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: June 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

01:24:48 am , 1015 words, 3541 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #9

This episode blew me away. It was possibly the most impressive episode in the series so far. Stunning on every level. I can't think of enough superlatives to describe this episode. Weird how it's episode 9 that has gotten me really excited, rather than the first episode. I got a glimpse of genius in this episode, and it rekindled that old flame I haven't felt in a long time for the medium of animation. Yes, folks. This is what's possible in anime. The pure brilliance of this episode wipes away any feelings of ambivalence I might have had about the concept up until this point.

This episode brings everything to a head and puts things in perspective, without really revealing anything, which is kind of interesting. It feels like we're reaching a sort of saturation point where the jumble of alternate narratives is reaching critical mass. It crystallizes what I was feeling from all the previous episodes. It's like each new episode has reinterpreted the whole basic situation of the protagonist's association with all of these characters during his first few years at university through the lens of what happened in the previous episodes. Hence things get progressively more jumbled and crazy as time goes on. The amazing feat of this episode is that it manages to convey a tangle of ideas, mixing and remixing what came before, picking a bit from from one situation and then throwing in a bit from another, in a way that for some reason doesn't feel jumbled, even though he's deliberately creating narrative contradictions. You get exactly the point it's trying to make, but it's so complex it's difficult to pin down to one statement.

For the first time in this series, the heart feels an emotional tug. The climax is a beautiful, emotional ride combining tour-de-force directing with superb animation of the kind that reminds of Yokoyama's work in Kaiba. A lot of hints about what might be happening are dropped here and there, but nothing concrete. Something human begins to emerge behind the impenetrable facade of intellectual play that dominated the proceedings up until now, with nary an emotion peeking through. I'm reminded of the montage at the end of Mind Game, with its beautiful display of all the possible futures of each character, representing a sort of acceptance of all the world has to offer, good or ill, and the privilege we each have of being able to create our own narrative in this world.

Such is the genius of Akitoshi Yokoyama. Once again, he's outdone himself. I don't mean to pat myself on the back, but I managed to guess while watching that he was the director and that it was probably Ryotaro Makihara helming the animation. Such is the force of their respective visions that there is no mistaking them for anyone else. With Makihara it isn't even a particular way of drawing things. There are some stylistic hallmarks, but it's more simply the fact that the animation suddenly moves a lot more, and more convincingly. The characters act out actions, rather than simply sitting there. With Yokoyama, it's the absolute hairpin precision with which every shot and every sound is manipulated to create an inexorable forward momentum. It's the torrent of interesting visual ideas. It's the stellar use of animation to create excitement and bolster the emotional impact of the story, notably in the climax, with all its beautiful flowing abstract animation. This is really the pinnacle of animated filmmaking - every shot perfectly honed, a theme develops towards the climax under the surface of the various goings on, and every drawing and movement delectable and exciting.

Thematically there's so much happening in the episode. In essence, you could say it's a would-be love story - if the protagonist would only do the right thing for once. It's like the cumulative detritus of needless imaginings of possible outcomes has gradually shunted aside the one thing that was obvious from the outset - the little Mochigumon doll - and its significance has grown gradually dimmer to the protagonist until in this episode it's no longer him who even found the doll. That leads to the emotional breakthrough.

It's a shame that people who did not have the patience to put up with the first eight episodes leading to this will be able to appreciate what Yokoyama achieved with this episode, because he does finally bring some emotional catharsis to what felt in many ways like an intellectual exercise up until now. In a way, with this episode I start to feel like it was all worth it. Never have I seen such a complexly recursive and densely packed so-called narrative in anime.

That emotional resonance is one of the hallmarks of Masaaki Yuasa's work. It's not just about the wildly imaginative technical wizardry of a master animator. It's the way he combines that with stories that aren't mere fictions and character tropes removed from any reality we can relate to, but that involve basic truths and emotions and behavior that apply to everybody in the world - even those who don't watch anime. It's about groping your way through life and figuring out how to face both the beauty and the ugliness in life. That's what I liked about Mind Game, and there's a lot of that deep, simple mulling over the stuff of our lives in his other work. Finally, I'm starting to get that feeling from Tatami Galaxy.

On the animator side of things, lots of regulars this time around, with the additional presence of one new face, Kanako Maru, whom I remember did a very nice solo episode of Casshern Sins, which I wrote about briefly before, though I haven't really followed her since then. Nice to see her turn up here.

Storyboard / Director: Akitoshi Yokoyama
Animation director: Ryotaro Makihara
Assistant animation directors: Tsutsumi Mai, Shouko Nishigaki

Animators:
Ryotaro Makihara, Tsutsumi Mai
Natsuko Shimizu, Satomi Higuchi
Shouko Nishigaki, Hiroshi Shimizu
Kanako Maru, Kenichi Shima
Tetsuo Moronuki, Takeo Oda
Kana Harufuji, Akitoshi Yokoyama

Seconds:
Takayuki Hamada, Sawako Miyamoto
Sayaka Toda, Kenichi Fujisawa
Wombat

Monday, June 28, 2010

09:49:24 pm , 822 words, 1730 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #8

This episode felt like one of the less mind-bending and more straightforward of the bunch so far. It almost felt too pat how cleanly it explained what had happened in the previous two episodes (not to spoil it). It's easy to say now, but I actually kind of suspected this might not be the case about Keiko.

