Akira Daikuhara: the works and career of a forgotten anime pioneer

For Japanese animation fans and historians, the name of Akira Daikuhara (sometimes spelled Daikubara) should ring a bell as belonging to one of the major artists in postwar Japanese animation and to the core member of studio Tôei Animation’s team throughout the 1960’s alongside Yasuji Mori. However, despite this universally-acknowledged importance, Daikuhara seems like a forgotten figure: he has no Wikipedia page in any language, his personal page on the Japanese sakugawiki encyclopedia is blank, and until recently, he barely had any uploads to his name on sakugabooru. Although I will try later on to understand the reasons behind this state of affairs, the first goal of this article is to correct it by giving a detailed account of Daikuhara’s career, work and legacy.

Due to the aforementioned lack of information on Daikuhara and the lack of access to his early work, it’s hard to know the details of his pre-Tôei career. But, thanks to the work of researchers Jonathan Clements and Marie Pruvost-Delaspre, we do know the following: after studying oil painting, Daikuhara entered animation at 19 years old, in 1936, as a background artist on the works of director Iwao Ashida in studio Sankoshokai Eigabu. 

In the 1940’s, the studio started actively contributing to the war effort, and Daikuhara found himself working on many propaganda or military instruction films. After the war, although he collaborated (still as a background artist) on the first postwar Japanese animated film, Kenzô Masaoka’s Sakura in 1946, he quickly quit animation and became an illustrator. This may have been because he was trying to avoid a possible condemnation by the US occupation force for his previous associations with the Imperial Navy. But it was mostly because of Masaoka’s financial problems, which led his studio to close down and reopen multiple times between 1946 and 1956 – and money would have been in Daikuhara’s mind, since he married colorist Michiyo Inoue in 1948. However, at an unknown date in the 50’s, he was apparently convinced by director Sanae Yamamoto to join the studio once again, reorganized under the name Nichidô in 1956. It is there that, at Masaoka’s invitation, he started animation proper. By late 1956, when Nichidô was bought by live-action cinema studio Tôei and subsequently became Tôei Animation, Daikuhara had become experienced enough to act as a lead animator and teacher for new recruits alongside Yasuji Mori. On Tôei’s first feature-length film, The White Serpent, the two men were credited under genga, that is as chief animators with assistants doing the clean-up and in-betweening on their sequences. Daikuhara gave a large degree of freedom to his assistants: he famously handed over part of the climax to the most promising among them, a young Yasuo Otsuka. The same cannot be said of the more controlling Mori, who only let his assistant Daikichirô Kusube handle sequences by himself after he had asked so repeatedly and made an appeal to Daikuhara and the movie’s director, Taiji Yabushita.

From Yasuo Otsuka, Sakuga Ase Mamire, quoted and translated in Pruvost-Delaspre, 2021

As on many following Tôei movies, little of Daikuhara’s scenes have been actually ascertained to be him. There are, however, two confirmed standouts: parts of the festival scene and the climax of the film, featured above. The fight between Pai-Niang and Xiaoqing is the occasion for displays of magic, and one of the first prominent examples of effects animation in Japan. The morphing shapes, like droplets of water forming a whirlwind, are very elegant and perfectly translate Pai-Niang’s hybrid nature, just like the slow, surreal fluttering of her dress when she turns back into a human. But perhaps the most impressive part of its sequence is from 0:38 to the end, when Pai-Niang transforms once again and closes in around the monk: although simple in their shape, the effects adopt a complex spiral motion, which manages to create an impressive sense of volume as it moves into the depth of the screen. The White Serpent often looks awkward or stiff, but is also rife with little scenes like this which exhibit a complete mastery of the craft promising future great things to come.

