This month marks five years since this humble blog was started with a large post, by the long-gone and controversial tamerlane, about Russian animation. At first, it was supposed to be a fairly ambitious project, with contributions not only from him and me but also from others like ibcf and magnil, but in the end, I was the one left to shoulder the burden of trying to write substantially about old international animation in a way that might be satisfying—not just to myself, but to anyone who is willing to read through extensive and even holistic (at least, that’s what I’m trying to aim for) analyses of these fascinating artists across the globe and the unsung gems they have put out.
Since then, other bloggers have taken up the mantle themselves, often proving far more prolific and certainly able to express their thoughts and knowledge more regularly and concisely than I could ever be, and in certain ways this blog has become almost obsolete. Very regularly, I’ve been tempted to call it quits altogether, not least due to the inherent difficulties of trying to write massive articles about animation (which have only gotten longer and longer over time) without becoming rote, boring, or utterly vacuous; especially now, as I find myself increasingly busy with the life of a Ph.D. research student in Biomedical Engineering, I honestly do not know if I can keep writing up for much longer. (And there are still so many things I really want to write about…) The truth is that these kinds of lengthy articles were not what this blog was supposed to be devoted to; when tamerlane was preparing the blog, his intention was that we would mostly focus on shorter write-ups devoted to specific films, with only occasional mega-articles like his inaugural piece on Russian animation, and my earliest pieces for the blog were very much in that vein. Only later, as it became obvious that On the Ones had become a one-shroom show, did I decide to devote myself almost exclusively to occasional mega-articles: better to spend my time researching and writing extensively on a particular artist, and to grab people’s attention that way, than to spread myself thin trying to post regularly about a mish-mash of films or topics.
My very first article on here was about the great independent animator Tadanari Okamoto’s forgotten 1980 classic, The Forgotten Doll, and so to commemorate OTO’s fifth anniversary, I have decided to write about Okamoto’s two longer films from 1981, The White Elephant and Old Man Frypan, both of which also tend to be overlooked in favor of his more well-known classics like Praise Be to Small Ills or The Magic Ballad. (Very many thanks to my friends Meizhan and Kenji for translating them into English!) For these write-ups, I have tried to hold myself back somewhat—you won’t have to deal with too much of the obsessively-detailed descriptions of character animation that are defining what could be my final articles on this blog (revisiting a good chunk of Břetislav Pojar’s filmography), aha—though, given how much I’ve changed as a writer since OTO started, I may not resist the urge to discuss every little interesting thing that catches my eye (or ear) even so.
The White Elephant / 白い象
The White Elephant was based on a story titled “The Great Elephant”, by the Buddhist children’s fairy tale writer Daigaku Hanaoka; the screenplay was by Okamoto and his regular collaborator Yōko Higashikawa. (Information about Hanaoka’s life can be found here in Japanese.) It was co-produced by Okamoto’s studio Echo and the Tōei Educational Film Department in association with the Reiyūkai movement, which is credited with planning. The film opens with a logo for a campaign known as the Movement for the Development of the Soul (魂の開発運動); I can find almost no information on the latter, other than that it was begun in 1980 by the Buddhist scholar Tsugunari Kubo, who at the time was the president of the Reiyūkai (co-founded by his father Kakutarō Kubo and Kimi Kotani). For all its Buddhist origins, though, the film has universal appeal as a beautifully-crafted anti-war parable, showing how no amount of hatred, personal feuding, or royal ambitions can justify the misery and suffering that war inevitably brings upon the common people.
In keeping with the story’s Indian setting, Okamoto appears to have based the film’s layouts and art direction on Mughal miniatures, in turn producing the film using semi-relief puppets against layered backgrounds; this was similar to what Břetislav Pojar had been doing in most of his films since the 1960s, and indeed, Okamoto himself had already used relief puppets to brilliant effect in films like Home, My Home, Praise Be to Small Ills, and The Water Seed. Okamoto’s background artists and prop designers, led by Setsuko Onozawa, did a stellar job reproducing not only the vast, distinctively stylized and flattened architectural layouts of the towns, but even the textures and forms of the landscapes as depicted in Mughal art: witness the lumpy, curved hills and mountains and the color gradients with which they are painted, giving them a sense of shadow and depth, or the bulbous treetops with their decorative, patterned leaves. The puppet-makers, too, led by Okamoto’s frequent collaborator Sumiko Hosaka, created beautifully-designed semi-relief models for the characters with distinct joints, perhaps in a nod to the rather angular posing of human figures in miniatures—in theory, Okamoto could have taken it even further and had them create painted cutout figures and limbs for animators Satoru Yoshida, Ryō Ozaki, Masako Watanabe, and Yoshiko Nakajima to work with, which might have made the film even more like a miniature brought to life, though the added dimensionality and texture certainly gives an extra warmth and humanity to how the characters look, especially the elephants’ fuzziness, as well as allowing them to be more easily animated in a convincing, lifelike manner, not least by having their clothes (or skins) shift, wrinkle, or even blow in the wind depending on their movements. Finally, cameramen Akira Kanbe (神部彰) and Tsutomu Iida, neither of whom worked with Okamoto on any other film, deserve credit for being able to work with the film’s unusual sets, which must have required a lot of space given the amount of pans and wide shots and the number of figures placed in each of them; Iida, in particular, is the real name of none other than a young Umanosuke Iida, who at the time was just getting his animation career started at Oh! Production.
The film’s exotic flavor is evident right from the opening credits, framed by ornamental vines and flowers and accompanied by a mystical-sounding overture composed by the modern classical composer Ryōhei Hirose. Hirose was an ideal choice to serve as the film’s composer, as he had a lifelong interest in creating compositions for traditional instruments like the shakuhachi; moreover, Hirose had already taken two trips to India in 1972-73, which, in addition to deepening his spirituality and interest in shamanism, inspired a series of new compositions which were performed and released as the 1973 album Kalaviṅka (迦稜頻伽). Unfortunately, perhaps due to the scarcity of Indian instrument players in Japan, there are a number of instances in which it sounds like Okamoto and Hirose had to resort to synthesized equivalents to perform the music; in the overture, for example, while the main melody may have been performed by shakuhachi (Indian music has its own bamboo flute, the bansuri) accompanied by occasional sitar plucks, the apparent tanpura that introduces the music and backs the melody with arpeggios has an odd electronic “wah-wah” quality to it, which admittedly does give the music a more unusual sound.
