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: February 2009

Saturday, February 28, 2009

02:35:08 pm , 806 words, 6631 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Departed animators

One of the animators I discovered while watching Dirty Pair was an animator named Saburo Sakamoto, who died around age 61 in 1996. He was an interesting figure for the fact that he was originally involved with the famous Tokiwa-so manga group from the 1950s that included luminaries like Fujio Fujiko and Fujio Akatsuka. Instead of continuing down that path, he changed careers and became an animator, much like fellow Tokiwa-so member Shinichi Suzuki, who eventually went to work for Ryuichi Yokohama at Otogi Pro before co-founding animation studio Studio Zero in 1963 with many of the members of Tokiwa-so. Saburo Sakamoto was primarily involved in Toei and Sunrise TV shows throughout the 70s and 80s, having perhaps most famously been heavily involved as an animation director in the classic Yoshiyuki Tomino productions of the early 80s. In Dirty Pair, he was an animator in episodes 3, 5, 6, 13, 20 and 23 of the TV series.

I've mentioned several important animators who have passed away recently here in the blog, including Reiko Okuyama (1925-2007), Daikichiro Kusube (1934-2005) and Koichi Murata (1939-2006). Not surprisingly, many of the important figures of the very first generation of Japanese animation production are no longer with us - including Yasuji Murata (1896-1966), Kenzo Masaoka (1898-1988) and Noburo Ofuji (1900-1961), perhaps three of the most important figures from the very first generation who paved the way for everyone who came after. Kenzo Masaoka lived to a respectable 90, so he got to see a considerable many of the changes that overtook the industry since he left the world with masterpieces like The Spider and the Tulip (1943) - and not all of them good. More than 60 years later, the latter remains an unsurpassed achievement in many ways.

Two of the important figures of the next generation, Ryuichi Yokoyama (1909-2001) and Masao Kumakawa (1916-2008), also lived into their 90s. Masao Kumakawa worked under director Kenzo Masaoka as an animator, having animated the ladybug in The Spider and the Tulip among many other of the best pieces of animation from the 1940s and 1950s, even going on to work as an animator in the first few classic Toei Doga films until around 1964. Ryuichi Yokoyama, meanwhile, famously founded animation studio Otogi Pro, which I touched very briefly upon way back when and would like to expand upon eventually.

Otogi Pro notably featured one of the great animators of the next generation after Ryuichi Yokoyama: Shinichi Suzuki. Also from the generation of Shinichi Suzuki, but following a very different path from the latter, was Yasuji Mori (1925-1992), who seems to be one of the successors of the work of Masao Kumakawa and Kenzo Masaoka at Nihon Dogasha. Mori in turn went on to train and influence many of the figures of the next generation who worked at Toei Doga in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Daikichiro Kusube and Reiko Okuyama. Chikao Katsui was another now-departed animator of this generation who started out at Toei Doga and went on to work at Mushi Pro. At Mushi Pro, meanwhile, an animator named Shinji Seyama passed away at a prematurely young age just a few years after drawing, among other things, the animation of Aldin walking out into the desert in the very last shot of 1001 Nights. Thankfully many of these animators have lived full lives, but there have been a number of tragically premature deaths, and Seyama's is among the first one that stands out.

Both Koichi Murata and Kazuo Komatsubara (1943-2000), among the founding members of Oh Pro and among the greatest animators of the 1970s and 1980s in Japan, passed away what feels like too early, as did one of the greatest animators of the generation afterwards, Yoshifumi Kondo (1950-1998), who left behind some of the best work of each decade in which he was active right since the year of his debut in 1968.

A number of figures from the next generation have already left us in tragically early deaths, including Junichi Watanabe (1962-2007), a director who started out at Tomonori Kogawa's legendary studio Beebow; Hiroshi Osaka (1963-2007), who was very prolific and much relied-upon for his drawing skills as an animation director, leaving behind much great work as an animation director and animator, including work on most Bones shows of the last decade; and Toshiaki Tetsura (?), among whose most memorable work was his work as visual director, mechanic director and layout supervisor on one of Akiyuki Shinbo's best early works, Soul Taker. Among his last contributions was animation in the first two episodes of Shinbo's masterpiece, Cossette. Among other scenes, he animated the scene in the cafe at the beginning of ep 1. He was also heavily involved in Yamamoto Yoko under Shinbo on the mecha and effects side of things, as well as in the movie Shin Kaitei Gunkan (1995). He had a sharp, refined style as an animator that immediately set him apart.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

10:35:00 pm , 3062 words, 13549 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Movie, TV, Studio: Dove, Director: Toshifumi Takizawa

Dirty Pair

TV Series (1985)
Movie (1987)
OVA (1990)

Dirty Pair was one of the big titles for me back when I was first getting into anime. It probably doesn't get much attention anymore, as the last 'real' installment was made more than 18 years ago, but for people like me who got into anime through fansubs in the early 90s, the Dirty Pair one-offs were fresh and new and among the various titles from the 80s that embodied the mysterious attraction of the form. The movie in particular pushed all the right buttons in terms of what I was wanting to see in my anime at the time, and was stylishly directed and well animated.

