Animator Spotlight: Yasunori Miyazawa

The history of Japanese animation is marked by eclectic animation styles. Specific nuances unique to the anime pipeline have allowed for individual artistic freedom to generally reign in ways which nothing else in the commercial sphere has ever quite paralleled. Whether that comes in the form of drawings which utterly disregard the design sheets, a myriad of unusual timing approaches, peculiar effects, or any number of different flourishes, sakuga fandom – as it currently exists – owes its shape to these production caveats. Among the most recognized animators, there is one artist in particular who takes this principle of individuality to the highest degree, checking off all the aforementioned boxes and having a longevity spanning five decades of history to boot. In his infinite idiosyncrasies, Yasunori Miyazawa is quite possibly the most unique animator to have ever graced this medium.

There is unfortunately little information publicized about the early life of Yasunori Miyazawa. Even his birth year, 1961, required less than direct measures to ascertain. Guarded behind his private ways, the influences and inspirations that persuaded enough of an interest in animation for him to pursue it as a career may never be known. One way or another, however, he joined the anime industry through Studio World in the early ’80s. His time there did not last long, as after just a few years of largely douga-centric work, he joined the famed Studio Junio as a key animator and suddenly shared a space alongside many hugely relevant artists such as Toshiyuki Inoue, Hisashi Eguchi, and Satoru Utsunomiya to name a few. His connection to this group of industry titans, no doubt paired with his drawing ability, led to his participation on many critically acclaimed movies, such as the works of Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Paprika) and Hiroyuki Okiura (Jin Roh). Prior to cementing his name on such historic titles though, it was children’s anime where we find Miyazawa’s humble beginnings. His first readily identifiable work can be found on the 1985 version of GeGeGe no Kitaro – a show for which Studio Junio was a regular subcontractor. Shortly thereafter, under similar circumstances, he would attach himself to Tanoshii Muumin Ikka (1990), more commonly known in the west as Moomin.

Moomin did not demand revolutionary animation from Miyazawa, and it was still early enough in his career that he was content not to be a revolutionary. Nonetheless, some of the series’ charm can certainly be attributed to his drawings. Under his hand, the cel-to-background ratio often sky-rocketed, while the low-line count and simple designs promoted some of the gentler acting the series became known for. This is all especially significant considering the volume he was tasked with across its runtime. Of the nine episodes of Moomin Yasunori Miyazawa contributed animation to, not a single one had more than four key animators, meaning more often than not, several scenes throughout the episode would be charged to him. On his tenth and final contribution to the show, episode 72, he did episode direction for the first and only time in his career. It’s little more than an interesting piece of trivia in the grand scheme of things, but it might speak to the trust he gained as someone intimately entwined with the fate of its production from nearly the start.

Moomin, as a deft adaptation of classic children’s literature, would have become a beloved success even without Miyazawa, but a Miyazawa-less Moomin is a world a hair sadder.

Having honed a number of skills on Moomin, the observant sakuga fan might’ve eagerly anticipated the direction his career would take upon the series’ conclusion in October of 1991. However, Yasunori Miyazawa has astonishingly few credits for the remainder of the ’90s. This was not due to a lack of working, but rather a consequence of Studio Junio’s frequent business interest in the animated pilot. An animated pilot is essentially no different than its live-action counterpart: a standalone episode produced specifically to sell a prospective show to a network or other distributor. Studio Junio would take funding to make pilots ahead of time, then once completed, offered them to companies as a potential series, thereby “double-dipping” on their investment. In any event, the tragic reality is that most of this work has not seen the light of day. Had Studio Junio survived longer than it did, perhaps there would have been a chance at a proper archival effort. That was not the case though, and thus, we’re forced to come to terms with the fact that years worth of notable work is lost. An investigation by @Farfromanimation unearthed word of one particular pilot that took six months to complete from the initial layout phase to the finished genga. It happened to be directed by Junichi Sato, with half-an-hour of animation almost entirely by Yasunori Miyazawa (Toshiyuki Inoue only helped a bit)! His ties to Production I.G. through Studio Junio also lead to many opportunities to work on video games for higher rates throughout this period. While not as dramatic as his time spent on pilots, these too present difficulty on the archiving front as there are likely many undocumented jobs, as well as games which were scrapped in the middle of development.

