Always on the lookout for new and interesting media, I decided to check out Sengokuchojyugiga, a new series of five-minute shorts airing this season. The setup is that historical figures Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu are represented as different animals in various comical situations, through the use of sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) visual stylings. It looks nothing like anything else on television. And yet, it is very familiar.
Firstly, it is produced by ILCA, the same animation studio that brought us Yamishibai, a series of brief, weird horror stories. At least, that describes the content of the series, but the actual visuals in Yamishibai are something else. Yamishibai (literally, “dark drama performance”) is a word-play on kamishibai, the old tradition of street theater, where a performer would narrate and act out scenes in a story using illustrated cards to serve as visuals.
The children in the audience would then have to buy sweets and other treats to make sure the performer returns to continue the story. Yamishibai has an art style that harkened back to those days, simulating the hand-painted placards. This proved to be a worthwhile stepping stone for ILCA to simulate certain old art styles digitally.
Secondly, the writing. Sengokuchojyugiga is written by the same writers–Hiromu Kumamoto (also a writer on Yamishibai) and Ryoichi Tsuchiya–that brought us Sengoku Nabe TV. Sengoku Nabe TV is a variety show that used parodies of television tropes and settings to tell some crazy tales of sengoku jidai, the warring states period. It is an off-the-wall, tongue-in-cheek affair that displaces the popular warlords from their historical context and drops them into modern-day Tokyo–say, at kyabakura hostess bars.
But the third, and main, reason for the familiarity of this series is that there is an actual historical artifact called the “Choujuugiga” in real life. And not just any artifact: it is a famous national treasure. Some even claim that the roots of manga go back to these “animal scrolls,” as they are sometimes known. Thus, most people in Japan recognize its visuals instantly.
Manga artist Hiroshi Kurogane said in a recent interview that the Choujuugiga was not simply the roots of manga, it was the roots of animation itself. The visual narrative is played out through the very act of rolling the scrolls along. As you roll the story forward, you are rolling up what came before. In other words, there is an element of past, present and future. He describes the action as almost a rudimentary projection, where the scroll is the film being wound, and your eyes are the screen.
The result is an entertaining, almost magical, experience that one can enjoy with the wonder and excitement of a child’s mind. The frolicking animals, behaving like people, come to life before you as a crazy, comical stage performance. The scroll is a window into another world. Kurogane is not the only one to have made this observation: legendary anime director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) even wrote a whole book on the subject, entitled Animation of the 12th Century.
With all this in mind, consider then, the crazy, nonsensical content in the first episode of Sengokuchojyugiga. Oda Nobunaga (in bird form) finds a Portuguese gun, and looking for something or someone to shoot, leaves it up to the results of a rock-paper-scissors game between him, Toyotomi and Tokugawa (here a monkey and tanuki, respectively). With all these factors combined, Sengokuchoujuugiga is a satirical parody full of irreverent, subversive humor that suits the format and presentation perfectly.
Interestingly, there has already been a second season announced for 2017. There are four main scrolls that make up the Choujuugiga. This first series of the anime has the subtitle “Kou“–titled after the most iconic and popular of the four among the general public. The second series is entitled “Otsu,” the name for the second scroll.
However, the reason the first scroll is seen to be the one that is the most fantastical and humorous is because anthropomorphized animals do not actually appear in the second, “Otsu,” scroll, they are mostly in the first. In fact, the “Otsu” scroll features much more lifelike, realistic depictions of animals.
Instead of depicting the animals as bipedal humanoids, the “Otsu” scroll actually gradually introduces dragons and kirin (Japanese mythical creatures). Of course, it remains to be seen if the second season will feature these aspects of the scroll, or if it will just simply use the “Otsu” name and be a continuation of the adventures of Oda Nobunaga and his gang, in the current format.
These many elements form a unique comical experience in a very small package. Sengokuchojyugiga is much more than the sum of its parts.
Sengokuchojyugiga is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.