The Night of Taneyamagahara

Some animators while away their time working on backgrounds, in-between and key animations, and assistant work on big productions without ever giving thought to eventually directing a work of their own. Some have the drive and the will to create something, but are only ever relegated to work in the lower echelons of an animation studio, if they’re even lucky enough to join a studio and escape the insecurity of freelance. And then there are those who toil away, get a shot at making a film, and go on to become directors in their own right. The story of the 2006 short film The Night of Taneyamagahara, is unlike any of these scenarios.

In the late 1960s, an animator rose up from the ranks of fine art production and moved into the burgeoning Japanese animation field. His name was Kazuo Oga and his work was immediately recognized for its brilliance in rendering background landscapes realistically, evocatively, tastefully, and with powerful emotional resonances. After working for Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki on their short films Panda! Go, Panda! and Panda! Go, Panda! The Rainy-Day Circus in 1972 and 73, he was hired by a new studio called Studio Madhouse (founded in 1972), which would go on to become one of the biggest names in Japanese animation.

The Osamu Tezuka founded studio Mushi Production was going bankrupt and those in the know left while the getting was good to found Madhouse. The four principal founders of this new Studio included the Producer Masao Maruyama (later of Mappa Studios and M2) and the directors Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Osamu Dezaki, all three of whom Oga would work for as late as 2007. But his professional relationship with this group began in 1975 when Oga worked as a background artist on the animated series  The Adventures of Gamba. Later the two collaborated on Nobody’s Boy: Remi in 1977 and the films Ashita no Joe II (on which Oga worked as Art Director) and Space Adventure Cobra, which ended their professional collaboration in 1982.

Oga’s work for the other Madhouse directors primarily involved background artwork, though he notably worked as Art Director on two of Mori Masaki’s films, Barefoot Gen and Toki no Tabibito: Time Stranger, as well as a film by Osamu Tezuka entitled The Fantastic Adventures of Unico whose animation Madhouse provided and on Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s classic Wicked City. Other notable Madhouse productions on which Oga provided background artwork include Rintaro’s Harmageddon and The Dagger of Kamui and Kawajiri’s Demon City Shinjuku, Ninja Scroll, Goku Midnight Eye, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Notably, throughout the fifteen year period from 1973-1988, he had not worked on any other productions with Studio Ghibli co-founders Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki despite the two creating six features and numerous animated series during this time. Oga finally rejoined with the two at the tail end of 1988 and began work on My Neighbor Totoro as Art Director. This was to be the beginning of a fruitful career with the new Studio during which he would collaborate as an Art Director or Background Artist another 17 times between 1989-2014 (the latter year being the infamous Ghibli production halt during which animators were fired en masse, directors left to found their own Studios, and no works were commissioned until 2017-though none have, as of yet, been released either).

In the early 90s, a cult following began to surround Oga and his work, which championed his beautiful backgrounds and the quality of those productions on which he had been assigned as Art Director. Tokuma Shoten, one of Japan’s largest publishing houses, commissioned an art book on Oga’s work, most personal and professional, which they released in 1996 and was followed by a sequel nine years later. Art exhibitions were planned and Oga was, in a sense, being enshrined as a cultural and artistic national treasure.

Around this same time, Oga was developing a strong interest in the written works of Kenji Miyazawa, Japan’s great poet and children’s writer of the 1920s and 30s. His works has famously been adapted to the field of animation on dozens of occasions. However, the most important and culturally relevant of these adaptations had been in the 1980s on Isao Takahata’s film Gauche the Cellist (1982), Rintaro’s Matasaburo of the Winds (1988), and the cult classic Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985). Oga decided to develop his own adaptation of a classic work in Miyazawa’s The Night of Taneyamagahara: the tale of a young man working high in the mountains and saving money to buy a plot of land.

One night he dreams that the Oak Saplings and their father Tree deliver to him a message about protecting the forest and letting it remain beautiful. They promise to do their best to change the mind of the current owner of the land so that he will sell the land to the young man one day. However, to gain their trust, the young man must promise not to cut down any of the trees therein and to live off of the land and its sumptuous feasts of mushrooms, chestnuts, grapes and other fruits. And if he must eventually cut a few trees, he should do so respectfully and use their branches fully and to good ends like warming himself or building his home.

The film is a quaint little ecological fable centered around a metaphysics derived from Shinto in which all living things, and even non-living natural phenomena (like rocks and streams), are to be treated with respect for their inherent worth as existing things. In the sense that this approach to ecology, sheer animism, completely loses any credibility once one begins to assess it logically and rationally (stones have no worth, living beings have no inherent worth, there are no gods inside them, we must kill to survive, modernity precludes the need to harvest in favor of farming, there is no nature-civilization distinction, etc.), the film is a failure. But in the sense that it works for its target demographic, children, the film is alright.

The only problem here, however, is that the film contains very little in the way of animation. Like the great Yuri Norstein, Oga prefers to create still images and manipulate particular elements within the stills to merely simulate movement. However, unlike Norstein, Oga minimizes the animations as much as possible to create something of a minimalist animation approach. Adult audiences may find the film extremely visually attractive, from the billowing of smoke from campfires, to the slow dance of the oak saplings, and the softly shimmering light from the fire and from the stars in the sky. But for children, especially children steeped in hyper-saturated imagery of CGI productions in all their banality and lack of art and heart, the film is unwatchable.

And so, it can really only appeal to fans of animation as an art form, which may have been Oga’s intended purpose in the first place. Or, as all great artists will tell you, it was intended for no audience except the artist himself, whose vision was the wellspring of its being. And if we recognize Oga as a great artist, then truly the only opinion on the matter that matters in the final calculation is Oga’s opinion on the work, which he no doubt would not have even released (it is his only animation as director) if it had not satisfied him.

In the Western animation world, such a production would probably squander away in obscurity and never find a production studio to fund it in the first place. But thanks to Studio Ghibli, The Night of Taneyamagahara was created and thereby serves to show just how much Miyazaki, Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki truly value art and the personal vision of those with the imagination to bring it into existence.

 

Cody Ward

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