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: April 2008

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

12:42:56 pm , 483 words, 6662 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Naruto movie

Just some notes about the latest in the seemingly now permanent stream of Naruto movies. The fourth film was directed by Hajime Kamegaki, and comes across as more lightweight and slapdash than the dramatically more solid-feeling second film by Tensai Okamura, not that this necessarily matters in the context. The drawings felt a little more uneven, too, with less effort put into smoothing things over than the earlier films. As usual, they clearly put less effort into the drawings in the first half hour, and released all their energy in the final half.

I didn't recognize as many animators this time around, though Shinji Hashimoto was there again, and his shots were as usual easily identified. I wonder how he came to be a regular in the movies. I was surprised to see old Topcraft animator Tsuguyuki Kubo here as an animation director. He remains very active after 40-some years. Ex-Topcraft animator Tadakatsu Yoshida was there too. Masahiro Sato and Hidetsugu Ito from Stranger were here as animators and animation directors. There were definitely spots here and there that had a unique touch to the timing or drawing, but I couldn't really identify much. It felt like rather than big patches by one person there would be these little scattered shots by lots of people. For example, a random lone shot of Rock Lee running out of the smoke towards the camera and hitting three guys was quite nice. The extended action scene that occupied the central part of the film felt like the highlight, although a lot of different people seem to have had a hand in it, and I didn't recognize any of the styles at work. It feels like a lot of the new, young faces from the TV series may have gotten to handle the actions scenes in this film. I also wonder what the significance is of the way they divide the key animation credits into six or seven large chunks.

My main catch from this film was Hiroshi Masuda, who was the FX animation director. The fire effects in the film were throughout wonderfully rendered and immediately announce him as a great new FX specialist alongside Takashi Hashimoto, Hideki Kakita, Shuichi Kaneko and the like. The explosions struck me as having the same style as Hashimoto's explosions in Baron Omatsuri. He also worked as FX animation director on Shin-Ei's latest Doraemon film that was released just a while back, so I look forward to seeing that. It's interesting to see how new approaches to allocating the work of handling the drawings continue to be devised in Japan to improve the overall quality of films. This sort of character/FX allocation of work in the western style didn't exist until a few years back, with the notable exception/anomaly of Sanrio Films' Sirius and Florence, where Mikiharu Akabori was the FX animation director to character AD Shigeru Yamamoto.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

05:57:07 pm , 961 words, 3050 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #2

Okay, so it looks like I'll be blogging Kaiba. Few things I watch these days inspire me with the desire to say anything. It's refreshing to be filled with words for once by the great work being done here.

This episode did just what I was hoping: It maintained the quality of drawing of the first episode and sustained the momentum of the story and the very unique dramatic tone established by the first episode. I have this habit of checking the credits before I watch an episode, after doing which in this case I was pretty optimistic going in that such would be the case. The episode is directed/co-written (w/Yuasa) by the eminently reliable Akitoshi Yokoyama, who handled episode 5 of Kemonozume and episodes 3 and 11 of Denno Coil, each of which are among the most solid episodes of their respective series. He's also an animator, having helped animate Kenji Nakamura's episode 10 of Kemonozume, among other things. He's one of the most reliable figures I know at the moment. Whatever he touches, it works big time. Thanks to him, this episode covered a wide range of interesting happenings while maintaining great forward drive and dramatic tension from scene to scene. On top of that, we have Ryotaro Makihara and Takayuki Hamada as animators again, along with, guess who, Koichi Arai, the litmus test animator I mentioned in the last post. Thanks to these great animators, this episode, like the first, is filled with wonderfully movemented acting by the characters. So far, so great.

The drawing side of things is sustained by a very reliable figure: Akira Honma. I was afraid the quality might dip very quickly once Nobutake Ito left the podium as animation director, considering how unusual these characters are. Ito remains as supervisor here, but Akira Honma does a great job of adapting to these very unique designs. I didn't sense any discrepancy. Although apparently a relatively young face, he's been an invaluable in-house resource throughout all of the most interesting Madhouse shows of the last few years - Kemonozume and Denno Coil - showing the malleability of a great animator craftsman. If we could maintain this same level of quality through to the very end, by continuing to go with the sort of talented craftsmen animators and directors we see here, then I think this series would attain a pretty high level of perfection. I doubt it's possible to avoid some unevenness considering the constraints of TV production, but the team they have assembled so far is very reassuring.

