Anne of Green Gables is one of the most popular works in the World Masterpiece Theater series, both in Japan and in the English-speaking sphere. According to many of those who have seen it, it may even qualify for the title of best anime of all time. It also represents a historical turning point: it is the first entry in the time slot that was now officially called “World Masterpiece Theater”, instead of “Calpis Children’s Theater” (1975-1977) or “Calpis Family Theater” (1978). And yet, it is perhaps the most imperfect among Isao Takahata’s three shows for Zuiyo Video/Nippon Animation, and by far one of the most difficult productions that the director, studio and all the artists involved had known. This latter, darker aspect of Anne appears to be at best underdiscussed, or at worst completely unknown, in English-speaking circles. While providing a detailed commentary and analysis of the show as well as its place in anime history and Isao Takahata’s career, this article also aims to raise awareness and shed light on those somber moments.
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.
If one single work were to sum up Tatsunoko’s entire production, it would probably be Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. By far the studio’s most iconic series, it was already one of its most popular when it came out. It started airing in 1972, 10 years after the creation of the studio, and 5 years before the death of its creator and leader, Tatsuo Yoshida. Due to this special position, Gatchaman easily stands as an exceptional high point in Tatsunoko’s early history. Moreover, because of its length (105 episodes!) and the changes that occurred within Tatsunoko during its production, it symbolizes the end of an era for the studio: it is, in a sense, the last work from its “early years”. Indeed, it would be so hard to replicate Gatchaman’s success that most of Tatsunoko’s following works are more-or-less simple copies or parodies of it. It would not be until Yoshida’s death and the production of a new Gatchaman series, in 1978, that the studio would find again the creativity and originality of its first years.
The “realist” aesthetic and approach of the show was possible thanks to its director, who in fact debuted as chief director: the second of the three Yoshida brothers, Ippei Kuri. Largely overshadowed by the other two rising anime directors of the time that were Isao Takahata (in Tôei) and Osamu Dezaki (in Mushi), Kuri was easily on par with them in terms of artistic vision; one may even argue that him and Tatsunoko’s artists and technicians largely laid the ground that would make Dezaki’s expressionist style possible. In that regard, Sanshirô can be read as a site for formal and technical experimentation, wherein “realism” was but one of the many aspects that were explored.
While the initial reception has been relatively subdued, many will no doubt look back on Heike Monogatari both for what it is and for what it represents; a significant work of animated cinema which marks a new beginning in director Naoko Yamada’s career. While the complex realities of the show’s production certainly merit critical attention, what most interests me about Heike Monogatari is not its place in the history of Japanese animation but the way it uses the medium of animated cinema to present us with a living image of history itself.
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.
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.
Today, especially in the Western side of the fandom, Yoshinori Kanada’s animation is associated with flashy, angular effects and very stylized and exaggerated motion, of the sort in which Hiroyuki Imaishi and his peers have become experts. However, if this is a valid description of the neo-Kanada style and of Kanada himself at one point, it misses a major aspect of the latter’s animation and why it was so important. Nobody would think of him as a realist, and yet… You need to look no further than the influence he had on such important members of the realist school as Shin’ya Ohira and Mitsuo Iso, or the realist shift of many of his direct students, like Masahito Yamashita, to see that there is something at play. In fact, the hypothesis of this entire article is that, from the late 70s to the early 80’s, Kanada was a major actor in the emergence of a realist kind of animation in anime.
The concept of realism in animation is a tricky one. Indeed, animation is thought to be the perfect medium to transcend reality and give shape to one’s wildest dreams - it has become a cliché to say that the animator’s imagination is the only limit. However, paradoxically, some of the most important artists and works in the medium have seemingly relinquished this aspect, believed to be essential.