Top Ten lists are popular. I have been asked (before Steve Stanchfield brought it up on Cartoon Research) what I think are the Top Ten (Japanese) anime features, or what my ten favorite anime features, or anime TV series, are.
I have not decided so far. I keep changing my mind, so I want more time to consider this. Yet there is one Japanese animated feature that I have always enjoyed very much, which is hard to think of as “anime” because it does not look “Japanese” at all. Since it is not likely to end up on a “top anime” list, here it is separately.
Jack and the Beanstalk Jack no Mami no Ki. Group TAC. July 20, 1974 (Japan); February 13, 1976 (U.S.); 96 minutes. Directed by Gisaburō Sugii.
I don’t care if this is Japanese-made; it does not look “foreign” in any way. It looks like the best animated musical feature-length movie that was not made by Disney, before the 1990s with Cats Don’t Dance.
Group TAC Co., Ltd. was founded in March 1968 by former employees of Mushi Productions. Information on the Internet says that it was run by Tashiro Atsumi until his death in July 2010, during a period of extreme financial hardship for the studio. Atsumi had hoped to save the studio from bankruptcy, but after his death, bankruptcy was declared in September 2010 and the studio broke up. Its staff and projects were assumed by the new Studio Diomedéa, and the existing OLM, Inc. (originally Oriental Light and Magic) and XEBEC studios.
Wikipedia’s Group TAC entry does not even list any projects for the studio between its 1968 founding and 1983. According to Wikipedia, Group TAC was best-known for two things: producing the animated adaptations of the literary works of Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) with the characters shown as anthropomorphized cats, such as Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985); plus the Touch animated high school baseball TV series (1985-1987; 101 episodes) and theatrical features (three) based on Mitsuru Adachi’s manga, all directed by Gisaburō Sugii. After Group TAC’s breakup, Sugii directed Miyazawa’s 1932 The Life of Guskō Budori, again with all the characters as anthropomorphized cats, as a 105-minute theatrical movie in July 2012 for Tezuka Productions.
Wikipedia says of Jack and the Beanstalk, “It is the first feature directed by Sugii or animated by Group TAC”, “The feature is […] particularly unusual in the nature of its Western influence, which extends to animation being assigned by character (rather than by scene as it is conventionally in Japan) and the eclecticism of its soundtrack, which includes examples of kayōkyoku pop, progressive, funk and hard rock, enka and other genres”, and “Henry Herx wrote in his Family Guide to Movies on Video: ‘Its songs are insipid and the animation rather primitive[;] still it moves along at a lively enough pace and may amuse younger children.’ Richard Eder of The New York Times remarked: ‘The lines are blurry, the colors muddy, and the action is blocklike. When the characters’ lips move up and down, the words come out sideways.’ He ended his short review with this comment: ‘It is the kind of thing grandfathers are sent out to send their grandchildren to. They will sit silently, side by side, and a quiet loathing will come up between them.’ In 2010, Michael R. Pitts said that the songs are ‘forgettable’. Conversely, the writers of Jerry Beck’s Animated Movie Guide hailed it as ‘A successful Japanese emulation of American fairy tale theatrical cartoon features with many delightful songs’, and gave it four stars.”
I will take the credit for giving it the favorable review in Jerry’s The Animated Movie Guide; I wrote all the entries on Japanese and Korean animated features released in America. As I said, I have always enjoyed the film, which in my opinion was designed from the start to look as much like a traditional American animated musical as possible. I am still humming its first song after forty years. When I was asked to help program California State University at Long Beach’s first Japanese Animation Festival on April 21-22, 2000, I recommended this film (which Columbia Pictures only had one theatrical file print of left by that time; so spliced and worn that Columbia only reluctantly agreed to loan it to CSULB for the festival). To quote again from Wikipedia, “Styled after classical Western animation, it is a musical fantasy based on the fairy tale of the same name with the screenplay by Shūji Hirami, music organization by Yū Aku and songs and score composed and arranged by Takashi Miki with Shun’ichi Tokura and Tadao Inōe.”
Jack and the Beanstalk was distributed in the U.S. extremely briefly in 1976 by Columbia Pictures. More people probably saw it on HBO in the early 1980s. I saw it first on RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video in the early or mid-1980s. I have always wondered if Columbia provided input to Group TAC while the movie was being produced, since it looks so “American”. The complete film on YouTube credits the English-language production to Film-Rite, Inc. (which IMDb identifies as a New York post-production house active from 1966 through 1985), written by Peter J. Solmo. Jack and the Beanstalk is notable as being the only movie that I know of to combine the voice actors of Titan Productions (Ray Owens, Billie Lou Watt, and so on) and Peter Fernandez’s group (Corinne Orr, Jack Grimes).
In the early days of American anime fandom, a fan interviewed a Columbia executive about its distribution of Jack and the Beanstalk, including its hasty disappearance that was so fast that the studio could hardly have determined whether it was doing well at the box office or not. The executive admitted that, due to the poor record of anime in American theatrical release, Columbia had always considered it to be a tax write-off. When Jack and the Beanstalk actually started to make a profit despite some killer reviews, Columbia hastily yanked it out of the theaters.
Yeah, I can pick a few nits with the film. Jack’s mother complains about them being poor and starving when she is so plump. In the first song, the two verses about the trapped fish and the trapped rabbit seem to be switched with their visuals. The most serious error can be blamed on the original folk tale: why would anyone trade magic beans like those for a dried-up old cow? Who is the bean-seller and what is his motive?
The other details that I noticed are small subtleties that are there for the audience to discover and appreciate. Jack’s “falling in love” with Princess Margaret is really only juvenile puppy love – which she clearly recognizes, as soon as she comes out of her beguilement. Do Crosby the hound dog and the mouse lady-in-waiting seem to have a more than casual relationship, which Jack is completely oblivious of? How stupid is Tulip the ogre, really, and how much is he just putting up with his witch-mother? Does Tulip have genuine feelings for Margaret? How much of his design is deliberately to keep him from being too dark, such as his heart-strewn underpants? Look at the condescension and sarcasm in the song, “Are You HAPPY?”
Most of the characters’ names are unchanged from the Japanese original, but there are two big differences. Crosby the dog was Gurosubi, which does not seem to mean anything (was it a nickname for Gisaburō Sugii?). It was changed to Crosby for the Crusaders’ cross in his dog tag, implying his faithfulness to the Crusaders’ ideals – noticeably stronger than Jack’s juvenile “I wanna be a hero” attitude. The witch was Mrs. Noir, changed to Madame Hecuba – slight, but it does sound more ominous. The credited English voices are Billie Lou Watt as Jack; Corinne Orr as Princess Margaret and Madame Hecuba; and Jack Grimes as Tulip and Crosby. I am pretty sure that Billie Lou Watt is also Jack’s mother, and that Ray Owens is the peddler with the magic beans. Your guess is as good as mine as to the Magic Harp, and the palace courtiers’ human voices.
Anyway, I am glad that the entire movie is on YouTube, with the original American dub both on the sound track and easy to read in the subtitles. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.
Complete movie (English dub)