You probably do not know the name or face of Iwao Takamoto but you should. You and billions of people on this planet have stared at his work for countless hours, played with it, laughed and smiled at it, enjoyed it, and maybe you even learned something from it. He created dozens of characters that have become a permanent part of American culture including one of the most beloved characters in the history of television. His work played a significant role in most of our childhoods, and for some of us willing to admit it, his work still plays a role in our lives today.
You should also know the name Iwao Takamoto for another important reason. Few people exemplified the American experience better than Iwao. He lived the American Dream. The son of poor immigrants he worked his way to the top of his field through hard work and dedication. His work became an iconic part of American and world culture and his work will never be forgotten. Yet alongside living the American Dream he also lived the American nightmare. Due to his ethnicity, skin color, and the happenstance of his birth he was called a traitor to his country and he was imprisoned at the age 16.
Japanese immigrants had dealt with racism since they first started to arrive in the U.S. in large numbers during the late 19th century seeking economic opportunities. In California, Japanese-Americans like other Asian immigrant groups could not own property, could not marry a white person, could not testify in court against a white person, and could not vote. Despite those restrictions millions of Japanese were willing to overlook that racism because of the economic opportunities that were available to them in the U.S. Amongst those Japanese immigrants were a young couple from the small fishing village of Hatsukaichi named Chitoshi and Akino Takamoto. The Takamoto’s and other Japanese immigrants found opportunities in the thriving California agricultural industry with other minorities because of their willingness to take on low wage jobs for long hours in the fields. Chitoshi was able to work his way up from the fields to become a purchaser of produce for Los Angeles area supermarkets. The Takamoto’s moved to the ethnic enclave of “Little Tokyo” in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1920s. Japanese-Americans like other immigrant groups took some comfort in the creation of ethnic enclaves like Little Italy, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo’s that sprouted up in major cities across the country. These enclaves allowed recent immigrants a sense of shared culture while facing the hardships of adjusting to a new culture and society. These enclaves offered goods and services reminiscent of their home country; food, clothing, churches, and mutual aid societies created a community, a safety net, and support network for a shared experience to succeed in this new and often harsh environment.
On April 25th, 1925 Akino gave birth to her first son Iwao who would later be joined by a sister and a brother in the years to come. Although poor, the Takamoto’s provided a good life for their children. Iwao excelled in school, enjoyed drawing, and grew up relatively happy on the insulated streets of downtown Los Angeles. That was until December 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbor which was not only a turning point for American foreign policy but a turning point for the lives of 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the West coast who saw their lives upended by fear and racism.
In the weeks that followed Pearl Harbor the country geared up for war and anti-Japanese sentiment reached a fever pitch. Shopkeepers posted signs stating, “No Japs Served Here” and “We Don’t Want Any Japs Back Here – Ever.” California Governor and future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren stated, “…no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap. . . . We don’t want to have a second Pearl Harbor in California.” Progressive Senator Hiram Johnson said, “We have to get the damn Japs Out.” And Army General John Dewitt spouted, “A Japs a Jap… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not… I don’t want any of them… There is no way to determine their loyalty.” Rumors began to spread of roundups and deportations of Japanese-Americans. Newspaper headlines made it clear “OUSTER OF ALL JAPS IN CALIFORNIA NEAR!” On February 19th, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which allowed for the creation of military zones “…from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War.” Signs began to appear in Japanese-American neighborhoods, instructions that they had 48 hours to gather any and all possessions they could carry on their back and report to government relocation centers which would designate which internment camp they would then be sent to. Japanese-American businesses had evacuation sales selling what they could for whatever prices they could secure. They begged neighbors to watch and take care of their homes, cars, and other goods they could not take with them. Takamoto recalled, “It was though the residents were being forced to run out of a burning building, grabbing whatever they could on the way out the door. I was totally aghast at the sight of outsiders tramping through the community and going into these houses from which the residents were being moved out, and pointing at a refrigerator and saying, ‘I’ll give you three dollars for that.’ They were taking advantage of a horrible situation…” By the time internment had ended Japanese-Americans had lost 75% of the land they possessed and billions of dollars along side it.
The Takamoto’s were designated for the Manzanar internment camp located in a desolate region in the Owens Valley of eastern California. A region ranged between temperatures in the 100s during the summer to the teens in the winter. Iwao recalled the experience, “with only the clothes on our backs and whatever we could stuff into a suitcase on short notice, my family and I prepared as best we could to take up residence in the place that would end up being our ‘home’ for almost four years.” When they arrived to the camp they noticed the guard towers with armed soldiers whose weapons were not pointed out to protect them but inward to imprison them. They were assigned to a barracks which they shared with four other families with only thin walls to separate them. The 11,000 Japanese-Americans held in Manzanar tried to create as normative of a life as they could for their friends, family, and themselves. They created schools, built gardens, played in baseball leagues, put on concerts, and were given government jobs to support the war effort. Iwao got his first job “weaving camouflage nets, which was one of the primary industries of Manzanar.” Iwao also continued his hobby of drawing; sketching his surroundings and the people at the camps. His art was noticed by two men who had worked in Hollywood as art directors. In Iwao’s art they saw raw talent, talent enough to create a career in commercial art. They recommended he apply for a job directly at the Walt Disney Studio which had a much more liberal hiring processes than other studios. In 1944 President Roosevelt began to dismantle the internment camp system and set free the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who had been interned. Iwao and his family were released later that year and with his new found freedom Iwao decided to take the advice of the two art directors and apply to the biggest animation studio in the world.
