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: December 2004

Friday, December 31, 2004

03:14:51 pm , 141 words, 3586 views     Categories: Misc

Happy new year

Just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year, and thank all the people who have read this blog since I started it last summer, on a whim, without really knowing where it'd go. Your comments have been extremely encouraging. I woke up a bit sick today, and there's nothing like sickness to remind you of your mortality, so I'll just say to people to do what you want while you can. Things can change quickly. I was inspired to write to a dear cousin I haven't spoken to in too long. I've been a bit lazy with posts in here lately, but I'm sure there's lots more that deserves to be written about, so I'll try to keep going, while also trying to find some new creative outlet in this new year. Best of luck to everyone in their endeavors.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

07:10:33 pm , 391 words, 1770 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

On watching the animation battles

Found an interesting connection. I knew Nobuhiro Aihara had a start in commercial animation, but I spotted his name in the credits of Gauche the Cellist of all things on a recent re-watching. Love the guy even more now. Wish a DVD of his works would be released. I just got to rewatch Memory of Red alongside his animation battles with Keiichi Tanaami, and was again pleasantly struck by the incredible contrast in style. You see Aihara's origins in classical animation in his work, abstract though it is, in his ability to create intricate movement that excites as animation, whereas Tanaami's work is clearly the work of a painter, who expresses using sharp, staccato images presented boldly. Their erotic preoccupations are brought to the fore in Fetish Doll, which prominently features the finger-in-ear motif that also made an appearance in this year's animation action, Animactions!!!!, which I also had a chance to see. I think the latter could have been a more impressive piece if worked a little bit more in the studio afterwards to add some effects to the ghostly afterimages, but as it is it's an exciting and inspiring experiment. It was filmed with 5 different cameras, so theoretically you can see it unfolding differently each time. The earliest battle in the set, Scrap Diary, was in black and white, and represents a return to the fundamental movements: up-down, rotating, sliding, etc, which were the only givens at the beginning. Without the distraction of color, the eye becomes attuned to the visual richness created by their differing styles - the speed and weight of the brush strokes - as they intertwine on the screen. I found Landscape perhaps the most inspiring personally as a stimulating study of memory, of the landscapes seen for an instant from a moving train or car, never to be seen again; how these are remembered by different persons, and how they change in the mind with time. This boundlessly rich 30 minutes of visuals was all made in the last two years, so it's comforting to know that there are still people making this sort of down-to-earth analog animation these days - though it also seems to represent a nostalgic, bygone age, namely that of these now nearly septuagenarian master animators, whose art seem the most youthful of any of the independents I've seen working today.

Monday, December 27, 2004

08:57:35 pm , 417 words, 1461 views     Categories: Animation

TV Toei

The Image Forum theatre in Tokyo is showing two Karel Zeman films. Would be ultra-cool if the V Cinematheque would do the same. Two Generators in their schedule sounds like a pleasantly masochistic experience. It matches my feelings towards cinema at the moment. Though at the same time, I feel I would enjoy sitting through a restored 80s Hollywood behemoth on the big screen, to taste once more that innocent pleasure my youth. I'll probably go to their Best of Ottawa selection, because it's animation, though I feel I could pass on a lot of the items on the docket.

Aru Tabibito no Nikki (A Traveller's Diary) is a wonderful Flash animation series drawn by Kunio Kato. It has a good old fashioned hand-drawn feel, and great music. There are some panels in Japanese but they're not necessary to an understanding of the stories. The series is soon to be released on DVD.

Speaking of soon-to-be-released DVDs, fans of classic anime will be interested to hear about an upcoming series of DVD releases of classic 60s Toei TV anime. The "Toei Anime Monochrome Masterpieces" DVD series to be released early next year will consist of a total three volumes, with three DVDs per volume. Each DVD will contain a selection of 4 to 6 of the best episodes of one of Toei's black and white TV series, plus an interview with a person involved in the series.

Vol. 1
- Wolf Boy Ken - Isao Takahata (director) + Yasuo Otsuka (animator)
- Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru - Daisaku Shirakawa (director)
- Hustle Punch - Yoichi + Reiko Kotabe (animators)
Vol. 2
- Uchu Patrol Hopper - Toru Hara (producer)
- Rainbow Sentai Robin - Keiichi Kimura (animator)
- Kaizoku Oji - Toru Furuya (voice actor)
Vol. 3
- Mahotsukai Sally - Akiyoshi Hane (animator)
- Cyborg 009 - Masaki Tsuji (writer)
- Akane-chan - Tomoharu Katsumata (director)

This marks the first time several of the shows in the set will have been available in any format as far as I know. Interestingly, Ghibli, not Toei Animation, is the one releasing these. The most notable thing about this release, and which doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere, is that purchasers will be able to vote for their favorite series in the set, and the most popular series will be released in full on DVD, in a limited pre-order only set. It would be great if this made it possible to finally see all of Hustle Punch or Wolf Boy Ken, classics that nobody has seen.

Friday, December 24, 2004

08:47:51 pm , 761 words, 1293 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game: More thoughts

Carollers singing something in... Russian? Romanian? Ironically, I don't think it was intended for my ears, whatever it was.

Unable to get to sleep last night for some reason, I spent the night out on a driveabout in the snowy mountains and got back nearly dead from exhaustion earlier today around noon. I have to thank Mind Game for reminding me that I'm still alive.

As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the aspects of Mind Game that most impressed me was the storytelling; the way the drama is presented. Yuasa has mentioned that he wants to focus on storytelling in the future (over action or what have you) and it seems likely that there will be a next production, possibly an original TV series, so I very much look forward to seeing him develop this aspect of his skills. I only say that because I was amazed how good he already is, and I'd like to see him get better, which I think he could if working on his own material.

I wanted to get down my various thoughts before I see the film again because Mind Game seems like a film that evokes different things as you get to know it better, and the first impression is quite unforgettable. I think I didn't emphasize enough the impact of seeing the film for the very first time in my first post. My jaw was open much of the time throughout the movie. Few films I've ever seen combined artistic experimentation and comprehensibility in as thought-provoking and mind-bogglingly imaginative a package as this one. I'd heard this before, but I can confirm it now: This is a film that feels spontaneous. It's hard to imagine how it all could have been planned out beforehand. It goes all out until the finish in a beautiful Olympian arc, but still has the time to paint a huge canvas of characters and background information.

