Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: July 2005

Friday, July 29, 2005

02:26:42 pm , 597 words, 3065 views     Categories: Mind Game

Sweeped

I just noticed that at least two other sites including Cartoon Brew reported on the Mind Game wins a day earlier than me using the exact same title: Mind Game sweeps Fantasia. Aside from the fact that it's amazing how fast Mind Game news travels now, I thought that was kind of remarkable, but then again, it really was just the perfect title. I went ahead and changed the title for good measure. Great minds think alike.

It's kind of shocking how overwhelmingly positive most of the reactions I've read have been, not just in terms of proportion, but in terms of degree, of how glowing the already positive reviews are. I didn't know whether people over here would react as positively as me to it, so it feels good to see that most people over here seem completely bowled over by it, as I suspected they would if they could just see it. It's so great to hear all these people - many of whom know a good bit about animation - coming forwarding saying this is one of the best animated films they've ever seen. I'm obviously not the only one who felt Mind Game was the animated film I'd had to wait all my life to see.

There were plenty of people in Japan who praised it as soon as it appeared, but there were just as many, if not more, who just didn't seem to get it. Far from the tepid reaction on its home turf, over there the reaction has been incredible so far, as Yuasa said in an interview at the Montreal festival. I felt happy for him that he'd finally been able to get a great reaction like that. It's entirely possible that that's only because of the unique nature of the venue at which the film has been seen - a festival - but I think it confirms what most people knew: the film would have to wait to get its real due from the rest of the world. Of course, one year later probably more people have heard of it than seen it (which isn't even saying a lot), since it's still not available over here, so it looks like it will take a little while longer for the film to really make way. But at least it looks like it may do so eventually, slowly but surely, now that it's made a splash at a major festival.

Just about the only thing I've regretted about having seen Mind Game is how gray and boring everything else has seemed in comparison ever since. What's amazing - to me - is not that Mind Game is so original, but that everything else in comparison can seem so unoriginal. If the film was a celebration of the possibilities of the medium, then the flipside is that it showed us just how little those possibilities were being explored in animated filmmaking. I'm hoping it can stimulate people to break out of those boundaries and look for new forms and styles. I mean, Mind Game was made by a very small staff at a very small studio, and it looks closer to something Bill Plympton might conjure up than to a big studio warhorse, but technically it's an industry film, so I see it as a wake-up call to the industry.

Speaking of whom, it's nice to know that Bill Plympton appreciated Mind Game. I figured if anyone should like the film, it's him. He's about the only person who's been (singlehandedly) making interesting animated features over here these last few years.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

10:34:58 pm , 108 words, 2473 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game dominates at Fantasia

It would appear that Mind Game was a hit among both the official jury and the public at the Montreal Fantasia film festival. The official award list for the festival was unveiled two days ago, and Mind Game made off with no less than four of the total eight awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Script, as well as a Special Award for Visual Accomplishment. Public prizes were also awarded in a variety of categories, among which Mind Game took the Golden Prize for Best Animated Film and the Silver Prize for Most Groundbreaking Film, ending the day with a grand total of six awards - no mean feat.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

11:30:51 pm , 538 words, 546 views     Categories: Animation

Water

More thoughts about the animation of Omatsuri Danshaku after a second viewing. I was able to identify a few other spots with more or less certainty - Nobutake Ito, Takaaki Wada, maybe Hideki Hamasu, though ironically Imaishi I couldn't spot. Not surprisingly, my favorite spots were Hisashi Mori's, Matsumoto's and Ito's, though really there's so much great work in here it's almost impossible to narrow it down to just a few spots. There was plenty of great work I couldn't identify. I particularly liked the spot where character x attempts to cut character y. I don't know who did it, but it's stylistically very assured and unique in terms of the timing and drawings, so it's definitely someone good. And boy it feels good to see Hisashi Mori given the climax of the film. I was feeling deprived of Mori from his virtual absence in Spigura.

The waves at the beginning seemed like a deliberate homage to Yoichi Kotabe's classic waves in Animal Treasure Island, the original Toei Doga/Animation pirate movie. His waves perfectly captured that undulating feeling of the surface of the ocean, with different planes bobbing up and down the screen in perspective towards the horizon, creating an almost abstract effect, like the natural version of Norman McLaren's Lines Horizontal. Norio Matsumoto is one of the best water animators of recent years, as evidenced by his Naruto work, but his water is cut of a very different cloth. He draws smoke with an incredibly clean and beautiful shape, but water tends to be a jagged mass of splashes. He's got a real genius for drawing water in any conceivable situation in a way that's both naturalistic and incredibly thrilling as animation. Nobutake Ito has done some of the best water I've seen in the last year or so, in Mind Game and SamCham and now Omatsuri Danshaku - which is quite a lot of water for just a year's work. His water is closer to Matsumoto's than to Kotabe's stylistically, more naturalistic in the timing and shape, though he's got his own unmistakable approach. I think nobody can draw a better splash than Nobutake Ito. I can't imagine seeing animation anywhere else where people would still be trying to come up with their own new approaches towards these basic phenomena, and that's what I most enjoy about seeing these guys' work. Toshiyuki Inoue is probably also quite good at water, though the closest I've seen from him recently was the amorphous mass in Paranoia Agent 13. Before that his water at the start of Peek was quite spectacular. I wish he would have the chance to do more natural effects.

Incidentally the number of key animators was not fifty but 73, to be exact, which is even more impressive than I'd thought, though Toei does usually have quite a lot of key animators in their films. In the end I came away feeling the way this movie was done was common sense - you get the best animators out there together to work on the same film, rather than having them do bits and pieces in different movies. Certainly most of the animators were Toei animators, but many of the best were from other studios or freelance.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

02:00:09 pm , 1099 words, 2441 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Omatsuri Danshaku to Himitsu no Shima

Haruomi Hosono's grandfather was apparently the only Japanese person on the Titanic. He mentions this in an interview in the mook. Fascinating connection.

