I was bummed when animation artist Chris Ishii passed away in 2001 because I’d had his phone number on my desktop for quite a while and had been meaning to call him for an interview. Ishii was born in Fresno, California in 1919 and had attended Chouinard Art Institute before being hired at Disney in 1940. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was among the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps. (Scooby-Doo designer Iwao Takamoto, who recently passed away, was also among those interned. He described his experiences in this interview I did with him.) Ishii was sent to the Granada internment camp in Amache, Colorado.
After nearly a year of being in the camp, Ishii was accepted into the US Army in December 1942 (photo of his enlistment here). His IMDB bio says that he “served in the Military Intelligence Service as an illustrator for the Office of War Information, assigned to the India/China/Burma theater of war. He met and married his wife, Ada Suffiad in Shanghai, bringing her to the U.S. with him at demobilization.” In the 1950s, Ishii moved to the East Coast and worked at a number of NY commercial studios including Tempo and Shamus Culhane Productions. He joined UPA-NY around 1954 as a designer and layout artist. Afer Gene Deitch left the studio, Ishii (along with Jack Goodfood) assumed the role of UPA-NY’s artistic supervisor. He continued working in commercial animation during the 1960s and ’70s, partnering to form his own studio, Focus Productions, and directing the animated sequence in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, among many other projects.
The reason I bring all this up is that I recently found online some examples of Ishii’s “Lil’ Neebo” comic strip. He created the characterÃ¢â‚¬”a Japanese-American boy who is internedÃ¢â‚¬”for the Granada camp’s newspaper Granada Pioneer. The character was also drawn for the paper by other interned artists, as well as used in puppet shows at the camps. The drawing in these strips is relatively crude as it was still early in Ishii’s artistic career, but the Disney influence is certainly evident, and the unfortunate circumstances under which they were created gives them plenty of historical significance.