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: December 2006

Friday, December 29, 2006

01:09:44 am , 1151 words, 3815 views     Categories: Animation, Studio, Animator

Koichi Murata & Oh Pro

I found another rather nice Koji Nanke video I'd never seen before: the second ending for Studio Pierrot's 1987 TV series Norakuro-kun. It's interesting to have Nanke take his place in the line of various adaptations, which span the entire history of anime. The manga dates from 1931, and the first animated adaptation was a theatrical short made only four years later by Japanese animation great Mitsuyo Seo (best known for the first full-length anime feature, 1945's Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors). He also made two other Norakuro shorts in the next three years. The second adaptation was a TV series by Eiken dating from 1970, and the third was Pierrot's version. A year prior to this Nanke also designed and animated the opening/ending for Pierrot's Anmitsu Hime.

About a month and a half ago, one of the more significant Japanese animators of the last forty years passed away: Koichi Murata 村田耕一. He died at age 67 on November 7, 2006. Koichi Murata probably isn't as well known to westerners as fellow Oh Production co-founder Kazuo Komatsubara, who was the man behind the animation of such films as Galaxy Express 999, Nausicaa and, near the end of his life, Junkers Come Here. However, both animators, as the resident masters at subcontracting studio Oh Production alongside the younger Toshitsugu Saida, were leading figures behind many of the TV series that graced European TV screens in the 70s and beyond. These series were produced by other studios, but Oh Pro was behind much of their animation. I remember watching both Harlock and Heidi growing up as a kid in France - both series in which the two men, respectively, played a large part. Koichi Murata was an animator in almost every episode of Nippon Animation's Future Boy Conan and literally every other episode of Marco.

I later became a fan of Nippon Animation's long-running World Masterpiece Theater, of which Koichi Murata remained one of the central pillars right up until the very end, for over 20 years helping to provide the stable quality for which the series was known. If that weren't enough, Oh Production produced one of the true great animated films of the last half-century in Japan: Gauche the Cellist. Koichi Murata was the driving force behind getting the film made over the six years it was in production (entirely pro bono, on the side, as a labor of love). Although I'm not too familiar with the specifics of his history or work, I know that we've lost one of the great animators of our day, one of the anonymous craftsmen behind a good number of the more memorable shows many of us grew up watching. Oh Production stood for something unique in animation in Japan, and Murata was the guiding light behind this unique studio. At least in my eyes, Murata stood for Oh Production, and I mourn his passing.

Unlike Kazuo Komatsubara and many other animators of his generation, Koichi Murata didn't start out at Toei Doga, but instead at an unknown studio called Anaguma (Badger) Production, proceeding through various small studios before founding Oh Production with Komatsubara, Norio Shioyama and Koshin Yonekawa in 1970. Toshitsugu Saida came in soon afterwards and became one of the studio's star animators. (Gauche was in part a vehicle for his skills. He singlehandedly drew all of the key animation for the 63-minute film.) The first projects at the studio were Tiger Mask for Toei Doga and Attack No1 for A Production (for TMS). Komatsubara worked on Tiger Mask and Murata on Attack No1, which became the set pattern at the studio - Komatsubara leading half of the studio on the Toei shows, Murata leading the other half on the A Production shows. In 1973 they did work on Rocky Chuck for Nippon Animation back when they were still Zuiyo, after which the A Pro section animators all went to work for Takahata on Heidi. From then on out Murata et al. devoted themselves to Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater and other shows.

From about 1975 onwards, work at Oh Production was split about halfway between Toei and Nippon Animation. Around 1980, after helping out on Conan and Miyazaki's Lupin eps, some animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga defected to Telecom. Oh Pro helped out on the early Telecom (TMS) productions like Jarinko Chie and Sherlock Hound. From the mid-1980s onwards, Oh Pro then started helping out on the Ghibli films. Obviously a relationship had formed with the two founders because of all the work they'd done together over the preceding decade. Oh Pro has been involved in almost every Ghibli film since, along with the core Telecom members. From the 1990s onwards, they continued to do work for Nippon Animation and Toei, but had diversified and were no longer split down the middle. The original team effort style of the studio seems to have given way to a more atomized approach, with each member working on his own project, a la Studio Hercules.

