The History of Tatsunoko – 4 – Difficult times

This article is part of the History of Tatsunoko series. You can read Part 3 here

Since this series follows Tatsunoko’s history in chronological order, this fourth article should normally be dedicated to Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which started airing in November 1972. However, what I will discuss here is rather Neo-Human Casshern, which came out one year later. The reason for this is that in this piece, I will not only discuss Casshern’s production, but the wider and extremely troubled context of Japanese animation between 1969 and 1974. This will illuminate multiple things about Casshern, but will also allow me to focus with more detail on Gatchaman in the next article.

Casshern stands out among studio Tatsunoko’s productions for its unusually dark worldbuilding and dramatic intensity. It was also perhaps one of the studio’s most difficult productions – a direct result of the difficult context it was made in. In earlier articles, I highlighted Tatsunoko’s position in regards to industry-wide aesthetical shifts, such as gekiga anime or mecha animation. This time, it’s time to focus on changes in business practices, staff policy, merchandising and politics – all things that were triggered by one of the most important crises faced by the anime industry throughout its history.

The crisis of the early 70s

Before bringing the focus on Tatsunoko, it is therefore important to understand the wider context: that of the Japanese economy, and of the anime industry. As is well-known, after WWII, Japan went through a period of reconstruction which, by the 1950s, was already called an “economic miracle”. However, the spectacular growth rate was slowing down by the late 1960s, and the word “recession” started being used in 1971: the economic growth had fallen from 12% in 1970 to half that percentage in 1971.

General growth indicators don’t tell us much about how things really went for people and companies. To understand that, it’s necessary to look at other factors, notably prices. Consumer prices rose rapidly in the early 70s: +6.2% in 1969 and +7.7% in 1970 (the highest number since 1951). This was worsened by the 1973 oil crisis, which hit Japan late in the year: the rise in consumer prices went from +11.7% in 1973 to 24.5% in 1974. Inflation quickly became a real problem, and wages were getting higher – they increased by 17% in 1970. As all prices rose, profits didn’t necessarily follow: these were tough times  for companies which suddenly found it harder to manufacture and sell their products. Animation studios were no exception.

The most obvious example is that of two of the three “first-generation” anime studios: in 1969, TCJ split off into two, much smaller studios (TCJ Video Center, soon renamed Eiken) and Zuiyo Video. In 1973, it was Mushi Productions which, after years of mismanagement leading Osamu Tezuka to step down from presidency, fire producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki and place the company in the hands of his debtors, finally collapsed and declared bankruptcy. Mushi was the biggest and arguably most fragile victim, but not the only one: mid-tier studio Zero went bankrupt in 1971, just like animation outsourcing company Jaggard – which is probably just the tip of the iceberg as far as smaller outsourcing studios were concerned.

Those that didn’t close down were on the verge of doing so: all testimonies of the situation within Tôei between 1967 and 1971 describe it as apocalyptic – resulting in a major strike and lockdown in 1971, followed by a wave  of departures. There is very little information about how things went in Tatsunoko (my main source, the book Tatsunoko Pro Insiders, seems to gloss over any real conflicts that happened within the company), but it seems that there were labor tensions as well between the studio’s union and management. Possibly as a result of hard-fought negotiations, between 70 and 80 people left in 1974 with a reportedly high severance pay. The only studio that seems to have been relatively unscathed was Tokyo Movie, probably because its early reliance on outsourcing made it better adapted to the situation.

Numbers here are very approximative, but they give an idea of the scale of the events: Zero numbered a staff of around 100 employees when it closed down, and Mushi was around 300. If we add the people who left Tatsunoko and Tôei, and all the others who were fired or forced to quit, the estimate would be between 500 and 600 people moving out between 1971 and 1973 – that is between 1/3rd and 1/4th of the entire industry, which must have counted between 1500 and 2000 people at the time. In other words, this was huge.

The next question is: where did all these people go? They basically scattered all around the industry, forming small official studios (such as, for example, Sunrise or Madhouse, both born from the ruins of Mushi), informal collectives of freelancers (see Studio N°1, one of the many studios which gravitated around Tôei), or simply going freelance altogether. Freelance and outsourced work had existed in the anime industry since at least 1963, but it is probably at this point that they became an essential and structural feature of Japanese animation’s overall organization. The new situation profited the studios to some extent – outsourced labor was often cheaper and not unionized – but certainly not the workers, who lost their regular wages and social protection.

