Yasuo Otsuka, master of Japanese animation between Conan, Lupine III and other successes, has died

Yasuo Otsuka, master of Japanese animation between Conan, Lupine III and other successes, has died

Yasuo Otsuka

Yasuo Otsuka died yesterday, March 15, 2021, at the age of 89: he is one of the great masters of Japanese animation, whose name is linked to various great successes of the extraordinary production between the 60s and 80s, between of whom we remember Conan: the boy of the future, Lupine III and various other series and films.

He was also a colleague and mentor of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the founders of Studio Ghibli, at Toei Animation and collaborated in several occasions with the authors in question. He began his career as early as the 1950s, starting with Toei for which he worked on "The Legend of the White Snake" (the first Japanese animated feature film in color) and The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon.

Between the 70s and 80s he was animator, animation director and designer of Lupine III, working in close collaboration with Monkey Punch, who passed away in April 2019, curating both the first two TV series and some films, such as the famous Castle of Cagliostro with Miyazaki himself. Moving to Nippon Animation, Otsuka has covered the role of animation director for Conan: The Boy of the Future and Sherlock Holmes' nose, among others.

In 2019 he received special recognition from the Japan Academy Film Prize Association for Career. The announcement of his death was made by Toshio Suzuki, producer of Studio Ghibli, during the Tokyo Anime Awards Festival 2021.

Yasuo Otsuka, Influential Japanese Animator And Mentor, Dies At 89

Yasuo Otsuka, a towering figure in anime history, died on Monday aged 89. The cause was a heart attack, his family have told Japanese media.

Coming of age at the same time as Japan’s animation industry, Otsuka lent his prodigious talents to famous and groundbreaking productions in the postwar era, starting with Hakujaden (a.k.a. The White Snake Enchantress, 1958), the country’s first color animated feature.

Yasuo OtsukaYasuo Otsuka

Along the way, he mentored many future luminaries of anime. His most famous protégés were Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who would go on to co-found Studio Ghibli. Otsuka collaborated with them on projects including Takahata’s feature directorial debut Hols: Prince of the Sun (1968) and the series Lupin the Third Part I (1971–72). His bond with Ghibli remained to the last: it was the studio’s producer Toshio Suzuki who announced his death.

Otsuka was born on July 11, 1931 in Japan’s Shimane prefecture. An early love of trains burgeoned into a fascination with military vehicles, which surrounded him after World War II gave way to the Allied occupation of Japan. He honed his drawing skills by sketching American trucks while devouring comics discarded by the occupying soldiers.

Moving to Tokyo with dreams of becoming a political cartoonist, Otsuka ended up applying to the company that would shortly become Toei Doga (now Toei Animation). With its lavishly produced family features, the studio aspired to be a kind of Disney of the East.


Otsuka was trained by Yasuji Mori, another brilliant animator, in Toei’s relatively full animation, which contrasted with the limited style that would soon become popular in tv anime. He picked up credits on Hakujaden, Magic Boy (1959), The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963), and the anti-Communist propaganda film The Bear and the Children (1960).

It was at Toei that Otsuka met animator Miyazaki and director Takahata, both his juniors. He befriended them, partly through union activities, and championed their abilities to management, eventually persuading the studio to let Takahata direct a feature. This was Hols, an artistic triumph and notorious commercial flop. Otsuka served as animation director; the production strengthened the professional ties between the three men.

In 1968, Otsuka moved to A Production, where he was later joined by Miyazaki and Takahata. After an abortive attempt to adapt Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books into a series, the trio worked on episodes of Lupin the Third Part I — the first anime series starring the famed gentleman thief — and Takahata’s Panda! Go, Panda! tv specials (1972 & 1973), Otsuka serving as animation director and, in the latter case, character designer. He took up the same roles on the baseball series Samurai Giants (1973–74).

Panda! Go, Panda!“Panda! Go, Panda!”

By this point, Otsuka had become known for his skill with comedy. This was evident in the characters he animated: the hapless Inspector Zenigata in Lupin the Third, the loutish gangster Tetsu in Takahata’s Chie the Brat (1981), etc. Yet he was also a stickler for realism, decrying the implausible movements and proportions found in so much animation. This approach greatly influenced both Miyazaki and Takahata.

Otsuka continued to work with his old comrades into the late 1970s and 1980s, on projects like Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan (1979) and The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Chie the Brat, and the ill-fated Japanese-American co-production Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989; Otsuka would reflect on this unusual project in a book, The Prospect of Little Nemo). Separately, he contributed to other works including new Lupin productions.

Yet he became gradually less active as an animator and more prominent as an educator, continuing to mentor young talents at the Toei Animation Research Institute and the Yoyogi Animation Academy. He also explored his abiding passion for military vehicles in a self-published magazine on the subject, as well as by helping design models for the manufacturer Tamiya.

In later years, the Ghibli team maintained its connection to the man by releasing a documentary, Yasuo Otsuka’s Joy of Motion (2004), that celebrated his career. His book Sweating over Animation, a peerless insider’s account of the anime industry in the heady 1960s and 1970s, has also been published under the studio’s imprint.

Miyazaki, for one, is outspoken about his debt to Otsuka. “For me he is an excellent mentor,” he wrote in his 1982 essay “A ‘Slanderous’ Portrait.” “We did some foolish things together, but we’ve also talked passionately about the future of animation. It was Otsuka-san who taught me the fun of working.”

Image at top: “The Castle of Cagliostro”