The History of Tatsunoko – 1 – Early Days

This is part 1 in the History of Tatsunoko series. You can read the introduction here

Created in 1962, studio Tatsunoko still exists today: it is, with Tôei Animation and Tokyo Movie Shinsha, one of the few Japanese animation studios whose origins go back directly to the so-called “first anime boom” – that is, the development of TV animation. For that reason, Tatsunoko’s first years are chronologically distant and the stuff of some legend: after all, wasn’t the studio one of the pioneers? Didn’t they contribute to forever change the way animation would be made, first in Japan and then in the entire world?

The truth is that things aren’t so simple. The early years of the anime industry are a real minefield: the number of actors involved is much higher than one initially thinks, there exists very little information about a lot of the people involved, many decisions are the object of ideological or historical debate, and nobody actually wants to watch the works themselves because they’re so long and hard to get through (in addition to not being subbed, for those who want to try it). I will immediately confess here that I have not seen more than a few episodes of the two shows I am myself about to cover.

In any case, the narrative of Tatsunoko’s entry into anime production is anything but linear. The most important fact one must keep in mind is that, by the time Mushi Production’s Astro Boy hit the airwaves on January 1st, 1963, things were already moving very fast, and became inextricably tied together – not to say outright muddled. Tatsunoko was not isolated from all this: on the contrary, it was at the very center of the whirlwind.

Making animation?

All accounts of early anime history must necessarily begin with the mention of mangaka Osamu Tezuka, whose studio Mushi Production created the now-standard format of 25-minutes-long animated episodes aired on TV. Tatsuo Yoshida, creator and CEO of Tatsunoko, in fact had a profile quite similar to Tezuka’s: born in Kyôto (whereas Tezuka was from Osaka), he became a successful illustrator and then manga artist in the mid-1950’s and, by the early 60’s, was one of the leading figures of the manga world. On October 19, 1962, he established Tatsunoko (“Tatsu’s child”) with his two brothers Kenji and Toyoharu (aka Ippei Kuri), a structure that would coordinate the manga work of the three men, who all worked in the industry. 

Alongside the Yoshida brothers were three other mangaka who had been Tatsuo’s assistants or were in his close circles: Kentarô Nakajô, Mikiya Mochizuki and Naoki Tsuji – and each artist’s assistants. The last of the three, Tsuji, would play at least a little part in early anime history outside of Tatsunoko: one of his manga, the WW2 story Zero-sen Hayato, would be the first anime of studio P Productions that started airing in January 1964 (Hayato was an incredibly cheap production, even for the time, but also initiated many photography techniques thanks to the expertise of the staff, many members of which had been in the film division of the Navy during the war – but that’s another, completely different story). Tsuji was also the artist behind the much more famous Tiger Mask, whose adaptation by studio Tôei would also impact Tatsunoko.

The presence of other manga artists besides the Yoshida brothers raises a central question relating to Tatsunoko’s creation: was the goal to make animation from the start? Answering this question is very difficult, especially because of one testimony, by Hiroshi Sasagawa. Sasagawa had been Osamu Tezuka’s assistant around 1957, and remained close enough to him to “help out” on some of Astro Boy’s storyboards (although there’s no sign of him in any credits). He was also a friend of Tatsuo Yoshida, close enough to have a strong advisory power – depending on the interview, it might be him who persuaded Yoshida to get into animation. Because the two Sasagawa interviews I could find don’t quite telle the same story, it’s hard to know what precisely happened. In any case, whatever was Tatsuo Yoshida’s own goal, it was not necessarily shared by all the people in the studio. In an interview, Sasagawa told of how hard it was to convince manga artists to move to animation:

Tatsuo Yoshida had around 10 assistants, and when I asked, “do you want to make animation together?” the answer I got was “we want to become manga artists, animation doesn’t interest us.” The only one who accepted was Seitarô Hara.”

In another interview, Sasagawa said that even having one person join wasn’t easy:

The assistants didn’t like the idea of doing animation. I wanted to pull in at least a few, but they all said “I’ve come here to do manga for mangazines, I don’t have anything to do with animation.” I thought that even Seitarô Hara would refuse, but Tatsuo Yoshida convinced him somehow. While I was absent, he finally agreed to help.”

