17 October 2013

The Kindly Lion (やさしいライオン, 1969)

Early Sunday morning, the legendary artist Takashi Yanase (やなせたかし, 1919-2013) passed away at the age of 94.  A man of diverse talents from poetry to illustration, Yanase is best known as the creator of the wildly popular animation and character franchise Anpanman.  As a tribute to Yanase I wanted to write about a lovely film he made in 1969 that has been little seen in the west: The Kindly Lion (やさしいライオン / Yasashii Raion).  

See also:  Yanase's Top 15 Animated Films from the Laputa 2003 poll.


The Kindly Lion is a “musical animation” adapted from a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Yanase.  According to the official Tezuka website, Osamu Tezuka initially planned to create an entire animated series from The Kindly Lion story for Mushi Pro, but in the end only one 27-minute film was ever completed.  The website gives the theatrical release date for the film as March 21, 1970; however, the film won the 8th Noburo Ofuji Award for 1969 at the 24th Mainich Film Concours, which suggests to me that the film may have screened at festivals in 1969 before getting a theatrical release in 1970.  The Concours is usually held in February (ie.1970) honouring films that were released the previous year (ie.1969).

The Story

Yanase tells a moving story of an orphaned baby lion called Buru-buru (ブルブル) – derived from the sound word for shaking or trembling.  He gets his name from the fact that he is racked with tears at the beginning of the story because he misses his parents and feels so terribly alone.  A friendly rabbit brings Buru-buru together with a friendly dog called Muku-muku (ムクムク) who is grieving the loss of her puppy.  Although it seems an unlikely pairing, the two quickly bond with Muku-muku even nursing the needy lion cub.  Buru-buru is so convinced when he grows up that Muku-muku is his mother that he is shocked one day when he sees his reflection in a puddle and realizes that he is not a dog.

Even when Buru-buru grows into a large lion whose size dwarfs Muku-muku, the two maintain a close mother-child bond until one day when Buru-buru is taken from the zoo where they live to perform in a circus.  Although he is not treated cruelly by the circus, he misses Muku-muku dreadfully.  One night, he is overcome with a desire to see her again and bursts free from his cage.  He reunites with his dog mother, only to be shot by soldiers because of fears for public safety.  The film does not end with tragedy however, for the spirit of Buru-buru continues running up into the heavens like a shooting star.

The Art

Buru-buru’s tale is carefully crafted with a motif of him running repeating throughout the film.  The story is told not only visually, but also with a voice-over dialogue between a mother and a child in the style of a bedtime story.  There is also a chorus throughout the film that acts as both a narrator and a way of increasing the drama.  The lyrics are all written by Yanase himself with the music composed by Toshi Ishobe and arranged and performed by Naohiko Terajima and his orchestra Rhythm Chansonette + Strings.   The chorus is performed by the Bonny Jacks (ボニージャックス), a quartet who formed in 1958 and are still performing today.  The actress and singer Chiharu Kuri performs the female solos including the “Lullaby of Buru-buru”. 

In my introduction I called the film a “musical animation” because the music is an inextricable element of the film, working in harmony from beginning to end with the animation.  Unlike the TV series Anpanman, which aims to entertain and has a definite production line quality about it, The Kindly Lion feels more like a labour of love.  Not only does the film demonstrate how one can love an adopted child/parent just as much as a biological one, but it also shows a love of craft by the animation artists involved in the project.  There are some truly beautiful sequences in The Kindly Lion.  Some of my favourites are the warmly coloured nursing sequence, the dynamic running through the sky over the rooftops sequence, the more roughly drawn circus sequences, and the elegiac winter scenes towards the end.  Even the end credits – a series of still pastel crayon images – are absolutely charming in their execution. 

Like many early classics of Japanese anime, I am really scratching my head about the fact that this film has never to my knowledge been officially released on DVD or for download for Western audiences.  Even in Japan the only DVDs I know of that include the film are long out of print.  With not only Yanase but Tezuka being affiliated with it, there would certainly be an audience for it online if the current copyright holders Tezuka Productions were to release it with subtitles.    

The Production Team

Executive Producer: Osamu Tezuka
Original story, direction, and art: Takashi Yanase
Production Chief: Atsushi Tomioka
Assistant: Jun Shimozaki
Planning Cooperation: Seihoku Production
Original picture and motion: Kanji Akabori, Kazuko Nakamura, Teruto Ueguchi, Akihiro Kanayama, Maya Matsuyama, Yoshiko Watanabe, Takeo Uchiumi, Hiroaki Yamamori
Background: Nobuko Ato, Kuniko Nishimura, Megumi Tanabe
Tracing: Masako Shimano
Coloring: Mariko Abe
Brushing: Tomoii Hashizume
Shooting: Akihiko Mori
Editing: Noriyoshi Matsuura
Film Developing: Toyo Developing Studio
Music: Toshi Ishobe
Lyrics: Takashi Yanase
Arranged by: Naohiko Terajima
Performed by: Naohiko Terajima and Rhythm Chansonette + Strings
Vocals: Bonny Jacks, Chiharu Kuri
Sound: Atsumi Tashiro (TAC)
Effects: Ishida Sound Group
Recording: Tokyo Studio Center

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013

This review belongs to my series on the Noburo Ofuji Award: