Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

11:55:31 pm , 1473 words, 8215 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

The women behind Ghibli

Animators like Yoshinori Kanada or Shinji Otsuka often seem to receive most of the attention for the animation in the Ghibli films, but behind the scenes a handful of women animators have been there helping to maintain the high level of quality of the studio's animation over the years. Several of these animators also happen to be among the few figures who have seen it all at the studio - they've been there since the very beginning, and remain there today, working on every film. Despite not receiving much recognition for their work, they were responsible for many of the more memorable scenes in the various films. I thought I would throw together a short overview of some of the scenes done by four of the main Ghibli women animators: Makiko Futaki, Atsuko Tanaka, Masako Shinohara, and Megumi Kagawa.

Makiko Futaki 二木真希子
Perhaps my favorite of Ghibli's women animators, Makiko Futaki tends to be given scenes that demand an eye for intricate and delicate motion, and she packs tremendous nuance into her scenes with lush and fluid animation. Futaki's history with animation predates her professional debut. She was in fact famous for "cine-calligraph" films she made for the amateur PAF Animation Festival. (Cine-calligraph was a technique pioneered by Norman McLaren in which the animator scratches directly onto a small strip of 8mm film - my favorite McLaren film, Blinkity Blank, is a cine-calligraph film.) Her films were considered to have surpassed the limitations of the form due to their incredible craftsmanship, bespoken by reports that she damaged her eyesight making the films. She began her professional career at Telecom as an inbetweener on Lupin Part 2 #153 in 1979, but soon went freelance, in which capacity she went on to work on virtually every Ghibli film as well as other classic films like Angel's Egg and Night on the Galactic Railroad. She is one of the major feature animators of the last few decades.

Futaki loves birds and is famous for drawing scenes involving birds. The most famous of these is perhaps the scene in Laputa where Pazu sets free and feeds the doves. There's also the scene in Kiki with Kiki flying alongside the geese and falling into the crow's nest. In Kiki she also drew the opening scene where Kiki makes the decision to leave. Here you can see her skill at minutely detailed animation in the grass that sways gorgeously in the wind at the beginning. In Totoro she also animated detailed natural scenes, including the scene with the tadpoles, and the scene where the giant tree spurts up. In Mononoke she drew the scene where San enters the forest with Ashitaka on Yakkuru, all the way until the Shishigami walks up to Ashitaka lying on the ground. Here her characteristic skill for minutely detailed natural animation shines through in those incredible shots of the vegetation sprouting and withering. Most recently, Futaki was assistant animation director of the latest film.

Atsuko Tanaka 田中敦子
This Telecom animator and action specialist has created some of the most memorable action sequences in anime in recent decades. A prime example of Atsuko Tanaka's unique genius for action can be seen in the famous car chase of Plot of the Fuma Clan, which, clocking in at more than 5 minutes, is surely of the most exhilarating and idea-packed chase sequences ever animated. She conceived, storyboarded and animated the sequence herself. Tanaka started out at Telecom working with Miyazaki (alongside Futaki and Shinohara), animating the famous leap and spaghetti eating in Cagliostro and a large chunk of the chase at the end of Blue Carbuncle, among other things. She stayed on at Telecom, and was involved primarily in Telecom co-productions throughout the 80s, including a number of episodes of Batman. In the 90s she finally became a regular in the Ghibli films, although she remains a Telecom animator. Recently she did storyboard and animation for the studio's Secret of Cerulean Sand, namely eps 12, 22 and 26.

In Mononoke Hime she animated the hair-raising portion of the climactic sequence where Eboshi's arm is torn off, and the scene with Eboshi and Jikobo in Tataraba. In Spirited Away, Tanaka was the Yubaba specialist, animating an impressive 100+ shots of the character. She was largely responsible for giving her the fiery character and dynamic movement that makes her so memorable. In both of the more recent films Tanaka tops the list of animators, meaning she again delivered the same level of volume. She is a true powerhouse of an animator. In Howl she animated the part where Howl is cooking eggs, the part where Howl is moping in his room, and the part at the end where Howl's house is being bombed and Howl comes to rescue Sophie. The latter section in particular shows Tanaka at her best in creating exciting, tricky, dynamic movement. Tanaka occupies a special place at Ghibli even though she's not even an employee, testified by the fact that she was turned to for some of the Museum films. In 2001 she created the lush animation that graces the set of six one-minute shorts entitled Film Guruguru. Most recently, 2006 saw the release of a new a 15-minute short animated by Tanaka for the Museum, Mon-Mon the Water Spider. Also, I'd long wondered who had animated the animated sequences of Isao Takahata's 1987 documentary The Story of the Yanagawa Canals. It turns out that the figures responsible were none other than Atsuko Tanaka and Makiko Futaki.

