It’s no secret that animators are one of the most exploited elements of the anime industry. They often work long hours, away from their families, and with little to no job security. Quality work in the past couple of years has sought to expose and rectify this, but nothing illustrated this problem to me more than a visit to the “Art of Little Witch Academia” exhibit back in November.
To those not familiar with the otaku neighbourhoods of Tokyo, let me offer a brief explanation of Nakano, the home of Mandarake.
Despite being only one stop away from the transit hub of Shinjuku on the Chuo rapid line, Nakano has a relaxed feeling to it that sets it apart from the rest of downtown Tokyo, particularly from the other otaku hubs of Akihabara and Ikebukuro. If you take the north exit out of the station, you can walk directly through Nakano Sun Plaza, into Nakano Broadway – the home of legendary second hand retailer Mandarake – all without taking a step out from under cover, making it perfect for a rainy day. In fact, the first time I ever visited Nakano was during a typhoon.
Nakano Broadway itself is a strange, labyrinthian mall, in which an eager otaku can find nested in it’s nooks and crannies several Mandarake stores dedicated to many different types of collectables – not just anime goods, but also trains; dolls; and children’s books. Although Mandarake does dominate the mall, there are also several other quality shops selling all types of anime goods, merchandise, as well as fashion, music and food. As for the story of how Mandarake ended up dominating the mall, that is best told over on Otaquest by Isaac Wong.
Nevertheless, to get to the Little Witch Academia exhibition, I had to venture off the beaten path, out from under cover and also out of my comfort zone. If it wasn’t for my friends Mike and Lachlan over at Otaquest, I almost definitely wouldn’t have known about the exhibition, nor had the courage to make the unknown journey towards it. We continued eastwards whilst keeping the train tracks on our right for a while, through a residential area, until we happened upon an intersection, upon which the SF Gallery was located.
SF Gallery is one of many otaku-orientated art galleries in the area, and has hosted many interesting exhibitions over the years. As Lachlan told me about a Gundam art exhibition he attended some time ago at the gallery, we descended the stairs to the Little Witch Academia exhibition, and immediately I was very much taken aback. The walls were virtually completely covered, top to bottom, in animation cells or genga. I had previously visited an “Art of Fullmetal Alchemist” exhibition around the beginning of October, from which I had assumed that glossy prints were the norm for these types of exhibitions.
In turns out that, contrary to the promotional material, although this exhibition did feature largely Little Witch Academia art, these were all reference materials and genga drawn by a single key animator by the name of Yoshigaki Yusuke. Beyond that, a surprisingly large amount of material from such shows as Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt and FLCL, which Yoshigaki had worked on at Gainax, was displayed. Yoshigaki, like most of his other Trigger peers, jumped ship to Trigger from the failing Gainax after Hideaki Anno left in 2007 to form Studio Khara.
What was displayed in that gallery was less a testament to the stellar production of Little Witch Academia, but rather a display of Yoshigaki’s fericious talent and perseverance in his long career.
He started out in Gainax with key animation work on episode 3 of Neon Genesis Evangelion, before returning again under Anno’s wing with several key animation gigs for Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou or His and Her Circumstances. It wasn’t until 2000 however that he finally got a permanent role on the production of FLCL as a key animator. As a result, it was during FLCL that Yoshikagi got his first real chance to flex his creative muscles, bringing his trademark expressive character animation to the legendary series. The sheer number of genga displayed at the gallery showed just how much Yoshikagi toiled to bring this series to life, an effort that eventually paid out in spades when FLCL went on to assume cult status, particularly in the west when it aired on Toonami.
He continued his hard work from then onwards, working as key animator on many shows, including Top wo Nerae! Diebuster 2, but the story as presented by the gengas of the exhibition picked up once more with Yoshikagi’s work on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, where he once more did several pieces of key animation for Gainax. His work on TTGL clearly showed a refinement and improvement in his skills as an animator, as he began to display a deft prowess in utilising effects work to dynamically render debris and smoke. This didn’t mean, however, that Yoshikagi had lost his expressive and abstract edge that had made his work stand out in FLCL, as his key animation in Panty & Stocking proved.
