How Arthell Isom Became the Head of His Own Anime Studio

Alexander-Julian Gibbson
·12 mins read

In college, my friends and I, a group of Black men, spent the majority of our time together watching what you’d expect: miscellaneous sports, obscure documentaries, Fast & Furious movies. I hated a lot of it but enjoyed the camaraderie, so I kicked it with the boys until I could retreat to my room to watch anime.

Then one day we were reminiscing about our favorite childhood shows, and I admitted that the last time I watched Yu Yu Hakusho wasn’t back in 2002, but just a few hours ago. It didn’t take long before a few of us realized that we were leaving to go binge the same anime shows by ourselves. After that our group chat—once lively with talk of NBA trades and fantasy football—became a forum for Attack on Titan theories and hypothetical anime death battles.

I’m not sure why there was a stigma that prevented us from sharing something that we loved with the people we spent so much time with. We weren’t necessarily ashamed of our interest in anime; it just seemed safe to assume that it was something unique to us individually. But today, thanks in part to streaming services like Funimation, Crunchyroll, and the newest player, Netflix, anime has become a mainstream giant in Western entertainment, and Black anime lovers have come out of hiding.

There’s always been a connection between Black people and anime. Some writers have attributed it to the typical anime narrative of an underdog overcoming the odds—they give us hope about our own situation here in America. Whatever the reason, many of us have found ourselves inside these stories, despite actual representation within anime that can be offensive. (See: Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball Z.)

Which is why Arthell Isom and his company, D’ART Shtajio, are important. 

D’ART Shtajio is Japan’s first Black-owned animation studio. We’ve already seen the waves of Isom’s influence on the culture, too, through his work on The Weeknd’s animated music video for “Snowchild” and his feature in Pharrell and Jay-Z’s “Entrepreneur” video. So I hopped on Zoom with Isom to learn about his journey.

GQ: So how’d you end up here?

Arthell Isom: I studied at the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco and got kicked out of school. While I was kicked out, the president of the school and the guidance counselor had this meeting, like, “We can't just kick Arthell out of school. He's a talented artist, and he’s won awards for us.” So they made this class, this intervention, that I had to go to. If I missed one day [of it], I was out of school forever.

During this class, I had to keep a journal. Every day I had to bring the journal to class, and we would read Right Side of the Brain. I would write in this journal and draw pictures. One day the counselor asked me, “You always use the same pictures, you don't have any characters in your book, and you're always putting pictures of buildings? What movie is this from?” I told her, “This is Ghost in the Shell, the greatest movie ever.” After that I [was like], I’m gonna move to Japan.

A lot of people who’d consider themselves anime fans have series that introduce them, and then they have another series that gets them hooked. Is Ghost in the Shell both for you?

I know, you’re right. [laughs] It’s weird because my story is a little different from other otaku. It really was just Ghost in the Shell. I did watch a few other anime after, but I was more into the art. I chose anime that I thought looked nice. I liked Last Exile, Escaflowne, Jin-Roh, Ninja Scroll, and Patlabor. For all those things, I found out later, the art director was the same.

Really? The same art director as Ghost in the Shell? 

Yea, except for Escaflowne, but Last Exile and the rest, the art director was Hiromasa Ogura-san. This guy had done the art direction for everything that I liked. Where others are probably introduced to anime because of the characters or a series, it was this art director that was able to draw me in.

So he was a major part of you becoming an anime artist? 

Exactly. That was what made me decide to move to Japan, I really just wanted to work for him. I graduated from art school and the next day got on the plane and moved to Japan.

<div class="caption">Arthell Isom</div><cite class="credit">Courtesy of Ben Gonzalez for of D’ART Shtajio</cite>
Arthell Isom
Courtesy of Ben Gonzalez for of D’ART Shtajio

Did you ever tell him how his work inspired your career path?

You know how people always say never meet your heroes? I wholeheartedly disagree with that. After graduating from Yoyogi Animation Academy in Osaka, I interviewed at Ogura Koubou Atelier, Hiromasa Ogura’s company, for a job. My second interview was with him. I told him the reason I was in Japan was to work with him, and I think he liked that… because he hired me. He took a really big interest in me. We would have lunch together and talk about my goals and dreams. In my first year, I told him that I wanted to have my own company and he was super supportive. 

Your whole story even plays out like a classic anime storyline. You have some master of the craft that you admire from afar, you travel across the world to go and study under them, and then you become a master in your own right. 

That’s true. [laughs] I never actually thought about it like that.

In these past years, anime’s become increasingly popular. What do you think has contributed to that?

In the late ‘90s, early 2000s in the U.S., there was this subculture that watched Kung-fu flicks, [then] they moved on to anime. And those people grew up and started working. They started introducing anime through MTV and Anime Unleashed. In Japan, they started pushing the characters as mascots, leading to an influx of money, [which] helped the animation studios find avenues for licensing and things like that. Then companies like Funimation and Crunchyroll started to come.

For my generation, Funimation had a major impact. For me and a lot of my friends, our first foray into anime was Dragonball and Digimon and being able to watch them in English. 

Funimation was massive! They were the first major network to license a ton of popular titles and put them out there so that people in the West can see them. You know you got to give him credit, because without them... I don't know.