Masako Shinohara 篠原征子
House animator who tends to focus on scenes of everyday life and crowd scenes rather than on action scenes, Masako Shinohara is in fact one of the elder stateswomen animators of the studio. She is the only one of the four animators profiled here to have actually started out working on the classic Toei Doga films, like Miyazaki. She began there in 1967 as an inbetweener in Jack and the Witch, only a few years after Miyazaki, and drew her first key animation in Puss 'n Boots II in 1972. After leaving Toei Doga in 1972, she worked as an inbetween checker in Heidi in 1974 and has been involved in virtually every Miyazaki project since, first spending a period as a freelancer before finally settling down at Ghibli.

In Laputa she drew the scene on the Tiger Moth, giving her ample room to breathe life into everyday actions. In Kiki she drew the scene of Osono telling Kiki to deliver package to Tombo, and Kiki laughing after she and Tombo are thrown off the bike (after the exciting bike ride by Toshiyuki Inoue), scenes that are exemplary perhaps for the delicate mix of emotions conveyed by the characters. She also worked on the laborious crowd scene at the end (alongside Toshio Kawaguchi and Yoshinori Kanada), animating the part where Kiki catches Tombo. In Mononoke she drew the scene where San discovers Ashitaka lying in the forest and feeds him, and the section where Ashitaka catches the bow and arrow from Koroku. In Howl she animated the scene where Sophie is cleaning up Howl's house.

Megumi Kagawa 賀川愛
One of the only animators who has been in virtually every Ghibli film, Megumi Kagawa began her career as an animator at studio Doga Kobo in the early 80s. When she heard they were looking for staff for Nausicaa, she asked someone at Doga Kobo who had connections to get her in because she was a big Miyazaki fan, and the rest is history. She's been one of the lead animators in almost every Ghibli film since, right down to Gedo. In addition, she was co-animation director of Porco Rosso, Pompoko and Spirited Away.

For her first job, Nausicaa, she drew the scene of Nausicaa listening to Yupa in Jiru's room, and also Nausicaa trying to save the old men in barge, and Nausicaa pushing the gunship to its limit near the end. In Kiki she drew the 50-60 shots of Kiki encountering Ursula at her log house. In Mononoke she drew the scene where the wolf is rescued from under the boars. In Whisper of the Heart she drew the scene that takes place in the rain. In Spirited Away, she wanted to participate more as an animator, but was forced to help out AD Masashi Ando after only having drawn a little animation, namely the scene at the beginning where Sen walks out of the tunnel. The subtle change in her expression when the wind blows past her expresses her feelings well. In Howl she was able to come back full force as an animator, and indeed she is listed second only to Tanaka in both Howl and the more recent film, having done numerous big chunks. In Howl she animated the part at the beginning where Sophie is making hats, the part where Howl gets all green goopy, and the part where Sophie is running while crying towards that door near the end.



Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

That post blew my mind. And gave me a boner.

No, seriously though. I wonder sometimes if you know quite how devastating all this information is. By the simple act of relating this stuff clearly and intelligently, you are completely recontextualising history for some of us out here?

I’ve asked you this before, but where do you getthis stuff? I mean, translating credits is one thing, but all this who-did-what stuff. There’s so little coverage of that sort of thing for western animation, I can’t even imagine the sort of publications it comes from.

Anyway, that was some good brain candy. Thanks again - i’ll go calm down now.

03/29/07 @ 02:11
Random person
Random person [Visitor]

Ditto with the above comment.

I think it’s safe to say my eyeballs were almost popping out at reading yet another immensely informative and interesting entry. This is absolutely amazing - it’s big-name Ghibli and they’re examples of the rare notable female animator, yet they seem to have passed under most people’s radar most of the time.

