Shotaro Ishinomori: The Man Behind Masks
January marks both the birth and death of Shotaro Ishinomori, the man behind arguably the most identifiable tokusatsu to various generations. To honor this him, we’re taking a look at his life and body of work today on January 25th, the man’s birthday.
Often called the Japanese Stan Lee, Shotaro Ishinomori was given world-wide recognition in 2008 as the most prolific artist on the planet by the Guinness Book of World Records. Although his mentor, Osamu Tezuka, the so-called “God of Manga” was a legend within Japan, Ishinomori was highlighted by the Guinness Committee as the most productive comic artist ever. With over 120,000 pages, 700 chapters, and more than 2,000 episodes from anime and tokusatsu based on his works, Ishinomori’s output has placed him at a level no other person is likely to surpass.
Called the “King of Manga” by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Tokyo, Shotaro Ishinomori’s reach and influence is one that quite possibly surpasses that of his mentor, creator of the legendary Astro Boy (known in Japan as Tetsuwan Atomu). Even the most seasoned of Ishinomori buffs would be hard pressed to name every single title the man has ever done, and with good reason. From the time Ishinomori submitted his first work, Second-Class Angel, to the time of his death, Ishinomori was a man who loved to create and inspire. His prolific reach continues to be felt today as many of the modern creators in the fields of manga, tokusatsu, and anime, were inspired by Ishinomori as children. Children of today are also inspired by the many museums dedicated to showcasing Ishinomori’s work.
Born Shotaro Onodera, later taking the penname Ishimori (and later Ishinomori) after his home town, the artist showed great promise early on in life. His first published work, Second-Class Angel, was submitted to Manga Shonen, a magazine eager to publish new talents. Ishinomori’s talents caught the interest of Osamu Tezuka, who invited him to be his assistant once he graduated. At the age of 21, Ishinomori struck out on his own to join Tezuka and begin a legacy that would help shape the world of Japanese media as we know it.
Although he was born in Ishinomaki (modern day Tome) in the prefecture of Miyagi, Ishinomori’s rise to fame would begin in Tokyo, in the legendary Tokiwa-sō apartment building. One of the buildings that managed to survive the bombings of World War II, Tokiwa-sō was a cheap building with no frills that was known to have housed many of the most prominent manga artists in the 50′s and 60′s, including both Ishinomori and Tezuka themselves. Manga artist Tam Bing Man recalls the site as the likely inception of the modern manga creation process in which a main artist will do the key art, including the characters, and leave minor details and backgrounds to his assistants. Ishinomori, with his soft art and employ of circular features, was a perfect fit as an assistant to Tezuka.
Early in his career, Ishinomori became known for his adaptations of classical literary works. Some of those early titles include manga adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Orwell’s Animal Farm as well as various titles based on the works of D.H. Lawrence and Edgar Allan Poe. Despite his success in the field of adaptation, Ishinomori’s first true claim to fame would come in 1964, when his team of superpowered spies took the country by storm in a series titled Cyborg 009.
Taking inspiration from James Bond and the Cold War drama of the day, Cyborg 009 is synonymous with the name Ishinomori. Cyborg 009 has captured the imagination of Japan for decades. The 36 volume manga series spawned three anime series, four films, and an upcoming American remake in the form of a comic. Cyborg 009 was a series that ebbed and flowed with the times. Sometimes a series for young boys, sometimes a series for teenage girls, and other times a series for adults, the title found itself running in various magazines, published sporadically up to 1981. Although it was never completed, Ishinomori’s son, Jo Onodera, strives to write a novel finishing the story.
Ishinomori’s work would often feature cyborgs and mutants who fought to find acceptance in a world not yet ready for them. These themes of identity and peace came from the then-popular concept stating that children born in the 1960′s were considered to be an entirely different race of human. Readers born in that era identified with the themes proliferated in Ishinomori’s works. Although the readers of Ishinomori’s titles inherited a country that was no longer at war, perhaps for the first time in centuries, they were born in a world that saw changes in leaps and bounds year after year. Ishinomori’s high concept ideas spoke to those readers about the sort of people they needed to be in this new era.
