Current trends in action animation: Hiroto Nagata and Ryûki Hashimoto

In an earlier article of this blog, I explained that contemporary Japanese action animation could be understood through the lens of three core principles: fluidity, simplicity (or deformation) and overload. They have been dominant for around 15 years, and it feels like the philosophy behind action animation is still here to stay. However, the way it has expressed itself has naturally changed and evolved: this is something of a given considering how dynamic and creative anime has always been.

Many artists could be said to represent the most interesting aspects of today’s action animation in terms of creativity, influence or popularity. In spite of this diversity, it seems to me that, with time, things have generally gone in the direction of complexity, and that the “overload” principle has become more and more important: layouts have gotten more complex, the role of effects has only increased, and impact frames are now a common sight, a technique without which many spectacular fight scenes wouldn’t feel as powerful.

In today’s landscape, this evolution and, possibly, a new development in action animation seems to be represented by two rising figures: Hiroto Nagata and Ryûki Hashimoto. At first sight, this pairing might seem strange, since both men come from opposite ends of the industry and have never worked together. But it is becoming a common one, as many people on Twitter, Discord servers or Sakugabooru have highlighted the parallels between these two men. Both are very young (Nagata was born in 1994, Hashimoto is probably slightly older) and promising, having made themselves noticed only recently. Moreover, despite their distance, they share a close proximity in terms of style and, possibly, philosophy. The goal of this article will be to understand the nature of this proximity: I will first focus on each animator on his own, and then consider more generally what are their common points, and how they may open new ways for animation.

Hiroto Nagata started his career in studio Shaft, where he is still working today, in 2017. He spent the year as an in-betweener and did his first key animation in 2018, on episode 6 of Owarimonogatari – although he also kept doing second key animation on other episodes of the show and other productions. His debut on a professional production would not be impressive if made by a more experienced animator, but is rather solid for a first work. It already showcased some of his motifs and characteristic techniques, notably a close attention to hair animation (not something surprising for a Shaft animator) and a heavy use of outline smears.

By then, Nagata had already done another, much more distinctive and impressive work: that is his short student film “T’s Room”, released on YouTube in December 2017. It is an excellent illustration of his ability, opening on some limited but charming character animation and then featuring a bit less than a minute of liberated, energetic effects. The talent on display is obvious, and there is already a lot of ambition in the camerawork and prolonged sequences of background animation. The short is full of youthful energy, and still very simple in its designs and shapes: bodies are constantly deformed, simplified into wobbly, liquid and sometimes abstract forms.

This short isn’t action animation proper, but in its philosophy, you find clear instances of the three principles I highlighted above. Fluidity is certainly one of its great qualities. It appears not only in the complex camera movement and background animation, but also in the fact that there is no distinct work on timing: except in some moments of said background animation, the short is almost entirely on 3’s, with the differences in rhythm being created by the spacing. The absence of detailed work in the direction of timing plays a part in the sense of simplicity; but this impression is mostly established by the deformation of the bodies into basic, schematic forms. This simplicity is not contradictory with complexity in motion: this is the principle of overload, applied through complicated layouts, extremely lively movement, and density in the various effects.

As Nagata has entered into his professional career, his style quickly evolved: it has not relinquished the ambition displayed in “T’s Room”, but has grown considerably more complex and polished. The kind of sudden, liquid deformations of his student days have progressively disappeared in favor of an intricate work on effects and shading. In other words, simplicity has given way to overload.

This transition is already visible in one of Nagata’s first major works, part of a sequence he animated on episode 13 of the first season of Magia Record. The fight scene in its entirety is already a good example of overload in action: Nagata filled the screen with thick, bright rays of lightning, explosions and impact frames. But these aren’t the most remarkable aspects. In fact, rather than the motion or animation themselves, what is impressive is the care put into each individual frame, especially the close-ups on Sayaka.

The attention to detail already comes through in the very first shot of this sequence, a frontal close-up marked by the strong contrast between the bright, simple effects and the stark shading on Sayaka’s face which highlights her determined expression and the movement of her hair. Hair animation could be considered to be something of a governing principle in Nagata’s animation: in the second shot where Sayaka’s arm breaks down, it seems be under the effect of some sort of internal pressure, dissolving in a series of threads and concentric circles before imploding in gruesome anatomic detail. Just like it is the case for hair animation, each fold in the clothing is individualized and drawn in detail, with smears and meticulous shading reinforcing the lavishness of the whole image.

