Artist spotlight: Kazuhiro Ochi

Cover image: a Tetsujin-28 illustration by Kazuhiro Ochi from the 1983 Animage calendar.

This article is a part of the Kanada school series

I decided to start this series on the development of the Kanada school with Urusei Yatsura, arguably the moment when its members really became prominent and their style began to spread. But that doesn’t mean it was the starting point where everything began. On the contrary, a complete history of the Kanada school would start before that, in 1977, when Kanada created his Studio Z2. The problem is, many shows that Z2 and then Z3 worked on at the time have become quite obscure and forgotten except for hardcore super robot fans, making them hard to find; there’re also many minor animators whose names haven’t really been remembered. To exemplify these, I’ll focus on the early career of just one figure from that early period: Kazuhiro Ochi.

Ochi is an interesting case, for at least two reasons: one of Kanada’s first students, he’s very representative of the first generation of the Kanada school that had the opportunity to work directly with the master and who would keep collaborating with him throughout their careers. But he was also completely overshadowed by other prominent figures of this generation, most notably Masahito Yamashita, with whom he did some of his first works. It could be argued that this happened because he simply had less talent; that is very possible, but it doesn’t make his career less interesting. This is especially the case since he went a different way, slowly turning into a storyboarder, illustrator, and character designer, whereas Kanada, Yamashita, and many others remained “pure” animators, who never did much besides key animation. Here, I’ll mostly focus on Ochi’s early career: his first ten years in the industry. But he’s still there, having made many contributions to Tôei series (mostly Precure) in the 2010’s. He is also the vice-chairman of Studio Z, the organization that tries to preserve and archive Kanada’s works.

The first notable thing about Ochi is that he was the youngest person in the industry when he entered it: he was only 16 when he joined small in-betweening studio Green Box in 1978. He had a hard time doing so, which provides some very interesting information about the state of the industry at the time. Not from Tokyo, he came from the rural Gifu Prefecture, in central Japan. In September 1977, still a second-year high school student, he first went to the capital to join Tatsunoko Productions. However, he did not know that he had to apply by letter first—and it so happened that when he arrived, Tatsunoko’s president, Tatsuo Yoshida, had just died. The studio wasn’t ready to recruit anybody. Basically, he had come at the wrong place at the wrong time. He returned home and, wiser than the first time, directly sent a letter to legendary mecha director Tadao Nagahama to apply for any place as animator. Nagahama then sent him to Sunrise, but they didn’t recruit in-betweeners at the time; it was after some time spent searching and passing interviews that he was finally accepted at Green Box in July 1978 and dropped out of high school. He spent eight months there as an in-betweener, sleeping in the studio’s closet.

Less than a year after that, in April 1979, he transferred to Kanada’s Z3. Considering his well-known love for super robot (he didn’t contact Nagahama at random), he had probably admired Kanada for some years, since it was on super robot shows that the latter first made a name for himself. Ochi did his first in-betweens at Z3 on Josephina the Whale, a series by Ashi Production, and then on Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979. Z3 was a major subcontractor for Ashi and Sunrise: it handled six episodes of Gundam, many of which were directed by Shin’ya Sadamitsu and featured Kazuo Tomizawa as animation director. Kanada, though, quickly left the production, because he had run into some disagreements with Yoshikazu Yasuhiko for taking too many liberties with the original layouts, and he was busy enough with other work. 

Kanada’s departure from Gundam is probably what led to the dissolution of Z3: Takuo Noda, who had been working with Ashi Pro, presumably encouraged Kanada to join him again at his own Studio N°1. This is what Kanada did, along with Sadamitsu, Shigenobu Nagasaki, Osamu Nabeshima, Masakatsu Iijima, and Kazuhiro Ochi, who probably joined once Gundam was over. The youngest member of N°1, Ochi was quickly nicknamed “the hamster”. Tomizawa would keep being Z3’s president for some time, but without its core staff it was but an empty shell and quickly closed down.

After some more time as an in-betweener, Ochi made his debut as key animator in 1980, in seven episodes of Tetsujin 28, alongside a new member of the studio, the nineteen-year-old Masahito Yamashita. Ochi was somewhat unlucky, as Yamashita quickly exhibited great talent and originality which totally overshadowed Ochi’s work. Compared to Yamashita’s bold effects, Ochi’s prominent use of speedlines, smears, and simpler Kanada poses looks quite conservative.  But it’s also what makes Ochi’s work interesting, as we’ll see later on: he’s one of the few longstanding Kanada school animators who was not inspired by Yamashita from the start, managing instead to develop his own style.

