As I’m sure many of you have already heard, the story about how famed anime Director Kunihiko Ikuhara — known for such works as Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and the recent smash hit Sarazanmai — secretly directed the one of the first episodes that turned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into a household name is hitting all the major anime news outlets and taking social media by storm.
In light of his spectacular portfolio and what a revolutionary series Ninja Turtles would become, the story certainly seems believable. What’s more, it’s even backed up by a statement by the story writer, David Wise, himself.
Before we start dissecting things, it’s probably best that we at least put together as much of the story as we can.
First and foremost, David Wise never actually mentions Kunihiko Ikuhara by name in his 2013 interview with Cowabunga Corner, but it’s pretty obvious who he’s talking about:2
I later discovered [episode 4, “Hot-Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X “] was actually directed by… oh, Lord, I’m not going to be able to remember his name now. But he was the director of the… all but, I think all but the first season of Sailor Moon.
God, um, he used to live out here. We went, we went out and had dinner and he was like… and I was talking about this episode and he goes “Yeah yeah yeah,” and he’s eating it up and I go “Dude, what’s the deal?” And he goes “I directed it.”
For a little bit of context, David Wise had been told that the animation for episode 4, which he notes as one of his favorites for that reason alone, was done by TOEI Animation. And not only that, but that it was done by their “A Team,” usually reserved for domestic anime to be released in Japan and not the “B Team” that was usually assigned to cartoons produced abroad.
On the surface, his statement is entirely believable. We know for a fact that TOEI Animation did work on the first five episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles due to information provided on their own website.3 Though we don’t know the extent of their involvement, it’s theorized that they did the opening animation and it’s certainly likely that they worked on several whole episodes.
We also know that Ikuhara was living in Los Angeles from 2001 to 2002 as a part of the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs’ “Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists.”4 It’s not out of the realm of possibility — indeed, it’s easily possible — that the two became acquainted during that time since they were both in the same place and working in the animation industry.
Sounds good, right?
Well, not quite. We still have a few more things to work out. Like, for instance, why information that was revealed in 2013 is blowing up online now, six years later.
It all started with a tweet by Twitter user @ashuraou:5
Fun fact: Every 80s kid probably remembers the 5 part #TMNT pilot which had the best animation of all 80s Turtles stuff; 'Hot Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X' was especially good. Why? What people don't know is that episode was (likely) directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. #TMNT35 pic.twitter.com/q3MVIxhAkJ
— Brady Hartel (@ashuraou) May 15, 2019
When you have a combination of “too good to be true” reveal and a story about a public figure who’s already blowing up in the anime community with his latest work, Sarazamai, it’s only natural that anime/comic/media-focused news outlets pounce all over the story.
The only problem with this is that it’s wrong. Or at least so unbelievably unlikely that “false” is a far more likely answer than “true.”
I’ll save my political commentary for another time,6 but suffice to say that being first to print wins out over fact-checking pretty much every time.
That’s not to say that I’m entirely unsympathetic to the plight of these writers, of course. When you’re reporting on Japanese media, it’s really hard to get your hands on accurate information, especially if you don’t have a translator on staff or the language skills to do it yourself. The English Wikipedia pages on many Japanese icons are a sad shell of their Japanese counterparts with far less content and inaccuracies abound.
There’s also just enough information out there, such as the points I’ve outlined above, that makes this story believable. The story, that Director Ikuhara of Sailor Moon and Utena fame actually worked on Ninja Turtles is so amazing that you just want to believe it.
So in light of all that evidence, why am I so certain it’s wrong, you ask?
Glad you asked!
1) Ikuhara was not yet a part of TOEI Animation’s “A Team”
Joining TOEI Animation in 1986 after graduating from college in 1985, Ikuhara was put to work on Maple Town Stories as a production assistant (制作進行) and director’s assistant (演出助手). Not only was he still relatively new to the industry when Ninja Turtles aired, but you still need to account for the fact that the show, much like Rome, was not created in a day.
