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: October 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

11:22:25 pm , 1565 words, 4264 views     Categories: Animation


Bones is one of the most consistent studios active today in terms of maintaining a high standard of quality from one show to the next, and from one episode to the next. I can't say I'm always into the shows they produce (which is not to say they don't dedicate an equal amount to creating intricately thought-out characters, worlds and stories - and their use of original material is all the more notable in an industry drowning in manga adaptations), but I am impressed by their dedication to bringing on a variety of staff both young and old from all over the industry to maintain the quality of their work. It would be too much work to go through all the talent that's been involved at various times over the years in Bones shows, both in the animation and directing and other roles, but I find that there's always good work being done somewhere or other, whether I recognize any names or not. They are also innovative in organizing staff and bringing on people in unusual configurations to bolster the quality, creating staff configurations suited to the project at hand. Just as they seek out good animators, they also seek out good directors. Sometimes they'll gamble on young staff like ex-Ghibli directors, while other times they'll bring in time-tested talent like Toei alumni Takuya Igarashi.

What I most like about them, of course, is that the quality of the animation is always paramount in every project, and there are always a number of figures with proven talent supporting the animation, whatever the project. Bones is unique in that in almost all of their projects they always have a featured "main animator", if not several. Yutaka Nakamura is the most veteran and most identifiable linchpin of Bones' animation, but there are many other talented figures featured prominently, like Yasushi Muraki, Hidetsugu Itoh, et al. More often than not in their projects these days, though, I don't recognize the names, so in addition to using veterans, they're clearly training a lot of younger but talented animators, which creates a great balance that keeps the quality getting better. I suspect there's a sort of self-perpetuating aspect to the cycle of bringing on good main staff - the good people know the quality they need, so they in turn want to bring on talent that can provide that quality.

Indicative of their unique focus on the animation is a special page they've put up on their site for their latest big project, Xam'd, featuring the raw (inbetweened) key animation for a number of good scenes from the show so far. They're deservedly proud of the good work they do, and it's a respectful gesture to the fans of good animation who like to see this sort of thing that they've put up the little feature.

In episode 5 of Xam'd, there was an excellent piece of animation around midway of a character running that I wondered about in a comment not long ago. I didn't recognize any names in the credits, so clearly it was by someone I'd never heard of. I was dying to know who it was, but didn't think I'd ever find out. Lo and behold, I was happy to discover that Bones recently added a shot from that exact scene to the key animation page on their site (#05 C-212), revealing that it was the work of a young animator named Yasuo Muroi. I would never have known, as I don't know him at all - although upon looking into it I realized that he was apparently heavily involved in the second half of Denno Coil. (Again, a subsequent episode featured good work by other ex-Coil folks. The show's defining feature, though - if it wasn't obvious enough from the surface - is that its staff is dominated by ex-Ghibli people.)

The short commentary text by the main animation director, Masashi Okumura, reveals what was very clear from the animation - that Muroi studied himself in the mirror acting things out to help get the expressions and actions right. This sequence stands out dramatically not just from the rest of the animation in the show, but from most anime. It's the kind of animation I'd wish more animators would create - particularly so in anime, where a convincing feeling of timing and weight of the kind that makes Muroi's work here feel so great, with the reactions happening exactly in the right way to convince you of a particular movement or moment, making the character's behavior believable and by extension pulling you into the moment of the narrative, seems obviously to be something that would be critical in many situations where the audience has to believe in the 'reality' of the situation, but is all too often completely lacking. It's an amazingly important thing, but there doesn't seem to be much interest in digging deeper to figure out how to give the movement real conviction, or perhaps knowledge of how to go about doing it.

What I like about this innocuous shot is that I can believe in every little detail of the movement. The character slows down gradually with his body facing forward but his head tilted backwards just so, bounding forward a few times on momentum, as he scans behind him and pauses to see what the monster is going to do next. Then, in an instant, as soon as he realizes it's not down for the count, first his head snaps around, and his arms jump up for a frame or two as he gets in gear to start running again. It's the way he nails these little split second reactions that makes me like the movement so much. Every little element of the motion down to the millisecond-precise timing of how he snaps his head around at exactly the right moment, is totally convincing. You get the sense that Muroi has sat down, thought about what's going on, and thought through how he might behave in such a situation. It seems like an obvious thing to do, but I've long been baffled why I didn't see more animation in anime imbued with this sort of convincingly enacted, thought-through behavior. Muroi here proves that it's entirely doable and even a stylistic fit within the context of anime. TV anime is so special because you can run across so many different approaches to animation. From one shot to the next like this you are privy to the mind of an army of animators, each with their own predilections and skill levels, and if you've got talent, you can show it off. I can't think of many industries where that is not only the case occasionally, but a defining feature.

