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: May 2007

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

07:36:41 pm , 1866 words, 7068 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Old anime

Hydrocephalicbunny reminded me of something I've been meaning to write about - a DVD box set entitled Japanese Anime Classic Collection that was released less than a month ago. I pre-ordered the set some months back and it arrived while I was out of town. I haven't had a chance to see everything yet, as there are 4 DVDs worth, so there's quite a bit of goodies to chew on, but I've seen about half so far.

My first impression is just that it's wonderful to be able to see such old animation from Japan, finally. I never thought the day would come. I was really excited when I heard about this set. And having seen many of the actual films now, I can say that it doesn't disappoint. Naturally these are old films and so the art was at a very different stage in its evolution, but I had no trouble whatsoever distinguishing between the films of real quality and the films of lesser quality. Great work in every age stands apart. In every age there are innovators pushing the art forward. That's the case today, and seeing this set shows me that that was the case back then.

I've read little bits about animation in Japan in the 30s and 40s in various places, so I had some idea of who the important figures were. Yasuji Murata and Noburo Ofuji are the two that spring to mind first of all. Others were Kenzo Masaoka and Seo Mitsuyo. Prior to this I had seen almost nothing by any of these figures. Only with Kenzo Masaoka can I claim to have some sense of the continuity surrounding the figure, since it was under him that figures like Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara learned their craft. But with the other figures, particularly Yasuji Murata and Noburo Ofuji, they seemed to stand apart. They didn't seem to have any followers. I didn't know how they fit into the puzzle. This is a vast blank in knowledge about Japanese animation history that will be very interesting to re-discover.

I came away slightly dissatisfied with the selection, as there were a lot of films on there I'd never heard of, but many that I had heard of were skipped over. For example Kenzo Masaoka's 1932 film Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka (The World of Power and Women), the first Japanese animation talkie, or Ichikawa Kon's 1935 film Shinsetsu Kachikachi Yama. (And more than anything, the postwar films of Masaoka Kenzo, but the point is moot since this set is primarily focused on pre-war films.) So there are still lots of holes to be filled in, but this is nonetheless a great start. I should complement the producers of the DVD on a job well done. The presentation is very nice, with a pamphlet containing the staff for each film. There are subs in four languages, and the narration and music are very nicely done. Although I don't quite understand why the films are shown at a reduced size in the middle with a huge black border. Perhaps because of quality issues due to the age of the films. Also, it would be nice to see these films restored one day.

Anyway, to go back to what I was saying about the main figures, I can see now that Yasuji Murata and Noburo Ofuji were the main figures of the early years, from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, while Kenzo Masaoka and Mitsuyo Seyo come in a little later, starting around the mid-1930s. These were the ones who really pushed the art forward in their time. A few of Masaoka's and Seyo's films are included, although I haven't gotten up to them yet. So far I've sampled a few films of Murata and Ofuji, and have seen what a few other contemporary miscellaneous figures were also doing, so it's been very instructive. I think I have a good starting idea of how special Murata and Ofuji were.

It's really exciting seeing animation from this period. There are moments when I'll be watching one of Ofuji's films and I become really emotional for some reason. I've always been that way when I feel I'm peeking into the face of someone who lived long before my time through art, be it literature or music, and so being able to experience this feeling of peeking at the face of the artists active during the inception of the form I most love is quite moving. Apart from that, I think it's rare that you can actually pinpoint the time when a whole new art started, so seeing how people from different countries around the world clawed their way in the dark to make their mark on this blank slate is quite fascinating not just about animation history but about the process of artistic creation, how people's personality is reflected in the answers they come up with to the problems posed by the form.

Anyway, since I mentioned Ofuji, I think I'll start with him in outlining my feelings about these artists. Because with Ofuji's films I get the feeling you can't come away nonplussed. All of the films of this period are interesting for some reason or another, even if just for historical reasons, but perhaps viewed by a less easily entertained viewer than myself, many of them might not come across as so interesting. But not Ofuji's films. Each figure at this period came up with their own slight modification on the forms of the period, but Ofuji is one of the only ones who feels like he came up with an entirely different take altogether, who really created a new type of animation. Ofuji was the innovator. I see shades of Fischinger in his films, not so much because of any outward similarity as because of his knack for creating animation of formal and somewhat abstract beauty, which is something almost nobody else at the time was doing. Everybody else was animating raccoons or other cartoon figures. That's not to say Ofuji is formidable. His films are among the most immediately appealing and accessible of those I've seen.

