At first glance, it may seem like 1974-1977 were golden years for Tatsunoko. Incredibly strengthened by Gatchaman’s success, the studio now had at its disposal experienced artists who were ready to take on new challenges: the masterpieces of the “three wings of Tatsunoko” (Masami Suda, Tsuneo Ninomiya and Tomonori Kogawa) date from that era. As if to challenge itself, Tatsunoko started changing its catalog somewhat: the distinction between “realist” works and “comedies” started to disappear in favor of shows that freely combined comedy and adventure. But already, one should consider that this new orientation was very hit-and-miss: for every success such as Time Bokan were a few cheap Gatchaman copies. Moreover, even as the talent of those trained in Tatsunoko finally blossomed, many artists started leaving the studio. Tatsunoko itself would therefore profit increasingly less from the work of its best alumni.
Without any aim to be comprehensive, this article will follow these developments and focus on two shows: 1974’s Hurricane Polymar and 1976’s Gowapper 5 Godam. Although very different, both works are good examples of Tatsunoko’s development in the middle of the 70s: in terms of staff, the studio increasingly opened itself to the rest of the industry, but in terms of inventivity, it was rather closing. This contributed to the formation of an instantly-recognizable Tatsunoko aesthetic and brand, but also entailed a diminishing creativity, further decreased by the series of exodus that went on in those years.
The end of Tatsunoko realism
Following Gatchaman and Casshern, Polymar is the third superhero figure in Tatsunoko’s production. This theme allowed the studio to stand out on two fronts: on one hand, Polymar was different from animated mecha shows that were starting to fill the airwaves; on the other, while it was generically closer to tokusatsu series, it was animated and offered a unique appeal. Polymar was probably made with a good understanding of all that, since it also provided a parody of superhero series.
As a result, the show is infused with a pop sensibility that was totally absent from the more dramatic Gatchaman and Casshern, and somewhat anticipates the Time Bokan series. Characters are tongue-in-cheek and sometimes explicitly reference other Tatsunoko shows (such as in episode 15, where detective Kuruma directly cites a line from Casshern), Polymar fights while screaming like Bruce Lee, and fanservice is everywhere. The main problem is that Polymar wasn’t able to go beyond that. As a result, the writing is extremely repetitive, with the same situations and fights always falling at exactly the same moments. While the use of bank animation is relatively low, most fights lack impact because they feel like yet another repetition of the same moves in a slightly different context.
More generally, in terms of animation and design, Polymar suffers from a strange unbalance: the character designs (by Tatsuo Yoshida and Yoshitaka Amano, reworked by animation director Tsuneo Ninomiya) were realistic and muscular, in continuity with Gatchaman, and not really suited for the comedic acting that was expected from them. The animation was then in a difficult situation, stuck between realism and comedy and not really being able to go fully in either direction.
The awkwardness of this situation was especially felt by one artist: Polymar’s animation director, Tsuneo Ninomiya. It was Tatsuo Yoshida who assigned him to become the successor of Sadao Miyamoto, who had been the animation director of Decision and Gatchaman and oversaw the development of Tatsunoko’s most talented artists in the “realist” register. A freelancer, he stopped collaborating with the studio when his contract expired, that is once Gatchaman was completed.
At first glance, Ninomiya was a good fit for the new series: he came from Tatsunoko’s comedies, and had then moved on to Gatchaman, which made him able to handle both realist and comedic acting. The problem was that, on the field, his style wasn’t a really good fit for Polymar. On Gatchaman, he would tend to make the designs thinner and simpler, and instead of following up on that, Polymar’s designs added many details to highlight bone and muscle structure. These were elements of Tatsuo Yoshida’s style that Masami Suda or Tomonori Kogawa would perhaps have been better at adapting for animation. In a later interview, Ninomiya expressed his frustration at the situation, saying that he would have been more comfortable as animator than animation director:
At the time, I didn’t know what was going on. [If I had done key animation], I think I could have drawn something that would have fit me better. I was animation director, but when I did the corrections I thought “how would I do this if I were the key animator?” I didn’t just take what came to me and correct it.”
In spite of this, Polymar undoubtedly represents a major progress in the evolution of Tatsunoko’s sakuga. Since at least Kurenai Sanshirô, the studio’s general aesthetic put just as much, if not more, weight on the art, photography and painting than in the animation. It is only over the course of Gatchaman that Tatsunoko’s animators began to assert themselves; Polymar is the next, logical step of that process. As a result, the “special effects” are far less obnoxious than in previous series, and the focus undoubtedly is on character animation rather than mecha or effects.
