The Master in the Background of 40 Years of Anime

Check out this interview with him that Toco Toco TV posted last year:

Text version:

You might not know his name, but you may be familiar with the work of art director Shichiro Kobayashi. He’s been in charge of the background art for popular and classic anime series like Berserk, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Detroit Metal City, and Nodame Cantabile. If you do already know his name, then it might be for his beautiful work on the dark and striking Angel’s Egg; or the soft and soothing Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou; or maybe for his work with Hayao Miyazaki on films like Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

Shichiro Kobayashi has been working with anime since the dawn of time–or at least since the early 70s, with his first widely-recognized work having been on the Osamu Dezaki-directed Nobody’s Boy Remi. It must have been from Dezaki that Kobayashi picked up the technique called Harmonies–high-detail paintings which Dezaki would often use to punctuate the dramatic moments in a show, and which Kobayashi would go on to use in more of his work over the next three decades.

Kobayashi’s style is instantly recognizable, whether it’s in the background of a gritty 90s high-fantasy series like Orphen; or in a goofy moe slapstick comedy from the 2010s like Tantei Opera Milky Holmes. His hand-painted backgrounds always bear the mark of his handiwork very clearly; with their inky, unclean, and almost unfinished look to them. He tends to leave a lot of white space in his backgrounds, and his very distinct ways of drawing trees, bushes, towns, and rocky roads, are easy to pinpoint as visual signatures.

If you’re watching a series that Kobayashi is involved with, you’re almost guaranteed some sweeping cityscape shots, regardless of their level of detail. Lots of his shows take place in small, rustic villages, which he brings to life immediately in his art. Others are set in more contemporary cities, which are always shown in a few super wide-angle shots. Also, this might be a coincidence, but I found that towers and steeples kept popping up in his shows, often in close relationship to a lake. Something almost sexual about that.
By nature of working in anime, he also ends up drawing a lot of schools. Most of them are very old-school, individual three-story buildings; but occassionally you get something crazy like the school from Utena.

Very ocassionally, but more commonly in his older work, Kobayashi would use these parallax background layers to create some really dramatic shots. Nobody’s Boy Remi in particular used so many of these that it became kind of hilarious.

Looking into the works of an art director like Kobayashi was fascinating, because he was so unbeholden to any genre across his career. He could pop up in a high-concept, high-budget film, or in a low-tier early-2000s harem comedy, and still be totally recognizable.

The closest thing to a connective thread in his work is that most of what he did from the late 90s onward was with studio JC Staff; tho he didn’t work with them exclusively.
If I have one criticism of the way that Kobayashi has been used, especially on a lot of those JC Staff shows, it would be that the character designs don’t always look at home in his backgrounds. Sometimes, seeing clean and colorful designs set against these sort of washed-out and soft backdrops could get a little weird, though I wouldn’t necessarily blame Kobayashi for this.

Around five years ago, I remember listening to the commentary on the Simoun DVDs wherein director Junji Nishimura briefly talked about working with Kobayashi. He described him as being so old school that he still did a lot of work on cels, and would even walk into the office with cels in hand and submit them for the show. I always wondered about what kind of person Kobayashi might be after hearing that, and I finally got a little insight into his personality from this interview that Toco Toco TV posed with him on youtube last year.

Having retired from the industry three years prior at age 79, Kobayashi still continues to work on his art and to strive for improvement at home in his incredible home studio. From the way that he talks, Kobayashi seems like a true dyed-in-the-wool artist through and through, who will probably keep going with his art for the rest of his life, and has a lot of deep thoughts about the nature of his craft. I’ll put a link to this interview in the description for anyone who’s interested in it.

Kobayashi’s contribution to anime history on more than 100 shows is staggering, and it’s always fun to be watching an old show and to instantly realize that he must’ve been the art director on it as soon as you see a few trees. If you want to see his work at its best, I’d highly recommend checking out Nobody’s Boy Remi from the 70s, Angel’s Egg and Venus Wars from the 80s, Berserk and Utena from the 90s, and Windy Tales and Tokyo Marble Chocolate from the 2000s. All of them are great shows where Kobayashi’s work really shines.

Stick around on my channel if you’d like to see more videos like this; and if you’d like to support those videos, then consider donating via Patreon, or sharing this video to anyone whom you think will enjoy it. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

4 thoughts on “The Master in the Background of 40 Years of Anime

  1. You’re really the only one in anime doing anything even remotely as interesting as this. So much better than some lukewarm review of a flavor-of-the-season show with a number/10 at the end.

  2. That second last sentence is janky. I’d suggest going with “share with” instead of “share to” and cutting the “whom” if you use that phrase again.

    “or sharing this video with anyone you think will enjoy it”
    “or sharing this video to anyone whom you think will enjoy it”

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