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: February 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

04:00:59 pm , 2378 words, 4835 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, OVA, Movie, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Yuasa's new show & Inferno & stuff

Masaaki Yuasa has a new TV series starting in April entitled Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei, again made at Madhouse. I haven't seen an official English title, but it needs one, cause it sounds interesting in Japanese but is pretty unwieldy to translate: Four and a half mat myth compendium. But then again, maybe that's a perfectly sound anime title, if A Certain Scientific Railgun is kosher. Nobutake Ito is again the character designer. The designs are extremely attractive, with the visual sensibility of Taisho-era illustrations, and again a big change from everything the team has done before. Judging by some of the movement in the second half of the video clip visible on the site now, I'm sure Nobutake Ito and the animators will be creating some great movement with these designs. The color design looks vivid and wild in the vein of Mind Game, and the chamber music is quite an interesting and unusual sound for anime. The script sounds cerebral and witty, the series being based on a novel this time around. This promises to be the best thing since... well, Yuasa's last project.

Te Wei, one of the great animation artists of the last century, passed away a short time ago. He was the originator and master of the brush ink animation style. He didn't produce many shorts in his patented style, but the three that he did shine on decades later as unsurpassed masterpieces of serene beauty. They seem to me to bridge the centuries and channel the poetry of another age. Watch them if you haven't. It's time for me to revisit them to remember this great artist.

I'd like to see another good feature from Korea. Mari iyagi was great, but Yobi was disappointing, and Wonderful Days I didn't like as a film because I felt it too indebted to anime, remarkably technically adept though it was. Aachi & Ssipak, if you're able to stomach the over-the-top crassness and violence, was much more creative and interesting as a concept and just plain fun, with some excitingly choreographed, well-animated action sequences, and a much more original vision.

On a related note, I just saw the crass and violent Dante's Inferno, and it featured work by a number of Korean studios, some of it quite good. It's an awful film that's jettisoned the original's poetry for a linear first-person slasher video game with one level boss after another, and is interesting almost solely for the variety of styles brought to the table by the different studios. I usually like this sort of thing by default because I enjoy the idea of seeing the same subject interpreted by different visual artist, and I did enjoy it in that sense, but in the end it's more one of those films you feel obliged to see because there happens to be some technically worthwhile work in it than one that you watch because it's actually good. It wasn't even the violence and crass visuals that put me off so much as the inept script that yammers away constantly, non-stop in every single solitary shot. That's one thing that makes it patently obvious that the script was written by a westerner - American animated features don't know when to shut up. They're uninterested in or incapable of letting the visuals or the atmosphere do the talking, Pixar being a notable new exception.

There have been a number of multi-studio anime omnibuses in the last few years, but where this differs is that it's one continuous story, so that from one moment to the next, in the same uninterrupted narrative flow, the character designs, art, animation and directing suddenly do a 180. I personally enjoyed it. And I'm actually inclined to suspect that this approach wouldn't be that shocking or off-putting to general audiences, as people have become much more acclimatized to visual experimentation in recent years. Heck, seeing these different approaches side by side was the only redeeming feature of what otherwise just felt like a stupid video game - and what's worse, a video game where you don't even have any control. Which is ironic considering the source material is one of the great poems of western literature. Sadly, there's some decent work in this film. I just hope that it doesn't always take shallow projects like this for talent to get work.

The opening by Film Roman sure isn't where the decent work comes. The good work starts quite a ways in after the Saturday morning cartoon animation, with the section from Manglobe directed by Shukou Murase, which is visually the sleekest and overall one of the strongest in the film. The pacing is cinematic and the staging elegant and formal. The drawings are delicate and the faces realistically drawn, albeit in a somewhat 'generic western face' kind of way. Ironic that the Japanese can draw a better westerner than a western studio. (though the first section, too, appears to have been entirely animated by Korean studios) Murase not only directed but was character designer and his own sakkan, so he's in large part to thank for the exceptional quality of the section. Nobutake Ito is one of the animators in his section.

The next section from Dongwoo directed by Jong-Sik Nam, looks very different, much more loose and cartoony, with lots of movement going on constantly. The drawings were a little too crude for my taste, but there were a few moments that stood out as having interesting movement, and generally I appreciate that it moves a lot. The first section moves a lot too, but all of the movement sucks.

