Akiyuki Shinbo in the 90s [Part 1]

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Akiyuki Shinbo has gotten to be one of the most widely-recognized and controversial anime directors in the business over the last twenty-five years of his career. Best known for his omnipresent influence over the works of studio SHAFT, Shinbo became a household name among anime fans after the one-two-punch of success that came with Bakemonogatari in 2009 and Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica in 2011. However, while Shinbo’s signature style may be better known for its influence over SHAFT and the directors who trained under him [Tatsuya Oishi and Shin Oonuma], his origins as a director date all the way back to the early 90s, whereupon the seeds of his techniques were first sewn and began to grow.

Over the course of this rundown of everything that Shinbo worked on in the 90s, we’ll be seeing the origins of the countless visual trademarks and stylistic flourishes that the director would later become known for; and how they’d be incorporated into shows from a huge variety of genres. Unlike other beloved directors, Shinbo isn’t really known for any kind of thematic, genre, or storytelling consistency across his work–even if we will find a few common threads among those aspects of his shows. Rather, Shinbo has always been a workman of a director, stating that to him, anime is a product, and that his job is simply to provide a product which the fans will enjoy. He seems ever eager to bring his unique brand of visual presentation to whatever show he’s asked to work on–which can be a damn good time for those such as myself who really gravitate towards his aesthetic choices. So let’s dive into his history!

Shinbo’s earliest known credits are as a key animator working on the OVAs of the classic long-running 1980s series Urusei Yatsura, which he got started on soon after graduating college. He’s also been credited for art work on the 1989 Osamu Tezuka series Aoi Blink, though in both cases, examples of what he worked on specifically are unknown–at least to me. Shinbo would get his first major credits as an episode director working on the fifty-episode 1990 series Karakuri Kengo Den Musashi Lord with Studio Pierrot alongside some other former Urusei Yatsura staff. (Over the course of his career, Shinbo would find himself working with a lot of the same people on multiple shows, so I made a gigantic spreadsheet of who worked on what that you can follow via the link in the description if you’re interested.)

After Musashi Lord, Shinbo would do his last minor key animation jobs for the 1991 Urusei Yatsura film Always My Darling, and the 1992 Madhouse OVA Tokyo Babylon, before taking on the first major production role that would get him recognized.

Most of the main staff who had worked on Musashi Lord would go on to take up major roles in the production of Yuu Yuu Hakusho from the same studio, which ran from 1992 through 1995, with fellow Musashi Lord episode director Noriyuki Abe taking up the helm as lead director. Shinbo would storyboard thirteen and direct nineteen episodes of Yuu Yuu Hakusho, with most of his work being during the Dark Tournament Saga; and it would just so happen that he be given a ton of the biggest and most memorable episodes of the series, and that his distinct style would begin to shine through more and more as it went along.

In episode seven, we first witness Shinbo’s love of intense shading and single-color palettes during this shot with Yusuke and Kurama, which is the technique that we’ll be seeing the most over the course of this exploration of his work. Episode twelve features some animated backgrounds, which are pretty common to the series overall, but would later be used in a lot of Shinbo’s future work as well. It also features one of the first somewhat gruesomely violent scenes in the show, with a brutally anatomical shot of Kuwabara’s arm breaking, which is the kind of thing we’ll see more of from Shinbo long into the future

Episode thirty is the first one to feature Shinbo really going all out with his trademark style, as a result of Hiei using his Dragon of the Darkness Flame attack for the first time. Things very quickly get trippy as hell, with tons of single-color backgrounds, flashing lights, crazy effects animation, unique colors and shading, inverted colors, weird perspective shots, a fixation on eyeballs, spot coloring, and some neat lineart effects to depict Hiei being on fire. It’s a smorgasbord of cool-looking stuff, all of which does a perfect job of selling just how special this attack really is.

Episodes thirty-five and thirty-seven are less Shinbo-gasmic overall, but are noteworthy in that one features an evil doctor, while the other features an evil nurse–both archetypes which will pop up a lot in Shinbo’s future work. Episode forty-one features more of Kuwabara’s bones breaking, this time with a brief x-ray shot, which is also something that Shinbo has a predilection for across his career.

Episode forty-five sees Shinbo directing yet another of Hiei’s fights, and bringing with him some of the same tricks for portraying their dark and powerful nature. This episode also includes some of Yusuke’s torturous suffering in the cave, which has some very Shinbo-like coloring, though it goes on throughout some of the episodes that he didn’t work on. Shinbo then handled the epic climax of Yusuke’s cave training in episode forty-seven with some more trippy imagery, and the first of a handful of animation cuts by Atsushi Wakabayashi, whose style of exaggerated movement and simplified character designs really stand out whenever they come up, and are used in several of the Shinbo-directed episodes.

