The following article is the first part in a short series on Noboru Ishiguro, one of the legendary anime pioneers who sadly departed on March 20th, 2012, leaving behind a legacy of not just a half-century’s worth of highly-influential animated works, but also of a man whose kindness and strict work ethic was inspirational to many generations to come.
Noboru Ishiguro, like most pioneers, respected artists and activists, had a rather unstable, somewhat chaotic youth. Born in 1938, he spent his childhood in wartime, during which one of his earliest memories appears to have left a lasting impression on his philosophy for the rest of his life: hiding in shelters during the fire bombing raids by the allied forces was part of the norm for the young Ishiguro, and as he emerged to the surface of Tokyo once the quiet calm eerily returned, he turned his gaze to the streets he had not long prior been running down, and saw they had turned to rubble, leaving a lone lamppost bent at an angle. For him, the lamppost signified the fragile transience in all things. Everything changes, and nothing ever stays the same. This realization would remain latent in his mind and influence his carrier until the very end.
As the war drew to a close and Japan entered its period of economic growth, Ishiguro, who was of the generation of Japanese raised on Hollywood, from a young age was heavily influenced by both Japanese comics such as those by Osamu Tezuka, as well as Western movies, gaining a keen interest in popular culture and eventually producing his own manga lending books.
Ishiguro’s restaurateur father used to beat him as a child, saying that his hopes and dreams of becoming an artist were worthless because artists made no money. He soon changed his tune when he saw how well his son’s kashihon (lending book) manga mini-business was doing though.
He entered the Film School of Nihon University in 1957, and admits he did “absolutely nothing” except for simply watching movies for most of the first few years of his time there. He remained enrolled for a total of seven years, ultimately graduating in 1964. As his classmates came and went, he pondered what it would be like if his manga were to come to life as animation. In those days, adults reading manga were unheard of, manga was something that children left behind once they finished elementary school, but he remained entranced by it into adulthood.
One day, during his sixth year at university, Ishiguro was doodling in class (which he had finally decided to attend after years of procrastinating) when a fellow student looked over and asked him “do you like manga?” It turns out that this classmate was making his own animation shorts using 8mm film. Ishiguro suddenly got inspired and, with some friends, began to produce his own 8mm anime. Most of the technical aspects of the production, such as the placement of the camera, etc., were thought up by Ishiguro and his team after a long period of trial and error and economic measures (such as cutting up animation cels into four quarters to cut costs, and using water-soluble paints which could be easily wiped off to reuse cels), who were all the while unaware that coincidentally, over at Mushi Pro in Takadanobaba, Osamu Tezuka was formulating his own mass-production method for animated television series at the same time, using mostly similar techniques.
As a result, Ishiguro’s final graduation dissertation, entitled “The Direction of Japan’s Television Animation”, concluded with the prediction that Japan could not and would not ever surpass Disney in terms of pure craftsmanship and instead would go in an entirely different direction, taking advantage of some of the production methods unique to it. As it turns out, his prediction was spot-on.
His first jobs in the animation industry were as an animator on Tetsuwan Atom / Astroboy for Mushi and on Big X, for another studio, Tokyo Movie (which would later be known as Tokyo Movie Shinsha and is now TMS Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Sega-Sammy group).
Nowadays, “douga-man” (in-betweeners) and “genga-man” (keyframe artists) are considered the down-and-dirty, hard labour entry jobs of the Japanese animation industry for those who want to eventually end up in a creative position. The sempai-kouhai (mentor-apprentice) relationship is at constant work here. However, at the time of Ishiguro, there were no such predecessors – from Tezuka, to Gisaburo Sugii, Yoshiyuki Tomino and Rin Taro, everybody was experimenting with techniques, and everyone was a pioneer. Ishiguro said that since there were no sempai and no-one to tell you what to do, it was a stress-free time, though full of constant hard work.
