Junichi Sato is a jolly good man. One of the most prolific directors within the ‘Shoujo’ demographic of anime, Sato has made a career in warming our hearts. A structural master with a skilled touch at balancing comedy, life lessons, friendship, romance, and all things adorable.
The King of Shoujo stands proud, creating wonderful series that sell like hot cakes, but is often overlooked by the Western audience. Sure, everyone knows Sailor Moon, but how many have delved into Tutu, Maple Town or Aria?
Last week, and in upcoming weeks, I’ll be using the Seinen/Shounen and Josei/Shoujo terms. These are really just classifications of the audience the series is aimed towards. My usage is completely ‘wrong’ but it helps me sort series in my mind. A short hand to separate a series based around mature or real situations, from something with more fantastical or inspirational aims.
For example, Sailor Moon is a Shoujo (friendship, magic, action) and a Magic Girl show. Aria is a Josei (morals, maturity, grounded realism) and is a Slice of Life. This breaks down a bit on shows like Princess Tutu, that balance both of these ideas, but I still like to use them. hopefully you can follow my thought process through these posts and I clarify why a show is great beyond just an artificial genre tag.
A Technical Start
Sato began his career in production on a variety of series. A benifit of being in the Toei studio during the late 70’s and early 80’s. His work was mostly Production focused, with lots of training on Storyboard, framing a scene, and transitions.
During this early time, Sato would be in close contact with a variety of talent featuring Tsuji, Fujikawa, Matsumoto, Aoyama, Nishio, and Nishizawa among others. Creators and artists involved with Galaxy Express 999, Cutie Honey, Mazinger Z, Dragonball Z, Aim for the Ace!, Space Battleship Yamato, Precure, Captain Harlock, and more! These guys were some of the final big names to come from the Golden Age, with talent oozing in every direction.
Sato’s first credit is in Production for Queen Millenia, shout out to the ‘Father of Anime in the West’ Carl Macek, before moving up to Production manager in Patalliro! One of the first series to feature Shounen-ai (Yaoi or Gay) themes on TV in Japan.
He dabbled in Storyboard and Production in BemuBemu Hunter and Wee Wendy. Both feature a continuation of the relatively young Shoujo Magic Girl genre coming from the ground breaking Cutie Honey anime in the 70’s, from the god-like manga writer Go Nagai. Sato’s later series would have a firm understanding of the Shoujo genre that it came from and both how it worked and how to break it. Other directors would take the demographic into other genres and various directions, but Sato’s focus has maintained the familial and personal struggles central to these shows. Which led to his reputation as ‘the Shoujo director.’
Finally Sato began work for Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, working with Yoshiyuki Tomino (Spotlight in 2 weeks) in one of his greatest Directed series. Presumably Tomino took note of this young Sato, putting him into more Storyboard work, and leading to Sato being Assistant Director on the series Hai Step Jun. This allied him with multiple people who would direct episodes, act as animation director, or script for Sato’s later series like Maple Town and Sailor Moon.
Sato’s first credit as Director was on the series Maple Town. An adorable little series that played around with stories and themes while using an Animal based cast. A kind of Japanese version of the West’s Arthur or Franklin the Turtle, the show balances the youthful messages with a layer of maturity. Entertaining for all ages.
The ever-present Kunihiko Ikuhara would work under Sato as Assistant Director, eventually taking over the series near it’s conclusion and earning his first Director credit. The relationship of co-direction and mentorship continued with Devil Boy, and later Sailor Moon, which would mold Ikuhara’s crisp framing and storyboard work, though Ikuhara eventually went a much different direction.
While Ikuhara finished Maple Town, Devil Boy, and Sailor Moon, Sato went out to make a bunch of other series. Kimama ni Idol was one of the first attempts at major cross-promotion, featuring 3 VA’s who would do Live concerts based on the series. Furious Ataro features heavy slapstick comedy and gags with an adult humor bite that was lacking in the industry, and Goldfish Forecast! is stupidly adorable with some lofty goals and moral questions.
I’ve mentioned before the ‘Pillars of Anime’ that hold the medium up in the West like Dragon Ball Z and Evangelion. They were extremely important to the generations of kids that found anime through them. In that same sense, perhaps Sailor Moon should be known as the ‘Buttress of Anime’. The most important Magic Girl show in the industry, the touchstone that all Shoujo series must pay respect, and the counterpart of DBZ in the 90’s. Sailor Moon was, and still is, a massive franchise with huge importance.
Based on the manga by Naoko Takeuchi, Codename: Sailor V was a different kind of story from what the anime eventually became. A call back to Cutie Honey action, with some subversive ideas that tested new waters. Takeuchi would use her company, Princess Naoko Planning (PNP), to continue making interesting works and develop new talent. This includes being a mentor and financier of Yoshihiro Togashi during his 2 manga, HunterXHunter and YuYu Hashiko, who could be seen as the Shounen equivalent of Takeuchi.
Sato and Takeuchi would transform the Sailor series to blend the older ‘Shoujo’ series, the Super Sentai genre, and Cutie Honey’s comedic action, which both artists were big fans of.
Balancing romance, comedy, friendship, and battler action, Sato brought together these wonderful, subtle, and heart warming characters to life in this multi-layered entertainment hit. It was a re-birth of the Shoujo genre and everything afterwards would be changed because of it.
There was some dips in quality, mainly around the periods where Sato and Ikuhara changed hands as director during Sailor Moon S and in R when Ikuhara was trying to rebrand the series into the early idea of Revolutionary Girl Utena, but these are brief stumbles that manage to recover quickly. Some even consider R the best portion of the series.
