December 16, 2013 posted by

Cartoon Japanese Folk Tales


If I have to name an anime that was an exercise in what kind of different styles you can do with the animation medium, I’m going to have to pick Group TAC’s Manga Nippon Mukashi Banashi (Cartoon Japanese Folk Tales), a long-running animated anthology program.

Group TAC was one of the more artist-driven studios to thrive in Japan. Founded in 1968 by former Mushi Production staff Susumu Aketagawa and Gisaburo Sugii, TAC initially kept themselves busy by taking in subcontract work from larger studios like Tokyo Movie and the aforementioned Mushi, but by 1975 they were producing their own shows, Mukashi Banashi being their first.

The show retold Japanese folk tales in animated format. Each episode were drawn and animated in different styles, taking advantage of the fact that the show had no recurring characters. This is where the directors were allowed to do whatever they wanted, since they would typically draw their own layouts and even animate by themselves. It was one of the few TV cartoons where the directors get to be auteur. In addition, many well-regarded anime directors worked on this show, since it was reliable to get work in-between jobs, until they got assigned to direct on another series. Among those well-known directors were Osamu Dezaki and Rintaro.

The show premiered on the NET (Nihon Educational Television, now TV Asahi) network in January 7, 1975. However, this run was short-lived, only lasting until the following March after only 12 shows (24 segments). Not giving up, they moved the show to Tokyo Broadcasting Systems (TBS), which began airing it on January 3, 1976. On TBS the show had a more successful run, airing for 18 more years before finally ending its regular run on August 27, 1994. One more hour-long special aired on January 2, 1995, as a New Years special, which contained four new shorts.

Altogether, 1,470 shorts were made, with two running during each half-hour (sometimes only one short was new, with the second half being a repeat). Note that some fairy tales were used two (sometimes three) times, animated by different artists in their own styles, no different from how Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairy Tales” reused the same fairy tales multiple times.

The show’s success and format led to copy-cat series, some of which were made by Group TAC themselves. One of the more well-known copy-cat was Manga Sekai Mukashi Banashi (Cartoon Folk Tales from Around the World) from DAX International, which used the similar format that “Nippon” had, the difference being that it retold folk tales from around the world, not just the Japanese ones. Also like “Nihon”, each episode looked different depending on the director. If the similarity wasn’t enough, this show also aired on TBS and even shared some of the same crew that “Nippon” had.

To give you an idea of the different styles this show has had, here are selections of numerous shorts from over the years.

Opening Theme

No. 4: Tongue-Cut Sparrow
Original Airdate: January 14, 1975

Director: Rintaro
Backgrounds: Takamura Mukuo
Animator: Norio Yazawa

An elderly woodcutter finds an injured sparrow one day. He takes it home, helping it recover. However, his greedy, avaricious wife resents that he would waste food on the bird. One day, the bird eats some starch that the wife had left behind, since she has refused to feed it. Angered, the woman cuts the bird’s tongue and lets it loose. The old man goes out to look for it, and gets greeted by a clan of sparrows, thanking him for helping the bird. After giving him some food and festivities, the sparrows offers him a choice of two boxes, one big and one small. Being an old man, he takes the smaller box, since it would be easier to carry back. When he opened it at home, he is shocked to discover that it’s full of treasure. After the greedy wife finds out about the existence of the larger box, she goes to the sparrow’s clan and takes home the larger box. Alas, it’s not full of treasure, but something else.

Rintaro (born 1941) is one of the more well-known anime directors, having begun his career as a director on “Astroboy” for Mushi Production. He directed three shorts for this series.

No. 43: The Three Charms
Original Airdate: March 27, 1976

Director: Tameo Kohanawa
Backgrounds: Jiro Kouno
Animator: Hisa Yamazaki (Katsuhiko Taguchi)

An apprentice for a priest, who happens to be mischievous brat, decides to go in the woods and collect some chestnuts, despite the head priest’s warning that there’s a mountain witch living there. Undaunted, the priest gives the boy three charms, which he can use if he sees the witch. Can those three magical charm help the boy when he does end up meeting the mountain witch?

Remade by Gisaburo Sugii in 1990. See No. 1,165.

No. 47: Thunder God and the Mulberry Plant
Original Airdate: April 10, 1976

Director: Kumo Ooi (Osamu Dezaki)
Backgrounds: Shun’Ichi Ozeki
Animator: Musho Kikuda

This is sort of a Japanese version of the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story. The boy goes out to buy eggplant seeds to his mother, but instead buys a more expensive sprout. They plant it anyway, and out comes a giant eggplant stalk, going high above the clouds. Against his mother’s wishes, the boy climbs the plant just to see the skies. There he meets a man and his two beautiful daughters. The man thanks the boy for the eggplants, and does so by having a big party. After waking up, the man reveals himself to be the God of Thunder. He goes out to cause thunderstorm, but not before inviting the boy for a ride.

