The Mike Toole Show Dezaki's Due
by Michael Toole, Apr 24th 2011
Oh look, another totally awesome anime director just died! This past week, Osamu Dezaki joined recently passed luminaries like Satoshi Kon and Kihachiro Kawamoto in anime Valhalla, succumbing to cancer at the age of 68. Make no mistake that this is a tragedy, not solely because lung cancer is a crappy way to go (Dezaki was a notorious chain smoker, but I still wouldn't wish it on him) or because 68 is a decade or two too young to die, or even because Dezaki was an immensely talented filmmaker whom the industry will struggle desperately to replace. But we are lucky in one respect - Dezaki started animating professionally in 1963 at the age of 19, and has left behind an astonishingly immense body of work that is teeming with beloved favorites of the medium. Weird old guys like me will remember and revere Dezaki, but I thought it'd be a valuable exercise to discuss the classics that this largely unsung hero left behind.
Starting in '63 seems as good a place as any. See, back then, there was this brand new animation studio called Mushi Productions, and they were seeking talented people to help work on their new Tetsuwan Atom cartoon show. So they placed an ad for animators, and received some 500 applications. They winnowed this large pool down to three artists, and one of them was a recent Tokyo Metropolitan High School graduate named Osamu Dezaki. Dezaki rose rapidly through the ranks at Mushi, and would find himself directing episodes of Astro Boy alongside future luminaries like Yoshiyuki Tomino and Gisaburo Sugii.
As we all know, Astro Boy delighted small children and would signal the start of a long professional relationship between Dezaki and the studio, along with its iconic head Osamu Tezuka. Dezaki would also serve as animation director on Big X, Dororo, and Goku's Great Adventure, where, frequently under the pseudonym of "Makurazaki," he was again paired with fellow animation great Sugii. But the landmark year for Dezaki would be 1970. It was in that year that the artist, at the tender age of 27, was appointed chief director of a new series from Mushi called Ashita no Joe, or Tomorrow's Joe. The task was a daunting one - the series, about the travails of a hard-luck boxer, was based on Asao Takamori and Tetsuya Chiba's manga, which was already extremely popular. But Dezaki had good chops, and he also had a good character designer and animation director in one Akio Sugino, a familiar face who was only a year or so younger than the director.
To say that Dezaki acquitted himself well would be something of an understatement. Tomorrow's Joe was a big hit, and in that series the director would cement his partnership with Sugino and start to develop his trademark visual style. First of all, Dezaki wasn't a particularly traditional storyteller - he carefully scrutinized Takamori and Chiba's manga and used its taut, brutal story as a springboard, but wouldn't return to use the comics as reference material. Instead, he used the core concepts to create a new set of storyboards that had their own visual vocabulary. Animation geeks remember Dezaki for his visual style, but the guy was also notorious for his extremely strict approach to storyboarding. It's common for directors to do their own storyboards, but Dezaki was absolutely meticulous, and is reputed to have drawn the storyboards for more than 90% of the projects he was involved in.
I keep talking about Dezaki's visual style, but I haven't yet really described it. The director pioneered a number of awesome tricks, and he's probably most famous for using stark, heavily-lined watercolor paintings to close out his scenes. This is particularly effective in Ashita no Joe, where episodes would end with Joe in his jail cell, agonizing fearfully over his next match, or with his rival Rikishi doggedly starving himself to stay in Joe's lighter weight class. Particularly dramatic closing scenes would dissolve to a painting, and then the painting itself would start to shrink into the distance, as the narrator breathlessly recounted the heroes' latest trials; roll credits.
Another favored item in Dezaki's bag of tricks was simple repetition. He used this to exceptional effect in Ashita no Joe; after all, why just show Joe diving into his patented cross-counter move when you can show it three times in rapid succession, which served to both stretch out the moment and to make the character seem somehow faster? If you check out current boxing favorites like Hajime no Ippo or Ring ni Kakero, you'll find this same trick employed all over the place. It was Dezaki who first used it to great effect.
