Animation Styles Guide

This guide has been years in the making, although not actually in the written form as you see it now, but through our work on the “Production Guide”. If you have never spent too much time in that guide, it is highly recommended you at least slightly familiarize yourself with it, specifically the “Animation Process”, before diving too far into this one. Most animation these days is now drawn using computer tablets, and although the techniques used in digital animation are essentially the same as traditional animation of the past, the true art of animating on paper and celluloid sheets is now a mere memory. This guide is meant to honor and display the artistic styles of these men of the ink and paper days, and not just entirely to judge them.

It should be noted that due to the nature of this guide there are some personal artistic opinions stated. While some opinions stated may not match your own, it should be clear that a great effort has been placed on avoiding the use of personal opinion and such statements are instead based on artistic facts. To also help offset any straying personal opinions, a more general fan opinion has been incorporated based on observed community discussions over the years. It should also be noted that you will often see the “Animation Supervisor” credit translated as the “Animation Director” on other sites, but since these animators only oversee the key animation aspects in Dragon Ball it seems more appropriate to use the title of “supervisor”, which like “director” is also an accurate translation of kantoku (監督).

The Overall Look of an Episode

Unlike the manga — which for the most part was drawn by one man — the anime adaptation of the series was drawn by numerous animators, each with their own artistic styles. Some were known for perfectly mimicking Akira Toriyama’s art style, while others added their own twist, and some never even came close. Just who were the animators behind the actual look of the three series, and more specifically, each episode? The obvious answer you will get from most people is that it is the animation supervisor, and while that is correct, we should not be too hasty to toss the key animators out of the picture.

Masaki Satō sketching a key frame for Dragon Ball

You will often hear fans of any anime series, not just Dragon Ball, blame the look of any episode on a specific animator, most commonly the animation supervisor. Unfortunately these statements are quite misleading to fans with a limited knowledge of the traditional animation process, as it can leave the impression that each episode is being animated by a single person, when in actuality multiple people are responsible for animating these episodes.

The animation aspects of an episode begin once its story has been established. At this point, the animation supervisor assigned to that specific episode determines the number of key frames needed to animate each scene of the episode based on the storyboards available. These key frames are then distributed to key animators working under the animation supervisor to be drawn. Throughout this process the key animation frames are overlooked and corrected by the animation supervisor, essentially shaping how they want the episode to look. Since all other frames and coloring will be based on these completed key animation frames, these elements naturally take on the look of how the animation supervisor corrected the key frames.

While the process discussed above is typically the norm, in some instances the key animators were actually more talented than the animation supervisor, and in this case were the ones who would depict how an episode looked. One major example of this is the Last House studio, whose animation got noticeably worse throughout Dragon Ball Z as many of their more talented key animators were promoted. Many talented key animators can often hide deficiencies of their supervisors, but it is often hard to track down who was responsible for what in this case. Overall though, the final look of the episode hinges on the artistic abilities of the animation supervisor who has ultimate control over establishing the key frames.

Animation Supervisors

The following is a table of every animation supervisor involved with the various TV series as organized by their studio affiliation and period of involvement. You can click on each animation supervisor (at some point in the future) for a more detailed look at their specific style, animation team(s), and general series involvement. While this table does list every animation supervisor, some of them were simply key animators that filled-in for their respective supervisor. Therefore they do not have their own individual page, but are instead discussed along with their normal animation supervisor.

