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: May 2008

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

07:14:25 am , 170 words, 6548 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie

Tadanari Okamoto licensed?

The Tadanari Okamoto films I uploaded to Crunchyroll have been deleted. The good news is that this was done because they have apparently been licensed. If that is indeed the case, and we're going to be seeing an Okamoto R1 DVD in the very near future, then I couldn't be happier. I'm a little skeptical, so I hope it doesn't take too long to hear some kind of announcement related to this.

In other news, several films about which I'd heard rumors quite a long time ago seem to finally be moving ahead: Tadashi Hiramatsu's debut feature Ghost Rhapsody and Hiroyuki Okiura's long-awaited next feature. The Hiramatsu film isn't confirmed yet, though it's probably go from the look of things (thanks Manuloz). But the Okiura film is, because Production IG is soliciting staff for the new film on their web site. It's been a long time coming (it's been more than 3 years since we first heard about Ghost Rhapsody, and 10 since Jin-Roh), but both should be worth looking forward to.

Friday, May 23, 2008

12:30:49 am , 1211 words, 2633 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Tama Pro

An omnibus called Visions of Frank was released last year. It consists of nine animated shorts by nine different Japanese artists inspired by the work of Jim Woodring's comic Frank. Each of the films in the set has a very different style, and I hadn't heard of many of the artists, so it was interesting viewing. The one that stuck with me since I first saw it a few months ago was the one entitled Hi-Rise Hopper, with its vivid full animation, unusual for a Japanese production, and wild amorphous transformations in the Akira blob tradition. Besides being a blast to watch, I felt it did the most justice to the characters and atmosphere of the comic. I was inspired to re-watch it today after reading a great article on Frank (thanks Alan), and got curious to figure out who exactly was behind this piece, as the only credit I could find was "Tamapro/Drop", which meant nothing to me. After a bit of digging, I found the answer, and learned a few other things along the way.

The film was storyboarded and directed by one Saburo Hashimoto with art directing and colors by freelance graphic designer Mizuki Totori, and it dates from 2003. As far as I can gather, Saburo Hashimoto belongs to a small but venerable subcontracting studio called Tama Production, which is where the animation was produced. It made sense to discover that Tama Pro has been involved in a lot of western subcontracting, as that partly accounts for the unusual feeling of the animation. The film represents a curious intersection of Western and Japanese vectors in terms of style, ideas and production, which all converged to brilliant effect here. Studios like this that bridge the Western and the Japanese have always fascinated me. Other examples include Sanrio Films, Telecom, Answer Studio and Topcraft. The results can often be quite interesting when their knowhow acquired through years of working on foreign productions are applied to their own in-house productions, as was the case with Flag more recently.

Tama Production is one of Japan's most venerable animation-only subcontractors, having been around since 1965 and having worked on innumerable shows for all of the major studios. They're still quite active and currently employ 30 people, according to their home page. Tama Pro is more than anything remembered for their close association with Tatsunoko Productions, as they regularly handled the animation for entire episodes of Tatsunoko's shows in wholesale style, and their animators consequently developed a pronounced Tatsunoko influence and understanding of how to render the characters.

The studio was founded by an animator named Eiji Tanaka, who started out at Mushi Pro working on Tetsuwan Atom in 1963. He didn't remain long before leaving to found his own studio, which would go on to work as a subcontractor for not only Tatsunoko but also many other large studios, from Tokyo Movie to Toei Doga to Mushi Pro to Madhouse. Eiji Tanaka himself was quite active as an animator on the front line while also training his studio's animators himself. He had a long career before passing away recently, having been an animator in many shows including Tatsunoko's Speed Racer (1967), Kurenai Sanshiro (1969) (chief animator) and Gatchaman (1972) before moving on to working as an animation director on a slew of shows including, most famously, the first few shows in Tatsunoko's Time Bokan series (1975-). He also managed to do some work as a character designer, having designed Astroganger (1972), Chargeman Ken (1973), Don Chuck (1975) and Little Prince (1978).

The two earliest and most prominent animators to have trained directly under the tutelage of Eiji Tanaka were Takashi Saijo and Jushi Mizumura, who have been involved in almost all of the studio's projects over the years and remain active today. They regularly alternate between working as animation directors and animators. In Tanaka's absence, they are clearly the leading lights at the studio. Other animators who can be seen in the studio's recent work include Akira Watanabe, Hiroaki Kawaguchi, Yoshiaki Matsuda, Naoki Takahashi and Kuniko Yano. Recent episodes they've handled include Black Lagoon #7, Death Note #9 and Otogizoshi #2. I haven't found any credits for the animation of Hi-Rise Hopper, but it seems probable that some combination of these names may have been responsible. I'd particularly like to find out who animated that mind-blowing transformation shot.

