The Other Half of the Golden Combo: Akio Sugino Interview – Mushi Production Era (Part 1/6)

If a thug put a gun to my head and demanded that I name my top three anime directors immediately, the ensuing event would undoubtedly be a splatter of steaming hot cerebrum bisque—the same fate of many a fool who dared to challenge Baoh. But prior to pulling the trigger, my assailant would have heard me in the midst of saying, “I’m not confident I could name three directors and order them, but Osamu Dezaki would definitely be somewhere in there.”

When people broach the subject of Dezaki, oftentimes they also mention his long time collaborator: animation director and character designer Akio Sugino. Indeed, Sugino was involved in almost all of Dezaki’s highly praised works. So much so that these two are referred to as the golden combo in Japan.

But chances are that you already know all of this if you’re reading this article. Some time ago I realized that even though these two are brought up as the golden combo, the ensuing discussion is almost always focused solely on Dezaki. For someone who is often perceived as essential to Dezaki’s success, we sure don’t know a whole lot about Sugino.

I went looking for past interviews and the man seems to have stayed out of the public eye for the most part. Only in the past few years with new releases or books about Dear Brother, Treasure Island, and Tomorrow’s Joe 2 does he seem to have opened himself up for commentary.

I only found out about the existence of those recent interviews after finishing most of the work for this series of articles. Based on my past expeditions, I was under the (incorrect) impression that Sugino had only ever done one interview in print. This interview was published on December 25th, 1998—because of course, what else would Japanese people do on that day but eat KFC while reading interviews with anime industry figures—in vol. 7 of Kinema Junpo’s supplemental magazine book series Motion Picture King. Note that Kinema Junpo—colloquially known as Kinejun—is a film magazine: its coverage is not specific to anime, and neither is that of the Motion Picture King series. This volume however focuses specifically on character designers for anime, featuring long interviews with not only Akio Sugino, but also fellow industry legends: Yasuo Otsuka, Akira Daikuhara, Daikichirō Kusube, Ippei Kuri, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Tsukasa Kotobuki, and Akemi Takada.

“Long interview” is not an exaggeration. Sugino’s interview consists of 22 pages in A5 size (5.83″ x 8.26″), including a few visuals. Sugino is the only interviewee featured in the book who is not pictured.[1] Instead, he offers a self-portrait cartoon sketch. Indeed, not one for the public eye.

The corresponding Japanese text of this interview can be found in its entirety here. Generally for titles of anime or manga I stick to the official or most widely known English title if one exists, with exceptions marked by footnotes. In some cases, I add an alternate title in square brackets to disambiguate the referenced work. The entire interview is spoiler-free. Parenthetical information is from the source text, but all footnotes and links are my own additions.

Akio Sugino

Joe Yabuki, the indomitable fighting spirit that hides away loneliness. Hiromi Oka, the embodiment of youthful elegance. John Silver, the exemplification of the ideal way of man. The creator of these famous characters and more—the poet of the anime world[2]—here comes Akio Sugino.

Interviewer: Kazuhiro Matsunomoto
Composition: Murakami Kyōsetsu

Akio Sugino has been an active animator since the beginning era of Mushi Production, serving as the primary animation director for famous titles such as Tomorrow’s Joe. Post-Madhouse, he and Osamu Dezaki formed a team that demonstrated the magnificent beauty of TV and film through their work. Today, Sugino strives to preserve the taste of Osamu Tezuka’s past works in current Tezuka Pro projects.

Mushi Production Era

Kinejun: To start off, I’ve heard that Mori Masaki was the one who asked you to come to Mushi Pro.

Sugino: Yes, that is how it all started. Back then rental manga[3] and gekiga[4] were quite common. It turns out that Mori and I were submitting comics to the same publisher. He remembered this, and sent me a letter asking whether or not I was available and interested in coming to Mushi Pro. At the time, I was trying to make a living drawing manga but I couldn’t make ends meet. I think that was the case for most of us rental manga artists. The rental publishers folded one by one, and most of the rental manga artists ended up working at Mushi Pro.

Kinejun: Did any of your submissions get published?

Sugino: I barely got published in two magazine volumes. I have those volumes stored away. No one has seen them. (Osamu) Dezaki was under the impression that none of my submissions got picked up for publication, but I proudly informed him otherwise.

