The following article was originally printed in issue 003 of Animestyle. Scans and images courtesy of The Canipa Effect. The interview has been translated by Twitter user @NohAcro © 2016 Wave Motion Cannon
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Dense and technical, a superanimator who impresses fans
Even anime fans who are not into sakuga may recognize him if they’re told “the man who made that scene from Evangelion”. He attracts sakuga fandom with dense works like in Eva or FLCL, and has many hardcore fans even inside the industry. As his friend and colleague Hiroyuki Imaishi puts it: “Yoshinari-san’s key animation is the coolness of many different kinds of animators all bundled in a single vessel.”
The greatness of “Yoshinari sakuga” as explained by Hiroyuki Imaishi
“The first time I recognized ‘Yoshinari Sakuga’ was when I directly saw his key frames, as an in-betweener on (Neon Genesis) Evangelion. Even though I had put my sakuga mania aside at the time, I was shocked of not knowing someone as good as this. To my mind, his key animation is a “bundle”. It has the essence of all Yoshinori Kanada, Masami Obari, Satoru Utsunomiya, Yasuomi Umetsu, or Hiroyuki Okiura (and many others, including people from overseas). Moreover, the way he takes good parts from each is very balanced. He doesn’t specialize only in tricky or realistic stuff, instead he tries to put the coolness of many kinds of sakuga into one vessel. That’s why I found his key animation very otaku-ish at the time (laugh). Since we’re the same age I could see things like “Oh, this is that person’s style” and I was immediately fascinated by the fact that he could replicate it on such a high level.
My first impression of him on Eva was that he was very sharp, often using a ruler for mecha animation. This is particularly noticeable in episode 2, for which he was trying to draw almost all face and shoulder parts with a ruler. Nobody in GAINAX was doing that anymore so he looked like he was “resisting”, and his works had a more sharp and rigid feel to them. But that changed after he participated in Jin-Roh. He started to introduce softer forms, thus changing his touch quite radically. Well, I guess there’s also the influence of time. Yet I think he hasn’t change fundamentally. He has a thick feeling like he is trying to condense all of the best animation he’s seen in the past into one work, that thickness may be his originality. Talking about it, his older brother (Kou Yoshinari)’s work is also very dense, isn’t it? Kou-san’s is more oriented towards elevating his representation in a meticulous and realistic way, so I think they’re a little different on that point. Maybe most of it is because (Kazuya) Tsurumaki-san initiated him the tough way. I remember peeking at him correcting Yoshinari-san’s layouts at length telling him “No, not like this”. Tsurumaki-san likes typical anime-ish rhythm and energy, but Yoshinari-san preferred to draw realistic, plaster figure-like shapes and accurate movement at the time. So Tsurumaki-san was trying to bring him to a more spectacular style. That happened several times, and his current style must have been shaped through that process.
He’s had lesser and lesser time to draw key frames since we teamed up on (Tengen Toppa) Gurren Lagann, and I feel very sorry about that. To be honest, I’d like him to draw more keys. I wouldn’t say “instead of spending time on Tezuka anime as Otonari Kobo” but (laugh)… If he’s able to make such things unnoticed, that means he actually draws exceptionally fast. But his key animation works require so much efforts and time, he cannot be that efficient. After all it’s a miracle to have such works delivered in such short deadlines. What always surprises me when I observe him working is that sometimes he draws incredible amounts of frames, and then just throws them. That happens mostly on very detailed explosion cuts: even when the cut is only about 2.5 seconds, he happens to draw more than what he needs. So in the end he takes unnecessary drafts out and throws them out, only then it’s finished. He draws so many of them at first they don’t fit into the timesheet, even if we put 24 frames per second. It’s almost scary. Moreover, the less he has time the more his drawings get dense. And I think that thickness increases each year.
