Toyoo Ashida: in Memoriam

Toyoo Ashida isn’t one of those names you hear right away when you familiarize yourself with the elites of the Japanese animation industry. But by the time you get to him, chances are you’ve already experienced his work. He was there for the revolution that transformed anime from kid stuff to mainstream, and he not only rode the wave for great success, but also helped pushed it forward as a designer, animator, and director. He was unique in many ways, including his ability to write with his right hand and draw with his left. He worked non-stop all the way up to his untimely death at age 67 on July 23, 2011. What he left behind will embody the joy and energy of this amazing artform for generations to come.

Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1944, he joined the publicity department of a baked goods company in the early 1960s. This would have been around the time Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (1963) premiered on TV, and a magazine article by an animator was all it took to fire Ashida’s imagination and change his career path forever.

His first port of call was a part-time job at TCJ Animation Center. Also founded in 1963, TCJ [Television Corporation of Japan] started with animation for TV commercials, then went into full TV production with flagship titles like Tetsujin 28 and Eight Man. Ashida’s first series at TCJ was the action comedy Adventure Gaboten Island (1967), followed by Sasuke (1968) and Ninja Kamui Gaiden (1969). (Links to clips from these programs and many more can be found at the end of this page.)

He then went straight to the top when he joined Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions to work on the comedy series Moomin (1969-1970). Here he became acquainted with many of the men who would go on to make Space Battleship Yamato, including director Noboru Ishiguro and general manager Yoshinobu Nishizaki. Ashida’s next project at Mushi was the musical comedy series Wansa-kun, produced by Nishizaki based on a Tezuka concept. By this time, Ashida had advanced from animator to Art Director.

An interesting serendipity occurred when Wansa-kun ended in the fall of 1973 and Ashida went looking for freelance work. He was re-hired by the manager of TCJ (now named Eiken) to help develop the Swiss classic Heidi into an anime series for World Masterpiece Theater. This was truly the big time for anime in the early 1970s, a weekly Sunday evening series for the whole family that offered year-long adaptations of literary works, often from other countries. Moomin had been one of these (originally created in Finland) and later entries would include A Dog of Flanders, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, and many more.

Sponsored by Japanese beverage company Calpis, World Masterpiece Theater was a ratings giant that brought fame to many, including directors Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki who would go on to found Studio Ghibli. They took the creative helm on Heidi for its debut in January 1974, but prior to this Ashida did character design and animation for a short pilot film that put the series into the running for consideration. No one could have possibly known at the time that Heidi was on a collision course with Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s next project, which would send a World War II battleship into outer space.

Ashida signed on with Office Academy for Space Battleship Yamato in early 1974 and got started as one of five animators on the pilot film. His major contribution was a sequence he devised himself: planet bombs striking the Earth and throwing tons of bedrock into the air. The sequence was nicknamed “Ashida’s crime” since it was not planned in the storyboard, but Nishizaki liked it so much that it became the introduction to the TV series. There, see? You already know Ashida’s work intimately.

Thanks to the artists’ efforts and Nishizaki’s rebellious enthusiasm, the pilot film sold the series, which went on the air in Japan October 1974. As fate would have it, Yamato went on at 7:30 pm Sunday, the exact same timeslot as Heidi, and got clobbered. It would eventually recover from the blow (ratings picked up a bit when Heidi finished in December), but the Yomiuri network got cold feet and cut their commitment from 39 episodes down to 26. Regardless, Ashida was involved from start to finish.

He supervised key animation on the first episode and seven more. The list included episode 3 (the launch), 5 (the floating continent), 7 (arrival at Pluto), 11 (Gamilas space mines), 14 (Octopus Star Storm), 18 (magnetron fortress), and 23 (arrival at Gamilas). He best-known sequences were the fight between Kodai and Shima in 14 and the brooding performance of Sanada in 18. He also joined the entire staff to animate the last episode; he was responsible for the heartbreaking sequence of Kodai grieving over Yuki after her apparent death.

In a brief 1982 essay, Ashida had this to say about Yamato:

The severity of the schedule at the time of Series 1 was a serious thing. When Yamato started to move in the beginning, it was almost unbelievable. The art was extremely detailed, and because Yamato appeared that way all the subsequent mecha had to follow. For example, Analyzer. When he moved in profile, it was fine. But whenever he turned around or approached the camera, it was very difficult.

Looking back on these 10 years of Yamato, I think we [creators of anime] have problems to be solved. I mean, we must acquire high-level culture and high-level literary talents. We live in an age when youngsters feel a deep impression of the “human love” that Mr. Nishizaki advocates. We have to reconsider things more deeply from this point of view.

This 1982 cartoon by Ashida depicts a family in turmoil over whether to watch Yamato or Heidi.
The father and son are firmly in the
Yamato camp.

