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.
August 2008
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
 << < Current> >>
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Who's Online?

  • Guest Users: 5

  XML Feeds

powered by b2evolution

Archives for: August 2008

Thursday, August 28, 2008

12:27:00 am , 3775 words, 82777 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Animator: Shinya Ohira, post-Akira

The Antique Shop

One of the things that most attracts me to animation is that animation can tell us things about real life that live-action cinema cannot. Like a quick pencil sketch that, with a minimum of lines, captures the spontaneity of a pose, or a haiku that captures with laser precision the outlines of a moment in life, animation has the power of summation, of poetic emphasis. Rather than giving the filmmaker options, as cinema does, animation forces the filmmaker to create every element from a blank slate. Every single decision the filmmaker makes, from the placement of a line to the timing of a movement, dramatically alters the impression of the final product. In the best of hands, the results can create a profound viewing experience that gives deep insight into the human condition.

One of the films that probably first comes to mind when you think of realism in anime is Grave of the Fireflies, or Only Yesterday. Takahata is one of the greatest practitioners of realism in animation the world has seen because he doesn't fall into the trap of mistaking realism with photorealism. Realism in animation shouldn't be just about about mimicking life, but about using that inherent feature of animation - selectivity - and combining it with the infinite expressive possibility of animation, to create something new. Grave would probably not have the impact it does if Setsuko were photorealistically designed. A great animator, Yoshifumi Kondo, came up with a design and a style of movement all his own that was based on shards of reality, rather than being photorealistic or rotoscoped, that itself went a long way to giving the film its impact, by convincing us that those were living people, but through the veil of animation, as it were. The insight of Japan into realism in animation seems to have been that less is more.

Throughout his career, with his various animator collaborators, Takahata created films that gave deep insights into life, not only through the stories, but through the directing and the willingness to discover new dramatic structures that gave room for life to play out the way it would in the real world, languorous pauses and all. Heidi in 1974 can be considered his breakthrough in that it was the film (series) on which he pioneered this approach. You can, of course, speak of a sort of breakthrough psychological realism in Horus from 1967, but Heidi (and even moreso Marco in 1976) went beyond that and went to considerable pains to paint the mundane beauty of everyday life, rather than merely using realism opportunistically for sensationalistic ends. Of course, Takahata was not the first to appropriate shards of reality in animation, in Japan or elsewhere. Just in Japan you can find assiduous realism of movement as far back as W.W. II, in the realistic flight scenes of Seo Mitsuyo's Momotaro and the realistic natural effects of Kenzo Masaoka's The Spider and the Tulip. There are certainly countless other ways that reality has been interpreted in Japanese animation throughout the decades, but Takahata was one of the few in whose work you felt a true love of life.

A new generation is carrying the torch of realism in animation in Japan, and if they're succeeding in creating insightful and meaningful work, it's because they're coming up with new approaches to the task the way Takahata did. Although, in this case, they are animators who evolved into directors. This generation is represented by a handful of talented animators who, each developing in their own particular way, came to different conclusions about how to go about representing the real world in animation. Most of this new generation can be traced back to the late 1980s, when Katsuhiro Otomo was influencing people with his own realistic approach in a different field. That eventually seeped into animation with The Order to Stop Construction and Akira, after which you can see a sort of evolution of realistic animation in Japan through a handful of figures in a succession of mutual influencing. Takashi Nakamura was the leading animation figure behind these two films, and many of the realistic figures of the next generation worked under him, in the process learning from the approach to realistic movement of those films.

The three main figures - the animators who developed a style of animation truly their own - who either became directors or whose vision set them apart in a class of their own, might be said to be Satoru Utsunomiya, Hiroyuki Okiura and Shinya Ohira. There were other people who had their own interesting approach to realism, but these three represent something of the spectrum and diversity of realism of this period - Utsunomiya with his rounded, simple designs and focus on full, rich, exaggerated movement; Okiura with his more technical and detail-oriented approach and focus on more of a surface realism; and Ohira with a more artistic and rough-edged approach.

Right after Akira, Satoru Utsunomiya created Gosenzosama Banbanzai in 1989 with many of the same animators, and soon afterward, the film Peek the Whale in 1991, which together are his two most significant efforts in scale and duration. He seems to have had a hard time finding larger-scale projects afterwards, and has focused mainly on his work as an animator. However, he came back and made a splash recently with Paranoia Agent episode 8 and Aquarion episode 19, and has been mostly out of sight for a while since then, so perhaps we will finally see another big project from him. Around the same time that Utsunomiya was doing Peek, Hiroyuki Okiura crafted the animation of Run, Melos in 1992, and then Ghost in the Shell in 1995, which marked his major early efforts in the realistic style, eventually leading to his directing one of the landmarks of the new realistic school, Jin-Roh, in 2000, with animation director Tetsuya Nishio, who had been staking his own territory as a realistic animator somewhat similar in spirit to Okiura over the preceding decade.

One of the few projects that saw these three animators working together in the aftermath of Akira was Hakkenden, produced by AIC intermittently over the span of several years starting in 1990. Afterwards they went their own way, and each continued developing in a very different direction. They wouldn't be reunited until more than a decade later in the climax of Innocence. Significantly, Hakkenden even featured work by Mitsuo Iso, that other major realistic animator of the period. So after Akira, Hakkenden (or at least portions of it) can be considered one of the launching pads of the current realistic school. Prior to Akira, Shinya Ohira had done a lot of work for AIC as an animator, which is why after Akira and Gosenzosama Banbanzai he was fatefully offered work as animation director of the first episode of Hakkenden in 1990. Notably, Ohira had been animation director of Riding Bean in 1989, as well as having animated a scene in Angel Cop episode 2. His work on these two projects gives a good picture of the type of animator Shinya Ohira was around 1991, when he was finally given the opportunity to make his debut as a director.

