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.
August 2009
Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
 << < Current> >>
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30
31            

Who's Online?

  • Guest Users: 6

  XML Feeds

powered by b2evolution

Archives for: August 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

11:05:49 pm , 1929 words, 7687 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Take the X Train

Many of the more significant anime directors of the 1970s and 1980s learned the ropes at Toei Doga or Mushi Pro in the 1960s. The different approaches to animated filmmaking learned at each respective studio consequently provide the foundation for these directors. Some started out at Toei Doga but migrated to Mushi Pro when it was founded, and flowered as artists there. Such is the case with Rintaro, who after starting out at Toei Doga moved to Mushi Pro, where he debuted as a director on Atom in 1963, and went on to develop one of the most identifiable and idiosyncratic directing styles of any anime director. He's one of the best representatives of the Mushi Pro school of animated filmmaking.

It's difficult to define the Toei Doga/Mushi Pro schools, as every director is a unique individual with his own personal proclivities and influences, and there's no reason to needlessly shoehorn creativity into a box. But one very basic notions that understandably underlies many of the ex-Mushi Pro directors is a more image-based storytelling style. That doesn't mean ex-Toei animators can't create beautiful visuals, of course. And Rintaro's films have some of the lushest animation out there; it's not a black and white issue. But you might say the visuals are the aesthetic object that is constantly played with and reinvented from project to project, rather than merely serving as a tool to tell a story, in Mushi Pro alumni like Rintaro. You can obviously trace this back to the sort of animated filmmaking that had to be done on Atom, where they didn't have the means to use lots of animation drawings, so they had to make due with still shots and fancy camerawork to hold the audience's attention.

One of Rintaro's most significant early works would be as director of Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae, a series that built on this approach where interesting directing and still drawings carry the narrative forward. It was groundbreaking when it was released in 1968 due to its adult and avant garde atmosphere. Just as the 'style' of Atom was to a great extent the product of necessity, so was the style of Sabu. Much of what makes anime identifiable is the little tricks that were devised to make limited animation more interesting in this way, and Sabu seems to have been one of the '60s shows where stylized fudges were devised, and these fudges turned out to be so catchy and cool looking that they would later become favored over conventional expressions.

One example from Sabu is a scene where a character is slashed by a sword. They didn't have the means of actually animating the whole action, so instead, first they showed a drawing of the character swinging the sword; then they inserted a quick 6 or 7 frames of a drawing that is completely black except for having a single straight white line running diagonally and a bright spot of light shining in the middle of the line; and then they cut to a drawing of the character slashed by the sword. This is illustrative of how style is often a matter of convenience adopted as a product of necessity, rather than being purely voluntary.

To bring this back to the matter at hand, I find that Rintaro is a director who creates his best work when he is able to improvise in images the way great jazz artists improvise with music. The metaphor isn't random, of course, because Rintaro is known for being a jazz musician on the side. As it happens, jazz plays an important part in a 1987 OVA he directed entitled Take the X Train. The title of the film pays homage to the famous Duke Ellington standard Take the "A" Train, and for the soundtrack Rintaro got one of Japan's best jazz artists, pianist Yosuke Yamashita, to provide a soundtrack improvised on the theme of Take the "A" Train. The jazz metaphor, then, is explicit in this case, and the film itself has a playful looseness about it that shows this artist at his most instinctive, free and appealing.

Continuing with jazz metaphor, Rintaro has himself likened the act of creating animation to the act of a jazz trio creating music. The members of the trio, in this case, would be the director, the animation director and the art director. What makes Rintaro so identifiable isn't any one style, although his quirky directing certainly has identifiable traits from film to film. It seems to be more that, in every film, the animation is expressing itself, and the art is expressing itself, all while the directing is expressing itself. It's not art and animation being subservient to the directing. All three stand on the same footing and contribute their voice to the harmony.

Take the X Train is a very good example of this approach. Each of the three elements is extremely appealing in its own right, and together they help create a very unique little film. Like Isao Takahata, what defines Rintaro isn't a particular drawing style. His style changes from film to film, because he collaborates with different talented animators each time to devise a style of animation suited to the material at hand. In this case, as with the short Kenji Miyazawa OVA I mentioned in the last post, he got a very talented animator by the name of Yoshinori Kanemori to design the characters and act as the animation director.

Kanemori started out around 1971 at a small subcontracting studio called Asahi Film, where he worked on Toei shows like Gegege no Kitaro. He then quit and briefly worked at two other studios before founding his own studio, Studio Bird, in 1976. From Studio Bird, starting with Galaxy Express 999 in 1978, he and fellow members Yoshinobu Inano and Hiroshi Oikawa acted as the central staff in a number of Toei productions throughout the 1980s, both designing and helping to maintain a high level of animated quality, including Stop!! Hibari-kun in 1983 and the third Gegege no Kitaro series in 1985. You can see the rudiments of the style of Take the X Train in the drawings of the adults that he did in the Studio Bird episodes of Hibari-kun, such as episode 2.

Kanemori has a way of drawing the face like no other anime designer out there, and Take the X Train is a delight to watch because of his drawings. The faces are very three-dimensional, with the lips, nose, chin, jaw and other curves all exaggerated in a really skillful caricatural way. The expressions are funny and believable, the face contorting and being pulled and stretched very elastically to emphasize a certain feature or expression. I like that the faces feel identifiably Japanese despite being so stylized. The faces are more real in the way the nose is clearly drawn like it would be on a human face, with actual nostrils. The lips protrude from the face, the ears stick out, and the teeth are clearly drawn. But you wouldn't call his drawings realistic.

The designs look very peculiar at first sight, but that's not a bad thing - it's a refreshing shock and a change from the homogeneous look of everything else. If anything, after seeing this, it makes you wonder why everything else looks so boring. They're great because they're based on this animator's observation of reality, arranged into a creative form by his imagination, rather than being merely based on an industry template. I love Yoshinori Kanemori's work because he feels like a real designer who has come up with his own approach to designing and bringing characters to life.

The art director is Masashi Aoki, and the art directing is quite interesting in its own right. The art is pop in its sensibility and coloring, and the film is full of humorous, unrealistic, formalist compositions. The layout of the screen at the beginning of the film, pictured atop, is typical of the art, with its weird elements in the various parts of the screen - random billboards in the top left, a big picture of a woman's behind in a thong in the top right, and the attendees at the meeting strung like beads along the bottom of the screen facing us, as if it were the last supper according to Andy Warhol or something.

Every once in a while throughout the film, little thought bubbles or onomatopoeia will pop up next to a character's head and display some incongruous text. When the main character sees a fancy car drive past, the text "AMERICAN OFFROAD MACHINE" appears in a speech bubble above the protagonist's head in typically quirky and ironic Rintaro fashion. There's always some fun and strange thing going on with the images on the screen, be it the composition, the animation or the directing.

The presentation of this strange story is typical of Rintaro in the way linear narrative flow is de-emphasized in favor of staccato, panel-based storytelling. It's like we jump from one interesting animated painting to another, each replete with its own miniature story. That said, the film has a satisfying structure, starting off slowly introducing the protagonist in the funny and visually playful first half, and building up to a burst of kinetic action in the second half.

In the first half, there's one of the funniest sex scenes I've ever seen in animation. The sex is treated frankly, with adult humor, rather than with the usual childish prurience with which the subject is handled in anime. The advent of the OVA must have been appreciated by directors like Rintaro for how it afforded the opportunity to treat the subject of sex for the first time. (Shinya Ohira regretted having to cut the length of the sex scene in his Antique Shop OVA from a few years later.)

In the second half, Rintaro creates some wonderfully memorable images out of the X train, which is embodied in the form of lightning that flows and writhes dynamically around the pitch black screen in a manner reminiscent of Yoshinori Kanada's fire dragon in Harmageddon. Rintaro creates some truly thrilling shots in the climax, with the action being depicted not realistically, but in the very stylized way that he was so good at. For example, when the protagonist's truck hits the X-train, instead of animating it all, it's shown as a very detailed slo-mo pan of the van with lots of debris drifting past on various layers moving at different speeds, with the background flashing black and white. It's a classic example of Rintaro's skill at coming up with interesting visuals using minimal means. The character animation and art rules the first half, and the dynamic and exciting directing and effects animation rules the second. Also, the free jazz going crazy during this climactic sequence achieves a really amazing effect, making for a perfect unity of animation, directing and sound.

This film is the ultimate example of Mushi Pro-style visual storytelling. I love the pacing of this film, because it feels like Rintaro at his most unfeigned and authentic, doing what he loves best - having fun and creating sequences of images that feel good and feel right. As if to mirror how much fun he's having jamming to this tune, he occasionally inserts cards with shorts English phrases, like in the old silent movies, with interjections that sounds like something you might hear during a jazz session. This is one of the craziest, most unusual and fun OVAs ever made. There was certainly nothing like it back then, and after 20 years it still looks and feels just as crazy and fresh.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

11:59:07 pm , 2446 words, 13140 views     Categories: Animation

The Restaurant of Many Orders and Kenji Miyazawa anime

Many of the best directors working in animation in Japan have adapted early 20th century poet Kenji Miyazawa's timeless short stories. The last film made by Japan's pre-eminent indie animator of the 70s and 80s, Tadanari Okamoto, was an adaptation of Kenji's The Restaurant of Many Orders. Okamoto died in 1990 midway through production, and the film was brought to completion the next year by his longtime friend and fellow indie animator Kihachiro Kawamoto. Yesterday I finally had the chance to see this film about which I'd wondered for many years, as it was released on the recent Tadanari Okamoto DVD box set. I was already familiar with most of Okamoto's main mid-period films, but thanks to this set I have the full picture of Okamoto - and it only makes me admire the man more. His early films show a creator with a fully developed sensibility right off the bat, while his last film makes me realize how tremendous a loss it was to lose Okamoto so early, as he was still growing as an artist, and this film shows him creating something different from everything that had come before in tone and style. This film was also intended as a study for his first full-length feature. Judging by the results, Hotarumomi - we have only the title of the would-be feature - would have been a monument to indie animated filmmaking. As it stands, The Restaurant of Many Orders is a great little film and a worthy final word from a great artist.

My first instinctive impression was: This is a gorgeous film to look at. The rich images are simply beautiful, and make the short run time fly by. There is no dialogue, which further focuses your attention on the unified beauty of the images, and the mysterious atmosphere created by the piece. The fact that the film has no dialogue is already a big departure for Okamoto. His films usually rely heavily on either lyrics, narration or dialogue. The film is remarkably engaging despite this, which is a triumph of directing. Even those beautifully dense visuals feel quite un-Okamoto and new even for an artist as renowned for his technical versatility as Okamoto was.

The film's defining trait is that it looks like a moving engraving. There is no visual disconnect between the characters and the background - they both seem carved of the same plate. This kind of visual unification is something Okamoto has tackled in the past - notably in The Soba Flower of Oni Mountain, in which he devised a special technique to give both the characters and the background the same brush ink look. Once again, Okamoto devised a specific technique to achieve the unified look of The Restaurant of Many Orders. He drew the keys onto normal animation paper, but he photocopied the sheets onto cells, and painted over the cells - on both sides - with a type of watercolor paint referred to as acrylic gouache. Unlike normal watercolor, where the layers underneath remain visible, gouache covers up the layers underneath. This is the technique that allowed him to turn a technical impossibility - animating an engraving - into a satisfying and convincing visual equivalent. He piles layer upon layer of the paint to achieve the lush, soft, dense texture that fills every nook and cranny of the screen. He also uses a multiplane camera to create a truly living and breathing image with great feeling of depth. That is one of the things I most admire about Okamoto: his knack for coming up with ingenious new technical approaches to achieve a new style of movement or to enrich the visuals.

The opening pan shot of the jeep driving across the countryside seems like perhaps the most successful and impressive expression of the particular visual concept devised for this short. The screen feels alive and rich and deep here like virtually no other indie Japanese animation I've ever seen, with its delicate gradations of light and shadow and dense but shadowy underbrush of leaves and branches flying past the jeep at different speeds on the different levels of the multiplane. The scenes immediately afterward in the forest are also gorgeously beautiful, with the many layers of subtly swaying trees and the tastefully subdued color tone creating a magical atmosphere of a living and breathing forest. There are unfortunately not very many shots later on that attempt anything so complicated, although we have to remember that this film was not completed by Okamoto, so there are undoubtedly many aspects that are not as they would have been had he lived to finish the film.

But you don't have to know any of that to appreciate The Restaurant of Many Orders. This is quite simply a film that's a pleasure to immerse yourself in. That's the most basic sign of a great animated short - that you feel good watching it. Every moment is beautiful to look at and genuinely interesting, and you're always wondering what's going to happen next. The film has a beguiling atmosphere and tone unlike anything else out there, and creates a sense of dramatic development, all without dialogue, entirely through the journey. Throughout, you find yourself transported into the mind of the two hunter protagonists. It feels like a first-person experience. You sense their fear and trepidation mounting as they penetrate ever deeper into bowels of the mad, improbable mansion. And this is done entirely through the staging and character animation. The organically expansive mansion itself, rather than the mute and doltish humans, seems like the protagonist of the film. It's a wonderfully Escher-esque fun-house that seems infinite in the variety of its waiting rooms, dining rooms, alcoves, hallways, antechambers, postchambers, etc. The film is a great achievement as animation because it takes a rudimentary story and brings it alive entirely through the interaction of the two characters with this very creatively depicted house.

There have been a number of other adaptations of Kenji Miyazawa into animation, and the amazing thing is that so many of them are so incredibly good. I can't think of an author who has been better served by anime than Kenji Miyazawa. His stories are amazing creations in themselves, and these attract the directors who know greatness. Something about Miyazawa's writing continues to speak to readers young and old today like that of few other authors. I adore his writing, personally - his prose is among the most well crafted and delectable I've ever read in any language, with an idiosyncratic diction, naive imagination and peculiar stories that are unlike anything out there - although it's beyond the scope of a mere post to get to the heart of what makes his stories speak so powerfully to people of all ages and generations.

