Yoshinori Kanada and the nature of animation

Cover image: a key drawing by Yoshinori Kanada from Farewell Galaxy Express 999

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

Yoshinori Kanada is one of the most important artists in the history of Japanese animation. This was the core assumption of this series, and the reason why it has tried to trace how Kanada’s influence spread and changed over the years. However, I have said little in depth about what Kanada and his students brought to the medium of animation—in other words, why was Kanada important, beyond simply earning so many fans and followers? This is what I’d like to try and uncover here.

Unlike other artists covered over the course of this series, such as Shin’ya Ohira, I sense no governing principle or fundamental drive behind Kanada’s work—except a prodigious capacity for experiment and renewal. This might come from my own limits as critic and analyst, but it might also be taken as an opportunity: it offers a chance to steer away from the “animator-as-auteur” approach that has been so prevalent in this series, and from the historical perspective and narrative I have adopted. Instead, I’d like to try and consider Kanada’s work as a series of formal configurations that evolved and interacted, regardless of biographical or chronological changes. While this might seem counter-intuitive, in my mind, taking things in historical, chronological order, shows us the evolution of an artist’s vision and showcases what makes it unique; on the other hand, setting this approach aside lets us analyze the diversity of an artist’s output. This might sometimes get confusing, but it’s also what allows us to understand every work and aspect of it as something distinct.

In other words, this article will try to understand Kanada’s production at its most fundamental level, that is as a set of works of art which challenge the viewer and the medium itself. The artist can then be conceived as a researcher themselves: someone looking to open new ways for expression and new forms in which their imagination can  take shape. To my mind, Kanada stands out among the animators who have gone furthest in such explorations. His work can therefore be read through the lens of what I believe are three fundamental concepts of animation, concepts that he ceaselessly challenged: lines, rhythm, and scene composition.

Generating shapes

Animation is made of drawings, themselves containing shapes with more or less distinct outlines. This is a basic fact, and a given for any animator: their work is indeed to create movement, but this movement is ultimately made up of a series of individual drawings. And I would suggest that it is not the drawings that are moved, but rather the shapes that are drawn – that is, the lines themselves.

Kanada’s drawing style and linework is one of the most distinctive aspects of his art, as his more-or-less off-model character animation or unique effects show. His particular approach to shapes not only reflected his own artistic sensibilities, but also emerged from his way of working for, unlike many other animators, he systematically used rulers, although the way he used them varied over time. The fact that an artist so easily considered an expressionist did not draw freehand might come as surprising: his ostensibly spontaneous style doesn’t come from a similarly liberated manner of drawing, but instead a controlled one, relying on standardized tools. This tension between control and freedom is essential to Kanada’s art. It was first a requirement for him, as for any other animator, to be able to convey his style under the supervision of animation directors; but it is also at the core of his drawing. This might not always be most apparent in the finished works; but it is always obvious in the illustrations and rough drawings, as the following one from episode 6 of Don de la Mancha illustrates.

This picture of Kabonen, the episode’s antagonist and one of Kanada’s favorite personal creations, is full of neatly traced curves, most or all of which were drawn with an ellipse or circular ruler. This is most obvious on Kabonen’s head, his helmet and face being covered with red circles that overlap each other. However, there is nothing there that breaks the spontaneity of the figures; that is because Kanada didn’t just make regular geometrical forms but instead used the tools themselves to break any sense of regularity.

In this sketch, the almost instinctive nature of the drawing first comes from its density: lines of various colors are drawn and layered on top of each other, thus obscuring any sense of clearly defined outlines. Without ever (or at latest only rarely) being crowded, Kanada’s work always feels dense because of this: besides the character or figure themselves, there are always many little details or seemingly unnecessary lines added on top, which appear to have a purely decorative purpose; it is there, in those abstract, apparently free but tightly controlled lines, that the artist’s hand is the most visible.

