I’ve been an anime fan for just about all of my life.
The first anime I can remember seeing that was presented “as anime” was Ranma ½. One day when I was 6 or 7 my older sister let me watch fansubbed copies of the first few episodes as long as I promised to not tell mom. It was pretty much all downhill from there.
So why the personal history lesson?
Around 2011 or so I found my interest in anime declining for the first time. I ended up taking a break that lasted several years. Digging through shorts from Minna no Uta played a major role in giving me a new window into animation.
With each short being handled by a single animator (generally) the series serves as an effective introduction to both diverse styles and approaches to animation as well as a number of the names that have been major forces in Japanese independent animation over the years.
Since its a somewhat obscure program in the west a good first question; What is Minna no Uta?
Established in April 1961 Minna no Uta (lit. Everyone’s Songs) started as a children’s musical program on both TV and Radio. The first broadcast consisted of two songs the (lightly) animated Nobody Knows 『誰も知らない』 and the live action Big Green Farm『おお牧場はみどり』. The latter of the two is based on a Slovak folk song, Horela Lipka Horela.
This combination defined the early days of Minna no Uta going into the middle/late 1980s. During those early years the program would be roughly half live action and half animated shorts. Starting in the late 80’s and into the modern day the balance has shifted heavily toward animation and illustration.
It’s worth noting that the program predates many of the common starting points given for TV anime. Astroboy for example started in 1963 and it was even slightly before the Otogi Pro series Instant History (May 1961).
The typical broadcast for Minna no Uta consists of a 10~ second bumper indicating the start of the program. This is followed by a title card and voice over stating the name of the song that is being illustrated.
The NHK airs the segments as filler in between larger programs and each block limited to 5 minutes long. Generally each animator handles half the program but in some cases a single song will cover the full runtime.
To date the program has produced in excess of 1400 segments so obviously I won’t attempt to summarize the entire history here. Instead I will just discuss in a number of artists I’ve found particularly interesting.
Over time I’m sure this is a topic that I will be revisiting.
Where possible I will link the films but the NHK is notoriously aggressive with takedown notices and the links will almost certainly break in the future.
Easily the defining 2D artist of the first decade of the program was the (then) rising independent animator Yoji Kuri. Starting in 1960 Yoji Kuri established the first Animation Group of Three festival alongside co-founders Ryohei Yanagihara and Hiroshi Manabe.
Yoji Kuri is most known in the west for his independent films which often had a dark humorous tone. Probably less known is the amount of children’s work he did for Minna no Uta. Stretching from 1961 until 2014 Kuri created 38 individual shorts for the program. The 1960’s was unquestionably his most prolific period with 32 shorts* from that decade alone.
*(Unfortunately the NHK has lost a number of Kuri’s films due to the practice of reusing the expensive broadcast tapes. This practice was standard for the station until the very end of the 70’s when tape costs came down. In recent years the NHK has been soliciting fans for home recordings of these lost broadcasts and a number have been recovered. )
Viewed now Kuri’s shorts appear technically quite crude but should seen as a reaction to the more fully animated Toei films of the time. They also fit neatly into a conversation with the global movement of modernist animation typified by studios like UPA or festivals like Zagreb that was dominant at that time.
While he isn’t personally one of my favorite artists to work for the program any history would be incomplete without acknowledging his influence.
Taku Furukawa was a major force in the wave of independent animation that followed in Yoji Kuri’s wake. While in college Furukawa planned to move into manga but was pulled into animation after seeing commercials from individuals like Makoto Wada. (Who notably would also go on to animate for the program)
Furukawa’s first foray into independent animation was to join the Yoji Experimental Manga Studio in 1964. He would apprentice here for 3 years and make his first film before going fully independent and founding his own studio, Takun Manga Box, in 1970.
His first independent film was Ushi Atama in 1968. This film was selected for competition at the International Annecy Film Festival and the attention it drew directly lead to the NHK reaching out and asking Furukawa to work on Minna no Uta. His first work for the program would be released the following year.
As an aside, this is something I would like to know a lot more about. You can often find it mentioned that the NHK is specifically pursuing certain artists for the program like Atsuko Ishizuka in 2004. There isn’t a lot of information about the producers who are driving this process out there, at least in english.)
Taku Furukawa’s early independent work was often typified by abstaining from narrative and instead focusing each film around a single technique. For example the spinning disks of Phenakistiscope or the abstracted points of light in Motion Lumiere. These works often feel like experiments to find a kind of minimum ideal of animation. They also established his very Stienberg influenced design sense that would define his animation and illustration for much of his career.
While Furukawa’s films for Minna no Uta are obviously more direct you can still see the same attitude driving them. In his 1975 film 遠い世界に you can see hints of the collage techniques and surrealism from his 1970 film New York Trip.
One of my favorite of his independent films is 1983’s Portrait. This film has two largely unrelated photos with scratched out painted backgrounds constantly shifting and creates interest from the contrast between the two items on screen. The scratched out backgrounds would appear again in his 1990 MNU and he would push the split composition idea even further in 1993.
Over the course of his career (so far!) with the program Furukawa has created 29 shorts. While almost all of them provide something of interest I have a special fondness for his work up through the early 90’s. In this period his animation often vibrates with a palpable energy, with simple line figures shuddering in moving holds despite the low framecount. Squigglevision has nothing on Taku Furukawa.
