Artist spotlight: Kôji Itô

Cover image: a Digimon Tri shikishi illustration by Kôki Itô

This article is part of the History of the Kanada school

I’ve mentioned that the sudden wave of Kanada-style animators in the first half of the 80s is as much due to Kanada as to one of his most notable students, Masahito Yamashita. To show this, I will focus not on Yamashita himself, but on one of the most important animators of the period, who largely received his influence: Kôji Itô. Unlike most people, I am reluctant to speak about a “Yamashita school”, or a definite “Yamashita style”, as I believe Yamashita only took many possibilities which Kanada had already opened and explored them a bit further. However, in terms of chronology, Itô, just like his fellow members of studio Graviton, fits right between what I call the two generations of the Kanada school: the first, those who directly collaborated with Kanada, of whom Yamashita is the foremost member; and the second, those who emerged in the second half of the decade and rarely, if ever, made direct contact with Kanada—the most famous of these is Masami Obari.

Itô was just three months younger than Yamashita, but they started out in animation two years apart. As I mentioned in another article, Yamashita’s rise was a meteoric one: he started animation at nineteen and was very quickly promoted to key animator. On the other hand, Itô studied in an animation school, alongside Toshiyuki Inoue. While I don’t know much about the development of animation schools in Japan, it seems that the generation born in the 60s was the first whose members studied the craft before entering the industry, instead of just trying to enter a studio immediately after high school. Besides marking the growth of the industry and its progressive legitimization, this change probably encouraged a different outlook on animation.

Itô entered the industry at twenty, as an in-betweener in studio Neo Media. Created by Keiichirô Kimura in 1969, this studio still exists; it was one of the most important outsourcing studios of the 70s and early 80s, as well as a starting point for many future major figures. Among them are Nobuyuki Kitajima, Hideki Tamura, Yûji Moriyama, Hiroyuki Kitakubo and, more recently, Hironori Tanaka and Takuya Wada. Itô debuted as a key animator under the tutelage of Kitakubo, on Hyakujû GoLion, in 1982. But the first important work of his career is probably his early key animation on Game Center Arashi.

This otherwise forgotten comedy from 1982 is important because it included work from many of the most important subcontracting studios from the period: Neo Media, Anime R, Jungle Gym, and Studio Giants. From these came many illustrious figures who would meet again and again over the next years, whether in Graviton or Kaname Pro: Kazuaki Môri from Anime R, Shôichi Masuo from Giants, and Hideki Tamura from Neo Media, who worked with Itô. Arashi is one of those shows from the transition, before Urusei Yatsura and Yamashita’s animation defined what the Kanada style would look like from then on. Especially in Hideki Tamura’s sequences, you feel the influence of 70s Kanada: the explosions are still very round, the acting is comical and close to the A Pro fundamentals, and the impact frames remain very simple. 

Although a great showcase of animation, Arashi wasn’t anything like Itô’s breakthrough. But it certainly helped him to make connections. Probably thanks to Masuo, he had the opportunity of doing uncredited contributions to Macross, but kept in-betweening until late 1983 and his work on Plawres Sanshirô, where he was once again probably called by Masuo or Tamura. Just like their contributions, and those of the rest of the staff of Sanshirô, with perhaps the exception of Shinsaku Kôzuma, Itô’s work here is still very much in a pre-Yamashita stage, making it all the more interesting. What’s notable on Itô’s cuts is the work on effects.

First, while Kanada had already been playing with missile movement, the way these start moving with more freedom away and towards the camera may be a proof of Ichirô Itano’s influence; these don’t showcase complete Itano circuses yet, but we’re getting closer to it. The explosions are still very close to 70s Kanada, and there’s none of the interplay of colors characteristic of Kanada’s “liquid fire” effects from the period. Itô seems rather to be playing with shadings and monochrome smoke or fire effects. But what’s really striking are the first instances of more angular effects, especially in the impact frames, years before Yamashita or Kanada would completely go down this way. These were very innovative, and would go on to become one of Ito’s stylistical trademarks.

