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: January 2007

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

11:59:17 pm , 1140 words, 3479 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, TV

BOO 2006

Just came from witnessing this year's Best of Ottawa (2006), and for my money it was the best of the Best of Ottawas I've seen. Chris Robinson even dropped by for a bit beforehand, and he agrees. Goes to reason (that it was the best), because this year the selection wasn't merely a rote regurgitaton of the award-winners, but the best of signed Chris. I've been kind of out of it in terms of animation lately (it comes and goes in cycles), but this was a nice revitalizing shot in the arm and kick in the head that made me fall in love with all that moving drawing stuff all over again. I've been diplomatic about liking everything in the past, but here there's no need for diplomacy, as everything hit that nirvana spot in the back of my brain just at the right angle. Absolutely top-notch selection in other words showcasing everything that's great about animation, and it's interesting since half of them didn't win any awards.

By far, far my favorite (to my own surprise) was the only Japanese entry, Lightning Doodle Project (Pikapika), which was made entirely by people waving flashlights around in front of a camera. (reminded me of Beep It) It was one of those rare moments of cinematic wonder when you see something that makes your eyes and mouth shoot open, and you just gasp like a little child in sheer, simple, beautiful wonder. Packed with the type of goodness I most value: much in little. Taking a simple concept and making a perfect, tight little film like this with its own unique visual approach, inventing its own idea of what constitutes a valid visual creation. At the same time it's a wonderful treat for the eyes, with a warm pulsing glowing mood and fantastic, freeflowing shapes that I could see myself coming back to immerse my eyes in again and again. All of it created by ghostly figures shot in the twilight under underpasses at evening digs and other exotic locales of the urban preserve. Nirvana in a light stick.

Crossing the Stream and The Carnival of the Animals were next up on the fave list, though it's hard to rank when everything is so damned impressive. Neither of the latter won awards, but I award them my own personal award of Best Shorts To Watch To Fall In Love With Animation. I could hear one cinemagoer whisper "didn't like that" after Crossing the Stream (Skip Battaglia), but tsk, tsk, it was a ravishing, perfectly delectable stream of consciousness cascading of lines following a cowboy (?) crossing a stream with his horse and pony, an ode to the beauty of line that reminded me again what it was I loved about animation... that primal thrill of watching lines move. To a lover of dancing lines such as myself, it was a wonderful experience, and I send out a tender-hearted bravo and wahoo of joy. A poem written in lines of water. The erotic element was at high noon in The Carnival of the Animals, which was fantastic in more ways than I can count, multi-layered in ways only animation can be, with crazy designs and colors, great ironic matching to a classic soundtrack (music tinging animation and animation giving a new tinge to the music too), a fun yet deep romp in cartoon sexiness that was the most satisfying non-abstract (tho not-quite-narrative) piece to me.

The closing film Who I Am and What I Want was a great surprise closing, starting all primitive and scribbly but gradually drawing you into its calmly insane meandering narration of crazy but invigorating and liberating yearning to be this and that. The final spurt of wanting achieves a truly enthralling rhythm that you don't want to come to an end. Who was that? What did it mean? I could sense myself sailing along on a perfect and comfortable razor's edge of comprehension-incomprehension that I rarely attain but now wish I did more, as it feels great. The name of one of the co-directors (Chris Shepherd) rings a bell, but I can't remember from where.

It wasn't surprising to see Andreas Hykade there with his latest short, and I'm glad it was included, because Hykade is a master storyteller in the medium of animation like few I've ever seen. Taking a story that in its outline sounds like a Disney live-action heartwarmer of a boy and his rabbit and turning it into something as hair-raising, resonant, elemental, almost mythical as he has here, without dipping into schlock or schmaltz, seeming to speak to so many things without coming across as a facile Allegory with a capital A, now that can't be an easy task. The film fairly seethes with invisible controlled tension, the lines sparing but masterful, pared down so that every object is merely a symbol for its referent. One of the very rare instances that makes me want to praise animation as a storytelling medium.

Every other piece was worth the price of admission, from the hilarious tour-de-force in pencil by Joanna Quinn, to the lo-fi but brilliant guy101 narrating the story of an online encounter and encounter-within-an-encounter in the language of chat boards and DOS prompts. It's a film that didn't win an award but that works fantastically as a film, and that is what unifies these. Not that they are award-worthy, but that they are all solid works, films, with depth of meaning and solid directing, no matter the technique. The famous Rabbit was there, and seeing it again made me think the reason it's a great film is because it's doesn't feel like it was made to win an award, but rather invents its own unique narrative flow with its own inner logic based on the premise and source material, and that's the sign of a great animated film.

Totally unrelated, I remember noticing that one of my recent favorite discoveries, Hiroshi Okubo, had worked alongside fellow Studio Torapezoid member Ono Manabu since the beginning of both of their careers, but not knowing the circumstance behind their association. I just discovered the reason for this upon seeing both credited under the moniker of "Studio Roman" in the Tylor OVAs from about a decade ago. It seems they both started out working together at this studio. It was particularly interesting to note Ko Yoshinari credited alongside them (in 4 & 8). For a studio I'd never heard of, that's an impressive array of talent to have sent out into the world. Focus tends to be given to the big production studios, but there's a whole galaxy of small subcontracting studios like this that narrate a kind of alternate history of the development of anime. Oh Pro is merely one of the bigger and more successful examples. Studio Roman was involved in 3-10, of which Okubo was involved in 4, 5, 8, 9, 10.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

01:01:33 pm , 1798 words, 2670 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Masami Otsuka

Today I wanted to talk about one of my favorite Shin-chan animators, Masami Otsuka 大塚正実. He's been a favorite of mine for years now from the little bits and pieces I've been able to glimpse here and there, but it's only recently that I finally had the chance to see his TV work in substantial quantities, and seeing it confirmed how much I love the guy's work. Even surrounded by luminaries with their own equally unmistakable and delicious approach like Shizuka Hayashi, Yuichiro Sueyoshi and Masaaki Yuasa, Otsuka holds his ground and then some. I would even say that he's my favorite of all the Shin-chan animators. His work has a certain thrill that none of the others do.