If we must note one major change in Nagata’s animation between his student days and his professional work, it is closely related to this “lavishness”. It is not just the sense for detail which has considerably grown: it is, rather, a growing attention put to the texture of objects and the power it imparts to each individual frame. This has had major consequences: indeed, even though smears remain a major technique in Nagata’s vocabulary, the spontaneity and liquidity in bodies seem to have disappeared. Instead, the focus is put on the surface of objects and the intricate patterns that constitute them.This stylistic evolution must be understood in relation to an important and obvious influence on Nagata: it is that of one of the most important action animators of the last decade, Yutaka Nakamura. I believe Nakamura played a large part in the birth of modern action animation: his animation notably embodies the principles of fluidity and overload. In recent years, Nakamura’s work (almost exclusively on the My Hero Academia series) has gotten more and more spectacular, even as its individual components have gotten more and more basic: effects are now smooth spreads of bright colors, surfaces have become incredibly polished and smears larger and more noticeable. In other words, Nakamura has only gone further in the conjunction between the principles of simplicity and overload.

While resting on very similar fundamentals, Nagata’s work has started to go in an opposite direction: just as much overload, but much less in the way of simplicity. Let’s start by numbering the common elements: bright effects and lots of sparks, sudden and cinematic slow-motion sequences, black-and-white impact frames during the movement, and finally an even timing, most often on 1’s and 2’s. A first indicator of his typically excessive style, Nagata uses all these elements at the same time; and he does so by pushing each element to the extreme, the most visible one being the shading. Shading is so important because it creates the sense of texture I just mentioned, all the while bringing more visual information to process. In that, there is one distinct difference between Nakamura and Nagata’s use of shading: the latter doesn’t use it to create volume, but instead to suggest the impression of smooth and shining surfaces. Volume is one of the central aspects of Nakamura’s character animation, a remnant from his earlier period as a “martial arts” action animator oriented towards anatomic realism. Nagata doesn’t share this focus, instead preferring to detail the exterior of bodies. In that sense, his animation takes a step away from the explosive mix between realism in character animation and expressionism in effects that is characteristic of Nakamura’s style: while borrowing many of its surface-level elements, Nagata’s work becomes more decorative, with attention put into the details of each individual frame rather than the movement as a whole.

This focus has another consequence which brings Nagata even further from Nakamura: while the former’s work on timing remains as simple as ever, the spacing and posing are becoming more distinctive, with a stronger pose-to-pose approach. This is a natural development: centering on each individual frame implies that it is not just elements of texture or decorations which will receive the most attention, but the entirety of the drawings, including the character’s poses.

In concrete terms, this notably entails stark in-depth movements and compositions, as well as what I’d call “dynamic deformations”: not only smears, which are still omnipresent, but distorted outlines and deformed shapes, creating the impression of objects such as on legs, fingers or clothes being under a great pression or speed. This runs counter to two tendencies that Nagata could have gone towards. The first is complete body deformation, in the liquid kind that he showcased in his student film: here, deformations are more limited in scope and angular in shape. The other is construction of volume, similar to Nakamura’s work; but as mentioned earlier, the priority is now on texture and outlines rather than bodies as a whole.

In his latest major work (at the time of writing), a spectacular sequence from the first episode of the second season of Magia Record, Nagata has shown that all the elements I mentioned here now definitely converge to create a cohesive whole and a distinct, innovative style. The principle of overload completely dominates the action, notably through the overall speed, complex and dynamic layouts and impact frames. But the pose-to-pose method and its complementary in-depth/out-of-depth movements create a sense of coherence, avoiding  something too overwhelming and impossible to follow. On the other hand, decorative elements have only become more prominent, as the now extremely distinct shading in the first shots illustrates, or multiply and adopt more original shapes for contemporary action animation, such as the Kanada-style light flares at 0:11.

Nagata’s rise is by all means a spectacular one: he only started animating in 2017, but has become an unavoidable presence in action animation, developed an identity of his own, and already seems to have grown past his earliest style and influences. In that sense, his work is past being simply “promising”, but almost guarantees new and creative developments in animation.

