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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Archives for: July 2004

Saturday, July 31, 2004

04:05:57 am , 283 words, 7115 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game Bibliography

English Reviews

  1. Japan Times (July 28, 2004) Mark Schilling: Something for Your Head
  2. Japan Times (July 28, 2004) Mark Schilling interviews Masaaki Yuasa

Japanese Media Coverage

  1. Animage (June 2004) Masaaki Yuasa interview
  2. Sabra (June 24, 2004) Masaaki Yuasa interview in special section "Shin Sedai Japan Anime No Kishutachi" [Flagbearers of the new generation of anime]
  3. Title (July 2004) Mind Game is discussed in a round table on p 34
  4. Nikkei! Characters (No. 2) Mind Game is introduced on p 162
  5. Relax (July 2004) Masaaki Yuasa interview
  6. Studio Voice (July 2004) Special section titled "Animation: Year Zero". Mind Game screenshots used as background on front page of special section. Masaaki Yuasa listed as one of the "30 Leading Creators". Mind Game listed as one of the "30 New Movies to See".
  7. Cut (July 2004) Mind Game introduced in special section "Eiga wa manga da!"
  8. Newtype (July 10, 2004) Masaaki Yuasa/Shin'ichiro Watanabe/Koji Morimoto interview. Original drawing by Yuichiro Sueyoshi. Enthusiastic comments by various media figures [see this post for my translation of the interview]
  9. TV Bros [August? 2004] Masaaki Yuasa/Seiichi Yamamoto/Tomomitsu Yamaguchi (DonDokoDon) interview
  10. Mac Power (August 2004) Masaaki Yuasa interview at head of magazine
  11. Switch (August 2004) 8 p special feature on Mind Game with Masaaki Yuasa/Robin Nishi/DonDokoDon Yamaguchi/Eiko Tanaka interview
  12. Cut (August 2004) Masaaki Yuasa interview
  13. Saizo (August 2004) Masaaki Yuasa interview in the "Bargain Bin" section
  14. L Magazine (September 2004) Big section on Mind Game with a Masaaki Yuasa/Robin Nishi/Koji Morimoto interview
  15. Nikkei Characters (September 2004) Masaaki Yuasa interview
  16. The TV program "MUSIC-ON! TV" will show a Mind Game special feature on August 5, 2004 at 20:30-21:00, including interviews with Masaaki Yuasa, Robin Nishi, Seiichi Yamamoto, Koji Morimoto and Takeshi Fujii.

Japanese Web Pages

  1. 2004.03.10 森直人・脱力日記
  2. 2004.03.10 Oguro's 雑記帳 - 試写二本立て
  3. 2004.04.22 『マインド・ゲーム』完成披露試写会舞台挨拶 
  4. 2004.04.22 店長日記
  5. 2004.04.22  『MIND GAME』をひとあし先に
  6. 2004.04.27  『アメリ』が1位の座を明け渡したデー
  7. 2004.05.11 すばらしき「MIND GAME」
  8. 2004.05.21 atsushi sasaki at faderbyheadz dot com
  9. 2004.05.21 PS World - Hyper Column Station - 美しくない青春
  10. 2004.05.27 カツピロ映画日記
  11. 2004.05.28 べた褒め、大傑作「マインド・ゲーム」
  12. 2004.06.10 永田の部屋(虚構映画系)
  13. 2004.06.18 抜粋日記
  14. 2004.06.18 わんこめ映画評
  15. 2004.07.01 全力でやってやる!熱血超絶技巧アニメ
  16. 2004.07.12 全面的前向き姿勢の人生全肯定及び多様性の美しさ
  17. 2004.07.16 Secret base
  18. 2004.07.16 Mind Game 3ds max conference report
  19. 2004.07.16 Comin' Soon TV interview with Masaaki Yuasa
  20. Yahoo Japan reviews
1 commentPermalink

Friday, July 30, 2004

05:33:17 pm , 3038 words, 3100 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Masaaki Yuasa interview

Mind Game Official SiteCatsuka brought to my attention two new Mind Game articles. One is the first review of the film in a language other than Japanese. It comes to us courtesy of the Japan Times, and was written by Mark Schilling, a prolific author and authority on contemporary Japanese pop culture. One warning: I suggest that you skip over his synopsis and try to remain as ignorant of the story details as you possibly can until seeing the movie to keep it all as much of a surprise as possible. Trust me, you'll enjoy it more that way. I wish reviewers didn't have this annoying habit of writing synopses!

The other is a Japanese "event report" on the 3ds max Animation Seminar: The Making of Mind Game event held at the Ochanomizu, Tokyo campus of the Digital Hollywood film school. The event was divided into three sections: (1) A discussion of how to produce 3DCG animation using 3d max; (2) an introduction to Studio 4C; and (3) a demonstration of how 3ds max was used to produce the 3DCG animation in Mind Game. Studio 4C Producer Eiko Tanaka was present, and the most interesting tidbit in the article comes from her. She relates an anecdote about how one day she had brought the film to Eirin, the Japanese censors, fully expecting it to come away with an NC-18 rating due to the graphic violence and explicit sexual content. But after seeing the film the people at Eirin were so excited by it that they decided to give it a "general audiences" rating anyway. Can you imagine?! Yes, folks, we are dealing with a phenomenon here, not a film.

And finally, one other small news item from the official site: On opening day, August 7, Masaaki Yuasa and several of the voice actors will be on location at Cine Quinto in Shibuya, and later at Paradise Square in Shinsaibashi, to say a few words for the occasion.

Oh, and Scheem Booi has opened. As I thought, it looks to be a ten ton goose. So much detail, 9 years, all that money, for what? Seems like a classic example of wrong priorities. Yippee, a sequel is in planning already. Too bad it's going to take 16 years to make.

Oh, and I just saw this: Yuichiro Sueyoshi has added his "comment" to the Staff Comment section of the Mind Game site. Here's a literal translation:

Best ever!! The first and the last!
The first Yuasa ever!
And the last Yuasa ever!
At the time, I thought it would never end...
Favorite Motto: No skill (work) without strength (health)!

I was hoping that some other people would respond to my offer, but since nobody has, I thought I'd go ahead and translate that Masaaki Yuasa interview on the official Mind Game site, as suggested by TenAJs, because it's a good, solid interview without the 3 Stooges antics of the previous one I translated, which I thought focused too much on the schtick and too little on the substance. But it's Newtype, what do you expect. Doesn't anyone have the June Animage?

=> HASSHIN!

Can you start by explaining how you came to direct Mind Game?

Producer Eiko Tanaka approached me in an official capacity with the original manga and asked if I would like to direct the film.

Was that the first time you'd read the original manga?

No. While I was working at Studio 4C on Sound Insect Noiseman, Koji Morimoto had recommended it to me, saying, "Check out this amazing manga". That was the first time I read it. It really is a very impressive manga; very out of the ordinary. His drawing style seems kind of crude and unrefined at first, but once you get used to it, it's extremely compelling and stylish, and really succeeds in getting across all his ideas. It's the kind of manga that's so good that it makes you wonder why it isn't more well known.

What made you decide to direct?

When I received the offer, I had been wanting to try my hand at directing something. But at Studio 4C first of all there was Morimoto who was a big fan, and so was Tatsuyuki Tanaka, so it didn't feel right for someone like me to horn in on their baby. But I went ahead and accepted the offer because I beleived I might be able to do a good job with the material.

Was this project planned for the theaters right from the start?

Yes, right from the start. They've got guts, right? That was my own first impression. Nobody's heard of the manga; I'd never directed a feature film before. You'd never expect a project like this to get off the ground. What's amazing about Studio 4C is that they not only got it off the ground but made it and got it distributed.

What was your approach to adapting the manga?

The manga has this incredible forward momentum to it. My question was, how can I translate that momentum onto film? The manga acheives that effect by means of rough, sketchy drawings. But the various processes involved in animation means that the drawings wind up coming out looking clean and polished, no matter what you do. The crucial thing for the film version in my opinion was that the drawings not look too polished. That they look kind of sloppy to the casual eye. Only on closer inspection do you realize that the drawings are in fact properly drawn. Hence the images reflect the content. That was my concept for the film.

There are a lot of experimental touches in the film, like having the characters turn into live actors occasionally.

A long time ago people would have freaked if you put in an image done in a totally different style from the rest of the film at some point. Well, nowadays people are pretty used to that sort of thing, and they wouldn't be that shocked anymore. So that's why I inserted some live action in here, some photos there. My hope is that these scenes come across to the viewer as being kind of unplanned and impromptu.

They're just there for fun.

Exactly. Personally, at this point, I don't want to see ordinary anime anymore. What I want to see is something like those music videos where you've got little bits of animation spliced into the live action footage, something comical like that. In my thinking, Mind Game is kind of the inverse. Not like a live action film where you've got little bits of animation spliced in, but like somehow little bits of live action snuck into an animated film. At first I just wanted to use photographs because that would have been easiest to shoot, but the producer, Eiko Tanaka, suggested that we hire a live action director and have him shoot half the film in live action.

But then you wouldn't have been director, you'd be just the co-director!

Exactly. So we talked it over, and she finally suggested, "Maybe you'd better do the shooting yourself," leaving it up to me to decide on the details of how much and where to put it. It wound up being just a kind of added spice to the animation.

So you also handled the filming of the live-action parts.

We hired proffessional live-action staff, and I was there during filming to give instructions and so on. But I didn't know anything about filming live-action, so it was a real learning process for me. Doing a full-fledged proffessional live-action shoot also made it easier to hire showbiz people like Koji Imada.

In the shots where there's a live-action face talking... say, Koji Imada... that's actually Koji Imada talking, and not a different voice-actor, right?

It's the same person. I considered using a different voice-actor at first, but for various reasons, in the end I opted to stick with the same person. My choice of voice-actors was in fact influenced by the knowledge that they themselves would also have to appear in the film. I think the results turned out better than using a separate person to do the faces and the rest of the voice-acting.

Prior to this you've been known for creative anime like Crayon Shin-chan and Cat Soup. Would you say that the same creativity that made these so appealing has found its way into this new film?

And then some. (laughs)

How do you feel about the quality of the animation?

I think the animation is really interesting. It goes totally against the grain of anime these days. It's not concerned with detail, just with momentum. That's the goal of the film, not being "well crafted", but being interesting. And I think it worked out pretty well. The visuals are particularly interesting, I think. There's lots of variety, there are bouts of fantasy, and the story is very unpredictable. I honestly think the visuals are unlike anything anyone has seen before.

About the story - is it basically faithful to the original?

Yes, it's basically exactly the same as the original. The plot is quite simple, it's just the details that are a bit out there. I finessed the ending a bit, but otherwise the details are unchanged. I didn't set out to keep it so close to the original; it just turned out that way. The original manga is that well done. Especially early on in the film, the framing of the shots is pretty much exactly the same as in the manga. Without looking at the manga I drew out how I wanted the framing, and afterwards when I looked at the manga to compare, they were practically exactly the same. I was kind of disappointed by how similar they turned out.

Perhaps that suggests your style was a good match to the manga.

I suppose so. Looking at the finished product, there are some minor differences, but I think overall the film is how Robin would have wanted it to be. Robin himself, after watching the film, told me he thought the film was pretty much saying the same thing as his manga.

Going back, what do you mean when you say you "finessed" the ending?

Well, in the original, in the second half, the story just keeps on going with the same feeling of "You can do anything if you try!"

That's also one of the main themes of the film.

The original manga says, "Do it! Go for it! Don't let anything stop you! You can do anything if you try!" Well, I personally don't have the confidence to go that far, so I sort of reined in the message a bit. So it's still "You can do anything if you try!" but tempered a bit; I have him slam headlong into a wall afterwards. Even if you fail, the important thing is to try. The result isn't important. The important thing is to enjoy the process of striving.

The music in the film really sticks with you.

Isn't it great? I had this incredible underground musician do it for me, Yamamoto Seiichi. I listen to a lot of CDs, but I don't know very much about who recorded what, so Shin'ichiro Watanabe was appointed the music producer and he looked into it for me, and he suggested Seiichi Yamamoto.

What did you think of the music when you finally heard it?

I was amazed by the variety of the songs that he came up with. Yamamoto-san is quite simply a brilliant composer. He's versatile and he can write an incredible variety of music. It's unpredictable, it's groovy, it's exciting, and it's got just the right tinge of oddness. I had wanted a large variety of music right from the start, so it was handy being able to get one person to do it all. On Watanabe's introduction I also had Yoko Kanno play one song on the piano. I put a tape together with examples of various spots from several classical pieces that I wanted the song to sound like. Originally we were going to get producer Tanaka's son's piano teacher to play it, but in the end Yoko Kanno took over. I was very happy with how it turned out.

How long was the film in production?

Starting from the planning stage, two years and nine months. Two years exactly from when animation was started.

How many films have you directed now?

Um... one? Before now the only things I've directed were a small TV pilot and a short for a publicity event. Mind Game is my first major project, my big-time debut, if you will.

Did that have any influence on you?

I want to make movies that can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. That's been my basic stance in everything I've done up until now, and it still is. Well, okay, right before Mind Game I worked on the directing and animation for a video anime called Cat Soup, which was aimed at a very small segment, but that's the only exception. I have to admit, I had my misgivings about doing something so cultish, but I was pleased with the results and learned a lot from it that I was able to put to use in this film.