Masami Otsuka is the quintissential studio-tied animator: He began his career at Shinei, and remains there today, more than 25 years later. To give some sense of this, he was an inbetweener in the first Doraemon movie in 1980, Nobita's Dinosaur, and drew a number of major scenes in the great remake of the same film from last year. He's seen it all at Shinei. He was a key animator in almost all of the Doraemon films throughout the 1980s as well as the TV series, and also participated in a few of Shinei's other projects like Chinpui and 21-Emon. With the start of Shin-chan in 1992, he moved there and became one of the pillars behind Shinei's new runaway hit.

Although I haven't seen any of Masami Otsuka's work pre-dating Shin-chan, judging by the style of his early Shin-chan work it would seem that his stylistic awakening began only after he entered his second decade as a key animator. I would be curious to know what it was that inspired Otsuka and each of the other great Shin-chan animators to develop such a personal style on the show. Going through their work over the years is fun and instructive about the process of stylistic maturation, as you can see their personality growing with each year.

What's clear is that there was a certain amount of mutual influencing going on at the studio, and this probably has something to do with it. Yuasa has attested to the fact that he was influenced by Otsuka, and it's obvious how influenced Yuichiro Sueyoshi was by Yuasa. In a similar vein, I remember Tetsuya Nishio talking about how the animators of Pierrot's Yu Yu Hakusho (1992) had a sort of rivalry going on that drove the animation to higher and higher levels. One animator would see great work by a rival animator on another episode, and try to beat the pants off the rival with better and more animation in his own episode. That seems to be one of the benefits of long-running shows like this, that a sort of constructive rivalry develops among the animators, and the heat of that rivalry creates a hot-house of mutual influencing and artistic growth.

Whatever it was that happened, after about three or four years the series begins to look drastically different as a whole, almost like a different set of characters, and you can also begin to see more noticeable difference from animator to animator. Otsuka's and Hayashi's styles seem to begin to emerge more quickly than the others, followed by Yuasa and then Sueyoshi trailing a bit. For example, very little of the latter-day Otsuka style is visible in his work during the first year of the show's run, judging by #23A, The Typhoon (1992). The same can be said of the other animators, though there is some difference in the shapes right from the beginning, as can be seen in the drawings here. However, jump four years ahead and you can already clearly identify his style in #209B, The Two Grandpas (1996), especially in terms of the way he typically exaggerates lines and pushes the shapes further than any of the other animators.

This tendency continues to grow as his style advances. The shapes of the figures are exaggerated and become more angular, the lines become thrown out and longer, the eyes lose the uniformity of line and smoothness of the other animators, taking on odd shapes, becoming huge parallelograms instead of the donuts of the other animators, as if Picasso had gotten a hold of the designs. The tendency seems to have ups and downs, with times when his style isn't as strong, as in #240B, Fishing for Yo-Yos (1997), but perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he was relied upon as one of the main film animators, and was consistently turning in the most amount of animation in each of the yearly films.

This is where we come to another thing that makes Otsuka one of my favorites: his genius as a mover. In the TV series the movement has to be cut down and the focus necessarily becomes his drawings. His drawings alone are exciting enough to sustain interest entirely in their own right, but every once in a while there will be a tantalizing little movement that makes you perk up and wish you could see more. This is where the films come in. In the films, the focus is shifted from his drawings to the movement, and we see his talent as a mover take the fore.

Otsuka animated my favorite sequence in Keiichi Hara's masterpiece Adult Empire film of 2000, the sequence where Ken and Chaco walk through the old town to the accompaniment of a beautiful ballad from 1969 by Betsy & Chris. The movement of the vendor man and woman at the very beginning are great examples of Otsuka's movement. He has an eye for creating quick, fluid bursts where characters suddenly come alive in actions that are both amusing and nuanced. At the same time the angles of the characters' forms remain unmistakably Otsuka, particularly that buck-toothed vendor.

One of my favorite bits of Otsuka movement came in an episode that aired last April about Misae's sister Musae moving in. The movers were 'horse-faced', so every once in a while when they'd get mad they would rear up and whinny like a horse, and Otsuka made those movements very funny by putting great care into animating them in the manner of a horse. It was a good example one criterion of great animation: it's hilarious watched even with the sound off. (This can also be said of the animation of that other great Otsuka, Shinji Otsuka - his scene was the only scene in the latest Ghibli film that would meet that criterion.)

Otsuka's style has become even more pronounced in recent years, with his animation taking on what can perhaps be described as a sort of casual effortlessness, like a master painter who has grown beyond struggling with his brush and is now secure in what he wants to express, and simply throws off one brilliant painting after another. The drawings in Himawari Special #2 (2002) show Otsuka's style in just about its most extreme incarnation, with very long, free, protruding lines and highly tapered faces with sharp angles and proportionally huge, geometrically-shaped eyes. Misae's face in particular is quite something. One of my favorite traits of Otsuka's is his way of drawing the eyes as these two long, swooping L-shaped lines that cover half the face, with a little tiny dot for an eye somewhere in the middle. You can see these particularly clearly in the adults like Hiroshi in another episode from the same year, #441C, Midnight Snack (2002).