The show had five seasons, and the studio also developed three feature films, one television special, three short films and a live-action television adaptation titled Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. There is also light novels, collectible trading card games, action figures, musical theater productions, several collections of soundtracks and a large number of video games. Oh, and Crystal came out recently, but lets forget that happened.
The New Generation
Around this time period, Sato would leave Toei Animation for doing spot work and mingle with other artists. Considered one of the best storyboard and structural directors in anime, Sato would be a coveted person in the industry. He features in a lot of series, and many newer directors mention him as an inspiration. After they mention Miyazaki/Oshii/Kintano ofcourse, because that is the law in Japan.
He would storyboard episode 18 of Cowboy Bebop for Watanabe. The mutual connection with Ikuhara would introduce Sato to Anno, working as storyboard and episode director for episode 4 in Neon Genesis Evangelion, episode 18 of His and Her Circumstances, the film End of Evangelion, and 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance. He would also work as director for episode 34 of Revolutionary Girl Utena, Ikuhara’s banner series and a very important episode in the show.
Sato would make Crayon Kingdom of Dreams as a call back to Wee Wendy and the older generation of Shoujo and help to design the new ‘Moe’ slice of life series. The show had Reiko Yoshida on Series Composition and Script, who would go on to work some big Moe and Slice of Life like Bakuman, K-On, Kaleido Star, Aria, and Non Non Biyori among many others.
Then he would Co-Direct Magical Doremi with Takuya Igarashi, who would go on to make Captain Earth, Ouran Host Club, Soul Eater, and Star Driver. Sato also worked as Animation Director for Kouichi Chigira on his series Gate Keepers, before Chigira went on to make Full Metal Panic and Last Exile (the latter produced with PNP Studio and Sato’s old friend).
Joining the studio Bandai, Sato created his first original series Magic User Club and the film Junkers Come Here! Both are pretty good, but again we can see some big industry names in their infancy learning from Sato. Notably, a previous spotlight director Akiyuki Shinbo in his transitional days, Takuya Sato of Steins;Gate and WIXOSS fame, and Chiaki Konaka who wrote Hellsing, Serieal Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze and The Big O.
Hal Film Maker and the ‘Healer of Anime’
After his brief stint training all these big names in the industry, Sato would gather some of his old Toei co-workers and create the studio Hal Film Maker. The studio would merge with another to create TYO Animation, and it’s been home to Sato ever since.
Opening the studio, Sato would make Strange Dawn and a season of the long running Slayers series, Slayers: Premium. Then he would make his second original work, Pretear, which would take a much darker tone from most of his works. Sato seemed to be losing interest in the magic girl genre, but made one last sha-bang…
Sato joined his old Sailor Moon animation director, Ikuko Ito, to create the best fairy tale musical since the early days of Disney. Sato has said in an interview that he listens to the song first and makes the storyboard to fit the music, and you can see it in effect here.
The series acts as a kind of mirror to Ikuhara’s Utena series, with each taking the Shoujo stories in different directions. Tutu aimed to maintain that innocence and healing aspect from the early age shoujos, while playing around or mocking certain tropes within it. This would continue into his later series as he moved into a more Slice of Life story line and away from the Sentai/Action series that he was known for.
With an A+ music score, wonderful ballet and stage production, well structured storyboard, and amazing use of a fairy tale setting, Princess Tutu is incomparibly fantastic. Don’t wait, treat yo self!
Everything Is Amazing
Sato went on a streak directing Kaleido Star, Sgt. Frog, Twin Princess, and Umi Monogatari. His work shifted to this Slice of Life Shoujo genre and took on a very positive, healing nature. The kind of show where you get those warm and fuzzies, maybe help an old person cross the street, and get back into school. Entirely life re-affirming and hopeful. Umi and Kaleido are probably the best of the group, but if you enjoy the genre at all, I’d recommend all of them.
Sato would alternate between Tamayura (which is about to air a 4 part movie season to finish the series) and his crown jewel, ARIA. If Sailor Moon is the foundation of Magic Girl shows and based on Sato’s love of the past, then Aria can claim the same for Slice of Life and Sato’s distinctive style. A massive hit both critically and in sales, Aria is the biggest powerhouse anime that no one has heard of in the West. I know there’s a few of you lovers out there, and boy do we love this show.
With small arcs, the series is a chain of masterful episodes to stunning life revelations and back again. The music is profoundly beautiful and simple, with storyboards that work with the songs and plot to make really touching moments. Sato never loses sight of who each character is, and makes even single episode side characters creep into your favorite of all time.
I hear often that people lament the ‘Moe age’ of anime, or that the medium is dying, all silly concepts. You need look no further than last week’s Omori and his exciting Durarara, or Sato’s wonderful contributions like Aria. Anime is fine you hippos, we have marbulous treats everywhere, start a’ gobblin!
In recent years, Sato has begun to experiment with Action again. Directing Phi Brain and M3: The Dark Metal, he seems driven to return to the characters and message of old Shounen series. Both series have some odd premise and story settings, but they are a really under appreciated return to the Astro Boy and Space Opera era. WIth reliance on characters and solid communication, over spectacle and stupidity.
Cough Ahem, sorry bout that.
Also, he produced 2 short OVA series that I’m really hoping get expanded into his next full series. One Off and Amazing Twins each feature this new life lesson and healing attitude of Sato’s design, but feature a return of Adventure that is exciting. I love me some Aria, but it’s limited in how exciting it can go without breaking it’s gentle charm.
Junichi Sato has had a long career with many blockbuster series beloved by it’s fans. His style and taste rarely gets the fandom bellowing his greatness in the streets, but don’t miss out on one of the greatest working creators in the business. His shows will make you weep in sadness and joy, without resorting to forced drama or cheap death scenes. The flag waving master of Shoujo and Slice of Life will lead you to the promised land.