Cover image: a 1982 (?) Mahô no Mako-chan illustration by Yoshinori Kanada
This article is part of the History of the Kanada School series.
It is tempting, as is always the case with great artists, to imagine Yoshinori Kanada as a solitary shooting star who appeared and revolutionized Japanese animation from nowhere, a pure genius whose inscription in a historical context is almost irrelevant to understanding his work. The very nature of this project goes against such a vision, as it aims for two things: 1) not just evoking Kanada, but all those he met and inspired, and their own careers, and 2) a history that takes into account not just the artists, but the evolution of their styles and their relationships with the general context of the animation industry at the time.
Moreover, as anyone at all versed in 60s and 70s animation will quickly tell you, the aesthetic revolution of the Kanada style did not come out of nowhere, nor was it a sudden and unexpected event. Understanding the early years of Kanada’s career is therefore necessary for three reasons: 1) answering the following question: if Kanada revolutionized anime, which visual trends did he overturn? 2) understanding how Kanada took influence from these preexisting trends and how he slowly developed his own style through, rather than against, them, and finally 3) retracing the slow rise of Kanada from an unknown in-betweener to the leader of a studio and then the most important and influential living animator in Japan.
For that purpose, it is important to remember that Kanada, born in 1953, was a member of the first generation who really grew up with animation, both in theaters and on TV: he was 5 when The White Serpent, the first Japanese colour animated feature film came out, and 10 when Astro Boy started airing. He reportedly found his calling for animation at 16, after watching a scene of Tôei’s Flying Phantom Ship, animated by Hayao Miyazaki—a moment of urban destruction of the type that would become one of Kanada’s most enduring motifs. In other words, from the outset, Kanada’s work cannot be divorced from the rest of Japanese animation.
This article will follow 10 years of anime history, from 1967 to 1977; since I have already covered them, with a different perspective, in my previous series on TMS, it will serve not only as an introduction to Kanada, but also as a transition between the two series. The starting and ending dates are significant, and I must explain them. 1967–1968 are two decisive years in the early history of anime, as they saw the emergence of two key figures in TV animation (Keiichirô Kimura and Shingo Araki), and the coming out of a revolutionary film, Hols, Prince of the Sun which was accompanied and followed by a mass exile of the staff of Tôei Animation, the most important animation studio of the time. On the other hand, 1977 is instrumental in Kanada’s career: it marks a break in his early association with Tôei, and the start of his collaboration with a major director, Yoshiyuki Tomino, as well as his recognition as a major animator and as the (unofficial) leader of studio Z2.
The A Pro school and Yoshiyuki Momose
Before Kanada emerged, TV anime had already developed its own aesthetic; at the core of this was the studio Tôkyô Movie, and most importantly its main subcontractor, A Production. A Pro was created in 1965 by one of Tôei’s most talented men, Daikichirô Kusube, and immediately set to work on such Tôkyô Movie TV series as Obake no Q-Tarô and Umeboshi Denka. In 1968, following the end of Hols’ production, Kusube was joined by his closest friend from his Tôei days, Yasuo Otsuka.
Otsuka’s arrival in A Pro was one of the small turning points of anime history: from there, he quickly started to train a new generation of animators who would be remembered alternatively as the “Otsuka School” or the “A Pro School”. Among the most important figures of this school, the first group fully to use the expressive potential of limited animation, we can find Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama, Yoshifumi Kondô, and Yuzô Aoki. Before examining their style in earnest, it’s important to note that Kanada could be considered one of their students: it’s on (partly) A Pro shows like Akado Suzunosuke (1972-1974), Dokonjô Gaeru (1972-1974) and Kôya no Shônen Isamu (1973-1974) that he did some of his first in-betweening work, and even some key animation.
Dokonjô Gaeru is considered the first masterpiece of A Pro animation, and seems like a good place to start: it’s where Kondô delivered some of his first outstanding work as key animator, while the more senior Osamu Kobayashi also played the role of character designer with his friend Tsutomu Shibayama as animation director. Whereas Tôei movies specialized in realistic and detailed animation, what Otsuka brought to TV animation were rather energy and liveliness. He and his students were masters of character animation, and accordingly they mostly worked on comedies, which they enlivened with their knack for cartoony movement and vivid acting.
