Kōji Nanke (南家こうじ): Anime’s Eclectic Musical Poet

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Animation and music, when crafted and combined well, make for an exhilarating duo. Innumerable cartoons from the Golden Age of American animation, in particular, relied on the visuals working in tandem with the music. Animation itself is a wide-ranging medium, capable of several different modes of expression, and a particularly intrepid filmmaker can spend an entire career experimenting with a variety of forms and styles.

Perhaps the greatest living representative of both these ideas is the Japanese independent animator Kōji Nanke. Almost all of his work has been music videos, particularly for NHK’s Minna no Uta, and within these confines he has often created beautiful gems that not only try out different animated mediums and artistic styles with utmost craftsmanship, but do so with the relationship between the visuals and the music in mind. In Nanke’s best work, the animation and the music are inseparable from each other even as the former is recognizable as his vision, to riveting effect.

Nanke began his career in 1971 at Tatsunoko Pro, where he learned about animation on the job in the finishing department. By 1972 he was animating on Gatchaman; when the series ended in 1974, however, he had evidently gotten tired of the industry, and the following year he began working as a freelance animator on commercials. Early in the summer of 1976, he heard from the great illustrator and animator Seiichi Hayashi about an animation festival that August, the Animation ’76 Summer Festival; with little time but great interest, Nanke created his first independent film, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, just in time for the screening. Animation writer Benjamin Ettinger describes this largely unknown, regrettably unavailable film as being “spare, clean, almost minimalist…[the film] is almost devoid of color and shows us a series of images stripped down to a bare collection of lines – a cup is a rectangle in the middle of the screen into which a vividly contrastingly three-dimensional red fluid is poured, a city skyline is rained on from above by a few faintly brushed-on clouds…”

Two years later came the very first Minna no Uta segment with Nanke’s involvement, Daruma-san fell over. This segment was dominated largely by the illustrations of Takao Yaguchi, creator of Tsurkichi Sanpei; Nanke’s animation, accompanying the fast-singing parts of the song, stood in stark contrast to Yaguchi’s more “typical” manga style, drawn as it was in a flat, almost crude, colorful style.

His first full Minna no Uta short, The Sad Mongoose, premiered in December 1979. It is much in the same mold as his scenes in Daruma-san fell over, with its colorful, simplistic stylization extending even to the backgrounds such that several shots are a unified whole. In that regard, the visual style and Nanke’s bouncy character animation are paradoxically a good fit with the song about a homesick, forlorn mongoose; even early on, Nanke knew that merely animating the song was not enough, but he had to infuse his own good-humored sensibility as well. In particular, the scene in which the mongoose runs almost excitedly up to the screen (take note of the patterned background of angelic mongooses) and tries to grin only to droop down in sadness is believably pathetic, especially since his final depressed pose is depicted as a moving holda touch that, in keeping the mongoose “alive” as he is still, makes his emotional state more convincing.

Nanke’s next MnU segment, March of the Big Totto, would come in August the following year. Packed to the brim with simple yet vivacious animation and backgrounds drenched in marker and crayon, Totto is Nanke’s first breakthrough, set to a catchy fisher’s march (sung by the quartet Duke Aces) that gradually rises in key as the events grow more and more ludicrous, culminating in the boy and his cat catching a stack of gargantuan fish that topples over and reveals the affair to be a dream; the bold color styling allows the characters to pop out even as the backgrounds are richly colored in themselves, and the lack of outlines on most of the characters makes their conspicuously squashing-and-stretching motion all the more alive. A nice touch is Nanke placing the spoken interludes in the cat’s mouth, creating humorous incongruity between the feline’s kiddish design and its gruff, manly voice.