I was reading something the other day crediting Naruto as the harbinger of western love for anime, discussing how everybody always mentions DBZ cause it was a lot of our “first.” We didn’t necessarily watch DBZ because it was anime, we watched it because it was a cool show that was on. Seeing Naruto after that made us see the common thread and fall in love with the genre, similar to how you watched Ghost in the Shell and saw the similarities between that and Last Exile and Escaflowne. 

Yeah Dragonball Z, has this great story. Although I haven’t actually watched the series so I don’t know everything, but I do know it has this really interesting story arc that was similar to Naruto. They’re big, whenever you ask people in the West they always bring up those two, and sometimes Yuyu Hakusho as well. So what are your favorite anime? 

I love shonen. I love Hunter x Hunter, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Promised Neverland. I’m a big One Piece fan. I’m also really into Fire Force right now. You guys have worked on that title as well right? 

Yeah, we just started helping with that. I really like Fire Force. I watched the first season and then we started working on it.

The animation and artwork are done very well. What are some of your current favorites that you've worked on or you're watching?

Actually, the one that I’m watching now I can't remember the title, it has this weird title. It's called “ga ren ga ran” or something. It’s about this guy that changes into a bear, but then he’s friends with this girl who doesn’t change into anything. They’re fighting other people that have the ability to transform into some sort of monster, while they’re looking for coins. [Note: For the record, the anime was Gleipnir.]

Do you find yourself being a fan of a lot of the jobs that you're working on?

Oh yeah! We always try to choose the shows to work on that we like. In Japan, all the studios work together and so you can kind of assist on any show. I mean we do try to choose the shows that we like.

Was being Black, or even just infiltrating an industry so close to the culture tough for you?

There aren’t many Black people in the industry. I think it's like, I don't know, two? And one of them works for us, Rejean Dubois, our character designer.

When I was working at Ogura Koubou, I remember we would have wrap parties right after animations, all the different companies would be together just to have a party. Whenever I would show up, of course, they would just kind of stare at me, but it was never like “why is this guy here?” It was always more like…

Interest?

Yea, at first they thought I was security or something. 

Japan does have this sense of otherism, which seems different from things like racism, where it's like, “They're foreigners, so they're different.” It wasn’t this feeling of, “Oh, you can't be here because you're Black.” While we do have that experience in America. 

Yeah, right.

Here it was more like just more a curiosity. Then they would just wonder what makes me like being here. I always felt that all of my senpais were so honored that I even wanted to come to Japan, and that mattered more to them than my race.

Even now with my company all of my senpai help and everyone is super inclusive. Which is why we get to work on shows like Attack on Titan and One Piece.

I always feel like race never matters in Japan, at least in that sense. Some issues are outside our industry, but that’s a whole other conversation. But at least within our industry, I feel if there are issues they’re at least trying to solve them. 

Of course, when you look at anime characters there are not that many Black characters. I attribute that to Western media. There are no Black people in Japan, so how can they draw them? Yeah, they're watching TV, but there are no Black people on TV.

Yeah, it seems like a multi-layered issue.

Yeah, they’re just drawing what they see and telling stories that they think they've seen. I feel like that's probably why the characters look the way they do. 

There’s a conversation about how a lot of depictions of Black people in anime have been problematic. Do you feel that you have an obligation to make things change? Does a change mean hiring more Black character designers like Rejean—people who can understand what it means to depict Black people in a well-rounded and realistic way?

I wouldn't say that I feel that Japan has to hire Black people because there's not that many here. I do feel that it’s important for designers, across the board, to do more research into what they’re designing: which story to tell, and which characters are going to tell them, and that, I will say, Japan has a responsibility to do. 

I do believe that since we're in the space that we do have the opportunity to try our best and draw a better representation of ourselves. And I think it's a good position to be in.

This may be me projecting, but it feels like in a lot of anime, there’s an uncurrent that relates to the Black experience in America. It’s interesting because we're talking about how they haven't always been able to portray us correctly in a visual sense, but I think they often do a great job of narrating our experiences and telling stories of injustice.

You're absolutely right. It’s interesting because I think Japan is interested in telling different stories like that. They’re interested in telling people stories and trying their best to tell them best they can—even if they are told from different characters. 

If you think of Godzilla, it was meant to represent the West attacking, but they made it into a monster. I think that’s the strength of animation. You can tell stories that people can accept and digest and have them reference different things, and allude to different issues and cultures.

What are some of the stories that are inspiring your original works?

I feel like all writers and artists draw from things happening and current situations. So certain things are happening now that I want to tell a story about. The subject matter that I’m interested in talking about right now, especially being in Japan, is biracial stories and how they're perceived. It's such an interesting topic because I feel like no one talks about that. It's like you're either this or you're that. And that's hard for biracial children and I’ve never thought about it until now that I have to. [Note: Isom has a 1-year old who is half Japanese.]

I've read some stories about the issues that they go through. Some kids commit suicide because they're getting picked on. You don't fit in anywhere or you're forced to fit into one side or the other one, one culture and the other. Biracial children should be able to embrace both cultures and take from them both equally—without having to say that they’re “Black or white” or “Black or Japanese.”

In the early ’90s, Giorgio Armani knocked the stuffing out of the ’80s power suit. This is exactly how we all should dress right now.

Originally Appeared on GQ