Inside One of Japan’s Most Legendary Animation Studios

We visited Tokyo's Nippon Animation Studio to find out about today's anime culture, the animation process and why rappers love anime.

A few weeks back, we flew to Tokyo to explore Japanese anime culture with adidas Originals for a future collaboration with a budding German rapper. In a way, it isn’t surprising that a rapper would pinpoint anime as a point of fascination: to the average millennial Western eye, anime is probably the most recognizable and stereotypical symbol of Japan. After all, we millennials spent our early years with our eyes glued to TV screens showing Pokémon or Sailor Moon; as we grew older, we discovered legendary films like Akira and were introduced to Studio Ghibli’s seductive fantasy universes. Even today, anime remains one of Japan’s most profitable exports: according to a report compiled by the Association of Japanese Animators, Japan’s animation industry market revenue has grown by almost 200 billion Japanese yen for the third year in a row, currently generating almost 15.9 billion American dollars. These staggering numbers are partially due to a massive increase in international distribution, with Europe in particular making up one fourth of Japan’s entire animation market.

Considering this international distribution strategy colliding with millennials’ early exposure to Japanese animation, it’s no wonder that waves of Western creatives across multitudes of industries have attempted to adopt Japanese anime culture as their own. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t gone without its fair share of criticism (like when the internet ripped Katy Perry to shreds for dressing up like a geisha at the American Music Awards a few years back.) Yet one arena that has so far avoided being called out with a ‘cultural appropriation’ stamp for drawing upon Anime culture is rap music.

A Quick Action Recorder—used to quickly translate drawings into moving images early in the animation process.

As Noisey Canada writes, “starting as far back as the early 2000s, hip-hop has always had an odd fascination with anime.” Kanye’s tweeted about Akira’s superiority over Spirited Away; Lupe Fiasco’s lyrics are plentiful with anime references; and artists like Frank Ocean, RZA, Childish Gambino, Soulja Boy, Chance the Rapper, Travis Scott and J. Cole have all alluded to Dragon Ball Z in their lyrics and visuals. While the reasons behind rap music’s affinity for anime are kind of a mystery, some writers have suggested there’s a particular legitimacy to the relationship that negates notions of cultural appropriation. Their argument is that it comes down the substance, not aesthetic. Many anime story arcs rely on heroes dramatically overcoming challenges or rising over evil—which is a story arc that often defines rap culture, too. After all, how many rappers spit about having ‘made it’, triumphing over their humble upbringings? Or how many rappers drop dis tracks, claiming their superiority over somebody else in the game they’re beefing with? Point is, anime and rap both rely on destroying villains; it just so happens that anime’s villains are most often monsters or evil characters, while rappers’ villains are classicism, racism and social expectations.

Which brings us to Haiyti—the latest rapper looking to make nods to Japanese anime in her own creative output. The German rapper’s signature touch is combining both internet and rap tropes into a sonic and visual vibe that’s at once catchy, compelling, kitsch and tongue in cheek; therefore, it only makes sense that rap’s relationship with anime would be the latest cultural phenomena she’d want to weave into her own work. To do this, she went to Tokyo; to do this in Tokyo, she visited Nippon Animation—one of Japan’s most established and legendary animation studios, which also happens to be where Studio Ghibli’s founders cut their teeth and produced films before launching their own company.

Nippon’s intro theme to their version of ‘Anne of Green Gables’. 

Nippon Animation has existed in prestige since the 70s. Since then, it’s gathered tons of awards for its films and series; the studio is particularly notable for making the World Masterpiece Theatre series – animated episodes telling different classic novel stories every week –  a staple of Japanese culture. As a result, it maintains its position as a respected animation house in Japan; according to Takashi Inoue, Nippon Studio’s general manager, that legacy lets the studio avoid having to buck to animation trends. “At the start of animation history, it was just for kids,” he tells us while giving us a tour throughout the studio. “But now, the Japanese trend is to make animation that’s for adults, because that’s where the money is in the economy. But our company has a concept: to focus on family and kids. We don’t fight to keep that: we just have confidence and make the animation that we believe in.”

The word ‘concept’ is paramount here. It’s more like the mission and vision that every studio abides by and follows religiously—even if that means ignoring the needs of trends, like Nippon does. Studio Ghibli’s, for example, is to bring something original to the world of anime. And Nippon’s? “We believe that animation should be shared with the world,” says Inoue. “And with our animation, we specifically hope to make children happy in their hearts.”

To accomplish this goal, Nippon perfects a certain vibe within their animation—no matter if they’re illustrating Anne of Green Gables or creating characters from scratch. “Our style is very gentle,” says Inoue. “The stories are gentle, the characters look gentle. And we focus on animation based on novels, so we have to adjust many ideas, stories and characters to kind of remake the world of novels in animation.”

To do this day, Nippon sticks to that gentle approach—as is made evident by the tour we take. While observing the range of animation development the studio undergoes – from character development to storyboarding, from painting to editing – every bit of work we see seems optimistic. Cheerful. Energetic. Comforting. Altogether, it’s clear that Nippon stick within the range of their specific vision. They know what they do, and they do it well—and isn’t that the kind of life advice all of us could use every once in a while, mmmm?