His format of choice is what appears to be paper cutouts. This is an aspect of the history of this period that I feel needs to be clarified in much more detail - the methods each artist used. In this early period the films are mostly paper cutouts illuminated from the top, while later on he seems to have switched to more of a focus on the silhouette approach with Reininger-like shadow puppetry. Unfortunately, some of Ofuji's most famous films in this form like The Whale and The Ghost Ship are postwar films, so they're not included on this set. It's also disappointing that they didn't include Noburo Ofuji's very first shadow puppet film, the original version of The Whale from 1927, which was directly inspired by The Caliph's Crane (1924) by the German E. M. Schumacher.

What set Ofuji apart aside from his style of animation was that he used the "record talkie". I think this shows another aspect of his innovation - that he actively challenged himself and integrated new technologies like this into his art, pushing the form in new directions. He took existing records and basically interpreted the song in animation, so that when you start playing the record at the same time as the animation, it syncs, resulting in what you might say are Japan's first animated music videos. One film from 1929 features adorably designed cat characters dancing around, while another one from 1931 is set to a karaoke version of the old Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, and focuses instead on slowly moving elegant natural and abstract shapes. (Kimigayo was shunned after the war for its associations with Japanese imperialism, so the shades of meaning are interesting.) Ofuji didn't seem stuck on a single style or form like most of the other animators of his period, but seemed to actively search for new approaches, and had by far the most poetic and 'artistic' feeling in his works. He seems like one of the first to actually approach animation as an art. His films in particular are in dire need of being rediscovered.

Yasuji Murata's work is quite different, and falls much closer to what one would expect of animation at this period - simple line-drawn figures playing out amusing stories filled with gags. But though it sounds pedestrian described that way, Murata is clearly the genius of the early period. His films are filled with real imagination and surprisingly inventive ideas. You can see that he's having tremendous fun coming up with all these ideas and arranging them into an interesting form. He is also an excellent draughtsman, so that despite the simple line-drawing basis of the animation, the work comes across as convincing at every moment. The poses are always interesting and suited to the character, and the facial expressions lively and elastic. He has the instinct of a master animator. Some of the movement has that feeling of awkwardness of the rest of the animation of the period, as they hadn't quite figured out how to animate a certain motion as of yet, but Murata stands far apart from the pack in that it feels like he has really thought about the drawings and movement, and has attained a certain mastery of the form within the stylistic bounds that he devised for himself. The drawings are extremely witty and funny even seen today, and the movement is surprisingly well controlled, even betraying a budding sense of naturalistic timing.

I think that's one sign of great art - that it doesn't grow old. At its best, Murata's humor comes across as just as funny as it must have been back then, even across the gap of cultures. Murata's humor has a certain universality, and the gags are genuinely inventive and surprising. One of the films on the set, The Unlucky Butterfly, an anonymous film from 1931, is simply painful to watch. The art is amateurish, and the gags are mean-spirited and lame and just not funny. The film serves as a good contrast to show the exceptional nature of what Murata was doing - to show that quality is quality, no matter the age. Some adjustment to the different level of the art at that period is necessary, but surprisingly not that much. Often with animated films this old, I find it challenging to simply enjoy the films, but it was very easy to enjoy Murata's films. Murata is also one of the first figures who puts effort into creating an interesting narrative, an actual story with characters interacting rather than just a sequence of gags. Overall his films are among the most watchable and entertaining of the period. Murata is one of the only animators from this era who seems to have gone beyond mere tinkering and become a real pro at what he did.

