi Tashiro came up with the idea to use only two voice-actors in every episode - Etsuko Ichihara and Fujio Tokita - and to let them improvise much of their dialogue rather than reading from a script.
The film has a unique sensibility overall that's hard to put your finger on. It's a combination of everything - unique cat characters, the lively animation, the good directing, the funky music, the vivid art, the smart script and natural voice-acting. The simple layouts and cartoonish visuals especially go a long way towards giving the films its character, with the reduced detail in the lines and especially no shadows.
I'm guessing the voices were recorded presco rather than afreco - i.e. before rather than after, as the dialogue sounds very different somehow from the usual anime voice-acting. The voice's impetus comes from the dialogue, not from the visuals. It sounds very different when you get an actor to play out a script using only his or her imagination than when they have to read the dialogue while watching the animation and make it fit. There's one voice I particularly like - Hiroko Maruyama. She played the boy Gon in Hajime Ningen Gyators. I can't get enough of her high-pitched, raspy, squealy voice. Every word she says puts a grin on my face.
I love the cat characters. They're just so fun to watch. The dynamic between the 11 cats is great. They usually get along, but occasionally they'll have fights. But when they go their separate ways, they can't get anything done. There's obviously a message buried in the story about sticking together to accomplish things.
I didn't like Noel's Fantastic Trip as much as this film because it feels kind of too kiddy and patsy. The 11 Cats doesn't feel like that at all. It's got a witty and wry sense of humor that makes it appealing to adult viewers. That's what I think is great about it - it's just naturally appealing to all ages. They didn't strive to bridge the divide or something.
The simple designs allow the animators to get into moving them. The very first shot of the film where the cop cat picks up the slips of paper in a flurry is great in that regard, though not much of the film is quite as lovingly animated as that first shot. But it's quite remarkable how much more animation they pack into this film than into most anime. The fun of the film is about watching the cat characters zoom around doing things.
It's a thoroughly animated film. There's always something fun going on with the animation from shot to shot, be it a gag or one of the cats doing some little thing off to the side different from everyone else. The scenes are creatively choreographed, and the different cat characters all have different expressions and behavior.
I assume it's Teruto Kamiguchi we have to thank for the good feeling of this film's animation. It's very much in his style - highly movemented and fun simple character animation. He doesn't get much recognition, but I think he was one of the cooler animators of the 1970s, with a really unique style not too influenced by most of the typical things that influenced other industry animators - robots, big-eyed shoujos or what not. His animation feels much more influenced by cartoons, if anything.
Kamiguchi is credited as the "chief animator" rather than as the animation director, which would seem to suggest that his role wasn't correcting the drawings but rather guiding the animators spiritually in his own very unique approach to animation. And clearly it worked, because the whole film feels infused of his sensibility towards movement.
I'm not familiar with many of the animators, but presumably they were Tac people. For example, Group Tac's Iga no Kabamaru from 1983-84 had character design by Akio Hosotani, and the opening was animated by Tameo Kohanawa and Takamitsu Yukawa. Tameo Kohanawa directed the second 11 Cats film for Group Tac. Eguchi Marisuke and Jiro Saruyama both worked on Night on the Galactic Railroad. Many of the other animators worked on Noel's Fantastic Trip in 1983. Hideo Kawauchi and Michishiro Yamada, meanwhile, were both Ajia-Do animators.
Takamitsu Yukawa is an interesting case. I've known him as the guy who helped animate indie animator Taku Furuyama's films. It turns out he was one of the leaders of the legendary animation group Anido, and the one who came up with the idea for their seminal animation magazine Film 1/24. He also ran his own group called Flafra. I don't know whether he was an employee of Tac, but he appears to have been a regular on their productions. He storyboarded and animated the stork catcher scene in Night on the Galactic Railroad, and was even one of the "special animators" in Spring and Chaos.
All of the main staff were Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regulars. And not coincidentally, all of them worked at Mushi Pro before transferring to Group Tac after Mushi Pro went out of business. Atsumi Tashiro had worked on all of the same Mushi Pro shows. Thus, from a staff perspective, like Gon, the Little Fox, The 11 Cats is another theatrical companion-piece to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.
Director Shiro Fujimoto was born in 1942. He joined Mushi Pro in 1965, and worked on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi from 1976 to 1982. After this he left animation to focus on painting and picture books, which had been his real passion all along. In addition, for many years now, he has been travelling around the world painting the landscapes he finds in different countries and holding exhibitions of his work in Japan. Apparently he confided in someone at a later date that he had done directing on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi against his will and really wanted to be doing art. Which is ironic, because the episodes he directed are among the best in the show, and helped define the show's spirit.