However, the economic and labor crisis wasn’t the only event which affected the anime industry. There was also the slow, but constant growth rate of the number of new anime series. Between 1969 and 1973, the number oscillated between 16 and 17 new series per year (not accounting for series which kept airing from one year to the other), but the real breakthrough was 1974, with 22 new series. The rise then accelerated, with 25 in 1976 and 30 in 1977. There are at least three possible factors for this development.

The first is that, by the late 60s, animation had earned itself a solid place within TV programs; people were used to seeing it, which meant that sponsors and TV stations alike had less reservations about the enterprise than they had when weekly TV animation sounded like a crazy venture. This, however, would need to be backed by more precise data – notably to know whether the audience for animation increased with time, and how much. Another factor would be one that is often raised today, as the anime industry faces an overproduction problem: the sponsors pushed for an increase in overall production in order to grind out more potential successes, and therefore more profits. To me, this explanation isn’t the most convincing, since the business model of anime at the time didn’t necessarily favor such strategies. We must then turn to a third explanation, which is especially relevant to Tatsunoko: the arrival of new actors in the anime business.

Looking at generic trends, the period of 1969-1974 corresponds to the rise of two types of shows: magical girl and mecha. What makes these two genres special is that they were carried by a specific type of merchandise: toys. In the early years of the industry, the most recurring sponsors for anime series were food or drinks manufacturers (such as Meiji Seika, Glico or Calpis) who promoted their products (chocolates, candies, drinks, etc) through anime and anime-related merchandise such as stickers. Toymakers promoted a very different kind of products: toys and models of mecha, or accessories inspired by those of magical girl heroines. And these new sponsors couldn’t just replace the old ones: therefore, they funded new anime series, which meant an overall growth in production.

It seems that this growth added a new pressure on the anime industry: Tatsunoko editor Hajime Taniguchi used the overproduction argument, mentioning that “considering the number of shows that were broadcast, there was a shortage of animators in Japan, making them unable to meet delivery schedules”. This impression (whether it was based on fact or not), plus the rise in general production costs, meant that Japanese studios wouldn’t just outsource work to other Japanese companies: they also started using overseas labor. The first to do so would be Tôei, which established a partnership with an animation studio in South Korea in 1973. Other studios quickly followed suit – and Tatsunoko was one of them.

Crisis or expansion?

I have so far not discussed Tatsunoko’s situation in detail. In fact, it is quite an exceptional one: although the studio was definitely affected by the crisis, it seems to have mostly been in a positive way – unless my sources are irremediably biased, which is also a possibility. But even considering that I may ignore or miss some of the hardships the studio went through, it makes no doubt that the period between 1971 and 1974 was one of business expansion: Tatsunoko became more autonomous with regards to sponsors and merchandise and diversified its activities. By the middle of the decade, Tatsunoko had effectively become one of the three most important studios in the industry in terms of output and commercial activity, alongside Tôei and Tokyo Movie.

But let us begin with the “hardships”, which I have actually already mentioned. Chronologically, the first seems to be the establishment of partnerships with animation studios in South Korea. I couldn’t make out when precisely it happened and who were the persons involved on the Korean side, but according to various interviews from Tatsunoko staff, it seems that it happened during the production of Gatchaman – that is, between 1972 and 1974. As brief as the mentions of trips to Korea are in my sources, it seems that the contacts were frequent: first, some of Tatsunoko’s top staff (such as Yûji Nunokawa and possibly Hiroshi Sasagawa) made the trip, and then animators (notably Chûichi Iguchi) to train their Korean counterparts. Once again, sources are lacking, but it seems, unsurprisingly, that the relationship was asymmetrical: Japanese artists went to Korea to train the staff there, but I doubt that Korean animators made the trip to Japan very often.

For the in-house Japanese artists, however, the arrival of Korean workers onto the scene must have been received quite badly. If we refer to the situation in Tôei at the same time, on which there is considerably more information, in-house staff felt helpless against the cheaper, more flexible outsourcers. The quick growth of outsourcing is probably what made labor disputes flare in the early 70s, as unions protested against what they felt was unfair competition – and lost, as many animators left their companies of origin, willingly or not, and themselves entered the highly competitive Japanese outsourcing market.

