The early days of Kaname Pro

Studio Kaname Production is most famous for its OVA works, such as Birth and Genmu Senki Leda, which seem to embody the early years of the so-called “OVA boom”. However, by 1984, the studio was already famous among Japanese otaku audiences for at least one other thing: the time it had spent subcontracting animation on other studios’ productions. Like many other bigger studios, Kaname would keep doing this during its entire existence, as it was the best way to keep employees busy and money flowing in, something particularly important for a company that was on the brink of bankruptcy during all its existence. While Kaname’s subcontracting activity in the mid-80s is very much worthy of attention, I will only focus on the studio’s earliest works here, as I am mostly interested in the way Kaname built its own “style” and identity. This means covering 3 very different series, all of which started coming out in 1982: Sunrise’s Combat Mecha Xabungle, Kokusai Eigasha’s Makyô Densetsu Acrobunch, and Tsuchida Production’s Sasuga no Sarutobi.

Kaname Production was initially formed as a collective of ex-Ashi Pro or Ashi-related staff: two animators, Mutsumi Inomata and Shigenori Kageyama, mechanical designer Shôhei Kohara, scriptwriter Junki Takegami, and producers Akihiro Nagao and Yoshiaki Aihara. Fueled by the ambition to produce both live-action and animated works, they sought support from anime merchandising company Idol and turned Kaname into a real company in April 1982. It had, by that time, already begun its initial subcontracting period.

Xabungle: The essential role of Kazuhiro Ochi

The first credits bearing the name “Kaname Production” are on episodes 7 and 13 of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Combat Mecha Xabungle. Given the airing dates of each episode, they were produced before Kaname was officially created: #7 came out on March 20, 1982 and #13 on May 1st. To these two episodes, we should also add a third, #16, aired on May 29, which featured extensive contributions by one of Kaname’s most important associates: Kazuhiro Ochi.

Before going into Kaname and Ochi’s work, it’s first necessary to briefly introduce Xabungle and the general context of 1982 Sunrise. The second collaboration between Yoshiyuki Tomino and Tomonori Kogawa as character designer and chief animation director, Xabungle is, just like the show that precedes it (Ideon) and the one that follows (L-Gaim), capital to understand Sunrise’s transition into what one may call its “80s animation” style. It is especially on Xabungle that the core team of Kogawa’s studio Beebow, which would carry the Gundam franchise for the following years, did some of its first work: this is where we find some of the first in-between credits of people such as Hiroyuki Kitazume, Hidetoshi Omori or Naoyuki Onda. It also featured some of the last contributions ex-Beebow animator Ichirô Itano made on a Sunrise work.

In its writing, direction, designs and animation, Xabungle feels far more modern than the super robot shows Kaname’s staff had been used to work on during their time in Ashi. But it did not yet completely welcome Kanada-style animation, which would take Tomino’s shows by storm in later years. The effects style in particular, with lots of curved lines, a rather fluid movement and solid colors with no shading, is characteristic of that transition period of the early 80s. Kaname did not innovate in that regard, and it must be said that their episodes do not stand out for that reason. Sadly, Xabungle’s credit only give the studio’s name and do not provide a rundown of who were Kaname’s animators; this is a shame as having this information would enable us to know whether the studio’s two lead artists (Inomata and Kageyama) were present, or if these episodes were used as a way to train the newer, presumably younger staff that might have already joined.

Regardless of who worked on them, Kaname’s episodes do not stand out: they do not exhibit any particularly distinct style, nor is the quality of their animation much higher (or lower) than the usual level of the show. The fact that we can only guess the studio’s presence because of some slight Inomata-esque poses tends to make me think that these episodes were mostly a way to keep Kaname’s younger staff busy, without too much time and effort being put in having them looking particularly unique.It is for that reason that, to get an idea of the stylistical developments around Kaname, we must turn to episode 16, which benefited from the presence of Kazuhiro Ochi. Ochi’s status within Kaname was never quite clear to me, but it appears that he was never an actual member of the studio. As one of Yoshinori Kanada’s earliest students, Ochi always remained in studios Z and N°1; however, in the early 80s, he was by far the most independent of N°1’s staff members and, instead of working under Kanada whenever he had the opportunity, he dedicated himself to work on more diverse productions, thus contributing to the spread of Kanada-style animation. As such, he was one of Kaname’s closest collaborators until Birth – we will encounter him many more times in the course of this article. While Ochi no doubt had his own connections within Sunrise, it is therefore not surprising to find him on the same show as Kaname Pro. And there, he stood out far more clearly than his other colleagues.

