INTERVIEW: Arthell Isom, CEO of Japan’s First Black-Owned Anime Studio

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Arthell Isom Crunchyroll Expo

This year many conventions have shifted from their usual in-person format to virtual conventions. Crunchyroll Expo is no different, this upcoming weekend, September 4 – 6, 2020, the Virtual Crunchyroll Expo (VCRX) will be connecting anime fans together with each other and with special guests. One of those guests is Arthell Isom, the founder of the first and only Black-owned studio in Japan, D’ART SHTAJIO.  He will be appearing on a panel entitled “Anime and Race” along with Roland Kelts, a journalist and author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, 

Co-founded with his twin brother Darnell Isom, D’Art Shtajio is a 2-D animation studio located in Tokyo, Japan. Arthell and Darnell Isom founded D’ART Shtajio in 2016 after teaming up with animator Henry Thurlow. The founders wanted to revolutionize the Japanese anime industry by introducing Westernized elements of storytelling and art to the Japanese standard of animation. Since the company’s founding, the studio has been producing Japanese anime that blends with American culture.

There’s an interesting story behind the D’Art Shtajio’s name. The word Shtajio is a play on words in both English and Japanese to reflect their commitment towards building a strong foundation centered on their artists and clients. 下地が大事 (Shtaji ga daijitranslated means, “The Foundation is Important.” This is the original phrase that Arthell and his team seek to build on while conveying that they are a スタジオ (Sutajio). The Japanese word for Studio. Alternatively, we spell it Shtajio because of the kanji (下地) Shtaji, which is used by the background artists here in Japan to mean the underpainting or foundation of art. Those words together give them, Shtajio

It is no secret that anime has had a powerful influence over generations of western audiences. This influence has led many anime fans to pursue careers in the animation field. Additionally, thanks to anime fans like Arthell and his brother entering the anime industry, it has also lead to more diversity and representation in anime.

I got the chance to ask Arthell a few questions ahead of his VCRX panel through email, where he explained the challenges of founding an anime studio, what inspired him to work in the anime industry, and future work he would love to see D’Art Shtajio collaborate on.

BUT WHY THO:  What inspired you to not only work in the anime industry but to be the CEO of an animation studio based in Japan?

Arthell Isom: I was inspired to move here, and work here by my want to work for and learn from Hiromasa Ogura, the renowned art director most notably known for his work on “Ghost in the Shell.” Being a CEO of an Anime studio wasn’t initially a plan but being here and working alongside Henry and everyone else. It felt like a challenge I could accept.
BUT WHY THO:  What was the most challenging part of founding an anime studio?
Arthell Isom: There are so many challenges that it’s hard to choose one. Perhaps it’s the realization that running a production studio costs a lot of money, haha.
BUT WHY THO:  Since D’ART Shtajio has worked with musical artists such as Sturgill Simpson and The Weekend in creating anime visual albums and music videos are there other musical artists you would love to collaborate with? If so, why them specifically?
Arthell Isom: There are so many artists we’d like to work with. Some because we are their fans and others because I respect their grit and everything they’ve been able to achieve. Their energy inspires me.

The “Anime and Race” panel will discuss how anime, how, to audiences outside Japan, the round-eyed, blond-haired, non-racial (or “stateless”) characters, can look a lot like white people. So what about representation? This question is more urgent with both Black Lives Matter and Hollywood’s habit of “whitewashing.”

In this three-part panel, Isom and Kelts will discuss the history of anime starting from the 60s to the 80s and how artists like Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) and the Yoshida Brothers (Speed Racer) wanted their works to go global and how doing so meant plating into the global stereotype: white characters. Then they’ll dive into the 90s and it brought us baby steps forward with anime like Blood, Afro Samurai, and Samurai Champloo. And finally, they will discuss D’Art Shtajio and other anime studios are proactively representing Black characters and Black culture and by doing so are transforming anime and fandom.

“Anime and Race” takes place Friday, September 4 from 5:15 – 6:15 PM PT on the Hime Stage. For your free passes to VCRX, head to the Crunchyroll Expo page here.

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