It is 3 a.m. on the East Coast of America. Tokyo’s afternoon sun has lit up his surroundings in bright light, a stark contrast to the pitch-black New York sky. He is sitting behind his desk at Japan’s first Black-owned anime studio, D’ART Shtajio. Anime posters hang on the white walls behind Arthell Isom’s office chair as he places his headphones over his ears. “Can you hear me?” he asked.
Isom, D’ART Shtajio’s CEO, was an aspiring background artist at the Academy of Art University when he decided to pursue a career in the anime industry.
Anime, or Japanese animation, has become increasingly well-known over the past few decades. Some notable titles are Naruto, Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. Isom, now 40, cites the early 2000’s G4 anime block “Anime Unleashed” as his introduction to the genre. Now, he recognizes the level at which anime’s popularity has exploded, transforming it from a niche interest into a part of global pop culture.
Isom’s first step toward achieving his goal of working in anime was learning Japanese. At the time, he was lucky enough to have Japanese friends. They helped him practice by speaking with him in the language and when he expressed his desire to work in anime, they told him about Yoyogi Animation School in Osaka. Once graduated, he would pack up his things to pursue a career on the other side of the globe.
Isom and his brother Darnell grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. They spent their childhood living with their mother before moving in with their father during their adolescence. Their father, an entrepreneur and sound designer, instilled in the Isom brothers the value of creativity.
“Ever since we were kids, we knew we wanted to be artists,” said Isom. “When we got to the eighth grade, that’s when we started to really understand the differences in the art fields. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an animator.”
In high school, however, Isom majored in music, deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps. It wasn’t until college that he committed to pursuing animation. His family, while not opposed to his decision, was wary. Ultimately, they were supportive enough to give him space to figure it out.
While at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Isom had difficulty figuring out what path he wanted to take. He knew he wanted to be a background artist, but his school lacked ways of helping him achieve that goal. His brother, Darnell, studied Industrial design at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
After graduating, Isom moved to Japan, where his first stop was Yoyogi Animation School’s open house. He was the only foreigner in the room. He had never visited the school before, but the faculty recognized him.
For years, Isom called the school numerous times, requesting enrollment pamphlets to be sent to him back in the U.S. Despite his determination, the school did not have a proper enrollment process for foreign students and Isom’s Japanese was not advanced enough for him to follow during classes. The school’s faculty told him to get a visa, study Japanese, and return.
He spent a year vigorously studying while teaching English to keep himself financially afloat. Finally, he returned to Yoyogi, visa in hand. He also brought proof of his Japanese proficiency.
“I had this notebook that I would write all my kanji in, and I showed it to them,” said Isom. “They were like, ‘It looks like you’re really determined, so we’ll let you try.’ ”
Isom cites the 1995 film Ghost in the Shell as the catalyst for his journey into the anime industry. He was heavily inspired by Hiromasa Ogura, who worked on the film as its art director. When he graduated from Yoyogi, Isom landed a job as a background artist at Ogura’s studio, Ogura Kobo.
During his time at the studio, Isom became Ogura’s mentee, going to him for advice on his goals and creative ideas. He parted ways with Ogura Kobo after five years with the studio.
“I actually didn’t really want to leave,” said Isom. “But there were a lot of changes in the industry and the studio was moving locations. A lot of the artists began to leave.”
With Ogura’s blessing, Isom and his brother Darnell began working towards opening an anime studio of their own.
Arthell and Darnell Isom founded D’Art Shtajio in 2016, making it the first-ever Black-owned studio of its kind. The studio’s website reads: “Using the traditional anime art style, D’Art Shtajio bridges the gap between Eastern and Western ideologies to create a truly unique and vibrant animation.”
As anime has become part of global pop culture, the conversation around Black representation in anime has increased.
“Most of the characters in anime are mostly the same,” said Isom, “They are really European-influenced or maybe Asian-influenced characters.”
Isom says that the number of foreigners working in the industry has increased in recent years and more dark-skinned characters have been appearing in anime.
The D’ART Shtajio is focused on expanding, working on larger productions and building their own fanbase.
“We want to be able to tell more adult-oriented stories that everyone can watch and enjoy equally,” said Isom. “We believe that any story can be told through the medium of anime.”