An introduction to independent animation in Japan

crazy for it (yutaro kubo)

As consumers we’re conditioned to think that the industrial model is the only possible option out there, so it isn’t surprising that animation produced by a single individual, free from the constraints of production committees and TV broadcast standards, tends to fly under the radar. Japan’s independent animation tradition is both varied and active, but it remains relatively obscure even among fans of world animation.  The issue isn’t just a lack of press; even if you were aware of all the newest indie releases, most of it never ends up on DVD/BD and the little that does is usually limited edition and import only. Until recently the best the average consumer could hope for is to read impressions online and hope someone hosts VHS rips on streaming sites.

2015 has seen a seismic change on that front thanks to a blogger known as Anonymoose. Throughout the year he’s been uploading an impressive backlog of rare and out-of-print indie anime releases. Even though the torrents on Anonymoose’s site contain far and away the best “anime” of the year, the lack of easy and accessible information about their content has probably limited their appeal to most anime fans. To help remedy that, this article will provide a brief overview of the various strands of independent animation in Japan. For detailed background and analysis on the artists mentioned here, I recommend Nishikata Eiga and Anipages. As a warning: most indie anime is completely unlike traditional anime, not only in terms of visual style but also in terms of narrative modes and media (claymation, stop motion, paper cutouts, etc vs 2d cel exclusively). Since these animators have few, if any, superiors to answer to, they don’t have to acquiesce to convention. A lot of what gets produced in the independent sphere is non-narrative, abstract, sometimes even nauseating and hard to watch, but rarely uninteresting.

First I should clarify what I mean by “independent animation”. For the purposes of this article, pre-Toei Doga animators like Noburo Ofuji, Kenzo Masaoka or Mitsuyo Seo don’t qualify, even though they were independent artists and Anonymoose has uploaded their works to this site. The reason is that 1) that’s a topic deserving its own separate post and 2) pre-Toei Doga, there was no industry for independent animators to contrast themselves against. Independent animation in Japan is very much a tradition, in the same way that conventional anime is a tradition, and that tradition only really began in the 60s.

Specifically, it started when three illustrators – Yoji Kuri, Ryohei Yanagihara, and Hiroshi Manabe – established the Animation Sannin no Kai (“Animation Group of Three”). A small festival originally intended for the display of their work only, it grew in its fourth year and saw participation from other corners of the industry. Osamu Tezuka began to dabble in experimental films for the festival and would continue to produce similar films on the side throughout his career, including the cult favorite Jumping which placed 18 on Yuriy Norshteyn’s top 20 of world animation. Other participants included Sadao Tsukioka (Toei Doga animator), Makoto Wada (illustrator), Ryuichi Yokoyama (founder of Otogi Pro), Seiichi Hayashi (illustrator and Mushi Pro animator), Tatsuo Shimamura (Toei Doga and Mushi Pro animator who did the painting procession scene in the Animerama Cleopatra), and even a one-time appearance by Ryousuke Takahashi, the creator of VOTOMS. Anonymoose has uploaded a number of shorts from the festival (under ‘Volume 11: Experimental’), of particular note are Hayashi’s Ki Renka, a poignant depiction of sexual violence that ranks among my favorite pieces of animation from the era, and Shimamura’s Toumei Ningen, considered a classic by festival-goers at the time. Works by Masaoka, Ofuji, Seo, and Otogi Pro are also on the same torrent. Yoji Kuri was far more prolific than the two other co-founders and has had his works anthologized on their own, found here. Tezuka’s experimental films can be downloaded here.

oni (kihachiro kawamoto)

One late participant in the Animation Festival was Taku Furukawa, a protege of Kuri who went on to have an active career throughout the 80s and 90s. Although his visual style was influenced by Saul Steinberg, Furukawa’s films are extremely diverse in their structure. His earliest work had a psychedelic undercurrent to it but starting with Nice to See You, his interest in illusions, structured repetition, and perception came to the fore. Phenakistoscope, Portrait, Calligraphiti, and Play Jazz are probably the best in this vein, although he made plenty of ‘traditional’ narrative shorts using his signature doodle style (the most notable being SpeedThe BirdSleepy, Tarzan, and Tyo Story). Furukawa was also a regular contributor to Minna no Uta, NHK’s music video program. Many of Japan’s best independent animators have participated in Minna no Uta, and for some (Atsuko Ishizuka, Koji Nanke, Osamu Sakai) Minna no Uta is largely the extent of their ‘independent’ work. Furukawa’s films are collected in two volumes here and here.