I'm very interested in finding out in more detail about the history of these figures. I will also possibly write some more thoughts once I've seen through the entire set, as I'm quite eager to see the films by Seo Mitsuyo and particularly Kenzo Masaoka.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

08:20:32 pm , 1155 words, 3257 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #3

This episode struck me as the most rhythmical, with the most forward drive. The team was actually a familiar one to me - storyboard/director Akitoshi Yokoyama and animation director Nobutake Ito. It was a surprise to find Nobutake Ito as AD (though now that I think about it, maybe they had him animate the last few shots of the previous episode as a lead-in to this one?), but after some thinking I remembered that I had seen this exact same team together before, in one of my favorite eps in recent memory, ep 21 of Samurai Champloo. And right afterwards they had worked together again on Kemonozume in the same capacity, namely in episode 5. Ep 10 of Kemonozume was one of the major Ito episodes, with not just AD by Ito but with most animation drawn by Ito. There were only two other animators - one of them Yokoyama. So clearly these two have developed a sort of camaraderie in recent years, and so it makes a little more sense to see them together again. And the results in this episode speak for themselves. This episode is just as tight as the others, but has a much more driven rhythm than the very laid back introductory episodes, particularly the first by Iso.

Animators of note in this episode include ex-Ghibli animator Hiroyuki Morita, who's now directing Gonzo's Bokurano, and ex-Ghibli animator Ikuo Kuwana, director of the memorable OVA Street Fighter Alpha: Generations. The lead animator in SFA:G, Hajime Shimomura, was also in an earlier ep of Coil. I would have expected more of a difference in the look with Ito as AD, but he didn't stick out here nearly as much as he did in his eps of Champloo. Honda and Ito are very different animators, and they have different styles of posing and so on, so there is a difference, but I would have been hard-pressed to notice if I didn't pay close attention. Ito has always focused on creating animation rich with natural and spontaneous poses and gestures, and he also endows this episode with a degree of nuanced acting like Honda. But it's not like in Kemonozume, where we were able to see the more idiosyncratic, raw side of Ito. Here we're seeing the professional Ito.

Really the one who stood out as the star of this episode to me, though, was Akitoshi Yokoyama himself. His directing is fantastic. He is great at creating a solidly structured, thrilling, convincing flow of action, and he gave the Mojos lots of room to play out some incredibly fun - and funny - escapades. I haven't laughed this much watching an episode in a good while. I didn't think Coil would have this kind of breadth for humor, like that hilarious shot of Densuke breaking down weeping, and Oyaji's 10-point landing. I also like the way it sounds like they're using a rubber ducky to make all of Oyaji's vocalizations. The series is indeed much more laid back than I at first anticipated, with all of these humorous touches. It's interesting how it melds imaginative futuristic thinking with a more conventional eye for animated fun and a very retro, everyday feeling in the setting.

Mitsuo Iso recently made a few revealing comments in passing on his home page that are kind of related to this. He comments that, due to the time restrictions of the TV format, he was forced to skip over many of the details of the world in favor of focusing on the silly gags, which is a balance of priorities I wouldn't have expected, but made me like the man even more. He said that eventually these materials may be released in some form. He also says that the high quality of the first few eps was all thanks to the excellent staff, and he was just as surprised about it as us, but that in fact he's taking a very laid back approach to the series, basically going with his instincts rather than attempting to make sure every piece is in the right place. He warns not to have too high expectations on that front, though I'll take his warning with a grain of salt. I actually found it reassuring to read his humble tone, and to read that he has this more easygoing attitude than seemingly apparent from the incredibly well-produced first few episodes. He doesn't take himself too seriously. He takes what he is doing seriously, which is different.

This also reminded me how it's difficult to figure out what the true intentions of a creator are from the finished product, particularly in animation where the input of a large number of people makes it impossible to narrow down the intent to that of a single individual. Too many voices have been added along the way. That is almost certainly also the appeal of animation, that this process can add a richness that the creator might not have even envisioned originally.

I also wonder what the secret is to repeat-watchability. I can watch these episodes over and over again and they don't get old, which is rare. I thought about this back when I first discovered Hamaji's Resurrection and would watch it over and over again, and I think the answer is pretty simple. A solid work of art can withstand viewing from any angle over any length of time. Solid craftsmanship is what makes you want to come back to something to try to figure out how all those little details fit together so seamlessly, to try to learn from that - to steal it even. In this case, another thing that makes this world so appealing and keeps it fresh every time you watch is, I'm starting to think, that Iso seems to tap that way children live in the real world and in their own fantasy world at the same time, and tells the story without any cynicism or modern ambivalence. The show feels in a way like a throwback to an older time, to shows from a few decades back.

