Today we’ll have a very special post, right in time to celebrate a fantastic director’s birthday – and her entire career while we’re at it.
NAOKO YAMADA: THE PERSON
Yamada was born in Kyoto but didn’t get to stay there for long, since she moved to her maternal family’s home in the Gunma prefecture. She was raised in a very rural area there before returning to Kyoto years later, something she still fondly jokes about nowadays. Frolicking in the countryside wasn’t her only early hobby though, as she recalls already being a fan of various anime. Ghibli films such as Nausicaä were unsurprisingly among her favorites, though it’s series like Crayon Shin-chan and Doraemon that she was particularly fond of – coincidentally, two Shin-Ei Douga franchises with strong connections to the studio that would end up becoming her home. As an elementary schooler she would spend time copying drawings from new shows she came to enjoy, like Dragon Ball and Mobile Police Patlabor. Her artistic interests kept on expanding and brought her to join clubs like the photography and tokusatsu ones while growing up, but she academically settled with something more traditional as she majored in oil painting at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. And while she absorbed the technical knowledge just fine, she had some issues when it came to creating her own pieces; late into the course she felt she couldn’t properly express herself with the canvas, and instead decided to manufacture a mechanical objet d’art as her graduation project. The struggle to express herself has been a recurring theme throughout her life, eventually becoming a core element in her works as well. In live events and interviews she often notes that it’s hard for her to find the right words to say what she means, and various staff who have collaborated with her – voice actors, composers, and the like – have mentioned that she’s never overbearing with precise commands. Rather than risking words to be misunderstood with many orders, she would rather give them room to perform. In that regard she’s thankful she ended up in a company where almost all departments and artists are within her arm’s reach, which allows a safe and thorough supervision that isn’t artistically asphyxiating.
It’s worth noting that her interests had drifted rather heavily towards film rather than anime at that point. Even nowadays she’s a notorious film buff who uses the company’s staff blog to talk about the directors who convinced her to seek a creative path, or even directly influenced her work producing anime; notorious mentions include the likes of Yasujiro Ozu, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Sergei Parajanov, Sofia Coppola, and Lucile Hadžihalilović. When it comes to her field, her sources of inspiration are fairly non-standard as well. She’s not the only idiosyncratic anime director who has cited MushiPro’s psychosexual masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness as a fundamental part of their career, although shallow readings of Yamada’s work would never tell you that. Perhaps more interesting is her choice of Jan Švankmajer’s Alice as the movie that made her pay attention to animation to begin with. This unsettling take on Lewis Carroll’s work is a mix of stop motion and live action footage that hardly resembles anything in the industry she ended up on. Fans are often surprised when finding out where her roots are, since a superficial look at her titles leads you to think she’s simply a commercial anime director who adores cute things (which she does!). But by actually observing her as a director you can feel how tangible those influences can be, even in the most amusingly inconsequential form.
NAOKO YAMADA: THE ANIMATOR
And so the young woman enamored with film, who had recently finished a university course that somehow combined oil painting with the manufacture of art gadgets, ended up joining a 2D animation studio right away, simply because she saw their leaflet on her campus and it felt right; considering she had already briefly worked at a bakery where she used her artistic skills to decorate cakes, perhaps this chaotic progression was the most fitting end. Naoko Yamada joined Kyoto Animation in 2004 and was first tasked with drawing in-betweens for Inuyasha. Back then the studio did lots of outsourcing work for other companies, which included about one episode a month of Inuyasha for a total of over 30 by the end of the series. These were almost entirely all handled by Tatsuya Ishihara and Shouko Ikeda, whom fans of the studio’s work are surely acquainted with. This relationship was so healthy for both parties that KyoAni were even allowed to sneak in the cast of their first original work Munto in one episode, as that was being produced at the time. And amusingly enough, those background characters got more screentime than Yamada herself; due to arriving right at the end of the series and working on episodes where KyoAni only assisted Sunrise and thus didn’t get their in-betweeners properly credited, her name never actually appeared in the series – that means she either debuted on #160 or the finale #167, for those of you who appreciate the minutiae.
