Yōichi Kotabe

Part II: From one studio to another

Table of contents :

Part I: The Tōei era
Part II: From one studio to another
Part III: From animation to Nintendo
Part IV: Diversification and transmission
Part V: Towards new horizons
Appendix : Works on which Yōichi Kotabe has worked

Departure from Tōei

Several upheavals occurred within Tōei Dōga during the 1960s. The studio's position has evolved since its entry into the film industry, and television gradually became more and more important to it.
It produced 19 animated feature films from 1958 to 1971, A-series (the model used since the beginning of the studio) and B-series with smaller budgets and shorter running times, but which were sometimes more successful than the A-series, which was notably the case of Flying Phantom Ship. Producers then saw less and less interest in producing expensive A series, which led to the end of films with 12 drawings per second.

Producing 20 minutes of animation for a film costs much more than producing a TV series episode of equivalent length, and Tōei tried in every way to keep costs down, which was felt by its animators. Working conditions were not at their best and the means allocated to film production did not allow the studio's artists to achieve their ambitions. The fight between the union and the studio management only widened the gap between the 2 parties and some employees started to pack their boxes at that time. In 1968, some of them left to found Studio N°1. In the spring of 1969, at the end of the production of Puss in Boots, it was Ōtsuka who left the ship. Held partly responsible for the delay in the production of Horus as well as the failure of the film, he understood that his future was not within the studio where he had already spent more than 10 years. He was joined at the studio A Pro (also composed of former Tōei employees) in 1971 by Miyazaki, Kotabe and Takahata, after having invited the latter. According to Miyazaki, "The company had harshly made it known that they would never give Isao Takahata the opportunity to direct again."

Kotabe: "Until then, Tōei was producing one film a year. At that time, everyone in the studio would dedicate a year to making a movie. But Tōei began to produce animated films for television more intensively, with better results. Production increased from one to several films per year. The TV series, apart from Ōkami Shōnen Ken, which was an original script, were adaptations of successful novels or comics published as series in magazines. So Tōei was taking safe options. For budgetary reasons, I imagine, it decided to stop producing one big film a year, but several smaller, lighter features. This is how the B-movies came about. Tōei enforced an increasingly strict budgetary policy, and in this context, it became increasingly difficult to make consistent films."

Pippi Longstocking

When Ōtsuka invited Takahata to Studio A Production (Tokyo Movie's production studio, since renamed TMS), he did not do so without submitting a project: that of adapting the Pippi Longstocking novels into an animated series. While the director had no trouble convincing Miyazaki to do his cartoons, Kotabe was more hesitant, torn between his desire to work on this project and that of staying with some of his colleagues who had not resigned. He eventually decided to follow the future founders of studio Ghibli and all of them worked on the project by designing characters and drawing image boards (drawings used to illustrate a project, to capture its essence and atmosphere by showing key sequences for example), among other things.

Miyazaki: "Kotabe drew the characters, I drew the backgrounds. It was like that from the beginning. If there was a bad line in my drawings, Kotabe would correct it. So it became completely different. I would give him my drawings silently when they were finished. Kotabe was a person who didn't talk much and didn't argue much. As he knew about Paku's (Isao Takahata's nickname) expectations, there was no discussion between us and we worked silently by ourselves. [...] I drew by imagining all the situations that came to my mind and from my drawings, Kotabe conceived the characters in the Kotabe way. In any case, we haven't had any meetings."

Kotabe: "For the creation of the main character, I referred to what had been filmed in Germany with real actors. The actress who played Pippi (Inger Nilsson) was original and perfect. This girl had been chosen in agreement with Lindgren out of 2,000 candidates. I was motivated and said to myself that I would draw 2,000 characters. Of course, it was impossible and I only stopped at 30.

Image board made by Kotabe for the adaptation of Pippi Longstocking

Miyazaki went to Sweden with the president of the studio Tokyo Movie, Yutaka Fujioka, in order to negotiate the adaptation rights of Astrid Lindgren's novels, without ever managing to meet her. At this stage, Takahata had already written a script while a short test film was produced. However, after several attempts of unsuccessful negotiations, in particular via the publisher of the novels in Japan, the author notified them of her refusal to see her work adapted into an animated series. According to Kotabe, she said she was afraid that the director was only interested in money.

