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: June 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

04:27:04 pm , 1263 words, 4612 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #7

This episode marks a return of the tone and quality of the first three episodes, and what a welcome return it is. The intervening episodes have been fascinating vivid individualistic excursions into the wild worlds of Kaiba, but I have to confess to being delighted to be back in the ether of that earlier tone, with that touch of line and style of directing that got me hooked at the beginning. I don't think it will be a straight line in this style from here on out judging from what I've seen before, but I have to confess to being partial to what the team here has done with the material. Quite simply, this was a stunning episode that did everything I had wanted from the series - showing off fascinating design ideas in the characters and world through vivid, rich, colorful animation that danced around the screen, combined with brilliant directing tying together the various threads of the narrative into a tightly wound whole.

The team to thank is the venerable duo responsible for episode 3 - storyboarder, director and co-writer (w/Yuasa) Akitoshi Yokoyama and animation director Nobutake Ito. I'd been girding my loins for this episode, and it did not disappoint. Building up slowly, the second half of this episode gradually ratchets up the tension until exploding in one of the most hair-raising, moving, deftly constructed climaxes of the series. I am deeply impressed with how Yokoyama seems to add to his directing powers with each new episode I've seen from him over the last few years. Watching Yokoyama grow with each episode of Kaiba reminds me of watching Tweeny Witches eagerly looking forward to Yasuhiro Aoki's next episode to see how he would continue to extend his directing powers. I hope Yokoyama continues to build on what he's achieved as a director so far, as I think he shows tremendous potential. I know of few people working in anime today with a directing sensibility as finely tuned as his.

Yokoyama again interweaves flashbacks into the narrative, in the process revealing a lot about the relationships between the various characters. He hints at other elements of the back story, deftly treading the fine line between giving too much and too little away. I thought was the first time the various narrative threads had been effectively woven into the fabric of the narrative since episode 2. The presentation of the various flashbacks in the second half made for visuals of tremendous richness and variety, showing Yokoyama again putting a great deal of thought into how to present the material so as to make every moment full of surprises and thereby maintain strong forward momentum and visual interest. Not a shot passes that doesn't show the care of the director either in the form of interesting visuals or great animation. Testifying to his attention to detail, I notice a new significant hidden element almost every time I rewatch this episode.

The drawings of this episode were very strong thanks to the work of the animation director. The designs had the aloof, clean simplicity of the early episodes that Ito is so good at, and the world of this episode was particularly well rendered. It really felt like the characters inhabited this unusual world, rather than the characters simply having been placed over a drawing of an unusual planet. Care was given to creating a feeling of depth, which was clearly important for an underwater world, as the characters literally have to swim through their environment, rather than walk on a flat plane. This came through particularly well in the action sequence preceding the climax, which was easily the most riveting action sequence since the chase at the beginning of the first episode.

I'd venture to say this was the most powerful action sequence in the series because of the brilliant way the action was tied into the tragic progression of the story. Exciting animation + moving story = brilliant animated filmmaking. Even with the sound off watching this climax is quite something, with the rich animation of the ships flying around the screen, and the way what is happening is clearly communicated through the drawings. Beyond being great animated filmmaking, it's great visual storytelling. Through this series Yokoyama has revealed his gift for creating highly moving drama. I'm rarely moved by anime that is supposed to be moving, and find the majority of tear-jerker anime simply manipulative. Yokoyama's work is the rare exception that is powerfully moving, as intended. Yokoyama elegantly brings a sense of closure to the arc of the girl who was introduced in episode 3, which he handled, by capping her final moments with a reference to the pink rubber boots that played a big role in her previous life. His love comes through particularly clearly in the gorgeous visuals that cap the climax, which he obviously put a tremendous amount of work into in terms of the colors and processing. The climax of this episode is unmistakably one of the most striking scenes in the series, or of any anime I've seen in recent years for that matter.

This episode by this core duo was backed up by a bevy of good animators, headlined by Ryotaro Makihara, who is turning out to be one of the pillars of Kaiba's animation. I'm almost tempted to call him Kaiba's main animator due to the frequency of his appearances and the amount of work he has obviously put into his animation. I couldn't be happier to see him doing so much great work under Yuasa. I wonder if he wasn't responsible for a big part of the chase at the end, and by inference also the action scene at the beginning of episode 1. I'm not really sure, though. Other animators of note in this episode include Ikuo Kuwana, of SFA Generations fame, Akira Honma and Akira Amemiya. Chuji Nakajima is apparently known for his action scenes, although I don't know his work at all so I can't speculate what he might have done.

