[Script] The One-Man Yuri Animator You’ve Never Heard Of!

An anime isn’t the kind of thing one person can make alone. Even delegating tasks like music and promotion away, the amount of work required for every single frame is too much to ask of anyone. Brilliant individuals like rapparu are able to make short, minutes-long videos and students frequently create crude but impressive graduation projects of the same scale but anything larger than that is simply unreasonable to expect. It’s just not viable. Unless, that is, your happen to be Naoya Ishikawa.

Naoya Ishikawa is not the most well-known person in the anime industry and it’s not hard to see why. His works are near universally short, independent little pictures that aren’t going to show up before western eyes unless you’re really fond of deep diving the ANN and MAL staff pages. The one TV anime he’s worked on has been completed by a whopping 3,500 people on the aforementioned website, many of his pieces require an animebytes account to track down, and some of them can’t even be found there, especially not with subtitles. The only work of his with any notoriety is one Kuttsukiboshi, a 2-episode OVA that’s only talked about by hardcore yuri fans, the exact kind of people who’d have issues with some of the developments in that work. At best, Ishikawa can be called divisive. At worst, he’d be classed a nobody. But hisv idiosyncrasies as an animator and a director are deeply interesting and I’m frankly shocked I didn’t know about him sooner given my own proclivities. After discovering him, I went out and interviewed him myself, so let’s look at the many interesting facets of his career as we try to piece together why he’s never caught on beyond Japan’s borders.

Quote: “Luck won’t always be there for me, so I’d like to express the appeal of my work to the world in my own way.”

While Kuttsukiboshi is the work for which he’s best known, Ishikawa started from an unassuming and ordinary position. As with many otaku turned artisans, he first found his start by watching the media he’d later go on to create. Popular anime like Sailor Moon, Tenchi Muyou, and Ranma ½ were essential parts of his middle school experience because, as he says, he “loved ‘Bishoujo’-type characters.” Hardly unique on its own, this passion was developed, used to spur on his creative drive. See, Ishikawa, like many, experienced something akin to what overdramatic reddit users call “post-anime depression”, that feeling of sadness that appears when you finish a show and leave behind the characters you’ve come to love. Rather than hole up in his room and cry about it, he began making anime himself, specifically so that he could, “meet them again.” As time went on, these personal animations grew increasingly original, as the fantastic images inside his head began to come to life on the pages he drew.

Of course, many people end up going through this exact same scenario and most of them don’t end up in the industry. Even among those chosen few who manage to pass through the eye of a needle and make it, a hell of exploitation is sure to await them in whatever studio they manage to make it into, unless they really get lucky and join one of the few that can ensure a relatively healthy lifestyle. Yet the number of people who succeed at this is absolutely massive compared to the amount who manage to eke out a living independently, eschewing the traditional production format altogether. Back in the 90s, as Ishikawa attended school, this was simply not an opportunity afforded to him and it wasn’t something he ever considered. Instead, he spent his days searching for random jobs while making anime on his own, well into his final year of university. Works from that time such as Mahou no Chocolate show a relatively high level of sophistication for an amateur but he hardly had the goal of making it into the industry in mind.

All of this changed in 2002, as Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star marked a new era in the industry, serving as the vanguard for a new wave of creativity not seen since the early OVA boom. Individual, online-published animation was in, you could make money on 20+ minute anime created on a laptop at your parents’ house now. Aspiring creators were no longer constrained to doujin manga. The web generation had begun to show itself and Ishikawa, always an otaku, was quite aware of Shinkai’s monumental leap. As he says, “After learning that an independently-made anime could turn into an actual product, I stopped job hunting and kept making anime for fun.” His graduation project would not have to be his last work, a final hurrah before the grind of Japanese corporate life overtook him. There was a potential future here and he did not hesitate in the slightest to make a reach for it.

Yuri was not something Ishikawa was aware of when he first gravitated towards anime. While shows like Sailor Moon may have planted images in his head of the love between female characters, it took longer than that for him to discover the genre itself. When he did, though, it became a fixture in his creations, something sure to pop up in anything he placed his mark on. This happened with his watching of Steel Angel Kurumi, a long-forgotten TV show whose second series was notable for amping the yuri elements up to 11, creating one of the first girls’ love anime in the process. From here, he was hooked.