I had only heard of Atsuko Tanaka (and I think it’s awesome that she’s a female animator whose forte is in action sequences.) But now I’ll definitely be more studious about learning about animators… it almost feels bad now that I only remember the really great animators.

Once again, I’m really indebted to you - it’s so very fascinating learning about good female animators, and to the extent of being able to pinpoint what they did in each film!… Thank you so much.

03/29/07 @ 06:48
progosk [Visitor]

if i’m not mistaken, tony, a lot of what ben identifies is simply by virtue of what’s called conoisseurship: ben attributes sequences to artists via his deep knowledge of their visual/stylistic traits. i don’t think this sort of info is to be found published much anywhere. (correct me if i’m wrong…)

awesome, my friend - as often. now: where to dig up some of these sequences to look at…?

03/29/07 @ 10:33
Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

Don’t be daft.

I can identify one animators style from another as well as the next connoisseur, but theres only so far you can take practical understanding without the tangable facts and figures to back it up. If Ben is going to tell me that he just looked at the car chase in Fuma Conspiracy, then looked at the sequence of Howl cooking eggs and went “ah yes. cars. eggs. I see, those must both be Atsuko Tanaka” - then I shall be forced to conclude that he has magical powers.

I mean, I can throw caution to wind and reason that if she animated the Fuma chase, and she animated the chase in Blue Carbuncle - then it’s reasonable to assume she did the collapsing bridge sequence in Laputa. But I can’t prove it. It is proof which is my pudding. The quest for discernible facts which brings me back to this site every week, and that make it so important.

Fact is, most of the info that comes out of this site has never been logged, or at least not cataloged, in the English language before. Which means its little short of a whole cultural history being layed out for the first time, for an objective foreign audeince to try and assimilate. The potential significance of that is immeasurable, and the ultimate outcome is anybody’s guess.

So what’s it all about Ben? You should do a post explaining some of your investigation process. Twould be most interesting.

03/29/07 @ 16:34
Ben [Member]  

You’re both right. :) Much of it comes from what I’ve been able to gather from viewing and remembering and stuff I read in the past, complemented by many a little tidbit from the Roman Albums, which contain scattered info on the animators, as well as interviews where the animators explicitly state what sections they did. Also, there’s that Mononoke Hime breakdown I put together a while back… I recently bought the storyboard, so the breakdown revealed in detail who did what, and also gave me a hint about each animator’s style and aptitudes.

With the help of these little bits you can sort of start to piece together a ’style’, to whatever extent that the animator has one, although in the end it usually still remains elusive, particularly in situations like the Ghibli films where it’s not simply a question of an animator having animated a scene from the ground up, as it’s much more of a collaborative process with a storyboard by someone else (where the movement is already indicated to some extent), an animation director (who corrects drawings and maybe movement), etc… With these little hints, though, you can start to see that this person usually handles everyday scenes, this one more delicate scenes, this one action scenes, etc. Yet that’s obviously not even always the case, as indicated by Tony’s example of Tanaka doing the eggs section, which raised question marks above my head when I read it. Yes, I only knew that because Tanaka states she did that section. The action scene later on made more sense, and if pressed I might have been able to narrow it down to Tanaka, but in the end there are always going to be exceptions even when you think you’ve pinned someone down.

My feeling is that, in the end, if an animator did a section, it’s because it was felt they had an aptitude for that section, or even because the director wanted to challenge them with material not seemingly in their repertoire. Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense at all, and they were just helping fill in a missing shot or something. Because of that, sometimes a section works better, is more identifiable, while other times you couldn’t tell unless told. Exceptions like Ohira or Shinji Otsuka that are patently obvious every time are just that - the exception - but I do think it’s a matter of degree.

03/29/07 @ 16:35
Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

Your not wrong.

But the moral of the story is obviously ‘learn to read Japanese Tony, you lazy SOB’.

Roman Albums though, that’s what I was looking for. I guess I’m not otaku enought to know that thats what they are called - even though I own a couple.