It is of course impossible to get into the artist’s mind, but this dialectic between freedom and control was probably central not just to Kanada’s philosophy, but also to the smallest details of his practice. What interests me here is what might seem a superfluous addition to Kabonen’s drawing: the thin red line that starts from his right shoulder (at the left of the drawing), goes over his chest and other shoulder and then starts in a completely different direction, ending in a loop. As always, the line is neatly traced and was most probably not done freehand; and yet it creates that feeling, as Kanada would suddenly break the curves he himself initiated with his ruler, distorting them to create unexpected patterns – something that he himself called “skipping”, suddenly interrupting or continuing lines at unexpected junctions. The loop here is perfectly gratuitous and everything but figurative: it adds nothing to the figure of Kabonen itself. But it is the natural extension of the line, a fragment of pure drawing coming out less of the artist’s imagination or mind than directly from his hand and its own feeling for movement. It is to try and keep this feeling that Kanada always drew as fast as he could, sometimes boasting that a drawing he couldn’t conceive in one minute was no good. It is this same tendency that suffuses Kanada’s effects animation.

As much as it is characterized by a specific kind of motion, the “liquid fire” style of the late 70’s and early 80’s is first and foremost notable for the perspective it offers on the interaction between line and color. Liquid fire is perhaps one of the most important contributions Kanada made to animation, through a progressive evolution that started on Zambot 3, reached its maturity on Galaxy Express 999 and culminated in Genma Taisen with the famous “fire dragons”. Following on artist Takashi Murakami’s comments, I have already noted what is specific to Kanada’s liquid fire effects: the disappearance of clear-cut lines in order to create motion only through the interplay of colors. But there is more to this, as colors do not only “absorb” outlines, but also shapes, and take on their own generative, sometimes figurative power.

This sequence from Arcadia of my Youth, where two spaceships crash into each other, is perhaps most illustrative. At first, the ship towards which the Arcadia (on the left) is speeding explodes on its own in a circular blast accompanied by flashing lights and speedlines. But as the Arcadia seems to enter the explosion, the latter engulfs the former and makes it disappear in its wake. The last ten seconds of this shot then only represent the flames spreading across the screen in full glory, and at this point it is uncertain whether the Arcadia is still in one piece, and whether it is the ship that dictates the direction of the flames or the other way around.

Then, everything is orange, yellow, black or bright white. There is something phoenix-like in the motion of the flames here, in the way they center around the Arcadia, then adopt a sort of vectorial shape irradiating in every direction and moving as if they had a will of their own. There are no distinct shapes here anymore, only the internal undulations of the blaze and its movement across the screen—both across and into it, in fact. Indeed, it is only through the speedlines and the thinner, arrow-like figure of the conflagration around the end that we understand that it is moving into depth, following the motion of the intact Arcadia. The general confusion of the shapes is only further accentuated by the lighting, especially the bright white flash that merges with the rest of the fire.

This sequence is also one of those for which the expression “liquid fire” is the most apt. There are no outlines distinguishing any of the levels of color which would create any precise or definite forms. The colors are just spreading and constantly changing at what seems to be their own pace, creating abstract and undulating configurations, just like waves or running water would. There again, we feel this sense of inner energy that’s being channeled not just through the drawings themselves, but also through their change, that is, their motion.

In an unexpected development, Kanada progressively redirected this approach to shapes towards character animation, first by the way of his famous figurative effects of which the fire dragons are an offshoot. This would be one among Kanada’s most fecund formal inventions, not because it spurred an almost infinite amount of reproduction and copies, but because it opened the way for a character animation whose approach to shapes would be inspired first and foremost by effects rather than human bodies. This would mostly take form in the mannerist, liquid and flowing animation of Shinsaku Kôzuma and Masahito Yamashita, and the thick, smoke-like work of Shiny’a Ohira.

Considering all this, it certainly is fascinating that Kanada also developed radically different techniques later on in his career. In stark opposition with the liquid fire effects, which relied on curves, his late style mostly uses straight lines. Liquid fire and figurative effects gave the impression of an internal energy coming from within the animation, and of the instability of forms blurred the line between effects and morphing animation; on the other hand, his late effects are more often purely decorative or attached to a character. In other words, their energy looks more like it’s being conveyed by an outside force (the character or the animator himself) rather than being generated by the drawing itself.