What makes Otsuka's animation great is that, even though sometimes it might seem like his lines are completely insane and out of control, in fact he is always in control. It's the mark of a master that he is able to go beyond the basic forms and play with their arrangement, all the while creating a his own unique style of movement that seems to flow organically from his intuitive lines.

That same year, Otsuka was invited to help animate the ending of one of the studio's rare OVAs, Hare Nochi Guu Deluxe (2002), which featured a lot of interesting animation work, notably by Yuichiro Sueyoshi, who can be seen at the beginning of this ending with the singing. Otsuka did the very last shot with the dancing guy. It's short, but it feels good as animation in a way that none of the other bits do. It's a a good place to start to get a feel for the movement side of Otsuka's genius, as opposed to the quirky drawing side. He has a unique genius for creating quick little nuanced movements that simply feel good to watch.

One of Otsuka's most recent episodes was #537B, Let's Build Stilts (2005). Otsuka's style is just as strong here, but it feels more refined and better controlled than before. The characters no longer feel like an interpretation of someone's design, but like his own characters. He comes up with subtle and amusing ways of manipulating the features that none of the animators do, and the characters come across as consistently expressive and funny. I suppose that's something that can only come with having worked with the same characters for so long. On the other hand, I didn't find Otsuka's work on the Doraemon 2006 movie to be as distinctive and personalized as his work in Shin-chan always is, though he contributed a large amount of good animation. (He animated two large sections: 2:27 here & beginning here)

The Shinei group of animators each feel unique in their own way, and at the same time fundamentally different from other animators out there. Their animation has something that's distinctively 'Shinei' about it. Perhaps it's the A Pro blood running in their veins - the focus is on creating interesting movement and very free and fun drawings, but they do it by using the least possible number of drawings. It's like a challenge to see how much of an interesting movement you can create with the least number of drawings. With just a tiny twitch of the eyebrow or move of the head, Otsuka can express an emotion or convey an idea. In every line on the screen you can feel the animator's personal touch, which is what makes the drawings so consistently interesting. The willful, exaggerated, hand-drawn feeling of Otsuka's line is one of the most appealing aspects of his animation. Nonetheless, the characters always remain true to spirit and identifiable, which is a sign of real love on the part of the animator. The animator has grown close enough to the characters that he can begin to see through their eyes, and the lines just flow freely from that state of mind. Shin-chan has been a great training ground for that approach. It's a different style of movement from that seen in Dokonjo Gaeru, but I guess it's the modern incarnation of the A Pro approach.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

10:56:33 am , 434 words, 2729 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil on terrestrial

Things have become finalized very quickly moving into the new year for Denno Coil. The official site has just been updated again, and this time they have finally put up a normal web page layout to replace the "under construction"-style single image they had before. All the previously available information is now easier to browse. The image is new, though it's a little harder to tell who drew it. It's a lot cleaner in terms of line than the other drawings, so it looks like it might have been drawn by Honda, or perhaps it's a much more recent drawing by Iso. The voice-actors were announced. I notice the voice-actors of Arusu and Shiela from another recent NHK show, Tweeny Witches, are involved, as is Pak Romi, whom I remember Iso praising in the interview on Childhood's End. Interestingly enough, Shinnosuke's voice-actor Akiko Yajima is even there.

Most importantly, it has finally been confirmed that Denno Coil will in fact be broadcast on one of the terrestrial NHK stations, namely NHK Educational (NHK Kyoiku). It seemed too good to be true when they mentioned NHK originally, so I thought it would be the satellite station, but such was not the case, and Denno Coil will indeed be broadcast on a TV station received by every single household in Japan. And even more impressively, the time slot is 6:30PM on Saturdays, smack in the middle of prime time on a great day. I think you really couldn't ask for much better than that in terms of maximal nationwide exposure. That's pretty impressive considering the fact that few people outside of a few hardcore animator fans have probably even heard of Mitsuo Iso.

Broadcasting is now scheduled to begin in mid-May.

Oh, and finally, we now have an English sub-title for the series: Coil a Circle of Children.


Here's a translation of the basic staff:

STAFF

Created, Written and Directed by: Mitsuo Iso

Animation Character (Designer): Takeshi Honda

Animation Chiefs: Toshiyuki Inoue & Takeshi Honda

(Ep) Animation Directors: Takeshi Honda, Masami Itatsu, Kiyotaka Oshiyama, Ayako Hata, Ei Inoue, Toshiyuki Inoue, et al.

(Ep) Storyboard/Directors: Kazuya Murata, Akitoshi Yokoyama, Shinsaku Sasaki, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Masaru Yasukawa, Kazuya Nomura, et al.

Art Director: Goroku Hiroshi (Ogura Workshop)

Color Design: Terumi Nakauchi

Music: Tsuneyoshi Saito

Animation Produced by Madhouse

Executive Production: Denno Coil Production Committee, Tokuma Shoten, Bandai Visual, NHK Enterprise

CAST

Yasako: Tomiko Orikasa
Isako: Houko Kuwashima
Kyoko: Akiko Yajima
Haraken: Pak Romi
Fumie: Sachiko Kojima
Daichi: Rie Saito
Mega-baa: Reiko Suzuki
Oba-chan: Junko Noda
Akira: Yumiko Kobayashi
Denpa: Kikumi Umeda
Gachagiri: Mayumi Yamaguchi
Namecchi: Yusuke Numata

Friday, January 19, 2007

12:14:42 am , 1581 words, 16440 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Music Video, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Amazing Nuts

