July 29, 2014
In the 1950s Hiroshi Okawa wanted to make Toei Company the Disney of Asia. Toei had already become a prolific producer of jidaigeki (period drama) movies, focusing on cheaply made programmers to fill out double and triple bills. They made 104 features in 1954 alone. Toei president Okawa had grander designs, and acquired the animation company Nichido in 1956 in the hopes of competing in the international cartoon market. Toei followed the Disney formula of selecting local fables and fairy tales for adaptation, and adding on a menagerie of cute animals. They also followed the Disney edict of making only one film per year. In a test of the receptivity of the U.S. market, they released their first three films there in 1961, all through different distributors. Their first animated feature was The Tale of the White Serpent (1958), an iteration of the Chinese folktale “Legend of the White Snake”. It was dubbed and released in the U.S. as Panda and the Magic Serpent by the independent Globe Pictures. The first Japanese anime to receive substantial stateside distribution was Magic Boy, completed in Japan in 1959 and released by MGM in ’61. Alakazam the Great (1960) was released stateside by exploitation experts American International Pictures. The overseas theatrical experiment failed, though Toei’s animation wing would start a pipeline into U.S. television, becoming a staple on Saturday afternoon matinees. Now the Warner Archive has given the U.S. version of Magic Boy its first DVD release, allowing us to examine part of Okawa’s grand plan (it also airs on TCM on Monday, October 6th at 3AM).
The story of Magic Boy is an archetypal hero’s journey. Sasuke and his sister Oye live in rural harmony with a parade of adorable woodland creatures until a witch and her enthralled goons terrorize the countryside. Sasuke leaves the hearth to train with Hakuun, a renowned wise man and teacher of magic. After rigorous training montages, Sasuke has to rescue his sister from the evil clutches of the shape shifting demoness witch. Any rough details in the Japanese original are sanded down in the generic U.S. version, with each character given one attribute and chirpy vocal tone. Though if the plot is simple to the point of inanity, the images thrum with vibrant color and life. Sasuke is an annoying little moppet, but the landscapes he inhabits shift from the pretty, delicate watercolor of his wooded home to the pulsating hellish reds of the witch’s domain. The artists really go to work on the witch, who can transform into a giant sea lizard and appears in Sasuke’s nightmares as a fire-breathing wraith, as the abstracted backgrounds pulsate around her.
The senior staff at Nichido at the time they were acquired by Toei were Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara, who had the unenviable task of rapidly ramping up the size of the Toei Animation department so they could complete a full length feature. In the Directory of World Cinema: Japan 2, Helen McCarthy writes that the lack of experienced animators “created opportunities for other artists, like painter Koji Fukiya (1898 – 1979).” Fukiya drew lushly romantic photos for girls’ magazines like Shojo Gaho (Girls’ Illustrated) and Shojo Kurabu (Girls’ Club), detoured in Paris for a failed attempt at “fine” art, and ended his career as an illustrator for children’s books (for more on Fukiya see this fascinating article). His elongated, dreamy figures became the house style at Toei after Fukiya made the original designs for their short Dreaming Boy in 1958. His influence shows up in the design of the witch, who has a snake-like fluidity, and the Modigliani-necked Oye, who could have been plucked from one of Fukiya’s magazine covers.
If Fukiya was the elder statesman, the young firebrand was Yasuo Otsuka, who would later mentor Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki. In order to get the job at Toei, he had to pass the animation test: draw a man striking a steel hammer against a spike, in five frames. Otsuka would be animation director for the first time on the seminal The Little Norse Prince (1968), which was Studio Ghibli standby Isao Takahata’s directorial debut, and on which Miyazaki was an assistant animator . Otsuka’s early style tended towards naturalism, and his images of a skeleton in Magic Boy were considered unintentionally funny because of how realistic they were looked in the fantastical world of the movie. He would later move on to a more malleable style, what he called “constructed realism”. He used frame rate modulation to heighten a specific action. Where Disney would use 1 frame of film for 1 animation cell, Otsuka would use three frames for one cell to add weight to movements, as detailed in this post by Daniel Thomas MacInnes.
Though highly recommended by both the trades (the Independent Exhibitors’ Film Bulletin wrote: “Delightful Japanese cartoon fantasy in color. Will entertain youngsters and many of their elders”) and the newspapers (The New York Times : “Walt Disney has no cause for abdication or even alarm. But he can jolly well move over and make room.”), Hiroshi Okawa’s plans for world theatrical domination never materialized. Toei would, however, became a dominant force in animation in Japan, thanks to the amazing influx of talent required by Okawa’s gamble.