Tatsunoko stood out from their peers back in the day for what was known as their "butter stench", as they say in Japan, i.e. their American comic-book stylings. Tama Pro was therefore already steeped in a more or less Western-ish mood when they began taking on subcontracting work for Disney TV and video productions in the 1990s. Whether it's true or not I don't know, but they were apparently known as the only subcontracting studio in Japan up to the task of working in the Disney style, which suggests the unique position they occupied. It's clear that this experience underpins the animation that we can see in Hi-Rise Hopper, which is one of the few entirely Japanese-produced films I've seen whose animation successfully emulates the look and feel of conventional Western 'traditional animation'.

Although I'm not too familiar with the original comic, based on what little I've read about it the virtuosic display of horrific bodily transformation in Hi-Rise Hopper struck me as being exactly what was called for, going back to the cartoon style of animation that is the inspiration for the characters of the comic, where emotions transform directly into stretched bodies, bulging eyes and other extreme deformations. It takes Woodring's whole sophisticated re-interpretation of the classical Western cartoon aesthetic and plugs it right back into an animation mode of expression, completing the loop. The wild card is that it should have come not from some Western studio, but from Japanese animators trained working on Japanese-produced shows that emulated American styled comics using Japanese limited animation knowhow, rather than the sort of traditional full animation tradition that gave birth to the cartoon aesthetic that inspired Frank. Ultimately, they're all connected in the grand scheme of things, and the march of progress continues to this day, with those Japanese animators now emulating Western animation and vice-versa. It's so convoluted a situation that it almost makes perfect sense, like some beautiful ironic comment on the evolution of animation.

Around 2004 a studio called Drop was opened on the third floor of the building in Higashi Kurume that houses Tama Pro, which occupies the first two floors. This new studio was founded by producer Takeshi Hagiwara, who up until that point had been working for Tama Pro. A number of clips from the projects they've undertaken since 2004 can be seen on their home page, including Hi-Rise Hopper. Tama Pro is credited with the animation elements of a number of Drop's other films as well, which seems to suggest that Drop is a production/planning off-shoot of Tama Pro. I that's the case, the naming would make sense - Drop is the English word for Tama. ('drop' as in 'candy drop') Mizuki Totori, who designed the art and colors of Hi-Rise Hopper, more recently singlehandedly created a new short for Drop entitled Drop-kun, which seems to be a sort of mascot character for the studio. Drop-kun was one of the Jury Recommended Works of the 2006 Japan Media Arts Festival.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

05:20:22 pm , 1634 words, 4010 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #4

This series continues to surprise. Although I learned about it prior to watching the episode, the surprise this time around was to learn that Michio Mihara was back in the driver's seat with another solo episode. That's something I really wasn't expecting, even though Mihara did the same thing in episode 12 of Kemonozume. I didn't think Yuasa was going to be going in quite the same direction as his previous show in terms of delegating tasks in such way as to allow for wide variety of visual and directing styles between episodes, but the last two episodes have made me re-think my appraisal of the show's direction and character.

In an age of tight schedules and thinly stretched talent, the open displays of personality, devotion to craft and concentration of effort on display in this episode and in Mihara's previous solo episodes are certainly a refreshing aberration. Mihara is a unique animator who clearly has his own vision of what makes animation interesting. His work has an endearing earnestness about it, with these challenges he seems to pose himself time and again to keep on developing. The look and feel of his work is distinct from any other industry animator out there, with its rough-edged lines, grotesque caricature and weighty movement that brings out the physical tics that make a character unique. I think he sets a good example for other animators in terms of the way he thinks out of the box of typical stratified production roles and typical industry ideas and styles.

I've noticed an endemic ignorance about foreign animation among many animators and fans in Japan from interviews I've read here and there, with many people quite unaware of many foreign classics, but Mihara gives the appearance through his work of remaining open to ideas and approaches to art and animation from spheres far and wide. I find often that it's animators who absorb unusual influences who come up with the most interesting new ideas. Although Mihara hasn't done much other than animating prior to now, he's got a budding personal voice that seems to be struggling to emerge from the surface of his animation, having even gone so far as to produce a couple of quirky shorts on the side.

His recent shorts seem similar in spirit to what he's done in this episode, like two faces of the same coin. There seems to be a clear continuum of development from that early first attempt at a solo episode in Paranoia Agent to his first successful attempt in Kemonozume to those shorts and now to this solo-in-extremis episode of Kaiba. I'm reminded of old Toei animator Sadao Tsukioka, who traveled much the same path some forty years ago, drawing entire episodes of Wolf Boy Ken by himself only to get hooked on it and strike out on his own to create everything himself as an indie animator.