Okamoto then hurls us abruptly into the film’s war-ridden world, opening on a series of lightning-like flashes (accompanied by the banging of a gong) against a still shot of a vast, crowded battle; the suddenness and chaos of it all immediately establishes the ongoing, continuous violence of the setting. From here, he introduces us to this world of small, warring Indian states through a sequence of miniature-like still shots, which, accompanied by Daigo Kusano’s authoritative-sounding narration, convey the sense that these wars have been going on as a historical phenomenon for ages. In particular, as Kusano speaks of how the kings’ desires for expansion resulted in an endless cycle of hatred and battle, eventually leading to the story’s focus on the two kingdoms of Haranishi and Hidaiki and the countless tragedies that resulted from their wars, Okamoto and editor Hisako Aizawa begin switching from closer shots of the battle itself to scenes of the people in the towns suffering, of soldiers who have lost their legs, mothers mourning their fallen sons, poor children begging in the streets, and lovers being separated as the men are conscripted into the armies, making clear from the start how the petty rulers’ ambitions of greatness have ironically only brought despair and poverty to their own subjects. This introductory montage concludes effectively with the film’s first real animated scenes—not of the battles, but of a woman crawling over on her knees to a dead soldier (his corpse slumped on a returning horse) in agony and breaking down in convulsive sobs, and of a soldier trying to pull a farmer’s goat away for the war effort; the latter is accompanied by the film’s recurring motif of a wailing shehnai-like instrument, used to express the intense emotions (most often agony) behind certain pivotal events.
In the vertical establishing pan of Haranishi’s capital that follows, Okamoto brilliantly uses the miniature-inspired stacked layering of the town’s architecture to depict the social hierarchy of a nation at war. At the lowest level, outside the town walls, are the commoners who are exploited, their livestock and young men’s lives taken away from them at will, along with some beggars and gossiping women. The middle level within the town walls, meanwhile, is mainly occupied by soldiers: considered the most important subjects of the kingdom in these dark times, their presence at home ensures that any unrest or rebellion will be swiftly crushed to prevent the kingdom from being destabilized internally. The upper level consists of the palaces of aristocrats and royals, both guarded by a few soldiers, though these two groups are notably separated by a wall; and at the highest level of all, on the royal palace’s viewing platform, are King Biatha and Prince Davindra, literally lording over the town beneath them as well as keeping watch beyond its boundaries. That these levels of the town are depicted as being so closely stacked on top of each other, with almost no distance between them, only further underlines how ridiculous their contrasting conditions and priorities are; indeed, Okamoto proceeds to cut closer in on the two royals to show that, at the same time as the commoners are suffering for a war they did not even start, the richly-dressed King Biatha is busy indoctrinating Prince Davindra with wild dreams of making Haranishi twice as large as it is now, as well as avenging him in the event that he himself dies in battle from pursuing this goal. The young Davindra, in response, simply turns his head and nods, as though blissfully unaware of the gravity of his father’s words; in what seems to be an interesting attempt at keeping a sense of two-dimensionality in the figures, most of the turns in this film are “animated” simply by fading the character’s head or figure between two opposite directions.
As a future ruler, however, the 13-year-old Davindra shows great promise. Okamoto cuts to a full-body shot of Davindra and brings us closer to his youthful, plucky face as the great actress and frequent Okamoto collaborator Kyōko Kishida begins narrating how, in his eyes, the “glint of a valorous and wise future king burned”; we then see scenes of Davindra holding his own while sparring against a much older swordsman near the palace, as well as successfully hunting a deer in the mountain woods with a bow and arrow, as Kishida discusses how he trained his body from a young age and practiced martial arts to become a brave warrior who could serve his father well. From this point on, the narration alternates between Kusano and Kishida, with Kusano narrating more general events and Kishida narrating those events that pertain specifically to Davindra (and later, his young companion Princess Kapita of Hidaiki), emphasizing the two intersecting narrative currents around which the story is based: the ongoing war between Haranishi and Hidaiki, and Prince Davindra’s own struggles and growth as a human being and leader.
This is followed by one of the most formally innovative shots in the film, in which Okamoto again uses the miniature-like layouts to emphasize the social hierarchy: in this case, an important message from the army must pass through a chain of officials on the palace grounds in an almost ceremonial manner to reach King Biatha. In one continuous pan upwards through the layered palace, beginning with the messenger who arrives outside on horseback, each successive messenger relays the information only to the person immediately above him; the way that each messenger pops abruptly to the level above him, rather than being fully shown walking upwards, accentuates how the message moves up only incrementally, having to work its way through many increasingly-trusted layers of royal protection before it can reach the very top of the kingdom. This scene is undergirded by the rhythmic, progressive banging of a tabla, peppered with occasional sitar plucks and chiming flourishes each time the message is handed off to a higher level, complementing the idea that the message’s gradual movement up to the King himself is a ritual on its own.
In a departure from the film’s compositions thus far, Okamoto now switches to a direct front-facing shot of General Liga, one of the highest officials in the land, as he relays some exciting news to King Biatha: a great white elephant has been found in the woods east of the kingdom, one that could very well overpower Hidaiki’s forces and bring victory to Haranishi. This unique shot, more or less showing King Biatha’s point of view, not only better conveys Liga’s submissiveness to the King as he bows down on the floor before him, but also allows us to see how Liga spreads his arms out and even moves his head up and down in a circle to convey the sheer size of the elephant. Okamoto then cuts to a similarly front-facing view of the white elephant with a divine golden light behind him, showing what a godsend the elephant must be to Haranishi’s leaders, and from there he and Aizawa carry out a match dissolve to Liga’s optimistic vision of the future such that this elephant, while remaining in the same magnificent posture, is now dressed in Haranishi’s armor and placed against the battlefield, with Kanbe and Iida trucking out to reveal he is surrounded by Hidaiki’s soldiers. To the chaotic, strainful buzzing of synthesized horns accompanied by a rumbling timpani (perhaps representing the elephant’s own noises), the white elephant is envisioned as being able to rout the soldiers in fairly short order, simply by turning from side to side and swatting them all away with his trunk; so, standing from atop his kiosk, King Biatha immediately orders his troops to capture the white elephant at once, and horns sound out (synthesized, alas) as Haranishi’s forces, led by Prince Davindra, head out on their eastward expedition to capture the elephant.
Okamoto immediately contrasts the tranquil mountain woods with the kingdom: there is only a single static establishing shot of the woods, giving the sense of a world free of social inequalities, and Hirose’s music here is led by shakuhachi and oboe, both creating a sense of untamed, rugged wilderness. Instead of the hustle-and-bustle and rituals of the kingdom, we get a delicate scene of the white elephant almost tip-toeing over to his aged mother and waking her gently by tapping her with his trunk, then inviting her to take a stroll with him and helping her up as birds begin chirping; it is clear from the mother elephant’s subtle expressions and head movements that she is touched by how her son cares for her this much.
As the two elephants walk further into the woods, the white elephant’s caring, humane personality shows in other ways. At first, the mother’s movement has a slight shakiness to it, indicating she cannot walk very well; thus, the white elephant decides to wrap his trunk under her head to help her along for a bit, and moreover clears some boulders and a log from their path. During this time, the mother finds her footing, and urges her son to keep trudging forth while she follows from behind, but soon this is not enough to pass the cumbersome rocks on the high mountain slope: the white elephant must push her from behind so that she can gain the leverage to climb over them. Finally, the white elephant slides down the other side of the mountain with his mother hanging onto him—unfortunately, the animation of them bumping over a rock on the way down is rather sloppily-executed—and, in an impressive reminder of just how big and heavy they are, Okamoto switches to a front-facing view of the elephants as they slide into a lake below, such that the traditionally-animated water splashes all over the screen! This is compounded by how the white elephant, submerged in the lake, begins squirting water out of his trunk like a fountain, with his mother at the very top; it works both as an brilliant integration of puppet and 2D animation and as an understated display of the white elephant’s strength.
