The History of Mushi Pro – 04 – Mushi’s gekiga (1969-1970)

According to Eiichi Yamamoto, the years 1970-1971 represented Mushi Pro’s “second golden age” [1]. There seems to be some truth to this statement: the number of new productions was at its highest, and the quality of some of these is undeniable – Ashita no Joe, in particular, stands as one of the studio’s greatest achievements. However, just as had been the case during the “first” golden age – the time of Jungle Taitei – artistic excellence developed in a context of frustration, hostility and hardships. 

The decisive factor to explain this is the continuing, and now acknowledged, rejection of Tezuka. His works didn’t sell anymore, and the studio started adapting works by other mangaka. But this meant that the IP-centered model of the early years wasn’t relevant anymore, leading Mushi to enter a vicious cycle of overproduction and outsourcing to remain afloat. These worsening conditions only encouraged more people to leave, and ultimately led to the collapse of yet another one of the studio’s core elements: the “producer system” initiated by Eiichi Yamamoto on Jungle Taitei. Once a model for all other studios in the Japanese industry, Mushi had become just one among others by the early 70s.

Signs of these changes are not just industrial, but also aesthetic: Mushi did not set the trend anymore, it largely followed it. The years 1967-1971 are marked by two so-called “booms” in Japanese television: the yôkai boom on one hand and the gekiga boom on the other [2]. These produced different styles: one was focused on fantastic, episodic series and the other on realistic, continuous narratives. But what they had in common was a deep impact on anime’s look and stories, which also affected Mushi Pro.

Defining “gekiga anime”

One of the most important trends of late 60s-early 70s anime is the so-called gekiga style. It is a term I have myself used many times, without really properly delineating it – the reason being that there is no clear definition of what “gekiga anime” is. It is first and foremost a constellation of works brought together by their common context of appearance and stylistic tendencies. In any case, the term was already in use in the early 70s, and still is today by critics, historians and industry members alike [3]. In most cases, it is essentially an aesthetic marker, indicated by the expression “gekiga touch”. To explain its meaning, it is necessary to come back to what gekiga is in the first place.

As is well known, the word gekiga was invented by Yoshihiro Tatsumi in 1957, as a way to differentiate his “dramatic pictures” from mainstream manga – “comical” or “whimsical” pictures. It was initially an alternative movement which developed in the then-dominant format of rental books and magazines [4]. In Tatsumi’s understanding, gekiga meant comics for adults, with meditative storylines and upfront discussion of social issues. But, under the hands of other artists, it took on other meanings, such as Sanpei Shirato’s marxist historical epics or Takao Saitô’s gritty action series. In 1959, 8 artists (Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Takao Saitô, Fumiyasu Ishikawa, Motomitsu Kei, Shôichi Sakurai, Susumu Yamamori, Masaaki Satô and Masahiko Matsumoto) gathered in their own “Gekiga Workshop” and published a manifesto claiming that they represented a new step in the evolution of Japanese comics and a new kind of media aimed at teenagers [5].

The development and mainstreamization of gekiga cannot be separated from wider changes in the manga industry. The rental market entered a quick decline in the last years of the 50s, and magazines became the dominant format with the appearance of weeklies in 1959 [6]. Artists adapted to meet the new requirements set by mass production: relying on increasingly professional assistants became the norm and independent writers started penning stories for artists [7]. By the second half of the 60s, the so-called “gekiga boom” was in full swing: it was led by Shônen Magazine and a direct consequence of the W3 incident. When Tezuka stopped his relationship with the magazine and another one of its lead series, Eightman, stopped publication in 1965, a new chief editor, Masaru Uchida, was appointed [8]. Under his direction, Shônen Magazine published some of Ikki Kajiwara’s famous sports manga, Kyôjin no Hoshi (from 1966) and Ashita no Joe (from 1968), but also Shôtarô Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009 and Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitarô. Other magazines soon followed suit with more adult stories and, by the early 70s, gekiga had definitely integrated the mainstream.

Gekiga anime was largely the product of “mainstream”, industrialized gekiga and had little to do with the alternative, countercultural roots of the movement – although, as we’ll see, some anime creators definitely had similar ambitions. Despite the undeniably experimental nature of some series, they were first and foremost the product of wider trends and, for the biggest among them, of carefully planned media-mix strategies that came not from animation studios, but from publishers (Shônen Magazine) and TV stations (the newly created Yomiuri TV) [9]. There were, however, factors internal to the animation industry that led certain series to not just be adaptations of popular manga, but adaptations with a certain style and tone, which came to be called gekiga.

The first factor is generational, and mostly played in Mushi, whose staff was full of aspiring or ex-manga artists. They were very young, most of them born in the 40s, and had therefore experienced in real-time the developments of postwar manga and the transition from Tezuka-inspired “story manga” to gekiga. Many had even been actors of the gekiga boom: Osamu Dezaki, Shingo Araki, Akihiro Kanayama, among others, had published some work for Central Bunko, an Osaka-based publisher and leader in the rental gekiga market [10]. When they joined Mushi, many young animators admired Tezuka, but their styles were closer to the realism of gekiga: such was the case of Shingo Araki and Sadao Miyamoto, who both left the studio because they didn’t fit [11]. Araki at least saw a real continuity between manga and his style, claiming that he instantly recognized Kyojin no Hoshi as an “opportunity” he could not miss to develop the approach that had been repressed in Mushi [12].

The second factor is a technological one: it is the introduction of so-called “tracing machines” in the animation industry. As is well-known, the automatization of the tracing process (until then done entirely by hand) was first  made possible by the use of a modified Xerox camera which allowed to directly transfer the drawings to cels. Introduced in Disney in the late 50s and systematized on 101 Dalmatians in 1961, this revolutionized the way animation looked, as not only tracing, but also cleanup was skipped and construction lines were now visible in the finished film.

Released in 1962 in Japan, 101 Dalmatians’ impact was immediate. Just as a joint venture between Xerox and Fuji Film opened in Japan under the name Fuji Xerox, Tôei started research on tracing machines, purchasing a Xerox 1318 copy machine and asking a camera manufacturer to make a modified version of the Xerox camera used in Disney. It was used experimentally on Wolf Boy Ken in late 1963, but was not implemented systematically because of its size and high maintenance costs. In 1965, Tôei entered a partnership with another print machine manufacturer, Josai Duplo, and started talks with its cel provider, Fuji Kagakushi Workshop, to develop another tracing machine and cels that could be used with it. Although it was commissioned by Tôei, Masahiro Haraguchi claims that it was first used by another studio, TCJ, on their Sasuke in 1968 [13].

Although it wasn’t exclusively used on gekiga shows, the generalization of the tracing machine was a key factor in the emergence of the “gekiga touch” in anime. As forerunners such as Mushi’s Wanpaku Tanteidan and Animal 1 illustrate, character design trends had already started changing by the mid/late-60s, but the look of the animation itself completely changed once tracing machines were introduced. Animators were encouraged to use thicker outlines that could be better picked up by the machines, while construction lines and afterimages were kept in. This “rough” linework perfectly matched the change in content, as jidai-geki and spokon adaptations increasingly focused on the lower classes, included more violent storylines and expressionist, over-the-top expressions, creating a resonance between themes and visuals. It is this match which retrospectively gives the idea of a coherent gekiga aesthetic or movement in anime.

A tentative list of gekiga anime shows. In italics are shows which I consider to be at the limits of the category

Delineating the limits of gekiga anime remains a difficult task. The list I provide here is based on a generic definition, according to which “gekiga anime” only applies to spokon and jidai-geki. But even then, I have not included every single sports anime. For example, Samurai Giants may be sports, but does it really qualify as gekiga given its tone? Similarly, I’ve put Lupin III in for reference – after all, it is a straight adaptation of a gekiga comic – but in terms of genre and approach, it is very different from the canonical gekiga anime works. The other question is that of SF: for instance, Tatsunoko’s works in the period did make use of the gekiga touch, but their tone (documentary for Decision and superhero team for Gatchaman) has nothing to do with gekiga anime “proper”. Similarly, while the popularity of spokon stories decreased by the early 70s, the gekiga touch endured until the early 80s, notably in mecha. In other words, while “gekiga anime” is a useful qualifier, it is anything but systematic and should not be used as such.

Gisaburô Sugii’s misfortunes

While gekiga and Tezuka were largely contradictory, Mushi’s first attempt at gekiga anime proper – in the sense of a violent, adult story – would be a Tezuka adaptation: Dororo. Tezuka’s manga was itself a sort of reaction to the current trends – not gekiga, but rather the yôkai boom, said to have been launched by Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitarô and Akuma-Kun [14]. The Dororo manga started serialization in August 1967, and the anime must have entered planning not long afterwards, as its pilot was completed in January 1968 [15]. Its origins are unclear, but Gisaburô Sugii claims that the manga was introduced to him by Satoshi Dezaki, Osamu Dezaki’s older brother who had also joined Art Fresh [16]. Dezaki the elder helped Sugii with the planning, and the pilot film was produced by Art Fresh, with the help of Mushi animator Hideaki Kitano, who served as character designer and animation director.

It seems that Tezuka was involved in the creation of the pilot as well, which might explain why the designs are so close to his manga – Hyakkimaru, in particular, still has a very round face which has none of the square, solid features it would have in the actual show. Kitano had been Tezuka’s assistant and was therefore very familiar with his style, but the difference between the pilot and anime showcases very well the transition to the gekiga style: probably just before or after Dororo, Tezuka rejected Kitano’s work on the Zero Man pilot, partly because the style was closer to Kyojin no Hoshi – that is, to the gekiga touch [17].

