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: January 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

01:48:43 am , 898 words, 10626 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Indie

Cat Town

I really liked Elegy in Red, but having just had a chance to see another film in the Ga-nime series, Cat Town (2006), I'd now say that the latter is my favorite in the series. Cat Town strikes me as the film in the series that best fulfills the promise and the potential of the concept of this series: namely, animated films in which the still images, rather than movement, are the vehicle of expression. The other films in the series have explored the concept in various ways, from puppets to drawings to photographs to engravings (in this case), with varying degrees of success. The results have been hit and miss. Elegy in Red was one of the rare hits. But it's Cat Town that provided what I'd been wanting to see all along but hadn't seen in any of the other films in the series.

With its lush imagery and fantastical story narrated in a dreamy tone, Cat Town felt similar in style and tone to The Acorns and the Wildcat, an OVA from 1988 directed by Toshio Hirata in which a fantasy story by pre-war poet Kenji Miyazawa was narrated over subtly shifting but basically static background visuals. Cat Town has a similar storybook atmosphere as The Acorns and the Wildcat - but a hallucinogenic, unbalanced storybook for adults, with its hints of drug use and psychological disorder. It was originally published in 1935 by a famous poet named Sakutaro Hagiwara (it's his only novel) who was a contemporary of Kenji Miyazawa and shares something of his mystical sensibility. Hagiwara and Miyazawa are the two figures that immediately spring to my mind when I think of pre-war Japanese poets. They're both unique geniuses with their own inimitable sensibility and style, but they're also the two that seem to best represent the unique spiritual-poetic vibe of the era.

Cat Town is the story of a hallucinogenic experience Hagiwara had one night as he was wandering the streets of his home town. Drug use may have been involved, as he explicitly mentions (at least) cocaine. Rather than being a straightforward prose narrative with fantasy subject matter like Kenji's story, this is more of a metaphysical, symbolic mental journey in keeping with Hagiwara's main body of work. The narration of the gorgeous, poetic prose is packed with fascinating psychological sturm und drang that creates a dense web of mental images that are open to interpretation in any number of ways. The cascade of Hagiwara's observations and ruminations is perfectly mirrored by the beautiful engravings by Etsuko Kanaida, which strike me as always fully the equal of the great story that inspired them. The perfect tone of the narration and the subtle soundtrack combine with the images and words to create a well balanced whole that maintains a feeling of tension until the end - all without resorting to a single frame of animation.

I liked Cat Town not just because the prose is gorgeous and the images are pretty, although the artist who created the engravings, Etsuko Kanaida, certainly has a superb sensibility and the engravings are consistently sharp and imaginative creations. I liked it because few of the other films in the series succeed as well as this one in creating a continuous, strong audiovisual flow out of still images, which strikes me as being the salient thing in this series. Many of the other films in the series didn't seem to succeed in meeting the challenge posed by the whole 'still image' approach of the series, instead either merely stringing together still images in a way that doesn't maintain interest or adopting a conventional approach to structure and plugging still images into that structure. Cat Town struck me as differing in the sense that it created an actual narrative flow that arises from its constituent images. Each element is balanced, and the film hits a lulling, mesmerizing stride that carries you through to the end. Quite a feat for a film that is over 40 minutes long and consists entirely of a person reading a story to slow pans of still drawings.

The director to thank for this feat is Shojiro Urahama, who has apparently worked a lot on advertisements prior to this. The music was by Shogo Kaida, and the narration was by a great punk rocker-turned-novelist named Koh Machida. (I read a bunch of his books many years ago) As I mentioned above, the engravings were by Etsuko Kanaida. Each of these names deserve to be singled out, because they're each an indispensable part of the whole. Koh Machida's underplayed, low-rolling narration hits the perfect tone for the mellifluous but introspective prose he's reading, and the music is tasteful and beautiful without being too much in the foreground. But needless to say, the drawings are the most appealing part of the production, and are what hold your interest. Etsuko Kanaida's engravings were in fact obviously the reason this film got made. A few years back Etsuko Kanaida had published a picture book of engravings accompanying the story. The engravings were quite well received, and this film is the audiovisual version of that book. We've all heard of audiobooks, but a film like this goes the next conceptual step and makes an audiovisualbook, pushing beyond the rote, utilitarian purpose of an audiobook to create a work of art that works as an extension of the original on which it's based.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

