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I was pleasantly surprised the other day to see that Osamu Tanabe had worked on the opening of fellow ex-Ghibli animator Hiroyuki Morita's Bokurano at Gonzo. It was surprising because for the last six or seven years Tanabe has been exclusively devoted to an extended train of animated thought over at Ghibli in the form of a handful of fascinating, stylistically interlinked animated experiments, the most recent being the music video Doredore no Uta. I thought his work to be among the most interesting I saw coming out of the studio over that period. I didn't expect to see him doing work elsewhere, much less on TV, now. I've been wanting to get down my thoughts about Tanabe for quite a while now, so I thought I would take this opportunity to do so.
The story behind Tanabe's work of recent years seems to begin with My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. Isao Takahata, of course, was director, but Takahata not being a director who draws, the actual, specific animation side of Takahata's work is always handled by talented animators. That's Takahata's genius - that he always orchestrates the best talent of the moment in the most perfect fashion imaginable in the various sections. In Yamadas, the faces behind the animation side were Yoshiyuki Momose, who storyboarded/directed the first half with the bobsledding, and Osamu Tanabe, who storyboarded/directed the rest, the portion based on the comics. Over the next few years after Yamadas, Tanabe created a few TV ads for the studio that continued to build on the cartoonish-yet-realistic, pared down style of Yamadas. Yoshiyuki Momose, on the other hand, continued to build on the rich, lively, colorful style seen in the first half of Yamadas first in the two Ghiblies films and most recently in a trio of shorts set to music by Capsule. So Yamadas is particularly interesting to look back on now, now that these two talented creators with their own unique vision have each slowly but surely advanced the ideas they began tinkering with in that film.
If Momose's work seemed to be all about the joy of motion, about swimming around and exploring a three-dimensional space with lots of imaginative ideas, Osamu Tanabe's work was all about delicate nuance, about the beauty of the little details in everyday life that any other animator would have overlooked. Tanabe's pacing of scenes and timing of actions seemed realistic like nobody else's animation. The characters were highly stylized and cartoonish, consisting only of a few simple lines and colors, but they came across as very real and alive, moreso even than more realistically drawn characters might have. If at some fundamental level the film feels different, I think it's because of Tanabe's great innate sense for slow-burn realistic timing and his imagination for nuanced and richly elaborated realistic movement.
Things didn't start with Yamadas for Tanabe, of course. Tanabe's interest in realism in animation goes back many years. Tanabe has been a close associate of the two most important figures behind the realistic approach in Japan throughout the decade that preceded Yamadas - Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto. Tracing his history also traces theirs, as they worked together on many of their most important and memorable projects, all the way from Akira in 1988 down to Yamadas in 1999 and Space Station No. 9 in 2005. Each has gone on to develop in his own very different direction, but their work together during this period defines their approach, and today more than ever the spirit of their work sets them apart from other animators.
Although Tanabe's name doesn't turn up in the credits of Akira, Hiroyuki Morita says it's working as an inbetweener on Akira where he met and became friends with Tanabe. In 1988 Tanabe also drew inbetweens for Grave of the Fireflies, so it would make sense that Tanabe had worked on the film, despite his name not being listed in the credits. After all, Hiroyuki Morita isn't listed either. Ohira and Hashimoto, of course, worked on the same film, and the three would go on to work together very quickly afterwards, so they must have met either while working on Akira or very soon afterwards.
Tanabe's debut comes the next year, in 1989, working on the TV show that featured many of the staff who had just come from from working on Akira - Nippon Animation's Peter Pan. He animated a bit in ep 21. Hard to guess what he might have drawn at such an early stage, but the scene at the table strikes me as a possible candidate judging by Wendy's characterful acting. In any case, it would be his focus on just this kind of nuanced acting animation that would set Tanabe apart as an animator in the projects in which he was involved over the next few years.
