BIRTH (classic 1984 OVA) & Yoshinori Kanada
BIRTH is an sci-fi, action-adventure Original Video Animation, among the first of its kind, released in 1984. It is notable even now because it showcases some stellar animation from the last generation of animators, and is one of the most recogniseable achievements of the famous Yoshinori Kanada. I became inspired to watch this OVA after seeing a documentary on Kanada which gave me a profound appreciation of his contributions to anime. Sadly, it wasn’t really a success at the time, with critics pointing to its difficult to understand story.
The story centres around the conflict between two types of lifeforms on the fictional planet of Aqualoid: the organics and the inorganics (machines). The inorganics have transformed the planet into a barren wasteland and seem destined to ultimately destroy the universe’s organics life. The hero, Nam, finds a sword, which is actually ‘SHADE’ a mysterious weapon which has the power to fight the organics. The sword is sort after by the organics on the planet, which puts Nam and his friends, including Rasa, the heroine, and Bao, an greedy and eccentric treasure hunter, in battle with their robotic enemies.
It might sound fairly straight-forward, but you won’t pick much of that up by simply watching, and the end is enough to befuddle even the most seasoned abstract thinker. The story isn’t very engaging, and the characters are given little chance to break out of their shell, which would install and aura of dullness were it not for the excellent animation. Although it was directed by Shinya Sadamitsu (who takes responsibility for the way it turned out), it is in many ways a work of Yoshinori Kanada, one of the most influential and beloved animators in anime’s history.
Yoshinori Kanada was born in 1952 and sadly, died at age 57 of a myocardial infarction in 2009. As a boy, he was touched by Hayao Miyazaki’s key animation in the 1969 movie, Sora Tobu Yureisen (who he ended up working with at Ghibli on the film, Nausicaa), and was inspired to become an animator. During his long and prominent career he never directed anything. Instead, he made a name for himself by the freedom of his animation – he was known for deviating significantly from storyboards and putting his own spin on his cuts. His successes opened up the anime industry (particularly in the sphere of TV-anime) to the idea of allowing key animators to impress their own particular style into their work. It is this individual freedom that is a major distinction between much Western animation and Japanese animation, and, I believe is why anime remains such a fascinating and vibrant medium. His freedom allowed him to pioneer a range of distinctive styles and techniques that challenged and invigorated anime. He was known for his cool, exaggerated action poses, inventive perspectives, varying the key-frame rate to exemplify a lot of motion without using too many drawings, impressive explosion/fire and lighting in his drawings, and a range of other approaches. All of these things describe ‘Kanada-style animation’, which is still kept alive today by admiring animators such as Hiroyuki Imaishi. Imaishi’s popular anime, Gurren Lagann was largely a passionate homage to Kanada’s works and style. Yoshinori Kanada’s influence is unquestionable, and his challenging and creative spirit lives on in new generations of animators! His list of works is large, but Birth is one of his most famous projects.
Yoshinori Kanada was credited with character designs for Birth (most notably, the character design of Rasa, the lead female, who is reportedly based on his wife), and animation director (as well as being one of the main animators, of course). Birth is well known for being among the first OVAs (Original Video Animations), that is, animation works released straight to home video. As such, it sets a high standard! While the plot is somewhat lacking and it often feels quite dry, Birth is first and foremost an action anime. With a few interesting science-fiction ideas dotted throughout, Birth can basically be described as one long chase scene. But the various legs of this chase scene are rendered utterly stunning by the jaw-dropping animation, which is at times outlandish, often humorous, and always impressive! This OVA instantly struck me as the kind of project fueled by the desire of a group of animators to challenge themselves and have fun. The camera perspective usually has a life of its own, constantly twirling and panning to generate some exciting sequences that show off some very difficult animation. During these parts, the rocky backdrop of the planet becomes a part of the animation, to breathtaking effect. Different scenes handled by different animators seem to have their own signature, but they are united by a crazy sense of choreography (and Kanada’s animation direction!). Whether it’s a jeep driving along a vertical cliff-face or Nam navigating the debris of a collapsing highway on a motorbike, there’s an edge of comical awe to the chase scenes. I’ve written more on the animation further down.
If you’re not a fan of animation (you should be!), then this OVA admittedly doesn’t have a whole lot more going for it. The plot does feel very thin and vague (although it isn’t really confusing, as some claim), and the characters don’t have much time to express themselves as more than caricatures between the endless scrambling for survival. There’s no real drama, and if there is an overarching theme to Birth it is difficult to grasp. Although I admit to finding the final moments quite profound, thanks to some haunting imagery and sound. Birth does have a good sense of humour, both in its visuals and its dialogue, and there’s a touch of smirk-worthy innuendo. And the action scenes are unequivocally a lot of fun. I discovered this OVA out of a newfound appreciation of Yoshinori Kanada, but I found that Birth had plenty going for it, even if you don’t care about the creative side of it. It’s a solid action-adventure bolstered by its fun approach.
The animation was largely handled by Kanada and a small list of ‘main animators’. As it received an English release, the animation credits are listed on Anime News Network here (but, as usual, don’t assume the staff credits for these people to be at all complete). You might notice Hideaki Anno’s name in there. Although he wasn’t a main animator, it’s still cool to know he was involved in a Kanada project at this stage (he would have been 24 at the time!). Kanada is the animation director, which means he was responsible for correcting other animator’s drawings to keep them on-model (particularly for Rasa, I bet!). Some examples of the key animation are given below. I didn’t clip these scenes because they’re my favourite pieces of animation featured (they’re not), but the animators behind them have been confirmed.
Yoshinori Kanada (金田 伊功):
He also contributed several other key scenes.
Tamura Hideki (田村 英樹):
Kouzuma Shinsaku (上妻 晋作):
Also did the chase scene in the underground city.
The thing that really struck me after watching Birth was that the visceral qualities of animation haven’t fundamentally changed over the years. Of course, this is well before the use of ‘digital animation’ (as opposed to filming physical cels) and painting, which have dramatically changed the playing field. But by 1984 the techniques and talent that made good animation then are not far away from those that make good animation now. And Birth is dripping with it! This is a great example of the power of the OVA, which would become the format of choice for anime for the next 2 decades, and also a genuinely impressive example of animation in the 80s. Yoshinori Kanada’s influences are striking and, despite its shortcomings, this OVA stands as a testament to his abilities.