The History of the Kanada School

Cover image: a tribute to Yoshinori Kanada by Hiroyuki Imaishi

Yoshinori Kanada is widely considered to be the most influential animator in Japan, if not one of the most important in the whole world. Something rare for anime staff, his influence even extends beyond the world of animation, as some, like contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, consider him one of the most important artistic figures of postwar Japan. But these claims resonate strangely overseas. Indeed, if anime’s influence on world animation and illustration has grown in the last 20 years, and Kanada’s with it, his name and influence still remain unknown or underestimated by most non-Japanese scholars and animation fans.

Part of the project of this series is to correct this. The first step in highlighting Kanada’s role is to estimate what, exactly, was the real extent of his influence, who were his students, and what did he change. This will be the investigative part. But at the same time, I will take Kanada’s influence as granted, which means that I won’t try to show that it exists at all, but that I will follow how it spread and grew in importance. Indeed, a thorough research on Kanada quickly showed me that retracing his influence entailed retracing the history of most of anime starting from the late 1970’s. This is a bit too ambitious a scope, but I will consider the Kanada style as a central thread to understand the evolution of anime, that influenced it either positively (as some adopted it) or negatively (as others sought to make something different from it).

This is a major assumption, however. It will not be possible to justify it entirely, but there are at least two necessary steps to go through before it can be properly understood.

The first one is the most basic of questions: what is the Kanada style? And does it even exist? To be clear, I will not answer these directly, not because they are not important, but because answering them would lead me further to my historical interests than I’d like. But even then, I don’t think it would be that easy or more importantly that interesting to give a definite answer for the simple reason that there isn’t one singular “Kanada style” that can be reduced to a list of definite characteristics. My perspective would rather consist in approaching it as an evolution.

First, an evolution of Kanada himself. One of the reasons I find him as an individual artist so challenging is that he never stopped changing and integrating new elements to his own animation. It might be possible to uncover some fundamental elements behind all of his different stylistic shifts, but I find it more interesting to focus on those shifts and the plurality of aspects Kanada shows us. In that regard, his artistic evolution could be broken down in 4 “periods”, but those divisions are largely arbitrary and could be discussed.

From 1972 to 1977, Kanada developed as a mechanical animator first and foremost, a student of Shingo Araki’s gekiga style and of Takuo Noda. His own personality as an animator quickly emerged, until his second period, between 1977 and 1984, which was probably his peak in terms of creativity. It is when he truly expanded his range of techniques to master effects and character animation and to provide an apparently ceaseless flow of aesthetic innovations. Then, after 1984, Kanada seems to have quieted down somewhat, mostly on his collaborations with Hayao Miyazaki, until approximately 1992-1994. These years mark the start of his so-called late period, until his death in 2009, where he experimented with a more radical and simple approach to movement and shapes, as well as new technologies such as 3DCG and motion capture.

Just as Kanada himself evolved and changed throughout his career, the “Kanada school” isn’t a singular object: it would be more accurate to speak of Kanada schools that themselves generated new schools and styles of their own. For the purpose of this series, I will mostly adopt a chronological division in three different generations, which is itself open to debate. The first generation emerged between 1978 and 1982, was largely composed of Kanada’s direct students. Its members had many occasions to work with him throughout their careers. These, most notably its most important member Masahito Yamashita, in turn influenced a second generation that developed in the second half of the 1980’s, mostly between 1984 and 1988. After 1988, however, the Kanada style went through a decline in popularity and creativity until the sudden rise of a “Neo-Kanada” school between 1996 and 2000, that centered around the works of Hiroyuki Imaishi and took inspiration from Kanada’s late period. But it’s not like those three historical stages exist in isolation from each other: Kanada himself was active until the 2000’s, and all of those artists found themselves working together.

Understanding that things are not fixed but in evolution is the first aim of my historical approach. This doesn’t mean either that history, especially history of art, is pure continuity. Instead, what I’d like to focus on are the turning points, the moments when something new emerges, when new forms and ways of expression within the medium have appeared. They didn’t come out of nothing, and it’s to show it that I wrote this history; but they did not simply repeat what had been done before  either. This is why this series will be as much history as analysis: only a close look at the work of the animators themselves will allow us to understand what was new in their creations. 

