Artist spotlight: Yoshimichi Kameda

Cover image: a key frame by Yoshimichi Kameda from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

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

Yoshimichi Kameda is undoubtedly one of the most important animators of the last 15 years. He is also one of the last really major animators today whose style can directly be traced to Kanada, and not one who just cites him as a great artist he looks up to. Finally, he is emblematic of what I call the “post-Kanada” generation, that is the animators that emerged during the late 2000’s until now, just before or after Kanada’s death and who never  came in direct contact with him or with his works as they came out. I will explore this idea further in the next piece of this series, but Kameda seems to be very representative of what the Kanada style has become outside of the Trigger bastion: something with much more varied influences and techniques, that doesn’t always look much like Kanada at first glance, but retains the same core principles and expressive motion.

Kameda was born in 1984, the year when Birth came out. Like every Japanese kid, he grew up on anime, but it was in his early teenage years that he really discovered the power of animation, through the works of studio Gainax: first an Evangelion rebroadcast around 1997 and then KareKano in 1998. Of course, Hiroyuki Imaishi’s work on the latter left a strong impression on him, and he started reading animation magazines – it was in one of those, Animage, that he first encountered Yoshinori Kanada’s name in an Imaishi interview. He then started looking into Kanada, starting with his work on Zambot 3.

After highschool, he entered the local art university of Onomichi, his hometown prefecture. He produced his first animations there on his club’s computer. The result was a 1-minute long fake super robot toy commercial, Onodaiger, full of animation picked up from Yô Yoshinari’s work on Evangelion and Imaishi’s on Lupin III. He then naturally tried to apply to Gainax, and did so thrice, but was rejected every time. So he joined studio AIC in 2006, which happened to do subcontracting for Gainax – that way, he could still work on their shows, which took place in 2007, as he was in-betweener and in-between checker on Gurren Lagann. He reportedly enjoyed the occasion to get all the Imaishi autographs he could.

However, it was outside Gainax that Kameda made his first decisive encounters. In 2007, on Seto no Hanayome, his second work as in-betweener, he met the animation director Kazuaki Morita, who drew a lot with a brush pen on his illustrations: it’s apparently Morita who inspired Kameda to use it as well and make it one of his trademark techniques. One year later, he debuted as key animator on the TV show SA. More than a simple first work, it was important because he animated on layouts by Hiroaki Gôda, a great animator of the late 80’s who had notably been a close colleague of Masami Obari at the time of Bubblegum Crisis. Another major meeting he made was with Shingo Fuji, who had entered AIC just before him, who’s notable for being a member of this new generation of animators that immediately turned to digital tools and Flash back when all animators still used paper. It’s around this time, and maybe partly thanks to these encounters, that Kameda slowly stopped simply mimicking Imaishi.

But, as any good Kanada-style animator should, Kameda had a strong personality and wanted to get noticed. This made him run into some trouble, such as in this sequence from the 2009 Seto no Hanayome OVA. The animation is nothing really exceptional, which shows that Kameda still had ways to go in order to develop a style of his own. The part from 0:37 to 0:42, is entirely on 1s and 2s, but according to Kameda’s testimony, this wasn’t the case originally: he had used very limited animation, probably in order to have an Imaishi-like result. But the director, Seiji Kishi, didn’t like it and asked for a complete retake. Kameda didn’t like it and protested, but had to do it in the end.

After 2 years in AIC, the turning point in Kameda’s career was in 2009, when he started working on Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. After delivering outstanding work on the first opening and episode 5, he was called by a producer from studio Bones, which was producing Brotherhood and was then starting to emerge as an animation powerhouse. Kameda joined, and from there, he was given all the opportunities he needed to become a star animator.

Talking about his AIC days, Kameda complained that he never had the chance to do important scenes that would allow him to develop his talent. This was obviously not the case anymore in Bones: his first work there, on episode 10 of Brotherhood, was one of the show’s pivotal scenes, Maes Hughes’ death. The animation there isn’t particularly flashy or even that interesting, as the sequence is mostly dialogue and involves a lot of lip flapping. But the fact that Kameda was trusted to work on this moment in particular is indicative of the importance he was quickly taking. This being said, let’s take a look at some of his most iconic and representative works on the series.

