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: December 2008, 06

Saturday, December 6, 2008

01:54:08 am , 1022 words, 6505 views     Categories: Animation

Kenji Matsumoto: Background artist of Casshern Sins #9

I remember quite liking the art in episode 7 of Casshern Sins, and the basic feeling of the art in the series overall, but the art in episode 9 truly stood out to me as among the most pleasing and compelling I'd seen in recent memory. Usually the background doesn't jump out at me, but here it stood out as among the most memorable part of an otherwise fine episode. You could feel there was real love put into the work.

I was surprised to find that the backgrounds in the episode were all drawn by a single person - Kenji Matsumoto. I've talked about solo-animator episodes in the past, but I didn't know there were actually solo-background episodes. I'm used to seeing quite a number of people credited with the backgrounds of any given episode, including other studios, which usually makes it hard to identify background artists I like, so this time around it really stood out to see only one name credited with background here. And it was great, because for once I can say with certainty exactly whose work it was I liked.

The most obvious thing that I liked about it is the way he mixes bright oranges, yellows and reds to create this dense texture that, surprisingly despite the associations with gaiety of the colors he's using, create a convincing feeling of death and decay. In the ultimate phase of the death of a boat's hull after it has sunk to its grave on the ocean floor, I imagine, it takes on just the sort of almost fleshy mix of reds and oranges that Matsumoto uses here to depict the texture of decomposition of the plague-afflicted robots. The texture is beautiful to look at, densely scarred and pocked and blotched. It's not naturalistic, either. He leaves each stroke of color quite obvious. But it has a marvelous impact.

I also found the compositions to also be very strong, downright gripping to look at, which rarely happens to me. It doesn't quite go to the lengths of something like Kemonozume, but there is more freedom here than usual. It achieves something of a fine balance between the artist being able to indulge his passions a little more than usual, while still delivering a product that works within the usual framework of nominal realism. The passion he puts into the images in fact benefits the film greatly. The shot of the robot with the flower by his side pictured above is absolutely gorgeous to look at, fit for framing, and seems to emanate a rare passion for the material that I don't know how to account for, but that helps to gives the scene and the episode its power. This is the power that backgrounds can have in the best hands.

I actually think that having had one person do it all might account for why there is a feeling of more passion there. Instead of people scattered all around the place geographically doing a shot here and there on contract, with no real stake in the production, the artist here was there throughout the entire episode. He had to understand what the episode was about, what needed to be conveyed, and he was able to think through what would best serve each particular shot of the episode, and render all the little details himself. It's the same as when you have a solo animator episode like Mihara's. You feel that the artist has more of a personal stake in the issue, and the passion is obvious.

Kenji Matsumoto was actually one of the background artists of episode 7, so I have to wonder if he wasn't the one responsible for the shots of the tower that I so liked in that episode. Also, episode 8 also happened to be a solo-background episode, by another artist named Shinzo Yuki.

This is where it becomes clear how this came about. Shinzo Yuki and his wife, Yukie Yuki, have worked as art directors/background artists on Toei Animation productions for years, as has Kenji Matsumoto. Shigeyasu Yamauchi's Toei lineage at work. I've been able to find a credit for Kenji Matsumoto as background artist dating as far back as 1972's Puss 'n Boots II, so he is not only a veteran Toei artist, but a veteran of the industry with the same amount of experience as his more well-known contemporaries like Shichiro Kobayashi, Nizo Yamamoto and Isamu Tsuchida. I thought that perhaps I was witnessing something new, a young face trying new things, but what I was seeing was in fact a the assured hand of a master.

It's rare that I write about background artists for one because it's animators who usually catch my eye, and it's animation and directing that usually interest me, but also for two because I don't know nearly enough about art to pretend to be able to talk about it. But mostly the latter. I've seen lots of great background artists in the past whose work I love. One of my all-time favorite series, Isao Takahata's Marco, would be unthinkable without Takamura Mukuo's brilliant, spot-on depictions of the vertiginous, mazelike alleyways and chalk-white seaside facade of Genoa, or later the beautiful desolation of the Argentinian pampas. His work is an indispensable part of Gauche the Cellist. The Red Shoes episode Osamu Dezaki did for the old Sekai Mukashibanashi series would not have the amazing impact and storybook beauty it does without Shichiro Kobayashi's distinctively bold approach to form, line and color. The latter is a great case of perfect symbiosis between director, animator and background artist, with each standing out for their personal style yet everything fitting together as a perfect whole.

I can't find that much info, but Kenji Matsumoto seems to have been involved in a large number of mostly Toei Animation TV productions since 1972. It seems like if you've watched a Toei production, you've probably seen his backgrounds. He seems to have been involved in a 'studio' named Atelier Robin alongside another Toei mainstay, Kazuo Ebisawa, who is regularly credited beside him, so he has presumably worked for Toei from his own studio all these years.