The history of TMS – Part 5 : Becoming Tokyo Movie Shinsha

If you’ve been watching a lot of so-called “retro” anime, you’ve probably encountered one of these names : Tokyo Movie, Tokyo Movie Shinsha, or TMS. All these refer to the same company, established in 1964. From this date to the middle of the 80’s, this was one of Japanese animation’s most important studios, which produced works by some of the most famous artists in the industry like Hayao Miyazaki, Osamu Dezaki and Katsuhiro Otomo. The aim of this series is to retrace the studio’s “golden age”, from 1964 to 1980, and with it, offer a history of the anime industry during this period.

The goal will be to study the industry in “anime industry” : while I will offer some commentary on some of the works cited, I will focus on the history of production and careers. This way, I aim to see how anime became anime, that is, how the style and production process we know today have evolved and taken a somewhat definitive form.

This is Part 5 in a series. You can read Part 4.

The second half of the 1970’s was no doubt a transitional period for Tokyo Movie. As a whole, the anime industry had set up a stable structure that would only be modified in the middle of the 80’s by the otaku boom and the new OVA format. But for Tokyo Movie and its subcontractors, this was a time of big change, marked by the separation between A Pro and Tokyo Movie in 1976. The consequences were unexpected : A Pro’s staff scattered and its most talented members would do the groundwork of Studio Ghibli. But before that, Tokyo Movie profited the most from this outpouring of talent.

Breaking up with Kusube : Shin-Ei and TMS

What was the cause of the end of one of the most profitable partnerships in anime history ? If one only looks at the shows, it might sound absurd : as I’ve said in the previous part of this series, Gamba and Ganso, the last two A Pro series, were some of their best. Why would A Pro want to end a situation where they could deliver such high-quality work ?

The thing is, working conditions and overall quality had started deteriorating all around the industry, and mostly in its two biggest studios at the time : Toei and Tokyo Movie. Indeed, as early as the late 60’s, Toei had introduced subcontracting of a new kind : not to minor studios in Japan, but to other Asian countries. Most notably, in 1973, they concluded an official partnership with a South Korean studio [Pruvost-Delaspre, 2014, p.470]. Toei would develop this and, in 1986, create their own outsourcing company in the Philippines, Toei Animation Phils. Tokyo Movie also started subcontracting overseas, most notably in Taiwan, but the results ended up being very bad, to the point that, in A Pro, Kusube got sick from all the corrections he had to do :

“Kusube in fact became ill as a direct result of working on Karate Baka Ichidai. The show was partly outsourced to Taiwan, and most of the work that came back was so bad that he was forced to redraw considerable amounts, and wound up overworking himself. As a result, he was unable to do any work for about the next two years.” [Ettinger, 2007]

That show ended in September 1974. Just two years later, Kusube severed his relationship with Tokyo Movie. If he did really spend those two years away from animation, he had time to think, and it’s probable that this incident was a determining factor. But it wasn’t the only one. In contrast with their previous workflow, when A Pro worked on Ganso, they didn’t work on any other show at the same time. This is probably what enabled them to produce such high-quality work, and also to put out episodes as quickly as possible once they wanted out, but this worried Kusube over a possible lack of work – apparently, people were already leaving in early 1976 [Ettinger, 2007].

At the same time, Tokyo Movie’s boss, Yutaka Fujioka, was restructuring the company. In 1975, he had created a new company, Telecom Animation, and offered its direction to Kusube, which he refused, and in 1976, he renamed Tokyo Movie Tokyo Movie Shinsha (New Tokyo Movie). Kusube took the hint and named his own new studio Shin Ei Animation, New A Animation. While most of the A Pro staff went with him, his brother Sankichiro, a producer from Tokyo Movie, also left and became Shin Ei’s manager, making the studio something of a family business.

There was yet another reason to all this, which was the cause of A Pro’s lack of work during Ganso’s production : that was Fuijoka’s dream to export Japanese animation to the US market. For that, he had secured the rights for an adaptation of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in 1977. As early as 1975, along with Yasuo Otsuka, he himself went to the US to visit the Fleischer studios in Burbank in what was called “Fujioka’s raid” [Ettinger, 2007]. Apparently leaving aside TV animation, he created Telecom just for Nemo’s production, which would mean that, without A Pro, Madhouse would become TMS’ main subcontractor along with the studio’s in-house animators that hadn’t gone to Telecom.

The story of Little Nemo’s messy production is an infamous one : the project had started in the late 70’s but the actual movie only came out in 1989, with three pilot films (the two available being generally considered superior to the end product) along the way. During all this time, Fujioka tried his hardest to get as many big names on the project as possible. On the US side, he initially (and unsuccessfully) tried to get funding from George Lucas, tried to recruit famous American animator Chuck Jones (also a failure) and shortly hired Ray Bradbury to write a screenplay as well as ex-Disney animators Brad Bird and Jerry Rees. On the Japanese side, he tried to get Miyazaki and Takahata to direct but they were both unhappy with the plot and left. In 1984, Yoshifumi Kondo directed his own 3-minutes pilot with Kazuhide Tomonaga as animation director – but it was rejected. 3 years later, Dezaki would try his own pilot but was also rejected. The last major Japanese artist to work on the movie was Sadao Tsukioka, but his own pilot has never been released. In the end, TMS’ major, big budget film would end up being 1988’s Akira while Nemo’s final version would be largely, and rightfully, forgotten.

