The History of Tatsunoko

Studio Tatsunoko is generally recognized one of the most important animation production companies in Japan, and has been so almost since its creation. However, when we discuss the work of creators such as Yoshitaka Amano, Mamoru Oshii, Masami Suda or Tomonori Kogawa, we seldom mention the time they spent in Tatsunoko: as if it were but the early, formative part of their career, and therefore not worth much interest. Yet, nothing warrants Tatsunoko’s minor place in anime historiography and discourse: outside of Japan, it played a major part in the development of anime fandoms, for instance in the US (notably with Speed Racer/Mach GoGoGo and Battle of the Planets/Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) and Italy (Neo-Human Casshern and Hurricane Polymar). The goal of this new series will be to initiate in-depth research on Tatsunoko’s first 15 years and to understand the studio’s place in anime history and discussion.

More specifically, this introductory article will try to retrace how fans and historians have, consciously or not, made Tatsunoko’s presence in early anime almost invisible. After that, I will recapitulate the situation in terms of sources and historiography. Finally, I will introduce the series proper by presenting my methodology and outlining future articles.

As anyone interested in anime history or early anime will know, the structural narrative of Japanese animation historiography has long been and remains binary: it is one that opposes two lineages, that of studios Tôei Animation and Mushi Production. It holds that each studio established its own philosophy of animation, revolving around different formats (movies/TV), techniques (“full”/”limited” animation) and ambitions (high-budget, high quality works/commercial, industrial shows). During the 60s and 70s, such an opposition had a grounding in fact, as the artists from either lineage sought to distinguish themselves – see Osamu Dezaki’s testimony on the conflicts (and their ultimate resolution) during the production of Gamba’s Adventure in 1975. Outside of the anime industry proper, this dichotomy was reformulated by Japanese animation historian Nobuyuki Tsugata, in his book The Power of Japanese Animation: Two Axes Running through an 85-year History, which led English-speaking historians and theorists such as Jonathan Clements and Thomas Lamarre to follow suit, even though they arguably tried to nuance and complexify the account.

It is immediately apparent that this split, as relevant as it may be in some cases, has effects on the way people will understand the history of other anime production studios: at best, they will be integrated into either one of the two lineages, and at worst they will be completely erased from the narrative. Depending on the sources, writers fall into one or the other pitfall when discussing Tatsunoko. An instructive example is that of Benjamin Ettinger, arguably the one who birthed English-speaking sakuga and anime history discourses: although it is to his greatest credit that he seldom mentioned the Tôei/Mushi narrative, he mostly centered on the Tôei lineage and almost never discussed Tatsunoko’s works in the 60s and 70s.

There also exists alternative discourse on Tatsunoko that more-or-less avoids the Mushi-Tôei binary. Centered on studio founder and leader Tatsuo Yoshida, it posits that Tatsunoko represented a sort of “third way” of making anime. Largely setting Tôei aside, it often presents Tatsunoko as Mushi’s rival, or alternative – which is what led ex-Tatsunoko animator and director Motosuke Takahashi to call it the product of a “Mushi Pro complex”. In that framework, one tends to focus on the career of Tatsuo Yoshida and to highlight the parallels between him and Osamu Tezuka. Indeed, these are easy to make: both from outside Tokyo, they became successful manga artists in their respective hometowns of Kyoto and Osaka, before moving to the capital where they gathered talented assistants; from there, they would create their animation studios and adapt their own works. Tezuka’s venture seemingly ended with the bankruptcy of Mushi Pro in 1973; such was not the case with Tatsunoko, making it even easier to picture Yoshida as the one who succeeded where even Tezuka failed. In this perspective, Tatsunoko must then be read as the personal success story of a single artist-entrepreneur – which is even easier considering how admired and liked Tatsuo Yoshida was by his subordinates and coworkers.

This opposition is also easy to make because of Yoshida and Tezuka’s respective inspirations, that is American popular art. For Yoshida, it was comics, whereas for Tezuka, it was Disney movies. This difference is then used to explain the different aesthetics and ways of making animation both studios are supposed to represent. This then has two major consequences: the first is to set Tatsunoko apart from the Disney-inspired Mushi “mainstream”, as it supposedly developed an aesthetic radically different from the rest of anime, and became an industry-within-the-industry of sorts, with staff, trends and techniques of its own. The other is that this perspective is very West-centered, which explains why it is favored in American or European accounts of Tatsunoko. In such histories, the key works are those that worked best in the US: Speed Racer (Mach GoGoGo) and Battle of the Planets (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman). This article and series will not aim to disprove this narrative – in fact, I will largely ignore it, since my interest lies rather in replacing Tatsunoko’s development within its Japanese background. It is because of that Japanese focus that I will systematically refer to Tatsunoko’s shows by translations or transcripts of their Japanese titles rather than their US/English titles (for example, Mach Go Go Go and not Speed Racer).

Saying all this doesn’t mean that studio, aesthetic and philosophy differences didn’t exist; on the contrary, they were very relevant for all members of the industry throughout the 1960s and 1970s. My goal is not to negate them and to jumble everything together. It is, rather, to ground those differences in precise historical analysis. To that end, I will explore two main themes throughout this series.

The first will be to interrogate the idea of a “studio aesthetic”: if Tatsunoko was indeed unique, what were the concrete elements that justified and created that uniqueness? Or, in more general terms, how did Tatsunoko as a company develop its own position in regard to the special conditions spurred by TV animation? The second theme will in fact go in the opposite direction, as I want to understand Tatsunoko – in terms of business practices, staff and aesthetics – within the context of the 60s-70s anime industry. Both ideas will entail, as has become usual on this blog, a sustained attention to the works themselves and to the staff behind them, in order to retrace their histories and specificities.