Episode fifty-two is another big important one with some pretty cool cuts, but the most noteworthy Shinbo-like element is the brief use of cinematic widescreen aspect ratio, which has remained a trademark of his–and, later, Studio SHAFT’s work–to this day.

Episode fifty-eight is the one that seemingly put Shinbo’s name on the map, and is always mentioned when people refer to his work on the series. Once again, the episode centers on Hiei using the Dragon of the Darkness Flame–only this time the attack takes up the majority of the entire episode, and Shinbo pulls out all of the stops on making it as trippy and intense as possible. This episode features tons of killer key animation from Atsushi Wakabayashi alongside others such as Masayuki Yoshihara and Shinsaku Kozuma, all coming together to create one of the most memorable battles in animation history.

Rounding out the Dark Tournament saga, Shinbo was in charge of the incredibly strange episode sixty-six, which features totally different-looking character designs animated in often fairly strange ways, and a melancholic tone which doesn’t quite feel like any other episode in the series. In a lot of ways, this episode sticks out like a sore thumb, but it’s pretty interesting to see that an episode like this even exists in the middle of the show.

From this point forward, Shinbo became far less involved with Yuu Yuu Hakusho–possibly as a result of taking on his first job as a series director around this time in early 1994. The last episode to be especially Shinbo-like is number seventy-four, which is possibly the most obviously Shinbo episode in the entire series. Besides featuring yet another evil doctor, the entire episode is filled with really intense shading and heavy use of black, giving the entire thing an almost gothic feel which is reminiscent of his work on shows like The SoulTaker. If any episode could be pointed to and called the first ever example of Shinbo’s signature style, then this would probably be the one. He would only direct three more episodes of Yu Yu Hakusho after this, but none of them were nearly as stylistically identifiable as the ones he’d worked on up to this point.

Shinbo made his debut as a series director working on the thirteen-episode TV anime Metal Fighter Miku produced by J.C. Staff in 1994, and a majority of his work throughout the 90s would continue to be done with this studio. A few of the minor Yuu Yuu Hakusho staff members would come to do minor work on this series as well–most notably key animators Atsushi Wakabayashi and Shinsaku Kozuma whom you’ll remember from the Dark Tournament saga.

One could easily be forgiven for not realizing Shinbo’s involvement in this cute but very corny show about women’s pro wrestling in power suits–especially in the early episodes which, while well-made in terms of storyboarding and animation, don’t carry many hallmarks of Shinbo’s style. From episode five onward is where Shinbo’s trademarks slowly begins to bleed into the series, with a lot more dramatic shading and colors in certain scenes, as well as moments wherein the art and animation style suddenly change, or wherein there’s a greater emphasis on effects animation. Episode six even contains a scene of a character using a special attack which bears some slight similarities to the animation techniques used for the Dragon of the Darkness Flame.

In addition to this being Shinbo’s first series about transforming superheroes–a genre which he’d find himself involved with a number of times, especially in the 90s–episode ten features the first ever of Shinbo’s trademark crucifixion images–possibly the most common and striking motif in all of his work across his entire career. Episode thirteen is by far the most Shinbo-tastic in the series, depicting an epic fight scene using almost as much trippy and cool imagery as the Dragon of the Darkness Flame attack (albeit with a lot less context to make it as memorable). Signatures such as the changing aspect ratio and bold use of colors make huge returns in this fight as well.

While Metal Fighter Miku would be difficult to recommend as a whole because it’s fun ideas and solid presentation are undercut by corny writing and lukewarm characterization, the last episode is worth checking out alone for anyone looking into Shinbo’s style. It represents by far the best of what the series has to offer, and is pretty entertaining in its own right. It even goes into a little bit of weird film noir style towards the end for no particular reason.

Around this period in late 1994 and early 1995, Shinbo directed a few episodes Montana Jones with Studio Junio (tho I couldn’t find any information on which ones exactly) before going on to direct the sixth and final episode of Studio Madhouse’s Devil Hunter Yohko OVA in 1995. This episode could be seen as a sort of crossroads between different parts of Shinbo’s career, as it featured not only a lot of key animation from staff who’d worked as animation directors and key animators on Yuu Yuu Hakusho, but also featured a number of minor staff who would come to work on Shinbo’s later output throughout the second half of the decade.