During his Mushi Pro days, Shiro Fujimoto was the art director of Goku no Daiboken (1967), directed by Gisaburo Sugii just one year before Sugii co-founded Group Tac with Atsumi Tashiro. He was the layout man on Ribon no Kishi (1967), which featured Teruto Kamiguchi as the animation director - one of their earliest collaborations. At Group Tac, one of the fist things Shiro Fujimoto did was to act as one of the art directors of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Chief animator Teruto Kamiguchi began his career in animation as an inbetweener on Toei Doga's third feature film Journey to the West (1960). He continued working as an inbetweener on Toei Doga's first TV anime Wolf Boy Ken (1963).
He soon left to join Mushi Pro. While there, he was the animation director of Ribon no Kishi (1967) and Dororo (1967). He was an animator in the first two Animerama films, 1001 Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). In Cleopatra he did a great job animating the character Lupa. Lupa was a scene-stealer right from his first appearance. I love the gag where his spots fall off later on in the boat. You don't see cartoonish gags like that very often in anime. His animation was so much looser and freer and more imaginative and playful than any of his peers. He was clearly one of the most talented animators of that generation in Japan.
He soon moved to Group Tac, where he animated the giant Tulip in Jack and the Beanstalk (1974). Tulip is a great character, doltish yet menacing, and you can see a lot of the very same kind of playful, imaginative, flexible character animation that made Lupa so fun in the animation of the giant, particularly the funny climactic chase.
Both Teruto Kamiguchi and Shiro Fujimoto were very active on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi as soon as it started in 1975. Kamiguchi was probably one of the show's most prolific animators. He animated and/or directed more than 100 episodes. (some of Teruto Kamiguchi's episodes) His episodes also happen to be among the ones that move the most. A lot of the show's episodes are quite still, but his are incredibly fluid and have fun action sequences. The Three Charms is a good example of his more movemented style of animation. The designs are great, too. This episode was directed by Gisaburo Sugii and features art by Minoru Aoki, the art director of The 11 Cats. Minoru Aoki also was a prolific contributor to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. He did well over 100 episodes. (some of Minoru Aoki's episodes)
Shiro Fujimoto did a more diverse array of things on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi than most people. He mixed it up, doing directing sometimes, art sometimes, both sometimes, and even animating a bit. (some of Shiro Fujimoto's episodes) For some reason he also used the pen name Shiro Marufu on some episodes. Shiro Fujimoto worked with Teruto Kamiguchi and Minoru Aoki at various times on different episodes.
A second film adapting the second book in Baba Noboru's picture book series was released by Group Tac in 1986. I haven't seen it, but judging by the opening and ending, it's fairly different in animation tone, albeit subtly so. I assume the difference is because Night on the Galactic Ralroad and Stormy Night designer Marisuke Eguchi was at the head of the animators this time around.
The 11 Cats (1980, 83 mins)
Based on the 1967 picture book of the same name by Baba Noboru
Produced by Group Tac
Director: Shiro Fujimoto
Animation Director: Tsuneo Maeda
Music: Hitoshi Komuro
Art Director: Minoru Aoki
Title Design: Takao Kodama
Audio Director: Atsumi Tashiro
Chief Animator: Teruto Kamiguchi
The 11 Cats and the Albatross (1986, 90 min)
Based on the 1972 picture book of the same name by Baba Noboru
Produced by Group Tac
Director: Tameo Kohanawa
Animation: Marisuke Eguchi
Script: Yoshitake Suzuki
Art Director: Minoru Aoki
Music: Hideki Shinozaki
Inbetween check: Jiro Saruyama
Yoshiyuki Momose's new piece, Piece, was finished earlier this year, but I just now saw it for the first time. It's a nice film, but more low-key than his Capsule trilogy. This one is set in the real world and not a dayglo retro future. Visually it's just as rich as the previous films, though it's more Ghibli feeling. It purveys a very Ghibli kind of sunny vibe.
I prefer what he did in the trilogy, as each of those films was a perfect little gem of electricity, colors and speed, creative design work, superb animation and exuberant wordless storytelling. But Piece is definitely a high-quality film with just as much attention to detail as the previous shorts. It has that same visual density, with the bright, washed out color scheme, simple retro designs, fashionable sensibility, lush character animation and chippy atmosphere.
