February 16th, 2018 marked what would have been the 80th birthday of the late but great Japanese animator Toshio Hirata, and today marks four years since his death. To commemorate these occasions, I’d like to discuss several of his most personal films as a director, all of which are quite different from one another yet showcase his unique sensibility, and his development as a filmmaker over the course of these films.
Unico: Black Cloud, White Feather / ユニコ黒い雲と白い羽 (1979)
In the late 70s, Hirata was one of the ex-Mushi Pro talents gathered at Sanrio Films, founded by Sanrio president Shintarō Tsuji to fulfill his quixotic dream of creating fully-animated, Disney-styled films in the anime industry that would reach American audiences; he had arrived as part of the contingent of animators who had played such a large role in Gisaburō Sugii‘s trippy, contemporary musical take on Jack and the Beanstalk at Group TAC in 1974. Hirata served as co-director alongside Takashi Yanase, who had won a Noburō Ōfuji Award for adapting his story The Kindly Lion at Mushi Pro and was now the founder and editor of Sanrio’s Poem and Märchen magazine, and fellow Mushi Pro expat Masami Hata on Sanrio’s first film Little Jumbo in 1975, and from there Yanase and Hata respectively directed Rose and Joe and Ringing Bell, with Hirata serving as a key animator on both; all three films were based on stories Yanase published in PHP magazine over the course of 1969 which were anthologized the following year as 12 Pearls (the name of the final story, and a symbolic title given there were twelve stories in total) by the Yamanashi Silk Company, the predecessor to Sanrio. It wasn’t long before Hirata was given the chance to direct his own film at the studio, having previously served as an episode director on a number of Mushi Pro shows and then undergone a four-year period as a commercial animator—the featurette intended as his directorial debut, of course, was based on another Sanrio property developed by a prominent artist.
Unico was created by the legendary Osamu Tezuka as a part of Sanrio’s efforts to revolutionize the comics world—again, with hopes of expanding into the American market—and partly in response to their ambitions in animation; he had agreed to create a new work for Sanrio’s lavish shoujo magazine Lyrica, the only stipulation being that the main character was an animal. Soon, while visiting the Los Angeles animation studio Sanrio had set up to produce their ultimately-disastrous Metamorphoses, he was inspired to sketch out a little unicorn, whom he christened Unico on his flight back to Japan. (Fred Patten has discussed his experiences with Sanrio’s attempt to bring Lyrica to America and the troubled production of Metamorphoses here; as a correction, though, the Takashi responsible for directing the film was emphatically not Yanase but the Japanese-American designer Takashi Masunaga, as sequence director Jerry Eisenberg recounts here.)
The Unico featurette, created as a pilot in preparation for a full-length feature, was based on the fifth chapter of Tezuka’s manga, “Black Rain and a White Feather” (黒い雨と白い羽), serialized in the June, August, and September 1978 issues of Lyrica. In that regard, the film can be considered a revival of the Mushi Pro era, down to much of the same staff: Hirata was mentored in part by Eiichi Yamamoto, the old studio’s most prominent director, and key animators Shigeru Yamamoto, Mikiharu Akabori, and Masami Hata, animator Sadao Miyamoto, sound designer Mitsuru Kashiwabara, and producer and audio director Susumu Aketagawa had all played major roles in the studio’s TV shows and films at some point or another. In stark contrast to Mushi Pro’s pioneering of limited animation on a wide scale, however, the new film reflected Sanrio Films’ drive towards lavish artistry that could potentially live up to the standards of the classic Disney features.
Unico presages several elements that would become integral to Hirata’s directorial approach in the following years. It does not have the collaborative creative smorgasbord of Little Jumbo, the delicately poetic sensibility of Rose and Joe, or the epic ambition and grandeur of Ringing Bell: what it does have, however, is solid, stirring animated filmmaking executed with finesse by talented artists reaching the height of their powers, boasting a well-integrated musical structure, painstakingly-crafted visuals, and dynamic set pieces that showcase the two beautifully. In particular, the character animation, supervised by Shigeru Yamamoto and Masami Hata, is fluid and expressive in a manner almost reminiscent of Disney, but without the cold, self-indulgent artificiality that Disney’s character animation had largely succumbed to at this point; attention is paid to even the most subtle movements and actions to make the characters seem that much more real.
Unico (voiced by child actor Hiroya Oka) makes a nice progression: his introduction as a silent, downtrodden forager who occasionally stumbles and stops to examine his surroundings implies early on that he has lost any idea of who he is beyond the fact that he is hungry and lonely. His sense of compassion and resultant powers are first revealed when he regrets eating some of the starving mice children’s food, inadvertently conjuring up a large cupcake for the mice in turn; his disbelief at the sight, followed by the comic manner in which he taps his head and shakes it as if trying to get rid of a hallucination, establishes perfectly his initial obliviousness to his own identity. Through the love that the sickly little girl Chico (voiced by Minori Matsushima, who had played young Chirin in Ringing Bell) shows him, Unico is eventually able to undergo full-fledged transformations for the sake of Chico’s happiness—by the time he sets out to destroy the smoke-spewing, self-controlling factory (Junpei Takiguchi) that has turned the town into a polluted wasteland, he knows full well what he is doing as he determinedly takes on different forms, a sudden yet believable change from his previous astonishment at his powers. In the end, though, Unico reverts to his initial sad, plodding manner as Zephyrus (voiced by the great actress Kyōko Kishida, whose other animation roles at this time included several Tadanari Okamoto films and Group TAC’s Manga Kodomo Bunko), servant of the vain and jealous Venus who wishes to make Unico’s beautiful former master Psyche unhappy, whisks him away to another barren wasteland and once again wipes his memory.
The animation of the father mouse (Kaneta Kimotsuki), Unico’s first new friend, is pure Yamamoto, carrying a squashy-stretchy bounciness and spontaneity that adds to his outspoken, world-wise yet warm attitude; he serves as a ideal companion to Unico over the course of the film, not to mention a keen observer of the events around him, in a manner similar to that of classic Disney characters Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and Timothy Mouse in Dumbo. Chico’s grandfather (Ichirō Arishima), who may have been handled by Hata, is clearly a frail old man in how he subtly staggers even when he is otherwise still, yet his deep concern for Chico and the town comes through in his overt, expressive gesturing even in spite of his infirmity. It is also apparent in a brief humorous moment after Unico has just destroyed the factory—as he runs into the house to tell Chico the sky is out, he slips and falls in his over-excitement. Chico, of course, is bedridden and ill for most of the film, and her movement is often stilted and awkward, but this sets the stage for the film’s most poignant animation when she recovers thanks to Unico’s final gift of a magical bouquet of flowers: her joyous prancing about is a striking contrast to her previously ailing, pallid demeanor, and, accompanied by the celebratory leaping of the father mouse and his children, easily one of the film’s defining moments.
Mikiharu Akabori, as Sanrio’s effects animator, was responsible for the black clouds spewed by the evil factory, which appropriately have an uncannily metamorphic, almost living quality as they pour out from the smoke stacks and spread throughout the sky, swirling around and smothering anyone who tries to get in their way. He may have also supervised the animation of Zephyrus, whose transcendent status is evident through her unchanging serene expression and her limitless, unceasingly wind-blown body and robes; her loyalty to Venus does not preclude sympathy for Unico and his actions, however, and indeed she is the one who conjures up the bouquet of flowers that allows Unico to restore Chico’s health. Yukio Abe’s art direction brings a lush, soft storybook aesthetic to the film, complete with atmospheric shadows and bold color styling such that even the most run-down and dirty settings are beautiful to look at; the top-billed background painter was Yamako Ishikawa, who would become a frequent collaborator with Hirata in the years to come.
In contrast to the earlier Sanrio films, which featured memorable but largely orchestral scores by Taku Izumi and Naohiko Terashima, Unico features a contemporary synthesized rock soundtrack scored by Yukihide Takekawa and Mickey Yoshino, performed by their popular band Godiego in collaboration with the New Room Music Society, and sung by Katsumi Kahashi (formerly of the band The Tigers); the lyrics were penned by Akira Itō and famed casting agent and director Yōko Narahashi, the latter a regular Godiego lyricist at the time. (Around the same time, Godiego was performing the songs for another Sanrio film, namely the off-kilter live-action documentary The Glacier Fox by ex-Japanese New Wave director Koreyoshi Kurahara.) Far from being dated, though, the music works perfectly within the film’s Tezuka-inspired world, bringing the film vaguely futuristic and slightly surreal undertones—much of it also possesses a melancholy quality, forming a large part of the film’s emotional core.
