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, 22

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.