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.
June 2007
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Archives for: June 2007

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

05:41:30 pm , 284 words, 3448 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #7

This ep felt like one of the more lighthearted and comical ones. I think there were a few factors behind this. For one, this is the first episode not wholly written by Mitsuo Iso. It was co-written by Yuko Miyamura, the writer of the novel version. Perhaps this is the reason the characters felt a little different. Also, animation director Kazutaka Ozaki (his first AD in the series, though he's been in previous eps) brought a nice light & lighthearted touch to the drawings. Not a lot of nuance, and even felt like a slightly more of a conventional approach than usual, but still one of the most interesting ADs so far after Honda and Ito. Again, Shinsaku Sasaki of ep 4 was the storyboarder, and his work is very solid and creates an excellent flow, although the processing wasn't by him and felt a little lacking. The animation hilight was easy - what I presume to be Ghibli pillar Katsuya Kondo's climactic bit with Isako saving Kyoko. The movement was very weighty and measured, very different from the comic jumpy drawings of the rest of the episode, and more in keeping with the feature-styled feeling of the animation of the first few eps.

I liked the humor of this episode, though it felt a little more forced than usual. But what I really liked was that the dramatic climax came from an action in the real world and not in the denno world. Saving Kyoko in the real world had much more importance than any hunt for meta bugs could, and that goes against everything that's been built up in the series so far. I'm glad they had the courage to take that step.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

11:02:53 pm , 632 words, 1777 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Leading into Summer with Coo the Kappa

It seems the release of the Kemonozume DVD box was moved back from June 22 to July 13 for some reason. I'm looking forward to receiving it for all the extras it is reportedly packed with, in particular the interviews with Nobutake Ito and Masaaki Yuasa. Reportedly it will include reproductions of the full keys for a number of shots. I'm crossing my fingers that Hisashi Mori's shot from episode 5 is included, although I remember reading somewhere or other that Mori drew upwards of 300 drawings for this shot - in keys alone - so it might be asking a bit much to reproduce them all.

Keiichi Hara's new film Summer with Coo the Kappa (official site) will be hitting theaters on July 28. In advance of this, they have been doing extensive test screenings, some for the press, some public, and even some on the internet for bloggers, so I've been able to read a number of user reviews. The reviews are uniformly positive. There are only 60 or so reviews on Yahoo Japan so far, but the rating is already 4 1/2. The reviewers usually went in expecting little (not helped by the admittedly underwhelming preview shown on TV) but wound up being surprised by how solid the film was, saying that it held up for the full 2-hour-and-20-minute running length, packing tremendous nuance into every shot, with a surprisingly acidic thematic bite and realistically portrayed characters. I remember reading somewhere that the release length is actually considerably shorter than the length Hara had originally intended - by some 30 minutes or more, if I recall - so I'm very hopeful that we might be able to see a full director's cut for the DVD release, if there is one, as Hara's style is clearly one that needs all the room to breathe it can get.

Following in the footsteps of predecessors like Mimi wo Sumaseba and Junkers Come Here, the setting for the film is reportedly closely based on an actual location in Japan - Higashikurume City on the Northern edge of Tokyo, 25km away from the city center, on the border with Saitama prefecture. In an interesting development, Higashikurume and some of the other neighboring towns were apparently so enamored with the film that they have joined forces to create a special committee aimed at devising citywide activities to promote the film, including holding screenings for students. The film has in effect whipped town officials into a fever of so-called 'machiokoshi' or town revitalization, as they hope the town's central role in the film may help to act as a force to breathe new life into local tourism and commerce. This is a fascinating and unexpected new role for animation, and perhaps testament to how important a cultural force animation has become in Japan. The film has also received the backing of a number of big institutions like the Bunkacho and Dentsu, Japan's biggest advertising agency.

