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: February 2007

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

05:26:13 pm , 253 words, 4357 views     Categories: Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume on DVD 6/22

It's been more than three months since Kemonozume ended, and for a while I was hearing that there were no plans to release a DVD. I sort of dismissed that, because I couldn't conceive of any major anime TV series not coming out on DVD eventually, much less one of the level of Kemonozume. It seems a date has finally been set for the DVD release. In a happy coincidence, it will be coming out on my birthday, June 22. I couldn't imagine a better birthday present, so thank you in advance! I'm just happy that it will finally be possible for me to put my money where my mouth is and directly support the people who created a show that gave me such pleasure. It will be coming out as a single box set loaded with extras, including an audio commentary, booklet and soundtrack. I personally would love for them to reproduce a selection of the keys for the amazing animation that graced this show (ideally with time sheets). I remember Satelight generously did this for the Noein DVDs. The interesting thing with Kemonozume was how each animator had such a radically different and individual approach - compare Masaaki Yuasa to Satoru Utsunomiya to Hisashi Mori to Hiroyuki Aoyama to Choi Eunyoung - so I think seeing the blueprint for their animation side by side would be not only incredibly stimulating, but also instructive about the richness and variety of the animation, which is one of the things that made Kemonozume so unique.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

06:27:59 pm , 2892 words, 6286 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Hajime Ningen Gyators

For a long time I thought I'd probably never see anything that would top the impact of Gisaburo Sugii's Goku's Big Adventure (1967), or even come close. It's a series that, forty years later, retains its impact and remains one-of-a-kind. Perhaps that's because it was a product of its era. The medium was still somewhat in its infancy, with few conventions yet and lots of room for stylistic exploration, and those conditions proved to be fertile ground for a certain group of talented young folks who happened to come along at the time with some radical ideas about where they wanted to try to push the medium. At its height they created animation that was and remains unrivaled in its wanton playfulness and uninhibited inventiveness, and they went probably about as far as possible within the bounds of broadcastability (as suggested by the fact that one of the episodes didn't make the cut).

Jump seven years ahead to 1974. Mushi Pro had gone out of business and the staff had scattered to the four winds, some going freelance and some forming their own small studios and now working in a subcontracting capacity. Gisaburo Sugii helped found Group Tac in 1969, and Osamu Dezaki helped found Madhouse in 1972. A similar diaspora occurred from Toei as a number of key figures quit in the 1960s. Daikichiro Kusube left to found A Production in 1965, and Takao Kosai left to help found Studio Junio in 1969. (Sugii of course had left Toei for Mushi Pro originally) From these various studios, many of the ex-Mushi Pro staff who worked on Goku found themselves working on shows for Tokyo Movie (later TMS). Among these, the two who did by far the most memorable work on the series - Osamu Dezaki and Masami Hata - worked together on many Tokyo Movie shows in the early 1970s. In October 1974, a new Tokyo Movie TV series begins: Hajime Ningen Gyators, or Early Man Gyators. Working on this series we see a smattering of both ex-Mushi Pro and ex-Toei figures, now working for various small subcontracting studios: First and foremost, Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama, Yoshio Kabashima, Yoshifumi Kondo, Hiroshi Fukutomi and Yuzo Aoki at A Production, the studio that was the subcontracting backbone of Tokyo Movie's situation comedies in the early 1970s, and indeed provides the backbone of Gyators; but also Yoshiyuki Momose at Studio Neo Media, run by Keiichi Kimura (Tiger Mask), and Minoru Maeda and Minoru Okazaki at Takao Kosai's Studio Junio, as well as possibly a few other small studios I'm not aware of.

