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, 29

Thursday, July 29, 2004

08:58:55 pm , 1132 words, 1213 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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