The History of Tatsunoko – 2 – Experimental anime

This article is the second part of the History of Tatsunoko series. You can read part 1 here

Following the production of Mach GoGoGo, aired throughout 1967 and 1968, studio Tatsunoko’s production split into two distinct styles or lineages. The first is “realist works” (リアル物) and the other “comedies” (ギャグ物). What these terms entail precisely will be the object of this and future articles; in any case, according to all actors involved, this duality played a major part in Tatsunoko’s specificity with regards to the rest of the anime industry. The first category in particular is the most significant: through it, Tatsunoko can be considered one of the pioneers of “realism” in animation (whatever that means). The fact that both categories are incredibly vague tends to show that they don’t really mean anything, but have been created to distinguish productions between themselves rather than to identify wider aesthetic trends.

The contrast between Mach GoGoGo and Orâ Guzura Dado, Tatsunoko’s 2nd and 3rd shows, is the one at the origin of the distinction between realist and comedic works. It would further develop in 1969, with the studio’s most radically different work yet: Kurenai Sanshirô, aired from April 2, 1969 to September 24 of the same year.

The “realist” aesthetic and approach of the show was possible thanks to its director, who in fact debuted as chief director: the second of the three Yoshida brothers, Ippei Kuri. Largely overshadowed by the other two rising anime directors of the time that were Isao Takahata (in Tôei) and Osamu Dezaki (in Mushi), Kuri was easily on par with them in terms of artistic vision; one may even argue that him and Tatsunoko’s artists and technicians largely laid the ground that would make Dezaki’s expressionist style possible. In that regard, Sanshirô can be read as a site for formal and technical experimentation, wherein “realism” was but one of the many aspects that were explored.

Situating Sanshirô

Just like Space Ace, Sanshirô was developed alongside a manga by Tatsunoko’s members, although it had a slightly complex history – complex, but very instructive about the studio’s marketing strategy. Kurenai Sanshirô’s first version was a manga by Ippei Kuri and Mamoru Uchiyama, serialized in Shônen Sunday magazine in 1968. It seems to have been rather unsuccessful and stopped publication after just a few months, but then an anime adaptation was put in the works. At that moment, the Sanshirô manga enjoyed a continuation, this time published in Weekly Shônen Jump. It was now credited to “Tatsuo Yoshida & Tatsunoko” – although it was actually Uchiyama’s work. The same had happened with Space Ace and Mach GoGoGo: it was part of the studio’s strategy to redirect their works to Tatsuo just like Mushi did with Osamu Tezuka – something that studios like Tôei, TCJ or Tokyo Movie, who had no close ties to the manga industry, couldn’t do.

A panel from the Kurenai Sanshirô manga

As a manga, Sanshirô didn’t necessarily stand out from what else was being published in shônen magazine at the time. However, as an anime, it came out in the context of an aesthetic and technical revolution, that of so-called “gekiga anime”. The term has very little consistency and no generally-admitted definition, but it does have a canon of roughly 5 works: Tokyo Movie’s Star of the Giants (1968-1971), Zero’s Sabu to Ichi Torimono Hikae (1968-1969), Mushi’s Dororo (1969) and Ashita no Joe (1970) and Tôei’s Tiger Mask (1969-1971) (as well as some other “minor” shows, such as Tôei’s Kick no Oni in 1970, or TCJ’s Sasuke in 1968). Visually, as we will see, Sanshirô shared some similarities and staff with some of these shows; but narratively and thematically, it was completely different.

Gekiga anime, whether its genre was jidai-geki (medieval drama) or sports, stood out for its complex, often pessimistic, representation of society where the hero had to go through countless efforts to escape their social condition. On the other hand, Sanshirô was taking space in fictional countries and some of its stories, involving ghosts or spirits, are thoroughly fantastic. Its main inspiration wasn’t any kind of social reality, but epic adventure stories for children and teenagers. With this fantastic adventure world went a very Western perspective: the depiction of foreign cultures is consistently orientalist and sometimes borders on racism, such as when all main characters of an episode are coded as white when the plot takes place in regions such as India or Southern Asia. Finally, if Sanshirô did include martial arts as a main thematic, it was not a “sports” show, like Star of the Giants, Ashita no Joe and Tiger Mask undoubtedly are.

