Before the Golden Days: Of Mice and Osamu Dezaki

Originally I had meant to translate this interview shortly after the Akio Sugino interview behemoth, but two factors resulted in apparently an over half-year long break. One is that the Sugino piece killed me. The other is that I decided to buckle down and get through the entire backlog of games I bought, with the intention of severely scaling down my video gaming afterwards. I had about 20 games, which is nothing compared to some people, but it bothered me enough to do something about it. I’ll never look at de.lic.ious sau.sa.ges the same way ever again.

This interview was originally published in the explanation booklet included in the 1997 LD box-set of The Adventures of Gamba, and then republished for inclusion in the 2014 BD box-set. Gamba is a series that repeatedly comes up in the Japanese discussion of significant Showa-era anime. I didn’t understand why (Renato Rivera Rusca later told me it is mostly the same group of anime scholars who grew up with it that keep bringing it back into the discussion). Hell, it even inspired Kōji Morimoto — a legendary animator himself — to get into industry. Since it appeared to stand strong against the test of time, I went and watched it. Honestly, I am not a fan of Gamba. I have troubling articulating why, but in a conversation I had with Thaliarchus — a fan of the show — he noted that it contains a lot of frenetic energy. Even though I marveled at the gorgeous backgrounds of Shichirō Kobayashi, the frequent screaming and yelling of the mice was off-putting enough to put a damper on my enjoyment. For what it’s worth, I think it ends strong.

For this interview, I don’t think actually liking Gamba matters. Even if you haven’t seen Gamba, there’s a lot of fascinating general insight. It’s worth at least a skim. It details Dezaki’s experience working on the project, trying to unify two opposed groups of animators at Tokyo Movie (later known as Tokyo Movie Shinsha, and then again as TMS Entertainment): the Tōei Dōga alumni trained in the art of full animation, and the manga industry dropouts from Mushi Pro who carried on the dominating influence of Tezuka’s limited animation techniques.

Spoilers are minimal, with one major exception being a line of inquiry which clearly indicates how the story ends. Personally, I feel that the overarching story of a mostly episodic TV series is not the interesting part of Gamba. You can figure out how the story is going to end from the first or second episode. I say all of this as someone who goes out of his way to avoid spoilers at all costs. In any case, you have been warned.

I hope for my own sanity that whatever I translate after this is shorter, assuming I can muster up the will. It’ll also probably be something modern, which in my headcanon means something from the 80s.

Footnotes are from the source text, added for the BD box-set booklet.


Here we have included the long interview with Osamu Dezaki originally published in the Making of The Adventures of Gamba explanation booklet. This booklet was included in the The Adventures of Gamba: Complete Collection LD box-set.

This 1997 interview contains a whopping 22,000 Japanese characters: a dissection of every aspect of The Adventures of Gamba.

For those who want to deepen their understanding of how The Adventures of Gamba came to be, this document is a must-read.

(Interview & Composition: Yūichirō Oguro, Ryūsuke Hikawa)


Profile:

Osamu Dezaki was born in Tokyo on November 18th, 1943. In high school, he set his sights on becoming a manga artist. In ’63 he entered Mushi Pro. He debuted both as an animator and episode director for Astro Boy. After serving as an episode director on Goku’s Great Adventures, Boys’ Detective Team [Wanpaku Taiteidan], Dororo, and others, he debuted as a chief director in ’70 on Tomorrow’s Joe. He carried his craft onwards through many masterpieces: Aim for the Ace!, The Adventures of Gamba, Treasure Island, The Rose of Versailles, Space Adventure Cobra, Dear Brother, Black Jack, and so forth. He was one of the most prominent directors of Japan’s animation industry, influencing many others and their work through his distinctive directing style. He passed away on April 17th, 2011.


⸻What was your first project at Tokyo Movie?

Dezaki: While I was still at Mushi Pro, I was doing part time work for Big X,[1] through which I became acquainted with the late Tokyo Movie president Yutaka Fujioka. Afterwards, I formed Art Fresh with Gisaburō Sugii [2] and a few others. Over there we received contract work for Astro Boy, for which I drew storyboards and did key animation. I was a company executive at Art Fresh, despite being only 20 or 21 at the time.

⸻You were still a key animator back then?

Dezaki: Yes, I drew both keyframes and storyboards.

⸻How long did that last?

Dezaki: Hmm, maybe about a year and a half. Immediately after Astro Boy, I moved onto Goku’s Great Adventures. Gisaburō Sugii was the series director. I was an episode director, but in the middle of production I went freelance. I came back to Mushi Pro as a contractor to direct Tomorrow’s Joe. Then while helping out with Make Way for Mr. Kunimatsu,[3] I decided to form Madhouse — the current Madhouse came afterwards though. Even after I went freelance, I kept drawing storyboards for projects like (old) Lupin the Third and Akadō Suzunosuke at Tokyo Movie. I was acquainted with Fujioka, so I asked him to let me work at Tokyo Movie.

⸻So which projects were you primarily involved in?

Dezaki: In a directorial capacity, I did Jungle Kurobē, Aim for the Ace!,[4] and then after a brief lapse of time, The Adventures of Gamba.

⸻When we talked with the other staff on Gamba, we heard there were two factions: one from the Tōei Dōga school of animation, and another from the Mushi Pro school of animation. Then, supposedly after you got involved with Tokyo Movie, the production style shifted significantly.

Dezaki: Mushi Pro was comprised of rental manga artists who had trouble making ends meet once TV was widespread and the rental manga boom had dried up. Lots of those people could illustrate well. The Tōei Dōga folks were different. They were people who went into the industry with the explicit purpose of becoming animators. This was the fundamental difference between the styles of these two groups. The Tōei folks prided themselves on being people who created feature length animated films, whereas the Mushi Pro folks, as you’re well aware, kicked off the trend of limited animation with Astro Boy. In limited animation, due to the severe limitations in budget and framerate, it was focused on expressing the qualities of the illustrations themselves. The quality of those illustrations is what crafted the scenes.

⸻The quality of a single illustration.

Dezaki: Yes. Although we would move only the parts that had to move in limited animation, we studied the Disney-style full animation methods as well. However, the Tōei folks were quite prejudiced against the Mushi Pro guys. “Those guys are phonies!” or something along those lines. As far as actually producing TV series though, the Mushi Pro guys were much faster while maintaining a crisp quality to their work. Contrastively, the Tōei folks were not so impressive.