Kinejun: Mushi Pro differed from Tōei Dōga slightly in that the latter aimed to make “films” whereas the former was established with the primary purpose of animating Osamu Tezuka’s work. Notably, it seems that Mushi Pro was an assembly of people who were striving to be manga artists, not animators. On the other hand, most of the people who entered Tōei Dōga were fans of Disney animation. The two operations were fundamentally different.

Sugino: Yes, it was very different. Many of my Mushi Pro colleagues were people who knew nothing of animation but liked drawing manga. This also applies to Osamu Dezaki, Shingo Araki, and even Akihiro Kanayama. They were all semi-professionals. Actually, this was true even of the pros such as Mori (Masaki), Shinji Nagashima, and the late Yoshifumi Seyama. Eiichi Yamamoto wrote about Seyama in one of his novels. Even though he was younger than me, he passed away so quickly.


Akio Sugino
– He was born on September 19th, 1944, in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
– In his second year of high school, he begins to submit his work to rental gekiga magazines Machi [City] and Kage [Shadow][5] under the name AKIO Sugino.[6] He pursues a career of drawing manga.
– In 1964, he enters Mushi Production under the suggestion of Mori Masaki and works as an animator.
– In 1972, he and his other colleagues leave Mushi production and establish Madhouse. They work on some Tokyo Movie[7] projects.
– In 1980, he and Osamu Dezaki establish Annapuru. Since then they’ve worked on various Tezuka Pro projects, and have continued to do so.

Kinejun: Did Mushi Pro hire via a recruitment system?

Sugino: Yes, although it was different for me: I just plunged in. Before heading to Mushi Pro, I animated a few scenes such as a running horse, a moving crowd of characters, and some others. I sent these to Tezuka in advance. Now that I think about it, those were more like gekiga illustrations and not so much animation. But it seems that he took a look and figured that I should be able to do animation. Because of that, I didn’t have to take an exam.

Kinejun: Concerning coworkers who entered at the same time, was Kanayama one such coworker?

Sugino: Well, somewhat. I think he entered half a year after me. He started with Jungle Emperor [Kimba the White Lion].[8] I started with Astro, which began prior.

Kinejun: Who taught you animation?

Sugino: There wasn’t really anyone who taught me.

Kinejun: Not even Mori Masaki, even though called you over to Mushi Pro?

Sugino: No, no, he’s an assistant director—one of the higher-ups. There’s no way someone like him would teach animation. People like that aren’t actually present at the animation desks.

Kinejun: So you learned by watching what others did? Someone like Toshio Hirata didn’t give you any guidance?

Sugino: Actually, Toshio Hirata was in charge of key animation when I was doing in-betweening.

Kinejun: So you drew the in-betweens for Hirata’s keyframes then.

Sugino: Yes. That might have been my greatest learning experience.

Kinejun: How about Moribi Murano?

Sugino: Yes I learned from him as well. He scolded me a lot during the production of Sabu and Ichi’s Detective Tales.

Kinejun: So one could say Hirata and Murano were your teachers.

Sugino: Yes, I think so.

Kinejun: Individuals such as Gisaburō Sugii and Wazuko Nakamura left Tōei Dōga and came to Mushi Pro. You didn’t receive any kind of guidance from these people either?

Sugino: No, I didn’t. Shortly after I came to Mushi Pro, Gisaburō left to start his own company: Art Fresh. He left Mushi Pro with Osamu Dezaki.

Kinejun: After entering Mushi Pro in 1964, you didn’t actually participate in animation work until Astro Boy, correct?

Sugino: Yes, starting with Chikao Katsui’s “Dolphin’s in Distress” [Dolphin Civilzation] (the 84th episode of Astro Boy, aired on August 29th, 1964). I was in charge of shot of a swimming fish. At the beginning of summer vacation we checked over the film prior to editing. It turns out that I accidentally drew bubbles on the fish and those bubbles stuck to the fish as it swam around. Tezuka saw this and told me that it was no good. As far as my animation career is concerned, it began with this project.

Kinejun: Did you work on New Treasure Island?

Sugino: No, I didn’t. For the most part I wasn’t involved in the core Mushi Pro projects. Back then the title I wanted to work on the most was The Amazing 3 [Wonder 3]. I really wanted to draw the keyframes for that one. But just around that time Jungle Emperor got started, so in the end I couldn’t participate in production of The Amazing 3.

Kinejun: So you got tasked with drawing keyframes starting with Jungle Emperor, and New Jungle Emperor, Go Ahead Leo! then.

