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Osamu Dezaki, who died yesterday from lung cancer, will be remembered not only for what he animated, but for what he didn’t. His trademark directorial signature was the “Postcard Memory”, his own term for what other Japanese animators called a “Harmony” – a sudden freeze-frame that stripped away the animation to show an original, comic-style illustration, often rendered in pastel shades distinctively different from the original.

Many viewers assumed that these moments were simply another cost-cutting measure, but they came to be known as Dezaki’s signature. He would use them even on bigger budget works such as his Black Jack animated feature. For Dezaki, they were a tribute to the original comics medium from which so many of his films were derived. They also served as poignant halts that drew the audience’s attention to key moments of drama or emotion.

The young Dezaki had cherished ambitions of becoming a manga artist, and was so sure of this career path that he spent much of his school days drawing comics when he should have seen studying. His high school graduation came in 1962, at a point when the lucrative rental manga market was collapsing, reducing the number of openings for new artists. Instead, he found himself with little hope of a job in manga, dropping out of Hosei University soon after arriving. An unfruitful year followed working for Toshiba in a factory job obtained through family connections. But from the moment Astro Boy was broadcast in January 1963, Dezaki was hammering on the doors of the studio, Mushi Production. In August 1963, as the company struggled to maintain the breakneck production pace of a weekly cartoon show, Dezaki was one of the new recruits.

Dezaki started as a lowly in-betweener, rising to key animator in just three months. His job put him in contact with his boyhood hero, Astro Boy’s creator Osamu Tezuka, who was often irritated by the staff’s habit of calling his namesake Dezaki Osamu-chan to differentiate between them in the studio. Dezaki was surprised by the attitude of Tezuka, who would often demand in meetings that a story should be more entertaining – a sticking point for Dezaki, who prided himself on taking animation seriously. He would insist throughout his life that stories were always about people, even if they starred talking machines like The Mighty Orbots.

He retained a strong interest in comics, channelling his frustrated manga career into the creation of elaborate storyboards. Sometimes, these were thrown out for being too elaborate, leading to occasional feuds with his colleague Yoshiyuki Tomino, who sometimes ordered 70% of the storyboards cut for reasons of clarity and budget. It was one of these eviscerated outlines, it seems, that led Dezaki to first use his pseudonym, Makura Saki, which appeared on several productions during the cash-strapped 1970s.

He left Mushi in 1964 to found the studio Art Fresh with his brother Satoshi and their friend Gisaburo Sugii. The trio immediately subcontracted their work back to Mushi Production, but became properly independent in 1967. In the early 1970s, as the Japanese animation business reeled from a series of financial shocks and collapses, Dezaki was one of the founder members of Madhouse, one of the definitive studios for anime in the late 20th century and into the 21st.

Although it was only one film in a long career, the Dezaki film that arguably made the biggest impact on a foreign audience was Golgo 13: The Professional. It was released at the right time to attract the attention of foreign buyers, and enjoyed a new and controversial lease of life as one of the first releases of the English-language anime business. Dezaki chose to film the story’s globe-trotting assassin “as if he were a tiger in the jungle”, and would laugh as he recalled the film’s audio recording session, for which the leading man Tetsuro Sagawa, was two hours late. The staff started to panic, but when Sagawa finally sashayed into the booth and sat down to record his spoken role, he was done in only thirty minutes.

“I think,” Dezaki said, “he only had about five lines.”

Despite a varied number of successes in the anime field, Dezaki was not necessarily a fan of the material he worked on, or the techniques he used. He once confessed that the only girls’ comics he had ever read were Aim for the Ace and Rose of Versailles, both of which he directed as anime classics. Despite pioneering computer graphics in anime with a landmark sequence in Golgo 13, Dezaki was a stern critic of digital animation, alleging that it had turned too many anime into “mechanical” exercises without any soul. Dezaki much preferred the hands-on approach of fiddling directly with the processes of film-making, and pioneered the use of treating animation cels with paraffin in order to create the image of a theatrical spotlight. He also once placed a shot glass between the camera and the animation cel, shooting through the thick glass of its base in order to create a shimmering effect on film. These days, both such effects would be added in post-production with computers.

Dezaki has directed anime in five successive decades, most recently with the movie Clannad in 2007.

Jonathan Clements

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