For a time, all is well: the white elephant bathes his mother all over as she remarks joyfully on what a majestic, strong elephant he has become, with the distant shot of the two elephants in the lake further conveying just how enormous they are. But at this moment, Prince Davindra and his band arrive in the woods on horseback, and while Davindra at first tries to soak in the peace and beauty of the land, soon enough another kind of Haranishi ritual begins: to the loud strike of a gong, a lookout pops into the screen, perched on a high rock as he watches out for the white elephant, and another set of bangs follow as Davindra himself enters and is guided to the elephant, presaging the violent capture that is to follow. With one drawn-out, overly ceremonial signal from Davindra, he and his soldiers charge down the hills on horseback to capture the white elephant, as the shehnai-like instrument begins wailing over the beating tabla in an expression of the tragedy that is unfolding; this is joined by the dark tones of a synthesized sitar as some of the soldiers throw ropes onto the white elephant and begin trying to pull him away, and this motif is repeated as the mother, seeing the violence being inflicted on her son, attempts to thrash the ropes from the soldiers only to find herself being tied up and restrained by others. The white elephant, seeing his mother being treated this way, begins to ferociously resist, practically pulling the soldiers by their own ropes and smacking them and their horses around with his trunk, and for a moment it seems like the royal expedition has turned out to be a colossal failure.
It is then, though, that Prince Davindra himself intervenes, ordering a halt to the violence as he declares that their target is the white elephant alone, and accordingly he will not allow the mother to be mistreated; Kishida’s voice for the young Davindra has a brilliant sense of urgency and determination, making clear that he is resolute in his order. This bold statement impresses the white elephant—Kanbe and Iida zoom in on his and Davindra’s faces, emphasizing their respective amazement and earnestness, and the puppets being on a separate layer from the backgrounds results in a striking, cinematic feeling of depth as the camera zooms in on them—and he decides to quietly accompany Davindra and his band back to Haranishi’s capitol; as he departs, however, his mother lets out heartrending cries over their separation. As Davindra looks back at the pained mother elephant, he realizes that the white elephant is no ordinary elephant; yet, even as he is stricken with guilt over separating the mother and son, his official duties force him to lodge the mother’s cries deep in his ears.
Back at the palace, a grand banquet is held to celebrate the white elephant’s capture: in a single miniature-like shot, we see that almost all the guests are members of the upper classes, with a number of women acting as servants or dancers and King Biatha and Prince Davindra sitting on an illuminated kiosk above everyone else (General Liga sits just below them), and most of the musicians perform in a small corner beneath the palace walls in a reflection of their low social status. Raising his glass, Biatha declares that the kingdom now has the strength of a million troops, and Liga in turn urges that they should rout Hidaiki’s forces at once so that the name of Haranishi Kingdom may reverberate throughout India, his ambitions of triumph and subcontinental glory coming through quite clearly in his character acting. Davindra, however, remains troubled over the inhuman familial separation it took for them to gain the white elephant, and soon he finds himself walking down the dark, desolate courtyard veranda where the elephant is kept at night, overcome by a desire to see him. Hearing Davindra’s call, the white elephant comes over and begins speaking to him: he accompanied Davindra out of respect for saving his mother, but cannot bear how he is being trained as a tool of war, and leaves Davindra with an urgent plea to end the vicious cycle of war as he returns to his corner. This plea for peace further troubles the kind-hearted Davindra, who walks back slowly and pensively; yet, as with the mother elephant’s cries, he is forced to bury it deep in his heart owing to his high status as the prince.
The very next day, Haranishi’s forces throw themselves right into war preparations: more synthesized horns blare out as soldiers train to fire arrows at the enemy while riding on horseback (in an unfortunate shooting error, the camera position jolts to the right for 10 frames as the first soldier fires his arrow at the cutout), and two servants busy themselves repairing a carriage. In the midst of this feverish activity, however, there is one obstacle ultimately holding everything up: the white elephant’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the war. In a gently humorous sequence characteristic of Okamoto (the underlying gravity of which is played up by Hirose’s soundtrack, consisting of deep, intense-sounding synthesized tanpura-like drones and a restless tabla, occasionally punctuated by the wailing shehnai-like instrument), the dressed-up elephant does not budge from his position in response to the gentle tapping and signaling of the soldier and general perched on top of him, even as other soldiers on horseback ride past; the general initially blames this on the soldier’s incompetence, striking him on the head with his weapon and kicking him off of the elephant outright in frustration, but soon finds that the elephant does not so much as flinch even as he himself vociferously signals to him and beats him on the head. The hold-up is such that, as Prince Davindra watches, even the soldiers on horseback who had just passed by re-enter the scene to see what is going on; a nice comic detail is how the horses themselves step backwards to let the soldiers watch the spectacle.
One night, as Kishida narrates that the white elephant grew more and more frail every day, Davindra decides to visit the white elephant again, and finds that the elephant is weakly curled up, refusing to touch its food. As he asks what’s wrong, his mouth movements rather minimally conveyed through two red lines representing his lips even as Kishida’s voice expresses great concern on his part, the white elephant reveals that he has been thinking of his mother all alone in the mountains, and cannot bear it any longer. In the face of such persistent familial love and care, Davindra is unable to resist his own conscience any longer, and he lets the elephant go even knowing his father’s inevitable rage; before disappearing into the night, the grateful white elephant promises to rush back to help Davindra in return as soon as he finishes taking care of his mother.
Three years pass, and Davindra, once again engaged in a practice swordfight with another soldier, has grown into a fine young warrior; just then, however, a messenger comes in with bad news that his father has been injured in battle, and, pushing his sparring partner out of the way, he rushes over, accompanied by the tense, light tapping of a cymbal and then a tabla, to the very end of the slowly returning, mournful procession of soldiers, where his father lies pained in a carriage. In a perverse mirroring of the white elephant’s situation with his mother, it is precisely Davindra’s own love for his father that inflames a newfound hatred for Hidaiki, and in turn a newfound desire to continue the war in hopes of destroying the rival kingdom; still young, and without the white elephant’s wisdom and experience, his good-natured heart falters, and he openly suppresses his desire to fulfill the elephant’s wish for peace as he declares he will take revenge for his father, his dark, chilling shift in attitude marked by a rumbling, rising, terror-inducing series of synthesized chirps.
This burning thirst for war proves short-lived, however; almost as soon as a cadre of soldiers presumably led by Davindra heads off into the vast battlefield darkened by a stormy sky, Davindra finds himself captive as a result of an ambush by Hidaiki, working with the slaves every day to carry a giant haul of stones along in front of the townspeople under the supervision of a whip-wielding taskmaster. Okamoto wisely does not show the actual ambush; what is more important is that Davindra’s rash judgement has resulted in an even worse situation for him, one that will shortly prove to be a valuable learning experience. At first, the brutal, humiliating treatment in captivity only increases his hatred for Hidaiki and his desire for revenge, but as he listens to the slaves in the cell next to him—their presence clearly seen through the doors that separate the two cells, as Okamoto once again uses the flattened perspective and layering of the miniature art style to brilliant effect—chat loudly about how the royal war between Hidaiki and Haranishi has only caused suffering for the civilians regardless of who wins or loses, he realizes: “people defeated in battle and taken from their homes, people who turn to thievery as taxes grow higher, people who rejected the military and ended up in prison”—all are victims of the war in their own ways.