All I know is that, by some strange turn of events, many of my favorite anime films of the 80s are Kenji anime. Not surprisingly, all of the best Kenji anime were made by Japanese studios known for their more hand-crafted, artist-centric philosophy. First came Oh Production, who released Gauche the Cellist in 1982 after 5 years of work. (They later made a nice OVA series called Little Twins.) Next came Group Tac, known for the long-running animation showcase Tales of Old Japan, with Night on the Galactic Railroad in 1985. Madhouse released the two OVAs The Acorns and the Wildcat and Matasaburo the Wind Imp in 1988. Finally came Animaru-ya with The Biography of Gusko Budori. Animaru-ya and Group Tac both released a film to commemorate the centenary of Kenji's birth in 1996: Group Tac released the imaginary biopic Kenji's Spring, and Animaru-ya released an omnibus of three stories enetitled Kenji's Trunk.

The two best Kenji anime are undoubtedly Isao Takahata's Gauche the Cellist and Gisaburo Sugii's Night on the Galactic Railroad. Two more different films you couldn't find, but both are works of unsurpassed perfection as animated films. It's striking how two films could so perfectly distill the essence of an author, but both go about doing so in such diametrically opposed ways. Something about Kenji's work seems to bring out the best in animators. There are certainly some mediocre animated adaptations that were churned out to make money, but in an unusual twist, the well-crafted adaptations far outnumber the bad.

Takahata's film translates Kenji's imaginary land of Iihatov using washes of watercolor art that depict a natural world similar to ours, but more evocative and soft, nostalgic and comfortingly rural. In this world, it's not a stretch for animals to walk right up to you and speak their mind if push comes to shove. The theater scene, concert and dinner scene at the end ground the events in a pre-war Japan that seems plausibly real, which makes the scenes with the animals all the more mystical. Takahata's strategy is to ground events with enough reality to make them plausible, and then step on the line a little with imaginatively executed flights of fancy only possible in animation. The musical scenes are choreographed very imaginatively, with the musicians being blown about during storm scene, and each animal coming across as very individual in its speech and behavior. The lush and extremely appealing designs and animation are a showcase for animator Toshitsugu Saida, who provided all keys for the film. This is undoubtedly the most laboriously crafted and multilayered of the Kenji films.

Gisaburo Sugii's Night on the Galactic Railroad, in contrast, adopts a storybook tone and visual ethos completely at odds with the previous film. The colorful backgrounds are drawn with bold strokes, like naif art, and the characters are simply drawn anthropomorphic cats, sidestepping the problems inherent in depicting the inhabitants of Iihatov as humans. The animation is completely different as well. The focus here is not on bringing the characters alive through nuanced animation, but on bringing a fantastic world alive through a procession of gorgeous images that are pure and intense. The animation is consequenly very still, but in an intentionally restrained kind of way, combining with the art to create a tone of hushed awe and heightened emotion. The art for the mazelike town is one of the film's most unforgettably beautiful images. This Iihatov may have started out informed of a vaguely rural European sensibility, but it is transformed through the art into a truly unique and compelling world the likes of which we've never seen before. Every image from this film is striking and unforgettable, from the computer CG corn field, to the pillar of cranes, to the Bos skeleton buried in the geological layers of time and space. This film seems like the most imaginative and creative of the Kenji films, and also the most spiritual and profound.

Madhouse's two best directors, Toshio Hirata and Rintaro, left behind their own interpretations of Kenji's stories in two wonderful OVAs released in 1988 that sorely deserve to be rediscovered. These are the definition of buried gems. Hirata's film looks like a living, breathing illustration, with characters by Yasuhiro Nakura of Angel's Egg and Metropolis and art by Yamako Ishikawa of Labyrinth Labyrinthos and The Golden Bird. Rintaro's film is a parade of boldly formalistic shots, and uses flat swaths of pastel color to delineate the characters, who are tastefully rendered by brilliant animator Yoshinori Kanemori. The animation alternates between pure stillness in which the beautiful layouts do their magic, and shots where the characters suddenly come alive in fluid animation. This film is one of Rintaro's greatest triumphs of visuals-centric filmmaking.

Ryutaro Nakamura's The Biography of Budori Gusko is the Kenji film most about the experiences of its characters rather than necessarily about visual storytelling, although the film abounds in beautiful images and scenes where the visuals combine with the music to sublime effect, as in all of the previous films. The world of this film is very close to ours (it's the most autobiographical of Kenji Miyazawa's short stories), but Nakamura strikes a great balance between realism and animated expressiveness with the simple and playfully designed characters of Shinichi Suzuki. As a film it is more rough around the edges and not as perfectly realized as the previous Kenji films, but in its own very different way, it still feels true to Kenji's vision of the world. The fictional autobiography of the protagonist is tremendously affecting perhaps due to the combination of naive character designs with hard-hitting events such as the famine at the beginning of the film. The film has an emotional honesty and rawness that belies the cartoonish facade.

Although I haven't seen it, the very first adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa in animation was a silhouette animation adaptation of Gauche the Cellist made a few years after the end of the war by Yoshitsugu Tanaka of Perrault the Chimney Sweep fame. I also haven't seen the most recent Kenji adaptation, Kenji's Trunk, but the films are hopefully well enough crafted and worth discovering. Ryutaro Nakamura made one of the shorts with the strong team of art director Shinji Kimura and animation director Takahiro Kishida.

A while back it was reported that Gisaburo Sugii was going to be directing a new film adaptation of The Biography of Budori Gusko at Group Tac, although the film was scheduled for completion last spring and I haven't heard any news whatsoever as to what's going on. Hopefully it is still on track. It will be great to see a new Kenji film by the same team that brought us arguably the best Kenji film, although it is somewhat strange and disappointing that they had to choose to re-make a story that has already been made into a fairly good animated film. Still, it will be interesting to see how their interpretations differ.

The range of styles on display in the Kenji films amazes me. Every film takes a different approach in the directing, animation, storytelling style, etc. It would be great to hold a screening of all these films together. These films show what true creativity is about in anime.


A selection of the best Kenji Miyazawa anime:

1949 - Gauche the Cellist (movie, 19 min, Yoshitsugu Tanaka)
1982 - Gauche the Cellist (movie, 63 min, Isao Takahata)
1985 - Night on the Galactic Railroad (movie, 90 min, Gisaburo Sugii)
1988 - The Acorns and the Wildcat (OVA, 30 min, Toshio Hirata)
1988 - Matasaburo the Wind Imp (OVA, 30 min, Rintaro)
1991 - The Restaurant of Many Orders (movie, 20 min, Tadanari Okamoto)
1994 - The Biography of Budori Gusko (movie, 85 min, Ryutaro Nakamura)
1996 - Kenji's Trunk (omnibus movie, 85 mins)
   The Twin Stars (Ryutaro Nakamura)
   The Cat's Office (Hiroshi Fukutomi; cd Toshiyuki Honda)
   The Coat of a Glacier Mouse (Setsuko Shibuichi)
1996 - Kenji's Spring (TV special, 55 min, Shoji Kawamori)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

09:28:00 pm , 1149 words, 4023 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Crimson Wolf

Each era in the history of anime has its distinguishing qualities. One of my favorite periods is 1990-1995, when you get OVAs with a sort of crazed energy in the directing and storytelling, and realistically tinged yet fun and manic animation. Unlike in the late 80s, one of the things in the air at this period was realism, presumably influenced by things like Akira, and a lot of animators were producing realistic yet highly expressive and individualistic animation that after all these years remains extremely appealing, sitting as it does comfortably in the zone between pure, stale realism and over-the-top Kanada-school chaos.

The pinnacle of this kind of OVA is probably Hakkenden, which is representative of this era in its very unbalanced approach to the animation in the way a lot of good animators with very different styles are thrown together into a single film without being unified. The result was a film with a lot of variety in the style of animation, to say nothing of the characters' faces, which seem to look different in every shot. 3x3 Eyes is another OVA from this period with a similar sort of epic but hyperactive storytelling and realistically influenced but very expressive animated energy. The OVA has been an important outlet for the more outre urges in anime, offering unique freedoms in storytelling and animation, and there is a lot of good animation buried here and there over the years.

I just ran across a fairly obscure OVA from 1993 entitled Crimson Wolf, directed by FX animator Shoichi Masuo, that seems like another good representative of this period of OVA history. It reminds of Hakkenden in its frenzied directing and raw and extremely uneven but frequently exciting animation. I actually sought this thing out because I saw it in his filmography and was curious to see what an OVA directed by this great animator might look like, and more importantly, if it might not have some good animation. Even if they are often not very good, I find that the very first few films directed by great animators are often fun and crazy and full of great animation. Ichiro Itano's Battle Royale High School comes to mind as just such an example from the previous period in OVA history - insane and ridiculous fun with lots of fighting and very uneven but always lively and occasionally awesome animation. Much to my delight, such indeed turned out to be the case with this film.

Crimson Wolf is about as manic and crazed as they come, and I mean that as a compliment. This OVA exemplifies many of the qualities that first attracted me to anime, with its breakneck pace and story cramming in way too much information for its own good. It's an unpredictable and implausible mishmash of car chases, shower scenes, kung-fu fighting, sex, political intrigue, and cybernetic reincarnations of Genghis Khan out to take over the world. In other words, everything that makes anime great.

The animation is quite an interesting beast. Most of the time the drawings are nothing more than functional, but in quite a few spots the quality suddenly jumps, as the baton has obviously been handed to a great animator with a great sense of timing and drawing. The fighting scenes usually have a dynamic and heavy feeling to the movement reminiscent of Tatsuyuki Tanaka's dojo fight in episode 9 of Hakkenden, with its huge hands and limbs flailing about wildly in an exaggerated but tremendously entertaining fashion.

Typical of this period, many of these scenes just scream a particular animator in the idiosyncrasy of the drawing and movement. The most prominent such scene is the scene that takes place in the woman's apartment, where she is attacked in the shower. The drawings and movement here just scream Norimoto Tokura. I've long wanted to see more from Tokura in the style and quality of the work he did in the Lion and Pelican short in the Ai Monogatari omnibus film that was released the same year as Crimson Wolf. It had a rich and dynamic approach to the animation that seemed like one of the best representatives of this era's unique animation mindset. The scene in the apartment here is probably the best thing I've seen from him after Lion and Pelican. It's a bit rougher around the edges, but it's got the same very fluid and detailed body movement and distinctive aggressive, bulky way of rendering the form of the face. I've attached a pic from the two at right for reference. I know the similarity is not that obvious from these pictures, but these are the best comparison shots I could find.

The most impressive scene in the film in terms of the animation, unsurprisingly, is the climax, with its extremely fluid and well rendered dragons flying through the air. It's the best dragon climax I've seen since the climax with the little prince fighting the hydras in Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon, animated by Yasuo Otsuka with the help of Sadao Tsukioka. It seems clearly like the work of Toshiaki Hontani, another great FX animator. It's not surprising that a film directed by Shoichi Masuo would be brought to a climax by an extravaganza of great FX animation, and Hontani was the perfect animator to use to give this scene its requisite gravitas and power. Nobody knows how to integrate good FX like a good FX animator.

What makes me suspect the climax to have been done by Hontani is the similarity of the smoke to the smoke he did in the capsule breaking open scene in Akira, with its heavy, deliberate movement of each bulge in the cloud. The dragon is also animated with the same minute attention to detail that contrasts dramatically with the more crudely expressive animation in the rest of the film. The animation convincingly portrays the scale of the scene and the massiveness of the dragon, and is one of the better examples in anime of how proper casting of a great animator can make a scene have a strong impact on the viewer. This definitely feels like the best thing I've seen from Hontani after his work in Akira. I'd like to see what other animation he did around this period, to see if he did anything else in this vein.

There were also a number of explosions here and there throughout the film that were drawn in a distinctive pink, hazy style that is the distinguishing trademark of a talented but little-known FX animator named Hideaki Anno. Compare the effects drawn by Shinya Ohira, Toshiaki Hontani and Hideaki Anno to see just how dramatically even effects animators differ. Every animator can come up with a different way of expressing even the exact same natural phenomenon. That's what makes animation beautiful. Hiroyuki Kitakubo is also there as an animator, although I have no idea what his style was like.

Friday, August 21, 2009

03:13:00 pm , 1896 words, 9453 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada

Miyazaki on Kanada

By some lucky stroke, yesterday as I was browsing through a Japanese second-hand book shop, I found a copy of the "Yoshinori Kanada Special" book that was published in 1982 by Tokuma Shoten. It's undoubtedly the single best book published on Yoshinori Kanada, and probably among the better anywhere on a single animator. It is jam-packed with Yoshinori Kanada's awesome, loose, free drawings, which are massively invigorating to look at. I find the freedom of his drawings not only appealing, but liberating. It's the same feeling I get from his animation. I hope that there will be an updated and expanded version of this book published soon, supplementing the coverage of his first 12 years in this book with the last 25 years of his career. This book was published before Birth was released in 1984, and contains a lot of conceptual sketches for the film, as well as scads of genga from all of his most important work up until then. Also, I love the tag-line: Now, The Super-Hero "IKO" Shoots Your Anime-Spirit!

There's an essay by Hayao Miyazaki about Kanada at the end. Kanada had never worked for Miyazaki at this time, but was to do so soon on Nausicaa, for reasons that will become obvious below. I like how throughout his career Miyazaki regularly picked out great new animators outside of his circle of connections like Kanada, and more recently Ohira - both animators who stylistically hardly seem suited to a Miyazaki film - and invited them to work on his films, utilizing their skill as animators while allowing them to do work that preserved their individuality to an extent. Anyway, here's my translation. It's quite old, I know, but most of the things he says remain relevant and insightful about Kanada and about animators in general. His imaginary reconstruction of Kanada's development is quite perceptive and continues to apply today to many animators. Miyazaki himself, after all, must have gone through much the same process.


