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: September 2004

Thursday, September 30, 2004

05:40:42 pm , 443 words, 4502 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Imagination Practice

Nobuhiro Aihara; Ten Nights' Dreams (Tanaami); Memory of Red (Aihara)Probably my favorite discovery from Imagination Practice was Nobuhiro Aihara, who was represented by the solo short Memory of Red and an animation battle with Keiichi Tanaami, 10 Nights' Dreams. Kentaro Onitsuka's Blooming Ink Tale was the surprise of the selection for me - imaginative concept executed with sophistication and flair. It was the only film there that went outside of the boundaries of animation-as-drawings. I felt distant echoes of Norman McLaren's stop motion films. I like that no CG was used here; they used good old-fashioned paint. Kentaro Onitsuka was present and said a few words before the screening, as was current Kyoto U animation student Suwami Nogami, whose amusing loop film opened the screening.

Aihara's film struck me the most because watching it I was reminded why I fell in love with animation in the first place: the joy of seeing fantastic movement. Aihara and Tanaami have extremely different styles. Aihara creates abstract shapes moving through intricate metamorphoses (I was reminded simultaneously of Oskar Fischinger and Gisaburo Sugii), while Tanaami comes up with a succession of bewildering oneiric images. Both are extremely appealing, and I look forward to seeing the rest of their animation battles after seeing this one, which got the most enthusiastic applause of the whole show, and for good reason. It was not only exquisitely imaginative and consistently interesting but also fun. Adding to the pleasure was a brilliant soundtrack that was every bit the equal of the mad images created by these veteran animators. It didn't take me long to be able to pick out when Tanaami was animating and when Aihara was animating. That even added to the fun of watching the film: grasping when one was taking his turn at the canvas, responding to the rival's salvo. Aihara's constant-motion-in-stasis filigrees, seen undiluted in his solo film Memory of Red, made for a compelling contrast with Tanaami's menagerie of mad dream figures.

The head organizer of the animation selection at the VIFF stated before the Lee Sung-Gang shorts screening that he had wanted to program anime originally, but had been given the red light by the distributors. Frankly I'm glad it turned out this way. It would have been ludicrous to screen some big anime blockbuster at an international film festival like this, thus shutting off independents like those featured here, when the film was going to be released soon nationwide anyway. As for audiences, the theater was nearly full for both the Lee Sung-Gang shorts and Imagination Practice (though moreso for the latter). There were a few loudmouthed louts of the sort that make me avoid cons, but otherwise the audience seemed fairly diverse and appreciative.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

11:14:27 am , 425 words, 809 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game encore

Mind Game Official SiteGisaburo Sugii was news enough, but now this! The first day of the encore screening of Mind Game at Kichijoji's Baus Theatre on October 2 will again be preceded by a talk between Masaaki Yuasa and an invited guest. Yuasa's incredible generosity and devotion to fans in presenting a pre-screening talk every week is already special enough in itself, but this time he'll be speaking with an extra-special invited guest: Mamoru Hosoda! Taking time out of his busy schedule to make an appearance will be one of the most highly sought-after directors on the anime scene today, whose two brilliantly directed Digimon films earned him not only instant respect among his peers in the industry, but also a huge fan following across the entire audience spectrum, including world-famous post-modern artist Takashi Murakami, who invited him to direct his much-talked about recent short Superflat Monogram; to say nothing of Studio Ghibli, who invited him to direct Howl's Moving Castle. Few creators active today in anime are looked to with more anticipation than the two that will be speaking on this occasion.

Although the chances look slim at the moment, I am hoping the complete video transcripts of the various pre-screening talks that took place over the length of the run will be included as a bonus on the DVD. Various other bonus ideas that are currently beating out this idea in the polls include "Mind Game remixes" by famous artists (like the one by Koji Morimoto on the Mind Game Remixed DVD), a complete reproduction of the storyboard (which I think they should release separately as a book), Mind Game drawings by famous illustrators, an audio commentary (which I think they should include regardless), 3D music clips to be viewed with included Kami-San 3D glasses (funky idea), staff interviews, and image boards. And of course, English subs, which suddenly tops the list. If they heed all these suggestions, this DVD should be quite something. It's great to see a studio that listens to fans' voices like this!

I was looking over the "Guest Comment" section on the official Mind Game site, and realized that Keiichi Tanaami had contributed a comment. I'll be seeing one of his films at the VIFF today, so I thought that was timely. "A world away from the mannerisms of most anime. Line, space, texture - everything has a wonderfully new, collage sensibility." Here's Hosoda's comment: "The film's boundless energy is literally overwhelming. Every inch is crammed with Yuasa's brilliantly creative ideas, and yet the film remains essentially and absolutely simple and positive."

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

07:35:59 pm , 582 words, 1389 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Lee Sung-Gang retrospective

Onuri (2003)

I haven't seen much of recent Asian independent animation, but Lee Sung-Gang's shorts, which I saw today at the VIFF, are easily the most engaging and convincing I've seen anywhere in a while. Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay for the screening of My Beautiful Girl Mari later today, at which Lee was going to be present for a post-screening Q&A session. It would have been nice to be there for that. Before the shorts he said a quick hello (and I mean quick - one sentence), but it was a nice surprise to see him there, as I wasn't aware he'd be in attendance. It seems like an event when a person who was a lone independent animator until just a few years ago is now making overseas appearances at retrospectives of his work.

When I saw Mari I sensed the hand of a master at work, and knew there had to be a previous history there for someone to be able to make a film with as sure a touch as that, and I was right. His early films have all the earmarks of a one-man operation, with a very low-budget approach, including music done by Lee himself. But that's the wonderful thing about animation: it's not the budget that counts. It's the creator. And the shorts of Lee Sung-Gang are among the best proofs of that maxim I've ever run across. Better produced shorts with more going on have left me bored.

Still and mood are the keywords here, but every moment is convincing, and every frame of animation feels just right, with not a frame more than needed to express the idea at hand and establish precisely the right rhythm to carry you along in the flow. Nostalgia, loneliness, war, separation are ideas evoked successfully in the beautiful but never self-indulgent images that play across the screen - charcoal gradients and diffuse light like the faded memories depicted. This is visual poetry with raw emotional power, but not the shameless and maudlin emotion that passes for emotion in other lesser artists. These are among the best 'personal' films I've seen in the medium of animation, in that they successfully speak of personal experience to audiences rather than just the creator.

There's one amusing stylistic hiccup along the way (done in a 80s video game style) suggesting Lee's true breadth, and then after a chronological gap due due to his discovery and work on Mari, we get the short that capped, and crowned, the selection, his recent film based on a Jeju island creation myth, Onuri - a magnificent gem that alone would have been worth the price of admission. You couldn't ask for a better screening: one that starts off fabulous and only gets better. Though stylistically nothing like Mari, Onuri (or O-nu-ri) is, like his feature debut, no longer a one-man show; it's a more conventional product of many hands, without the dark subject-matter of his early shorts. But Lee's touch is unmistakable, and the film has a unique rhythm and tone that is unrivaled, with fantastic backgrounds, inventive characters and great dynamic action and pacing. The fact that he should go in such a different direction immediately after that film is a good sign. Lee is obviously no one-hit-wonder, so I very much look forward to seeing more from him in the years to come. He's one of the most promising rising animation stars in the whole Asia region as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, September 27, 2004

09:24:49 pm , 461 words, 2441 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

McDull, Prince de la Bun

I enjoyed McDull, Prince de la Bun, but it felt like another serving of the same dish, which is starting to lose its appeal. This time around much of the humor flew over my head. Almost without exception, whenever the Cantonese-speakers in the hall were roaring with laughter, I was sitting there bemused. It's not so much the translation, as just that the film is so damn local. The jokes seems tailored to tickle the funny bone of just this handful of people. Not helping was the fact that the translation was just plain bad. I don't remember actually laughing a single time due to the translation, which never made the slightest attempt to translate the humor of a line, instead always sticking to its bare-bones literal meaning, more often that not in bad English. I could sense the contours of the joke from hearing the intonation of the voice, and from the few kanji that I could read, but frustratingly most of the time the humor remained just beyond my reach. What little I could catch seemed feeble. Most of all I was hoping to be served some scathing political satire, but that side of the film was disappointingly lightweight. Perhaps if I was more informed about local issues I would have gotten more out of it. Otherwise one is left to be satisfied with the story, and I actually found the story rather obscure and unconvincing this time around.

The story is simple enough; it's basically a prequel about McDull's absconded father. And it does have its moments. It's just that the first movie made sense on the first sitting, but the pacing this time was so fast, and full of confusing jumps and characters that didn't mean anything to me, that I really didn't understand what was going on a lot of the time. Even moreso than the first movie, the resemblance to Yamada-kun is striking here, because a lot of the time the film felt like a bunch of one-shot episodes stitched together, masquerading as a narrative. Localness is a good thing, don't get me wrong, and that's one of the big attractors of the movie to me; but another part of me wonders if a film is too local when nobody but the locals get it. I wouldn't have minded as much if the localness hadn't been so self-serving, consisting largely as it does of in-jokes and the same situation gag repeated time and again. I would have liked to have been able to find out more about the everyday life and the political issues affecting the lives of people in Hong Kong. Like an animated political cartoon. That element is there, but it's totally overwhelmed by now-familiar razzle dazzle from the director's bag of tricks.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

03:44:51 pm , 474 words, 1183 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Prelude to Reiko Okuyama

My new fave at Studio 4°C, Yasuhiro Aoki, is one of the directors of the first ten eps of Kimagure Robot. In fact, he did the most episodes: 3 in total. Namely episodes 2, 4, and 6. Masahiko Kubo did episode 3, and Nobutake Ito did episode 8. These are the two big animators from Mind Game. Should be interesting to see. The other faces are all familiar from Tweeny Witches.

I haven't read it yet, but the part I'm most looking forward to reading in the new book by Kano Tsuji I just got, Nihon no animeshon wo kizuita hitobito, is the section on Reiko Okuyama, who is the most important female animator of the early period of anime along with Kazuko Nakamura. Both got their start at Toei Doga, but Nakamura defected to Mushi Pro early on. Why I'm looking forward to it more than the sections on Otsuka or Kondo or Kotabe is simple: there's no information about her anywhere else, while there's tons of information available for Otsuka and Kondo and Kotabe. This is about the first book that's taken her up as the pivotal figure of the early Toei Doga period she really is. Perhaps stylistically her work isn't as easily identifiable or striking as the other more famous figures, like her husband Kotabe, but she has definitely always been one of the figures who contributed most to the films in various ways, with ideas or with acutal volume of animation; for example, she is listed second after Yasuji Mori in Horus, and provided animation throughout the film, even though she is never one of the animators usually talked about in discussions of the film.

I've always sensed something about her work that made it stand out for some reason, a real drive and energy, but I had no biographical details to go by, so I couldn't figure out what it was. I knew there had to be an interesting story behind her experience at Toei Doga. In fact it turns out that this image of her as a fighter was right on the mark. From a rudimentary perusal it becomes clear that she was a pioneer of the fight against sexism in the workplace in postwar Japan, in this case within the cultural mirror and microcosm that was Toei Doga, helping to eliminate sexist salary differences, showing that women could be just as creative as men, and taking on major roles hitherto tacitly reserved for men -- as in the case of The Little Mermaid, the film in which she became the first ever female animation director of an animated feature film in Japan - possibly in the world? (okay, skipping early pioneer Lotte Reininger) Once I digest the book I'll write in more detail about this, because it's a fascinating issue. Eventually I'd like to find out more about Kazuko Nakamura, too.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

03:24:18 pm , 332 words, 1971 views     Categories: Animation

Darger + Studio 4°C's latest

One of the films that opened the VIFF today was a fascinating documentary on the life of Henry Darger entitled In the Realms of the Unreal, after the now-famous recluse's magnum opus, supposedly the longest work of fiction in the world. I managed to make my way through all 2500 pages of The Story of the Stone, but 30,000 pages is asking a bit much. So banzai for the cinema! We now have a handy 80-minute condensation of the novel and man. I more or less knew the basics of his life story before seeing the film, but as a film it was a truly satisfying experience. Disturbing, yes, but dramatically presented, well-rounded and moving. Not just a documentary, but a fascinating narrative that makes interesting use of animation to bring Darger's pictures to life, weaving between his mad fantasy world and the all too dreary and depressing life from which it sprang.

