Monday, August 26, 2013

Five Anime Productions that Never Saw the Light of Day

There is no questioning the ever growing appeal of anime in the West. The medium was popularized not only due to audiences being curious about alternatives to Saturday morning cartoons, but also due to the combined talents of pioneers such as Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Rintaro, Shinichiro Watanabe, and Hideaki Anno, just to name a few. However, as with the case of several American studios, some projects by famous directors never made it past the drawing boards or were put on indefinite hiatus. Producing high quality animation is certainly not cheap. Below is a small glimpse at what could have been.

 Miyazaki's and Takahada's Pippi Longstocking 

Production art for for the proposed film.

One hardly needs an introduction to Studio Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahada. Their impressive filmography includes the likes of Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), Grave of Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1990), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001). However, the two had just started out in the early 1970s and were relatively unknown. Takahada's and Miyazaki's efforts on ambitious projects, such as Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968) and the original Lupin III series (1971-1972), were shunned and ignored for several years, as they were ahead of their time.

In 1971, Miyazaki and Takahada approached Pippi Longstocking's author, Astrid Lindgren, expressing intrest in adapting the property into an animated feature entitled Pippi Longstocking: The Strongest Girl in the World (Nagakutsushita No Pippi: Sekai Ichi Tsuyoi Onna No Ko). They even traveled around Sweden, making observations for their proposed film. However, Lindgren was not keen on the idea. This was likely due to her unhappiness with the 1949 film adaptation of her book. All that remains of Miyazaki's and Takahada's project are some proposed watercolor storyboards.

Miyazaki and Takahada compromised by creating an original project featuring a young, feisty redhead in pigtails, Panda Kopanda. The two films, Panda Kopanda (1972) and The Rainy Day Circus (1973) run at about half an hour each. They follow a girl named Mimiko, who is left to take care of the house when her grandmother is away. But when she returns home from the station she finds herself in charge of two unusual guests, a large Panda and his son. Keen eyed fans will notice that Papa Panda bares an uncanny resemblance to Totoro. Indeed, the Panda Kopanda shorts were training grounds for the relatively new filmmakers, and they greatly influenced the direction of Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988). So in other words, if Miyazaki and Takahada had actually managed to obtain Pippi Longstocking's copyrights, there likely would never even been a My Neighbor Totoro!  

Storyboards for Pippi Longstockings vs Panda Kopanda.

Rintaro's Lupin VIII 


A still from the pilot, "A Man from the Past."

After having three television series and three feature films, American producers began to notice the immense success of the Lupin III franchise in Japan. Thus, the French company DiC (which previously collaborated on anime-like projects, Ulysses 31 [1981] and The Mysterious Cities of Gold [1982-1983]) and TMS, decided to adapt Lupin III to suit American tastes. In 1982, production began under legendary director Rintaro (Galaxy Express 999 [1979], Metropolis [2001]), who was given a large budget to work with.

But, making Lupin appeal to Westerners proved to be difficult. The Japanese series was aimed at a more adult audience, featuring frequent gunplay and innuendos. Since cartoons in America were deemed as 'kid's stuff' throughout the '70s and '80s (save for a few wild cards like Ralph Bakshi), Lupin's occupation as a master thief and his criminal outings were deemed unsuitable for childern. The series had to undergo a major makeover.

This whole scene explains why Lupin had to be changed for American audiences....

Lupin VIII is set in the 22nd century. It follows the descendant of Lupin III, who is a freelance detective that pilots a spaceship. Since smoking and guns were a big 'no no' for American cartoons, Jigen's trademark cigarette and pistol were replaced with a lollipop and a laser gun. Goemon's samurai sword was changed into a ... lightsaber sword. And Fujiko's sexuality was toned down considerably. Because Lupin VIII is not a criminal, Inspector Zenigata's descendent simply chases him based on past family history.

A promotional poster for Lupin VIII

The series did manage to produce a pilot episode, "A Man From the Past,". Although the episode's animation and sound effects were completed, the project fell through before dialogue could be recorded. Apparently, a second episode was scripted, but it has yet to emerge on the internet. Lupin VIII failed to get off the ground due to copyright issues surrounding the Arsene Lupin name. Despite that Rintaro was set to direct the series, it probably relieved many anime fans that the show was canceled. Lupin VIII had changed so much from its original incarnation it wasn't even Lupin III anymore! DiC seems to have realized this though. It came up with a compromise about another (but rather clumsy) detective, Inspector Gadget.  