Well, I had myself a little Dirty Pair marathon over the last few weeks, and I've now seen every Dirty Pair item ever made. It's a pleasant show to revisit - among the few I've lately been able to watch in its entirety - and its evolution over the five years in which the various installments were in production from 1985 to 1990 offer some insights into the industry during that period.

The director of the TV series from 1985 and the last OVA from 1990 was Toshifumi Takizawa, who more recently will be remembered for having directed Samurai 7, so he serves as a good starting point for examining the series. His directing work seems to act as the guiding spirit for the show, setting the tone at the beginning and making the last statement in the very nice final OVA.

I personally remember Toshifumi Takizawa as having been the line director of my favorite robot anime, the terminal Ideon: Be Invoked movie. Tomino Yoshiyuki is the one who is generally remembered as the director of Ideon overall, and rightfully so. But when it comes to the last movie, reading has led me to realize that, besides animation director Tomonori Kogawa, it's line director Toshifumi Takizawa who was in large part responsible for giving the movie its legendary power and tension. He's the one who did the work of what we usually term director, or 'enshutsu', namely checking the genga, putting together all the material, etc - basically everything after the storyboard.

Takizawa wasn't long after having debuted when he directed the film, having been heavily involved in the TV series drawing storyboards and directing episodes. He relates that episode 39 of the TV series, which he storyboarded and directed, is the one on which he feels he finally achieved what he wanted as a director. He clearly learned much from the speedy, cinematic flow of Tomino's storyboards, and in the film he builds on that to create one of the most terrifyingly tense and perfectly built dramatic flows of any anime movie. This is clearly when Takizawa established the tight and speedy directing style that has come to define his later work. At his best, he is unbeatable at creating a seamless flow that threads breathlessly between drama and exciting action. Notable is that he himself volunteered to direct the film. It was his first great achievement, and remains one of his most impressive.

His next major job would be on that other classic Sunrise 'real robot' anime of the 1980s, Votoms, on which he served under chief director Ryosuke Takahashi as the 'enshutsu chief', in which capacity he drew storyboards and focused on polishing the final quality of the episodes in terms of achieving the right dramatic flow - having just proven his talent for just that on the Ideon film. It's not long after this that he directed the Dirty Pair TV series.

Takizawa only storyboarded the first episode of the Dirty Pair TV series, and directed none of the episodes. He appears to have focused his skills on directing the directors and maintaining the overall tone for the show rather than been in there doing things himself. The first episode is definitely identifiable as his work in terms of the nimble pacing and variety of the scenery and action, and the rest of the series shares something of this feeling, although it's overall not as tight as his own work.

The Dirty Pair series is unique among Sunrise's shows from the 80s, for the obvious reason that it's not a robot show, and for its more lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek tone that sets it decidedly apart from the more serious and 'realistic' tone of the usual robot shows. There are transient moments of seriousness, of course, and people die, but the tone is something akin to that of the Roger Moore James Bond movies, in that the seriousness is subsumed within an encompassing atmosphere of nonchalant whimsy. It would just be ludicrous if they took themselves seriously with stories about cartoon madmen armed with laser satellites out to take over the world. It feels the same with Dirty Pair, and Toshifumi Takizawa is probably the one who guided the show in this direction as the director. He has stated explicitly his his dislike for dark, serious stories, and Dirty Pair provides a unique and grandly entertaining side-show on the menu of 80s Sunrise productions. And of course, this was a seminal show for its unusual protagonists and 'buddy movie' format. It had female protagonists, but was aimed at boys rather than girls, and they were strong female protagonists in commanding roles, rather than the docile girls of love comedies.

After directing the series, Takizawa was away from Dirty Pair until 1990, when he came back to direct the last OVA in the series. In between, he worked on various Sunrise shows, including drawing storyboard for ZZ Gundam and directing the Dunbine and Crusher Joe OVAs. Crusher Joe was originally a movie released in 1983, and it's in this movie that the first anime adaptation of Dirty Pair appeared briefly, showing up as a program on TV. Going back further, Dirty Pair was originally published as a novel in 1980.

While Takizawa was away, quite a bit of Dirty Pair got made by other directors. Right when the TV series was about to end in December 1985, an OVA entitled The Nolandia Affair was released. Revisited today, it's the blandest entry in the series, and not interesting in terms of the animation. The protagonists have a more adult design that comes across as a departure from everything else. The TV series had ended prematurely on episode 24, even though the script for the last two episodes had been written, so the last two episodes got produced and released as an OVA just prior to the release of a movie in March 1987, as a lead-in. Episode 25 in particular features some of the better animation of the entire series.

As much as I like Takizawa's work on the show, if you only watch one item of Dirty Pair, it'll probably be the movie, which is itself quite well directed by Koichi Mashimo, but just in a very different style. His distinct style with garish color schemes and loud musical interludes is on full display here and has actually never worked so well. The film also has the richest animation of the series, featuring plenty of great animators like Hitoshi Ueda, Sachiko Kamimura, Koji Ito, Koichi Hashimoto and even Satoru Utsunomiya.

