|Born||August 11 1919|
|Died||November 6 2001|
|Birth Location||Fresno, California|
Painter, animator, illustrator Kishio Christopher Ishii (1919-2001) was born in Fresno, California, on August 11, 1919. He was the fourth of six children born to Koshiro and Naka Ishii, who were farmers. Shortly after he was born, his family went to visit his father's mother in Toyotamura Kagawa-ken and returned to the United States in the summer of 1920.
After graduating from Caruthers Union High School in Fresno County, Ishii attended Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles where he excelled at watercolor painting and commercial art, studying under teachers Phil Paradise, Gyo Fujikawa, Carl Beetz, and Ed Northridge. Upon graduation, Ishii was hired by Walt Disney Studios and worked on numerous animated films such as Fantasia, The Reluctant Dragon, Dumbo, as well as on Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse shorts. In late May 1941, a strike was called against Disney that resulted in employees receiving the right to unionize.
In April 1942, following the signing of Executive Order 9066, Ishii was forced to leave Disney and was detained at the Santa Anita Assembly. When the Pacemaker, the assembly center newsletter, was launched, Ishii joined as the staff cartoonist, producing a regular cartoon that featured a young Japanese American kid. The name of the cartoon, "Li'l Neebo," was chosen through a contest to name the camp newsletter's "mascot." The name itself was fabricated by writer Mary Oyama Mittwer and is derived from "little Nisei boy." He also taught art at Santa Anita; one of his students was renowned postwar artist Ruth Asawa.
When the assembly center closed in September 1942, Ishii was transferred to the U.S. concentration camp in Amache, Colorado. Li'l Neebo continued to appear in the camp's newspaper, the Granada Pioneer, where it was expanded into a comic strip. The cartoon character was intended to chronicle the life of a little Nisei boy living in camp while providing the paper's readers with light comic relief from their grim situation. Li'l Neebo grew so popular that he soon commanded a full-page in the paper and was used as a character in puppet shows held in Amache. When Ishii left in December 1942, the comic strip was continued by Tom Okamoto, another Disney animator and Chouinard graduate, and later by Jack Ito, due to its popularity. Ishii and Okamoto also taught fine art classes at Amache adult night school.
In the fall of 1942, Ishii was among the handful of volunteers from the concentration camps recruited for the U.S. Army's Military Intelligence Service. He ended up working as an artist for the Office of War Information and the Psychological Warfare Unit, illustrating propaganda posters while stationed in India, Burma, and China from 1943–46. He met and married his wife, Ada Suffiad in Shanghai, and brought her to the U.S. with him at demobilization. The couple lived in Los Angeles from 1946–49, where Ishii returned to work for the Walt Disney Studios for a year, before he and a partner started their own commercial art studio in Hollywood. During his years in Los Angeles, Ishii became involved with Nisei for Wallace/Nisei Progressives and did layouts and illustrations for the group's publication, The Independent as well as for The Vanguard, newsletter of the Los Angeles chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. He also contributed political cartoons to the English language Japanese American newspaper Crossroads. He later covered the trial of Iva Toguri, who was being tried for treason to the U.S. as "Tokyo Rose", for The Independent and was later investigated by the FBI for his association to the Nisei Progressives.
He left California for New York in 1949, working first for the Tempo Productions animation studio in New York and later as an independent animator. He also contributed illustrations—including some cover designs—to The Reporter magazine. In 1951 he fulfilled a lifelong dream to travel to Paris and with support from the GI Bill, moved to Paris with his wife and young son to study at the Academie Julian with Fernand Leger. His wife also gave birth to a second child in France. In 1952, the family settled back in New York. Joining with two partners in 1965, he formed Focus Productions and worked as director of live action and animation. From 1975 to 1985, he worked as a freelance artist, designing and directing countless commercials, industrial, educational, live-action and feature films. His designing credits include James Thurber's "A Unicorn in the Garden," Ludwig Bemelmans' "Madeline," Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall' (the Snow White sequence), and the Academy Award winning "Gerald McBoing Boing."
Ishii died on November 6, 2001, in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
For More Information
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Summary of Chris K. Ishii Papers. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/chris-k-ishii-papers-6332.
Chang, Gordon H., Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom , editors. Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Chris Ishii IMDb website. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0410992/.
Wakiji, George. "An Uncommon Man—Not Typically Nisei." Rafu Shimpo, Dec. 19, 1964, 5, 20.
- Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 124. "A local newspaper article of the time noted that all four of the Nisei artists went out on strike: Chris Ishii, Tom Okamoto, Masao Kawaguchi, and James Tanaka."
- Santa Anita Pacemaker, May 22, 1942, 1; Krystal Reiko Hauseur, "Crafted Abstraction: Three Nisei Artists and the American Studio Craft Movement: Ruth Asawa, Kay Sekimachi, and Toshiko Takaezu" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine, 2011), 67n95.
- Photograph of Chris Ishii, c. 1943, Camp Amache Digital Collection, Sonoma State University Library, http://northbaydigital.sonoma.edu/cdm/ref/collection/amache/id/156; Granada Pioneer, Dec. 16, 1942, 9, http://www.du.edu/behindbarbedwire/bye_to_lil_neebo.html; Pacific Citizen, Nov. 19, 1942, 7, accessed at http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-pc-14-24/ on Jan. 11, 2018.
- Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 339; Pacific Citizen, Aug. 23, 1947, 8 and July 3, 1948, 5, accessed at http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-pc-19-34/ and http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-pc-20-26/, both on Jan. 11, 2018.
- Ishii did at least eight covers for The Reporter in 1950–51, all of which can be found in the Unz Archive: July 18, 1950 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1950jul18-x00001?View=PDF), August 15, 1950 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1950aug15-x00001?View=PDF); August 29, 1950 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1950aug29-x00001?View=PDF); September 12, 1950 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1950sep12-x00001?View=PDF); November 21, 1950 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1950nov21-x00001?View=PDF); July 24, 1951 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1951jul24-x00001?View=PDF); October 30, 1951 (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1951oct30-x00001?View=PDF); and December 11, 1951 (inside cover: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Reporter-1951dec11?View=PDF), all accessed on January 14, 2015; Chris Ishii IMDb entry, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0410992/.