In earlier articles I analyzed the personal and historical reasons that can explain such a shift in Kanada’s career, but what I think is interesting from this particular article’s point of view is how Kanada made this shift while never setting aside one of his most important tools: rulers. But this time it would be straight ones, something that also explains the return of straight speed lines in his late work. The characteristic irregularity in the forms and outlines then reappeared, but in a very different context. Whereas fire defined Kanada’s effects in the late 70’s and 80’s, the dominant figure in the 90’s and 00’s would be lightning, precisely made up of many angles and rigid lines. 

Fire is an expensive element by nature, and that is even more striking in Kanada’s way of animating it: he drew it like a liquid, another kind of matter that seeks to occupy as much space as possible when it isn’t rigidly bound. By contrast, while lightning and electricity in general are also in constant motion, making them ideal material for an animator, they do represent a rigid sort of energy, one that never invades or consumes objects but only covers the surface of things. Therefore, liquid fire and rigid lightning are not just different stylistic approaches; they entail radically different philosophies. This is also visible in how each one was complemented by a distinct approach of rhythm.

Harnessing and liberating energies

Perhaps more than any other animator, Kanada and his closest followers understood that animation is all about energy and its expression, and that rhythm is the medium through which that energy is channeled and liberated. By “energy”, I don’t just mean either characters’ abilities or capacity to move all around, or the animator’s creative power, or their ability to express some sort of meaning or emotion. Instead, I mean a unique sort of internal dynamism that gives objects not only a life, but also an individuality. Energy, through rhythm, is the core of animation, because it’s what creates actual motion, rather than an indifferent movement through the space of the screen.

Kanada’s late style is perhaps the one in which the energetic nature of his animation comes through best. That is because the minimalism of rigid lines is complemented by a very simple and straightforward kind of motion. All the characters are hyperactive, jumping and running everywhere, as if they were about to burst with a force that they can barely contain.

Besides the return of speedlines, Kanada’s work in the 90’s is also characterized by an abundant use of cycles; in this sequence in particular, the most obvious one is when the character just seems to quiver, his entire body trembling and making up and down movements accompanied by lightning and smears. This is the expression of pent-up energy that seeks to come out—and since the shapes are so fixed and straight, this doesn’t result in bodily metamorphosis, but in this simple and yet impressive quivering effect. Because the animation is in cycle, the rhythm is essentially monotonous; but the repetition itself has a value, and the more it goes on, the more the energy seems to accumulate.

If you go to the most inventive moment in Kanada’s art—the late 70’s-early 80’s—you get something very different, more measured and ambivalent. On the one hand, there’s a remarkable attention to detail through very deliberate timings and framerate modulation. On the other, the variations in rhythm are always very obvious thanks to a frequent use of slow-ins and slow-outs. It is these which dictate the motion and energy of a scene. This is why the result is so different: it is not a feeling of energy coming from the characters, but rather a sort of pressure in the motion itself, made up of a series of moments of pent-up tension and then sudden release.

The famous beginning of the Galaxy Cyclone Braiger opening is perhaps the clearest illustration of that. The motion is so unique here because it is so tense: each character jumps, stays up in the air in a contracted pose for a few instants, and then suddenly untightens, dropping more quickly and suddenly. It is not the characters’ own power which makes them move like that, but they’re not entirely passive, either. They are not the victims of some kind of transformation that they can’t control, nor wholly the creatures of an artist who does whatever he wants with them. It is rather like they are riding on some current or rhythmic melody offered to them by the animator, dancers who have the ability to move by themselves but whose movement is dictated by an outside influence. The beams of energy that then transform into small quasi-screens or -scenes into which the characters can settle are like representations of this: as beams, they are energy itself, but as little scenes they are like the frame to which the figures can go back as the place they belong to.

In the realm of effects, too, the specific sense of rhythm creates a unique relationship between the elements inside and beyond the frame – the artist and the figure, the drawing and the movement. What characterizes the liquid fire style is not just its unique shapes but the way they move: the lines gather and disperse around and from points of tension. This is what creates the unique sense of morphing, and grants effects the capacity to adopt figurative shapes like faces or dragons: because of their own internal energy, shapes sometimes coalesce and form a distinct figure, but such figures are fragile and come undone as quickly and unexpectedly as they appeared. 

