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: September 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

10:25:56 pm , 1149 words, 4660 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie


THE FACE by Ray & Penny (

I'm back from China. Apologies if the site was down for a few days. The domain registration picked the worst possible time to expire.

I was lucky enough to attend an animation screening in Beijing last Saturday. It was all very last minute and by chance, but I'm glad I had a chance to go. It was a screening of student films from all around Asia. I'm always pleased to see student films. Those of Japan in recent years have been particularly compelling, with a willingness to try unpolished and brash new things, unrestrained by the conventions of the profession. I was glad to be able to see student films from elsewhere for once. Korean films dominated this screening, which was held at a small cafe evocatively named the Space For Imagination Coffee House, but there were films from all over Asia, including China, Japan, India and Taiwan. The owner apparently organizes the screenings on a regular basis, as well as hosting premieres of local indie films. The small coffee shop was packed with young people. I wonder how many were studying to become animators or considering doing so.

I don't want to overstate the quality of the films. There was way too much uninspired CGI, mostly from Korea, in addition to one from Taiwan. Luckily there were two outstanding films among the bunch, and a handful of decent non-CGI films with some original flair, so I was satisfied that I had gotten somewhat of a representative selection of the diversity of work coming out of Asian schools today - both the positive and the negative aspects. The two that stood out from the bunch were hand-drawn films, each of a very different character from the other, but both from young creators already displaying real talent for animated filmmaking in every sense, from theme to design to motion.

The Chinese film The Face by Lei Lei 雷磊 and Chai Mi 柴觅, AKA Ray and Penny, was instantly my favorite, a film full of great design ideas brought to life by good techniques, an underground vibe, and great dynamism of motion and directing. The two are actually boyfriend and girlfriend, and the film was their graduate film for the Academy of Art & Design at Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2007. (You can see a photo of the two on the page of this Chinese interview.) Together they run a site featuring their design work, which clearly shows their great design sense in a variety of media - you can see sculptures and a clever rubix cube they created based on the design of the characters in the film, among many other drawings and objects they've created. Korea already has its share of great artists in animation, but I knew very little about the Chinese scene before seeing this film, so I found this film in particular a tantalizing discovery. China is already brimming with great artists in the other fields, so it will be exciting to see what great animators develop in the coming years.

You can download the film from this entry on their blog, where you can see some high-quality screencaps, or you can watch it online

The only other film that showed anything even remotely close to this kind of sharp design sense and assuredness of touch both technical and poetic was Way Home by Korean animator Erick Oh. Erick has a home page, but there isn't anything on it yet, and his film isn't available online yet, presumably because he would like to show it at festivals. It's too bad it's not viewable anywhere yet, as this was the one I came away most wanting to share with people. It deserves to be seen at festivals around the world, so I hope that happens. Erick's far less polished but still impressive earlier film shared something of the style of Way Home, with its breakneck roller-coaster ride of imaginative transformations and unexpected twists and turns revealing a real love of animated motion and a rare ability and patience to put in he work required to create rich motion. Very little happens in Way Home - the naming is clever in underlining that simplicity - but he makes the spareness an asset, expertly manipulating the subdued tone of screen, spareness of line, unforced pacing and relentless attention to detail in the motion of the character to achieve a strong effect reminiscent of the films of Michael Dudok de Wit. It's a mesmerizing, lyrical, lovely film. You can see some screencaps and a photo of the creator here. More than anything, he is a fantastic animator. He brings the character alive with a density and nuance of motion that is a marvel to behold.

None of the other films were quite up to this level, although there was an interesting variety. It was nice to see a stop-motion film from India with Dhimant Vyas's Happy Planet. Vyas cites heavyweights Norman McLaren, Caroline Leaf and Ishu Patel among his influences in this interview, and the film indeed seems to harken back to an older age in animation, when creators were willing to get their hands dirty, to mess around with physical objects and materials, to try out new things in animation, instead of doing it all on the computer. It was refreshingly analog and tactile and honest. It's not surprising to hear that he's been associated with Ardman. Claymation as a form has a surprising tenacity, and even seems to be seeing something of a resurgence lately. The Vancouver International Film Festival will soon be showing the first Canadian stop-motion feature, Edison & Leo. I suppose there's something about the physicality of claymation that continues to appeal to would-be animators.