But enough with the history. If I began by talking about Goku, it's because I wanted to get across the point that in the last few weeks it has been my unending delight to realize that there is indeed another series out there that was made with the some of that same spirit of freedom and playfulness as Goku - and that series is Gyators. (which I talked about long ago)

Gyators is a simple show. It couldn't get simpler. It's based on a manga by Shunji Sonoyama (1935-1993) that was first serialized in 1965 and ended a decade later in 1975, right after the anime adaptation had just finished its roughly year-and-a-half run. The manga was a gag manga for adults depicting a family of cavemen going through everyday travails, drawn in a somewhat primitive style with an unostentatious and simple but free and deliberate line. Although I haven't seen much of the manga, from what I can gather Sonoyama had a very distinct voice, cool and distant and understated, yet decidedly silly and playful, with an undercurrent of pathos and satire, using the situation to make pithy observations on human nature and modern society. His primitive man acts on his urges if he sees a woman, eats a mammoth on the spot in the raw when he makes a kill, reminding us of a time when people were free of the burden of modern living and its repression of the animalistic, instinctive side of man. By chance, Sonoyama happened to be the next-door neighbor of none other than Yutaka Fujioka, head of Tokyo Movie, so it's not difficult to figure out how his long-running hit manga came to be adapted by Tokyo Movie. A few months after Gyators ended, TMS adapted another manga by Sonoyama, Hana no Kakarichou, though it wasn't nearly as long-lived as Gyators.

The anime adaptation of Gyators retains the simplicity of the manga, both in terms of the focus on gags and the look. The structure is episodic, although we follow the seasons. Essentially, the series is an opportunity for the animators to revel in gags and animated fun. The protagonists are a stone-age nuclear family. The father spends his days hunting for mammoth and the mother takes care of the five-some infants strapped to her back at home (and a raccoon), while the adolescent boy Gon plays outside with his pet gorilla. The series shifts between episodes that focus on the father and are close in spirit to the adult Gyators manga, and episodes that focus on the son, a character who was actually interpolated from another manga in order to make the show more family-oriented. So the show is not quite as adult as the original manga, but retains a lot of its edginess.

The season thread actually ties in to the material, because the seasons play an intrinsic role in the family's continuous struggle to find food. That is perhaps the single most ubiquitous narrative element in the series. It's all very light-hearted, but behind the gags there's the knowledge that death lurks around the corner if food isn't found. Death in fact makes appearances in the guise of a skeleton on a skeleton horse at various times throughout the series to take away loved ones. We see the hunters killing mammoth and deer, and see the family back home tearing into huge hunks of raw meat at the dinner table. The way the primacy of food is forefronted is one of the things that lends the show its unique edginess.

In the end, though, what raised this adaptation above the ordinary level and into the realm of greatness is the absolute freedom with which it was made. Freedom was the order of the day in almost every conceivable way. First and foremost is the fact that there was no chief director. There was no single person supervising the series, which is unheard of today and was back then too. Episode directors were left to do things completely as they wanted, with no oversight. If most series are made according to a quasi-democratic process of delegation and collaboration, Gyators was, essentially, one of the rare instances of anarchy in commercial anime. Spearheading and perhaps providing the impetus for this approach was the main character designer, Takao Kosai, co-founder of Studio Junio. Kosai laid the foundation for this approach in a remarkable booklet that he put together at the beginning of production to lay down the principles by which the series was to be made. In this "Note to the animators", Kosai provided a series of sketches based closely on Sonoyama's drawing style, along with a short series of instruction that I'll translate in part here because they're so intriguing.

* Unlike the usual way of doing things, here we will not create designs for the animated version. We will use the drawings of the manga, as is.

* Therefore, please base your drawings on the poses and expressions in the manga.

* Things to keep in mind while animating:
(1) Do not draw characters three-dimensionally
(2) Do not draw clean lines or figures
(3) Movement should be clunky in following with the look of the drawings

Among the various drawings of the characters illustrating Kosai's meaning are a few negative examples illustrating what not to do. One of these drawings in particular seems to sum up the gist of Kosai's intent with this document.

In many ways this is one of the most thought-provoking and fascinating drawings I've ever seen, not limited to character designs. Truly a drawing that speaks a thousand words. Every time I look at it, I'm amazed how funny every little bit of line is in this drawing. It's like I'm seeing the true nature of line for the first time, to see how such a small difference can impart such a vastly different impression. I find looking at this drawing invigorating because it gets me to think about the meaning of the act of drawing, about the meaning of character designs, of animation. It's strange that a handful of scribbled lines should provoke so many thoughts. At first sight it seems like a somewhat facile gag, but the more I savor the drawing it seems to betray a deeper understanding about the nature of what I think of as 'the pleasure of line', i.e. the way a certain artist like Steinberg can draw a line a certain way that is just sooo delicious to look at. Kosai seems to have been one of the first to yank us back to the primitive delight of savoring line. I cannot begin describe the incredible delectable feast this series is purely in terms of the drawings due to the fact that Kosai gave the animators the freedom to draw the characters in their own line in this way. Although perhaps the drawings are sometimes cleaner than the suggestion here in the series itself, in the end the drawings in this series are all invested with the spirit of this drawing - the spirit of a drawing drawn freely and spontaneously according to the will of the animator. Kosai in fact expressly states that he didn't really want a character sheet - he wanted the animators to draw the characters freely.

