The rise of realism

Cover image: a layout (?) from Akira

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

However dominant it became in the 80s, the Kanada style was never the only aesthetic of anime. Besides the heavily stylized motion of the Kanada school and the round, cute characters that characterized the lolicon boom at the start of the decade, another very different kind of animation was starting to find its footing: realism. The exact definition of realism in general and in animation in particular is tricky business, and I’ve already laid out what very specific and limited criteria I’m going to follow in my earlier piece on Kanada’s own relationship with the concept. More specifically here, my main historical and theoretical reference is going to be this chart, based on a talk by Toshiyuki Inoue, considered to be one of the foremost members of the realist school.

This chart emphasizes four things: a focus on character rather than on effects animation; the importance of motion rather than still, highly stylized images; the fact that the motion and the figures have to be “three dimensional”, that is, must have volume; and finally that these figures must be “dense” and detailed, perhaps even to the point of photorealism. Besides Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga, this kind of animation started developing out of three major studios/lineages.

The first one was composed of the ex-members of the A Pro school who hadn’t gone over to the gekiga style (as Yuzô Aoki did) but instead rallied around their most talented colleague, Hayao Miyazaki. From Future Boy Conan (1978) to The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Sherlock Hound (1984) and finally Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the now reworked A Pro style slowly acquired a greater mastery of weight and expression, and flourished under the guidance of Miyazaki’s expertly crafted layouts. The second one was Madhouse, which grew out of its previous gekiga heritage when Osamu Dezaki and Akio Sugino left in 1980—though they did contribute to the realistic aesthetic with their Space Adventure Cobra. This was mostly due to the influence of one of its earliest members and most talented animators, Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Along with Yasuomi Umetsu, his layouts, character designs and animation truly gave character animation a volume and weight that had rarely been experienced before. The last (and youngest) studio which would keep itself out of the Kanada style for many years to come was Gainax. Through the combined influences of Ichirô Itano and Haruhiko Mikimoto on Hideaki Anno and his peers, the studio aimed for the most detailed kind of photorealism, both in mechanical and character animation.

This time, I am only going to focus on one of those three seminal lineages, because the others are already well-known, remained somewhat isolated, and because I went over them in other pieces. What this essay will retrace is the development of the “realist school” in a stricter sense, which rose to prominence in the late 80s and went on to dominate the landscape of anime in the 90s. Its members have, for the most part, gone on to become some of the most well-known and respected animators of their time: Takashi Nakamura, Toshiyuki Inoue, Mitsuo Iso, Satoru Utsunomiya, Shinji Hashimoto, Hiroyuki Okiura and Shin’ya Ohira. All of them would leave a deep mark in anime history, one that heavily contrasted with the one left by Kanada and his students—although they were not completely antithetical, as I will also show.

Bring them all together: how Rintarô changed anime

In 1982, after he was done with Adieu Galaxy Express 999 and a lesser-known special, I am a Cat, Rintarô stopped working for Tôei and came back to the studio created by his old friends and colleagues from Mushi Production back in 1972, Madhouse. With the studio’s main creative figure, Osamu Dezaki, gone, Madhouse would stop supporting just one director, and instead quickly started producing feature films that would highlight the best of Japanese animation. Rintarô’s Genma Taisen, in 1983, was one of the first of these movies that would make Madhouse one of the most prominent animation studios in the world. For the movie, he brought in the best animators lineup that was possible at the time, half established geniuses and half young prodigies.

On the side of experienced animators, those were mostly people Rintarô had met during his Tôei days: the most important one was the animation director Takuo Noda, who had been key animator on Adieu Galaxy Express 999 and entered Madhouse for Genma Taisen, thereby becoming one of the studio’s foremost members. It was Noda who brought in his old friend and student Yoshinori Kanada, whose amazingly powerful and innovative work on the movie is what it’s still remembered for. Alongside these two was a Madhouse household name, Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

As for young prodigies, there were a lot. First, for the character designs, Rintarô managed to recruit a rising star in the world of manga, one Katsuhiro Otomo. It was his first animation work, and he would meet the most important staff of Akira during the production of Genma Taisen—which is why it’s sometimes called “Akira’s test run”. On the side of the Madhouse staff, this was the second KA work of a 24-year-old Kôji Morimoto, who would quickly rise as one of the studio’s most important animators in the next five years. From outside Madhouse, Noda brought with him not only Kanada, but the 23-year-old Yasuomi Umetsu, who did his first key animation work on the movie. Finally, the last major figure was already relatively well-known, but it was Genma Taisen that would definitely establish him as the leading figure of the new realist aesthetic: Takashi Nakamura.

