The Kanada style now

Cover image: an impact frame by Yû Yoshiyama from Star Twinkle Precure

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

Although the Kanada style has certainly known a rebirth in the 2000s, it seems that, in the 2010’s, it has gone through a new phase of decline. It’s not that it has totally disappeared: it is still thriving around specific studios (like Trigger) or artists (the most important among them being Yoshimichi Kameda). However, outside of those circles, the presence of the Kanada style is mostly visible through citations (Kanada dragons, very angular effects) and a generally snappier approach to timing. Overall, there is little formal innovation. But this doesn’t mean that the Kanada style is dead or dying; it has just acquired a new, more secondary, place in the field of anime aesthetics. This situation is what I call the “post-Kanada” era; not just because it has been long now since the golden age of the 80’s, but also because most Kanada-school animators emerging today have done so after the death of Yoshinori Kanada himself. They have therefore never directly experienced his work, and their influences might be more diverse than that of previous artists. The goal of this article will be to understand this new context, and to highlight some promising artists in the Kanada lineage.

Modern action animation: Shingo Yamashita and Yutaka Nakamura

It makes little doubt that, in the last 20 years, action animation has grown in prestige and importance. In that, it is the direct result of the evolutions of the late 80’s, with the successive rise of the realist and flow animation schools. Both were focused on character animation, with little interest for either effects or mecha, which had been the domains in which 80’s Kanada-style animation had bloomed the most. This was only accentuated by the fact that many flow animators, chief among them Norio Matsumoto, approached fight scenes with an increasing attention to choreography, thereby integrating their character animation roots into a new way of making fight scenes.

In the 2000’s, what was missing from the early works of the flow animators finally developed: a distinct philosophy of effects animation, that would be able to fully integrate it into sequences and not just use it as an ornament. With this, the simpler effects style of the 90’s that had succeeded to the dense Kanada style would be thoroughly replaced, while action animation could now develop as a hybrid form of characters and effects animation, just like mecha had been. Although there were probably many reasons for this evolution, one of them was probably the emergence of the so-called “web-generation” and its specific approach to animation.

Rather than keep making generalities such as this, which necessarily brush over the details and specific artistic developments, it is necessary to take a look at the major artists behind this transition, and how their work is in a fundamental clash with the Kanada style. Many animators could be taken as examples here, but I have chosen two that can arguably be considered among the most important figures of anime in the last two decades: Shingo Yamashita and Yutaka Nakamura.

Yamashita, who started as a gif animator, is one of the names most often associated with the “web-generation”, alongside Ken’ichi Kutsuna and Ryo-timo. Rather than a self-conscious group with a distinct philosophy, the “webgen” was initially made up of rookie animators with no professional training that had started animation on digital tools such as Flash. Their approach was based on self-expression and spontaneity; it was therefore no surprise if Ryo-timo especially was introduced to the industry by Satoru Utsunomiya and Norio Matsumoto: the two pioneers of flow animation were probably well aware of the complementarity between their own styles and the one that these new digital animators were developing.

It was in 2008-2009, on the two seasons of Birdy the Mighty: Decode, that the webgen animators, chief among them Yamashita, got a major opportunity to shine on a big stage. What interests me here is a sequence from episode 12 of the second season, one of Yamashita’s most famous, that exemplifies the best his approach to animation.

As can be seen in this sequence, Yamashita’s animation can be characterized by three things: an emphasis on fluidity, the disappearance of clear-cut lines and shapes, and a flat, two dimensional approach to shading and effects. Let’s go over them one by one. The first aspect, fluidity, is most visible in the extremely uniform timing: most of the sequence is on 1s, with some parts on 2s and exceptionally 3s on some of the impacts. There is, in other words, almost no modulation here – the pose-to-pose approach that had been so characteristic of the Kanada style (especially its Neo-Kanada incarnation) and even of many flow animators totally disappears in favor of constant, uninterrupted movement. This is reinforced by the breakdown of shapes. 