In Like the Wind, Like a Cloud, he animated the memorable walk through the tunnel, where the old lady pinches the girl and they're flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. What makes this little bit of animation so fun and memorable is that it is underpinned by a feeling of reality in the timing, so that it really looks like two people are flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. It's comical yet believable. The very feminine way she grabs the lapel of her kimono right after this seems typical of Tanabe's delicacy. Tanabe animated several memorable scenes over the years involving delicate feminine acting starting with this.
Another piece by Tanabe from the same year came in the classic ep 1 of the Hakkenden OVA series by Shinya Ohira & Shinji Hashimoto. Tanabe animated the bit where Princess Fuse and the dog are hiding out at the cave near the end. The dog here moves more realistically and convincingly than he does anywhere else in the episode, but more importantly the animation of Fuse stands out for its more delicate approach to realism. Here the action is very low-key, played out at a distance, with what movement there is subtle and without any sort of exaggeration, which contrasts sharply with the rest of the animation in the episode. It's clear that Tanabe was thinking about the idea of realism in animation just as deeply as were Hashimoto and Ohira, but coming to his own conclusion. The particularly fine bit where Fuse covers her mouth by the river in particular shows off Tanabe's skill for getting into the mind of a female character and coming up with convincingly feminine behavior.
The culmination of Tanabe's early work comes in 1993 with Junkers Come Here. Working under Shinya Ohira alongside Shinji Hashimoto, Tanabe helped to animate the 3-minute pilot that Ohira spent six months on. Tanabe animated the three shots where the girl and the dog run past and the girl stops to rest on the bench. Each shot of this pilot is full of tremendous nuance, and takes a more realistic approach to timing that seems to build on the realism of Omohide Poroporo, on which both Ohira and Tanabe had worked right before, and seems to take it in a new direction, one where the movement is rawer and even more closely based on reality. Tanabe's section seems to best represent what the pilot could have become had it been developed into a film. As it stands, a different animation director was brought in, and the animation of the film itself did not wind up living up to the exciting pioneering spirit of the pilot. However, Tanabe's section in the film carries on the nuanced feminine acting we saw him do in Hakkenden. He animated the scene at the dinner table early on after Hiromi finishes talking to her mom on the phone. The way she walks from the phone to the table swinging her arms brings alive the feelings of the young girl quite nicely. Rather than the sort of dense flow of realistically observed motion of Shinji Hashimoto, who animated the scene before where Hiromi and Keisuke are studying together, Tanabe's is a more lilting and lyrical kind of realism where each tiny movement is very carefully thought out and calculated for effect.
Tanabe then participated in Ohira's parting slap to the face of the industry, Hamaji's Resurrection, although I'm not certain what section he animated. The scene on the porch has always been a favorite of mine, and it seems like one of the few sequences in the episode endowed with the kind of nuanced feminine acting I would expect of him, but who knows. In the meantime, he participated in yet another Takahata film, Ponpoko, as well as overseeing the layout for Nippon Animation's movie remake of their first World Masterpiece Theater show, A Dog of Flanders. Tanabe's deftness with realistic layout is another element that makes his work stand out, so I can see why he was picked for the job. Finally in 1998 he did a bit of animation for Golden Boy 3 that stands out as perhaps his best in the nuanced feminine acting vein, where the girl tells Kintaro that she's planning on marrying the other guy. The shots where she waves her hand and where she pulls her pigtail back while talking capture her girlish nature and her feelings of uncertainty in the situation particularly well. Tanabe is good at coming up with little gestures like this that make a movement feel not just real but good and succinctly bring alive a character. Just before doing this he did a little segment for Masaaki Yuasa's Cat Soup, the part where the S&M Mickey Mouse cosplayer gets cut up and thrown into the eponymous soup. He also helped out Shinji Hashimoto on the opening to Kacho O~ji. I'd be surprised if he hadn't also helped out on Shinya Ohira's opening to Sci-Fi Harry the next year.
