It was 15 years in the pipeline, but "Gamba: Gamba to Nakama-tachi" (Gamba and his companions), the latest 3-D CG anime film from production house Shirogumi Inc., is finally playing to theaters nationwide.
The film is based on a classic children's book about the adventures of a family of mice. An animated TV series adaptation that aired in 1975 proved hugely popular.
"We aimed at making a straightforward form of entertainment that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike," chief director Yoichi Ogawa said.
The project got off the drawing board in 2000 after Shirogumi, which had been making TV ads and CGI sequences for video games, was inspired by "Toy Story," the world's first CG animated full-length film released in 1995. The company decided to move into making movies.
Shirogumi is now known for hit 3-D CGI anime movie "Stand By Me Doraemon" and other works.
An initial version of "Gamba" was completed in 2012. But it was given a fresh start after Avi Arad, a Hollywood producer behind "Iron Man" and other works, joined the team. Arad took charge of re-editing and music supervision.
The original book, "Bokenshatachi: Ganba to Jugo hiki no Nakama" (The adventurers: Gamba and his 15 companions), was written by Atsuo Saito.
"We were searching for adventure and fantasy stories in Japanese children's literature," Ogawa said. "The book was quite perfect because when it comes to making CGI characters, it is easier to create animals than humans."
The story centers around Gamba, a city mouse with a strong sense of justice, who boards a ship with sailor mice after he learns at a port about the plight of island mice. The mice are teetering on the verge of extinction because of a group of weasels led by a brutal white weasel named Noroi. Gamba and his companions rise to the challenge to defeat their mighty foe with the help of streaked shearwaters.
"Because of a request from the author, Noroi was designed to look not only scary but also beautiful and graceful," Ogawa continued. "The mice were given a more orthodox design in keeping with the taste of Japanese traditional hand-drawn animation. But because they walk on two legs, run on four and even sit cross-legged, it was difficult to create CGI models flexibly accommodating such needs."
The mice's plan to tactfully intercept the weasels as they hole up in a fort is similar to Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai."
"CGI has more information content than hand-drawn (animation), which increases the reality of the imagery. To correspond to it, we must use logic to come up with ideas on how the mice can fight the weasels," Ogawa explained.
When it comes to CGI animal characters, Hollywood goes to great lengths to achieve the hairy texture of animal fur. But for "Gamba," the production took a different strategy.
"From the early planning stages, we thought we should put more efforts in showing good facial expressions and actions than in recreating the texture of fur, which is extremely difficult to do," the chief director said.
"Rendering techniques vying for precision can become outdated soon as technologies advance, but good facial expressions and actions will remain good even after 10 years. It is shown in the classic Disney movies."