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: October 2006

Sunday, October 29, 2006

11:13:19 pm , 775 words, 9981 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #7

SEXYIt's time to jump off the wagon of Kemonozume abstention. Several weeks have passed and Michio Mihara's episode just aired, so I need to do some serious catching up. I actually watched Osamu Kobayashi's episode a few weeks back, but honestly wasn't quite sure how to write about it, so I kind of let it drag. Re-watching it today mainly confirms most of the feelings I had about it when I first watched it. First of all, I commend Kobayashi on a great job. He directed and animated the entire ep singe-handedly, and it's no small task to do that. It's always a treat to see Kobayashi's work, and it was a treat here too. I can't think of many commercial TV projects where someone with a style as un-commercial as Kobayashi's - and as seemingly unsuited to the series in question - would be given free reign for an entire episode, totally uncorrected. It would have been cowardly and redundant to call in Kobayashi and then correct him, so it's good that they saw this through the right way. We'll be seeing a very different kind of one-man-show in the just-aired episode 12 with Mihara, who unless I'm mistaken just before this would have handled the much-talked-about climactic sequence of Satoshi Kon's latest film. Kobayashi and Mihara are about as different a couple of animators as you could find, and I love that about the show - that it embraces a diverse range of possible interpretations. What unites them them is a sense of adventure and bravado as animators. Whoever it is who works on the show, we see their work in the raw. We see the real face of a certain animator. It feels like this placing of animators who have a passion for their work over stylistic unity redresses a fundamental imbalance in the conventional approach to TV animation.

As for Kobayashi's work, it's basically what one would expect. Kobayashi strikes me as tremendously great when working as a series director, and when working at the opposite end of the scale, on wild fantasy shorts of his own creation, but he doesn't seem very well suited to working within the system as a cog in a machine. Needless to say, I mean that as a compliment. But in a sense, that is what he is having to do here, even though Kemonozume provides him with absolute freedom. It's just that, while watching the episode, I wasn't sure that it really worked. I had my doubts as to whether his style was really suited to this show, which is ironic since this show has embraced such a wide range of styles so far. Here they went even further than they've gone before by having Kobayashi do the ep, as if to see just how far they could push this concept, and in the end perhaps that's what makes the episode interesting. In a sense there is some similarity to what we see in Ito's episodes - Kobayashi's drawings also have that rough touch. His drawings feel alive and honest. In that sense they're similar, and Kobayashi's work fits within the spirit of the show. But in the end Kobayashi is not a mover like Ito. Ito creates beauty through drawings in motion. Kobayashi works on a different level. Kobayashi seems in his element when creating a fantastic world full of zany ideas of his own creation, not when having to move someone else's characters. Actually, I found that I really liked the way little bits of his animation were injected subversively into the fabric of Nobuteru Yuuki's sleek drawings in the first episode of Paradise Kiss. His style seemed well suited to use in a subversive capacity like that.

As for the episode itself, it was probably the most sexual episode so far. Each episode has usually had its share of erotic happenings, but here the whole pivot of the episode was the issue of Toshihiko's ability (or inability, as it were) to get off with his gal. It's an interesting situation: They're uncontrollably attracted to each other, yet sexual arousal triggers transformation, preventing sexual consummation - one hell of a vicious circle. The catfight was fun, and there were a few shocking revelations that kept things quite interesting. The main thing I came away with from this episode was just how adult this series is - 'adult' in the sense that it delivers ero without moe. It's only on watching this episode that it occurred to me how rare a thing it is to see sex portrayed in an honest fashion like this and not played up for titillation or as fan service.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

02:40:14 pm , 231 words, 1194 views     Categories: Animation

Kotabe & Shinei

In an interesting addendum to the last post, I just realized that Yoichi Kotabe had actually been involved in the Red Bird. He was in fact supposed to have been the one to do the first episode about the Crying Red Oni I talked about, but he had to stop in the middle of preparations because he was invited by Toei to do that other folktale-styled film I mentioned, Taro the Dragon Boy, which also has a red oni character... so we got to see Kotabe's red oni after all, but just in a different place. He relates that he still regrets having done that to Kusube. He was also invited to work on Conan, but had to refuse for the same reason. It's interesting to speculate about what Conan might have looked like in his hands. He also mentions that he worked on Tenguri at Otsuka's invitation, and the work was all done from home - he didn't even go to the studio. This came right after he had quit Nippon Animation following Marco and gone freelance. This seems like one of those periods in a person's life when the future was uncertain, and things could have gone any of several directions. I can't help but wish things had gone in a direction that saw Kotabe working for a bit longer as an animator instead of going to game production.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