Yuasa talks about wanting to capture the way the original manga feels like it was written in one go, without a blueprint, and that's exactly how it feels when watching the film - even though I have 550 pages of proof as to how much meticulous planning went into every single movement of every shot (Yuasa reportedly provided roughs for much of the film's movement). I think what I like about Yuasa's directing is that I can understand the theory behind it, and I can relate to it, which is a first for me. Other directing styles impress but alienate; Yuasa's seems unpretentious and honest in comparison. Yuasa already had a reputation as an animator, but it's clear that his directing talent is equally uncommon, and he has what it takes to become a great storyteller. Also, I noticed similarities to Cat Soup - the circular storytelling, the reliance on conveying of narrative information via the visuals rather than dialogue.

I've zoomed in on the less obvious qualities like the truly profound human element because the animation (or I should say the visual element due to the huge variety of media and styles that come into play) is the most obvious of the film's unique features. I can think of few films that come close to Mind Game in terms of exactly the qualities I value most in animation - movement, velocity, freedom with form. Never have I seen animation that was simultaneously so constantly interesting and exciting and that served a greater purpose than mere surface-level titillation. It all works together perfectly, and every moment has surprises. The variety and quality of the ideas is astounding, the deformation so extreme that it seems to bend the very fabric of the universe, but the acting is extremely nuanced exactly when and where it needs to be thanks to the precise directing. The film is "written and directed" by Yuasa, but like in the Shin-chan films, the script is in fact the storyboard.

I've been holding off on looking at any of the material that came with the set because I want to absorb the movie before looking at it in pieces, and it will take a while for that to happen. The set came with some postcards illustrated by various people. All of them were involved in the film somehow or related to someone involved in it - except one: Shinji Hashimoto. He was the only one not involved in any way. It's obvious from his work, and this gesture, that there's a spiritual kinship there, so it'd be neat if they did some work together in the future.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

09:08:33 pm , 534 words, 1018 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game: First impressions

I've watched Mind Game once, and there are several things I can say for sure. I don't think I've ever had such a dizzying experience watching a full-length animated film. I don't know how to describe it; there's like a motor in my brain somewhere that's been overheated and that doesn't want to stop - it's still revving away, driven mad, out of control, pondering this and that, imparting a pleasant warming sensation. Concretely, the volume of information in the film is so vast that it begs repeated viewings. I've never seen another film like this that managed to create such a vast and convincing panorama of the entire range of human experience within such an abbreviated span of time - and do it in a way that comes across as entirely unforced and beleivable. One knows it makes sense, even if, when watching, one doesn't quite grasp what that sense is. It's as simple as a leaf, and as complex. Most importantly, I've never seen a full-length animated film that spoke to me, personally, more eloquently and powerfully purely by means of visuals than this one did. The film is, first and foremost, animated. It's an animated Ode to Joy, whose every explosively unbridled mo(ve)ment mirrors the theme of unlimited human potential. In addition, it's a great film that holds you riveted for every minute without relying on rails laid by predecessors - indeed, it shatters any notion of conventional structure. It doesn't make it easy, but it asks you to participate in the experience, and it's that much more rewarding. It's literally a storm of images, but at the same time, at the core it feels calm.

The biggest surprise for me was perhaps the gut-wrenching power of the way the human stories in the film are conveyed by the directing. There's a feeling of depth there, of personal reality, that has to be experienced to be understood. It's literally an eye-opening film. I think back on it and my eyes open wide. I try to grab a handhold and my breath catches, I don't know where to begin. It's certainly paced and structured like no other film I've seen, animated or otherwise. I can honestly say that the scene animated by Nobutake Ito is one of the most powerful animated sequences I've ever seen. Visual adrenaline. An expression of the atomic power that lurks in the human mind, the height of animated expressive potential. I came in with quite a baggage of expectations, so naturally I found much that was different from what I'd imagined. It was not the emotionally overwhelming experience that Night on the Galactic Railroad was to me personally, but this is no doubt partly because I came to the latter with no knowledge and to this one with too much. It was overwhelming in a different way, in a way that combines the emotional resonance of said film with the visual destructive power of Belladonna. I can't speak for anyone else, because this is most certainly a film that will not leave people opinionless; I can only say that to me personally it's the sort of evolutionary step I've been waiting for in animated filmmaking.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

02:00:37 pm , 885 words, 1269 views     Categories: Mind Game

The Mind Game DVD has English subs

Mind Game Official SiteI just received the Special Box, and as it turns out, the film does have English subtitles, despite all the fretting about the word "planned". So anyone who wants to see Mind Game right away, before the remake, should jump to it and get the DVD to support this kind of animation, if you want to see more like it in the future.

To anyone who still does not know what Mind Game is, here are a few links that might help to give you some idea. You can browse through all my Mind Game-related posts here.

=> Mind Game trailer

=> All about Mind Game - a primer

=> Masaaki Yuasa interview - translated from the official site

=> Movie review by Mark Schilling - spoiler alert

=> Mind Game DVD - detailed info about the three sets (photos)

=> Mind Game Bibliography - which I've been neglecting

The packaging of the box is just lovely, all drawn by Masaaki Yuasa. He reportedly drew more than 240 individual characters for the even more beautiful looking Perfect Box. The 500-page storyboard book is truly a sight to behold. I like Yuasa's stand on the book - he lays it all bare, warts and all, without correcting anything, so we really have an accurate blueprint of the film here, and not a prettified one, which I've heard happens sometimes these days when directors know their storyboard is going to be made public.

