Looking Back on 20 Years of Studio Bones

by Kim Morrissy,

Hands up those of you who love Cowboy Bebop. That's a lot of you. Can you really believe that it's been 20 years since it first came out? It still looks impressive today, which serves as a potent reminder that although the landscape around anime production has changed greatly over time, the fundamentals of 2D animation haven't.

Cowboy Bebop's 20th anniversary key visual

You may be wondering why I opened an article about an anime studio named Bones when the Cowboy Bebop TV series was produced by Sunrise. But the answer is really quite simple: Cowboy Bebop gave birth to Bones. The three founding members of Bones all came out of Sunrise Studio 2, the subdivision that did the bulk of the work on Cowboy Bebop. That's why Cowboy Bebop: The Movie was officially a collaboration between Sunrise and Bones even though the main staff was practically unchanged.

When you realize that Bones came out of Cowboy Bebop, a lot of things about the studio's image today start to make sense, like their emphasis on ambitious anime-original sci-fi works and detailed animation. It's why Cowboy Bebop's director Shinichiro Watanabe came to Bones to make Space Dandy. Of course, Bones nowadays is filled with different people besides the veterans from Sunrise Studio 2, but the guiding principles haven't changed much since its founding, at least according to those who were there.

This article isn't a complete history of Bones, but I do want to highlight what the various people who were involved with the studio over the years had to say about it when given the opportunity to look back. To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Bones published a book compiling interviews with key individuals who made a lasting impact on the studio. This is the story of Bones in their words.

The Early Days

Animator Hiroki Kanno recalls the early days at Sunrise Studio 2. “There were hardly any veteran animators in those days. Even at Sunrise you could count them on a few hands. We thought of guys in their thirties as 'old farts.'”

The group of young animators at Sunrise Studio 2 honed their skills on difficult projects like G Gundam and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory. Even animators from outside the substudio could notice how skilled they were. Darker than Black director Tensai Okamura, who was still working at Madhouse at the time, says, “The people at Sunrise had a different way of drawing key animation, and I was drawn to that.”

How did such a group of talented animators end up together like this? Hiroshi Nishikiori, who is best known nowadays for directing the A Certain Magical Index anime, says, “I'm told that it's because of amazing people like Hiroshi Osaka, but that's because Osaka attracted other talented people around him.”

Hiroshi Osaka would become one of the founding members of Bones, and in some ways he was the most important pillar, because his personal approach to animation was at the core of the new studio's ideology. “Around the time I started working on Mobile Suit Victory Gundam, I decided that I didn't just want to improve the cuts I'm directly responsible for,” he told Animage in 2004. “I wanted to raise the quality of production as a whole.”

Osaka's cohesive approach to animation eventually gave birth to studio traditions that remain to this day. “Compared to other anime studios, the animation meetings for Bones projects have more people,” remarks animator Nobuhiro Arai. “At other studios, the episode director, a production manager, and the main animator would show up to an animation meeting, but at Bones more of the production staff attend, like the compositing director, the setting designers, the producers, and so on. Everyone would get together and work through things carefully.”

None of this would have happened, however, if Masahiko Minami, who was then a producer at Sunrise, hadn't decided to go independent and form his own studio. “I wanted a bigger place with more freedom,” he told Anime!Anime! recently. Specifically, he wanted to make original anime like Cowboy Bebop and The Vision of Escaflowne, which Sunrise Studio 2 had also worked on.

When Minami left Sunrise, he asked two animators to come with him: Hiroshi Osaka and Toshihiro Kawamoto (Cowboy Bebop's character designer). Given how flexible those two were as animators, he felt as if Bones could handle any kind of project. Kawamoto recalls how Minami's request played out. “During the production of the Cowboy Bebop TV series, Minami asked me if I wanted to make a studio with him and Osaka. At the time, I'd never asked Minami what his vision for the future was, so that was up to the imagination. But I had no objections to making anime with him, and I figured we were going to keep making stuff like Cowboy Bebop. It's hard to put it into words, but my heart felt light.”

It wasn't just Osaka and Kawamoto who went with Minami to Bones. Minami asked other freelance animators whom he had worked with at Sunrise to join him as salaried employees at the new studio, and in doing so he changed their lives forever. Norimitsu Suzuki says, “If it hadn't been for Minami giving me a job at Bones, I might have quit as an animator.” Takahiro Komori has a similar story: “When I was around 25 or 26 I was really poor. I thought I only had a few more years left in me before I quit. If you're near 30 and you can't eat, then what I had really wasn't a 'job.' But before that happened, Minami said, 'Come with me,' and I got to eat.”