I finally had a chance to watch Studio 4C's latest project, Amazing Nuts!, and it was very interesting in a lot of ways, not least the actual shorts. But even moreso it was interesting to see how Studio 4C continues to come up with new approaches to creation and distribution. As producer Eiko Tanaka describes it, this project was about killing three birds with one stone: Each short is (1) a standalone music video, (2) a promo pilot for a series or film, and (3) part of a standalone DVD release. Rather than just making standalone shorts as they always have, here they're making a wise investment in their future by trying to tie in their shorts to a future project. I admire that Tanaka is willing to take a chance on a risky project like this. It seems to suggest a possible way for people in the industry to free themselves from the endless mire of having to adapt popular manga in order to get the backing to make anything. Give talented creators a chance to create original works like this and see the results. Use the talent that's there rather than relying so much on another unrelated field. Having seen the shorts, I can say that they are all interesting in their own way. Two are entertainment, one is artsy, one is for (weird) children. They each work as a unit, and each seem to have their own future potential. The two traditionally animated shorts are full of interesting ideas and are the obvious major candidates for future expansion. I could see those two becoming popular TV shows. Another aspect of Tanaka's gambit is directly involving fans by the DVD method, so that they can make their voice heard in terms of what they would like to see. I remember how the results of the online Mind Game questionnaire were directly applied to the DVD release.

I was also impressed by the DVD package. The set comes in two version, a basic version and a full version. The full version comes with a big book containing lots of interviews as well as the full storyboard for the two shorts that had a storyboard, and a long interview DVD. Personally I came into this almost solely to see Yasuhiro Aoki's film. I was very happy with Studio 4C for giving him the chance to make his own film, and was eager to see the result. The result did not disappoint, but I also came away with not just that but an interview with the man as well as his full storyboard for the film, so as a fan I couldn't be happier. Studio 4C obviously understands that, and created a package that is very rewarding to fans who truly love the act of creation that is animation, want to know more about its every step, and want to support their favorite creators. Connecting the creators to the fans in this way is one of the things I most like about Studio 4C. I remember Tadanari Okamoto talking about how a similar idea of tying fans into the creation-support loop.

As a producer, Tanaka appears to be starting to try to take more control of things. I get the distinct impression that she mistakenly blames the studio's director-centric approach for Mind Game's not having become a big hit (how could it have become a megahit playing in three theaters and nobody knowing it even existed?), and is trying to take a more active part in the projects now, as she did in the studio's recent Black & White film, where she had direct input into the film in the American style. This also feels the case here, where Tanaka's concept is the driving force. Nonetheless in each project we still get to see a talented creator's voice very clearly and distinctly expressed, so the studio's major appeal has thankfully not changed.

As for the films, the first thing that strikes you is that each short looks and feels nothing like any of the others. It doesn't feel like they're just changing the look and style in a narrow stylistic sense for variety's sake, but rather that each director's unique approach and the unique nature of the material give rise to a different set of production methods. That is also something the studio has been known for. One film might demand detailed CG set, one might demand intricate and lively cel animation, one might demand a blend of CG and live action. Interestingly, apparently this is just the first sally in the series, and several other shorts are in different stages of production at the moment.

I came in aware of only two of the creators working on this set - Yasuhiro Aoki and Daisuke Nakayama. I knew their films would be interesting, but wasn't sure about the rest. Glass Eye was an interesting poetic meditation that I liked because it felt distinct from anything else I've seen from the studio. A writer with no experience in animation was brought in to direct the film because they had liked the very visual nature of a script he had written. I've often felt that some of the more refreshing and unexpected approaches to animation have come from people with no experience in animation like this. The other film was a much more commercial full-CGI film about a diva, but even this I could see finding its own niche on morning TV. Daisuke Nakayama's film was a revelation about the man's vivid and assured style. We'd seen design work from him before, but it feels like this is what he's been really wanting to do the whole time - wild, fun, somewhat western-influence cartoony mayhem, like a hip-hop version of Imaishi. I could see this being popular in the west.

But by far the film that appealed the most to me, personally, was Yasuhiro Aoki's Kung-Fu Love. It was a very accomplished film for a mere 10 minutes, full of the subtle humour and inventive directing I've come to expect from Aoki, with lots of excitingly choreographed and lovingly animated action, a very original approach to color full of radiant hues that make for consistently ravishing viewing, fun and catchy characters, a great story setup with lots of little subversive touches here and there courtesy of writer Shinji Obara, all of it gelling perfectly into compellingly unique whole that tantalizingly hints at a vast canvas that you come away hungering to know more about. Very successful both as a pilot and a short film. I hope we can see this hint of greatness given the chance to flower that it deserves. Apparently Aoki had in fact drawn enough storyboard and other background material to fill a full-length feature, but had to whittle all that down to a mere 10 minutes. I hope that one day we can see the full-length film that Aoki already had conceived fully-formed in his head. I could also see this working just as well as a TV series. Aoki has an intrinsically filmic approach - every shot is perfectly composed and thought out, every element of the screen communicates something interesting, and the rhythm is masterfully controlled. Aoki is a great entertainer. I could see him becoming a great director.