On this sequence from Tetsujin-28, compare Yamashita’s charismatic animation on the first 30 seconds with Ochi’s less flashy work at the end. It does seem like Ochi was a bit creative: in the last seconds of this sequence, it was him who added the last burst on Tetsujin’s jetpack, which was not on the storyboard, an idea he got from the Lunar Lander game. [Thanks to Renato Rivera Rusca for the tip]

It would therefore be the next year, in 1981, that Ochi made his real breakthrough, on Rokushin Gattai Godmars. Along with Tetsujin 28, this is an important series in the early history of the Kanada school, as the two were probably the first shows to exhibit the Kanada style not just in a few remarkable episodes (as would be the case with Urusei Yatsura), but integrated into their very aesthetic. Unsurprisingly, these were both mecha titles, attesting to the central role of the genre for Kanada himself and his students.

Ochi key animated on twelve episodes, alongside Yamashita and, sometimes, Kanada himself. But the really important moment was episode 57, which was Ochi’s first work as episode director and storyboarder, at just twenty years old. Godmars already had a strong visual identity, its direction perfectly situated between Dezaki’s and Tomino’s styles, but Ochi managed to deliver a very strong episode even in such a context. Its first part is very slow and introspective, a mood perfectly established by striking compositions and a use of color which would go on to be one of Ochi’s trademarks. In terms of animation, it’s clear that Ochi had learned a lot from Kanada, but also from his time on Gundam. The layouts were complex, with many Tomino-like camera movements and complex motions for the various spaceships and mecha. Ochi himself most probably animated the final fight, the climax of the episode.

Four shots from Ochi’s episode of Rokushin Gattai Godmars

As an example of Ochi’s talent, let’s take a look at this sequence from the fight. The first striking element is the wide variety of shapes taken by the beams: there are at least three, being the red, lightning-like motion in the first shot, then the round shapes, and finally in the last shot, the white triangular figures. As was often the case, Kanada had already experimented with all beam shapes possible, but this was an area that many of his students didn’t play a lot with.

The real highlight of the cut, however, is the movement of the mecha, and especially the very impressive kick. Having the robot change into the character that’s inside it, with an abstract background, is a great decision. It reminds us who’s in the robot, but also gives the movement a physical, personal quality: it’s not a robot that’s fighting, but a real human being. It’s made even more impressive by the fact that, when the pilot changes back into the robot, there’s no cut: it’s a seamless transition that highlights the identity between the two. This single shot is all the more impressive when you consider the complexity of the layout, with the character jumping away from the camera in a right-left trajectory, and then the robot falling down towards us in the opposite direction. Generally, the movement here is complex and makes it all very interesting to watch.

Finally, there are the trademark Kanada poses. From what I’ve seen of his early work, this kind of kick and fighting choreography is something Ochi really liked, and that he used many other times, as we’ll see on Plawres Sanshirô. Just like in that latter show, the animation is really helped by the mechanical design of the main robot: it’s very simple and thin, making the movement really organic. In other words, the extended and bending limbs feel much more natural here that they did on the big toys that were the super robots Kanada had animated. This really highlights the central principle of Kanada-style mechanical animation: make the robots move as if they were people.

After Godmars, Ochi did some animation on three episodes of Urusei Yatsura, probably to help out Yamashita. But the opportunity to direct had been significant, and he wanted to do some more. His next chance would be in July 1982, on episode 11 of Makyô Densetsu Acrobunch. The show was a co-production by Kokushai Eigasha and Tôei, close collaborators with N°1. Indeed, Kokusai Eigasha co-produced their first shows with Ashi Production, and many of its members were on Acrobunch: Mutsumi Inomata and Shigenori Kageyama debuted as the show’s two character designers. It was probably their last work before the creation of their own studio, Kaname Production. As for Tôei, they had already worked with Kanada and N°1 on their Leiji Matsumoto adaptations. It would be with Kokusai Eigasha that they would then produce the J9 trilogy (Braiger, Baxinger and Sasuraiger) on which Kanada would do some contributions.

On his episode of Acrobunch, Ochi, probably helped in some measure by Inomata’s designs, showed that the Kanada style wasn’t just animation, but also entailed a philosophy of storyboards and animation direction (which he did himself under a pseudonym). The characters’ heads were often tilted, the compositions were often complex with many layers of depth, and he introduced what would become one of his motifs: reflections on every possible surface. This made for a great episode, filled with a very well handled sense of tension and suspense.