On a different note, Studio 4°C yesterday announced that their next project will be a TV series entitled Kimagure Robot (Capricious Robot) consisting of adaptations of the short-short stories of famous sci-fi writer Shin'ichi Hoshi. Each episode will be two minutes long, and Seiichi Yamamoto will be providing the music. The first ten episodes will be made available for free on Yahoo! Japan, but the series will continue thereafter, and the studio hopes to be able to make at least 100 episodes - possibly even 200, depending on the response. After the first ten episodes, the rest of the episodes will be produced not only by 4°C but also by various artists from around the world, so that the series is in fact intended to eventually become a sort of showcase of a variety of animation techniques and styles, like a sci-fi version of Nihon Mukashibanashi. With most new anime projects increasingly stale and inbred, here is one that actually attempts to face the world and do something daring and original. It sounds extremely promising, so it's worth looking forward to.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

03:08:58 pm , 443 words, 2436 views     Categories: Animation

B sides

Anyone who doesn't believe a storyboard can have that great an effect on the final product need only look to episode 5 of Jacky the Bearcub. This series is quite a nice series. In Europe people have seen it on TV, but here it's unknown. It's like WMT lite, basically. This series is probably one of the two or three best early TV series by Nippon Animation beside the WMT. A large proportion of their series in this early period are hits, while most of their TV series from the 80s on are misses, to make a sloppy generalization.

Well, this series features character designs by Mori that are excellent and among the best he did for a TV series. This is not just because they're pretty to look at but also because they are well animated by the animators. And that's the other thing that's good about the series: the animation. Toshiyasu Okada I mentioned before, and the episodes he single-handedly animated turn out to be the ones that have long impressed me for the incredible degree of detail and accuracy achieved in the animation of the body movement of the animals, considering the limits of the medium. In fact, this is probably among the best animation of any of the early NA series, WMT included.

The first few episodes really get you into the feeling of the series. It's eminently watchable. But then we get episode five, and it's like we're plunged into Heidi or Marco. Suddenly we're in the realm of brilliant human drama after the rather simplistic but pleasant children's fare that came before. What caused the change? The storyboard by Isao Takahata. There's really no better example of the incredible difference that a storyboarder can make.

Seeing this really makes one want to catch all the other little odds and ends he did on the side of his major projects - and there are quite a few. There's an old 2-LD set of his Wolf Boy Ken episodes. I've seen one of his Gegege no Kitaro episodes. Also, I've always wondered why Hustle Punch hasn't been released on DVD. Is it no good? Maybe it's because it's in b&w. The staff involvement makes it an obvious candidate for release. Besides Mori's designs, and Takahata's op, all the major animators worked on it - Miyazaki, Otsuka, Kotabe. I've seen a few sequences from the series, and one of them was obviously animated by Miyazaki because it was very reminiscent of the scene in the stairwell of the Sovereign Gold Coins episode of Sherlock Hound. The all-animal Hustle Punch was an obvious early incarnation of/inspiration for Sherlock Hound.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

11:37:34 pm , 1294 words, 16331 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde, Movie

Midori

The Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival rolls around this year again between October 14 and 17 at the Shinjuku Milano-za. Besides the standard sci-fi and fantasy fare, they'll be showing three anime features.

Yoshiyuki Tomino is at it again. The festival will be showing part one of his Mobile Suit Z Gundam: A New Translation, a trilogy scheduled for theatrical release next year. Like the trilogy he made two decades ago from the original 1979 Gundam series, released in 1982 in theaters, this one will be a re-edited version of the followup TV series, Zeta Gundam, which aired three years after the trilogy in 1985 as a followup to the popular original. And the rest is history. I thought it was unimpressive enough for him to go on making one Gundam series after the next, but he's reached new heights of shameless self-recycling here.

Perhaps more interestingly, the festival will feature a screening of Kakurenbo, a 25-minute independent feature made by the three-man team at Yamato-Works, comprising Shuhei Morita (director), Daisuke Sajiki (designer) and Shiro Kuro (writer). The film's visual style brings to mind Studio 4°C, with 3D animation made to look and feel like 2D animation. The film had its first major screening at a festival in Stockholm last month.

But the real centerpiece of the festival for anime fans is the screening of what is surely one of the most bizarre and mystery-shrouded anime features of the last decade: Midori. The name will probably not be familiar, but the comic on which the film was based has been released here under the title Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. Yes, this film is an adaptation of a comic by the uncontested king of ero-guro, Maruo Suehiro. It's remarkable enough that a Maruo Suehiro anime exists in the first place, but no less remarkable are the circumstances surrounding the film's origin and presentation to the public.

Where to begin? First of all, Midori is a rather hard film to classify. It's anime, but it's not. Anime is known for being rather limited, but this film takes limited to a whole new level. It's closer to a kami shibai or paper play, a type of one-man entertainment that was popular in pre-WWII Japan. Maruo's original comic is in fact an adaptation of a kami shibai, so it's an appropriate analogy. And the remarkable thing is that this anime version really is a one-man entertainment: every drawing you see in the 52 minute film was drawn by one person, thereby making it true to the spirit of the original - a modern kami shibai. Attempting such a thing is pretty much pure insanity. It wound up taking this person five years to make the film. The madman in question is one Hiroshi Harada 原田浩.

Who is this guy, and what inspired him to do such a thing? Apparently he got a regular start in the anime industry in the 70s, but became fed up with the conservatism of the establishment, in which animators are trained to be unthinking cogs in a machine who churn out whatever the TV stations and sponsors tell them to, and decided to go independent to make the sort of films that he would never have been able to make working from inside the industry. His first film was 1979's City Nocturne, and his next two came out in 1985: Eternal Paradise and Lullaby to the Big Sleep. Lullaby turned out to be his big break, because underground filmmaker Ishii Sogo, who was on the judging panel at the Pia Film Festival where the film was screened, loved it and gave it his endorsement, which got Harada instant recognition and made it possible for him to get started on his next project: Midori.

He knocked on doors everywhere conceivable looking for sponsors, but no company was willing to back the overly daring project. So he did the only thing he could: he broke open his piggy bank and threw his life savings into the project. Having been decisively refused by the establishment for the last time, he finally did the obvious, and turned to the underground, which is where his audience had been all along. By gathering support from various sectors including avant-garde theater, his film became a sort of emblem of the 80s subculture scene. The music was contributed by J. A. Caesar, who had taken over as the leading figure of the underground theater after the death of guru Shuji Terayama. He started in 1987, worked from home, and drew everything himself. Only finishing was done elsewhere. Five years later, the incredible task was done, and Midori, the sad, strange story of a young girl sold to a travelling freak circus, was premièred in 1992.

But this is where things get interesting. Harada had already shown that he wasn't satisfied with going the normal route as a creator, and perhaps it was taking inspiration from the underground theater that he now went in a really new direction. Rather than doing regular advertising to attract the public to see the film, and holding an ordinary screening somewhere, Harada instead kept things hush hush and staged the screening as a fantastic show complete with tent, strange exhibits, music and theater -- just like the freak show in the story -- with the film as the centerpiece of the event. To accentuate the mood of the film, smoke machines filled the room with an eerie fog and fans blew cherry blossom petals through the air. At another screening, people who had reserved tickets were given maps providing directions to a secret location, where people were then individually separated and sent through a series of mazes and rooms in order to arrive at the screening room. The audience, no passive spectators, had to make considerable efforts to take part in the experience.

Rather than a mere night at the movies, then, going to see the film thus became a new kind of theatrical experience, bringing together various underground arts and artists under one three ring tent. Harada has in fact refused to allow the film to be screened without a number of these theatrical devices, nor to allow it to be released on video. So the film also comes across as a statement against the behind-closed-doors consumerism represented by the video. It is an event to be experienced in public among others on a special occasion only. For all anybody knows, the screening at the FFF, which will be a full-fledged kosher screening with attractions and all, could very well be the last. Every instance thus takes on an incredible immediacy because it is (for now) shut off from this on-demand media age. In the end, all these clever theatrical ploys have only succeeded in adding to the film's eerie mystique.

Of course, there's also the fact that the film contains graphic depictions of animals being killed, pubic hair, taboo sexual acts, and discriminatory language, which would probably be enough to prevent the film from being shown in almost any regular theater without considerable cuts even if Harada hadn't taken steps that happen to keep that from becoming an issue. The film also contains direct depiction of the emperor Hirohito, which, unless I'm mistaken, was illegal while he was still alive. The complete, original film was in fact confiscated and banned from being shown in theaters in Japan by Narita Customs (though full video prints still exist), but apparently this doesn't hold any force, since the film is still being shown, albeit presumably in censored form. Even if one never gets to see the film, as is quite likely, it's still a film that fires the imagination, and it almost beckons one to try to come up with it in one's own head, which is perhaps what was intended from the start.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

03:26:02 pm , 334 words, 2547 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Inosensu

It was worth sitting through the mind-numbingly pretentious train wreck that is Innocence just to see the last scene, which was as impressive as I was expecting it to be judging from the lineup. If there's one thing I like about Shinya Ohira, it's that he can be relied on to blow your mind every time. He's one of the few animators active today whose scenes consistently thrill and push the envelope of animation. Since coming back to animation a few years ago after having left the animation world out of disgust with the slap in the face that was Hakkenden episode 10, he seems to have found a new, almost messianic sense of purpose, like a voice in the wilderness shouting the unlimited potention of animation to a world gone deaf to that potential.

Ohira's work, always maniacal, now emanates a ferocious, almost terrifying energy. Every piece he does is more impressive than the last and reaches new heights of raw power and assuredness. He seems to have outgrown his phase of experimentation and searching, and finally returned to his original calling as an animator. After seeing the crescendo of his work in recent years, one begins to wonder: How far will Shinya Ohira go? He has already left behind the entire industry. He's one of the few creators who is sure to go on surprising us for some time to come. After experiencing the indescribable thrill of his work, who can ever be satisfied with boring, normal animation?

Satoru Utsunomiya and Takeshi Honda also do some damned incredible work in their sections, but unsurprisingly, Shinji Hashimoto, Ohira's friend and longtime collaborator, provides the the most identifiable and thrillingly individual performance after Ohira's. I really have to hand it to Hiroyuki Okiura. He pulled off the feat of getting great work out of these brilliant but highly idiosyncratic animators by casting them each in the spot where their respective stylistic quirks would be drawn out to the maximum and still work within the film.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

06:20:24 pm , 1015 words, 1455 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game news

It's gray and rainy so I spent the day listening to Bach organ music.

Watching those 1969 Moomin eps I realized I was right about The Golden Bird - the problem is the screenwriter. From the first time I saw Junji Tashiro's episode of Moomin, #5, it rubbed me the wrong way, and The Golden Bird rubbed me the same way. The drama is sloppy and the characterisation mean-spirited and unbelievable. I can see perfectly why Yoshiaki Yoshida, on the other hand, went on to become one of the three writers of Heidi. His episodes are dramatically balanced, believable and engaging.

Mind Game Official SiteIt's fun to read the reviews of Mind Game. The enthusiasm is infectious. Predictably, there's the odd scrooge who refuses to get it, but the majority bow down before its majesty, from the guy who saw it for the sixth time and wants to see it two more times, to the one who attained satori after seeing it, to a guy called Toshiyuki Inoue who says he hasn't laughed so much in years and wishes he could draw like that, and one Hiroyuki Imaishi, who says he almost broke out in tears within the first five minutes. Most telling was the fact that Imaishi, a hard-core anime otaku accustomed to hunting and pecking for good animated bits, confesses that he was so engrossed by the film from start to finish that "who did what" became irrelevant. A good analogy is with Miyazaki's films, in which Miyazaki's deft manipulation of exactly the right details in every aspect of the production succeeds in imparting the illusion that the whole film was drawn by Miyazaki. That's the mystery about the film: it's unclassifiable as either "popular"-style TV anime or "big-time" movie anime, with its implausible structure and artistic bent, yet Yuasa's careful adaptation of the original story and meticulous editing and layout succeed in not only making the whole thing work as a film, but also in infusing the film with his own personal taste and positive spirit and making what could easily have devolved into an self-indulgent art-house bore accessible to audiences of all stripes, which really is an achievement.