The timing and the forms of the animation in the short are also distinctive and hint at the huge amount of research and work Aoki obviously put into coming up with an original style of animation for the action that is at the heart of the film. Taking a hint from Hong Kong action flicks, the action shifts between very precise and fast action and extremely detailed and fluidly animated slo-mo shots that give the viewer a lingering and detailed look at the speedy moves that just flashed before our eyes. Testament to the effort that went into the animation is the fact that roughly 8000 drawings were used in the 10-minute film, which is about 5 times the volume of an average TV episode. I recall there was a slo-mo shot of Shiela cooking a pancake near the end of the last episodes of Tweeny Witches that Aoki did, #38, which in retrospect seems to point towards the slo-mo aesthetic in Kung-Fu Love. Aoki's surreal, somewhat meta sense of humor comes through pretty well in certain scenes, such as the scene where the two lovers argue in the ryokan. There's always an unexpected little amusing element somewhere livening things up. Sometimes he has a cunning strategy of tricking the viewer into focusing on a main action and then having something strange going on somewhere else on the screen, sort of in the spirit of the ball experiment by Daniel Simons. Revealing about Aoki's approach is a comment in the storyboard to the animator of the scene where the two lovers are sitting on the beach: "Put more effort into making the cat do things". We see the two protagonists sitting there without moving too much, but the cat is doing all these funny antics beside them. It's an intriguing method of hilighting the main action. Of course, a big part of this project is the collaboration with Japanese pop artists, and Aoki's protagonist was lovingly modeled after the singer of the song, Kumi Koda. Aoki is a real pro who approaches his work with sincerity and tremendous gusto. It feels like he's just reaching the peak of his powers, and I hope we get to see that energy put to good use in the coming years.

Kung-Fu Love

Saturday, January 13, 2007

02:02:24 pm , 558 words, 1700 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil this Spring

There has been a spate of new updates on the Denno Coil front, so here is a summary. The first came in this month's issue of Animage with a two-page fold out of an intriguing new drawing, presumably by Mitsuo Iso, depicting the four girl protagonists and hinting at the 'virtual reality' aspect of the show. Perhaps even more importantly, there was an interview with Tokuma Shoten producer Sanae Mitsuki. The interview provides insight into how the project came about. It turns out that the project does not date back six years, as I had guessed based on the dates indicated in the previously published drawings. It dates back fourteen years. (at least) The producer was working on I can Hear the Sea in 1993 when he was introduced to Iso, who at the time was working as one of the animators on the film, by the film's animation director, Katsuya Kondo. Iso had already assembled a portfolio for the project, with image boards and a basic story outline, which he showed to Mitsuki. One look at the portfolio was enough, and Mitsuki agreed to do the project on the spot. Over the next few years Mitsuki went around showing the portfolio to various other producers to drum up support, including, notably, famed Bandai Visual producer Shigeru Watanabe, most of whom apparently had the same reaction as Mitsuki: instant capitulation. Most of the drawings that have been published seem to post-date this, so it would be interesting to see Iso's original image boards, considering the impact they had on everyone who saw them. All of this indicates how much of a behind-the-scenes buildup of major support there has been over a span of more than a decade for this project. It wasn't born yesterday.

The next item came with a new official site update revealing the names of a large number of the participating staff. It seems relatively unusual for episode animation directors and storyboarders to be revealed before a show is aired, so it seems pretty obvious that this is a generous little pre-gift to fans, who have been clamoring to know who is involved. Iso mentioned on his site that he himself wanted to reveal more information, but was prevented by the project's policy of secrecy. Takeshi Honda is finally confirmed as the (animation) character designer, and Inoue's involvement is also confirmed. Most interesting is to see that both are credited as "animation chief", suggesting they are either deeply involved as animators throughout the show or else deeply involved supervising the animation. It's a credit I've never seen before, so it's hard to decypher without learning more about the production method, but perhaps it's been coined because they're trying out a new approach to maintaining the quality of the animation. Whatever the case, with two of the undisputed best animators in Japan heading the animation for the project, I can say for certain that we're in for some truly high class animation.

In addition, the site finally states when the show is going to be broadcast: this spring. The site had only revealed the station up until now - NHK - although most speculation pointed towards a spring broadcast. Which means only a few months left until what may become a defining moment in TV anime.

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

Thursday, January 11, 2007

09:15:59 pm , 3953 words, 5702 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Hisashi Mori

Samurai Seven #23

First off, a belated happy new year to readers. Today I thought I would do something I've been meaning to do for a long time: collect my thoughts about one of my favorite animators of recent years, Hisashi Mori 森久司. I've written about him often in the past in passing, but the unique nature of what he is doing begs a closer and more considered look, which I will try to do here.

I first became aware of Mori not that long ago, just two years ago when a reader inquired who had done episode 7 of Samurai Seven. I watched the episode totally unprepared for what lay in wait. The episode - more specifically, the first half of the episode - turned out to be one of the more awesome displays of animated idiosyncrasy that I've ever seen in an anime TV episode. The characters in this first half were bereft of all sleek convention, cleft of rough, jagged, meandering lines and deliciously aberrant shapes that reminded me more of something I might see from a European art animator than anime. But more importantly, the movement was thrilling, with a fascinating approach to timing that I'd never seen before. The screen felt alive, pulsing with animated energy. Every moment of movement spoke, establishing a strange rhythm all its own. It was a form of expression totally unexpected in the context, one of those rare moments when I couldn't believe my eyes. I live to be surprised by new possibilities in animation, and this episode had done that.

The question remained who could have done it. The highly distinctive style of animation - realistic in a hyper-expressive and very self-aware kind of way - instantly narrowed down the field of possibility in my mind to two figures: Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto, the two maverick animators who essentially invented their own style of expressionistic realism over the last decade or so and have been the prime proponents of that style ever since in their increasingly rarefied and brilliant work. Very few animators have followed in their footsteps, so I immediately assumed it must have been one of them, although it seemed unusual for both, based on their history. They tended not to do TV work. Hence my assumption that one of the two people credited with key animation had to be a pen name. Hiroyuki Okuno turned up numerous hits, so it obviously wasn't him, while Hisashi Mori turned up very few, which is usually a good indicator of a pen name.

