Yoshitoshi Abe (安倍吉俊, b. August 3 1971, stylized as Yoshitoshi ABe1)) is a Japanese illustrator, writer and teacher known for his work in several transcendent Japanese media pieces - mainly, the Serial Experiments Lain franchise and several others. Even though he has mostly been involved in the graphical aspect of several manga and anime, sometimes leaving things like story and scriptwriting to colleagues such as Chiaki J. Konaka, his artstyle and its fusion with the literary themes he has worked on guarantee an idiosyncracy such that pretty much all of the things he's had a prominent role in can be roughly grouped under his name, even though not all of them were created or written by him.
With an affinity for art at his early age, despite his father pushing him to become a proficient Go player2) and banning him from reading manga or watching TV until the age of 12 as part of his strict Go training, he became first known in the Tokyo underground movement for his graffiti works in the '80s before one or two apparent run-ins with the law3).
By the time he finished highschool, ABe spent a few years learning how to draw by himself to help a mangaka friend of his as an assistant (and thus get tuition money), when he realized he wasn't skilled enough to enter art school he eventually joined a prep school (which may or may not be Yoyogi Animation School) where, by 1996, he learned more formal traditional illustration techniques and used this knowledge to start publishing by himself, eventually having a one-shot picked up in Afternoon Magazine which went on to win a Second place award. Interviews from the Haibane Renmei DVDs narrate the costly implements used for Japanese-style painting at the traditional artschool he eventually applied to, and while debating whether to follow classical painting or illustration he was already doing gigs of the latter to shoulder the economic cost. It was around this time that he began to establish an Internet presence4) (as the rest of Japan began to catch on regarding the mass-communication offered by the Net) and began to author various doujinshi, which he also publicized in his personal website5). It was here when producer Yasuyuki Ueda emailed him with a job offer to work on Serial Experiments Lain as a character designer: ABe promptly finished his grad school exams, presented character sketches to Ueda, and was greenlit to work in the Lain game and then the anime6) until their eventual release 2 years later.
Ueda found promise in Abe's art and began to greenlight manga and anime out of loose character concepts he had at the time, and such was the case with Niea_7. When asked to do a short one-shot doujinshi as a sales pitch, the result was the essential conceptualization of Haibane Renmei and ABe himself writing the twelve episodes within two weeks.
His protagonistic work in the animation industry ended mostly after the release of Texhnolyze in 2003, also produced by Ueda. Besides illustration work and concept art in pre-established IPs (such as cover art for Welcome to the NHK), he has mostly limited himself to personal work (such as his somewhat autobiographical manga, Lucika Lucika) up until the release of RErideD in 2018, for which ABe had worked on character design and scriptwriting of some of the episodes; RErideD was considered a flop with little to no sign of his aesthetic trademark and, after essentially 18 years without the creative freedom to dictate the aesthetic elements of his work, has moved on to more introspective creations. His latest “ABe-like” work, Despera, has been released as a light novel written by Chiaki J. Konaka in 2009-2010 but with a promising anime adaptation by the director of Serial Experiments Lain, Ryuutarou Nakamura, stuck in a sort of development hell at the time of this writing7) due to Nakamura's sudden passing in 2013 of pancreatic cancer.
ABe currently lives in Tokyo. He married Sasaki Yukari, his assistant, in Nov 11 20118), and have two children, one born on Sep 11 2012 and the other somewhere around 2016/2017. He has acquired a newfround personal interest in photography and has been pursuing it ever since.
I lost like five paragraphs of this while writing this section and, as per usual, it's probably gonna be a long time until I manage to remember all the things I said about it. So, in short:
- His early graffiti work has imprinted his artwork with a mix of homegrown, yet somber elements in his aesthetic. It would explain his recurrent dark urbanism imagery.
- His artwork is not “clean”: he uses no construction lines, his grasp of anatomy and perspective are wonky but finetuned and in synergy with his style in such a way that it's internally consistent to the point that it's not visually clashing. His lineart, some would argue, commits the heresy of excessive “chickenscratch”. This is most likely the result of his informal training, but was successfully able to keep it as part of his style.
