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: April 2010, 06

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

10:00:38 pm , 1469 words, 9095 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Halo Legends

We live in the age of the international anime omnibus. First there was Animatrix, then there was Batman: Gotham Knight, then there was Inferno, and now there is Halo Legends. The anime omnibus is becoming a genre unto itself. It seems like everybody wants a piece of anime. Or rather, big companies want a piece of a mystique that sells itself, so they don't have to do anything.

The appeal is clear. For relatively little effort, the anime omnibus allows you to plug directly into the broad, existing base of support for anime and the variety of styles available in the industry, and convey the image of a vast mythos. The anime omnibus is the perfect accessory to expand the demographic of your aspiring cross-media hit with an injection of youthful hipness.

Animatrix was the pioneering anime omnibus, and it was pretty successful in many ways, even artistically - at least more so than any of the omnibuses that followed. If Animatrix seemed to be inspired by the more creative side of the industry, with each film being done by a creative luminary, Halo Legends seems to be more of a profit-inspired vehicle aimed at capturing the eyes of young western consumers of anime.

Instead of hiring real talent (with a few exceptions), they made some questionable choices with the directors here, presumably because the video game material didn't require all that artistic stuff.

There are quite a few creators working in the anime industry who are talented enough to compete creatively on an international level, and you could easily have found seven to fill a new omnibus, but most of the directors chosen here are not particularly good.

At least with Animatrix you walked away feeling a strong guiding vision behind the project, and feeling that each film was at least well produced and powerfully imagined by a talented creator. This project feels more opportunistic, with the quality of most of the films very questionable, and little feeling of a strong overarching guiding vision. There was a feeling of rendering homage to the auteur geniuses of anime in Animatrix that is entirely lacking here.

The focus of this project seems to be to present content tailored towards what attracts the youngsters who watch anime today. Thus we have a film full of CGI action that feels like it could have come straight out of a video game; one that feels like a cheesy anime drama that could have come straight out of a TV series in terms of quality and tone; and one that's produced by the Dragonball team, deliberately in the style of Dragonball.

As a result, this set will appeal more to very young viewers and less to viewers like me who watch anime to see quality work by talented animators and directors. I liked two of the pieces, but all of the others were either unwatchable or had nothing to distinguish them from any other anime in terms of look or feel.

Those two standout pieces were Origins and Prototype. These two films, at least, are quality productions by some of the best talents in Japan, with great visuals and animation and a style that jibes with the original subject matter.

Origins, in two parts that add up to 22 minutes, is the grand opener that sets up the mythology of the series. It's the only film in the set that I can recommend watching without any reservations. The problem is that it raises your expectations so high about what's to follow, with its grandiose imagery and epic scale, that everything else that follows is a letdown of comic proportions.

Origins is directed by Hideki Futamura, the director of the abstruse but gorgeous Limit Cycle short in Genius Party. He is a masterful director. He brings his genius for assembling together a massive array of images and subject matter into an engrossing audiovisual flow that holds you entranced entirely on the strength its unflagging flow of inventive, powerful imagery.

Where Futamura differs from all of the other directors in this set is that he doesn't commit the sin of sitting on his laurels and letting the script do the talking for him. He comes up with a gorgeous new visual scheme that communicates some kind of information about the world of Halo by means of the animation or visuals in every single shot.

I'm not sure what inspired the look of this film, but the visuals remind me of the style of sci-fi novel and magazine illustrations of the 70s and 80s. I remember being mesmerized by the bewildering visions of the architecture and spatial vessels of the future in those illustrations, with their sleek, almost abstract looking shapes that set your imagination afire wondering how those shapes so divorced from reality and utility could possibly work.

The art of Futamura's film seems to harken back to that style, presenting an idealized, elegant vision of a future too beautiful to be possible. Everything here is very graphical rather than naturalistic. Instead of a building, what we see feels like a stylized representation of a building, a symmetrical mass of clean lines and subdued color gradients blending into one another.

It's not just the graphics that set this film apart. The narrative style is also striking. The film doesn't proceed with the usual narrative flow with dramatic ups and downs, camera framing following the principles of live-action cinema, protagonists being the subject and the world the backdrop. Instead, this film feels like a diorama presenting a vision of a possible future. It's like we take a step back, god-like, and observe space itself and what unfolds in that space. The action seems to unfold slowly and calmly, like some stylized theatrical performance.

The film is also full of a lot of interesting monster designs that are brought alive well by the animation. Jiro Kanai and Yasuhiro Aoki headline the animator list. The art director was Hiroshi Kato. Norimitsu Kobayashi was "line art director", whatever that is. Takashi Watabe provided design work. A compelling piece that's well worth a look.

Prototype, like most of the other films in the set, zooms down from the macro of Origins to tell a small-scale story about one batallion's mission. Framed by a weak, cliche and otherwise forgettable drama, what really sets the film apart is its battle sequence, one of the most vivid and intense animated battles in recent memory. All of the animator talent in this set is concentrated into an intense few minutes of mecha action and special effects. No CGI here, baby. Everything here is hand drawn, and it puts the lie to the western notion that mecha would be better handled by CGI. This here is the last stand from the last cowboys of hand-drawn mecha action, and it's an incredible bash of animator energy. These guys are all experts at drawing mecha, and their work here puts CGI to shame.

Unfortunately, the film as a whole is less convincing, and difficult to recommend unless you're the kind of person who would actively watch bad anime for good animation (like me). The film is emblematic of a problem I had with all of the films in this set, and in these anime omnibuses in general. The drama and storytelling are nothing but anime cliches. This is a Bones production, and it's co-directed by the director of Eureka Seven. This becomes apparent when you see the designs of the characters, and when you witness the same sort of embarrassing, clumsy, self-important drama that made that show difficult to endure. The storyboarding and directing were split between Tomoki Kyoda, who presumably handled the drama parts, and Yasushi Muraki, the action expert and erstwhile disciple of Ichiro Itano, who presumably handled the fight scenes.

Here's a list of the key animators in Prototype for reference:

Hidetsugu Ito Kaichiro Terada
Takashi Hashimoto Hirofumi Masuda
Soichiro Matsuda Hironori Tanaka
Shingo Fujii Ken Ohtsuka
Ryuji Shiromae Satoshi Mori
Kiyoshi Tateishi Yuuki Kawashima
Kenta Nozawa Kouichi Arai
Ko Yoshinari Satoshi Shigeta
Hiroyasu Oda Etsuko Kawano
Yoshiyuki Ito Takashi Tomioka
Kenji Mizuhata Yutaka Nakamura
Shiho Takeuchi Yasushi Muraki

Just some brief comments about the other films. Odd One Out was actually a decently fun little film done by the main Dragonball team, Daisuke Nishio and Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru, who have many years under their belt handling this particular approach towards fighting anime. It just felt out of place. Homecoming felt like any random episode from any random anime TV series in every aspect. I wasn't able to get past the first minute of The Duel, which consists of terrible CGI characters barely moving and some kind of cheap Photoshop paint effect processing blurring the whole image. What little I glimpsed of The Package just felt like a video game cut scene. So yeah, kind of disappointing.