Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Saturday, November 11, 2006

12:53:24 am , 3594 words, 11271 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Two pioneer women animators

Kazuko Nakamura

To continue in the spirit of the last post, I thought I would take the time to do something that I've been meaning to do for a long time - write about two of the most important female animators of the early period. I've actually been intending to do this for two years now, ever since I wrote this prelude, titled such in a nod to Debussy's famous piece because I never actually expected to get around to it...

Women play a fairly big role in animation, and they have since the beginning of commercial production in the late 50s/early 60s. However, their tasks have usually been limited to the lower echelons of production like tracing and painting, rather than tasks demanding creativity such as animating or directing. In the last few decades, it seems to have become more common to see female animators, episode directors, animation directors, character designers and so on, and there have been a number of female animators who have achieved a degree of recognition on the basis of their unique talent as animators, such as Atsuko Fukushima, or more recently, Shizuka Hayashi. But it remains rare to see women directors, and overall it still seems like a male-dominated field, so there is obviously still considerable room for improvement.

Two women active in the early years of commercial anime played a big part in helping to achieve the progress that has been made. They showed by their example that it was possible for women to excel in the same creative positions as men. Their names: Reiko Okuyama and Kazuko Nakamura. Both were trained at Toei Doga working on the early features in the late 50s/early 60s, and went on to be among the first women in the industry to occupy a leading position as animators in their respective workplaces.

Many of the gains that have been made today can be definitively traced back to their efforts to improve the lot of women in the animation workplace. Toei Doga reflected much of Japanese society, and presumably the rest of the world at the time, in that women were paid less to do exactly the same work, and otherwise had to endure a sexist double standard that manifested itself in a variety of ways. For example, women at the studio would be told that key animation was too hard for them. Some were even forced to sign a contract stating that they would retire once they got married. Through courage and determination, both of these women managed to make a successful career for themselves inside this system despite its problems, in the process helping to combat those very problems.

Reiko Okuyama working on
Wan Wan Chushingura in 1963

Reiko Okuyama    奥山玲子

A sickly child, Reiko Okuyama spent most of her formative years confined to her bedroom reading. She consequently developed uncommonly fast reading skills, and by the fourth grade was breezing through the complete works of Shakespeare. To pass the time, she would write plays and put them on with neighborhood kids, designing and creating her own costumes for each play. When the war ended, she was shocked and dismayed by the contradictions and compromises she saw in the adults around her. Transferred to mission school, she became a precocious rebel, asking the nuns, "If god exists, why is there war?" Soon enough she became an avid Sartre reader, and idolized Simone de Beauvoir.

After running away to Tokyo from the country university her parents wished her to attend, Okuyama received word from her grandfather about a job offer he had run across in the newspaper - a company called "Toei Doga" was recruiting. In search of secure employment, she applied, misunderstanding the "doga" part of the company's name for the homonym meaning "children's drawings". Under the impression that she was applying for a company that created picture books, she arrived at the company office only to be asked to "inbetween" drawings of a boy raising a mallet and striking a post. Baffled, she nonetheless completed the task, and was miraculously accepted. This early period is full of amusing anecdotes like this about how many of the luminaries of later decades just happened to stumble into animation purely by chance.

When she arrived at her new job, however, the fighter in Okuyama awoke in the face of the sexist problems she saw all around her. Seeing women all around her pressured into quitting after becoming mothers, or forced to put off marriage in order to hang onto their jobs, she vowed to raise a family and continue working on the front line. After her first job as an inbetweener on Hakujaden (Legend of the White Snake Enchantress) (1958) inbetweening Yasuji Mori's keys cleaned up by second key animator Masatake Kita (she was an inbetweener of the famous animal brawl, one of Mori's greatest pieces), she was raised to second on the second Toei Doga feature, Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (Magic boy) (1959). This uncommonly fast accession came after she had worked furiously on a throwaway short entitled Tanuki-san Ooatari (Mr. Tanuki Strikes it Rich) under Masao Kumagawa to prove herself to the company. The company already had its eye on her as a troublemaker, and had assigned her the piece to keep her out of trouble, but in fact it wound up working to her advantage.