Even apart from the action scenes, this episode's drawings were a delight from start to finish. For some reason I got a vibe of Osamu Tanabe from a number of scenes, especially the scene at the airport. The funny drawings of the bystanders reminded me of his Doredore no Uta. The feeling of the ship as it jumped out of the water at the climax was particularly nice, with great momentum making it exciting to watch and being very organic, like a flying fish jumping out of the water flapping its body around. It almost seemed like an homage to the flying fish in the great scene animated by Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island. The editing of the director and the combination of the animation with the CGI also went a long way to providing this scene with real immediacy.

There was some interesting acting where Vanilla goes all heart-eyed, reminding of a similar scene in episode 3, which are the only two places I can recall Vanilla doing that kind of very distinctive exaggerated cartoon acting. Perhaps they were done by the same person, as there is a lot of overlap between this episode and episode 3 - namely Akira Amemiya, Nagisa Nagashima, Shoko Nishigaki, Aiko Wakatsuki, Natsuko Shimizu and Miki Wasada. The latter four have actually been involved throughout the series, I just noticed. Natsuko Shimizu in particular has been in every single episode except for Mihara's episode 4. Ditto for Miki Wasada, minus one episode. These four women must be among the core key animators at Madhouse supporting the animation of Kaiba.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

10:23:37 pm , 1200 words, 2081 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #6

I don't think I'd be able to come up with something to say about each and every episode of a TV series if it didn't feature the unflagging richness and relentless stylistic unpredictability of Masaaki Yuasa's TV shows. Each episode is filled with an abundance of things that make it stand out as a unique creation, rather than just one in a line of identically manufactured products. In that sense it almost reminds me of Group Tac's long-running Tales of Old Japan omnibus of Japanese folktales, where every episode was done in a different and very imaginative style by a different team, with many of the episodes by single individuals. There are more differences than similarities, obviously, notably in terms of the amount of work packed into those solo episodes in the case of Yuasa's shows, but they share something of the same dedication to filling the screen with ideas that are interesting as animation. There's not a moment where we fall back on the crutches of convention. It's almost exhausting to see work that remains so defiantly fresh at every moment.

I watched this episode a while back, but just re-watched it, and I liked it a lot more this time around. I felt that it was a bit jumbled the first time around, with a bit of shakiness in the dramatic line, but this time around I didn't feel bothered by that at all, and felt quite moved by the episode for some reason. The episode wasn't necessarily setting out to be a tearjerker or anything. I suppose it's just that, as before, it manages to evoke these profound veins of resonance in the viewer in the course of the narrative.

This episode is somewhat of a mirror to episode 9 of Kemonozume in the sense that it's another episode about an aged couple traveling around in their twilight years. There were a number of elements that moved me about it. First and foremost is the turn of events that takes this seemingly content and satisfied elderly couple enjoying their last few years together, and shatters their illusion of happiness into a million pieces. Kaiba is nothing if not brutal and brutally honest about the human condition and the frailty and flaws of memory. It's a devastating moment that speaks volumes about the unknowable depths of the mind and the thoughts and memories we keep hidden from ourselves and our loved ones to maintain a semblance of happiness. Most devastating was to see the old man continue on his way with his brain-dead wife because her body was still "alive and well".

This series at heart is all about the question of what defines us as human beings - our memories, our bodies? Both? Neither?? To some extent it is our memories, but who we are is without any doubt molded by our bodies. There's a sublime sense of identity confusion created by having the protagonist, who is male but currently occupies a female body, in this episode encounter his onetime lover, a female who currently occupies a male body. Their actions (and hence feelings and thoughts) are driven by the lusts of their bodies. It's a situation that's simple but also ingenious and thought-provoking. It takes a while to wrap your head around the mix of genders and identities, but the confused feelings of the protagonists in the odd circumstances are convincingly portrayed. The amusement park where you can peer into the disembodied memories of the deceased was one of the more chilling and biting moments of the episode. One shot near the end showed a wall of round picture frames on the wall of the old couple's ship, shaped like the memory blobs. It seemed a deft ironic comment on how the old woman came to the planet to peer into other people's memories, but instead wound up losing her own. So as usual, there is a lot to be discovered in each shot of the episode. It's densely packed, meaningful storytelling.

In terms of the staff, one of the main figures behind this episode is another emigree animator, like last episode's Choi Eunyoung, who has been making a name for himself in the last few years in an industry otherwise dominated by natives - Jamie Vickers. Jamie was co-storyboarder and animation director. Tomoya Takahashi was co-storyboarder, director and co-writer (with Yuasa). If the episode felt a little mixed up, perhaps it's because there were so many hands at work. Jamie's drawing style is not as unmistakable as Choi's, but there is definitely a unique sense of timing and drawing at work here that sets this episode apart, particularly so the scenes involving Vanilla. I wonder if he might not have been handled by Jamie. Vanilla is a useful character for getting a sense of each animation director's style. Stylistic differences from one episode to the next seem to show up most clearly in him for some reason. So one of the significant aspects of this series is that it represents one of the most visible recent instances of foreigners taking a lead role as creators within a totally Japanese production. Studio 4C, of course, led the way with Tekkon Kinkreet, and I noticed that Jamie provided animation in the opening segment of Genius Party by Atsuko Fukushima, so it's interesting to see the two most creatively fecund studios in Japan sharing many of the same talented faces, both foreign and local.

