Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

06:23:00 pm , 577 words, 1556 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #19

Scarlet falls into the hands of a rare dandy gentleman alien, while Honey gets kidnapped by Dr. Gel, and Dandy comes running... for the reward money.

We return to the more conventional style with this episode. Which is not to say it's a bad episode. It's a perfectly fun and diverting episode, just not offering up the sort of auteur spectacle of the previous ep. It takes a while to re-adjust, but it would admittedly get tedious if the whole show were an auteur-fest.

Scarlet and Honey are the main characters this time around, joined by a guest associate of Scarlet, voiced by Megumi Hayashibara. This is the first episode with more of a focus on the show's women side characters, who have been pretty one-dimensional diversions prior to now. It took writer Keiko Nobumoto to try to elevate them beyond pretty comic relief and invest them with a little personality. Honey is quite the changed person. Instead of an airheaded bimbo, she's turned into a sharp-witted, pile-driving, chopper-riding Fujiko - an actually interesting character who you'd like to see more of. She's also conveniently revealed to be the sister of the episode's guest alien.

As usual with Keiko Nobumoto, this is a more thematic episode than the usual Dandy zombie or racing episode. If Dandy is all about brainless boobies-chasing, this time we see the other side of the coin and look at what women want from a man. This episode brings a bit more of a woman's perspective into the proceedings. The city girl dynamic between Scarlet and her associate is enjoyable to watch and ever so slightly more nuanced for the show - they banter about the difficulty of meeting decent guys and head out to a mixer after work to try their luck (apparently in a neighborhood that looks a lot like Times Square).

The so-called Cloud Alien who picks Scarlet up is an interesting character. He's both a gentleman with noble intentions and a pickup artist who preys on girls in distress. His spaceship - a giant castle enshrouded in a floating pink cloud that travels around the universe picking up signals from distressed women - is a bit silly even for this show, but the cloud is an interesting concept blending cloud computing and contemporary social media culture with the irresistible spell of mystification that he casts over women.

Hiroshi Shimizu returns as storyboarder/director/sakkan. It's the same team that made episode 8, although there are a few more animators this time around, including more French animators. Yapiko animators Eddie Mehong and Cedric Hérole return and are joined by Achille Bibard and Antoine Antin. Also present are Hiroyuki Aoyama, Kazumi Inadome, Kazutaka Ozaki, Kumiko Kawana and Kenji Hachizaki. The opening scene of Dandy in his underwear is a standout scene, but overall there isn't much flamboyant animation on display. It's more a case of fun little reaction shots here and there.

The presentation is not particularly exciting or original, but it's still entertaining. The episode has the same slightly more cartoonish drawing style than usual thanks to Hiroshi Shimizu's drawings, as in episode 8, but there are fewer scenes of well-animated character antics due to the more sentimental nature of the material. I know the opening wrestling scene is a setup for the payoff of Cutie piledriving Dr. Gel, but it reminds of the boxing scene that opens Hiroshi Shimizu's episode 11 of Kemonozume (watch), so I wonder if it wasn't either animated by him or added by him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

01:40:00 pm , 1466 words, 551 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #18

Dandy lands on a watery planet seeking a rare alien fish, and encounters an impish little girl and an old hermit. The hermit shoos him away, but the child tells Dandy of a legend that the fish will appear on the night of a blue moon. On the foretold day, they hit the waves, and encounter the beast for the first and last time.

This episode blew me away. There have been a number of standout episodes so far, but this one is head and shoulders above the rest. It's a perfect creation in every way, a short film that stands on its own two feet thanks to its unique stylization, lush and lively animation, great directing, simple but universal story, fun guest characters, and richly fleshed out alien world. As of now, this is the show's must-see episode.

We also have in this episode the show's first true solo animator episode (although there are seconds, and Michio Mihara nearly drew episode 6 by himself). This is one of those periodic one-man-show episodes that rolls around every few years announcing the arrival of a particularly talented individual. The individual in question this time is Oshiyama Kiyotaka, whose prior appearance in the show was as sakkan of Eunyoung Choi's episode 9 (plus designing a few things). I'm impressed that he had enough time to sakkan Eunyoung Choi's episode in addition to handling most of the tasks on this episode. Not surprising that he helped bring alive my previous favorite episode in the show.

Here, Oshiyama Kiyotaka wrote, did scene and character designs, storyboarded, directed, drew all of the key animation, and sakkan'd (the seconds I guess). As is often the case when someone is given the opportunity of total creative control like this, the results aren't just bluster; he had it in him to make it work. This is a rare case when one dude is oozing so much talent that he can single-handedly produce something far superior to what a big team could. It's a beautiful, satisfying, entertaining and creative piece of animation in many ways. What's best about it is that it has an open-ended, malleable, personal touch in its sensibility and style, which to me shows a creator with the potential for greatness.

The funny thing is that I knew his name before from Denno Coil among other places, but I had never known him to have such a strong personal style, nor to be capable of creating a film from the ground up like this. It appears that he created this style out of nowhere for the episode, which is very impressive. But you can also sense that what he's done in the preceding years has molded him into who he is today. Over the last seven years he's been involved in a number of films with a strong animated component, and I think it's transformed him from a talent with potential to a potent force.

First there's the unjustly neglected Doraemon: Nobita and the Legend of the Green Giant film from 2008, which he worked on after Denno Coil. It's probably the most impressive film in the whole Doraemon franchise in terms of creativity and sheer force of animation, thanks to the combined forces of director Ayumu Watanabe and animation director Shizue Kaneko, who carries on the tradition of Kenichi Konishi's Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 reboot. It deserves to be better known.