As a second on Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, she occuppied an unusual position. The only two experienced animators at Toei Doga initially were Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara, the main animators from Nippon Dogasha (AKA Nichido), the company that the big Toei movie studio had acquired to lay the foundation for its new animation department, Toei Doga (i.e. Toei Animation). Nichido being a small studio with few animators, Toei Doga needed to hire more animators before they could set to the task of animating a feature length film, which is why the studio had been formed in the first place. There not being many experienced animators in Japan, they had to resort to sending out a public call for prospective animators. Okuyama was one of those who responded to this call. Consequently, with complete amateurs on their hands for the first few films, Mori and Daikubara were forced to draw all of the keys and guide the trainees in the fundamentals of animation. However, both men had very different styles - Mori extremely clean and polished and demanding with his drawings, Daikubara extremely loose and free and accepting with his - and consequently subordinates wound up being assigned to one or the other based on their particular stylistic inclinations. As a result, two very distinct types of animators developed. Yasuo Otsuka, for example, worked under Daikubara, which is at the root of that very free and rough approach that makes his work so great, whereas Kotabe worked under Mori, from whom Kotabe inherited his delicacy of touch and clean, refined drawings. Okuyama was unique in that she worked for both. This goes to suggest that, quite early on, she began to occupy an important position at the studio as a versatile animator valued for her exceptional drafting skills and go-getter attitude.

For the third film, Saiyuki (Alakazam the Great) (1960), Okuyama continued vaulting between these two stylistic poles, seconding Daikubara's scene where Chohakkai eats a plate, and another of Mori's most famous shots, the full-body shot where Rinrin trudges through the snow in a snowstorm and finally topples over into the snow. With each new film she continued to rise in position: In Anju & Zushiomaru (1961) she became an assistant key animator, and in Sinbad's Adventures (1962) she finally acceded to key animation. Over the next few years, she worked furiously on Toei's first two forays onto the Braun tube. She also was one of the many who contributed designs to Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon in 1963, designing and animating the scene in the underground palace with Susanoo's brother, Tsukuyomi.

Around this time, Okuyama married Yoichi Kotabe, and became a mother. Kotabe had joined the studio a few years after Okuyama, drawing his first inbetweens in 1960 in Saiyuki. Upon returning from maternity leave, Okuyama was approached by the company and asked to switch from being an employee to working on a contract basis. As a way of improving the lot of the company's workers, a union had been created around this time at the company following underground organizational efforts by people like Otsuka and Takahata. Going contract would have essentially meant leaving those people behind after all they had done to organize the animators, so she refused, opting to stick with the struggle. In response, the company yanked her bonus pay and rank, and went after her husband, threatening him with a pink slip, citing a pretext of absenteeism. Work usually kept both of them busy throughout the day and late into the night, so Kotabe had been taking driving lessons in the morning in order to be able to drive his child to day care, and had consequently been arriving late to work. Takahata and others in the union, including a lawyer, came to their aid, and Kotabe was only demoted. It's now common for couples to work while raising a family this way, but back then they were among the first to dare to do this, and paid the price for it.

Next came the union's big film, Horus, Prince of the Sun (1965-68), in which Okuyama played a major part second only to Miyazaki in coming up with designs and drawing animation. She designed many of the female characters in the film, as well as their clothes, such as the little girl Mauni and the bride Pyria. She also animated numerous sequences, including the part where Coro arrives in the village and is chased by a lot of children, the scheming village chief, and even scenes of Hilda, such as Hilda in the rocking chair, Hilda holding Mauni in the meadow, and Hilda pushing Horus over the cliff. Mori did not correct her sections, so it should be possible to note some difference in Mori's and Okuyama's Hilda. Mori would have handled Hilda when she was experiencing complex, conflicting emotions, which he expressed masterfully in her expression, such as Hilda by the lake with Horus, whereas Okuyama handled Hilda when her expression could be more straightforward, such as Hilda throwing the axe at the village chief.

