Ghibli outside Ghibli, 1986-1991

This article is dedicated to Toshiyuki Inoue, who has been and keeps being a considerable help for those interested in the development of realist animation.

Many thanks to Dragonhunter and Drake for their assistance and patience

Ghibli is one of the most famous and acclaimed animation studios in the world. This, along with the fact that it has always favored high-quality, auteurist films, tends to give it the image of a studio somewhat divorced from the rest of the TV-focused, commercial Japanese animation industry. However, this is far removed from reality, and Ghibli, like any other anime studio, has deep ties with the industry as a whole. This is especially visible through the practice of outsourcing, as the studio has long relied on trusted companies like Dogakobo and Oh! Production to help with the in-between animation of its films. This goes both ways, as Ghibli often helped out other studios with in-betweening as a way to train its lower-ranking staff between productions.

What I’d like to focus on here is slightly different, as it does not directly fall into the category of outsourcing, which is an official business partnership involving companies as legal entities. The object of this article will be the work of 6 Ghibli-associated animators outside of the studio, between 1986 and 1991. These artists are Yoshinori Kanada, Makiko Futaki, Katsuya Kondô, Shinji Otsuka, Masaaki Endô and Osamu Tanabe. If I say “Ghibli-associated”, it’s that not all the animators mentioned here were actually employees of the studio: for example, Katsuya Kondô, arguably the biggest contributor to the so-called “Ghibli aesthetic” as a regular animation director and animation character designer on the studio’s movies, was only a member between 1990 and 1992, even though he made large contributions to its works before and after those dates. 

Moreover, those artists have different origins and careers, and can be considered accordingly. Yoshinori Kanada and Makiko Futaki are what I’d call “1st generation Ghibli animators”: they had worked with Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata before the creation of the studio in 1985. More specifically, both Kanada and Futaki worked on Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Katsuya Kondô, Shinji Otsuka and Masaaki Endô are “2nd generation Ghibli animators”: they entered the studio or started collaborating with it only from its first feature, Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Along with Futaki, this group mostly came from either one of two studios: Telecom Animation Film, led by Yasuo Otsuka, or An Apple (aka Annapuru), led by Osamu Dezaki and Akio Sugino. They were closely-knit, had worked together on TMS shows such as Cat’s Eye, and were referred to themselves as “Tokyo Squirrel” (東京モモンガ). Finally, Osamu Tanabe was an animator from Oh Pro, whose close association with Ghibli only really began in the second half of the 1990’s.

While the idea of a unified “Ghibli aesthetic” or “style” is debatable at best, it makes no doubt that all the animators mentioned here brought something different to their work outside the studio. The first element was quality, a result both of their talent and of the formation they had received before or after they started collaborating with Ghibli. The second element is more difficult to grasp, and is closer to what one may refer to as a “style”: something in common to almost all of their approaches to animation. The goal of this article is not only to point out its characteristics and evolution, but also to situate it within a wider context: indeed, the period between 1986 and 1991 is a key one in anime history, as it saw the emergence of a new school of thought and style: realism. Although quantitatively minor, the work of those 6 Ghibli-related animators in fact played a central role in the spread of the realist aesthetic.

Maison Ikkoku: pushing the limits of TV character animation

The first notable work that Ghibli-related animators worked on after they completed Laputa was Maison Ikkoku, especially episode 39, aired on December 18, 1986, the so-called “Ghibli episode” since it featured all the members of Tokyo Squirrel. The nickname is a misleading one, as none of the animators had really entered Ghibli yet; but it makes sense, given how unique the episode looks, and how close it was to the studio’s sensibilities. But to better understand this, a bit of context on the production of Maison Ikkoku is necessary.

Produced by Studio Deen and Kitty Film in the wake of Urusei Yatsura and its success, this long-running love comedy was quite different from its predecessor. In terms of storytelling and animation, it was far less extravagant, relying more heavily on atmosphere rather than flashy movement. This stark change in general philosophy was a result not only of the story itself, but also perhaps a consequence of the show’s general aesthetic, especially its character designs. Although Ikkoku went through a change in character designer (Yûji Moriyama from episode 1 to 26, and Akemi Takada from episode 27 to 96), the one thing that remained constant was the complexity of the designs, especially of their clothes. The main character Kyôko regularly changed outfits, wearing complicated dresses that would have made it difficult for the animators to follow up on.