Ah, what a great ride Mamoru Hosoda's first full-length feature was. One of those films where you just can't wipe the smile off your face while you're watching, and you want to rewatch soon afterwards. It's the most fun I've had watching a feature animated film in a while. Everything combines perfectly. The backgrounds are very impressive, the coloring is incredibly nuanced and gives the film such a feeling of spatial depth and richness. And most of all, the animation and directing are absolutely brilliant and a sheer delight from start to finish. You know that Hosoda's in control from the opening shots, and not for a moment does that control feel like it flags. The material may have its limits, but Hosoda's directing and the animation easily make up for that. It's a model example of how good directing and quality production can turn anything into something interesting that overcomes any problems in the source material. Just as Hosoda has always done, he turns the material into his own creation by modifying the contours rather than the actual material. In other words, the film is enjoyable to both people who care about the franchise and to people who don't.

The way the animation throughout was constantly interesting was one of the ways it reminded me of Mind Game, though here it was much fuller throughout in following with Toei's style. Otherwise it shared a lot of the feeling of the animation in Mind Game in terms of the wonderful freedom and exaggeration that you could see in almost every shot. The drawings were always interesting, and the animation full of attention to the creation of just the kind of movement that I most want to see in animation - movement that feels good. Among the more prominent cases of overlap is Ito Nobutake, who was listed quite high, perhaps second, I don't remember. I mentioned all the other incredible names. I was able to spot only a few, however, but the animation was all so interesting that for the most part I didn't care who did what. I think I spotted a bit of Matsumoto smoke, Hisashi Mori near the climax, maybe Yo Yoshinari, but that's about it. Watching this I realized what it was about the animation in Howl that left me less than excited. For a Toei production, there was a surprising degree of wildness and tension in the animation, whereas things seem to have gotten so homogenous in Ghibli's animation in recent years that it's lost a lot of excitement for me. In Ghibli's film the only places that I found exciting as animation were Shinya Ohira's and Shinji Otsuka's. Everything else seemed to be moving for the sake of moving, rather than for the sake of being interesting. In Hosoda's film most of the movement that there was was interesting, and it was combined with the directing to create an irresistible effect only Miyazaki comes near to being able to achieve.

Hosoda's style is, of course, about as far as you can possibly get from the latter, full of oddly humorous symmetries in the cutting and framing that he must have had tremendous fun coming up with. Yet they don't end in mere indulgence. The directing carries the film, while the animation fills it out, which is the ideal balance for an animated film. The film is excellently balanced dramatically, flowing from yang to yin almost imperceptibly over the length of the film as the situation changes, creating an incredibly satisfying experience, fun and hilarious in the first half and emotionally wrenching in the second. The different pieces of the film don't feel like pieces; it all comes together like one continuous flow. He continuously jumps between different characters' points of view just as masterfully as he did in Children's War Game to play out the different threads that eventually converge into the weighty finale. It was a relief and a delight to see that Hosoda had neither toned down his stylistic idiosyncracies nor been overwhelmed by the task of creating a full length film. If anything he's expanded his palette. The film feels effortless. It works as an accessible film and is unmistakably Hosoda, moreso even than any of his previous films.

Ironic then that Hosoda wasn't even present at the talk after the premiere, which was included on the DVD. Only the voice-actors were there, which seems very indicative of Toei's current priorities as a company, and their general attitude towards their 'product'. Honestly what I felt when I heard that Hosoda was moving to Madhouse (I don't know if he's freelance or what) to make a film was: "It's about time". It seemed obvious from the variety of projects he was involved in over the last few years that he'd have to find some other company to be able to make the sort of films he was obviously capable of and wanting to make. His first attempt to do something outside of Toei turned out badly because that studio apparently has an image to uphold or something (even though people who saw his storyboard said it was brilliant), but hopefully things will go better from here on out. At least at Toei he got to make films. There he was able to create a number of pure Hosoda gems over the last few years, capped by this one, so it wasn't all bad. It's a fitting end to an era. From here on out can we hope for even better Hosoda? I hope so, and am already looking forward to next summer's film.

An interesting thing I noticed was that there were only seven inbetweeners for the film, compared to about fifty key animators. I've never seen anything like that before. That's a very small number of inbetweeners. Usually the inbetweeners far outnumber the key animators. And Toei is notorious for its short schedules, so I'm not quite sure how they did it. Considering how active it was I was expecting lots of inbetweeners. Instead, lots of key animators. Perhaps that's what accounts for the high quality of most of the movement throughout the film. Curiously that's exactly what I dislike about most of Madhouse's films - lots of Korean inbetweens to fill out the movement, which just makes it more fluid without making it any more interesting, though that apparently is good enough for most people. I hope Mamo doesn't succumb to that style of doing things.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

09:55:30 pm , 1000 words, 3148 views     Categories: Animation

Goku redux

Death on his steed, from GyatorsHere is another review of Mind Game - but from the DVD rather than either of the festivals. This person writes interesting reviews. I first ran across his page after finding his review of Cat Soup, which I was impressed with because it was the first time I'd heard anybody manage to bring up Stan Brakhage within the context of this film.