10:31:32 pm , 2613 words, 4070 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Shoichi Masuo

The Japanese animation industry has a long tradition of great effects animators dating back at least to the 1940s. But the difference with the west is that there is no clear systemic difference between the two, and as a result, at least until relatively recently, often they haven't been credited separately. Recently, particularly since Steam Boy, it's become more common to see the post of Effects Animation Director. But at least during the 1970s and 1980s, there were a number of great FX animators, but it was hard to pick them out if you didn't know who you were looking for. Also, the concept of FX was often melded with the mecha animation, so that any effects work you got would be on the mecha shots, as the two were kind of synonymous.

Starting in the 1980s, effects seems to have begun to be divorced from purely mecha associations and come unto its own. Toshiaki Hontani was one of the main figures behind the resurgence of FX animation in Japan, with his animation in Akira and on other shows over the preceding years. So was Shinya Ohira. Both of these figures were big influences behind at the very least Takashi Hashimoto, who is the current figure synonymous with FX animation in Japan. Both Hontani and Ohira, of course, were preceded by figures like Hideaki Anno, Ichiro Itano before him, Kazuhide Tomonaga before him, etc, etc, all of whose styles are to some extent influenced by or distantly related to one another - with each figure having made his own distinct contribution to that development. Much of what makes FX animation so great has been all of the inter-influencing that's gone on over the years.

Another figure from the late 1980s who was one of the important figures of FX animation is Shoichi Masuo. I've been reading over the book of key animation drawings that was released for Nadia over the last week or so, and it's afforded me a greater understanding of the style of his work. At a more basic level, it made me realize that he was the figure behind all of the great mecha/FX animation that had always so impressed me in the series. He's only credited as mecha animation director in the last two episodes, so it had never even occurred to me until now that he was the figure responsible. There are almost certainly a number of mecha/FX shots not done by him, but looking over the book made me realize that the bulk of the mecha and effects work in the series was of his hand, and that he was the one who defined the overall style of the mecha/FX animation of the show. The mecha/FX aspect of the show had impressed me back in the day when I first watched the show around 1992, with its distinctive fluid, realistically timed animation giving the action scenes a feeling of richness and realism. The show was nicely animated otherwise, but the mecha animation stood out as very different. It's like suddenly, when the mecha shots came on, the animation became incredibly rich and smooth. It was like a different show. That had always amazed me. The realism of the effects, at least in my case, had definitely been one of the factors that helped give the show its unusual impact. It's nice to be able to connect the dots after all this time.

(Note that there aren't any specific credits for any shots in the book, so I've had to guess what his shots might be based on stylistic similarity.)

I don't really know much about Shoichi Masuo's origins or influences other than the fact that he debuted as an animator at a small but venerable subcontracting studio called Studio Giants. This studio was the training ground for any number of more well-known animators such as Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Yuriko Chiba and Toshiyuki Tsuru. Giants were renowned among fans in their heyday in the early 80s for the loose and crazy work that they always did on their rotation episodes. The work of Tadashi Shida and Masayuki on Sasuga no Sarutobi (1982-84) in particular seems to best reflect that style. (you can catch a whiff of that atmosphere in the wild animation of the boars that Masayuki did for episode 30 of Nadia - getting the keys for which was the whole reason I bought the key animation book in the first place) Presumably sometime around 1985, Masuo left Studio Giants to join another studio, Graviton, where he worked as mecha animation director of Project A-Ko in 1986, which brought him some recognition. It was presumably soon after this that he joined Gainax, where he worked on Aim for the Top and Honneamise as an assistant director, even contributing some animation to Akira, although I'm not sure what part. It must have been soon after this that he set to work on Nadia.

