Graviton, Gainax, and the Itano school

Cover image: a Pop Chaser illustration by Hideaki Anno

This article is part of the Kanada school series.

Among all the artists influenced by Yoshinori Kanada, Ichirô Itano is probably one of the most important. And yet, he is never considered a Kanada-style animator, most likely because their styles look very different. One of the most important mechanical and effects animators of the 1980s, Itano revolutionized how SF anime would look, and his students, direct or indirect, scattered all over the industry. While it might seem to steer us a further away from Kanada, taking a look at what I call the “Itano school” is important, for two reasons. First, Itano himself was inspired by Kanada and many animators who followed him often took cues from the Kanada style. Second, taking a look at Itano’s students and their career is one of the best routes into the incredibly dense and rich field of the 80s: it’s easy to get lost among the many productions and studios birthed by the OVA boom.

To try to keep a focus in this mess, this essay will center around one of Itano’s most talented and famous students: Hideaki Anno. Rather than just chasing Anno as an individual, I will follow the history of a “studio” he contributed to create: not the very famous Gainax, but the smaller and lesser-known Graviton, which existed from 1984 to 1987.

Ichirô Itano and Hideaki Anno

Let’s begin with Itano himself, who started it all. He began his career as an in-betweener in 1977, at the subcontracting company Studio Musashi, who mostly worked with Sunrise at the time. Although Musashi never was a central actor in anime history, it’s where at least some major figures of the 80s did make their start: Itano started there alongside two other men we’ll meet again later in this piece, Yûji Moriyama and Shôichi Masuo. Itano is the eldest of the three: he was born in 1959, whereas the other two were born in 1960.

Itano quickly went freelance and started working on Leiji Matsumoto space operas: Galaxy Express 999 and Space Battleship Yamato. But his first real opportunity came in 1979, when in-between checker Mamoru Hamatsu invited him to join Sunrise for their new mecha show: Mobile Suit Gundam. After in-betweening on episodes 5 and 12, he made his debut on episode 19 as a (non-credited) key animator.

For Itano, like for most of his generation, Kanada was probably something of a distant figure he admired and sought to surpass. However, the real inspiration for Itano’s approach may in fact be Kazuhide Tomonaga, who had been after all the star of Space Battleship Yamato and one of the most prominent mechanical animators of the 70s. This dual influence is what made Itano avoid becoming just another Kanada copycat. In fact, most of his cuts on the first few episodes of Gundam look much more like Tomonaga than Kanada. This is especially the case in the excellent episode 29, the first one in which Itano was credited as key animator: the attention to the shading and volume of the effects, and especially the animation on 2s, are clearly efforts to resemble Tomonaga.

What Itano took from Kanada, however, was his attention to layouts and complex three-dimensional movement. Even before the amazing space battles that would make him famous, he was innovating with complex choreographies, jumps and fights. Itano was a bold animator, one who wasn’t afraid to handle extremely complex scenes like episode 31’s flamingo flocks which made him somewhat famous inside Sunrise. Paradoxically, he was probably able to do this due to the poor state of Gundam’s production: with its animation director and layout artist Yoshikazu Yasuhiko in the hospital during the end of the show’s runtime, Itano had as much freedom as he wanted to experiment in all directions, and he was one of the last animators to keep the show going in the last stretch of the final episodes.

After having left a strong mark on Gundam’s animation, Itano was soon approached by Tomonori Kogawa, head of Studio Beebow, one of Sunrise’s foremost subcontractors. Taking Yasuhiko’s place in the yearly rotation established by Sunrise, Kogawa would serve as the character designer and animation director of Tomino’s next series: Space Runaway Ideon. Among many other impressive sequences, it was on episode 29 of Ideon that Itano invented his most famous technique: the eponymous “Itano Circus”, in which missiles trail off in all directions and move freely across the frame. It was also on the show that he really developed his own individual style, most notably his trademark round, bubble-like explosions.

Although Ideon failed commercially, it left a strong mark on the still-developing otaku culture, and probably sent waves all throughout the anime industry for its complex, harrowing storyline and powerful animation. In just two years, Itano had become a name you couldn’t ignore when talking about mecha; that’s why he was asked by mechanical designer Shôji Kawamori to join him in his young studio, Artland, for their first original anime, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross.

