The life and times of Japan’s Greatest Animator
Yoshinori Kanada’s greatest breakthrough was the realization that animation is a series of drawings. For this, he is considered a genius.
On its surface that statement may read as sarcasm, but the epiphanies of a genius often seem patently obvious after the fact. In this case, everyone who sees hand-drawn animation knows intuitively what they’re looking at. But before Kanada came along, few realized the hidden potential of that fact. His gift to the anime industry was to unlock that potential. Space Battleship Yamato was just one of many beneficiaries.
Born in Japan’s Nara Prefecture, Kanada was exactly the right age to see TV anime bloom with Mighty Atom [Astro Boy] in 1963 and aspired to become an animator himself. He passed a correspondence course at the Tokyo Design School and became a contract employee at Toei Animation. He made his professional debut as an in-betweener on the TV series Maho no Mako-Chan [Mako the Mermaid] in 1970 and began to climb the ladder from there.
Like his birth, Kanada’s arrival at Toei was well-timed. Mazinger Z officially kicked off the “super robot” boom in 1971, and Kanada soon found himself in the center of a whirlwind. He landed a spot as a key animator for Getta Robo in 1974 under director Takuo Noda, exactly the playground he needed to thrive. When he asserted that the medium of animation is first and foremost a series of drawings, art ceased to be a “downstream” function of the story and script. After that, it was understood that the purpose of animation and the job of an animator is to express movement. Once animators were recognized as the equivalent of actors, the genie was out of the bottle forever.
Kanada’s unique drawing style featured boldly exaggerated perspective and posing, which earned the popular nickname of “Kanada Pers” (short for “Perspective”). Rather than falling back on the stock-standard camera angles of previous anime he expanded the stage by using wide-angle lens and fish-eye distortion in his layouts, which gave them a new sense of depth. This was ideal for mecha anime, and Kanada greatly emphasized the power of giant robots with acrobatic flying and fighting styles.
He further enlivened his scenes with painted lens flares and special lighting effects. He paid particular attention to explosions, shadows, and highlights, all of which injected new life and excitement into the medium. These techniques were developed by Kanada in response to the typical time and budget constraints of TV animation. He had a knack for packing a lot of movement into a small number of frames and constantly found ways to deliver the biggest bang for the buck. On the other hand, the quirkiness of his style was a genuine reflection of his personality, which made him the bane of animation directors who wanted him to stick to the model sheets which he regularly twisted and distorted to his own whims.
During these years he also threw some help to another studio that was struggling to keep a certain space battleship on the air every week. His precise contribution is not well-documented (perhaps because he was still under contract to Toei), but it would not be the last time Kanada and Yamato crossed paths.
He left Toei in 1976 to start up his own studio then began to specialize in animating opening titles. Anyone who thought Kanada was off the leash before was completely unprepared for what he could do with a real budget. Beginning with Gaiking (1976) he continually outdid himself year after year, delivering ever more engaging montages. His work in this period included Voltes V (1977), Zanbot 3 (1977), Daitarn 3 (1978) and Cyborg 009 (1979). Links to each of those opening title sequences on YouTube is provided at the end of this page.
As a free agent, Kanada could work for anyone he wanted, which brought him into contact with Space Battleship Yamato for the second time. He worked as an animator on Farewell to Yamato, Yamato 2 (episode 9 in particular), The New Voyage, and even the inaugural episode of Blue Noah. His contributions to these were comparatively small and did not demonstrate his talents as openly as his opening titles, but the end of the 1970s were to sound the beginning of his career as a superstar. By this time fans were actively looking for his name in TV credits and anime magazines, and when Kanada broke into feature films in 1979 everyone was in for a whole new round of surprises.
Although he’d contributed to Farewell to Yamato, his movie career truly began in 1979 with Galaxy Express 999. He was assigned the climactic end sequence, the destruction of Planet Maetel. Seen in a theatre, the scene overflowed with such power and scale that viewers forgot they were watching hand-drawn pictures. Stills from the film are shown above, the third one of which demonstrates Kanada’s penchant for in-jokes; that’s the rear end of Andromeda doubling as a laser cannon.
