Anime Pioneer Noboru Ishiguro, 1938-2012

Director/Producer Noboru Ishiguro was a true friend to American anime fandom. He made more trips to US-based anime conventions than perhaps anyone else of his stature, and brought with him a wealth of experience greater than most of them put together.

If you’ve been a reader of this website for a while, his name should be a familiar one. He was there at the very beginning of Space Battleship Yamato and has spoken or written about it many times since, as the various essays and interviews elsewhere on the site will attest. (There is a comprehensive list of links at the end of this page, and you are encouraged to use them frequently.) You don’t have to read much of one to realize that without Mr. Ishiguro, Yamato would have been almost impossible to make. Following a battlefield promotion after Supervising Director Nobuhiro Okaseko was forced out of the production by sudden illness, Mr. Ishiguro took on far more than he bargained for. Despite the worst possible setbacks, he kept the ship on course and even managed to make it a masterpiece. And as if that wasn’t enough, he did it all over again on Yamato 2.

He was also the first anime professional I ever got to interview, for the 2nd issue of the Argo Press comic book in 1995. In the following year, I made the most of the inspiration I got from Mr. Ishiguro’s work and became an animation professional myself. I was lucky enough to interview him again in 2007, and told him privately that he had essentially become my spiritual father. He laughed and said, “I accept no responsibility!” I am extraordinarily glad that I got to tell him that before he left us on March 21 at the too-early age of 74. When the news was received it was as if anime fandom lost a favorite uncle. Lost along with him was a depth of institutional knowledge that can never, ever be replaced.

Nevertheless, his studio (Artland) soldiers on after his passing, applying digital color to Space Battleship Yamato 2199. His countless fans, employees, partners and spiritual children will continue what he began for as long as there is something called anime. Fittingly, it took two writers to pay proper tribute to Mr. Ishiguro; we begin with a biography written by Jonathan Clements for (reused with Mr. Clements’ permission) and conclude with a personal memoir by Ms. Jan-Scott Frazier that could have been written by no one else.

-Tim Eldred

The Anime Director who Steered Space Battleship Yamato to the screen

By Jonathan Clements

Noburo Ishiguro will be remembered for several contrasting achievements in the anime world. He developed an interest in comics at school, but drifted into amateur animation at Nihon University, where he did undergraduate research on the wartime animator Hajime Maeda. As a starry-eyed student, he visited the studio where some of the greats of Japan’s propaganda era still worked behind the scenes on 1960s TV shows, and listened, breathless, as Kenzo Masaoka, the “father of Japanese animation,” recalled the struggling days of post-war animation.

Ishiguro took a technician’s delight in the behind-the-scenes gossip of anime production. “In Wanwan Chushingura,” he once wrote, “the ‘pink’ dogs were actually drawn one frame red and one frame white. And lightning effects were one frame of white, preceded by one frame of black to strengthen the effect. My delight in discovering such things made me anime-crazy!”

Ishiguro avoided the grind of work on Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy by finding a job with a smaller, leaner company that specialized in adverts, only to discover that the studio had taken on subcontracted work to help Tezuka’s hard-pressed show. This turned Ishiguro into an Astro Boy animator by default, although he still left to go freelance, hoping thereby to have better control over his workload. In the heady days of anime’s first TV boom, he instead found himself struggling all day to keep up, only to go home to moonlight drawing new animation frames in his tiny bedsit–he spent much of the late 1960s on what he called his “animator arbeit.”

“Freelance might sound good,” he observed, “but it was anything but. It meant a system where ‘part-time work’ took up 24 hours a day.” Ishiguro sought inspiration by literally spying on Art Fresh, a small studio whose output was legendarily superior to that of Astro Boy‘s parent company Mushi Pro. Determined to learn what worked at the highest level, Ishiguro would go through the trash at Art Fresh in order to see what cels were rejected as unsuitable.

He founded Japan Art Bureau, a small studio “with a name we could hang onto if we got big.” It was a steep learning curve for him, forcing him to face many harsh realities about the anime business. “It is so easy to create a subcontracted TV anime production company,” he later wrote. “It is because 90% of the cost is labor and hardly any investment is required. As long as you have money to rent a studio and to buy desks for animators, all you need is people. You can start an animation production company tomorrow. But they also go bust quickly, too–just like bars. Because the production cost is cheap, subcontractors never make a big profit. You are lucky if you are not making a loss. As soon as you start doing a different job and the efficiency level drops, or an animator quits, the business goes downhill.”