So Cat Soup was sort of a springboard for Mind Game.

Yeah. It showed me that it was OK to do certain things. In that sense, it made it a lot easier to make Mind Game.

The characers are a little different in the movie, aren't they? For example, their backgrounds.

This was the first time I'd done anything with a story to speak of, and I found that there was a need for the characters to have a background story. Which is funny, because I've always had a thing against characters with a background story. (laughs)

The old man was supposedly in the whale's belly for 30 years, but I found that I couldn't picture that long expanse of time without some sort of visual aid, so I inserted some scenes showing him as a baby and so on, to give the audience a sense of the weight of those 30 years. Also, at my age, I knew nothing about the experiences of people the age of the main character, so I asked a bunch of the younger staff members to write down their own experiences, and I threw together a timetable of the various characters' lives based on that. What one person might have experienced as a student, another person might have experienced as a child. I got them to write down their impressions on these experiences based on their perspective at that age, to show how there can be different perspectives on the same event. I threw all that together into a little montage to show at the beginning. Only the little montage grew to more than five minutes, which was too long, so I only showed a bit at the beginning and then showed the rest at the end.

People probably won't get it when they first see it at the beginning of the film, but what didn't make sense the first time will start to make sense when you see it again at the end. It kind of mirrors the way Nishi begins to see things as he undergoes various inner changes. I wanted people watching the film to be able to understand the things Nishi is feeling.

That montage gives the film a lot of added depth.

Curiously enough, there were actually people on the staff who asked me why Nishi would want to leave the whale's belly. I thought it would be natural to want to get out. But I was surprised how many people thought it would have been more fun to stay in the whale's belly.

That really got me to wondering, to think people would ask why Nishi would want to leave the whale's belly. I don't mean to preach, but... why do we want to live in the world? Because it's interesting. I have Nishi make this pretty clear in the film. Because it's wonderful to live in a world full of different people mixing and living all sorts of different lives. Through our interactions with these people, we all take part in the act of creating the world around us. It doesn't even matter if we don't play that big a part. I think it's a wonderful thing just to take part in that process. That's one of the messages I hope comes across.

A TV superhero called Time Boy shows up a few times in the flashbacks. He has the power to turn back time. He plays a relatively small role, but I think it's a fairly emblematic one, thematically.

Yes, you're right. In the original manga, only Nishi gets a chance to start over. I thought that wasn't fair. I'm not that young anymore myself, and I thought it wasn't fair for only the young to get a chance to start over. So I wanted to give all of the rest of the characters a chance to start over, too. Just to be fair; it's obviously not the way life works. It's the way you wish it did. If you make a mistake, start over again. It's not too late. That sort of thing.

Right.

I just don't think results are that important. If you do your best, and you don't get good results, then just try again from a different angle, or look for a different path altogether. There's just something beautiful about the process of trying and failing and trying again when you're truly living your life to its maximum potential.

So it's actually a very positive movie.

Absolutely!

Incredibly positive.

Of course.

It's a healthy film.

I'm just sick of all the gloomy movies coming out these days! I decided I'd had enough with dark stuff after Cat Soup. What I want to see is positive movies from now on. Enough turning inwards, people; let's turn outwards! What's important is right here on this earth. Not everybody's dreams come true, but only those who act have a chance of acheiving their dreams. All differences aside, it all boils down to one thing: The world is interesting!

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Friday, July 30, 2004

01:25:46 pm , 136 words, 633 views     Categories: Animation

Champloo note

Just a short memo about the action in Samurai Champloo. Though I haven't read anything to confirm this, I've suspected since the beginning that the Suzuki brothers (鈴木竜也, 鈴木卓也 / Suzuki Tatsuya and Suzuki Takuya) credited in almost every episode in the series are responsible for the action in each episode, which would explain the sense of unity. Interesting is that their genga credit is listed on a separate page with 1st genga and 2nd genga credits in the most recent episode. That's something I've never heard of, having 1st and 2nd genga (genga=key animation) for just the animation by two key animators.


I think watching episode 10 I was most struck by how different an episode can feel depending on the person writing it. Compare the tameness of this episode with all the eps written by Dai Sato.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

08:58:55 pm , 1132 words, 1215 views     Categories: Animation

That Imaishi magic

The Japanese have a great expression:

舌を巻く (Shita wo maku)

It means, literally, "To curl your tongue". What it actually signifies is that unexpected feeling when you're so amazed by something that words fail you.

Well, my tongue was curled into a knot watching Re: Cutey Honey episode one.

Yes, I know it's Go Nagai. There were probably more breast shots in this single episode than in most porn movies. But what made it incredibly great despite that? The fact that Hiroyuki Imaishi is utterly and completely insane.

Of course, he's not, and every image here in this episode he directed and storyboarded (he even drew key animation) is calculated with the utmost precision, even though it might not seem that way. Stuff that might seem just to be a cheap trick turns out to be a very subtle gag. Like the way at one point there's this explosion, and to emphasize the devastating hugeness of the explosion he stitches together explosion animation from different parts of the episode -- but leaves the soundtrack intact for each one.

In Imaishi's hands this crud is transformed into gold. Even the nudity is hilariously handled. It's a self-consciously over-the-top and ironic take on the childish prurience of the original. There is something interesting and hilarious going on at every moment with the drawings. Even in the quiet scenes some unseen force is pulling the drawings apart into insane deformations, and in the action scenes the screen seems like it's about to explode from all the unchecked animator energy crashing against the borders of the screen. Everything is all over the place constantly, and it's almost overwhelming.

But it's clear that he KNOWS the unspoken rule of jo-ha-kyu -- opening, middle, climax -- that you have to abide by to keep things from getting tedious. He's just thumbing his nose at it. Pushing it to the breaking point. It's jo-ha-kyu all right, but with a hypertrophied kyu.

Ever since FLCL it was clear that Hiroyuki Imaishi was a name to watch, and the last few years has indeed seen him creating some of the freest and most exhilirating animation seen in anime in many years.

Heightening the impact for me was the fact that I'd recently gotten to see Trava Fist Planet. This was the first piece after FLCL that Imaishi showed that he was on a rocket heading up, up, up. Next he did his first movie, Dead Leaves, and then he did the opening animation for Anno's recent Cutey Honey movie, and now this. There's a great anecdote where Anno, the guy who had supposedly lost faith in animation long ago, says after seeing the opening animation for his movie, "There's still hope for animation".

I could layer the blandishments twice as thick for Trava. That Katsuhito Ishii is a funny guy. His writing and the voice-acting kept me laughing the whole time. I think this was a first in anime, this sort of realistic, barely-cathing-everything hayakuchi mumbling quasi-improv voice-acting. It was extremely enjoyable.

But forget all that. The animation was the star of the show, as it should be. Imaishi storyboarded part two and also drew key animation in part two and three. (There are no clear cuts, but it's not impossible to figure out where one section ends and another begins.)

In Trava the animation is much more polished, but it's the same stuff as in Cutey, and there's no mistaking it for anybody else. With all the shiny mecha, the wild action lines and the absurd perspective shots, it's clear he was paying homage to and at the same time putting into hyperdrive the style of his great influences, Yoshinori Kanada + Yamashita Masahito. The animation and the overall style of that Re: Cutey Honey episode included all that, too, but overall it was more of a throwback to an earlier, softer era, the era of his other great influence, Dokonjo Gaeru and the other anime associated with the A Pro style. There's even a feeling of early Lupin in there. Imaishi is an incredibly postmodern animator in that sense -- his influences are right there, presented very clearly, and he plays with them like putty.

Takeshi Koike is the main creative force behind Trava, and it's a really great pairing, because Imaishi has more in common with Koike than with any other animator active today. They're probably the two most distinctive Japanese animators of recent years, not just because of their unmistakable drawing styles, but because of their basic stance towards animation -- the way they stick out like sore thumbs on purpose, the way their animation is in constant motion, the way every drawing tries to say something, the way their characters revel in being "off-model", the way they both utilize the entire screen, their very stylized and unrealistic drawings, their extreme use of perspective -- which is fundamentally at odds with the traditional notion of an animator as a cog in a machine who needs to churn out photocopies of a character sheet in different poses.

Though their styles are completely different, I think Imaishi and Koike together represent a new school in animation.

I talked a bit about Yo Yoshinari in the last post, and speak of the devil, he's involved in both Trava and Cutey. And what part of Trava? What else: Imaishi's part, part 2. Besides the obvious connections (FLCL-Gainax-IG) the reason for the involvement is obvious. There are two types of animators in Japan: those who draw pictures, and those who draw movement. Imaishi, Koike and Yoshinari are movers.

Plus in Cutey he's the very first key animator listed. That means of all the key animators, he drew the most animation in the episode. That's the rule of key animation credits, in case you didn't know. There were a number of other 'mover'-school animators in Cutey: Imaishi himself, Hideki Hamasu, Ken'ichi Konishi, Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru. Hideaki Anno even drew animation in the opening. The last time I remember him drawing animation was in one of Imaishi's Abenobashi Maho Shotengai episodes. Then he had Imaishi do the opening for his Cutey Honey movie. He's obviously somewhat partial to Imaishi.

Episode 2 of Cutey will be done by one Naoyuki Ito. His name is new to me because I'm not a frequenter of cute girl fantasies like Kanon, which he did. Episode 3 will be done by Masayuki, one of the pillars of Gainax animation.

As usual with Gainax, there are plenty of anime in-jokes (about which I admit I'm ambivalent), like the way one character is wearing the red Lupin jacket, while another wears the blue Lupin jacket.

There's even a great Hong Kong bullet opera scene, which Imaishi loves to put into his anime. Just a guess, but I'd say this was one of the ones done by Yoshinari.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

05:43:41 pm , 322 words, 2260 views     Categories: Animation

F*ll M*tal Alch*mist op

30 seconds of very nice animation in the new opening of Full Metal Alchemist, a series that otherwise holds no interest for me. Drawn by Satoru Utsunomiya, Yoshinari Yo and Yoshihiko Umakoshi (among others) and storyboarded by Yutaka Nakamura. Nakamura is one of the great action animators of the last decade. He gained instant fame as one of the major new animators on the scene after the incredibly thrilling action set pieces he provided for Cowboy Bebop, with their Bruce-Lee-on-fast-forward superfast-but-realistic aesthetic and quirky movements of the sort only possible in animation. Apparently Nakamura also provided animation for the second op and at least episodes 25 and 31 of FMA.

Yoshihiko Umakoshi did a lot of good work in the recent Jubei-chan 2 series. He's a classic example of an animator specialized in TV animation: He prefers the medium because of the freedom it allows him, the way it lets him be down and dirty with the drawings, churning them out, coming up with ideas rather than sitting around filling in details, as in movie animation, where you have to spend so long to do just one scene because the level of detail demanded is so much higher.

Yoshinari Yo is also one of the great action animators of the last decade, involved in a lot of Gainax works. He did a lot of the best sequences in FLCL - like the bunny girl scene. He also did the fight at the beginning of Mahoromatic episode 1. His first work was in Evangelion.

Satoru Utsunomiya needs no introduction. Many of you who watched Paranoia Agent will already be fans, whether you know it or not. He directed, storyboarded, was animation director and drew key animation for the most striking and memorable episode in the series, episode 8, Akarui Kazoku Keikaku. Besides that he did the subway bit in Ghiblies 2 not too long ago. He's one of the big figures of 90s anime. See my filmo to learn more.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

03:32:34 pm , 172 words, 847 views     Categories: Animation

L'Enfant Qui Voulait Être Un Ours

One of my favorite animated films of the last few years, the Danish-French co-production The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear, directed by Jannik Hastrup, is playing in theaters in Japan at the moment (official site). It's a really nice all-ages film, safe for kids and at the same time a stimulating fable for adults, very well directed, original in its approach to the animation, down-to-earth in its story, and truly moving, without the insipidness and manipulation of US animated features. A film like this, with its very personal and handmade feel, could only have been possible with an independent, low-budget approach at the opposite end of the spectrum from the titanic, homogenized, lobotomized blockbusters Hollywood is churning out these days.

Will be receiving my yearly batch from Amazon.jp soon. Lots of new releases including all the recent Mind Game items, which I'm not going to look at until I've seen the movie. Also Koji Morimoto's Eternal Family, which I will be watching immediately and with great relish (no mustard).

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

11:27:44 am , 212 words, 610 views     Categories: Animation

The Passion of the Norstein

Quote of the day, from this opinion piece on the St. Petersburg Times web site, regarding the fate of Yuri Norstein's 20-year-old work-in-progress, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat:

When an offer for all his past and future work came from Hollywood shortly after he'd lost his studio - and with it any chance of continuing "The Overcoat" - he refused. He said that he had been a serf to communism all his life, and he wasn't ever going to be a serf again, even if he had to starve.

Apart from this Japanese page dedicated to Norstein on the site of the Japanese publisher Comic Box, which recently released a 250-page deluxe edition volume of Norstein's animated art, it almost comes as a surprise to think that Norstein is considered one of the all-time great animators considering how little material of substance there is on the web about his work. Norstein has been a regular attendee at the Laputa Animation Festival over the years. And with Winter Days recently, and the lithographs being sold by Comic Box to support production of The Overcoat, it gives me a warm feeling to think that Japan is probably the country that has been most supportive and understanding of Norstein for the last decade.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

06:26:09 pm , 601 words, 2189 views     Categories: Animation

Lists

In deference to Alan's request, I thought I'd throw together a list. I love lists. But "best" is so general, so I feel the need to be more specific. There are anime that I value tremendously for their animation but that aren't necessarily "great" overall. Then there are anime that I like but aren't necessarily "great". Then there are anime that are historically important but that don't necessarily mean that much to me personally. Then there's the question of whether a list including titles that are unavailable in a particular place will be of any use to the audience the list is written for. Take that Animage Top 100 list; half the titles mean nothing to an American audience.