Aside from the designs and the fact that it is in color, the pilot film is rather close to the anime – some shots were even reused in the show. Sugii had already settled his approach to direction and animation: lots of camera movement, action scenes that moved very little but instead relied on pose-to-pose animation and short, dynamic cuts and smears. The sound direction by Atsumi Tashiro and the music by Isao Tomita are also distinctive: the main vocal theme of the anime had already been composed and the use of traditional instruments decided. Sound effects are also used to create atmosphere, as is the case when the monster comes out of the well at 10:20, where liquid effects are synchronized with the zooms in a way that would not feel out of place in a horror film.

As the fact that the series started more than one year after its pilot was completed illustrates, Dororo was not an easy sell. Early 1968 was probably too early. But things had radically changed by 1969: by that point, series like GeGeGe no Kitarô and Yôkai Ningen Bem had shown the profitability of yôkai-themed anime, jidai-geki such as Sasuke and Sabu to Ichi had started airing, and Kyojin no Hoshi had launched gekiga anime in earnest. This context probably led Fuji TV and Calpis to buy Dororo and air it on a newly-created timeslot: the Calpis Manga Theater, on Sundays at 19:30. It is because of this that, in a now famous story, Dororo went from color to black-and-white: Calpis believed that showing red blood in prime time would be “disgusting”, and so Sugii suggested doing it in black-and-white – which would make it look closer to the 50s and 60s jidai-geki films he admired anyways. While this certainly made the show’s budget lower, Sugii claimed he didn’t consider this factor [18].

However, already from the time of the pilot, Dororo was in difficulty. Neither Mushi nor Art Fresh had the funds to produce it, and Sugii had to borrow 2 million yen from a former Tôei colleague, Daikichirô Kusube. Kusube, now the president of A Production, was raking it in as Tokyo Movie’s main subcontractor, a situation that only improved when he became the character designer and animation director of Kyojin no Hoshi. It was to repay this debt that Art Fresh worked on that latter series and that Sugii contributed to the Lupin III pilot, made just before Dororo started [19]. It was also probably through this connection that Atsumi Tashiro later worked on the Lupin series.

It seems that Dororo’s initial failure to be sold, which immediately followed Goku no Daibôken’s own issues, almost led Sugii to stop working for Mushi. Despite everything that had happened, he was still on good terms with Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto, but he increasingly started working for other studios. The Lupin pilot is one case, and another was Johnny Cypher, a Japan-US coproduction on which Sugii and Art Fresh were invited by Yûsaku Sakamoto, whose own Studio Jack was part of the rotation. Independently or with Art Fresh, Sugii worked everywhere that wanted him: on commercials, on TV series like Osomatsu-Kun or Fight!! Pyûta… 

In the end, Sugii left Art Fresh, probably just after the Dororo pilot was completed: he was probably freelance for a few months, until he was approached by Mushi sound director Atsumi Tashiro in March 1968. Tashiro intended to leave Mushi to create his own sound company, with the aim of ultimately producing their own musical animations one day – Tashiro probably wanted to reproduce the experience of Jungle Taitei. Sugii accepted his offer and, on March 23, 1968, Group TAC was established by Tashiro, Sugii, Isao Tomita, Motohiko Kôno and Susumu Aketagawa [20]. By that point, Art Fresh was practically empty: Atsushi Takagi and Osamu Dezaki had left as well, and Seiji Okuda would soon move on. Dororo was the last production on which the studio’s core staff was all gathered together, even if they now worked from different places.

Ironically, then, Dororo suffered from exactly the same fate as its predecessor, Goku no Daibôken. Sugii had taken Tezuka’s manga seriously and turned it into something as dark and moody as he could, but that failed to attract audiences. Exactly as had happened on Goku, at the end of the first cour, Tezuka called Sugii to his office – but now he asked the opposite, to turn the serious story into a comedy. It seems that Tezuka had been asked the same thing by his publisher as the manga did not work well enough – he was going to make a sacrifice and asked Sugii to make one as well [21]. And, of course, Sugii did the same thing he had done two years prior: he left and told the team that if they wanted to turn Dororo into a comedy, they were free to do so, but without him. Having been renamed Dororo and Hyakkimaru, the show progressively went in another direction: writers starting penning original episodes and the stories became focused on Dororo with Hyakkimaru just being the one saving the day at the end of the episodes.

The break between the two parts of Dororo is even more striking than the one between the two parts of Goku. Not only is the change in tone more radical, it goes with a change in general direction and animation, which is also a change in staff. The first half had no writers and, probably as on Atom’s early phases, episode directors directly wrote their storyboards from the manga. The second half saw a group of writers, led by Yoshitake Suzuki and Tôru Sawaki, arrive on the show. Their role was probably central, as the series was now without a director and its production probably all over the place. The directors’ rotation also changed: the two main episode directors of the first part, Osamu Dezaki and Yoshiyuki Tomino, respectively left after episodes 11 and 16, and were replaced by Seiji Okuda and Taku Sugiyama. The only one to remain for more-or-less the entirety of the series was Ryôsuke Takahashi.

Under Sugii’s direction, Dororo was a masterpiece in the making. As could be expected from one of TAC’s early works, sound is one of the main components of the show and plays an essential role in its unique atmosphere. This can surely be partly attributed to Atsumi Tashiro and Sugii – reportedly one of the only directors in Mushi who attended dubbing sessions [22] – but Dezaki’s contributions also stood out. Indeed, while sound direction is always distinct in the first half of Dororo, it is never as distinct and thought-out as in Dezaki’s episodes specifically.

A good example would be the extremely famous opening scene of the first episode: it starts without dialogue, only accompanied by the naturalistic and ominous sound of rain and thunder. But then, as Daigo says his first line, it is immediately followed by a brief but tense musical cue, which instantly indicates how dangerous and evil he is. When actual music starts later in the scene with a slow chorus, it is so foreboding and well mixed to the ongoing thunder in the background that it’s hard to tell whether it is yet more cues accompanying Daigo’s words, diegetic sounds meant to express the demons awakening, or simply extra-diegetic music. And, as had already been the case in Sugii’s pilot, camera movement is perfectly synchronized with the sound, in this case the thunder. The scene that follows, the birth of Hyakkimaru, seems to be a repeat of Dezaki’s first episode of Atom: we open on a long, slow pan of the forest with quiet chirping sounds, before a shriek breaks the quiet. The long, still shots of Daigo looking over the baby are backed up by ominous drums, which suddenly stop when Daigo first sees Hyakkimaru. Visuals and sound perfectly complement each other, and the viewer doesn’t need to see anything to know all that has happened.

The visual storytelling is on par with the sound direction. In that same scene, Daigo’s shadow spreading over Hyakkimaru and his mother – a shot directly taken from the pilot – is powerful visual symbolism. In general, Sugii’s Dororo was direction-centered, in the sense that actual animated movement is minimal and that most of the meaning is conveyed by other means: sound, shot compositions, camera movement and special effects. Indeed, under the photographic direction of Kôji Kumagai, who would transfer to Ashita no Joe just afterwards, Dororo is one of Mushi’s first shows to experiment to such a degree with camera and cel processing effects, from waved glass, multiplane shots and depth-of-field, to a repeated use of airbrush applied on top of the cels to create lighting or flare effects.

From left to right: waved glass, brush, backlighting, depth-of-field

Not all of these elements were discarded in the second half of the show, but they carried much less meaning and impact in a show where drama, realism and atmosphere had now become secondary concerns. The most striking change, then, must be in the animation: from the stiff, almost exclusively still style visible in the pilot, movement becomes fluid and expressions far more cartoony. Dororo becomes the core of the show, and comical movement the basic principle of its animation. This is not entirely to Dororo’s detriment, as it is the occasion for some impressive action scenes – often partly on 2s, as the one below – and very fun performances. But the fact is that Dororo had become something completely different.

Because of this, the question remains of whether or not Dororo can truly be integrated into the canon of gekiga anime. For one thing, it actually incorporates very little of the “gekiga touch” associated with the category’s animation. Moreover, the second half seemingly rejects everything the first half had stood for. But, if we only consider the first one, Dororo certainly stands out and fully belongs to the experimental trend of late 60s anime: its continuous story is remarkably dark and socially aware for the time, its direction considers all aspects of animation and constantly tries out new techniques… In that sense, Dororo and its rival within Mushi, Sabu to Ichi, perhaps illustrate that gekiga may not be the good label for anime of that period: there was rather a sudden movement by which people all over the industry wanted to push further the limits of animated expression.

Experimenting in TV

By the late 60s, the artistic situation in Mushi was in a sort of deadlock. The successive failures of Goku no Daibôken and Wanpaku Tanteidan illustrated that the ambitions of young directors like Sugii and Rintarô could hardly find their expressions on TV. Dororo only confirmed it. There was feature films, but the experience of 1001 Nights’ production probably discouraged many people in Mushi from trying it. Finally, there was still the option of short experimental films, but most of Mushi’s artists had seemingly given up on it when Tetsuwan Atom began: Tezuka kept doing some with those closest to him, but the rest of Mushi’s directors never did any significant contributions to the studio’s “experimental” catalog.

The solution to this situation, which consisted of broadening the possibilities of TV animation, came from outside Mushi. It was a project carried by studio Zero, an adaptation of a manga by one of Tezuka’s brightest disciples: Shôtarô Ishinomori’s Sabu to Ichi Torimono Hikae. Its director would be Rintarô, and this show would set a sort of template or reference for all the rest of his career.

