Artist spotlight: Masami Obari

Cover image: a Dangaiô layout by Masami Obari

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

Among all the members of the Kanada school, one of the most important and original ones is probably Masami Obari. Along with Masahito Yamashita and Hiroyuki Imaishi, he probably stands as one of the more influential animators that came out of Kanada’s lineage. Obari’s career started in the middle of the 1980’s, and he is in that regard the most famous representative of what I’d call the “second-generation Kanada school”. These were animators that emerged in the late 80’s that were more influenced by Yamashita than by Kanada directly, and that specialized in dense and complex mechanical and effects animation of the kind initiated by Ichirô Itano and Takashi Nakamura. All of these characteristics perfectly fit Obari’s profile, and  he is no doubt the one who stood out the most during this period.

Obari was born in 1966, and it was in highschool that he really discovered animation and Kanada in particular. As a student of the Miyajima Technical High School in Hiroshima, he was friends with animation fan and fellow future animator Satoshi Urushihara, who showed him his tapes of Zambot 3 and Daitarn 3. Most importantly for Obari’s future career, these were the shows where Kanada’s talent as a mechanical animator stood out the most. From there on, the young man started taking on part-time jobs and, with the money he got, he made many trips to Tokyo to meet the animators he had started to admire.

There are many anecdotes from that time, like how Kanada invited him to lunch or when veteran animator Toyô Ashida (of Space Battleship Yamato fame) reprimanded him for just copying Kanada. Besides that, Obari’s method to enter the industry was very interesting. This was between 1982 and 1984, and back then, many aspiring animators were getting into vocational schools. Long gone were the days when people like Kazuhiro Ochi or Takashi Nakamura could just drop out of high school and join an anime studio. Even if he did finish highschool first, Obari followed in their steps and does not seem to have known that it was even possible to get into an animation school before entering the industry. In that sense, his profile was rather exceptional for the 80’s, whereas it wouldn’t have stood out 5 or 10 years beforehand.

Anyhow, directly coming into contact with industry members, and important ones at that, was probably a good decision. It enabled Obari to grasp the realities of anime production, as well as being taught directly by veteran animators. But it was also the perfect occasion for him to know them and, still as a high-schooler, make himself many connections, which are so important to have in the industry. Basically, when he entered Ashi Production in 1984 at 18, Obari probably knew as many people as his most seasoned colleagues. Getting into Ashi Pro is also very telling about where he was coming from: after all, Ashi Pro had produced many of Kanada’s standout works, was where most of Kaname Pro’s staff was from (and this is 1984, Kaname’s golden age), and would go on to become a major subcontracting studio for OVAs in the following years.

Despite his know-how, Obari started as an in-betweener like everyone else. But he quickly rose up the ranks, doing his key animation debut on Seijûshi Bismarck and making his breakthrough as joint mechanical designer and animation director on Chôjû Kishin Dancougar, at only 19.

The show was, in terms of animation, one of the major works of Kanada-style mecha animation, prominently featuring staff like Kôji Itô and Hideki Tamura. The youngest of the team, Obari was key animator on 15 episodes and joint animation director on 4 (he was uncredited on 2 of them, and helped out on corrections on yet another episode). This would have been a heavy workload for anyone, but this is even more so the case when you consider that until then, Obari had mostly done in-betweens.

His quick rise is probably due to his meeting Hirotoshi Sano, an animator from Kaname Pro who only did little animation on Dancougar but quickly became Obari’s teacher of sorts. According to fellow animator Osamu Yamasaki, Obari wasn’t good enough for key animation when the show started production, but when he saw Sano’s work, he was awestruck and more or less disappeared from everyone’s sight during a month. When he came back, his style was a copy of Sano’s, from the animation to the writing on the timing sheets. This anecdote, whether or not it’s completely true, is quite illustrative about Obari’s character. He is of course very talented, but what set him apart back then was his ability to reproduce, and then to create different forms from there.

Although they probably hadn’t met yet (if they ever did), had very different sensibilities and influences, I believe it’s fair to compare Obari’s work on Dancougar to that of the other young prodigy of the second-generation Kanada school that had started out just at the same time: Shin’ya Ohira. Ohira’s work as a mecha and effects animator was much more inspired by Yamashita than Obari’s was, and it consisted in pushing everything Yamashita had done up to eleven. The shadings were as stark as could be, the timings very irregular and the effects very stylized. Ohira’s work was very dense (perhaps too much sometimes), but this density often came from the sheer amount of elements in the frame rather than the motion itself.

