Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: February 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

11:54:59 pm , 1097 words, 3753 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Towards the Rainbow

The greatest filmmakers can create a transcendent experience in the viewer. Few filmmakers can do that for me, but Tadanari Okamoto is one of them. I think he's one of Japan's best artists of the last few decades, and he is by far my favorite independent Japanese animator. Every element of art commingles in his work to a level of perfection that I find in very few animated films anywhere - not just technical ingenuity that makes each of his films different from one another and perpetually fascinating in terms of the technique or form, but even moreso the deep love of humanity, generosity of spirit and gentle humor that shines through in each of his simple and lovely films. I think his films are a treasure. I don't revisit his films often, but that's only because I don't want to ruin the pleasure of doing so by treading too hard on the soft and delicate ground of his universe. Whenever I do come back to one of his films, it renews my faith in animation.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, Okamoto is currently not represented on DVD anywhere in the world, not even in Japan. Many years ago a good 2-LD set of his work was released by Pioneer, including a broad selection of his shorts and full versions of several of his best longer efforts, but this has not been re-released. Testament to the size of his oeuvre is the fact that even a set of this size was only able to cover a chunk of his body of work, and several of his other longer efforts (films of almost 20 minutes in length) were conspicuously absent - meaning even viewers who had the luck to find the LD set did not have a complete picture of this major independent animator. This set forms the basis of my knowledge of Okamoto's films, so I've been longing for an expanded version of the set to be released.

Many of Okamoto's films won the coveted Noburo Ofuji award over the years (recent laureates being Mind Game and Koji Yamamura's Franz Kafka's Country Doctor), and those films were in fact released on a DVD box set that came out several years ago, covering all of the winners of the prize since its inception. So a few films were available, in a way. But the Ofuji box set itself was prohibitively expensive, so the films remained outside of the reach of most consumers. This is doubly a shame because two of the films included on the set were not included on the LD set, and had not been released on any consumer format prior to then. I held out hope that they would eventually be released as part of a newly expanded DVD re-edition of the old set, but such has not happened so far.

In the meantime, lacking any reasonable form of representation on DVD, Okamoto's name continues to be pushed further into oblivion with each passing year. I therefore do not feel in the slightest bit bad for pointing out that someone took the initiative of ripping the films from that DVD set and uploading them to Stage6. I recently discovered this fact upon scrounging around on the site for obscurities after hearing that it was going to be shutting its doors on Thursday. The four films on the site are among Okamoto's best films, and I don't think they have been viewable by audiences over here in any form prior to now, so I recommend anyone who is interested in independent animation to check them out while you have the chance, although unfortunately they are not subbed. It's the best we've got for now.

Revisiting a film by Okamoto is always a treat for me, so needless to say, finally being able to see one of his major efforts that I have never seen but have wanted to see for ages, and that turns out to be one of his best films, is sheer delight. I was lucky enough to have that experience tonight upon watching Niji ni Mukatte / Towards the Rainbow (1977), which immediately struck me as being one of his most perfect films in every way, right up there alongside Praise Be to Small Ills (1973) and The Magic Ballad (1982). What a sad thing for a film with this sort of emotional power to have remained buried for so long. But the same applies to all of Okamoto's films. These are films that have not aged at all, and that should be seen more than ever now, when this sort of honest and heartfelt filmmaking seems to have gone by the wayside. These are films that speak to people in a way few indie shorts do. Okamoto's voice was unique even during his day, and his voice remains unique today. I think it's also remarkable that he managed to produce so many relatively long films during the short span of about a decade and a half that he was active. His body of work appears to span over 5 hours.