For this reason at least, Tôei’s first feature-length movie was a success. It was also one for Daikuhara, who would become the studio’s most important creative figure until 1963. The next year, he was credited as co-director alongside Taiji Yabushita on Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke. Because Tôei credits often contained voluntary or involuntary mistakes at the time (notably crediting assistant directors as directors, or miscrediting animators as in-betweeners), this says little of what Daikuhara actually did, but certainly indicates that his role on the movie was prominent. According to Yasuo Otsuka, Daikuhara’s tasks increasingly started to look like what would become those of an animation director two years later, on Arabian Nights: Sindbad no Bôken

“Daikuhara’s work on Sindbad’s Adventures (1962) was very similar to the duties of a modern animation director, though he’s not credited as such in the film. However, Daikuhara’s proto-animation director approach fell more into the camp of preserving the individuality of each animator, so it didn’t bring about much uniformity”

The information given by Otsuka, according to which Tôei’s early films were often “centered around Daikuhara” tends to give weight to a guess of mine, which is that he was the central character designer of the studio. In Tôei’s early organization, there was no single character designer: characters were created by the director and the animators themselves, which would then tend to animate the characters they had designed. The mascot or comic relief animal characters were most often animated and designed by Mori: their appearance rarely changes from 1958 to 1963, and stays consistent with Mori’s work on Tôei’s Koneko short film series produced between 1956 and 1958. However, if you look at human characters, especially antagonists and background figures, there is a strong sense of continuity: it is probably because they were systematically designed by Daikuhara – with the exception of 1960’s Saiyûki, where the designing process was even more collective than usual.

Characters that Daikuhara may have designed. From left to right: The White Serpent, Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke, Saiyûki, Arabian Nights: Sindbad no Bôken

If this is the case, it allows us to get a particularly good idea of Daikuhara’s style and inspirations. Mori’s designs were simple, easy to animate, and have often been described as “modern” because of how much they relied on basic geometrical shapes. On the other hand, Daikuhara’s characters were more complex and seemingly inspired by US animation. But it was not, as most people would be prone to believe, Disney’s feature films which worked as a template: it may instead have been Disney’s (and perhaps other US studios’) cartoon shorts, whose character have the same large eyes and long limbs and gaping, sometimes almost dumb, expressions. The fact that cartoons, and not features, may have been Daikuhara’s inspiration is important and would play a large part in his animation style: as we will see, he used cartoony squash-and-stretch, even sometimes rubber-hose techniques to a degree that other Tôei animators never did.

Daikuhara’s prominence can also be illustrated by the work division that Tôei movies adopted, with varying levels of complexity, between 1959 and 1963: Yasuji Mori would be in charge of character introductions and scenes requiring the most delicate movement, often involving female characters. Yasuo Otsuka animated almost all of the effects work on movies, and was often responsible for the climaxes. If Mori largely animated the beginning of the films and Otsuka the end, Daikuhara was left with animating or supervising all that was in-between – that is, the largest part of the runtime. This organization, which naturally led to him becoming a “proto-animation director”, was possible thanks to Daikuhara’s incredible proficiency: he drew much faster than all other animators in the studio, making his contribution to movies that much more significant.

Paradoxically, however, this is one of the factors that led Daikuhara to be forgotten with time: the more meticulous Mori and Otsuka worked on the memorable, narratively central scenes. Although Daikuhara was the one who effectively set the standard for what Tôei’s animation looked like, he was often on much less important moments, leading viewers to forget or simply not register his contributions.

This doesn’t mean either that, because Daikuhara drew fast, he didn’t draw well. Marie Pruvost-Delaspre likened Daikuhara’s way of animating to a straight-ahead method – that is, not planning the movement and timing from the start, but adapting them as the drawing went along, working on intuition rather than calculation. This way of animating, which puts the focus on spontaneity above all else, took shape in two directions, starting from 1959’s Shônen Sarutobi Sasuke.