Rather than spending a training period drawing in-betweens to gain animation dexterity as tends to be the case, Yamada gained trust immediately and started drawing key animation for AIR, where she debuted on episode 9. Anime production is rarely easy though, so her experience wasn’t as positive as a quick promotion might make you think; in the end her first batch of cuts required many retakes, as the series director Tatsuya Ishihara kindly explained to her. That is a moment she fondly remembers despite the extra work it entailed for her, but most importantly, it marked the beginning of an essential relationship that shaped her career. Ishihara would proceed to become the mentor of a weird subculture girl throughout the following years, often assisting Yamada when her career was taking important leaps. But it’s not time for these exciting developments yet – she had to gradually improve as a key animator first. She worked on two episodes of Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid, where she learned a lot from the always demanding Yasuhiro Takemoto but struggled to keep up with his pace. During The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi she got to draw key animation for four episodes instead, and she particularly recalls having fun working on Taichi Ishidate’s inventive layouts for episode 10. When Kanon (2006) and Lucky Star were in production, her output was already quite high, and regularly included work on climactic episodes.
Looking at her achievements while paying no attention to her actual art would be quite the disservice, of course. Yamada’s drawings can be as refined as you’d expect from someone with her painting background, though it’s the femininity that often stands out. She defaults to a modern and trendy aesthetic when she’s allowed to draw freely, but bringing out the charm of women is what she enjoys the most – perhaps a bit too much sometimes. Her sense of cuteness isn’t the restrictive perfect beauty anime sometimes has, though; she can convey it with quick sketches, and chooses to do so with very goofy drawings over and over. The everyday, sometimes disheveled appeal is what she always intends to capture as an artist. But we’re talking about an animator, so observing her work in motion is necessary. Her timing tends to be on the wilder side, not really abrupt but far from even and smooth, with a pleasant bounciness to it. With the passage of time key animation has understandably become a lesser priority for her; when she acts as episode director she still enjoys drawing rough layouts and then let animators properly finish the cuts, but as series director she has no time for that. This isn’t to say her career as key animator is over, though. Up until the last few years, where she’s been ridiculously busy by any metrics, she was still regularly among the handful of great key animators trusted with ending sequences – the best example being the Nichijou ending that was fully key animated by Nao Naitou and her alone. When needed and available, Yamada the animator will always be there.
NAOKO YAMADA: THE EPISODE DIRECTOR
But let’s return to the young Yamada, who had already earned the company’s trust as a reliable asset. They clearly saw more in her than just key animation prowess however, since in 2007 she was already getting promoted to episode director. After passing the secret director aptitude exam, she went through the ritual of acting as an assistant for veteran staff to ease her way into the new role. First it was under both Taichi Ishidate and Tatsuya Ishihara for Clannad episode 8, and then episode 12 alongside Noriko Takao, who would end up playing an important role on her evolution as well. Episode 17 marked her directional debut, although she didn’t have room for much personal expression since she was working with Kazuya Sakamoto’s storyboards. Some timid attempts at interesting photography effects, back when anime’s postprocessing was in its clumsy infancy still, might have been a sign of what would eventually come. The show’s first extra episode was her first chance to fully control an episode – direction and storyboards – and that turned out to be… a fairly unglamorous debut, to be honest. Decent composition you wouldn’t be able to tell came from an absolute newbie, rather cartoony animation coupled with ridiculous low-angle layouts to accentuate the comedy, but that’s about it. The entire episode understandably feels like something a pupil of Ishihara would produce, especially when it comes to the approach to the humor.
The one constant we’ve been coming back to is explosive growth though, so by the time the sequel started airing she already felt like a different creator. Her involvement with Clannad After Story started with the cute third episode, where her soon to be best animation ally Yukiko Horiguchi decided to ignore the show’s questionable designs almost entirely in favor of a pleasantly loose and cartoony spectacle, with much more life to it than usual. Yamada got more adventurous with each episode she handled, putting more effort into the lighting, learning to create a sense of space, and trying out new techniques whenever possible; since her mentor Ishihara also happens to be a big fan of photography, the series also was the perfect training grounds for someone with a desire to try out new things in that regard. Not all digital effects have aged well at all, but some beautiful tricks she has maintained like dyeing lineart white under light sources already appeared back then. And more importantly than her visual quirks, her direction became tremendously effective; her episodes turned into a perfect example of execution trumping everything else, as it was hard not to feel engaged even if you weren’t all that invested in the narrative. That’s something all the staff quickly became aware of, which allowed her to direct and co-storyboard the finale of the first series she was seriously participating on as a director. Serves to say, that is rather exceptional.