If I'm hoping that the quality of the animation and directing are maintained, it's because I'm getting a very good feeling from the story so far, which works on any number of different levels, and I wouldn't want anything to distract from that. While on the surface the show explores the landscape of a fascinating alien world full of unexpected shapes, colors and relationships, making every moment of the show a delightful process of discovery full of new stimuli for the audience, it simultaneously, subtly gets across a number of poignant messages about the human predicament, and that's what's making me very enthusiastic about it - it's got a real sense of depth. The show has a deceptively soft and cute look to the characters and colors that is betrayed by jarringly adult and powerful moments that keep you off-balance and give the show its unique tone and dramatic strength.

I was an oversensitive and depression-prone kid, and one of the things I remember pondering morosely in my moments of angst-induced existential dread was all the people in the world who had come before me - the thought that I had been preceded by billions upon billions of people, all of whom were now dead, memory of their existence completely eradicated. I doubt it's a thought that crosses most people's minds, out of the need to stay sane, but it's a fact of our existence. The scene where we realize the meaning of the yellow clouds reminded me of all that. It's a powerful moment where many of the developing themes in the series seem to converge. And it does all this without being either heavy-handed or alienating, wordy or pretentious. It's all done seamlessly via the unfolding drama, which is the stuff of great storytelling. Without even having to think about it, the story invokes elemental issues deeply rooted in our existence, quite unobtrusively, which in my mind confirms that Yuasa continues to grow and improve as a storyteller. The one thing that bothered me, for that reason, was that they had to wordily explain the concept before the opening in this episode. I thought that was unnecessary. The storytelling here is doing an amazing job of bringing this situation, these characters alive, gradually letting us in on how it all fits together, without having to explain anything. But it certainly is a very peculiar situation that would throw new viewers for a loop if they just tuned in, so I can sort of understand. The story has been developing brilliantly so far, without revealing too much too quickly and without it feeling like they're annoyingly holding back on you, with lots of really cool and weird characters, each with a clearly defined personality. I hope it maintains this pace.

Last time I noted a palpable Shin-Ei feeling to the first episode via the animators. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but I noticed in this episode that one of the voice actors is Wasabi Mizuta, no less - the voice-actor who recently replaced Nobuyo Oyama as Doraemon. In yet another connection, this new character named Butter is obviously an homage to Bakabon Oyaji from the old A Pro show Tensai Bakabon. I'm loving all of these connections.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

11:51:26 am , 1099 words, 3930 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Stranger

I had a chance to watch Masahiro Ando's Sword of the Stranger. Overall I would say it was pretty much what I was expecting, although I was hoping it would hold up a little better as a film and not just as a great action film, which I already knew it would. The premise of the story, once it was finally revealed near the end, was laughable, if not insulting, and considerably took away from any potential dramatic impact. I thought it was sad that this is the best they could come up with, because Japanese culture owes a good deal to Chinese culture, and I see interesting potential in a film that examines a clash of the two cultures, and how they had diverged by that point in history. It's a shame, because everything technically seemed to be spot on. The directing was tight, the characters were interesting (though I was not taken by the designs), the script was quite good in the little details of dialogue and in the way the story moves from scene to scene, and of course the animation was full of exciting action set pieces that gave several talented Bones regulars the chance to strut their stuff. But we seem to have hit an invisible wall attempting to go anything beyond that.

That said, we come away with several very nice action pieces, so who's complaining. Most are from Bones regulars, with a few exceptions from outsiders. It comes as no surprise that the best bit comes from Yutaka Nakamura, the studio's 'kanban' animator, who consistently manages to one-up his previous work, which is saying a lot. He remains one of the most consistently amazing animators out there, a real animator superstar. Takashi Tomioka is another of the best Bones animators, and I've been following his work for a while now, having seen several great examples of his work over the last few years. His main contribution here would be the fight with the whip guy. He also did a good deal at the end around the point where the stranger finally unsheathes his sword. I love the feeling of richness and weight that I always get from his work, with its slow and powerful movements with lots of follow-through. This film probably provides a denser dose of his work than any previous production, so it's a great intro to his work.

There is, in fact, no single unifying style to even the great Bones animators. What makes Japanese animators unique applies even to animators who work at the same studio. Tomioka is as different as can be from Nakamura in the approach to timing, form and acting. The starkest contrast of all, though, is surely with Hidetsugu Ito and Tomioka. Hidetsugu Ito did the opening fight, which moves quite a lot, but in a very different way, much more jumpy, without a strong feeling of weight, but with lots of drawings thrown in to create this constantly moving, chaotic, spontaneous feeling. The drawings are a lot less calculated and refined. My main discovery in this film was an animator named Masahiro Sato. He's apparently been quite prolific over the last decade since doing some early work alongside Yutaka Nakamura on Sunrise's Lodoss Wars, which was made shortly before Bones was founded by Sunrise expats. Here he does the fight on the bridge and the shots of the fighting between the main Chinese baddie and the main Japanese baddie at the climax. His work is closer to Tomioka than Ito, perhaps, in the way we get more of a clean follow-through to the fighting and a feeling of weight in each little movement that makes the fighting more convincing.

