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.

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.

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).

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.

Directing Kanada

One of the most notable aspects of Kanada’s career is that, while he never directed anything by himself, he was closely associated with major directors: first Yoshiyuki Tomino, and then Rintarô and Hayao Miyazaki. His relationship with the latter two is what I’m going to research here. More precisely, I’d like to see how animator and directors worked together and reciprocally pushed each other in new directions. The goal will be to explore Kanada’s animation in detail, to investigate and try to uncover what was his, what were his innovations, and what must be credited to other people: directors, animation directors, and other animators.

Artist spotlight: Masami Obari

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.

Toshihiro Hirano and AIC studio

As I mentioned in the previous article about Graviton, the OVA boom was very much carried by small structures and the overlapping nets of connections made by their members. It appears that the two most important places where all these people met and first exchanged their ideas were Urusei Yatsura, starting in 1981, and Macross, in 1982. Among the many people that contributed to these two epoch-making shows was Toshihiro (or Toshiki) Hirano, a central figure of 80’s animation. He was not just the director of some of the most iconic OVAs of the period and a key figure from the boom’s most important studio, AIC; it was also partly thanks to him that emerged what I call the “second-generation Kanada school”, the one that developed in the second half of the 80’s, influenced more by Masahito Yamashita than Kanada, but that also took in the contributions of Ichirô Itano and Takashi Nakamura. Its two most important figures are some of the most important animators since Kanada himself: Shin’ya Ohira and Masami Obari.