One of the things that immediately sets his work apart, particularly from the rest of the shots in the book, is the time sheets. More than the style of drawing, or anything like that, it's how densely packed the time sheets are. The amazing amount of planning that is bespoken by the intricately devised time sheets is as far away as I could imagine from the sort of freewheeling animation I associate with Studio Giants. It has the distinctive feeling of someone with a director's sensibility, rather than an animator's. He has a clear map in his mind of what he wants to show in the screen, and he breaks the screen down into its constituent components to go about doing it as systematically and efficiently as possible. When you're watching the animation on screen, it's impressive, but it doesn't come across as laborious. The labor that went in is invisible. That's partly because the shots he did often involve rather minute and precise movement rather than wild, outlandish shots of character antics. It's also because, for all the work that went into the shots, they're quite short. Masuo's shots are a classic case of quality over quantity.

Time sheets were actually included almost exclusively for Shoichi Masuo's shots in the book in question. And the reason is pretty obvious. At the most basic level, the intricacy of the planning of the shots means that you need the time sheet to understand what's going on in the various drawings, which are usually scattered over at least 5 layers. His time sheets are a work of art in and of themselves in the amount of thought and planning that they represent. I think the origins of the person who put together the book, the director (himself a famous FX animator), comes through pretty clearly in that sense. He himself knows how to make great FX animation, and therefore knows how to appreciate great FX animation. A few other time sheets were included, and in each case, although the piece of animation is quite nice and well timed, it's different from Masuo's animation in that, usually, everything takes place on one layer. There isn't the need for meticulous planning and division of parts of the kind seen in Masuo's shots. Each of Masuo's shots comes across like a miniature film.

Take for example this shot of the Nautilus being bombarded with depth charges from above by the enemy sub from episode 4. It passes by very quickly, but has that characteristic punch and vividness that brings alive the battles in this series. The contrast with the character scenes is quite striking. Yet it works wonderfully. It's clearly well done, but it passes by quickly, and all of the work that went into it doesn't really jump out at you immediately. But looking at a selection of the keys for this shot, and especially the densely packed time sheet, reveals just how much planning was required to make even a passing shot like this have the intended effect.

The time sheet looks chaotic at first glance, but basically it consists of instructions for, in this case, six layers over the span of each of the 24 frames in roughly four and a half seconds. The layers are indicated by "ABCDEF" on the top left. 'A' would be the cel on the bottom of the stack, and 'F' the cel on the top. Masuo has actually had to write in two extra layers because the default four layers wasn't enough(!). Note that there are two versions of these columns. The first, labeled 'Action', is for indicating the placement of keys vis-a-vis inbetweens, and the second, labeled 'Cell', is for indicating the total number of final, inbetweened drawings.

This is my guess as to the breakdown of the layers:

A. Explosion on floor in middle (starting at second 2.75)
B. Dirt kicked up by the Nautilus (starting at second 0)
C. Not sure - bubbles? (starting at second 3.25)
D. Still of Nautilus rising (starting at second 0)
E. Explosion in the center (starting at second 2)
F. Depth charges falling until sec 2.70, then explosions on floor

One interesting thing here is that he provides instructions for the use of "wave glass" to simulate the water in front of the camera swirling around chaotically, starting from the end of the third second. You can see it indicated as a black wedge near the bottom. "F.I." stands for fade in. Another trick he uses is to blacken the screen for one frame at a time. You can see a total of 8 of these little shaded boxes on the right-hand side, representing the flashes from the explosions of the depth charges. The term he uses to indicate this is "saburina", which is short for subliminal shot. Using a single frame like this for the flash of an explosion is very common, although usually it's with a white frame. At the top he mentions applying a "DF filter", which refers to a diffusion filter. The term "book", incidentally, refers to foreground (i.e., as opposed to background), in this case the ocean floor. It's a drawing painted by the art department, like the background, but it is placed between cel layers. You'll notice that he moved the placement from between layer C and D to the very top. I was wondering why he didn't split the descending depth charges and their explosions of layer F into different layers, but perhaps he was already maxed out.

