There are few animation studios in Japan with a history as long as Studio Pierrot’s. Created in 1979, they have been behind some of the most long-lived trends in the medium, such as magical girls and some of the most famous anime of all time, like Naruto and Bleach. They have also been second unit support for other studios, having a hand in legendary movies like Akira. While at times they have been criticized for putting quantity over quality, no one can deny that Pierrot has left their mark in the animation world.
Represented by a smiling clown, the creators at Studio Pierrot have not let time pass them by. With ups and downs, they have managed to stay current and active, still making a name for themselves almost 40 years after their foundation. And because 40 years are quite an achievement, it’s time we review their history.
Leaving Tatsunoko Behind
In the early seventies, Tatsunoko and Mushi Productions were two of the three biggest animation studios. Tatsunoko was famous for many space opera anime, such as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Tekkaman, while Mushi was Osamu Tezuka’s studio. Unfortunately, in 1973 Mushi had to file for bankruptcy, and while it came back in 1977, some animators saw the change as a sign to start their own paths. At the same time, some of those working in Tatsunoko wanted to create new stories and thus they got together to create Pierrot, taking a clown as their mascot and logo. Among the animators who started in this new studio were Mamoru Oshii, Hisayuki Toriumi, Masami Anno, Osamu Kobayashi, Kenji Terada and Tatsuo Hayakawa.
Their first two anime series were Nils no Fushigi na Tabi, based on the novel The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgerson by Selma Lagerlof, and Maicchin Machiko-Sensei, a more risqué series based on the manga of the same name by Takeshi Ebihara. Nils no Fushigi na Tabi was the story of a young boy who was shrunk to less than 3 inches tall by a gnome he insulted and had to travel with a flock of geese through all of Sweden in order to learn some humility and empathy. Machiko Sensei, on the other hand, was about a teacher dressed in a very short miniskirt who somehow always managed to end up in some very embarrassing situations.
Between those two extremes, they also worked with Studio Kitty to produce Urusei Yatsura, the adaptation of the famous manga by Rumiko Takahashi, which in turn made people notice Mamoru Oshii’s very particular style of directing and storyboarding, as he was in charge of 106 episodes, as well as three of the movies. Most viewers didn't know it yet, but they were witnessing the birth of a new giant.
Magical Girls and Strong Warriors
As the company started growing, they hit on their first original series that would become a real success and a sort of franchise for the studio: Mahou no Tenshi Creamy Mami, the first of many magical girls created by the studio and designed by Akemi Takada. While the genre had been created by Studio Toei, Pierrot and Creamy Mami became strong competitors; a trend that later continued with Persia, Magical Emi, Fancy Lala, and Pastel Yumi. These magical girls followed a very common pattern in which, rather than fighting for a faraway star or trying to find a magical item to prove themselves, they had to learn how to be better persons and try to reach their dreams as Idol singers and magicians. The one exception was Persia, the Magic Fairy, but even her search to save the Lovely Dream tended to be sidetracked by her conflicting feelings for twin brothers Gaku and Riki.
Besides their successful adaptation of Urusei Yatsura, in the eighties, they also adapted the beloved manga Kimagure Orange Road by Izumi Matsumoto, which also had some subjects in common with Urusei Yatsura: It was based on a complicated love triangle and there were a lot of supernatural powers involved. By now, people were getting used to great animation and very surreal sequences from the studio. Not only that, but they had the shoujo audience quite captive.
It wasn’t until the 90s when they had a great hit with the Shounen audience: Yu Yu Hakusho, the manga by Yoshihiro Togashi that became a huge success in animation, CD sales, and even managed to sell two movies despite having a lackluster ending. Thanks to this diversification, Studio Pierrot started getting more and more licenses, such as Flame of Recca, Akachan to Boku, Hyper Police, Fushigi Yuugi, and Great Teacher Onizuka to close the millennium, all of them based on quite popular manga. To make their portfolio more complete, they also had some amazing original series, such as the Mecha Dramedy Neo Ranga. By 2000, Studio Pierrot was no longer considered a newcomer, they had firmly established themselves as a reliable source for great series, and great creators on their own.
Quantity Doesn't Always Mean Quality
With so many successes, everyone believed the new millennium would be amazing for Studio Pierrot, but it was here when trouble started. While they still got a lot of great series, the sheer number of them made it impossible for the studio to do all the animation in-house and because of this, they started outsourcing to Korean studios. This, in turn, caused more and more off-model scenes to get past quality control and noticed by the viewers. And because of the overuse of limited animation (reusing parts between frames instead of redrawing) and cutting corners, instead of maintaining their past reputation, Studio Pierrot became known as a fast but cheap production house.
This doesn’t mean that they weren’t getting great franchises to adapt, though. From the beginning of the millennium, they produced Gensomaden Saiyuki, Ayashi no Ceres, Super GALS! Kotobuki Ran, Hikaru no Go, Midori Days, Sugar Sugar Rune, and two of the three biggest selling shounen manga of the last 20 years: Naruto and Bleach. With that, even if people still complained about the decline in their animation, they could make sure that the studio could still produce new series, even some that could be seen as risky, such as Eikoku Koi Monogatari Emma
At this point, the Studio also spread into only producing anime, delegating the actual animation process to smaller, less crowded studios. One such series was Yumeiro Patissiere and it’s sequel Yumeiro Patissiere Professional, which were animated by Studio Hibari.
Looking Towards a New Decade
Despite the criticism, and the constant reminder that their quality wasn’t what it used to be, Studio Pierrot soldiered on, still producing between two and three different animations a year. However, as the general tendency shifted toward shorter episode runs, going from 26 to 13, they could work on improving their quality and surprise their critics with great successes such as Mr. Osomatsu and Tokyo Ghoul, which are completely different series, but allowed their respective directors to show that Studio Pierrot still could surprise their critics, both with content and animation quality.
Returning to their roots and creating some surreal imagery, this year, Studio Pierrot is producing Magical Girl Ore, based on the manga by Icchokusen Mokon, which gives us muscular boys dressed in frilly dresses, muscular teddy bears kidnapping handsome idol singers and yakuza who double as magical girls’ cute mascots. They are also animating Boruto, the Naruto sequel, and Tokyo Ghoul: Re. So little by little, Studio Pierrot is rebuilding what they lost during the nineties. With new directors like Shuhei Morita, Itsuro Kawasaki, Masashi Kudou, and Yoichi Fujita, we can see a new dawn for Studio Pierrot, away from the vices of the past.
Summarizing 40 years of work is not an easy task. With other studios, particularly the ones created after the anime industry boom outside Japan, most fans have a favorite or two within their favorites. But with studios as old as Pierrot, we’re talking about at least three generations of fans who can list many anime from the same studio that created warm memories for them. And it’s not only in Japan, many of the series made by studio Pierrot were translated to French, Italian, and Spanish and became fast favorites of people in Europe and Latin America.
With 40 years’ worth of series, it’s possible we missed some of your favorites. And of course, there’s not enough space to talk about why those series are so special for so many people. That’s why we would love to hear your opinion on the history of this beloved animation studio and the series they have given us. Which was the first Studio Pierrot’ anime you remember watching? Which one is your favorite series? And, which memories do you have about that series? Please, let us know in the comments below.