Sugino: For New Jungle Emperor, Go ahead Leo!, Shinji Nagashima and I formed the animation team, and that was my first attempt at the role of animation director. I distinctly recall the film check prior to editing for that episode, because I even drew a poster for it. The episode for which I took on the role of pseudo-animation director was “Ricaons Do Not Cry” (the 10th episode of New Jungle Emperor, Go Ahead Leo!, aired on December 7th, 1966). In this episode, Leo does not appear at all and instead focus is placed on the old Ricaons. Everyone was cutting corners so almost no one came to the film check, even though I drew a poster to urge people to do so. Viewership was low so no one was enthusiastic.

Kinejun: The series which features Leo in adulthood. So after that project, Goku’s Great Adventures followed, taking over Astro Boy‘s timeslot. Did you work on that?

Sugino: Who was the sponsor for that again?

Kinejun: It would have been Meiji Seika,[9] considering the commercials that followed Astro.

Sugino: Ah, yes, that’s right. Araki, Kanayama, and I drew bonus manga of the snacks.

Sugino: I was assigned one book at a time, but I didn’t work on the show itself.

Kinejun: Osamu Dezaki drew Goku’s Great Adventures for COM magazine, a publication of Mushi Pro. Did you draw anything for it?

Sugino: I didn’t draw anything for it. Once I was asked to draw something for a newcomer recruitment corner called Grand Companion,[10] because none of the entrants were selected (laughs). But I gave up in the middle of the drawing I was going to submit.

Kinejun: Not only did Dezaki draw the manga adaptation of Goku, but he was also quite involved with the production of the TV anime.

Sugino: Yes, he was an animation director and episode director.

Kinejun: For which title did you become a full-fledged animation director?

Sugino: My first project as an animation director would be Boys’ Detective Team [Wanpaku Taiteidan], but from the middle of the show, not the first episode. I think it was starting with the episode for which Toshio Hirata served as the episode director: “Black Cat Professor” (the 11th episode of Boys’ Detective Team, aired on April 11th, 1968). From there I was involved, but at times I also dropped out in the middle due to some disagreements. Ultimately, Kanayama and I both served as animation director for the remainder of the show.

Kinejun: Kiyomi Numamoto wasn’t the primary animation director for the show?

Sugino: Numamoto wasn’t an animation director for individual episodes. He was the chief animation director. His job was to unify the work of the individual animation directors. He was at Mushi Pro since the beginning but he left for Bandai later.

Kinejun: So you and Kanayama performed the actual animation director duties then. Who drew the character model sheets?

Sugino: Mori Masaki drew those.

Kinejun: Did he draw any of the keyframes?

Sugino: No he didn’t draw any of those. Just the characters.

Kinejun: How about illustrations for commercial merchandise. For example, who drew the record jackets (for the flexi discs of Asahi Sonorama)?[11]

Sugino: It wasn’t me, so it was probably Kanayama—the way this nose is drawn leads me to think so. He was the first animation director.

Kinejun: I see. So the animation directors at Mushi Pro back then weren’t necessarily the ones who drew the character model sheets?

Sugino: Yes. Sometimes the title “animation director” doesn’t get used, but occasionally the “chief animation director” also does the work of an animation director. On Jungle Emperor, Chikao Katsui was the animation director. Even though Kiyomi Numamoto was credited as an inbetweener, he was actually the chief animation director. The chief’s job is to unify the work of all the animators. Even though Katsui was the animation director, he also did episode direction. This system of animation directors became necessary once animation work started getting outsourced. I think that started around Boys’ Detective Team. Because of this, the work of the animation directors was quite difficult outside of adapations of Tezuka’s work. This was true for Sabu and Ichi’s Detective Tales as well. At first, Moribi Murano was in charge of animation direction, but he dropped out in the middle of the production. I had to take over afterwards, although I did get to make use of someone else’s work.

Kinejun: Was Moribi Murano also drawing keyframes?

Sugino: At the time he drew keyframes and did inbetweening. Everyone did.

Kinejun: So instead of separating these two tasks, everyone ended up doing both.

Sugino: As the deadline approached, it seemed like everyone was inbetweening. Murano was doing that and keyframe animation.

Kinejun: So did the duties of the animation director expand to character design as well starting with Sabu and Ichi?

Sugino: Yes. After Murano dropped out, the writer goes together and wrote screenplay for a story not in the original work. Designing the guest character was tough work.

Kinejun: So in other words, that guest character was a Sugino original that does not exist in the source material.

Sugino: Correct.