Like the earlier film Praise Be to Small Ills, Towards the Rainbow benefits from a terrific soundtrack by folk rocker Kohei Oikawa. His voice flows like silk over the images, a lilting poetic echo of the narration by the great voice of Kyoko Kishida, while that unforgettable melody raises the experience of watching the film to another plane altogether. Yet another great example of Okamoto's unflagging devotion to creating a soundtrack that is an inseparable part of the whole yet also incredibly beautiful and moving on its own. The puppets are lovely and elegant with their simple forms, very clearly showing Okamoto's spiritual Czech heritage. The lighting is impeccably handled to create delicate, moody images of the interiors where the young girl is weaving. The images of the river are magnificently rich and lush thanks to Okamoto's wonted combination of various techniques. The ethereal mist is achieved by layering traditional animation for the water and crepe paper for the mist over 3D sets. The film uses the framework of a simple love story of two young people to evoke any number of powerful and timeless themes. Foremost, it is a universal story about how humanity, driven by love, can come together to overcome the obstacles that divide us. At the same time, it is also a fascinating culturally specific slice of historical technical ingenuity. Every element from the technique to the storytelling to the theme is effortlessly intertwined into a multilayered whole to create a deceptively simple film of transcendent beauty. This is Okamoto at his best.

Friday, February 8, 2008

02:08:14 am , 2516 words, 8364 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Tiger Mask

I recently had a chance to see a few episodes of the old Toei TV series Tiger Mask. It was very interesting viewing in many ways. Besides being quite entertaining in spite of its age, this show features some of the most dynamic and exciting animation I've seen in any TV show of that period - or this one, for that matter - making it of considerable historical interest from an animation standpoint.

In spite of the show's relatively low profile over here, Tiger Mask is in fact at the root of a number of currents in anime, having been a training ground for a number of major animators and an influence on many others. It's something of a key show in anime history, surprisingly. This period in the latter half of the 1960s produced a handful of classic sports anime that were hugely popular among TV viewers, as well as influential on the rest of the industry, such as Kyojin no Hoshi and Ashita no Joe, and Tiger Mask ranks right alongside them as one of the most important sports anime of the period - the defining wrestling anime to the defining baseball/boxing anime of the former two shows. Nonetheless it, like most of these other sports anime classics, remains very little known over here in the west. These shows have admittedly aged a bit after some 40 years, and probably appear at first sight quite lame and cheesy to prospective viewers today. But in the best cases they hold up surprisingly well in many respects, far more than other shows of the period, thanks to good directing/drama and surprisingly strong animation, so they merit rediscovery.

Prior to watching a few episodes of Tiger Mask just recently, I was already familiar with the classic opening, the dynamic and sketchy style of which gave a clear indication just how unique this show was in terms of the animation, and got me curious to see more. Basically, it just moves far more than many shows from that period. Drawing after drawing passes by as the wrestlers run around, jump from the cords, grapple with one another, lunge at one another. Sports is all about athletes and physical motion, but anime by definition seems to impose limits on how much a character can move, so prior to seeing this, the whole idea of 'sports anime' struck me as something of an oxymoron. But the Tiger Mask opening seemed like the exception to that rule. It was one of the few anime I'd seen that put the considerable effort required into the animation to recreate that most basic thrill in sports - seeing the athlete vigorously moving around doing his thing. Besides that, there was the sheer rawness of the animation, which I personally found very appealing as a fan of the latter-day proponents of rough-styled animation like Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto. This was sketchy, spontaneous stuff full of flying lines and quickly drawn poses, certainly like nothing else I'd seen from this period.

I'd heard good things about Tiger Mask the show itself, but I probably would never have bothered to seek it out beyond the opening had some tapes not been bestowed upon me, so I'm grateful for having been given the opportunity to finally experience the show. I'm quite fond of several of Toei's earliest TV series like Ken the Wolf Boy and Hustle Punch, which I originally explored as missing links between Toei's feature period and TV period, and wound up finding to be quite excellent on their own merits, but for some reason I've never bothered exploring the TV work Toei did over the next few years.

Tiger Mask comes along right at that period in the late 1960s when we start to see a major surge in the number of subcontracting studios, many of which were being formed by people who had just quit either Mushi Pro or Toei. Usually those new subcontracting studios would go on to do subcontracting for the same big studios the founder had just left. (Tokyo Movie was another big contractor of the day) Such is precisely the case with the main figure behind Tiger Mask: Keiichiro Kimura. As I mentioned in the post on A Production, Keiichiro Kimura had trained at Toei Doga under Daikichiro Kusube. He did his first animation work as an inbetweener on the two 1963 films (Sinbad and Little Prince), before shifting course and moving to work on the TV shows, which he did from there on out. His first big job was working under Kusube on Fujimaru in 1964 alongside Yoichi Kotabe. Afterwards, he was abruptly bumped up to working as character designer/animation director, in which capacity he worked for two more years at Toei, first on Rainbow Sentai Robin and then on the first Cyborg 009 film. After then working on a number of other shows, Kimura was finally appointed character designer of Tiger Mask, which wound up being his last job at Toei. He quit mid-way to form his own studio, Neo Media, although he continued working on the show from his new studio.

