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Toadette  
#1 Posted : Wednesday, May 4, 2016 9:36:03 PM(UTC)
Toadette

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Little Jumbo, Joe and the Rose, and Ringing Bell

Little Jumbo can be viewed here.

Joe and the Rose can be viewed here.

Ringing Bell is commonly available.


Sanrio's film studio was surely one of the more interesting animation studios to arise at a time when animation in America had fallen into a rut. Their ambition to take over the American animation industry in Disney's wake ended in disaster—it did not help that the film they had relied on for success, Metamorphoses (later re-released as Winds of Change), was developed and helmed by Takashi Masunaga (a.k.a. Takashi), a Hanna-Barbera designer whose track record was not very encouraging, to say the least. (He ultimately passed away on January 21 last year, leaving behind a less-than-stellar legacy of animated mockbusters and several episodes of shows like Muppet Babies.)

Back in Japan, however, the Sanrio studio put out a slew of interesting, often great films that were generally quite different from the anime at the time, and easily outdo anything the American industry was churning out at that point (and I definitely include the Disney studio in this). Here, I'd like to focus on the earliest films that Sanrio made—specifically, the three films based on children's stories by the wonderful Japanese writer and illustrator Takashi Yanase.

The staff that worked on these films, among them Shigeru Yamamoto, Mikiharu "Kanji" Akabori, Kazuko Nakamura, Maya Matsuyama, Toshio Hirata, Masami Hata, Takateru Miwa, and Sadao Miyamoto, had worked together to some degree on various earlier projects, most notably Mushi Pro's first two Animerama films (A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra), The Kindly Lion (also based on a Yanase book), and, most recently at that point, Group TAC's Jack and the Beanstalk. (The latter employed a system of casting the animators by character; they're listed here.) Yanase himself had been the character designer and art director on Nights, with Mushi Pro in turn allowing him to direct Lion under their auspices as a thank-you for his work on the film. So it was that these artists by and large all knew each other when Shintarō Tsuji, founder of Sanrio, decided to bring them under his company for his crazy plan to consistently turn out full animation in the Japanese animation industry.

The first Sanrio film, Little Jumbo, based on an earlier Yanase picture book, is clearly the work of talented folks who banded together for a triumphant beginning to their filmmaking endeavors, while of course going against the grain in general. Its story, about a talented boy-and-elephant duo that washes up on an eccentric island paradise which soon finds itself caught in a destructive war, is embellished with a whole grab-bag of truly inspired visual ideas and imagery—take note of the flying glove ripped off from Yellow Submarine (which Yanase himself considered one of his top favorite films)—not to mention moody, yet vivid color styling for each sequence, with a color scheme specifically suited to the tone and events of the sequence in question. There's even some cinematic touches here and there—take note of the impressionistic shadows during the confrontation between Baloo (the little boy who has as his companion the elephant Jumbo) and the King, for instance!

What's more, the film takes the form of an animated opera, with lyrics by Yanase and a brilliant score by Taku Izumi (performed by the New Chamber Music Society). One of the songs heard in the film is the famous Yanase-Izumi song "Raise Your Hand to the Sun" (手のひらを太陽に), first heard on Minna no Uta in 1962 and popular in Japan since; the first verse is sung by the chorus right after Jumbo and Baloo's second performance, and the second verse is poignantly sung towards the end of the film as the islanders rejoice in their survival, with the island itself being revitalized in turn. Toshie Kusunoki sings as Baloo, while Masanobu Shishikura gives the literally rosy, but not particularly respected and at times tyrannical King his rich baritone voice. The chorus is provided by Bonny Jacks, a famous male choir that had worked with Yanase on The Kindly Lion and which is still active today, and Katsuko Morita and the Pretties (I have no idea who they are, nor have I found any information on them). Eiko Masuyama is not credited to any voice in particular; I assume she did Jumbo's child-like laughing, which sets off the King's murderous rage against him.

The best part is that it all works to create a truly enjoyable film, one arguably as relevant today in its commentary on the destruction, ill-will, and tragedy caused by war as it was back in 1975. The animation is often quite fluid and well-defined—there's no mistaking the King for, say, Baloo if you were to judge from their movements alone; according to Ben Ettinger, Sanrio actually cast their animators by character, though I'm afraid I haven't seen concrete evidence for that yet. Ettinger did identify Mikiharu Akabori as animating the flying cannonballs (you gotta love their faces!), and I would say he did all the other effects animation as well. I might even guess that Kazuko Nakamura did the roses, due to their femininity (she was good at animating convincing women, I've heard); unfortunately, I'm not very good at identifying animators, especially not Japanese ones. The art style in which the characters are drawn is reminiscent of Yanase's "cartoonier" work, the sort of thing seen in his Anpanman books (Yanase's most famous creation, at least in Japan).

