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: September 2009, 16

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

12:03:00 am , 1233 words, 2812 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Explorer Woman Ray

Another noteworthy OVA relic from the post-Akira period of 1989 to the early 90s is Explorer Woman Ray from 1989, which I just picked up out of curiosity. I'd seen it often on the shelves of video stores 15 years ago when I rented anime regularly, but the package failed to impress me, so I'd never seen it until today.

Like the best OVAs from this period, the range of quality in these two 30-minute OVAs is all over the place. This applies mainly to the first OVA; the second OVA features an admirably even level of execrable quality. It's not worth wasting any further words on. The first OVA, though, is an interesting little companion piece to the best OVAs from this period like Green Legend Ran and Hakkenden, with which it shares its unevenness of tone, overweening ambition, and handful of notable animators. Ran is similarly of interest mainly for its first episode.

The film is actually rather fun to watch. It's got that feeling of expansive adventure that was done so well in the OVAs of this period like 3x3 Eyes, although in this case it's not very successful. And the quality is fairly high overall, although it alternates randomly between very strong work and very weak work, presumably because of shortness of schedule. What's good here is quite good, and it feels like if they'd had more time it might have been better. But the source material is a major problem, so I'm dubious on that point. Overall it's a terrible film, a grab bag of cliches from adventure films like Indiana Jones, each poorly developed and carelessly integrated.

And yet, I actually really enjoyed the film. The opening sequence seems exemplary of why that is. The opening sequence alone is a must-see. The animation is excellent, the drawings are awesome, and the choreography of the action is superb. If the entire film had been made at this level of quality, it would be a masterpiece. I'm guessing it was animated by Tatsuyuki Tanaka, because this would have been the first thing he did after Akira, and being a young animator it wouldn't surprise me that he was still under the influence of the drawings in that film. But influence can't possibly account for how ridiculously Akira-esque the drawings here are. I'm inclined to suspect he was doing it on purpose and having fun with it, drawing everything Otomo-style for laughs. In any case, it's an awesome scene, like the opening gunfight in Green Legend Ran 1, and one of the great action scenes of this period of OVA history.

It's talent like this that accounts for what makes great animation interesting, and I'm guessing it's mostly the presence of talent like him in the production that accounts for why this otherwise irredeemable story and directing work to an extent. Toshiaki Hontani was co-storyboarder along with director Yasuo Hasegawa, and there were actually three dedicated layout men (line director Hiroki Hayashi, Atsushi Okuda and Hideaki Matsuoka) which was more the exception than the rule at this time, and I'm guessing helped with the quality. And there were six sakkans (animation directors).

This is the only thing Toshiaki Hontani ever storyboarded apart from Rojin Z, so it's something of a precious film for a Hontani fan like me. In my post on Crimson Wolf I wondered aloud where else Hontani might have done some good effects work like the dragon climax in that film. Well, that place turns out to be Explorer Woman Ray. There are some spectacular effects sequences in the film, mostly in the second half, involving a hydrofoil skimming across the water outrunning a giant tidal wave crashing behind it, which I'm presuming he storyboarded. I'm not sure who animated the sequences, although I've heard that Mitsuo Iso (who isn't credited) may have been responsible, which wouldn't surprise me. The water here is truly among the best of the period. And it's not just well animated; it's well choreographed. The great animation is the tool that drives the action sequence forward and gives it its impact, for which reason it's among the better I've ever seen.

Kazuyoshi Yaginuma was also involved in the film as an animator, and I suspect he may have done some of the action sequences involving the hovercraft being chased by some of the bad guys due to the highly detailed and fluid animation and very peculiar feeling to the movement. Yaginuma, like Tanaka, had just come from working on Akira, and the influence of that film is palpable in this animation as well as many little elements of Explorer Woman Ray, be it a piece of animation here or a drawing or layout there. In Akira Yaginuma animated the sequence where Tetsuo walks supported by Kaori, right before the arm transformation sequence by Tatsuyuki Tanaka. The latter bit is my favorite shot by him. I love how much work he puts into making the two bodies move in a delicately nuanced manner in this seemingly throwaway shot. He also animated the scene in the kitchen in Shinya Ohira's Antique Shop (again right before the bit by Tanaka - apparently they were close friends), as well as the part where Ran wakes up in the clinic in Ran, so he's one of the key figures of what you might call the 'realistic group' of this period.

Though there are six animation directors, it still feels like you're seeing the animators' work in the raw apart from the close-ups of the main characters. Tanaka's scene is obviously uncorrected, as is presumably Yaginuma's. Even the badly animated scenes don't feel corrected. So it's a representative piece of the trends of this period in that sense, in that it's a film steeped in animator personality.

The designs of the characters are a mixed bag of sharply defined, appealing simplicity on the one hand, and offensive, badly drawn 'westerner' stereotypes on the other. One of the things I like about animation of this period is the character drawn with very few lines like Ran in Ran and the twins here in Explorer Woman Ray. There's the feeling that these designs were made with animation in mind. They're cute, but that's not their entire raison d'etre. It's a good example of the aesthetic appeal of a functional design. There's a certain beauty and elegance borne of simplicity - when it's handled right. Some of the liveliest character drawing and animation I've seen in anime is from OVAs from this period. The character designer and chief animation director is Hiroyuki Ochi, yet another Bebow alumni. A lot of ex-Bebow staff seem to have moved to AIC after leaving Bebow. A number of spots felt like they looked like Naoyuki Onda or Hiroyuki Kitazume, but their names weren't in the credits, so I guess it was my imagination.

Overall, despite logically knowing it's a terrible film in any number of ways, there's still something I find appealing about this OVA's combination of simple designs that move in a lively and inventively choreographed way, and fun and quick-tempo adventure story. Along with the other OVAs from this period that I've mentioned, it's got an atmosphere, animated energy and broadly appealing content that stands apart from that of any other age and that seems to have been lost these days. I would have not only liked to see it done better, but to see more films like this.