16 April 2008

Mitsuwa's Nanahon Hinoki

Nanahon Hinoki (七本ひのき/The Seven-Branched Cypress) is a wonderful short animation with an environmentalist theme. The film was made as part of TBS’s long-running Manga Nippon Mukashi-banashi (まんが日本昔はなし/ Japanese folk tale manga) series. The word ‘manga’ in English has come to mean Japanese comic books, but it is a word with a long history in Japanese culture and refers to the centuries old tradition of telling stories with pictures.

The series has been airing since 1975 on MBS (Mainichi Broadcasting System). It was later picked up by TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) who continues the weekly series. The primary aim of Manga Nippon Mukashi-banashi seems is to promote Japanese traditional forms of storytelling in a way that appeals to children. The stories also have a didactic element to them – teaching kids an important life lesson. The best things about this series and the NHK’s popular Minna no Uta (みんなのうた/ Everybody’s Song) programme is that they provide great opportunities for animators to get their work seen by millions of viewers.

The film first aired on the 1st of July, Heisei 1 (1989), but it has clearly shown more recently as copies of it with the time of airing in the corner have trickled onto the internet. It was directed by the skilled animation artist Takakeru Mitsuwa (三輪孝輝). Mitsuwa was responsible for a number of films in the Manga Nippon Mukashi-banashi series. He is perhaps best known for his contribution to Ozamu Tezuka’s work including for Pictures at an Exhibition (展覧会の絵, 1966) and Bagi, the Monster of Mighty Nature (大自然の魔獣 バギ, 1984).

Nanahon Hinoki tells the story of a great cypress tree in the mountains of Nara. An elderly man, whose vision is failing him, brings offerings to the sacred tree every day. Along comes a lumberjack who also admires the tree and sees the profit that could be made from cutting the tree down and carving it into furniture for a wealthy patron. The elderly man is appalled but helpless to do anything to stop the lumberjack. The lumberjack gathers together a group of local men who, despite knowing the tree’s sacred significance, allow greed to get the better of them and agree to help the lumberjack cut down the huge tree. They cannot finish their task in one day, but when they return the next day they discover that the tree has magically healed itself. The lumberjack refuses to give in so easily and continues to try to bring down the tree. I won’t give away the ending, but needless to say there is a moral to this story. To watch the film with English subtitles, click here. To watch it without subtitles, click here.

Watching Nanahon Hinoki, I wondered if Hayao Miyazaki had seen this animation or perhaps knew the fable before making Tonari no Totaro. Although the sacred tree in this film is a cypress (hinoki) not a camphor (kusunoki), it is still an interesting point of common ground. Of course, it is quite common to see trees revered as sacred throughout Japan. Meiji Jingu has a couple of very impressive examples such camphor trees. However, Nanahon Hinoki shares a certain kind of reverence for nature that one sees throughout the Studio Ghibli oeuvre. Particularly in Tonari no Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Pom Poko.