Artist spotlight: Shôichi Masuo

Cover image: a 1990 Nadia: the Secret of Blue Water illustration by Shôichi Masuo

This article is part of the History of the Kanada School series

With this third artist spotlight dedicated to Shôichi Masuo, I’ll start analyzing the works of some animators who are not prominently affiliated with the Kanada school or style. Why do this? The main reasons are as follows: first, Masuo, just like all the other animators I’ll cover, has been in close contact with members of the Kanada school and his style can be understood in relationship with their own, whether in its continuity or contrast with it. Second, Masuo is one of the most important animators of the 80s and 90s, and a master of effects and mechanical animation. These are the fields Kanada and many of his followers specialized in during the same period, and it’s therefore worth understanding the more general context in which their own style developed. Finally, I believe Masuo is a forgotten figure in non-Japanese animation discourse, despite being one of the most important Japanese effects animators and one of the core staff members of Studio Gainax. The goal of this series is partly to highlight some less important figures, or underrated aspects of the work of more famous ones; I hope this article will help give Masuo some of the recognition he deserves.

I have already mentioned Masuo many times in my article on Studio Graviton, and I will go through this part of his career quickly to avoid repetition. There are, however, some more things I should note. The first one is Masuo’s formation. Just like fellow Graviton member Kôji Itô, Masuo was born in the early 60s and is part of that generation who began their training in actual animation schools and not directly in studios’ more or less fleshed out training programs. Masuo came from an important institution, the Tokyo Designer Gakuin College. Created in 1963, this branch of the Tokyo Design Institute was officially approved as a vocational school in 1977 and features, among its departments, one for manga and one for animation. When Masuo entered it (around 1978–1979, most probably), the animation department seems to have already existed, and the fact is that many future great animators and directors came from TDG: Shin Itagaki, Akiyuki Shinbô, Osamu Nabeshima, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Tetsuya Nishio and Yô Yoshinari, to just name the most famous. Even Kanada had entered it, but he dropped out after just one year. It also seems that many members of studios Z2 and Z3 were alumni of the school. Among Masuo’s classmates was another future prominent Gainax member, Masayuki, and they joined Studio Giants together in 1981.

A sign of Masuo’s talent, and perhaps too of the quality of the training he’d received, is that he was immediately given key animation on the Goshogun and Godmars mecha series, without ever passing through the in-betweening stage. Until 1983, he stayed at Giants and worked on many of the essential early Kanada-school playgrounds: Game Center Arashi, Rainbowman, Sasuga no Sarutobi, and finally Plawres Sanshirô. On the latter, he animated on the second half of the first episode, in a probable duo with Kanada himself. However, the really big event in Masuo’s career would be in 1984, working on Macross: Do You Remember Love? He had, by that time, gone freelance, and was acknowledged enough to work as assistant animation director on the movie. This was where he met Hideaki Anno, leading to the creation of Graviton a few months later; most importantly, though, this is where he first made contact with the Itano style of animation that he would adopt and refine for the rest of his career.

Indeed, Masuo’s style, especially in the 80s, is probably the best synthesis between Kanada and Itano, as this sequence from Project A-Ko shows. The complex layouts, the detailed mechanical animation, the round and voluminous explosions and the amount of work put into the debris all scream “Itano”, and are very close to what Anno was doing at the same time. But what set Masuo apart were the persistent use of Kanada-style effects (here, especially the beams) and impact frames. Although they were still a frequent technique to indicate a shock, one of the most notable ways in which Masuo used them was by inserting entirely white frames at the beginning or end of the impact. The use he made of these frames was therefore very different from the easter eggs many other animators slipped into theirs: it was more methodical and thought-out, the two adjectives that best describe Masuo’s animation.

Masuo’s impacts

Because of the similarities between their styles, Masuo and Anno quickly became close collaborators: when Graviton closed down, Masuo joined Studio Gainax. In 1987, he was assistant director in the studio’s first production, Wings of Honneamise, whereas Anno was in charge of layouts, joint animation direction, and key animation. The movie was, and still is, a masterpiece of effects animation and one of Anno’s greatest achievements as an animator, in which he showed his complete mastery for effects animation, cinematography, and realism as a whole. His work there has been analyzed in detail by professional animation critic Ryusuke Hikawa on the movie’s BD box—I’m citing an excerpt of his work here:

It is not too much to say special effects can be represented by explosions. Various explosions have been represented in many anime films. Hideaki Anno’s explosions have a certain form; flames swell in several spheres and turn into smoke. This is very true to the basics. Still, one can see Anno’s characteristics within that depiction. […] When a tank is bombed and explodes, shock waves disperse first. Then, a flame from the explosion spurts up, and dispersion of infinite amounts of shrapnel is expressed by ripples on the lake surface. Multi-layer depiction in micro and macro scales gives the explosion scene a feeling of pleasure that we’ve never had before.