For Mushi Pro, he was a director on Moomin, having to contend with a constricted budget, and a chief animator pulled over for drunk driving, who drew his way out of trouble by making Moomin sketches for the police. He moved onto works such as Little Goblin and Wansa-kun–the latter a musical anime where Ishiguro first became known as an animator who could match musical notation to storyboards. Later in his career, he would famously revisit his musical interests as director of Legend of Galactic Heroes, whose space battles came accompanied by stirring symphonies from famous classical composers. But the Japan Art Bureau shut down in 1972, along with many other animation companies, and Ishiguro stumbled onto his next, and most renowned job.

His most famous work was as the director of Space Battleship Yamato, the long-running saga that left Ishiguro permanently associated with the science fiction medium, despite a resume in many other styles. Ishiguro regarded Yamato as an icon with equivalent power in Japan as Frankenstein’s monster, King Kong or The Invisible Man in the West. This was in spite of one of the sponsors, who bluntly told the producers to “consider it a thirty-minute commercial.” Ishiguro regarded himself as an artist put in nominal charge in order to fight at least some of these pressures.

It was Ishiguro who carried out the producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s orders to use ever-darker greys and blues on Yamato‘s hull, until the animators were working with a hue never seen in animation before, which they called “Z Color.” The titular battleship risked fading into the background of space, while the overwhelming darks only served to highlight imperfections in the film and cels, and spark-like flashes from specks of trapped dust.

Ishiguro was not supposed to be responsible for coloring, but was co-opted into the process when the actual staff member died. Nishizaki, meanwhile, pushed for cels in Farewell to Yamato to be dirtied up as if they had been dropped, scrunched and kicked around the studio.

“What he meant,” Ishiguro explained, “was that they needed to look like ‘extra’ issues of newspapers.” Inky, blotchy and completed in a hurry to create a sense of subliminal tension among the audience.

In 1978, he was one of the founder members of Artland, the production house that continued to farm out his services, on anime such as Lupin III and Mushishi. He was also credited as the director, with Shoji Kawamori, of the 1984 Macross movie Do You Remember Love, which featured the power of music in a central role.

Less well-known is his crucial role in documenting the history of Japanese animation, with his co-authorship of the 1980 Japanese-language book TV Anime Frontline. In an unprecedented move, Ishiguro divided the workload with his colleague, the voice actress Noriko Ohara, with the couple alternating chapters to present different angles on familiar stories from the world of anime. (A link to his Yamato chapter can be found at the end of this page.) He ended his part of the book by lamenting the absurd, self-defeating glut of anime on the market, and saying no good could come of an era in which there were more than (gasp) thirty titles a week on television screens. However, Ishiguro would live and work in anime for another 32 years, and see the number of shows climb to several times that figure.

He appeared briefly as a voice actor in Macross in the role of the movie director “Sho Blackstone,” a pun on the Japanese meaning of his name, and was literally drawn into another of his projects, Super Dimension Century Orguss. His most recent work as director is the science fiction series Tytania, based on stories by Yoshiki Tanaka, creator of Legend of Galactic Heroes. However, when asked by American fan Walter Amos in 2010 what new shows Artland was working on Ishiguro said, bluntly: “nothing.” He plainly blamed the collapse of the DVD market and the rise of illegal torrenting for a dearth of investment cash in the anime business, which left many of his animators at Artland biding their time and hoping for new work.

Ishiguro became a popular figure at conventions in both Japan and the US, and will be missed by many fans who remember him not as a name in the credits, but as a raconteur, lecturer and, in the case of voice actress Amy Howard Wilson (Nova in Star Blazers), as the man who serenaded her on the ukulele with You Are My Sunshine. However, he also has many followers of his work, as evinced by his last days in a Kawasaki hospital. Remaining spry and good-humored to the very last, Ishiguro was a hit with the nurses, who refused to give him a standard name-tag like the other patients. Instead, he was identified with two cartoon images: Mikan the cat, and Lynn Minmei from Super Dimensional Fortress Macross.

Visit Jonathan Clements’ blog here

Ishiguro Memories

by Jan-Scott Frazier

Noboru Ishiguro made the anime industry what it is today. He gave opportunities to so many talented people who later went on to change the industry, the art and the world. So very many of the people who became animation supervisors, directors, writers, key animators, art directors, character designers, producers, studio owners and great creators came from Artland and his teachings. The anime industry is what it is today because of him.

