A Magical Look Inside the Painting Process of Studio Ghibli Artist Kazuo Oga

The mag­ic of Stu­dio Ghi­b­li’s films owes much to their char­ac­ters: the high-fly­ing Princess Nau­si­caä of the Val­ley of the Wind; the World War I‑fighter ace-turned-swine Por­co Rosso; the spir­it­ed ten-year-old Chi­hi­ro, spir­it­ed away into the realm of folk­lore; the dog-rac­coon-bear-cat for­est spir­it known only as Totoro. But to under­stand what makes these fig­ures come alive, we must remem­ber that they inhab­it liv­ing worlds. A Ghi­b­li pro­duc­tion stands or falls (which would still count as an artis­tic tri­umph at most oth­er stu­dios) on not just char­ac­ter design and ani­ma­tion but back­ground art, which demands the kind of care­ful and inspired work you can wit­ness in the video above.

The artist at the desk is Kazuo Oga, a vet­er­an back­ground artist cred­it­ed as art direc­tor on Ghi­b­li’s My Neigh­bor Totoro, Only Yes­ter­day, Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, among oth­er ani­me projects. His work begins at about 9:30 in the morn­ing, as he brings out a mod­est­ly size sheet of paper and pre­pares its sur­face to receive paint.

24 dif­fer­ent col­ors of Japan­ese-made Nick­er Poster Col­or brand gouache stand ready right near­by, and with them Oga applies the ground, or first lay­er of paint. Even before he takes a seat, a for­est scene has clear­ly begun to emerge. Then down­ward strokes become the thin trunks of its trees, which by the ear­ly after­noon have branch­es.

Broad­ly speak­ing, Oga works from the large details in toward the small, arriv­ing mid­way through the 2:00 hour to the stage of adding light pur­ple flow­ers. These are Paulow­n­ia, called kiri in Japan, where these “princess trees” (that also appear on the offi­cial Gov­ern­ment Seal) car­ry a cer­tain sym­bol­ic weight. The final paint­ing, Paulow­n­ia Rain (or kiri same), emerges only at 3:40 in the after­noon, after six hours of paint­ing. This evoca­tive for­est land­scape attests to the truth of an inver­sion of the Pare­to prin­ci­ple, in that the parts of the job that seem small­est require most of the work to achieve — and to the truth of the Ghi­b­li’s appar­ent artis­tic prin­ci­ple that every pain is worth tak­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stu­dio Ghi­b­li Pro­duc­er Toshio Suzu­ki Teach­es You How to Draw Totoro in Two Min­utes

Hayao Miyazaki’s Sketch­es Show­ing How to Draw Char­ac­ters Run­ning: From 1980 Edi­tion of Ani­ma­tion Mag­a­zine

Watch Hayao Miyaza­ki Ani­mate the Final Shot of His Final Fea­ture Film, The Wind Ris­es

A Vir­tu­al Tour Inside the Hayao Miyazaki’s Stu­dio Ghi­b­li Muse­um

Stu­dio Ghi­b­li Makes 1,178 Images Free to Down­load from My Neigh­bor Totoro, Spir­it­ed Away & Oth­er Beloved Ani­mat­ed Films

Watch Every Episode of Bob Ross’ The Joy Of Paint­ing Free Online: 403 Episodes Span­ning 31 Sea­sons

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­terBooks on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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