The indication of the motion of the depth charges falling is rather interesting. Although the drawing isn't provided, he presumably drew the first drawing of the depth charges, and the rest were inbetweened according to the notches shown on the vector line provided for each of the depth charges. From the moment of the explosion, he switches to keys of the explosion. He uses the keys quite sparingly, but cunningly, and through a great deal of careful planning the effect is quite seamless.

In this shot from episode 21, we have a similar shot of explosions and the Nautilus, but this time in mid-air, and this time of the Nautilus itself exploding. The keys are here. The time sheet is easier to understand this time around. For some reason layer A is empty. A drawing marked A1 (meaning the first key of layer A) shows clouds, but this was obviously done with a background and not an animation drawing. B is a still of the debris trapped by the magnetic field. C is a still of the Nautilus. D is the explosion. E is the flash effect.

The instructions at the top read: Saburina, E cel lith mask backlighting (white), strongish DF. Interestingly, the instructions have been translated into Korean. I checked the credits to see if the inbetweens for this episode had been farmed out to a Korean studio, but there are no credits for the inbetweens for this episode. Presumably either the inbetweening or the photography was done in Korea.

This shot is more straightforward than the previous shot. Basically the only layer with animation here is layer D - the explosion. The explosion comes in just after the one second mark, and you can see that a total of 7 keys were drawn, with a total of 17 inbetweened drawings. You can see saburina flashes again, this time white. The top layer is what is called a toukakou or backlighting mask. More specifically, this is a particular kind of backlighting called lith backlighting. I've read descriptions of the term to attempt to understand the difference, but I'm still somewhat unclear on the specifics of how it's used. Basically, lith backlighting was used to create smaller backlit shapes, such as the backlit horizontal line that appears for a frame at a time in this shot to signify the flash of the explosion.

One of the things that Takashi Hashimoto says he learned from studying Shoichi Masuo's animation is precisely the sort of layering that you see in the examples provided here - the way he splits each constituent portion of the effect into a different layer in order to be able to pile on the various layers and create a feeling of depth and richness. Mitsuo Iso went through a similar process as an animator, towards greater density and complexity. Rather than just animating a character, he moved towards controlling every parameter of the screen. Which is what Masuo was doing many years before in Nadia. Some of the most exciting animation of recent years has been FX animation by latter-day masters like Hideki Kakita and Takashi Hashimoto, and Shoichi Masuo was one of the figures who influenced the development of the current state of FX animation in anime by making his effects not a perfunctory tack-on, but laboriously devised creations that in themselves were worthy of study and admiration.

Shoichi Masuo was a key animator in episodes 8, 21, 34, 36 and 37. He storyboarded and directed episodes 2 and 15, and was the mecha animation director of the last two episodes, episodes 38 and 39. He also helped out a bit with the animation of episodes 22 and 26. (He's the last key animator listed.) The two episodes that stand out as representing the high point of his work on this series are perhaps episodes 15 and 21, which are both climactic episodes. They're the two episodes I remember most impressing me back in the day. Many of the other episodes are great because the story, characters, storyboard and everything are great. But it's through Masuo's animation that the mecha and effects come alive.

Masuo has been quite active since Nadia, of course. He worked on episodes 1, 3 and 4 of Doomed Megalopolis, and was heavily involved in Eva. In the recent remake, he's credited as "tokugi kantoku" (action choreographer), a title that was created for Ichiro Itano on Macross Plus. I was a big fan of Irresponsible Captain Tylor back in the day, and quite enjoyed the opening. I just found out recently that the characters in the opening were animated by Shinsaku Kozuma, and Masuo handled the mecha. It makes sense. The mecha animation has the same feeling of fluidity and weighty timing as Masuo's mecha work on Nadia. He was in episodes 1, 2 and 3 of Aim for the Top 2, and was the effect animation director of Gonzo's Agito and an animation director and animator in Brave Story. He was also heavily involved in two obscure OVAs - Six Angels in 2002 and Submarine 707R in 2003. The latter was one of Masuo's few directing efforts, and the former has quite a bad reputation as a film, but appears to have been one of his major efforts of the last few years in his capacity as an FX animator, so both would seem to be worth a look to see how this great FX animator has developed in recent years.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