I can honestly say that I can't remember ever having watched a series in which I enjoyed every single moment of animation as much as I do in this one. The animation is not polished or clean or fluid, but it is always full of life, and every little drawing is delectable. Every animator interprets the characters in his own way, and because of this the drawings are full of vitality, always being renewed with interesting new ideas. This is without any doubt because Kosai was backed up in his endeavor by a panoply of the best animators of the era, many of whom went on to become among the most famous figures in the industry, including Yoshifumi Kondo, Yoshiyuki Momose, Osamu Dezaki, Masami Hata, Yuzo Aoki, Yoshio Kabashima, Tsutomu Shibayama, Osamu Kobayashi, etc... But the animation is always interesting, even when it's by figures I'm not familiar with. I can think of few instances where individual animators were given such a degree of freedom to draw things as they pleased, and the resulting richness of styles is perhaps one of the things that makes the animation so continually rewarding. It never gets old because it's always new. One of Kosai's comments is revealing: "How can you expect kids to enjoy animation if the animators didn't enjoy drawing it?" You can always feel how much fun the animators are having drawing this series, and the fun is infectious.

Perhaps one of the things that I like about the approach this drawing bespeaks is that it emphasizes the medium. It foregrounds that it's a drawing. It doesn't try to hide behind a facade of realism, but relishes the fact that it is made of lines. By keeping the drawings close to the spirit of the crudely drawn 2D original I feel Kosai gave the series its character and strength. An adaptation that would have cleaned up the original's drawings would have been meaningless, and in that sense it is one of the most interesting and successful manga adaptations I've seen. Kosai builds on the style of the original and plugs it into an animation mode of thinking, creating a unique style of animation that not only keeps alive the unique mood of the original but allows the animators to pack in interesting ideas by not wasting time on worrying excessively about conventional animation ideas like model. Merely for the way in which Kosai reconsiders the notion of character drawing Gyators seems a true landmark in TV anime. At the same time, the drawing seems to say to us: everything you know is wrong. Throw your preconceived notions out the window. This pretty drawing is ugly, and this ugly drawing is pretty. Beyond being a faithful adaptation of the spirit of the manga, it also seems to act as a sophisticated confrontational ploy.

One of the unique "rules" behind the animation of the series can be seen in one of the caps atop, the one with the father. The characters are never supposed to be drawn three-dimensionally, and to sort of aid in making the characters seem less three dimensional and more cartoony, one of the rules is that they never draw the arm behind the mouth. You'll note his arm does not appear behind his mouth, but looks like it's growing out of his head. In one episode, an animator inserted an amusing drawing at one point that plays on this by having the arm sticking out of an unexpected location, breaking the rules in an interesting way. He also happens to use some block text to visualize Gon's "Ah!!" reaction, which is another characteristic of the show. Fairly often, when a character screams or shouts, the sound will appear in the form of a stone word flying into the air and then crumble away, as in this extreme example. Whenever the characters get hit on the head by something really hard like a rock, they say the nonsense phrase "Tekkon Kinkreet", which mixes up the letters for steel and concrete. The series is full of amusing little rules like this that the animators have tremendous fun playing with and pushing into strange new configurations.