Davindra’s hard lessons are only furthered when he decides to pay more attention to the Hidakian town around him as he toils the next day. In a single multilayered, diagonal pan through the town, Okamoto and the cameramen give us the same scenes from the opening montage, of soldiers who have lost their legs, of starving children, of mothers mourning their sons, and of women whose lovers are being taken away to do battle, all as Hidaiki’s army prepares to march off once more (there is a downside to the multiplane layering, to be sure, namely that the puppets in the back are not quite grounded in the background art, resulting in them sliding along the art whenever the camera pans); taken together, all these horrible results of the war among the people of Hidaiki, underscored musically by gruesome-sounding, organ-like synthesized buzzing and droning, bring Davindra to finally realize that there are no enemies or allies in suffering, and that to hate an entire nation for the sake of war—to say nothing of keeping this cycle of war going—is unjustifiable. Almost as soon as Davindra’s fundamentally good heart had been consumed by hatred over his father’s injury, it now re-emerges with a far greater understanding of the evils of war on all sides than before, and at last, as he walks pensively back and forth in his jail cell with only the smallest moonlit window above him, he understands the white elephant’s plea for peace.
Now comes a new narrative thread as the film cuts to the young and beloved Princess Kapita of Hidaiki, looking out at the moon from her palace’s own viewing platform as an esoterically peaceful synthesizer theme plays, occasionally embellished with sparkling flourishes and sitar-like plinking. Before long, though, she finds herself intrigued by a rather different sight: in a distant shot showcasing Hidaiki’s vast white palace, perhaps indicative of the better fortunes Hidaiki’s royals have had in the war, we see the white elephant wandering his way through the palace in the night. Without thinking, Kapita marvels at the white elephant as it draws nearer, her innocence established immediately by Kishida’s charming, petite voice for her, whereupon the white elephant raises his trunk towards her, offering her a ride and nodding slightly when she asks as much; thus, climbing over the wall of the viewing platform onto the trunk (some more nice layering of the set and puppets here), Kapita slides down the trunk onto his back of the elephant’s head, and off they go, much to the amusing (almost Pojar-esque) fright of at least one night guard who is forced to back against the prison wall when he finds no other escape.
Soon, they arrive at Davindra’s cell, and the white elephant announces his return, with Davindra in turn rushing to the jail door; at first, however, the guard stumbles over from behind the elephant, trying to dissuade him from letting Davindra escape. Luckily, before things can get destructive, Kapita slides down from the elephant and orders the guard, who is taken aback by the princess’s arrival and quickly moves to stand at attention, to open the cell, claiming it’s her father’s orders. Thus, the guard unlocks and opens the cell—in a neat effect, the door opens three-dimensionally in perspective, even as Davindra and the guard turning towards each other afterwards is conveyed by the usual fading! (perhaps because the door is already a flat object to begin with)—and announces the presence of Princess Kapita; at first, Davindra is intimidated as Kapita draws closer to him, but Kapita assures him that she is here as a friend, greeting him with a smile, a little head-bow, and a gift of a yellow rose before declaring that they shall go together, much to the guard’s astonishment and Davindra’s own slight bewilderment.
As Kapita and Davindra journey through the palace together on the white elephant, Kapita confides that she lied about Davindra’s release being ordered by her father: it was a result of her natural innocence and curiosity, as she “wanted to stroll around watching the moon from atop this white elephant, together with the prince of a foreign land.” Just as the elephant has settled in a nice place from which the two of them can peacefully view the moon, however, soldiers pop out from the ramparts towering above them, declaring that Haranishi’s troops led by King Biatha himself are arriving at Hidaiki’s walls. Knowing that further bloodshed will result, Davindra declares that they must go to his father on the battlefield, with the white elephant concurring and stating that the time has come for him to be of service; Kapita, too, agrees to implore her own father to end this struggle, and they head off to the battlefield. (Note that, just as they start to set off, Kapita’s head is actually animated turning around in perspective instead of fading; perhaps this helps convey her youthful excitement at what is to come.)
Meanwhile, just as a messenger is pointing out Haranishi’s attack to King Shirasena of Hidaiki, the prison guard from earlier rushes into the palace and breathlessly alerts Shirasena to Davindra’s alleged kidnapping of Kapita; Shirasena’s enragement is such that he raises his arms up and trembles as he cries out to the heavens in fury, and he immediately orders that all of Hidaiki’s troops be mobilized in a single mass formation against Haranishi. The needless, innumerable toll on human lives that such a rash attack would inevitably cause—not just against Haranishi’s army, but also against Shirasena’s own subjects—is made evident in two consecutive shots showing crowds of Hidaiki’s soldiers marching off in the dark night to the battlefield: Okamoto gives us a close-up of two extremely cluttered rows of soldiers riding off, separated only by a town wall between them and lit by the foreboding orange glow of fires lighting the way, and this is followed by a wider shot showing that at least three long, endless rows of soldiers, taking up the entire palace and seemingly representing the entire able-bodied populace of Hidaiki, are now heading off to be sacrificed in what could very well be the ultimate expression of this petty royal feud and the miseries it has wrought on the peoples of both lands. This finally leads to a shot of Hidaiki’s war elephants, their sword-wielding masters perched on their backs; in an unnerving indication of how thoroughly they have been trained as war machines, and in striking contrast with the soldiers themselves, they stomp forth in perfect synchrony with each other.
At the battlefield, Okamoto alternates between close-ups of both armies as they pull out their weapons and prepare for battle, only to be taken by surprise as some begin pointing out the arrival of a strange sight—the white elephant, with Davindra and Kapita at the top, much to the shock of both kings Biatha and Shirasena. The tense atmosphere throughout this sequence, as the white elephant slowly takes his position right in the middle of the vast battlefield between the two armies, is emphasized by how all is silent save the wind blowing loudly; soon, however, the generals on both sides attempt to goad their forces to charge forth, only for the white elephant to roar against both sides, frightening the soldiers and war animals to a screeching, stumbling halt.
With this initial deterrent, Davindra begins to speak solemnly and forcefully, turning from side to side and banging his fist down on the elephant’s ear as he asks the two kings how long they plan to continue the fight, pleading with them to end it now. Bringing out their swords, Biatha and Shirasena refuse, proclaiming that they must fulfill their fathers’ respective desires for revenge and expansion (and gesturing threateningly and accordingly as they do), whereupon Davindra rebukes them, raising his clenched fist at both parties as he points out that the suffering of their own peoples is all that comes of such endless desires. His words, and the resoluteness with which he speaks, are enough to calm the two kings down for a time; but they are insufficient to quell the uncertainty in the air as the kings are faced with the necessity of somehow putting aside such long-held grudges and ambitions (which, to boot, have almost certainly been propagated amongst their conscripted subjects for years), and sure enough, just as the generals start whispering to their respective kings about how the younger soldiers are purportedly itching to do battle, the vanguards in the two armies, fed up with the kings’ indecisiveness and evidently seeking some kind of catharsis after having been brought all this way in the middle of the night, begin charging towards each other recklessly, with belligerent gongs ringing out to herald the beginning of what will prove to be the most important battle yet.
