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If you were to try to pin down the single most famous animator working in commercial Japanese animation over the last thirty years, it'd probably be Yoshinori Kanada, who turned 53 on Saturday. In various ways he fits the bill - influence, uniqueness of style, consistent quality. Regardless of whether people have seen his work, they tend to know his name due to numerous factors including the fact that he's been active as an animator continuously for more than 30 years, during which time he's been regularly covered in animation magazines and talked about among fans because of his revolutionary and inimitable style. This is remarkable considering that he's been active almost exclusively as an animator. There's almost nobody else for whom the same could be said. His fame is based purely on his animation. He was one of the first animators to gain a degree of recognition in the late 70s/early 80s as a unique creator entirely on the basis of his work as an animator, thus paving the way for other 'karisuma animators' who appeared on the scene in the years that followed in the early 80s, including Takashi Nakamura, Yamashita Masahito and Ichiro Itano; and later figures like Takeshi Koike and Hiroyuki Imaishi. He's among the few karisumas who's been continuously active for that long without getting distracted by directing, and there's no sign of him letting up.
Over here the name Yoshinori Kanada will most likely be known more than anything because of the fact that artist Takashi Murakami has included stills of Kanada's work in films like Genma Taisen and Galaxy Express 999 at exhibitions of his artwork, citing his work as an influence. Otherwise there are probably few fans who have a real idea of who he is as an animator. The reason for this is probably quite simply that, despite his massive output, most of the shows on which he worked have not been shown over here, so people haven't had the chance to get to know his work, and to follow its stylistic evolution, the way fans over in Japan have. What is available often does not show him at his most idiosyncratic and interesting; he was the main animator in most of the 80s Ghibli films, but what we see in these films is the ruly, slick version of Kanada, rather than the wild and unruly Kanada of Genma Taisen. There are exceptions; you can see Kanada at his most idiosyncratic best in Genma Taisen and Galaxy Express 999, and Birth was recently released over here. But these are just the tip of the iceberg.
Among the other places one can sample Kanada at his best are the opening of the 1981 TV series Ginga Kifuu Braiger, various late 70s/early 80s TV series like Zambot 3 (5, 10, 16, 22) and Don de la Mancha (6), and the 1992 OVA Download. I particularly recommend the early work, where he was still working out his style. This is when his work felt at its most dynamic and free, as he was in the process of gradually discovering the patented style that makes him so unique, with its rough drawings, extreme perspective, crazy posing and unpredictable timing. His work at its most extreme hasn't lost any of its power to surprise and delight in the intervening 30 years, despite the fact that his style is probably the most imitated in anime. Most of it is pale imitation beside the real thing. Seeing his work helps to understand where the animation in Dead Leaves came from, which is among the first anime successfully based on the Kanada style. It didn't appear out of a void. In 1994 he created the opening for the TV series Tottemo! Lucky Man (coming to DVD in a few months). This is a good introduction to Kanada's work, because it's from his later period, when he had honed his style to perfection, with even more exciting acrobatic posing and extreme perspective dynamism than his early work. Two years ago he did the Popolo Crois episode 6 and opening for the game Hanjuku Eiyu, both among his most characteristic pieces. This year he did the opening for the continuation of that game, which reportedly is no disappointment and goes even further than the previous in pushing the envelope of his style. It's good to see that Kanada hasn't abandoned the personal approach of his youth, perhaps heartened by the appearance of other unruly animators obviously influenced by Kanada's style in recent years. He's less prolific now, but still among the most interesting animators in Japan, and his impressive body of work deserves to finally be appreciated among fans over here.