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: September 2006

Saturday, September 30, 2006

08:12:53 pm , 1927 words, 3624 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Tokyo Loop

For some reason I forgot to mention one of the items that I've been most looking forward to at the VIFF this year: Tokyo Loop. It was in the back of my mind when I noticed it on the lineup, so it was a nice surprise. I was expecting to have to wait to get it on DVD, but instead I got to see it on the big screen first. This is one of the rare times I felt like I might have been better off seeing it on DVD the first time, in the comfort and safe solitude of my room. Having heard Koji Yamamura was heading the project, I was expecting an 'animation omnibus', but Koji Yamamura's Fig was in fact the only piece in the collection that struck me as being deeply satisfying as animation. I hate making pedantic distinctions between what's animated and what's not, so I won't. I think each of the pieces do work as animation at a fundamental level. You just have to approach it with an open mind. As an omnibus of cool new artsy shorts from a number of great Japanese artists, it was great film. It should have been obvious that it would emphasize the experimental side from the fact that many of the creators involved aren't animators, but experimental filmmakers or artists or the like.

A big pull of the film was the music by Seiichi Yamamoto. I was delighted to see that apparently his awesome work on Mind Game got some attention and he was being tapped for another hour & a half of film music. Masaaki Yuasa's comment about the amazing variety of the music he provided for Mind Game popped into my head during the screening. From one piece to the next you really do not know what to expect, and it's hard to believe a single guy came up with all of those different pieces, which ranged from Zeni Geva-inspired noise to Zoviet France-esque loops to driving drum solos to sweet medolies. This guy can do it all. My one complaint was that I felt that perhaps some of the shorts weren't as fairly served by the music as they could have been, while others benefited from extravagantly labored scores. I think this is an impression that might change watching it on DVD. The simple loops some of the films had seemed appropriate, but the audience was getting restless during some of them, which made it hard to appreciate the piece as it should have been. The experience reminded me of just how important an element music is in animation, how much the score can change your impression of a piece.

The driving drum solo in question came in the first piece, by Masahiko Sato, who is one of Japan's more famous TV advertisement directors. (you can see a number of his spots here) The music provided the perfect rhythm to jump-start the film, and great accompaniment to the pared-down screen, which consists simply of a series of dots representing a stick figure's joints in the process of walking across the screen, with lines dancing out from the joints in various configurations. Like most of the shorts in the film, there was no story. I've noticed a healthy trend of getting away from simple narrative in recent years in Japanese shorts. The opener worked perfect as an opener and as a film - a straightforward exploration of a simple concept: what happens on the screen when you connect the dots in various ways? It was one of my favorites of the movie, doing what I like best - taking a very simple concept and 'running' with it farther than you would have thought possible with such simple means. Watching it I felt digital was the future. I've never been a fan of what I've seen done with 3DCG so far, but it's in conceptually ingenious pieces like this and other shorts I've seen from Japanese students and elsewhere around the world over the last few years, like Robert Seidel's _grau, that I really felt the future of digital.

The indomitably frisky Keiichi Tanaami was here with a piece that was typical of what I've seen from his recent collaborations with the mystic Nobuhiro Aihara, who was also present with a new dose of psychedelia. It felt like Aihara was taking a break from the painstakingly detailed animated mandalas I've seen from him in the last few years and tapping a more primitive root of the animated family tree, with a bewildering three minutes of subliminal flashing imagery straight to your cortex from the land of dreams. I found it a bit exhausting, honestly.

I was glad to see Koji Yamamura accompanied by the latest young sprout on the hale trunk of the great tree: Kei Oyama, who was here with another repulsively beautiful examination of closeups of skin and the approach of consciousness of mortality in youth after his great and ever so upbeat Examination Room. I love his work. I look forward to seeing the kind of films he'll make when discovers the currently very foreign notion of happiness.