It turned out that Hisashi Mori was indeed a pen name, or an assumed name of some kind - but just not of the person I had thought. For whatever reason (I never found out why), animator Hisashi Nakayama, most well known up until that point for his work as an animator and then animation director/character designer for Mamoru Hosoda's two Digimon films (1999, 2000), has been credited as Hisashi Mori since 2003. Although he had been active as an animator for more than a decade by that point, he had only participated in two titles prior to Samurai Seven since rechristening himself, which accounted for the small number of hits. It was a somewhat thrilling thing to be able to bear witness, live, right as the history was unfolding, to a relatively unknown new animator dropping an animated bombshell the way Mori did, creating exactly the kind of gutsy, unruly animation I've been hoping more animators would become interested in. It's always exciting to be able to bear witness to a the birth of a film like this borne of an animator's verve and conviction, and thankfully since then there has been no shortage of animators following down this path, not just churning it out but struggling to pull out the unique approach to animation lying dormant within themselves. Be it Tatsuzo Nishita or Tetsuya Takeuchi or Shingo Natsume, I can think of any number of interesting young animators who have appeared on the scene with an assured and individual approach just in the last two years.

The mystery elucidated, I was curious to see more from this new face and began to investigate his back-catalogue. I had already seen and was very fond of Mamoru Hosoda's two Digimon films, both for Hosoda's brilliant directing as well as for the unusual style of animation, with its ruffled lines, no shadows, and appealing movement full of everyday nuance. But I remained unsure what his animation was like at this early period, either in the first film or in any of his prior work. The next major piece that could be studied as Mori's work was Virgin Night, a highly personal film from 2001 that Mori made with longtime colleague Hiroyuki Okuno. With its slow pacing, realistic layout and uneventful, documentary-like narrative, it seemed to tentatively hint at an affinity with the realistic school. Or at the very least, it comes across as a bold statement by a couple of young upstarts saying they have new ideas about how to do things. It's an oddity in the genre, shunning titillation in favor of cinema verite. It's been some time since I've seen it, but I recall noting interesting movement near the "climax", so it would seem probable that Mori's mature style was beginning to emerge around this time.

Mori's case is interesting because his stylistic awakening happens so fast. It's one of those rare times when you can almost put your finger on the moment when something changed, as if something clicked in his mind, and he began to consciously will his evolution in a new direction. Whereas I find it hard to identify his work before 2002, from there on out every one of his pieces has been endowed with his unmistakable personal stamp, which grows increasingly intense and concentrated with each new piece. You can palpably sense that he is consciously trying to push his style ahead every time. I'm reminded of Tadashi Hiramatsu's comment about how there's a moment in an animator's life when everything just "clicks" and suddenly you are in control. It feels like this eureka moment visited Mori some time around 2002. I don't know what it it was, but his assumption of a new name one year later, right around the time his stylistic awakening reaches a head, seems to suggest it had something to do with this newfound conviction. Like a warrior christened with a new "nom de guerre", Mori charged ahead with renewed purpose. (Or maybe he just got sick of his old name? Married into a new family? Who knows.)

One Piece: Baron Omatsuri

The piece that strikes me as signaling the arrival of the mature Hisashi Mori is Square of the Moon #2 of 2002 (of which you can see an excerpt here). I can't identify much of his work prior to this, but suddenly here, out of the blue, wham, the mature Hisashi Mori appears fully formed in an instant, regaling us with all of his defining stylistic traits in full force. It's as if he had been biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to let it all out and stage his triumphant arrival. Since then there's been no stopping him. It's also possible that this simply has to do with the fact that Hiroyuki Okuno was director. He did a lot of other work around this time, but under different directors, so perhaps his buddy was the only one who allowed his work to pass uncorrected, as happened later in Samurai 7.

Mori's animation feels unique, but why? What are his stylistic traits? In a nutshell, it has to do with FX, timing and form. One of his defining traits is that he uses FX aplenty, and has a unique approach to their use. You can see line-drawn effects in every piece, from Square of the Moon right down to his latest. Another identifiable trait is that he often uses the 'sawtooth' effect to express speed. Mori seems to lie at the crossroads between Yoshinori Kanada-esque hyperactive cartoonishness and the punk realism of Ohira, creating movement with a realistic core but a surface scrawled with a graffiti of ecstatic touches expressing the movement in heightened form. The effects at :46 and 1:07 in the clip are exemplary of Mori's effects animation. The effects appear suddenly and move extremely rapidly, faster than the eye can follow, creating an intensely thrilling moment. They are full of unexpected drawings that you do not see when watching but that serve to enhance the overall visual effect. He often uses odd drawings that don't make any sense when looked at individually but serve to create a pulsing, flashing texture that rivets attention - a single frame in red, a bold yellow zigzag here, a blinking gleam of white light there. All of it flashing past so quickly that everything blurs together into an exquisite moment of riveting movement. He flattens the screen in terms of colors, often uses a swath of one or two bold primary colors. In recent years, he's been adding to this effect by piling layer upon layer of different vectors of movement on the screen at the same time. The movement is less layered in the early days, but you can sense that he's working towards increasing the density of the action on the screen.

Shinya Ohira has also been moving towards that kind of aesthetic in recent years, though it's interesting to note the differences in their approach. In an image by Ohira, everything will be moving as a complex whole, whereas in an image by Mori, everything on the screen will be moving as a handful of distinct elements moving in their own vectors, often at different frame rates.

