The Story of MAPPA: The Legendary Japanese Animation Studio

The Story of MAPPA: The Legendary Japanese Animation Studio

9 min read
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In the space of just over a decade, Japanese animation studio MAPPA has established itself as a modern anime industry powerhouse, producing some of the biggest anime series of recent years as well as a number of hugely popular anime movies. MAPPA has earned an international reputation and is now one of the most noteworthy animation studios among anime fans around the world.

Yet MAPPA’s path to success has been anything but plain sailing – along with praise and adulation, the studio has come in for its fair share of criticism. Here, we’re going to take a deep dive into the past, present, and future of MAPPA.

While the studio was officially founded in June of 2011, the genesis for the company can be traced back before this time. Veteran animator Masao Maruyama founded MAPPA at the age of 70, and the name is actually an acronym that stands for Maruyama Animation Produce Project Association. Before he founded his own company, Maruyama had already enjoyed a career that spanned more than four decades. He was a co-founder of the legendary animation studio Madhouse, and he worked there from the early 1970s right up until he decided to break off and create MAPPA.

Maruyama is regarded as one the most experienced and adept producers in Japan, with a knack for finding and encouraging talented directors and animators. His career at Madhouse was an illustrious one, but eventually the company grew and changed to become something that was more corporate in nature than Maruyama was looking for. Maruyama wanted to work in an environment that offered more creative freedom. It was this desire that led him to break away on his own to launch studio MAPPA. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, MAPPA’s success would lead it to grow and become a more pressured workplace with many of the same problems as Madhouse faced, but we’ll get to that.

The Early Days

Studio MAPPA was first set up with the mission of producing Japanese directors Sunao Katabuchi's In This Corner of the World, as the film had faced production problems at Madhouse. Unfortunately, despite having a new studio in its corner, this movie didn’t see the light of day until five years after the studio had been set up. In the meantime, MAPPA got to work on other projects.

The very first production that MAPPA got out the door was an anime adaptation of Yuki Kodoma’s manga Kids on the Slope, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe (better known as the creative mind behind the breakout anime series Cowboy Bebop). The series is centered around music, namely the effect that jazz has on the lives of a group of seemingly disparate young people.

Kids on the Slope is quite different to a lot of anime due to the fact that it’s closer to a real life drama rather than a full-on fantasy world affair. The music is understandably a big feature of the production. It was put together by Yoko Kanno, who was also the composer of the music in Cowboy Bebop. The series came out in 2012, and the remarkable realism and richness of the production helped to set the tone for the future of the studio.

From these beginnings, studio MAPPA went on to produce more notable anime series over the next few years, and earned a reputation as a hothouse of talented artists and directors. The first original anime series that MAPPA produced was Terror in Resonance. Like Kids on the Slope, Terror in Resonance is different to a lot of other anime productions, with an unusual artistic style and a different type of genre. It’s a psychological thriller with a storyline centered around two boy geniuses who want to destroy Tokyo – unless their riddle is solved in time. The illustrated backdrops of Tokyo are a standout part of this animation – they’re almost photorealistic in their detail.

Up until 2016, Murayama was the driving force behind the studio. As well as bringing on board the directors and artists already mentioned, he also made the anime adaptation of the Ushio & Tora manga happen, had Yutaka Uemura direct Punch Line, got Keeichi Satou to direct Shingeki no Bahamut: Genesis, and more. From the outside, things at the studio seemed to be going well, but this was part of the problem.

A Seismic Change

The reason that Masao Murayama set up MAPPA in the first place was to escape the corporate pressures and restrictions that he had been experiencing at Madhouse before he left. This was the case at first, but from the outset the company was a success, which attracted more productions, which increased the workload, and which meant the company needed to grow. As time went on the pressures increased and Maruyama felt that he had ended up in the same situation he had left Madhouse to avoid. You could say MAPPA had become a victim of its own success.

In 2016, Murayama decided that he wanted to step away from MAPPA. At this stage he was 75 years old, so his desire for a change in pace is understandable. He formed a new company, Studio M2, so he could still work on projects, and he decided to hand over control of MAPPA to fresh, young talent, with Manabu Otsuka taking the helm as CEO.

As well as having a change of leadership at this time, it was also the period when MAPPA enjoyed huge success with a number of productions.

The Breakthroughs

While the studio had been enjoying a good level of success until 2016, this was the year in which it had its biggest breakthrough, Yuri!!! On Ice. This anime series wasn’t just a success in Japan, it actually received international acclaim. The show is about a Japanese figure skate called Yuri Katsuki, and how he decided to quit his skating career after finishing last in a competition. By a twist of fate, Yuri’s idol and fellow competitor Victor Nikiforov sees his performance and is inspired to go to Japan to become Yuri’s coach for the following season.