In short, Sanshirô’s appeal rested on its exoticism; this aspect is even more obvious for the contemporary viewer, who’s also exposed to the chronological distance. The show’s atmosphere has been best summed up by a Japanese blogger: “The pictures are amazing. The direction is amazing. The content is weird.” Indeed, the narrative structure of each episode is always strange, with very little set-up, and is extremely repetitive; but the sheer eccentricity of the scenarios makes the viewer forget all that to enjoy the spectacle.

Sanshirô‘s special effects

And the show certainly is spectacular. One year after Mach GoGoGo was done airing, it represented Tatsunoko at peak capacity: the financial and staff situation of the studio being stable, it was time to invest and try new things. This meant, for example, character designs so complex that almost no in-house animator was able to make them move, therefore requiring constant outside help and outsourcing to more experienced artists. There was also a major step-up in the coloring work: whereas Mach GoGoGo had around 200 color samples at its disposal, Sanshirô now had around 300. As a result, the series looks more vibrant than most of its contemporaries, with beautiful backgrounds, an extreme polish on the texture of clothes and skin, and unprecedented attention to shading – creating a sense of volume on the bodies which no doubt played a large part in the show’s perceived “realism”. 

Additionally, Sanshirô was Tatsunoko’s first production to use a tracing machine – the technological evolution that made the gekiga anime style possible. It was not used systematically, as would be the case on series like Tiger Mask and Ashita no Joe. Its use was actually regulated by chief coloring and painting artist Minoru Mukai, who explained his decision-making process as follows: “I had to do it all: I looked at each drawing, and when I indicated the colors, I also left notes “this must be done by hand, this with the machine”. […] I asked the best artists to do it by hand, and only used the machine for predetermined poses and bank sequences”. As we will see later on, the use of the machine was in fact very dependent on the animators’ styles and sensibilities. Its use was therefore probably a constant object of negotiations between the animators as artists and the tracing staff as technicians.

This is the first in a series of examples of Tatsunoko’s organization: as we will see in later articles, the background art and character/mechanical design artists were united in a single department, headed by Mitsuki Nakamura. Although in separate departments, the coloring/tracing (led by Mukai) and photography (led by Tadashi Hosono) staff were also quite close. They all had in fact little contact with the animation division, which paradoxically seems to have been somewhat isolated from the rest of the studio. What I don’t know is whether or not this was an original organization, or if it was in fact representative of how animation studios divided their staff at the time.

The real leap forward, however, was in the photography department, as is immediately obvious from the stunning opening sequence. It, alongside with the most visible “special effects” throughout the show, was a collaborative effort: most probably storyboarded by Ippei Kuri, it was animated by the Tama Pro artists Eiji Tanaka and Takeshi Saijô, while the photography was handled by Tadashi Hosono, with assistance and advice from producer Yoshio Ikeda and art director Mitsuki Nakamura. The two most impressive parts are no doubt the first instants: Sanshirô’s jump (animated by Saijô), in which his body multiplies, was created using a strobe effect – the first time in anime history such a technique was used. Then, there’s the on-screen title, a sort of puddle of red blood taking the shape of the words Kurenai Sanshirô, which then does a sudden zoom-out/zoom-in movement over the animated part in the background layers, themselves illuminated by a backlighting effect for the sunset.

 This wasn’t all, as the first episode introduced many more experiments. The final fight of  the episode takes place on a boat, and is already notable for Kuri’s storyboards, rife with expressionist effects all over, impressive photography work with constant camera movement as well as stark zoom-ins and zoom-outs everywhere, and as many live-action elements as possible: at a moment when the antagonist hits the ground, the character cel was overlaid over footage of sand being thrown in the air, and when the boat finally explodes, it is a real-life model built and then burnt by Mitsuki Nakamura in the yard in front of the studio.

Finally, before moving on to a discussion of Sanshirô’s animation, it’s worth evoking the direction staff a bit. Ippei Kuri was present all throughout, directing and storyboarding 8 episodes by himself; he was closely followed by his student Hisayuki Toriumi, who directed and storyboarded 7 episodes. But the most interesting people to see in the rotation are two freelancers, who would keep doing storyboards for Tatsunoko as well as other studios until the late 1970s: Seiji Okuda (episodes 5 and 8) and Yoshiyuki Tomino (episode 19). It should immediately be noted that neither of their episodes stand out that much from the rest – except, perhaps, that Tomino’s storyboards appear more focused on cinematic shot compositions than usual. 

