I can’t get over these anime background artists with their battered brushes and messy jars of cheap paint. It’s fascinating to hear them talk and watch them at work. It’s children’s book illustration taken to the nth power.

The below video delves deeper than we looked last time into the subject of anime backgrounds. It rests finally on Kazuo Oga’s most intense challenge, perhaps as Ghibli Studio art director: Creating the backgrounds for Asao Takahata’s ‘animated drama’ (as Wikipedia describes it) Only Yesterday.

The 1991 movie was based on on a children’s manga series by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone. Director Takahata, whose college major was French literature turned this child’s comic into more of an adult story with childhood flashbacks. It became the top grossing domestic film in Japan when it was released in 1991.

Background image for the 1991 animated film "Only Yesterday", created by art director Kazuo Oga with poster paint on paper.

Background image for the 1991 animated film “Only Yesterday” created by art director Kazuo Oga with poster paint on paper.

What they were doing, reaching for — these Ghibli filmmakers (especially Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki) leaves us a bit mind-boggled. The outdoor and interior set pieces appear realer than real — surreal almost — in a gambit to engage our senses and evoke our childhood associations and memories.

Lots of the burden of this uncomfortable ambition to construct the world in paint falls on the art director. He must create the look of the film the director wants and maintain it in every frame, right up to the final credits.

For Only Yesterday the great illustrators (Oga and his team), no doubt prodded by a great dramatist (Takahata), researched every detail and nuance of sight, sound, smell and feeling of the script and the place. Hence the numerous field trips to the ‘land of the safflowers’, the rural Takase district of Yamagata City that is the heart of the story.

“With photos you can’t judge how conditions change over time,” Oga says in the video below.


Yoji Takeshige, a background artist for the film elaborates. “You have to see it first hand. The quiet of the early morning train platform. The look of a car driving along an empty road before dawn.  The silence, the chill and the due of the morning. The warmth of the sun’s rays as it rises over a field of safflowers.

“You have to experience these things,” to be able to paint them, he says.

Crafting worlds of paint

But the documentary throws us an interesting curve. Hyper real can’t take us all the way into the story’s world. To live in that world, we need our imaginations.

Oga says in the video that he was “swept away by the realism of the animators.”

“I don’t think it was necessary to include that much detail,” he says. “The backgrounds could have been simpler.”

The big, mysterious lesson that every artist must learn and relearn throughout a life: Less is more.

Coming soon to a theater near you…

Only yesterday, in fact 🙂 Variety published a story saying that GKids has acquired North American rights for theatrical distribution.

The English language version of the film is being dubbed by actors Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Dev Patel, Ashley Eckstein and Alison Fernandez for movie theater release in the West in 2016. It will mark  the film’s 25th anniversary.

Background 2 for "Only Yesterday" by Kazuo Oga, created with poster paint