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: August 2007, 01

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

09:37:18 pm , 3440 words, 13685 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #13

It's been almost a year since I saw the first episode of Kemonozume. I saw the last episode at the end of last year, more than half a year ago, yet I never blogged it. Why? I just didn't know how to write about the last episode, or about the series as a whole, so I kind of pushed it to the back of my mind. After this healthy span of a half year I've now looked back over the series and read some interviews with the main staff in the DVD box, and I think I'm ready to finally do this thing. A hell of a long incubation period for a simple blog entry, I know, but I wanted to do this one justice. I still don't think I'll be able to do that, but I want to get down my thoughts once and for all. That's what this post is - ruminations about an interesting series that gave me a lot of stimulation.

Firstly, this episode. Seen as a stand-alone piece of work, it's a fantastic episode. Yuasa is in the house, and in the house with him are a lot of great animators including the ubiquitous Takashi Hashimoto, who provides the opening fight; Koichi Arai, the ending parachute sequence; Nobutoshi Ogura, the bit where Yuka is trying to cut off her own arm; Yasunori Miyazawa, the bit where Ohba transforms hideously in a very sketchy graphic style; even Masahiko Kubo from Mind Game, who recently did great work on Tekkon Kinkreet, etc. It's all orchestrated and smoothed by Ito, whose workload is eased by the fact that so much of the animation is already so awesome. Together, they create an episode that is one of the most alive and exciting of the whole series in terms of the animation. Much of the series felt a little restrained in terms of providing the sort of animated excitement I associate with Yuasa, but this episode does that very well. This episode seethes energy and fury, building unrelentingly in a spiral of escalating madness that leads to a satisfyingly climactic conclusion. The characters are given plenty of room to fight their fights and create a feeling of catharsis in the conclusion.

I think my first vague impression was just bewilderment at the unexpectedness of the developments and the quality of the production, which is what I expect of Yuasa. But at the same time, I wasn't sure how I felt about the ending. It was dissatisfying somehow. The developments were certainly unexpected and interesting, but something felt unanswered. I don't know what I'd been expecting. I think maybe I was expecting a conclusion that focused more on the whole issue of the relationship between Toshihiko and Yuka, or that tied up the threads that were left untied. I know it's not Yuasa's style to tie things up neatly and provide every answer on a silver platter, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but I got the feeling that we were far from where we started with that ending.

I admire Yuasa because with this series he deliberately challenged himself to focus on an area that wasn't his area of expertise - story and character development. He was a genius at creating vivid and uninhibited animation, but he'd never had a chance to focus on the story side of things. He could have just gone on doing the sort of material he knows he's good at, but instead here he took a leap to try to create something new. This series shows a lot of new facets to Yuasa that can only benefit him in the future. In retrospect, Kemonozume seems like the first step towards something greater. Inevitably, that means that a lot of the things he tried didn't quite gel yet, for whatever reason. I think a lot of that has to do with the history of the project, which had a bit of a rough start and saw input from many people, which seems to have had both positive and negative effects, judging by the conclusion.

Interviews in the DVD box set provide some insight into the somewhat troubled development process, which led the overall plot through a number of stages of conception during which a number of different people added ideas or modified the structure or the characters or the themes in various ways. Planning started in late 2004, with an overall plot sketched out and Yuasa drawing reams of concept sketches upon which the story would be fleshed out. Yuasa was busy with Genius Party during the first half of 2005, so he only got started in earnest on Kemonozume in August 2005, at which time they began finalizing the story arc with the assistance of Paranoia Agent writer Kiyoshi Mizukami. Mizukami dropped out shortly after Yuasa began making changes to the structure, and Yuasa wound up finalizing the overall arc himself. Mizukami had wanted the mafia to turn up at the end of the series distributing a strange new drug, and this is what eventually evolved into Ohba and Ohba Corporation.