I'm also reminded of a comment Takahata or Miyazaki made in an interview I read once long ago, something vaguely along the lines that an audience will not be convinced if you have lots of fantasy going on without any grounding in reality; but just add one element that is realistic, and the audience will, as if by association, suddenly find themselves transported into the reality of the film. Iso sets up a very ordinary situation in the real world, and adds to this reality a thin layer of virtual fantasy. While clearly fantasy, it's all just plausible enough to be believable.

The climax with the Illegal exploding and the space around the protagonists cracking into pieces was quite hair-raising thanks to the excellent handling of the digital processing, presumably by Iso himself. Iso has been credited every episode with digital effects so far.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

03:14:33 am , 841 words, 3812 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Director

Moribi Murano

Koji Yamamura's latest short, The Principal and the Whale, made for Greenpeace, is up for viewing on the site Whale Love, which seems to have been set up expressly for this purpose. According to an interview on the site, the 2-minute film took him 5 months to make and comprises 1700 drawings, which was 300 drawings over his initial estimate.

I've long been a big fan of the Unico pilot produced by director Toshio Hirata and animators Masami Hata, Shigeru Yamamoto and Mikiharu Akabori at Sanrio Films in 1979, but thought Hirata's feature version of 1981 at Madhouse a step down from the pilot, and thus naively didn't bother to check the last film in the series, 1983's Unico in the Magic Island, expecting it to be a further step down. In fact, the opposite was true, as I've just discovered, having recently seen the film for the first time. It's a step up - a film full of vitality and imaginative ideas, quite different from the first (and the pilot) in tone and style. Whereas it doesn't have the rich and nuanced animation and loving attention to detail of the pilot, it successfully goes in a different direction with a more limited and looser approach to the animation and a focus on lively directing and imaginative design ideas. It feels much closer to the Mushi Pro/Madhouse tradition than the pilot. The freedom with the forms and geometric designs reminds me of another film they did around the same period, this time for Toei - The Golden Bird. The directing betrays a great instinct for timing and camera movement, with lots of zooming around to great effect. Action scenes are imaginatively choreographed, with zippy movement, utilizing large spaces effectively like the chase at the end of Puss 'n Boots. The designs remind me mildly of Masaaki Yuasa, with real variety in the forms, minimal use of lines, and balancing cute with bizarre and slightly disturbing. The mechanical dragon that zooms past at lightning speed in the castle was a fantastic idea and a delight to watch, and the memorably designed villain's shapeshifting was quite imaginative. The castle made of living puppets was also a great idea, and the music scenes were pleasing and didn't rub the wrong way.

Considering how well balanced each element of the film is, and the imaginative ideas on display, I was surprised that a figure as obscure as Moribi Murano had directed such a gem. I didn't remember seeing his name very often, and indeed, this is the only feature he has ever directed. His main area of activity is manga, although he had also been active as an animator for a long time, and still is occasionally.

Murano was born in 1941 in Dalian, China, a city on the coast near Korea. He debuted in 1957 as a manga-ka, and went on to be very prolific in that form. According to Arashi Ishizu, who worked at Mushi Pro in the early days as a production assistant, and who wrote a book about the Mushi Pro figures, Murano had problems with his legs, and was an extremely strong-willed person who didn't get along very well working in a studio structure, which is presumably what led to him striking out on his own as a manga-ka. Among his more well-known works are Hoero Bunbun, which was adapted into a TV series in 1980 and then into a film directed by Toshio Hirata at Madhouse in 1986. There is a fan page on the web where you can read through a number of his manga shorts such as Dokugan Sakon and Chinchiririn. After starting out at Mushi Pro on Atom in 1963, Murano went on to work on many of the Mushi Pro productions of the decade that followed, including Jungle Taitei, Goku no Daiboken (Murano was an inbetweener in eps 13, 14, 23, 31, 32, 35, 38 and 39 and a key animator in 28) and the Animerama films.

