The Mike Toole Show Bein' a Hata
by Michael Toole, Aug 29th 2010
Have you ever sat down with a bunch of fellow anime fans and asked about who their favorite directors are? Try it. It's a question I'm fond of asking when I meet people at anime conventions, because it always elicits a pretty interesting set of answers. The vast majority of fans will, in my experience, immediately cite Hayao Miyazaki. Some are sharp enough to follow on with Isao Takahata, Mamoru Oshii, and maybe Satoshi Kon and Katsuhiro Otomo and Rintaro. But for an awful lot of anime fans, the list of names stops there. They can talk for hours about their favorite manga artists and voice actors and musical acts, but there's an intriguing blind spot when it comes to the actual creators of the animation itself. An awful lot of people have seen Ninja Scroll, but how many could tell you it was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri? Fullmetal Alchemist is a decade-spanning global hit, but could all of the people who show up at the Meet Vic Mignona panel tell you that Seiji Mizushima directed the first series, and Yasuhiro Irie the second?
I'm going to use this e-soapbox to address that little knowledge gap. I figure I should start with some of the big names - but who? Mamoru Hosoda, the emerging film director who's kicked out the classy Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars? Masaki Yuasa, who's wowing audiences with his delightfully unconventional Tatami Galaxy? Koichi Mashimo, who directed the awesome Dirty Pair: Project Eden and Irresponsible Captain Tylor before joining the Bee Train-fueled dark side? Maybe I could start with Noboru Ishiguro, who had a major role in developing the progress of anime in the 1980s, or Tsuneo Kobayashi, who directs unlikely, quietly impressive shows like Midori Days and Twelve Kingdoms. Of course, while I waste time being indecisive, the answer tends to reveal itself, and the answer to the question of which director to write about presented itself at Otakon. There, I stumbled across the Discotek booth, where proprietor Selby Johnson had freshly-packaged discs of the company's forthcoming new release, Sea Prince and the Fire Child. That's it! This column is about the guy who directed that film, Masami Hata.
Masami Hata, at this point in time, is one of anime's grand old masters. He's pushing 70, but still feverishly working on new projects. For the past few years, he's been steering the ship on Stitch!, the Mad House TV series based on the Disney character, which has the distinction of being the first 100% outsourced Disney animated production. It also has the distinction of being kind of weird, with Lilo getting razored out of the story in favor of some way less interesting girl named Yuna, but that's a story for another column. Anyway, Stitch! isn't terribly impressive, but it's been successful enough that its third season is hitting airwaves in the fall. At Otakon, I learned that Mad House founder and senior producer Masao Maruyama refers to Hata as "sensei," an honor not even reserved for storied Mad House colleagues like Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Takeshi Koike.
But where did Masami Hata come from? Well, he got his start storyboarding and directing at Mushi Productions on 60s TV joints like The Amazing Three and Princess Knight. His technique and skill would flourish at Mushi; he was a key animator on 1001 Nights, Eiichi Yamamoto's 1969 film that bears the distinction of being the first anime feature film aimed at an adult audience. Yamamoto's team took the Disney-esque approach of assigning a single master animator to each character, and when these characters interacted, the key animators would collaborate to create the scenes. This allowed Hata to work closely with giants like Osamu Tezuka and Osamu Dezaki, as he was responsible for the character Shaliman. As the 60s led to the 70s, Hata would return to TV work, handling direction duties on classics like Tomorrow's Joe, Aim for the Ace!, and Jetter Mars. That last one is kind of interesting, simply by virtue of the fact that many fans (including myself) have long regarded it as an inferior copy of Astro Boy created by Osamu Tezuka himself. But satellite TV reruns of the series have cast it in a better light, and after years of uncertainty, a Jetter Mars DVD box set finally hit store shelves in Japan just last year. It's on my list of things to see - but hell, that's a pretty long list!
Hata's career would see perhaps its most important development in 1975, when he took up residency as an animation director with Sanrio. That name rights a bell, right? Sanrio are the Hello Kitty guys! Specifically, their designer Yūko Shimizu came up with Hello Kitty in 1974, but the character was introduced to the public in that same year of 1975, so back then they weren't the Hello Kitty guys just yet. But Sanrio was still a wealthy, ambitious company that led Japan in sales of greeting cards and other small gifts, and they wanted in on the animation racket. There were ulterior motives - obviously, they wanted to promote their own characters - but you have to hand it to the company, as they quickly greenlighted a number of intriguing animated projects steered by their writer and producer, Shintaro Tsuji. Sanrio's debut work, Little Jumbo, was based on a comic by Anpan Man creator Takashi Yanase, and hit theaters in 1977. This film, which featured Hata as animation director alongside Yanase himself, bears the distinction of being an early anime musical - only a handful of films prior had featured songs, and only a select few of those had musical numbers from start to finish, like Nihon Herald's Jack and the Beanstalk. Perplexingly, this extremely accessible, interesting family movie never really got out of Japan. That wouldn't be the last time this happened with one of Hata's movies, either.
