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 2006

Friday, July 28, 2006

06:14:50 pm , 590 words, 2939 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Ko Yoshinari

Since Mitsuo Iso began handling the digital processing of his animation around 2000 in Blood, one of the only people I've been able to find taking up Iso's challenge has been Ko Yoshinari 吉成鋼. Where some animators have gone the route of producing their own short features independently, Ko Yoshinari has taken the concept of the one-man production and adapted it to commercial animation by personally handling the animation, processing and photography of the shots he has been assigned in commercial productions, establishing his own personal paradigm in a way.

Yoshinari seems to have latched onto the idea of doing this around 2004, two years after RahXephon aired, taking a warm-up dive with the animation and compositing for the two shots where Ed jumps over the waterfall in the fourth opening of Full Metal Alchemist (:59 to 1:02). In October of 2004 he did a big chunk of animation in ep 1 of Lyrical Nanoha that stole the show for its detailed drawings and minute, realistic character movement. (:41 to 1:48) As happens often with the tight schedules of TV shows, the only reason we saw Yoshinari's section unmodified was that they did not have time to correct it, which for once was a good thing. Next Yoshinari handled a short section of Yutaka Nakamura's fight with the big monster in the Full Metal Alchemist movie (1:33 to :38). In a first, Yoshinari was credited not just with key animation, but also with inbetweening, finishing and photography. The latest piece of Yoshinari came in the second-to-last ep of Eureka 7, #49, where he handled about six or seven very dense shots. (:17 to :33) The zoom on the ship in particular was quite stunning, and we could see his fetish for studying explosions clearly in the superbly rendered explosion that caps his sequence. (the shots preceding his were by Yasushi Muraki, who animated similar laser/missile "air circuses" throughout the show)

Yoshinari's sections usually move in full ones, even when the section he is doing is for a limited TV program, and he clearly puts an inordinate amount of effort into making the entire screen work as a whole for his section. This is presumably the reason he found it necessary to go to the extreme length of handling the digital processing and photography of his animation in the first place - that he has an image in his head of what he wants to achieve. Already that sets him into a class of his own. In that sense he is very close to Iso, although in terms of the style of movement and other aspects they're very different animators. But it would be interesting to hear what prompted Yoshinari to go in this direction, and how he manages to make it a feasible way of putting bread on the table, considering how long it must take him to create a few seconds of animation with this method. The results are stunning, and it's an interesting new tack, one diametrically opposed to the approach of Toshiyuki Inoue.

Yoshinari was born in 1969, and debuted as a key animator around 1990. Since then he's been involved in the Hakkenden OVA series, the Ninku TV series and numerous other shows. Other samples of his work include a shot in Final Fantasy Unlimited (2001) (2:09 to 2:13) and a sequence in Hiroyuki Imaishi's ep 3 of Abenobashi Maho Shotengai (2002) (here). Since his work on the impressive Ghost in the Shell game op in 1997 (alongside Koichi Arai, Hisashi Ezura, Yasushi Muraki, Yo Yoshinari, Toshiyuki Inoue and Mitsuo Iso), he has also been heavily involved in work on games, both as a designer and op animator.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

02:14:37 pm , 98 words, 1862 views     Categories: Animation

TOKIKAKE "BEST" —Asahi Shimbun

Today's Asahi Shimbun had a column in which they called in notable film and anime critics to evaluate the summer's three new anime features. Mamoru Hosoda's film Toki wo Kakeru Shojo (The Girl who Could Travel Time) came out the clear winner. Gonzo's Brave Story had a "good script" and "nice visuals", Ghibli's Gedo Senki was "faithful" but "lacking in explanation", and Mamoru Hosoda's Toki wo Kakeru Shojo "glowed with youth" and was simply "the best". Anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa, host of the TV program Anime Maestro, calls Hosoda's film an "instant classic".