He's been true to himself throughout his work. - Hayao Miyazaki

Around the time we were wrapping on Cagliostro's Castle, I remember one day Tomonaga Kazuhide coming up to me and saying how he thought "This Kanada guy at Z is really good". It wasn't long after that at a get-together somewhere that I first laid eyes on Kanada ("met" isn't the right term). As I watched him go-go dancing amid the fracas of youthful animators letting loose, I thought to myself, "Now this guy is the real thing."

I already suspected him to be the "real thing" for being able to incite such barely concealed respect-combined-with-rivalry in an animator as grounded and professional as Kazuhide Tomonaga, but the way he shook his booty with zealous abandon that night only confirmed my suspicions. All of the great animators I know have some kind of behavioral quirk that sets them apart. With Yasuji Mori it's his subtle wit. Yasuo Otsuka is great at doing impressions of people (he does a good Hirohito - one of these days he's going to get killed by some right-winger). Watch out when Kotabe Yoichi gets drunk, ladies... etc.

So I was convinced that Yoshinori Kanada had to be a good animator. We met a few times after that at various get-togethers, but never really got a good chance to talk, apart from one phone conversation where I did most of the talking. I'd never even really had a good look at his work. Yet I was determined to work with him some day. I made the mistake of saying that aloud one day, which is why I was asked to write this essay. Try as I might to squirm out of it, I got tired of fighting off the repeated video education sessions and decided to give it a go, accepting that what I say here might be way off the mark.

I have no intention of trying to analyze or critique his work. For one, I've never worked with him, and for two, he's obviously doing something that people today feel is relevant, so it's not my place to stand on a pedestal and talk down to him. The only thing I know for sure is that he's a person who seems to have been true to himself throughout his work. I like animators like that.

What does it mean to be a real animator? It's a hard concept to define, and defining it would probably be meaningless. I'm sure there are plenty of talented people I've never heard of, and I'm sure there are new ones developing this very moment.

But if we narrow it down to animators who are able to create animation whose drawings and movement (including their sense of timing) feels good as animation - then the number becomes much smaller. Yoshinori Kanada is one of the few animators who can create that kind of animation.

It's easy to imagine why his unique brand of explosions and wild action has bred a league of followers. But that unique feeling in his work can't be achieved by simply copying a template pattern, as will undoubtedly be illustrated by the stale and stultified feeling of battle scenes drawn by his imitators.

The work of a great animator can only be drawn by that animator. Every element of a piece of animation - in other words, the technique providing the foundation for that piece of animation - is the product of the innate sensibility of that particular animator, which is something unique to that animator.

Very few animators have a firm grasp of how weight, momentum and acceleration affect the properties of objects, and are able to instinctively visualize in their heads how a movement might play out in space. Even fewer are able to not only do this, but go beyond logic, integrating physics with instinct to create animation that can't be explained but that simply works in the eyes of the viewers. The ability to create animation that works comes from first achieving mastery of how the laws of physics such as weight and momentum work, and then going beyond those rules - saying to yourself, "Drawing it this way would feel better", and drawing it based on that feeling. It's a mistake to think that his style can be mimicked simply by surface imitation of his crazy poses and rough drawings.

Gatchaman, for example - sorry to name names - certainly impressed with its various innovations, but in terms of the movement turned out to be a classic example of how, no matter how many quick movements or cuts you might string together, the movement simply doesn't feel good or even convincing if it completely ignores the laws of physics.

You've just started out as an animator. Suddenly you have to draw your first genga. You don't know what to do. You're worried, you're afraid. But you tough it out and just draw. Eventually, you don't know why, but you stat to get a sense for how to do it. You start to get little ideas for how to make a movement interesting in this or that scene in the storyboard. Then you start changing the storyboard. At first it's subtle, but it gradually becomes more prominent. Sometimes the director agrees, other times you have to muscle your idea through. Sometimes what you tried doesn't work and you come out with egg on your face. But you just can't hold back this uncontrollable urge to draw things the way you want.

Eventually, the scenes you animated start to stick out from the other sequences, standing apart for how much more lively and individualistic they look and feel. People start to be able to guess what part you did. Your courage starts to build. Usually with this kind of animator, the characters are way off model. Even if he drew the character designs, they're still way off model. You start to notice that, even when you think you drew a character close enough to model, for some reason other people seem to think it's way off. But you don't let it get you down.

Then you're given the chance to handle a whole episode in a TV series. The episode winds up looking nothing like the rest of the episodes, but it's interesting, so you don't let it undermine your newfound confidence.

You give sakkan'ing a shot, but you realize that you're not cut out for it. All it does is make you want to re-draw everything in your own style. You couldn't do that day in and day out, for one, but more importantly, you want to spend all your time drawing movement that you're satisfied with, not correcting other people's drawings. But sakkan's are at the top of the ladder in the animation industry, so you feel torn. You start to feel troubled by how in magazines and the like even the best animation work winds up being attributed to the director or to the animation director, or even to the original creator.

You start to find that you can predict how a piece of animation will turn out if it's drawn this way or that way. And yet, the more this feeling grows, the more you begin to feel a growing emptiness inside.

You take part in some big name projects. You decide to lay aside your issues with the structure or the storyboard or the subject of the film, and just make your part the best you can make it. Your work even receives recognition as a result. You feel like you've achieved something. Another part of you, though, begins to wonder if it's enough to simply chug along as a cog in the wheel. You begin to awaken to what it really is that you want to express as a creator.

If I may be so bold, that is the kind of animator I imagine Yoshinori Kanada to be.

The work of Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga on the Galaxy Express 999 movie (viz) was characterized in some corners as a victory for contract animators. But the issue of contract vs. in-house is beside the point. What's really happening is that a new generation of animators is replacing the old. That's all. The problems faced by the new generation of animators are otherwise the same. If some in-house animator someplace lords their sense of superiority over you, they're not deserving of respect anyway, so just leave and go somewhere else.

When the youthful days of experimentation are past, and you've accumulated experience, and it's time to build on that experience, what kind of projects you will encounter and what kind of people you'll work with will unfortunately remain largely up to chance. But it is also undeniable that what work comes your way will be partially dictated by the kind of work you've done up until now. As we head out of this 'anime boom' towards the age of mass consumption of anime, I imagine that not only Yoshinori Kanada, but also many other animators with talent, ambition and endurance, must be holding out hope that they will encounter work that is truly meaningful. I hope sincerely that they will encounter such work.

I'd very much like to work with him, but so far the opportunity to offer him a job hasn't presented itself. I know how hard it can be to be picky about work without losing heart. I hope he takes care of himself and perseveres.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

11:58:34 pm , 1494 words, 4792 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Relic Armor Legaciam

To continue with a little more on the legacy of Bebow, the studio founded by Tomonori Kogawa that I talked about in the Cool Cool Bye post, I thought I'd say a few words about another equally obscure OVA released shortly thereafter by one of the studio's offspring of sorts. I mentioned that Hiroyuki Kitazume had formed a studio called Atelier Giga together with some of the best of the other ex-Bebow animators sometime around 1986 after they all left the studio. Today I had the chance to see the first anime in which I've seen the studio actually credited: an OVA released in November of 1987 entitled Relic Armor Legaciam. It's quite nice as an example of the Bebow style in the immediate aftermath of the scattering of its best staff, although as a film it's insubstantial and hardly important.

Hiroyuki Kitazume was the director, and all of the names in the main credits - from character design to animation direction to key animation - seem to be 100% ex-Bebow staff. This film in fact feels like Atelier Giga's own Cool Cool Bye, at least in the sense of it being the film that feel like it serves as the most compact summary of the studio's style, and features work by pretty much all of the most famous of the ex-Bebow animators. This film came out after they had all worked on Gundam ZZ in 1986; Urotsuki Doji episode 1, released in January 1987; and Robot Carnival, released in July 1987. This OVA adds itself to the latter three items as perhaps the best place to sample the legacy of Tomonori Kogawa and his studio, as it feels like the style of each of these animators gradually becomes more personalized and less patently 'Bebow' from this point forward. The years 1986 and 1987 seem like the period when the lessons of Bebow felt strongest in these animators. Relic of an age; legacy of a great animator - indeed an aptly titled OVA.

These two years or so are also, unsurprisingly, the period when many of these animators' work felt at its most loose, free and appealing. Kitazume Hiroyuki's work, for example, seems to become more stiff, overstylized and excessively pretty as the years go by. I find that this OVA shows Kitazume's style at its best, particularly in the child characters, where that patented Bebow combination of strong three-dimensional rendering of the body and features and dynamic and rich posing and facial expressions seems to live on. I find it interesting to watch the film in the light of the sort of work Kogawa was doing - how it measures up, whether they continued to build on what Kogawa was attempting to do. Inevitably, different people develop in different stylistic vectors, and the Bebow legacy seems to me to become quite evanescent if you try to pinpoint it in any direct sense. There doesn't seem to be anybody really carrying on Kogawa's style and pushing it in new directions, although there are fleeting moments in this OVA and elsewhere where a quick, fun bit of movement will suddenly make you perk up. Great animators like Naoyuki Onda and Akihiko Yamashita, of course, undoubtedly learned the lessons, integrated them and developed their own style, which is as it should be.

The versatility of these animators, who could design and move both mecha and characters equally well, comes through well in this OVA, with its organic mecha and variety of designs. Nothing is tremendously original here, but that doesn't distract from the skill with which they do what they do. The directing is surprisingly solid in its pacing and its juggling of the various threads, if slightly slow and lacking in a certain spark of excitement and engagement. I was genuinely looking forward to what would happen on the journey on which the characters make to embark at the end. Unfortunately, Atelier Giga went belly up, and with it the planned continuation. The credits end with the phrase "See you again", which made me wince at the sad irony.

I get the feeling there was a lot of excitement and hope riding on Atelier Giga. This group of creators emanated a strong sense of purpose and unity at this period in time. You sense that they could do a certain very specific thing really well, and they knew it, and were proud of it, and wanted to continue building on that pool of skill. It's unfortunate that this solidarity seems to have sort of fizzled away around this time and they were all were forced to go their own way. (although of course many still worked together on different projects at other studios)

The animation of the film isn't by any means as constantly full of energy and excitement as Cool Cool Bye. It's fairly restrained most of the time, with a lot of static close-ups and torso shots that rely more on the expressive quality of the drawings than on any kind of through-conceived and meticulously animated acting. Mostly the fun acting comes through in the comical sequences with the children, where the drawings have the kind of pliability and appealing looseness that I remember, oddly enough, from Urotsukidoji, of all things. The mecha are quite competently drawn and pleasing to look at, although this is not Char's Counterattack, and there aren't any mecha fights here remotely close to achieving that kind of visceral thrill.

It's mostly the characters that feel nice in terms of the animation. Occasional shots jump out - such as the one at the top of this post, with its more Kogawa-esque, realistic but stylish rendering of the curves of the face, which swings about in this shot from facing right to facing left, each drawing rendered very tastefully and elegantly in the way Kogawa was so good at... or the brief fighting action of the bottom shot, which is plausible in its realistic poses and timing, despite being very limited quantitatively. It's among the few shots in the film that are actually exciting as animation, and is representative of Kogawa in a sense. In Ideon, the actions seemed very quick and to the point. There wasn't movement going on all the time for movement's sake as was the case with Yasuhiko Yoshikazu. With Kogawa, things moved for a reason, and in action shots, that translated to some of the more satisfying bits of action I've seen, as every drawing was made to count, which is the case here. The action is quick but actually animated, and when you step through it you get odd poses like the one shown here that the body takes in mid-movement but that that don't register unless you step through the drawings, like you might if you stepped through a kung-fu fight.

The shot at right, although perhaps hardly a money shot by conventional standards, stands out to me as being among the more appealing in the film, or more to the point, among the more telling and salient. I think what I like about it is that the drawing captures an action in mid pose so well despite being on the screen for just a split second, especially the way the mouth is slightly ajar when the head is cocked back the way it is. I also like the way his legs are folded. It's not that it's pretty or beautifully drawn or anything. It's that they even bothered to draw this drawing. It's perhaps in drawings like this that I feel Kogawa's legacy to be present at the foundation level, for the way that they internalized this instinct for quickly but accurately expressing the body's form in natural poses in a way that's immediately convincing and plausible - and doing it with these clean, elegantly flowing lines and forms.

One surprising name in the credits here is Takeshi Honda, who is credited as an inbetweener under Atelier Giga. I'm not sure if he was involved at Bebow briefly before this, but it's interesting to see that Bebow even played a small part in the early formation of this master animator. Credited alongside him as an Atelier Giga inbetweener is Keiji Goto, who went on to be fairly active and successful as an animator and character designer. Goto is reported to have been trained by Akihiko Yamashita at this time, although stylistically Goto went in a very different direction from the Bebow animators. As for where to see this thing, try your luck at AnimeSuki.


