Japanese Animation, 1937-1958: or, more notes on Akira Daikuhara

The origin and core of this piece is my personal interest in Daikuhara, but it will not be  another biographical piece like my previous one. I will rather explore the area which I wrote the least about last time: Daikuhara’s pre-Tôei work. More generally, this will therefore be an exploration of Japanese animation production from the time of the Sino-Japanese War to Tôei’s first animated feature film, The White Serpent - that is, an exploration of roughly two decades of animation in Japan, from 1937 to 1958.

The World Masterpiece Theater as a “production model”

What is it that makes Japanese animation unique? What is it that makes it stand out from other traditions of animation, such as animation as it is or was practiced and made in the United States, Western or Easter Europe, other great countries or regions with a long and rich animation history? Many answers have been offered to this complex question, but for me, one of the most appealing is the one arguing that commercial Japanese animation, or anime, has a specific “production model”. By that, I meant that anime is made, sold and distributed according to specific methods that differ from how animation is made, sold and distributed in other parts of the world. However, when one investigates anime history more deeply, this answer quickly seems overly simplistic: indeed, there is no singular “anime production model” which has existed since the 1950s and has stayed the same until today. Some elements have remained the same, but there are just as many variations. There is not one, but many production models which have coexisted through time. 

Experiencing the elsewhere in Hayao Miyazaki’s films

This article, centered on Hayao Miyazaki’s narratives, intends to highlight that his films are strongly structured around the themes of the hero's uprooting and his opening to the world. Miyazaki's work can be approached as a systematic exploration of the different modes of relationship to the elsewhere. Animation gives full scope to this analytical dimension of his work: "the ontological unreality of animation" makes it easier to put the problem of "real" reference (of the concrete geographical inspirations of the universes presented) in the background, in favor of the exposition of archetypal situations with a universal scope. What specific content does Miyazaki give to this idea of “elsewhere” and what role does it play in his narratives?

Birth: a complete chronology

Birth is an infamous name in Yoshinori Kanada’s career: often considered to be one of the animator’s most personal projects, it is also criticized for its confusing plot and believed to have been both a critical and commercial failure. Kanada himself recognized these faults, and Birth’s failure no doubt represented a turning point in his career. However, there is something about Birth that most fans today fail to realize: that is Kanada’s actual level of involvement in the project. Indeed, Birth is not just a single, 80-minutes OVA that came out in 1984. Before that, it had been a picture book, a manga and a TV series project, as well as the source of multiple illustrations published across various media.

The early days of Kaname Pro

Studio Kaname Production is most famous for its OVA works, such as Birth and Genmu Senki Leda, which seem to embody the early years of the so-called “OVA boom”. However, by 1984, the studio was already famous among Japanese otaku audiences for at least one other thing: the time it had spent subcontracting animation on other studios’ productions. Like many other bigger studios, Kaname would keep doing this during its entire existence, as it was the best way to keep employees busy and money flowing in, something particularly important for a company that was on the brink of bankruptcy during all its existence. While Kaname’s subcontracting activity in the mid-80s is very much worthy of attention, I will only focus on the studio’s earliest works here, as I am mostly interested in the way Kaname built its own “style” and identity. This means covering 3 very different series, all of which started coming out in 1982: Sunrise’s Combat Mecha Xabungle, Kokusai Eigasha’s Makyô Densetsu Acrobunch, and Tsuchida Production’s Sasuga no Sarutobi.

Ashi Production and the Pers-kun movement

Following 1979’s Galaxy Express 999, Yoshinori Kanada had become one of the top animators in Japan and would go on to be an inspiring figure for many of the artists that emerged throughout the following decade. The early 80s especially witnessed what industry members at the time called a sudden “Pers-kun movement” - “Pers” being short for “Kanada Perspective”, and “Pers-kun” the (slightly derogatory) term to indicate young animators who wanted to imitate their idol Kanada. The large-scale effect of this “movement” was to make Kanada-style animation one of the defining traits of 80s anime. But if we look closer, it was anything but a given: Kanada himself had to establish a reputation and contacts, while old and new animators alike did not immediately adopt the new trend. The goal of this article will precisely be to retrace through what channels Kanada’s style exported itself outside of the animator’s immediate circle of students, and in particular in one studio: Ashi Production.

Notes on Takahata & Miyazaki

The previous article on this blog, dedicated to Anne of Green Gables, contains a detailed discussion of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki’s respective artistic evolutions between 1976 and 1979. I originally planned to extend it with a digression on the wider differences between two men’s styles. But this would have gone slightly off-topic and made the article far too long (as if it weren’t already), so I decided to include it in a separate piece - this one. It contains some more remarks about Anne of Green Gables, but also about Takahata and Miyazaki’s work in Ghibli. It may be a bit messy, as I’ve taken the opportunity to write this in a more spontaneous way; I hope you don’t mind and still appreciate this piece.

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables is one of the most popular works in the World Masterpiece Theater series, both in Japan and in the English-speaking sphere. According to many of those who have seen it, it may even qualify for the title of best anime of all time. It also represents a historical turning point: it is the first entry in the time slot that was now officially called “World Masterpiece Theater”, instead of “Calpis Children’s Theater” (1975-1977) or “Calpis Family Theater” (1978). And yet, it is perhaps the most imperfect among Isao Takahata’s three shows for Zuiyo Video/Nippon Animation, and by far one of the most difficult productions that the director, studio and all the artists involved had known. This latter, darker aspect of Anne appears to be at best underdiscussed, or at worst completely unknown, in English-speaking circles. While providing a detailed commentary and analysis of the show as well as its place in anime history and Isao Takahata’s career, this article also aims to raise awareness and shed light on those somber moments.