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Helen McCarthy on anime’s first colour feature, Hakujaden

The Toei film company established an animation division in 1956 by buying Japan Animated Films (Nihon Dogasha, aka Nichido) and renaming it Toei Doga. Toei president Hiroshi Okada wanted to make his fledgling studio “the Disney of Asia”, creating top-quality animation for sale overseas, expanding Japan’s exports and rebuilding her image across the world, especially in Asia. So the company’s first feature was a full-colour retelling of a Chinese legend.

A folktale from the Song Dynasty tells of a white snake goddess who falls in love with a human boy, giving up her magic to marry him. Toho Studios released a live-action version in 1956, winning honourable mention at that year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Taiji Yabushita wrote the anime script from Shin Uehara’s screenplay, and co-directed with Kazuhiko Okabe, who did double duty as art director alongside Kiyoshi Hashimoto. The producer was Sanae Yamamoto, who had worked for Seitaro Kitayama, one of the founding directors of anime, in the 1920s.

Yabushita had worked with key animator Yasuji Mori before, at Nichido, on 1948 short Tora-chan & The Bride (Tora-chan to Hanayome). All their experience was needed to drive a production that pushed the boundaries of Japanese animation technology. Mori and Akira Daikubara were the only key animators, but Toei used over 13,500 staff for the project, completing it in eight months. The male voices were all provided by one actor: Hisaya Morishige, who would voice boar-god Okkotonushi in Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Princess Mononoke almost 40 years later. Mariko Miyagi voiced all the female characters.

Hakujaden was released on 22nd October 1958 and won a prestigious award at the 1959 Venice Children’s Film Festival. As Panda and the Magic Serpent, it was the first anime feature film released in America in 1961. It is still available on US DVD.

Yabushita co-directed Toei’s animated features Saiyuki (aka Alakazam the Great,1960) and Magic Boy (Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, 1961) both of which sold to the USA. Mori became mentor to many of Toei’s young animators, including Yasuo Otsuka, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who described his influence on anime as “incalculable”.

The movie was a springboard for many anime stars. Seventeen-year-old Rintaro had his first job as an inbetweener, alongside future Ghibli guru Yasuo Otsuka, director Gisaburo Sugii, Reiko Okuyama, who would become Toei’s first female animation director, and Kazuko Nakamura, who joined Tezuka’s Mushi Productions and became the first female animation director of an entire series on Ribon no Kishi (Princess Knight.)

Like the heroine of Hakujaden, inbetweener Akemi Ota chose human life and love over the magical power of animation. She married Hayao Miyazaki, who joined Toei in 1963, giving up her career when their second son Goro was born. But they would never have met had Miyazaki not been moved to tears when he saw Hakujaden in the cinema, deciding to become an animator.

Coincidence, or the magic of the snake goddess?

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