Some of you older millennials and/or those of Generation X (or maybe even the younger baby boomers) may have heard of Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets, Flying House, and Teknoman. They aired outside of Japan between the 1960s and 1990s, long before the age of the Internet. So what do these series all have in common? They were originally products of Tatsunoko from Japan! Or for some of you hardcore fighting game freaks, you probably heard the name through Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, with the Tatsunoko side representing that same studio. In addition to creating some of these iconic works of animation, they happen to be one of the most influential studios in all of anime. So for today’s Editorial Tuesday, we’re exploring the history of Tatsunoko Production.
The Yoshida Brothers
Tatsunoko was founded in the fall of 1962 by three brothers, the Yoshidas. The eldest brother was Tatsuo, who was originally a manga artist while his younger brothers were his assistants when they moved to Tokyo from Kyoto, but they would also become legends in their own rights under pen names. A good number of early Tatsunoko anime productions were adaptations of manga created by Tatsuo. In addition to Tatsuo, the remaining founding brothers were Kenji (famous as Kenji Maruyama) and Toyoharu (famous as Ippei Kuri). As for the name Tatsunoko, it has a double meaning. For starters, it’s Japanese for “sea dragon,” but it’s also a word play meaning “Tatsu’s child.”
Shortly after Tatsuo passed away in 1977 at the age of 45 due to liver cancer, Kenji would assume leadership of the studio. Then when he retired a decade later, Toyoharu, the youngest, would then take over. Beyond the brothers, anime would be in the blood of their children. Suzuka, Tatsuo’s oldest daughter, would later become an artist and presently works for Tatsunoko. Michiru, another daughter of Tatsuo, was married to Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, one of the co-founders of Production, I.G, which was originally a subdivision to Tatsunoko. However, Michiru would still contribute to anime as a singer under the name MIRChee. As of today, the two remaining Yoshida brothers are still alive upon the writing and uploading of this article, but no longer have any official administrative position due to Takara, a famous toy company, buying a majority of the studio in 2005.
Shortly before the breakout of Tatsunoko’s international hits, they made their debut in Japan in 1965 with Space Ace (not related to the 1980s laserdisc game of the same name), based on a manga by Tatsuo. The anime was a ratings hit and it put Tatsunoko on the map. Ace, the lead character, was a break out role for Sumiko Shirakawa, a legendary seiyuu. Throughout her career, many of her roles included the original Cyborg 009, Tiger Mask, Kamui Gaiden, and Doraemon. In addition to Shirakawa, Kenji Utsumi, another legendary seiyuu (Raoh in Hokuto no Ken and Kamogawa in Hajime no Ippo), played Ibo, a robot dog. The anime is presently available on Japan’s Google Play for you readers to check out.
Hitting the Western Market at Mach 5
After finding domestic success in Japan, Tatsunoko found its way on American airwaves. Tetsuwan Atom was already famous as Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28 gained fame as Gigantor, so it was natural for Tatsunoko to license out some of their productions for overseas broadcast. As opposed to being marketed as the original anime, many of their releases for the rest of the century would be localized to suit American audiences, which was the practice until halfway through the 1990s. The first anime they licensed in North America was Mach GoGoGo, which would be localized as Speed Racer. Due to the many non-Japanese qualities the original version had, it was easy to adapt for Western audiences.
In fact, Mach GoGoGo was the Yoshida’s tribute to international pop culture of the late-1960s. Go Mifune, Speed Racer’s original name in the Japanese version, was a homage to legendary samurai actor, Toshiro Mifune. As for his car, the Mach 5, along with the international adventures he goes on, were all inspired by the original James Bond films. The English theme song, which was adapted from the original Japanese, also became iconic. While we all remember Peter Fernandez as the voice of Speed Racer (as with numerous others within the series), the voice of Go in the original Japanese version was one of the break out roles for Katsuji Mori (or the Casey Kasem of Japan), who was going by the name of Setsuya Tanaka at the time. Mori would become a legend by doing the voices of Garma from the original Gundam, Nail in DBZ, and Nephlyte in Sailor Moon. Racer X, or the Masked Racer, was played by Kenya Aikawa, who also did voice work for Space Ace, Attack No. 1, and once played Master Roshi in Dragon Ball: The Path to Power. Last, Sabu, or Sparky, was played by the Mel Blanc of Japan, Kei Tomiyama, also famous as the voice of Naoto Date from Tiger Mask, Yang Wenli from Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and Susumu Kodai from Space Battleship Yamato.