Besides their great work as an animation studio, Oh Pro has also been an important training ground, sending out into the world a number of great animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga. In 1970, a teenage inbetweener named Yoshinori Kanada came knocking on the doors of Oh Pro to ask Koichi Murata for an autograph because he adored Murata's way of drawing the protagonist of Attack No1. The first studio Masahito Yamashita applied to was Oh Pro. Fatefully, the person he met there was Kazuhide Tomonaga, who instead directed Yamashita over to Studio Z to work alongside Yoshinori Kanada.

Oh Pro was one of the more prominent success stories among the small studios that began popping up in the 1970s to feed on the abundant subcontracting work. Many came and went, but Oh Pro are still around and kicking. They've left behind lots of great work. But sadly, due to the nature of the work, they remain obscure. Gauche was conceived precisely for this reason - to escape from obscurity. They had pride in their work, and wanted something definitively of their own creation to be able to proclaim to the world as their calling card. The results were fantastic. I only wish they had continued on that tack and built on the success of the project to continue to make personal films of that sort on the side of their subcontracting work, as did another small studio, Animaru-ya. Little Twins is one example of them having done this, but I can't get enough and wish there were more.

Among the last places I remember seeing Murata Koichi's name was in Stormy Night. He had a full and extremely prolific career as an animator spanning three and a half decades, each and every year chock full of work, but I still can't help but feel that he died too young and had more work in him. I admire the way he worked right up until the very end. He was the picture of a lifelong animator.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

11:04:51 pm , 492 words, 1014 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, TV

Ayakashi Ayashi 12

I remember in an old comment talking about some of the circus animation in Eureka 7. Ep 35 had a good deal of nice work. There were two particularly intricate shots, the first involving the tower, which I believe to have been done by Soichiro Matsuda, and the second apparently by a mystery figure not credited... I guessed Chikashi Kubota, but apparently it may have been another young face, Kaichiro Terada. I bring it up because both did some nice work in the latest episode of Bones' follup fantasy adventure, Ayakashi Ayashi #12, this time both credited. I don't know why Terada wasn't credited previously, if it was him. I'm familiar with Matsuda, who has done mostly Yasushi Muraki-styled twirling circus animation ever since the opening of Futakoi Alternative (he also did the fight at the beginning of Kemonozume #1), but not so much with Terada. My guess would be that Terada did the first action sequence with the man atop the dragon-like creature and that very fast shot, and Matsuda the sequence that follows about a minute afterwards, where the guy pulls those shining objects out of his body. Total guess, though, because I don't have a good enough grasp of their styles to be sure. Terada apparently animated the bit at the very beginning of the opening, so it is an educated guess. From what I've seen of his work, I get the impression that Terada's timing seems to be a little too fast sometimes, while Matsuda's timing seems to be a little more reined in and slow and heavy. Most obvious of all, the second part has a typical Matsuda trademark, that zigzagging smoke trail (also to be seen in Gaiking 13).

And I remember fearing that Choi Eunyoung probably wouldn't have a chance to do more of the great personally styled animation she did in Kemonozume (ep 6 and the avant of ep 10) at any other studio.... yet here she is already doing exactly that in this episode. I never expected to see this kind of animation in a Bones series, particularly this one. Not surprisingly, presumably out of fear that it would stick out too much, they added a dark blue filter to the screen to make it seem like a mood effect. Unfortunately, they went overboard and darkened the screen so much that it's virtually impossible to see the actual animation. Still, it's encouraging that we should be able to see more of her great work this soon afterwards. It's interesting to see foreigners like Choi Eunyoung and Jamie Vickers (Tokyo Tribe 2 ending) injecting some fresh blood into anime like this.

