The Story of Animerama: Origins
In the 1960s, one of the first studios to make anime for television was Mushi Productions. Towards the end of that decade, their desire to innovate would lead them to produce a trilogy of animated films under the label of “Animerama.” These films were a major gamble on their part, a means by which they could tap into both adult and international audiences. This gamble ultimately ended in failure, and for many decades these films lingered in obscurity. It’s only in recent years that modern fans have been able to rediscover them and reassess their role in the history of Japanese animation.
This is the first is a series of essays chronicling the history behind this ill-fated trilogy. It will explore the careers of the two men who helped bring these films into existence, the studio that killed itself making them, and the legacy these films left upon the history of anime.
This is the story of Animerama.
__________________________________This story begins with one of the most storied figures in all of Japanese media: Osamu Tezuka. Starting in the late 1940s, he revolutionized the world of manga with his particular brand of thrilling, cinematic adventure stories. Over the next two decades he would create one hit manga after another, earning loads of acclaim and a small fortune in the process. Tezuka’s love of art didn't stop at manga, though.
Of course, it is one thing to have a passion for animation. It is quite another to be able to translate that passion into skill. Tezuka may have been a talented artist, but he lacked the training and patience to become an animator himself. He tried once in the late 1940s, only to be turned away and advised to stick to the less stressful and better paid world of manga. A decade later, Toei would adapt Tezuka’s manga version of Journey to the West into the 1960 feature film Saiyuki. Tezuka was brought on as both a consultant and as a storyboard artist, but his relationship with the staff was often contentious. While the animators appreciated his simpler character designs, they also found his storyboards impractical and full of in-jokes and anachronisms. Worse still, he had a bad habit of falling behind on deadlines and fought with the producers over changes made to the ending. It was perhaps not a surprise when the two ended their professional relationship shortly after Saiyuki's release.
Still, Tezuka’s time with Toei was not completely unproductive. He had gotten a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work that went into making animated features. He had found friends and admirers among Toei’s staff of talented, rigorously trained animators. He had a clearer vision of the kind of stories he wanted to tell and enough earnings from his manga that he could produce them without having to answer to anyone else. Tezuka had everything he needed to start turning his dreams of animation into reality.
Eiichi Yamamoto’s history is not as thoroughly chronicled as Tezuka’s, but it is equally important to this story. He was one of countless up-and-coming animators who found their way to Tokyo during the 1950s, hired right out of high school. He got his start at Otogi Productions, a tiny animation studio founded by popular pre-war mangaka Ryuichi Yokoyama. Otogi was already making some of the first animated shorts to air on Japanese television, and young Eiichi was eager to work with one of his childhood idols.
Otogi Productions was also something of a mess behind the scenes. It was manned only by a handful of animators working out of Yokoyama's house with little to no guidance or supervision. They received no formal instruction in animation beyond encouragement to read a handful of Disney instructional books. Worst of all, most of their work (including some feature-length productions) spent years on the shelf, unseen and unsold. After a few years, Yamamoto was ready to seek better opportunities, and he found his opportunity in the form of a magazine article about Osamu Tezuka's interest in animation. He gathered up his courage, walked up to Tezuka’s front door and asked for a job. He would soon become one of the first employees for Tezuka's latest project: an animation studio soon to be dubbed Mushi Productions.
Mushi Productions started small in 1961 with just five or six animators working out of Tezuka’s home. By the next year the staff had grown to over two dozen individuals, demanding a move to a proper studio building nearby. The staff had been pulled from animation studios big and small, lured by Tezuka’s promises of generous pay and greater creative freedom. Tezuka himself had grand ambitions for his brand-new studio. He didn't want to waste his time churning out low-quality animation for TV or commercials. Sure, it could be useful as a secondary revenue stream, but he knew that he and his staff were capable of so much more. Mushi Production was going to make art, and he sent them straight to work on what would be surely the first of many animated masterpieces.
Mushi’s first release was 1962’s Tales of a Street Corner. This 40 minute short is a fanciful anti-war story viewed through the lens of a wall of living posters and the characters around them. This kind of message was nothing new for Tezuka, but the presentation is what made it novel. From the start, Tezuka and his team chose to not use dialogue to tell his story. Instead, everything was communicated through music, movement, and animation. Notably, Mushi used an unique style of animation that used flat shapes, bright colors, and a limited form of animation borrowed from the likes of the UPA studio that relied on lots of loops and simple motion to conserve cels, money, and time but in an artful manner.