At Tokyo Movie there was a company called A Production, lead by animator Daikichirō Kusube,[5] a Tōei alumnus.

⸻So, A Pro was an animators’ brigade.

Dezaki: Yes. In the Mushi Pro school of thought, the director sits at the top. This was why the production process at Tokyo Movie felt off to me. Even their drawing style was quite different. Even when it comes to gag anime, unlike their Little Ghost Q-Taro adaptation, we drew stuff like Jungle Kurobē in a sharp, defined manner. Considering the medium of the motion picture, we didn’t draw scenes in a manga-like flat, planar style. We developed illustrations akin to shots of movie scenes. This style began with Aim for the Ace!. A Pro staffers (Yoshio) Kabashima and (Takeo) Kitahara were also animation directors on Aim for the Ace!, but they couldn’t match the sharp, defined illustrations of Akio Sugino.[6]

The Adventures of Gamba was basically a unification of the output from the skilled Tōei-alumni animators with the talents of the Mushi Pro-alumni illustrators. The result was a middle-ground between those two schools of thought. At the time, I figured this would happen and felt it would work too.

In the beginning we were asked to come up with some artwork for the project proposal. I read the source children’s novel by author by (Atsuo) Saitō and drew some pictures of the mice as I had imagined them. I whittled down the cast of characters to seven mice, and then drew a map which outlined the journey the mice would take to the island of Noroi and his gang of weasels. During the development of the project, we used the map as a broad outline, and composed the story around it. The themes are inherited from the source novel, but the story itself is original to the adaptation.

I was quite moved by the beginning of the novel where Gamba and the other town mice embark on the seas. In particular, I put a lot of thought into how to depict the tiny town mice looking out at the sea. It seemed like the appropriate starting point of the story; this was the scene that I thought would be interesting to adapt into video.

⸻Earlier you talked about the illustrative styles of the two groups: the methods of the A Pro animators and the mood of the Mushi Pro drawings. Did you decide you would aim for a middle-ground between those two when assembling the staff for the project?

Dezaki: Yes. Aim for the Ace! was quite hard on us. The Tōei-alumni had a difficult time drawing the girls’ and Munakata’s human faces. They just couldn’t draw stuff adhering closer to realism.

⸻In other words, this was a specialty of the Mushi Pro-alumni.

Dezaki: Yeah, definitely. The Tōei-alumni were much more concerned with movement over illustration. Even though the characters of The Adventures of Gamba are animation-friendly, as far as the composition of the shots that would appear on the screen are concerned, I wanted to impart a bit of the realistic qualities of Tomorrow’s Joe onto the drama of these mice. In this regard, it was crucial to maintain this balance between the aforementioned two schools of thought.

At first it was quite uncomfortable working with Kabashima and Shiba(yama) from A Pro. They were unsure of the idea of depicting humans in monochrome from the perspective of the mice, but gradually it grew on them.


The monochrome depiction of humans

In the beginning of the story where Gamba is about to embark on the seas, there’s a scene where he is journeying down a ditch which eventually leads to the sea. The Tōei-alumni just assumed that the water was blue. “No way!” I retorted. “At sunset, water is red. At other times, water reflects the clear skies. Water is a substance which reflects light and changes color accordingly. Of course when we consider the color of the sea, by default it appears deep blue. However, the adjustment of light results in a greater variety of colors than just that.” Upon delivering this explanation to them, they realized in this moment, “Huh, I guess that’s true…” Even from a directing perspective, when you take a shot of a river during sunset, you naturally get a range of red, blue, and white light reflections. I told them, “Please drop the idea that the water must be blue.”

Also don’t just assume the sky is light blue. Consider both the amount of light and where you’re standing in the scene. You can see bright white and yellow, right? I despise clear, blue skies. If the sky is blue, it doesn’t appropriately express the mood of the scene. Okay, if I want someone to remark, “Oh that’s a pretty, blue sky,” then I’ll color the damn thing blue. But when I don’t, then coloring it blue will just ruin the scene. It’s all about how the audience perceives lighting.

The very presence of human faces would disrupt this story which takes place in the world of animals. From the perspective of the main cast, the humans are giant beasts. When you consider that, the mice see no color in them. Symbolically it would make sense if they were monochrome. From this point onwards, the Tōei-folks finally came around to my thought process.

⸻Looking at it now, it appears as though the style was determined from episode one, but in reality there was a lot of ongoing discussion like what you just described, as production on the first episode was taking place.

Dezaki: Yes. The part of the source novel which struck me the most was when the tiny mice look out onto the sea. Upon reaching the sea port, Gamba excitedly goes, “It’s the sea! It’s the sea!” But it’s actually pouring rain, so he couldn’t really make out the sea clearly. As a result he thinks, “Ahh, the sea is black.” But out on the great seas, when he comes up onto the deck of the ship, he’s bombarded by the view of the wide, deep-blue sea.


The varied depictions of the sea

And again we arrive at the problem of how to depict the sea appropriately. The mice are small creatures. From their perspective, the sea is vast, deep, and blue. I wanted this blue to be a special kind of blue. Cels would not suffice. With cels, the sea would have this sticky quality, and restrict the screen space to a claustrophobic scale. No matter how you color it, it would not convey the desired deep blue and sweeping scope. When depicting something large, it’s necessary to draw in all the little details as well. If you do this, then you get the impression of something vast. So if we draw the sea onto the background instead, it would appropriately convey the desired vast scale of the sea. We opted to animate the waves separately and superimpose them on top of the sea background. The background artists complained, “Why do I need to draw these waves?” (laughs) I had Kobayashi paint the background, and then overlap and move the animation frames.

I wouldn’t compromise on my vision for this scene. We finished making it at the end of episode two. This was the first time I felt so strongly compelled to do something.

⸻Who recommended the source novel to you?

Dezaki: The person who actually wanted to do Gamba was Sankichirō Kusube, the current president of Shin-Ei Animation.[7] He’s Daikichirō’s younger brother. I was interested as soon as I read it. It expressed the 70s student activism in the format of a children’s novel. It was quite radical. But there were too many characters in the source material which would have made the adaptation less interesting and harder on the animators. This is why I cut it down to seven characters. In the source material, there’s a lot of sad episodes where some of the mice die in battle. It was really quite a serious, symbolic take on the 70s student protests. I really liked this aspect of it.

