Gainax and the Neo-Kanada Renaissance

Cover image: a layout from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, by Jun Arai

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

1998 was one of the most important years in the history of the Kanada school. On the one hand, it was when Yoshinori Kanada himself left Japan—and, with it, the anime industry proper—for Hawaii and games development. In the context of the general decline, if not total disappearance, of the creativity of Kanada-style animation in most productions, it felt like the ground had been given up to newer generations. But another thing happened in 1998: the broadcast of a TV series produced by studio Gainax, His and Her Circumstances. Just as Kanada-style animation was withering all over, KareKano became a formidable space for experimentation, bringing to the fore a new generation of animators from Gainax. These would go on to be called the “Neo-Kanada” school. Its foremost members form the trio now strongly associated with studio Trigger: Yô Yoshinari, Hiroyuki Imaishi, and Sushio.

Gainax’s new generation

The oldest of the bunch is Yoshinari, and he also appears to be the least inspired by Kanada. He had always had more of a liking for Masahito Yamashita, but one of his specificities is his openness to new things: his influences had always been diverse, as he very closely followed the new creative boom around Mitsuo Iso, Shin’ya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa in the early-mid 90’s. His career began as an assistant to his elder brother Kô; then he officially started out as in-betweener for studio Madhouse in 1992, but quickly transferred to Gainax, where he began to make his mark as one of the studio’s rising stars. Even though he was just out of animation school, he took an important role in the pre-production stage of the never-completed Uru in Blue project in 1993. After that, his first key animation works were on five of the episodes Gainax animated on Victory Gundam. There, he showed his talent in what would become his speciality: effects animation, especially smoke and explosions. This sequence in particular is very telling about Yoshinari’s earliest style and its subsequent evolution.

What’s most interesting here is the sharp contrast between, on the one hand, beams, lighting and fire animation and, on the other, explosions and smoke. The first group still appear to be under Kanada’s influence: this is especially visible in the first seconds, when the fire behind the missiles seems to be almost copied from Kanada’s own missile animation in his famous airship battle from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. But as soon as the missiles hit, the angular shapes give way to much more curved lines. Especially in the second shot, the orange smoke has a very solid feeling to it, most probably thanks to the shading and the slow movement it adopts: this is one of the very first instances of the now-iconic “Yoshinari explosion”. Yoshinari was only twenty, but he had already found his own style.

Victory was a major step for him, and for Gainax as a whole: under the lead of two of the greatest effects animators of all time, Hideaki Anno and Shôichi Masuo, it seemed like the transition in the studio was assured. It was therefore no surprise that, one year after Victory, Yoshinari became the pillar of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s production: he was key animator on eleven of the twenty-six episodes (without accounting for uncredited work elsewhere), and also mechanical animation director on some of them. This was an amazing amount of work for just one man to handle, but he pulled it off superbly, giving the show some of its most iconic moments.

The other important thing about Evangelion is that it’s there that Yoshinari could meet his future closest colleagues, who debuted as in-betweeners on the show: Imaishi and Sushio. It seems that Sushio didn’t exhibit much talent at first, but Imaishi’s rise was meteoric. He in-betweened on eleven episodes of the original TV version, but when the show was released on video with corrected footage, he had risen up to key animation on episode 23, which probably indicates that he had the opportunity to entirely redo one of the scenes he had in-betweened (or done uncredited key animation) on previously. Unlike Yoshinari, who only did minor work on OVAs here and there after Evangelion, Imaishi then began working frantically all over the industry: between 1996 and 1998, he did key animation on shows as diverse as the 1997 version of Speed Racer, the Slayers series, King of Braves GaoGaiGar, and Lupin III Walther P38. By the last one of those, in 1997, his work had become distinctly recognizable.

