Shigesato Itoi (Part 1): The Copywriter Before Earthbound
Today is the 70th birthday of Mother/Earthbound creator Shigesato Itoi, for which he is most commonly known for in the world of video games. However, video games only make up a small portion of Itoi’s professional career. He has delved into many other creative mediums, including: copywriting, film, manga, and writing novels and essays. So let’s start from the top…
Shigesato Itoi was born on November 10, 1948 in Maebashi, located in the Gunma Prefecture in the northern region of Kantō. Itoi had a difficult upbringing as his parents divorced not long after he was born. His father had remarried when he was in his third year of school. Throughout his childhood, he rarely saw his mother and his father was a prominent legal advisor who rarely had time to spend with his children, so it fell to Itoi’s grandmother to take care of him and his older sister.
One of Itoi’s earliest memories that stuck with him throughout his life was when he was ten years old at a cinema. He was unintentionally in the wrong theatre and witnessed a disturbing scene from the movie 憲兵とバラバラ死美人 (Kenpei to Barabara Shibijin – The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty). The scene consisted of a man and a pregnant woman about to make love outside on a bed of grass, until the man begins to strangle the woman to death. Itoi has stated that this was a very traumatic experience for him and went on to be an inspiration for a certain boss battle in a game that he had worked on later in his life, but we’ll touch upon that in Part 2.
When Itoi arrived back home, his family was concerned as he wasn’t his usual self. He was quiet and deep in thought as the scene that he had just seen remained fresh in his mind. As he grew up, he began to realise the social and philosophical issues that plagued the world and how much of it would be covered up with happier tones and brighter colours.
Shigesato Itoi attended high school at Gunma Prefecture Maebashi High School. As a teenager, he became increasingly interested in writing and literature. Itoi had a passion for manga, so much so that he wanted to become a manga artist. As he continued reading, he became heavily inspired by Morio Kita, a Japanese writer/psychiatrist who had bipolar and would often write about his condition in a humorous manner. This method of storytelling can be seen in many of Itoi’s works today.
Shigesato Itoi graduated high school and enrolled at Hosei University in Tokyo, where he lived in a very small apartment along the Chuo Line made up of three tatami mats (approximately 0.88m x 1.76m). The walls were also so thin that he could hear what his neighbours would be saying. Itoi also jested that when there were holes in the walls, he would say 穴 (ana), meaning ‘hole’.
Shigesato Itoi only attended University for one year, but during this time he took part in many student movements, which would mainly protest political and cultural issues that were occuring in Japan at the time. In an interview with Imaizumi Kiyoho Anna, Itoi confessed that he had been arrested arrested five times in that one year due to his involvement in these movements.
After leaving university, Itoi spent his days watching movies, watching others play pachinko, reading books and meeting up with friends. Itoi expressed some regrets about leaving university so soon, however his decision allowed him to follow a path that lead him down the adventurous path his career has taken.
After dropping out of university in the late 60s and with no plan for the future, Shigesato Itoi was at a loss of what to do next. It wasn’t until an unnamed acquaintance suggested that he try a copywriting course, due to the recent economic boom that Japan was experiencing at the time. In an era where consumerism was in full-swing in Japan and companies needed witty writers to come up with catchy one-liners to sell their products, Itoi’s care-free and creative writing spirit got him a job at the design office サムシング (Something).
Shigesato Itoi won numerous awards for his promising copywriting skills however in 1973, the company filed for bankruptcy. However, this did not deter Itoi away from the newly founded career choice that he was excelling in at the time. He continued to work as a freelance copywriter, working for a variety of companies to come up with some timeless catchphrases across Japan.
Passion Penguin Rice
In 1976, Shigesato Itoi published his first original work co-written with Teruhiko Yumura – a manga titled 情熱のペンギンごはん (Passion Penguin Rice). This work was one of the first within an increasingly popular alternative manga style. The art style attempts to steer away from the norms of early manga, avoiding common tropes such as large eyes and wild hairdos.
A YouTuber by the name of Gekigemu was nice enough to flick through the manga for the world to see, however the volume was never localised for western audiences so unless you can read fluent Japanese, you’ll just have to settle for the unique artwork.