10:57:55 pm , 1852 words, 3814 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Indie

Elegy in Red

One of the few manga on my bookshelf is Seiichi Hayashi's Elegy in Red from 1970. I pick it up and leaf through it occasionally. I haven't re-read it in a long time, but the drawings are inspirational and never grow old. Seiichi Hayashi actually created a short animated version of the film in Toei's Ganime series two years ago, and I just had the chance to watch it tonight.

In short, it was magnificent. It was tremendously moving to be able to see this classic story brought alive in moving images in a way that did full justice to the original's style and tone - not just because the story itself is great and moving, but because it's one of my own favorites, one of the few manga I can still relate to after all this time, and I'm glad to see it come alive in my favorite medium.

The original was already quite unique in its time for its strangely disjointed, poetic, loose approach to the drawings and narrative, but this film succeeds because it was actually done by Seiichi Hayashi himself, so the drawings and tone of the the piece are very true to the original. What makes the film work is not just that the drawings are his; it's that the film is more than just an adaptation. It's a sort of re-visiting of an old story by the same artist at a much later time in his life, a re-inventing in a different medium. He himself appears in the film in his present guise, with his trademark wiry mustache, recalling the events of the manga as if reminiscing about his own faded days of glory, giving the film an intriguing double layer of meaning.

There are very few manga artists whose drawings I like, but I adore Seiichi Hayashi's drawings. His drawings are always spare, drawn with just a few lines, impeccably classy and elegant. Although his trademark style featuring slim, haughty beauties who look as if they've stepped out of a Taisho-era glossy magazine isn't on display in Elegy in Red, most of his subsequent work is done in this style. He was apparently considerably inspired by the work of the Taisho-era artist Takehisa Yumeji. You can see a good dose of Seiichi Hayashi's drawings on his web site, and thankfully an English translation of Elegy in Red was just released last year (titled Red-Colored Elegy).

Miraculously, the delicate sensibility of Hayashi's drawings comes through well in this film, which is impressive, as the drawings of his manga have a finely balanced madness that wouldn't come through in another's hand. They're not exactly the same. The film version doesn't have the youthful imperfection of the manga. It's obviously of the hand of an older Seiichi Hayashi. But the drawings are still just right. And it's not just drawings set to music, thankfully. Despite the nomer ('ganime' stands for "drawing" + "anime"), the film does thankfully benefit from spare touches of animation in most shots, along with great camerawork that never makes a wrong step.

Seiichi Hayashi in fact began his career as an animator, so the sureness of the directing, and the skill with which the movement is sparely applied, make sense. Not only are his drawings spare and perfect, but each little movement is spare and perfect, bringing the drawings I knew so well from the manga alive in a way perfectly suited to the style of the story. It would actually have been too much to bring this story alive in full animation. The few drawings added here and there work perfectly to bring the story alive while staying true to the feeling of the original manga. This is a superb example of how this sort of minimalistic animated filmmaking should be done.

The music is directed by Morio Agata, a famous folk-rocker from the 1970s who debuted the year after the publication of the manga with a song entitled Elegy in Red inspired by Seiichi Hayashi's manga, which acts as the main motif in the film. So it's a match made in heaven. The music is a perfect match for the images, bringing alive the sound of the era. The two - music and manga - were in fact one of the defining cultural artifacts of 1970s Japan, deemed to have captured the mood of the era's youth. So this film is more than just a good love story told in an interesting style. It comes across as a glimpse into the feelings and sensibility of the generation that grew up in the 60s, an elegy to a generation long gone, via two of the era's greatest artists. An elegy to an elegy.

