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, 13

Sunday, April 13, 2008

02:40:44 am , 1707 words, 3003 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.