Earlier this month, the world-famous anime creative house Artland, based in Musashino City in Tokyo, and responsible for the beautiful Mushi-shi, was reported as having ceased operations after some crippling losses.
It marked the latest in a string of animation studios that are going out of business—even though many of them have produced much-loved works with a long-time, cult following that has spread out internationally. Today I would like to give a simple retrospective look at the company’s achievements to provide some clues as to why it is so loved, and lay down some facts regarding its current state (read: it’s not actually filing for bankruptcy). Until very recently it was still working on Seven Mortal Sins.
Artland was founded in 1978 by veteran animator Noboru Ishiguro. Ishiguro was one of the original old masters of animation from the earliest stages in the evolution of televised anime, belonging to the same pioneering generation as Osamu Tezuka, Yoshiyuki Tomino, Osamu Dezaki, Rintaro, and other much-loved creators. He had already made a name for himself with the epic sci-fi classic Space Battleship Yamato in 1974, which, despite (or, perhaps, due to) having had its initial broadcast axed, single-handedly inspired the then-still-nascent “otaku” culture to thrive and manifest itself as a viable market. The series was a total game-changer in terms of the animation business and expanded the viewership of anime to young adults and served as the catalyst for an entire division of the publishing industry to be dedicated to anime-related materials such as magazines and sourcebooks. It even spearheaded further fan activities like convention events, cosplay and even petitions to production staff, kick-starting a full-on anime boom.
There then followed a renaissance period for updates of classic anime, infusing nostalgic properties with new animation techniques, such as in the case of the 1980 Astroboy, which Ishiguro directed at Artland, due to his long relationship with Osamu Tezuka.
Perhaps most notably, however, Yamato inspired fans to become creators themselves. Studio Nue, the sci-fi illustration agency handling design work for Yamato, worked closely with Artland after its establishment once a new influx of fans-turned-staff entered both groups when the Super Dimension Fortress Macross was greenlit. The project was, in a sense, a fan-made animation, due to its passionate-but-inexperienced young staff. The team at Artland was then regarded as being mostly young animators overseen by Ishiguro, and had somewhat celebrity-status within the fandom, often being featured in many publications.
Notable Artland alumni include action animation revolutionary Ichiro Itano (famous for the so-called “Itano Circus” effect, denoting high-speed battle choreography, usually involving an enormous barrage of individually streaming missiles); Haruhiko Mikimoto (illustrator and manga artist whose depictions of “bishoujo” (beautiful girls) ruled the early-to-mid-1980s); Narumi Kakinouchi (Vampire Princess Miyu); Toshihiro Hirano (a major figure in the late 1980s anime fan-oriented OVA fantasy/SF content like Iczer-1, Dangaioh, and Project Zeorymer); and many more.
Many publications from the time depict Artland as a madhouse, full of passionate individuals. Among them, was Jan Scott-Frazier, an American living in Tokyo who Ishiguro took under his wing at the studio during the early 1980s and had the experience of working at various departments there—later even being tasked with heading its expansion into South-East Asia.
“Artland was like a big family with Ishiguro-san as the wisecracking father,” Jan reminisced over an online conversation with me earlier in the week, after I asked about the working environment there at the time. “He spent time with everyone who worked there and helped anyone who needed it. That made dealing with the brutal schedules and low pay a lot easier. I suppose the unwritten, unsaid philosophy was ‘Make it as good as we can, staying on schedule and budget.’”
Macross effectively put Artland on the map for anime fans. In 1983 Artland was awarded the Grand Prize for Animation Direction at the first Japan Animation Awards Ceremony. After Macross proved a hit, selling not only toys but also unprecedented numbers of record albums that surprised the initially-weary Victor music label, the next big project Ishiguro took on would be his own creation, the bestselling 1985 OVA, Megazone 23. A sci-fi story with perhaps the first highly-detailed, realistic depictions of real locations of Tokyo since Hayao Miyazaki’s 1980 Lupin III episode, Farewell Beloved Lupin, many allude it to be a thematic inspiration to The Matrix.
Megazone’s enormous success in terms of sales garnished Artland with some more awards, including several gold discs. However, around this time, financial issues begin to creep in, and many members of the studio left, leaving Ishiguro to pursue other avenues. He took on the role of director for what became an enormous project, the animated version of Yoshiki Tanaka’s space opera, Legend of the Galactic Heroes. The long-running project single-handedly saved the studio from ruin.
More recent works such as Reborn! and Mushi-shi have proven to be highly popular, but as we have seen in recent times, the greater the quality of animation (and Mushi-shi was truly far beyond the quality of television anime at the time, to Ishiguro’s chagrin), the higher the overhead. Unless there is some substantial stake in copyright ownership of the intellectual property with significant royalty payments being brought in through sales of derivative products, the studio is often treated as work-for-hire.
Even the materials produced at the studio, including storyboards, scripts, keyframes, layouts, cels, setting designs, all of these are objects that properly belong to the copyright holders—these days meaning “production committees” of various media companies invested in the production. The material rarely fully belongs to the studio.
This is why so many studios today are actually subsidiaries of larger companies these days, and even big name studios no longer actually have animation departments (and if they do the animators themselves are freelance working for a specific project rather than full-time studio employees), and function as licensing houses rather than “studios” per se.
Which brings us to what Artland is doing now. Despite the initial reports that appeared to show it going bankrupt, this is not actually the case, and the studio is currently undergoing debt consolidation. The company is currently vacating its present premises and will move to a new location at a later date.
For full disclosure, I personally helped to move some of the historically valuable materials out of storage to be transferred to their new location at Meiji University where they will be exhibited to the public at some point in the future. The reason I am in living in Japan is, in large part, because of the output of this studio, so it was the very least I could do.
The impact Artland has had on older generations of anime fandom around the world is still palpable, and its legacy lives on, for younger viewers to experience. AIC has announced that Megazone 23 has both a sequel and a remake currently in the works, and Production I.G. is currently working on a remake of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and, of course, Macross is always thriving, with a multitude of events and new productions currently in motion in celebration of the franchise’s 35th anniversary.
There is no trailer for the new Legend of the Galactic Heroes yet, but Production I.G recently revealed the key image for PR purposes over Twitter, revealing that at the very least the visual tone appears to be similar to what Artland established.
— 新アニメプロジェクト「銀河英雄伝説」 (@gineidenanime) May 10, 2017