At the same time, another young and promising animator was on the rise: Hideaki Anno, who was just one year younger than Itano. His first major work had been on the amateur short Daicon III, which exhibited some animation good enough for professional work. It so happened that among the audience for Daicon III were some staff from Studio Nue, the studio that produced Macross. They asked Anno to join them and, in late 1982, he and his comrade Toshio Okada went to Tokyo to see what life was like on a professional anime series. Anno’s first job was to assist Itano, who was not just key animator but also mechanical animation director. He would quickly become a key animator, on episodes 9, 24 and 27, but also an uncredited assistant animation director on some episodes, helping to correct and improve still frames.

Itano’s influence on Anno is obvious: the latter took from the former his iconic spherical explosions, the sprays of white paint to indicate debris, and the generally realistic approach to intricate mechanical animation. It is no surprise, then, that Anno brought Itano with him when he came back to Osaka to work on Daicon IV, along with another major staff member from Macross, Toshihiro Hirano.

It was after that manifesto of otaku culture and little masterpiece of animation that Anno came to Tokyo for the second time and got involved in some of the biggest projects of one of the anime industry’s busiest years, 1984. The first one such project was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The movie’s production ran from May 1983 to March 1984; considering that Daicon IV was shown in August 1983 and that, straight after, Anno starred in Daicon Film’s tokusatsu movie Yamata no Orochi no Gyakushu, he must have moved to Tokyo in the fall of 1983. At least, it’s known that he had no stable place to live and just slept in the building of Topcraft, the studio that produced Nausicaä, from November 1983 to February 1984.

Then, from May, he started working on Macross: Do You Remember Love? another ambitious production—and, again, he slept at the studio. But that was not all: on Nausicaä, he had been noticed not only by Hayao Miyazaki, but also by Yoshinori Kanada, who must have invited him to participate in Birth, which he animated on in June. In a probable indication of the OVA’s messy production, he reportedly had to “beg” Kanada for his pay, which he only received five months later. And that was not all: somewhere between April and November, he created Graviton with Shôichi Masuo, and, just after that, Gainax, on the 24th of December 1984.

A comic by Hideaki Anno recounting how he spent the year 1984. Translation here

Creating Graviton

The four founding members of Graviton were Hideaki Anno, Shôichi Masuo, Koji Itô and Katsuhiko Nishijima. Who were these people, and how did they all meet?

The first of them, Shôichi Masuo, was born in 1960 and joined Studio Giants in 1981. He worked there on various SF series. His most notable works in his Studio Giants period are his uncredited sequences on Game Center Arashi, Sasuga no Sarutobi and Plawres Sanshirô, although his animation at this point was no different from the run-of-the-mill Kanada style. When he worked on the last two shows, in 1983, he had probably already gone freelance; it was still as a freelancer that he took part in Do You Remember Love? as assistant animation director. Working under the supervision of Itano is probably what marked his transition to the Itano style and constituted his real debut as an effects animator. It’s there that Masuo met Anno, and that they became close enough to think of creating something together.

Besides Macross, the other anime that made Graviton possible is probably Birth. Anno was credited as an Animator on it, just like Koji Itô, an already prominent mecha and effects animator who had done some of Plawres Sanshirô’s best animation. It’s also most probably thanks to Birth and the connections of the Kaname Pro staff that they came into contact with Katsuhiko Nishijima. He had never worked with the studio, but was a member of Studio Live and a regular contributor to Urusei Yatsura. Considering the close contacts between the production and Kaname Pro, it’s in Kanada’s direct circles, of which Anno had temporarily become a member, that all of this must have happened.

All this being said, what was Graviton like? With just four members, we obviously can’t expect anything large-scale. In fact, Graviton resembled most small outsourcing or in-betweening studios, the only difference being the talent, later fame, and connections of its members. Basically, it was four friends renting an apartment where they had installed all that was necessary for animation, and maybe also for living there for a while. It’s hard to tell what Graviton’s precise legal status was, but it was probably closer to a collective of freelancers in what we’d today call a ‘coworking’ space than the kind of outfit we associate with the word ‘studio’. It was a way for friends to share expenses and tools, and gave them opportunities to work on one another’s projects. 

Small groupings like this appear so frequently in the anime industry because they’re an intermediate structure between larger studios and freelancing. Large studios give animators relative security, but impose a lot of responsibility and offer little freedom to choose projects or colleagues. Going freelance creates maximum freedom, but is also a very unstable situation, in which someone might go months without work—and so without pay!—as Anno had learned, painfully, in 1984, when he was still alone in Tokyo.