Related: Spotlight on Mamoru Hosoda

Monday, July 24, 2006

11:12:52 pm , 819 words, 2766 views     Categories: Animation, TV


I had a look at the reviews for Mamoru Hosoda's new film, just to see how they compared to the reviews for Goro's, and the contrast was very revealing. Page upon page one one-star reviews for the latter, and page upon page of five-star reviews for Tokikake. The reviews are usually well thought out for both films, outlining convincingly why each film deserved its extreme rating. One anecdote sticks in the mind for Hosoda's film. Several reviewers state that not a single person stood up until the end of the credits for Tokikake. Not just most people, but nobody. I think that says a lot. Reading the reviews has made me even more excited about the film. It's that kind of film again - the kind that gets you excited just reading people's enthusiastic reviews. I was hoping Hosoda had made his best film yet, and it sounds like he has. The irony is that it's going to be seen by very few people, while the other will be seen by many.

I watched the first episode of Ryosuke Takahashi's Flag. I was tremendously impressed by the visuals and the tone of the piece. It was just what I wanted from Takahashi. A piece of animation completely grounded in today's specific realities, namely the realities of conflict zones, without naive melodrama, and not adhering to dramatic formula, but flowing somewhat randomly, like a documentary. The gimmick of every shot being seen through a camera is used effectively and does not get annoying, as we regularly switch perspectives between different lenses and characters, and the story is interspersed with 'photographs' throughout. The piece acts as a sort of homage to the art and the power of photography, and as an amateur photographer I really appreciated that aspect. The story is centered around the myth of the holy grail of photographs - the photograph that is able to change the world for the better. I would have liked them to dig deeper into this concept, and really give a meditation on the utility of photography in this day and age, focusing on the feelings of the photographer protagonist as she makes the transition to the conflict zone, and also for them to use the basic situation as an opportunity to do some geopolitical commentary, but I think that may be asking a bit too much, as the story appears likely to go in a more adventure-based direction. It's probably the closest we're going to get, so I'm going to follow it. My major disappointment was why the hell they had to have a damn bipedal robot to wreck the whole atmosphere. Come on, we're not in the 80s anymore Ryo.

I was also intrigued by the animation. The way they went out of their way to use frames to express stretch and squash, and the whole atmosphere of the movement screamed non-Japanese animation, but it didn't make sense, because there was no way they would have outsourced to America or something. Seeing the credits made it all fall into place. Kazuyoshi Takeuchi. He's probably the only animator I'm a fan of even though I've only seen one scene of his work. He animated that great German Shepherd scene in Akira, in the traffic jam. It's an interesting sequence, because it's full of incredible exaggerated but fluid and dynamic poses and movement of a kind that you don't see in the other sequences of the film. I remember reading that the other animators thought it was going to look ridiculous when they saw his drawings as he was in the process of animating the scene, but they were completely surprised and impressed by how it looked in motion. It's an interesting example of that wondrous aspect of animation - that you can't tell how a sequence is going to work in motion just looking at a single drawing. Put it all together, and suddenly it comes alive. Well, the reason for him having this completely different approach from the rest of the animators is that he was trained working on co-productions like Wuzzles and Duck Tales of all things. I'd long wanted to see more of his work, because I'm interested in animators like this who straddle these two worlds, as Tomonaga does with Telecom's co-productions, but he's quite elusive and this is the first time I've seen his name since Akira. The acting is very western in style, but kind of toned down a bit, so I think it strikes a nice balance. It's fascinating to compare how much his entire philosophy towards movement differs from that of his compatriots. I'd be curious to know how he came to go in such a direction. This would have been in the mid-80s, in the heydey of Telecom, and immediately after the closing of Sanrio Films, the two Japanese studios of the day that sort of straddled the Pacific, so to speak.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

03:11:13 pm , 1217 words, 8081 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, Translation, Interview

Mitsuo Iso interview

It's been a while since I've translated an interview, and I recently found an interview that fairly made my eyes bug out, so I thought I would translate it. It's an interview with Mitsuo Iso, and the only one I've ever seen at that. I'm not sure what magazine it was published in, but it must presumably have been published around 2003, because the interview is all about episode 15 of RahXephon, what might be considered Iso's "debut" of sorts, at least in terms of directing and storyboarding.