Kinejun: The animation work for Sabu and Ichi was split between Mushi Pro, Tōei Dōga, and Studio Zero. But where did the project planning come from? Was it from Ishinomori?[12]

Sugino: No, wasn’t the production helmed primarily by Mushi Pro? Mushi Pro was involved since the first episode, and then Shinichi Suzuki from Studio Zero pitched in, and then after that Tōei Dōga got involved. So I think Mushi Pro was the one leading that project.

Kinejun: Given that they got involved, I take it that the production faced difficulties staying on schedule?

Sugino: I think so, although there weren’t too many people at Studio Zero whereas there were about 400 people working at Mushi Pro. I recall designing the characters and then taking them to Ishinomori to get them checked. That’s why I think Mushi Pro was leading the production. I don’t know the details however, so it’d be better to ask Rintaro about that.

Kinejun: I’ve heard Mushi Pro had studios at both Toshimaen and Shakujii-kōen.

Sugino: Yes, they did.

Kinejun: Were those the headquarters of Mushi Pro?

Sugino: No. For the production of Tomorrow’s Joe, the staff secured a separate location: the second floor of an electronics store.

Kinejun: So is that where you worked?

Sugino: Yes. The headquarters mostly did theatrical work.

Kinejun: Like A Thousand and One Nights?

Sugino: Yes. If Mushi Pro only did work like that then it wouldn’t be sustainable as a business, so they sectioned us off completely from Osamu Tezuka and had us work on TV shows. It was like that since Boys’ Detective Team.

Kinejun: I see. The intention was to keep you the other staff out of Tezuka’s sight?

Sugino: If Tezuka got involved then we’d never be on schedule. It would be impossible to produce TV shows.

Kinejun: Because he was quite strict with quality checking.

Sugino: That’s right. He wasn’t always attending to animation work because he was also drawing manga. That’s why we weren’t tasked with Dororo and the like.

Kinejun: So you worked on projects completely unrelated to Tezuka works such as Make Way for Mr. Kunimatsu?

Sugino: Yes.


Kinejun: You weren’t involved at all with A Thousand and One Nights?

Sugino: No, not really. At that time I was the animation director for Sabu and Ichi. I begged them to let me do some inbetweening, so in the middle of the night they gave me two shots to work on. That was all I did.

Kinejun: How about Cleopatra or Belladonna of Sadness?

Sugino: I wasn’t involved at all with those projects.

Kinejun: Tezuka was strict with quality checking his characters, but considering you’ve been drawing his characters for all this time, do you find them easy to draw?

Sugino: Yes. That’s why I wanted to do the adaptations of his work but for some reason I kept getting relegated to work on non-Tezuka properties.

Kinejun: Despite your inclinations?

Sugino: I think it was probably because that’s what Masaki Mori wanted me to work on. At least that’s how it felt until Tomorrow’s Joe.

Kinejun: Did you do the character designs for Tomorrow’s Joe?

Sugino: I did most of the main characters. This was for the two or three pilot films. Araki, Kanayama, and I did not work as animation directors but we divvied up key animation of Rikiishi, Joe, and Danpei so that each person was in charge of one character. Basically, Kanayama animated Rikiishi, and Araki animated Danpei. I unified the designs for the TV series but the vestiges of their work remain.

Kinejun: Did Tetsuya Chiba and Ikki Kajiwara check your work?

Sugino: We went to Chiba’s office so many times to show him the pilot films and get corrections. Dezaki worked on the first pilot film. We kept getting told that there were slight mistakes, and so we corrected them. We repeated this process three times. I think there were three pilot films. We were finally given the OK after the third one.

Kinejun: Was he particular about how things were done?

Sugino: No, I don’t think so.

Kinejun: So you did the character designs for the TV series, but was the job of animation director split between Kanayama, Arakai, and yourself? The on-screen credits show all three of your names.

Sugino: Around this time, Araki was working at his own company: Jaggard. While he was over there he was doing the duty of animation director for both Joe and Star of the Giants simultaneously. Although, I’d say he was probably putting more effort into Star of the Giants (laughs).

Kinejun: I see.

Sugino: He works really fast. That’s why he did both Joe and Star of the Giants. He’s incredible.

Kinejun: I’ve heard that you also work quickly.

Sugino: Not at all. Not compared to him.

Kinejun: In the past I’ve seen a drawing you did of My Neighbor Tamageta [Tonari no Tamageta-kun]. Were you involved with the show?

Sugino: I only drew illustrations for the project proposal.

Kinejun: Where did the proposal come from?