Be Forever Yamato came the following year. The purpose of that production was to push the artistic boundaries at every level, exploring new ground and new styles. This was evident from the start of the film, but never more than when Yamato launched its attack on the Dark Nebula supply base at the edge of the solar system. Kanada was entirely responsible for this sequence, and even today it stands out as one of the most visually exciting moments of the saga. In his hands, a Cosmo Tiger became the nimblest fightercraft in the galaxy, barely containing the explosive energy of its weapons.
This had a tremendous effect on the next series, Yamato III, setting a new standard for the space battles, some of which Kanada animated himself. The stills shown above are his personal favorites, from episode 16. He also knocked another opening title out of the park with Galaxy Cyclone Braiger in 1981. But from that point onward, he was much better known for his cinematic work than anything seen on television.
After working on Toward the Terra (late 1980), Kanada’s association with Leiji Matsumoto productions continued with Adieu Galaxy Express 999 (1981), My Youth in Arcadia (1982), and Queen Millennia (1982). Adieu Galaxy Express was his true standout from this period; among other amazing sights, the spectacle of a ghost generated from liquid and smoke stunned not only the audience but also other animators.
Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki turned Kanada loose on Yamato one more time in 1982, this time assigning him the task of letting his imagination run wild. He generated over 100 layout drawings of the ship and its fighters, exploring unusual camera angles that emphasized Yamato‘s true majesty in ways never before seen. The larger-than-life scale of these drawings provided an invaluable style guide for Final Yamato, which credited Kanada as an animation director. The image shown above is the cover art for a special portfolio published by the Yamato fan club in 1986.
A strong three-way relationship formed out of this between Kanada, Yamato, and publisher Tokuma Shoten. Kanada had reached such a level of stardom by this time that his picture appeared on the packaging of a Final Yamato soundtrack album (top row left) to promote a giveaway poster. The poster itself was also used on the April 1983 cover of Tokumo Shoten’s Animage magazine. Two more promotional posters for Animage are shown on the bottom row above.
Tokuma was one of three publishers who handled novelizations for Final Yamato, and here too Kanada was front and center. Some of his color art for this project is shown farther down this page. There were also several one-of-a-kind cartoons, all of which can be seen in a gallery here.
Other work immediately followed, including theatrical animation for Harmagedon and the acclaimed opening title for Genesis Climber Mospeada, both in 1983. Kanada reached a personal milestone in 1984 when an SF manga he wrote and drew for Tokuma Shoten’s Motion Comics was adapted into an OVA (direct-to-video) movie titled Birth. He supervised and directed it himself, and it became the purest expression of his personal style. It was imported to the English-speaking world three times; first under the title The World of the Talisman by Harmony Gold in 1987, then as Planet Busters from Streamline Films in 1992 (the content is the same for both) and finally under its original title from ADV films in 2004. See clips from the film on YouTube at the end of this page.
Two published collections of Kanada’s work, both from 1982:
Yoshinori Kanada Special (Tokuma Shoten) and a doujinshi digest of his Final Yamato sketches.
The doujinshi publisher followed up with this set of five art collections in 1984, which spanned Kanada’s entire career.
Hot on the heels of this, the next phase of Kanada’s career began when producer Isao Takahata brought him into Studio Ghibli to work on Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. As a fan of Miyazaki’s work on Toei’s Puss in Boots (1969), Kanada was honored to accept and he excelled on Nausicaa‘s large-scale air battles and plane crashes. Miyazaki developed great respect for his skill, particularly his command of facial expressions, and brought him back for Castle of the Sky Laputa (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Porco Rosso (1992), and Princess Mononoke (1997). Miyazaki commemorated Kanada’s work on Laputa by devising a special end credit for him that read “Original image supervisor.”