As charming, humorous and talkative as he was, Noboru Ishiguro also at times gave the impression of a man of quiet melancholy. Whenever I handed him an old magazine article featuring an interview with him from a quarter of a century ago, he would let out a soft but audible gruff sigh with his head hung, as he read to himself his own quoted words. The brief silence was often followed — usually upon prompting by myself — by him putting down the magazine and saying something like, “Well… none of that matters now.” It was indicative of a sense of regret, though it was never perfectly clear whether this was due to his laments concerning the anime industry’s current situation and/or the state of affairs of society in general, or rather, the innocence and vulnerability he recognized in his younger self as depicted in his reminiscences.
Understandably, he was thus very anxious concerning the apparent lack of motivation and innovation by young people today — he pinned his hopes for Japan on the energy of the younger generation, a conviction which had come to form out of his own experiences as an innovator and pioneer. As he looked back at his career, he expressed particular pride in his days of experimentation in animation techniques and how this all evolved to eventually be the driving force behind Space Cruiser Yamato, Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Megazone 23. After decades in the industry from its inception from Atom through to Big X, Marine Kid, Wansa-kun and countless more, those three works in particular were the ones he recalls as being the most magical experiences in terms of having such vibrant creativity come together, as everyone worked for the love of the craft. Yamato in particular, Ishiguro felt was the most creative freedom he was ever able to exercise, being as he was in his 30s at the time. He likened his work as an animator to the job of a translator or interpreter, where a creator has a vision, and it is up to that animator to interpret that into actual visuals – something which is very clear within Yamato.
At age 40, after the success of Yamato, Ishiguro established his own studio, Artland. In Macross and Megazone, his pleasure derived from watching over how the young staff played their roles in as experimental and playful a fashion as he once had, to eventually reap huge success with fans.
Unfortunately, the tale did not end so sweetly. Ishiguro eventually came to realize through various bittersweet experiences the harsh realities of the world — that however much one may strive for perfection, sometimes things just do not work out. He sets a limit to the age at which one can be reckless and ambitious: the late 30s to early 40s.
At 50, however, after his experiences with how Macross and Megazone was handled in terms of rights management and distribution (both of these works have gone through years of litigation and to this day continue to cause headaches for licensors, merchandisers and investors), minimizing Artland’s due returns, he realized that unless something was done fast, the company would go under.
The saving grace for Artland came in the form of the OVA series Legend of the Galactic Heroes. The series was sold through a mail order subscription service, thus circumventing the television broadcast economic model but keeping the regularly-scheduled 30-minute episode format intact. The series proved to be a success and continued for 110 episodes — each one on a separate VHS tape/LaserDisc — a hitherto unheard-of endeavor. Ishiguro considered himself extremely lucky to have found success with the property, since he had all but given up working on animation for the love of the craft, and had begun to look at it predominantly as a business.
Ishiguro’s reputation as a playboy, ladies’ man, and even oftentimes lecher, was a reflection of his lively sense of humour, which was a source of vital energy over at Artland. His legacy lives on in the fact that his apprentices like Mutsumi Inomata, Haruhiko Mikimoto, Narumi Kakunouchi, Ichiro Itano and many more, went on to great things and are highly active in the animation and illustration fields today. Until the very end, Ishiguro expected the generation of his apprentices to also nurture the up-and-coming young talent in much the same way he did – by letting them do what they like, but keeping them focused.
This may have been his greatest attribute of all – the ability to naturally make people believe in themselves by giving them the opportunity to follow through with their own actions, which makes his passing all the more a sad loss when one realizes that few mentors such as he remain. He leaves behind not only a collection of classic masterpieces, but also whole generations who must now continue his legacy of mixing humour, love, and a strict attitude towards work.
Ishiguro-sensei did me a personal favour by giving a special lecture on the topic of 50 years of TV anime at my class in Meiji University in 2011.
[Originally written by Renato Rivera Rusca for Japan Cinema]
Renato Rivera Rusca
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