In the next film, Puss and Boots (1969), she handled the early antics in the house and the scene with the suitors early on. She then drew a considerable amount for her husband's first job as animation director, Flying Ghost Ship (1969). She became the first woman animation director ever in 30,000 Leagues under the Sea (1969). She was in fact co-animation director with three others under the collective pen name Okuta Sadahiro, which borrowed a piece of each of their names. Work was divided by character. Okuyama handled the two protagonists. Finally, in Animal Treasure Island Okuyama handled the memorable scene at the beginning at the Benbow.

It was around the time of the second Puss 'n Boots movie (1971) that things began to change for good at Toei Doga. Miyazaki, Takahata and with them Kotabe left to join Yasuo Otsuka at A Production in the middle of preparations for the continuation, leaving Okuyama and animation director Mori out in the cold. Most of the good staff were gone, and work conditions quickly worsened, with trouble between the union and the company resulting in a lockout and massive layoffs. Around this time, surprisingly, she actually helped out on Belladonna under the pen name Reiko Kitagawa, as she had been chafing under the constraints of the children's format at Toei and found the more mature nature of the material appealing. After doing work on numerous of Toei's new manga adaptations like Mazinger Z, Okuyama was forced to take up the task of animation director on The Little Mermaid in 1975 under very adverse conditions, with no staff up to the task. Her final job before finally leaving was as head animator of the third Puss 'n Boots film in 1976.

She immediately set to work helping her husband out on Marco as co-animation director. She in fact designed numerous memorable characters in the series, such as the homeless native american boy and girl Marco befriends. She didn't stay long at Nippon Animation before going freelance, in which capacity she worked on a number of TV series before finally helping her husband out on Toei's last great film, Taro the Dragon Boy (1979). From there on out she finally began to drift away from commercial animation, which had never really suited her character or satisfied her. Starting in 1979, she illustrated numerous children books, and from 1985 on she taught animation at the Tokyo Designer Academy. Around this time she also became interested in copperplate engraving, helping Tadanari Okamoto on his last film, The Restaurant of Many Orders. She says that from now on she would like to focus on artistic animation of the kind she most recently contributed to Winter Days. Hopefully we will be able to see another short film from her in this vein. Next year will mark fifty years since Reiko Okuyama entered Toei Doga and began working in animation.

Kazuko Nakamura working on
Saiyuki in 1960

Kazuko Nakamura    中村和子

Reiko Okuyama entered Toei Doga in the second wave of public recruitment. She had in fact been preceded by another woman, Kazuko Nakamura, who joined Nichido in 1956, one year prior to Okuyama, right before the company was absorbed into Toei and renamed to Toei Doga. In the transitional period between this and the first wave of public recruitment to find animators for Hakujaden, Kazuko Nakamura was trained as an inbetweener on two of the early shorts produced at this time - Kappa no Pataro (Pataro the Kappa) (1957) and Yumemi Doji (1958). Yasuo Otsuka, who had joined Nichido not long before Nakamura, can also be seen credited as an inbetweener in Yumemi Doji.

Nakamura worked alongside Okuyama as an inbetweener on the first three Toei Doga features, but soon went down a very different path. It would seem that Osamu Tezuka, while visiting the studio to work on Saiyuki in 1960, noted Nakamura's skills and effectively 'stole' her for himself, as she left the studio after her involvement in the film and transferred to Mushi Pro. Tezuka's experience working on that film had obviously been a way of not only learning about the animation process, but also finding some interesting faces to help out with the formation of his own studio, as numerous of the early Toei Doga trainees defected to that studio when it was formed in 1961-62. Nakamura was merely one of the earliest to do so.

Nakamura participated in the very first Mushi Pro production - Tale of a Streetcorner (1962) - and would go on to play an important role in many of the Mushi Pro productions of the next decade. She worked first as an animation director on several of the TV series that were the raison d'etre of the studio in the 60s, and then worked as a head animator on the first two adult Animerama features. Reiko Okuyama had been one of the first women to play the role of animation director for TV episodes in Wolf Boy Ken (1963) and then Hustle Punch (1965) at Toei Doga. In 1967, Kazuko Nakamura probably became the first woman to play that role for every episode of a TV series in Mushi Pro's first shoujo anime, Ribon no Kishi (Knight of the Ribbon).