I see now that this and the previous two episodes form a unit; one for each girl, and one for each of the three clubs that the protagonist decided to join to maximize his efficiency. So the only loose ends that were tied here were those for this trilogy. The reason for the repetition has yet to be explained, something I expect will happen eventually. One thing I admire about what they've done, despite finding the repetitive structure somewhat tedious, is that it feels cumulative. It doesn't feel like they're starting from scratch each time. You sense that aspects of previous episodes have a subtle impact on the new situation, so that it's neither purely repetitive nor purely linear. It's like a dream being re-dreamt. The basics are the same, but the details vary, and echoes of the previous version peep through here and again. It feels like they've carefully woven a painstakingly complex web of meaning.

In regards to the directing, this episode felt functional at best. Many of the episodes have their own special character due to the director in question, but this one felt kind of generic. It didn't feel particularly unique. It felt like it simply did what was necessary to push the plot forward and bring the plot threads from the previous two episodes to a clear conclusion, without any unique approach being presented in terms of the directing or mood. Perhaps it's because storyboarding, directing and animation directing weren't all done by one person like some of those previous episodes.

On the animation side, the staff was very similar to that in episode 1. The drawings were supervised by the chief animation director this time. I liked a number of the drawings here, like the drawing of the hand when the protagonist is holding the book. There were some interesting shapes and angles in there. Otherwise, the quality was good, but nothing stood out as mind-blowing.

I don't want to knock the quality, because it is just as good as ever. The layouts in particular are as fun and inventive as ever. That's an arena in which this series excels, like all Masaaki Yuasa productions. He and, presumably influenced by him, his staff are great at coming up with interesting ways of framing the shots. Even before Mind Game, Yuasa's productions stood out for all the comically angled and extremely wide shots he used so effectively. You can see a number of these angular wide shots in this episode, as in the previous episodes. I like the way the shot in the hallway of the university is framed, and that wide shot of the interior of the 'ideal' protagonist's home, with all the odd angles in there.

Layout is a pretty important fundamental element that doesn't get as much attention from fans as, say, the animation or the directing, because it's a little harder to assess. I have a hard time distinguishing between what's a quality layout and what's just there from the framing in the storyboard. I wonder to what extent Nobutake Ito was involved in the layouts. There is no separate credit, although I know that sometimes an animation director of his caliber will do most of the layouts, or at least correct them. (since usually layouts are drawn by the gengaman based on the konte) The layout policy varies from production to production, or at least it does on productions where the directors care enough about the animation like this one.

Finally, the color work in this show is remarkable. The opening credits pass by so damn fast I never really noticed, but checking it now I see that Kunio Tsujita is credited as color supervisor. He's done excellent work here. His color design does a great job of giving each shot its own unique texture, and differentiating the mood from scene to scene, from very subtle gradations in the real world to more wildly divergent coloring in the fantasy sequences. I often find myself admiring the coloring of a shot, which is something that rarely happens to me. Usually the layout or animation or art will stand out. Casshern Sins is another show that I remember had great coloring. Right after writing the previous sentence I looked it up real quick to see who the color designer of Casshern Sins was, and HOLY S*** it's Kunio Tsujita. Look for this guy's name. It's the mark of quality.

Storyboard: Hiroshi Shimizu
Director: Junichi Fujise
Animation director: Nobutake Ito

Animators:
Takayuki Hamada, Shouko Nishigaki
Natsuko Shimizu, Sawako Miyamoto
Kenichi Fujisawa, Nobuhiro Takefuji
Fuminori Tsukita, Yoshihiro Maeda

Seconds: Wombat

Sunday, June 27, 2010

10:23:34 pm , 851 words, 2046 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #7

I thought maybe this series would start making sense by episode 7 or so, but no. Not even close. Things have only gotten stranger, not clearer.

Suddenly we seem to have some continuity, albeit reversed. This episode lays the groundwork for what happened with the mouth fetishist Hanuki in episode 6, then proceeds forward with the as yet unnamed protagonist's attempt to elope with the mannequin Kaori. Clearly next we will be having an episode about mystery girl Keiko. Then comes Akashi?

This episode was the most insane so far, despite being the most straightforwardly dramatic. It's a simple love drama, but a completely surreal and artificial one that you know the whole time is fake. I felt I had to watch at an emotional remove and just enjoy it on an intellectual level, expecting that at a later point it would make sense. The situation isn't played up as a joke; it's played completely straight-faced, which makes it pretty fun to watch. It makes for a peculiar disconnect - the drama is so earnest and passionate, yet you are always aware the you're being toyed with. I understand that this is all a game being played in the protagonist's mind, but his apparent inability to make any decision whatsoever without agonizing melodramatically over it is frankly annoying and maddening rather than funny.

Identity seems pliable and impermanent in Tatami Galaxy. Aspects of the protagonist's identity such as his libido literally come alive and act of their own volition. There was an unexplained bit where a doppelganger appears briefly at the end of a previous episode. Hopefully that will make sense later. There are clearly lots of things throughout the show that are not meant to make sense immediately, but hopefully will fall into place by the end. So there is not really much point in speculating about what this or that means. You just have to kind of let it wash over you and say, "Okay then." You just have to observe all the layers of meaning at play in each episode, like the protagonist wearing a white Mochigumon suit and saving Akashi from the punks, mirroring Akashi's doll we've seen hanging in the protagonist's 4 1/2 tatami room in every episode so far.