Much of Kemonozume had an indie animation feel to it. Mihara has achieved a similar hybrid/conundrum in terms of the production style here, having essentially made an animated film entirely on his own within a studio-produced series - an industry indie. He's upped the ante from his last solo effort, Kemonozume #12, in which he drew all of the key animation and most of the inbetweens. This time he did everything himself. He wrote, storyboarded, directed and drew all of the key animation and inbetweens - a total of 5170 animation drawings - by himself, over the span of 9 months. Mihara himself has jokingly wondered if it might get him into the Guinness Book of World Records. It's certainly an industry first as far as I know, and brings new meaning to the idea of the solo episode.

The feat itself makes the episode interesting, but you don't need to make concessions based on backstage knowledge to appreciate the episode. The results are solid and the episode stands on its own quite well. Mihara's innate talent for expressing character through facial or body tics is well showcased through this episode's simple characters, who act out their personalities in fun, nuanced movement. Not only does he draw it all himself - it doesn't sit still for a moment, and all of the motion is consistently full of his characteristic swagger and bounce, drawn with what almost seems like instinct in a few spare drawings. He doesn't waste the opportunity by chickening out, but faces it full bore and fills the episode with animation. The drawings themselves have that unmistakable Mihara look, although it's more subtle than his work on Kemonozume, so it doesn't risk wrecking the continuity of the characters. I find that's more important this time around. I don't know what procedure they've adopted in terms of finishing and cleanup, but the texture of Mihara's lines remains visible in the final product as it did in Kemonozume.

Beneath the surface of the drawings, the story continues in the vein of the previous episode, with another simple but moving story that gets across some universal truths about love, loss and memory. We move to a small backwater planet, where the protagonist stumbles across a diminutive grandmother living alone with her two grandsons in the middle of nowhere, and discovers a memory she's been suppressing all these years. I appreciated the episode for its exploration of issues related to growing old, notably the way denial becomes our defense mechanism in the face of the unbearable experience of losing your lifelong partner. It's a universal issue to which most of us will be able to relate to some degree. Episode 9 of Kemonozume was similarly an episode that painted the picture of an elderly couple, each with their burden of the debilities of old age. I appreciate that Yuasa continues to explore such unglamorous issues throughout his work.

The plot mechanism of being able to literally crawl into other peoples' memories makes for novel ways of presenting the material each episode, and Mihara does that well here. I'm pretty sure this is his first time storyboarding/directing an entire episode (he did bits of that ETC episode in Paranoia Agent), but I think he's done a pretty good job for a first effort. There's some interesting presentation during the inner psyche scene where the old lady explores the memories of her past. Yuasa himself started out working exclusively as an animator for a few years before Mitsuru Hongo suggested he give storyboarding a try. That escalated to writing and designing, and the rest is history. You've got to start somewhere. I wonder if this means we'll be seeing more storyboarding from Mihara in the days to come.

Viewing this episode in terms of the numbers - one man, 9 months, 5170 drawings - helped remind me of the vast amount of labor that is represented by each minute of animation that we consume and discard so casually. It renews my respect for anybody who, working in as challenging and financially unrewarding a line of work as animation, is willing to not just churn out the work but to go the extra mile of pushing the limits of their skills to pursue new animated possibilities they have yet to explore. That inevitably translates into long hours of tedious labor to which we on the other side remain oblivious. Maybe I'm overdoing it, but there's no getting around the fact that, in animation, we don't see the sweat and tears that had to go into the final product to stir our emotions, which is why I find it important to recognize the people behind the work. The people who have that special devotion like Mihara are the ones who create the special work.

Overall, Kaiba is turning out differently than I had imagined. After viewing the first two episodes, I was given to the impression that they were going to be sticking to a core team of craftsmen staff for the rest of the show rather than going the way of Kemonozume with a different small team handling each episode much the way they wanted. I thought they were going to be trying to maintain something of the same tone and quality of the first two episodes. But in fact, the production style seems to be veering closer to the Kemonozume model, as several upcoming episodes similarly seem to be one-person affairs in some form or another.