There were no Minna no Uta segments from Nanke in 1981: that year, he would begin creating arguably his most well-known work in the West, his OPs and EDs for the three Rumiko Takahashi anime that came out over the span of roughly a decade (Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku, Ranma ½). His first OP and ED for Urusei Yatsura represent his most striking experimentation with composition in his earliest years, every shot an attractive arrangement of the on-screen elements; they are also the earliest instances of his integration of decorative designs into the animation proper, broadening his range of visual expression. Nanke’s lively character animation takes the appeal of the show’s character designs even further, making them rather cute; of particular note are the scenes in the OP where Ataru, Lum, and Shinobu dance together, in which Ataru is clearly uncomfortable with having the other two around and is glad to see them goonly to be burned by Ten. Most of his work for these three Takahashi shows (OPs 1-3 and 6 and EDs 1-6 and 9 of Urusei Yatsura, OPs 1 and 4-5 and EDs 1 and 5-6 of Maison Ikkoku, OPs 4 and 7 and EDs 3, 5-6, and 8-9 of Ranma ½) is worth watching, as visually they are often as experimental as his Minna no Uta work.

Even early on, Nanke’s work could vary between sublime animated fun and a lyrical, almost profound tone; in 1982 came two Minna no Uta segments, the upbeat I Woke Up This Morning and The Light Blue One-Piece. The former features character animation in much the same mold as March of the Big Totto, albeit with discrete outlines that extend to the backgrounds—allowing some nice animation in which they morph into toothbrushes and cups—and introduces his use of frames within the frame, opening “windows” for more visuals to be depicted on-screen at once; it also shares with several of his OPs (including his energetic animation on Urusei Yatsura‘s second and third EDs that year) an understated cynicism that mainly takes the form of funny physical bits—witness how much abuse the cat takes! The latter is not available online, although the song itself is a slow love song, and NHK’s entry for the segment shows that Nanke’s animation was novelly set against live-action footage. This was the same year he did animation for The Madeka Siblings, a song by the controversial idol group Warabe; the only online traces of this work are a brief clip and a candy commercial featuring the song, in which Nanke experiments with eye shapes as a way of discerning the group’s three members—and, in the former, also constantly transforms the background patterns, in effect animating the entire screen.

The variance in tone would continue with his MnU segments in 1983. The Kittens of Apple Forest, an extension of his ED for Mrs. Pepperpot, features exuberant dance animation of the titular old lady that none other than Masaaki Yuasa has cited as an influence, surrounded by pretty design and framing; in particular, the drawn-out crayon line that forms a heart around the dance animation, expands, and finally presages a full-blown background is surely a neat display of Nanke’s ability to exploit even the slightest visual elements for ingenious effect. (In a similar vein was Urusei Yatsura‘s endearingly cheesy second OP from this year, its song appropriately titled Dancing Star.) Later that year, his 15 Minutes on the Dream Express largely eschewed character animation in favor of a succession of beautiful, painterly images, particularly as the two children rise up to and fly across the decorative night sky, witnessing various alluring sights; in these respects, and with its dreamy atmosphere, the segment is somewhat reminiscent of Gisaburō Sugii’s masterpiece Night on the Galactic Railroad two years later.

One of Nanke’s most delicate early Minna no Uta shorts is Come to the Ocean (begins at 2:34 in the link), which premiered August 1984; its beauty lies in its pastel aesthetic and brilliant minimalism. The opening alone is a strange, lovely moment, as the girl, depicted in the sparest outlines, has her color shaded in, followed by the cloudy-sky beach fading in around her. Throughout the short, underscored by a melancholy song performed by Masako Mori, Nanke uses skillful, cinematic cutting to bring wonder to seemingly trivial events—scenes like the girl starting to run down the beach, the glowing seagull flying through the air, and the girl’s sandal being thrown into the air whereby it lands on her head and settles on the ground, to name just the first half of the short, become animated poetry in themselves. In the second half, the wondrous moments, with their gentle character animation, are interspersed with exquisite pastel transformations; the fine lines of the seashell become like sand being deposited and washed away by ocean waves as they morph into roughly colored illustrations of the girl and finally a minimal rendering of her against the pattern on her dress, representing her bliss as she approaches the ocean to meet up with the one she loves.