I never cease to be amazed how many little details are packed in at every moment. Rewatching it now, I consciously notice for the first time, for example, the protagonist's inner libido voice saying "What's it matter?" when the protagonist wonders about his 'ideal woman' Higuchi Keiko - the libido isn't concerned with perfection; it wants release in a real woman like Hanuki. Also just noticed that he mentions that his ideal girl Keiko says she wants to meet him, but he's hesitant to meet her because he's played himself up into his ideal vision of himself in his letters.

In terms of directing, this episode was different from everything that came before, closer in spirit to Ryotaro Makihara's episode 3. It didn't have the fast-paced manic cutting and flood of colorful visual embellishment of the other episodes; it was played out using more conventional dramatic staging and pacing, letting the characters act out the drama rather than interpreting it through montages.

I could tell pretty quickly that this was the Michio Mihara episode in the series. I suspected there was probably going to be one. It would be odd if there hadn't been. It seems to be a tradition in Yuasa TV shows to have an episode by Michio Mihara. It's not actually that identifiable. For the first few minutes I didn't realize. (I think this part was done by Yasunori Miyazawa) Then I could start to tell from the way the characters acted, and particularly from the mouth and the expression. Mihara is unmistakable from the mouth. He has his own unique exaggerated forms for the various mouth shapes. You see them in everything he does. But this felt low key for Mihara. It wasn't moving like crazy like his Kaiba episode or drawn as crazy as his Kemonozume episode. The more expressive and pliable face of the protagonist is about the only place that felt a little idiosyncratic and showed his personality. He didn't animate everything this time around, not sure why. Maybe he was deliberately holding back as an animator, and letting the storyboarding do the talking. Who can blame him for not wanting to do all that work. Mihara has a unique style of subtle humor that I like. For example the moment where we see him looking in puzzlement at his gloves is subtly funny and very understated - I only figured out the comedy of the moment while rewatching.

I just figured out why the ending seemed familiar. I'd seen one of Takuya Hosogane's music videos before and posted it on my animated music video blog. In fact, I chose it as one of my favorite picks - his video for Cubesato. Fantastic video & song, and great choice for a person to do the ending.

Storyboard / Director / Animation director: Michio Mihara
Supervising animation director: Nobutake Ito

Animators:
Hiromi Hata
Yasunori Miyazawa
Michio Mihara

Saturday, June 26, 2010

12:43:34 pm , 1020 words, 4848 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #6

This was the most youthful and energetic feeling episode. That's saying a lot. Each episode so far has been full of hustle and energy. But this one felt particularly lively and full of enthusiasm for some reason. I suspect the reason is because it's storyboarded and directed by Shingo Natsume, an animator about whom I've been quite enthusiastic since discovering him due to his work on Welcome to the NHK (another connection!). He apparently directed his first episode quite recently, on that same mermaid show where Ryotaro Makihara directed episode 11. He directed the extra, DVD-only episode 13. Apparently it involved a number of the small community of younger firebrand animators who all seem to work on each other's projects these days. A lot of them seem to have connected on Guren Lagan. Shingo Natsume worked on Guren, and a huge number of these young talented animators seem to have helped out on this episode as a favor to him. It seems to happen often that when a young talented animator does his first sakkan or enshutsu, it turns into a sakuga bash with all sorts of animator stars coming out of the woodwork to help out, like happened with Tatsuzo Nishita's episode of Gaiking

That's what this episode was - a bash of young animators, many ex-gif animators, like all those episodes on various shows directed by Hiroshi Ikehata. Coming after the very small teams of the previous episodes, this one was a huge team. The animator list filled the entire screen. And there were tons of the names we've become familiar with over the last few years in various places. I'm sure there are plenty that have done good work in places that I'm not aware of, but I recognize quite a few of them. Kikuko Sadakata is of course the well-known Gainax animator; Shingo Yamashita the ex-gif animator who's done so much great work, notably on Birdy; Yoshimichi Kameda is probably the star animator of the current FMA show; Tomoyuki Niho is the old guard of the new generation, one of the first ex-gif animators to go pro, back on those Satelight productions of a few years back like Aquarion and more recently Birdy; Tamotsu Ogawa first came to people's attention with a crazy sequence in that infamous episode 7 of Bokurano, and has since done a lot of other crazy sequences with lots of weird deformation including a nice one in the 2008 Doraemon movie (a disregard for beautiful drawings seems to be a trend among these animators); Shingo Fujii did good work on the Ikehata episode of Soul Eater; Fumiaki Kouta has done lots of great work in various places in the last few years including Prototype recently (Fujii was there too); Toshiyuki Sato is another Ikehata regular; and Akira Amemiya needs to introduction - another one of the new generation of 'mover' animators Shingo Natsume presumably met at Gainax while working on Guren.

So this would be the second episode Shingo Natsume has directed, and boy, he really put his all into it. This was an incredibly tightly directed episode, packed with so many ideas and so many different textures. It was a hilarious romp through the college student's first sexual experience - or would-be sexual experience. Personally I don't understand why he didn't do it. I found that kind of annoying in a typical anime way. That's my main gripe about this episode. Otherwise, the amazing tension that Natsume builds up in the climax is... wow. The way it was all put together cutting frantically between the cool collage cowboy Johnny, the boiling kettle about to blow its load, the various denizens of the protagonist's sexually aroused brain all communing about the emergency situation like the Cerebellum and the Noiseman-looking Parietal Lobe, and the surreal sexual advances of the dentally obsessed girl (Hanuki is a homonym for 'dental extraction')... just wow. That was some inspired and very fun directing. The tongue was just awesome. And my favorite shot? The fingers going into the (...) which at first looks like fingers going into a (...). Brilliant!