Rescuing these talented animators from destitution and burnout had one other very tangible effect: they stopped working at other studios. As Shinichiro Watanabe says: “When Minami left Sunrise and took the folks from Studio 2 with him, it's like he punched a hole in the wall of Sunrise! And it's still there to this day.”

Creating Original and Not-So-Original Anime

According to anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa, one of the main characteristics of Bones is that they make anime that makes the staff happy. At Bones, everyone is aware that in order to create something, you need to work as a team and not purely as an individual. However, Bones also has a culture of celebrating individual creators and animators, which can be seen in ambitious animation fests like Space Dandy and Mob Psycho 100.

The reason for this, says many of the people who have worked with Bones, is because Minami has always put the animators first. “Because of Minami's influence, there's very little separation between the animators and the producers,” Kawamoto notes.

Yuzuru Tachikawa, the director of Mob Psycho 100, concurs. “Even the production assistants and managers have a good eye for visuals and will give feedback on the animation,” he says. “You don't find those kinds of people at other studios.”

It's not just animators who have nice things to say about Bones; the screenwriters who work on Bones projects enjoy a high level of freedom. “Minami is very boyish,” says Mari Okada, who recently worked with Bones to co-write the script of Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan. “Compared to Kenji Horikawa from P.A. Works whom I always have to persuade in going along with my hare-brained ideas, Minami will just tell the staff from the outset, 'If you're serious about this, then go wild.'”

Sho Aikawa, who worked as a writer on numerous Bones series, says that he feels like he can pitch any kind of idea he likes and it could get made. “Ghost Slayers Ayashi was the last time Bones made a request from me instead of the other way around. The most they asked of me after that was to work on Eureka Seven Ao because the director Tomoki Kyoda requested to work with me. Since then, from Un-Go to Concrete Revolutio, Bones accepted my pitches. In that sense, they put the creators first.”

In order to make the anime that would make creators happy, however, Bones has had to make some sacrifices along the way. Rahxephon director Yutaka Izubuchi recalls that the studio fell into rough financial times in the early 00s. “Minami was always talking about how he wanted to make anime originals. But it was tough keeping the studio running, and as time went on, he became more and more agonized. Fullmetal Alchemist was probably what turned things around. The producer Yoshihiro Oyabu and the animator Yoshiyuki Ito submitted the pitch because they really wanted to make it, but when it became a hit, it probably kept the studio afloat.”

These days, Bones produces both original anime and adaptations, but even their adaptations have a reputation for quality and originality. Most famously, when the pitch for a four-cour length Fullmetal Alchemist anime was accepted, only two volumes of the manga had been published at that point, resulting in an anime storyline that was mostly original. Mari Okada recalls having to exert her creative powers to the fullest when writing the final episode of GOSICK based only on notes from the (at the time) unpublished final volume of the novels.

But even the adaptations that are faithful have a different aura about them compared to the work of other anime studios. Yasuhiro Irie recalls the conversations he had with his team when he took up the mantle of director on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. “I'm glad that all of us who had worked on the original anime agreed that we wanted to make something new this time. There were also younger animators who had watched the 2003 anime when they were in school, and they had their own ideas too. All the different visual ideas we had started manifesting more in the latter half of the show, as the people working on it got more into their groove.”

“Even though Bones has been doing more adaptations these days, it's not as if they've become any old anime studio,” says Sho Aikawa, who was the series composition writer of the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime. “They've been doing things their way and putting a Bones spin on them.”

The Changing Times

If there's one anime that could be considered the “representative” work of Bones, it's probably Eureka Seven. It was the anime chosen to be remade as a series of films as Bones hits its 20th anniversary, after all. It's also the kind of weird beast of a series that seems practically impossible to greenlight on paper. An original 50-episode long robot series that aired in the daytime all around Japan? As Minami himself says, you can't imagine any studio besides Sunrise making that kind of series.

As a statement of Bones's ambitions and capabilities, you can't get anything more fitting than Eureka Seven. I'm glad it came out in 2005, relatively early in the history of Bones, because back then all the founding members of Bones were still alive. Unfortunately, Hiroshi Osaka passed away suddenly in 2007, causing shock waves throughout the studio.

