TOM YASUMI: From Tokyo to SpongeBob in 44 years

TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — Tom Yasumi takes his father, Makoto Yasumi, and mother, Yoshimi Yasumi, to a Dodgers game on a day off from work. photo courtesy of Tom Yasumi

Tom Yasumi has worked in animation for the past 22 years, his entire professional life. He is currently an animation director for the hit cartoon series, “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He’s worked on many of Nickelodeon’s popular shows, including “The Rugrats” and “Rocko’s Modern Life.” He has worked on “SpongeBob” for the past 12 years.

He was born Yoshito Yasumi in Tokyo, a name he shares with both his grandfathers. The three also share their birthdays, but Yasumi grew up without them. His maternal grandfather passed away on his birthday 17 years before he was born, and his paternal grandfather died the year he was born.

While his family still calls him Yoshito, he uses the name “Tom” for professional relations. In addition to being an animator, he is interested in various art forms, including pottery and music. On his personal art, he signs off as “Y. Tom Yasumi.”

“I’m proud of my Japanese name, but over the years I grew tired of people in the States mispronouncing it or shortening it to ‘Yoshi,’” said the Tokyo-born Yasumi.

The name “Tom” came from his aunt who married an American in the 1950s and moved to Minnesota, where she was the only Asian in town. She gave him that name after seeing a photo of him from Japan, and it stuck.

Yasumi came to America at the age of 12 in 1978 with his family. Unlike most Japanese families that moved to America, the Yasumis came to stay permanently with green cards; it was a decision made by his father, who thought that his children would be better off growing up in America, rather than Japan. Their two aunts and four cousins, who moved to America earlier, aided the Yasumis’ transition to American life.

The family’s move was hard for Yasumi. His mother, being a “classic Japanese wife” went along with the idea, and Yasumi’s little brother had an easy time assimilating to life in America. Yasumi however, had his reservations of leaving his home in Tokyo.

“I, for one, did not want to move here,” he said. “I fought with my father over this, even saying to him that I alone want to remain in Japan, but he insisted that the family must stay together.”

Once in America, the family moved to West Los Angeles where Yasumi and his brother attended school. The brothers took ESL classes in middle school, though Yasumi never felt quite like he could fit in.

“Myself at 12, with my attachment to Japan and the Japanese ways, never really quite fit in. And I didn’t really try,” he said. “I watched a lot of TV, and I guess that connects me to the other Americans of that era, but I’ve always felt like an outsider. But at least for me, that was okay. I actually like the fact that I can see both the Japanese and the American sides — knowing that I have a unique point of view.”

Yasumi decided to start making short films when he came to America. He bought himself a Super 8 camera, which he used to shoot home movies, some using clay animation.

His interest in animation was something he took with him from Japan. He recalls watching the early works of Hayao Miyazaki, such as “Lupin the III,” as well as many of the Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes.”

“I was influenced by Warner Brothers cartoons on TV, especially the “Road Runner”; I made a bunch of flip books trying to imitate the falling coyote,” he said. “When I started making animated films, I was looking at American, especially Disney films for inspiration.”

He even, for a period of time, thought that Japanese anime was inferior in quality to that of American cartoons because of its frames count. It wasn’t until his brother reintroduced him to anime that he took a different look at the medium.

Growing up, his parents were fairly supportive of Yasumi’s artistic drive. His father’s only wish was that his children attend UCLA.

“He’s always loved UCLA. He used to watch the late night UCLA football show in Japan in the ‘70s,” he said. “So we both went to UCLA. After that, they never questioned us about anything.”

Yasumi wanted to paint and draw for his career and entered UCLA as a fine arts major. Previously, he had taken an animation class at his high school, and continued his schooling in animation at UCLA under the tutelage of Dan McLaughlin, an independent animation filmmaker and chair of the UCLA Animation Workshop.

He went on to graduate and enter the world of freelance animation. As a freelancer, he did animations work for commercials and CD Rom games, anything he could get his hands on.

It wasn’t until a few years later in 1989, when he landed a job at Nickelodeon Studios’ new animation department for Nicktoons. He was slated to work at one of Nickelodeon’s first cartoon programs, “The Rugrats.” Working on that project was Yasumi’s first stable job, one that lasted two and half years. After three seasons of working on “The Rugrats,” and a freelance gig at “The Simpsons,” he moved on to work on the last two seasons of “Rocko’s Modern Life.”

SpongeBob SquarePants - image courtesy of Nickelodeon

Yasumi left Nickelodeon, but came back to work on the “Angry Beavers.” While he left Nickelodeon after working on “Rocko,” he met Stephen Hillenburg, the man who would eventually create “SpongeBob SquarePants.” When he learned that his old co-worker was working on the new show, he transitioned into a position on “SpongeBob.” He has worked on the show ever since.

After working in the field for so many years, Yasumi does not rule out doing his own show, but he knows that it is not a likely scenario. He finds that what he would do would not be to a studio’s preference for predictable or formulaic shows that are guaranteed to be watched.

“I actually think “SpongeBob’s” success was a fluke, a one in a million chance,” he said. “Almost nobody at Nickelodeon liked the idea. It’s a pretty weird show, you know.”

He isn’t sure why “SpongeBob” is such a hit, but he knows that many great shows never became a hit. While people may look for the “next ‘SpongeBob,’” Yasumi knows no one will find it using some kind of formula. He complains that the approach being taken by studios to examine what shows to be made is wrong.

“These days, they test the shows with kids first, making them decide what they wanna see,” he said. “Kids are kids. They don’t know much yet. They need to be ‘educated.’ I’ve seen a lot of annoying shows being made because kids got to choose what they want to see.”

For that, Yasumi is grateful for his current job at “SpongeBob” where his work suits his taste much more than not. While his own show may be yet to be a realized dream, he wouldn’t mind working where he is for now.

“I’m pretty happy at ‘SpongeBob.’ If this show goes on forever, I’d be OK with that,” he said.

Comments

  1. Joel Brener says:

    Does anyone know how to get in touch with Y. Tom Yasumi? We went to High school together in the 1980’s and I worked with him on several of his student films.

    • Eric Coleman says:

      Hi Joel! I’ve been looking for Tom as well. I went to Uni with him, his brother, Jason and another animation student there, Jim Breckinridge. Tom and I took Mr. Harding’s animation class together, and he brought me onboard to help him with set painting for the schools production of “South Pacific” (my first exposure to stage).

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