Ohira's early period can be said to span from about 1985 to 1990. Ohira has continued to evolve since then, but this period was when he discovered the basic mindset of dense and expressive animation that continues to define his work, albeit in very different form. One of Ohira's main influences, and one of the factors that led him to choose animation as a career, was witnessing the work of Masahito Yamashita in the TV broadcast of Urusei Yatsura as a teenager in the early 80s. Ohira recalls nearly choking on his dinner when Yamashita's animation came on the screen. Right from the start, Ohira had the eye of an animator. What attracted him was the extreme and visually thrilling animation created by this highly idiosyncratic animator. Until several years ago, Ohira still maintained that Yamashita remained one his prime inspirations to this day. It's clear enough how Ohira's animation today carries on the spirit of that early encounter. Ohira began as an animator overtly imitating the style of Yamashita, but very quickly began discovering his own voice, and today continues to create animation that provides the sort of visceral animated thrill that Yamashita first taught him way back then. Surprisingly, Ohira was also greatly influenced by the animation of Disney, and you can see the sheer oddity of Yamashita's approach to timing and posing tempered by the richness of Disney animation and Ohira's own inherently realistic bent.

At some point in his early career, something began to change in Ohira. He began adding more and more details to his animation, more layers, creating denser and denser animation. The earliest and most salient example would probably be Gall Force, for which he spent a month animating a single three-second shot of a laser beam. Similar things happened in other shows. Around the same time, while still at AIC, he animated the animated portions of a foreign shoot-em-up console game called Captain Power, which essentially consisted of an endless sequence of scrolling scenery through which the player, imagining himself piloting a ship, flew while being attacked by enemies of various forms. It is here that we first find animation that clearly displays the approach to timing and form that can be seen in the classic effects work that Ohira did one year later in Akira in 1988, where he animated the collapsing building and swirling clouds in the sky, among other shots, all of them effects shots. Whether willingly or not, due to the type of work he was doing, Ohira was beginning to pay closer and closer attention to the little details in order to increase the power of his effects work, which meant abandoning the stylized manner of his early work in favor of making the effects more realistic. This seems to be the beginning of his realistic period.

After Akira, Ohira continued working as an animator doing the same sort of dense effects work, of which the animation of the scene he did in Angel Cop seems to be something of the culmination. After then having had the opportunity to try his hand in an extended fashion animating human beings as the animation director of the classic and still immensely watchable first episode of Hakkenden in 1990 for AIC (this time presumably as a freelancer), he again began to subtly change course, as he has done several times throughout his career, and as you would expect of anyone who is truly trying to create something interesting with their art. He remained focused on realism, but he now set his realistic eye to the task of portraying humans.

And so we arrive at the directing debut of Shinya Ohira: The Antique Shop.

Ichiro Itano deserves praise for having had the vision to grant not only Ohira but also his longtime friend and co-conspirator Shinji Hashimoto the opportunity to mount their directing debuts in the one-shot OVA Twilight Theatre (1991), of which Itano was the producer. Ohira's piece is one of the three constituent chapters. All three chapters, each directed by a different director, are based on stories by horror/fantasy writer Baku Yumemakura. Ohira was, to be precise, the character designer, animation director, storyboarder, scriptwriter (adapter) and director of his 13-minute piece. Ohira had never storyboarded before, nor designed characters, and with the exception of Hakkenden episode 10 (for which he secretly created his own character sheets), he has never done so again since (at least until Wanwa). This film hence occupies a unique position in Ohira's career, and is the immediate precursor to his masterpiece, Hakkenden episode 10, but it has never been released on DVD, so it remains quite obscure. That's unfortunate, because it's more than just an interesting relic from a great animator. It actually still speaks today in a voice loud and clear about the nature of realism in animation, and how it should be done, but is almost never.

The film is set in the present day, and tells the story of a lowly salaryman out drinking with his co-workers one evening after a hard day of work. After leaving the bar, he is accidentally separated from them, and while wandering the streets of the city, he happens upon a mysterious curio shop. He wanders in only to be shocked to run across relics of his own past, and embarks on a metaphysical journey through painful memories from his youth, when he had a young lover and aspired to become a painter.

Ohira himself chose this story because it struck a chord in him, as an animator who had long been hounded by the specter of being unable to survive by his art. Ohira in fact abandoned animation for five years starting in 1995 to work at the family business. This is above all a story of failed dreams and sordid reality. Ohira was a first-time director, and the film has the hesitant marks of a first-time director, yet simply by the choice of material and the degree to which Ohira himself was committed to creating a deeply felt psychological film that meant something to him, the film achieves a rare power. It's a film with conviction. The production conditions for the film were unfortunately very bad, and the film suffers from slipshod finishing and photography that is full of errors. The animation is furthermore very uneven in tone, and many portions would almost certainly have been smoothed over by Ohira had he had the time to do so. Despite being roughshod on the technical side, the film nonetheless shines through and works due to Ohira's personal attachment and innate instinct for realism.

In recent years, Ohira has achieved the feat of creating animation that is realistic while bordering on being abstract. None of that is on display in this early film, at least on the surface, but the spirit is similar. With The Antique Shop, Ohira set out to create a film that was "namanamashii", which is a difficult word to convey in translation, but that means basically - raw, visceral. He wanted to create a powerful emotional impact by portraying reality in all its sordid ugliness. He succeeded in doing so to an impressive degree for a first-time director, although it was in Hakkenden episode 10 that he achieved this effect to perfection. No other animation has ever achieved the sort of raw power that Ohira achieved in these two films. Other films have been realistic, but the realism is usually clean in look and ruly in emotion, and is rarely willing to portray reality in a truly honest way, which means being willing to show the ugly side too - both physically and emotionally. Ohira is one of the few I've seen who is willing to take a neutral stance and portray life as it really is.

One of the scenes that had the most impact on me in episode 10 of Hakkenden was the scene on the porch, where the woman shyly approaches the man and asks him if they've met before. I had never seen a woman drawn that way before in animation, much less anime. Without any sort of slow evolution, in one stroke Ohira had managed to break through the edifice of convention that dominates character design in Japan to a look truly inspired by reality. I think this is a question many must have wondered: Why is it that we can never see people who actually look like people in animation? That does not mean having to be photorealistic. It means being honest about physical features, thinking honestly how to show a face that can convince any viewer that a soul inhabits it, and not simply adhering to a style out of lack of courage to tweak convention. In the face of the woman on the porch, Ohira had created what for perhaps the first time in animation to me struck me as looking like a living, breathing human being. She was not prettified. She was homely. But she was one of the most beautiful characters I've seen in animation because it was a face I could believe in. It was as if I experienced a sense of relief finally being able to see that kind of face in animation.