One of my favorite animators, and one who turns up in just about every major new production, no matter the studio (he's almost like a litmus test), is Koichi Arai, who here does a bit of fighting - the bit with the arrows where the younger samurai gets knocked off his horse. Another one of my favorite animators, Shuichi Kaneko, is here handling the fire effects - first the temple at the very beginning, and then the flaming arrows during the climax. Alongside Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita (and Mitsuo Iso and Hisashi Ezura on the digital side), Kaneko is one of the small handful of great FX animators active today. I recall first becoming a fan from his mecha work on an episode of Eureka Seven, as well as his work as mecha AD on the FMA movie. He is a master who can handle everything from mecha to natural phenomena. It's not just that his FX are realistic - there's this unexplainable great feeling there in the timing that sets him apart.

Finally, we see animator Hiroyuki Nishimura doing a nice bit - the fight on the stairwell near the end. I know Nishimura primarily from the great action pieces he drew for the early-to-mid-period Shin-chan films. Nishimura had originally started out as an Ajia-Do animator, but soon went freelance and formed a 'pseudo-studio' called Megaten with Shin-chan director Mitsuru Hongo and Shin-chan animator Yoshihiko Takakura (husband of Hayashi Shizuka). Megaten, like Studio Hercules or Studio Torapezoid, is a studio only in the sense that its members are a bunch of friends who are working together in the same place on their own projects. Nishimura's involvement on the Shin-chan films can presumably be traced to his being part of Megaten. Hongo and Nishimura worked together big-time on last year's Deltora Quest, just before Nishimura left Megaten. Interestingly, Mitsuru Hongo came back to Shin-Ei to direct the latest Shin-chan film that just came out not long ago, and Yuasa was involved as set designer again, so it would be surprising if Nishimura were not involved as an animator. The film represents a reunion of the great staff of the early period, when the Shin-chan films were at their most vibrant, and comes at a time when the movie series seemed to be in terminal decline under a succession of short-lived directors. It strikes me as a great move to get him back, and for once I'm looking forward to the new Shin-chan film.

Very quickly the second ep of Bones' Soul Eater featured work by that animator I'd been wondering about, Kazumi Inadome. I don't know what she did, but there was a nice sense of timing in some of the action, so it would make sense to me if she did that part. The third ep wasn't too exciting on the animation front, but the preview of the next ep looked nice.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

02:40:44 am , 1707 words, 2995 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #1

I've just watched the first episode of Masaaki Yuasa's new series, and I'm still coming off from the blissful high of a new dose of Yuasa's unstoppable, mad genius. I had little doubt that I would be in for something quite unexpected, perfectly warped, strangely beautiful, and very imaginative, and this first episode doesn't disappoint on any of those counts. It renews my faith in animation, and in anime in particular, at a time when I was finding myself growing impatient with the form. I have yet to see the Dreaming Machine short that Yuasa did for Genius Party, which is the intermediate creative step that Yuasa took between between this series and his first one, Kemonozume, so I don't quite know to what extent that short could be read to be leading to this series. All I know is that this series goes in a very different direction from Kemonozume. I can't think of many creators who would have it in them to be able to swing between stylistic extremes both graphic and narrative to the extent that Yuasa has done here, but I think it's a healthy thing to do so, preventing creative stagnation. Ever since Hamaji's Resurrection, Yuasa has shown that he is just as deeply interested in reality as in the depths of imagination, and from Kemonozume to Kaiba we can see the pendulum swinging from the relatively realistic back towards pure imagination.