In the 1970s, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman debuted in Japan and would become one of their most influential franchises. The series conveyed themes of protecting the environment, since it was the era when the movement started. Gatchaman was also a reaction to the birth of transforming super heroes such as Kamen Rider and Super Sentai (or Power Rangers in the West), and it took some inspiration from American comic book heroes.
Six years after its debut in Japan (and 10 years after the debut of Speed Racer in the US), Gatchaman would get its Western broadcast as Battle of the Planets, a title that was meant to capitalize on Star Wars’ popularity in 1977. While Speed Racer changed the names for Western audiences, the original dialog and story were still faithful to Mach GoGoGo’s. Nothing was edited in relation to content. As for Battle of the Planets, it had to make some significant edits for North American broadcast. The original Japanese version had some suggested nudity, a bit of graphic violence, and the main villain was what modern day society now calls gender fluid. The series got around this by making this character two separate characters that were brother and sister.
Overall, the content of its story was changed to suit its Western title. While the original Gatchaman largely took place on Earth, Battle of the Planets tries to convince audiences that it took place on numerous planets. While it’s natural to debate these changes, we have to put into context with how things were at the time in order to make it a success for its target audience. Then for the next couple of decades, a select number of other titles from Tatsunoko were broadcasted in the West such as The Flying House and Teknoman, which gained cult followings.
As Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets became hits in the West, Tatsunoko was still expanding in Japan. Around that same time, they made the original Space Knight Tekkaman series, which was a ratings failure, but would later become a cult hit. However, its 1992 remake, Tekkaman Blade (or Teknoman in the West), would become a huge hit and inspire the studio to do more remakes of their classics throughout the decade such as Mach GoGoGo and Gatchaman. Another iconic series from the 70s would be Shinzo Ningen Casshern, where a young man becomes a cyborg in order to fight androids who have taken over the world. Thanks to its live action adaptation, the series gained attention on social media.
As the 20th century progressed, they continued to make numerous contributions to the industry as a whole beyond their original products. Throughout the decades, they collaborated with other studios to help animate the original Macross and Evangelion. In addition, some of their former employees would later start their own studios. Yuuji Nunokawa, a former animator for the studio, would be one of the co-founders of Studio Pierrot, famous for Yuu Yuu Hakusho and Naruto. Production I.G, was a sub-division of Tatsunoko, which was started by Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and Takayuki Goto. In fact, the I and G in the name comes from its co-founders.
As for how they were involved with Evangelion, it turns out that the founders of GAINAX, most notably Hideaki Anno, worked on Macross with Tatsunoko. For Macross, it turns out it was Tatsunoko, who owns the rights to the original animation (not the characters or story), licensed the series to Harmony Gold and that was how Robotech was born. In regards to the original Japanese versions of later seasons to Robotech, or originally known as Southern Cross and Mospeda, they were exclusively Tatsunoko original productions. Due to Tatsunoko’s actions, it created a legal battle nearly two decades later to who truly had the rights to Macross between Tatsunoko, Studio Nue, and Big West. The case was settled in a manner where Tatsunoko still owns the rights to the animation of the original series, and not the franchise as a whole, which notably includes merchandising. Thanks to this legal fiasco, other Macross installments have been in legal limbo for international release.
A True Icon
Without Tatsunoko, it is undeniable the industry would not be where it is today. It contributed to exposing the world to anime long before the dawn of Toonami and Crunchy Roll. It showed the world anime before anyone knew what it was. Without them, who knows where the industry would be? They created iconic titles that people still know to this day (both domestic and abroad) and were role players in inspiring great people to join the industry and break further boundaries. So if you love classic and groundbreaking anime, Tatsunoko is your place to check them out.