So first of all, here's a personal list.

10 anime that had a major impact on me

Goku's Big Adventure
Horus, Prince of the Sun
Belladonna
Little Jumbo
3000 Leagues in Search of Mother
Gauche the Cellist
Kondo's Nemo pilot
A Night on the Galactic Railroad
Hakkenden: Hamaji's Resurrection episode
Cat Soup

Not necessarily the top ten, just the ten that come most readily to mind because I've returned to them over and over, or they really bowled me over the first time I saw them.

Here are some other lists.

Great scenes by 10 great animators

Yasuji Mori
Animal fight in Legend of the White Snake
Hilda in Hols, Prince of the Sun

Yasuo Otsuka
Battle with giant fish in Hols, Prince of the Sun
8-headed dragon in Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon

Hayao Miyazaki
Pirate attack in Animal Treasure Island
Castle chase in Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves

Yoshifumi Kondo
Various scenes in Tom Sawyer
Conan greiving in Future Boy Conan episode 2

Shinya Ohira
Building collapsing in Akira
Skateboard chase in Animatrix: Kids Story

Toshiyuki Inoue
Opening sequence in Peek the whale

Mitsuo Iso
Rocks crumbling into water in Rahxephon episode 15
Eva fighting Shito in Evangelion episode 19

Norio Matsumoto
Popolocrois (1997) episode 3
Naruto episode 30

Yuasa Masaaki
Drag Race & Shopping Boogie segments in Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song
Castle chase in Crayon Shin-chan: Adventure in Henderland

Shinji Hashimoto
Chase through the bazaar in Spriggan
Breaking into Murano's house in Tokyo Godfathers

Watch these to learn what makes Japanese animators unique. Each is great in his own way. Although it may take some effort, like learning to savor great wine, the reward is a sharper palate and an enriched experience. (continue your studies on my Karisuma Animators page)

17 cult classics and obscure oddities

Aru Machikado no Monogatari (1962)
Goku's Big Adventure (1967) #4 Osamu Dezaki
Fight!! Pyu-ta (1968)
Dokonjo Gaeru (1972) #73A Kan-Kan Aki Kan no Maki
Ganso Tensai Bakabon (1975) #15A Manabu Ohashi
Zany Knight Don De La Mancha (1980) #6 Yoshinori Kanada
Tetsujin 28 (1980) Masahito Yamashita eps
Gold Lightan (1981) #41 Takashi Nakamura
Ideon: Be Invoked movie (1982)
Urashiman (1983) #26 Takashi Nakamura/Koji Morimoto/Atsuko Fukushima
Radio City Fantasy (1984)
Bobby's Girl (1985)
Machine Robo: Revenge of Chronos (1986)
Captain Power Battle Training game (1988) Shinya Ohira/Shinji Hashimoto
Yumemakura Baku's Twilight Theater (1991) Shinji Hashimoto
Download (1992) Tatsuyuki Tanaka part
Crayon Shin-chan TV series: Buriburizaemon episodes (1995) Masaaki Yuasa

You'll need luck to find these. But if you do you'll be rewarded with something special.

Anime available over here that you don't have to be an anime fan to be able to appreciate

[all-ages]
All the Ghibli films
Ringing Bell
The Sea Prince and the Fire Child
The Mouse and His Child
Jack and the Beanstalk
Sherlock Hound
Junkers Come Here

[mature]
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Cat Soup
Serial Experiments Lain
Haibane Renmei
Neo Tokyo
Tokyo Godfathers
The Wings of Honneamise
Jin-Roh

[immature]
FLCL

This is a self-explanatory list. You'll have to look on eBay for several of the all-ages films.

Monday, July 26, 2004

09:19:12 pm , 3514 words, 12726 views     Categories: Animation

Toei Doga -- pt. 2

(Continued from the previous post)

1963: Doggie March (わんわん忠臣蔵 / Wan wan chushingura)

Regular hirings had by now inflated the number of employees at Toei Doga to over 450, so the animation department was split into two sections, and from here on out two films were in production at the same time. This film and the next film were the first two slated for production under the new system, but while Doggie March went ahead on schedule, due to the unexpected arrival of TV anime in the form of Tetsuwan Atom at the same time, Gulliver wound up being pushed back so that the second section could focus on coming up with a competitive response. That response came in the form of Sadao Tsukioka's Ken the Wolf Boy (狼少年ケン / Okami shonen ken), which was followed up by Yasuji Mori's Hustle Punch. The TV era was here. And it signalled the beginning of the end for Toei Doga's traditional feature animation.

Interestingly enough, the very film produced while the other section of Toei Doga was working on a counterpunch to Tezuka's Atom Boy was based on a story idea by Osamu Tezuka himself. This goes to suggest that there was a certain respect for Toei Doga's acheivement on Tezuka's part, a willingness to learn what they had to offer and to put it to use, and not merely the spirit of rivalry and opposition that seems to get emphasized whenever the Toei Doga-Mushi Pro story gets talked about.

Hayao Miyazaki, who was an inbetweener in this film, was picked up in the last wave of hirings done in April of 1963. From here on out Toei Doga stopped hiring and switched to a "Unit Production System" -- meaning they began outsourcing animation to small production companies.

This is probably the only major Toei Doga film of the period that I haven't seen. While it is certainly one of the minor films, it's not without its merits, as at the very least the animation of the water by Yoichi Kotabe in his scene in the film (his first full-fledged key animation) reportedly remains one of Toei Doga's strongest pieces of animation.

1965: Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon (ガリバーの宇宙旅行 / Garibaa no uchu ryoko)

Production on this film was restarted in March 1964. Not one of Toei Doga's best films, but neither is it one of their worst. I thoroughly enjoyed the film for its refreshing sci-fi subject matter, a first for Toei Doga, and the wonderful Little Prince-influenced geometric robot designs by Hideo Furusawa. And by now everybody knows the justly famous story about how a certain hotheaded young upstart, just hired, just doing his first inbetween animation, came up with a totally different ending for the climactic scene in the film where the hero rescues the princess, and successfully managed to convince the director to use it, despite still technically being a lowly inbetweener. That one additional shot completely changed the meaning of the entire film, which revealed this newcomer's uncommon gifts. (The scene in question was animated by Makoto Nagasawa.)

Not only does this speak volumes about Miyazaki's talent, but I think it speaks volumes about the climate of artistic openness at Toei Doga during this early period. One of the things that most impressed me about their production system was that every staff member, regardless of rank, was actively solicited for ideas and encouraged to make suggestions if they felt they had any ideas that might be beneficial to the film; if people liked the idea, it was put to use, simple as that. That's how most of the characters in Little Prince got designed.

Although I've never read anything to confirm this anywhere, I've always suspected that the scene on the spaceship where the characters go through a bunch of wacky deformations in zero gee was inbetweened by Miyazaki, because it's like no other part in the film, and stylistically feels very much like him.

1967: Jack and the Witch (少年ジャックと魔法使い / Shonen jakku to mahotsukai)

If this section 2 production comes across as decidedly lacking in the animation department, it's because most of the important animators were busy at work on Horus, on which production had been progressing since October 1965, when the project was given the green light. The strain of the two-section production system begins to become evident. In fact, I'd say this is the worst animated of the classic Toei Doga films. But it is a fairly good film, in its own unique way. Despite the uncharacteristically stodgy animation, we have here a film with interesting character designs, good music, a fun story, but most of all very daring abstract background art by Reiji Koyama, the famous modern art painter hired here for another stint as the art director after the excellent work he did for Little Prince. The animation, full of strangely cartoonish touches like the undulating car, is quite unique for a Toei Doga film, and does have a certain appeal, though it feels like a failed experiment more than anything.

1968: The World of Hans Christian Andersen (アンデルセン物語 / Anderusen monogatari)

The next film fully exposes the pattern of decline. The animation for this film is fuller than that for Jack, but the story, the character design, and the execution of the film are all incredibly devoid of taste, and the film is eminently forgettable. We have here, for the first time, a film slavishly patterned after the Disney musical, after Toei Doga had already clearly shown that they understood that slavish imitation was not what made great animated films. The concept is not necessarily a bad one (though it is very self-limiting), but it is badly executed. Again the two saving graces are the art directing and the music, both by the same two people as in the previous film. With a little generosity the film can be watched and enjoyed, but it takes great patience to endure the design of characters like Uncle Ole, and for me that's the film's fatal flaw.

1968: Little Norse Prince (太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険 / Taiyo no oji horusu no daiboken)

After a few years in the desert, we arrive in Canaan.

What to think of the film? For Toei Doga it was an albatross. Over budget, over schedule, not a chuckle in the entire film. Instead, a deep and dark meditation on the duty of the individual in society. Disgusted, with no idea what they had on their hands, they shirked on the publicity, and it flopped at the box office. Takahata was ousted for good.

For the rest of us, though, Horus was and remains a symbol of everything that is great about anime; the first harbinger of its true potential. A film that simultaneously broke the mold of the Toei Doga film and crowned its apotheosis.

Rarely in the history of the animated film has there been a more cogent example of the content of a film mirroring the ideals and experiences of the people on the production floor. Here we had a studio packed with a new generation of fervent young animators fresh from the experience of having grown up amid the desolation of the surrender, fueled by the new ideals of democracy and socialism, eager to express their values in their work, to make a difference.

Toei Doga furnished them with a compatably democratic workplace that offered the promise of a genuine share of the artistic input into the final product. That doesn't mean that the path towards enlightenment was strewn with roses. It meant a give and take learning process on the part of both parties, with times of tentative testing of the new relationship (Magic Boy) followed by tragic but inevitable momentary losses for the workers/wins for the bosses (Littlest Warrior), swiftly followed by a backlash of angry demands for improved conditions on the part of the workers, abutting in negotiations leading to new and greater gains for the workers (Little Prince), only to be followed by ominous doldrums during which both parties could only stand by and watch helplessly as the social conditions providing the groundwork for their cooperative idyll crumbled down around them (Andersen).

Horus arrived at the end of this string of tribulations like the handshake that closes Metropolis.

The struggle portrayed in Hols was a symbolic expression of the union activities that Takahata, Otsuka and many of the other employees had been extremely passionate about since their entry into Toei Doga. Soon after joining the company in 1963, Takahata proved his mettle to the execs by his dynamic attitude and masterly directing in Ken the Wolf Boy, and earned the unqualified trust of his fellow employees, leaving little doubt that he was soon to be appointed to the task of directing one of the feature films -- an uncommonly rapid accession to that post in the stricty heirarchical Toei.

Starting from the choice of a text, a puppet play called The Sun Above Chikisani based on the legends of the Ainu -- the oppressed and nearly obliterated First Nations of Japan -- it becomes clear that Takahata approached this task with the utmost seriousness, as an opportunity to express solidarity with the colonized and the oppressed, to express the themes of his generation: democracy, egality and solidarity, and finally to create a damned incredible moviegoing experience like nobody had ever seen before.

With the entire staff enthusiastically behind him and ready for the task, his sub-lieutenant Yasuo Otsuka by his side, he set off on this mad quest to drag a steamboat over a mountain, to build an animation pyramid leading to the heavens. They were ready to follow Takahata to hell to get this film done. And that's just where they found themselves.

Takahata had to fight tooth and nail for every scrap. The first loss was the title, followed by the Ainu trappings. The execs feared that a story about Ainu would either bore or scare people, so they were forced to change the setting to Scandinavia. Then they were behind schedule. They were using too many cels. Takahata was losing credibility fast, and the clock was ticking. By the end he'd been forced to cut more than half an hour off of a film where every second was absolutely essential, because the execs feared people wouldn't come to a 120 minute animated movie. Add to this the two scenes they simply didn't have time enough to animate, and Takahata was feeling roundly defeated by the time the film was released.

Whatever flaws it may have, the film towers above any contemporary anime film -- and above most that are made today -- in terms of entertainment value, in terms of philosophy, in terms of character depth, in terms of animation, and most of all in terms of directing. Needless to say, Takahata's ambition has since been vindicated hundredfold by the rise of Ghibli and the admiration and praise his films there have garnered around the globe.

To me, this extraordinary film is more than just a first step towards Ghibli. It's one of the most incredible directing debuts in animated film history, and still one of the handful of great anime films of all time, for its unsurpassed inherent quality and its historical significance.

In terms of the animation, no contest: Horus has the best animation of any Toei Doga film, by lightyears. To mention only the most stunning examples: The fight with the big fish animated by Otsuka Yasuo is in the opinion of many of today's most important animators (including Satoru Utsunomiya) one of the greatest fight scenes ever drawn in anime. And Hilda, designed by Yasuji Mori and animated entirely by Yasuji Mori throughout the film, was the single most psychologically penetrating animation of a character to grace any Japanese animation up until that point. She still is. Her performance is Oscar-worthy and then some. If Mori was the soul of Toei Doga, then Hilda is the soul of Horus.