I'd mentioned the DVD box of one of my favorite oldie anime TV series, Gisaburo Sugii's Goku no Daiboken (Goku's Big Adventure) in a previous post a long time ago. It included a very tempting bonus that prompted me to want to get it even though I already have the LDs - an entire ep by Osamu Dezaki that managed to get completely produced before the station realized that Mushi Pro had stepped over the edge into insanity and it wouldn't be possible to show it on the air. As this indicates, the station obviously hated what they were seeing, so soon after the first season that insanity pretty much disappeared. What it was that made the first season of that show so interesting was precisely what they hated - the way the staff gleefully broke every rule in the book to create a slew of episodes that are among the most unique and uninhibited ever to grace the airwaves in that country. Nothing I've ever seen in anime is remotely comparable to what they were doing here. I suppose it was too much of a freak of nature to have produced any offspring. Dezaki did a number of episodes in the series, including in the first season, where he directed the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest, representing the pinnacle of what they were setting out to do with that concept. Hearing that the lost ep goes even further in that direction is enough to know that it's essential viewing for me. Unfortunately, like most DVDs from Japan, this one was way overpriced, so there was no way I was getting it. Thankfully and surprisingly, all of the early Mushi Pro TV series including Goku are now coming out in affordable editions, with some the unheard-of equivalent of $10/DVD. The prices are reduced because they're cutting back on the quality production of the earlier sets, but hopefully they will retain the extra ep. Though it's a very mixed bag and not all worth seeing, at the very least a handful of the early episodes are unmistakably unlike anything ever seen in Japan, so it's worth discovering if you'd like to see something totally against the grain, though I can't imagine this appealing to anything but a small minority. As an example of animated anarchy, perhaps it's for the best that it hasn't been imitated. As it is, it remains unique. It's a look at what, as I'm sure Sugii intended, might have been. Or could still be.

Another series in which Osamu Dezaki and Masami Hata were involved a few years later, TMS's Hajime Ningen Gyators or Early Man Gyators (which was apparently quite popular since it ran from 1974 to 1976 in 77 episodes), is also being released in a single box soon, but this one is regular priced and thus out of reach. This series sounds like an interesting conjunction of the more movemented A Pro school with Goku-like slapstick. Here there's no continuous story, it's just an open-ended situation there to allow the animators to come up with successions of gags, kind of in the western vein. It sounds like something of a prehistoric Sazae-san, but more edgy, with death in the form of a skeleton riding a skeleton horse appearing periodically whenever someone is approaching his end. This is one of the less-well known of the 70s A Pro series, mostly because it hasn't been available up until now, but it features all the regulars of the other shows - Momose, Kondo, Kobayashi, etc - combined with Mushi Pro figures like Hata (indeed an unusual period in anime), so one of these days it would be nice to see a 'best of', though sitting through the entire series would probably be a little overdoing it. The characters are drawn extremely freely, with just a few quick lines, almost to the point of looking like doodles, with no effort put into creating distinct physical shapes - very much the antithesis of the stereotypical meticulously drawn anime character. It's clearly a style that would allow good animators like those featured here to do some interesting work, so it's an enticing oddity.

I'm presently engrossed by the Seikilos Epitaph. It hooked something in me after I ran across it in the Harmonia Mundi Grèce Antique album. It's the oldest extant complete annotated musical piece, which would in and of itself be enough to make its having survived the centuries interesting enough, but the beauty of the melody and the way the circumstances apparently surrounding its creation mesh up with the way it's crafted make it all the more moving a relic of our ancient past. A man's wife died, and for her grave he wrote an epitaph, embellished with musical notation. The halting way the melody rises and falls seems to mirror the roller-coaster nature of life, which starts with a glorious rising fifth only to eventually trail off downards to its conclusion below the opening note. We could see into the faces of the people in certain paintings and sculptures, and look into their minds in writing, but without the music it was like we had been deprived of a vital part of the soundtrack to the ongoing film that is our history. I don't know how certain they can be of the accuracy of the transcription after all these centuries, but it's curious how moving it is to be able to hear an actual piece from this period as it was written by a discrete individual. The simplicity of the tune is very appealing. I've been humming it a lot since hearing it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

11:58:28 pm , 517 words, 1732 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Misc ramblings

In looking for reviews of Akarui Kazoku Keikaku AKA Happy Family Planning recently I was amused to find one presumably paid reviewer of the set who appeared to be under the misconception that the trio never managed to commit suicide. What an optimist. Or just not very perceptive. I noticed this was shown on TV recently. Hm. I somehow doubt that will raise awareness of Satoru Utsunomiya's work. We'll be seeing a bit more work from Utsunomiya three weeks from now in ep 19 of Aquarion, though I'm not expecting something of the level of the former, as I doubt he'll have as much creative freedom as he did then. For one, his credits are shared with others, but more importantly, the material this time is self-limiting and not that exciting. Nonetheless, hopefully we'll be able to see something in his own personal style. If Satoshi Kon let him do it, Shoji Kawamori might be willing to let him do it. I've been waiting impatiently for something new from Utsunomiya ever since I saw the former, knowing full well that I was probably in for a long wait.

A person wrote me a while ago thinking he had spotted some Shinya Ohira in SamCham 14 and 21, which I found interesting. Obviously the work he was referring to was that of Nobutake Ito, which I had highlighted at the time. Ep 21 in particular had struck me as being so Ohira-inflected as to seem close in spirit to Hamaji's Resurrection, so clearly I wasn't the only person who sensed that similarity. I hope Ito keeps going in that direction. When I rewatch his work I keep wishing he'd go one step further because he's already taken the first step. Interestingly Hamaji's Resurrection was also a major influence on the main animator of the series, Kazuto Nakazawa, whom I recently learned had the film on a nearly continuous loop for several months after it came out in 1994 so great was its impact on him. I recall distinctly disliking his early work, but noticing a gradual change in his work with each new piece, as if he was consciously attempting to change his style, and that anecdote may go a way to explaining at least part of the reason for that.

On the topic of suspected Ohira spottings, I've always thought the shot of Nishi rocketing up into the air looked suspiciously like his work, though he isn't credited.

