In order to realize a memorable cut, a scene on the verge of technical perfection, talents from a great number of people are needed, storyboarder, inbetweeners, key animators, colorists, key color pickers, photography responsible and background artists. Not to talk about seiyuu and all the post-production staff!
This because, as it’s maybe obvious to think, is necessary to specialize in a very precise technical role in order to undertake a career in the Japanese animation’s world. Since every worker usually has only one role, a lot of people are needed and noticing the personal touch of every single artist is rather difficult. A long training is necessary in order to be hired by a studio and once inside the hardest effort will barely pay a shabby apartment in Ogikubo. As if this was not enough, finding free time and deciding to spend it to learn skills apparently useless in respect to one’s role instead of resting or trying to watch the newest cartoons is something very, very rare between those who work on anime in Japan. However, there is a man, as you could understand from the introduction, that despite multiple adversities have been able to seize so many techniques to possess a true and total control over his cuts. His name is Kou Yoshinari and in this article I intend to retrace his career and analyze his style. Beware though: I will not dwell on every single anime at which our hero has worked on but only on those who have a particular significance in terms of visual quality and stylistic innovation.
And now, please follow me on a journey between love and sacrifices!
Yoshinari Kou(吉成 鋼) was born in Tokyo in 1969. Since childhood he loved to watch American cartoons and to draw together with the most famous brother Yoh (b.1971), so much that he decided to deepen the oil painting technique during school, choice that will influence his style as an illustrator, will provide him basic knowledge of colors, essential for his future as “super animator” and that will separate him definitively from his brother, at least on the stylistic style. As soon as he gets out of high school he dedicates himself to the activity of in-between animation helped by his brother for around 3 years before becoming key animator: a span of time unusual for an animator of his caliber, definitively average. In 1990 he starts working as the key animator for OVAs of the caliber of Hakkenden, Tenkuu Senki Shurato: Sousei e no Anto and Boso Sengokushi. However is important to note that he was chosen in those roles not because of his tremendous ability in inbetweening rather for the grand request of animators for OVA series in those years, little lower in number than in the television series if we want to say it all.
The next year, however, he was realizing really notable cuts for the 3×3 eyes series, where he draws a clash in full freedom, without any influence from other animators, inspiring himself to fight scenes from the Hong Kong’s cinema. As long as the academic knowledge on timing was still missing the animation results rather realistic and with a strong solidity in terms of drawing. Something that one would not really expect from a twenty years old and that starts to get him appreciated from the most open-minded animation directors of the time, as we will see later with his participation in really important scenes, at the side of animators far more experienced than him.
In his animation is not yet possible to see stylistic influences despite his great masters, but within a few years the situation is destined to radically change: working on The Irresponsible Captain Tylor he comes close to the realistic animation of Norio Matsumoto, Tomohiro Hirata and Toshiharu Murata while in other productions with the formidable Masami Obari as animation director he learns the fundamentals of the style of this ingenious animator: exemplified bodies but with realistic silhouettes and usage of poses typical of Yoshinori Kanada only in the moments before the climax of the cut.Right under Obari, thanks to the movie Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture he gets to know Takeshi Honda that introduces him to the notorious “full limited animation” of Mitsuo Iso, technique that consists in removing the distinction between keyframes and in-between frames leaving the animator with a complete freedom of movement construction but at the cost of greatly increasing him the workload. Since now until the end of the century he will try to refine this technique adapting it to his stylistics needs, one of them being the maintaining the effective 12 fps. This obsessive research will culminate with the opening of Ghost in the Shell for PS1 (1997, Iso himself will cooperate) and of Seihou Tenshi Angel Links (1998), that will also represent his first raid into the photography world as a professional.
