Tatsunoko anime studio celebrates 60th anniversary

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hiroshi Sasagawa poses outside Tatsunoko Production Co.’s head office in Musashino, Tokyo.

Tatsunoko Production Co., known for such TV anime as “Time-Bokan,” “Gatchaman” and “Speed Racer,” celebrated its 60th anniversary in October.

“All our works reflect the principles of our [late] founder, Tatsuo Yoshida. He wanted to create dreams for children all over the world — a pure wish to make kids happy,” said Hiroshi Sasagawa, the director of many Tatsunoko works.

The company, which was founded by Yoshida and his two younger brothers as a manga production studio in 1962, began producing animated works in 1964.

Sasagawa, 86, worked in a directorial capacity from the company’s early days, serving as general director on many of the firm’s most notable works. Originally, he was a professional mangaka, having worked as an assistant to manga legend Osamu Tezuka. He helped Tezuka make storyboards for the TV anime version of “Tetsuwan Atom” (“Astro Boy”), which was his first encounter with the world of animation.

“How fun it would be if my pictures started moving, with sounds and voices,” Sasagawa recalled thinking. “I intuitively felt that the age of anime would arrive.”

Sasagawa shared his thoughts with Yoshida, who was then working in the same trade. When Tatsunoko became involved in producing animated works, Sasagawa joined the company.

Tatsunoko’s first TV anime “Uchu Ace” (“Space Ace”) was broadcast from 1965 to 1966 and featured a boy from outer space who becomes a superhero. “Mach Go Go Go” (“Speed Racer”), a landmark anime about racing drivers aired from 1967 to 1968 and became popular overseas, too. The studio broadened its creative range by producing such exotic comedies as “Hakushon Daimao” (“The Genie Family”) from 1969 to 1970 and “Konchu Monogatari Minashigo Hacchi” (“The Adventures of Hutch, the Honeybee”) from 1970 to 1971, which depicted the harshness of nature and the importance of family love.

4-5 months per episode

“At first, I was a complete beginner in animation,” Sasagawa said. “Moreover, unlike Disney drawings, which weren’t difficult to draw and trace because of their exaggerated and simplified forms, Mr. Yoshida’s drawings were realistic and sharp, with many lines. They weren’t suited to animation at all, because for animation, you have to draw the same things time and time again. So it was a lot of hard work and far more difficult than [the work being done at] other [animation] studios. But Mr. Yoshida was stubborn and passionate. His determination never wavered.”

In the case of “Speed Racer,” nearly 4,000 drawings were required to produce a single 30-minute episode, each of which took four to five months to create. But the company’s time and effort paid off. The anime’s protagonist and the cars looked outstanding and proved a big hit with children. This success led to “Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman” (“Gatchaman”), a superhero anime that aired from 1972 to 1974, which mixed dramatic stories and top-notch fight scenes.

“Time-Bokan” began in 1975. Combining science fiction and comedy — both of which Sasagawa excelled at — it became one of Tatsunoko’s signature works. The series has since been remade multiple times. According to Sasagawa, at that time, the company was gripped by strong fears that the work would not be finished in time due to having to draw so many detailed pictures.

“I always liked comedies and time-travel stories, so I wanted to produce a comedy anime, which have shorter production times, while keeping the Yoshida art style,” Sasagawa explained. “The result was spot-on.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Popular characters created by Tatsunoko Production Co. are seen at the entrance of the firm’s head office.

Each work in the series follows the same pattern: a duo comprising male and female goodies is pitted against a villainous trio comprising a beautiful lady boss, a brainy trickster and a brawny strongman. This scenario has its roots in the series “Yatterman,” which aired from 1977 to 1979. Each week, the characters would travel to a different part of the world and comedy antics would ensue. The time-travel element was used in “Zendaman” (“Zenderman”), which ran from 1979 to 1980, and “Otasukeman” (“Rescueman”) from 1980 to 1981. The anime’s fixed setup was highly influential on subsequent TV anime shows.

“Children love seeing an adult baddie stumbling around or getting blown away in an explosion,” Sasagawa said. “The trio is always caught off-guard at a crucial time and thwarted on the brink of victory. This plot theme contains an important message: ‘You should never give up. You’ll definitely be rewarded if you work hard.’ The three baddies never learn and keep going week after week. They’re very tenacious.”

No recycling of ideas

The production team has never changed the basic concept to the point that the series falls into a “successful rut,” but team members always rack their brains to come up with new ideas for plots and machine battles in each episode.

“I wanted to make children laugh by all means, but we never recycled ideas,” Sasagawa said. “I constantly told staffers that we’d be failing if viewers could correctly guess how a story would turn out.”

These days, Sasagawa serves as a company adviser, allowing him to keep an eye on younger staff.

“Looking back, it’s been a tremendous 60 years,” he said. “Tatsunoko has an unshakable foundation. Advances in computers have given us more freedom of expression. Looking ahead, I hope our staff will create new works that entertain children and adults alike.”