CloverWorks Staff Interviews: Masayoshi Tanaka

CloverWorks Staff Interviews: Masayoshi Tanaka

In what is a surprisingly rare move within the industry, CloverWorks has been conducting interviews with its own staff in order to bring a bit more awareness to both the talent working under them and to highlight what their jobs entail. It only makes sense to start something like this off with a bang, and there’s no pick more appropriate than renowned animator and character designer Masayoshi Tanaka himself when taking that in mind. Read on for a look at what lead him to the industry, how he reached his current position, and even advice for people wanting to dive into the industry themselves!

Becoming an animator was the only way for me to make a living through drawing

Truth be told, I had no intention of becoming an animator at first. I had an interest in astrophysics back when I was in school, which lead me to enroll in a university centered around the sciences. Once in, though, I was barely able to keep up, which dealt some serious damage to any sort of drive I had. Unable to see a future for myself, most of my time back then was spent either working or playing mahjong.

At some point, though, I remembered how I also wanted to be a mangaka while in highschool, which in turn helped me realise that drawing was pretty much all I had left. The catch there was that I’d sent a number of samples to publishers during that period, all of which got ignored, so it was clear that I had little talent in that field.

With that out of the window, I went on a search for other jobs that involved drawing, and quickly arrived at animation. The rates weren’t exactly good, but knowing I’d get paid per frame was all I needed; that’s when I realised that becoming an animator was the only way for me to make a living through drawing. Riding that train of thought alone, I immediately settled on becoming an animator, dropped out of my university at the time and switched to an animation school.

I was at my most assertive during my rookie days

Once done with school, I landed my first job at Artland. Once there, though, I couldn’t help but feel some pressure for having dropped out of university before entering the industry. The people who entered at the same time as me had gone directly to animation schools after graduating highschool, so I was two years older than them. With that in mind, I was desperate to have everyone there accept me, and I spent a significant amount of time thinking about how to accomplish that.

My thoughts went to the people I was working with. I asked myself who the most influential people were, who drew the best, whether or not I’d get more work if I had those people remember who I was. And then I approached them like my life depended on it. I’d ask those with more experience for advice, and I’d also study everyone’s drawings after they’d all gone home.

I was convinced that I lacked any sort of raw talent, and thus I had to make up for it through my own hard work. Which kind of holds true to this day, since I make it a point to come in contact with all sorts of people’s art through social media and the like.

Persisting through the hard times puts certain things into perspective

After about two or three years, once I’d moved up to doing key animation and animation direction, I came to a realisation: my output was incredibly slow. I was only home a couple of days a week, yet I still struggled to keep up with the required pace. Meanwhile, my seniors had little issue keeping up while heading home every day. How come they were able to manage it, yet I wasn’t? Those were the sort of questions that haunted me at the time.

Even the CEO at the time warned me that I wouldn’t be able to handle animation direction duties five years down the line if I kept working the way I was. So there I was again, wondering if it might be best if I quit since I’m not fit for the job. As fate would have it, though, we were in charge of an outsourced episode of Jubei-chan’s second season around that time. This gave me an opportunity to speak with both chief director Hiroshi Nagahama and character designer/chief animation director Yoshihiko Umakoshi and open up to them about my concerns. Upon doing so, both of them told me that there it was fine for me to proceed at my current pace. To them, I wasn’t doing anything that could be seen as wrong.

This was the first time I’d truly felt like anyone had paid attention to my work, and it’s thanks to them that I gradually gained more and more confidence in myself. Funnily enough, though, I’d come to realise later on that others had been doing the same. One such case was Atsushi Nishigori, who revealed during our first meeting that he’d always wanted to talk to me after seeing my work on Mai-HiME. Now I know that it’s common to realise this stuff after the fact, so I couldn’t be any happier that I stuck with it in the end.

I’d like to remain honest with regards to my work

If there’s ever a time where I feel like my work’s worth doing, it’s when the project as a whole wraps up. There’s nothing quite like the pleasure and validation of seeing our work reflected on screens, so my main goal is to make things where I look forward to viewers getting to experience it for the first time. On the other hand, knowing that people will be watching something where I feel like I didn’t deliver might just be the most hellish experience I can imagine.