Okuda was already discussed in the previous article: originally from TCJ, he quickly left the studio and participated in the establishment of Tatsunoko. Many sources, including Okuda’s own website, indicate that he worked on Space Ace and Mach GoGoGo as a storyboarder; however, the first mention of his name that I could find in the credits transcript of the book Tatsunoko Pro Insiders is on Orâ Guzura Dadô #35B, aired in May 1968. In any case, by 1967, Okuda had switched from being an animator to a storyboarder and he offered his services mostly to Mushi and Tatsunoko. 

As for Tomino, he had entered the anime industry in 1964, as a production assistant in Mushi. Due to the staff shortage within the studio, he was promoted to storyboarding, with his first credit being episode 96, under the pseudo Shûshuke Arata, aired in November 1964. By the end of the show’s run, however, Tomino wasn’t feeling comfortable in Mushi anymore and left the industry for a year. When he came back, he quickly built himself the reputation of an extremely fast worker. His first recorded collaboration with Tatsunoko was on Guzura #45A, aired in August 1968. His relationship with the studio clearly wasn’t very close yet, as his presence on their shows was very occasional.

Eiji Tanaka: realism and idealization

As mentioned above, Sanshirô was considered especially difficult for Tatsunoko’s animation staff: even though the production seems to have started early on and to have been quite healthy, the studio’s in-house artists were still inexperienced and Sanshirô’s complex character designs didn’t make things easier. As a consequence, the show heavily relied on outside help; the most important contributor was Eiji Tanaka.

Tanaka, an ex-shôjo manga artist and Mushi Pro animator, was the leader of studio Tama Pro, which he had created with his brother Takeshi Saijô in January 1965. Their first official collaboration with Tatsunoko was on Mach GoGoGo, where Tanaka quickly revealed himself to be one of the most competent character animators Tatsunoko was working with – and therefore soon became one of their most important collaborators. Tama Pro became so essential that they’re said to have animated on half the episodes of Mach GoGoGo.

Pages from Tanaka’s 1955 manga Beyond the Setting Sun

According to Saijô’s testimony, Tatsuo Yoshida was already familiar with Tanaka’s manga work, and especially admired his way of drawing female characters. This is why he had him design every single one of the guest female characters that appear in each episode of Sanshirô. Aside from the design work, Tanaka also did most of the animation on the show, being credited on 17 of the 26 episodes and probably acting as the equivalent to an animation director on each of those (there is no animation director credit in the show). In other words, if in terms of direction Sanshirô was a product of Ippei Kuri’s genius, in terms of design and animation, it was very much Tanaka’s child.

If the character designs of the show were considered “realistic” and “difficult to animate”, that was not only because of the amount of detail they contained, but also because the body structures and drawing style were so different from the usually round and simpler characters of the 60s: they were more anatomically accurate and felt much “heavier”, with an increased sense of physical presence. This difficulty was in fact common to all studios in the late 60s, as artists struggled to implement the more “adult” designs of the gekiga style. Tanaka, however, brought in a different sensibility thanks to his origin as a shôjo artist. First, his characters were thoroughly idealized, corresponding to a specific canon of beauty: tall, slender, with large, expressive eyes and full lips. The attention he put in the hair, clothing, skin and make-up of his female characters (directly imported from the way he created shading through elegantly curved lines in his manga) was particularly adapted to the step-up made in coloring by Minoru Mukai and his teams. Tanaka himself seems to have been aware of how difficult his beautiful designs would have been to animate: they were often immobile, adopting strong poses that also highlighted their elegance.

Given his tendency to create idealized designs, it is no surprise that Tanaka’s animation was especially focused on creating fluidity: it emphasized difficult movements such as 360° rotations, movements of the hands and hair, or anatomically complex fight choreographies. In all these aspects, he would have two followers: the direct one was Masami Suda, who had been in Tama Pro during the production of Mach GoGoGo, and the indirect and later one would be Yasuomi Umetsu. Besides those two, Tanaka’s style was probably just as impactful on Tatsunoko’s “aesthetic” as Tatsuo Yoshida’s and Ippei Kuri’s: his female characters were the first real incarnation of the “Tatsunoko girls” and some of the first real bishôjo characters in anime.