It had already been initiated by the flow animators since Gosenzosama Banbanzai and The Hakkenden, but another degree was reached here. Flow animation had its rooting in realism, and deformation was therefore a conscious break with the physical properties of the body; in the case of Yamashita and webgen animators, it was a complete disregard. Maybe this was partly born out of the fact that they had not received formal artistic training and didn’t have the same constraints or realistic reflexes when drawing human bodies. In that context, shapes weren’t just deformed, but reduced to schematic images that are meant to evoke the idea of a body rather than establish it as a real, physical entity, however deformed it could be. 

This is especially visible in the most impressive part of this sequence, from 0:19 to 0:23. As Birdy is sent flying off by the power of her opponent’s kick, it is not just shapes that dissolve, but also lines: she just becomes a jumble of colors. Things are then reduced to their most basic elements: the debris of the buildings she crashes into adopt elementary cubic shapes, Birdy loses her color to merge with the background, unnaturally projects a bright orange shadow… Then her opponent himself loses all consistency, as if becoming a one-piece smear, as he is running to catch her and end the fight.

Finally, all this is perfectly complemented by a general approach, one that disregards shading and lines in favor of simple, monochrome spreads of color: an aesthetic generally referred to as kagenashi, or “without shadows”. The very dark lightning of this scene maybe doesn’t make it obvious, but it is more visible in other, brighter sequences by Yamashita such as this one. While there are little shadows and darker areas on objects, the coloring work is often very simple, especially on the giant waves that materialize between 0:34 and 0:39. There is very little sense of texture or volume here, because of the lack of detail: no nuanced colors or abundance of lines, just the bare minimum of outlines to evoke foam.

At first glance, Yutaka Nakamura’s animation has little in common with Yamashita’s. Despite all the stylistic changes Nakamura has gone through, his original rooting in realism has stayed consistent and given birth to a much more solid and steady approach to bodies. However, what he does have in common with Yamashita are the following, more general, characteristics: fluidity, choreography, and a sense for impressive action.

Although more modulated than Yamashita’s, Nakamura’s animation often relies on high framerates: it is generally on 1’s or 2’s. What sets him apart is his general sense of rhythm and, more generally, of storyboarding (which he does himself whenever the occasion arises). This is visible in his frequent use of slow-motion  and the attention to the space in which the action takes place. Although no less delicate than that of Kanada-style or flow animators, Nakamura’s approach is decidedly cinematic: rather than focusing on the little intricacies of the motion, he tends to consider the movement as a whole – in more abstract terms, he focuses on rhythm rather than timing. No need to say that this sets Nakamura in a space completely different from that of Kanada, or even Norio Matsumoto: the latter two work in the details, and their genius comes out most clearly in the little frame-by-frame differences; Nakamura doesn’t break up things that way and aims instead for a feeling of perfect fluidity. If I called Matsumoto’s style a kind of “flowing” animation, Nakamura’s might be termed “gliding” animation.

By virtue of being on high framerates and featuring complex choreographies, Nakamura’s work is not easy to pull-off; however, it creates the contrary impression, precisely because of its fluidity and the natural power his characters seem to have. This also translates in his effects animation, which is fundamentally simple. Although the use of cubic debris is completely different from that of Yamashita’s, it achieves the same effect: that of plain, basic shapes. Similarly, his fire and smoke effects (as visible between 0:40 and 0:47) are made up of simple color spreads, without any elaborate motion or lines. Combined with the extremely fluid motion, this creates a feeling of molten steel or lava – which is, however, a world away from Kanada’s own liquid fire style, which was characterized by an organic kind of motion and irregular shapes nonexistent in Nakamura’s almost minimalist animation. In spite of this, Nakamura’s work feels flashy and in-your-face; that’s because his cinematic tendency makes him favor not the small details, but an accumulation of big, powerful impacts.

