Welcome to the second part of this write up of Japanese animator Masami Obari (大張正己), if by chance you’ve landed here first, why not check out Part 1 for the introduction instead. In this post I’ll try and talk more about the kind of things that have influenced Masami Obari and the kind of style he developed over the years.
Masami Obari as an animator is a product of the early 1980s – an era where Yoshinori Kanada’s animation style had fired up animators all over the anime industry, a style giving new and interesting ways to breathe life into TV animation. While you could say Obari was a follower of Kanada’s style, he created something distinctive to call his own. He absorbed essences from Kanada as well as from other 80s exemplars; such as posing and timing from Masahito Yamashita & Hideki Tamura as well as Hideaki Anno’s knack for drawing animation with immense detail. When animators settle on a style, a way of drawing they are comfortable with, they’ll tend to establish it a few years after they’ve been working in the industry and some even take 10 or more year to create something. Obari would create his own style at the very young age of 18 years old just showing how talented he was.
Rather than to say Obari’s style is an evolution of Kanada’s, something which is more appropriate to say about Hiroyuki Imaishi or Seiya Numata‘s animation. I would say Obari’s style is more of a spin off, it features some poses and timings adapted from the Kanada style but Obari adds a sense of ‘heaviness’ and offers a ‘hyper-realism’ that give it a distinctive look. Sentiments mirrored by Hiroyuki Imaishi who said during his younger years he was quite smitten with Obari’s animation and when he first saw the works of Obari on Dangaioh he thought he was seeing the Kanada style taking on brand new form. Where the Kanada style might often display wild and exuberant visuals, Obari tends to keep things looking semi-realistic by having drawings with great detail while still applying that Kanada-like timing to the animation.
An example of Obari’s ‘hyper realism’ from Dangaioh
Obari tweeted about when he met Yoshinori Kanada for the first time in his life he told Kanada how the intro to Bryger was what influenced him to become an animator, this pleased Kanada so much that he took Obari out for a meal. Obari very much worshipped Kanada’s animation and still does so – Obari was thrilled when he had the chance to work with Kanada on the opening of Toei’s Gaiking remake in 2005. He felt it was an honour that Kanada was drawing animation based off his own storyboard.
During the production of this opening Obari and the Gaiking producers weren’t sure that they’d be able to get Kanada to draw animation for them, since Kanada had been working at Square Enix on their Final Fantasy games. So it was decided the last segment was going to be drawn by Obari himself, however when they got word that Kanada was willing to participate, Obari gladly handed over his segment to his beloved master. In this image below, a Japanese blogger lined up images of Kanada’s animation against Obari’s storyboard from the Gaiking OP.
During the mid 80s, there was a small studio called Kaname Production that housed lots of Kanada style animators, the studio originally was an offshoot from Ashi Pro and both studios kept in close contact. Around the time the Genmu Senki Leda OVA was being produced, the animators from Kaname came to Ashi and worked side by side with the animators who were working on Dancouga at that time. This is probably the time when Obari met a lot of Kanada styled animators and there are two people who probably influenced the development of Obari’s style a little more directly and they are Hideki Tamura & Hirotoshi Sano. Tamura is an animator from the 1980s who was a very charismatic Kanada-style animator. Tamura retired from animation in the late 80s but left behind some really impressive pieces of work, one of which is the intro to the OVA Prefectural Earth Defence Force. Sano was also an impressive animator that intertwined with the Kanada style often in the 80s, Obari would meet him around the time Sano had come off works like Birth, Cream Lemon Pop Chaser Part 4 and Zeta Gundam. Obari probably first encountered Hirotoshi Sano‘s exaggerated form on Dancouga, where he would absorb part of it into his drawing style.
Obari most likely met Tamura and Sano at Ashi Pro. Tamura perhaps during the final episode of Seijuushi Bismarck but definitely met both early on in Choujuu Kishin Dancouga. Particularly episode 5 of Dancouga must have had a great impact on Obari as it had a lot of animation from the Kaname Pro animators, including Sano and Tamura. Working side by side with them the young Obari must have been wowed by Tamura and Sano’s animation styles and absorbed some of their essence. Similarly the 2nd intro to the Dancouga anime was animated by Kaname pro members such as Tamura and Sano and it featured some stylistic choices that Obari would come to adopt himself and express through many of his own works later in his career.
