Shu Yonezawa and the Art of Animation
By Sophie Mayuko Arni
Published on January 8, 2023
Shu Yonezawa stands as one of the most promising young artists living in Tokyo today. With a unique approach to deconstructing animation into abstraction, she has held numerous exhibitions throughout Japan all while working for some of Japan’s biggest anime hits.
Anime culture is probably one of Japan’s biggest export. Seeing kawaii characters with big eyes, small noses, and oversized heads is quite common within popular culture, and quite a few artists have played around with this medium, such as Takashi Murakami, or in Europe, with Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe. I see Yonezawa apart from the post-Murakami generation, as her practices focuses more on formal shapes of animation than commenting on the content itself. She has the ability to reflect on the medium from the inside out, having worked in the industry and the academic background of intermedia art. She graduated from Tama Art University in 2021, and thanks to technology, has the ability to bring together incredibly technical drawings and massive immersive installations.
Animation itself is Yonezawa’s core subject matter. She returns to the essential definition of animation as movement, and creates abstract shapes based on obake, the in-between character shapes that animators insert in-between frames to create fluid movement. Transposed to installation form, her deconstructed obake characters float within a blueness of ocean, in minimal settings.
At only 23 years old and with a Billie Eilish-like appearance, dressed in oversized sweaters, her tone is as soft as the character she draws. Having first met in Atami within the ATAMI ART GRANT festival, we later met at Tokyo Arts and Space (TOKAS) Hongo, where she held her latest solo exhibition following her artist residency.
The following conversation was held at TOKAS Hongo on November 25th, 2022.
Sophie Mayuko Arni: I would like to start with your early childhood, and your first encounters with manga and anime. Looking at your work, I was wondering if you grew up watching anime.
Shu Yonezawa: Actually, not really. I didn’t watch much anime growing up. I think I was more interested in being outdoors, and I really enjoyed natural landscapes.
I would watch anime when the TV was turned on. I remember I particularly enjoyed Osamu Tezuka’s 火の鳥, Hi no Tori, "Bird of Fire" [also known as Phoenix]. It was the story of a phoenix bird that would keep rejuvenating back to life; that would come alive out of the ashes, a story of courage, rebirth, transformation, metamorphosis. Life and death were fundamental themes of that manga, I remember borrowing these manga books from my local library.
I didn’t watch much anime growing up. I think I was more interested in being outdoors, and I really enjoyed natural landscapes.
S.A.: Interesting. Where did the passion for drawing and art-making came from? When did you first start drawing? Were you already drawing in high school?
S.Y.: I started getting interested in film and filmmaking in high school. I was drawing at the time, but it was the really first time I became interested in taking digital images and videos. I remember always having an Iphone camera with me, and taking videos with my group of friends.
I couldn’t get the drawing app to work on my phone so I used the memo function on my electronic dictionary [very popular device amongst Japanese high school and university students]. I wrote many memos and fed them back to draw imaginary characters and make animation.
S.A.: An electronic dictionary to draw manga?
S.Y.: Yes! I took the pen and would digitize my paper drawings that way. I used the note-taking function with the provided electronic pen, and drew images pixel by pixel. This was in high school, I was about 16 years old then.
S.A.: That’s the first time I hear of this method. You clearly had an artistic inclination early in high school.
S.Y.: When I graduated high school, I had two choices in front of me. They are two completely different career paths: one was to enter a marine biology university to work in aquariums. I always had a fascination for marine life and deep seas. Another one was to enter art university, and I chose the latter. I entered Tama Art University in Tokyo.
S.A.: What did you major in at university?
S.Y.: I joined the Information Design department, which was a very diverse and varied department dedicated to intermedia art. It gave me access to all tools of image-making, from analog to digital. I learned skills related to graphic design, photography, printmaking, videography, editing, and video projections. I also learned some electric mechanical skills, like how to use an electric board. I felt that I now had access to the vocabulary of contemporary art exhibitions and multimedia installations.
S.A.: Coming out of university, your first job was in the animation department of a production company, while freelancing for TV animation commissions. What has it been like to work in such a setting, producing animations that hundreds of thousands, millions of people will watch?