Ever since then she’s been regularly handling key episodes at the studio, prioritizing her own projects but always helping out others if she’s got the time. Her contributions to series led by her peers are often considered some of the best moments in their respective series, like Hyouka #14 or Free! Eternal Summer #12. Even when involved with lesser titles her work tends to trigger the critical eye, since studying how she looks at anime can be worthwhile in and of itself. Much like how being promoted to episode director didn’t really kill her career as key animator, getting promoted to series director didn’t put an end to her episodes in other people’s series. But for starters, let’s look at how she moved up once again.
NAOKO YAMADA: THE SERIES DIRECTOR
While she still had lots of work to do on Clannad After Story, Naoko Yamada received a call from her superiors and immediately assumed the worst. She was already doing a fantastic job in a field a newcomer doesn’t belong to, but a creator’s worst critic is always oneself so she lacked confidence, meaning that she was already preparing herself to hear that she’d been fired. When she was met with the proposal to direct her own series instead, she accepted before even knowing what they were asking her to lead. That of course turned out to be K-ON!, her personal paradigm shift. Despite working with source material limitations that stopped her new writing partner Reiko Yoshida properly structure the series, the show powerfully stood above its peers. It’s at this point where Yamada’s method direction, which she tried to apply to her individual episodes previously, finally blossomed. She obsesses about every character’s demeanor, insisting on treating them as autonomous entities rather than pawns that she could have full control over as a godly creative figure. Yamada has expressed that she would rather become an invisible director without an apparent style – tough luck on that, I’m afraid – than eclipse the people who happen to live in her stories. Her anime becomes beautiful almost by accident, since from this point onward she heavily prioritizes expression over leaving an impression, the feelings of the characters as something more important than even the clarity in which they’re transmitted. In a way, Yamada’s anime is directed by its own casts.
The team captured the essence of highschool life so precisely that the series triggers a powerful and sweet sense of nostalgia, even if the events depicted aren’t something you particularly experienced. She constructed a club where friends mostly laze around and made it become a familiar and warm place throughout the series. This immense relatability ended up turning the franchise into a monstrous hit that no one could have ever predicted coming from a rather obscure manga. But leaving aside its incredible success when it comes to disc sales and various merch, its most significative achievement is the virtually unmatched mainstream appeal for a modern latenight property; K-ON! managed to attract larger audiences of non-anime watchers and women than shows perceived as way more approachable in the west like Madoka Magica. Its eventual broadcasts on important TV blocks aimed at children and teens (which still keep on happening nowadays) should come as no surprise, but they were exceptional nonetheless. And it obviously had a big effect on the wave of latenight series chasing this dream by putting a group of girls in a random school club, though that’s something none really managed.
Its brilliant accomplishments don’t hide the series’ shortcomings, though; a newbie director was afraid to stray too far from the frankly unremarkable source material, and instead used original content as a way to elevate it rather than making something that was truly of her own. Yamada also accused the increase in responsibilities – as a series director she had many more tasks to do than when handling one episode at a time, making her own outings perhaps less striking than they could have been. It’s instead people like Noriko Takao who delivered the most memorable episodes; the person who not that long ago coached Yamada when she was getting promoted went on to become one of her most powerful weapons in this series and its sequel, even causing her to adopt some traits like the moody ambient lighting. Some rumors suggest that Takao’s departure from the studio after the second season of K-ON! was due to feeling overwhelmed by Yamada’s powerful irruption, but even if that were true, in the end they had a positive effect on each other and both went on to direct beloved series.