The movie is obviously well-known for being the first instance of Kanada’s most famous technique, the eponymous dragon, and for being a landmark in effects animation. This is understandable, since the majority of the effects were handled by Kanada himself (most notably on the finale) and Morimoto. On the other hand, the character animation was largely in the hands of Umetsu and Nakamura. More generally, the film’s work division seems to have favored the animators by giving them very long sequences: Morimoto and Kanada on the climax of the New York part, Kanada solo on the finale, and, for Nakamura, the center part of the movie where the main character Joe becomes aware of his psychic powers and meets the alien Vega for the first time. The acting was still far from perfect, and is easily forgotten when compared to Kanada’s effects. But if you go back and look at it in detail, you already see Nakamura’s obsession with puppets in the way he animated flying objects, while the quieter scenes in the city demonstrate an attention to detail and show how much simple aspects of the animation can express personality.

However, Genma Taisen was just the start. Two years after it came out, in 1985, Nakamura and Morimoto pulled out another masterpiece under Madhouse: Bobby’s Girl. It featured some of the most detailed and iconic background animation ever made. It very obviously prefigured Akira’s bike chase scenes, but most importantly, it was background animation that had nothing to do with the way Kanada and his followers used it. The point of the technique as Nakamura and Morimoto used it was not to create a disorientating sense of speed through physically impossible camera movement, as Masahito Yamashita and Motosuke Takahashi had done on Urusei Yatsura; on the contrary, the camera movements were slow and the perspective changes almost nonexistent—the goal was to give volume to the characters and consistency to the space the fictional camera went through.

Two more years later, 1987, was the real golden year of this new group of animators that had met on Genma Taisen. Two anthology movies came out, Manie Manie from Madhouse with Rintarô at the helm, and Robot Carnival, a project by Cream Lemon director Hiroyuki Kitakubo, produced by his studio APPP. Manie Manie was produced as early as 1985, but only released in 1987, whereas Robot Carnival and Akira were produced at the same time: it’s hard to consider them separately. The real link between the three of them is of course Otomo, director of Akira, of Manie Manie’s third segment, “The Order to Stop Construction”, and of the opening and ending sequences of Robot Carnival.

On “The Order to Stop Construction”, you find again the trio who met on Genma Taisen and would carry Akira: Otomo on direction and character design, Nakamura on animation direction, and Morimoto on key animation. Because of its thematic similarities, this short is the real “test run for Akira”, which is no surprise since it was produced just before by virtually the same team. Considering that, it’s impressive that the three of them also managed to put out some of their best work on Robot Carnival, especially when Morimoto and Nakamura basically did solo work: the direction, character designs, storyboards and writing for their shorts, along with some key animation. Putting their two contributions side by side, Nakamura’s influence on Morimoto is really obvious: the way they draw lighting is the same, the character designs both have this 70’s Disney look to them, and Morimoto’s attention to debris animation clearly tries to replicate what was Nakamura’s speciality.

Kôji Morimoto’s designs on the left, Nakamura’s on the right

Beyond their two works, it’s also interesting to take a look at the other contributions, because besides the Madhouse staff, the movie prominently featured people from Sunrise: Hiroyuki Kitazume, character designer of ZZ Gundam and Char’s Counterattack; Hidetoshi Omori, a Sunrise animator since Mobile Suit Gundam; and finally Yasuomi Umetsu, the animator behind both of Z Gundam’s openings, who would also be a key asset for the production of Char’s Counterattack. Umetsu’s short is the most interesting, because he’s the closest to the “realist” band among the three, but also because I believe it is a complete failure. 