Probably the one for which he is best remembered is the adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori's Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae, which is important in that it was the first TV anime expressly for adults. Murano designed the main characters, was animation director, and directed a few episodes. The animation was unique, drawn in rough bold strokes at Murano's initiative, cleaving with the clean look of previous Mushi Pro productions. In the 1980s, aside from having directed the second Unico film, Murano was involved in a number of other Madhouse productions, animating the special assassination scene in Floating Clouds in 1982, as well as working on Lensman in 1984 and Dagger of Kamui in 1985. Most recently, he directed a 22-minute animated adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori's Stream Minnow at Madhouse that won the excellence prize at the 2003 edition of the Japan Media Arts Festival. On his site here there is an intriguing image of a gigantic flying vessel that looks like a cross between Moebius and Miyazaki. Above it there is the text "Roger Bacon's The Flying Machine Anime DVD Plan", but no other explanatory text. It would be nice if Murano were working on this as his next animation project.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

01:43:32 am , 614 words, 2238 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #2

Episode 2 maintains the same high level of quality as the first. Takeshi Honda is again the AD, and Toshiyuki Inoue again heads the animator list, joined by a bevy of impressive names including Honda himself, Nobutake Ito, Koichi Arai and the star guest, Takaaki Yamashita, who alongside Iso handled the art settei for the episode, which presumably means that together they came up with the various ideas for the interior decoration of the house. Yamashita is the man for bringing to life realistic everyday situations with a plethora of imaginative details, so I was hoping that he would be involved, but was unsure, since he's a Toei person and all. Thankfully Denno Coil has the gravitational pull of a black hole, and it appears to be pulling in all the major names in the industry. Ito and Arai are perhaps less surprising, since they were just recently seen in Kemonozume at Madhouse, but it's still a delight to see them.

Another wonderful episode. After Oyaji and Densuke, in this episode we are introduced to some more denno creatures, Sacchi and the... Mojo? Iso has a clear talent for creating simple but charming creatures that the audience is immediately drawn to. Now that I've seen two episodes of his new series I am beginning to be able to see the common thread with his previous work from a few years back, that ep of Rahxephon. The calm pacing is similar, the atmosphere deftly gear-shifts between a charming, light whimsy and a wistful feeling of loss. The mysteries outnumber the answers as of yet in this series, and clues continue to be dropped, and similarly we have yet to see the yin side of the series. This episode in particular focused on the charming character of the children, but the dark side is probably coming. Iso talked about the main theme of the series as being to explore the distance that separates everyone. Upon watching the opening of episode 2 I finally caught on to the wistful tone of the lyrics in the opening, and linked it to the entire relationship between Yasako and Densuke, a beloved pet whom she can't even touch. She wonders in this episode what he feels like, if he's soft, right as she's petting him, which is a nicely understated, touching moment. I had no idea that Iso could be as charming and fun as he has shown himself to be in these two episodes, but I had a sure sense of his ability to create drama that felt genuine and touched deep emotions and feelings of loss from his ep of Rahxephon, and I am eager to see in what way that theme will begin to come to the fore.

A moment I appreciated in the ep was where Yasako was looking at the torii trying to remember something. It was a moment that felt genuine. Perhaps one thing that distinguishes this series is that it is sprinkled with moments like this. These unemphasized, opaque moments inbetween the plot points are the moments that leave the strongest impression on me. I could relate to her feeling of seeing something that suddenly brought back a distant, nearly forgotten scene from childhood. Iso has an uncanny ability to succinctly evoke this kind of evanescant feeling. I've re-watched each episode a number of times and find that I discover something new each time. I don't know whether that's more testament to how careless a viewer I am or to how carefully crafted the script is, but the script is a miracle of economy in terms of how much it conveys and suggests with just a few words, leaving the visuals to do the rest.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

07:30:51 pm , 352 words, 4140 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Chinese animation studybook

