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Eternally 23: Remembering the Creative Works of Osamu Kobayashi

by Dawn H.,

On April 17th, 2021, acclaimed anime director Osamu Kobayashi passed away from kidney cancer at the age of 57. An extraordinary voice in the world of anime, fans and industry folks alike took to social media to lament the loss of a creative mind gone too soon, myself included. Many shared their favorite clips and images of anime like BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad and Paradise Kiss, two of the most popular titles he directed. But while many of his works are perfect examples of how anime can touch us deeply and spark our imagination, he somehow never became a household name among anime fans. Maybe part of that had to do with his somewhat atypical career path. While Kobayashi was a huge fan of anime and film in general, he first started out as a designer and illustrator, with seemingly no intention to seriously work in anime. At least, not right away.

One of my first exposures to Kobayashi's work was his earliest anime credit: a mechanical designer on the 1988 OVA, Dragon's Heaven. A stunning piece of experimental animation (sadly, never licensed in the U.S. as of this writing), this OVA was mostly the vision of Makoto Kobayashi, Osamu's older brother. And while Dragon's Heaven's unique look is absolutely the result of Makoto's signature art style, it was Osamu who helped clean up his designs to make them suitable for animation. This contribution to the OVA may not seem like much, but it was an integral part to making it look as good as it does. In 1989, he similarly worked as a mecha cleanup artist on Yoshikazu Yasuhiko's Venus Wars film, another instance of something that seemed small on the surface, but would help him gain valuable experience.

A big turning point in his career was something that wasn't even anime work: his creation of the world settings and designs for the 1997 cult classic RPG, Grandia. The game would go on to become a big fan-favorite, and was the beginning of Kobayashi's brief stretch as a designer for multiple video games, including Evolution: The World of Sacred Device and Gungrave. His natural knack for world-building was quite impressive. He not only came up with world maps, settings, and mechanical designs, but in the case of Grandia, he also suggested musical influences and styles to the game's composer, Noriyuki Iwadare. It was clear that Kobayashi had visions of his own, and just needed ways to get them out there. And so, much like his brother, he went back to the medium that could help him do this: anime.

After working on staff for a handful of anime works (including art and setting designs on 1998's Blue Submarine No. 6), it was the ending animation he produced for 2003's Gad Guard that got him noticed by more folks in the industry. This led him to Madhouse, where he was given the job of adapting Harold Sakuishi's manga BECK into an anime TV series in 2004. Kobayashi's extensive knowledge and deep love of music made this production of a music-focused coming of age story the perfect match for him. Kobayashi gave life to the already down-to-earth characters, carefully crafting their animated world to feel familiar and believable, but with the promise of rock-and-roll dreams glinting around each corner. The series is still fondly remembered by fans to this day for the strong visual direction and tone he brought to the series, the sharp writing, expressive animation, and memorable music from the rest of his crew. And thanks to the show being aired on Canadian TV's MuchMusic channel, some fans will even proudly trace their interest in music or starting a band back to watching BECK.

Not too long after, in 2005, he brought a similar magic to his adaptation of yet another coming of age drama: this time, Ai Yazawa's incredibly stylish josei romance, Paradise Kiss. While fashion is a major part of the story, Kobayashi understood just how closely music and fashion can be tied together, especially for this series in particular. The best example being the character Arashi, who Yazawa drew to be a punk in both fashion sense and musical taste. Kobayashi's slight changes to Arashi's anime counterpart made him feel much more like a “real” punk: the way he slouched while walking, even the way he talked and sang. It was Kobayashi's idea to cast musician Shunsuke Mizutani for the role, rather than a big name voice actor, which brought all of this together to really make this version of Arashi feel more natural. Famously, Ai Yazawa wasn't pleased to hear about these changes, especially the idea of an inexperienced voice actor taking on the role. But after seeing a few episodes of the anime, she admitted that he had indeed made the right choice. His interpretation of a series about a young woman trying to find her own identity through the world of art, fashion, music, and modeling made the anime for Paradise Kiss another stand-out work for Kobayashi, and another series fans still praise to this day for its beauty and heart.

Even when he wasn't in charge of an entire series, Osamu Kobayashi's work just couldn't help but to get noticed, though sometimes not exactly in the way fans wanted. In 2007, he directed, storyboarded, and key animated episode 4 of Gurren Lagann. This episode famously got criticized very harshly online by fans for being animated more in Kobayashi's signature comedic style, rather than strictly trying to keep to the show's established character designs. Similarly, in 2010, he did a segment for episode 5 of another Gainax show: Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. This segment was also a big departure in tone and style for the rest of the show, though wasn't nearly as criticized by fans as his Gurren Lagann episode. Over time, many fans have come around to both of these infamous episodes to appreciate the style and humor he brought to each, though many are still divided on them.

All this doesn't even come close to covering his short, but extensive career in anime. In recent years, he not only directed one of the best episodes of Lupin III: Part IV (episode 12, in case you were curious, which includes Lupin traversing through a dream world to solve a mystery), one of the most beloved filler arcs in all of Naruto Shippūden (the “Childhood” arc, episodes 480-483), and the first ending theme animation for the 2019 adaptation of Dororo, as well as episode 15 of the series. All of these works are perfect examples of how he put a little bit of himself into everything he made, and how much he'd grown as an artist. Over the years, it's become easier to see his fingerprint over everything he touched—a feat to do sometimes, especially while still staying true to adapting an already established work.

This makes his passing all the more heartbreaking. To know that he never got to direct a series of his own creation, to show more of the beautiful worlds he obviously wanted to share with us. In a tweet seemingly written by him before his passing, he laments that he “still had work he wanted to make,” but that someday maybe he'll be “reborn” to make good work once again. He ended with an “Adios” from “the eternal 23-year-old”. If you love anime not only as entertainment, but a form of creative expression, I encourage you to try out his various works. A playful creator his entire life, his voice will surely be missed.

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