Japan Journal, Part 4: Animation Museums in Tokyo: Suginami

28 Apr

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While I was in Japan, I visited three museums in Tokyo devoted to animation as well as various stores that catered to anime fans. When I was in Kyoto, I visited the Toei Studio’s theme park, Toei Kyoto Studio Park, which had an animation gallery devoted to the output of Toei Animation. The three museums in Tokyo were the Ghibli Museum, located in Mitaka and devoted to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli; the Gundam Front Museum in Odaiba devoted to the Mobile Suit Gundam anime franchise; and the Suginami Animation Museum in Ogikubo, which offered a full panoply of anime history, covering Japanese animation from the early 20th century on. Of these, the most rewarding was the Suginami Animation Museum in Ogikubo, Tokyo, which took up a whole afternoon and offered enough interesting material to justify its own blog entry.

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I had to take a subway and bus to get to it, but it was the only museum I went to in Japan that didn’t charge a fee. It’s housed in the upper floors of a small commercial building on a side street. On the outside of the building are various images from classic anime cast in metal.

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The first floor has a number of attractions but the one that deserves the most attention is an anime history timeline on two parallel tracks, one in English and one in Japanese. The English one offered a standard summary of major developments in anime over the past century, supplemented by displays of toys and action figures and TV screens showing clips from popular shows.

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The Japanese-language timeline was much more detailed and had illustrations from a much wider range of anime and I kept wishing it had an English translation.

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In a particularly clever touch, the TV sets showing the anime clips reflected the changes in television style and design over the different eras represented.

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I have tapes or DVDs with episodes from some of the series illustrated by the clips and have written about some of them here in past entries:

Speed Racer (1967):

Star of the Giants (1968):

Honeybee Hutch (1970):

There was also an interesting position paper set out in various pieces of text called “Foresight about Japanese Animation” that offers ideas about why Japanese animation is so popular in Japan and overseas.

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Also, there were recreations of various animators’ work stations (similar to but not quite as elaborate as the Miyazaki work spaces displayed at the Ghibli Museum), including that of Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, who once spoke at an anime convention in New York that I attended.

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Tomino is still going strong at the age of 75 with a new Gundam series, “Mobile Suit Gundam UC RE: 0096” which I saw in its premiere on April 3 on TV Asahi while I was in Osaka.

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The upper level at Suginami offered an exhibit devoted to World Masterpiece Theater, a long-running franchise devoted to animated adaptations of famous works of world literature, with a different work for each new season. The series ran from 1975 to 1997 and resumed in 2007 and has adapted such works as “Little Women,” “Anne of Green Gables,” “Tom Sawyer,” “A Little Princess,” “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Swiss Family Robinson,” “Pollyanna,” “The Trapp Family Singers,” “A Dog of Flanders,” “Peter Pan,” “Heidi,” “Lassie,” and “Les Miserables.”

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I’ve seen quite a few episodes from this program and have even written about one of the series, “Fione of the South Seas,” an adaptation of “Swiss Family Robinson,” on this blog on November 17, 2012.

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They had some blow-ups on display from “A Little Princess,” “Dog of Flanders,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Anne of Green Gables,” and a title I’m unfamiliar with, “Romeo and the Black Brothers.”

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Plus a gallery of artwork from the series, “Rascal the Raccoon,” and a display case of Rascal dolls and merchandise.

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I’ve seen a compilation of “Rascal” and have reviewed it on IMDB.

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“Rascal” is based on a 1963 book by American author Sterling North entitled, “Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era,” which was made into a film by the Disney Studio in 1969:

However, the museum wouldn’t allow photography in the main exhibit devoted to WMT and Nippon Animation. This room offered a full WMT timeline, various TV monitors showing credit sequences and clips from different series in the franchise, and display cases showing model sheets for some of the series and photographs of actual locations in Europe, Canada and North America that were used as models for the settings and backgrounds of the series. The four series covered in these displays, according to my notes, were: “Anne of Green Gables,” “Tom Sawyer,” “A Little Princess,” and “Romeo and the Black Brothers.”

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In the theater on the premises, they showed episode #9 of “Anne of Green Gables” (or “Akage no Anne,” 1979), in which Anne Shirley, a new arrival on Prince Edward Island, meets a girl her own age, Diana, and the two become fast friends. This series is based on the 1908 novel by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery. Here are scenes from that episode, which is excerpted in a movie compilation of the series that I have on DVD.

