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, 06

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

07:15:08 pm , 1497 words, 3602 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.