On a purely technical basis, the animation of Polymar and especially of its fights is extremely competent. It remains fluid and keeps the motion constant, while the drawings remain consistent and detailed even on sometimes acrobatic layouts. But this technical excellence quickly seems wasted: as I mentioned above, the fights are extremely repetitive and soon become boring in spite of their excellent presentation. Furthermore, we encounter once again the conflict between realism and comedy, here under the shape of a conflict between the drawings and movement.
As I just said, the drawings are consistent and strong; the addition of speedlines (often created with a brush, probably under the responsibility of special effects artist Kiyoshi Asanuma) or slight smears only makes them more intense. However, the movement itself lacks that intensity: on the sequence above, the timing is uniformly on 2s, and even the variations in spacing fail to create any impression of the physical forces at play. As a result, there is no feeling of weight and the action lacks any impact. In other words, the anatomical realism of the designs didn’t come through in a realistic kind of animation, which mostly stuck to stereotypical and ultimately boring movements.
The only artists who were an exception to that rule were those that actually used timing as it is meant to be used, that is as an expressive device that conveys forces. Among those, we can cite studio Cam animator Moriyasu Taniguchi. In some instances, such as this one from episode 6, he would use sudden slow-in/slow-outs to highlight particular moves (see 0:03-0:04 or 0:14). However, the only animator who really managed to maintain such a level throughout the entire series was Tatsunoko’s new prodigy, Tomonori Kogawa.
Kogawa was, first and foremost, an incredible draftsman. His style had developed throughout Gatchaman, and by the beginning of Polymar, each one of his individual drawings was stronger than what everybody else in the studio was able to produce. His exceptional understanding of anatomy made him able not only to reproduce Tatsuo Yoshida’s designs, but even to improve upon them by adding details on the bodies and on the shading. And when they moved, Kogawa’s drawings were on another level.
On the most basic technical side of things, what made Kogawa special was his understanding of timing, and his use of framerate modulation. The timing is never uniform, as some movements are either entirely on 3s or 2s, or have the number of frames change irregularly: the moment when Polymar breaks the chains that bind him freely oscillates. As a result, you can feel the effort he has to put in to break those chains; Polymar and his enemies aren’t just dolls moving around, but real people in real, physical bodies. It is through timing that Kogawa achieves verisimilitude, but also avoids boredom: the speed of the movement varies, making each action different, new, and ultimately entertaining.
That Kogawa’s animation was the exception and not the norm on Polymar is telling about the evolution of Tatsunoko’s aesthetic. The realist approach that had challenged designers and animators was vanishing – perhaps a direct result of the departure of one of its most underrated contributors, animation director Sadao Miyamoto. Even though Kogawa was pushing the limits of what was possible in TV animation, he was isolated within his own studio. That is because Polymar was ultimately the last work in Tatsunoko’s realist lineage: after it, under the double pressure of character designer Yoshitaka Amano and animation director Tsuneo Ninomiya, the studio’s design and animation philosophy started to change.
Before examining this aesthetic evolution, it’s necessary to link it with the internal, staff evolution within Tatsunoko. Here, I will mostly focus on the most well-documented category, animators, but this dynamic was probably general and touched all artists and technicians. I mentioned it in the piece dedicated to Casshern and the crisis of the early 70s, but around the end of Gatchaman, that is late 1974, around 70 people left Tatsunoko following what seems to be internal (union-related) conflicts. For a studio that probably numbered around 300 people, this was a lot – and seems to have been followed by even more withdrawals.
Waves of departures such as this aren’t necessarily visible in the credits: most animators who left their original studio would have kept working with it, but as freelancers rather than in-house employees. For example, Polymar’s credits don’t seem to indicate any change and simply merge the animation teams from Gatchaman and Casshern. From Gatchaman were the Three Wings (Suda, Ninomiya and Kogawa), as well as other in-house artists such as Motosuke Takahashi and regular subcontractors like Moriyasu Taniguchi and his studio Cam. From Casshern were 2 subcontractors: the closely related artists from Tama Pro (in the shape of the Takashi Saijô and Jûji Mizumura duo), and freelancers such as Norio Shioyama and Shigeru Katô.
