Eiichi Yamamoto (1940-2021)

September 25, 2021 · 0 comments

Eiichi Yamamoto, who died earlier this month, bore witness to crucial moments in anime history. As a young man, he was one of the talents behind the scenes at Ryuichi Yokoyama’s Otogi Pro studio, an experiment by a manga artist dabbling in the world of animation. But Yamamoto was the brains of the outfit, and saw himself hobbled by Yokoyama’s dilettante attitude. When another manga creator, Osamu Tezuka, came calling, and announced that he was going to take Japanese animation to the next level, Yamamoto was one of the high-level defectors to the new boss. The money helped – Tezuka paid double what Yokoyama was offering.

Yamamoto was in at the ground floor at Tezuka’s studio Mushi Production, working on Pictures from a Street Corner (1962), the company’s first large-scale experiment in limited animation. He remained with Mushi for the next decade, becoming a central figure on its landmark productions Astro Boy (1963) and Kimba the White Lion (1965).

After being one of the first to believe in Tezuka’s vision, Yamamoto was also the last man standing, clinging to Mushi even as changes in the film world in the late 1960s drove it into debt. His most well-remembered works were the three-part “Animerama” trilogy in which Tezuka floundered desperately to recoup his losses by moving into adult animation. Although these are remembered usually as “Tezuka” films, it was Yamamoto who did the heavy lifting on 1001 Nights (1969) and Cleopatra: Queen of Sex (1970). From the very start, the budget for the Animerama pictures was 40% lower than that which Toei spent on Legend of the White Snake (Hakujaden) a decade earlier, causing the producers to rob from future productions to fund the first two. Cost over-runs on these left almost nothing for Belladonna of Sadness (1973), which, depending on whom you believe, was either a triumph of Yamamoto’s creative vision, or a glorified radio play with occasional moments of movement.

Yamamoto himself was one of the film’s harshest critics, calling it a “patchwork and unshapely film,” but offering in mitigation the impossible conditions he was working under. It was, in fact, only a quarter complete at the time of the original delivery deadline, forcing Yamamoto and his over-worked animators into heroic and often impressive artistic choices to somehow fill the onscreen space to match the pre-recorded soundtrack. They laboured night and day in a studio that was constantly bleeding staff, to the constant refrain of the album of the moment, John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

After Belladonna was completed, there were no more projects listed in the Mushi Pro pipeline. Yamamoto watched as some of his former animators gave up on the business altogether, such as Chikao Katsui, once lauded as the animator of the vivid flamingos in flight in the opening sequence of Kimba, now reduced to working for a supermarket chain.  To Yamamoto’s own utter surprise, news drifted in from abroad that a print of Belladonna had received a standing ovation at a German film festival.

In the 1970s, Yamamoto finally quit the sinking ship of Mushi, ending up as one of the minions toiling for Tezuka’s former business manager, Yoshinobu Nishizaki. Using materials and even furniture purloined from the failing Mushi, Nishizaki’s gang put together Space Cruiser Yamato (1974), for which Yamamoto not only wrote scripts, but also designed the iconic logo.

His career in anime was all but over by the end of the 1980s – there are a scant number of credits for him in the succeeding decade, of which the most notable is the script for the under-rated The Sensualist (1990), a video release based on the erotic writings of Saikaku Ihara. But Yamamoto’s greatest work was arguably one final burst of incandescent prose, his roman-a-clef The Rise and Fall of Mushi Pro: The Youth of Ani Meita (1989). Part-memoir, part-exposé, Yamamoto’s book was an explosive account of the heyday of anime in the 1960s, chronicling the life of its thinly disguised hero, “Ani Meita” as he struggled to make a living in the cartoon business. In the afterword, Yamamoto claimed that details of the hero’s private life were fictional, but that everything he said about life at Mushi Pro was true.

So much of what we know today about 1960s anime – anecdotes, scandals, gossip and all – derives from Yamamoto’s book. It is Yamamoto we have to thank not only for the assessment of Mushi as a “dangerous business model,” but for ample evidence as to why. It was also Yamamoto who first chronicled the heavy toll of “Anime Syndrome,” with his account in the book of the death of Yoshinori Rachi, the first recorded figure in the anime business to die from overwork.

Yamamoto’s book ends with the aftermath of Belladonna, in which the last hope of Mushi Pro fails to recoup its costs at the box office, dooming the company to collapse. Decades later, industry figures were still waiting hopefully for a follow-up, in which Yamamoto would also explain where the bodies were buried in anime’s tense, scrappy 1970s. But he never got around to publishing a sequel, instead leaving as his legacy a warts-and-all account of the utter chaos and confusion that greeted Tezuka’s grandstanding arrival on the scene in the 1960s.

Yamamoto saw himself, rightly, as a key figure in the grand transformation of Japanese animation, and the unleashing of an entire medium on the world, even if its first flowering ended in utter pandemonium. “All that was left in Pandora’s box,” he reminded his readers, “was hope.”

Jonathan Clements

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