The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Studio Gonzo

by Kevin Cirugeda,

GONZO is a name that all seasoned fans are acquainted with. That's not due to their longevity, since as a company founded in 1992 they're essentially an average, middle aged anime producer. And to be quite honest, it isn't because of the sheer quality of their portfolio either; while they have their share of classics, those are vastly outnumbered by run-of-the-mill projects and a bunch of historic disasters. When it comes down to it, their presence in the fandom's consciousness might have been forged through their curious ability to make headlines. Innovative approaches to production, new forms of distribution, all sort of management issues – there always was a piece of news that made them relevant in untraditional ways.

To exemplify their densely packed history, I should say that even though I started by pointing out GONZO was born in 1992, they're officially 17 years old now. That's because the current GONZO (officially GONZO K.K.) is a product of GDH K.K. (Gonzo Digimation Holding) merging with its subsidiary studio, and that parent wasn't created until 2000…except that by that point, some of the creators that came together to create the studio had already decided to move on, meaning GONZO is a bit of an orphan. If that sounds bizarrely obtuse to you is because it is, but also because it accurately encapsulates the history of this peculiar anime production company.

A thorough chronicle of the studio would never come to an end, and would also require unearthing dark financial secrets (which they've got in spades, even in modern times), but they've at the very least earned a careful summary of their evolution. While GONZO has made mistakes, they've also backed ideas that have eventually reshaped the industry…sometimes too early for their own good!

Early Days

The fact that Gainax blood used to run through GONZO's veins is fairly well-known, but it wasn't as simple as a team splitting off the company with the intention of creating their own studio. Instead, we can look at it as the consequences of Gainax temporarily moving their focus away from anime; it's not as if they had quit animation, but Anno and company spent about 4 years without putting out a new anime of their own, while the company as a whole diversified their output through videogames and the likes. Fair creative avenues of course, but the situation didn't sit right with people who wanted to focus on animation.

That was the case for the producer Shouji Murahama, one of the DAICON youngsters who decided to leave to keep on actively working in anime. After adventuring on his own for a while, he was eventually contacted by other creators who had been tied to Gainax at the time and wanted to work with him again. They formed a creative team with Murahama himself, the brilliant Mahiro Maeda, anime and live action director Shinji Higuchi, and writer Hiroshi Yamaguchi. While technically all of them contributed to GONZO's work to some capacity, it was Murahama and Maeda who shaped the company during its beginnings – a wild, adventurous era where these creators with a total disregard for the rules made the studio quickly earn its name.

Digital Innovators

If we're talking about what made GONZO special since the very beginning, it has to be firm belief in digital research. This isn't a direction they took on a whim, but rather a cornerstone in which the entire company was built. That was the vision Murahama had as the studio's first president, it was the reason why they created its Digimation subsidiary that was eventually merged into the 2D animation studio, and it even happened to be the field that Maeda wanted to explore the most as their main creative force.  At a time when anime was leisurely moving away from cel, GONZO's crew eagerly embraced the digital tools at their disposal as if they were brand new toys. It goes without saying that many of their experiments haven't aged well at all on an aesthetic level, but pioneers aren't meant to perfect the craft. And despite the execution being rough around the edges, there were some fascinating applications of all this new tech. Maeda overlayered many digital textures in Gankutsuou without outright obscuring the hand drawn work, resulting in a busy aesthetic that captured the opulence and excess he wanted in his take on The Count of Monte Cristo. Sure, not all scenes were perfect, but it was downright revolutionary for anime and still stands as a unique production.

Their digital pioneering didn't stop with production methods, since GONZO was also known as a firm believer in online distribution of anime. You can trace back the studio's streaming adventures as far as 2001, with the very first anime that was first made available online: Zaion: I Wish You Were Here. Hardly a memorable mini-series by itself, but a landmark nonetheless! The reason why many western fans are aware of GONZO's faith in streaming though is due to their early involvement with Crunchyroll. Usually anime studios themselves don't have a say when it comes to distribution at all, but they actively pushed for it and through that partnership they essentially set the foundation of the current simulcasting culture, starting with Blassreiter and Druaga. The global anime landscape has been reshaped forever as a consequence…but change didn't come fast enough for the dying GONZO, who had bet on this as their last option to solve their financial issues.

Talent Leaks

If GONZO's first era was defined by their digital ambition, during their decadence I would highlight their questionable ability to leak talent as their number one trait. At risk of messing up the chronology a little bit, let me dedicate this segment to the notorious departures, since those are very important if you want to understand why the current Gonzo doesn't resemble its old self in any way. Creators changing ships in the industry is relatively common of course, but the way in which GONZO bled through all orifices during a relatively short time span is basically unparalleled. The president of the studio during the early 00s, Koji Kajita, fled with fellow GDH producer Taito Okiura and a bunch of the studio's staff to create David Production in 2007 – 5 years before the studio became a popular entity thanks to their Jojo adaptations. The remaining founding members followed similar paths, with Maeda going freelance and Murahama still willing to embark on new adventures, like the current one that's taken him to collaborate with Chinese studios.