Ryusuke Hikawa’s breakdown of an explosion from Wings of Honneamise

Masuo didn’t animate in the movie, but he was just biding his time. He participated in many major productions from the late 80s such as Dangaiô, Char’s Counterattack (on which he was, along with Anno, joint mechanical designer) and Akira. But his real breakthrough was in 1988 on Gunbuster, where he served as Anno’s assistant with the post of episode director. He also did key animation on four of the six episodes. He is most notably the hand behind some of the most iconic moments of episode 4’s apocalyptic battle scene.

In this sequence, a lot of importance is put into the character animation. It’s not amazing acting, and Masuo wasn’t an expert in that field, but it conveys the moment’s intensity very well through its stylized shadow effects and fluid movement. The other highlight would be the “mecha acting”, so to speak: the detailed and fluid movement of the Buster Machine, almost entirely on 2s with some bursts of 1s. In the second shot, the motion of the arms is very wide, in sharp contrast to the trembling effect when it appears to focus its power. If I write of “mecha acting”, it’s because this movement feels very natural and human, neatly expressing the close link between Noriko and her robot. This is very interesting, because if you look at the storyboard, the second part of this sequence is very detailed, but the first half isn’t: Masuo received more leeway, and delivered a nuanced, powerful moment.

The other amazing aspect of this cut is, of course, the lightning effects and explosion at the end. The explosion feels very original, because it’s not just one of those many Anno-style bubble-like explosions seen so often in the OVA. This is especially the case between 0:21 and 0:23: there’s a rougher feeling here, more reminiscent of the painted bank explosions of 70s super robot anime than the cleaner linework of Itano- and Anno-style explosions. Regarding the lightning, even though it’s just a detail, it’s important to note how Masuo goes around with the cycle animation: it’s not just 2 or 3 frames on repeat, but something like 4 or 5, on an irregular pace. Not every animator would have put in this kind of care, and it really reveals Masuo’s meticulous nature.

His next major work would be on another Anno series: Nadia, The Secret of Blue Water. He was an important figure on this show, storyboarding and directing episodes 2 and 15, serving as mechanical AD on the last two episodes, and key-animating in ten of them. I don’t think it’s too exaggerated to say that his work on Nadia was probably his career’s peak. The two episodes he directed are quite good, starting off slowly but building to emotional high points, with lots of nice mechanical stuff going on. But the real highlight is all the sequences he animated. Benjamin Ettinger has already made a detailed post about this, so I’m mostly going to sum up his conclusions.

The most striking aspect evoked by Ettinger is Masuo’s attention to detail, and especially his handling of the multiplanarity of the image, which comes out not in the actual animation—where it’s not that visible—but in the timing sheets. Reading timing sheets is quite an abstract and technical art, so I’m just going to let Ettinger explain:

At the most basic level, the intricacy of the planning of the shots means that you need the time sheet to understand what’s going on in the various drawings, which are usually scattered over at least 5 layers. His time sheets are a work of art in and of themselves in the amount of thought and planning that they represent. […] A few other time sheets were included [in the key frames book], and in each case, although the piece of animation is quite nice and well timed, it’s different from Masuo’s animation in that, usually, everything takes place on one layer. There isn’t the need for meticulous planning and division of parts of the kind seen in Masuo’s shots. Each of Masuo’s shots comes across like a miniature film.

Key frames and a timing sheet from one of Masuo’s sequences on Nadia

Ettinger goes so far as to credit Masuo with a small revolution in effects animation that made waves all over the industry, reaching legends such as Mitsuo Iso and Takashi Hashimoto. His style is not flashy, nothing like Kanada or Itano, or even like Anno, who drowns the viewer in seas of little debris scattering all over the screen. In that, he is perhaps one of the best heirs of Kazuhide Tomonaga’s philosophy: an animation that doesn’t try to display the cool style of the person behind it, but rather searches for consistency and clarity. This comes off most clearly in this sequence.