The first was realism, in accordance with the general aesthetic Tôei was going for at the time. This was most visible through the use of live-action reference footage, which Daikuhara had introduced in The White Serpent, but would perfect in Sasuke, for the impressive witch dance sequence, and Sindbad, for the final duel between Sindbad and the vizir (for this sequence, Daikuhara used footage of the Tôei-affiliated martial artist and actor Sonny Chiba).

In Sasuke’s dance scene, the use of reference footage is most obvious in the painstakingly detailed fabric animation, especially the follow-through on the sleeves of the witch’s kimono. Not only does this add detail, but it also considerably supports and strengthens the choreography made up of circular body and arms movement. The hair animation creates the same effect, all the while giving the impression of the witch’s evil nature as it covers her face and seems to give way to one of her transformations. Detailed motion of the hair would stay one of Daikuhara’s specialities, especially on 1961’s Anju and Zushiomaru where the complex hairdo of medieval Japan characters would have been harder to handle.

It was on Anju that another one of Daikuhara’s “realistic” techniques fully blossomed: the layouts. Daikuhara’s attention to the overall movement and the way it would play out in a three-dimensional space notably inspired Yasuo Otsuka, who would endeavour to surpass his master in the following years. Although none of Daikuhara’s scenes on the movie have been confirmed, a quick look at its fight scenes provides an excellent glimpse of what impressed Otsuka so much.

For example, this short sequence from the movie displays a strong mastery not just of layouts but also of perspectives. First, notice the excellent choreography of the fight, entirely built on lateral and in-depth movements and contrasts: the bandit enters from the left, Anju pushes him back on the right, in the arms of the little bear who himself entered the screen from the left and precipitates the man’s movement from the right into the water. Zushio’s entrance is particularly noteworthy: he comes in from the right while swinging a pole. The rotating movement of the piece of wood into depth is an exercise in perspective. Zushio’s approaching movement is detailed, starting with close spacings on 2s to create anticipation, and then ending on 1s with wider spacings to convey the power of the hit.

What is impressive and surprising is that, even as he was exhibiting such mastery in realistic action scenes, Daikuhara simultaneously went in a completely opposite direction: that was cartoony acting, what he himself called “cartoony exaggeration” (mangateki kochô). Through this, Daikuhara is said to have originated the “super-deformation” style of later anime, and even to have initiated what would become the charisma animator movement, in which animators would try to stand out thanks to their own spectacular and individual style.

Daikuhara’s cartoony animation can be spotted in the comic relief bandits and little girl characters from 1959’s Sasuke, and its influence is all over 1960’s Saiyûki. On this movie, it was in part due to Daikuhara that limited animation was first introduced in Japan: indeed, Makoto Nagasawa’s standout sequence was initially based on Daikuhara’s original drawings, and it was as his assistant that Nagasawa then introduced never-seen before timings and smearing effects. Daikuhara could very well have corrected the scene, since it was his in the first place – but he didn’t do so, safeguarding the revolutionary nature of this moment. It was then in 1962’s Sindbad that Daikuhara’s exaggerated style found its first unadulterated expression. In the climax of the movie, probably animated in close collaboration with Yasuo Otsuka and Daikichirô Kusube, Daikuhara most probably took charge of drawing the antagonists as they try to run away from the flooded island. There, he deformed the characters’ shapes, squashing and stretching them to the extreme and creating a huge sense of contrast between the tense, realistic fight scene that happened just before, and the comical demise of the bad guys.

Resting almost entirely on a similarly cartoony animation, Daikuhara’s masterpiece came soon after that: it was 1963’s Wan Wan Chûshingura. That it would be a great movie was far from obvious at first: The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, released earlier the same year, was Tôei’s most ambitious and experimental work yet, and the first to officially introduce the position of animation director, with Yasuji Mori at its helm. On the other hand, Wan Wan was the third and last movie the studio had contracted the storyboards to Osamu Tezuka, who had become since 1961 their rival, and had made a direct challenge to Tôei with the production of TV animation and the pioneering of limited animation techniques. Overworked as always, Tezuka delivered his storyboards (without even adding a script to them) extremely slowly: the production started in Autumn 1961, and the movie took 2 years to complete; at the time, it was probably the longest a movie took to be made in Tôei’s history.