In comparison, Ryûki Hashimoto’s rise and artistic developments haven’t been as meteoric: he started as an in-betweener in studio Graphinica in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2016 that he started regularly making key animation, and his work only started being noticed in 2019, on the TV show Hataage! Kemono Michi. Besides this, he has a very different profile than Hiroto Nagata. Action animation today is often characterized by a close association between character animation and effects – often in the favor of effects. But Hashimoto is first and foremost a character animator, and the few sequences he is confirmed or presumed to have done that do focus on effects aren’t particularly impressive or noteworthy.

On the  other hand, Hashimoto’s character animation is more distinctive and can be said to rely on three core elements, illustrated by this sequence. They all demonstrate that Hashimoto’s priorities are apparently extremely different from Nagata’s. The first aspect is a sense of exaggeration in the expressions and roughness in the drawings: the moment when the orc falls down is exemplary, as shapeless fragments of dirt are projected all over the screen and the linework completely changes. This sudden shift, as well as the simultaneous use of outline smears and brush are very reminiscent of Yoshimichi Kameda’s work. This influence creeps up again a bit later, with the appearance of speedlines. 

However, there is one thing that sets Hashimoto and Kameda apart, and makes them completely different animators: it’s their approach of bodies. Both as a typical Kanada-style  and modern action animator, what Kameda has in mind is always more the overall impact of a scene, meaning that he cares little for the “realism”, or elements like the volume of objects. On the other hand, volume is a distinctive part of Hashimoto’s animation: bodies are always three-dimensional and grounded.

In that sense, Hashimoto’s work is also fairly distinct from Nagata’s; but to reach such a different result, he uses similar means: as the sequence above illustrates, there is a lot of attention put into the shading. In Nagata’s animation, shading is used to convey texture; in Hashimoto’s, it creates volume. To that latter end, the shading is much more irregular and uneven, consisting of irregular patches all around the body that highlight its shape and structure. In some of the most radical examples, it is only the motion of the shadows which creates the impression that the entirety of the body is moving – although it may come at the price of fluidity and any sense of natural movement.

This mechanical impression is not only the consequence of Hashimoto’s work on shading, but also perhaps of his attention towards timing, which makes his animation generally more modulated than that of many action animators who situate themselves in Yutaka Nakamura’s lineage rather than Yoshimichi Kameda’s. This fact perhaps also further demonstrates that Hashimoto is a character animator first and foremost, that is specialized in a kind of motion where detailed work on timing can be more important than the occasional and spectacular wide spacings favored by action animation. If we go back to the first Hataage sequence, the timing is decidedly irregular: it is especially the case during the dropkick, where the animation begins on 1s, switches to 3s when the movement slows down, and then suddenly becomes irregular when the orc falls, oscillating between 4s, 3s and 2s.

After his work on Hataage, Hashimoto has had little opportunities to shine, whether because he wasn’t in top form himself or was not given especially ambitious or inspiring sequences. The fact that on some of his works from 2020 he was still only doing second key animation confirms that he was perhaps not in the best environment. Things changed very recently with his work as key animator (and creature designer) on The Detective Is Already Dead. A long and spectacular action sequence from the first episode of the series shows how much Hashimoto evolved in a year, probably indicating that he matured and reflected on his own style throughout 2020: from an interesting but ultimately not radically inventive animator, he seems to have become able to pull off sequences at a much higher level of proficiency and complexity. It remains to be seen whether or not this will also entail a better degree of consistency in his output; but in any case, what he has done so far is well worth considering.

This sequence perfectly showcases that there have been two major evolutions in Hashimoto’s work: his timing has now found its place in a complete set of skills involving more competent posing and spacing, and a general densification of the movement as a whole as well as of the individual drawings.

As noted earlier, it seems that, in Hataage, Hashimoto’s priority was to give volume to bodies; this wasn’t contradictory with exaggerated movements and expressions, but seems to have limited the range of his animation somewhat. Now, his work has gotten considerably more expressive and liberated, thanks to a more masterful complementarity between each of the three key components of character animation: timing, spacing and posing. This is most visible in a short but impressive part of that sequence, Siesta’s run and jump from 0:13 to 0:16. 