This episode featured a number of veteran animators, most notably Takuo Noda, who will be 70 next year and has a huge list of work to his credit dating back to 1967 when he first started out at Toei Doga. Among his more well known jobs was animation director of Genma Taisen. He continues working hard as a regular Madhouse animator, having recently animated the nice scene in Mamoru Hosoda's Tokikake where Makoto talks to the old woman. We also find Nobumasa Arakawa, another veteran who has been active for decades and continues to work on the front line. He was one of the main animators behind Future Boy Conan, and if I recall correctly, he animated one of my favorite bits in Tokikake, where Makoto leaps from the riverbank. In addition, we again find litmus animator Koichi Arai and Takayuki Hamada, both in the top spots. There was some very nice movement around where the old lady's memory is sucked out, so I'd suspect one of these guys, possibly Arai.

The designs of this episode really stood out with their extreme shapes sticking out every which way, and I assume them to have been created by Nobutake Ito. Every episode provides crazy new designs for not just the characters but also the features of the planet. The soft organic shapes of the buildings make for rich background images that are always a pleasure to gaze at. I have to re-emphasize the backgrounds, as the backgrounds of this series are such a pleasure to look at and really help define the show's unique visual atmosphere. I also like the way smoke and clouds are animated throughout the series, using these elegant round globular forms. I can remember seeing similarly shaped effects as far back as Cat Soup.

Friday, June 13, 2008

04:17:42 pm , 577 words, 2740 views     Categories: Animation

Keiji Hayakawa

I've been working my way through Spaceship Sagittarius over the last few weeks, and recently I ran across an episode that stood out as being very different in quality, episode 18. I thought maybe it was my imagination, but it was really quite different, with an almost Miyazaki style to the pacing and framing. I wondered briefly if maybe Miyazaki might not have done it under a pen name, but quickly ruled that out. Looking into the credits revealed it was storyboarded by Keiji Hayakawa. The rest of the episodes were storyboarded in a not particularly remarkable fashion by folks like Kazuyoshi Yokota and Takayoshi Suzuki, who were both heavily involved in Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater shows. Another episode storyboarded by Hayakawa, 21, proved to be equally distinguished, confirming it was Hayakawa's work that stood out. (he also handled 10, 15, 31, 33, 34, 47, 58)

I remembered seeing Hayakawa before in a Miyazaki work, but I couldn't remember which, maybe Sherlock Hound. Looking into it, I found out that he was indeed one of the main people behind Hound, but only the portion done by Studio Gallop after Miyazaki left. He was actually involved in Conan as co-storyboarder/co-director of almost every episode, which is unusual since Miyazaki usually does the storyboard himself. Under the difficult circumstances of directing an entire TV show for the first time, Hayakawa is the guy Miyazaki turned to to help him complete each episode. That is clearly a major part of where his Miyazaki-influenced storyboarding style came from. Up until Conan Hayakawa had mostly only worked as an assistant director. He had started out at Toei as an assistant director on Himitsu no Akko-chan in 1969 and trained there in that capacity for the next few years on shows like Sarutobi no Ecchan and Gegege no Kitaro before leaving to do the same on Samurai Giants (1973), Heidi (1974) and Sinbad's Adventures (1975). This was a guy who had started out with a clear goal - directing. He storyboarded ep 36 of Heidi, which is certainly one of his earliest if not his first storyboards. So he had a solid foundation in the Toei school of directing even before coming to Conan.

What happened to him after that? I couldn't remember ever seeing his name afterwards, even though he seemed to have a pretty good directing sense. Looking into it, he was quite active, and still is. He debuted as a series director with Attack to Tomorrow in 1977, and went on to direct Jolie for Visual 80 in 1981 before moving to Studio Gallop with a bunch of ex-Telecom animators like Toshio Yamauchi and Tsukasa Tannai in 1983, where he directed a number of shows including Chikkun Takkun (1984), Spoon Obasan (1988) and the longest-running non-ShinEi Fujiko Fujio anime, Kiteretsu Daihyakka (1988). He was also director of an old OVA I liked a lot back in the day - Prefectural Earth Defense Force (1986). Nowadays it looks like he focuses on storyboarding & directing episodes, having done episodes for Digimon Adventure (1999 / 10, 15, 20, 27), Hajime no Ippo (2001 / 35), Kyo Kara Majo (2004 / 15, 22, 27, 33, 38) and Kiba (2006 / 19, 28, 35, 42).