Moreover, whereas The Little Prince had put to work all of the studio’s artists, Wan Wan was made by only half a team: starting from 1963, Tôei would try to produce 2 movies at the same time (plus TV series), meaning that many animators (most notably Yasuji Mori, Yasuo Otsuka and Sadao Tsukioka) either left Wan Wan mid-production or never joined it. The conditions were undoubtedly very difficult, as director Daisuke Shirakawa noted that he once had to do 230 hours of overtime in a single month, and slept at the studio during the later stretches of the production (for reference, this was already a common plague in Tôei: on Saiyûki, Shirakawa had to take up direction mid-production because the original director, Taiji Yabushita, was hospitalized due to overwork).

In any case, it was on Wan Wan that Daikuhara was credited as animation director for the first time. He was the one who, along with some of the animators (notably Daikichirô Kusube), reworked Tezuka’s original character designs to adapt them to animation. With their minimalistic shapes, they betrayed the revolutionary influence The Little Prince had in Tôei, but were also perfectly fitting for what had become the Astro Boy era. Indeed, while Daikuhara actively criticized what he felt was Tezuka’s exaggerated admiration and copy of Disney, this movie perfectly illustrates that Tezuka’s modern sensibilities and absurd humour were a perfect fit for Daikuhara’s animation. On The Little Prince and later Gulliver’s Space Travels, Mori and directors Yûgo Serikawa and Yushio Kuroda had gone in the direction of dramatic and allegorical movies, that would rest on detailed, subtle animation. With Wan Wan, Daikuhara and Shirakawa went in the opposite direction, that of energetic comedies that would explode with cinematic references and use liberated animation. For that, both men went back to the personality-based sequence allocation that Mori had more-or-less discarded on The Little Prince: Daikichirô Kusube and Daikuhara would work closely together on the fox and tiger antagonists throughout the movie and on the climax, Mori was assigned to the early sequences between the protagonist Rock and his mother, the wackier Norio Hikone worked on the funniest sequences of the movie featuring the tanuki character, Reiko Okuyama handled the female characters and Yôichi Kotabe complex effects work and cuter, Mori-inspired acting… The result was an explosive, tremendously fun movie, perhaps one of the best Tôei ever made.

Daikuhara’s animation was present all throughout the movie, but there are two sequences that especially stand out. The first is the opening scene of the movie, a chase scene between a deer and a fox said to be inspired by Bambi. What makes it so impressive and also historically important is that its opening seconds are probably the first major display of background animation in anime history. The compositing work is extremely complex, between traditionally animated leaves that sometimes fall in the foreground, and the rest of the screen that’s animated but colored just like the backgrounds: there, Daikuhara could probably make use of the skills he had learnt years ago, when he was still a background artist. Besides the incredible background work, which continues throughout the sequence, the characteristic in-depth layouts are very apparent, just as are the many deformations: when the deer falls, its head becomes heavily smeared, and when the fox sees Rock’s mother, its body stops mid-air and all its hair rises up in a pose that wouldn’t be out of place in a Roadrunner cartoon.

The cartoony aspect of Daikuhara’s work became even more pronounced in the sequence above, which is the moment when the main character, Rock, discovers the big and modern city. The slick designs of the cars are smeared in the same way as the background of the opening sequence, but the real highlight is of course Rock, caught in the middle of traffic and losing his mind. At many points in the sequence, he leaves after-images which multiply his arms and legs, and then it is the outlines of his body that become deformed. Deformation is everywhere here, as Rock adopts wilder and wilder expressions and poses, some extremely stretched and some completely contracted; all this is supported by what appears to be a first, very small, step towards framerate modulation: the animation naturally oscillates between 1s and 2s, but some poses are sometimes held on 3s. 

