Japanese art director and background painter Nizo Yamamoto died on August 19 of stomach cancer. He was 70.
Yamamoto was born in Goto City, Nagasaki Prefecture, in 1953. After studying architecture in high school, he attended art school in Tokyo and before graduating had already started working as a background artist for animated tv series.
Yamamoto’s first work as an art director came on the series Future Boy Conan. In 1979, he worked under Hayao Miyazaki as a background painter on the classic feature Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.
That working relationship flourished, and over the years, his work appeared in other Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films including Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. Yamamoto was art director on many enduring non-Miyazaki films as well, such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, Perfect Blue, and Grave of the Fireflies.
In a 2017 interview with The Statesman, Yamamoto talked about working on Grave of the Fireflies:
As art director of Grave of the Fireflies, I visited Kobe to collect reference material together with writer Akiyuki Nosaka and director Isao Takahata. During the preparatory stages of the production, I had to paint the flames and smoke for the air raid scenes, including the colors and patterns of the sky.
So I had to study those under the supervision of Takahata. I sometimes had to paint through tears, and often felt that I could not stand to paint all that. Nonetheless, I made a reconstruction of the rows of houses and nature, and landscapes of the era. When Nosaka saw the movie, he shouted out, “This is what animation is all about!”
Explaining the importance of background art in animation more generally, he said:
If a background is really good, it’s taken for granted —viewers can ignore it and just immerse themselves in the world of the movie. If it’s bad, they can’t help noticing it, and lose their concentration. When we remember the good times in our lives, we always remember the background as beautiful, even if we didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. That is the kind of realistic beauty that I want to depict.
In 2010, Yamamoto began painting a series of landscapes of locations in and around his hometown of Goto City. Over the next 11 years, he painted 100 pieces which were collected and displayed as The Hundred Famous Views of Goto.
In a recent interview, Yamamoto explained that the project had been a dream of his for decades.
I left my hometown when I was 15, and when I returned to my hometown when I was 23, I visited with a classmate in an area called Taiho, which was very beautiful. I wanted to draw the coastlines, churches, and other places where the hearts of the people who live there are based, and I wanted to draw the culture and scenery of Goto.
In 2018, an art book of Yamamoto’s work titled Yamamoto Nizo Hyakkei (100 Views of Nizo Yamamoto) was published. The book is loaded with background art from films in which Yamamoto served as art director as well as tv series and video games to which he contributed. There are also personal pieces that Yamamoto painted while traveling across Japan.
An exhibition of Yamamoto’s work is currently on display at the Hamamatsu Municipal Museum of Art (Shizuoka Prefecture) and will run until September 10. More of his work is displayed year-round at the Nizo Yamamoto Museum in his hometown of Goto City.
Yamamoto is survived by his son Takao, who shared the news of his father’s death on social media. In the post, Takao said that Yamamoto continued working until just a few days before his death.
— 山本二三(絵映舎) (@kaieisha_nizo_y) August 21, 2023
Pictured at top: Castle in the Sky, Nizo Yamamoto, taken from his website.