Ohira took his first steps towards revolutionizing the approach to character design in The Antique Shop. The close-up shot of the face of the protagonist in the screenshot on the left side of the topmost row above is a good illustration of Ohira's unique approach. Ohira went out of his way to create a design that has a clearly Japanese ethnicity, something that seems almost taboo judging by how assiduously it is avoided in productions then and now. A telling anecdote comes from episode 10 of Hakkenden. Ohira wanted to give a character a 5-o'clock shadow - and for a good reason based on the story: The character had been wandering in the forest for days. Characters lunged around at each other, covered in mud, flailing wildly and screaming like beasts, features contorted horribly in anguish. With considerable reluctance, the producer had accepted all of that, albeit only after Ohira threatened to quit. But curiously, he wouldn't allow the 5-o'clock shadow, and refused to budge on that point alone. It seems odd, but in fact it's indicative of how Ohira's insistence on realism was picking at the edges of some deep-rooted conventions in the industry. Yet it's because Ohira roots the character in a specific location, and in a specific, individual face, that the character comes alive and achieves a semblance of three-dimensionality. It's not possible to divorce physical appearance from personality. That's not the way it is in reality, and most animation fails at a very basic level to establish personality when it fails to establish a design that speaks of personality.

Ohira invests the motion with subtle nuance that makes the action feel very real and convincing. In animation it seems rare to see expressions that have the level of nuance of everyday expressions. Everything seems exaggerated. For example, we can read a great deal in real life from a slight movement of the eyebrow, but in animation this sort of thing would tend to be wildly exaggerated, completely losing any sort of feeling of veracity or truth. It's a testament to this fact that, more than 15 years later, the film is still striking for the way there are moments when a character's expression changes in a very subtle way, and it's not possible to pinpoint any specific emotion tied to the expression or movement. It's not about expressing a black and white emotion. For example, in one shot we see a character as he absorbs what another character, now off-camera, has just said. His eyebrow are high in an expression of consternation. His head moves down slightly, almost imperceptibly, and he blinks once. That's it. It's a reaction that passes by in an instant and almost seems nonexistent, expressing nothing, but it's in Ohira's ability to see moments like this and translate them into animation that makes his work great and special.

Ohira is able to orchestrate scenes of interaction in a way that makes them feel real, and basically just does a great job of maintaining interest. He has the instincts of a director. The drama has real tension, partly because he manages to make the characters come alive in the very brief allotted time span of the film. Ohira lavishes loving detail on the paraphernalia of the curio shop that hint at the protagonist's childhood and adolescence, including a ragged antique kite and the sketchbook showing a sketch by the protagonist (=Ohira) back when he and the woman were together. In the flashback, one shot shows with realistic nuance the contents of the sink where the young woman just vomited while washing the dishes. In just a few shots he convincingly establishes the feeling that a poor college couple are living day to day in this shabby, cramped apartment.

Although the animation is a somewhat uneven affair, it is also somewhat uneven in Hakkenden episode 10, but there the unevenness works to great effect, and almost all of the animation is riveting and full of great realistic nuance. This is no doubt partly because for that episode Ohira was backed up by a bevy of fantastic animators including Osamu Tanabe and Hiroyuki Morita, headed of course by animation director Masaaki Yuasa, and he had a lot more schedule. For The Antique Shop he had less good animators, although he did have several. Shinji Hashimoto helped out with one shot, Tatsuyuki Tanaka animated a number of shots, and Mitsuo Iso even helped out with two shots, albeit uncredited for some reason. Tanaka's style kind of sticks out in an unfortunate way in terms of both the drawings and the animation, but Iso's short but dense two shots are among the best in the film, and hint at the greatness that might have been had they had more schedule to unify the film in that direction. The screengrab on the left in the bottom row is from Iso's shot. In it, we see the young protagonist hunched over reading while smoking, looking bored, then yawning and rubbing his eyes afterward, presumably to wipe away the yawn-tears. That's it. Nothing of consequence or significance, and yet it's among the most awesome and convincing moments in the film. Iso instinctively got what Ohira was trying to do - create acting that is full of realistic nuance without undue exaggeration. His timing for every single solitary frame of the shot is impeccable and perfectly captures the feeling of the character in that situation while seeming absolutely real and authentic. And it just feels great as animation.

Just as I've come back to episode 10 of Hakkenden often, this is a film I want to come back to often. That's partly because it's an animated film filled with a rare degree of human warmth that I want to revisit frequently. It has the warmth of being the product of conviction, of a young creator who was attempting to do something new, and something that he felt was true to life and true to his art. That conviction still shines through after all these years. In addition, it has the warmth of being a rare creation that, for all its imperfection, feels handmade and approachable. We're farther now than we ever have been from seeing this sort of material becoming more common. With the extremely limited resources available to him, Ohira was able to make a film that does what bigger budgets and more sophisticated storylines are unable to do - keep it real. I wish we could see more films like this.

Monday, August 18, 2008

11:54:57 pm , 769 words, 1891 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #8

I'm so behind on Kaiba it's not even funny. The series finished broadcasting weeks ago, but I didn't have time to write my thoughts about this episode, which I actually watched for the first time over a month back, so I got stuck and couldn't watch the rest. With only four more to go after this one, I'm going to slowly make my way through to the end, savoring each episode.

I just watched this episode several times, which is what it took to finally get to the point where I felt I knew what had happened. The script is actually brilliant, this time written solo by Yuasa. The details of every line are fantastic in the Japanese, full of that great ellipsis of details that Yuasa is so good at. Through the script here he carefully presents particular pieces of the puzzle one by one, here and there, slowly bringing the big picture to light, creating a great feeling of building tension, and masterfully weaving the various players into the converging unfolding narrative. This episode creates a great feeling of excitement and anticipation, as you sense that things are going to start really moving. Things almost go too fast to be able to follow what's happening, but it makes for a richer experience the way he does it. Watching this episode I actually thought this was perhaps the first TV anime I'd seen that achieved something of the feeling of epic scale of Future Boy Conan, as different as the two shows are in the details.

Choi Eunyoung of episode 5 backs Yuasa's brilliant script up perfectly as storyboarder, director and animation director, confirming the smart and sophisticated sensibility we discovered in the wildness of episode 5, which is here focused to the task of revving the engine on the story heading into the final lap. It's as if we've gear-shifted from the middle transitional portion where we explored side-stories that fleshed out the world of Kaiba, into the meat of the overarching story.

