Sadao Tsukioka Interview (Part 1/2): Anime & Limited Animation

This column was originally published on on September 16th, 2016. Thanks to @frog_kun for providing the translation, and OTO editor magnil for additional clarifications. Click here for part 2. © 2017 On The Ones


Sadao Tsukioka has been active in animation since the dawn of Toei Doga and Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Productions. Because of his deep connections to both companies since the very beginning of Japanese television anime, Tsukioka can talk about their distinct styles. How does he perceive full animation and limited animation as forms of expression? And what does he think of the current state of CG animation? His deep ties to the industry underscore his comments.

Interviewer: Koichi Noguchi (Toei Animation)

Early Toei Doga and Mushi Pro, and their relationship with full and limited animation

Noguchi: Mr. Tsukioka, I believe that you worked at both Toei Doga (currently Toei Animation) and Mushi Production (Mushi Pro), and that you became familiar with how things worked in those places. People often say that Toei Doga went for full animation, while Mushi Pro went for limited animation. At the time, could you see any distinct differences between the two companies?

Tsukioka: At its core, the animation at Toei Doga and Mushi Pro wasn’t different. Moreover, the animators at Mushi Pro in the early days all came from Toei Doga. Shuji Konno, Norio Hikone, and Yusaku Sakamoto from the first generation, as well as Toshio Hirata, Gisaburo Sugii, and Rintaro from the next generation—almost all of them came from Toei Doga. Now, the reason why they went from Toei to Mushi Pro to make limited animation is a simple one. They simply had no choice but to save labor because of time and budgetary constraints.


Ex-Toei Doga animator Yusaku Sakamoto co-directed Mushi Pro’s first film, “Tales of a Street Corner” (1962), and animated the young girl and the mice.

Noguchi: The limited animation from Astro Boy hasn’t just conventionalized the designs and movements of Japan’s limited animation, so to speak; it is also known for the sheer weight of its economic impact. Going by that definition, you’re saying that it’s fundamentally no different from full animation?

Tsukioka: Precisely. You could say that limited animation was originally conceived as a logical extension of full animation. In the case of full animation, you essentially animate a character’s entire body whenever they move, but with Japanese-style limited animation, you’d show as many bust shots as you can, or you’d stop the body and move just the head or hands. You’d use a method to animate each section partially. This is merely the effects of labor reduction and economics taken to their logical limits. The original type of limited animation that started in America in the 1960s1 served to “ritualize” the animation. There were secondary effects that were largely economical, but full animation and limited animation both had something they were aiming for. To give examples of animators I personally like, Tex Avery and Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny fame created textbook examples of limited animation. Their animation has many repetitive aspects, but they make every essential aspect of the frame move without drawing everything like you would with full animation. Alternatively, you could say that by using repetitive movements, they were able to imbue them with distinct meaning. For example, in the Bugs Bunny television series, the character named Yosemite Sam beats his own head with a stick in order to psyche himself up before a battle.2 This is one of the main “setups” for a gag. It turns his expressions of anger into a regular pattern. In other words, it “ritualizes” the animation. The ritual itself is much like the “Roppo” technique in Kabuki. Since the performer can’t run freely all over the stage, they express the action through jumping. And when the viewers see the “ritual” they can decode its meaning and enjoy the play. Coming up with ideas to create rituals and figuring out how to express them is the real pleasure of limited animation. You can’t do that with photorealistic full animation.3

Noguchi: If limited animation had that kind of purpose at the time, why did it become synonymous with cost cutting as it is thought of these days?

Tsukioka: That’s because Mr. Tezuka switched to animation techniques that cut corners. Right from the beginning, Mr. Tezuka was drawn to the beauty of limited animation on a conceptual level. He was making Tales of the Street Corner. After pursuing limited animation further, he came upon John Hubley’s Rooty Toot Toot (1951).


The planar and linear character designs in this short surprised the world with their novelty. In Japan, it influenced Yoji Kuri, Hiroshi Manabe, and Ryohei Yanagihara from the Animation Group of Three to create experimental works, and that started a boom. (The Animation Group of Three was an independent animation group based in the Sogetsu Art Center that was active in the 1960s. Not only did they produce avant-garde works, they also held film screenings and introduced various foreign-produced works to Japanese audiences.) Mr. Tezuka had an eye on that as he was making Tales of the Street Corner.4

Noguchi: So by creating Tales of the Street Corner, he came up with the idea of pushing for limited animation for Astro Boy (1963-66)?