In that framework, I would like to discuss, as much as sources allow, not just the obvious “creative” actors often highlighted in sakuga discourse, such as animators and directors. As worthy of analysis and discussion are the more “technical” staff such as painters and photographers, and maybe even production staff – among the most essential and least-discussed personnel in anime history and criticism.

To this end, I will try to complexify my account of animation production. Until now, my focus has largely been on the visual aspect of anime, and on one specific part of this visual aspect: the design-direction-animation. Following and slightly expanding on the Japanese use of the term, I will regroup these three steps of the production pipeline under the category of sakuga – that is, “drawing”, since hand-drawn documents (from settei sheets to animation drawings and storyboards) remain at the core of all these activities. Besides sakuga, I will also try to highlight the next steps in animation production, which mainly regroup three activities: art (美術, bijutsu), “finishing” (仕上, shiage, that is cel tracing and painting) and photography (撮影, satsuei). On one hand, I will explore how those activities function as a direct continuation of the sakuga process (for example, transferring the animation drawings onto cel). On the other, I will also try to show that they operate on their own, giving rise to specific images and techniques that do not directly fall under the category of “animation”. For that reason, I will group them under the category of “special effects”.

It is there, however, that the question of sources becomes a problem. Indeed, similarly to Mushi Productions’ shows until Ashita no Joe, the credits on most of Tatsunoko’s early works have been taken off the telops at the end of episodes in modern releases. There are some imperfect replacements (for example, US licensor Sentai Filmworks provided an incomplete English transcript of the credits of Kurenai Sanshirô in its release), but the best source remains the Japanese book Tatsunoko Pro Insiders, which contains a transcript of the credits from all of Tatsunoko’s productions between 1965 and 1977 – although itself remains incomplete in some cases.

The book is probably the single biggest source of information on the studio: it consists of 42 interviews from animators, technicians, designers, directors, producers and writers that were involved with Tatsunoko between 1962 and 1977. Of course, interviews conducted years after the facts (the book is from 2002) are far from being absolutely reliable: people may misremember, their account may be biased, or the questions being asked influence the content of the answers. Moreover, the book is as much historical as it is promotional: it was made to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Tatsunoko’s creation. In other words, using such a source necessitates a constant critical read. But it has the advantage of offering multiple perspectives on similar events, and avoids imposing just one narrative. In this series, I will do my best to do justice to this diversity. And in any case, the  book contains huge amounts of information that have never been made available in English – including credits. I will do my best to provide extracts, summaries and hopefully even expand on the book’s contents. Because it is my main source of information, I will not explicitly cite it every time; but I will include all potential additional sources (besides animation staff databases) at the end of each article.

Like what I have done on previous series on this blog, this history of Tatsunoko will center on some specific shows: in other words, each article will retrace the production and analyze the narrative and visual elements of just one or two shows. I will not include full credits transcripts as was done on the World Masterpiece Theater series, but I will occasionally provide the credits for certain episodes and I do plan to mention the artists as much as I can. I will also be sharing some of the transcripts in Tatsunoko Pro Insiders with a friend who will upload them on the database AniDb: they should therefore become publicly available at some point.

This series does not aim to be comprehensive and cover all Tatsunoko productions between 1962 and 1977. I will discuss at most 8 series in detail: Space Ace, Mach GoGoGo, Kurenai Sanshirô, Decision, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Neo-Human Casshern, Hurricane Polymar and Gowapper 5 Godam. What this means is that I won’t cover Tatsunoko’s children or comedy series, but only those in the action-SF-”realist” style. While it is true that many of them remain the most well-known productions from the studio, my choice was relatively arbitrary: covering everything would have been too much work, and most of the series I’ll cover are on the shorter side. What this also means is that a lot more research needs to be done about Tatsunoko.

Ending in 1977, that is on the date of Tatsuo Yoshida’s death, should also be discussed: indeed, am I not falling back onto the Yoshida-centered narrative I noted earlier? Besides the fact that I just had to stop somewhere, there remains some justification for this: Yoshida’s death did trigger changes within the studio, notably a lot of departures. But it was not the only important moment in Tatsunoko’s early history – as I hope to show, the years 1972-1974 were also a turning point.

While some of the above statements may sound overly ambitious, this series does not aim too high: it is far from comprehensive, nor anything like a definitive history of Tatsunoko or anime. But my goal remains what it has always been through this blog: sharing information about anime and its production, and providing a series of factually and theoretically-informed analyses that, I hope, will help appreciate animation a little better.

Series outline and release schedule

1 – Early days: Space Ace & Mach Go Go Go (1962-1968) – January 22

2 – Experimental anime: Kurenai Sanshirô (1969) – January 29

3 – Mecha animations: Decision (1971) – February 12

5 – Difficult times: Neo-Human Casshern (1973-1974) – February 19

6 – Maturities: Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972-1974) – February 26

7 – Repetitions: Hurricane Polymar & Gowapper 5 Godam (1974-1977) – March 12

Conclusion: Tatsunoko diasporas (1974-1980) – March 19

Sources

Clements, Jonathan (2013). Anime: A History. Palgrave Mc Millan.

Hofius, Jason (n.d.) “What Was Gatchaman?”. Battle of the Planets.info. https://www.battleoftheplanets.info/whatwas.html 

MercuryFalcon (2021). History of Tatsunoko – Tatsu’s Child. https://youtu.be/dIR04y_Chp4 

Pruvost-Delaspre, Marie (2019). “Les Histoires de l’Animation Japonaise Télévisée des Années 1960 : une Approche Historiographique” [Histories of 1960s Japanese TV Animation: A Historiographical Approach]. Japon Pluriel, 12. http://sfej.asso.fr/?p=178