Frogman’s unique slant on politics

Mixing wacky with weird, do-it-all animator wins himself an international audience

by Natsuko Fukue

Animator Ryo Ono, a 37-year-old Tokyo native, achieved his dream of making films by changing his career as a movie production assistant.

Despite his late start as an animator in 2004, his first movie, “Eagle Talon The Movie: The Chancellor Only Lives Twice,” won the awards for Best Animation and Best International Director of an Animation at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in February.

The humorous script begins with the secret evil group Eagle Talon fleeing to space in the dark of night because they can’t pay the rent. They then discover a secretive spaceship and meet a dictator bent on conquering the Earth.

Ono wrote the script, created the animation, directed the film and did the voices for nine of the movie’s 11 characters.

“I’m happy the international audience appreciated the comical plot and Japanese humor,” said Ono, who is better known as Frogman.

He gave himself that name because as a movie production assistant he felt like an underwater commando, equipped for all sorts of tasks as he did the thankless jobs behind the scenes.

Hoping to become a director someday, he worked at the major film producer Toei Co. and other studios for more than 10 years after graduating from high school.

However, after he met his wife in 2001 in Shimane Prefecture, where he was working on a movie shoot and promotion, he decided to quit and move there.

“My friends in Shimane asked me to start a business because there isn’t much industry in the prefecture. So I thought I could make movies there,” he said.

However, instead of movies, he decided to concentrate on short animations because costs and the number of employees could be held down by using computers.

To keep the budget as low as possible, he wrote the back stories, worked on the animation and even did the voices of all the characters himself.

Unlike other Japanese animation, drawn meticulously to make the images look real, his characters — made with Adobe Flash software designed for creating Web page animations — only move horizontally and their facial expressions do not change.

In this way, he could create a five-minute animated movie in a week with little overhead.

In 2004, Ono uploaded a sample of his first five-minute short, titled “Sguy & The Family Stone,” on his Web site. The animation, whose title came from the American funk and rock band Sly & The Family Stone of the 1960s, gained popularity by word of mouth.

With the success of his Web animation work, he moved back to Tokyo to work on a new series titled “Coffy the Tomb Tyke,” a romantic comedy of ancient Japanese tomb characters, and “The Eagle Talon Secret Society,” a comedy about an evil society called Eagle Talon (the alternate Japanese title is “Taka no Tsume,” which means red pepper). TV Asahi broadcast both for three months in 2006.

His works are unique in that they are comedic with satirical elements.

In 2006, his short animation series “Kaeruotoko Gekijo” (“The Frogman Theater”) that satirizes Japanese politics was broadcast on the popular TBS TV news program “NEWS23.”

Ono, however, maintains he is not well-versed in politics.

“I only get information from the Internet or newspapers, so I don’t know why people think I know politics well. But I want to ask those people why they have such little interest in politics.”

He said his time in Shimane Prefecture is one of the reasons why politics became more personal for him.

“In Shimane, anything the local government does directly influences citizens’ lives,” he said. “For example, it’s extremely important for Shimane people where public buses run because the elderly cannot drive a car. So there was even an old man who pleaded with the mayor directly to run a bus near his home.”

The “Eagle Talon” series also reflects the recent political situation. Ono came up with the idea when he was planning to create something for the overseas market, and decided on a superhero story because they are popular in North America.

The story of Eagle Talon is very simple: It is a secret evil group that consists of five members bent on world domination. Their enemy is the superhero Deluxe Fighter, and the evil group loses the fight every time.

However, instead of making a typical Hollywood-style superhero movie where the hero is always good and right, he added political flavor.

“I was concerned about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led by the U.S. We tend to think it’s Arab or Islam that is evil, but is that really true? Aren’t our views biased?”

Caricaturing typical superheroes, Ono made Deluxe Fighter a man with a calculating mind who sometimes has dark thoughts and does business with evil if it brings benefit to himself.

On the other hand, the chancellor of Eagle Talon, although he is considered evil, wants to conquer the world so he can boost equality and make everyone happier.

Ono’s third movie, “Eagle Talon The Movie II,” which was released in theaters this year, is more political than the first film, dealing with globalization and economic liberalism.

All Japanese companies and big cities are purchased by a foreign hedge fund. As a result, Japan is bought out by other countries.

He said he wrote the story based on his belief that the gap between rich and poor in Japan is growing amid economic liberalism and as globalization continues. He said the notion occurred to him that the gap might intensify on the nation-state level, so that cities and even entire countries could be sold to richer entities.

“Globalization should not be about making the world homogenous, but it should be about recognizing each other without conflict,” he said.

“So I couldn’t neglect these issues. I wanted to give the Japanese audience a warning through the movie.”