Yoshiaki Kawajiri

This week in Director Spotlight: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

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Yoshiaki Kawajiri might not be a name you recognize, especially in contrast to last week’s Watanabe, but his work had a massive impact on Anime. A pillar of the second generation of Anime and the change in tone of the 80’s, and a founding member of the studio MadHouse.

Kawajiri joined Masao Maruyama, Osamu Dezaki, and Rintaro in creating MadHouse, each being legends within their respective arts. Kawajiri was the key animator of the group and his action fueled, dark fantasy OVA series fueled interest in the studio from the west. *Possible NSFW pictures ahead*


The Dark Animator

Kawajiri worked in what might be called the “golden age” of anime. Tezuka had created the anime medium, but the second generation of story tellers was on the rise. Kawajiri got in on the action, animating for Tezuka’s Cleopatra. Following this up with work on Future Boy Conan with the Co-Directors Takahata and Miyazaki, seven years before Studio Ghibli would be a thing. He then teamed up with Murayama on Barefoot Gen, and made his first directorial test with Lensman Movie.

Kawajiri left the studio to found MadHouse, animating and directing for Rintaro on Revenge of the Ninja Warrior, and the Phoenix Series. Leading to his first major solo work…


Wicked City

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This shit is weird.

Kawajiri certainly wasn’t the only person doing darker themed anime, but Wicked City stands as a pretty defining moment for the real adult anime that we associate with the time period. A mix of 80’s Hollywood machoism, Japan mythology, and the dark, often sexual themes, created an entirely new industry. Even looking back to the gif linked above, you can see how it influenced works through the decades, like Kon’s Paprika.

The film follows the manliest of men, as his chest hair flutters in the night sky and his gun rips through weaponized human-demon things. For his early series, Kawajiri’s main characters frame a mirror of Hollywood’s shift to muscle and macho men leading the action. The story is quite intense and goes as deep as it can into the darkness.


Demon City Shinjuku

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Stepping up from Wicked City, Kawajiri manages to give much better form to the narrative. The structure of the story, the reliance on shock and sex, and the characters, all become less extreme. A clear improvement, and a shift to more of the sci-fi versus fantasy, probably shows Rintaro’s advice behind the scene’s.


Goku: Midnight Eye

MAL: Goku | MAL: Goku II

This is where the groove really gets found. The characters find the right measure, the story connects well, and the art has reached it’s hight of the 80’s.

Kawajiri uses some very intense shots and dark stories, but his interesting growth is scene in his transition of these stories through the era’s of anime. Growing as a Key Artist, Storyboard, and story structure enthusiast. These first 3 films act as what I call, his “Macho Trilogy”, that let him basically invent these kinds of stories. Once he had made this new genre an expectation, he began to change it into the new era.


Shifting to Series, and the 90’s

Entering the Silver age of anime, all of the production takes a massive step up with computer use. The argument can be made for the lovely hand drawn work of before, but the transition into the 90’s created some of the best examples of technology meeting animation. Kawajiri in particular is impressive, growing as a story teller to match the better ability to make series.

Cyber City Oedo 808

*Dracula in Spaaaaace*. Goku had stepped up production, but I think Cyber City shows how good MadHouse was getting. The animation in this is beautiful, and Kawajiri’s action shots are made more impactful because of the newer, smoother animation of the time. I also think this is when Kawajiri realized that his structure didn’t *have* to be Sci-Fi/Fantasy. His next two entries show that he decides to separate the two, and I think it pays off.


Ninja Scroll

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The big name. If someone says Japan is weird, or anime is creepy, they are probably remembering the time they stumbled across this fantastic series. As much as Akira is a masterpiece in every way imaginable, I imagine Ninja Scroll was the series most people found in the 90’s that brought them to Evangellion. I remember it being everywhere, talked about constantly, and spreading like wildfire among the early days of torrents and Napster.

The story features a kind of perfect melding. Kawajiri’s characters have matured and transformed from pure bravado, into something with a bit more heart. Animation had reached a point where it could fully show off his action,

and he finally removes the odd sci-fi crutch that had held back the previous series. Now Kawajiri can really focus on those folk tale horrors, bloody pathway of success, hero stories. It’s kind of a perfect

I consider this to be Kawajiri’s master piece, finding the right balance of everything he aims to do and acting as a culmination of his previous works. Bringing back Art Director Oga, from Wicked City, and bringing in a bunch of names to animate who would go on to do great things. Three of the animators are Ghibli Art Directors, others go on to make Steins;Gate, Ghost in the Shell, and Texhnolyze among many others. It’s a cavalcade of talent here.


Birdy the Mighty

An interesting shift for Kawajiri. The first series to feature a female lead, the first to follow a magic girl style, and the first to feature any hint of Slice of Life. It works, clearly showing the expansion into series Storyboard, which Kawajiri would also offer to help Sato in Gokusen and Asaka in Chihayafuru.

The OVA’s were made into a full series, Birdy: Decode, which kept the heart of the comedy and energy of the original.


Vampire Hunter D

Another series almost everyone will recognize, and the show that lead to Van Helsing and the resurgence of high action fantasy films in Hollywood. Kawajiri blends this new found comedic talent, along with a growing mastery of Storyboarding, to make another amazing fantasy series. A really great example of his evolving skills, and the turning of the market away from hard OVA’s to more consumable series.

X OVA and X act as a kind of farewell to the golden age of anime and Kawajiri’s series of the 80’s. If your looking for more of that dark 80’s style, it’s a nice option.


If you happen to not be a fan of the old animation style, you suck, but luckily Kawajiri has a pretty great stretch of shorts that have a modern style.

Neo-Tokyo: Running Man

The series features three shorts. Running Man, the second short, is done by Kawajiri. It’s a great example of the Blade Runner and Death Game style films that influenced his 80’s flavor.

Memories: Stink Bomb

Kawajiri working as a Key Animator.

Animatrix: Program

Batman: Gotham Knight’s

Co-Directing The Cockpit, adding key animation to Rintaro’s swan song Metropolis, and being 1st Key Animator for Redline.

Highlander

Kawajiri’s last directorial work reunites him with Hiroshi Hamasaki, one of the new blood animators from Ninja Scroll who would go on to do Steins;Gate, Shigurui: Death Frenzy, TerraFormars, and Texhnolyze. It feels like a wonderful send off, showcasing the skill that Kawajiri honed over the decades and finding a suitable story in the new media world.


Final Thoughts

Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s influence within anime is massive. He doesn’t often get the name recognition of his fellow MadHouse creators, but I find them to be a perfect 4. The high minded Rintaro, directorial flash of Dezaki, and creative composition of Murayama, all sat upon the crisp key animation of Kawajiri. Without his influence we may have never seen someone like Satoshi Kon, who takes great interest in that same supernatural feel. Truly a great artist.

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