01:19:28 am , 958 words, 2417 views     Categories: Animation, TV

The Red Bird

A while back I mentioned the first series produced by Shinei Doga, Akai Tori no Kokoro (1979). Well, I ran across a copy in the public libary, of all places, so I can finally say that I've seen it, or at least a bit of it. I was excited to be able to see the piece just because it's the missing link between the A Production period and the Shinei Doga period. I was curious whether there would be the patented dynamism of movement of the classic A Production stuff, and was hoping there might be some interesting figures. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of either. The series is basically what I expected - a pale imitation of Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. Madhouse's Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi seemed a bit more successful an imitation, with more daring abstraction and excitement. Here things are somewhat tame and soft, talking down to the children. I think part of the problem is also the format - rather than keeping the stories short with the two-story format of Group Tac's series, each episode of Akai Tori is one story. For the most part it doesn't feel like the directing is up to the task of holding the stories up for that long. Also, I recognized very few of the staff. At the most we can see names like Shigetsugu Yoshida and Hideo Nishimaki. It was actually nice to see something by Nishimaki from this period. I'd wondered what happened to him after his work on Goku in 1967. Here he did the episode I was most curious about, Akutagawa's Spider's Thread. As lackluster as his work may have seemed placed side by side with genius like Dezaki and Hata, placed side by side with lesser figures he shines. He's among the few who manages to invest his episode with enough rhythm and drive to sustain interest, though only barely. I'd expect nothing less from someone who'd worked under Gisaburo Sugii. The way the designs change with each episode is one of the series' main assets. The clean simplicity of the designs is refreshing, especially seen in this day an age when there seems so little freedom to design out of the box.

Among the few people I recognized from A Pro was Osamu Kobayashi, in the first episode about the red oni. The avant was animated in a style very different from the episode itself, so I assume it must have been by him, although the credits are confusing and don't help to clarify things. The avant features catchy, stylized drawing and dynamic, exciting movement, while after this the episode suddenly and jarringly shifts to dull, uninspired movement of a kind that I would not expect to see from a master of limited like Kobayashi. The drawings are done in a brush style. It's impressive that they tried to do this on a TV episode. This was the same period as Taro the Dragon Boy and Tadanari Okamoto's Onigakureyama no Soba no Hana, so brush-styled animation was in the air something serious at the time. Unfortunately after the first episode I don't see any of the A Pro luminaries from the old shows like Dokonjo Gaeru (Kusube notes wryly how Yoshifumi Kondo left to help out on Conan in 1978 and never came back), and the first episode is representative of the rest of the episodes in terms of the dull movement and drawn out content. It seems to suggest that Shinei made the right choice in focusing on long-runners like Doraemon and Shin-chan from there on out rather than going in a more stylistically varied direction, as that is the format in which they were in their element.

We also see the head of the studio himself, Daikichiro Kusube, stepping in to do one of the episodes. Perhaps not coincidentally, the episode in question is an episode about children on the Mongolian steppes, like the Tenguri pilot Shinei produced around the same time with the last of the good A Pro staff. Too bad none of them stayed on for this show. Perhaps not surprisingly, the episode feels very meisaku, in terms of the pacing and storytelling, and even in terms of the drawings. It feels like Kusube might even have been influenced by Yoichi Kotabe's drawings. (I thought Kotabe was much younger, but he's only two years younger. Kotabe was born in 1936, Kusube in 1934.) There was no credit for key animation, so Kusube must have omitted it to be humble. It was nice to see this veteran of early limited animation stepping up to the plate again after a decade and a half to show he could still do it. In all probability this was the last thing animated by Kusube, so it's of considerable value. (After his landmark work on Kyojin no Hoshi in 1969 he is almost exclusively vaguely attributed as "animation supervisor", as he is here.) Being quite late in his career, the ep doesn't have the sort of vigor I bet there was in his early Toei TV animation. Instead we see the steady, balanced hand of a veteran. His focus isn't on packing in as much movement as possible, like Otsuka would have done, but rather the opposite - showing how to draw an episode by yourself using the least amount of drawings possible. The results convince, though in the end it's hardly Marco, as Kusube is neither Kotabe nor Takahata. But that's not what A Pro/Shinei is about anyway. In the end this is a fascinating little outing for the studio, and I'd be curious to see what would be made of a folktale omnibus setup like this today. I get the feeling it might tap some of the imagination that's being left untapped today in the industry.