Although Mind Game has finished its run in most of the big metropolitan centers like Tokyo and Osaka, it's still showing in a few spots like Yamanashi and Niigata. And in addition to the Baus Theater, which will be holding late-night screenings as an adjunct to the "Anime Wonderland 2004" festival, yet another art-house theater has announced plans to program Mind Game in the near future: Shimotakaido Cinema in Setagaya, Tokyo. A month in the theaters is really not a long time for a première, so this sort of thing is great news for the many people over there who got wind of the movie too late to see it on the big screen, which is where it should be seen. Some even say it deserves to be shown on an Imax screen.

On the dub front, rumors of the involvement of several famous Hollywood actors seems to suggest that the producers of the dub have got big ambitions for the US distribution of the film.

The latest installation of the Madhouse Institute for Mind Game Studies features a cartoon by Hiroaki Sakurai, the popular director of spoof shows like Excel Saga and Di Gi Charat. I wasn't a fan before, but I kind of like him now.

As mentioned, the final screening of Mind Game at Shibuya's small Cine Quinto was one week ago, and it featured a surprise guest, Gisaburo Sugii. If there's any single film in the entire world that can hold a candle to the revolutionary spirit of Mind Game, it's Sugii's 1973 film Belladonna, which in its day also shook up the idea of what an animated film could be. Due to the hitherto poor turnout and the rainy weather on the final day, Gisaburo fully expected to be talking to a half-empty theater, but was surprised and deeply moved to be greeted by a standing-room-only turnout.

It has long been a mystery to fans of Gisaburo's early work what happened over the last thirty years to have caused him to drift so far from his roots. Although he has been prolific since then, he never again produced similarly challenging fare. Was it because it no longer interested him? Or because nobody would give him the chance? I long suspected the latter, and Gisaburo's appearance here would certainly have been enough to suggest the truth of that interpretation, had his words left no doubt at all. To paraphrase his words, the answer is: yes. This is the kind of film he'd like to be making. But the problem is, after years in the business, the business end tends to take over, and it gets harder and harder to find a producer willing to support this sort of project. That's why you wind up getting the sort of film we see a lot of today: very carefully made films that are at least guaranteed to return your investment. While they certainly have their appeal, Gisaburo himself was starting to get tired of the routine. And that's when he encountered Mind Game. It was a shock. It's easy to see why. He must have been reminded what he should have been doing all these years; long after he'd lost hope that it was possible to do it anymore.

Suffice it to say, Gisaburo couldn't restrain the words of praise throughout the talk, and he finally had to be forcibly removed from the stage so that the film could start. What will happen after the film? It'll be interesting to see. Will Gisaburo make a comeback? While I'm fantasizing, why doesn't Studio 4°C let him make a film? The Japanese première was not exactly a bang-up success at the box office, and without that success to back it up, will Yuasa be given another chance to make a film? That's the most important issue at stake. The expectation now is that the international première will play some part in determining if that will happen.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

02:20:39 pm , 675 words, 956 views     Categories: Animation

Fujin Monogatari

Shinji Arakawa 荒川眞嗣 and Shichiro Kobayashi 小林七郎 create visuals that are among the most original I've seen in a TV anime in years. Everything melds perfectly. Kobayashi is one of the super-veteran art directors who has done so much good work it's impossible to remember it all. And he continues to be prolific. Last I heard he was working on no less than three TV series. It's been a while since I was so struck by his work, at least since his work with Dezaki in the late 70s. I haven't followed his recent work, but here we get the rough-hewn quality that is what I think he excels at, and it perfectly suits the animation.

The two seem to have been conceptualized together, and it's a truly happy result on the screen. Arakawa's credits hints at just how original an approach they take: not only CD but also "visual concept". There's a shot where there are three or four layers of background swirling around on the screen, and it just sent shivers down my spine. Art and animation are working towards the same end, and it's like nothing else I've seen in anime. Needless to say, the animation is the most interesting thing for me. And the names are there to back it up: Koichi Arai, Yasunori Miyazawa, Hiroyuki Imaishi, Nobutoshi Ogura. The op alone features Ohira, Nishio, Honda, Arai, Miyazawa.

What surprises me is that I find myself with curiously mixed feelings about the obviously Ohira-inspired designs and overall concept. Lest there be any doubt, Ohira is in the op. His shots are easy to pick out: The whole screen explodes in movement. Why mixed? Well, I've always had the impression of Ohira as this volatile force playing with the conventional designs and animation to see just where it might lead him. Yet here we have a whole series based on his approach. I love it, and it's a dream come true for an Ohira fan like me, but it's just kind of strange to see his style transformed into a pattern, when in fact it's always seemed to be kind of a rebellion against pattern. I was half hoping he'd play against expectation and draw really clean characters.

But I enjoyed it very much. This is just what I've been wanting to see. Someone picking up Ohira's thread and taking it in an interesting new direction. Every shot is incredibly pleasing. For one, the deliberately "sketchy"-looking design is refreshing for being out of the norm, and makes it easier to move the characters. Rather than trying to get every little detail right, the animators can spend time actually animating. Interesting ideas abound in the representation of wind, both in the animation and in the art. The wind is graphically expressed with bold lines, a throwback to the era before Miyazaki when lines were widely-used expressive tools and not the bogeyman of so-called realism. Lines in animation? The very thought!

Kobayashi has always seemed like the antipode of the photorealisic art directors like Nizo Yamamoto, and it's a something of a stroke of genius to have matched him up with the new rough school of animation as represented by Ohira and now Ogura. His color sense in particular comes through wonderfully in things like those flags. The story is nothing revolutionary, and the directing is slightly more leisurely than I would like, but it's eminently watchable and a huge cut above par. While we're at it, the music leaves me less than ambivalent, but it can be said to work in the context.

I was rewatching the 1969 Moomin, and for some reason this time around I awoke to the brilliance of Hisashi Inoue. Rather than quality going up and down due to the director or AD (in this case every episode had the same director and AD team), the best episodes are the ones he wrote - 2, 3, 6, etc. His gag sense is on par with Goku. This series also happens to feature Shichiro Kobayashi as a background painter, probably one of his earliest jobs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

07:09:42 pm , 401 words, 1102 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Shinei Doga and Asia-Do

Earlier this year a series called Kaiketsu Zorori started. It's animated principally by Asia-Do, a studio perhaps best known for Chibi Maruko-chan. It's the studio where Masaaki Yuasa got his start as an animator. After a few years working there, Yuasa went freelance and spent the next 8 years working on Crayon Shin-chan for studio Shinei Doga, while also doing various projects on the side. These two studios can be considered the descendent of A Pro. Both Shinei Doga and Asia-Do were founded by ex-members of A Pro in the late 70s. The Shin-chan films in particular are among the few films of the last decade that really feel like they've carried on the legacy of the A Pro style. Shinei (which means "New A") does both planning and animation, and has focused on anime by Fujio Fujiko since it was founded (eg, Doraemon). Asia-Do, on the other hand, is purely an animation studio, and they don't get involved in the production side.

Though obviously Mind Game is a Studio 4°C film, Yuasa is probably the best representative of the A Pro school today, which, as unlikely as it may seem at first sight, could be said to put Mind Game on the same timeline as the A Pro classics like Dokonjo Gaeru. It's well known that he joined Asia-Do precisely because he was a fan of the old A Pro series like Dokonjo Gaeru, the animation directors of which, Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, were the people who founded Asia-Do. Perusal of the scenes he animated over the years will clearly show the influence of the animation of Yoshifumi Kondo and particularly Yoshiyuki Momose, with his more fluid style, from Dokonjo Gaeru. Yuasa says he studied their animation in this series actively over the years. Curious what other influences are behind Mind Game? Would you believe Tom & Jerry and Tex Avery? Two of Yuasa's favorite films are Blue Cat Blues, with its poignant comedy and film-like atmosphere, and Rock-a-bye Bear, with its brilliantly timed and hilarious gags. I'll just say that fans of the Piano Concerto episode of Tom & Jerry are in for a special treat in Mind Game. Yuasa truly brings together a range of influences unlike any other creator active in anime today, and that is certainly one of the factors that made it possible for him to create a movie as singular as Mind Game.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

09:10:57 pm , 103 words, 949 views     Categories: Animation

Tadanori Yokoo

Another figure from the Animation Festival I should probably mention is Tadanori Yokoo 横尾忠則, since he was one of the first to take part. But the fact is, the three shorts he contributed to the first and second festivals -- Kiss Kiss Kiss and Anthology No. 1 in 1964 and Kachi Kachi Yama 堅々獄夫婦庭訓 in 1965 -- are the only three he ever made. He is mainly known as a designer of psychedelic/collage-type posters, which have been shown in galleries everywhere including the Guggenheim and the Centre Pompidou. But he's a well-known enough figure due to the latter that the three films (totaling 17 minutes) were recently released on DVD.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

09:20:34 pm , 1986 words, 6029 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Spotlight on Toshio Hirata

One of the few Mushi Pro figures who did not settle down at any of the obvious places was Toshio Hirata 平田敏夫, who over the last thirty years has left behind a highly varied body of work for a large number of animation studios. Hirata is easily one of my favorite anime directors, even though I've only seen a small fraction of his oeuvre. The little I've seen is enough to reveal just how special a figure he is.

Toshio Hirata is a perfect instance of a director whose fame is inversely proportional to his talent. His body of work is one of the most unique and admirable of the last thirty years, yet nobody has heard of him. Why? Because his work has never been ego-driven; because, indeed, the defining attribute of his directing style is its very lack of ostentation. His style is the diametric opposite of the flamboyantly individualistic auteur style that has been the hallmark of ex-Mushi Pro figures, perhaps best represented by Rin Taro. Hirata Toshio the director never shouts, never gesticulates wildly; he is all nuance and simplicity -- Continental as opposed to Hollywood, Le Roi et L'Oiseau as opposed to Disney.

Hirata's best work is characterised by its visual richness and invention, and by directing that is always cool and aloof, without the neuroses and the striving for effect of other anime auteurs. You'll never find in his films the sort of overwrought drama that is typical of the large proportion of conventional anime projects -- even when he's involved in one of those projects -- because he hates that sort of thing. He maintains his integrity and individuality as a creator without needing to bash people over the head with it.

Hirata's approach to directing is uniformly meta: unlike many, he is not under the misconception that animation can be nothing more than a second-rate copy of live-action cinema; his animation is always animation first and foremost. The pleasure of watching his films comes precisely from seeing the various elements only possible in animation coming together to form a beautiful and satisfying whole. Hirata is also balanced as a filmmaker: His work exhibits artistic flair that sets it apart from conventional anime, and yet it fits entirely within the framework of commercial animation, being completely devoid of the sort of avant-garde posturing that can be found in the work other, better-known directors.

Like many of the figures of this period, Hirata started his career as an animator at Toei Doga as an inbetweener in the features made from 1960 to 1963: Journey to the West, Anju, Sinbad, Little Prince. Specifically, he was under the tutelage of Yasuji Mori. Hirata still speaks extremely highly of the experience and of Mori in particular, going so far as to say that if it hadn't been for Mori, he probably wouldn't be in animation today. Mori was a major influence on Hirata -- as well as many of those who worked with him like Miyazaki and Takahata -- not only because he was a great teacher and animator himself, but also because he was a gentle person who, legend has it, never got angry at anyone. He took animation seriously, and approached it with rigor and love. Mori's legacy is clearly at the root of Hirata's pliant, honest, soulful approach to animation.

One of the things that is unique about this early period is the variety of origins of the animators. In other words, today people come to anime because they've seen anime; but back then, during the early Toei Doga period, there was no TV anime, so many of the people who entered Toei Doga did so because they had seen a few Disney pics in the theater, or animated ads on TV, or Hakujaden, etc.. Yet other people simply happened to wander in almost by accident, having studied art at school, and maybe having casually seen an animated film or two, but otherwise knowing nothing about animation. Toshio Hirata falls into the latter group.

