Toyo’o Ashida, who died on Saturday 23rd July, was an animator who specialised in making the best of the materials he had. Born in Chiba in the closing days of the Second World War, he finished high school and briefly found work in public relations for the Yamazaki Bread Company, before leaving to pursue his dream with the start-up animation company TCJ (later known as Eiken).
He arrived late in the 1960s anime boom, when the initial flurry of interest in black and white, and then colour animation was starting to pale. Cartoons had been new and exciting in 1963: by 1967 there were more channels and more shows, fighting over dwindling numbers of sponsors. Ashida’s animation debut was on the obscure TV show Adventure Gaboten Island, about a group of schoolchildren marooned in the South Seas.
The animation business was already stumbling. The late 1960s exploded in a series of shell companies and liability shields, that found Ashida making a pilot for a cartoon series based on Johanna Spyri’s Heidi books. The series was eventually made, but by a different studio that had been calved from TCJ in order to protect the parent studio from further financial stresses.
In the whirl of start-up companies and animators suddenly forced onto freelance contracts, Ashida ended up at Osamu Tezuka’s troubled Mushi Production, although Tezuka himself had already stepped down, and the company’s output was being arranged largely by Tezuka’s former hatchet-man, Yoshinobu Nishizaki. As Mushi itself collapsed in bankruptcy in 1973, Ashida joined Nishizaki in an exodus of staff and materials, and worked as an animator on his old boss’s Space Battleship Yamato.
In search of some security for himself, he founded Studio Live in 1976 with nine other animators. Studio Live brokered its workers’ abilities across the field of 1970s and 1980s animation in Japan, leading to Ashida’s work as a character designer on numerous shows, including UFO Robo Dai Apollon and Magical Princess Minky Momo. Despite a strong record in artwork for girls’ shows, Ashida’s best-known stint was arguably as the show-runner on the bafflingly popular, incredibly violent, and surprisingly long-running Fist of the North Star, an SF series about over-muscled martial artists in a post-nuclear wasteland.
Fist of the North Star ran for 152 episodes, leading its animators to face the biggest challenge of all: keeping it fresh. Under Ashida’s tutelage, and secure in the knowledge that they could get away with almost anything, they began experimenting with some truly innovative ways of dispatching the hero’s enemy of the week, including, in one notable incident, not waiting for the paint to dry on the cel. When the super-duper attack finally came, the animators simply began nudging the glass over the cel a few millimetres at a time, causing the paint to blur and smear. Years later, the Animatrix’s Peter Chung would praise Fist of the North Star’s animators for their sheer gumption in trying such art-house experiments in a primetime sci-fi show.
For ten years, Ashida had a monthly slice-of-life column in the animation magazine OUT, which only ended with the magazine’s cancellation in 1995. It made him a friendly, jocular figure among anime fans, a persona which he cultivated in direct opposition to some of his more cantankerous colleagues. However, in one notorious incident in Animec magazine, he suggested that anime fandom was populated only by “ugly girls and jobless guys” – a comment which hit a little too close to the mark for some of his readers.
He ended his career on a high note in 2007, by becoming the first president of JaniCA (the Japanese Animation Creators Association), a labour union devoted to improving conditions for animators in straitened times, and facing increasing competition from overseas outsourcing. As a result, he spent much of his twilight years highlighting the poor salaries and crushing deadlines faced by many young workers in Japan’s animation industry. However, he still found time to animate – his last directorial credit appears as late as 2009, on the Madhouse Studio adaptation of the Chinese historical manga Beyond the Heavens.