Given this, Ikkoku’s animation generally went in two directions. The first one was represented by animator and animation director Tsukasa Dokite, who had been a regular on Urusei Yatsura’s late episodes and is considered a member of the “Rumic Animators” group – that is, animators heavily involved in the animated adaptations of Rumiko Takahashi’s work. On Ikkoku, he was animation director on only 5 of the early episodes, and was key animator on 2 of them. His philosophy on the show could be summed up under the category of “cartoony Kanada-style character acting”: it often sacrificed fluidity for strong posing, irregular framerates, smears and fun expressions. It was therefore naturally in the comedic scenes that Dokite excelled; this approach would be carried on later in the show by animation director Atsuko Nakajima, who had animated many of the early episodes under Dokite.

The second approach was represented by Shunji Suzuki, an animator from studio Giants, who would go on to become one of Gainax’s top character animators starting from Gunbuster in 1988. On Ikkoku, his style was closer to what one may call realism: he lay aside most of the cartoony aspects in favor of complex layouts and detailed, deliberate motion focused on fabric and hair. Besides the extreme quality of his work, what made him notable (and not very-well liked by many fans) was how frequently he would modify the designs, those of either main or background characters. As debated as this could have been at the time, it gives his episodes a real personality and unique side, as all the town or crowd scenes he animated are instantly recognizable and brimming with life.

The Ghibli-related animators who worked on episode 39 clearly followed in Suzuki’s steps.The thing that instantly jumps to the viewer’s notice is how different everything looks: the main characters are constantly off-model (and the way they are itself changes throughout the episode, according to each animator), while background characters have nothing in common with Rumiko Takahashi or Akemi Takada’s styles.

This is especially the case in the scenes animated by Katsuya Kondô, who handled most of the B part – in all probability, from the point where Gôdai meets his friend Sakamoto to the meeting between Kyoko and Mitaka in the metro station. There, the characters looked like they were coming straight out of a Miyazaki movie with their simple, soft features and delicate expressions.

It’s not just the drawings that make this episode different: it’s also the movement. It’s always subdued and soft, even softer than Suzuki’s already detailed animation, and never showy. It is instead completely natural, the kind of character animation that you would miss if you didn’t pay attention – in that regard, this episode perfectly prefigures the direction Ghibli would take with My Neighbour Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, two movies that, in their own very specific and different ways, try just like Maison Ikkoku to reproduce the feelings and movements of day-to-day life.

Only Kondô’s sequences have been identified, but they were probably the best and most impressive of the episode. According to animator Toshiyuki Inoue, what made Kondô’s work stand out was its slowness. Indeed, when you look at the TV work of the realists before Akira, what you notice is that the movement, while anatomically accurate and detailed, is always complicated and, in its own way, flashy. It is only on movies such as Genma Taisen that animators like Takashi Nakamura took things slowly, having the characters move at their own, relaxed pace in order to simply  convey a mood. What Kondô managed to do was to apply this method on TV animation – which may look simple on the paper, but was actually an incredible feat. That meant making the spacings as close as possible, that is using much more drawings than TV productions usually required. This was a huge step forward, not just artistically, as Kondô’s scenes are superb, but also technically, as it showed that even 5 key animators working in less than two months could pull off movie-level quality and complexity. Although we can only imagine the amount of work and effort that this required, it nevertheless broke the limits of what was thought to be feasible in TV anime, illustrating that realistic animation was now a concrete possibility.

The Telecom connection: Honneamise and Akira

1987 and 1988 were busy years for studio Ghibli and theatrical Japanese animation as a whole. In March of 1987, studio Gainax launched its first feature film, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise. A year and a month later, Ghibli simultaneously released two movies, Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro. Finally, in July of 1988, one of the most important movies of the decade came out: Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. All these works are closely linked, not just as masterpieces of animation, but also as stepping stones in the history of realistic animation and as works which shared many staff members.

Initially planned as an OVA, Honneamise’s production started in late 1984 and only grew in ambition as time went by. A 4-minutes pilot film was made and completed in April 1985. It listed 10 key animators, which could be divided in 2 categories. The first was the core Gainax team, made up of people who had already worked on Daicon IV: Hideaki Anno, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Mahiro Maeda. Most of the others were people Anno had worked with on projects such as Macross: Do You Remember Love? or Megazone 23. Among them, at least 2 would work on Akira: those were Toshiaki Hontani and Hiroyuki Kitakubo.

While all of this predates the creation of studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki’s influence towered over the pilot film, and what the final product would become. Indeed, it was thanks to Miyazaki himself and the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind that Bandai agreed to transform the OVA project into a feature film. In its ambition, Honneamise also pursued the standard that Miyazaki had set for adult-oriented, high-quality animated movies, with director Hiroyuki Yamaga calling the pilot “Ghibli-ish”. This was also visible visually, as the character designs are simpler than in the final movies and some of them appear closer to Miyazaki’s design sense.