Another related objective will be to go past Kanada’s influence to reach Kanada himself. This will take shape in two aspects. The first one will be to try and understand Kanada’s role as a teacher, to understand the general question “how does a school of animation emerge?” and, more specifically, how did Kanada take on the role of leader of a new generation and style of animators? The other perspective will be a radical opposite, as I will try to take Kanada by himself and study the internal dynamics of his style.

Indeed, it is my belief that our vision of Kanada is at least partly influenced or clouded by the popularity of his two most famous students that I already cited: Masahito Yamashita and Hiroyuki Imaishi. Without diminishing their works and contributions to anime, I think that they only took some elements from Kanada’s animation and set them without necessarily being as innovative and bold as their master. It will therefore be necessary to understand both what is properly Kanada’s and what belongs to Yamashita, Imaishi, and all the others. It will be, in a way, a search for what made Kanada Kanada, what was the core of his inventivity and creative power.

Beyond that, this series can be understood as the second part of a larger project I’ve been working on: a sakuga history of anime. By this, I mean two things, or more accurately, two approaches that I believe are complementary. The first one would be that this is a history of anime aesthetics, that is of the technique, craft and art behind the animation. The second one would be a sociological approach to anime production, that puts the focus on human relationships and interactions rather than other elements such as technology, economy or distribution, although I will occasionally also touch on these topics.

In that, all of what you will read is in the continuity of my previous historical series, dedicated to studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha. There, I covered the birth of anime and followed its evolution until the late 70’s. It is precisely in the middle-late 70’s that this series will pick up, and I think you can consider it as a sequel. Even put together, these two series do not aim to be comprehensive, but I hope that they will constitute a good start, considering that, to my knowledge, there exists no linear and chronological history of anime from the points of view I adopt.

The main difference between this and the TMS series will be that I have tried, as much as possible, to put the animation first and therefore to give a lot of space to the analysis of animated sequences. This has its limits, and my analysis skills are still very lacking: it is hard to go beyond simple description and to explain what makes something “expressive”, “new”, or even “interesting”. The analyses may therefore feel a bit repetitive, but I feel that they are central to my project. Indeed, they will be concrete examples and demonstrations of the ideas I’ll develop and the links I’ll make. But I also hope that with them, I can start to lay out the groundwork of a methodology of animation analysis that can help us all to better understand what is going on in the moments we deem notable.

To follow up on this presentation, I will provide below a few elements on the general course of the series: a table of contents/release schedule and a general bibliography.

As for the contents, the series will be divided into 4 more or less chronological chapters or parts. Each chapter will be released over 4 weeks, with a break of 1 or 2 weeks between each. The chapters will themselves be divided in 3 categories of articles. There will be the historical essays that follow a group of animators or a studio over a given period, in an identical fashion to what I did on my work on TMS. Besides them, I will provide artist spotlights dedicated to the careers of single animators. The goal will be to highlight underrated animators, or lesser-known aspects of famous figures, all the while providing some more information on the nature and conditions of the careers of Japanese animators. Finally, each chapter will contain one “Kanada special”, an essay dedicated to Yoshinori Kanada himself. They will not aim to provide a complete account of Kanada’s career and works; their goal is more to focus on specific questions about Kanada’s animation and its evolution. I also realized that the series would have ended just 10 days before the anniversary of Kanada’s death. To celebrate, a more general and theoretical piece dedicated to Kanada’s animation as a whole will conclude the series on July 21st.

For the bibliography, I noted earlier that Kanada is seldom cited in Western studies about anime, and that is more generally the case about anime aesthetics. Most of my sources are then taken from blogs, mostly in English, more rarely in Japanese. But I am not proficient in this language, so my access to Japanese resources was limited. This is a real lack considering the research subject, and it is very possible that many of my speculations could be either confirmed or refuted by Japanese sources. However, I hope that the analyses I provide of animated sequences and the links I make between animators prove to be accurate and thought-provoking.

As an annex, I also added the chart of animators influences that I made some months ago. It is a visual representation of many of the links I will make during this series, and is conceived as a companion work.

