When we meet, it’s at a place of his choosing, one of those odious, pokey little Roppongi bars where women pretend to like you for a fee. Saotome smirks in the corner by a bottle of whisky that literally has his name on it – they keep it behind the counter for him – and with a girl in a slinky red dress who oohs and aahs at his every word.
The Japanese like to present themselves as benevolent creatives who sit around all day thinking of cool stuff. They love fans, of course, although not for the reasons you would think. The love fans because they’ll buy any old crap.
“I bet you think I was part of the Cel Cemetery Scandal?” he says, an eyebrow raised in suspicion.
I confess that, yes, I’d figured that one had his fingerprints all over it. It’s a story that everyone in the anime business tries to forget. Back in the 1990s, when anime were still assembled on acetate cels, new environmental laws forced Tokyo studios to pay extra money for ecologically sound disposal. Old cels had a high chemical content; they needed special treatment, and that meant paying extra fees to the garbage men.
One well-known studio decided to save some money, even at the expense of not saving the world. They waited until nobody was looking, dug a pit in their backyard, and buried all the cels. Piles after pile of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis images, shovelled underground and forgotten.
“Now,” says Saotome. “You tell me. How do you know that wasn’t me?”
I gingerly admit I still thought it was him.
“That case only came to light for one reason,” he says. “It was the damn fans. Police caught fans breaking into the studio and digging up the back yard so they could steal the cels! They were collectors! They could wipe the dirt off and sell them for a few bucks. If I’d been in charge, I’d have been sending the interns down to conventions with truckloads of the damn things. I wouldn’t hide them! I’d sell them!”
“And then,” he admits after a sip of his whisky. “The ones I couldn’t sell, maybe I’d throw those in a landfill somewhere.”
Saotome is always working the angles. He’s an asshole, but he is still an anime classic. He’s a legend.
“Saotome’s my friend,” one producer told me. “He’s always been there for me when I needed him. But when you shake his hand in business, count your fingers afterwards.”
Saotome came into the anime world through contracts and legal – he was renowned for knowing his way around corporate law. Most infamous was the way he handled himself at the collapse of a well-known studio. Just a few signatures, your name here, and here, and… here, and he’d managed to get a famous creator to sign over the copyright in three of his latest ideas.
When Saotome saw the writing was on the wall, he sent in his minions to grab anything that wasn’t nailed down. Before the bailiffs could arrive to shut down the studio, Saotome was backing up a truck. He took the filing cabinets, he took the post-its, he took anything that wasn’t nailed down. And two streets over, he opened up a new studio. His studio.
He’d already set up a new company under a different name, and planned on selling cartoons based on the intellectual property he’d just stolen. Nor did things stop at the titles themselves. Those shows were drawn with pencils, inked with acrylics, and shot on a rostrum camera stolen from Saotome’s former workplace.
“Don’t look at me like that,” smirks Saotome over his whisky. “You kids who play everything by the book, you know what would have happened?”
“Nothing!” he shouts, banging his hand on the table and attracting scowls from fellow drinkers. “The law suit over that dead studio lasted for twelve years. Anything that wasn’t stolen was locked up till then while the lawyers argued. You think a marker pen’s good after 12 years? You think the paints were still useable? We liberated that stuff, my friend. We liberated it.”
Saotome doesn’t see himself as a burglar. He sees himself as the man who got three shows made that might never have happened. In his own little world, he’s a hero, and perhaps he’s right. He’s made a lot of blunders in his life, but he’s always been ready to get to his feet and try again.
Look on the credit lists of some of the most famous shows, and you’ll see Saotome’s name. He was there in the sci-fi boom, when Star Wars made space popular again. The same company, its name changed, was at the forefront of the tits-and-tentacles fad. In the 1990s, he’d been going through the old paperwork when he realised that the wording in an old contract implied he had part ownership of a famous sci-fi franchise. He didn’t hang around – he commissioned a remake and dared the real creator to sue.
To some people, Saotome is a role model, even – there are half a dozen producers who are reading this now and wondering if it is about them. There are animators who owe their livelihoods to him. Saotome sees himself as an optimist. That’s what management does, it optimises. It thinks of what’s possible and goes for it. But Saotome has a respect for the Law. It’s what he trained in.
“I’ve never committed a crime,” he says. “People call me a criminal, but all I did was look for loopholes in things that were already there.”
His pretty companion whispers something in his ear.
“Oh, right,” he says. “I didn’t commit any crimes in the animation world. Obviously, that thing with the guns and the cannabis, that was different.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in PiQ magazine #2, May 2008.