In spite of all this, we should make no mistake: Sanshirô’s animation is far from being consistently excellent, and Tanaka’s designs played a large part in that. His animation is therefore at its best not when it tries out overly complex motion, but when it executes simple actions supported by the flawless direction and storyboarding of the show. The sequence above, one of the final scenes of the last episode, may be a good example. The actions are rather simple – it’s mostly cycles – but most of the sequence is on 1s and 2s, and the extreme fluidity of the movement compensates for how repetitive it might be. Moreover, this sequence largely works thanks to the coloring and the extreme contrast between cold blue and the bright red of Sanshirô’s judo jacket. The animation doesn’t have to take the spotlight, and the animator did no more than was required – fluid movement, clear poses and explicit emotions so that the drama of the scene, where Sanshirô sacrifices himself, completely comes through. What this illustrates is that Tanaka was an artist perfectly fit for the industrial and time-constrained environment of TV animation: technically proficient, but not willing to sacrifice the production’s well-being in order to make a show of his virtuosity. He perfectly understood what it was that a scene had to convey and he conveyed it – no more, no less.

Tsuguyuki Kubo and the Tôei connection

Tanaka’s approach – somewhere between realistic and designs too beautiful to be true – was certainly innovative, but as mentioned above, it was too much for Tatsunoko’s artists. Most of the animators outside of Tama Pro – in-house, freelance and from other studios – therefore followed a different philosophy, closer to the gekiga style that was developing outside of the studio. It focused on expressivity and power, and sought to convey motion with as little frames as possible. In other words, it sacrificed fluid and on-model animation to stylization and expression. Such a solution to the increased difficulty brought on by gekiga designs was by no means unique to Tatsunoko: although their styles were different, it is because they were grappling with the same problem that animators like Shingo Araki and Keiichirô Kimura developed their own graphic styles.

The artist who defended this vision of animation was one of Tatsunoko’s earliest members: Tsuguyuki Kubo. Born in 1942, Kubo joined the Japanese Self-Defense Force after high school, which allowed him to go to Texas for experimental rocket training. Although he expressed no particular love for manga or comics – he said his inspirations were rather from newspaper illustration – he was probably one of Tatsunoko’s only artists besides Tatsuo Yoshida to have a close familiarity with US media. In any case, after coming back from Texas, he left the JSDF and applied to Tatsunoko, a bit by chance, and entered in late 1964.

What immediately set Kubo apart was his extreme dedication – although he knew nothing about animation, he was one of the most hardworking artists in the studio. This allowed him to quickly earn the trust of his superiors: by the end of Space Ace, he had become a key animator and was asked to animate entirely by himself the opening of Mach GoGoGo. Just after that, however, Kubo left Tatsunoko and created outsourcing company Beads with fellow Tatsunoko artists Toshio Mori (森利夫) and Seiji Yamashita (山下征二).

Before continuing on Kubo’s career, it must be noted that his experience is not exceptional at all for the early anime industry: what studios wanted from new recruits was not artistic talent, but rather the ability to work fast and well. Stories of in-betweeners spending their entire days and nights in the studio just so that they would be acknowledged and become key animators are rather frequent: it is what happened to Masami Suda in Tama Pro during Mach GoGoGo, but also to Yukiyoshi Hane and Keiichirô Kimura in Tôei during the production of Shônen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru.

Studio Beads’ first work was for Tôei, on the TV series Rainbow Sentai Robin. Clearly they were highly valued, as they animated 13 episodes, on all of which Kubo was animation director. Robin’s credits are rather consistent, which allows us to get an idea of Beads’ staff of around 10 animators – although what remains to be seen is whether all of them were from Tatsunoko. In any case, Robin was probably a decisive encounter for Kubo: it is there that he met Keiichirô Kimura, with whom he quickly became extremely close. Today, we remember Kimura for his distinct style and his contributions to gekiga anime on Tiger Mask. Between Robin in 1966 and the end of Tiger Mask’s run in 1971, Kubo can be conceived of as Kimura’s shadow: the lesser-known artist who worked side-by-side with Kimura, exploring very similar, if not even more radical, stylistical options.

