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Noboru Ishiguro 1938-2012

Wednesday 21st March 2012

The anime director who steered Space Cruiser Yamato to the screen

Noboru IshiguroNoburo Ishiguro, who died yesterday, will be remembered for several contrasting achievements in the anime world. He developed an interest in comics at school, but drifted into amateur animation at Nihon University, where he did undergraduate research on the wartime animator Hajime Maeda. As a starry-eyed student, he visited the studio where some of the greats of Japan’s propaganda era still worked behind the scenes on 1960s TV shows, and listened, breathless, as the “father of Japanese animation” Kenzo Masaoka recalled the struggling days of post-war animation.

Ishiguro took a technician’s delight in the behind-the-scenes gossip of anime production. “In Wanwan Chushingura,” he once wrote, “the ‘pink’ dogs were actually drawn one frame red and one frame white. And lightning effects were one frame of white, preceded by one frame of black to strengthen the effect. My delight in discovering such things made me anime crazy!”

Ishiguro avoided the grind of work on Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy by finding a job with a smaller, leaner company that specialised in adverts, only to discover that the studio had taken on subcontracted work to help Tezuka’s hard-pressed show. This turned Ishiguro into an Astro Boy animator by default, although he still left to go freelance, hoping thereby to have better control over his workload. In the heady days of anime’s first TV boom, he instead found himself struggling all day to keep up, only to go home to moonlight drawing new animation frames in his tiny bedsit – he spent much of the late 1960s on what he called his “animator arbeit”.

Astro Boy“Freelance might sound good,” he observed, “but it was anything but. It meant a system where ‘part-time work’ took up 24 hours a day.” Ishiguro sought inspiration by literally spying on Art Fresh, a small studio whose output was legendarily superior to that of Astro Boy’s parent company Mushi Pro. Determined to learn what worked at the highest level, Ishiguro would go through the trash at Art Fresh in order to see what cels were rejected as unsuitable.

He founded Japan Art Bureau, a small studio “with a name we could hang onto if we got big”. It was a steep learning curve for him, forcing him to face many harsh realities about the anime business. “It is so easy to create a subcontracted TV anime production company,” he later wrote. “It is because 90% of the cost is labour and hardly any investment is required. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy desks for animators, all you need is people. You can start an animation production company tomorrow. But they also go bust quickly, too – just like bars. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors never make a big profit. You are lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”

For Mushi Pro, he was a director on the Moomins, having to contend with a constricted budget, and a chief animator pulled over for drunk driving, who drew his way out of trouble by making Moomin sketches for the police. He moved onto works such as Little Goblin and Wansa-kun – the latter a musical anime where Ishiguro first became known as an animator who could match musical notation to storyboards. Later in his career, he would famously revisit his musical interests as director of Legend of Galactic Heroes, whose space battles came accompanied by stirring symphonies from famous classical composers. But the Japan Art Bureau shut down in 1972, along with many other animation companies, and Ishiguro stumbled onto his next, and most renowned job.

Noboru IshiguroHis most famous work was as the director of Space Cruiser Yamato (a.k.a. Star Blazers), the long-running saga that left Ishiguro permanently associated with the science fiction medium, despite a resumé in many other styles. Ishiguro regarded Yamato as an icon with equivalent power in Japan as Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong or the Invisible Man in the West. This was in spite of one of the sponsors, who bluntly told the producers to “consider it as a thirty-minute commercial.” Ishiguro regarded himself as an artist put in nominal charge in order to fight at least some of these pressures.

It was Ishiguro who carried out the producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s orders to use ever-darker greys and blues on the Yamato’s hull, until the animators were working with a hue never seen in animation before, which they called Colour Z. The titular battleship risked fading into the background of space, while the overwhelming darks only served to highlight imperfections in the film and cels, and spark-like flashes from specks of trapped dust.

Ishiguro was not supposed to be responsible for colouring, but was co-opted into the process when the actual staff member died. Nishizaki, meanwhile, pushed for cels in Farewell Space Cruiser Yamato to be dirtied up as if they had been dropped, scrunched and kicked around the studio.

“What he meant,” Ishiguro explained, “was that they needed to look like ‘extra’ issues of newspapers.” Inky, blotchy and completed in a hurry to create a sense of subliminal tension among the audience.

In 1978, he was one of the founder members of Artland, the production house that continued to farm out his services, on anime such as Lupin III and Mushishi. He was also credited as the director, with Shoji Kawamori of the Macross movie Do You Remember Love?, which featured the power of music in a central role.

Noboru IshiguroLess well known is his crucial role in documenting the history of Japanese animation, with his co-authorship of the 1980 Japanese-language book The Frontline of Television Animation. In an unprecedented move, Ishiguro divided the workload with his colleague, the voice actress Noriko Ohara, with the couple alternating chapters to present different angles on familiar stories from the world of anime. He ended his part of the book by lamenting the absurd, self-defeating glut of anime on the market, and saying no good could come of an era in which there were more than (gasp) thirty titles a week on television screens. However, Ishiguro would live and work in anime for another 32 years, and see the number of shows climb to several times that figure.

He appeared briefly as a voice actor in Macross in the role of the movie director “Sho Blackstone,” a pun on the Japanese meaning of his name. His most recent work as director is the science fiction series Tytania, based on stories by Yoshiki Tanaka, creator of Legend of Galactic Heroes. However, when asked by American fan Walter Amos in 2010 what new shows Artland was working on Ishiguro said, bluntly: “nothing.” He plainly blamed the collapse of the DVD market and the rise of illegal torrenting for a dearth of investment cash in the anime business, which left many of his animators at Artland biding their time and hoping for new work.

Ishiguro became a popular figure at conventions in both Japan and the US, and will be missed by many fans who remember him not as a name in the credits, but as a raconteur, lecturer and, in the case of voice actress Amy Howard Wilson, as the man who serenaded her on the ukulele with "You Are My Sunshine". However, he also has many followers of his work, as evinced by his last days in a Kawasaki hospital. Remaining spry and good-humoured to the very last, Ishiguro was a hit with the nurses, who refused to give him a standard name-tag like the other patients. Instead, he was identified with two cartoon images: Mikan the cat, and Lynn Minmei, from Super Dimensional Fortress Macross.

Jonathan Clements


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