In stark tonal contrast, yet in its own way just as indicative of how experimental Nanke was becoming, is his third Urusei Yatsura OP, with its bold, abstract design and color styling and playful use of cutouts and illustrations by Akemi Takada. 1984 was also the year Nanke began contributing a number of music videos to Fuji TV’s long-running Ponkikki children’s series; his first, The Moon Swing, is a truly odd collage of disparate elements that doesn’t sit quite right. The two lovers slightly resemble 30s cartoons and at certain pivotal moments are seen in silhouette, while the other characters look like refugees from a third-rate Saturday morning cartoon, but all are set against the outlined night-hued backgrounds and animated quite bouncily; similarly, the mushy love song performed by Yumi Kojima is countered by some of the most misanthropic cuts in Nanke’s oeuvre, namely the dementedly-laughing rabbit chauffeur, the fact that the titular moon swing is concussing another rabbit (complete with eye multiples) as it is being swung, and a star laughing at said rabbit’s pain only to swallow a passing comet as it does so. Like any great artist, even Nanke had his missteps on occasion, though so much of his work is good that they can be forgiven.

1985 was perhaps the most pivotal of Nanke’s early years in terms of experimenting with other mediums. His delightful, vividly-colored Minna no Uta segment In the Projects from that April, about the six undisciplined (and stylistically different!) students at the front row of the classroom who are placated only by the onset of flu, features fairly excellent perspective animation of buildings morphing into school desks along with the boisterous character animation of his early years, and more importantly incorporates crayon animation as a creative way of showing the children’s thoughts and outbursts. From around the same time, his pleasantly cartoonish second Ponkikki segment, Kappapa, features what appears to be pencil-shaded animation of bubbles, waves, and fish that the titular kappa swims by; the same sort of animation prominently appeared in his final Urusei Yatsura ED later that year, the ninth overall. The corresponding sixth OP is notable for its thickly-drawn, at times marker-like graphics and dynamic cinematography; it also features some fairly over-the-top imagery in tune with the snazzy song, like the shot of Ataru’s eyes exploding. In December, Nanke animated almost an entire MnU segment, The Upper Classman, using cutouts; the distinctive designs and movement he manages to achieve, along with the fittingly paper-constructed background art, result in one of his most indelible works, a gently satirical look at a schoolgirl and her crush.

One of Nanke’s most prominent influences throughout his career was undoubtedly the great independent animator Tadanari Okamoto. Like Nanke, Okamoto made a point of experimenting with several different mediums during his career as a way of scoping out what animation was capable of, and like Nanke, Okamoto actively emphasized how important the musical element was to his animation. As it happens, Nanke’s earliest character designs even bear apparent influence from Okamoto’s designs in his 2D work (particularly the marker-colored Ningen Ijime short The Phone Booth and the second and fourth segments of his Five Small Stories), indicating how much Nanke may have looked up to him in his formative years. His free-wheeling early animation, meanwhile, had its equal in anime only in Sanrio’s unsung classic Little Jumbo, which (along with American cartoons from the 40s and 50s) may have influenced him as well; the film was allegedly released in 1977 (having been completed in 1975), a year before Nanke’s Minna no Uta debut.

During the 80s, Nanke contributed his talents in other ways besides televised music videos. He was the character designer of Studio Pierrot’s shows Mrs. Pepperpot (previously mentioned) and Anmitsu Hime, in addition to providing their catchy OPs and EDs, and his appealing designs, so far from the norm in 80s anime, gave these shows a charming flavor. He animated musical sequences in The Golden Bird (completed in 1984, released in 1987) and Fairy Florence (1985), both among the more artistic anime films of that period; in the former, director Toshio Hirata gave him carte blanche in animating the villains’ dance, resulting in an extravagant, radiantly-colored segment in which Nanke relishes in Manabu Ōhashi’s geometric character designs, and adds dynamic touches of his own like the distinctly-textured, pliable pink blob monsters. Unfortunately, his sequence in the latter cannot be determined, especially given his technical versatility at this point (as a side note, fellow indie/Minna no Uta animator Tadahiko Horiguchi, who animated the fourth OP and seventh ED of Urusei Yatsura under the supervision of Yūji Moriyama (responsible for most of the OPs and the fourth ED on Ranma ½, as well as this Nanke-influenced OP for Creamy Mami), was a participant in Florence as well, almost certainly as the animator of the Moko-moko; they highly resemble his work for Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, particularly #29).