As Davindra stretches his hands out at both sides and turns back and forth in a desperate bid to get the opposing armies to stop, his feverish panic evident in the abrupt shehnai-like cries on Hirose’s soundtrack (to which his movements are briefly synchronized) and how his head is even animated turning in perspective, the white elephant at last springs into action: turning towards Hidaiki’s army, he lets out a cry and charges forth, swiftly overpowering the one war elephant who dares to challenge him to a pounding drum rhythm accentuated with cymbals, then turns to the other direction and, in an ironic reprise of what General Liga had previously dreamed the elephant would do to Hidaiki’s army, swats Haranishi’s horse-backed soldiers away with his trunk, complete with even the same buzzing, rising synthesized horns that had accompanied that earlier scene. Okamoto concludes this putdown by repeating the distant shot of the vast battlefield with the white elephant in the middle, this time with a few dropped weapons scattered across the empty middle space and a handful of soldiers pitifully crawling, crutch-walking, or being carried back to their sides, showing that the elephant has thoroughly cowed both armies into submission—in making the case for peace, Davindra must nevertheless rely on the sheer strength of the white elephant to force both opposing armies to stand down, as at the moment such brute force seems to be the only language that they are willing to listen to.
With both sides now unable to fight, Davindra begins giving a more heartfelt speech, urging the kings to withdraw their troops, find a way to communicate with each other earnestly, and turn to their own suffering subjects so that they will no longer be able to sustain their desires and hatreds—at one point, Okamoto and Aizawa switch to a front-facing view of Davindra and Kapita as though they were appealing directly to us, allowing us to see Davindra’s sincerity and Kapita’s kindly innocence firsthand just as the kings are. This does not elicit any immediate response; thus, in an ultimatum, Davindra pulls his dagger out and raises it up for everyone to see as he—now speaking only in tense, halted, dramatic statements, stressing the deadly finality of what he may do next—commands the kings to come up and surrender their swords to the white elephant as a sign of peace, or else he will end both Kapita’s life and his own.
It is here, as Davindra threatens to sacrifice the two young royals who represent a hope for a better future in both kingdoms, that Hirose’s credentials as a modernist composer become plainly evident, and Okamoto’s penchant for bringing the visuals and music together into an inseparable whole shines most brightly. The appearance of the dagger is complemented by two grave shamisen-like strums of the synthesized tanpura, almost announcing that this is a critical turning point in the situation, and these prove to be the introduction for an unpredictable, dissonant series of startling instrumental sweeps, of sitar plucks, clattering woodblocks, banged-upon piano keys, synthesized tanpura drones, harsh flute warbles and chirps, descending flexatones, and nervous violin plucks, as Davindra gives the two kings one last chance to make peace—perfectly creating an atmosphere of thick apprehension, bolstered by how the film once again cuts to a distant shot of the now completely still battlefield, as no one quite knows for sure what will happen next.
As Davindra and Kapita once more look from side to side, accompanied by a fitful dancing violin string and dissonant piano banging, the two kings at last begin slowly making their way over to the white elephant, their hesitance conveyed brilliantly by how each and every step they take is faded, with the upward glissandos of the flexatone and violin-plucking and the skitters of the woodblock reflecting the changing situation perfectly; this is followed by a cacophony of abrupt violin plucks and flute chirps as the two kings draw closer to each other at the opposite sides of the elephant, which culminates in a harsh screech as they raise up their swords and stare at each other intently, as though prepared to defend themselves if one of them should attack the other suddenly. Before this can go any further, though, the white elephant begins to mediate by conducting a ritual of his own, pointing towards Hidaiki with his trunk (to a warbling flute and a guitar pluck) as a way of gesturing for them to give it up; with the piano underlining that they understand, the two kings step towards each other. Tensely and carefully, as played up by the clattering woodblock and the quiet violin-plucking, they take their scabbards out and raise up their swords horizontally and symbolically, as though caught at the crossroads between reinserting them in the scabbards and attacking each other with them; with an additional signal from the elephant to a descending series of flexatone strikes, this time pointed towards Haranishi, the two kings find the will to put their swords back in their scabbards, and with that the flute begins to warble wildly as the elephant takes their swords from them with his trunk and swings them back and forth a little—before throwing them high into the air to the crashing of a triumphant gong, symbolizing the end of the war as the soldiers of both kingdoms, whispering to each other as they realize what has just happened, throw off their own weapons and begin to cheer and rejoice raucously!
As the sun rises on a bright new day, the white elephant lifts the joyful Princess Kapita in the air, and she waves goodbye to Prince Davindra and claps with childlike glee at being lifted before she is returned to King Shirasena; there is a bizarre freeze in the animation as she runs over and embraces her father, which could be Okamoto’s way of highlighting the pivotality of the moment in a rather photographic manner. Davindra, meanwhile, receives a pat on his back from his proud father, and the two of them clasp their hands together. The white elephant, seeing that all is now well, begins slowly trudging back into the mountain woods as Davindra, Kapita, and the two kings see him off; his departure is shown as a fading series of illustrations of him heading further away into the woods with the beautiful sunrise sky above him, depicting perfectly the tender love and gratitude with which he is now viewed by the royals, and the film closes on a shot of Davindra and Kapita surrounded by the ornamental framing of the opening titles, embodying the hope of a new tomorrow for Haranishi and Hidaiki.
Old Man Frypan / ふらいぱんじいさん
Old Man Frypan was based on a picture book written by children’s author Toshiko Kanzawa and illustrated by Seiichi Horiuchi, with a screenplay by Higashikawa, Okamoto, and Kunpei Nagakura; this was the same trio that had written Okamoto’s previous classics Towards the Rainbow and Panache the Squirrel. This time, the cameraman was Okamoto’s and Kihachirō Kawamoto’s regular Minoru Tamura; otherwise, most of the key crew was carried over from The White Elephant, including narrators/voice actors Kyōko Kishida (in what would be her final film with Okamoto) and Daigo Kusano, animators Ryō Ozaki, Satoru Yoshida, Masako Watanabe, and Yoshiko Nakajima (joined here by Takako Yokokawa), puppet-maker Sumiko Hosaka, background artist Rinko Kawashita (joined here by Yūko Kobayashi and Masami Tokuyama, the latter also a regular of Okamoto’s and Kawamoto’s films), and even music composer Ryōhei Hirose, who proved with his very different soundtrack here that he was a composer of remarkable range. The main producer of this film besides Echo was the advertising company Dentsū, which over the years has helped produce several other anime (most notably the films of Studio Ghibli).