With such imaginative and fun work, Daikuhara completely showcased the expressive potential of his animation. He had a bright future ahead of him as Japan’s foremost comedic animator. However, the circumstances were against him: Wan Wan Chûshingura was his first and last masterpiece.

To understand Daikuhara’s decline within Tôei and Japanese animation at large, it is important to understand the context of late 1963, when Wan Wan came out. After the creation of an union in 1959, labour tensions steadily rose within Tôei, leading to a lock-out of the studio in the spring of 1961. These conditions, along with the increasingly endemic problems of low pay and overwork, which would only become more dramatic when Tôei started producing their own TV series, led many artists (most notably Daikichirô Kusube, who was probably Daikuhara’s closest follower) to leave or to defect to other studios, most notably Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Pro, now a rival company. Among those that remained, the most talented and promising had grouped under Mori, and would follow the lead of a young director, Isao Takahata, on what would become Tôei’s most revolutionary but also difficult production: Hols, Prince of the Sun. Daikuhara, born in 1917, was one of the oldest artists in the studio: there was a huge generational, and possibly political, gap between him and the younger artists. Besides, the cartoony, manga-inspired style that he used was sometimes suspiciously close to the one pursued by Osamu Tezuka; and that was precisely the direction Takahata and his group didn’t want to follow.

By the end of Wan Wan’s production, most of its team was transferred onto Tôei’s first TV series, Wolf Boy Ken. Although it did feature early standout work from Takahata, Otsuka and his own student Sadao Tsukioka, the show was largely dominated by Daikuhara-style animators like Norio Hikone and Hideo Furusawa, and used as a springboard to train new animators: among the most famous that started out on Ken were Shin’ya Takahashi, Masako Shinohara, Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama and Kazuo Komatsubara. Daikuhara himself only worked on one episode (30) of the show. However, it quickly became apparent that Mori’s sensibility would also dominate Tôei’s TV production: he was character designer for Tôei’s two 1965 series, Space Patrol Hopper and Hustle Punch.

The quick decline in Daikuhara’s artistic opportunities, and possibly of his inspiration, is visible in the next movie he would be animation director on: 1967’s Jack and the Witch. The movie was certainly dominated by Daikuhara’s sensibilities: a comedy for children with a crazy, sometimes absurd atmosphere and creative, cartoony animation. However, it was painfully visible that all of Tôei’s most talented artists were busy on another, much more ambitious production: Hols, Prince of the Sun, started in 1965 and released in 1968. Although Hols had some very young people among its animators (notably Hayao Miyazaki, whose first credit was in 1965), they were managed by Tôei’s best artists (Yasuji Mori and Yasuo Otsuka, but also the rising stars that were Akemi Ota, Reiko Okuyama and Yôichi Kotabe). On the other hand, while Jack had relatively more experienced animators (most of them had started out in 1963, on The Little Prince), the only two really major figures were Daikuhara and Hideo Furusawa.

In the end, the result was a strange movie: it certainly had a lot of energy, and some fits of good animation and charmingly weird sequences, but overall it lacked anything really interesting, and the designs looked like a painfully failed attempt at emulating Mori’s design style. Although it was clear that Tôei’s management wanted to keep producing movies like Wan Wan and Jack, that is family movies and comedies, it wasn’t the one the artists really wanted to pursue. Tellingly, most of Hols’ staff left the studio in the years following its release, whereas almost all of Jack’s stayed in Tôei throughout the 70’s. Daikuhara especially would stay on board, becoming once again a major artist in the studio in the post-Hols era, commonly referred to as Tôei’s “dark age” from 1971: he was animation director or animator on almost nearly every movie the studio released between 1968 (starting with Andersen Monogatari) and 1974 (on Kikansha Daemon, rumored to be one of the worst anime movies ever made), at the pace of one a year.

