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, 02

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

05:16:53 pm , 1013 words, 2659 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.