Finally, I must give my thanks to all the people who helped me on the project. More than any other thing I worked on over on this blog, this was collective work that I could never have done alone. First, I must thank Thaliarchus, who kindly offered to proofread every article of this series and without whom this would have been far less professional and easy to read. Many pieces wouldn’t have been possible without Fmod91, Kraker2k and Nav. The discussions I had with them made me discover artists and make links I wouldn’t have made before, and the remarks they provided on my writings or on Twitter or Discord helped me considerably in avoiding any mistakes or oversights. There is also dragonhunteriv, who shared many resources with me that have greatly helped my research, as well as all my senpai in sakuga and Kanada fandom: Fede, Pilo, Manuloz and Dimitri. Many of the illustrations I used for the series are either taken from blogs they made me discover or scans they made, from the blog of albeiro710, or from resources found by George Kalaitza. I must also extend my thanks to all the members of the “Definitive Anime Chat… Thing” Discord server, and especially JimmyGnome, for the extensive translation they provided of Urusei Yatsura’s credits. Without this work , this series would have never been possible in the first place. Finally, all my gratitude goes toward the nameless contributors of the Sakugabooru, AniDB and @wiki databases, which were my most important resources all throughout this series.

But the ones I am the most grateful towards are all the animators and staff members I will mention in my articles, and also to all the unknown or lesser-known ones whose work has been my passion for a long time now. Yoshinori Kanada in particular I will never stop thanking enough for his innovative and groundbreaking animation. This series is dedicated to him; may it spread some more acknowledgement and love of his work.

The History of Tokyo Movie Shinsha series

The lineages of Japanese animators

Series outline and release schedule

The birth of a style

The Kanada style in context  – March 6, 2021

Their collective masterpiece: Urusei Yatsura – March 19, 2021

Kazuhiro Ochi spotlight – March 21, 2021

A brief history of Kaname Pro – March 26, 2021

Kôji Itô spotlight – March 28, 2021

The golden 80’s and the OVA boom

Kanada, the first realist? – April 10, 2021

Studio Graviton, Gainax, and the Itano school – April 23, 2021

Shôichi Masuo spotlight – April 25, 2021

Toshihiro Hirano and AIC studio – April 30, 2021

Masami Obari spotlight – May 2, 2021

The other side of anime

Directing Kanada – May 15, 2021

The rise of realism – May 28, 2021

Takashi Nakamura spotlight – May 30, 2021

The new generation of the 90’s – June 4, 2021

Shin’ya Ohira spotlight – June 6, 2021

Neo or post-Kanada ?

Looking back, looking forward: Kanada’s late period – June 19, 2021

Gainax and the Neo-Kanada Renaissance – July 2, 2021

Yoshimichi Kameda spotlight – July 4, 2021

The Kanada style now – July 9, 2021

Hiroyuki Imaishi spotlight – July 11, 2021

Conclusion: Yoshinori Kanada and the nature of animation – July 21, 2021


Books and articles

Honkannen, Ville. 2017. ‘The Revolution of Animation : Yoshinori Kanada’s Creative and Everlasting Effect on the Identity of Japanese Animation’. Bachelor’s Thesis, Stockholm University.

Ruh, Brian. 2013. The Stray Dog of Anime : The Films of Mamoru Oshii. Palgrave Macmillan US.

Blog articles (English)

Alexwak. 2020a. ‘Studio Graviton’. Alex (blog). 7 April 2020.

———. 2020b. ‘Anime Photography in the Cel Era’. Alex (blog). 23 September 2020.

Cirugeda, Kevin. 2018. ‘The Advent Of Digital 2D Animation In The Anime Industry: 10 Years Since Birdy The Mighty Decode’. Sakuga Blog (blog). 31 July 2018.

———. 2019. ‘The Fragmentation Of Anime Production: Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth’. Sakuga Blog (blog). 31 August 2019.

Ettinger, Benjamin. 2004a. ‘Peter Pan #12’. Anipages (blog). 6 July 2004.

———. 2004b. ‘Kazuo Komatsubara’. Anipages (blog). 8 August 2004.

———. 2004c. ‘The Otsuka School’. Anipages (blog). 10 August 2004.

———. 2004d. ‘Tomonori Kogawa’. 14 August 2004.

———. 2004e. ‘Spotlight on Satoru Utsunomiya’. Anipages (blog). 15 August 2004.