I first met Ishiguro in 1989 when the president of the company I had been working for introduced me to him. He gave me a chance where nobody else would have. When he asked me what I wanted to do in the industry, I told him that I was told by previous employers that I’d make a great director, but I didn’t really know anything about it. He put me in the production department, a first for a foreigner. It was a grueling experience for both of us (and the company) but it was amazing. I learned so very much. I remember sitting in the conference room, eating dinner (at 2 am) when he came in and we ended up watching Arion on TV. He tore it to shreds from a directorial point of view, which was educational for me. 

From Episode 10: Yuki’s mother suggests a certain
hardworking anime director as a prospective husband.

I always gave him my honest opinion about things, which almost nobody else would because of his status.

In 1990, He sent me to Thailand to help open an animation studio, a joint venture between Artland, Kitty Film and a Thai computer company, Boot Systems. I supervised the hiring of the staff, choosing the office, building the furniture, setting it all up, getting the supplies and training the staff, all 50 of them. Artland’s production manager, Kakoi (who died in the 2011 tsunami), didn’t believe I could do it but Ishiguro trusted me. I built a studio that made cels as good as Artland, if not better.

A few years later, he wanted to set up a subcontracting studio in Southeast Asia and I wanted my own studio, so we joined forces and scouted around the region. Somehow we ended up at a museum in Indonesia that had a cannibal and headhunter exhibition and we spent hours in there, coming up with a number of really horrible story ideas. Throughout our trips he would randomly pop an animation question such as, “Those clouds over the mountain–how fast are they moving?” and I would have to determine how I would set up an animation scene for the camera that had the same look. I learned a LOT that way.

He loved to come to Thailand and I think that’s one of the reasons he wanted a studio in SE Asia. He flew in with work for my studio and then he would explore Bangkok and we’d hang out at night. I remember one time we got him a hotel on the very edge of the city and it was pretty rough there, right on the edge of civilization it seemed. They had a few tables outside and a food cart serving fried rice. We sat there talking for 6 hours into the night, listening to the geckos, drinking awful river whiskey and Orange Spot soda, talking about everything.

He would call and tell me he was coming and that he wanted to go somewhere fun. One October he wanted to go to an island, so we went to Phuket and stayed at the beautiful Pearl Village resort. Since it was the off-season the only people at the hotel were Ishiguro, myself, 11 Israeli tourists and Oliver Stone and his pre-pro crew for Heaven and Earth in the giant resort. I remember going by the tennis courts and seeing Oliver Stone yelling into a phone and Ishiguro saying, in English, “Who is that asshole?”

We took a boat trip to James Bond Island, which was used in The Man With The Golden Gun, and I asked him to take pics of me. The ones at the boat were good but when we were on the island he backed up so far that I got lost in the jungle in the picture. “How are you a director?!” I asked.

“Big subjects need a lot of room!” he replied.

After my studio closed, I went back to Artland, where I worked until 2006 when I left to work for Production IG. I didn’t see him much after that, the last time being at Katsucon 2002, which was not the best of meetings. I wished for years that I could see him again but I never made it to a con with him again. I will probably regret that for the rest of my life.

He influenced everything I did after I met him and, ultimately, everything I’ve done since is somewhat of a tribute to him. One of the most inspirational moments for me in my career was when he told me that I would be a good director, in time.

He was my sensei, friend, business partner, partner in crime, and adventure companion. When I got married, he stood with me in place of my parents. When I fell, he was there to help me up. I stand, with some of the greatest animation people in the world, as part of his legacy, which is a great honor. Ishiguro-san may be gone but his work and his teachings live on. If there is an afterlife, he’s probably there with that silly ukulele, serenading pretty girls to make them smile.

The End


Read another tribute on Anime Diet here

Read a transcript of Ishiguro’s panel at Otakon 2011 here

Read a 1975 interview with Ishiguro here

Read a 1977 interview with Ishiguro here

Read Ishiguro’s Yamato chapter from TV Anime Frontline here

Read a 1992 interview with Ishiguro about the second Yamato series here

Read his updated career history here

Read a 2007 interview with Ishiguro by Tim Eldred here

Read a 2010 interview with Ishiguro by Walter Amos here

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