Studio Zero had been created on May 8th, 1963 by a group of mangaka, most of whom had been members of Tokiwa-Sô, a shared apartment/workshop which housed many manga artists, including Tezuka, in the 1950s and 1960s: Shin’ichi Suzuki, Shôtarô Ishinomori, Jirô Tsunoda, Fujiko A. Fujio, Fujiko F. Fujio and Fujio Akatsuka. All of them had an interest in animation, but only Suzuki had practiced it in earnest in Otogi Pro, which he left in early 1963 after seeing the first episodes of Atom [23]. Following a failure to sell a TV anime project to Toho, the studio’s first works were mostly dedicated to commercials and title animation for live-action and special effects films. It took some time for Zero to move on to actual TV anime production: their first attempt at producing an episode of Atom was violently rejected by Tezuka for its low quality, and their first plan with Tôei, Rainbow Sentai Robin, was shelved for almost 3 years even though it had been initiated by Tôei producer Takashi Ijima as early as 1963 [24].

In the mid-60s, Zero pioneered gag anime with Fujiko Fujio and Fujio Akatsuka adaptations such as Obake no Q-Tarô and Osomatsu-kun. However, the studio was too small to produce these series on its own: on Q-Tarô, Zero only took charge of the planning while the actual production was handled by Tokyo Movie, while Osomatsu-Kun was co-produced with Children’s Corner. Aside from this, Zero’s business model was the same as Mushi’s: it  had its own internal manga division, and sustained itself thanks to IP management [25].

Although he was one of Zero’s founding members and its president for three years, Ishinomori didn’t have that close of a relationship with the studio. He was rather closer to Tôei, with whom he had established contact since the time of Saiyûki: although the film’s producer Daisaku Shirakawa had discouraged him to get into animation at the time, they remained in touch throughout the 60s [16]. When Tôei decided to produce “B movies”, manga adaptations shown during the holidays, Ishinomori naturally came up as a candidate, and two Cyborg 009 films were produced in 1966 and 1967. A TV series came after them in 1968.

When plans came up to adapt his manga Sabu to Ichi, however, Ishinomori decided to do it in Zero instead of Tôei. Zero produced a pilot, directed by Shin’ichi Suzuki, which was sold to the Osaka branch of advertising company Dentsû. However, as usual, Zero didn’t have the resources to produce the entire series, so Dentsû approached Mushi and director Rintarô. The only thing both studios shared were the main character designs by Mushi’s Moribi Murano and the opening. All the rest was different, down to the sound directors: it was like two entirely different productions being broadcast as a single show [27].

Before discussing what this entailed, it’s important to mention one capital element which made Sabu to Ichi what it was. It was going through an Osaka-based company instead of a Tokyo one, and the decision to air the show on a late time slot for the time, from 9 to 9:30PM. Dororo aired on primetime and, at least from Fuji TV and Calpis’ perspective, was meant to be a children’s show – this was an important factor in making Sugii’s ambition impossible to realize. On the other hand, Sabu to Ichi was planned as a series for adults from the start – aside from its experimental style, it would therefore include crime, violence and sex. It seems that everyone in Mushi followed Sabu to Ichi and sought to replicate its level [28]; one can only imagine Sugii’s feelings as he failed to compete with Rintarô’s achievement not because of a lack of skill, but because of outside interference.

Without either Tezuka or producers behind him, Rintarô seemingly enjoyed complete freedom. He was nominally the chief director (although he really had no hand in the Zero episodes), and was assigned veteran live-action jidai-geki director Sadatsugu Matsuda, credited as “supervisor” on the series, who let him do as he wanted. He decided to use as little frames as possible: according to him, the first episode only used 900 drawings, while according to Masahiro Haraguchi, #9 used 1,200 and #14 900 [29]. Whether these numbers are correct or not matters little: the fact is that movement in Sabu to Ichi is extremely limited, not primarily as a result of budget or scheduling issues but out of a thought-out stylistic decision.

At first glance, Dororo and Sabu to Ichi are similar in that regard, and they probably influenced each other: Sabu to Ichi ended up airing first, but perhaps its staff was already aware of the Dororo pilot. However, when one actually watches the two shows side-by-side, the differences are obvious. Both have a very distinct direction style focusing on shot compositions, camera movement and editing, but each decides to emphasize something different on top of that: in Dororo, Sugii developed cel processing special effects and sound effects, while in Sabu to Ichi, Rintarô relied on drawings and animation. In that sense, Sabu to Ichi can be considered to be the first masterpiece of Akio Sugino, who took on the role of animation director and character designer in Mushi’s episodes from #09 onwards [30]. Not only are the designs unlike anything else Mushi had produced – elegant and simple, with clearly-defined lines and adult features – the movement is both remarkably efficient and expressive.

A good example of Sabu to Ichi’s excellent animation would be the sequence above, taken from episode 6. The long second shot, an overhead shot of Ichi running and cutting down opponents, is entirely on 2s. What makes it so dynamic is the spacing and posing, as there are no in-between poses between each extreme when Ichi swings his sword around. There are also some effects of anticipation: for instance, when Ichi kills the first man running towards him, the victim is shown being cut two frames before Ichi’s sword is fully drawn. In this incredible bit of animation, we also see how fitting and powerful the use of the dermatograph pencil and the tracing machine could be: Ichi’s sword leaves behind it a thick, black line creating beautiful, almost abstract patterns from frame to frame.

The shots that follow may appear simpler because they are less frame-consuming, but they are no less impressive. First is a multiplane shot simply admirable for its composition; it is followed by a series of quick pans and cuts over stills only accompanied by the sound of slashing blades. The photography and animation perfectly complement each other, as the directions the drawings are rotated in seem to perfectly match the simple, elegant curves and poses derived from Murano’s designs. Because of its association with animators like Shingo Araki and Keiichirô Kimura, the gekiga style is often equated with big, bulky bodies and straight, rough lines. But, under Murano and Sugino’s hands, both Sabu to Ichi and Ashita no Joe showcase another possibility, that of a sharp, curves-based style relying just as much on the beauty of shapes and poses as on the materiality of the linework.

It is in that sense that, while acknowledging how little it moves, I call Sabu to Ichi “animation-centered” – which also applies, in very different ways, to Zero and then Tôei’s episodes on the show. But that’s naturally not all there is to it. As the sequence discussed illustrates, the show benefits from excellent cinematography, mostly the result of the collaboration between Rintarô and Masaki Mori. In continuity with Wanpaku Tanteidan, the camera never stops moving, whether laterally or in depth, creating a sense of constant movement and tension. Experiments never stopped, as on episode 3, where a photograph of a mask was shot on top of the cels, or episode 27, which includes a live-action sequence. Rintarô recounted its creation in the following words.

“We gathered at 5AM and went to Enoshima with Ban Yamaki, who had a 16mm camera. Yasuo Oda, who later created Madhouse and was a production assistant at the time, was supposed to run on the beach with sandals, but he said he didn’t know how to put them on. So I said something like ‘they won’t be visible anyways because of the water, so just roll them around your feet’, and he tied the laces so that they wouldn’t come off. Then we all ran alongside the beach and filmed. For the cut where Ichi swings from within the water, we set a water tank under the animation stand and shot ink dripping from an eye dropper.” [31]

The use of live-action in general, and compositing cels over live-action footage, were things Mushi’s staff was familiar with: they had used the technique on Vampire and, at right the same time, on 1001 Nights. However, Rintarô certainly also had his own ideas about this, notably coming from the inspiration of live-action jidai-geki films. This is perhaps what explains the cinematography of the fights, the sound direction (largely focused on atmospheric effects and sounds of blades slashing and crossing) and a general attempt to reproduce a certain “Edo look”, most visible in the use of ukiyo-e looking backgrounds and drawings.

Sabu to Ichi was an epoch-making show. While not the first adult TV anime proper, it remains one of the earliest entries in the category and a good showcase of its possibilities – not exploitative stories about sex and violence, but powerfully made and sometimes touching genre stories. It was experimental from start to finish, not just in Mushi’s episodes, but also in those produced by Zero and Tôei, which helped out on the latter part. Zero’s episodes tend to move more than Mushi’s ones and be less stylized, but they also explored the border between live-action and animation by the systematic use of live-action reference for fight scenes [32]. Tôei’s episodes, on the other hand, are notable for the presence of animator Keiichirô Kimura, who could express his unique style with a degree of freedom he had never enjoyed before and lay the ground for the stylistic revolution of Tiger Mask.

Reinventing anime

In spite of its obvious quality and undeniable importance, Sabu to Ichi was almost immediately overshadowed, in Mushi and anime history as a whole, by another production which borrowed some of its staff and pushed further some of its stylistic experiments: that was Ashita no Joe. Like Jungle Taitei before it, Ashita no Joe is a monument that dominates not just the rest of Mushi’s productions or anime of the time, but animation as a medium. In retrospect, it feels like all the experiments made on Dororo and Sabu to Ichi were meant to lead to this epoch-making work. As could be expected, Joe is then preceded by its legend, both that of mangaka Tetsuya Chiba and director Osamu Dezaki, which might obscure the complicated origins and messy production of this masterpiece.

Joe and Dezaki’s origins

The story behind the Ashita no Joe anime has been told multiple times by one of its actors, Masao Maruyama. He says that, one day, a young Osamu Dezaki arrived at his desk with a copy of Shônen Magazine, pointed to a chapter of Ashita no Joe and said “I want to adapt this!”. Without any funds or official support from other people in the studio, Dezaki and Maruyama made a first pilot on their own, which consisted of camera movements and sound effects over panels of the manga [33]. One really wants to believe in this story, which builds into the myth of a fated encounter between Dezaki and Joe, his image as an auteur, and Maruyama’s own reputation as a producer who believes in and protects the creators. However, this version of the events does not hold against other testimonies, and is most probably largely false.