1969: Puss 'n Boots (長靴をはいた猫 / Nagagutsu wo haita neko)

Following Horus there was a hiatus in the decline as the vast momentum built up by the staff during production of Horus was unleashed with full force into three of Toei Doga's most outrageous and entertaining flicks.

This first film is the one that benefited most directly from the momentum. The style of production for Puss was the diametric opposite of that for Horus. In Horus Takahata controlled every moment of the visuals in the film -- the layout, the placement of the characters, the pacing of the scenes. In this film, on the other hand, the animators were let loose to do what they wanted like children running outside screaming joyously after a hard day at school.

That feeling really comes through in the film. There's more freedom in the animation in this film than in probably any of the other Toei Doga films, and at the same time this is one of the films with the most unified animation of any of the Toei Doga films because of Yasuji Mori's assiduous correction of the drawings to maintain an even look throughout.

However, little should be expected of this film beyond entertainment, because the characters are largely ciphers and there is no depth or development there at all. But who cares? It's such a fun and joyous film that there's no reason to nitpick. They obviously set out to make exactly that sort of film, and succeeded eminently in the task.

And topping the film off is the most famous sequence of all the Toei Doga films, the chase through the castle ramparts, a sequence that is a perfect seamless little miniature film in itself. Miyazaki and Otsuka animated the whole thing in tag-team style.

Around this same time Toei Doga started releasing a large number of low-budget sci-fi films and dismissible things of that ilk that I will not cover here but to note them in passing as the fate that befell the giant that once was Toei Doga. The 1969 Flying Ghost Ship actually featured animation by Miyazaki and animation directing by Kotabe, but I found the film to be so distractingly tacky and unwatchably bad that I pretty much forgot the whole thing after seeing it, out of mercy.

1970: Nobody's Boy (ちびっ子レミと名犬カピ / Chibikko remi to meiken kapi)

This was another of the low-budget films they churned out, and, although its animation attains a moderate level of quality that deserves to be acknowledged, the horrendous directing, wretched humor and abominable character designs combine to make this a good representative of the films that followed after Miyazaki et al. flocked out from Toei Doga around 1972 looking for broader horizons. Among the worst Toei Doga films ever made should be counted the 1973 Panda's Adventures, probably the most soulless film made by the studio. Properly speaking, I was only able to watch the first five minutes, being unable to continue out of disgust with what I was seeing and hearing.

Starting with this one, Toei Doga made a series of films based on world literature throughout and beyond the 70s (The Little Mermaid, Swan Lake, The Swan Princes, Thumbelina, Twelve Months), all of which are totally deserving of the memory hole into which they have fallen. The Little Mermaid deserves note, however, because it was the first anime film anywhere to feature a female animation director, namely Reiko Okuyama, longtime Toei Doga animator and wife of Yoichi Kotabe.

1971: Treasure Island Revisited (どうぶつ宝島 / Dobutsu takarajima)

While the other section was churning out the previous film, the staff that had worked on Horus and then Puss were hard at work on this wonderful and little-known triumph of slapstick and action adventure, the last of the classic full-length Toei Doga films.

Hayao Miyazaki provided many of the ideas for the film and was consequently given the novel credit of "Idea Man", and this time Miyazaki is the one who gives the film its character, not only because of the little touches he adds that feel 100% Miyazaki, like the wonderful scene early on at the Benbow, but even more importantly because of the incredible animation he provides for the film. The pirate attack scene he animated in this film is one of my favorite in all the Toei Doga films, and is the hilight of the film. It's an incredible scene, packed with a vast number of ideas and a whole movie's worth of action. Although Miyazaki's previous work in the Toei Doga films was already notable, particularly his important contribution to providing the many images that built up the universe of Horus, this is the one that really stands out, for one because it's all concentrated into under five minutes, making it handy for study purposes. For study it deserves. This scene should be required study for every aspiring animator in the world.

Aside from Miyazaki's animation (and he also did a lot of the animation of Hook on the ship, which is also incredibly good) this film is an eminently rollicking ride from start to finish, and is the most obvious direct link between the films of Toei Doga and Miyazaki's subsequent work, in terms of the overall structure of the film.

1971: Alibaba's Revenge (アリババと四十匹の盗賊 / Aribaba to yonjuppiki no tozoku)

This short film tends to be overlooked in discussions of the classic Toei Doga films due to the zany designs and the correspondingly kooky story. But I personally find it to be a wonderful (albeit light and insubstantial) and perfectly fun-filled ride that absolutely deserves to be seen by more people.

Gone are any concerns about creating an epic storyline; instead we have a surprisingly witty and biting satire that turns the original Ali Baba story on its head, and focuses on the gags and action sequences. The voice-acting is great all around (the king and his attendant are unbeleivably hilarious in the original Japanese) and the character designs are wonderfully loose and cartoonish in a way that feels truly refreshing and original for a Toei Doga film. It feels like a good direction. The sad thing is, they didn't continue to do anything as original afterwards. Toei Doga president Hiroshi Okawa died after this film was completed, effectively marking the end of the era of classic Toei Doga films.

To top it all off, the animation hilight of this film is in fact one of the great sequences in any of the Toei Doga films, a chase through the castle ramparts animated by Miyazaki -- in homage to himself? In any case, it's an absolutely superb scene that merits being seen by any lover of good, fast-paced cartoonish action animation. Masaaki Yuasa noted in a recent interview that this was his favorite of Miyazaki's scenes because of the incredible variety of the stuff going on; plus the fact that it's the longest of his scenes stretches out the enjoyment all that much longer. No disagreement there.

1972: Puss 'n Boots II (長靴三銃士 / Nagagutsu sanjushi)

If the previous film tends to be overlooked, then this film tends pretty much never to even get mentioned. Which I find to be a shame. A masterpiece it's not, and the script development problems that left the film hobbled with a rather straightforward and bland western story in the final count are disappointing, but it's still an eminently watchable film, which all of the subsequent films are not, so it deserves the benefit of the doubt.

The story is simple but entertaining because, well, when have you ever seen an anime western? The characters are credible, the directing is good, the story is fun. It has a very nice action sequence that I quite like, the covered wagon chase. The shootout at the end is very convincingly choreographed. And with Yasuji Mori in the helm as the animation director, the animation in this film is truly a fine, delectable thing to behold. Not the banquet of the previous Puss film, but more of a power lunch. No, really, this is one of the most underrated of the Toei Doga films. This film is truly enjoyable, and deserves more credit than it gets.

Miyazaki, Takahata, Otsuka and Kotabe had all left Toei Doga already by the time Mori did this film. Mori even went on to do animation in the wretched Panda's Adventures, undoubtedly a thoroughly depressing and lonely experience that finally drove him to leave Toei Doga and join the rest of the gang at Nippon Animation.

That's it. All of the key figures having left Toei Doga, for some mysterious reason the subsequent films are no good. And so we reach the end of the lime.

1979: Taro the Dragon Boy (龍の子太郎 / Tatsu no ko taro)

Actually, not quite. Toei made a comeback of sorts a few years later with this film, which is truly a very good film, albeit quite different from what had come before. But really it's just an isolated relic of a tone and a quality that would never be regained at Toei Doga and had by that time already been transplanted to other studios, namely A Productions, Telecom and then Studio Ghibli, that inherited the mantle of the manga eiga; that being the assertion of the Survey of Japanese Films exhibition, and that with which I bring this survey of Toei Doga films to a close.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

10:42:13 am , 3312 words, 11012 views     Categories: Animation

Toei Doga

"Well we knocked the bastard off."

Only Alouette isn't Everest, and I wasn't the first one. Spent 8 hours walking the round-trip 40 kilometer Alouette peak trail yesterday, and made it to the top this time. While at the top I gazed down on the ants swarming on the shore of Garibaldi lake far below filled with feelings best passed over in silence and suggested with a picture:

Él (Buñuel, 1952)

Not really, but I love that scene.

Perhaps not coincidentally in a year that sees the release of an unprecedented number of major new anime films, this summer Tokyo offers a number of interesting events dealing with the history of anime. As an adjunct to the MOMA screening series I mentioned before, the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo is currently showing an exhibition entitled 日本漫画映画の全貌 (Nihon Manga Eiga no Zenbo / A Survey of Japanese Animated Films), which proposes to shed an intimate light on the history of the animated film in Japan from its earliest beginnings in 1917 to the current day by offering visitors an opportunity to get up close and personal with a range of the original materials used to create these films, including key animation, image boards and storyboards.

Excerpts from a large sampling of these films will be shown in the viewing room together with a rarely-seen documentary on the history of anime made by one of Japan's preeminent authorities on the subject, Takashi Namiki, who has long been famous as a serious collector of historic anime films. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi will also be shown, and even more surprisingly so will Howl's Moving Castle (the first screening anywhere?), to illustrate the continuity between the old anime films and the new.

This begs the question. Why Miyazaki's films and no others? The answer is: The broadly accepted interpretation of Studio Ghibli is that it is the only studio with a direct link to anime's past by reason that its founding members were trained at Toei Doga; hence in theory making it the only authentic inheritor of the mantle of the manga eiga. The weight of truth in the assertion is obvious, and I don't deny it, but it feels a little forced and too obvious. I think there's no reason to be so dogmatic. The question is rather more complex than one of mere personal connections.

That said, I happen to be a big fan of the Toei Doga films, so far be it for me to disagree.

When I speak of "Toei Doga films" I mean the films made between roughly 1958 and 1972, which is the period when these movies were good, being that during which Mori, Takahata, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Kotabe et al. were working at the studio.

Hence it seems a little odd, Studio Ghibli being the king of the hill among western fans and all, that the Toei Doga films should remain so utterly unknown. Aside from a few fansubs -- and how many people see those?? a drop in the bucket, that's how many -- consciousness of the films remains about as low as it was when I saw my first Toei Doga film almost a decade ago. It took that long for ME to see one, so I can't really blame others. The narrowness of American anime interest obliterates the chances of anything appearing on the market that doesn't fit within the confines of accepted taste.

Let it be noted that in this case the French retain the moral high ground (in more ways than one at the moment). Late last year I recall hearing stories from my French connection about an incredible anime festival showing many of the old Toei Doga films along with lots of other obscure stuff I would never have associated with an anime festival in the US. Only recently did I run across the website of the Nouvelles Images Du Japon 2003 and see for myself the incredible lineup: the five most important Toei Doga films, Gauche the Cellist, Jarinko Chie, Oshii's obscure Nils Holgersson, Ideon (IMO the greatest robot anime of all time), the international premiere of Winter Days, plus all the most interesting recent anime films, and a long selection of independent shorts, to say nothing of the incredible guest panel: Isao Takahata, Satoshi Kon, Yoichi Kotabe, Koji Yamamura, Kihachiro Kawamoto.

I'm honestly disappointed that the Ottawa Animation Festival 2004 opted for a Miyazaki retrospective rather than something else with at least a shred of originality. Don't get me wrong. Getting Miyazaki as a household name in the west has been every otaku's wet dream for years. But who the bloody hell hasn't seen these films by now? Surely other films are more deserving of the precious publicity of an animation festival. But I gather this is a question of the delicate balance between garnering supporters and attracting crowds.

With this long preamble out of the way, I'll get to the point of this post. I thought I would take this as an opportunity to talk about all of the Toei Doga films, from the first (Hakujaden) to the last good one (Puss 'n Boots II), since I gather I'm one of the few fans in the west who's had a chance to see them all. And doing so took no small effort, from bidding for LDs on Yahoo! Auctions Japan to digging up obscure English dubs on VHS on eBay.

Although a book could and eventually should be written in English about Toei Doga and its place in animation history, here I'll have to content myself with some passing comments about what makes these films interesting using the little bit of knowledge I've managed to remember from perusal of the few Japanese sources I've run across, the main one being Yasuo Otsuka's essential and excellent autobiography Sakuga Ase Mamire, which absolutely deserves to be translated into English. In this book we get the honest lowdown on what the staff thought about what they were doing, not just the hagiography of the old Toei-published history -- useful though it is for statistics.

Really I could start at any point following the end of the war, with the short films produced by animation studio Nippon Dogasha, aka Nichido, but not having seen any of them, I will skim over them and jump to the first film produced after Nichido was purchased by the film studio Toei, namely Kitty's Graffiti (こねこのらくがき / Koneko no Rakugaki, 1957).

This film probably gives a good idea of what the Nichido films were like, because the staff is essentially the same (Yasuji Mori, Taiji Yabushita, Akira Daikubara, etc.), whereas the next film, the full-length feature Panda and the Magic Serpent, benefited from the first wave of animator hirings, which included luminaries like Gisaburo Sugii, Reiko Okuyama, Makoto Nagasawa and Taku Sugiyama (one exception being Yasuo Otsuka, who came in a bit earlier; his first work as an animator was drawing the cat instructor walking around the corner after scolding Kitty in Kitty's Graffiti).

Don't let the fact that it's in black and white deter you; this is one of the most delightful, charming and unforgettable animated shorts I've ever seen, and remains one of my favorites. There is so much SOUL in this film. Watching this one film makes it perfectly clear why Yasuji Mori is renowned as a master animator. The story is eminently simple, but full of tons of warmly humorous and imaginative ideas that are carried off flawlessly: little Kitty (think little Jimmy) draws some scribbles on the wall of the school, and in his guilt-ridden daydreams they come alive and lead him off into a series of wonderful adventures involving runaway graffiti trains, chicken scratch traffic jams and an army of mice in bubbles!