This was Popo's episode, and the early parts at the meeting where we're first given budding insight into Popo's past and consequent conflicted position in the group were very well handled by the directing, with the tripartite mental image of Dada merging with the image of a youthful Popo - a touch subtle enough to not give anything away blatantly, but clear enough to deepen the meaning and impact of the scene upon repeated viewings. The color sensibility of this episode was also as exceptional as episode 5, with a different color palette seeming to accent the tone of each major scene, ranging from the blue of the opening where the atmosphere is heavy to the yellow of the ending where the mood is ascendant and prospects are opening up for the characters.

Choi's drawings litter the episode in a patchwork fashion that works wonderfully to give the episode visual richness, interspersed as they are with great work from all the regulars including that maniac Michio Mihara, who apparently hadn't done enough doing a whole episode himself, and here provides numerous bits in various places. Rather than big chunks being done by one person, the style here is more scattered. The great scene at the dinner table with Jakuchu and Neiro seemed maybe like the work of Ryotaro Makihara, though I'm not sure. Also the scene of the two near the end of the underground museum scene (the rest being Choi). Just a guess tho. Masahiko Kubo was there too, though I don't have a good enough sense of his style to say what he did. He's too versatile. (as if that were an insult) Maybe the memory sections - the pre-op & wrestling memory? I remember a bit of rich, fluid animation of Vanilla running at the end of episode 2 reminding me of some running in here. It's funny that Choi's listed as animation director, because it doesn't look like she corrects anything. Her shots jump out, and they're fantastic as usual. Who needs to when the animators are this good?

The names of the characters are interesting. I just figured out that Jakuchu is named after a wonderful Japanese painter of the 18th century. I wasn't aware of him at all, but upon looking at some paintings, I was stunned by their masterful formal stylization. I didn't think anyone had done this kind of painting back then. His paintings of birds in particular are magnificent, a sophisticated blend of realism with meticulous stylization. I can see why Yuasa would admire his work, if that's what it is. A nod of respect to a great sempai.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

10:22:51 pm , 1583 words, 2036 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Tweeny Witches OVAs

Studio 4C's Tweeny Witches was one of the most enjoyable and memorable series I've seen in the last few years. It was filled to the brim with imaginative ideas the likes of which have never been really tried in this kind of material in Japan before, even though material involving witches and magic is pretty common. This is the first time it felt like this kind of material was done justice.

Besides that, the production of the series was really interesting, with each episode often being handled by a single individual, so that from episode to episode you could clearly identify each animation director or director's style, which in turn gave the show a great richness and variety that was equally if not more appealing to me than the imagination on display in the story, paraphernalia and designs. Most important of all, this series was the series on which Yasuhiro Aoki came out as a great director. I don't know whether it was technically his debut as an episode director or not, but without a doubt this is the show on which his powers first became clearly evident. And through his work on this show, he clearly developed tremendously as a director, so that this series was a key step in his development leading directly to the work we've seen from him afterwards - first directing the great Kung Fu Love, and most recently directing In Darkness Dwells, both of which show him continuing the same process of incremental development I recall being so impressed by as I watched each new episode of Tweeny Witches from him.

I'd long wished I could see more of the show, as nothing else was quite like it. In a curious development, it came to light last year that the studio had produced a 6-episode offshoot right after the end of the TV show, but that it was never broadcast or released in any form until just recently, presumably related to rights issues. Imagine my delight to discover that Aoki had done one of the episodes. He storyboard and directed the third episode. I was cautious going in, not sure how much time or budget they might have had to produce it, but was amazed at the quality. This episode is perhaps the best stand-alone episode he did for the show, partly because it's a one-off, like all of the OVA episodes, but also because there's a clear sense of development. So it turns out there'd been one more push by him with this show. He'd done one last volley, pushing his skills to the next level. It was great to be able to re-discover this episode to see that.

Again, each episode has a different set of staff, and each group brings a different flavor to their work, but Aoki's work towers above the rest in terms of entertainment value, humor, visual good sense, and thrill of animation. The other episodes are well enough drawn, but lifeless, and the directing has no character or edge to it. It feels like they're just riding along on dramatic rails, and everything is quite predictable and conventional feeling. Only Aoki seems to have the instinct of a good director, willing to try to push beyond that and experiment with tactics for maintaining audience interest of his own devising, such as displacing the timing or the framing a bit or using unusual and fun compositions to show the action unfolding from an intriguing perspective. The drawings and animation also speak at all moments, creating great compositions throughout. And most of all, the characters feel alive in his hands. The situation is a conventional one that has been done countless times in the past, but it feels completely convincing in his hands, and he gives its message an emotional resonance you wouldn't expect. The show itself definitely got across a subversive message about how societies are all based on different levels of power and subjugation, thanks to writer Shinji Obara, and similarly, without any sort of overbearing emphasis, this episode weaves a similar message into the fabric of the story, adding a level of thematic depth that makes the emotions of the characters in response to the events that much more convincing.

Unlike in the TV series, the animation direction was not done by Aoki but by an individual named Hideki Nagamachi, whom I've never heard of. I only realized this fact afterwards upon seeing the credits, but while watching it was unmistakable that the drawings looked very different from the usual Aoki drawings. The style was very sketchy, almost reminding of Yuasa in terms of the oddly angular lines used, for example the way the fingers are drawn as these blocky rectangles. Yet the characters clearly are those of Aoki. In the TV series you could clearly identify each animation director by comparing their different ways of drawing the eyes and other facial features of each of the characters, and Aoki's stood out as being among the more realistically rendered and meticulously drawn, contrasting, for example, with the more cartoony drawings of Yumi Chiba. In this new episode, it's as if Nagamachi is drawing the characters based on Aoki's designs, but in his own sketchy style. Either that, or Aoki corrected the drawings. I'm not too sure. I'd be very curious to know more about how this episode was produced.

Either way, the animation is stupendous - very nuanced and rich, yet very spontaneous and tactile. It's easily the richest and most satisfying of the episodes he did, which is saying a lot, and it complements the directing perfectly. The characters' expressions are varied and complex, expressing a great range of emotions. It's a very simple story, of course, self-contained, without the drama and weight he brought to his episodes of the TV series, but it has a great range in terms of tone that does an even better job of giving him room to try different things as a director - hilarious in the first half, and with slowly building power in the second half that has a surprising potential for depth and emotional resonance. It acts as a kind of summary of his work on the show.

