Heroes & Monsters

I kept seeing something moving out of the corner of my eye. But it had always disappeared whenever I looked out the window by my lightbox.. After a few of these annoying distractions, I stopped working, and stared intently out the window. Until.. I saw weird SCI-FI NINJAS acrobatically battling a SPACE MONSTER on the rooftop across the road. Wha?! 


I had no idea what I was looking at! Colleagues explained that this was a shoot for a popular Japanese action/sci-fi TV show called SUPER SENTAI. I was in Tokyo, working at TOEI Animation studios. Their live-action studio was nearby, and they were simply shooting stunts on the rooftops of the mall across the street. (This same show would soon take the world by storm, renamed as.. POWER RANGERS!)

Mystery thus solved, I resumed my work. Which was also about spandex-clad heroism – a 50th birthday animated series of SUPERMAN. With character designs by the great Gil Kane (I later discovered that another fave comics artist worked on the show too – Jim Woodring).

I’d looked for animation work earlier, when arriving in Japan. With no luck. Despite having a working holiday visa, and several polite interviews at studios, the anime gurus were unimpressed by my career in Saturday morning cartoons..

So I did the inevitable. English teaching. That, and a few illustration gigs, financed my own studies at a Japanese language school (recommended by pal Martin Ramsay). I enjoyed learning Japanese in the mornings, with afternoons free to explore Tokyo, before teaching English classes in the evenings.

Then, animation chum Sean Newton told me of a short animation job at TOEI in northwest Tokyo. My background in American Saturday morning animation was suddenly an advantage, because TOEI’s client was Ruby-Spears in LA. I continued teaching the evening classes (till the semester ended) but had to stop my own Japanese lessons, sadly. However, I jumped at the chance to work in a Japanese animation studio.

I’d done layout supervision in Taiwan, and oversaw inbetweening and reshoots in Korea. For the TOEI job, I was to help the Ruby-Spears on-site animation supervisor with fixes & reshoots. This gig even came with an apartment, in a building owned by TOEI mere blocks from their studio.

TOEI animation studio was created in 1956 (with roots in an earlier company, Nihon Douga Eiga founded in 1948). Many anime masters got their start at this great studio – Osamu Tezuka began at TOEI, as did Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahata. The list of famous anime titles produced there is long indeed.

Since arriving in Japan, I often went to anime movies, trying to follow the language. Which was usually a fool’s errand, as my Japanese vocabulary wasn’t extensive, but I could follow the fantastic visuals. It was a great year for animation. I’d seen “TOTORO” in April. “GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES” had come out in May. Even western animation was fun, with “ROGER RABBIT” in June. I was utterly floored by “AKIRA” in July.

Anyway, with so many great projects in production around that time, it was hard to get experienced animators interested in SUPERMAN. I’m not sure what precisely was attracting talent when we needed it. Possibly TOEI’s own DRAGONBALL-Z? or Kawajiri’s DEMON CITY SHINJUKU (which dropped later that year).

Trying to promote enthusiasm for SUPERMAN, my boss had episodes of the 1940s Fleischer/Famous Studios cartoons sent from LA. He assembled animators in a screening room, and spoke excitedly about the history of the character, and the classic cartoons – “This is what we are going for!” The lights dimmed and he rolled tape. The very first thing on screen was the title..

THE JAPOTEURS. I flinched. Uh, oh..

What followed was several minutes of absolutely the most racist stereotyping of the Japanese. Yikes. I’d seen some of these classic SUPERMAN cartoons before, but not this one. It was perhaps the first time that I saw a feel-good pop-culture icon used as a propaganda weapon. It did not feel good at all..

All the other shorts on that tape were about catching bank robbers, or fighting robots built by a criminal mastermind. Beautifully designed & animated action-escapism. Just what the supervisor had intended to show. If he’d previewed the video, he could have shown an inspiring action-animation banquet. Minus the insulting racism appetiser.

As lights went up, he awkwardly apologised that these these cartoons were made during World War 2, when Japanese were the baddies. This mea culpa was made more awkward & prolonged as it had to be translated. Sentence by embarrassing sentence.. If the intention was to get the Japanese crew excited for the poster boy of Truth Justice & The American Way.. well, that screening had the exact opposite effect, sadly..

Our main liaison with the crew was an absolutely lovely man, named Mr Ohtani. He probably did some damage control after that.. Ohtani San had worked at TOEI for many years, and knew everyone in the local biz (he even had tales of working with Miyazaki, way back when). Anyway, it’s probably thanks to this well-loved man that a crew assembled to finish the show.

Ruby-Spears Superman 1988.

By the standards of 1980s Saturday morning cartoons, the show came out well, but is perhaps the least well-known of all the animated series of SUPERMAN. I wasn’t on the project long enough to get a screen credit. Which didn’t bother me. It was years before I realised that screen credits on cartoons even mattered to anyone. That changed a few years later, when I had to apply for a US work visa..

ha ha!

4 thoughts on “Heroes & Monsters”

  1. This brings back memories and names that I thought were lost to the mists of time! We were so fortunate to have the opportunity to work in such wonderful places, Japan especially excited me. It felt like another planet, upside down and backward to what I was used to and better in so many ways. endlessly engaging and stimulating. I remember how kind Mr. Ohtani san was, he taught me how to slurp my buckwheat noodles loudly enough to be polite! Thanks for reminding me!

    • Sean!
      Yes, Japan was a fave country for me to work in too. Thank YOU for hooking me up with an animation gig there. Mr Ohtani was a lovely fellow, eh? I saw him a few times on later visits to Tokyo, but lost touch with him in the mid/late 90s sadly.

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