Is also essential to quote his work as a storyboarder in the opening of Super Mobile Legend Dinagiga (1998), where he will cooperate with Matsumoto and a lot of others animator, including the little Yoh, by now a known expert in the environments that count. This op hit the animation world out of the blue, so much in fact that those who entered in posses the OVA series became disappointed by the cartoon itself because of this opening that presented in an overly intriguing way the characters, the worldbuilding, the care of camera work and the quality of animation in respect of the first two laserdiscs episodes. The series, also because in those years the OVA format was dying, never became a TV series or got a sequel due to poor public success but was another proof of ability that brought the fame of Yoshinari far over animation studios. In fact, an opening based of the Dinagiga storyboard for the Magical Girl Pretty Sammy video game was immediately made.
In fact, in 2000, he got the task to completely take care of the opening of Kafu ~Kono Shirabe ga Kimi ni Todokimasu You ni~, an eroge visual novel that intended to amaze the video games users with one of the first high quality opening animations of the history of the genre. This is the first, true, example of true and total control over a finished product by Kou: our “over-animator” is the director, storyboarder, key-animator, inbetweener, background artist, digital painter, photography responsible and even CG animator! Right from here it borns the hearsay that many of the cuts that he animated are in reality made with 3D software, but to tell the truth, and disappointing the plotters, this is, in fact, one of the few experiment with this technique. In this opening, caused by a schedule far too strict, “what a news…” you might say, he decided to opt for a simpler animation style that, despite the presence of only one animator, do not make justice to the “full limited”. This choice will almost never be repeated until a project that will hold him massively busy, of which we will be able to extensively talk about later. In 2001 He comes back in great full limited in Mahoromatic and in the opening of Sakura Taisen 3. This last work is particularly interesting because despite being a few seconds of animation by Yoshinari dedicates himself to camerawork, background art, digital painting, photography and animation exceeding the effective 12fps in two moments in the scene for the first time ever, realizing in this way animations “in seconds”, as you say technically speaking. In the same year, together with Yoh, he realizes the designs and official arts of the Valkyrie Profile video game, his baptism of blood in the illustration world. His works as an illustrator are particularly important for many reasons and between those it appears the fact that right through this type of works he had the opportunity to reckon with expenses being able to keep with his experimentations, that not always had positive results, economically speaking, in the animation field.
In 2003 he realizes 3 cuts for the Fullmetal Alchemist fourth op, covering the same roles as Sakura Taisen. We can find for the first time in history some effect animation, in this case for the sketches of water, completely realized thanks to digital painting. For the first time, you do not start from a later computer-colored drawing or of a photographic effect applied in post-production, but you paint, frame by frame, using the graphic tablet, the cut with the coloring and the background already made. Always in 2003, he dedicates himself to the character designs of Bushilord, a Gainax series that will never make it past the first phases of the production process. After Dinagiga another total defeat! As if this were not enough, this time there is no one to congratulate you for the work and give you a job in order to make your career as a character designer progress. Nevertheless, Kou keeps working hard after this disappointment pointing a getting that same role in another tv series. In 2004 he realizes some wonderful cuts in the first episode of Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, as usual, getting the above-mentioned roles. In 2005 he works on a Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa scene as a studio Road employee regarding animation, digital painting, background and as a private on the camera work. In the same year, he also gets total control over the opening of another visual novel: Akiiro Renka. Similarly to Kafu, this op presents many static cuts, but the many well-animated cuts are on a notable higher level in respect to the previous opening. Besides the well known full limited he uses photos and video clips as a base for the realization of the background art, modifying them by the use of photography effects, anticipating his friend Osamu Kobayashi and his Mahoutsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto: Natsu no Sora by some years.
