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: August 2006, 09

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

06:57:16 pm , 1746 words, 1678 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV

Kemonozume #1

We've come a long way. Not only have we been able to see a movie by Masaaki Yuasa, but now we are being given a TV series. And a TV series entirely of Yuasa's creation at that. It's good that there are still studios out there willing to give talented creators a chance to head interesting projects, rather than simply falling back on safe patterns.

As with Mind Game preceding it, as soon as I heard about Kemonozume I began to accumulate a baggage of expectations about it, as it was just too exciting a prospect to remain ambivalent about and not wonder how it might turn out. In the case of Mind Game, my expectations were upturned in an interesting way. The visuals were as inventive and the animation as satisfying as I had anticipated, but the tone and pacing were more grounded and human and less manic than what I had expected. After seeing that, I began to suspect that Yuasa might go further in that direction in the future and try to develop the drama side of his skills, since he had already honed the surreal and slapstick side in everything that had come before. Having now watched ep 1 of Kemonozume, it feels like that was roughly on the mark. Here we can see all of Yuasa's wonderful little touches working on a base of powerful human drama. I think Yuasa realized that creating a strong, believable characters was essential when he made Mind Game, and here he's clearly building on that. I'm looking forward to seeing how far he will be able to take it, with a good solid 13 episodes to work with. He's aided in the task by the writer of Paranoia Agent, so I have a feeling that he'll be able to create a convincing and entertaining situation with well developed characters. The dialogue was especially potent during the younger brother's tirade, which seemed to achieve the perfect combination of well-written script with emotive performance. The voice-actor was Hiroyuki Yoshino, who I loved as Sigma in Tweeny Witches.

It's hard to know where to begin, as there's so much to say about the ep, which was everything I was hoping it would be, but one of the obvious features was just how similar the visuals were to Mind Game. Again we can see the same combination of live-action footage processed and blended with animation and strong color contrasts used to powerful effect. The fish at the beginning and the waves at the end created an interesting effect on the screen. We also see the same rough touch of animation used to move characters designed with that surprising combination of realism and extreme stylization that makes Yuasa so unique. If anything, the animation here is even more rough-hewn than that in Mind Game, which is saying a lot. Yet in some counterintuitive, Zenlike stroke of genius, the rough approach to the drawings seems to work to keep the look unified throughout. It's a continuation of the stylistic preoccupations of Mind Game. As Yuasa emphasized in interviews about Mind Game, it actually takes some effort to devise a process that will retain the rough vigor of the original animator's line through to the final product. Here again they've managed to keep alive the visceral feeling of the animators' original drawings.

Now we come to the other star of the show: Nobutake Ito, character designer and animation director of the first episode. I don't know how much input Yuasa had into the characters, but it seems likely he must have had some. As in the case of Mind Game, here the characters seem a perfect combination of the unique style of the director and the animation director. (Yuichiro Sueyoshi in the case of Mind Game) Ito, of course, animated the escape sequence of Mind Game, and more recently a few wonderful eps of Samurai Champloo, showing that he had a very unique genius as a mover. His style actually seemed to announce itself as very close to Yuasa's, with its rough lines and realistic yet exciting movement. Watching his work in Champloo, I felt he was coming up with his own personal approach to the rough yet realistic approach that Ohira and Yuasa had pioneered in Hamaji's Resurrection more than a decade ago. The first episode of Kemonozume seemed to show him continuing to build on that. Here it felt like Yuasa was returning to his roots, finally getting the chance to do the sort of serious samurai drama he had tasted under Ohira in Hamaji, whereas Ito was finally getting the chance to do this kind of down and dirty realistic acting to his heart's content.

