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Iwao Takamoto: My Life With a Thousand Characters

Monday 14th May 2012

Jonathan Clements reviews Iwao Takamoto’s memoirs

Iwao Takamoto

From the very outset, Iwao Takamoto (1925-2007) was torn between his parents’ birthplace of Japan, and his own homeland of America. His autobiography, Iwao Takamoto: My Life With a Thousand Characters, notes the uneasy situation in 1930s America, where Japanese immigrants were not permitted US citizenship, effectively ensuring that Takamoto grew up with a different nationality to his parents.

As a Japanese-American growing up during WW2, Takamoto’s dual ethnicity was a constant concern. He and his family were carted off to an internment camp in 1942, and spent the latter years of the war kicking their heels in the middle of the desert. As one inmate waggishly commented, if the Japanese win the war, Takamoto will be sent back to the camp, this time because he is American.

In 1945, Takamoto guilelessly turned up with a hastily drawn set of samples at Disney, where he was hired on the spot – it turned out that his ability to knock out a book full of sketches to order actually trumped the more considered portfolios of his fellow applicants. He arrived at a cash-strapped studio that had only made it through the 1940s on wartime government contracts, and which suddenly had to make money from entertainment cartoons again. His contributions included sequences and designs in Cinderella and Lady & the Tramp. There’s one intriguing aside where Takamoto brings up the subject of Yusaku Nakagawa, an animator sent from Japan to Disney to learn how things are done (and although Takamoto does not mention this, also the little brother of a famous Japanese film star). This is the same “Steve” Nakagawa who ends up a generation later working on a Scoobynumber of Japanese-American co-productions, including Frosty the Snowman and the ill-starred Metamorphoses, although there are allusions to behind-the-scenes skulduggery which kept his name off the credits.

In 1961, Takamoto ended up at Hanna-Barbera Productions, where he would eventually become “creative producer” – a made-up title for a series of responsibilities that, in Japan, would be parsed as character designer and supervising director. Takamoto would often be the point man who created specific looks and characters, storyboarded early shows, and then departed to set up the next project, leaving his creations to live on without him. He threw himself into work on The Flintstones, a show that had already established that it was, much to many animators’ surprise, possible to make a half-hour weekly TV show. He created characters for Wacky Races and Hong Kong Phooey, and most memorably came up with the “comedy dog” for a detective show who soon took over. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, with its counter-intuitive exclamation mark, is surely Takamoto’s most enduring creation, and dominated kids’ TV in America for decades. For what it’s worth, Takamoto also notes that he has always thought Scrappy-Doo was “a crummy idea.”

Iwao TakamotoThe autobiography itself is a work of academic brinkmanship. Takamoto died as the book was being laid out, which only adds to the sense of legacy and elegy in this excellent memoir. His collaborator Michael Mallory is deftly invisible, leaving Takamoto himself to do all the talking, in a story that spans six decades of animation, as well as tall tales of indoor archery and abuse of thumbtacks. Although of Japanese ancestry, Takamoto was never a “Japanese” animator, but his life-story only goes to demonstrate the transnational quality of the animation business – as The Jetsons is aired in Japan, in turn inspiring Tezuka to make Astro Boy, Go-Bots is made by the Taiwanese studio set up by Hanna-Barbera’s own James Wang, and Scooby-Doo ends up dubbed into Japanese under the hands of Satoshi Kato, an alumnus of Tezuka’s Mushi Production, who also worked on anime such as Berserk, Space Adventure Cobra and Tomorrow’s Joe.

In later years, Takamoto became less of an animator and more of a brand. Following the takeover of Hanna-Barbera by Warner Bros in 2001, Takamoto was wheeled out in countless public appearances at Warners stores around the world, to sign sketches and shill for merchandise. He seems to have embraced this “ambassadorial” role with great gusto, and gleefully reports his unexpected celebrity late in life, even down to the “respect” accorded him by unnamed rap stars when he appeared on The Big Breakfast.

Iwao Takamoto: My Life with a Thousand Characters is published by  the University Press of Mississippi.




Iwao Takamoto: My Life With a Thousand Characters

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