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: September 2010, 02

Thursday, September 2, 2010

10:23:46 pm , 1974 words, 2341 views     Categories: Animation

Franchise microcosms

One of my favorite animators, Masami Otsuka, developed into his very particular style influenced by the show he worked on for the entirety of his career: Crayon Shin-chan. I get the impression that a similar thing is happening with a few of the animators working on the two big shonen shows of the moment: Naruto and One Piece.

I occasionally checked out an episode of One Piece here and there over the years, and there were little spots of decent work, but overall I felt the animation to be very stiff and light and unimpressive. A few of the people who've been working on it for so long have developed a pretty individualistic style that stands out on the show. It'll be interesting to see where they go after the show finishes, if it ever does, or if they drop out to try their hand at different things. They're certainly good enough now to get lots of work freelancing as wild-haired sakuga rock stars.

Animation quality is never something I associated with One Piece, but as in Naruto there are indeed brief moments of quality that even an outsider like me can appreciate. Sure, they're nowhere near the standards of quality of the best animators in the industry, but a lot of the best animators developed on shows like this, so these shows play a vital role in nurturing talent. Toshiyuki Inoue started out working on Gu Gu Ganmo and Tetsuya Nishio on Yu Yu Hakusho.

In One Piece, the name I've been hearing a lot about is Naoki Tate. I prefer to just run across good work on my own, but I often look something up if I hear it's got good work. I've checked out a few of his episodes by now, mostly the later ones.

From what little I've seen, I can see definite improvement over his early work. I like that he seems to actively be pushing his skills to go somewhere beyond merely drawing the drawings faithfully; he actually tries to bring the drawings to life in animation. There isn't really a point to an animated adaptation of One Piece if you don't take advantage of the medium to bring it alive in animation and instead just regale the audience with pretty drawings. He seems to be the only sakkan on the show who realizes this. Sometimes there's good animation because a good animator is involved, but Tate's episodes seem to be the only ones that have good animation because of the sakkan. Usually a sakkan is just there to correct drawings, but he seems to do more than that.

Apart from the movement aspect, in terms of the drawings, he's definitely the sakkan with the most unusual style on the show. Even if you don't follow the show's sakkans, his style is pretty identifiable, just like Masami Otsuka's work on Shin-chan is always sure to raise the eyebrows of casual viewers.

Tate's style seems to have developed at a faster pace since Mamoru Hosoda's movie, and in a direction very reminiscent of that movie's drawings (I mean check this out, it's an obvious homage to Mori's part), so I suspect that stimulus might have jump-started his stylistic development. What little I've seen of his early animation seems kind of flimsy IMO, but now it's got a nice, dynamic sense of timing and effects to go with his uniquely elongated and exaggerated way of drawing the body.

He does a lot of sakkan'ing, and in his episodes he really takes control of not only the drawings but the movement too. He also appears in episodes he didn't sakkan, and in most of the movies, so he's pretty ubiquitous on the show. At last count he sakkan'd about 40 episodes. His drawings are rather nice to look at in themselves. He seems like the Masami Otsuka of One Piece. He sakkan'd the 9th movie in 2008, which is the one that featured great work by Hisashi Mori, Tatsuzo Nishita and Takaaki Yamashita, among the most talented ex-Toei animators active today. He also designed for the first time. Maybe they participated because it was Tate's big feature debut as CD/sakkan. That would reinforce the notion of his development being heavily influenced by Omatsuri.

In Naruto, Hiroyuki Yamashita is the hometown slugger. He's been mostly devoted to working on Naruto since his career started a few years back, and over the course of his work on the show he's developed into an animator with a unique style and talent for movement suited to the show. Of course, he's had a lot of stimulus both within the show and beyond, not least the work of Norio Matsumoto, Shingo Yamashita, Suzuki Hirobumi et al. I wouldn't say he's on the same level as Tate. He doensn't sakkan, only animate. Tate seems to be very fast and a powerhouse and good at movement. Yamashita is just the 'house' animator doing the most interesting movement on the show.

They're of course not the only names. There's a respectable rotation of decent animators working occasionally on both shows - Shida Naotoshi and Yoshikazu Tomita and Ryo Onishi (he's supposedly the one who did the part in 382 that I mentioned here) in One Piece, Tsutomu Oshiro and god knows who else in Naruto, and Shingo Ogiso in Bleach while we're at it, to name but the tip of the iceberg - but these are the two 'house' animators who most stand out in terms of creating animation that even an outsider can appreciate.

I'm curious to what extent working exclusively on a show has molded the style of some of these people. In the case of Masami Otsuka I'm positive it molded his approach to timing and form. He grew into an animator who is very economical with his drawings and who makes every little movement count to convey personality, rather than throwing tons of sketchy effects around the place the way many young animators do today. It's easy to imagine the unique drawings of One Piece would have molded Naoki Tate's style of drawing since that's practically all he's been drawing for years.