It’s common for me to serve as both character designer and chief animation director, but factors like the time, workload and even the content itself can push a lot of the work out of my hands. Not being able to check absolutely every cut is frustrating, but there’s little point in complaining about it. Instead, I’m best off using what limited time I have on getting my hands on as many as possible.

I’m fortunate enough to have a non-insignificant amount of people tell me nowadays that something I worked on helped convince them to join the industry, which always makes me cast my mind back to said work. It’d be a shame if doing so brought back bitter memories, though, so I’m always approaching my work in a way where I can tell them thank you from the bottom of my heart. Rather than pretend that I’m satisfied, I’d like to remain honest with regards to my work.

Searching for an environment that suits you is key

There was a time when Artland handled its own projects as opposed to just taking on outsourced work, so the studio’s colouring and photography departments remained on top of the general stuff required for the animation process. Personally, I’d say that the people who are really good at their job can cover a little bit for areas outside of their main expertise, so I’d say that having those around and being able to see how they’re used in the production had a positive effect on my career.

Much in the same vein, CloverWorks has all sorts of departments within the same building. On top of that, our production line employs multiple producers, so there are always multiple projects churning along. These can range from adaptations to original works, from TV series to movies, and more often than not you’ll find an opportunity to speak with the industry’s top creators who are working on them. I’d say the company provides quite the stimulating environment thanks to factors like this. (lol)

What’s more, I’ve always felt that you need a certain level of stability when working. In fact, one of the main reasons I chose Artland back in the day was because they guaranteed that I would make a certain amount of money each month. The work itself won’t change regardless of which company you’re at, but the exact opposite applies when it comes to the environment itself, even in terms of simpler stuff like commute, availability of tools and how the company keeps on top of restocking them. It’s worth keeping all of that in mind when choosing where you want to work.

Advice for those who want to become animators

This applies to similar fields outside of animation as well, but it’s important to understand that you’ll be leaving your mark on whatever you’re working on. And as a result, people are going to be able to tell what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you’re only ever interested in drawing people’s faces, that’s going to show on the final product. So build up as much life experience as possible, expose yourself to all sorts of things. That’ll help you when it comes to expressing what’s required.

Outside of that, you also can’t forget that an animator’s job involves sitting at a desk for 7-8 hours a day, diligently drawing away. So try and visualise yourself in that position and ask if you have both the mental and physical stamina required for it. Furthermore, I’d say you need a decently solid grasp on language as well. Storyboards give instructions primarily through drawings, but you’ll find that the notes beside said drawings contain important information as well. It’s easy to take these literally, but in reality you need to be able to parse them within the context of what you’re working on. To that effect, I’d recommend reading and exposing yourself to all sorts of stories. Doing so will help when it comes to translating those ideas onto the screen itself.

In all honesty, drawing is just one of the areas in which animators are expected to perform at a high level. And even if it feels like too much, the reality is that you’ll need to be able to deliver on those expectations. As a final note, let’s not forget that animation is ultimately a team effort, so make sure you have the appropriate communication skills. For those still in school, I would recommend building those up through a part-time job or by joining a club.

Q&A Section

— I’ve always appreciated the expressions and little quirks of your characters, so I’m curious if you base that on real-life equivalents. Is there anything you take special note of when observing others?

I’d consider myself rather sensitive to that sort of stuff, so I’m always on the lookout for it. There’s lots to pick up on, even when watching movies or TV, particularly when it comes to how people handle smaller objects. Like, you can easily tell if something’s hot or cold based on how they hold it. Then there’s the difference between how people act while in public as opposed to when at home alone.

It’s pretty common for me to get lost in thought envisioning the most appropriate way to have characters move and act. That involves taking all sorts of stuff into consideration, but then I’ll start prioritising the idea of just drawing something that looks good, and just get thrown off entirely after that. Either way, that sort of stuff can change significantly depending on how you think about and approach it.

— It’s common for people early in their careers to compare themselves to their peers and feel like they’re either trailing behind or just outright inferior. What’s your advice on dealing with that?