Otherwise I didn't like the whole setup with the protagonist acting like a typical anime character caught between three girls he can't choose between. Was this intentional? I think it might have been. Though I can see that each girl is probably symbolic, standing for a different kind of attraction, bla bla bla. My other gripe: The episode felt too Gainaxy. I don't know how to explain it. Too manic in a self-consciously comic way. But I don't want to press the point. It's an amazing near-debut for Shingo Natsume, and a great followup to Ryotaro Makihara's episode. I've got this fetish or obsession with seeing my favorite animators become great directors, and I just got a double serving. I love the feeling of frank sexuality that he achieves in the episode, and all the humorous metaphors and symbols he uses. So many great images, like Hanuki lasciviously embracing that phallic tower.

As usual, one of the sub-characters took the lead role again, and it was interesting seeing how the various sub-characters' roles were shuffled around, particularly how Higuchi only got mentioned peripherally by the girl making that gesture with her chin when she says she's got a date with a certain guy. The other girl who he was supposed to meet that night seems to serve a similar role as the daughter in the previous episode, the unobtainable beauty, and the doll character belonged to the protagonist this time around... quite fascinating. There's an amazingly complex web of significance being woven here and throughout the show.

Storyboard & director: Shingo Natsume
Animation directors: Shouko Nishigaki & Naoyuki Asano
Supervising animation director: Nobutake Ito

Animators:
(deep breath)
Takao Yamagishi, Mai Tsutsumi, Kikuko Sadakata
Yosuke Okuda, Katsunori Shibata, Yuuki Komatsu
Tetsuo Moronuki, Shingo Yamashita, Keita Nagasaka
Takeo Oda, Yoshimichi Kameda, Tomoyuki Niho
Tamotsu Ogawa, Maya Segawa, Shingo Fujii
Tatsuki Kanezaki, Erukin Kawabata, Satoshi Nakura
Fumiaki Kouta, Shin Wakabayashi, Toshiyuki Sato
Shintaro Douge, Shouko Nishigaki, Shingo Natsume

Seconds:
Takayuki Hamada, Ryotaro Makihara, Natsuko Shimizu
Sawako Miyamoto, Satomi Higuchi, Nobuhiro Takefuji
Takeo Oda, Kenichi Fujisawa, Akira Amemiya

1 commentPermalink

Thursday, June 24, 2010

11:37:00 pm , 988 words, 3168 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #5

That's me running a Tatami Galaxy marathon. Going to see how quickly I can get through the remaining episodes.

The story of this episode had the most immediate hook for me, personally. I thought its depiction of this cult hiding behind the facade of selling health food was surprisingly believable and well done. It isn't far from reality either here or in Japan - just take a bit of the pyramid scheming madness of Amway, a pinch of the reincarnated thetans of Scientology, and the doomsday auguries of Aum Shinrikyo, and put them together, and voila - Honwaka. Not too far-fetched at all.

It's in moments like this episode that cast satirical light on actual social issues and situations in real life that get my juices running. I was really into the story this time around. Basically, the story this time felt like something anybody could watch and find interesting. The humor was genuinely funny, and the directing did a great job of pulling you in. I think it plays on the feeling of distrust we all have in those people we meet occasionally who are just a little too friendly, and you begin to feel something is a little suspicious about their motivations... The buildup was perfect, leading to the big reveal of the secluded cult headquarters, complete with blindfolds, brainwashing/affirmation sessions a la Lifespring, and an avuncular, charismatic cult leader with a Noah's Ark who plays up fears about the latest ecological and sociopolitical problems and makes even eschatological pronouncements sound so nice and comforting.

Great quality as usual. Very different staff, though. Storyboard was by the director of Texhnolyze and Shigurui, who is obviously involved because this is a Madhouse production and he was on hand, and because, well, he's quite talented. I didn't like either of the latter two shows, but he's done a splendid job adapting to this material.

As has Masashi Ishihama as animation director. I would not peg Ishihama as having the sort of stylistic penchant that would make him a candidate for a Yuasa production, but he has considerable flexibility and is able to adapt to just about anything, from Denno Coil to Welcome to the NHK, and he's been involved in just about every major project in the last ten years. (Speaking of Welcome to the NHK, the comparison with the pyramid scheme in that show is inevitable, and it's interesting that Ishihama was involved in the drawing side of both.)

There were a lot of great moments in this episode, like the cat lounging in the bowl when the narrator is talking about the rumours the ramen-ya uses cats to make his dashi was clever and subtle. And I loved those ridiculous bee antenna caps.

The colors seemed particularly well handled, with the sudden b/w gradient when the protagonist says a faux pas, the all white in the royal jelly factory, the dark blue that night, etc. I liked the visuals in the sequence on the bridge in particular. The colors of the backgrounds and passers-by are a delicately blend of muted yellows setting off the cult members and the protagonist in his bee costume. And there's the colors of the cult members at the end when they're letting out the venom against one another. That scene has great impact combined with the insane animation by Yasunori Miyazawa.