Indeed, it is the two big musical sequences, with visual ideas that likely originated from Hirata himself, that encapsulate the film’s themes and emotions; both unsurprisingly involve Unico’s ability to transform, yet go in distinct directions. In the first, Unico transforms into a large unicorn in response to Chico’s wish to run free with Unico; as he flies Chico across the town, he bursts through the black clouds, with live-action photography of the bright daylight revealing itself making the elation of the moment particularly palpable, and finally they ride throughout the white-clouded blue sky above them. The accompanying ballad asks Unico what he sees beyond the horizon, and then implores him to fly as far as his wings can take him; even as it grows triumphant with the arrival of daylight, Kahashi’s impassioned singing and Godiego’s music nevertheless have a sense of sadness, as though the moment cannot last forever. The sequence captures the sheer joy of being freed from the burdens and misfortunes imposed upon you, but also the tragedy of how such moments come rarely and last all too briefly, such that it is important to make the most of them—indeed, it is just as the sequence ends that Zephyrus arrives in a bid to recapture Unico, and the black clouds’ wicked nature is fully revealed.
The second sequence involves Unico flying over to the factory in a tiny fly-winged form and then turning his horn into a long drill, enabling him to systematically destroy the factory by flooding it with the polluted waters it has created and then methodically bursting holes through its smokestacks to cause a total collapse; in some particularly unique visual schemes, Unico is shown tunneling labyrinthine paths through a blank screen (representing the underground) for the dirty water to eventually reach the factory grounds above, and afterwards the water is shown shooting out like a geyser. The song is an upbeat, catchy call to action, framing the conflict with the factory as an urgent us-against-them, life-or-death struggle—it establishes that trying to improve or save others’ lives often means taking down an oppressive status quo.
The drama in the film is never overplayed or ham-fisted: when Unico is carried off by Zephyrus towards the end, what could have been a histrionic, manipulatively tear-jerking moment is handled almost matter-of-factly, with the now-healthy Chico calling out for Unico without realizing she has lost her new friend and the father mouse reminiscing that Unico was a good kid. What matters is not that Unico is gone, but that he saved Chico and the town while he was around.
Unico remains a well-balanced, well-crafted animated film, where every element works and not a single scene is wasted. Even so, when asked by Yūichirō Oguro about the film in 2002, Hirata declined to comment in any significant detail, considering it a product of youthful indiscretion: he felt that his handling of the pollution theme was too straightforward and heavy-handed. The unequivocally evil portrayal of the factory was actually a change from Tezuka’s original story, in which the factory spewed out smoke because he fell in love with Chico and wanted to force the villagers to bring her to him; such a change, while lacking in nuance, does make the film’s story a tad grittier and earthier than the original, symbolizing as it does the fear that unchecked industrial development will destroy humanity, and functions well within the film’s short runtime. In fact, the more sympathetic factory was not the only plot element from the manga to be sacrificed in the name of economy: surviving cels indicate that a portion of Unico’s backstory, involving Venus sending her son Eros to make Psyche fall in love with an ugly suitor (which backfires when Eros himself falls for Psyche), had been fully animated and colored only to be axed from the final film.
Completed in April 1979 and screened shortly afterwards at a Tezuka fan convention (alongside much earlier, made-for-TV pilots of Tezuka’s works Norman and 0 Man), the Unico pilot film served its function well; by the end of the year, Hirata had long since departed for Madhouse, where he was well into production on a feature-length Unico film that was released in early 1981. Dubbed in English as The Fantastic Adventures of Unico, it is undoubtedly the better-known of Hirata’s two Unico films, but aside from a stellar musical sequence over a third of the way into the film in which Hirata worked with the aforementioned Yamako Ishikawa and master animator Manabu Ōhashi—who would also regularly collaborate with Hirata in the ensuing years—as well as a climactic giant monster battle animated by eventual director Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust), it does not live up to the production values of the pilot and suffers from a long-winded, disorganized story cobbled together by veteran screenwriter Masaki Tsuji from at least two different chapters of the original manga.
The Madhouse film is nevertheless historically significant for quite a few reasons. It featured songs and narration by the children’s entertainer Iruka, who at this time was the main creative force behind two weird kids’ films at Group TAC (the 1980 Christmas special Jeremy’s Tree and the 1983 feature film Noel’s Fantastic Trip); the music was by Masahiko Satō (previously responsible for the psychedelic rock score of Mushi Pro’s swan song and cult classic Belladonna of Sadness), who was similarly involved with those two TAC films. More pertinently, the film was the art directorial debut of the legendary Kazuo Oga, with his mentor, the venerable Shichirō Kobayashi, serving as his top-billed background artist; it was also one of animation director Akio Sugino’s final projects before he left Madhouse with Osamu Dezaki to co-found Studio Annapuru, from which they made Ashita no Joe 2 (on which Oga also served as art director).
It is possible that this Unico was shoved through the production pipeline and then held back from release for a whole year (perhaps by Sanrio’s own dissatisfaction with the film?), such that Joe 2 actually began airing months before Unico’s March 14, 1981 release. Ōhashi claims he did his sequence for the film in 1979, and, more remarkably, a then-art student and Dezaki fan named Kōji Morimoto spoke of going through an entrance exam to Madhouse around September 1979, when (by his own claim) the film was already almost finished, that involved adding more drawings to the scene in which Unico bangs on the villainous Baron’s organ—his work may have made it into the final film, as Morimoto is indeed credited as an inbetweener, making it the beginning of his storied career. To top it off, at the same time Madhouse was also producing the 1979 Ace wo Nerae! film and a 1980 TV film based on Botchan (featuring character designs by cartoonist Monkey Punch of Lupin III fame as well as Morimoto’s earliest on-screen credit) for TMS, both of which involved Akio Sugino, and the toll that was taken on Unico‘s quality in order to finish it quickly despite the studio being stretched thin is evident in the unusually high number of inbetweeners involved (52; Ace may have suffered similarly, as evidenced by its whopping 65 inbetweeners, but turned out magnificent thanks to Dezaki’s eccentric, stylishly dramatic direction).
The pilot, meanwhile, was buried for years until it was released direct-to-video about a decade later, finally giving the earlier hard work of Hirata and his team at Sanrio Films the public exposure it deserved.
A Little Love Story / 小さな恋のものがたり (1984)
Hirata had moonlit on a few Madhouse projects during his time at Sanrio, most notably as an episode director for their work on DAX’s Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi in its first year, using the pseudonyms Toshiyuki Hiraoka (平岡敏之) and Sumiko Chiba (千葉すみこ), the latter an in-joke based on how Hirata lived in Chiba at the time. Now a key staffer at Madhouse, for the next few years he served largely as a storyboard artist or assistant director on Masaki Mori’s films, including The Door Into Summer, Wandering Clouds, and Barefoot Gen.
Around this time, Madhouse was working with the studio MK on the film Lensman (co-directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri in his debut as a director). The extent to which a collaboration or exchange between the two studios’ staffers occurred during the film’s production is uncertain; nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding this co-production may account for why Hirata’s next major directorial effort, a TV movie based on a long-running and popular manga, was in fact produced under MK’s auspices and aired March 20, 1984 on the TBS network, months before Lensman‘s release.
A Little Love Story was a yonkoma manga by Chikako Mitsuhashi about the platonic romance between Chīko Ogawa (nicknamed Chitchi), the shortest girl in her class, and Satoshi Murakami (nicknamed Sally), the tallest and most handsome boy in his class, along with their relations (like Tonko, Chitchi’s overweight best friend, and her faithful boyfriend Yamashita) and the slice-of-life situations they all find themselves in. Originally serialized in Gakken’s Beautiful Teen magazine from its June 1962 issue, the stories became popular enough with wide audiences that, beginning in 1970, Gakken published them in stand-alone volumes; a total of 43 volumes were published over the years, the last of which (featuring Sally moving away from town and ending his relationship with Chitchi) was released in September 2014. In each volume, the strips were interspersed with romantic poems and gorgeous illustrations, helping to express the emotions associated with young love and the way in which they can be dreamily reflected in the world’s own beauty. Such ingeniously low-key material proved a natural fit for Hirata’s temperament.