More than three decades later, and while Miyazaki now enjoyed international fame following the success of Spirited Away, the heirs of Astrid Lindgren (who died in 2002) contacted Studio Ghibli with the idea of adapting these same novels. The director was no longer sufficiently motivated to take on this project, all the more so as his preparatory work had since been partly reused on several of his works, starting with Panda Kopanda.

Panda Kopanda / Panda! Go, Panda! (1972)

Kotabe: "The year after the production of Pippi Longstocking stopped, together with Paku and Miya, we created Panda Kopanda (Panda! Go, Panda!). For this work, I used elements drawn during the preparatory period of Pippi. For example, the main character of Mimiko, a little girl with pigtails, self-sufficient and living alone, all comes from Pippi."

Miyazaki : "I used a lot of things from the pre-production of Pippi, including sets of the interior of the house and the characters. I made the big swing that was envisioned for Pippi appear in the opening credits of Heidi and referred to elements I saw in Visby for the town of Koriko in Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)."

Project initiated by Miyazaki and Takahata, Panda Kopanda could have stayed on the drawing-boards of A Production if an external event had not pushed its management to revise its judgment. Adept of what was baptized the "Panda diplomacy", China lent 2 pandas to the United States then 2 others to Japan in 1972 in order to mark the resumption of its diplomatic relations with these 2 countries. Side effect of this policy: the mammal suddenly enjoyed a certain popularity within the archipelago.
However, this trend did not hit the country immediately after the failure of the Pippi project, forcing our trio to work on various projects in the meantime, including the first television adaptation of Lupin the Third on which Miyazaki and Takahata collaborated (unofficially) at Ōtsuka's request after it began airing. For his part, Kotabe oversaw the character design for the anime series Akadō Suzunosuke on which he served as assistant animation director.

"At the time, it was in the early days of TV animation, and I wondered if it was possible to make something so simple, so I experimented a lot. I tried to design characters that looked like Sanpei Shirato (author of the manga Kamui Den)."

Main character from Akadō Suzunosuke, an animated series adapted from a manga by Tsunayoshi Takeuchi and Eiichi Fukui started in 1954.

Both Panda Kopanda films were made at a time when their main leads - Miyazaki, Takahata, Ōtsuka and Kotabe - were fathers of young children, who are clearly the main target of this diptych. Ōtsuka and Kotabe took charge of character design while Miyazaki wrote the screenplay (among other things).

These films were also an opportunity for the team to set up a system that had been little used until then in Japan (it seems that there were already traces of it on some of Tōei's series) and that continues today, namely the layouts. A layout is a drawing by which their author determines the composition of the frame. they arrange the different elements such as the scenery, objects and characters in a more detailed way than in a storyboard, close to a sketch of a key pose. It is a way for the director to explain their vision to the people in charge of the animation of the shot in question or its background, which helps save time. This system has been progressively refined, in particular on the Heidi series. Note that Kotabe never did a layout.

Sequence during which the village is immersed, animated by Kotabe

Although Panda Kopanda was well received by the young audience, Kotabe had some reservations about the project, believing that it did not fully realize what they had in mind when they left Tōei to work on Pippi Longstocking.

Heidi - A Girl of the Alps / Alps no Shōjo Heidi (1974)

After some minor work on the series Samurai Giants (1973 - 1974) and Kōya no Shōnen Isamu (ditto) for which he drew key poses on one episode each (though uncredited on the latter), Kotabe found himself once again in the situation where another studio opened its doors to him.

"After we'd made Panda! Go Panda!, a different company approached us about Heidi. And again, I worried about what to do. I'd quit Toei Animation, so if we quit Tokyo Movie, too, and moved on, it would be our third company. But if we could be certain Mr. Takahata would be able to direct something there, Miya and I said we would follow. That led to Heidi."

The idea of adapting the novel Heidi into a TV series had apparently been in the mind of Zuiyō Eizō's founder, Shigehito Takahashi, for several years, and pre-production started in 1971 according to the scriptwriter Isao Matsumoto.
In the meantime, there was the television broadcast of the animated adaptation of Moomin (1969-70), which made a strong impression on Kotabe and Takahata. This series, produced by Tokyo Movie and on which Ōtsuka worked, showed what could be done on TV despite a limited budget.