What might seem surprising to people used to Imaishi’s later output is that at this stage Kanada’s influence is far less obvious than one might expect. You do see elements of it, mostly in the speedlines. But in this sequence in particular, Imaishi seems closer to early 90’s flow animation as represented by Norio Matsumoto and Atsushi Wakabayashi: the movement is overall very detailed and fluid, and the intense snapping in the most climactic action moments is closer to what Wakabayashi had done on Yû Yû Hakusho than Kanada’s own use of the technique. What is especially definitive is the approach to shapes, as you find here two techniques that Kanada, especially in the 90’s, very seldom used: smears on the outlines of bodies, and a general distortion of shapes. It was probably through Yoshinari, who prominently used smears in his own Evangelion cuts, that these aspects of flow animation were transmitted to Imaishi.

Top: Imaishi; bottom left: Wakabayashi; bottom right: Yoshinari

During the same years, it seems that Imaishi got very close to Hideaki Anno: there’s no other way to explain his extremely prominent role on the latter’s KareKano in 1998. Indeed, Imaishi could be considered Anno’s right-hand man on the series: he storyboarded three episodes, was animation director on three more and key animator on six total. Besides all that, he was given complete freedom over what can be considered his first masterpiece: episode 19 of the series, on which he was director, writer, storyboarder, animation director, key animator and seems to have handled some other, more technical aspects.

This episode can legitimately be held up as one of the most experimental moments in commercial TV anime history. It imitated the look of paper animation (even though it seems to have been made using normal cels), integrated live-action footage and photographs instead of background or character art, and exclusively relied on intensely limited animation: there were only four in-betweeners for seven key animators, which indicates how little work was probably required from the former. Even in a series as creative as KareKano, episode 19 stood out for its completely different look and absurd atmosphere.

This time, Imaishi showed all that he owed to Kanada. It was already visible in one of the episode’s earliest easter eggs, a guest appearance of Rasa from Birth. But what made it most obvious was the animation itself, very close to what Kanada had been doing in the late 90’s, especially with his Luckyman OPs: extremely modulated animation, stark lines and curves, simple colour work, a renewed use of cycles and, of course, a completely crazy kind of energy.

If this particular episode of KareKano was Imaishi’s first major creative platform, the show in general enabled many new talents to emerge: whereas Yoshinari was little involved, animating on only two episodes, Sushio was the real star of the series, key animating on ten. At this point, he was still very much under Imaishi’s influence and didn’t really stand out yet. They were very close, and worked together on many occasions for the following years, most notably on Microman #26 and Medarots #14, Imaishi was animation director on both of these, and also episode director and storyboarder for Medarots. Once again, Imaishi’s idiosyncratic style stood out, but it was not until the turn of the millennium that he and the group of students and followers he was quickly gathering would show the full measure of their talent.

FLCL and the fundamentals of the Neo-Kanada style

The next major project for the new Gainax animators was the studio’s new OVA, FLCL. It is no overstatement to say that FLCL had one of the greatest animator lineups in anime history and ended up being one of the greatest artistic achievements of Japanese animation for its quality, diversity and creativity. Although their time in TV animation had already enabled them to make contacts, it’s where Imaishi and company could work side by side with such living legends as Shin’ya Ohira, Tetsuya Nishio, Shinji Otsuka and Mitsuo Iso. What’s interesting there is that all of these names are associated either with the realist or flow animation schools, which had been dominant for the previous ten years. In contrast, the Neo-Kanada animation would clearly have stood out.

Imaishi played a major part in FLCL, storyboarding three episodes, doing animation direction for two, setting on two, and key animation on almost every one of them. His most iconic work is probably episode five, on which he was storyboarder, animation director and key animator, most notably for the fight scene between Haruko and Amarao and his henchmen. This extremely famous sequence is probably one of the most representative of Imaishi’s style and, more generally, of the Neo-Kanada aesthetic.

The first and most obvious element is, of course, the Kanada influence. But there’s one thing that’s rarely asked when we mention Kanada’s influence on Imaishi: which Kanada is it? By 2000, Kanada had gone through all of the styles and changes you could imagine, and Imaishi could have selected freely among all of those. And that is, in fact, what makes him so important: whereas Kanada went through an evolution, Imaishi freely picked different elements from Kanada’s career and mixed them together. He therefore united in one place many features that had never existed together in Kanada’s own animation.