Seiichi Hayashi joined Toei Doga in 1962 and remained there until 1965. The protagonist of Elegy in Red is a struggling animator, so presumably the story is partly autobiographical. It was under Toei's most famous case of an animator-turned-indie, Sadao Tsukioka, that Hayashi began creating independent animation after leaving Toei. The two were apparently good friends while at Toei, so after quitting, Tsukioka invited Hayashi to join the studio he had just formed, Studio Nack. From that point on, Hayashi would go on to create several indie films that were shown at festivals; make numerous advertisements, most famously a series of Koume adverts for Lotte, as well as other adverts featuring the elegantly drawn beauties for which he had by then become known; contribute the oil on glass animation scene in Mushi Pro's Belladonna in 1973; and continue to make music videos for Minna no Uta like Happy Birthday in 1988.

Hayashi's last involvement in anime came with the designs for Gisaburo Sugii's legendary adaptation of Genji Monogatari in 1987, while in 2003 he created a beautiful short for the Winter Days omnibus, a film that immediately precedes this adaptation of Elegy in Red. I'd been hoping to see more from Seiichi Hayashi the animator since seeing his Winter Days short, so what a delight it was to discover that he had adapted his masterpiece, and that it turned out to be the best short I've seen from him.

Meanwhile, of course, Hayashi debuted as a manga artist in 1967, and also became active as an illustrator. In 2000 he drew the poster for the Hiroshima International Animation Festival. I'm not familiar with his other manga work, but in October of 1999 he published an extraordinary tome entitled The Guppy Still Lives that would almost certainly rank as one of the most important and cited manga books of the last decade were it not for the explicitly pornographic nature of much of its imagery.

Each film in the Ganime series has a very different style, usually having little to do with the typical anime look, because a different artist, usually an illustrator or manga artist, is brought on for each film. The concept is similar to the concept behind the two Madhouse Kenji Miyazawa OVAs from the late 80s, which were told mostly through striking still images.

The other films in the series actually usually feature a good deal of camerawork and touches of animation, albeit sparely, so the films cannot be confused with regular anime, much less regular animation. There is obviously considerable leeway in the concept of 'ganime'. It's not just stills. It's not an approach that hasn't been tried before, but it's interesting that Toei Animation, of all studios, should be the one to release such a series, since they're a studio that were once synonymous with full animation in Japan.

Unfortunately, all of the other films I've sampled are generally less than stellar, if not downright unwatchable. Fantascope ~ Tylostoma ~ is a poetic love story told entirely through the evocative pencil sketches of Yoshitaka Amano, while G-9 is a more conventional-seeming action sci-fi story about a girl with superpowers defeating a rampaging monster, drawn by Tweeny Witches creator Keita Amemiya entirely with an ink brush. The former was completely flaccid and lacking in visual interest, while the latter was just kitchy and embarrassing.

The latter did gel into something convincing during the battle scene, when the protagonist's figure transforms dynamically into abstract shapes. The images were pretty, but more than that, it struck me as one of the few spots in the series that seemed to satisfyingly engage the theoretical questions about animation that a series with this concept could have been a great vehicle for exploring. Using literally 24s, it creates an image that stands in the hazy conceptual area right between when a still image transforms into animation: not quite fast enough to be animation, but not quite slow enough to be still images.

But that's about it. This could have been a great series to explore the various guises of stillness in animation. Instead, we have a bunch of low-brow horror shorts that seem embarrassingly misguided. I only came away frustrated that such a good opportunity wasn't given to talented animators rather than people with no interest or skill in animation.

The puppet film The Dunwich Horror seemed promising, being based on stories by H.P. Lovecraft and featuring music by Jim O'Rourke. The music creates a great atmosphere, and they did what I'd always wanted to see - get my favorite Japanese actor, Kenichi Endo, to voice-act in animation. But the film came across as just ludicrous and boring, due perhaps to the shoddy directing. The crudely-made puppets were actually quite appealing and a good match with the story, but the directing took a completely conventional approach to the drama, rather than taking an approach that really showed off the strange beauty of the puppets and sets, and the unique approach of this series. The stillness didn't work, basically, wasn't appealing. It's as if we were watching the animatic for a puppet film to be, rather than a film in which each image spoke with unshakable authority the way the images in Elegy in Red do. It only goes to show how challenging it can be to make a film hold up with such minimal means. I mean, imagine trying to make a puppet film in which you're not allowed to move the puppets.