Before leaving Office Academy in the spring of 1975, Ashida contributed to one last Yamato project, a revised ending for a feature film version to be sold overseas as Space Cruiser Yamato. He supervised key animation from a storyboard by series director Noboru Ishiguro, completed the work, and moved on with the assumption that his Yamato days were over.

Another year of freelancing moved Ashida to establish his own company, Studio Live, in 1976. He worked as a character designer on UFO Soldier Dai Apolon for Eiken (1976) and an animator on Yattaman for Tatsunoko (1977) and Jetter Mars for Toei (1977).

It was during this stretch that he once again went off to outer space; the Yamato feature film was a huge domestic hit in August 1977 and the sequel went into pre-production a few months later. Ashida was called back into service as an animator on Farewell to Yamato, but his specific contributions have not been documented.

Video package art by Ashida for Cyborg 009 and The Blue Bird

With anime now in a period of explosive growth, employment came fast and furious for Ashida. He did character design on Cyborg 009 (Nippon Sunrise, 1979) and Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird (Office Academy, 1980) while also taking animation assignments on Zendaman (Tatsunoko, 1979), Space Soldier Baldios (Tokyo Central Film, 1981), and Galaxy Express 999 (Toei, 1981).

This brought Ashida to his third round with Yamato when Studio Live contracted to animate three episodes of Yamato III. He had gotten his first director credit back in 1976 on Dai Apolon and now rose to that position again when he directed episode 3 (the launch), 7 (Alpha Centauri), and 14 (Galman Wolf). His strong hand was self-evident in the design of the characters; they stood out in these three episodes with an angular, cartoony look that had begun to work itself into Ashida’s art style. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you associate with the likes of Akira Toriyama.

Anyone who’s been into anime for more than the last couple of years should recognize that name instantly. Toriyama created Dragonball, one of the biggest anime franchises of all time. But prior to that he built a mini-empire on a subversive little show called Dr. Slump. It carved out its own niche as an irreverent Shonen Jump comedy manga in 1980, founded on a mix of satire and slapstick that made it The Simpsons of its day.

The anime version premiered on Japanese TV in 1981 and ran for a solid five years. Ashida served as an animation supervisor on the series for a time, and absorbed Toriyama’s drawing style like a sponge. Prior to this, his art tended toward a fairy tale look, but Dr. Slump injected it with fresh, manic energy.

He took on the penname of “Tommy Ashida” at this point (always rendering it in English) and brought his new design sense to Magical Princess Minky Momo (Reed Productions, 1982). The character design combined the top-heavy comedy look of Dr. Slump with Ashida’s fairy tale style and made the series into a fan favorite.

His next project was a different animal altogether, a mecha-heavy SF series from Nippon Sunrise called Galaxy Drifter Vifam (1983). The genuine “Ashida style” finally emerged here when he struck an appealing balance between comedic and dramatic character design. It instantly differentiated Vifam from other mecha anime and set the tone for the rest of his career. The protagonists were 13 children lost in space in the middle of an interplanetary war, each of whom was a fully-rounded individual who won viewer’s hearts. The series spawned OAV spinoffs and a side-story series titled Vifam 13 (1998). As a guiding force behind the franchise, Ashida naturally returned for all of them.

In 1984 Ashida took another unexpected turn when he signed on as the Series Director for Fist of the North Star at Toei. Like Dr. Slump, it had started out as a popular Shonen Jump manga and was now being faithfully adapted for TV, but all resemblance ended there. As a hyper-violent, intensely melodramatic post-apocalyptic action series, it was unlike any of Ashida’s previous assignments.

His toughest challenge was to reduce the densely-rendered manga art to an animation-friendly style without losing the original look amid the hectic pace and tight budgets of TV production. One might be skeptical that an acolyte of Akira Toriyama was the right man for the job, but Ashida seized it with gusto and played it for all it was worth. The mission of a Series Director is to establish and maintain an overall style, and loyal fans agree that Fist‘s unique style makes it a genre-representative in the same manner as Yamato.

The project lasted three years and included a feature film (which he directed), during which time Ashida achieved high stardom in the anime world. He spoke directly to fans via a monthly column in OUT Magazine titled The Joke Life of Toyoo Ashida which lampooned his days in and out of the industry. The magazine was unique for its emphasis on parody articles and contributions from anime fans. When it became known that Ashida had designed characters for Dai Appolon, he took on the new penname “Dai Appolon Charisma Ashida.” He recklessly took on sexual subjects and drew raunchy cartoons that earned him disgust from female readers. (One particularly memorable drawing was a tug of war with the string of a tampon that was still “in use.”)