S.Y.: When I was in my second year at university, I already started working part-time as an assistant for an animation designer at a production company in Tokyo. This company produces visuals and animated videos for music videos and popular anime throughout Japan. It felt great to draw animation for music videos, I like the texture of commercial anime.
After graduating, I joined them full-time and started also pursuing freelance work. Working on animation for 映像研には手を出すな！[known as Don’t touch Eizouken!, one of the most popular anime amongst today’s Japanese youth] was very hard at first but I was very happy to be part of this project.
When I was in my second year at university, I already started working part-time as an assistant for an animation designer at a production company in Tokyo.
S.A.: What is the process to create an anime video? Do you do everything on your computer?
S.Y.: Anime functions like a stop-motion film. A moving animation is made of individual still frames put together. You could say that the foundation of anime is drawing on pen and paper.
The usual frame rate [for commercial anime in Japan] is 24 rates per second. For TV, this frame rate is slowed down to create the TV anime method. We divide the frame rate by three, to obtain 8 frames per second. If you observe anime on TV, you can see each frame jumps from one frame to the next.
You could say that the foundation of anime is drawing on pen and paper.
S.A.: Do you draw each frame by hand?
S.Y.: I do, sometimes I draw on iPad too. From compiling drawings and sketches, the next step is digitizing the still frames. Then, I can start making the live-motion movement. There are specific softwares for this, such as the Unity game engine.
S.A.: For the readers, and for me too — I’m curious to know how you would define “animation.” Many people often confuse anime (moving image) and manga (static image) for example.
S.Y.: I see myself as much of an artist as an animator. I don’t mean the animator title as a job, or a profession, but rather, I view the concept of animation as central to my work. Animation for me is synonymous with creation. With animation, I can shape something out of nothing. I can create movement.
At its core, animation is movement. I can move my hand slightly, and create a hand movement. This very movement is a form of animation.
With animation, I can shape something out of nothing. I can create movement.
S.A.: Fascinating, and we can see this constant movement in your work. You define your practice as working within the “liminal” in-between space between animated frames. Can you explain this concept? I believe these milli-second glitches is called obake in Japanese.
S.Y.: Yes, this concept of obake [オバケ] is something I have been working on and a central theme to my practice since my first exhibition at Tama Art University in 2020.
Obake is present in every anime: it’s the name of the glitch, the abstract shape, that animators introduce in-between split scenes to produce a smooth resulting moving image. In-between two scenes with two characters, for example, there will be an obake of these two figures, but the characters will be headless or with very interesting, abstracted, body shapes.
I became very interested in obake: when you think about it, anime characters have no clue that they will become obake shapes. Anime characters are themselves a form of obake. Around 2019, I started to take screenshots of obake of animations that I was working on. I researched obake techniques, and based on commercial anime’s standard obake shapes, I created my own obake.
Obake is present in every anime: it’s the name of the glitch, the abstract shape, that animators introduce in-between split scenes to produce a smooth resulting moving image.
S.A.: I would like to come back to this first exhibition at the Tama Art University’s gallery. One very important characteristic of your work is the way you exhibit your installation. You describe yourself as an artist-animator, I would add installation artist to your multi-hyphenate practice. You exhibit your digital animation as an installation, which is not something that is easy to do. You manage to turn 2D drawings into digital moving images and 4K videos, before entering the highest-resolution realm of all: physical sculpture,“real-life” installation. At this exhibition at Tama Art University for example, you showed an animated video that looked like a fish bowl on a monitor, with a bridge for visitors to step unto. Can you walk us though this work?
S.Y.: Thank you, I always think of the ways my animation can be exhibited as an immersive installation for the audience. During my third year at Tama Art University, I created an installation entitled Swimmers. Swimmers really stems from my passion for the underwater world. My goldfish died in high school, and since then that feeling of loss never went away. I had known him my whole life, and lived with him since elementary school. I wanted to celebrate him for this exhibition.
I created a multi-screen video installation, based on my research on water tanks and aquarium displays. I wanted to display my animation in a frame that resembled its contents. I always think of where animations live.
I wanted to display my animation in a frame that resembled its contents. I always think of where animations live.
S.A.: Is this a water tank?
S.Y.: Yes it is. The screen is below water, and the audience is invited to step on the self-made metallic “bridge” on top of this ‘pond of screens’.