Another major figure to emerge from the Animation Festival is Keiichi Tanaami, an illustrator associated with the pop art movement. His films during the 70s are considered classics and are marked by oneiric imagery and a sense of collage. Tanaami didn’t direct any animation from the mid 70s until 2000, when he began collaborating with the late abstract animator Nobuhiro Aihara. Aihara’s own films are poorly represented online, but he and Tanaami evidently made a great team. Tanaami’s films, including the Aihara collabs, can be found here, here, and here. Another pop artist, Tadanori Yokoo, produced 3 short animations in the 60s as well and his work can be found here.

dreams (keiichi tanaami/nobuhiro aihara)

Stop motion in Japan was pioneered by Tadahito Mochinaga, and many of his successors have taken the medium in interesting directions. Kihachiro Kawamoto is one of the most famous independent animators in Japan. His reputation rests on his beautiful renditions of Japanese mythology, but his output was surprisingly diverse (Tabi, Anthropo-Cynical Farce, Briar Rose). Kawamoto’s most complicated project was Fuyu no Hi, an omnibus adapting Basho’s poetry collection of the same name, which assembled animators from around the world to contribute short ~1 minute ‘stanzas’. Isao Takahata is among those that participated and he voiced his support for independent animation around the time of the film’s release. Kawamoto’s films can be found here.

Tadanari Okamoto is considered a legend in stop motion, although he didn’t exclusively work in the medium. In fact, Okamoto forced himself to change what medium he’d work with for every film so that no two consecutive films of his would ever look the same: he’s made films with puppets, woodcuts, 2D cel, paper dolls, papier-mache, crayons, and much more. He produced a number of masterpieces – The Magic Ballad, Praise Be to Small Ills, The Monkey and the Crab, Restaurant of Many Orders – and the bulk of his career has been collected here. Takashi Ito is sometimes classified as a stop motion animator, but his work is so unique it defies easy classification, and in recent years he’s received praise from overseas experimental film critics like Blake Williams. Anonymoose has his entire career up hereTomoyasu Murata is a younger stop motion animator famous for his Michi series, but most of his films aren’t online, though he does sell DVDs through his site.

One advantage for artists in going independent is freedom from the strict content restrictions that limit commercial work. Japan has had a few “guro” animators that have taken advantage of that. Hiroshi Harada courted a good deal of controversy with his adaptation of Suehiro Maruo’s Midori Shoujo Tsubaki. Harada combined violent ero-guro content, left wing politics, and vivid mixed-media animation to stark effect and screened the film at a fake circus, where audience members were forced to navigate through a maze-like interior to get to the screening room. Harada’s emphasis on audience experience has made video transfers of his earlier work nonexistent, although a bootleg of his breakout film, Lullaby to the Big Sleep, a riff on the Narita Airport protests, is available online. Other animators in the guro/expressionist mode include Naoyuki Niiya and painter Keita Kurosaka. Like Harada, their work is poorly represented on video. [EDIT: A number of Kurosaka’s films are now available here and here].

midori-ko (keita kurosaka)

Koji Yamamura is the most influential indie animator of the last 20 years. His own work, particularly Franz Kafka Ein Landarzt, Muybridge’s Strings, and Atama Yama, matches literary pretension with expressive draftsmanship and has been widely praised by critics. Perhaps more influential than his own films is his role as a professor at the GEIDAI program at the University of Tokyo. GEIDAI is one of the best animation schools in the world and a major force in the indie sector, and every year they holds screenings of their students’ graduation films with Yamamura as curator and presenter (a trailer for this year’s selection can be found here). GEIDAI is also known for the diversity of its student body; not only are half of their graduates women, but in recent years they’ve taken on more and more Chinese and South Korean applicants. Some of Yamamura’s more accomplished students include Ryu Kato, Saori Shiroki, and Yutaro Kubo. Though Yamamura’s work is easy to find online, the yearly GEIDAI DVDs aren’t, although some of past years’ films can be found on Vimeo.