Ito's contribution was just as maniacal as what I have come to expect of Ito, and maybe even the most satisfying part of the ep to me in many ways. Yuasa has already proven himself, but it was nice to finally see Ito given the chance to create something that allowed him to live up to his real potential. Ito has always struck me as a workhorse, and here he clearly put a huge amount of effort into the drawings throughout the episode, filling the ep with the sort of nuanced yet dynamic and intuitive acting and posing that could be seen in his past work. Essentially he's playing the role Yuasa himself played under Shinya Ohira on Hamaji, although Yuasa's and Ohira's demands are very different. Having been a great animator himself, Yuasa knows how to pick the best animators out there and get the best out of them. If I were to try to pin down the difference between what Ito brings to Yuasa's style and what Sueyoshi brought to Yuasa's style, I'd have to say Sueyoshi brought his own Yuasa-derived approach to Mind Game, with wild imagination for broad forms and movements and elastic expressions, whereas Ito brings an approach slightly more interested in specific details, favoring croquis-like quickly rendered but penetrating observations of a pose, and attending closely to the nuances of body language. There was particular care given to the hands, which are notoriously difficult to animate properly. I found the bit of prestidigitation with the coin at the beginning to be astonishingly powerfully rendered. And the brother fidgeting with his cell phone. Tadashi Hiramatsu says realism in animation is achieved by capturing pieces of reality that impart an impression of realism. This shot seems a good example of that concept. And right afterwards we cut to the highly stylized character with an oval for a head. Ito balances these two extremes masterfully.

Incidentally, speaking of Ohira, Yuasa has gone out of his way to involve Ohira in most of his non-Shinei projects since Hamaji, and it seems likely that Ohira is in the op. I have to wonder if Ohira didn't also do those two great shots with the expanding circle. Yuasa's shot was easily identifiable. In the episode itself, I assume Yuasa must have been in there working on the layout and giving pointers or helping out on the animation, as in Mind Game.

As for the episode itself, it was just a blast. The criterion of a good episode in my book is if I have to look at my watch at any point in the episode, and it didn't happen once. By the time it was over, my response was, "Already?!" Yuasa was in full force, perfectly balancing the drama and the action and tempering it all with patented Yuasa surrealism. Every moment was interesting and packed with some significance. Yuasa is very low-key as a director. He doesn't like to emphasize things. Much of Yuasa's best humor passes by very quickly because Yuasa hates dwelling on a joke. After Toshihiko falls for Yuka, we see a quick shot of the monkey feeding Toshihiko's hawk in place of the preoccupied Toshihiko. Only on a second viewing did I notice a character make a subtle movement turning his head away in courtesy as Toshihiko slinked to the bathroom after the battle. We're thrown into the situation without being regaled with windy explanations, but come away unconsciously grasping the basic situation and character relations. Yuasa manages the feat of combining a gritty drama of sibling rivalry, exciting action with rampaging monsters, and an unprecdentedly steamy love scene, all in the course of the first episode. I can't recall ever having seen a more sensual kiss in anime. The catchphrase promised "violence & action & love story & comedy", and this first episode provides the obvious answer to the question that must have been on all of our minds: How on earth could he possibly combine those things? Entirely naturally, that's how.

The scene with the monkey seems exemplary of how Yuasa deftly manages to combine these disparate elements. The situation is serious, with the two brothers facing off to determine the fate of the dojo, with a lot of emotional implications, yet in drops the monkey, who just wants to get his peach back. Suddenly the scene seamlessly shifts in a completedly different direction, with the monkey unfolding some killer moves in a short but great action scene that is exciting, absolutely hilarious, and drives the plot forward in an unexpected direction. The monkey was very Yuasa, too, with its clean, simple, elegant design that contrasts nicely with the look of the rest of the show. I could sense echoes of Hamaji in the scene in the rain. Yuasa's directing was simply fantastic throughout. I particularly liked the way he kept the shot directly fixed on Yuka's face as she moved from the beach into the car to simulate Toshihiko's burning gaze.

The animation throughout was wonderful, of course, largely thanks to Ito's dedication, but the two big action scenes were clearly the work of some good animators. It's obvious that we'll be seeing some interesting people showing up in the coming episodes. The official blog just mentioned that Osamu Kobayashi of Beck fame is doing ep 7. Here the only two names I recognized were presumably also the ones responsible for the good action - Soichiro Matsuda, who I remember for his action in various places including Futakoi Alternative, Eureka 7 and Gaiking 13, and Hiroshi Shimizu, an old comrade of Yuasa's from Shinei, who also does prop design here.

Needless to say, I was happy and very impressed with the episode in every respect and look forward to the rest. I wonder whose tongue that was behind the episode title?