The concern for authenticity characterizes all or part of the works directed by Takahata and Heidi is no exception to the rule. For this series, he was supported by Zuiyō's president whose ambition pushed him to send a part of his team to Switzerland and Germany in July 1973 to capture the essence of the Swiss Alps and their inhabitants. While Miyazaki had already used his trip to Sweden for observation, this time he was accompanied by Takahata and Kotabe.

Hayao Miyazaki, Yōichi Kotabe and Isao Takahata in front of the cottage that served as the model for Heidi and her grandfather's home

"It was entirely new to us," Kotabe recalls, noting that he had never been out of Japan before. "The time frame was very short, so we were aware that we had to gather as much material as possible."

Miyazaki and Kotabe spent most of their time sketching backgrounds and inhabitants and doing observation. Initially, it was not Kotabe who designed the characters but Yasuji Mori, who was working on the series Rocky Chuck at the same time. Mori had to give up his place after falling ill, leaving his disciple to create his own designs (although there are similarities between the two men's work).

"The characters from Heidi were only illustrated in the book, so we had to work from that, but no matter how much I drew them, Takahata never said a word. I asked him for some ideas and he finally said, 'Please draw a picture of Heidi looking straight at her grandfather'. When I was working on Heidi, I would just draw cute, adorable things, but I would think, 'Oh, this isn't working.' The director wanted a character who could stand up to this stubborn old man."

Of note, Heidi appears to be the first Japanese animated series to formally credit a person as a character designer, a title that historian Ilan Nguyên says Takahata came up with to describe Kotabe's work.

Concept art made by Kotabe for the character of Heidi

Concerning Takahata, if he had already produced storyboards for episodes of TV series, notably on Kōya no Shōnen Isamu, Heidi was the first series that he directed himself. The level of requirement he imposed on his collaborators was partly due to the fact that, since the animated adaptation of Tetsuwan Atomu, the technical aspect of animated TV series in Japan had not evolved that much, apart from rare bursts. This is reflected in figures: compared to other series of the time, about three times more celluloids were used for each episode of Heidi. But it also translated into a human cost, as the series left a lasting impression on part of the team as well as the rest of the industry. The team in charge of the series was not the first to suffer from bad working conditions, sleepless nights were already practiced at Mushi Productions. Similarly, before the union obtained concessions from Tōei management, single male employees were forced to work all night at the studio. However, it seems that a new milestone was reached during the production of Heidi.

"Mr. Takahata wanted to delve deep into it and show her daily life up in the mountains and all the human relationships, so we plunged into production, but it was quite rough. We stayed up all night for several nights in a row. I thought I might die. It was really awful.

Working on
Heidi was so hard, so fast-paced that I had health problems afterwards. You have to understand that we spent a whole year all together in the studio. The only trips I made (by car) were to my home."

In addition to handling the character design, Kotabe had to check all the in-between animations and correct them if necessary, which was a huge amount of work. The same goes for Akiko Koyama, who was in charge of checking the coloring of each celluloid. The hours of sleep became shorter as the broadcast went on and the sleepless nights became more and more frequent which, according to the animator Yōko Gomi, was an exceptional phenomenon in the industry before Heidi.

Despite the pessimism that the production team faced when the series was created - the trend at the time was rather for sports series such as Kyojin no Hoshi or mecha series - it found its audience from its first broadcast, even though it achieved lower audience scores than Mazinger Z, whose broadcasting continued in parallel with that of Heidi.

Marco (1976)

Following this success and after a short passage on the series Flanders no Inu (1975) for which Kotabe and Miyazaki worked as key animators, a new novel adaptation was put on the tracks to fill the World Masterpiece Theater slot. Since the end of the 1960s, Fuji TV has produced adaptations of novels, illustrated or not, or even comics, in a slot that had already hosted animated versions of Moomin, Heidi or Andersen's tales. We stay in Europe with an adaptation of the novel Cuore by Edmondo De Amicis: Haha o Tazunete Sanzen Ri / Marco - From the Apennines to the Andes (1976), often simplified to Marco, the name of its main character.