Combat Mecha Xabungle #16 credits

Episode Direction: Kazuhito Kikuchi (菊池一仁)

Script: Yoshihisa Araki (荒木芳久)

Storyboard: Tokifumi Takizawa (滝沢敏文)

Animation Direction: Saburô Sakamoto (坂本三郎)

Key Animation: Artland (アートランド), Yorihisa Uchida (内田順久), Kazuhiro Ochi (越智一裕)

In-between Check: Toshimitsu Kobayashi (小林利充)

In-betweens: Studio Cockpit (スタジオコクピット), Miho Suzuki (鈴木美穂), Mari Nakatani (中谷マリ)

Production Assistance: 渡辺努

The credits for this episode seem to be in order, as Ochi is credited separately and in last position, which fits with the fact that, from the way the animation looks, he must have been entirely in charge of the B part. The very first instants provide clear signs, such as Elchi’s slightly off-model face with Ochi’s typical fat thighs, small eyes and big mouth, or the strange poses adopted by background characters. Similarly, the duel between Jiron and Genna that opens this half of the episode is full of Kanada poses and jumps. That is followed by a dynamic and cartoony chase scene as Jiron tries to escape from the Hanawan people. These opening minutes of character animation are by far the most distinctive, though the end of the episode, featuring a proper mecha fight, is notable as well. Unlike the duel, it doesn’t stand out for how different it looks – the effects aren’t Kanada-style in any way – though Ochi could slip a few Kanada-isms, notably light flares, speed lines and more elaborate beam animation.

By that point, Ochi was already an accomplished animator, and the fact that he could be as recognizable on such a series shows it. But, for both himself and Kaname’s artists, Sunrise was perhaps not the best place to flourish; especially, the design and animation philosophies adopted by Tomonori Kogawa and Mutsumi Inomata were too different. While it is significant for being the first in Kaname’s subcontracting gigs, Xabungle is ultimately the most minor one, for the simple reason that, unlike what happened on its next works, the studio wasn’t given all the freedom it needed to flourish; however, when it did, the results were spectacular.

Acrobunch: Inomata unbound

Makyô Densetsu Acrobunch represents a turning point in the history of Kaname Pro, as it was the character design debut of its two foremost artists, Mutsumi Inomata and Shigenori Kageyama. Their contribution on the Baldios movie had made them known to the audience, but it was truly Acrobunch that made Inomata and Kaname’s name famous with fans. The way they ended up on the show is not hard to guess. Acrobunch was a production by studio Kokusai Eigasha, which had until 1982 only done coproductions with Tôei (for the J9 series) and Ashi Production; but, as Kokusai was increasing its amount of productions, its president Jûzô Tsubota decided to create a proper animation division, whose first work was Acrobunch. For that reason, the staff had very little experience (which caused major scheduling problems), and it’s probably as a result of this that slightly more experienced artists were asked to do the designs; Inomata and Kageyama had just left Ashi, and were both promising and ambitious: they were therefore given this opportunity. 

Generally speaking, Acrobunch is not very pretty nor interesting, although its archeology twist and famous conclusion have made it somewhat memorable. For our purposes here, however, what is notable is how Acrobunch concentrated most of Kanada’s closest friends and students, and is therefore a forerunner of Kaname’s later productions. 

First up are the opening and ending, both storyboarded and animated by Kanada himself, alongside Osamu Nabeshima and Kazuhiro Ochi on the opening, and Shigenobu Nagasaki on the ending. We must remember that it was already on two Kokusai coproductions, Josephina the Whale and Don de la Mancha, that Kanada had done his first storyboards; and he had also animated the iconic opening of the Kokusai-coproduced Galaxy Cyclone Braiger: he was basically one of the studio’s best assets, and he did not disappoint here either. But, as could be expected, this was not without difficulties. First proof of the disorganization the production was in, Kanada apparently hadn’t even received the settei sheets of the characters when he got to work. Moreover, he may not have had enough time to do proper work on the ending, given that it is just a series of stills and animation cycles – although they are beautiful ones.