The first evidence of this, and the first of his works that can be meaningfully discovered, is in his short graduation project, Mahou no Chocolate. While it’s mostly a boring het romance, the main character’s father, who happens to be voiced by Ishikawa himself, explicitly says that the only one she’s is allowed to date is her best friend. But this pales in comparison to his later focus on the genre.

By 2004, Ishikawa had clearly come into his own as a lover of girls’ love. His short anime, Docchi mo Maid, isn’t exactly stellar, but it shows a keen interest in seeing girls kiss and frankly, who can’t relate to that? From this point forward, almost every time he put pen to paper, a pair of girls were sure to pucker their lips. So why was that? Well, the reason is quite simple. As Ishikawa says, he “wanted to become a female character,” himself, which is frankly so relatable that it hurts. He enjoyed romance as a genre but struggled with drawing men due to his greater connection to women, so upon being introduced to the genre by the aforementioned Steel Angel Kurumi, his problem evaporated. And by this point, he was already drafting up plans for what would go on to become his most well-known project: a little doujin work called Kuttsukiboshi.

One of the most curious aspects of Ishikawa’s early portfolio is how crude it all is. Not in a purely technical sense of the term; imprecise art is the norm among those fresh to the profession and it would be stranger if he were to emerge a perfectly formed artist. No, what stands out is that his works simply were. Not. Good. Listen, there are a lot of creators who I’m shocked to see so little discussion of. Rapparu’s early work was outstanding and showed evidence that they could go on to be as talented as they’ve shown themself to be at this point, the fact that no one talked about them before my video was a travesty. Ishikawa’s tale is totally different. Mahou no Chocolate, Docchi mo Maid, these are not works that seem to precurse later masterpieces. They make it clear he had some degree of skill, for sure. It takes a lot of effort to put out a 12 minute animation on your own and that shouldn’t be disregarded. But there’s almost no sign within them of future talent, perhaps because Ishikawa did not have an amazing knack for creating genius works. What he did have, however, was a heck of a lot of perseverance.

Kuttsukiboshi is a work that Ishikawa had been planning for almost as long as he had worked seriously on his animation. Capturing many of the ideas he had wanted to make in past periods, he went through a 5-year span of planning before actually getting a chance to work on it, finally starting up for real around 2008. The process was not easy for him. As he admits, he got distracted watching anime at his own house, an experience I’m sure many of us can relate to, so he rented out a studio with some friends where he could concentrate on his creation. But from here, concentrate he did. By 2010, this work of his fantasies was complete, a 20-minute OVA that he could proudly display to the world. Alongside it came a number of doujinshi, portraying the same characters as the anime though often in different contexts, though always sure to be cute and slightly indecent. At long last, Ishikawa began to see serious attention. With the help of people posting his animations to NicoNico, a method that allowed many online creators to gain their much-deserved recognition, he began to garner some level of success. Furthermore, he was assisted by the fact that yuri is not amazingly common in anime and was even less so back in 2010, allowing Kuttsukiboshi to immediately capture a niche demographic. Of course, its cliffhanger ending, with one of the main characters being caught having sex with her brother, was greatly off-putting to most of said community but that wasn’t enough to deter many viewers from returning for the sequel.

What stands out as the most interesting trait of Kuttsukiboshi to me is not necessarily what it says about Ishikawa in itself. While the focus on a highly-sexual, barely non-pornographic yuri story, full of absurd twists and bizarre leaps and logic paints a vivid picture of his psychic space, it’s the reaction I want to hone in on. The earlier mentioned elements were more than enough to put off scores of yuri aficionados — I certainly think it brings down the work myself — and the conclusion to the second part, which has the two lovers TELEPORT TO AN ALIEN PLANET OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE, is not exactly what I would call “good writing”, fun as it may be. But the work managed to do well in spite of that, gaining a devoted audience of its own. So dedicated is its audience that Ishikawa was not only able to make a full 44 minutes of animation but kept putting out manga for the series, event after event. This. Hasn’t. Stopped. Ishikawa released a new work at this summer’s Comiket, a good, oh, 3 months ago and he says in the interview that, “the reason I continue to work on it is because of the fans, since there are some who are very invested in it.” Kuttsukiboshi is a series which is controversial at the best of times and mediocre — to put it nicely — by most critical standards, yet it still manages to keep this devoted audience. That, in itself, is something worth studying.