The first of those testimonies is Rintarô’s. He mentions that, around the time of Sabu to Ichi, discussions were held in Mushi as for what work they should adapt that was not by Tezuka. Ashita no Joe, which had started not long ago and was already quite popular, naturally came up and Rintarô himself would have gladly directed it. Maruyama himself doesn’t seem to have been the most passionate supporter of the project: at the time, he was planning an adaptation of Gô Nagai’s Harenchi Gakuen, which would have been directed by Rintarô [34].

This is further corroborated by Kaori Chiba’s research on Shigeto Takahashi and the pre-World Masterpiece Theater series. Indeed, Chiba notes that, in 1969, there were two projects competing to take Dororo’s succession in the Calpis Manga Theater slot: one was Takahashi and Zuiyo’s Moomin, and the other was an adaptation of Harenchi Gakuen [35]. Chiba says she found no information on this mysterious second project, but the dates coincide too neatly: it has to be Maruyama and Rintarô’s plan, confirming its existence and showing that Ashita no Joe may have very well happened without the former.

The second testimony is that of Joe’s actual producer in Mushi, Atsushi Tomioka. The chronology he provides is rather confused, since he seems to date Dororo’s air before 1001 Nights’ production. However, he does confirm Rintarô’s statements by saying that discussions to adapt Ashita no Joe had begun in Mushi’s planning room very early in the manga’s run. As Mushi’s staff was already very passionate about it, Tomioka approached Tetsuya Chiba, who told him it was still too early to consider an adaptation. The producer gave up on it, and transferred to the production of 1001 Nights [36]. This would date it around April 1968, which is when the movie’s production started in earnest. However, Chiba himself stated that talks for an adaptation started “around the point when Joe and Rikiishi get up on the ring”, which would be chapters 34 to 40, published between September 15th and October 27th 1968 [37].

It was only after 1001 Nights was completed and he rejected the offer to move on to Cleopatra, that is in Summer 1969, that Tomioka remembered Ashita no Joe. Although he was busy with the short Yasashii Lion, directed by 1001 Nights’ character designer Takashi Yanase, he visited Chiba a second time, accompanied by fellow Mushi producer Eiichi Kawabata. According to Tomioka, Chiba had received multiple offers in the meantime – he numbers “2 TV stations and 3 animation studios” – but had refused them all because he knew Mushi would ask again [38]. By this point, the manga had progressed – it would have been around Joe and Nishi’s pro debut – and there would be enough material for an anime adaptation that was to start in mid or late 1970.

It is after he got Chiba’s approval that Tomioka started gathering the staff. He claims that he was the one to select Dezaki, whose work on Goku no Daibôken he had appreciated and whom he knew had written gekiga – he was therefore a good fit for Joe. He also says he was the one to call on Akio Sugino, Akihiro Kanayama and Shingo Araki, although, as we will see, this is contradicted by Maruyama and Dezaki himself [39].

In any case, even with Joe being an extremely popular manga and Chiba’s approval, getting the project started wasn’t easy. The reason was simple: Mushi had basically no resources. Tomioka, once one of Kaoru Anami’s closest followers, had Maruyama draft a planning document which laid out all the expenses and schedule, like what Eiichi Yamamoto and Masaki Mori had done on Jungle Taitei, and asked the young producer and aspiring director to make a first pilot as cheaply as possible: it is the one Maruyama described, made directly from pages of the manga [40].

This pilot, which is lost as far as I know, is an important part of Joe’s legend. The first reason is that, as I mentioned, its authorship is contested: Maruyama claims it was entirely Dezaki’s idea, which is contradicted by Tomioka. The other reason is what it might say about Dezaki’s style, and notably the director’s use of stills. Indeed, in some accounts, this pilot is the direct origin of Dezaki’s “postcard memories” technique – which I honestly find to be somewhat exaggerated. However, it is true that there seem to be direct continuities between the Ashita no Joe anime and this phantom pilot: Dezaki’s tendency to pan over still images might derive from it, and the image of Joe’s first cross-counter against Wolf in episode 28 is indeed the exact same drawing as in the manga, but colored and accompanied by camera movement and sound effects.

While this first pilot was without any doubt made the way it was because of a lack of money and staff, a major question would be: were Tomioka, Maruyama and Dezaki aware of Nagisa Oshima’s 1967 Ninja Bugeichô? This film was exactly the same thing as the first pilot, with a gekiga by Sanpei Shirato: camera movements over the manga panels with narration and sound effects. If they were, it would be possible to situate Dezaki within a wider continuum of arthouse and experimental artists in Japan in the 60s, and strengthen the connection between him and the so-called “Japanese New Wave” directors, which is more-or-less established by the obvious influence of Nikkatsu’s gangster films, and possibly those by Seijun Suzuki, over his manga. Sadly, none of the people who mention this pilot discuss Oshima’s film, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dezaki do so as well.

There was, however, one direct contact between Dezaki and what one may call the alternative or avant-garde artists of the time: it is the one with poet, writer and director Shûji Terayama. Without going into too much detail into the life and career of one of contemporary Japan’s most important artists, I’ll just note that, by the late 60s, Terayama was famous for his independent troupe Tenjô Sajiki and the creation of the experimental cinema/gallery Universal Gravitation. On March 24, 1970, just one week before the beginning of the Joe anime, it was Terayama who staged the famous funeral of Tôru Rikiishi. Terayama would directly contribute to the anime by writing its opening and ending themes.

Whatever its origins and inspiration, the first pilot was a hard sell. Tomioka sent it to Mushi’s usual partner, Fuji TV, but it was rejected. However, one week later, Tomioka got a call from the TV station saying that the plan was approved and that the TV station would pay for a new, properly made pilot. According to Tomioka, the reason for this sudden turn is as follows: one of Fuji’s producers (perhaps Takaharu Bessho, who ended up producing the show) asked his son about Ashita no Joe, and the answer he got was that it was the hottest manga of the day; realizing what an opportunity it was, the producer instantly called Mushi to greenlight the adaptation [41].

The road to Ashita no Joe

This happened in late 1969 and, by November 14, 1969, Ashita no Joe’s second pilot was completed [42]. According to Tomioka, Mushi received a bit under 3 million yen from Fuji TV, which is quite a lot when one considers that it’s only 8 minutes long and is 1 million more than the episode-length Dororo pilot. Nicknamed the “Aoyama Pilot” because it centers on the rivalry between Joe and Aoyama in the Youth Detention Center arc, it was directed by Dezaki and animation direction was by Hideaki Kitano, who had just transferred from Dororo. His presence might demonstrate that the show’s three animation directors, Sugino, Kanayama and Araki, had not been selected by that point. The cast was also completely different.

The biggest difference between the Aoyama pilot and the show is in the character designs. In this early version, they are much closer to the manga: rounder, smaller, with the same strange proportions as in Wanpaku Tanteidan. I can’t say I find them very appealing, and to speak frankly, Kitano’s Rikiishi is really ugly to me. The animation style is also quite different: aside from the excellent brawl scene animated by Hiromitsu Morita [43], the pilot moves a lot, but without any particular appeal or personality. While there are speedlines and afterimages, the drawings have nothing of the roughness that Shingo Araki and his dermatograph pencil would bring. Dezaki’s direction is also both similar and different. On a surface level, all the core elements of his style are already there: a constant use of expressionist sound effects, camera filters everywhere, unrealistic colors… But we’re still far from the groundbreaking display of creativity of the actual show.

Dezaki was well aware that he could do better, as he was dissatisfied with this first pilot and decided to make a second one – though Sugino claimed that it was actually Chiba who asked for another pilot [44]. Tomioka doesn’t talk about this and doesn’t say how he or Bessho reacted to it, but the fact is that another pilot was made, nicknamed the “Rikiishi pilot”. Its animation staff was the same as the one from the TV show: Akio Sugino, Akihiro Kanayama and Shingo Araki. It seems that Dezaki was familiar with Kanayama (their desks were next to each other during 1001 Nights), and he probably knew Sugino, but wasn’t particularly close to either [45]. In any case, he probably knew just as well as Tomioka that they were leaning towards the gekiga style. As for Araki, it seems he was selected by Dezaki himself, who was closely following Kyojin no Hoshi and wanted a similar style. According to Maruyama, Dezaki was so fixated on it that he had Sugino spend some time under Araki to learn his “touch” [46].

Before discussing the third and final pilot, it may be worth stopping to discuss Shingo Araki, who was at this point emerging as the most important animator in Japan. Araki was born in 1938 in Nagoya and, from 1955 onwards, started publishing comics in the same gekiga magazine as Dezaki, Machi [47]. Ten years later, in 1965, he was invited by Masaki Mori to join Mushi, where he debuted on Jungle Taitei; although he had difficulties adapting his style to Tezuka’s, he was quickly promoted from in-betweens to key animation. But he did feel ill at ease and, during the production of Susume Leo in late 1966, he quit Mushi to create his own studio, Jaggard [48]. Alongside him was Hiroshi Saitô, a former Otogi Pro animator who had joined Mushi in 1963.

Jaggard spent some time subcontracting for Mushi on Ribbon no Kishi, Wanpaku Tanteidan and Sabu to Ichi and for other studios such as Terebi Dôga (Ganbare! Marine Kid) and Tokyo Movie (Perman). It was from Tokyo Movie that Saitô and Araki’s great opportunity came, under the name Kyojin no Hoshi. In Araki’s own words, he felt like his “time had come” [49]. It was his first opportunity to work on something else than round, cute characters and try out more expressionist animation. Kyojin no Hoshi still used hand tracing at first, but when tracing machines were introduced, Araki’s style exploded: its most famous expression is the “iron ball” from episode 83, a 20-seconds sequence which sent shockwaves all throughout Japan for its unrealistic, raw and powerful style. With it, Araki and Saitô instantly became celebrities within the industry and are often credited for the “invention” of the gekiga touch in anime.