One key feature Obari has adopted from the Kanada style is inserting images for 1-2 frames that quickly appear on screen then flash away – “impact frames” as they are called. You can see a good example here from the 1st episode of the Dangaioh OVA. Most often these are simple geometric shapes that help define the impact of a punch, kick or something else. One of the more extravagant frames is from an episode 1986’s Magical Girl show ‘Pastel Yumi‘ where Obari inserts something very peculiar, see for yourself here:
In terms of actual drawings Obari tweets he drew everything freehand for the majority of his early career through the 80s. As a mecha animator this is certainly an interesting revelation. Mecha are often made up of many straight lines and detailed parts, yet here was an animator drawing everything freehand, perhaps this use of freehand is what allowed him to create mecha that were more human-like than they were mechanical with more curved features than straight edges. In an unrelated anecdote from Atsuko Ishida (ex-Wife of Obari) she mentioned on Twitter how the young Obari never drew any draughts and never relied on using an eraser when drawing animation, he always had a clear idea on what he wanted to draw and would draw it.
The lines had a sense of wavy-ness to them, given them an almost human feel. This process of humanising the mecha included the faces too, where Obari enjoyed drawing robots with handsome faces. He reveals that when he draws close ups for mecha faces, he goes as far as drawing an actual human-like face before attaching the mechanical parts to make it look more like a robot. This is perhaps why Obari drawn mecha look more like people in armour than actual robots sometimes. However it wasn’t until the start of 1990, that he began using a ruler for his animation and the lines he drew had a much cleaner and straighter form to them. You can definitely see a shift in his style when he animated the intro of the show Yuusha Exkaiser, a solo work I might add. If I were to guess, this was likely a way to ease up the workload of animation as I can imagine working freehand, while impressive also probably took up quite a bit of his time. Although interestingly he mentions that while he worked on episode 5 of Gunbuster – he was tasked with drawing the Super Inazuma Kick scene and recalls it took him roughly 30 minutes to draw out the entire scene.
In terms of actual animation, Obari is adept at limited motion animation of the Kanada style and Obari’s strength is with the kind of timing known as “nothing inbetween” where between certain key frames, there won’t be any in-between frames so he’ll rely on the poses from key frame to key frame to instil a sense of motion. If you break down some of his animation frame by frame you can certainly see there are jumps in the motion arc of characters or mecha.
Take the example above from the final episode of the Mazinkaiser OVA, where Mazinkaiser raises it’s sword and prepares to swing down, there is nothing between that entire downward arc of movement – yet when this is watched in motion, you can’t really tell if there is anything missing and your brain fills in the gap giving you a scene with dynamic movements instead. To describe Obari’s sense of timing in a simpler way, I’d say it’s like pulling on a rubber band between your fingers, then letting it go so it suddenly flies away.
As it may be coming clear to you, Obari loves striking poses, some of which have become synonymous with his name. Some of his detractors say that he relies too much on reusing ‘dated’ poses, he is aware of this criticism and does say that it might be considered a weakness. Even so he loves using them and he prefers to think of them as his ‘special moves’ – similar to how many of the talented senior animators around him like Yoshinori Kanada, Hideaki Anno, Masahito Yamashita and Ichiro Itano had done so before him. A comparison he brings up are the signature moves of wrestlers, when you see the “People’s Elbow” or the “Rock Bottom” you know these are the moves of the wrestler known as “The Rock” – much in the same way he likes to think that whenever people see any of his poses or moves, he wants them to think “Ah this is Obari’s work!” He does say that he’s been trying to hold back on reusing some of the more obvious poses in his recent works.
A quote from the Sakuga Wiki: From the late 80s through the 90s, Obari made a big name for himself drawing mecha animation using his immense youthful and charismatic nature.
Obari was the most prolific in the late 80s and early 90s, this was when he was still focused just on animating but during the early 90s he moved and made the jump to a director. Many of his directed works still retained the high sense of quality he had in his previous works, but as a director the amount of animation he drew started to lessen. For me it’s probably easy to define Obari’s career in 3 major parts; the first era is defined by his debut at Ashi Pro in the mid 80s until the early 90s, just before his first directorial work Detonator Orgun. This era has some Obari’s best animation and is often the era in which most animators in the industry remember him for, but it’s also an era that is least known in the west. Then came the era from the mid 90s to the early 00s, this second era is defined by works where Obari did more directorial works and began increasing the amount of fanservice in his works which culminated in the early 00s when he directed some hentai shows. During the 2nd era Obari must have felt he was at his peak, being able to direct and chose your own projects must have been very fulfilling, but around 2000-01 it is rumoured that his studio went bust, some members left and he had to rebuild it all again. Starting from the bottom might explain why Obari was reduced to directing hentai works in the early 00s. This 2nd era is probably what Obari is most recognised for among Western anime fans, which to me is a shame. Now the third era, which begins from around 2005 and is a slow process of Obari finding his feet in the industry once again and regaining confidence in his works as well as members of the anime industry having some faith in him once more.