I was holding out hope that Yuri Norstein's Overcoat might at least near completion this year, but that doesn't appear very likely now. Beyond what point does perfectionism turn into obsession? Is thirty years too long for one person to spend creating a single film? I just hope what happened to The Thief and the Cobbler doesn't happen to Norstein's film.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

11:05:46 pm , 812 words, 1255 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Movie, TV

The Kappa's Gift

NHK managed to pull a fast one on me. No Shingo Natsume in the last episode. Instead, a one-two punch of Norio Matsumoto and Tetsuya Takeuchi. Totally out of the blue. It's like a goodbye thank you to viewers. They had fun with the allotment, too. Matsumoto's shots are sprinkled around here and there like nuggets of gold. Yet again Matsumoto's been called in to help with a climax. I can't figure out who it was that called in the marines this time. Matsumoto's worked for just about every other studio there is in the last few years - Madhouse, Pierrot, Satelight, Radix, Toei, IG, Ghibli - but Gonzo's new to the lineup as far as I know. In any case, it had the desired effect of helping make this a satisfying finale, so it was a good call. There's nothing like calling in a great animator or two to provide a big climax with just the touch of nuanced acting needed to give it the needed punch. It's almost enough to make you forget how different the preceding episodes were. Almost. Even better would have been a tag-team effort by Matsumoto and Takeuchi, but I shouldn't get greedy.

I've been reading a book about erstwhile Crayon Shin-chan director Keiichi Hara. Learning more in depth about the man and his attitudes has only stoked my fire about his new film slated for release next year. It's apparently based on a book published in 1978 entitled Kappa Oosawagi 河童おおさわぎ or "Kappa Uproar". The previous, working title was Kappa no Kureta Okurimono 河童のくれた贈り物 or "The Kappa's Gift", but they may have reverted to the original title.

The film is produced by Hitoshi Mogi, who had been tricked into joining Shinei in 1981 believing he was joining a live-action film studio. He went on to become Shinei's chief producer, in which capacity he worked closely with Hara from the time of his debut as chief director of Esper Mami down through all of the Shin-chan films. Mogi has in fact had this project in the works for a long time, but it is only now beginning to see fruition with the now free Hara at the head of the project.

Information on the project is just about as hard to come by as it is for Denno Coil. About all I know now is that it's still being done at Shinei, and the animation director/character designer is Hara's longtime support from Crayon Shin-chan, Yuichiro Sueyoshi (who animated the climax of Hara's 2001 Adult Empire film etc). I mentioned Tokikake's latest award, the Grand Prize at the Media Arts Festival. Well, Hara won the award in 2002 for his Warring States film, and in his new film he's coupled with the animation director of the 2004 Media Arts Festival Grand Prize winner, Mind Game, which makes for an exciting prospect.

Keiichi Hara had clearly outgrown the confines of the Shin-chan vehicle by the time of his last film in 2002. Shinnosuke had by that time been relegated to a mere side-character in his vast historical tableaus. He'd done everything he felt he could with the material, so he left the post to make a film as he wanted. He approached his last two films in kamikaze style, doing them his own way, consequences be damned, fully expecting each to be his last. As it turns out, audiences loved what he'd done, so he was forced to leave of his own volition.

He had always been more interested in creating meaningful, emotionally resonant drama than slapstick children's fare. Shin-chan might not immediately seem like the best place to do that, but he had managed to inject a more down to earth, grounded tone into the show. His approach was there right off the bat from the very first Shin-chan film in 1992, in which he storyboarded the low-key first half of the film and then-chief director Mitsuru Hongo storyboarded the sci-fi second half. His attention to detail and knack for delicate dramaturgy were a major boon to all of the films.

Not surprisingly for a director who made a film entirely about the idea of nostalgia (Adult Empire), Hara cites among his influences Tarkovsky's film of the same name. He also cites Lawrence of Arabia, Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, and the films of Keisuke Kinoshita and Yasujiro Ozu. Hara is also very particular about his animation. The only two anime films he enjoyed in the last decade were Jin-Roh and Mind Game. Hara's also got a unique approach to living. He's spent a good portion of every year since 1985 travelling abroad, wandering around by foot visiting remote places. He's got a particular penchant for Southeast Asia. Hara is also known for his pared down lifestyle. He doesn't own a cell phone, avoids other modern gadgets, backpacks it wherever he travels. I'm eager to see what the ascetic of the anime industry will do with his breakout film.