A few months after the movie came a 10-episode OVA series released over the first few months of 1988. The OVA series is also directed by a different director, but holds up quite well nonetheless, and comes across as a higher quality version of the more light-hearted, variety-style TV series. Surprising names like Shinji Hashimoto and Norimoto Tokura even turn up.

Finally, after completing his work on the Crusher Joe OVAs, Takizawa returned to direct what turned out to be the final installment of the series in an OVA entitled Conspiracy on Flight 005. There was technically an OVA series entitled Dirty Pair Flash made a few years later, but it looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series, and comes across as a failed experiment to take the series in a new direction. The 005 OVA comes across as the true final word, the ultimate expression of how the Dirty Pair universe should be handled.

The final OVA is quite a nice OVA, and is one of the most satisfying installments in the series. It benefits from five years of added experience for the entire staff that was involved, including the director, the animators and the animation director, and so things have the assured feeling of the work of people who have learned how best to handle material they've been handling for years. Takizawa's directing is tighter than ever, with a dramatic finale that recalls the action of the Ideon movie, and most of all, the designs and animation are perhaps the most refined in the series. Character designer Tsukasa Dokite had by then continuously honed the character designs, and he brings to the drawings as animation director a more controlled line that gives the drawings new strength. The line and form of his work by this time kind of reminds me of Tomonori Kogawa's best work a few years earlier.

Which brings us to the other, more obvious, star of the Dirty Pair series - character designer Tsukasa Dokite, the man who created the sexy, daringly costumed designs that made the characters iconic and undoubtedly played a big part in making the series the hit it was. Dokite had worked extensively on Urusei Yatsura and then Maison Ikkoku, and this clearly influenced the development of his style, as the drawings in the TV series still have a whiff of Maison Ikkoku about them in terms of the arrangement of the features and the jawline. Dokite's drawings continued to evolve over the course of the series. The characters took a sharp turn towards the older and more realistic in the Nolandia Affair OVA, while for the movie he returned towards the younger TV series design, changed the costume a bit, and honed the design in a more cartoony direction. He continued to soften the edges over the course of the OVAs, and the 005 OVA represents his final word on the designs. You can see this evolution clearly in his character design drawings from each installment above. This evolution is obviously not something that's limited to this series, and probably to some extent is simply a reflection of evolving stylitic tendencies in the industry.

The opening for the TV series and OVA series, incidentally, are nice little films that showcase Dokite and Takizawa at their best at each particular period - Takizawa creating richly conceived, dense flows of entertaining imagery, and character designer Tsukasa Dokite providing some of his best rendered drawings of his own characters.

One of the things that most interested me in watching the TV series and examining the contrasting styles of each animation director is that so many different studios were involved in the animation of the show. Everybody knows it's common practice for the various parts of anime episodes to be outsourced, and I know it happened on other Sunrise shows of the same period (Anime R in Osaka and Nakamura Pro were major collaborators throughout Sunrise's history), but I was surprised at the extent to which this show seems to have been produced largely by outside staff, in looking up the names. It's obvious that this was not the Sunrise of today, with its ten studios allowing it to run any number of productions simultaneously.

I've been able to associate animators with no less than 10 different studios, partly because many times the studios are actually credited, and partly because I've been able to identify certain animators who were affiliated with certain studios at this time. I'm sure there are other animators who I haven't listed here who may have been affiliated with some studio at this time, but at the very least, from what I've been able to gather, the following studios were involved in the animation of the TV series. I list it here because it's an interesting list. It's testament to the intricacy of the web of interconnections that underpin anime production in Japan that they were able to produce a TV series using a small handful of animators scattered around at a dozen different studios.

  5, 8, 9, 12, 25, 26
  10, 15, 17, 19, 24
  SATO Yuzo, TSUJI Hatsuki, ICHISHITA Satoshi, KOBAYASHI Kazumi,
  6, 7, 11
  MORIKAWA Sadami, OZAWA Naoko, YOSHIMOTO Kinji, YUKI Nobuteru,
  13, 16, 25
  MURANAKA Hiromi, NAKASHIMA Miko, YAMAMOTO Sawako, KISE Kazuchika,
  OSHIMA Yasuhiro
Minamimachi Bugyosho
  2, 3, 7
  1, 5, 8, 12, 21, 25, 26
  ISONO Satoshi
  2, 4, 7
Doga Kobo
Last House
Anime Roman

The proliferation of studios is enough to make you wonder if any of the show was actually produced at Sunrise, but there are plenty of staff I can't account for, and I'm sure that many of them must have been in-house animators. The first four studios listed were obviously the big ones in this series. The rest were more piecemeal. Some episodes appear to have been wholesaled out to certain studios, but mostly it's more of a mix of different animators from different studios. For example, episodes 10, 15, 17, 19 and 24 appear to have been entirely wholesaled to Gallop, whereas Dove animators handled only a portion of the episodes they're involved in. The same applies to the other studios listed above.

