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, 25

Sunday, April 25, 2010

07:56:04 pm , 2208 words, 7712 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #1

Before I begin with my impressions, head over to YouTube and view the first episode for yourself - here - if you haven't already. Funimation uploaded it officially with good subs, and based on the number of views, the show might get a video release. So try to spread the word. This is the first time a Masaaki Yuasa TV series has gotten this kind of official treatment in the west AFAIK, to say nothing of a free web release right off the bat like this. (One gripe: The title is hard to translate, but I don't see the logic behind the translation they've used for the title, Tatami Galaxy. Taikei does not mean galaxy.)

Masaaki Yuasa returns with his third TV series at Madhouse. As before, he's again taken a sharp left turn from everything he's done before. How he can do so many left turns without retreading the same ground is a mystery. First there was Kemonozume, with its realistic but edgy designs and loose and scratchy animation, bizarre atmosphere of lighthearted horror, collage art aesthetic and patchwork narrative. Then there was Kaiba, so polished and unified in comparison, an epic retro-styled sci-fi fantasy with simple, clean, cute designs hearkening back to the early days of animation. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei is set in modern-day Japan like Mind Game and Kemonozume, but it looks and feels different from everything else that came before.

Nobutake Ito is again the character designer, but the designs are based off of someone else's designs, in this case an illustrator named Yusuke Nakamura, and they're a strange mix of interesting shapes and conventional feeling anime characters. For the first time, the material isn't Yuasa's. He's adapting a novel. For the first time it feels like work by Yuasa the professional rather than Yuasa the auteur, although he's certainly put his stamp on the material.

Because of these things, I was a little puzzled and disappointed by the first episode. It's the first time I felt things were a little forced, that he was really having to struggle to make it work, that I wasn't completely 100% convinced and irresistibly drawn in by the leader into his TV series. There's a lot of extremely creative and skilled work in the episode, but it feels strange seeing something that doesn't feel Yuasa to the core. He made Mind Game his through his adaptation, but here you can sense how much of a challenge it was for him to adapt this material into animation. The material just isn't inherently interesting enough or suited to animation, and he has to do so much to make it worth adapting into animation. You've got to salute him for making a valiant effort.

I think this show is telling of the times the industry is in. You know it's bad when even Masaaki Yuasa can't get to produce his own material, but has to adapt material with tie-in value. Even the designs are from outside of the usual circle. According to an interview, the material came second. It's not like this project was being shopped around and Yuasa got the job. Yuasa was going to do a show, but they just didn't know what. There was a long period when they were trying to figure out what to do next as a project, and eventually they came across this book and decided on it, presumably because it was deemed bankable.

I haven't read the novel, but Yuasa has gone to considerable lengths to be faithful to it, which is testament to his professionalism. When I watched the first episode, I felt the nonstop stream of ultrafast narration to be extremely distracting and detrimental to the episode. I thought it would have worked better without any of it. It wasn't necessary. But in retrospect, I suspect that's kind of the point. You're not really meant to catch it all. Yuasa says he did this to capture the way the novel is full of the constant stream of thoughts passing through the protagonist's head. I don't think he achieved his goal, unfortunately. It would be fine to do that, but I felt that you'd have to make it sound like he was really talking to himself, with a bit of variance of the intonation and speed or a little hesitation sometimes, something to indicate that this is a human and not a robot spouting a diarrhetic stream of incomprehensible verbiage. I think people are getting confused and think they're supposed to try to catch it all for the story to make sense, when that is obviously not what he intended. The problem is compounded when the audience doesn't understand Japanese and has to rely on subtitles, which impart more value to each line than it really has. When you're just listening to it, it feels a little more clear that you're not really supposed to catch everything, you're just supposed to bathe in this guy's constant array of crazy thoughts. So, basically, it was a challenge to figure out how to do justice to that aspect of the material, and this was an interesting attempt at doing so, though I'm not sure it works completely.

The material itself so far really isn't inherently interesting or different from anything we've seen before, although it lays a tantalizing groundwork and makes you curious to see where it will go. What does stand out and make the episode a pleasure to watch despite all my gripes is the usual brilliance of Yuasa's directing and expert manipulation of the animation and visuals generally. The animation is very lively and there are lots of different approaches on display in different scenes, the colors are dazzling and varied, the art is an excellent stylized rendering of real locations in Kyoto, where the story is set, and the characters are animated in a variety of ways, with a lot of the usual surprising approaches to character animation that Yuasa and chief animation director Nobutake Ito can always be relied upon to devise. He really puts the animation to work throughout in a lot of different ways, interpreting many of the things spoken about a character's past or something that happened with little flights of illustrative animation that spice up the visuals and enrich the narrative flow.

That aspect reminds me of Mind Game - there is a lot of visual information thrown at you, but it isn't gratuitous or there just for stylistic grandstanding, or just to fill in for lack of ideas and to fill up the episode. It doesn't feel in your face or ironic or blase or in-jokey. It's there to do what animation is supposed to do - narrate visually. The various flights of animated fancy are there to visually expound on what's happening in a boundless variety of entertaining ways.

