Toshihiro Hirano and AIC studio

Cover image: a Dangaiô lillustration by Toshihiro Hirano

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

As I mentioned in the previous article about Graviton, the OVA boom was very much carried by small structures and the overlapping nets of connections made by their members. It appears that the two most important places where all these people met and first exchanged their ideas were Urusei Yatsura, starting in 1981, and Macross, in 1982. Among the many people that contributed to these two epoch-making shows was Toshihiro (or Toshiki) Hirano, a central figure of 80’s animation. He was not just the director of some of the most iconic OVAs of the period and a key figure from the boom’s most important studio, AIC; it was also partly thanks to him that emerged what I call the “second-generation Kanada school”, the one that developed in the second half of the 80’s, influenced more by Masahito Yamashita than Kanada, but that also took in the contributions of Ichirô Itano and Takashi Nakamura. Its two most important figures are some of the most important animators since Kanada himself: Shin’ya Ohira and Masami Obari.

From animator to director

Before discussing those two figures, let’s start at the beginning, that is in 1976, with a 20 year old Hirano. A student from a design school, one day he had the opportunity to visit studio Tôei, and that’s where he met Takuo Noda, leader of Studio N°1, one of Tôei’s main subcontractors on mecha shows. Hirano then applied for a part-time job as in-betweener in N°1, and that’s where he made his start on Daikû Maryû Gaiking, just at the time when Kanada was beginning his breakthrough as the most important mecha animator of the studio, and perhaps of the entire industry. Hirano doesn’t seem to have taken his work very seriously, but thanks to N°1’s link with Tôei, he often worked with the latter and soon made his debut as key animator on Space Captain Harlock and Farewell Space Battleship Yamato.

The longest animated movie of all time when it came out, Farewell Yamato was probably one of the most ambitious animated productions ever at the time, and its staff list was full of stars: Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga as key animators, Shingo Araki and Masamune Ochiai as animation directors, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko as storyboarder… But the most decisive for Hirano’s career was probably the joint character designer and chief animation director: Tomonori Kogawa. Kogawa noticed Hirano and offered him to join his own studio Beebow.

Beebow would go on to become one of the most important subcontracting studios of the early 80’s—besides Hirano, its most famous alumnus was Ichirô Itano, recruited just after Mobile Suit Gundam. The studio’s first masterpiece was undoubtedly Space Runaway Ideon, in 1980. Hirano and Itano fondly remembered their friendly rivalry at the time: there were often only 3 key animators per episode, and Itano often took charge of the mechanical animation parts, leaving little room for the others. The sequel to the TV series, Be Invoked, was another landmark. Kogawa’s designs, fully revealing his unique Tatsunoko heritage, were more three-dimensional and statue-like than ever. The movie was not just a cinematic masterpiece, but one of the greatest achievements of animation history in terms of three-dimensional movement and character animation.

Once Be Invoked was over, Hirano left and established his own studio, Io, with 5 other members from Beebow. It was from there that Hirano would contribute to Macross, probably called on by Itano—although Io disbanded in the middle of the series’ production, which made Hirano join Artland when Itano did. It was on Macross that Hirano made his real breakthrough as a character animator. He was credited alternatively as animation director and “character animation director”: his work mostly consisted of adapting Haruhiko Mikimoto’s complex character designs to animation. Although the show’s character animation was sometimes disastrous (unlike its incredibly ambitious mechanical and effects animation), Hirano was quickly noticed by fans for the way he drew the main female character, Linn Minmay, and reportedly played a large part in her popularity. It’s also him that did most of the character parts of the Macross opening, while most of the mecha parts were by Itano.

Macross‘s main trio under Hirano’s pen. Especially in the right image, the lines are much softer and rounder than usual, making them all the more attractive

Macross was a central moment in Hirano’s career, as it was for most of its staff. It was, after all, his first major project. It made him acknowledged enough to become joint animation director on Do You Remember Love?, make his directorial debut in episode 7 of the Cream Lemon hentai series, “Mako Sexy Symphony”, and finally his first original character designs on the OVA Megazone 23.

Megazone was produced by AIC, short for Anime International Company. The studio had been established in July 1982, by former Mushi and Tezuka Productions animators after they had finished working on the 1980 Astro Boy series. They immediately started working on their own TV shows, the two SF mecha series Thunderbirds 2086 and Chôjû Kishin Dancougar, and the shôjo adaptation Glass no Kamen. The important figure here is Noboru Ishiguro, director of Space Battleship Yamato and Macross, but also of the 1980 Astro Boy and of Thunderbirds. He’s basically the one who made the bridge between AIC and the rest of the Macross staff, most notably Hirano.