Itô’s angular effects on Sanshirô episode 37

In the following years, Itô worked on the same shows as the growing group of Kanada-style animators: two episodes of Urusei Yatsura, Birth and Genmu Senki Leda, as well as Sei Jûshi Bismarck and Dancougar. He had also participated in the creation of Studio Graviton in spring of 1984, which enabled him to work on Megazone 23, Pop Chaser and Project A-Ko, among others. In other words, it was after his work on Sanshirô that Itô had acquired enough experience and made enough connections to be really acknowledged by his peers. It helped him to start working on more important and numerous projects. It will be impossible to cover them all; leaving aside the ones I’ve covered in other articles, let’s take a closer look at just a few of them.

Let’s start with Birth. On the OVA, Itô was simply credited as an Animator – but, another sign that Animators weren’t simply in-betweeners, he did key animation on no less than fifty cuts. His work there is not the most distinctive, but it certainly wasn’t below standard. Indeed, Itô managed to follow up on Kanada’s display of background animation in some nice sequences. His layouts are far less complex and bold than Kanada’s (as if anyone would have been able to outdo that), but instead Itô prefers to put the focus on the struggling characters and the details of the machines.

The fourth shot of this sequence (from 0:05) is  particularly great work, as Rasa and the Inorganic bump against each other. What’s striking here is less the background animation (a cycle) than the detailed movement of the unstable and oscillating vehicles, and the care put into Rasa’s facial expressions. Two shots later, this becomes much more cartoony and comical as the Inorganic suddenly grows a ridiculous face—though this looks like the kind of idea Kanada would have had, and was probably already present in the storyboard. Just after that, Rasa passing the Inorganic is a nice little piece. It might seem quite minor considering how intricate mechanical animation in anime had already gotten at this point, but animating a character moving straight into the depth of the frame towards the camera, and from the front, has always been something very difficult to pull off, because it entails managing complex perspective.

Although Itô also did some straight-up action scenes, his work on Birth tends to confirm his progressive orientation towards mechanical and effects animation—just like Yamashita, Kanada himself, and most of the school’s members.  For Itô, this transition was made clear with his work for Megazone 23 and Dancougar, in 1985, on which he did his first storyboards. It seems that meeting Yamashita on Megazone was a decisive encounter: already on the OVA, his timings grew much more irregular and his effects took on the radically geometrical shapes so characteristic of Yamashita’s post Urusei Yatsura work. Dancougar only confirmed that.

The first noticeable thing in this cut is that the color work is much simpler, even more so than what Itô had been trying out in Sanshirô. The blue aura of the mecha is monochrome, and the fire effects are very simple in both shade and shape. In stark opposition to Kanada’s liquid fire style from the early 80s, this is pure Yamashita-style angular fire, probably a call-back to Yamashita’s extremely bold work on Tetsujin 28 five years prior. The other notable thing is the mechanical animation proper, which is becoming more fluid, detailed and complex; another case of great layout work here is when the plane turns around in one single shot. The show was also the occasion for Itô (and others) to play around with missiles and try out their own kind of Itano circuses. The work on shading and effects shapes is even more radical here, but the missile movement is also interesting. Whereas Kanada-style missile movement always felt very spontaneous, as if each projectile moved at its own pace and trajectory, here the motion of each missile feels more coordinated and precise. Itano’s more detailed and methodical approach had seeped into the spontaneity and freedom of the Kanada animators, creating the mixture which would become so characteristic of 80s mechanical animation.

In that regard, it was probably on Project A-Ko that Itô gave his all. Indeed, mechanical design and animation were credited to Studio Graviton, and were in fact handled by Itô and Shôichi Masuo, with Itô handling robots and land weapons. It was therefore natural for him to animate most of the city fight scene involving human and alien tanks. This is some very interesting work, in part because—let’s say it—it isn’t very good. 

In terms of effects, Itô seems to be torn between the Kanada and Itano styles. The smoke is very round and dark, in a typically Itano way, but the triangular explosion effects have a more Kanada feel. The beams of the alien tanks, however, are very clearly inspired by Kanada’s own beam effects on the Odin movie, which had come out a year prior. But the strangest thing about this cut is the extremely awkward debris work. When one of the alien tanks comes out of a building, said building breaks down in a series of rectangular pieces of debris. Their number, and the attention given to their detail, clearly shows that Itô had been trying to mimic Anno and Masuo, his colleagues from Graviton—here, however, it doesn’t really work. The extremely regular shapes feel very strange, and the debris just flies around in a jarring fashion. If you look at it frame-by-frame, it seems that there just isn’t enough detail: whereas Anno would animate entirely on 1s, with very close spacings and tonnes of little shapes, the framerate here is more irregular, and the motion feels more awkward than anything. It’s hard to tell, but it’s also very possible that the in-betweener just wasn’t able to follow-up on the key animation, and it ended up creating this weird feeling.