Let’s begin with one of his most famous sequences, the death of Lust, which is a good entry into Kameda’s unique effects. There’s of course something characteristically Kanadaesque in the sparks of lighting, the sometimes very angular fire and smoke animation, but what really stands out is the brush Kameda uses in such a unique way. Here, it’s particularly powerful to create the feeling of incinerated flesh being reduced to ashes. The contrast between the bright yellow fire and the dark black brushwork is very intense, especially combined with the sort of flickering motion Kameda created: on these brushwork moments without real movement, there are no in-betweens but just the cycling brush and flame animation. In my mind, it becomes even more powerful in the very last seconds of the sequence, from 0:58 onwards, as Lust surges forward: there, you see that the outlines of Lust’s body have themselves been contaminated with brushlines, which, combined with small smearing and speedlines, give these few seconds even more strength that they could already have simply based on the context of the scene. 

Kameda’s brushwork is important in many ways. A first aspect is that it manages to revive one of the most characteristic elements of Kanada’s style, that had entirely disappeared by then: the roughness and the materiality that was so overwhelming in Kanada’s 70’s animation. But this is more than just a cool stylistic flourish or homage. Indeed, it involves a unique way of drawing in the first place, as Kameda will use markers or a brush directly on the animation paper, something extremely rare in commercial animation.

Left: Kameda; right: Kanada

Kameda’s brush is his most famous mannerism, but it’s clearly not the only one. On Brotherhood, you clearly see the Imaishi influence, especially in all the flame and explosion animation he did. This is most visible in this explosion from episode 33: the explosion take on a V-shape inspired by Kanada’s Farewell Galaxy Express 999. But the simpler colors, and the way the inside of the explosion is full of spiraling lines and circles is much closer to Imaishi’s effects. Generally, Kameda was very aware of what was currently being done in terms of animation, and open to influences far beyond the Kanada school. For example, through this sequence, he claimed he wanted to rival Yutaka Nakamura’s work on Soul Eater. Kameda doesn’t achieve the same level of fluidity, but it’s clearly not what he’s aiming for: rather than the ease of motion characteristic of Nakamura, Kameda reaches the kind of intensity that’s only possible through the irregular posing of the Kanada-style. Indeed, in the part where Bradley runs forward, from 0:22 to 0:25, the timing is relatively regular, between 2’s and 3’s; however, the spacings are much more erratic, suddenly getting very wide and then very close again. Generally, Nakamura’s influence is also visible in the evolution of Kameda’s layouts, which evolved towards more complex camerawork and background animation as the series advanced.

Moreover, just like Nakamura, what makes Kameda stand out as an action animator is his outstanding mastery of rhythm, as this extremely famous fight scene exemplifies. It is such a great sequence in part because there’s such a symbiosis between the cinematography and animation: for example, in the very first second, there’s a wonderful balance achieved when Lin jumps above Bradley. The action suddenly slows down as the spacings get much closer, the camera takes on a fisheye lens distorting the background, which supports Lin’s curved jump and Bradley’s sudden twist, animated all in smears.

Then, when Bradley repeatedly attempts to stab his opponent, the animation gets more mechanical, almost janky – but this perfectly expresses the danger of the attack as the linework itself gets rougher and rougher and Bradley’s arms even multiply.

But then, the camera cuts to a different shot and we get a much wider perspective, and then camera movement. Once again, we are treated to complex layouts as the two fighters run and jump around. The moment from 0:15 to 0:17, as Bradley towers over Lin, is particularly iconic and intense, just as the jump from the beginning of the sequence: once again, everything slows down, the camera even rotates to give more impact to the motion, and Bradley’s face, suddenly very close to the camera, seems to disappear in black, thick brush lines for just a few frames. The final bit of background animation and slow motion by the end is a good example of Nakamura’s influence in its choreography, but Kameda characteristically added sudden hand movements and speedlines to help make it feel more intense. 