If animation wasn’t the prime objective, then why create a studio? Kenji Yoshida, who never mentions that animation was the initial goal, indicated the principal motivations for studio creation by manga artists: that would be to obtain some sort of legal status. As freelance artists working under one-time contracts with magazines or publishers, manga artists had little to no legal or social protection – meaning no insurance or pension. Creating and entering a company gave them a safer position. It also made it easier to manage copyrights, as we will soon see. Even outside of the legal studio framework, such groupings were anything but rare in the 60’s manga industry: it allowed artists to come together, directly train assistants – in short, they were places where collective creativity could develop. Studios like P Production and Zero were similar manga artists collectives turned animation studio.

In November 1962, when Tezuka and Mushi Production announced Astro Boy and showed the pilot episode alongside their first movie Tales From A Street Corner, the entire animation and manga industry were there to watch. After all, with Mushi Pro having been created in 1961, Tezuka’s intentions were no secret. However, Tatsunoko did not immediately jump in the animation world, in which the three “first-generation” contenders would be Mushi (Astro Boy), the newly-created TCJ (Tetsujin 28) and Tôei (Wolf Boy Ken) – another argument supporting the idea that the initial goal wasn’t animation. Tatsuo Yoshida’s first venture in television would not be anime, but a live-action tokusatsu series adapted from his own manga Boy Ninja Squad Moonlight. Produced by studio Kokusai Hoei, it began airing in January 1964. 4 years prior, Ippei Kuri had also made a manga to promote the Tôei tokusatsu show Messenger of Allah. In neither case was Tatsunoko explicitly credited, but its existence probably gave some more backing to Tatsuo in business negotiations.

A cover illustration from Kuri’s Z Boy, which started publication in Shûeishas magazine Hinomaru. The design similarity between the titular hero and the protagonist of Space Ace is obvious

Messenger of Allah and Boy Ninja Squad Moonlight’s success may have influenced Tôei to decide to approach Tatsunoko. However, according to Kuri, it was rather a manga he was working on at the time titled Z Boy – which is why it was him that Tôei called first and asked to provide designs based on Z Boy for what should become their third TV series. As one of the three managers of Tatsunoko, Kuri saw what an occasion that was, and discussed the matter with his two brothers. Tatsuo built upon it and presented the project of Space Ace, as well as some other requests. Tôei would train his assistants, who would then animate some of the episodes – the situation would be similar to the one that happened on Rainbow Sentai Robin in 1966 between Tôei and studio Zero. It may initially seem strange for Tôei to act like this, but we should understand it in the context of the formation of subcontracting structures: Tôei wasn’t spending time and money on future rivals, it was cultivating its partnerships with business collaborators. Of course, for small studios like Zero and Tatsunoko, this was extremely beneficial, as they could begin animation production with virtually no risks.

It seems that the in-between throughout the talks was one Akio Rokugô (六郷晃生). Tatsuo’s editor, he had spent some time in Tôei before entering the manga industry. He would be executive producer in the earliest days of Tatsunoko, and oversaw the publication of the manga Space Ace (drawn by Ippei Kuri but credited to Tatsuo Yoshida) in the magazine Shônen Book in June 1964.

It was also thanks to him that the people around Tatsuo that were enthusiastic to make animation, Seitarô Hara and Hiroshi Sasagawa, entered Tôei’s training program, where they received a three-month training under Nichidô veteran animator Masao Kumakawa.

The only problem for Tatsunoko was that the deal with Tôei fell through. By the end of the training program, Tatsunoko and Tôei’s managements disagreed on rights repartition, leading the production to be suspended. Tôei would make a replacement series, Space Patrol Hopper (for which they unsuccessfully tried to have Hara and Sasagawa join), while Tatsunoko would produce Space Ace on its own. If we believe Sasagawa’s testimony, he would have joined Tôei, but was convinced to stay by the three Yoshida brothers, who were by then determined to try animation.

