Inside Japan's Beloved Toei Animation

by Mayumi Tachikawa

Toei Animation Co., Ltd., was established in 1956, but its inception dates back to the merger of Japan Animation Co., Ltd. with Toei Company, Ltd. in 1948. The current studio was built in Tokyo's Higashi Oizumi district at the end of 1956 and production started in 1957. As early as 1958, the first feature animation called The White Snake, which won numerous international film festival awards, was released. Since then, Toei Animation has been the leader in Japanese animation, releasing to the world many features and TV shows. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there are hardly any Japanese who spent their childhood not going crazy over Toei's animes.

Especially recently, Toei Animation has produced many TV animes which are broadcast abroad. Sailormoon, Galaxy Express 999, Dragonball, Dragonball Z, Saint Seiya and Ken, the Great Bear Fist....these names are well known to children all over the world.

Toei Animation has also contributed to the animation industry by nurturing talents. For instance, Mr. Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, The Princess Mononoke) and Mr. Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Memories of Yesterday, The Raccoon War) of Studios Ghibli once worked for Toei Animation.

Taking a Trip
I visited the company's studio in Higashi-Oizumi in the middle of April, 1999 (the company's headquarters is in Shinjyuku in central Tokyo). Higashi-Oizumi is somewhat like a "Studio Town," with Toei's studios for live-action films, special effects and animation all in one city. The town itself is rather quiet, a mixture of residences and commercial buildings with a small downtown area with a casual atmosphere.

The studio currently produces a weekly output of 5-6, 30-minute TV series and one full-length feature animation every 1-2 years. In addition, longer versions of TV animations, special feature-length animations, for "The Toei Animation Festival" are made here. The Toei Animation Festival is held twice a year during school holidays, and features hit TV shows in special versions. About 200-250 people, including clerical workers, staff the studios regularly. For almost all of the TV animations, external studios also work for hire. For each TV series, the average number of involved staff ranges from 50 to 100. At the time of my interview, five television series were in production. Toei Animation also has affiliated studios abroad, including one in the Philippines.

The interviewee this time was Mr. Shinji Shimizu, Producer of Toei Animation Co., Ltd. Mr. Shimizu joined Toei Animation in 1977 and has produced such animes as Ge-Ge-Ge No Kitaro, Shoot!, The File of Young Kindaichi, Galaxy Express 999, Eternal Fantasy, and many others.

Shinji Shimizu, Producer of Toei Animation Co., Ltd. All images © Mayumi Tachikawa.

Toei's Production Process
According to Mr. Shimizu, one of Toei Animation's outstanding characteristics is that one director takes responsibility for the entire production process of the episode he/she is in charge of. In other words, the director himself/herself draws the storyboards, and directs the total production including sound effects and voice-over. Typically, storyboards are drawn by a specialist, and there is usually a special sound director for sound and voice-over. This style of Toei's comes from its mother company's tradition. Also the leader of the live-action Japanese film industry, Toei's directors are responsible for every segment of the movie making process. Mr. Shimizu kindly showed me a couple of scenarios and storyboards from The File of Young Kindaichi, a hit anime series now on TV. As TV series are broadcast weekly, each series has 6-8 directors, who take turns in a shift system. I hear even some of Toei's live-action directors switch to be animation directors.

Toei Animation introduced Celsys' RETAS, a digital ink and paint system, in 1996. In April of last year, digitization of the ink & paint division was fully completed, which led to a cost reduction of ¥100 million per year. In addition there weren't any difficulties with the staff either, as they embraced the shift to new technology. Editing is also digitized with Avid's editing system. Toei Animation's shift to digital production has been very successful. Mr. Shimizu expects that in 3 years, all work from the ink & paint part of the process on will be fully digitized in the Japanese animation industry.

Other areas still remain manual like character and prop model sheets, storyboards, layouts and backgrounds (PCs are used for a part of this step). "What distinguishes Japanese animes is the importance of characters. Maybe this is based on the fact that most Japanese animes are based on `manga' [comic books]. Japanese manga culture is the whole world. By animating characters from manga, Japanese animation has established its own style. This is a stark contrast to animations outside of Japan, in which stories are considered to be the most important. In Japan, stress has always been on characters...spotlighting characters in an impressive way is always the big issue," says Mr. Shimizu.

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