Uncle Torys Saloon

Jonathan Clements delves into anime’s ad men.

Torys Saloon

While the festival awards and the DVD sales figures might be the usual arbiters of success in the anime world, many creatives put food on the table by doing little blipverts, idents and funny-animal sales pitches for TV. Many Japanese ad companies have spent much of the last century as inadvertent patrons of the arts, paying out, and paying well for the skills of animators.

Popular legend holds that the Japanese animation business came back to life in 1958 after a decade in the post-war doldrums. But the most widely seen piece of anime in 1958 was not the first colour feature, The Legend of the White Snake. If you wanted to see that, you had to go to a cinema. If you wanted to see Uncle Torys, on the other hand, you only had to turn on your television set, and he was there every night.

Created two years earlier by the artist Ryohei Yanagihara, Uncle Torys was a cartoon businessman with an outsized head, who began appearing on billboards all over Japan touting the wonders of the “Torys” brand of Suntory whisky. With the distillery’s parent company sponsoring the Japanese broadcast run of Rawhide, it was decided to do a little cowboy saloon-bar skit in which Uncle Torys gets hammered. This was back before anyone had really worked out how long an advert should be. As a result “Torys Bar” (1958) ran for over a minute, in a comedy skit scripted by author Takeshi Kaiko. It was the first of many sketches featuring the drunken uncle, who would go on to appear as a blue-collar worker, as a henpecked honeymooner and numerous other comedy roles.

The cartoon style was based loosely on the look of Gerald McBoing-Boing, an American cartoon, copies of which had made it to the TCJ studio where the animation work was done. The advertisers warmed to the economy of line and, once colour television came in, the opportunity to go mad with rainbow hues. One history of Japanese advertising even went so far as to proclaim that the Torys commercials were “cartoons that even grown-ups could enjoy.” One would hope so – they were selling whisky!

In later years, TV companies would tout for smaller business by reducing the size (and hence cost) of ad blocks, until by 1962, it was possible to buy advertising space that was only five seconds long. But this short-form craft only encouraged advertisers to search for ever more eye-catching artwork (some of which turned out oddly creepy). Japanese animators found plenty of work to do – advertising work remains the most lucrative and enduring element of Japanese animation, and one that is rarely seen outside its native country. The likes of Kihachiro Kawamoto, the famous stop-motion animator, largely funded their artistic works from the proceeds from advertising jobs. So, too, did Yoji Kuri, who is known in avant-garde circles for his festival short films, but in the commercial world as the man who animated dancing drum majorettes to advertise Mitsuka Soap.

Uncle Torys eventually retired in 1971, to be replaced by a live-action celebrity: an old man who made cabinets and mumbled reminiscences about the good old days. But Uncle Torys has cropped up on anniversaries and special occasions in the forty years since, getting gleefully blotto with his big giant head.

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