So far this year looks to be shaping up to make a massive sucking sound after the colossal downpour of major films last year, so I'm curious if anyone will get the Mainichi's Ofuji award this year. It was recently revealed that Mamoru Hosoda will be on the judging panel for the animation division of the Japan Media Arts Festival this year, which is again headed by Tomino, so it'd be odd if his film won, though that's the only one I can think would stand to be in contention so far. Apparently my DVD of said film was just shipped, two days ahead of schedule, so I look forward to seeing that soon.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

07:50:58 pm , 700 words, 1103 views     Categories: Indie, Avant-Garde

Eames box

There came upon the television screen as I was watching a program on the Montreal Expo 67 screens. Many screens. A cool video installation making use of lots of TV monitors. I remembered that Ray and Charles Eames had done something or other for some expo somewhere, and ran to look it up. But no. They did something for another expo. But I was reminded of the need to see every film they have ever made, and decided to take the leap for the DVDs, when lo and behold I discover that a DVD box is coming out next month. Ordered on the spot after jumping for joy and saying this will pass the time royally until the McLaren DVD set comes out.

Though I can only claim to have seen three or four of their films, I came away from them convinced that I had witnessed an approach to filmmaking that was absolutely extroardinary and like nothing I had ever seen before. What do I care about toy trains? Their film on the subject, which consists entirely of close-up shots of the various toy trains in the voracious collectors' collection running around madly, made me care a great deal, if for nothing else than for the loving way they were photographed. Thinking back on the film now, it seems to suggest that an object is just an object; it's what we feel about it that counts, and how we convey that feeling to others. The Eames were masters at picking out odd subjects that we normally would never have thought to examine, and showing us a new kind of beauty there. Filmmaking was, of course, just one of their activities, but their films seem to offer a good look into how their minds worked. They were geniuses at coming up with novel solutions to the presentation of complex information, and that shows up very clearly in their films.

The films where that aspect of their work shows up most clearly are probably those they made for museums. The most famous of those is probably Powers of Ten, where in the span of just a few minutes they manage to convey a vast amount of information about the workings of the universe both macro and micro, while keeping the audience utterly engrossed and creating a visual experience like nothing anyone has ever seen. The entire film is a single shot - a zoom out on the universe followed by a zoom in to the atomic level. The element I find indispensible to the experience, and which was removed from the final version, if I recall (or simplified, I don't remember) is the counter that acts like our time machine dashboard, indicating the passing of light years relative to earth time, which goes by faster and faster with a cold sort of pathos. It's like an intellectual version of the Ligeti sequence in 2001. Combined with the electronic soundtrack of the early version, the film turns into a sort of transcendental experience that conveys the wonder of existence in a way no other film I've ever seen manages to do. It's mind-expanding, even all these years after the idea of interconnectedness that the film relates has become more familiar than it was back then.

The Eames didn't just make films to make films. They made films when they felt there was a need to do so in order to understand a new subject. So I can anticipate the richness and variety of their oeuvre even without having seen it, and very much look forward to discovering it all.

One curiosity that came to my attention via Koji Yamamura's blog is the existence of a film made at the NFB entitled Cosmic Zoom that appears to bear great similarity to the Eames' film, at least in terms of the basic concept. A sample of the film can be viewed here. Both Cosmic Zoom and the early version of Powers of Ten reportedly date from 1968, which raises the question of whether one influenced the other, or the same idea happened by pure chance to make its way onto film the same year in both Canada and America. I'm curious if anyone knows more about this.

1 commentPermalink

Friday, July 15, 2005

10:15:31 pm , 1137 words, 2457 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Thinking and Drawing

I was lucky enough to catch a program of Japanese independent shorts at the Vancouver International Film Festival last year, but outside of one-shots like that it's a real uphill battle finding, or even hearing about, Japanese independent animation, even though I know there's an ocean of it out there. It's thriving, but where is it? We get to see a small portion of it that usually fits within certain very narrow stylistic boundaries on NHK's Digital Stadium, but even then that's only a small selection, and there's no English explanation there, so it's probably hard for people to have any idea of context (not that that's necessarily always a bad thing). Although that excellent program has shown us some good items, many others I've found to be less than impressive and/or predictable, so that I've never really felt that I've gotten a representative picture of the best indie animation that's being made out there in all the different forms and styles. Imagination Practice was probably the single best picture I've seen of the scene, with shorts from upcoming names and old masters stewing in a diverse and interesting brew of approaches.

Obviously not being in situ in Japan is largely to blame for this. The internet has made it possible for me to keep up with the scene to an extent, finding out about small screenings at a university here or a club there, which gives me a vague idea what's going on, but at the end of the day I still haven't seen any of it, and I know I'm still not hearing about the great proportion of it and hence probably missing a lot of the most interesting stuff. Nonetheless, it was through the internet that I was able to discover more about interesting independents like Reiko Yokosuka and Takashi Ishida, who aren't exactly regulars on NHK. This had the side-effect of bringing Reiko Yokosuka to the attention of one foreign festival, confirming my faith in the effectiveness of word-of-mouth. Many of the older independents are at least known to some extent, with a handful even on DVD in Japan, but it still feels like living and evolving indie animation is a vast blank waiting to be discovered. If you're lucky enough you can catch a program at a festival - and there is something to be said for catching just a sampling of the best without having to wade through the vast ocean of it - but otherwise there's no way of really following it.