The film is alleged to have been put into production only after about half a year of negotiations with Mitsuhashi, who maintains that she strongly disliked making the transition to television at the time. Scripted by the prolific Shunichi Yukimuro, it is essentially a series of vignettes depicting the first year of the relationship between Chitchi (voiced by teenage idol Tsukasa Itō) and Sally (Toshio Furukawa, who ironically was voicing the hapless Ataru in Urusei Yatsura at the same time), divided into four seasons. This story structure, by which the events that occur are tied to the temporal changes in the natural world, lends a transcendence and poignancy to how the relationship develops over time: spring is when trees and flowers blossom anew, and so does romance, even if only by a coincidental turn of events; summer is a time to relax and go out more often, and deepen one’s bond with another; autumn is a period of transition as the air becomes chilly and the trees change colors before withering their leaves away, and in a similar vein relationships are jeopardized as unresolved issues come to the fore; and finally, the cold, dark loneliness of winter puts a couple’s devotion to each other to the test, paving the way for the return of spring when all is once again renewed—and yet, much has changed from the year before, in certain ways for the better.
A lot of the film’s charm and vivacity comes from the involvement of Yoshiyuki Momose, best known for his later work with Studio Ghibli and in particular his collaborations with the legendary Isao Takahata. His character designs preserve the appealingly simple, sketched-out look of Mitsuhashi’s drawing style, down to such quirks as the lack of outlined foreheads on the two lead characters and even Chitchi’s scrawny, rubber-hosing music-note legs (which emphasize her smallness). The simplicity of the designs no doubt allowed the team of animators, under the guidance of Momose, Yoshishige Kosako, and Setsuko Shibuichi, to get into what truly mattered: the character animation, while not quite up to the level of the sharp, exaggerated posing and timing of Momose’s earlier animation for TMS’s gag comedies, is often remarkably fluid and well-acted for a standard TV anime, with the main cast’s youthful adolescence—and the variable range of emotions and thoughts associated with that period of life—coming through in their sporadically brisk movement and clear, nuanced body language and facial expressions. Chitchi herself is an endearing, sprightly girl who dreams of spending time with Sally and sometimes dances balletically when she’s especially happy, but suffers to a degree from her own obsessiveness, occasionally becoming too anxious or even argumentative for her own good; it’s fun to watch her almost scurry from pivotal moment to pivotal moment in a fashion typical of how one’s teenage years are remembered. Kazue Itō’s art direction opts for a more naturalistic look, a serviceable counterpart to the stylized characters that grounds them in the real world.
Most of the actual storyboarding for the film was done not by Hirata but by a team consisting of Yasuo Kageyama, Setsuko Shibuichi, and Fumio Ikeno. Nevertheless, his touch is evident in the brevity with which the material is handled, the leisurely yet consistent pace making the film a straightforward condensation of the classic shoujo romance-comedy. His preference is to largely let Momose’s animation and the cute situations speak for themselves: wide, expansive shots in which little Chitchi, in particular, appears to be overtaken by her surroundings abound, as do shots in which she or her friends move towards or away from the camera, but not in a way that seems forced or obvious—rather, they give the characters the spacious environments to act and go through their lives. Additionally, Hirata’s penchant for highlighting the beauty or fascination even in what seems ordinary comes through in several scenes, like during the last portion of the summer segment, in which Chitchi and Tonko (voiced by Rihoko Yoshida) go camping by a lake in the mountains and are unexpectedly joined by Sally and Yamashita (the late Hirotaka Suzuoki): he highlights a dragonfly stopping briefly at a flower as Chitchi and Tonko arrive at the campsite, the flowers that float downstream as they are tossed by Chitchi into a river in the hopes that they will reach Sally (who she presumes is vacationing by the ocean), and the foliage through which sunlight shines as Sally takes Chitchi on a boat ride, turning them into lyrical moments that underline the romance inherent to nature.
In this light, it is also worth looking at the film’s winter finale, in which Chitchi, having fallen out with Sally at the end of autumn after a heated argument over her jealousy towards the other girls Sally hangs out with, escapes to the mountain cabin where she and Tonko had camped in the summer, forcing Tonko, Sally, and Yamashita to go out and find her in the midst of a snowstorm; as it turns out, she had chosen that particular cabin to begin with because its number was Sally’s height. In an affectionate gesture, Sally decides to write Chitchi’s own small height beneath the cabin number; it seems like such a simple event to serve as the film’s climax, but it’s clear from Chitchi’s wide-eyed awe and brief outburst of sobbing, along with Tonko’s own tearful gratitude in the moment, that Sally has at last acknowledged Chitchi’s strange and sometimes turbulent relationship with him in a meaningful way. As reflected in the film’s very title, sometimes the little things are what matter the most.
Hirata’s genius most prominently shines, however, in the various poetic interludes that help express particular moods or emotions throughout the film; his collaborator on these sequences was art director/illustrator Yamako Ishikawa. An extension of the poems and illustrations scattered throughout the original manga’s volumes, they serve as alluring showcases for picturesque landscapes, stylish seasonal portraits, and catchy visual ideas, bolstering the sense that the world beyond the vignettes is in itself beautiful and almost magical; they are generally accompanied by poems or songs penned specifically for the film by Mitsuhashi, read in voiceover by Chitchi or sung by Masahime Kiyohara. The one exception is the final interlude that opens the film’s winter segment, an entirely instrumental piece that mainly depicts Chitchi floating in the cold winter wind using a snowflake umbrella; it is notable for its early use of CGI by way of the giant snowflakes that fly past Chitchi at one point. Through these sequences, the passing of the four seasons as the film progresses is more profoundly felt, as is Chitchi’s inner sadness and longing; Shinsuke Kazato (pseudonym for Shin Kawabe)’s lightly melancholic, largely piano-driven music for the film, which features leitmotifs and sporadically incorporates nostalgic whistling, is particularly effective in underscoring the poem-based interludes and the winter interlude.
In some ways, A Little Love Story can be seen as a lengthier and more down-to-earth follow-up to Takashi Yanase’s final film at Sanrio, Rose and Joe, in which Hirata animated the crows and Ishikawa made her debut as a background artist; the earlier film, too, featured a love story within a four-season structure, and relied on elegant illustrated sequences, distinctive character animation, and a memorable score to tie it all together. Fortunately, this film was not the end of Hirata’s career in animation: his first mature work as a director, with which Mitsuhashi herself was apparently pleased in the end, it was the beginning of a string of exceptionally brilliant films that he would create over the next few years.
The Golden Bird / グリム童話 金の鳥 (1984, released 1987)
In the early 1980s, Tōei Dōga, the once-landmark studio that had given rise to such talents as Yasuji Mori (who mentored Hirata when he was starting out as an inbetweener there in the 1960s), Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki, and Isao Takahata, among others, had reached an all-time low in the quality of its feature films. No longer the studio responsible for such classics as The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, Horus: Prince of the Sun, and Puss in Boots, it had long since refocused on television anime, and while it continued in-house production of theatrical features that weren’t extensions of their TV shows—many of them based on non-Japanese fairy tales—these were generally crass, low-rent, and lazy in almost every respect. It is unsurprising, then, that producer Takeshi Tamiya decided it was time to bring fresh blood into the semi-seasonal Tōei Cartoon Festival, the studio’s longtime showcase for its animated films and TV shows—and Madhouse, which had by now established a reputation for eccentric, artist-driven animated filmmaking, seemed like the perfect studio to outsource a film to. As per usual, the basic source material was again a fairly tale, in this case the Brothers Grimm’s The Golden Bird.
What could have been just another of Tōei’s inconsequential family films of the period turned out to be one of the most visually daring and creative children’s anime to come out of the 80s. Storyboarded almost entirely by Hirata himself, The Golden Bird is the greatest example of his inclination as a director to allow his animators and designers free reign over what they did: indeed, the very point of the film is to be a fun, artist-driven, and even campy take on the original Grimm story, with a fantasy adventure setup penned by Junji Tashiro that refuses to take itself seriously and gives ample opportunity for the distinctive talents involved to show off.