I think the environment in the industry is different today from what it was 15 or even 10 years ago. Mover animators seem much more conscious of one another and are able to evolve stylistically much more quickly. I don't think One Piece animators evolved in a vacuum. Outsiders are coming and going constantly, and especially events like Baron Omatsuri have an impact. But it's impossible to work on something for so long and not be deeply influenced by it.

One question I have is if their work stands up objectively to the work of the best animators in the industry like Toshiyuki Inoue and Tetsuya Nishio, and even Masaaki Yuasa. That's not an unwarranted comparison, since all three of these guys cut their chops on shonen shows - Inoue on Gu Gu Ganmo, Nishio on Yu Yu Hakusho and Yuasa on Crayon Shin-chan. The answer at the moment seems emphatically to be no, so I wonder if there's a trade-off inherent in their situation - they get to develop into one style more intensely than others, but in the process miss out on broader experience that would make them more flexible.

I'm not even talking about all the sakkans on the show, each of whose style has undoubtedly evolved. Maybe they can all draw, but it's a different talent being able to create good animation. Susumu Yamaguchi strikes me as similar in spirit to Naoki Tate - he can sakkan a whole episode and still draw the most animation AND the drawings and movement are really dynamic and exciting. Most in-house sakkans on long-running shows do their job as they're supposed to, and that's why they're relied upon. But the occasional oddball who sticks out a bit and pushes things a bit further in an interesting direction like Masami Otsuka and Naoki Tate, beyond perhaps even what fans of the show want to see, are an interesting case - they arguably push the show's animation in the right direction, but that direction in a way goes against the traditional notion of what a sakkan is supposed to do.

I'm sure the experience of doing tons and tons of sakkan + animation work on dozens of episodes over the length of a series is great grounding for learning how to pump out exciting movement without worrying too much about the details. I wonder where Naoki Tate's priorities lie - is he more interested in the drawing aspect or the animation? I'd personally like to see him focus on the animation aspect rather than wasting time with the correcting aspect.

Another related question is: How much of talent is innate and how much is learned? Someone like Tanaka Hironori seems like he would have developed into an incredible animator no matter where he worked, although it's clear that his working intensely on all those throwaway Toei shojo shows helped give him his grounding as an animator who is able to pump out large quantities of animation that moves excitingly in a brute force way rather than necessarily being particularly painstakingly crafted in a conventional sense.

In a side-note, I find it interesting how fans of these shows are much more in the know about the animators responsible for the good work on their shows than they used to be. It's a more productive form of anime otaku obsessiveness, I must say. It was from Naruto fans that I heard of Hiroyuki Yamashita, and I was surprised how well informed the One Piece fans here are about the animators in their show.


Incidentally, I just saw the latest One Piece movie, the 10th apparently, and it's got some fairly decent work, most of it supposedly by names I'm less familiar with like the aforementioned Ryo Onishi, freelancer Kenji Kuroyanagi (who unlike the latter is no new face - he's been a prolific animator since the mid-80s), in-house animator Yuki Hayashi, Seiya Numata, and Naotoshi Shida, not to mention more familiar names like Yoshihiko Umakoshi, Norimoto Tokura, Koichi Arai and Keisuke Masunaga.

As usual with Toei films the genga staff roll is huge and the inbetween staff roll is absurdly small in comparison. I'm curious to hear a detailed explanation behind this unique style. Are the gengamen asked to draw as much as possible themselves and cut down on inbetweens, or do they have a secret laboratory in the basement of Toei studios where they've bred a race of mutant inbetweeners with superhuman inbetweening powers? It's true that things are in one of two states in their films, namely moving like crazy or completely still, so many of the gengaman's shots would be feasible without inbetweening, and maybe the action shots would get the extra inbetweens.

As a movie it is on the same level as all of the other films except for Hosoda's: unwatchable to anyone except One Piece fans and sakuga otaku. The action scenes are worth a look if you fall into the latter category. They're not mind-blowing but they're decent enough. Yuki Hayashi supposedly did the animal fight at the beginning. He's got a distinct style of timing.

I just noticed that Mamoru Hosoda directed episode 199 (aired July 2004). This would have been right before he did the Baron movie, which came out in March 2005, so I guess it was a warm-up. I just checked it out, and you can definitely identify some his traits in the episode, like the stylish slow pans, the understated, slow-burn style of humor, more 'cinematic' style of framing with action coming in and out of a frame, more acting in shots, etc. Some of the shots looked like they were drawn by Takaaki Yamashita, like the captain eating his veggies, but I guess it was my imagination because he's not credited.