Finally we come to Yamadas. Momose had already helmed a Takahata feature before, drawing the storyboard for Only Yesterday in 1991. He was called in again, and time was joined by Tanabe, who had presumably by that time gained Takahata's trust after having worked on all of his most recent films. Afterwards, Takahata would turn to Tanabe to animate the short segment Takahata directed for the omnibus Winter Days in 2003. The film turned out to be a turning point in his career. Over the next few years he worked almost exclusively on ads and other shorts derived from the look of Yamada-kun, with the spare background, pastel colors, wobbly line, and highly pared down, cartoonish characters moving incongruously realistically.
At the beginning he carried forward a more realistic inflection, in the two Umacha ads of 2001, while in 2002 in Yoshiyuki Momose's Ghiblies 2 he created a look that seemed to cleave with everything he'd done before, as if he was striking out in a new direction. He animated the strange bit at the end with the people all drawn like bugs of different sorts. After this, he returned briefly to a more spare and realistic vein with the Takahata segment of Winter Days in 2003 and Shinji Hashimoto's Kid's Story segment in Animatrix, where my guess is that he animated the section where Kid climbs to the top of the water drain. In 2004 he animated the first of another set of ads, this time for the Yomiuri newspaper. The first features a crowd from the Edo period shuffling densely by in a realistic style slightly different from the Umacha ads but with the same evocative, washed out, pastel look of all of his work of the period, while the second features the company's mascot character Doredore, and is animated in a much simpler style, with a very pared down hand-drawn aesthetic featuring a few simple lines moving over a pure white background. In his latest creation from 2005 he went back to the odd creatures of Ghiblies 2 and created a wonderful music video, Doredore no Uta, that pushes forward the idea of the previous piece in a way that makes the concept much more satisfying. If the previous piece seemed like an experiment where he wasn't quite sure what he was doing with it yet, here the elements all feel like they fit in place. The characters move just as realistically as the characters in Yamadas, but they're all bugs. It's an interesting new tack for the realistic school. Making the characters pure symbols like this has the uncanny effect of emphasizing the realism of the movement even more than when the characters are styled as humans. The film acts as a nice little allegory about human society, full of warmth and sly humor and keen observation.
Finally we come to Tanabe's latest piece. There is much nice work in the Bokurano opening, but there was one shot that emitted a kind of aura that set it apart from the rest, the shot of the character running. The shot consists of nothing more than a loop of 13 drawings of one of the most common of animated actions, a side follow of a person running, yet it eloquently and hair-raisingly conveys the urgency of the character's situation, without you even needing to know what that situation is. Tanabe is an animator who has devoted his entire career to making motion the vehicle of communication, and this shot of his is a perfect example of the power of animation - that a few well chosen drawings can create a movement that speaks more than a thousand words. Apparently Tanabe recently founded his own studio called Studio 4, and this shot was done there. The unique style he invented for himself in the Ghibli shorts stands out as an unexpected and interesting revivifying new direction for the realistic school of thought, so I'll be interested to see what Osamu Tanabe's next move will be - whether he continues to build on this or again decides to go in an utterly new direction.
Osamu Tanabe filmography
1988 Grave of the Fireflies [inbetweener]
1989 Peter Pan 21 [KA]
Gosenzosama Banbanzai! 4, 6 [KA]
1990 Like the Wind, Like a Cloud [KA]
Hakkenden OVA 1 [KA]
1991 Omohide Poroporo [KA]
1993 Junkers Come Here Pilot [KA]
Junkers Come Here [KA]
1994 Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko [KA]
Hakkenden OVA 10, 13 [KA]
1996 A Dog of Flanders [Layout Check]
1998 Golden Boy 3 [KA]
1999 My Neighbors the Yamadas [D & S of second half]
2000 Nekojiru-So [KA]
Kacho O~ji OP [KA]
2001 Umacha TV ad [2 x 15 seconds]
Lawson/Spirited Away TV ad [1 x 15 seconds, 3 versions]
2002 Rakugaki Oukoku game [director of animated segments]
Ghiblies 2 [KA]
2003 Winter Days Takahata segment [1 minute; animation]
Animatrix: Kid's Story [KA]
2004 First Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
Portable Airport [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
2005 Second Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
Space Station No. 9 [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
Doredore no Uta [3 minutes; S/D]
2007 Bokurano OP [KA]