Yuasa then began writing the script for the first episode, and finally began the storyboard for episode 1 at the end of 2005. Character design by Nobutake Ito only commenced in March of 2006, because prior to then Ito had been busy working on Denno Coil. (meaning that Ito actually did Denno Coil first, even though his later work on Kemonozume was broadcast before Denno Coil) It was around this time that the series was announced publicly. It was decided that the rest of the scripts were to be written by the episode directors, as much as possible, with Yuasa helping to fill in the holes. Episodes 3, 7, 10, 11 and 12 were each written by their respective directors, while Yuasa wrote 1 and 13, storyboarded 2 without a script, and co-wrote 6 and 8.

Surprisingly, the animation provided to be an area of difficulty. Quite simply, they couldn't find people. It's often said that there is a shortage of good animators in Japan, and this series seems to have fallen victim to that shortage. This is why the first few episodes were animated mostly by the same team of in-house animators such as Eriko Kubokawa and Akira Honma, along with a few talented regular outsiders like Choi Eunyoung and Soichiro Matsuda. Of course, the animation quality of the first four episodes was high in spite of this in large part thanks to the superhuman efforts put in by Nobutake Ito.

Yuasa was particularly pleased when he saw Matsuda's animation of the opening battle of episode 1 because very few of the animation turned in prior to Matsuda's had quite the feeling Yuasa had been looking for. Yuasa had never worked with Matsuda, a Bones regular, but he was very happy with the results and Matsuda became a regular on the show. The show started broadcasting about 5 months after Yuasa had started the storyboard for the first episode, so it seems that they had under 5 months for the animation. Talented animators finally started coming onboard a little later.

Madhouse is known for outsourcing to Korean studio Dr. Movie, but only one episode in Kemonozume was outsourced to a Korean studio - episode 4. Episode 9 featuring animation director Kayoko Nabeta was the only fully outsourced episode. It was outsourced to MSC, a Japanese subcontracting studio. They did a good job, as I would have been hard-pressed to tell. It looked rather different from the other episodes, but it was still pretty close to the spirit of the other episodes for a team not on the same production floor. The rest of the episodes were produced in-house.

***

Kemonozume was an innovative show for a reason that might not be immediately obvious: the backgrounds. In Mind Game Yuasa had integrated live-action clips every once in a while, and he carried on that approach in Kemonozume, both for aesthetic reasons and because it would save the trouble of animating particularly onerous shots. He had also used photographs for the backgrounds occasionally for aesthetic reasons in addition to traditionally drawn backgrounds. For Kemonozume he decided to use photo backgrounds as the basic approach.

A photographer took most of the photographs used throughout the series, and a coterie of art students were rounded up through auditions to help process them into the backgrounds. First a handful of the students would handle the cutting and pasting the photos according to the layouts drawn by the key animators. Next, another group would trace lines over the photos to make them look hand-drawn. Finally, a third group would come in to digitally color the traced photos into the final product. One exception was episode 12. Michio Mihara, maniac that he is, not content with having drawn all of the key animation and more than half of the inbetweens for his episode, traced the photos for his episode himself, presumably to be able achieve just the right visual balance between the animation and the background lines. Apparently he was working more than 70 hours a week during the course of his work on the show.

This unique approach to the backgrounds gives the series a very unique atmosphere and visual texture. It's simultaneously more real and more hand-drawn, in sync with the rough aesthetic of the animation. It's a series of rare visual daring and sumptuousness. The live-action video we see occasionally was also traced and processed, frame by frame, like the backgrounds. The video was shot and integrated by the director of each episode as he saw fit.

***

One of the things that makes Kemonozume an interesting series is that you can clearly see the hands of all the people whose work went into it. All of the work has a strongly personal stamp on it. They didn't attempt to impose a strictly unified look or directing tone throughout. That goes especially for the animation, but also for everything else from the directing to the art to the scripts. As a result, the tone varies dramatically from episode to episode. To an extent, that sort of thing is inevitable in TV work, because Yuasa couldn't direct every episode himself. But Yuasa has said that he welcomes that sort of variety of ideas and interpretation. And I think that gives the series a richness that few other shows have. The richness of personality.

