There are few things that so completely encapsulate classic Americana like the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials. The sight of stop-motion reindeer singing about how they don’t fit in and various Santas played by classic Hollywood actors occupy a part of the American psyche associated with warm blankets and hot drinks. And on the surface it’s as American as it can be, down to the fact that the specials were originally created to help sell appliances for General Electric. So why in the world am I discussing it on OTAQUEST? Is Frosty the Snowman technically anime or something? Yes, actually. Sort of. The details are often overlooked, but the production of the early Rankin/Bass Christmas specials represents some of the earliest incursion of Japanese animation in the United States.
To start somewhere near the beginning, Arthur Rankin Jr, an art director for ABC, formed VideoCraft with Jules Bass, another director and producer, in 1955 and began making animated commercials. Eventually Rankin and Bass were introduced to Tadahito Mochinaga of MOM Productions, and there are differing accounts as to how that happened. Rankin claims that a member of a Japanese trade delegation had asked a contact in the American government where to find an ‘animation expert’, and the contact led him to Rankin. This delegate liked what Rankin was doing with VideoCraft and invited him to Japan in 1958. However, according to Mochinaga, he was approached by Rankin, who was interested in the stop-motion he was doing.
Tadahito Mochinaga had developed this form of animation while working in China during WWII and its occupation by Japan. While mostly working in traditional animation, he had to resort to using puppets due to rationing constraints. His first stop-motion film was a propaganda film in 1947, where he illustrated Chiang Kai-Shek of China’s dependence on the West by literally making her into a puppet. He wouldn’t work with puppets again until 1955, two years after he moved back to Japan. There, he worked on commercials until he established the Puppet Animation Film Studio in Tokyo, where he and his team created short films using the techniques he had pioneered in China.
Regardless, in 1958 Arthur Rankin took a tour of various Japanese animation studios, including Toei, then known as Toei Doga. Coincidentally, this was around the time that Toei was working on Hakujaden (or Tale of the White Serpent) which would be the first anime made in color. Between 1958 and 1960 Mochinaga formed MOM Productions, and Rankin went with them to produce The New Adventures of Pinocchio, a 130-episode series that ran between 1960 and 1961 in America, and 1963 and 1964 in Japan.
The relationship between VideoCraft and Japanese animators would go on to define the company well into the Rankin/Bass years. According to a former associate producer, Basil Cox, there weren’t too many established workers at the company, and most of their animation was produced by outsourcing work overseas, especially their Christmas specials, which were handled by Japanese studios.
Such was the case with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which premiered in 1964 as part of the General Electric Fantasy Hour. While the animation was done in Japan with Japanese laborers, most of the voice work was done by Canadian voice actors with the exception of American singer Burl Ives (interestingly, the triad of American producers working with Japanese animation and Canadian voice actors would prove to be a prescient combination, as many of the early anime series that found their way into America would be produced this way). A team of Japanese laborers worked on the puppets, led by Mochinaga and his assistant and puppet-maker Ichiro Komura. The MOM team took great care to produce this animation, wearing white gloves at all times when handling the puppets, and Mochinaga even went to visit Nara Park’s famous deer with his assistant Hiroshi Tabata in order to study their movements in preparation for the production.
VideoCraft wouldn’t return to stop-motion holiday specials until 1968 with Little Drummer Boy, by which time they officially renamed the company Rankin/Bass. Also by this time Tadahito Mochinaga had left MOM Production, leaving it in the hands of his assistants. Hiroshi Tabata would serve as production supervisor on Drummer Boy, uncredited, along with Takeo Nakamura, who was also uncredited for that and for cinematography/directing. The Japanese team remaining largely uncredited in Rankin/Bass productions would become somewhat of a theme going forward. MOM Production worked on every stop-motion animation or AniMagic special, until they eventually changed their name to Tokyo Video Production.
But while Rankin/Bass is known for their stop-motion holiday specials, they’ve also made classic holiday specials in traditional animation. For these they also contracted various Japanese studios for their production, and many of them would go on to be highly influential studios in the development of anime. Among these was TCJ, or Television Corporation of Japan (Also sometimes ‘Tele-Cartoon Japan’), which worked on 1967’s Cricket on the Hearth, an adaptation of a Charles Dickens story.