Studio 4°C and Yahoo! Japan recently linked up to present the first ten episodes of Kimagure Robot to the public, and yesterday, to commemorate the release of the DVD, they started a series of what will eventually be four charity auctions, where they'll be auctioning off various items drawn upon by Yuasa. At the same time they put up a new interview with Yuasa, which touches on aspects of his experience on the film that are familiar from other interviews, such as the rapidity with which the Yoshimoto Kogyo voice actors breezed through their task, but also a few other less familiar anecdotes, such as the one about his experience creating a musical scene for "a certain show" many years ago (the 1992 Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song movie), when he created an incredibly imaginative 3 minutes of animation that was arduously matched to a song, only to nearly die of mortification to find that the song had been changed at the last minute, and the animation no longer matched. He relates that this led to his determination to be pliant as a reed in his work as the director of Mind Game, and not get hung up on details, which accounts for the unique way he approached the job - not as an auteur handing out commandments to subordinates, but as an organizer trying to figure out how best to accomodate the various ideas offered by his talented staff, from whom many of the most memorable ideas in the film reportedly originated. This has obvious similarities with the production style of the Crayon Shin-chan films, in which he was involved as designer, animator and storyboarder for almost a decade, providing many of the most interesting ideas in the films.

In addition to this interview, a special feature on Yuasa was added to the Animeister section of the Japan Media Arts Festival site after Mind Game won the grand prize. It also includes an informative interview, which I'll soon be translating. Not long ago I talked about how a feature in said section had been devoted Keiichi Hara, director of several recent Crayon Shin-chan films. In retrospect that could well have been taken as a hint of what was to come. In each feature there is a "keyword" and "key figure" section where the person in question provides six words and individuals that can be cited as keys to their oeuvre. Masaaki Yuasa is one of Keiichi Hara's key persons, and vice-versa, which makes the similarity in the directing style of Mind Game and the Shin-chan films that much clearer. Yuasa's list is quite gratifying personally. Topping the list is Takashi Nakamura, whose legendary animation in mid-80s anime TV series like Gold Lightan and Urashiman Yuasa cites as his door to sakuga anime otakudom, definable as the state of watching anime largely for the thrill of being able to see work by individualistic "karisuma" animators like Nakamura. Second only to Nakamura in Yuasa's sise is Shinya Ohira, who since Nakamura's heyday has been one of the most uncompromisingly individual artists working in Japanese commercial animation, and whose influence on Yuasa both spiritual and stylistic is even more palpable. The other figures are Mitsuru Hongo and Keiichi Hara, directors of the Shin-chan films; Sueyoshi Yuichiro, the brilliant animator and animation director of Mind Game who is widely considered to be Yuasa's direct stylistic successor; and Tsutomu Shibayama, the great animator at the root of all the classic A Pro anime that captured Yuasa's imagination as a child, eventually leading him to become an animator at Shibayama's studio, Asia-Do. A feature on Yoshiyuki Tomino was added immediately prior to the Yuasa feature, presumably because Tomino heads the judging committee this year.

Adding to this the three hours of bonus material on the DVDs, I think it's fair to say that we've got a good beginning in terms of expository information on Mind Game.

Friday, December 17, 2004

11:50:40 am , 447 words, 6767 views     Categories: Mind Game

All together now

Mind Game Official SiteHooray! Mind Game has won the Grand Prize at this year's Japan Media Arts Festival. Akitaroh Daichi's Makasete Iruka was runner-up alongside Howl and several other films.

The prize winners have just been announced, so details have yet to be published. I had my doubts whether it would happen with Yoshiyuki Tomino at the head of the judging committee this year, but it looks like I misjudged him. We'll see if Yuasa mentions the honor in a few hours on the Maywa Denki talk live broadcast.

It's rather impressive, when you think about it, for a dark horse like Mind Game, which nobody saw in the theaters, to have beat out the entire cavalcade of major new films by all the major anime directors - and what's more, at a festival run by the Bunkacho, the Governmental Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The other big contest for Japanese animated films, the Mainichi Film Concours, will be announcing the winners of its two animation prizes on February 9: the Animation Film Prize, which generally goes to major industry films (last year's winner was Tokyo Godfathers), and Ofuji Noburo Prize, which generally goes to more artistic animated films (last year's winner was Winter Days). The Ofuji Sho is arguably the more coveted and prestigious of the two, as the list of prizewinners includes most of the great practitioners of the more artistic side of animation in Japan over last four decades.

   Osamu Tezuka: Tale of a Streetcorner
   Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon
   Makoto Wada: Murder
   Yoji Kuri: Human Zoo, Love, Chair, Aos
   Tadanari Okamoto: A curious medicine
   Osamu Tezuka: Pictures at an Exhibition
   Yoji Kuri: Two carps, The Room
   Kazuhiko Watanabe: The Ugly Duckling
   Takashi Yanase: The Gentle Lion
   Tadanari Okamoto: The Flower and the Mole, Home My Home
   Akikazu Kawano/Takeo Nakamura: Tenma no Torayan
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: Oni
   Tadanari Okamoto: Praise Be to Small Ills
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: The Life of a Poet
   Tadanari Okamoto: The Water Seed
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: Dojoji
   Tadanari Okamoto: Towards the Rainbow
   Cagliostro's Castle
   Taku Furukawa: Speed
   Isao Takahata: Gauche the Cellist
   Tadanari Okamoto: The Magic Ballad
   Barefoot Gen
   Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind
   Night on the Galactic Railroad
   Osamu Tezuka: Legend of the Forest
   - No award -
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: Sleeping Beauty
   Tadanari Okamoto/Kihachiro Kawamoto: The Restaurant of Many Orders
   - No award -
   Shigeru Tamura: Milky Way Fish
   - No award -
   Nozomu Nagasaki: Rusuban
   - No award -
   Shirokumi: Mizu no sei: Kappa Hyakuzu
   Alexander Petrov: The Old Man and the Sea
   Blood the last vampire
   Millennium Actress
   Winter Days

A DVD set of the winners was released in 2000, which I talked about in a previous post.

1 commentPermalink

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

11:45:56 pm , 1281 words, 4690 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Ichiro Itano

The first pic from Gisaburo Sugii's new film. Why am I reminded of Ringing Bell?