The next year starts a prolific period where our animator works on the making of mecha animations, aspect on which he hardly worked on with Niku in 1995 and Abenobashi in 2002. In 2006 he realized all the animated scenes in Muv Luv Alternative together with the little brother You; it comes rather easy to distinguish between the two mainly because of the massive use of the digital painting by Kou, a technique that Yoh was still not able to use. Yoshinari Kous is credited as mecha designer (he indeed adapts to his style the original mechas thought by the game designer), artistic director, photography director and key animator. Some of these cuts are probably the highest point reached in mecha animation together with some sequences of Gundam Unicorn. But if, between those who worked on the above-mentioned series, there is no one who animated more than 3 minutes, our hero animated 3.5 in a span of around 6 months; keeping in consideration the fact that the average animator realizes 2-3 minutes of animation per year this is an extremely impressive result. The next year the digital painting makes his raid into the episode 49 of Eureka Seven, where Kou himself uses the same technique of Muv Luv for a really iconic scene. In the same year, he makes some cuts for Evangelion 1.0 that are still not well identified. Arriving in 2009 his mecha parenthesis closes with some memorable cuts in the Eureka Seven movie.
In the same year, he actually takes part of one of the most significative projects of his career: the animated adaptation the White Album visual novel as an employee of Studio Silver (not to confuse with Silver Link). He works as a key animator in EVERY SINGLE EPISODE, in the opening, in the ending, he realizes all the character designs and the storyboard of the thirteenth episode. An over-human effort that no animator during recent history has matched. We are talking about 26 minutes of animation realized by a single artist, without inbetweeners, coloring personally every single frame. Very often these animations are, in the regard of time and design consistency, able to rival the average anime movie and in some cases don’t deface in front of masters like Toshiyuki Inoue or Yoshiji Kigami. This specific time Yoshinari’s digital painting starts being used for intents different from the one of increasing the realism of some scenes like, for example, to express the typical atmosphere of memories, where colors are distorted and flattened in respect to reality. Another new use is, definitively more artistic, inverting the order of importance of the elements, in some cases focusing more on the mood of the scene through the color, reducing to the bone the movements in some parts of the cut. We have a Kou finally aware of all the potentiality of the coloring and of the instruments related to the academic art, able to manage singularly every aspect of the cartoon without any trouble, allowing himself a certain dose of experimentation. In this sense episode 13 is particularly iconic because he finds himself managing a staff that he barely knows and even though he has all the skills of the best directors the episode doesn’t really stand out from many others.
The next year he is working again in a management role for the episode 0 of Sekirei as animator director. This is another time where the episode doesn’t really stand out and from now on we will see him working as an animator for Studio Silver, of which he will become the strongest point. The same year he will work at Halo Legends realizing new mecha cuts that are maybe even superior to the ones in Muv Luv. Still, in 2010, he realizes the best animated scenes in Dog Days, mixing the classic fill-up coloring with his common digital procedures. In 2011 he realizes the ending climax of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky and the next year one of the best henshin of all times in the second season of Dog Days. In later years he cooperates on Celestial Method, the two seasons of Seraph of the End, Re Zero, Pokemon Generation and Kizumonogatari (this last one with a full minute of animation realized with the most modern technologies of digital painting and photography). In 2015 he establishes the circle of NazoAni’s animators and illustrators together with his friend Mebachi. In 2016 he adopts a new technique together with the collogue Tokuyuki Matsutake: the latter deals with digital animation and afterward Yoshinari does a heavy work of retouching, coloring and photography frame by frame. In this way is possible to fully exploit two different ranges of animator skills. In 2017 we can also watch a reunion to his brother Yoh thanks to some cuts realized for Little Witch Academia TV. At the same time, he is working at a broad range of studies that are easily trackable online.
What will the future have in store for us? What seems certain is the intention of Kou in progressing more and more as an animator while the path of supervision and directing seems to be completely abandoned. And the one of character design? Watching is detailed experiments of how to realize at best a CD style on his twitter profile I wouldn’t be surprised if he started working again on that activity in a systematic and professional way by 2020. He is now involved in the production of Made in Abyss.
Official link for the White Album designs
1) There is a little controversy for the animation realized for Wanwa the Puppy: some of the fans think that he realized 6000 drawings for 50 seconds of animation. In reality they are 600, so 12 per second, still an impressive number.
Huge thanks to Giorgio Sanna for the brilliant translation!