Like with previous specials, the Japanese team remains largely uncredited, with the exception of Jiro Yanase as the animation producer. This would make sense as Yanase was the president of the company at the time, having no relation to the notable imported car mogul of the same name. Two years later, in 1969, TCJ would change their name to Eiken and work more directly in anime instead of commercials as they were doing previously. Eiken would produce shows like 8th Man (8 Man), and Gigantor (Tetsujin 28-go). Eiken was also notably one of the last companies to continue using traditional cel animation in its animated TV series, with its show Sazae-san being the last real holdout in 2007. More recently that company has worked on Akudama Drive and the Inuyasha sequel, Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon.
By far one of the most popular Rankin/Bass 2D animated productions was Frosty the Snowman. According to Rick Goldschmidt, a noted Rankin/Bass biographer and historian, Rankin and Bass wanted the animation to resemble a holiday greeting card. To do this, they worked with Paul Coker Jr, a noted cartoonist who was working with MAD Magazine and had collaborated on several Rankin/Bass productions already. But for the animation, Rankin/Bass contracted Mushi Productions, the animation studio headed by none other than Osamu Tezuka himself.
For those unaware, Tezuka is considered by many to be the Godfather of Manga, having brought to life many properties now considered to be classics, including Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Black Jack among others. Tezuka and Mushi also pushed the boundaries of anime, envisioning it as a medium that could take on darker topics through Tezuka’s adaptation of his Phoenix saga and films like Belladonna of Sadness. This drive to innovate would define and plague Mushi, as Tezuka seemed to have a habit of bringing on more than the studio could handle. It’s somewhat inferred that this was the reason they took on work from Rankin/Bass, in an attempt to stabilize the company.
Tezuka himself didn’t have a direct hand in the production of Frosty the Snowman, as he had left the company in 1968 to found Tezuka Productions and the special was released in 1969, but it was still helmed by some legendary anime creators. Yusaku Nakagawa is credited as the animation supervisor, but credited as Steve Nakagawa. Nakagawa was a fairly prolific animator who had worked at Disney and Hanna-Barbera among other American animation studios, and was often credited as ‘Steve’. Uncredited on the production were Sadao Miyamoto, Akio Sugino, and Osamu Dezaki. Dezaki in particular would go on to direct the next year with the release of the Ashita no Joe anime adaptation for television, and would direct the animated feature film, and the anime series and features for Ashita no Joe 2. Dezaki would also work on series like Space Adventure Cobra, Black Jack, as well as features for Black Jack and Cobra, as well as Lupin the Third, Belladonna of Sadness, and even a few Hamtaro movies. Dezaki would also later go on to found Studio Madhouse along with Masao Maruyama, Rintaro (Shigeyuki Hayashi), and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Dezaki and Sugino would work together on many other Mushi productions, with Sugino largely serving as a character designer for series like Cobra, Cat’s Eye, and Golgo 13. Miyamoto would go on to work at Sanrio, found Raku-Kobu, and then go to work for Disney Animation.
Mushi and Rankin/Bass worked together on other features and shows as time went on, with next year seeing them collaborate on The Mad, Mad Mad Comedians and the series The Reluctant Dragon & Mr. Toad Show. Mushi’s financial troubles finally caught up with them in 1973 when the studio declared bankruptcy, but a new Mushi was founded in 1977 and is still operating today, mostly providing additional production work to other series.
Another one of Rankin/Bass’ Japanese partners that would prove very influential was Topcraft. Topcraft was founded in the early 70s by a group of former employees of Toei Doga (Whom Rankin/Bass had worked with already by this time), and would become known for producing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, then later becoming Studio Ghibli.
