Never Let a Good Idea Die: ARTMIC’s History of Recycled Ideas and Design

No studio embraced direct-to-video anime quite like ARTMIC. After finding limited success in TV anime during the crowded boom years of the early 1980s, Toshimichi Suzuki’s design studio followed the new money to home video. Their first direct-to-video anime, Megazone 23, lit up the charts and set the studio on a course that it followed for the rest of its existence: a focus on the “original video animation,” or OVA format. Drawing from their experience in TV anime, 3D photo stories, and other media, ARTMIC created rich OVAs that shared familiar thematic elements along with a consistently recognizable visual style throughout the studio’s early years.

Toshimichi Suzuki had a hand in nearly everything the studio touched during the early days, like Gall Force, Bubblegum Crisis, and the aforementioned Megazone 23, but much of this studio “DNA” was thanks to talented creators like Hideki Kakinuma, Shinji Aramaki, and Kenichi Sonoda. ARTMIC kept creative staff on salary, which meant a consistent look and feel for much of their output during the late ‘80s and into the early ‘90s. Eventually, though, creatives move on. In the case of Sonoda, he lamented the fact that since he was an ARTMIC employee, everything he created would belong to the company and he would own nothing. That fact became a major impetus for his leaving the studio.

The crash of the bubble economy knocked the wind out of the OVA market for a few years in the early ‘90s, particularly for original OVAs that weren’t based on existing IPs. As a result, ARTMIC’s output changed as people left and the market adjusted. The story of the studio’s end is a sad one and not one worth going into at the moment, so let’s focus on what the studio did during its first decade for now.

During the decade of excess, ARTMIC seemed to be bursting at the seams with ideas for new projects. Many of these were never produced, but Suzuki never seemed content to let a good idea die. As a result, looking at the ARTMIC work that did and didn’t make it to production will give you a good idea of some of the common threads and ideas that were getting tossed around the studio. Approaching similar ideas from different angles seemed to be a bit of a theme at ARTMIC, as Suzuki approached his storytelling from a similar perspective; picking up on the loose threads unresolved in one story in an entirely different series. It’s not that all of ARTMIC’s work constituted one glopping cinematic universe, but more that each series built off the experience of earlier projects. It was a sense of continuity born from having a relatively consistent staff during these prime years.

As Suzuki described it in an interview in an early issue of Animerica1, he wanted to create a “future prediction story” that addressed humankind’s role in worlds suffering from environmental destruction, often at odds with machines or technology. It was an idea he first explored in the ill-fated Techno Police 21C, further developed in Bubblegum Crisis, and considered when working on Gall Force, Megazone 23, and even the later Genesis Surviver Gaiarth. All of these stories presented a situation where humankind was on the brink of destruction and in the midst of a seemingly unwinnable war (though Gaiarth and the much earlier ARTMIC TV show MOSPEADA were stories set in the aftermath of war). Suzuki described Bubblegum Crisis as sort of a “premonition” before those extreme situations–a world on the precipice of falling into disaster.

This sort of storytelling reflected a studio that worked very much around the whims of sponsors they couldn’t always control. The realities of TV animation in the early ‘80s and OVA production in the late ‘80s meant that long-running series were never a sure thing and series could be cut short, like MOSPEADA only lasting one cour, or re-named halfway through, like Crisis becoming Crash. There’s only so much you could cover in a 45-minute OVA and so an interesting thread that pops up during the production of one project might have to get developed in an entirely different series down the line. The result was a feeling of interconnectedness that ran through many of ARTMIC’s OVAs, not necessarily by design, but because of the realities of video production.

Promotional artwork for Secret Riders, a never-produced ARTMIC series created with an overseas audience in mind. Note the similarity in the leg design of the Honda VF 750F’s robot mode and that of the Motoslave from Bubblegum Crisis.

It’s worth reiterating that while all of their output may not have been bangers on par with Bubblegum Crisis or Megazone 23, ARTMIC was a wholly unique studio during this era. No other studio pitched OVAs quite like them, with such a reliance on original IP. Throughout much of the format’s earliest years, the OVA industry received (honestly, deserved) criticism on the quality of its videos. Many videos were shameless cash-in projects that hoped to take advantage of an established fanbase, be it fans of a popular manga series or viewers of a TV show cut short looking for some sort of resolution or sequel. That OVAs often sold in surprisingly low numbers—think tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands—and this approach made sense, but didn’t always result in the most groundbreaking work.