While not as thematically sophisticated as The White Elephant, this film is no less lovingly crafted, and in some ways even more visually captivating. Given that the main character is a piece of cookware, it is only natural that Okamoto had the puppets created with clay; at the same time, however, Okamoto may have wanted to preserve the picture-book quality of the original story, as he not only chose to use semi-relief animation again in creating the film, with the clay puppets in this case being set against simply-drawn but eye-popping, painterly backgrounds, but even incorporated some extensive sequences of 2D effects animation into the proceedings, with some scenes being downright impressive in how expertly they bring the puppets and the painted animation together. The story itself, about an old and abandoned frying pan who goes on a journey through many different places, meets various colorful characters along the way who see in him something other a frying pan, and eventually finds a truly meaningful and life-affirming purpose on a remote but lovely island, is also more purely an expression of Okamoto’s own worldview, with its curiosity and love for humanity and the truly wonderful, diverse world in which we live; indeed, similarly to the previous year’s The Forgotten Doll, the film’s message at heart is that, no matter no old or anxious or world-weary you may be, it is never too late to go on an adventure in this wide world of ours, discover that you are capable of much more than you realize, make new friends, and live life to the fullest with what you have.
As usual, Okamoto’s care for every aspect of the film extends to the opening credits themselves, which in this case were brilliantly animated with clay in a reflection of the film’s medium—quite literally, small pieces of clay are animated morphing into the credits, often splitting off from larger lumps at the edges of the screen beforehand! The painstaking effort that must have been required for the animator to gradually sculpt the clay into the intricate kanji of the staff names and roles is surely worthy of a title design award in itself; Hirose’s memorable C-major theme song for the film, led by a wistful harmonica and backed mainly by guitar, evokes warm feelings of comfort and nostalgia with a slight melancholy undertone.
Okamoto starts the story off in a quick, efficient manner, opening with a freeze-frame on a black frying pan being carried over to the stove as a kindly old face fades in on the surface; Kishida introduces this gentle presence, who raises his eyebrows at us, as the titular Old Man Frypan. As he is placed on the stovetop and heated up, his face disappears to make way for an egg, with Kishida narrating that he loved frying eggs as golden as sun for children; in this regard, we see Old Man Frypan hanging very happily with his utensil and pan friends on the pot rack afterwards. Yet soon he fades away from this shot, as he has been replaced in egg-frying by a new, smaller frying pan, much to the disappointment of his old friends; he himself is abandoned to a dark place beneath the sink, his only companions a cockroach and a wise older wok, both of whom encourage the disheartened Frypan to cheer up and escape to see the whole new world that awaits him outside.
The cockroach’s very presence proves fortuitous in this regard, even as Frypan himself is unwilling at first. Okamoto and editor Hisako Aizawa suddenly cut to a shot of the house’s exterior the next day as the lady of the house is heard screaming and what sounds like a kotsuzumi starts skittering madly over the soundtrack: something is horribly, direly wrong enough that she can be heard from outside the open window, and the rapid jump cuts that bring us closer and closer to the window as the screaming and skittering continue only confirm this impression. As it turns out, the lady had taken Old Man Frypan out with the intention of frying some vegetables, only to find the cockroach on him—thus, cameraman Minoru Tamura zooms out from a close-up of Frypan and the cockroach peeking out from within him, revealing the mayhem of the surroundings passing by them curvingly as the lady screams and runs around the house with them in her katsaridaphobic hysteria! She proceeds to toss them out the window, whereupon poor Old Man Frypan lands in the crevices between some boxes on a passing delivery truck; the Dutch angle above the cargo gives us a good view of the developing situation as Frypan, who has now sprouted arms and legs, peeks out from behind a box and struggles to climb onto the top so he can escape, only to be jolted back into his crevice by the bumpy ride anyways. Soon, he finds himself trapped in a net as he is raised with the boxes onto a cargo ship, uncertain as to where he is headed from here…
In due time, Old Man Frypan finds himself wandering forlornly through a vast, hilly field as he begins his travels with a heavy heart, accompanied by a slower version of the film’s theme song, but is nevertheless captivated by how bright the outside world is as he looks around; in a conceptually interesting shot that takes advantage of how one does not horizontally move forward as much when climbing up slopes (especially the steeper they are), Frypan is animated walking up the hill in front of him as though he were moving towards us, with the layering itself helping to hide the fact that his puppet is not actually moving closer to the screen (this is physically impossible with semi-relief animation, which involves animating on flat planes after all). Though worried, Frypan gradually realizes there are still plenty of things he could do; taking a deep breath, he decides to cheer up, and, pumping his rubber-hose arms, sets off with a genki strut.
Soon, Old Man Frypan is sleeping peacefully in the jungle, his handle curving up and down just as people inhale and exhale while sleeping, with the sounds of monkeys and birds all around him—but this rest is interrupted by the sudden sound of wings flapping violently in the air. Sure enough, a leopard is slinking his way towards Old Man Frypan behind the bushes, and just as soon as Frypan notices and begins trembling in fright as he tries to find his footing to get away, the leopard pops out and begins snarling and clawing towards him recklessly from behind the bushes, eventually pouncing towards him as he tries to back away! What makes these early shots with the leopard even more effective, seen as they are from Frypan’s point of view, is that Okamoto and his animators tried to create the impression of dimensionality by splitting the leopard’s puppet into two different layers on the animation table: for the first shot with him clawing towards the screen, most of his body is behind the bushes, whereas his flimsy limbs clawing towards us are clearly on top of the bushes (if you go through the sequence frame-by-frame, you will notice that at times it even looks as though the leopard’s arms are going right through the leaves), and then for the even more impressive shot of him seemingly pouncing out from the bushes towards the screen, the leopard’s body is often split between the two layers above and below the bushes depending on where he is in his pounce, with Sumiko Hosaka and her team creating individual, differently-sized-and-posed sculpts of the leopard’s two sections (or entire body) for every two frames, and a slight zoom-in on and blurring of the shot by Tamura completes the effect of him charging towards us!
The leopard pins down the terrified Old Man Frypan, but his ferocity quickly turns to curiosity as he begins wondering just what he has found; largely unfamiliar with human civilization, he settles on the possibility that Frypan could be some kind of mirror as he sticks his long tongue out towards him. Still unsure, he decides to ask an approaching leopard about it, only to get an intriguing character introduction as this she-leopard, eyes half-closed, enters by elegantly striking some yoga and martial arts-esque poses in a calm, zen-like fashion to some enigmatic-sounding kalimba music with a brief bongo interlude in the middle, making clear from the start that she is obsessed with her own mystique and elusiveness (indeed, it is only her realization that she has accidentally kicked the strange object held by the he-leopard that snaps her out of her odd, vain trance); accordingly, she is mortified when, assuring the he-leopard that his tongue is still red, she takes a look at herself in the alleged mirror only to find that, from the dim reflection of her face on Frypan’s black surface, she has apparently become a black panther! As she bemoans her purportedly changed appearance, the he-leopard attempts to reassure her in a flirtatious manner that she looks the same as ever, complete with splendid spots—a nice touch is how the she-leopard’s spots sort of pop in and out, drawing attention to themselves, in response to the latter—only to begin screaming and stomping and shoving Frypan into the she-leopard’s face himself in theatrical agony, underscored by chaotic bongo-drumming, as he takes a look in the “mirror” again and realizes he is apparently the black one! Infuriated at this violation of her dignity, with her head now squashed from Frypan, the she-leopard begins smacking at the he-leopard, accompanied by the kalimba being played at a much faster tempo than before, as she cries that he looks the same as ever while she is the black one—rotating an entire 360° and twisting herself around to keep the smacking up as he tries to get away by scurrying beneath her to the other side!—and a heated argument breaks out between the two silly leopards over who is normal and who is black, complemented musically by the dueling bongo and kalimba, culminating in them pulling each other by their tails as poor Old Man Frypan, at first perplexed at the sight and no doubt unaware before now that he could serve as a dangerous tinted mirror, takes the opportunity to escape deeper into the jungle.