⸻In some of the planning documents from back then, there are several realistic pencil drawings of Gamba and his companions. Did you draw those?

Dezaki: Yes. That was the stage of planning where the seven characters were decided.

⸻At this point, the visuals of riding and flying to Noroi’s island were decided too.

Dezaki: Well it was in the source material as well, so naturally we piggybacked on it.

⸻Were you able to digest the source material easily?

Dezaki: My headspace was focused on how many of the characters I could explore freely. There were aspects which I wanted to depict further compared to the source novel, such as societal values of the main cast. I wanted to dive deeper into the lives of each and every one of them. The source novel didn’t focus on this.

⸻But your first thought was basically that the scene of the mice looking out onto the sea was intriguing.

Dezaki: Well it had the biggest impact on me from the source novel: the idea that something so small could actually be quite large. Although it may be embarrassing from a human perspective, isn’t there a kind of beauty and strength in this? It’s an adventure which was made possible by swapping out humans for animals.

⸻Several of your works that came afterwards construct a motif out of the sea, but Gamba was where it started.

Dezaki: Perhaps, but I’ve had these concepts about humans and the sea before Gamba. It’s just one of several ideas I’ve had about how to depict something. Isn’t it typical for creators to hold onto certain themes? For me, it’s the actual sea and the sea within the heart.

On the surface, the sea is a beautiful place. However, it’s uninhabitable by humans. If you’re not riding on a ship or something afloat, you’ll drown and die. Being caught within a storm is terrifying. These are the sort of things which await people. This isn’t just limited to the seas: it applies to nature in general. The larger than life existence of nature itself is uncontrollable by humans.

How do characters react when confronted with nature? How are they held at the mercy of nature? How do they live in those conditions? Those are the questions which arise. The sea is an unbeatable opponent. This is why I thought for Gamba, the contrast between the sea and the mice would be interesting.

⸻Since Gamba, you seem to have been quite taken with journey as a motif.

Dezaki: Well during a journey, the passage of time is much more tangible. You don’t know what kind of place you’ll find yourself in next, but you have to keep trudging on. Once you stop, the whole view around you comes to a standstill. This is what life is. There’s the life where you only see the same view at home, and then there’s the life where you undergo a variety of experiences as you muster the courage to go from one place to the next.

At the same time, whether it’s a journey with a significant other or anyone else, there’s the initial joy of embarking. But then there’s also the feeling of being past the half-way point and returning back home: simultaneously very fun and sad, perhaps (laughs). There’s the joy of journeying to a destination, and then the indescribable sense of lonesome when making a U-turn back to society.


Layout — the sketch of characters with an outline of the background

Nighttime comes and then with the desire of escaping the bitter taste of returning home, one yells, “I’ll journey out forever!” At least, this is how I imagine the feelings of those who depart from society, without a word to anyone as to where they’re headed. Then when night comes again, perhaps they also think, “Maybe I was happier when I was back home.” This is just like real life. Consider someone who leaves a company. They may think “maybe I was better off staying” or they could also think “thank goodness I quit.”

People who develop their core outlook on life and death will endeavor through daily life in their own way. They aim to die without shame or regret. This is why they give their all when faced with present challenges. In other words, today does not exist for the sake of the future. We charge forward for the sake of the present moment! This is the same idea as Tomorrow’s Joe, but that’s what a journey is.

It’s not about enjoying the view in front of you right now. It’s about searching for your core, or discovering your presence in the world. It’s not the same as wandering aimlessly, although this is also an aspiration of mine. It sounds good to me too (laughs).

The journey I described carries a different meaning from that of a journey towards death. Although maybe this is alright too — the feeling of throwing everything away and descending into nothingness. But that’s not the journey of young people. The journey of young people is about venturing out for a fight.

There are many kinds of journeys. Although, I don’t really think of going back home itself as one. In any case, there are people who would call this a journey too. It’s kind of sad actually. What if at your destination you become acquainted with a cute girl, but you have to go back home and face reality. Then you go journey out again and she’s not there anymore. She said she would keep in touch, but the message never came. She was so beautiful when you met her at the ski lodge, but when you bumped into her in town, she turned out quite hideous. Okay I’m getting off track here (laughs).

Everyone: (laughs)

Dezaki: Readying oneself for a journey is exciting, and starting the journey replenishes this excitement. Although throughout the entire journey itself, I don’t think people actually hold on to that feeling of finally venturing outside. Some faction of the group will want to go back home. This is just how journeying is, at least to me.

I don’t aim wanderlessly, so I don’t really understand the concept of a journey where it’s fine not to return home. But I am nearing the age where I’m okay with the idea of wandering aimlessly (laughs).


Another layout

⸻Was it planned from the beginning that Gamba would run for 26 TV episodes, and depict the journey to Noroi and end after his defeat?

Dezaki: Yes. In my opinion, the goal of the journey was to defeat Noroi.

⸻How did you come up with the deformed style of the mice?

Dezaki: Depending on how the scenery is depicted, the viewpoint within the world changes.

When humans see sewer rats, they are perceived as these grey, trickling beings. I wanted the audience to consider a theoretical scenario where such rats may have been like Gamba and his companions. This is why we drew the mice in that deformed style, and then drew monochrome humans with a touch of realism.

I figured if we depicted the tiny mice in this microcosm of reality, then the overwhelming force of these larger beings would be conveyed to the viewer. Noroi is always drawn as this large being, but that’s only the case in comparison to the mice. From the perspective of the humans, weasels are still small entities. This story only works from the viewpoint of the mice.

⸻How old would the mice be if they were described as though they were human?

Dezaki: Gamba himself would be a young boy, around middle or high school age. He’s a prankster who packs a punch. He’s quite lively, but also ignorant about the world around him. Bobo is his friend and about the same age. Ikasama might be younger than those two, but he beahves as though he’s an adult.

⸻Oh?

Dezaki: Well, maybe he’s older. His actual age is unknown. Gamba has a strong sense of justice (even though he’s a defiant kid), and snaps to his senses in a bad situation. Ikasama is the kind of guy who was abandoned by his parents, and tends to lecture others about how “the world doesn’t work that way,” while smoking and playing pachinko. Even if he’s technically a child close in age, he’s the kind of guy you look up to as though he’s a hardened adult. Someone who has a sad, twisted, cynical outlook on life. But Gamba sees this as a kind of honest outlook he himself aspires to have one day.