Iso had up until that point been known mainly as an animator, with the only non-animation work to his credit prior to RahXephon being prop design and weapon design in Magnetic Rose and Ghost in the Shell in 1995 and co-writer of episode 13 of Evangelion in 1996. Iso's involvement on RahXephon was at the very least a major turning point for him, an experience that must have wrought major changes in his approach to animation.

More accurately, his approach in this series - he handled 2D digital effects combined with traditional animation - was simply the culmination of his work over the previous six years. After his involvement designing and writing in 1995 and 1996, you can sense changes overcoming his animation style, making it become more comprehensive, more cinematic and honed down to the minutest detail. This is what leads to his taking his work to the logical next step with 2D digital processing of his animation in Blood and so on. This then leads directly to RahXephon, in which he handled various manners of digital processing throughout the series. This is the only instance I can remember of a TV anime having a separate post for digital FX.

After his work on this series, Iso pretty much disappears from the scene as an animator. Rumors in the intervening years had it that he was working on something big, but only now has it become known that this was true, and so it's an ideal time now to look back on RahXephon, the series in which he experimented, learned, and tested many of the things that will presumaly be built upon in the upcoming Denno Coil.

Bringing RahXephon Alive:
The Digital Artistry of Mitsuo Iso

Episode 15 "Childhood's End" was a sensation in fan and industry circles. Behind the episode lay a single man: Mitsuo Iso, head of digital FX. Writer, storyboarder, director and key animator of the episode, Iso claims the high-quality results on display in the episode are feasible at low cost and within schedule. Let's look into his secret.

How did people in the studio react to your being put in charge of digital processing?

They seem to have interpreted it to mean that I was retiring from animation because animation was becoming too hard for me. (laughs) But to me it was just the opposite - I took the job because I viewed it as a new challenge. There's this conception that digital takes more time and money to do, but I feel it's the reverse. People tend only to think only of 3D when they talk about CG, but I've used almost no 3D whatsoever. I actually view 2D as by far superior.

By 2D, you mean essentially animation in the style of traditional cell animation?

Yes. Coming as I do from a background in traditional animation, I find that it is much easier to manipulate the parameters of the frame in 2D. To me, what makes animation come alive is interesting movement and effective use of the frame, yet I find that these are aspects that have proven difficult to handle sufficiently well in 3D.

When was it that you began to implement digital processing in your work?

The first time I used Aftereffects was in Blood: The Last Vampire. Taking hints from an approach that had been devised by Hisashi Ezura for the film, I devised a way of digitally processing the handling of light. In RahXephon, I built on this approach by coming up with a new way drawing an effect: I drew the component elements of the effect myself, and then manipulated these basic elements through multiplication and pasting to achieve the final effect. What I learned from the experience was the importance of instinct for knowing how best to arrange the material. That instinct - knowing how big to make a certain element, or how to finesse a certain movement - is something that you can only acquire through experience with 2D animation.

What prompted you to decide to singlehandedly bear the burden of all of the critical production roles in episode 15 (writer, director, storyboarder)?

What is the single most time-consuming element of animation production? It is having to mold your work around the ideas of another person. In assembly-line animation production, each person has their specialized task, and your duty is to transform the ideas in the head of another person ahead of you on the conveyer belt into visual form, which is very difficult. I talked with the director and was given permission to handle all of the tasks. This facilitated my work by permitting me to handle everything how I felt it needed to be handled. This made the entire process much more efficient, as I was able to visualize every step of the way from script to animation to photography right as I was formulating each scene. As the director, I was also able to handle the processing, meaning that I could deal with retakes promptly, and I was able to do a drawing on the spot when I saw something was missing. The result was a dramatic savings of time and labor. This episode was on schedule and below average in cost (drawing count), and this additional hidden economic benefit of this method is something I would like to draw attention to.

I'm reminded of Hoshi no Koe.

