Thursday, September 11, 2008

Anime review: Toshiko Ueda's Fuichin-san

A review of the "Fuichin-san" anime, Grade: A

As I mentioned in a previous post, I visited the Suginami Animation Museum in Tokyo a couple of days ago, and as I was looking around, I met the director of Studio Ekura Animal, Toshiyuki Honda, and producer Hitomi Toyonaga. They were sitting in a room dedicated to an exhibit of Toshiko Ueda's manga art. Ueda was born in 1917 in Tokyo, but grew up in Manchuria. After WWII, she returned to Japan and began drawing manga based on her earlier experiences. One such manga, "Fuichin-san", revolves around a lively country girl named Fuichin, and her experiences in and around her town. "Fuichin-san" ran from 1957 to 1963. It's as much an example of what early shojo manga looked like in mid-century Japan as it is a window on the changing face of Manchuria at the beginning of the century (some of the characters are blond and blue-eyed from Russia, and a nearby river has steam boats in the port). Fuichin herself is lithe, cheerful, headstrong, and about half the height of all of the adults around her. The stories can take on a darker tone, but there's a lot of simple, everyday humor as well.

Toshiyuki Honda is a cheerful, helpful man about my age. He's been around in the anime industry and is currently running a small studio that draws the inbetween cels for other studios as kind of a job shop. His studio, Ekura Animal, worked on the latest Lupin III movie that came out in July - "Sweet, Lost Light" (I missed it because I didn't have access to a TV then). However, while Ekura Animal largely assists in the production process on other people's films, they do also tackle personal projects. One such project was the "Fuichin-san" movie, released theatrically in Japan in 2003.

Ekura Animal's 60-minute "Fuichin-san" is obviously a work of love, a tribute to Ueda's manga. The character designs have been cleaned up a little to make them easier to animate and are slightly modernized, but otherwise the flavor of the original has been maintained. The background artwork is highly detailed, looks historically accurate (I can't be sure though, because I don't know the architecture of that period) and is really attractive-looking. The animation is mostly smooth, although a couple shortcuts have been taken (nothing eye-jolting though). Some of the sightgags are obviously aimed at children, but the fight scene in the silk cloth warehouse was well-done and very funny. And I really liked the music, which has a strong "Chinese flavor" to it.

The story is simple: Fuichin's father works as a gate guard for a wealthy merchant. Fuichin herself is a go-getter shoe shine girl. She meets the merchant on the street, talks him into getting his shoes shined, and then refuses to accept a tip, or a reward for returning his dropped wallet. The merchant is impressed by the girl's carefree attitude and decides to ask her to be a friend to his son, Riichuu. Riichuu is a young boy (around 6 or 7) who is bullied by the friends his mother has picked for him, and is locked up in the house to study Russian and the piano, also at the orders of his domineering mother. Fuichin breaks through the boy's shell by demonstrating an ability to befriend his pet puppy and parakeet, but she stomps off after being insulted by the mother's friends. Riichuu then escapes the house to try to plead with Fuichin to come back, but is then kidnapped by beggars that want to sell the boy for some quick money.

My favorite part of the film was in the closing credits, where the film's artwork does a fade into a matching scene from Ueda's manga. The rest of the closing credits contains stills from Ueda's cover art, giving us a glimpse at Ueda's skills as an artist. I'm not sure if any of Ueda's manga is still in print, but I hope that it is.

Summary: Toshiko Ueda was one of the first women to enter the male-dominated manga field, and she helped form shojo manga as we know it today. "Fuichin-san" is largely unknown to western readers, and that's a shame because her works are funny and well-drawn. Studio Ekura Animal's "Fuichin-san" anime is an excellent recreation of Ueda's work, and deserves recognition for trying to bring "Fuichin-san" back to mainstream audiences. It's also a very good movie in its own right. I liked the "Fuichin-san" anime and I highly recommend it to all fans of manga and anime history.


Studio Ekura Animal
Helen McCarthy Article on the making of "Fuichin-san"
Ekura Animal information page on Ueda Toshiko
Cast list from the anime


(All artwork used here belong to their respective copyright holders, and is used solely for the purpose of reviewing the "Fuichin-san" movie.)

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