The stories and gags are thankfully on par with the inventiveness of the animation, with the situations having lots of surreal and absurd elements, even sometimes coming close to the level of Goku, though without the latter's crazed tone. Then-Tokyo Movie director Eiji Okabe's episodes tended to achieve a nice rhythm of inventive gags, while other directors like Shigetsugu Yoshida might favor more thematic treatment. In one of his episodes, the father attempts to seduce a young woman, but winds up helping a younger man win the woman instead. Most of the episode comprises a series of humorous gags on how the inept man attempts to win the woman's favor, but after the two ride off together at the end, the father breaks down in tears and murmurs, "Give it your best - you're only young once." He then wipes away his tears and returns, resigned, to the yoke of his family. The episodes that focus on the father tend to ring a more adult chord like this, packing a hidden bittersweet message for the adult viewers.

You can tell that the directors and are having just as much fun as the animators. This tendency even seems to grow as they get used to the material, as if they're trying to outdo one another. Hiroshi Fukutomi, who later helped found Animaru-ya (which incidentally recently incorporated and changed its name to Ekura Animaru), is perhaps the star director of the show in this sense. He is the one who really took the opportunity of the show's freedom to push his directing out in new, unexplored waters. Ironically, Dezaki and Hata, who were the two who were doing that sort really ambitious and even aggressive experimentation on Goku near the start of their careers, had by that time grown experienced in the industry, and had lost that edge, whereas here Fukutomi is the new face revelling in his first chance to have fun and let it all loose and see just what it's possible to do as a director. In one episode he bizarrely and inexplicably shifts between scenes by slowly zooming out the last frame of a scene into the bottom right corner and then slowly zooming in the first frame of the next scene from the top left corner, creating a surreal mechanized procession of scenes, like an animated prehistoric diorama.

Another element of the freedom comes from the music. The opening and ending are wonderful and unique songs that contribute to bridging over the unique atmosphere of the manga into animation. Sonoyama himself wrote the lyrics, and he apparently saw this rocker Hiroshi Kamayatsu in concert and talked him on the spot into doing the opening for him. The song was apparently banged out in a matter of a few hours of inspired playfulness. It's a real oddity, with its psychedelic tone, riffing guitars and screams and shouts. The ending is the perfect complement, a sort of folk lullaby with a serene but somewhat distant tone, the yang to the yin of the opening. The opening captures the raucous and dynamic side of the show, the ending the vast and empty distance of the world in pre-civilization times. A star was born in the emptiness... life came to the barren soil... the dinosaurs came and went... the clouds flowed... eventually footsteps were heard... Hidden behind the light-hearted material is the contemplation of where we came from and where we're headed.

Monday, February 26, 2007

12:44:25 am , 900 words, 1409 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, Movie

Azur et Asmar etc

Susumu Yamaguchi, Gear Fighter Dendoh #37I just came from watching Michel Ocelot's latest feature from last year, Azur et Asmar. I was a bit put off by the CG at the beginning, but quickly got used to it, and found it to be a delight typical of this director. I knew I was watching a European and not an American film from the first moments where the wetnurse alternately feeds the two babies on one and the other breast. Ocelot has a tone that is all his own and unmistakable. He was credited with some seven or eight titles at the end, basically most of the key creative tasks, so that accounts for the feeling of unity in all of his films. I love his style of narration, with its lullabye-like repetitions and simple declarations that ring with such an honest force. The film was a visual feast overflowing with the flat forms, vivid colors, lush patterns, and visual symmetries that so I appreciate in Ocelot's films. The color is always very well thought out and a source of unending delight in his films, with the bold way the screen is patterned by patches of sharply contrasted colors, betraying his lineage in paper cutout animation. He never seems to abandon that approach, and I think that lends his films their backbone. Here the CGI wasn't used for mock realism as it is in US features, but still with the same aesthetic as paper cutout animation, which I found refreshing. Exposed skin was somewhat realistically modeled, but clothes remained totally flat and unmistakably 2D in typical Ocelot style, which seemed to be the main change stylistically. The visuals were more ravishing than ever, and the story was a typical Ocelot fairytale with a moral message that didn't strike me as moralizing for a moment, something I find to be rare in animated films for children. It was a film I wish more children would see, full of genuine fantasy and beauty, naive in the good sense of the word, without the fake and obsequious humor of most animated films. I liked how the theme of racial understanding in the film was mirrored by a bit of text near the end of the credits that said something to the effect that "This film was made by a large group of people of various nationalities who got along very well."