It is therefore no surprise if Beads’ episodes on Robin are some of the best in the entire show. They also illustrate that, already in 1966, Tatsunoko had developed some specificity, at least in regards to Tôei: that was an expertise in mecha and effects animation. By that point, Tôei had done very little mecha, and it was only thanks to a younger generation of artists – notably Kimura and Hayao Miyazaki – that Robin would be the laboratory for the studio’s development of mecha animation. On the other hand, Tatsunoko’s two first series, Space Ace and Mach GoGoGo, put a lot of focus on the machines, their movement and workings; Kubo and his team therefore had a lot more experience in the field than any other animator on Robin.

The best illustration of this is Beads’ first episode, #16. It contains prolonged scenes of dogfighting, which are by far some of the best in the entire show. The animation is extremely fluid, and the choreography is breathtaking: it’s hard to think of any other animator using such complex layouts before at least Gatchaman in 1972 – once again a Tatsunoko show. What one may also miss is that Beads didn’t only take its animation expertise with it to Tôei: they also seem to have brought in specific cel coloring techniques. Looking at the planes, one notices a sort of brush effect which produces the impression of the gleam of metal plates. Compared with other episodes, this technique is unique and only appears in Beads’ episodes: Tôei’s animators rather put their attention on simpler shading effects, whether to create stylized contrasts like Kimura or using more realistic shade lines to convey volume like Miyazaki. 

Quite notably, all of Beads’ episodes had their cel tracing, coloring and background art done by the same team. I could confirm that the two background artists (沼井一 and Hozumi Paro 穂積勝義) were from Tôei (in what is maybe but an interesting coincidence, Paro moved to the US in the 70s to work with Hannah Barbera and then Disney Toons, in a move similar to Kubo’s later career). It’s hard to tell whether the 2 to 5 cel painters (前田峯子, 豊島淳子, 高橋照子, 永井妙子 and 山田幸子) were from Tôei or Beads: they also worked on the episodes which had their animation done in-house, and they don’t seem to have been related to any specific production assistant. If these people were indeed from Beads, then they were ex-Tatsunoko and had specific techniques in mind; if they weren’t, it possible that Beads’ animators added specific instructions to their drawings, so that the coloring staff knew precisely what effect to use so that the mecha would look like what they looked in Tatsunoko’s series.

Kubo’s character animation on Robin was less notable, but it is there that his proximity with Kimura revealed itself most clearly. It is especially the case on Beads’ last episode, no less than the finale of the series. The movement is more stylized than usual, while the shadings are much starker, creating Kimura-like contrasts and atmospheres. The most impressive bit, however, is the title card, almost surely animated by Kubo: with its rough linework, bold deformation of bodies in triangular and linear shapes and complete disregard for fluidity, it looks like it was animated by Kimura himself.

After Robin, Beads kept collaborating with Tôei on shows like Mahôtsukai Sally and GeGeGe no Kitarô, but their most important work would no doubt be the animation for the US TV show Johnny Cypher – Kubo’s first US subcontracting work, prefiguring his later career as the ace animator of studio Topcraft. It was then, during a visit at Tatsunoko, that Kubo was personally asked by Tatsuo Yoshida to help on Kurenai Sanshirô. He would be credited on 2 episodes (the first one being solo key-animated) and possibly did some uncredited animation on some others.

Kubo’s solo episode (#06) is, without any doubt, one of the most radical and original pieces in 60’s Japanese animation. Completely unrestrained, the animator disregarded the show’s usual look: Tanaka’s round designs were deformed in favor of angular, geometric and aggressive shapes where circular, organic lines gave way to thick, triangular outlines on bodies and clothes. Whereas Tanaka emphasized skin and texture, Kubo put the focus on muscles and brute physical properties. As a result, the careful, meticulous coloring was also discarded, and the atmospheric direction was set aside for expressionist shading, simple color work and stylized fire effects. In terms of character drawing, Kubo also distanced himself from Kimura – if he relied on a tracing machine, it was to highlight clear-cut dark outlines rather than sketchy and raw drawings. But in terms of movement, the proximity was clear: just like Kimura, Kubo used very little drawings – sometimes just conveying action through carefully crafted and positioned stills – for incredibly complex layouts involving impressive choreography.