In that sense, he was also the trigger to decide my current career. I thought I couldn’t compete with him on that ground, since I was shown the perfect form of an action animator. He’s even started to get invested in directing and screenwriting to reach further perfection. I asked him to direct episode 23 of Panty&Stocking because I wanted to have a longer “Yoshinari time” onscreen. Of course if he manages to make 15 cuts in one episode it would be dense enough, but if he makes all rough keys as the episode director, the Yoshinari time can be even longer. And since that time is even longer on Little Witch Academia, I’m looking forward to the result. The project has the pre-requirement of raising younger animators, yet there are giant dragons and spectacular effects. I think it’s normal for him to be able to draw all these, or should we say it’s more like “First handle all of this, then we can talk” (laughs)
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
A mecha anime directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, with hot-blooded characters who raised the show’s popularity. Yoshinari assumed the role of mecha designer, for which he created great amounts of robots with modern designs while capturing the essence of classical and orthodox mecha shows. Animation wise, the cuts he handled were all superb, yet one could regret the fact that there were few, Yoshinari being busy with design work. These illustrations served as box art for the first edition of the 8th volume of the show’s DVD, as well as for the limited edition of the movie Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Lagann-hen’s DVD.
Metamorphosis in Neon Genesis Evangelion
In the last episode of the TV series, Shinji’s inner world is represented with these metamorphoses. This cut doesn’t have in-betweens, and he was in charge of all genga and douga. Movements and forms are outstanding, and it contains imagery evoking “evolution” or “Angels” proper to Eva, which is also worth attention. It was made as a paper anime, and pictures shown here are not from the finished film but from the key frames stored at the studio.
Little Witch Academia
A 25-minutes short made for Anime Mirai 2013, and first work directed by Yoshinari. He also assumed the roles of character designer and animation director, as well as drawing background roughs. The main character and aspiring witch Akko joins the prestigious Luna Nova Academy, looking up to Shiny Chariot. Yet her abilities don’t meet her ambitions, resulting in fruitless efforts. With her friends Lotte and Sucy, she attends an exercise consisting in bringing treasure back from a dungeon but gets involved in an unexpected incident. A cheerful adventure fantasy with cute characters, including the exceptional amount of 17,000 animation frames. It moves well, and the way action is built in the climax is very enjoyable. It was produced by Yoshinari’s home studio, TRIGGER.
Profile: Yoh Yoshinari
Animator, designer, director. Born 6th May 1971 in Tokyo. Graduate from Tokyo Designer Gakuen College. First noticed for his work on Neon Genesis Evangelion, he then played an active part as one of GAINAX’s leading animators on works like FLCL, Mahoromatic and Top wo Nerae! 2.
He often handles action scenes, and gathers many fans around his dense and powerful animation. He also handled posts other than animator in recent years, such as mecha design on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and concept art/storyboards on Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. He is the director/character designer/animation director on Little Witch Academia, one of Anime Mirai 2013’s shorts. Currently working at TRIGGER.
Long interview with Yoh Yoshinari
I joined the anime industry to follow my older brother
Oguro: We have the continuous impression that regarding animation, you are trying to reach summits in something. We’d like to hear from you about that, from your older works to Little Witch Academia which is your first directorial work. Why did you become an animator to begin with?
Yoshinari: I wasn’t particularly willing to, it’s more like a set of circumstances. At first I was dragged into the industry by my older brother (Kou Yoshinari).
Oguro: Were you drawing way before becoming an animator?
Yoshinari: I was, but it wasn’t really serious. More like doodles.
Oguro: Of what kind?
Yoshinari: Normal, I guess, the kinds which were popular then, stuff like that.
Oguro: Was it anime-like drawings, or more photo-realistic ones?
Yoshinari: I think it depended, I wasn’t attached to a particular style. I think I was doing it just because I enjoyed the process of drawing.
Oguro: Your older brother began to work with the goal of becoming an animator, right?
Yoshinari: I think he did.
Oguro: So he told you to help him, and that led you to work in the industry?
