End of a Golden Year, Start of a Golden Era

49 years ago today, two movie premieres marked the end of a golden year for Japanese animation. Toei debuted two features: WanWan Chushingura (Woof Woof 47 Ronin aka Doggie March) and Okami Shonen Ken (Wolf Boy Ken.) The first was in line with the rest of Toei’s anime production, a big feature with high production values; the second was a spinoff edited from Toei’s first anime TV series, which had made its debut less than a month earlier.

The day before, 20 December, a new anime series began airing on Fuji TV. Ciscorn Oji: Susume Ciscorn (Prince Ciscorn) was based on a manga by Moto Abiko, one half of the Fujiko Fujio manga duo. Made in claymation, it only ran for 14 episodes, but it was part of the tide that changed the face of anime. (It was also criticised in some US sources for its depiction of Native Americans, although given how invading America treated native America that seems a little harsh. Cartoons, however goofy, are generally far less damaging than real-life land theft and murder.)

There had been plenty of animation on Japanese screens since the war ended, but very little of it was locally made.  This was partly because the Japanese television market was too small to support local production, and partly because American imports dominated.  American shows had already covered their production costs at home, and so could be sold overseas at rates that undercut new local productions: but that wasn’t the only reason. Occupied Japan was a huge social remodelling project, and American TV and movies, carefully selected to show America as the perfect society, were part of the plan to change the mindset of the Japanese people. Selling programmes to Japanese cinema chains and TV networks at low prices wasn’t only good business, it was supporting democracy and modernisation.

The Occupation ended and TV sales grew, but foreign imports were still far cheaper than new Japanese productions. The early 60s saw experiments with short animation on TV, and anime was doing well in the cinema, but it appeared that newly-created animation was simply too expensive and too time-consuming a method for success in TV series.

It took a comic artist to stand the process on its head and apply the lessons of American animation. Osamu Tezuka was a huge fan of both Disney and manga. He’d grown up before the war, reading heavily-merchandised Japanese comics such as Norakuro by Suiho Tagawa. He’d made money from merchandise based on his own work, and he’d seen how Disney used its lavish productions as selling tools, creating a circle that had audiences buying toys and books based on the characters they loved, which in turn kept them coming back to the movies and TV shows. The key was regular exposure to the characters. The weekly TV series functioned as an extended advertisement for the spinoff products. If you make your series cheap enough to get it on TV, and work hard enough to keep it there every week, you tap into a vast subsidiary market. It worked for Disney; Tezuka believed it could work for anime.

That belief gave us the modern TV anime industry. 1963 wasn’t the year it began, but it was the year it really took off. From New Year’s Day to 21 December, Japanese animators were changing the face of their industry.

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