Honneamise’s two main characters in the pilot

Such an influence was to be expected, considering that both Hideaki Anno and Mahiro Maeda had worked on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (and that Maeda would keep contributing to Ghibli movies until Porco Rosso). But the most important artist to consider here was the character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Indeed, Sadamoto was an alumnus of studio Telecom, headed by Yasuo Otsuka, and Ghibli’s main pool of new talents. It was most probably thanks to him that fellow Telecom alumni Makiko Futaki and Masaaki Endô contributed to the movie, and brought with them the other members of Tokyo Squirrel, Shinji Otsuka and Katsuya Kondô. Although unrelated to Ghibli, another notable Telecom animator who worked on Honneamise was Kazuyoshi Yaginuma. Finally, Junio animator and famous Telecom admirer Toshiyuki Inoue also contributed to the film. 

Honneamise is generally remembered for its groundbreaking effects and mechanical animation. However, the character animation was also consistently excellent, especially considering how complex Sadamoto’s designs were. This illustrated what was one of the greatest strengths of Telecom animators in the mid-80s: the ability to take complex designs and imbue them with fluid, natural movement. This fact, and the presence of so many ex-Telecom animators, was central to the film, as Gainax itself counted no real character animation experts except for Sadamoto.

The exact sequences the Ghibli-associated animators worked on haven’t been identified, except that a large part of the last scene was animated by Masaaki Endô. But their presence is felt all throughout, as the movie represented a great step forward in realistic theatrical animation. The movement was always detailed, with a lot of focus on the physical characteristics and presence of bodies, especially in Shirotsugu’s training scenes. The livelier crowd or city scenes were also exemplary, with some impressive control of weight and a complete rejection of cartoony, over-expressive acting. One year before Grave of the Fireflies and Char’s Counterattack, such mastery was almost unprecedented, with the only equivalents being Takashi Nakamura’s work on films and OVAs like Neo Tokyo and Robot Carnival.

If Akira represents such an important step in anime history, it’s precisely because it is the place where the two distinct currents of “realist” animation met: the Telecom-Ghibli centered group, and the Madhouse-Nakamura inspired animators, along with more independent artists such as Toshiyuki Inoue and Satoru Utsunomiya who were gravitating towards the same aesthetic. Akira was produced by studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha, of which Telecom was an animation branch. In-house Telecom animators were therefore numerous in the animation staff, counting 13 key animators and many more in-betweeners, while the Ghibli-associated artists were 4: Yoshinori Kanada, Shinji Otsuka, Makiko Futaki and Masaaki Endô (with the addition of Toyoaki Emura, not a member of Ghibli but who worked on Laputa, and Osamu Tanabe, assistant in-between checker).

The Ghibli animators worked as a close-knit team, handling a few dozen of cuts back-to-back corresponding to Tetsuo’s final and grotesque transformation at the climax of the movie. The order went as follows: Shinji Otsuka and Makiko Futaki on the transformation itself, Yoshinori Kanada as Tetsuo’s “body” spreads all over and starts absorbing people, and Masaaki Endô on the final explosion of Neo-Tokyo (Endô being assisted by Shin’ya Ohira on second key animation, and with the flashback scene before the explosions being animated by ex-Telecom animator Shinji Hashimoto). In other words, the Ghibli team was in charge of the most important scene in the movie, the one where spectacle and horror reach their climax. It was also a kind of movement that no animator had done before, a horrible moment of morphing and corrupted transformation. Although it is probably pure coincidence, it is interesting to note that, around a decade later, some of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, especially Princess Mononoke, would play on the same register.

All the animators perfectly delivered, although one relative exception should be noted: that is Yoshinori Kanada. His contribution to the movie is somewhat infamous, not because it is weaker in the movie’s context, but because it is in Kanada’s body of work. Entirely on 1s, the sequence is extremely conservative for an artist of Kanada’s stature and originality, and the flesh’s motion is sometimes surprisingly awkward (especially during the first 4 seconds of the sequence above). Without access to the original layouts or key frames, it’s impossible to tell whether Kanada was heavily corrected by animation director Takashi Nakamura, or if his drawings were that unoriginal from the start. Thankfully for the movie and viewer, this uninspired spell passes shortly and is barely registered as such; it would be quickly overshadowed by Masaaki Endô’s superb effects work.