For all that Little Jumbo is a great beginning to Sanrio's animation production, however, it does feel rather uneven at times. No less than three people—Yanase himself, along with Toshio Hirata and Masami Hata—are credited for directing the film; I do not know if they actually worked together to direct the film as a whole or if they were sequence directors, but regardless, there seems to be some subtle creative conflict playing out in the film over what exact direction it was supposed to go. The otherwise-serious sequence towards the end involving the island being bombarded and destroyed by a fresh batch of cannonballs is peppered with several shots and scenes of Jumbo having one heck of a fun time amidst the chaos; the frivolity of the earlier scenes, where Baloo and Jumbo perform song-and-dance numbers for the enjoyment of the island's quirky inhabitants, seems at odds with the emotional gravitas of the later sequences. Perhaps this was intentional, as a way of illustrating how joy can quickly be replaced by death and suffering at the onset of war.

More problematic, however, are the sloppy technical mistakes involving the cels; there are at least three instances where a viewer can actually see where drawings (and in turn the ink and paint) cut off, the most egregious being the climactic scene where the two larger islands at war annihilate each other once and for all. The other two instances are less serious; they are a shot of the island inhabitants clapping after Jumbo and Baloo's first performance and a quick shot of the cannonballs flying through the air, respectively. Given how flawlessly just about everything else in the film was executed, these shooting errors are all the more noticeable, and show how not even Sanrio was immune to serious technical flaws.

The problem of too many directors was solved very easily, though; in Sanrio's next three films, each of the three directors would be given a chance to shine on his own. So it was that Yanase directed Joe and the Rose, Hata directed Ringing Bell, and Hirata directed the Unico pilot film Black Cloud, White Feather based on Osamu Tezuka's Unico manga—the latter is a story for another time.

Joe, also based on a Yanase story, is distinctly a Yanase film in a way Little Jumbo was not; in many ways it is a spiritual successor to his earlier The Kindly Lion. Several of the scenes play out using his illustrations, which represent his profound, artistic side—far removed from the more accessible, kid-friendly style of the characters in Anpanman and Jumbo. There are visual ideas that are arguably weirder than those in Jumbo, like the Cupid-esque creatures responsible for the natural forces, literal blankets of snow, fruit floating through the sky as summer transitions to autumn, and so on. Yanase's gifted vision, however, prevents the gorgeous artistry on display from becoming pretentious the way it would have been in, say, a Chuck Jones film from the same period (just see the three films he did based on The Cricket in Times Square)—instead, it helps to emphasize the beauty of the story itself, about a dog named Joe who falls in love with a lovely rose, and consequently risks his very life (eventually going blind) to protect her from an evil crow.

The very fact that such an idiosyncratic concept works wonderfully in this film is a testament to how, in animation, even the most implausible stories can be turned into heartfelt films in the right hands. As in Little Jumbo, there is a rather sudden shift from humorous scenes (the whole sequence where Joe deals with the crow's companions) to emotional seriousness; Yanase's consistently lighthearted direction prevents the shift from being as jarring as in the earlier film, and said lightheartedness keeps up all the way to the bitter end—his gentle touch ironically (or appropriately) makes the film's tragic ending, which illustrates how love, sacrifice, and death go hand in hand in hand, all the more devastating.

The music plays a vital role in Joe's success, complementing the visuals and gentle tone of the film perfectly, as it did in The Kindly Lion and Little Jumbo. It is closer to the former in this regard in that, while not a musical, there are various musical interludes, some of them with beautifully sung narration; the lyrics were written by Yanase and sung by Yōko Seri, and the recurring theme that plays in these sung interludes was written by Hisao Nishiwaki, the top tenor of the Bonny Jacks chorus. The rest of the score was composed by Naohiko Terajima; the music was performed by Terajima's orchestra, the Rhythm Chansonette + α, which (as the Rhythm Chansonette + Strings) had also performed the music for Lion. Eiko Masuyama's often soothing, yet (when necessary) dramatic voice acting and narration is the icing on the cake.

There are only three key animators credited, a stark contrast from the extravagance of Little Jumbo, yet the animation is just as well-done. In keeping with the likelihood that Sanrio cast animators by character, Ben Ettinger has guessed that Shigeru Yamamoto animated Joe, Kazuko Nakamura the rose, and Toshio Hirata the crow (and his companions).

