Determined to make a trip to the dairy more fun for all the kiddies, the Snow Brand Milk Products company decided it needed a cartoon. The result was Tengri the Boy of the Steppes (1977), a 21-minute promotional film pointing out to people just how tough dairy production was in the bad old days. Set on the plains of Central Asia, it showed scenes in the troubled life of Tengri, a hunter boy who develops a brotherly relationship with Tartar, a young calf. We learn all about life on the steppes, until a fateful winter when Tengri is ordered to kill the calves for food. Unable to bring himself to off his bovine best friend, Tengri “loses” Tartar in the snow.
Years later, a grown-up Tartar somehow saves the village, and the previously unknown Recipe for Cheese allows Tengri’s fellow villagers to bring aid to the starving. Cheese is the saviour of the steppes, as it allows milk to be preserved long past the date it is extracted from a cow. Consequently, the villagers have food all through the winter, and don’t need to kill cattle for meat.
This odd story, seemingly not mentioning that all dairy cattle end up slaughtered for meat, was dashed off by Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka at Snow Brand’s request. His contribution, described as “a character sketch and a four-page story outline,” was thrown at the animation company Group Tac, which sat on it for two years. They were, it seems, rather busy at the time on Manga Fairy Tales and the animated Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With time ticking away, the project landed at Shin-Ei animation, where animator Yasuo Otsuka finally took it on in what would be his sole directing credit, obliged to crank it out on a 45-day production schedule.
Otsuka was plainly not a fan of Tezuka, a man whom he regarded as largely responsible for the collapse in the quality of Japanese animation. To put things bluntly, while Tezuka readily lapped up any praise that called him “the Japanese Disney”, he owed much more in his working practices to the extremely limited animation practices of Hanna-Barbera. Tezuka’s production-line system and cost-cutting measures might have made it possible to make anime on weekly television schedules, but they also irredeemably cheapened animation, Otsuka thought. Animators worked hard before Tezuka, but after Tezuka they worked like dogs, in an industry notorious for chewing up its practitioners and spitting them out.
Otsuka was hence not all that impressed with Tezuka’s tales of “Tartar source”, particularly since he got the impression Tezuka had dashed off a vague story in less time than it took to smoke a fag. Otsuka also had problems with Tezuka’s outline, particularly the original Shane-inspired ending where Tengri heads off towards the west, a lone drifter, with the implication being that he takes cheese to Europe, like a dairy Prometheus.
Otsuka began planning a rewrite, only to be told by the producer Eiji Murayama that the ending was “suffused with poetic sentiment” in depicting a hero who “leaves the trifling human world” in order to journey to Europe. Which is, presumably, not populated by humans.
But this was supposed to be a cow + boy story, not a cowboy story. Otsuka understood the elegiac quality, but he thought that a children’s film should end with its protagonist welcomed back by the village. Risking the ire of Tezuka and the dairy, he changed the ending by hiding the horizon behind a bunch of cows, so that it wasn’t immediately plain to see where Tengri was heading. If you wanted to believe he came home at the end, you could now believe that.
Not that the horizon needed much hiding, as Otsuka had to use standard-sized cels. Despite a setting on the rolling grasslands of Asia, a union rep had told Otsuka there would be no great vistas in the background, as that was too much work for the colorists. Otsuka protested that even staunch union men in the animation business took enough pride in their work to draw a wide plain if a wide plain was called for, but he was overruled. What really wound Otsuka up was that the union had accepted the job, claimed they could do it, and then threatened to walk out when it proved impossible. He’d have preferred it if they’d refused from the outset, so he could have gone back and asked for a budget increase to do a better job.
In the end, Otsuka was forced to sit with his arms folded, sulking bitterly, at the preview screening, as his under-funded anime rolled out to a largely unappreciative audience. People filed out saying that it would “do”, and Otsuka – one of the greatest animators in 20th century anime – never directed a film again.
Although some online reviewers on Amazon Japan claim to have seen Tengri the Boy of the Steppes on TV, for thirty years it was officially only available to people who either visited the Snow Brand factory showroom, or rented it out from the dairy as a 16mm film print. But then, a series of events propelled Otsuka’s obscure cartoon back into the media.
In 2000, Snow Brand Milk Products achieved a different kind of notoriety when over 14,000 Japanese reported unpleasant side effects of consuming “old milk”, past its sell-by date.
The following year, Yasuo Otsuka discussed the film’s production history in his autobiography. In the process, he mentioned something that revealed to Snow Brand they were sitting on a dairy anime goldmine that could help dispel their media milky crisis. As a result, Snow Brand authorised the release of Tengri the Boy of the Steppes as a deluxe DVD in 2007, bringing this forgotten anime back into the limelight once more.
Of course, it probably helped that the new credits acknowledged the contribution of Yasuo Otsuka’s young layouts assistant, a previously uncredited young animator called Hayao Miyazaki.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.