Keiichiro Kimura is a one-of-a-kind character. No geeky nerd as a youth, Kimura was a burly tower of power enrolled in all of the sports clubs, who cowed not only his classmates, but also his teachers with his fearsome, never-smiling facade and his hit-first-ask-later attitude. After graduating from high school, family friends suspected he had become a yakuza. But he just loved to paint. Having spent much of his time during high school behind the easel painting, by the end of his studies he had honed his skills enough that he was able to win a competition hosted by the Mainichi newspaper, even getting his name in the paper. After graduating, this helped motivate him to try his hand at getting into an art school. However, he was unable to pass the entrance exams. It was then that he ran across an ad in the newspaper from Toei Doga looking for animators, and he decided to apply. He contacted Daikichiro Kusube, who had grown up in the same town and graduated from the same high school a few years ahead of Kimura, and the rest is history.

Daikichiro Kusube was known at the studio as the guy under whom all of the misfits assembled, and it was under him that Keiichiro Kimura learned the ropes. Yasuo Otsuka would occasionally drop by Kimura's desk to give him tips, answer questions, show him how to do things, and otherwise be tremendously generous with his knowledge, for which Kimura was very grateful. Whereas Kusube was Kimura's teacher, Otsuka was probably his greatest influence, stylistically speaking. It can be assumed that Otsuka's influence is at least partly one of the elements leading to the style we find in Tiger Mask.

Besides this, Keiichiro Kimura mentions that the one explicit influence behind the style he adopted for Tiger Mask was the work of Bob Peak, an illustrator who created a number of famous Hollywood posters and sports illustrations in the 1960s. Peak smeared the paint across the canvas expressively, heightening the feeling of exertion in the athletes he painted. Kimura works with only pencil in his work, so it's hard to see any direct influence. It's more of a spiritual hint that Kimura seems to have taken from Peak's work, in terms of the sort of freedoms he could allow himself with the drawings and timing in order to achieve a more dynamic and exciting piece of animation.

Kimura had always had an aggressively go-getter attitude when it came to his animation. Perhaps influenced by the teaching of Otsuka, as an inbetweener, he had always pushed himself to draw as many inbetweens as he could, driven by the conviction that skill came as a result of hard hours of practice, and if you wanted to become a great animator, the more you could draw, the faster you'd get there. Toei Doga had recently switched to a piecemeal system of payment, where animators were paid by the sheet rather than by the hour, which was certainly another motivating factor behind the very speed-oriented style of drawing that Kimura had acquired by the time he began working on Tiger Mask. Combine stylistic inclination with a speedy drawing hand acquired through years of work, and the result is the hard-edged and freewheeling approach to action that makes Tiger Mask so memorable.

Kimura came up with a variety of tricks and inventions to pump up the excitement on the animation of the wrestling matches, which were, after all, the centerpiece of the show. He told his animators, "Imagine the ring is as big as a football field." What he meant by this is, exaggerate the length of the actions. Allow your character to run for ten meters before taking a flying leap and soaring through the air for five seconds before he lands on the other side. The action in Tiger Mask is full of breathtaking, space- and gravity-defying aerial acrobatics that are tremendously fun to watch, even while they gleefully stretch plausibility.

Rather than planning out a wrestler's move in a particular shot in detail prior to sitting down to animate it, he sat right down and came up with the moves on the spur of the moment. You can see very clearly in the opening how this approach to his task shows up in the animation on the screen. Rather than a fluid, predictable motion, we have a series of choppy and jumpy but spontaneous and very expressive poses fluidly flowing in one unprecedentedly long arc for a single shot, incorporating extravagantly long camera moves that reportedly resulted in the background painters having to create some of the longest backgrounds ever painted for a TV show in Japan. He varied the frame rate dynamically, something he learned from Otsuka, going from spare threes to twos or even ones at unexpected moments.