I was very interested to hear that films like that were being made. Although this method may not necessarily be the most appropriate one for every type of visual or for every type of story, digital offers tremendous potential, so I'm surprised that more people haven't taken it up. Not to rush to a conclusion, but perhaps what's happening here is that this episode came along right at a time when people were beginning to feel that a certain something was missing from the typical style of animation production, and filled in that hole.

Any closing remarks on episode 15?

I want to thank key animators Kazuto Nakazawa and Takeshi Honda and co-animation director Yoshiyuki Ito for their tremendous help in this episode. Pak Romi's performance as Isshiki was magnificent. I'm very grateful. If there's anything wrong with this episode, blame it on me. (laughs)

Simply put, I'm not out to become a director or a screenwriter. I just want to make animation. If I'm doing all of this, it's because I found that it was necessary to do so in order to be able to make animation the way I feel it needs to be made. I'd be happy if people could see the inherent potential in this approach. In closing, I wish more people would see the beauty of hand-drawn digital, and join me in making this kind of animation.

Related: Mitsuo Iso | Mitsuo Iso filmography | Iso Fun Pack | Denno Coil

Friday, July 21, 2006

10:26:40 pm , 462 words, 1051 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Welcome to the NHK

Gonzo is a reliable animation studio in a sense. You can rely on them to make a tremendously interesting first episode, and then let the rest of the series go down the toilet. I was prepared to enroll in the Speed Grapher fan club after the first episode, but was traumatized by the rest. It makes sense that Hisashi Mori didn't want to be too involved in it. Similarly, I can understand very clearly why Masashi Ishihama, character designer of NHK, didn't want to be involved in the actual series, and went so far as to use a pen name for his character designer credit. Who would want his name forever besmirched by association with a series in which his designs were guaranteed to be raped at leisure over the length of 13 or 26 episodes?

Well, it's deja vu time. I was enraptured by the first episode of Welcome to the NHK. Maybe it's far from perfect, and they seem to have compromised a lot in the adaptation, but I haven't read the original, so that wasn't a big concern to me. It was just great to finally see a show bringing the issue of hikikomori out into the bright light of day in an intelligent, non-pandering, believable fashion. I could relate to the main character in a way I haven't been able to relate to any analagous character in this sort of show in years. The humor was for the most part dead-on and not overdone. The sequence of Sato's triumphal march into the outside world to apply for a part-time job in a desperate attempt to break out of his three-year stint as a shut-in (going on four) was hilarious and tremendously poignant at the same time. I thought they really nailed the pathetic irony of the whole situation, with that great driving guitar ballad in the background. The music and sound design were great throughout. The animation was passable. The op by Ishihama was the animation hilight, with art by the Easter Gumi, who did the art for Cossette and a number of other nice ops in recent years.

In comes episode two. This is when I finally remembered that I have a short memory. Surprise surprise, it's ep 2 of Speed Grapher all over again. The dazed confusion. The disbelief. I was actually so appalled by the animation that I could not fully immerse myself in the story for a single moment. The story is interesting enough that I'll still follow it, but it's still disappointing. It is possible for a show to be worth watching for reasons other than the animation. But only barely.

On an unrelated note, the reviews have been pouring in for Goro Senki, and I've never seen so many one-star reviews of a Ghibli film.

Monday, July 17, 2006

09:43:10 pm , 434 words, 3490 views     Categories: Animation, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada, TV

Kanada revisits Gaiking

from Gaiking #21Yoshinori Kanada is back on TV again for the first time since ep 6 of the new Popolo Crois, which I wrote about long ago. This time he's Saburo Togakushi instead of Isuke Togakushi, and he's animated a bit at the end of the new op for Toei's Gaiking, a remake of one of their own classic giant robot show of the same name of 1976. It's not by chance. Kanada spent the 70s cutting his teeth on giant robot TV shows, and in fact he did a lot of animation throughout the original Gaiking that remains among his most well regarded work of his early period. Many of the animators who are now working on the new Gaiking count Kanada as one of their major influences, so it's full of meaning to have him here doing animation in this op now, exactly thirty years later.