I love Shinji Hashimoto's shot in the Sci-Fi Harry op, the way he manages to make the person all wobbly and wavy and yet retain a distinct core. There's a bit of this deforming sensation in his work of late, but here it's done quite dramatically and to great effect. I don't know who else was involved, except obviously Shinya Ohira, but it's all great, though Shinji and Shinya are the only two who take the idea of getting as much movement as possible out of the character on the screen to its maximum potential. They place the character there and see how much interesting movement they can come up with. The whole form speaks, not just the face, and there's a thrilling density there that nobody else acheives, whereas in normal animation there's a hurry to get the specified movement done and out of the way. It's really a different way of approaching the act of animating.

I had another look at Riding Bean and was surprised by the quality and the quantity of Ohira's contribution. He was one of the ADs and contributed the most animation. Last time I watched this thing it was over a decade ago and I didn't know who Ohira was, nor what good animation was. Now I see. Any suspicions about Ohira's drawing skills from people who have only seen his late work will be quickly wiped away from seeing his mid-period FX. This would have been right after Akira, when he was still focusing on FX, before moving to characters. There's an incredible density of movement and detail that has no equal in anything that was being done then or now by anyone else. I look forward to seeing Ohira's work in Howl. There's a part of me that would love to see him go independent, but another part that loves seeing him working within the system on these major studio projects, always totally doing it his own way. His presence bring a healthy feeling of tension to the final product, at least in this viewer.

One of the things that made Ohira stand out in his early years was his tendency to pack an incredible amount of detail into short sequences animated at a full frame rate. There was a span of years during which he admits that he went a little detail-crazy, doing such things as drawing a thousand drawings for five seconds of animation. One of Ohira's most famous predecessors in terms of focusing on packing in detail into short sequences of incredible power and density is Ichiro Itano, who created a sensation among fans with his animation of aerial combat sequences in a trio of early 80s TV shows.

Ichiro ItanoBorn in 1959, Itano started as an animator midway through the original Gundam series. While working on the show he came up with a new, more dynamic approach to portraying combat sequences that would wind up making him one of the most famous animators of his day.

The seed of this new approach can be traced as far back as the make-beleive games he and his friends would play out on the street mimicking their favorite TV hero, Ultraman. One day they came up with the idea of tying firework rockets to the back of a bike to spice things up, and when the rockets flew, the young Ichiro was struck by the dynamism and beauty of the unpredictable way the projectiles flew through the air.

When he began to think about the problems entailed in the combat animation he had to do on Gundam, he questioned the static way such scenes had been approached up until that point, looking back to those youthful bike rocket experiments for inspiration. Rather than letting action take place in a fixed frame and cutting between close-ups, he moved the camera into the middle of the fray, dynamically following the various bodies in the frame as they danced around each other in an elegant, intricately detailed ballet. This was like nothing that had been seen before, and it gave his scenes an incredible immediacy. You knew it right away when Itano's animation appeared on the screen, and you couldn't look away. It stood out. At a basic level this is because his scenes were (ideally) done at a full frame rate, which contrasted greatly with the limited animation that necessarily dominated the medium. (There were particularly bad episodes in Macross with literally no animators, only the character animation director and mecha animation director; Itano handled several.) But the movement itself was different in a more fundamental way - it was about the sheer joy of pure movement. Like all great animation, you could see the person behind it. It had personality. You could sense an artist communicating his vision: "This is animation!" He was an animation artisan searching for how best to work the material given him, and you could clearly see the labor that had gone into the final product. The timing of the action was millisecond-precise, the flight paths were unpredictable and full of pinhead turns in a way that convinced you of the reality and the weight of the objects. In the end, what makes his work great is that it is an example of a person pushing the medium of animation to its limit and creating the sort of visuals that are only possible in the medium of animation.

Yoshiyuki Tomino was duly impressed by his invention, and gave Itano an opportunity to continue to develop it in his next series, Ideon, in the movie version of which Itano's approach reached its first peak. Having by now acquired a reputation in his field, Itano handled most of the film's important full-frame mecha sequences (along with Yoshinobu Inano), which, combined with the highly expressive characters of animation director Tomonori Kogawa, contribute greatly to the visceral impact of this blistering, orgiastic vision of mutual assured destruction, which many (including Tomino himself) consider Tomino's peak acheivement. After this, Itano worked on Macross, where his art reached its peak in the various classic action sequences scattered throughout the series, for which he is best remembered today. It was at this time that Hideaki Anno came to work under Itano to learn professional animation skills, which he would put to use in animating the swords in Daicon IV. By this time Itano had become famous among animation fans in Japan - to the extent that they had invented a word for Itano's animation: Itano Circus. To the disappointment of animation fans, however, he soon embarked on a directing career, cutting off a promising beginning as an innovative animator. He was part of the generation right at the border of the digital age, when animation was becoming more and more detailed, and he was one of those who pushed the medium of hand-drawn animation to its height, creating incredible effects by means of arduously crafted hand-drawn animation. Much of it could easily be done on a computer now, and for the last few years that is exactly what Itano has been doing: bringing his art into the digital age, in recent work on shows such as Macross Zero.

Partial filmography
  Gundam TV - key animation
  Ideon TV - key animation
  Ideon movie - key animation
  Macross TV
    mecha animation director (w/animators): 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 31
    mecha animation director (alone): 14, 17
    key animation: 31
  Macross movie - key animation
  Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer - key animation
  Megazone 23 - action director, animation director
  Megazone 23 Part II - director, mecha animation director
  Tekkaman Blade TV - storyboard, director, animation director: 31, 36, 42, 47
  Macross Plus - action choreographer
  Macross Zero - action choreographer

Saturday, December 11, 2004

11:33:10 pm , 967 words, 2430 views     Categories: Animation


I've been hearing a lot about Minna no Uta recently, though I can't see it over here. Tomomi Mochizuki (dir), Katsuya Kondo (anim) and Naoya Tanaka (art) did this month's piece.