Nanke would continue to be prolific for the remainder of the decade. The adorable A Tail’s Feelings, his only Minna no Uta segment from 1986 available online in its entirety, features cute anthropomorphic cat designs and more of his eye-catching, graphical visual schemes, conveying the girl cat’s bewilderment and eventual frustration at how, instead of the boy cat being honest about his romantic attraction, he turns around and lets her see only his tail. More elegant and unconventional is his first Maison Ikkoku OP, with its heavy use of color-penciled fading illustrations, cutouts, and at times animated backgrounds; the ED is also worth a look for its slow, fluid movement and silhouette transforming. From 1987, Nanke’s bouncy MnU short Rain Falls on Banana Town is a prelude to the minimal yet effective use of color that would define his later years; the banana and strawberry rains that define their respective towns, but which also switch towns on occasion, bring joy, sustenance, and rich yellow and pink hues to the colorless populace and landscape. His fourth OP and fifth ED for Maison Ikkoku suffer from their hideously dated 80s songs, but feature lovely pastel-colored, dot-textured backgrounds and unique framing in which the animation is rendered with color inside the frame and solely in outlines outside it; this is done with the characters in the OP, and with background animation (from the point-of-view of a driver) in the ED.

Nanke’s 1988 Minna no Uta segment Always a Traveler heralds his shift towards the more pensive style that had been seen in some of his earlier shorts, and which would characterize most of his later work; with its shaded visuals, it depicts a father who wanders through a largely barren landscape. That the shadings are animated is the point: not only do they bring depth and life to the otherwise unremarkable animation of the father and his son (their lack of color emphasizes the shadings’ importance), but the colored shadings of the landscape, in their own constant flux, create an aura of mystique about the countryside through which the father travels, as though it were itself living and breathing. At the segment’s climax, Nanke daringly frames the wandering father and the landscape inside transformative shadings—a head turns into a flying bird that dissipates into clouds—eloquently illustrating the father’s state of mind as he, through the lyrics, observes that the empty sky is silent, endlessly wide as it is. The short closes with the father walking onward, but now framed as a window that, in the midst of a monochromatic city, eventually settles on a glass building, looking jarringly dislocated; even when the cloudy sky is reflected onto the building’s other windows, the father’s lower legs remains cut off by his window which itself remains out of place, a visual suggestion that he can never truly settle down and fit in with the city.

In 1989 came one of Nanke’s most impressive achievements, namely the Oskar Fischinger-esque opening to Mamoru Oshii’s legendary OVA Gosenzosama Banbanzai!. Here, he playfully yet deftly manipulates abstract shapes and patterns such that they come off as electrical waves and interference affecting a TV screen, at times forming solid objects out of them, and on top of that animates convincing static for almost the entire duration, even using it to form the OVA’s logo at the end! And while not as ambitious, Nanke’s ED for Ranma ½ that year (3rd overall) is fun for how he uses paper cutouts to dig at the show’s conceit of character transformation, especially when he divides the characters into various parts to mess around with (to say nothing of how he outright crumples up the paper a few times); a nice touch is that Ranma visibly reacts to the treatment inflicted upon him.

