Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: August 2009, 06

Thursday, August 6, 2009

11:27:00 pm , 1839 words, 4814 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.