Studio Dove perhaps deserves special mention, as its members are credited by studio in every installment of the series from the TV series to the movie to the OVAs. The reason for this is pretty obvious - Dove was founded by an ex-Sunriser who had to move back to his hometown due to illness, where he continued to work for the company, and eventually started his own subcontractor. His company was the training ground for two of my favorite animators - Nobutake Ito and Susumu Yamaguchi. They've got numerous other Asian branches, including Seoul Dove, Shanghai Dove and Vietnam Dove.

Although some studios like Dove are credited, in other cases it took research to figure out that a particular animator was involved at a particular studio at this point in time. Dove is credited, but Gallop is not. I was able to figure out that those animators are probably Gallop animators because just the year before, most of them are listed under Gallop in the credits of Sherlock Hound, which was itself a Gallop production.

Studio Mu, the sister studio of Anime R in Osaka, is credited, and under the Mu credit you find the names of the animators involved from the studio - most famously perhaps Kazuchika Kise. Artland is credited in episodes 6 and 7, but not in episode 11, but episode 11 involves Nobuteru Yuki and Hideki Futamura, who were either credited under Artland in the previous episodes or I know to have started out at Artland. This is of course early in the career of these two animators who since this went on to make a name for themselves elsewhere with two very different approaches.

Osamu Tsuruyama and Kenichi Onuki, two of the main animation directors on the TV series, were among the founding members of subcontracting studio Minamimachi Bugyosho, whose ranks also include an animator named Osamu Yamasaki, who was involved in episode 2, 3 and 7 alongside one or the other of the former. Kugatsusha I don't know much about other than that it was Yoshikazu Yasuhiko's studio and it's where Kumiko Takahashi started out a few years earlier and was presumably still involved at this point in time.

Hibari isn't credited, but animation director Satoshi Isono of Hibari is present. He debuted as an inbetweener on the TV show and was one of the staff most ubiquitous throughout the various productions, working as an animator on the movie, as an animation director and animator in the OVA series, and as an animator in the final OVA. Anime Roman, Last House and Doga Kobo are credited, but at the bottom, so I don't know which animators credited, if any, were involved in those studios.

I wrote about Shoichi Masuo recently, and he was involved in the TV series. He was at Studio Graviton at the time. There are a few great mecha/missile action shots in episode 7 of the TV series that I suspect might be the work of Masuo. Other members of Studio Graviton were involved later in the series - Koji Ito and Tomohiro Hirata in the movie, Tomohiro Hirata and Toshiyuki Kubooka in the episodes 3, 6 (Hirata AD) and 8 of the OVA series, and Tomohiro Hirata in the final OVA.

The OVA series was similarly the product of a number of different studios. Studio Mu animators Harumi Muranaka, Sawako Yamamoto and Kazuchika Kise were involved in episodes 1, 5 and 9, credited as Studio Mu. DAST is credited in episode 4, Tatsu Production in 7, and Kino Production in 8. Katsuhiko Nishijima of Studio Live was in the movie and in episode 5 of the OVA series.

An animator named Tatsuyuki Tanaka is credited in the final OVA alongside Akira animator Hitoshi Ueda. The thing is, the last kanji in his name is different from 'the' Tatsuyuki Tanaka, so I can't be sure it's really him. But Hitoshi Ueda was involved in the TV series and movie, so it would certainly jive if he had discovered Tanaka while working on Akira between the movie and the final OVA and brought him onboard.

As far as the animation goes, there are numerous nice bits throughout the show. In the TV series, I quite liked the work of Atsushi Tsukamoto of Gallop, whom I presume to have drawn the handful of peculiarly timed but tasty mecha action shots that grace episodes 10, 15, 17 and 19. Masuo's work I mentioned before. Episode 25 of the TV series and 9 of the OVA series are two of the eps with the most interesting overall animation.

Dokite created his own home page over ten years ago, and put up a page featuring the cover sheet for the design sheets for each episode. Normally this isn't done for a TV series, but they had fun with it and got a different person to draw the cover for each episode's sheets. You can see drawings by a lot of the names mentioned above here - 1 is Dokite, 2 is probably Kenichi Onuki, 3 is probably Hiroaki Goda, 5 is Hiroyuki Kitakubo, 6 is Yuji Moriyama (who Dokite says drew one shot uncredited), 7 is Shoichi Masuo, 12 is Yuki Nobuteru, 13 is Hideku Futamura, etc... Surprising to see what kind of drawing certain figures were doing at this time.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

08:27:03 pm , 170 words, 2188 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Kunio Kato wins the Oscar

This isn't a very original thing to write, and I usually don't pay it too much attention, but I was quite happy to see Kunio Kato win the Oscar for his latest short, as I've been a fan since his Traveler series, so a hearty congratulations to him for this. This award comes right after Kunio Kato just won the grand prize at the Japan Media Arts Festival. And more generally, it's great to see the Japanese indie scene get some attention. I'm sorry and bemused, albeit not surprised, that Waltz With Bashir didn't win. As nice a film as Wall-E is, it would have been justice to give this award to a truly great animated film that doesn't already have massive name recognition and the backing of major western studios. I don't know what to think about it not having been nominated as an animated film. I suppose it's testament to the unique position the film occupies - it could have equally well found itself in the documentary category.

