Yoshinori Kanada and the nature of animation

assumption of this series, and the reason why it has tried to trace how Kanada’s influence spread and changed over the years. However, I have said little in depth about what Kanada and his students brought to the medium of animation—in other words, why was Kanada important, beyond simply earning so many fans and followers? This is what I’d like to try and uncover here.

Artist spotlight: Hiroyuki Imaishi

Hiroyuki Imaishi is no doubt the most important artist to rise out of the Kanada school in the last 25 years: the renewal he contributed to trigger with the Neo-Kanada style completely renovated what Kanada-inspired animation would look like in the 21st century. As one of the major figures of studio Gainax and then studio Trigger, he has also managed to create an environment with a peculiar and recognizable aesthetic, that could hopefully foster new generations of Kanada school artists. Finally, Imaishi is also a famous director, one of the major artistic figures of the last two decades. Having already partly covered Imaishi’s work as an animator, it is precisely this last aspect that I’d like to study here: what Imaishi directed.

The Kanada style now

Although the Kanada style has certainly known a rebirth in the 2000s, it seems that, in the 2010’s, it has gone through a new phase of decline. It’s not that it has totally disappeared: it is still thriving around specific studios (like Trigger) or artists (the most important among them being Yoshimichi Kameda). However, outside of those circles, the presence of the Kanada style is mostly visible through citations (Kanada dragons, very angular effects) and a generally snappier approach to timing. Overall, there is little formal innovation. But this doesn’t mean that the Kanada style is dead or dying; it has just acquired a new, more secondary, place in the field of anime aesthetics. This situation is what I call the “post-Kanada” era; not just because it has been long now since the golden age of the 80’s, but also because most Kanada-school animators emerging today have done so after the death of Yoshinori Kanada himself. They have therefore never directly experienced his work, and their influences might be more diverse than that of previous artists. The goal of this article will be to understand this new context, and to highlight some promising artists in the Kanada lineage.

Artist spotlight: Yoshimichi Kameda

Yoshimichi Kameda is undoubtedly one of the most important animators of the last 15 years. He is also one of the last really major animators today whose style can directly be traced to Kanada, and not one who just cites him as a great artist he looks up to. Finally, he is emblematic of what I call the “post-Kanada” generation, that is the animators that emerged during the late 2000’s until now, just before or after Kanada’s death and who never  came in direct contact with him or with his works as they came out. I will explore this idea further in the next piece of this series, but Kameda seems to be very representative of what the Kanada style has become outside of the Trigger bastion: something with much more varied influences and techniques, that doesn’t always look much like Kanada at first glance, but retains the same core principles and expressive motion.

Gainax and the Neo-Kanada Renaissance

1998 was one of the most important years in the history of the Kanada school. On the one hand, it was when Yoshinori Kanada himself left Japan—and, with it, the anime industry proper—for Hawaii and games development. In the context of the general decline, if not total disappearance, of the creativity of Kanada-style animation in most productions, it felt like the ground had been given up to newer generations. But another thing happened in 1998: the broadcast of a TV series produced by studio Gainax, His and Her Circumstances. Just as Kanada-style animation was withering all over, KareKano became a formidable space for experimentation, bringing to the fore a new generation of animators from Gainax. These would go on to be called the “Neo-Kanada” school. Its foremost members form the trio now strongly associated with studio Trigger: Yô Yoshinari, Hiroyuki Imaishi, and Sushio.

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.