In the end there's probably no real solution to this, only different partial solutions: samples on the internet, Tomoyasu Murata releasing his own DVDs, scattered festival programs. The solution I liked best was that suggested by the paradigm of the Animation Show - a yearly show collecting the best of the best combined with accompanying DVD. Very little recent Japanese indie animation has been available on DVD anywhere as far as I know. In any case, a great start would be a DVD providing a sampling of the best work of recent years, with this possibly followed up depending on whether people respond or not. And that's exactly what's coming out soon. The Image Forum will be releasing a DVD entitled Thinking and Drawing: Japanese Art Animation of the New Millenium. Headlining it is Imagination Practice by Suwami Nogami, which is precisely the film that opened the program I saw at the VIFF, making this feel like just what I said, although the lineup is different. Also present is Naoyuki Tsuji, who was also represented at the VIFF by the film included here.

This is the lineup:

Mika Seike: A Place Where there are Moths, Dialogue Between Two
Suwami Nogami: Imagination Practice
Kei Oyama: The Thaw, Consultation Room
Takashi Ishida: Gestalt
Tetsuji Kurashige: U-SA-GUI
Naoyuki Tsuji: A Feather Stare in the Dark
Norihito Iki: Kaidan

Extras:

Takashi Ishida working on his latest film, an outdoor animation
Naoyuki Tsuji working on his latest film, 3 Clouds
Biography of each creator
U-SA-GUI dice game

(via soapland)

It sounds like an excellent lineup, even though I'm not familiar with three of the creators. This is particularly pleasant news because I talked about Takashi Ishida a while ago, lamenting the fact that it was unlikely that we were going to get to see any of his work any time soon. Here we'll be seeing his most famous and well-regarded piece. It's interesting that the Engrish translation of Tsuji's piece has stuck. In a way it's more evocative than an accurate translation, so who's to say it's bad. I'm pleased to see his wonderful improvised charcoal film being put out on DVD, as I'd been wanting to see it again ever since having thoroughly enjoyed the baffling but incredibly mysterious and rich experience of viewing the film. It's got an oneiric, totally unpredictable atomsphere that no other animated film I've seen comes close to, and it's exactly the sort of film where I think the current Japanese indie scene shines its best. Something I've found that runs through many of the films being made today is a similarly lo-fi aesthetic of simple and sometimes crude drawings and an emphasis on atmosphere over narrative, which makes the films refreshing and worth discovering.

Norihito Iki's film, which translates as A Ghost Story, will be familiar from Digital Stadium, where it won one week to be elected to the hall of fame. It too is a film with a convincing dreamlike flow and atmosphere, but done by a combination of eerie transformed photography overlayed with spare animation. Both are favorites of recent years. Without even being familiar with the other films, of which U-SA-GUI in particular I've heard good things about, I can tell that this is a good lineup that will give a fairly representative picture of the state of indie Japanese animation today, and so it's one of the most welcome DVDs I've heard about in a very long time. The lineup is a little short, but hopefully that's because this will be only the beginning of better coverage of indie animation on DVD.

While the new generation is still being discovered, the old generation has recieved a degree of recognition, though again this feels confined to the festival circuit. The most famous have been covered a bit on DVD, but the fact that people as good as Nobuhiro Aihara and Reiko Yokosuka are largely unknown and unseen seems to suggest that there are probably at least a handful of other interesting older animators waiting to be (re)discovered.

I like the title of the DVD, which succinctly expresses the act of animating. What I like about Naoyuki Tsuji's work is that it strips everything down to those bare essentials. No planning, no background - just an unpremeditated forward vector of thinking and drawing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

07:53:26 pm , 87 words, 1601 views     Categories: Mind Game

More Mind Game reviews

Interestingly, the Canadian premiere in Montreal seems to have generated a lot more buzz than the world premiere in New York. Nice. Here's a great review by Jay Seaver, one by Siu Fung, one in French by Karine Projean on the site for a Montreal U, and also another review on Twitch, this time by Mark Mann. Man, all that enthusiasm feels good. And the kicker: Masaaki Yuasa on the evening news?! This person appears to have caught these snaps while waiting in line at the fest.

1 commentPermalink

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

07:21:46 pm , 942 words, 802 views     Categories: Animation

A Matsumoto runs through it

I wonder who's big in Japanese fiction right now? Ever since Kenji Nakagami died, I've felt a void, and I haven't found anyone else to replace the great novelist, the self-styled Japanese Faulkner, although Mieko Kanai continues to write and remains my favorite. Why did he have to die so young? I succeeded in mildly freaking out the employees of Vanouver's shiny new Book Off today with my scary white-person self judging from the fact that my entry there was greeted with a booming silence quite conspicuous amid the cacophany of periodic "irasshaimase konnichiwa"s called out like so many exotic bird-calls. Irritating at first, but you get used to it after a while. I wanted to find myself a new good writer, but I didn't even know where to begin, as I haven't had access to any magazines recently to look for new authors. I remember wanting to read some Gen'ichiro Takahashi a long time ago, but never getting around to it. I noticed his Goodbye, Gang had been translated.

That article in Newtype gives a nice overview of the work process behind the Atsushi Wakabayashi Naruto episodes, and gets it mostly right, though the reproductions of the materials were a little small, which I suppose can't be helped. It's nice that the article was done in the first place, properly giving credit where credit is due. If anything deserved to have an article written about it, it was Wakabayashi's episodes, which are surely among the best pieces of animation to have been shown in a TV series in a long time.

To summarize, the process starts with "image sketches", where Wakabayashi digs through his memory for ideas from various places, throwing them down in very rough sketches, coming up with the basic idea for the various actions. He then draws the storyboard, where he organizes the ideas into dramatic form, putting particular emphasis on creating flow from one shot to the next. That is probably the thing that makes his episodes so unique. Nobody else is quite as good as him at coming up with an interetsing and convincing flow of action. As he puts it, "For example, if a character starts turning in one shot, I keep that movement going without any pause into the next shot to create a feeling of continuity, which is what makes it feel good. Otherwise it just feels like one clunky move after another." Next comes the animation. Wakabayashi describes his two animators like this: "Norio Matsumoto is a person who has achieved the ultimate in the expression of natural phenomena like rocks, fire and water. Atsuko Inoue is good at expressions and emotions. Both have an excellent sense of how to make a movement feel good through the timing. You either have that or you don't, so it's a precious thing."