There exists no precise chronology of these events. This is regrettable for at least one reason: dating the production of Space Ace’s pilot. According to Hara, work began at the end of Tôei’s training period. Similarly, Sasagawa mentions that he was supposed to direct the pilot (or the show as a whole?) and that Tôei would do the animation, finishing and photography. However, the credits of the pilot are only made up of Tatsunoko’s core staff – there is, in other words, almost no visible Tôei presence. “Almost”, because the production pipeline seems to have been similar to Tôei’s: the animation work is separated between genga (key animation) and dôga (clean-up + in-betweens), whereas later Tatsunoko series would credit artists in the Mushi way, under “gendôga”, a mash-up of genga and dôga. However, unlike in Tôei movies and shows, Space Ace’s pilot doesn’t credit an animation director. Besides this, the pilot includes positions that would otherwise remain absent from anime credits until the mid-70s, notably that of “character design”. In any case, even if it was initiated in Tôei, the pilot was most probably reworked and completed in Tatsunoko’s new facilities. It was then circulated (or leaked?) to other animation studios, becoming an argument not only for sponsors, but also for artists who may become interested in joining Tatsunoko upon seeing it.

Space Ace Pilot credits transcription

Original Work: Tatsuo Yoshida (吉田竜夫)

Episode Direction: Hiroshi Sasagawa (笹川ひろし)

Character Design: Ippei Kuri (九里一平)

Planning: Tamotsu Hirano (?) (平野保)

Art Design: Kentarô Ozura (?) (小貫健太郎)

Key Animation: Seitarô Hara (原征太郎)

Screenwriting: Kenji Yoshida (吉田健二), Hiroshi Sasagawa (笹川ひろし), Seijin Tenma (?) (天馬正人)

Backgrounds: Akira Yamaguchi (山口あきら)

In-betweens: Kazuo Mori (?) (森三郎), Rikizô Tsubota (?) (坪田力蔵), Tatsuo Okuda (?) (奥田竜緒)

Note : there are no credits for finishing and photography; but, from Hara’s testimony, we know that the latter was done by Mamoru Kuroki (?) (黒木衛)

Tatsunoko’s building in 1965

For their very first, entirely in-house show, the Yoshida brothers made a series of investments, the most notable one being to buy a plot of land in the Kokubunji district of Tôkyô, where they would buy their own prefab (the studio’s initial headquarters had been Tatsuo Yoshida’s house). Located West of town, the place was chosen by Kenji Yoshida who lived nearby. But it so happened that Tatsunoko’s new location was close to Mushi (located in Nerima, on the East side from Tatsunoko) and Tôei (located in Oizumi, further West). Tôkyô Movie, created soon after, would also set up shop close by, in Asagaya. This part of Tôkyô would quickly become the core of the anime industry and has remained so since: in 2018, 70% of anime production companies were located in that vicinity. 

The new facilities welcomed the new staff that would work on the show. Around November 1964, 60 people were recruited through newspaper advertisements, while a dozen others were taken from the few other existing animation studios, largely thanks to Akio Rokugô’s connections. From Tôei, the most important was background artist Mitsuki Nakamura, while from Mushi it was scriptwriter Jinzô Toriumi and mangaka/animator Toshiharu Kinoshita. TCJ animator Seiji Okuda was there in the very first days of the studio; although he doesn’t seem to have worked (in a credited capacity at least) on Space Ace proper, he taught Tatsunoko’s new recruits for some time. Similarly, Kinoshita managed to have legendary animator Kenzô Masaoka do a 1-week training course. 

For many of the newly-arrived artists, this studio change meant promotions. However little experience they had, many of them instantly became episode directors, animation directors or key animators. For example, the most recurrent directors were Hiroshi Sasagawa, Ippei Kuri and Mitsukazu Yamatani. The main writers were once again Sasagawa, Tadashi Hirose and Jinzô Toriumi. Finally, the two animation directors were Tôei-trained Seitarô Hara and Mushi-alumnus Toshio Kinoshita. This is for the credited staff, but there were many more contacts between the three studios: Hiroshi Sasagawa mentioned that some “Tôei veterans” who were on Hopper also worked part-time on Ace (though it’s not clear whether he meant animators or other artists), while some Mushi artists also did some outsourcing on the show. 