In 1984, AIC wanted to ride on Macross’ popularity and produce a TV series of their own with the same staff: the project was initially titled Omega City 23, and borrowed some narrative elements that were scrapped during Do You Remember Love’s production. However, the series met exactly the same fate as Dallos and Birth, its two forerunners on the barely established OVA market: the toy line that was supposed to accompany it was cancelled, as well as AIC’s contract with the station Fuji TV. The studio then decided to repurpose the project as a feature film that would be released straight on video. It was around then that the project changed names.

In terms of staff, it reunited Ishiguro, Itano, and the members of studio Graviton. The designs were handled by Hirano himself, while Haruhiko Mikimoto was specially invited to design the idol character Eve. Both the fact that Megazone ended up as an OVA and had Hirano as its character designer was decisive for the entire market: it would prominently include fanservice and a sex scene, which probably played a large part in its success. This was a calculated move from the producers’ part, in order to reach an adult audience; but Hirano’s involvement must have played a role. Just after Megazone, he directed a hentai episode, and is well-known for including lots of fanservice and his very sexually evocative character designs.

I already commented on Megazone’s animation in the piece dedicated to Graviton, so I’ll be shorter here. But I’ll just note two things. First, having Mikimoto and Hirano designs coexisting in the same space shows very well the similarities and the differences between the two. Both have the same sensibility for beautiful female characters, and the large eyes, long eyelashes and small mouths of Hirano characters are definitely inspired by Mikimoto. However, they diverge in two major aspects. First, Mikimoto conceives his characters, especially the women, as beautiful; on the other hand, for Hirano, they have to be sexy. Mikimoto’s characters rarely give off an inherently sexual air, which is absolutely not the case for Hirano’s. The second main difference is that Mikimoto is more of an illustrator whose designs are absurdly complex and detailed—Hirano, on the other hand, has the animators in mind, which in turns make his characters a bit simpler. Rather than adding accessories or little elements, he’ll use the shading to his advantage, which makes the works he directed and character designed great displays of character animation as well—whereas the shows Mikimoto designed on can be a bit more limited in that aspect.

The other important thing about Megazone is its success. The OVA format had been steadily developing, but of the 19 productions that had come out before Megazone, 11 were porn. In a way, Megazone (along with Genmu Senki Leda) is what really triggered the boom: it quickly became the best-selling OVA of its year and would keep the top spot for some time. By 1986, the number of productions had reached 50, and in 1988 it was at 90. A single work was obviously not the single cause—the quick development of video rental shops played a huge role—but it undoubtedly set a certain standard of quality and tropes. This success is what enabled the top staff of Megazone to rise up as directors: while Ishiguro left AIC to work on Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Itano made his directorial debut in 1986 on Megazone 23: Part II, while Hirano started directed his own OVA Fight! Iczer One in November 1985.

From Iczer One to Dangaiô

Even more than Hirano’s previous work, Iczer One is a pure product of the lolicon boom—the characters are very young girls, and the OVA was the adaptation of an erotic manga published in the flagbearer of the lolicon movement, Lemon People. Hirano was quickly making this his trademark and was riding on the wave of “cute girls and mechas” that had quickly become characteristic of the OVA format. It was also a project in which Hirano was very deeply involved: he was director, character designer, chief animation director and storyboarder. He would keep the majority of these positions himself on most of his following OVAs.

For the other members of the staff, Hirano brought on many of the people he had had the opportunity to meet in his already rich career. It was the third work of Shinji Aramaki as mechanical designer, after Genesis Climber Mospeada and Megazone 23. In terms of key animation, three members of Graviton (that had already dissolved or was on its way to) were brought in: Shôichi Masuo on episode 1, Kôji Itô on 2, and Hiroaki Gôda on 3. Besides them, it’s worth noting the presence of Hiroyuki Kitazume and his small studio Pack (that existed between 1984 and 1987) on episode 1—it’s probably Kitazume who sneaked in some characters from Z Gundam, on which he was animation director at the same time. Finally, most of the character animation was handled by Hirano’s wife, Narumi Kakino’uchi—they had met in Beebow and would keep working together for a long time for AIC, Kakino’uchi handling character designs on Vampire Miyu and Ryokunohara Labyrinth in the early 90’s.

Kamille and Fa from Z Gundam and Tetsuo from Akira, sneaked in by Hiroyuki Kitazume or someone from his studio

But the real star of the show was probably the young Masami Obari. A rising figure of mecha animation from Ashi Production, his work quickly caught the eye of Hirano, who asked him to redesign the mechas on episodes 2 and 3, on which Obari also served as animation director. Episode 3 was his first really major work: he animated no less than 80 cuts by himself, that is around 5 to 10 minutes of animation. Most of it was the epic fight scene at the beginning of the episode. It was some really amazing work that pushed the limits of what could be done with mechanical animation—and it featured the first ever “Obari punch”.

