Foundation of the Anime Nation

Out now in Japanese, Yusuke Nakagawa’s book Foundation of the Anime Nation 1963–1973: The Pioneers Who Built TV Anime is a welcome narrative not only of the revolution in TV production that led to Astro Boy in 1963, but of the rise and fall of the industry in its first phase. Created under false pretences, with some hand-waving accountancy voodoo that was never going to stand up to harsh scrutiny, anime on television enjoyed a brief boom-time as the number of available channels expanded, but then settled into a lingering downward spiral of reduced advertising returns and shrinking budgets, before the onset of a recession caused some vital corrections in course and planning.

Nakagawa’s book helpfully breaks down the decade into annual segments, beginning each with a chart illustrating who exactly is doing what – which anime are on television at the same time, and which studios are at work on rival products.

Although the book’s title promises a tight focus on television between the years 1963 and 1973, Nakagawa begins with the black-and-white propaganda cartoons of the 1940s, and the gradual accretion of Japan’s animation community in the 1950s. Nor does he ignore the very real influence of feature film animation in the same period, such as the bragging about Toei’s first colour feature, Hakujaden (1958), and the “first Tezuka anime”, which is to say, the Toei feature Alakazam the Great, for which Tezuka was a storyboarder. The film studios are very much a part of the history of TV, in part because, as detailed at length by Nobuyuki Tsugata, they hoped to cash in on advertising contracts, but also because they trained many of the animators who would then defect to TV.

The story of how Tezuka was tempted by his Toei experience to go it alone in the anime world is already well-known, not only in Japanese but also in English. The real value of Nakagawa’s book comes from when he pulls focus away from Tezuka, and looks at the activities in context in the other start-up studios that try to compete with him, such as Studio Zero, a reconfiguration of the community from the manga creators’ dormitory, the Tokiwa-so, or Tokyo Movie, a bunch of puppeteers trying to retrain in animation as it becomes the Next Big Thing. He brings in unexpected influences, such as the coterie of young SF authors whose script workshop formed a major resource for TCJ, makers of Tetsujin 28-go, a.k.a. Gigantor.

Piece by piece, we see elements of modern anime forming – the first female protagonist; the first giant robot, the first anime not to be based on a pre-existing property. The first merchandising spin-offs… all arise in real-time, their potential and impact often unnoticed by the people around them. Nakagawa also zooms in on several moments of crisis, such as the “Midoro Swamp Incident”, when Tezuka gave his staff a week off, contracted an episode of Astro Boy out to the fledgling Studio Zero, and came back to discover they had produced work so bad that he wanted it destroyed. There’s the Toei Lock-in Incident, when managers tried to freeze out union agitators, and a discussion of Just What the Hell Happened between Tezuka and his business manager Yoshinobu Nishizaki in the 1970s – did Nishizaki rip Tezuka off, or was he the fall-guy for an intricate scheme to keep Tezuka’s properties afloat behind a shell company?

Frustratingly, there are no citations, merely a bibliography at the back which gives little indication of which source supplied which nugget of information. So when Nakagawa calls Tezuka’s apprentice piece Tales From a Street Corner “unanimated anime” (ugokanai anime), it’s not clear to me if he is (fairly) assessing it as a piece that looked far better in books and newspapers than on screen, or if he is appropriating Eiichi Yamamoto’s term from several years later, used to describe the low frame-count on Yamamoto’s own Tragedy of Belladonna, made on a shoestring after Tezuka had robbed the kitty to bolster financial shortfalls elsewhere.

If you are a researcher hoping to delve deeper into such industrial matters, Nakagawa’s book offers a handy precis of particular moments in history, and a useful overview of how the landscape looked on a year-by-year basis. Its bibliography functions as a useful checklist of particular topics in the history of anime, but only for those scholars ticking through it to make sure they already have the sources themselves. Nor does Nakagawa’s reading seem to have included anything not in Japanese – Fred Ladd’s own account of the localisation of Astro Boy, for example, might have added a few more details and an additional perspective.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Anime Taikoku Kenkoku-ki 1963–1973: Terebi Anime o Kizuita Senkushatachi [Foundation of the Anime Nation 1963–1973: The Pioneers Who Built TV Anime by Yusuke Nakagawa is published in Japanese by East Press.

3 thoughts on “Foundation of the Anime Nation

  1. Well written review. 🙂
    Might I use this article as a springboard of sorts, 47 years into the present, to ask you about this “particular moment[…] in history” now with regards to the recent success of the “Kimetsu no Yaiba”/”Demon Slayer” movie? I have already seen Mr. Andrew Osmond’s article on the series over on the All the Anime blog but I feel there has to be something more to it than “simply” the lack of new movies at the cinema or the well done animation by ufotable. Full transparency, I have neither seen the movie/series, nor did I read the manga itself. However, I read somewhere that its setting in the Taisho era (1912 – 1926) might be responsible for its success, as many Japanese people seem to be nostalgic for or glorify it. In addition, the series might also tie into popular shōnen tropes like importance of family/fraternity. I am curious about your possible thoughts on it, now that it has even surpassed Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.” I recognize that it’s probably a combination of all those things.
    Thanks for your reply and keep up the good work.

    • I have been quiet about this question because my honest answer is “I don’t know”. As the months go by, I realise now that I should have said so, in public, much earlier on, because the interwebs appears clogged with pundits claiming that they have an explanation, and none of them do. Someone should have stuck their hand up in December and said: “No idea, sorry. If we know how this worked, we’d all be millionaires.”

      As a technological determinist, I think there are situational issues that have certainly contributed. Lockdown ennui, binge-viewing of the TV series on streaming sites as a result, a certain exuberant desire to get back to the theatres. Quite possibly, there are also deceptively simple logistic issues, like entire families going to see en masse because it might be their only chance to get out that week, and a reduced competition for other things to see at the cinemas. I can imagine a harrassed Dad, once an anime fan himself, saying something like: “All right, we can all go out today, but we are *not* sitting through the last Evangelion movie, and your sister doesn’t want to see Josee and the Tiger and the Fish, and your mother has already seen Fate/Grand Order: Divine Realm Of The Round Table: Camelot- Wandering; Agateram twice…” Even as I type this response, I can see that I am probably writing my next NEO column…

      • Thank you very much for your response! I think that admitting not having an answer is totally fine and can indeed be helpful. I also realize that asking for the reason *any* media is successful can only ever result in rampant speculation with no one being able to ever provide the one ‘true’ answer (whether that’s a good or bad thing is a separate question on its own,).

        Nevertheless, no matter one’s own worldview (for me, it’s always a mixture of technological and social determinism), In my opinion, these speculations can be helpful to asses a certain contemporary moment in time with regards to what concerns a specific culture right now. Going back to your book review above, it’s of course always easier to do that in hindsight with the historical and events already past, rather than living in the actual moment, trying to frame it around certain things that, in actuality, are still developing. What this needs is a metaphorical finger on the pulse of the ‘zeitgeist’ and a good general knowledge on the culture, especially when it’s not your ‘own’.

        I seriously had to laugh out loud at your description of the worn-out father, as I this conjured up a very clear image that feels quite apt. I figure Evangelion probably isn’t the best movie to see with your family.

        Glad to have sparked inspiration for your column. I always enjoy reading them. Happy writing. 🙂

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