Ikasama hides things which make him look bad. He’s dismissive of others, saying cocky things like “I bet you didn’t even know this.” He’s the kind of person who says, “Having friends is just bothersome,” even though he actually relies on his friends. Gamba says things like, “Well he doesn’t care about others,” but Ikasama actually does go out of his way to rescue his friends.


Mice movement

⸻Are Yoisho and Gakusha older? In human terms, perhaps in their 30s?

Dezaki: I guess so. Yoisho is like a defiant kid who stayed immature all the way into adulthood. As far as Gakusha is concerned, it’s not clear whether or not he has any actual smarts, but he’s very studious. He says he has no strength, but he makes up for it with his cleverness. He’s the kind of person who has overcome adversity to get to where he is. That being said, his actions reflect his egotistical, mistaken ideas (laughs).

Shijin has the mindset of “happy-go-lucky aimless wandering is the best way to live life.” He’s the kind of person who would be homeless in Shinjuku. He’d have worked as a salaryman for 5 or 6 years, and then become disgusted with the world. Instead, he’d live life composing poetry as he pleases, while drinking booze. He’s closer to middle-aged than someone who just passed his prime. He’s very well informed about the world around him, but occasionally shows a cute, cherubic side.

Yoisho has a strong sense of justice, but he’s so wild and out of control that he stumbles through blunders and failures one after the other. He’s strong in fights, won’t tolerate nonsense, and is ultimately a good person. But he’ll also steal cargo and sell it off, carry other people’s entrusted belongings onto a ship (laughs), and gamble in the harbor. This is the kind of crewmember he is. As someone who is accustomed to to sailing, he’ll say, “Leave the sea to me!” Normally an animal wouldn’t board a ship, but he lives in a cargo ship and has sailed the seven seas. That’s where his arrogance comes from. When Gamba gets seasick, Yoisho says, “Are you an idiot?”

⸻Until Chūta’s older sister Shioji appears, no matter where the mice go on their journey, they only encounter other male characters. Not a lot of female characters appear, besides Shioji as the heroine. Was that intentional?

Dezaki: Well, depicting the main cast was prioritized. As far as Gamba and the others are concerned, females are an unknown entity. They can fall in love but it’s of the transient, fleeting kind. Yoisho would probably be weak against women. Gakusha would blush and freeze up in the presence of a woman. Ikasama would be like, “Pfft, who cares about women,” and look down on the others.


Running pattern

⸻So on the surface, they’d be appear to be uninterested in women.

Dezaki: Yes exactly. They’d pretend to be uninterested, because they’re men who sail on the seas. I don’t know what they would actually do when no one is looking, but they’d definitely put on a show in front of the others. They’d proclaim, “I’m a man!” and all that.

⸻During production, how did you coordinate with the scriptwriters?

Dezaki: If I recall correctly, we met for each episode and came up with the story. But by the time we got to the storyboards, a lot of changes were made. The general outline of what happens didn’t change much though.

⸻You didn’t draw all the storyboards for Gamba. How did you coordinate with the other storyboaders?

Dezaki: I basically told them to draw the storyboards however they wanted, and then made as many of my own corrections as I wanted. Actually, I think I ended up putting in a lot of work on those storyboards. I had to correct about half of the ones I got. The director gets to make the final call, so I invoked this privilege. It was pretty painful correcting other people’s storyboards.

As for what I don’t think is interesting… It’s hard to explain. Even if the storyboarders tell me they drew them exactly according to the script, ultimately it’s still a problem if it ends up becoming uninteresting. If they respond, “Well I think it’s interesting,” then I’d tell them, “Alright fine. I guess you don’t have to correct them then,” and go correct them myself. Besides, there’s no set in stone rules for how they should be drawn. Such things don’t exist in the real world. So I’m the only one who can actually do it since what is and isn’t interesting is the director’s responsibility. Surprisingly, there were a lot of people there who didn’t agree with this. Supposedly, the only purpose of a script is to serialize certain parts of the story into text and indicate what happens. Well, there is truth to this.

⸻I see.

Dezaki: But in reality, there is screenplay composed entirely with lousy wordplay and writing. Even in live-action, writers look at other movies and just because something was interesting there, they decide to throw the same kind of scene into their own script. I’ve been hearing that over in Hollywood, the production process — which pumps out these terrible, dumb movies — is driven by a computer which statistically predicts whether or not something will be a hit with audiences. They’ve completely lost sight of things like the greater message of the director, what the movie is trying to say, or what the point of the movie is. The only response they have is that they see movie-making as if all they do is build amusement parks. There’s something wrong with that. This is not the job of a creator. I really despise this attitude. I see a movie as though it’s another living being with a personality.

The situation with anime is even more dire. For instance, I’ve been told, “Children aren’t going to understand this” when it comes to my projects. I retort back, “It doesn’t matter.” Regardless of whether or not it’s a hit, we are presenting a world to the audience. It’s fine as long as children feel something in response to it. Children live in the real world with adults. They’re exposed to tons of stuff which they don’t understand. They will try to understand by observing adults who undergo a range of emotions, from tearful sadness to exuberant laughter. Even if they have some doubts as to what is happening, they themselves will have some kind of strong reaction. Later, they’ll be entertained by the sight of a mother and father having fun as they get emotionally closer. It may occur to them that perhaps this is what joy is. Anyway, that’s what I think children are like.

From my perspective, what should be expressed and shown to children and adults is the same: the mysterious and misunderstood. I don’t take stock in the idea that there is value in what adults deem as being appropriate for children. Of course, gratuitous blood, heads sent flying, and sex is out of the question. This is not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to things like the complexity of the script being an issue. I actually think it’s important to have moments where a child hears a complicated word and goes, “Huh? What does that mean?” This is the attitude I had back then with regards to my work. What value is there in a straightforward story?

I really want screenwriters to avoid clichés. Even if it’s just one line, I want them to put in something new which symbolizes the world and piques the audience’s curiosity. Even though it’s just fiction, I want something which portrays a spark of actual truth. I don’t fully comprehend something like the nature of humanity, which is why I create stuff about this.