Typical of Mushi Pro's unusual, ad hoc way of assigning tasks - very different from the strictly regimented ranks at Toei Doga - was the almost random order of her various roles at the new studio. Although she had only drawn inbetweens up until moving to Mushi Pro, she immediately started out drawing key animation at the new studio in Tale of a Streetcorner. Yet then she returned to inbetweening for Tetsuwan Atom. She then went back to drawing key animation for the pilot of Knight of the Ribbon, moved up to animation director for the TV series of the same, and then came back to key animation for the Animerama films.

Perhaps this freedom was something that attracted her to the new studio. The sexism of the Toei Doga system must also have been a factor that drove her away. Many of even the best Toei Doga animators chafed under the constraints of the studio's corporate mindset, so clearly Mushi Pro's more animator-centric approach must have appealed to them. Even Okuyama couldn't resist and participated in one of their productions while she was still an employee at Toei Doga and therefore not technically allowed to do so.

In any case, it's clear that Nakamura was one of the more important animators at Mushi Pro throughout the decade or so of its existence. From what I can gather, the reason for this would appear to have been not just her skill at drawing appealing characters and bringing them to life in lively animation, but also more simply her personality. She was one of the most hard-working animators at the studio. Having been trained at Toei Doga, she brought to Mushi Pro a precious commodity - an approach grounded in the fundamentals of how to move characters. She was a role model both as a powerhouse animator and as a strong female figure in the workplace.

After her early work on Tale of a Streetcorner, her main contribution in the following years was to help bring the first TV anime to life, and act as animation director of Knight of the Ribbon. But it's in the first two Animerama movies that came at the end of the 60s - 1001 Nights and Cleopatra - that we can get the clearest picture of what kind of an animator Kazuko Nakamura was. In both films she contributed the most animation, and the 'character system' was used to animate the characters, so it is easy to get a feel for her style, as she animates the same character throughout.

In 1001 Nights, she animated Miriam, the girlfriend of Aldin who we see in the first half of the film, and then Jalis and Aslan, the two lovers who we encounter in the second half of the film. The climactic love scene of the latter two was animated with the assistance of another ex-Toei animator - Sadao Tsukioka of Wolf Boy Ken fame. Despite not even being the animator of the protagonist, she took the top spot for the volume of her work. In Cleopatra, she animated the heroine. She also animated another love scene in cooperation with another ex-Toei animator, Mikiharu Akabori, who would go on to be the natural FX man at Sanrio Films. Akabori animated the waves while Nakamura animated the figures in the memorable scene, which takes place in a bathtub. The otherworldly colors and spare, undulating lines create one of the more vivid and genuinely sensual moments in the film.

What can be seen stylistically in these films is that she is very strong in creating emotive characters, and in bringing a sense of femininity to her characters that no one else could have achieved, despite not necessarily being very strong in movement or drawing. Her women convince as women in their poses and expressions. You can sense the conviction of the animator in every one of her drawings. The drawings themselves are very distinctive, with a heavy line and faces elegantly stylized. The designs of both films set the films apart as looking nothing like the anime of later years, and the same can be said of Nakamura's drawings. The chins and jaws are well defined, the noses very distinctly drawn with nostrils and a projecting ridge. The way the characters are stylized in 1001 Nights seems closer to folk motifs than to anything I've ever seen in anime. In Cleopatra, her drawings of the female form are very honestly feminine - round with ample curves, completely devoid of the male fantasies and erotic overtones they would have had at the hands of a man. It creates a fascinating kind of unerotic eroticism that I've never seen in animation before.

Osamu Tezuka appears to have held Kazuko Nakamura in particularly high esteem among all of his animators. Nakamura was one of the people Tezuka turned to after Mushi Pro had disbanded and he was setting out to make a full-length feature out of his life work, Hi no Tori. As animation director, Nakamura handled the character Olga throughout the film, a film notable for having reinterpreted (intentionally or not) the idea of 'full animation' to mean that the characters have to move at a constant 24 cels/second, always, even when standing still. Nakamura was also involved in animating the animated portions of a live-action version of this story that was made around the same time.