The first point to start with is the close relationship between Imaishi’s animation and Kanada’s late style: they were, after all, contemporary. The most visible aspect of this link is the overabundance of speedlines, which had been making a triumphant return in Kanada’s drawings and were everywhere in Imaishi’s. The general approach to simple shapes and rhythm (stark slow-in/slow-outs) was also the same. But to that, Imaishi added some other elements. First, there is the Masahito Yamashita influence that comes out most clearly in the impact frames: by the 90’s, Kanada had almost completely stopped using these, but they had been one of the most important elements of the Yamashita-inspired 80’s animation style. Unlike early Kanada impact frames, they were not outlines of the objects, but abstract compositions made up of lines and circles with stark colors such as red, blue and yellow.

Finally, one of the most important things about Imaishi’s style that’s seldom noted is that the influences go much deeper: this expert on 70’s animation also took from Kanada’s early style, not just the most recent work. Indeed, the use of rough lines both in motion and character outlines, such as the ones used in the beginning of this sequence, had all but disappeared by the 2000’s. This was a result of both artistic and technical evolution, as the shift to digital animation and compositing didn’t favor such linework. But Imaishi brought it back, most probably inspired by 70’s gekiga animation.

There are also non-Kanada influences at play: I already mentioned the role of flow animation, but Imaishi’s general approach to bodies and shapes can also be understood through the lens of one of the greatest animators of the 60’s, Daizô Takeuchi. In series such as Fight! Pyûta and Gutsy Frog, Takeuchi had been one of the first to reveal the potential of limited framerates when backed up by a strong imaginative power. Imaishi’s imagination surely rivaled Takeuchi’s, and he took every occasion he could to slip in silly expressions and to deform every object in the frame. Kanada’s late animation had a very rigid approach to bodies, but Imaishi, under the double influence of flow animation and of Takeuchi, took a radically different direction, which led to unexpectedly creative moments, such as, not long after FLCL, Cutie Honey turning into spaghetti.

For this reason, Imaishi’s animation was not just a revival of Kanada’s animation. It was a complete reworking of it, and I venture to say, a more creative one. Indeed, it must be said that Kanada’s late work seems very repetitive and despite its undeniable power, it sometimes lacks creativity: perhaps left uninterested by the work he was adapting, Kanada often relied on motifs and techniques he had already used before. Imaishi brought some new blood and influences into this, and truly renovated the Kanada style. In that, one of the most original aspects of Neo-Kanada animation is that, especially in Imaishi’s case, it is first and foremost centered on character and action animation, in contrast with the work of the previous generation of Kanada’s followers, who focused more on mecha or  effects. Because its influences are more diverse, the “Neo-Kanada” category also covers a wider range of animators: its most famous representative is Imaishi’s hyper-limited and expressive animation, but it also includes the rounder, more fluid work of people like Sushio and Yoshinari, who had less direct contact with Kanada.

Imaishi’s followers, from Higurashi to Gurren Lagann

Despite his importance, Imaishi was seldom an animation director: he very quickly turned to direction, and it’s from there that he has exerted creative control. In that sense, he has had few direct students, meaning people that truly animated under his corrections and teaching. But his work did inspire many animators who would become his associates first in Studio Gainax, and then around Trigger.

Going chronologically, the first figure that needs to be highlighted is Jun Arai. What makes Arai so interesting is that he started at the same time as Imaishi, but in a different studio, and it is only in the mid-2000’s, on Gurren Lagann, that they met. Arai therefore represents another branch of the Neo-Kanada school, and this shows that it could have emerged anywhere else outside Gainax: many animators that had grown up during the apex of the Kanada style in the late 80’s were beginning to enter the industry and wanted to replicate what they had loved as children. 

As for Arai, what had marked him the most were the works of studio Anime R (such as in Votoms) and the animator Masayuki. It was to follow in Masayuki’s footsteps that Arai joined Studio Giants in 1997: he didn’t know that the former had long since transferred to Gainax. As Arai says it, it was upon seeing Imaishi’s work that he left Giants to go freelance, around 1999–2000. He recounted the experience in an interview: “On Microman, there was a Gainax episode where Imaishi’s wild drawings were at the forefront. I thought ‘This is it! I can’t stay in Giants anymore!’” 