Monday, October 23, 2006

08:05:11 pm , 579 words, 1398 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil news

Here is a brief roundup of the little bits of news and rumours that have thus far managed to float through the cracks in the secretive aura that veils this project since it was officially announced more than half a year ago. Very little has been announced since then, which has led to much eager speculation. The most significant item of legitimate news came recently when Tokuma Shoten posted an ad in their magazine Animage outlining the scale of their ambition with the series -- Tokuma Shoten, of course, being the publisher of the seminal anime magazine Animage, which published Nausicaa, parent of Studio Ghibli, and otherwise one of the biggest corporate guns in the industry. After subsidizing the film version of Nausicaa in 1984, they then helped found Studio Ghibli, and funded a number of other films in the coming years including 1985's Angel's Egg. Denno Coil marks their first foray onto television. With the recent split from Ghibli, Denno Coil could be interpreted as the project that comes to fill in the gap left by Ghibli.

Adding to the already big enough news of Tokuma Shoten's involvement is a new piece of information in this ad that raises the stakes even higher: The series will be broadcast on NHK. I have doubts that this actually means "NHK", as in the terrestrial station. It seems more likely that they mean their satellite station, BS2, which is where most of their anime is broadcast. If they truly mean the terrestrial station, that would be unprecedented, and would mean a huge viewership. NHK has a long history of involvement in significant TV anime projects dating back thirty years to the likes of Future Boy Conan and Nadia and more recently Planetes. In short, the two entities that, separately, gave Miyazaki the opportunity to create his two very first personal creations, are now coming together to allow Mitsuo Iso to do the same. I knew to expect something remarkable from Iso's debut, regardless of who else was involved, but the fact that the hitherto parent of Ghibli, Japan's public broadcaster and Bandai Visual have teamed up to back the project annihilates worries about the show not getting the production backing it deserves. Giving credence to this are rumours I've been hearing that, very unusually for an anime TV series, the first season is almost completed already, even though an official broadcast date hasn't even been mentioned yet. (though at this rate next year seems pretty likely) That suggests they had a nice, long production schedule, and won't have to rush anything to meet a broadcast.

Rumours of staff involvement have been all over the place. Since the beginning I assumed that many of the people behind the quality of the big anime films of the last decade like Takeshi Honda and Toshiyuki Inoue would be involved. Takeshi Honda is rumoured to be the character designer. Tadashi Hiramatsu has posted on his home page that he storyboarded/directed episode 10. It can be assumed that Kazuto Nakazawa will probably be involved, considering the praise he received from Iso for his work on Childhood's End. A freelance animator named Igajiro, who is now working on Chevalier, reports on his home page that he did a little work on the show, to which end he visited the production floor, where he got to meet Inoue - confirming that the original karisuma animator is indeed involved.

