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Toshio Hirata 1938-2014

Remembering the anime master who shunned the limelight

Space Dandy

Toshio Hirata, who died on 25th August, might be reasonably said to have avoided publicity. Over the course of his career, he did gather a number of credits for directing, as well as storyboards, key animation and lowlier tasks, but he often obscured his own achievements by using the pseudonym Sumiko Chiba. In some cases, such as for his work on Azuki-chan, he simply asked not to be credited at all, claiming that his contribution was not really worthy of recognition.

As a result, he is often invisible from anime heritage. Sometimes he was gone from a production before it started, having only provided the “image boards” that were designed to convey impressions to the animators of the look of the characters and the layout of key scenes. Sometimes he was the masked man who rescued otherwise failing productions, facing the thankless task of dragging them from unwatchable to mediocre. Seemingly lacking any real ego or hunger for fame, he made it through his career with one of the oddest collections of directorial credits, on such also-rans as Barefoot Gen 2 and Rail of the Star. At no point in the last three decades does he appear to have given a press interview, except for a few kind words on the occasion of the publication of a commemorative book about his colleague Rintaro.

Arriving at Toei Animation straight out of art school, Hirata was apprenticed to Yasuji Mori, as part of Toei’s fierce industrial policy of training animators who trained animators who trained animators, calving off work group after work group until there were enough people on staff sufficient to run several productions at once.

Hirata was one of the last Japanese animators to enter the profession without any experience of “anime” – Astro Boy began screening on television during his time at Toei, and he was soon poached by Tezuka, along with many other Toei animators. By the middle of the 1960s, Hirata was two-timing his bosses, moonlighting at his old studio as a humble inbetweener, while swiftly rising through the ranks at Mushi Production to become one of the directors of Kimba the White Lion.

When anime collapsed in the early 1970s, the best animators were able to survive by going below the line and working in TV commercials. Hirata was one of them, disappearing from the cartoon world for four years but churning out dozens of adverts. He then made it to Sanrio, better known today as the creators of Hello Kitty, but then a short-lived studio cranking out children’s cartoons.

He ended up at the Madhouse studio in the 1980s, right on the cusp of the girls-and-guns, sci-fi horror era fuelled by Akira and foreign interest. But Hirata’s biggest splash there was in the now-forgotten sub-genre of “bike-mono” – stories about rebellious teens on motorcycles. Whereas most directors plumped for something like Fist of the North Star on wheels, Hirata instead made the thoughtful and artistic Bobby’s in Deep (a.k.a. Bobby’s Girl), a mood piece about a troubled teenager, whose shyness might even mask a position somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Despite its obscurity, it was accorded the high accolade of an ANN “Buried Treasure” status. As noted by Ben Ettinger in his own 2004 appraisal of Hirata’s skill: “Given a short allotted running time and a rather conventional adaptation that filled out the mundane details of the elliptical, poetic original story, Hirata decided to scrap the adaptation and stick to the original story, which he felt could be interesting as is if adapted with flair. And that it was, as story takes a back seat in favor of a succession of imaginative visual sequences incorporating music-video-like montages of photographs and sketchy illustrations.”

Bobby’s in Deep is like a who’s-who of oddball talents, from the manga artist Akimi Yoshida, here in one of her rare anime roles, to the future director Koji Morimoto, who provides a sequence of motorcycle riding, using a pencil-drawn style that allows him to completely deform the imagery. The glory is all theirs, but also Hirata’s, for bringing them together.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

He continued to show on anime staff lists way into his seventies, storyboarding episodes of Death Note, providing layouts for Metropolis, and even creating the oil painting in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time that lures a man from the future to come back to our own time. His last credited work was as a storyboarder on this year’s fan-favourite Space Dandy, thereby somehow managing to span six decades of anime history.

Jonathan Clements

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