Another great discovery of these new episodes was a solo episode done entirely by Shogo Furuya, who had already handled a number of episodes in the TV series in his own distinctive style. Here he storyboarded, directed, and singlehandedly animated the fourth episode. His more realistic style isn't as pronounced in this episode, but the work is very heavily worked, with the same approach to solid layouts and strong drawings, and a slow, measured pace, that was seen in his work on the TV episodes. It easily stands alongside Michio Mihara's solos as one of the most impressive solos of recent years. I have to wonder how much time he took to do it. He didn't do quite as much as Mihara, so it doesn't seem like it would have taken him quite as long - a few months perhaps.

It's great seeing solo animator episodes also directed by the animator, because it's an opportunity to see a fully-formed approach to telling a story through visuals. It's not the animator just handling his animation in a compartmentalized fashion. He has to figure out how to present every single solitary element, from the pacing of the scenes to the layout to the specific nuances of every second of animation. It's a tremendous amount of work, so it makes sense to split up those tasks, but in talented hands, in the hands of someone who has a vision unified enough to make it worth the work, the results can be quite impressive. Shogo is incredibly talented, although the directing doesn't jump out at you the way Aoki's does. It's much more low-key, but he's clearly a workhorse who can create a film from the floor up. There's almost a whiff of Satoshi Kon in his very meticulous approach to the elements of the screen and slow pace. I knew who did the main tasks of the TV series, but I'd never seen the animation credits for each episode, so it's entirely possible that one of Furuya's episodes was a solo episode without me knowing it.

The rest of the episodes were well produced, as is to be expected of this studio, and each featured interesting ideas that had been developed specifically for each episode, but the directing was never able to go beyond the level of the ordinary. Faces involved were basically all familiar from the TV show. (see the TV series staff list I made) Producer Eiko Tanaka and co-founder Katabuchi Sunao even wrote some of the episodes. The last episode was handled by Toru Yoshida of Osaka animation studio Anime R, who was also involved in the TV series. They are known for handling Sunrise material, which is probably why the episode features a giant robot, of all things. You can see a bunch of Anime R animators in the credits, including Taiki Harada and Fumiaki Kouta, the latter of whom I just mentioned as being in Crossfire. As talented as I'm sure Yoshida is, his drawings struck me as far too conventional anime character for this particular show. It was particularly dismaying to see stock expressive symbols appear for the first time in the series, as one thing that had made the characters of the show appealing was that they did not rely on any such crutch to express emotions.

1 commentPermalink

Thursday, August 14, 2008

09:53:26 am , 1982 words, 3085 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Gotham Knight

I'm behind on everything these days, but I finally had the chance to watch this omnibus last night. It was what I was expecting, nothing more, nothing less. It was interesting seeing what would result from crossing an English script with several different Japanese production teams. It's as if there are two different approaches to storytelling struggling to co-exist in each short, which certainly makes for an interesting kind of tension. At a more basic level, there is only so much you can do with this sort of material, and you have to push certain buttons or there is no point in even doing it, so the material is all quite self-limiting, and to me is of no interest save to see what the directors bring to it. A film can be great no matter the material. It just depends on the directing. The films in this omnibus serve as good contrasts to illustrate this point, some succeeding within their short allotted time span, others not. Personally, totally irrespective of the material or whether the film works as a whole, this omnibus is welcome to me simply for having provided two great up-and-coming anime directors the opportunity to show off their skills in a project that will actually be seen by a wide audience over here - Yasuhiro Aoki and Shojiro Nishimi.

Nishimi came at the head of the film with Have I Got a Story For You, which was tremendously well produced, as expected, as well as having by far the most unorthodox look of the film in view of the material. The look of the characters, with their pointy heads and loosely drawn freely criss-crossing lines, goes against the typical flatly stylized, shadowy look that seems to be be the branded image for this franchise, the goth machismo of which has never done anything for me anyway, so I found Nishimi's inventions appealing. The action was all excellently done, the movement all full of the nuance of Tekkon Kinkreet. Shinji Kimura was the animation director, to boot, so the short felt quite similar. Yasuhiro Aoki made his first appearance in this short as an animator, second only to Jamie Vickers. He also helped out with the animation on Toshiyuki Kubooka's film later in addition to doing his own film, so he put in quite the effort here. Masahiko Kubo was another animator in Nishimi's film, so these guys must have been the ones behind a good portion of the action. Interestingly, this short actually represent a return to old territory for Nishimi, as he and Aoyama and Tomonaga et al at Telecom handled many of the best episodes of the old Batman TV series back in the 90s. The story was quite light and insubstantial, but this is a good example of good animation and quality production carrying a film.

Nishimi's film got me to thinking about style, and why style is homogenous in the west and in Japan. Nishimi is a great example of a guy who has come up with his own style that feels fully conceived and is a sheer delight to look at. He is a tremendous animator with solid training who breathes amazing life into his characters, yet his designs are entirely his own and full of edgy inventiveness that beats just about anything else out there. I wish more animators would do what he's done rather than just buy into the dominant style of the industry. So much of what I see in the west seems over-focused on creating hyper-clean, retro-looking, over-stylized designs, whereas it's the reverse in Japan, with too few people bothering to think deeply about novelty of design. Nishimi strikes me as achieving a good balance in terms of this, which he did by coming up with his own peculiar style of drawing. It's the roughness of his drawings that's so appealing to me. They feel alive and never the same. It's not that they're sloppy. It's that he's come up with an interesting way of drawing the characters with these peculiar angles and shapes that he knows will allow him to move the characters however he wants without having to worry about getting every detail of the design right. The designs looking fantastic in motion, a great hybrid of realistic core and eminently line-drawn style.

One of Nishimi's main influences is obviously his old friend Masaaki Yuasa, but like Yuichiro Sueyoshi, Nishimi is no mere imitator. With some twenty years under his belt in the industry, he's developed his own very personal style that is quite different from where Yuasa's own style has evolved over the years. His is more realistically influenced, focused on bringing characters to life, whereas Yuasa remains, as ever, focused on bewildering, freewheeling designs and movement. Like branches of the same tree, Yuasa, Sueyoshi and Nishimi, not to mention Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto, all share a certain spiritual affinity while having budded into their own personal styles. This school of animators represent perhaps one of the richest veins of creativity in Japanese animation today.