Fortunately for us nerds, Hata's next film, 1978's Ringing Bell, would receive an English dub and an international release. This weird little movie would serve as potent nightmare fuel for children all over the world, opening as it did with the cruel death of the main character's mom at the hands of a wolf. The protagonist, a lamb named Chirin, is stunned by the violence of this act - but instead of running blindly away or attempting to exact revenge on the wolf, he declares that he himself will become as dangerous as strong as the wolf. This genuinely sinister turn of events is depicted with eye-popping visuals and a fluidity of animation which is rarely seen in anime these days, and the movie ultimately winds up as a cautionary tale against the extremes of both conformity and non-conformity. Ringing Bell received a VHS release in North America, and ran on cable TV in some markets, so there's a pretty good chance you saw it if you were a kid in the 80s.
Sanrio's animated films grew even more ambitious - in particular, their adaptation of Russell Hoban's 1967 children's novel The Mouse and His Child was a solid performer around the world, complete with US theatrical release featuring the voices of well-loved character actors like Peter Ustinov and Cloris Leachman. Hata didn't work on this movie, but his Ringing Bell was hitched up with it for Japanese theatrical release, a pairing which must've traumatized the crap out of Japanese kids (while not nearly as disturbing as Ringing Bell, Mouse and His Child has some pretty weird visuals and story twists). Because of this, the Japanese company took the particularly audacious step of setting up an animation studio on Los Angeles's Sunset Boulevard to create their next film, Orpheus of the Stars. Nominally a rock opera billed as an answer to Fantasia, this eye-catching mess of a film featured a mostly western animation staff, but Hata and two other Japanese animators made the trek across the Pacific to help complete the film. It, too received a US release, but the movie was a bit incoherent in spite of its ambitious scope (the first animated film to be created in 70mm!) and lavish budget, and the US version (retitled Winds of Change) had several minutes trimmed out. After this point, Hata worked on a couple of other somewhat less ambitious projects before he'd hit perhaps the defining period of his career.
That period was marked chiefly by his creation of the movie Legend of Sirius, which would be retitled Sea Prince and the Fire Child for the English-speaking market. This 1981 movie wasn't exactly a monster hit, but it's clearly the product of a director at the top of his game and a studio at its zenith - it is a film that is beautiful to watch in the extreme, with memorable characters and an only somewhat confusing story. Hata sets the stage with a series of dense watercolor scenes that I feel like I remember seeing on the side of some dude's van in 1983, before introducing us the story and characters. Just as the artwork is worthy of an airbrushed van paint job, the story feels like it could've been lifted right out of a late 70s metal concept album-- it concerns the kingdoms of fire and water, and how they were once united in harmony before a catastrophic feud by the Sea King Oceanus and the Fire Queen Hyperia, who were once in love, split the two worlds, seemingly forever.
Essentially, you can think of the denizens of Sea Kingdom as the Montagues, and the fairies of the Fire Realm as the Capulets - Sea Prince story writer Shintaro Tsuji has said that he specifically meant for the characters and settings to evoke Romeo and Juliet, and this makes itself quickly apparent, with Sea Kingdom royal heir Sirius and Fire fairy Malta having a chance encounter and being stunned into silence at the realization that the other side's people could be so interesting, even alluring. What follows is a wryly amusing courtship, as Sirius and Malta brashly abandon their duties to fall in love with each other, much to the consternation of their sidekicks. (Yes, each one has a sidekick! Sirius's in particular looks like a weird prototype of Ponyo, which is kind of neat.) Naturally, King Oceanus (a muscular giant with the head of a sea monster) and Queen Hyperia (whose hair flares constantly upward and out of the frame - we never get to see the top of her head) are less than thrilled at the prospect of their kids healing the rift that they created and guard so jealously, but the root of the problem is Wind God Algaroc. Now imprisoned, this deity is actually responsible for Oceanus and Hyperia's calamitous feud, and his inevitable escape is set up as the movie's climactic battle.
Sea Prince and the Fire Child, much like Hata's earlier films, does not look like anime as we know it, a medium that has become characterized by stylized, economical movement. It instead has a dizzying sense of color and motion, with sumptuously painted backgrounds, breathtaking panning and rotating animated sequences, and sweeping musical pieces. Even Sirius and Malta don't look like your usual anime heroes - they instead sport wide-eyed, cherubic faces that'd be a little more at home in a western animated flick. The film's ending, while having a certain poetry, is an ambiguous and not particularly happy one. Even today, almost 30 years after its release, Sea Prince and the Fire Child has a grandeur to it that is rarely matched in animated films.