Not difficult to identify the most fun had in the film. I knew what to expect when I heard Shiriagari Kotobuki was to be involved, even though the man isn't even an animator: Something extremely bizarre and odd, and somehow funny. I had a foretaste in his strangely entrancing (and addictive) Minna no Uta short Tonosama Gaeru, and this film was close in spirit to that. Shiriagari's heta-uma drawings moving around: What more could you want? The story of a dog on a quest for a bone progressed with video game logic like a metaphor for our neverending hunt for the latest newfangled 'bone', be it the iPod Nano or the next rung on the ladder of all of our careers. I have the impression that Japanese indies in the last few years have been exploring the primitive appeal of children's drawings to explore deep states of consciousness, be it Naoyuki Tsuji with his charcoal angels or Atsushi Wada with his carefully crafted crummy drawings going through absurd yet somehow uncomfortably familiar rituals. I came away from Wada's latest sally on the folly of societally ingrained habit asking myself this question: Would it destroy him or open up new possibilities if he gained technical skill, which he seemed to be doing with this piece. I'm curious to see where he will go. I've never seen such a mismatch - such bad drawings combined with such a feeling of being completely conscious of how bad his drawings are and knowing exactly what he's doing.

The current doyen of indie Japanese animation Yamamura was joined by two other unshakable indie pillars - Taku Sugiyama and none other than the original Japanese indie, Yoji Kuri. I've still not had the chance to see as much of Taku's work as I would like, but the piece here was wonderful and confirmed my suspicion that I direly need to discover his work sometime soon. One of the few of his pieces I'd seen before is his Minna no Uta piece Let's communicate. I loved the execution of the piece, which seems to be about the mental bond that ties two people across the space of time and distance throughout hectic lives using a series of flipbook-like loops with no color or anything extravagant, just Taku's typical simple drawings. The numbers written in the corner of each of page show exactly how many drawings were used for each of the little loops, which adds a great dimension to the piece, emphasising the medium, making it impossible to forget at any moment that what we are watching is animation. The ingenuity of how he plays with this simple concept is what animation is all about to me, and I thought it showed well why he was one of the most famous indies of the last few decades. His piece in this film was a fantastic little fable-like story about the hidden nature of people. I don't know how active he is now, but he sure as heck still has the touch. He's been one of the precious few indies over the last few decades alongside Yamamura who has actively tried to explore the possibilities of animation from his own personal angle, without allowing himself the luxury of getting stuck in the rut of a single approach to the form.

Yoji Kuri's piece was typical of his earlier work in terms of the style and the humor, as was his piece on Winter Days, but here it felt much more successful. It seems like his humor wasn't able to breathe fully under the constraints of that literary-inspired omnibus, but here with more freedom he was in his element. It was a great relief to see this great old master - one of the founding fathers of the indie animation scene in Japan - still up to his wonderful old tricks almost half a century after the original, seminal Animation Festival. His little story about dog poop worked nicely as a arch protest against an aspect of city life with which we're all too familiar. It was actually moving to see him still in action. Long live the king of sukebe oyaji!

I'm being reminded of my old write-up of Winter Days in terms of how I'm starting to run out of steam and consequently won't be able to cover each of the 16 entries... so I'll skip the ones that didn't impress me too much. The surprise of the selection came with Tomoyasu Murata's film. The surprise? It wasn't a puppet film. It was absolutely as far as possible as you could get from a puppet film - treated photos of the Tokyo nightscape. The colored dots of light from the landscape were transformed into a beautiful abstract dance of shapes and colors. What unifies this with his previous work is the brilliant handling of light, shadow, atmosphere and space. These are precisely the elements I remember impressing me most in Tomoyasu's puppet films. Again, a film where very rudimentary means were used to create a film that feels self-contained and whole.

The short that caps this fascinating and not necessarily easy journey across the back alleys of modern-day Tokyo and the possibilities of animation is a digital bookend by technical wizard Iwai Toshio. I remember being impressed by his invention, the Tenori-on, or more specifically, the way that he manipulates the simple electronic device like some kind of an emissary from another planet, a Mozart from Mars speaking a symphony of bleeps and blinks. Here he returns to the deepest of the deep roots of the family tree, exploring the concept of the Phenakistiscope through entrancing digital shapeshifting loops. Amid the frenzy of Tokyo as seen through the lens of the bustle of different approaches on display in this omnibus, some of them successful, some still seeming to be struggling to find a direction, this was another of the pieces that seemed to clear the fog and point, beacon-like, towards the future. The clock ticks endlessly ahead.

If one thing disappointed me about the screening, it's that none of the creators were in attendance. Perhaps I'm spoiled from last year's AA screening attended by three of the young creators. I'm crossing my fingers that one of the AAs tomorrow or the day after will have some guest speakers. If not, no big deal. I'll have seen some great new indie animation on the big screen. What more could I ask?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

11:47:41 pm , 828 words, 2262 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #6

The fact that I can't watch the next episode until I write about the current episode incites me to get off my ass and write my post before things get any more backed up.