Anime then was not yet anime; it was a bunch of young people making tentative steps to figure out what they could do with animation. They were blissfully free of the burdensome history that nowadays blinkers many in the anime industry. Thus could we get films like Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon and Gulliver's Space Travels that are full of inventive artistic ideas. Hirata was one of the many people just out of art school who happened to find their way to Toei Doga for whatever reason. Together with a lot of those people, he was drawn to the Animation Sannin no Kai during his Toei Doga period, 1960-1963. If he learned the traditional approach to animation at Toei Doga, the experience of seeing those films broadened his understanding of animation and added an artistic side to his approach. The graphically-oriented aspect of his subsequent output can definitively be traced to this experience.

Hirata began his Mushi Pro period in 1966 directing episodes of Jungle Taitei immediately after his involvement in Ken the Wolf Boy at Toei Doga in 1965. His experience at Mushi Pro was a fateful one for him, second to his experience at Toei Doga only in chronological order. Interestingly enough, at Mushi Pro he was automatically started out as a key animator, and the very next year, for Jungle Taitei in 1966, he was bumped up to directing! Ironically, when he helped out on Toei Doga's Gulliver around the same time in 1965, he was bumped back to inbetweening. Apparently credit wasn't transferrable between studios. This is basically attributable to the rather unique system at Mushi Pro that reflected Tezuka's creator-based approach. Tasks weren't clear-cut and heirarchically organized the way they were at Toei Doga; people did various things as necessary, and consequently accession to key animation and directing could be absurdly fast (though, really, the reason for the ad-hoc nature of the studio basically comes down to the shortage of staff).

The result of this approach was that, rather than animation based on the fundamentals taught at Toei Doga, the Mushi Pro figures learned the ropes themselves, and went on to make animation how they wanted, which accounts for the extreme individuality of Mushi Pro expats like Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Rin Taro. Hirata is individual in a different, less obvious, more mature fashion. While Yasuji Mori was Hirata's major influence at Toei Doga, Eiichi Yamamoto was his main influence at Mushi Pro. It was working with Yamamoto that Hirata learned that meta approach to animation filmmaking.

After Goku and 1001 Nights, things started to get a bit tight at Mushi Pro, so Hirata left the studio for the freedom of commercial animation, where he was able to indulge in the artistic side that he had tasted at the Animation Sannin no Kai. The four years he worked on commercials were the next major learning experience of his early period. The creative gains of the experience can be seen in the unusual story structures and visual ideas of films like Bobby's Girl, The Acorns and the Wildcat and The Golden Bird.

During this period he also participated in various anime, notably Jack and the Beanstalk, where he animated the mice. He then embarked at Sanrio for a few years. Hirata was director or animator on what I consider the three best films of the early Sanrio period: Little Jumbo, Ringing Bell and the Unico pilot. He himself considers the pilot a youthful mistake, but I find it hard to understand why. It's one of the most perfectly honed anime films I've seen, with nothing in excess, reaching great depths of drama and emotion in under half an hour. He did Jumbo just before, and although a wonderful film as well, it was co-directed with Takashi Yanase and Masami Hata, so the Unico pilot serves as a good starting point for his mature period as a director.

Before the first full-length Unico film he played an interesting role in Sanrio's offbeat stop-motion film The Nutcracker. He's given the unusual credit of settei kyoryoku, which can roughly be translated "development assistance". What it essentially means is that he provided image boards and ideas for the film. Over the next few years at Madhouse (the Unico film was actually animated by Madhouse although produced by Sanrio) he was involved in a similar capacity in films like Floating Clouds and The Door to Summer, for which he drew storyboard for only a few scenes. This rather unique approach to film production is attributable to producer Masao Maruyama, who tended to set the basic framework of the films he was involved in by this sort of hand-picking of people according to the needs of the moment.

It was at Madhouse in the 1980s, starting with Unico in 1981, that Hirata came unto his own and gave us some of his best and most personal films: The Golden Bird (1984), A Small Love Story (1984), Bobby's Girl (1985), The Acorns and the Wildcat (1988), Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988).

Bobby's Girl can perhaps be singled out as the film that best captures what makes Hirata unique. It is a dense summation of Hirata's experimental visual proclivities, although on the other hand it is perhaps not representative of the more reserved side of Hirata that dominates his oeuvre. Given a short allotted running time and a rather conventional adaptation that filled out the mundane details of the elliptical, poetic original story, Hirata decided to scrap the adaptation and stick to the original story, which he felt could be interesting as is if adapted with flair. And that it was, as story takes a back seat in favor of a succession of imaginative visual sequences incorporating music-video-like montages of photographs and sketchy illustrations.

The Golden Bird in particular is one of the most interesting films of the decade. Hirata managed to create a film that successfully preserves the individual character of the various talented staff members who provide the film's visuals: designer Manabu Ohashi, who created wonderful SD characters with deliberately disconnected lines; animator Atsuko Fukushima, who animated the spindly witch; and artistic director Yamako Ishikawa, joined by famous background painters like Nizo Yamamoto and Kazuo Oga, who provide the incredibly intricate and lush fantasy backgrounds that define the film. His unique visual sense and predilection for graphic experimentation also comes through in the way he called in independent animator Koji Nanke for one of the musical scenes and gave him carte blanche to animate it. The result is a film of incredibly visual richness that is like nothing else seen in Japan.

The personality of the animators comes through in a lot of Hirata's other films like Hadashi no Gen 2, where apparently certain good animators were given a degree of liberty with their scenes that would be unheard of with most other directors. Yoshiaki Kawajiri was one of those animators, as was Yoshinori Kanemori. Kanemori has been a regular in many of Hirata's films, including Twilight of the Cockroaches and Anne's Diary. Most recently, for the memorable opening of Hanada Shonen Shi, Kanemori provided the animation drawings, which were then colored by Hirata, who drew the storyboard and took the photographs seen in the op. Hirata has always done unusual things like this; in Azuki-chan a few years back he provided the illustrations shown at the end of each episode, even though he refused to allow himself to be credited because he considered it an insignificant contribution.

Hirata is incredibly prolific, and he directed or storyboarded more than twenty films and TV series in the last decade alone, so I could go on and on, but I'll close by just mentioning two other films that could be sought out to see Hirata at his most individual, namely: Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988), which is another one of those films that acts as a vehicle for the animator in charge, Kazuo Komatsubara; and A Small Love Story (1984), with its unusual four-season structure and illustration-composed musical sequences.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

07:16:46 pm , 821 words, 1582 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Cleopatra and the Mushi Pro diaspora

Within the first minute of ep 18 of Tweeny Witches I knew it was a Yasuhiro Aoki episode, and sure enough, he did the storyboard. Still, only the storyboard, and it was that obvious! This guy is great. Of course, the storyboard determines about 76.7% of the final product, give or take some depending on the director, so it only makes sense.

I was rewatching the Animerama films, and one thing that seemed really clear this time around was the way the films are propelled entirely by the directing, rather than by the animation. That's what differentiates them most from Toei Doga and Disney. Of course, there's the adult content, but really this directing-orented stance is the basic characteristic of most Mushi Pro anime, whether adult or not, so I think that's the thing to note.

So it's interesting that for the second Animerama film they should have taken a "character animation" approach, since it obviously comes from Disney. 1001 Nights had the typical shot-based animation approach, with key animators and inbetweeners. But Cleopatra only has animators. Kazuko Nakamura for Cleopatra; Masami Hata for Caesar and Antonius; etc.

This time I felt I was able to figure out Kazuko Nakamura's animation. I always had a hard time figuring out what I thought about it. It's not that well drawn. Yet somehow it's convincing. Why is that? It's because they made the right decision to cast a woman to animate a woman, and Nakamura's acting in the role of Cleopatra is extremely convincing in terms of her expressions and behavior in response to the various situations.

It's a rather odd thing, but one of the few anime that comes close to the depth of characterization achieved in Horus by having Yasuji Mori animate Hilda throughout the film is Cleopatra, of all things. There haven't been many anime that took this approach, to my knowledge. One of the few others is Gisaburo Sugii's Jack and the Beanstalk, from four years later (1974).

The staff of Jack is mostly from Mushi Pro (which folded a year earlier), so we have a lot of the same people who did the Animerama films: Teruto Kamiguchi, Mikiharu Akabori, Kazuko Nakamura, etc. Kazuko Nakamura animated the witch. Teruto Kamiguchi is one of the other memorable animators in Cleopatra. His Lupa is quite fun to watch and possibly the most laboriously animated character in the film.

But the thing I came away with this time was that this is Masami Hata's film. He animated Caesar and Antonius, so the reason should be obvious. Not only does he have the most screentime, but his animation is simply the most fun, interesting, skilled, convincing and flat-out funny. Where a lot of the characters in this film seem rather amateurishly penned, and usually rather static, revealing the youth of a lot of these animators (and the fact that Mushi Pro never bothered to train its animators in the sort of traditional animation skills taught at Toei Doga), his characters are always well drawn and doing some kind of funny movement.

Masami Hata went on to do Andersen for Mushi Pro afterwards (Kazuko Nakamura did one episode) and then went to TMS before going to Sanrio around 1975. The closing of Mushi Pro was one of those pivotal events that sent the various staff members working there either to Madhouse or Sunrise. As the legend goes, whoever wasn't accepted at Madhouse because they weren't good enough went to Sunrise.

The latter group includes Yoshiyuki Tomino and Ryosuke Takahashi. The Madhouse group includes Akio Sugino, Osamu Dezaki, Rin Taro. Mikiharu Akabori and Shigeru Yamamoto eventually made their way to Sanrio with Hata. These three groups account for most of the Mushi Pro diaspora.

The year after 1001 Nights, which featured Takashi Yanase so prominently (he was the designer of the film and his illustrations were used in various spots), Akabori and Nakamura and Kamiguchi were animators on The Kind Lion in 1970. Maya Matsuyama was also an animator on the film, and the same team would later move to Sanrio along with Masami Hata and Shigeru Yamamoto and create two more Takashi Yanase films: Little Jumbo and Ringing Bell (which has always sounded like a pun on Raging Bull to me).

Kazuko Nakamura and Akabori Mikiharu had a training period at Toei Doga, both moving to Mushi Pro when it was founded - perhaps out of impatience with Toei Doga's long incubation period for inbetweeners? Some talented animators like Otsuka had rapid accessions to key animation there, but others remained inbetweeners for years and years. The earliest credit I can find for Shigeru Yamamoto, on the other hand, is Tetsuwan Atom. After this he animated those two experimental shorts for Tezuka, took part in Goku, then 1001 Nights, then was one of the major players in Memol in 1971-2, before animating Jack in Jack at Tac after Mushi Pro went out of business, then finally settling down at Sanrio.

To be continued

Friday, September 10, 2004

11:05:00 pm , 857 words, 3725 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Loose ends

I wasn't too keen on Uruma Delvi when I saw their piece within the context of Winter Days, but I admit I enjoyed the various films they've put up on the web.

I discovered a major omission in my previous post on the early independents:

Keiichi Tanaami 田名網敬一
Born 1936 in Tokyo.

He has not only been one of the most prolific creators of experimental animated films since his debut at the second Animation Festival in 1965; he is also the only one of the artists showcased in VIFF's Imagination Practice to have participated in Animactions!!the Animation Festivals, providing a link between the old and the new generation of independents, the latter of whom otherwise dominate the program.

After participating in most of the Animation Festivals with entries like 1964's Ten Nights' DreamsMasked Marionettes 仮面のマリオネットたち and 1966's Woman おんな, in 1975 he became the artistic director of the Japanese edition of Playboy, the daring and challenging artistic content of which established his renown as one of the major artists of the day. Design has since been his main area of activity -- he has done a lot of LP and now CD covers --, but he has been one of the most broad-ranging artists of his generation.