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Later in the afternoon, the same theater showed another film, this one from 1956, entitled “Kuroi Kikori to Shiroi Kikori” (The Black Woodcutter and the White Woodcutter), a fluidly animated color short (15 min.) based presumably on a classic fairy tale. It was made two years before the same director (Taiji Yabushita) made Toei Animation’s first color anime feature, HAKUJADEN (LEGEND OF THE WHITE SNAKE) and it’s clear that shorts like this offered excellent training for the demanding, painstaking work required by Toei’s earliest features. I had never heard of this film, but I’m so glad I got to see it. It’s something of a missing link between the earliest Japanese animated shorts and the first full-length commercial features from Toei. I wrote a review of it on IMDB and here is an excerpt:

I had never heard of this short Japanese animated film before seeing it at a surprise screening at the Suginami Animation Museum in Tokyo. The title translates as “The Black Woodcutter and the White Woodcutter” and the film is approximately 15 minutes long. It offers fluid cell animation, in color, and its lush visuals and detailed backgrounds look forward to some of the early color animated features produced by Japan’s pioneering animation studio, Toei Animation, five of which were directed by this film’s director, Taiji Yabushita, including HAKUJADEN (PANDA AND THE MAGIC SERPENT), SHONEN SARUTOBI SASUKE (MAGIC BOY), SAIYUKI (ALAKAZAM THE GREAT), and ANJU TO ZUSHIOMARU (THE LITTLEST WARRIOR). The film is centered around an anthropomorphized animal trio, consisting of a bear, a fox and a squirrel, and their attempts to find warm shelter and food at remote cabins during a raging snowstorm in a thick forest. The simple story illustrates their encounters with the devious “black” woodcutter, who brandishes a gun, and the kindly “white” woodcutter, who welcomes them into his humble cabin. The different reactions of the woodcutters affect what happens to each of them later when a “snow queen”-type character courses through the forest seeking to freeze everything and everybody. It’s presumably based on an old folk tale, although I couldn’t tell you whether its origin is European, Russian, Japanese or that of another culture. There’s no dialogue, so it needed no translation. The animal characters walk on two feet and move like human beings. Their animated motions lead me to believe they were rotoscoped (animation traced from live-action footage, in which actors or models are filmed performing the actions that will be animated).

I don’t have any shots from this short, but you can see an image of the three animals in it on the poster in the museum lobby announcing the film showings:

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If I had to pick an animation tradition that the short resembled, I would point to Russian animation of the 1950s and such shorts as “The Fisherman and the Goldfish” (1950), seen in these shots:

And here are shots from Taiji Yabushita’s debut feature, HAKUJADEN (1958, released in the U.S. as PANDA AND THE MAGIC SERPENT), which was also Toei Animation’s first feature:

Also on the first floor was a circular drawing space on which visiting artists had contributed sketches and signatures, some of them quite familiar to me.

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Also on display were a few life-size figures of current anime characters, none of whom I recognized.

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But there was also a man-size Gundam model:

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There was also a library on the premises stocked with manga and animation DVDs, including several classic series and features and animation from other countries including the U.S. No photography was allowed in the library, but I do have shots of DVD covers of some of what they offered, including the aforementioned HAKUJADEN:

“Okami Shonen Ken” (Ken the Wolf Boy, 1963):

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And this series from 1968, “Sasuke”:

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The library was filled with people when I was there, using the video monitors to watch the DVDs in the collection. I would love to go back when I have several days to devote to watching some of the collection myself. As it stands, I was in the museum that afternoon for close to three hours and it was one of the most rewarding museum visits of my trip. The place had lots of attendees, either young people in groups or parents with children.

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There were posters for current anime movies:

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Including one that I actually paid to see in a theater while I was in Tokyo, DORAEMON: NOBITA AND THE BIRTH OF JAPAN, the 36th annual movie in the long-running franchise about a robot cat from the future who helps out a hapless Tokyo schoolboy named Nobita:

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In the next entry, I’ll get to the Gundam Front Museum, the Ghibli Museum, J-World Tokyo, and the Pokémon Center.

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4 Responses to “Japan Journal, Part 4: Animation Museums in Tokyo: Suginami”

  1. Lenny Moore April 28, 2016 at 6:05 PM #

    That’s an amazing piece, Brian. You certainly made wonderful use of your time during your visit.

    • briandanacamp April 29, 2016 at 7:09 AM #

      Thanks, Lenny. And I even left out some key attractions in the museum, e.g. a room where kids could make drawings and practice animation, and a presentation on motion capture.

  2. thesixfootbonsai April 28, 2016 at 9:35 PM #

    Very cool! Love the old TVs! I was a big Doraemon fan in the early eighties. Then Dr. Slump. Did the museum address the current trends which are really less savory?

    • briandanacamp April 29, 2016 at 7:06 AM #

      Aside from Pokémon and Naruto, I didn’t see much recent anime given attention. Which is probably for the better…

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