The Cars of Yasuo Ōtsuka

Yasuo Ōtsuka has a career that spans post-war Japanese animation and he’s still kicking at the age of 86. That kind of longevity in a career known for low pay, long hours, and cramped offices soaked with tobacco resin is nothing short of impressive, but he seems set on leaving another legacy outside of animation.

After a stint in the Health and Welfare Ministry’s drug enforcement division, Ōtsuka joined Toei Douga in the ‘50s and worked on films like The Tale of the White Serpent (1958) and Saiyuki (1960). Later, he mentored Studio Ghibli co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and helped define the “look” of early Lupin III productions as an animation director. You could write a book about Ōtsuka’s career in anime, but we’re not here to talk about that. Instead, we’ll be talking about his other passion — automobiles.

Miyazaki and Ōtsuka

That’s not to say that the two are necessarily separate. Ōtsuka reportedly took on animating the opening for Osamu Tezuka’s Wonder 3 (The Amazing 3) after crashing someone’s Isuzu Bellet and needing to pay off the bills. Then, of course, there’s Lupin III, a show with no shortage of classic cars. As animation director on Lupin III, Ōtsuka was apparently encouraged by Miyazaki (who’d just taken over as director) to include the iconic Fiat 500 in the show — largely because Ōtsuka himself owned one at the time. Later, Ōtsuka drove the same car in a circuit around Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island, as part of an extended road trip.

In the late ‘90s, Ōtsuka teamed up with Gainax to release a multimedia CD-ROM called Yasuo Ōtsuka Military 4×4 Graffiti. Utilizing Ōtsuka’s extensive knowledge on the subject (he’d been publishing doujinshi and authoring professional books on the subject for years) and personal collection of photos, the CD-ROM was an extended slideshow celebrating military vehicles with some “great jazz standards in the background.” But the connection between Ōtsuka, Gainax, and military vehicles goes back even further.

One of the many books authored and/or illustrated by Ōtsuka

In 1984, a young Yoshiyuki Sadamoto joined Telecom Animation Film to work under Ōtsuka. Sadamoto had broken into professional animation by way of Super Dimension Fortress Macross and his friends at Daicon Film (later Gainax), and a decade later became famous as the character designer for Neon Genesis Evangelion. Sadamoto is a known gearhead with a penchant for French automobiles.

In the late ’80s, Gainax had finished production on Royal Space Force Honneamise (1987) and was doing animation contract jobs around the industry. One of those jobs was with Bandai for Appleseed (1988), an OVA based on the manga by then up-and-coming manga artist Shirow Masamune. Inspired by a life-sized Briareos mask put together by future Heisei Gamera monster-suit maker Fuyuki Shinada, the crew at Gainax decided to film a live-action promotional video for the OVA.

Seemingly little more than an excuse to film their friends in costume and fire off blanks in an abandoned warehouse, the short promo video also featured an old Jeep. That Jeep belonged to the manga artist known as SUEZEN, who worked on Royal Space Force and later illustrated an iconic Rolling Stone cover featuring Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami. Where did SUEZEN get his Jeep? From Yasuo Ōtsuka, of course.

The diminutive M422 Might Mite was a successor to the Jeep designed to be light enough to be transported by early helicopters, but only saw limited service with the U.S. Marines. Ōtsuka had one, of course.

While the Jeep might have been one of the most iconic American vehicles of World War II, its life in post-war Japan is no less fascinating. Indulge me for a second, here:

The Willys MB or “Jeep” (commonly attributed to being a pronunciation of the acronym “GP” for “General Purpose,” but more likely named after the Popeye character Eugene the Jeep) was created for the U.S. Army at the onset of World War II and subsequently used in the armies of all Allied nations.

After the war, the Jeep lived on in Japan in two different forms. In the early ‘50s, Toyota produced a version called the Jeep BJ with the intention of selling it to the US military then embroiled in the Korean War. Instead, Toyota ended up selling it to the Japanese National Police Agency thanks to a stunt that involved driving a BJ up Mt. Fuji. In an effort to differentiate their Jeep, it was later renamed  “Land Cruiser,” which soon became its own line of original, Japanese-designed off-road vehicles. The Land Cruiser would also become the first major overseas sales success for Toyota, despite only selling exactly one of them during their first year of operation in the United States.

Toyota’s Jeep BJ in front of Mt. Fuji

Toyota’s competitor Mitsubishi decided to counter the domestic sales success of the Land Cruiser by licensing and producing the Willy’s Jeep domestically. Unlike Toyota, they kept producing that original model for decades with minor iterations and modernization, like new motors and body styles. Incredibly, Mitsubishi was still producing their Jeep (which looked basically identical to their Jeep from the ‘50s) until 1998, when increased emission regulations forced them to shut down production. Coincidentally, that was the same year Gainax published Ōtsuka’s CD-ROM.

These days Ōtsuka is a consultant to the Nippon Military Vehicles Association, a group that restores and displays military vehicles. While his animating days are behind him, Ōtsuka still does illustrations for the organization’s merchandise and you can find t-shirts and calendars featuring his work.

At his age, Ōtsuka could be expected to slow down and relax, but he doesn’t seem to be doing anything of the sort. He’s reportedly looking to open a military vehicles museum in Fujiyama with his collection of vehicles.

Ōtsuka rocking a Future Boy Conan t-shirt [source]

Special thanks to Lawrence Eng for inspiring this article with a Twitter thread months ago, and the lovely Anim’Archive for allowing me to use some of their scans.

This article has been translated into Italian on the blog Mr. Gozaemon’s Reviews.

Further Reading