Tsukioka: He probably did, but he wasn’t aspiring for that level of quality. At the time, he knew that the amount of work a Mushi Pro animator could produce was limited to 3,000 frames per episode each week, and so he devised a method of animation that corresponded to that number. I believe that things turned out that way because Mr. Tezuka was not an “animator” at his core but rather a storyteller. His priorities formed a tradition. When foreigners ask me these days what’s so distinctive about Japanese animation, I tell them that Japanese anime isn’t about showing movement; almost all of it is for the sake of the story. Also, another thing that only Mr. Tezuka could have conceived was the bank system which he invented. Unlike the “ritual” I mentioned before, it refers to recycling the exact same footage. With Astro Boy, he devised a system of reusing key frames instead of throwing them away, and this didn’t just apply to the bust shots. At the time, however, there weren’t even enough animators to do that, and the work was outsourced to many people outside. We even had people like Fujio Akatsuka and Fujiko Fujio coming in to help. (These are famous manga artists. Fujio Akatsuka drew Osomatsu-kun, while Fujiko Fujio was a two-man team that drew Obake no Q-tarō.)5


Akatsuka’s characters appear in Tezuka’s “Cleopatra” (1970). From left: Bakabon’s Papa (from Tensai Bakabon), Chibita, Iyami (Osomatsu-kun), and Nyarome (Mōretsu Atarō).

Noguchi: And so, as time passed, the entire Japanese anime industry came to use what we now call “limited animation.”

Tsukioka: Toei Doga was no different at the time. Another thing I have to point out is that even though people often claim that Toei Doga made more animation frames, it’s actually the opposite. At Toei Doga, the production manager strictly controlled the number of frames. In other words, they would tell us to reduce the number of frames. In fact, we were often more efficient when we were animating with less frames. How smooth the animation looks has nothing to do with how many frames there are. 2,000 frames would be enough to make the pictures move to an acceptable degree. That was how people thought.

Noguchi: How did Toei Doga’s style come to be?

Tsukioka: If you’re talking about Toei Doga’s signature style, I believe that the flavor of those directorial techniques was created by Yugo Serikawa. He worked as Nobuo Nakagawa’s assistant director at Shintoho. (Shintoho was a Japanese movie studio. It was one of the big six film studios during the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, although it went bankrupt in 1961.) He was a mentor to me, and he was even one to Isao Takahata. Basically, Hayao Miyazaki’s work also follows in his footsteps. Serikawa made a name for himself as an assistant director of The Littlest Warrior (1961), and Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon (1963) was his directorial debut. At the time, we wondered if animation had reached its zenith. Serikawa was aiming for a style of animation based on photorealistic movements. He was simply a very straight-laced person, and that might have come through in the film as well. I’ve never really seen that guy crack a smile (laughs).

From Astro Boy to Ken the Wolf Boy

Noguchi: Apparently, you started off as Mr. Tezuka’s assistant, and after that you worked on the character designs and storyboards for Alakazam the Great (1960), which Mr. Tezuka was involved in. Was that the impetus for you joining Toei Doga?

Tsukioka: Around the time of Alakazam the Great, I was being deployed at Toei Doga as Mr. Tezuka’s agent. A man named Daisaku Shirakawa was in the production committee at Toei Doga. He served as the assistant director of Alakazam the Great, and he was the one who actually went around the studio. (Shirakawa was employed at Toei proper; he didn’t work at Toei Doga itself.) He was a big fan of Mr. Tezuka, and through his involvement with the production committee, he reached out to me, since I was his closest contact when I was commuting to Toei Doga to help out. He backed me up in all sorts of ways. At the time, the animation production system at Toei Doga worked like a pyramid. There was a chief, a second-in-command, and below them were the in-betweeners. There were also a lot of people who went to the same school. Since I was one of the black sheep who entered Toei Doga without going to art school, Mr. Shirakawa looked out for me in various ways. He’d ask me to try out all sorts of different cuts for him as he went around on his job. I’d get caught up in his enthusiasm and start drawing my heart out (laughs). After Alakazam the Great was finished, I was planning to go back to Mr. Tezuka, but then Mr. Shirakawa said to me, “You should try animation since you can draw.” He also talked with the company for me. The company welcomed me, and I also got Mr. Tezuka’s consent. In fact, he wanted me to go for it. And so after Alakazam the Great was finished, I decided that I liked anime and moved to Toei Doga instead of going back to Mr. Tezuka. Even then, however, I still went back to Mr. Tezuka’s workplace whenever production finished at Toei Doga and helped out with his manga.