I finally saw the Sci-Fi Harry op, and it looks suspiciously like Ohira from Hakkenden and Ghiblies. Unfortunately nobody wants to reveal the identity of Shinnosuke Harada (dir/storyboard/AD), so I can't say for sure - not even Shinji Hashimoto, who admits to being one of the animators, who were collectively credited as "Harada-gumi" because of some kind of restriction from other obligations at the time. It'd be neat to see the same team do a Minna no Uta episode. But I won't hold my breath. It's quite an incredible piece, reminiscent of Shinji Hashimoto's Kacho Oji op.

For the longest time I've wanted to see a 20-minute film called Sea Cat that was made at Oh Production in 1988 by Toshitsugu Saida, the studio's star animator who did Gauche. The story is about a cat who gets lost at sea, is raised by a sea otter, and is finally abducted by a UFO when a war breaks out and the oceans are evaporated by a nuclear holocaust. What's interesting about the film, besides the story, is the production method: each shot was done by a different animator. They went around looking for animators who were interested in contributing a shot of animation; when they found one, the animator would do the shot, and they'd be off to look for another to do the next shot, and so on until it was done. At twenty minutes, the animator credit list must be quite long. It's a fascinating idea, and I'd really like to see the result. Like Gauche, it was more of an independent pet project than a typical corporate-sponsored anime project. And also like Gauche, it was not distributed theatrically as is normally done with a film, but instead lent out for small screenings, in what they call "hall projection". So unless Anido decides to release it, it will probably never see the light of day. The spirit of its production is very close to that of Gauche: slowly, on the side, as a labor of love. I've heard of entire shorts that were done by one animator, but this is an amusing reversal of that extreme. I get zero hits in Google, so I guess I won't be seeing it soon. It's a shame, because it sounds interesting. Oh Pro is a neat studio.

Somewhat similar to Sea Cat in terms of having been produced by studio animators on the side, outside of the well worn tracks laid down by a monolithic production-and-distribution system, is a short feature from almost two decades earlier: Tsuru no Sugomori (Nesting Cranes), a 17-minute "hall" film completed in 1971. Situated in a crane community on a faraway desert island, it tells the story of two nesting cranes whose death at the hands of a weasel is avenged by their closeknit brotherhood of cranes. It was produced by the Japan Broadcasting Industry Labor Union, which enlisted more than 80 union animators at Toei Doga and various other major studios for a period of 3 years to complete the highly symbolic film. Based on the date of release, it can be presumed that production would have begun immediately after the theatrical release of Horus, a film that was deeply rooted in the trials and tribulations of the labor union activism of the syndicated animators who would in turn produce Tsuru no Sugomori. At the head of the creative end was A Pro animator Tsutomu Shibayama, who wrote, directed and was animation director. Over the period during which this film was produced, he would have been primarily occupied with the A Pro classics Moomin and Tensai Bakabon alongside ex-Toei Doga animator Yasuo Otsuka, who, on the other hand, as far as I know, was not involved. This is another intriguing curiosity that has long been and remains utterly unknown and unavailable.

Another similarly tantalizing long-lost project in which Otsuka was involved, and in a big way, was Sogen no Ko Tenguri (Tenguri, Boy of the Plains), a 1977 PR short commissioned by Snow Brand Milk Products. Intended as a way of explaining the historical origin of cheese to kids sightseeing the company factories, it tells the story of a boy living in a village on the Mongolian grasslands who decides to release his beloved pet calf into the wild to save her from being killed and eaten by the villagers, who know of no other way to survive the harsh winter than to kill their livestock. Many years later, when he has grown up, he meets the calf again, now grown into a cow, and learns from her the secret that will make it possible for Tenguri's people to put the killing behind them. This was Yasuo Otsuka's first directing project. Like Cagliostro, it had to be produced in an extremely short time span, in this case one month, and in adverse conditions that had a permanent curbing effect on Otsuka's directing ambitions, which since the experience of Horus he had largely been abandoned anyway. This caused Otsuka to appraise the project negatively in retrospect. Nonetheless, it features work by most of the luminaries of the ex-Toei Doga group at that period - Hayao Miyazaki did a third of the layout, Yoichi Kotabe animated the protagonist, and Yoshio Kabashima animated the calf - and it is one of only two films directed by Otsuka, so there is clearly merit for releasing it, yet it is not currently available to the public in any format (it has been released on that outrageously-priced DVD set). In this case, it can be expected that this will in all probability happen one day, since a DVD release already exists.

Friday, December 10, 2004

11:47:02 pm , 1661 words, 5591 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Yasuhiro Nakura

The theater in Yokohama that had the temerity to show Mind Game just went out of business. Of course, that was largely due to flood damage, but it's more romantic and awaré to think of it as a curse. And it wouldn't be that surprising for a film that had three to four people in the seats on opening day.

Telecom has finally started putting up the storyboard for the second episode of their TV series Robo Crosser. It's drawn by studio mainstay Nobuo Tomizawa.

The figure behind the unique atmosphere of the 1990 remake of Moomin is Yasuhiro Nakura, who first became known to Japan with his work on the 1984 TV series Memol in the Pointed Cap. The latter series, a Toei production, finds together many of the same figures who went on to work on Little Twins - which was also technically a Toei production although it was animated by Oh Production - including Kin'ichiro Suzuki, who was character designer of Memol and an animator in LT, director Jun'ichi Sato, who got started around this time, and art director Isamu Tsuchida; which accounts for the similarities. Oh Pro animation director Kazuo Komatsubara was also present in both. Since the beginning Toei has been the main source of animation work for Oh Production along with Nippon Animation (or A Pro early on).

Nakura is today primarily known as an illustrator, and his stint as the designer of Memol was when the soft, dreamy, fluffy style that has since characterized his work first saw the light of day. Although not prolific in comparison with other animators, because his proclivities eventually led him to focus on illustration at the expense of animation, he left behind a handful of gems of a visual richness that bears no comparison with any other animation that was being done in the country, so he has nonetheless managed to make a name for himself as one of the more interesting animators of his period.

