The more I dig into the history of anime the more I’m coming to understand the impact that one man had in turning it into what it is today. Sure, Hiroshi Okawa bankrolled the start of the industry in founding Toei Douga, and of course Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara were deeply influential as the leaders of anime’s first generation. But perhaps their biggest achievement combined was recruiting and fostering this man.
I know words like genius and prodigy are thrown around a lot in the anime blog-sphere these days, but I can say this with good old-fashioned, hyperbole-free sincerity: Yasuo Otsuka is a bonafide animation genius.
From early childhood, he itched to draw and when his pencil hit paper he could create the most remarkable sketches of everything he fancied. As can be forgiven of any young boy, machines were an especially inspiring subject. As a teenager he spent all his time doing intricate sketches of military vehicles at a nearby occupation base, which he would go on to publish in many books/doujinshi in future. In the documentary Joy In Motion, Otsuka shows off many of these sketches, and it’s clear that this kid had talent. His sketches show not just a diabolical eye for detail but also a natural flair for capturing that detail in an artistic way.
Through his young adult life in a short-lived career as a drug-enforcement agency assistant and then a 2 year stint in hospital, he never stopped drawing. His sketchbooks are tomes filled with endless drawings of everything from landscapes to political comics.
Only after seeing an add for animation recruitment for the studio that would work on Hakujaden in the newspaper did Otsuka seriously consider work in animation (no surprise there given that there was practically no animation industry before then). After taking the entrance exam of animating a short cut, Mori and Daikubara immediately saw potential in the would-be genga-man. Nurtured by these two great grandfathers of anime, Otsuka tore his way up the ranks at Toei Douga.
Although he was only credited as an in-betweener in Hakujaden, he actually did key animation and I’m making no understatement in saying that his contributions to the film were among its most impressive moments. From there, he was the only newer recruit to skyrocket to position of legit key animator for the next film. By the time the third film came out, he was outshining the work of not just all his peers but his mentors as well. Otsuka was breaking ground with every film year-to-year, and already building up a strong following within his own generation.
In these formative years, the thing that Otsuka most clearly brought into frame was realism.
What do we even mean by realism in animation? For Mitsuo Iso, it’s about capturing the finest, most evocative particulars of human body language or the way real animals move and then distilling them down into potent animation that can stir the heart. In Shinya Ohira’s original quest for realism he embodied his work with sheer density of frames and layers to the point where it no longer even feels like animation at all. Yasuo Otsuka, the progenitor of realism in anime, used his innate eye for detail and sketching talents to try to acutely reconstruct what he observed in nature in every one of his drawings and in how these drawings flowed.
While Mori and Daikubara were bringing animation to life, Otsuka started bringing life to animation. Suddenly it wasn’t all about stretch-and-squash and cartoonish designs, he was dragging things like anatomy and accuracy into the conversation.
This truly began when he became a key animator in Magic Boy (essentially the 2nd anime movie ever made). The film is a great example of how Toei let its animators play to their strengths and drive the production of the whole film, perhaps even to the point of indulgence. While Mori honed the essence of his rounded animal characters, Otsuka explored using animation to capture the real world in the earliest form of realism in animation.
In this scene of a monstrous catfish, Otsuka built on his work with a very similar cut, also of a giant catfish, from the previous film. For these cuts he obtained a real catfish and studied his movements to inform his animation. More so than in Hakujaden, the fish in this film seems to swirl and lunge with a truly organic will of its own. On top of that, the drawings of the monster are far more elaborate than the rest of the animal or even human designs of the film; with its spotted pattern, claws and that plentiful row of teeth Otsuka’s fish has a terrifying, visceral presence.
Otsuka largely handled the climactic fight of the film. Keeping in mind that the key animators storyboarded their own cuts in this early Toei era, the fight sequence showed Otsuka was really trying to make the battle exciting in every way he knew how. But the most memorable bit is where he poured an exact sense of realism into a cut of a mage’s skeleton fleeing the hero. Instead of abstracting the skeleton as is normal for animation, each individual bone is clearly articulated and drawn to be strictly correct. This, combined with the weightless magical floating lent the whole thing an uncanny feeling that actually caused audiences to laugh in the theater instead of being gripped by the thrilling action.
Despite being remarkable for its detail, the cut missed the mark and is a good lesson in how realism doesn’t necessarily translate well to animation in a literal way.
In the following film, Alakazam the Great (Saiyuki), Otsuka was once again a key animator, and was just as much a star of the film, relishing in its more challenging sequences.
He handled the volcano eruption. While much has been said of Otsuka injecting realism into his water effects, this is a particularly exhilarating example of effects animation, capturing both the sheer power and majestic awe of a volcanic eruption. The distance shot is really effective. The molten lava traverses down the mountainside with a sense of viscosity, and the way it feels its way through and around invisible cavities and protrusions feels very real.
Once again he animates the one-on-one showdown at the peak of the film, this time a duel between the protagonist and a gnarly bull. This is the first great example of the kind of animator Otsuka was rapidly becoming, because it combines a studied sense of realism with a rough and dynamic approach to animation. The bull moves just as you’d imagine a real bull would, carrying itself with true weight and charging with frightening force and speed. But you wouldn’t call it an accurate depiction of a bull, would you? Perhaps learning from his skeleton, here Otsuka elicits realism in his characters without focusing on replicating real life or sacrificing the potential of animation.