I think the different directing styles - some more poetic and image-oriented like Atsushi Takahashi's, some more ironic and incisive and precise like Kenji Nakamura's - made the series tremendously watchable, telling the same story in different voices as it were. The style of these two episodes, for example, differed greatly from what Yuasa was aiming for, Nakamura's with its sophisticated tone and irony, Takahashi's with its serious tone, but wound up being among the more memorable, and benefited the series.

At the same time, I also wondered if the zig-zagging both stylistic and narrative might have had the side-effect of reducing the forward momentum that might have benefited a story of lovers on the run. I wondered if perhaps a tighter grip on just the script might have benefited the series. I would have liked the focus to remain on the brothers and the reason behind their rivalry; on the historical evolution of the kifuuken in response to the changing times, which I thought was very interesting; and especially on Toshihiko and Yuka, and the issues of trust and caring and responsibility and love and desire about which the series spoke through the vehicle of the 'flesh eater' metaphor.

Many of the composite elements of the basic story were in fact suggested by other people. That's what defines this series. It's truly the product of a vast collaboration. In that sense it's a different beast from Mind Game, which really was Yuasa's baby. So it's interesting that even though this time it's an original concept by Yuasa, it's actually less 'purely' Yuasa than Mind Game in a certain sense. With Kemonozume Yuasa was more interested in soliciting interesting ideas from everyone around him, kind of in the old Toei Doga style, but apparently fewer people than Yuasa had hoped were forthcoming with ideas, perhaps because people aren't used to that way of doing things anymore.

***

In the interviews, Yuasa mentions that during the course of production he came to realize that there had to be a 'theme' to the story, otherwise he wouldn't know how to end it. The theme he came up with was: "Life never turns out how you expected". However, Yuasa was adverse to creating a series where everything was strictly governed by this theme. He preferred to let things be a little haphazard and all over the place, throwing in lots of interesting ideas without necessarily tying them together neatly, in keeping with the spirit of the 'planned randomness' of Mind Game. But he also realized that you have to know where the story is headed in order to bring it to a meaningful conclusion, which is perhaps what led him to the conclusion we have, where nothing really changes in the end. The world doesn't change. The only thing that can change is how you choose to face the world. In the end, Toshihiko discards his guarded self and throws himself from the plane without a parachute into Yuka's arms. It's not quite as overt as in Mind Game, but the theme is quite similar. It's Yuasa's perennial theme. Maybe the problem is that it was a little obscured by the size of the villain.

Yuka and Toshihiko are headed towards this place where, throughout the length of the series, they are convinced that they will find the solution to all of their problems. They have this idea how life is going to be at some hazy distant point in the future. But life isn't that simple. Life happens inbetween the plans we make for it, as they say. The 'palace' turns out to have been a fantasy, a ruse. It's a totally different ending from the one they were expecting. I can see how that jives with the theme Yuasa had in mind.

Perhaps part of the reason for the ending having turned out the way it did is that, in a first for Yuasa, he didn't plan out the ending ahead. He did it Miyazaki-style, waiting until he got there to figure out how it ended. So I get the feeling that, in a way, the ending was the product of inertia; the inertia of the Ohba character in the preceding few episodes. He also mentions that he wound up relying on Ohba for the climax because the Yuka-Toshihiko story seemed to be going nowhere. The strange shape of the story is also at least partly accountable to the fact that the plot passed through various hands, evolving in different directions along the way.

