Looking back, looking forward: Kanada’s late period

is generally held that Yoshinori Kanada went through two major shifts in the 1990’s, shifts that determined what the two last decades of his life and work would be like. In terms of style, there was the transition to an apparently radically limited kind of animation, with very irregular timings and a profusion of straight, geometrical shapes. In terms of career, he progressively retired from the anime industry proper to work in video games as an employee of Square (now Square Enix).

Artist spotlight: Shin’ya Ohira

This is just my personal opinion on the matter, but I don’t think many animators ever reached the same level of genius as Yoshinori Kanada in terms of originality and ability to ceaselessly renew their own style. In the course of the chronological period followed in this series, there is however one artist whose ability to do that rivals Kanada’s: that is Shin’ya Ohira. Ohira is widely considered to be one of the most talented animators ever for the highly idiosyncratic and complex style he developed in the 2000’s. But before reaching that stage, he had already pushed the possibilities of the animated medium further, not just once, but three times: first as a Kanada follower, then as a student of Takashi Nakamura, and finally as a highly unique and idiosyncratic animator. It is these first two periods I’d like to focus on in this article.

The new generation of the 1990’s

More than the Kanada school, whose members appeared throughout  the 80s, this new group of animators deserves the word “generation”. The six major animators I will focus on were all born in the second half of the 60s, and debuted as key animators within the same five years: Atsuko Ishida (1986), Masayuki Kobayashi (1988), Atsushi Wakabayashi and Norio Matsumoto (1989), Tetsuya Nishio (1990) and Hirofumi Suzuki (1991). Most of them have since risen to prominence as some of the most important animators alive, and left a deep mark on 90’s and 2000’s animation. This was made possible by the new style they all contributed to establish, one I would term “flow animation”.

Artist spotlight: Takashi Nakamura

Yoshinori Kanada might be the most influential Japanese animator, but he isn’t the only one whose work revolutionized anime. Almost as important as him is Takashi Nakamura. Nakamura is very interesting, because he could be considered like an anti-Kanada, even though he also got influence from him. In an earlier post, I described Kanada as the quintessential Japanese animator, because he made a synthesis between the two divergent aesthetics of anime in the 70’s. On the other hand, Nakamura’s inspirations are far more diverse, and he owes a much larger debt to Disney and Western animation. Moreover, whereas Kanada can be said to have brought out the full potential of limited TV animation by modulating and lowering the framerates, Nakamura did the exact opposite. He pushed the limits of what could be done with TV animation by raising the framerates and aiming for realism and detail above all else. But his work as an animator has been somewhat forgotten by Western animation fans, so it’s time to do him justice.

The rise of realism

However dominant it became in the 80s, the Kanada style was never the only aesthetic of anime. Besides the heavily stylized motion of the Kanada school and the round, cute characters that characterized the lolicon boom at the start of the decade, another very different kind of animation was starting to find its footing: realism.

Directing Kanada

One of the most notable aspects of Kanada’s career is that, while he never directed anything by himself, he was closely associated with major directors: first Yoshiyuki Tomino, and then Rintarô and Hayao Miyazaki. His relationship with the latter two is what I’m going to research here. More precisely, I’d like to see how animator and directors worked together and reciprocally pushed each other in new directions. The goal will be to explore Kanada’s animation in detail, to investigate and try to uncover what was his, what were his innovations, and what must be credited to other people: directors, animation directors, and other animators.

Artist spotlight: Masami Obari

Among all the members of the Kanada school, one of the most important and original ones is probably Masami Obari. Along with Masahito Yamashita and Hiroyuki Imaishi, he probably stands as one of the more influential animators that came out of Kanada’s lineage. Obari’s career started in the middle of the 1980’s, and he is in that regard the most famous representative of what I’d call the “second-generation Kanada school”. These were animators that emerged in the late 80’s that were more influenced by Yamashita than by Kanada directly, and that specialized in dense and complex mechanical and effects animation of the kind initiated by Ichirô Itano and Takashi Nakamura. All of these characteristics perfectly fit Obari’s profile, and  he is no doubt the one who stood out the most during this period.

Toshihiro Hirano and AIC studio

As I mentioned in the previous article about Graviton, the OVA boom was very much carried by small structures and the overlapping nets of connections made by their members. It appears that the two most important places where all these people met and first exchanged their ideas were Urusei Yatsura, starting in 1981, and Macross, in 1982. Among the many people that contributed to these two epoch-making shows was Toshihiro (or Toshiki) Hirano, a central figure of 80’s animation. He was not just the director of some of the most iconic OVAs of the period and a key figure from the boom’s most important studio, AIC; it was also partly thanks to him that emerged what I call the “second-generation Kanada school”, the one that developed in the second half of the 80’s, influenced more by Masahito Yamashita than Kanada, but that also took in the contributions of Ichirô Itano and Takashi Nakamura. Its two most important figures are some of the most important animators since Kanada himself: Shin’ya Ohira and Masami Obari.

Artist spotlight: Shôichi Masuo

With this third artist spotlight dedicated to Shôichi Masuo, I’ll start analyzing the works of some animators who are not prominently affiliated with the Kanada school or style. Why do this? The main reasons are as follows: first, Masuo, just like all the other animators I’ll cover, has been in close contact with members of the Kanada school and his style can be understood in relationship with their own, whether in its continuity or contrast with it. Second, Masuo is one of the most important animators of the 80s and 90s, and a master of effects and mechanical animation. These are the fields Kanada and many of his followers specialized in during the same period, and it’s therefore worth understanding the more general context in which their own style developed. Finally, I believe Masuo is a forgotten figure in non-Japanese animation discourse, despite being one of the most important Japanese effects animators and one of the core staff members of Studio Gainax. The goal of this series is partly to highlight some less important figures, or underrated aspects of the work of more famous ones; I hope this article will help give Masuo some of the recognition he deserves.

Graviton, Gainax, and the Itano school

Among all the artists influenced by Yoshinori Kanada, Ichirô Itano is probably one of the most important. And yet, he is never considered a Kanada-style animator, most likely because their styles look very different. One of the most important mechanical and effects animators of the 1980s, Itano revolutionized how SF anime would look, and his students, direct or indirect, scattered all over the industry. While it might seem to steer us a further away from Kanada, taking a look at what I call the “Itano school” is important, for two reasons. First, Itano himself was inspired by Kanada and many animators who followed him often took cues from the Kanada style. Second, taking a look at Itano’s students and their career is one of the best routes into the incredibly dense and rich field of the 80s: it’s easy to get lost among the many productions and studios birthed by the OVA boom.