ARTMIC’s Cancelled Projects

B-Club’s ARTMIC Design Works is an incredible book; 160 pages devoted to ARTMIC with written contributions from Suzuki, Shinji Aramaki, Hideki Kakinuma, and other regulars from around the ARTMIC offices. In addition to covering the breadth of the studio’s work (which went beyond just the OVAs they’re best known for, including logo and production design, commercial design, etc.), the book includes insight into the studio’s culture at its prime and featured a list of some of ARTMIC’s more notable never-produced projects. Exploring these canceled projects affirm some of the consistent themes running throughout most ARTMIC work, but also provides some foundational insight into the creative process behind some of the studio’s more successful projects.

Take, for example, the “near future adventure” Outer Road. Intended as an 80-minute OVA aimed at hardcore anime fans, Outer Road featured a transforming hoverbike like the Garland of Megazone 232 in what Kakinuma described as “a near-future sci-fi story about a battle squad of outlaws.” The “squad of outlaws” descriptor also closely matches the original ensemble pitch of Megazone 23 predecessor Omega City.

Artwork and the cover of a pitch document for “Star Squad,” which curiously enough is written everywhere else as “Stars Code” in katakana.

Stars Code was a sort of proto-Gall Force Star Front, a “space fantasy” 3D photo story set in the year 3000 A.D., where two superpowers (one human, one machine) fight for control of the galaxy. Kakinuma mentioned that you can see the remnants of the planned story in Gall Force (which, of course, began as a 3D photo story itself) while lamenting the fact that the project never reached production despite some great designs and talented staff attached.

A full translation of the ‘ARTMIC Canceled Project Collection’ article can be found on our Patreon. Support Zimmerit and gain access to it and other translations, article previews, and more.

Secret Riders was a toyetic show for kids intended for an overseas market that hoped to cash in on the transforming robot craze of the early ’80s. If any inspiration for the project came from the overseas success of ARTMIC’s Genesis Climber MOSPEADA as part of Robotech it’s not stated, but it is worth mentioning that the studio was aware of the overseas toy market and worked on some similar projects themselves, like the animated Captain Power VHS toys. It was also a market they never really gave up on; Genocyber was originally pitched as a live-action project with Bandai aimed at an overseas market, and in that Animerica interview Suzuki mentioned his hope of getting Bubblegum Crisis on air in the United States via cable television. The description of Secret Riders specifically mentions the overseas popularity of Transformers-like toys of the era and would have featured ARTMIC’s most recognizable visual motif, transforming motorcycles (hence the name, presumably).

Perhaps the most obviously influential canceled ARTMIC project was Gyro Fungus, a police TV anime series that was described as follows:

Set in a high-tech metropolis in the future year of 2003 A.D., this action drama follows the A.D. Police as they crack down on androids in human guise who threaten the dignity of the human race.

Kakinuma described the series as “a halfway point between Technopolice and Bubblegum Crisis” and even claims that despite the story’s similarity to Blade Runner, it was actually created before the movie was released but admits some of the design work was obviously influenced by Ridley Scott’s 1982 film.3 The concept of an “Advanced Police” or “A.D. Police” was one that ran through shows like Bubblegum Crisis, which literally featured a special anti-boomer police force known as the A.D. Police, to the transforming motorcycles of MOSPEADA with their origins in a never-produced series called “AD Patrol.”

Production art for Gyro Fungus. The artwork on the left is dated 1983.7.10 and bears a strong resemblance to some of the early Megazone artwork. Note that the transforming robot’s vehicle mode bears a strong resemblance to Syd Mead’s spinner from Blade Runner. Interestingly, Aramaki would flesh out a Spinner-like design by Mead himself for a TV advertisement for the MSX2 computer system a few years later in 1986.

MOSPEADA had originally been pitched by Kakinuma and Aramaki as a hard sci-fi series featuring Robert A. Heinlein-esque powered suits, not transforming planes and motorcycles. But those transforming vehicles, specifically the iconic motorcycles, quickly became a trademark of ARTMIC. Sometimes it was the basic idea that got transplanted, and sometimes actual elements of design were re-used. One example was an early design of the MOSPEADA ride armor that featured a spatchcocked wheel design for a hover mode that never made it into the series, but similar visual elements would be seen in early designs for the Garland design of Megazone 23 and later the robot mode for Bubblegum Crisis’ Motoslave transforming motorcycle. Minor design points to be sure, but ones that really reiterate what a swirling morass of ideas and concepts these shows all drew from.

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  1. Animerica, Vol. 1 No. 3, May 1993.
  2. Early iterations of Megazone 23 had the Garland designed as a hoverbike rather than a conventional motorcycle.
  3. The production timeline for Gyro Fungus dates it to 1980 (so, well ahead of Blade Runner as Kakinuma states) but some of the attached design artwork was dated to 1983, suggesting that many of these “canceled” projects were worked on for years and not simply shelved.