"Unlike Heidi, there was no pilot. This one was made to try to sell the project to different companies in order to find its financing. It was probably necessary for Heidi, but after the success of the series, Marco was put in place quite easily to fit in with a logic of continuity."

If Marco does not enjoy the same fame as Heidi (it seems it has not been broadcasted in as many countries), the initial ambition is similar, Takahata imposing his touch by making a series with a social dimension. Nevertheless, this ambition ran into a problem resulting directly from the production of Heidi.

"The broadcast of Heidi lasted one year and ended at the end of 1974. In 1975, very quickly afterwards, we moved on to the preparation of Marco, including a scouting trip. The team was essentially composed of the same people: Isao Takahata as director, Hayao Miyazaki as layout designer, myself as character designer and animation director.
As far as I was concerned, the work on
Heidi had been marked by a very great attention to the details of ordinary daily life. This represented a larger number of drawings than the average Japanese cartoon at the time. You really had to be productive and efficient, and I spent months working sitting almost all the time. In the end, it had an impact on my back that continued afterwards. And when this scouting trip was decided in 1975 to prepare Marco, I had to be part of the trip. I had to have this chance to go to Genoa and Argentina, the other side of the world for us Japanese. But as these back and hip problems continued, it was inconceivable for me to spend 30 hours on a plane."

Research for the main character, Marco

"If I had been able to participate in this trip, it is very likely that the character of Marco - but also others - would have been conceived in a different way. I remember that on Heidi, I already had a somewhat formed idea about the characters before the scouting. These ideas were completely overturned by everything I saw.
In the end, I could only hear or collect from the rest of the team their different impressions, whether it was Takahata, Miyazaki, Mukuo
(the chief set designer) or the producer.
I also borrowed documents from the Italian Embassy in Japan, and Mr. Takahata also lent me some books. I used all these elements to start working on this series."

Kotabe also turned to Western cinema to find references and study characters:

"Beyond the purely visual design, I remembered the work on gestures and creating behaviors. For example, the shrugging of shoulders or the arms that rise up in helplessness. This is something that is never done in Japan. But we saw it in the movies. And so, anything I could find that I thought would fit the idea of these characters, I included in this work."

While Marco remains an important work in Kotabe's career, he does not hide the fact that the tone was regularly raised with his two colleagues during the production of the series.

I used to argue with (Miyazaki) quite a bit. Like when we made Marco. I argued with Mr. Takahata, too. Even though we had a precise dramatic structure for a scene, I would go and draw something however I felt like it. Now that I think about it, all we ever did was argue! (laughs)

In fact, with the exception of the film Nausicaä on which Takahata worked as a producer and not as a director, Marco is the last work reuniting the Miyazaki-Takahata-Kotabe trio.

Transition to freelance status

The first broadcast of Marco in Japan ended a few days before New Year's Day 1977, the year in which Kotabe worked on two other series as an animator : Araiguma Rascal and Seton Dōbutsuki: Kuma no Ko Jacky / Monarch: The Big Bear of Tallac. For his part, Yasuo Ōtsuka was given his first job as a director with Sōgen no Ko Tenguri, a short film promoting Snow Brand Milk Products. The latter had only one month to deliver the project and surrounded himself with several of his relatives including Kotabe (who animated the main character), Miyazaki (who drew a third of the layouts), Okuyama or Yoshifumi Kondo, a talented young animator already present on Panda Kopanda and who would direct Mimi o Sumaseba / Whisper of the Heart years later within Studio Ghibli.

The year 1977 would have been dedicated to the preparation of the series Perrine Monogatari (1978) if Takahata had accepted to direct it. Unfortunately, Takahata passed on the project, which probably pushed Miyazaki and Kotabe to do the same.
It was around the time this series began airing that Kotabe decided to leave Nippon Animation (a new incarnation of Zuiyō Eizō, which had mutated in 1975) and found a small studio - the Sakai workshop - with a former colleague from Tōei with whom he had already founded a family: Reiko Okuyama.
Less well known outside Japan than some of Kotabe's other collaborators - Miyazaki, Takahata, and Ōtsuka in particular - Reiko Okuyama achieved later recognition in an industry where opportunities were more granted to the male gender than to the female.

