The producer who inadvertently fostered anime
Arthur Rankin Jr, who died last Thursday, was not often thought of in connection with Japanese animation, though he played a major part in its history. In America, he’s best known as the co-founder of Rankin/Bass Productions. A stateside brand, the Rankin/Bass name is linked with handmade family cartoons as fondly as Oliver Postgate or Aardman are in Britain. But while the studio’s cartoons – especially the stop-motion Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) – are evergreens, few people know their animation was Japanese.
Born in New York in 1924, Rankin leaned towards painting and graphic design. In the 1950s, he set up a company called Videocraft International, creating commercials for clients such as General Electric. Some of the adverts used limited animation, but Rankin needed larger facilities to expand his production. “I was looking for a source of production that I could depend on and that would be, well, mine,” Rankin said in 2005. (All quotes come from a video interview online here and here.)
On Rankin’s account, he was approached by a member of a Japanese trade delegation, who’d been directed to Rankin by a friend. “The Japanese government had been sending people to (America) to find out what they could sell… A man came here looking for America’s foremost animation expert, and he was mistakenly led to me!” Rankin claimed the rep – one Minoru Kawamoto – liked what Videocraft was doing and invited Rankin to Japan.
(A different story was told by the man who would head the animation on many early Rankin/Bass projects, Tadahito Mochinaga. As noted in Jonathan Clements’s recent Anime: A History, Mochinaga claimed Videocraft approached his company, on the strength of its award-winning stop-motion film with a now unpalatable title Little Black Sambo, 1958).
Rankin visited Japan in 1958, just as the Toei studio was making the landmark film Legend of the White Serpent (Hakujaden), anime’s first colour feature. “I went over to see what Japan had, not with much hope,” Rankin said. “I was amazed at (Japan’s) facilities, they had huge animation studios. Toei was as big as Disney… Unfortunately they were making films that, while technically well animated, the stories and the design were very Oriental, no possibility of export.” [White Snake had a limited US cinema release in 1961, entitled Panda and the Magic Serpent, but the reaction was disappointing.] “I said, ‘Well, that’s the problem, you need new design, you need a story that will work.’ And then I also saw a stop-motion project and thought, wait a minute, this is something new.”
The result was Rankin contracted Japanese animators to make a series. He didn’t work with the Toei studio at first, but with MOM Production, a new studio set up Tadahito Mochinaga (who was himself a veteran with a career that began in 1939). By now, Rankin himself had a ‘new’ studio; he’d turned Videocraft into Rankin/Bass, named for himself and his close collaborator Jules Bass. The first trans-Pacific collaboration was the 130-part New Adventures of Pinocchio. From the Japanese viewpoint, it was contract work for hire, made for a foreign market and to foreign specifications. Rankin handled many of the character designs; the scripts and storyboards were also done stateside.
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New Adventures of Pinocchio was followed by MOM’s work on the seminal Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer; another collaboration was the feature-length Mad Monster Party (1967). These stop-motions were branded ‘Animagic’ (compare to ‘Dynamation,’ Ray Harryhausen’s label for his kind of stop-motion.) Animagic cartoons have a cute, toy-like look; the sets were typically filmed on a tabletop, and ‘tabletop’ captures their miniature feel. Viewers who didn’t grow up with the style may have caught its pastiches. Animagic was homaged in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (the spoof opening) and in Elf, as well as in a stop-motion episode of the comedy series Community. The Animagic characters were embedded into many American Christmases in the 1960s, and into the adverts that framed them.
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In the mid-60s, Rankin was surprised to be asked to ‘monitor’ a live-action Japanese-American film. It was a monster movie, King Kong Escapes (that’s the one where Kong ends up fighting a robot of himself on the Tokyo Tower). Rankin has a co-producer credit on the film. As part of the deal, he could also make a cel cartoon, The King Kong Show, animated by Japan’s Toei studio.
Over the next two decades, the Rankin/Bass studio provided a steady stream of contract work for anime studios. In America, its Christmas films are well-remembered, such as Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) in stop-motion; there was also Frosty the Snowman (1969) and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), both in drawn animation. Frosty was animated by Mushi Pro, the studio founded by Osamu Tezuka, which had made Astro-Boy only six years earlier.
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’Twas the Night Before Christmas was made by a young studio called Topcraft. It went on to make fantasy-themed features for Rankin/Bass: The Hobbit (1977), The Last Unicorn and The Flight of Dragons (both 1982). Two years after Unicorn, Topcraft would animate on a domestic Japanese film, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984), which planted the seeds for Studio Ghibli. Topcraft then transmogrified into Pacific Animation Corp, reteaming with Rankin/Bass to make the ‘80s ThunderCats cartoon. (You can read more about Topcraft and Rankin/Bass here.)
None of these titles were, or are, marketed as anime. Their Japanese origin was often barely acknowledged in the credits, or in the official production histories. Yet Rankin/Bass gave vast amounts of work to Japan’s studios and animators – studios and animators who would later graduate to personal projects, for domestic consumption. Rankin’s shaping influence on anime deserves recognition, but is shadowed by his legacy as a beloved family entertainer.