Because of its very nature, the “Studio” Graviton rarely worked as a cohesive group. Masuo and Ito, as well as Masuo and Anno, would keep joining for collaborations long after the breakup of the “studio”, while Nishijima quickly went off on his own. In fact, not one of the “studio” projects discussed below brought all four members together at once. Their first work as a group, Urusei Yatsura episode 133, featured only Anno and Masuo. Then, for Megazone 23, which came out on March 5, 1985, Nakajima was absent. At the same time, for their contribution on Cream Lemon’s fourth episode, Pop Chaser, which came out eight days after Megazone 23, it was Anno, Masuo and Nishijima. Finally, on Nishijima’s Project A-Ko, which came out on June, 21, 1986, Anno wasn’t there and it was only Ito and Masuo who helped out. With this chronology in mind, let’s go over these works.

A good start: Urusei Yatsura

It’s hard to say without precise dates, but Urusei Yatsura episode 133 was probably the first work Graviton participated in. It’s even, probably, the reason Graviton was established in the first place: Anno or Masuo (or both) had the opportunity to work on that specific episode, but needed somewhere to do it—so they rented a place with friends, and it became their little studio. This episode is also important because of the studio to which it was actually subcontracted: Studio MIN.

MIN was established in 1982 and, just like Graviton, was just a small structure, a place for animators to sleep and work in; it had a longer lifespan, though, as it existed until 1991. Among its foremost members were Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Hideki Tamura, Yoshiharu Fukushima, Nobuteru Yûki, and Yûji Moriyama. As I mentioned earlier, Moriyama started in Studio Musashi with Itano, and they worked as in-betweeners on similar shows in the late 70s. After that, Moriyama joined various studios, most notably Neo Media. He left Neo Media in 1982 to create MIN, which would mark the start of his ties to Urusei Yatsura. He quickly became a close associate of Mamoru Oshii, close enough to co-write a manga with him in 1984. On Urusei Yatsura, he storyboarded and directed some episodes, but was most notably animation director for thirteen instalments, becoming one of the central figures of the Deen phase of the series. It is also most probably him who introduced Nishijima to Anno and Masuo.

Episodes 132 and 133 of Urusei Yatsura are two parts of the same story, directed by regular Sunrise contributor Iku Suzuki, introducing a new character, Asuka. To tell the truth, they’re far from my favorite episodes, but they did have some notable staff: 132’s animation director was Tsukasa Dokite, an important 80s Sunrise figure mostly known for his work on Dirty Pair.

On 133, Moriyama was both storyboarder and animation director. Besides Masuo and Anno, two prominent MIN figures were present as key animators: Kumiko Kawana and Hideki Tamura. First, it must be noted that this episode is a good example showcasing Masahito Yamashita’s influence on the industry and on the series: it’s full of sustained chase scenes in the style that he had initiated. But what really interested Graviton’s animators was the second part of the episode, when a full-scale battle breaks out and fighter planes fly around in huge numbers.

Anno’s explosions on Urusei Yatsura 133 (top), Daicon IV (bottom left) and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (bottom right)

Despite this, Anno seems to have not taken his work very seriously: he had already been pretty busy with other projects, and a rumor says that he left some of his cuts unfinished. The fact that he didn’t go for much originality and basically reused the same explosion patterns as in Daicon IV and Nausicaä lends some support to this story. It was, therefore, mostly Masuo’s gig. He delivered some of his best work, and showed that he was at least as good as Anno with amazing effects work and some impressive Itano Circuses.

The breakthrough: Megazone 23

After the pioneers that were Dallos and Birth, Megazone 23 was, along with Genmu Senki Leda (released just a week before), one of the first major and successful OVAs, and offers one of the best looks at the format in its early years. After Birth’s failure, it was the second venture of music producer Victor Music Industry into the market. Megaozone 23 was a safer bet, since they could use an in-universe idol to market their songs, and it ended up a success: with 26,000 copies sold, it remained one of the best-selling OVAs for some time.

Megazone was the first OVA produced by Artland, and it clearly looked back to their previous success, the Macross series. It took most of Macross’s themes and motifs (idols, consumerism, spaceship cities…), and reunited most of the central staff: Noboru Ishiguro as director, Toshihiro Hirano and Haruhiko Mikimoto as character designers and animation directors, and Itano as “action director”, storyboarder, and animation director. With all these people on the production, it was a matter of course that Anno would join, bringing with him Itô and Masuo. Among the other major members of the staff, we can count Yasuomi Umetsu, Hiroyuki Kitazume and Masahito Yamashita.