On the other hand, while Obari already distinguished himself by his very detailed drawings, he put a lot more focus into the fluidity and readability of the action. For example, in this sequence, two things stand out. The first is the amount of care put into every little mechanical element, especially in the last two seconds. But the other is how easy to understand everything is. In spite of the complex camera movement, it’s incredibly simple to follow how the robot transforms and how each part combines with the others. This is where you see the complementarity between Obari’s work as designer and animation: he could put so much attention into his mechanical animation because he had a great understanding of the inner workings of what he drew, and could put it into motion without any difficulty. This is even more impressive when you take into account that, according to his own and his ex-wife Atsuko Ishida’s testimonies, he drew everything freehand and apparently very seldom had to use an eraser.

Dancougar was Obari’s breakthrough, but his career didn’t evolve as fast as Ohira’s at the same time. Thanks to his connections, Obari spent most of 1985 and early 1986 working with Kaname Pro on one episode of Hokuto no Ken and Saint Seiya, on which they did subcontracting work, and one of their OVAs, The Humanoid. But the decisive moment was in 1986, when Toshihiro Hirano called on Obari to work on episodes 2 and 3 of Fight! Iczer One. This was so central not only because Obari was asked to redesign the mechas and got one more opportunity to shine as a designer, but also because, although he was still working in Ashi Pro, it introduced him to AIC. As I already mentioned elsewhere, AIC quickly established itself at the vanguard of OVA production and, even though it favored quantity over quality, Obari soon found himself to be one of the most important actors behind the OVA boom.

Iczer One is one of Obari’s most iconic works, most probably because it’s where you see the first ever “Obari punch”. The Obari punch, often summed up as a simple punch to the camera, is a little bit more complex. What distinguishes Obari’s way of animating them is the amount of anticipation he puts into the punches: according to Obari expert Kraker2k, the Obari punch can be broken down in 3 or 4 poses, the two central ones being the pulling back of the arm and the chest thrusting out. Beyond the simple definition, the Obari punch illustrates an attention to anatomy (human or mechanical) and sense of rhythm. Indeed, the frontal angle is always one of the most difficult to animate, while all the intermediate poses give the action time to breathe.

I think Obari’s work on Iczer One is also worth remembering because of how much freedom he was given. Thanks to that, his style could completely come out. And that’s where you see that, even as he was starting to work out his own unique approach to animation, his influences were still very obvious. But that’s what makes it interesting, because this sequence is basically all the most important styles of 80’s animation put into a single place. The spherical shape of explosions and smoke effects, as well as their colors, are clearly taken from Hideaki Anno and Ichirô Itano – but with a twist, and a major one. In the first shot, these explosions in the air take on V shapes, a kind of stylization that Itano would never have used. This kind of shape is most probably taken from Kanada (more specifically from this iconic moment), as are the lightning, beams and impact frames. And finally, the very dense debris work is from Takashi Nakamura: their irregular shapes and the way they slowly fly as if they had a will of their own is extremely characteristic.

All that doesn’t mean that Obari wasn’t original at all: his animation was quickly improving, gaining more details on every cut. But, as I already mentioned, what set him apart at such a young age were probably his ability to integrate so many things so fast and his superhuman working ability. The thing that put this into the fore was his next big work, the first opening of Metal Armor Dragonar, which he solo key animated. Solo openings were nothing exceptional, but this one exhibited such complexity and talent that it soon made waves all throughout the industry. It even put Dragonar’s production in some trouble: Obari slightly changed the mechanical designs to fit his own sensibilities, which led many animators on the show to try and imitate him rather than the original designs. To avoid this discrepancy, the opening was slightly modified and the robots redrawn according to their normal designs.

This opening, especially its last 30 seconds, was the occasion for Obari to display not only his talent for detail, but also for dynamism. The key to that was largely in the timings: most of this sequence is on 1s or 2s. This was therefore a lot of work, but also created a strong sense of fluidity. There wasn’t just that: in key moments, Obari would use very wide spacings which, combined to the 1s, gave a feeling of extreme speed and frantic action: that’s a technique commonly referred to as “snapping”. But again, his talent was to do this while maintaining everything readable and simple to follow.