Such an intense workload did end up tiring Daikuhara, who disappeared from anime credits until 1977, although it was to pursue a career as illustrator and mangaka, adapting the movies he had been animation director on to another medium. Then, in 1979, he became the leader of Tôei’s animation school, which he quit 6 months later to create his own studio Carpenter, a subcontracting studio for Tôei that was initially conceived to train their new animators. But he decided to retire in 1982, leaving the direction to ex-Neo Media animator Yasuhiro Yamaguchi. Carpenter stayed active as a Tôei subcontractor until Yamaguchi’s death in 2016, upon which it closed down. As for Daikuhara, he spent his 30 years of retirement returning to his original calling as an oil painter, and died from pneumonia in 2012. He was then the oldest animator in Japan and, as Jonathan Clements said, “as old as anime itself”.

Although it was noted in some major Japanese institutions like Anido and the Japan Media Arts Festival, Daikuhara’s death went largely unnoticed. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, although his name is generally known, Daikuhara’s work and influence are seldom acknowledged. Daikuhara’s expressive style was much more suited to TV animation than Mori’s had been; and it was Daikuhara’s influence which spread in 60’s and 70’s comedy anime, such as the experimental Fight!! Pyûta or, through Yasuo Otsuka, the shows animated by studio A Production. The very idea of animators expressing themselves not just through the motion, but through the drawings we owe to Daikuhara.

Why is it, then, that he was forgotten? A first explanation is in the elements mentioned above: as central as he was within Tôei, by 1963, Daikuhara was behind the times. This doesn’t mean that his work wasn’t important, but that history was being made elsewhere – and this in a double sense. The first is that the inventions and discoveries made on The Little Prince and later on Hols were perceived to be more important, and spread in a more visible way over anime. The other is that it is those who worked on those movies, notably Yasuji Mori, Yasuo Otsuka, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, who actually wrote the most about Tôei and its legacy: they would therefore naturally mention their own achievements more than that of others.

Beyond all the artistic interest Daikuhara’s work holds, it is also a deeply interesting historical case study: it asks us the questions, “why and how does an artist become forgotten? how does the history of art advance, and why are some of its contributors left aside?” Meditating on such questions is therefore not only the best tribute we can pay to great artists like Daikuhara, but also a necessary methodological step for anyone interested in animation, and more generally art history as a whole.

Bibliography

Clements, Jonathan. 2012. “Akira Daikuhara, 1917-2012”. Manga UK. https://web.archive.org/web/20130312185700/http://www.mangauk.com/?p=akira-daikuhara-1917-2012

Clements, Jonathan. 2013. Anime: A History. Palgrave McMillan.

Otsuka, Yasuo & Mori, Yasuji (trans. Benjamin Ettinger). 1984. “The Wizardry of Hols and the Paws of the Cat”. Anipages. https://web.archive.org/web/20201120175218/http://www.pelleas.net/int/int2.shtml

Pruvost-Delaspre, Marie. 2021. Aux Sources de l’Animation Japonaise: Le Studio Tôei Dôga (1956-1972) [The Origins of Japanese Animation: Tôei Dôga Studio (1956-1972)]. Presses Universitaires de Rennes. [French]

Shirakawa, Daisuke. 2004. “Tôei Animation Research – Daisuke Shirakawa Interview”. WEB Animestyle. http://www.style.fm/log/02_topics/top041108a.html [Japanese]

Tomizawa, Nobuo. 2004. “Tôei Animation Research – Nobuo Tomizawa Interview”. WEB Animestyle. http://www.style.fm/log/02_topics/top040924b.html [Japanese]

Washi’s Blog. 2018. “The Start of the Anime Industry – Tôei Dôga & Hakujadenhttps://washiblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/30/the-start-of-the-anime-industry-toei-douga-hakujaden/

Washi’s Blog. 2019. “Yasuo Otsuka’s Pioneering Realism” https://washiblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/yasuo-otsukas-pioneering-realism/

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