August 18, 2021
Masami Suda, who died of cancer on 1st August, had a career that spanned everything from the sci-fi of Space Knight Tekkaman to the basketball action of Slam Dunk.
“I didn’t go into animation because I loved it, but because I really wanted to draw, I aspired to become a graphic designer,” he once admitted to a convention audience in France. He was so focused on a career in some form of illustration that he initially left Tatsunoko after his first four months there, complaining that he had been put in charge of managerial functions and bureaucracy – literally having to drive a car around to pick up cels – rather than being allowed to draw. In his subsequent career he flitted between A-Pro (now Shin-Ei), Toei and back to Tatsunoko, collaborating on some of the iconic anime of the 1970s and beyond.
“I was presented with this offer from Tatsunoko. When I entered the studio, the truth is that I didn’t have much taste for animation there, even if it is true that I drew very often, but I felt that I was missing something. But then I was lucky enough to work on the Gatchaman series, and it was while on that project that I realised that animation could give you a wide range of choices and a lot of freedom. That’s where the spark really came from that turned this into a career for me.”
Suda’s skills were valued enough that he was often put in charge of one of the most critical parts of an animated show: the opening credits sequence that would be seen every week, and needed to hook viewers. He made opening sequences for Candy Candy, Time Bokan, and the transforming cigarette-lighter series Gold Lightan (no, really), among others, as well as a memorable opener for the second series of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, a.k.a. Battle of the Planets.
“I worked so hard on [the first season of] Gatchaman that it gave me heart problems and left me bed-ridden for several weeks. From that experience, I realised that if you really want to do your best work, you have to be the one to manage it and not let it kill you.” Over-work proved life-threatening, causing him to come down with a case of autonomic imbalance in 1973. Joking about it in a Japanese web interview in 2015, he wryly noted the similarity of his condition to a famous anime catchphrase: “The doctor told me I was already dead!”
“I was off work for a month, and gained ten kilos. That’s when I started playing tennis, because I said this couldn’t go on. When I did that, along with other exercise, work became more fun, too.” Thereafter, he was ruthless in his management of his personal health, and in an industry where all-nighters and crunch times were commonplace, he insisted on keeping to a nine-to-five working day. Suda remained adamant that such a regime saved his life, otherwise he would have died from the infamous combination of over-work, sleepless nights, bad diet and indoor confinement known as “Anime Syndrome.”
In a limited-animation era that placed a heavy emphasis on stills, Suda was all about striking a pose. “When I try to develop a character, the first thing I think about is the pose, how I’m going to represent it and how to get the most out of the character, it’s from this line that I start creating it.” Such a comment rather downplayed his own undeniable talent in animating his characters, too, but helps explain how he could be the figure behind so many icons whose physicality and character can be revealed in a single image.
In 1984, he was the character designer and a lead animator on Fist of the North Star, charged with bringing to life the grotesque post-apocalyptic brawlers of the original manga. It’s this, along with Gatchaman, that seems to have found him the greatest following among European fandom, although these were only two works in a long and varied career that took in everything from the historical war reconstructions of Animentary, to several works-for-hire for the Happy Science religion’s preachy but high-budget recruitment movies. These, in fact, occupied much of his resumé in the 2010s, although his TV work also continued, with stints on both Bamboo Blade and Yokai Watch.
“Now that I’m over 70,” he said in 2015, “I’m a little distanced from the animation industry and I can do the ‘artistic’ work I wanted to do. Recently, I been drawing draw sumi-e ink paintings in Nara.”
Even then, he couldn’t leave his old job behind. “I did a fusion of sumi-e and animation,” he confessed.
“My favourite word is maenomeri [forward-leaning],” he once said, “in the sense that we should always be curious and active. Humans have to constantly evolve, from the way they were a year ago, and a month ago, and three days ago. The image I draw tomorrow will be my best. When that feeling leaves you, it’s time to stop drawing.”