This is a classic case of a storyboard 'stand-out' of the kind I've talked about in the past. It shows how the storyboard is the critical element of directing. Each of Hayakawa's episodes was directed by someone else, but the blueprint is there. It all starts with the storyboard, and the film is basically all in the storyboard. The surface details of the final product will vary dramatically depending on what happens afterwards, but you can always see the storyboarder underneath.

Monday, June 2, 2008

10:38:27 pm , 945 words, 2475 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #5

I'm falling way behind on Kaiba, so without further ado, I've now seen the fifth episode twice, and what a great episode it was. This episode is packed to the brim with punch and verve. For all its roughshod stylings, the episode is so vibrant and full of life that it makes you forget how different it looks from what came before. That's what Kemonozume was so great for - for shifting between all these different styles, but doing such a good job of it that it felt altogether natural. I started out expecting a different tack, a more evenly styled one, but with this episode I'm finally starting to get into the rhythm of the series, and to accept that it works quite well.

This was obviously the freest and most spontaneous feeling episode of the bunch in terms of the drawings - which isn't hard, because what came before was quite different, with a far more unified and clean look to the drawings. But I found the drawings and animation a sheer delight, and the episode won me over within seconds and maintained that tension through to the very end. I actually thought this episode felt closest in spirit to Yuasa's sensibility in terms of throwing off reams of interesting, colorful ideas in a torrent of off-the-cuff drawings.

The person to thank is Choi Eunyoung, the emigree animator who handled episode 6 of Kemonozume. In that episode of Kemonozume I felt Choi had done a great job of 'getting' what Yuasa was trying to do with that show, the direction he was trying to go with the drawings, with all those extraneous lines, and had done a better job than any of the other animation directors bringing that unique approach to life. Well, I think this time she's done an even better job. The drawings here are quite different from the previous episodes, but at the same time they strike me as being closer to Yuasa's spirit than any of the previous episodes, which made this feel like the most authentically 'Yuasa' episode yet.

Choi strikes me as the person who best brings alive the look and feel of Yuasa's conceptual drawings, which is something that you don't see very often, as in recent years the drawing side of things has been handled by other people. Choi's unique drawing style comes through very clearly in the early part of the episode, where she revels in creating the many oddly shaped characters who populate the city, and yet it feels like a perfect match with Yuasa's drawings. She has the talent to be able to create a balance that brings out the best of the underlying material, through her voice as it were.

Choi was, as per habit, co-writer (with Yuasa), storyboarder, director and animation director of the episode, and she handled a good chunk of the animation herself as well. This episode was in every sense her baby, although she didn't do everything herself. (there were five other animators) And what a beautiful baby. Every element of the episode was terrifically fun and convincingly handled. The directing was satisfying at every moment, briskly conveying this interesting side-story with its whacked out characters. The timing and angles of the shots were consistently excellent, far better than I would have expected, deftly balancing fun & free drawings with the typical seriousness of the story and underlying message.

The colors were very striking and had great impact in the early parts of the episode in particular, where snapshots of the city's strange scribbly denizens flash before our eyes in image after strikingly colored image, immediately establishing a unique atmosphere for this episode and its planet. I'm guessing this section was all drawn by Choi. The music was a perfect match, too, creating a sort of carnivaleque atmosphere that well suited the sinister and cynical mood of a planet where the value of life has been completely debased, and people discard their bodies at the drop of a hat when they become yesteryear's fashion. Overall, I can't say enough good about this episode.

A big part of the fun and unique atmosphere of this episode came from the madcap show put on by Shigeru Nagashima (a.k.a. "Cho"), who did an amazing job of bringing alive the character of Patch. Kenji Naikai similarly did a brilliant job bringing alive the insane antics of Ohba in episode 10 of Kemonozume. Yuasa is good at casting these great voice actors in these fun roles where they can go crazy and let loose, applying all their years of experience to the task, engaging in all these entertaining vocal acrobatics and improvisations. For some reason I couldn't get Kenichi Endo out of my head while watching this episode, thinking how great he would be if let loose on this kind of voice-acting role.

There were only a few animators other than Choi, but they included Ryotaro Makihara and Koichi Arai, two of my very favorite animators, who are turning up quite frequently. I'm not sure what Arai may have done, but that great close-up shot where Patch goes on a mad, saliva-spitting rant directly into the camera strikes me as looking like Makihara's work. Makihara exhibited a similarly overt Ohira influence in the chase scene he did for the Coo film, although that influence wasn't as obvious in his work on Doraemon. Here it's like he revels in the opportunity to finally be able to draw how he wants, creating this fantastically dense and thrilling shot. That other Madhouse emigree, Jamie Vickers, was also there, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he did in his own episode, which comes up next.