Among Kanada’s students, it is perhaps Masahito Yamashita who best understood this unique aspect of Kanada’s art; he is probably one of the only animators to have been able to reproduce and further it. Indeed, while the framerate modulation that Kanada mastered so well and systematized from his early days was bound to stay and become one of anime’s key formal characteristics, the unique sense of rhythm of Kanada’s middle period was rarely replicated with the same amount of talent. It could even be argued that, following the decline of Yamashita-style animation in the late 80’s, and Kanada’s own turn away from it, animation has moved into the opposite direction: no less modulated, but either resolutely irregular, as in Kanada’s early period and Hiroyuki Imaishi’s work, or continuous and fluid. In that, Yutaka Nakamura’s “gliding” animation is perhaps the greatest antithesis one might conceive to the tension-focused Kanada style.

In any case, and in whatever way it expresses itself, Kanada’s greatest discovery was that animation, as a medium that produces movement, is inherently about energies. It might just be said to be the energy of the animator who, as they work, pours themselves out in their drawings. But there is also an energy inherent to the drawings themselves, as they are set to be put in motion. The work of the animator is, then, not just that of someone who draws, but also that of a choreographer: that is, to create or locate rhythms, to order and direct them according to points of tension, release and expression. In other words, creating movement through drawings also entails harnessing energy through motion.

Organizing movements

So far, it could be said that I have focused on two aspects of Kanada’s art: its spatial configurations, through shapes, and its temporal organizations, through rhythm. But there is a third, perhaps more general and fundamental order that both underlies and follows from these. That is a constant awareness and foregrounding of the material conditions and tools behind the animation – in that sense, Kanada’s animation is often both about the movement and the nature of that movement. That nature is often profoundly organic, made of drawn lines, but also involving bodies and physical substances.

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned the “decorative” lines that are so present in Kanada’s work. But these are not simply there to be pretty, or to enrich compositions; they are not just ornamental, but always reveal that the act of drawing is at play within the animation. In other words, the animation is not only about conveying certain plot events or emotions, and not only about motion either, but is always a series of sudden drawn developments and flourishes that seem to develop themselves spontaneously. In a fashion similar to the internal dynamism of the liquid fire, they seem to be organic outgrowths of the drawings themselves and thereby they enrich the movement as a whole.

In that regard, Kanada’s use of rulers must not solely be understood as a means to reach greater efficiency. As the abstract or decorative lines I just mentioned illustrate, Kanada’s figures initially came out of an apparent chaos of spontaneous lines: in other words, forms preceded expression, and the latter was born out of the former in a series of unexpected inventions. 

This famous sequence from Zambot 3 is full of these “discoveries”, little bursts of details and expressions and lines where new forms and shapes and expressions just appear out of nothing but the animation itself. From 0:02 to 0:05, nothing really justifies the schematic shapes and the proliferation of speedlines; they are just there, creating “expression” but not expressing any feeling in particular. The same could be said of the light flares from 0:06 to 0:07. Although probably meant to figure the blinding energy coming from the mecha and the sword flying by, their abstract shapes make it impossible to just identify them so literally; they are pure fragments of drawing, drawn light that’s just there to show that it’s been drawn. What blinds the viewer here is then not the light, but the drawing: the revelation of the animator’s work, initiative and fantasy expressed in simple geometrical patterns.

The most famous moment of that sequence, its last 5 seconds, must be understood similarly. Light coming out of the character’s eyes and a face and emotions appearing on a robot are not just expressive devices, although they certainly are effectively expressive. They are also pure fragments of drawing: moments when the animation itself generates new, unexpected shapes. The flares suddenly appearing are, once again, drawn light: they are only lines and color, and it is these that surprise the viewer so much. If we must call Kanada’s animation (especially here) “expressionist”, it is also fundamentally formalist: it entails not just expression for the sake of intensity, but a close attention to how drawing and movement work together, and to their constitutive elements.