RELIC ARMOR LEGACIAM (50 minutes, 1987)

Creator and DirectorHiroyuki Kitazume
 
Character DesignHiroyuki Kitazume
Akihiko Yamashita
Atsushi Yamagata
 
Mechanic DesignHiroyuki Kitazume
Yukihisa Fujita
Tatsuya Ando
 
StoryboardTomomi Mochizuki
Hiroyuki Kitazume
Hideki Takayama
 
Animation DirectorsAkihiko Yamashita
Hidetoshi Omori
Hiroyuki Kitazume
 
Key animationATELIER GIGA
  Hiroyuki Kitazume
  Hidetoshi Omori
  Akihiko Yamashita
  Naoyuki Onda
  Tomokazu Tokoro
  Koichi Usami
  Masami Kosone
  Keiichi Sato
  Atsushi Yamagata
  Satoshi Iwataki
  Hiroyuki Ochi

Saturday, August 15, 2009

12:39:17 pm , 2128 words, 5457 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Ponyo

I got to see my first Miyazaki film on the big screen last night, and it couldn't have been a better film. Ponyo is my favorite Miyazaki film in a good long time, thanks in large part to its rich and dynamic animation, which makes it a film that truly benefits from being seen on the big screen. It's one of those films that renews your faith in the power of hand-drawn animation. This is how exciting hand-drawn lines can be! the film seems to say, beaming with pride.

The film feels eminently hand drawn in any number of ways, from the patently obvious lines used to draw the characters to the storybook backgrounds to the animation of the vigorously shape-shifting sea. This film feels closest in spirit to Totoro, which has long been my favorite Miyazaki film, in its atmosphere of childlike wonder and its abandonment of the trappings of logic and common sense in favor of sheer sense of wonder and magical realism. I find that Miyazaki's seams start to show if he gets too close to reality, but his genius shines brighter than anybody in the world in the realm of pure imagination. I feel this film marks a high point in his achievement, despite feeling a bit fractured, underexplained and confused, and seeming to trail off suddenly at the end. These didn't bother me too much in light of the rich moment-to-moment texture of the story and animation. In fact, I quite liked that certain things weren't overexplained. Trying to long-windedly explain down what has just happened would not only kill all the magic, it would seem extraneous and inane. It's a rare thing for a director to be able to make a film that feels so purely intuitive, and yet remains so cohesive, entertaining and meaningful.

This was clearly a film in which the director set out to make a film that forefronted the fact that it was animated. Miyazaki has long had great respect for the films of Frederic Back, and this film feels like Miyazaki's attempt to create that kind of film - a film in which the animation was alive and voluptuous and active in every single shot. In every single shot, either the animation or the simple colorful images grab your eyes and don't let go, are the vehicle of communication. I don't think it's a coincidence that the first ten minutes or so are dialogue-free. Like the first ten minutes of the late great Yoshinori Kanada's Birth, this magnificent entry sequence prepares you mentally for a film in which the visuals are meant to be the means of communication, as they should be in an animated film.

I couldn't wipe the smile off my face watching this film. Few films have ever done that for me. I've never felt so consistently 'in the moment' in any previous Miyazaki film except perhaps Totoro. Ponyo achieves a truly sublime texture through the combination of Miyazaki's genius sense for storytelling and the technical mastery of his crew. Miyazaki is now presumably hands-off with the animation, but that only allows the incredible animators he has working under him to show off their skills all the more. Katsuya Kondo is a genius and one of the best animators in the world. Despite the usual connotation of 'sakkan' or animation director being a corrector of drawings, in this case I sense that he is in no small measure to thank for the quality of the animation in this film. His philosophy of movement permeates the animation of the characters. Among my favorite moments in the film were the moments at the beginning where Sosuke is carrying the pail of water up the stairs, and where his mother is waving at him by the portico as he leaves. These brief moments showcase Kondo's genius for succinctly capturing human movement and posing in a minimum of lines and drawings. Despite their subtlety, these shots, presumably animated by Kondo, are no less magnificent than more obviously spectacular animation of the action sequences to follow.

Water has long been one of the central challenges in animation - a challenge that when overcome can create amazing results. You can trace the history of the best water animation around the word, starting from Disney and coming full circle through to Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island and more recently Norio Matsumoto in You're Under Arrest OVA #3 and many other places (such as Toshiyuki Inoue in Peek the Whale, Yasunori Miyazawa in Moomin, etc - see my FX post for a bit more on this). Norio is the reigning master of water animation in anime, but what's amazing is how varied are the approaches. Kotabe's approach couldn't be more different from Matsumoto's. Kotabe excels at expressing the macroscopic undulation, whereas Matsumoto's genius resides in expressing the minutiae of splashes. There are any number of ways water can be expressed, all of which together shed light on its nature. Shapeshifting water is by its nature the perfect medium for the mercurial expressive possibilities of animation. The animation here is a wonderful addition to that lineage, pushing Kotabe's style in the direction of more expressive freedom.

I can't think of a feature film with so much awesome and exciting animation of water. This is a film all about water, both in terms of the animation and in terms of the theme and of the story. Water isn't just a pretty accessory to animate. Miyazaki evokes the elemental power of water and its importance in humanity's history through the awesome, overpowering waves that lap at the land like wild animals in this film. Those scenes are among the most profound animated scenes I've ever seen in their combination of animated power and thematic depth.

Miyazaki's Nausicaa, in which water played such an important part thematically, funded a film that painted the picture of man's complex but inextricable relationship with water - The Canals of Yanagawa, directed by his comrade in arms Isao Takahata. The elemental forces of nature have always played an important role in Miyazaki's films. It's good to finally be able to see a film that tries to express the brute, majestic power of the sea the way this film does, as that's something that has never been truly done in animation. There have been films in which water played an important part - such as The Sea Prince and the Fire Child - but usually these films don't go beyond the surface level technical challenge of animating water. Miyazaki's water is mythical and elemental, and not merely a technical challenge. Although it's a cliche to say this, it's true in this case that this film is a fairy tale both for children and adults.

I think the animation of the waves during the storm was the standout achievement of this film in terms of the animation. They're animated like no other waves I've ever seen. They're not necessarily realistic. They're supernatural waves, waves of the imagination, and in that sense the expression of the water in this film is new and interesting. The way they're animated is smart, too, or more likely deliberate and calculated, because using simple, bold shapes that undulate like the goo in a lava lamp avoids the chore of having to animate the spray and foam in detail the way Matsumoto does. I remember seeing water animated this way in the Shigeru Tamura films. But needless to say, here, the water actually moves, and moves something amazing. The image of the car racing along the road by the water, with the water bubbling up into the sky in all sorts of strange configurations to the side, is unforgettable in its tension and surreal power. All of the scenes during the storm achieve a remarkable feeling of tension and imminent danger presumably because we all instinctively know the wrath of nature and the ocean. These scenes seem to me to invoke that mythic fear and reverence we've had for the ocean since the beginning of time, as first expressed in things like the Odyssey.

I liked the animation in this film because of the very specific balance of visuals they achieved. So even the scenes that weren't particularly well animated were quite enjoyable to watch as animation. But the well animated scenes were indeed magnificently animated and the highlight of the film. The central spectacle of the film is of course the storm scene, and from what I can gather, for the animation of the most spectacular sequences of the storm scene, we have to thank primarily Makiko Futaki, the Ghibli mainstay I talked about before who has long been responsible for animating natural phenomena in the Ghibli films, and Akihiko Yamashita, the ex-Bebow animator I mentioned in my last post. Together they appear to have animated many of the more impressive shots in the storm scene. More specifically, Futaki is credited with doing the bits where Ponyo is running on the fish/waves chasing the car, and Akihiko Yamashita is credited with the shots of the car in the storm, to say nothing of the amazingly detailed sequence with the trawler at the beginning.

These great action sequences rank among the best to grace any Miyazaki film, alongside Kazuhide Tomonaga's opening car chase in Cagliostro, the sword fight on the ship by Yoshinori Kanada in Nausicaa, the scene with the golem coming alive by Nakura Yasuhiro and Shinji Otsuka and the fight on the railway by Hirotsugu Kawasaki in Laputa, the bike ride by Toshiyuki Inoue in Kiki, the flight scenes by Yoshinori Kanada in Porco Rosso, the action in the fortress by Shinji Otsuka and the action in the forest by Atsuko Tanaka in Mononoke Hime, the chase through the building by Kenichi Konishi in Spirited Away, and the mid-air transformation by Shinya Ohira in Howl's Moving Castle, to name but the ones that spring to mind immediately.

There were many other standout shots besides these sequences. First and foremost, of course, is the magnificent opening sequence, for which we have veteran Ghibli participant and Telecom animator Atsuko Tanaka to thank. (refer to my post on the women behind Ghibli for more on her and Makiko Futaki as well as Megumi Kagawa, who did the scene at the kindergarten). Shinji Otsuka's running on the fence near the end was typically well timed and exciting, reminding simultaneously of his running sequences in Millennium Actress and Mononoke Hime. Probably not coincidentally, he was also given another running sequence in the film - Ponyo running towards Sosuke when they're first reunited. He also apparently did the very impressive action scene where Ponyo transforms and escapes from the ship. It's no surprise that Otsuka is again one of the main animator stars of the latest Ghibli film. He and Akihiko Yamashita stand out for having done among the most - and most exciting - animation in the film. (for more info about who animated what scene in the film, consult this post in the forum)

Needless to say, it's animators we have to thank for making the animation in this film so amazing, although you'd never know that looking at the credits at the end of the dub I saw in the theater last night. Credits are there to say what the people who worked on the film did, right? To "credit" them, so to speak? The curious thing is that, in place of credits, there's just a long list of names here. I'm not kidding. It's just a big roll of hundreds upon hundreds of names, without any credit or anything. Not only that, they abbreviate the first name. Sure, I bet most people who are going to watch the dub couldn't care less, but it's nothing less than an insult and a slap in the face to every person who was involved in this film. I've seen some botched credits in my day, but I've never seen such a travesty. "We made this film" indeed.

Aside from this glitch, the dub is fairly passable. Anime dubs have come a long way from the horrible dubs I recall from the 90s. Liam Neeson is perfect as Fujimoto, as is the child actor playing Sosuke, Frankie Jonas, although the rest of the voices are hit or miss. Needless to say, the next time I watch the film it's going to be in the original language, so that I can appreciate the film as it was intended to be seen. Even dubbed, though, the power of the animation is entirely sufficient to make the film work, so if you're hesitating whether or not to see it because of that, I'd say go for it. The impact of seeing it on the big screen easily overcomes any minor drawbacks in the dub.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

08:32:00 pm , 3414 words, 4617 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Studio

Tomonori Kogawa's Cool Cool Bye

A lot of OVAs were produced in the 1980s, most of which have been forgotten today, usually for the best. Some have been forgotten undeservedly. Cool Cool Bye (1986) is one of the ones that's been undeservedly forgotten.

Not only does Cool Cool Bye boast one of the most awesome titles ever, it also boasts some of the best and most unique animation to ever grace any anime. Cool Cool Bye is one of those OVAs I like to call a 'karisuma animator OVA', referring to a handful of OVAs made in the 1980s as a showcase of a particular animator's genius that remain essential viewing as perhaps the densest example of that animator's style. Birth was Yoshinori Kanada's karisuma animator OVA, and Cool Cool Bye is Tomonori Kogawa's karisuma animator OVA.

Kogawa has left behind a number of other items for which he is better known, foremost among these perhaps his work on Yoshiyuki Tomino's Ideon (1980-82) and Xabungle (1982), but Cool Cool Bye in many ways represents the pinnacle of Kogawa's evolution as an animator. It came at the end of several years of experimentation with Kogawa's approach, and at the period when his studio, Bebow, was at its zenith, and was soon to scatter to the four winds.

Perhaps the thing I like best about Cool Cool Bye is that its animation and designs are a unified whole. The designs were conceived with motion in mind, and in the final product every line of the characters comes alive vividly at the hands of the animators in a boundless variety of exciting movements and poses. It's not just that the action sequences are excitingly choreographed, which they are. It's that every line feels right in every drawing of every movement. The animation feels like the creation of a master animator who not only knows how to draw a character well from any conceivable angle, but who can freely bend the lines used to draw the limbs and and facial features any number of ways in order to heighten the emotion of the expression or the velocity of the limbs in action. Every single line always feels just right and controlled in every drawing, even in drawings that are extremely deformed. It's pretty common to see deformation in anime, but usually it falls at one of two extremes: It's either taken from conventional symbols used throughout the industry, or is deformed too much, in a way that destroys the unity of the character. Kogawa's Cool Cool Bye is one of the best examples I know of a design specifically giving rise to an approach to movement.

Kogawa actually made another 'karisuma animator OVA' before this, Greed (1985), but its animation is somewhat low-key and not nearly as emphatic as the animation in Cool Cool Bye. Partly this is because Greed is twice as long, and they were able to pack every moment of the shorter Cool Cool Bye with great animation. But more saliently, the animation is the specific purpose of Cool Cool Bye, which it wasn't really in Greed. Cool Cool Bye strikes me as a kind of experiment to see how far he could push his animation in a certain direction - in the direction of vivid movement as opposed to low-key acting. It feels like a pilot film also in the very clipped storytelling, which seems there to pitch the world view to a prospective sponsor more than to be comprehensible.

Kogawa is often remembered as one of the proto-realistic animators of Japan due to his more realistic rendering of the character in Ideon and so on (which were even more realistic in the original concept, before Tomino turned them down and told Kogawa to make them more accessible, i.e. cute). But Kogawa struck out in a very different direction right afterward in Xabungle, with its more cartoony and pliable designs and very fast and exciting animation. Cool Cool Bye strikes me as an attempt to perfect that style of animation. Episode 1 of Xabungle (which used 9000-some drawings) is perhaps the closest comparison in Kogawa's oeuvre. They're both one-of-a-kind creations and among the most exciting 30 minutes of anime out there, packed full of exciting animation in a style like no other. So I find it a shame that we never got to see Kogawa build on what he achieved in Cool Cool Bye. Even the people who learned under Kogawa never made anything that pushes the style and approach developed here, which is among the most appealing I've ever seen in anime. A 13-episode TV series made at this steady level of quality would have been a classic for the ages - though it might have bankrupted whatever studio made it. Of course, what makes Cool Cool Bye great is not budget; it's talent. The animation is actually somewhat limited a lot of the time. It's just that what drawings there are are extremely skillfully manipulated.