As much as Joe and the Rose is clearly Yanase's personal statement, it does introduce some stylistic elements that would be retained in Sanrio films to come. The backgrounds are lusher and more detailed than in Little Jumbo; Joe himself is rather Western-influenced in design, his eyes often suggesting none other than Jack from the aforementioned Jack and the Beanstalk (and that character, of course, was definitely animated by Shigeru Yamamoto). This Western influence in art style would effectively be institutionalized beginning with Sanrio's next film—Ringing Bell.

Ringing Bell is a decisive change from the two earlier Yanase adaptations. Yanase's hand is of course found in the story, about a lamb named Chirin (apparently an onomatopoeia for a ringing bell) who seeks revenge on a wolf (literally named Uou, which could be an onomatopoeia for a howl) who killed his mother and eventually trains under the wolf to become stronger than him; otherwise, it is the first "pure Sanrio" film, directed by Masami Hata who would go on to shape Sanrio's two major films in the 1980s: The Legend of Sirius and Fairy Florence.

Unmistakable in this film is a sense of grandeur and ambition. In addition to the ever-full animation and convincing facial expressions, Hata's direction is rife with dynamic camera angles and shots, along with the use of cutting for dramatic effect; witness the scene where Chirin repeatedly tries to ram his head through a tree on the wolf's command, or the scene where adult Chirin effortlessly takes out all the dogs guarding the farm where he was born. There are quite a few neat animated touches, some you might have to look out for to appreciate—the murder of Chirin's mother is represented cinematically through the use of double exposure, slow-motion, and finally a visual metaphor of red lightning turning into smoke, and during the brilliant scene of Chirin transforming into his adult form, take note of how the smoke he releases takes the shape of a wolf's head. On a brighter note, in the scene where Chirin trains with the wolf by fighting him, at one point the wolf manipulates Chirin like a squashy-stretchy bouncing ball!

More so than Little Jumbo and Joe and the Rose—for almost the entire film, actually—Ringing Bell walks a fine line between drama and comedy, with one being dominant over the other in certain key scenes; for instance, an amusing scene where the wolf fights with a large bear and sends it cowering is immediately followed by a more disturbing one where the wolf violently takes down a deer, a means of showing Chirin that the life of a wolf is a terrible one. Even the strictly cute and funny scenes have a rather sad hint to them; the opening scenes depicting Chirin's former idyllic life feel like they won't last, while the scenes where Chirin tries to take on some cattle, a skunk, and finally some gophers, as humorous as they are, serve to illustrate how pathetically delusional and hopeless, not to mention constantly victimized, he is. The film takes a definite turn towards the dark and tragic once Chirin grows into a particularly-frightening adult ram (yet even then the hysterical reactions of the sheep as Chirin attacks the barn can be considered both terrifying and funny), leading up to the grueling conclusion where Chirin, having killed the wolf who had become his father figure, is rejected by the other sheep as an outcast; he disappears into the mountains and, with nowhere to go and not knowing what to do, cries out for the wolf as a blizzard begins, never to be seen again. Hata successfully and confidently pulls off these repeated shifts in tone, resulting in a film that deftly verges between dramatic, tragic, and comic (or tragicomic); there is no sense that the "childish" opening does not fit in the same film as the violent scenes with the wolf attacking animals, or the melancholy ending.

There are many layers of possible things to think about such that the exact message of the film cannot be pinpointed, besides a general "Life is unfair and complex, and misfortune can strike no matter what you do—or even because of what you do, no matter how good the intentions." Both conformity and non-conformity are depicted rather negatively; had Chirin chosen to stay with the sheep, he almost certainly would have been slaughtered by the wolf sooner or later, but growing powerful enough to save the other sheep from the wolf causes him to be rejected by his fellow kind. Similarly, Chirin hates the wolf such that he wants revenge on him, but at some point he decides that training under the wolf would be the best way to do so—the wolf eventually becomes his de facto father such that, when Chirin finally takes the opportunity to kill him, the result is only despair. Revenge is not a good way to solve problems; often, it only makes them worse.

Then there's the possible symbolism of Chirin's titular bell. Somehow it stayed tied around his neck through all the years; to the frightened sheep who see him as a monster, it is their only reminder of what Chirin used to be. Does it symbolize the innocence that Chirin has lost? Is the bell a last vestige of his mother, whom Chirin has sworn to avenge? By the end of the story, the sound the bell makes is a reminder of Chirin himself—heard echoing in blizzards at night, as the story goes.

