Storytelling in the Midst of History: Reflections on Heike Monogatari

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.

Ghibli outside Ghibli, 1986-1991

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.

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.

Kanada, the first realist?

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 purpose of realism in animation

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.