The drawings of the characters in that bridge scene felt really delicately honed and showed off Ishihama's drawings well. It's interesting that he manages to instill each of the cult members with a distinct face despite the fact that each one has the same ^_^ expression stamped on their face throughout. Ishihama is very skilled at that kind of thing. He has a subtle and delicate touch without going overboard in the detail, and he can be really loose with the forms when necessary. There's a lot of personality showing through in the drawings, too, presumably because he lets good drawings by the animators through. There were a lot of great drawings throughout that are fun to go back and step through more carefully after watching the episode, like the sketchy sequence at the end after that very strange and surprising moment that I won't mention here, and the montage of jobs the protagonist has to take to pay for his expensive pyramid scheme lifestyle.

As usual, it's fascinating to see how the characters of this episode either reference or recall select aspects of what has happened in the previous episodes, and the way certain recurring motifs like the fortuneteller and the Mochigumon are repeated almost but not quite verbatim, with subtle changes in phrasing or pacing. You feel this incredible tangle of references and lives and past and present building in your memory, and being twisted around and re-remembered and rewritten.

Good animators included Nobutoshi Ogura, Takashi Mukouda and Ryotaro Makihara. Ogura probably did the very opening section. There were a lot of nice little bits of movement, and great drawings moving in a subtle way in every shot, but no big showoff scenes. It's interesting to see Tokuyuki Matsutake there. He is ubiquitous and was bound to be involved. He is one of the most prolific animators in Japan, I'm sure. His works list is massive. Coincidentally, I just saw him in the most recent episode of Naruto Shippuuden, 166. There were a few good action bits in there and I don't know any of the other animators so I figure it might be him. Heads up: 167 will be the first Wakabayashi episode since Naruto l33t.

Was it my imagination or is the ramen stand owner wearing Mickey Mouse pants?

Storyboard: Hiroshi Hamasaki
Director: Tomoya Takahashi
Animation director: Masashi Ishihama
Supervising animation director: Nobutake Ito

Animators:
Nobutoshi Ogura, Ryotaro Makihara
Tokuyuki Matsutake, Kenichi Yamaguchi
Toshiharu Sugie, Mieko Hosoi
Takashi Muratani, Kenichi Shima
Mie Kana, Ippei Ichii
Shouta Ibata, Natsuko Shimizu
Naoko Masui

Chiaki Nakajima, Masashi Kariya
Takashi Mukouda, Yasunori Miyazawa
Masashi Ishihama

Thursday, June 24, 2010

11:37:08 am , 777 words, 1782 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #4

I'm writing this from the middle of a park where I'd come out to hike six years ago when I first started writing this blog. Ah, nostalgia. I was writing about Mind Game back then, now it's Yuasa's third TV series. Six years changes people a lot. I wonder how many of my readers back at the beginning are still reading, or even watching anime...

With episode 4 it's back to the style of episode 2 - a tight, hermetically crafted overload of the senses. It's Akitoshi Yokoyama at the helm again, which was immediately apparent. He's all sharp turns and rapid-fire creative embellishment. He's one of those directors who's been directing for a good while now, so he has a good grasp of the mechanics of the job, and doing it the easy way would be too boring, so he tries to come up with more challenging and exciting tricks with the directing every time, creating these masterfully edited torrents of crazy images interpreting the story rather than just telling them in a straightforward way using lengthy shots of staged character acting.

I think it's quite brilliant, judged purely from a directing point of view. But on the other hand, it was really bewildering and kind of hard to follow. It feels like a visual analogue of the superfast narration. He creates a barrage of wild images that mirror the fevered rantings of the protagonist, rather than just showing what's going on in the boring old real world. But yeah, really hard to follow. Every shot is highly calculated and precisely timed to create just the right flow. It's a virtuoso display to be sure. It forces you to give up trying to make sense of it all - you've got to relinquish control and be carried along with the flow, sensing what you can. Our brains will piece it together as best they can. It's remarkable how creative he is at coming up with so many and so varied an array of images interpreting the narrative. The vertical line of ancestors above the characters symbolizing the ancestors at the end of the episode in particular was an incredible idea and well executed.

Each episode so far seems to have focused on one of the sub-characters, presenting an alternate potential path through university for the protagonist in which that character plays the lead role in dragging the protagonist down the primrose path. This time the protagonist joins not a tennis club (Ozu) or film club (Jogasaki) or a biking club (Akashi) but a cult club. Mysterious big-chin man Higuchi is the cult leader, and "I"'s duties are to protect and worship the master. The gallery of other sub-characters play supporting roles, dropping hints of their previous roles and behaving in the new situation in a manner consistent with their personalities. Memories of the past episodes seem to float up like fragments of a dream remembered or deja vu.

I was a little confused watching this episode, but I was completely impressed. I'm still not too convinced about the series' gimmick, but I find that I'm enjoying the show more now that I'm getting used to the characters and the narrative style. Now the show feels like a (temporally) cubist vision of the many possible iterations of oneself that might have intersected with all the other possible iterations of one's acquaintances in university. It explores personality not linearly but by running the same characters though different situations and seeing how they react. Though it's not so simple, since in a Pirandellian or otherwise pomo twist the characters seem aware of their situation to an extent.

Character designer and chief animation director Nobutake Ito is in charge of the drawings here. He actually played a supervisory role in episodes 2 and 3, so he has been there making sure the drawings were right the whole time. He's joined by Takayuki Hamada and Hironori Tanaka, who lead the animators. Shimizu Natsuko and Shoko Nishigaki from ep 1 are back. The other animators I've never heard of, but it's still a very strong team, and the results are not an iota diminished from what came before. I think I recognized Tanaka's hand in some of the smoke FX near the end. Kemonozume and even Kaiba had stylistic variation, and the directing tone changed a lot, but so far this series has been pretty smooth in terms of the tone of the directing and the storytelling style.

