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.
July 2008
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Archives for: July 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

07:38:27 pm , 1146 words, 3704 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Movie, TV

Osamu's new show

I've been too busy to write about the new batch of shows that came out a few weeks back until now, but there were a number of nice surprises among the bunch. First and foremost was the new series by Osamu Kobayashi, a show with the windy title Mahoutsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto: Natsu no Sora. Not knowing he was involved, I didn't expect anything, but I sensed something different as soon as the show started, with that unmistakable slow pace and odd combination of blocky characters in close-up layouts over photorealistic backgrounds. Actually, in this case they are literally photos, and that is a big part of what gives the show its character, and what made me so happy with the project. Kobayashi, as ever, is deeply involved, scripting each episode (probably), and his directing takes on a new, cooler, more earnestly emotional and less goofy style that really works well with the material. But the unique combination of great designs by Yusuke Yoshigake and photos presumably taken by Kobayashi himself make for quite an impact.

In looking back over 1001 Nights recently I was reminded that the Eiichi crew were among the first in the modern 'anime' era to combine such a variety of media in a commercial production. Yuasa updated that tradition with his unique incorporation of live-action and background photos in Mind Game and then Kemonozume, and Osamu Kobayashi is also creating his own unique mixed-media hybrid in his work. I think he'd already done something incipient in this direction in his previous show, Paradise Kiss, particularly that fantastic opening sequence in the first ep, where Osamu's loopy imaginary ghosts and goblins were pasted over shots of the nooks and crannies of Tokyo, but here what he's done is full-bore and quite striking at first sight. And quite effective. To me it's important that the visual element in animation, be it the character designs or the styling of the backgrounds or whatever, provide something that really captures you in some way with some new and interesting ideas, rather than just following a pattern, and the visual scheme in this series satisfyingly (to me) creates a visual atmosphere that immediately announces this series as unique, without even needing to get to know the characters or story.

The animation itself is also in a style that's unique to Kobayashi's projects, with very spare animation that's somehow still realistic in its timing and acting, like it was in Beck because he deliberately and studiously avoided using cliched anime expressive symbols to allow the characters to express themselves in a more realistic fashion, all without relying for this on realistic or particularly nuanced designs. I hope this series will be shorter so that Kobayashi can maintain a tight rein over the direction, as Beck lost me in the middle parts when things got watered down, but the first three episodes of Mahoutsukai have all been pretty tight. The animation aspect has been really satisfying. Young animator Kenichi Kutsuna, one of the most famous of the new generation of gif-animators-turned-pros that includes brethren Ryochimo and Shingo Yamashita (working over on Birdy) here is credited as "special animator". Kutsuna is not as flamboyant as the others, so I'm not too sure of his style, but this series promises be to be a good way of getting to know how far he's progressed since Satoru Utsunomiya hand-picked him back in the heady days of Noein. There was some nuanced low-key stuff going down at the beginning of the second episode, so maybe that's what he's doing these days.

Character designer Yoshigaki Yusuke himself and Osamu's close associate Motonobu Hori are also there in each episode. The opening was a delight with the way every shot has a totally different look to the drawings. Every animator is an animator with personality, and a very different personality at that. Obviously there was no correction. It looks like a fun opening to try to figure out shot by shot. If you want to give it a shot, the animators were, in this order (presumably by number of shots): Yusuke Yoshigaki, Osamu Kobayashi, Yasuomi Umetsu, Tokuyuki Matsutake, Motonobu Hori, and Kenichi Kutsuna. The ending was a surprise because it was animated by Osamu Kobayashi and none other than old Madhouse veteran animator Manabu Ohashi, that great animator of the Cloud section of Robot Carnival, the opening of Treasure Island, and countless other gems. He's an animator about whom I've wanted to write more for a long time, though there's so much to say I never got around to it. Overall, excellent stuff, Osamu! Keep it coming.