While the evolution of Yamada’s personal style was more moderate compared to the previous giant leaps, K-ON! finally gave her a proper venue for certain aesthetic sensibilities. The trendy music video approach to the TV show’s ending sequence didn’t only become a recurring custom for the franchise, it has stayed as a personal quirk that leaks into her other works. But if we’re going to talk about an artist personally using the series as a launching platform, it has to be Yukiko Horiguchi; preferences aside, it’s hard to deny that hers are perfect animation designs, malleable forms that lend themselves to nothing but charming drawings. Every loose sequence is a delight – even if it’s just 4 frames – but they also enable excellent pieces of animation that aren’t based on extreme exaggeration. These are the designs that made renowned animators like Toshifumi Akai and sushio fall in love with Horiguchi, and the reason why even nowadays when she’s not an active animator she still attracts people like One-Punch Man’s Chikashi Kubota. It says a lot that her recent jump into Twitter under a pseudonym was kind of an anime industry event, despite her not really belonging to that space anymore.
All this recognition for the series had its most positive impact in Yamada’s confidence increasing before season 2, something she’s personally admitted in interviews. Even if you’re harsh on yourself, a hit like that has to be a big morale boost. Her reinforced spirit, alongside way better planning, paved the way for a strong sequel; this time around they had twice the episodes and no new core characters to rush to introduce, so they focused on depicting the last year of the club members’ highschool life at a leisure, natural pace. And with one episode alone, that approach put the original series to shame. The change in atmosphere was unbelievable considering that the first season wasn’t exactly set in an inert school backdrop to begin with, and far from being a fluke for the intro, it ended up setting the tone for the whole season – though admittedly, this time Yamada did stand atop every other episode director, so the palpable atmosphere in her first episode might be unmatched. The Houkago Tea Time girls left the clubroom constraining them just like the staff broke the chains of the source material weighing them down, expanding the K-ON! universe on many levels. Recurring classmates silently came alive, the more diverse locations and slow but sure passage of seasons enabled a gorgeous variety of lighting and moods, and the setting as a whole breathed in subtle ways like the club’s board; ever since the first season it changed on a weekly basis, with new drawings and comments based off recent in-universe events. Following the general trend of taking the solid concepts and running wild with them, season 2 took that commitment to off-camera life and went as far as adding new scribbles within the same episode to represent the passage of days. Yamada’s thoroughness in making the school feel real through details like that is commendable. She firmly believed that K-ON! was deeply rooted in realism, though I feel her sense of real is more along the lines of imbued with life than strictly representative of the world, because K-ON!! is still very much a cartoon and proud of it. Though considering she spent hours upon hours arguing with Horiguchi about the exact proportions of the cast, perhaps there were some concerns about actual authenticity as well.
Those designs lost a bit of amusing elasticity in season 2, but the characters gained visual personality to make up for that. Yamada’s attention to gestures and the increased length of the series allowed them to build a true acting vocabulary for the cast, consistent and ever-expanding. While as a director she has amusing recurring postures, her understanding of body language and demeanor always comes first. She approaches her own life with this attitude, paying attention to these mundane events that actually spell out who we are. This was accompanied by more nuanced framing, as she finally mastered some tricks that are integral to her modern work like the leg shots as a window of the soul – not as glamorous as eyes, but equally effective on her hands. Far from being a silly quirk, she’ll go as far as to conclude a film with an obscenely expressive long sequence that focuses almost entirely on the characters’ legs. The consistent level of excellence they achieved led to an animation legend like Toshiyuki Inoue to call it the perfect TV anime, while heavily praising the studio’s work. They crafted something truly special, even by the studio’s high standards.
There was another budding tendency in the fantastic second season, but it wasn’t until the movie that Yamada really started focusing on the idea of anime as footage to be filmed. Very aware that many people would watch the movie on a big screen, Yamada carefully constructed the layouts (assisted by the studio’s godfather Yoshiji Kigami) with that in mind; since the very beginning of her directional career she had been toying with the idea of simulated lenses, but from this point onwards she would start thinking about anime’s actual camera. This was but an aspect of the somehow more polished production, though. The expanded range of color – as they were capable of adjusting light effects on a per cut basis when necessary, rather than the show’s already thorough per scene basis – and the relentless animation display truly made it feel like a theatrical production. Following franchise traditions it proceeded to absolutely smash all records at the time, paving the way for the currently booming latenight anime film market.