To sum up, the current philosophy of action animation, which has largely developed from Yamashita and Nakamura, can be said to consist of 3 principles: fluidity, simplicity, and overload. Fluidity means that, while the animation might not always be on 1s or 2s, it will seek to convey a feeling of constant and unimpaired movement, with only short, slowed-down accents made on particularly impactful moments. Simplicity might vary according to the situation and the animator’s sensibility, but it entails most often a breakdown or deformations of character models and a reduction in lines and detail, especially in effects work. Finally, the overload principle involves that action animation will take characters and effects as a whole, mixing together complex fight choreographies and extremely intense effects work.

While the Kanada style could be said to share a similar approach of overload, filling the screen with dense amounts of information, the way it goes around it is fundamentally different. That is because its core principles are the opposite of that of current action animation: whereas the latter favors fluidity, the former can only thrive within limited framerates and intense modulation. In that regard, simplicity in design, shapes and motion is cast aside in favor of intricate, pose-to-pose animation whose greatest strength lies in its attention to detail.

Towards a web Kanada style?

In such a context, the Kanada style’s greatest value lies in its contrast: the way it favors more angular shapes and snappier, unpredictable movement stands out more easily. But this doesn’t necessarily favor innovation: animators inspired by Hiroyuki Imaishi and Yoshimichi Kameda seldom seem to feel the need to go further than their models and mostly reuse and recontextualize the techniques of their forerunners. On the other hand, it does create interesting collaborations, when the two webgen and Neo-Kanada styles interact and give birth to unexpected and sometimes original combinations.

The first example of this new wave of animators would be Kôsuke Katô, a 26 years old artist whose style appears strongly influenced by Yoshimichi Kameda. The sequence above, from That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is among his best, and the most representative of his work. First, it’s important to note that this is a simple swordfight, without any showdown of magical powers – and therefore, no avalanche of effects. Moreover, the show’s simple, angular character designs are perhaps a perfect fit for Kanada-style animation, especially in the kind that Katô develops here: not rough, cartoony motion, but a very controlled pose-to-pose approach.

What characterizes this sequence, then, is its specific pace created through movement. Rimuru jumps to and fro and his body contracts and retracts in an unpredictable manner, a kind of extremely dynamic motion that’s perfectly accompanied by speedlines. What’s remarkable here is the economy of means: the choreography is simple and the action  extremely easy to follow; but it remains dynamic precisely because the animation relies so much on strong poses. It must however be noted that Katô also follows the general trends of action animation in other ways: this is most visible here in his use of slow-motion. It might be inspired by Kameda’s own impressive slow-in/slow-out technique, but the way the characters evolve around the camera is also reminiscent of Yutaka Nakamura’s output.

Another rising figure is Ken’ichirô Aoki, who started his career in 2013, just 2 years before Katô, and quickly became the ace of studio JC staff, carrying the difficult production of shows like One Punch Man season 2 on his shoulders. Aoki’s range of inspiration is much more diverse: in his approach to timing and shapes, you sometimes see more of Hironori Tanaka than Yoshimichi Kameda, for example. But in other instances, Kameda’s influence is obvious, notably in the thicker, rougher lines and slight deformations of the designs. In any case, Aoki has started to develop his own way of doing things, relying on a contrast between very fluid, now classical, movement, and extremely irregular motion.

This is visible in this sequence, where the disparity between the first and the third shot is as wide as possible. In that third shot, the sense of rhythm is created through extremely erratic timing (the character stays in the same pose for 12 frames, before going back on 1s!), very wide spacings, and the use of smears. This produces a strange feeling, and it’s sometimes hard to tell if Aoki’s timing is that idiosyncratic or if it’s just that the in-betweeners weren’t able to properly do their job – in any case, it’s a kind of motion that you can’t miss.

Finally, my last example will be a web animator proper, Finnish artist Lzyboost, who’s been making their way into the Japanese industry in the last few years. Like that of many current Kanada-style animators, their work appears to be mostly influenced by Hiroyuki Imaishi (as in the simple, geometrical impact frames here seem to indicate) and Yoshimichi Kameda. It therefore relies on the classical repertoire of Kanada-style techniques: straight speedlines, light flares, and minimalistic impact frames – minimalistic in comparison to the more baroque outburst of impact frames that has taken over action animation in the last few years. There is a sense of simplicity in Lzyboost’s animation, which manages to complement very well complex layouts and choreographies. Although their style is still very much in its infancy, the idea of a non-Japanese, completely web-based, Kanada-style animator is certainly a challenging and attractive one.

