Sanrio Co., Ltd. was founded in Japan in August 1960 as the Yamanashi Silk Company, by Shintaro Tsuji, to design, manufacture, and sell “cute” wearing apparel. In April 1973 the company changed its name to Sanrio and began aggressively marketing girls’ and women’s products. Hello Kitty was created in 1974 for little girls’ merchandise, followed quickly by The Little Twin Stars, Tuxedo Sam (a cute cartoon penguin), Sugarbunnies, Keroppi (a cute cartoon frog), and others. Sanrio did not hesitate to license similar foreign goods, becoming the Japanese licensee of Hallmark Greeting Cards and the Peanuts characters of Charles Schulz.
In the late 1970s Sanrio expanded into girls’ manga/comic book publishing and theatrical animation production. In November 1976 it launched Lyrica, a monthly comic magazine of almost 200 pages. While all other Japanese manga were printed in monochrome (they often varied signatures printed in different colored inks, offering sections of blue-&-white, green-&-white, black-&-white, purple-&-white, etc. in the same issue), Lyrica was in full color. Standard girls’ romance stories were mixed with stories featuring Hello Kitty and other exclusive Sanrio characters. Sanrio commissioned Osamu Tezuka, one of the most prestigious manga artists in Japan, to create and draw the adventures of a cute cartoon character that it could use in merchandising; this was Unico, a baby unicorn. Another feature in Lyrica was a lush comic-book serial featuring the fantasy characters from Metamorphoses, a theatrical animated feature then in production that Sanrio advertised would be the Japanese equivalent of Disney’s Fantasia; drawn by one of Metamorphoses’ animation crew, Dan Morgan.
Actually, Sanrio had commissioned Metamorphoses to be produced in Hollywood by an experienced American animation staff, directed by Takashi (an artiste; he only used his first name) Yanase. The movie was a 70mm adaptation of five of Ovid’s Roman tales (Actaeon, Orpheus & Eurydice, Perseus, “The House of Envy”, and Phaëton) with cute cartoon characters, and a pop-rock score orchestrated from original rock tunes commissioned for the movie by such big-name composers as Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, and the Pointer Sisters; 89 minutes. At the same time, Sanrio planned to publish an American version of Lyrica; a young girls’ comic book in full color (painted watercolor, not the four-screen overlay with dot patterns commonly used for comic book coloring then) of more than 100 pages, with original stories by American comic-book writers & artists, not translations of the Japanese Lyrica stories.
In fact, Sanrio held press conferences in America during early 1978 to announce that they planned to take over the American comic book industry and the moribund theatrical animation industry. Sanrio had already commissioned one animated feature, The Mouse and His Child from the Murikami-Wolf studio, released November 18, 1977; and John Korty’s live-action feature, Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?, released December 5, 1977. The latter was the winner of four awards, including the 1978 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, which must have bolstered Sanrio’s self-confidence. Metamorphoses was to be their first major American release, and they had plans for lots more. Lyrica would be their first comic book; a revolutionary magazine that would prove that comics could be much more than the slender pamphlets of the existing American model.
I did not know this. I got involved in it by accident. I was already a rabid Tezuka fan, so when I heard in early 1977 that Tezuka had just created a new full-color comic called Unico, serialized in a girls’ manga magazine published by Sanrio, which by coincidence had just opened a girls’ shop called Gift Gate in nearby Gardena, I hurried there to see if they had it. They did; as well as the first few issues of Lyrica. I bought them, and I returned to Gift Gate every month to get the future issues; not just for Unico, but for a beautiful fairy-tale strip called Metamorphoses by an American artist, Dan Morgan.
A couple of months later, a friend told me that some Japanese executives had come to Los Angeles and were planning to publish a new comic book for girls, Lyrica. Since I was probably the only American to have ever heard of Lyrica, maybe I could present myself as a marketing expert to them and at least get some free samples. It seemed worth a try, so I made an appointment with what turned out to be a Sanrio editorial office. I had hardly opened my mouth when I realized that they thought that I was a professional comic-book writer come to propose a feature for their American Lyrica. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I made another appointment to return in a week with some story ideas to offer them. They bought two ideas, and hired me to develop one, a s-f story about a young princess of a post-atomic barbarian kingdom, into a 60-page serial at $60 a page. They would hire an artist to draw it.
