Interview: Akihiro Kanayama

by Heidi Kemps,

Akihiro Kanayama is a true veteran of anime. In his seventy-five years of life, he's seen the manga and anime industries rise and transform into the cultural forces they are today. In fact, as an animator and designer at Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Pro animation studio, he directly helped this process, animating world-beloved shows like Kimba the White Lion. With a resume ranging from Ashita no Joe to Zeta Gundam to Combattler V, Kanayama's firsthand knowledge of animation and anime history is legendary. We sat down at this year's Japan Expo to talk with Kanayama, and found ourselves listening to amazing anecdotes from a truly fascinating individual.

Before our interview, we had a chance to attend a panel with Kanayama, where he described his background and took audience Q&As. “My relationship with the US is a little complicated,” he said, “My father was a solider in WWII, and died fighting on Okinawa. But much of my inspiration has come from US animation, especially Disney.”

 “This is actually my first time in the US. I've been to Russia, Europe, China… but never the US, until now.”

An audience member asked what Kanayama's inspirations were. “Besides American animation, I was also greatly inspired by the work of Russian animators.”

What does Kanayama think of the “limited animation” tradition of anime? “One of the big reasons that limited animation is a thing in anime is that it's simply cheaper to make. It's an interesting contrast to Western animation, which in a lot of ways tends to overexaggerate character movement for expression.”

Why are salaries in the animation business so low? “That's a very important subject,” he noted.  “A lot of anime is funded by agencies or production committees, and they take a substantial portion of the profits from a show.”

Did he ever get any work contracted out to him from the US? “Yes! In fact, I remember quite distinctly animating Smokey the Bear,” he laughed.

After the Q&A and a live drawing session, we were able to speak with him for a one-on-one interview.

ANN: You've worked for many different companies under many famous directors. Of all the projects you've worked on, which would you say has had the most impact on your career?

KANAYAMA: I'd say definitely Ashita no Joe. It was a very challenging work, with a very involved story. People still love it, even forty years later… probably without knowing how hard it was for us to produce it!

Making an animated lion like Kimba feel real to an audience is very different from bringing a Gundam to life or a heated boxing match between humans. How do you approach making different subjects have impact on screen?

Well, for Kimba in particular, the big difference for us working in the studio is that the animals move on four legs rather than two. At that time, we really didn't know how to animate the movement of animals! So when I saw The Lion King many years later, I was impressed at just how much research the animators at Disney had done. The proportions of the animals, the movement… everything went above and beyond realism and believability.

So I started thinking about why American and Japanese animators had these different approaches to the same subjects, and my conclusion was that Japanese animators mostly came from a manga drawing background, while Western animators were more experienced with general art and illustration. My feeling is that Western animators are more likely to try and observe things like animals and fighting in real life, while Japanese animators would just crack open a manga or a photo book, look at the pictures, and be like “oh, that's how it is!” and then try to put that onscreen.

Do you prefer working on films to television series?

Movies, without a doubt! As an animator, my love is making characters move, bringing their motion to life. Rarely do you have the opportunity in TV animation to make the big, beautiful movements that you can with film.

How different is the production pipeline between TV and film?

There's a substantial difference. You have significantly more genga in a movie than for a TV series, so you need more animation manpower – and budget - as a result.

Of the series you've worked on, do you have a personal favorite? One that spoke to you personally, that touched you more than the others?

Ah, let me think… Hmmm! Well, I really loved Kamen no Ninja Akakage. It's an older Toei series, around 1990 or so, I think? I had so much fun with the action and the characters. What I loved about it was the ability to create the movement of the ninja character Akakage. Ninja are defined by fast, flashy movement, which was a joy to design and animate.

On that note… I'd love to have a chance to work on Lupin the 3rd for similar reasons. That series is filled with crazy movements and expressions! It's been a real inspiration for me.

Also, if you're wondering what my favorite series is that I haven't worked on… well, I really love One Piece!

Creatively, what do you think the major differences between anime production in the 80s and 90s and anime production now are?

I think the main difference is what's emphasized most in the animation. I think movement and action was more prominent in the works of those eras. When you look at anime nowadays, you see that the characters and art are very, very intricately detailed… but the actual motion, the animation, looks relatively stiff in comparison to the past. It's heavily narrative-driven, which means that the characters tend to be speaking more than doing things. Of course, there's the obvious difference between traditional cels and digital, as well.

Do you think the fact that there was more money to be invested in production in the 80s had anything to do with that?

No, not really! Money's always been tight in animation. But the train of thought we were operating under was that we were making these anime shows primarily for kids, and in order to grab kids’ attention, you need interesting movement. But now anime's main target isn't kids, anime's main demographic is otaku! *laughs*

Is there a part of this job you love the most? What's the most satisfying part of directing animation in your view?

I really like just being an animator! The problem with a role like animation director is that you have to go around and correct everyone's drawings. It feels like I'm just a human copy machine at that point. But being an animator is creating something that moves however you want.

At this point, Kanayama began drawing “a Tezuka character he liked” in my sketchbook. He began to draw the character Hige-oyaji.

You know, when I first set foot in Tezuka's studio, the first thing they asked me to draw was this character, Hige-oyaji. After all, the world is full of people who look like him! *laughs* In fact, he's kind of the “main character” of Tezuka Production. You can see him in almost every Tezuka work – in Phoenix, in Kimba, in Astro Boy.

It is strange that animation studios never really adopted the Tezuka “star system.” I would think that would have helped their budgets a bit.

The thing is that Tezuka was so, so busy. He just didn't have time to create a lot of really varied character designs, and he wanted things people could draw easily.

So not long after WWII, there was a manga called “Punch.” You'd get a lot of these foreign comics in Japan under the generic name of “Punch Comics.” Things like Batman, Superman, and gag comics like Archie. You'd see recurring characters in those everywhere. That sort of thing inspired Tezuka, so he'd take a character like Hige-oyaji, and put him in every series.

Yes… Tezuka was filled with curiosity. He'd look at comic media from all over the world. Of course he loved Disney, but he found things from France, from Italy… all these places, and he'd find elements he liked and make use of them.

One more question. If there's one important lesson you think the anime industry of today could learn from the anime industry of the past, what do you think that would be?

You have a lot of producers in the anime industry, but their position has weakened. Really, it's the sponsors and production committees that are primarily pulling the strings. I think producers need to take back their power! Unfortunately, the sponsors are the ones with the money. I think it'd be great if they could strike some sort of balance. Maybe we can create a new animation process.

Also: we should stop producing for such a small audience. Right now, foreign animation really is better, because you still have a lot of it being made for kids. These are the kids who will grow up treasuring this stuff and will become the next generation of creators.

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