At the start of his career, prolific artist and honorary MOL captain Ryohei Yanagihara illustrated numerous book covers and movie title sequences. He created the cultural icon, Uncle Torys, for Suntory whisky before becoming one of the key figures in Japanese independent animation of the 1960s.
Yanagihara was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1931 and studied at the Tokyo Bijutsu Daigaku (Tokyo Art School). In 1954, right after graduating, Yanagihara joined Brewery Kotobukiya (later renamed Suntory). Assigned to the advertising department, he edited their magazine, Yoshu Tengoku (Spirits Heaven). It was a must-read for young, hip, salarymen who crowded into the popular Torys Bar to read the magazine and sip a glass of Torys Whisky. While at Kotobukiya, Yanagihara dabbled in audiovisual, producing TV commercials featuring Uncle Torys—a character that Yanagihara created. Uncle Torys popularity quickly outgrew his commercial origins to become one of the most widely recognised icons of the era.
In 1959, Yanagihara left Kotobukiya to begin a freelance career working closely with publishers and record labels. In 1960, he co-founded the production company Animation Sannin No Kai (Three People in Animation) with Youji Kuri and Hiroshi Manabe. They were handmaking experimental animated films heavily influenced by Miroslav Sasek, Paul Rand and Saul Bass. Yanagihara’s animations, like his illustrations, used stylised strokes and striking colours. They concentrated on the content and commentary over technical innovation. He continued making short films up until 1966. You can watch a playlist of some of Yanagihara’s animations on YouTube.
By 1965, Yanagihara had combined his love of ships with illustration. He worked for Japanese shipping companies Sado Steam Ship Co., Ltd., Taiheiyo Ferry Co, Ltd. and Tokai Kisen Co. Ltd. creating thousands of illustrations. Most notably Yanagihara worked closely with Mitsui OSK Lines, who made him an ‘Honorary Captain of MOL’ in 1969. Mitsui OSK Lines have a website, called the Ryohei Yanagihara Museum, which has a huge collection of his ship illustrations and some interesting biographical information. Yanagihara continued to dedicate his time to advertising, illustration and projects around his passion until his death in 2015.