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: October 2009, 13

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

10:54:37 pm , 1353 words, 3044 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Vampire Wars & Toei Video

Another obscurity from the post-Akira period that I just discovered is Vampire Wars from 1990. I sought it out because it features Hideki Hamasu as animation director. It didn't disappoint in terms of the animation, and even as a film it's a fun romp with entertaining directing and good action. It's a nice little OVA from this period that's worth rediscovering, especially if you're a fan of Hamasu's work elsewhere, be it as character designer/animation director of Perfect Blue or as the brilliant animator of various scenes from the last two decades. This is one of Hamasu's early stepping stones. This film comes from a period of Hamasu's work with which people over here will be less familiar: his Toei period.

Hamasu actually adapted an original design by Hiroyuki Kitazume, and it does feel very much like you're watching Kitazume characters. It's not as extreme as what Koichi Arai did with his adaptation of 3x3 Eyes, in which case it feels more like you're watching Arai's characters. But Hamasu brings the characters alive well, and there's a nice feeling of reality in the rendering of the drawings throughout, just as there was in Arai's work on 3x3 Eyes. Kitazume was himself one of the main expats from Studio Bebow, the studio that pioneered an early vein of realism in the 80s prior the resurgence of realism in the 90s. As it turns out, Toei itself had a vein of realism developing throughout this period at the hands of a number of animators, so Vampire Wars acts as in interesting intersection between these two veins. Hideki Hamasu, Koichi Arai and Takaaki Yamashita seem to be among the three most important animator figures in the realistic vein at Toei during the period from 1988 to the early 90s, and they left behind a lot of good work during this period on video releases of anime produced by Toei in the years immediately before and after Vampire Wars, mostly on Toei's in-house "Toei V Anime" label.

Ever since Ken the Wolf Boy, Toei Doga has always been a company that was quick to exploit new markets, and they jumped into the OVA market fairly soon after it took off. They had a number of series being released over the years on a continuous basis, and many of the more talented animators at the studio in the late 80s/early 90s, such as Kochi Arai, Hideki Hamasu and Takaaki Yamashita, worked on these OVAs. Just as Toei proper had long produced yakuza live-action movies, much of Toei Animation's anime output in the 80s seems to have been to create versions of the same kind of content aimed at younger audiences. They did this by adapting manga about juvenile delinquents such as 'yankee' high school kids and biker gangs.

One of the earliest, and the longest-lived, was Shonan Bakusozoku, a series about biker gangs that ran for 12 episodes, each about an hour long, released semi-yearly between 1986 and 1999. Crying Freeman, a story this time about full-fledged gangster warfare, was released yearly (except 1993) in 6 episodes between 1988 and 1994, also about an hour long each. I've long meant to write about this series in particular, as it's perhaps the most impressive in terms of the animation and the densest summation of this Toei realistic vein. Two more series about juvenile delinquents, or 'yankees' as they're known in Japan, followed: Yankee Reppuutai ran for 6 episodes from 1989 to 1996, and Be-Bop High School ran for 7 episodes from 1990 to 1995.

With the exception of Crying Freeman, none of these are very well known over here. I haven't seen any of Be-Bop High School or Yankee Reppuutai, but I've had the chance to look at a number of episodes of Shonan Bakusozoku, and it appears to have been a surprisingly solidly produced series throughout, both in terms of the directing and the animation. Good animators appear throughout, including Koichi Arai, Hideki Hamasu and Junichi Hayama.

Prior to doing Vampire Wars, Hideki Hamasu acted as assistant sakkan and drew animation for the first two episodes of Crying Freeman (1988 & 1989), which featured some superb sakkan work by Koichi Arai. Arai, meanwhile, had been given the opportunity to design and sakkan an OVA with Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu in 1988 (Hamasu was co-sakkan). In 1990, around the same time as Vampire Wars (which features Arai as an animator), both Arai and Hamasu did an episode each in an OVA series adapting fairy tales entitled Hanaichi Monme. In 1991, Hamasu was an animator in every episode of Arai's 3x3 Eyes, and then for the next few years was heavily involved with Be-Bop High School and Yankee Reppuutai while Arai gradually moved away from Toei productions. It's not long after this that these two great ex-Toei realistic animators begin to be credited alongside the great realistic animators from the rest of the industry in the classic realistic productions of the 90s like Ghost in the Shell and Perfect Blue.

As this reveals, there is a lot of overlap in their work at this period. In fact, Hamasu is reported to have even worked on Akira, although he's not credited. (Arai worked on the baby room scene) So the new vein of realism coming from Takashi Nakamura et al. in Akira was undoubtedly an influence on these two animators, although the influence of in-house Toei animators such as Junichi Hayama, who had developed their own vein of quasi-realism in the rendering of the face and body on shows like Fist of the North Star and Sakigake! Otoko Juku from 1984 to 1988, can't be discounted.

Episode 5 of Shonan Bakusozoku, released in 1989 smack in the heart of this period, is a good place to start to get a sense for what makes the Toei video releases of this period appealing. It's easily the most exciting in the series. It features a good scene animated by newer animator Koichi Arai, and a climactic sequence animated by older animator Junichi Hayama, and overall it's among the more salient in subject matter (many of the episodes are kind of non-sequiturs about a character's first love or whatever - this one's about GANGS FIGHTING) and the most excitingly directed in the series. Aside from having done great work throughout these Toei video releases and on the earlier 80s Toei TV shows, Hayama was apparently a big influence on the Toei animators of this period. He mentored at the very least Yoshihiko Umakoshi, and he was the designer/sakkan on the great JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVA series released 1993-1994 & 2000-2002, which featured much great animation work from a smattering of the best animators of the day, including Hamasu and Arai. He's more obscure than the people who came after him, but he's got an interesting style and I'd like to see more from him.

Immediately after Vampire Wars Toei released another Toei V Anime video entitled Psychic Wars featuring designs/sakkan by Masami Suda, the person behind Fist of the North Star and many of the Toei V Anime series. It's a major step down in both directing and animation and not worth revisiting. Vampire Wars has genuinely decent directing that makes the film watchable. Psychic Wars is stunningly boring. The animation is also consistently uninteresting despite featuring both Hamasu and Hayama as animators. It looks like a relic from a bygone age, with weak, directionless, rote drawings, when younger animators like Hamasu had already pushed the style in newer and better directions.

The drawings in Vampire Wars, in contrast, are tight and edgy, and every drawing and layout feels deliberate and visually compelling. The emphasis of Vampire Wars isn't so much raw realism as more the rich drawings of its characters, each line of whose faces are rendered in exacting detail that vividly brings alive their every emotion. Posing and layouts are also dynamic and stylish. The movements are rich and fluid, with less of the feeling of off-the-cuff, sparely applied raw, realistic poses that you get from Koichi Arai's work, whom in retrospect appears to have been the more innovative in his approach to character animation. The work here is rather of solid craftsmanship with a realistic hue, rather than being boldly realistic.