(Catch my review of the first Nasu film here: Summer in Andalusia)
Kitaro Kosaka, the long-time Studio Ghibli animator and animation director, created his first feature film as a full director in 2003 for Studio Madhouse. The film was an adaptation of a short story found within a three-volume manga entitled Nasu by the manga-ka Io Kuroda, recommended to Kosaka by Hayao Miyazaki, and about a professional cyclist named Pepe Benengeli who rides for the struggling Pao Pao Beer team. In that first film, he rides the Vuelta through his hometown in Andalusia and ultimately proves his merit to his team, his sponsors, and his friends and family by gaining a lead in the first half of the race and holding it till the end when he finishes first by the skin of his teeth.
From 2003 until his production began on his next OVA film in 2007, Kosaka worked sparsely providing character designs on the television series Monster for Studio Madhouse and working as animation director on Studio Ghibli’s 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle. Information is hard to come by regarding the full animation cast on Kosaka’s second Nasu picture, but it seems that he did not retain the editorial talent of Takeshi Seyama and instead used a Madhouse employee to cut the film.
However, as a trade-off of sorts, Kosaka enlisted the aid of the famed animation director Ken’Ichi Yoshida to help him create his film. He and Yoshida had worked together on many an occasion for a Studio Ghibli throughout the 1990s when Yoshida was a Ghibli employee. Before becoming freelance in 1999, Yoshida contributed in-between animation on Only Yesterday, and key animation on Porco Rosso, Ocean Waves, Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart, the Hayao Miyazaki directed music video On Your Mark, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. After this period, he began work on numerous television series including highly esteemed modern classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Wolf’s Rain, and Eureka Seven. Needless to say, his help was indispensable and can be seen firsthand in the increase in production quality between the two films whilst keeping character designs and animation style (of the Lupin III mold) stable across time.
In Nasu: A Migratory Bird with Suitcase, a few years have elapsed since the last film. Pepe’s teammate Gilmore has since left Pao Pao Beer’s cycling team to join up with a different group in which the legendary rider Zanconi is employed. Pepe’s win at the Vuelta has since been forgotten, though his sponsorship is now relatively stable due to his constant decent performances coming in at second or third at races (and hence, racking up points in the process). But the team as a whole has suffered immensely and been unable to claim first in any race for some time, which has led Pao Pao Beer to consider disbanding the team the following year if they don’t shape up quickly.
Further, Pepe’s best remaining teammate Ciocci has been having something a third-life crisis and is questioning why he continues to race, to stay in shape, to diet, and to forego starting a family and gaining a lucrative career. His performance has begun to suffer because of his doubts and his doubts have been reinforced by his bad performance in what has become a vicious cycle leading nowhere but downhill if not stopped soon. Add to this, the complication of the great cyclist Marco Rondanini taking his own life toward the beginning of the film and becoming a legendary figure of sorts in the process of death and cultural glorification of his memory, and the immense enigma of Zanconi, and Ciocci begins to wonder whether he could even become a great cyclist in principle as all great cyclists have some je ne sais quoi that makes them almost gods among men. Ciocci worries that this is an attribute he does not possess and can never possess, and finds that it must be fueled by an almost religious drive to cycle as one’s Sisyphean end game.
All of this uncertainty in Ciocci, the second best rider on the team, and in the team’s continued existence, negatively effects all riders on the team. So, when they are flown to Japan for a big race against Gilmore and Zanconi’s team (amongst others), they seem totally demoralized. Luckily, Zanconi is no longer on a quest as a mere cyclist. He has taken up the Buddhist faith in a mystical vein, eats traditional Japanese foods when he arrives, speaks to no one (allowing himself to meditate through every waking moment and movement as the great Zen Buddhist Dogen might advise), and visits an ancient temple to the thousand armed Kannon: the Bodhisattva of Mercy derived from the Chinese Guanyin, herself derived from the male Indian Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
During the race, Zanconi stays with the pack and doesn’t make his move to leave it until the second the last lap of the race. He cycles at this point like his very life depends upon it and during that one lap manages to speed ahead not only of the pack, but of all of the those at the front of the race, more than a minute and a half ahead. He passes them all and crosses the finish line with dozens of yards of leeway between him and the second rider. And then, instead of carrying on his lead and continuing to win the race, he raises his arms to the sky as he passes the finish line in the second to last lap and seems to transform into a demigod of sorts int he process. He stops his bike and finishes the race, leaving only his teammate Gilmore to beat Pepe and Ciocci.
