First thing yesterday morning, I caught wind of news concerning one of the anime medium’s greatest pioneers, but could really say nothing of it. Even though my sources knew something significant was likely taking place, a gag order was in place, leaving me unable to know for certain about the facts. Twitter in Japan was apparently first as expected, but as my day job renders me unable to keep abreast of any internet updates, I had to come home only to wait a little longer. And it wasn’t until this morning that the fact was released to the English speaking world: Noboru Ishiguro had indeed passed on, leaving behind a legacy that many current anime fans might not be as familiar with, but couldn’t possibly exist without. And as I continued to think about his many works, it suddenly occurred to me just how much more important his passion and vision has been to me regarding my love for Japanese cartoons. Even now, to properly encapsulate it escapes me.
Coming from the original guard of animators who grew up making this up as they went, Ishiguro remains one of the great stalwarts whose name keeps getting lost amidst so many. Having worked on so many important titles throughout five decades, and to have had a hand in the discovering of so many talents, and the formation of legendary studios such as Artland, this is the legacy of an individual poised to chart the historical narrative with the kind of strong heart, and sense of people that any artform would be grateful to have as their respected elder. And also being one of the friendliest American convention guests imaginable, he also remains the very model of an anime emissary. While many continue to mention names such as Hayao Miyazaki, Osamu Dezaki, Gisaburo Sugii, Rin Taro, and others, it is Ishiguro who remains primarily burned into my heart and mind.
Like so many, my first impressions of his work came at a very early age when I first watched Star Blazers (aka Space Battleship Yamato). And thinking about it now, my early love for movies of grand scope and emotion (likely brought upon by the films of Steven Spielberg, John Ford, and others) had already prepped me for a certain understanding of large scale storytelling. And for a television series, Yamato had indeed a style (despite obvious limitations) that somehow seemed ready to take on the largest narrative palettes. It was sweeping, exciting, and ultimately melancholy in ways that no show had ever made me feel.
So in the years following, and after seeing a decent amount of other anime shows directed by others from the 1970s, it seemed like something of a bizarre return home when I first watched Superdimensional Fortress Macross. Even though it seemed to have a far more fan-centric vibe, and was unabashedly silly, there was something about its visual and emotional drive that grabbed me in a way that no American movie or show had yet to achieve. Taking what was ostensibly a ludicrous paean to the newborn and still forming concept of the grown anime fan, and granting it the same manner of gravity that worked for Yamato was at least for me, a swing and a home run.
Whether it be through Macross, Yamato, Orguss, Atomu (1980), or most importantly, the sprawling and mega-ambitious Legend Of The Galactic Heroes series, it is hard to imagine these works in the hands of anyone else in the business. His storytelling technique (again, largely based on being economic) was often propelled by a need to frame in a scope ready to compete with Hollywood spectacles. So much of his imagery is so signature in that it fully understands the limits of the frame, as well as where an audience is paying attention. And as a consummate collaborator, there was always room for up and coming animators to strut their stuff during the booming days of anime. The most obvious example is within virtually every eye-popping moment in Macross 1984: Do You Remember Love?, where the cel work borders on obsessive. As I write this up, my copy playing in front of me, this remains the sheer essence of what the medium can do when allowed unusually high resources, and yet a high amount of directorial common sense. There is a controlled beauty to both this film and many scenes in LoGH that continue to be intensely high watermarks, and I still envy people their first time seeing these.
Which brings me to what has really been burning within me to say as a contemporary version of an anime blogger-type. Among the biggest parts of the Ishiguro legacy that remains as the kind of thing that spoils one for life, is his often unerring will to bring a certain classy gravitas to what could so easily be disposable product. One of the biggest challenges any grand scale so-called “epic” tales face, is a need for the audience to buy into the characters residing in their often massive fantasy worlds. Balancing the grand with the personal is and will always remain a filmmaker’s greatest challenge, and Ishiguro somehow always sold it to me. Again, thinking back to Yamato, Macross, and even the first Megazone 23 film, the weight holding these characters together is always palpable, regardless of the often silly things occurring around them. By building the characters visually with expressions and even human-like gesturing during long shots, we are allowed in just enough to accept what is happening to them. Even when his gender gap moments left much to be desired in his early works, they remain as important cultural markers. In his occasional testimonials during the heyday of Animerica Magazine, he would often reminisce about his early days of teaching himself how to animate by spending time in a park, and just watching people go by. Being a musician, his films often bore a strong power and resonance to the way music works. In Macross 1984, the finale is not unlike a segment in Disney’s Fantasia; it is absolute music. Absolute animation. There is a definitively human touch to his films, and I do not say this lightly. By anime standards, it is as real and surreal as it possibly gets.
So when I think of those whose lives have been affected by his works, as well as the friends he has made around the world, it’s perhaps safe to say that Ishiguro’s legacy is safe within so many of us. I can only hope to continue to expose more friends and others to his works, as well as continue to celebrate an enduing love of a mythology he applied himself to with workmanlike craftsmanship, and romantic storytelling nearly 40 years ago.(and for the most part, redefined an entire industry trajectory). He was a tireless professional, a good husband, and a sweet presence at conventions all over. There are never enough words, so for now, I will only say this,