But that brings me to the question I posed at the start of the video. Why is Ishikawa so unknown? I don’t mean to ask why he’s not a Miyazaki-tier figure. The man is quite obviously not the sort of person who would gain notoriety among a broader audience. No, my question is why I had never heard of him before outside of one tiny article that practically misleads the audience. Independent animators are beloved in the communities I’m a part of, I should know, look at the positive effects that came out of my rapparu video. I’m not shocked that the average yuri fan doesn’t talk about him, despite the fact that he near exclusively works on the genre, has put out one of the few anime that inhabits it, and has made more than 10 manga sequels to said work. I also understand why he’s not discussed among more production-focused folks; for as impressive as a 44-minute solo animation is, his works can hardly be called the most refined and there are others doing what he does with more technical skill. What I can’t understand is how, sitting in the intersection between these two communities, I never managed to hear about them. Had he stopped at Kuttsukiboshi, that could make some sense. It would still be bizarre of course, but without the doujins and his future works, I could comprehend a lack of interest in the creator of this wacky, problematic, but deeply fascinating yuri anime, even if I wouldn’t share said apathy. What makes no sense is how he still went unaddressed given what came next.

Rural communities are not doing well in Japan. Revitalization projects are omnipresent, but, in most cases, they’ve borne little in the way of tangible effects. These are beginning to show up in anime too; look at Sakura Quest, Lu Over the Garden Wall, and Action Heroine Cheer Fruits. Hell, even this season’s Zombieland Saga counts. Population decline, which is having negative effects on the entire nation, hits these villages and towns the hardest. Young people are rarely born to the aging populace and those small few that are tend to go off to the larger cities, where the chance at a good job, while perhaps lower than it used to be, is at least present. Only 7 percent of Japanese still live in rural areas, a whole quarter of these places have populations which are majority 65+, and many of these villages are just disappearing, surrendering themselves to nature and being reincorporated in order to last just that little bit longer. Capitalism and slowing birth rates have destroyed these communities and while issues like this plague most post-industrial nations, especially those with lower immigration rates, Japan is in a particularly bad spot.

All of this is due to serious structural causes that can’t, in any meaningful way, be reversed, at least not through band-aid solutions. But it’s more than understandable why these regions, in their desire to maintain their home and way of life, try to find methods that will keep the residents around and bring new ones to the area. Enter Ishikawa. After being asked by Iwate prefecture to make a promotional anime, he put out Kataribe Shoujo Honoka, a cute, short series about a girl, some yokai, and some traditional performative theater. Really, it may be his best work, and were it translated I believe it could gain a small audience over here. At a mere 10 minutes there’s only so much to grasp onto but man, it’s so charming. Sure, it’s lacking in yuri, but the guy said himself that he specifically did so in order to avoid getting in trouble while working with a government body. Can’t really blame him for giving up his mainstay when trying to support such a good cause.

On its own, something this cool would deserve attention. What makes it so much more interesting is that, having enjoyed doing this, Ishikawa founded a new company, focused entirely on making anime for local governments. Cooperation between localities and anime companies aren’t new, in fact they feel constant in a world that’s aware of otaku pilgrimages, but having a one-man studio set this up is something which is deserving of attention. Yet he never got any, at least not outside Japan’s borders and little information is available on how many more of these he’s made in the time since. So, it’s a good thing that Ishikawa was fortunate to get one more, even bigger chance at broadcasting himself. If only the West had caught on.