Besides these people, Space Ace included group credits, which illustrate the studio’s organization: on direction, we find the “Tatsunoko Pro directing departement” (竜の子プロ演出部) and on writing, we have the “Idea Workshop” (イデア工房). Like Mushi and Tôei, the latter of which probably took inspiration either from Disney or from its own live-action division, Tatsunoko was organized in multiple creative departments that didn’t really communicate with each other outside of the very official channel provided by production assistants. Besides the art, coloring and animation sections, there was notably a directors’ division. There was no official writers’ division yet, but the “Idea Workshop” was the informal shape it took. It initially had 4 members, each from a different origin: Tadashi Hirose’s first anime work was for Tokyo Movie, Jinzô Toriumi and Yoshitake Suzuki were from Mushi, while Takashi Kusakawa was a journalist. This structure allowed for a better exchange of ideas and collective creativity between the members of a given group, but also made the in-house training programs more efficient, as new artists would immediately receive hands-on training with more experienced colleagues.The final question that remains is how the work was organized. In the credits, there are many similarities with the pilot. Notably, the animation work is split between genga and dôga. Most episodes credit only one key animator (Seitarô Hara from episode 1 to 10, then Takashi Nishioka (西岡たかし) and Shigeru Aoki (青木茂, an ex-Mushi animator working from outsourcing studio Anime Pro) in rotation for the remaining episodes), except those that credit animators under genga-douga. The in-betweeners are mostly the same as those from the pilot. Unlike the pilot, however, there are animation directors on each episode – a position that was far from systematic on Tatsunoko shows. They were two: Toshiharu Kinoshita until episode 10, who was then relieved by Hara for the rest of the show. Sadly, from episode 41 onwards the animation credits have been lost. This happened again on Mach GoGoGo for which we only have episode director, screenwriter and voice actor credits.

A tentative chronology and list of Tatsunoko’s main artists at the beginning of Space Ace‘s production

Visually and narratively, Space Ace may not have stood out from other anime productions in 1965. Its animation is really nothing exceptional, especially compared to the quality and creativity of what Tôei was releasing at the same time. Retrospectively, however, it’s very easy to note what are the elements that make it the first entry in a distinct Tatsunoko style or lineage. In terms of plot, its story of an alien prince exiled to Earth after the destruction of his planet who fights various bad guys would have seemed perfectly normal when compared to shows like Astro Boy or TCJ’s Space Boy Soran. But when one considers that Tatsuo Yoshida had always been fond of American comics and had even contributed to a manga version of Superman, the inspiration becomes obvious, and immediately distinguishes Space Ace from the plethora of Astro Boy clones that populated the airwaves in the early and mid-60s. Similarly, with their round and cute shapes, the character designs seem similar to Tezuka’s or, in Tôei, Yasuji Mori’s. But the main female character, Asari, already looks like a prototype of future Tatsunoko girls: her neck is unnaturally small and her head too round, while her large eyes and stylized eyebrows are clear markers of femininity. There’s a sense of detail in her design that makes her different from the rest of the cast, and most TV anime characters of the time.

Moving on to color

With an average rating of 16.5%, Space Ace was a relative success – at least, it wasn’t a failure. That was all that mattered, since it meant Tatsunoko would not be going under: it made its continued existence as an animation production company credible. For this reason, by the second half of Space Ace’s run, the studio started expanding. It is in that timeframe, roughly between January 1966 and April 1967, that some of the studio’s most important staff joined.

If we begin with animators, we must start with Eiji Tanaka, who would become one of Tatsunoko’s pillars throughout the 60’s and early 70’s. In the 50’s, Tanaka had been an assistant to Osamu Tezuka, and then worked as a shôjo manga artist under his real name Akira Saijô and the pseudo Yumeji Saijô. With his brother Takashi Saijô, they started working on Astro Boy, then jumped from studio to studio: in 1964-1965, they were present in both Anime Pro, created by ex-Mushi animators, and Hatena Pro, created by ex-Tôei artists and which also recruited a lot of Mushi people. Anime Pro did some animation on Space Ace, and some testimonies contend that Saijô at least was on the show, though I couldn’t find him in the credits; it’s therefore hard to tell whether the two brothers actually worked on Tatsunoko’s first show.