It was the next two sections that most impressed me. The fourth section looked to me like the work of a Japanese studio, with its very Kanada-ish approach to movement, while the fifth section immediately struck me as the work of a Korean studio. Surprisingly, both were the work of the same Korean studio - JM Animation. Looking into it, I now see that JM Animation is the studio behind Wonderful Days, which makes sense. I haven't watched it, but JM Animation produced a piece of animation for MTV last year on the subject of human trafficking. (important subject, but looks lame) Both sections four and five are very strong in terms of the visuals and directing. I particularly liked section 5, directed by Kim Sangjin, with its excellently rendered grotesque character designs. This section's visuals are some of the more unique and assured in the film. Section four, directed by Lee Seunggyu, is quite well done, with a more unified stylization of the characters than the previous section, where the characters just look kind of sloppily drawn. I thought they were a little too ruly and clean for this material and preferred the edgy shapes of the fifth section.

The last section, from Production I.G. and directed by a surprising face for the studio, Yasuomi Umetsu, was well-produced but surprisingly dull considering the pedigree. 'Stolid' is the term that comes to mind. The pacing was sluggish and the staging seemed badly done. There are way too many distant or oblique shots striving for a cinematic feel that comes off better in the Manglobe film. The Korean and Japanese films here have a clearly different approach to presenting the material, with more of a focus on the characters acting things out in the Korean films, but more oblique framing and slow pans or moody distant shots for you to savor the drawings and framing in the Japanese films. It's like the Japanese approach their animation with the mentality of live-action cinematographers, and they try to animate things in a realistic way to achieve impact, whereas the Koreans know they're making animation and achieve impact through more expressive animation and less of an obsession on detail and realistic timing and careful framing. Animators include Koichi Arai, Seiichi Nakatani, Nobutoshi Ogura, Nozomu Abe.

Continuing in my quest to dig up obscure old OVAs, Bounty Dog maybe isn't that obscure but it's another older OVA I never saw back then but just checked out. What jumps out at you first about this thing is the color. For some reason the whole thing has this weird sickly yellow sepia tone that's kind of nauseating to look at and doesn't really make any sense artistically. There is some decent mech drawing and animation, but nothing extravagant. The character drawings aren't interesting, and the directing aims for a sort of gritty low-key realism seemingly inspired by Patlabor 2 from the year before, but it doesn't work, not helped by bad art and an uninspired story with no interesting characters, and just feels sluggish and boring. Not nearly as interesting as some of the other OVAs made around this time. Animators in ep 1 include Toshiyuki Tsuru and Takahiro Kishida. Animators in ep 2 include Yasuhiro Seo, Hiroyuki Morita, Masahito Yamashita, Masahiro Koyama, Nobuyoshi Habara (under his Mamoru Konoe pen name), Toru Yoshida, Toshihiro Kawano, Tomohiro Hirata, Tadashi Itazaki.

Riki-oh is another 2-episode OVA from this period - this one from studio Magic Bus from 1989 and 1990. Toei did a great 6-OVA series called Crying Freeman in this vein of big manly muscle men committing acts of gory violence right around the same time, and theirs is infinitely better in all respects - story, directing and animation. Riki-oh is like a lame knock-off of Crying Freeman. The two episodes are an interesting study in contrasts in terms of how to handle the 'macho style' - in episode 1 the drawings are by Yasuhiro Seo, whom I remember for a solo episode he did in Gankutsuoh, and they're great, really bringing alive the personality of the villains through densely rendered drawings full of lines and ruffles that give each of the grotesquely ugly villains' faces a unique look. The second episode is very different, with character designs by Akio Sugino. The bodies and faces are drawn a lot sleeker and smoother and without the grotesque detail that's the whole raison d'etre of this drawing style, and without good drawings, there's very little to maintain interest. The animation isn't particularly remarkable per se; it's more about the drawings themselves, which make this ridiculous material kind of fun to watch with an ironic mindset. I noticed two interesting faces in the inbetween credits: Kenji Mizuhata in ep 1 and Shuichi Kaneko in ep 2.

Three animal shorts for you:

Sankichi and Kojoro from Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, by Hirokazu Fukuhara.

Dreams by Chie Arai.

Old Fangs by Adrien Merigeau.

The last one was sent to me by 'sanafabich', and I really liked it. A number of commenters have noted some astute criticisms, and I agree with some of them, but lack of quicker beats isn't something that bothered me about the film. In fact, I think that that is one of the film's main assets. Slow pacing can be a hard thing to pull off, and a shot without dialogue is anathema to most ADD-afflicted western animation, but good filmmaking isn't just about cramming in as much as possible. It's about creating a space for a story to breathe, and I think they've found a nice style for the material they wanted to convey. I like that they inserted those shots of live-action leaves at the beginning. I think the designs are great, meshing well with the stylized, angular backgrounds. The music is spot-on. I think it's a pretty ambitious subject to tackle, especially using those designs, and I like how the film creates an atmosphere midway between real life and a fable. It does a decent job of evoking some weighty themes with very few words - the chasm that separates us from our memories of the distant past, the desire to reconnect with our estranged loved ones. Of course, it does feel like something is missing, as it doesn't quite achieve a strong enough impact. It all remains a bit too oblique and hinted-at. Maybe it's that the two friends accompanying the young wolf don't seem to serve much purpose, or the storytelling is a little too clipped, or that I don't know what the little wormy thing the father was holding was, or the brief glimpses of the boy's childhood seemed kind of random and unnecessary, or the dialogue wasn't necessary... not sure. But I still love the visuals and the directing sensibility - the way that random shot of the crows scuffling was inserted at just that moment was just magic. I find it a much more interesting and enjoyable film than a lot of more popular and laboriously produced shorts I've seen in the last year.