Perhaps the first thing to note in the results is the use of background animation, an approach which would go on to become a staple of OVA productions and of the 80s aesthetic in general. This followed the path opened by Kazuhide Tomonaga and Kanada. Hiroaki Gôda had previously perfected and popularized the technique in the Kaname Pro OVAs, but Megazone used it even more prominently in dense city chase scenes. The application of background animation also differed: Kanada and his students used disorientating camera angles, in a show of virtuosity and playfulness. Here, it seems more inspired by Itano’s work on Macross and its almost absurd research into detail and three-dimensional space.

Besides Itano himself, the Graviton member working closest to this approach was Anno. In his sequence for Megazone 23, which lasts around ninety seconds, he used complex movements and had entire buildings animated down to the last part. The amount of detail impresses, and makes this one of Anno’s best works as animator: the little triangular pieces of debris fly around in all directions, making the scene dense, almost crowded. The explosions, characteristically round, feel heavy, as if this wasn’t just smoke but something solid.

Interestingly, Anno’s sequence is immediately followed by Masuo’s, while Itô’s comes up much later. This distribution creates a strong sense of contrast, clearly showing the resemblances and differences between the first two men’s styles. If Anno only furthered and systematized the stylistic innovations made by Itano, Masuo is more unique and represents a synthesis between Itano’s approach and the Kanada style: his explosions are the same as Anno’s in both shapes and colors, but the fire effects are much more angular, the shading is much starker, and, most importantly, he used many impact frames.  

Itô’s part displays a style even closer to Kanada’s. The circular shapes of the smoke and fire effects are slowly giving way to characteristically geometrical and angular effects. The use of colors is also simpler: the gunshots are pure white and the fire is just bichromatic, with shades of red and yellow. Finally, the timing is much slower and more irregular: whereas Anno and Masuo were mostly on 3s and 2s, Itô freely jumps from 4s to 1s.

The main influence here was probably not just Kanada, but Yamashita. Yamashita’s systematic use of impact frames stands out and is the closest to Masuo’s, whereas his approach to shading and effects became even more radical and stylized. Yamashita was still miles away from what Itô was doing, but the latter clearly wanted to get there.

Getting wild: from Pop Chaser to Project A-Ko

Just eight days after Megazone 23 came out, another OVA project Graviton members had worked on was released: the fourth episode of the Cream Lemon hentai OVA series, Pop Chaser. Pornography was one of the driving forces of the OVA market. One of the very first OVAs, one which started in February 1984, is also considered to be one of the first porn anime: titled Lolita Anime, it rode on the contemporary lolicon boom. It adapted a manga by Fumio Nakajima published in Lemon People, one of the time’s most prominent lolicon magazines, and was quickly followed by other projects. The most prominent among them was Cream Lemon, a series of original stories with recurring characters, often in surreal or absurd situations, that started its release in August 1984.

Cream Lemon was the first production of a new studio, APPP (short for “Another Push Pin Planning”, whatever that’s supposed to mean); Kazufumi Nomura established APPP in  June 1984. A former Mushi Pro employee, Nomura was most notable for his part in creating AIC, another major actor in the OVA market, in 1982. In other words, he wasn’t a nobody. Nomura had contacts all over the industry, most notably with Toshihiro Hirano and Madhouse; through this net of connections, they would go on to make Robot Carnival and Rôjin Z.

For this article’s purpose, though, the connection that matters the most is the one with Katsuhiko Nishijima. Although I don’t have the complete chronology, his involvement with the Cream Lemon series seems to date from December 1984, when he published a Project A-Ko dôjin that was meant to become the backbone of episode 3 of Cream Lemon. However, plans progressively changed as A-Ko became a separate and much more ambitious project, while Nishijima’s involvement in Cream Lemon proper happened in episode 4, the famed “Pop Chaser”. “Pop Chaser” thus became a bit of a test run for A-Ko, then still in development: most notably,  the character and mechanical designs were partly done by Yûji Moriyama, joint character designer and animation director for A-Ko

An illustration by Katsuhiko Nishijima, from the original 1984 Project A-Ko doujin