From about 1990 onward, the difference between Nanke’s thoughtful, gentle work and his playful, joyous work grew more pronounced. The fourth OP of Ranma ½ features insanely rapid animation of several of the show’s characters running and tripping over each other, to say nothing of the animated head cutouts and the liberal use of oil paints to represent everything from water to Ranma’s claustrophobia and desperation to escape (at least, throughout this OP) to the aforementioned heads’ paths as they move. Completely different, though, is his December 1990 Minna no Uta short The Day Mom Was a Swan, one of his most eminently beautiful and wistful creations; with achingly tender singing by Yūko Doi and music by Takashi Tsushimi (arranged by Kōhei Tanaka), it depicts a little girl who discovers that her mother was once a great ballet dancer. This tour-de-force features gorgeous color styling unlike anything Nanke had done before; in the first half, the multi-colored sunlight shining into the dark purple room conveys the girl’s sense of magic and awe as she looks into her mother’s past, while in the second half, the way that her mother is rendered in the harsh, arid, yellow-dominated colors of her surroundings as she does her chores (in contrast to the girl’s full-bodied color) is almost indicative of how world-weary she has become, in contrast to her former spirited self. The undeniable highlights of the short are the interludes depicting the mother dancing; every shot introduces a unique composition and color scheme, each background defined by Nanke’s masterful use of colored shadings and lines. The animation brilliantly captures the graceful, yet methodical spontaneity of ballet through its lively, loose, yet intricate linework, the sparse appearance of the drawings making their movement even more powerful; the minimal application of white and skin colors to the animation is enough that, while it prevents the dancer from disappearing completely into her distinctively-lit/colored surroundings, she still blends in with them, giving the impression that she is truly dancing in the fantasy-like settings and spaces often associated with ballet. Even besides these interludes, it’s heartwarming to watch the girl’s playful actions as she tries out the ballet shoes with her hands and then begins trying to ballet-dance herself, interspersed with said interludes of her mother when she was young.

Unfortunately, many of Nanke’s Minna no Uta segments from the 90s, among them 1993’s Deja Vu and Me (which Ben Ettinger has described as having “freeflowing pastel/crayon transformations”), are currently unavailable online, making it impossible to provide a full portrait of what was undoubtedly an exciting period in his artistic development. Nevertheless, the eighth ED of Ranma ½, from 1991, is a sort of ingenious pencil-test-to-finished-animation comparison that underlines Ranma’s distinct male and female sides, featuring more of Nanke’s playful framing; the seventh and final OP, from 1992, is an impressive technical feat in which Nanke not only successfully replicates the show’s appealingly athletic perspective animation, but does so against an abstract setting of shapes that modulate between flat and dimensional on a whim.

One of Nanke’s more odd works is the 1994 Minna no Uta short I Win, in which a boy finds that anything he wants can come true when he dreams (though at the end he realizes real life is not so bad either); the almost-static opening and interludes, which merely depict the boy sleeping, gives way to a rapid stream of colorful, imaginative drawings animating the boy’s capricious, fittingly stream-of-conscious whims and desires. While fun, it undeniably pales in comparison to his best films, especially the following year’s Who Owns the Rivers?, easily the pinnacle of his work in the early-to-mid-90s.

With a children’s crayon-drawing style, Nanke’s use of spare lines and color reaches new levels of virtuosity. The simplistic manner in which the pudgy little boy draws much of the scenery and objects out is inventively meta, with the formation of a river being represented by a blue raindrop sprinkling onto the boy’s drawing of a mountain and streaming down the blank, canvas-like space as the boy continues drawing flowers and trees. Color begins to enter the fray as the boy draws butterflies, birds, and human habitations, the scenery growing richer; it culminates in a climax in which a girl’s flower becomes a whole field of flowers that transforms into a river of humans, which then gives way to astonishingly-animated views of the river and its surroundings, including the lively animalsthe dynamic cinematography, to say nothing of how all the animation is rendered in crayon, contributes to the sequence’s effectiveness! Combined with the song (which sounds suspiciously like It’s a Small World After All), the segment’s environmental message is clear, but not forced down one’s throat: the rivers belong to everyone, humans and animals and forests alike.

Who Owns the Rivers? is, in addition to one of Nanke’s finest films, also one of the more prominent examples of the influence French-Canadian animator Frédéric Back had on him in his later years. Much like Nanke’s later work, Frédéric Back’s last and best films (Crac, The Man Who Planted Trees, The Mighty River) are characterized by their imaginative manipulation of sparse lines, shadings, and color across a sweeping canvas, opening up a wide range of possibilities for animated expression; more potently, the animation was inseparable from the films’ strong themes, which, like Rivers?, stressed the need for an understanding and cooperation between mankind and nature.