I'm with Charles Huettner about this list of the top 10 animated features of the 2000s. Here's my list:

Waking Life
Mind Game
Waltz with Bashir
My Dog Tulip
Persepolis
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Azur et Asmar
Secret of Kells
Mari iyagi
Les triplettes de Belleville

I think the other list caters way too much to classical western animation aesthetics. Even Spirited Away seems like it's there only because it's the closest fit of any non-western animated feature within that aesthetic. The key thing to remember is that each list is a reflection of the writer of the list, which is why I prefer not to pretend to be objective. These are ten of the 'more interesting' animated films made in the last decade. IMO. I feel bad leaving out a lot of the great anime films, but that would probably be a different list. What I value is when a film carves out its own narrative and visual ethos and its technique complements the material, rather than simply relying on some classical template the way most big-studio western features do, and I think most of the films above do that to a greater or lesser extent. So many films are made each year around the world now, though, so I wonder if there are any really great films that I missed. I know of a number of interesting-sounding features from the last few years that I'm curious to see: $9.99, The District, Princess, Mary and Max, Legend of the Sky Kingdom, We are the strange, Blood tea and red string... It would be nice to hear what people with a more international bent think are the ten most interesting films of the last ten years.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

11:25:17 pm , 578 words, 2490 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, TV

Madara

I discovered another OVA from the early 1990s that I hadn't seen before but that I enjoyed: Madara. It's directed by Yuji Moriyama, the extremely prolific director/animator who I remember primarily for his work on Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku but who's been in scads of other stuff and continues to be very active today. He also did Project A-Ko, one of the defining OVAs of the period that in retrospect seems to have portended the future of the industry. Despite the unmistakable soundtrack by Kaoru Wada and otherwise seeming very similar in spirit to 3x3 Eyes, the drawings are not nearly as impressive, coming across as more generic compared to Koichi Arai's highly original approach, nor the directing as strong. But it's still enjoyable and entertaining and has some nice movements and drawings here and there. It's in the vein of the many shonen fighting shows that came before and after, but the OVA format permits some slightly higher quality. It's still fairly watchable after all this time. You see a lot of people who worked on Nadia just before - Takeshi Mori on storyboard, Shunji Suzuki as co-sakkan w/Moriyama (the girl's drawings remind of Nadia), and even Kazuya Tsurumaki as a gengaman. It's weird, but there's this shot where the protagonist's female companion is holding up her hand at his face and it's trembling and for some reason I get the feeling like I've seen exactly that same way of drawing the hand in Nadia before. It has this distinctive round way of drawing the fingers that I actually kind of like. Other notable animators include Yasuomi Umetsu, Suganuma Eiji and Takeuchi Atsushi in ep 1 and Koji Ito and Atsushi Takeuchi in ep 2.

I actually sampled another show. So-ra-no-wo-to (is it just me or are titles becoming more obnoxious with each passing year?) by A-1 Pictures, who did the well-animated baseball show Ookiku Furikabutte, had some decent animation. I say only decent because it was actually good, but hard to see, because the characters, character designs and general content were obscuring the view. Toshifumi Akai was the animation director and he did the opening and closing, and I salute the man because clearly a lot of work went into the animation. Some of the scenes actually came alive quite nicely thanks to the animation. For a fleeting moment, I sensed the specter of a good anime that might have been. The directing by Mamoru Kanbe did a pretty good job with the material. The background art by Easter was strong and in some places shined. But it was sad to see all this effort going into material that did not support the weight. It felt like an attempt at a World Masterpiece Theater-style atmosphere, with moe girls in uniform, since that's apparently what you need to have to be able to make anything these days. This doesn't feel like a story that had to be told; it feels like 'What new situation could we shoehorn a cavalcade of moe girls into?' Outsiders already think anime is a big joke as it is. Why make it worse? I think someone unfamiliar with anime who watched this would feel confused and anxious. I would have liked Toshifumi Akai's laboriously worked animation to have been put to the task of bringing alive acting that bore some relation to human beings. The people who write this stuff need to go out and meet some real women.

Supposedly this is by Yasuo Muroi. The running does remind of his running in Xam'd.