Patlabor 2 is widely considered to be one of the best anime films ever made. For all those involved, it was an incredibly ambitious and important production, far more than the first movie which had come out 4 years prior. Director Mamoru Oshii himself stated, somewhat provocatively, that, “as far as I’m concerned, the only Patlabor I’ve made is Patlabor 2. It’s the only thing that I can proudly call my own work”. As controversial as that statement may be, it is true that Patlabor 2 is a step-up in nearly every aspect compared to its predecessor, from its budget to production pipeline to Oshii-isms. Beyond this, Patlabor 2 is generally held to be one of the most important and influential works in Japanese animation and one of the defining movies of the 1990s - not so much for its extremely coherent aesthetic and deeply thought-out writing, but rather for the unique elements it introduced in the Japanese animation pipeline: a renovated layout system, new ways of using CGI and a still-unmatched ability to challenge live-action cinema techniques. Starting from the movie’s staff and production methods, this article will try to retrace how all of these elements coalesced to produce such a cohesive whole.
The two Patlabor movies directed by Mamoru Oshii are landmarks in anime history. Even without considering their intrinsic artistic qualities, their importance for the development of the aesthetics and techniques of Japanese animation cannot be overstated. Major works in the post-Akira landscape, they played a key role in the maturation of realist animation and contributed to introduce capital players such as studio Production IG, director Satoshi Kon, or animators Kazuchika Kise and Hiroyuki Okiura. And that is not all, as they were also central for the development of 3DCG animation and the spread of the modern layout system, which thoroughly changed animation craft. In other words, they are essential works in order to understand Japanese animation of the last 30 years.
When asked what was the biggest anime event of the year 1988, most people would surely answer Akira. Ghibli fans may note Grave of the Fireflies or My Neighbour Totoro. Only few people would mention one of the most ambitious entries in the Gundam franchise: Char’s Counterattack. Yoshiyuki Tomino’s third feature film project, and the first non-recap one, put an end to a story that had been going on for almost 10 years, the so-called “early Universal Century”. It was a turning point, not just for the Gundam series, but for anime as a whole - though this is rarely known or framed as such, since the movie is mostly only accessible to already experienced Gundam watchers. The goal of this article is to correct this state of affairs.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s work in animation is mostly and rightly remembered for his 1988 masterpiece Akira, especially in the West where it has become part of the SF and animation canon. However, just like his career as a mangaka goes beyond Akira, his contribution to anime does not only come down to this behemoth of 80’s … Continue reading Before and after Akira : the themes and motifs of Otomo’s shorts