But most of all, those aggressive lines! It seems like he nearly cuts through the paper, he presses down so hard with his pencil to create these incredibly powerful and jagged lines that criss-cross the characters and give them an immediacy beyond any other show of the period. Every little jagged notch is kept alive in the final product thanks to the Xerox method that was used back then. Inbetweeners reportedly had a challenge adapting to his demands. The result of Kimura's long years spent learning how to draw large quantities of inbetweens as good and quickly as possible can be seen in Tiger Mask, which seems to be the culmination of a young animator's long incubation period. Kimura would even extend his action sequences by adding shots not in the storyboard, which halfway into the show wound up leading to disputes with the directors that eventually led to him quitting Toei. He was determined to create the most exciting animation he could. He just had his own brash way of going about it.

Kimura handled episodes in alternation with a handful of other animation directors, and their work is interesting in that it shows a number of different interpretations of the style presented by Kimura. A number of these figures went on to become famous for their work elsewhere, making this show also interesting as a showcase of the early work of a few other greats. These include Oh Production founders Kazuo Komatsubara and Koichi Murata, and soon-to-be Topcraft animators Tsuguyuki Kubo and Yoshinori Kanemori. Another soon-to-be Topcraft animator, Tadakatsu Yoshida, can be seen among the animators on Kubo's episode. Each of these animators went on to develop his own unique graphic touch that seems to have taken in a little something of what Kimura was doing here.

Of the few episodes I've been able to sample, I was particularly taken by Kubo's work here, as I was not familiar with his pre-Topcraft style. Hidekazu Ohara has mentioned that Kubo's painterly drawing skill was one of the things that convinced him to join Topcraft, and that skill was clearly in evidence here. Kubo shows a brilliant eye for drawing faces with distinctly and pleasantly rendered features that sets itself apart from the look of the rest of the animation directors, almost with a more western look to it. You can see one of his drawings above - he did the third drawing, of the guy with the smashed-in face. Kimura's own drawings can be seen in the top two drawings, as well as the opening. Each animation director exhibits a distinct touch of line, which only magnifies the pleasure of watching the show, giving it a variety of styles that huddle together comfortably under the overarching umbrella of Kimura's rough 'n dirty approach.

The show is rather watchable besides, in a sort of comic book-melodramatic way, with its lovably convoluted and heart-tugging story about an unfortunate wrestler blackmailed by a mysterious international school of assassins into wrestling one opponent after another in order to pay off his debts to the school, which taught him everything he knows. All the while, he's forced to wear a tiger mask in the ring to protect his identity so that the orphans at the orphanage - for whom he also happens to be fighting to earn money, having been an orphan there himself in his youth - will not discover his identity. The recurring theme of how powerlessness drives the characters to seek the power to overcome seems very much of its time for Japan, which was presumably well on its way to recovery by 1970. The show has a decidedly 'showa' atmosphere about it that is very warm and inviting, with its reassuringly humanistic tone and themes, which is a huge contrast with the bulk of anime made today. The fights get quite bloody and violent, almost certainly more than any other show by that point, so it is easy to see how the show might have shocked audiences in its day.

The animation directors who worked on the show would go on to do more work for Toei and other studios, retaining something of the rough touch of line of Tiger Mask, in the process establishing a kind of a tradition for this kind of roughly drawn TV animation in Japan. Tiger Mask has been cited as an influence by any number of animators, and latter-day echoes of the style pioneered by Kimura here continue to found heard in various places, ranging from Shinji Hashimoto's work to Kemonozume.

