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A drawing class with Yoichi Kotabe, master of Japanese animation

Yoichi Kotabe, veteran of Toei and Nintendo, during an exceptional workshop in Alsace, on November 28th. W. A.

“The movement of the arms is good, but why do not they go to the plate? And then it would take a few more intermediate images so that we have time to see what your character is eating. ” The voice is warm and husky, the look sharp, but sweet and benevolent. They emanate from a small, jaded, facetious figure, a sort of Yoda in a velvet jacket, seated in front of an audience of honored padawans: Yoichi Kotabe.

Hogwarts of animation

During five days, from 25 to 30 November in Kientzheim (Haut-Rhin), twenty minutes by car from Colmar, this master of Japanese animation led a unique workshop, co-organized by the European Center for Japanese Studies of Alsace (Ceeja), Culture Grand -East and NEF Animation.

The event, little publicized, took place in front of an old school of nuns, near the foggy Vosges and Alsatian hillsides haloed with freshness, without train, with a capricious bus and far from any trade – which will be worth to participants some hassle for feeding the first few nights. A frame with the false airs of Hogwarts, the school of sorcerers of the saga Harry Potter, for apprentice animators.

From 2 pm until late at night, the participants gave the best of themselves to impress the legend of Japanese animation.
From 2 pm until late at night, the participants gave the best of themselves to impress the legend of Japanese animation. W. A.

Around Yoichi Kotabe, fifteen cartoonists listen with deference. Half a century separates them. They are between 18 and 36 years old, are students, professionals, independent or directors, some from Belgium, Germany, and even from Japan. Sorted among nearly 80 candidates to participate in a unique workshop, driven by this legend of Japanese animation on behalf of the general public, but could fill the big stage of Japan Expo alone.

Among the trainees, Jeanne Boukraa, freelance animator, discovered her existence during her classes on Japanese animation. Jérémy Depuydt, head of a small Brussels studio, was particularly sensitive to the theme of the workshop, the “Character design” (the character design), while he is in the preconception phase of his next short film.

Read also A European museum of manga in reflection in Alsace

Six decades of career

Mr. Kotabe's 82-year-old resume speaks for him: Hayao Miyazaki's long time friend (Spirited away) and Isao Takahata (Pompoko) as character designer or animator, he worked on animated series Heidi and Marco, as well as on animated films Kie the little plague, Nausicaa from the valley of the wind or The Grave of the Fireflies, as many classics of Japanese cinema.

Finally, from 1985 until 2016, when a serious illness forced him to retire, he officiated as character designer and illustrator at Nintendo, where he gave form to several characters such as Bowser, Luigi and Yoshi, and supervised films and series Pokémon and Kirby.

On this theme: Interview with Yôichi Kotabe on his Nintendo years

Wherever he went, in spite of limited means, he brought his touch, a taste of simplicity, immediately recognizable round characters and lively and lively animations. About his many preparatory sketches projected on the screen of the study room, he explains his main concern:

“The question that I ask myself all the time is how to animate that then? One of the trends in Japanese animation is to show the complexity of the still image, but for us [avec Miyazaki et Takahata], the important thing was above all the setting in motion. That's why we always chose simple, minimalist designs to better animate them. “

He also brought a characteristic way of drawing the wave movement, which for decades influenced his colleagues in Japan, where his work was the subject of a collection.

Classics from the 1970s

The mornings, during the fifteen hours of conferences dedicated to his rich career, it is a little history of the Japanese animation which parade before the eyes of the participants. Like his fledgling debut of Toei, the Japanese Disney, where Yoichi Kotabe entered after graduating from a fine arts school, the same year as Mr. Isao Takahata. Or the formation of a golden trio with the latter and the gifted Hayao Miyazaki, with whom he has regularly disputed during the productions, without ever ceasing to admire his audacity and his imagination. Then work in a foursome, with his future wife Reiko Okuyama, the first woman producer of Toei. “She was able to give me sometimes ruthless advice about my characters”he recalls fondly.

Yoichi Kotabe has gone through several studios, depending on the affinity, sometimes to follow his friends. But he developed his style, with a certain taste for tender characters, all melancholy, swift, to show their enthusiasm by doing the pear. ” I was good enough to do the pear, but I do not do it anymore! ” he laughs in Japanese.

On Wednesday evening, the troupe was entitled to a screening in an arts and Panda small panda, funny, naïve and touching story of a girl adopting a panda and her baby to make an extra family. At the exit, before the amazed eyes of the 82-year-old cartoonist, two animators spontaneously intone the haunting little ritornello that serves as a generic.

The next day is the beauty of the sketches of Taro the dragon child (Unpublished in France), the vigor and clumsiness of this overpowering child launched in search of his mother, turned into a blind dragon, which will leave them speechless, so great is the talent of this animator.

A dinner scene as an exercise

The afternoons were devoted to the realization of an exercise decided by the master. The theme ? In less than a week, appropriate the character of the little monkey he had imagined for the series Marco, and stage it in a dinner sequence, surrounded by two other protagonists of their composition. Objective: through their animations, express their personality.

Each one in his register, in good humor and despite the dark circles, the fifteen participants went to the school of Mr. Kotabe.
Each one in his register, in good humor and despite the dark circles, the fifteen participants went to the school of Mr. Kotabe. W. A.

Easier said than done. Most of the trainees will admit their surprise at this clean-cut approach. “Most of the criticism that my teachers or producers made me was always very technical, but that's not what interests him. He looks at the scene as a whole, amazes Laurent Moing. In front of him, Alexandre Cormier, illustrator, notes with astonishment his attention to very slight details of staging, like the speed at which a character rightens his glasses. “It should be done more slowly, so that the viewer can understand “, repeated Mr. Kotabe the day before.

In less than five days, the trainees had to draw a small animated clip about the theme of a lunch, with broadcast and correction on the last day.
In less than five days, the trainees had to draw a small animated clip about the theme of a lunch, with broadcast and correction on the last day. W. A.

Mr. Kotabe left Alsace with several gifts and a card signed by each participant. It was difficult to know, on the threshold of departure, who had been most moved by this meeting.

William Audureau

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