Kubo’s style was too idiosyncratic to be really imitated. But his influence on Sanshirô went further than his own animation: indeed, he was probably the one to invite Kimura onto the production – who would bring with him some of his students, notably a young Manabu Ohashi. Kimura was uncredited, so there is no way to make sure what exactly he did. The most likely culprits, however, are episodes 9, 17 and 23, which all feature at least one scene in Kimura’s style. The most likely one has to be #23, since one of the most Kimura-looking moments shares some close similarities with a scene Kimura had animated a few years earlier, on Shônen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru.

In any case, it’s clear that Tatsunoko’s in-house animators, especially a young Motosuke Takahashi and Yoshitaka Amano (who reportedly did animation and his first designs on episode 17, although he didn’t confirm it himself), were attracted to Kimura’s style. The in-house episodes seem to make a very frequent use of the tracing machine, and the way characters move is much closer to Kimura than to Tanaka. Masami Suda, who had successfully passed the tests for Sanshirô and become an in-house Tatsunoko artist, and had the opportunity of doing in-betweens for Kimura, described his influence in the following terms: 

When I saw his drawings, I was shocked. It was so powerful. Even though there were only a few drawings, the movements were huge. It was so hard to just select the right lines for the in-between. […] It was unlike anything I’d done until then, it felt like I had witnessed something incredible. The movement was amazing. It had a big impact on me. The drawing was so rough that drawing the in-betweens felt like doing key animation.”

Kurenai Sanshirô is interesting not only as a piece of art, but also as a historical document. Indeed, thanks to its special place in Tatsunoko and anime’s history, it is a work from which one can discuss many of the fundamental ideas of anime history and theory: studio specificity; gekiga anime; and finally, realism.

Insofar as the anime industry has always heavily relied on outsourcing and freelancing, it is initially hard to attribute a certain “aesthetic” to just one single studio. However, the opposite option, which would consist in just focusing on the styles of individual artists, is just as misguided, since it misses the highly collaborative nature of creative work in general, and in the anime industry especially. From Sanshirô’s case, we can for example conclude that the “realist” style of Tatsunoko’s later animation came from three origins: Tatsuo Yoshida and Ippei Kuri’s style, directly sourced from their manga, which can itself be traced back to other places (such as the influence of comics on Yoshida); the work of other mangaka and animators close to Yoshida, such as Eiji Tanaka, who is said to have tempered Yoshida’s “manly” shônen manga style with his more “feminine” shôjo manga artistry; and the contributions of animators from other studios, whose drawing style and experience would be important for Tatsunoko’s lower-ranking artists. Related to that third “source” is the concept of gekiga anime: whether or not one insists on Tanaka’s or, for instance, Kimura’s influence in Tatsunoko, the studio’s situation relative to other companies and industry-wide trends may be pictured very differently. 

 But that is not all: as I hope to have shown, things like a studio or a show’s aesthetic cannot be reduced to its drawn or animated elements – that is, to the concept of sakuga, which initially encapsulates them both. One must also include other steps in the production process: in fact, Tatsunoko’s early works probably stood out less for their animation or designs than for their coloring and photography, which were profoundly innovative. This allows us to recontextualize ideas such as “realism”: for example, the “realism” in Sanshirô was certainly not to be found in the narrative, and not necessarily in the animation; it can rather be found in the collaboration between character design and cel painting to create particularly vivid and three-dimensional bodies. More generally, if “realism” was one of the results of Sanshirô’s production, it was far from the only one: the show integrated a series of “special effects” taking place outside of the sakuga process, which would only become more inventive with time, and become one of Tatsunoko’s distinctive features.

Additional sources

Hoshi, Makoto (2019). “Kurenai Sanshirô: 50th anniversary of broadcast”, アニメに感謝.

Katsumata, Tomoharu (2012). “Will Full CG Animation Take Root in Japan?” EE.Jp Interview.

Okuda, Seiji (2009). “Career History”, Project Perpetual Motion.

sttng (2005). “Kurenai Sanshirô 26 episodes summary”, チラシの裏Z.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s