Along with GEIDAI, another major development in indie animation during the last decade has been the formation of CALF, a production studio dedicated wholly to independent animation. CALF was formed by a trio of animators who saw the need for a better support structure for what they do: Mirai Mizue, Kei Oyama, and Atsushi Wada. Mizue is an abstract animator who produces “visual music” a la Norman McLaren, using biological patterns as the basis for his drawings. Mizue has a large filmography, and his recent film Wonder is one of the best works of Japanese animation, independent or otherwise, of the last 5 years. Oyama makes visceral, confrontational films with a nauseating impact (he often uses his own skin for texture in his drawings). Wada is known for his minimalist, witty comedies but has since left CALF to further his solo career (although he still collaborates with them). Time lapse animation duo TOCHKA also used to collaborate with CALF. Recent additions to the studio include Shin Hashimoto, Ryo Okawara, and Yoriko Mizushiri. They’ve pioneered the use of crowdfunding in independent animation as well: Mizue’s Wonder was crowdfunded, as is an upcoming film by Oyama.

airy me (yoko kuno)

But more than anything it’s streaming services like Vimeo and Youtube that have opened up the most possibilities for young animators. The ease of access stands in stark contrast to the old guard’s methods and it’s easy to spend a day digging through random accounts on those sites. To list a few off the top of my head: Hirotoshi Iwasaki, Ryo Hirano, Satoshi Murai, Ryoji Yamada, Shishi Yamazaki, Takashi Ohashi, Moe Koyano, Saho Nanjo, and that’s only scratching the surface. Some of the highlights of the last few years, like Yoko Kuno‘s Airy Me and Masanobu Hiraoka‘s My New Animation, debuted on Vimeo. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and the high level of technical polish in these videos puts most commercial productions to shame. If Kuno or Hiraoka were featured in a TV anime, sakuga fans would lose their minds.

There are a number of animators who I’d like to talk more about but limited access to their work prevents me, namely: the husband/wife team Renzo and Sayoko Kinoshita, ink brush animator Reiko Yokosuka, Vermilion Pleasure Night alumni Kawai + Okamura, palimpsest animator Naoyuki Tsuji, flipbook animator Maya Yonesho, digital collage artist Mika Seike, and stop-frame painter Takashi Ishida. There’s others that don’t fit in with any dominant trend or style but are still worth mentioning as well, like Kunio Kato and Isamu Hirabayashi. And Shigeru Tamura. And Kojiro Shishido….

The independent field in Japan is too expansive to be summarized by a single blog post, but I hope this inspires some to at least check these guys out. I want to close by thanking Anonymoose for continuing to fill the gaps in this obscure corner of the animation world. In addition to older indie releases, he’s been keeping up with new releases (including a number of anthologies), working to make 60s TV anime like Wolf Boy Ken more accessible, and even uploading a (relatively) high quality version of the DAICON openings. This kind of archival work is valuable and essential; for all their differences, both commercial and independent art share a tendency to be forgotten.

ki renka (seiichi hayashi)

praise be to small ills (tadanari okamoto)

franz kafka ein landarzt (koji yamamura)

land (masanobu hiraoka)

wonder (mirai mizue)

columbos (kawai + okamura)

midori shoujo tsubaki (hiroshi harada)

a feather stare at the dark (naoyuki tsuji)

gestalt (takashi ishida)


About tamerlane

World animation guy for Wave Motion Cannon. Not a professional animator or involved in the business in any way. All of my research comes from secondary sources so if you notice a mistake, please let me know.
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4 Responses to An introduction to independent animation in Japan

  1. Hurtado says:

    In contrast to my previous comment, I thought this was a very informative read. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Docteur Nock says:

    Very interresting article. May I use it as a base for a small “lecture” about japanese independant animation in a french convention? I will mention you and your site, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: À la découverte de l’animation japonaise indépendante

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