First, note that most (if not all) of the cut is on 1s or 2s. In other words, this is a lot of work, and is what gives Masuo’s animation this sense of fluidity and ease that makes Nadia so special. The choreography is fully controlled: in the two shots between 0:10 and 0:14, the rotation of the missiles and torpedoes feels perfectly natural, even if each object is probably on a different cel and moving on a slightly different trajectory. This is important, because in anime, animators tend to use as few cels as possible, which already makes complex cuts challenging. But Masuo did the opposite, which is no less intricate, as it requires the animator to keep all the different layers of cel in mind at once, even as they draw on separate sheets.

In these four seconds where the torpedoes explode, you might also have noted the number of impact frames: no less than seven, with four being completely blank. They are very visible here, but the others are as striking and well placed. Moreover, they manage to create a sense of surprise, especially when, in the first shot, the torpedo explodes and lets out a series of little spherical bombs: you don’t expect it to suddenly break out and launch more projectiles. The general sense of space of the scene is also very well managed: even though the camera cuts between under- and above-water, the viewer is never lost, partly thanks to the trails left by the different missiles. This is very well thought-out since, in the classical Itano Circus, these trails usually create a sense of saturation of the frame, and tend to overwhelm the viewer with the sheer amount of information—here, they’re used for a radically opposite purpose. Finally, while it is one of this sequence’s most simple aspects, the volume of the water/smoke effects remains exemplary.

Since I’m mostly focusing on Masuo’s Gainax work here, I’ll skip some of his other work during the 90s (I’ll come back at least to Irresponsible Captain Tylor in another article) and go right to his contributions to Evangelion. It must be noted that he directed one episode, and not one of the least important: episode 23, which featured some of the most intense moments in the series. He also animated on eight other episodes and is probably, along with Yô Yoshinari, responsible for some of the show’s most iconic pieces of animation. Although Yoshinari never mentioned it, it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t receive at least some influence or lessons from the studio’s foremost mecha and effects animator. If only partly, this idea is supported by the fact that episode 23 was a collaboration, with Masuo as a director and Yoshinari as a mechanical animation director (and storyboards by Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki).

Masuo’s most striking work as an animator on Evangelion is probably in episode 5, when Unit 00 goes berserk, a sequence which he is presumed to have contributed to. What’s most notable there is without a doubt his work on the timing: as the Eva Unit staggers around, the motion is exceptionally erratic for Masuo, with a framerate that wildly oscillates from 1s to 4s and everything in-between. This really creates the feeling that this is a living, conscious and unpredictable being, something obviously very important for the series.

Masuo would remain a key asset for the Evangelion franchise, although he has been overshadowed by more charismatic animators such as Mitsuo Iso or Tetsuya Nishio. On The End of Evangelion, he mostly contributed to the attack on the Geofront. He worked on the first three Rebuilds, and, as an animator, handled a lot of the big explosions.

More generally, after Evangelion, his career seems to have taken two big directions. In terms of animation proper, he went even further in the direction of fluidity, and for that adopted a cleaner style, with more photorealistic, bubbly smoke and explosion effects. His work on the first Pokemon series, especially the movies, particularly exemplifies this tack. On the other hand, Masuo seems to have completely embraced the shift to digital photography, which might explain the even cleaner look of his 2000s style. He became somewhat of an expert in the field: besides his more frequent assignments to the post of mechanical designer or animation director, he took on such responsibilities as “digital director” on Diebuster, “CG motion animator” on Rocket Girl and “special skill director” on the Rebuilds.

Masuo passed away in July 2017, aged 57. This was a premature death, and it was deeply mourned by industry figures and animation fans alike. He doesn’t seem very well-known among non-Japanese fans (I myself had never come across his name before researching for this series), but he was an essential figure in anime. Even before the Akira revolution, he had borne the flag of a new and realistic approach to effects animation, something he would strive to perfect throughout his career. In the 2000s, his association with pioneering studios like Gonzo and his work in digital and CG animation made him model of an open-minded, adaptable animator; just like with Kanada, it must have been surprising to see one of the most iconic figures of the analog age so readily adopting new technologies and workflows. But this methodical animator pulled it off with the same apparent ease he had shown in everything he had done before, in yet another proof of his talent and determination.

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