As the film’s main character designer and animation director, the illustrious Manabu Ōhashi brings the playful, almost outrageously cartoonish side of his impressionistic sensibility to the oddball cast of characters, constructed as they are of conspicuously geometric shapes and rough, disconnected linework that gives them a uniquely penciled-in quality; the designs, with exuberant and stylized animation to match, are a perfect fit with Tashiro’s over-the-top portrayals and subversions of stock fantasy characters. The film’s cute little protagonist Hans (voiced by Katsue Miwa) is easy-going, naive to a fault, and prone to manic overreactions whenever he is bullied or in fear, but nevertheless able to muster up a reasonable amount of pluckiness when the time is right. His two spiteful, obnoxious, and mean-spirited older brothers lie on two different extremes: Kreuler (Toshio Furukawa) is tall, lanky, and almost entirely blue-hued down to his skin color, characteristics befitting his overt haughtiness, whereas Warner (Keiko Yamamoto), who interestingly has faux-1930s cartoon eyes, is short, stout, and more dim-witted, his man-child personality made especially obvious by how he sucks on a lollipop in several scenes. The two kings Kaiser (Kōhei Miyauchi) and White Rose (Takeshi Aono) are similarly contrasted, with Kaiser being round, red, and short in height and temper and White Rose being tall, blue, and sharp in both his angular form and his rebukes towards others.
The film’s two animation co-directors (hence their ambiguous credits for layout) and lead animators were Atsuko Fukushima and Nobumasa Shinkawa, both of whom ranked among the most exceptional animators of the 80s anime scene; in Hirata’s own words, Shinkawa specialized in the unique sort of warm animation that the film features in abundance. Fukushima, the wife of legendary animator Kōji Morimoto, steals the show as the original designer and primary animator of the indelibly spindly, triangular, and evil Witch; in a prologue animated by the great Takuo Noda that is perhaps reflective of the artists’ own thought processes during the film’s production, she is shown to have been simply a dead tree brought to life by the magic of her pet, the titular Golden Bird, and accordingly she is driven by nothing more than a mad lust for golden objects of all kinds. Her flamboyant, distinctly feminine theatricality, combined with Kei Tomiyama’s engagingly gender-bending vocal performance, make her the perfect villainess for a gloriously indulgent film, accompanied by her three funny, abstract black cat sidekicks (voiced by Isamu Tanonaka, Kōzō Shioya, and Kazumi Tanaka) whose robes make them look and even fly like oversized bats.
Special mention must go to Yamako Ishikawa’s stunningly ostentatious art direction, the sheer richness of which cannot be overstated. The Rococo-level decoration, impeccable detail, and boldly diverse yet harmonious colors within the variegated backgrounds are downright staggering; unsurprisingly, the BG painters were a dream team that included ex-Sanrio colleagues such as Hiromi Andō and Mariko Kadono, future superstars like Kazuo Oga and Nizō Yamamoto, and erstwhile art directors at Madhouse like Akira Yamakawa and Katsushi Aoki. The result is a supreme feast of beautiful fantasy settings, ranging from the exquisitely flat, Persian miniature-like compositions of the Kaiser and White Rose Castles and their surrounding hills and forests to the shadowy, craggy wastelands surrounding Kanemacchi Castle that bring to mind German Expressionist prints in their striking white-on-black shadings, to say nothing of the dramatic, crisply-rendered (and eventually watercolored) rocky landscapes on the way to Kanemacchi or the picturesque, European-looking abandoned town just outside the wastelands.
The quirky, alternatively dreamy, folksy, and rock-infused score for the film, as well as all of the song lyrics, were written by keyboardist Kuni Kawachi; as expected, the musical sequences are among the film’s most prominent highlights. For the first sequence, a fascinating, extravagant, and dance-filled portrait of the witch at work with singing by Kawachi himself, Hirata brought in the great independent animator Kōji Nanke and gave him the freedom to do what he wanted, down to even letting Nanke storyboard the sequence on his own; it is worth noting that, in this sequence, the black cats are colored pale lavender similar to the witch herself, perhaps for extra visual effect. By contrast, the second sequence, featuring a slow and relaxing love song sung by Rie Matsuki, is a poetic showcase for soft, delicate, pastel-looking illustrations by Manabu Ōhashi, depicting Hans’s love-struck imagination upon his initial glimpse of Princess Lorand sleeping in White Rose Castle. The ironic twist heightened by the sequence, however, is that Lorand (voiced by Noko Konoha), in spite of her cuddlesome design, is in fact feisty, boisterous, and even shrewish, albeit lovably so; Lulu (Toshiko Fujita), the anthropomorphic fox who guides Hans throughout the film, similarly has a rounded, cute look on top of a shifty, mysterious disposition, with his true form as Lorand’s stately, reserved brother seeming almost like a different character.
The film makes the most of its 52-minute running time, with nary a slow or overlong sequence; even an inconsequential scene of Hans walking through and climbing up the dark secret entrance to White Rose Castle is a moment of visual ingenuity, as he and the ladder are shown only as white outlines against a black screen. The plethora of entertaining, masterfully-animated set pieces is epitomized by the giant pink bird (Jōji Yanami) who flies Hans and Lulu from place to place; with his big head, long neck, spherical body, and paltry wings, his very existence seems to go against nature, compounded by his drunken stumbling whenever he walks around. The bird’s initial attempt to fly may be a homage to the Superman gag in Chuck Jones’s first Road Runner cartoon Fast and Furry-ous (1949): he visibly strains as he tries to run faster and work up the momentum to fly, and just as he jumps off the cliff thinking he’s got it—he plops straight down. Ridiculously, it is his addiction to wine that powers him; in an extended tour-de-force animated by Manabu Ōhashi himself, the bird consumes Lulu’s entire bottle of wine and blasts off like a rocket (taking on a rectangular shape like a battery as he charges his sudden burst of energy in anticipation of doing so), proceeding, in several scenes of dynamic cinematography and perspective animation, to nearly plummet to the ground again, awkwardly navigate around various rocky formations, and even glide like an airplane turned on its side through a narrow chasm before making it back to the sky.
The overarching conflict of the film is that the Witch brews giant robotic soldiers for the imp-faced, sickly green-hued, war-loving tyrant King Kanemacchi (Junpei Takiguchi), who is as diminutive in height as he is obscenely plump, in exchange for plundered gold; said robots may well be influenced by the giant robot from Paul Grimault’s 1980 classic The King and the Mockingbird, particularly in their characteristic eye searchlights used to track down the protagonists. The Witch’s massive brewing pot, meanwhile, releases gaudy, flatly-colored smoke that is almost reminiscent of the aesthetic of Marcell Jankovics’s 1981 masterpiece Son of the White Mare.
The sequence in which Hans, Lulu, and Lorand fight the robots in the wastelands is an excellent blend of action and comedy, with the robots alternatively being sliced up (by Hans’s oversized sword), bashed, knocked over, or even getting their body parts disassembled—the underlying futility of the situation is made even more obvious when it turns out the robots can self-reassemble, forcing the trio to resort to leading the army (and Kanemacchi) off a cliff to their demise. The latter was undoubtedly the simpler and more practical solution to begin with; yet, getting straight to the point would have deprived the film of a great deal of its artistic value and excitement.
So it is with how the Witch, in a last-ditch effort to preserve her power, conjures up and takes command of a massive, skyscraper-high robot that razes Kanemacchi Castle to pieces in its attempts to annihilate our heroes; Hans and Lorand, in turn, mount a magical toy-like flying golden horse which can be ridden only by the pure of heart, a convenient but loosely-adapted carryover from the Grimms’ original story. After narrowly riding the two away from the robot’s destructive clutches in a final scene of impressive background animation (this time by Atsuko Fukushima), the horse imbues Hans’s sword with the power to defeat the Witch’s flying cats in one fell swoop and then flashily shut down the robot with a single stab in its head, sending the Witch hurtling to her ultimate doom; with its magic defeated and reverted, the Golden Bird flies off, its essential purpose—as the basis for an enchantingly decadent fantasy film—fulfilled at last.
The end credits are a final exhibition of odd and charming phenomena in the sky illustrated by Ōhashi, accompanied by the cheery song “The Earth Is a Party” (sung by Katsue Miwa with backing vocals by the Koorogi ‘73). Its absurd lyrics about fights and track meetings happening on a cataclysmically cosmic scale lead to a chorus that touches on the strange joy of human emotion (“we take turns crying, laughing, and getting angry”), making it a fitting closer for a similarly nonsensical yet life-affirming story.
