“When the Wind Blows” Director Jimmy Murakami, RIP

Japanese-American animation legend Jimmy Murakami, who played an important role in the development of Ireland’s animation industry, has died at the age of 80, reported the organization Animation Ireland. The cause of death is unknown.

A restless creative soul who directed numerous award-winning shorts and the much-admired feature When the Wind Blows (1986), Murakami hopscotched the globe as few other artists. In the span of a few years during the late-1950s, he worked at United Productions of America in Los Angeles, Pintoff Productions in New York, Toei Animation in Japan, and TVC Studio in London, and then followed that with stints in Italy, France and The Netherlands.

Murakami was born on June 5, 1933 in San Jose, California. At the age of nine, he became a victim of America’s World War II concentration camps in which tens of thousands of West Coast-based Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for years. It was a life-altering experience that would scar him for years afterward. “I was very, very bitter, to be an American citizen treated this way,” he later said. “My older sister died in the camp and the rest of us came out pretty bad.” A documentary was produced recently about this period in his life entitled Jimmy Murakami— Non-Alien:

Murakami’s family considered moving back to Japan after the war, but their family’s home had been bombed to rubble, so they settled in Los Angeles. Murakami attended Chouinard Art Institute in the 1950s, where his teachers included Don Graham and Disney animator Marc Davis—and his night-class drawing classmate was WB animation director Chuck Jones. He was hired by UPA in 1955 to work on the studio’s groundbreaking TV series The Boing Boing Show. Murakami also worked on the “Ham & Hattie” theatrical series with Fred Crippen; he designed the big-nosed islanders in the “Jamaica Daddy” sequence of the Oscar-nominated Trees and Jamaica Daddy (1957):

He moved to New York in 1958 to work at Pintoff Productions, which was run by his former UPA colleague Ernie Pintoff. Working with Pintoff, Murakami designed the Oscar-nominated short The Violinist (1959):

Murakami moved to Tokyo in 1959 to work at Toei Animation, an experience that he described in this interview:

“I was basically cracking up, to be honest. I was drinking too much, my health was suffering with late nights in New York. I thought I was going insane. I wanted to find my roots as a Japanese. I was brought up Japanese, speaking Japanese at home as a kid. So I thought, I better go to Japan. No-one was guiding me… I didn’t tell my parents anything, I didn’t want them to worry. So I took a boat to Japan, not knowing if I would stay there the rest of my life or what; just made a decision to leave America.

“I worked in Toei Animation for a time as a consultant, and all they did was give me grief because they wanted me to do everything their way, including using paper-clips for registration instead of pegs, so the picture would be ‘jittery.’ I had disagreements and left. Then I painted watercolors, made woodcuts and taught conversational English to university students and prostitutes and bar-girls. I sold some paintings, but for negligible money.”

After that experience, Murakami worked for a time in London at George Dunning’s TVC studio, where he wrote and directed the BAFTA-winning short Insects (1961). Afer working around Europe, he returned to Los Angeles to launch Murakami-Wolf Productions in 1965 with business partner Fred Wolf. At the studio, which was among the busiest LA commercial houses during the late-Sixties, Murakami directed mostly commercials, titles, and industrial projects, but he continued to make personal films on the side, include the Oscar-nominated Magic Pear Tree and the Annecy Grand Prix-winning Breath, a (poor) copy which can be viewed below:

Murakami settled in Europe permanently in 1971 when he traveled to Ireland to become a second-unit aerial director on Roger Corman’s The Red Baron. Murakami would later direct the Corman movies Battle Beyond the Stars and Humanoids from the Deep. (In the photo at right, he is on the set of Battle Beyond the Stars with actor Richard Thomas.) In Ireland, Murakami set up the commercial studio Quateru Film to work on freelance projects. Among the memorable works he made was the opening sequence of Hevy Metal (1981):

He served as the supervising director of the British TV special (and now a holiday classic) The Snowman (1982) based on a children’s book by Raymond Briggs. This led to a second collaboration with Briggs that would become one of Murakami’s most well received projects: the 1986 feature When the Wind Blows, a hand-drawn/stop motion film depicting an impending nuclear attack through the eyes of a retired British couple. Murakami talks about the film (as well as other parts of his career) in this interview:

After his studio Quateru closed, he opened Murakami Films in Dublin. The studio worked on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989), which was produced by his old business partner Fred Wolf, and Murakami also directed the TV series Storykeepers (1995) and Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001). Murakami’s long experience in animation made him a valued figure in the Irish animation community at a critical time in the development of their modern industry. On Twitter this morning, Cathal Gaffney, a co-founder of the Irish animation studio Brown Bag Films, called Murakami “a founding father of Irish Animation,” suggesting the importance of his presence in the country.