While Umetsu is without a doubt a very talented animator, I don’t think he ever succeeded in animating his own designs. They are far too detailed for anyone other than him to handle, and even his own animation loses itself in the little things: the motion of the fabric ends up being muddled, while the uniform timing on 1s or 2s makes the character animation too fluid and regular, to the point of tedium. As much of a master of volume and three-dimensional movement as Umetsu could be, his work on Robot Carnival, as well as Megazone 23 Part II reveals a problem into which realism could have fallen: mistaking realism for full animation, and keeping the timing so regular and the spacing so even that the animation ends up being completely uninteresting, even if it reaches previously unheard-of levels of detail and photorealism. In the end, this observation emphasizes the importance of Tomonaga’s and Kanada’s innovations in the 70s: without the sense of spontaneity built by the timing, the animation ends up mechanical and jarring.

Akira and beyond

Umetsu’s experiments would, however, quickly be eclipsed by the monumental movie that came out one year after Robot Carnival: Akira. It was an extravagant production, the result of Otomo’s perfectionism, Rintarô’s and Madhouse’s relations, and Yutaka Fujioka’s decade spanning dreams. Fujioka was the head of the most important anime studio of the 70s, Tokyo Movie Shinsha, or TMS, thanks to which both A Pro and Madhouse had risen to prominence as major outsourcing companies and could foster an unprecedented number of talents. But Fujioka didn’t think TV animation was enough, however good it was. In the late 70s, he believed that his studio could take on Tôei’s old mantle of the “Disney of the East” and produce high-quality feature films which could stand on the world stage. The first Lupin III movies, The Mystery of Mamo and The Castle of Cagliostro, were test runs for that project, until Fujioka set his eye on adapting a classic of American comic strips, Little Nemo.

The movie’s production took no less than twelve years, during which it travelled back and forths between Japan and the US many times. At some point, Fujioka himself must have realized that the project was bound to fail, and therefore directed all of his resources towards a popular manga adaptation, Akira. It would end up being the most expensive Japanese animated film ever for its time, with a 700 million yen budget, and one of the first major instances of a new financing system that was bound to overwhelm the industry: the production committee. All these resources were put to good use, and the production would be as close to Western standards as to Japanese ones: the animation was often on 1s and 2s and, most notably, the dialogue was pre-recorded, a unique measure that would play a large part in the realism of the performances.

In terms of staff, Otomo was accompanied by his two closest associates: Nakamura on animation direction and Morimoto as the latter’s assistant. From Genma Taisen, the other two major animators that were brought in were Umetsu and Kanada. Kanada’s participation was a matter of course, since the movie basically united many of the greatest animators of their generation, but his contribution famously turned out to be almost invisible. Kanada in fact contributed along with a group of Ghibli-related animators, such as Masâki Endô, Makiko Futaki and Shinji Otsuka. They were employees at the foremost animation branch of TMS, Telecom Animation, which had been Yasuo Otsuka’s studio since its creation in 1975 and regularly contributed to Ghibli films. The three figures I cited were already experienced animators, but the expertise they acquired would be of great use in another movie whose detailed acting and character animation would be a small revolution: Takahata’s Only Yesterday.

Besides those already established figures, what’s especially striking when you look at Akira’s roster of animators, and especially those that would go on to become famous, is that they were all born in the early 60s and had more or less all started key animating at the same time, between 1983 and 1986. There is clearly something like an “Akira generation”, which mostly overlaps with what we call the “realist school” that rose to prominence in the next decade. They can be divided into approximately three different categories.The first one is animators who had started as prominent figures of the new, late-80s, Takashi Nakamura-inspired incarnation of the Kanada style, and were rising rapidly along with their colleague Masami Obari: Hiroyuki Okiura and Shin’ya Ohira. They had mostly worked on mecha shows, such as SPT Layzner for Okiura and Bubblegum Crisis for Ohira; but Akira, most importantly through the supervision of Takashi Nakamura, would mark their complete conversion to realism. Ohira, especially, would deliver impressive effects scenes in continuity with Nakamura’s work, but the volume and unique shapes and shading he gave to smoke already made him stand out.

