Image source: NHK on YouTube

Japanese public broadcaster NHK is currently on a roll with its lineup of animated programming and also shows about animation, what with their recent features on the status of the anime industry and the history of anime.

But they have also moved into somewhat unusual territory this year, by starting a series of documentaries which blend live-action interviews with animated recreations of real life events, under the title of “Eikou-naki Tensai-tachi” kara no Monogatari. The project is based on the long-running manga Eikou-naki Tensai-tachi. It is centered on the concept that there are some public figures who are fascinating for their accomplishments, yet for some reason or another, have not enjoyed mainstream recognition and instead reside in the annals and footnotes of the history books. This is an opportunity to tell their story and re-examine their influence. The title, then, is roughly translated as “The Geniuses without Glory,” that is to say, “unsung heroes,” to use a more common phrase.

While the show is not a weekly series, with only two episodes aired so far, it is certainly captivating, and at just under 50 minutes, has more than enough depth in content to give you a sense that you learned something.

Takayoshi Yoshioka

The second episode, aired fairly recently, is about Takayoshi Yoshioka, an early 20th Century 100m sprint athlete, who jointly held the world record of 10.3 seconds. He earned the nickname, “Akatsuki no choutokkyuu,” or “the Dawn Express,” as a subversion of famed U.S. runner Thomas Edward “Eddie” Tolan’s “Midnight Express” moniker.

A lack of archival footage means that a lot of the story is told through dramatic reenactments using the medium of animation. But it is also intercut with live-action interviews, mostly with Ryota Yamagata, who was very influenced by Yoshioka.

You can see Yamagata in action here.

The show cleverly juxtaposes both Yamagata’s contemporary story with the early Showa period legend of Yoshioka. Their common goal is to be the first Japanese person to break the ten-second barrier and make history.

One particular scene which made ample use of its animated format was the scene where Yoshioka is running and sees a version of himself in front of him on the track, heading towards the finish line. He thinks to himself, that is his ideal self, visualized and personified. So the sequence wraps up with him catching up and merging with his idealized incarnation.

The pressure that Yoshioka felt to constantly do better and achieve the seemingly-impossible—break the ten-second barrier—was relieved once the plans for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics fell through. He was now running just for fun. He didn’t have to worry about the restrictive notions of running for his country, running for pride, or running for a record.

But, on the other hand, today, Yamagata is still bound by these things. Asked why he runs, Yamagata appeared slightly at a loss to answer. He explained that, as a child, winning races and getting medals was something that made his family happy, so from an early stage he had understood it as something to give others happiness.

Ryota Yamagata

Within the animated sections, too, the view of Yoshioka held by the people around him, described his running as very inspirational to the people of Japan. Similar to Yoshioka, then, Yamagata said that he eventually came to enjoy running for himself, and that his very essence, his reason for being, was simply to run. It was his identity.

The program ends with the somewhat visionary notion that breaking the ten-second barrier, and getting a final time in the nine-second range is just a matter of time (no pun intended!), and may happen sooner rather than later. At that point, what future awaits runners in Japan? It urges us to look just beyond the horizon, to what the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics may bring.

This style of animated documentary is rather rare, but not completely unprecedented. Manga based on real-life people and historical events are a very large category within the medium, even if perhaps few of those examples have made the transition to animation.

In most cases, there is a necessity for such kind of content to be presented using this medium, because of a lack of resources and materials available from the time in question.

In particular, there is a lack of visual media—within the world of sports, photographs, unfortunately, only tell part of the story. The most important element to be visually portrayed here in the case of the story of Yoshioka is his characteristic running style. Specifically, we can see his “low start.” An entire section of the documentary is devoted to how he developed, completely by himself, a unique starting-off style where he keeps his torso at a low angle close to the ground, in order to reach his maximum speed in as short time as possible. This was known as the “rocket start,” and Yoshioka would continue to refine this throughout his career. It is important to mention here because it is probably the key element that gives justification for the usage of animation to tell his story.

Naoto Tajima, Takayoshi Yoshioka, Ikuko Yoda

Past examples of animated documentaries include international co-productions like Pattenrai! and Ketsudan (“Decision”). The former was a co-production with Taiwan about waterway infrastructure developments during the colonial days of Japan’s history, while the second is a series of very detailed accounts of World War II Japan, advertised as an “Animentary.” And still many more such projects can be found, a lot of which have been funded by the Japanese Government for educational purposes.

It is fascinating to see how versatile the animation medium is in Japan, and I urge readers to look beyond the big titles from time to time and see some hidden gems, because they are genuine insights into Japanese society.

“Eikou-naki Tensai-tachi” kara no Monogatari is not currently available in English. However, Yamagata’s own summary of the program, with stills, can be found here.

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