In Tatsunoko, it makes no doubt that things were tough, as the departure of between 70 to 80 people illustrates. However, one must note that this event happened relatively late: at the end of Gatchaman’s production, that is in Fall 1974. Perhaps this is simply because all hands were needed for the studio’s most ambitious production so far, and it is only when it was done that executives proceeded to reduce the costs and the workforce. But I’d also hypothesize that, for some reason, Tatsunoko was not as strongly affected as other studios by the crisis, and was only hit later than the rest of the industry.

Indeed, around 1970-1971, the studio was well enough to open a new, considerably different division: one that would make advertisements for TV. Although ads would remain a somewhat minor activity for Tatsunoko, it was an interesting turnabout: some of the early anime studios, like TCJ, had originally grown out from advertisement production studios – and now a studio created by manga artists was getting into the field. The division had three in-house members: department leader Motoyoshi Maesato (前里元義), and two producers, Toshihiko Satô (佐藤俊彦) and Hiroshi Katô (加藤博). They had very little contact with the animation production sections: according to Satô, “20% of the commercials were animation, and 80% live-action”, and most were directed and animated by freelance artists outside of the studio. But their activities were still related with what the rest of the studio was doing, since most of the commercials they made seem to have been for the companies that sponsored Tatsunoko’s productions.

If this was indeed the case, this shows that Tatsunoko’s overall business strategy at the time consisted of constantly renegotiating the power dynamic with its sponsors: unlike other animation studios, it didn’t want to be a simple subcontractor making highly elaborate commercials, but an essential partner to be considered on an equal footing. This is most apparent in the extremely bold, but ultimately profitable, move made in 1973: the creation of a subsidiary company, Tatsunoko Land.

Simply put, Tatsunoko Land was a model-maker company that would exclusively produce and sell goods related to Tatsunoko characters; the three Yoshida brothers were among its board of directors. Its birth was itself the direct result of the economic crisis: it seems that it resulted from the bankruptcy of Tatsunoko’s usual partner, Bansô. The two companies must have been particularly close since, according to Toshihiko Satô, Tatsunoko ended up with part of Bansô’s debt when it went under. As a way to pay that debt and create some more profit, Tatsunoko’s executives partnered with model-maker Imai Kagaku (which had itself gone bankrupt in 1969, but was quickly re-established) to enter the model business themselves.

This may not sound like much, but this was absolutely decisive. As Satô told it, it was a direct consequence of Tatsunoko’s reliance on original works, and therefore original characters: “We thought that since we made our own characters, shouldn’t we be the ones selling them?” Not only that, it ensured, at least partly, Tatsunoko’s financial autonomy: the company now had a source of revenue besides animation, and its animation series would stop promoting other companies. With the creation of Tatsunoko Land, the Tatsunoko brand was born in earnest.

The financial security provided by Tatsunoko Land enabled the animation studio to keep making ambitious and original projects just as the rest of the industry was still facing a crisis. Soon, Tatsunoko Land became the main sponsor of some of Tatsunoko’s series: the first of those was Neo-Human Casshern, in 1973.

Making Casshern

It is immediately visible why Casshern may not have attracted regular sponsors and would have needed to be funded by Tatsunoko itself: its story and setting were remarkably dark when compared to contemporary anime in general, and to other Tatsunoko properties in particular. Although it was an SF series and was focused on robots, it was completely different from mecha anime which was barely starting to develop at the time: there is no giant robot to pilot, but it is rather the main character that transforms from a human to a cyborg, causing him anguish throughout the series. Similarly, Casshern did not adopt a monster-of-the week format, as did mecha shows or the concurrently-airing Gatchaman: the number of mechanical designs is remarkably sparse for the time, as the enemies that Casshern fights are a series of mass-produced machines rather than individual robots.