Keisuke Watabe of Studio Hercules did some decidedly Kanada-esque animation recently in ep 28, and indeed the entire 'studio' was present in the ep. Ken Otsuka has been a major force behind the show as one of the mecha ADs, as he was on Bones' Eureka 7. He also storyboarded both 13 and 28.

Among the animators working on the show whom I wouldn't normally have associated with Kanada is Takaaki Yamashita, the man behind the animation side of most of Mamoru Hosoda's early work. After doing the book scene in 13, I noticed he was also in 21 and 28. 21 featured two minutes of excellent work at the end, and in 28 the main female enemy seems to have been animated by the same person throughout, judging by the style, and I have to wonder if Yamashita wasn't the one behind these sections. Or perhaps his protege, Tatsuzo Nishita. I've never associated Yamashita with such vigorous movement, so I can't be sure, but the level of minute detail put into the movement where first Gaiking's hand and then body breaks through the wall of stone, pictured above, was thrilling and the work of a great animator trained in the sort of through-conceived movement I associate with Yamashita and with none of the other animators listed here. Also, the loose, slightly wobbly lines are something I associate with Yamashita. The whole section was quite nice. The last half of 28 was also quite nice overall. It was like the Hercules version of ep 13.

Mitsuru Obunai was among the members credited under Studio Hercules, though I'm a bit confused as to his present location, since he's currently acting as the main animator on UFO Table's new show Coyote Ragtime Show, where he's done some good through brief work so far.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

11:58:48 pm , 525 words, 1314 views     Categories: Animation, Animator, TV

Furuya's Arusu

I long wanted to be able to see the credits for Tweeny Witches, to see who is behind the animation and how the teams rotate and so on, and to try to pinpoint who might have been responsible for the parts that interested me. I've managed to see most of the credits by now, and among the more interesting discoveries was to see the extent of Shogo Furuya's involvement in his eps. In ep 33, for example, there is only one other animator listed, Kazuya Nomura, which shows that Furuya is obviously an individual with a strong need to control every element of the production. I've heard rumors that this may have had an ill effect on his involvement in another series. It's good that he had the chance to do a little work in his own way, and I don't know of any other show that would have allowed him. Arusu was good leavening for the talent of a number of good up-and-coming animators.

I enjoy Furuya's drawings, but they were a shock at first, after having grown used to the more cartoonish look of the other animation directors on the show. In comes Furuya with his pouting, swaying, realistically proportioned characters, and it completely changed my view of the show - for the better. It gave more impact to the actions of the characters. Yasuhiro Aoki also grows towards a more realistic rendering with each episode, with the protruding eye sockets and so on. The lightspeed evolution of Yasuhiro Aoki's style over the length of the series is astonishing enough as it is, but by his last episodes it's downright confusing, as the characters go from cartoon characters in one ep to mature young women drawn in a realistic manner in the next. Aoki seems to have continuously re-invented the characters in his head as the series progressed. Other people's drawings evolve unconsciously, but you get the impression of Aoki willing his evoluion. I don't know whether the decision to draw the characters that way was just Aoki's initiative, but his drawing them this way emphasizes how they mature and grow over the length of the series, both mentally and physically, giving the denoument more resonance. Unfortunately none of the other ADs seem to have taken this into account. Together, Aoki and Furuya gave the show a dimension it didn't have under any of the other ADs.

I was happy to discover that Furuya was credited as an animator in ep 5, meaning that he was quite likely the person responsible for the piece of animation that perhaps most impressed me in the entire series - the explosion. There are times when you know a piece of animation has to have been done by someone you've heard of, and this was one of those times. I had an "of course!" moment seeing his name in the credits. All of the little details - from the sudden color changes to the shrapnel flying through the air to splashes in the water - were too lovingly handled and well calculated to have been the product of chance, the work of someone not deeply studied in realistic movement.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

09:19:24 pm , 527 words, 1166 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Movie, TV