It must be noted that, as in most instalments of Cream Lemon, the staff worked under pseudonyms: Nakajima was credited as “Shima x Hiko”, while Anno’s and Masuo’s names appear in hiragana rather than kanji in the credits. Besides them, Pop Chaser featured some other big names: the climax of the first sex scene was notably handled by a young Toshiyuki Inoue, for instance. This title was probably also the first collaboration between Masayuki, a friend of Masuo from Studio Giants, and Graviton. Masuo, Masayuki and Anno would form a trio who would sit at the core of many Gainax productions, from Wings of Honneamise to the Evangelion Rebuilds. Finally, it’s probably on Pop Chaser that Graviton gained a new member, Hiroaki Gôda.

If this specific episode stands out among all the other ones from Cream Lemon, it’s probably because of how much its setting appealed to the more general otaku aesthetic, beyond its well-established hentai tropes. The SF-Western setting might seem original, but it mostly enabled the action to take place in the kinds of deserted landscapes Nausicaä, Birth and Fist of the North Star had made popular. Moreover, it had the kind of crazy energy only found in short OVA productions, the sort that A-Ko would take to the extreme. The first half of the episode is fun, but it’s mostly build-up for the concluding. It’s really in the second half that all hell breaks loose, and it’s this half on which the Graviton animators worked.

Pop Chaser is very much like A-Ko and other such projects (Dream Hunter Rem, say) in that it demonstrates the hybridization of the Kanada and Itano styles into what might be called in very general terms “80s anime aesthetics”. This short sequence by Anno and Masuo is a good example. The explosions are characteristically Anno-ish, with a coloring very close to his work on Nausicaä, and the mandatory Itano Circus. But the numerous impact frames which Masuo snuck in, as well as the shading and the way the thruster effects are handled, are distinctly inspired by Kanada. Most of the comedic acting of the episode is in the Kanada style, and wouldn’t have been out of place in Urusei Yatsura.

In many ways, Project A-Ko simply and logically followed up everything Pop Chaser had initiated. It marked the apex of the Graviton/MIN collaboration, and probably of the 80s OVA culture at large. Produced by APPP, it was directed by Nishijima, with Moriyama doing character designs. The mechanical designs were credited to Graviton, with Itô and Masuo serving as mechanical animation directors. In animator terms, it was very much a transitional work, in two ways. First, it was Graviton’s final major piece; second, it reunited some of the staff of Urusei Yatsura, and those who hadn’t already done so would subsequently spread all over the industry: people like Shinsaku Kôzuma, Asami Endô, Tsukasa Dokite, Hideki Tamura and Atsuko Nakajima. 

It’s hard to say anything that hasn’t been said before about Project A-Ko, so I’ll just leave it at that. It’s one of the decade’s most iconic works, but not a very deep one, and its animation, while very good, is pretty much in the same register as all the OVAs made by MIN and Graviton. So I’ll conclude with the latter studio’s dissolution. I don’t have an exact date for it, but the causes are pretty clear. With A-Ko, Nishijima had finally become director, and he would carry on the franchise for the years to come. On the other hand, Anno had begun distancing himself from these relatively small-scale projects, as he was being kept busy by Gainax’s higher ambitions: he would be one of the most prominent figures of Wings of Honneamise in 1987, before his first major directorial work on Gunbuster in 1988. He was followed by Masayuki and Masuo, who entered Gainax around that time. Itô, the closest to the Kanada style, wasn’t really a fit for the very realist Gainax approach, so he entered another small studio named Actus and kept working on OVAs until the end of the decade.

Studio Graviton was but one of the many actors of the mid-80s and the OVA boom, but it is important and representative. Small structures, barely big enough to warrant being called “studios”, blossomed all over the industry and cemented anime’s peculiar division of labor, built around outsourcing, personal connections and difficult working conditions encouraged by mass production. The work of Graviton is also typical of the aesthetic mutations of anime at the time: while animators such as Masahito Yamashita, Shinsaku Kôzuma or Kazuhiro Ochi still upheld an orthodox approach to the Kanada style, it had begun to lose its originality in others’ hands. Less-talented animators started using it, less for its innovative aspects than because it was easy to handle and because it had entered anime’s basic vocabulary. This is why, around 1987–1988, two new trends began to emerge: on the one hand, the realism hallmarked by the revolutionary Akira, and on the other, a new generation of bold young animators who would form what I’d call the “second-generation Kanada school”.

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