D’Art Shtajio’s Arthell Isom on his path to co-founding Japan’s first American and Black-owned anime studio
By the time he graduated from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University in 2005, Arthell Isom had been in contact with Japan’s Yoyogi Animation Academy for some time. He hoped to continue his animation studies at the Osaka-based institution and inquired often about their enrollment procedures. The animator recalled that Yoyogi’s staff would periodically send him helpful resources about admission, but, at that time, the school didn’t have established procedures, especially concerning visas, for admitting foreigners.
Undeterred, he moved to Japan almost immediately after graduating. “When I flew to Japan, I wasn’t enrolled in school or anything yet because they didn’t accept foreigners,” Isom told me over a video call. “I just kind of moved there; I didn’t have a job or anything.”
Over the next year, he committed himself to working, studying Japanese and finding a stable visa situation so that he could continue his art education. Isom made good on his promise to himself to attend Yoyogi and enrolled in 2007 — a move that gave him his first foothold in the anime industry.
Today, Isom is the art director and CEO of D’Art Shtajio — Japan’s first American and Black-owned anime studio. Co-founded with his twin brother Darnell and animator Henry Thurlow in 2016, the studio’s name is a play on the English word “studio” ( “sutajio” in Japanese) and the Japanese word 下地 (pronounced “shitaji”), which roughly translates to groundwork or foundation. The studio lives and works by the creed: “The foundation is important.
Isom got his start in the anime industry the same way that he’s been able to thrive in it: by investing in his process and embracing the journey.
“I always figure out the process for everything and focus on learning that and then following it,” he said when asked what he considers his personal foundation to be. “Because I believe that if you know the process and you understand what rules things are based on, you can learn it and you can do it.”
The journey to D’Art Shtajio began with Isom and his brother drawing pictures together as children.
“We’ve been drawing since we were babies,” Isom said of the pair. “And at that time, we would just kind of make up our own stories and things, and be like, ‘Oh, we want to make our own movies, and make our own animations, and make our own comics, and things like that.’”
In high school, the two plotted their ascent in the animation industry. His brother would study practical effects, such as sculpting, and Isom would focus on animation and story-writing. They dreamed of splitting the field of animation between the two of them and eventually coming together to start their own company. Those dreams shifted internationally as Isom’s career began to crystallize around one anime: “Ghost in the Shell” — the same anime that inspired another American sibling duo, the Wachowski sisters, creators of “The Matrix.”
Isom first encountered the seminal piece of animation in high school and was captivated by its style. “When I saw ‘Ghost in the Shell’ — I think I was in high school at the time — that really changed my outlook on animation in general,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s a whole other world to animation.’”
He quickly sought out other anime to watch and realized that many of his favorites, and their signature art styles, were the work of art director Hiromasa Ogura. Soon, Isom began to feel that he needed to move to Japan and work under Ogura.
Isom recalled that his teachers at the Academy of Art University — where he studied animation after high school — cautioned him against pursuing a career in anime, reminding him that he didn’t know Japanese and advising him to begin his career in the West. Still, Isom held few doubts about his decision.
“I didn’t really have that fear myself,” he explained. “There was definitely doubt from around me, but I kind of felt that I knew what I wanted to do and that was my goal. So, I didn’t really pay attention to the naysayers, I guess.”
Despite his lack of fear, Isom faced considerable obstacles while pursuing anime in Japan. Even after spending a year navigating immigration laws to begin his studies at Yoyogi, he faced the challenge of completing coursework in what remained, for him, a relatively new language.
Isom chuckled as he told me that after he was accepted at Yoyogi, the teachers told him, “We’ll accept you at this school, but we have to tell you that none of the teachers speak English.” Navigating textbooks and homework assignments in Japanese was time-consuming and challenging, but Isom explained that he found figuring it out fun.
Amidst those obstacles, Isom counted on the support of his brother and of the friends he was making in Japan.
“[Darnell] is my twin brother, so we’ve been together forever,” he said. “We have the same dreams and the same goals, so we always talk about everything. And I think we motivate each other and push each other.”
Isom’s visa allowed him to study with the condition that he work full-time, and he credits a staff member at his then-job for helping him manage full-time work and school schedules. He graduated from Yoyogi Animation Academy in 2009 and began his career as a background artist at Ogura Koubou Atelier, the studio founded by his professional hero, Ogura.
A little over a decade later, Isom is laser-focused on building D’Art Shtajio. The studio has lent its talent to a number of high-profile anime like “Attack on Titan,” “One Piece” and “Fire Force.” They have also collaborated with artists such as the Weeknd and companies like ASOS. He feels that, now, the studio is in a good position to tell their own stories, a key part of his and Darnell’s original vision.
Isom said that he believes deeply in the power of animation to tackle serious stories and issues — a view he finds common in Japan but less so in the West, where animated features are often thought of as geared towards children (though, he noted, this is changing). As for the stories D’Art Shtajio wants to tell, the scope is broad. “I think we have so many stories we want to tell, and they really do range from fantasy, to melodrama, to issues with inner-city youth,” he explained.
Isom continued on to say that he hopes for the studio’s stories to present serious issues in digestible ways for their audience, noting that he is committed to the idea that entertaining animation pieces are great vehicles for presenting under-explored issues, like mental health.
In his career trajectory and in his work, Isom’s keen sense of vision is clear. However, when I asked him what he would like the legacy of D’Art Shtajio to be, he responded, “It’s weird, I think I do think really far ahead about things, but not about things like that.”
For now, rather than defining the studio’s legacy or considering the history it’s making in diverse communities on both sides of the Pacific, Isom instead focuses on building it up — always crafting the journey as carefully as he crafts his animated products.
You can find a complete list of D’Art Shtajio’s animated works on their website.
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Top Image: Arthell Isom. Image: Ben Gonzalez. Courtesy: D'Art Shtajio/the artist.