Yoshinari: I guess that’s how it happened. He just trained me as his assistant, so as for knowledge, it’s more him who inculcated me with it than me learning by myself.
Oguro: Like how to draw key frames, or how to do in-betweens?
Yoshinari: Well, even he was an amateur at the beginning, there wasn’t a big difference between us. So I think we learned in parallel for the most part. The gap between us was not so significant at that point.
Oguro: Have you both attended professional school?
Yoshinari: Yes. But we were mostly going there to play around. They don’t teach so important things at school to begin with, you know.
Oguro: You mean it’s not practical?
Yoshinari: They taught us how to draw douga, so it was practical so to speak, but it’s a place where they only trained key animators and in-betweeners to fill up vacancies, not a place where they taught us how to draw. With all respect, even lecturers weren’t good animators, so in the end we had to learn by ourselves.
Oguro: Did you graduate?
Yoshinari: I did, just in case. But I considered it more as a moratorium, since I didn’t feel like working just after graduating high school. I could even go as far as to say that I attended in order to look for a job. After all I could gather more information by doing so than jumping directly into a company, right? By going to professional school, I thought I could see job offers from several places. For the rest I attended to play around more than to study.
Oguro: Which one was first, you participating in working as a pro or entering professional school?
Yoshinari: I first worked as a pro.
Oguro: We’ve heard your first work was on the 1991 OVA Bousou Sangokushi: Specter Tanjou.
Yoshinari: Indeed. I did in-betweens on it, and maybe my first keys as well. I think it’s when I was in high school.
Oguro: If I remember well, your older brother is credited as a key animator on it.
Yoshinari: Right. I’m not credited on most works I did helping my older brother. That only started after I got hired by a studio.
Oguro: Are there works you participated in between Specter and when you joined GAINAX then?
Yoshinari: I think there are quite a lot. I did several works during the 2 years I was in professional school. Even if it’s not much in quantity.
Oguro: Could you please tell us which cuts you made key animation for on Specter?
Yoshinari: That’s a difficult question (wry smile). I remember drawing cuts with people punching each other, as well as cars…
Oguro: You drew things here and there.
Yoshinari: Right, I didn’t do an entire scene by myself.
Oguro: I heard you drew the part with someone throwing a Molotov.
Yoshinari: I don’t really know… I may have done second key animation, but in that case my brother made the roughs, so his drawings must be prevailing.
Oguro: You first joined Madhouse after graduating from professional school.
Yoshinari: Indeed. But there wasn’t any particular reason for that. It wasn’t because I wanted to work on one show and not the other… but more because it didn’t seem too difficult (laugh).
Oguro: -then you moved to GAINAX, just after joining Madhouse.
Yoshinari: I didn’t actually move, I had sent my application to both Mad and GAINAX, and GAINAX didn’t respond. So I thought they had rejected it and I went to Mad. If I were accepted by GAINAX, I would have joined them directly. But apparently there was a misunderstanding, and no one in GAINAX had seen my application (laugh).
Oguro: So you learned that you were hired by GAINAX afterwards?
Yoshinari: Yes, I was suddenly called by GAINAX, 3 months after I joined Madhouse. But when I had to resign, I didn’t feel like telling them I was leaving for GAINAX, so I said something like “being an animator is too hard for me, so I quit” (laugh).
Oguro: Were you looking up to GAINAX?
Yoshinari: I was, so to speak, but the main reason was because my brother told me I was a fit for GAINAX.
Yoshinari: Personally I didn’t think I was at all, that the level was too high for me. Even when I sent my application, I wasn’t expecting of being hired.
Oguro: Was it after Top wo Nerae! and Nadia?
Yoshinari: I think it was just after Nadia ended. Maybe the bar was brought down a little bit because of Nadia’s messy ending, I don’t know (laugh). But I think no one would want to join GAINAX just after seeing Royal Space Force (Wings of Honnêamise).
