The 1980s and 1990s were the home of ‘original video animations’ (OVAs), which were just anime that went straight to DVD without any prior televised feature. Studios like Madhouse, AIC, J.C.Staff, and Magic Bus dominated the OVA ‘industry’, and while it was easier to produce these anime at that time than it is today (a whole issue regarding low pay, overwork, too little time, and so forth), but that doesn’t mean the OVA era didn’t have its fair share of unfortunate circumstances. So, this is the story of an episode of Bucchigiri.
The Origins of Bucchigiri
Yuu Nakahara debuted his Bucchigiri manga in Weekly Shounen Sunday in 1987, and it ended 125 chapters later in 1989. Despite its somewhat popular release in Japan (it did all 126 chapters compiled into 14 volumes), it’s not a series that the west really knows much about. In 1989, Nippon Animation began to animate a series of OVAs adapting parts of the manga– it would never be a full or totally faithful adaptation, but it was a piece of promotion for the manga.
The Bucchigiri anime is, of course, the topic of this article. The first three episodes of the series premiered between 1989 and 1990, but it underwent numerous main staff changes. In particular, the first two episodes were directed by Katsuyoshi Yatabe, the director of several niche (to the west) mecha series produced by Sunrise (such as Taiyou no Yuusha Fighbird (1991), the series that spawned the “Is this a bird?” meme), as well as the director of the later and much more well-known Boku no Pico (2006). For the third episode, he was replaced by Kouzou Kusuba, who was a chief director and director on the Doraemon franchise between 2005 and 2012. A number of other main staff changes occurred, but that’s just to give an example, and so the quality of each of the first three episodes varies, despite all being produced at Nippon Animation.
The real change came with the 4th episode released in 1991. Nippon Animation couldn’t, or simply decided not to, animate a 4th entry in the Bucchigiri OVA series. This particular episode was instead animated over at Artland, and directed by the studio’s founder: Noboru Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s projects are usually known to be of high quality, after all, he chief directed not only Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988-2000) for more than a decade, but he also had success on series like Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982; otherwise known as ROBOTECH: The Macross Saga). Personally, I find Ishiguro’s works to be well-put together, even when his adaptations aren’t the best, I still find them to be pretty alright in terms of direction, for example, Tytania (2008-2009; chief directed by Kouji Itou).
Bucchigiri episode 4, however, isn’t that. In fact, Ishiguro wasn’t all that hands-on with the work: he’s credited as the “kantoku” (監督; the main director), but he wasn’t responsible for the storyboards, nor was he the “episode” director. Former Nippon Animation and now retired Artland director Shinya Hanai, however, is credited for both.
Hanai isn’t someone most fans of anime will ever hear about. His only two projects as a main director are the final episode of Gall Force: The Revolution (1997), and the final 7 episodes (the Russia arc) of Yugo the Negotiator (2004). Besides that, most of his work is as an episode director or storyboard artist across numerous titles in the 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, such as Initial D (1998), Hellsing (2000), and what is probably his final work before retirement in the industry: Girls Bravo Second Season (2005). So, it’s not like Hanai is a bad director, either: I personally don’t think he’s amazing, but he’s not bad from the works I’ve watched of his.
Character designs and animation direction were also handled by Masao Nakada, who worked on a lot of niche 90s titles like Locke the Superhuman: Lordleon (1989) and Arslan Senki episode 2 (1991), so it’s not like he was bad or inexperienced either.
The Frazier Files
Where, then, do the issues with this episode of Bucchigiri come into play? For the answer to that, we have to look at one of the most well-known industry individuals of the 90s… that a lot of people in 2021 probably haven’t heard of. That person is Jan-Scott Frazier, one of the first Americans (or Westerners in general) to work in the anime industry and be recognized to a significant capacity. Frazier no longer works in the industry, she quit in the early 2000s, but her career spans 13 years and multiple jobs: an in-between animator, a painter, a production manager, a background artist, and even an episode director. Her career also stems from multiple studios, including Artland itself, background art studio Atelier Bwca, Production I.G, and a handful of other sub-contracting studios.
At the time of Bucchigiri 4’s production, though, she worked for Artland. In a number of interviews with her, Frazier has called Bucchigiri 4 to be the absolute worst anime she’s ever worked on and ultimately asked not to be credited for her work in the ending credits. Albeit, this is not the first time she’d do so, as a majority of her career credits appear to be uncredited, and confirmed only later through her or third-party sources associated with her.
Frazier reminisces in these interviews (one that can be found on a web archive from ex.org) that it was basically a production done for the money: they weren’t given ample time, they weren’t given an ample budget, and ultimately a large portion of the production was outsourced to South Korea.
South Korea is a bit infamous for having factory-like workplaces when it comes to animation. Everyone talks about how the Japanese industry is like that, but so is the Korean industry. In fact, Korea is probably even more overworked, because they’re not paid much, they’re given the scraps that the Japanese industry isn’t able to finish in time, and most of them aren’t trained enough to do a lot of good work (plus, you know, overwork). That’s the main reason Studio Mir, the studio behind The Legend of Korra and Big Fish & Begonia (the Chinese film), exists– JM Animation, the former employer of Yoo Jae Myung and one of the three animation studios behind Avatar: The Last Airbender, was overworking its staff, so Myung quit and founded Mir with some other ex-staff.
But, this is the 90s, and the entire animation process isn’t happening over in Korea like it did with Avatar or Korra. So first, let’s talk about 仕上. This is a word that translates to “finishing”, and that’s what most websites will refer to it as, but what it really means is “painting”, because it refers to the ‘painting’ or ‘coloring’ process of the animation production pipeline. So, the Korean subcontractors were not very good at their job, which was mostly drawing cels, and neither were the domestic (Japanese) subcontractors– they each had a number of issues that were uncorrectable, so the staff of Artland (including Frazier) would just paint over the mistakes in ‘creative’ ways. Not to mention that the number of cels they were using, that’s the number of drawings they had to produce the episode, was far lower than usual. Usually, the production and animation staff don’t do this, but Artland, at the time, was so short on staff, they ended up doing the painting too. She describes that working with apes would have been easier and more worthwhile, and here’s a funny quote regarding that: “‘Ape has killed ape!’ ZAP! ‘Ape will paint cel or ape will get cattle prod again!’”
Frazier and the rest of the Artland team also found that the camera work was far below average, like having too much jittery and choppy movement, but they couldn’t correct it because they had no time to. They also couldn’t correct when the wrong backgrounds were used, and instead went along with it saying “None of the viewers will know.”
Overall, she describes the background art itself to be bad, and that the drawing quality (for key animation, not backgrounds) was just average, and the whole episode’s musical selection was uninteresting. For an Ishiguro/Hanai anime, very unimpressive overall. But, that blame doesn’t lie on Ishiguro or Hanai, because Frazier says that the production manager “went out of his way to go to the absolute cheapest place possible” in regards to the Korean outsourcing and that the chief producer would usually say something like “as long as it gets done on time [it sucking is] OK.” The actual staff responsible for making the series, of course, hated it.
When production on the series ended, and all of the shooting of all of the scenes was over, the staff took Hanai’s storyboards and burned them in the parking lot of a Red Lobster at 3 AM.
Featured image: Reborn!, ©Akira Amano/SHUEISHA/TV TOKYO/Reborn Production Committee