As for Eiichi Yamamoto, he was busy making himself useful at his new workplace. While Tezuka was the creator, writer, and producer for Tales of a Street Corner, he handed off direction duties to Yamamoto. In later years he would admit that much of the hands-on direction of the short was handled by Yusuke Sakamoto, a seasoned animator who had previously worked at Toei. Since the staff was so small at the time, Yamamoto would also end up serving as editor and art director as well. Still, he proved himself able and up to the task, and thus his career as director was born.
Sadly, Tales of a Street Corner did not earn the rapturous praise that Tezuka had wanted. It would earn a few minor awards at a few Japanese film festivals, but critics were largely unimpressed. Compared to truly avant-garde works by independent animators like Yoji Kuri, Hiroshi Manabe, and Ryohei Yanagihara, Tezuka's short seemed indulgent, padded, and quaint. Its reception with other animators wasn't much better. Hayao Miyazaki (then just another animator at Toei) stated years later that he felt “so disgusted that chills ran down my spine” when he saw its simple, choppy animation.
Tezuka would not be deterred by its lackluster reception. He would have Mushi Productions make six more shorts over the next six years. They varied wildly from short, punchy style exercises like 1962's Ose to longer, more ambitious projects like 1966's Pictures At An Exhibition, a series of shorts themed around the famous Mussorgsky symphony. They dealt with very different topics: war, murder, love, sex, imagination, and nature. What they all shared was a desire to experiment with what animation could do, whether that was adding mixed media, exploring new visual styles, or by animating them with as few cels as they could get away with.
As much as Tezuka loved making them, there were few outlets where these shorts could be screened and fewer still where they could do so for profit. One of the few public showcases they ever received was in November of 1962, when Mushi debuted both Tales of a Street Corner and Ose at an showcase in the stylish Ginza district of Tokyo. To everyone's surprise, both of these shorts would be overshadowed by another feature shown that night: a ten minute pilot film for Mushi's first TV show, Tetsuwan Atom, the once and future Astro Boy.
Astro Boy was not so much Tezuka's idea as it was the passion project of the aforementioned Yusuke Sakamoto. He had long been a fan of the original manga and had tried (and failed) to pitch a series of theatrical shorts based on it during his time at Toei. Tezuka was won over by Sakamoto's devotion and enthusiasm to the project, although privately he also hoped it would overshadow the failed live-action adaptation that had aired a few years previously. Mushi rushed to produce a pilot over a couple of months, and shortly after its debut Fuji TV snatched up the rights to produce a weekly half-hour animated series, the first of its kind for Japanese television. From the moment it debuted, it was a sensation. It garnered incredible ratings, which in turn led to valuable sponsorships, a flurry of merchandise, and even a deal to air the show in syndication in the US.
Astro Boy served not only as the big break for Mushi Productions but also for Eiichi Yamamoto. After working as a writer on one more short, he would become one of six episode directors to work on the show over its three year run. He would also direct its compilation movie, Hero of Space. Later he was elevated to series director for Mushi’s next big hit, Jungle Emperor Leo (a.k.a Kimba the White Lion) and its own compilation film. This was no small honor, considering that Leo was Mushi's first color production. Both projects would wrap up by the end of 1966, and by that point Eiichi Yamamoto had established himself as one of the studio's most accomplished and reliable directors.
Mushi Production had transformed itself drastically in those three short years since Astro Boy's debut. The studio had largely put aside the short films to focus its collective energy on producing more animated series. They were able to churn out new episodes at a breakneck pace through the use of limited animation, recycled assets, and all the other time- and money-saving tricks they had been refining since Tales of a Street Corner. Their staff roster ballooned from 25 employees to over 250, with some sources claiming as many as 400. As far as anyone on the outside could tell, everything was coming up roses for Mushi Production.
Behind the scenes, though, things were anything but rosy. Tezuka was in the midst of a creative crisis and Mushi Productions was facing its own financial crisis. He hoped to solve them both through a fateful meeting with a film distributor, and this meeting would prove to be the genesis of the Animerama project.
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