I've seen this ep three times now, and it's grown on me each time. The episode brings some welcome humor to the proceedings. The last few episodes seemed a little lacking in one of the things that most distinguishes Yuasa - his humor - and this episode makes up for that very nicely. It was hilarious the first time, and on the third watching I still laugh at the parts that made me laugh out loud the first time. This is definitely the funniest episode since the first episode, and the one where Yuasa's brand of humour comes out the best since the first. Yuasa co-wrote the script, which explains why. At the same time the episode weaves in a nice, touching story, and a fantastic action scene involving none other than the monkey - whom I've been dying to see in action again - so it was a really fun and enjoyable ep to watch. That's what I came away with from this episode - how nice this series is. In other words, how good it makes you feel just watching it. The show has heart. Despite the gruesome premise and occasional shocking image, it never feels morbid or repellant. There have been well produced series that I've enjoyed in the past, but beyond the technical aspect, there haven't been many series that I've simply enjoyed immersing myself in the way I do this one. And each episode is so different from the previous. There haven't been two episodes that are alike, either in terms of narrative style or animation style. This actually took me a little while getting used to, and I found myself wishing they tried a more linear tack, but now that I'm starting to get used to it, the approach is growing on me, and I can see how it's effective for telling this story.

Unusually, the animation director of this episode was a Korean whom I've seen in several of the episodes so far, Choi Eunyoung, with backup from Ito. He's clearly been one of the main folks behind the animation of the series along with a few other people I've seen regularly in the same eps but otherwise never heard of - Akira Honma, Mariko Aikawa, Masahiko Ouchi, etc. I suppose he must have come from Dr Movie originally. The animation was if anything even more sharp stylistically than some of the other episodes, with very daring and rough drawings full of wonderfully characterful ruffles and ridges. It was nice work and very pleasant to look at. He clearly understands Yuasa's approach, and does a great job of interpreting that approach through the lens of his own style. I'd be curious to know what parts he did in the previous episodes. The beginning of the action scene had a nice feeling to the moment, with some daring perspectives and leaping around. I liked the use of the "ghost" effect when Toshihiko was dodging the acorns.

For some reason watching this episode also reminded me of something I'd been wondering about since the beginning of the series - the meaning of the kemono. The way it is tied to sexual arousal seems to suggest some kind of a metaphor for human desire, though I'm not exactly sure how to interpret it. In this episode Yuka speaks about a doctor who performs free operations to cure the "persecuted" shokujinki. That single word puts a very different spin on things, suggesting that we may have been deliberately fooled into instinctively taking the wrong side in the presented power play of society at large versus the shokujinki in order to remind us how easy it is for us to unwittingly do the same thing in real life - how everything is relative. Certainties can be arbitrary and conditioned. Truth depends on your perspective and your willingness to empathise and try to understand.

Something I forgot to mention about the last episode was that "subway" scene. I didn't realize until afterwards that there really are places like that in Japan, where you can go and stand in a room designed to look like a subway and fondle a woman like some kind of a subway pervert if you get off on that sort of thing but would prefer to avoid the occupational hazards of the real thing. Great idea to use that to add some topical spice to the material. I remember a few spots of Paranoia Agent offering a glimpse into similar facets of the "fuuzoku" subculture of Japan, which seems to get more and more bizarre every year. Last ep I also noticed someone credited as "Mizuhata-san", which was amusing. Presumably we're talking about Kenji Mizuhata, whose name I see often enough, though I don't know anything about his style.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

12:32:30 am , 658 words, 1818 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #5

