Chris Ishii Draws Lil Neebo Chris Ishii Draws Lil Neebo

Chris Ishii’s Lil’ Neebo

Chris Ishii Draws Lil Neebo

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 character—a Japanese-American boy who is interned—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.

(Thanks to Carol Coates for finding the Ishii photo. Click on the images below for bigger versions.)
Lil Neebo

Lil Neebo

Lil Neebo

Lil Neebo

Lil Neebo

  • Jenny Lerew

    The early 1940s Disney/Kimball/Moore/Kelly style is so strong with a lot of these! Crude though they might be, there’s a lot of great, raw energy in them. It certainly gives one mixed feelings to know the context of when he drew them.

    Thanks for bringing this man to our attention.

  • Naka Ishii

    Thanks for spreading the word about my father, Chris Ishii and his cartoons. I have been told many times by his fellow internees that the cartoons in the camp newspapers were read by all – they were both a way of commenting on the miserable conditions and of coping with them. They helped to keep up morale in a difficult situation. By the way, “Lil’ Neebo” is short for “little Nisei boy.”

    Thanks, too, for the link to the page on Amache – I never heard that my father tried to enlist twice before being accepted. He was only in Amache/Granada for a few months before entering the army, as I recall him telling me.

    I wonder how and why these cartoons were put online. The link you provided is no longer live, unfortunately. I’m told that copies of the newspapers (he did the strip in both the assembly center in Santa Anita and later in Granada) are housed in the U.S. National Archives, but they don’t seem to be available digitally on the website. A friend of my father’s went to the Nat’l Archives in Wash DC at one point and got photocopies made, so I have seen them all, but it would be nice to see them up on the web.

    Thanks again.

    p.s. Just for the record, it’s Jack Goodford, I think, though I’m sure he liked good food too! And the gentleman watching Dad draw is Eddie Shimano, who was editor, I think, of the paper at Amache.

    • Lynda Kay Woodworth-Goodford

      Yes, it was Jack Goodford. Google Jack Goodford [IMBd] where I submitted his information.
      I have been trying to find an any old storyboard of his from the past.
      Can you help?
      Lynda Kay

  • Adena Ishii

    I am so pleased that my grandfather’s work is now on the internet! My father, Christopher Ishii, was never good at uploading pictures. Just to add to his list of accomplishments, he worked on the Disney movie, Dumbo, and the original Fantasia, and he has artwork in the storage facilities at the Huntington Library. Thanks again!