After Tiger Mask ended, Kimura continued doing subcontract work for other studios from his new studio, Neo Media, where he had several other animators working under him. He and Yasuhiro Yamaguchi were the first at the studio, working on Lupin together in 1971, with Yoshiyuki Momose and Masayuki Uchiyama coming in right afterwards and working on Dokonjo Gaeru. In the latter half of the 1970s, two other animators joined the studio who would go on to make a name for themselves in the 1980s and beyond: Yuji Moriyama and Hiroyuki Kitakubo. For a small subcontractor, Keiichiro Kimura's Neo Media put out an impressive number of great animators.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

09:31:18 pm , 1393 words, 2167 views     Categories: Avant-Garde, Movie

The long goodbye

Memory seems like a long goodbye. Someone or something is gone, but they live on in your memory, like a snippet of musty old faded Super 8 film repeating footage of some random moment of everyday life. It's totally mundane and meaningful only to you, but you never quite have the courage to turn it off. Watching Shinji Aoyama's Into the Alley (Roji e) today had the effect of getting me to think about memory and the impact of writing on memory in a more profound way than any film I can recall.

Alexander Sokurov's Dolce..., about Toshio Shimao, is the only other analogue that comes to mind. These two films, both of which date from 2000, are probably the two best films about a writer that I've seen. Or at least, the most personally meaningful, which is probably in large part due to the fact that subjects are two of my absolute favorite Japanese writers, and I have a pretty strong emotional attachment to their work. But more than that, both films are intensely personal and sensitive documents by a great filmmaker about a great novelist. They are 'personal' not just about the writer, but also about the filmmaker, and about the viewers watching the film who come to the film out of affection for the work of the writer in question, familiarity with whose work deepens the experience of watching the film.

Into the Alley is a very simple film. It's basically a peregrination around the southern region of Kishu, which was the setting for the entire body of novelist Kenji Nakagami's oeuvre. We follow a traveler with a simple static shot as he rides around or walks through the streets, stopping occasionally to read memorable passages from his various novels, in an attempt to retrace, physically and spiritually, some three decades on, the footsteps of the characters who populated Nakagami's epic series of novels about the poor inhabitants of the once slum-like alleyways of his birthplace.

I was tremendously moved by my viewing of the film, and undoubtedly much of that has to do with the fact that I knew the stories that were being read. Kenji Nakagami's characters, the tone of his writing, and the dark and mythical atmosphere of the world he depicted in his novels captured my imagination many years ago when I was discovering Japanese literature in the original. His writing was brutal, forceful, intense - almost too much to endure in such quantities at times - but also lyrical and unlike that of any other writer I'd read, and the epic story he weaved out of personal experience, with its almost shamanic channeling of the voice of the ancestors of his birthplace, created a space all its own in my memory. More than merely a novelist, Nakagami was like a historian and a myth-maker all rolled into one. With Nakagami I felt I had found a world-class writer, and not just a good Japanese writer.

Nakagami had declared that he wanted to become the "Japanese Faulkner", and his achievement is comparable. His early novels chronicle the incestuous travails of a fictional family living in the slum-like back-alleys of the Kumano region of the Kii Peninsula. His stories probe the dark underbelly of racism and poverty in Japan with a depth of poetic power unequaled by any other Japanese author I know.

I think at the most basic level, Into the Alley moved me the way it did because it was the first visual expression I'd seen that seemed to truly evoke Kenji Nakagami's novels. I've seen one film version, which was not bad, but something seemed off somehow. Literature can suffer in the transition to the screen because of the loss of the all-important element of the reader's imagination. This film's approach skirts that issue effectively by not trying to fool you into believing a simulacrum, to believe that the actors on the screen are the characters in his stories. It comes across as very honest and heartfelt with its simple approach. You sort of project yourself into the person on the screen, walking around the streets reading Nakagami's words. Eureka was already by far my favorite Japanese film of the last decade, and this heartfelt visual poem only increases my respect for Shinji Aoyama.

Beyond simply being delighted to see a serious film about one of my favorite writers, Kenji Nakagami's Kumano occupied a disproportionately large place in my psyche from my reading of his books, so there was something cathartic about being taken on a tour around the area and hearing his words read aloud there. His books are very specific in terms of setting, and they left me feeling as if I had an intimate knowledge of this particular locale better than any other in Japan. It didn't represent Japan to me, but rather the side of Japan that nobody wants you to hear about, which if anything made it feel even more valuable and meaningful. It felt as if I knew the place, its soil, its atmosphere, without even having been there. Watching the film was like setting foot on soil that seemed vaguely familiar somehow, like from some old memory.

