Obituary for the animator who was as old as anime itself
Akira Daikuhara, who died on 17th June, was a latter-day Zelig who miraculously managed to be present at many defining moments of anime history. Known to his friends as Daiku-san (Mr Carpenter), his remarkable lifespan allowed him to be a part of the Japanese animation world since the 1930s, dutifully contributing to the war effort, and somehow surviving the Occupation witch-hunts to become one of the top men at Toei Animation. He managed to witness every aspect of post-war anime, right up until his last documented work in the industry, as an animator on the TV series Honey Honey’s Wonderful Adventure (1981).
Daikuhara first began working an animator in 1936, under the director Ashida Iwao. During the Second World War, he was drafted into the Navy to make information films, and spent much of his time close to Yokosuka airbase, where he tellingly reported that he was grateful for “food and shoes.” He worked on such instructional films as Assisting in Aerial Defence: The Aerial Defence Cartoon Storybook (1942), an eleven-minute fable in which a group of public-spirited pigs help defend local cattle from evil fox raiders. Around the same time, Ashida’s studio also made The Animal Counter-Espionage War in which monkeys and foxes infiltrate a factory and attempt to steal secrets vital to the war effort. A monkey makes an attempted getaway on a bicycle, and then in a plane, only to be apprehended, followed by the closing slogan: “Let’s Defend Against Spies!”
Despite US authorities’ claim that no propagandists would be persecuted for their actions, the Occupation period was a tough time for animators. With studio output drastically reduced from its wartime peak, the post-war Japanese film industry was a focus of bitter recriminations and putsches among the Japanese themselves in competition for work, and animators were not spared. But Daikuhara remained a key figure, and participated in Sakura (1946), the first post-war cartoon made in Japan. Sakura was never released theatrically, but secured its makers contracts with other clients.
Daikuhara temporarily gave up on anime in 1948. He married the cel colourist Michiyo Inoue, and moved to Shinbashi, where he struggled to find work in magazines as an artist in the “Seven-Day Group” that boasted Soji Yamakawa and Shigeru Komatsuzaki among its other members. By the mid-1950s, he was back in animation, as one of the leaders of what would become the Toei Animation studio. Daikuhara doubted his new masters’ claim that Toei could ever be a ‘Pacific Disney’, but diligently taught a new generation of animators, regularly calving away new workgroups of his students, who in turn taught other workgroups how to animate for the movies. By 1958, Daikuhara was not only working for Toei under the tutelage of the “father of the Japanese animation,” Kenzo Masaoka, but producing American propaganda as one of the staff on the anti-Communist cartoon The Bear and Children, a short film intended to be screened at the US embassy in Bangkok. This heavy-handed public information film featured a hulking Russian bear, terrorising children attired in the national dress of several East Asian countries. He worked on anime’s first colour feature, Legend of the White Serpent (1958), and on Alakazam the Great (1960), where he witnessed the storyboarder Osamu Tezuka musing that there had to be a way to do anime cheaper.
He pioneered what he called mangateki kocho or “cartoonish exaggeration,” which manifested decades later in the animated business as “super-deformation.” Conversely, he also strove elsewhere for more realism, such as on Toei’s Adventures of Sinbad (1962) for which he used live-action footage of the young martial artist Shinichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba as a base for the hero’s fighting sequences.
He was in his forties in 1963 when Astro Boy transformed the world of cartoons in Japan. Toei Animation was quick to react, and put Daikuhara to work on a TV competitor, Wolf Boy Ken. Daikuhara reported the shock of TV output among the animators, as their level of artwork started out high and swiftly plummeted as they tried to keep up with the breakneck schedule of 25 minutes a week, several times faster than their movie output.
Daikuhara retained an independent career as an illustrator away from the anime world. He drew caricatures for some of the merchandise that accompanied the live-action film series Truck Yaro, and produced several manga, including Magic Dog Liner 0011 Transform and Train Yaemon D51’s Adventure. In 1979 he became the leader of the day school at Toei Animation, teaching 25 new animators in a six-month training regime. In 1980 he set up Studio Carpenter in a surburban house, using seed money from Toei. Studio Carpenter subsequently worked for Toei on several projects as a subcontractor, including One Piece, several iterations of Dragon Ball Z and Arcadia of My Youth, although Daikuhara himself officially retired in 1982, leaving the day-to-day running of the studio to Yasuo Yamaguchi.
In “retirement,” Daikuhara illustrated the Pinkero children’s books, and lost himself happily in oil painting. Interviewed in 2004 by Seiji Kano for the book Nippon no Animation o Kizuita Hitobito [The People Who Built Japanese Animation], he proclaimed that he was still painting, and was looking forward to seeing what that young Hayao Miyazaki, a fellow graduate from Toei Animation, had done with Howl’s Moving Castle. He remained hale and hearty until 2008, when he entered a nursing home. He was hospitalised with pneumonia earlier this year, and died in June, aged 94.
However, hardly anyone in the Western world knew who Akira Daikuhara was. He retired a couple of years before the flourishing of straight-to-video anime and the journals such as Newtype and Animage that began to chronicle Japanese animation for posterity. He never published any memoirs, and his most accessible testimonial is a short piece in a minor book of industry interviews. He only once rose above the rank of sakuga kantoku or “supervising animator,” keeping him out of the limelight on press junkets or publicity interviews. Moreover, his odd surname, which is read somewhat counter-intuitively, has eluded many commentators and critics – as late as last November, he was credited as Akira Okuhara on the Anime News Network database, and as Akira Okuwara in the second edition of Clements and McCarthy’s Anime Encyclopedia. In this obituary, I refer to him as Daikuhara because that is how his name is spelt in his interview in Kano and the Anido announcement of his death, but many sources, even in Japan, insist it should be Daikubara. Such confusion only pushed him further into the shadows, and into cul-de-sacs in book indices and online searches – notably, he died without an entry in Japanese Wikipedia, the go-to source for many modern pundits and journalists.
Such cavils should not be allowed to detract from the story of the living of a remarkable life. He was born in the year of the first-ever Japanese cartoon, and lived to see Spirited Away win an Oscar.