“It was a big shock when Osaka died,” says animator Koichi Horikawa. “Before he co-founded Bones, we were drinking buddies, and I thought we'd always go on being that way. But then he suddenly left us.”

The animators who knew Osaka feel that they owe a lot to him. “He was someone you could rely on and talk to whenever you had problems,” says Yoshiyuki Ito. Yutaka Nakamura, who is one of the most well-known key animators today, says that Osaka was like a mentor to him. “He would always tell me to do better and that my drawings didn't match the designs. If he hadn't been there for me, my animation might have gone off the rails.”

In honor of Osaka, his animation was on display at Bones's 20th Anniversary exhibit in Tokyo.

Like any big studio, as time passed at Bones, people came and went. Two years after Osaka's passing, Bones created its fourth subdivision, called Studio D, in order to expand the scope of their productions in preparation for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Each sub-studio in Bones works on different projects independently, with little crossover in staff.

According to Hiroki Kanno, things feel different now compared to the old days. “The studio has been handling more projects, and the old guard has been split up into different divisions. I don't get the same sense of unity we once had.”

At the same time, the new people getting involved with Bones found themselves learning from the studio's culture. “Being at Bones made me improve as an animator,” claims Satoshi Ishino, who first got involved with Bones projects via Fullmetal Alchemist and Kurau: Phantom Memory. “I would draw more key frames per cut, and each drawing would be more precise. I thought I'd get cut off if I didn't live up to the high standards at Bones.”

Shigeto Koyama, the man who would later go on to design Baymax in Big Hero 6, also found his time at Bones a learning experience. “I had no idea how production worked for a TV series, so everything felt fresh. Eureka Seven was the first time I'd seen animators getting together and working at it. It was because of Kenichi Yoshida (character designer of Eureka Seven) that I was able to get used to talking with animators face to face and drawing my art alongside them.”

Other people came to Bones and found themselves so comfortable that they stayed there, like Takuya Igarashi, who migrated from Toei Animation to direct Ouran High School Host Club and remains at Bones to this day. But that didn't necessarily lead to him changing his ways. “To make a long story short, the reason why Minami asked me to direct at Bones was probably not to make anime the way Bones has always done, but to inject the things I learned from being at Toei Animation, like a lower key animation count and comical shoujo manga elements.”

The Future?

When asked what the strength of Studio Bones is, Fullmetal Alchemist director Seiji Mizushima gave an answer that will probably resemble what a lot of viewers would say: “Animation! Amazing animation! Well-drawn animation that conveys feelings and passion!”

Tensai Okamura hasn't directed a Bones anime in years, but he maintains that the studio has not lost its touch at all. “When I look at My Hero Academia, I can still feel the passion of the animators and a sense of consistency in the animation.”

But all that high-quality animation may come at a cost. According to director Kenji Nagasaki, even My Hero Academia was made with constraints. “The idea behind the My Hero Academia anime was to make an anime with the level of quality that only Bones could make. But I was terribly nervous at first. We had almost no time before the first season was about to air. Of course, even in the manga, Deku doesn't fight as much in the first part of the story, and there's a bigger emphasis on thoughts and feelings, but it's only from the second season onward that the animation starts looking like a Bones anime.”

The push to digital animation has also resulted in an environment where it gets harder to call a piece of animation “done” when improvements can be made right until the last minute. “Ever since Bones went digital, things have been getting busier,” Takahiro Komori complains. “There's even more of an emphasis on polishing up the product right until it airs. The old Bones used to be a bit more laid-back.”

For Igarashi, who is currently working on the third season of Bungo Stray Dogs, reducing the burden on animators is a priority. “We're in an era where more anime is being made, but there aren't as many people joining the industry to make up for that. Pure talent alone can't maintain quality,” he claims. “That's why the first and last episodes in an anime look good, and the rest you can take or leave. You have to creatively use layouts and still images to keep the production looking good even when you don't have the resources for full animation. That's something I learned at Toei Animation, and I think it's something Bones should adopt as well.”

As the direct successor of Cowboy Bebop, Bones began as a studio where animators could freely test their limits. And that is the defining characteristic of the studio even to this day. As Bones enters its 20th anniversary, they will continue to face challenges when it comes to maintaining their ideals about high-quality animation. But I have faith in Bones will continue to create anime that will make their staff happy, and the people who watch their anime too. Shinichiro Watanabe will return to Bones to direct their 20th anniversary project Carol & Tuesday, so there's already something for fans to look forward to!


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