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: August 2008, 28

Thursday, August 28, 2008

12:27:00 am , 3775 words, 82782 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.