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.
September 2011
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Archives for: September 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

01:32:00 pm , 681 words, 10878 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Osamu Kobayashi directed Dantalian no Shoka #9

Osamu Kobayashi directed Dantalian no Shoka #9

In what's rapidly on its way to becoming a tradition, Osamu Kobayashi directed an episode in the latest show from Gainax, this time one of their less interesting ones between the good ones. His longtime associate Hori Motonobu, acting as sakkan, provides the episode with his usual simple, clean, cute but not cloying character drawings. It definitely feels like Kobayashi in the way it's directed, with the many static shots and close-ups and the style of the acting, but it's not as jarring as his previous work.

The interesting thing about this episode, as most people will probably immediately notice, is the backgrounds. Kobayashi is an interesting creator because he always tries something new, and this is no exception. Kobayashi has in the past done a solo animator episode on Kemonozume, but this time he's done something I don't think I've ever heard of before: he's drawn most of the backgrounds. And it's not just done on a whim; his sketchy, moody backgrounds help establish the fantasyland atmosphere for the episode. I haven't watched the rest of the show, so I'm not sure, but this episode seems to take place in a different 'world', literally a storybook land. The sketchy background drawings aren't just a stylistic choice; they're as intrinsic to the story as the characters.

I like it when situations like this are devised in anime. It's the best of both worlds: You allow a talented creator whose style is not to the liking of many fans because he doesn't bother to try to make his work blend in with the rest of the show, to make an episode set in an alternative reality so that he can do what he does best, and yet it'll jibe stylistically and won't wreck the show. That's just what happened with Satoru Utsunomiya's episode of Aquarion. Usually I have no problem with a single episode sticking out stylistically from the rest of a show as long as the work is of genuine quality. But on the other hand, sometimes even I've found myself on the other side of the fence, arguing that some shows need more stylistic unity and not more idiosyncrasy, so I can see both sides.

The drawings are lovely and establish a moody atmosphere. I particularly like the beautiful long shot of the characters walking with their backs to the camera in the ruins of a church pictured above. In certain moments, this episode has the atmosphere of a film noir and the black and white sensibility of a classic movie from the 30s or 40s like The Edge of the World, which is set in a similarly desolate land - the remote Orkney Isles. Kobayashi is heavily influenced by the French new wave and other oldies, so perhaps that's intentional.

The beautiful draftsmanship of the drawings of the town in the distance and the beautiful stone masonry of the streets show a side of Kobayashi I wasn't familiar with. The drawings are loose and have a reduced palette, but they're realistic somehow. It doesn't feel like something you'd see in a typical anime. I like that Kobayashi can be a joker but he can be serious when he wants to. Parts of the world seem obviously inspired by medieval architecture, while other parts are obvious original creations, but he does a good job blending the two. In large part it's the details in the backgrounds that tell you a lot about the world and make you believe in the world the characters inhabit.

To me, whether it's a sketchy drawing or a unique shot of animation or a skillful layout, what I find I react to is when I sense someone's hand behind the work - when there's a personal touch. Commercial animation is arguably the antithesis of personal creation, but what's unique about anime is that occasionally it allows you to see the personal touch of the creator in the work, and oftentimes it's those moments when a creator is able to express themselves without inhibition, without having to adapt themselves to fit in, that the greatest art is made.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

09:50:00 pm , 842 words, 4055 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Mawaru Penguindrum

Mawaru Penguindrum

The first episode of Brain's Base's new show directed by Shoujo Kakumei Utena's Kunihiko Ikuhara is as well produced as you'd expect, with colorful, artistic visuals, idiosyncratic but sharp directing, and lush sound design, but it may be a hard slog if you are not willing to put up with the peculiarities of this auteur's approach to storytelling and the shoujo manga atmosphere, complete with twinkling stars, androgynous boys and an obsessively animated magical transformation sequence.

I for one never watched Shoujo Kakumei Utena, or rather was never able to watch more than an episode or two, because the style of the directing and the extreme shoujo manga-ness of it all, with the bizarre, byzantine gender and inter-character relations, was just too much for me. Rather than realistic drama, it's expressionistic psycho-drama with events presented in a stylized and metaphorical way. It's sophisticated and assured, but also off-putting if you're not capable of switching to a more 'shoujo manga' mindset.

This show isn't as intense as Utena narratively or stylistically, but Ikuhara's basic stance as a storyteller is unchanged. This is a far more approachable show, and the quality is good, so I'm going to see how far I can get into it.

I find Ikuhara to be one of the best 'shoujo anime' directors after the late Osamu Dezaki. He seems to be able to tap into the mindset of heightened emotion that defines the genre, over the length of a series fleshing out and delving into the various characters' complex emotions in a way few other directors can. Visually, he uses the background art effectively to extend the emotional palette the way Dezaki did in a show like Aim for the Ace!. He's a theatrical director in the sense of the staging as well as the acting.

