sabato 13 luglio 2013

Sugii Gisaburo, Master of Action and Feelings

Retracing the versatile career of Sugii Gisaburō, born in Numazu on August 20th, 1940, is like travelling through the whole history of modern Japanese animation.

The Tale of White Serpent (1958)
When very young, he enters the Tōei Dōga with an inbetweeners task, working on The Tale of White Serpent, (Hakujaden, 1958), the first animated feature in color produced in Asia and distributed outside Japan. During his stay at Tōei, he works on the animated film Journey to the West (Saiyuki, also known as “Alakazam the Great”, 1960). It was on that occasion that he met Tezuka Osamu, the author whose works have revolutionized the after-war Japanese comics.

Dororo (1969)

When Tezuka left Tōei to establish the animation studio Mushi Production, Sugii followed him and joined the staff working on the first Japanese animated TV series, Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom, 1963-1966, in black and white), and directed several episodes of the series after the sixth episode. In a second moment he directs the anime series The Monkey (Goku no Daiboken, 1967) and will take part in the anime Vampire (1968), directing some episodes, and he will later lead the role as main director of the TV series Dororo (1969, renamed "Dororo and Hyakkimaru" starting from the 14th episode). This anime, in black and white, often has a gloomy atmosphere that enhances the horror and dramatic adventures of Hyakkimaru, a young warrior of the Sengoku period, who is chasing the 48 demons that have stolen 48 parts of his body. Only by killing them all, Hyakkimaru will get his human body back. Besides its adventurous dimension, the story also has a political meaning and highlights the difficult living conditions of peasants, oppressed by feudal lords. Under the guidance of Sugii, some big names of Japanese animation directed the episodes of Dororo: Dezaki Osamu (director of Ashita no Joe I and II, The Roses of Versailles from episode 19, Nobody’s boy - Remi, Dear Brother) and Tomino Yoshiyuki (Zambot 3, Mobile Suit Gundam, Ideon).

Lupin III: Pilot Movie (1969)

In 1969 Sugii is involved in the production of the pilot episode of Lupin III (Rupan Sansei), working on the animation of the key scenes. The episode is realized as Sugii is absolutely fascinated by the manga and encourages the producers at Tokyo Movie Shinsha to create an animated adaptation of the story, although its creator, Monkey Punch, was initially against this idea. The result is a film of about 12 minutes, directed by Masaaki Osumi, containing all the elements that will lead to the success of the animated adventures of the popular thief. Sugii will return to work on the subject in 1996, directing the TV movie Lupin III - The Secret of Twilight Gemini (Rupan Sansei - Towairaito Jemini no himitsu).

Tragedy of Belladonna (1973)

After working on the animation of the best erotic animated films of the Mushi Production, The Thousand and One Nights (Senya Ichiya Monogatari, 1969) and Cleopatra: Queen of Sex (Kureopatora, 1970), Sugii participates in the troubled processing of the adult movie Tragedy Of Belladonna (Kanashimi no Belladonna, 1973, Yamamoto Eiichi; aka "Belladonna of Sadness"), for which he directs the animations based on the drawings by Kuni Fukai. The work was presented at the Berlin Film Festival in 1973 and was based on the book Satanism and Witchcraft (1862) by Jules Michelet. It is an historical essay dealing with real witch trials, aimed at denouncing the crimes suffered by women in the Middle Ages in France. Set in that period, the film tells the story of a young woman, Jeanne, who is victim of a ferocious gang rape set up by the feudal lord and his wife on the day of the girl’s wedding to face the costs of the wedding ceremony. For Jeanne this is only the beginning of a long nightmare, during which she will meet the Devil (his appearences are memorable) and will suffer the injustice and violence of the women in the Middle Ages. Despite the highly artistic and cultural value of the film – comparable to Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), based on an historical essay written by Aldous Huxley – Belladonna was a flop at the box office and this caused Mushi Production to go bankrupt.

Jack and the Beanstalk (1974)

Despite the disappearance of Mushi Production, in 1974 the first feature film directed by Sugii, Jack and the Beanstalk (Jack to Mame no Ki), inspired by a famous European fairy tale was released. It was the first production of the Group TAC - a company created within the Mushi Production and established in the late ‘60s by Sugii and Tashirō Atsumi. The movie was made following the American traditional animation (singing sequences, funny animals as co-protagonists, Warner Bros. cartoonstyle sketches in the final), with not an excessively happy ending and full of melancholy. The film was a box office success, but Sugii was not satisfied. 

Touch by Adachi Mitsuru

Impressed by Adachi Mitsuru’s manga, in which sports and adolescent romantic relationships are combined, Sugii will devote himself to create the animated version of these subjects, working with the Group TAC. He will in fact direct all films from the manga Nine: three TV movies, produced between 1983 and 1984, the first of which was adapted to the cinema. He also directed several episodes of the TV series Touch (1985-1987), the three films from this subject released in Japan between 1986 and 1987, and the sequel tv-films , made respectively in 1998 (Touch - Miss Lonely Yesterday) and 2001 (Touch - Cross Road). Sugii directs the TV series Hiatari Ryoko! (1987-1988), as well, and supervises also the sequel of the film, Hiatari Ryoko! Yume no Naka ni Kimi ga Ita (Kasumi: You Were in My Dreams, 1988).