Murakami’s career is remarkable for its breadth and variety, as well as for his fiercely independent streak that led him to carve out his own creative path. It’s not an easy life to sum up, but historian Giannalberto Bendazzi put it nicely when he wrote:

[Murakami] belongs to the generation of specialists who were trained or inspired by UPA, and is among the first of the American intellectuals who found their social awareness during the difficult 1950s—educated, sensitive artists devoted not so much to finding absolutes in art as to creating intelligently tasteful, ethical films for large audiences.


  • Fraser MacLean

    Jimmy was always a gentleman, always good-natured and appreciative no matter what the production difficulties might have been on any given day. Working for him at Animation Studio Ludewig in Hamburg, as a scene compositor on “Christmas Carol”, I discovered more each day about the unique role he had played in the industry. The last time I saw him – at the DCA in Dundee when he was receiving an honour from the Duncan of Jordanstone animation department – he was as bright and genial as ever. My sympathies to his family. The contribution he made internationally to the art of animation was remarkable.

  • jabenn

    Thanks for this wonderful profile of a very great artist and a nice man. I met him once, and we shared our love of UK comedy films.

  • Tim

    Great profile. I have been a huge fan of “When the Wind Blows” since I first saw it in college. I didn’t know the rest of his bio, but it’s great to know how wide his influence was (like TMNT, who knew!).

  • Vivien Halas

    So sad. I saw him not long ago in Dublin. My favourite film- Breath. Goodbye
    to yet another great animator.

  • Maggie Mooney

    He was very special, I will remember him with great fondness. I am very glad to have known him. Rest in peace. Maggie

  • Terry Walsh

    A couple of years ago Cartoon Brew published a list of several items of interest as Christmas gifts to animators and fans of the genre. On the list was a DVD collection of 6 shorts done by Jimmie Murakami. Included on the disk is a great copy of “Breath”. Although I’ve lost the contact information; I was able to purchase a copy from a firm in Ireland.

    I have absolutely no connection or involvement whatever with the firm offering the DVD; I’m just a long time fan of Jimmie’s work and I recommend this DVD highly.

    Perhaps Cartoon Brew can again offer contact information where one can purchase this DVD ?

    • Declan Boyle

      I am deeply saddened by the news of Jimmy’s passing.

      Although I only befriended him in his last year, he still made an impression on me and my work that will
      last forever.

      I was working with him on developing some of his future projects.
      Sadly these films will never be made without him

      His inspiration, warmth and stories will be greatly missed.

  • Terry Walsh

    The title of the DVD I wrote about is “The Reflections of Jimmie Murakami”

  • http://www.jasontammemagi.com Jason Tammemagi

    Thanks for this post, Amid. His importance to Irish animation can’t really be overstated, as you can see from Cathal’s tweet. He was a friend to us all over here in the Irish animation scene, supporting new talent and offering advice and the most entertaining of stories wherever he went. It is going to be a long time before we get used to not seeing him around but his presence and influence will always be felt here. And he leaves behind some beautiful work for all of us globally.

  • guido orlandi

    He was a great Artist and a great Director but an even greater Man.He never taught,he left me learn a lot about storytelling and animation.Thanks Jimmy I’ll miss you for ever.

  • Gary Katona

    60′s ‘independent’ animation in LA was a creative and invigorating time and Jimmy and Fred were at the forefront. A Great team. A restless, but talented, talented man. Ironic to lose another contemporary, good friend and mentor, Frank Terry, of the same era, in the same week. All out of Chouinard. RIP

  • RMC

    Although Murakami did direct Battle Beyond the Stars, Barbara Peeters directed Humanoids from the Deep (1980) with second unit director James Sbardellati who handled all of the rape material. Murakami was around at New World working on BBtS, so it’s possible he may have assisted on but he certainly did direct much if any of it.