How immediate the impact of this episode was is visible if we look at Joe‘s chronology: Kyojin no Hoshi #83 came out on October 25, 1969. One month later, the Aoyama pilot was completed and Dezaki asked for Jaggard’s help for the Rikiishi pilot.

The changes brought by Araki’s influence are instantly visible. While I don’t know who was character designer at this point, the style is completely different from the previous pilot: characters are less childish and Joe in particular is more bulky. The amount of lines is much higher and the drawings much rougher, incorporating thick outlines and afterimages, probably the result of the dermatograph/trace machine combo. What’s interesting about the Rikiishi pilot is that, while the direction is extremely subdued, the animation is top-class and already showcases the stylistic differences between each one of the three animation directors. The first 3 minutes, presumably animated by Sugino, are fast-paced and nervous, characterized by simple but dynamic posing and efficient spacing coming directly from Sabu to Ichi. The middle part, until Joe’s encounter with Rikiishi, would be by Araki and features his heavy, detailed linework as well as the sense of intensity he gave to every movement. Finally, the end, animated by Kanayama, is the most realistic with some incredibly lifelike acting and elastic movement.

This third pilot hit the right spot, and it would be the final one. Production started in earnest in early 1970. Dezaki was chief director, Tomioka producer, Yasuo Oda production manager and Masao Maruyama settei manager. Photographic direction was in the hands of Kôji Kumagai and art direction in those of Teiichi Akashi, both of whom were fresh out of Dororo and 1001 Nights. Animation direction and character designs were in the hands of Akio Sugino (Joe), Akihiro Kanayama (Rikiishi) and Shingo Araki (Danpei) [50].

The designs were a complete departure from the manga. Under Sugino’s influence, characters grew thinner, taller and more adult: the round, childish Joe from the early manga and second pilot was abandoned to become a good-looking, athletic young man. The gekiga touch the show adopted meant an exponential increase in the number of lines, but what is striking is that, in terms of body structure, the designs appear remarkably simple and easy to draw – much simpler, in any case, than Daikichirô Kusube’s designs on Kyojin no Hoshi. This is because, in his settei, Sugino kept the construction lines visible and broke down bodies in clearly defined geometrical shapes. These ensured that body structure remained realistic and consistent, while making explicit where the center of gravity and source of energy would be in the movement. This analytical approach contributed to make Joe’s animation by far the best of its time.

Some of Sugino’s settei for Joe

The collapse of the producer system

With such a concentration of talent, Ashita no Joe had everything to become a masterpiece. Everything, except for the most important: a healthy production space. Joe was probably one of the worst productions Mushi ever knew, for three general reasons: its preproduction was rushed, it was made in the middle of Mushi’s accelerating disintegration, and its length probably made it particularly exhausting.

The first two factors go hand-in-hand. By late 1969, Mushi had no TV series on air, was just out of the financial failure of 1001 Nights and going into two productions that were probably not expected to recoup their costs – the short film Yasashii Lion and Cleopatra. The studio needed money, and fast. In the first months of 1970, it agreed to take on Moomin from Tokyo Movie in the middle of the show’s production. And, at the same time, Joe’s starting date was moved up by several months to become April 1st, 1970 so that Mushi could receive the money earlier [51]. This meant that the planning document drafted by Tomioka and Maruyama was now useless, and that the show was out of schedule from its very beginning.

In spite of the apparent lack of productions in Mushi in late 1969-early 1970, another damning factor was work overlap, which meant that few people could fully dedicate themselves to Joe. A good example would be animator Hiromitsu Morita: he worked on the Aoyama pilot, but was then moved to the Rankin/Bass coproduction Frosty the Snowman. He kept working on the side on Joe’s first episodes, but had to abandon the show when he became animation director on Moomin. It’s only when that show was over that he came back to Joe during its last stretch. Frosty did not just divert talented animators like Morita, but also Joe’s core staff: Dezaki himself was “supervisor” [52] and Sugino animator on it. Among the freelance directors, both Hiroshi Saitô and Sôji Yoshikawa were busy on Tokyo Movie productions, first Kyojin no Hoshi before leaving for Tensai Bakabon – not to mention the prolific Yoshiyuki Tomino, who would of course never work on just one series at a given time.

The considerable handicap Joe started with is visible all over its first stretch. While, as I will discuss, the animation is both excellent and surprisingly consistent, painting mistakes are systematic and appear on almost every episode. The fact that the first opening and ending animations are just made up of footage picked up from the two pilots (except for the opening’s first shot, drawn by Dezaki himself) is also a clear sign of how rushed things were. According to Tomioka, the recording for the first episode was done without completed animation [53].

These harsh conditions led Tomioka to, in his own words, “betray” the rest of the staff and leave not just Joe, but Mushi altogether. While he doesn’t mention what was the final trigger that pushed him to leave, he had come to the realization that everything Kaoru Anami and Eiichi Yamamoto had built and he had fought to maintain had now collapsed. Both Sabu to Ichi and Moomin were signs that Mushi no longer had the initiative of projects but that it had become close to a subcontracting studio. Mushi’s higher ups’ decision to move up Joe and basically condemn it to an impossible schedule was the final blow to the producer system: rather than ensuring things went smoothly from the start, Tomioka’s job was now to avoid a disaster. He quit after episode 17, taking with him two of the show’s three production assistants. He was replaced by Tatsuo Ikeuchi, who also seems to have left Mushi after episode 40, and then finally by Tadami Watanabe who carried the show to its end.

Besides the conditions in the studio, another factor for this exceptional producer turnover was probably Dezaki himself. Akihiro Kanayama described him as someone “as perfectionist as Isao Takahata” – not a compliment in this case [54]. According to Masao Maruyama, Dezaki systematically ignored the scripts while writing storyboards, leading to repeated conflicts with scriptwriters [55]. This is confirmed by the credits, as the show’s two initial writers, Shin’ichi Yukimuro and Tadaaki Yamazaki, left after episodes 34 and 41 respectively, leading to 4 episodes without a writer (36 to 40), and a new group including Maruyama (under the pseudo Yuki Kobayashi) to arrive.

The credits also showcase a progressive breakdown of the pipeline probably imposed by the worsening conditions. From episode 49 onwards, the credits “episode director” and “storyboard” are separated; while the two tasks were sometimes held by the same individual, it’s probable that most directors no longer had the time to do both at the same time. Furthermore, Hiromitsu Morita claims that Dezaki decided to adopt an ad hoc layout system as early as episode 3: he had Morita do all the layouts for that episode, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this was repeated throughout the rest of the show [56]. The cause was the same as for storyboards: animators had no time to do layouts themselves, so it was more efficient to give the task to someone else.

While they don’t give specific details, none of the testimonies I could find of Ashita no Joe’s production sound good. All those who animated on it – Sugino, Kanayama, Nobuyoshi Sasakado – describe their experience as having to become “like Joe himself” – that is, to be constantly pushed to one’s physical and psychological limits. The one who suffered the most from it was clearly Akihiro Kanayama, who said he “ran away” from the show when it reached the point he wanted “to be human again rather than live like this” [57]. Kanayama claimed it happened “around the end of the show” which, if we look at the credits, would probably date it after episode 60: he would come back one last time on episode 73, but that was probably just because Sugino and Dezaki begged him to come back. Even then, it seems he only agreed to do key animation and afterwards rejected any offer to become animation director again until 1976. In any case, Sugino had to take the fall for him and carried most of the last stretch of the show on his shoulders [58].

To compensate for all the people who, like Kanayama, couldn’t bear it anymore, Joe kept sucking in more people from both inside and outside Mushi. From episode 36, aired in December 1970, Cleopatra and Moomin’s animation teams started being transferred: it was the case of future Madhouse animators Nobuyoshi Sasakado, Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Ikuo Fudanoki, then people like Mitsuo Shindô, Teruhito Kamiguchi and Mikiharu Akabori. Outsourcing studios put in more resources as well, with a second group of animators from Jaggard joining on episode 34, a group from Noboru Ishiguro’s Japan Art Bureau led by Hiroshi Kanazawa on episode 49 and Yutaka Oka’s studio Look on episode 63.

Aside from the deteriorating state of the production, what this exceptional staff turnover indicates is the changing conditions within the anime industry as a whole. Although small subcontracting studios appeared almost at the same time as TV anime, most studios had a large in-house workforce and the staff on TV series remained relatively consistent. By the early 70s, this had changed: studios and freelancers multiplied, rotations became more complex and careers more difficult to follow. By the time Mushi bankrupted in 1973, anime production was dominated by outsourcing. The second half of Ashita no Joe’s run was a preview of how things would go in the following years and decades.

Ashita no Joe‘s animation

Part of what makes Ashita no Joe so amazing, then, is that it was able to maintain such a high level, especially in terms of animation, under such difficult conditions. Certainly, it is not absolutely consistent, as many episodes in the second half barely move; but those that do exhibit some of the greatest animation of the decade that just opened. Beyond surface-level descriptions of the gekiga’s style “roughness”, the show paved the way for a considerable sense of realism within the bounds of TV animation. It was possible thanks to the staff’s talent and efforts, but also by the then-unprecedented use of reference, as the animators practiced boxing in the studio and attended matches and training in a gym whose owner was a friend of Kanayama’s [59].