Some of the storyboard from Acrobunch‘s opening; reading order is from the top right, to bottom right, to top center, etc.

Kanada’s storyboard is also unusually detailed, and was even colored, which makes it a beautiful work in its own right. As a whole, the opening isn’t Kanada’s most impressive, but it perfectly goes along with the song and provides some great examples of Kanada and his students’ stylistic evolution. One of the most interesting parts to me is the opening’s beginning, centered on protagonist Jun: he is first shown just with linework, and then takes on color before doing an impressive jump. Seeing the character getting drawn and animated before our eyes is a nice and rare touch, but the jump itself is what really deserves discussion, as it represents a prime example of Kan ada’s timing. The movement is completely irregular, as Jun goes from one pose to another without any kind of anticipation or in-betweening. As he would often do, it is highly probable that Kanada didn’t properly time this movement and just went along with what felt right.

The N°1 group didn’t only work on Acrobunch’s opening. Ochi, ever the closest to Kaname, also animated the bank gattai sequence. Representative of Ochi’s holistic approach to animation and storyboarding, it is memorable not just for its motion, but also for its entire aesthetic: it is entirely in black-and-white, with a constantly-moving camera that sees and moves through objects. As a result, the scene looks completely different from the rest of the show, and allows the viewer to perfectly understand the way each separate machine combines to form a greater whole. Making it even more unique are Ochi’s off-model drawings. Among all of Kanada’s students at the time, Ochi was among the closest to his master in terms of drawing style; still, he managed to keep his specificity in his way to depict characters. Under his pen, the eyes and mouth became as small as possible, making for strangely unbalanced facial proportions; bodies as a whole tended to be slightly fatter (especially around thighs) and their features thicker. All these traits ran completely counter to Mutsumi Inomata’s style, and created strange (but fascinating) results when Ochi ran wild on episode 11 of Acrobunch, on which he was storyboarder, animation director and animator. But, most importantly, what made Ochi special was his ability to retain and build on one of the essential features of Kanada’s style, not so much as an animator but as an illustrator: the impression of irregular lines, which look like they were drawn by trembling hands. This quality was often lost during either the cleanup or tracing process; but Ochi somewhat managed to keep it, and his drawings have an unparalleled sense of fragility and sensibility.

Acrobunch #11, which I just mentioned here, has already been discussed elsewhere on this blog; but, in light of the above remarks, it warrants a bit more commentary. First, it’s necessary to note how different Ochi’s episode looks. As we will see, Acrobunch is one of these shows where no episode looks like the others because there was basically no supervision on the series’ scale. This isn’t really a quality when episodes were handled by Kokusai Eigasha’s inexperienced animators, but becomes a very strong one when the people in charge have creativity and the skill to realize it. As a result, #11 is also one of Acrobunch’s best episodes, at least visually: the storyboarding is always inventive and the animation never stops moving. That was made possible by Ochi’s individual talent, but also by the quality of the staff he had gathered around him.

Makyô Densetsu Acrobunch #11 staff

Episode Direction: Kazuhiro Ochi (おちかずひろ)

Script: Akira Gôto (合戸陽)

Storyboard: Kazuhiro Ochi (越智一裕)

Animation Direction: Hajime Nanpa (南波一, pseudonym for Kazuhiro Ochi)

Key Animation: Kazuhiro Ochi (越智一裕) [uncredited], Takashi Sogabe (そがべたかし), Kyôko Matsubara (松原京子),

Makiko Yoshimura (吉村牧子)

In-betweens: Moriyasu Taniguchi (谷口守泰), Studio Giants (スタジオ・ジャイアンツ)

Production Assistance: 高倉見

As these credits illustrate, Ochi was in complete control of the episode, and it certainly looks like a solo performance. If that’s the case, it is also because Ochi was surrounded by people who knew him well: except for the mysterious Takashi Sogabe, whose studio of origin is unknown, all the animators were from N°1. As such, this episode represents one of the few to feature key animation by Makiko Yoshimura, a young animator who would marry Yoshinori Kanada not long after. It is also notable for the fame of its in-betweeners: legendary Anime R creator Moriyasu Taniguchi (that such a veteran was on in-betweens is yet another sign of the production’s disorganization) and studio Giants, which had already started producing many Kanada-style luminaries such as Masayuki and Shôichi Masuo.

