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.
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.
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.
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.