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6 Interesting Things I Learned About Anime From the Legendary Producer Maruyama Masao Documentary

by Richard Eisenbeis,

Late last month, Japanese television network NHK put out a documentary on anime producer Masao Maruyama as part of their Anime Manga Explosion series. In it, the show delves into the now 82-year-old producer's life, philosophies, and some of his greatest works. And it also has more than a few tidbits about some of the projects he's worked on in his lengthy career. Here are a few of the things I learned while watching this fascinating documentary.


Maruyama Has Been the Anime Industry Since the Very Beginning

To call Maruyama one of the OGs of anime production would be an understatement. He entered the anime industry in 1965 when he joined Mushi Productions and worked alongside the God of Anime himself, Osamu Tezuka, on the seminal anime Astro Boy. He then co-founded Madhouse in the 70s and established MAPPA in 2011. He has planning/producer credits in dozens upon dozens of anime—including everything from classics like Trigun and Perfect Blue to more modern works like In This Corner of the World and Pluto.

These days, he spends much of his time working at his newest company, Studio M2 to help creative (and, at times, risky) projects get off the ground. As he puts it in the documentary, “Founding Mushi Production was a challenge for Tezuka. But that challenge raised the quality of Japanese anime. I want to take on challenges that others won't.”


Maruyama Views Being a Producer as a Support Role

It's kind of a running joke that no one ever seems to know what producers actually do. For Maruyama, he sees the job as getting together whatever the director needs to bring their vision into reality. “I'm their running companion,” he explains. “I run with directors as if connected by a rope but I'm always following behind. I will never get in front of them and say, 'Go this way!' I'll let them know, 'I'll run with you to wherever you want to go.'”

Sunao Katabuchi, director of In This Corner of the World, agrees with the metaphor. “He may tell us we're veering off course, but he always lets us run in front.” And speaking of In This Corner of the World...


In This Corner of the World Almost Wasn't Made Because it Wasn't Sad Enough

In This Corner of the World is the story of a normal housewife who moves in with her in-laws during the closing days of World War II. While the setting (and some of the events in the film) are tragic in the extreme, it's largely a slice-of-life film about a normal woman acclimating to her new life as a married woman.

While it has since won awards in film festivals across the world, financing was a constant issue throughout production. “Potential investors asked, 'Will this film make people cry?' I didn't know how to answer,” Maruyama explained. “I said, 'You won't cry, but you'll laugh.' It wasn't what they wanted.”

Ironically, after years of struggle to get the film made, when it was finally shown for the first time, tears were shed. The film's director, Sunao Katabuchi tells the story. “I heard someone cry, looked over, and realized it was Maruyama. That was when I realized how much hard work and sacrifice it cost for Maruyama to finish the project.”


Ninja Scroll Wouldn't Exist Without Maruyama.

While Yoshiaki Kawajiri came up with the idea of the film—and went on to write and direct it—he wasn't the person in charge who could give the green light on the project. In Kawajiri's own words, “I wanted to do something with ninjas. Maruyama said, 'If it's interesting, let's do it.' He doesn't reject ideas.” He went on to add, “Maruyama is very skilled at finding talented creators. If I never met him, I wouldn't have been able to create things like Ninja Scroll.”


There's a Prototype Test Film for Pluto

As a person who both worked with Osamu Tezuka on Astro Boy and had adapted previous Naoki Urasawa work Monster into anime, Maruyama felt it was his calling to turn Pluto, Urasawa's re-imagining of Astro Boy story “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” into an anime. It was a project 14 years in the making. As Urasawa himself put it, “From the start, Maruyama was determined to make the anime. He didn't know if it would be on TV, in theaters, or streamed online. Still, he was going to make it. His passion amazed me.”

As part of the process to gain funding for the project, Maruyama commissioned famed director and animator Yoshiaki Kawajiri to help him make a two-minute test animation to show potential investors. The short pilot film was a success as Netflix picked up the show after watching it and you can even see part of it in the documentary.


Shirobako's Masato Marukawa is Based on Maruyama

2014's Shirobako is an in-depth look at the anime industry following a fictional studio as they deal with the problems of first creating an original anime and then adapting a manga into one. There are many cameos of notable industry figures—though under different names. Maruyama is no exception. In fact, his proxy, Masato Marukawa, has a recurring role in the anime.

The character Marukawa is a producer who just seems to show up from time to time to feed the overworked staff. This is something the real Maruyama has been known to do. Maruyama loves to cook and feed his clients and staff—so much so that he often has meetings in a custom-made kitchen rather than an office. He believes eating together builds camaraderie. “Anime is created by a team,” Maruyama explains. “Eating from the same pot energizes the team for new challenges.”

The full documentary, Legendary Producer Maruyama Masao, can be watched in English on the NHK World Japan website until April 28, 2025.

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