Known as the "Japanese Peter Max", he has been the major proponent of the psychedelic art school. His art is characterised by its sexy, colorful, pop-influenced designs infused with a playful, avant-garde sensibility. He got a promising start with an ambitious exhibition of "metallic art" made by scratching, coloring and using chemicals to dissolve steel plates while still studying at the Musashino Art School, and upon graduation he entered the big advertising agency Hakuhodo, only shortly to quit and embark on his personal artistic journey.

He first published a series of picture books, and immediately afterwards participated in the Animation Festival. Ever since, he has been a prolific independent animator, usually producing several films a year. His films have been shown at festivals around the world from Overhausen to Edinburgh. He has gone on to produce his own distinctive body of work in various media including painting, illustration, printing, editorial design, posters, etc. Even performance art plays a large part in his oeuvre.

In addition, Tanaami has authored numerous books; one of his latest is a collection of his lectures given at the Kyoto Plastic Arts School, where he teaches animation. His poster art and other design work has been exhibited at dozens of galleries over the years, the most recent being Disco University at Kirin Plaza Osaka, organized by omniartist Naohiro Ukawa (who has done music videos for the Boredoms, among many other things). The vibrant, youthful spirit of his work makes him a popular figure among the new generation of artists in Japan.

In recent years he has made numerous animated films in collaboration with graphic artist Nobuhiro Aihara 相原信洋, the most famous being a series of "animation battles" made by a rather original shiritori-type collaborative process wherein each takes turns at the canvas, drawing over or erasing what the other has just drawn -- a tense artistic confrontation made possible by the trust they've built up over their long friendship.

One of their more unique collaborations took place earlier this year on May 10 at a "live painting" event entitled Animactions!!, where the two in effect became the animated content as they were filmed by the aforementioned Naohiro Ukawa painting side by side with fluorescent paint on several huge black-light canvases.

The VIFF is screening not only the most recent of the aforementioned "battles", but also one of Aihara Nobuhiro's solo films. Aihara himself has had a long career as an animator. He started out in commercial animation at Studio Zero working as an animator alongside the likes of Shin'ichi Suzuki on shows like Kaibutsu-kun, and went independent in 1965. Since then he has produced more than sixty short animated films that have been shown around the world at various festivals. He has also participated in animation workshops in places like Sweden and India. Like Tanaami, he is currently a professor of animation at the Kyoto Plastic Arts School.

Along with Yoji Kuri, Keiichi Tanaami is one of the few of the early independents rather well represented on DVD. Two DVDs collecting 15 of his animated films made from 1975-2002 were released a year ago. In addition, a 2-DVD set of his films with Aihara (including Animactions!!) was released this past July. Both of the films being shown at the VIFF are available in these sets.

Partial filmography of Keiichi Tanaami:

1971 ◈ Commercial War (4 mins 30 secs)
1973 ◈ Oh! Yoko! (4 mins)
1975 ◈ Why (10 mins 30 secs)
1975 ◈ Easy Friday 優しい金曜日 (14 mins)
1975 ◈ Manmade Eden 人工の楽園 (14 mins)
1975 ◈ 4 Eyes (9 mins)
1979 ◈ Another Rainbow-Colored City もう一つの虹色都市 (17 mins 17 secs)
1979 ◈ Yoshikei (16mm, 12 mins)
2000 ◈ Memory of Darkness, Dream of Shadow 闇の記憶・夢の陰影 (4 mins)
2001 ◈ Breath of Wind 風の呼吸 (4 mins, w/Nobuhiro Aihara)
2002 ◈ Summer Gaze - 1942 夏の視線 - 1942 (6 mins)
2002 ◈ Memories (6 mins)
2002 ◈ Goldfish Fetish (8 mins)
2002 ◈ Running Man (6 mins, w/Nobuhiro Aihara)
2002 ◈ Why? Remix (video, 10 mins)
2003 ◈ Puzzle of Autumn (DV, 6 mins)

Partial filmography of Nobuhiro Aihara:

1971 ◈ Poisonous snake やまかがし
1973 ◈ Aisanka 逢仙花
1976 ◈ Cloud thread 雲の糸
1980 ◈ Water wheel 水輪
1987 ◈ Shadow 映像(かげ)
1991 ◈ Mask
1994 ◈ Air power 気動
1998 ◈ Yellow Fish
2004 ◈ Memory of Red (16mm, 4 mins)

Animation Battles:

2002 ◈ Scrap Diary (16mm, B&W, 4 mins)
2003 ◈ Fetish (16mm, 4 mins)
2004 ◈ Landscape (16mm, 4mins 25 secs)
2004 ◈ 10 Nights' Dreams (16mm, 6 mins)

Thursday, September 9, 2004

09:26:02 pm , 323 words, 1470 views     Categories: Animation

Anime Yawa

Samurai Champloo 15 was a Kazuto Nakazawa episode and was quite well done, with just the sort of minutely detailed animation I'd expect of him, and some welcome silliness to relieve the dreariness of recent episodes. Suzuki bros were in the house.

Over the last week the Japanese satellite station NHK BS2 has been broadcasting an intriguing program called Anime Yawa (Anime Night Talks). In each episode a number of people spend an hour talking about a certain famous anime, specifically Galaxy Express 999 (the movie) on Monday, Cagliostro on Tuesday, Tomorrow Joe on Wednesday, and Card Captor Sakura on Thursday. It's obviously a rather unusual program and features some impressive guests like Akitaro Daichi, Hiroyuki Kitakubo and Ryu Murakami. Actress Kokusho Sayuri (Eureka) was there for Cagliostro as the non-otaku representative. It was hosted by an expert in the field, Toshiyasu "Otaking" Okada, and reportedly was a gratifying watch for animation fans like myself because it went into specifics about the contributions of animators like Tomonaga and Kanada and Otsuka in the films. Murakami in particular is a huge Kanada fan, and he talked a lot about Kanada, which must have been a thrill for Kanada fans. It's not often you hear the sort of mania talk I'm into, much less on TV, so needless to say, this is rather nice news. The show is an offshoot of the successful series Manga Yawa.

Madhouse has a series called Beck starting in October. I'm curious about it because it's written/directed by Osamu Kobayashi. Now, I'm pretty sure this is not the same Osamu Kobayashi who did Dokonjo Gaeru in 1972. It's confusing because they're written with exactly the same kanji! But the new Kobayashi is just as interesting. I think he did a really weird short for Studio 4°C a few years back. More recently he did the great ending for Gad Guard. I'm curious to see what he'll do with the material here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

10:36:39 pm , 457 words, 1448 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game tidbits

This Friday's final showing of Mind Game at Cine Quinto in Shibuya will be preceded by a talk with Masaaki Yuasa, Eiko Tanaka and -- the big surprise -- Gisaburo Sugii! Yes, the visionary genius of the early anime period responsible for such anime masterpieces as Belladonna and Goku's Big Adventure, is coming to bat for Mind Game.

Tatsuo Sato has provided an essay for the latest issue of Madhouse's Association for the Promotion of Mind Game, in which he memoraby compares the experience of seeing this film to witnessing an olympic runner going all out in a final spurt to the finish line in his best form and best time.

Finally, the small Baus Theater in Kichijoji is apparently planning to show Mind Game as a late-night feature once the theatrical run is over.

A recent anime I'm curious to see is Wonder Bevil, a "mini-series" (7 mins/ep) produced by Radix for NHK's Tensai Bit-kun TV show. It's directed by Akihiro Omori 大森貴弘, co-director/layout person in Haibane Renmei, with character design by Takahiro Kishida 岸田隆宏, character designer of Lain and Arjuna and character designer/animation director of Spring and Chaos. Looks like fun. I like Kishida's simple design style. He stands out as one of the few people doing interesting CD in anime today. Prior to focusing on CD he was an animator in a lot of major anime like the Patlabor films, Gunbuster, Macross Plus.

A note of the Kill Bill animators:

Yasunori Miyazawa 宮沢康紀
Mitsuo Iso 磯光雄
Takahashi Hideki 高橋英樹
Eiji Ishimoto 石本英治
Takaaki Yamashita 山下高明
Sushio すしお
Mahiro Maeda 前田真宏
Keiichi Sasajima 笹島啓一
Naoyuki Onda 恩田尚之
Shinya Ohira 大平晋也

While I'm at it, a note of the animators in the climax of Innocence, which is the primary attraction of the film for folks such as myself. Hiroyuki Okiura was the AD of the climax on the plant boat and the early scene in the boat house. Besides the amazing lineup, interesting is that the climax brings together Okiura and Ohira, two animators whom one would normally never associate with one another; Okiura with his meticulously drawn, rigorously realistic drawings and Ohira with his rough, expressionistic realism. Okiura's challenge was preserving Ohira's special flowing style and line. Okiura's part apparently goes even further in the realism than Jin-Roh, which seems almost unimaginable. If you want to know who the top animators are today in Japan, just look at this scene. They're pretty much all there.

Shinya Ohira 大平晋也 ⇒ Bateau breaking into the ship
Ei Inoue 井上鋭 & Masashi Ando 安藤雅司 ⇒ on the leisure boat
Toshiyuki Inoue 井上俊之 ⇒ gainoids being born
Takeshi Honda 本田雄 ⇒ guards being killed by gainoids
Nobutake Ito 伊東伸高 ⇒ next
Shinji Hashimoto 橋本晋治 ⇒ gainoids falling from sky
Koichi Arai 新井浩一 ⇒ next
Satoru Utsunomiya うつのみや理 ⇒ gainoids on catwalk
Tetsuya Nishio 西尾鉄也 ⇒ computer terminal coming out
Kyoji Asano 浅野恭司 ⇒ next
Hiroyuki Okiura 沖浦啓之 ⇒ final scene in lab

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

06:43:06 pm , 145 words, 1323 views     Categories: Misc

Freeters of the world, unite!

Today I discovered that I'm a freeter.

What's a freeter? That was my first question, too.

According to this page:

"Freeter", a term coined by the Japanese by combining the English word "free" and the German word Arbeiter, is defined as "people with college diplomas who engage in menial employment". They seek a free lifestyle and consider leading a carefree life to be more important than their careers - yet they are not necessarily happy about their financial future.

In my case there is a contradiction between the basic idea of having gone freelance as a means of motivating myself to pursue other, more fulfilling activities, and the reality that I've wound up not pursuing either work or other activities due to the ease with which one can simply fall back on being satisfied with "just getting by". Of course, everyone has their particular issues...

Monday, September 6, 2004

08:04:20 pm , 3461 words, 16684 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

The first wave of independent animators in Japan

Having provided an overview of the development of independent animation, this time I though I would focus on the individual figures who emerged during the first decade of independent animation.

NIHIKI NO SANMA (Yoji Kuri)SENSUIKAN KASHIOPEA (Hiroshi Manabe)FUTARIZAMURAI HOMARE NO KAWAKIRI (Ryohei Yanagihara)

It was in the midst of the artistic ferment of the early 1960s that Japan's first independent animators got their start. At a time when nobody even knew the word "animation" in Japan -- they still used the slightly derogatory term "manga eiga" -- and animation was synonymous with Disney (there was no TV anime yet), three young men began making their own small, handmade animated films, revolutionizing the idea of what was possible in animation with a completely new paradigm for distribution and production, and adult themes and visual ideas far removed from everything that had come before. Inspiration came from various corners including contemporary graphic design and the animated film titles of Saul Bass, but the spark to this sudden blaze was their encounter with the films of Norman McLaren.

The trio first came together to provide animation for a special weekly TV broadcast that had been demanded by young radical intellectuals and artists like Kenzaburo Oe and Takemitsu Toru to provide a platform for voices against the US-Japan security treaty, and thereafter the three decided to continue working together. The newly refurbished Asakusa theater, known for its modern classical, jazz and foreign film festivals, provided the venue where these three figures would go on to unleash their films on astonished and delighted audiences over the next four years in three groundbreaking screenings held annually starting in 1960.

