Atsushi Wakabayashi (若林厚史)
Born 1964. His various hobbies include scuba diving and annual trips to Okinawa. Nicknamed ‘Kaba-san’ due to the length of his surname. Has one young apprentice, although who that is remains unspecified. Has stated that he enjoys jidaigeki.
A personal favorite of mine, Wakabayashi was doing work in the 90’s that you only see now from webgen animators. He seems to struggle when moving beyond the limits of an animator, but when he puts pencil to paper he creates masterpieces. He is one of the greats of studio Pierrot, and a defined voice in the world of animation.
Originally, it was never Atsushi Wakabayashi’s intention to become an animator. It wasn’t until one day (most likely 1985 but not after), whilst looking for employment, that Wakabayashi applied to the Tatsunoko Anime Art Institute. He attended for a year, where he met frequent collaborator and personal friend, Norio Matsumoto. After passing the testing, he became a freelance animator – his first credited appearance: an inbetweener on Toei’s Maple Story Monogatari in 1986.
In 1992 he met Akiyuki Shinbo who was recruiting for Yu Yu Hakusho, which began his career at Studio Pierrot. Looking back over 20 years later, Wakabayashi’s work with Shinbo truly remains his magnum opus, yet the two of them didn’t collaborate for his debut in episode 6. Fortunately the two were brought together for 10-odd episodes afterwords where he served as Shinbo’s lead animation director. It is here that he became known for his strong action and fight animation skills that characterize him today. The fights between the Masked Fighter and Shishiwakamaru (episode 48), as well as Yusuke vs Doctor Kamiya (episode 74) are paragon examples of this. This strong display of technique throughout the 90’s at studio Pierrot (and in particular his work on Yu Yu Hakusho) characterizes his career, and has yet to be surpassed today. SIDE NOTE: Wakabayashi worked on Yu Yu Hakusho and did partial character designs for Flame of Recca further fanning the flames of the common debate of ‘which is better?’
Perhaps what Wakabayashi is best known for are active displays of motion and weighted scenes of combat. Often he will forego realism for the sake of the movement, often simplifying character designs in order to make them easier to animate. His technique forces hands, feet, and faces to become more rounded, while limbs become more lanky. However, while in this style, expression become nearly cartoony, and tends to underline the drama of the motion. To rectify this, Wakabayashi turned to character animator and Pierrot stalwart, Inoue Atsuko. Over all Wakabayashi can be considered as an action animator with a variant of the Kanada style (thought when he first began, he had no idea who Yoshinori Kanada was, his Kanada-isims in YYH was from Shinbo’s storyboard).
A master of depicting of movement into depth, Wakabayashi’s characters are quick to dart back and forth from the background to the foreground in smooth kineticism. This technique is most often employed in scenes were he also story-boarded, choosing to cut on these motions to convey a continuous movement from shot to shot (see Naruto 30 as Anko rushes through the trees). In this regard, Wakabayashi’s storyboards are often designed with particular animators in mind, and are sometimes so demanding that not even he can keep up with them.
Another tell of his is the movement of the camera. Wakabayashi leverages his simplified character designs to depict the actor from multiple angles in a single cut, and will even animate the background for a greater sense of movement. The allows for a dynamic sense of motion over other anime in the same mass consumer commercial market. This shifting constancy of the camera is used by Wakabayshi as a sort of spacial organization; the multiple angles used to define the figure.
Playing with visual constancy, Wakabayashi likes rounding character designs for smoother movement and warping perspective. He is particularly fond of the ‘zero point perspective’ or foreshortening. This use of the foreshorted angle to creates the illusion of three-dimensional volume, adding real drama to the picture in the form of devotional or allegorical images. He resorts to these angles just before the time of greatest tension to strongly accentuate the essential drama of the action. He builds tension with a foreshortened still before exploding into baroque combat animation with fluid camera movement. Simplified yet lavish movement and complicated stills shots: that is the Wakabayashi style.
His directorial debut was on the famous Naruto episode 30, where he formed the ‘Holy Trinity of Pierrot’ with Norio Matsumoto (whom he remains on good terms with) and Inoue Atsuko.
Matsumoto would handle battle/action scenes, whereas Wakabayashi would handle more staccato exposition and combat with Atsuko doing emotive character acting. Together these three would handle stand-out episodes annually (mostly because he would take a ‘real job’ to save enough money up to be able to afford working on anime) starting with Naruto 30 in 2003, then following with episodes 71 and 133. His work on Naruto is often considered by fans as a crystallization of his vision as an auteur, if simply for his level of involvement, being animation director, episode director, story boarder, and key animator on all three episodes. He would leave the studio, but return again in 2010 on Naruto Shippuden 167, another noteworthy point in his career. There he introducing over a dozen webgen animators (Shingo Natsume and Gosei Oda among them) into commercial animation.
During his time away from Pierrot, Wakabayashi ventured out to various productions providing storyboards on select episodes until he was selected as the series director of Guin Saga at Satelight. The series was not well received, and he returned to Pierrot the following year to to work on the above mentioned Naruto Shippuden 167 (and later 317), BLEACH, and Kingdom. However, he kept his ties to Satelight intact, accepting the invitation to storyboard Symphogear G (4, 8 and 11) in 2013.
He worked with the now-defunct studio Manglobe on Samurai Flamenco (storyboarding episode 17), before returning to episode direction at studio MAPPA on Rage of Bahamut: Genesis (2 and 10) in 2014, reprising his role of animation director as well. Reception of his work on Rage of Bahamut was considerably better, but overlooked. In 2015 he was contracted by Sunrise for work on CROSS ANGE Rondo of Angel and Dragon, key animating cuts on episode 21. Wakabayashi’s most recent work is also his rebirth as a series director. Apparently he is on good terms with studio MAPPA as of late, returning to them in the latter half of 2015 to direct Garo: Crimson Moon. The series ended Spring 2016 without a word, and Wakabayashi’s name has yet to appear on the credits of another production.
Unfortunately, freelancing has hurt Wakabayashi’s identity; most have overlooked him because he is no longer a centerpiece in the conversation. It’s my hope that he returns to studio Pierrot or even joins Shinbo again on a project (a sakuga-nut can dream, can’t he?) in the near future. While I enjoy his work, it has not always found a home in the right spot, and often times feels almost akin to drinking whiskey from a sippy-cup. His work at Pierrot is served in a fine glass, slightly chilled, and much like whiskey, perfectly aged.