Simply put, Cool Cool Bye is great animated entertainment. Kogawa showed with this OVA what real animation is supposed to be about. It is extremely fun to watch from start to finish, has a variety of interestingly designed characters, and is filled head to toe with great animation and inventive action sequences. Not a minute is wasted or boring. The characters are fun to watch, and each moves in a way that is unique to their character design and personality - something all too rare in anime. The action sequences are cleverly choreographed, and the characters go through some incredibly entertaining calisthenics, all expertly rendered by the animation. Bodies twist and turn about in all manner of ways, run and leap, stretch and squash. This is a movie that is all about characters running around doing things, reminding a lot of Yasuo Otsuka's Future Boy Conan. But whereas Otsuka's drawings had a sort of loose, anything goes freedom, Kogawa's animation is far more logical, deliberate, thought through. They both, in their very different way, created extremely fun character animation that more than ever seems to have a lot of lessons to offer animators in today's Japanese animation industry. Kogawa's animation strikes a masterful balance between having fun with the animation and maintaining a sense of unity.

We often speak of schools of animation in anime, such as the Kanada school, but Kogawa is interesting because he has been a big influence, but his influence can't be pinpointed to any one style the way Kanada's can. The innovation he brought to anime was more in relation the to technical aspects of how to draw characters, many of which were gradually adopted in the natural course of the overall improvement in the base level of drawing skills over the years in the industry. Kogawa seems to have been one of the people who where there kind of pointing out the little mistakes that people didn't realize were mistakes. Rather than trying to lord a style over people, he was just drawing things right, the way they're actually supposed to be drawn.

The most famous example of Kogawa's innovation is the simple act of looking up. The image here pretty much sums it up. Kogawa was one of the first people to actually think through and properly draw how a face should look from any angle, particularly when it's tilted up like this. Before going on, let me backtrack a little. Kogawa actually came to animation kind of late. The art that interested him growing up had been oil painting, at which he was pretty adept by the time he graduated with a degree in oil painting from the famous Musashino Art University. Nowadays sculpture is what really interests him, an interest clearly reflected in his very three-dimensional characters. Needless to say, most animators working either back then or today don't have degrees in art, and this training in the fundamentals of art undoubtedly permitted him to see things that the veterans with whom he worked had never realized. One of these things is how to draw a face when a person is looking up.

Kogawa started out in animation in 1970 at age 20, when he joined the Tokyo Movie studio. He stayed there for under a year before quitting and going on to do a lot of freelance work for Tatsunoko. It was during his time doing work for Tatsunoko that he began to notice that the veteran animators who were working on the same shows didn't know how to draw a face when it was looking up. The proportions would be messed up. And the funny thing is, when he drew the face the right way, it would often get corrected back to the wrong way, simply because that's how those animators had grown accustomed to drawing things in anime. That's one of the pitfalls of not learning the fundamentals of art, and not observing the world around you and basing what you draw on that (at least in a very basic sense of knowing how it's supposed to be done, and then modifying that appropriately based on the need).

It doesn't take much to get the proportion of the nose, eyes and mouth right. For example, you can draw a box, tilted at the desired angle, and place the features on one surface to get a basic sense of how they should be drawn. If you try to eyeball it without doing this, the features can come out skewed and wrong-looking, which is obviously what was happening with the veteran animators. Kogawa was, then, among the first to draw a character in various poses in a way that actually made physical sense. This is one of the things, I now realize, that made his work feel so different to me back when I first discovered it. Cool Cool Bye is interesting because the animation is very loose and exaggerated, yet at its core it feels solid and real and plausible. It's a perfect example of how grounding in the fundamentals can make even unrealistic animation more convincing.

It was his dissatisfaction with this contradiction -- that the animators who were supposed to be inspiring him knew far less than him about the very basic things -- that led him, in 1979, to found his own animation studio, Bebow. It was from this now legendary studio that Kogawa would go on to provide the animation for which he is most famous today, in Ideon, Xabungle, El Gaim and Dunbine. In the course of this work, he personally trained many of the more important animators of the next generation, including Ichiro Itano, Akihiko Yamashita and Naoyuki Onda, to name but some of the more striking examples.

My favorite work by Kogawa is without hesitation Ideon, particularly the final movie, in which his animation brought the characters alive and made them feel real like virtually no other anime I've ever see, especially back then. His work on this show was revolutionary in its dispassionately real rendering of expressions and poses, even if the designs and situation were not particularly realistic in an obvious sense. This is perhaps one of the first times I'd ever seen an anime in which I always felt I understood why the character was doing any given pose. It always made sense to me. There were other well-animated shows, but this is the first one where the actual drawings and the content of the drawings felt real to me in both the rendering of the drawings and in their psychology. His drawings also had a raw power that I'd never seen before. The characters' emotions came through very powerfully, and their acting was simultaneously more restrained and more believable than anything I'd seen before then.

Another aspect that made Kogawa's characters in Ideon unique is that he determined their color, and did something that was unheard of back then - he based the enemy side (the so-called 'Buff Clan') on a white base, and did daring things like using no highlights in the eyes and using colors rather than black to trace their outlines. This accentuated the already strong drawings to create a truly memorable impression. The Buff Clan's angular hairstyles were distinctive and cool looking, and a match with the appealing design of their clothing, which was rather ahead of its time with its sharp, minimalistic, tasteful style.

One of the things I admire about Kogawa, besides his incredible skill as an animator, is the fact that he always changed his style from show to show, and he challenged himself to try new things every time. He went from the realism of Ideon to the opposite pole in Xabungle right afterward, drawing very soft and loose characters with more heavily stylized features and proportions. In both cases, however, the spirit behind the character designs was suited to the material at hand, as well as playing a major role in determining the show's atmosphere and its impression on viewers. Kogawa's characters in both cases were striking and like nothing that had come before, and in both cases they were extremely beautiful to watch, either still in motion. Kogawa's drawings have the fundamental strength of a sketch by a master's hand. In both El Gaim and Dunbine afterward, Kogawa would again change his vector by 180 degrees each time.

From the very beginning, Kogawa had intended to keep the studio only for about a decade, so that he could train animators for a while and do a few things in commercial animation, and then move on. That is exactly what wound up happening. For a few more years after Cool Cool Bye, the studio switched from doing contract work for Sunrise to doing contract work for Tatsunoko on various shows like Southern Cross, but the most talented animators appear to have left either before or immediately after the last big bash that was Cool Cool Bye. Hence, this OVA comes across also as the final summation of what the studio stood for. Kogawa had achieved his goal of training a lot of talented animators, and those animators scattered to the four winds. A number of these animators went on to do a lot of very nice work in the late 80s and beyond, and remain among the more important animators active today. It's somewhat shocking to hear of the names who passed through the doors of Bebow, because it's a fairly large swath of the most talented animators of the 1980s - Hidetoshi Omori, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Toshihiro Hirano, Ichiro Itano, Naoyuki Onda, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Narumi Kakinouchi, Akihiko Yamashita, Atsushi Yamagata, Tomokazu Tokoro, Junichi Watanabe, Masami Kosone, Keiichi Sato, Satoru Nakamura, Toshihiro Yamane and Shino Masanori. If you watch anime regularly, chances are you've seen work by at least one of these guys in the last week on some show somewhere, old or new.

Akihiko Yamashita is one of the names that jumps out at you these days as being among the most obviously talented of the ex-Bebow staff. He has become one of the pillars of Ghibli's animation since Howl. Hidetoshi Omori and Hiroyuki Kitazume were perhaps the two most prominent Bebow animators in the years immediately following Cool Cool Bye, with their work on Robot Carnival and Urotsukidoji. Robot Carnival is a good place to start to get a quick sense of the style of Kogawa's two biggest disciples, as both created a short in their own patented style. Omori's style is very close to Kogawa, with its angular shapes and more limited animation, while Kitazume is more rounded and cute and fully animated.

Many people in Urotsukidoji used a pen name, so for a long time I wasn't too sure who was behind this show. It's actually very well animated despite the content - it's quite possibly one of the best animated adult titles ever. It turns out that most of the staff were probably ex-Bebow, so it's one of the more important pieces featuring work by the Bebow animators after leaving the studio. At the very least, it included Hiroyuki Kitazume, whose distinctive designs give him away, Hidetoshi Omori using the pen name Zen Kingoji, Yamashita Akihiko, Masami Kosone and Keiichi Sato. It probably included others.

Ero anime was in the air in 1987 for the ex-Bebow staff, because they also made a short OVA called Body Jack, this time virtually 100% using pen names. The only person I know for sure was involved is Hidetoshi Omori, because the characters are unmistakably his. But I'm sure there must have been a bunch of other Bebow people. For an OVA probably nobody has ever heard of over here, it's a surprisingly decently done piece, with a few fun action scenes. Hiroyuki Kitazume, who formed a short-lived studio called Atelier Giga together with some other ex-Bebow staff, is perhaps best remembered for his work on Gundam ZZ and the Char's Counterattack movie. The latter included quite a number of Bebow staff, including Hidetoshi Omori, Shinichiro Minami and Naoyuki Onda. Onda did a lot of good work in his very identifiably refined and lush style after leaving Bebow, especially on OVAs like To-Y, Ai no Kusabi and Armitage, and to this day continues to be very prolific and very talented.

Many of the staff behind Giant Robo were ex-Bebow staff. Tomokazu Tokoro directed one of my favorite series ever - Haibane Renmei. Toshihiro Hirano and his wife Narumi Kakinouchi worked at Bebow in the early 80s before migrating to AIC, where they defined the look of that studio in classic OVAs like Iczer 1, Dangaioh and Vampire Princess Miyu. The late Junichi Watanabe was the monster designer in a lot of these shows. Atsushi Yamagata is perhaps best known as the character designer of AIC's Hakkenden OVA series. You pretty much can't swing a stick without hitting an anime involving Bebow alumi (only slightly exaggerating).

Besides the quality that Bebow stood for, it also comes across as having been very much of a family, with a very warm and healthy atmosphere at the studio. For example, to keep the animators in good physical shape, they all did regular exercise together and had their own baseball team. (though this is of course a very typical thing for Japanese companies) The Cool Cool Bye tape came with a great little 15-minute documentary at the end showcasing a dozen or so of the animators at that time, with brief interviews and playful animations. Some of the interviews were done at one of the studio's baseball games, so in the shots from their interviews above you can see a number of them wearing the studio's baseball uniform.

After Cool Cool Bye Kogawa moved away from being a full-time industry animator. Over the period that Cool Cool Bye was in production he published a set of books on animation techniques (which were recently republished in a new edition), and from then on out seems to have focused more on his work as an educator. He mostly did isolated work here and there, often using pen names, such as Legend of Galactic Heroes (1989), Casshan (1993) and Medarot (1999). His only real big job was Ashita Genki ni Nare (2005), a movie about the experiences of a sister and brother living in the ruins of Tokyo after the end of the war, on which he served as character designer and animation director. He also recently did all the key animation for episode 5 of Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (2008). He was heavily involved in the old Yamato series back in the late 70s, most notably as the character designer and animation director of the second movie version made in 1978, and he is reportedly serving as the character designer and animation director of a new movie version that is in production and slated for release in the near future.


GREED (1985, 57 minutes)

Creator/Script/Storyboard/Character Designer/Animation Director/Director: Tomonori Kogawa
Art board: Shinichi Hirao
Animation Directors: Hidetoshi Omori & Hiroyuki Kitazume

Animators

YAKI MasayukiSAKAMOTO Hideaki
SAWADA MasatoKUBOOKA Toshiyuki
ENDO EiichiTERAHIGASHI Katsumi
ONDA NaoyukiONISHI Kiyomi
YAMAUCHI KimikoYAMAMOTO Masafumi
USAMI KoichiTOKORO Tomokazu
MINAMI ShinichiroNAKAMURA Satoru
SHINO MasanoriAKUTAGAWA Yoshiaki
MIYAHARA TakaoOCHI Hiroyuki
WATANABE JunichiNAKA Morifumi
KAWAKAMI YutakaOMORI Atsuko
SOGA HirokoYAMAMOTO Masakazu
YAMASHITA AkihikoYUMOTO Yoshihisa
INOMA Wagako

COOL COOL BYE (1986, 30 minutes)

Creator/Script/Character Design/Director: Tomonori Kogawa
Storyboard: Bebow
Animation Directors: Tomonori Kogawa & Hidetoshi Omori
Mechanical Design: Katsuya Nozawa
Concept Assistance: Akihiko Yamashita
Art Director/Backgrounds: Kenji Matsumoto

Animators

YAKI MasayukiSAWADA Masato
TSUJI KiyomitsuYAMAMOTO Masafumi
MINAMI ShinichiroSHINO Masanori
YAMASHITA AkihikoNOZAWA Katsuya
KAWAKAMI YutakaTAKAGI Hiroyuki
OMORI AtsukoSAITO Akiko
SOGA HirokoYAMAURA Maeko
USAMI KoichiMASA Tomoyasu
KOSONE MasamiSUMIKAWA Toshihiro
YAMANE MasahiroTERAHIGASHI Katsumi
ONDA NaoyukiKUBOOKA Toshiyuki

Inbetween Check
TSUJI Kiyomitsu

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

11:57:58 pm , 860 words, 2047 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Dragon's Heaven

I remember trying to watch Dragon's Heaven (1988) way back when but being unable to get past the atrocious and pointless tokusatsu opening. I braved it again today because I was curious to see Shinya Ohira's work on it, and it was worth it. To anyone who wishes to see some very unique visuals for anime, or to see some good early Ohira, I recommend just skipping past the baffling section and proceeding right to the animation. The film itself is an absurd little confection utterly devoid of dramatic weight, a pure product of the 80s OVA boom, but it's of interest today for its visual style, which remains even after all this time very unusual if not unprecedented in anime, and more saliently, for its strong effects and mecha animation.