The new Kanada-style generation

However promising the work of artists like Katô, Aoki and Lzyboost might be, it’s still very limited in two aspects: as I mentioned, it doesn’t really innovate yet, and if it doesn’t, it is most probably because these artists are still in the early phase of their careers. Their presence in the current anime landscape shows that the Kanada style isn’t dead, but it doesn’t fully showcase yet what its possibilities are. For that, it is necessary to turn towards slightly older artists that have imposed themselves as two of the major figures of what may very well be a new wave of Kanada-school animators.

The first and youngest is Takeshi Maenami, an animator strongly influenced by Yoshimichi Kameda who started making waves on Pokemon Sun & Moon. His style, which relies on strong posing and timings, is a perfect complement to the wide camera movements, full of zoom-in and zoom-outs, that the Pokemon series seems to favor, resulting in a dynamic sense of action. His most striking characteristic, directly descended from Kameda, is however the conjunction of speedlines and outline smears to give the impression of speed. In the end, what sets Maenami apart is his sense of rhythm, and his ability to not just align citations of already-used Kanada-style techniques. This is most visible in the following sequence from the 2020 Monster Strike music video.

What’s most striking here, besides the impressive feeling of power that’s conveyed, is how seamlessly Maenami combines renewed takes on classical Kanada-style tropes and elements directly borrowed from the webgen style. The two most visible things in that regard are the posing and the smears. The timings are very irregular and the spacings very wide, in a typical Kanada-inspired fashion. In the first shot especially, the way the character suddenly approaches the camera without anticipation and swings her cat is quite impressive and unexpected. This is perfectly complemented, in the same action, by the thicker but distorted outlines on the cat. But it is when it settles down and transforms that all hell breaks loose and that the animal’s shape completely dissolves into abstract, geometrical smears.

However, the most creative aspect of Maenami’s animation here is probably the effects proper, and more specifically the lightning. It manages to alternate, with perfect ease, between the two major styles of lightning effects: Kanada and Kutsuna lightning. The two might be believed to be as antithetical as the Kanada and webgen styles of action: Kanada-style lightning relies on straight lines, stark angles, and irregular timings, while Kustuna lightning prominently uses curves and zigzags in a much more fluid kind of motion. Maenami reaches a place just between these two philosophies, sometimes smearing the effects themselves, and some other times creating original shapes of Kanada light flares.

Maenami’s career is just starting, but already stands out for his ability to innovate. There’s no denying that his influences are very obvious, but he seems like he is starting to grow past them and to be creating his own style. His position might be very similar to that of Yoshimichi Kameda just a decade ago: someone that might be able to bridge the gap between the Kanada and the webgen-inspired styles.

The same can’t quite be said of the other star of the new generation of the Kanada school. That is because in terms of sensibility, career, and even skill, they are on a very different level: Yû Yoshiyama is no doubt one of the most remarkable artists to have emerged in anime in the last 5 years. Initially from Osaka’s studio Mu, Yoshiyama has become a regular on Tôei series, and a regular contributor to the Precure franchise. The first element that stands out about Yoshiyama’s animation is what could be termed its exotism in the current anime landscape: the contrast value of their take on the Kanada style is much stronger than any other animator today, because their inspiration doesn’t come from Imaishi or Kameda, two animators who more or less adopted the evolutions of action animation in the second half of the 90’s. On the contrary, Yoshiyama looks back before the Neo-Kanada style, to the late 80’s and the most glorious days of Yamashita-style decadent effects animation.