The first of these festivals, christened the Animation Sannin no Kai (Animation Group of Three), occurred on November 26, 1960; the second roughly one year later on January 19, 1962; and the third on April 3, 1963. The explosive success of their innovative idea to create independent, individual, artistic animation had the effect of pushing many of the budding artists and animators of the day into independent animation, which seemed to offer hitherto unseen artistic possibilities. Many of these young people -- including Taku Furukawa -- knocked on the door of the acknowledged leader, Yoji Kuri, to learn under his tutelage, thus establishing a direct link between many of the figures of the period.

As a result of this burst of interest, from the fourth year on (1964) the event took on the guise of what could rightfully be called an Animation Festival, which is what it was renamed. It now showcased the latest animated works not only by the original three but also by an assortment of graphic artists and mangakas-cum-animators. The number of new faces increased each year until, by the time of the last event in 1971, the more than 50 films programmed that year could not be contained within one screening, and the event had to be spread out over several days.

And so: We now have the basic format of the animation festival. Although this particular event finished in 1971, from this point on imitators began to pop up around the country, with new features and events being added each year, right down to the present day. Intriguingly, though, due to various factors including the rise in popularity of commercial TV animation, the number of independent animators creating the sort of experimental, artistic films that were seen in the heydey of the Asakusa event saw a steep drop immediately afterwards, with only a handful of major new figures like Keita Kurosaka and Koji Yamamura appearing on the scene over the last three decades.

Here is an overview of the main figures in the order in which they appeared, beginning with the original three.

Animation Sannin No Kai (1960-1963)

Yoji Kuri 久里洋二
Born 1928 in Fukui prefecture.

Kind of like Pavarotti and the Three Tenors, Yoji Kuri tends to be the one most easily remembered when it comes to the Animation Sannin no Kai. He was not only the most prolific of the three, producing more than two dozen films over two decades; his films also exhibit the most variety of the three, as in each film he consistently tackled new approaches and methods. His erotic, witty films embody the spirit of experimentation of this early period of independent animation.

Besides his creative work as an animator, Yoji Kuri's diverse artistic endeavours encompass painting, picture books, manga, sculpture, writing, and shell painting. His films have been shown all over the world and won numerous awards including the special prize at Annecy and the bronze medal at Venice; and exhibitions of his art have been held in cities including Ghent and New York. In addition to his films shown at festivals, Kuri also contributed a large number of short animated films to NHK's long running TV series Minna no Uta and Nihon Terebi's 11PM. In 1996 he was awarded a Blue Ribbon and a Purple Ribbon by the Prime Minister, a sort of lifetime achievement award.

A selection of Yoji Kuri's films is currently available on DVD from Geneon: Yoji Kuri Film Works, 154 mins, ¥6090.

Partial filmography:

1960 ◈ Fashion ファッション [16mm, 3 mins, B&W]
1961 ◈ Stamp Fantasy 切手の幻想 [16mm, 7 mins]
1961 ◈ Two Pikes 二匹のサンマ [16mm, 20 mins, B&W]
1962 ◈ Human Zoo 人間動物園 [35mm, 3 mins]
1963 ◈ Love 愛 [16mm, 4 mins]
1963 ◈ A Man and a Woman and a Dog 男と女と犬 [35mm, 3 mins]
1963 ◈ The Discovery of Zero ゼロの発見 [35mm, 20 mins]
1963 ◈ Miracle 軌跡 [35mm, 4 mins]
1964 ◈ AOS アオス [35mm, 10 mins, B&W]
1964 ◈ The Seat 椅子 [35mm, 10 mins, B&W]
1964 ◈ The Button ザ・ボタン [35mm, 3 mins]
1965 ◈ The Guy Next Door 隣の野郎 [35mm, 3 mins]
1966 ◈ A Small Sound 小さな囁き [35mm, 10 mins]
1967 ◈ The Room 部屋 [35mm, 5 mins]
1967 ◈ What Are You Thinking? あなたは何を考えているの? [35mm, 3 mins]
1968 ◈ Au Fou! 殺人狂時代 [35mm, 3 mins]
1969 ◈ Tragedy on the G Line G線上の悲劇 [35mm, 3 mins]
1974 ◈ POP [35mm, 3 mins]
1977 ◈ MANGA 漫画 [35mm, 3 mins]

Ryohei Yanagihara 柳原良平
Born 1931 in Tokyo.

After graduating from the Tokyo Bijutsu Daigaku (Tokyo Art School) Yanagihara immediately entered the company Suntory (then called Suya), where he played an important role in the advertising department as the editor of the magazine Yoshu Tengoku (Spirits Heaven), the company's PR magazine, which had a considerable cultural impact at the time, featuring as it did writing by big figures of the day like Takeshi Kaiko (who would take over as editor of the magazine after Yanagihara left). Its sexy, hip tone struck a chord with young hepcats and harried salarymen, who crowded to Suntory's hugely popular Torys Bar to read the magazine, wash down their worries with Torys Whisky and chat about democracy and literature with their buddies. Yanagihara got his audiovisual start around this time, producing a commercial for Suntory that featured a character called Uncle Torys who was quite popular with audiences, and remains an icon of the postwar boom period.

It was soon after he left the editorship of the magazine that he got into animation with the Animation Sannin no Kai. Like his fellows, he was heavily influenced by Saul Bass's film animation work and contemporary graphic designers, and these had a major influence on the look of his animation, which is characterized by its clean lines, striking colors and highly stylized, pop designs. After his involvement in the Animation Sannin no Kai he drifted away from animation, and up until the present day focused on advertising and book cover designing. An avid boat buff, he currently resides in the port city of Yokohama, where he spends most of his time engaged in various activities associated with his passion.

Partial filmography:

1960 ◈ Sea Battle 海戦 [2 mins]
1961 ◈ Commotion at Ikedaya 池田屋騒動 [? mins]
1963 ◈ Two Samurai 両人侍誉皮切 [7 mins]
1963 ◈ Viking ヴァイキング [7 mins]
1963 ◈ Jubei the Braggart ほらふき十兵衛 [1 reel]
1963 ◈ Bug Story 虫のはなし [6 mins]
1963 ◈ The non-flying carpet 飛ばないジュータン [6 mins]
1964 ◈ The Strange Tale of Ichijonosuke 女一余の助異聞 [7 mins]
1964 ◈ Moon Story 月のはなし [3 mins]
1964 ◈ The Chanda チャンダ号 [8 mins]
1964 ◈ The Hole 穴 [5 mins]
1966 ◈ The Baikaru ばいかる丸 [15 mins]

Hiroshi Manabe 真鍋博
1932-2000. Born in Ehime prefecture.

Manabe is one of the most famous illustrators of the postwar period, having been the person who brought a certain degree of respectability to the art of the book illustration. He pioneered his own personal style characterized by highly colorful scenes full of clean, flowing lines, where both man and nature are uniformly stylized in a way that seems to speak of his very personal idealistic, hopeful stance towards the future. (This blazing 1960s vision of the future is lovingly recaptured in Mind Game.) He was extremely prolific as a book cover designer, designing the covers for many novels by famous alternative sci-fi writers Shin'ichi Hoshi and Yasutaka Tsutsui, and was outspoken on various issues, authoring numerous of his own nonfiction tomes. Born and raised in the rural city of Niihama on the north side of Shikoku, Manabe's art has become a part of the landscape of his hometown, both figuratively and literally, as his illustrations decorate various installations around the city, including the Niihama Women's Plaza and an anti-nuclear arms monument in the central park.

Partial filmography:

1960 ◈ Marine Snow マリン・スノー [16mm, 1 reel, B&W]
1962 ◈ Cinepoem No. 1 シネポエム作品No.1 [16mm, 7 mins]
1963 ◈ MARCH [16mm, 2 mins]
1963 ◈ Time 時間 [16mm, 7 mins]
1964 ◈ Submarine Cassiopeia 潜水艦カシオペア [16mm, 3 mins]
1965 ◈ Space Bird 宇宙鳥 [5 mins]
1966 ◈ Chase 追跡 [2 mins]

Animation Festival (1964-1971)

1964

Mermaid (1964)Osamu Tezuka 手塚治虫
1928-1989.

Among the first to present works at the newly rechristened Asakusa festival was Osamu Tezuka, who had of course had aspirations towards animation since his viewings of films like Momotaro Umi no Shimpei during the war. Even while drawing his early manga he eventually indended to get into animation, and had taken steps towards that end by his involvement in various of the Toei Doga films (Saiyuki, Sinbad's Adventures, Wan Wan Chushingura), finally founding his own studio, Mushi Pro, in 1961. Right from the start he intended to produce popular animation merely as a way of funding his creation of artistically innovative experimental films. Although market forces and staff opinion differences eventually crushed this idea and Mushi Pro with it, Tezuka continued to make his own animated films until his death, revealing the depth of his love of animation. Mushi Pro's first (and in my opinion best) film, Aru Machikado no Monogatari (Tale of a Streetcorner), directed by Eiichi Yamamoto, was in fact shown in 1966 at the third edition of the Animation Festival.

Mushi Pro had actually held its own screening in November 1962, a few months before the third edition of the Animation Sannin no Kai, to première the recently completed Aru Machikado no Monogatari in addition to the pilot episode of Tetsuwan Atomu and the studio's very first experimental short, Osu (Male). Interestingly, key animation for the second and third films, Memory and Mermaid, which were premièred in 1964 at the first Animation Festival, was by Shigeru Yamamoto 山本繁, latter-day animation director of films like Sanrio's Sea Prince and the Fire Child, who went on to make a few of his own shorts (like 1971's Work L 作品L), which were featured at subsequent Animation Festivals.

Makoto Wada 和田誠
Born 1936.

Another multitalented artist, Makoto has in fact only made two animated films: Murder 殺人, premièred at the first Animation Festival, which won the coveted Ofuji-sho, and Jigoma, Master Thief: The Musical 怪盗ジゴマ 音楽篇 (1988), directed by and featuring music composed by Wada. His main area of activity is illustration (he has illustrated the cover of the famous literary publication Bungei Shunju). He is also a designer, translator and writer. He has written numerous books since his award-winning debut in 1982 with Begin the Begin, and is also a renowned movie critic. Most recently, in 1984 he began his live-action directing career with the film Mahjongg Horoki. Jigoma was produced to accompany his second directing feature, Kaito Rubi.

1965

Cigarettes and Ashes (1965)Sadao Tsukioka 月岡貞夫
Born 1939 in Niigata prefecture.

Tsukioka is one of the most important independents of the last forty years, but he is not generally well known because most of his work has been ads and shorts included in various TV programs. He was one of the more important animators at Toei Doga before changing course completely and becoming one of the more famous indie success stories.

After entering Toei in 1959, he first worked as an inbetweener for three years on Alakazam (1960), Sinbad (1962) and Doggie March. But his skill was obvious from the beginning, as in 1961 Toei Doga set the more promising of the freshly hired young animators to the task of creating two short films as a way of quickly improving their skills, with Tsukioka heading The Mouse Marries ねずみのよめいり (written/directed by Daisaku Shirakawa/Sadao Tsukioka, animation by Tsukioka, Rin Taro, etc) and Makoto Nagasawa heading Motoro the Mole もぐらのモトロ (directed by Hiroshi Ikeda, key animation by Makoto Nagasawa).

For 1963's Little Prince, he helped Yasuo Otsuka animate the fight with the dragon that occupies the last ten minutes of the film. After the sudden arrival of TV anime the next year, 1963, he volunteered for the task of doing Wolf Boy Ken, since nobody else wanted to do it, and consequently went down in legend for the incredible feat of single-handedly writing, directing and animating many of the episodes. Although he was a blessing for Toei Doga due to his heroic efforts on Ken, his experiences creating entire films singlehandedly on this series was obviously a turning point for him, because after providing key animation for Gulliver the next year, in 1964, he left Toei Doga and officially embarked on his freelance career.

The very first film he made as an independent was 1965's Cigarettes and Ashes タバコと灰, premièred at the second Animation Festival. Although technically produced by Mushi Pro, it was written, directed and animated entirely by Tsukioka, like all of his self-produced subsequent films including The Story of A Man ある男の場合 (1966) and the minute-long The Creation 新・天地創造 (1970), each of which were also premièred at the Animation Festival. Although he had one relapse into commercial animation -- he provided the animation of the genies in 1001 Nights for Mushi Pro in 1969 -- his experiences in the Animation Festival fairly set the course for the rest of his career, and afterwards he has been completely independent.