Storyboard & director: Akitoshi Yokoyama

Animation director: Nobutake Ito

Co-animation directors: Takayuki Hamada, Hironori Tanaka

Animators:
Takayuki Hamada, Hironori Tanaka
Natsuko Shimizu, Shoko Nishigaki
Satomi Higuchi, Mai Tsutsumi
Kenichi Fujisawa, Fuminori Tsukita
Ippei Ichii, Kana Harufuji
Masahiro Iwasaki

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

12:43:40 am , 764 words, 2066 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #3

This was a sweet episode. Sweet in both senses - kick-ass and tender. The sharp directing of Akitoshi Yokoyama's episode 2 was replaced with something a little smoother and less frenetic, but as always, the episode was packed to the brim with constantly shifting scenes and perspectives and richly realized animation.

This time we rewound to a world in which the protagonist joined a biking club on his peril-fraught journey through the first year at university. The mere idea of doing an episode about biking in a TV show is preposterous. Even if it were done in another show by another studio, it's easy to envision all the gliding stills we'd be privy to. I was astounded how much this episode moved. Every bike scene was moving constantly, and the motion was true to the actual movement of a biker on a bike, on all sorts of different slopes, from all sorts of crazy angles and camera positions. That is quite amazing. Nobody else would have refused to compromise to this extent. I imagine they approached this episode as a kind of self-challenge to see how much actual biking animation they could pack in. Who the hell could have been responsible for so much work, I wondered?

Ryotaro Makihara, that's who - the amazing ex-Shinei animator who did so much great work on Kaiba (to say nothing of elsewhere). So there we have it. In the first three episodes, my two favorite new faces from Kaiba both responsible for an episode each - Akitoshi Yokoyama and now Ryotaro Makihara. I could not think of a better example proving the importance of careful staff selection. Though it was a no-brainer, I'm delighted to see that Yuasa indeed saw how massively talented they were, and made sure to get them involved in his new show big time.

To be specific, Makihara storyboarded, directed, was animation director (with Naoyuki Asano) and tops the list of animators. Obviously a labor of love. Or rather, here is a guy oozing talent who hasn't really had an opportunity to put that talent to good use, who when finally given that chance, puts his all into work about which he can justly feel conviction. That's what it felt like to me. There is real love in the work here. Ryotaro Makihara and Akitoshi Yokoyama are special because, in addition to doing technically exceptional work, you can feel the love in both of their work.

Aside from the obviously very high quality of the animation, it was very well directed. Makihara actually directed his first episode last year for a silly Sato Junichi mermaid shoujo anime, which I was kind of disappointed to see, because despite his and many talented animators' presence, the episode was insufferable to anyone above the age of 13 thanks to the material.

With this episode, Makihara finally has the chance to try his hand at directing material that is intelligent and interesting, and I think he did an impressive job. The episode has a more cinematic feeling than the previous episodes, you might say, with characters actually acting out scenes rather than just going through a series of montages, true to his origins at Shin-Ei.

The animation wasn't the star-studded affair of last episode, but it's clear that Makihara was there supporting the animation throughout. The climax in particular with the glider was moving quite vividly, so I assume he must have been the animator responsible. I'm sure his hand is a little bit everywhere in this episode.

So the question at this point boils down to: Are you digging the repetitive structure? Are you able to enjoy it, or if not, see past it to enjoy the technical mastery on display? I'm finally starting to enjoy the series' unique structure, though I think it's also one of its main liabilities. I don't want to shortchange the sophistication of what is being done through this somewhat obvious pattern; embedded in each seemingly unchanging reiteration of the situation are subtle developments in the characters' personalities. They do a pretty impressive job of filling out all the little details in which each iteration differs. The characters aren't just ciphers; they feel pretty well fleshed out in a lot of ways. It's just that most people want to see a linear narrative being told, with characters developing with each episode, and this series is far too sophisticated for anything so pat and easy.

Main staff for this episode:

Storyboard / Director / Animation Director (w/Naoyuki Asano): Ryotaro Makihara
Animators:
Ryotaro Makihara, Naoyuki Asano
Kenichi Shima, Shingo Okano
Takeo Oda, Sawako Miyamoto
Ryo Nishikawa

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

05:04:58 pm , 1626 words, 2666 views     Categories: Animation

Shoka

Shoka (Calligrapher) was this year's Animax script contest winner. It aired a few months back, but I just watched it. The film was produced by Production I.G. Anyone who liked I.G.'s Windy Tales or the older Hamaji's Resurrection episode of The Hakkenden should check this out. It has a very strong graphical design style that seems like a cross of those two. This is an anime that you want to check out if you want to see something slightly unusual and edgy in anime. This is a show that is all about the crazy graphics.

In sharp contrast with the animation, the content of the episode is completely conventional. This script contest is clearly aimed at fostering script-writing talent who will be able to create work that does nothing whatsoever to challenge the conventions of the industry, not creating auteurs with an original vision. This episode felt like a humdrum new permutation of all of the anime tropes we've seen rehashed over and over again through the years - the basic idea of a group of badasses with special powers fighting a sinister group who throw a new set of baddies at the good guys each episode. Just between you and me, let me share with you the secret formula for coming up with this material: Choose a location; choose an era; choose between sci-fi, magic and ninjas; populate with characters making sure not to deviate from the personality template; mix thoroughly; serve; repeat. Voila. Instant hit. This was a one-off, but they even introduced the other characters at the end, as if setting up for the next episode, so it was clearly intended as a pilot and created for the purpose of series development.