Over the 2000’s, Arai developed his skills and his animation came closer to the heavily stylized work of the second-generation Kanada school: rather than the cartoony intensity of Imaishi, he was going for jerky timings, heavy shadings and creative effects shapes. One of his most representative works from that era is on the 2006 version of Higurashi: When They Cry. The character animation here is already very idiosyncratic, especially with the unexpected 2-second hold at 0:06, but what really stands out is of course the effects. In terms of effects, the Gainax animators were either going in the round, Yoshinari-inspired direction, or, like Imaishi, adopting simpler monochrome effects of the kind that Kanada himself had used in Lucky Man

Arai, however, went back to the late 80’s, putting all of his effort in the shading, which has since then received a name of its own: “wakame shadows”, from the color of Japanese wakame seaweed. Arai’s originality is therefore completely different from that of Imaishi: whereas Imaishi’s work could be considered an essentially modern take on the Kanada style, Arai single-mindedly looked towards the past and sought to push further the already radical work of people like Shin’ya Ohira, rather than reinvent it from the ground up.

Higurashi is also important because it’s where Arai met another rising star of Neo-Kanada animation: Seiya Numata. Numata started as an in-betweener in 2000, and by 2002 he had become animation director and key animator on many episodes of TV series. His first important work was on the series Zoids: Genesis in 2005, where he met character designer and animation director Kyûta Sakai, who enabled him to take on a capital role in Higurashi: Numata was animation director on nine episodes of the series. One of his most famous works was on the show’s finale, with an impressive fight scene. The light flares make sure that the Kanada influence stays obvious, but what makes Numata stand out is the looseness of his drawings. The combination of simple shapes, highly off-model characters and extremely jerky motion was simply explosive.

By then, it was only a question of time until all the Kanada-inspired animators would meet and work together. The occasion for that came in 2007, when Imaishi had the opportunity to direct his first TV series for Gainax: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Besides Imaishi, Yoshinari, Sushio, Arai and Numata, this show offered a chance for many others to make their marks. From Gainax proper, the three most notable figures in the new Imaishi school that was forming were Akira Amemiya, Atsushi Nishigori and Chikashi Kubota. Besides them, there were many Kanada fans from other studios, such as Takeshi Mukôda, Osamu Kobayashi or Shin Itagaki. With them and many, many other great names of 2000’s animation, Gurren Lagann was an animation powerhouse and a magnificent tribute to the mecha shows to which Kanada and so many of his students had contributed.

Covering the entirety of Gurren Lagann’s animation lies beyond the scope of this article, but it’s worth taking a look at a few sequences by some of the most important animators I’ve mentioned: one by Sushio, one by Amemiya, and one by Arai.

By 2007, Sushio had developed his own style and was no longer in the shadow of his peers Yoshinari and Imaishi. In this scene in particular, you can see how he kept in the fundamentals of the Neo-Kanada style: lots of modulation, strong posing, speed lines, and most importantly complex layouts. Indeed, while late Kanada had privileged flat compositions, with Imaishi and the others the three-dimensional space that had made Kanada stand out in the first place had made a strong comeback. It’s very visible in the beginning of this sequence, until 0:11. Both robots move towards and away from the camera with ease. The moment when the beastman mecha gets hit between 0:07 and 0:10 is classic Kanada style, with the timing wildly oscillating between 1s, 2s and 3s, frenetic action, and the robot jumping away from the camera in strong poses accompanied by speed lines.

Where Sushio stands out is, first, in the more modern use of smears on the outline, now a classic post-Gosenzosama Banbanzai technique that he most probably got from Yoshinari. Here, the smears are very fitting and contribute to the impressive sense of speed the entire sequence has. Another characteristic aspect of Sushio’s work on Gurren Lagann is the linework. I mentioned above that Imaishi sometimes used rough linework, but in his work in general such rough linework quickly disappeared, and the neat lines of modern anime triumphed. It was very probably a deliberate decision on the part of the staff of Gurren Lagann to use the thicker lines characteristic of 70’s series, and Sushio is arguably the one who mastered them best. Combined with the smears and contrasting against the vivid and clear colors of the flames, they feel very powerful when the Gurren jumps, all drills forward. Then, at the end of the sequence, they become the core of a slightly more abstract moment, as the animation seems to dissolve down to a sketch expressing the strength of the punch.