PS1 consoles output 240p resolution, so this is unfortunately the best quality we have of Yasunori Miyazawa’s fascinating scene on Popolocrois Monogatari (1996).

As a consequence of not being able to actually see the majority of Yasunori Miyazawa’s output from the decade following the conclusion of Moomin, he emerges into the new millennium with a more refined style seemingly out of nowhere. While it remains consistent with his fidgety approach to animation even in his earliest days, he would push those sensibilities even further and more consistently than ever before. The eccentric circus context in this scene on Popolocrois Monogatari II (2000) makes for one of the best examples of Yasunori Miyazawa’s style of animation, a style which remains more or less unchanged to this day.

The consistent momentum carried in turn by each circus character throughout creates an unrivalled whimsical atmosphere. This scene truly reaches legendary relic status with the enchanting manipulation of lights and shadows, particularly in the first few cuts.

Yasunori Miyazawa’s animation is predicated on momentum. Utilizing predominantly flat shapes that are easy to manipulate, he typically aims to keep the screen in constant motion, like a plate balancing on the end of a pole. In ideal circumstances, most if not all of his animation drawings are key frames, leaving little up to the discretion of inbetween artists. While these conditions might seem conducive to drawings that are all over the place, his work is typically quite deliberate in nature. There are many contexts that call for the opposite, sloppier approach, and Miyazawa is quick to oblige, but generally if a characters’ body part starts moving in a particular direction, it will continue along a predictable arc until it stops, upon which it’s liable to retreat back in the opposite direction. This creates a traceable rhythm to his work which synergizes well with contexts that involve effects, morphing, certain sports, and especially crowd animation. A crowd is, in a sense, a liquid, which makes the way Miyazawa shifts forms very appropriate for them.

For as idiosyncratic as Yasunori Miyazawa’s animation is, I would contend the aspect that makes him truly unique as an animator is not his drawings, but rather his control of the camera. In particular, he has essentially co-opted the tsuke-PAN for his own purposes. A tsuke-PAN is simply the anime industry equivalent of the dolly action, a live-action filming technique where the camera moves, usually on rails, with the intention of tracking a moving target. Clearly never one for following convention, Miyazawa instead deploys this technique in a seemingly erratic way, with the camera in his action cuts often shuffling back and forth and in every which direction. There are any number of possible interpretations for this, and as is the nature of art, it’s possible to field many equally valid theories. For starters, such a spastic camera places the viewer inside the scene itself, as if we were recording or viewing the action from a first-person perspective. It could just as likely stem from an awareness of the minimal detail in his drawings, since the constant shuffling of the screen prevents the eye from focusing on any single aspect for too long. The tsuke-PAN, as Miyazawa is wont to use it, also acts as an extension of the pendulum-like action in his animation. For instance, if a character shifts laterally and the camera PAN follows in the same direction, the drawings themselves don’t need to do as much work to sell the same effect.

Of the three theories, the first one loses credibility when we consider Miyazawa frequently deploys a shaky camera in situations where there is no need for the infusion of energy that it brings. The second also loses steam under scrutiny since it assumes he cares what viewers might think about his drawings, when everything about his output would suggest the opposite. This point might instead just be an unintended consequence, though an interesting one nonetheless. It’s the third and final theory, then, the one that aims to utilize the camera to emphasize specific parts of his motion, that appears most plausible while at the same time, also crowning him a complete oddity amongst his peers.

While there are no shortage of examples to choose from, the camera designed by Yasunori Miyazawa in this scene from Loups=Garous melds with his movement in a fascinating way.

In terms of potential mentors or inspirations, with such an individualistic style, it’s difficult to consider that anyone would’ve (or even could’ve) taught him to animate this way – that it’s all a creation of his brain and his brain alone, and in no way transferable. While that much probably carries some truth, it is difficult to ignore the presence of Satoru Utsunomiya. They would share a space at Junio together in the ’90s and importantly, Utsunomiya is often credited with pioneering the doll-like approach to moving characters that made Gosenzo-sama Banbanzai! (1990) a cultural revolution among animators. While it’s difficult to deny some of the overlap in their respective approaches to animation, their near identical age and the fact that they ultimately differ more than they’re similar, makes Utsunomiya an unlikely mentor. Rather, they likely developed their styles convergently, perhaps even influencing each other throughout the process.