A core aspect of Kanada’s animation is therefore an attention to both the smallest, material elements of a given action, and a care to integrate them into the general movement that plays out in said action. In other words, there is often a strong alliance between animation and storyboarding, but also between animation and coloring and compositing.

The special relationship between animation and compositing in Kanada’s art has often been commented on, in the wake of artist Takashi Murakami and animation theorist Thomas Lamarre. However, Lamarre’s account in particular mostly insists on the distinction between the animation work and the compositing: Kanada’s work relies on multiplanarity, on the widening of the gap between the different layers of the image. This isn’t intrinsically wrong, but it misses some of the purpose behind Kanada’s use of compositing. Murakami and Lamarre’s line of thought can be best exemplified by Kanada’s late works, which heavily rely on the clear distinction between flat, 2D animation and complex, in-depth 3D movement. That way, it is not the compositing that would adapt to the animation, but rather the opposite: the way of organizing the movement depends on the production context and techniques.

There is, however, something more fundamental: sometimes, Kanada would go as far as to dissolve the difference between animation and photography, not only repurposing compositing techniques to support the animation, but also animating the practice of compositing itself. This is the case in the sequence above from Farewell Galaxy Express 999. The image here is decidedly multiplanar: there is the planet in the background, covered by spots illuminated in blue; from these irradiate various effects and explosions and blue streaks of light. But there is also one more layer, which seems to figure black smoke, covering the uppermost layer of the screen, closest to the camera.

There is a complex play with objects being in and out of focus in this sequence; the photography work is no doubt exemplary, and would still be without Kanada’s animation being shot. The “smoke” effect, for example, lies out of focus in the beginning, just a hazy shape that blurs the vision, and then enters focus before covering the entire screen for what is an abstract explosion meant to figure the apocalyptic end of the planet. It is hard to determine materially what this black smoke effect is made of—but when it comes into focus one clearly sees that it is, itself, animated. It is not just an elaborate technique thought up by the photography staff, but an animated performance by Kanada in close collaboration with the photography team. It is in that sense that I mean that the compositing process itself becomes animated: what could have been just an optical trick involving cels and a camera was transformed into actual motion, with a formal coherence and expressivity that photography on its own couldn’t have achieved.

Although it is a less complex example, background animation points towards a similar tendency: a heightened awareness of the intricacies of animation technique as a whole, and the will to share and make it visible. Kanada’s most famous piece of background animation, from Birth, is probably the clearest indication of this. At the end of the sequence, as Rasa and her pursuers enter a cave, the camera adopts a first-person perspective. What we then see is the light of the vehicles illuminating the cave. Due to the peculiar coloring and linework, the walls of the cave have very little texture: they are simply and visibly just lines and colors. More fundamentally, then, it is not a cave we see and enter: it is the drawing itself, caught up in the self-generating movement that is the animator’s work. The landscape is being created just right before our eyes. And that is the very nature of animation: that these are but drawings, but the mere act of witnessing them in succession recreates them and gives them shape, movement and meaning. 

Taken as a whole, Kanada’s body of work explores different, sometimes contradictory, formal options: spontaneity and rigidity; tension and elasticity; neat and rough, straight lines and curves; complexity and simplicity; depth and flatness. This ability to go from one extreme to another is perhaps the greatest proof of his genius as an individual, and his importance as an artist: had he travelled only one of the routes  I have highlighted, he might have gathered some followers around him, but he wouldn’t have made such an important mark. Instead, the diversity of his output ensured that even artists coming from different backgrounds and with different techniques could, perhaps, follow in his wake and further the paths he opened.

From all this, it might then be possible to say that there is no single drive to Kanada’s art, and that its variety is precisely what makes it unique. That is certainly part of the truth; but over the course of this article, I hope to have uncovered something else: that Kanada was an artist always ready and capable of challenging animation in its most fundamental aspects. As much as he was an inventor of new forms, he was also a prodigious recreator, with an unparalleled ability to rearrange all that was taken for granted in the production of motion.

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