During 2005 Obari and his studio were in charge of much of the stock footage for Toei’s mecha show Gaiking LODM. It is rumoured that watching episode 13, an episode where some of the industry’s best animators such as Yutaka Nakamura, Sushio, Takashi Hashimoto and Hiroyuki Imaishi took part in, fired up Obari to once again go back to his animation roots. Since then Obari has slowly made a recovery back into animation, contributing to several works; he’s been creating anime openings, directing shows and taking part in episodes of other shows too. He’s also been back in demand as he says he’s had to turn down several offers. He mentions he was asked to participate in 2009’s Eureka 7 movie but was unable to commit due to scheduling. In 2012 he finally made his debut on a Gundam show by working on the 2nd and 3rd openings of Gundam AGE, something which has been a life long dream, he had chances to work on Gundam on a few occasions such as the Gundam F91 movie and Gundam SEED but he turned down both for various reasons. F91 as he was too busy working on the Yuusha franchise and SEED because he had heard of the nightmarish schedule the animators were being forced to work on and did not wish to take part.
Over the years Obari’s style has also slowly changed. In the 1st era, he loved imbuing drawings with heavy details, high framerates and bulging smoke effects. From the late 2nd era to most of the 3rd era, he has toned down the details of effects and framerates of his animation.
Obari is self professed mecha animator, animating giant robots and robot like creatures is one of his greatest passions. Mecha anime is what drove him to become an animator, growing up watching works like Great Mazinger, Daitarn 3, Bryger, GoShogun and GodMars were big favourites of his. Obari’s work carries many super robot aesthetics that originated in the 70s, he cites Daitarn 3 as one of his favourite robots and says the design of Gravion was inspired by Daitarn and Zambot. In terms of mecha design, as I showed you in the previous post, Obari became quite notorious for giving a complete overhauls to pre-existing designs. This extends to many different works, for example the original Dangaioh design was penned by Macross legend Shoji Kawamori, but the actual animation design has proportions that have been tuned to give a much more Obari look. Similar changes can be seen on other works Obari has worked on.
Obari branched out over to some non-mecha works during the 90s and some of his most iconic works from that era are the Fatal Fury OVAs and the subsequent movie. Here he took on the role Character Designer and Chief Animator – with the Movie he even took on the role of Director. With the Fatal Fury series Obari began inserting fanservice elements into his shows, giving the buxom Mai Shiranui several moments of gravity defying breast bounces – one a humorous comment Obari makes about this period was when he first attempted to draw bouncing breasts was he noticed the timing was not that far off from animating explosions and smoke effects and coined the phrase “Breast bounces are explosive!”
The final aspect of Obari’s style I’ll touch on are his character designs, I’d probably say this is his weakest area. On the Fatal Fury movie and the Voltage Fighter Gowcaiser OVA he drew characters that had exaggerated features and I guess he attempts to give the kind of hyper realism that he gives to mecha and for me it just doesn’t quite work. His designs for the first Fatal Fury OVA are not that bad, but several of his later works, most notably Gowcaiser which feature the extreme end of Obari’s distortion of human faces and proportions. At the very least, he hasn’t contributed to any character designs for almost 6-8 years now. He now often employs the work of other artists as character designers and focuses on the aspects which he is good at instead.
That said, despite his curious way of drawing character designs, as an animator his character animation is fairly good. Which leads me to believe that he does these warped character designs out of choice rather than lack of knowledge of human anatomy and proportions. Notice in the image below how he is able to render whatever character design that he is working with for a particular project, showing that he has skill in this department as well.
As I round off, I’d like to show you the intro to a 1993 Sunrise mecha show called Might Gaine. In my opinion it’s a nice short video that captures the essence of Obari’s mecha and character animation, I particularly like the shot that runs from 0:20 to 0:31; the camera angles, effects, poses and motions are 100% Obari. The entire thing’s animated by Obari save for the bit at 0:54 with the girl on the cliff, which was handled by Obari’s then wife, Atsuko Ishida.
In the next part I plan to delve into animators who have been inspired by Obari and have associated with Obari over the years, be it by using the ‘Obari School’ of animation or working with him on several works. I hope to see you then.