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, 28

Friday, August 28, 2009

11:05:00 pm , 1924 words, 8135 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.