The animation was done by a small team of five key animators - Takayuki Hamada, Shingo Suzuki, Kenichi Yamaguchi, Yasunori Miyazawa, and Natsuko Shimizu. Yasunori Miyazawa needs no introduction, and his scenes are easily identifiable. Takayuki Hamada and Kenichi Yamaguchi were regulars in Kaiba. Natsuko Shimizu I didn't recognize, but I see now that she was also in almost every episode of Kaiba, according to my post on ep 7. I've been a fan of Shingo Natsume ever since seeing his work in Welcome to the NHK, so it's good to finally see him appear in a Yuasa show. There were a lot of great shots - pretty much the whole thing is a delight in terms of the animation - but the fireworks scene stood out in particular.

As usual, Yuasa combines live-action footage, but it's less predominant here. It's quite expertly inserted and doesn't even feel heterogeneous anymore. For example the transition from the first-person POV of the protagonist walking up the stairs in processed live-action to the same in animation of him knocking on the door felt quite seamless and pleasant. It does help to give the feeling that you're in the modern-day city of Kyoto, especially considering Yuasa stayed there for a month for location hunting. The city of Kyoto is one of the protagonists of this show, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it features in the coming episodes. I also liked the first-person POV at the end where the protagonist is walking determinedly across the bridge. One nice thing about this episode is that you feel a sense of dramatic development. It isn't all just static meta playfulness there to sell characters. There is a clear story that is unfolding, and you get into the head of the protagonist. Yuasa is by now a master at doing human drama that is always developing and is engaging to follow, so it's more than just a visual explosion.

The character animation is far less detailed than in Kaiba, the emphasis being more on variety of interesting shots and the visual impact of the art. Here everything seems baroquely detailed and erratic compared with the simple, clean colors and shapes of Kaiba. But there were still a lot of interesting little things done in every shot with the characters, for example the way the girl's body bulges with that little squishy sound effect when she swallows the meat. And the layouts, that element that is the groundwork for all animation, are typically superb and varied, with the sort of realistic but distorted perspective that Yuasa is so good at. The shot at the top is exemplary of the unique layouts in this and all of Yuasa's work. Every inch of that screen is interesting.

I actually didn't understand the story that well on the first viewing. I didn't get that they were trying to break up all those budding loves to exact their own brand of petty revenge on the world for their girlfriendless existence. The dialogue explaining it all passes by so quickly. But the sequence after the fireworks scene showing the various ways the two mischief-makers go about nipping the proverbial red thread in the bud is exhilarating. The variety of visual schemes they come up with to illustrate this section is exemplary of what a tremendous job they've done of using the animation to communicate the material. The narration is garrulous, but it's not like they're just letting the narration do everything for them. I don't think even Mind Game was this densely packed with a variety of unpredictable animated ideas from one second to the next. The animation certainly accurately reflects the material in that sense. It's a daring and dangerous experiment - deliberately overload the senses of your audience.

This accounts for the problem people are complaining about. I thought people were exaggerating when they said they had difficulty choosing whether to read the subs or look at the show because it moved so fast, but it's true. It kind of works if you understand Japanese and can focus on the images and let the dialogue wash over you and get a vague sense of what's being said, but relying on subs sabotages the effect.

One of the things in this show is the weird mix of archaic and modern. The narrator speaks like a literati from the Taisho period, but it's set in modern-day Kyoto, the old capital of Heian era Japan, and the designs harken back to Taisho or early Showa. I personally don't find the script funny or the characters interesting, although how they are brought alive by the animation and directing certainly is. It's the first time I've felt Yuasa was having to create characters with a tinge of the stereotypical. The characters in Kaiba and Kemonozume were each so individualistic and real and believable. The script here has the kind of unremittingly asinine meta humor that turns me off to light novel based material, noting moreso than the pretentious oldspeak.

Though I'm of mixed feelings about the first episode, it did a bang-up job of one thing, and that's getting me curious to see where the heck it's going - I have no idea after the first episode. I'm even more curious after seeing the sort of typically loopy and creative image sketches Yuasa did for the show. How those square with this material I'm very curious to see. Man, how much happier I would be if the whole show looked and felt like those drawings. (though that's not to denigrate the awesome work done by the background artists and Nobutake Ito and his animators)

On the voice-actor side, it's nice to see the voice actor of Kemonozume's Kazuma, Hiroyuki Yoshino, back playing Ozu. He's one of the few seiyuu whose work I actively enjoy. Oh, and the way they styled the first character in the title is really clever. The title means a traditional room made of "four and a half tatami mats", so they geometrically fashioned the Chinese character for "four", 四, to look like such a room. I also enjoyed the sensation of traveling through an endless sequence of tatami rooms in the opening, which Yuasa himself directed.

For good or ill, one thing is for sure, watching this episode is an overwhelming and intense experience. It's an odd beast. I fear it to be excessively eccentric to pull in channel surfers, but insufficiently stereotypical for the anime flock.