Michihiro Itō’s exaggerated sound design is an ideal match for the film, adding an extra layer of humor to the cartoonish animation: characters often run to a motor-like chirping noise, almost every step Hans takes is accompanied by cute squeaks, and the big bird, in particular, moves around with a variety of warbling springs, clicks, drum beats, whistles, and even radio-tuning and kabuki clapper sounds. It is also sprinkled with American cartoon sound effects, largely from Hanna-Barbera—the big bird’s extended flight sequence, however, features a rare use of the classic Looney Tunes falling whistle, a sound otherwise nonexistent in anime.
The Golden Bird was no doubt a major achievement for all the great artists involved, not least of whom was Hirata himself as the storyboarder-director responsible for holding all of the film’s deliciously offbeat components together. Unfortunately, its unabashedly artistic campiness may have proved to be its downfall: in a fatuous move, Tōei decided to shelve the film for three years after its completion, perhaps feeling that it was too out of place amongst Tōei’s other product to be released under its name. Not until the March 14, 1987 edition of the Tōei Cartoon Festival was the film finally given a public screening, and then unceremoniously dumped on home video just months later on July 10; it was a poignant send-off to Tōei Dōga’s legacy of original theatrical feature films, simultaneously a final high note and a reflection of how the studio had fallen so far from its glory days that Madhouse had to be called in to create a quality film for it. Since then, all of Tōei’s animated features have been extensions of their television franchises.
Bobby’s Girl / ボビーに首ったけ (1985)
In 1975, Haruki Kadokawa, president of publishing house Kadokawa Shoten and son of the recently-deceased founder Genyoshi Kadokawa, decided to found a film division for his company. With Kadokawa Pictures, his goal was to create blockbuster film adaptations of the books he published, effectively acting as a shrewd form of cross-promotion that would bring in more money; it was a business model that worked well from the start, with veteran filmmaker Kon Ichikawa’s hit The Inugami Family (based on a novel by mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo) in 1976. By the mid-1980s, the controversial Kadokawa was riding high on his unexpected success, and, having already cooperated with Madhouse on 1983’s Harmagedon (based on the first three volumes of a Kadokawa-published novelization of Kazumasa Hirai’s Genma Wars), he made the decision to work with the studio again on an animated double feature that was released on March 16, 1985—namely, Rintarō’s The Dagger of Kamui, from a series of novels written by Tetsu Yano and illustrated by Moribi Murano (who, as an occasional Mushi Pro/Madhouse staffer himself—most notably as writer-director of the classic Unico in the Island of Magic—provided the film’s character designs as well), and Toshio Hirata’s Bobby’s In Deep, from a 1980 novel by Yoshio Kataoka.
If The Golden Bird is representative of Hirata’s willingness to showcase other artists, then Bobby’s Girl (the better-known title for the film among Western anime fans), which Hirata also personally storyboarded in its entirety, is representative of his directing prowess. A contemporary exploration of teenage rebellion and youthfulness in the form of a featurette-length music video with an 80s rock score composed by keyboardist Keiichi Oku, it is perhaps Hirata’s most significant work, flaunting as it does an experimental, eclectic, and stylish approach to filmmaking that almost heralds the mentalities of the iconoclasts who would arise in anime in the following decade, particularly Hideaki Anno and Kunihiko Ikuhara.
The film centers around 17-year old Akihiko Nomura (voiced by rookie idol Hironobu Nomura, who was playing the lead role in Kadokawa’s own film Cabaret at this time), nicknamed Bobby by his friend Sachio Kubota and his doting little sister Keiko (Mayumi Shimizu), and how his obsession with motorcycles leads him to a job at a biker bar (fittingly named Bobby’s), conflict with his conservative father who wants him to go to college, and a long letter correspondence with the lonely girl Sakumi Nakahara that ultimately changes him forever. Originally, the screenplay, credited to Fumio Ishimori, was going to be a convoluted and melodramatic expansion of Kataoka’s original story, complete with a subplot involving the mizu-shōbai. Hirata, however, wisely recognized that part of the original story’s beauty lay in the fact that it omitted unnecessary plot details in favor of a more poetic and impactful style, and in any event such a screenplay would not work within the film’s length—as such, he chose to instead simply punch the story up with an appropriate aesthetic flair.
At the heart of the film’s aesthetic are the caricatural, somewhat realistic and wrinkly-clothes character designs by manga-ka Akimi Yoshida, whose seminal manga Banana Fish would begin publication not long after the film’s release. They are animated with a convincing naturalism, with very occasional and mild bouts of exaggeration, under the direction of Manabu Ōhashi; while his idiosyncrasies are not as prominent as they were in The Golden Bird, his own illustrative skill combined with his talent as an animator made him perfect for the job of preserving Yoshida’s designs in movement, and it undoubtedly helped that a third of the film’s animators—namely Shinji Otsuka and Toshio Kawaguchi—were themselves talented enough at this kind of animation that they later became recurrent animators for many high-profile anime features, in particular those of Studio Ghibli.
Ōhashi was also called upon to create the soft, delicately-sketched illustrations that define the first two sequences in which Bobby reads extended letters from Sakumi (and which are also interspersed throughout the early scenes featuring Keiko for chic effect). Accompanied by a slow piano arrangement of the classic American pop song “Bobby’s Girl” and monologues read by actress Hiromi Murata, they convey perfectly the mysterious Sakumi’s wistful pensiveness, depicting as they do various seemingly mundane scenes and events in an evocative manner: it is evident that, for all her meandering and rambling on little details, Sakumi’s fascination with the world and feelings for Bobby are sincere. By contrast, the third sequence, based around an exceptionally brief letter from Sakumi about her loneliness, features only a blotchy, blue-hued watercolor rendering of Sakumi alone at her desk, establishing that she is atypically depressed. Finally, the fourth sequence, in which Sakumi writes back telling Bobby that she will call him on her birthday—setting in motion the film’s finale—is a total departure from the previous sequences, featuring what appears to be a scrolling shadow play of a girl dancing in a festive kimono while traditional Japanese celebration music plays in the background.
Indeed, for most of the film, Hirata’s own imagination, skill, and mastery of film language take center stage. The first letter sequence also contains a montage of magazine photographs from which Sakumi first discovered Bobby, alternatively drawn or photocopied from actual photos, and ends with Bobby’s decidedly terse response that establishes his own social awkwardness: the single most important line, “My bike is blue”, is emphasized by being typed out across the screen. This brings about a clever transition to the next sequence, as the film cuts to a blue color card that turns out to be Bobby riding Sachio around the city on his motorcycle; said sequence is a memorable pop-art collage of American brand signage and logos, cutouts of various folks strutting 80s fashion, and marker colorings and graffiti drawn and at times even animated by Hirata himself, complete with a groovy saxophone-driven instrumental of the film’s theme song “Bobby ni Rock’n Roll”.
The extended musical sequence after Bobby decides to leave his parents’ house for good, featuring one of a number of insert songs sung by Hironobu Nomura, is particularly heavy on what appear to be semi-animated painted photographs depicting Bobby driving through the city. According to Hirata, he and a professional photographer went out to Harumi Wharf and had a person involved with the production take on Bobby’s appearance and ride a motorcycle, proceeding to engage in sequence photography of the person; several of these photos were then copied to cels and colored sparsely by Hirata using markers, and finally moved around and shot. The results, interspersed with backgrounds depicting Bobby’s former bedroom, are an appropriately hazy and vaguely brooding representation of rushing off into the world on one’s own for the first time: everything seems to be changing and passing by at a rapid, chaotic pace, and there can be no turning back.
There are other musical sequences worth mentioning, such as the montage of Bobby working at the biker bar shortly afterwards with its nostalgic coloring-book portraits and later his long ride along the highway with his boss Kida (voiced by actor Jinpachi Nezu). In an atypical move for Hirata, however, his direction is highly pronounced even in the more story-driven sequences and calm interludes: they are the peak of his predilection for highlighting how special and taken-for-granted the world can be, in this case by encapsulating one’s teenage years as a wondrous, at times exhilarating and occasionally frightening period of newfound freedom. Right from the beginning, several scenes are flushed with a glare that evokes how old memories are brought back to mind, and indeed there are instances in which the glare even takes the form of a faded white framing around the scene. A lens blur effect also appears sporadically throughout the film for stylistic effect: Hirata accomplished it by painting mentholatum rub onto the right spots of a layer of glass that was then placed on top of the animation cels at the time they were photographed, often wiping and re-applying the rub where necessary.