About Mitsuo Iso | Filmography | Interview | Iso Fun Pack | Denno Coil posts

Saturday, October 7, 2006

10:16:59 pm , 1388 words, 1963 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie, Live-action

VIFF & Crossing Borders

Kazushi "Visitor Q" Watanabe at the premiere of Cain's ChildrenWith only a week remaining, among the best films I've seen so far at the Vancouver International Film Festival was the new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda: Hana (Hana yori mo nao). I knew it would be good, but it was totally different from what I was expecting. Koreeda was one of my favorites of that wave of minimalist filmmaking that swept Japan in the late 90s, of which his brooding Maboroshi no Hikari seemed to be the harbinger, but here he sets out to show that minimalist mood isn't all there is to his palette with a rollicking period comedy that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and trenchantly revisionist. If anything, it felt like I was watching a soft-edged Shohei Imamura. I never imagined he had it in him, and was expecting something closer to 2004's Nobody Knows. The humor was always dead on, as if it had been written by someone who'd been writing comedy films professionally for all his life, so I assumed panderingly that there was no way he could have written the film, and he was finally resorting to falling back directing other people's films, but I was impressed to see that it was written, directed and produced by himself. A real genius. The film is a long-needed re-interpretation of the cliched story of the "47 loyal retainers", recasting it into what it really was - a gruesome, anachronistic fiasco that gave the lie to the whole notion of bushido and signalled the end of a barbaric era.

The other hilight so far was the Taiwanese Cheng Yu-Chieh's amazingly accomplished debut feature Do Over. It was kind of like Magnolia, but without the schmaltz. Cinematography, sound design and directing were sophisticated and flawless. The very ambitious interlocking structure seemed to be teetering on the brink of spinning out of control at every moment, but he managed to retain control over every moment, creating a thrilling, stimulating, ever-evolving interlocking web of significance. A tremendous debut. The Moroccan Heaven's Doors was a similarly ambitious debut by a young brother directing team weaving together various narratives, but here there was less a feeling of control, with shaky acting, excessive length and inflection a bit too Hollywood. Climates by Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan also felt like a step down from his Distant, which I had greatly appreciated while noting a twinge of stylstic stretching thin. Here it felt like we were seeing more of the bad parts of of Distant, with long takes that didn't seem to hold up and a feeling of dreariness for dreariness's sake. There were a few years when Abbas Kiarostami's influence seemed to have injected a fresh vein of simplicity into filmmaking around the world, resulting in some excellent, sparely styled films in the early 2000s, but it's starting to feel like it's time to be moving on. Like Kanada's animation and the league of imitators, only the master can do it right. The Indonesian Love for Share was an unexpectedly delightful comedy of polygamist manners. Oku Shutaro's indie Cain's Children may have read well in the script, but it was a disappointment on the screen. In another disappointment, there were no guest appearances at the Alternative Anime screening, but as if by way of compensation, our patience was rewarded by a Q&A with the one redeeming feature of Cain's Children - its lead actor, Kazushi Watanabe - Visitor Q in the flesh! He's a great actor, and it was painful to see him saddled with the mediocre cast of this indie film. I hope he has a chance to act in some better films in the coming days.

This year's Alternative Anime felt very different from the last. Probably this was largely because most of the films this time around came from a different country. What was perhaps most interesting was to see the contrast in tendencies between student animation in Japan and Korea - if you can even identify a 'tendency'. Japanese student films seems generally more esoteric and inward-turned and abstract, Korean (from what I've seen here) more narrative-focused and linear and emotive. Because most of the films were student films, there was a sort of youthful 'haze' there, a feeling of still groping to figure out how to express oneself. The films had the freshness and lack of stale polish that I appreciate in student films, but also the lack of direction and purpose that can either be an asset or a liability in student films, and I can't say that many of them grabbed me except for possibly Act 1, Chapter 2, a bizarre retelling of the creation that worked on some visceral level but felt like it strove too much for shock effect. Notably, the music was excellent throughout. The schools must have been involved in the music somehow. One film stood apart from the rest in a league of its own - Space Paradise by Lee Myung-Ha. I actually dismissed the film while watching it because I thought it was not fair to compare the creation of students to the creation of a professional animation studio. I was shocked on seeing the credits to realize Lee had animated the entire film himself. I don't know if he's still a student or not, but what a difference genius makes! His film simply blew away everything else in the selection. I can definitely see Lee Myung-Ha going places. Lee's film was perfectly balanced entertainment, showing a level of technical refinement and narrative assuredness that I thought only a team of professionals could have achieved. A question that remains with me is how on earth he animated the film. Did he map the movement of the robot from CG? If he did, the results are wonderful and don't feel like CG; if he didn't, he's an amazing prodigy of an animator.