I've been enjoying Bones' other show, Soul Eater, too, as it also maintains a consistent level in terms of the animation and directing. Yutaka Nakamura's occasional presence is always exciting, but even besides this the animation is always stable and works very well with the show's sleek directing and visual style. I've been impressed how the directing in particular has been quite consistent across the board, with almost no exceptions, which I suspect is partly testament to chief director Takuya Igarashi's skills as a director. Most of the episode directors I'm not familiar with, although that other flamboyant ex-Toei director, Kunihiko Ikuhara, was in for a great storyboard recently. The latest episode, #30, was really nice in every sense, a classic case of the stable quality of the show, so I was wondering who was behind it. The episode was storyboarded and directed by a person named Shin Matsuo. He was also listed first in the animator credits, revealing that he animated a large portion of his own episode.

I'd never heard of Shin Matsuo, but upon looking into it I now realize that I've probably seen his name quite often, as he's actually something of a veteran, having been working as an animator since about the time of Zeta Gundam in 1985. He's been quite prolific, having been involved in everything from Venus Wars to Dangaioh to Genocyber to Run Melos to Lain to Death Note. Like many animators do, lately he's shifted to directing, and this is just the latest episode he's storyboarded/directed over the last few years. I guess it's revealing of his background as an animator that in addition to storyboarding and directing he should have gone so far as to do animation, too, and the most animation at that. He reminds me of Akitoshi Yokoyama in that sense.

Matsuo also did eps 11 and 23 of Soul Eater, as well as Samurai Gun 9, Gallery Fake 37 and Host Club 23, which was incidentally the first Igarashi joint for Bones. He's got a dynamic and kind of whacked out style, so it made sense to discover that he was behind a show I used to like when I first started watching anime - the whacked out KO Century Beast. He directed and animated the two openings, and did storyboard/directing/animation directing/animation for episode 3 of the first series. He had a pretty wild style back in the day, echoes of which can actually be felt in this latest episode of Soul Eater, with its extreme angles and constant motion. This is another example of Bones using talented veterans in the industry, not to mention an example of how hard it is to remember so many people.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

08:04:19 pm , 741 words, 6840 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #11

I've been looking forward to this episode, the penultimate one, because one of my favorite new animators of recent years, and an animator who has been doing a lot of great work on this series, has mounted his debut as an animation director on the episode - Ryotaro Makihara. Makihara first came to my attention for the work he did on the various Shin-Ei feature productions that showed him to be one of the best new animators at the studio. Masaaki Yuasa, of course, had done a lot of work on Shin-Ei's Crayon Shin-chan, so there is a deep-rooted connection, and it's perhaps less surprising to see Makihara coming to work under Yuasa now that he is presumably freelance, but it's nonetheless great to see.

Makihara's work is unique because he has a certain delicacy of touch that I haven't seen anywhere. He brings the characters' actions alive in a way none of the other animators do, not just in the movement but in the attention to detail in the acting, and in the expressions and posing, which are quite free and lively while always seeming just right and not sloppy or overdone. His animation convinces, while also feeling great in terms of the timing. His work emanates a kind of playful seriousness of purpose. He's one of the few of the new generation of animators over there who strikes me as approaching animation from a fundamental perspective, without being preoccupied by fads in terms of the approach to the timing or to the style of drawing. In Makihara and in general, Shin-Ei's legacy is obviously a focus on packing in as much movement as possible into this type of simple character rather than uselessly packing detail into the drawing to sell the character as a product, which goes rather against the dominant trend of the industry. I think any number of great scenes in Kaiba were as vivid and convincing as they were due to his ability to bring a character to life. Makihara is one of the few of the scads of new animators out there of whom I fully expect to see great things to come judging by what he's up to already. Makihara on the animation side and Akitoshi Yokoyama on the directing side are in my estimation the two biggest up-and-coming stars of this show. I could see their styles complementing one another, too, if they ever get together to do work, which would be great to see.