I was in Beijing for a bit during my trip, and managed to visit a big bookstore. I was curious to see what they might have on animation. There were a few history books about Asian animation that seemed tantalizing, but I didn't get them since I can't read them. My big find was a 4-volume set containing examples of key animation from a selection of the films of Shanghai Animation Studio. Each volume is about 40 pages, so it's only 160 pages in total, but it's still a nice find. There are excerpts of key drawings from various shots in many of the more well-known films - Nezha, Uproar in Heaven, and Cowherd's Flute, to name but a few. I was particularly happy to find examples from the latter, as it (and all of Te Wei's other films) features some of the best movement in any of the studio's films that I've seen. Many of the other examples are from more recent productions that I haven't seen, and, judging by the examples, don't need to. Unfortunately, these occupy a large proportion of the book. I would have preferred to see more from films like Cowherd's Flute and Where's Mama, although these being brush films, I suppose you'd be better off just analyzing the film frame by frame yourself. The main problem with the books is that the line drawings appear to not be original key drawings. It looks like they were traced by someone from the originals, which significantly reduces the books' value IMO. I guess this gets to one of the things I've always felt about the studio. Their cel work has never been their forte. Where the studio really shined, for the most part, was in experimenting with different media other than cel. So I think the books kind of shortchange them in that they don't show the studio where they're really good. Still, despite the flaws, it's a real pleasure to find books like this putting the focus on their own productions, and I'd like to see more material like this from other studios around the world - Soyuzmultfilm, etc.

Friday, May 18, 2007

12:07:14 pm , 410 words, 1302 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

The Cat Who Walked by Herself

The Russians, more specifically Soyuzmultfilm, have made some of my all-time favorite animated features, to say nothing of some of the most beautiful animated shorts of all time. Aside from the famous shorts, they also happen to have seemingly limitless back-catalogue of other films that has been criminally neglected outside of that country. Even their less-known films offer a tremendous amount viewed today, with lots of variety in style and tone, so they deserve to be rediscovered. They're of consistently high caliber, and more often than not are more original and engaging than most fare I see being made today, particularly in terms of mass-consumption animation. Instead of slavishly following a bottom line and formula, they have a poetic sensibility and freedom with methods and forms that you don't find in any animated films anywhere else.

Jeff over at Hydrocephalicbunny talked about a new blog called Animatsiya that is devoted to talking about the films of Soyuzmultfilm. Animatsiya dug up a lost treasure that embodies what it is that I most like about foreign animation and Soyuzmultfilm's animation in particular - The Cat Who Walked By Herself, a 70-minute animated feature released in 1988 that for some reason I'd never heard of.

I started watching the film expecting to be able to turn it off after 5 minutes, only to find an hour later that I had watched the entire film right off despite having other things to do. It's quite simply one of the most entrancing, beautiful, lavishly animated and original animated films I've ever seen. It instantly ranks among my favorites. It was produced right before that sad period in Soyuzmultfilm's history when they were embroiled in lots of management troubles presumably somehow related to the country's woes that negatively affected the studio's creative work. It is one of their late masterpieces, and it's shocking that it's been buried all this time. The variety of the animation is breathtaking, and what's most amazing is that the quality doesn't drop over he length of the 70 minutes, despite the arduous and inventive nature of the animation. Normally a poetic film like this would be limited to 10 or 15 minutes, so I think it's quite an achievement that they managed to make a 70 minute adaptation hold up this well. The amazing soundtrack is by famed modernist composer Sofia Gubaidulina, and hugely benefits the film. I recall seeing her name once or twice in other Soyuzmultfilm shorts. A must see for anyone interested in animation

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

08:07:21 pm , 989 words, 1492 views     Categories: Animation, Live-action, Director

Kon Ichikawa

I was visiting China for the last two weeks, and had the chance to drop into some video stores over there. I picked up a DVD of La Prophetie Des Grenouilles for the equivalent of $1. I'd seen the tail end of the movie on TV late one night in Quebec a while back and wanted to see the whole thing. Seems to be a very good film. More interestingly, I also found a few bits of local animated fare that I'd never heard of and would probably never have been able to find outside of the country - things like Xiao Heshang (Little Priest?), a TV series from 2006 that seems rather lackluster; Grandma and her Ghosts, a 2000 movie from Taiwan that seems to have a passable script but rudimentary animation; and a movie version of Tsai Chih Chung's comic of Laozi's teachings. I remember reading a translation of his comic version of Zhuangzi a long time ago. There were also a number of other films adapted from his other classics-based comics.