After that, he became sporadically involved at Ghibli, working on Arietty and the remarkably animated Mr. Dough and the Egg short in 2010 and The Wind Rises in 2013. Inbetween these he did animation on Letter to Momo and worked as animation director on the FMA: Milos film, which was probably one of the major formative experiences of the period. Not coincidentally, he worked under Space Dandy director Shingo Natsume on the FMA movie. Natsume himself had worked previously as assistant animation director on the Green Giant movie as well as doing key animation on the Nobita's Dinosaur 2006, so all of these folks fall under the Konishi umbrella. I think this core Konishi tribe and its various other associated people like Ryotaro Makihara are the most interesting people in the industry at the moment. If they got together, they could create a really amazing film. I could easily have seen Oshiyama going Ghibli if the studio hadn't taken its recent lamentable turn. When will we see a truly great movie from a studio other than Ghibli? It seems like it's been too long.

His style feels like a blending of the best parts of Moebius and Miyazaki. The gruff old man and bubbly kid with popping features seem torn straight from a page of Miyazaki's playbook, while the various designs have the loopy, organic madness of Moebius. The animation has amazing flexibility and variety. He can switch from the realistic timing of the old man gripping the slipping rope to the abstract undulations of the waves. The thick, uneven lines have a lovely analog, tactile feeling that seems to harken back to Konishi. The coloring, animation, designs and characterizations combine to create an epic, fun, thrilling and immersive mood in the best Ghibli tradition. We switch from beautiful, still, bucolic scenes that dazzle with their natural eye for simple natural beauty, to dynamic action that soars through space in virtuosic animation. Along the way, we get to know a few colorful inhabitants like the gruff old fisherman Rudori and the Ponyo-like peppy androgynous Eshime who we fall in love with immediately. You come away wishing you could go on watching these people's adventures forever.

The underwater dream sequence reminds of the Yoshiaki Kawajiri-animated shark sequence in the first episode of Future Boy Conan, the child's home looks like Howl's moving castle, and the abstract waves in the climax remind simultaneously of Ponyo and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. The episode comes across as the show's "fairly tale" episode, and indeed they explicitly mention the word "mukashibanashi" in the episode. I've often lamented the lack of a modern-day version of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi to give animators a regular opportunity to flex their muscles in more creative concepts and freer animation, and I think this episode gives a taste of what an episode from such a show could and should look like.

Dandy looks totally different, but I like the new Dandy. It's the same one we saw in Choi Eunyoung's episode - his pompadour is a tower, he's more lanky, simplified, his lines thicker, drawn more loosely and roughly. He'd look out of place if he wasn't different. He wears a fisherman's fundoshi without any advance warning, in the style of traditional fishermen, as he would in a Mukashibanashi episode.

As in the case of Choi Eunyoung's episode, the music is more beautiful and well-integrated than usual. It feels scored exclusively for this episode, with fewer of the regular tunes that recur in each episode. The eerie percussive bass guitar playing with spacey electronic sounds zooming in and out during the fishing scene was particularly nice and effective. I like that the art has plenty of opportunities to shine. Many of the shots of Dandy and the kid on the fishing boat alone during the first half create a lovely, delicate moment entirely thanks to the art.

On top of all that, animating waves and people in boats on the waves in such convincing detail for a TV episode is quite impressive. The whole last few minutes are basically constant motion, so I can envision he must have spent at least 7000 drawings on the episode. At the same time, it doesn't feel like he's just throwing drawings out there randomly.

The "moonagi" seems to be a cross between moon and unagi, since it comes to the surface when the moon approaches. It's somehow mythical and godlike yet deeply organic and animalistic in a way that reminds of the Daidarabocchi in Mononoke Hime, particularly the scene where it rises enshrouded by its kind into the sky.

The fairy tale/fishing episode ends on nice, roundly satisfying thematic note that ties things together. Like many legends, it turns out the legend of the moonagi was a folk explanation of misunderstood animal behavior - an interstellar version of eel behavior in this case. Every few thousand years, the moonagi cross over to Eshime's planet to spawn, and when their freshwater planet returns after after eons on its elliptical orbit, they climb a water ladder (hence the Japanese phrase unaginobori) to return to the fresh water of their home planet to mature. It's a pleasingly seamless combination of folk tale and sci-fi.

I hope to see more from Oshiyama Kiyotaka, but I'm thankful to team Watanabe for letting this talented guy make an episode just the way he wanted. I honestly would never have expected to see artistic work of this kind from Bones of all places.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

02:50:00 pm , 906 words, 521 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #17

Dandy transfers into the Beverly Hills-like Andromeda Academy for rich aliens in an attempt to find a rare alien, but winds up in High School Musical hell...

This is the Space Dandy musical episode. Mover-school animator Takaaki Wada helms as storyboarder/director, accompanied by a bevy of similarly talented animators who bring the animation side of things to life in an impressive way under the aegis of sakkan Hiroyuki Aoyama. Wada does a great job translating the dramatic conventions of western musicals into the language of Japanese song & dance idol culture, but it makes for an almost lethal combo punch of cheese if you're allergic to both, as I am, so I found the episode more of a slog. The generous schedule really shows in this high-quality episode, which has a large cast of guest alien characters that are vividly animated. On the other hand, it feels like one of the more conventionally 'anime' episodes in its sensibility.