Obari’s collaboration with Hirano only got closer on the latter’s next OVA, Dangaiô, which started coming out in 1987. At the time, Hirano, along with fellow super robot fans Kôichi Ohata (director of the MD Geist OVA and various tokusatsu in the 90’s) and Noboru Aikawa (writer of Urotsukidôji, Martian Successor Nadesico, and some entries in the Kamen Rider series) was supposed to make an adaptation of Great Mazinger, but the project was scrapped. The staff was then repurposed for another mecha OVA that would combine the bishôjo trend of the 80’s with various aspects from 70’s super robot shows.

Some of the settei from the Great Mazinger project

This work was the occasion for Obari to meet many legends of the industry. He was mecha designer along with no less than Shôji Kawamori, did some of his first storyboards, and as animation director, he had the opportunity to interact with the famous Kanada-school animators that contributed: Masahito Yamashita, Kazuhiro Ochi, Kôji Itô and Shôichi Masuo (probably the one who brought in Obari on the last episode of Gunbuster). Because of this, the OVA was something of an “old meets new” reunion of animators: direct students of Kanada (Yamashita and Ochi), the in-between generation that had received both his and Itano’s influence (Itô and Masuo), all coordinated by the most important member of what I call the second-generation Kanada school, that was then just starting to emerge.

Yamashita’s work on Dangaiô is very interesting, because it’s a perfect sample of his later style. It had, basically, become much tamer—the times when he modified Urusei Yatsura’s storyboards to make his own cuts longer were far behind him. The only things that were left from the once most promising member of the Kanada school are this: on the one hand, strikingly angular effects, those that would be a strong influence on Itô and Shin’ya Ohira; on the other, the ability to handle detailed character animation.

In comparison, Obari very quickly stood out—according to the testimonies of later animators like Hiroyuki Imaishi, it’s there that the general public of animation fans became aware of his work. After all, he animated on all 3 episodes of the OVA and gave the world the first real taste of his incredibly powerful and detailed mechanical animation. Indeed, if his timings, impact frames, and some of his effects were clearly inspired by Kanada, what made him really original was the amount of detail of his mechanical designs, and the fact that he managed to animate them without compromising on the fluidity. This made his animation extremely dense, but it retained a considerable sense of clarity and ease, which is what made Obari’s cuts stand out so much.

This difference between an older Yamashita and a young Obari is actually quite telling about the aesthetics of late 80’s animation and the evolution of the Kanada style. Over the course of the decade, character and mechanical designs kept becoming more complex and detailed. To take a look outside AIC, you can see this evolution in Mutsumi Inomata’s work: her designs of the early 80’s are still fairly simple, Genmu Senki Leda adds more detail, and on Windaria, the characters are so full of accessories and heavy clothes they’re hard to just put into motion. As for mechas, the evolution of Gundam’s mobile suits from 0079 to Char’s Counterattack goes in the very same way. 

But the Kanada style, in both mechanical and character animation, had developed thanks to simple and malleable designs, something that had totally disappeared by the late 80’s. Because of that (and of other things, such as the parallel rise of realism), the character animation heritage of the Kanada school was completely forgotten, and its animators mostly went in the way of hyper stylized effects, in the kind that Itô and the late Yamashita were doing. The two major figures of the second generation Kanada school, Obari and Shin’ya Ohira, represented two different answers to this situation: Obari went even further in the direction of complexity, while Ohira, in his early Kanadaesque period, completely embraced effects and shading stylization.

Hirano kept working for AIC until the late 90’s, when he went freelance, changed his credited name to Toshiki Hirano and started collaborating with TMS. His productions from that time are lesser known, and you can see the difference between his personal projects and those AIC made him work on. For example, on Dragon’s Heaven, he was asked to design the main female character—but there’s barely any sign of him in the drawing, which must have been heavily corrected by the director Makoto Kobayashi. He also started doing just direction on these kinds of works, like the OVA Zeorymer in 1988. On the other hand, he kept a tight control on the sequels of his 80’s OVAs: on Iczer 3, in 1990, he was character designer, chief director and animation director, just as on Iczelion in 1995. Hirano managed to keep his unique sensibilities as a character designer intact throughout the 90’s, but in terms of animation and staff, he never had the same luck as in the 80’s. 

Indeed, it seems that AIC mostly put him to work on their minor OVAs, or that they didn’t really push his works in the Iczer series, even though they kept producing them. They would, however, maintain a close relationship with Masami Obari by producing his directorial debut in 1991, the OVA Detonator Orgun. Indeed, they kept being one of the, if not the major actor of OVA production. Among their numerous works from the late 80’s, two must be noted in particular for their historical significance. The first one is Bubblegum Crisis, a celebrated series in the Western side of the fandom, but most notably one of the major playing grounds of the second generation Kanada school: Ohira and Obari. The second one is The Hakkenden, a totally different production that ushered the transition from the heavily detailed and rigid style of the 80’s to the simpler, more spontaneous animation of the 90’s. It is, in other words, a crucial work to understand the decline of the Kanada style in that period.

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