Although not online, Hyeon-myeong Choe's Bulpyeoni was a well made hand-drawn children's film about the imaginary adventures of a little girl who wears her mother's shoes to school. It had a smart sense of wit and irony, and did a good job of showing the world from the point of view of the youngster's imagination. Black Rainbow, which can be seen here, was a little bit lacking in dynamism and was hard to make sense of, but was nonetheless pleasing for its original sensibility and voice, something direly lacking in most of the cookie-cutter Korean CGI films at the screening. Women of Yunnan, which I can't find online, was an interesting wash of dark textures reminiscent of the early shadow-puppet work of the likes of Ofuji and Reiniger. The creator is obviously a fan of Mind Game, as he paid the film homage by subtly incorporating a bit of the animation from the god scene. At least, I'll interpret it that way. It was an odd and unexpected place to run into that old film, but the wheel of influence wends its way around the world, and so much the better for animation.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

06:43:18 pm , 1672 words, 2637 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #10

This episode was one of the most emotionally compelling and convincing in the series, focusing as it does squarely on the past of the protagonists that has been hinted at here and there throughout the series. Finally, everything is laid bare - although what makes Yuasa's directing so unique is fully evident in this episode: Even while revealing everything that we've been curious about the past of the characters, he manages to do so without laying things on too thick, without filling in all the details, still leaving room for the imagination. Sometimes it's dissatisfying to be told everything. The lacunae are sometimes more telling.

Yuasa was writer, storyboarder and director of the episode for the first time since the first episode, and he had the luxury of having brilliant animator Masahiko Kubo as his animation director here. Not only that, but this episode is a perfect example of how a tiny team of well-chosen members can create something far superior to work by a large team working more disparately. Simply put, a total of five people were responsible for the main tasks. Kubo headed the animators, of which there were only three others, and each of them is a great animator - Ryotaro Makihara, Takayuki Hamada and Kenichi Yamaguchi. I know less about Yamaguchi, but Hamada and Makihara are each brilliant animators in their own right, so this episode was, needless to say, fantastically well animated and nuanced for such a small team. Not a stroke was out of place, and the acting planned by Yuasa was brought vividly to life by the animators in the wonderfully intimate scenes that make this episode so special and convincing.

Incidentally, Hamada and Makihara were both originally trained at Telecom, a studio that was considered something of the mecca for full-styled animation in Japan in the 80s, and which has put out any number of great animators, including some of the most interesting animators active today in Japan such as Shojiro Nishimi and Hiroyuki Aoyama. That training comes through vividly in both of their animation, which is at a basic level very fluid, but fluid in a nuanced way, and in a dynamic way. I don't know how Telecom does it, but they inherit precisely what it is that I so loved about Yasuo Otsuka's animation - a sort of loose, rough dynamism where every little movement is full of spunk and fire, without being sloppy. Their animation somehow provides a thrill exciting and broad, yet nuanced and delicate.

Yuasa started out as an animator, and even before that he was a fan of great animators. He still is, quite clearly. He has constantly kept an eye out for great animators, and in his work he is always getting people who are great animators, whom he knows will be a good match for the particular demands of what he is doing. This episode is a classic example of this. From Yuichiro Sueyoshi to Nobutake Ito to Ryotaro Makihara to Masahiko Kubo, the animators Yuasa chooses for his projects are each very different in their styles, yet they always seem a perfect match for what he is doing, and it's in his projects that they deliver what seems like the most incredible work they've yet done, not least because their compelling animation is part of a whole that is already so tremendously compelling. It's the ideal in animation - great animators bringing interesting ideas and stories to life. The story here would be interesting without their work, but it would not be as rich or nuanced. They're an indispensable part of the finished product. They've made a genuine artistic contribution in their own roles. My favorite classical form is the string quartet, because it provides the ideal balance between solo and large group, and the form can be both expansive and intimate at times. You can clearly follow how the four different players are contributing at each moment, each allowed to speak in their own voice, yet coming together to speak as one. This episode is something close to that - a virtuoso animation quintet. Of course, there are always a lot of other people involved in animation in addition to the people responsible for the core elements. The backgrounds in particular continued to be wonderful to look at.