As if a Studio N°1 episode wasn’t special enough of an occurence, it was immediately followed by an even more impressive lineup on episode 12: that was Masahito Yamashita’s studio OZ. The credits only provide the studio’s name, but we know that at least Yamashita himself and Shinsaku Kozuma worked on it. Unlike Ochi’s episode, this one doesn’t stand out for its unusual designs, as characters remain on-model throughout, but simply for the quality of its animation. Full of mecha fight scenes, it provided ample occasions for the animators to go wild on idiosyncratic timing and original effects; as was usual for him, Yamashita proved that he was the leader of the Kanada-style movement with animation more exhilarating than any of his colleagues could produce.

Episodes 11 and 12 are no doubt the highlights of Acrobunch; but they are not the only ones, and given the focus of this article, it is time to mention the other two most notable episodes: those animated by Kaname itself, #5 and #14. They were both animated by the same duo, Inomata and Kageyama, with Inomata on animation direction as well; episode 5 was storyboarded by Takashi Sogabe, while episode 14 was in the hands of Kageyama himself. These episodes were therefore made by a very small circle of acquaintances, to which we should add the three in-betweeners that joined them, younger members of Kaname who all debuted on Goshogun one year prior: Toshihiko Hashimoto, Masako Minami, and one 小原髪夫.

Acrobunch’s main cast redesigned by Inomata

One might think that, because Inomata and Kageyama were the character designers of the show, their episodes would have the characters looking perfectly on-model all throughout. But nothing could be further from the truth, as Inomata visibly redrew all characters from the ground-up. Her two episodes of Acrobunch would therefore be the first time her unique sensibility as a designer could really express itself without constraints. As I mentioned, Inomata’s philosophy was the complete opposite of Ochi’s: she made characters tall and as slender as possible, eyes were huge and stylized and faces very small. But, just like Ochi, she kept the constant stylization characteristic of Kanada-style artists, with delicate, studied poses even in the stillest moments. This was also the case during the movement, with the addition of smears, light flares and wakame shading everywhere possible. For that reason, Kaname’s episodes are memorable less for their animation than for their overall presentation and the immediate appeal of Inomata’s animation direction. The huge gap between it and the “regular” designs are the best proof of how ahead of her time Inomata was, but also of how hard it must have been for other artists to adapt to her style. But this only made such episodes all the more necessary, as both fans and Kaname’s artists needed to grow used to working with or appreciating it.

Sasuga no Sarutobi: having fun

Although it hasn’t been remembered to the same degree, Sasuga no Sarutobi is, alongside Urusei Yatsura, among the most important anime series of the early 80s. Like its more famous contemporary, Sarutobi was a long-running, episodic comedy which would set the tone for the entire decade’s animation philosophy thanks to the extensive contributions of studios such as Anime R, Giants and Animaru-Ya. For this reason, it will be impossible to cover the entire series here; but just the episodes Kaname worked on are a wide enough subject. There is four of them: #5, #10, #18 and #23, with an extremely similar staff, of whom I’ll provide a rundown below; the team is very much the same as on Acrobunch, and allows us to get a pretty good idea of who was working in and around Kaname just before their first production, Plawres Sanshirô, began airing.

Sasuga no Sarutobi Kaname Pro episodes

Script: Takeshi Shudô (首藤剛志) [#05, #10], Tokio Tsuchiya (土屋斗紀雄) [#05], Tomoko Konparu (金春智子) [#18], Junki Takegami (武上純希) [#23]

Episode Direction: Masahisa Ishida (石田昌久) [pseudonym for Shohei Ishida, 石田昌平]

Storyboard: Tetsutarô Fujiwara (藤原鉄太郎) [pseudonym for Kunihiko Yuyama, 湯山邦彦]

Animation Direction: Mutsumi Inomata (いのまたむつみ)

Key Animation: Hajime Matsuzaki (松崎一), Takashi Sogabe (曽我部孝) [#05, #10, #18], Kazuhiro Ochi (越智一裕) [#05, #10, #18], Kyôko Matsubara (松原京子) [#10, #18, #23], Masakatsu Ijima (飯島正勝) [#23]