Although, as the creator of the idea of limited animation, Mushi Pro was just about as far as you could possibly get from Disney, it was ironically about the only place in Japan where the character system had been used (apart from maybe Group Tac in Jack and the Beanstalk and Sanrio Films), so Nakamura's animation in this film and in the Animerama films remains a precious relic of an unusual approach to animation that hasn't been seen in Japan since. Whatever the flaws in this approach, her work is an interesting case study in how different the results are when a woman animator is consciously assigned the task of exclusively animating a particular female character.

Jalis & Aslan


Random person
Random person [Visitor]

I suppose I’m being superfluous again, but I think Christmas just came early.

Thank you so much for these two excellent posts - I was particularly awed by this one. Animators back then seem to have lived so much more inspirational and, well, purpose-driven lives (although that may be because we only know through the few that get spotlighted, perhaps). I guess when there isn’t that much of a precedent people are more inclined to think carefully since they need to start from scratch, almost.

I just wonder why more female animators never followed the path of these two. Perhaps it’s that typical aversion of standing out, or just that those who potentially have the disposition and standard to make it as key animators end up going more towards illustration…

And the unfortunate stigma of women in leadership positions probably applies to them becoming directors as well. I wonder if it’s because they don’t have the confidence to direct men around or they’re afraid of the consequences if they mess up (I assume the insulting/disdain would be amplified by the fact that they’re female…)

Finally - would you mind if I bothered you here to ask exactly where on earth you get these wonderful troves of information from? Or rather, if there’s any further reading on the subject.

Thanks so much again.

11/11/06 @ 06:41
Ben [Member]  

Whenever I read about what was going on at Toei, with the animators so passionate about getting organized and doing their best to make the most interesting film possible, and basically seeming to fight for something, it definitely seems to be a thing of the past. Everyone has become so atomized today. There’s no sense of the urgent purpose that seemed to drive those young animators back then. So I always find it inspirational to look back on how things were back then.

I’m very glad you enjoyed the article. I actually wish I could have gone into more depth about Nakamura, but I don’t know as much about her, at least biographically, compared with Okuyama. I’m sure she’s just as fascinating a figure as Okuyama.

A lot of what I know about Okuyama came from the book I mentioned in the original post, which is a very nice and informative read about six great animators, so check it out if you’re looking for further reading. Most of the rest was just what I’ve been able to gather from little bits I’ve read here and there.

11/11/06 @ 15:22
h_park [Member]

Where did you find sources for your articles? This is really fascinating. Are we ever going to see more women directors, who is not animation director, writer, Key animator, and producer in Japanese animation industry? I would love to see woman director’s expression on Japanese animation. Now I’m starting to remember Hiroyuki Okiura’s comment on women’s touch on key animation he worked on…

11/12/06 @ 02:12
M Arnold
M Arnold [Visitor]

I think there’s a chapter on Okuyama Reiko in that Kano Seiji book that came out a year or two ago.

11/13/06 @ 23:27
Jennifer Wolcott
Jennifer Wolcott [Visitor]

Thank you for this article. My granddaughter is planning to be an animator. It is a delight to be able to show her women who have succeeded in anime.

12/06/06 @ 06:51
Random person
Random person [Visitor]  

Seems like Reiko Okuyama’s passed away… in May this year, no less:

09/14/07 @ 07:03
Ben [Member]  

What shocking news. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I saw a video of her on the Toei Monochrome set that was fairly recently shot, and she seemed well. My condolences to Yoichi Kotabe. I should write about this.

09/14/07 @ 10:14
achu [Visitor]

It is very very surprisingly for me… now i needed your help I have some fairy tale story don’t know what to do… can you help me please…

08/10/12 @ 07:25
achu [Visitor]

Iam a japanese animations fan and want to become an animator . I can do every thing drawing and story writing……

08/10/12 @ 07:32