The entries from Japan were in the minority this time around, but had a better batting average. The experimental CG short Suzie No-Name was way, way too bizarre for its own good, but otherwise Yoshinao Sato's Desktop took a simple enough idea - how would you animate the desktop? - and did a convincing job of discovering a method of animation that stays true to the nature of the material, unleashing the hidden potential movement in the familiar play of windows splayed across all of our desktops by moving them around in an ingenious and mesmerizing dance of resizing, scrolling, and zooming. The third and last of the Japanese entries and of the selection was the one that struck me at the deepest level, Mitsuo Toyama's Trot. Toyama is a name I discovered on Digital Stadium, a peculiar and intriguing figure who is possibly even more interesting as a person than the animation he creates, which is saying a lot. I mentioned that the lack of polish of student films can be either an asset or a liability, and Toyama is one of the rare cases where it is an asset. In fact, it seems to be intrinsically tied to what makes his films great - that evanescent, delicate awkwardness of youth that will disappear with time. Toyama seems to be a true visionary - a poet whose poem is his life. I don't know what he is doing with his life now, but when his first film hit Digital Stadium in 2005 - You and I, and the Wind - he was working in a factory assembling cell phones by night and reading poetry to his own musical accompaniment like a Tokyo troubadour in city parks by day. His animation is an extension of that spirit of living in the now, steeped in a language and a mood entirely his own - the language of the cold wind striking your face on a walk in the dark of the night. Whereas most animation is as if squeezed out because the creators don't have anything to say, Toyama isn't squeezing. He's channelling. His films feel like a stethoscope to the soul. Watching his films you find yourself floating along on his mystical wavelength without even needing to understand what is going on. There are different ways an animated film can 'work', and his work fantastically well on the level of mood. I see now that Toyama came back to Digital Stadium with another film just last month - Celestial Observations.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

11:26:29 am , 354 words, 1396 views     Categories: Animation

Animator yearbook

I haven't had time to post much of anything in here recently (as usual), so I thought I would fill in the blank by posting this thing I threw together for my own reference some time ago - a simple list of some of the animators I've hilighted over the last two years, to see who's been covered and who remains to be... This might serve as a sort of extension of the Karisuma Animators page.

Mitsuo Iso 磯光雄
     Mitsuo Iso Interview
     Iso Fun Pack
     Denno Coil
Satoru Utsunomiya うつのみや理
     Gosenzosama Banbanzai
     Leading up to Aquarion 19
     Aquarion 19
Yoshinori Kanada 金田伊功
     The Kanada School
Koichi Arai 新井浩一
     3x3 Eyes
Hisashi Mori 森久司
Yasunori Miyazawa 宮沢康紀
Michio Mihara 三原三千夫
Nobutake Ito 伊東伸高
Takaaki Wada 和田高明
Ko Yoshinari 吉成鋼
Hideki Hamasu 濱洲英喜
Kazuo Komatsubara 小松原一男
Norimoto Tokura 戸倉紀元
Yasuhiro Nakura 名倉靖博
Ichiro Itano 板野一郎
Tomonori Kogawa 湖川友謙
Yasuhiro Aoki 青木康浩
Shinsaku Kozuma 上妻晋作
Hiroshi Okubo 大久保宏
Susumu Yamaguchi 山口晋
     Studio Torapezoid
Tadashi Hiramatsu 平松禎史
     Tadashi Hiramatsu interview
Toshiyuki Inoue 井上俊之
     Toshiyuki Inoue interview
     Toshiyuki Inoue interview - Part 2

Most of the time I've tried to focus on names that haven't received as much attention as I feel they deserve, while avoiding the more well-known names. But there are a few more well known figures I'd like to write about sometime. For one, I'd like to write a post about Takeshi Honda. Rumor has it that he is the CD of Denno Coil, so I thought it was a good time to look back on his work. I bet he's a pretty familiar name to many of you. What do you think of Honda? What do you think about any of the animators I've hilighted here? Who are your favorites? Why? Who do you think deserves to be written about that I haven't covered here? There are plenty of great animators I haven't covered here, so the future is full of possibility.