Looking forward to Tokikake

I see that Mamoru Hosoda's Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo (The girl who could travel time) is hitting theaters in Japan in just a few days. Initial reactions seem good, and I'm looking forward to it. As a full-length, non-franchise feature based on a solid story, and not a featurette, a promo short, or a TV episode - unlike the various items Hosoda has directed in the last few years, which have all been wonderful, but have all been very 'minor' and seen mostly by die-hard fans - this film will probably finally bring Hosoda some well-deserved recognition. It seems like a film that might go some ways to filling the big shoes left empty by the absence of Isao Takahata from the stage now that Ghibli seems to have turned their back on their formula of alternating fantasy Miyazaki films with more realistic outings - a formula I thought lent the studio such a good balance. It won't be quite the same thing, of course, but Hosoda is a new voice for a new generation, and I think he'll be able to connect with a lot of viewers.

I sampled a few new shows, and was particularly hopeful about a new show from Telecom entitled Muteki Kamban Musume featuring Kazuhide Tomonaga doing animation, but was not terribly impressed. Telecom has the people to make the interesting movement, they just need someone to create some interesting stories so that the animation will actually have an impact. Like all the other studios out there these days, it seems they feel they have to base their shows on mediocre manga to attract viewers. Their previous effort using an original story had promise, but didn't live up to that promise for whatever reason, even though it felt like a good direction, so perhaps they gave up on that direction in despair. Angelique was interesting for being a new show mostly done by women. It was only missing a woman director. Content-wise it barely held my interest for a moment. I enjoyed ep 13 of Ouran High School Host Club, directed by chief director Takuya Igarashi. The stylistic resemblance to Mamoru Hosoda was even more striking than in the first ep, and there were interesting animators spicing things up, including op/ed animator Norimitsu Suzuki and Takaaki Wada. The sequence before the title was likely done by one or the other of these two. I liked the feeling of weight in the movement there. Clear effort went into making it look like each part of the body was moving in a different vector. As a movement it felt great. Whoever it was, they stood out big time, without being flamboyant. They stood out because the movement was incredible, not because the drawings were idiosyncratic. Even the short shot of the rabbit walking in front of the door stood out. I've never seen a stuffed rabbit walking, but after seeing that shot, I'm sure that's exactly what it must look like. In that sense it reminded me of Masahiko Kubo's animation of Maromi in ep 1 of Paranoia Agent, which literally brought Maromi to life as a living and breathing stuffed animal. A satisfying ep.

Monday, July 10, 2006

07:22:26 pm , 1200 words, 2300 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Stormy Night thoughts

Back after a stint in the woods where animation was hard to come by, I find it takes a little limbering up to get back into the rhythm of things. It's amazing how much you lose when you don't write a little every day. Like with drawing, I suppose. And I realize how much I missed writing something every day. It's not only satisfying, but stimulating, forcing you to organize the thoughts you're otherwise too lazy to bother to organize. In the process you stumble across things that half the time are more interesting than what you had when you started.

In the two years since I started writing this thing it feels like there's been a big increase in interesting and in-depth discussion of animation, and effort to shed light on interesting animation, all over the net. I've been a bit too busy with work to do much watching or writing in the last few months, but part of me has just been kicking back and enjoying the show. I don't want to write if what I'm writing is superfluous. But writing got me out of times when I was feeling down, so I'm going to try to whip myself back into shape. Not that I'm too deep down, I'm just feeling the need to write. That's what it's all about. Feeling that need.

Last night I had the chance to watch Gisaburo Sugii's Stormy Night. I was delighted by it. One of the first things that stands out in my mind is the art by Yukio Abe. Yukio Abe was the art man behind all of the big Sanrio Films movies like The Legend of Sirius and Ringing Bell. He's certainly one of the great art directors of the last few decades in Japan. He's the only one I can think of who carried on the storybook naturalism of Disney, adapted to his own time and environs. At the time, about the only art director I can think of who was doing anything remotely as aesthetically thought-out would be Shichiro Kobayashi. Kobayashi was more daring and original, but Abe was equally unique in Japan. He's probably the only one who managed to take that style, so perfectly evolved for animation, but so alien to Japan, and bring it to a level of perfection in his own country and personal manner. Like the Sanrio Films movies themselves, it's an art style that seems to run counter to aesthetic trends in Japan - perhaps for the best - but Abe's obvious artistry and conviction raise his work to a high level that deserves recognition.