Devil Hunter Yohko was an interesting OVA series in that each episode was handled by an almost entirely different main staff–with a whole new director, storyboard artist, and screenwriter almost every time. For the most part, the series was an utterly terrible action exploitation piece about a young girl constantly losing her clothes and getting molested in the process of fighting against demons–but it often featured some pretty decent animation in its action scenes.

Fans of Shinbo’s work on Yuu Yuu Hakusho will instantly recognize the same style of effects animation used in Hiei’s fights appearing all over this episode, as well as plenty of the harsh single-color shading which the director is best known for; however, this episode isn’t nearly as over the top in its action as the ones that I’ve talked about before. While probably the best and most entertaining episode of Devil Hunter Yohko, and closer to cute fun than the gross exploitativeness of some previous episodes, I still wouldn’t say that this episode is really worth seeking out, as it doesn’t bring anything to the table which Shinbo’s other work from the period didn’t do better.

Back at Studio Pierrot in 1995, while Shinbo had taken a smaller role on Yuu Yuu Hakusho and gone on to direct for other studios, the majority of Yuu Yuu Hakusho’s major staff, including director Noriyuki Abe, had moved straight into the production of another fifty-episode shounen action series called Ninku without Shinbo’s involvement. However, when it came time for a Ninku film tie-in, Shinbo was brought on-board as a unit director, and even seemingly brought with him a couple of key animators who had worked on Metal Fighter Miku and Devil Hunter Yohko.

It’s difficult to say whether Shinbo actually had any creative involvement with this film, since none of it really reflects his style, but it might be worth checking out in general anyways. I watched it knowing nothing about Ninku and left kind of wanting to watch the series, thanks to its consistently beautiful animation and fight choreography, and a fun personality that kind of reminded me of the One Piece films.

In 1996, Shinbo would begin directing short OVAs left and right, starting with the single-episode Debutante Detective Corps, which seems to have been the first and last anime to come from Marcus Production. Despite a handful of nicely animated cuts, courtesy of Shibo once again bringing along key animators from Yuu Yuu Hakusho and Devil Hunter Yohko, I can’t say I’d recommend this incredibly stupid spy comedy OVA to anyone. The full extent of any remotely Shinbo-like moments are what I’m showing on screen right now, and nothing more whatsoever.

Later that year, Shinbo got his first directing job with Tatsunoko Productions handling the two-episode OVA New Hurricane Polymar–a gritty reboot of the 1970s transforming hero anime Hurricane Polymar. While the script for this OVA is terrible, it nonetheless stands as possibly the first thoroughly Akiyuki Shinbo series of his career, carrying much of the visual style that would come to define his work, and especially bearing a ton of similarity to his later, more popular series with Tatsunoko, The SoulTaker.

Right off the bat, the opening credits introduce some of Shinbo’s most important trademarks: the use of chains and statues to create a gothic atmosphere. This leads right into some off-kilter, boldly colored cityscape shots, followed by the hero, shrouded in darkness, perched on a building, with dark foreground objects flying by, and a zooming shot–all of which would be used plenty of times in future work across his career. Once again, the motifs of doctors and scientists appear heavily throughout this OVA, as do the usual dark and harshly colored frames that you must be quite used to seeing by now.

New Hurricane Polymar features a bit more violence and nudity than any of Shinbo’s previous work–not that these elements weren’t present before, or that they could be considered atypical of 90s OVAs–but Shinbo would gradually incorporate these features more over the course of his career, especially in his darker and more gothic works. Some of his more uncommon trademarks make their first appearances too, such as the use of pained, screaming faces to show the hero exerting his powers. Throw in some eyeball fixation and cross-shaped grave markers at random, and you’ve got an OVA that positively screams Shinbo across a lot of its run. While I can’t really recommend this OVA to general audiences on account of it being stupid and boring, I’d encourage hardcore Shinbo fans to give it a go just for how much of his signature style first appears here, and for the fact that it does contain some pretty alright fight animation.

Even later into 1996, Shinbo would begin directing a series of back-to-back OVAs about cute action girls with J.C. Staff over the next two years. The first of these was a three-episode sci-fi OVA called Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko, which is about a team of four girls from the present who are taken to the future to become space racers (among other things). Each episode is pretty different from the last, in a way that would be typical of OVAs from this time period, and especially of the ones that Shinbo directed. It’s easy to draw parallels between the four girls in this series and the ones from Metal Fighter Miku–and that trend will continue in Tenamonya Voyagers a few years later, borrowing a style of characterization that feels influenced by the likes of Bubblegum Crisis from earlier in the late 80s and early 90s.

