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.
August 2005
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Archives for: August 2005, 09

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

02:48:09 pm , 914 words, 1876 views     Categories: Animation

Aquarion 19

Satoru Utsunomiya's highly anticipated episode of Aquarion had already generated a lot of talk, and barely a day after its initial broadcast it's already generated even more, with more than 100 comments on the offical blog (far more than ever before), so I had a good sense of what people thought about it going into the episode. One thing I knew right away was that I was in for something special, like Hisashi Mori's episode of Samurai 7 and Norio Matsumoto's last episode of Naruto. All three are prime examples of the rare phenomenon of a great animator being given the chance to create one episode totally the way he wants to, so that it winds up completely contrasting with the streamlined look of the rest of the series.

Each case, of course, is unique. This episode is special because Utsunomiya didn't just focus on the animation, like the others did, but had a major role in building up the setting and the art for the episode. As a result, there's less of a mismatch in the visuals. Besides having handled the animation directing, he created the unique character designs for the episode, and apparently created a large number of sketches detailing the setting, for which he earned the never-before-seen credits of "bijutsu board" (art board) and "isekai settei" (parallel world design). Clearly this is an episode that is different from the foundation up. The final product is like nothing I've ever seen in anime, closer to Moebius than to anything anyone would expect from Japan. The coloring, animation and backgrounds are perfectly in sync in a way that reminded me of Tatsuyuki Tanaka, who is the only other animator in Japan I know of who could create visuals with such a unique flavor and in such perfect balance. The backgrounds and coloring in particular are stunning. It's almost taken for granted that backgrounds have to be a certain way in anime, which made the backgrounds and whole visual concept here that much more refreshing.

Utsunomiya himself mentioned that he was worried that people turning on the show in the middle of the episode might think they had tuned in to the wrong show. I chalked it up to self-deprecating modesty, but he was right. The visuals of the episode are completely unique in every sense - color, character designs, animation, everything. Some of the comments I've read are negative reactions to this, and I actually came in willing to accept that Utsunomiya's style just wasn't for everyone. However, after seeing the episode, I changed my mind, and realized they were completely missing the point. This wasn't Utsunomiya imposing his style onto the series out of laziness; this was the staff working together to come up with a clever situation that exploited the particular talents of a certain animator, so that he could create something that would be visually stimulating and make sense in the story. Inevitably, some people, even knowing that, will still not be willing to accept visuals that stray from the norm, but it would be terrible if that had a curbing effect on this spirit of adventure, which is what animation is all about. That they had the courage to create the episode in the first place suggests they had conviction about what they were doing. Most of the people who saw the episode understood what the staff was doing, and liked Utsunomiya's unique style. Director Shoji Kawamori himself commented on the blog that he didn't mind at all if the characters looked different in every episode, and had had the designs created with that in mind. In retrospect, that may have been leading up to this. In any case, whatever people thought about the episode, it has generated a lot of discussion about animation, which can only be a good thing.

As a fan, I came in ready to be impressed, but I was impressed for a completely different reason. I would have been happy with the usual Utsunomiya, but what I saw there was him trying to go in a new direction, not just doing a card trick, and that made me happy. Most of the people who liked the episode had never even heard of Utsunomiya, and will probably soon be given to the pleasure of discovering Gosenzosama Banbanzai. While perhaps not as honed a piece as his Paranoia Agent episode, where he had complete control over every shot and hence was able to create an episode with the atmosphere of a miniature film, here he's worked within the confines to create something that is truly refreshing and I know affected a lot of the people who saw the episode - including animators. I can't think of anybody working in anime right now who's doing anything comparable. More than ever I came away feeling that the ideal would be for him to do a movie, so that he could work freely without having to worry about catching flak for inconsequential things.

Although I haven't seen the rest of the series to be able to say for sure, I believe this was the first time a mecha fight was traditionally animated in the series (though the usual CG came in later), and quite nicely at that. Doing so was a great way of increasing the stylistic unity in the episode, which was all about the unique animation, so it felt like a gift to the animation lovers - a phrase that nicely sums up this whole episode. In short, delightful.