Part of that originality probably comes from what appears to be Casshern’s main inspiration: Kamen Rider. Gatchaman had already taken many cues from tokusatsu, such as the group of superheroes dynamic, or the evil organization that needs to be fought, but Casshern went further as it directly borrowed narrative and thematic elements from Shôtarô Ishinomori’s creation. The first direct derivation is visible in Casshern’s original title: Neoroider, probably intended to sound similar to Kamen Rider. Then, there’s the cyborg theme, translated in Casshern as “neo-human” (新造人間, shinzô ningen) whereas Kamen Rider uses the expression of “modified human” (改造人間, kaizô ningen).  As a result of what they went through, the heroes of both series are uncertain and tortured about their nature; they also have similar abilities, as the solar energy Casshern takes his power from in the ealy part of the series seems directly taken from the wind energy that powers Kamen Rider’s transformation.

Highlighting those parallels is important because it relativizes Casshern’s originality: it was original in regard to other anime, but not to Japanese TV programs in general. Without this information, it may seem surprising that the show was aired on the timeframe that Tatsunoko dedicated to its fairy tale adaptations for children – Friday 7 PM on Fuji TV. But if we consider that the series was targeting Kamen Rider’s audience – young boys – it doesn’t seem that strange.

What’s more surprising is how much the broadcast time seems to have inspired the series’ narrative and production. Indeed, besides tokusatsu, it takes a lot of inspiration from European classics, notably Frankenstein. In terms of staff, it was directed by Hiroshi Sasagawa, who had until then worked mostly on comedies and lighter series. Because of that, Casshern is probably the first in Tatsunoko’s works after Space Ace that can’t be neatly categorized into either one of the “realist” or “comedy” categories. This indicates that the studio’s priorities were changing, but also that its staff organization was no longer the same.

Indeed, besides Sasagawa, Casshern had another artist used to working on comedies among its staff: that was character designer Yoshitaka Amano. Amano joined the studio during the second half of Mach GoGoGo, first as a finishing artist and then as an animator. He kept working as such until 1972, when he was assigned to the art division for Kashi no Ki Mock, on which he would be assistant character designer directly under Tatsuo Yoshida and Ippei Kuri. Yoshida quickly took him under his wing and gave him almost complete freedom on Mock’s follow-up Kerokko Dematan and then on the show that succeeded it on the same timeframe, Casshern.

Yoshitaka Amano is one of the most famous and iconic artists to have worked within or around the Japanese animation industry. Casshern was no doubt a decisive work in his overall career, as it was the first time he moved away from animal or childish characters to give birth to a SF universe that prefigures his later fantasy creations. A comparison between Amano’s designs on Casshern and those from Gatchaman is quite instructive on how the young designer remained within Tatsuo Yoshida and Tatsunoko’s brand design style, while still managing to stand out. Generally, Casshern’s characters are rather thin, and their arms and legs are especially slim. On the other hand, Gatchaman’s are strongly built and brawny, and as a result don’t look as delicate and elegant as Amano’s designs. Moreover, Amano generally had more original ideas: while Luna’s face looks similar to Gatchaman’s Jun, her clothing and general appearance look totally different and properly futuristic. Because of how outlandish she looks, however, she mustn’t have been particularly easy to animate – though that was something that the artists working with Tatsunoko would have been used to.

Two pre-production sketches, presumably by Amano

The only problem with Casshern was that most of the artists working on it were not from Tatsunoko. As I mentioned multiple times in this and earlier articles, outsourcing was already common before the 70s; but its importance evidently increased. In Casshern, this is visible on three fronts: background art, animation and episode direction. While the art direction was probably by Mitsuki Nakamura (and is probably some of his finest work), the actual painting was done by 2 studios who worked in rotation: Production Wato and Apples. The second one had already done some work on Mock, but it seems that both studios really became essential for Tatsunoko on Demetan, just before Casshern, where they similarly worked in rotation.

In terms of animation, the biggest presence was one of Casshern’s regular collaborators: studio Tama Pro. As a team of three animators under the lead of Takashi Saijô, they worked on 14 episodes, including the first one and the finale. But the most interesting is the rest of the staff, quite apparently various groups of people who, having recently left Tôei or Mushi, were fresh on the outsourcing/freelance market and found work in Tatsunoko. Although they had different origins, it is striking that many among them would go on to become close collaborators of studio Sunrise in the following years: Casshern was where the early connection between Tatsunoko and Sunrise was established.