Kanada’s effects on Odin (left) and Itô’s on A-Ko (right)

However awkward his animation could have been, Itô’s work on A-Ko was an important step in his career, probably what made him acknowledged not just as an animator, but also as a mechanical designer and animation director, two positions he would get more often as the 90s started. Sadly, his work until the early 2010s hasn’t been thoroughly tracked down, with a few exceptions on his contributions to more famous works such as Dirty Pair: Project Eden and Dangaiô (1987), Gunbuster (1989), Irresponsible Captain Tylor (1993) and Tokimeki Memorial: Only Love (2006). Itô was working almost exclusively on SF/mecha OVAs until the turn of this century, and what’s most interesting about him at that time, from what I can say, is that he stuck to the Kanada style while continuously integrating its evolution. From that perspective, his most interesting work are his cuts for Macross 7, on which he was mechanical AD and key animator.

This sequence from the series is very iconic, and it’s not coincidence Itô was given the all-important bank transformation sequence. The effects here are much tamer than his stark, Yamashita-style, 80s work, and the mechanical animation much more detailed and fluid. What strikes me is that Itô seems to have been taking influence from the other most important mechanical animator of the late 80s: Masami Obari, with whom he had worked a bit. Indeed, the sequence feels very fluid, and at the end is animated entirely on 1s and 2s, something that Obari often resorted to in his extremely detailed animation. Thanks to the light shading and camera movement, we can clearly see how the different parts of the mecha fit together, making this a treat to watch.

In recent years, however, Itô’s name has been brought back to attention, most notably thanks to his frequent and illustrious contributions to Gen’Ei O Kakeru Taiyô in 2013 and Digimon Tri in 2015, making him one of the few historical members of the Kanada school still animating so much and so well. However, his recent work has clearly adapted to the evolution of the Kanada style and now owes as much to Yamashita as to Kanada’s late period and its reworking by the Neo-Kanada animators.

On the magical girl show Gen’Ei, he was given the transformation sequences, as well as some of the most climactic action scenes, in which he certainly delivered. The effects are very easily recognizable, with their angular and abstract shapes, especially in the impact frame of this sequence. But the most notable is the complexity and intricacy of Itô’s animation, which is notable here in two instances. In the fourth shot, as the girl takes out her giant axe, making a cool Obari pose, she moves away from the camera in a series of wild positions. Although her movement is obscured by the effects and the CG object moving across the screen, making this cut a bit crowded, the girl is animated on 1s which gives an impression of very fast and wild motion. The other notable moment is the third shot before the end of the sequence, as the monster is hit and seems to melt from the impact. Once again, the compositing doesn’t make this very readable, but the animation seems to be on three levels of depth: on the first level, red effects, then the slimy body of the monster, and in the center the CG card that’s the creature’s core. All of these elements move at the same time yet at different frame rates, making it very complex.

However, on Digimon, Itô went one step further. His effects are still as striking and characteristic as ever, but what’s so notable are the layouts and their richness. The amount of detail put into the animation really shows how much Obari must have been an influence on Itô; even though the former quit making such intricate mechanical animation, you can still find bits of it there, especially in the framerate, often on 1s and 2s. But what strikes me the most about this cut in particular are the effects, and the way Itô subverted one of the major aspects of Yamashita-Kanada angular fire effects. Generally, these’re noted for their complete irrealism, and for the fact that they don’t have any sense of tridimensionality: basically, they feel flat and have no real physical existence. But here, especially from 0:15 to 0:20, Itô makes a full use of the show’s thick-lined aesthetic, and gives them an impressive sense of volume. The objects being drawn are water and ice, and the drawing really creates an impression of physicality through the way they make curves, circular shapes, and through the characteristically Kanada-style shading.

Although not as acknowledged as many of his peers, Kôji Itô has been a major, original figure of the Kanada school since the early 1980s. Much of his work as a mechanical animator in the late 80s to early 90s remains to be identified, but there’s something very impressive in the fact that he is still a major representative of the Kanada style, and that—even after so much experience and time in the industry—he still manages to renew it and make it feel fresh.

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