The very first screening was held on Earth Day on June 5, preceded by a talk between Keiichi Hara and anatomist and author Takeshi Yoro. Takeshi Yoro is perhaps best known for a 2003 bestseller entitled Baka no Kabe (The Wall of Stupidity), a monologue-style essay about the roots of unilateral thinking in modern times. Yoro set a serious tone for the event, talking at length about the need for Japan to be more forceful in urging its neighbor countries to take a more active part in CO2 reduction activities. Hara commented that such concerns were not at the fore of his mind when he made the film, but the film does have some underlying environmental and other messages. The film is a member of Team Minus 6%, an organization that proposes ways for individuals and institutions to help Japan attain the Kyoto goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 6% by the year 2012.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

07:35:25 pm , 707 words, 3234 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #6

So we're already up to episode 6. Time flies. This episode struck me as one of the more talky ones. It felt like the cyber nerd in Iso took the fore. It felt a little strange not seeing the continuation of the previous episode, or any of the other characters, since the previous ep climaxed with that sequence of Isako and the boys. Instead it diverged to delve into the origin of Sacchi, which was interesting enough. The quality of the animation and directing felt the most subdued and least striking of all so far. Feels like we're gear-shifting around a corner. Was a little lonely not having Toshiyuki Inoue there to regale us with his delightful moves, but the man is only human after all. Asking him to provide that sort of quality in every episode is asking a bit much even of the perfect animator.

The animation here was a good contrast with Honda's. It didn't have the ruffled lines and interesting posing of Honda's work. Ayako Hata was the animation director. I've been interested in her work since she animated a bit in Mamoru Hosoda's Tokikake that caught my eye for its nice nuance and feeling for low-key everyday acting - the bit where Makoto eats the purin in front of the fridge. The guy who animated Densuke's lovable birdseye waddle for the ending was there in this ep - Yoshikazu Honma, as well as Ei Inoue and Kazutaka Ozaki. I enjoyed hearing more from Akiko Yajima AKA Kyoko, and wish her character would be given more opportunity to take part in the action so I could hear more from her. Ditto for Densuke. He was right there but didn't do much, so I wish they had given him an opportunity or two to ham it up. He's such a nice character.

Watching this ep I got to realizing just how much of a tightrope act this situation is, with all of the events in the world of this anime hinging on the characters wearing the glasses. Basically, just take the glasses off, and it's all over. So far Iso did a great job of not making the audience feel that invisible wall. Interesting how it was only in the extreme circumstances here that Fumie and Yasako would even have though to take off their glasses.

Learning how the whole concept of the denno/cyber world is financed by the different national ministries was the most interesting development of the episode for me. Here the names were changed from ___-sho or ministry to ___-kyoku or office, though they are presumably parallels for the real-world Japanese institutions of the Transportation Ministry, METI, MEXT, etc. Without this setup, the whole denno world was interesting, but it felt like I didn't understand something important about how it was run, by whom, for what purpose. It felt like just a playground for the kids. Linking the concept up to governmental institutions makes it more intriguing. Fumie's comment about 'tatewari gyousei', or what you might simply call government overcompartmentalization, was amusing. I will be interested to see how the relationship between the different ministries, and their respective territories, comes into play in terms of how the cyber world is run in the coming episodes.

The sequence where Fumie and Yasako were testing out the parameters of Sacchi was amusing and convincing. It's scenes like this showing the kids finding ingenious ways of lifting up the corners of acceptable behavior beyond the watchful eye of the adult world, as kids would do in this one, but within the context of the denno world, that are the most fun to watch because they ring true. It's pretty impressive that Iso has been the one singlehandedly responsible for coming up with all of the ideas in this series, and particularly for writing the script of each episode. For someone who prior to that was just an animator (albeit an amazing one), that's a hell of a storm of imaginative concepts in a very different realm of creation. For a relative beginner writer, there are a lot of interesting threads being tied together convincingly, and satisfyingly fleshed-out characters interacting in a believable fashion, all of it leavened with a great light touch of humor.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

09:00:23 pm , 937 words, 4917 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Kappa no Sanpei

I just had the chance to watch Toshio Hirata's 1993 feature version of Shigeru Mizuki's classic manga from the 1960s, Kappa no Sanpei or Sanpei the Kappa. This has long been one of my all-time favorite manga, so I was really looking forward to the film, especially since it was directed by Toshio Hirata, and I thought he would understand what it was that made Mizuki's manga great, and might be able to transfer that to the screen.

