Written by Jiro.
Sanrio has an anime production system that has to be called out-of-this-world!
Amid the bustle of anime production companies harried by rigorous schedules, there is one company that, with what looks like dignified calmness in comparison, is making animation slowly and carefully. That company is Sanrio, who we all know for their Snoopy and Patty & Jimmy products; more accurately, Sanrio Films. They’re an energetic company whose film Family Love won an Academy Award. More recently, their films Nutcracker Fantasy, The Northern Fox, The Fantastic Adventures of the Mouse and His Child and Ringing Bell have won great acclaim.
What kind of a company is Sanrio Films, and what are they planning to do? Sanrio Films producer Tsunemasa Hatano gave us this answer:
“Our production schedule is divided into two parts: Period 1 and period 2. Period 1 films are Little Jumbo by Takashi Yanase, Family Love, Joe and the Rose, The Northern Fox, The Fantastic Adventures of the Mouse and His Child, Song of the Sea, Ringing Bell and Winds of Change. Period 2 films are Unico, The Sea Prince and the Fire Child and A Story of Africa (tentative title) featuring Cathy.”
We won’t make TV anime
While the first film, Little Jumbo, may not be familiar to audiences, it’s sure to be a memorable film, staffed as it is by the likes of Takashi Yanase, Taku Izumi and the combined forces of the entire Sanrio Films animation studio. Director Toshio Hirata and animators Shigeru Yamamoto, Kazuko Nakamura and Shigeo Akahori are likely to become the backbone of Sanrio Films.
“We have no intent to make TV anime. We’ll take our time to make high-quality films. Any profit will be made in the long-run as those films are seen by many people over the years. Our philosophy is: Films are our fortune.”
Producer Hatano adds this note about current trends in anime: “When you’re making a film, the staff should have about a year to spend playing around. Once a creator is chosen for the film, that creator should be allowed to become the “star”, so to speak, though that term may not be appropriate. To make an analogy: You have to let a battery charge up all the way, otherwise you’ll just be squandering it.”
In other words, he is critical of current-day Jitensha-Sôgyô-style TV animation.
The idea of marketing a film over a long time may be unthinkable in today’s TV anime industry, but that is in fact the more orthodox strategy. Disney’s Snow White, for example, still brings in good business. Sanrio’s aim is to produce films which the next generation can still find entertaining; in other words, films which will stand up to the test of time.
Sanrio also has strong aspirations towards overseas distribution. In fact, their own distribution company in Hollywood (Sanrio Communications Incorporated) has established its reputation by distributing Nutcracker Fantasy and Story of the Northern Fox. Although some mecha and meisaku anime originally produced for Japanese audiences have become hits overseas, that was an unintended consequence; basically pure luck. In that sense, Sanrio Films is intentional.
Winds of Change has a mythical atmosphere similar to Lord of the Rings, but the characters look somewhat unusual to a Japanese eye. That was intentional. The character designs were created by foreign animators. In fact, these character designs were attained by a process of testing various designs on foreign and Japanese children to find out what was most appealing to both groups.
“Foreigners are totally unreceptive to shôjo manga characters — the type with big watery eyes with twinkling stars and such. Most Japanese comic book characters have no appeal to foreigners in terms of beauty.”
This is an astute judgment.
The character problem has often been cited as one of the reasons Japanese animation has been unable to extend its market overseas. Yet seemingly never before has any attempt been made to solve this problem. It’s no surprise that Sanrio, leader of character goods marketing in Japan, has been the one to attack this problem head on and come up with a solution.
“The groundwork for people over there to unconditionally accept Japanese animation has yet to be laid. Mere optimism won’t help open up the international market. The objective needs to be not to create something discernible throughout the world, but something that can be loved throughout the world.”
Only Sanrio Does Full Animation
As for the staff, they currently have 48 animators. At Sanrio Film the animators work on a contractual basis rather than as salaried employees.
“Depending on the type of film we’re producing, we seek out different people, so we may sometimes hire unexpected people on staff here at Sanrio.”
The thing that grabs your attention at the Sanrio animation studio is the animation system. The animation room is divided up into 2 teams which are each reponsible for a different type of animation. One team does all the character animation and the other team does all natural animation.
For example, to animate a boy walking carrying a candle, they would split the animation up thus: one team responsible for animating the boy alone, one team responsible for animating the flame alone. The team responsible for the candle would also be responsible for animating natural phenomena, eg, lapping waves or flowers blowing in the wind; everything aside from the characters. Disney once made a wonderful short in which only nature was animated, and this is the same full-animation approach where both the characters and the background move.
The animation production desk is also something unique to Sanrio. It’s a rotating light table with a tap located directly in front of you. They say it’s useful for full animation.
“Full animation is impossible in TV animation due to physical constraints. I think you could fairly say that right now Sanrio is the only company [in Japan] doing full animation.”
As for Sanrio’s future projects, in production at the moment are Unico and The Sea Prince and the Fire Child. For Unico, a pilot film has already been completed. Unico is based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka which was serialized in Ririka, a magazine published by Sanrio which is currently suspended. This film is the first ever outside order within Japan, and it is being produced by Madhouse. Toshio Hirata and Sugino Akio are working together on the film. In the pilot Godaigo composed the music, but as of yet nobody has been selected for the feature film.
The film is apparently to be a fantasy about a mythical one-horned creature called a unicorn, incorporating sci-fi and folkloric elements, and will be suitable for children. It will be released next spring or summer.
Production of the major project The Sea Prince and the Fire Child is scheduled to take up all of next year. The film tells the tragic love story of a fire spirit and a water spirit.
The first film that comes to mind when you think of Sanrio Films is probably The Fantastic Adventures of the Mouse and His Child, but not many people know that this film was in fact entirely animated by a foreign staff. Thanks to an effective advertising campaign the film was a success at the box-office, but the quality left something to be desired. One wonders if today’s children, accustomed to speedy and action-packed TV animation, weren’t a bit bored.
With skilled Japanese animators working in the favorable conditions at Sanrio Films, you can’t help feeling that Japanese animation finally will be able to break into the world class, and it’s certain to be rewarding work for the animators involved.