The first of these was, of course, Memol the TV series, in which he was animation director of three episodes in addition to being the main designer. The look of the series was unlike any other anime then or now: the screen warm like a picture book, the drawings full of little decorative hooks and gnarls - almost western in flavor - and the unassertive visuals perfectly matched the gentle, low-key story, which largely accounts for the popularity that led to the release of a compilation movie. Immediately afterwards he produced the piece that first revealed his dual nature of animator-illustrator, Marielle's Jewel Box, a 5-minute short drawn entirely by himself that pushes the stylistic seed of Memol to its logical conclusion, sending its protagonist through a serene and sumptuously rendered dream flight through the clouds.

Having apparently now awoken to his calling, he decided to put his skills to the test and undertake a herculean labor by accepting the job for which he is perhaps best remembered today, and that must surely have been the most challenging of his career up until that point: Angel's Egg. He was confronted with the daunting task of turning the intricate designs and dank, water-filled wastland of the film into compelling animation. In the end he succeeded eminently in the task, and it's hard to imagine anyone else who could have met the challenge as well and brought to the film the demonic level of detail, technical mastery and poetic power he did. Like all great animation films, this is a film that is unthinkable without its animation director.

The following year, in 1986, he was awarded a prize by the Japan Animation Festival for the quality of his achievements in Memol and Angel's Egg. He spent the year drawing animation for Laputa and, more significantly, Night on the Galactic Railroad, and began illustrating a manga for Animage, having recently taken up illustration on the side during Memol. Night was significant not only because stylistically it lay closer to Nakura's work in Angel's Egg and later films, but because it led to his undertaking the second big job of his career with a director blessed with an equally poetic temperament, Gisaburo Sugii: The Tale of Genji. Although the visuals in the new film are cleaner and more restrained than the ornate crenellations of Angel's Egg, the hand of the master is unmistakable here again in the deceptively sedate lines that move with virtuosic precision and tremendous pent-up internal energy, like an animated Noh dance. The directing and animation combine perfectly in this film like no other that truly challenges the senses and demands a trance-like level of concentration. It seems a significant achievement to me because it successfully connects up the stillness that has come to characterize anime back to the national art from which it sprang.

The next year he produced what is probably his least known animated creation, but also one of his most distinctive, an adaptation of national poet Kenji Miyazawa's The Acorns and the Wildcat, the story of young Ichiro, who one day receives a curious summons to help solve an intractable dispute among acorns littered on the forest floor. They are unable to come to an agreement: Who is the greatest acorn of them all? Wise Ichiro solves the matter in an instant with zenlike pith: Whoever is dumbest, ugliest, and most squashed - he shall be named the greatest acorn of them all. Triumphant silence ensues.

Nakura here continues to explore the realm of stillness in motion that he mapped in his past work, but this time he takes one step towards his illustration work, which henceforth would occupy the greater proportion of his time. Although at first sight a rather innocuous little piece, the film is in fact one of his most innovative, in the sense that less is more. He discards cels and explores a new type of animation entirely using background illustrations. The images fading in and out produce a curiously calming sensation, and there is no feeling of strain in the novel approach, or of the technique feeling as if it had been adopted merely for a budgetary reasons. The film represents a conscious and convincing artistic choice, a new narrative form, an exploration of the meaning of animation.

By now the transition to illustration that had been made in his animation had also been made in his career, and he spent a year away from animation before returning in 1990 with Moomin, which is but one of several versions of the Swedish classic that have been made in Japan since Yasuo Otsuka's breakthrough 1969 version. The new version benefits from a better understanding of the heart of the original, and is one of the few anime in the vein of the early World Masterpiece Theater made at such a late period that can be said to have come close to the standard of its eminent ancestors, and managed to acheive a convincing semblance of calm in the eye of the storm of modern anime. The remake was undoubtedly approached with great care, as is clear from the fact that they went to the trouble of seeking out Nakura. Production values indeed seem very even and considerably above the norm - exceptionally so in certain spots such as the sinking ship at the beginning of episode 12.

Although he became ever busier with illustrations over the next two years, he continued working on several pilot films that never bore fruit, and, unable to sever his ties with animation, finally went to the length of independently creating a short film for his own pleasure based on an Edogawa Ranpo story - the short segment that would later come to be integrated into the 1994 film Rampo. The film is utterly eclipsed by Nakura's brilliant animation, which is almost certainly the most inventive and unusual he ever produced. It bears little similarity to what he had done up until that point, with its extremely active animation full of shifting perspectives and fluid transformations. The film's excellent coloring sensibility and hand-drawn look is the only obvious common thread that runs through it all. The material is extremely well treated and a tantalizing hint of what could be if he applied his incredible animating skills to more shorts of this kind.

After this he was involved in only rarely in animation before inexplicably taking on the mammoth job entailed by Metropolis. And just recently there was a lot of surprise to see that he had participated in Innocence. In the meantime a book collecting all facets of his work as an animator and illustrator has been released, which will have to tide us over until the day he decides to take another foray into animation, to our delight.


(from Yasuhiro Nakura's home page)

Galaxy Express 999 ⇒ inbetweener

To Terra ⇒ inbetweener
Cybord 009 Super-Galaxy Legend ⇒ inbetweener
Maho Shojo Lalabel TV ⇒ key animation

Akuma to Himegimi ⇒ inbetweener
Swan Lake ⇒ inbetweener
Honey Honey no Suteki na Boken ⇒ key animation

Acrobunch TV ⇒ key animation
Kabocha Wine TV ⇒ key animation
Future War 198X ⇒ inbetweener
Ugly Duckling OVA ⇒ key animation
Red Riding Hood OVA ⇒ character design, animation director, key animation

Dr. Slump Sekai Isshu Dai Race ⇒ key animation
Dr. Slump TV ⇒ key animation

Wata no Kuniboshi ⇒ key animation
Memol of the Pointy Hat TV ⇒ original character design, animation director (9, 15, 43), key animation

Memol: Poem of Light and Wind short ⇒ animation director, key animation
Angel's Egg OVA ⇒ animation director, key animation

Night on the Galactic Railroad ⇒ key animation
Laputa ⇒ key animation

Tale of Genji ⇒ character design, animation director, key animation

Deimos: Akuma no Hanayome OVA ⇒ key animation
The Acorns and the Wildcat OVA ⇒ original character design, image boards, scene design, key animation, inbetweens, coloring