———. 2005a. ‘Gosenzosama Banbanzai’. Anipages (blog). 18 February 2005.

———. 2005b. ‘Black Magic M-66’. Anipages (blog). 5 May 2005.

———. 2005c. ‘Early Ohira’. Anipages (blog). 6 May 2005.

———. 2006a. ‘Iso Fun Pack’. Anipages (blog). 31 January 2006.

———. 2006b. ‘The Kanada School’. Anipages (blog). 7 February 2006.

———. 2006c. ‘Kanada Revisits Gaiking’. Anipages (blog). 17 July 2006.

———. 2007. ‘Topcraft’. Anipages (blog). 21 March 2007.

———. 2008. ‘The Antique Shop’. Anipages (blog). 28 August 2008.

———. 2009a. ‘Shoichi Masuo’. Anipages (blog). 15 January 2009.

———. 2009b. ‘Yoshinori Kanada Passes Away’. Anipages (blog). 22 July 2009.

———. 2009c. ‘Kanada’s Zambot 3’. Anipages (blog). 23 July 2009.

———. 2009d. ‘More Kanada’. Anipages (blog). 27 July 2009.

———. 2009e. ‘Hommage à Kanada-San’. Anipages (blog). 10 August 2009.

———. 2009f. ‘Dragon’s Heaven’. Anipages (blog). 11 August 2009.

———. 2012. ‘SPT Layzner’. Anipages (blog). 22 June 2012.

———. 2013. ‘Yumemakura Baku’s Twilight Theatre’. Anipages (blog). 25 October 2013.

‘Gosenzo-Sama Banbanzai!: A Forgotten Moment In Anime History’. 2018. Timber Owls (blog). 4 June 2018.

ibcf. 2016. ‘An Introduction to Framerate Modulation’. Wave Motion Cannon (blog). 31 December 2016.

Jones, Grant. 2017. ‘Neon Never Fades: Thirty Years of Bubblegum Crisis’. ZIMMERIT – Anime | Manga | Garage Kits | Doujinshi (blog). 21 February 2017.

Kraker2k. 2012a. ‘Masami Obari Part 1: An Introduction’. The Vanishing Trooper Incident (blog). 12 March 2012.

———. 2012b. ‘Masami Obari Part 2: Influences and Style’. The Vanishing Trooper Incident (blog). 16 June 2012.

———. 2012c. ‘Masami Obari Part 3a: Obari Style Animators and Legacy’. The Vanishing Trooper Incident (blog). 4 September 2012.

———. 2012d. ‘Masami Obari Part 3b: Obari Style Animators and Legacy’. The Vanishing Trooper Incident (blog). 5 September 2012.

———. 2012e. ‘Masami Obari Part 3c: Obari Style Animators and Legacy’. The Vanishing Trooper Incident (blog). 6 September 2012.

O’Mara, Sean. 2015. ‘The Secret History of Gainax: 1981-1992’. ZIMMERIT – Anime | Manga | Garage Kits | Doujinshi (blog). 10 September 2015.

———. 2018a. ‘Makoto Kobayashi’s Dragon’s Heaven’. ZIMMERIT – Anime | Manga | Garage Kits | Doujinshi (blog). 28 February 2018.

———. 2018b. ‘Omega City 23 and the Origins of Megazone 23’. ZIMMERIT – Anime | Manga | Garage Kits | Doujinshi (blog). 21 November 2018.

TimEldred. 2013a. ‘Commentary (Farewell to Yamato) | CosmoDNA’. CosmoDNA (blog). 19 June 2013.

———. 2013b. ‘Yoshinori “Iko” Kanada, 1952-2009 | CosmoDNA’. CosmoDNA (blog). 28 June 2013.

———. 2013c. ‘The Making of Farewell to Yamato | CosmoDNA’. CosmoDNA (blog). 30 June 2013.

thaliarchus. 2020a. ‘Impact Frames’. 327 Robots (blog). 3 October 2020.

———. 2020b. ‘Overscan in Anime’. 327 Robots (blog). 15 November 2020.

———. 2020c. ‘The Nascent OVA’. 327 Robots (blog). 20 December 2020.