The second category is animators who had already made their mark as realists, for whom being taught by the grandmaster Nakamura was just a matter of time: Shinji Hashimoto, Toshiyuki Inoue, and Satoru Utsunomiya. Their profiles and styles were very different, but their inspirations similar. Hashimoto was a young Telecom recruit, and his early work perfectly expresses the energy and liveliness of Otsuka’s later students who entered the industry in the 80s: more detailed and fluid than the A Pro style of the 70s, and less heavy than the Miyazaki style, it still kept the fun and cartoony aspect that made it so special and entertaining. Toshiyuki Inoue, who was also a hardcore fan of Yasuo Otsuka and Kazuhide Tomonaga’s animation, was a young prodigy who got his first work as character designer and animation director just two years after entering the industry, on Gu-Gu Ganmo. If his systematic use of background animation feels inspired by Kanada and Masahito Yamashita, it also allowed him to experiment in one of the things that would become the hallmark of his style: the presence of bodies. Finally, Utsunomiya is perhaps the most individualistic of this generation: he first entered Telecom because of his admiration for Otsuka, but left after a year and a half. After changing studios a few times, he entered Madhouse and became close friends with Yasuomi Umetsu, with whom he mostly collaborated on Megazone 23 Part II. His first major work, however, would be on Windaria’s battle scene, where he exhibited his sensibility for small, irregular movements.

Finally, the third category is just one man, Yoshiji Kigami. If he’s on his own, it’s because he came from a very different lineage, and didn’t associate himself with the other realists, instead fostering another tradition of his own. Indeed, Kigami came from the other A Pro offspring: not Telecom, but Shin-Ei Animation (and its offshoot Animaru-Ya), from where he worked on Doraemon, but also one of the standout scenes of Grave of the Fireflies. In the 90s, he would go on to become a key asset of the Crayon Shin-Chan franchise, until he joined Kyoto Animation and became the pillar of the studio and its aesthetic. On Akira, his contribution was the impressive sewers sequence, which featured amazingly detailed water and effects animation.

While being very different, all of these animators would become key figures of anime in the next few years and represented, at least on Akira, a cohesive group. This wasn’t just because they all happened to work on the same movie: it’s because that movie was such an important milestone, and because, on it, they were all more or less directly taught by Nakamura. For example, Ohira’s shift to realism slightly predates Akira, but his complete mastery of it happened after he had worked on the movie. The same can be said of Utsunomiya: a promising animator, he hadn’t yet stood out very much, but as soon as Akira was done, he revealed himself to be one of the greatest members of his generation. Many of them would keep working with Otomo on Rôjin Z and Memories in the early 90s, the most notable exception being Nakamura himself.

But before that, you might have noticed the absence of another incredibly influential member of the realist school: Mitsuo Iso. Iso did not work on Akira, and I believe this explains a lot about his unique, revolutionary approach to animation. That’s simply because he was the only major realist animator to have never worked with Nakamura. Iso came from a very different background: he did not study in an animation school, and quickly jumped between small outsourcing studios before going freelance. Therefore, he was not under the wing of any major animator or animation director. But he quickly rose to prominence when he key animated and, most notably, did joint animation direction (under a pseudonym) on Char’s Counterattack, alongside his friend/senpai Atsushi Shigeta, only three years after his start as an in-betweener. His real breakthrough, however, was one year after that, in 1989, when he animated most of the opening scene of the next installment in the Gundam franchise, War in the Pocket.

What’s interesting about Iso is that, unlike most realists, he had started as just another Kanada style animator, and one without much originality at that. But then, on Metal Armor Dragonar, he met the Sunrise animator Atsushi Shigeta who greatly influenced him, especially with his round, bubbly explosions that seem to prefigure Yô Yoshinari’s work. In the opening scene of War in the Pocket, you can still see this inspiration, especially in the way the smoke feels three-dimensional, almost solid, and the way in which the explosions take on a circular shape. His approach to shading, especially on the ice at the sequence’s start, still betrays a strong influence from Kanada, even though it is clear that he didn’t just copy it but had already mastered and overcome it. But the real highlight was, of course, the motion of the mobile suits. Iso kept his drawings very detailed, and used a lot of little gestures and secondary movements which managed to create an impression of well-oiled machinery and life at the same time. The way the arm of the mecha recoils as it lands feels very natural and convincing, with all the parts and gears moving at the same time in little arcs which creates a trembling effect. 