In the next movie, the Littlest Warrior, Otsuka tackled another effects-animation show-piece. This time, a giant whirlpool appears in the ocean, pulling a rickety boat full of men into its aquatic maelstrom. Here again, Otsuka heeds realism but bends it to the will of the scene. The physics involved, the way the water splashes and swirls, or how the boat is splintered and sucked into the vortex, feel authentic. But at the same time, the water is splashy and globular in a cartoony way, and the ocean is drawn as if it is a smooth surface.
Otsuka makes it realistic enough to suspend disbelief but sacrifices the bleeding edge of realism to throw everything at the animation, accurate or not, to ramp up the intensity. The ferocity and inescapable power of the water is suffocating.
His early career culminates in the battle with the dragon at he end of the Prince and the 8-headed dragon (Wanpaku Ōji no Orochi Taiji). For this movie, Toei wanted to revitalise their style by entrusting it moreso to the new generation, breaking down the pillars of Mori and Daikubara’s style. The film was a game changer in a number of ways, introducing the animation director role in anime for the first time (Yasuji Mori, obviously) and using simplified, stylised designs more than ever to stretch the limits of full animation. It’s perhaps the first apex of the anime industry, a stunning monument to cinematic Toei at its prime. TV anime started this very same year with Atom, which diluted its core focused and led to some staff upheavals (many jumping ship to Tezuka’s Mushi Pro).
And who was behind the epic animation climax of the film? Otsuka of course! The training wheels were now well and truly left in the dust as he and his assistant, Sadao Tsukioko created a truly epoch-making sequence.
In order to really appreciate these older anime I’ve been watching them in order from the Hakujaden onwards and I can safely say that this astounding finale overturns all expectations. I had real trouble picking highlights from the extended battle, but here’s a couple of snippets below – I strongly recommend getting a hold of the full thing though.
From the menacing lurking of the serpentine dragon heads when they first appear, through the frantic dashing and charging of the flying horse as the confrontation begins, which conveyed speed with full animation like nowhere else, to the graceful and powerful struggle after Susano takes the fight to them, there’s just so much to awe at in this sequence. With the eerily real and snake-like movements of the dragon heads, the intense speed, and the attention to gravity and and momentum, and so much more, Otsuka’s animation mesmerises with natural realism.
But at the same time, it fully embraces the magic of movement in ways that transcend the physical world. The curling, and stretching of the flying horse as its legs wildly propel it through the air and the fully bodied vigor of the hero’s lunging and dodging are good examples, but it’s ingrained in every cut. It feels like it was Wanpaku that made it click for Otsuka – how to bring realism into animation.
“Ultimately animation is about convincing the audience. I try to create perspective, immediacy. A sort of virtual reality.
Genuine realism doesn’t suit animation. Realism doesn’t have to be real. What you want is constructed realism.”
It also contains one of the earliest instances of background animation in anime and shows of his flair for effects animation.
Daikubara’s influences are still present, but these early Toei films are really about Otsuka’s explosive realism and Mori’s animation going toe-to-toe. While Mori imbues his drawings with life using precise fundamental animation techniques, Otsuka throws his mind and body at every cut to make it breathe life in a real sense. Both are valid and almost opposite approaches. It’s Otsuka’s prodigious versatility that made this possible. Even at this early stage he was mastering effect animation, anatomical movements of humans and animals and even mechanical drawings as seen later in Lupin. While it wasn’t always as polished or successful as Mori’s conventional approach, when it did hit, it hit it out of the park.
In a rare case of the stars aligning, Otsuka’s unreal gift for animation is matched by his ability to teach and mentor. Word has it, he is able to articulate the most sophisticated principles of animation in a way that’s grounded, easily digestible and engaging.
Notable animator and sakuga personality Shin Itagaki entered telecom and often fondly recalls his teaching in his publications.
That’s why he ended up settling into a teaching role at Telecom, but more importantly it’s why so many of his peers at Toei were influenced and pushed forward by him. To name a few: Daikichiro Kusube,who headed A Pro, and his ‘team’, Yoichi Kotabe and Keiichiro Kimura who would go on to impress with Tiger Mask. But most importantly, he deeply influenced and inspired both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who were his peers at Toei having entered around the same time. These three esteemed figures would go on to form a strong bond of both mutual respect and friendship, which really clicked after the seminal Hols prince of the sun. In Hols, Otsuka’s animation matures from this early more experimental realism into the style that he is best remembered for.
This ascension would only continue as he left his mark on limited animation with Samurai Giants, Future Boy Conan, Moomin, and ultimately became the driving force behind Lupin III. Along with Miyazaki, Otsuka relished the opportunity to create lifelike depictions of guns, cars and other mechanical designs in Lupin, returning to his formative teenage obsession with machines. Of course, Lupin also became a launching point for charismatic character animation that underpins the whole sakuga movement. But this is all a story for another day.
Even in these early works, the trend is clear. Although Otsuka’s early career is marked by a stricter, more mimicking reality in each frame, as his career progressed, he got better and better at translating his observations of the natural world into movement that evoked the real world while also entertained with the free spirit of animation. It’s this style that Otsuka is best known for, and it’s been deeply influential right through the lineage of anime up until today.
The take-home message is that after witnessing his career development first hand in his animation, I can say that Otsuka isn’t just an important footnote in anime history but a remarkable man filled with both passion and talent for animation in a way that few have since.