By Tekkaman, which began in July 1975, that is 4 months after Polymar ended, things were different. First, subcontracting studios are explicitly credited, and not through their animators. Moreover, there is an exceptional amount of solo-animated episodes, all in the hands of the Three Wings: on 26 episodes, Ninomiya soloed 6, Suda 5 and Kogawa 3. One could interpret this optimistically: Tatsunoko trusted its best artists to do great work and let them work as they pleased on solo episodes. But, given how frequent this was and the fact that it indeed fell on the same 3 trustworthy artists, I’d argue that producers had no choice but to rely on them: they didn’t have enough animators at their disposal to work on Tekkaman, and therefore dumped all the work on the few people that were actually available.
In an interview, Tomonori Kogawa talked about how he felt at the time; he mentioned that, in the mid-70s, he was still hesitating on whether or not he should stay in animation. This feeling seems to resonate with what Ninomiya was going through at the same time. Kogawa’s intense workload in Tatsunoko and then outside of it didn’t help – by 1978, when he worked on Farewell Space Battleship Yamato, he was on the verge of leaving the industry:
At the time, I was trying to decide whether to continue or quit animation. It wasn’t until 5 years after I started [that would be around 1975-1976, when he started working outside of Tatsunoko] that I actually decided to stay. […] I was thinking of quitting once I was done with Farewell Yamato. I wanted it to be remembered as my last work, and then leave.”
Besides this individual case, it’s very apparent that, by 1975, many Tatsunoko artists were starting to look outside of the studio. To remain on Kogawa, his first works outside of Tatsunoko since 1971 aired in early 1975: episode 24 of Space Battleship Yamato, aired on March 16, 1975, and episodes 5 and 13 of Gamba’s Adventure, aired on May 5th and June 30th. He was systematically uncredited, but all of these episodes were made by studio Mates, a regular Tokyo Movie subcontractor with which he seems to have had a close relationship. Then, in 1976, he made a decisive move and was, for the first time, actually credited on Tôei productions: UFO Robo Grendizer VS Great Mazinger in March, then Grendizer, Getter Robo G & Great Mazinger in July, followed by 2 solo episodes of the TV series Magne Robo Ga-Keen in early 1977: he cut his ties with Tatsunoko for good between December 1976 and March 1977.
Another important profile is that of Masami Suda – not an attached freelancer like Kogawa or Ninomiya, but an in-house artist and one of the most prestigious at that. Just as he was working on Gowapper 5 Godam for Tatsunoko, he left and joined Tôei in the summer of 1976 to work as animator on Machine Hayabusa, after which he was quickly promoted to animation direction on Magne Robo Ga-Keen, Chôjin Sentai Barattack and finally character designer on SF Saiyûki Starzinger in the late 70s.
A final example is that of Motosuke Takahashi. As an animator (possibly in-house) aspiring to become episode director, he was already an exception in Tatsunoko, where the limit between divisions – in that case, directors and animators – was strongly marked. He left Tatsunoko somewhere in 1975, and was soon working in every place that welcomed ex-Tatsunoko artists and especially 3 studios: Sunrise (he was episode director and animator on multiple episodes of Raideen and then of the Robot Romance Trilogy), Wako Pro (Andes Shônen Pero Pero no Bôken) and Ashi Pro (Blocker Gundan IV Machine Blaster).
Wako and Ashi are essential actors in the massive exoduses of Tatsunoko artists in the mid-70s. Created in 1965, Wako spent most of the 60s as a subcontractor for Tatsunoko: it therefore had a close connection with it and its artists. By 1975, it had brought in enough people from both Mushi and Tatsunoko to produce by itself its first series, Pero Pero no Bôken.
Ashi Pro, on the other hand, was created by proper in-house Tatsunoko artists. It was established on December 24, 1975 by 2 of the 3 members of Tatsunoko’s advertisement division: Toshihiko Satô and Hiroshi Katô (I couldn’t make sure, but it seems the ad division disbanded after they left). Unable to produce shows entirely on their own, they started subcontracting for Nippon Animation, and took charge of the production of Nippon’s first mecha show, Machine Blaster, in July 1976. Ashi Pro recruited many artists from Tatsunoko’s comedies who would go on to create their own structure, Pierrot: the chief director was Masami Annô, and the two character designers were Yûji Nunokawa and Motosuke Takahashi. At the middle of all that was Kunio Okawara, in-house at Tatsunoko, who still contributed mechanical designs first for Ashi and Wako series, and then to Sunrise, which he joined for the production of Robokko Beeton.