One of the defining traits in the historical development of anime is how the animators compensated for being unable to use lavish full animation by focusing on coming up with interesting timing and still drawings. Madhouse had grown out of Mushi Pro, which invented TV anime by creating sequences of striking images rather than animation, so it's less surprising that they would champion the limited style of anime. Toei Doga joined the fray quickly after Mushi Pro, switching course from producing lavishly animated feature films to an almost complete focus on limited TV anime, becoming one of the studios at the core of the development of the limited TV animation aesthetic in Japan. So this OVA comes across as Toei symbolically embracing the limited heritage that came to define anime in the eyes of the world - a legacy that, ironically, the most famous early participants at Toei continue to rail against. But that's the beauty of animation in Japan - even in the same house, it embraces a multiplicity.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

07:15:08 pm , 1497 words, 3599 views     Categories: Animation

Dorvack & Dancougar

I've been watching the old Ashi Production TV shows Dorvack (1983) and Dancougar (1985) here over the last week or so. The shows are a good time capsule of the preoccupations of animators around that period thanks to the liberties that the Ashi Production studio allowed its animators.

Ashi Pro is an interesting studio that had their own unusual style and way of doing things. I've long been a fan of them if just for the two first shows they produced entirely on their own: Goshogun (1981) and Minky Momo (1982), classics that both stood out back then for having a sensibility quite different from the other work being done in the rest of the industry. Goshogun brought irony and wit to the giant robot genre, while Minky Momo built on what was achieved in Goshogun and went even further, using the magical girls genre as a springboard for creating parodic, witty, free-for-all fantasy. It was a show with real freedom and variety. The stories in particular were unlike anything out there, covering huge range of material, from sophisticated parodies to serious stories with a heavy message about nuclear war and human suffering.

Dorvack and Dancougar were the next two shows they did right afterwards. Both shows are quite similar to one another in look and atmosphere, but they are quite different from the preceding two shows because of the absence of creator and writer Takeshi Shudo, who was the brain behind the unusual intelligence of the earlier shows. In substance, Dorvack and Dancougar seem more reflective of the trends of the industry than of rebellion from those trends. The character designer of Dorvack and one of the main animation directors of Dancougar was Osamu Kamijo, who had designed Baldios in 1980 and been an animation director on both Goshogun and Momo right afterwards, so all of these shows have a certain stylistic similarity in terms of the characters. Dorvack in particular still bears a heavy feeling of Momo, with this strange combination of Momo-like levity and designs, but Ideon-like seriousness and alien-invasion story. Dancougar improves on this with more sharp animation and a more serious atmosphere and a story lacking the silliness of Dorvack that seems more befitting the material. But both shows are unmistakable as Ashi Production shows.

The animation of Dorvack is interesting despite my not knowing many of the animators. It shows that Yoshinori Kanada's influence was in its prime at the time, with even animators I've never heard of creating animation that is clearly influenced by his approach in terms of the drawings, poses or timing - using weird shapes for the explosions, inserting odd drawings for a single frame at a time, and using extreme perspective and bending the robots in weird, improbably elastic ways. An animator named Masaki Kudo is a regular throughout the series and seems to have been one of the main action animators, and the one responsible for these Kanada-esque parts.

Another animator who drew his first key animation in this series, and was responsible for the other action parts that have less a Kanada flavor and more of a through-conceived approach to the animation, was Nobuyoshi Habara. Habara had debuted as an inbetweener on Minky Momo after having joined Ashi Pro. He had decided he would become an animator when he was in middle school, apparently, and only attended high school to please his parents. As soon as he graduated, he went pro. He had presumably spent most of his time in high school drawing amateur animation at the so-called "manga club" he attended after school, because by the very first episode of Dorvack the animation has a level of detail and assurance that seems unusual for a person's first key animation at this period. In fact, the mature, through-conceived approach he exhibits in Dorvack seems clearly the result of his having studied and copied the animators whom he revered as a younger kid during high school - notably the work of animation director Kazuo Komatsubara and animator Kazuhide Tomonaga on Toei robot shows like Getter Robo. It was seeing their work that influenced him to want to become an animator. Habara's work in Dorvack looks distinctly Tomonaga-esque, as opposed to Kanada-esqe, ie more straight-through and naturalistic rather than jumping about wildly and inserting odd images. So you have a blend of the two distinct Toei approaches coming and going throughout.