Compared to Sushio, Amemiya’s work then feels more conservative. But this apparent conservatism is not a concerning problem, as it nails everything down and invokes the same feelings of euphoria and power. The most impressive part in this sequence is no doubt the first five seconds, the ones with the most motion, which also feature the most complex layouts of the entire scene. We begin with a bit of background animation, supported by the speedlines and the smoke animation; the shading and colors of it all make the Birth inspiration really evident. The Gurren follows a curved trajectory which contrasts against the straight speedlines and makes us feel the depth of the movement; just as Simon comes into the center of the frame, the camera suddenly cuts to Kamina. His own movement as he rises is opposite to Simon’s, as he goes away from the camera rather than towards it. But then he suddenly retracts and jumps, in a classical Kanada-style technique accompanied by the mandatory speedlines and light flares. Then, we have quite complex choreography as the Gurren jumps behind him, away from the camera, at the same time as the background rotates, creating an impression of camera movement which makes it all that much more dynamic.

Around 0:14, the focus is put on the smoke animation. It’s strongly inspired by Imaishi’s own effects animation, but in turn shows how much Imaishi’s effects work owes to Yoshinari: the outline of the smoke is more angular and irregular, following the classical Kanada-style aesthetic, but the shadows are round and manage to create the sense of volume characteristic of Yoshinari-style smoke. The animation is in cycle, but the irregularity of the shapes keeps it from becoming boring. In the next few shots, we again find one of the recurring techniques of Neo-Kanada animation: the combination of speed lines and smears, that is, the combination of a distinctly retro and a distinctly modern technique. This combination is what makes the Neo-Kanada style so special, and Gurren Lagann exemplifies it well: it’s all about reproducing the look and feel of cel animation with modern, digital techniques.

Finally, the most radical of Neo-Kanada school animators, even on the series, was no doubt Arai. He only worked on one episode, 22, but his sequence became iconic and he would go on to work with Imaishi on some projects following Gurren Lagann, especially a crazy Transformers parody in Panty and Stocking. Here too the mashup of old and new is visible, as the Anti-Spiral ship is in 3DCG and yet interacts seamlessly with the flashy 2D effects. In fact, Arai just gives a rundown of all the most iconic techniques of the late 80’s Kanada style. The green effects that surround the Gurren Lagann take on a variety of incredibly original and diverse shapes, based on irregular linework and curves. Then, in the third shot, the circles of energy provoked by the punch contrast against straighter lines, which flicker irregularly as yet more effects flash by on a different layer on top. All of it is in cycles, but in a classical Kanada fashion these cycles are irregular, with some of the frames taken out to make the rhythm uneven and engaging.

Arai’s work, more than any other’s, has a strong illustrative quality, thanks to the incredible density of his frames: the effects appear to be spread across different layers, the shading is always very stark… In this particular sequence, you can add the split-screen and ornate impact frames which add yet more information. Even though the Obari punch in this sequence is rather long, with a lot of anticipation, it doesn’t feel slow thanks to all of these elements.

Gurren Lagann was the first major work and success of the Neo-Kanada animators as a distinct group with its own aesthetic. Each one of its animators had their own sensibilities, and they would pursue them on their own: Arai would triumph in mecha animation in Star Driver (before, regrettably, he more-or-less left the industry), Numata showed his talent for character acting in Toradora, Yoshinari would keep pursuing excellence in effects animation everywhere he worked… While they were in no way dominant in the 2010’s, the Neo-Kanada animators have been a noticeable presence in the last twenty years, and the school has given birth to some of the most talented names of the last decades. Although he was not the only one responsible, the central role of Hiroyuki Imaishi must once again be highlighted. With Gainax, and then Trigger, he has probably succeeded at something Kanada himself never really achieved: creating a unique place where the distinct Kanada philosophy of animation could thrive, a place that would keep attracting and forming new talent.

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