Moomin TV ⇒ character design, opening storyboard/layout/animation director, ending storyboard/animation director/key animation

Rampo animation part ⇒ director/layout/animation director/coloring
DNA2 ⇒ ending key animation/coloring

Shonen Santa no Daiboken TV ⇒ original character design

Moomin ad ⇒ director/storyboard

Metropolis ⇒ character design/chief animation director/key animation

Innocence ⇒ key animation

Thursday, December 9, 2004

11:50:26 pm , 749 words, 1551 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Koji Nanke

A young Koji Nanke 南家こうじ talks about his first independent film in this old animation fanzine from January 1977, Fantoche. A year later he produced his first Minna no Uta short, which was aired during August and September 1978, and he went on to produce over 30 more over the next 20 years, as well as television commercials and the openings for the 1980s Takahashi Rumiko TV series, establishing a unique position for himself as an independent animator effortlessly living in both worlds - independent and commercial. He's one of the more prominent independent animator success stories of the 80s, his work having been seen regularly on TV. His colorful, up-tempo style has made him one of the most popular independents of the last two decades.

The name of his debut film is Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and he was 24 at the time he made it. Early that summer in 1976 he heard from Seiichi Hayashi about an animation festival that was taking place in August, the "Animation '76 Summer Festival". He was interested in submitting a film, and had little time until the deadline for entry, so he started work right away in mid-July, spent one week on the animation, and received the finished print just in time for the screening. The spare, clean, almost minimalist look of the film, which is almost devoid of color and shows us a series of images stripped down to a bare collection of lines - a cup is a rectangle in the middle of the screen into which a vividly contrastingly three-dimensional red fluid is poured, a city skyline is rained on from above by a few faintly brushed-on clouds - is a compact starter's kit of the style that would later become his trademark.

Koji Nanke officially began his animation career in 1971, at age 19, in the finishing department of animation studio Tatsunoko. Over the next few years he learned all about the process of animation by absorbing what was going on around him. He was involved as an assistant animation director on various shows, including Gatchatman in 1972, where he worked alongside Tomonori Kogawa, before going freelance in 1975, when he began producing television commercials in the capacity of a freelance animator. The following year came his first personal creation as an independent animator.

One of the more atypical projects Koji Nanke was involved in was the comparatively long 1998 14-minute film Upon the Planet, animated by himself, directed by Sunao Katabuchi (Studio 4°C co-founder, director of Princess Arete), and produced by Anido. The visuals and narrative style are reminiscent of Frederic Back, who was appreciative of the film when it was shown him by Isao Takahata on the occasion of his visit to Studio Ghibli.

Advertised as "Japan's First Animation Periodical" (what about Film 1/24?), Fantoche is an impressive little 64 pages and ¥500. This particular issue contains quite a variety of material, touching on every facet of animation, indicating how much progress had been made in the time since the Animation Sannin no Kai had introduced Japan to the word "animation". There's a surprisingly technical feature on the two animation basics metamorphosis and perspective; an incredibly in-depth article by renowned film collector Goro Sugimoto about the history of 16mm talkie film projector lending practices before and during the war (there's an interesting before-and-after comparison of pre-film acknowledgements: one from 1943 on a reel of Momotaro the Sea Hawk reads "To the people of Japan in their fight in the Great Asian War" and one from a film provided by the occupying army in 1946 reads "This picture is lent by the American people. We wish to express our sincere thanks for their kindness."); news about various projects underway, including The Hobbit, and, more interestingly, an intriguing French-Japanese co-production called Minoie, touted as a satirical fable for adults, which apparently has something to do with Vietnam, but subsequently seems to have disappeared without a trace; an interview with Osamu Dezaki about his recent rise to auteurdom; a list of national "circles"; even an article by Yasuo Otsuka; and, as should be obvious from the cover, a 24-page special feature on Yasuji Mori, complete with lots of photos and new interviews with all the major Toei Doga figures of the period, which was really the only reason I got the magazine. The Mori article was indeed great, but as it turns out, so was the magazine, and it wound up acting as a nice time capsule of the state of animation fandom in Japan two decades ago at the start of the anime boom.

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

11:35:37 pm , 831 words, 7895 views     Categories: Animation


Little TwinsThere was already anticipation surrounding the fact that Mamoru Hosoda was going to direct his first full-length feature with the next One Piece movie due out in March, a month before the next Shin-chan movie, but the recent unveiling of the identity of the animation directors - Takaaki Yamashita, Sushio Ishizaki and Kubota Chikashi (the latter two Dead Leaves animators) - further raised expectations, and these expectations now appear corroborated by the patently Mind Game-inflected trailer, which leaves no room to doubt that this is a film to look forward to, however unimpressed one may otherwise be by the evolution of Okawa Hiroshi's studio.

One of the most prominent deaths of the Mushi Pro generation was Mikiharu Akabori, in 1999. Having been a fan before I knew his name from The Legend of Sirius and after I knew his name from the great youthful FX in Cleopatra, I've always wished I could see more of his work in the realistic, extremely tricky and active vein of the early period. Those scenes where he animates all sorts of phenomena, from smoke to water to explosions to flying objects to vehicles, all with such obvious exacting detail and enthusiasm, and all interacting so convincingly. I can't for the life of me think of another animator in Japan at the time who was doing that sort of thing. Only afterwards do you start to see animators picking up that thread: Kazuhide Tomonaga in 999 and Takashi Nakamura in Esteban, people who loved effects animation and saw the beauty in it. After flowering in Cleopatra, he moved to Sanrio, where he eventually produced his most famous work in the water of Sirius, a decade after the battle on the sea that killed poor Antonius. In the interim he worked as an animator on most of the early films, and continued to develop his style, producing ever more tricky and inventive work that is among the best in any of the films: the cannonball dogfight in Little Jumbo, the rugged mountain terrain of Ringing Bell and the clouds in the Unico pilot. Akabori is one of the truly great animators of the 70s, but he seems less well known than many others of the period, perhaps because he doesn't fall into the same line of development as most of them. He is indeed one of a kind, and all the more precious for it.

