In these days of the soundbite and the Google search, it’s easy to think that this generation has been seduced by dumbed-down, lightweight snippets of information, preferring them to solid research.
Newsflash: we’re not the first. Instant History did exactly the same thing on Japanese TV, presenting short infograms based on great events from history that were calculated to amuse, entertain and hopefully stick in the memory for longer than their three-minute run time. Using the framing device of a character who wants to know what happened “on this day in history”, the show mixed animation with news reports and photos from the archives of the Mainichi News.
The first Japanese TV series to feature animation in every episode, it ran for 312 episodes from 1st May 1961 to 24th February 1962 on Fuji TV, every night from Monday to Saturday. It earned manga superstar Ryuichi Yokoyama and his Otogi Company a lasting place in anime’s hall of fame. Directed by Yokoyama and Shinichi Suzuki, with Hiroshi Saito joining them for art duties, it also started a trend for snappy snippet shows, fragments of knowledge dressed up as fun and frolic, that would continue, thanks to sponsorship from beer-to-lemonade corporation Kirin, for almost two decades.
Yokoyama was one of Osamu Tezuka’s idols, a mangaka who had made the leap into animation from a studio based at his home. Tezuka himself would take the same path in 1963, with Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom.) Before that, Yokoyama followed up his success with a second series of slightly longer shows. Otogi Manga Calendar ran from 25th June 1962 to 4th July 1964, Monday to Saturday, on TBS – a total of 312 five-minute episodes.
A two year hiatus followed before the next infosnippet show made its debut on Mainichi Broadcasting. Otogi Pro was once again involved in the production, but old Toei Animation hand Makoto Nagasawa provided the art. He was one of the key animators on Toei’s movie The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (Wanpaku Ōji no Orochi Taiji) in 1963, alongside Yasuo Otsuka. (Otsuka’s protege Isao Takahata was an assistant director on the same film.) Knowall University: Tomorrow’s Calendar (Monoshiri Daigaku Ashita no Calendar) ran from 1st July 1966 to 2nd August 1970, six days a week from 6.55 p.m., a total of 1274 5-minute episodes. It picked up on the calendar theme, relating incidents from history with anniversaries the following day, but also explained everyday topics such as natural history and technology. Since TV technology was advancing as incomes and consumer demand grew, this show and its successors were made in colour.
At the end of the summer, a new series picked up the concept and the “know-all” monicker. Cartoon History of Mankind (Kirin Monoshiri Daigaku Manga Jibutsushi, aka Kirin Knowall University Cartoon History of Mankind) ran from 1st August 1970 to 30th September 1971, again on Mainichi, but this time without Otogi’s involvement. The show was produced by Office Yuni and Ken Saito, and directed by Nagasawa. Taking a humorous, fantastical look at historical figures from East and West, the show built an audience of both college students and working adults. Masakazu Shimizu provided the music, with voices by Shinsuke Chikaishi, who played Masuo in Sazae-san, and Yasuo Hisamatsu, who would go on to work on the Galaxy Express 999 movie.
Nagasawa and the Office Yuni production team went straight on with Knowall World Travel (Sekai Monoshiri Ryoko.) It ran from 1st October 1971 to 31st December 1974 in the same five-minute, six-nights-a-week format. White-bearded savant Dr. Koyoka travelled all over the world by balloon, talking to children of all lands about animals, plants and other educational topics, clearly and entertainingly. Yoko Kuri, who would later play the title characters in Miracle Girl Limit-Chan and Vicky the Viking, joined the voice cast.
From 1st January 1975 to 31st December 1979, the baton in this marathon relay of knowledge conveyed with humour was taken up by a new show from Office Yuni. Kirin Knowall Hall (Kirin Monoshiri-Kan) was once again shown six nights a week on Mainichi. Kazue Komiya, who voiced Charlotte in Rose of Versailles (Versailles no Bara) and more recently provided the voice of Mrs. Santa for the Japanese dub of Arthur Christmas, joined the cast.
These little shows only lasted a few minutes, but they ran most evenings from 1961 to 1979, totalling over 4,700 episodes. They were part of the background against which Japan built its modern economy and widened its knowledge of the world, and were probably more influential than many shows with a far higher profile among modern fans.
They are seemingly lost to us: a YouTube search turns up only a few title cards, and Google yields little despite valiant efforts by Animemorial.net and allcinema.net. But with tins of film from 1918 turning up in Japanese junk shops, I refuse to give up hope that we may one day recover a few of these infograms from the Showa era.