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: September 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

07:36:04 pm , 383 words, 6356 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Reiko Okuyama passes away

One of the luminaries who shaped the face of commercial animation in Japan is no longer with us. I was late to learn that Reiko Okuyama, whom I profiled at the end of last year in a post on two pioneer women animators, passed away last May. I had great respect for Reiko Okuyama both as a pioneering animator and as a person, so I'm deeply saddened to hear the news. I think it's a great loss for animation.

I was moved and inspired when Reiko Okuyama returned to animation after a long absence with a short for the Winter Days omnibus in 2003. Okuyama had distanced herself from animation in the 1980s after two decades of working in the industry, focusing instead on her passion for copperplate engraving. Since 1991 she held numerous exhibitions of her work in galleries. In 1989, Okuyama was called upon by indie animator Tadanari Okamoto to help on a piece he was doing in the style of a copperplate engraving. Working with Tadanari Okamoto on The Restaurant of Many Orders re-awoke an interest in animation in Okuyama, revealing to her a new kind of animation that was different from everything she had done before, and more artistically fulfilling. This fortuitous encounter with indie animation is what eventually led to her creating the evocative and heartfelt piece featured in Winter Days, an ode to motherhood and bereavement that appears to be an animated elaboration of some of the themes addressed in her copperplate engravings over the preceding years. To me the piece seemed to represent a kind of reconciliation between Okuyama and animation following years of estrangement, the re-discovery of new possibilities for animation in an artist at a later stage in life. Okuyama appeared to be poised to create more pieces in this vein, and I was eager to behold a new stage in her creative life, but it seems that this piece was her parting gift to animation. Okuyama storyboarded the piece, and her husband animated the movement, after which she gave Kotabe's drawings a copperplate engraved finish. The piece can be seen here. I hope that a book of her engravings will be published so that we can have a picture of the artist Reiko Okuyama who emerged out of the shell of the great Toei Doga animator.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

07:03:38 pm , 1091 words, 7634 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Watching Mononoke

I haven't been watching much lately, but Mononoke has continued to impress and entertain me in various ways. None of the subsequent episodes have been directed by Kenji Nakamura, but many of them have been truly excellent and up to the level of his work, so either he has a tight grasp over things or he has some good people who know what he's trying to do. Koji Yamazaki was in charge of the latest arc, Nue, and his work was full of enthusiasm. I felt the script for this arc better showcased Chiaki Konaka's talents than the one he did for Umibozu, which came across to me as merely windy and cleaving with the spirit of Nakamura's original (also due to the directing). He tends to try to take control of things with the script, and it doesn't always work, but it did in this arc. This one had a pleasantly informed literary flavor, with all of the little details of the game. Manabu Ishikawa, whom I've never heard of, also wrote a very nice script for the previous arc, Nopperabou, that was possibly my favorite so far, byzantine in its logical twists and turns like all of the rest of the episodes but nonetheless somehow followable and creating a deeper feeling of pathos, with a situation not too beyond the pale of historical reality, like the first arc.

The series seems basically founded on murder mystery structure, but it goes further with that genre than any anime I've seen, seamlessly blending it with a twist of supernatural and a shake of historical, peppered with plenty of stylistic experimentation. The snowflakes in the Nue arc and the wind in the Umibozu arc are great examples of what I think are a great innovation of this series - the unexpected artistic rendering and twisting of these little touches that otherwise would be relegated to thoughtlessly naturalistic treatment elsewhere. These little touches give the show its unique flair. All of the elements of the screen are subject to original thinking like this, which is what I liked about Kenji Nakamura's previous work, so I'm very happy to see that he's using this series as an opportunity to continue to build on that, with lots of creative thinking and innovation put into the presentation of the material. This show has been one of the most mentally challenging and engaging I've seen in a good while. It really engages the viewer. The basic structure is always the same, but the way it's elaborated is always unique and a delight to behold, like the patterns on a Persian rug. I can't say that I understand everything at all times, but the web of meaning is always conscientiously weaved like a good murder mystery, and I find it to be pleasantly intellectually stimulating watching.

Even without great animation it always remains thoroughly engaging, which is a triumph for the director. With great animation it becomes riveting, achieving the ideal - great directing combined with great animation. Several episodes have benefited from work by the great Toei animators of recent years, including Hideki Kakita, Hisashi Mori and Soichiro Matsuda, to say nothing of Takashi Hashimoto himself. Seeing stretches by these great animators on the fabric of a compelling dramatic structure shows that great animation can exist without great directing, but in the end it's more satisfying with, when a great interpretation of acting or motion breathes life into the argument being made by the director.

The first episode started off with a bang, with work from the great Masahiko Kubo, Takaaki Yamashita and protege Tatsuzo Nishita, Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita. Hashimoto was the AD, and the characters are alive in their rendering in a way they are not quite in later episodes thanks to the supervision of the designer. Soichiro Matsuda I presume to have provided a nice bit in part 2 of Umibozu, episode 4. The finale of the second arc was perhaps the most spectacular episode yet so far in terms of the animation, with work again by Matsuda, Hashimoto, Nishita, Yamashita and Kakita, along with Ken Otsuka (Studio Hercules mecha man who did lots of good work for Toei's recent Gaiking; another Hercules member is also in the series occasionally - Ishino Satoshi), Futoshi Higashide and even Hisashi Mori. The thing that impresses me most, though, is that the embellishments on the screen throughout this episode wind up being just as breathtaking as the breathtaking movement created by these great animators - the contrast of the beautiful movement of the black-silhouetted fish with the CGI goldfish floating in the air, the CGI space covered in a curious mash of paintings and abstract patterns, the bold use of colors. The first part of Nue featured some more work by Matsuda. Matsuda is quickly becoming one of my favorite new faces. I assume he must have done the memorable and daring opening sequence. Explosion master Hideki Kakita was in the latest ep, 9. The characters were very nice in this ep, and the climax was one of the more visually dazzling. I liked the quality of this climax because it occurred at the intersection between directing and animation.