Most famously, starting in 1970, for the next twenty years he provided numerous animated shorts set to songs for Minna no Uta, a show that has been a mainstay for many of the independents who debuted at the Animation Festival, including Taku Furukawa. Of particular note is Kantaro the North Wind Imp 北風小僧の寒太郎, which has become something of a classic, being rebroadcast every year in autumn.

Since the 70s Tsukioka has been active as an animation instructor and lecturer, and in recent years Tsukioka has published a series of books on basic animation techniques.

In TrainingShinji Fukushima 福島治次 (now 福島治)
Born 1941 in Shizuoka prefecture.

One of the other animators who debuted at the second annual Animation Festival was Shinji Fukushima, who has also since been a regular on Minna no Uta, having provided 11 shorts for the show between 1970 and 1999. For him everything started when he saw the second edition of the Animation Sannin no Kai in 1962, which showed him a whole new world he had never known and immediately determined the course of the rest of his life, he relates. He got his start with the animation for Hiroshi Manabe's Space Bird at the 1966 festival, and made his solo debut the next year with A Story of Planet Moston モストン星の話. Other films debuted at the Animation Festival include Cosmos コスモス (1969) and Door とびら (1971). Most recently Fukushima contributed a short to the Winter Days anthology, and finally completed a film called In Training 修行中でござる after several years of work. He is the founder of the studio Anime-ya.

1966

from Winter Days (2003)Tatsuo Shimamura 島村達雄
Born 1934 in Tokyo.

The same year he graduated from the Tokyo Nation University of Fine arts and Music, Shimamura started his career as an inbetweener in 1958 on Japan's first full-length color animated feature, Hakujaden. For the next few years he worked on commercials, and in 1966 he took part in his first Animation Festival with Moonlight and the Glasses 月夜とめがね, made at Gakken, continuing to take part in the festival for the next few years. His 1967 film Illusion City 幻影都市 is considered one of the classics of this period. In 1970 he took part in Mushi Pro's Cleopatra, but the scene he animated in the film, the parade of famous paintings, makes it clear that his imagination could no longer be constrained by the confines of feature animation. In 1974 he founded his own studio, Shirogumi, which has gone on to create visuals for large displays and expos, digital effects work in movies, and more than 1000 TV commercials that have won awards at just about every festival in the world.

Phenakistiscope (1975)Taku Furukawa 古川タク
Born 1941 in Mie prefecture.

Originally pulled towards manga after graduating from college with a major in Spanish due to his fondness for Steinberg and Tezuka, Furukawa's future was at first tentatively redirected upon seeing the stylish animated TV ads by Ryohei Yanagihara and Makoto Wada, and then firmly determined by his encounter with the mature experimental films shown at the Animation Sannin no Kai. Furukawa had done some part time work for TCJ on TV anime like Tetsujin 28 while studying at college (he says he had fun with the show, even drawing himself into a scene where a crowd is running from Tetsujin), but it was helping out with various independent animators including Kuri Yoji upon graduation that laid the foundation of his own independent approach.

After a few years of apprenticeship, it was while still working at Yoji Kuri's Jikken Kobo studio that Furukawa had the chance to write, direct and animate his very first film, Akatombo (Red dragonfly), which was premièred in 1966 at the third annual Animation Festival. Furukawa has since produced more than 20 short films, animated entirely by himself at his private studio founded in 1970, Takun Manga Box, funded largely by his work as an illustrator. His films have won numerous prizes around the world including the special jury's prize at Annecy. He has also left behind a large body of animated TV ads and shorts for Minna no Uta. This year he was awarded the Purple Ribbon for lifetime achievement by the Prime Minister. A DVD of his complete works entitled Takun-Films was issued by Anido in 1998.

By 1971 ...

... most of the major independents of the next thirty years had made their appearance in the Animation Festival:

Fumio Ooi 大井文雄 directed his first short while still studying at Tama Art University: F (shown at the 1968 Animation Festival). Since 1970 he has contributed about 20 films to Minna no Uta, and he has been one of the major advocates of CG animation, working at computer animation studio Studio 3D since its founding in 1971. His short in Winter Days is an atmospheric 3DCG film.

Goro Sugimoto 杉本五郎 provided a film to the last Animation Festival in 1971 enigmatically entitled 100 Years 1/20,000,000 100年2000万分の1 before going on to become a legendary film collector who would be one of the major forces supporting the growing fan circle movement.

Shin'ichi Suzuki 鈴木伸一, who just recently provided a warm and memorable short to Winter Days, lived with the manga artists of the legendary Tokiwa-So before starting his career as an animator at Otogi Pro. He was one of the founders of Studio Zero along with Fujio Akatsuka and Shotaro Ishinomori, a short-lived studio that nonetheless created shows like Rainbow Sentai Robin and nurtured animators like Keiichiro Kimura 木村圭市郎. He took part in at least the last Animation Festival with the short Dot 点, and went on to take part in films like Space Firebird 2772 and Legend of the Forest and Yuki before focusing on educational films.

Renzo Kinoshita 木下連像, one of the few independents beside Yoji Kuri to have gained a degree of recognition outside of Japan -- primarily for his satirical film Made in Japan and his film about the atomic bomb Pika-Don -- also contributed shorts to the last few Festivals. Over the years he produced many award-winning TV commercials, and in 1985 he conceived and planned the first Hiroshima International Animation Festival. He died in 1997.

Ryuichi Yokoyama 横山隆一, the founder of Otogi Pro, even contributed a few shorts to the festival including Flag 国旗 (1966) and 50,000 5万匹 (1966), both as an individual and under the banner of Otogi Pro.

Numerous people who would otherwise be mainly involved in traditional commercial TV or feature animation also provided shorts to the Festival, including Shin'ichi Tsuji 辻伸一, who subsequently did work on various Sanrio films and Nippon Animation series; and Taku Sugiyama 杉山卓, yet another animator who began his career as an inbetweener on Hakujaden, going on to do work for Mushi Pro and Nippon Animation. Ryosuke Takahashi 高橋良輔, known primarily as the director of the 80s hard sci-fi anime TV show Votoms, also contributed a short he made in 1969, after which he was involved primarily in anime at Mushi Pro and then Sunrise.

Seiichi Hayashi 林静一, on the other hand, after being involved in various Mushi Pro films (notably, he animated a memorable scene in Belladonna), and contributing a short to the last Animation Festival, left animation altogether to focus on a range of other activities including manga (his Red Elegy is a classic), illustration, and film directing, although he recently returned with a nice short for Winter Days. (He also did CD for fellow Mushi Pro expat Gisaburo Sugii's 1987 film The Tale of Genji.) Most recently he illustrated the poster for the 2004 Hiroshima International Animation Festival.

Sunday, September 5, 2004

07:52:17 pm , 183 words, 1258 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Random anime notes

Windy Tales starts next week. I hear there have been a number of "solo animator" episodes in the series Ninin ga Shinobu Den. Or rather, half-episodes. Namely:

1B - Jun Shibata 柴田淳
3A - Kei Sakai 酒井KEI
8A - Yumi Sudo 須藤祐実
9? - Atsushi Itagaki 板垣敦

But who cares? It's moe anime.

Koji Yamamura's Mt Head won the Grand Prix at Hiroshima a week ago. Crossing my fingers they show it at the VIFF.

I also noticed Nobuyoshi Sasakado 佐々門信芳 did a lot of solo flying in some 90s anime, though I wasn't impressed with what I saw.

Nobutake Ito 伊東伸高 in Champloo 14 (AD+KA). Very Nabeshin episode. Surprised to hear the Amami folk music. Could listen to that stuff for hours. A few nice spots of animation, like Jin killing Mukuro - probably Ito.

Nagai Go's Kotetsu Jeeg is coming out on DVD. Whoopee. So is Pyun Pyun Maru. Curious about that one. Sounds like a Toei version of Goku.

Some of the animators in the upcoming Naruto movie:
Tatsuya Sotomaru 外丸達也
Mamoru Sasaki 佐々木守
Takashi Hashimoto 橋本敬史
Kazuyoshi Yaginuma 柳沼和良
Hirobumi Suzuki 鈴木博文
Tokuyuki Matsutake 松竹徳幸
Takeshi Honda 本田雄
Tetsuya Nishio 西尾鉄也 (of course)

Sunday, September 5, 2004

06:42:25 pm , 69 words, 871 views     Categories: Misc

OOB (out-of-boredom) experience

Last night I dreamt I was strolling along a beach where a team of fishermen were reeling in a gigantic kraken, but they wouldn't let me into the special corridor that led to the observation area. So today I went to the beach to check to see if it was one of them "pre-monetary" dreams, and what do you know, it was! Just in a metaphoric sort of way.

Friday, September 3, 2004

07:50:46 pm , 1008 words, 960 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Asian features

Probably my two favorite non-Japanese animated films of the last few years were My Life as McDull (2001, Hong Kong) and My Beautiful Girl Mari (2001, South Korea)... not that there are many other candidates.

Mari really blew me away first of all due to the simple fact that I'd never seen almost any other Korean animation, yet the skill of this director was truly something, and the film was really a success. I would have expected something more half-assed like Chinese Ghost Story for a breakthrough film like this for the Korean animation industry, but they got it right the first time, and that impressed me. The influence of certain Japanese animation is certainly there, but this isn't just a knock-off -- the spirit of the film is fundamentally different -- and a film like this couldn't have been made in Japan. I know too little about the film and its director and the history of the Korean animation industry, and would be interested to learn more. The animation is obviously the film's most distinctive feature, certainly like nothing I've ever seen in a major commercial film like this. I hope the Korean animation industry continues in this direction rather than the blatant-anime-knock-off direction of Wonderful Days.

McDull is the second big Hong Kong animated feature that I know of after 1997's A Chinese Ghost Story. To me the animation seemed bottom of the barrel, both the CG and the cel work, but what I liked about the film is that the directing and story are enough to overcome the handicap, and they don't even bother to try to mix the two. The film succeeds in acheiving a genuinely original and convincing atmosphere due to these blatantly clashing visuals. It almost seems like an expression of the theme -- the cutesy piglet during the whole film while the protagonist is an innocent underacheiving kid, and the live action that finally matches the backgrounds once he becomes an adult. The whole concept of the film is really thought-provoking in this way, offering ideas I've never seen in any commercial animated features yet, so I enjoyed it tremendously, though I still hope the Hong Kong animation tries to make some progress beyond the crude animation in this film (or was that on purpose?). Really the film strikes me more as a live-action film in tone and purpose. This is practically independent film-level material, which seems really ambitious to me, so I for one will be very interested to see what sort of animated features come from Hong Kong in the future.

Why was A Chinese Ghost Story half-assed? I probably shouldn't talk, because I know very little about its production, but I'm guessing it's because, unlike the latter two films, which were 100% native productions, this one was a co-production, with all the CG done in Hong Kong and all the animation done in Japan. I gather much animation is done this way today, and that probably dooms most of it to a similar fate. You can't outsource creativity. Animation has to be a team effort. From what I remember there was an anecdote about how they spent tons of time mailing videos back and forth trying to get just one scene right. One of the things that distinguishes this film from McDull, which at first sight seems to share the same basic approach of cel-style 2D animation over CG backgrounds, is that here they obviously wanted the two to work together, while in McDull part of the theme of the film is tied to the the very intentional mismatch of "sordidly" realistic CG backgrounds with Hello Kitty-style characters. At least, that's how I interpret it.

A Chinese Ghost Story should probably get the benefit of the doubt, because it was a pretty ambitious project for its day -- not only an international co-production between the fledgling Hong Kong and the dominant Japanese animation industries -- but also one of the first full-CG films combining 2D and 3DCG. It's actually very watchable if you you're not a seeker of perfection. With a little imagination you can appreciate it as two films in one - an anime film superimposed over a Hong Kong CG film. Okay, maybe that's going too far. But there is a sense of two competing approaches to filmmaking: the anime method that tries to create a delicate balance between buildup and climax with the ideas and animation, juxtaposed with the Hong Kong method that kind of layers it on more evenly throughout. Yet to a degree there is a bit of one in the other, because the Japanese side had a degree of input in the rough movement of the CGI when they felt it was necessary, and of course the Hong Kong side was responsible for all the designs, and suggested that the basic tone of the animation should be very "Asian", in other words not the fluid style of western animation but the choppy, pose-filled melodramatic style of anime; Dragon Ball, of course, being very popular in Hong Kong.

