The Mike Toole Show
Christmas Special Forces
by Mike Toole,
A couple of columns back, I talked about how I don't really listen to podcasts, which means that I'm about to tell you about this podcast that I've been listening to. It's a comic talk show featuring the gravel-voiced, filthy, childish comedian Gilbert Gottfried, and the basic formula involves him and his co-host, the TV writer Frank Santopadre, interviewing TV and movie luminaries and howling with laughter. It's honestly pretty wonderful, and my favorite episodes are when they analyze genuinely weird shit like failed James Bond ripoffs and 70s detective shows. These expeditions through the dustbin of TV and film history inevitably involve Gottfried remembering bizarre production details and singing theme songs to long-forgotten crap. In this way, the man is a genuine otaku.
Anyway, on a recent episode, Gottfried, Santopadre, and comedian Mario Cantone were talking about Christmas specials. Great, I love Christmas specials! I talked about them in one of my first Mike Toole Shows from back in 2010, as part of a survey of anime Christmas episodes. In that column, I mentioned Rankin-Bass's holiday specials in passing, because they were American productions, right? Rankin-Bass were great making those stop-motion cartoons! As it turns out, what Rankin-Bass really excelled at was shipping the animation work off to Japan.
The notion that Rankin-Bass was this weird, shadow anime company isn't an entirely unfamiliar one. You're just as likely to find their The Last Unicorn filed under “anime” as you are “children's animation,” and it's also widely known that some of their other TV fare, like those weird Hobbit cartoon movies, were animated by a Japanese studio called Topcraft. Man, I could probably write a pretty good column solely about Topcraft, but do you guys really want to read 1,800 words about Jim Button, at least 300 of which are devoted to complaining about how that weird 2000 non-anime Jim Button cartoon always messes up my search results? Anyway, if you know your Rankin-Bass production trivia, you probably know that their famous Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion cartoon, an enduring favorite that really cemented their status as a hitmaking entertainment company, was, on a strictly visual level, the product of an animation genius named Tadahito Mochinaga.
In this writer's opinion, Mochinaga is a towering figure in the history of Japanese animation, albeit one who spent most of his time in the shadows. He was a part of that first generation of commercial Japanese animators, folks who came up before and during World War II. Mochinaga worked on the famous Momotaro's Sea Eagles under director Mitsuyo Seo, another foundational figure, before heading to Manchukuo to work on animation in China. When the war ended, Manchukuo effectively ceased to exist, so the animator, who was busily establishing himself as a stop-motion wizard, headed to Shanghai. Eventually, the road led him back to Japan; he was able to get some money from the government's reconstruction effort to jumpstart a little animation company called MOM Productions and started cranking out award-winning stop-motion shorts. It's interesting, the guy would end up supervising this long string of humongous commercial hits, but during the 1950s, Mochinaga was reluctant to throw his weight into commercial animation. But eventually, one of his sponsors, Dentsu, hooked him up with a little company called Videocraft International. Videocraft's principals, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, had the money and the drive to create animation—they just needed animators. So they hired MOM to create The New Adventures of Pinocchio.
That was almost the extent of that relationship, thanks to a studio fire that put Mochinaga's little animation firm into a tailspin for close to a year. Eventually, production would commence, on both the TV movie Willy McBean and His Magic Machine and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph was a breakthrough hit for Rankin-Bass, and a cultural touchstone. The Mr. Magoo Christmas Carol introduced the notion of a full-length animated holiday special, but stuff like Rudolph would cement the idea that these specials were meant to recur each year, and in doing so become classic pieces of the holiday experience. Also, they'd earn a shitload of money, because they only actually had to be made once, and usually the TV network was footing the bill. Not surprisingly, Rankin-Bass started putting in orders with MOM Productions for new fare on a regular basis, leading to a whole string of favorites: Rudolph's Shiny New Year, Jack Frost, The Little Drummer Boy (directed by Takeo Nakamura, who'd later do a brilliantly weird stop-motion adaptation of The Nutcracker for Sanrio), and of course, The Leprechaun's Christmas Gold. All of these were underwritten by Rankin and Bass, and written in the US (usually by a fellow named Romeo Muller), but otherwise created almost entirely in Japan. It's a common story for fans like us to discover anime in our teens, but it turns out we've been watching it our whole lives, haven't we?
