Anime’s Invisible Aces: Michiya Kato And CYCLONE GRAPHICS

Anime’s Invisible Aces: Michiya Kato And CYCLONE GRAPHICS

What does BEASTARS‘ opening sequence have in common with other iconic intros like DRIFTERS and Tatami Galaxy, the filmography of geniuses like Satoshi Kon and Tatsuya Oishi, plus many sweet commercials and educational works? The answer is Michiya Kato and his studio CYCLONE GRAPHICS – a team you might have loved for a long time without even noticing their presence!

Being an animation fan can feel overwhelming sometimes. Even if all you’ve got the mental energy to follow is commercial anime productions – which are but a slice of Japan’s animation scene – keeping track of all its interesting creatives is essentially impossible. There are hundreds of animation production companies in the country, and that doesn’t account for all the overseas studios that are integral to the industry functioning at all. If you increase the scope of your research and begin including anime-adjacent ateliers, animator circles and unofficial teams, or even individual creators, then the players to keep track of are orders of magnitude higher than anyone can handle; take this from someone whose job involves wrestling with that.

Fortunately, the next realization is that it doesn’t really matter. If anything, you should be happy that fantastic artists whose work you’d never heard of are always waiting around the corner! Sakuga as a critical lens isn’t supposed to be about emotionally sterile encyclopedic memorization of creators to begin with, so don’t feel bad if you keep encountering exceptional creators that you knew nothing about. They could be artists whose works already spoke to you, but for some reason or another, you never found out who was truly behind them. Even a team that’s been involved in many all-time anime favorites, one that’s collaborated with the most renowned directors while also making wonderful original animations, could still go largely unnoticed.

As you might have guessed, those weren’t hypotheticals. Studio CYCLONE GRAPHICS has been quite the curious case for well over a decade at this point; their work is widely beloved, people who work with them hold the company and their creative leader in the highest esteem, and yet you’ll struggle to find viewers who know them at all. But since the stars seem to have aligned in the shape of their logo – they’re working on two popular titles this season and were recently involved in promotional and commemorative campaigns that gained a lot of traction – perhaps it’s finally time for us to address that. So, let’s talk about CYCLONE GRAPHICS, a team that you might already love without having realized.

Michiya Kato graduated from Musashino University with a Visual Communication Design degree, which he put to use doing all sorts of jobs in the advertisement space. Right as he hit his 30s, though, Kato decided to move onto something that he found more rewarding. And thus he founded an animation production company by the name of CYCLONE GRAPHICS, with the explicit motto to combine traditional techniques with the digital tools that had started to become commonplace when the company was created. A studio meant to keep their works always fresh by constantly exploring new workflows. Though the more cynical among you might feel like those words sound suspiciously similar to the usual PR parlance that leads to nothing concrete, I’m glad to report that it has stayed true for all of the studio’s 17 years of existence so far.

Not only is that philosophy still what Kato is all about, it also keeps manifesting in the way they approach their work; on this very season, CYCLONE GRAPHICS are innovating by rendering all of No Guns Life’s environments in Unreal Engine 4 – a first for commercial anime – to exploit its realistic lighting capabilities. That footage is then tweaked by Kato as the show’s VFX supervisor, undergoing a fairly non-standard color grading process with the same goal of crafting more clearly defined atmospheres through the visuals. Experimentation doesn’t always lead to immediate brilliant results, but when it comes to CYCLONE GRAPHICS, you know you’re about to experience something you haven’t seen before.

And when you factor in the tremendous skill of the people involved, it’s no surprise that you’re also likely to get a brilliant result anyway. Although the early stages of the company involved a bunch of editing and CGi assistance for clients like Bandai and Sony Music – which he likely knew from his previous jobs – the truth is that it didn’t take long for them to move onto bigger fish… or maybe I should say the biggest fish anime’s pond has ever seen. None other than Satoshi Kon entrusted Kato with the production of Paranoia Agent’s iconic eyecatches, and he did such a good job that they became an inseparable couple for the rest of the director’s tragically short career.

Kato returned as the compositor for Kon’s final work, the Ohayo short for the Ani*Kuri15 project in 2007, but most notably served as photography and CGi director for Paprika. Although dream-like editing had always been a defining trait of Kon’s, bringing it to the foreground by making it the core of the narrative required stepping things up. And that’s exactly what CYCLONE GRAPHICS’ staff did as guided by Kato: providing the tools to amplify the magic tricks in Kon’s storyboards, digitally blurring the lines between dreams and reality. Though in the end all public acclaim goes to the director who stands under the spotlight, it’s quite significant that for he put so much trust on relative newbies he’d only recently met.