The more idiosyncratic and specialized an animator’s style, the more likely the director will work to find – or even go out of their way to construct – scenarios in which the animator in question can fit within the surrounding context of the series. This was often the case for the likes of similarly esoteric artists like Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto, and in times when it wasn’t, it was because they attached themselves to works that were already highly stylized to begin with (The Animatrix, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Ping Pong the Animation, etc.). While this sort of specialized deployment was also often the case for Yasunori Miyazawa’s career, with the fall of Studio Junio at the turn of the century, his journey as a freelance animator began. As a result, Miyazawa became a regular contributor to TV animation, consequently placing his output on an order of magnitude more prolific than artists of similar aforementioned idiosyncrasy. While the prospect of more Miyazawa animation overall is enticing, it also meant that he would sometimes be met with scenarios in which there was no scene suitable for his approach. It doesn’t appear that this detail fazed him in the slightest, as you can isolate a large chunk of his career where he was clearly forcing square pegs through round holes – sometimes with hilarious results.

There are spaghetti legs, and then there are both kneecap-busted-backwards legs. Aside from the hilariously brilliant interpretation of this scenario, Miyazawa’s also animated it in a way that effectively no other artist in the industry could or would have managed.

Miyazawa’s unwillingness to be corrected or conform to the surrounding episode, and his ability to nonetheless find producers willing to hire him makes him nearly unique yet quite polarizing among anime watchers and certain industry members alike. His way of operating gives the impression that animation isn’t so much of a group project for him, but rather an exercise in finding interesting scenarios to bring his special sense of movement to. This philosophy is not going to be palatable with every director, nor fellow artist, but it does explain why he’s spent his entire career almost exclusively doing key animation jobs. Surely there was some level of jest, but Mitsuo Iso has gone so far as to call him a top 5 problem child in the industry [1]. Those throwing stones from glass houses aside, there is no denying Yasunori Miyazawa is generally very well respected among his peers. Toshiyuki Inoue, a fellow Studio Junio comrade, has spoken highly of his work [2]. In talking with some of the (relatively) younger generation of charismatic animators over the years, I’ve come to discover that sentiment is shared, especially among those who hold that animation is not about individual drawings, but about evoking a feeling from the audience, such as Ryo Imamura, Tatsuya Miki, and Kai Ikarashi, all of whom appreciate his animation. As previously mentioned, Miyazawa has also participated on some of the highest profile productions the anime industry has to offer in Jin Roh (2000), Millennium Actress (2002), Paprika (2006), and even Quentin Tarentino’s anime segment in Kill Bill (2003). This resume more than speaks for itself – you simply don’t get repeatedly invited to the best of the best without demonstrating extreme worth. It’s also noteworthy how most of the aforementioned productions are largely designed with draconian supervision, and while there is some homogenization of Miyazawa’s style, that the movement is still largely his own is a testament to the respect he has garnered.

Among Miyazawa’s many works on prestigious productions, this scene from Millennium Actress is my favorite. It’s a movie centered on a pursuit, one that spans years of the protagonist’s life and several genres of film in the process. As it approaches its climax, her exhaustion becomes tantamount, which makes it fortunate that Miyazawa was selected to depict her struggle to advance through the blizzard. From the uneasiness in her legs, to the billowing cloak, to the way her face uncomfortably shifts in and out in the second last cut – his fingerprints are on this scene in a way which did not usually exist on Satoshi Kon films.

Unfortunately, it may be more difficult for the average viewer to muster up the same feelings of respect as their industry counterpart. In fairness, the average viewer has a different perspective from someone who cares so deeply about the visual aspects of the medium, so when the screen suddenly takes off under Miyazawa’s hand, the dissonance can be understandably off-putting. Detail is also the great equalizer when it comes to fan perception. Poorly constructed drawings can easily escape criticism with the simple act of drowning them in highlights, shading and hatching which act to mask any structural issues. Miyazawa’s animation has none of those features, and if anything, is the complete opposite. Occasionally, even for seasoned veterans of the sakuga-sphere, there are times when his expression might overstep its bounds. As a result, Miyazawa has had more than his fair share of unsavory comments from all walks of life aimed at his animation throughout the years. Sakuga houkai (作画崩壊) is the popularized Japanese word for “drawing collapse”, and it’s often mistakenly leveled at highly expressionistic scenes that make viewers feel uncomfortable with something they’re not familiar with seeing. There is an important distinction to be made between poor drawings born out of a lack of skill, and “poor” drawings born out of an intent to elicit a response from the audience. Yasunori Miyazawa firmly falls in the latter camp.