This opening scene was simply revolutionary, and the Akira team quickly took notice of it: Toshiyuki Inoue recounted in an interview that he and other animators were invited to Satoru Utsunomiya’s house to see the first episode of War in the Pocket. Once Iso’s sequence was done, they were all awestruck, realizing that “this was the birth of a new genius”.

Oshii revolutionizes anime, once again

In 1989, all the pieces were basically in place for realism to take over anime’s aesthetics, as Akira’s impact started to be felt all around the industry. The most obvious place to start is the TV series Peter Pan no Bôken, a late entry in Nippon Animation’s World Masterpiece Theater series with character designs by Nakamura himself. While more simple and cartoony, the designs are very clearly inspired by Otomo’s in their round shapes, eyes, and expressions. This wasn’t the only leftover from Akira: Ohira and Okiura did some key animation on the show, while the latter was also animation director for some episodes. The work they did there was a sort of breather after the heavy themes and bulky characters of their previous work. The show was aimed at children and the animation ended up being more cartoony and much more fun than what they had previously done. This is also where Iso first had the opportunity to meet the realists and try his hand on character animation and simpler designs, as he did key animation on two episodes.

One of Nakamura’s designs for Peter Pan

While it has many qualities on its own, in the end, the thing that makes Peter Pan most memorable is that it made the transition between the two masterpieces of realism: Akira in 1988, and Gosenzosama Banbanzai in 1989. Gosenzosama was a very special project: produced to celebrate studio Pierrot’s 10th anniversary, it reunited Mamoru Oshii and most of the voice actors from Urusei Yatsura, with a similar premise and absurd atmosphere. It was Satoru Utsunomiya’s debut as character designer, animation director and layout artist, and very early on, Oshii gave him total freedom: he reportedly stopped checking the key animation after episode one, leaving everything in the trusted hands of his animation director. And he was right to, because Utsunomiya’s work was as close to perfection as you can get.

He clearly took cues from Peter Pan: the shapes of the heads and faces are very similar, and the general structure of the bodies, with their long limbs, round hands and heads, is the same. However, in accordance with the theatrical atmosphere of the OVA, Utsunomiya went one step further to make them look like puppets, with exaggerated ankles and knees and a somewhat irregular, disarticulated movement. Before the large, photorealistic drawings that Oshii would pursue in Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell, this seemed to pave the way for a kind of free flowing realism that would rely on spontaneous motion and simple character designs.

They were less detailed, but this was an advantage as it gave more leeway to the animators to create expressions that would be alternatively extremely nuanced or exaggerated. It was a very strong point: designs with complex clothes were harder to animate, and would have already felt so heavy that giving more weight to them would only have made their movement feel awkward. Here, on the contrary, the animators could focus on what was really important and make each drawing as strong as possible.

From the get go, Utsunomiya’s philosophy was clear: it was to push the borders of realism, and make something that would create the same feeling as a live-action film—or a recorded theater performance. This entailed an attention to every little detail. The one Utsunomiya thought was the most important was, in fact, drawing the characters’ shadows realistically: this meant drawing the shadows in the shapes of the characters, following their movement, taking into account the diverse light sources in a said setting… It stood in stark contrast against the heavily stylized shadowing of the Kanada style, and would have been extremely complex work: Utsunomiya himself stated that it took the team 6 months to complete just the first episode, even though it was far from the most ambitious in terms of animation.This extreme attention to what might seem like details had at least one visible consequence: despite all of his efforts, Utsunomiya didn’t have the time to properly correct the characters’ faces. Off-model characters, which might have been a crippling default in a production like Akira, revealed themselves to be one of the greatest strengths of Gosenzosama Banbanzai: it enabled each animator’s sensibility to come off clearly, and paved the way for a kind of animation that would be more open than ever to deformation.