It's not just that the animation is pretty to look at, it's that this episode was all about character psychology and characterization, and in order to succeed in bringing the characters to life so that their stories can seem convincing, they have to be brought to life in the little details of the way they behave, which is where the animators come in. The episode would have been less successful as a whole had life not been breathed into the little nuances of the behavior of the characters the way it was. This episode reminded me of episode 2 of Kemonozume, where we get an intimate look at the budding love of Toshihiko and Yuka. It's the most amorphous of the episodes in many ways, having been extemporaneously storyboarded by Yuasa without a script. It's animation in its purest form as a visual medium - the story in the mind of the creator coming alive not through the intermediary of words but directly into visual form.

This episode had that kind of spontaneous feeling, and also that same feeling of intimacy that was so moving and convincing about that episode of Kemonozume. You were really convinced that these were two people in love, and it was the seemingly throwaway scenes like the scene in the fountain or the scene on the rooftop, where you just see them hanging around talking, that this came through most powerfully. Here the scene on the bed was the salient scene in this sense, and one of the most memorable scenes of the series, with an honest, believable feeling of intimacy that I've only seen in animation in the work of Yuasa. It was a short episode to try to cram the entire back-story into, but I was amazed how he managed to create a feeling of welling emotion in the viewer heading towards the end, establishing their back-stories and personalities while still finding the time to create scenes of meandering beauty like the bedroom scene that in their honesty melt the heart of the viewer, all in such a short span.

Kemonozume was a fantastic series, but I find that Yuasa has really made progress as a creator with Kaiba. Although I'm not finished with the series, I'm happy to see that he has achieved what I was hoping he would at the outset - a feeling of stronger forward momentum and unity, both visual and narrative, than that of Kemonozume. He has created a perfectly honed arc, without any throwaway episodes, and he has integrated strong characterization into a simultaneously more complex but also more coherent and thoroughly conceived story and world.

I'll be away for the next two weeks exploring the caves of Dunhuang, so unfortunately I'll be in suspense about the ending for a while to come. To make up for my negligence of the blog during that time, here's a little parting tidbit that should please fans of Kaiba: Yuasa is right now working his next project at Madhouse. The producer of Kaiba mentioned it in the column on Madhouse's site. Yuasa has gotten to do so much fantastic work already thanks to Madhouse, far more than I would have expected - two whole highly unusual and experimental TV series. I'm grateful that Madhouse gave him and continues to give him opportunities. This particular column is about episode 10, where Yuasa mentions he had to do the storyboard for this episode faster than he would have liked. He also mentions something interesting - he meant to be more thorough in giving each character a particular habit or tic that would identify them from body to body, but wasn't able to do it as thoroughly as originally intended. But the signs are there if you pay close attention. As with everything Yuasa does, it's quite subtle - Popo wiping his nose, etc.

Also, as a big fan of Akitoshi Yokoyama's work, I was very happy to see that he was given the chance to write one of the columns. Not only is it great to see his raw drawings (he started as an animator), but in his comments about his work on the series, he reveals himself to be just as thoughtful and intelligent as his episodes suggested, truly thinking about what it means to be working in animation, to be working in film. A conscientious director who puts his all into everything he does, and asks himself hard questions. Like I have many times over the years, he ponders the question of whether animation is truly up to the level of cinema, and also, whether his job is to create art or entertainment. Tough questions that can't easily be answered. The experience of working on Kaiba seems to have given him a shot of courage to believe that the answer to the former question, whether animation can really achieve the level of cinema, can indeed be: Yes. In my opinion, he has created work that, by functioning at the highest level as entertainment, manages to cross over into the realm of art. There's great value in lacking a sense of certainty about the meaning of your work, whatever that work may be, and continuing to ask yourself tough questions. It's the only way good art can be made. Yokoyama makes the intriguing comments that even he isn't sure what the characters were thinking when they said what they did. As it is in real life, sometimes what we say isn't what we really mean, and sometimes there are important things about ourselves that we can never say even to those closest to us. For having thought as deeply as he did about the characters and the meaning of their actions, Yokoyama was one of this series' greatest assets.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

05:16:53 pm , 1013 words, 2671 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #9