For the rest of 1977 and early 1978, I spent my spare time divided between the C/FO anime fan club, and hanging around Sanrio’s rented executive office. “Angela”, my story, was being drawn by Doug Wildey, the writer/artist of the Western newspaper strip Ambler and comic-book Rio, and creator and writer of Jonny Quest for Hanna-Barbera. Sanrio was paying him $120 a page to draw it, which included watercolor-painting each page since Lyrica was to be printed in full color. Mark Evanier, who was writing a serial about a teenage girl who was an 19th century Mississippi riverboat captain, said that my sale of Angela qualified me to join a club of professional comic book and magazine writers and cartoonists living in the Los Angeles area; the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS). I did, and I am still a member although I’ve only written a couple of comic-book stories since then. Evanier’s story, “Riverboat”, was being drawn by Dan Spiegle. The prolific Evanier had also sold them “The Time Twisters”, drawn by Pat Boyette; and “Keystone”, drawn by Will Meugniot. Dave “Rocketeer” Stevens was there; he was drawing a s-f story that he may have written himself. Evanier vaguely remembers stories that others were doing; something about an Indian brave, drawn by Rick Hoppe, and something drawn by Willie Ito, a veteran Hanna-Barbera cartoonist. One that was turned down was “Queen Cutlass”, about a female pirate captain in a sword-&-sorcery world, by writer Don Glut and artist Rick Hoberg. The Sanrio editors didn’t like it.
As time went on, I and most of the American comics professionals got the increasing impression that the Sanrio executives were out of touch with the reality of the American comic-book industry. The 100+ page Lyrica could not be printed by any regular comics printer. It would have to cost a lot more than the then-standard 15¢. It would presumably contain advertising for Sanrio’s merchandise for girls, which would particularly turn away any boys who might otherwise buy it. Would it fit onto newsstands (comics specialty shops were just beginning) along with other comic books? What would the regular newsstand distributors think of such an oddball comic book? They had recently killed Martin Goodman’s 1974-’75 attempt to create a new line of Atlas Comics, by declining to distribute them because they felt that the comics racks were already too crowded. The Sanrio executives casually dismissed all these concerns, saying, “We will take care of that. You just do what we are paying you to do.” We shrugged and, as the saying goes, “took the money and ran”.
We could not help hearing about Sanrio’s other big project, to create a theatrical animated “modern Fantasia”. Sanrio had set up a fully-staffed animation studio nearby, and some of the animators occasionally visited the Sanrio offices. Don Morgan, who was drawing the Metamorphoses strip in the Japanese Lyrica, was a layout artist on the film. The animators had allied concerns. Some of the animation did not make any story sense. The animation had nothing to do with the music, which was often too short or too long for the scene. One scene had the Boy walking and walking and walking and walking, for no reason other than to “use up” all the music. Some said bluntly that Takashi had been named the director only because he was from Japan, unlike the Anglos and the Japanese Nisei and Sansei born & raised in America. Everyone complained that he did not know what he was doing, but would not admit it. Again, the Sanrio executives said, “Don’t worry about it. Just animate like we’re paying you to do.”
Metamorphoses premiered to great fanfare in NYC on May 3, 1978. If it wasn’t the biggest bomb in cinematic history, it was close. The animation was smooth and rich, but B-O-R-I-N-G! If the story were any more arty/intellectual, it would have been condescending. The reviews were not kind.
An article in Business Week, May 22, 1978, when Sanrio still had hopes for the movie, said:
Entertainment: A JAPANESE COURTSHIP OF THE DISNEY AUDIENCE.
Critical reaction to Metamorphoses, a glossy animated film on Greek mythology that hit U.S. movie houses last week, has not lived up to the $6 million, three-year effort the movie represents. Billed as a successor to Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the rock-music cartoon is “about as interesting as wallpaper,” says The Los Angeles Times.
But if Metamorphoses proves a dud, it is nonetheless a significant step for its producer, Japan’s Sanrio Co. The first major theatrical film produced in Hollywood by a Japanese company, it is the kickoff of a $50 million drive by Sanrio to become “a major force in U.S. filmmaking,” says the company’s founder and president, Shintaro Tsuji. As if taking on Hollywood were not brash enough, Sanrio is also plunging into children’s retailing in the U.S. by setting up its own shops and signing up department stores to handle the 1,800-odd children’s products it markets.
SELLING JOY. In Japan, Sanrio is a kind of Japanese Walt Disney, churning out children’s magazines, films, and saccharine-sweet cartoon characters that embellish an army of kiddie products from bicycles to chopsticks. All these products are designed to fit an obsessive corporate goal: “We don’t want to just make money but to make people feel warm and happy,” insists Tsuji. The business of joy pays off, however: Sanrio expects to earn $20 million in sales – mostly in Japan – of $250 million in the fiscal year ending July 31.
To spread happiness, Tsuji plans to invest upwards of $50 million in wholesome Hollywood films – “instead of buying American securities or shopping centers, which has been offered.” One immediate problem: No U.S. film distributor would touch Metamorphoses. Says one: “It’s extremely difficult to market animated films unless you’re Disney. They’re going to get killed.” Undaunted, Tsuji formed his own distribution subsidiary, which has signed up some 50 theaters in Western states to show the film. At the Los Angeles theater where it premiered, it has surprised skeptics by grossing a respectable $26,000 in its first week.
Sanrio has financed two other U.S.-made films – a love-conquers-all documentary about a California family that adopted 15 handicapped children, and a children’s cartoon feature called The Mouse and Its [sic.] Child. And, to keep his new distribution company in business, Tsuji has also started to acquire ready-made films – of a suitably joyful nature.
