There’s a strange beauty to cityscapes that we often ignore. From the residential alleyways where foot traffic is foreign, to the abandoned buildings that once teemed with life and industry — we often overlook the hidden histories of these spaces. Something as simple as a street corner rarely checks in your mind. An animated work like Tales of a Street Corner reminds us to consider these spaces for their everyday nuances and beauty, and only the legend Osamu Tezuka and his animation company could have brought this reminder.
The film depicts the goings-on of living and non-living residents of a single street corner. A little girl longing for her lost bear, a curious mouse, a hoodlum moth, and posters lining a wall are just some of the denizens whose lives we get insight into, accompanied by lively music and bright colors. The film eventually reveals its thematic heft as fascist propaganda posters are added, taking up the entire street corner wall. Tales ends itself off with the implied war catching up with the street corner as it is obliterated by a bomb blast. All that remains is the little girl walking amongst the ruins, now reunited with her lost bear.
Released in 1962 and animated by Mushi Production, it was the first of two theatrical shorts the company produced. Though Tezuka worked in animation before at Toei Doga and saw his work Journey to the West brought to life, he did not like the experience, citing that the final product did not live up to his expectations. Coupled with underpaid animators looking for an alternate place of work, Tezuka opened Mushi Productions on the grounds of his manga studio, hiring animators from Toei Doga to work on experimental animations.
Tales certainly has the feel of a first animated short from a fresh studio, but that is in no way a bad thing. The movements of characters is limited with brief spurs of fluid animation, chiefly in the mice, moth, and balloon salesman characters. It is a work that sells you on atmosphere and charm, though that can work against it at times. The poster segments do go on a bit too long, with quick gags set to a repetitive leitmotif that sounds like a broken calliope after too long.
Some of this cheapness can be attributed to the production philosophy of the studio when it first started. Helen McCarthy wrote in The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga that the studio was learning from Hannah-Barbera making The Flintstones at the time on how to produce cheaper animation. “Tezuka knew that for Japanese animation to succeed on TV, it would have to compete with other programming on price,” she wrote on the studio’s approach to Astro Boy, produced after the release of Tales. “He offered to produce Astro Boy at 500,000 yen per episode, making it a loss leader for an entire new industry.” While this would lead to revolution in how animation would be produced for Japanese television, this was somewhat at odds with the artful and slow approach of the short film.
The short is nothing if not artful though, itself being rooted in animation techniques Tezuka and his team borrowed from movements across the world. Its simplistic use of geometric shapes to convey human form brings to mind many European cartoons from the time period, but the DNA of the short can also be found in UPA cartoons by John Hubley. Simple colors and geometric design help breathe life into the short, and thanks to director Eiichi Yamamoto and the animation crew, the limited movements of the characters carry just enough of the film’s appeal.
Sadness is also at the center of Tales underneath all the whimsy. Small moments such as the swaying tree whose seeds find no earth to take root in and the sagging of its leaves help humanize the subject in the film. The little girl losing her balloon and the musician posters getting separated by the fascist propaganda remind us of how quickly the status quo can change in such small spaces. It’s this balance between wonder and melancholy that drives the film forward.
But what stuck this short film in my brain was its final ten minutes, for it is when Tales of a Street Corner becomes an anti-war piece. The propaganda posters become too numerous as they cover all other posters, commanding even respect from the moth that flits about the street. The lights and sounds of nearby bombs drive the little girl and her family away as a literal fog of war rolls in. It comes to a crescendo as a bomb falls and decimates the street corner, obliterating the child’s house and scuttling the other residents.
When the dust settles the stuffed bear is found amongst the rubble, reclaimed by the little girl who remains safe and walks away from the destruction. One last glimpse of hope however resides in the seeds of the tree finally resting in the blasted earth and sprouting. Tezuka retained anti-war sentiments for most his life and Tales epitomizes this sentiment with a somber yet hopeful end.
Tales of a Street Corner often gets overlooked in the oeuvre of Osamu Tezuka due to it being produced right at the beginning of Mushi Production as it was screened only to a small group of people. The company’s more famous work Astro Boy would debut right on New Year’s Day of the next year, beginning a saga of animation work for Mushi that would reshape the landscape of TV and film. Works such as Kimba the White Lion, Cleopatra, and Ashita no Joe are only a handful of classics to come out after; and since it is the season it pleases me to remind readers that Mushi Production also worked on the classic Rankin/Bass special Frosty the Snowman as a commission.
Tales deserves to be remembered and respected like all the rest of Tezuka’s works. It represents the artistry that he wanted to grasp onto as he left Toei, along with his hopes for the future of the burgeoning studio. Though it might come up short in some of its ambitions, it is a fascinating glimpse into where Japanese animation was at the time and what promise Mushi Production held. It is an admirable look into the artistic ethos that Tezuka and his animators wanted to bring to the world, and what beauty they would bring to the public right around the corner.