The episode was written and storyboarded by Masaaki Yuasa, and processed (directed) by Masahiko Kubo, who has handled a lot of the effects animation throughout the series. The animation of this episode was rich not only due to Makihara but due to the great list of animators on the episode, including Michio Mihara, Choi Eunyoung, Hideki Kakita, Jamie Vickers, Takayuki Hamada, et al, to say nothing of that core of women animators present throughout almost the whole series. This series has been characterized by the way a small team centered mostly on these figures have been behind the animation, maintaining a uniform level of quality and a feeling of unity.

As is usual in Yuasa's productions, you can never guess where things are going, particularly near the end, when he seems to pull one rug out from another from beneath you. In the second-to-last episode, the story still drives ahead satisfyingly, feeling like many of the threads are coming together and the narrative is coming to a head rather than just wheeling unpredictably out of control. I wouldn't claim to say I understand everything, but I'm actually OK not understanding everything when it's all as interesting as it is here, and there's too much that would need explanation anyway. He's elided and hinted just enough to get you by, although there are definitely things that can be hard to catch sometimes. I think Yuasa will probably continue down the road of simplifying his storytelling the way he has been, if just because he's heard a lot of people asking for precisely that, but I just hope he doesn't go too far, because that's the aspect that makes his storytelling so unique, compelling and refreshing.

The episode featured a great albeit short action sequence, and was otherwise exciting and satisfying. I'm delighted that Yuasa managed to create a series with such a feeling of unity to almost every episode, and look forward to seeing how it will wrap up.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

06:30:52 pm , 760 words, 1420 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

Waltz with Bashir

At the VIFF this year, the two films that most impressed me were, ironically, the only two animated films I saw: Takashi Ishida's Film of the Sea and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir. I think the two make a good pairing, representing on one hand animation in its purest and most abstract form, and on the other animation as a vehicle for meaningful narrative.

Waltz with Bashir is an awesome achievement that needs to be seen by anyone who considers themselves interested in the art and possibilities of animated filmmaking. Heck, everyone should see it. It's a powerful film with a profound message about war, and the soldiers who fight it. This film is that rare thing - an animated film that means something, that has even the remotest relevance to the world today and the events that shape our times, exploring them through great artistry in a way that expands our understanding of those events. I believe people want to see films like these that explore these tough issues in a way that sheds light on the darkness of humanity, in the hope that light is the best antidote. In many ways, the world seems increasingly hard to understand today. This film attacks a conflict that many of us, or at least I, still don't really understand. It's not a film that provides the key to understanding the conflict, as it isn't so much about the larger picture of the reasons for the conflict as the experience of the soldiers on the ground. From my position, failure to address that nagging question is something I came away wondering about, but that's not what the film is about, and I think it actually gains strength as a film by allowing us to live the experience first-hand and make our own decisions, rather than coming across an an educational film. In any case, this film proves that animated filmmaking can be the means to explore these issues.

The documentary form has in recent years been acting as an interesting catalyst enriching our approaches to animated filmmaking, with documentaries like In the Realms of the Unreal and The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam incorporating animation to add a vivid new dimension to the narrative, and at the other end of the scale, fully animated films like Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's A Room Nearby adopting a quasi-documentary style where narrators' stories are elaborated in animation that mixes the real with animated freedom. Waltz with Bashir is perhaps the first fully animated film that can be called a documentary, rather than just a documentary with bits of animation. It has to be seen to be believed, but they really succeed in pulling off the feat of creating an animated documentary, which at first blush sounds rather self-contradictory: How can an animated film be a documentary?

The film is Ari Folman's quest to discover the truth about his past as a young soldier involved in the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. That quest leads him, and the now far-strung comrades he seeks out in different corners of the globe to interview, to re-live the experience through their memories, in the process probing some tough questions about responsibility in war and illuminating how different people cope with the traumas of war. At every moment, the film exploits the possibilities of the medium of animation to enhance and interpret the stories of the soldiers, and the main thread of the director's quest, through visuals alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) beautiful and harrowing, in the process painting a multilayered canvas with many different levels of meaning.

