Japan’s “forgotten” anime mogul, Hiroshi Okawa
The animator Yasuji Mori used to call Hiroshi Okawa (1896-1971) the King Hippo, describing him (albeit not to his face) as a distant, preoccupied man in a suit whose approach would strike fear into the hardest of section chiefs. If Okawa was coming to visit, even the boss would have a mop out.
“He was a pompous king,” wrote Mori in his memoirs, “and rarely spoke to us commoners. I did meet with him once when we’d finished work on Hakujaden. Me and [Akira] Daikuhara, who did the key art, were invited to his office, and he just said ‘thank you for your work’ in this high-pitched voice, like when a tape is played on fast-forward. And in the autumn of the year that Toei Animation was founded, there was a sports day for all the Toei employees and their families, and the animator team won first prize in the fancy dress. I went to collect the prize money, and he said to me ‘that was really funny’ in a way that showed he really didn’t think it was funny at all.”
Nobuyuki Tsugata’s new Japanese-language book, The Man Who Aimed For Disney – Hiroshi Okawa: The Forgotten Entrepreneur, labours under the weight of its two subtitles, both of them seemingly concocted less for the benefit of readers than to ensure that the right tags are in place for search engines. Tsugata regards such phrases as points to be considered rather than statements of fact, as well he might. I bristle, for example, at the suggestion that Okawa truly is “a forgotten entrepreneur.” Obscure he may be, but of the two English-language books that cover his era, Hu Tze-yue has five references to him in her index to Frames of Anime, and my own Anime: A History has eight. Moreover, Tsugata’s own publication record has made him the institutional memory of the anime industry – he’s pretty much the guy who decides who is forgotten and who is not, and if he’s written a book about you, it’s fair to say everyone in the field will know who you are.
Okawa certainly aimed to be the “Japanese Disney”, and it’s this element of his career that has proved the most problematic in historical memory. That’s because, of course, the Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka also wanted to be known as the Japanese Disney, and the Tezuka estate has been far better at pushing its case. We might scoff today at such fervent auto-orientalism, but as Tsugata has argued in earlier books, while Tezuka did a marvellous job with public relations, Okawa has a valid claim to the crown from a business point of view.
After many years chronicling the world of animators and artists, Tsugata drags himself far from his comfort zone to talk about the life and times of an avowed Suit. He has no qualms, for example, about describing Okawa as “a film studio boss who knew nothing about films.” Okawa arrived at Toei Animation by the oddest of routes, starting his career as an accountant at the Ministry of Railways (“There was no man better with an abacus”), before being head-hunted to work for the Tokyo Rapid Electric Railway (Tokyu) corporation in 1942. He entered the post-war period as a middle-ranking executive at a company that was swiftly diversifying, pouring infrastructure profits into developing the first of those fantastic shopping malls that can be found at Japanese train stations. Don’t just get on the train home, stay and have dinner in a nice restaurant; do your shopping in our department store; catch a movie!
In 1946, Okawa found himself shunted over to a new role as the manager of a baseball team that Tokyu had somehow acquired. This moved him inexorably into the world of commodified entertainment, as he worked to turn baseball into more than just a run around the local park, but a media event that demanded merchandise, fixed sites, novelty food, and season tickets… Okawa became instrumental in the funding of the Pacific League, in which his team competed against a bunch of others, dragging fans around the country (by train, of course) to witness more matches.
Groomed as a likely president, Okawa was shunted sideways yet again, put in charge of turning around a trio of media companies, merged as Tokyo-Yokohama Films, Oizumi Films, and their parent Tokyo Film Distribution. This unwieldy mess, described by Okawa himself as a lame three-legged racer, hobbled by its own ties and deep in hock to loan sharks, is known today by a contraction of the words for Tokyo and Film, as “Toei”. Among its holdings was a modest collection of 36 cinema theatres. In an epitome of integration, Okawa helped to make the films that were shown in the cinemas and watched by the passengers who had eaten at the restaurants… funnelling money back into Tokyu at every stage.