But, before going into that, any discussion of Joe’s animation must go through a necessary step: a comparison between the styles of its three animation directors. Indeed, despite the controlling nature of its director, Joe initially changes drawing styles from episode to episode, allowing for a variety which has always been part of its charm. The differences between Akio Sugino, Akihiro Kanayama and Shingo Araki’s approaches is also a good way to show that the gekiga style is not monolithic, but welcomed many variations.

First is Sugino, the main character designer and the one behind Joe. As discussed above, in terms of general body shape and structure, Sugino’s designs are remarkably simple. But this does not mean he had no sense for detail: among the three animation directors, Sugino was the one who most systematically implemented anatomical details and shading – particularly tri-tone shading, one of the characteristics of his style. In terms of drawings, his Joe is perhaps the most “good-looking” – he doesn’t look brutal or uncouth, but is first and foremost cool.

In terms of animation, Sugino’s work is characterized by four elements. The first two, which I already discussed, are unpredictable spacings and dynamic posings. But what’s interesting compared to Sabu to Ichi is the timing: Sugino (and Kanayama as well) would encourage fluid animation on 2s. The most famous instance is episode 1, amazing all throughout, said to have used 7,000 frames whereas the standard at the time was rather around 4,000 [60]. To get into more detail, it allowed for a considerable attention to detail and realism: for instance, in the sequence below, note not just how fluid the cycles are, but how Aoyama’s hair follows the movements of his body and his eyes never lose his opponent’s fists. Not only is it “realistic” and detailed, it shows Aoyama’s technical superiority without any other explanation needed. This is the kind of thing few TV animators in 1970 would have bothered to do.

Then, the final main feature of Sugino’s movement is its elasticity. It follows from the other three, as dynamic spacings and posing complement fluid timings to create a unique “bouncy” kind of motion. Sugino’s characters are tense and full of energy, an energy that only waits to be released in flashes of movement. This was a great fit for the show, adapted to both the comedy and fight scenes.

Next is Akihiro Kanayama. His Joe is said to be closest to the manga, and is also relatively close to Sugino’s. However, eyes are smaller and more square, features slightly less round (especially the jaw), and there is generally less detail, particularly on the hair. Kanayama’s Joe thus tends to look meaner, which certainly fits his character in the early episodes. While he wouldn’t hesitate to use thick linework on fight scenes, Kanayama also favored thinner outlines on characters, and under his supervision, Joe looks smaller and more brawny than under Sugino’s. A cause of this was that he was less “efficient” than Sugino, detailing the shape of fingers or the folds of fabric to make the drawings more realistic.

Kanayama’s animation is fairly different from Sugino’s. At first glance, it seems less elaborate but in fact relies on different principles to reach a similar result: realism and tension. In Kanayama’s episodes, animation is far more modulated, often switching between 3s and 2s and sometimes 1s. This allows it to maintain the same degree of detail in the motion, but there’s often a certain stiffness to it that has nothing to do with Sugino’s elasticity. Punches often feel sudden and brutal, as the timing suddenly changes for a few frames when the impact arrives.

However, Kanayama had a special technique to compensate for the occasional stiffness: smears. Probably in close collaboration with the cel painting staff, he would sometimes erase the outlines of characters and objects or transform them into speedlines and completely deform shapes to create motion blur. This unique technique is extremely expressive and creates an unparalleled sense of speed that both Sugino and Araki would quickly integrate into their own vocabulary.

Out of the three, Araki’s Joe is the most recognizable. The reason is simple: it is not Joe, but Hyoma Hoshi from Kyojin no Hoshi. All of his body, from his face to his hands, is square and stiff, favoring straight lines rather than Sugino’s curves. There’s no elegance or coolness there: Araki’s Joe is manly and brutal, with black, thick eyebrows and a determined look.

Araki’s animation is also the most “limited” in that it uses less frames, cares less for fluidity and anatomical detail, and tends to crowd individual frames with details. The rhythm is totally different from Sugino and Kanayama’s, and all of Araki’s efforts seem to be directed towards one thing: conveying a sense of impact. One of his favorite techniques is a sort of back-and-forth effect which sometimes looks like a photography mistake, by which a couple of frames are repeated in cycle to create anticipation or the feeling of physical resistance. Although less exaggerated, it was a variation of the extreme unrealism and exaggeration he had used on Kyojin no Hoshi.

Of course, Araki’s style can’t be properly discussed without a mention of his unique linework. If Kanayama’s smears function by eliminating the outlines, Araki’s afterimages are a sort of overgrowth and multiplication of outlines, which multiply to create geometrical shapes encircling objects and retracing their trajectory. Not only did they increase tenfold the power of each punch, the way they reach deformation makes Araki’s episodes the most violent in the early series – this is notably the case of the torture sequence from episode 6. But what’s interesting is that, outside of certain scenes, the linework on Araki’s episodes is the cleanest among that of the three animation directors: Araki was probably well aware of the cost such drawings had for in-betweeners and probably used them sparingly, only when the narrative or drama called for them.

While it is common to highlight the differences between Joe’s three animation directors as I just did, it must be noted that they did not last. As early as episode 9, Araki started changing his drawing style, and by episode 13, his Joe was not that different from Sugino’s anymore. This was apparently made on Dezaki’s direct orders [61]. The same applied to Kanayama’s episodes. On the other hand, both Araki and Sugino adopted Kanayama’s smears, and Araki’s linework also became a common property of the three men’s drawings. 15 episodes in, Joe had a consistent philosophy of drawings and movement, which mostly took from Sugino’s sensibility but in the end borrowed from each of the animation directors’ styles.

Perhaps a fourth important actor in Joe’s early animation would be Dezaki himself. Indeed, the series is notable for featuring the director’s last major animation stunt, in the shape of episode 14, which he solo-animated uncredited. This isn’t particularly exceptional from Dezaki, who had done so regularly on Atom and Dororo [62], so it’s hard to tell if this case was Dezaki’s personal choice or was imposed by the circumstances of Joe’s production, which might have led him to fill up for one of the animation teams. In any case, his direction and animation make the first fight between Rikiishi and Joe one of the best in the entire show.

Dezaki’s animation is surely not as elaborate as that of Sugino and his team at its peak, whether that is at the very beginning or very end of the show. But, without getting into the direction choices (notably the choice of almost abstract, yellow backgrounds which make the entire fight seem completely unreal or the many first-person shots), the skill on display is undeniable. Bodies feel light yet grounded, and despite the lack of obvious focus on parameters such as weight or impact, all of the punches feel real. Moreover, there is a great sense of choreography, as most of the fight is spent dancing around the ring with Joe trying to buy time to disprove Rikiishi’s promise to beat him in the first round. In the best moments, the layouts are ambitious and the animation extremely fluid as the camera follows the two fighters running and punching back-and-forth.

While Joe’s animation is pretty consistently excellent during its first cour (perhaps at the cost of aforementioned constant coloring mistakes), this consistency progressively diminishes as the show goes on. This should not be surprising, but it’s not like the production just collapsed beyond recovery either: by episode 35 or so, painting mistakes have stopped and exceptional bits of animation keep popping up. In the second half, with a higher number of people from various origins coming on the show, the quality of the animation ends up largely depending on the artists behind it. While much shorter than the never-ending movement from the early episodes, the highs of the late episodes are some of the highest in the entire show – and as such, in Japanese animation as a whole.

Defining the “Dezaki style”

Had the animation declined beyond repair, in the end it wouldn’t even have mattered that much: this was because the creativity of the direction just kept increasing. While I have tried to avoid excessive auteurism as much as possible in this series and article – and hope to have shown that Joe remains an essentially collective work – perhaps Dezaki justifies a properly auteurist analysis. As I have discussed here and in previous pieces, I believe this is warranted by a clear continuity in Dezaki’s stylistic tendencies from the time of Atom. Rather than the use of stills and special techniques, there are two recognizable elements that date back to Dezaki’s earliest works: it is a focus on social drama and a certain use of sound.

Gekiga as a movement, and gekiga anime with its spokon narratives, are distinct for their socially, sometimes politically-aware narratives. All three of Ikki Kajiwara’s great spokon manga/anime from the time, Kyojin no Hoshi, Ashita no Joe and Tiger Mask, feature characters from the lowest classes of society – although Joe is probably the one pushing this dimension the farthest. This was a perfect fit for Dezaki, who attributes his obsession from showing things “from the point of view of the weak” to two experiences: working in an automobile factory as a young man, where he lived a harsh lifestyle and experienced the discriminatory behavior of the managers who had a better education, and contributing to the Dororo anime [63].

Comparing the Joe manga and anime, it is indeed clear that Dezaki prioritized the depiction of life in the slums and of interpersonal relationships. As he said so himself, “the moments outside of the ring are just as important” as those on it [64]. For me, this is most visible in the show’s original episodes. Usually dismissed as “fillers” – which they are in a sense, since the anime was catching up on the manga – they are in my opinion some of the most interesting parts of Ashita no Joe. Undoubtedly victims of the very uneven animation quality of the show’s last stretch, they are on the other hand some of the best showcases of Dezaki’s vision and interpretation of Joe.

Two of the most indicative in that regard are episode 66 – written by Tatsuo Tamura and directed by Sôji Yoshikawa – and 69, written by Haruya Yamazaki and directed by Dezaki himself. 66 follows Joe as he’s about to leave Tokyo and meets a young boy at the station, with whom he spends the morning. It is clearly “filler” in the sense that most of this episode’s runtime is spent to delay the climax – the farewell between Joe, Nishi, Noriko and the others. But on the other hand, it works as a touching one-off story, just spent exploring a new part of Tokyo and the life of those who cross it – naive kids full of dreams, shop owners, normal travelers, all with circumstances and dramas of their own. In other words, this episode considerably broadens Joe’s world, thus giving it depth and more reality.