The great thing is that it's not just cute, there's a brilliantly self-deprecating, knowing, gentle irony lurking there behind the delicate humor at all times, so that despite the simple subject matter there's real depth there -- sort of akin to that profoundly moving gentle irony in Ozu's films.

This film is in fact the perfect starting point for an appreciation of Toei Doga films because Mori was one of the most important staff members throughout the entire period, as an animation director, character designer and animator. Not only was he responsible for the animation of all the animal characters in the early films, but he was the first person in Japan to design all of the characters in a film, and also the first person to supervise the animation of an entire film as the sakuga kantoku or animation director.

In my opinion, Yasuji Mori is the soul of the Toei Doga films.

(Note that I'm using the common English dub titles for these films to keep things consistent, even though there are some that I'm not happy with, like "Little Norse Prince" - feh. What a shit-ass title for one of the greatest anime films ever. You can see the translated titles by clicking on the link to see more details about the film.)

1958: Panda and the Magic Serpent (白蛇伝 / Hakujaden)

What makes the first full-length color anime feature great? Besides the fact that it works as a movie after all these years, the animation is thoroughly engaging and well-crafted, the atmosphere is beguiling, the characters are interesting, and the story is universal (Romeo & Juliet), the ambition with which it was made still comes through loud and clear. To strike a tone of reconciliation with the Asian neighbors Japan had so brutally treated in the recent past, Toei president Hiroshi Okawa decided on a Chinese story for this film, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of Japan, the historic implications of which he fully understood.

Starting with this film Okawa set out to make Toei Doga the Disney of the East, but what impresses is that he really understood what that meant; that it meant not just copying Disney, but beginning from scratch as Disney had done and building up a store of animation knowhow from which to build a legacy upon. That meant hiring real animators who knew their craft, having these animators transmit their knowhow to newcomers, and continuing this process in order to discover new techniques and continuously improve their films. And that, ultimately, is the legacy that comes down to us to this day in the form of the films of Studio Ghibli.

Though the animation is understandably lacking in the refinement and detail that would come bit by bit with the films that immediately followed, it should be remembered that all of the key animation here was drawn by TWO PEOPLE, the two main animators from Nichido: Yasuji Mori, who did the animals, and Akira Daikubara, who did the humans. Lest one think that asking two people to provide all the ideas for a film's movement would result in a thinness of ideas, I need merely point to the fight scene, animated entirely by Yasuji Mori, which is quite possibly the single best piece he ever did, and in my opinion the best in the film; and to any number of other scenes like the part where the wooden dragon takes off, and the fight in mid-air, which are breathtakingly beautiful to behold even after all these years.

I've seen both the dub and the original for this one, and the dub is pretty good, as I recall. The original is impressive because two voice-actors provided all of the voices. It's part of the mystique of the original: All these twos.

1959: Magic Boy (少年猿飛佐助 / Shonen sarutobi sasuke)

The second Toei Doga film has been seen on cable TV in the US in recent years, so it obviously achieved a measure of the international appeal Toei Doga was looking for, though I'm guessing there's a degree of simple exoticism behind this.

The film tells the story of a country boy in medieval Japan who sets out to learn magic with a sennin, mountain ascetic, to defeat a gang of marauding bandits led by an evil witch.

Here we find Toei Doga plunging into the realm of the historical fantasy adventure spectacular, and the film is just plain fun to watch, great entertainment with lots of variety and action, but strangely, while it's a step forward from Hakujaden in terms of the animation, it seems to be a step backwards in terms of the content. Apparently this is attributable purely to Toei politics. The original script was transformed at a late stage in production into a simple bad-guy-vs-good-guy story at the behest of Toei execs who wanted to cash in on the popular formula Toei had been putting to use at the time in their live-action jidaigeki movies. There was widespread discontent among the animators because of this.

Standout scenes in the film include the banquet of the animals, drawn by Yasuji Mori, and the giant salamander & the witch's skeleton, both the work of Yasuo Otsuka. Right here in his first assignment as a key animator he draws scenes that distinguish themselves from those in the rest of the film by their minute attention to detail, density of animation, and strict realism of movement and drawing.

Unfortunately this one I've only seen in dubbed form, so I'm missing a lot of the nuance in the animation that arose from the very specific reactions that each animator brought to his animation of his scene from instant to instant based on each word of the dialogue recorded by the voice-actors, which is definitely a major aspect of the appeal of the animation in this film. (This equation has since changed now that dialogue is recorded after the animation.) Another reason to always watch anime in the original. Whether the dub is "good" or "bad" is hence irrelevant. It's a senseless burden that cripples proper appreciation of the animation.

1960: Alakazam the Great! (西遊記 / Saiyuki)

(Mike Toole wrote a good review of this film for Anime Jump, so I refer you to his review to learn more about this film.)

With this third installment we reach the zenith in quality in the very early Toei Doga films. Not only were there more animators involved in this film, but they had now made definite progress, and were motivated by Tezuka Osamu's appealing designs (slightly modified to make them easier to animate) to produce even more interesting and free animation than before.

Animation hilights include the various sections animated by Yasuo Otsuka, who had by now been pegged as the guy to turn to if you've got something really hairy and complicated and violent to animate. These include the volcanic eruption, the swordfight with the scorpion, and the bullfight at the end. Sadao Tsukioka, one of the genius animators of this early period, also did his first key animation in this film -- the striptease by the female monster near the end.

The most important hilight of the film, though, in terms of inherent quality, and in terms of having had a fateful determining influence on the choice of what to do for the next film, was the section animated by Yasuji Mori, where Rin-Rin visits Goku in his prison. The pathos and the remarkable degree of life and presence that Mori manages to breathe into the depiction of Rin-Rin trudging through the snow before toppling over in exhaustion and cold -- the feeling that you're really watching a living being there on the screen, not just a two-dimensional drawing -- has lost none of its power to amaze after more than 40 years, and is truly one of the best scenes to grace any Toei film.

This scene in fact so impressed the execs at Toei that they decided they wanted to go in that direction for the next film. They wanted to make a human tragedy featuring more realistic characters moving in a realistic fashion, just like Mori's scene. This is what led to...

1961: The Littlest Warrior (安寿と厨子王丸 / Anju to zushiomaru)

Which is why it's so interesting that the main animators involved in the film, including Mori, repudiated the film immediately upon its completion with a vehemence bordering on anger for having been duped into taking part in the project. I actually enjoyed it on first watching, but they make so many good points in their statements (reproduced in Sakuga Ase Mamire) that it kind of makes you embarrassed for not having noticed them. About the way it glorifies passive acceptance of injustice. About the way it tells kids that the best thing you can do is bear suffering stoically rather than try to do something about it. That it's OK to step on others to achieve your goals. That the ruling class is all-knowing -- trust them, they know what's best for you.

A downright infuriating film if you think about it. And Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff, a version of the same Ogai Mori story, is a brilliant, complex and multilayered film that treats the very same material in an entirely compelling and humane and moving fashion, so it's not accountable to the material. There was something rotten in the planning of this film, with its shit-for-brains adaptation and laa-dee-daa ending, and it smells like money. I like the basic premise, and I think there's something in there that could make a good animated film, if you had someone who only knew what they were doing at the head, say, Takahata, so it's all the more disappointing.

1962: The Adventures of Sinbad (アラビアンナイト·シンドバッドの冒険 / Arabian naito shindobatto no boken)

The next film, on the other hand, I disliked right on the first viewing. It's probably my least favorite of the classic Toei Doga films. It's just plain boring. They tried to develop the realism of Anju further in this one, but it's a half-assed realism and consequently totally misses the mark, neither fish nor fowl. Despite that, certain gains were made in terms of animation technique with this film that would go on to feed the later films, and that is probably its main virtue. Specifically, the animation of the water in the climax, by (who else?) Otsuka Yasuo, acheived a degree of detail that was a new watermark for the studio, which had until then not been particularly known for its effects animation.

1963: Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon (わんぱく王子の大蛇退治 / Wanpaku oji no orochi taiji)

Now we come to one of the all-time anime masterpieces, a film that holds the distinction of being the film that introduced the animation director system into anime (whereby one person corrects all the drawings by the key animators in order to eliminate minor differences and keep the characters looking the same throughout the film). But that's not necessarily what's great about it to anybody who watches it. The designs are great. The color is great. The music is great. The story is great. The animation is great. The finale is incredible. It's probably the first Toei Film film that comes together as a totally satisfying and integral whole.

The animation hilight of this film is the final scene of the hydra, animated by Yasuo Otsuka together with Sadao Tsukioka. Otsuka had pursued realism since he began as an animator, basing his animation on close observation of the reality around him -- for example, observing and drawing actual catfish in preparation for animating the scene with the giant fish in Magic Boy. But there are no 8-headed dragons in the real world to study, so how to draw one? Reality in this scene is evoked by the tension produced by careful timing and framing of the action unfolding on the screen in one continuous flow over the course of several minutes.

There are many other great scenes -- the fight with the tiger early on, the dance scene. This is the first film in which most of the film is totally satisfying in terms of the animation, with interesting movement and appealing and original designs.

...well it looks like I bit off more than I can chew, so I'll finish this tomorrow.

Friday, July 23, 2004

07:30:06 pm , 198 words, 1016 views     Categories: Animation

Samurai Champloo #9

I was practically hyperventilating from laughter and amazement and sheer unmitigated YYYYEEESSSSSS!!!!! for about about ten minutes after watching a short 30-second sequence in Samurai Champloo #9.

No, I wasn't on anything. Though all the characters in the episode were.

Masaaki Yuasa animated a sequence in Champloo!

Everyone who can't wait to see Mind Game, RUN, DON'T WALK, and watch Samurai Champloo episode 9 right now.

This is a mere foretaste of the great revelation to come.

And to top off the bliss, Hiroyuki Imaishi did the storyboard for this episode.

No hestitation the single best animated sequence I've seen in any anime in years. God bless you, Masaaki Yuasa.

Apart from that, generally speaking it was a very well animated and funny and fun episode. There was so much going on all the time with the drawings, little amusing touches everywhere, with nice quirky movements all over the place. (Pay attention to the drawings where Mugen is running through the forest.) Great stuff. And why? The animation director of this episode, Nobutake Ito (joined by Kazuto Nakazawa) is one of the main animators in Mind Game. (He was also an animator in the Digimon movie I talked about earlier.)

Thursday, July 22, 2004

08:00:08 pm , 1003 words, 1907 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Aristotle on deja-vu

And for this reason sometimes we do not know, when such stimuli occur in our soul from an earlier sensation, whether the phenomenon is due to sensation, and we are in doubt whether it is memory or not. (On Memory and Recollection)

I'm typing at you through shades because I lost my glasses while swimming in a lake today.

A few random bits before getting down to business.

It turns out Canada is about to rectify the slip of having let Japan beat them to the McLaren DVD set -- in a big way. Not three, four, five or six, but SEVEN DVDs. The NFB is going to be releasing The Master's Edition DVD set sometime in early 2005. This is going to be way better than the Japanese set. (The Japanese aren't very good with extras.)

I had a chance to watch the first episode of Soul Taker the other day, and was duly impressed. I had no idea Shinbo Akiyuki had managed to go this far with his style already. I mentioned his work in Yu Yu Hakusho in a previous post, and it was great to see that he has continued to develop his style. The first episode was fantastic. I get the impression the later episodes get a little watered down, which is only natural; he only storyboarded the first ep. The first ep was enough. At least here's a guy who's doing something moody and stylish and original on TV and it's not just another rip-off of Evangelion. I was actually disappointed to find out there was a story to the first episode upon further viewings. I so loved the bewildering randomness and colorfulness of it all that hits you on that first viewing.

As promised, here's a rough translation of that Newtype interview with Masaaki Yuasa, Koji Morimoto and Shin'ichiro Watanabe. Many thanks to Manuloz! Anyone else?

Morimoto: We'd been thinking of doing Mind Game at Studio 4C for a while when I saw Cat Soup, and I knew right then and there that Yuasa was the only man for the job. It was like a marriage made in heaven. (laughs)

Yuasa: My reaction was: Are you sure you want ME to do it?? Hey, so long as you're sure, I'll do it. But just don't come crying to me afterwards! (laughs) The original manga has a really improvised feel to it, like someone just wrote it in one sitting without thinking it out ahead of time. I wanted to transfer that feeling into the movie. To keep the images really loose and unpredictable, almost slapdash. Like I just decided to throw in some live action here, some CG there, without any thought, just for kicks. (laughs) That's what I hope the movie feels like when you're watching it, sort of unfinished, improvised, like a brainstorm in progress.

Morimoto: Rough drawings can have a lot more charm, but it's hard to make them work in a film. On the other hand, if you worry too much about how a drawing will look on the screen, it comes out looking too clean, without any life, without zip. It's hard to find the right balance between the two.

Watanabe: Just because you go and draw a half-assed picture doesn't mean it'll look "rough" on the screen. (laughs) You really have to calculate every line to get that rough feeling right.