The show won a legion of fans for how it approached the portrayal of LGBTQ+ relationships, and for how well it handled issues concerning mental health. During the series, Yuri and Victor’s relationship goes through a number of transitions, changing from one of coach and student to one where they are romantically involved. It follows Yuri’s journey and how he overcomes his mental obstacles on his path to success. Yuri!!! On Ice was groundbreaking for the way in which it realistically told the story of Yuri and Victor’s relationship.

On the downside, reports emerged that the working conditions in the studio MAPPA during the production of the series were far from ideal, with very tight deadlines and things getting quite messy.

However, Yuri!!! On Ice went on to win a huge number of awards and became one of the most successful media franchises in Japan in 2017, as well as selling well on DVD and Blu-Ray, and overall it gave a huge boost to the studio.

2016 was also the year that In This Corner of the World finally got its release. Due to production troubles, this film arrived around five years later than planned. It turned out that it was worth the wait, and many people regard the film as MAPPA’s greatest achievement. Sunao Katabuchi was the director and co-writer of the film, which is based on the manga that was written and illustrated by Fumiyo Kōno.

The story is set in the 1930s and 40s and is based around a young woman called Suzu, who moves from her hometown of Hiroshuma to a town called Kure, after she is married. It follows her life during World War II, and the ways in which she has to take care of her family. The film garnered praise for the way in which it portrayed war from a different and lesser-seen perspective – that of everyday people. In This Corner of the World went on to win a large number of awards both in Japan and internationally.

The Hits Keep Coming

From 2016 onwards, MAPPA continued to produce a huge number of popular and successful anime series. In 2018 they released Banana Fish, directed by Akimi Yoshida. The series was based on the manga from 1985-1994, and MAPPA produced it to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the title. The story is based around the relationship between Ash Lynx, a teenage New York gang leader, and Eiji Okumura, a Japanese photographer. Like Yuri!!! On Ice, Banana Fish was praised for the way in which it depicted a same-sex relationship, as well as for the way in which it handled more mature themes like drugs, sexual violence and gangs.

Continuing with the excellent adaptations of manga, MAPPA released Dorohedoro in 2020. This story follows the lead character Caiman as he tries to find the sorcerer who turned his head into that of a reptile, and erased his memory in the process. This project used a combination of 2D and 3D animation, which earned mixed reviews.

The list of anime series that MAPPA has had a hand in is really quite impressive. After getting his first real break at MAPPA, director Sunghoo Park has went on to have a stellar career and directed many series at MAPPA, including Garo: Vanishing Line, The God of High School,  and Jujutsu Kaisen.

Looking Ahead

In 2020, Studio MAPPA made a massive score when they were commissioned to produce the final season of the hugely popular anime series Attack on Titan. The first three series were produced by Wit Studio, and when MAPPA took over for the fourth season the new was greeted with some trepidation. Would MAPPA be able to handle the high workload, and would the change in studio have a negative impact on the series?

Any worries were soon put to bed. The fourth season of Attack on Titan has been very well received, and the anticipation for the final installments, due to air in 2023, is palpable.

The next big MAPPA animation that has fans drooling is the adaptation of Tatsuki Fujimoto’s Chainsaw Man manga, directed by Ryū Nakayama and Makoto Nakazono. The series follows the title character and devil hunter Denji. A job goes wrong, and in the process Denji gets transformed into a human-devil hybrid. The merging also involved his half-chainsaw dog Pochita, and so Denji ends up with chainsaw abilities. As you might expect from an anime that has a lot of chainsaw action, this series is an absolute gore-fest, and the trailers have sent anime fans crazy. Chainsaw Man will be released some time in 2022.

Growing Pains

Despite producing successful and much-loved anime series and films, MAPPA has repeatedly come in for criticism for the working conditions that the animators, directors and producers have to work under. There have been reports of very long working hours, with deadlines often being much too short and the expectations too high. MAPPA has also received criticism for the rates it pays artists. Manabu Otsuka has defended the company by pointing out that this is a problem in the anime industry in general, and that MAPPA are not unique in this regard.

Otsuka is right – intense working schedules are the norm for the animation industry in Japan, and MAPPA’s predecessor, Madhouse, also had to contend with production problems and a high-pressured environment. To Otsuka’s and MAPPA’s credit, the company has been working hard on making improvements, including opening a new 5,000 sq ft studio in Tokyo with the aim of improving the working environment for its teams.

Conclusion

Only time will tell what the impact of the changes being made at MAPPA will be, but at least the studio is aware of the issues and making efforts to address them. We hope that MAPPA continues to thrive and keeps producing the incredible anime that is has become so well-loved for.

Inspired to watch some MAPPA? Why not start with the anime mentioned in the video below?

If you got to the end of this article, it's probably safe to say you're obsessed with anime. We get it—at Vectornator we love it too!

We also wrote a blog on the history of Studio Ghibli, so make sure to check that one out too.

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