In his haste, however, he trips over a large rock, with his round head against the rock in turn causing him to bounce rollingly into the treetops, his handle caught in one of the hook-like branches. This quickly attracts a trio of monkeys, who gradually realize, as they touch him and thwack him slightly with their tails and even swing feet-first into him, that Frypan is for them a sort of bell; Hirose initially conveys their chattering and fidgety movements through some atonal, skittish flute-playing, then starts adding in a much louder twanging flexatone to represent their euphoria as one of them hits upon the idea of banging Frypan with a stick, and then has the flexatone and the underlying percussion become increasingly persistent as tensions rise between the monkeys over who gets to bang Frypan, culminating in a squabble in which they try to pull Frypan and then their actual squishy clay heads from each other before going at it and beating each other in a jumbled mess!
Frypan is dropped onto the ground as a result, and to an uptempo version of the film’s theme song backed by a catchy wah-wah guitar beat, he scrambles off and flees for dear life from the jungle; once again, he finds himself in a hilly landscape, with Okamoto once again using the layering of the hills (with their natural geography in mind) to create the impression of Frypan running towards us from the jungle in the distance and then tripping as he reaches the top of the front hill. As he lies on the ground panting, Kusano’s voice makes it sound as though he is ready to throw up; combined with how he violently shudders afterwards, it perfectly conveys his disgust and horror with his experiences in the jungle, where the wild, capricious animals have used him for all the wrong reasons. Flipping himself over, he looks up at the sky and sees the partly cloud-covered sun as a fried egg, reminding him of what he sees as his true purpose.
Almost by lucky coincidence, Old Man Frypan’s staring at the sun is interrupted by a large ostrich passing above him: marveling at this “majestic” bird as he sits up, he realizes that it could lay a particularly large egg for him to fry. Thus, stepping over to the ostrich and taking on a martial stance, he yells “Oy!” and begins chasing after the startled bird, who understandably is frightened at the sight of this small screaming skillet; Hirose accompanies this with a preposterously foreboding, repetitive, almost Jaws-like chase theme played by a solo clarinet. In the jungle, Frypan was entirely subservient to whatever the animals who found him thought was his purpose; now the dynamic is reversed on the savanna as he himself attempts to force what he sees as his calling upon the ostrich.
Of course, whether in the jungle or in the savanna, one-sided coercion of this sort is bound to end badly for all involved. The only thing that stops the ostrich is that it runs right into a tree as a result of how it keeps looking backwards in its desperation to get away from Old Man Frypan, the camera and tree alike shaking violently as the ostrich’s beak is left horribly mangled before it slides down slowly and painfully; to add insult to injury, Frypan runs right over the injured ostrich before coming to a stop himself! Panting, he begins demanding the bird lay an egg for him, even gesturing the action for it as though it cannot understand what he is saying; all of a sudden, as some questioning clarinet music begins, the now-recovered ostrich realizes what is being asked of him and refuses, eventually revealing that he is a boy as the insistent Frypan begins popping from place to place around him (as though trying to find out how to make this thing lay an egg). When Frypan continues to demand an egg even knowing full well that he’s a boy—clearly oblivious, in his sheltered former life, to the fact that only females can lay eggs—the ostrich gets fed up and, circling his leg around to rev it up, gives Old Man Frypan a back-kick that sends him flying through the sky!
By night, we see that Old Man Frypan has landed in the desert, his handle stuck inside the sand as a result of his landing. At first, he remains single-mindedly devoted to his original purpose, looking forlornly at the moon and seeing in it yet another fried egg, but soon his attention is caught by the sound of a distressed voice sobbing and lamenting that his mom is gone; wriggling his way out of his landing spot, he heads further into the desert and finds a lost baby camel. It is here that Frypan’s altruistic side, rooted in how his egg-frying job was ultimately for the joy of children, begins to shine brightly, as he shows genuine concern for the baby camel in asking him what’s wrong; when the camel at first mistakes him for a ghost and starts getting scared, Frypan comes over and jovially reassures him of who he really is, describing his job and showing himself off in such a way that piques the camel’s curiosity. This leads to a wonderful demonstration of how he makes the pancakes go “poof”, as he begins jumping up and doing all sorts of tricky flips and turns that make the camel laugh; underscored by a playful clarinet-bongo-piano theme, it is a brief moment of joy for the baby camel, and a pivotal moment in Frypan’s growth as a character. There are no overbearing jungle animals to shoehorn him into whatever they find in him, nor any potential egg-laying birds to bring his most selfish tendencies to the fore; instead, there is a genuine desire to make this poor, lost baby camel happy.
Alas, no amount of fun can make the baby camel forget that his mother is gone, and he begins sobbing again, tears streaming down his face, as he asks where his mother is; before he can run off, however, Old Man Frypan holds him back out of concern for his well-being, comforting him and cajoling him tenderly to take a seat with his warm voice and demeanor as he admonishes him not to run around while he’s lost. As he tries thinking of a way to inform people that the camel is lost, he suddenly recalls his less-than-pleasant experience with the monkeys: realizing now that the way they banged on him to create a loud noise may actually be useful here, Frypan tells the baby camel to start kicking him, assuring him that his mommy will hear and come running. When all is said and done, even the worst experiences of your life tend to have valuable lessons or things you learned the hard way, which could very well save your life or others’ lives in the future; in a touching show of his new selflessness, Frypan encourages the baby camel to keep kicking him even as the camel notices him wincing in pain and worries he is getting hurt.
The banging rings out all through the desert, and soon all is well again as the baby camel is reunited with his loving, overjoyed mother. As the two camels head off, Frypan at last realizes that he may be capable of far more than egg-frying; his expanded worldview and newfound sense of purpose give him something to be truly happy about, and he looks up again at the moon, now seeing it for what it truly is as he imagines it smiling back at him and waves. Thus, over the next several days, he begins a long and difficult trek across the desert, often finding himself displeased with the blazing sun—Tamura turns the camera’s exposure and focus settings up and down repeatedly within this single shot of the sun, perfectly conveying the strobing intensity of its hot, bright light as it shines down upon Frypan—or the occasional 2D-animated sandstorms that buffet and nearly bury him, but nevertheless compelled to keep going in the hope that something better awaits.