Osamu Dezaki is one of my favorite anime directors, so I have to showcase one of his contribution (he did four shorts for the series). Dezaki directed this short under a pseudonym, but you can tell that he made this just by watching it. Musho Kikuda should also be commended for the energetic animation.

No. 49: The Rich Cook
Original Airdate: April 17, 1976

Director: Shiro Marufu
Backgrounds: Kazunori Gedo
Animator: Shinya Takahashi

A boy named Sasuke, wanting to go out in the sea, convinces the captain of the fishing boat to let him have a job as the ship’s cook. Every night, after the crew finishes eating, Sasuke gives leftover scraps to the fish out in the sea. This goes on for over a year, and Sasuke continues to give leftover scraps to fish. One day, however, Sasuke gets a reward for his good deed from the Sea God.

No. 60: Tengu’s Feather Fan
Original Airdate: June 5, 1976

Director: Tameo Kohanawa
Backgrounds: Yoshifumi Takemori
Animator: Gen Fukuda

A silly story. A gambler trades his pair of dice with a Tengu for a magical fan that can grow or shrink people’s nose, depending on what direction you wave it with. The man decides to use this as a way to marry a rich man’s daughter. He succeeds, but will he get a happy ending?

No. 299: Moles vs. the Sun
Original Airdate: May 19, 1979

Director: Tadahiko Horikuchi
Backgrounds: Studio Akabonten
Animator: Yuimiko Kanaumi

This story takes place back when moles lived above ground. Tired of the heat, moles decide to defeat the sun. However, the frog overhears. Since no sun means the rivers will freeze, which means his wife can’t lay eggs, he goes to warn the sun to not come up until the moles leave.

Nice, simple animation.

No. 1,022: Wood Boy
Original Airdate: April 9, 1988

Director/Animator: Tsuneo Wakabayashi
Backgrounds: Yumi Watanabe

An elderly blacksmith is having trouble creating quality gardening tools, which keep getting worn down after use. One day, however, a mysterious boy comes in, bringing in some wood from the camellia tree. He says the wood will provide good, strong fire that will help make the metal strong. Sure enough, it does, and he manages to create gardening tools that don’t get worn down easily. But where did that boy come from?

No. 1,165: The Three Charms (2nd version)
Original Airdate: February 3, 1990

Director: Gisaburo Sugii
Backgrounds: Minoru Aoki
Animator: Teruhito Kamiguchi

This is a remake of short no. 43 from 1976 (see above). In this version, it’s the priest who sends the boy (who is not as bratty here) out into the woods to collect chestnuts, with the boy being reluctant. Otherwise, the story is the same, told in different style and direction.

No. 1,446: Mysterious Gourd
Original Airdate: April 9, 1994

Director/Backgrounds/Animator: Kazuhiko Miyoshi

An elderly, childless couple finds a baby in their garden. After waiting several days for his parents, they decided to adopt him as their own, naming him Sachimaro. The two raise him as their own, but on his fifth birthday he disappears. While looking for him, they found a gourd bottle on the spot he was originally found in. Taking the top off, they hear his voice calling him, and a gold coin pops outs. Thankful that they get to hear his voice again (the voice asks “Hey Grandpa/Grandma! How are you?”), they keep opening the top off over and over, which results in them having a pile of gold coins. When they go to sleep, a thief tries to steal the coins, but the voice in the gourd alerts them, causing him to run away.

A very unusual animation style, as if UPA made an anime.


  • I remember this turning up on a UHF station with English subtitles. The story was about a boy who spent his days sleeping, to the despair of his poor mother and the annoyance of the townfolk, constantly hauling water from the river. He only got up every few days to pee from a mountaintop, creating a rainbow.

    One day he got up not to pee, but to push a large rock so it rolled towards the river. It blocked the river and rerouted it to the crops, so the people didn’t have to haul it by the bucket any more. The boy resumed sleeping all day, but now the townfolk all smiled and approved. They knew he was THINKING.

  • If I’m not mistaken I’ve seen various shorts from these programs posted on YouTube under various names like
    “Classic Folk Tales”, “Merlin’s Cave”, “Tales of Magic” all dubbed into English. They were definitely a treat to watch and it’s nice to know where the idea originated from.

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