Watching Mori's animation, I find myself asking the same question I did watching Masahito Yamashita's early animation: What's going on in his head? How did he come up with such illogical movement? Mori's animation often moves in a manner I can only think to describe as spastic, going slow one moment and then suddenly speeding up tremendously, then slowing down again, then jerking back ahead, like a kid learning how to drive. The poses are often improbable, the limbs stretched and bent, like Yamashita's early work, but more importantly the timing of people's movement often feel willfully deranged. He conceives grand movements that have a realistic weight and feeling, but leaves vast spaces between the drawings, blending realism with Kaneda-esque point-based timing. He'll jump from limited shots to shots so intricate and complex and rapid that I wonder how a human could conceive them, much less follow them. My feeling watching his work is that, like Ohira, Mori has lapped the people who are still struggling to conceptualize a movement, and has gone on to a higher level of playing with the very idea of movement. He has it all mapped out in his head, and is now focusing on heightening the pure thrill of observing lines in motion by manipulating the parameters of the medium like timing and layers and colors. He is out to create nothing short of animated ecstasy, orgasmic visual rhythm. Maybe that's what sets his work apart - it's a fully conceptualized whole unto itself, rather than merely a functional component.

Doraemon 2006

The last work I know Mori to have done using his old name was Big O, where he drew animation in ep 15 and was mecha animation director in ep 21. He obviously handled much of the ending fight in 15, but one shot in particular has a very strong Mori flavor, with very fast timing, lots of strong contrasting drawings passing by faster than they can be individually distinguished, to excellent effect. (3:08 here) Surprisingly, since Mori's animation is characterized by its amorphous and jagged lines that look spontaneous, almost slapdash at times, Mori's robots in ep 21 are quite clean and pristinely drawn, showing clearly that he had excellent drawing skills and could also shift to drawing in a more conventional manner. I don't know what he did exactly as the character designer and animation director of Mamoru Hosoda's Children's War Game movie, but the characters all feel distinctly like the work of the other animation director, Takaaki Yamashita, so I have to wonder if he didn't also handle the mecha monsters there as well. He does seem to have been involved in a number of robot shows over the preceding years, so perhaps we're seeing in Big O and Children's War Game the vestiges of his early years as a mecha animator. I recall that Shinya Ohira also began his career as a mecha animator, and ultimately shifted in a similar direction as Mori.

The same year as Big O, Hisashi Nakayama bows out and Hisashi Mori says hello. The first place we can see Mori credited was Tokyo Godfathers in 2003. Mori animated the short bit where the truck crashes into the building. The section appears to have been corrected, so it's not pure Mori, but it offers an opportunity to focus on Mori's unique genius for timing. It was good casting to assign Mori that particular spot, as his particular genius for extremely fast timing was ideal for the very speedy nature of the events occurring as the characters are tumbling out from the speeding vehicle through the dark building. Packing a movement with nuance even at extremely fast speeds is one of Mori's great talents.

Finally, near the end of 2003, Mori animated a bit near the end of ep 13 of the ROD TV series, which also happens to feature some nice work by Takeuchi Tetsuya. Here we see the opposite end of the scale. Rather than extremely fast movements, we see Mori handling natural phenomenon such as water and smoke seen from a distance, moving at a very slow timing, with very spare use of drawings. With Mori, whatever the action, you get the feeling that he is always consciously manipulating the frame rate, modulating it with stop-on-a-pinhead precision to achieve just the right effect. That is perhaps his real defining trait. Rather than simply taking the frame rate for granted, it is one of his primary tools, and one of the things that makes his animation feel unique. Few people mess with the frame rate in as complex and unrelenting a way as Mori.

During the year 2004 Mori was occupied working on Samurai Seven. Mori drew some of his best work to date for this series, not least the "solo" half-episode he animated (a portion of which can be viewed here). The episode acts as a condensed overview of Mori's stylistic preoccupations, from the curious, rough and very refreshing design style to the highly controlled but typically esoteric timing. The dance is a great example. He leaves a lot of space between those drawings, far more than seems prudent, but the timing and poses are so wonderfully insane that it makes for very odd but highly pleasurable watching. During the chase we can see the curious way Mori gear-shifts with his movement, going from very quick moment to slower moment to quick moment, like a pendulum swing. It's very exciting to watch as animation. The furrowed, jagged lines create a nice texture on the screen. That's another thing about Mori - his lines play an active role in his animation. They have a mind of their own. Like a magician conjuring shapes from thin air, often the screen will be filled with lines that seem to come from nowhere. People often seem to forget that animation is made of lines, but Mori is one of the rare animators who can make every single line count as an integral part of the motion, and on top of that create lines that are always beautiful and speak something of their own. Even in a shot where nothing is moving, Mori's lines alone create a thrilling visual texture.

One of my favorite pieces of animation by Mori came not in episode 7 of Samurai Seven but in episode 23, where we see a character dodging a drill-like projectile and slicing a robot in two. It's a very short segment, but one of his densest, and seems to be indicative of the direction he wants to go in. This segment consists of only a handful of shots, but it achieves a spellbinding effect through dynamic camera action with constantly shifting perspectives and unpredictable animation. If Mori has been striving to find a way to achieve the perfect feeling of rhythm in his animation, this is one of his best successes. Here each shot comes in at millisecond precise timing to create a relentlessly piled-upon forward momentum in perfect symbiosis with the animation, which is more masterfully controlled than ever. The timing varies from each moment, the images change at bewildering speed, bizarre forms and colors play across the screen. It's a very rewarding sequence to study frame by frame, each shot taking a different approach but always packed with tremendous imagination and effort.

Mori's next gig was probably Mamoru Hosoda's full-length feature debut, the One Piece: Baron Omatsuri film of 2005. His section was easily identifiable - the climactic punch (8:06 here). Again, the casting felt perfect. Hosoda is a great judge of how a drawing will fit in at any particular moment. Mori's drawings are left intact, and the strangely unstable drawings help to establish a feeling of instability and tension that heightens this cathartic moment. The Count's world is crashing down around him, and the lines seem to express that. As he is punched, the screen changes to a torrent of pure black lines on a bright white background, the count's face warping demonically. The shot breaks things down to the bare essentials of animation - pure line. No color or anything else distracts from the impact of watching Mori's lines metamorphose. It was good to see Mori working under Hosoda again for the first time in many years on the occasion of his full-length feature debut.