In other words, between 1975 and 1977, Tatsunoko had most of its experienced staff leaving, either for other studios like Tôei, or to create their own structures like Ashi. All this happened well before Tatsuo Yoshida’s death on September 5, 1977, which was therefore not a factor. Basically, Tatsunoko went through exactly the same situation that Tôei had known between 1969 and 1972. It is therefore possible that the causes were exactly the same: economic crisis, which for some reason only hit Tatsunoko a few years later.
Farewell to Tatsunoko
What can only be described as a slow decline was not only visible in staff movement: it was also apparent in the shows themselves. Tatsunoko’s first proper giant robot series, Gowapper 5 Godam, is the most eloquent example. That the studio held its ground until 1976 – 4 years after Mazinger Z – to make its first mecha tells volumes about its situation in the industry: it held steadfastly to its own aesthetic and inspirations, namely US and Japanese superhero narratives.
Even as a mecha, Godam is still not very orthodox and remains in Gatchaman’s tradition: rather than a single robot or the product of a combination, the series features 5 individual mechas (one for each character), and then the titular giant robot. Its remarkably chunky design (by Kunio Okawara) and the fact that it barely moves throughout the entire show is also telling about how little the team must have cared. But the most obvious element is that Godam directly ripped off another show by a different studio: Sunrise’s Brave Raideen.
That the giant robot emerges out of a cliff with a huge human face engraved upon it may seem like a minor element. But, as repetitive as mecha series may have been at the time, such a direct reference appears strikingly unimaginative. It also reveals that the links between Tatsunoko and Sunrise had become inextricable. There are multiple obvious staff connections: Shin’ichi Miyazaki, the producer of Polymar, was also the one for Raideen. Yoshiyuki Tomino, the chief director of Raideen during its first 26 episodes, directed 8 episodes of Godam. Finally, Sunrise itself was explicitly credited on two of them, and its animators also worked on a third one.
In other categories, Godam was mostly a typical Tatsunoko work. The art direction (by Mitsuki Nakamura) and color design are vibrant, far more colorful than most other mechas. The character designs represented the victory of Yoshitaka Amano’s philosophy over Tatsuo Yoshida’s: realism of shapes or body structures was completely discarded in favor of stylized characters with thin limbs, big eyes and exotic costumes. They were just as difficult to animate as Yoshida’s realistic designs, but the difficulties they posed were different. As a result, there sometimes is a sort of dissonance that is the exact opposite of the one I noted for Polymar: close-ups of characters’ faces, especially those by Kogawa, are extremely detailed and three-dimensional, creating a sometimes awkward contrast with the otherwise extremely flat drawings.
Godam’s effects animation is also worth discussing, even though it is rarely notable in terms of motion. As mentioned for Polymar, the role of optical and painting effects slowly decreased after 1974 (although the opening of Tekkaman remains a spectacular counter-example). By the time of Godam, the importance of the studio’s art division had notably decreased: once in charge of all the effects animation in some series, they had now ceded the most of the ground to the animators. Polymar, Tekkaman and Godam were therefore the moment when Tatsunoko’s animators first developed a specific approach to effects animation, notably liquids. Masami Suda’s incredible contribution to the show’s opening is perhaps the best example.
Generally, Godam is the direct product of decline: it barely moves and it is hard to believe that it was made by the same team as Gatchaman and Polymar. It is apparent that animators such as Suda, Kogawa or even Takahashi and Ninomiya had lost most of their involvement in Tatsunoko and put very little effort in their work – or, perhaps, they were not given the room to make it decent. The result was one of the lowest ratings in Tatsunoko’s early history – 4.1% – and a sudden change in TV stations at the middle of the broadcast (from Sundays 7PM on Asahi TV to Wednesdays 6PM on NET), which ultimately did not improve the situation.
The exact cause and nature of Tatsunoko’s sudden decline after 1974 remain unclear. The situation is made harder to parse because of the fact that, besides the SF series discussed here, the studio still managed to produce successful, imaginative works such as the Time Bokan series. And yet, the ambition and quality of most shows plummeted after Polymar, which was itself an indicator of things to come. Many of Tatsunoko’s most experienced and talented artists started deserting it – they would keep working with it occasionally, but mostly started working elsewhere. The consequences were, over the last years of the 70s, the definite disappearance of Tatsunoko’s specificity as a studio within the industry: its artists brought their know-how and style to other places, while Tatsunoko’s own productions increasingly followed the general trends of the industry.