The Glass Mask (1984)

In parallel with this, Sugii is also involved in the main direction of the TV series The Glass Mask (Glass no Kamen, 1984), whose opening theme - directed by Sugii - was animated by the popular couple Araki Shingo/Himeno Michi (Saint Seiya). Based on the manga by Suzue Miuchi, this anime became very popular in the ‘80s in Italy, while in Japan it was not as successful as it was hoped. After only 23 episodes the series was interrupted. However, there are several memorable moments of this series, as the episode in which the leading character has to interpret on the stage the role of the deaf-blind child Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

In 1985 Sugii directed the feature film Night on the Galactic Railroad (Ginga Tetsudō no yoru), considered one of the best examples of animation in Japan. The film, produced by the Group TAC, is based on the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad (published posthumously in 1934) by Miyazawa Kenji, who had previously also strongly influenced the cartoonist Leiji Matsumoto in the creation of the manga Galaxy Express 999 (Ginga Tetsudō 999). This was then transposed with great success in Japan, first appearing as a long TV series (1978-1981), then in a couple of very gloomy films directed by Rintarō in 1979 and 1981. Miyazawa’s work had already inspired other directors long before Sugii showed interest in it, but all the various attempts to create its animated version had remained incomplete. Sugii got the key idea for the feature by reading a comic book adaptation of the novel by Masumura Hiroshi, in which the main characters look like anthropomorphic cats. The use of feline characters allows the director to move away from Galaxy Express 999 and revive both that magical, surreal and alienating atmosphere that surrounds the text of Miyazawa (in which the characters have Italian names: Giovanni and Campanella, colored in blue and pink in the film) and a Japanese introspective characterization. In his novel, Miyazawa uses the language called "Esperanto", present in several scenes of the film as well (whose title in Esperanto features in the opening credits as Nokto de la Galaksia Fervojo). The title of the chapters are indicated both in Japanese and in Esperanto. Spiritual and religious elements increase the mysterious, unpredictable and often dark atmosphere of the movie, as well as the introduction of three human-like characters, whose presence, according to Sugii, underlines the heterogeneity of the universe created by Miyazawa. The woek offers the viewer several possibilities of interpretation. The film was so successful that anthropomorphic cats characters were used also in the TV special Spring & Chaos (produced by Group TAC in 1996), based on the life of Miyazawa (who curiously did not like cats).

The Tale of Genji (1987)

In 1987 Sugii's great talent brought to the realization of another masterpiece, which was performed in Japanese theaters: The Tale of Genji (Shikibu Murasaki: Genji Monogatari). Adapted from the long novel by Shikibu Murasaki, a cornerstone of Japanese literature and by many considered the first example of psychological novel, this film, devoid of action scenes, tells about Genji’s tormented love affairs, conditioned by the painful loss of his mother who had died when he was only three. Genji was the second son of Emperor, whose face is never shown in the film. His father's death, suggested by the movements of a hand and accompanied by the music (for Genji it is a reflection of a soul), is one of the greatest creativity achievements of the director, who renounces to show explicit love scenes but prefers keeping them out of range or representing them in a highly symbolic and poetic way. Sugii likes better to focus on the expression of the faces and bodies, covered by the elegant clothes of that historical period, as well as on magnificent and detailed scenographical representations.

Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994)

In the ‘90s Sugii directed the expected film adaptation for Street Fighter II, one of the most popular video games of the Japanese Capcom. For this film (released in 1994 and distributed worldwide mainly on home video), the director reproposes a very accurate characterization of this fighting, game based on clashes "one on one", and the fights which can be admired throughout the film are spectacular, to say the least. We can find all the characters made famous by the game and the special moves which characterize the game are necessarily transposed in an original and spectacular direction (see the fight between Ryu and Fei Long). Sugii creates a sequence in pure "slasherstyle”, in which the angle shot of a maniac who is spying his fascinating victim under the shower comes immediately before a bloody battle.
In 1995 the film was followed by a TV series, Street Fighter II - V, different from the film and for which Sugii worked on the main direction.

Lament of the Lamb (2003-2004)

Sugii signing many other works that further testify its versatility, going from Super Doll Rika-Chan ('98-'99), a magic genre tv series, to the football story Captain Tsubasa: Road to 2002 (2001-2002). He then directs the OVA series (Original Video Animation, namely produced for home video) Lament of the Lamb (Hitsuji no Uta, 2003-2004), in which he transforms a teenage vampire horror story into a family tragedy in Shakespearian style, where the brotherly love of the protagonist towards his older sister goes to the limits of incest, while the direction is concentrated again on the representation of the characters' feelings and avoids tones which are too explicit. 

Sugii’s directing activity continues with the feature film One Stormy Night (Arashi no Yoru ni, 2005), in which the difficult friendship between a wolf and a goat becomes the allegory of how a different choice of life can be opposed by the community one belongs to, condemning those who discriminte and praising those who strive to defend their ideas.

One Stormy Night (2005)

In recent years, the director, who is also a member of the Directors Guild of Japan (a union to protect the freedom of expression of the directors in Japan) directed the children feature Tōfu Kozo (2011, filmed entirely in computer graphics), and assisted the closing for bankruptcy in 2010 of the Group TAC, where he was working on The Life of Guskou Budori (Guskō Budori no Denki). It is another film based on a story by Miyazawa (already the subject of an animated transposition in 1994, but with human characters), in which Sugii brings back the anthropomorphic cats. Anyway, the film was completed and debuted in the Japanese cinemas in July 2012, the same month in which a documentary entirely dedicated to the long career of Sugii (Animation Maestro Gisaburō, directed by Ishioka Masato) is released, which discloses a fascinating world, largely undiscovered for the Italian and Western public.

The Life of Guskou Budori (2012)
Originally published in "Anymation" Venice Festival (2012) catalogue, with english translation by Francesca Ellero.

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