The same applies to episode 69, during which a hurt Joe spends some time at a ranch in the mountains and helps out the two women that live there before making possible the reunion between them and their long-lost son/brother. The early part, in which Joe and Inaba just hike around the mountains, is one of the most quiet, peaceful moments in the entire show – the unusually realistic sound direction and soft colors of the background art play a large part in this. The episode as a whole is the occasion to show another side of Joe’s personality: not the self-centered, sometimes mean boxer but someone kinder, who may be able to receive and offer love. This characterization, alongside the melodramatic resolution of the episode, might sound like a betrayal of what makes Ashita no Joe what it is – a relentless march towards death. 

However, I believe that such writing felt necessary both for the show and for Dezaki himself. For the show, because it needed to illustrate what it is that Joe lost and risks losing again were he to go back to boxing. And for Dezaki because at this point, the manga had not entered its fatal last arcs and the hopeless dimension of the ending was not visible yet. The ending of the anime makes it clear: it is naturally open-ended to leave room for a potential continuation, but is also fundamentally different from what would be the end of the manga. It ends with Joe’s victory – the accomplishment of his friendship with Carlos and his triumph over the boxing world. Boxing is just one step in Joe’s life journey because he is, fundamentally, a wanderer – that is, a category of character Dezaki would keep coming back to in his later works.

An interesting aspect of the anime-original aspects I just discussed is how cliché – or one might say in more polite terms, how referential – they all are. Episode 66 concludes on a scene of farewell at a station, a must-have for any melodrama; episode 69’s ending is also very dramatic, perhaps almost cheesy for some; the same applies to the ending and its shot of all the supporting characters looking towards the rising sun. All of this might be leveraged against these original episodes, but I think it is revelatory of one of the core elements of Dezaki’s approach: its “cinematic” dimension.

The exact meaning of “cinematic” is perhaps best left vague. But the fact is that many members of the staff – Dezaki himself, Maruyama and Sugino – have claimed they pioneered the use of “cinematic techniques” on Ashita no Joe, to say nothing of later commentaries on Dezaki’s work and its “cinematic” style. Some of it undoubtedly comes from Mushi’s staff’s awareness of what was being done in live-action cinema at the same time, but it would be mistaken to attribute to Dezaki the attempt to mimic or even overcome live-action as is the case with other anime directors such as Isao Takahata or Mamoru Oshii.

Indeed, while I don’t think Dezaki ever laid out his thoughts on the matter systematically, what I can gather from various interviews and essays I could read is as follows: for him, “cinema” was a wide-ranging audiovisual language of which animation and live-action may be different parts, but not completely self-sufficient sections. They are both fundamentally the same thing – means of dramatic storytelling through sound and images – and there is no hierarchy or precedence between them. If one is artistically more developed than the other, it is purely the result of historical circumstances, and Dezaki’s experimentations are not made in an attempt to rival live-action: it is rather to bring animation’s visual language further, as cinema. It’s of course hard to tell what were Dezaki’s views on these matters in 1970, but Ashita no Joe certainly works as a test case for them: it borrows from the tropes of melodrama, uses dramatic devices associated with classic cinema and reproduces live-action effects.

The most interesting among these “devices” is no doubt the use of sound. As I noted multiple times already, Dezaki’s use of sound was always distinct: not only is it an essential part of the storytelling, it is always unrealistic, resting on artificial sounds used for dramatic effect rather than naturalistic, atmospheric direction. Ashita no Joe is of course no exception, thanks to sound director Hiroshi Sakonjô, who experimented in every possible direction to give more power to every single punch, down and even movement. But now that he could control things at the scale of an entire series, Dezaki went even further and used sound to create thematic and narrative echoes and parallels: put more clearly, he started using audiovisual motifs.

The most obvious instance of it is character themes, notably Joe’s and Rikiishi’s, repeatedly used during fights or important scenes. The best example of how they are used to actually create drama rather than just sounding cool (which they definitely are) would be in episode 22. As Rikiishi leaves the detention center, his theme is played as he goes and Joe runs after him – and as soon as the door closes down behind him, the music stops to leave only the silence, which seems to be the equivalent of the completely still shots.

This is just a one-off example, but Rikiishi-associated motifs form one of the audiovisual throughlines of the entire show. The most notable is the sea. It first becomes a visual symbol in the mostly-original episode 10, during which Joe escapes from the detention center. As he arrives on the beach, Joe realizes his complete impotence – his inability to escape from the island and to defeat Rikiishi. The sea is therefore already associated with Joe’s rival, as something that he must cross and defeat. The association becomes clearer at episode 14, during Joe’s cross-counter against Rikiishi: in this superb scene, metallic sound are overlaid on what appears to be the sound of waves crashing on the shore. The very same effect is repeated in episode 28 when Joe cross-counters Wolf Kanaguchi for the first time, under Rikiishi’s eyes – it establishes a direct relationship between Rikiishi, Joe and the special punch. The relationship is strengthened yet again in an original scene from episode 46, during which Yôko takes Rikiishi to the seaside, only for an image of Joe to be superimposed over the waves. After Rikiishi’s death, the sea becomes a symbol of his memory: in episode 69, Joe and Inaba gaze at the sea from a distance. Although we can’t hear it – just like Rikiishi, it is now out of reach – just its sight is enough to make Joe’s expression change, clearly going from happy and enthusiastic to melancholy, as if memories from Rikiishi had suddenly reappeared in his mind.

What is most striking here is the complete lack of distinction between sound and images – the “sea” motif can be just one or both at the same time. It doesn’t matter, because Dezaki’s focus is elsewhere – it is on the drama first and foremost. I have myself described Dezaki as a visually-focused director, but that is not quite right – he seemed to conceive his works not just as stories but as worlds of their own, not attached to our own reality, which should be given weight and depth by every means possible. What comes first is the possibility for the viewer to enter the fictional world, which is only possible by total expression meant to give reality to the character’s emotions and lives.

In that regard, Dezaki’s style is often associated with expressionist techniques relying on the unique properties of animation: elaborate stills and camera movements, repetitions and the famous “harmonies”. While I will discuss some of these here, what strikes me the most about Joe is that the episodes Dezaki directed himself aren’t those which feature such unrealistic devices the most. He certainly supervised every episode, most probably rewriting many storyboards, but it must be noted that the most visually baroque episodes are rather those directed by Toshio Hirata, Masami Hata, Hiroshi Saitô and Yoshifumi Seyama. Dezaki himself seems to have favored a more subdued, naturalistic approach that only progressively transitioned to full-on visual expressionism.

My favorite example of it would be yet another mostly-original episode, #65, which follows Joe making up his resolve to leave Tokyo. The scene above is a discussion between Joe and Noriko, a sort of prefiguration of the “burning to white ashes” scene from later on in the manga in which the young girl tries to convince Joe to give up boxing, only to be told that it’s all he has. It begins very simply, in a very “live-action”-esque manner: the flashback at the beginning reproduces an iris effect and the exceptional first-person shot from the swing reproduces the way a live-action camera would work thanks to backlighting. Shots are rather long and the framing simple; most remarkable is the use of depth-of-field (or its imitation through less detailed watercolor backgrounds) which isolates characters from backgrounds on the closeups, and the fact that characters often look directly into the camera. This is something rare in animation, which seems complemented by another technique often used in Joe (which isn’t featured here): characters being shot completely frontally.

Such naturalism is progressively abandoned, first through the sound: as Noriko asks Joe if he’s ever thought about anything other than boxing, the quiet music starts ramping up. Flowers appear in the frame and then occupy more and more of it, perhaps a visual metaphor for Noriko’s character and feelings. The backgrounds become increasingly abstract, filter effects multiply, music and sound effects are increasingly audible: Joe strengthens his resolve to continue boxing and the direction accordingly becomes more dramatic.

With time, Dezaki would progressively abandon such subtleties, as his style started increasingly relying on a set of well-defined techniques and the skills of a close group of collaborators – animation director Akio Sugino, art director Shichirô Kobayashi, photography director Hirotaka Takahashi and a close-knit team of episode directors. By the time of Joe, only Sugino was part of Dezaki’s group, and their “classic” style was not yet established. But one does find some of its elements in a yet undeveloped form.

I already discussed sound effects multiple times, so I won’t go back on it. Photography effects, whether that be filters or transmitted light and backlighting, are used regularly, but always for some expressive purpose and not purely decoratively as they would be later on. So-called “postcard memories” also find their prefigurations in multiple instances of the show [65]. The work on special cel processing effects in general is admirable and opens Dezaki’s continuous use and refinement of these techniques. The most remarkable on Joe is the use of airbrushes on top of the cels to create the impression of glowing sweat, or simply light being reflected on surfaces, from windows to boxing gloves. At one point, in episode 32, the airbrush lines are even animated to create light flares, showing how far experimentation could go.

Conclusion: On Mushi’s “style”

Ashita no Joe ran for a year and half, and was Mushi’s longest series since Atom. It was by all means an achievement that left a deep impact on the studio and the industry as a whole – it was reportedly thanks to it that a young Manabu Ohashi gave up on quitting animation and tried to join Dezaki’s team [66]. Most of Ashita no Joe’s main staff – or those who had managed to remain on board all the way, at least – then transferred to another Tetsuya Chiba adaptation, Kunimatsu-sama no Otôridai. It was not directed by Dezaki but by Masami Hata, and is largely considered to be the production which gave birth to studio Madhouse. This was probably largely thanks to its producer, Yasuo Oda, who would serve as Madhouse’s first president.