Oguro: You mean the bar was too high?
Yoshinari: Right. Well, I like it of course, but…
Oguro: When you joined GAINAX the studio didn’t have many projects of its own yet, so it had to find work outside, didn’t it?
Yoshinari: It was like that until just before, but then they hired many new in-betweeners in order to make Uru in Blue.
Oguro: There are rumors saying you participated very actively in the making of Uru, what did you do?
Yoshinari: At the beginning I was doing stuff like image boards. The method, like on Honnêamise was to bring various people to draw boards, and I participated in a quite similar way.
Oguro: Just after you arrived at the studio?
Yoshinari: Right. That’s the reason why I did in-betweens in GAINAX only for a very short period of time, like 3 months. Then the preparations for Uru started and I was creating settings or boards-kind of things. They told us to draw as much as we could, not thinking too hard about it, assuming that it would not be used anyways. There weren’t any directives about particular characters or camera angles, so I was just drawing what I wanted.
Oguro: Do you remember what you drew then?
Yoshinari: I remember of drawing townscapes repeatedly. Layout tasks were also advancing a little bit at the beginning, so I did that as well. There were many projects not leading to anything like this one in GAINAX.
Oguro: What did you think about GAINAX after joining them?
Yoshinari: It may sound harsh, but I was expecting almost all people my age to be talented, but most of them didn’t have any proper knowledge about animators, which was very disappointing. It felt like the anime industry wasn’t attracting people anymore.
Oguro: Maybe the game industry was starting to be more attractive to artists at the time.
Yoshinari: That’s also true, but I think the main reason is that anime was boring, or rather that the majority of people suddenly lost their expectations towards anime. As (Hiroyuki) Imaishi-san puts it as well, that caused an ice age of talents. Despite there being so many great talents in the generation just before ours, it feels like there aren’t many of them among people my age.
Oguro: It was a time when elaborate animation wasn’t required so much.
Yoshinari: That’s certainly a factor. The general atmosphere was that everything had already been done, and it wasn’t worth keeping on doing it. The trend wasn’t to do whatever we wanted to do with animation anymore, and most people shifted their mind to just doing their job seriously. It felt like the period for things like Project A-ko was over.
Oguro: How were you feeling personally about all of that?
Yoshinari: As you know, even in these times new animation styles were created. People like (Satoru) Utsunomiya-san, (Masaaki) Yuasa-san, (Shinya) Ohira-san came out, and even after we thought it was over, newer styles kept coming out. Those are things we just don’t think about, but which keep being created. Maybe I joined the industry under the influence of The Hakkenden, willing to do that kind of work.
Oguro: Were you in professional school when Hakkenden or Gosenzosama (Banbanzai) came out?
Yoshinari: I think so. Maybe Gosenzo was when I was in last year at high school. Back then I thought something like, “Fresh stuff’s coming out, is this where anime is heading now?” and on the other hand there were shows like Nadia which included clear elements from anime in a solid, not anime-ish production line. It was a time when anime started to be more polished. In my case I didn’t have any great ambition, I just ended up in the industry by wandering around.
Oguro: But Imaishi-san described your work as a “bundle”, condensing every kind of coolness in one style.
Yoshinari: Imaishi-san’s also kind of a sakuga maniac, isn’t he?
Oguro: Very much so, yes.
Yoshinari: But he’s very one-sided. He only knows stuff like (Yoshinori) Kanada style, or (Yoshikazu) Yasuhiko style. I think he doesn’t know Utsunomiya-san’s evolution in the 90’s either, which is quite a shame for a sakuga otaku (laugh).
Yoshinari: I think he should watch more of it. It’s always important to remain broad-minded, not only for animation. Or else there’s the risk of having biased tastes, like obsessing on movements but not on drawings, things like that.
Oguro: Indeed, drawings of people who excel in movement tend to have sloppy lines, forms or details. On the contrary, people focusing on details can lack dynamism and realism when it comes to movement.