Wada has a track record of working on song and dance style material, from Kaleido Star to Aria the Natural, so it doesn't surprise me that he'd helm this episode. He's obviously into this material, and good for him. He does a great job bringing it to life. I know Space Dandy as a show is going for a variety show style, but I'm curious whether it was Shinichiro Watanabe's idea to do a high school musical episode or Wada suggested it. I used to bemoan the fact that a talented animator was working on so and so show because I thought it was beneath him or her, until I came to realize that Japanese animators are people, too, and have different tastes, and some are perfectly happy working on material that I personally don't care for. After all these years I still forget that you can't use the same yardstick to judge all art or animation. It can be a challenge determining to what extent, if at all, you need to forego your personal tastes when evaluating the quality of an anime.

They went to considerable lengths to make the episode work, hiring dorama writer Hayashi Mori to write the lyric-heavy episode as well as using dance footage of two street dance performers as reference for the dancing in the episode's finale. I can't say I'm very fond of referenced animation in general or here in particular, as I find it kind of lifeless, but I understand how hard it must be to create an episode full of dance animation without it. The episode also references in the other sense of the term, which probably reduces my appreciation of the episode as I just don't get a lot of the references (except for things like Slimer and ET, which seem kind of randomly thrown-in). One thing that nagged me was that, apart from an early shot showing the high school space ship, there is nothing in the episode that makes use of the trappings of the Space Dandy universe, which seems both lazy and a waste. This episode could have been part of any random anime show.

I personally prefer seeing more unusual styles in the show like Masaaki Yuasa and Choi Eunyoung, but it wouldn't be a good variety show if it was entirely focused on more artistic styles - it would get too one-note. At least this way you really feel like each episode's creators are actually doing what they personally want to do.

Wada doesn't head the animation as he often does in episodes he storyboards/directs, and as he famously did in Kaleido Star. Instead, Mamoru Hosoda regular Hiroyuki Aoyama does a great job on that front. His characters are minimally drawn and move a lot, and his acting is inventive without relying on idiosyncratic drawings or other crutches. It's just good, solid acting. Dandy has little reaction shots throughout the episode that are particularly tasty in that regard, like the shot just before the training montage where he says "Sometimes a man needs to dance even when he knows he's going to lose." Aoyama also animated the training montage.

The roster of animators is among the show's most impressive - Gosei Oda, Yutaka Nakamura, Ayako Hata, Kenji Hachizaki, Takashi Mukoda, Hironori Tanaka, Chikashi Kubota, Hiroshi Shimizu, Takaaki Wada, Hiroyuki Aoyama... But despite all the movement, I wasn't particularly fond of the dance animation, mostly for reasons of personal taste. The only dancing bit I liked in the episode was the sequence animated by Gosei Oda where QT and Meow dance. It's the most idiosyncratic drawing in the ep, but I love the guy's style. He can bend and warp characters in a way that really works and feels kind of A Pro-school. His sequences are always a delight. Plus he shows that it's full well possible to create dance animation that's fun to watch without needing to use reference footage.

Yutaka Nakamura took a stab at reference animation for the first time - you can spot his work from the characteristic folds and swooshes during quick movements - but he's honestly better coming up with movements on his own. What an irony that movements he created entirely out of his head seem more realistic and exciting than movements referenced from actual human footage. I liked the bit where Dandy is picked up by the giant robot, but I couldn't tell who did it. Chikashi Kubota maybe? I couldn't identify much else despite the impressive list of names.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

01:10:00 pm , 1097 words, 563 views     Categories: TV, Masaaki Yuasa, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #16

Dandy & co. go shopping for dinner, but instead come back with a teleporting flashlight that takes them on a roundabout adventure that eventually leads back to... dinner.

The much-awaited Masaaki Yuasa episode is here, and it's a clever little puzzle of a confection of a kind that only Yuasa could create. Stylistically it doesn't stick out as much as you would expect. The drawings are pretty on-model. I was initially a little disappointed in that regard, although the quality of the episode more than made up for that. I was hoping it to be a bash of Yuasa drawings. But I'm heartened to see how professional Yuasa can be. You don't have to totally ignore model to create something completely original and captivating, which he has here while creating an episode that fits perfectly into the show.

What makes Yuasa Yuasa is that he creates little hermetically constructed worlds that give rise to drama. Characters aren't plopped down somewhere; they're part and parcel of the mechanics of a universe, which sets the wheels of fate in motion. That's what makes it a Yuasa creation; the drawings don't have to be his, as they weren't in Kaiba.

Here the mechanics of astral bodies are the actual driving force of the narrative. An alien earth inhabited by intelligent fish is about to be engulfed by a sun as its orbit brings it too close. The schematic explanation of the phenomenon is very Yuasa in how efficiently and simply it boils down a complicated situation. There are also a lot of layers to the story that tie together in a satisfying way. The fish astronaut has a complicated name that by chance ends with 'carpaccio' - he's both a tragic figure who set out to save his people, and in the end the crew's grilled fish dinner. The moment where the famished/concerned Meow runs to save Carpaccio and grabs the grill on the door to rescue him from the flames, and we see a shot of him as a grilled fish is just brilliant in a way that's hard to express.

Small-scale yet epic, comic yet tragic, it's simultaneously the story of one man's struggle to save his people, a civilization's destruction, and delicious grilled fish. You come away feeling for Carpaccio's plight, but also for the famished Meow. It's also a grandiose enactment of the titular saying "isogaba mawaru", which doesn't have an exact equivalent in English but basically means "take the long way around if you're in a hurry". At one point this is expressed in miniature in the episode: there's a big hole in the flounder on which Meow and Dandy are zooming over the landscape. Dandy attempts to walk straight towards Meow, but falls in the hole. He should have taken the long way around. Always take the long way around. It's a fitting motto for the character.