I think it was seeing the climax of Little Twins that brought Akabori to mind. It springs from the same visceral thrill of facing up to the challenge of bringing into movement on the page various objects accurately moving in their own trajectories and interacting with each other according to their differing physical properties, and it's one of the best examples I've seen in anime. You don't see intricately detailed natural animation of this kind very often, at least not in Japan. And certainly not in children's shows like this, at this period. The reasons are fairly obvious enough - it's tedious, hard work, and time and budget constraints preclude that sort of extravagance. The scattered examples are therefore all the more precious. I once ran across an equally unexpected and inexplicably high-quality natural FX sequence in an episode of the 90s remake of Moomin, a scene on a beach where a ship is seen sinking far out to sea. The turbulent lapping of the waves was depicted with extreme care in a highly stylized fashion that was clearly the product of a strong-willed and talented animator. It's somewhat mysterious how it could have come about that a scene of such quality should inconspicuously find its way into a random TV episode like this.

Buried in all this somewhere is a thought process that I think is unique to Japan. Rather than being character-centric, they see the world around us in animist terms. Movement is everywhere. Norio Matsumoto moves backgrounds, showing us that movement is a product of perspective. Shinya Ohira makes an art of smoke. Ichiro Itano creates ballets with missiles. Water has been continuously reinvented, from Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island to Mikiharu Akabori in Sirius to Nobutake Ito in Mind Game. There is a willingness to try to grapple with the nature of the thing, to figure out how different objects work and move, an eagerness to discover new kinds of movement. The movement itself is the aesthetic object. I think this is partly what accounts for the uniqueness and the incredible richness and appeal of FX animation in Japan.

Notable examples of FX animation throughout anime history include Yoichi Kotabe's waves in Animal Treasure Island and Doggie March, Yasuo Otsuka's giant fish in Hols, Tomonaga Kazuhide's apocalypse in 999, Yoshinori Kanada's dragon in Harmageddon, Takashi Nakamura's rocks in Esteban, Hideaki Anno's war in Honneamise, Shinya Ohira's smoke and building destruction in Akira, Hiroyuki Okiura's mob in Akira, Manabu Ohashi's clouds in Cloud, Norio Matsumoto's storm in the You're Under Arrest OVA, Mitsuo Iso's explosion in Blood and rocks in Rahxephon.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

01:34:46 pm , 786 words, 2219 views     Categories: Animation

Crayon Shin-chan

The universe in a drop of water - a wonderful new way of capturing the beauty of H2O, and turning that beauty outwards, in homage to Hokusai's waves, by Norihisa Hashimoto, on the Media Arts site.

I don't know if it's classifiable as a comeback, but Gisaburo Sugii is indeed making a new film - an adaptation of a popular children's book series called On a Stormy Night, which tells the story of a wolf and a sheep who become friends. At least it's something, even if it's not quite as daring a next project as I would have hoped. Remains to be seen what Gisaburo will make of it.

Not many people seem to be talking about it, but I noticed Gankutsuoh 9 was a solo animator ep, by Yasuhiro Seo 瀬尾康博, who's been involved in Gundam in the past. There was interesting stuff going on with the hands.

You can see a bit from Keiichi Hara's storyboard for the Crayon Shin-chan film that was probably the biggest hit in the history of the series, 2001's The Adult Empire Strikes Back, on the Media Arts site. Interesting thing I learned from the feature on him that they've just put up in their Animeister section is that there was no script per se for the Shin-chan films - the storyboard drawn by the director was the script. And the storyboards were drawn Miyazaki-style, up-to-the-minute, ending not known until you draw it, with animation being started before the storyboard was even finished. Somehow that makes sense and goes a way to accounting for the unique atmosphere of these films.

Hara is an interesting person to have directing them, with his predilection for slow pacing and thematically dense storytelling and tendency to shy away from the childish gags typical of the TV series. His films seem to breathe the air of another era, that of the early Toei Doga films. All of this is best captured in the Empire film, though all of the other films are deviant in their own interesting way, each with its own underpinning referential - Godzilla movies in 1999's Showdown at the Onsen and retro samurai movies in his last, 2002's Warring States movie, which by all accounts pushed his style to the limits of the children's movie format.

Hara directed the films from 1997-2002, and his very personal approach to the films broadened the audience range to adults, but he was replaced by Tsutomu Mizushima in 2003, who has veered the films in the opposite direction, back towards the fast-paced humor that is his forté. Mitsuru Hongo, director of the TV series, directed the first 4, from 1993-6, and he is the one who came up with the unique production style that has been used in all of the films, whereby the director doesn't draw the whole storyboard, but assigns parts to others based on what they're good at to make the film richer (Hara drew part of the storyboard in the first film). Hongo is also the one who came up with the three-part format of the TV episodes, where a different team handles each part.

This format is one of the most appealing aspects of the TV series, because it has allowed the people working on it the freedom to pursue their personal styles in a way that most other anime series have not. Masaaki Yuasa was one of the creators who flourished under Hongo in the Shin-chan TV series. Yuasa was already highly valued team member during Hongo's reign, and Hara, who has vocally supported Mind Game, is no different. After Yuasa moved on to other pastures, Hara's main animation support was Yuasa's successor of sorts, Yuichiro Sueyoshi, who for the two years immediately after his animation for the climax of Hara's Empire movie was busy with Mind Game.

Masami Otsuka's Shin-chanIn interviews, Yuasa is quick to emphasize how generous and encouraging the people at Shin'ei were with him, even at times when he himself had far less faith in his own abilities. As a result of this experience, Yuasa has managed to pursue his art to the point he has today. He is widely regarded as the person with the most individual approach on the series. Another figure who is less well known but equally idiosyncratic is Masami Otsuka, whom Yuasa openly cites as an inspiration and influence. His bold, angular, almost geometric take on the characters is certainly the most idiosyncratic graphically, to which Yuasa's can be posited as the most original in terms of the movement. Because of this, Otsuka's work has acquired its own following among fans of the series - a good example of the popularity the more special animators tend to acheive among more diehard fans in Japan.