An example of Obari’s use of snapping: even though this is on ones, the spacings are very wide. Moreover, the motion is spread over the impact frame, thus repurposed as a key pose in the overall movement, something that was anything but common at the time

By then, Obari’s style had come into its own, and he was recognized as a major figure in the industry, with already some students, such as Ken’ichirô Nakamura whom he had met on Dancougar. In 1987, he left Ashi Pro and, along with ex-Kaname and Ashi animators, created studio Minamimachi Bugyôshô. It was mostly from there that he would go on to work on more diverse, but always high-profile shows. The first one was yet another Hirano OVA, Dangaiô. There, he held many responsibilities: joint mechanical designer, animation director and key animator on all 3 episodes… but he also did his debut as storyboarder on episode 1, for which he solo animated the climax. It was there that he would definitely establish his style, using many of the iconic poses and the general aesthetic that made him so famous. As I mentioned in my article about Hirano, Dangaiô was somewhat of a turning point: even though it featured veterans from the first generation Kanada school, most notably Masahito Yamashita and Kazuhiro Ochi, their animation was completely outclassed by the dynamism and energy of the younger ones, whether Kôji Ito or Obari himself. 

After that, Obari worked on various OVAs, most notably Project A-Ko 3, the Captain Power training video (two places where he could have met Ohira) and Gunbuster. But the most important projects for him were episodes 5 and 6 of Bubblegum Crisis, where he made his directorial debut at 22. He was very heavily involved in those two episodes: he did designs, animation direction, storyboards and key animation on both of them. It’s already notable that, so young, Obari was given a 2-parter on a commercial production, but it’s very obvious that he in fact had almost complete freedom. And they ended up being the best episodes of the series, both in terms of direction or animation. The editing was nervous and dynamic, the compositions always very good, while the character animation was often more detailed and cartoony than in the rest of the show. The opening scene of the episode in particular, with its long sequence of background animation, seems very inspired by Captain Power, on which Obari had already done some storyboarding.

Bubblegum Crisis initiated the slow shift that would take Obari to what is generally considered to be his “second period”, when he took on to direct his own OVAs and movies. The other indicator of this shift is his heavy involvement in the super robot series Brave, starting with the first entry Brave Exkaiser, in 1990, for which he solo animated the opening and did the bank combination footage. There, again, he exhibited his ability to put out extremely complex work, as the animation is almost entirely on 1s and 2s, while never compromising on the complex mechanical designs. 

After that, Obari contributed to the openings of most entries in the Brave series: Fighbird in 1991 (for which he was also chief mechanical animation director), Dagarn in 1992 and finally Might Gaine in 1993. Just like for Kanada in the early 80’s, openings were the perfect stage for Obari to shine, as he had more time and less constraints to put out the work he wanted than in normal TV or even OVA production. Over his works in the 90’s, he often collaborated with his wife Atsuko Ishida, following what seems to be a gendered division of labor: Ishida handled most character animation, especially female characters, while Obari did all shots involving a mecha or a vehicle of any kind, and often male characters as well.

But what kept Obari busy in the 90’s was not his animation work. In 1991, he made his directorial debut with the 3-episodes OVA Detonator Orgun. As I’m really not a fan of Obari’s work as a director, I’m going to leave it here, but his work warrants a few remarks. Obari’s OVAs and TV series are most notable for their sometimes bizarre character designs, perhaps some of the most deformed of their decade, with some extreme jawlines and huge bouncing breasts. Indeed, he also got infamous for his intense use of fanservice, which finally led him to direct some hentai OVAs in the early 2000’s such as Viper GTS in 2002. But this isn’t all: although they did include lots of fanservice, he also directed some fantasy and moe works, like Prism Ark in 2007.

It was only around 2005, with the opening of Jinki: Extend, that Obari came back to animation. It is in that period that he finally got the opportunity to work with Kanada, on the opening of the 2005 Gaiking series: Kanada did key animation on Obari’s storyboards.

It’s very interesting to put them side by side, as both of their work is very telling of the orientation they were taking at the time. Kanada was in his late period, one marked by a much more radical approach to timing and simplistic, angular effects. On the other hand, Obari’s style had quieted down, as it became less flashy and detailed. You can see that on the storyboard/key animation comparison, as Obari privileged round effects and straight trajectories that Kanada absolutely didn’t follow.

As a result of this stylistical transition, Obari’s work now, mostly on the Gundam franchise, is much further to the Kanada style than it originally was. Probably a result of age, it also seems to have been a deliberate decision on Obari’s part, as to make his style more adaptable and easier to imitate. Indeed, if Obari is one of the most important mechanical animators ever, it’s not just because of his individual work: on the shows he directed and, more recently, the series he animated on, he has trained many students and influenced many others, creating what could be called an “Obari school”.

Annex: a complete list of Obari’s works between 1984 and 1989, by Kraker2k

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