Yuasa makes good use of the sci-fi setting. He plays with gravity and space, pushing the narrative forward using the astrophysics aspects of the setting. He upends our expectations of physicality in a way that ties into the whole theme of going around versus straight. The entire sequence on the moon is full of delightfully disorienting moments - when the crew suddenly start sliding across the surface for some mysterious reason... Dandy falling into one of the holes all of a sudden, only to suddenly stop in mid-air, grab hold of the wall and climb in the other direction towards the surface... The crew riding a column of water towards the other planet.

Yuasa even managed to involve Dr. Gel in the proceedings. It's a quick but perfect weekly appearance - he lands his ship and utters his usual catchphrase, in the process providing Dandy with the shadow he needed to grab the transporter and beam out, just before getting annihilated by the sun. I like the droll pun where Carpaccio utters the expression of surprise "gyo!" when he sees Dandy, which also happens to mean fish. Yuasa's mascot character even makes an appearance in the food court at the beginning in the guise of one of the food items.

On the animation side of things, the unique aspect of this episode is that Yuasa himself recruited foreign animators for the episode via social media, and the episode features animation work by the eight foreign animators who were recruited. Their animation doesn't stick out as much as you would expect and gives the episode a nice richness. Several of them have been nice enough to indicate which parts they did on their blogs: Ben Li the part where Meow tries to grab Carpaccio as he parachutes up to the surface of his earth; William Gibbons various shots of the crew after they land on Carpaccio's home planet; and Jeremy Polgar Meow lunging at Carpaccio. Apparently Faouzi Hammadi animated the crew running from the sun. It would be great to find out what the other people did.

Other than these guys, Shinya Ohira provided the standout scene in his usual style - Dandy revving the engine on the boat as it rides up the column of water. Classic Ohira and reminds of various shots he's done in the past - not least similar material in Slime Adventures, the tidal wave in Otogizoushi ep 6 and the flood in the Tsubasa Chronicle movie. But his work continues to evolve and feels more dense and more stylized than before. The close-ups of Dandy in the scene are quite fun, with his Kabuki jaw. And you can see the pencil strokes very clearly in the final product, something you couldn't in earlier years before the technology facilitated this sort of thing. It's all super chaotic and Wanwa hyper-expressive with its perspective zooming around constantly, and yet when the ship bounds on the waves it feels believable and weighty. Michio Mihara and Hiroyuki Aoyama also provided some animation. The bit where Dandy falls into the hole looks like Yuasa himself. Meow's yahoo at the end also looked very Yuasa.

The backgrounds are usually pretty interesting in a Yuasa production, and the backgrounds here are no exception. They seem to have been mostly done in watercolor by a person named Eriko Shibayama. I don't know the name, but she seems to hail from either Shin-Ei or Ajia-Do in view of her past work, which makes the connection obvious. Perhaps she's part of the new crew at Science Saru. I liked how some of the buildings on Carpaccio's home planet looked like a woman lying on her back with her legs open (and a transport tube sticking straight into her...).

Monday, July 21, 2014

07:39:00 pm , 879 words, 2287 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #15

Dandy gets lured to a faraway planet by the prospect of partying with a hot alien, but winds up in the sights of a bizarre smile-hunting puppet.

This is one of the less slapstick episodes, which is not to say one of the more serious. Dandy doesn't have serious episode like Champloo did to contrast with the silly episodes. What Dandy has is weird episodes, and this is one of them alongside episode 11 about the library book. I don't mind weird, but the problem with this episode is that it doesn't quite gel. It doesn't have a clear thrust, and leaves a weak impression, even though technically it's quite well produced.

The writer is Nobumoto Keiko from episode 8 about Laika the dog. Her style is notably different from her junior and the show's dominant writing force, Kimiko Ueno. She's more old school, sometimes even a little stuffy, weaving complex themes into her stories rather than merely pumping out lighthearted comedy. When it works, it works, but here it feels like a bit of a jumble, combining things arbitrarily to suit the plot. The river of time in the climax seems a little underdeveloped and casually thrown in. The buildings appearing out of the river at the climax only felt nonsensical and forced, whereas a similar tactic in the climax of Mind Game was convincing visually and metaphorically.

The main alien in the show, the Ukelele Man, is one of the show's first dark characters, but he seems burdened with a bit too much thematic striving on the part of the writing. An entertainer trapped in a rigid, emotionless mask - a tragic creature, the only one of his race, he seeks out other creatures to steal their smiles. It's oddly portentious in the company of zombies and boobies. I was a little reminded of the pierrot episode of Cowboy Bebop written by Sadayuki Murai.

That doesn't mean the episode is horrible. It's enjoyable enough to watch. I like the idea of an episode about masks, and this episode is interesting in that it latches onto that strange disturbing tension that makes masks fascinating, with their frozen expressions of glee or fear or what have you. A spirit seems to inhabit them, which is probably why they've been used in religious rituals the world over.

The luxurious schedule of the show also guarantees that there will be no low-quality episodes. There's no struggling with deadlines here like in Ping Pong, and it shows. Everything is almost too well polished. The storyboard is by Masashi Ikeda, who I remember as the director of episode 29 of Votoms, although obviously he's gone on to do much work as series director for which he's better remembered now. It doesn't have a lot of quirks, but it gets the job done well enough.

I had a hard time figuring out what the crew were arguing about at the beginning, and then I realized it's a band called Shakatak that apparently only people in Japan still care about. The show manages to drum up some pretty obscure old music references every once in a while.

