The big names of the anime world might be old duffers today, but they all started frightfully young. Osamu Tezuka told everyone he was 36 when Astro Boy was released, but he was lying. In fact, he was only 34 – the result of teen years spent lying about his age so that people would take him seriously. The anime business needs its workers to be young and energetic, otherwise they can’t keep up with the pace.
When Astro Boy’s cut-price animation style shook the industry in 1963, the grand old men at Toei Animation went searching for a staffer who could produce TV animation at a similar rate. None of the old-timers thought it was possible; only Sadao Tsukioka, then in his early twenties, was young enough and gullible enough to think it could be done. Which is how he became the director of Ken the Wolf Boy.
Tsukioka’s recruitment was part of a larger, industry-wide grab for staff, which also snapped up Hayao Miyazaki, Gisaburo Sugii, Rintaro, Yoshiyuki Tomino, and many other future anime directors. Studio shills lurked outside Toei Animation trying to lure staff to work for other studios. And at Tezuka’s company, Mushi Production, the animators in one office were all caught with freelance Toei work hidden under their desks.
One of the reasons we saw a huge rise in industry deaths in 2010 is that the anime business itself quadrupled in size fifty years ago. If you were a young kid of 23 in the year that Astro Boy came out, you’re going to be 70 now, which is why so many seem to be dying off at once. However, that doesn’t explain everything, because some of this year’s deaths have been significantly younger. Directors Satoshi Kon and Umanosuke Iida, both of whom passed away this year, were only in their forties. What’s going on?
Animation is an unforgiving lifestyle. Crunch times demand 20-hour days under harsh conditions. Nobody animates at the full 24 frames per second, so everything is already compromised and can benefit from a bit of extra tinkering. There is always something that could be improved just a little bit, which means it is never possible to just stop and proclaim that something is as good as it will ever be. There is literally no hope that your work will be perfect, and meanwhile you are working odd hours, living off instant noodles, and not getting any exercise. Nor is this anything new. During production on Kimba the White Lion, the animator Yoshinori Rachi dropped dead of a duodenal ulcer, aged 24. “Without a doubt,” wrote the director Eiichi Yamamoto, “he was killed by work on television animation.”
It was Yasuji Mori who first gave a name to compromised immune systems born of chainsmoking, lack of sleep and bodyclocks thrown off-kilter. He called it Anime Syndrome, and he saw it all over the 1960s business. Peer back into the war years and there are still more tales of nervous exhaustion, and long convalescences that treat a production completion party like a remission from some terrible affliction. Anime has always been a tough master, as has peer pressure. That little cough, that little twinge, are all things that the animators put off dealing with. You can see the doctor tomorrow…. Next week… When this episode is done…
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #80, 2010.