Concretely, this meant an emphasis on exaggeration, spacing, and strong key poses. In that regard, I think the most important animator was Yoshiyuki Momose. He was not from A Pro proper, but from Keiichirô Kimura’s Neo Media. However, he was close to A Pro, especially on Donkonjô Gaeru. His style had the same qualities as the A Pro one, but he brought to it the rough energy and more complex layouts that he had learnt from Kimura. While I have no direct proof, I think Momose’s work was a direct influence on Kanada, as well as the strongest in 70’s comical character animation.
There are multiple more or less direct links between Kanada and Momose, besides the stylistical resemblances I am going to highlight. As I mentioned, Kanada himself worked on Dokonjô Gaeru; but there are two other possible ways of communication. The first one is that Momose was a student of Keiichirô Kimura, who was, as I will show, another direct influence on Kanada. There would therefore be something like a triangular relationship of influence from Kimura and Momose to Kanada. The other is Masayuki Uchiyama, an animator from Neo Media who worked alongside Momose for every episode—and who would become one of Kanada’s close collaborators as a founding member of studio Z2 in 1977. It’s very possible that they met precisely on Dokonjô Gaeru.
Now, let’s look at the animation itself. First, in this sequence, the movements of both characters are very wide, as the right arm of the girl makes a massive slap towards the right of the screen, sending Hiroshi down in the same direction, while her other arm makes a circle from the back to the front of the frame to take the torn piece of her dress.
Each phase of the movement is very clear and makes the whole motion readable. But this cut also exhibits an attention towards anticipatory and secondary action that’s generally associated with Kanada. Consider this frame-by-frame decomposition of the slap: in the second pose, the girl’s arm adopts an impossible angle, before straightening up and hitting the boy, the hit itself being emphasized by an afterimage in thick black lines.
Another example of a Momose technique that Kanada would later be associated with is in the cycles. Because of the lack of time given to animators in TV schedules, anime has often reused frames, whether through bank sequences and cels, or repetitions of a same motion in cycle. These cycles quickly become boring, and Kanada sought to make them more dynamic by adding or removing in-betweens, effectively speeding up or slowing down the movement at an irregular rhythm. But it so happens that this is something Momose used a lot in Dokonjô Gaeru, such as in the cycle at the beginning of this sequence. Momose did all he could to make the motion dynamic, unexpected and attractive by creating strange rhythms and strong poses.
This is precisely the kind of motion with which Kanada would later become associated, as well as the unique “Kanada poses” of which we already see some premonition in Momose’s work: the extended arms and legs which freely retract and contract as characters fall, jump, and fly all around. These create a strong sense of dynamism while being relatively easy work for the animator. But most importantly, in a historical and aesthetic sense, it brings out the full potential of one of the consequences of limited animation: an unprecedented focus on the keyframes, that is, on the steps of the motion rather than on the movement itself.
More superficially, Dokonjô Gaeru seems to have left a very strong mark on Kanada. His comedic acting scenes from the 70s wouldn’t have been out of place in this series: Kobayashi’s designs share the same wide mouths and round, simple body shapes as Kanada’s, and in consequence, the facial expressions are often very similar. If you look close enough, you’ll also find references to it, and especially its titular frog, in many early Kanada sequences; as this one from Daiku Maryuu Daiking seems to show, it’s from there that the famous blobs which would become a key part of Birth and Kanada’s inner world would evolve.
After Dokonjô Gaeru, the A Pro style would continue to develop, and gave anime two other masterpieces in 1975: Gamba no Bôken and Ganso Tensai Bakabon. Both were the best the 70’s had to offer, with Osamu Dezaki and Madhouse’s animators on the one hand, and A Pro’s most talented staff on the other. The simple character designs and the freedom allowed by the directors and animation directors of each show let the animators do as they pleased and express all their talent. Osamu Kobayashi would go in the direction of fluidity, often using 1s and smears, and not hesitating to go off-model to favor a flowing movement. Yoshifumi Kondô would stay closer to Otsuka’s TV style, with snappier timings and the prioritization of energy above all else.