Many great realists worked on the OVA: Utsunomiya himself, Ohira, Hashimoto… but it feels as if Utsunomiya’s philosophy was tailor-made for one man, who truly revealed the potential of his unique “full-limited” animation on a spectacular scene in episode 4: Mitsuo Iso. The idea of “full-limited animation”, or “full key frames”, or again “full 3s” is simple: the animation is consistently on 2s and 3s, with very close spacings, which creates a great sense of fluidity but also slowness and deliberateness. But what’s really unique is that Iso doesn’t work with the services of in-betweeners; this radically straight-ahead method has been described alternatively as Iso doing his own in-betweens, or Iso doing without in-betweens, which entails that all frames are key frames. This might seem pretty simple: after all, hadn’t Kanada, and the A Pro school before him reduced the distinction between key frames and in-betweens so that the in-betweens almost disappeared? They had, but never on such timings and with such a sense of detail. 

The consequence was that Iso’s animation creates a radically different effect from Kanada’s: instead of putting the focus on strong poses, it completely erases them in favor of the motion and its flow. In this way, it was not just a synthesis between different kinds of animation but, as Ben Ettinger describes it, “a quiet revolution” which “helped to redefine the idea of animated movement in Japan”. I would go even further and argue that it was a paradigm shift in the approach to animation, bringing it closer towards a research of pure and constant movement.

The puppet-like designs of Gosenzosama were perfect for this, because they retained just enough rigidity that Iso’s motion could keep what had made his mecha animation so special. But, at the same time, they were simple and expressive, so that he could add as many little movements as he wished, without painfully having to maintain all the details and gears consistent as he had had to on his Gundam animation. Even though he was side by side with so many other geniuses, Iso managed to keep the movement unique and much more dynamic than all the OVA’s other moments. 

Among the many things that set Iso’s sequence apart is that it reaches a perfect middle ground between Utsunomiya’s own cartoony and flowing character animation in the scene that comes just before, and an extreme attention to anatomical detail. This sequence is therefore impressive for how it walks a fine line between realism and exaggeration. This kind of theatricality perfectly fit the OVA’s overall atmosphere and themes, but it also set Iso, with Utsunomiya and Ohira, in a different path than the one that had been initiated by Akira. Realist animation would not simply be about adhering to visual or physical preconceptions of how things look and move: it would be open to just enough deformation to sell the action and make it more believable. In that way, Gosenzosama Banbanzai would be distinctly different from Mamoru Oshii’s future works, which would rely heavily on the photorealistic sensibilities of animators such as Toshiyuki Inoue or Hiroyuki Okiura: instead, its approach to motion and to shapes would open the path for a new kind of flowing animation.

One of the techniques that best exemplify this shift seems obvious today, but would have stood out to any artist at the time. It was using little smears on the outlines of the bodies, which you would never have seen from any other member of this generation. It seems that this little but revolutionary innovation was yet another thing brought in by Utsunomiya: it was meant to give the same impression as the motion blur that you would get if you were watching a live-action movie frame by frame. With this, Utsunomiya and Iso basically reinvented what “realism” in animation meant: it was not just, like what Nakamura and his generation had done, reproducing the physical properties of bodies, but using specifically animated, non-photorealistic means, to convey a sense of reality.  

Just a year after Akira, Gosenzosama Banbanzai demonstrated that the potential of realism went beyond serious, high-budget movies: it was basically ready to take on any kind of animation and register, from mecha, to children’s shows, to absurd comedies. And, one more year after that, the realists took on yet another genre: action, with The Hakkenden. As many other OVAs from that period, The Hakkenden is very uneven, with sometimes minutes of just stills or awkward animation, and then just after that instances of amazing motion. But here the amazing animation was handled by some of the best; most notably, episode 1 had Shinji Hashimoto and Shin’ya Ohira as animation directors, and episode 4 had Takashi Nakamura in the position. Nakamura’s episode was truly unique, as he went so far as purely and simply changing the designs in order to fit his style better.