During the race, about the same time that Zanconi starts his drive forward to spiritual apotheosis, Pepe falls from his bike and loses his lead within a stream of rain pouring down the side of the mountain. He fights to regain the lead against impossible odds, and eventually gives Ciocci the backup to allow his partner to finish the race in first, which reestablishes Ciocci’s confidence, averts the team’s existential crisis, and gives everyone the motivation to fight harder in the future. Plus, Zanconi’s actions seem to be a goodbye of sorts to the sport of cycling, which means that with him gone and Marco Rondanini dead, there is an ego vacuum in the sport, which cries out to be filled by an enigmatic racer like Ciocci or Pepe Benengeli.
The film was a modest success in comparison to the previous Nasu film, which premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes Film Festival and won tons of awards from others. This Nasu won only the Best OVA award at the 2008 Tokyo Anime Awards. In the following years, Kosaka continued to work for both Studio Madhouse and Studio Ghibli including as a supervising animation director on Ponyo; as an animation director on the short film Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess, and the features From Up on Poppy Hill and The Wind Rises; as well as a key animator on Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There and Mamoru Hosada’s film The Boy and The Beast.
When I first discovered Kitaro Kosaka for myself, it was in preparation for a panel for an anime convention in which I introduced the guests to all of Studio Ghibli’s films not directed by Isao Takahata or Hayao Miyazaki: the founders of the studio. I continued by pointing out directors who could potentially carry on the Studio Ghibli aesthetic, Ghibli themes, or their attachment to traditional animation methods. Kosaka was one amongst this group that I mentioned, but since his last film as a director was, at that time, Nasu: A Migratory Bird with Suitcase, released ten years prior, and because he had only directed two OVAs and no feature-length animations, I had little real hopes that he would become a director in his own right. But now I am happy to report that he has completed a feature, entitled Okko’s Inn, and set to premiere this year (2018) at festivals worldwide alongside Mamoru Hosada’s new film Mirai of the Future. And if that double-bill, potentially the greatest since Miyazaki-Takahata released My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies together in 1988, isn’t something worth celebrating and getting excited about, then I don’t know what is!
There aren’t too many individuals who have worked for Studio Ghibli for the majority of their careers and also had the opportunity to direct films of their own. There are three people who directed a film for the Studio, but were never able to direct another one for one reason or other, and didn’t go on to direct much in the way of feature animations for other Studios: Tomomi Mochizuki (Ocean Waves), Hiroyuki Morita (The Cat Returns), and Yoshifumi Kondo (Whisper of the Heart). There is Hayao Miyazaki’s son Goro who has directed two features (Tales from Earthsea, From Up On Poppy Hill) for the Studio, as well as Ghibli’s first Television series (Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter), and is currently working on his third feature, which will eschew traditional 2-D animation for CGI (which is making people a little wary about the Studio’s future).
There’s the in-house talent of Hiromasa Yonebayashi who began his career at Ghibli, directed two films for the Studio (The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There), and has since moved on to co-found Studio Ponoc where he has already directed a very Ghibli-esque feature in Marnie and the Witch’s Flower, and is set to release an anthology film in the Summer of 2018. Then, there are just a handful of individuals who have worked as animators on Ghibli productions and then moved onto other Studios to direct. Individuals like Sunao Katabuchi and Kitaro Kosaka.