Many of the early films have a sense of longing and wanderlust. One of my favorites is his MNU from October 1984. The film moves at a slow dream like pace with just undulating silhouettes, the spinning of the pinwheel, and simple rotating backgrounds. While the animation is limited I don’t find this to be a negative at all. The designs and poses themselves do all they need to communicate the feeling of wistless watching the days, sky, space and life roll by.
In addition to his animation work in recent years Furukawa has been an instructor at Tokyo Polytechnic University. You can see a video tribute to him made by a number of his notable students here.
Tadahiko Horiguchi was the second animator from Minna no Uta that I came to know by name. I initially became interested in the program after running into ibcf’s MAD for Koji Nanke and being completely overwhelmed. Being exposed to that video is what got me to start scouring youtube and dailymotion trying to find anything else from the program like it.
Tadahiko Horiguchi wasn’t the second animator I ever saw from the program but he was the second to make a real impression.
From the moment I first watched Higenashi Gogejabaru I was hooked. The almost childlike drawings shake and distort widely but beyond the cartoony outbursts the characters move with a surprising care. Look at the old man’s walk at 00:51 or the disoriented cat at 01:07. The entire short for Happiness Song also has fantastic interactions between the entire family. I understand arguing this kind of animation is fine character acting might seem odd in a world where realist animation like Ghost in the Shell is common but it’s sincerely how I feel.
Some animation feels labored and some animation just feels completely intuitive.. When I look at Horiguchi’s animation i just feel a simple and uncomplicated joy. His animation never feels like work and it always feels like he had a blast making it.
I have come to think of him as one of the most creative animators I’ve ever known. In an attempt to illustrate why I cut together a short MAD some time ago.
In trying to understand why his crude animation is so effective for me I often come back to this quote about Norm Ferguson.
For challenging and changing what I thought of as good animation and bringing me simple joy Tadahiko Horiguchi has more than earned his place among my favorite animators of all time.
If Tadahiko Horiguchi taught me about how wild animation can be than SeiIchi Hayashi taught me the value of restraint.
Hayashi’s is best known as the creator of manga such as Red Colored Elegy but he actually started his career as an animator. From 1962 until 1965 Hayashi worked as an animator at Toei, primarily on their first TV anime Wolf Boy Ken. In this era Hayashi was capable some wild animation as evidenced by this scene from Fight da Pyuta.
By the end of the 1960’s Hayashi had largely left the mainstream animation industry and would return only sporadically. One of his most memorable scenes from this period came in Belladonna of Sadness. Painted on glass with only minimal movement this scene would foreshadow Hayashi’s developing style.
Hayashi began working on Minna no Uta in 1974 and has gone on to create 17 shorts for the program. His most recent came in 2005. Hayashi’s animation for the program has a very particular approach to movement; Which is to say his animation often barely moves at all. An average short from Hayashi consists of beautiful illustrations set to music with only a few elements truly animated.
Reasonable people could argue that Hayashi’s work pushes the boundaries of what can be considered animated at all. Can a work consisting of slow pans over still images with only occasional and minor movement be considered animated at all?
For me at least watching Hayashi’s is enough to say unequivocally, yes. Perhaps the Turing test for animation is to step back and ask yourself “if separated from the juxtaposition of images and music would these paintings alone have the same power?”
Fundamentally I don’t think animation is the Disney ideal of the “illusion of life” and I don’t think there is a minimum frame count. Animation is just sequences of drawings set to time.
My favorite of Hayashi’s works is this 1990 short. Everytime I watch it I’m pulled in by the slow pace of the movement and the soothing music and I am instantly relaxed.
There is a place for that kind of animation in this world.
As a brief aside, in addition to his Minnu no Uta work Hayashi has done a number of commercials over the years. If you look into independent animation both in Japan and the rest of the world you will constantly find independent artists being supported by what in theory is the most commercial work in the world.
While I’ve largely been discussing artists active in the programs early years I don’t want to give the impression there has been a decline. Since his first work in 2002 Osamu Sakai has become one of the most decorated animators in the program’s history.
Sakai graduated from Tama Art University in 2001 and started working with Minna no Uta immediately out of college. His first short Toki no Shiori was released the following year and would win the Yuri Norstein Design Prize at the Laputa International Animation Festival.
The world presented in the film is striking. The night billows out from the home of the moon. Darkness sweeps across the land but instead of obscuring reveals the light inside of every living thing. The released light floats into the sky to become the stars themselves.
It’s appropriate Sakai won a design award with his first professional work as it is undeniably the aspect of his animation that stands out most.
Sakai’s earliest films for Minna no Uta tended to have traditional characters but in recent years he has leaned more and more into abstract animation. His second award winning Minna no Uta Po Po Loousie sits on the precipice of this shift. The film still features identifiable characters but the world they inhabit is now a collage of color and light. Collage and geometric designs have become hallmarks of Sakai’s modern approach.
This shift is also particularly visible in his advertising and promotional work. Like several others in this list Sakai has found work in a variety of places outside the normal animation industry ranging from museum installations, commercials, music videos and educational programing.
In recent years Sakai has also worked guiding younger animators for Minna no Uta and produced the recent segment Gifts. Unfortunately due to the NHK’s habit of only providing extremely limited credits this kind of work is devilishly hard to track.
Originally I wanted to highlight 10 animators for this piece but even that would be a drop in the bucket for a program that has been going on for nearly 60 years. Instead I’ll just call this “part 1” of a series that will go on for god knows how long.
Getting into Minna no Uta living in the west means endless searching on obscure youtube channels and digging for the scraps the NHK fails to take down. Hopefully this introduction will at least give a hint of why that work might be worth it.
Till next time,