Iwao picked up the phone a placed a call to Disney studios to apply for a job in the animation department. Iwao recalled the phone call. “‘Fine’ the woman replied, and she gave me a time to show up at the studio. ‘Oh,’ she added, ‘make sure you bring your portfolio.’ I assured her I would and hung up the phone. I then turned my thoughts to trying to figure out what a portfolio was.” Iwao purchased a cheap sketchbook and filled it with his drawings. When he showed up for his interview the room was filled with other animators applying for jobs, animators who carried black leather portfolios of their work. Undeterred Iwao let his art speak for itself. The interviewer studied Iwao’s sketchbook and offered him a job on the spot if he could be start on Monday. He began in an entry level position working as an inbetweener, his task was “making drawings that link the key ‘acting’ poses that the animator makes.” Within three months, Milt Kahl – Disney animation legend (a member of the famous Disney Nine Old Men) – personally requested Iwao to work as his assistant. Together they would work on what would become a number of movie classics; Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and other features. By the time Iwao was 36 he had accomplished what most people could only dream about but his greatest work was still ahead of him at an up and coming animation studio called Hanna-Barbera.
In 1961 Iwao left Disney and joined Hanna-Barbera studios which had been founded only a few years earlier. The studio quickly came to dominate television animation because of its ability produce cartoons quicker and cheaper than any other company. A year before Iwao was hired, Hanna-Barbera created a hit animated series called The Flintstones which put the studio in high demand among the television networks. That demand only increased with their next series The Yogi Bear Show. Iwao worked on a number of small projects until he was called in to work on a new series for the studio. This new animated series would be like The Flintstones but instead of taking place in the stone age it would take place in the future. Iwao designed the family pet named ‘Astro’ for what would be another hit cartoon series called The Jetsons. Iwao recalled, “while I did not know it at the time, the ability to craft a dog character with a tendency to act at times semi-human would weigh heavily in my career at the studio.” Iwao continued to work on a number of projects including designing new characters like Dick Dastardly and his dog Muttley for a show called The Wacky Races. He also played a key role in the development two new animated shows both of which would become legendary series; the first was an action series called Johnny Quest and the second series would the most defining work of Iwao’s career.
In 1968 CBS Executive in charge of Children’s Programming Fred Silverman hired Hanna-Barbera to create a new cartoon series that would match the success of a new hit cartoon series called Archie about a group of teenagers who played in a band with their bongo playing dog and went on comic adventures (based upon the popular comic book). Fred Silverman proposed the concept of a show that would combine the teenage band with the popular horror-comedy radio shows and movies of the 1940s best exemplified by the classic film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The series would be called Mysteries Five which revolved around 5 teenagers and their bongo playing Sheepdog named “Too Much.” When the teenagers weren’t performing they were investigating ghost stories at haunted mansions or monsters on the loose. Enter Iwao Takamoto who was charged with creating the characters. Modeled off a combination of the characters in Archie and a 1950s TV show called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Iwao created several characters who slowly evolved into the the “V” shaped jock, the “S” shaped cheerleader, the square shaped book worm, and the “C” shaped beatnik. The show was then presented to the CBS executives and was promptly rejected for being too dark and scary for children. In an attempt to lighten up the series they decided to choose a new breed for the dog and make him the focal point as a big cowardly dog. Iwao recalled, “The biggest dog I could think of was a Great Dane… At the time there was a woman named Eve Imes who worked in the Ink-and-Paint Department, who I found out also bred and raised Great Danes for competition. Eve described all of the characteristics that she felt were very important to a show-dog Dane and then turned around and drew the exact opposite.” All of the characters got new names Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and the dog who was named by Fred Silverman after mistaking the lyric “doobie, doobie, doo” from the Frank Sinatra song Strangers in the Night as the words “Scooby doobie doo.” The show was then renamed Scooby Doo, Where are You! and received the approval from the network to
move forward on the series. In its various forms Scooby Doo has never left television since its successful premiere in 1969 and the show has become the longest run animated series in history. Scooby has become a cultural icon beloved by children and adults, and recognizable anywhere in the world. Iwao went on to supervise other cartoons and create other memorable characters but his biggest legacy was always Scooby Doo. He was able to retire a legend and create a legacy in the world of animation. In his later years his hard work was recognized by the International Animated Film Association of Hollywood when they honored him with the Windsor McCay lifetime achievement Award. He was also given an honorary citation by the Japanese American National Museum.
Iwao Takamoto lived a life worth celebrating and a life more people should be aware of. A life interrupted by hatred and racism that he was willing to overcome to make something of himself. His story is both a reminder of the injustices of the past as well as an inspirational tale of what can be achieved in the face of tremendous adversity. In doing so he enhanced the lives of billions of people on this planet by making our lives more entertaining and enjoyable. We all owe a big thank you to a legend of the animation world, Iwao Takamoto.
Takamoto, Iwao, and Michael Mallory. Iwao Takamoto: My Life with a Thousand Characters.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. Internet resource.
Matthew Hodgins. 8-12-17