Anime Archaeology: Kichijoji’s ARTMIC Building

In the days before ‘Cool Japan,’ Tokyo’s otaku diaspora spread out in areas different than the current hotspots of Akihabara and Nakano. This is the first in a short series of articles looking at Tokyo’s otaku landmarks of yesteryear.

ARTMIC (ART and Modern Idealogy for Creation)

ARTMIC was the design studio that launched a thousand transformable motorcycles. Utilizing a close partnership with the animation studio AIC, the artists and creators at ARTMIC worked on titles that helped define the direct-to-video OVA format during the late ’80s. While their work ranged from video games to toy packaging, it was there involvement in fan favorite anime titles like Genesis Climber MOSPEADA, MegaZone23, and Bubblegum Crisis that earned them accolades.

Founded in 1978 by former Tatsunoko producer Toshimitsu Suzuki, the design studio had actually existed for years before hitting its stride during the OVA boom. Shinji Aramaki and Kenichi Sonoda may be the two most famous employees to have called ARTMIC home, but it was also home to Hideki Kakinuma and Rey Lumeno, two unappreciated artists now largely forgotten.

ARTMIC staff portrait, by Kenichi Sonoda.

If you’re old enough to remember watching anime on VHS, a lot of ARTMIC’s output will sound familiar: the relentlessly boring (and seemingly never-ending) Gall Force series, the charming Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, the boiled-down essence of Kenichi Sonoda’s spirit otherwise known as Riding Bean, and the forgotten Hyper Combat Unit Dangaioh are just a few of titles they worked on or created. The last show on that list, Dangaioh, really drives home something essential about understanding ARTMIC, considering it was an OVA that somehow brought together the talents of Shoji Kawamori (Macross, Escaflowne), Koichi Ohata (MD Geist, Genocyber), Masami Obari (Dancouga), and Toshiki Hirano (Fight! Iczer One). ARTMIC brought together some exceptionally talented people to work on shows that, more often than not, turned out to be misfires.

It wasn’t all just 10,000 yen videotape cartoons though, as ARTMIC unleashed their talents on everything from Sony’s HitBit MSX ad campaign, the original Gatchaman series back in 1978, a range of video games and product packaging, and not one but two live-action shows for American TV – PHOTON and Captain Power. In the case of the latter, ARTMIC’s involvement seems to have been limited to a couple of VHS light gun games, but Aramaki worked extensively on the suits and designs of PHOTON.

Their output dwindled considerably during the ‘90s as fan tastes veered away from the mechanical focus that were a hallmark of ARTMIC. Their work that decade wasn’t their strongest stuff, and lackluster tie-in OVAs like Battle Skipper and Power Dolls were some of the studio’s last projects before it all came to an ignomious end in 1997. But the building they worked in — which looks a lot like any other Japanese residential building, were it not for the bright blue coloring — still stands in Kichijoji, Tokyo.

The apartment building that once housed ARTMIC, as it looked in November, 2016.

Kichijoji, 198X

Kichijoji is easily accessed by the Chuo/Sobu line, a confusing arrangement of two train lines that bisects the Yamanote loop line from east to west. Only about a 15-minute train ride from Shinjuku, ARTMIC probably called Kichijoji home for the same reason that a lot of other anime studios called (and still call) the west side of Tokyo home — it’s where anime gets made.

Beyond the studios, lots of shops catering to anime fans were spread out across the west side, including Shibuya and Shinjuku. At one point, the Tokyo location for Gainax’s General Products was just down the street from ARTMIC, and fans could stock up at Animate and Manga no Mori locations before checking out the the showrooms for model kit manufacturers Wave and Volks. Today, though? Not so much.

Kichijoji has gone up-scale since the days when otaku once roamed, and it’s now home to a seemingly endless array of shopping streets and big retailers like UNIQLO and Yodobashi Camera. Rents in the area continue to climb as it remains one of the most desirable places in Tokyo to live – plus it’s got awesome taco rice.

As it looked in 1988: Kichijoji map for 2D & 3D freaks from B-Club magazine issue 29, featuring General Products, Animate, Manga no Mori, and Wave P.X.

For a glimpse at what Kichijoji was like back in the bubble era, the ARTMIC Design Works book provides a two-page glimpse at the neighborhood as the ARTMIC staff saw it:

Click for larger version

A Look Inside

Directions to the ARTMIC building weren’t easy to find, but using the one picture of it that I was able to dig up (which thankfully included a street sign), I was able to pinpoint its location using the power of Google Maps. If you’re looking to find it yourself, head out of the Kichijoji station’s west exit, through the Atré mall, then turn right and start walking. Once you pass the temple on your right you’ll feel like you’ve gone too far, but you haven’t. Look for the big blue building on your left.

Obviously I wasn’t about to try knocking on any doors, but it looks as though its been reverted to normal residence. For a look inside, we can turn to the ARTMIC Design Works book and old issues of B-Club magazine for an idea of what the office looked like as they were toiling away on Wanna-Be’s or Gall Force: Stardust War.

Kenichi Sonoda’s cluttered desk and the Gall Force HitBit powered suit squares off against a xenomorph.
A massive fax machine and showcase full of assorted models and toys.

 

Messy scenes from around the ARTMIC office.
Priss from Bubblegum Crisis visits the ARTMIC offices, meets her creator Kenichi Sonoda, and checks out the model kit showcase. From B-Club magazine issue 29.

Further Reading