Even if established rules exist, I believe they are meant to be broken. We shouldn’t throw away the exceptions; we should acknowledge them. We shouldn’t reject anything which doesn’t stay on the rails, or doesn’t fit in a box. This kind of attitude seems hypersensitive. For example, the mindset of “something that is received poorly by audiences must be bad” is really just the financial viewpoint of “if it doesn’t sell, then it’s bad.” It’s over for a creator who willingly binds themselves to such a restriction, and opts to pander instead.


Shijin

When it comes to screenplay, even if the screenwriter uses clichéd lines, some element of originality is still required. This is what draws the potential of the script. I feel that in particular because it acts as a substitute for film, it is one ingredient of several which paint a picture of a potentially compelling final result. Some idiotic writers will sternly insist that you don’t dare mess with their scripts, but if the script is the be-all and end-all of the production, then why not just publish and sell the script and leave it at that. As I mentioned earlier, when I asked the storyboarders to make certain corrections, they would insist that what they drew adheres to the script. I asked, “Do you think is interesting?” They responded, “No… but this is what the script says.” I argued back, “Are you even thinking straight? Do you not have any aspirations of becoming a director yourself? All you’re doing is mechanically processing a script.” Those are the kinds of quarrels I would get into.

With live action, even if I were to write a script and shoot the movie myself, the end result will absolutely differ from what I wrote. As for why, when someone is engaged in the art of creation, they look for freedom in new spaces and whether or not they can realize some microcosm of reality in them. Every creator does this. So someone who doesn’t stray from the bounds of the script isn’t really doing the job. This is why I look for something to compel me when I look over scripts. Naturally as I read, changes which could make for a more interesting result spring to mind.

Actually storyboarding is a completely different way of looking at the film (compared to screenwriting). Especially in the case of animation, the storyboards are basically the final stronghold. If you blunder there, then no matter how angry you get afterwards, no matter how skillful the animators are, the end result is just boring. Okay, perhaps a single shot may be interesting, and perhaps the movement in it is intriguing. But after watching the whole film, the reaction is going to be “what the heck is this?” If you just work without thinking of the consequences, that’s what happens.

In real life, there’s no way you would transition from a long, to a medium, and then to a close-up shot. When you bump into someone in a crowded street, what is much more likely to happen is a close-up of that person flying into your view. Or alternatively suddenly their back is in your face. From there, you start to grasp the current situation. This is how most people perceive their surroundings, and is why I typically start with close-up shots (in storyboards).

Animation storyboards need to depict what people feel when they when they encounter something, or are blown away by something. The way I cut storyboards is to picture the edited and compiled result, the way it looks in the theaters, and how it looks on a CRT TV. I compose them with the screen in mind.


Shichirō Kobayashi backgrounds

⸻And this differs from live action?

Dezaki: In live action, you can shoot the same scene in one attempt using three different cameras (angled differently). Afterwards, you can edit the footage from the different cameras together to compose the scene. You can’t do this in animation. You have to storyboard with the actual finished, edited film in mind. Of course, some things still change during editing.

Directors — who take their work seriously — make films which reflect the nature of people. I think it’s fine for a film to be disliked by certain kinds of people. The way people interpret stories demonstrates that films are part of the very nature of people. It’s like another sense people have. If the film is so transparent that it is just a bunch of explanations to the audience, they’ll figure it out quickly and soon tire of it.

Gamba had a lot of little touches added onto the screen, whether it was for the characters or the background art. Was that due to your specific directives?

Dezaki: I don’t like the term “manga-like,” but when you add touches to even manga-like drawings aimed towards children, you get something that isn’t just manga. You breathe a little bit of reality into the drawings. This is what I was trying to achieve. I think Kobayashi also draws his backgrounds with this intent. The direction I usually give is to bring out the intriguing qualities of film. However, Kobayashi’s paintings were already like that from the beginning, so it was a good match.

⸻When was the first time you worked with Kobayashi?

Dezaki: I think it was Gamba. He was probably also on board the project because of what I described earlier.

⸻What did you think about Shibayama’s layouts?

Dezaki: Initially he was also in the camp of “water should be colored blue.” But eventually after several of the discussions where I pushed back against this sentiment, insisting that the drawings should be in pursuit of more realism, his drawings might have already adapted to this attitude. At least, he was the first one whose drawings gave me that impression.

⸻I believe back then it was pretty rare for another staffer to validate the layouts.

Dezaki: Yeah, but it wasn’t anything that strict. I wasn’t checking each episode and each shot, but instead I checked the parts which pertained to screen layout. I didn’t really understand the exact workflow of the A Pro folks, but Shibayama and Kabashima were both animation directors. I think they divvied up the work between each other. So basically, Kabashima was in charge of the characters, and Shiba was in charge of the screen layout.

⸻Yes, that’s what it seems like.

Dezaki: Yeah. But Akio Sugino does both animation direction and the work of understanding the storyboards and establishing the screen layout. Well, I think it’s fine even if the animation director doesn’t do all of that. But I think Shiba deepend his understanding of directing as a result.

⸻Actually, anime back then was quite epoch-making in its skillful utilization of the screen’s expressive capacities. The layouts for the movement of the mice were detailed, and the animation was quite impressive.

Dezaki: Indeed. Although, I grilled Kabashima about his layouts for the way Gamba runs, and asked him why it’s always depicted the same way (laughs). Of course the pacing is important, but for it to be the same every time?

⸻They didn’t do things like that at Mushi Pro?

Dezaki: Well we did, but it was just to establish a foundation and then do variations on that. As I said earlier, the point of exceptions is to break away from an established guide. We do some things a lot, but I don’t want to be told that it’s an established practice. My intent is to avoid adhering to a preset pattern.

⸻So the running patterns were made to suit a situation, like the apperance of a new character. You also had different running patterns for the weasels.

Dezaki: Well I think that’s necessary. My directive was to draw some kind of running figure, but any particular choice was fine. The key point was whether or not it gave the impression of running. But the people the who couldn’t express this had to start from the point of “well mice feet are like this, and there’s four of them.” But if you don’t gradually transition to more of a leaping sensation, then it doesn’t quite work.

The idea is also explored more broadly in Gamba. For example, there’s a scene where Gamba is separated from his companions, and floats paralyzed atop the sea. He notices passive contrails in the sky, and then all of a sudden the clouds go wild in his imagination. This is the kind of Gamba I like. But there’s some people who can’t wrap their heads around it: “Isn’t that just a waste of drawings?” I don’t want to talk to people who say this (laughs). As long as some people feel attachment towards Gamba from this scene, it works for me. Surprisingly quite a few people understood the point of the scene.