Blog articles (Japanese)

Oguro, Yuichiro. 2008. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第24回 劇場版『銀河鉄道999』’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 8 December 2008.

———. 2009a. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日第60回 スタジオZと金田伊功’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 5 February 2009.

———. 2009b. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第61回 『ずっこけナイト ドンデラマンチャ』’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 6 February 2009.

———. 2009c. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第67回 『うる星やつら』(TV版)’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 17 February 2009.

———. 2009d. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第74回 『ゴッドマーズ』ビジュアルの魅力’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 26 February 2009.

———. 2009e. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第92回 なかむらたかし’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 25 March 2009.

———. 2009f. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第128回 『幻魔大戦』’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 20 May 2009.

———. 2009g. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第129回 『幻魔大戦』続き’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 21 May 2009.

———. 2009h. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第131回 『幻魔大戦』もう少しだけ’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 25 May 2009.

———. 2009i. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第180回 『風の谷のナウシカ』続きの続き’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 3 August 2009.

———. 2009j. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第225回 『BIRTH』’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 8 October 2009.

———. 2009k. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第226回 『BIRTH』続き’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 9 October 2009.

———. 2009l. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第273回 『幻夢戦記レダ』’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 18 December 2009.

———. 2010a. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第404回 『ロボットカーニバル』の各作品(8) なかむらたかしの「ニワトリ男と赤い首」’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 8 July 2010.

———. 2010b. ‘WEBアニメスタイル | アニメ様365日 第426回 『BUBBLE GUM CRISIS』シリーズ’. WEB Animestyle (blog). 10 August 2010.

Interviews and transcripts (English)

Austin. 2020. ‘Holding out for a B-Club: Toshihiro Hirano Commentary’. Heisei Etranger (blog). 18 September 2020.

Dunham, Josh. 2020. ‘Translation – New Anime Century – Year 5 of OVA Animage 1988/11’. Full Frontal (blog). 29 March 2020.

Kameda, Yoshimichi, Yasuo Muroi, Shunichi Kurita, Yuki Onuma, and Hideki Nakagawa. 2013. Quick Summary: “Lets drink and talk about the appeal of Yoshinori Kanada!”

Miyazaki, Hayao. 2009. Miyazaki on Kanada.

Nakamura, Takashi. 2018. ‘Interview: Takashi Nakamura – All the Anime’.

Shinbo, Akiyuki. 2016. Interview: Akiyuki Shinbo (Animage February 2005/Vol 320).

Suzuki, Toshimichi. 2017. Interview with Bubblegum Crisis Creator Toshimichi Suzuki.

Wakabayashi, Atsushi. 2019. An Interview w/ Atsushi Wakabayashi (ANIMAGE December, 2008).

Watanabe, Shigeru. 2020. Birth of the OAV: Talking Dallos and the Emerging Rental Market with Shigeru Watanabe – Heisei Etranger.

Yamashita, Shingo. 2018. Exclusive Interview With Shingo Yamashita: The Evolution Of Anime’s Digital Animation Pioneer.

Yasuhiko, Yoshikazu. 2013. Yearning for Yamato: Yasuhiko Yoshikazu | CosmoDNA.

Yoshinari, Yo. 2016. Yoh Yoshinari Interview (Animestyle, 03/2013).

Yoshiyama, Yuu. 2020. Exclusive Interview with Yuu Yoshiyama: Impact frames as surprise boxes?!

Interviews and transcripts (Japanese)

Arai, Jun. 2017. アニメーター新井淳さんインタビュ.

Hashimoto, Shinji. 2004. animator interview 橋本晋治.

Itano, Ichiro. 2005. animator interview 板野一郎.

Kameda, Yoshimichi. 2014. 亀田祥倫 WEBアニメスタイル.

Kanada, Yoshinori. 2005. OPを担当したゲームが連続リリース!  金田伊功ミニ・インタビュー!!.

Nakamura, Takashi. 2000. animator interview なかむらたかし.

Nakamura, Yutaka. 2003. animator interview 中村豊.

Ohira, Shin’ya. 2001. animator interview 大平晋也.

Osaka, Hiroshi. 2007. 逢坂浩司さんインタビュー.

Yamashita, Masahito. 2004. animator interview 山下将仁.