Frankly, if they create a series out of this crap and it's as visually awesome as this episode was, then sign me up right now! This thing was just a blast to watch. There are shows that have more interesting concepts and actually do something original and creative with the directing and the story that are less interesting to watch than this thing was. The characters and the story are utterly conventional and uninteresting. The designs of the characters, despite the unusual lines with which they are rendered, are something of a compromise between the realistic and conventional anime characters. In essence, they are conventional anime characters. They are just drawn in a crazy and loose way.

Which brings us to what makes this episode worth watching, and that is the drawings and animation. I mentioned Hamaji's Resurrection before, and the comparison applies on a number of levels. Among the reasons Hamaji's Resurrection was such a breath of fresh air was that the characters were drawn in a realistically ugly way. This applies to an extent in Shoka, but that is clearly not the main intent. The characters here aren't nearly as 'real' as they were in Hamaji's Resurrection. In Hamaji's Resurrection the drawings were very sketchy and imperfect, with the lines all jagged and the forms of the body loose and flowing in a way not abiding by the laws of human anatomy. I think that was more of a by-product of shortness of schedule than necessarily a deliberate stylistic decision. In Shoka they're taking what was a refreshing freedom from excessively pretty drawings in Hamaji's Resurrection, and turning up the volume by 100%, making every drawing deliberately full of jagged, uneven, criss-crossing lines.

Shoka is clearly massively indebted to Hamaji's Resurrection. I could even identify certain layouts that seemed to be lifted verbatim from Hamaji's Resurrection (presumably in homage, natch).

Even the way of drawing certain things like the eyes seemed influenced by Hamaji's Resurrection. I'm not saying that as a criticism or anything; I do think the style they have adopted is facile and loses its impact fairly quickly, quite unlike Hamaji's Resurrection, but I'm glad to see them creating something raw and hard-edged where every drawing really has a lot of character and isn't so concerned about creating a saleable commodity. The whole show should be the saleable commodity, which it will be if you create something that is conceptually and stylistically unified in the way this episode is, despite the drawings looking crappy and 'off' if taken on an individual basis.

They go way further than Hamaji's Resurrection in terms of the drawings. In Shoka, every line has been scrupulously misplaced. It's like they're gleefully inverting the unwritten rule that anime drawings have to have clean lines and forms. I think I didn't see a single 'normal' line in the entire film. They even perversely have a little piece of line sticking out from the line used to draw the nose, which has the same effect on your concept of character drawings as a loose thread on a shirt that makes you want to yank it off. Maybe letting a few jagged lines through on the clothes would have been forgiven in the past, while the face would have been corrected to model, but never the face. Here they've gone the next step in even doing that on the face. The drawings here actually remind me a lot of the drawings in Hisashi Mori's animated sequences. Shinya Ohira is of course one of the first to draw like this, in Hamaji's Resurrection and even more pointedly in his later solo animation work.

Another episode done in a similar style was one of Yasuhiro Aoki's Tweeny Witches OVAs, the one with drawings by Hideki Nagamachi.

Masaaki Yuasa's animation actually has a similar 'wavy' style to the line, even looking as far back as his Chibi Maruko-chan pieces - one that is intentional, stylistic, as opposed to the product of haste. You also see the same sort of crossed lines in Yuasa's layouts, but very rarely in the finished product. I like the idea of drawing crossed and trailing lines in the finished product, although I find the degree to which they made each and every single little line crossed and trailing to be a bit pedantic and self-defeating.

The storyboarder and director of this film was Makoto Yamada, one of the founding members of Studio Hercules, who in recent years has been working a lot of the video game animation cuts for the Tales series. He has been active since the early 90s, having been involved as an animator on many projects with high-quality animation like Steam Boy, Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet, to say nothing of Otaku no Bideo, Macross Plus and Sound Insect Noiseman.

The character designer and animation director was Hirokazu Kojima, a younger face who drew one of his first genga in 2002 on Haibane Renmei, then went on to work on UFOTable shows like Dokkoida, Futakoi Alternative and The Coyote Ragtime Show before moving on to Gainax shows like Guren Lagan and Shikabane Hime.

But enough about the drawings. The animation was quite lively throughout thanks to a strong animator roster that includes many young faces who have been active on a famous Gainax show and elsewhere, including Matsuo Yusuke (ex-Kyoto Animation, did the animation for the impressive Black Rock Shooter pilot), Hiroyuki Imaishi (Daruma?), Atsuko Nakajima (famous veteran animator and illustrator who has been involved in most Rumiko Takahashi anime since Maison Ikkoku down to the present day), Shinichi Kurita (has worked alongside ex-gif animators Kenichi Kutsuna and Shingo Yamashita), Yasuyuki Kai (did lots of work on Soul Eater), Ayumu Kotake (Gainax animator heavily involved in GL), Ron Kamiya (ex-gif animator), Yasuomi Umetsu, Tokuyuki Matsutake and even Ko Yoshinari. Yasunori Miyazawa was there, too, of course, this being an I.G. Production production. Presumably he again handled the climax involving a giant creature, as he always does. The effects of the explosion at the end were beautifully stylized in the typical Miyazawa style.