Yurkio Chiba sakkans the characters and Bones regular mecha man Eiji Nakata presumably handles the mecha. I'm quite fond of Yuriko Chiba's rendition of Dandy - more lanky and angular but with some great expressions, and an almost Lupin-esque elfin quality. There was some nice lavish surfing animation at the climax. I'm guessing Eiji Nakata himself handled this, since surfing robots were his thing in Eureka 7, and Yutaka Nakamura handled the Ukelele Man burning up at the end. His amazing rendering of the flames and quick timing are distinctive. My favorite bit in the ep was the handful of shots where the Ukelele Man comes alive from the tree, but I don't know who did those. Maybe Chikashi Kubota?

On the design side of things, we got another cool design from Takuhito Kusanagi - the mailman - but as usual it was on the screen for literally 3 seconds and had about as many drawings as the design. The Ukelele Man was designed by manga-ka Sho Tajima, who I remember back in the day from the manga Madara. There wasn't much animation in the episode that really brought the character alive in a way that did justice to the movement of a puppet. The opening scene probably moved him best. I would have liked to see some animation in the style of that old episode of Ninku with puppet-fu animation by Tetsuya Nishio.

Kiyotaka Oshiyama designed the guitar player at the beginning, Shingo Natsume the praying mantis aliens, and main character designer Yoshiyuki Ito the capybara alien. As usual, they throw in alien designs from a variety of people with very different styles into one episode, making for a pleasing variety. Hideyasu Narita of the art studio Kusanagi designed some very nice scenery for the alien planet. I'm assuming Takuhito Kusanagi is unrelated to the art studio, though I've always wondered about that. (their names are written differently)

The episodes often have special guest voice actors in addition to guest designers, and this time around the big name was Toshio "Ataru" Furukawa. He must be getting up there in years, but his voice is still youthful enough, if without the high-pitched intensity of his old role.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

04:38:00 pm , 813 words, 1240 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #14

Dandy & co are back after a few months' absence with another season. I missed the show and I'm glad to get to see more. It's got a nicely balanced combination of silliness and creative animation and design work that makes it easy to watch. It's space opera via the cartoon. I can't get enough.

The show comes back with a bang. Writer Kimiko Ueno delivers one the most absurd episodes yet: Dandy & co. are beset by a horde of parallel universe doppelgangers. Storyboarding this material into great entertainment is Goro Taniguchi, who gave us the racing episode, one of the other most entertaining episodes in the show.

The episode plays up the parallel universe aspect that has been hinted at since the beginning, revealing the truth in one go without any real fanfare, almost like an afterthought. Which is perfect for this show.

Dandy seems to remember being a truck driver in a past life, and it turns out he was actually remembering an alternative universe version of himself. The episode regales us with a bunch of different visions of how Bones' Space Dandy could have gone. We could have had a typical cheesy anime version where he's a cool bidanshi and Honey is an annoying sqeaky-voiced anime babe hanging off his neck. Or the Osamu Tezuka version where QT speaks in autotune. The afro-haired Ideon Dandy with a Ganga Rubu QT. Space Ninja Dandy headed by Char Dandy. Space Cop Dandy starring Cobra Dandy. Essentially the episode lets Dandy play dress-up as all of the classic space anime heroes of yore. We even get an Attack on Titan Dandy. I mentioned being reminded of Schrodinger's Cat in a previous episode, and one of Meow's incarnation here is a Schrodinger's Alien.

If the show's gimmick has been its variety of designs by different folks, this episode is the biggest bash of that aspect yet. It featured one-shot designs by no less than 8 folks, all in completely different styles befitting completely different shows. Apparently the reason for this large number of designs is this: the designs were not actually made for this episode but were the early pre-production design ideas for what direction to go with the show. So the parallel universes we're seeing are actually, not metaphorically, different versions of the show that might have been. That's a clever way of utilizing pre-production work that would otherwise have gone unused.

I'm particularly partial to Naoyuki Asano's heta-uma Space Ninja team, but there's lots of great fun designs in there. Yoshimichi Kameda's sex doll girl looks like an homage to Lasa from Birth. What was that white substance on her face supposed to be? It didn't look like tears to me. Kameda also designed the seemingly Tezuka manga-inspired Goku Dandy & crew. Talented designer Shigeto Koyama, who most recently worked on Kill La Kill, provided some very stylish designs for the blue-haired Dandy crew. Yutaka Nakamura, of all people, provided some designs - a first for the animator as far as I'm aware. There are so many new designs that they didn't even show all the designs on the home page this time around. I don't know who designed the Ideon crew, but I appreciate the thought that went into the design: Dandy looks like he has Lupin's face and Cosmo's hair. Add that to the growing list of Ideon references in the show.

On the animator side of things, there's a lot of fun work in there in disparate styles befitting the different designs. I'm assuming Naoyuki Asano animated his own Space Ninja team, which moves with the same heta-uma aesthetic as the music video he did recently. I think the attack of Meow in the blue-haired bidanshi Dandy scene was animated by Kanada-school animator Toshiyuki Sato, who provided the scene in the hallway in the zombie episode. I like the drawings of the slot machine scene, but I can't ID the animator. Stepping through the drawings, I was surprised to find some subliminal advertising for Pocari Sweat and Domino's Pizza.

Yoshimichi Kameda's Goku characters were animated with verve first by Norifumi Kugai and then Bahi JD. Bahi's section is shorter this time but just as densely packed as the bit he did in episode 1, with the crew being tossed around in the air by an attacking enemy, in the process doing a bunch of quick actions in mid-air such as Dandy attempting to surf on Meow. Goku Dandy is a Michael Jackson wannabe, so he does the moves, but they're not quite right. His moonwalk looks like him running backwards. Eagle-eyed Jackson fans will spot some typical 90s Jackson moves packed into Bahi's brief but dense attack shot. I think I would have liked to see this Dandy with a show of his own. Gosei Oda and Shintaro Doge are there, too, but I couldn't ID their work this time around.

