Wolf Boy Ken and the year that changed anime

On 25th November 1963 Toei’s first ever animated TV series Okami Shonen Ken (Wolf Boy Ken) was screened on the NET channel: a sign of changing times. It was less than a year since Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom had made its small screen debut, and less than six months since it crossed the Atlantic to US screens as Astro Boy.

At first, Toei’s animators and executives were somewhat dismissive of TV anime. That wasn’t surprising, since Toei’s animation division had been set up to emulate the Disney theatrical model. A show made inside a week, and shot at eight frames per second for viewing in black and white on a tiny domestic screen, was never going to match the picture quality or artistry of a full-scale, big-screen 24 frames per second theatrical production made over many months. Yet audiences, especially young audiences, loved TV anime, and their affection showed in the growing demand for related merchandise. By mid-year, when Tetsuwan Atom made its US debut, the only opinion that really counted – audience opinion – could no longer be ignored.

Sadao Tsukioka had been a key animator on Alakazam the Great (Saiyuki), Toei’s hit movie based on Osamu Tezuka’s manga. He was just 24 when he made a pitch for the studio’s first TV series. The story, a mashup of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, is credited to Hiroshi Ono (allegedly a pseudonym for Tsukioka.) Toei gave him a heavyweight team to make his pitch a reality. Yugo Serikawa and Takashi Iijima wrote the screenplay with Ken Ariga. Art directors Takao Kodama, Hajime Numai and Saburo Yokoi had already worked on Toei’s hit movies Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke and Saiyuki.

Tsukioka, who designed all the characters as well as co-directing with  fellow Toei staffer Isao Takahata, was labelled a genius by his colleagues. Like Tezuka, he was acclaimed as a high-speed artist. He drew entire episodes of Wolf Boy Ken single-handed. Not surprisingly, the pressure of producing an episode every week with a team used to much longer working timescales and entirely different standards didn’t appeal to him.

He went freelance the year after Wolf Boy Ken made its screen debut, though he continued to work with Toei on two of the spinoff movies and on Gulliver’s Space Travels (Gulliver no uchu ryoko) in 1965. (Another precocious talent, Hayao Miyazaki, worked on the same movie.) After working with Osamu Tezuka at Mushi Pro, Tsukioka co-founded KnacK Productions (now ICHI Corporation) in 1967. He has taught and inspired many notable talents, including Masashi Ando, Sunao Katabuchi and Junichi Sato. He’s also written several animation textbooks. Anipages has some wonderful snippets about his work with many of the giants of anime.

His series was a big success for Toei, with 86 episodes and nine movies over three years. It also became the first anime product sponsored by leading confectionery company Morinaga. it was screened in Australia, the USA and South America. But perhaps its most important achievement was to lay down a marker for the future of anime: animation for television might be fast and dirty, but it couldn’t be ignored, even by the mightiest of studios.

For almost 50 years the cinema screen had been anime’s only arena. For the next half-century, the small screen would be a big contender.

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14 thoughts on “Wolf Boy Ken and the year that changed anime

  1. Though I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing of Ken, the Wolf Boy, I once found an episode on 16mm being sold on eBay years ago and had been informed someplace else that Daws Butler (best known for Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Cap’n Crunch and other familiar characters) did the voices for an English version of the show.

  2. Being from Spain, I can assure that “Wolf Boy Ken” NEVER aired in my country. The first animes to make it to Spanish TV were “Kimba the White Lion” and “Dr. Zen” (Kaito Plaid) in 1969. However, “Ken” did air in some Latin American countries as “Pepito, el Niño Lobo”.

      • I bet it will! It’s fun charting where these shows have appeared and went in their historic trip outside Japan.

      • And there’s so little collected, coherent information from the pre-Internet age that we rely on those who were there to tell us. That whole process of collecting and comparing eyewitness accounts is just thrilling for any kind of historian.

    • There is more info about early anime out there now than when I started thanks to the amount of Japanese info that’s being shared on the net. This is a huge collaborative effort all over the world. Let’s keep it going!

  3. Thank you for sharing this info. I sometimes wondered what came next after Tetsuwan Atom… Toei did :)
    I’m from Portugal and I’m also pretty sure it never aired here, but most of the anime series that aired in Portugal in the early 70′s through the 80′s came from Italian, Spanish, French or German distributors.

  4. Toys were made from this show, but they are hard to find and very expensive. I was lucky enough to find a little red wolf at a decent price on a trip to Japan. Thankyou for providing all this information.

    • Thanks for the stunning photo! That really was a lucky find. These old shows are fascinating, but very little information survives so it’s great when someone posts a new pic or adds a snippet of new material.

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