Ari Folman has succeeded in creating a deeply felt and almost overwhelming exploration of the experience of war, or rather (and importantly) a culturally and historically specific conflict, that will have an immense impact on any viewer, while also being consistently innovative and effective on the formal and visual level. The film is innovative, seemingly effortlessly so, but it's also a powerful and moving film. That combination is quite an achievement. There is a certain unique sort of insight into this important event that comes from using a poetic/animated approach to relate events in the real world. Without revealing anything, I admire particularly the uncompromising and devastating way the film chooses to close, without seguing back to the style of the film to soften the blow, but closing right there, on those images. They bring the viewer back down to the reality from which the film was inspired. I think they will be forever seared into the mind of most viewers.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

10:21:19 pm , 737 words, 2851 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, TV

Recent stuff

Speaking of Patrick Bokanowski in my last post, by sheer coincidence I just noticed that the great Aurora festival in Norwich, UK, which will be running a mere month from now from November 12 to 16, has a retrospective of the work of Bokanowski lined up on its program. I sure wish I could go. It would be great to see L'Ange on a big screen, and get to see his other shorts as well.

Just a few desultory comments about recent viewing. Episode 11 of Bones' Xam'd struck me as being among the more convincing so far in terms of the animation of the characters, the quality of directing, and simply the overall feel of the show, though it's a subtle difference. The credits revealed the reason: It was a Denno Coil episode. The director was one of the main rotation directors, Kazuya Nomura, and the animation directors were two of the main rotation animators, Yoshimi Itatsu and Kiyotaka Oshiyama. The episode also featured other Coil regulars like Ayako Hata and Akira Honma.

Of the new season of shows, Casshern Sins stands out for the moment for the work of veteran Toei director Shigeyasu Yamauchi and veteran Toei animation director Yoshihiko Umakoshi. I remember this team from the Digimon Hurricane Touchdown movie they worked on together in 2000, right after Mamoru Hosoda's two films. It wasn't quite up to the level of Hosoda's films, but it had an unexpectedly artsy style. Mamoru Hosoda's style was artsy to begin with, but this was artsy in a different way, more gritty and moody, and more personal feeling, all within the context of kids' fare like Digimon - a quintessentially Toei phenomenon. He struck me as someone who had worked long and hard to establish his style of directing, not just some newcomer trying unusual things, which is apparently the case, as he's been known for his artsy work for many years. The two (Yamauchi & Umakoshi) have actually worked together on a number of projects for Toei like Hana Yori Dango and Ojamajo Doremi, so they're a time-tested team. Umakoshi is a strong baseline animator with a huge range, having handled lots of greatly contrasting material ranging from Jubei-chan to Marmalade Boy to Mushishi to Gag Manga Biyori. He continues to pop up as a lone animator in various places every year, and his animation is always great. This series features the sort of slow, moody directing that Yamauchi is known for, combined with Umakoshi's typically rich, dynamic, exciting animation, which here is tinted with a sort of old-school Toei rough style that is very nice to watch. Yamauchi likes to process the screen heavily to create a hazy texture, and uses these odd angles and slow camera movement, which together with Umakoshi's animation makes for nice visuals that keep you engaged. It's a great combination that works well. The odd thing is that Casshern was a Tatsunoko show, Yamauchi and Umakoshi were Toei people, and this show is produced by Madhouse. And what do you know, the combination is gold. Madhouse continues to bring together people from all over the industry to create interesting projects.

Case in point, one of the Madhouse projects I've been curious about is their upcoming Stitch, as it represents an unprecedented situation, with a Disney movie being re-versioned into a Japanese TV series. Masao Maruyama seemed quite enthusiastic about the project, having even gone so far as to say that the Stitch movie was his favorite animated movie of all time. It was nice to discover that the person he turned to to direct the show based on his favorite movie is Masami Hata. I'm just happy to see Hata, who's approaching 70, finally back in the driver's seat with a big project, as it's been ages since he did any major projects, and I was starting to lose hope that I'd ever see another from him. (I still need to see his Mouse film from a few years back to see what kind of work he can turn in now.) So yet again, I have to be grateful to Maruyama for giving one of my favorite creators a chance to do a project. The choice makes obvious sense, as the latter half of Hata's career was almost entirely devoted to working on material of a Western bent in some form or another, or at least quite aloof in tone and look from the dominant industry style.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

06:12:47 pm , 922 words, 2004 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie

Film of the Sea

I've been too busy with work and the VIFF over the last week to write anything in here, but I just had to take a moment to write about the impact of seeing Takashi Ishida's latest film, Film of the Sea, made last year over the span of four months for the Yokohama Museum of Art. It preceded one of the features I saw, but dwarfed the feature, along with most of the films I've seen at the VIFF this year. It was stunning, and one of the most deeply satisfying animated films I've seen in a while, although really it's doing the film a disservice to call it an animated film. It's much more than that. It's surely one of the greatest audiovisual tone poems of the last few years.