I also picked up a DVD of Kon Ichikawa's Taketori Monogatari (1987), which is a retelling of the folktale about a baby girl who is found in a bamboo grove by an old farmer couple only to turn out to be a girl from the moon. The main innovation of the film is that the old folktale is re-read as an ET story, the girl really being from space. Other than that the film seems an ordinary set piece from Heian Japan. Kon Ichikawa has been a director about whom I've been interested in seeing more films for years. His films seem to straddle every conceivable genre, often at the same time. I saw the handful of his films that were available in the west many years ago, but unfortunately that's merely the tip of the iceberg, as he actually made more than 80 films, the latest being last year's remake of Inugami no Ichizoku. Not all of the films are reportedly that great, so perhaps that's reason we haven't seen more. He started working in films at age 18 in 1933 - quite a career.

What really interested me about Ichikawa, though, was the fact that he started out as an animator. I'd forgotten about this fact until watching Taketori Monogatari, which brought it back. Watching the film I couldn't help but think it felt very animation-like. The framing, the lighting, the pacing all seemed to be like something that would come from the mind of an animator. Or in other words, it felt like you could very well have taken each frame of the film and animated it and it would have worked equally well, if not better. Only after I finished watching the film and thought about this did I remember about his past as an animator. It took some digging to re-discover the name of the only one of his animated films I remember having read about - Shinsetsu Kachikachi Yama, which is often translated as The Hare Gets Revenge Over the Raccoon. It dates from 1936, so it's one of the earliest things in his filmography.

I haven't run across this anywhere on the web, but apparently Kon Ichikawa's real name is Yoshikazu Ichikawa. He started using the pen name only after he began working in live-action. So the animated films were made by Yoshikazu Ichikawa. It seems Ichikawa saw some Disney animation on the big screen and was so enamored with what he saw - because it combined all of the arts that interested him - that he immediately decided to become an animator. In 1933, at age 18, he joined the recently formed animation branch of movie studio JO Talkie. There were only 6 or 7 other employees at the studio, and after about two or three years the studio gradually lost interest in animation, so that by the end, Ichikawa, the only one still interested in animation, was the only one there to do all of the tasks.

The 8-minute Shinsetu Kachikachi Yama is presumably one of the last of their films, and Ichikawa is credited with having done almost everything on the film, including script, animation, photography and editing. Ichikawa's love of Disney apparently comes through in the film, which is closely modeled after the Silly Symphonies in terms of structure, motion and designs. The film even features a Mickey lookalike. In 1978 Ichikawa directed a live-action adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Firebird, which features some animation by Tezuka himself, and he apparently often stated that animated thinking tinged all of his storyboards for his films. That definitely comes through in Taketori Monogatari. I'd like to have the chance to see more of his less well-known films like this to see more of his fascinating animation-tinged directing. I've long been particularly curious to see Topo Gigio and the Missile War from 1967, which as far as I've been able to figure out is some kind of combination of puppetry and live action. One of Ichikawa's earliest films, Musume Dojoji (1946) - incidentally the one he considers his best - was also a puppet film. Not stop-motion puppetry, but actual puppets.

I guess one of the things that strikes me as seeming very animation-like about his thinking as a director is that he conceives of scenes that you just can't do in live-action, so often there are miniatures like the boat in a storm scene in this film, and lots of SFX. The framing and positioning of the characters on the screen also seems very artificial and theatrical rather than naturalistic. The lighting is another thing. The colors on the screen are emphasized and exaggerated, in a way that reminds me of the way colors were used in Mind Game. He controls all of the parameters of the screen in a way it seems only an animator would feel the need to. I can't help but wonder what might have happened if Ichikawa had continued working in animation instead of moving to live-action.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

04:19:36 pm , 999 words, 2941 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #1

Back from my trip, and I just watched Denno Coil 1. Expectations are usually there to be betrayed, and Denno was no exception. It was much more low key than I'd expected, though I'd already read it was very accessible. It treads very carefully ahead while slowly revealing intriguing little elements of the world that are each genuinely interesting when they come up, rather than plunging you headlong into a pool of strange setups that you're forced to accept at face value. Here they slowly lure you in, which works quite well and is a refreshing change from most anime out there. From what I can tell from the first ep, the pacing feels like feature pacing, like a film broken up into small segments, rather than a bunch of small films.