Between Miyazaki films, Kanada busied himself with such fare as Odin (1986), Akira (1988), Final Fantasy (1994), Fushigi Yugi (opening title, 1995), Blue Submarine No. 6 (1998) and many more. Beginning with Akira, Kanada became proficient with computer-generated animation and in 1998 he joined one of Japan’s leading CG studios, Square Enix. His first project for them was a change of scenery in more ways than one; he left Japan for Hawaii as a layout artist for the all-CG feature film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Released in 2001, it became Kanada’s first international co-production. And also, regrettably, his last.
He spent the next several years producing animation for video games from Square Enix, pausing only to work on the groundbreaking feature film Metropolis, which was a gathering point for such dream-team talent as Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Rin Tarou (Galaxy Express).
In the game world, Kanada supervised animation for such titles as Blade Master and Final Fantasy XI. His finest work in this medium is thought to be the opening title sequence for Hanjuku Hero 3D, the theme of which was performed by Yamato alumnus Isao Sasaki. (See it below.) He was greatly admired by the junior artists at Square Enix who developed their craft under his wing. His final work was the storyboarding of Final Fantasy IV (for Nintendo DS), which further demonstrated the future potential of 3D animation.
Kanada died on July 21, 2009 of a myocardial infarction. He was 57. His life and work were celebrated on August 30 in a gathering of about 300 fans and 800 industry professionals. The speakers included such luminaries as Takuo Noda, Hideaki Anno, Rin Tarou, Satoshi Hirayama, and Kazuhide Tomonaga.
Many talented artists who watched Kanada’s work in the 70s became animators in the 80s so that they could match his achievements. This became the nucleus of the present anime industry. His influence propagated almost genetically through subsequent generations. With that in mind, no single word can sufficiently describe his stature.
Fittingly, the “Kanada gene” changes its form as anime progresses and continues to find acceptance in new viewers. For instance, director Hiroyuki Imaishi’s series Gurren Lagann is a powerful homage and practically a love letter to Kanada. Imaishi himself drew the artwork shown above for the October 2009 issue of New Type magazine, a skillful tribute to his idol’s manic style. (Note the Cosmo Tigers at upper left.)
It will never again be possible for any individual to have as strong an influence on anime as Kanada did. He followed his passion to continuous breakthroughs, constantly evolving in ways that defied common sense and always inspired surprise and delight. Even at the end of his life, Kanada raced ever forward to define the state of the art in action drawing. His work will always shine like bright star, drawing everyone toward it. This is especially important in the digital age, when the medium can so easily be overtaken by cold, inorganic means of expression.
In this time, it’s worthwhile to re-examine the origins of anime. The root word of “animation” is “anima,” meaning the breath of life. That breath will live forever in Kanada’s work.
Portions of this article were translated from Kanada’s Wikipedia page, and retrospectives in Animage and New Type magazines.
As this article was being written, Japanese publisher Tokuma Shoten added another tribute to the growing list. Animage Original is a spinoff of Animage magazine. It can be described as an upscale publication with lengthier coverage of more selective topics. Volume 5, published in October 2009, ran a cover story on Kanada. The lead feature described the August 30 tribute event in detail, and a booklet of original drawings was included.
See Yoshinori Kanada’s work on YouTube:
Retrospective TV special
hosted by Ryusuke Hikawa (in 2 parts)
Index link for Youtube
Getta Robo G Opening Title (1974)
Gaiking Opening Title (1976)
Voltes V Opening Title (1977)
Zanbot 3 Opening Title (1977)
Daitarn 3 Opening Title (1978)
Cyborg 009 Opening Title (1979)
Galaxy Express 999 Movie Climax (1979)
Battle sequence from Be Forever Yamato (1980)
Adieu Galaxy Express 999 Trailer (1981)
Mospeada Opening Title (1983)
Birth (complete OAV, 1984)
Birth (clip, Harmony Gold dub)
Kanada’s credits at Anime News Network
NSFW! Google index of Kanada images NSFW!