I'm a little late with the next ep, which I've by now had the chance to watch a few times. I usually try to write out my comments after the second watching. Impressions are most vivid after the first, but more balanced after the second. The fifth episode provided a number of happy surprises. First of all, it was nice to see things back at a high level in terms of the animation and directing. This was an entirely satisfying episode. Animation was solid and interesting throughout, with several great little bits. The story in particular was interesting, veering away from what I had assumed would be the main narrative to focus on the changes undertaking the Kifuken dojo. Instead of a linear story of love on the run, we see the story developing from various perspectives, shedding light from different angles. It's almost as if, rather than characters being the protagonists, the era the characters inhabit is the main subject. With this episode we can begin to see the historical allegory aspect of the series a little more clearly. Since the beginning of the series it was clear that they were setting out to make a series that felt very ... Showa. I don't know how else to put it. Literally Showa is the period from 1925-1989, but really Showa is more about the feeling of the times during the middle of the last century - it's the atmosphere the hippies in the Adult Empire Shin-chan film were out to recapture. The soft texture of the screen, the old placards, the street-oriented feeling of life - it feels like something you'd see in an old movie starring Tora-san or something. The transformation of the traditional institution of the Kifuken into a private company is a great parallel for all of the deep-rooted changes that overtook the country during that period. The grungy, handmade background art also helps bring out the whole Showa atmosphere quite nicely.

In terms of the animation, the big surprise was to find none other than Hisashi Mori in the ep, providing a stupefying shot that was everything I've wanted to see from the man and more - just not quite in the show I expected to see it in. I should have seen it coming. With Mori's indomitably personal approach to line and timing, I can't think of anyone else doing regular TV work who seems a better candidate stylistically for working on this show. Looking at his shot here, it's clear that Mori is going the way of Ohira. Mori's growth over the last few years has been amazing. Yuasa obviously did not miss this new face doing work right up his alley. Seeing some of my favorite animators whom I've never seen work on the same show before working here side by side is thrilling and moving. A face I wasn't familiar with did the pre-opening animation - Hiroyuki Aoyama. It was completely different from everything else I've seen in the show, but truly excellent, with just the nuance and delicacy and craftsmanly skill I would have expected from one of the animation directors of Mamoru Hosoda's latest film. I don't think I would have been able to pick out his work had I seen it elsewhere - and I probably have - so it was great to be able to see him given the chance to a discrete scene completely in his own style like this. The "avants" are turning out to pack great little surprises in each episode. Watching Crystania got me to fantasizing about Yasunori Miyazawa participating in the series. He would be a perfect fit. And I was surprised to hear that apparently the ep by Osamu Kobayashi (#7) might be a solo ep like Mihara's. On his site Kobayashi mentioned something I'd been wondering about for a while - who animated the awesome bit of prestidigitation with the coin in #1. It was by none other than Yuasa himself.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

11:23:07 pm , 227 words, 1524 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Third AA session

I was looking forward to this year's VIFF to see if there would be any interesting animated fare (and to seeing a lot of great new films from around the world, of course), but this year seems to be a bit of a fallow year after a fecund last couple of years for foreign animated features. The only big one I see is Renaissance. I was holding out hope that Denmark's Princess would make it over this year. It's nice that we seem to be seeing more and more sophisticated animated features like these coming from out of the woodworks all over the world these days. Luckily there's another sally in their Alternative Anime series to save the day. This'll be my third time seeing the set after just as many years living here. Curiously, though, most of the items are South Korean this time around. Alternative but not exactly anime. I'm looking forward to it all the more. It'll be undiscovered territory for me. I'd noticed South Korean shorts making the rounds at festivals recently, and was dying to see more beyond Lee Sung-Gang to see what it was all about. Seems like South Korea's been going through a real renaissance in filmmaking in the last few years, and it sounds like animation has been keeping up. I hope to see more in the coming days.

Friday, September 15, 2006

12:12:30 am , 1164 words, 3281 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Movie

Legend of Crystania

A while back I ran across a trailer that got me really intrigued and excited. But not a trailer for a new film. A trailer for a ten year old film: the 1995 Legend of Crystania film. I knew nothing about what I was seeing, but couldn't believe that an entire feature film had been made in the style of what I was seeing in the trailer. The quality was simply too high, and stylistically not something I thought would have been acceptable for a full-length feature. I could imagine how much time had gone into the few minutes of the trailer. But a full movie at that quality was unimaginable. But yes, it turns out they really did make a full-length feature in that style. For some reason I appear to have skipped over it when it first came out, although I followed the first piece in the franchise. In a way I'm glad I did skip it, because I was leaving a very nice present for myself ten years down the line. There's nothing nicer than discovering hidden gems like this. And this one was a fantastic little gem.