By the late-1990s and early 2000s, Nanke was reaching the height of his powers. His 1998 masterpiece I Am Your Tears is surely his most Back-inspired Minna no Uta segment currently available, going even further than Who Owns the Rivers? in its pared-down yet breathtakingly metamorphic, spatial pencil animation (particularly the amazing liquid animation) and exemplary coloring (or lack thereof!). That same year, he collaborated with Sunao Katabuchi (who would go on to create the acclaimed films Princess Arete, Mai Mai Miracle, and In This Corner of the World) and the Japanese animation group Anido for the 14-minute film Upon the Planet, which was entirely animated by him under Katabuchi’s direction; to date, this long-form projecta rarity in Nanke’s careerhas unfortunately only been screened at festivals. Based on available images, it is very much of a piece with his Minna no Uta work of the period, and according to Ettinger, none other than Frédéric Back himself “was appreciative of the film when it was shown him by Isao Takahata on the occasion of his visit to Studio Ghibli.” Nanke also created another Ponkikki segment at this time, Sunday Meal, which visually combines the minimalism of Rivers? and Tears with more conventional Western-influenced designs and lighthearted, funny filmmaking; it is notable for its shifts to an American superhero comic book style, an amusing way of depicting of how heroically the boy sees his father and the city’s workers.

Over the years, Nanke would create openings and endings for other anime besides Rumiko Takahashi’s, such as his opening for the 1986 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz or the two OP/ED pairs for the 1987 adaptation of Norakuro-kun, the latter of which were collaborations with others (the first OP and ED were done with Toshiyasu Okada, the second OP and ED with Akira Shigino and Takeshi Ōsaka); in several of these, his artistic flair is apparent. Undoubtedly the crowning achievement of his OP/ED work, however, is his OP for Group TAC’s Kyoro-chan, seen on episodes of the show that aired from January 2000 onward; it’s a thrilling work of pure joy demonstrating how thoroughly and eclectically he had mastered animation as an art form, as the titular bird Kyoro-chan modulates effortlessly between a wide variety of visual mediums and techniques. Especially impressive is the prominent use of various forms of stop-motion, ranging from colorful cardboard cutouts to a flip book with color pencil drawings to even animation of a set square and an eraser with the bird on them, to say nothing of novel techniques like chalk animation or how Nanke often combines two or more mediums within the same frame (such as when he animates Kyoro-chan using pencil or marker within paper cutouts)! Around this same time, Nanke also collaborated with photographer Asuka Katagiri for the June 2000 Minna no Uta segment Spring and Summer, in which his hauntingly beautiful, at times rich minimalist animation of nature and humanity was juxtaposed with and superimposed over Katagiri’s photos; he notably experimented with (and succeeded at) animating naturalistic human designs through his ethos, in keeping with the short’s rather somber, contemplative tone. In a sense, the Kyoro-chan opening and Spring and Summer are the pinnacle of Nanke’s duality throughout his career: the former is Nanke at his most playful and inventive, firing a wide assortment of techniques at the viewer for fun’s sake, while the latter is distant and pensive, its strikingly spare yet movemented visuals evoking gentle, heartfelt emotions and thoughts. That they are so different in spite of being made by the same creator at almost the same time, and yet both equally brilliant as works of animation, is a testament to Nanke’s gifts as one of the greatest animators of his generation.

Unnervingly, however, during this same period in which Nanke firmly established his genius, his name could be found as key animator on two of the Scooby-Doo direct-to-video films animated at Mook Animation, namely The Witch’s Ghost (1999) and The Alien Invaders (2000). It is uncertain if there was another Kōji Nanke who was working in the anime industry at the time, or if this was indeed Nanke working on material far below his talent level for extra money; if the latter was the case, then such incidents are regrettably not unprecedented in animation history, with even the late, great American independent animator Michael Sporn finding himself and his studio responsible for a cheap, disturbingly Balto-esque DTV adaptation of White Fang in 1997.