The first impression that comes to mind is: the bewilderment of the newborn. Staring wide-eyed trying to figure things out in a strange new world. We are thrust into this situation we know nothing about in much the same way as the protagonist. This first episode does a perfect job of throwing you into a world, a visual style, a narrative, an entire concept that feels replete with interesting detail and captures you from the get-go. Like any well-conceived fantasy, every little element seems interconnected, but by a logical underpinning that isn't immediately obvious, getting you to wonder about the meaning of this or that - that strangely placed hole, the amorphous environs, those weird flying contraptions, the odd physics that seem to govern this world. It tosses you directly into the melee without coming across as forced or alienating, something that is quite hard to do, and that many anime try and fail to do, but Yuasa consistently manages to pull off. I think this is something that Yuasa hasn't accomplished, really, prior to now, this sort of total sensory engagement where each of the elements of the screen is divorced of common associations and reset to a meaning that only exists within the context of this universe, because prior to now he would be dealing with a more realistic look or situation that didn't allow his imagination completely free rein, or did so only in spurts. Here we're back to the feeling of something like Noiseman or Slime Adventures or Cat Soup, which I've always considered to be items of particularly high Yuasa proof. Here we are finally seeing a world constructed from the ground up of the imaginings of Yuasa, both in terms of the visuals and in terms of the very unique storytelling that has always lurked buried in those drawings that Yuasa is finally getting the chance to fully explore. The very fabric of the world has this way of drawing and a way with forms and shapes and spaces that I recognize immediately as the ether of his imagination from having viewed many of his concept sketches over the years. I felt like I was swimming in Yuasa's imagination, especially when the CG was used to add this feeling of depth to the strange world we find ourselves in.

I think this is a successful episode because it doesn't just leave you wondering what's going on, the entire visual/narrative element works together to achieve that effect. What is this strange world about? What is going on? What are these funky looking characters? The sheer oddness of it all leaves a delightful aftertaste. The whole look of the show is, as usual with Yuasa, very appealing while being a major change from the look of his previous effort. Gone is the sketchiness, grittiness, the bold use of colors - here the characters are simple, very cleanly drawn, the colors muted, the world a strange alien organic maze. There's something delightful about the simple, elegant oddity of the shards that are presented, and the way they almost but not quite seem to send little electrical impulses to each other, to connect and make sense. Yuasa, who wrote/storyboarded/directed this episode, has again created a perfect leader into a new world the likes of which we have never seen before in animation. I can speak of Yuasa the director, Yuasa the animator, Yuasa the conceptual artist - each of whom are great artists in their own right. I knew the latter two artists, but with every new project Yuasa undertakes I am endlessly surprised and delighted to see how much stronger Yuasa the director becomes, how much of a sense of assurance there is in the way he sets up and juggles the various elements of the fairly sophisticated and mind-bending situations he conceives, doing a flawless job of leading the viewer at each instant in the proper direction, without over- or under-feeding information, but keeping this opaque and mysterious question-mark of fascination perpetually hovering.

One of the things that jumps out is the look of the characters, which are all deftly realized here by character designer/animation director Nobutake Ito. Yes, this is the same guy who came up with the characters of Kemonozume! Now that is range, and that is talent. The characters here are quite fascinating, going in a direction that's very new for anime - vaguely retro, but not the nostalgic wanking of certain deliberately retro-styled films. These are truly original designs that skilfully play on a retro feeling by using the look of those old designs and a springboard for a pared-down approach to forms inspired by the same aesthetic. They honor that aesthetic by bringing it to new places, rather than just riding it to the ground. I caught whiffs of everything from Tezuka to Ishinomori to Fujiko Fujio at various times. The mad variety of the shapes of the various characters is a sheer delight. It's amazing how much of a breath of fresh air these designs are.

Nobutake Ito strikes me as having a very sharp and analytical mind. He has a very calculated and knowing way of manipulating the semantic elements that constitute a drawn character, expertly borrowing this way of a drawing a nose, this way of drawing an eyebrow, and grafting and mutating the various elements in clever new ways to create a huge battery of these disarmingly simple designs. It's a highly refined and studied kind of simplicity. Each little detail of the designs seems to play a key role in the story or in the significance of what is presented on-screen, so that the visuals are all tied together, from the strangely meta-looking characters to the amorphous not-quite-there backgrounds. There is an odd and calculated strategy of mixing this strange sense of nostalgia and simple character designs with something profoundly psychological going on underneath that hasn't yet been revealed. This gives the show a very unique atmosphere poised somewhere between a fever dream and an acid trip.

The music is a low-key, neutral electronic musical wash of sound alternately melodic and atmospheric that is quite effective and feels very unusual for an anime. I'm really quite fond of this music. It's rare that a soundtrack feels like it has a new approach to sound in anime, but I get that feeling here, as if the action we're witnessing unfolds within this big organic being and the sound we're hearing is the ambient sound of its nervous system, heart and other vitals rather than a CD that goes to the next track for each successive scene. It feels like the music was orchestrated based on the visuals, though I doubt that is the case. It's more a testament to the complexity of emotion conveyed by this music. The music is by Kiyoshi Yoshida. It certainly feels like he has been explained the concept of the series by Yuasa, and has successfully translated it into sound, the same way Seiichi Yamamoto did the conceptual phrase communicated to him by Yuasa for Mind Game: "the borderline between life and death". The understated, dreamy ambient melody of the music works quite brilliantly to heighten the effect of the strangely disembodied situation.