The fashionable atmosphere of the 1980s comes through in the introduction to the biker bar, a series of cuts between the various motorcycles and bike-related posters and merchandise on display; much later, as Bobby contemplates how to respond to Sakumi’s third letter, he makes shadow puppets (predicting the visual motif of the fourth letter) while the city’s neon signs are reflected in the window, and when Sachio leaves for Hokkaido shortly afterwards, there is an extended shot of a girl peering into a clothing store’s display window. When Bobby applies to work at the bar, the first view of him is from above a spinning fan in the room, itself heavily obscured in shadows, and the suspenseful feeling is compounded by a shot of Bobby being reflected in Kida’s glasses; the mood is eventually lightened when a toy biker rides across the counter in front of Bobby and Kida, simultaneously signaling that Bobby has been accepted for the job and serving as another neat scene transition as the film cuts to Bobby riding his motorcycle. These riding scenes, too, exhibit Hirata’s heightened attention to life’s understated wonders by way of the special care put into the settings, ranging from the sparkling trees and oceans at daytime to the street lamps, headlights, and shiny windshields that surround Bobby at night; the art director of the film was Akira Yamakawa, who had been the top-billed background artist on The Golden Bird.
The sequence depicting the initial argument between Bobby and his father over his future creates an ambience of distance and tension by cutting away to dark illustrations of Bobby taking a shower alone and his wet shoes hanging on a clothesline, followed by a few scenes with his dimly-lit silhouette against bright daylight shining behind him. This latter visual scheme is taken to an even more dramatic level when tensions between father and son finally come to a head, complete with Dutch angles and an animated camera rotation as Bobby’s father chases after him. A few scenes have characters jump-cutting or fading between different positions within the same location without any discernible temporal change, such as when Bobby wonders how to respond to Sakumi’s first letter and later when he has to deal with Sachio’s haughty cat by himself, capturing how idly time can pass by in the quieter moments of one’s life; jump-cuts are also used to underline characters receding into the distance as Bobby drives off, like when Keiko runs after Bobby as he leaves the house or when the scene of Bobby driving through the streets at night itself shifts to increasingly small sizes amidst black framing.
Given the painstaking effort that Hirata invested in the film on his own, it is perhaps ironic that the most famous section of the film is one in which he, as usual, largely stepped back and allowed talented animators to shine—namely, Bobby’s climactic final ride, created by legendary animators Kōji Morimoto and Takashi Nakamura. Having spent the day with Kida, during which he is offered to join Kida’s crew of bikers, Bobby suddenly remembers that he has to return to the apartment immediately to answer Sakumi’s birthday call: what ensues is a mad race against time as Bobby tries to make it back, with a series of dynamic, semi-abstract first-person views of the bleached-out landscapes zooming past him as he speeds on. The majority of this astounding triumph, with a final insert song performed by Nomura, was by Morimoto; Nakamura likely takes over just as the song ends (possibly earlier), whereby the sequence proceeds to take on a downright incredible pencil-sketched look. This transformation to a vivaciously drawn, almost living aesthetic, accompanied only by the sound of Bobby’s driving, symbolizes that Bobby has reached such an epic level of glory in his youth that there is nowhere else he can go but down—and indeed, within seconds he goes down in style, flying off his bike in slow-motion amidst bright light that fades to a white screen, as he desperately tries to dodge a van backing into his way.
During the film’s production, there was a prolonged debate over whether to explicitly kill Bobby or keep him alive (character designer Akimi Yoshida belonged to the latter faction), with one suggestion being to end with a shot of Bobby covered in casts on a hospital bed. Ultimately, Hirata listened to a suggestion that the palliative thing to do was to simply stop, keeping Bobby’s exact fate ambiguous (as a side note, the original story’s ending was slightly more graphic, describing Bobby’s helmet rolling across the asphalt); instead, the final shot is of a telephone loudly ringing in an empty home, making clear that, regardless of whether or not he survived, Bobby’s aspirations have been crushed and Sakumi has been left heartbroken, and with them his youth has come to an irreversible, unforgettable end. As the icing on the cake, the closing credits sequence is a pop art tour of a city at night set to a cover of the aforementioned pop song “Bobby’s Girl” by Mayumi Shimizu, conceptualized by illustrator Seizō Watase and rendered by Hirata’s old Sanrio cohort and art director Yukio Abe.
Packed with exciting visual ideas, creative montages, technical virtuosity, and strikingly idiosyncratic direction, Bobby’s Girl is multi-layered and enigmatic enough that it can be seen alternatively as a stylish ode to late adolescence, a contemporary musical look at the Japanese biker subculture, a teenage tragedy song in the form of an experimental film, and of course an animated extension of Kadokawa Pictures’ pop cinema films of the early 1980s. It stands as one of Hirata’s greatest works, if not the crowning achievement of his career—and yet, in a testament to how modest he usually was as a filmmaker, Hirata would eventually consider it an embarrassing youthful transgression just as he had the Unico pilot, feeling that he went overboard in showing off technique at the expense of the story. It nevertheless speaks to how multi-faceted and prolific Hirata was as an artist during this period that A Little Love Story, The Golden Bird, and this film were all created within quick succession of each other: as films, they are drastically different, yet they share an unconventional graphic sensibility and penchant for rich, innovative artistry that is distinctly Hirata’s. For that reason alone, they are worthy of appreciation.
Fair, Then Partly Piggy / はれときどきぶた (1988)
Among the most short-lived children’s programs ABC Family aired in the early 2000s was a bizarre curiosity named Tokyo Pig, about the misadventures of a boy whose prewritten journal entries describing the ludicrous events of the following day come true—often with catastrophic results. What American audiences at the time probably did not realize was that it was an adaptation of a popular series of children’s books by Shirō Yadama, not to mention the chief directorial debut of the enfant terrible Shinichi “Nabeshin” Watanabe (whose infamous take on Excel Saga was being released in America as Tokyo Pig was airing)—and that a charming film based on the books had already been produced by Gakken and directed by Toshio Hirata years before.
The film was technically animated not at Madhouse but at the great subcontracting studio Oh Pro, which by then had its own distinguished track record of involvement with daring animated projects (most notably Isao Takahata’s Gauche the Cellist). More precisely, it was a de facto collaboration between Oh Pro and Madhouse, with Madhouse co-founder and head Masao Maruyama arranging to have his studio’s top animators—among them Yoshinori Kanemori, Hiroshi Hamasaki, Reiko Kurihara, and of course longtime collaborator Manabu Ōhashi—involved with the film. To top it off, the adaptation was written by Yoshio Takeuchi and Hideo Takayashiki, both of whom served as screenwriters, storyboarders, or episode directors in various Madhouse/Osamu Dezaki projects going back to the 1970s.
The story is essentially a condensation of the first two books, depicting more or less a typical series of days within the life of 3rd-grade misfit Noriyasu Hatakeyama (voiced endearingly by young Daisuke Namikawa). Fed up with how his attempts to write the truth in his journal and later his newspaper result only in further humiliation from others, he instead decides to write increasingly weird lies—only to discover, much to his mortification, that anything he writes will come true, with adverse effects on his family and society at large. By Hirata’s own admission, the film is largely faithful to the books: the material on its own is intrinsically subversive and crazed enough in its overturning of daily life through a child’s imagination, from Noriyasu’s mother making pencil tempura that is detoxified by grated erasers to pigs replacing the clouds in the sky (from which the title originates), to be fertile ground for fun, inspired animation.
As usual, Hirata excels at emphasizing interesting details and aspects of the real world that would otherwise go unnoticed, creating a vivid sense of Noriyasu’s home life and the wider community he lives in. His two main collaborators here were art director Mariko Kadono, herself aided by background artists Yamako Ishikawa and Shizue Tanaka (who started out as the protégé of the gifted art director Mihoko Magōri on Group TAC’s Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi in the late 1970s—Magōri, of course, was later responsible for the breathtaking art in Gisaburō Sugii’s 1980s masterpieces Night on the Galactic Railroad and The Tale of Genji), and character designer and animation director Kazuo Komatsubara, one of Oh Pro’s co-founders and arguably the studio’s most prominent animator.