S.A.: Pond of screens, genius. Your animation work has characteristics of traditional anime, but also embeds regular video footage. You create a juxtaposition between real and imagined, and the obake shape adds a flair of abstraction to animation, an otherwise highly-figurative art form.
S.Y.: I dedicated a whole exhibition to the concept of obake, presented at ICC [Tokyo Opera City’s NTT InterCommunication Center] in 2020. Entitled Obake no B’: The Movie, this exhibition had many of my obake creations set across monitors in various landscapes such as desert, beaches, and seashores. The result was a multichannel video, capturing the moment when obake appears in space, and recreating what its voice would sound like. Stretched out over tens of seconds and drifting through space, the voices coming from the monitors overlapped each other. These overlaps always sounded different, because of the asymmetry of the length of videos looped on these monitors.
S.A.: Your practice also involves photography and printmaking. I’m thinking of your installation at last year’s ATAMI ART GRANT in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.
S.Y.: My Atami exhibition also explored the concept of obake. I was interested in Atami’s landscapes and more specifically, the gaps in architecture in our chosen exhibition space. There were many holes in this staircase, which was all made out of concrete. I thought it would be interesting to introduce my obake shapes in-between these interior glitches.
I was trying to find something, a form, in the gaps. I took photographs of Atami’s iconic seashores, inserted characters that I draw and designed, and added my obake ghostly figures. The composition becomes a liminal space within a space, as if ghosts entered my prints.
S.A.: Atami can be an uncanny place, I’ve heard countless stories from artists who could feel ghostly presence in this town. In Tokyo, I also remember visiting the incredible Planet Samsa exhibition earlier in 2022, curated by Rintaro Fuse and held at Former Site of Odaka Bookbinding Company in Shinjuku, Tokyo. He curated an exhibition with more than a dozen artists, and included a beautiful video of yours, entitled Anima of extinction (絶滅のアニマ). The visual contrast between large high-definition monitors showing conceptual blurry animation and the abandoned nature of the space gave me a strong “liminal” effect.
S.Y.: Anima of extinction (絶滅のアニマ) commented on the process of animation itself: as I was explaining earlier, a hand gesture is a form of animation. In one of the videos, a character is adjusting and readjusting her hair, forming a repetitive movement. In the real world, this would be interpreted as a hand gesture but in the context of an exhibition, this moment becomes animation and art.
In the real world, this would be interpreted as a hand gesture but in the context of an exhibition, this moment becomes animation and art.
For Planet Samsa, I created two animations based on a dream I had about a huge explosion, that I could see in the distance. My friends, the grass around me, trees in the background, and bodies of all living creatures suddenly disappeared, leaving behind only spirits in the darkness. We were all in the dark, and lost all organs linked to physical touch. Yet, we could still sense and recognize other living presence when bumping into each other.
Based on this story, I created a two-channel video work with subtitles acting as dream diaries. Displayed on two separate monitors, the audience can detect the shapes of human presence, characters who exist in the same space and time. Like the dream, I wanted that loss of physical touch and inverted darkness to be always felt during the exhibition. Having the monitors in close proximity, tilted yet straight-aligned, made a big difference.
One of monitors showed a live-action video of a person stroking movements into empty space, and the other showed an animated character stroking another character. I wanted the images on the monitor to float in the air, side by side, like planets in space. I imagined what worlds could exist between these images.
I wanted the images on the monitor to float in the air, side by side, like planets in space.
S.A.: Planet Samsa is an exhibition I will always remember visiting. There are few exhibitions that leave you with both intellectual stimulation and emotional connection. The visual impact took over me — maybe that’s what happens when an artist curates an exhibition. Let’s jump to the present exhibition. Could you tell us about the present exhibition, a solo show entitled No Name at Tokyo Arts and Space (TOKAS) Hongo?
S.Y.: This exhibition took a few months of conceptualization and is part of TOKAS’s Open Site 7, as part of TOKAS’ Open Call artist residence program.
In-between two large video projection screens, the audience is invited to feel the presence of anonymous characters living, existing, breathing, and slightly moving. There are many layers of obake in this work too.
The way the work is installed was a happy coincidence. Since two projectors are placed behind the two screens, there are no shadows cast by exhibition visitors unto the projections. It made me think of how existence can disappear, how characters can also disappear, and the ways in which we should remember someone’s existence after they are gone. Shape and silhouette are probably the most recognizable visual memory of people’s existence.
