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Andrew Osmond celebrates the anime legend Gisaburo Sugii

With the re-release of Street Fighter II: The Movie, let us sing the praises of its director Gisaburo Sugii, an extraordinary artist with an extraordinary career. One of his films was a fantasy called Night on the Galactic Railroad, about a boy on a fantastic journey to the edge of the universe. You could compare it to Sugii’s own journey. At 18, he found himself working on the film that would be the seed for the gigantic world of post-war anime. Over the next half century, he’s seen – and helped – the industry grow and mutate unimaginably. He’s taken on each new development with aplomb, from videogame tie-ins to CGI.

Today, Sugii represents anime’s living history, a heritage he proudly carries forward into the 2010s. He also represents its versatility; it’s hard to think of an anime professional who works on such a range of material. He’s made arty films based on literary classics. He’s made action smackdowns celebrating videogame franchises. He’s worked on cute animal films for kids, baseball sitcoms, erotic horrors. He’s the Steven Soderbergh of anime, or the Stanley Kubrick. While other anime directors – Miyazaki, Oshii, Kawajiri – have high-profile signature styles, it’s debatable if Sugii has a style at all. He’s just good.

Sugii was born in Shizuoka prefecture in 1940, left school at 16, and eventually found his way into animation. The film he worked on at 18 was Hakujaden, which you can read about here. It was made by Tokyo’s Toei studio in 1958, and often counted as the starting point for the post-war anime industry. The teenage Sugii worked alongside such youngsters as Rintaro, future director of Metropolis and X: The Movie, and Yasuo Otsuka, one of the most influential colleagues of Miyazaki and Takahata (he also co-directed the madcap Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo).

After Hakujaden, Sugii worked on several productions related to Osamu Tezuka. In his early twenties, Sugii was one of the episode directors on the series often seen as the other starting point of post-war anime – Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Sugii served on several other Tezuka productions, including his celebrated art film Tales of a Street Corner (1962) and the rather more fun Cleopatra Queen of Sex (1970) – well, that was its American name!

Sugii, though, had a higher presence on a Tezuka TV adaptation, Dororo, on which he was series director. One of Tezuka’s darker tales, it’s a samurai-era drama in which a boy thief, Dororo, falls in with a cursed young man who’s lost his original body parts to demons, and now hunts them down. A live-action film version is on UK DVD, but here’s the opening credits to the TV anime, broadcast in 1969.

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But Sugii was very able to work on lighter, more kiddie-friendly fare. Having already in-betweened on one Tezuka version of the “Monkey King” story – the 1960 film Saiyuki, known in America as Alakazam the Great – Sugii became the series director on a later 1967 TV show, called Goku no Daiboken in Japanese. In Italy, it was called The Monkey – Le grandi avventure di Goku, and here are the Italian credits…

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By the 1970s, the contrasts between Sugii’s projects were getting even more extreme. On the dark side, he was animation director on the extraordinary Tragedy of Belladonna (1973), made by Tezuka’s Mushi Production as a successor to CleopatraWhereas Cleopatra had been a goofy comedy with arty jokes, Belladonna was dead serious, a medieval phantasmagoria about a raped woman rebelling against God and patriarchy. It was a commercial flop, but what a flop! (Warning, the trailer below is NSFW.)

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And then, for something completely different, Sugii’s debut as a feature film director, just a year after Belladonna, was… a Disneyesque musical version of Jack and the Beanstalk! Here’s the American trailer.

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A decade later, after many other credits, Sugii managed to make a film somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a “children’s” film that’s also a work of art. Based on a novella by the author and poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896 – 1933), it tells of a boy, Giovanni, atop a starlit hill. Down from the heavens comes a cosmic train, and Giovanni boards, finding his friend and classmate Campanella already a passenger. (Ah, but why is he a passenger?) Adding a further touch of surrealism, both Giovanni and Campanella are drawn as cats.

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The boys’ cosmic journey takes in shining celestial crosses ringing with “Hallelujah” choruses, a Pliocene coastline, a puckish birdcatcher snatching herons from heaven, and a terrifying Black Hole. The film is an uncompromisingly stately, poetic and haunting meditation on Miyazawa’s text (a study staple in Japan), with the melodic transcendence of one of the best scores to ever grace an anime. The composer was Haruomi Hosono, a sometime bandmate of Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Sugii worked on many other anime, with an extended stint on the mid-1980s baseball saga Touch. With his track-record, it seems almost predictable that he could go on to adapt high Japanese literature and a massively popular Capcom fighting videogame. The former was The Tale of Genji (1987), from a portion of the thousand year-old Japanese novel. The latter was, of course, Street Fighter II: The Movie.

Some people would treat a spinoff from a hugely popular brand as an excuse to slum it. After all, if the name sells the film, what does it matter if the film is shoddy? And surely a director who’d worked on arthouse fare like Belladonna and Tale of Genji would be hoity-toity about adapting a videogame?

Not a bit of it. Sugii threw himself into Street Fighter II: The Movie with a gusto to satisfy the game’s biggest fans. Certainly, it made up for the appalling live-action version featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue. Only in animation could huge men hurl each other through the air so tirelessly (the brawls were supervised by a real fight co-ordinator, Shinichi Shoji).

The Anime Encyclopedia argues that, of all Sugii’s films, Street Fighter is the most influential. It showed film-makers how a videogame adaptation should be done. The functional plot is fine-tuned to deliver the maximum smackdowns, instantly recognisable from the arcade screen but interpreted through high-quality, classical animation. Sugii juggles twelve characters, finding a story for them that works, putting them on different sides, adding a mind-control subplot so even friends fight… and adding a shower scene for the girl fighter. Street Fighter sets a template followed by most other game adaptations in anime (Tekken, Toshinden et al), meaning Sugii organised an entire sub-genre, whether he meant to or not.

Sugii also directed a TV version of the game (Street Fighter II V) but his more recent credits are as eclectic as ever. He hasn’t lost sight of children’s entertainment, making Arashi no Yoru ni (aka On a Stormy Night) about the strange cross-species friendship between a wolf and a goat. Sugii also revisited his classic Night on the Galactic Railroad. His recent feature, The Life of Gusco Budori was made as a response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, with a protagonist (drawn once more as a cat) in a world of disasters. The film adapts another Miyazawa story, bringing back many of Railroad’s animated ‘actors,’ as you can see if you compare the trailers.

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Sugii has also embraced CGI. One of his newest works is an all-CGI feature for children – Little Ghostly Adventures of Tofu Boy, returning to the samurai/supernatural milieu of Dororo, more than forty years earlier. The techniques may look new… But after fifty years in the business, Sugii knows more than most of us that nothing is really new under the sun.

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Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Manga Entertainment on 13th May.

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