Akitoshi Yokoyama had me glued to the screen through the white-hot intense plot developments of this episode, which he handled with his usual brilliance as storyboarder and director. With the exception of Michio Mihara's episode 4, the more expository and episodic episodes 2 through 7 were all co-written written by the episode directors with chief director Masaaki Yuasa, while from episode 8 onwards each episode is written exclusively by Yuasa as we turn the focus on the meat of the plot involving the large cast of characters, the particulars of which clearly only the creator himself would be able to manipulate the right way. I find that this shifting structure lends the series strength. It has a feeling of richness and doesn't get old, with a varied tone and approach to the material as we progress, while even the episodes that are not driving the plot forward contribute to building up the show's unique atmosphere and visual ethos. Holding out by building things up for the first half also winds up creating a great feeling of payoff when we finally approach the climax and are rewarded by being plunged into the intense and intricately crafted plot.

I don't know quite what to say about this episode, as Yokoyama's directing speaks for itself, and what is interesting is now really the plot and how it progresses. Everything here works as a hermetically sealed unit, the ideal in animation, creating a feeling of dramatic intensity that is found rarely in anime but for the films of the best directors. I found myself dreaming of seeing a feature-length film with this level of intensity and imagination. Many anime strive to create this sort of intensity, to give their plot developments powerful impact, and otherwise get the audience involved in the characters and the goings on, but at least personally, I find that it rarely works, and I wind up kind of feeling alienated and watching from the sidelines as things kind of go off on their own. Here I find myself carried along, engaged, really into what's happening. I think that's because in most cases there is just too much reliance on convention in the various elements, so that it feels like something I've seen before and lacks the surprise to get me to want to watch - like we're riding along on the same old rails. It doesn't feel like things are developing of their own momentum the way things do in Kaiba, but that rather they're following the textbook pattern for dramatic structure. It's when you break beyond that that things become interesting.

This is one of the things that anime is supposed to be so good at, these vast epic stories. I think a lot of people seek that from anime. Lots of anime attempt to do this, with a large casts of characters and complex stories, trying to create a sense of a vast scale with a large cast. But more often than not, either the characters are just the same set of stereotypical characters, or the story and directing are all things we've seen before in different settings, and it just doesn't work. Kaiba, particularly in the last few episodes, is impressive to me because it succeeds in constructing a plot that is epic, involves a large cast, is full of imaginative elements in the design and world setting, and more than anything, perhaps, the characterizations are layered, believable, and convincing. This is clearly a different beast from Kemonozume. Yuasa has really thought about how to present this story in a way that paints a vast canvas by way of the brushstrokes of the stories of the individual characters. The previous series was small-scale, focused on the plights of individuals in a situation beyond their control, whereas this one seems large-scale, more of a historical epic, albeit in a fantasy context. Obviously, Kaiba is a very short series, but I think they've achieved an impressively expansive scale in such a short span. It's more about how the material is handled than about the quantity of material.

The animation director of this episode was the main character designer, Nobutake Ito, so together with the directing by Yokoyama and the script by Yuasa, this was a dream team episode. We often have surprise guests in each episode, and in this episode we find Hideki Hamasu, that amazing animator of vivid and rich movement, and mainstay of Satoshi Kon's films. The other animators were all familiar from previous episodes, including the group of women animators and the Madhouse mainstays Takuo Noda and Nobumasa Arakawa. At the bottom there was a mysterious person credited only as "ROSE". The animation came together nicely in the climax of the episode, as it tends to in episodes directed by Yokoyama. He creates these thrilling climaxes filled with great animation and cathartic explosions of vivid colors.

Another thing I like about Kaiba is that it succeeds in using space in a very effective way. The characters fly around through their environment, the camera zooming around following them, really interacting with the strange worlds that make Kaiba so unique instead of just using them as static background props. This is an issue I've always had with anime and wanted to see attacked more forcefully. There seems to be too much willingness to fall back on a conventional plane mentality when it comes to staging and layout, which I suppose is partly due to the material, which is usually essentially based on real-world physics, partly the realistically proportioned designs, and partly the nature of the medium, which doesn't particularly make flying around through an environment an easy thing to animate. I guess that's why I've always had a special place in my heart for animators who do background animation, and directors who effectively integrate it. It's as if the knowledge of how difficult it is to do, combined with the simple thrill of how cool it looks, creates an impact that flying through a CGI environment can't touch. Kaiba uses that innate potential of animation effectively in many sequences, including the climax of this episode.