The career of the former of these two men I’ve covered in some detail over the past month. However, Kosaka is someone I’ve just learned about myself. He began his career as an artist in 1982 as an in-between and key animator on Isao Takahata’s pre-Ghibli feature Jarinko Chie (which is based upon a manga by Hayao Miyazaki). As a key animator since, he has committed his skills to legendary anime like Angel’s Egg, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnemaise, Akira, and Metropolis, as well as many a Ghibli feature in the decade from 1984-1994 including Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, and Pom Poko.
In 1995, Kosaka moved on from key animation to a role as animation director on Whisper of the Heart, then to supervising animation director in the following years on Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. And in 2003, all of this experience as an artist and as a supervising director for the animators on acclaimed Ghibli productions finally paid off. Kosaka has developed a fascination with a three-volume manga by Io Kuroda called Nasu, which Hayao Miyazaki had recommended to him. He optioned the idea of making the first volume of the manga into an OVA and eventually got the green light to produce one for Studio Madhouse, which coincidentally had a long working relationship with Studio Ghibli.
Furthermore, Kosaka managed to hire many other Studio Ghibli regulars and contemporaries to work as animators on his film. But most importantly, he snagged editor Takeshi Seyama for the Nasu project: a man who has edited almost every single Ghibli film and has a lot to do with constructing the animated material into a form that is cogent, emotionally gripping, and most importantly, characteristically Ghibli. The result is a film that is taut (only 47 minutes long), well-constructed, and beautifully animated within a tradition of Ghibli animation connected most closely to the visual style of Lupin III and Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.
The Nasu stories are slice of life comedies in the manga, which are not connected in any rational, geographic, or characterological manner. The one Kosaka latched onto for his film was the story of a Spanish cyclist named Pepe Benengeli who has worked very hard to develop his skills and become a professional. He and his brother, Angel, held a rivalry as youths, and as a teenager, it was Pepe’s older brother who was natural cyclist of the two. But he gave up cycling for business and later became a rich industrialist in their hometown in the Iberian region of Andalusia. Pepe continued cycling, joined the military, and biked his way through his service on their cycling team. But while he was gone, his young love, Carmen, fell in love with his brother and the two became betrothed.
Years later, Pepe is a struggling cyclist on the Italian Pao Pao Beer team. They haven’t had a win in some time and look to lose all funding and sponsorship if they don’t start winning. The team can only financially function into the first few months of next year as it is and really need to fight their hardest lest each individual cyclist on the team becomes unemployable and un-sponsorable as well. The next race is the Vuelta a Espana, which passes through Pepe’s hometown, coincidentally on the same day that Carmen and Angel are getting married. Pepe wants to win in his own town to represent the region well, but more importantly, to send a message to his brother and his past lover who left him. To show that his commitment to cycling wasn’t a waste.
Early into the event, Pepe conserves his energy by staying back with his teammates in formation. But after his fellow Pao Pao Beer rider, Gilmore, crashes and injures himself, and it is apparent that the other star cyclist on the team, Ciocci, is fatigued, he realizes that he must take the lead and try to hold it. Furthermore, in the team car, his manager and sponsors accidentally leave the com interface on when discussing potentially firing Pepe for not performing at the levels they desired during the races earlier that year. This spurs on Pepe to race as hard as he can and fight to stay in the lead for the entire race if need be. Something he narrowly accomplishes, but only after almost killing himself in the process. The sacrifice ends in his team getting some much-needed points to go on being competitive and allows Pepe to keep his sponsorship, his financial freedom, and his pride in performing so well in Andalusia, his home.
Nasu: A Summer in Andalusia was extremely well-received critically and won many animation awards at festivals within Japan. It was also the first anime to ever be selected for showing at the Cannes Film Festival in France: the most prestigious film festival on the planet. And as the film is something of a product of Ghibli methods, prestige, and personnel, it showed the world the critical power of Ghibli animation as an artistic force. A few years later, Kosaka would go on to create a sequel for the film, which I will confront in more detail next week. Till then.
[Next up: Nasu: A Migratory Bird with Suitcase]