As you can imagine, if the big wigs weren't willing to stick to this increasingly dubious project, everyone else had no intention to remain either. Once the economic issues became an unavoidable problem, it wasn't so much a case of talent leaks as a dam exploding and emptying it all. Their digital department, which had been an integral part of the studio, was sold to Q-Tec; they founded their subsidiary Graphinica based off that, and that new studio has with time become one of the most influential composite and 3D companies in the entire industry – they're even producing a 2D anime of their own this season! GONZO's Substudio 5 left essentially in its entirety too, taking the amusing name Studio Gokumi (literally, “Group 5”) to represent its origin, and even inheriting some GONZO properties. The crews behind projects like Linebarrels and Blassreiter instead formed Hoods Entertainment, where the spirit of late GONZO's outrageous, fanservice-heavy projects still lives. Encourage Films was also founded by a GONZO producer at the time, but in this case it seems like the element they inherited was the bad luck that led its parent to sort of death – they're a studio marked by its spectacular production management failures after all. A couple of smaller subcontracting companies like Studio Gram were also born from other GONZO refugees. Even GK Entertainment, the Korean subsidiary that was initially founded to support them, took this as a chance to part ways. And this has only been focusing on their animation endeavors, if we looked at the many departments that either died or were sold off (like the gaming branch GONZO Rosso), we would be here all day. The company shattered in so many pieces that any attempt to reconstruct it would end up with something that's essentially all new.

There are studio names that no longer represent what fans think they do. The current Madhouse and Gainax definitely aren't the same that put together those exceptional projects that might have gotten you into anime to begin with. Compared to GONZO though, even those sad decadences feel like healthy lives. Make no mistake: there's currently an active studio by the name of GONZO but, whether you enjoy their output or not, they're not the same GONZO. Considering how divisive they used to be though, I know plenty of people who would even consider that good news.

GONZO's Death and Rebirth and Death and Rebirth

As I've been pointing out, during the late 00s GONZO fell apart due to immense financial struggles. But how did it get to that point? Fans of the studio will tell you that their revolutionary work was simply misunderstood, while detractors will defend that they kept investing too much into questionable projects. Either way, what's clear is that GONZO increased their output to obscene levels (8 yearly productions of their own circa 2007-2008) as an attempt to remedy their issues, but that only backfired as the majority of those projects failed to bring them much money. Their original anime were adventurous to say the least, and their adaptations had a tendency to stray away from the source material – something that I personally have lots of respect for, but that tends to upset the existing fanbase. All things considered, the studio crumbling wasn't a big surprise.

The company was first put on a year long trial to avoid being delisted from the Tokyo Stock Exchange. They bet on streaming, halved their output plans, massively restructured, got rid of some subsidiaries, began the merger I initially mentioned…and still didn't achieve their goal. The delisting by itself didn't force the company to call it quits, but the situation caused all the aforementioned staff to walk away, leaving Gonzo effectively hollow. This happened while their TV series Saki was still being broadcast, and the impact on the studio was so massive that the animation production switched from GONZO to Picture Magic in episode 15; it's not as if the situation hurt the creators since the show's directors and animators obviously stayed, but there no longer were enough people to effectively run the production at GONZO. The studio had by all means died.

Their remnants were barely enough to keep the studio running as a subcontracting company, but after endless departures GONZO had become so low maintenance they managed to keep on going. And so after a quiet 2010 they returned the next year with a couple titles, including a two cours sequel to one of the most fondly remembered series from their golden age: Last Exile. But as if that were nothing more than a mirage, they again had no titles fully of their own in 2012. And that's the cycle that current GONZO is trapped in: a busy 2013, followed by a 2014 where they might as well have not existed. Even as they've settled on 1-2 titles a year now, they alternate from positive news (ADK buying them as the company reported increases in profits) to negative ones (ADK reporting massively faulty accounting by the studio). It's no surprise that when a new topic arises that seems to spell death for GONZO, some people's reaction is simply: “Again?

That said, there are still things to enjoy in this Neo-GONZO. Look no further than Hiroshi Ikehata, who came to collaborate with them when the original crew was falling apart and has taken a liking to working at the studio. His personal army of young creators brings fresh air to any project, and the general lack of restraint the company allows them to go crazy even in adaptations that could have been flavorless promotional tools. Recently we even had eccentric auteur Koji Morimoto supervising the anthology-esque series 18if, where a handful of artists including himself poured their personal styles into the episodes they were assigned. Admittedly I'm making it sound better than it actually was, but nonetheless it's proof of the curious projects that the studio gets their hands on. The current GONZO might have nothing to do with the studio's origins, but their original spirit still lives on today.

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