Later that year, Itoi and Yumura also published さよならペンギン (Sayonara Pengin – Goodbye Penguin). This book took on a more traditional cartoon art style that was skewed towards a younger audience. According to the synopsis on Itoi’s website ほぼにっかん糸井新聞 (Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun – Almost Daily Itoi News), the synopsis for the book is:
“Well, to put it simply, it is a story where penguins go to buy seawater pants.”
– Almost Daily Itoi News
Music & Youth Programs
In 1978, Shigesato Itoi composed and edited an autobiography of Yazawa Eikichi. Eikichi is a famous singer/songwriter in Japan, and had continued to perform since the mid 1970s. Itoi interviewed him during one of his tours in the late 70s in his dressing room, as well as back at the hotel. It was just Itoi and Eikichi having a conversation with nothing but a tape recorder between them. The book went on to be a bestseller in Japan.
Itoi also wrote the slogan for one of Yazawa Eikichi posters –
The next year, Shigesato Itoi wrote the lyrics for Kenji Sawada’s Tokio from the album Tokio. Sawada is a famous Japanese pop star that started his career in the late 60s and still performs to this day. He also featured on the front cover of the March 1969 edition of the Rolling Stone magazine. Sawada felt that music throughout the 1970s primarily focused on heavy feelings and wanted to take a more lighthearted approach going into the next decade. Due to Itoi’s previous copywriting work that involved coming up with happy and iconic slogans, he was chosen to write the lyrics to a song that was more lighthearted in tone. His song was an instant classic and is one of Sawada’s most popular songs to this day.
In 1982, Shigesato Itoi was one of the original moderators for YOU, a talk show that was held for the youth of Japan from 1982 to 1987, and also assisted with the program until 1985. The first broadcast took place on April 10, 1982, to which Itoi was a moderator alongside Keiko Oginome (award winning actress) and Miyuki Qingdao. Itoi then made two more appearances on YOU, the second time in 1983 and the third and final in 1984.
Back to Itoi’s copywriting, in 1982 Itoi wrote two anti-war taglines for the magazine Koukoku Hihyo:
It was in 1983 that Itoi wrote the slogan for Seibu Department stores that would truly launch his career: おいしい生活 (oishii Seikatsu – Delicious Life). This slogan was featured in a series of advertisements starring the iconic American actor Woody Allen. As touched upon earlier, Japan were experiencing the heights of the economic boom and copywriters were capitalising on this recent trend by making cult-classic slogans. Throughout the series of advertisements, Woody Allen was an unknown face to the people of Japan. The slogan ‘Delicious Life’ is not only a fun choice of words, but a comment on the changes that were taking place in Japan as its citizens were enjoying lives of materialistic comfort and prosperity. Therefore, the idea of a delicious life within Seibu Department stores suggests that they contain all the luxuries that one could want out of life.
The advertisements became iconic throughout Japan, with Woody Allen becoming a household name. To this day, Shigesato itoi has an おいしい生活 caligraphy scroll written by Woody Allen hung up in his office.
Shigesato Itoi continued with his copywriting all throughout the 80s and 90s, but he had also begun to step out of his comfort zone into other ventures. Just before he had begun working on the first instalment of the Mother series, Itoi worked with Studio Ghibli on one of the company’s most prolific film: となりのトトロ (tonari no totoro – My Neighbour Totoro).
Shiegesato Itoi wrote the tagline for the My Neighbour Totoro poster: このへんな生きものは、まだ日本にいるのです。たぶん。(kono henna ikimono wa, mada nihon ni iru no desu. tabun., These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Probably.). He also voiced Satsuki’s father, Tatsuo Kusakabe, in the film.
Itoi went on to write the taglines for many other Studio Ghibli films up until 2006. However, the most notable to his career as a game designer is the tagline that he wrote for 魔女の宅急便 (majo no taku kyūbin – Kiki’s Delivery Service), which was: おちこんだりもしたけど、私はげんきです。(ochikondari mo shita kedo, watashi wa genki desu. – I was a bit depressed, but I’m fine.), but once again, that’ll be touched upon in greater detail in part 2.
Part 1 focused around Shigesato Itoi’s early copywriting career, but us gaming fans know him for his work on the Mother/Earthbound series. So,
Click here for Part 2…
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