It should be noted that there is a tricky pitfall built into the discourse here: Miyazawa’s work is skillful, even most staunch detractors may agree with that much, but there must be some higher-level reasoning behind what makes it “good” beyond the fact that he’s doing it on purpose. Thus, criticism of his animation that happens to often be largely non-congruent with the surrounding work shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. This discussion is largely beyond the scope of this piece, however.

With all that said, it’s easy to see why Yasunori Miyazawa’s most memorable and well regarded work is typically found on productions that are able to contextualize his style within a larger web of quirkiness. Whether or not it’s by design, this kind of expressionism within expressionism has the potential to amount to more readily digested, frictionless consumption. Eccentric directors and their generous productions become shepherds for this breed of animator, so it’s fortunate that Yasunori Miyazawa would flock to a few notable ones in particular throughout his career.

Near the top of that short list is Hiroyuki Imaishi. It takes a herculean effort to find anything touched by Imaishi that doesn’t have ostentatious presentation woven into its very ethos. From Dead Leaves (2004), to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007), Panty and Stocking (2010), Promare (2018) and everything in between, his works exist to stir the viewer in one way or another. The reception of Imaishi’s brazen direction will undoubtedly vary, but even his staunchest detractors cannot deny the platform for artistic expression all of his anime become. On his debut work, Dead Leaves, this resulted in its ridiculous conclusion landing in the hands of Yasunori Miyazawa, wherein he brought to life the demonic caterpillar that destroys the prison before being forced fed an old man, prompting its metamorphosis and subsequent untimely combustion. The later stages of Imaishi’s next anime, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, make Dead Leaves’ ending appear tame. This time Miyazawa appeared for the scene where Antispiral’s battleship arms itself with surrounding planets which, when thrown, have no effect on Super Galaxy Gurren Lagann. His final participation at GAINAX came with the sixth episode of Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, which stands as one of the best examples of the abstract shapes that form the foundation of his effects animation. He would uncharacteristically skip Kill la Kill (2014), but make up for it with his return on Promare. On top of helping establish triangular shapes as core to the film’s distinct visual language by animating the scene where they crash into the lake, Miyazawa was also asked to do design work. This wasn’t the first time he would assume this role in his career as every now and then his proclivity for the abstract attracts producers looking to spice up their series. For Promare, that would manifest in the eerie underground bunker segment of the film, which he designed himself.

Continuing with the contexts that have best enabled Yasunori Miyazawa, Fullmetal Alchemist: Sacred Star of Milos (2011), more colloquially known just as Milos, is an interesting case because it’s a popular, mainstream shounen franchise title, but thanks to the concoction of young and old animation minds in key roles on the project, it became one of the most inviting platforms for artistic expression in recent memory. The film is rife with individuality-centered scenes and the few tasked to Yasunori Miyazawa are no exception. In particular, Alphonse’s mad dash stands out the most, assuming almost Looney Tunes-like properties as this hulking mass of metal scrambles to rescue the falling heroine.

My favorite cut in this sequence is at 0:42, where the rapidly scrolling foreground is juxtaposed with the slowly crawling background structures. Meanwhile, Alphonse is completely losing his shit in the middle of these two unconcerned elements.

Milos is also one of the only times in Miyazawa’s career that his work shared the screen with that of the recently established web generation. While this doesn’t carry any immediate significance, his earlier output helped to set the stage for the loose, carefree expressionism that later outright defined the web-gen attitude and approach to animation. Beyond the intangible sense, drawing on a tablet – especially the earlier models – brought with it decreased pen stability relative to someone drawing on pencil and paper. This encouraged the simple shapes and wobbly movement characteristic of the web-gen output. That there were already those like Yasunori Miyazawa and Satoru Utsunomiya drawing on paper with a sort of unstable movement surely helped bridge the gap. In a talk with Kenichi Kutsuna, Toshiyuki Inoue has noted the similarity of Miyazawa’s effects animation in particular to that of the digital age of artists, further remarking the astounding age difference [3].