Abe's art sends you back to your childhood. In Abe's art you get a deep feeling of mythology, a whiff of another world, of distant lands waiting to be explored. The colors are rich and warm and deep and alluring, inviting you on an adventure bound to be full of magical and exciting discoveries. It's naturalistic, but romantic as opposed to realistic. It's a good thing that animation is no longer limited to dwarves and big bad wolves, but it seems like Abe's approach might offer some lessons that could help to balance things out a bit by wedging open the excessively narrow stylistic range of anime at the moment, reminding us of our roots at the same time.

Apart from Abe's art directing, I thought Marisuke Eguchi's characters were adorable and dynamic and original, and there were numerous moments where the animation stood out, particularly the animation of Mei's fanny during the 'Marilyn Monroe walk' he mentions in the interview on the web site. I've never seen such meticulous care put into animating an ass. It is a fascinating mix of ideas, all seemingly contradictory - Marilyn Monroe's ass? On a goat? - that simply work to express the theme at hand; you can't rationalize it. The animation of Mei jumping around the screen as he runs down the hill at the very beginning was exciting and full of interesting drawings and movements. The effects for the avalanche at the end were stunning. Interestingly, Shinichi Tsuji and Shoetsu Hane were the first two animators listed, as they were in Belladonna more than thirty years ago. Group Tac was famously the studio that Gisaburo helped form after Mushi Pro imploded in 1973. Oh Production also participated, with Oh Pro head Koichi Murata in the creds. Most interestingly, AD'ing was split into character and effect, as it was in the old Sanrio Films movies.

However, although we're dealing with a film about talking animals, Group Tac is no Disney, and the lack of resolution in the movement of the squirrels jumping around the trees acts to remind us that minute and fluent character acting are not among the legacies of the Mushi Pro school. Otherwise the film succeeds eminently in going its own way without needing to be compared negatively to a completely different filmmaking approach. Mostly it does not feel lacking in the animation department. The characters feel alive and present. The depth of detail provided by Tsuneo Maeda's digital tinkering and ingenuity in creating the layers for the fur undoubtedly helps a lot here. And Marisuke Eguchi has definitely come a long way. The characters here are a nice balance between realistic and cartoonish, the wolves spindly and bushy, the goats petite and voluptuous. He manages to pull off the trick Isao Takahata and Yasuo Otsuka pulled off in Jarinko Chie, having the four-legged protagonist stand up on his hind legs on occasion, but timing it in such a way that it seems entirely natural.

But I suspect none of this would have come together without Gisaburo Sugii's unique directing touch. As I began watching, I was worried about whether the film would work, whether Gisaburo's style would be identifiable, and quite simply whether he could still make a film. But the opening scene set my worries to rest. It established the tone perfectly, and succinctly translated this pivotal scene from the original novel into emphatic visual form. The camera zooms through the darkness to each of the two characters as they take turns exchanging compliments, the irony of which each remains blissfully unaware throughout. The pacing is slow, deliberate, all about getting into the mind of the characters and savoring each word and feeling, rather than merely attempting to push forward a story. That is what defines the film, sets it apart, makes it the work of Gisaburo Sugii. Rather than dwelling on the various obvious gags that could arise from the contrived situation, he focuses on exploring and conveying the very complex emotions that play through the two characters as their situation evolves, and that is what makes the film satisfying. He does so through understatement and irony rather than exposition and overemphasis. Gisaburo's basic style has often been described as detached and unforced, particularly his work on Tales from Old Japan (Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi), and I think you can see that here, in very refined and polished form. I thought the ending could have been more satisfying, but overall it's a finely crafted little film, and it was nice to be able to see another film from Sugii Gisaburo.

Related: Marisuke Eguchi interview