As in Little Jumbo, the music was composed by Taku Izumi and performed by the New Chamber Music Society; this time, however, the music takes on a distinctly contemporary (and these days somewhat dated) flavor. Electric guitar solos take their place amongst the film's orchestral music, which itself often sounds epic—but in a charming late 1970s, almost rock-influenced way. Like in Joe and the Rose, there are various sung interludes, not to mention the film's haunting theme song, with the lyrics being written by Takashi Yanase himself, of course—the catch, however, is that they are sung by none other than the famous American folk group the Brothers Four. Indeed, listen closely, in particular, to the catchy song that plays over the montage of Chirin running during his training with the wolf—the Japanese singing seems to have a distinctly American accent! (As a side note, I listened to bits and pieces of the Brothers Four's songs and compared the vocals to the songs in this film, specifically to confirm that the singers were the Brothers Four.)

I can't go without mentioning one scene that is a serious technical and animated disaster in terms of execution, though; I'm referring to one scene in the aforementioned running montage where Chirin and the wolf run past a herd of running deer. The deer run nothing like actual deer at all, which is strange enough as there are deer that actually run believably earlier in the film; what's more, however, as Chirin and the wolf run past the herd, the deer gradually float up into the air until, by the time they're off-screen, they're literally running in mid-air! As with the errors in Little Jumbo, the imperatively mistake-free execution of the rest of Ringing Bell makes this misfire all the more obscene.

Of Sanrio's three Yanase films, Ringing Bell is the only one that's particularly known amongst many Western anime fans—it was the only one of the three to have gotten an English dub in the 80s, from which the film's emotional impact became notorious amongst the American children who found themselves traumatized by it. Unfortunately, from what I've seen, this dub does not hold up well at all; in fact, I would advise those of you who have not seen it to avoid it at all costs, as it is a horrible disgrace to the original film! The Brothers Four's lovely vocals are replaced with those of incompetent hacks who have rightfully remained uncredited to this day; their work is just embarrassing. The voice acting is much in the same vein, with unnecessary and annoying vocal effects added to the training sequence; the climactic scene where adult Chirin finally works up the nerve to kill the wolf is turned into a farce due to the laughably bad voicing ("I am a raaaaam!!! AAAAAAAAH!!!")—truly, adult Chirin was not one of Gregg Berger's better roles.

If you have not seen these three beautiful films, I highly recommend that you do so when you get the chance. They are the work of talented artists who wanted to explore and experiment with the possibilities of animation, and their themes are accessible to all ages and people. Frankly, there is genuine heart and sincerity in these films that is all too rare in Western animation these days—and it is unfortunate that, while DePatie-Freleng's low-rent shorts from the same era are getting a collector's Blu-ray treatment, these featurettes languish in relative obscurity.

(In the R2 DVD pictured above, as evidenced by the available online copies of the films themselves, only Joe and the Rose is presented in actual DVD quality, and even then only because Sanrio had to make a fresh 35mm transfer because that film had never been released on home video before; the other two are presented through blurry, VHS-quality transfers. I am aware that Discotek has released Ringing Bell alone in America; however, $13 for an unrestored less-than-50-minute film is rather excessive, even if it does come with a Mike Toole commentary, especially since the R2 DVD is going for only slightly more but has the two other Sanrio-Yanase films on it.)

Edited by user Tuesday, February 6, 2018 1:32:34 PM(UTC)  | Reason: Updated video links.

thanks 1 user thanked Toadette for this useful post.
ibcf on 5/5/2016(UTC)
nickramer  
#2 Posted : Thursday, May 5, 2016 11:23:38 AM(UTC)
nickramer

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Well, they're okay, but I don't find it as effective as "Watership Down" which came out around the same time.

Also, off-topic, but I thought "Muppet Babies" was one of the better '80's cartoons, even if it did spawn mostly inferior knockoffs from H-B. Plus, it didn't hurt that Jim's finger prints seeped through there, despite not being really involved with it.
PopKorn Kat  
#3 Posted : Thursday, May 5, 2016 12:56:51 PM(UTC)
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I saw Ringing Bell last month. Definitely not sugarcoated for the young ones. I also appreciate any animated movie that deals with death and doesn't end well for everyone. I'd definitely recommend it, even if the English dub is poor.
I saw Little Jumbo today. I saw it in extremely short spurts, so I don't think I got the full effect. The animation and colors were nice.
The 1970s was a decade for (mostly) sub-par television animation (don't shoot!), but it's films like these and shows like Tokyo Movie's The Gutsy Frog that keep me from labeling the complete decade a waste of time.
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Toadette on 5/5/2016(UTC)
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