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Japanese-American Animation Artists of the Golden Age

Contrary to what most animation histories would lead one to believe, the creative workforce during the Golden Age of animation in the 1930s and 1940s was not comprised entirely of white males. There were also women who worked in creative capacities, as well as artists of different ethnicities, particularly Mexican, Chinese and Japanese. Sadly their contributions have been obscured throughout the years and rarely acknowledged in any meaningful way by our art form’s historians.

The history of Japanese artists is particularly interesting because most of them were interned during WWII. In one of the stupider moments in American history, the US government decided to forcibly remove tens of thousands of Japanese-American citizens from their homes and confine them in internment camps, an action that the government later admittted was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Recently while browsing through this UC Library digital image archive, I stumbled across some rare photos that help to flesh out the story of Japanese-American animation artists.

To start off, here’s a shot of Scooby-Doo designer Iwao Takamoto (also posted below) from 1945. Iwao was too young to work in animation prior to the war. He was recruited to work at Disney in 1945 at the age of 20. In an interview I did with him in 1999, he spoke about his experience being interned and how he entered the animation industry afterwards. By the early-1950s, he had became one of the most trusted clean-up artists at Disney and worked closely with both Milt Kahl and Marc Davis before beginning his illustrious H-B career in 1961.

Iwao Takamoto

Next is a photo of Bennie Nobori, who had worked at Disney prior to being interned. I’ve never heard of him but examples of his work from an internment camp newspaper–here and here–reflect a strong Freddie Moore influence.

Bennie Nobori

Other Disney artists who were interned during WWII were veteran animator and writer Bob Kuwahara and Chris Ishii. According to Michael Barrier, Kuwahara was “the first Disney artist whose job was just to draw story sketches.” Kuwahara left Disney in 1937 to go to MGM, which is where he was working when he was taken away by the government. After the war, he moved to NY where, among other things, he created the theatrical cartoon character Hashimoto-san for Terrytoons. Read a short bio written by Kuwahara himself here.

I’ve previously written about about Ishii’s WWII experience on the Brew. In that earlier blogpost, there’s a photo of Ishii working on the camp’s newspaper comic. Below is another photo from December 12, 1942, the day he was inducted into the US military. It has the following caption: “Chris Ishii two years ago worked as an artist for Walt Disney, he tried to join the army but was turned down for slightly flat feet, then his draft board classed him 1-A but before his hopes were realized he was evacuated from California and his new draft number said 4-C, undesirable alien. In the center Chris created, for center newspapers, a cartoon character “Little Neebo”, humorously depicting the trials and tribulations of a little Nisei boy in evacuation centers. Here Chris realizes his deepest ambition as he is finger printed by an army sergeant after having been sworn into the Army of the United States, to be sent to Camp Savage, Minnesota.”

Chris Ishii

After the war, Ishii became a top East Coast designer and eventually served as the creative director of UPA-NY in the late-1950s as well as co-owner of Focus Productions in the 1960s and 1970s. In the UC image archive, I found a photo of a wooden pin created by Chris Ishii featuring his character Lil’ Neebo.

Chris Ishii

Ishii, who had become an assistant to Ward Kimball in November 1940, went out on stike at Disney in 1941 along with the other Japanese-American artists who worked at the studio including Tom Okamoto, Masao Kawaguchi and James Tanaka. This is a 1943 photo of James Tanaka working at Famous Studios in New York. The caption accompanying his photo says, “James worked for five years in the studios of Walt Disney and secured his present position [at Famous] while at the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.”

James Tanaka

The archive also has a photo of Tom Inada working at Famous. The photo caption says: “He had just finished a commercial art course at the Sacramento Junior College in California when all persons of Japanese ancestry were evacuated from the west coast. He lived for a year at the Tule Lake Relocation Center.”

Tom Inada

And here’s a pic of Tom Inada and James Tanaka working together at Famous.Tom Inada and James Tanaka

Below is a 1945 image of Michiko Kataoka (second from left), who had been interned at Manzanar and was attending UCLA at the time of this photo. Judging from her age in the photo and the uniqueness of the name, I’d harbor a guess that she is the artist who went by the name of Michi Kataoka and who worked at UPA as a background painter for a brief period in the early-1950s.

Michi Kataoka

Another female Japanese artist of note, Gyo Fujikawa, who had worked at Disney in the early-1940s, managed to escape internment. This excerpt from her LA Times obituary explains why:

It was Disney who Fujikawa said changed the way she handled bigots during World War II. Unlike her parents and younger brother, she escaped internment because she was living in New York; only Japanese residing on the West Coast were sent to the camps. But Fujikawa traveled frequently, and when people became suspicious of her, she often told them she was really Anna May Wong, the Chinese American actress. According to her nephew, Fujikawa took secret delight in this masquerade.

But when she told Disney that she often lied about her heritage, he exploded. “Damn it! Why should you say that? You’re an American citizen,” he said.

“From that moment on,” Fujikawa recounted recently, “that’s exactly what I did tell them.”

If anybody can add more details about these artists or other Golden Age Japanese artists, please share. It’d be nice to have a comprehensive list available somewhere online.