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, 13

Thursday, August 13, 2009

08:32:00 pm , 3414 words, 4711 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


YAKI MasayukiSAKAMOTO Hideaki
SAWADA MasatoKUBOOKA Toshiyuki
ONDA NaoyukiONISHI Kiyomi
USAMI KoichiTOKORO Tomokazu
MINAMI ShinichiroNAKAMURA Satoru
SHINO MasanoriAKUTAGAWA Yoshiaki
WATANABE JunichiNAKA Morifumi
SOGA HirokoYAMAMOTO Masakazu
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


YAKI MasayukiSAWADA Masato
TSUJI KiyomitsuYAMAMOTO Masafumi
MINAMI ShinichiroSHINO Masanori
USAMI KoichiMASA Tomoyasu
ONDA NaoyukiKUBOOKA Toshiyuki

Inbetween Check
TSUJI Kiyomitsu