Tokyo's anime entrepreneurs
Arthell Isom on Building the First Black-owned Anime Studio in Japan
"I was up until 4 am last night for a project," Arthell Isom casually remarks the day we met him at his Shinjuku studio. To any unwitting pair of ears, the Tokyo-based artist's declaration is a seemingly light-hearted, if not wacky, introduction, but behind the film of nonchalance and his laidback presence lies a pure blazing creative fuel.
Standing among the rows of unmanned Wacom monitors—his animator team accessing them remotely from across the city—he then recalls a paranormal encounter during his all-nighter: "I thought I was hallucinating when I heard sounds in the office in the middle of the night," he laughs. "It turns out that it was just another animator watching YouTube tutorials late at night from his home."
Firmly in the media spotlight, Isom is an entrepreneur and CEO of D'Art Shtajio, Japan's first Black-owned animation company. In the studio and among his well-trusted animators, he's the creative director steering some of the most epic anime scenes: Attack on Titan, One Piece, Gintama and Fire Force to name drop a few. Despite these titles, Isom has been—and always will be—an artist, first and foremost.
"Anime is just a medium to tell stories. Right now, the world is shifting, and that shift is what's changing the industry, too. We're just glad we can be one of the studios to help with that."
His story is an ambitious one. In a fateful encounter with the Japanese cyberpunk original Ghost in the Shell, helmed by acclaimed animation director Ogura Hiromasa, the New Jersey-born artist swung his career dreams into a new orbit. A seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision plan began to hatch: he would leave San Francisco and enroll in an animation school in Tokyo. Failure would simply not be a part of it.
The life of an animator is already competitive and notoriously coveted, but Isom had set his sights firmly on one goal: to work at Ogura Kobo—the legendary Ogura's animation studio. For him, it was a simple, sure decision, but a precarious one, too; Ogura only accepted one artist every year. "At that point, I just wanted to work for him. It's what I always wanted to do."
Animator at Heart, Entrepreneur by Duty
When starting at Ogura Kobo in 2008, Isom quickly noticed how the work environment differed to what he was used to in America.
"Nothing can compare to the Japanese animation industry. You work crazy hours. On my first day, we were working from that morning until the next, and my senpai all slept at their desks," Isom reminiscences. "I saw them doing it, and so I thought I should follow them and sleep at my desk too."
Well into his inexhaustible pursuit to fine-tune his talent, Isom needed to prove himself beyond Ogura's mantle—he wasn't just a token hire, after all, and he knew his transition into the company wouldn't be seamless. He was one of the very few, if not only, foreign animators in the industry.
"I'm a Black American resident. Naturally, I stood out. Whenever we went to animation parties, people always thought I was a member of the security staff," he continues. "But I didn't want to get special treatment. Most international residents would take vacations or go back to America, but I didn't. I stayed in Japan for 10 years straight before I returned to America."
In 2013, five years into working at the company, Isom sat with Ogura and anime producer Ishikawa Mitsuhisa to announce his official resignation—yet another trajectory in his life that can be traced back to the juvenile ambition he shared with his brother, Darnell Isom. The idea, seeded by the brothers' entrepreneurial dad, bloomed into a reality in 2016 under the name D'Art Shtajio. For Isom, this now means dividing his days between being a businessman and a background-art lead.
Isom says that expanding his skillset was key to getting the business off the ground. "Starting any company is difficult," Isom explains. "It's also about becoming business-minded. I'm a creative person, so separating these two things—running a business and becoming an art director—is still something I have to figure out. You have to put the company and staff first. There might be certain projects that we want to do more, but we can't because we have to make sure we pay the bills."
In a strenuous aim to maneuver and scale the business, Isom needed to foster partnerships in the anime sphere—an unenviable pressure, as he doesn't consider himself a "social person." The great thing, he says, is that there's no competition in the industry.
"Of course, there are bigger studios that have been here for years, but in general, you have to make good friends and build relationships to get a good start," he explains. "When I left, Ogura-san and Ishikawa-san gave me their blessing and advice. I was lucky that they introduced me to different people in the industry."
Representation—or Misrepresentation—in Anime
In the early anime adaption of shonen manga Shaman King, one of the protagonists of African descent, inaptly named ChocoLove McDonell, stood out with his afro hair, inappropriately exaggerated lips and an African wrap. His flawed portrayal is evidently among one of the many severely misrepresented people of color and LGBTQ characters in anime history.
Since then, the industry has barely grazed outside these superficial notions. Isom is using his Tokyo studio and team to do for the community what should have been done years ago: straying away from stereotypes and paying attention to how people actually look.
"Animation isn't live-action—everything has to be drawn, so every element that moves or exists has to be thought of."
"It's our job as artists to be observant and express characters correctly," he says—although the concept is not without its complexities. "It's more difficult to incorporate transgender characters. Discovering the differences between cis-gendered male characters, female characters and transgender characters to portray them correctly needs more time."
Almost inevitably, much of this insensibility among anime producers has its roots in what the global media provides. In Japan, other cultures are often heavily commercialized, and the accuracy of their portrayal dropped in favor of racial and sexual exploitation. To be Black in anime, for example, means to be either dangerous, cool or comical—or all of the three.
"One of our artists made all of the bad characters dark-skinned and good characters light-skinned for a project. I asked if it was because the client requested it. They answered, 'No, these are the bad guys. That's why they're dark-skinned.'"
For Isom, the challenge is in the conscious decision to make characters appear as organic as possible. Who are they? Where are they from? What are their characteristics? "The last thing we want is to include a random Black character just because they're Black and tokenize them. I would rather have all the characters be light-skinned or Asian if I feel like a Black character isn't necessary," he states. "Our approach is to focus on the storyline—that's how we can make a story that's actually diverse and accurate."
After our conversation, Isom was visibly eager to show us one of his favorite paintings—a watercolor of a mountainous landscape—the finishing strokes were done by Ogura himself. Everything, down to the sheer brightness of his smile when talking about his favorite series (he's rewatching Stand Alone Complex), reflects his proximity to anime. The same artistic zeal is relayed to the mascot in the logo of D'Art Shtajio: a nameless doll, whose epiphanic genesis can be traced back to its master, a sunken Black Japanese artist named Ijiro. From creative blocks to the ceaseless pursuit of creation, Ijiro mirrors Isom's magnetic life.
As the interview concludes and we're entranced by a monitor as a remote-working artist adds the final touches to a Ghibli-inspired landscape, Isom passes along a piece of advice he received from his mentor Ogura: "Art is just like a muscle. The more you do it, the better you're going to get at it. Figure out what you want to do, and practice, practice, practice."
Photos courtesy of Mike Smith
*This article was originally published on "Metropolis (September 28, 2021)."