Ribon No Kishi, The Alternate History of Animation

One of my favorite things to do with Youtube is to look up intro animations to old cartoon shows. I’ve been mesmerized by this opening of the 1960’s anime series Ribon No Kishi or “Princess Knight”. It was made by Tezuka Osamu as one of the first manga drawn exclusively for girls. The main character is Princess Sapphire, who must masquerade as a Prince in her own kingdom for political reasons. It combines elements of the Disney classic “Snow White” with elements from all-female musical revue from Tezuka’s hometown of Takarazuka.

Princess Knight exemplifies one of the reasons I got into anime in the first place. It’s taken a familiar style of story-telling and animation and instead of simply parodying or appropriating it, it takes an artistic “next step”. It’s got the elements of Snow White with the artistic style and cute animal sidekicks, but it also makes use of the story of a Princess raised as a boy to deal with themes of identity, gender, and justice. It’s like looking at a drop of water from a beautiful lake under a microscope and finding the whimsical zoo of tiny creatures inside.

As you look at Anime openings throughout the decades, you notice radical changes of style and technique. It begs the question as to where Western animation is going, if it’s going anywhere at all. At the center of this debate is Ren and Stimpy Creator John Kricfalusi, who carries a running commentary of the issues on his blog, Johnkstuff.blogspot.com.

According to Mr. Kricfalusi’s observations, with media production being centralized into a few key market share holders, there is a very fixed mindset about what makes a cartoon show sell. The business people want a consistent product that they can put into televison and feature-length movies, so they basically go with what sells.

This results in practices that force to artists to keep characters “on model”, limiting the ways that characters can be drawn, favoring a consistent look over an expressive character. Another trend is toward 3D Computer animation, in attempts to emulate the success of such films as “Toy Story” and “Shrek”. This seems to a very wrong-headed approach to creating saleable animation, because while it does try to repeat past successes, it removes the very process that created the success in the first place – Experimentation.

If there’s one thing that John K. demands from his animators, is that they take chances with the characters that they’re animating. This allows the characters to evolve, to take on a new look for every show they appear in. The Manga industry is the way it is because the artists worked very hard to define their industry outside of what is selling right now. In a constantly changing market like animation, you can’t be satisfied by set rules. The next big thing cannot be found if you don’t go out and look for it.

One thought on “Ribon No Kishi, The Alternate History of Animation

  1. Jon Strocel

    Your conclusion is very true, no matter what you are trying to do. The problem is the only way you can get experimentation is if the cost of failure is kept very low. With the extravagent modern marketing budgets of today, and the push for quarterly profits, it’s very hard to justify “trying things out”. I think the web and the low costs associated with the medium will go a long way towards changing that. But it won’t happen from the established companies.

    Just my .02

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