Dokonjô Gaeru was Momose’s only major collaboration with A Pro before him and its members would meet again on Ghibli movies. It was therefore also the only place where, in the 70’s, Kanada could have met him and taken influence from him. But that influence seems to be major: in many ways, Momose’s animation can be read as a pre-Kanada form of character acting. Momose took many fundamentals of the A Pro style, but added to it a systematical use of rougher lines and after images, the kind of techniques he had learned at Neo Media. It gave his work just a bit more strength and intensity, the two factors that, as we will see, formed the core of Kanada’s breakthrough.
Gekiga anime: Keiichirô Kimura and Shingo Araki
In contrast with A Pro’s early specialization in kids’ shows and comedy anime, another trend started developing in the late 60s: that of what is called by some “gekiga anime”, that is, animation no longer for children, but for an older audience of male teenagers, with more mature themes and visuals to match. This “genre” or trend mostly developed in sports anime, and gave birth to three masterpieces, each produced by one of the three great studios of the time: Star of the Giants by Tôkyô Movie in 1968, Tiger Mask by Tôei in 1969, and Ashita no Joe by Mushi Productions in 1970. Aside from their formal and narrative contributions to the budding anime world, these shows worked as the consecration of the two foremost TV animators of the time: Keiichirô Kimura and Shingo Araki.
There are two main differences between them and the A Pro school animators. First, Kimura and Araki were first and foremost TV animators, unlike Otsuka’s students whose roots can be traced back to Tôei’s movie output. Kimura did start as an in-betweener on those, where he received the teachings of Daikichirô Kusube, but quickly moved on to work on the studio’s TV series even after he left in 1968 to establish his own place, Neo Media. On the other hand, Araki was the typical Mushi Pro member, with a profile initially very similar to Osamu Dezaki’s or Akio Sugino’s. He started as a manga artist for rental libraries, was invited to Mushi in 1964 by Masaki Mori and started working there on Jungle Taitei, after which he contributed to establish studio Jaggard in 1966, and then his own Studio Z around 1971.
Both Araki and Kimura had therefore always worked on “limited” animation and were more individualistic, both in their careers, personalities, and styles. It is certainly from them that Kanada got what would become his “charisma animator” mindset.
The second difference is purely artistic: it is the opposition between the “neat” A Pro style and the “rough” gekiga style. Indeed, while they occasionally used smears and after-images, the A Pro linework was very clean most of the time, hiding any asperities and idiosyncrasies in the drawing. What made the animators stand out was their way of handling movement, not the pen itself. That was a clear leftover from Otsuka and the modernist Toei aesthetic. On the other hand, Kimura and Araki’s style was all about showing the drawing at work, with simple shapes, speed lines, and black, thick strokes instead of color shading. This was not without consequences, both technical and artistic.Technically, this approach meant ignoring the cleaning and tracing process, during which staff members would draw the animator’s work on the cels, while taking away all superfluous lines. Until the late 60s, all this was done by hand, but the introduction of a new technology revolutionized it: the Xerox printer. This new machine allowed for the tracing process to be entirely automatic, in what is called “xerography”. Xerography was a revolution because without the intermediary cleaning staff, the animator could directly apply his drafts onto the cel. The technique was first introduced in Star of the Giants, where Araki (albeit under the animation direction of A Pro creator Daikichirô Kusube) and the rest of the team used it to its full potential and made some of the most legendary cuts in anime history.
Kimura, for whom roughness was already a trademark, only followed suit in what is considered his masterpiece, his solo animation of the Tiger Mask opening, for a series on which he also shouldered key animation and animation direction. In a sort of race for who would get the sketchiest lines, Araki went even further in Ashita no Joe where shapes and colors seem to give in to the black lines, and the felt intensity of each punch is stronger than it had ever been before.
But these sequences aren’t only interesting for that rough look, which Kanada would very purposefully make his own. Another future characteristically Kanadaesque technique is the absolute mastery of three-dimensional movement. While most A Pro animators had to rely on talented directors and their sense of space to express their full potential (Dezaki and Miyazaki—see Lupin III and Gamba), Araki’s and especially Kimura’s layouts are already full of energy and motion. In the Tiger Mask opening, the camera is almost never still. Rather, it’s always moving towards or away from the characters, who jump and fly to and fro. This is of course an open display of mastery from the animator, who has to maintain the proportions of the objects despite all the movement.