The film was a major disappointment. Not because that feeling wasn't there, but because the script veered completely away from the original about a third of the way in, in the process turning into a pedestrian defeat-the-monster story completely bereft of all the beauty and pathos and wry humor of Mizuki's original classic. I haven't read the original in many years, so I don't remember the details very clearly, but a detail that would be hard to forget, because it defines the experience of reading the manga, is the fact that Sanpei dies and is taken by the god of death to the land of the dead in the end. It's a tremendously moving sequence in the manga. The manga itself is a bit of a patchwork, seguing seemingly almost randomly at times from vignette to vignette, but the book nonetheless hangs together and forms a convincing whole, even has a strange sort of solidity and feeling of inevitability thanks to the unusual dramatic form. The odd form of the story attains a sort of completeness with that odd and unexpected ending. In the movie, all of that is destroyed. The story starts out fairly close to the original, and has some of the original's meandering, random feeling to the flow of the narrative, but that is soon replaced by a lame-brained quest to defeat an oni to save Sanpei's mother, after which mother, father and son live happily ever after. It's an appalling betrayal of the original. It feels like the scriptwriter is the one who took the initiative of re-writing the story as he pleased, and the results are execrable.

The god of death was a truly memorable and interesting character in the original story - the god of death re-interpreted as a inept lower-class salaryman struggling to get by to feed his family. The story itself was very powerful because it was seeped in Mizuki's own mixture of dread/longing for death after seeing very tough times after the war trying to get by. His trademark stoic irony in the face of appalling circumstances has a great impact in this story. The manga was drawn at a time in his life when he wasn't sure how long he would be able to survive himself. Without even knowing that, you sense it in the images and words of the manga. You sense that you're reading the words of someone who has gone through tough, tough times, and whose only recourse is to laugh in the face of death. It's a manga that has that kind of conviction. That's what makes it a classic. To me, the god of death in this manga sort of sums up all of that. Reducing him to a mere sidekick, as the scriptwriter did here in the last half, shows an appalling lack of understanding of the original. The scriptwriter, Shunichi Yukimuro, is no hack. He's a real veteran, having been involved in most of the Gegege no Kitaro anime series, but he managed to destroy the flavor of this story by needlessly veering away from the material and making the baffling decision to turn it into nothing more than a episode of Gegege no Kitaro, instead of letting the story tell itself. I would like to know what Toshio Hirata thought of this.

The film was produced not by Madhouse but by a no-name studio called Takahashi Studio, and the animation is not remarkable. I actually have no problem with the animation. With a Mizuki story, anything more than the standard TV level of animation of this film would feel excessive and out of place. It's a joy just to see Mizuki's characters move a little. I would have been happy to be an animator on the film just for the chance to be able to draw his characters. The designs thankfully remained faithful to Mizuki's drawings. A notable exception is the mother, who appears near the end. I don't remember if she appears in the original manga, or what she looked like if she does, but here she was clearly not drawn in Mizuki's patented loose, unprettified style, but drawn as a pretty anime character, completely clashing with every single design in the film up until that point, which is a grave flaw.

As usual, Hirata's touch was light, almost invisible. He did not engage in any sort of directorial grandstanding, but kept things very simple and focused. That is the Hirata I admire. The ending featured a series of stills of masks of kappas taken from a kappa museum somewhere or other called the Itahisa Kappa Collection. The masks were truly beautiful, and oddly enough it felt like the sequence where Hirata's unique genius shined through the best of the entire film - his ability to find something of beauty like these lovely masks, and present it in a truly compelling way that expands the experience of watching the film, showing that there are forms of beauty out there beyond animation, if you expand your horizons a little. Even when working with animation, his thinking isn't limited to animation. He's got a wonderful eye for seeing beauty wherever it lies.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

01:37:20 am , 411 words, 2099 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #5

This episode feels like it left me with the most to digest. I had to watch it a few times before I felt I caught everything, not to say that it wasn't perfectly comprehensible on the first watching. But it felt like the script covered a lot more ground than usual, with lots of background about the relationships between the characters, and, unbelievably, yet more mysterious hints about revelations to come. Why the headaches? etc. The driving rhythm of the last two episodes seemed to take a back seat to exposition of the characters and their personalities. Isako's cunning power-play was a surprising development.