The quality, on the other hand, was just as high as I'd expected. The animation of ep 1 is headed by Katsuya Kondo and Toshiyuki Inoue, two of the major feature animators of the last two decades, with Takeshi Honda as AD. The rest of the animators are good, but not names that might tend to get a lot of notice. It's kind of the polar opposite of Kemonozume. Instead of being all about individualistic and flamboyant animation, it's all about nuance and subtlety. The layout in particular is excellent and helps to bring alive the feeling of presence, the feeling that the characters really inhabit the world on the screen. The pacing combines with the layout and the subtle animation to make the world feel very real. When little electronic glitches appear in a wall, it makes for a rare feeling of genuine surprise and wonder. They reveal just enough and do so in just the right way for you to be left unexpectedly and pleasantly curious to find out how the various details mesh. I came away really wondering what is real and what is virtual, and how the system works. For some odd reason the series reminds me of Doraemon, perhaps because of the setup with kids engaging in adventures with curious gadgets in the streets of the Japanese 'burbs.

Iso was writer and storyboarder, and he was also credited with digital effects. He's credited as creator/writer at the beginning, so either that means he's the main writer or he'll be writing every ep. I'd heard he was going to be doing a lot of digital tinkering throughout the series long ago, and it doesn't surprise me anyway. He's obviously striving for a very specific feeling in the texture of the effects, the mood and everything, and he's going to get his hands dirty to achieve it. He's an animator first and foremost. The first ep had a very nice quiet warm tone with subtle humor that felt very welcoming, kind of a throwback to a quieter and more simple age. The show seems to be a curious combination of the futuristic with the nostalgic. The parts with the laser blast at the beginning and later where the formatting wall is advancing had the same feeling as his work in Rahxephon, so perhaps those were the sections he did. The way digital is used to create patently digital effects on the screen is interesting too. At first I thought it was an encoding glitch. It clashes nicely with the styling scheme of the rest of the screen. The digital effects are very pleasing visually.

The digital effects and animation and everything around the section where Densuke is running towards the exit combined to quite nice effect. And everywhere throughout the episode the character movement was invested with inventive movement and posing that made everything moment interesting. Honda is really amazing. His drawings are always full of surprises, with free and imaginative posing and expressions, loose, with a great feeling in the line. Overall this is definitely quality rarely seen on TV. If the pacing feels cinematic, so does the animation. The animators are feature animators, so it's no surprise. I was so happy to finally see cats well drawn. Another small thing is that I liked the way the clothes felt real and not just pasted onto the characters. When Isako bends down, you can see a gap in the skin where the fabric doesn't reach. And I love the way the hands and fingers were drawn.

I knew I'd have to blog the series when I first heard about it, but this confirms it. It won't be like Kemonozume, where every episode stood out so starkly from the rest that it was pretty easy to blog the series, but I'm sure it will still be rewarding, though I think what will be the real pull of this series is the character interaction, the story, and the minutiae and surprises of the world setup, with the animation at a steady high level. In the end my main feeling coming from this episode is that they've established a unique tone while keeping things at a very accessible level, aimed squarely at general audiences rather than anime fans. I can see where the Ghibli comparisons come in. This is one of the few TV anime I've ever seen that has that sort of broad, neutral audience appeal, at least at this level of quality. I think it's a good thing for this show to have appeared now, since it shows another possible path for the industry, which seems stuck in a rut of fan pandering.

One thing confuses me. It looked like Yasako had a little doll of Oyaji (wearing briefs) hooked onto the zipper of her backpack at the beginning, but she'd obviously never seen Oyaji before Fumie whipped him out... Some kind of meta gag by the staff? And I'm impressed by how Akiko Yajima changed her voice. I would never have known that the voice actor for Shin-chan was playing Kyoko if I hadn't known it beforehand. I guess it's more accurate to say that here we're hearing something closer to her natural voice.