Finally, the general approach of bodies is very different, and it can be argued that the gekiga style is one of the birthpoints of realism in Japanese TV animation. Indeed, as the Tiger Mask opening exemplifies, Kimura was always very aware of the bodies’ center of gravity and used this awareness to convey their volume and weight. This is strikingly different from the A Pro animators, who seldom cared for the physical properties of bodies that they’d rather twist in creative ways.
The influence of Kimura and Araki on Kanada makes little doubt, if only because some later Kanada drawings look like they were made by Kimura. But, more notably, it’s interesting to note that many techniques associated with Kanada—namely the “Kanada beam” and the “Kanada flare”—had already been developed by Kimura or Araki and were already common in 70’s anime. Even the famous Kanada poses and perspectives owe as much to the two men’s affection for camera movement and wide motions as they do to A Pro’s sense for strong poses.
Most importantly, it was under Araki that Kanada started animating. After dropping out of animation school, he entered Tôei in 1970, working as an in-betweener and more exceptionally key animator on magical girl or comedy shows like Mahô no Mako-chan and Sarutobi Ecchan. Upon watching Tôkyô Movie’s Attack No. 1 (on which Yoshiyuki Momose also worked), he fell in love with Kôichi Murata’s drawings and the heroine Kozue, who would become the prototype of all his female characters. He therefore tried to join Murata’s studio, Oh Production—but he was rejected and, in 1972, joined Araki’s Studio Z. It was from there that he in-betweened on Tôkyô Movie/A Pro shows, and that, along with his old time friend from their student days Shin’ya Sadamitsu, he met someone who would become his closest associate until the mid-80s: Kazuo Tomizawa. The group of friends would only stay there for two years: in 1974, Araki disbanded Studio Z to create another studio, Araki Productions. If Kanada didn’t follow him, it’s probably because Araki didn’t see any immediate potential in him, and would have kept him in-betweening for some more time.
These four years as an in-betweener seem to have been a hard experience for Kanada, even though they were determining. In a later interview, he recalled his frustration with his work back then: “When I was doing in-betweens I wondered, ‘Why am I supposed to draw the same drawings one-after-another?’, and I got exhausted from it”. More generally, he either didn’t stand out, or stood out for the wrong reasons: Takuo Noda describes him as “a real beginner [without] any outstanding skill”—though we’ll see below how much we should trust this testimony. He also refused to follow his superiors’ perfectionism and did things his own way: most notably, he used what were considered rookie tools like a set of standardized rulers. “They told me I wouldn’t become a real animator if I couldn’t draw a circle without a ruler”, he later remembered. “I didn’t pay attention to them, I just continued to use a ruler.”
The rulers used by Kanada
Kanada’s boredom with in-betweening certainly had a determining impact on his style. Not wanting to put anyone through work that he had hated, he started using very jerky timings, precisely those that would require little in-betweening work. His use of rulers can also be understood in this light: with them, he not only saved himself time, but also made it easier for in-betweeners to follow up on his key frames, because the lines were already regular and neatly traced. Kanada’s intention to take more work upon himself thus played a decisive part in his future “charisma animator” status.
The emergence of the Kanada style
I just quoted Takuo Noda commenting on Kanada’s slow progress and apparent lack of skill in the first few months. But a close examination of Kanada’s very first works as key animator inclines me to take this with suspicion: what he says might be true of the unremarkable key animation Kanada had done before 1974. But when the two men met around late 1973, Kanada had already started growing his own individuality and very quickly developed his skill.
The exact chronology of Kanada’s career between late 1973 and late 1974 is extremely difficult to make out; I have laid out the information and suppositions I have in the Annex to this piece. Here, I will start on Kanada’s first confirmed key animation work outside of Studio Z: part B of episode 25 of Cutie Honey. While it was the norm back then for a single person to handle an entire half-episode by themselves, this showed that Kanada had been truly acknowledged as an animator: he did not animate just any moment, but the climax of the final episode of the series, a highly prestigious position. Moreover, this particular episode of Cutie Honey was already pretty experimental, and so the staff had to make sure that the animators were talented enough to follow up on the direction.