Monday, February 16, 2009

12:13:55 am , 1398 words, 3491 views     Categories: Animation

Rojin Z

I just re-watched Rojin Z (1991) for the first time in probably over a decade, and it was much better than I remembered. I knew looking at the staff that it must be quite nice, but it's been a long time, so my memory was hazy. Now that I've re-watched it, I'd almost say I like the animation here as much as in Akira. They're very different styles of animation, so it's probably not right to compare the two. But I find the more limited and rough style of the drawings and movement here, with its thick and obvious lines and rich and fun but not overly fluid or nuanced acting, more appealing somehow.

One interesting thing about re-watching Rojin Z 18 years after it was made is that almost every single solitary person involved in there has gone on to make a name for him or herself, although some may have already been more or less well known. The staff is just incredible, and I can't think of a better-endowed film: Mecha design by Mitsuo Iso, art concepts by Satoshi Kon, storyboard by line director Toshiaki Hontani, Tatsuyuki Tanaka and chief director Hiroyuki Kitakubo, and animation by Hiroyuki Okiura, Koichi Arai, Manabu Ohashi, Satoshi Kon, Kazuchika Kise, Toshiyuki Inoue, Hiroyuki Morita, Takeshi Honda, Koji Morimoto, Kazuto Nakazawa, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Michio Mihara, Atsuko Fukushima, Norio Matsumoto and Koichi Hashimoto... to name but the most obvious. It reads like a who's who of the best Japanese animators of the last 20 years.

And it shows up in the film. There is no end to the great shots of animation in there. One of the aspects of Japanese animation I've come to realize that I most like is the combination of spareness, interesting drawing and fun acting, as opposed to spending an inordinate amount of time and money to make things extremely smooth and polished. I can certainly appreciate finely worked animation, but it's only in Japan that you can find the former style honed to the sort of perfection it has been in the hands of a handful of great animators. This film is a classic example of how it's still possible to create animation that is interesting and alive enough to work in the context of a theatrical film, where normally one would expect more fluidity and cleanness, with an approach at the opposite end of the scale, using a spare number of drawings with more personality, although of course great work can be done with all sorts of different approaches. But it's just that this is the kind of animation that Japan is good at, and like how it's made an asset in this film. I just love the kind of animation such as that here where you can savor every drawing in a movement. It's a theatrical production, and I'm sure they used a ton of drawings, but the animation comes across as lighter and more in line with the typical concept of Japanese animation. Clearly this was a film to let loose and have fun with after Akira for Otomo, and I think that answers for the style of animation to some extent.

Be it the character acting in the first half or the crazy mecha morphing in the second half, I find that the animated element is always an inordinate pleasure to watch in this film, and clearly it's because the animators are good, not because an inordinate amount of time was spent on the animation - although I'm sure some of the animation in the second half must have taken quite a bit of work. I like the clarity and directness of the character designs apart from the heroine, with each of the old men having his own very unique wrinkly features and the various Japanese characters throughout the film drawn in a very appealing caricatural way that doesn't require them to be drawn in a distinctly Japanese manner for them to be nationally identifiable. That's something Otomo was very good at in his manga, coming up with new ways of rendering the Japanese face in a way that was realistic yet stylized in his own unique voice. And that's something we've seen virtually no one take up in anime.

In that respect, and in respect to the subject matter, with its focus on an issue of relevance in contemporary Japanese politics and culture - in other words, on a concept of reality that anyone outside of a particular Japanese sub-culture could comprehend - I find this film to be a beacon. It handles this subject not in a preachy in-your-face moralizing manner, but while being riotously entertaining and action-packed. I wish more films would be made like this, dealing with something of relevance to real life, especially with anime these days seemingly increasingly dominated by visual schemes and stories that bear little relation to most people's concept of reality. After he made the great Memories, rather than embarking on a 10-year Snark hunt that turned him into the Axl Rose of the animation world, I wish that Otomo had continued making films like this based on his innumerable interesting stories and idea concepts, using different crews to bring his work to life.

I was also very happy to find that Fumio Iida, AKA Suezen, was the animation director, as I've been a fan of his ever since the adorable Yadamon series he did for NHK back in 1992, right after this film. He's got a unique style of drawing that beguiled me back in the day, and that looking back over today I still think was exemplary for back then and should serve as an example to designers today that, yes, it's possible to create designs that are both cute and appealing and actually creative and original, without necessarily being too scary a departure from what people are used to seeing, and without simply falling back on cliches that most so-called designers adopt for lack of ideas.

Until a year or so ago I didn't care much for Hiroyuki Kitakubo as a director, but I've come to rather admire his skills now that I've re-visited most of his major works over the last few years. Before directing Rojin Z he had a long career as an animator, having debuted at age 15, straight out of middle school, as an inbetweener on Gundam - as auspicious a place to debut as you could find. He hasn't done much in the last few years, but he's done animation, which shows that he still has an animator's blood in him. His first job as director came in 1985 with one of the classic OVAs of the 80s, the Pop Chaser episode of Cream Lemon, which he didn't only direct - he created, wrote, directed, designed, and was animation director. Watched today it's still quite entertaining, to say nothing of featuring great work by a number of famous animators working under ludicrous pseudonyms.