Of course, the photo up top isn't from Osamu's new show. It's from the latest One Piece movie, which was by far the most impressive to me in terms of the animation after Hosoda's Baron movie. My first viewing of the climactic battle quickened my pulse in a way I wasn't expecting of a One Piece movie. I was delighted that Hisashi Mori was there with a long sequence that is by far the easiest to identify in the film, but the other sequences had possibly even a greater impact on me. Particularly so Zoro's sword fight on the ships in the first quarter of the film. The only names other than Mori that I could figure were probably responsible for the action were Takaaki Yamashita and his protege Tatsuzo Nishita. My first guess was that Mori might have done it due to the magnificent FX, but Mori's scene later on is quite different, and I believe Nishita has drawn beautiful FX in his work on a number of occasions, such as Gaiking ep 21, and has this kind of very fluid (as opposed to Mori's much more limited style) animation like that seen here, if you look at his scene in Kemonozume ep 8 where the people are lobbing molotov cocktails at the buster suits. So I'm guessing Nishita may have done the boat scene and Yamashita maybe did the sequence immediately preceding Mori's where Sanji tries to shake off the afro hairball from his leg, as the latter was the only scene in the film where characters moved in a way that seemed remotely affected by gravity and balance, and Yamashita is great at bringing a bit of acting alive like this. Of course, that's only a guess. After a bit of searching I discovered that Hiroki Tanaka, that animator who's been drawing hyper crazy impossible-to-follow action in Toei's PreCure, was probably responsible for the very fast action in the climax that I was really wondering about. That had quite an impact. Another animator with whose work I'm not at all familiar, Yuuki Hayashi, may have done other nice bits of the action. Today's Toei is very different from the Toei of yesteryear, but it continues to foster very good animators who create animation that moves something wicked.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

12:41:33 am , 878 words, 6048 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Sachiko Kamimura

If I were in Japan, I know where I'd be on July 28: Yokohama. Koji Yamamura is going to be holding a chat with Isao Takahata titled "The Expressive Possibilities of Animation" on that day at the Yokohama EIZONE 2008 event. Sounds exceedingly titillating. Too bad I'll be in Quebec instead.

The satellite station Animax has held a yearly script contest for the last few years. The winning script gets to be produced by a professional animation studio. This year's script for a short film called Takane's Bike was produced by the up-and-coming studio A-1 Pictures, whose Birdy the Mighty just started airing. I was a little dismissive as I started watching Takane's Bike, but after a while I started feeling that at least the story was honest in its simplicity. It's a good old-fashioned, naive, earnest children's film of a kind that doesn't seem to get made often anymore.

More importantly, I could have sworn I'd seen the designs somewhere before. I finally figured out what they reminded me of - the old TV show Mama is a 4th Grader. I wasn't aware of her name, but both were designed by Sachiko Kamimura. Looking into it, I realized that she had also designed one of my favorite anime films from back in the day when I was first starting to watch anime around 1992 - Arslan Senki. That's where I remember these drawings from. It was like seeing an old friend again. She has a distinct and immediately identifiable style that I find very nice to look at, but for some reason she hasn't done much designing other than these two shows, which is why I'd sort of forgotten about her over the years since those shows. Kamimura seems to have started out as a disciple of Yoshikazu Yasuhiko in the 80s. Even in this latest film, a certain twinge of Yasuhiko influence rears its head in her drawings every once in a while. Apart from these two stints designing, she has mostly worked as an animator, animation director and illustrator. Notably, she animated the ending of the re-make of Jungle Taitei in her own identifiable cute but rich style. She was also an animator in many of the Doraemon films.

Sachiko Kamimura has a nice home page where she provides a generous sampling of rejected designs, storyboards, key animation and the like from various shows she worked on throughout her career. It was particularly instructive to discover, for example, that she had animated numerous of the hair-raisingly complicated mob scenes from the Yoshikazu Yasuhiko epic Arion (1986). Even apart from this, Arion featured quite a lot of extravagant animation in Yasuhiko's unique style, including a nice scene from Satoru Utsunomiya (the mid-air attack of the sickle monsters). Kamimura thus adds her name to my short running tab of mob animators, which so far includes only Hiroyuki Okiura and Michio Mihara. It would seem that her work caught the eye of Yasuhiko, as three years later, in 1989, when Yasuhiko came back with another big movie of his own creation, Venus Wars, this time he turned to Kamimura to handle the drawing side of things as the animation director, which in Yasuhiko's richly animated films must have been quite a task.