About Matsumoto, it's nice to hear that Wakabayashi also considers his action "sugoi". He concedes that the replica fight scene was pretty much there expressly for Matsumoto. That's another thing that makes Wakabayashi's episodes uniquely tight - that the dramatic/action flow is conceptualized based on an intimate knowledge of the capabilities of the animators. Nobody else would have been able to animate that scene, so it wouldn't have even been storyboarded were it not for Matsumoto, and he fully meets the demands of the storyboard. They mention the various scenes Matsumoto did, though this seems unnecessary as they are patently obvious when watching the episodes. I enjoy the episodes in particular because from one shot to the next you can identify the different animators, since they're so few, so I find myself going "Matsumoto, Inoue, Wakabayashi, Matsumoto, Matsutake". It winds up being a big part of the fun of the viewing experience - enjoying how each animator's drawings are played out on the chess board.

The last scene in episode 25 of Beck struck me as a similar instance of directing and animation being perfectly in balance, this time working to create drama rather than action. The good balance gave it an uncommonly moving effect. It was also animated by Matsumoto, showing his versatility. Matsumoto was even in Hosoda's One Piece movie, so he acts as the alternate linking thread between the three figures featured in the section. The discussion between Kobayashi and Hosoda mostly focuses on their explanation of their goals with their respective recent productions, though a small note answers my own question about Hosoda's upcoming plans. It mentions that he's currently working on a new film at Madhouse due to hit the theaters next summer. I don't know if that means he's moved there or working contractually, but it's nice to know. He's been stuck at Toei for a long time, so I'm hoping he does something really different from what he's done so far, a project he would never have been able to do at Toei, to make the move worth it.

The most memorable point of the discussion was their agreement that the excessive reliance on symbols like the sweat drop has led to a kind of poverty of expressive possibilities, where you can only express this basic set of emotions and nothing inbetween, nothing nuanced. Anybody who has seen Beck will have realized, consciously or not, how studiously Kobayashi avoided those symbols, which is what made the characters seem so much more emotionally expressive and realistic despite the unrealistic designs. Where Kobayashi managed to express his own personality by sticking close to the original, Hosoda has reportedly managed to express the heart of the original by turning it into something completely his own. Totally different approaches, but spiritually they seem to have much in common.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

05:30:43 pm , 82 words, 534 views     Categories: Animation

An inquiry about Korean studios

A person asked me the following question, which I'm unable to answer, so I thought I would pass it along here.

Hey Ben,

Do have any info on which Korean studios and animators worked on Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars, in addition what other films have these animators/studios worked on?

Thanks,
Dane

Dane actually posted this on my blog, which I found surprising, because I didn't know other people could post on my blog until I saw his post there.

Monday, July 11, 2005

08:36:06 pm , 436 words, 1166 views     Categories: Animation

Image boards

Looking over the various image boards that were included (contrary to what I predicted) in Yasuo Otsuka's book Little Nemo no Yabo (The Ambitious Little Nemo) that was published last year, I'm reminded of something that's always interested me about animation productions. In most cases where I've had the chance to see image boards for a film, for example for Panda Ko Panda or Yousei Florence or Nemo itself, what I come away with is how much more interesting the image boards are than the final product in many ways. Why is that? I suppose it's exactly what Masaaki Yuasa has mentioned in interviews - the streamlining process of animation production, with its many overlapping steps, necessarily winds up smoothing over the various interesting details and colors in these very spontaneous drawings. What I like about Mind Game is how they caught onto that problem and managed to make a film that retained the spontaneity of those initial ideas. Well, presumably. Because I haven't seen the Mind Game image board book to be able to say for sure.

Otsuka's latest book contains numerous illustrations by Yoshifumi Kondo, Nizo Yamamoto and Miyazaki that I would have liked to see directly transferred to film somehow. I found Kondo's style in particular to be a revelation. It was quite unlike what I expected based on his animation work, wonderfully textured, cleaner than Miyazaki's, drawn with only a pen and a light wash of colors, with just the right balance between rough and finished. Nizo's illustrations contain a level of detail that seems maniacal and overboard, but reveals his genius for detail. Each has a totally unique visual approach to the world, and very little of what I see seems to have made it into the final product, at least directly. Some distant ancestry may remain.

Partly what I like about the boards is the rough touch with which they're drawn, which gives the eye so much more exercise than the flat colors of the final cleaned-up product. In the end they're turned into plain backgrounds and cel animation, which feels like a minus equation. I like the way Mind Game combined different techniques to recreate or retain the different texture of the different media and styles with which the image boards were drawn in that testing phase. I'm also reminded of Chanticleer, a project that looked fascinating from the image boards I've seen (the concept also sounded quite interesting, which is probably why it never got made). I have yet to read the book, but Telecom's new series reminded me of it, so I think I'll do that soon.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

10:37:04 pm , 32 words, 1411 views     Categories: Mind Game

Masaaki Yuasa interview from Montreal

All right, here's the first one. The Montreal Mirror interviews Masaaki Yuasa in their writeup of the first week of the Montreal Fantasia film festival, which gives top billing to Mind Game.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

06:43:12 pm , 231 words, 1546 views     Categories: Animation

Buta

Link: http://www.lebuta.com/

Arriving in a timely fashion immediately after my viewing of Telecom's new show is a nice little news item about an interesting new French project called Buta headed by Christophe Ferreira. As a perusal of the site www.lebuta.com recently put together by Tsuka of Catsuka will make obvious, he's got loads of talent, and great taste. A big fan of the classic Toei Doga films, early Telecom and generally that whole Tomonaga Kazuhide/Yasuo Otsuka/Hayao Miyazaki vibe of the 70s that remains so irresistible after all these years, he went out of his way to go study directly under Otsuka, Tomonaga et al. at Telecom in Japan for a year, and I love the way he's integrated the whole look of that era into his own unique visual world. For a long time I've wanted to see something from Telecom that went back to those roots, and his image boards for Buta seem to take me there. Who better, then, than Telecom to adapt his concept to the screen? Reportedly Yasuo Otsuka was supportive when he met him in Japan, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that everything works out and this project gets picked up. Currently the site is only available in French, but the art alone is well worth a visit. A word of support in his guestbook while you're there would no doubt be appreciated.