Friday, April 11, 2014

07:02:00 pm , 76 words, 10975 views     Categories: TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Ping Pong

As I always have, I'll be blogging Masaaki Yuasa's new show Ping Pong, but this time I was offered the chance to do so on Cartoon Brew by Amid Amidi, so that is where you will be finding the posts. Here is my post on the first episode:

For anyone coming from Cartoon Brew looking to know more about Masaaki Yuasa's past shows, you can find my posts about them here:

Tatami Galaxy

Sunday, April 6, 2014

12:19:00 am , 1425 words, 3145 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #13

QT takes center stage when he discovers love in a beautiful coffee machine...

The first season comes to a close in the show's most sedate and cinematic episode. This time the slapstick takes a back seat for a tongue-in-cheek love story. The pacing is deliberate and the narrative arc is crystal clear and obvious from the get-go. This is possibly the most straightly played episode yet.

At first glance I found the episode to be even a little too straight, bordering on boring, but in retrospect it's a nice change of tone. It's yet another twist and turn in the fabric of the show for it to take a left turn and veer into robo romcom territory like this. It's also in line with Shinichiro Watanabe's approach to injecting a show with variety: As in all of his past shows, there will be different episodes with different tones and subject matter, and this is the serene love story episode, with a twist. The show would quickly become rote if every episode were a gag-fest.

The episode manages to maintain interest despite its straightforward story by dint of its solid presentation and controlled pacing that hits all the beats you expect in a story of this kind. Although not a story about hunting rare aliens for once, the episode nevertheless manages to serve up a nice big dose of fun guest creature designs in the form of a planet full of sentient appliances. The episode was written by Dai Sato and storyboarded/directed by series director Shingo Natsume.

It's a bit of a surprise that the few Dai Sato episodes in the show have been the more sedate ones like this. Rather than straight comedy episodes, if anything, his episodes have tended to favor thematic treatment and character development. His touch remains identifiable in the subversive transformation of conventional vehicles. Some of the episodes seem to be inspired by or reference prior films, and this one makes an obvious reference to The Matrix with its army of oppressed home appliances who rise up for a giant rave party before their final battle against their oppressor-father, mankind. Dai Sato's topical sense of humor comes out in the early jokes involving Dandy and Meow's escalation in taste for women: Dandy evolves in his pickup targets from bars to cooking classes to married women, and Meow evolves from dating sites to 2D love sims to idol singers. Also, the heart of the episode is a pun elegant in its simplicity: AI means love in Japanese. How does an artificial intelligence experience love?

Shingo Natsume meanwhile returns after storyboarding/directing the first episode. It's a more sedate appearance than I would have hoped for an animator with such a strong and personal voice, and one of the people behind the impressively animated Full Metal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos movie. On the other hand, it shows his maturation as a director who has evolved out of purely focusing on animation. It tells a simple love story well. Impressive is that it makes you feel the love story of a vacuum cleaner and a coffee machine. With almost no animation of expressions or gestures to convey emotion, the episode boils human traits down to a set of symbols, which is the defining trait of anime at its core. The Daft Punk-inspired retro vocoder slowdance music was a nice touch. The structure and impact is remarkably similar to episode 1 - quiet, deliberate buildup to an explosively animated climax. He also happens to have used two of the same animators in both climaxes.

The animator side of Shingo Natsume comes through in the climax, which features a sudden, dense dose of powerful animation by talented animators. He knows good animation, and he knows how to use it effectively. The whole episode reels you into a serene zone with its minimal animation and slow pace, and then punches things into high gear in a split second right at the moment of the emotional climax.

The climax was animated by several animators: Yutaka Nakamura, Kugai Norifumi and Shingo Natsume himself (also possibly Gosei Oda, but I can't ID his part). It's here that you see his attention to detail in the animation, which is what sets him apart: The dynamism and reality of the action, the copious effects animation, the cinematic layouts. Just look at the beautiful depth in that shot above. If I had to hazard a guess as to the breakdown, I'd say Shingo Natsume did tiny QT attacking the giant robo, Yutaka Nakamura did the giant robo destroying the city, and Kugai Norifumi did giant QT attacking the giant robo after getting smacked in the visor.

On the design side of things, series designer Yoshiyuki Ito handled the main appliance protagonists while Tomohisa Shimoyama handled the riff-raff. You can tell the difference in their designs: Ito's are more refined and clean, more carefully designed, more intricate and three-dimensional. Shimoyama's designs are more rough and broad and loosely drawn.

The guest star this time around was Macross designer Kazutaka Miyatake. Along with the previously-featured Kunio Okawara, then, the show has featured guest appearances by two of the most illustrious mecha designers in anime history. They're trivial roles in the show, but they're clearly honorary appearances. The details of Kazutaka Miyatake's designs of the giant robo are really beautiful to look at. It's remarkable to think - this guy has been designing mecha since Mazinger Z in 1972.