The last episode felt more typical of the Yuasa of yore, with lots of frenzied action expressed with powerful, energetic, imaginative animation. That was good for the climax, but what Yuasa really wanted to do with this series was to challenge himself to create interesting drama and story, and it feels like that was something he did best in episode 2. I think the way the ending refused to answer every question or to tie things up neatly is part of why the ending felt a little dissatisfying, but at the same time I like the aloofness of this slapdash ending. It jives with the spirit of the show, which was all over the place and emphasized energy and variety over consistency. What I like about Yuasa is that he does connect the dots, if you look carefully. He just doesn't overemphasize things. He answers just enough of the questions to make it satisfying while leaving the others for you to speculate about. I liked how, like in Mind Game, innocuous moments from previous episodes are brought back for a moment and invested with significance. In one shot near the end we get to see what Toshihiko did with Yuka's present in episode 7, and the ring Toshihiko found on the ground at the end of episode 9 makes a satisfying reappearance at the very end. Any stronger a tying of the threads would have been dissatisfying.

Even though I can't help wondering what the ending would have been like without a villain, I did like the character of Ohba and found him appealing. He expressed a lot of the things I and perhaps others think in their darkest moments but try to forget - love is nothing but a chemical reaction, memory is nothing but a smattering of ultimately meaningless data. It was like he was a reincarnation of the despair of Cat Soup, and Toshihiko of the hope of Mind Game. He was the incarnation of realism and materialism, and Toshihiko of idealism. Neither are good in extremes, but they represent the extreme poles of humanity.

***

Animation director Nobutake Ito had a different approach than Masaaki Yuasa, but he was a great animator in his own right, and Yuasa's decision to bring him in was the right decision. He was trepidous about Yuasa's very freely deformed designs at first, but the combination of his more realistically rendered protagonists with the oddly shaped side-characters creates a great balance. These were characters the likes of which we'd never seen before. This was the first place where we got to see Ito given the opportunity to draw characters to his heart's delight and entirely in his own manner, and his work throughout was fiery and full of spirit, with a striving to fill out the personalities of each of the characters through body language and gesture. The argument and love scene in episode 1 showed him at his best right from the start.

Ito held the show for the early episodes with his efforts, until a few interesting outside animators on the more idiosyncratic side of the spectrum such as Hisashi Mori and Yasunori Miyazawa came in a little later to help bring some welcome variety and energy to the animation. The show would even have benefited from more work from figures like this, but the schedule was very tight on the show, and they probably weren't able to find as many like-minded animators as they wanted. I actually find that the urgency with which the series was made comes through in the final product, and to some extent gives it some of its vitality. The two solo episodes were undoubtedly planned more for reasons related to the tightness of the schedule, but I think that stylistically they were a real boon to the show. It's rare to be able to see a single animator given such an opportunity in commercial projects like this. The solo animator episode has been around for a long time in Japanese TV animation, but these episodes update that tradition into a more deliberate, strategic vehicle for stylistic expression for ambitious animators looking for a challenge.

Apart from the animation, in terms of the story I think Kemonozume was a novel update of the Romeo & Juliet formula. More than anything it provided a refreshingly true and mature portrait of two people in love, which is rare to see in animation. At its best the story balanced horror, drama and comedy in a way that I'd never seen done before in animation, achieving a truly unique atmosphere - serious yet whimsical, hard-boiled yet not too gruesome. It was a good showcase of the potential of original projects not based on existing manga or stories. While perhaps it didn't quite achieve the perfection and profound resonance of Mind Game, it was free from the relentless, exhausting flood of repelling cliches that plague the industry, and had a broad audience appeal and smart sensibility that is rare for an anime TV series.

In the end, Kemonozume strikes me as a series that tried out new approaches to production and style. Some worked, some didn't, but it was a short 13 episodes packed with incredible variety, heart and originality. It carved out its own small path within the industry and did something rare within the monolith of the industry - it kept the scale human at all times. It retained an aura of independence throughout. It gave the staff involved the opportunity to create something that was honest and true to themselves. It cleaved deliberately from the clean-and-polished tendency of the industry today to showcase the appeal of drawings drawn with imagination straight from the gut. They did things their own way without catering to fashion. They didn't always know where they were going because they were trying to go somewhere new, but the journey sure as hell was interesting.