His patience is at last rewarded when, one day, he arrives at the sea; remembering how the only water he had seen beforehand was from a weak old faucet, he runs over to the beautifully painted waves moving calmly in and out over the sand as some relaxed wah-wah guitar strumming leads once more into the film’s theme song. He hesitates to step in at first, backing away from the water as it comes in, but ultimately finds the courage to just make a running jump for it, diving headfirst into a deeper part of the ocean as its waves continue moving along; the waves’ painted textures work marvelously in giving the ocean a sense of volume and reality, even if their actual animation is relatively simplistic.
In the ocean, Old Man Frypan finds himself surrounded by a group of small, curious fish, who come to the conclusion that he must be a tadpole; later, he revels in the sight of the flying fish and migrating birds as he floats along the surface of the ocean, at times swimming with the dolphins and cargo ships that pass by him. If the depth of field in the dolphin scene is any indication, the ocean waves must have required multiple different layers of painted animation to create, complete with Frypan and the other puppets being placed on particular layers as needed; this integration of 2D and puppet is nothing short of impeccable, and life for Frypan is, at the moment, idyllic and good.
This peace is not to last, however; just as Frypan sees the birds off, the sky suddenly darkens, and a giant wave emerges from the distance and spans at least two layers to swallow him up! Things become even darker as a giant storm cloud, taking the form of a kaiju, begins towering over the waves with arms outstretched, in turn pulling back and summoning all its strength to grow to an even more enormous size as it starts spewing out rain and lightning; thus begins the film’s single most impressive sequence as the birds, themselves animated and painted in 2D, are almost all blown away by the strong winds or drowned in the dark, massive waves, and as the storm grows, even Old Man Frypan finds himself literally being thrown and bumped around by the now-ridiculously tall waves.
As he flails around in the stormy waters, Old Man Frypan is joined by a small bird struggling desperately for life amidst the waves; in the midst of what appears to be a hopeless situation, surrounded by seemingly endless layers of waves crashing down upon them, Frypan nevertheless exhorts the bird to grab onto him for safety, his own buoyancy in turn managing to save the bird from certain death as he holds onto it tightly. Alas, it is right at this point that things go from bad to worse: heralded by incredible lightning, a giant octopus rises out of the water and takes the bird for itself!
Enraged, Frypan begins attacking the octopus by jumping around in the violent waters and smacking himself into it, the sheer chaos of the situation emphasized by Aizawa’s rapid cutting between the octopus and Frypan flying through the air (Tamura at one point even zooms in on the octopus to show Frypan’s point-of-view as he charges towards it!), only to be grabbed by one of its tentacles himself; upon discovering just how tight the octopus’s grip is to the point where his handle gets mangled as a result, he condemns the octopus for holding the small bird in a similar fashion, calling him all kinds of mean names. Now provoked, a particularly violent burst of lightning strikes down as the octopus sprays a massive, painted burst of ink at Old Man Frypan—which, just as Frypan planned (according to Kishida’s narration afterwards—perhaps he thought back to his experiences as a mirror with the leopards), reflects right back into the octopus, covering the whole screen in black!
When the film fades back in, the storm has subsided, with the octopus defeated, as Old Man Frypan drifts along the waves peacefully under the sunset with the little bird perched upon his bent-up handle. Flapping its wings to dry them, the little bird chirps and thanks Frypan as it heads off to catch up with its friends; although bruised and bent-up and no longer able to move, Frypan is nevertheless satisfied with the fact that he has saved the bird’s life. For a few more days and nights, with the occasional shooting star appearing in the sky, he continues drifting along to what seems to be the theme song’s forlorn-sounding, A minor-infused coda; finally, he washes up on the shore of a small island, and as night falls, the incapacitated Frypan reminisces on all the experiences he has had over the course of his long journey of self-discovery, before finally dozing off as he thinks back to his old friends in the kitchen… (In an extra light-hearted, amusing touch, a turtle stops and stretches its head towards him as he sleeps, clearly intrigued by the sight of this mangled-up frying pan on the beach, before continuing to walk off into the ocean.)
The next morning, a group of migrating birds arrives at the island, and as it happens, one of them is the very bird Old Man Frypan had saved in the ocean. Recognizing the decrepit Frypan, the bird comes down and asks what he is doing here, whereupon Frypan, himself recognizing the bird, states that he may not have much longer. As several other birds begin gathering on the battered Frypan’s rim and handle, he asks that they take him up to see the sun once more; the birds, in turn, go above and beyond in their kindness as, struggling with his heavy weight at first, they carry him all the way to the top of a tree, with a few flexatone chirps that represent their struggling, flapping wings making way for what turns out to be a gentle, peaceful rearrangement of the theme song, performed mainly by flute, clarinet, and piano. At night, the birds, grateful for how Old Man Frypan has created a place for them to rest by letting leaves fall into him, all sleep together inside the leaf-covered Frypan, everyone keeping each other warm and comfy in the night beneath the smiling moon.
In due time, Old Man Frypan at last finds his true calling as a new group of birds arrives and lays their eggs on him; basking in the light of the sun, he is able to conduct its heat such that the eggs can be warmed and eventually hatched without their parents having to constantly sit on them. This ultimate purpose as a warm, comfortable nest is at once the culmination of his former egg-frying obsession and its total antithesis, showing how much he has grown as an old frying pan: whereas before his cooking effectively sealed the doom of the baby birds that would have evolved from the eggs he fried, now his heating helps bring new bird lives into the world. As time passes, Frypan’s reputation among the birds spreads rapidly, and every spring and autumn, in addition to the grown-up birds who had themselves hatched in his care, more migratory birds come to the island to lay their eggs on him while sharing their songs and stories with him, much to his delight; in the end, he becomes a grandfather to birds everywhere.
Okamoto concludes the film with a long, distant shot of the island as numerous colorful, traditionally-animated flocks of birds arrive and depart, accompanied by a final reprise of the theme song; in one last example of his team’s painstaking attention to detail under his direction, the animator and/or colorist of this scene managed to visibly depict the birds’ flapping wings even in spite of their miniscule sizes. Kishida, in what would prove to be her final lines for Okamoto, narrates that, even now, within the vast blue ocean, there lies an island where the birds always play, and the fried egg-loving Old Man Frypan gently holds precious eggs.
While they may not be the absolute best that his filmography has to offer, both The White Elephant and Old Man Frypan are clear labors of love that, beneath their very different surfaces and storytelling approaches, showcase Okamoto’s affirmation of life and the good that humanity is capable of. Their timeless themes, relating to the importance of helping others, improving people’s lives, and finding yourself as a person, to say nothing of the horrors of war or how wonderful the world beyond ourselves may be, resonate in today’s troubled world as much as they ever have; here I remind the reader that Okamoto’s priority as a filmmaker was never to simply experiment with animation so much as to communicate human themes like these in the most effective and creative ways imaginable, and as these two films succeed more than eminently in that regard, they deserve far more than to be dismissed merely as minor works in his oeuvre.