On the other hand, Shin-Ei was far from such ambitious projects : for their first two years, they kept doing minor subcontracting work. Their first commission was a promotional film for a milk company, a project that had already been rejected by two other companies, Tezuka Productions and Group TAC [Ettinger, 2007]. While the most talented staff worked on it – Otsuka called his friends Miyazaki, Kotabe and Okuyama, while Kondo and Aoki were also there, all of them asked not to be credited. Thanks to these contacts, most of Shin Ei’s subcontracting during this period would be for Nippon Animation, where Miyazaki and Kotabe worked, but this must have been a disappointing experience for many of the ex-A Pro staff whose most talented members would leave between 1977 and 1979.

The most notable was Otsuka himself. In 1978, Miyazaki offered Otsuka the role of animation director of his directorial debut at Nippon Animation, Future Boy Conan. He took the offer while staying at Shin-Ei, but not long after, as Conan was still ongoing, Otsuka received yet another proposal, this time from Fujioka : he wanted him to lead Telecom, luring him with the project of a Lupin III movie – that would become The Castle of Cagliostro. Lupin had always been Otsuka’s passion project, and he accepted. But he wasn’t the only one taken by Miyazaki : Yoshifumi Kondo was also recruited for Conan and left Shin-Ei for Nippon Animation – from there, he would keep working with Miyazaki and Takahata to become one of Ghibli’s core members.

Also in 1978, two other key names of the A Pro style left to create their own company : that was Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama and the studio Ajia-Do. Despite that, they would keep a strong tie with Shin-Ei, notably Shibayama who ended up directing many entries in their Doraemon series. Finally, the last major and most promising A Pro artist, Yuzo Aoki, went freelance at around the same time, which allowed him to become one the key staff behind the second and third Lupin series and the Mystery of Mamo movie.

This outpouring of talent could only be compared to the one faced by Toei 10 years earlier – and the immediate results were the same : while Shin-Ei never stopped producing successful and influential franchises, their works lacked the imagination of talent that they had previously. Considering that this was one of the events that in the end enabled Ghibli’s creation, it might have been for the best for the industry as a whole, but the fact is that Shin-Ei was unable to follow up on the golden age of the A Pro style.

As a parting gift to Kusube, Fujioka offered him the adaptation rights to Fujiko Fujio’s series Doraemon [Ettinger, 2007]. That was very apt, since A Pro had specialized in Fujiko Fujio adaptations and wacky, absurd comedy shows. But Doraemon ended up being a watered down version of their previous masterpieces. The source material itself went less far, but the animation and direction itself were a step down – which was probably the reason of Doraemon’s long lasting success in Japan and Asia in general : less bold, it had more mass appeal. Among the core staff of the series, we can note three names : from Ajia-Do, Shibayama, and from Shin-Ei, Toshiyuki Honda, who had made himself a name as the least talented member of Kondo’s team in Ganso, and Eiichi Nakamura, who had worked under Kobayashi and, as Doraemon’s chief character designer and animation director, brought his own very unique expressions to the show.

One of Nakamura’s visual quirks, the crossed-eyes, as seen in Gamba (left) and Doraemon (right)

Despite its defaults, the series was a hit and was followed, in 1980, by the first in a long series of movies : Nobita’s Dinosaur. By 1982, Shin-Ei had established a new rotation system similar to that of A Pro : their regular subcontractors would be ancient collaborators Junio and Mates, and newer studios created by ex-Shin-Ei staff like Ajia-Do, Tomi Pro and Animaru-ya. With this new formula, Doraemon’s animators would keep honing their skills on both the TV series and movies, strengthening Shin-Ei’s roots as a studio specialized in absurd comedies : in the 1990’s, the creativity and dynamism of their new Crayon Shin-chan series almost feels like a return of the classical A Pro aesthetic.

Dezaki in TMS and beyond

With A Pro gone, the miraculous collaborations that had happened on Gamba and Ganso wouldn’t come back. Most of A Pro’s ex-staff and collaborators were sent to work on the second Lupin III series, which Dezaki and Madhouse didn’t even approach – as an Otsuka passion project that had all his ex-A Pro followers working on it, that was probably some untouchable Telecom territory. However, apart from Lupin, Madhouse and their collaborators produced half – and the most notable – of TMS’ TV series : Nobody’s Boy Remi in 1977, Treasure Island in 1978 and the second half of Rose of Versailles in 1980. The first two shared basically the same staff, many of whom had also worked on Gamba or other Dezaki works: long-time friend and collaborator Akio Sugino as character designer and animation director, script writer Haruya Yamazaki, animator Manabu Oohashi (who solo KA-ed Ganso #15A which I talked about last time and worked on Treasure Island’s OP – he was one of Madhouse’s star animators) and art director Shichiro Kobayashi.