Morimoto: The tension was palpable over in Yuasa's section. The two of us were next door working on Animatrix, and it looked like they were having so much fun over there. (laughs)

Watanabe: What with all these bizarre pictures they had pasted up all over the walls, it was like, what the heck kind of a movie are they making over there?! (laughs) I read the manga and it was great. But I thought, it would be such a shame to put just your everyday ordinary movie music for a manga like this! That would ruin it! (laughs) But nobody seemed to know who to get to do the music, so I sort of elected myself to the post of Music Producer. (laughs)

Yuasa: It's funny, I only heard about that much later. (laughs) One day they say to me, "Oh yeah, by the way, Watanabe's taking care of the music." "He is!?" (laughs) I had a certain idea of what I wanted, but I just didn't know who to turn to...

Watanabe: Yuasa-san had made a sort of compilation tape of songs to give a sense of what he wanted... and man, it was just all over the place! (laughs) From one scene to the next you'd jump from one song to something wildly different. Really not the sort of thing a normal person would request. (laughs) So I thought the only person for the job was the almighty Seiichi Yamamoto, the king of the alternative music scene. He'd done just about every sort of music imaginable. And his music has just the sort of rough-edged feeling that would fit the film. Plus they're both from Osaka! (laughs)

Morimoto: The music was perfect, it was just amazing. You know, my kids were watching the film the other day, and my wife turned it off at a certain point. It was the sex scene. She was pissed. "What the hell are you showing our kids!?" (laughs)

Yuasa: Aw, it's not that bad. (laughs)

Watanabe: That's an incredible scene.

Morimoto: I was amazed you'd reveal so much about yourself on the screen like that: "So this is the kind of sex Yuasa-san has!" (laughs)

Yuasa: No, trust me, I haven't revealed anything. (laughs) I'm much more... (pauses)

Watanabe: Not like that. (laughs)

Yuasa: I'm hoping the film is good entertainment, that's all... If people leave the theater feeling they had a good time, then I'll be satisfied. With a little luck maybe they'll see the world a little differently afterwards, but basically it's good, old-fashioned entertainment to appeal to the whole family. (all three burst out laughing)

Watanabe: I wonder... (laughs)

1 commentPermalink

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

08:30:16 pm , 28 words, 824 views     Categories: Mind Game

Offer

If anyone can send me any of the articles covering Mind Game, I might see my way clear to translating them (in part or in whole) in return. ~`

1 commentPermalink

Monday, July 19, 2004

07:33:34 pm , 143 words, 1437 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game News Delivery Service Vol. 1

Mind Game Official SiteIt's the email newsletter you can sign up for from the official site. Here's a transcription of the hilights for the Japanese-illiterate.

Motion Image Psychedelia, a rotating Mind Game exhibition

An exhibit of key animation, inbetweens and sketches together with a making-of video are going to be viewable at Logos Gallery in Shibuya from August 8-16. The exhibit will then be travelling to "digmeout CAFE" in Osaka from August 19-29.

Seiichi Yamamoto & Fushigi Robot Concert

The band responsible for the music in Mind Game will be playing live in concert on August 13 in Shibuya to memorialize the release of the soundtrack CD.

More Mind Game Media Coverage

Yuasa interview in August MAC POWER; 8p special feature in August SWITCH; Yuasa interview in August CUT; Yuasa/Watanabe/Morimoto interview in July NEWTYPE.

Official Site Update

Staff comment section added to Special Contents area.

Friday, July 16, 2004

06:01:48 pm , 1242 words, 2361 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

All About Mind Game

Mind Game Official SiteToday I thought I'd throw together a little Mind Game primer for those of you who might have read past entries of this journal wondering what the heck this Mind Game thing is that I'm always going on about.

Simply put,

Mind Game is the first great anime film of the 21st century.

Mind Game explodes the boundaries of "Japanimation".

Mind Game is a revolution unto itself.

More concretely,

Mind Game is the latest full-length feature film from independent Japanese animation studio Studio 4°C (official home page), a studio founded in 1986 by Eiko Tanaka, Koji Morimoto and Yoshiharu Sato that has gone on to produce several of the most significant anime films of the last decade, including Memories (1995) and Animatrix (2003).

Studio 4°C has distinguished itself among its peers for its willingness to push the boundaries of anime in new, unforseen directions, without being constrained by passing fads or profit margins. Their creations are consistently on the cutting edge of Japanese commercial animation, stylistically as well as technically; they were among the first studios in Japan to create films successfully integrating 3DCG with conventional animation. They are the dogged independent of the anime industry.

A large proportion of their output has been dedicated to quasi-experimental short films, the preferred medium of the studio's star director, Koji Morimoto, who has been responsible for most of these wonderfully esoteric, extremely refreshing, beguilingly odd gems, many of them music videos, like Ken Ishii's Extra (1995) and the Bluetones' Four Day Weekend (1998).

One of the exceptions was Morimoto's 1997 15-minute featurette Sound Insect Noiseman. Building on a history of fruitful collaboration, Morimoto made the bold decision of inviting rising star Masaaki Yuasa to design and animate a large portion of the film. The collaboration was extremely successful, and the film remains one of Studio 4°C's strongest.

The choice was not without reason. Yuasa had proven himself to be a creator to watch right from the beginning of his career as a key animator in the 1992 film Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song, for which he provided two remarkable short musical pieces that are still every bit as thrilling and exceptional as when they were first created. For the next ten years his energies were primarily expended on the popular and prolific Crayon Shin-chan series, which unfortunately had the adverse effect of hiding his talent from the view of many, particularly in the west, to whom these films and TV episodes were (and remain) unavailable or simply of no interest.

This is unfortunate because his work on this series is one of the great individual achievements of the 1990s in anime, and deserves greater recognition. The films are probably the high point of traditional, family-oriented anime filmmaking of that decade, and Yuasa played a major role in making them the instant classics they are. In a role analagous to that played by Hayao Miyazaki in Toei's 1971 film Animal Treasure Island (where Miyazaki was credited as "Idea Man"), as the "Set Designer" Yuasa furnished each film with a vast array of crazy designs and freespirited ideas that contributed tremendously to their unique and compelling atmosphere. As well, he provided an animated sequence in almost every film. Entirely on their own merits, these brilliantly animated sequences are required viewing for anyone who considers him or herself a fan of just-plain-great animation.

When in 2001 Studio 4°C producer Eiko Tanaka was tossing around the idea of turning Robin Nishi's 3-volume comic Mind Game into a film, it was this record, combined with the success of their previous collaboration and Yuasa's unprecedentedly rough and free approach to animation, that brought Yuasa to mind as the only person in the world who could possibly find a way of translating the mad imagery and story of this cult comic into equally mad and compelling animation.

Yuasa himself had already read the comic at the urging of Koji Morimoto during the production of Noiseman, and he gladly accepted the offer. In the intervening years Yuasa had begun to test his wings as a director, having just finished his artistic 'coming-out' statement Cat Soup, and, encouraged by the enthusiastic reception his work had received from colleagues and audiences alike into thinking he wasn't entirely worthless, he leaped at the offer as an opportunity to put into concrete form many of the deep-down urges that had been begging for release all these years.

Tanaka originally wanted to create a live-action film from the comic, but later decided to do it half-animation/half-live action, with Yuasa directing the animation parts. After starting on the project, Yuasa thankfully managed to convince Tanaka to let him exercise complete control over the project and decide how to integrate the live action bits, relegating the latter to a smaller role, kind of the reverse of music videos where you have live-action interspersed with short bits where the actors turn into animated characters.

Bringing into the fray as his animation director the immensely talented Yuichiro Sueyoshi, after two years of animation production Yuasa has produced nothing short of a miracle: an unprecedentedly powerful and revolutionary film fashioned from an explosive mixture of live-action, 3DCG and traditional animation that I guarantee is unlike anything anyone has seen before in any film -- live-action or animated.

The film is literally a revolution for anime: It breaks down previous technical boundaries, artistic boundaries and entertainment boundaries, telling an extraordinary story by means of visuals of unthinkably raw power.

And to all of you worried that there's no possible way anyone could sit through a whole film as crazy as the trailer, or conversely, worried that you've seen all the good bits in the trailer, rest assured: Yuasa has reportedly done the impossible, creating a breathless, hyperkinetic film in which not only is every moment just as eye-popping and heart-thumping as the trailer (it's not a "hypertension" movie for nothing!), but the film also stands soundly on its own two feet as a profoundly stirring drama with a message of universal appeal, boasting a story that is the essence of simplicity and clarity and a host of interesting and well-fleshed-out characters.

Not only this, but Yuasa proved decisively that he has the instincts of a director by making the unusual decision to cast comedian Koji Imada and other young non-voice-actor tarento from the Osaka-based Yoshimoto Kogyo, the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the Kansai region, sensing that the very particular brand of humor native to this region was just what was needed for the characters in the film.

And the simple fact that Seiichi Yamamoto, an ex-member of the Boredoms, provides the film's score speaks volumes in and of itself about the nature of the film. I think I've been waiting all my life for a film that would by its very nature require music from an ex-member of the Boredoms!

Yes, folks. Look forward to it. No matter how high your expectations, I can guarantee that they will be left coughing and hacking in the dust as this film soars into the history books.

MIND GAME

Written and directed by Masaaki Yuasa
Based on the manga by Robin Nishi
Animation Director Yuichiro Sueyoshi
Original Score by Seiichi Yamamoto
Voice acting by Koji Imada, Takashi Fujii, Yamaguchi Tomomitsu

Total Runtime: 104 minutes

Opens in Japan on August 7, 2004

- Official Site: www.mindgame.jp

- Trailer

- Robin Nishi's Mind Game Comic (reissued June 23)

- Mind Game Original Soundtrack CD (TB released July 16)

- Mind Game Remix DVD (released June 25)

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

08:14:18 pm , 17 words, 1072 views     Categories: Misc

The Joy of Walking

どうしようもないわたしが歩いてゐる

Me -
Helpless and good for nothing,
Walking.

- Taneda Santoka, tr. Hisashi Miura and James Green

1 commentPermalink

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

05:43:49 pm , 264 words, 1612 views     Categories: Misc

Strange Encounters

Life can be so interesting if we just go out and meet it. Today I met many interesting things. First I met a truck full of orange-suited convicts as I was driving by a scenic lake. They were carrying garbage bags and blocking the road. I was very scared. Next I climbed up to a peak and overlooked the land, like the emperor of Japan did way back when in the Kojiki. I named it Akitsushima! No, but seriously; there I met a helicopter. A very small one. Like just a bubble with some wire for a tail. It passed slowly over my head. It may have been concerned that I might need succour. I was moved. I later thought I should have made the one-arm 'OK' signal and regretted that. On my way down from the mountain I met a snake in my path. He was obviously displeased and left in a hurry. I had almost stepped on him. My fourth interesting meeting of the day was some curious deer. I was in a small park by a small lake observing the pitter patter of rain on the surface of the lake and decided I had seen enough and made my way to my car when I saw two deer in my path. Right there browsing next to the caravan of old people eating lunch! I made a wide arc to avoid scaring them. And they ran towards me! They stood there near me. We looked at each other for a while. I was moved again. I suspect they only wanted food, though.

Monday, July 12, 2004

03:17:33 pm , 1759 words, 4914 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

Winter Days

I thought I'd talk a bit about 冬の日 (Fuyu no Hi) AKA Winter Days today. I won't go into much detail. Other sites can do that better than me (notably the official site). I'll just skim over some impressions. My apologies, but I have a strange aversion to writing summaries, which seem ridiculous to repeat more than once, so I'll just point you to one.

Winter Days is a visually rich, accessible, innovative film, but not surprisingly it seems to have pretty much disappeared without a blip, except for a number of festival screenings and awards. Just looking at it in the broadest sense, as a concept, it works. The idea that you have this ancient Japanese poetry form that would seem to be uncannily well suited to the medium of animation, a medium in which one individual typically spends a great deal of effort creating a minute or so of visuals of haiku-like compactness and craftsmanship, seems like a good idea at first, but in fact it turns out to be a very good idea.

Regardless of the quality of the individual entries, it's a moving whole, like a microcosm of the animation world in all its variety, showcasing the amazingly diverse possibilities of the medium, and the diverse motives and backgrounds that each animator brings to the table. At the most basic level, it's a pleasure to be carried along on the rich assortment of visuals that ensue with each successive stanza. As Kihachiro Kawamoto (concept, director) undoubtedly anticipated, every animator brings his or her own wildly different interpretation of the material, with no two shorts looking or feeling the same, and the stylistic differences act to mirror the alternation of poets from one stanza to the next. This was obviously a project not conceived for profit and merchandising and franchising and all that, but for no reason other than to create something of beauty, something original, for love of the art of animation. I admire Kawamoto for coming up with this deceptively simple idea and carrying it through to completion, however he did it, with all the incredible logistical challenges getting 35 animators from around the world to contribute a minute of animation must have entailed.

Obviously the idea of an animated omnibus isn't new -- there's Fantasia, for one. But the difference is obvious in terms of the content, the motive, and the production style. In any case, the timing of the appearance of an independent, hand-crafted, artist-centered film like this in Japan -- at a time when the big blockbusters of the anime industry seem to have finally become firmly ensconsed in the world mainstream -- seems laden with meaning. I find particularly poignant the fact that Isao Takahata, evicted from the director's chair at Ghibli after the eminently anti-epic Yamada-kun, is among the bunch.

