Birth: a complete chronology

Birth is an infamous name in Yoshinori Kanada’s career: often considered to be one of the animator’s most personal projects, it is also criticized for its confusing plot and believed to have been both a critical and commercial failure. Kanada himself recognized these faults, and Birth’s failure no doubt represented a turning point in his career. However, there is something about Birth that most fans today fail to realize: that is Kanada’s actual level of involvement in the project. Indeed, Birth is not just a single, 80-minutes OVA that came out in 1984. Before that, it had been a picture book, a manga and a TV series project, as well as the source of multiple illustrations published across various media.

The early days of Kaname Pro

Studio Kaname Production is most famous for its OVA works, such as Birth and Genmu Senki Leda, which seem to embody the early years of the so-called “OVA boom”. However, by 1984, the studio was already famous among Japanese otaku audiences for at least one other thing: the time it had spent subcontracting animation on other studios’ productions. Like many other bigger studios, Kaname would keep doing this during its entire existence, as it was the best way to keep employees busy and money flowing in, something particularly important for a company that was on the brink of bankruptcy during all its existence. While Kaname’s subcontracting activity in the mid-80s is very much worthy of attention, I will only focus on the studio’s earliest works here, as I am mostly interested in the way Kaname built its own “style” and identity. This means covering 3 very different series, all of which started coming out in 1982: Sunrise’s Combat Mecha Xabungle, Kokusai Eigasha’s Makyô Densetsu Acrobunch, and Tsuchida Production’s Sasuga no Sarutobi.

Ashi Production and the Pers-kun movement

Following 1979’s Galaxy Express 999, Yoshinori Kanada had become one of the top animators in Japan and would go on to be an inspiring figure for many of the artists that emerged throughout the following decade. The early 80s especially witnessed what industry members at the time called a sudden “Pers-kun movement” - “Pers” being short for “Kanada Perspective”, and “Pers-kun” the (slightly derogatory) term to indicate young animators who wanted to imitate their idol Kanada. The large-scale effect of this “movement” was to make Kanada-style animation one of the defining traits of 80s anime. But if we look closer, it was anything but a given: Kanada himself had to establish a reputation and contacts, while old and new animators alike did not immediately adopt the new trend. The goal of this article will precisely be to retrace through what channels Kanada’s style exported itself outside of the animator’s immediate circle of students, and in particular in one studio: Ashi Production.

The politics of 80s anime: the 198X controversy

A common narrative of Japanese social history and anime history holds that, starting from the 1980’s, the Japanese population has gotten increasingly distant from politics. The rise of apolitical otaku circles and their own ironical, derivative aesthetic seems to confirm this tendency. But in the very same period, and at the exact moment when otaku communities as we know them were forming, a controversy shook the anime industry and revealed that political debate and action were very much on the agenda for some creators. It all happened around a single movie that came out in November 1982: Future War 198X. Not only did the film spark discussions within the anime industry and community proper, it also caused nation-wide movements from actors outside of the anime world, such as Parent-Teachers Associations of the Japanese Communist Party. The stakes were Japan’s domestic and foreign policies, but also the very purpose of the animated medium.

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).