“Alakazam the Great.” Tsukioka animated the ingenious costume strip-tease towards the endhis first key animation.

Noguchi: Afterward, you did some directing and character designs for Ken the Wolf Boy (1963), which was Toei Doga’s first television series. Astro Boy started airing in January that year, and Ken the Wolf Boy came out in November. The animation was done rather quickly.6

Tsukioka: Astro Boy was a resounding success. Its ratings were 30%. Even at the time, that was exceptional. It caused a big uproar at the television station, and it’s no surprise that they wanted as many animation programs as they could get their hands on. Toei’s president, Mr. Okawa, had NET (currently TV Asahi), so there was a lot of pressure to get Toei Doga on NET as well. Apparently, he talked about it with Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara, but they turned the offer down. Then the two of them recommended him some other people, and apparently my name came up. At the time, however, I was assisting with Astro Boy after work hours, so I would have been biting off more than I could chew by working on a new TV project. And besides, when I first joined Toei Doga, I thought I’d be doing films in color, so I wasn’t exactly motivated to do a TV project at Toei Doga. But since the company kept stubbornly requesting it, I said, “I’ll do it if you let me do what I like,” which was quite a haughty thing of me to say. Yet as far as the company was concerned, it was a godsend. Mr. Togami, who was the managing director (or was he the executive?), said, “If you do it, that’ll save us some face.” I shared the same viewpoint, and so, figuring that I had to make an original project, I submitted my proposal for Ken the Wolf Boy. Around that time, TBS was becoming active, and CX TV said they wanted one more TV program, and the content manager of Fuji Television at the time was also calling for us (laughs).

Noguchi: Oh, wow (laughs). What a hectic time.

Tsukioka: They said they didn’t care whether it was made at Toei or Tezuka Productions. They were really short-staffed.


Born in 1939. Grew up in Niigata prefecture. After graduating from high school, he moved to Tokyo and took up work as Osamu Tezuka’s assistant. Thanks to Tezuka’s involvement with the preproduction of Toei Doga’s Alakazam the Great, Tsukioka worked on storyboards and character designs. He joined Toei Doga afterward and worked as a director and character designer for Ken the Wolf Boy, Toei Doga’s first television series. After leaving the company, he participated in Mushi Pro projects and worked on the short animation Shin Tenchi Souzou, which won the grand prize for best short at the Krakow Film Festival, Poland. He also worked on commercial anime with the NHK’s Minna no Uta, and is currently active as an animator. He also works tirelessly to educate up-and-coming animators. Currently, he is active internationally as a university lecturer and assistant at Takarazuka University, China Academy of Art, and the Communication University of China, as well as the board chairman of The Association of Japanese Animations.


  1. ^ Chuck Jones pioneered limited animation as far back as the early 1940’s.
  2. ^ There are no known cartoons where Yosemite Sam (intentionally) hits himself on the head. Tsukioka may be conflating his memories of the WB films with those of his own Ken the Wolf Boy series, which often used this gag.
  3. ^ Chuck Jones’s influence can be seen in Tsukioka’s 1971 short, The Color of Sal Tree Blossoms. Like in Jones’s best 50’s films, Tsukioka creates a living, breathing, thinking character with as few drawings as possible, using just enough animation to connect the great expressions and poses.
  4. ^ The Animation Group of Three’s screenings eventually grew into the “Animation Festival” in 1964, which invited other artists to participate. Tsukioka contributed films like Cigarettes and Ashes (produced under Mushi Pro), The Creation, and the aforementioned Color of Sal Tree Blossoms.
  5. ^ The Fujiko Fujio duo is known to have animated on Astro Boy’s infamous episode 34 at Studio Zero, where the show was outsourced. However, while Fujio Akatsuka’s studio was in the same building as Studio Zero, and while he did work briefly in their Publishing Department, he is not known to have done work for them as an animator.
  6. ^ In addition to directing, Tsukioka also animated several episodes of Ken by himself.

2 thoughts on “Sadao Tsukioka Interview (Part 1/2): Anime & Limited Animation

  1. With regards to the Animation Group of Three, Yoji Kuri and Hiroshi Manabe often cited Norman McLaren as their inspiration to do their experimental works, and Ryohei Yanagihara was more likely influenced directly by UPA.

    Futhermore, Ryohei Yanagihara is actually the first one to try limited animation along with Kiyoshi Onishi in Japan. They did the famous Torys commercials in 1958 (Yanagihara directed and designed it, Onishi animated it) which is 2-3 years ealier before the Toei/Mushi Pro animators.

    Liked by 2 people

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