Japanese puppet mistress divulges animation secrets

Fumiko Magari poses with two of her creations for the character Clara of the puppet animation film “Kurumiwari Ningyo” (The Nutcracker).

Puppet animator Fumiko Magari is the grand dame of the country's three-dimensional animation industry, having led the field for decades. Even those who do not recognise her name have almost surely seen at least one of her creations on TV or in movies.

For TV commercials, she created such characters as Mr. Contac for a cold medicine and the Docomo-dake mushroom-like character for NTT Docomo. In film, she created anime parts for "Teito Monogatari" (The tale of the Imperial capital) and "Kujaku-o" (Spirit warrior). Magari has worked in a wide variety of fields, with all of her characters impressive enough to stand the test of time in the public imagination.

During her career of 55 years as an animation creator, including her stint as a part-time designer, she has worked on more than 1,000 TV commercials.

The roots of her creativity as a puppet animator date back to her childhood.

Magari was born in 1936 in Okayama Prefecture. It was through the sacred kagura music and dance as well as performances by a local village troupe that she was first inspired by the magic of bringing objects to life.

"Here comes the omikoshi float, and the shishimai lion dance performer opens its mouth and bites your head. Dances, plays and manzai comic performances cheer people up. It was so fun that I seriously thought about following the people of the troupe," she said.

She was just 4 or 5 years old and was still playing with dolls. Yet, she already grasped the essence of festivals. "I thought the power of festivals was the power to involve the audience," she said.

When the kagura dance was performed overnight, Magari's teacher also enjoyed the show. As a result, the class started around noon the next day. The free atmosphere of the festival permeated Magari to her very bones.

Given her passion for playing with children, Magari intended to become a primary school teacher and enrolled in Tokyo Gaku-gei University, a school specialising in education.

But she soon found herself gravitating toward a student club on children's culture. "I attended only the first part of lectures. When the lecturer called the roll, I responded and soon sneaked out of the room from the window. Then I absorbed myself in productions at the club room. This made me realise I should not become a teacher," she said. She also became a member of the theatre club, manipulating puppets and also doing performances herself.

But her turning point came when she encountered Tadahito Mochinaga (1919-1999), who is considered the founder of three-dimensional anime in the country. Magari was given a chance to help create his work as a design assistant.

"I walked up to the second floor of a shabby wooden building and opened the door," Magari said, recalling the unforgettable day. "There, I saw a cute house surrounded by small palm trees in the bright light, and a tiny fox puppet, probably less than 10 centimeters long, running around like a real creature. I was stunned by the superb level of expression."

It was the set for the 1959 film "O-sama ni Natta Kitsune" (A fox that turned the king). Completely overwhelmed, Magari asked Mochinaga not to forget to call her whenever he needed help.

Two years later, she was finally invited by Mochinaga to join the team working on an American TV programme called "The New Adventures of Pinocchio," whose production was commissioned to the Japanese production team. Magari was asked to direct the movement of a cricket, a character that helps Pinocchio.

"I couldn't sleep and was constantly thinking about things like, 'Should I move the leg first or the arm first when turning [the puppet] that way," she said.

In TV work, it is necessary to shoot 30 frames to produce just one second worth motion.

"Every movement has a meaning, and must be necessary," she said. As such, when she instructs junior members, Magari reminds them of the same thing: "You should never forget to inscribe your emotions, such as anger, sorrow, joy as well as love and hatred between individual frames."

Among Magari's works, many people were struck by a scene in "Teito Mono-gatari," where a sheet of paper turns into a mysterious bird and flies away.

Technically, this is supposed to be a highly difficult scene. But she said she struck upon the idea immediately after she received the offer for the work.

"I thought right away I could do it," she said. "This is probably because I had experienced so many different productions and accumulated many ideas. That must be why I was so convinced."

She prefers shooting frames one by one rather than using computer graphics.

"I sometimes use CG, too, but I can't feel bodily smells and sweat [in CG works]. As I'm attracted to the power of physical things, I tend to choose manual work," she said.

Despite helping numerous people produce TV commercials and films for more than 50 years, Magari has still not lost her passion for her job.

"I still have a lot of energy left," Magari said.