After the highs and lows of Joe, Dezaki would dominate TV anime in the 70s, producing hit after hit. First was 1973's Aim for the Ace, a shoujo series about a driven, anxious girl named Hiromi who competes in tennis. Dezaki would communicate the high tension of the tennis matches, Hiromi's friendship and rivalry with an older player, and her tough relationship with her patient but extremely demanding coach with his typical excellence, employing split-screen shots and photographing sequences through glass to create a shimmery, glowing effect. Aim for the Ace was Dezaki's first big foray beyond the troubled Mushi Pro; he'd make the jump to Tokyo Movie Shinsha, who employed a brand new studio called Madhouse to create the animation. Decades later, the crazy kids at Gainax would use the character relationships from Aim for the Ace as a template for Gunbuster, and they would owe as much to Dezaki as they would to the original manga creator, Sumika Yamamoto.
Dezaki's next affair, the wacky caveman comedy Giatrus, didn't make big waves outside of Japan, and neither did The Adventures of Gamba, another kids' show about a plucky mouse. But the next project, a TV series based on Hector Malot's Nobody's Child, would re-establish Dezaki's flair for melodrama. You can watch the series, Nobody's Boy Remi, right here on ANN, so do it without delay! Unfortunately, Dezaki's next work isn't quite so accessible to English speakers despite being based on an English-language source. 1978's Treasure Island is just what it sounds like - an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous kids' novel about a young boy riding along on a hunt for treasure with the spirited antihero Long John Silver. Jim Hawkins is nominally the main character, but Dezaki clearly loved Silver, ignoring Robert Newton's iconic performance from the 1950 Disney film to reshape the pirate as a muscular, dashing, father figure for Jim. The series was a sensation not just in Japan, but in much of the rest of the world as well.
Then, there was Rose of Versailles.
Man, I could do an entire column about that one. Rose of Versailles was the first shoujo anime I saw with the understanding that it was shoujo anime, and it set a high water mark that I still haven't seen equaled. Dezaki would consult on the first half of the series, but he'd step into the role of director in the superb second half, creating a memorable adaptation of one of the greats of shoujo manga. I hold Rose of Versailles up not just as great shoujo manga, but as a good piece of proof that an anime adaptation can contrast visually with its source but still be faithful and memorable. I said earlier that Dezaki was always intent on creating his own visual adaptation using his storyboards, and Rose of Versailles is probably the best example of this - the anime is recognizably similar to its source, but Dezaki contrast's Riyoko Ikeda's shining, dreamlike imagery with the dirt and fire of the French Revolution. Despite never getting an official English-language release, Rose of Versailles is famous among fans of anime all over the English-speaking world, and the rest of the world.
Rose of Versailles was just the start of the director's golden age. He'd first neatly resurrect Tomorrow's Joe, creating a TV sequel that followed almost seamlessly on its decade-old predecessor, and then smashingly adapt Buichi Terasawa's popular Space Adventure Cobra manga for both the big and small screens. Takao Saito's Golgo 13 was already an evergreen hit in 1983, but when it came time to create the franchise's first anime adaptation, Dezaki and Sugino's services were enlisted immediately. Through this film, an enjoyably action-packed slice of cheese, Dezaki would become one of the first anime directors to work with CG. Painfully dated CG, at that!
