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, 10

Friday, December 10, 2004

11:47:02 pm , 1661 words, 5628 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