Episodes 3 and 4 were excellently made in their own way, but at the same time they seem quite different from the first two episodes. I liked the way in the first two episodes the various threads and main movers of the story were effortlessly juggled into the fabric of the narrative, hinting at things to come (you'll notice things already if you rewatch episode one now), while simultaneously providing many new and interesting visual and conceptual ideas around every corner, and fleshing out the workings of the world in which Kaiba found himself. The series was kicked into high gear by communicating many things on many levels right from the start. Yuasa is a great director because he has the rare ability to do this. I was surprised to see those threads abruptly dropped afterwards, with this exclusive focus on guest characters. The atmosphere of the show felt somewhat changed, with the rather different directing styles of the directors helming eps 3 & 4, which I found unfortunate, as it threw a wrench into that great forward momentum. Still, each episode continues to be filled with a tremendous amount of interesting stuff going on at every level, from directing to story to animation, so I think it's silly to complain. My initial expectations based on the first two episodes were probably a little too rigid. As I've said before, expectations are there to be betrayed. I'm looking forward to seeing where the story continues to go from here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

09:54:29 pm , 922 words, 3339 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #3

This episode surprised me a little bit at first, but won me over in the end. This is an exceptionally well crafted episode that stands up to repeated viewing thanks to the tight directing of exactly the person I spoke of in my previous post - Akitoshi Yokoyama, who is this time credited as co-writer (w/Yuasa), storyboarder and director of the episode. Character designer Nobutake Ito returns as the animation director. Hence, we have another tag-team from that duo who have created a string of the best episodes in recent memory, including Champloo 21 to Denno Coil 3.

This episode is clearly Yokoyama's baby, and watching the episode you can sense the amount of work he must have put into getting the balance of each shot and scene just right to achieve the overall dramatic effect he was striving for. A tremendous amount of information is covered and conveyed in the episode without any surfeit of dialogue, and without the episode feeling overburdened. It seemed to me that Yokoyama was here doing something similar to what Yuasa had done in Mind Game in the frequent flashbacks that litter the film and fill out the background stories of each of the characters. Yokoyama has clearly thought up an extensive background story for the characters of this episode, and he conveys that story elliptically through a series of flashbacks that nevertheless leave room for the imagination, requiring you to do a little work to figure out how things fit together. I watched the episode twice, and I found the episode more moving on the second viewing, when I felt like I was beginning to understand the characters. I remember experiencing something similar with Mind Game, as with repeated viewings the stories of the characters begin to gel in your mind.

On my first viewing I felt that the episode was a little too sharply episodic, and lacked something of the sense of the wonder of the first episode. At the same time, with this episode I finally felt like I understood the basic structure of the series: a shishkabob. Each episode a piece of meat further along the stick, a new body for the protagonist, a new background story further illuminating the nature of the curious world of Kaiba. I felt that the second episode rounded that episodic nature in a way that seemed more successful in the big picture by keeping the forward momentum strong, and by deliberately keeping the focus a little hazy, keeping you off-balance as to where the gravitational center of things stood.

That said, the quality of the episode is unimpeachable and Yokoyama makes it work. This episode sensitively explores the deeply human themes that underpin this series - the nature of the self, of what it is that makes us us - our bodies, or our memories? And it does so through a very simple, accessible mini-drama about a poor family. If I find myself so attracted to Yuasa's work, it's not just because of his incredible talent as an imaginative animator, designer and director - it's that whatever he is doing, and however different it might look from what came before, you know that he is exploring serious issues that matter to all of us humans. And he does it in a way that always resonates deeply with me, making me think about life and not take it for granted. Yuasa never puts his heart on his sleeve, and that's why I respect him. It's also precisely what makes his work is so convincing.

The subtlety with which Yokoyama interweaves the layers of meaning throughout the episode is quite impressive, as many a fleeting shot offers much more meaning than might be immediately apparent. The last shot, for example, is quite a cinematic stroke, using the vehicle of the series - the modularity of memory within the empty receptacle of the body - to create a painfully ironic visual double-meaning, with what looks like the girl, who is in fact Kaiba, seeming to cry for the tragic fate of her mother, when it's actually Kaiba crying for both. The various characters each cry at a moment in the episode, and each time it carries a subtly different but important weight of meaning. Innocuous moments in this series pack an immense wallop when the implied banality of their cruelty is considered - the ease with which a person's existence is released into the ether and forever lost. And then there's the bitingly ironic visual simile of the girl's bubbles, symbols of innocence. This is intelligent, densely layered work.

On the animator front, we saw a few interesting faces involved - first and foremost Soichiro Matsuda, one of my favorite new faces in recent years, a great new animator to whom Yuasa has come back often after seeing the work he did on the barroom battle in Kemonozume ep 1. He did a lot of good work on Kenji Nakamura's Mononoke. Also present were young Gainax rising star Akira Amemiya and good old Takaaki Wada, whom I haven't seen in a while. (he's been active - I just haven't been watching the right things) The backgrounds throughout the series have been really fantastic, a number of which I would even want to put a frame around and put on my wall they're so gorgeous. (failing that, one is now my desktop) I didn't think it would be possible to achieve the look of the backgrounds of Cat Soup in a larger-scale format such as this, but they've done a remarkable job.