The other guest is Abdul Qadim Haqq. The show has been great about sporadically but regularly using foreign talent - Bahi JD, Choi Eun Young, Kevin Aymeric, and the surprise name this episode is one Abdul Qadim Haqq, who is apparently best known as an art designer for the Detroit music scene. His techno-inspired retro robot cool is an interesting choice for this show. It's great to see artists from completely different scenes pulled into anime like this. Clearly Abdul Qadim Haqq was a guest brought in by Shinichiro Watanabe, who is quite savvy about the music side of things. He provided the concept art for the dreadlocked flesh and blood aliens who built the sentient appliances that rise up against their masters. This was then finalized into use for animation by Tomohisa Shimoyama.

The art is a little small on the web site (hopefully this will be rectified with a large-format art book collecting both the designs and key animation at a later date) but it seems the artist wrote a blurb on his sheet even describing the details about this race of aliens he created. Kazutaka Miyatake's world design and Abdul Qadim Haqq's alien designs together create a feeling of a living world with its own history and culture. I wish this side could have been explored a little more, as it would have helped give the climax more of an impact if we knew more about the history that led to this big conflict.

This concludes the first season of Space Dandy. It's an open secret now, but the show has another season coming up. Masaaki Yuasa's episode will be one of the big attractors, but I'm sure there will be plenty of other fine work. Considering that the show is completely open-ended, I can't help but wish there were even more than two seasons so they could bring in some of the other talented directors and animators out there in the industry to do some episodes.

Wrapping up, it's hardly been groundbreaking, but that's not a bad thing. It's deliberately small-scale and un-cute. The show is a throwback for the future of anime - showing that sometimes it can be healthy to take a deep breath and step back from the current fads and go back to something more basic. The show refuses to take itself seriously, but is artistically serious about how it does it. For a lighthearted parody romp, it's got some highminded concepts that it plays around with, without getting too full of itself. It's done a great job of letting talented directors, designers and animators loose to have fun with the material and create some of the more refreshing anime episodes in quite a while. Most importantly, it's all original material not tied into a manga or light novel franchise, letting people really dig into their creativity and show what they've got rather than just tracing someone else's imagination. Its audience is anyone who likes animation, in Japan or outside, and not just a small subset of otaku. I'm pretty satisfied with what they've done so far and can't wait to see the rest.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

12:03:00 pm , 849 words, 3144 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #12

Dandy searches for a rare chameleon alien, but the doppelganger wreaks havoc on the crew...

This episode launches back into slapstick entertainment mode. The show is reliably satisfying when it doesn't take itself seriously, and this episode was one of the silliest yet. It almost feels like a cartoon, both in terms of the unusual looseness of the drawings as well as the absurd silliness of the proceedings.

Unsurprisingly, the episode was penned by Kimiko Ueno. It was fairly obvious watching the episode that it must have been her work. She's in top form, delivering inane absurdity fully the equal of her past episodes. The show is safe in her hands. Her sense of humor comes through in things like the takoyaki-flavored Kari Kari-kun, a parody of the popular Gari Gari-kun ice cream bar, and QT getting pissed because people were looking at porn sites on his/her cell phone in the middle of the night. QT also becomes an avid fisher and uploads photos of his catch to his fishing blog. The episode has little to no plot, instead focusing squarely on the situational comedy aspect. It's a string of gags rather than a dramatic arc. In this and the style of many of the gags - the characters all fighting in a cloud of dust, etc. - the episode seems like an overt homage to cartoons.

The story seemed unified around the theme of fishing, including the secret weapon designed by Dr. Gel that provides for an amusing climax. I wonder what this was a reference to. I thought it was Tsurikichi Sanpei at first, but maybe not.

The episode was storyboarded by Toshio Hirata and directed by Satoshi Saga. It's a delight to find Toshio Hirata at the helm. He's one of the great, if unsung, directors of anime history. One of my first major posts in 2004 was about him. He started out at Toei Doga in its heyday, and worked on seminal TV anime like Wolf Boy Ken and Jungle Emperor - straddling both Toei Doga and Mushi Pro. In his mature period in the 1980s, he brought a more zen and restrained style of auterdom to Madhouse OVAs of the period. Toshio Hirata has many great films to his credit, including the great underrated gem The Golden Bird (1984), which is notable for bringing a unique kind of cartoonish sensibility to anime. This episode of Dandy is a great return to this kind of cartoonish material - a great show of youthful silliness from such an old master. Thus this episode features a veteran director bringing to life the ideas of a young new writer.

Satoshi Saga I'm not as familiar with, but I see that he storyboarded and directed the first episode of Green Legend Ran, one of my favorite OVAs, not to mention directing the series overall (the other episodes aren't as good). He started out as an animator and moved on to storyboarding and directing episodes. He seems relied upon as an enshutsu, often handling the directing aspect alone.

The drawings are among the most fascinating in the show so far, because of the incredible variation in style. The animation director is Gainax stalwart Chikashi Kubota, but I didn't get a strong sense of Kubota's style dominating the proceedings. For the first time, we also have several assistant animation directors, and it seems like they each throw their own style into the mix rather than backing up the episode's sakkan. In a normal show, the assistants would just blend into the main sakkan's work, but here they each seem to act as their own individual sakkan. On top of this, it seems like some of the animator's sections weren't corrected at all. The end result is some of the most wild variation in drawing style in the entire show. Almost every minute we seem to be witness to an animator with a new style, even if we can't necessarily identify who it is, which makes this one of the show's most delightful and freewheeling episodes. This more loose approach to visual uniformity is perfectly suited to the cartoony material.