In 1987 he directed Black Magic M-66, which I haven't re-watched in over 15 years, so I can't comment much on, but the next year he directed the episode of Robot Carnival with the giant mechanical robot, which is very typical of Kitakubo, and even somewhat reminiscent of Rojin Z, with its highly worked and entertaining animation and fun, raucous atmosphere and imaginative twist on the giant robot genre. After Rojin Z in 1991, throughout much of the 90s he was occupied with directing two long-running OVA series that both benefited from very high quality production, Golden Boy and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. Consistently throughout both shows, he packs tremendous nuance into the screen in every shot, from the background to the animation.

He's very detail-oriented, and never leaves a shot behind, filling every shot with some new nuance of humor, action or visual interest. He puts in the effort to make sure that every shot connects into a strong thread. My impression of him is: He's a master craftsman of entertainment who gathers the best staff around him to create the highest quality entertainment possible. He's the diametric opposite of an auteur. It's not about him; it's all about the audience. There aren't many directors who I find so consistently entertaining. Before then going on to do his most famous gig, the Blood movie, he did the opening of the GITS video game, which is a perhaps too-little seen gem that again benefits from some tremendous production quality in its short run-time.

Friday, February 13, 2009

05:57:11 pm , 937 words, 4562 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Maya Yonesho

Maya Yonesho's entry in Winter Days was probably most people's introduction to her work. It was certainly mine, and it made me want to see more. But her work is not easy to come by, and it took a long time to finally get the chance to do so. Now that I have, I can say that her Winter Days film does give a good introduction to her body of work over the last ten years of activity, which has all been devoted to creating animation made by photographing the art books on which her animation is drawn, flipbook-style.

Despite all being done in basically the same style, her films of the last decade represent a very unique body of work in animation that deserves to be seen. Maya Yonesho's animation is all abstract, but it's abstract animation that belies the usual conception of abstract animation as being all difficult and head-scratching stuff for academics. Maya strikes me as very much of a people person, whose work is all about connecting with others, both in the sense of its subject matter and its production. Her work is abstract, but it's always a translation of very basic human emotions and experiences, and that comes through surprisingly clearly to the viewer. And she has constantly traveled over the last decade, so that her various films were all made in different countries, with people of different nationalities, inspired by different environs. I think that's one of her defining traits as an artist - she's not merely an animator hacking away at a desk, her whole work ethos seems to be about the basic notion of people connecting with one another across the borders of language and nationality.

Her films reflect that international color. Introspection (1998), made while studying in the UK, features a soundtrack of different phrases of encouragement spoken by colleagues of different nationalities in their native tongues, which Maya interprets through her flipbook animation. It's a short and simple but powerful film that makes a very clear comment on the ability of art to connect people otherwise separated by language. Her animation, as always, is beautiful and inventive, effectively bringing alive the very different sounds of the different languages in animation.

One thing that characterizes Maya's work procedure, besides the fact that she work on art books, is that she usually bases her animation on a pre-recorded soundtrack of music or words, as in the case of Introspection. The sound gives rise to the images. That may be part of what makes her work immediately accessible - that it isn't really purely abstract; it's often an abstract interpretation of words with which we're all familiar.

Maya's first abstract film was Don't you wish you were here? (1997), which features slow animation of a blob-like object transforming into various shapes and growing more and more colorful as it progresses. The film comes across as a metaphor on the growth of the artist - the gray perhaps representing Maya before this film and the more colorful blob of later on the mature artist. It also seems a more general metaphor for life in general. While you're watching, that doesn't occur to you, as simply watching the animation is a joy, but like all of her work, there's a warm message about life and personal growth hidden in there.

Perhaps the most significant film she's made since then is also the longest, ?ks Uks or One Door (2003), which Maya made while studying in Estonia with the help of Estonian artists and studios. The flipbooks in this film are styled after doors, each of which were created by a different Estonian artist, and each of which represent a different aspect of one's life, such as the door of art, door of love, door of friendship, etc, so that the film plays out the different stages of a person's life as a journey through different doors. The combination with the music is particularly effective here, and the film is one of her most sophisticated and convincing.

Maya spends much of her time lecturing, having lectured and worked in various countries including the UK, Estonia and Austria. In fact, her most recent project since completing ?ks Uks has been a project in which she travels to different countries, where she holds an animation workshop in her technique and creates a film with the participants. The films are shot by holding up the animated drawings in front of you, and photographing them with a camera, so that you get the animation playing out in the environs of the local cities, acting as a mirror and interpretation not of sound this time but of the locality. So far she has completed seven films in the so-called Daumenreise series, which began with her own film Wiener Wuast (2006), shot in Vienna. You can see a list of the other films on her own home page, along with detailed biographical information.