Reiko Okuyama (center) during the production of Wan Wan Chūshingura (1963)

Okuyama started out as an animator on The White Snake Enchantress, a film still considered a milestone in Japanese animation today. She was not the only woman to have worked in this position on this feature film; Akemi Ota, who became Akemi Miyazaki after her marriage to Hayao, also began her career in animation on this film. The same goes for Kazuko Nakamura who drew in-betweens before being spotted by Osamu Tezuka who brought her to his studio where she held the position of animation director from 1962 on the short film Aru Machikado no Monogatari. However, in a country where the professional career of women was often stopped after marriage, many female animators did not have the opportunity to stay in the industry for long. The example of Akemi Miyazaki is telling on this subject since, although she started her career before her husband, he pushed her to retire to raise their children at the time he was working on the adaptation of Pippi Longstocking.

Okuyama resigned from Tōei in the mid-1970s, as the studio did not offer her the opportunity to prove herself as a director despite her seniority and confined her at best to a position as animation director. After a short period at Nippon Animation where she assisted Kotabe as animation director on Marco, she also went freelance then left the animation industry at the end of the 80's to devote herself to illustration and engraving and to teach animation. She combined animation and copperplate engraving for the short film Chūmon no Ōi Ryōriten (1991), adapted from a short story by Kenji Miyazawa, and then collaborated with Kotabe in 2003 on a segment of the film Winter Days, a few years before her death in 2007.
Her husband later supervised an artbook compiling many of the drawings she made throughout her career. But it is probably with Natsuzora, a live series broadcast on NHK in 2019 and inspired by Okuyama's life, that a larger part of the public discovered this multi-task artist. In parallel, Manga Eiga Hyōryūki - Oshidori Animator Okuyama Reiko to Kotabe Yōichi was released, a book that recounts through testimonies of close friends and family (Kotabe, Hiroshi Ikeda, Akemi Miyazaki, etc.) Okuyama's career at Tōei as well as the life of the studio at the time she worked there.

Tatsu no ko Tarō (1979)

The studio founded by Kotabe and Okuyama consisted of only 2 people - small studios doing subcontracting were very common at the time. The couple worked from home, together or separately, on various projects of animated works, some of which were ordered by former colleagues. One of the clients of the young studio was none other than Tōei itself, which was working on the feature film adaptation of a Japanese tale: Tatsu no ko Tarō (1979). For this movie, Kotabe and Okuyama worked on the animation, designed the characters and determined its visual style with the team:

"This is a film that adapts an ancient tale, a folk tale from Japan of old, a story that has been told and retold for generations. With Heidi, as with Animal Treasure Island, we were in a foreign setting; here, we had to represent something Japanese. One of the big problems for the whole team was how to represent Japan. You'd think it would be obvious to a Japanese team, but we realized that wasn't the case at all."

Ironically, the project was initiated in 1965 by Isao Takahata before being discarded in favor of Horus. According to Yasuo Ōtsuka, when Tōei brought in Kotabe to take over as animation director, the latter reportedly requested that Takahata direct the film, which the studio management flatly refused.

Tarō, the main character of the film

During production, Kotabe received a new collaboration proposal from Miyazaki:

"There was one project I declined, which was Hayao Miyazaki's series Future Boy Conan from 1978. At that time, I was already freelance and I already felt a certain dissatisfaction with the work of animation. There is a cult scene in episode 8 of this series, where Conan, the main character, is chained under water and lacks oxygen. Lana, the female character, then dives in to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to give him some air. It is an underwater scene that Mr. Miyazaki asked me to animate. At that time, I was already working on Tatsu no Ko Tarō and I declined the offer."

Jarinko Chie / Chie the Brat (1981)

Some time later, Kotabe answered the call of another of his former colleagues - Yasuo Ōtsuka - to come and work on a project conducted within Telecom studio: the feature film adaptation of Etsumi Haruki's comic book Jarinko Chie. Ōtsuka himself assembled the film's crew after determining who would fit into which position. The direction was thus entrusted to his long-time friend Isao Takahata, whose second feature film this was, while he shared the design of the characters with Kotabe in a rather informal way, according to the strengths and weaknesses of each.