Kadono’s art direction is a rich hybrid of observant realism and stylization, representing contemporary Japanese city life through Noriyasu’s extraordinary state of mind. The bold, colorful, often slightly crooked backgrounds appear to have been rendered with a blend of crayon, marker, and watercolor, as though they were highly elaborate children’s art. An inordinate amount of attention is paid to all the textures and elements of the various settings, whether they’re the toys and posters in Noriyasu’s room, the stovetops and tableware-filled cabinets in his house’s kitchen, the various shops and utility poles throughout the city, the backpacks hung outside the school classrooms, or even the distinctive patterns on various pieces of wooden furniture. It is worth nothing in this regard that the city was not delineated in the original books: Komatsubara suggested that the city be modeled after his own home, Kanazawa-ku in Yokohama, and Hirata in turn observed that the books featured scenes of a landing plane and a red train, which respectively brought to mind Haneda Airport and the Keihin Kyūkō railways. He then visited these locations and their surroundings and took photographs as reference material for Kadono and Komatsubara to stage the action.
Komatsubara’s character designs retain the blocky, wide-eyed, pleasantly crude look of Yadama’s illustrations, down to the wobbly, almost perpetually confused shape of Noriyasu’s eyeballs; the character animation keeps up a consistent level of cute, catchy posing and movement that is just right for the childish designs, and Noriyasu’s own puckish attitude towards life, along with disbelief and shock at the situations he unwittingly creates, is always palpable. The more technically challenging scenes come off as perfectly natural under Komatsubara’s direction: witness, for instance, the scene in which Noriyasu’s parents (voiced respectively by Tesshō Genda and Rihoko Yoshida) and his adorable little sister Tama-chan (Rei Sakuma) chase after their flying goldfish, which choreographs a variety of actions from the dad jumping towards the screen with a net to the cat leaping onto the mom’s face while Tama-chan lumbers with the fishbowl and the fish flies around all in the same shot.
Like Kadono with her backgrounds, Komatsubara relishes in enlivening almost every shot with some sort of unique movement, gag, or visual idea that makes the film’s world and characters more convincing and funny. In the first half of the film alone, the otherwise static scene of Miss Kazuko explaining to Noriyasu the importance of writing the truth in one’s journal features schoolchildren playing around in the background and passing by; as Noriyasu angrily erases his journal entries after he catches his mother reading them, he even violently scrubs his nearby cat with his eraser in indiscriminate rage; after the flying goldfish incident, the TV is gratuitously shown broadcasting graphic, terrifyingly well-done animation of a Devilman facsimile, a reference to the Devilman OVAs Oh Pro was making at this time; and just after the neck of Noriyasu’s mom is stretched out, she allows the gleefully naive Tama-chan to use the practical rubber hose as a jump rope and ride on it. It is worth noting that several shots are framed with an ominous dark shadow on the side of the screen, adding a sense of apprehension to the proceedings.
The second half, which deals with the troubles caused by Noriyasu’s newspaper as its issues are sacrilegiously posted on a local shrine’s billboard made from a sacred tree, features an entire sequence that lays bare the plot’s underlying cynicism with regards to modern society. After a man who has a gaping hole in his stomach from eating too much donuts, conjured up by Noriyasu as an entertaining lie, turns out to be real and becomes famous, a ludicrous fad develops in which large crowds of women and children gather at a confetti-laden doughnut carnival (complete with horn-blowing, dancing clowns) and gorge on donuts while fantasizing about what they’ll put in their stomach holes afterwards. Too often, the masses are all too willing to believe and engage in the grossest sensationalism and exaggeration, regardless of how damaging it proves to be, so long as it provides a release from the ennui of daily life.
The climax, the result of Noriyasu creating a report about Pig Day that takes on its own life and conjures up Pig Time (1-2 pm), most potently embodies the approach that Hirata, Kadono, and Komatsubara took in adapting the source material. Preceded minutes beforehand by a foreboding moment of multiple clock pendulums swinging across the screen to represent the previous night passing by, it is an impressive portrait of a city in chaos as pigs of all kinds and sizes overtake the streets and railways for an hour, coming out of every opening imaginable—rising up from the sewers, spraying out from firefighters’ hoses, hatching from birds’ eggs, floating off from factory smokestacks and children’s bubble blowers, and leaping out of billboard painters’ paint buckets—and creating a veritable sea that even serves as an opportunity for intrepid surfers amidst the hysterical crowds and floating traffic. On a smaller scale, Noriyasu’s house is similarly flooded as pigs fly out of all the closets and furniture, not to mention red-hot pigs firing out of the microwaves, ice pigs streaming from the freezer, and even water pigs spewing out of the faucet—and true to water’s properties, trying to grab the latter simply causes them to splatter into several smaller water pigs. The funny dénouement is that, as soon as Pig Time comes to an end, all the droves of pigs promptly go back where they came from in reverse; in spite of everything, Noriyasu’s mother remarks that it was fun, another allusion to the boredom of daily life otherwise.
Perhaps the most innovative parts of the film, however, are the sequences bringing the drawings in Noriyasu’s journal and newspaper to life. Animated by Oh Pro’s own head Kōichi Murata and Madhouse greats Manabu Ōhashi (who was also the top-billed animator for the rest of the film) and Yoshinori Kanemori, they are a brilliant representation of Noriyasu’s imagination and childish sensibility, variously drawn and colored as they are in pencil, crayon, marker, and watercolor; the rough crudity of the drawings belies their lively, brazenly sketched-out character (Ōhashi has stated that he drew his scenes with his left hand), to say nothing of the unhinged manner with which they are animated—even when the drawings are not representing any actions, they constantly tremble and shift their forms and textures as though they are holding in Noriyasu’s pent-up childhood energy. Special mention must go to the film’s opening credits, a fast-paced and occasionally animated showcase of children’s art of pigs: its accompanying frenetic song, written by Shirō Yadama himself and sung by a group of children, sums up the film’s subversive tone perfectly, calling for kids to embrace their free will, go out into the world, and rebel against anything that tries to get in their way—whether bullying, rules, or their own hesitance.
The fittingly offbeat, synthesized 80s score by keyboardist Hiro Yanagida is mostly confined to the scenes in which the products of Noriyasu’s mind manifest themselves in his writing endeavors and later his life; the tracks range from a faux-traditional folk song as Noriyasu’s dad accidentally stretches his mom’s neck out to energetic synthpop when pigs take over the skies and later the streets. Elsewhere, audio director Etsuji Yamada generally relies on diegetic sound, furthering the authenticity of the film’s world; interestingly, however, Hanna-Barbera sound effects are heard from time to time as a way of enhancing the film’s cartoonish sensibility, just as they were in The Golden Bird (the sound designer was Takahiko Kanemaru).
For all the strange mishaps, incidents, and catastrophes that can occur over the course of a day, life still goes on in the end. The film closes with Noriyasu, disappointed at the end of his newspaper endeavors, suddenly being invited by the schoolchildren to join their soccer game—as it was established right at the start of the film that Noriyasu is terrible at sports, it’s a heartwarming book-end to what may well be just another part of his odd childhood. In a similar vein, the production of the film was a rare case in which all involved were happy in the end: the books’ popularity made it easy to gain funding, the artists got to have fun with creative ideas that were perfect for animation, large audiences of children (3 million, as Hirata claimed) embraced the film upon its release on August 23, 1988, and of course the original author Shirō Yadama was overjoyed. On top of all that, the film was delivered on-time and on-budget; with all these factors in mind, Fair, Then Partly Piggy may be the most wholly successful of Hirata’s films, and certainly one of the greatest creative collaborations he led over the course of his career.
Other significant works
At the same time as Madhouse’s animators were helping Oh Pro out on Fair, Then Partly Piggy, the studio proper was collaborating with Konami on two OVAs based on short stories by the multi-talented, posthumously celebrated writer and poet Kenji Miyazawa. Rintarō collaborated with Yoshinori Kanemori on Matasaburō of the Wind, released on August 20, 1988, while Toshio Hirata directed The Acorns and the Wildcat, released not long afterwards on September 30. The star of the film is the great animator-illustrator Yasuhiro Nakura, who by this time had already made a name for himself as the character designer of Tōei’s Little Memole (he was also the animation director of episodes 10, 16, and 44, not to mention the animator of a painstakingly-crafted OVA short featuring the characters that distilled the show’s unique visual style into a 5-minute ride through the clouds) and designer-animation director of Mamoru Oshii’s legendary Angel’s Egg, and had in fact animated on an earlier great Miyazawa adaptation, the aforementioned Sugii film Night on the Galactic Railroad; he then served as the final character designer and AD of its follow-up The Tale of Genji (the preliminary character designs for that film were by the elegant manga-ka and occasional animator Seiichi Hayashi), less than a year before Acorns.
