Matt Kamen argues the case for Shotaro Ishinomori
There are two creators who have had a truly indelible impact on Japanese media. One is Osamu Tezuka, the “God of Manga”, a title earned for having essentially invented the modern art of Japanese comics in the aftermath of World War II. The second is Shotaro Ishinomori, Tezuka’s one-time protégé, whose own influence on the medium would earn him recognition as the “King of Manga”.
Born in 1938 in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, Shotaro Onodera – his early pen name ‘Ishimori’ was an editor’s error in 1959, and was changed again in 1986 – began pitching ideas to manga publishers from as young as 12. His first published work came at age 16, illustrations for the fable ‘The Tale of the Hare with Fox’s Tail’, which lead to his debut manga ‘Second-Class Angel’. Onodera’s work drew the attention of Tezuka, who took him on as a studio assistant, chiefly working on Astro Boy.
It proved a close collaboration, with the younger man’s style becoming comparable to his teacher’s. In 1964, Ishimori debuted what would become his first breakout success, Cyborg 009. An action series centred on nine humans who were transformed into superpowered cybernetic organisms by the evil Black Ghost organisation, it boasted an international cast and dealt with heavy material, from racism to civil rights. The enduring popularity of the series has lead to three television and four film adaptations over the past five decades (most recently the 2012 CGI movie Re: 009-Cyborg, directed by Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’s Kenji Kamiyama).
The series also marked the beginning of what would become Ishimori’s main creative focus – superheroes. Where Tezuka was Japan’s answer to Walt Disney, Ishimori was more like Stan Lee, both blessed with a talent for creating seemingly countless heroes that resonated with audiences. And, like Stan Lee explaining the origins of the early Marvel pantheon with some variation on radiation, Ishimori’s creations often shared similar roots of being ‘kaizou ningen’, or ‘transformed humans’ – cyborgs.
1966’s Rainbow Sentai Robin followed, starring another group of enhanced heroes defending Earth from aliens, the animated series becoming one of the earliest super-teams to be adapted for Japanese TV. Although Ishimori’s works were already phenomenally popular by this point, it was a meeting with Toei Creative Producer Toru Hirayama that would lead to the creation of arguably his greatest creative legacy.
Hirayama was on the hunt for a new tokusatsu (live action special effects dramas) to replace the recently concluded Giant Robo. After meeting with Ishimori and hashing out ideas, a hero provisionally named CrossFire was developed and production was about to begin on a TV show – until Ishimori changed his mind. Wanting to create something darker and more mature, at last minute he pushed for an adaptation of his horror-themed anti-hero Skull Man. Considered too dark and cerebral for a child audience, the look and origins of this character were modified, giving rise to the original Kamen Rider.
Premiering in April 1971, Ishimori’s latest cyborg hero fought the terrorist organisation Shocker. Takeshi Hongo – played by stuntman Hiroshi Fujioka – was to have been the latest unwilling recruit to the group’s personal army, having been kidnapped and painfully augmented but escaping before being finally brainwashed. Choosing to use his new abilities to fight against his former captors, Hongo’s crusade saw him fight a parade of monsters as he sought the downfall of Shocker. The series was a massive success, running a whopping 98 episodes and even surviving a change in lead actors from episodes 14-52 after Fujioka suffered an injury during recording.
In the wake of Kamen Rider came Android Kikaider (1972), Inazuman and Robot Detective (both 1973), Akumaizer 3 and Secret Task Force GoRanger (1975) amongst others, all created with Ishimori’s involvement, some based on his manga works, others original television creations. Both Kamen Rider and the Super Sentai series – of which GoRanger was the first – persist to this day, reinvented each year with new concepts and ideas. Both have been adapted for the west, with Super Sentai in particular enjoying considerable success under the Power Rangers moniker.
This month marks two anniversaries for the legendary creator – 25th January is the 75th anniversary of Ishinomori’s birth; 28th January the 15th of his death. A host of his original manga series are available from digital comic store comixology.com, including his original Skull Man one-shot, Kamen Rider, Inazuman and Cyborg 009. Take a look and see for yourself why the great creator’s influence is still felt in Japanese pop culture today.
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