The friendship that he had formed with then fellow animator Hiroyuki Imaishi had clearly lasted throughout the Gainax years, as Imaishi was quick to bring Yoshigaki onboard for Kill la Kill, his new studio Trigger’s first full-length project, where he was working as director. Not much genga from Kill la Kill was displayed at the event, presumably because Yoshigaki didn’t do that much work on the show. The main meat of the exhibition after all was his work on Little Witch Academia, which made up the majority of the rest of the wallspace.
Yoshigaki’s work on Little Witch Academia reflected, once more, a further maturity and refinement in his skills as an animator. His character animation has become even more expressive than before, utilising smear frames effectively to communicate motion and speed in such a way that sets his work clearly apart from the otherwise incredibly talent Trigger animation team.
It could be argued that Little Witch Academia was almost perfect for Yoshigaki’s particular talents as an animator, as the show set out to project wonder and magic more than the realism that seems to be infecting the mainstream, thanks to artists such as Makoto Shinkai. Bucking such a trend, Little Witch Academia takes full advantage of the animated medium to create sequences that purposefully break the spell of realism in order to draw attention to it’s own fantasy elements.
Little Witch Academia‘s character designs, being relatively simple yet distinctive, allowed Yoshigaki to stretch and distort them with his expressive animation, without the audience losing sense of the identity of a character during a sequence. Yoshigaki did have a hand in crafting the character designs for the series, but mainly the transformed animal designs of the main cast, since a bulk of the design work had already been done for the Little Witch Academia OVAs which came out years before the series itself. This explains why Yoshigaki was so often at the helm of sequences involving the transformed character designs, and the skill and patience he put into crafting the perfect designs for such sequences was clearly demonstrated by the number of reference materials he created for those particular designs.
His mastery of effects, previously showcased in TTGL, also lended itself excellently to the magical nature of the series. The usage of dynamic light and smoke to convey the type of spell being used, be it transformation magic or flight magic, played brilliantly off of Yoshigaki’s skills, allowing him to create not only awe-inspiring, magical setpieces, but also visually distinct ones, despite their density.
The exhibition clearly showed that the series owed a large part of it’s visual identity and overall appeal to the work of Yoshigaki, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the countless other animators who weren’t featured in this exhibition. Although Yoshigaki’s key animation was often the highlight of an episode, his work only made up a very small portion of the overall runtime – so who were the other animators? Did they not deserve at least a little bit of recognition? Perhaps their materials wouldn’t be as interesting to display as Yoshikagi’s, nor do they carry the same weight of history as Yoshikagi’s work does, but their omission weighed heavy on my mind.
Even so, it didn’t take long for me to recognise the incredible work Yoshigaki had continually put into his art when I came to the final piece of the exhibition, which occuped a central space in the gallery, as opposed to being attached to the walls. What was displayed here was Yoshigaki’s own personal collection of sketches, which must have numbered over five hundred. Each one was an illustration of still life, be it Yoshikagi’s watch, an old man at the bus stop, or a steaming cup of coffee.
As beautiful as these drawings were, what made them particularly interesting was the fact that Yoshikagi had written the time he had drawn them in the corner – most of them being drawn either late at night or early in the morning. Rarely did you see a 11:00AM, 3:00PM or a 7:00PM – it was all pretty much 1:00AMs, 3:00AMs and 6:00AMs. What this demonstrated was Yoshigaki’s extreme dedication to his craft, that even after pushing his body to the limits during a hard day animating, he was willing to put aside a little bit of time each day to create something small for himself. I doubt that Yoshigaki ever thought that these sketches would be displayed, since they were non-anime related, after all.
Like many animators out there, Yoshigaki’s tale is one of suffering for art. He remains as one of the few who will be remembered by history, but there is still something tragic in seeing the life of a man reduced to pictures. What remains for us to do, is to continue pushing for the fair treatment of animators, in order to improve the lives of those who suffer to bring us joy and happiness in a existence that often seems antithetical to such.
Since I went to the exhibition a while ago, my memory of it has somewhat faded, but I still wanted to share my thoughts on Yoshigaki’s work and the exhibition as a whole. I never thought I’d write about the exhibition, so I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked. I got some photos from another website as well as from Trigger’s website itself. Even so, I hope you enjoyed. I’ll dump all of the photos I took below, since I didn’t get to use all of them. Let me know what you thought either in the comments or via Twitter.