While not low quality by any means, this episode felt like one of the more restrained episodes so far in terms of the animation. Nonetheless Toshiyuki Inoue was present again, as he has been in every episode. The sequence following the appearance of Satchi near the end had a great feeling to the movement, and the whole closing sequence built up nicely. The storyboard was again by Akitoshi Yokoyama, who did ep 3, though directed by someone else. Last ep's AD Yoshimi Itatsu was there, and Ei Inoue, and the AD was Kiyotaka Oshiyama.

The episode did a nice job of capturing the feeling of a summer adventure among friends, wandering slowly through the streets, sweating in the heat, playing around in an abandoned lot full of old junk. I liked the feeling of specificity in the setting. It really felt like you're watching kids wandering around the streets of Japan. Passing images of the surroundings like that concrete-lined riverbed, or that winding country road surrounded by dense greenery, felt authentic and believable. Not necessarily because they were painted vividly or realistically, but just the choice of these particular images felt nice. It brought back distant memories of wandering by foot on the hottest day of the Japanese summer along a country road on the outskirts of town. Those images are the ones that stuck in my mind the most after all these years, even more than the glitter and neon of the city - old country roads, old temples in the shade, places with a bit of mystery about them. I was the kind of kid who loved just wandering around randomly in places new to me, just taking in the sights and sounds and smells, for the anticipation of an adventure or a new discovery around the corner. This series touches that inner kid in me.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

06:00:05 pm , 826 words, 2659 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil #4

Thankfully the quality stays at the same high level in this episode. Toshiyuki Inoue and Takeshi Honda yet again head the animators. These two have done an incredible amount to maintain the quality of the show so far. In tow are many of the usual names we've seen in past episodes, such as Ei Inoue and Kazutaka Ozaki and Hajime Shimomura - many of whom I've often seen working as animation directors on films prior to this. The animation director is Yoshimi(?) Itatsu, a name I'm not familiar with. He seems to be a relatively new face, having been involved in two previous Madhouse productions - Paranoia Agent and Beck - as an animator. This appears to be his first episode as AD.

The storyboard is by Shinsaku Sasaki, whom I remember for having animated the famous bit of action with the Tatarigami at the beginning of Mononoke Hime, where it's covered with all those snakelike things that look like CG but amazingly are in fact hand drawn (aside from a few close-ups). He's been very active as a storyboarder for hire in recent years since leaving Ghibli, having done work on shows like Master Keaton, Arjuna and Welcome to the NHK. The director was the same guy who directed eps 1 and 2, Masashi Yasukawa. I noticed in this episode that two students named Yasukawa and Honda were assigned the "daily chores" on the blackboard. Daily chores indeed! An amusing metaphor for all the work these guys have been doing for the show.

This episode focused on bringing to life the interplay between the protagonists at the school. I find that the various characters stand well on their own as characters, each with their own unique personalities. Daichi is fun as the bratty gang leader, and we started to learn more about Isako's personality and denno skills. I found her to be a satisfyingly layered character, like her counterpart Yasako, in that she behaves rudely in a way that makes her hard to like, but at the same time I could empathize with her behavior, as when she comments - "It's always like this. I never do anything, and they always come after me." I remember feeling that way in school growing up.

New clues were dropped here and there about the various threads lurking in the background, the biggest being the identity of Michiko. As always, the various denno devices and the way they were presented and integrated into the story were a sheer delight. The second half was an exciting virtual war between the factions featuring some more cool denno tools (not being used as they were intended) that gradually built up to a tremendously exciting and impressive bang where directing, animation and digital effects combined to great effect. It's this sort of deft balance of all the elements that most impresses me about this series. Superb talent working on every facet make for these kind of results. Again, I get the distinct impression that Iso's digital effects work in particular goes a tremendous way to giving the visuals their impact.