Ashida’s talent was appreciated in other anime magazines as well; his illustrated essays and manga were widely published. Animation Note carried a regular feature by him titled The Harsh Training Room of Heartful Ashida. There was also a three-volume doujinshi [fanzine] published by Studio Live titled Radeiku. (Probably a distortion of the word “radical.”)

He was also outspoken and unafraid of controversy, stating in an interview for Animec magazine that female anime fans were all ugly and male anime otaku were hopeless, but expressed relief that none of them would start any wars. (Internet chat sites were still in the future then.) He was even willing to take on the industry-leading Animage magazine in 1986, accusing its editors of completely ignoring certain anime titles (like Fist of the North Star) in favor those it sponsored such as Nausicaa or Angel’s Egg. In his eyes, this disqualified them as a source of credible news. In the anime industry, strong opinions are commonly voiced only by those at the top, and Ashida had carved out his place among them.

The three-volume Radeiku doujinshi series published by Studio Live, 1984

For the rest of the 80s and all of the 90s, he maintained his presidency of Studio Live, mentoring new talent and continuing to work on high-profile anime. Reed Productions brought him on board for Vampire Hunter D (1985), and he produced the first Guyver OAV through Studio Live in 1986. Nippon Sunrise was a steady client, hiring him time and again for character design on Galatt (1984), Dragonar (1987), Wataru (1988), Granzort (1990), and Da Garn (1992). He worked occasionally as a director on such titles as Ultimate Teacher (1988) and the TV series Gulliver Boy, which he co-created for Toei in 1995.

Ashida proved himself all over again when he renewed his association with Cyborg 009 on the 2001 revival series by Ishinomori Productions. Since most episodes were self-contained they could be handled by different directors who brought their own style to the game. Ashida supervised the animation for Episode 32, which was considered a masterpiece for its power and energy (see it in two parts on YouTube here: Part 1 | Part 2.)

Studio Live continued its own productions and co-productions in the 2000s with Ashida in the role of producer and character designer on F-Zero Falcon Legend (2003), Super Transformation Cosplayer (2004), Grenadier (2005), and Black Blood Brothers (2006). His last major job was Chief Director of Beyond the Heavens, a 26-episode samurai drama series by Madhouse Studio.

As a still-working anime veteran in his sixties during the latter half of the 2000s, he lamented that others in the industry no longer took pride in their work and faced an increasing lack of guarantees in their career. In 2007 he founded the advocacy group JAniCA (Japan Animators Creators Association) to campaign for improvements in wages and working conditions. The group became allied the next year with the Literary Arts National Health Insurance Association and committed to seeking health coverage for animators.

Ashida’s long resume of beloved anime titles, Space Battleship Yamato among them, would have been enough of a legacy for anyone to leave behind. As viewers, we will forever have his colorful, widely-varied body of work to discover and rediscover.

But to have built an organization that continues to fight for his peers after his passing means his work will continue to enhance lives at another level entirely.

The End

Ashida flanked by two published collections of his work: Toyoo Ashida Illustrations (1985) and Vital Signs (1991)

Click here for complete list of Ashida’s credits at Anime News Network.

See Toyoo Ashida’s work on YouTube:

Gaboten Island (1967) opening title

Moomin (1969) opening title

Ninja Kamui Gaiden (1969) opening title

Wansa-Kun (1973) opening title

UFO Soldier Dai Apolon (1976) opening title

Maeterlinck’s Blue Bird (1980) opening title

Dr Slump (1981) 2nd opening title (1983)

Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982) opening title

Galaxy Drifter Vifam (1983) opening title

Galatt (1984) opening title

Fist of the North Star (1984) opening title

Vampire Hunter D (1985) Movie | Montage | Japanese trailer

Fist of the North Star (1986) movie trailer

Ultimate Teacher (1988) complete movie

Wataru (1988) action clip

Sorcerer King Granzort (1990) opening title

Da Garn (1992) opening title

Gulliver Boy (1995) opening and end titles

F-Zero Falcon Legend (2003) Episode 1

Grenadier (2005) opening title

Black Blood Brothers (2006) opening title

4 thoughts on “Toyoo Ashida: in Memoriam

  1. You might as well put me on that list,I am much an artistic rebel and freelancer as he was.Also,
    was he influenced and inspired by the talents of the greatest animation directors who worked
    at the WB animation studios as such as the late great Tex Avery,Bob Clampett or by the talents
    of Mad Magazines greatest artists like Harvey Kurstman and the late Jack Davis may have became
    his role models that contributed to the unique style of his work?

    Those guys have done a lot of wild things with their art in their day.

  2. I knew of him mainly for his work on Minky Momo and Vifam, and had no idea his work was that extensive! Fist of the North Star?! I’d never have guessed. Thank you for this article.

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