But then, that’s exactly my point. After 15 odd years of anime watching, its only in the last two or three that I haven’t been at the complete mercy of otaku culture as to what information was presented to me. And otaku culture doesn’t know or care one little bit about animators or animation. It’s all passive consumption - theme songs, plot synopsis, character bios and so forth.

So what do you reckon? Collapsing bridge?

03/29/07 @ 18:25
Ben [Member]  

Collapsing bridge? You mean that chase with the trains? I’ve always loved that section and wondered who it might be. Tanaka is right out, though, because she isn’t an animator in the film. I personally always suspected it might be Tomonaga because he’s good at chase-type action like that. But go figure, it turns out we’re both wrong, because I’ve heard it was by Hirotsugu Kawasaki. (although I haven’t personally checked the RA in question so I’m not 100% sure)

03/29/07 @ 18:50
great123 [Visitor]

Should it be Secret of Cerulean Sand ? :)

Very informative article as always.
On a side note, Atsuko Tanaka has her own manga about the ups and downs of a group of animators. Bits of animation techniques are only revealed occasionally, nevertheless it’s still an interesting read about the pressures and lives of animators.

03/30/07 @ 02:12
Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

That makes sense.

I realise now that I was actualy thinking of Where Did the Soveirigns Go which has a lot of proto-Laputa content. I need to watch it again actualy.

I also theorised Tanaka because (in my memory) the treatment of the splintering wood during the bridge collapses and the bath-house invasion in that Fuma sequence,was not dissimilar to that in said Laputa chase. But there it is.

On a side note, it is often sited that Steven Spielberg asserts the car chase in Cagliostro as his favourite car chase ever. But Cagliostro doesn’t really have that much of a car chase in the scheme of things, and i’ve always been convinced that he was actualy talking about Fuma Conspiracy (my favourite car chase) - and that he was either being misquoted, or just didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
I’m prepared to believe either. But then I got my Sherlock Hound episodes mixed up, so I can’t talk.

03/30/07 @ 02:55
h_park [Member]

I totally agree with Tony Mine’s quote on Otaku culture. The whole passive consumption nature turned me away from Otaku culture. It’s sad to see most anime “art books” cater to that nature.
I’m glad that I found this site because animation fans can talk about visual elements and expression of animation and artists behind it. I think no college anime club or website goes this deep.

03/30/07 @ 03:27
great123 [Visitor]

Please ignore my previous comment because it seems that I got the kanji in her name all wrong.

I’m very sorry for that grave mistake about that manga, it wasn’t by Atsuko Tanaka at all. It was by another author with the kanji in her name very similar to Tanaka’s.

03/30/07 @ 08:31
Ben [Member]  

Understandable mistake. I know of more women animators named Atsuko than almost any other name. Off the top of my head there’s Atsuko Ishizuka, Atsuko Fukushima, Atsuko Inoue, Atsuko Tanaka, a voice actor named Atsuko Tanaka, and of course Atsuko Ishida, the manga-ka/ex-animator you’re talking about.

I also latched onto precisely that splintering effect in an effort to figure out who might’ve done it, remembering having seen such an effect many times in past Miyazaki work… I’m thinking that things like that that recur are either worked in by Miyazaki himself in some way or another (it’s well known he intervenes extensively in the animation), or at some point the animators just began to riff on these Miyazaki tropes they’d seen in past work, like that floating hair thing the protagonists do whenever they get worked up.

That car chase in Cagliostro is nothing to sneeze at either, although I also way prefer Tanaka’s. It’s the work of Kazuhide Tomonaga. Tomonaga also did the bit where the car leaps across the bridge at the end of Blue Carbuncle, and of course those flight sequences in the Nemo pilot. Just the other day I noticed the Nemo action had been reproduced almost shot for shot in ep 18 of Secret of Cerulean Sand, an episode by Tomonaga. I’d like to see him do more stuff like that, preferably not ripping himself off next time, as that kind of exhilarating action is what makes his and Telecom’s work so unique. Long story short, it can get kind of esoteric pinning down a running thread in certain animators. In Tomonaga’s case I figure it’s his ability to create pinhead-turn-precise, high-speed movement with really fast timing and a great feeling of realistic weight and momentum like that seen in all these sequences, rather than any sort of specific way of drawing an effect or what not.

04/01/07 @ 19:03