The first thing I thought when I saw the trailer was: Why don't I have this in my Satoru Utsunomiya filmography? Although I had no proof that he was involved, from the first few seconds and through to the end the entire thing simply screamed Satoru Utsunomiya. And this was obviously no small-scale job, either, but a major effort. If it wasn't Utsunomiya, it was a really good imitation, and I don't know who would have been up to doing that. Most likely was that he was involved, maybe alongside some Utsunomiya disciples. I didn't think he'd have AD'd another film so soon after Peek.

Well, I've now seen the film, and I was delighted to see that it really was a full-length film animated in the style of the trailer. The film fully lived up to what the trailer had promised, which was more than I could have dreamed. It was an entire film done in the Utsunomiya style, and done quite well, with due effort put in to make it work. Seeing the credits revealed that Utsunomiya was indeed involved, though only as one of the animators, under his pen-name Satoru Mizuguchi. (mistranslated Mizugushi, in one of many spellings gaffes to come) I found that hard to believe. It seems clear that if he wasn't involved as at least one of the ADs, he must have had some kind of spiritual or guiding influence on the look of the film at some point, somehow. The whole style of movement and drawing in the film was a style he had invented. Of course, he had his own influences, one of whom was also present as an animator here... Takashi Nakamura. So it it felt like maybe we were seeing a number of generations of mutually influenced creators getting together. For some reason the situation reminds me of the way Yasuji Mori acted as the guiding spirit in the nascent days of the AD system on Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon.

Looking at the credits is in fact very revealing. The film was directed by Ryutaro Nakamura. Character design and chief animation director was Katsumi Matsuda (misspelled Terumi). Animation directors were Yasuyuki Shimizu (misspelled Noriyuki), Yoshio Mizumura and Yasunori Miyazawa (miraculously not misspelled). Animators include a mysterious individual named Koji Ishihama. Mmm-hmm. Koji -> Masashi. Add all of those names together and what do you get? Another Utsunomiya production from a year later: The first Popolo Crois game. Every one of those folks, except for Shimizu, was involved in the animated parts of the game, made right after the Crystania film, and directed again by Nakamura. The style of movement is very similar in both, as is the whole RPG situation, although the characters & style couldn't be more different. Another name I wondered about in the credits was the first - Michiki Mihara. Could this be Michio Mihara? Just about the only name they didn't misspell was Takashi Nakamura, because he writes his name in hiragana.

The animation was sumptuous, a feast for the eyes. The characters were typically pared down in order to facilitate filling out every moment with interesting movement. They moved freely in a natural and three-dimensional way, rather than on the flat posing plane of typical anime. The acting had richness and nuance that set it apart from most other productions. The character drawings were very typical of Utsunomiya in the spareness of lines, and the particular way hands and joints and so on were drawn. Certain sections stood out as looking particularly Utsunomiya, and these may have been the bits he actually animated. In other places, I could clearly see that there were other people at work. The designs were clearly not his work, though they were in his spirit in the spareness of lines. It would be interesting to find out the background behind the animation - why the staff decided on this particular style, and to what extent Utsunomiya was involved in shaping it.

Piled on top of the pleasure of finding an entire film in this style was another, unexpected, and even greater pleasure. I was happy when I saw Yasunori Miyazawa's name in the credits as one of the ADs, but nothing could have prepared me for the wonderfulness of what lay in store inside. This film provided some of the best work I've seen from the man, all of it very dense, very clearly of his hand, and all absolutely stunning work. To me, he flat out stole the show. I was reminded of his work in the Popolo Crois game, on the last segment, which had a huge impact on me when I first saw it. Miyazawa is amazing now, but he has been amazing for more than a decade now. Miyazawa was only credited as an animation director, but he was obviously in charge of the magic effects in the film. He brought the magical flames and bubbling, pulsating forms to life, filling the screen with an array of forms and flat colors moving and interacting organically. It was easy to know what Miyazawa did. As soon as his work came on the screen, I got goosebumps and my jaw dropped in awe. The animation was already wonderful as it is, but Miyazawa occupies his own unique realm of wonder. His sections gave the animation just the push of the unexpected and uncontrolled that was needed to make it all feel complete.

I think the time is ripe for another film like this, either with Utsunomiya at the head or somehow involved in shaping the style of animation. With perhaps a slightly more original story to tell and no franchise strings attached it might result in a film that would open people's eyes to a new old sort of beauty - the beauty of animation.

Related: Spotlight on Satoru Utsunomiya