Before that, Yasuhiko had directed an OVA between his two big films entitled The Song of Wind and Trees (1987), on which Kamimura had worked as character designer and animation director. She provides some examples of her corrections (which in the analog age were drawn on yellow sheets) on her home page. This was another well made film from that era that left a favorable impression on me at the time, perhaps also because it was maybe my earliest exposure to shoujo manga (or at least its anime rendition). I suspect she had a major hand in the animation through her work, helping give it a certain richness and elegance of movement that I remember struck me as seeming different from other anime even back then. A look at the animator list reveals the presence of Ghibli regular Makiko Futaki, who is an expert at just the sort of rich animation I remember the film for. Kamimura, then, turns out to have been one of the main figures behind the Yasuhiko films of yore.

Arslan fared quite well when I had another look at it recently, thanks in large part to Kazuchika Kise's work as animation director, so this is another nostalgic oldie I'd like to have a chance to revisit one of these days to see how my impression may have changed over the years. Maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems like it was more common back in those days to see big studio films like these headlined by these charismatic animation directors who sort of stepped in and took hold of the reins, putting in this massive effort to totally define the feeling of the animation of a film in a holistic sense, really taking the spotlight as the ones who created the feeling of the show through their effort, rather than just correcting the drawings in a rote way as seems more common today. I don't know what it is, but there's something different about the approach on display in films like these from the late 80s.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

09:58:17 pm , 66 words, 2244 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Malcolm Sutherland

I don't know how he finds the time or the films, but every day Ian Lumsden posts a writeup and a link to an animated short by a different artist, most of which are usually new to me. They're not always to my taste, but I loved his latest link to a film by Canadian animator Malcolm Sutherland. All of Malcolm's films are viewable on his home page. Seeing the rest, I instantly fell in love with his work. Every film is in a different style and very assured, and his illustrations are quite original and beautiful too. It's great to know there are still animators here in Canada doing this sort of work. (Birdcalls inevitably brought to mind Norman McLaren.) I quite dig his taste in soundtracks, too, using favorites of mine like Boards of Canada and Lord Invader. (bring back the cat o'nine!) Apparently Malcolm was educated in astrophysics before being detoured into animation and illustration. He certainly struck me as having something very different driving him, so that sounds about right.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

01:02:16 am , 1311 words, 5529 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

A Country Doctor

My DVD of Koji Yamamura's latest film, A Country Doctor, arrived a few weeks ago, and I finally watched it yesterday. Although it left me with more question marks dangling above my head than with any sense of catharsis or dramatic closure, I am convinced that this is his richest and most powerful film in countless ways. I also think it's one of the best Japanese indie animation films to come down the pipeline, ever. It's a great achievement, and it shows just how far Yamamura has come over the years.

I respect Yamamura because he's just about the only major indie animator in Japan who can boast so much variety of style from one film to the next. He's constantly trying out something new, exploring the endless possibilities of animation. A Country Doctor couldn't be more different from The Old Crocodile, which couldn't be more different from Mt Head, although in terms of intensity of work and length the latter is probably the closest comparison to A Country Doctor. They also both used similar-sounding traditional theater styles for their narration - kyogen in the case of A Country Doctor and rakugo in the case of Mt. Head. Adopting a new approach to the animation and soundtrack for each film is something he seems to have inherited from Tadanari Okamoto. Yamamura is perhaps the only Japanese indie animator who stands up to that comparison. He's making world class films, and keeps pushing himself to go to the next level. New faces on the scene like Tomoyasu Murata and Kunio Kato are striking out on the same journey now, but he's still in that lonely place at the top in the meantime. (Although Kato Kunio is ascending the ladder at a quick clip, what with his recent win at Annecy.)

The animation aspect has always been re-invented throughout Yamamura's work, but these last few years I feel like he's been creating animation that is ever more interesting as pure movement, culminating for me in his wonderful 4-minute film Fig, which blazes with animated power. He fills the film with imaginative transformations of a kind that only he can come up with. In Country Doctor now he goes even further in that direction. Here it's like he's swung back from the stasis of The Old Crocodile to an approach focused on creating vivid, dynamic movement. He's created a film where the animation takes on the sort of primacy and primordial power that I haven't seen in any animated films from Japan apart from maybe the films of Nobuhiro Aihara or the work of Shinya Ohira. The animation in this film truly speaks louder than words. The animation slowly sears a hole in your eye one moment, and then explodes from the screen in a frenzy of motion the next, mirroring the curious, deliberately malformed ebb and flow of Kafka's storytelling.