Saturday, July 9, 2005

09:23:45 pm , 425 words, 1189 views     Categories: Movie, Live-action

Docs

Found this recent article on Kiarostami. I'm much looking forward to seeing Five. Hopefully my doing so will happen at a festival rather than on my computer monitor, so that I can properly experience it in the twilight environment he recommends. I have a committed friend who is a great admirer of the early films of his career such as Mossafer, because of the humane light they shed on his own people, but who doesn't understand the increasingly rarefied place he seems to be going lately with his newfound love, DV. I love both. I wish I could have attended that retrospective of his work, as I'm only familiar with his films. Japan has released a DVD box of his work including titles unavailable here that I've long been tempted to get.

Recent docs I've seen that greatly impressed me include Darwin's Nightmare and Born into Brothels. I had a problem with the filmmaker of the former seeming to be out of his depth at many times in the filming, posing flustered and ill-considered questions that often had the unintended consequence of shifting the focus onto the filmmaker himself, with the subject turning a quizzical eye on the man with the camera. But as was no doubt intended, any such quibbles seem irrelevant in the face of the devastating images he managed to bring back of entire villages forced to eat fried fish-heads scavenged from carcasses thrown in the dumpster after being stripped of the profitable Nile Perch fillets destined for European plates.

Tonight I turned on the TV to be surprised by a documentary about the making of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, which greatly increased my admiration for the man and his achievement. It was interesting to hear of the flood of merchandise that appeared on the scene immediately after the film's release due to its immense popularity. I doubt many documentary filmmakers bother to dream of that sort of thing now.

Despite its ominous title, Born into Brothels seems in fact to be the kind of film that could have that sort of impact on people. It was one of the most consummately crafted and watchable docs I've seen in a long time. The contrast with Darwin's Nightmare offers a good picture of the possibilities of the medium, as the styles could not be further apart, the one hobbled togehter and raw, the other hermetically constructed. The title seems somewhat ingenious, the way it plays on our expectations, only to upturn them with an unexpectedly moving and upbeat story of hope.

Saturday, July 9, 2005

03:50:20 pm , 654 words, 1884 views     Categories: Animation

The Blue Carbuncle

One of my favorite parts in all of the Sherlock Hound episodes has always been the final part of the chase through the middle of town in the Blue Carbuncle episode. So naturally I've always been curious to know who did it. What surprised me was to find out that none other than Yasuo Otsuka did it. It surprised me because he's not listed in the credits, but otherwise it made perfect sense - only he could have created that movement! It was wonderfully vindicating, and it made me sad that nobody else seemed able to make animation that had that particular thrill after Otsuka stopped animating. Even though there are obviously other good animators who have appeared on the scene since then, many influenced by Otsuka, I just can't help but feeling none of it tops Otsuka's animation, even looked at today. Otsuka knew how to make movement that felt good, movement that made you go YEAH! There still aren't many animators who do that for me the way he did.

These episodes are filled with so much wonderful movement that in many ways they're my ideal TV episodes, and I think that's a big reason of why I can rewatch them so often. Blue Carbuncle stands out as probably the best of the set, with the most key animators and inbetweeners, making it the most movemented episode, the one packed with the most Telecom goodness of all, pointing the way to the much fuller Telecom of subsequent years. It epitomizes what it is I like about Telecom, with its focus on the creation of exhilirating movement, which is what I hope to see in Telecom's new series. What may have been lacking all this time was merely the person similarly able to balance a good story with effective animation, as Umanosuke Iida showed himself capable of doing in Space Miners.

A very kind person who worked at TMS for a year recently sent me a full listing of the animators and the shots they did, so I thought I'd provide the full listing here in case anyone wants to know. This list also reveals that, in addition to Otsuka's section, there were also two quiet scenes animated by Tsukasa Tannai that went uncredited. One curious thing is that I've run into two versions of the credits for this episode only. Credit listings for the TV series list only six key animators and six inbetweeners, whereas the credit listing for the movie version that was shown together with Nausicaa in 1984 lists 9 key animators and 24 inbetweeners, which seems to suggest this episode alone was redone for the big screen, with Otsuka's and Tsukasa's contributions presumably being done for the new version. So here are both lists as well, for reference purposes.