Of course, the Japanese aspect of these stop-motion specials wasn't specifically obscured—you could still find Mochinaga's name in the credits—but it was brushed aside in favor of highlighting the studio name and celebrity voice stars that populated the productions. Rankin and Bass would talk unctuously about how hard everyone worked on their specials, not noting that, in terms of production design and animation, “everyone” was mainly Mochinaga and his assistants, Ichiro Komuro and Akikazu Kono, who'd eventually take over directing the stop-motion fare for Rankin-Bass.
The stop-motion stuff is one angle, but what about actual cel animation? The link there wasn't an anime creative like Mochinaga, but a planner—a man named Toru Hara who was, during most of the 60s, a producer at Toei Animation. Hara got linked up with Videocraft to create a show based on good old King Kong. Once again, Rankin and Bass supplied scripts and some character artwork—great designs by MAD Magazine artist Jack Davis, which sadly had to be dumbed down radically to work for TV animation—and Hara's team at Toei actually created the cartoon, which ran on ABC Saturday mornings. My pal Dave Merrill has a great deep dive into it over on Let's Anime.
Not every Rankin-Bass cartoon show would involve Hara—the well-liked 1969 Frosty the Snowman special was the product of Mushi Production, with animation direction supplied by none other than Osamu Dezaki. I like living in a world where Dezaki collaborated, in a strictly secondhand fashion, with Jimmy Durante. Hara left Toei after shepherding Isao Takahata's Horus, Prince of the Sun through a labor dispute to start his own studio, Topcraft. Topcraft was essentially the product of Hara's good experience with Rankin and Bass working on King Kong—while they later diversified, he initially formed this new company specifically to create co-productions with his buddies Rankin and Bass. The first one was based on an American comic strip.
That production from Rankin-Bass and Topcraft was Kid Power, a TV series based on Morrie Turner's newspaper comic strip Wee Pals. Here's another interesting little way that Rankin-Bass set a precedent, paving the way for fare like Dennis the Menace (animation by TMS) and Little Lulu (actually wholly produced by Nippon Animation). Getting back to the business of Christmas specials, Topcraft got busy with stuff like 1974's Twas the Night Before Christmas, in which the credits mention “cinematography” by Tsuguyuki Kubo, who actually served as director and character designer for the show! The important thing is, this means that technically there is an anime feature starring Geroge Gobel, star of The George Gobel Show.
One of Topcraft's most auspicious productions for Rankin-Bass was 1978's The Stingiest Man in Town, one of seemingly hundreds of animated Christmas Carol adaptations. This film once again features character artwork by Tsuguyuki Kubo, and is directed by Katsuhisa Yamada. Unlike a lot of these specials, this one aired fairly concurrently in Japan, on TV Asahi—the country had to wait years for earlier stuff, like Rudolph. But they edited Stingiest Man in Town down a bit for the Japanese telecast, by about five minutes. Man, don't you hate it when a local company decides to trim a foreign-made production?! Topcraft also turned out a Frosty sequel for Rankin-Bass (no Jimmy Durante this time), and a handful of other holiday specials, plus movies like The Last Unicorn and Flight of Dragons. To say that Rankin-Bass and Topcraft's relationship was fruitful would be putting it lightly.