The anime part is actually nice and worth a look. The anime part featured a lot of big figures, hired to make this ambitious project succeed. The 2D director and storyboarder was Tetsuya Endo, who was director's assistant on Totoro; Kazuo Komatsubara was the animation director; and Takashi Nakamura was co-storyboarder and layout artist. The director was Andrew Chen, and the character designer was Frankie Chung. There is even at least one spot of good animation worth seeking out: incredibly flexible veteran animator Ohashi Manabu did the kung fu fight at the beginning, after having just animated something completely different, the impressionistic, flowing cityscape in Junkers. Also, a lot of effort was put into the big scene in the middle of the film where the flying contraption appears in the ghost town, with Komatsubara even getting involved as an animator to get Tsui Hark's very precise requests for the scene just right, and consequently this scene probably represents the ideal combination of the two sides in the film.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

10:48:12 pm , 1305 words, 7149 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Otogi Pro and the rise of independent animation in Japan

Most of us think the first TV anime was Tetsuwan Atom, right? Well, it was the first in the 30-minute format that would come to be the norm, but Otogi Pro's Instant History (1961-2), clocking in at 5 minutes per episode, was the first TV anime (although it was preceded in 1960 by a cutout animation called Three Stories (三つの話) in NHK's long-running Minna no Uta). Otogi Pro is an interesting studio that I know little about, so I thought I'd jot down some basics here.

Hyotan Suzume (1959)
Hyotan Suzume (1959)

Ryuichi Yokoyama (横山隆一) began drawing the comic Fuku-chan in 1936, and continued drawing the series in various different newspapers until 1971, when the series ended on episode 5534. In January of 1955 he realized the long-held dream of founding his own animation studio, and began production of his first animated film, Piggyback Ghost, with 8 other staff members. Ryuichi handled most of the tasks including photography and animation. The completed film was shown in a small hall that December to an audience including Yukio Mishima and Hideo Kobayashi.

The very next year he founded Otogi Production, and completed a 16mm trial version of Gourd Sparrow, which was never shown anywhere. The following year, in 1957, came his first 32mm film, Fukusuke, which marked the beginning of his distribution contract with Toho. Two years later, in 1959, he completed his next film, a 32mm remake of Gourd Sparrow, and in 1960 he completed his first and last full-length feature, Otogi's World Tour, an omnibus of 7 shorts, which was only to be released theatrically two years later. Otogi Pro never made a film again (with the exception of one isolated three-minute short ten years later).

1955 - Piggyback ghost (おんぶおばけ / Onbu obake) 25 mins

1957 - Fukusuke (ふくすけ) 18 mins

1959 - Gourd Sparrow (ひょうたんすずめ / Hyotan suzume) 55 mins

1961 - Plus 50,000 Years (プラス50000年) 9 mins

1962 (1960) - Otogi's World Tour (おとぎの世界旅行 / Otogi no sekai ryoko) 96 mins

1970 - An incident in Earth village (地球村の出来事 / Chikyu mura no dekigoto) 3 mins

Otogi no Sekai Ryoko (1960)
Otogi no Sekai Ryoko (1960)

Worthy of note is the presence of Eiichi Yamamoto and Hiroshi Saito in these films. Both began their careers here. Saito was an animator in Instant History and Otogi's World Tour before joining Mushi Pro a few years later. Yamamoto visited Osamu Tezuka in 1960 right after participating as an animator in Fukusuke and Otogi's World Tour. Yamamoto wound up taking part in the founding of Mushi Pro that year, going on to direct its first film, Tale of a Streetcorner, which came out in 1962, the same month Otogi's World Tour belatedly hit the theaters.

Tale of a Streetcorner was not shown theatrically but in halls, whereas Yokoyama's film was shown in theaters a month after Toei's Sinbad. Perhaps if Yokoyama had taken that route he might have been able to continue making films. As it happens, the only route he knew was to sell them to big studios for distribution, and consequently his independent, creator-oriented films had to compete with Toei's big Disney-style commercial animated films, with obvious results. Otogi's World Tour was paired with King Kong vs Godzilla, perhaps indicating how much of a hoot Toho gave about his films.

The year of the completion of this film, 1960, marked the first year of the animation festival at Annecy, and also the first year of the epoch-making independent animator film showcase Animation Group of Three (アニメーション三人の会 / Animation sannin no kai), which featured works by Yoji Kuri, Ryohei Yanagihara and Hiroshi Manabe. This event marked the beginning of independent animation in Japan - animation made in various different formats by individual people experimenting with the medium and expanding its borders well beyond the conventions (and mannerisms) of Disney and the other purveyors of commercial animation.

Two of Yoji Kuri's films showcased at these events, Love and Human Zoo, were the first Japanese animated films to win awards and gain recognition outside of the country aside from the films of Ofuji Noburo, a truly exhilirating development that gave the figures of this new movement a major boost of confidence. Over the next few years not only did Osamu Tezuka produce most of his experimental films, but most of the figures who went on to become the mainstays of the circuit appeared on the scene via the "Animation Festival" spawned from the original three Animation Group of Three festivals held from 1961-1963: Taku Furukawa, Seiichi Hayashi, Tatsuo Shimamura, etc. (Each of the latter contributed a short to Winter Days.)


Kataku (1979)

The last of these events, held in 1971, happened to feature a film called Breaking Branches is Forbidden (花折り / Hanori, 1968), the debut film of one Kihachiro Kawamoto (川本喜八郎). The next year, Kawamoto joined forces with another puppet animator, Tadanari Okamoto (岡本忠成), who had been active since 1965, to create an animation forum that would serve to showcase their latest films on a yearly basis over the next 8 years: The Puppet Animashow (from Puppet Show + Animation). While numerous other private amateur animation screenings were held during this period, none had the lasting power and wide-ranging appeal of the Animashow, which tended to attract general audiences even more than typical animation fans.

Okamoto and Kawamoto are probably the two most important figures to have emerged from this early period of independent animation, by reason of the quality and originality of their films no less than their popular success with audiences. And yet, no two filmmakers could be more different. Kawamoto with his classically modeled Japanese puppets and aesthetically refined wabisabi poesy, Okamoto with his relentless pursuit of new challenges and warm sense of humor.

Due to the influence of the Animation Festival, staring around 1967 animation appreciation groups or "circles" like Anido began to appear for the purpose of holding their own small screenings for members, in many cases acquiring the rare films by borrowing them from collectors like the famous Goro Sugimoto. These circles soon began publishing group activity newsletters and then animation research zines, and finally, thanks to the advent of 8mm technology and the widespread availability of animation equipment like cels, they even began producing their own amateur films. The appearance in 1972 of the animation magazine Pia, which published information about animation showings at cinematheques as well as fan screenings nationwide -- the first of its kind in Japan --, helped to solidify this fan movement by making it easy for fans to locate screenings of sought-after titles, thereby increasing interaction and communication between fans in distant locales.

The next step in this evolution was the Private Animation Festival or PAF, started in 1975, where the policy was to show every film that was submitted. With the arrival in 1974 of the "anime boom" due to the epoch-making TV shows Heidi and Yamato, and the promulgation of consumer video technology, which allowed fans to study their favorite TV shows in detail, the overwhelming majority of amateur animation production of this period began to look less by Kuri Yoji and more like commercial TV anime.


Jobu na Taiya (1981)

For the next few years PAF provided a platform for amateur and pro independent animation screenings alike, but the surprise development was the rapid improvement of fan animation, which often wound up eclipsing the pro works, as best exemplified by films of Group SHADO, an obscure fan group that appeared out of nowhere from Yamaguchi prefecture at the end of the decade to surprise the animation world with the incredibly high level of quality of their fan productions. Among the films produced by the group was one called Jobu na Taiya (Solid Tires), animated by a young Hideaki Anno.

In 1977 Pia opened the doors on its own festival, the Animation Summer Festival, which showed not only films by fans and pros but also new foreign animation. Its major acheivement was at the 1980 festival, where Ishu Patel was the invited guest of honor, holding workshops that were extremely well received. A few years after this international success story, in 1985, the most important animation festival yet in Japan opened its doors to the world: the Hiroshima international animation festival.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

08:03:51 pm , 241 words, 2120 views     Categories: Animation

Ninku notes

I had a chance to watch the early Ninku episodes recently, and I was struck how incredibly Utsunomiya they looked. It's impressive the degree to which Tetsuya Nishio was consciously able to model his style after Utsynomiya. His designs are a good example of how to design characters to make them easy to move. And the influence of the late episodes of Hakkenden, which came out the year before, featuring as they did Utsunomiya himself, is just as patently obvious. This series features a lot of Utsunomiya-school action done by a number of animators who would later go on to become among the more promiment animators of today, so it's interesting to look back on their work ten years ago. Besides those I mentioned before - Atsushi Wakabayashi, Tetsuya Nishio - these are the others of note in the series:

Yutaka Nakamura: 12, 19, 21
Kazuto Nakazawa: 14, 51
Ko Yoshinari: 14, 22, 30, 45
Yoshinari brothers: 22
Tatsuya Tomaru: 22, 45, 51
Jiro Kanai: 43
Nobutake Ito: 44, 48, 50, 54, 55
Masahiko Kubo: 45, 51
Michio Mihara: 39

Yutaka Nakamura pioneered his own original style a few years afterwards in Cowboy Bebop. I'm unfamiliar with Tatsuya Tomaru's work, but now curious to sample it, seeing that he was trusted with the daunting task of AD on Steam Boy. Jiro Kanai is a Studio 4°C regular, and Masahiko Kubo (layout, co-AD) and Nobutake Ito (key animator of the finale) are two of the most important figures behind the animation of Mind Game. Interesting to note that even Michio Mihara is there.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

01:35:50 pm , 307 words, 958 views     Categories: Animation

Oh brother

The Bros Yoshinari

A quick correction, it was actually Ko Yoshinari (吉成鋼), Yo Yoshinari's elder brother, who was in the opening of the most recent FMA. He did the part with the person diving into the waterfall. I didn't realize until just recently that Yo Yoshinari's brother was also an animator, so I assumed it was just a typo!

Die Gebrüder Hashimoto

Another pair of brothers I seen a lot of is the Hashimoto brothers, Shinji (橋本晋司) and Koichi (橋本浩一). Shinji I've already talked about, but his elder brother (by three years), who was one of the reasons Shinji got into animation, has also done much good work, in Hakkenden 1, Memories, etc. He was also co-AD in Satoru Utsunomiya's Gosenzosama Banbanzai.

I've always noticed a few other Hashimotos, though apparently they're unrelated to Shinji and Koichi: Takashi Hashimoto (橋本敬史), who was an animator in Memories Episode 2: Stink Bomb, Superflat Monogram and Ghost in the Shell, animation director of Digimon Adventure 2, and FX animation director of Steam Boy; and Seiichi Hashimoto (橋本誠一), who was an animator in Cowboy Bebop, Sentimental Journey, Escaflowne, Planetes, and the Mars Daybreak OP.

Les frères Suzuki

Most recently I've seen a lot of another brother team, the Suzuki brothers Tatsuya and Takuya (鈴木竜也, 鈴木卓也), who are currently providing fight animation for Samurai Champloo. Before that they were animation directors in Gasaraki and animators in numerous other shows, always without fail appearing together, like inseparable twins.

τοι αδελφοι Dezaki

If we go back a bit in history we come across another pair of brothers, the Dezaki brothers. Osamu is the more famous of the two, but his brother Tetsu (出崎哲) is also very prolific as a director, having started out at TMS in 1971 around the time his brother started working there due to the closing of Mushi Pro. He is still active as a director, these days mostly directing children's educational films.