BOUTIQUES. Sanrio’s U.S. marketing strategy is less risky, but it is also aggressive. Last year the company began lining up retailers to handle its children’s items, and it now claims to have nearly 1,500 outlets. Tsuji is pushing department store chains to open boutiques for his products. At the same time, he is starting a U.S. chain of Sanrio children’s shops, emulating the 17 Gift Gate stores the company owns in Japan. Two California test stores opened last fall. Tsuji has plans for others in New York, Chicago, and Kansas City; he aims for 10 stores later.
Tsuji sees the U.S. shops mainly as image-building outlets that will let Sanrio test products on the U.S. market before releasing them to department stores. Items it now sells in the U.S. include educational toys, plush animals, and children’s greeting cards. The greeting-card business is a big one; Sanrio is the Japanese distributor for Hallmark products.
No stranger to filmmaking, Sanrio has produced eight films in Japan since entering the business there five years ago, and it is a major shareholder in Toho Co., Japan’s largest cinema chain. But the company ruled out making movies in Japan for export because Japanese films are generally relegated to art theaters in the U.S. and Europe. If Sanrio’s audacious Hollywood venture pays of, Tsuji has big plans for entrenching his company there. He is talking of buying a record company and maybe even a movie studio of his own.”
I don’t know where Business Week got the information about screenings in Los Angeles during May. I was invited to an “exclusive premiere screening” at a swanky Century City theater on June 14. The theater was packed, largely with the film’s production crew and their families. Each attendee got a fancy press kit with a cover full-color reproduction of the movie’s poster showing wild horses galloping out of the ocean’s foam, by Western Printing artist Mo Gollub, the painter of many of Western Printing’s Gold Key comic book covers. The screening was a special disaster, because in addition to the movie’s other problems, the sound track was turned up to full volume. The orchestral pop-rock music was so deafening that it literally drove some of the audience out of the theater. It was rumored that it was so loud that plaster was flaking from the ceiling, while Takashi was complaining, “Can’t you turn up the sound any louder?” The lack of dialogue and having the same Boy and Girl as actors portraying the protagonists in each story confused many people. They thought the Boy and Girl were supposed to be the same characters throughout, and “why is the Boy dying over and over again?”
I don’t think that Metamorphoses was ever shown again. Columbia Pictures had given it a limited release in Los Angeles on the same day, and the comments from the few other theaters that showed it were the same (except for the overly-loud music). It was quickly pulled from release. Nothing was seen for over a year, then in May 1979 it was released in an entirely new form. It was retitled Winds of Change; it was cut from 89 minutes to 82 minutes; the arrangement of the five sequences was altered; the Boy was named Wondermaker; the orchestral rock score was completely discarded for a new disco score by Alex Costandinos that was composed to fit the action; and narration by Peter Ustinov was added to explain, often sarcastically, the action. In October it was released in Japan in a third cut, retitled Orpheus of the Stars, with singers Arthur Simms and Pattie Brooks replacing the Rolling Stones. RCA Columbia Pictures Home Video released Winds of Change as a “Magic Window” children’s video in the 1980s, which was rereleased as a regular home video in January 1992, but no version of Metamorphoses is available today.
By this time, the Lyrica project was long dead, along with Sanrio’s other American filmmaking plans. All that the Sanrio execs would say as they closed their Santa Monica office was, “We have done more market research, and we have decided that the time is not right for a Lyrica-type magazine. But you have done what we asked you to do, so you may keep the money.” They even gave the artists their stories back to sell elsewhere. (If they could. I know that Doug Wildey complained that no American comic-book publisher was interested in buying a 60-page romantic s-f story designed for young girls.)
I treated my $3,600 ($3,700 including my second idea, which they were going to have me write once Lyrica was a success) as a windfall that gave me enough with what I already had to buy a brand-new car. So I can’t complain. It would have been nice to see “Angela” printed, though. Doug Wildey’s art was excellent.
The Japanese Lyrica was discontinued after the March 1979 issue, but surprisingly Sanrio continued to produce animated features, although in Japan for Japanese theatrical distribution. America got them and one live-action feature for TV and home video release in the early 1980s (click on each title to see video):
The Glacier Fox (live-action documentary on arctic foxes)
Nutcracker Fantasy (stop-motion)
The Fantastic Adventures of Unico
The Legend of Syrius/Sea Prince and the Fire Child
Unico in the Island of Magic
Since the early 1980s, Sanrio has concentrated on promoting Hello Kitty in theatrical and TV animation to keep awareness of her high for Japanese marketing purposes, and in America on just selling the Hello Kitty merchandise. The latter is so widespread throughout America that Sanrio must be “crying all the way to the bank”, as Liberace said in another context, about its failure to establish a theatrical or newsstand presence. Around the world, too; there are several Hello Kitty restaurants throughout Asia, and even a Hello Kitty maternity hospital in Taiwan. But there are no more international or American Sanrio movies. Briefly, though, it felt glorious to be a part of an apparently more-realistic-than-most project to get Japanese animation into America.