But what of the DVD? There's not much to complain about, happily. Discotek's release is bilingual, and while their subtitles sometimes seem a bit rough and questionable, the dubbed version is very enjoyable, featuring a very young Tony Oliver in the protagonist's role. I was initially dismayed to discover that Sea Prince was 4:3, rather than widescreen, but closer scrutiny revealed that the movie was produced open matte - its theatrical presentation may have been widescreen, but the film was created in Academy ratio, so it's supposed to be 4:3. The DVD is around fifteen bucks at most outlets, which makes it a real no-brainer. I have to hand it to Discotek - despite their crappy cover art, this is a movie richly deserving of a North American release, and I hope they continue to champion lost classics like Sea Prince and the Fire Child.
So, there you have it - a few words about the great Masami Hata. I hope you liked it, and-- wait a minute, shit, I've only gotten to 1981! Hata has had several more notable film projects, so I guess I'd better talk briefly about them. His next film, 1985's Fairy Florence, is a singular triumph, though not necessarily without its flaws. Its story, concerning a young musician's dreamlike trip into a world of fairies and monsters, is once again supplied by Shintaro Tsuji, and it's not a particularly compelling one, with entire sequences feeling like they were yanked out of Kenji Miyazawa's Gauche the Cellist. Still, Florence is a gentle film, a slow, sweeping mood piece that is probably Hata's finest work of pure animation - on a strictly artistic level, it is equal to (and arguably superior to) every great animated film of the 80s, including Studio Ghibli's masterpieces. It's another movie that got a solid (albeit overly-descriptive) English dub and home video release, retitled A Journey through Fairyland. I think Discotek ought to release this on DVD next-- for all of its failings, it's one of those movies that I can watch to the end and immediately want to watch again.
But we're not done yet! Hata would also be the guy tapped to direct Tokyo Movie Shinsha's Little Nemo - Adventures in Slumberland. Ever heard of this movie? If you haven't, just go and find any veteran Los Angeles-based animator over the age of 40 and ask them about it, because there's at least a 50% chance they worked on it. Little Nemo was the pipe dream of TMS's Yutaka Fujioka, who had always wanted to utilize TMS's resources to create an animated family movie that would become a big hit in America. Fujioka finally got his wish in 1978, when the project was greenlit, and the producer excitedly approached luminaries like George Lucas and Chuck Jones to help develop the film before settling on Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz to help get the movie made. Kurtz would hire Ray Bradbury to write the screenplay-- yes, that Ray Bradbury!-- and the great Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata were hired to handle the animation direction. Holy crap, this was going to be an awesome movie!
Then, Miyazaki and Takahata abruptly left the project in 1981, with the former describing the experience as the worst of his professional career. A revolving door of script doctors, including famed artist Moebius and future mainstream film director Chris Columbus, were hired to get the project on track. A joint direction team of Andy Gaskill and Yoshifumi Kondô were brought in and produced a marvelous pilot film, and-- no wait, shit, they ended up leaving, too. Oh well, Osamu Dezaki can direct the film, right? Nope, he left too, after producing another pilot. Altogether, the movie took more than a decade to be completed, and despite its remarkable pedigree, which includes contributions from all of the above along with songs by the legendary Sherman Brothers (Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, etc.) and animation assistance by several of Disney's fabled Nine Old Men contingent, it's a confused mess of a film. Clarification: a confused mess of a film that looks goddamned amazing-- Roger Ebert would describe it as "persistently watchable on the visual level"-- and we can chalk that up to the guy who eventually got hired to get the movie done, one Masami Hata. Little Nemo didn't limp over the finish line in the US until 1992, but it's still available on DVD for something like $6 if you're curious.
Hata also bears the distinction of directing the first-ever anime adaptation of a video game, 1986's entirely forgettable Super Mario Bros. He's directed TV works as diverse as Initial D and Ping-Pong Club. In the late 80s and early 90s, he directed a series of charming little films featuring Hello Kitty characters in fairy tale adaptations. These came out on DVD courtesy of MGM, and are way the hell better than they have any right being, mainly due to Hata's fine direction. In 1997, he directed a solidly watchable family movie based on the children's book My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles, which, infuriatingly, has never been dubbed into English. That pretty much completes the snapshot of this fine, underrated director's work.
The best part of all this is the fact that the dude is still working! Sure, Stitch! isn't great art, but it's not all that bad - if you're curious, you should be able to dig up the English dub, which has been shown in Australia and the Pacific rim. It's an interesting adaptations, because it doesn't have any of the actors from the western Lilo and Stitch! stuff, not even David Odgen Stiers. Perhaps we are years past what is unquestionably Masami Hata's finest works, but that potential to create more great films is still there. Hata still works closely with Mad House, a movie studio unafraid to take risks. I hope that, sometime soon, his friend and colleague Mr. Maruyama will remember just how talented he is, and give him a project worthy of his ambitions. In the meantime, we're just going to have to be satisfied with Discotek's fine new release of Sea Prince and the Fire Child.
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