I was racking my brains over what to write for this blog entry: it’s too early to give a worthwhile run-down of what’s the best new summer show currently airing and wider-reaching topics such as the state of the industry have been done to death right across the anime blogosphere already. Looking at my own anime collection however, there’s the familiar array of the big name directors (Miyazaki, Kon, Anno, Shinkai, Oshii) and my prized (and slowly expanding!) selection of OSTs; when I talk about my favourite series and movies the names of the directors, studios and occasionally soundtrack composers are the first to come up in discussion. And yet the visual appeal of the animated medium extends beyond the roof it’s drawn under or, indeed, who’s sitting in the metaphorical director’s chair.
I’ve always considered the characters to be what brings pretty much every animated story to life: be it children, adults or talking animals/robots/loaves of bread, the characters and the way they look have a lot to do with whether you enjoy a series or movie. Many iconic faces in hit OAVs from the late 80s and early 90s (Bubblegum Crisis, Riding Bean and Gunsmith Cats) have the input of Kenichi Sonoda in common; Yoshiyuki Sadamoto has been a Studio Gainax stalwart from its inception, lending his distinctive style to many of their flagship titles in addition to the likes of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and .Hack (plus designing an Eric Clapton album cover!!). Yoshitoshi ABe is another one of those names that deserves to be remembered for his own distinctive contribution to some of my favourite anime titles.
Admittedly ABe’s CV is not as extensive as some, and he has kept a fairly low profile in the last couple of years. His projects are often the more intellectual and obscure titles too, often collaborating with the likes of Hirotsugu Hamasaki and the commonly paired team of Chiaki J Konaka and Ryutaro Nakamura.
Perhaps ironically, ABe didn’t initially set out to work in the anime and manga industry. He had little contact with anime and manga as a child but studied at the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music; he only took an interest when he branched out into doujinshi while at college. He was approached by the creative team behind Serial Experiments: Lain after he started posting his efforts online and was consequently given the task of the character design and other conceptual artwork.
It was after the release of Lain on UK DVD when I first encountered ABe’s unique style: his character designs and background art greatly enhanced the atmosphere of the series and really made it stand out from other sci-fi anime shows that were popular at the time. Perhaps due to his differing background career-wise, his work is very distinctive and unusual. He makes use of both traditional drawing and painting techniques as well as digital technology; in the case of Lain and, later, Hamasaki’s Texhnolyze, his input was principally aesthetic and formed part of the pre-broadcast planning stages.
NieA_7, the light sci-fi sitcom concerning a hard-up student and her freeloading alien roommate and famously the fantasy drama Haibane Renmei, are both TV series stemming from ABe’s own doujinshi projects. NieA_7 was allegedly an opportunity for some of the Lain production staff to work on something a bit brighter in mood; Haibane Renmei was, interestingly, much more ABe’s story. The characters started life in his doujinshi but he also ended up writing the screenplay for the televised adaptation and as a result played a much more active and influential part in the series as a whole.
My appreciation of these titles has much to do with the storytelling – Konaka and Nakamura have impressed me with the likes of Kino’s Journey and Ghost Hound for instance, but those striking backgrounds, unnerving atmospherics and haunting character expressions that ABe lends to the projects he is involved in are just as memorable for me.
Sadly we seem to be waiting a while to see what he will do next. Aside from drawing the cover illustrations for the Welcome to the NHK! light novels and one or two artbook compilations (one of those is a Lain artbook collection, An Omnipresence in The Wired, and another, Robot, was a collaboration with Range Murata among others) he has not worked with an animation studio since 2003′s Texhnolyze. I for one hope that he is called upon to work on another TV series or, indeed, a feature film in the near future because the talent and innovation exhibited by the likes of ABe and those he works with are one of the main reasons why I’m an anime fan.