What I think lends the film its strength as a film about a writer is the fact that it is one person's portrait of an author that meant a lot to him. It is not a biographical piece for the History channel. It is not an encyclopedia entry reciting a litany of facts at you. It is a calm, meditative record of a person on a pilgrimage to retrace the steps, and to relive the words, of a great writer, through the landscape he wrote about. Anyone who reads Nakagami's fiction comes away with a strong image of the landscape of Kishu. The significance of the act of creating this film, then, isn't merely that it retraces a famous person's footsteps. The landscape is closely linked to the theme of Nakagami's work. The true protagonist of Nakagami's work was the landscape itself, so the method adopted for this film transports us into the world of Kenji Nakagami's writing in a way that no dramatization of his fiction could. That seems to be what gives the film its power.

The film is interspersed with actual footage of the alleys of Kishu shot by Kenji Nakagami himself many years earlier, when in his last few years he revisited his old haunts in an attempt to locate the places he knew growing up, and to chronicle the vanishing remnants of the old world he knew so well. This is one of the elements that transports the film to its next level. Nakagami chronicled a way of life that was, for good or ill, doomed to disappear. The alleys he wrote about in his novels had, by the late 1980s, begun to be torn down and paved over to make way for shopping malls. As we walk around the area a decade later with the filmmakers, the process of the destruction of the alley or roji has advanced to such an extent that there is a perceptible rift between Nakagami's words and the streets we now see. In a quietly powerful moment, we overlook a coastal town from a nearby hill only to discover that a mountain range that once bisected the town has since been razed flat to make way for a flat sheet of suburbs.

Kenji Nakagami died in 1992 at the age of 46, barely 20 years after he first came to the attention of the literary world with his early short novel The Cape, penned while chucking luggage at Haneda and doing other odd jobs as a day-laborer. The alley was already becoming a memory by the time Kenji Nakagami returned to the site in the late 1980s, many years after having written his books about the alley, to shoot that video footage. By the time I discovered his work a few years later, Kenji Nakagami was a memory. Eight years later, as people continue to say their goodbyes to Nakagami, whose body of work still constitutes one of the most important and powerful of postwar Japanese literature, this film joins the chorus with one of the most compelling tributes I've seen to the man and his work. It's been eight years since then. I think I'll take Karekinada off the shelf for another read.

Friday, February 1, 2008

05:45:06 pm , 369 words, 3648 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde

Color Dream No. 246

Abstract animation has changed a lot since the days of Oskar Fischinger. The biggest change in recent years has been the shift to digital means of production, which seems to have had the effect of not just making it easier to produce, but also expanding the forms of expression. The internet has in turn made it easier and easier to see this work, so that the combined effect is that it feels like there has been a quantum leap in the evolutionary pace of new forms of expression in abstract animation (and other forms of animation for that matter).

The digital means available now are resulting in a lot of truly interesting new approaches to abstract animation. Much of the work that I've sampled on the internet recently straddles a philosophical line between experimental and animation, so that I often find myself wondering whether what I'm watching should be referred to as animation or experimental video. The line is much clearer when it comes to conventional forms of figurative animation, but seems to become fuzzy when dealing with pure abstraction, especially now that, with digital, the question is not as clear-cut as whether the material is hand-drawn or not. All I care about, in the end, is whether the piece provides an engaging audiovisual experience to the viewer, as opposed to functioning purely on a conceptual level.

In that sense, Michael Theodore's 2007 short film entitled Color Dream No. 246 (which can be seen in full in a nice big version on his website) is yet another great example of this recent burgeoning in abstract digital animation. It's as pure a piece of abstract animation as you'll find, consisting entirely of one long shot of undulating, scintillating, shifting washes of color, but for some mysterious reason it remains engaging at all moments, and so to me functions nicely as a piece of animation and not merely as an abstruse concept piece. The constantly changing clouds of color are imaginative and beautifully executed, and seem like something that would have been hard to achieve before digital, when forms would have to be solidly delineated. The film feels like a worthy continuation of the work of early masters of visual music like Fischinger.

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