1984 was the year that I first saw and appreciated Osamu Dezaki's work for myself, and if you were camped out in front of the TV on Saturday mornings, you probably saw it too. There was this TV producer named Fred Silverman, and he saw where the wind was blowing with exciting new stuff like Transformers, Voltron, and GoBots, so he created his own super robot - Mighty Orbots! But Orbots wasn't a typical Japanese/American co-production; MGM TV kicked in a ton of money, but production duties were handled almost entirely by Dezaki and his staff at TMS, which included his brother Satoshi on storyboards (thankfully, Satoshi Dezaki is still with us), Sugino on character designs, and animator Shingo Araki, who would make his mark just 2 years later with Saint Seiya, doing key animation. I love the series, which is an unquestionably weird fusion of Saturday morning TV corniness (the voice of the heroic pilot Rob is the same guy who played the Nesquik Bunny) and the absolute height of great TV anime animation; Dezaki and his crew had an enormous budget, and they didn't leave a single penny unspent. This great animation is very evident, even in the gnarly old VHS rips you can find floating around on the net. Sadly there's no DVD yet. You hear me, Shout Factory? Get on the case! Dezaki would follow Orbots with the less memorable but still lavishly animated Bionic Six.
Dezaki's creative lulls never lasted long. When he wasn't making new TV anime, he was recutting his classics for new movie releases, like 1988's Treasure Island memorial film. He also entered the OVA game in '88 with a fine OVA adaptation of Rumiko Takahashi's One-Pound Gospel, and just a couple of years later he'd be appointed captain of the good ship Lupin the 3rd. This wasn't his first exposure to Lupin; he'd storyboarded several episodes of the original TV series. He would direct five TV movies featuring the Lupin gang, none of them especially memorable. Maybe you could explain this by pointing out the absence of Akio Sugino from these projects, but in any case, they're decent (but not great) works of animation.
Osamu Dezaki would enter the 90s with a mediocre OVA (Sohryuden) and a better-than-average TV series (Brother, Dear Brother) under his belt. He would then re-ignite his association with Tezuka's crew by taking over for the now-deceased great animator on the Biblical TV series In the Beginning - and then he went and directed what is still my favorite of his works at the midpoint of the decade. Dezaki took one of Tezuka's most iconic characters, the rogue doctor Black Jack, and made him the star of a 10-part OVA series and a feature film. Rather than closely following the cartoonish Tezuka aesthetic, Dezaki employed his old pal Sugino to give the series a hyper-realistic look, and the resulting show was popular and entertaining enough that people would still crowd around TVs by the dozen to watch it at the Tezuka Museum when I visited in 1999. This was my first exposure to Black Jack, but it wasn't Dezaki's - he'd consulted on his brother Satoshi's Marine Express, an endearingly quirky TV movie starring most of Tezuka's characters, in 1978. Black Jack was still near the apex of his popularity at this point so his inclusion as a major character was a slam dunk, but the man didn't actually get to draw him - Tezuka insisted on doing that himself. Dezaki would just have to wait about 20 years for his chance.
The director would show his versatility as the millennium turned over, jumping from the dramatic tension of Black Jack to a series of Hamtaro movies. He tackled unconventional adaptations of literary classics like The Snow Queen and Moby Dick. He storyboarded every single episode of the immensely entertaining (and poorly adapted for American audiences) 2003 Astroboy TV series. He linked up with a bona fide Hollywood property, directing a 12-episode TV series based on Kurt Wimmer's Ultraviolet feature film. As his career and his life drew to a close, Osamu Dezaki proved himself a director for all seasons and all tastes; he directed the Air and Clannad feature films, showing he had just as much of a flair for quiet romance as he did for action and drama, and his last work was a TV adaptation of the famously impenetrable Tale of Genji. I'm not sure I'd place it with his other works, but it's a show that looks good in spite of a small budget, and its numerous visual tricks, like dissolving to paintings, splitscreens, and odd lighting effects, make it unquestionably a Dezaki joint.
I wonder when we're going to see the next Osamu Dezaki. He's responsible for creating so much of the shorthand that anime TV and films use, and now he's left the rest of the business to continue pushing the medium forward. I hope someone is up to the task, and will create even more ways to communicate the unique blends of action, mystery, suspense, romance, and even comedy that Dezaki was so well-known for. In the meantime, I'll sit here and wrap myself up in Hakugei and Cobra, like a warm old blanket - or maybe more like a dramatic watercolor painting.
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