It’s also worth noting that, even though Kato is the soul of CYCLONE GRAPHICS, the small studio does have a few more core staff members, all of whom already made an appearance in that project. Paprika’s VFX artist Tomohisa Shitara bounced around various CGi departments in the industry before landing at CYCLONE GRAPHICS in 2005, and has since then become their 3D director of choice. Kanna Iida joined them right off university and acted as CG Designer for the film, eventually becoming Kato’s right-hand woman, with work that ranges from prop design to storyboarding. But the most interesting from them all is Tomomi Yoshino: a Madhouse production assistant and writer who was assigned to Kon’s works back in the day, and even trained as director under him – she was his sole assistant in Paprika. Over the years she collaborated with CYCLONE GRAPHICS so much that she ended up joining them in 2010, precisely the year of Kon’s death. Though she still does some creative tasks every now and then, her role is now acting as the producer for all the studio’s works.

If working with Kon forced Kato to become a master of subterfuge, then collaborating with other directors with strong personalities made him train different creative muscles. With the passage of this, a career like this has molded Kato into a chameleonic artist whom the audience never notices despite the integral role he plays in those productions. Alongside Kitaro Kosaka, who learned about clear and sincere presentation of the visuals at Ghibli, we see Kato’s work at its cleanest… but also at its most demanding when it comes to CGi setpieces. Nasu: A Migratory Bird with Suitcase featured immersive 3D sequences that were very ambitious at the time, while the simple but exceptionally volumetric 2D art in Okko’s Inn forced CYCLONE GRAPHICS to craft very stylized 3D work so that the two could coexist in harmony. While their collaborations may look like a straightforward digital job at first glance, they’re still immense triumphs for Kato and his team.

That said, the works that demonstrate his skill and adaptability the best in this post-Kon era might be those they’ve created alongside Tatsuya Oishi. Which is to say, the Kizumonogatari movies and the CRYSTAR opening sequence that the same team produced afterward. We’ve spoken at length about Oishi and Kizumonogatari: a unique film trilogy that succeeded in exteriorizing the turmoils of adolescence like no other anime, in no small part due to CYCLONE GRAPHICS’ contributions. Their staff did key work in defining its aesthetic since the start – handling CG production under Shitara and with Kato as VFX supervisor – and actually increased their workload as the production progressed, to the point that Kato also commanded the compositing in the last film. In those positions they did their best to bring Oishi’s vision to fruition; a photorealistic world that alienates its teenage protagonists, one that Kato defined as uniquely melancholic but beautiful regardless. Fundamental contributions to Kizumonogatari’s aesthetic, which is inescapably tied to its themes as well.

Again, it’s worth highlighting that despite all these directors asking fundamentally different things out of CYCLONE GRAPHICS, the studio quietly succeeded at them, hence why they always came back to Kato for their next project. Oishi continued working with him for the aforementioned CRYSTAR intro, and even Masaaki Yuasa specifically asked Kato to remake Tatami Galaxy’s opening for its rebroadcast; the original was such an iconic rendition of the premise that no one else could handle its colorful version. And this applies to Kosaka as well: not only did he ask CYCLONE GRAPHICS to handle digital duties for his first project in a long time, Kato also gained the trust of so much of Okko’s Inn’s team that they recently followed him as he directed a short film for NHK’s Letters From Hibakusha program – animated memoirs from survivors of the atomic bombs. Indeed, as if being exceptional digitals assistants weren’t enough, Kato and his studio also make touching animations of their own.

While Kato’s directorial career is lengthier than you might think, the truth is that it took a while for him to truly take off, as well as for CYCLONE GRAPHICS to mature to the point where they could truly produce his works. Kato’s directorial debut dates back to 2005 and lasted for four years, since he commanded the production of several seasons of Oden-kun – a quirky, often surreal short series for kids starring many edible characters. Its production overlapped with other side projects like Bihada Ichizoku, an amusing little series riffing on the superficial appreciation of female beauty and certain shoujo flourishes. In retrospect, these feel more like training for CYCLONE GRAPHICS’ first production, which arrived in 2010… sorta. This gorgeous looking pilot film for Sekaiichi Asakura’s DEBONAIR DRIVE has barely ever been shown, so it took 4 more years for the world to experience what the studio was capable of on their own. With availability concerns like that, it’s no wonder that most people don’t know about the studio; want to watch one of their latest works, featuring a catchy intro and outro that went viral on social media? Better go to the headquarters of the tonkatsu chain it’s advertising then, since it only got screened there!

On the flip side, when their works were made available in wider platforms, they turned out to be as beautiful as they always seemed to be. 2013~2015 was a period of growth for CYCLONE GRAPHICS, the point where they produced most of the works that their few dedicated followers know the studio for. Although its wide release also took a while, the first piece they made during those years was Dokuro the Ghost, a simple but delightful short film that boils down to a very silly chase sequence, crafted by someone like Kato that knows what makes them fun. There are many things to appreciate in it, from the marriage between analog and digital work that the studio stands for, to the child-like sketchy scenery that brings Yuasa’s work to mind; the comparison isn’t much of a stretch, since art director Takashi Nakamura spent years painting backgrounds for all the Shin-chan movies that Yuasa did plenty of design work for. At the end of the day, though, what feels more important about the short is the same reason why they ended putting it up for free on Youtube indefinitely: Kato and his team simply want many children to watch fun cartoons and smile.