In January 1965, they created their own studio, Tama Pro, with three other animators: Jûji Mizumura (水村十司), Masaaki Kikuchi (菊地政明) and Teruo Handa (半田輝男). During its first years of existence, Tama Pro mostly worked with Mushi, continuing to work on Astro Boy, then Jungle Emperor and Ribbon no Kishi. In 1967, thanks to their previous connection with Anime Pro, they officially started collaborating with Tatsunoko on Mach GoGoGo. As we will see in later articles, Tama Pro would quickly become Tatsunoko’s most essential subcontractor, playing a part similar to what A Production was to Tokyo Movie.

Mentioning A Pro and Tama Pro brings us to another artist who would become one of Tatsunoko’s pillars: Masami Suda. Originally wanting to become a painter, Suda first joined Tatsunoko in 1965. He happened to be one of the very few recruits to have a drivers’ license, so, instead of drawing, he was enlisted as a production assistant and chauffeur – he even drove Tatsuo Yoshida’s children to school. Understandably bored and unhappy with the situation, he left after 4 months and successfully passed the entrance exam of the newly-created A Production. After receiving basic training, he once again left and joined Tama Pro in 1966. He would make his debut as an animator on Mach GoGoGo from there.

Moving on from animators, another major artist who made his first contributions on Mach GoGoGo was aspiring scriptwriter Hisayuki Toriumi. Since Tatsunoko had no dedicated writers’ department yet, he joined the directors’ division and was taken under Kuri and Sasagawa’s wings. He is not to be mistaken for unrelated Tatsunoko scriptwriter Jinzô Toriumi, who, as mentioned above, had already been present on Space Ace and who wrote most of Mach GoGoGo’s episodes. Both Toriumis would remain some of Tatsunoko’s most regular and trusted artists.

Beyond Jinzô Toriumi, Mach GoGoGo brought the very same people who had worked on Space Ace in its top staff: the three main episode directors were Kuri, Sasagawa and Hara. Although the full credits have been lost (they were included in mid-episode title cards, but those are apparently lost), the only surviving ones, from episode 2, teach us two things: Tatsunoko still relied on animation directors, and the animators were now credited under gendôga – probably because of the arrival and influence of Tama Pro and more ex-Mushi artists. 

The production of Mach GoGoGo started very early, and is closely related to the end of Space Ace. At some point in early 1966 (a special color episode of Ace, #41, was broadcast in color on February 12, 1966), Tatsunoko asked TV station Fuji TV for an extension of the show’s run – this time, in color. As an argument, they made a color pilot film – but the proposal was refused, which may explain why the pilot didn’t reach the voice recording stage. It was following that refusal that the top artists in the studio explored concepts for a new show, ultimately ending up on a mash-up of Tatsuo Yoshida’s manga Pilot Ace and Ippei Kuri’s Mach Sanshirô. Because of this original choice, the anime project in fact mostly amounted to an original work. This wasn’t to please potential investors: during the first 3 weeks of its broadcast, Mach GoGoGo had no sponsor – Tatsunoko had to make a deal directly with TV station Fuji TV, which would broadcast the series without resorting to any in-betweens, and would look for sponsors. This was unheard of at the time and remains an exception in anime history (while it definitely had a sponsor, it seems that Space Ace also had marketing difficulties at first – which may explain the extremely long gap between the early stages of the project around June 1964 and the first episode airing in May 1965).

Pilot Ace (left) and Mach Sanshirô (right). Visually, Mach GoGoGo would take most of its inspiration from Pilot Ace, but many elements from Mach Sanshirô were later repurposed in Kurenai Sanshirô

The financial situation must have been extremely worrying, because, to make the new production possible (and to make it in color), Tatsunoko went through a considerable amount of expansion, which, of course, meant more money to spend. By the middle of Space Ace’s run, Tatsunoko acquired its own animation camera and stopped outsourcing photography work to studio Nezu Pro – which entailed recruiting new staff, but also new facilities to house something as cumbersome as a multiplane camera. This was a decisive evolution, not just because it meant Tatsunoko was now self-sufficient, but because it would, in a few years, house the most innovative and important photography departments in the entire anime industry.