I first became aware of Makoto Kobayashi's name not that long ago when I got to see some of his conceptual designs for Samurai Seven and was quite impressed by his style and imagination. As a director and storyteller I'm not so convinced, at least going by this OVA, but as a designer and artist he's got a very nice voice that is especially welcome in the context of Japanese design sensibility. It's a breath of fresh air, despite the work here seeming kind of a Moebius knockoff (elements of Nausicaa are also an obvious inspiration). What I found deeply disconcerting about this OVA was the conventionally stylized anime character heroine plopped right in the middle of all these beautifully byzantine robot and scenery designs that look straight out of a European comic. It's curious how they could be so creative with everything else but hit a wall when it comes to the characters. If you cut out all of the shots of the heroine, it's a good looking little short, but together they're amazingly mismatched. They had all the talent there; it's unfortunate that they weren't able to make a film more conceptually unified. I could have envisioned this being a a great little film in the manner of Cannon Fodder. The dialogue, directing and story were all equally weak.

It's sad that this is the case, because the drawings are of a high caliber. This short OVA maintains an even tone and quality throughout thanks in large part to the work of Shinya Ohira as the mecha animation director. (Although I've heard that Makoto Kobayashi was heavily involved in the drawing side of things, so I'm not sure to what extent the strength of the drawings is thanks to Ohira.) Ohira has said how Masahito Yamashita was his main influence in his early years, and this film is important because it features the two working side by side. Yamashita animated the opening sequence, and it's probably the most impressive single sequence in the film, with its geometrically shaped arcs of flames animated in lush detail. It's a good place to see how the baton-touch between Yamashita and Ohira occurred. Ohira brought a maniacal level of detail and brilliant draftsmanship to the mecha. The designs of the robots were actually done by Makoto Kobayashi's little brother, Osamu Kobayashi. Yes, it's apparently THAT Osamu Kobayashi, in what is possibly the earliest anime gig I've seen from him. Ohira does a great job of bringing the robots to life with his masterful drawings, which are precisely but tastefully rendered. Without Ohira's drawings, there would be fairly little of interest in this film.

Besides acting as the mecha sakkan, though, Ohira also did key animation in the film, and from what I'm able to tell it looks like he would have done some of the shots of the smoke and explosions and so on. The shape of the smoke as the ship descends into the cloud and the smoke rising from the ground as the tanks land reminds me of the jagged swirling clouds he did in Akira the same year, not to mention his earlier Captain Power work. Seeing the two side by side helps to understand in what way Ohira was influenced by Yamashita. Yamashita created effects animation packed with exaggerated detail, weird shapes, distorted perspective and unusual timing. He had a very strong sense of line, creating animation that really spoke through the movement of lines. Building on Yoshinori Kanada's legacy in stuff like the fire dragon of Harmageddon, he created effects that pushed the stylization further, creating an undulating mass of geometric patterns that felt great as animation. Ohira seems to have built on that approach to effects by pushing it in a more realistic direction. Even his more realistic effects work of this period feels deeply indebted to Masahito Yamashita in spirit. The goal doesn't seem to be just to recreate nature; it's more about creating animation that is thrilling to watch, with richly nuanced, complex forms and timing, and an intricately detailed mass of pulsating lines, which is what Yamashita's effects animation was about. These are the people who made an art out of effects animation. Ohira's work has changed a lot in the intervening decades, but his artistic underpinning seems to remain the same: creating dense, idiosyncratic, relentlessly expressive animation that thrills purely through movement.

Monday, August 10, 2009

12:25:25 pm , 324 words, 1287 views     Categories: Animation, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada

Hommage à Kanada-san

For anyone who can read French, I wanted to point out a nice homage to Yoshinori Kanada just posted by Manuloz on his anime news web site Manganimation.net. There were a lot of things written about Kanada when the news hit the net that he'd died, but I find that very few people seemed to really understand who Yoshinori Kanada was as an animator, and where his true importance lay. Manuloz's article does an admirable job of providing an overview of Kanada's history, which can be a challenging thing to do due to the man's seemingly incessant studio-hopping. I should try to do a similar write-up in the future so that there's a comprehensive overview available in English, too.

In the years to come we'll surely see some text written about Kanada's history, influence and importance in Japanese, but hopefully in English too. His legacy lives on like that of no other animator today. There was a lot of imitation of Kanada-san in the 80s, which in the 90s seemed to diminish a little. In the 2000's, especially in the last few years, it feels like we've seen a resurgence of the style. History often has this kind of cyclic character. What exactly is it about Kanada's brand of playful animation that seems to attract young animators today more than ever? That would be an interesting topic on which to ruminate. Every season I'll see at least a few shots by some brash young animators having fun with the TV animation that reminds me of the kind of animation Kanada was doing back in the late 70s, some of it being pure imitation, some of the more memorable being work trying to develop its own voice much in the way Kanada was doing back then. Maybe that's the secret. Kanada's mindset as an animator seems particularly well suited to permitting young animators to both have fun and attempt to express their budding individuality.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

09:16:15 pm , 894 words, 2147 views     Categories: Animation

Kyoro-chan

I talked about Shin-chan animator Shizuka Hayashi before. I've long wanted to see more of her Kyoro-chan anime, to see what she did with characters of her own creation, and I finally got the chance to do that - episode 1 is up on Youtube (part 1, part 2). It's as good as I would have hoped. This is easily among my favorite work by Shizuka Hayashi. I've always loved the funny undulating dance Shizuka Hayashi made Shin-chan do, and you can see Kyoro-chan do a similar dance in the first episode.

Comparing with episode 2, which she didn't handle, is particularly helpful in showing the unique approach to drawing and movement that Shizuka Hayashi brings to these delightfully cute characters she created. The second episode is largely lacking in what made episode 1 so fun, although the storyboard and directing probably also played a part in making episode 1 work. There are so many scenes in episode 1 that are action-driven, the excitement created through the animation and storyboarding, such as the scene where the characters are chased by the boulder, rather than dialogue-driven. That's something Mitsuru Hongo was good at - constructing situations that would rely for their impact on characters going through interesting and exciting actions that tap the full potential of the talented animators he always made sure to use, rather than simply mouthing dialogue at one another. The nature of the material also undoubtedly let Mitsuru Hongo and Shizuka Hayashi go a little more crazy with things than they could in the real-world-based Shin-chan, letting them go for far more cartoonishly wild actions than ever before. And the animation of the characters is also consistently amusing, with lots of inventive expressions and zippy, snazzy movements, while yet remaining quite limited and restrained in the style at which the Shin-chan animators became so expert. Hongo is a director who knows the importance of good animation. I find myself much more attracted to anime featuring simply-drawn characters like this because it allows the animators more freedom to do what animators (are supposed to) do best. Nobody in the world can create more compelling realistic animation than the Japanese, but I also find that they bring a uniquely appealing approach to the more cartoonish end of the spectrum, of which Kyoro-chan seems a good representative.

Surprisingly, the show's web site is still up after all these years, and they've got a neat little page that gives a simplified breakdown of the production process for the show (and for most shows), which in their flowchart proceeds thus: planning -> scenario -> character -> art design -> storyboard -> layout/key animation -> inbetweens -> coloring -> CG production -> audio. Quite obviously very simplified. A different staff member is interviewed briefly in each section. The section on the storyboard has a brief interview with Mitsuru Hongo. One of the questions is about his view of the purpose of the storyboard, which I found rather interesting, so I thought I'd translate it, since it's relevant to the subject, although it's frustratingly brief. I'd like to read more about his views on storyboarding and directing and their relation to animation one of these days.

Interviewer: What's the hardest part about drawing a storyboard based on the script?

Mitsuru Hongo: In the case of animation, I think the storyboard is the key determinant of whether a show will be interesting or not. The script describes the flow of the story, whereas the storyboard describes the flow of time and space, so when drawing the storyboard, you have to think ahead in dealing with these things to avoid creating problems at a later stage in the production. Directing an episode can be tremendously fun because it offers so much creative freedom, but it can also have you tearing your hear out in frustration when things take too long.

Chief director Mitsuru Hongo didn't do many episodes apart from the first, unfortunately. The main one of interest would be episode 46, in which he did storyboard and directing and was again teamed with Shizuka Hayashi. I'd love to see that one. He also storyboarded episode 13 and co-storyboarded episode 63. (the staff listing on the official site only lists up to episode 74, but there are 91 episodes in total) Shizuka Hayashi was involved a little more often. She was animation director of episodes 7, 13, 20, 26, 39, 46 and 60. A few other good animators were involved as animation directors - Futoshi Higashide (6) and Yuichiro Sueyoshi (37). I assume Shizuka Hayashi may have been involved in others episodes as an animator, and maybe there were some other good animators, although I don't have a listing so I don't know. This is a series I'd like to have the chance to see in full some time. I doubt many of the non-Hayashi episodes live up to the full potential of the animation, but it would still be worth it to check. The story also bodes fairly well from what I've been able to gather from episode 2, with an unexpected tinge of political satire. I had kind of assumed the series was produced by Shin-Ei, since it was directed by Mitsuru Hongo and involves Shizuka Hayashi, but it's actually a Group Tac production. Tac produced a lot of interesting shows over the years, and I'm always discovering an interesting new one I'd never seen before.

Edit: Found a bunch of other eps. Looking forward to checking them out.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

11:27:00 pm , 1839 words, 4816 views     Categories: OVA, Director: Toshifumi Takizawa

Crusher Joe

One of the classics of the 80s I never got to see back in the early days was Crusher Joe. I've been curious about it for a long time, and finally got the chance to watch the movie from 1983 and the two OVAs from 1989 today. They're both very different but very nice in their own ways, and are a time capsule of space action anime goodness from the opposite ends of the 80s waiting to be discovered by fans of good space mecha anime.

I'll start with the more recent OVAs. I wrote about Toshifumi Takizawa's work on Dirty Pair a while back, and how the final OVA from 1990 featured Takizawa's unique directing style at its pinnacle of sorts. Well, the two Crusher Joe OVAs from 1989 are like two more of those. The Crusher Joe OVAs come right after the Dirty Pair OVA series and just before the final OVA, and they all share a similar directing style and production quality, with the same tight directing Takizawa was so good at, and the same high production values from many of the same staff who did the good work on the Dirty Pair OVAs and TV series. The two Crusher Joe OVAs are probably among the best 1980s OVAs that nobody has seen.

Takizawa's directing does a great job of making both OVAs tremendously fun and exciting. Things start out slowly, but build up in both episodes to exciting climaxes that have a cinematic flow and intensity equaled only by Tomino, but more logical and restrained, without the quirkiness and histrionics. Takizawa is particularly good at putting together complex scenes in which a lot of different things are going on, with different action sequences unfolding simultaneously in different places between different characters and eventually converging, yet what's going on remains clear to the viewer all times. There is a lot of action anime out there, but Takizawa's seems unique in its elegance and strength of presentation. I love the clear sense of structure that I get from Takizawa's storyboards.

The animation in the two OVAs is truly top notch. I'm a fan of mecha anime and animation, but I'm not a fan of robots. Crusher Joe is perfect for people like me, as it's got lots of cool mecha without any robots, and the mecha are fabulously animated. Shoichi Masuo and Koji Ito of Studio Graviton, whom I mentioned before in the Dirty Pair post, provide both OVAs with superb mecha and effects animation. Masuo was in both OVAs, but Ito was only in the first. On the character side of things, we have Dirty Pair character designer Tsukasa Dokite in both OVAs, and Norio Matsumoto and Hitoshi Ueda in the second, among other people from Dirty Pair like Satoshi Isono and Dove animator Masayoshi Nishimura.

While watching the mecha animation, you will perhaps be reminded of Irresponsible Captain Tylor. The reason is obvious: Shoichi Masuo and Koji Ito were the ones responsible for the mecha animation in Tylor, which was made a few years later. Tylor featured character designs by Tomohiro Hirata, who is a Studio Graviton animator, and who was the animation director of the Crusher Joe OVAs. It's undoubtedly because of him that Masuo and Ito were involved in Crusher Joe and Tylor. Similarly, Hirata happens to have been the mentor of Norio Matsumoto, which probably accounts for his being involved in Crusher Joe and Tylor. It's amazing to think that the presence of just those three individual animators, who were responsible for most of the best work in Tylor, accounts for what makes the two items feel so similar (in addition to Hirata's designs, of course). Because the directing styles of Toshifumi Takizawa and Koichi Mashimo couldn't be more different.

The good animation in the first episodes, unsurprisingly, comes mostly in the space battle shots, which include a number of Itano circus shots that were clearly the work of Masuo Shoichi. In the second episode there are lots of great space action shots again, but in addition, there is some very nice character animation shots littered throughout, some of which are presumably of Matsumoto's hand, although I wasn't able to identify his style definitively. He's clearly identifiable by the time of Tylor in 1993, but this is still somewhat early in his career.

One of the bits of animation I most liked in the second episode was the one pictured atop, where smoke rises from the ground where bombs have just exploded. The strange thing is that it felt like I was watching the sequence of the capsule breaking open from Akira, which was animated by Toshiaki Hontani. There is an uncanny resemblance there, partly in the actual way that the clouds are drawn, but especially in the way the animation is very dense and carefully done, with each bulge in the clouds rising in a trajectory independent from the others. Hontani was the first to try animating smoke in this particular way in Japan in his Akira animation, so it seems like an odd coincidence. Akira came out the year before, so it feels like Shoichi Masuo is paying homage to that incredible smoke animation by his great sempai in the field of effects animation. Whatever the case may be, the effects work in both episodes is wonderful; especially so the climax of episode 2. Highly recommended to FX animation nuts.