For example, Hiroyuki Aoyama is one of the assistant sakkans. I think we all know his drawings well by now. His section stands out - the Dandy-Dandy face-off. Similarly, one of the animators is the highly idiosyncratic Shintaro Doge, and it seems likely that he animated the extended fishing scene, which was clearly not corrected and jumps out glaringly with its wildly deformed drawings and loosely hand-drawn style. This section is also typical of Toshio Hirata's directing. A feature of his work is that he always goes out of his way to provide sections where an individual animator can shine. This can be seen in the musical interlude in The Golden Bird by Koji Nanke (watch) or even the ending animation of Bobby's Girl (1985) by Takashi Nakamura and Koji Morimoto (watch). Mamoru Sasaki's section also seemed pretty obvious - where doppelganger Dandy appears.

All in all one of the more pleasant episodes due to the crazily uneven (in a good way) animation and basically the sheer slackness of it all.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

04:18:00 am , 1018 words, 4027 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #11

Dandy et al. get caught up with a rare alien that erases memories, while Professer Gel discovers the secret of the universe, and pays the price...

This series will remain interesting to me as long as it keeps switching directions like it has been lately. This episode is devoid of the silly humor of the previous episodes, going in a completely different direction - more intellectual and sophisticated, exploring the hinted-at metaphysical laws that govern Dandy's universe. What remains the same is that it has its own unique character in terms of the drawings and story, and you can satisfyingly identify the work of the staff that are responsible.

This was easily the most interesting script of the series thus far. A person named Enjo Toh writes for the first time in the show. I wasn't familiar with him, but after watching the episode I was almost positive he had to be a sci-fi writer rather than a typical anime writer due to the decidedly more intellectual and literary bent of the script, and that turned out to be on the mark. The episode wasn't just mind-bending in a facile way, it was perplexing and opaque in a way that reminds of a writer like Yasutaka Tsutsui, who was a master of combining science fiction speculation with metafiction experiments. The episode also share's Tsutsui's peculiar combination of sophisticated literary experimentation with lowbrow humor. The story here leaves you scratching your head but feeling there's a vast depth there if you know how to read between the lines.

At the heart of the episode is a mysterious red box that, when opened, erases the memory of those around it. This seems to suggest that something akin to the Schrodinger's cat paradox lies at the heart of the show's conundrums - Dandy & co are either alive or dead at the end of an episode depending on different courses of events, all repeating in an endless loop set off by some quantum physics mishap. Much was left satisfyingly unexplained, leaving the viewer to piece things together.

Professor Gel, we find out for the first time, is a genius scientist befitting his name, and not merely an ape in a pimp costume. He spends the episode amusingly ignoring the chaos around him, wrapped up in working out formulas in an attempt to discover the dark matter-like substance that explains the universe.

Literary devices literally govern Dandy's universe - a sentient book metaphorically possesses Dandy and guides his actions, after first convincing Dr. Gel that he needed to check it out. All to what end? Because the sentient book wanted to have an adventure. The books guided Dandy, but he still had free will, and they enjoyed watching The Adventures of Space Dandy, like an author who enjoys watching his characters "write themselves".

Narrative artifacts like Dr. Gel's handwriting and the writing on the card move around as if to change the course of events. It's as if Dandy & everyone in his universe were nothing more than living words written and altered arbitrarily by some master librarian, in this case a scriptwriter named Toh Enjo. When Admiral Perry resists the library planet's overdue notices, the omnipotent power of the literary creator devises a narrative twist where Dandy teleports in and destroys the fleet with a whirlwind beam in a turn of events reminding of the deus ex machina climax of Ideon: Be Invoked. This is somewhat bolstered by the names of the head librarians: different pronunciations of Idea.

Dandy is the only one who resists his literary enclosure. Bemoaning the lack of physical food on the literary planet, he turns a well-known saying on its head in a manner befitting his impulsive and straightforwardly carnal nature: "Man cannot live on data alone".

The storyboard is by Atsushi Takahashi, while Hiroyuki Okuno directs and acts as character sakkan. He is the lead animator and the only other animator listed is Hisashi Mori, who is also credited as mecha sakkan. Apart from Atsushi Takahashi, this is the same pairing as in the legendary episode 7 of Samurai Seven, which is where I first discovered Hisashi Mori (here and here - I even wrote a post about him) some ten years ago now.

Okuno's characters have not changed that much in ten years. It's Mori's work, as usual, that is the main attractor. Mori has changed stylistically a bit, but overall his style and spirit are the same. He has the same uncompromising approach that sets Shinya Ohira apart - he somehow manages to animate things entirely in the way he wants in commercial productions, despite a style that goes against the grain of industry popularity with its brutal, raw, organic line. It was exactly what set that episode of Samurai Seven apart, and in the intervening 10 years he has built a body of animation that continued to build on that. He recently even acted as character design/sakkan on a movie, and for a studio as major as Toei Animation, which is a real surprise.

The episode has a nice texture overall. The character drawings are unremarkable, but the mecha scenes scintillate excitingly in typical Mori fashion, and the backgrounds are uniformly drawn with what appears to be pencil lines. I thought at first the backgrounds were also drawn by Mori, but he is not credited with the backgrounds. In places like the alien planet, the background drawings have an extremely sketch-like quality, with every wanton pencil stroke clearly visible in the final product. The backgrounds are beautiful, and it adds a strangely evocative layer to an already fascinating episode, as if emphasizing that Dandy's world is a creation both literary and graphic. This background style was perhaps adopted to match Mori's animation.

The great illustrator Katsuya Terada returns to design the librarian creatures, while animator Shintaro Doge designs the drone box. Background artist Kevin Aymeric meanwhile provides the concept art for the library planet, although his drawings are far more intricate than the final sketchy product. In the voice-actor department, the great Kappei Yamaguchi made a guest appearance, although his voice was unrecognizable (to me) as the library robot.

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