The most famous among those artists is Norio Shioyama. Originally from small studio Hatena Pro, he was the first president of studio Oh! Production in 1970. For unknown reasons, he stepped down and left in 1973, and Casshern seems to be his first work outside of Oh Pro and, more generally, of the “other” part of the industry dominated by Tôei and Tokyo Movie, who shared many subcontractors. Shioyama was one of the few animators on Casshern who was able to deliver good and somewhat distinct work – although, as I will touch on later, the show’s animation in general was far from excellent.

Another ex-Hatena animator present on Casshern was Shigetaka Kiyoyama. After Hatena Pro closed down, he seems to have gone freelance or jumped from a small studio to another, and worked on shows as varied as Mushi’s Ashita no Joe, Tokyo Movie’s Attack N°1, Tôei’s GeGeGe no Kitarô, and finally Tatsunoko’s Demetan. He probably knew Shioyama, which may explain why they worked on multiple episodes together and would meet again in Sunrise. However, they seem to have worked on different shows: apparently more of a comedy and character animator, Kiyoyama was mostly on Kum Kum and Robokko Beeton, whereas Shioyama went on mecha series, starting with Brave Raideen.

The third artist who would later work with Sunrise was Akira Nakamura. With his brother Kazuo, they both started out in Mushi and, after leaving it, jumped from studio to studio before creating their own Nakamura Production. Kazuo was the most famous of the two, and seems to have worked on many of Tôei’s mecha series while serving as animation director on Sunrise’s first SF series, Zero Tester. It is unclear whether Kazuo was on Casshern: on episode 21, it is the studio Nakamura Production which is credited, whereas on 30 it is simply Akira. 

Finally, this overview would not be complete without the mention of a final artist, whose future career wouldn’t be with Sunrise but rather with Tôei: that is Jôji Kikuchi. His earliest credit seems to be on 1965’s Tatakae! Osper, which appears like it was animated by an animation division of TV network Nihon TV. From what little I could find, a number of ex-Mushi artists worked on it: Tatsunoko-affiliated Toshio Kinoshita, Moribi Murano, Nobuhiro Okaseko… It’s possible that Kikuchi was one of them. In any case, his next recorded work after Osper was for Tôei, on 1968’s Gegege no Kitarô – it is probably at this point that he created his studio Kikuchi Pro, credited on Casshern #21. Kikuchi would keep working with Tôei until the early 80s, where he would switch to collaborate with studio Kokusai Eigasha, notably on the J9 series; as far as I could find, his presence on Casshern is therefore exceptional.

In any case, beyond the list of more-or-less important or famous names, the conclusion is this: on Casshern worked a lot of people who had never worked with Tatsunoko before. This element points to the troubled state of the industry at the time: with studios closing down everywhere, staff movement increased and became considerably harder to read. No doubt this became harder to manage for the animators: not only did they have to go look for work themselves instead of being in close relation with the same few production assistants or studio, but they also had to adapt to each studio and series’ specific pipeline and style. For artists used to Mushi’s Tezuka-inspired designs, having to animate Yoshitaka Amano’s designs all of a sudden must have been anything but simple. And it shows in Casshern, whose animation is probably the worst in all the shows I’m going to cover in this series. While the series has many undoubtable qualities, the amount or the strength of movement is surely not one of them.

For this reason, Casshern has little immediate relevance to the perspective of this history – one focused on the visual aspect of anime and the conditions of its production. It is more interesting for the context that surrounds it: one of incredible turmoil within the anime industry, which would lead many studios, including Tatsunoko, to thoroughly change their positions and practices.

To sum things up, before the 1969-1973 crisis, the anime industry was a rather cohesive whole made up of different “tiers” of studios in constant interaction. At the top of the hierarchy were Tôei and Mushi, and Tatsunoko was but one of many second-tier, smaller studios. By 1972-1973, however, things had changed: the importance of solidity of a studio was no longer to be found in its size or output, but largely depended on the quality of its network with smaller outsourcing companies. The three dominant structures were now Tokyo Movie, which had pioneered this model as early as 1966, Tôei, which managed to adapt at the price of an extremely difficult internal reform, and Tatsunoko. In spite of many internal difficulties, Tatsunoko would remain in a stable position as one of the leaders of the anime market until the late 70s.

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