There's nothing I like better than a good space action anime, and the Crusher Joe OVAs deliver big time in that field. They don't make space action anime like this anymore. Among the few space action anime I've seen from the 1990s that was up to this level was Outlaw Star from 1998, directed by Mitsuru Hongo. As I wrote in an old post, this series was not only well directed and fun and actually watchable, it had among the best action sequences I've seen in any TV series, mostly compliments of Studio Torapezoid animators Susumu Yamaguchi and Hiroshi Okubo, who played a role analagous to that played by Shoichi Masuo and Koji Ito in Tylor, filling the series with skilfully animated space battles.

Today I also had the chance to see Yasuhiko Yoshikazu's movie version of Crusher Joe from 1983, and it was quite stimulating in its own way. It was Yoshikazu's directorial debut, to be followed by Giant Gorg on TV and then his three more well-known movies. Although I was never a big fan of Yasuhiko Yoshikazu until now, because something about his work didn't quite sit right with me for some reason, watching this movie renewed my sense of respect for this tremendous animator. He is a true powerhouse of an animator. When he's behind a project, you know he's behind it 100%, and he fills every moment with his own very peculiar brand of animated nuance. There aren't many anime films that move as constantly and as richly as do Yoshikazu's films. He's the only person in Japan who has come close to doing the sort of superhuman feat that Hayao Miyazaki did in his movies, handling all of the main creative roles from script to storyboard to layout and even rough animation - even correcting the animation himself when necessary. If for nothing else, the Crusher Joe movie is an amazing accomplishment in that it seems like it was entirely animated by one person. (I'm talking about the character scenes, not the mecha scenes) In the way in which Yasuhiko Yoshikazu's individuality completely dominates the proceedings, the Crusher Joe movie feels decidedly like a child of the anime boom of the late 70s to the early 80s.

It makes me really curious to know how he managed to fill his films with so much movement that all seems like it was made by him. Perhaps he provided roughs to lay down the basic motion and then corrected the keys to get the expression or pose just right. I don't see how he could do it otherwise, but that's a hell of a lot of work. There's a reason movies nowadays have 12 sakkans. Compared to the animation of the OVAs, Yoshikazu wins hands down. Yoshikazu is credited as character designer in the OVAs, but it doesn't really feel like his work. He really has to be the sakkan for it to feel like his work. He's got this very loose line and bizarre quirky posing and expression sensibility that can't be mimicked by anyone, not least Tomohiro Hirata, whose style feels nothing like Yoshikazu's.

Apart from the look of the characters, more important is the fact that the characters feel alive in the movie in a way they don't in the OVAs. That's where Yoshikazu's genius as an animator comes in and makes his work so special. The characters' expressions are very pliable and fun to watch, the body language varied, inventive and appropriate to each character, and expressions change according to the dialogue as a shot unfolds - which hits you with reverse culture shock when you've grown used to faces remaining static over the course of a shot in most other anime out there. Not to mention that Alfin is way cuter in the movie than in the OVAs. The drawings have a certain roughness that seems unusual when looked at today. There's a perception today that movie drawings in particular need to be really well polished. You sense that Yoshikazu's priority isn't in making the faces resemble a model; rather, he wants the characters to feel alive, and for the animation to be interesting, dynamic and exciting.

The disco brawl scene was a great example of the freedom in Yoshikazu's animation. There's so much movement packed into there, and it's all so fun and amusingly presented. I like that this film feels like the freest and most playful of Yoshikazu's films. Putting aside the question of whether the film works as a film, Yoshikazu has a very unique instinct for creating this exciting flow of animation that retains momentum from shot to shot, inserting lots of different actions and ideas, and effectively using that trademark slo-mo slide of his. His action scenes are very fast, but it's not just a blur or a bunch of pans over stills - every little movement of every action is actually animated, and in considerable detail, all while maintaining forward momentum through the skillful cutting and variety of shots.

The Crusher Joe movie also happens to feature some great extended work by Ichiro Itano, from what is in many ways his best period - the period when his work was at its youngest and freshest and he was just attaining mastery. This would have been right after the Ideon movie and right during Macross, so his work here was done smack in the middle of the two items for which he's far better known. That makes it all the more interesting to discover after all these years - a whole huge chunk of great Itano you didn't know existed. It's quite good and very reminiscent of Macross, since on top of everything he's even animating mecha designed by Shoji Kawamori.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

02:08:08 pm , 78 words, 1484 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

BoingBoing blogged Belladonna (booya)

Hah, BoingBoing blogged about Belladonna yesterday. Belladonna hits the (fringe of the) mainstream. I only wish the fansub floating around out there had a translation that remotely did justice to the script of this film. I did a translation of the film myself a few years back that I think is pretty decent in conveying the coolness of the script, if I do say so myself, but I was paid for that, so I'm hesitant about releasing it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

11:58:48 pm , 3892 words, 7213 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Taku Furukawa

A while back I mentioned that Anido was working on the English version of their web shop. Well, it's up now, and there are a number of items of interest on there, so I thought I would talk about one of them today. I bought the Taku Furukawa DVD a few months back but just got around to watching it yesterday.

I knew that Taku Furukawa was one of the main figures of the independent animation scene in Japan since its inception largely at the hands of Yoji Kuri and his abettors in the Animation Sannin no Kai, and I even wrote a blurb about him in an old post that provides a decent overview. But really, I'd only seen a handful of his films, and I didn't have an actual picture of him as an artist from first-hand experience with his work. The DVD released by Anido entitled Takun Films provides a commendably rounded overview of this artist, with no less than 18 of his films running 120 minutes in total, as well as a 40-minute interview and an amusing "biographicaricature". It also contains more than 100 stills of his posters, book covers, sketches and assorted other illustrations. The DVD was assembled by the legendary Takashi Namiki of Anido, and the whole thing exudes a playful vibe that is a perfect mesh with Taku Furukawa's whole ethos as an artist. The DVD also includes an English biography (which can be found online here) and a much-expanded Japanese version.

The DVD confirms what I suspected: Taku Furukawa is a unique figure. The animation he created over the two decades of the 1970s and the 1980s is, of course, unique enough, but it's his approach to animation that strikes me as unique to him, and also, uniquely Japanese. Simply put, Taku's films are not laborious works of art. They're playful esquisses thrown off whenever he got an amusing idea. They feel zen, aloof, casual. Of course, I don't mean to play down the considerable amount of work that obviously went into some of the more highly movemented films such as Sleepy, but overall, his films strike me as the antipode of Animation As Serious Art, which is odd since many of his films are often very experimental and abstract. With Taku, the primacy of the idea and its immediate transfer to paper seem to take precedence over any sort of superficial polishing. The human characters who appear intermittently in Taku's oeuvre, which is about equally divided between abstract films and amusing vignettes featuring his trademark doodle figures, are never laboriously rendered or animated, even in films in which he obviously spent a lot more time planning out the film.

Clearly a good deal of his constitution as an artist came from his experience working at Yoji Kuri's seminal 'Yoji Kuri Experimental Film Workshop' (Kuri Yoji Manga Jikken Kobo), which he joined in 1963 after assorted events subsequent to being born in 1941. His early films from 1968 to the early 70s, seen today, come across as experimental films that happen to use drawings, rather than animated films. It's not until the mid-70s that he begins to shake off the stylistic inculcation of the Workshop and come unto his own as an artist. After having made two short films at Kuri's studio, he quit in 1966. The first film on the set, from 1968, dates from this freelance period. He formed his own company, Takun Films, in 1970, the year of the release of his second film. His heyday as an artist strikes me as occurring in the years surrounding 1980, when his most appealing films were made. The last film on the set dates from 1990, even though this DVD was released in 1998. I'd be curious to see any other films he's made since 1990.

One of the things I like about Taku Furukawa is that it wasn't a done deal that he'd do animation. He graduated with a degree in Spanish, and his first love during the university days was playing the guitar. He came relatively late to the idea of doing illustration and animation, and how he came to animation was through the radical animation experimentation of Yoji Kuri & gang. I think the creators of this period were blessed with something that young animators today will unfortunately never be able to benefit from: a lack of history. Furukawa has a certain eclecticism of spirit that comes from having experienced a lot before coming to animation, which was undoubtedly possible because he lived in a culture that wasn't steeped in animation everywhere you looked. The slapdash, almost amateurish style that may strike newcomers to his work as decidedly lacking in animated inventiveness and technical skill is obviously the result of not having received formal training in animation. He came to animation the way many did at that period - by doing it instinctively. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in creating animation instinctively like Furukawa did, with a number of strong figures appearing in recent years on the indie scene doing this kind of loose, instinctive animation unfettered by anime (or western, for that matter) history or aesthetics.

Perhaps the most important influence that led to the style that defines his work, with its simple lines, is the work of Saul Steinberg. He discovered Steinberg's work around 1963 after moonlighting as an animator on the first few episodes of Tetsujin 28 while attending the university, and it was a revelation to him. He realized that it was that kind of work, and not stuff like Tetsujin 28, that he really wanted to do. Thus is what led him to join Yoji Kuri's studio. More specifically, he saw one of Yoji Kuri's shorts one day in the theater, and that same day, he called Kuri on the phone to tell him that he was coming to join the company tomorrow. This was while he was still in the university. Kuri was nice enough to turn him away and tell him to come back after graduating. Furukawa did so and promptly joined Kuri's studio.

During the interview, which was conducted at Furukawa's atelier in Tokyo, Furukawa and the interviewer are seated at a desk whose every inch is covered from one end to the other with hundreds upon hundreds of wind-up toys. The places feels like a fun-house, littered with lots of funny drawings and strange curiosities. Furukawa isn't just an animator - he draws illustration, picture books and manga and sculpts figures and other objects. Animation comes across as being merely one of the various outlets of an eclectic, playful creator who remains a child at heart.

The first three films on the set - Oxed-Man (1968), New York Trip (1970) and Head Spoon (1972) - are very much films of their era. They feel dated perhaps because the young artist was using contemporary pop iconography rather than creating something of his own. His later works are much less 'datable' to any particular stylistic fads of any era. Oxed-Man has the randomness, lack of polish and cascade of silly imagery that characterize most of Furuawa's work, but it doesn't have the later films' particular appeal that save the films from descending (in most cases) into sheer indulgence. It's based around the legend of the minotaur, but completely re-imagined through Furukawa's humorous and nonsensical imagery. But it is the work of a young artist testing the waters, so I don't think you could expect anything else. The film was his first real assay in a longer format. The way he came to make the film was that Kuri had a musique concrete soundtrack that avant-garde composer Toshi Ichiyanagi had made for one of Kuri's films, and Kuri gave Furukawa the soundtrack and suggested he try to make a film using the same soundtrack. There must be a lot of interesting stories like this yet to be told about Kuri's seminal studio. This is a film perhaps best enjoyed by not overthinking, and just surrendering yourself to its parade of bizarre imagery.

The campiest of his early films, quite probably deliberately, is New York Film, which is a chaotic grab-bag of psychedelic colors, 60s imagery, fat Americans and photos of New York. It feels like a foreigner's ironic travelogue through the 60s in New York. In the interview, Furukawa relates that the film was inspired by a trip he made to New York in 1969, a trip he decided to take partly inspired by viewing the film Midnight Cowboy. It was his first overseas trip, so it's understandable that the city left a strong impression on him. The film is his poetic travelogue of his first overseas trip. It's an interesting picture of this unique era in US history seen from an outsider's perspective.

Furukawa's personal style begins to emerge with Head Spoon, in which the borrowed imagery disappears and we instead begin to see the simple line drawings that characterize his later work, albeit still not fully developed and perfected.

The first film on the set that really grabbed me and I think still works after all these years is Nice to See You (1975). What's interesting with Furukawa is what I mentioned before - that he swings between making films that are really very abstract in concept and films in which fun doodles go through amusing antics in classic cartoon style. All of his early films were experimental, but mixed with doodle drawings. This is the first of his films that is purely abstract. What I like about it is that it is to the point, has a clear concept, and is elegantly executed. I won't ruin the film for people who haven't seen it (funny, the idea of spoilers in an abstract film), but he takes a very simple concept - the stipples created by the half-tone printing effect - and makes a film that evokes a number of ideas about the act of observing images.

Beautiful Planet (1974) is a music video in the vein of Minna no Uta, to which Furukawa has also contributed a good number of films over the decades. This may have been his first film in this format. It was actually made on commission for Unesco, and is among his first drawn films that works and is appealing. You could further divide his drawn films into films with a story and films that are just random doodles. There isn't a story in this film, but rather a series of pretty images riffing on the theme of the song. There is Taku Furukawa the storyteller, and then there is Taku Furukawa the artist having fun coming up with images and animated doodles. He also makes use of early rudimentary CGI for some of the images.

Phenakistiscope (1975) is one of Taku Furukawa's masterpieces, even though there is nothing more to the film than a series of phenakisticopes made by Furukawa shot rotating in sequence. Like Nice to See You, this is one of his films that are simple in concept and execution, and all the stronger for it. The actual phenakisticopes are very appealing and fun, and his particular genius as an animator of amusing transformations comes through very well in them. I don't know whether it was before or after, but one of the books for children Furukawa published includes some of these very same phenakistiscopes, which can be cut out and played with. 1975 feels like the year in which he suddenly began producing strong films, which he continued to do over the next five years.

Coffee Break (1977) is also one of his strongest films. If you were to only watch three or four of his films, this and the former film would be in there. There is very little to the film, in classic Taku Furukawa style - merely a very spare doodle of a person sitting at a desk downing a cup of coffee, to whom a surreal event occurs that again I will not spoil but to say that it is quite surprising, very odd, and yet very exciting to watch. Taku Furukawa is the king of nonsense animation, and this is one of his masterpieces in that style. It is nonsense of the highest order. It's in films like this one that I feel Taku Furukawa to be one of the spiritual fathers of the indie animation that is being made today by young independent animators like Atsushi Wada, with his crudely drawn figures, bare-bones visuals and loopy, nonsense stories.