When a franchise lands nothing but historic hits then chances are it’ll never go away, but Yamada & co actually rejected the proposal of a third season of K-ON! in favor of an original project that eventually became Tamako Market. This charming little show felt like a natural follow-up to the second season of K-ON! turning the setting into as much of a character as the main cast. The titular market was populated by colorful people and shops, and the episodic tales showing the different shapes love can take contained isolated greatness while generally being a joyful experience. However, the show was brought down by a half-baked last arc narrative that felt like detritus from early scrapped plans, and poor timing didn’t allow it to be up there with her previous outstanding productions. With no commercial success either, it seemed like this would be her first failed adventure.
That of course only made Tamako Love Story’s existence all the better. The unlikely sequel film took ideas casually tossed around but never properly considered by the original series and did an incredible job with them. The lens turned inwards, and this time the tale of love being explored involved the protagonist and her childhood friend, who weren’t very compelling individuals in the original series – and yet it worked so well! A bittersweet mix with extra the sweet romance, but also a fantastic articulation of adolescent worries. If Yamada the storyboarder reached her maturity halfway through K-ON!, then Yamada the film-maker did so with this movie; her visual lexicon was fully established, from her love of bokeh and telephoto lenses on a photography level to the very look of the serene skies. She exploited live action techniques while enjoying the inherent freedom of animation, which is the core of her modern approach and what makes her storyboarding and direction so unique. And speaking of her boarding prowess, it’s worth noting that she handled the entire film all by herself. Considering she also storyboarded ¾ acts for K-ON!’s film and the vast majority of Koe no Katachi, her desire to be a hands-on director is undeniable.
Seeing how effusive the judges that awarded her with Japan Media Arts Festival’ New Face Award were, was there room for more? People all around the industry have been reacting with heavy praise to everything she’s been doing for a while, specifically pointing out her peerless, delicate technical direction; as Makoto Shinkai recently put it, it’s a refined and noble style that you want to copy but simply can’t. Is being a very well-regarded film director as far as her legacy extends then?
NAOKO YAMADA: THE STUDIO LEADER
Summarizing a complex series of events by singling out individuals is inherently reductionist, but it’s fair to say that Yoshiji Kigami shaped Kyoto Animation up to the point it started becoming a notorious independent force, from the 90s to the early 00s. While Yasuhiro Takemoto’s work is much more to my personal taste, it’s Tatsuya Ishihara who then followed up and became the most influential creative figure at the studio on their rise to fame during the second half of the decade. These eras are of course relative; boundaries aren’t strictly defined and it’s not as if these figures eclipsed all other directors, but they definitely were the dominant voices at some point. It goes without saying, but both Kigami and Ishihara are still very active and prominent, their legacies not only living on but also expanding by the day. And yet it seems obvious that the climate at the studio has changed yet again. Ishihara has been succeeded by Yamada, the eccentric newbie whom he once coached. The symbolic baton pass arguably occurred as early as around K-ON!’s end, though its effects only truly became apparent after productions like Tamako. As I said earlier though, I believe that there’s little point to perfectly delimiting these eras, and would rather focus on observing their peculiarities.
What does Yamada’s leadership entail then? On an individual level it means she’s earned a special place at the studio, with enough weight to claim a project as important as Koe no Katachi despite not having read it yet when the deal was sealed. But you’re not a leader without followers, and that’s where this gets interesting. When it comes to KyoAni’s new generations of young directors, Yamada is far and away the biggest influence. Shows like Euphonium, where she supervises everyone’s work rather directly as series director, are only making this even more obvious. The studio’s new hope Haruka Fujita is a strong candidate to inherit her delicate touch, and has been learning from her as she acts as her substitute of sorts when Yamada is too busy. Even a director like Taichi Ogawa who was someone else’s pupil got eventually pulled in by her gravitational force, and with time he’s also become an anime cameraman. Yoshiji Kigami is always going to be the figure that the key animators at the studio look up to, but when it comes to directors there’s clearly a favorite parent now.