To have gotten this far without a mention of Masaaki Yuasa was difficult, but it is worthy of its own section, as this is the director under whom Miyazawa most brightly shines. Given the nature of their director-key animator relationship and shared proclivity for esoteric expression, one might intuitively assume that Yuasa is the older, mentor-like figure. This is not the case though, and if anything, the influence flows in the opposite direction. Masaaki Yuasa has hailed Miyazawa as a genius, listing his work on Popolocrois Monogatari (Video Game) among his top twenty favorite things – anime or otherwise [4]. Despite the mutual respect, their respective careers wouldn’t actually cross paths until Yuasa’s first TV anime, Kemonozume (2006), where he was sure to put Miyazawa’s skills to the test in one of the most baffling scenes in a show containing many.

Gravity-free, naked, chair-bound kumite doesn’t even begin to describe the deviant acts confined in Kemonozume.

Yasunori Miyazawa only helped a bit with the art setting on his next show, Kaiba (2008), but came back in full force for Tatami Galaxy (2010). Tatami Galaxy tells its powerful message of living out your youth predominantly through metaphor and abstract visuals, making Miyazawa a great fit for the show. He handled significant volume across three episodes, and even solo animated one of the short, special episodes that aired separately from the TV series. All told, his contribution to the franchise is notable, but he didn’t really take it over in the same way as Yuasa’s next show. That must seem like an odd claim to make right after mentioning the volume he produced on it, but that’s only because Miyazawa’s involvement in Ping Pong the Animation was genuinely transcendental.

Honest, qualitative analysis of Ping Pong the Animation is no small task. The series is a fiery display of passion that is sure to rent a space in your head for longer than the average anime has any right to. Having recently departed from Studio Madhouse, Masaaki Yuasa aimed to keep the same level of thorough ambition across his work, if not even aim higher, as he continued on to Tatsunoko Production. As a result of several factors, including not receiving the same level of robust support from the studio side, the series is also one of his messiest productions by a significant margin, to the point where his health was repeatedly threatened [5]. Masaaki Yuasa is no stranger to these circumstances, as his ambition naturally invites it, however scripting and storyboarding the entire show on such a schedule was quite reckless even by his standards. The unintended consequence of such a messy production is that it played right into the hands of animators like Yasunori Miyazawa who are capable of producing fast but dangerously effective work on a tight schedule. With a genga credit on all but four episodes of the show and contributing a ton to its iconic opening, it is not unreasonable to say his animation is the lifeblood of the work. Furthermore, the momentum inherent to his style suited the back-and-forth game of table tennis. He even has loads of experience animating tennis – the kind played on the ground – having been a regular to Production I.G.’s Prince of Tennis for many years prior.

The founding of Science Saru post-Ping Pong appears to have turned away a number of Yuasa’s allies, and while there could be many different reasons for it, such as the controversial Flash vectorization or the presence of certain producer-types at the studio, the reality is Miyazawa hasn’t worked on a Masaaki Yuasa anime since. Now that they’re both in a new phase of their respective careers, and Yuasa has stepped away from Science Saru following Inu Oh, it remains to be seen if he’ll bring his one-of-a-kind imagination to a creative endeavor again, and furthermore, if one of his most notable allies will join him.

The last circle of Miyazawa’s worth expanding on is a literal doujinshi circle – dubbed St. BREAK by Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto (that’s “St.” as in “studio” not “saint”, though they do produce saintly work). As a name, its origins date back at least to Angel Cop in 1989 where for the first time, Ohira and Hashimoto were credited separately under the name. Over three decades later and St. BREAK is still a relevant haven for the nonconformist, with new members joining over time such as Shinsaku Kozuma, Yoshimichi Kameda, Hokuto Sakiyama, Tomoyuki Niho, Masaaki Yuasa, and of course, Yasunori Miyazawa. While their paths crossed many times over the years, especially due to their mutual connection to Production I.G., Miyazawa’s working relationship with Shinya Ohira et. al. took off and immediately launched into the stratosphere with the breath-taking Asura’s Wrath cutscene directed by none other than Ohira himself.