Never say that building a small but dedicated audience won’t get you anywhere. After a long period of working on the fringes of the industry, occasionally helping out but mostly doing his own thing, a producer who happened to be a fan of his offered him a contractual job. While it started out with him writing the project, it quickly grew in size, becoming an adaptation of a web novel that eventually turned out to be a 12-episode, 9-minute long TV anime. While not wholly his project like past works — he hardly handled solo animation, much as the misleading Otaquest article may imply otherwise — his hand can still be seen. And yet it got no press outside of that one short post. So, what is this Clione no Akari and how did it contribute to Ishikawa’s continued lack of notoriety?

First published online in 2004 by a novelist named Natural-Rain, Clione no Akari found enough success to garner a print release by 2012. Focusing on an ill, orphan, bullied girl named Minori and her only friends, Takashi and Kyouko, it spins a supernatural tale of the effects that bullying have on victims, perpetrators, and even bystanders, ultimately looking at how people can be redeemed even after their actions have caused terrible consequences. Loooook, this show isn’t very good. I mean, the art can best be described as janky and without Ishikawa’s personal touch, it lacks the impressiveness contained in his independent projects. The story is crude and moves at a somewhat awkward pace, with the characters never feeling textured enough for the show to really shine. The way it lets the bullies off the hook is, while encouragingly optimistic, ultimately unsatisfying, never making us feel like Minori is given proper justice. Which isn’t to say that they needed to be harshly punished, forgiveness and reform is what I lean towards in corrective justice but the only recompense the bullies really get is some stern lectures and negative feelings because their actions had unfortunate consequences.

Still, the directing is honestly quite impressive given that it was Ishikawa’s first time doing anything of this scale, to the point that the show is more than worth watching for those interested in him. But that’s just the problem. It’s a must-see for Ishikawa fans but those fans can’t even be called marginal in the West — they’re just nonexistent. Clione no Akari didn’t help this; hardly showing off his talents, the reporting around it made him seem far less skilled and driven than he really is. And that’s a real shame. His works may not be the best on a purely technical level but this is an incredibly charming, passionate man who took great influence from the director who may be the most widely known in the entire industry right now and yet he gets no credit. ComixWave certainly isn’t coming to Ishikawa to make anime for them. It’s frankly quite upsetting to me that I didn’t know about him until a month or so ago. This is a man who says he wants to “try everything” now that he’s had experience on TV anime. This is a man who went to Hong Kong, found Kuttsukiboshi fans, and was overjoyed to know how popular yuri is worldwide. This is a man who keeps working on one series because people demand it, a man who’s working on more yuri RIGHT NOW. His works are all problematic and highly flawed. He isn’t my favorite director, writer, or animator. But there’s an overwhelming purity to Ishikawa’s persona, a true love of the subjects he deals in and the forms he works with. Frankly, I can’t say that you’ll become obsessed with Ishikawa as I have. Unless your preferences are remarkably close to mine, you probably won’t care much about him at all because he’s just not brilliant enough to garner that reaction in most people. He’s no Ikuhara, he’s no Yamada, hell, he’s no rapparu. But I encourage you to keep him in your mind as he continues to work in this beloved space we all call anime because whatever you think about him, he’s at least deserving of note. And hell, I can identify with anyone who loves yuri because they identify more with girls and I’d damn well expect my audience to feel the same.

2 thoughts on “[Script] The One-Man Yuri Animator You’ve Never Heard Of!

    1. OK. Watched the second half. Not baisekusharu josei but the brother sure was a piece of work. In her place I cannot say I wouldn’t do the same thing – but I’ve never had a sibling I particularly liked or who liked me. It is just that voluntary incest between siblings who are close in age may be taboo but taboo isn’t necessarily wrong. Lots of things that are taboo eventually gain acceptance and were never really “wrong” to start with.

      If I were Kiiko I’d have cut Aaya some slack and talked to her about it the next day.

      I think I shall christen this genre “yandere yuri” for that scene in the PE equipment shed. That is a literal rape scene, complete with chloroform to disable the victim and involuntary restraints. Nothing that happens later makes Aaya any less a rapist nor does her motive. Oh why couldn’t that have been an innocent tryst accidentally trapping them inside during the typhoon? Why do anime authors have to think that coercion is an acceptable part of love?

      Kiiko lets everything roll in the end. No hard feelings – but she can be uber-yandere if Aaya doesn’t behave.

      Like

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