Friday, December 15, 2006

02:47:24 pm , 381 words, 985 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, Movie

Tokikake takes the Bunkacho

Among the more notable prizes won by Mind Game was the prestigious grand prize at the Bunkacho's Japan Media Arts Festival in 2004. Mamoru Hosoda's latest film Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo (The girl who leapt through time) has taken the prize this year at the 2006 edition of the Japan Media Arts Festival. This award is but the latest addition to the film's rapidly growing trophy shelf. One of the other films that won, albeit in another category, is the great music video for Cornelius' Fit Song. You can also see another cool vid by the same director, Koichiro Tsujikawa, for Cornelius' Beep It.

I recently had a chance to watch The Thief and the Cobbler thanks to the restorative efforts of Garrett Gilchrist, who put together a "Recobbled" cut that can be downloaded here. I'd been holding off watching any of the bowlderized versions for years now, hoping a better version would come out, and I'm glad I did. In Garrett's version you can finally fully appreciate the reason for all the superlatives that have been thrown at the project over the years. Even in patchwork form it comes across as an tour-de-force of animation that any fan of animation needs to see. One sequence stands out as being among the most intricately animated and inventive I've ever seen - the destruction of the war machine at the end of the film, which tragically is the section of the film that's in the worst condition. I would love to see this section in pristine quality one day to be able to appreciate all of the maniacal detail that was packed into it. Perhaps my favorite sequence in the film is the chase after the shoe that comes early on, which uses optical illusions to wonderful effect. It actually vaguely reminded me of Masaaki Yuasa's early approach to animation, with lots of freewheeling soaring through a bevy of unexpected tricky ideas and movements, best exemplified by the car racing clip from the Chibi Maruko-chan film. To me it's in these intricately staged sequences that the film really shines, though there is almost not a moment of the original work that isn't interesting. Garrett's commentary is also fascinating listening for those who are interested in learning about the animators who worked on the film.

Monday, December 11, 2006

11:12:48 pm , 558 words, 1357 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Movie, TV

Tidbits

Just some quick bits here and there. Have a few things on the backburner that I've been meaning to get around to, though I'm not quite there yet. Welcome to the NHK is about to end on ep 24. There were good stretches where I completely lost interest, but there would be the occasional shot in the arm of good animation and middling good directing that revived my interest, and in the end I'm kind of sad to see it go, though it's probably best not to drag out the agony much longer. I suppose studios take a different approach for a morning/prime time show and a late-night show, and this show is just an example of that. There were about five people doing good work on that series, and the rest was essentially unwatchable. I liked Erukin Kawabata's directing in ep 19.

My big catch from this series was Shingo Natsume, who just did some more cool work in 19, with all those thick black shadows, and now 23 (also 4 8 16). He also seems to be in the last ep. He's about the only animator on the show who was actually conscious about what he was doing, actively trying to carve out his own style. I'd be curious to know his influences. It's always reassuring to see that there are still young faces entering the biz with enough love of hand drawn animation to undertake the thankless task of trying to develop their own style and draw interesting animation in this day and age, particularly within the ridiculously tight schedules of TV animation. It always strikes me as a miracle that people like Yutaka Nakamura or Norio Matsumoto can produce reams of work of that level within such schedules. I was kind of worried that there would be less and less interesting people appearing with the changing technologies, but just the opposite, here we are almost in 2007 and there still seem to be new, interesting, really talented faces appearing regularly these days renewing that flame.

Speaking of Gonzo, I also just had the chance to watch Brave Story, which is a good contrast with NHK in terms of showing the two sides of this studio. When they want to, they can create some good quality. I don't know much about their approach, but in a number of productions I get a vibe of a kind of committee approach reminiscent of the old Toei Doga films, with various people contributing to designing and storyboarding and so on. Could be totally wrong. The animation was very full and nuanced, showing they approached this film seriously. What was it about the film that makes it so insubstantial then? Not the directing or the animation (though the animation was rich and pretty but also staid and plain). There were lots of imaginative ideas, but they didn't really seem to gel into a compelling whole. There was no sense of guiding vision. Nothing seemed genuinely unexpected. The script was good in the micro, but it all felt so uninspired and hackneyed. Typical of Gonzo was the active use of CG, but they seemed to have learned their lesson and be trying to hide it a little more with dark shading so it didn't stick out so much. Quibbles aside, no contest: Brave Story takes this year's award for Best Engrish Title for a Feature Length Film.