The mice on a floating crate

You know what’s curious about animation? During editing, you can try quite diligently to get everything moving smoothly, but what comes out is something quite boring. However, if you take out some of the frames, it suddenly becomes very intriguing. The scene feels closer to reality. If you have a scene where someone is slowly, angrily slamming a desk, it has no impact. No matter what kind of sound you edit in, the anger isn’t effectively conveyed. If you cut out the downwards fall of the hands towards the desk, it looks much more provoking. That is how you portray it. It’s much more important (moreso than story planning) to convey emotion.

⸻Regarding (Takeo) Yamashita’s music, how was that? He was telling us there weren’t a lot of action music pieces he composed for the show. Was this an issue?

Dezaki: Not at all. I really liked his music. I thought it was cute that the words “Gamba, gamba” was inserted into the background music. There’s even a longer “Gambaaa” line in there. I got quite hooked onto using it in an askewed manner, as opposed to repeatedly in the same way.

⸻Kind of ad-libbed then.

Dezaki: This is how it should be. I think it worked out really well to record all the music upfront, tametori style.[8] Back then a specific theme song would be composed for the show itself. I think that’s definitely the way to go. Nowadays record labels provide completely unfitting songs for the sake of publicizing their own stuff. They don’t necessarily have to insert the names (such as the main characters’) into the lyrics, but the theme song should match the world presented in the show. The song should be able to stand toe-to-toe with the show, or contrast greatly with the work but yet remain connected somewhere deep within it.

When it comes to music, I’m not very knowledgeable. I’ve never scored a piece, and I can’t play an instrument. I basically leave it up to the music director. I try to visualize the resulting movie from the music they give me, and if it’s no good I ask them to change it or try again while keeping in mind what the work as a whole is expressing.

It’s not convincing when someone tells something like, “I put it here because this is angry music.” The issue is whether or not the scene actually depicts anger when paired with that music. Sometimes I try to assemble an assortment that works, but ultimately the issue is the music itself. Combine the music and visuals: add rock music to a quiet moment, or overlay fierce music over a death scene. That I don’t mind. What makes it good or bad is whether or not it corresponds to the visuals. Occasionally, some scenes are more appropriate without music. Oftentimes I’ll have other music brought to me.

Back then, sometimes the recording director was the same as the music director. However, if the composers were lousy, then nothing good would come out of it. There were sound directors who put on airs of being knowledgeable despite being unable to read sheet music. They attempted to take on the role of music director by pairing up with a composer, but they couldn’t come up with anything good. This is why I insist on people who can read sheet music properly so I can get good music.

⸻In your case, the music director of choice is Seiji Suzuki.[9] When did you start working with him?

Dezaki: Probably since the movie adaptation of Aim for the Ace!. I don’t understand the mechanics of music. I’ve had the experience of directly selecting background music for scenes. It’s not that I can’t do it, but leaving it up to other people can deliver some unexpected results. Work is more fun for me when I get insight into how other people read my directing style. Of course, I’ll argue with them when it doesn’t fit, but I approve of novel experimentation.

⸻How did you select the voice cast of Gamba?

Dezaki: I basically left it up to the recording director, Katō Satoshi. Although I should have ruled on whether or not his choices were okay, I don’t remember doing so. We still hang out with Kenji Utsumi sometimes. Not because he was one of the voice actors on The Adventures of Gamba, but due to some kind of recent alumni reunion sort of thing. Their teamwork was really good, and they still speak fondly of their time working on Gamba, or so I hear often. It’s great.


Noroi and his weasel underlings

⸻Are there any particular episodes you still remember?

Dezaki: There was an episode where after the mice climbed atop crow mountain, they took turns being the leader. There’s also the moments like when Gamba wanted to view the sea, or when Gamba looked at the contrails, or the story with the mountain hut. I put a lot of thought into making these ones. For the episode where they take turns playing leader, it didn’t occur to me before that maybe I worked on Gamba to do this story. Thank goodness I did.

While they switch leaders and try to figure out what exactly a leader is, I realized this was the theme of the episode. “What are true companions?” Companionship isn’t just sparkles and rainbows. It’s about understanding each other deeply and honestly, acknowledging a minimum set of conditions about each other. It’s not realistic otherwise. Companions don’t try to cover up for each other’s faults. They understand each other on a personal level and call each other out when someone behaves poorly. Being able to call out your companions is a sign of mutual love and trust. You can’t say there’s no unity. They may quarrel and part ways, but fundamental unity reminds them, “But I still like that jerk,” or “I want to get back together with them again.” As long as they have that unity, they don’t need a leader. As long as everyone sticks to their roles, everything will be fine and follow naturally. What’s important is that fundamentally they understand and acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They may not know what the other guy is going to do, but no matter what they know for certain that “this punk is still my friend!”

Taking this idea in the the opposite direction, consider companions who have an established foundation of acknowledging everything about each other. That’s strong teamwork, right? Maybe this empowers each individual in the group. I’m a conceited person, so I don’t really cooperate well with other people. But even I thought, “Oh that makes a lot of sense.” This concept was very deep and meaningful to me, and that story made me really glad that I worked on Gamba.

⸻Did you write all of Shijin’s poems?

Dezaki: During the storyboarding stage, I wrote the poems that Shijin reads in the last episode. Actually, if the scriptwriters were more sensitive to details, then I wouldn’t have said anything.

Recently, screenwriters have been concerned with consistency, story progression, and the number of pages the script takes up. That stuff doesn’t matter. I think the depth of the idea we pursue is important, but they treat their work like all they do is change outfits on a doll. Few of those people make discoveries anymore. Especially people who use word processors. If I tell them to correct something, they go, “Sure, sure,” and then they’re done. But all they do is swap out the parts I pointed out, because it’s so easy to do. I feel like word processors are becoming an obstacle that works against writers. Back in the day, screenwriters would carefully consider the whole script from beginning to end — each word and each phrase — just as one would do for a novel. The text is entirely theirs, so if they make a revision in one place, they have to go revise the entire thing. That’s how they approached their work. If one part changes, then so does the progression for the parts before and after. They go over and check through all the characters’ lines. That’s why if I’d complain to them, they’d fire back with opposition. We’d get down to the core of the matter by figuring out things like which amusing aspects would elicit an audible audience reaction. The story would then change into something completely different. But nowadays, you can’t do this.