Studio Animation Supervisor Involvement
Studio Junio Minoru Maeda (前田 実) DB 1 – DBZ 164
Masaki Satō (佐藤正樹) DBZ 64
Seigasha Tomekichi Takeuchi (竹内留吉) DB 2 – DBZ 63
Masahiro Shimanuki (島貫正弘) DBZ 68 – DBZ 225
Kazuya Hisada (久田和也) DBZ 98 – GT 63
Last House Masayuki Uchiyama (内山正幸) DB 3 – GT 62
Tai’ichirō Ohara (小原太一郎) DB 76 – DB 98
Studio Live Yukio Ebisawa (海老沢幸男) DB 4 – DBZ 290
Toshiyuki Kan’no (菅野利之) GT 4 – GT 21
Shindō Productions Mitsuo Shindō (進藤満尾) DB 7 – DBZ 116
Tadayoshi Yamamuro (山室直儀) DBZ 122 – GT 59
Freelance Katsumi Aoshima (青嶋克己) DB 14 – DBZ 30
Toei Animation Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru (中鶴勝祥) DBZ 44 – DBZ 120
Takeo Ide (井手武生) DBZ 129 – GT 61
Naoki Miyahara (宮原直樹) DBZ 159 – GT 64
Akira Inagami (稲上 晃) GT 11 – GT 35
Studio Cockpit Keisuke Masunaga (増永計介) DBZ 174 – DBZ 279
Doga Kobo Ichirō Hattori (服部一郎) DBZ 177
Noboru Koizumi (小泉 昇) GT 36 – GT 54
Studio Carpenter Yūji Hakamada (袴田裕二) DBZ 182 – GT 60
K-Production Shingo Ishikawa (石川晋吾) DBZ 216 – GT 5
Kino Production Ichio Hayashi (林 委千夫) DBZ 245
Naoaki Hōjō (北條直明) DBZ 252-267

Being “On Model”

Before we can truly discuss and compare animation quality, we must first discuss the term “on model”. This term is sometimes carelessly thrown around, but what does it truly mean and in what applications is it truly appropriate. Essentially, the term “on model” refers to how accurately the animation reflects the character model designs set forth by the character designer. In our case, Minoru Maeda was the character designer for the entirety of Dragon Ball and up through the Freeza arc of Dragon Ball Z, while Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru and Tadayoshi Yamamuro took over the role for the remainder of Dragon Ball Z and Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru retained the role for the duration of Dragon Ball GT.

The purpose of the character model designs is to maintain continuity in an effort to make it look as if one artist created the animation. Model designs also provide notes that present specific information to the animators on how to develop particular features of the character, such as his or her head shape, hair length and style, size and position of the eyes and the mouth, and relative size to other characters. Many of these model designs were later printed in the “Library of Adventure” sections of Daizenshuu 3, Daizenshuu 5, and Daizenshuu 6 (movies and TV specials).

The quality of the animation will often times be confused with a character not being “on model”, or “off model”, which is not really always the case. As an example, let us compare Son Goku as seen in Dragon Ball episodes 139 (Minoru Maeda) and 140 (Masayuki Uchiyama).

Dragon Ball Episode 139

Dragon Ball Episode 140

While Maeda’s version will be considered superior by most, the only true difference is the attention to detail. More often than not any lack of detail is misconstrued as the character being “off model”, but as we can see in the above example it is fair to say that both characters are technically “on model”. Again, which one you prefer is really up to your personal artistic likes and dislikes, but their similarities are hard to deny. Unfortunately, the animation under Uchiyama’s supervision would become less and less “on model” as the series progressed, which you can see visually below in the animation quality comparisons.

To truly reinforce the concept of non-detailed animation being “on model”, you will find six model comparison examples below (click to view larger image). Each character model comparison is comprised of six screen shots of the same character from back-to-back episodes, each supervised by different animators. The interesting thing to note is that most fans will naturally pick out their favorite screen shot right away based on what they perceive to be of the best quality, which also typically corresponds to the episode with the highest animation budget. However, there are many episodes so near to this “best quality” episode that most fans do not actually notice any drop in animation quality from episode-to-episode. It is only when a character is so different from what they are used to seeing that they will typically notice this difference, and this is truly when a character can be considered “off model”. Unfortunately in Dragon Ball, these differences are sometimes quite obvious.

Animation Quality Comparisons

It is no secret, even to non-Dragon Ball fans, that the animation quality throughout the series is quite variable at times. If there are two things fans complain about the most it is the length of Goku’s battle with Freeza on Namek and the series’ animation quality. Ultimately this drop in animation quality reached its peak during the Artificial Human and Cell story arcs with the variability being drastically noticeable. The following examples serve as just a small collection of these differing animation qualities.

In these examples you will see that Masayuki Uchiyama is going to take the brunt of these comparisons, which was done intentionally. His animation is known for being some of the worst in the series, specifically in Dragon Ball Z, and therefore it is easiest to compare other varying animation qualities to his work. In addition, and unfortunately not to Uchiyama’s advantage, most of the episodes he animated either directly preceded or followed superiorly animated episodes.