Futoshi Higashide's Crossfire had moments when it felt like it was sort of working, but never gelled, and wound up feeling like a mess. Not helping were the weak drawings of animation director Shinobu Tagashira. This is exactly the feeling I've gotten from much of Higashide's work over the years, of never quite being able to focus his talent in the right direction. Yasunori Miyazawa did some animation in the short that's easy to spot. There was some decent action afterwards that ironically stood out as being better drawn than the rest of the short, which I thought might have been drawn by Anime R animator Fumiaki Kouta, though I don't know his work enough to be sure. Now that's bad, when a scene drawn by one animator stands out as being better drawn than the drawings of the animation director, particularly in a short such as this where you would expect the quality to be higher throughout. Litmus animator Koichi Arai was there with "conceptual character design". I'd love to see what his designs were before they were maligned in this short.

Morioka Hiroshi's Field Test was mostly notable to me for having been animated by a single person - Toshiharu Murata. I'd never heard of him before, and in fact the animation is nothing to jump up and down about, as it only moves here and there and consists mostly of static close-ups of characters, but as a lover of solo episodes it was a nice surprise. Solos turn up in the most unexpected places. I'm very curious to know whether the credits are accurate and the director was the animation director as opposed to Murata himself, as that would change the whole dynamic of Murata's effort. It actually took me a few minutes to realize that the anime character up there on the screen was supposed to be Bruce Wayne.

No surprise to me, Yasuhiro Aoki's In Darkness Dwells blew me away. It was by far the most solid short in the film, the only one that stood on its own as a perfectly crafted creation with a feeling of dramatic weight that managed to overcome the limitations of the material. I was expecting no less of Aoki, but the quality he turned in here surprised even me. I knew Aoki was a great director, but his short here has the power of a feature crammed into a mere 10 minutes, which got me to dreaming about what the results would be if he focused that cinematic brilliance onto an actual feature-length film one day. What's most impressive is that, beyond being a great director, Aoki's drawings are awesome. He and Nishimi were the only directors here who were their own animation directors, and they clearly stand in a league of their own in terms of technical skill and talent. Like Nishimi, Aoki started out as an animator, and he musters all his talent as a drawer and a creator of great movement in everything he directs, so that whatever he does is a seamless whole where every bit of the image serves his bidding as director, communicating something at every moment through the animation or the image. It's in the little details that directing comes alive, and Aoki has a brilliant eye for detail in everything he does. It's not about packing in detail so much as emphasizing the right detail, which is something Aoki is great at. The action scene in Aoki's short was easily the most exciting in the film in terms of the choreography and creating a thrilling flow of dramatic tension, confirming Aoki's place as one of the best action animators in Japan. But Aoki isn't just an action animator. This short to me only confirms that he has the potential to go much further.

Toshiyuki Kubooka's Working Through Pain was interesting for the animation to me. Without Naoyuki Onda's meticulous drawings guiding the eye at every moment with some slight nuance, I don't think the film would have worked at all. It's not that I'm a fan; I don't even particularly like his drawings. But Onda is one of the more meticulous and maniacal animation directors out there, and when he does a project, he clearly takes control of every shot and fills it with his own nuance. I respect his skill, and admire that he can draw animals properly, which is something few animators seem to have the ability to do in Japan. The fight scene was nicely animated, but I have no idea who might have done it. I found the last short, Deadshot, interesting mostly for having been animated entirely by two Korean animators, with only three inbetweeners, showing how different the training is over there. With only five people they're able to make a film that moves so smoothly. That said, the animation isn't particularly interesting or nice to look at, nor was the story or directing particularly compelling. Boy would I have loved to see this one done by Kang Won Young instead.

I was a little confused by the credits. They seem kind of messed up. For the first film, for example, it says Shinji Kimura did the storyboard, the layout, the character design, animation supervising, and, oh yeah... art director too! Is that humanly possible? Isn't that not even what he does? Surely it's Nishimi who did all those things apart from the art directing? There are several other spots that don't make sense like this, and disturbingly, it's for credits of major importance. For Aoki's film, Inoda Kaoru is listed as the character designer and the art director. Now that is an odd combination I have never seen before, except maybe for Shinji Kimura's piece for Genius Party. I would have thought that Aoki did the designs, since he was the animation director of his own piece. For Kubooka's piece, again, Shuichi Hirata is credited as animation supervisor and art director, and the director is credited as animation director. I'm not sure what the specific meaning of these credits is, but surely it was character designer Naoyuki Onda who was the animation director, and not the art director or director? For the same film Tatsuyuki Tanaka is credited as as storyboard supervisor and conceptual designer. I can see conceptual designer, but why would he be storyboarding Kubooka's film? In Morioka's film, it strikes me as odd that Morioka would be the animation director, and Toshiharu Murata would be storyboarder and character designer. Surely Morioka did storyboard, and Murata did animation directing? If I am wrong on all counts (which I hope), then this film adopted a strange production style the likes of which I've never seen before. If I'm right, then it strikes me as being egregiously disrespectful of the supposedly "revered animation filmmakers" that they couldn't even be bothered to list their credits right.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

07:36:39 pm , 2337 words, 5154 views     Categories: Animation, Movie


One of my favorite shows back in the mid-90s when I'd borrow VHS tapes of the latest anime shows from a neighborhood Japanese grocery store in Houston was Bonobono. Not only was the show very funny, it was totally unlike other anime in terms of its humor an the look of its characters, and that immediately attracted me. I just discovered a DVD of the Bonobono movie from 1993, which I had not seen. It was great re-discovering Bonobono after all these years through the very first anime adaptation that I'd never had the chance to see. It was a nostalgic experience, but it's also a uniquely interesting show.

The manga by Mikio Igarashi was first serialized in 1992, and the movie came out a year later, in 1993. The TV series was aired 1995-1996, which would be when I discovered it. Both the movie and the TV series were produced by Group Tac. The staff are different for each, but the movie features some more well-known staff - producer and audio director Atsumi Tashiro and character designer and animation director Michishiro Yamada. It was nice to discover that the film was directed by Yuuji Muto, whom I knew only from his work on Crayon Shin-chan over the last decade or so. Group Tac is one of Japan's more unique studios, so it would be worthwhile to dig into their back catalogue, as I'm sure they've done other memorable projects informed of the distinctive vein of inventiveness they brought to Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. I don't know about now, but in the past they occupied a unique position in terms of the projects they did and how they executed them.