Habara's early career is unusual, since right after working as an inbetweener on a single show he was bumped to to working as mecha designer, key animator and animation director on his next show. That's how unique Ashi Pro was. They had a very loose, ad-hoc approach to staff allocation and the animation. Habara notes in an interview that he liked mecha animation in part because it offered more freedom than character animation, because while there was a character animation director who stood over you and usually corrected and modified your animation if you were animating a character, the mecha animation pretty much went through as-is. You could use tons of drawings and nobody would say anything. That's perhaps why the mecha animation is the salient thing when talking about these shows. It's the most interesting part of the animation, to say nothing of the show.

Jump two years ahead to 1985 and Habara's style has already changed and improved dramatically, as can be judged by this awesome shot of a tank being sliced in half by a laser in the first episode of Dancougar, which I presume to have been drawn by him since he was mecha animation director of the episode, although I'm not positive. Apparently Ashi Pro had helped out a little with the mecha animation of Macross on the side immediately before doing this, and Habara was still in a phase of his career in which he was learning and absorbing the 1-2-3s of animation from his sempai animators around him, so it would make sense for him to have been influenced by Ichiro Itano's work on Macross from 1982 to 1983 (although obviously not so much necessarily his circus work per se, as just his more realistic approach to mecha and explosion dynamics), as evidenced by the fluidity and increased detail and 'realism' of the mecha animation in the shot above and the space battle around the 7-minute mark, ending with this shot of spaceships being blasted away. He never mentions being influenced by Itano in any interviews I've read with him, but if he animated these sections, it would be pretty surprising if he said he hadn't been.

It's interesting, though, because like Dorvack, this Itano-school animation is joined later by animation like the dogfight here that looks very different from what came before in space, and if anything looks extremely Kanada-school. I assume Habara did the former and someone else did the latter, but I'm not really sure. Either way, I find the first episode of Dancougar interesting for the way you see the two dominant influences of the day, whose styles don't really mix, side by side in the same episode. I haven't seen the rest of the show yet, but apparently episode 5 is a big bash of the Kanada-school animators of the day, including Masami Obari, who was mecha designer of the show and had himself also been an early bloomer who quickly developed his own take on the Kanada style and became one of the leading Kanada-school figures of the next few years. The rest of the show also apparently has nice work, so overall, Dancougar seems to give a good snapshot of where Kanada-school animation stood in 1985. I'm curious to see how Habara's work evolves over the length of the show. I really like his dense, detailed work here.

Like Itano Ichiro, however, Habara soon quit animating and became first a designer and then a director, having done quite a lot of work for Xebec, where he moved when it was founded, including most recently directing Soukyuu no Fafner. One of Habara's most famous contributions before leaving Ashi Pro was on Machine Robo: Chronos no Daigyakushuu in 1986, for which he was designer, animator and AD. The show apparently had a lot of wild animation from the likes of animators like a young Shinya Ohira, and otherwise sounds interesting. Habara also worked on the Dancougar OVA in 1987 as storyboarder, designer and AD. I haven't seen much of his subsequent work, of which there is tons, but one of the things he did since the early days that I rather liked was that homage to the great 1970s Toei giant robot shows, Gekiganger, for the production of which he enlisted the aid of the very animators who more than 20 years earlier had influenced him into becoming an animator himself through their work on those very 1970s giant robot shows - Kazuo Komatsubara, Kazuhide Tomonaga, Shingo Araki and Michi Himeno. It's nice to find someone who isn't just a Kanada follower for once. There were so many other great animators in the 1970s.