Comparison #1 — Some do quality. Some do quantity.

These first comparisons match up a few shots of Son Goku drawn under the supervision of Minoru Maeda (left) and Masayuki Uchiyama (right). The most obvious difference is the size of Goku’s hair, specifically how large it tended to sometimes get under Uchiyama’s supervision. At this point in the series Uchiyama heavily relied on his animation team (Last House) to animate episodes and was simply supervising their work. It would not be until later that Uchiyama himself became very “hands on” as a key animator, and subsequently when the series’ animation quality took a severe hit. Besides the loss of detail, another main difference is the rather “cartoony” (non-realistic) look of Uchiyama’s animation. It really should not be too surprising that some of his work looks very slapped together when you realize his animation team was responsible for animating every three to four episodes of the series.

Dragon Ball Z Episode 28

Dragon Ball Z Episode 29

Dragon Ball Z Episode 95

Dragon Ball Z Episode 96

As a quick tidbit, it should be noted that while the above shot of Super Saiyan Son Goku in Dragon Ball Z episode 95 was supervised by Minoru Maeda, that specific key frame was drawn by Masaki Satō. Unfortunately it is not actually known whether or not Maeda ever altered or adjusted Satō’s key frame of this shot, but we do know that Satō was skilled and trusted enough as an animator to fill in for Maeda during his absence.

Comparison #2 — The “Triangle Guy”?

Throughout most of Dragon Ball Z animator Yukio Ebisawa was one of Masayuki Uchiyama’s main rivals when it came to giving us some bad looking animation. The main difference between the two animators is the more angular look of Ebisawa’s animation, so much so that it has led to his fan-title as the “Triangle Guy”. However, many of the episodes cited as examples of this “triangular” style were actually supervised by Masayuki Uchiyama and therefore this uncomplimentary title should be thought of as more of an encompassing style rather than something attributed to just one animator or studio. Nevertheless, both of the men’s animation often has little shading, which combined with their lack of detail, makes them very unappealing more often than not. Ebisawa was also one of the few animation supervisors that was also a key animator in every episode he supervised, so much of the downfalls in his episodes can be directly attributed to himself. Similar to Uchiyama, we see that Ebisawa’s animation team (Studio Live) was responsible for animating nearly every six episodes of the series, a much higher rate than many of his superior quality animation counterparts.

Dragon Ball Z Episode 84

Dragon Ball Z Episode 88

Dragon Ball Z Episode 131

Dragon Ball Z Episode 132

You may notice that Ebisawa’s work differs in these examples from what is shown in Trunks’ model comparison image shown above, yet looks very similar to his work in both the Vegeta and Goku model comparison images. This difference is largely attributed to the specific key animators working with him. In some episodes you can actually notice the animation style changing throughout the episode. Part way through the Cell story arc, Hideki Inoue and Yūko Inoue joined Ebisawa’s animation staff, ultimately increasing his episode’s animation quality from there on out.

Comparison #3 — The best of the best.

While Dragon Ball Z episode 161 is one of Masayuki Uchiyama’s poorest looking episodes in the entire series, it certainly was not given much of chance. The preceding episode was supervised by Masahiro Shimanuki, whose animation gives us much more detail and depth, which in this situation really puts Uchiyama’s work to shame. Shimanuki’s animation is quite close to Toriyama’s in some respects and falls in line with other great animators, such as Tadayoshi Yamamuro, Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru, Masaki Satō, and Takeo Ide. There is not much more to say about them, except that they were all some of the best animators in the series. However, since they were the best and most likely more expensive to hire, fans would unfortunately get stuck with cheaper studios like Last House and Studio Live animating the majority of the series.

Dragon Ball Z Episode 160

Dragon Ball Z Episode 161

Dragon Ball Z Episode 168

Dragon Ball Z Episode 169

Comparison #4 — This one’s different.

In a completely opposite turn from the previous examples we have Keisuke Masunaga (right), whose animation took quite a deviation from Toriyama’s artistic style. While it was not the typical animation style seen throughout the series, it was well executed with a sharp, detailed look that was a major contrast to many of the other animators’ styles. Masunaga’s animation team (Studio Cockpit) made their debut near the end of the Cell Games and remained on staff throughout the remainder of the Dragon Ball Z TV series, with much of their work taking place during action-oriented episodes. While his studio’s animation did not exactly fall in line with the series’ overarching artistic style, its unique dramatic style did inject something different into the series and seemed to appropriately intensify the action found in this portion of the series.