A DVD collecting six of her films is available from Anido, which is where I saw them, but Anido's web form currently doesn't support foreign shipping. I asked them about this, and supposedly they're working on the English form as we speak. Maya actually produced quite a number of films in the decade preceding this, starting with her debut One Lonely Cactus (1985), completed one year before her graduation from the Kyoto Saga Art College in 1986, but her flipbook-style films from 1997 on are the only ones collected on the DVD. What's on there is great, but it's a bit of a shame, as I'd like to see her earlier films too, not to mention that makes the DVD only 30 minutes long.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

09:37:58 pm , 1031 words, 1730 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie


Canada's NFB offers a good number of films from their collection up for viewing on their website, and the other day I had a look through it. I'd never seen Ryan Larkin's films, and seeing them was quite the revelation. Street Musique (1972) is perhaps my favorite, just because it's so fun and playful and has so much stylistic variety. It gives a sense of the imaginative aspect of the young Larkin. It's still exciting to watch after all these years, and seems like the creation of someone with a kind of naive excitement about being able to bring things to life in movement, experimenting with all sorts of fun ideas, whatever comes to mind. It's some of the most fun and free animation you'll see. The famous Walking (1968) is a tour-de-force of different approaches to animating differently designed people walking. Only in animation could something so riveting be created out of just shots of characters walking, with otherwise no story or anything. A number of the films in the NFB's Hothouse series are worth a look, too. I only wind up wishing more of their films were available online... I imagine there must be much more NFB animation than this.

Among the newer films on the site, the one I most enjoyed was Flutter (2006) by Howie Shia of Toronto production studio PPF House. Howie also made the music, and I like the way it comes in and out with shards of sound and melody, matching the rich collage of textures and materials that decorate screen in the various locations where the boy runs in his frantic dash to... escape? explore? It's a very pleasing, openly interpretable film in which every frame is a pleasure to watch as movement and as an image. The design has a nicely urban, rough feeling, and there's real variety in the feeling of the animation from shot to shot, making it deceptively rich viewing. Despite being a black and white film, the texture is very rich and the b/w scheme is effectively used. It's a really fantastic film. On the PPF House web site you can see not only a bunch of Howie's other shorts but also a lot of his really compelling art. (all the animation and art on there is by him) His art is irresistible for a lover of simple, elegant line-drawn design like myself, and his webcomic Century of Love is quite compelling, exhibiting the same great sense for interesting composition and use of black and white lines and spaces.

I was hoping Howie had done more than just that one film, and the promise of Flutter is fulfilled by the various other shorts you can see on his studio's site. His personal films are fun, haiku-like, idea-bubble-like films that are have a delightful directness and simplicity, like animated concept sketches. Howie's film in the Hothouse series, Ice Ages, is one of the most rewarding of the other films he's done, combining that great style of line-drawing with his genius for creating this dynamic screen texture and great visual and color sense, always keeping things toned own like the minimalistic free jazz that plays in the background and gives his films just the right note. The studio has a number of commercial TV series in planning, so hopefully those will pan out. I would love to see the style of Flutter expanded upon. I really like Howie Shia's style, with its great combination of hand-drawn and digital, and its cool, subdued elegance.

A few more shots were added since I first wrote about the Xam'd key animation photography page a few weeks back, but disappointingly, nothing else has been added since then. And now that the show is now ended, I guess that's the end of the goodies. Too bad. They only went up to the halfway point, and I'm sure they could have found a good shot or two in the second half of the series, somewhere, if they looked hard enough. I'm exaggerating slightly, but it's true that it was a little less exciting on the animation front in the second half. More than anything, though, it was shocking how far away the show veered from the series that seemed to be hinted at by the first two episodes, and steadfastly remained off course until the very end. What a waste of potential. They should learn something from the contrast with Madhouse's Yuasa shows, which achieved so much more with far fewer resources and half the length. But clearly they're aiming for something completely different as a company.

Anyway, this feature on their web site was really great, particularly the last batch that they uploaded, which wasn't just a looping animation of the key frames. You could turn off various elements like the sakkan's corrections, the time sheet and so on. What a great initiative, and excellent use of the particular technological advantages of the internet to offer behind-the-scenes content that extends the experience of the show. That's one thing they got right. I don't remember what other bits were of interest in the second half of the show, but I'm sure there was a good deal of nice work, and at the very least it would be nice to see more of the raw work of great animators like Seiichi Hashimoto or Kenji Mizuhata. Shingo Abe is supposedly a great mecha animator (he's worked a lot with Takashi Hashimoto), and he did a lot of work on the show, so he's a figure I'd like to learn more about. Having just seen the last episode, that episode is fresh in memory, and I recall quite liking the bit near the end where Benikawa and an older Yango are re-visiting the battle site at night. It was subtle, but the framing and the acting stood out as unusually convincing. I wonder whose work it was.

I'm always amazed how the Japanese are able to incorporate hyper-cute iconography in contexts that, to foreign eyes, seem completely inappropriate... Something I was reminded of while browsing the website of a certain industrial equipment manufacturer the other day. Is that a calico version of Jiji?? Looks like something Katsuya Kondo would have designed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

11:44:22 pm , 1144 words, 4269 views     Categories: Animation

Casshern sings

Watched up to episode 19 of Casshern Sins so far, and for a show with such a uniform tone and pace from episode to episode, it's never gotten boring or repetitive. Every episode has been satisfying, some tremendously so. I'd come back to it after a while not too keen on it because I pretty much knew what to expect, but every single time, the quality of the production, particularly the directing, would win me over. The atmosphere is uniform, but it rarely tumbles into the monotone, largely thanks to the directing prowess of Shigeyasu Yamauchi. This strikes me as one of the rare cases when it's a uniformity of tone that works, gives the show a feeling of solidity. It's all driving forward ineluctably, like the additional few seconds of the tragedy that we're given before each episode heading towards revelation.