Another aspect in which Yamada’s presence seems to have had an effect on the studio as a whole is the company’s gender ratio. Both the fact that anime is still a male-dominated industry and that Kyoto Animation is mostly composed of women are rather well know pieces of information. The latter is something she was hardly responsible for, of course; she estimated that back when she joined the company was already around 60:40 mostly female, which should be understandable on a studio where the person with the ultimate choice over everything that gets animated is on the woman who co-founded it. The industry as a whole is thankfully – albeit slowly, as these things go – moving towards at least a healthier parity, so with time we might get more spaces like KyoAni where women consistently lead, rather than isolated projects where they do. Rather than simply going with this flow though, the studio’s gender gap is widening faster than ever; 20 of the latest 25 new key animators to debut at the studio, whether due to promotion or straight up joining in that position, are women – a rather significant data point on a company where only animators are given key roles in creation. Yamada was their first female series director, which paved the way for more, and her crystal clear desire to work with female teams must have had an effect on promotions for the last few years. She’s particularly adamant about women acting as animation directors when possible, both within episodes and as character designers and chief supervisors; versatility is required as an animator, but she believes they tend to have a better sense when it comes to animating characters in a delicate yet lively and realistic manner, particularly if those are women as well. And it’s not just on a visual level that she favors women: her scriptwriting buddy Reiko Yoshida has been in charge of all of her projects, and Yamada has openly admitted that she values her work amongst many other reasons due to her female POV, which deals with certain situations in ways men wouldn’t dare to or even be capable of.
All that said, it’s worth noting that she’s now led her first project with a man as the protagonist and a key staff that wasn’t entirely female. Her latest film Koe no Katachi was a very natural progression for her, as someone who to a much lesser degree struggles with communication, but it also was a first in some ways. A big change… or was it? Yamada was very happy about the exquisite expression in Futoshi Nishiya’s designs and animation, and has since then admitted that her worries about dealing with a male protagonist were misplaced. As a director who really respects her characters as individuals, she realized that her portrayal didn’t rely on gendered tendencies to begin with, so that was just a superficial difference. It seems obvious that her aesthetic sense will always lean towards girls in the same way that Takemoto’s does towards boys, and considering her already established bonds she’s still way more likely to keep working with women than to change her ways, but it’s now clear that those are not a hard stance restricting her.
And leaving her preferences aside, is there a reason to believe Yamada is a driving force in her increasingly female workplace? I would argue that yes, by all means. The reasons as to why this would occur seem rather obvious after all of this. Her modus operandi is to carefully, almost obsessively, depict her characters. Casts that not by coincidence happen to be almost entirely women. Her work powerfully resonating with girls is no surprise anymore – it’s happened to the projects I’ve detailed here, even on the Koe no Katachi screenings that were attended majoritarily by female teenagers. And that surely includes artists whose new dream might be to attend the KyoAni School and work on something like the film that touched them. Yamada’s even had a tight relationship with some of the important female creators who have left to become freelance. Takao’s name keeps popping up throughout this article, but Free!’s Hiroko Utsumi might be an even more relevant case. She was a good friend of Yamada despite working on the two separate branches of the studio, who properly debuted as storyboarder and episode director in K-ON!, and was later assisted by her when the swimming boys made it to TV. In the following years after that also became a hit, a flow of mostly female artists who started up as Free! fans inundated the studio as well. Whether directly or indirectly, Yamada’s always had a hand in the studio heading this route. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t think this is something that she’s consciously doing, this is by no means a progressive revolution that she’s been planning for years. But she has had tangible positive effects on an industry that still needs more women in key roles. Understating her impact at this point would be foolish.
What about the future then? Is there a reason to remain excited, now that she’s already a renowned director and has reshaped one of the most important anime production companies? I’m going to echo the words of anime scholar Yuichiro Oguro, who after rewatching her latest film expressed his desire to simply watch Yamada direct lots of different things. She’s on her thirties and yet her achievements make most veteran directors pale in comparison. Seeing such a fascinating creator tackle new challenges is going to be one of the most exciting prospects of anime’s future. Happy birthday パピコ.