Dragon Ball Z Episode 183

Dragon Ball Z Episode 184

Dragon Ball Z Episode 278

Dragon Ball Z Episode 279

Comparison #5 — Doesn’t look quite right.

Noboru Koizumi (right) and his animation team, Doga Kobo, joined the animation staff for Dragon Ball GT and left quite an impression, and some would even say gave Masayuki Uchiyama a run for his money. Koizumi’s animation often contained significant detail, although the characters’ faces were often distorted with sharp, pointy eyes. Unfortunately, like Uchiyama, most of the episodes supervised by Koizumi were followed or preceded by animators like Tadayoshi Yamamuro who had become well established as a quality animator throughout the previous two series. However, in most cases it is simply the fact that most fans are very familiar with how certain characters should look, such as when two of the previous series’ main villains make an appearance in Dragon Ball GT.

Dragon Ball GT Episode 42

Dragon Ball GT Episode 43

Dragon Ball Z Episode 90

Dragon Ball GT Episode 43

Comparison #6 — The same thing, twice.

There are multiple ways in which the production staff decides to end an episode, including an artistically painted scene, a narrated overview of the heroes’ situation, or even a simple zoom-in on a character’s reaction to something. However, in some cases an episode simply ends right in the middle of the action. It is in these instances that the closing scene is sometimes re-used as the first scene of the following episode. However, this re-used scene is typically duplicated by that episode’s respective animation supervisor, giving their own take on that specific scene. Unfortunately, they sometimes do not turn out quite as good as you once remembered them. The following examples showcase animators Yukio Ebisawa and Masayuki Uchiyama falling victim to this nearly unavoidable trap.

Dragon Ball Z Episode 120

Dragon Ball Z Episode 121

Dragon Ball Z Episode 232

Dragon Ball Z Episode 233

Other Styles

While there are many other minor styles, most of which are slight variations on Toriyama’s style, these are the major ones that most fans point out due to the major contrasts between so many of them. For information concerning these and other animation supervisors, you can check out their more in-depth individual pages as linked above.

The Main Culprit

It is hard to actually pin these variations in animation quality on just one single aspect, but rather, more of a combination of aspects. The following list provides a brief examination of these main aspects:

  • Budget Restrictions
    The most significant factor in the series’ variability in animation quality was the set budget. Animating a single episode was not cheap and often required advertising partnerships with leading businesses. Toei Animation would often hire less expensive animation studios in order to not go over budget. These less expensive studios could pump out episodes at a much faster rate, sometimes animating four out of every six episodes, with a more economical price tag.
  • Numerous Animators
    Each episode was animated by numerous people, all of whom had their own unique artistic styles. It is the job of the animation supervisor to seamlessly meld these varying styles into something cohesive. However, no matter how talented the animation supervisor was, it was not always possible to create such completely uniform animation. Conversely, it was sometimes the animation supervisors that had dificulties removing their own personal styles from the animation, and would even go so far as to alter the key animator’s superior drawings to match their own.
  • Animation Seniority
    In Japan it is common for animators to be promoted to more significant roles simply based on their seniority and not their actual skill. Some of the animation supervisors in Dragon Ball were only animation supervisors because they held seniority over younger, more talented, animators. That is not to say this applies to all of the animation supervisors — just some of them. It is because of this that some of the animation supervisor’s work varied so much, as it was rather dependent on the key animators working below them. When talented key animators would leave their team, the animation quality would drop, and vice versa when talented key animators were brought on staff.

In the end, no matter how contrasting some episodes may be, most fans have just learned how to look past it in order to enjoy the series they love, which was ultimately produced on a weekly schedule and required these types of compromises. As much as we fans do not like to admit it, Dragon Ball was and always will be a cheaply produced animated adaptation. Unfortunately, in many cases the cheapness prevailed. However, the series was fortunate in that such cheapness did not always prevail, allowing some of the series’ (usually significant or most important story-related) episodes to receive gorgeously detailed animation from some of Japan’s most talented animators.