The relevant Ninja Turtles episode aired in the United States in late December 19877 as a block of five episodes, which means that a considerable lead time was needed in order to get the 110 minutes of animation ready for the US to dub the voices in and finalize. Of course, according to David Wise’s statements, we know that multiple studios worked on these episodes concurrently, but even then it would still take one to two months.
I don’t know about you, but I find it highly unlikely that a staff member with less than one and a half years’ experience in the industry is entrusted with directing an entire episode.
And speaking of which…
2) Ikuhara did not direct anything until 1990
The Japanese word 演出 (enshutsu; production, direction)8 can be difficult to translate because it can mean a wide variety of work in different industries. The exact work involved, in fact, can even change from one company to the next.
As a completely irrelevant aside, TOEI has a specific format that its directors are expected to abide by. Each page consists of six boxes on the left with space on the right. The director is intended to draw a rough sketch of what they want to happen in that scene in the box and a description on the right for the art director. Each of the boxes is meant to take up a designated amount of time in order to standardize the work process. Ikuhara was yelled at multiple times in his career for “wasting” too much time on certain scenes.
Anyway, back to the point at hand, Ikuhara would not be given the opportunity to direct (演出) his own anime episode until episode 18 of Mōretsu Atarō, which debuted on August 18, 1990,10 over two and a half years after his supposed directorial debut on TOEI’s crack team of animators.
3) Ikuhara was already busy throughout 1987
In addition to the two main points raised above, it’s also worth noting that Ikuhara was likely already occupied throughout 1987 with his duties as a director’s assistant on New Maple Town Stories, which ran a total of 50 episodes from January through December.11
With such a tight schedule of nearly one episode a week, I find it hard to imagine that he also had time to take the directorial lead on a foreign property while continuing his normal work. Obviously being overworked is a very real issue in Japan, and especially in the animation industry, but it’s incredibly uncommon to see someone working on two series at the same time unless they’re high up enough that they aren’t involved in the day-to-day operations.
So where does this leaves us?
It’s a bit of an odd place to be in: someone telling a first-hand account says specifically that Ikuhara worked on the episode in question, though the facts don’t support it. On the other side of the coin, I can’t absolutely prove that he didn’t work on the episode. But when we weigh the evidence (one man’s statement vs. another man’s documented career), I’d err on the side that this is not true, and that Kunihiko Ikuhara had no involvement in the Ninja Turtles cartoon.
What I think happened is that David Wise is recounting a personal anecdote to the best of his ability and memory, but that it was inaccurate. It could easily be the result of him mis-remembering the exact statement made over a dinner that happened 11 years prior, or it could have been a “lost in translation” moment where the two misunderstood each other.
It’s very easy for “I was a director at that company” to turn into “I directed that episode” either through a slip of the tongue or as your memory of a one-off comment fades.
Now that you have all the facts in front of you, what do you think is the case? Do you side with Mr. Wise’s statements, or do you think it was a misunderstanding? I’d love to hear your opinion down below!
- …it probably is. ↩
- See timestamp 32:56 in Cowabunga Corner #121: David Wise Interview ↩
- See this circa 2003 TOEI Homepage capture of collaborated works ↩
- See Kunihiko Ikuhara (Wikipedia) ↩
- See this May 14, 2019 tweet by @ashuraou; “Fun fact: Every 80s kid probably remembers the 5 part #TMNT pilot which had the best animation of all 80s Turtles stuff; ‘Hot Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X’ was especially good. Why? What people don’t know is that episode was (likely) directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara. #TMNT35” ↩
- Like the fifth of never — seriously, I really don’t like discussing politics ↩
- See Hot-Rodding Teenagers from Dimension X (IMDB) ↩
- See 演出 (Jisho.org) ↩
- See （アニメの）演出さんがやる仕事は具体的になんなんでしょう？ ↩
- See Mōretsu Atarō (Wikipedia) ↩
- See New Maple Town Stories (Wikipedia) ↩