That said, there’s something else that can be derived from this work that I feel is important if you want to grasp Kato’s style. Fun as most of his short films are, there’s an undercurrent of tragedy to them. The stakes in Dokuro are raised by the presence of the bomb, a remnant of a war that’s briefly shown via surprisingly explicit visuals. That same theme is obviously present in the aforementioned atomic bomb remembrance short film, Letter to Yaman. In 2014’s Flowers will Bloom in Tohoku, those ideas of loss and large scale disasters took a new form; made as an extended music video for NHK’s Great East Japan Earthquake Project, it features the channel’s mascots guiding a Zashiki-warashi – a spirit strongly tied to its household – back to where she belongs, as a nod to the people who lost everything they had in that tragic day. Kato’s ability to turn a subject matter this somber into a fantastical voyage capable of making any child smile is precisely why so many people have trusted him with similar ideas. Watching him share the short every anniversary of the earthquake feels like proof of his commitment to make the world a happier place.

Whenever Kato isn’t dealing with tragedy in an explicit way, he still manages to give his original works a sharp bite in some way or the other. 2014 also marked the arrival of his first and unfortunately only original TV anime: Nandaka Velonica, broadcast in NHK’s educational channel. Its vividly colorful surface and cartoony animation hide plenty of critique of capitalism and modern materialistic lifestyles. Considering that its story follows the heir of an intergalactic corporation landing on Earth for business reasons and then gradually learning to ditch her efficient profits-driven mentality, though, maybe “hide” is the wrong word.

Ever since then, CYCLONE GRAPHICS followed the same pattern we’ve been describing. They’ve kept on making these small, family-friendly works meant to teach kids important lessons, while also supporting massive theatrical undertakings alongside industry legends; after reading this much about them, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that they were in charge of Maquia’s digital work just last year. They’ve kept on producing memorable openings as well – everyone rightfully praised Cedric Herole for his solo key animation effort on DRIFTERS’ glorious intro but failed to notice Kato and his team produced it very much in this style – while also doing simpler promotional work to keep the business going.

And that’s the last point about the studio that’s worth highlighting: the diversity of their output, and how that’s allowed them to build many meaningful relationships. On top of all the renowned directors enamored with Kato’s work, there are companies in different fields who always seek CYCLONE GRAPHICS’ help too. It can be famous studios like Madhouse, with whom they’ve got a strong link due to Kato and Yoshino’s past, but also smaller anime-adjacent teams like stop-motion specialists dwarf. Kato met them during the production of Flowers will Bloom in Tohoku and ever since then they’ve had a symbiotic relationship: CYCLONE GRAPHICS will lend them help when they’ve got 2D animation and CGi work to do, while dwarf will do the same for works that require live action expertise.

As you might have guessed, the latest result of these collaborations was BEASTARS’ opening. On paper, the sequence is a straightforward summary of the relationship at the core of the series – both the joy they share when they’re together and the animalistic impulses that Legosi has to fight against. But for obvious reasons, the opening surprised everyone… and I do mean everyone, since Orange’s producers first pitched it to Kato knowing that he had done plenty of CGi work, never expecting him to suggest a stop-motion effort alongside these reliable acquaintances of his. Once again, CYCLONE GRAPHICS managed to stay true to that old motto to always mix techniques in a way that feels fresh. If you were impressed by that opening, which I know lots of people were, now you finally know who to thank!

It’d be foolish to expect an immense wave of acknowledgment for Kato and CYCLONE GRAPHICS. Their contributions to beloved titles always get overshadowed by the more recognizable names they work with, while their own productions are more niche and suffer from availability problems. I’ll happily sing their praises so that a few more people notice their work, but there’s no denying that they’re in an invisible position almost by design. Does that really matter, though, when so many people already love Kato’s contributions to anime without even realizing it? Perhaps not!

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2 years ago

Thank you for this post!! But this makes me ask: will you write about the Beastars anime?

2 years ago

Michiya Kato was happy and shared this post on twitter too btw

Jared DiCarlo
Jared DiCarlo
2 years ago

The stop-motion clip reminds me a lot of those stop-motion films Wes Anderson does, except it’s much easier on the eyes than those are.

2 years ago

As always, a smooth read and very informative (your research skills are commendable!). Thank you for shining a spotlight on such a special studio and its capabilities!! The DRIFTERS opening is one of my favourites and I’m glad I learned of this studio’s efforts behind it, in addition to Cédric Hérole’s impressive work. On an unrelated note, the URL to this article still spells Tatsuya Kato (music composer of Free! and Love Live!) instead of Michiya Kato. It’s not a big deal since the name in the article title is already corrected, but you might want to consider fixing the… Read more »