In-betweens: Masako Minami (南全子) [#05], Toshihiko Hashimoto (橋本利彦) [#05, #23], 小原髪夫 [#05], Takahiro Toyomasu (豊増隆寛) [#05], Akihiro Ikeda (池田昭浩) [#10, #18], Hirotoshi Sano (佐野浩敏) [#10, #18], Kaoru Suzuki (鈴木かおる) [#10, #18], Mayumi Watanabe (渡辺真由美) [#10, #18], 水野一子 [#23], Hideko Yamauchi (山内英子) [#23], 樋口雷神社 [#23]

Production Assistance: Akihiro Nagao (長尾聡浩) [#05, #10, #18], Masaki Shin’ichi (政木伸一) [#23]

Cooperation: Kaname Production (カナメプロダクション)

All the names here are more-or-less familiar, but are all very interesting to find. This is first the case of Takeshi Shudô, Kunihiko Yuyama and Masahisa Ishida, as these episodes represent their first official collaboration with Kaname Pro. Of these three, Ishida seems to be the only one to have really joined Kaname, although that was for a short time since he apparently left after Plawres Sanshirô. Yuyama would of course direct that latter series, but as a freelance director; when these episodes of Sarutobi aired, he was still in Ashi Production directing Minky Momo, which no doubt explains why he is under pseudonym here. On pseudonyms, it is also worth mentioning the collective penname used by Takashi Sogabe and Kazuhiro Ochi on episodes 10 and 18, “Takahiro Ochisoga” (おちそがたかひろ). Such a trick, which consists of merging two animators’ names, is not that rare, but tends to only happen between extremely close people, often members of the same studio – which would mean that Sogabe was indeed from Studio N°1. In fact, all of the key animators except for Hajime Matsuzaki are actually from N°1.

In any case, these four episodes were made in exceptional conditions, for one single reason: Kaname had so much freedom that they could entirely redraw the character designs. Inomata didn’t need to be asked twice, and as one can expect, her style is all over the drawings. Just as in Acrobunch, she made characters taller, prettier and added details everywhere. What is particularly interesting is that those episodes were made as Sanshirô was in preproduction, and it’s possible to see how much Sanshirô’s Kyôko influenced Inomata’s re-designing of Sarutobi’s Mako. Even more curious is a character recurring in two of the four episodes (#05 and #23), named Yôko, whose design and especially bright red hair shares multiple similarities with the protagonist from Genmu Senki Leda.

Sasuga no Sarutobi‘s Yôko; notice the Acrobunch easter egg in the second screenshot

There are also some more obvious parodies, as Sarutobi shares the same crazy, popcultural energy as Urusei Yatsura, especially in Kaname’s hands. The two most significant are a quick Birth easter egg and caricature of Kanada himself in #10, while #23 is one long Genma Taisen parody full of references to the movie, which came out just 2 weeks before the episode aired.

Another common element with Urusei Yatsura is that Kanada-school animators finally moved away from mecha and had the opportunity to reveal how appropriate their style was for comedy. Discarding any sort of realism in favor of exaggerated, cartoony expressions, it was a perfect fit for the absurd scenarios of such shows; and each animator’s independent spirit encouraged them to build upon the gags to add their own flourishes, resulting in a never-ending stream of visual invention and creative motion. The most common techniques, which had definitely entered N°1’s vocabulary by then, were smears and background animation; they would only flourish in Kaname’s first productions, Plawres Sanshirô and Birth

The three works considered here came out just a few months apart from each other, and were probably all made in parallel or direct succession. There is a certain consistency in output and staff, allowing us to get an idea of Kaname’s place in the Kanada-school circles of the early 80s: put bluntly, it was initially just something of an annex of Kanada’s own studio N°1. Kaname’s staff was extremely young, and while Kanada was as well (he was only 30 in 1983), the youngest of his students, such as Ochi, were naturally drawn to people closer to their own age. This must have naturally created a strong sense of solidarity, further solidified by their common admiration for Kanada himself and attempts to carve out their own styles in the path he had opened.

This overview is also very instructive historically because it tells us of a time when small studios led by extremely young artists could basically do what they wanted. Of course, this isn’t to say that the early 80s was a golden age of some sort – precisely because all three works were made at pretty much the same time, the pressure must have been huge and, as I explained, the reason Kaname took on the work was probably simply to ensure its continued existence. Still, the fact that some of its members – notably Inomata – could rise to fame so quickly, and that, barely a year after its creation, Kaname could launch its first TV production, Plawres Sanshirô, evoke a time when the anime industry functioned completely differently.

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