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Inside Japan's Beloved Toei Animation

Mayumi Tachikawa visits Toei Animation makers of such hits as Dragonball. More than Japan's leading animation studio, Toei is a cultural institution.

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.

A Toei background artist at work.

Practicality and Tradition

Another characteristic "Japanese" method is the usage of "Kime" postures -- static, dramatic pauses -- as the ones used in traditional kabuki theatre. Should we call it "beauty of form" or "beauty of abbreviation," Japanese animes contain a lot of "Kime" postures. One "Kime" posture reveals so many things. But in fact, this technique has been derived for a very practical reason. By holding poses, the number of needed drawings and animation is reduced, which is a key cost cutter. I believe this realistic solution made a happy marriage with the stylings of Japanese traditional art.Such a combination of traditional arts as kabuki and Japanese animes may not be anything surprising. Japanese animes, especially TV animes are, as described in Mr. Shimizu's quote, based on manga, and manga itself is called an "art of intervals" (from Understanding Comics by Mr. Scott McCloud). How to express scene changes and characters' feelings and emotions in the most efficient and impressive way -- this is what Japanese manga has been pursuing. The unique world that Japanese manga has established has already become part of Japanese culture. Especially in TV animes, some specific expressions and marks used in mangas can often been seen.Most of the TV animes Toei Animation produces are based on manga. For example, the series now on air The File of Young Kindaichi 2, Jeanne the Kamikaze Thief, Digimon Adventure and Dr. Slump are all based on mangas. Recognition of characters is very high in manga-based animes. Sometimes even the anime director is a big fan of the manga.

Daisuke Nishio, director of the well-known series Dragonball and Dragonball Z.

Behind Dragonball

I also met with Mr. Daisuke Nishio, director of the well-known series Dragonball and Dragonball Z (he worked as Sub-Director on Dragonball and Chief-Director on Dragonball Z). Mr. Nishio was very familiar with the original manga and the heroes and other characters. It must be a very exciting experience to direct and animate a manga you like so much, I said to him. "In the case of Dragonball, the original cartoonist, Akira Toriyama's strength was the driving force. In other words, I was doing my best to follow his great works. During the production of the series, Mr. Toriyama left a large part of the work to me. That was such an honor but was also a lot of pressure for me," says Mr. Nishio. Sometimes people say that characters grow so alive, they seem to start acting autonomously. Is this true? "Sometimes characters do get very alive, but characters do not just begin to act independently and automatically, as the production process is very involved," answers Mr. Nishio.In addition to the Dragonball series, Mr. Nishio has been involved in the production of Shoot!, Gegege no Kitaro, etc., and is now directing the feature version of The File of Young Kindaichi 2 for its summer vacation 1999 release. "As a director, I need to take the leadership role. It is not an easy task to show a vision to the staff clearly, and share it with them, but this is vital for a successful production," says Mr. Nishio about his duty.The title "Director, Toei Animation" must be one of the dreams of every animator. What kind of person is he? Mr. Nishio, now in his late 30s, joined Toei Animation in 1981, and now has a career spanning 18 years at the studio. Graduating from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto with a BA in economics, Mr. Nishio had no experience with movie making until he joined Toei. When he was job seeking, one of his friends found out that Toei Animation was recruiting new staff, and Mr. Nishio applied...and was accepted! It was this simple. I asked for his message to his successors. "Life itself is a big subject, and contains a lot of hints for movie-making. Even daily conversations can give you great hints. Challenge a lot of things. Be bold. Then, think carefully how to appeal and show what you can do."Finally, I asked Mr. Shimizu about his future goals. "This isn't anything extraordinary, but I would like to keep making animations full of dreams, love and hope. Animations you can see with your children, that is. And hopefully, I would like to make an original full-length feature film for the audience all over the world."Toei's animes are indeed in the soul and blood of many Japanese people. Children of today grow up with Toei's animes, and so have their parents, and even their grandparents. I hope Toei will keep producing animations to give dreams to the many children of the world, and to those who once were children.Mayumi Tachikawa is a manager in the corporate planning department of Kyoto Research Park in Japan.