ARTHELL ISOM is the first ever black owner of an anime studio in Japan.
He has worked on internationally recognised shows like Attack on Titan, Naruto and Bleach and will be doing a panel interview at Crunchyroll’s virtual convention which runs Sept 4 – 6th.
Ahead of the event the Voice Online asked the pioneer a few questions.
Do you think there has been a lack of diversity in Japanese anime?
I think there has been a lack of diversity in media in general, but major studios have been taking great strides to adjust this. Anime being from a homogenous country makes it more so. I think artists draw and write what we know and see, so the more varied the pencilers the more diverse the stories.
I know you came to anime in an unusual route, after watching Ghost In The Shell, every day for a year. Were you struck by a lack of black characters in anime when you familiarised yourself with the genre?
Actually no, because growing up in the west there were no black characters in our cartoons either. So it didn’t feel off-putting in anime. I just enjoyed their stories. Thinking back, although there were hardly any visually black characters, their stories were still far more diverse.
I love how determined you were to work in anime, moving to Japan, learning Japanese and applying to Yoyogi Animation School when they hadn’t accepted foreign students before – what made you so committed to getting work in anime? Were there ever times when you felt like giving up and do you ever look back and think ‘Wow, how did I do that?’
Now that I think back, I think I was just crazy. But honestly, my brother and I had made a plan and I wanted to succeed. I think being twins allows us to use each other’s energy to push ourselves. We weren’t raised to give up, and we don’t allow each other to either.
Do you think you brought something new/different to the table at Yoyogi Animation School?
Yoyogi was an adventure, I met a lot of cool people. It’s hard for me to say myself if I brought anything new. I’d have to ask my teachers and classmates.
You’ve said in the past that you get more opportunities to work with other black artists as they seek you out and have worked on projects like XOGENASYS and Tephlon Funk – do you have any other projects like this in the pipeline?
The most recent was the Collaboration with UnionLA and Fashion Figure Inc. for the new Jordan 4s promotional short called It Was a Good Day.
You’re already said in an interview that you don’t approach work as if you are a political activist, but do you make a point of breaking down stereotypes? And do you draw on your own background and experiences when you create new characters?
I definitely try to break down stereotypes if I’m aware of them. I’m sure I have unconscious biases that may affect my creativity as well. So we try our best to get input from everyone involved in the production to deter this. Yes,
Who has been your most influential mentor?
I definitely have to say HIromasa Ogura, the art director of Ghost in the Shell. He has helped me so much in areas that he may not even be aware of. I was able to see how he ran his company and he helped me to adjust so many weak points in my character. As a business owner now I have a few new mentors that I hope become just as influential. I’m always looking for more, hint hint, haha …
Do you mentor any young black artists who want to break into anime? Or does D’ART Shtajio have any schemes such as the one that enabled you to work with Hiromasa Ogura (I believe he took one graduate each year)?
Yes, Ogura San hired one graduate per year, and we hope to be in a position to do something similar for artists overseas. Currently, our tight schedules don’t allow us enough time to focus on teaching. But once we start working on Larger productions we will be able to. However, we do take interns from art colleges here in Japan.
After establishing D’ART Shtajio, did you have an idea of what milestones you’d like to reach as a newly-minted studio? Did you ever imagine you would get to work on major franchises like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and One Piece, for example?
As someone who started in the anime industry as a background artist, what do you consider a unique aspect about that part of the animation process? For example, settings like New Port City in Ghost in the Shell and Neo-Tokyo in Akira can almost be considered their own characters because of how detailed they’re depicted. Do you believe fictional places have qualities you can’t quite convey in characters and story alone?
Characters are often the biggest draw for getting someone invested in any story, regardless of the medium. Nowadays, it’s more important than ever before to tell underrepresented stories and do what hasn’t been done before. Before D’ART Shtajio starts on a new project, what aspects of character do you usually take into consideration and what makes a nuanced protagonist in your opinion?
So far D’ART Shtajio has a solid track record of producing amazing animation for artists, like the recently released video for “Snowchild” by The Weeknd and segments for the Netflix anthology “Sound & Fury” presented by Sturgill Simpson. Anime studios and music artists have been collaborating now and then for years, most notably with Daft Punk’s epic 2003 film Interstella 5555. Do you think music speaks in a particularly generative way to the work you see D’ART Shtajio producing?
It’s easier than ever before for fans to track down new studios and follow everything they put out, no matter how niche it is. For example, you have hardcore otaku that follow every Gainax and Kyoto Animation project religiously.
Do you think that other anime studios will follow suit and that will see an increase in black characters and their stories?
I do. Japanese have embraced black culture in the form or jazz, hip-hop, dance, literature and film for years. As more young Black people visit and live in Japan, the encounters and mutual understanding will grow. A lot of Japanese artists today might reasonably avoid including black characters simply because they feel too ignorant to do so and might fear being offensive. That makes perfect sense to me, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to explore black characters.
Can you name three of your favourite anime characters?
Spike Spiegel, Motoko Kusanagi, Seita Yokokawa
With Crunchyroll hitting three million paid subscribers as of July, it’s evident that anime streaming is thriving, especially with young adults. Simulcasts now allow essentially anyone access to the latest hours after airing in Japan. How have you seen this constant finger on anime’s pulse change how fans engage with Japanese pop culture, versus the heavily curated experience of exclusively watching whatever made it to American television networks?
Anime produced and released for streaming services have seen major cultural impact lately. In 2018, Netflix released Devilman Crybaby to critical acclaim, and more recently Crunchyroll has begun streaming its own originals shows like Tower of God in 2020. In previous interviews, you’ve described younger animators butting heads against the old guards in Japan’s traditional anime industry, compared to other industries like games or design. Nowadays, you have younger studios such as Studio Trigger and Science Saru signing streaming deals to distribute their shows to a wider demographic. Do you see this pivot to web-original anime as a way for younger animators, producers, and even veterans to exercise new ideas they may otherwise not be able to explore?