When thinking about someone’s existence, the most important image should be to recognize the spirit of existence. You don’t need a body to think about existence and think that you exist, just look at the state of robots and Artificial Intelligence today. An entity can be in a relationship with other entities without physical bodies.
My video installation is meant to create a corridor-like vortex of existence. Someone was there, someone was present, but you don’t know exactly who and when. You can see the shape that they left behind them, like an abstract stamp on screen. My obake shape is like a soul’s fossil, it is proof that somebody was there in this space, with the visitor.
My video installation is meant to create a corridor-like vortex of existence. Someone was there, someone was present, but you don’t know exactly who and when.
S.A.: This idea of presence, absence, and imprint is felt throughout the other works on view in this exhibition. There are some abstract anime glitches fire-stamped unto clear acrylic sheets.
S.Y.: These are from a new series of work, where I experimented with different materials to create obake-like shapes without drawing them directly. By burning targeted parts of acrylic sheets, I could create anime character shapes through the resulting holes. With spotlights casted on these vinyl sheets, the audience may detect other abstract shapes as shadows on the wall. The sheets are also meant to be lightly pinned to the wall, to allow for movement.
The medium for this work is “vinyl sheet, air, and pin” – those are the only elements needed for animation, when you think about it.
S.A.: Your work often incorporates recurring image of a young girl, nameless, anonymous, and perhaps lonely. Is it your intention to comment on the state of femininity in our contemporary age? Could you tell us more about this character, “No Name”?
S.Y.: It’s not my intention to only make video animations of girls only. My characters may look like girls, but they are not really. I view my characters as genderless: they can identify as boys or girls, especially for this exhibition [No Name], the idea of anonymity is central to the work.
When I look at characters, I think about the character as a human being: what does the character like and dislike? What are their different behaviors, and what behavior do they love the most? What objects do they collect? What belongings do they prefer?
To go back to the Planet Samsa’s work, you could say one of the character is clearly a girl. I must say there is more room to play with obake when drawing girl characters: they have so much more movement! Hand gestures and hair movement are more plentiful amongst women than men, at least this is my impression in Japanese TV anime. The caring hand gesture can also be seen or understood as a feminine caring touch.
I view my characters as genderless: they can identify as boys or girls, especially for this exhibition [No Name], the idea of anonymity is central to the work.
S.A.: Last question, do you have any upcoming projects you are working on, or would like to share with us?
S.Y.: I’m currently taking some time off after this exhibition at TOKAS. I first applied for the residency in February 2022 and have been working on conceptualizing and producing this exhibition since this summer. I don’t have precise plans for 2023 exhibitions yet, but what is for sure is that my next project needs to have a new exciting element. I’m thinking to delve deeper into video work, and make a narrative long-format video, that would bring my animation back to the storytelling realm. It’s still in the early stages right now.
S.A.: Thank you – this will be the first of many conversations we will have, I’m sure. I already look forward to the future exhibitions we can do together.
Shu Yonezawa (b. 1999, Tokyo) is an artist and animator. She graduated with a BA in Information Design, Media Art Course from Tama Art University. Yonezawa’s work is based on his interest in the physicality of characters in contemporary digital animation and the atmosphere of the spaces that these characters inhabit. Recent exhibitions include “no name”, as part of Tokyo Arts and Space OPEN SITE 7 | Open Call Program (Tokyo Arts and Space Hongo, Tokyo, Japan, 2022), “Obake no Bʹ: The Movie” (NTT INTERCOMMUNICATION CENTER , Tokyo, Japan, 2022), “Places where they are” (ATAMI ART GRANT, Atami, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, 2021), and “AB,” a two-person show with Ushio Chicken (Shinjuku Ophthalmology Gallery, Tokyo, 2020). She was awarded the Student CG Contest Evaluator's Award, Etsuko Ichihara Award, in 2021.
Sophie Mayuko Arni (b. 1995, Geneva) is a curator and editor. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Global Art Daily, and recent curated exhibitions include “East-East: UAE meets Japan Vol.5, Atami Blues” at ATAMI ART GRANT 2022, Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan.
Many thanks to Oshima-san and TOKAS Hongo.
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