Takahata received the Excellence Prize for Yamada-kun at the 3rd annual Japan Media Arts Festival in 1999, in the acceptance interview for which he emphasized his skepticism and outright distrust of the escapist tactics of contemporary anime films like Spirited Away. Alexander Petrov, who also contributed a short to Winter Days, took the Grand Prix that year for The Old Man and the Sea. In the event, Winter Days took the grand prize in 2003, and Takahata was on the judging committee. He made a damning case for the poverty of Japanese animation in his procedural summary of the year's entries. There was no film even remotely comparable to Winter Days in terms of conceptual originality and innovation last year in Japan, so it was the right decision to support that originality. Anybody who thinks Tokyo Godfathers was artistically innovative and original... well, that's you, to quote a phrase. Well crafted entertainment, yes.

On a side note, Yoshiyuki Tomino heads the committee this year, so it's intriguing to speculate how the awards will pan out. Somehow I just can't picture Tomino giving Winter Days the grand prix. Maybe I'm wrong, but he strikes me as a definite entertainment partisan. (I confess that I've always derived a sort of perverse pleasure from the bewildering, opaque comments he never fails to make whenever he talks about animation.) If there's any justice, Mind Game will win the grand prix, along with many other prizes.

As for the individual pieces, there are certainly some that stand above the rest, and some that I didn't care for, but I think they all fit perfectly within the whole. In other words, it's a healthy anarchy.

Without any hesitation the best piece comes from Norstein, the 'honored guest' in charge of the hokku, the first stanza of the poem, written by the invited guest of the original Winter Days poetry collection, Basho. Jaw-dropping is a good term to describe the amount of life Norstein is able to breathe into the landscape and the characters on the screen. It's really in another league from pretty much all of the rest of the pieces.

It was surprising to find out, in the interview section that follows the animation, that Norstein is the one who actually inspired the idea for the film many years ago when he made a passing comment to Kawamoto about how interesting it would be to animate Basho's poems, having long loved them and read them for inspiration.

Sadly, Kawamoto's own piece, which follows (he also did the final piece), is a pale shadow of his efforts of years past such as 火宅 (Kataku, The House of Flames). The animation is wooden and the dolls are sloppy-looking. But he's such a good guy that we'll forgive him. Similarly, the contribution of one of the various notable foreign guests, Bretislav Pojar, creator of the classic, hilarious Czech puppet series Pojdte pane, budeme si hrat, struck me as somewhat... lacking from a man who was an erstwhile master of his art. He comes across as a kind, weary, wizened old man in his interview. All of which meshes touchingly with the theme of his piece: life is transient, and old age catches up with all.

I know about Yoji Kuri being important as one of the members of the アニメーション三人の会 (Animation Sannin no kai, Animation Gang of Three), the seminal independent animator association formed in the 60s, but frankly his piece struck me as just plain silly - though I guess that was the point. He was rather pathetic in the interview, too, sitting there next to his "Dutch wife", looking kind of lost. Along with the Uruma Delvi piece, it gets an enthusiastic "pass" from me. I was decidedly unimpressed by the way Uruma/Derubi pouted childishly in the interview section about having been given a "hard part" just because they had to animate water.

Seiichi Hayashi struck me as just the sort of affable fellow I'd imagined judging by the nature of his creative output in various media (manga, illustration, animation, etc) over the last thirty years. His piece was one of my favorites, very stylish and restrained, with excellent use of color, visually one of the most original and appealing of all the pieces. I've been reading his The Guppy Still Lives, a poetic history of Japan since the 60s, which, for lack of adequate words, strikes me as just one of the most original manga I've ever read, with its heady mixture of pornography, high art and pop iconography.

Isao Takahata's piece was animated by none other than Osamu Tanabe, and as a whole it's one of the best in the film, with the various meanings of his stanza picked apart with the exacting care to be expected from the razor-sharp mind of Takahata, and reassembled into a seamless 60 seconds wherein the various cleverly juxtaposed incongruous elements culminate in the film's funniest punchline. One of the film's most satisfying interpretations.

Particularly gratifying for animation fans like myself was the invitation of master animator Yoichi Kotabe and his wife Reiko Okuyama to the film, both of whom were former colleagues of Takahata at Toei Doga in the 1960s, and at A Pro and then Nippon Animation in the 1970s. Kotabe is one of the truly great animators of the last 40 years, having made a number of historically significant contributions to anime, including a number of classic animated sequences in the Toei Films, and epoch-making work as the animation director/character designer of Takahata's mid-1970s TV series Heidi and Marco. But we all know that, don't we. The film itself is quite unusual for the pair, as they are not art animators like the rest of the folks in the film, and consequently their piece is a bit sedate, but nonetheless atmospheric and visually rich, and an unexpected treat. Kotabe's explanation of the animation process was great; precise and instructive about every step.

One of the greatest discoveries for me was Alexander Petrov. Yes, I know I'm only a few years behind the rest of the world. For some reason I had avoided seeing The Old Man and the Sea and his other things. Don't ask why! I really don't know. Now I can't wait to see them. He's quite obviously up there near Norstein in terms of artistic talent and vision. His technique is amazing. To think he can get such life out of paint smeared on a glass plate with his fingers...

The other big discovery for me was Keita Kurosaka, who provides the most dynamic piece in the film. Kurosaka has had numerous high-profile commissions in recent years, including Flying Daddy for Japan MTV, and seems to have found the ideal formula to survive as an independent animator. A bunch of his films are even available on VHS. I hope these are released on DVD soon so that the rest of the world can see how good he is.

I'd actually heard of Kurosaka before, as well as Koji Yamamura, because they're the two biggest independent animators of the current generation (discussed in this informative Animation World article), but only heard, and not seen, and I was equally impressed by Yamamura's piece. Of all the independent animators I've seen in Japan, he strikes me as the best craftsman. Reportedly he spent more than 7 years animating Mt. Head -- and drew every cel himself. (Read more about him on this page.)

I'm afraid I don't have enough steam left to talk about the others. I'll just mention that there's also a 9-DVD edition of the film that contains 8 DVDs worth (!) of footage documenting in minute detail the creation of each piece in the film, but it's apparently rather amateurishly shot and edited, so disappointingly slipshod as a making-of.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

01:34:57 pm , 932 words, 2315 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Foreign anime?

I was just rewatching some rips I made a few years back from a long out-of-print LD release of pre-war abstract animator Oskar Fischinger's works that I managed to find in a university library somewhere or other, and I was again struck by how damned incredible they were, and how for the life of me I've never seen anything yet that comes near to topping them - save perhaps for Norman McLaren's work. Why aren't these on DVD yet? In Japan they released a wonderful 3-DVD set of Norman McLaren's work, the first of its kind anywhere (for shame, Canada!), and they've been putting out lots of interesting DVD releases of animation masters from around the world, including a beyond-your-wildest-dreams 8-DVD set of Karel Zeman's works that I'm still hoping to get soon, and over here we've seen any number of obscure items turn up on DVD, such as Ladislaw Starewicz's insect/puppet films, but Fischinger has yet to turn up on the DVD radar on either side of the Pacific.

First of all, I find this quite lamentable. I understand that the size of an audience for a pre-war German mystic synaesthete abstract animator must have its limits, but just the same, people don't know what they're missing. In terms of sheer volume of ideas per second, they're up there near the top in the history of the medium.

That said, since they're not available anywhere right now, I don't feel too bad about putting up one of his films for people to download, his Study No. 7 of 1931, probably the most famous of his Studies series.

Forget characters, forget story, forget colors, forget anything that would distract from the fundamentals that form the basis of animation, movement + shape, and this is what you get: pure, unadulterated visual music. Think animated Kandinsky. And every frame here was drawn by one man. Don't give me any crap about a computer program being able to generate something comparable. Maybe we could create a computer program that could reproduce a Bach fugue convincingly (though I have my doubts about this). Does that take away from his genius?

Back in the LD era the biggest name in art animation releases was Pioneer, with their Animation Animation series that put out, well, pioneering two-LD sets of Tadanari Okamoto, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Yuri Norstein and so on. Now that we're in the DVD era they've changed their name to Geneon and wasted no time in moving ahead with DVD releases of all the old names as well as many new (though still no Tadanari as of yet) in the appropriately rechristened New Animation Animation series: Kihachiro Kawamoto, Yuri Norstein, Ishu Patel, Co Hoedeman, Raoul Servais, Shanghai Animation, Alexander Petrov, Yoji Kuri, Koji Yamamura, Jiri Trnka, Tezuka Osamu, Russian shorts, plus the aforementioned McLaren and Zeman sets.

I'll go out of my way to mention that the 5-DVD Trnka set is particularly welcome because it sees the first DVD release anywhere of Trnka's magnum opus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which in my opinion is the greatest puppet film ever made.

There's also been a spate of Slavic fuzzies of late, with classic children's puppet series like the popular Chebrushka and Bretislav Pojar's brilliant Pojdte pane, budeme si hrat turning up on DVD. To capitalize on the fad, someone even put out a ridiculously skimpy DVD+plush doll set for Mitten, a short done by the Chebrushka team.

Svankmajer is well represented, with almost all of his full-length features out on DVD as well as his shorts. And a number of those weird 80s French sci-fi features are even out on DVD. You know... Planete Sauvage, Les Maitres Du Temps, Gandahar. I must say, I don't know about you, but I found Gandahar to be supremely crappy. Planete Sauvage is still watchable in a quaint sort of way, I guess. Haven't seen the other one.

Not a Japanese release, and not even animation in the conventional sense, but a few years back a selection of the film works of Charles & Ray Eames was released on 5 DVDs. The Powers of Ten, clocking in at a mere 8 minutes, is quite simply one of the most amazing films I've ever seen. It is required viewing for anyone who considers himself an aficionado of cinema or animation. The film is a miracle of perfection. I was so mezmerized and amazed on the first watching that I don't remember how many times I rewatched it immediately afterwards, in addition to ripping it from the LD I'd rented so as to be able to watch it yet more innumerable times. (The DVD wasn't out then.) For the record, I'm a partisan of the early version. I personally think the collective body of the Eames' work is among the greatest left by any American visual artist in the last century. And I don't even know that much about what else they did. (Apparently they were no less important as architects and furniture designers.)

I just noticed Criterion released a DVD of Stan Brakhage's works. Very curious about that.

And, oh yeah, whatever happened to Norstein's Overcoat? It's been like, what, 20 years since he started?? I know he's still alive and kicking, since he made a great new short for Winter Days and had enough free time to do some voice-acting on Jubei-chan, of all things.

And what about Paul Glabicki? I've seen a few of his incredible abstract works, and they clearly deserve much more recognition than they seem to get. It's practically impossible to find them.

Anyway, I think that'll be enough horrendous digression for now.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

12:22:40 pm , 15 words, 1047 views     Categories: Misc

Definition of Fool

Someone who writes a really great haiku, only to realize later that it's not 7-5-7 but 5-7-5.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

11:01:31 am , 218 words, 1035 views     Categories: Animation

Cremaster 1+2 + Tweeny Witches 14

Saw Cremaster 1+2, but I don't think I'm going to bother to see the rest. I'm a big fan of deliberately "artsy" films -- L'Ange is one of my favorite films -- but this one just didn't do it for me, for some reason. 1 was downright tedious, possibly because I'd read a brief synopsis beforehand, and there really was nothing more to the entire 30 minutes than just that brief synopsis. 2 was better, and was interesting, but it just left me cold. I just don't find myself convinced. In the dialogue sections the directing borders on embarrassing in a way that obviously wasn't intentional. What are you thinking, Norman Mailer?

Tweeny Witches 14 - Yasuhiro Aoki strikes again! Another one-man-orchestra episode, the first in a while. (In other words, he handled the storyboard, directing, and animation directing.) Excellent episode not only in technical terms -- directing, animation -- but also in terms of the story, which is engaging, challenging and dramatically convincing -- and relevant. World Masterpiece Theater as a place for kids to learn about morality? Fuhgeddit. Tweeny Witches offers much better lessons for impressionable minds in this age of pre-emptive wars for oil.

But then, I have yet to be let down by this show. Obara's writing is great. (I think he's the main reason Samurai Champloo is watchable.)

Thursday, July 8, 2004

08:10:39 pm , 610 words, 5984 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game tidbits + A History of Japanese Animation

Mind Game Official SiteJust thought I'd mention a small bit of Mind Game news: People who can read Japanese can now subscribe to a mailing list from the official home page (go to the news section). And for the same folks, Studio 4C has put up a Mind Game discussion board, cleverly titled "Mind Game" -- "Game" in this case meaning turtle; hence the mascot. Reportedly Yuasa himself will probably drop in from time to time.

What is quite probably the single most ambitious and historic anime screening to be held anywhere ever kicked off two days ago on Tuesday: 日本アニメーション映画史 (Nihon Animeshon Eigashi), A History of Japanese Animation. Hosted by the National Film Center of the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and consisting of 37 separate programs to be shown between July 6 and August 29 (each ranging from 60 to 120 minutes, with repeats), the mammoth project will bring to the screen -- probably for the first time since most of these films were premiered -- more than 230 individual films, including shorts and full-length features, traversing the entire span of the Showa period -- from the 1924 short 蟹満寺縁起 (Kanimanji Engi) to 1991's 注文の多い料理店 (Chumon no Oi Ryoriten / The Restaurant of Many Orders).