I really feel this it these days. Screenwriters adapt existing works like they’re assembling a blueprint by taking the storylines as-is from the source material. If they were treating text like an actual craft, then wouldn’t ideas come to mind as they write? Every space on the manuscript page is the lifeblood of some writers.

⸻They get absorbed in their own world through the manuscript pages.

Dezaki: Yeah. As long as people understand this, then using the word processor is fine. But I think jumping into screenwriting with the word processor is not the way to go.

⸻Who wrote the lyrics for the ending theme song? The closing credits say “Tokyo Movie Planning Division.”

(Shunji) Ōmori is trained in the literary arts, so it might have been him. All I did was look at the poem and say, “Looks good.” The music was great too. The person who drew the illustrations for the ending was Ghibli’s (Yoshifumi) Kondo. [10] Back then he was the mainstay of A Pro. He really brought the storyboards to life, in single shots. That was really novel for the time. Amazing drawings.

⸻We just started talking about the ending theme, but I’d like to ask about Noroi. Back when I was just a regular viewer, what I found intriguing was how Noroi was simultaneously fearsome and elegant. It was really refreshing.

I’ve been wanting to do an adaptation of Moby-Dick [11] for a long time. It’s this fantastical, great white beast that is both god and demon. That’s the impression I took away from watching a Moby-Dick movie when I was very young. Noroi is something close to that. Thinking back, there’s an episode where Yoisho tells the story of how he lost his eye to Noroi. It’s somewhat a parody of Captain Ahab. We also had a lot of conversations about whether or not Noroi should be male or female. He gives off the impression of being an intermediary between the two. The mice are quite terrified, yet charmed by him at the same time. Noroi is well aware of his own appearance, and the hypnotic abilities he wields. He’s cognizant of the threat his presence poses to everyone else.

⸻He’s the embodiment of this prideful, radiant beauty.

Dezaki: Isn’t that just like how humans have two sides to them? Well, people go back and forth on what they want. I figure this is how humans envision a mysterious, larger than life, demonic, godlike being. They want to deceive and be deceived by it. So I thought it would be good to symbolize this unsettling aspect of humans.

⸻So the eerie “white” of Moby-Dick, the killer-whale.

Dezaki: I think so.

⸻When the Gamba project got underway, after being inspired by the source novel, did you already have the image of Moby-Dick in mind?

Dezaki: Not really. Noroi is the goal of the mice’s journey. He just slowly gravitated towards that image in my head. There’s a part at the end where Gamba fights Noroi, they sink into the sea, and then Noroi comes up followed by Gamba. This was clearly straight out of Moby-Dick.

In the source novel for Gamba, Noroi was exploiting the humans. He was symbolic of capitalists of the time. The humans were used, oppressed, and left alive only to be used as food later. It’s as if the author captured the sorrow of the humans with us in mind. But there’s always going to be someone who will take a stand and fight back. This is why when the main cast reach the granary mice, they get angry at everyone else running away. It’s as though everyone else has given up.

⸻When you put it like that, it’s pretty easy to figure out where the granary mice lie in the social hierarchy.

Dezaki: Well I think it would probably be impossible for something like them to exist in real life, but it is possible that a group pushed to their absolute limit would end up this way. There’s a sorrow which results from fear of the terrors of war, or being confronted with an overwhelming force. This sorrow is like that of humans who are chained down by poverty. This is why Chūta is searching for someone who isn’t paralyzed by such fear.

⸻Before the final episode, several episodes prior depicted the extreme difficulty of offense and defense for the mice. Was this planned from the beginning?

Dezaki: This is how it was in the source material as well. The source material is a novel — it’s not so much about action as the psychological straits the mice are put under. Noroi is sly and cunning; he deceives the mice at every turn. He instills panic and corners them into resignation. He also purposely gives them a small sliver of hope that perhaps they may be saved. Basically, the violent scenes in the show where he swipes his claws at the mice weren’t present in the original novel. Instead, he bests them mentally.

⸻A psychological battle.

Dezaki: Yes. This is truly terrifying. It’s a construct out of the modern world. It’s as though people who get caught up in all of that don’t realize they’ve been deceived.

⸻For the mice’s final stand, were there scenes you inserted your own views into?

Dezaki: I wanted to portray people who don’t bind themselves to the preconceived notions of the world. Such people are sometimes scared and sometimes brave. They argue with their friends, and then patch things up later. This is the kind of regular attitude that mentally strong people have which will protect them from deception. It enables them to keep moving forward. They may trip every now and then, but they’ll keep on moving. Even the greatest enemies are no match for such people. If you resign yourself to “well, let’s just do what we can,” then you’ll be caught in the enemy’s trap. “What the hell is that! Screw that asshole!” (laughs) or “quit screwing around,” is the attitude of people who will not be defeated, and persevere with their vigor and honesty. This is what I wanted to portray. I don’t know if I did a good job though.

⸻Looking back at it now, the mice have this childlike innocence to them.

Dezaki: Yes, they’re quite optimistic. If you step backwards, then you will gradually become more suspicious of your surroundings and lose your sanity, all while being exploited by someone. Fundamentally you have to proceed optimistically. In the episode “Traitor’s Fortress,” a side character’s younger brother is held hostage. The older brother betrays his companions in order to save his younger brother. Later, his treason comes to light. Even though he apologizes, he is told to get lost. What does the main cast do? Ikasama takes it upon himself to give the older brother a piece of his mind. This scene shows that Gamba and the others aren’t driven purely by cold logic, but instead they reach their conclusions based on personal values.

⸻Sort of like a childish tantrum, in a vigorous way. Did you know from the beginning that the conflict would resolve this way?

Dezaki: Not in this exact form, no. But the people who would go on such a journey are definitely not saints, nor are they cowards. Initially they may cower and squeal, “No, no, no, it’s scary,” but in the end they’ll charge through and yell, “Damn it, it’s do or die!” Initially they may run away from the unknown, but eventually they’ll realize that if only unfamiliarity holds them back, they might as well give it a shot. This is what I think vigor is about. They won’t charge ahead without rationale, but they can’t sit around and do nothing. There are moments where characters go, “Chūta why’re you crying? Let’s just do something about it.” This attitude sounds convincing to me.

