As far as made-for-TV cartoons from the 1970s and 1980s are concerned, I never made it a secret that I vastly prefer the output from the Japanese studios (Tokyo Movie and Toei Doga in particular) than those of what the American companies like Filmation, Hanna-Barbera and even DePatie-Freleng, has churned out. I think 1975’s Gamba no Boken (The Adventures of Gamba) makes a strong case for how to make a quality cartoon under TV budgets and deadline without sacrificing character development, story telling, color styling, and even layouts and (limited) animation. Much of this success can be attributed to the series chief director, Osamu Dezaki (1943-2011).
Having just graduated from Tokyo Metropolitan High School, Dezaki was hired by Mushi Production to work on Astroboy as an animator in 1963. At the same time, he was also moonlighting for the newly-formed Tokyo Movie studio, doing storyboards on their first show, Big X (coincidentally, also created by Osamu Tezuka). He was later promoted director on Astroboy, his first episode being episode #112 in 1965. In the years since then, he directed hundreds of episodes on numerous shows for various studios, primarily Mushi Production and Tokyo Movie, regardless of genre, having directed comedy, action, drama, romance, and others. For American fans, he is probably best known for directing The Mighty Orbots (1984), a Saturday Morning series that aired on ABC.
Dezaki’s trademark directing style includes the use of split-screens, stark lightning, bright color stylings, cross-hatching to convey mood in animation, wide use of different camera angels in action shots, and probably his most famous of them all, “postcard memories”. This is where the final frame of animation is freeze-framed, which then fades to a painted version of the scene. Dezaki was a strong advocate of strong storyboarding in animation. In Japan, directors of anime are typically expected to storyboard their own shows, but Dezaki was very diligent in his approach, apparently storyboarding over 90% of his directing outputs himself. For more on Dezaki, I recommend that you read this Mike Toole post.
Gamba was one of the many shows that Dezaki supervised. It was based on a children’s novel written by author Atsuo Saito (born 1940) called Bokenshyatachi: Gamba to 15-hiki no nakao (The Adventures: Gamba and His 15 Friends), published in 1972. The 26-episode anime was produced by Tokyo Movie for NTV (Nippon Television), airing on Monday evenings at 7:00-7:30 PM from April 7 to September 29, 1975. As per usual at the time, TMS relied on A Production to handle the animation chores.
Gamba and Bobo are two city mice who, while escaping from a hungry cat, end up in the stream, riding inside a floating tin can. Gamba aspires to go on an adventure in the sea, having heard about it from his deceased father. He knows very little about it, and this just drives him more, wanting to explore the seas because it’s unknown to him (as he explained to Bobo, “Why go on an adventure to something you know about?”). The two travel from place to place and eventually they end up near the ocean dock, encountering a group of mice having a party nearby. Gamba and Bobo both join in, not having eaten in their long day. While this is going on, however, an injured mouse named Chuta comes in and collapses on the ground, having sustained injuries. While being treated, Chuta reveals that he comes from an island, living happily amongst other mice until an evil gang of white weasels led by Noroi (the name literally means “curse” in Japan) come in and slaughter the village in a very bloody invasion. Noroi is very notorious and all the mice in the party leave immediately, knowing that confronting the giant weasel means an instant death sentence.
Gamba, however, stays behind and agrees to help Chuta defeat the notorious Noroi. As they stowaway on a ship that’s heading to his direction, other mice join the mission. In addition Bobo, joining Gamba and Chuta are Yoisho (name is Japanese for “yo heave ho”), a strong sailor mouse who lost one eye to Noroi. Yoisho’s partner is Gakusha, a bespectled mouse who is very intelligent; his name means “scholar”. Shijin is a doctor mouse who has a habit of drinking sake and reciting poetry; his name means “poet”. On the boat they meet a mouse already there named Ikasama (name means “swindler”). As his name implies, he’s a gambler who is frequently seen carrying a pair of dice on his hands. With the cast of characters established, the first episode ends with the characters starting their journey into the sea.
The show is presented in a cliffhanger format, each episode advancing a storyline. Throughout the run the seven mice encounter many challenge and hardships. In the fourth episode, the heavy storm causes the boat to sink, forcing the mice to stow away inside a wooden box that escaped the shipwreck, floating on the water. In the following week’s episode, they find an abandoned battleship floating on the island. With the wooden crate destroyed by a flock of hungry seagulls and starving from lack of food, Gakusha builds a new boat using scrap metal pieces salvaged from the battleship. The characters continued their journey in the episodes that followed, encountering numerous obstacles before finally confronting the evil Noroi in the final episode.
Osamu Dezaki had a good team working on this show. One unusual aspect of this show’s production was that a layout artist was employed. In Japanese studios, animators are expected to draw layouts of their own scenes; when a separate layout artist is used, it’s in special circumstances. For Gamba, Tsutomu Shibayama was given the task of doing layouts for every episode, masterfully conveying the stylized world the mice gang lives in. In turn, the color styling is applied expertly, thanks to art director Shichiro Kobayashi supervising the background paintings. Yoshio Kabashima should also be commended for his character designs and animation supervision, giving the characters a broad, loose style, making it stand out in the expertly done limited animation. Dezaki personally directed 12 of the episodes himself, with the rest split between Kyosuke Mikiuriya, Yoshio Takeuchi, and Shigetsugu Yoshida.