Whereas Shinbo’s earlier work seemed to utilize his trademarks in big concentrated bursts, or to otherwise permeate the entire atmosphere of the series, Yamamoto Yohko begins a period wherein Shinbo’s style becomes more of a flourish which is seen all over the series, as opposed to ever hogging the spotlight. The entire OVA uses colors very boldly, but the really crazy single-color monochrome shots are used more sparingly. Shinbo’s aspect-ratio changes come up here and there, and we also see the emergence of a new technique wherein foreground objects are used to create a change in the aspect ratio diegetically (which is pretty damn cool). It’s also in this OVA that we start getting tons of really inventive screen wipes and transitions, which will become a repeating element in the next few OVAs. Aside from these, the most Shinbo-esque element of the OVA is just how bizarre and surreal it can get at times, which is characteristic of all of his work from this point forward on some level. Later on, we’ll be looking at a sequel to this OVA as well as a full-blown TV series which came out in 1999, but this one is worth a look for anyone that enjoys happy-go-lucky 90s OVAs about cute girls adventuring through space. At the very least, I’d say that episode two is worth your time.

As an aside from Shinbo’s chain of JC Staff OVAs, he would also direct five random episodes of The Magnificent Zorro between 1996 and 1997. Honestly though, I strongly doubt that he had any meaningful creative input on the series, which itself is a bizarre and kind of hilariously terrible Italian/Japanese collaboration which was apparently very popular in certain parts of Europe. I watched one of Shinbo’s episodes in its Garzey’s Wing-tier English dub form and had a laugh, but nothing about it remotely suggested Shinbo’s involvement. The only personnel connection I could find to Shinbo’s other work is that the writer was also the animation director on Metal Fighter Miku; but otherwise I have no idea why Shinbo ended up on this series.

So anyways, back at J.C. Staff, Shinbo’s next three-episode OVA would be Galaxy Fraulein Yuna Returns–a sequel to another two-episode OVA which he hadn’t been involved with. This OVA is packed with Shinbo-isms, but what struck me the most when watching it is that it’s pretty much just proto-Nanoha. I mean that on such a level that I can’t even get into the similarities here because it would take too long–the plot and the personalities of the characters are nearly identical to those of the original Nanoha TV series with a little bit of A’s mixed in, right down to the way that it has the atmosphere and attitude of a cutesy magical girl show, but involves a bunch of really intense action sequences and an outright tragic narrative. Given that Shinbo was the director of the original Nanoha TV series, I found this connection incredibly interesting, and I would encourage any diehard Nanoha fans to give this series a look just for the sake of knowing about it.

A lot of the Shinbo-isms of this OVA are front-loaded into the opening theme. We’ve got harsh single-color frames, foreground objects shaping the aspect ratio, and one hell of a fully animated crucifixion image. Over the course of this OVA, Shinbo’s experimental use of aspect ratio would grow more and more unhinged, with segments wherein the action is pushed entirely into the top quarter of the screen, or boxed into smaller frames within the screen space. This level of crazy aspect ratios would become almost par for the course in SHAFT’s comedy shows from the mid-2000s, so it’s cool to see where they got their start. This is also the first series wherein Shinbo seems intent on making sure that his characters all have really distinct and interesting bedrooms, as well as little flourishes to their homes such as solar panels, that make the environment stand out. Not to say that there weren’t any interesting locations in the previous OVAs, but the idea of characters having strangely ornate or architecturally experimental houses gets taken to increasingly bizarre extremes over the course of Shinbo’s career with SHAFT. We’re also treated to a number of super-wide frames, which will become something of a staple in the future.

Aside from those things, a lot of the trademarks we’re familiar with make a return. Once again, we’ve got a team of transforming heroes, the same style of lightning effect animations we’ve been seeing a lot of, a handful of unique screen transitions, background animation, some brutal moments of violence, and even a couple of techniques that I only realized were trends in the course of watching this OVA. One of them was the setting of a harshly-lit hallway, which we’d seen in Yuu Yuu Hakusho’s doctor scene, and will see again in the likes of the Yamamoto Yohko TV series and The SoulTaker. Another is this shot wherein we keep zooming into one character’s eye as well as the thing they’re looking at, which I’m pretty sure happened in the Yamamoto Yohko OVA as well, and fits in with Shinbo’s general fixation on eyeballs. It’s worth mentioning as well that even though this OVA mostly didn’t involve a whole of of the staff that Shinbo worked with before or after it, Yuu Yuu Hakusho director Noriyuki Abe actually storyboarded episodes one and three. All in all, Yuna Returns is a pretty enjoyable OVA with some of the best action animation in any of the shows I’ve talked about yet by way of sheer sakuga. If you like the idea of watching a version of Nanoha that doesn’t take itself as seriously or take as long to get to the point, and yet is somehow even more tragic, then I’d recommend giving it a look–though it’s probably entirely forgettable.