Beyond this, this scene very well exemplifies Kameda’s more general approach towards animation. Unlike Nakamura, he has no roots in the realist tradition, and the influence of flow animation seems to have been minor at this point. He has himself stated that his main difference with the realists, especially Satoru Utsunomiya, is his absence of care for weight and the center of gravity of objects – this is very visible in this sequence. What matters is instead the expression of the characters and the general intensity of the action. In that, he is very much a part of the Kanada tradition, that prioritizes powerful motion above all else. This also comes out in his individuality and disregard for the normal processes of production: in this scene, as in many others, he added cuts that weren’t originally in the storyboard, because he felt they would make the action more striking.

By the time Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood had finished airing, Kameda had established himself as one of the most important action animators alive, and one of the stars of studio Bones. Generally, his animation in the 2010’s has evolved in the way of a richer, rounder approach to movement. This change was maybe triggered by the 2011 Fullmetal Alchemist movie, The Sacred Star of Milos – at least, that’s where it’s the most obvious. This is largely due to the movie’s unique character designs by ex-Ghibli animator Ken’ichi Konishi, much rounder than the original ones, with larger bodies and thicker lines.

A good example of that would be this sequence, especially its effect animation. In the first five seconds, they are thin and straight, something classical and expected. But by 0:08, the linework becomes much thicker, with sorts of concentration points taking the shapes of stars or circles. The movement is generally more fluid and circular, a sort of midpoint between the old Kanada-style lightning and the more modern, webgen inspired, Kutsuna lightning: in some instances, the electricity moves with a kind of freedom and liquidity that no Kanada-style animator would have been able to convey. Kameda’s evolution also comes through his more frequent use of impact frames, often black and white, uniquely made with his characteristic brush. They’re a logical conclusion of his work on Brotherhood #19, but also a clear insertion in the renewal of painterly impact frames that he contributed to trigger.

Following this, it’s natural that Kameda’s works progressively got more and more important: he more frequently got opportunities to work on openings and endings until his first solo ending on Suisei no Gargantia in 2013; he had his first taste of animation direction on Professor Layton VS Ace Attorney in 2012 and then on some episodes of Space Dandy, the Animator Expo, and Wanpanman. However, his most important work in recent years has undoubtedly been on the Mob Psycho 100 series. There, he wasn’t just animation director, but also character designer and a regular key animator. More than his acknowledgement as a major figure of contemporary animation, it was an important platform from where he could start gathering a group of students and followers.

Mob Psycho is also in the continuity of Kameda’s artistic evolution and probably a major step in it. The most visible element is in the approach to character design: while slightly modifying it, Kameda and the rest of Bones’ team generally sticked to the original manga’s sketchy, sometimes approximate art style, rather than cleaning it up and perfecting it. This would allow Kameda’s own rough line work to flourish, but also for his more spontaneous approach to shapes to develop even more as Mob Psycho’s animation is all about deformation and expressivity. As sequences such as this one illustrate, it seems that on the series, Kameda’s work as animation director was not to clean and even out the rough animation, but instead to make it look even coarser.

However, one consequence of Kameda’s artistic evolution is that the Kanadaisms are becoming less and less easy to spot. It’s not a necessarily bad thing, as it shows that he has grown out of replicating others’ influence, but it is yet another proof of the decline of the Kanada style. Indeed, in Mob Psycho, the last prevailing techniques from the Kanada style are mostly the speed lines and a generally cartoony approach that isn’t afraid to use low framerates and cycles.

Regardless of this, since then, Kameda’s place in the anime industry has only increased, as he now regularly takes on the mantle of character designer, as well as episode director for TV shows (such as helping out on Flip Flappers episode 12 in 2016) or videogame previews. It’s on the latter of those that his talent really shines: whereas these kind of works often tend to be crowded and difficult to read because of the amount of fast-paced, dense animation, Kameda’s storyboards are remarkably easy to follow all the while giving enough space for the animators to express themselves. Music videos and video games openings are becoming an increasingly important platform for Japanese animators, and Kameda might very well be at the forefront of this new format. As of now, it seems like it might be the perfect place for him to train yet a new generation of animators that would be able to pursue and renew the Kanada lineage.

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