It's interesting to see that Susumu Yamaguchi of Studio Torapezoid is the director of the second Keroro Gunso movie that comes out March 17. He only directed two episodes, so it seems unusual for him to have been chosen from among all the other folks. It seems likely that the outstanding quality of the latest of those two, #102, turned some heads and got him a quick promotion. I've always wished Yamaguchi would be able to work on projects that allowed him to not have to worry about sticking to model and such, but to really pump out that kinetic action that he's so good at. I'm thinking there will be some wonderful Yamaguchi kinetics in this film, so I'm looking forward to it, but I still kind of wish he'd leave Sunrise. I'm in the process of catching up on his work on Gear Fighter Dendoh, which appears to be the start of his approach in recent years - when he does an episode now, it's not just as an animator; he always tries to storyboard/AD/animate the episodes he does, and usually draws the big action sequences, investing them with his unique genius for thrillingly choreographed action. I also watched the third episode of the Pretty Sammy OVAs, which had a short sequence of dense action typical of 'Gucchi. I figured out watching it that his hands are an easy way of identifying his drawings, though they're pretty darn distinctive overall. His Utsunomiya blood seems to shine through, with the way the joints are sectioned off like a marionette.

Speaking of franchise films I'm looking forward to, there's the new Doraemon film coming out one week before the Keroro Gunso film on March 10. I don't know why they've embarked on remaking all of the old films instead of doing something original, but the unexpected tremendous quality of the first sally in the venture revokes any right to complain. The second feature is notable because it's the first Doraemon film directed by a woman, namely Yukiyo Teramoto. (There's a video interview with her on the official site). She's also supported by a woman animation director, Shizue Kaneko, whom I remember animated one of my favorite sequences in the last film, the one where Nobita says goodbye to the dinosaur at the end. It's rare to see such a tag team in feature animated filmmaking in Japan, so I'm eager to see the result. She talks about wanting to take a new approach to the actual animation, favoring freer drawings and forms with more expressive squashing and deformation, which sounds like it bodes well. The trailer confirms that the animation continues in the stylistically richer direction of the last film. Rather than the overwhelming animated blitzkrieg of the last film, though, with its titan animators called in from elsewhere, I think maybe here we're going to see them trying to tap the potential the younger Shinei animators, though hopefully with a few interesting faces to liven things up. The bit with Doraemon in the bedroom in particular looks nice.

Monday, February 5, 2007

03:41:45 pm , 1294 words, 1995 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, Movie, TV

Recent viewing

A quick look back at some things I've seen recently. IG's Chevalier 18 stood out for a number of reasons. First of all, we have young IG animator Naoyoshi Shiotani (whom I first noticed from his work first on the Tsubasa Chronicle movie and then the 3rd of of Blood+) doing what I believe is his debut storyboarding/directing an episode. As happened with Toei animator Tatsuzo Nishita's debut as AD on Gaiking #13 at Toei, we see a few big names coming together to support him, including Kazuchika Kise and Norio Matsumoto. I'm not sure, but I would assume Kise animated the opening section. Matsumoto's section was quite wonderful, as usual. There was another nice action piece near the middle, and I would guess it was the work of another young IG animator, Toru Okubo, whom I remember drew a nice action sequence showing off his talent for timing in the Tsubasa Chronicle movie. The climax of the episode was one of the more memorable sequences I've seen in an anime in recent memory. Sound, art, animation and directing all combined to create a very moody and captivating sequence. It's where I felt we were really seeing where this young animator's talent lies, as with the Blood+ opening. I get the impression he drew quite a lot of animation as well, mostly of the old man. What I really liked about this episode was that it felt like a showcase of a lot of people's talent, in every position, not just the animators. It felt like you could pick out the good work of each individual contribution - art, animation, fx, directing, etc - , yet it all melded into a perfect whole. It was a good episode illustrating the real potential of the collective artistic effort that is animation, where the combination of a variety of talent in different areas can create sparks in rare moments when all of the elements cross perfectly. Shiotani's directing combined with Izumi Hirose's orange-saturated coloring and the wonderful art of Hiroshi Ono to establish a perfect mood in those last moments.