But this episode is also interesting because of how it illustrates the state of the Kanada style at this precise point in time. Some moments of acting clearly look inspired by Urusei Yatsura, especially in the facial expressions and body language. That’s because two of the animators of this episode, Ochi himself and Takashi Sogabe, had contributed to some of Urusei Yatsura’s early episodes, probably to help out their comrade Masahito Yamashita. On the other hand, on a later scene in which Ochi (probably) delivered his trademark kick, the color and motion of the fire effects make them look like they’ve just been taken out of the 1980 Tetsujin 28.

Kanada’s students had already started developing their own individual styles, but it’s striking how much, at this point, they still functioned as a close-knit group with very similar approaches. Many of the episodes preceding Urusei Yatsura have been forgotten by all except the hardcore fans, but the years 1981 to 1984 were probably the apex of the Kanada school as a school rather than just a general approach or aesthetic of animation.

This would only be confirmed in 1983, with the first series of the newly formed studio Kaname Pro, which would become the last rallying point for most of the Kanada school for the next three years. Looking at the credits of Kaname’s first subcontracted episodes, it’s possible that Ochi joined the studio, or at least that he became extremely close to it. The fact is he played a central role in their first original production, Plawres Sanshirô, directing and storyboarding two episodes, playing the role of animation director on a third one, and animating on some others.

What’s so striking about Sanshirô are two things: one, that it’s Kanada-style animation from start to finish, just like Tetsujin 28 was. The other is that it wasn’t Yamashita-style animation, but remained very close to Kanada himself, at least on Ochi’s episodes. The fights he animated kept their complex layouts and choreographies, as well as the trademark kicks. But his most unique performance was probably episode 25, on which he did joint animation direction with Mutsumi Inomata. Rather than an innovative approach that would use newer and bolder techniques (as Shinsaku Kôzuma did on the same show), it was a look backwards, much closer to Kanada’s 70s gekiga style than what he and Yamashita were doing in the early 80s.

The most characteristic aspect of that is in the linework: it’s often very rough, whether on the outlines of bodies or in the prominence of speedlines, which Kanada had stopped systematically using in that period. It perfectly translates the sense of violence and brutality of the episode’s antagonist and makes the fistfight of the first part of the episode feel much more organic and powerful.

This seems to have been a direction Ochi wanted to explore more at the time, because his work on Birth uses the same effects. He was a Main Animator on the OVA, and is confirmed to have key animated around five minutes in the first part of it (the fight between Nam and the Inorganic), and maybe some more (the chase in-between and the baby Inorganic sequences). Ochi probably had a lot of freedom with layouts, as all animators on the OVA, but it’s also possible that he modified the original storyboards a bit: the beginning of his scene makes a frequent use of split-screens and various color contrasts. These were techniques that Ochi used a lot in his own storyboards, and they don’t appear anywhere else in Birth.

Besides this, at this point Ochi becomes easy to make out. His fights involve a lot of jumps and circular movements, and the way the legs fold themselves in these jumps is always the same, though that was not entirely original and something Kanada had already done a lot. The lines are very rough here, just as in Sanshirô, especially on the outlines of the sword and arms of Nam and the robot and in the speedlines. But here he also tried out something very different, probably encouraged by the OVA’s general atmosphere: more cartoony acting and fun expressions. Alongside the overwhelming sense of danger of the scene, as Nam barely manages to fend off the Inorganic’s attacks, there’s something very fun, especially when Nam tries to hit it with his bare hand and recoils in pain, his hand swollen and reddened. Though he was more of a character and mecha animator, he even tried out effects at the very end of his scene, with nice flame effects and an impressive moment of background animation. Again, here, the storyboarding, shot compositions and layouts are very well handled, highlighting that Ochi wasn’t just an animator blind to the other necessities of his work.

Indeed, while he would keep animating, Ochi started to shift his priorities following Birth. He kept working as episode director and storyboarder on TV series, but his big year was 1987. On the one hand, he made his debut as a director of his own on the OVA Gakuen Tokusô Hikaruon, which he also wrote, storyboarded, character designed, and did the animation direction and some key animation for. On the other hand, he also started working as a character designer, first on the series Lady Lady for which he was also animation director. He then pursued a long career as a storyboarder.

Among his 90s works, the most symbolic is no doubt his contribution to Martian Successor Nadesico. A well-known expert of 70s super robot shows, he had the honor of working alongside Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuo Komatsubara on the in-show Getter Robo parody, Gekiganger 3. Although their work there was nothing exceptional, it was a loving return to their origins. And, for Ochi, it must have been an honor to work side-by-side with his master as equally talented and recognized key animators.

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