The art of this series is just as boldly confrontational as the directing, and is a huge and indispensable part of the show's success. The art of the Umibozu arc remains with me in particular - the stylization of the ship, of the clouds, the wind, the colors. This is some of the most beautiful image-making I've seen in an anime. It was a style of visual that seemed alien to the genre, and indeed even characters as original as Hashimoto's struck me as fly in the ointment. The art went beyond the confines of the typical, creating an atmosphere that demanded a new approach to the characters that would inhabit those new spaces, but the characters remained a relic of conventional anime presentation in proportion and behavior. I'm playing devil's advocate when I say that, because I love Hashimoto's characters and find them to be among the most genuinely original and watchable designs I've seen in many years in a TV anime (aside from Kemonozume). They went so far with everything else, and it makes me want to know if they could go that next step. It would be a healthy step for the industry. I can't help but find it ironic that such a show would come from Toei Animation, of all places, although it does fit within the recent highly formal Ikuhara-Hosoda tradition in a certain way.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

10:01:15 pm , 808 words, 2541 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Masahiro Ando

An animator I've mentioned a few times in the past in passing is going to be making his debut as a feature director pretty soon - Masahiro Ando 安藤真裕. (I include the kanji here to avoid confusion, as there is another well-known animator named Masahiro Ando, spelled 安藤正浩.) Ando is directing a film called Sword of the Stranger for Bones.

I became a fan of Masahiro Ando the animator mainly through his work on the Shin-chan films. Along with Masaaki Yuasa and Hiroyuki Nishimura, he provided some of the most exciting animation in the first handful of films, including the swordfight in the field in Mitsuru Hongo's 1995 Unkokusai movie and the hand-to-hand combat with the woman at the end of Keiichi Hara's 1998 Buta no Hizume movie. He was also involved in all of the other films (apart from the first) up until 2000's Jungle film, though I can't recall what he did in the others as it's been years since I've seen them.

Occasionally since then I've run across his name in other things and found the work to be equally enjoyable, such as the first episode of the IG OVA Bakuen Campus Guardres, or Osamu Dezaki's Hemingway Lupin TV special, and I've noticed that he was involved in a number of other projects where I had seen his great work without realizing it, such as Jin-Roh, where he animated some of the gunfights in the film, and the Cowboy Bebop film, where he animated the latter half of the climactic fight in the tower, which scene I had previously thought to be entirely the work of Yutaka Nakamura. Apparently he animated the basketball sequence in episode 1 of Oniisama he, and the scene with the Spear of Longinus in the Eva movie. He was in Memories and Metropolis. He even worked on Masaaki Yuasa's Slime Adventure pilot film, which was perhaps a legacy of their work together on the movies. He's been pretty active.

Masahiro Ando was clearly one of the great animators of the period, but didn't seem to get that much recognition until recently. He seemed born to create action animation, with great instinct for thrilling choreography, and the patience to fill his scenes with lots of dense, hairpin precise, nuanced movement. The action felt realistic, with a great sense for weight making the punches and lunges feel convincing, but at the same time the sheer variety of the moves outdid a Jackie Chan film and did things you could only have done in animation.

I kind of lost track of Masahiro Ando the animator in recent years, and the reason apparently was that he had been making the transition to directing. He hasn't animated much in the last few years, instead mainly working as an episode director and storyboarder on a lot of things, primarily for Bones, such as the Full Metal Alchemist movie and TV series, Eureka Seven, Rahxephon and Wolf's Rain, even as far back as King Gainer. Not having watched much of these shows, Masahiro Ando the director was unknown to me, but I'm guessing there is probably some stuff worth discovering in there. I've mentioned in the past how often it seems like the best animators turn into the best directors somewhere down the line, creating films that work first and foremost on the visual level and on the animated level, and Ando is yet another animator who seems likely to head down that road, in his own particular way.

I wasn't aware of this until recently, but Ando also has a few openings to his credit that show off a more polished side to Ando that I wasn't aware of. He animated and directed the Orphen and Hariken Polymer openings, and co-animated the Monster Rancher and Medarot openings. I was particularly happy to find out that he was an animator on the opening of Telecom's Monster Rancher, because it has long been a favorite of mine and I wanted to know who had done it. I thought it showcased Telecom at its best, with that fluid and tricky through-conceived motion. I don't know to what extent he was involved in Telecom, but perhaps he trained there. He apparently started out at Osamu Dezaki's Annapuru Studio.

I'm looking forward to the film because I'm sure it will be an explosion of great action animation up to the level of everything Ando himself has done as an animator up until now. It would be shocking if Yutaka Nakamura weren't involved, and indeed it seems he's in for a large chunk. It will be interesting to see the results of this meeting of two of the best action animators of the last decade. And more simply, it will be interesting to see what kind of a film this great animator makes. These decisive turning points in an animator's career are filled with suspense and anticipation.