The latter was a film completed by Kihachiro Kawamoto based on sketches by the late Tadanari Okamoto, one of Japan's greatest and most beloved independent animators of the last thirty years, whose entire oeuvre is being shown over the span of an incredible six programs. No less astounding is the fact that no less than four programs are being devoted entirely to the oeuvre of the namesake of Japan's most prestigious animation award, the Ofuji-Sho: Noburo Ofuji. Indeed, two programs will be devoted to early master Sanae Yamamoto, two to Ryuichi Yokoyama, the pioneering comic artist and creator of Fuku-chan, and two to Mitsuo Seyo, the creator of the Japan's famed first full-length animated feature, the wartime Momotaro propaganda epic 海の神兵 (Umi no Shinpei / The Sea God Soldier). The bounties extend into the post-war period; fans of early Toei Doga will be happy to discover that most of the films of Toei Doga precursor Nichido Eigasha are being shown, followed by those early Toei Doga films themselves - a rare opportunity to see these lush full-color animated extravaganzas on the big screen as they were intended. Adding to the embarrassment of riches is the chaste admission cost: ¥500 (even less for students) -- pocket change indeed in a country where movie tickets regularly run upwards of ¥2000. That's what I call putting tax money to good use.

Now if only I was in Japan!! >:(

First Mind Game, now this. This is definitely the summer to be in Japan.

Perceptive readers will note that this screening series does not quite harken back all the way to anime's auspicious birth in 1917. This is because these early films have been lost.

This series actually falls in line with a number of recent developments. One of the widely talked-about releases of 2000 was an 8-DVD set containing all anime that had won the Ofuji-Sho, an amazing and unheard of release that garnered both shouts of glee and ravenous stares from thrilled anime fans -- only to promptly sucker-punch them with the sticker price of ¥240,000 ($2200). Funny, huh? Well it gets funnier. This year they outdid themselves in both arenas. Not only is the newest DVD set, 日本アートアニメーション映画選集 (Nihon Art Animation Eiga Senshu / Japan Art Animation Movie Collection), bigger, with 12 DVDs, each on a particular theme, each chock-full with long-unavailable rarities from the vault of the the Tokyo MOMA, but the price is generously expanded to boot: ¥360,000! ($3300) They're cheap! Buy two! (after mortgaging your house)

Now you see why this series is so welcome.

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

08:33:14 pm , 482 words, 801 views     Categories: Animation

Peter Pan #12

I've now seen the first third of Peter Pan, and easily the high point so far is episode 12, Scary Stories, featuring animation director Hiroyuki Okiura. This is the first episode where things really come together in just the way you'd expect from an anime TV series presided over by Takashi Nakamura.

Around 1989 Nippon Animation was looking to shake up the image of the World Masterpiece Theater. Ratings were down. Times were changing. They wanted to start doing more well-known stories. Their answer? Peter Pan. It was a radical change; by far the most famous story they'd done up until then. And how to design a radically different story? How else -- with a radically different design. Enter Takashi Nakamura.

Nakamura had just completed a thoroughly punishing stint as the animation director of Akira, a film in which he was deeply involved without being able to have as much creative input as he probably wanted. Nakamura had already created extremely original and idiosyncratic pieces like Chicken Man and Red Head and The Order to Stop Construction prior to his involvement in Akira, which comes across as a very dark period indeed when he talks about it in retrospect. Peter Pan gave him back the creative freedom he'd so missed. Episode 12, featuring probably the largest concentration of single-episode designs in the series, is an all-out parade of the silly-yet-creepy monsters at which Nakamura excels, a veritable closet full of zany skeletons of the sort that will look very familiar to anyone who has seen Chicken Man and Red Head.

Combine Nakamura's emblematic designs with the fluid and detailed animation stylings of Hiroyuki Okiura, the genius animator responsible for the striking animation of the mob scene in Akira, and things really take off. Indeed, the characters in this episode feel incredibly Akira-ish -- their poses, the way their hands are drawn. At times I almost thought that was Kaneda up on the screen talking rather than Peter Pan. Then there's this cut, obviously lifted directly from a scene in Akira:

It just feels really right as an episode, the symbiosis is there. It's like a few jazz musician buddies got together for a jam session. Okiura's attention to detail and innate sense for thrilling movement shines through in the black-backdrop story sequence: Witness the detailed animation of the skeleton exploding into a billion little bits, and the sprightly animation of Peter Pan flying by Toshiyuki Tsuru, a skilled action animator who later went on to create a lot of good physical movement in fighting anime like Ninku and Naruto.

It's true that we're dealing with a pull here that has very little to do with the pull of a Marco or a Heidi -- it's a one-dimensional pull rather than a 3-dimensional one. Putting that aside, there's much that can and should be appreciated here, if you just take the time to look for it.

Monday, July 5, 2004

11:58:32 pm , 79 words, 827 views     Categories: Misc

A Night at the Cinematheque

Added a counter today and messed with the logo and menus.

Saw the 2002 Turkish film Distant (IMDB) - overheard someone calling it "Tarkovskian" as I dashed for the bathroom after the film. Oooh, smart. Because Tarkovsky films were playing in it? Great slooow cinematography. Every shot worked in the film - except for the last shot. It was a bit too long. Too bad. Dreary film. But nice.

Looking forward to seeing the Cremaster cycle in a few days.

Sunday, July 4, 2004

07:37:34 pm , 373 words, 979 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Masaaki Yuasa Event Report

Mind Game Official SiteI found the page in English with details about the talk Masaaki Yuasa is going to be giving at the 2004 Tokyo Digital Art Festival.

The Masaaki Yuasa ibento held by Anime Style in Shinjuku's Loft Plus One went well -- sold out, in fact! Hongo Mitsuru, the director of the early Crayon Shin-chan films, who never makes public appearances, stated that he made an exception in this case to help publicize Mind Game, which he praised ardently and in no uncertain terms, intriguingly positing it as a healthy antidote to the prevailing trend in anime films, where "everything is incredibly detailed, but SO DAMN BORING!" MG's merits were extolled in equally enthusiastic terms by the other panel guests: maverick animator Hiroyuki Imaishi, who was there as an audience member but made an impromptu appearance on stage to put in his own three cents of praise, and mod director Tatsuo Sato, who lamented his own lack of vision for not having caught on to Yuasa's potential as early on as others like Osamu Kobayashi & Tsutomu Shibayama (A Pro directors), Reiko Okuyama (famous Toei-era animator) and Shichiro Kobayashi (Madhouse art director).

A few of Yuasa's bits in the Crayon Shin-chan TV series and films were shown, followed by an overly generous sampling of excerpts from Mind Game.

The centerpiece of the night was the seldom seen スライム冒険記 (Slime Adventures), a short film directed by Yuasa in 1999, but doomed to obscurity from the moment of its inception, because it was intended purely for use at a one-time publicity event. Along with the similarly doomed Vampiyan Kids Pilot, these two peanut-sized movies constitute the entirety of Masaaki's oeuvre as director prior to Mind Game, which therefore rightfully qualifies as his feature directing debut.

The evening wrapped up with Yuasa fast-forwarding through かぼちゃ屋 (Kabocha-ya), episode 3 of the ultra-rare OVA series アニメ落語館 (Anime Rakugokan), whilst providing a voice-over summary of the story, much to the amusement of the audience.

I have these two pages to thank for this info: one two.

I also just learned, from the interview recently posted on the official home page, that the total production time for Mind Game was two years and seven months, two of which were devoted to animation.

Japanese word of the day: キモオタ

Saturday, July 3, 2004

05:03:37 pm , 150 words, 860 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game news

Mind Game Official SiteLots of good news on the Mind Game front. The official Mind Game site has put up a "Special Contents" page where there is already an interview with Masaaki Yuasa and a great review by one "Milkman" Ito. A few other items are in the works. Seems, looking a the news page, that there are tons of magazines mentioning Mind Game already: Sabra (June 24), Cut (July), Studio Voice (July), Relax (July), Nikkei Characters (No 2), Title (July). Oh, and the official release date has been set: August 7. And the film is now going to be shown nationwide! Originally it was set to be shown only in Tokyo and Osaka.

I noticed Shinji Obara is writing both Samurai Champloo and Tweeny Witches right now. Quite a juggling act.

Today is one of those lazy days when the wind coming in from the window feels like a caress.

Japanese word of the day: 虚無

Thursday, July 1, 2004

08:46:17 pm , 1100 words, 13010 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Spotlight on Mamoru Hosoda

I thought I'd talk about 細田守/Mamoru Hosoda today. Nobody over here will have heard of him, because as of yet he has only directed two films, both Digimon, both short, and both of which were -- mangled doesn't quite do justice to what was done to them -- eviscerated for US audiences. You thought Robotech was bad? The Digimon movie seen here consists of random sequences from 5 different movies. Nobody over here got a chance to see how good a director this guy really is. In Japan he became famous overnight because of those two movies. They're what got him invited to direct Howl's Moving Castle.

So what's all the fuss? You'll just have to watch the films to see for yourself.

Just kidding. It's best to go back to Hosoda's first piece of Digimon, episode 21 of the TV series. Having been at Toei for a few years, I guess he was invited to do an episode of Digimon, and, not being too keen on the series, he picked the one episode that doesn't take place in the usual Digimon universe, but rather is set in modern-day Tokyo. He then proceeded to go in his own very personal direction with the episode. Here we see not monsters or adventures, but just the way kids really live today in modern-day Tokyo, ugly tenements and all, captured lovingly with slow, poetic directing of almost Tarkovskian proportions, photorealistic backdrops, and a very restrained story.

Well, the first movie, Digimon Adventure, basically picks up where this left off. With exactly the same time allotment, Hosoda created a small masterpiece really quite unlike anything ever seen in the genre. The backgrounds are no longer merely photorealistic, they really are based on actual photos taken by Hosoda around Tokyo -- see this page for examples. (And yes, I've read in an interview with Hosoda that he himself did the location hunting for both films.) This is a big part of what makes the movie so incredibly fresh and convincing. It's realism, but not the quasi-neo-realism of a Takahata. It's closer to the poetic realism of Oshii, but without the dopping helpings of self-indulgence. It's really one of the best examples of sci-fi/fantasy I've ever seen, because it doesn't think of itself as such -- it doesn't bash you over the head with the stuff -- it merely tries to capture the way kids would react to this one-time, curious, magical event in their otherwise ordinary, real world. With very little plot, Hosoda manages to create a seamless 20 minutes where every image is perfectly composed, and every moment is made to count. To give the film the relentless forward drive he wanted, in a brilliant stroke he used Ravel's Bolero as the only piece of music. As hackneyed as the piece may be, in this case it really works, and doesn't feel gimmicky. It took guts and imagination to do something like that, and skill to pull it off.

The next film, entitled Children's War Game, goes in a slightly different direction. We're still in the real world -- Hosoda is only interested in the real world -- but we're back in a situation more recognizably Digimon, with the various protagonists and the monster plot and so on. With forty minutes this time, Hosoda creates a more epic story that manages to remain simultaneously believable and fantastic. The theme is again the interconnectedness of kids. In the first film we saw the kids at their perches in the tangle of tenements communicating with each other via cell phones, while here the internet provides the stage, suggesting a wider, global scale. The protagonists are dispersed all over the country, and kids from around the world take part in the events via the internet. Hosoda again keeps the focus on real kids living their lives in the real world, with the event this time being one that they approach more like an everyday problem to be solved, rather than an evil to be defeated. It's not a monster that appears out of nowhere destroying buildings. Just a bunch of kids getting together to try to figure out how to fix a computer bug. Hosoda again subverts the genre, recasting it into something more humane and believable.

I should also mention that the animation in both of the films is absolutely superb and worth seeking out on its own merits. I was shocked when I first saw War Game, the look was so bold and obviously Ohira-school.

1 AD 山下高明 Takaaki Yamashita
2 AD 山下高明/中山久司 Takaaki Yamashita/Hisashi Nakayama.

I've seen these two guys' names occasionally as animators in odd places since then, and always been impressed by their work. The big animator in both films is Hideki Hamasu, who I believe animated the cuts of Hikari crying/coughing near the end of 1, my favorite in the film. Ken'ichi Konishi is also there. He animated my favorite cut in 2, the wobbly walk of the kid getting up to take a leak.

Hosoda has also done a lot of other stuff, of course, but no full-length movies yet. He's been active since 1995. Up until the Digimon movies in 1999 & 2000 he mainly directed/storyboarded TV episodes. Since then he seems to have shifted his focus towards commercials and short films, for example Superflat Monogram, Atagoul and most recently an unusual OVA in a new genre called "ganime", an amalgam of the word for "drawing" and "anime" to convey the idea of an anime consisting entirely of stills. For some reason he uses the pen-name 橋本カツヨ/Katsuyo Hashimoto occasionally, usually when storyboarding or doing an op/ed, as in the case of Samurai Champloo recently, where he directed and storyboarded the op.

The Atagoul pilot can actually be viewed online, and it's a really nice, infectious little musical piece. I read the original manga by Hiroshi Masumura a long time ago, and I loved it (as well as Masamura's other stuff) for its loopy, beatnik atmosphere. This pilot manages to capture quite a bit of that feeling. It's done by Digital Frontier, the digimation company that more recently did Appleseed.

Other than that, the much-talked-about Superflat Monogram is probably his main accomplishment since the Digimon movies, but it's not available anywhere yet. He's certainly shown himself to have the talent and the artistic integrity to make a great full-length movie, so I hope he does so when the circumstances seem right, as obviously he didn't feel they were for Howl. Even if he never does, he's still a name to watch. Along with Masaaki Yuasa, he could be one of the big figures of the next generation.