Mori was then involved in another TV series for Gonzo, Speed Grapher, in an unusual capacity for him: "design works". He was co-credited with his comrade Hiroyuki Okuno. What that means, I don't know, but it probably means providing all the various non-character design ideas for the show. I'd be very curious to see his designs in the raw, as that's a side of his work I've never seen, and I suspect it must be very interesting stuff indeed. The production quality on the show was so low that it feels like a bit of a waste, as I doubt whatever he designed wound up being drawn very well. Unfortunately it appears he wasn't directly involved as an animator this time. I suspected Mori would be drifting away from Gonzo since that show, but he did turn up briefly in the latest alternative Gonzo TV effort, Welcome to the NHK - very briefly, for just one shot of a plane landing as far as I can tell.

Mori's next major gig was one of the best of his career thus far, longer than any other piece he's done, and of higher quality than ever before: the Doraemon 2006 movie. It was extremely surprising to see him animating a kid's show like Doraemon so well known for its simple, clean drawings alongside other individualistic animators like Shinji Hashimoto. But what was even more surprising is that they all did work just as intensely individualistic and expressive as one would expect, and their work was all left intact - and it works perfectly in the film. The people who made this film knew what they were doing, and knew what good animation was about. They took a style of animation that you would normally never had dreamed would work in a particular series, and through sheer love and conviction made it fit in perfectly, not only benefiting the material but providing it with a never-before-seen richness, expanding its possibilities. I've been meaning to write about this movie for some time, as it was a real eye-opener.

The scene (5:39 here) showcases everything that makes Mori unique - the hyperkinetic intensity of the action, the realistic timing combined with the loose woobly line, the liberal use of effects, the modulating between different frame rates, and between very dense and fast animation and very spare animation. It's possibly the most intense and thrilling moment in a film already full of fantastic animation. The phrase that springs to mind watching it is controlled chaos. Like Ohira's recent work, Mori's work is becoming denser and denser, sometimes approaching the realm of abstract animation, yet you can always follow what is going on. It masterfully treads the line of providing an intense animated kick and remaining a comprehensible action.

One of the main things that has attracted me to Japanese animators is the fact that the anime industry has provided the more resourceful and ambitious animators out there with a rare opportunity - the opportunity to turn the disadvantage of having to work with virtually no schedule or money or resources into the advantage of relative stylistic freedom. Yoshinori Kanada was among the first to embark on the journey of discovering his own personal style of animation in the 70s working on TV shows in what were probably pretty challenging circumstances. He showed that there could be a new way not just to create and appreciate animation, but to approach one's job as an animator. He didn't look down on limited as offering no possibility, but showed that something new could be created even with limited animation, inspiring many along the way to do the same - to try to find new ways of making animation thrill viewers. Since then, many others have carved out their own unique niches in the industry, perhaps best exemplified today by Shinya Ohira, who is able to create animation pretty much as he wishes within the confines of otherwise conventionally stylized productions. The reason I respect Hisashi Mori is that he has also managed to devise his own original and fairly radical style of animation, and at the same time make it fit within the system. He's someone who has a clear idea in his mind what makes animation thrilling, and works continuously to hone his art. In the end, all that really matters is that he is creating some of the most consistently interesting animation out there, when he doesn't really have to. I have nothing but respect for that.

Hisashi Nakayama

1994
Sailor Moon S #37 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno KA)

1995
Jusenshi Galkiba #18 (KA)
Ogon Yusha Goldran #28 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno AD)
Sailor Moon: Ami-chan's First Love (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita & Mamoru Hosoda KA)

1996
Sailor Moon: Sailor Stars #17, 21, 28, 32 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno KA 126)
Dragonball movie (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita & Mamoru Hosoda KA)

1997
Cutey Honey Flash #5, 23 (KA)
Voogie's Angel #2 (mecha AD)
Hell Teacher Nube movie (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita KA)

1998
Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy (KA) (Mamoru Hosoda, Hideki Hamasu KA)
Giant Robo #7 (KA)
Eve the lost one game (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita & Hideki Hamasu KA)

1999
Tenamonya Voyagers #2 (KA) (Masashi Ishihama CD/AD, H. Okuno, T. Yamashita KA)
Power Stone #20 (KA)
Kindaichi Movie 2 (KA)
Digimon Adventure (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita AD, Hiroyuki Okuno, Masashi Ishihama KA)

2000
Mushrambo #2, 9, 20 (Hiroyuki Okuno AD)
Digimon Adventure: Children's War Game (AD/CD) (Takaaki Yamashita AD)

2001
Virgin Night (Scene Design, Layout, KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno D/KA)
Spirited Away (KA)

2002
Digimon Adventure 02: Hurricane Touchdown (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita AD)
Palme no Ki (KA)
Square of the Moon #2 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno director)

2003
Crash Gear Turbo #68 (final) (KA)
The Big O #15 (KA) #21 (mecha AD) (Hiroyuki Okuno KA 26)
Interstella 5555 (KA)

Hisashi Mori

2003
ROD TV #13 (KA)
Tokyo Godfathers (KA)

2004
Samurai Seven (design works) #2, 7, 17, 18, 23 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno D/S/AD/KA)

2005
Omatsuri Danshaku to Himitsu no Shima (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita AD)
Speed Grapher (design works) (w/Hiroyuki Okuno, Masashi Ishihama CD)

2006
Doraemon: Nobita no Kyoryu 2006 (KA)
Kemonozume #5 (KA)