In any event, Nanke continued to hone his craft, albeit not quite as often as before. His 2001 Minna no Uta short Kindness delicately tells the slightly melancholy story of a poor, worn-out stuffed animal dog who is abandoned by his boy—and how the boy visibly feels the absence of the dog, eventually realizing, after spotting the dog in the city and suddenly soaring through the skies as he follows it, that the dog cared for him and provided him kindness. Here, Nanke uses differently-colored canvases as a means of providing extra mood to his now-impeccable Back-influenced animation; the use of sepia at the beginning indicates that the dog’s glory days belong to the past, and the blue-lavender canvas as the dog checks on the boy playing video games, disappearing just as the boy notices, expresses the two former companions’ feelings of loneliness. Later, as the boy blissfully flies after the dog, the surroundings revert to sepia, as if the boy was once again feeling the love and comfort the dog used to bring him—making the boy’s shedding tears all the more powerful. Nanke also incorporates his old motif of cutouts into the animation at one point, when live-action city backdrops, pedestrian signs, and cars begin inundating the screen; it’s a simultaneously playful, experimental, and economical manner of getting across the hustle and bustle as the boy wanders through the city in search of his stuffed dog. In 2003 came The Baby Duck Song, which harkens back to his earlier Minna no Uta segments in its bouncy character animation, distinctive visual compositions at certain moments, and purely joyous mood; it differs, however, in the loving sheen of its color-penciled rendering against Nanke’s now-trademark blank spaces and the assured, dexterous quality of the animation itself, not to mention its occasional cinematographic flourishes (again, typical of Nanke at this point!).

In 2005 and 2006 came two particularly special Minna no Uta segments. The first of these, Blue Sky, features a song entirely written, composed, and sung by rookie singer-songwriter Kayo Yoshimoto, espousing a message of peace and hope in a modern age full of sadness. Throughout the segment, Nanke’s sepia canvas and spare renderings of the surroundings, along with the uncharacteristically rugged, realistically-constructed, agonized human characters, create the feeling of a gloomy, devastated land; yet, even in the midst of this tragedy, colorful flowers begin to sprout from the ground, their petals blowing in the wind through the sky ultimately signifying the human persistence to keep on living. Nanke’s sensible color styling again plays a key role in the animation’s effectiveness, the flowers’ beautiful rainbow-colored petals and green stems standing out conspicuously in the sepia tones of everything else; towards the end, as the petals begin flying vivaciously throughout, the sepia canvas finally turns to a brilliant blue sky with white clouds. As an added nice touch, Nanke was evidently given control over how to frame the on-screen lyrics throughout the segment, such that the words themselves become an important part of the visuals’ power; most pivotal is the very end, when the character for “rainbow”, 虹, settles into place exactly at the end of the flower petals’ rainbow—and a rainbow, so say the lyrics, is what even tears running down one’s cheeks will eventually turn into.

Even more special is the 2006 segment I, the Bird, and a Bell, featuring a musical setting by Ryūichi Sugimoto of the poem of the same name by the tragic Japanese female poet Misuzu Kaneko (an English translation can be found here). This was a passion project of its performer, tenor Tsutomu Aragaki, who overcame blindness and loneliness from a young age to become a proficient singer and who one day encountered Kaneko’s poem. Nanke’s elegantly minimalist and delicately-crafted animation of a girl who runs away from her life and bitterly cries, only to become a confident young woman, is not simply a visualization of the text, but a poetic, inspirational piece in its own right that complements the song, capturing the feelings of despair and inadequacy (felt by both Kaneko and Aragaki in their lifetimes) that shift to realizations of how, for all one’s shortcomings, one will always have value and admirable qualities in the end. In this light, the bird and the bellthe latter represented through its sound creating ripples!—are integral to the girl’s maturity, reminding her of her own goodness, and her shoe, an added detail on Nanke’s part, represents her self-confidence, thrown away in her desperate misery and picked up when she gets a hold of herself; so too do the color changes of the canvas, from sepia to blue-gray to white, evoke the girl’s gradually improving emotional state. Nanke’s use of paper-card framing to put most of the surroundings on a separate plane from the girl, as well as the use of Kaneko’s poetry as part of the animation (as in Blue Sky) and how the canvas is embellished with splotches of other colors for most of the segment, adds to the segment’s abstract theatricality.