By the time the 1970′s arrived, Ishinomori was a bonafide celebrity within the world of manga and anime. He was a hot ticket item and a moment of his time was hard to come by. Despite this, the 70′s saw the birth of a partnership that would change the course of tokusatsu history forever.
The year was 1971 and young Toei producer, Hirayama Tōru, was tasked with not only creating a new tokusatsu series, but with creating one that would compete with Tsuburaya Productions’ upcoming Return of Ultraman TV series. At this point in time, Ultraman was considered the king of tokusatsu. Created by the man who gave Godzilla its iconic look and suitmation style, Eiji Tsuburaya had created a hit with his original Ultraman series and now his studio was looking to make a comeback with the fourth Ultraman TV series.
The story, conceptualized in beautiful comic form in The Men Who Made Kamen Rider, goes that Hirayama managed to snag a moment of Ishinomori’s time, specifically 30 minutes, which was all Ishinomori’s manager would allow. In that short half-hour, Ishinomori got an idea of what it was Hirayama wanted to create and thus a new hero was born, but that hero was not Kamen Rider.
A hero clad in white, bearing a red cross-shaped visor on a helmet and known as CrossFire, was to be the original concept. Hirayama loved the idea and immediately sent it to his superiors, who were just as enamored. Problems arose when Ishinomori called Hirayama and relayed his feelings – he wanted to challenge the status quo. Ishinomori designs a new hero, based on Skull Man, an earlier work of his, to replace CrossFire who he felt was too clean cut and stylish.
Through many arguments and many miles going between offices, Hirayama eventually managed to see Ishinomori’s vision brought to life in the form of Kamen Rider, the original series in the still running line of tokusatsu shows. Kamen Rider stood out among its contemporaries as a series about a tortured hero who, despite looking like one, would never be able to consider himself a human. The hero, turned into a super-powered cyborg by the antagonist force known as SHOCKER, rebels and vows to use his powers to destroy them. This series would go on to become an enormous success, leading to four direct sequels and various spinoffs.
While popular, Kamen Rider was not to be Ishinomori’s farthest reaching work. The original concept for the fifth Kamen Rider series featured a team of Kamen Rider heroes coming together to fight evil. This idea was ultimately given life as its own show, divorced from the Kamen Rider name. What stood out about this idea was that, although tokusatsu had seen shows about teams, this would be the first show that featured an entire team of superheroes, akin to the Justice League or The Avengers. What was originally known as Red 1, and then Guts Ranger, and then Go-nin Ranger (5-person Ranger) eventually became Himitsu Sentai Goranger (Secret Squadron Goranger), the very first show in the long running Super Sentai franchise.
Goranger was an immediate success and after a run of 84 episodes, Ishinomori helped create a follow-up, J.A.K.Q. Dengeki-tai in 1977. The series was short lived and cancelled after just 35 episodes, but the Super Sentai franchise would return in 1979. Folding in ideas from the 1978 tokusatsu series Spider-Man, based on the famous Marvel character, Super Sentai returned as a series featuring five heroes battling monsters on the ground and in giant robots.
The Super Sentai line of shows continued to produce new season after new season, eventually leading to 1992’s Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger which would be adapted a year later as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers in the United States. Being the first season in Saban’s line of Power Rangers shows, the new show featured action footage from the original Sentai show spliced together with American actors and story-lines.
Although Ishinomori only worked on the first two Super Sentai shows, the longevity of the franchise typifies his career. Ishinomori was a man capable of producing new and challenging ideas, a man who strove to change the status quo and give viewers and readers something new to think about. His ideas were so profound that they constantly found themselves being remade time after time. As a creator, there is perhaps no other person who can ever quite match the monumental and influential reach of Ishinomori. Having influenced the worlds of not only manga, but anime and live-action tokusatsu productions, Shotaro Ishinomori’s influence continues to live on and will likely be felt for as long as creators strive to challenge preconceived notions.