Muto also directed two of the Shin-chan movies not long ago, and I actually hadn't been too pleased with Muto's work on them because I'd grown accustomed to the Shin-chan movies being strong films rather than mere assemblages of gags thanks to Keiichi Hara and Mitsuru Hongo, whereas Muto's films were more scattershot and lacking in strong dramatic direction. But Muto is a perfect match with Bonobono. The film was actually written, directed and storyboarded by the manga artist Mikio Igarashi, with Muto being credited as the "animation kantoku", so it's a bit of an unusual situation. I'm guessing that Igarashi oversaw the whole production, while Muto must have been the equivalent of "enshutsu", supervising the final assembly of animation and visual elements. In any case, Group Tac is a great studio for their ability to create a film with a production style and look as unusual this one. They quickly spotted this great manga, and had the willingness to adopt a new approach to producing a movie from it that would allow what's great about the manga to be successfully transferred onto film. This is almost certainly one of the most successful instances of a manga-ka directing an anime film.

Muto has a very detail-oriented approach that comes through wonderfully here and is a perfect match with this material, with its eccentric, loopy sense of humor that relies tremendously on precise timing and slow-burn for effect. The first five minutes of the film are practically wordless, introducing each of the characters in turn by slowly enacted sequences that work entirely by visual means to introduce us to the behavior and quirks of each of the show's eccentric characters. Sound plays a great part at the very beginning as we're slowly zooming in from a bird's eye view of the forest down to ground level. The film is willing to create these calm, quiet moments where the camera is still and the ambient sounds are the elements that communicate. This aspect reminded me of Night on the Galactic Railroad, which makes sense, as the same audio director was behind both films - studio head Atsumi Tashiro. For twenty seconds or so we simply sit listening to the sounds of the forest with its assorted chirping insects and birdcalls and breeze through the trees, as the first character walks slowly down the path towards us. At the same time, the images of the forest are obviously hand-drawn in the style of Igarashi's manga as opposed to realistic, which creates a nice contrast and establishes the look of the film. It's one of the many great moments in the film.

That's something that characterizes the film and Muto's approach - very moment oriented, detail oriented, rather than dramatic and forward-driven. Rather than the film being about any sort of dramatic story, it's all about simply being there, with the characters, as they go about their daily life, thinking aloud about the first silly and amusing thing that comes to mind. It's all very effortless. It's very real in that sense, and that's a big part of why I found myself liking it so much back then and now. The film is steeped in the mood of a lazy summer day with friends. At times there's almost a deep comment about life that seems to be made in these quiet non-moments, but anything serious only just barely pokes its head above the surface for a moment. It's almost taoist in its mentality, with the way it flows along quietly making ludicrous but simultaneously deep and philosophical observations of things floating past.

The images are very close to the original manga, but the animation is nonetheless quite rich and finely crafted, and it has a look and feel that is specific to the show. I don't just mean in terms of the character designs, but in terms of the way characters meander about the screen in a very detailed way that sets it fundamentally apart from the typical anime approach to layout and staging. It's important for animation to come up with new approaches to the animation, but it's rare to see in anime, and this is a good example of how anime, in the best cases, can come up with original approaches to animation informed by the atmosphere and graphic sensibility of the manga on which it's based, rather than merely plugging the designs into a standard industry approach to layout and animation. Here everything works as a whole to create a world where the original approach to layout and movement of the characters is the very essence of the enjoyment of the film.

Animation director Michishiro Yamada is actually a member of Ajia-Do rather than Group Tac, unless I'm mistaken, so I'm not sure how he came to be working on this film, although they certainly made the right decision in choosing him. He's a veteran of the A Pro school, and a longtime Ajia-Do member, having debuted as an inbetweener on things like Panda Kopanda and drawn a lot of key animation on the classic A Pro shows like Dokonjo Gaeru and Hajime Ningen Gyators, and joined Ajia-Do when it was founded in 1978 by Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi. During the Ajia-Do era he did a lot of work on various shows, notably Ajia-Do's big success Nintama Rantaro. He is one of the few animators who were active on the classic A Pro shows who by 1993 remained fully active as an animator, or animation director in this case. Those decades of experience obviously make him an expert in animating this kind of small, cartoony character, and he upholds that legacy here, doing a great job of bringing the personalities of these characters to life through animation.

The film achieves a great sense of overall unity also in part thanks to the great music by the guitar duo Gontiti, with its lulling, dreamy, loopy atmosphere so different from typical associations with anime. Testament to how different Group Tac's approach is, it seems the music was composed based on the images, rather than simply having the composer create tracks in advance that would be pasted over each scene as deemed appropriate by the director, as is usual in anime. The music ebbs and flows in sync with each little movement of the characters in certain scenes, creating a great sense of unity of visuals and sound. The film would be unthinkable without its music. The film achieves a rare sense of unity between the every element, which combined with its eccentrically meandering dramatic structure and pared-down yet rich visual sensibility makes it a truly refreshing watch.

More than anything, though, it's the how the story plays out that makes watching Bonobono so rich an experience. Rather than everything taking place on a predetermined line called the narrative, it's as if we're simply plunged into the forest that these creatures call home, observing them interact with the insects and other animals of the forest as they wander about, each with their odd habits and tics that come across as both human and animal, stopping for a moment to watch a lone ant wandering across the road in fascination. The characters are animals, and if there is a narrative it's the story of the natural world, but at the same time they have the natural curiosity of children about the little things in life. That's the element that really captured me - how good Igarashi is at extracting these little ideas, and molding them into delightful extended sequences that function great as visual gags and also have a grain of truth in them that you can relate to. Who hasn't at some time as a child shut one eye, then opened it and shut the other, then the other, then the other, and so on, back and forth, marveling at the odd way the scenery shifts back and forth when you do that. The way the characters go about having fun discovering the little things in life like this gives the series a naive but profound undercurrent that makes it a delight to watch, which nicely balances out the times when it gets quite crass in its humor.

It's been many years since I saw the TV series, so I can't recall how it may differ from the movie, but from what I can recall the shorter format seemed better suited to the episodic structure of the original, whereas the film kind of meanders randomly. The film achieves an odd sort of perfection in its singular way, with its rounded production, but the TV series is probably closer to the episodic silliness of the original comic. Coincidentally, the whole TV series came out in two DVD box sets last year, so I'm curious to re-discover this memorable oddity. The film is still as unique in its atmosphere and untainted by anime conventions as when I discovered the TV show back then, so it's stood up better than I expected. In an idiosyncratic voice that combines whimsy and depth, it offers a simple and soothing picturebook experience, which alone makes it stand out all the more in this age when it's hard to find studios willing to tackle material without pre-mapped appeal.