⸻In the original novel, Noroi is depicted as this being who sucks the laborers dry, figuratively. Did you add anything on top of this?

Dezaki: Well I was focused on depicting the story from the perspective of Gamba and his companions, so I wasn’t thinking about that. The island mice are determined to protect their land and keep it inhabitable. It is where their family resides. They become conservative the moment they think, “I have to survive so that they can keep on living.” Through this lens, several things stand out.

Consider getting involved in religion, or a high-interest loan. Perhaps something unnecessary which everyone else does, so you do it too. This seems to happen an awful lot. Exceptions and heresy are treated like sins.

When Gamba and his companions think highly of themselves, or want to be thought of positively by everyone, that is when they fall into Noroi’s trap. Yoisho thinks, “I’m good at fighting, but am I good at anything else?” (laughs) Gakusha says, “I’m good at making calculations, but I’m not popular with the ladies…” They all have this kind of inferiority complex. But I think this is what makes them interesting.

When I create (dramatic fiction), the lines are based on a rough sense of what I want the characters to say. It’s a gradual process of matching action with dialogue. Sometimes I just want to see what happens when I make a character react a certain way in response to an event. This includes making characters behave in a way which I’m certain they wouldn’t normally. It’s through this exploration that I arrive at the whole picture of Gamba’s character.

As far as the characters are concerned, ultimately I reach a partial understanding of who they are and then let them roam free in a world unknown to me. I get into the full swing of things after I’ve caught up with them later. The director doesn’t need to be omniscient. On the contrary, I always pursue the characters further precisely because I do not understand them in depth.

Gamba always seems to feature stories of characters pitted against rational thinkers. At the beginning, Yoisho and the others don’t want to go after Noroi, but they change their minds later. It’s as if Gamba and his companions keep getting wrapped up in the affairs of other characters that do everything by the book, whatever those rules are.


The mice on a raft

Dezaki: Once you’re imprisoned by the fear of straying from conventional wisdom, you can no longer live outside of this fear. On the other hand, I question whether or not “common sense” or “group consesus” is actually correct. An skeptical approach is more motivating. If you suppress this attitude, then you’ll just accept everything at face value.

Disagreement is what actually invigorates people. When you figuratively reach a fork in the road, you have to approach the issue from the understanding that nothing in the world is predetermined. There’s no way so-called “great people” know everything. It’s just that occasionally they’re thought of as great because of something they did in the past. But they’re just like the rest of us. I don’t think anyone actually exists who lives up to their grand reputation… No way.

⸻Well from our perspective, we wonder how your characters are forced into their position by the story.

Dezaki: Of course even I have difficulty figuring out what the characters would actually say or do. I worry about it a lot. But it’s not at all a scientific process. It’s just pondering things like, “What would this character do,” “this is kind of fitting for that character,” or “this kind of story should work.” After repeatedly building on top of those pieces, eventually I reach a point where I feel, “Ah, I guess this is how it would go.” But it’s just my assumption. I don’t think it’s a given that I’m correct.

⸻To conclude, what does Gamba mean to you?

Dezaki: In my career, it’s extremely hard to find projects that are cheerful, uplifting works. It’s a misconception that my specialty is serious, gekiga-style adaptations. In this vein, currently I’m working on direct-to-video adaptations of Black Jack and Golgo 13. But what I really enjoy is stuff like Gamba.

It really is a cheerful work. The characters aim for the stars, live freely as they please, and crawl about out of control. In this sense, Gamba was quite difficult to make. At the same time, it was fun and remains a very fond memory. This is what it means to me, deep down inside.

(November 9th, 1997)


Source: Osamu Dezaki Interview on pages 32-51 — of an unnumbered text but taking the cover as page 1 — of The Adventures of Gamba: Adventure Book, a booklet included in the 2014 BD box-set. This interview was originally published in the Making of The Adventures of Gamba explanation booklet included in the Youmex 1997 LD box-set: The Adventures of Gamba: Complete Collection.

The BD box-set of The Adventures of Gamba can be found on Amazon Japan here.

Many of the visuals in this interview have comments from corresponding Gamba staffers. Some of them get quite long, so I opted not to translate them since this article is focused on the Dezaki interview. I’m also lazy… Sorry.


  1. Big X (’64) is Tokyo Movie’s first TV series.

  2. At the time, Gisaburō Sugii was Mushi Pro’s representative episode director. Some of his recent works include Touch (chief director), Night on the Galactic Railway (director), and The Life of Budori Gusuko (director).

  3. Make Way for Mr. Kunimatsu (’73) was produced at Mushi Pro, under chief director Masami Hata.

  4. Following Jungle Kurobē, Osamu Dezaki helmed the TV series Aim for the Ace (’73) at Tokyo Movie as chief director. Akio Sugino, Takeo Kitahara, and Yoshio Kabashima all served as animation directors on the project.

  5. Daikichirō Kusube served as the chairman of Shin-Ei Animation until he passed away in 2005. Known series of Shin-Ei Animation include Star of the Giants, Akadō Suzunosuke, Isamu the Wilderness Boy [Kōya no Shōnen Isamu], Ode to Judo [Judo Sanka], among others.

  6. Animator Akio Sugino’s long-running collaboration with Osamu Dezaki started with Tomorrow’s Joe. Other representative works include Nobody’s Boy Remi, Treasure Island, and Cobra among others.

  7. At the time of this interview, Kusube Sankichirō was the president of Shin-Ei Animation, and currently in 2014 is an honorary chairman. During the production of The Adventures of Gamba he was working not at A Pro (which later rebranded as Shin-Ei Animation), but at Tokyo Movie as a producer.

  8. Tametori (溜め録り) here refers to the process of recording all the background music first, and then afterwards selecting which pieces get used in the story. Today this is the standard process through which background music is selected for TV anime production.

  9. Seiji Suzuki served as music director for most Osamu Dezaki and Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s productions. Outside of Japanese animation, there are few examples of productions where different people serve as music director and sound director.

  10. Yoshifumi Kondo is an animator known for his involvement in titles such as Anne of Green Gables, Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday (character designer and animation director), and Whisper of the Heart (director). He passed away in January of ’98.

  11. Moby-Dick is Herman Melville’s novel published in 1851. It depicts the fight between one-legged sea captain Ahab and Moby-Dick, the white whale that maimed him.

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