Above, I mentioned new animators and subcontractors, but the other departments also grew: the art division, which had 3 members at the beginning of Space Ace, numbered around 13 people by the first episode of Mach GoGoGo. Even that was not enough, as background art would keep being outsourced to Tôei and Mushi throughout the show. At the bigger company level, the number of employees went up from around 70-80 in 1965 to 250 by the time Mach GoGoGo started airing. This new scale was only feasible by borrowing money – both Ippei Kuri and Kenji Yoshida mentioned that by the early 70s, the studio was around 100 million yen in debt. This money partly came from Fuji TV, now quite close to Tatsunoko, but also to manga publishers like Shûeisha, with whom Kenji Yoshida was particularily acquainted.

It is then apparent that Mach GoGoGo wasn’t simply Tatsunoko’s first success, notably overseas: it was where the studio’s key staff, aesthetic and production model were really set. Indeed, this adventure story with its slick, clean character and mechanical designs (taken from Yoshida’s Pilot Ace, but heavily reworked by art director and mecha designer Mitsuki Nakamura) was an original take on the science-fiction, robot and space superhero stories that still flooded TV anime. The focus on mecha was simply prophetic, as it anticipated the merchandising shift from character-themed goods and toys to small toy models of mecha, which would become dominant in the 70s.Moving on to color and expanding the studio appears to have been a successful move: 6 months after Mach GoGoGo had started airing, Tatsunoko would launch its first comedy series, in cheaper black-and-white: Orâ Guzura Dado. Its success would encourage Tatsunoko to keep producing 2 types of show at the same time: action-adventure stories in the vein of Mach GoGoGo for boys and teenagers on one hand, and fantastic comedies for younger children on the other. These two categories in fact correspond to the different sensibilities of the Yoshida brothers: Tatsuo and Ippei Kuri were favoring “serious” stuff, whereas Kenji, backed by Hiroshi Sasagawa, pushed for the production of comedies, which ended up being a huge success. In the course of this series, I will almost exclusively cover the first kind, but it should not be forgotten that the two sides of the studio’s production remained closely related.

What the first years of Tatsunoko’s existence quickly show is that the studio was anything but exceptional in the landscape of the early anime industry. In fact, it was closely linked to the two biggest studios of the time, Tôei and Mushi, through staff communications, transfers and outsourcing. Tatsunoko was, rather than an island, a hub for many artists from other studios who were quickly attracted by the studio’s strategy to pioneer original works rather than keep itself to manga adaptations. That position was what enabled the studio’s productions to work so well so fast, unlike what happened in other studios: for example, before it could gather Tôei artists and become a hub of its own, Tokyo Movie was struggling and unable to meet the already low standard of quality set by Astro Boy and its often cheaper imitators.

Moreover, in its history, Tatsunoko is easy to compare with two other, younger studios which have already been mentioned and will keep being so from now on. On one hand, it is studio Zero, another mangaka-collective-turned-animation-studio, which however did not have the same originality and success Tatsunoko would have, since it closed down in 1972. In other words, Zero was what Tatsunoko could have become had its strategy not worked and luck dried up. On the other, it is studio Tokyo Movie, with which Tatsunoko would have a close connection. Both studios’ growths would run parallel, attesting to the existence of similar structures in the early anime industry: beginning animation production in the mid-60s, a “golden age” by the end of the decade, and then major reorganizations in the late 70s.

Additional sources

Sasagawa, Hiroshi (2020). “Next Year is the 50th Anniversary of Kabattot, broadcast in 1971! The Early Days of Tatsunoko Seen by Director Hiroshi Sasagawa” [1971年放送のギャグアニメ「カバトット」、来年で50周年! 笹川ひろし監督の見たタツノコプロ創成期のあれこれ]. Akiba Sôten. https://akiba-souken.com/article/47556/

Sûdo, Tadashi (2018). “A Strange Anime Company: The Secrets of Tatsunoko Pro” [ヘンなアニメ会社・タツノコプロの秘密]. Citrus.net. https://citrus-net.jp/article/62052

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