But before that, Topcraft and Rankin/Bass collaborated on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, an adaptation of the classic poem. Topcraft provided what animation historians describe as ‘full service’ for Rankin/Bass’ productions, though Paul Coker Jr. provided the character design for this particular half-hour feature as well. There were two animators specifically credited, Topcraft Founder and former Toei producer Toru Hara and future founder of Studio Pierrot, Tsuguyuki Kubo. Both were credited as animators, but IMDb lists several others in various animation roles, including storyboard artists and technical directors. These animators would go on to contribute to everything from classic anime like Nausicaä, Urusei Yatsura, Genesis Climber MOSPEADA, Lupin the Third, Dragonball, Dragonball Z, all the way up to modern anime like One Punch Man and Steins;Gate.
Topcraft would continue working with Rankin/Bass up until 1985, when it dissolved and split into Studio Ghibli and the Pacific Animation Corporation. Until that point, the two companies collaborated on several productions, including Frosty’s Winter Wonderland in 1976 and an adaptation of the somewhat little-known musical of the same name, The Stingiest Man in Town in 1978. Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, a sequel to the Mushi Prod version in 1969, is notable for featuring far more of the Japanese animators in the on-screen production credits than in the past. Toru Hara and Tsuguyuki Kubo are credited simply as ‘animation’, but also features Kazuyuki Kobayashi (Who would also be credited as Ikko Kobayashi on The Stingiest Man in Town) and Minoru Nishida as key animation and background animation, respectively. Despite this there were several animators that remained uncredited, including Katsuhisu Yamada, who worked as animation director on both Frosty’s Winter Wonderland and The Stingiest Man in Town.
The Stingiest Man in Town was an interesting case, as not only was it broadcast in America, it was also broadcast in Japan as Machi Ichiban no Kechinbo. Because of this, it’s described as anime in some circles, but mostly by me to anyone who will listen.
While Topcraft certainly contributed to Rankin/Bass’ holiday library, it was also responsible for some of their most major features, including their adaptation of The Last Unicorn in 1982, The Hobbit in 1977, as well as their adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 1980, which was titled The Return of the King. Topcraft was also somewhat responsible for a number of popular series produced by Rankin/Bass, among the most notable being Silverhawks and Thundercats. Technically, these shows were produced by Pacific Animation Corporation, by Pacific Animation was also made up of many animators from Topcraft after the company split in 1985.
Another major Japanese animation company linked to Rankin/Bass was none other than Toei itself. Known then as Toei Doga, it was one of the studios Arthur Rankin visited when he first went to Japan and compared it to Disney Studios at the time. While Toei didn’t contribute to any classic Rankin/Bass Christmas fare, they did collaborate on a 1968 Thanksgiving special known as The Mouse on the Mayflower. Interestingly enough, while none of the productions made with Topcraft ever brought the talents of Hayao Miyazaki to a Rankin/Bass special (Mostly because Miyazaki had nothing to do with Topcraft until Nausicaä), The Mouse on the Mayflower features none other than Miyazaki himself as a key animator on the production, uncredited of course. Between 1963 and 1971 Miyazaki worked for Toei as an in-betweener (someone who works on key animation frames) and was apparently assigned to work on Rankin and Bass’ retelling of the first Thanksgiving.
Toei also had a hand in series like The Smokey Bear Show and The King Kong Show, the latter of which was a personal passion project of Arthur Rankin.
The history of anime in the West is a bit of a winding one and is usually marked by TV broadcasters and producers looking to make a buck or two. Most of those familiar with the medium’s journey track anime’s arrival along international broadcasts of Speed Racer and imported VHS tapes of Gundam, but an overlooked aspect of anime’s proliferation lies in one of the most treasured pieces of Americana. Rankin/Bass specials, especially their AniMagic stop-motion specials, have been referenced and spoofed in films and TV so much they’re not only synonymous with the Christmas season, they’re synonymous with classic American animation. It’s interesting, then, that the stop-motion was pioneered by a Japanese animator, and subsequent features were produced by Japanese studios and companies. Not only that, many of these companies would go on to produce or otherwise work on properties that would become classics in the annals of anime history. It’s fascinating to look at the ways that Japanese culture and animation techniques have already influenced Western animation and media in the past, especially when they continue to do so now stronger than ever.