On the staff front, we find a number of Shin-Ei animators working on the first episode, such as my favorite new face at Shin-Ei, Ryotaro Makihara, and Doraemon veteran Tetsuro Karai, which makes perfect sense. This series has a very Shin-Ei feeling to it, with its simple designs that hark back to the shows Yuasa worked on in his early years for the studio, so he obviously thought of them for this new show, and there is some very nice movement in this first episode. We even have Yuichiro Sueyoshi helping out on the opening. The ending, meanwhile, is handled by the amazingly versatile Masahiko Kubo (Mind Game car chase, Tekkonkinkreet Yakuza smackdown/Minotaur sequence). Takayuki Hamada from Tekkonkinkreet leads the animators and also handles prop design. I was wondering where Yasunori Miyazawa would turn up this season, but for some reason I wasn't expecting it to be here. He couldn't have landed better, as this is precisely the sort of material that I think would fully exploit Miyazawa's very particular genius. He's credited as having helped with the conceptual design on this episode, which is perfect. Miyazawa is to me is a rare animator who can come up with peculiar forms that are not only visually pleasing and highly original but that come alive in an irresistible, magical way when animated. So I think he's a great match with Yuasa, and I look forward to seeing what else he'll be doing here, to say nothing of who else will turn up. Madhouse's shows are nice because there are always pleasantly unexpected faces turning up.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

12:48:48 pm , 619 words, 1772 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Still watching

Just a few comments on the new season after having seen a few episode 1s. By far the most impressive so far has been Bones' Soul Eater (no relation to Soul Taker), directed by the always reliable Takuya Igarashi. Directing was great and solid throughout, but more than anything, with first Sword of the Stranger and now this show, Bones show they really understand action animation. This episode 1 was packed with more stellar animation than I've seen in an episode in a while, from tip to toe - an amazing one-man opening by Yasuhiro Irie, yet another one-man ending by Norimitsu Suzuki, and between the two, two nice fight sequences, one by Nakamura Yutaka, and one I presume to have been by Norimitsu Suzuki, who dominates the proceedings with this double-whammy of action scene + ending. The sublimely rendered explosion in the ending, in particular, sent the fx nerd in me into nerdgasms. I'll be following the show, if just to see how far they can maintain this quality, but also because it's obvious that they're focusing squarely on something that they are proving to be better at than any other studio at the moment - action. I presume we'll be seeing action from Irie, and I noted a woman animator named Kazumi Inadome credited as the main animator, so perhaps we'll be seeing action from her, or at least a good amount of regular animation. Once again I'm left to wonder about the nature of the "main animator" role that is a staple of Bones' shows. Few other studios use the role, so it's something unique to Bones, and it clearly is a major part of their MO that speaks to how they approach and conceive their shows. I like the way there's a sort of 'guiding spirit' animator for each of their shows. It shows an appreciation of and respect for the role of the animator.

Other than that, I was happy to note three new shows directed by women, which is more than I can recall seeing in any season before. Takamitsu Kondo had the simple characters of the kids' show Pipopa going through some nice kinetic action. Ichiro Itano was back with Blassreiter, a new series about CGI motorcycles/robots that was more watchable than I'd anticipated. Gonzo's Aegis was a wan and late take on D&D parody, but was nonetheless watchable, and had a nice section of craziness by Itsuki Imazaki. I don't like his work that much because he seems nothing more than a Yoshinori Kanada epigone without bringing anything new to the mix, but he's sure enthusiastic about it. And hard to believe as it may be, Shoji Kawamori is back with yet another re-hashing of Macross. And it was watchable, with considerable effort put into the first episode technically. It seems to closely follow the pattern of the original show. Not part of the new season, but the last episode of one of last season's shows, Dragonaut, had a nice bit by Toei animator Tatsuzo Nishita, and this episode (and show) was a strong effort overall from Torapezoid's Manabu Ono. I'd like to see him team up with Susumu Yamaguchi again someday for something. The new xxxHolic series by Tsutomu Mizushima didn't do anything new for me, though here's hoping for Yasunori Miyazawa. Finally, for the last of what I'll bother to mention, JC Staff's Nabari no Ou left a mildly nice impression for the vigor and looseness of drawing of some of the action (Ken Kato?). Felt like young staff giving the action a nice go. Most of the rest of the credits this season are dominated by names I've never heard of, so I feel really at sea.