This film has some of the best shots of animation I've seen in years - shots that are so full of vitality and energy, and communicate the situation so powerfully, that watching them was literally hair-raising. Yamamura came up with a really original style of animating the characters in this film, bending them willfully all over the screen as an external manifestation of their inner turbulence in response to each situation. The story itself is quite an enigma, and two viewings have not helped to parse the unending succession of surreal scenes that constitute A Country Doctor. Both despite this and because of this, the film leaves a very rich aftertaste. The doctor is a fascinating character, morosely pensive and hypersensitive, a typical Kafka character I saw a lot of myself in, and it was a brilliant idea of Yamamura's to adopt this style of animation as a way of expressing this peculiar character's mental state, and of expressing the specific atmosphere of ironic claustrophobia of Franz Kafka's stories.

Kafka has been adapted successfully several times in animation, but Yamamura brings his own unique look and atmosphere to Kafka's stories. Yamamura does something that people probably usually neglect to do, maybe out a fear of disrespecting the aura of seriousness of the father of angst - he reveals to us Kafka the comedian. He puts the laughter back in Kafka. It's not a belly-laughing sort of humor. It's more that Yamamura brings out the bleak humor betweens the lines of Kafka's books. I think that was a great insight that helped to make this film successful. Yamamura's films usually have an atmosphere of dark whimsy, and in that sense this film remains quintessentially Yamamura. It's a case of a perfect match of temperament to material.

Although I haven't read the original to be able to comment on how Yamamura adapted the story to the audiovisual means of animation, the film is supremely visual. It creates simple, powerful images that resonate on a number of levels with the theme of the story and show that Yamamura put effort into creating a film endowed with a kind of literary richness. It's rich in terms of the actual richness of the screen, which is constantly layered with lots of effects and animation that make for beautifully dense living paintings, and it's rich in terms of the thematic poetry of the images. At one point, the doctor grows immense and reaches out to touch the brightly shining moon, only to plunge his head into the noose of its bowl and swing high in the night sky. The film offers a feast of creative imagery to chew on that enriches the narrative. The pacing of the film is quite unique, too, with the way for a minute it will flow along in slow motion only to suddenly jerk into fast-forward. Yamamura does a brilliant job of coming up with all of these myriad ways of mirroring the schizophrenic nature of the story and the character's mind, through the deformed and wildly jagged animation, through the deranged and zig-zagging structure, and even through the eerie soundtrack with its Ondes Martenot warbling behind eerie violin strains. The deliberately halting way the story flows is an aspect Yamamura mentioned in the talk. He says that it was this halting aspect of the narrative that attracted him to the original story, and that aspect of the film is definitely one of its most distinctive features.

The surreal images and explosive animation are Yamamura's contribution to the material - Yamamura jamming to Kafka's tune. Just because it's literature doesn't mean it has to be literal. Too often people confine themselves to churning out romantic historical postcards. I'm sure that could even have been done with this story. Without even having read the story, I can tell that this is obvioulsy a case of a great literary adaptation that does justice to the material by instead re-imagining the story in another medium, rather than just rotely re-gurgitating it. Night on the Galactic Railroad is one of the few other instances that come to mind as reaching this level. Sometimes a literary adaptation has to be almost an original creation to be great.

The film seems to take on the influence of any number of figures from Parn to Norstein, but Yamamura does what few people are able to do and makes the lessons of the masters his own, rather than just doing surface mimickry. The richness of the screen seemed to be something he might have learned from Norstein, but it's folded into Yamamura's aesthetic. There's a nice video of a dialogue between Yamamura and German literature critic Osamu Ikeuchi on the DVD that was very interesting for getting into the matter of the Kafka source material, although I was a little disappointed that they didn't have any other guests on there who could have asked Yamamura some questions about the animation, of which no mention was made. What an elephant in the room.