Sugino: Mushi Pro alumnus, now Madhouse president Masao Maruyama proposed this idea. I drew a lot of illustrations for this proposal. I also drew some for Doraemon.

Kinejun: Wait, what? When?

Sugino: Around Joe. I also drew some for Candy Candy and Dokaben. I don’t know the details of why those proposals didn’t go through though.

Kinejun: Was Make Way for Mr. Kunimatsu also animated at the Toshimaen studio?

Sugino: Shakujii-kōen was better set up as an animation studio so we moved our work there.

Kinejun: I’ve seen you credited as an assistant director on Kunimatsu.

Sugino: I only drew the storyboards for one episode (laughs). Those are the only storyboards I’ve ever drawn.

Kinejun: Was it planned from the beginning that you would draw storyboards?

Sugino: No. I was just in a rut with my usual work, so I felt like trying something else. I was pretty exhausted from working on Tomorrow’s Joe.

Kinejun: But the power on-screen is well conveyed.

Sugino: Only the excitement, though it was shoddy.

Kinejun: Not at all. It was fantastic.

The interview continues in part 2 here.

  1. A previously published short article from Yasuji Mori about character design was republished in this book. It was originally published on November 25th, 1978 for the first issue of Subaru Shobō’s supplementary monthly magazine Picture Book Animation(月刊絵本別冊アニメーション, or Gekkan Ehon Bessatsu Animation). His opening page shows a sketch of Puss n’ Boots he did for a fan.

  2. I believe this is a reference to the title of a special feature in the September 1979 issue of AnimageThe Poet of Illustrations: Akio Sugino. The moniker seems to have stuck with him since.

  3. Shortly after World War II, commercial lending libraries were one of the major distribution channels in which a large variety of books were made accessible to people in Japan. Manga publications distributed in these libraries are known as kashihon manga, or rental manga. Wikipedia has a brief primer on kashihon here.

  4. Gekiga (literally, dramatic pictures) was a movement that started in the late 50s that ran against the mainstream trend of Japanese comics aimed towards children. These comics targeted an adult audience and featured much more mature themes. Gekiga artists worked in the rental manga industry as opposed mainstream manga publications. Besides the corresponding Wikipedia article, Dan Mazur provides an introduction to gekiga with accompanying visuals here. Fran Pickering also provides a primer here, with accompanying visuals from a 2014 gekiga exhibit at The Cartoon Museum in London.

  5. Dan Manzur provides some historical context on the Machi and Kage magazine anthologies his introduction to gekiga here.

  6. He was published under the name 杉野アキオ which is also just Akio Sugino. However, officially his name is written as 杉野昭夫. I used capitalization only for the purpose of distinguishing the difference visually in English text.

  7. Tokyo Movie would later be renamed Tokyo Movie Shinsha in 1976, TMS-Kyokuichi Corporation in 1991, and then TMS Entertainment in 2000, which remains its name today.

  8. The original TV adaptation of Jungle Emperor is much more commonly known as Kimba the White Lion in English. However, subsequent adaptations of the franchise were localized closer to the original Japanese—specifically in that the title and names of characters were not changed. To ensure the connection between the various adaptations is clear, I stick with Jungle Emperor for this interview.

  9. Meiji Seika is a Japanese snack food company.

  10. Grand Companion was originally a readers’ column in COM magazine, and later became an independent insert. One of the objectives of Grand Companion was to discover and develop new talent. Monthly prizes were given to winning newcomer submissions. Winners include Keiko Takemiya, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mitsuru Adachi, and many more. The eight volumes of Grand Companion are pictured here. The official Osamu Tezuka website offers a write-up here on the history of COM magazine, which details Grand Companion in part 4. Ryan Holmberg also offers a write-up on the history of alternative Japanese comics (including gekiga) from the 1950s to the mid 1970s here, which includes a section on COM magazine and Grand Companion.

  11. I believe the record jacket being discussed is this one.

  12. Besides being the creator of the original manga series for Sabu and Ichi’s Detective Tales, Shotaro Ishinomori was also one of the founders of Studio Zero.

  13. I tried quite hard to make out two portions of text on the original page, but Sugino’s handwriting and the printed resolution have me beat. I asked native speakers as well and they could not make out the two portions of the text either. As a compromise, I opted for partial translations with obfuscated gibberish, to replicate the frustrating experience of being on the verge of making out something possibly comprehensible. If anyone wants to take a shot at decoding the problematic areas, you may take a look here. If you have any idea at all, please let me know.

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