Joe’s team – or at least those who had managed to stay part of it until the end – was tightly-knit, the result of shared difficulties but also of a common belief in the expressive potential of animation. In that sense, Joe and Mushi’s other gekiga shows is a good sign of the studio’s creativity and its refusal to adhere to a single aesthetic. Even in the years when most of Mushi’s production was dedicated to Tezuka adaptations, there was no consensus on what style should be adopted – each production had its own. Dororo, Sabu to Ichi and Joe are closely linked not only because they are all categorized as gekiga, but also because of the mutual influence they had on each other. But even then, each represents a completely different understanding of animation as art. Far from a quick characterization of Mushi’s style as “limited”, they showed that it was possible to do very different things even with minimal animation, or even to ditch such economy altogether for a realistic, demanding kind of motion. In that sense, Yamamoto’s assessment of these two years in the studio’s history may not be that wrong: the experimental mindset which had been Mushi’s founding principle found its best expression between 1969 and 1970.


[1] Yamamoto 1989, p.289

[2] Isobe & Haraguchi 2013

[3] For the use of gekiga to refer to anime in the 70s, see Nakagawa 2020, p.435, which mentions a magazine article referring to Mushi’s bankruptcy as Tezuka “defeat to gekiga”; for other uses, see for instance Isobe & Haraguchi 2013, or any interview of Shingo Araki or Keiichirô Kimura

[4] Holmberg 2011b

[5] The Gekiga Workshop’s “manifesto” can be read on its Japanese Wikipedia page:

[6] Holmberg 2011c; Takarajima Editors Room 2018, p.113

[7] Holmberg 2011b & 2011c

[8] Holmberg 2011a & 2011b

[9] See Holmberg 2011b for a description of Shônen Magazine and gekiga’s overall transmedia approach

[10] Takarajima Editors Room 2018, p.75, 97, 113; Kanayama 2000, p.2; Kanayama 2006; Araki 2002, p.138

[11] Araki 2002, p.138; Miyamoto 2009, p.292; Sugii 2015, p.167

[12] Araki 2002, p.138

[13] Isobe & Haraguchi 2013 

[14] Kurosawa 2013a

[15] Nakagawa 2020, p.297

[16] Sugii 2015, p.217

[17] Tezuka 1999b, 668; Nakagawa 2020, p.297; Kiokunokasabuta n.d.

[18] Sugii 2015, p.172

[19] Sugii 2015, p.188; Cinema Novecento 2020, p.20

[20] Cinema Novecento 2020, p.20, 134, 316

[21] Sugii 2015, p.174

[22] Cinema Novecento 2020, p.109

[23] Nakagawa 2020, p.125

[24] Nakagawa 2020, p.130. There seems to have been mostly two reasons for Robin’s delay: the manga version, which had begun as soon as talks for an anime had started, was unpopular and canceled after 13 chapters, and Tôei had too many TV series going on at the same time to take on Robin

[25] Nakagawa 2020, p.165

[26] Shirakawa 2004; Nakagawa 2020, p.252

[27] Haraguchi & Oguro 2005

[28] Sugii 2015, p.176

[29] Rintarô 2009, p.46; Haraguchi & Oguro 2005

[30] Haraguchi & Oguro 2005

[31] Rintarô 2009, p.46

[32] Haraguchi & Oguro 2005

[33] Takarajima Editors’ Room 2018, p.126; I’ve also heard Maruyama repeat this exact same story at multiple events

[34] Rintarô 2009, pp.53-54

[35] Chiba 2017, p.48

[36] Tomioka 2015, p.244

[37] Takarajima Editors’ Room 2018, p.63; for a chronology of Ashita no Joe’s chapters, see 

[38] Tomioka 2015, p.245

[39] Tomioka 2015, p.246

[40] Tomioka 2015, p.246

[41] Tomioka 2015, p.246

[42] Masatsune Noguchi,

[43] Morita 2016, p.226

[44] Morita 2016, p.226; Takarajima Editors’ Room 2018, p.126: Sugino 2019

[45] Kanayama 2023

[46] Takarajima Editors’ Room 2018, p.126; Nakagawa 2021, p.152

[47] Hoshi 2018, p.122

[48] Hoshi 2018, p.123

[49] Hoshi 2018, p.124

[50] Anonymous 1978, p.27

[51] Tomioka 2015, p.246

[52] Masami gives Dezaki this credit, though I’ve seen it claimed online that he was animation director; Sugii 2015, p.197, notes that Frosty’s director was Eiichi Yamamoto, and that it was done in the Shakujii studio, that is the same as Joe

[53] Tomioka 2015, p.246

[54] Kanayama 2006

[55] Takarajima Editors’ Room 2018, p.130

[56] Morita 2016, p.227

[57] Kanayama 2000, p.6 & 2006

[58] Kanayama 2023. In his 2006 interview, Kanayama presents his departure as the cause of a rift between him and Dezaki, as the director apparently never forgave what he considered like a betrayal. Such is not the case in the 2023 interview, where the animators paints a more positive picture

[59] Nakagawa 2021, p.153: Kanayama 2023

[60] Pia Kansai Branch 2018, vol.1 p.8

[61] Kanayama 2023

[62] Sugii 2015, p.220

[63] Takarajima Editors’ Room 2018, p.102

[64] Nakagawa 2021, p.152

[65] A note on terminology regarding the techniques known as “postcard memory”, “harmony” and sometimes even simply “Dezaki” – that is, the move which consists of freezing the movement during a particularly dramatic moment in the narration or at a key point of an episode (first or last shot, for example). In Japanese, it seems that this is most often referred to as “tome-e” (still picture) or “harmony”. I’ve seen Dezaki himself use the expression “postcard memory”, but have never read it elsewhere in Japanese. However, both “harmony” and “tome-e” have specific meanings aside from their association with Dezaki. In anime storyboarding terminology, tomee indicates a cel elements which is not “animated” or doesn’t move. On the other hand, “harmony” is a cel processing technique, by which the front (instead of the back) of the cel is painted by either background artists or specialized staff. This proliferation of different uses makes things extremely complicated, which is why I tend to use “postcard memories”, even though it seems to be extremely rare in Japanese

[66] Ohashi, Morimoto, Kobayashi 2001

[67] Sugino 2019; Kanayama 2023

4 thoughts on “The History of Mushi Pro – 04 – Mushi’s gekiga (1969-1970)

  1. Within anime circles, there’s a persistent myth that animation only ever was targeted at adults in Japan, and it was from the beginning. This shows some ignorance on a couple of fronts, including ignoring the work of studios like UPA in the US and the multitude of European animation that was steeped in artistic cinema. Even in Japan though, I don’t think you can really say there was any sort of real mature focus – not really counting stuff more titilating like 1001 Nights – until Dororo and Ashita no Joe. The serialization is such a massive part of what sets anime apart from TV in the rest of the world.

    One thing that has been noted about this is the willingness to delve into and animate more violent subjects. Prior to the 80s, American TV cartoons only used slapstick violence, and even since then they’ve not committed to the subject of “fighting” as a core concept of the cartoon. Only Popeye really seems to have been that way. I don’t know how much that ultimately influenced the direction of manga and anime to use violence as the main hook.

    I do hope you do some delving into outsourcing work for American production studios in the future, mentioning Rankin/Bass in here. I want to know a lot more about that creative exchange. It’s obvious when you look back that these productions come out of the same creative tradition as the contemporaneous anime, but they are also distinctly different and I want to know how much control the actual animators had over those products.


    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Adult TV anime is old – the first being the 1963 TCJ TV series “Sennin Buraku”, so it’s been there as long as TV anime as we know it exist. But, in TV, it’s always been rare until late-night anime proper appeared in the mid/late 90s.
      As I’ve said in this article, Dororo and Joe were ultimately not aimed at adults – both were aired on all-ages timeslots. I think it’s more that the expectations of what children could watch (from creators, distributors and parents) were different. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t any protests: Gô Nagai’s works, for example, were very controversial. Had Mushi gone with its adaptation of Harenchi Gakuen, it would certainly have gotten PTAs against it once more.

      As for American co-productions, it would be an interesting topic to cover, but I must say I’m not very interested in it.
      Another factor is the complete lack of information – it’s impossible to find the full staff of those Mushi/Rankin-Bass shows, for example, the only names I could get I found by chance in interviews of people who worked on them. It’s very regrettable.


  2. I’d like to mention what seems to have been a total lack of any background artists in Dezaki’s famous solo-animated episode. I didn’t notice until re-watching it with the lack of any credits on Masami’s website in mind, but all of the backgrounds are as you said, surreal, but in a specific way in so far as they never actually depict anything with brush strokes or form. All of the trees are giant splatters of paint, all of the crowds are big blotches of airbrush (when they aren’t animated, or drawn on cel), the ropes are incredibly simple and only require drawing straight lines, and the background used for the floor of the ring is reused for the table Shiraki Youko is sitting at. I’m suspicious that there really may have not been any professionally trained background artist of any kind present on the episode. I think this could lead to the interpretation that Dezaki’s solo-animated episode was done out of limitation, but I think Joe is a series that operates on the belief that a disadvantage can give birth to powerful technique and expression. The fight itself is Joe basically using a gimmick to unforgettable effect, which only works as well as it does due to how disadvantaged he is, so I feel as though this aligns the work’s themes with its technique.

    small side note – “Flower shaped iron ball” should be Hanagata iron ball. Hanagata is just the name of the character that uses the technique, not a part of the technique’s name.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “we open on a long, slow pan of the forest with quiet chirping sounds, before a shriek breaks the quiet.” I also love how the pan speeds up in response to the shriek, almost as if the camera itself is panicking and trying to find the source of the trouble


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