1982 TV version

Kazuhide Tomonaga
Toshio Yamauchi
Yoshinobu Michihata
Yoko Sakurai
Masaaki Endo
Makiko Futaki

1984 Movie version

Kazuhide Tomonaga
Toshio Yamauchi
Yoshinobu Michihata
Yoko Sakurai
Masaaki Endo
Makiko Futaki
Koichi Maruyama
Atsuko Tanaka
Masako Shinohara

Shot assignments

Scene 1: The mechanical pterodactyl, shots 1-46
Toshio Yamauchi

Scene 2: Polly's hideout, shots 47-62
Tsukasa Tannai

Scene 3: Holmes making perfume, shots 63-78
Koichi Maruyama

Scene 4: Talking with the banker, shots 79-102
Yoshinobu Michihata

Scene 5: The chase in the steam car, shots 103-121 (from Polly turning the corner)
Makiko Futaki

shots 122-137 (from "Great, they're after the kid too")
Masaaki Endo

shots 138-164 (from the shot after Holmes pulls Polly into his car)
Yasuo Otsuka

Scene 6: Tea and crumpets, shots 166-178
Tannai Tsukasa

Scene 6 cont'd & Scene 7: Moriarti's hideout, shots 179-199 (from Tod & Smiley turning the corner)
Michiyo Sakurai

Scene 8: Dinner at Holmes's & Scene 9: Polly's abduction, shots 200-237
Koichi Maruyama

Scene 9 cont'd & Scene 10: Chase in the mechanical pterodactyl, shots 238-267 (from around Watson peeking out the door)
Masako Shinohara

shots 268-326 (from around cars entering park)
Atsuko Tanaka

shots 327-351 (from around "they're heading for the river Thames")
Kazuhide Tomonaga

Scene 11: Finale, shots 352-366
Michiyo Sakurai

Thursday, July 7, 2005

06:56:35 pm , 582 words, 850 views     Categories: Animation

Tide-Line Blue #1

I managed to catch the various Kazuhide Tomonaga episodes from the old New Lupin series a while back, and I was surprised to find that his solo episode, 14, turned out the be the one with the most interesting and active movement of the bunch. It's the one I was most looking forward to, but I'd figured he'd probably be holding back on the volume since he had to do it all himself. But just the opposite, while somewhat restrained overall like the rest, it was the only one that had the little exhilirating dashes of movement here and there and obvious enthusiasm and fun put into the act of moving the characters that I associate with the best of Telecom and his own work, as exemplified by the Miyazaki eps and Sherlock Hound.

Ever since his work on the 1984 Nemo pilot, and to a lesser extent the film itself, completed in 1989, I haven't really seen much that really screamed Tomonaga the way his work in the late 70s and early 80s did. One of the reasons is that I think he had moved on to doing other things like storyboarding and designing and so the focus was no longer on animation. I think Telecom had also probably grown and changed and become more mature, so the kind of craziness of those early years seems to have gradually disappeared for a more clean and ordered feeling. Telecom continued to be unique in Japan, but it kind of lacked the spark that I really liked about the early stuff.

Well, there was a chase in the first ep of Tide-Line Blue that had a bit of that early spark. Watching it I got the impression Telecom was deliberately making a nod to their early work, but looking at the credits, I was surprised to see Tomonaga listed at the top, which seemed to explain things. I can't imagine anyone but him being able to create that feeling. It was the first time in a long time I'd seen a bit of animation from Tomonaga that really felt like the good, early Tomonaga. It was still a little ruly, but the timing was totally characteristic and it was the only section that made me feel I was watching something from Telecom. I hope they keep trying to do that with the rest of the show. At the very least, Tomonaga storyboarded the next ep.

Overall I like Umanosuke Iida's approach to drama. This is the only thing I've seen from him apart from Space Miners, but I can immediately identify the unifying style in terms of the pacing and mood. The mix of closely observed reality with whimsicality works in a way only this director knows how to make it work. The web of relationships feels different from anything else, more convincing somehow. He certainly goes as far as he can in depicting the birth situation. I don't think I've ever seen animated water breaking. Even Akihiro Komori didn't go quite that far in his birth-themed episode of Arjuna. It's nice to see that he's going to have the chance to see at least one of his stories through to the end. My one complaint would be with the designs, which seem typical of all Telecom productions of late in that they're a little too... bland. It's just their approach, to play it safe and try to create things that will be popular anywhere. At only 13 episodes, the quality should be quite even and high.

Thursday, July 7, 2005

01:30:10 pm , 365 words, 2045 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game article from NYAFF

I have belatedly discovered an "interview" with Eiko Tanaka from the NYAFF screening of Mind Game, available here. (It's more like a general write-up interspersed with a few interview snippets.) Hopefully someone will conduct a nice interview with Masaaki Yuasa tomorrow evening in Montreal, at the Canadian premiere.

We've seen a lot of up-and-coming animator Tetsuya Takeuchi lately, with some impressively dense and nuanced acting animation in Koji Masunari's latest endeavor, Kamichu, which characteristically takes a fresh approach to an otherwise pedestrian concept, infusing it with new vitality, and a bit of animation at the beginning of the latest ending of Pierrot's Bleach, all coming quite soon after his impressive feat in Honey and Clover. We're beginning to get a good idea of where Takeuchi is headed as an animator, and it looks like a good direction. Now deprived of Masashi Ishihama, Masunari has found a nice new lead animator.

There's also been a few Tadashi Hiramatsu items recently. He animated the curiously erotic pre-title section of Eureka Seven 11, as well as directing the latest ep of Aim 2.

A name that brings back memories from my early days in anime, Umanosuke Iida, returns with a TV concept of his own creation at Telecom, Tide-Line Blue, a decade after what is probably his best piece, the unfortunately unfinished Space Miners, which is the first item I remember buying/translating/subbing entirely on my own. I remember struggling to find information on the elusive creator of the show, as well as struggling to figure out how to romanize his name - Forthman Lunchfield? Fothmann Ranchfield? It only goes to reason that I couldn't find anything, because it turns out Iida just made it up. He was the creator. It seemed unusual.

Supposedly next month's issue of Ntype will have a feature on Naruto 133, complete with reproductions of Norio Matsumoto's key animation and an interview with Atsushi Wakabayashi. Unusual for this magazine. There will also be what promises to be an interesting discussion between, of all people, Osamu Kobayashi and Mamoru Hosoda. There have been rumours floating around about Hosoda joining Madhouse, so this gets me to wondering. Hosoda's film comes out on DVD two weeks from now.