It's the real world, but it feels like a fantasy land, with people zig-zagging everywhere leaving magical trails in their wake. It's a warm, colorful, optimistic, happy version of the real world. For some reason Yoshiyuki Momose's recent work, including Piece, reminds me of the atmosphere of Fumiko Takano's manga Ruki-san in this respect - the girl character has the same happy-go-lucky optimism, and is designed in a similar stylish retro way.
The camera swirls around in a masterful combination of hand-drawn and CG. It's a simple story about a girl who breaks a heel but also a creative visualisation of love as a string that trails behind wherever we go. (Ivan Maximov had a more sardonic take on the ties that bind us in the wonderful Strings)
I wonder what happened to Studio Cajino? They're no longer credited as they were in the capsule trilogy. Instead this is simply a Ghibli production.
The animation is backed up by a strong team, as usual. Momose always assembles an incredible team for his shorts. This time it's only three people, but each of them is an incredible animator: Takeshi Honda, Hideki Hamasu and Osamu Tanabe. They were each involved in almost every episode of the trilogy. (only Tanabe was missing in the last one - see the credits for the trilogy here for comparison)
To continue on the same theme, here's another fox movie: Chironuppu no Kitsune or The Fox of Chironup, released in August 1987. (watch here)
This one is actually a bona fide Group Tac production, supervised by Tsuneo Maeda (animation director of Night on the Galactic Railroad) and featuring Group Tac president Atsumi Tashiro as the audio director. It was directed by Tetsuo Imazawa of Studio Junio.
The story takes place in the Kuril islands north of Hokkaido, specifically on the island of Urup, which in the movie has been renamed to Chironup. (Chironup in Ainu means Fox Island)
(Spoilers in this paragraph) Set during W.W. II, Chironup tells the story of a pair of foxes with a litter of two pups. One of the playful baby foxes gets estranged from its parents. An old couple praying in front of an old Jizo statue near their hut discover the little guy, and take him in out of pity. They tie a red bow with a bell around its neck to keep track of him. After a storm destroys the couple's home, the little fox gets reunited with its family. But soon, the outside world intrudes. Japanese soldiers in search of fox pelts land on the island. They shoot and kill the father fox and one of the babies. The baby fox with the bell gets caught in a trap. The mother fox stays by its side trying to free it, to no avail. The next spring, the old couple are wandering through the forest when, in a flower patch, they run across a trap. Next to the trap is all that's left of the little fox - a red collar with a bell.
The story was inspired by an event in the life of the author of the novel on which the film is based. The author, Hiroyuki Takahashi, visited the island of Urup in the spring of 1944. He ran across traps in the woods set by poachers. One of these had the tiny skeleton of a baby fox in its clutches. This novel was his way of voicing his anger at the practice of trapping.
This film is a good contrast with Gongitsune. Where Gon was stylized, whimsical and quirky, this film is much more realistic. The tone is grounded and the directing is naturalistic. The film feels much more like the a typical realistic animated film for children about serious subject matter like Who's Left Behind (Ushiro no Shomen Daare).
The film is much heavier than Gon - it tries to move its audiences with the relentlessly depressing and bleak story. Which is why it's ironic that I find Chironup to be far inferior to Gon from both an animation and filmmaking perspective. The story is indeed quite sad and heartbreaking, but only at a surface level. The directing is bland, lacks nuance, and has little to appeal to adults or animation fans. It feels too lightweight for the denouement to have real impact. To truly tap the emotions, good artistry is a must, and that's lacking in this film.
I like the idea of realistic, down-to-earth animation like this. My problem is that the directing is very weak. The designs are cute in a bland and blatantly audience-coddling kind of way that I don't like. They give the mother fox long eyelashes to distinguish her sex. The eyes of the foxes are as big and round. Nothing in the design creatively renders the distinguishing features of a fox. The humans are the same. The have these beady round eyes and plain features that simply aren't very interesting or communicative, just obviously there to be cute looking.
The way I see it, if you're going to do a realistic anime, you have to have the guts to go as far as Isao Takahata did, or there is no point. You have to be assiduous with the realism of the details. You have to make the acting and the designs realistic and believable. None of that is done in this film. They go only as far in the direction of realism as is convenient, which really isn't very far. So the film doesn't hold up from an adult perspective. It's clearly kids' fare. Gon is also kids' fare, but it holds up really well because it's actually interesting as animation. It's not about whether it's kids' fare or not - it's about whether it's good artistry.