Okay, maybe a little more about the drawings. I found the drawings of the old man at the end of the episode to be among the strongest in the episode, even though it's just one shot. The lines are thicker, but each and every line on the face works to establish the character's gruff visage, though you can't tell if some of them are supposed to indicate a beard or wrinkles. I find this to be one of the more real and believable designs in the episode. The combination of not-so-original designs with sketchy lines felt a bit mismatched in the other characters, whereas the combination works better in the more realistic old man here. Or maybe I've just got an old man fetish. I remember feeling the same way about the drawings of the old man in Street Fighter Alpha Generations.

This film is by no means as revolutionary and conceptually unified as Hamaji's Resurrection, which feels more, not less, of an achievement with every passing year in which the industry becomes increasingly inbred and hostile to creative thinking. But it's still a good direction. It shows that today there is a young generation of animators who are interested in experimenting graphically, and who are not under the misconception that animation is all about erotic drawings, but rather about creating exciting movement, and that maybe, just maybe, there are other styles out there, other ways of drawing, other than the same old way that everybody draws in the industry. Too bad there aren't many studios out there that are daring enough to try out novel approaches. We're lucky that at least there are three or four studios that consistently put out work that pushes the boundaries on conventional design thinking, but I think there should be more. So much more creative work is done in the field of motion graphics advertising and music videos. We need to start seeing some of that innovation and creativity in anime.

Monday, June 14, 2010

07:35:02 pm , 857 words, 2323 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #2

Back from the dead I am and I've just watched the second episode of Tatami Galaxy, my first anime in a good month. How ludicrous to be blogging episode 2 when episode 8 is already out, you say. Episode 2 is ancient news now! Even yesterday's tweets about the latest episode are already old news. Nothing is fast enough anymore. I want the latest updates YESTERDAY, damn it, that way I can be the first kid on the block with the new dose of info crack. Welcome to the slow boat called Anipages.

Anyway, damn fine stuff, this, at least technically. There is some massively tight and accomplished directing on display here, to say nothing of quality animation, cool design work, great colors, and nice music. Even if you can't get into the story or the characters or even the style of the narrative, which I can't, there's too much good stuff here not to give it at least a one-over. I'm just disappointed that so much good work is going into material that inherently will never attract anyone but existing anime fans.

So, no. I'm still not feeling the show after the second episode. But for the quality of the production I will keep watching, and because I don't want to abandon a Masaaki Yuasa show. Yuasa never does a hack job, and this is very high proof Yuasa. The work here is just as sophisticated and accomplished as anything he's done before. It's probably the most dense and complex narrative he's ever done. At every moment throughout each episode we are regaled with some form of relevant detail regarding the characters and their thoughts and actions in the form of a playful and creative animated embellishment. Things are constantly shifting and fast-forwarding and rewinding and jumping around. It's quite an exhausting ride - one that I don't think would appeal to any casual viewer who might happen across this show. Kaiba had far more audience appeal. The problem for me isn't that it isn't audience-friendly, but that I think it might be trying too hard. I miss the down-to-earth human warmth of his previous work.

If anybody cares about the staff who were behind this quality work, I'll be giving a run-down of the main folks for each episode, as usual.

Storyboarder and director: Akitoshi Yokoyama. Look up my posts on Kaiba to read up on all the great work he did on that show. (Specifically, he was involved in episodes 2, 3, 7 and 9.)

Animation director: Shoko Nishigaki. This appears to be her debut as animation director of a TV episode. I remember her from Kaiba, where she worked as a key animator. I don't keep up with who has done what that much anymore, but a cursory search suggests that she's a young animator who started out in the last few years.

Animators: This episode was a dream team on the animation front. I felt that the animation was really stellar while I was watching the episode, but I didn't suspect it to have been this good a lineup. There were only three key animators: Norio Matsumoto, Hirokinori Tanaka and Shingo Yamashita. (though there were some 'second key animators') Norio Matsumoto is of course the great maestro from whom it seems much of the young generation to emerge in the last five years has learned. Hirokinori Tanaka is a wildly prolific animator who in the last two years has revealed an incredible talent for creating exciting movement on a very short schedule, having done work on innumerable episodes (probably over 100), to say nothing of movies, much of it quite exciting as animation. Shingo Yamashita is another precocious upstart who has rapidly developed his own voice. He's one of the many new animators who came into the industry from the gif animator community. He notably did a lot of good work on the second Birdy TV show.

There were a lot of great bits. I loved the part at the beginning with the guys holding the strings and the part with the protagonist changing clothes. I think these were by Norio Matsumoto. Later on the blob fx from the paper balls was nice.

I don't have much to say about this content this time. I can't relate to the behavior or thought patterns of these characters, which is the main impediment for me to enjoying this show. I'm left to watch their crazy antics and enjoy the craftsmanship. The directing is very impressive. Structurally this was a tight, flawlessly constructed episode, as Yokoyama's episodes always are.

As for what happened in the episode... Here I was expecting to begin to see a linear narrative begin to unfold and characters begin to be fleshed out, but it seems we are dealing with a more meta affair. The events of the first episode have been revisioned in a different situation, and the protagonist throws hints of having a recollection of the previous version, like we're seeing a dream interpretation of the previous day's experiences. A lot of other meta stuff going on, with names like Godard being dropped and the protagonists creating a meta narrative about their rival director's Hollywood-inspired historical epic.