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, 27

Saturday, January 27, 2007

01:01:33 pm , 1798 words, 2717 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.