Even being completely unfamiliar with the game, the plight of the protagonist in this short cutscene is haunting. The animation, aided by the inherent wobbliness, wholly captures his struggle. It’s also notable how the processing intentionally leaves many of the animators’ lines raw and unfiltered.

Recently, Yasunori Miyazawa and St. BREAK were summoned by producer Tsutomu Fujio for Misaki no Mayoiga (2021). From the outside looking in, one might think that it’s a high-end movie production, considering most of what is paraded around from it features the wobbly eccentricities of this fascinating group. In reality though, their work only encompasses a relatively short folklore storytelling, with the rest of the David Production film having a fairly pedestrian look to it. This folklore setting doubled as the ideal context to permit a complete lack of restraint from the parties involved – the exact nature of whom we might never know since they were all credited under the ST. BREAK name instead of individually!

Yasunori Miyazawa’s section is completely unhinged – some of his stronger work even. I particularly appreciate the range he shows – drawing animals, background animation, food, spacious layouts, and more. The buildings deforming around 1:40 is just not something you see tackled ever.

An essay topic in and of itself, the window does seem to be closing on animators with transformative powers like Yasunori Miyazawa and those others associated with St. BREAK. The skyrocketing popularity of anime has increasingly encouraged some producers to homogenize their product and request adherence to strict models, lest an experimental sequence be paraded around on social media as an example of collapse. It should be noted that this is far from just a recent trend, rather something that has been developing over the course of the last decade. Moreover, fewer up-and-coming animators appear to be embracing such wild idiosyncrasy as a result of poor schedules and a shift in production philosophy that makes doing your own genga a rarity (it’s hard to be individualistic when someone else is finishing your drawings!). Perhaps we’re also seeing a shift in preferences, where even those who are willing to step outside the boundary do so in a way that doesn’t involve the drastic deformity of a Miyazawa or Ohira but instead something still tethered to reality.

Regarding Yasunori Miyazawa specifically, there were two young artists from Production I.G. who appeared to be influenced by him: Yuki Kawashima and Shintaro Douge. Nothing about his career trajectory would suggest he is the type to explicitly mentor students, so these two likely used their time as douga artists in the early ’00s to independently study and learn from his work, which would have regularly passed through their department. Regardless of how it happened, they both would spend a number of years incorporating a shifty looseness in their animation jobs, some of which were even mistaken [eg. 1][eg. 2] for Miyazawa himself. Unfortunately, we can only assume the harsh realities of commercial animation tired their spirits, as their careers have slowly dwindled to where both have effectively retired from the industry at this point. This leaves no proper heir for Yasunori Miyazawa’s style, and with a career spanning an impressive five decades, it remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank.

For the time being though, there is still plenty of reason to celebrate. The lengthy scene he handled on Cider no You ni Kotoba ga Wakiagaru (2021) features some of Yasunori Miyazawa’s most charismatic animation to date. Meanwhile, his most recent work as of writing is found on Hikari no Ou – a niche, fantasy novel series produced by Signal M.D. with highly unorthodox storytelling due to Mamoru Oshii’s scriptwriting and Junji Nishimura’s direction. The prevalence of mythical creatures combined with the obtuse presentation makes his animation a suitable fit, though, having already animated several minutes worth on each of the first four episodes, we can only hope the underlying production issues don’t compromise his output any further.

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2 thoughts on “Animator Spotlight: Yasunori Miyazawa

  1. >Unfortunately, we can only assume the harsh realities of commercial animation tired their spirits, as their careers have slowly dwindled to where both have effectively retired from the industry at this point.

    I’m curious how you were able to find information like this.

    1. both artists are notable enough to have received wiki pages tracking their work

      Shintaro Douge:

      Yuki Kawashima:

      The site is not uploaded religiously so it’s possible some credits are missed, but I also pay pretty close attention to seasonal anime credits myself so I’d have noticed if anything got missed. In any event, Shintaro Douge has three credited jobs since 2018 while Kawashima has zero – so it’s fairly safe to assume they’ve found employment elsewhere.

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