Japanese illustrators and animation talent to watch in 2020

This year we featured Japan's most exciting new visual talent in our Tokyo DADA seriesfinishing with this look at how visual talent behind Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Rilakkuma and more are joining forces with London's Nexus Studios.

With London having paid host to major manga shows this summer, plus seasons on LGBT+ diversity in Japanese comics, there's never been a better time to celebrate the cool aesthetics of Japan as we head closer to Tokyo's 2020 Olympics.

BAFTA and Cannes Lion-winning Nexus Studios may be one of London's best known names in film and animation production, but its origins actually lay in the Far East; Tokyo, Japan to be exact.

The studio originally worked with Japanese feature and commercial companies shooting in Europe, with co-founder and executive creative director Christopher O’Reilly developing there an animation production company whilst part of its ranks. Following a buy out with colleague and co-founder Charlotte Bavasso to launch Nexus as we know it today, the studio returns to its roots almost two decades later with exciting new venture Maison Hanko.

A pop-up roster celebrating some of Japan's best illustrators and directors, the collaboration's name is an apt example of cultural back and forth, as Christopher reveals to Digital Arts.

"While starting the roster up,  I was back in London and walked into a shop that sold kitchenware," Christopher writes. "Among the paraphernalia was a basketful of these small wooden stamps each with beautifully intricate kanji carved into it.

"I used to have one when I lived in Japan after I left college. In fact, everyone there does; they are called hanko and they are your personal signature. So the kanji at the end of these wooden stamps were surnames.

"Oddly, hanko is actually a borrowed word from English made Japanese. It came from the American slang for signature, Hancock, which itself came from the signature of John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence.

"I liked that it spoke of the deeply interwoven, hidden stories and influences that the west and Japan share. As such, Hanko represents an individual’s unique mark or voice, and that is what Nexus has always represented. 

"Maison meanwhile simply came as we wanted it to be a home for talent away from home."

Maison Hanko aims to spotlight the unique creativity of Japanese talent throughout the Tokyo 2020 Cultural Olympiad, with curation of the roster to continue throughout. Some of the names involved have already made waves internationally; Kouhei Nakama for example has won awards for his Makin’ Moves video works, while Masahito Kobayashi is none other than the director behind Netflix breakout Rilakkuma and Kaoru, as based on everyone's favourite Japanese bear.

"Japan is so much more accessible now and its artists are finding audiences globally," Christopher continues. "Twenty years ago, filmmakers and designers we worked with had little profile outside of Japan, with the exception of perhaps the anime studios.

"Back then, Japan was the one place where animation wasn’t largely just ‘for kids’. It inspired us that animation could be a medium for telling many types of stories.

"Our very first roster featured some incredible Japanese talent including Oshii Mamoru (Ghost in the Shell) and Koji Morimoto (Memories). With Maison Hanko we’re revisiting that original legacy, and I’m hoping for a diverse slate of projects – some we will develop ourselves and some of course will come to us.

"We didn’t go out looking for talent with a ‘Japanese aesthetic', though," Christopher continues. "I don’t think that meaningfully exists and it’s not the spirit of Maison Hanko. 

"We just wanted to cultivate an opportunity to work with the very best creators. In that sense identifying the talent was simple; they were artists and directors whose work we had admired, often for a long while."

Find out more about these stunning visual talents with info from Christopher/Nexus on why they're ones to watch as we head closer to Tokyo 2020.

Masahito Kobayashi - Director

Masahito is responsible for bringing one of the most popular characters in Japan to life for the beautifully crafted Netflix Originals series Rilakkuma and Kaoru.

The 13 episode stop-motion series is infused with characterful warmth but packs an emotional punch in looking at the simple frustrations that life in a big city can produce.

Working to prioritise geographical authenticity, Masahito created a detailed city called Ogigaya, which blends Tokyo’s Ogikubo and Asagaya neighborhoods, to serve as the setting for the series. 

Masahito has also worked his magic with another cute Japanese critter on the TV show Domo! World.

Kouhei Nakama - Director

Kouhei Nakama’s stunning CG artistry has won him a reputation as one of Japan’s top new visual directors. Gaining international recognition with Diffusion, Cycle and Making Moves, Kouhei’s textural explorations of the human form, materials and elements result in beautiful and impactful short films through which we explore the world through his unique lens.

Hideyuki Tanaka - Director

One of Japan’s most prominent commercials and music promo directors, Hideyuki kicked off his career creating animated promos before turning his eye to live action and combining the two to produce spectacular work including the wildly imaginative CGI mo-cap promos for Sai&Co and Harajuku Iyhoi by J-Pop princess Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

ShiShi Yamazaki - Director

Listed by Forbes magazine as one of the 30 people under 30, Shishi Yamazaki’s dynamic and fun filled watercolour worlds for brands including Chanel, Prada, Shiseido and Airbnb have won her international acclaim.

Shishi combines hand drawn animation and footage for rotoscoping to convey sensation, emotion and movement in her elegant films, which sometimes feature her evolving character ShiShi Girl.

Takeshi Miyasaka - Illustrator

Takeshi creates powerful images with an emphasis on composition and colour to create beautiful vignettes of everyday life in urban Japan.

Combining the hand-drawn and digital, his smoothly tactile explorations into people and the built environment often evoke a sense of quiet and calm though highly detailed shading and perspective.

Takeshi’s work currently features across the publishing, editorial and advertising industries and has won him a Tokyo Illustrators Society award. 

Takahiro Suganuma - Illustrator

Born and raised in Tokyo, Takahiro's evocative work often conveys a quiet drama within its soft lines and muted colour palette and has been described as capturing ’a harmonious golden hour atmosphere’.

Takahiro’s work spans advertising, education, music and publications including The World Today, the Royal College of Physicians and The Architectural Review. Takahiro illustrated his first picture book When Grandma was a Child in 2017, which conveys life in 1960’s Japan.

Kazuhisa Uragami - Illustrator

Based in Tokyo, Kazuhisa's work often depicts snapshots of life in modern day Japan which beautifully capture a mood or emotion.

Since graduating from prestigious illustration college Aoyama-Juku he has worked on a myriad of projects across the advertising, publishing and editorial landscape and had his work selected to exhibit at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair.

More recently Kazuhisa’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions in art galleries in south west Japan.

Hiroyuki Izutsu - Illustrator

Inspired by the subtleness of everyday life, Hiroyuki primarily works in opaque watercolour, combining the hand-drawn and digital techniques to create his distinctive images.

Based in Tokyo, his career began 40 years ago in the advertising industry and most recently his work featured across Taylors of Harrogate tea and coffee brand in the UK and imagery for WeTransfer in the US.

He is a member of the Illustrator's Society and a lecturer at Tokyo's prestigious illustrator's college, Aoyama-Juku. 

Read next: Check out the rest of our Tokyo DADA series

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