There was a twist in the tale for Topcraft, though. Studio head Toru Hara had once helped Isao Takahata get his movie finished, and that made for a great bit of leverage when Takahata sought a studio to animate the film he was producing, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. Topcraft were chosen to work with director Hayao Miyazaki, and once again, history was made. A number of sources say that Topcraft was bought out or absorbed by Studio Ghibli, but it wasn't that cut and dried. The studio kept going for a while after Nausicaä's success, with their final production being The Adventures of the Little Koala—a show produced by Tohokushinsha, made specifically for Japan. Topcraft's staff splintered at this point—some were absorbed by Studio Ghibli, while others formed a new company called Pacific Animation Corporation, who took over Rankin-Bass's syndicated TV fare like Thundercats and Silverhawks.
As for Rankin-Bass, their output gradually dwindled over the decades. They had some interesting projects, including a spectacularly ill-advised family cartoon remake of The King and I (“Finally, a King and I for the whole family!” trumpeted one tagline, as if the original musical somehow wasn't for the whole family), but their final stab at an animated Christmas special was 2001's Santa Baby, an Eartha Kitt vehicle that featured work by a young screenwriter named Suzanne Collins. But hey, it was still produced with Japanese talent! Rankin-Bass kept using talented anime creators, right to the end.
It's neat to see just how closely the evolution of the American Christmas special is tied to Japanese animation, courtesy of Rankin-Bass's long and fruitful relationships with studios like MOM and Topcraft. But I still see a glaring absence in the Christmas animation game—actual anime Christmas specials. There has been a definite uptick in the Christmas episode, where a series that airs in the fall will have an episode or two about the holidays-- Sgt. Frog, Gintama, Mr. Osomatsu, and Polar Bear Café, to name just a few, have all had stuff involving presents, Christmas trees, and Santa hats. There's even an episode of that weird Stitch! anime where the little blue Disney rapscallion teams up with Santa. You remember Stitch!, right? You know, the series that aired on Disney XD for exactly one week before
calling 911 vanishing from American TV without a trace? Speaking of Disney, here's another fun twist: the aforementioned Pacific Animation Corporation were eventually bought—by Disney. They're the guys that made the Disney Afternoon and those direct-to-video Aladdin movies!
Sometimes these Christmas episodes feel like specials, but not often enough—as much as I enjoy Gintama episode 37's depiction of Santa and his reindeer as grouchy, adversarial coworkers, they just show up for Gintoki and his pals to riff on. There are just a sad few anime Christmas specials—the Love Hina and Ranma ½ ones come to mind, but not much else—and even fewer stand-alone Christmas anime features. The only recent one I can think of is Santa Company.
I love the idea of Santa Company, a crowdfunded affair by director Kenji Itoso. Itoso loves Christmas, wanted to create an original special, and also had the bright idea to use this production to teach animation to some students and develop a curriculum to train animators down the road. But because of this approach, Santa Company comes off as a little bit spartan and stodgy—it has a really nice, consistent look, but you can kinda tell it's essentially a student film with a really solid director. It isn't that great. But it's got Santa, and reindeer, and presents, and snow, and jingle bells, and a protagonist who really wants to do the right thing and save Christmas. So in spite of it being a little bit mediocre, I'm happy with it. (Also, admittedly, I helped fund the thing!) I can't rightfully slog through the howling bottomless pit of US animated Christmas specials and then say that Santa Company doesn't measure up—it is definitely better than the Pac-Man Christmas Special! I'll be watching it on Christmas.
What do you think, gang? Do you want to see anime Christmas specials? Do you think that something like Jump All-Stars Save Christmas would really have legs? I'd love to see an anime Christmas special achieve what Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer did, and become a broad cultural marker that inspires parodies, knockoffs, and tributes. At the very least, I figure we might someday see an anime special that's good enough to cause a huge swath of the population to be seriously upset when the TV networks try to stop airing it, like what the people of Sweden did when SVT1 tried to take away their Christmas Donald Duck cartoons. I want an anime special to have that kind of staying power! Do you think Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer counts as anime? Sound off in the comments, and have a Merry Christmas, a Shiny New Year, a Christmas in July, and a Long-Eared Christmas Donkey.
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