By Jonah Morgan
One of the Madhouse Topics 2007 posters being shown at their Tokyo International Anime Fair 2007 exhibition space was prominently headlined in English: “Welcome To The World Of Atsuko Ishizuka”. It featured several illustrations that didn’t look so much like surefire anime to me as they did graphic art and not something that would be out of place in the galleries of any modern art museum in Europe or America. The sighting took me aback as out of the 20 or so 2foot x 2foot posters inside the booth, this was the only one focused on a single animator. Amid all the buzz of blockbusters to come, the busty anime babes, the blair of explosions and flashing of light emitting from monitors looping trailers here was something seemingly antithetical to everything else around it. I had to learn more of this person.
For starters, Ishizuka-san is only 25 years old, hailing from Aichi Prefecture, she majored in Arts Design at the Aichi Prefectural University of Art from which she graduated. According to Wikipedia her journey to becoming an animator was rather unusual by industry standards in Japan. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she did not grow up watching anime on television, but rather developed an interest in music and graphic arts. Upon graduating high school, she decided to focus on graphic design and entered the Aichi Prefecture University of the Arts. While there, she was prompted to do an arts project and chose to do an animated video because it would allow her to combine her two areas of interest. In this way, she entered the animation world not attempting to secure a career, but to make art for art’s sake.
During her education at the art school, Ishizuka made a number of short animated films for her own enjoyment, often set to music. One of these films, Gravitation, which was later featured at the 2005 Tehran International Short Film Festival, caught the attention of both the Japanese broadcasting giant NHK and Madhouse. NHK quickly contacted Atsuko with an offer to have her animate a music video segment for the popular and long running short film program Minna no Uta (Everyone’s Songs), which was designed to highlight upcoming independent animators and musicians. However, by this time (April, 2004) Ishizuka had already been hired by Madhouse as a production assistant, and feeling that it would not be right to accept freelance work outside of the studio, she turned them down. However, the Minna no Uta staff was unwilling to give up, and they requested that Madhouse to take on the music video project with Ishizuka as director. The studio agreed, and in 2005, Atsuko rose through the ranks for her first professional film, Tsuki no Warutsu (The Moon Waltz). She lists Masayuki Kojima and Morio Asaka as the two people at Madhouse she respects most.
‘Gravitation’ (2003) won best selection at NHK “Digital Stadium” and became a 2003 finalist of the 16th DoGA CG animation contest. cartoon contest selecting. ‘CREMONA’ (2003) won the Katsunori Prize at the 2nd Independent Music Animation Festival and the Fine Work Prize of the 16th DoGA CG animation contest. She took charge of the jacket illustration for Isamaya Mio’s 4th album: “Love Suite -One and Only Story- which went on sale on January 26, 2005. Later that year she did chara designs and illustration work on Isayama Mishou’s 9th single promo Sahara No Yuuwaku which hit the Japanese market on July 6, 2005. October 2005 saw her first assignment on the creative staff of a TV production, in NTV’s anime adapted MONSTER. She led setting design and did half the storyboard work on the final episode. In the same month she led animation production on the animation short Sen no Hana Sen no Sora Minna no Uta short which accompanies Manami Kiyota’s music. Last year she became involved with the TV anime adaptation of NANA as assistant series director.
Directly from Madhouse’s TAF2007 poster, her story is brought up to the present: “As an assistant director Atsuko Ishizuka is currently working on the TV production of NANA, an animated TV series now drawing to a close. An indispensible element of the production, Ishizuka is also in charge of direction on at least 10 episodes of the show. Girlishness and sexual images presented in her interpretations of the world are so unique, and the taste outstanding. That is what makes Ishizuka one of the emerging animators who grabbed industry attention. What kind of animated works will she create as she gets more experienced? Ishizuka stands at the center of expectations from industry insiders.“
My analysis of this exhibit tells me Madhouse is quite proud of their existing relationship with this special artist and animator. Further, I think they are hinting that her work represents a future direction of Madhouse. She’s accumulated enough experience at this point in so many diverse areas of production that I’m quite sure the next step will be to give her a first shot at being a full time director, and maybe eventually over a project entirely of her own creation. I think Madhouse has systematically given her experience in areas to complement her own natural and learned talents in order to groom her to become nothing less than the next Kawajiri, Mamoru Hosoda or Satoshi Kon. The transition to this top tier of anime production presents its own special challenges however of adapting a “pure art” background into the more manga-based fare that sells tickets, DVD’s and features a compelling storyline and characters. Madhouse has faith in their selection and I’m sure Ms. Ishizuka has a bright career ahead of her in Japan’s animation industry.