I got to thinking that I appreciate this series because it's the kind of sci-fi I prefer - the kind that is based in the reality that I know, with a few not too implausible fantastic embellishments to spice things up. Kind of the way I thought the first Digimon movie was a good sci-fi because of the way it kind of rethought the genre. Instead of going way overboard with the sci-fi stuff, he creates a plausible situation with real kids we can believe in, and adds a little touch of sci-fi. Seeing how the kids react to the situation is what made for fascinating viewing.

The idea of the 'imago' in this episode was interesting too - the idea of a function that the manufacturer of the device has deliberately chosen to disable and prevent users from using. Some may recall that a very similar situation occurred in real life not long ago, when cell phone manufacturers like mine, Telus, chose to deliberately disable Bluetooth functionality in Bluetooth-capable phones, and to not tell the users about this, under whatever pretext it was that they came up with. I doubt they're related, but I thought it was a good example of how plausible the little denno concepts in this series are because they're not too far-fetched and ring kind of close to home. By sheer coincidence, it even ties up to our own virtual world - Imago-Image is the name of Iso's home page.

It brought back memories of Tweeny Witches to hear Houko Kuwashima and Sachiko Kojima's voices on screen together again - Arusu and Sheila reunited. Just for reference, here's a list of some recent storyboards drawn by Shinsaku Sasaki.

Final Fantasy Unlimited 10, 15, 22
Arjuna 11
Overman King Gainer 11
Keroro Gunso 97, 100, 107
Astraea Testament 2
Full Metal Alchemist 5, 12, 18, 24
Cluster Edge 4
Kekkaishi 16
Shonen Onmyoji 6
Welcome to the NHK 16, 23
Death Note 18, 29
Master Keaton 5 (+director)
Angelic Layer 2, 10, 18, 25 (+director)

Saturday, June 2, 2007

11:44:02 pm , 438 words, 1448 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Movie

Naruto movie

I was looking forward to the third Naruto movie as a fan of Toshiyuki Tsuru. This is the first film I've seen him direct, so I wasn't too sure how it would turn out, but at the very least expected that the animated element would have its day in the film, since he's a great animator in his own right, and I've noticed that animator films tend to not disappoint at least in that arena. The film itself was disappointingly flaccid (even Tensai Okamura's second volley felt more substantial), and at about the halfway point I was despaired about the animation, but then realized they were probably saving resources for the finale. That was indeed the case. The last thirty minutes or so were a nice explosion of action.

The big story of the film is perhaps Norio Matsumoto's participation. Many must have been wondering when his next episode would come, but instead it has come in this movie. The interesting thing is that it appears Matsumoto storyboarded his own sections here. Matsumoto storyboarded portions of an ep of Rurouni Kenshin way back when, but apart from that he hasn't done it much. This makes me wonder where this trend will go, if he'll eventually become a director himself. I slightly missed the symbiosis with Atsushi Wakabayashi of the TV eps, but it's fantastic work as usual, and it's nice to see how he arranges the flow of action.

Apart from Matsumoto's sections, I was only able to spot Shinji Hashimoto, Takahiro Kishida and Tetsuya Nishio. I couldn't ID Ryochimo or Hideki Hamasu, though Ryochimo probably helped out on Matsumoto's part. Hashimoto's section was short but absolutely delicious, and Kishida's section with the boat in the storm was stunning, the most impressive contribution in the film in terms of the volume-to-quality ratio after Matsumoto. There weren't as many interesting names as the second film. There were a few sections that felt kind of Satoru Utsunomiya-ish. Perhaps those were the sections done by Kenichi Kutsuna, who's been kind of associated with Utsunomiya since his debut a few years back.

The best team from Welcome to the NHK returned in Gonzo's latest TV series in ep 7 of Bokurano - director Erukin Kawabata and AD Shingo Natsume. Distinctive and polarizing work. Kawabata has an assured directing vision, with consistent and methodological pacing and framing and a good sense for convincingly presented drama, and Natsume is willing to go to the teetering brink of his skills to invest the acting with nuance. A young team with guts and conviction. Natsume has appeared a few times in Guren - 1 (2nd KA), 5 and now 10.

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