Originally, 52 episodes were planned to cover the story arc. However, the sub-par ratings from the viewing audience forced the studio to cut the number down to 26. As a result, they had to hastily re-plan the show’s storyline for the second half of the run. In spite of the shortcomings, the show went on to become a cult favorite in the years that followed. In 1984, TMS made a “feature film” that was edited from several episodes of the show, released in March 4 of that year. The compilation feature only showed the Noroi storyline, removing the subplots.
A new Gamba animation was eventually made, when TMS made a feature film called Gamba to Kawauso no Boken (The Adventures of Gamba and Kawauso), which was directed by Shunji Oga and theatrically released in July 20, 1991. A video game based on the show was also made for PlayStation, released in 2003.
One can compare this series to Watership Down, which was published the same year the Gamba book came out. Gamba is on my personal list of ‘Best TV Cartoons’ (which covers both US and Japanese shows) ever made, and if anybody ever gets a chance, watch the show at your own time. I’m hoping that it will someday arrive in the ‘States in some media format, even excusing the fact that it was made nearly 40 years ago.
Based on a book by Atsuo Saito
Chief Director: Osamu Dezaki
Animation Director: Yoshio Kabashima
Art Director: Shichiro Kobayashi
Production Design and Layout Artist: Tsutomu Shibayama
Story Editors: Jyunichi Iioka, Shunji Oomori
Music: Takeo Yamashita
Producers: Toru Ueno, Sankichiro Kusube
Produced in Association with: A Production
A Tokyo Movie Co. Ltd. Production
See individual episode listing for writers and directors.
Masako Nozawa as Ganba
Ranko Mizuki as Bobo
Kenji Utsumi as Yoisho
Kei Tomiyama as Gakusha
Akira Shimada as Shijin
Hiroko Kikuchi as Chuta
Junko Hori as Ikasama
Lyrics: Tokyo Movie Planning Committee
Music: Takeo Yamashita
Singing: Hiromasa Kawahara
Published by CBS/Sony Records
Episode Listing (all episode names are English translations of its Japanese title)
1. To Adventure in the Sea! (April 7, 1975) Scenario: Mitsuru Majima ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
2. Gamba Goes Crazy on Ship (April 14, 1975) Scenario: Mitsuru Majima ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
3. Big Danger: Save Chuta! (April 21, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Kyosuke Mikuriya
4. Shipwreck by a Storm (April 28, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
5. What Awaits on Battleship Island (May 5, 1975) Scenario: Mitsuru Majima ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
6. Fun, Fun Diving (May 12, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Yoshio Takeuchi
7. Scary, Scary Black Shadow (May 19, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Kyosuke Mikuriya
8. Bobo’s First Love (May 26, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
9. Difficult Battle with the Black Fox (June 2, 1975) Scenario: Shoji Yoshikawa ; Director: Shigetsugu Yoshida
10. Seven Split Boards Going Their Separate Ways (June 9, 1975) Scenario: Hideo Takayashiki ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
11. After Toragoro, the Swindler! (June 16, 1975) Scenario: Hideo Takayashiki ; Director: Yoshio Takeuchi
12. A Party, a Fight, an Uproar (June 23, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Kyosuke Mikuriya
13. Special Training!! Operation Moo Moo (June 30, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
14. Attack of a Pack of Hunting Dogs (July 7, 1975) Scenario: Atsushi Yamatoya ; Director: Shigetsugu Yoshida
15. Gamba Kidnapped by an Eagle (July 14, 1975) Scenario: Atsushi Yamatoya ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
16. Climbing Formidable Crow Peak! (July 21, 1975) Scenario: Yoshio Takeuchi ; Director: Kyosuke Mikuriya
17. Run, Run, for the Weasel is Near (July 28, 1975) Scenario: Shoji Yoshikawa ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
18. Curious, Fat Mice (August 4, 1975) Scenario: Hideo Takayashiki ; Director: Yoshio Takeuchi
19. Streaked Shearwater Sinking in Darkness (August 11, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Kyosuke Mikuriya
20. I Saw the White Weasel! (August 18, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
21. 13 Eyes Wet with Tears (August 25, 1975) Scenario: Yutaka Kaneko ; Director: Shigetsugu Yoshida
22. Friends from Across the Sea (September 1, 1975) Scenario: Hideo Takayashiki ; Director: Yoshio Takeuchi
23. Traitor’s Fortress (September 8, 1975) Scenario: Shoji Yoshikawa ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)
24. Whispers of a White Devil (September 15, 1975) Scenario: Shoji Yoshikawa ; Director: Shigetsugu Yoshida
25. Grotto of Hell (September 22, 1975) Scenario: Atsushi Yamatoya ; Director: Kyosuke Mikuriya
26. The Last Battle: The Great Whirlpool (September 29, 1975) Scenario: Atsushi Yamatoya ; Director: Makura Saki (Osamu Dezaki)