So instead of a wily thief, we got an incompetent inspector. Great. 

Miyazaki's and Takahada's Little Nemo

The 1985 pilot for Little Nemo by Yoshifumi Kondo.

 TMS is one of the the oldest and most successful anime studios. Not only did it bring us Lupin III, but also Rose of Versailles (1979-1980), Sherlock Hound (1984-1985), Akira (1989), and Detective Conan (1996-present). In order to try and expand its international market, the studio decided to try and make a feature length production that would transcend cultural boundaries. In 1977 producer Yutaka Fujioka flew over to Monterey, California to negotiate with Winsor McCay's family. He wanted to create a Japanese / American coproduction of McCay's comic strip, Little Nemo in Slumberland.

The project grew to be very ambitious and expensive. Perhaps a bit too ambitious and expensive. Fujioka approached both George Lucas and Chuck Jones to help with the film, but both declined, noting Little Nemo was plagued with story problems. Fujioka did manage to gather many other talented people for the production, including Ray Bradbury, the French comic artist Moebius, several Disney animators, Brian Froud, and the Sherman Brothers. Both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahada were brought on board in the early 1980s as well. Their longtime friend and animator director, Yoshifumi Kondo, managed to create a short pilot trailer for the film, before they all left the seemingly doomed production and established Studio Ghibli.

Beautiful concept art for Nemo by Moebius.  

But despite this blowing loss, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland continued to clunk along. Osamu Dezaki managed to create a second pilot and Sadao Tsukioka created a third, now seemingly lost, pilot. Dezaki's pilot is considerably closer to the finalized version of Nemo, but still bares more resemblance to an anime movie than a Disney cartoon. In 1988, Yutaka Fujioka appointed Masami Hata and William Hurtz as the film's directors. The film was finally released in 1989, after twelve years in production.

Even though Little Nemo holds the distinction of being the first anime film to receive national release in the United States, it flopped. Nemo only earned 10 million for its 35 million budget. It failed to connect with both Japanese and Western audiences, in spite of all its superb animation and inspired visuals. There were simply too many artists with differing opinions involved, which the movie's storyline obviously suffers from.

Akira Kurosawa's The Masque of Black Death

Kurosawa doing what he does best. 

Akira Kurosawa was one of Japan's most important and influential directors. His contributions to Asian cinema include Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Ran (1985). Kurosawa not only directed, but also often wrote and edited his own films. His work ranged from historical epics to noir-like dramas.

In 1998, Kurosawa surprised everyone when he announced that he had written a screenplay for the short Edgar Allen Poe story, "The Masque of Red Death." The film was going to be his first animated feature. However,  Kurosawa died on September 6th that year of a stroke. Renewed interest in the project occured in 2008, and Kurosawa Production planned to have the film completed by 2010, in honor of Kurosawa's 100th birthday. That deadline has long since passed, and The Masque of Red Death remains in hiatus. Very little information is known about what the initial production would have been like, as no animated stills from the film have been leaked online.

Satoshi Kon's The Dreaming Machine


Promotional art for the film.

Outside of Studio Ghibli, perhaps no other anime director has met as wide acclaim as Satoshi Kon at studio Madhouse. His movies are often realistically animated, and deal with complex issues such as social inequality, homelessness, and exploitation in modern Japan. Satoshi Kon frequently used female characters as his leads, who often dealt with keeping grasp with reality. His best known works are Perfect Blue (1998), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and Paprika (2006).

In 2010, Kon announced that he would make a fantasy-adventure movie targeted for family audiences entitled The Dreaming Machine (Yume-Miru Kikai). The Dreaming Machine was to feature no human characters, and instead star only robots. The plot was to center around three robots (Ririco, Robin, and King) as they embark on some sort of road trip.

Tragically, Satoshi Kon was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. His health rapidly deteriorated and he passed away on August 24, 2010. Before he died, Kon did manage to get all of The Dreaming Machine's storyboards complete and asked his studio to finish his film for him as a last request. Madhouse put character designer and chief animator, Yoshimi Itazu, in charge of directing. As of 2011, 600 out of 1500 of The Dreaming Machine's shots were completed. The production was put on hold and its website was taken down. When asked about progress earlier this year, Madhouse still cites that finacial issues are keeping The Dreaming Machine from being completed.

A model sheet for the female lead.