The layout is obviously quite complex, as the girl begins close to the camera, jumps away from it and then runs towards it once again; overall, her movement is fluid and quick. The timing is, accordingly, rather high, mostly oscillating between 1s and 2s (with the 3DCG background constantly on 1s). It is therefore the spacing which creates the real sense of rhythm, very close when the action slows down and much faster as it accelerates. As Hashimoto’s priorities seem to have changed, it might be possible to believe that he relinquished his talent for conveying volume; but such is not the case, as is visible in the extreme close-ups that permeate the sequence, or the ability to maintain body shapes absolutely consistent under such complex camera movement.

The overall motion is now decidedly more dynamic, because Hashimoto puts even more attention on each individual frame. Smearing has always been among his tendencies, but has slightly evolved, becoming more frequent and having decidedly gone in the way of outline distortions rather than overall deformations. The shading, as well, has evolved: the metallic reflections on the rifle are becoming closer to what Nagata, and further down Nakamura, are doing. But the most notable is the shading on clothes, with a multiplication of folds in the fabric which sometimes merge with the smears. It is as if shapes were constantly undulating, creating constant motion but also extremely dense individual frames.

In a tendency that is coming extremely close to Nagata’s, a lot of detail is put into secondary, ornamental aspects of the animation, such as hair or clothes. However, where Hashimoto remains singular is in the character animation: it is often very exaggerated, such as at 0:23 or 0:28, where the gestures of the character become extremely wide and overly expressive. This works in a mutually beneficial relationship with the texture work, the exaggeration inviting more details, and the details making the exaggeration feel even more exaggerated.

Just as Nagata could be said to have “overloaded” Yutaka Nakamura’s style by shifting the priority from volume to surface, Hashimoto “overloads” Yoshimichi Kameda’s animation. Indeed, the latter’s influence still remains strong in the brushwork, or even in the evolution and improvement of the posing. But Hashimoto radicalizes every one of its aspects, while completely setting aside the Kanada-style elements: smears are now omnipresent, the shading has become more intricate and better integrated in the motion rather than stark and overpowering, the posing more frenetic and the volume more visible. The sense of energy remains the very same, but the roughness of Kameda’s animation has largely given way to detail and density.

At this stage, the common drive between Nagata and Hashimoto’s animation becomes apparent, and this in spite of their different origins and current positions within the anime industry. Their approach is one focused on detail and texture; in other words, it takes the individual frame as the object of most artistic work, effort and inventivity.

This doesn’t yet mean that the two men are opening a radically new style which would reiterate the general opposition between the overall movement and the individual frame, or between a flowing and a pose-to-pose animation. If we take things from a wider historical perspective, I believe we are still in the continuity of early webgen animation and, further down, of the 1990’s “flow animation” style, opened by artists like Mitsuo Iso, Satoru Utsunomiya and Norio Matsumoto: that is, a kind of animation that centers on the motion as a whole, its overall evolution and development as a sequence. Action animation has evolved from there, taking action scenes as spectacles of their own, first focusing on choreography and then adding effects and impact frames, leading to what I call the principle of overload.

What we are witnessing with animators such as Nagata and Hashimoto is perhaps the logical conclusion to that development: overload has come to dominate action animation, bringing first a new complexity to layouts and then a sense of excess to the effects, thereby laying aside the opposite principle of simplicity. Now, overload has become an effort to densify as much as possible the amount of visual information, and is reaching the smallest details of the image: this is why techniques such as smears, shading and linework have acquired such a renewed importance.

To me, this also means the development of what I’d call an “ornamental” approach to animation: what matters is less conveying a certain emotion or delivering a movement, but drawing for the sake of it, adding stylistic flourishes everywhere to the point of flooding the frame. Nagata and Hashimoto are doubtlessly not the only animators following that tendency, but as charismatic rising figures, they are perhaps some of the most representative. In any case (but I may be completely wrong), I see parallels with the historical juncture of the late 1980’s, when figures like Shin’ya Ohira pushed the then-dominant Kanada style to its most extreme possibilities and then completely reinvented anime’s visual vocabulary. Today, we may arrive at the point at which animators like Nagata who grew up and developed watching webgen and post-webgen animation will first push the latter’s stylistical tendencies to the extreme, and then renovate it from the ground up.

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