“Ghibli’s Devilman

In November 1987, 15 years after the first anime and manga, a new animated adaptation of Gô Nagai’s Devilman was released. The character designs of the OVA were handled by Kazuo Komatsubara, who had done those of the original series; the OVA series, which was planned to be 3 episodes long, was therefore produced by Komatsubara’s studio, Oh! Productions. It would be the second in-house production of the studio after Gauche the Cellist in 1981. Indeed, Oh Pro was mainly an outsourcing studio, and one of its closest collaborators was Ghibli. There was therefore a strong Ghibli presence on the first two OVAs that were actually made: on both, we find Katsuya Kondô, Yoshinori Kanada and Masaaki Endô, while Makiko Futaki and Shinji Otsuka were only on the first one. On that first OVA, Birth, “Tokyo Squirrel” was actually mentioned as such in the credits. This impressive staff list is what earned the OVAs the nickname of “Ghibli’s Devilman” among fans.

In spite of this, and their reputation as the best Devilman animated adaptation, none of the OVAs is a true masterpiece or a jewel of 80s anime. But they are certainly solid work, with a great level of  consistency and an impressive staff list. The most noticeable animator in the first OVA is, unsurprisingly, Yoshinori Kanada, one of the most important artists in Japanese animation as a whole and in Ghibli. Devilman was the occasion for Kanada to let off some steam in another environment, less constrained than Ghibli where his relationship with Hayao Miyazaki was sometimes conflictual. It is him who handled the rave scene, just before demons start appearing. Proof of the level of freedom he had, he inserted the character Bao from his own 1984 OVA Birth, and drew characters in a starkly off-model way. What is striking, from the perspective of Kanada’s overall career, is that Kanada’s major stylistic shift that would lead him to completely renovate his style in the 1990s, is already well under way: the effects are very angular, and the round shapes and large bodies of the characters prefigure his character designs on the 1992 OVA Download.

It’s interesting to note that Kanada’s work on the second OVA, which came out in 1990, was considerably weaker, and hasn’t been identified with certainty. The major difference is one in context. After Akira and Kiki’s Delivery’s Service, Ghibli-related animators were getting closer and closer to the realist circles, and to the corresponding aesthetic. However, at the same time, Kanada himself was moving away from such tendencies; he was therefore either heavily corrected, or not very willing to work on the second OVA. On the other hand, it was on this second OVA that the Ghibli atmosphere and approach to character animation was the most visible, as it contained more mundane, daily life sequences or simply requiring more subtle character acting.

The second OVA, The Demon Bird, is also notable for the non-Ghibli animators it counted among its staff. Two of them had worked on Akira and were prominent figures of the realist movement: these were Yasuomi Umetsu and Hiroyuki Okiura. Okiura handled an effects-heavy fight scene, as effects were a field he still very much specialized in back then; the fire, smoke and blood animation are simple, but efficient and convey a strong sense of volume. It is what Okiura seemed to go towards in the character animation as well: Akira’s movement is rather slow, without any complex posing or timing work. The goal is instead to let the viewer take in every moment of the fight and feel the physical dimension of the action: every muscle is clearly delineated and we can clearly understand what Akira’s body is going through.

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind: a companion to the revolution

Akira and second Devilman OVA had created something of a trend: not only that Ghibli-associated animators would work outside the studio, but that the productions they would work on would be closely linked to the realist circles, which were about to cement as a cohesive group after Akira. To become the “realist school” that we know today, two major artists were still to come into their own and join the others: those were Osamu Tanabe and Mitsuo Iso. Iso had by far the most different profile, since he had never been associated with Telecom or expressed a particular affection for it. On the other hand, Tanabe was from Oh Pro, and did some of his first in-betweens on Grave of the Fireflies; he would quickly become strongly associated with Ghibli movies and one of Isao Takahata’s closest assistants.

The movie that allowed both Iso and Tanabe to enter both the Ghibli and realist circles was Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, which came out in 1990. Although little-known, the movie is sometimes believed to be a Ghibli film, due to the rich, detailed setting, and Katsuya Kondô’s distinct character designs. The movie was actually produced by studio Pierrot, and directed by its most experienced director, Hisayuki Toriumi. The major question at this point is, how did Pierrot become involved with Ghibli artists at this moment in time? The answer most probably lies with another major figure in the development of the realist school, and a person closely involved with studio Ghibli: director Mamoru Oshii.