Yes, this is the same character. On the left, under Nakamura’s animation direction, on the right, under Atsushi Okuda’s

In terms of character design manipulation, The Hakkenden also set the stage for the new revolution of the 90s, which would be heralded by Norio Matsumoto, Atsushi Wakabayashi and Tetsuya Nishio. Indeed, in an impressive sequence that probably inspired all of them, Shinji Hashimoto followed in Iso’s footsteps and decided to prioritize the flow and motion above all else. But he went even further than Iso, in that he in turn decided to completely disregard the character designs and their consistency: the shapes of the bodies became exceedingly round, the movement of the characters was exaggerated and all over the screen, the hands and mouths were much larger than in the original designs  and the layouts have an impressive sense of complexity. This was, in my view, one of the first major instances of “flow animation”, an offshoot of realism that went for fluidity first and consistency second.

This style quickly became iconic in the 90s and early 2000s but, as we’ve seen, its roots are much older. And this genealogy perfectly coincides with the slow decline of the Kanada style. Genma Taisen, in 1983, marked one of the highest points of Kanada’s career, but was most importantly the moment when realism started to find its footing. In 1988, Kanada’s invisible contribution to Akira can be seen as symbolic of the wider shift that was taking over the industry, as he and his students were progressively changing styles and the new realist school had found a banner under which to rally. Finally, in 1989 and 1990, Gosenzosama Banbanzai and The Hakkenden demonstrated that this generation was here to stay, and that it would forever change anime’s aesthetics.

3 thoughts on “The rise of realism

  1. This is exceptionally well researched and written, thank you for the excellent work! This is a very long period you’re covering with many very important works and creators to cover, and I know one can’t possibly cover everything about the realist movement in a single article, but lemme add a few observations.

    You mention Hiroyuki Kitazume and Hidetoshi Omori as Sunrise animators, but in fact they were animators from Tomonori Kogawa’s Studio Bebow (and its successors, led by Kitazume himself, Studio Pack and Atelier Giga) – Kogawa was another important precursor of the realist style, and Bebow’s influence extends very widely from Itano and Hirano (as you’ve previously covered) through Kitazume and Omori to animators like Akihiko Yamashita, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Naoyuki Onda, Keiichi Sato, Tomokazu Tokoro and many others (Anipages has some excellent pieces on the studio).

    Other important precursors of the realist style (pre-realists?) include Masami Suda, who was a strong influence on Takashi Nakamura and Yasuomi Umetsu; Yoshinobu Inano from Studio Bird, who was a major influence on Mitsuo Iso (just check his Dunbine ED); and Anime R, especially Moriyasu Taniguchi and Kazuaki Mouri, another of the most important subcontracting studios in the 80s, where animators like Hiroyuki Okiura, Kazuchika Kise and Toru Yoshida hail from (Kazuaki Mouri also notably taught Toshiyuki Inoue how to animate, at Osaka Designer Gakuin, as Inoue himself has written on Twitter).

    Another small note is that Yoshiji Kigami indeed started out at Shin-ei, but from 1982 to 1990 he was at the studio Animaru-ya, alongside other Shin-ei expatriates including Hiroshi Fukutomi, Toshiyuki Honda and Makoto Moriwaki, who did subcontracting work for Shin-ei but also for Tsuchida Pro, TMS and other assorted companies; it was his work at Animaru-ya that earned him a reputation in the industry, and eventually got him to animate in high-profile productions like Do You Remember Love, AKIRA and Grave of the Fireflies.

    On your assessment of Umetsu’s Robot Carnival short, I do agree that its animation is not a particularly good example of realist animation in the likes of Inoue or Okiura by itself, but I think it serves a different purpose in the context of the short – the combination of doll-like designs, realistic movement and very monotonous timing creates an uncanny valley effect which leaves a very unsettling and uncomfortable impression on the viewer, which is very much in tune with the film’s grim retelling of Pygmalion as a story of female opression

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the extremely detailed comment! I don’t have much to add besides that I’ll cover (although far too quickly) the Tatsunoko lineage in my piece about Nakamura.
      As for Umetsu, I agree with you, although I feel necessary to add that the same problem arose on Megazone Part II – which is what makes me tend to think that it’s a technical problem at the core, although it was (consciously or not) perfectly repurposed on Robot Carnival.


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