 All of these works are more masterpieces of Dezaki’s portfolio, but from a historical point of view, the most interesting one would probably be Nobody’s Boy Remi. First, it was Dezaki’s first experimentations with 3D animation – or what was called 3D at the time. This claim by the studio’s producers was probably because of the show’s strong designs, animation, and especially its innovative use of the multiplane camera to create a dynamic sense of depth. TMS would go further in 1980, as they used a certain stereoscopic process during the projection of the show’s compilation movie, which appears to have made it the first real 3D anime [Clements and McCarthy, 2015, p.584]. Moreover, Remi appears to clearly have been TMS’ attempt to renew itself and rival Nippon Animation’s World Masterpiece Theater : it followed the exact same yearly format and adapted a classic of children’s literature – in that sense, it might be considered as Dezaki’s attempt to imitate and overcome Takahata’s realism that was developing at the same time in the series.

At that time, Remi wasn’t the only children series Madhouse was working on : they heavily contributed to a largely forgotten series, Manga Sekai Mukashi Banashi, Animated Tales From Around the World. MSMB for short was a copycat of a series that had started in 1976, Manga Nihon Mukashi Banashi, produced by Group TAC, an-ex post-production company created by Mushi employes and converted to actual animation in 1973, after the latter’s bankruptcy. While Madhouse almost didn’t work with TAC, you can find other major ex-Mushi staff such as Gisaburo Sugii, TAC’s founder, or animators like Takao Kodama (who’s apparently responsible for this memorable scene on Belladonna of Sadness [Ettinger, 2014] or ex-Toei Sadao Tsukioka. It was also the place where Ajia-Do animators could go wild and fully express their talent.

The idea was simple : each 10-minutes episode would be the adaptation of a classical folktale, each time animated by different people in a different style. TAC’s version is the first variation on the idea, and reportedly the best thanks to its very diverse styles and indie look ; indeed, it also gave work to many Japanese independent animators and makes it a true hidden gem. Its success quickly spawned attempts to imitate it – DAX started early with a Manga Furusato Mukashi Banashi and then with MSMB, but there also was a Manga Nihon Emaki series, and so on… MNMB and MSMB are apparently the only ones really worth remembering, the first because it was a huge field for play and experimentation from Japan’s top indie animators, and the other because Madhouse played a large part in it.

Just like TAC, DAX was an ex-post-production company that started doing animation. They were tied to Madhouse thanks to its ex-production manager Yasuo Ooda who produced all the MSMB episodes the studio was involved in – that is, all the first 54 episodes, and then more irregular contributions until episode 104. Between 1976 and 1977, they featured some of Madhouse’s best : Dezaki not only as director but also sometimes as character designer, Akio Sugino as character designer, Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Manabu Oohashi both as animators and character designers, and also sometimes Shichiro Kobayashi’s art direction. Along with these names I’ve already evoked a lot, there’s Rintarô, Noboru Ishiguro and Toshio Hirata, as well as many others. If MNMB was perfect to develop independent and idiosyncratic animation, MSMB was as perfect a fit for Madhouse’s auteur-orientation. It might even have paved the way for what Madhouse became in the 80’s, one of the most experimental studios in commercial Japanese animation : it gave a large amount of creative freedom to people like Rintarô and Kawajiri who had been somewhat crushed by Dezaki’s presence.

Aside from their obvious visual qualities, these episodes are interesting because they both feel completely out of the trends of the industry, and make for some of the best work of these artists. There are three factors to this : first, the apparently complete freedom the staff had and the diversity of styles and tones they could develop ; then, the short format which forced them to be as dense and striking as possible – believe it or not, but one of Dezaki’s most touching works happens to be a 10-minutes adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (#02) ; finally, there’s the fact that the animation is extremely limited, to the point where some episodes are barely animated – which ends up being a quality as it pushes it to its most expressive state. Many episodes feel like picture books, which must’ve been the objective. 

A shot from one of Dezaki’s episodes on MNMB, “Beauty and the Beast”

In the end, MNMB feels like Madhouse’s return to their Mushi origins, and most notably to their last work there : Belladonna of Sadness. While the atmospheres and tones are very different (the audiences aren’t really the same), there’s the very same spirit of radical experimentation while animating with very limitating circumstances. While Madhouse kept working with TMS as long as Dezaki was there, this work they did for another studio feels like their best from the period ; as a place where each of their most talented artists could express himself, it’s probably the most representative of the studio’s early period, before the 80’s where they would break off their relationship with TMS and orient themselves towards the movie and OVA markets.

Many thanks to @Toadette who has, among many other things, translated and shared the credits of the Madhouse MSMB episodes. You can read it here.


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