The Telecom/Ghibli-Oshii connection dates back from 1985, with Oshii’s second OVA Angel’s Egg (produced by studio Deen) which counted among its animation staff Masaaki Endô, Makiko Futaki, Shinji Otsuka and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. After this, the Endô-Futaki-Otsuka group, which would integrate Katsuya Kondô after Laputa to become Tokyo Squirrel, would stay closely associated with the works of studio Deen and the Headgear group, of which Mamoru Oshii was a member. It is most probably through this connection, and Akemi Takada’s participation in Headgear, that the members of Tokyo Squirrel wound up working on Maison Ikkoku. In 1987, Kondô was the character designer for Oshii’s Mystery Case – File 538, the second part of the Twilight Q anthology OVA, which was entirely animated by Ghibli-related animators. Although it did not move much – nor did it need to – it initiated Oshii’s turn towards realistic animation, which he would keep championing in the following years. Finally, two years later, Oshii directed a short OVA series for Pierrot to celebrate the studio’s 10th anniversary: Gosenzosama Banbanzai.

Although seldom explicitly stated by animators themselves, one cannot stress enough Gosenzosama’s importance. It completely revolutionized character animation, turning it on its head even further than Akira had done: if the latter represented technical perfection, the former went beyond even that in an exaltation of constant motion and the wonder at the movement of bodies not just as a physical process, but also a never ending source of fun and creativity. A manifesto not just for realism but also for the power of animated expression, it popularized techniques that are now omnipresent, such as outline smears, anatomic deformations and off-model, all in the service of motion. Supervising the animators on the OVA was an ex-Telecom artist, Satoru Utsunomiya. There was little Ghibli-related involvement before episode 6, which contained contributions by Makiko Futaki and Osamu Tanabe. The most important link was probably Toyoaki Emura, an ex-Pierrot animator gone freelance who had contributed to Laputa and Akira, and probably knew everyone in both the Ghibli and realist circles. Just like Tanabe and Futaki, he would provide significant contributions to Like the Clouds, Like the Wind.

The movie was far from being as impressive as Gosenzo; in terms of movement, animation and consistency, it’s not even anything like a Ghibli film: it was clearly made with much less time and resources. But this does not mean that the movie is bad, or not well animated. Its character acting is always endearing and its focus on complex costumes and the motion of fabric is sometimes impressive. The real highlight, though, lies in the action scenes, moments of constant, fluid motion that’s the closest to Gosenzosama and already prefigures the realists’ next masterpiece, The Hakkenden.

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, just like Gosenzosama, was one more step in the unstoppable rise of one of the greatest and most original artists of the realist group: Mitsuo Iso. His animation on both works was probably made at the same time, as the movie came out in March while the episodes of the OVA that Iso worked on, 4 and 6, respectively came out in November 1989 and January 1990. Whatever the precise dates, the similarities are obvious: Iso’s animation on Like the Clouds, Like the Wind was under heavy influence from Utsunomiya’s on Gosenzosama. Iso’s work on the movie is not quite as bold as it is on the OVA – Kondô was probably a more conservative animation director – but still retains an incredible dynamism and sense of choreography. The way Iso tends to simplify the designs, especially the heads, and draw hands with many details, are the most Gosenzosama-esque elements. The smearing is also less pronounced, but accompanied by small speedlines that convey the exact same feeling in a more economic manner.

With his obvious talent, Iso was quickly integrated in the Ghibli circles, as the studio was going through a radical “realist shift” in the first half of the 90s. Along with Shin’ya Ohira, the other idiosyncratic prodigy of the realist school who had made his breakthrough on Akira, he participated to Only Yesterday and Porco Rosso and, on his own, to Ocean Waves which was, as Katsuya Kondô’s personal project, very much a follow-up to Like the Clouds, Like the Wind.

Following Ocean Waves and Yoshifumi Kondô’s Whisper of the Heart, Ghibli started to move away from the hardline realism it had come in contact with: Isao Takahata started trying out more diverse and radical visual experimentations in Pompoko and My Neighbours the Yamada, while Hayao Miyazaki favored an increasingly exaggerated, expressionist style that started in Princess Mononoke and culminated in Ponyo. With an influx of new staff and artistic evolution at the top levels, Ghibli was starting to move away from its Telecom roots and influence, and developing different ways of doing animation.

This doesn’t mean that the early period in Ghibli’s history, roughly from Laputa to Ocean Waves, wasn’t original or artistically challenging. This article didn’t even touch on the studio’s in-house productions, but movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Only Yesterday revolutionized animation in much the same way that Akira did. And even in Akira, Ghibli’s presence is impossible to ignore: whether through the enduring influence of Yasuo Otsuka and studio Telecom or its own animators, the studio played a major, although not always completely visible, part in the evolution of Japanese animation and in one of its most important and deepest shifts: the rise of the realist school.

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