Yoshinari: That’s right. In the end I need to watch all kinds of things evenly to evaluate them, it’s not interesting otherwise. I like anything while it’s well-made… even if that could sound inconstant from a certain viewpoint. When it comes to drawings, I want to enjoy everything I can. That’s why I want to watch anything, not only from Japan but also puppet animation from abroad, or sand animation. It’s gratifying to find a sense of beauty I hadn’t noticed by myself in those, and I watch them thinking it could broaden the range of my own representations.
Oguro: Was that also the case before you joined the industry?
Yoshinari: It was. There was that small theater in Kichijouji called the JAV50 -now it’s the Baus Theater- and they used to have an annual program where they would screen Russian or East-European animation, to which I was going every year thinking it could be stimulating. There I saw a short film called The Mitten by Roman Katchanov.
Oguro: It’s Russian stop-motion animation.
Yoshinari: I was really shocked when I watched that. Character felt like they were alive. It was something completely distinct from what I was making. I couldn’t bear the idea of being classified under the same term of ‘animation’.
Oguro: Without exaggeration?
Yoshinari: Yes. So I persuaded myself to consider anime only as anime and to draw a clear line. I think I was at GAINAX then, and I also had to work on stuff which made me think, “Why in the world do I have to do this?” while drawing key frames, so I needed that distinction.
Yoshinari: Or I’d rather say that I told myself to enjoy my own job, that I shouldn’t be fussy about the shows I get to work on. I shifted my general attitude about it, thinking there was an appropriate way for each show. After that I was willing to do any kind of work I could get, even Mahoromatic, for example.
Oguro: You mostly handled action scenes in Mahoromatic as well, but you’re saying you were also enthusiastic about doing other parts?
Yoshinari: I had the intention of doing whatever I was asked to, but in the end I only got that kind of scenes, and no acting. They were simply bringing me difficult scenes, so I was doing action or effects for the most part. Of course it was OK for me to do difficult parts since I was an employee, and it was on my work time so they had to take advantage of it.
Oguro: We consider you as an action authority, and I think a great part of the works you’ve done are action scenes, yet personally, you’re not intending to master action animation?
Yoshinari: I don’t really care. I’m just doing it for the fun of making drawings move, so to use harsh terms, I don’t have affection for characters. As long as I can make it move, I don’t care what kind of drawing it is, and I guess most qualified animators think the same way. Like, (Toshiyuki) Inoue-san’s also working with that mindset, I think.
Yoshinari: Well, I also think that even if drawings look great, it’s not good if they’re not relevant to the work itself. After all we need to think about the work and to reflect on the audience’s enjoyment. I try not be selfish in my enjoyment.
Oguro: You mean you mustn’t just seek for your own satisfaction as an artist?
Yoshinari: It’s not really satisfaction, but the process of animating itself is so pleasant I tend to look like I only care about technique. That’s something I shouldn’t do.
Oguro: So you don’t care about the style of the drawings either?
Yoshinari: Of course I do, but I just don’t have any inclination or particular preference, since there are approaches or aesthetics to fit each one. I prefer to think about how I would animate it.
Oguro: Currently on Little Witch Academia, you’re drawing cute characters with few amounts of lines. Does that means it was also in your artistic range?
Yoshinari: I guess so. Even if I’d rather say I just came up it this without thinking that much. First I thought about giving more direction to the designs, but there was a pressure around me, saying it wouldn’t be well-received (wry smile). So after some course correction, they ended up being kind of orthodox.
Oguro: Oh, so you were aiming for more original designs?
Yoshinari: Well, I thought I would make them a little bit different from what we’re used to see.
Oguro: But people around told you not to make it too different?
Yoshinari: First they told me “It’s not cute” (laugh). “Can’t you do something about it?”. And since I don’t have preferences of my own, I’m easily influenced by others. If I’m told something’s wrong, I immediately change course.