"I was reading Manga Action at my favorite coffee shop, but Jarinko Chie didn't leave a good impression on me at first. Then my wife said, 'Oh, I only read Jarinko Chie in Manga Action. You have to read it', so I read it and I really enjoyed it. That's why, when Yasuo Ōtsuka asked me if I wanted to work with him on the film, I immediately agreed."

Kotabe and Ōtsuka took charge of the direction of the animation as well as the adaptation of the manga designs into anime. For this second point, one of the difficulties was to transpose in colors characters until then represented in black and white. Another point concerns the main character, Chie, whose flat face cannot be represented from certain angles without betraying this physical characteristic. Kotabe, who was in charge of the design of this character (among others), therefore had to avoid representing her from 3/4.

Some of Chie's poses and expressions

A script had already been written when Takahata was called to the project but, like Kotabe and Ōtsuka, it did not suit him. All three were fans of the comic book and were determined to capture its spirit, which prompted Takahata to rewrite the script in order to come up with a story more faithful to the original material.

The film was released in 1981, followed a few months later by a TV series adaptation. After that, the opportunities to collaborate with his former colleagues and to be fully involved in the production of a work will be rarer for Kotabe.

The weary years

Since he became a freelancer, Kotabe has worked on both feature and short films, but has not left TV series behind. In particular, he made the storyboard of an episode of Manga Nihon Emaki, which aired from 1977 to 1978. After the release of Chie the Brat in 1981, he worked on other TV series, starting with Serendipity Monogatari: Pyua-tou no Nakama-tachi, broadcasted from January to December 1983 in Japan and for which he was in charge of designing the characters. On the second series, Kojika Monogatari, which began airing in 1983, he was the animation director.
Kotabe also tried his hand at illustration with Gekkan Betty, a unique issue of a manga magazine published in 1982 and which counted among its contributors personalities from the world of animation such as Hayao Miyazaki, Yasuji Mori, Reiko Okuyama, Yoshinori Kanada or Kazuo Komatsubara.

After having worked on various films and series within Telecom, Miyazaki found himself without a studio for some time. It was at this time that he started Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä / Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a manga serialized in the magazine Animage and whose editor-in-chief - Toshio Suzuki - later became the president of Studio Ghibli. We owe partly to him the beginning of the cinematographic adaptation of Nausicaä, a film for which Miyazaki called upon Kotabe to animate a scene of about ten shots.

"Miya said to me, 'Kotabe, do you want to help me?' I said, 'Sure!', and I took it very lightly. I hadn't even read the Nausicaä manga.
I had only been given the part of the storyboard that I was responsible for, so I hadn't read the whole thing. Miya asked me to draw Nausicaä as if she was walking on a carpet, so I said, '

It's only well after turning in his work that the animator realized the importance of the scene in question (a scene during which /!\ SPOILER /!\ the main character comes back to life).

One of the shots animated by Kotabe

Following the success of the film, Miyazaki and Takahata obtained the necessary funds to create their own studio: Ghibli. At a 2018 conference, Kotabe spoke about the latter: "I found the anime of the 80s boring. Oh, except for Ghibli's." As for why Kotabe didn't join that studio, he said he was never approached about it. The fact that he decided not to be employed by any studio (other than the one formed with his wife) after the trying productions of Heidi and Marco is probably not unrelated to this.

After Nausicaä, Kotabe worked on a few films and series of lesser importance. He was one of the key animators on Penguin's Memory: Shiawase Monogatari (1985), a strange film featuring the penguins of the Asahi Beer brand, which seems to have been inspired by Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, while also inspiring Konami for the penguins of the Parodius series. He also worked as animation director on the series Hey! Bumboo (1985), and as character designer on the TV special Sango-sho Densetsu: Aoi Umi no Elfie (1986), which is to Naucicaä what Water World is to Mad Max. On the latter, as on Oz no Mahō Tsukai, a new adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, the broadcasting started after Kotabe had already left the animation industry.

Drawing by Yōichi Kotabe that appeared in the May-June 1984 issue of Comicbox magazine. Nausicaä is riding a horse bearing the features of her creator, Hayao Miyazaki

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