Ishida's work has been compared with the work of the great artists in the field of audiovisual art such as Fischinger and the like for good reason. This film clearly shows him to be working on the same plane of thinking as those masters, not merely using the medium of film to create animation, but using it to discover new forms of creation. Rather than being merely an "animated film", this film crosses boundaries between media such as animation, sculpture and contemporary art, creating an entirely self-contained sort of audiovisual art. And that, I think, is the highest form of animation, although Ishida might deny being an animator. What makes the film have such impact, I think, is that Ishida has brilliant technique, and the film is finely crafted in every sense, with great variety in the way the material is handled, considering how deeply repetitious the film is. It never strikes one as being repetitious. The repetitions are rich with nuance, portrayed from different angles or using different expressive means, brilliantly utilizing every nook and cranny of the space where the film was photographed to explore theme of the infinite non-repetition of the waves lapping on the shore, the simple projected image of which begins the film's consummate sequence of transformations. Transformation is one of the fundamental concepts of animation, and Ishida's transformations are richly realized and imbued with layers of meaning.

Despite the sophistication of the treatment and subject matter, the film lacks the sort of coldness and irony that I find off-putting in a lot of contemporary art, being extremely engaging and exciting to watch for the viewer. The closest comparison that I can think of is Patrick Bokanowski's L'Ange (1982), which strikes me as being somewhat close in spirit to what Ishida does in this sense - experimental filmmaking that is consummately crafted in the technical sense, using virtuosic editing and manipulation of real-life objects and spaces to create an animation-like density of visual texture, while blending different media and concepts about filmmaking in challenging new ways, yet remaining thoroughly dazzling and engaging rather than alienating, as such forbidding-sounding experimentation might have been in lesser hands.

While I'm at it, I'll take this moment to reiterate a longstanding cri du coeur of mine: Please, someone, remaster and release Patrick Bokanowski's masterpiece of experimental cinema, L'Ange, on DVD, coupled with his short films. It is a Hollywood blockbuster of experimental filmmaking.

While in China, I picked up a number of art books to have some booty to explore back home. I didn't realize until just now, while looking up some of the artists, that there's an site, and it seems to offer most of the books. I thought there was no way of obtaining this stuff overseas, but perhaps that's no longer the case. The entry system on the site is handy, too. You just type the Pinyin and it brings up the Chinese.

I visited the famous 798 art district of Beijing, where I made one of my favorite discoveries, Wu Guanzhong. I thought he was an amazing unknown I'd be the first to discover, but I was disappointed to realize how famous he is. At a sprightly 89, he's seen a lot of history, throughout which he maintained his style with integrity, and continues to turn out simple but brilliant prints using the spareness of brush of classical Chinese painting ported into a sort of European context. I particularly liked his way of rendering a dense neighborhood with just a smattering of quick daubs of the brush in this print.

I liked this drawing of a miner from an art book of the work of Li Xiaolin that I picked up. The miner's expression is fantastic, almost ghostly. He does caricatural yet realistic charcoal sketches of ordinary folks from around China. There was a massive selection of traditional brush-styled painting books, all of which looked nice, of which I picked up one by Feng Tao, who has an immediately appealing style that places feisty looking birds in traditionally painted natural surroundings. I got a book of action sketches done by Chen Yuxian, which I thought was interesting from an animation point of view. He uses brush, pen, pencil and pastel alternately quite effectively to capture dancers of various kinds in mid-motion with a bare minimum of lines. I think Japanese animators could learn a lot from this sort of thing. I also picked up this book offering a compact overview of the major "western"-styled artists of the last century. The pictures are small, but numerous, and it's a handy quick overview of the vast range of Chinese painting, which I was pleased to discover is by no means limited to the Socialist realism of the 70s.