Everyone handles these sorts of things differently, but my basic advice would be to not give in. That said, it’s also best not to force yourself to take it head on when you’re at rock bottom, because that’s just going to leave a bigger scar in the end. I know for a fact at this point that the most earnest people are the ones that corner themselves the hardest, then just end up not turning up at all one day.

I was actually room sharing for about 10 years when I first came out to Tokyo for work. As it turned out, my roommate was working in a similar industry to ours, so we’d spend a bunch of time bitching about our companies to each other. Having someone around who was in a similar position and with who I could share my own thoughts helped me out a lot, I’d say.

The difference between being an animator and other drawing related jobs is that there’s multiple artists involved in each project, and chances are you’ll all be working under the same roof. It’s a team effort in the end, so I’d say it’s important to treat the people you’re working with well. That said, you shouldn’t force yourself to be super friendly with anyone either. If there’s people you can get along well with, then that’s fine, but it’s also important that your interactions take a positive effect on the project itself as well. The office is for making good workmates, not for making good friends.

— How do you go about making time for personal art while busy with work?

It’s all about making the time for hobbies yourself. And if you’re not willing to make sacrifices for it, then it never really meant much to you in the first place. I’ve given up many hours of sleep in favour of playing some games I really enjoyed, just as an example, but in the end you just need to figure out what’s most important to you. Priorities can change, of course, and that’s more than okay. So long as you get your work done first and foremost.

— There’s no arguing that an animator’s drawing skills are their lifeline, but is there anything else specific you need to make it in the anime industry?

Being able to enjoy the work itself is important. This goes especially to the people who dive in because they want to work on a certain thing, as they’re usually the first to realise they don’t actually enjoy this line of work and then quit. There’s no guarantee you’ll get to work on what you want in the first place, so I’d say you need to enjoy the work itself first and foremost, then develop things from there.

— Could you have envisioned your current position back in your 20s?

Absolutely not. In fact, my biggest concern back then was whether or not I’d be able to remain in this industry in the first place. I’d convinced myself I wasn’t suited to the salaryman life, so I had to keep thinking about how this was the only job for me to keep my motivation up. If I wasn’t able to handle it, then I’d be better off quitting. And if I wasn’t able to sustain myself after that, then I’d be better off dead. That’s how I felt at the time. Thankfully I was able to enjoy the work itself once I’d started though, so things worked out.

I can say that I never really thought about becoming a character designer back then. At best I wanted to be an animation director who was accepted and trusted by the entire company, as well as becoming capable enough to make a decent living. In fact, there was an AnimeStyle issue at the time with a feature on young GAINAX supertalents like Sushio and Nishigori, who were both the same age as me. I’d just resigned myself to the fact that great studios attracted great talent, though. I wasn’t a particularly motivated youngster, so my only real “dream” as such was to just keep my head down and do as well as possible for myself.

And to be honest, that still kind of applies to this day. My biggest priority is in cherishing what I’m doing at the moment to ensure my future. There’s no precise goal, I’m just taking everything one step at a time, telling myself that each step will pay off some years down the line.

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3 years ago

Thanks for interview!

Jacob Tsurugi
Jacob Tsurugi
3 years ago

It’s really great to read this kind of interview. I really appreciate these proofs that animators still normal humans after all.


3 years ago

Thanks so much for publishing this! I love Tanaka’s work and I’m always fascinated to get industry insights.

Akihira Baka
Akihira Baka
3 years ago

I clicked as soon as I saw Tanaka’s name, I love his designs, and I love how vulnerable he was with us in this interview.

Also I lost it when I saw Umakoshi, to think that two of my favorite animators worked together makes me super hopeful for some reason.

3 years ago
Reply to  Akihira Baka

I’ll check it when I’m back home, but I swear there was a Tanaka x Umakoshi joint interview in the former’s animestyle fanbook. Either way, Umakoshi really was important for him in his formative years!

2 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing this interview in English! I’m an animation student, so reading some of the things he said was both shocking and a relief, haha. I never would have expected to share some of the same thoughts and concern as someone “like that” (skilled, ‘talented’, and so on.)