In 2008, Nanke collaborated with photographer Maiko Miyagawa for the MnU segment The Boy Who Fell in Love with a Squirrel, based on its composer-lyricist Toshiaki Matsumoto’s encounter with a boy feeding a squirrel in a British park one winter day; the boy’s mother told Matsumoto the family had vacationed in the Nordic countries in the past summer just to fulfill the boy’s wish of seeing the squirrels there. The singer was then-10 year-old Takumi Kitamura, who had been selected from nationwide auditions for Minna no Uta. The segment does suffer a bit from how cloying the subject matter and Kitamura’s singing are; nevertheless, Nanke’s nimbly-sketched drawings and animation of the squirrel and its surroundings are a good fit with Miyagawa’s photos (likely of Kitamura himself), used in a manner reminiscent of Chris Marker’s classic La Jetée.

In addition to his Minna no Uta work, Nanke has also contributed two segments to NHK’s long-running children’s program Okaasan to Isho, the most recent being the 2009 Pancakes are Nice; its warm, cute simplicity and child-like designs belie the expertise behind its typically adroit line transformations. In 2011, Nanke embarked on his only other long-form film besides Upon the Planet, a nearly 11-minute adaptation of the children’s book Someday by Alison McGhee and Peter R. Reynolds. The lulling yet moving material and Reynolds’s meditatively spatial, minimalist illustrations are ideally suited to Nanke’s temperament; unlike Planet, this film has received a DVD release.

For almost a decade now, Nanke’s gentle minimalist style has largely settled into a comfortable maturity, as exemplified by his heart-rending 2015 segment A Story of Footwear and Umbrellas; sung by the idol group AKB48, it tells the story of two lonely grandmothers who respectively open a footwear shop and an umbrella shop next to each other and become fast friendsin a bitterly ironic climax, after the two elders have died, their families discover that the only real customers of their shops were each other, their happiness clearly more important to them than profit. Even so, he has admirably continued to experiment with different styles on occasion; his 2011 Ponkikki segment 365 Days’ Love Song features cuddly penguins rendered entirely in crayon, and his 2013 Minna no Uta short Zebra and Lion appears to be a departure from his current style altogether, with its colorful oil-paint backgrounds and crudely-designed animals whose crayon shadings are much more haphazard than those of the penguins in Love Song.

Nanke’s latest Minna no Uta segment, the warm and upbeat Let’s Go to Grandpa’s from August 2016, may be the best reflection of how far he has progressed as an artist. In its playful animation, vivid color styling, and Tadanari Okamoto-esque designs, it is very much in the mold of his earliest work; the seamless visual blend of crayon, color pencil, marker, and paint, however, along with the occasional flashes of brisk cinematography and the colors’ tastefully sparse application, make clear that he has built greatly upon his original skills since then to establish himself as one of animation’s greatest living practitioners. Now at age 65 and counting, Nanke is approaching his twilight years; he likely still has a few animated gems (if not masterpieces) up his sleeve, but even if he decides to retire now or, worse yet, his future work reveals a decline in his skills, his best work to date will remain among the finest that Japanese animation, if not animation in general, has to offer, and certainly almost unequalled when compared to what is typically considered anime. That his work for Minna no Uta, in particular, enjoys widespread exposure and popularity even amongst non-animation fans in Japan is testament to how much more compelling—and accessible—even the most unconventional animation can be when combined intimately and meaningfully with music to create an exceptional whole.

2 thoughts on “Kōji Nanke (南家こうじ): Anime’s Eclectic Musical Poet

  1. I really can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed reading this, this is one of those articles that has taken me over a week to get through and has changed how I look at anime as a whole forever.

    So, like, thanks. I will be watching for your writing moving forward.

    Liked by 1 person

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