- It goes on to follow that it's an intentional, conscious choice to do so. ABe believes that it is through the imperfections of the artist's work that aspects of both art and artist's character appear, and has said that he enjoys looking at incomplete or failed work, as through these the personality and psyche of the artist burst through.
- This also explains both his attitude and competence towards both analog and digital methods of illustration: in the '90s he (correctly) predicted that his workflow (essentially consisting of pencil illustration, scanning it and then finishing it digitally) would remain the same even if the gap between digital and analog art were to become closer; in his Youtube channel (see below) we can see him doing not only traditional illustrations with pencil and paper but also utilizing modernized equipment and standard tools such as a Cintiq tablet and Clip Studio Paint running on MacOS. ABe appears to value the artist's intention first, his skillset second, and the toolkit used last - as “the thing that you're trying to transmit still comes through your hands”9). Some of his videos in his Youtube channel show him drawing with a single finger on an iPad.
- His description of the way his mind conceptualizes scenes for illustration speaks either of a finely-honed visual imagination or at least one that is squeezed to the last drop for the sake of keeping the result as faithful to his mental image. When offered a piece of writing or concept or when writing one himself, he says, he begins to imagine the events taking place “like a movie”, and grabs hold to these images quickly as, because he deems them dream-like -i.e., fickle, abstract, perhaps inespecific or even mutating-, he needs to mentally train these images into consolidated memory before and during the act of illustration.
- This irregular, “imperfect” visual imagination may come from his strict childhood without exposure to media which would explain why the descriptions of his mental process almost sound like aphantasiac symptomatology10); however, that doesn't seem to have crippled him in any way or form - he seems to acknowledge the fickleness of his mental images and works with them regardless, hangs onto them as much as possible, utilizing the most out of them for his work.
- While he's thankful of the friendships he had that allowed him to be at the right place at the right time, with (even at the time) unorthodox and perhaps even reckless production methodologies by Ueda that catapulted his career, he deems it “irresponsible” to ignore the fact that he has been meticulous not only in doing what he was told to do, but also in constantly learning from these experiences, both successful and failed. His completion of scripts for twelve episodes of Haibane Renmei within two weeks can be for example deemed a result of experience gained within his previous doujinshi writing experience, plus the added liberty of having been given creative freedom for it unlike the more writing-directed IPs such as Lain and Texhnolyze, in which the production were more or less giving ABe direct instructions with little feedback. While he doesn't acknowledge any particular obstacle other than his artschool rejection, economic difficulties and his haphazard assistance to his mangaka friend (during a time in which he admits knew next to nothing about illustration), he recognizes the importance of constant self improvement experience through work, and implicitly some fearlessness towards failure. It is through this diligence, I reckon, that he manages to produce an artstyle endearing to most: he unconsciously sorts through the difficulties presented by his informal beginnings in traditional art, remediating them through his professional studies and personal self-improvement over the years by producing technically self-consistent work without necessarily following more orthodox looks of illustration. This comes as a double surprise because, even though manga-style illustration in particular is known for specific deformations of the human figure (such as facial construction), ABe grounds his artwork with “realistic” human illustrations, paired with true-to-reality (but perhaps not too true-to-perspective) background art, all of it painted with solid color theory, no doubt from his formal artschool experience.
- His constant state of learning is expanded when speaking about his infatuation with photography. In photography, he says, the observer has to move around the subject whereas in illustration it is the observer that makes the subject move at will. He not only acknowledges this as a whole different approach to observation, one that he was not used to at all, but finds that with experience he can not only improve at it, but also apply this to creative illustration as well.
- It is this combination of autodidact, professional and academic self-improvement in the art which, combined to his affinities, give his work a very characteristic and unique “ABe-like” tint that is very appreciated by fans to the point of it becoming essentially a brand artstyle.
- Early Doujinshi
- Serial Experiments Lain (Game)
- Haibane Renmei
- Manga works…