Despite it shortcomings, I kind of like the film. Or I want to like it. At the very least, it's a welcome change from conventional manga-based anime material and styling. In that sense it's a breath of fresh air. It's a gentle, warm film with a good heart. It's entirely based in the natural world, observing the actual way that foxes live in nature. Being naturalistic is one of the hardest things to do in animation because the details are familiar to us all and it's easy to notice any inaccuracies. Most of all, the story is heartbreaking, as intended.
Though this was a Group Tac film, the actual production seems to have been largely handled by Takao Kosai's Studio Junio. Director Tetsuo Imazawa, character designer/animation director Fukuo Yamamoto, co-animation director Hiroshi Azuma and assistant animation director Keiko Imazawa were all at Studio Junio, as were some of the animators.
I mentioned Studio Junio in the past in the articles on A Pro and Hajime Ningen Gyators, and Toshiyuki Inoue talks a bit about how things worked at Studio Junio in an interview I translated. (part 1 and part 2).
Like Group Tac, Studio Junio had a regrettable downfall. After a scandal in 1999 in which they were unable to complete the animation for the movie Gundress on time and the film was released in a half-complete state, they took a hit from damage claims. Takao Kosai gradually disbanded his staff, changed the studio's name to Junio Brain Trust, and the studio ceased operations in 2000. Junio Brain Trust manages the rights to the studio's past work.
Several splinter studios were formed by ex staff. Kanbe Mamoru co-founded Studio GaRan in 1997. Minoru Okazaki, Hiroshi Azuma and Minoru Maeda founded Synergy SP in 1998. Tetsuya Hayazaka founded Studio Flag in 1999.
In its heyday, Junio did a lot of nice work. In the 1970s, they were a subcontractor primarily for Toei Doga and Tokyo Movie, working on shows like Ikkyu-san, Mazinger Z, Majokko Megu-chan, Majokko Limit-chan, Babel II and The White Whale of Mu. This is when Takao Kosai did the work I remember him best for - Tokyo Movie's Hajime Ningen Gyators. In the 1980s, they did subcontract work mainly for Toei Doga, Group Tac and Tokyo Movie on shows like Iron Man 28, Dr. Slump, Stop!! Hibari-kun, Dragonball, Dragonball Z, Nine, Touch and Hiatari Ryoko.
Animators associated with Studio Junio over the years include Minoru Maeda, Ginichiro Suzuki, Toshiyuki Inoue, Osamu Horiuchi and Katsumi Matsuda.
The name that jumps out at you in the animator credits of Chironup is Toshiyuki Inoue. He was just another animator back then. It was at Studio Junio that Toshiyuki Inoue learned the ropes. People first became aware of him for the good work he did on Toei Doga's Gu-Gu Ganmo TV series and movie in 1985, which he worked on from Studio Junio.
The animation of Chironup is pretty bland for the most part, but two scenes immediately impressed me for their animation when I watched the film, so I'm suspecting these might have been by Toshiyuki Inoue.
The first scene is the storm scene, which you can see here. The contrast is pretty jarring. It's like the movie suddenly becomes ultra-realistic. The waves are rendered in considerable detail, and with a good feeling for the dynamics of water. I suspect Inoue must have studied Yoichi Kotabe's waves in Animal Treasure Island. It reminds me a bit of the water Toshiyuki Inoue did for Satoru Utsunomiya's Peek the Whale, although he was much better by the time of Peek. There are two more shots of the ocean a little bit later in the film (here) that look similar. The spray has an incredible feeling to the timing. I assume he must have done this too.
The second scene is the scene where the owl attacks the foxes, which you can see here. I'm not as sure this was done by Toshiyuki Inoue, but all I know is that it's amazingly realistic. For a movie about wild foxes, I was mostly disappointed at the movement of the foxes. It isn't that realistic or well done. Only in this scene does it really feel like you're seeing how a wild animal would move. The owl's pose as he attacks the foxes is amazingly well observed. It feels like the animator based their footage on reference video of owls.
I don't think all of the animators in the credits are Junio people. Jushi Mizumura and Takashi Saijo are from Tama Pro, but I'm not sure about the others. Takeo Kitahara, Yoshiji Kigami, Yoshiyuki Hane and Yoshiyuki Momose are all well-known talented animators.
The Fox of Chironup (1987, 72 minutes)
Produced by Group Tac
Directed by Tetsuo Imazawa
Supervisor: Tsuneo Maeda
Script: Zenzo Matsuyama
Character Design: Fukuo Yamamoto
Animation directors: Fukuo Yamamoto, Hiroshi Azuma
Assistant animation directors: Keiko Imazawa, Kiyoshi Matsumoto
Production Assistance: Studio Junio, Takao Kosai