Shinbo’s next three-episode OVA with J.C. Staff would be the fantasy adventure-comedy Detatoko Princess; which, oddly enough, is the first thing which Shinbo directed that was based on a manga. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the manga anywhere online and it’s never been licensed, so I have no idea how closely the OVA follows along with it; but it certainly doesn’t stick to a moving manga aesthetic, and if anything is rife with as many inventive and exciting visuals as anything which Shinbo worked on in this era. In fact, while this one isn’t as heavy on obvious Shinbo-isms as the previous OVAs, it may yet be the outright best-looking one of the bunch, and is chock full of adorable designs, awesome settings, and otherwise funny visual tricks–such as the persistent use of non-diegetic signs which comment on what’s happening. Again, though, I can’t speak to how much of this was present in the source material.

Once again, the main character in this series has a sort of magical girl hero transformation, and the single-color monochromatic frames make their return, along with weird aspect ratio changes, super wide shots, fire effect animations, a gigantic eyeball, and inventive transitions. We also get an x-ray shot for the first time in a little while, coupled with background animation, and all in the process of a bath scene. While there were brief shower scenes or open-air bath scenes in Yamamoto Yohko and Yuna Returns, this is the first time Shinbo uses one of the ornate stand-alone baths which will become something of a staple in his future work as well, culminating more than a decade later in one of the most over-the-top and infamous bathing scenes in anime history in Nisemonogatari.

This is also the first instance of Shinbo having the main character speak directly into the camera from a distorted fisheye perspective. I’m not actually sure that he’s used this a lot, but I’m certain that it appears at least once in his future work, as well as in other studio SHAFT shows, so I think it’s worth taking note of. Shinbo-isms aside though, Detatoko Princess is a very cute and fun OVA that I can easily recommend to fans of the fantasy-comedy genre. It’s paced well, peppered with fantastic animation, and is all-around quite pleasant.

Rounding out this series of three-episode J.C. Staff OVAs is a second batch of episodes for Yamamoto Yohko released in 1997. Story-wise, this OVA is more of the same, if a bit slower and more focused than the previous one; but it also introduces a few more of the visual tricks which Shinbo would be using from this point forward. One is the presentation of a huge blown-out window, which turns out to actually be a monitor screen, which we’ll be seeing again in the SoulTaker. It’s also the first instance wherein we see a character’s face reflected in a multitude of glass surfaces all at once, which will start popping up in different forms from here on out. There’s also a glasses-wearing character who is often presented with one eye hidden by a light reflected on the lens, which will come up again in the SoulTaker as well.

But whereas the first and third episodes of this OVA utilize Shinboisms more as window-dressing in the same way that the last few OVAs have done, episode two is the first ever example of what I like to refer to as a full-blown Shinbogasm. In this episode, the cast find themselves lost in a trippy gothic castle, and Shinbo pulls out just about every single aesthetic trick in his book. Nearly all of the things that I’ve talked about in this video so far come up again here, often in combination with one-another. By now you can probably figure out most of them, but some noteworthy appearances include: an incredibly ornate bathing scene that comes out of nowhere, the uses of candles, statues, chains, crosses, stained glass, skulls, and blood to create a gothic atmosphere, a character speaking directly into a fisheye lens, and some eyeball fixation. There’s even a moment wherein a character yells out “transformation!” for seemingly no reason other than Shinbo likes transforming heroes. This episode is easily the most thoroughly Shinbo thing to come out of the director’s early career, going toe to toe with episodes of The SoulTaker or Petite Cossette in terms of sheer aesthetic overload. If you’re a big time Shinbo fan, then I’d definitely encourage giving it a look; otherwise, though, this OVA is hard to recommend. It’s less fun or adventurous than the previous OVA, and outside of the crazy Shinbogasm of episode two, is completely unmemorable.

Now that we’ve blown our Shinbo load on that episode, I think it’s time to take a small break and pick this up again in a couple of days. Stick around on my channel for part two of this video, and in the meantime, share this video with anyone whom you think it may interest. Support me on patreon to help me make more videos like this, and check out my other channels for more frequent uploads. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in part two.

1 thought on “Akiyuki Shinbo in the 90s [Part 1]

  1. Great idea for a series! I love some of Shinbo’s early work, as in the criminally underrated Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko OVAs, and it’s great to learn more about its genesis. Thanks!

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