Okawa dragged Toei out of the hands of its gangster creditors and into the arms of legitimate banks. He scooped up new film talent among refugees from Man-Ei Studio, newly returned from Japan’s lost puppet state of Manchuria. He ducked and dived in the movie market in search of new niches, heading downmarket but with a promise of more bangs for the buck by offering double bills on the same ticket at Toei cinemas. He scored his first big hit mere months after the end of the US Occupation with The Tower of Himeyuri (1953), a weepy about a unit of nurses killed at the Battle of Okinawa. In pursuit of the children’s audience, and in anticipation of the rise of television, he also acquired the struggling animation studio Nichido, renaming it Toei Animation in 1956.
Nichido’s animators were punch-drunk after a decade of living hand-to-mouth, and reported that Okawa was “more enthusiastic than us” about the prospects for animation. And this is where Tsugata’s book comes into its own, as he investigates the degree to which the success of Toei Animation in the 20th century can be credited to the talents of its many famous animators, or to the stern money-man who pushed them on to greater things.
In animation terms in the 1950s, making a full-length colour feature film was an enterprise akin to breaking the sound barrier. It was not merely a case of building up the talents, training and materials necessary to get a workflow going on a 70-minute movie, it was the pay-offs in exhibition when that movie could sell its own ticket. Until Japan could produce its own feature-length cartoon, its animation output was doomed to remain as filler. Okawa, however, conceived a plan to churn out animators in an on-site training exercise, until he had so many that he could make a film. He got his wish in 1958 with the release of Hakujaden, Legend of the White Snake, a film that conveniently filled the gap left in Japanese cinema bookings by the petering out of Disney movies postponed since the war. He also pinned his hopes on export, hoping to ship the Chinese-themed film out to other Asian markets, effectively playing the race card against Disney, and banking on “Asian” trumping “Japanese” in the eyes of foreign buyers.
A rift grew ever wider between Okawa and Tokyu after the death of the company founder, Keita Goto in 1959. Okawa, it was said, had once been told the corporation would one day be his, and was understandably at odds with Goto’s heir. Tokyu effectively cut Toei free in 1964, right in the middle of its labour struggles with disenchanted animators, and just as a TV boom led to start-ups poaching its staff. There is surprisingly little about this in Tsugata’s book, but if we’re prepared to assign credit to Okawa for some of Toei’s achievements, then surely we should also consider the degree to which he may have been responsible for the agitation, strikes, disputes and lock-ins that characterised the studio’s troubled years. Certainly, there were grumbles at Toei Animation about a brand of cronyism that favoured employees parachuted in from railway affiliates and sister companies, rather than the artists who did the actual work. One of the most infamous of the angry voices was one Hayao Miyazaki, a shop steward who pushed for workers to be paid for what they did, rather than which branch of the company they hailed from.
Okawa’s training scheme led to Toei’s nickname as “Toei University”, but by the late 1960s, his business model was hopelessly outmoded. He had funded the training of the bulk of the anime industry, including Miyazaki himself, but in doing so, he had paid for the mentoring of countless rivals. He remained adamant that television was not the enemy – it might have seemed like cinema was suffering at the hands of home viewing, but Toei Animation turned a pretty profit making hundreds of animated adverts. Shortly after Okawa’s death in 1971, Toei pivoted to a leaner model, becoming the centre of a diverse web of companies formed by its former employees, outsourcing many jobs and letting the subcontractors take the risks.
Tsugata finishes his book with a prolonged meditation on Okawa’s legacy, both visibly in terms of the modern output of the Toei studio, and invisibly, in terms of its competitors, many of whom owe their founders’ education to Okawa’s schemes. After all, Nerima ward in Tokyo is known today as the anime district because it is the location not only of Toei, but of Toei’s many satellites.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.