There's something similar in spirit to the Masaaki Yuasa titles Madhouse produced just prior in terms of the narrative texture and work that highlights its creators, but it's done more in line with tradition, most obviously in terms of material, but also in a more subtle way that's hard to pinpoint. When I watch Casshern Sins, it feels like I'm watching anime. And this is one of the rare times when I mean that as the ultimate compliment. "This is what anime is about," I find myself thinking. It strikes me as a highly personal summation of many of the best aspects that attracted so many over the world to anime.

I like the particulars of the production, and I like the whole. It's rare that I can add that second part. The recently-completed Xam'd was one of the more common instances of the first half of that sentence applying, but not the second. The very peculiar and personal directing style of director Shigeyasu Yamauchi is obviously the most salient thing about this series, and it's what has given it its backbone. But it's not just about the way the storyboard is written, although that's a big part. It's also obviously about emotion, and emotionally involving the audience, not by tricks or manipulation, but by making the struggle at the core of the show one we can all relate to, despite the metaphoric buffer provided by the characters being robots. The director makes incredibly effective use of the trappings of the world to create an emotionally resonant Seventh Seal in which the characters are all dancing towards death, whether they be fighting against their fate or accepting it. This is the aspect of the show that has kept me convinced, beyond mere technical appreciation of directing prowess. Yamauchi has made me feel for the characters, which is a rare achievement. It's not even that the characters are three-dimensional and believable. But the whole - directing, writing, music, animation, background art - combine to create a whole that brings the situation to life and makes it work.

The background art in particular, beyond being beautiful in and of itself, strikes me as carrying an important part of the thematic burden of the show, mirroring as it does the inner wasteland of characters as emotionally shattered as the landscape in the picture atop. That picture comes from episode 19. Kenji Matsumoto, whom I wrote about before, has again done a solo episode. Strike me blind, he did two more - episodes 18 and 19. (there's a studio credited below him in 19, but he obviously did most of it) I was surprised enough to find him doing another one, but two in a row... Even if the show didn't have as much going for it as it does, it would still be notable for Kenji Matsumoto's achievement with these three sublimely beautiful solo background episodes. Madhouse has done some truly interesting and innovative things in the background art over the course of Yuasa's shows and now this show. Obviously, there have been plenty of other great background artists in the past, but the deliberateness and the forcefulness of the work that Matsumoto has done here is really remarkable. In its looseness of line and expressionism, it falls more in line with the work of a Shichiro Kobayashi than with the typical blandly photorealistic style that has come to dominate backgrounds. As was the background art of Kemonozume, the backgrounds here feel like a nice match with the deliberately disjointed and quickly, simply drawn characters of Umakoshi. So it's an interesting hybrid of Toei-style characters with Madhouse-style backgrounds, among other interesting interconnections. In short, the art in this series is one of its most appealing aspects. There's no end to the things I'd want to say about the art, which is refreshing.

Episode 18 struck me as one of the most perfect creations in the series. It was incidentally not only a solo background episode by Kenji Matsumoto, but even a solo animator episode by an animator named Kanako Maru, who did a wonderful job, ranging from rich and dynamic animation to expressive rendering of the characters. It's like Madhouse is trying to corner the market on solo episodes or something, covering all the conceivable configurations. The episode was storyboarded and directed by the chief director. With very little plot, like many of the episodes, the episode nonetheless remains gripping at all moments thanks to the directing, the background art and the animation. And the story has a very appealing simplicity that allows us to focus on the emotional journey of the character. This show is basically a road movie, and each episode strikes me as a psychological mini road movie about the emotional journey of the characters. The episodes I most like in this series are the ones where very little happens like this one, dropping the dramatic MacGuffins and allowing us to come closer to the minds and feelings of the characters, through virtuoso directing where not a moment feels wasted and every moment guides us along the way. Of course, that doesn't mean we have to do without a fight scene or two to liven things up.

Episode 15 was another one of these perfect little gems that makes me so love this series, where the chief director is the storyboarder/director, the chief animation director Umakoshi is in charge, and we have some magnificent background art from the husband-wife team of Shinzo and Yukie Yuki, who've been the other big hitters in the art department on this show besides Matsumoto. Episode 19 wasn't quite the perfection of these two, but it featured a nice animated texture, with folks like Norio Matsumoto and Madhouse animator Yutaka Minowa and recently crazy prolific Takaaki Wada again. This show would have been good without Yamauchi storyboarding/directing episodes as he's done, but I wouldn't have been this excited about it. It's the occasional Yamauchi episode that really pumps me up and achieves the perfect tension of art and theme that they're aiming for.