In an interview, Yoshiyama mentioned that their major inspiration was Masami Obari, especially his work on Dangaiô. While it might be the work that pushed Yoshiyama to pursue a career in animation, I don’t quite think it’s the one whose influence is the most visible over their style. Indeed, in the mid 80’s, after the radicalization of Kanada style animation initiated by Masahito Yamashita, two distinct lineages developed. The first one, initiated by Masami Obari, centered around mecha and the idea of extremely complex and fast action: Obari’s work would be pursued by action animators like Imaishi and Kameda. The other was championed by Shin’ya Ohira in his early period, mostly developed in effects, and went for stylization rather than movement itself. I conceive this as a much more radical approach, and it has tellingly gathered less followers over the years: after Ohira moved on, it would not be until Jun Arai that this aesthetic resurfaced; and now that Arai has all but disappeared from commercial TV animation, it is Yoshiyama’s turn to take up the mantle.

In simple terms, what this means is that Yoshiyama is essentially an effects animator, for whom every frame is a new work altogether. The result is an extremely impressive and dense kind of animation, with idiosyncratic shapes and stark spacings. Especially today when the general philosophy of animation has changed so much, this return to past techniques feels very innovative. This is also the case because, in traditional Kanada-style fashion, Yoshiyama adopts a total approach to animation, leaving no single bit of the frame unexploited.The first thing to note is how they managed to bring back figurative effects, without just citing to death Kanada’s most famous moments, like so many Neo-Kanada artists have done. This is probably helped by their status as a franchise animator on Precure, and the formulaic, personality-based kind of work that a magical girl show is: the effects aren’t just decorative, they express character. The completely liberated approach to effects that Yoshiyama adopts also means that there is no gap between exciting action and cute expression: this is how you end up with effects taking the shapes of cats or stars in an otherwise very tense fight scene.

The other way in which Yoshiyama manages to look both back and forward is in their use of impact frames. Current action animation, strongly influenced by both Yoshimichi Kameda and Yutaka Nakamura, has experienced an incredible boom in impact frames, a technique that had all but disappeared since the early 90’s. As one of Nakamura’s most famous sequences showcases, modern impact frames tend to completely blend into the action: they’re often figurative, showing the outlines of the characters, use few colors, and are themselves animated rather than just a few still frames. On many of their sequences, Yoshiyama brought back the ancient use of the impact frame: a few still, often abstract, heavily stylized images that sort of blank out the action rather than build it. Once again, this is not just a look to the past: this apparently conservative take on the technique is what enables the animator to get creative, notably inserting figurative patterns and easter eggs among the abstract frames.

Finally, the last and most typical Kanada-style technique Yoshiyama uses is how the compositing and the animation often seem to work together. In the cel era, that meant, as Kanada and Yamashita often did, playing on the relationship between different cels to create the sense of a multilayered and complex image. With digital compositing, this isn’t really possible anymore, but Yoshiyama instead fully exploits the possibilities opened by digital lighting and photography. In sequences like the one above, the glow and the slight variation in colors give life and texture to the effects. They’re probably very difficult to handle, but work in perfect complementarity with the extremely stylized shapes. Such a relationship between animation and compositing might sound obvious, but it’s simply revolutionary in Kanada-style animation: its way of approaching light had long gone in  only one of two directions. Either light up the effects themselves, but with the risk of losing the subtlety of the lines and therefore of the motion; or instead put the lines inside the effects, giving rise since the mid-80’s to the so-called “wakame shadows” technique. Through the compositing, Yoshiyama effectively merges these two aesthetics in an animation that makes perfect use of digital tools to go beyond the possibilities of what had already been achieved in the cel era.

Yoshiyama is still very much an exception in the contemporary anime landscape: while it doesn’t reject Kanada-style animation as such, its trends have largely moved away from it. Creativity and dynamism are therefore hard to come by, and Kanada-school animators may today just be small islands in the ocean of anime. But these artists are there, and they are still developing. The Kanada style hasn’t died with its creator and, while it might not know a general rebirth before long, it looks like it has some bright years ahead of it. Witnessing those, and the new directions the style might take, can only be an enriching experience for the times to come.

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