Motion Lumiere (1977) is another splendid film from this burst of creativity that seems to have visited Furukawa in the years after 1975. It consists of what at first appears, if viewed carelessly, to be just a bunch of sparkly lights on the screen. When observed more carefully, they resolve into what appear to be a series of figures going through motions such as walking or lunging - as if Muybridge had been animated with a Lite Brite. It's just a very pretty film to watch, and one that evokes some interesting thoughts about the nature of movement and the history of animation.

Comix (1979) is a good Taku Furukawa film, although by any other standard it is quite random and without purpose. That said, I really enjoyed it. It's one of his best nonsense films. It features a human figure dangling from above, morphing subtly between different faces and slowly drooping downwards like a drop of water, the head always seeming just about to drop off, while a sort of rocky magma undulates below him like the ocean tide. There's nothing else to it, but it it works on the power of its oneiric imagery and mesmerizing repetition.

Speed (1980) is the film that won Furukawa the Noburo Ofuji prize. It is one of his most immediately accessible films, and it just plain looks the most like a Taku Furukawa film. It's also perhaps his film that feels the most like an 'animated short' in the conventional sense of having a story, characters, events and message. It tells a story about a caveman who travels to the future a number of times, experiencing the many advances in speed made by man over the centuries until he hits the full-speed modern lifestyle of racecars and city life, only to come back dissatisfied and settle for the rustic charm of the good old caveman life. It seems to be the film in which he perfected the unique visual style that I myself have always associated with him - a sort of animated doodle, somewhat similar to Don Hertzfeld, but more lighthearted and less arduously animated. Taku Furukawa is also active as an illustrator. The style that seems to define his illustrations and his Minna no Uta shorts is this style of simple line-drawn figure, and this is one of his best animated shorts in that style, combining these as it does with satire and a fun narrative. It's quintessential Taku Furukawa.

Sleepy (1980) is the most obviously 'well-animated' film Taku Furukawa has made. The animation is lush and inventive, and the visuals are tasteful and appealing in a conventional animation sense, with cute drawings and a simple color scheme used for each shot. At 6 minutes, Sleepy is also one of his longer films. A family with a pet dinosaur named Sleepy (his favorite activity is sleeping) go on a trip, and Sleepy saves the day when a fire hits a high rise apartment. It's the only film on the set aimed at children, and it works wonderfully as a children's film. I found myself wishing that Furukawa had made more films like this one. It's the only film on the set that I immediately wanted to watch again. Taku Furukawa was aided in the animation of the film by Takamitsu Yukawa, who has been the co-animator of most of Furukawa's films since Coffee Break, so credit undoubtedly needs to go to him for helping realize the appealing animation of this film. Furukawa happens to have made a picture book out of this particular story after completing the film.

Calligraphiti (1982) is one of Furukawa's more appealing films. The first thing that comes to mind watching the film is the cine-calligraph films of Norman McLaren. It appears to be a cine-calligraph film of the kind pioneered by Norman McLaren, in which the animator scratches a drawing directly onto each frame of a strip of film rather than drawing on paper and photographing each drawing, but in fact the drawings were drawn onto ordinary paper using an oil-based pen and simply inverted to give the impression of being cine-calligraph, as an homage to Norman McLaren. The film injects some welcome stylistic variety into Furukawa's oeuvre. If one hadn't seen this set, one might be forgiven for assuming that all of Furukawa's films were in the same line-drawn cartoon style for which he is best known. But Furukawa's films are truly diverse in technique, although the line-drawn figure style appears to be his default mode of expression.

I'm not sure if I understand how Portrait (1983) was made, but it appears that a series of five or six polaroids of different individuals going through a particular motion, always from a set distance so that their full figure occupies only the very center of the photo, were taken, and the polaroids were each hand-colored and placed in sequence. The entire film consists of two of these live-action polaroid loops shot side by side on the screen. It's a jarringly abstract piece coming after the kid-friendly Sleepy, but it is quite compelling in its purity of execution and a great example of the abstract-experimental side of Furukawa's Jekyll/Hyde personality. Together with Phenakistiscope, it is also exemplary of how Furukawa's creative thought isn't just limited to animation, but sort of migrates around between the interstices of different media, in this case creating art objects that he in turn uses to create animation.

The Bird (1985) is a short film in which a man attempts to capture a bird. It's done in the patented Furukawa style, and the various contrivances the man devises to capture the bird are amusing, although the film trails off suddenly without any kind of resolution, coming across as somewhat incomplete. The film provides Furukawa with the opportunity to draw some amusing visual devices and create a fun animated chase. Most interesting is perhaps the way the bird is animated using what appears to be a blue and red marker, as opposed to the lines used to animate the human figure. The bird's shape morphs constantly in a manner befitting the flat, amorphous colors used to form its shape, providing an interesting contrast with the line drawings of the human. The sharp black lines and flat colored blobs seem like they exist in a different dimension, making the chase seem like a fascinating portrait in futility, like the pursuit of the firebird. The best animation uses interesting new techniques and new approaches to visuals to express a theme, and this film is a great example of that, with the various ideas suggested by the interaction of the lines and the colored shapes.

Mac The Movie (1985) consists purely of animation doodles made by Furukawa, presumably on a Mac. The visuals are a kind of stroll down memory lane for me, as they bring back memories of one of my first computers, the Macintosh, on which I remember loving to play Lode Runner and doodling in the draw program. Other than the appeal of its antiquated early computer graphics, though, the film has little to recommend it, being merely a series of unconnected doodles without even the raw appeal of Calligraphiti. I'm sure it wasn't made with any sort of pretensions about being a film, though. It should probably just be taken at face value as a bunch of doodles drawn by Taku-san at the dawn of the PC age. Giving a bunch of crappy doodles a deceptively grandiose, epic title seems like the kind of joke the ever-playful Furukawa would play on viewers.

Play Jazz (1987) was also made using a computer drawing program, but has the redeeming quality of conceptual mooring and animated appeal lacking in Mac The Movie. The Jazz of the title and soundtrack pays homage to the title of the painting by Henri Matisse that in the film is subjected to animated transformations; in other words, Furukawa 'playing' (with the painting) 'Jazz'. The film consists of Furukawa improvising on the theme of Matisse's Jazz, making explicit the intriguing parallel improvisatiory nature of the two art forms. One of the things I found myself focusing on while watching the film was the actual lines of pixels. I found it oddly fascinating to observe how the morphing shapes were actually created by the change in length of these very low-resolution lines of lit-up pixels.

Direct Animation (1987) from the same year was made using the same technique as Calligraphiti, in that it is a pseudo-calligraph film made by drawing with a pen very small and photographing it so that it fills up the screen and looks like a caligraph film. This time the film was not inverted, and colors were used. The film is a good compliment to the previous film, in that this time it is purely abstract, making good use of colors and shapes to create a pleasing flow of transforming colors and shapes. It's only a minute long, but it's a beautiful minute, and shows how Furukawa jumps between different forms and styles almost on a whim, whenever he gets an idea for a film he'd like to make. I like his creative stance, which emphasizes spontaneity and variety.

The last film on the set is Tarzan (1990), which is one of his longest and most narratively substantial. The closest comparison is with Speed in terms of its use of drawn figures, clear narrative and satirical story. The film depicts a modern wannabe Tarzan urbanite who seeks out the thrills of the wilds of Africa to slake his hunger for something more raw and real, but finds that the strange creatures who greet him upon his return to the city don't hear the same call of the wild. Up until now, Furukawa's films were animated by him, in part or in whole, but this is the first Furukawa film that was entirely animated by another person - in this case his long-time collaborator Takamitsu Yukawa. The film moves a lot, the color schemes and visual design are pretty, and overall it is an amusing film with numerous of his very New Yorker-style sight gags that shows Furukawa at his most playful. Furukawa is apparently a travel addict, and this film is his travelogue from Kenya, much in the way New York Trip commemorated his trip to New York. He makes a lot of sly observations about the trip, such as quirks of the various nationalities of tourists, with the American flashing their Bart Simpson T-shirts like badges of national pride, and being mugged to purchase trinkets by the locals. I could very much relate to his feelings of despondency upon returning home to the concrete blahness of the city after such an adventure.

Taku Furukawa of course has his own web site and blog, where you can see a lot more art by him. You can see some more images from each of his films on Takun Films Animation Toy Box. For some further reading about Taku Furukawa, I recommend Nishikata Film Review's post on Furukawa's Minna no Uta animation.

Monday, August 3, 2009

10:37:32 am , 190 words, 1128 views     Categories: Art

Brush lines

To me the ocean of art out there is overwhelming. That's why I focus on animation, not that there isn't a lot of animation out there. But I feel I can at least keep some grasp on it. That's why I rarely talk about artists or manga or whatever. But I have immense respect for the people out there who can wrangle line to create something beautiful with an air of nonchalance. When I see a beautiful line I often think I'd like to see it move. I ran across Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine's lines today and delighted in them. These are the kinds of drawings I enjoy gazing at - quick but instinctive and not labored, with a soft suppleness and lightness of touch, an international spirit, stories that are just open-ended idea bubbles. I like how there is French occasionally, Vietnamese occasionally, Japanese occasionally, etc. And the spare use of orange but otherwise black and shades of gray. I actually find myself more attracted to the manga sensibility of the French. That reminds me, Dogs & Water was wonderful. I'd like to see stories like that told in animation.

1 commentPermalink

Sunday, August 2, 2009

11:58:03 pm , 57 words, 1209 views     Categories: Site News

Fifth birthday

It's been just over five years now that I've been writing this blog, so to commemorate that surreal milestone, I thought I'd splurge and share a little embarrassing bit of history - an AMV I made for fun right before I started writing the blog, way before MADs became fashionable. (though the soundtrack is new)

Part 1 / Part 2

Saturday, August 1, 2009

11:23:23 pm , 819 words, 1172 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Kamiya's Correspondence

The Bunkacho's Media Arts Festival is generally pretty good at rewarding interesting animation artists in Japan, and their awardees are worth tracking down. I just had the chance to see the 'recommended work' film from the 8th annual Bunkacho Media Arts Festival in 2004, Sumito Sakakibara's Kamiya's Correspondence, which was originally made as his graduation film for the Royal College of Art in 2004. Indeed, this was a wonderful film, and I'm glad I was able to postpone enjoying it until now. Watching it was a delectable experience I'd like to repeat in the coming days.

Sakakibara is an international creator, having been born in Japan and raised there until, after graduating from middle school in Urahoro city in Hokkaido, he left to go study in Europe, where he stayed for for 9 years, eventually undertaking studies in animation and a variety of the other visual arts. He then apparently returned to his home town in 2007, where he settled into helping on the family dairy farm. I'm not sure what happened to him afterwards, but at the time he was working on a manga project to document his grandfather's experiences working on his dairy farm in rural Hokkaido. The world would still be a richer place even if Sakakibara had only left behind Kamiya's Correspondence, but a it happens, he made another film entitled Flow that won the grand prize at the Media Arts Festival the next year in 2005, and later he was reported to be working on a third film entitled A Drop of Vermillion Ink as an artist in residence in France, although I don't know what came of that project, which may have been completed in 2007. I would like to find out if he has made any other animated films since then. He is also active as a manga artist and illustrator.

Kamiya's Correspondence feels decidedly Japanese in its delicate sensibility and realistic, detail-oriented approach to the animation - which is not to say it feels like anime, which is doesn't in the slightest. The washed out color palette feels somewhat similar to what Satoru Utsunomiya did in his last few projects, and the lovely rendering of the figures with a minimum of clean lines, formalist layout and lush but delicate full animation remind of Seiichi Hayashi, but both of these are creators with an entirely personal approach that isn't representative of the industry at large. I think this is an excellent example of international experience enriching a creator's work with a certain perspective or aesthetic range that would otherwise be lacking, and is lacking in most domestic creators. It feels international, yet very Japanese.

The first thing that struck me was the superb visual layout sense that Sakakakibara exhibits throughout the entire piece. Everything feels extremely refined and elegant and formal. As if to drive the point home, there are even floor shots in traditional Japanese homes, straight out of Ozu. Every one of the shots in the film is like a gorgeous, tasteful postcard. There are even references to the Choju Giga, and some of the shots of the engawa have a certain angle that seems to reference some of the old Genji Monogatari paintings.

The animation is really wonderful, reined in and elegant but rich and nuanced, and very precise in its detail, without being maniacal or overanimated. It's very spare, but every movement feels magnificent and is exciting to see unfold in its calm beauty. The characters slide through these formal compositions slowly and delicately, their movements rendered with the utmost care and grace, as they were an extension of the serene environs. The animation technique changes a few times to narrate past events, and this is done convincingly. The story told by the visuals is compelling but told in an understated way. The film is filled with moments of warm humor that are well handled. The conclusion is moving, giving this small film a considerable narrative heft for a 7-minute film. For a graduation film, this film feels accomplished and assured, as if it were from the hand of a veteran artist.

I love Sumito Sakakibara's style of animation, so I hope to be able to see his other films some time. I also dearly hope he continues to make films with this sensibility in the future, as Kamiya's Correspondence is a film of rare tenderness and honesty, and stands quite apart from most of the rest of Japanese production in its depiction of real life that is simultaneously more stylized yet more real and authentic feeling. I saw the film on a DVD print on the Best of the British Animation Awards Vol. 6, and this is a film that should definitely only be seen in DVD quality to appreciate the delicate drawings properly. I don't know if the film is available on any other DVDs out there, but I recommend the DVD overall anyway, as it's a great set even besides this film.