Here, Nakura takes his illustrative sensibility to an extreme, animating his wistful, delicately colored artwork of the story by using fades to fill in the gaps between slightly different drawings and even different color schemes of the same scene: the artful fading, in tandem with Yamako Ishikawa’s soft, autumnal art direction (her top background artist was once again Akira Yamakawa) and photography director Kinichi Ishikawa’s use of slow pans and zooms in most of the scenes (occasionally speeding up in more dramatic moments), creates the sense of a living, ethereal storybook world. Combined with the mesmerizing New Age soundtrack by music therapist Fumio Miyashita and the formalistic reading of Miyazawa’s text by Kuni Kawachi (who had been the composer-lyricist of The Golden Bird), as well as a number of striking visual ideas not present in the original story (as the Wildcat judge lavishes praise on the young boy Ichirō, his mind is depicted as containing the cosmos; shortly afterwards, a horse-shaped cluster of tall grasses transforms majestically into the Wildcat’s horse-and-mushroom carriage), the film successfully captures the esoteric, simultaneously mythic and cosmic ethos of Miyazawa’s works.
For the 1990 Madhouse OVA Nineteen 19, directed by Kōichi Chigira (later the director of the original Full Metal Panic! series) from a manga by Shō Kitagawa, Hirata was credited in the unusual role of “animation coordinator”, and in that capacity created a stylish 1.5-minute pop art sequence that eloquently sums up the rich visual experimentation and expertise he had displayed in Bobby’s Girl.
From 1992 to 1993, Hirata served as the chief director of a gentle and beautiful 13-episode OVA co-produced by Tōei, Triangle Staff, and Oh Pro, The Little Twins, a follow-up of sorts to Little Memole created and supervised by Memole’s art director Isamu Tsuchida; as with Fair, Then Partly Piggy, the character designer and chief animation director was Kazuo Komatsubara and the art director was Mariko Kadono, with Manabu Ōhashi animating a number of terrific sequences throughout the series. Unfortunately, in spite of its high production values and lulling storybook quality, the series is obscure and difficult to find in its entirety; Benjamin Ettinger wrote about the series several years ago here, and I would like to supplement his credits with those of two of the summer episodes that have been rediscovered (Ōhashi’s sequence in the introductory “movie” episode can be seen here):
SUMMER-1 (Fly! Groo)
- Storyboard/Director: Makoto Moriwaki 森脇真琴
- Key Animation: Junko Ikeda (池田淳子), Akihiro Yūki (結城明宏), Ikuo Fudaki (札木幾夫), Toshiaki Komura (小村敏明)
SUMMER-3 (The Day the Lake Barked)
- Storyboard: Hiroshi Kuzuoka 葛岡博
- Director: Toshio Hirata 平田敏夫
- Key Animation: Akihiro Yūki (結城明宏), Kyōko Matsubara (松原京子), Shigeto Tsuji (辻繁人), Mitsue Fukue (福江光恵), Toshiaki Komura (小村敏明), Eiko Miyamoto (宮本英子)
- Special Animation: Manabu Ōhashi 大橋学 (his sequence here)
The series received an English dub in 1995, featuring a theme song by famed folk-rocker Carly Simon; however, this is just as neglected as the original Japanese version, having aired for only a few months on Nick Jr. in the late 90s, and disappointingly the individual episodes are lacking in their specific credits. Four episodes of this dub were released on DVD by Disney (of all companies) in 2004, and these can be seen here; they are respectively the 3rd Autumn episode, the aforementioned 1st Summer episode, the 3rd Spring episode, and the 1st Autumn episode.
After The Little Twins ended, Hirata once again collaborated with A Little Love Story screenwriter Shunichi Yukimuro on a largely unfortunate film adaptation of Shigeru Mizuki’s manga Kappa no Sanpei. In 1995, Hirata was responsible for the loopy stop-motion opening and ending sequences of Takashi Nakamura’s amazing children’s film Catnapped!; that same year, he began creating the end cards for each episode of Madhouse’s Azuki-chan TV series. In 1998, he directed a 3-minute pilot film at Oh Pro for studio JCF, about the two iconic lovers created by French artist Raymond Peynet; the first half was animated by Manabu Ōhashi and the second half by Kazuo Komatsubara, but alas, the only available parts of the film at the moment are a couple of Ōhashi’s drawings. Hirata later storyboarded and designed the opening for Madhouse’s 2002 series of Hanada Shōnen Shi, set to “The One” by The Backstreet Boys, which harkened back to his work on Bobby’s Girl—he took the live-action photographs used as backgrounds and colored the animation by Hiroshi Shimizu and Yoshinori Kanemori.
In his final years, Hirata found opportunities to express himself on his own whenever he could. He was one of several artists who contributed a solo episode (#11) to the lovely mini-series adaptation of the French children’s book series Rita and Whatsit; additionally, however, from 2012 to his death he was one of many industry veterans involved with Tomason’s Folktales from Japan, an admirable attempt to revive the old Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi that involved the original producer Mikio Nakata and, in its final year beginning April 2017, even appointed Gisaburō Sugii (who had been one of MNMB’s most prominent contributors, down to animating its iconic opening) as a supervisor.
The new Folktales from Japan regrettably suffered from more than a few shortcomings, not least of which was the lack of the audio direction of Group TAC president Atsumi Tashiro (whose death in July 2010 heralded his studio’s demise months later), which in MNMB so deftly interwove diegetic sound, Jun Kitahara’s eclectic music tracks, and the voices of narrators Fujio Tokita (who passed away this past July 18) and Etsuko Ichihara in variegated manners that added to the show’s stylistic unpredictability. Even so, Hirata was essential to what integrity the new show had, and in addition to directing the first opening and the segment The Old Woman’s Skin (#14b) he went as far as to personally craft six segments himself: The Cow’s Marriage (#2c), King Enma Is Hachigoro-don (#28c), The Monk and the Fox (#71c), Odote-sama (#91c), The Six Warriors (#114c), and The Box that Doesn’t Open (#129b). These gems are distinguished by their gentle, occasionally boisterous comedy, quirky character designs, and rich, painterly visuals, with attractive color styling and rendering in watercolor, ink wash, pastel, and/or crayon; they, along with Space Dandy episode #12 which Hirata storyboarded, proved to be worthy send-offs to a long, wide-ranging, and sporadically artistic career.
While on the subject of MNMB and Folktales from Japan it is perhaps worth mentioning that Teruto Kamiguchi, one of MNMB’s best and most prolific animators to where he became the show’s chief animator in its final years, and whose absence from Folktales from Japan was a significant blow to the new show (he retired after MNMB ended in 1995), died around the same time as Hirata. As it happens, both got their start working at Tōei Dōga, and indeed they even received their earliest known on-screen credits together—as inbetweeners under animator Sadao Tsukioka on the first two episodes of Tōei’s Ken the Wolf Boy in 1963. (Small but significant correction, as of 2 September 2018: Hirata’s earliest credit as an inbetweener was in fact months earlier, on Tōei’s masterpiece The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon. To further clarify (22 September 2018), his debut was even earlier on 1960’s Saiyuki, albeit he did not receive an on-screen credit; Kamiguchi, too, started out on that film. Outlining these details is important because this was the period in which Hirata was receiving his tutelage as an animator under Yasuji Mori.)
The final shot in Hirata’s career, from “The Box that Doesn’t Open”, which aired just over a month after Hirata’s August 25, 2014 death.
One thought on “An Honorary Compendium of Writings on Toshio Hirata (平田敏夫) and His Collaborators”
Phenomenal! I’d been bouncing around the idea in my head for the last year or so to do a deep dive into Toshio Hirata and his body of work, with the intention of translating some interviews with him. The last time I checked for the amount of information about him in English, there wasn’t a whole lot and it struck me as quite a shame. When I started looking into resources again, I came by this site. This is much better than anything I would be able to put together, so kudos to you!
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