But most of all, I came away from this episode with was a newfound appreciation of Hisashi Ezura's work. Ezura obviously has to have animated and manipulated the effects for the scene where flames are launched against one of the characters. It's obvious because it feels like suddenly we've shifted into a different film. We go from relatively straightforward flat anime tones to a wonderful, dynamically shifting texture of light and dark. I was immediately reminded of the explosion in Blood, which I had previously entirely attributed to Mitsuo Iso. But of course Iso admits how much he was influenced by Ezura's approach to 2D digital effects on that film, which gets me to wondering how the work was split in that scene. Iso obviously animated, but how was the digital manipulation handled? Being familiar with Iso's digital FX from Rahxephon, the influence suddenly became quite obvious when I saw the scene in this episode, and it immediately made me want to learn more about the man. He is clearly one of the geniuses of the last decade or so who has developed a new and very individual approach to animation using the new tools available. This is one of those instances when you can definitively trace a particular innovation that expanded the palette of visual expression in a certain field to a single individual's personal devotion to researching improved working methods in that field. In retrospect, what made Blood feel unique wasn't the directing, the story, or the animation; it was Hisashi Ezura's innovative approach to the manipulation of the parameters of the screen through digital lighting. He showed that, by simply manipulating how a light was shining, you could completely change the entire impression imparted by an image to achieve a never before seen degree of presence and atmosphere. I'm hoping Ezura isn't tied to IG so that he can help Iso out on Denno Coil. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ezura was also the 'photographer' of Shiotani's Blood+ op.

One shot in the episode got me to wondering about something probably rather pedantic. A character is punched, and three drawings pass by very quickly as his face moves out of the frame from the force of the punch. The drawings are on screen for no more than a frame or so, so they're pretty much invisible, visible subliminally at most in real time, but looking at them one by one reveals that they're not throwaway drawings as you'd expect for inbetweens for that kind of motion. They look like the work of the key animator. But it doesn't seem to make sense for the key animator to have drawn them. It seems like something that would be better left to the inbetweeners. If they were inbetweens, the quality is quite impressive, which I guess speaks to the quality of IG's inbetweening. Also, it was interesting to see Shiotani use another 'eye blink' effect in the episode, as if in another tip of the hat to Ohira's influence.

I recently had the chance to watch a bit of a later Lupin special, the Nostradamus one. I was somewhat excited to discover that it was a Telecom film. I was under the impression that the last Lupin Telecom had handled was Fuma Clan, so I had half lost interest, as Lupin is synonymous with Telecom in my mind. So this was a nice surprise. It was good to be able to see this material handled in the good old Telecom style again after all these years - the whimsical and energetic vibe, simple forms, flowing action choreography, and lively movement, just like in the old Lupin. But it was also curious to note how their many years of working on foreign co-productions had seemingly seeped into their other work. Much of it looked far too westernized, like watching one of Telecom's Batman cartoons, which felt unfortunate and out of place.

I like to think I've seen a lot of animation from around the world for someone who doesn't go to festivals, but ironically one area where there's a distinct lacuna in my knowledge is US animation. I only just recently had the chance to see a few classic UPA shorts for the first time, and I was quite impressed. They went against every negative stereotype I had of US animation, full of great design ideas, a consistently original approach to directing and storytelling, and daring use of brilliant avant-garde soundtracks. Each film I've seen felt like a perfectly conceived whole. Be it Gerald McBoing-Boing or Rooty Toot Toot or Unicorn in the Garden, the music and visuals always attack interesting new ways to tell a story. One is an unexpectedly sly and ironic musical retelling of a murder trial, one a seemingly simple film with the tone of a children's rhyme but with a satisfying poetic message about the breakdown of relationships, one a film that uses sound effects as a key element of the story. All of the films have a great catchy rhythm and a vibe that seems unique to the studio. After all these years the vibrant freedom and joy with which they were made still comes through. All of the films are uniquely meta, too - always aware of the medium, with deliberately non-naturalistic, abstract backgrounds unusually drawn entirely with lines and flat colors, and extremely stylized designs, loose drawings and very limited but effective movement. It was a new experience for me to see distinctly American animation from that period that was full of so many interesting ideas, though of course I was familiar with the work of the Hubleys. The films achieve a sort of formal beauty I associated only with European animation.