Actually, I just noticed that a number of episodes of the TV series are up on Youtube, and a quick look reveals that the style is indeed quite different. First of all the animation is much more spare, of course, revealing the great work done by Michishiro Yamada in the film. But more importantly, the series lacks the great feeling of "ma" as they say in Japanese, or timing, the way each shot and each sequence plays out slowly and deliberately, allowing things the time to unfold naturally and with the sort of disjointed whimsy that is so critical in making this material work. From a cursory glance, in the TV series things seem to pass by at the same uniform pace without any sense for timing, simply rushing from one gag to the next, which doesn't convey the right feeling for this material. So much comes through in the spaces between the gags in the film, without which the TV series seems a bit of a pale imitation. Even so, it was enough to get me hooked back then, and it's still amusing and fun in its own way, but it's a different beast from the movie.

Incidentally, Mikio Igarashi was also the creator of Ninpen Manmaru, which was adapted into a TV series by Shin-Ei, and for which Masaaki Yuasa animated the ending.


A few extra comments. I hadn't completely finished watching the film when I wrote this, but now that I have, my impression is slightly different. Everything I said before is true, but in addition, it's a fantastic film that works great as a film and is underpinned by a surprisingly thoughtful and philosophical atmosphere that, in the end, transmits a subtle and indirect but moving and convincing message about life, and what it means to be alive. Igarashi uses very simple language to convey this message, but its simplicity reinforces the theme of the film, which I think can be summed up using one of the character's lines near the end: "We're simple." We're not as complicated as we make ourselves out to be. Life isn't as complicated as we make it. We're not born for a reason. Life is. That's all. Like the musk ox who provides the backbone of the story, appearing one day all of a sudden relentlessly plowing forward through the forest, animating the denizens of the forest into a flurry of trepidation and excitement - life is simple, with no reason, simply moving ahead, one day at a time. What we can do for one another is to create transient moments of pleasure. They won't last forever, but neither will life, nor pain, nor anything in this world. Eventually he passes by, they see him, the excitement dies down, and life goes on its way. Did anything change? Maybe, maybe not. Just as the film ends on a note of ambivalence and openness, there wasn't really a narrative thread, only life playing out around him. Igarashi has achieved a beautiful balance in this film through the unified simplicity of dialogue, directing and visuals, and the resulting film is a genuine, moving, meaningful creation.

Friday, August 1, 2008

12:31:53 am , 695 words, 2281 views     Categories: Animation

The solo

I've long been fascinated by a phenomenon that seems to be unique to Japanese animation - the solo animator episode, where a single person draws all of the key animation for an entire TV episode. There have been many over the decades, and it's rather common in the simply designed situation comedy style shows produced by A Pro/Shin-Ei (you can still see good solo work done on Shin-chan, for one), but it's rarer in typical productions these days. I've pointed out a number over the last few years, the latest being Michio Mihara's episode of Kaiba.

A new one has turned up in the series World Destruction. Kensuke Ishikawa drew all of the key animation for episode 3, although there were lots of seconds. (meaning he drew rough keys that people cleaned up) So it isn't quite a solo of the purity of, say, Mihara's episode of Kaiba, where he not only didn't have seconds, he even drew most of the inbetweens himself. I'm not too impressed with the work, but it's always an interesting thing to see, which is why I mention it here. Solo episodes are nice because they offer the rare chance to get a sense of what it is that defines animator style, in the broad sense. They also, of course, offer an intimate and extended look at a particular animator's style and skills, which is great if it's a great animator, but even if it's not, they help give a sense of what it is that sets animators apart from one another in general terms, i.e. how to go about identifying the different traits that distinguish animators from one another; what each animator brings to the table through his or her unique talent. That can be hard to do without prior knowledge of an animator's style in most episodes, which typically feature a dozen or more animators with different styles, not to mention varying degrees of correction by the animation director. Kensuke Ishikawa also storyboarded and processed the episode, so you can clearly see a distinct personality at work in terms of not just the animation but also the staging and so on.

Not all solo episodes are necessarily showcases for an animator, but rather merely the result of scheduling expediency. Veteran Toei animator Nobuyoshi Sasakado has the distinction of being probably the single most prolific creator of solo animator episodes, the quality of which are however consequently consistently nominal, at best, at least from the few episodes I've sampled. He obviously has speed on his side, which I gather must be an asset in TV production in Japan. His approach represents the diametric opposite of the approach of a Michio Mihara. It's about quantity over quality, a pragmatic way of helping speed along production for the company, whereas in the case of Mihara if anything even longer was spent producing the episode in order to achieve better quality that met the animator's standards. Another animator named Yoshitaka Yajima apparently did a lot of solo flying throughout the various Digimon series as part of the in-house rotation team, probably falling into the expediency category.

Here's a list of some good solo episodes from past and present.

Goku's Big Adventure #12 & #21 (1967) by Sadao Tsukioka
New Lupin III #14 (1977) by Kazuhide Tomonaga
Gold Lightan #41 (1981) by Takashi Nakamura
Hanaichi Monme OVA #2 (1989) by Hideki Hamasu
Hanaichi Monme OVA #5 (1989) by Koichi Arai
Eat Man #7 (1997) by Norio Matsumoto
Legend of the White Whale #21 (1997) by Hirotoshi Takaya
Dokkoida #5 (2003) by Futoshi Higashide
Samurai Seven #7 (2004) by Hisashi Mori (only part A)
Gankutsuoh #9 (2004) by Yasuhiro Seo
Honey & Clover #7 (2005) by Tetsuya Takeuchi
Tweeny Witches OVA #4 (2005) by Shogo Furuya
Aria the Natural #2 (2006) by Takaaki Wada
Kemonozume #12 (2006) by Michio Mihara
Kaiba #4 (2008) by Michio Mihara

The opening featured some nice work, as did the first episode, in which Yasunori Miyazawa did a very distinctive section. I also liked the fighting after Miyazawa's section, and wonder if it might not be the work of Shuichi Kaneko. The only shot in the op I was able to identify was that of the unmistakable Nobutoshi Ogura, near the end, but I surmise that Hideki Takahashi or Kyoji Asano probably did some of the other good bits.