The only explanation for such a sudden rise is Kanada’s connections: Araki was character designer and animation director for the series, and I believe he had also formed a close relationship with the animation director of the finale, Satoshi Jingû. What’s particularly unique about this debut is that Kanada is already completely recognizable, even though his style is still far from its maturity. The timing is characteristically nervous, the lines rough and thick, the key poses strong and marked, and there are lightning effects everywhere. The final destruction of Panther Claw’s base already lays the template for Kanada’s famous urban destruction scenes, from Daitarn 3 to Galaxy Express 999.
Kanadaisms in Honey 25: strong poses, lightning effects, strong lights, rough lines and flares
Cutie Honey tied Kanada and Tôei together: studio N°1, which he soon joined, was one of Tôei’s most regular subcontractors. Like most of the studios I’ve mentioned so far, N°1 was created by ex-Tôei artists that decided to leave between 1968 and 1973 because of the backlash they had faced following the strikes that had hit the studio in those years. It’s possible that Kanada himself left Tôei because of this difficult context, when working conditions in the studio quickly deteriorated. Be that as it may, in 1974, he started making regular (although uncredited) contributions to the Space Battleship Yamato franchise. This was the beginning of his long association with the series, and was probably where he met the other genius of his generation, his friend and rival Kazuhide Tomonaga. It is in this period, somewhere in 1974, that he entered Takuo Noda’s studio N°1, accompanied by Sadamitsu and Tomizawa—that is, unless they had entered before him and made him join them and stop freelancing. Much more than Araki, Noda was Kanada’s real teacher, as well as his friend: Kanada called him his senpai, and they would work as a regular duo (Kanada as key animator and Noda as animation director) until the early 80’s.
Kanada’s first confirmed work under Noda and N°1 was on Getter Robo, in 1974–1975. In retrospect, this work makes Cutie Honey #25 seem even more exceptional, because even though you can see signs here and there, Kanada’s individuality doesn’t stand out as much as it had at his debut. Blame this on Noda, who probably tried to curb the young man’s impatience and make sure he mastered the basics before doing his own thing. But by the next year, in Getter Robo G, the two men seem to have found their balance, and the Kanada style was born in earnest.
Rather than go over every one of Kanada’s cuts from that time, which would be long and tedious, I will now proceed to analyze the characteristics of that new style. I’ve already covered his influences, and shown that Kanada’s trademark techniques did not come out of nowhere. So the question we must now ask is: what was new in Kanada’s animation?
First, there was the simple fact that it synthesized the A Pro and gekiga styles. We can go even further—justified by the rest of Kanada’s career—and say that his animation was the meeting point of the Tôei and the Mushi aesthetics, of two traditions of animation, one oriented towards full, the other towards limited, that were (wrongly) believed to be antithetical. If the Kanada style became the dominant style of anime for nearly a decade, it wasn’t just because of its inherent power or expressivity; it was in part because the Kanada style was completely an anime aesthetic, tying together in a singular movement what had been mutually exclusive approaches of the medium, approaches which can be summed up, in directorial terms, as a Miyazaki/Dezaki opposition.
The Kimura-Araki style was powerful, but too serious and anything but polyvalent; to it, Kanada brought the A Pro style’s playfulness and life, which made him able to animate both tense fight scenes and light-hearted comic relief moments. On the other hand, the A Pro style lacked depth and its inventiveness could not make up for its absence of intensity. Kanada’s sense of spatiality and the rough lines he took from Araki gave it the concreteness and strength it needed—something that Yûzô Aoki, Hayao Miyazaki, and Kazuhide Tomonaga were all also trying to do at the same time, and that they would accomplish in The Mystery of Mamo and The Castle of Cagliostro.
Beyond this, and the list of patented “Kanada techniques” (beams, flares, perspectives, poses, etc.), the real, personal innovation brought in by Kanada was probably in the timing. The thing Kanada is most well-known for in that regard is his mastery of framerate modulation, that is, varying the timing of a given motion in both a frequent and irregular fashion. Modulation between 1s and 2s had always existed, whether in Disney or Tôei movies, but the generally accepted moment of its “invention”—really its systematization—is Yasuo Otsuka’s work on Hols, Prince of the Sun (in this sequence, the giant alternatively moves on 3s and 4s, while Hols is on 1s and 2s). After that, animators both inside and outside the A Pro school quickly started using it, but in moderate doses. It was Kanada who brought the technique to its full expressive potential by doing two things: making modulation highly irregular, and associating it with a better understanding of spacing.
A good example would be this cut, and especially the first four shots. In the first shot, there’s a hold that lasts 6 frames, after which the man at the right of the image suddenly stands up—there’s no in-between, and the distance between the two frames is as wide as possible. Then, the man starts aiming—two poses on 3s, one on 4s as he settles— lowers his gun and shoots on 2s. The fire coming out of the gun is on 1s and takes up two frames, and, after four more frames, the camera cuts to a reverse shot of the snake.
As the snake starts moving, it’s animated alternately on 1s and 3s as it contracts, and then 2s and 4s when it retracts and jumps—Kanada plays on the speed differences to make the jump more sudden. In the fourth shot, as the man gets bitten by the snake, the spaces are once again extreme and clearly express the attack’s speed. The left-right movement of the beast, into the depth of the image, is sustained by the numerous speedlines as well as by the contrast with the man’s circular motion; the contrast is strengthened by the fact that, in the next shot, the snake now enters from the right of the image and goes towards the left.
All this happens very fast, much too fast for the viewer to register it all in just one sitting. While all the details certainly make the action very interesting, all that’s left is an impressive sense of energy. This comes from the irregularity of the motion, and the distance between each pose, but also the excellent layouts and cinematography, which manage to feel both crowded and readable—the speed lines play a key part here, because they represent something more to register, and at the same time support the movement and create a sense of perspective and depth.
Kanada also animated many, many robot fight scenes, and because of that most of his trademark techniques are associated with effects animation. But what this kind of sequence demonstrates is that he was first and foremost a character animator, just like all the A Pro animators, as well as Kimura and Araki. It actually took much more time for his effects to become unique than for his character animation. Moreover, if we take for example the “Kanada beams”, I’ve shown that this particular shape of effect already existed in the late 60s and was very frequent in giant robot anime; what made Kanada’s effects special was not, at first, their shape, but their motion, and more specifically their timing.
If, instead, there is just one effects innovation for which we must remember early Kanada, it should undoubtedly be impact frames. He did not by any means invent the technique: US cartoons already had colored frames that happened at the moment of a shock to create (most of the time) comic relief, and anime borrowed them. In other words, the purpose of impact frames was not to support the impact, but to hide it and create another effect: laughter. Kanada reversed the terms of the equation by radically changing impact frames’ look and purpose: they would no longer be colored, but black or/and white; they would not hide the impact, but rather support it. The meaning of the impact frame would no longer be “let’s hide the violence of the shock to make it funny instead”, but rather “the shock is so great that it can no longer be represented”.
The best example of this is still probably the very first black and white impact frame used by Kanada, on Getter Robo G #39. As the flickering of those impact frames indicates, they probably didn’t appear as a development of colored impact frames, but rather must have come out from the white, stroboscopic flashes used to indicate explosions at the time.
Instead of this headache-inducing and not very creative technique, Kanada used color to his advantage, moving this responsibility from the photography to the painting department. (In the same way, the Kanada light flares are not just any effect: instead of leaving lighting purely to the photography staff, it is drawn light, handled by the animator.) It is only much later, in Wakusei Robo Danguard Ace, that Kanada started systematically using impact frames for explosions. By then, he had already realized the technique’s full potential, adding onomatopoeia in or between the impacts.
Kanada’s career is anything but monolithic, and his style cannot be reduced to a simple addition of techniques that go from light flares to fire dragons. The best way to see that is the first ten years of his career, from his start as key animator in 1974, to Birth in 1984. I’ve only covered half of that period here, but that first half has already showcased his immense creativity. Indeed, what strikes me the most about the start of Kanada’s work, more than anything else, is its diversity. You can still see him take inspiration from everywhere, trying new things and experimenting at every turn. Watching his early years, you don’t just get the (already rewarding) sight of an artist developing before your eyes; even better, what you discover along with Kanada himself is the limitless potential of the animated medium. And that, more than anything else, is probably why he inspired so many others.
Annex: Kanada between 1973 and 1974