What I most like about the show isn't the directing or the animation. It's the art. The vivid color schemes, symmetrical layouts, and density of detail in the backgrounds like the shot pictured above, are immediately compelling. Even if nothing else in the show attracts you, it's hard to resist the wonderful art of the show.

That color genius Kunio Tsujita is again the one behind the colors after his work on Casshern Sins and Tatami Galaxy. The art directing team is Kentaro Akiyama and Chieko Nakayama. Chieko Nakayama was art director of episode 1 and the art was done by four people at a place called Studio Pablo.

I didn't like was that the characters and humor and general trappings of the show are otherwise conventional, just through the lens of Ikuhara's more exacting directing style. There isn't much anything tremendously new here, or that would attract a non-anime-watcher. The transformation sequence to me seems like a pointless self-indulgence to gratify the director's fe tish for Sailor Moon-style intricate transformation sequences. Also, drawing all of the bystanders except for the main characters as cardboard cutouts comes across as less quirky and creative than lazy and obvious. It felt more convincing and meaningful when Kenji Nakamura did it in Trapeze.

Ikuhara's visual storytelling style has some surface similarities to that of two other ex-Toei directors who learned the ropes at Toei Animation around the same time in the 1990s: Mamoru Hosoda and Takuya Igarashi. Takuya Igarashi is more quirky and visually playful, while Mamoru Hosoda is more classical and holistic, but their film grammar seems like it evolved from the same place. They like symmetrical layouts lush with detail, always using talented art directors to flesh out their intricate layouts; they're good at incorporating CG and animation and storyboarding in such a way as to achieve much with little, switching to lush animation in sections but mostly making due with little movement by regaling the viewer with mesmerizing background art or theatrically heightened emotional storytelling.

The numerous Toei connections in the show betray Ikuhara's origins: Shinya Hasegawa (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was character designer of Utena (and also worked a lot on Sailor Moon); Masahiro Aizawa (animator in the opening) was a sakkan/animator in Utena and was associated with Takaaki Yamashita; Yoshihiko Umakoshi (animator in the opening) worked on the Utena movie in addition to being a Toei pillar; Takahiro Kagami (animator in episode 1 and the opening) was a regular Toei animator and in recent years worked under Umakoshi on Mushishi (2005) and Casshern Sins (2008); Keiji Goto (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was an animator in Utena; etc.

The show has a lot of women in main staff roles besides the art director: art director Chieko Nakayama, character designer Terumi Nishii, assistant director Mitsue Yamazaki, and Gainax animator Shoko Nakamura. Shoko Nakamura wears several hats on the show as "chief director" of the show under "kantoku" Ikuhara in addition to being one of the two concept designers, being an animator in episode 1 and the opening, being line director of ep 1, and drawing the ending. There are a few other Gainax faces present: Akemi Hayashi was an animator in the opening, episode 1 and the crystal world section. Sushio was an animator in episode 1.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

12:09:00 pm , 809 words, 4288 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Yasuo Muroi directed Sacred Seven #9

Yasuo Muroi directed Sacred Seven #9

I'm always on the lookout for new names that strike me as having potential for greatness, and Yasuo Muroi struck me as one of them from the few bits I glimpsed of his work, notably his animation work on Xam'd. There are a lot of new animators appearing seemingly out of nowhere with a unique style these days, far more than ever before, but most of them don't bowl me over. They're all impressive, but few of them seem to bring something really new to the table. I thought Ryotaro Makihara was one of the more notable new faces who did just that, and Yasuo Muroi also seemed to be one of them, because he didn't just fall into the trap of mimicking the usual suspects that seem to serve as the template for most young new animators these days.

Anyway, after having done miscellaneous animation on various shows since Xam'd (unfortunately most of which I didn't see), it seems he's staged his episode storyboard/directing debut on Sunrise's new show Sacred Seven. The show itself seems hardly notable, but Sunrise shows often have interesting staff, and Muroi seems to have done a lot of work on the show.

I've only watched episode 9 so far, but there was a lot of nice vigorous and lively movement throughout the episode, mostly during the fight between the hero and that lamp-headed creature (I like how he didn't waste any energy on moving the uninteresting moe characters), and Muroi is listed second in the genga credits after erstwhile Champloo action scene stalwart Takuya Suzuki (frere of Tatsuya), so he presumably handled a good chunk of it. It's not quite as refined as what I saw in Xam'd, but this is a different endeavor; he choreographed the whole episode and animated its action. It's a whole different thing when you're storyboarding and directing and not just animating. The significance here is that he's moved on to a whole new stage of his career, and it will be interesting to see where he decides to go from here on out. Ryotaro Makihara hit a similar stage about a year or so ago with his own directing debut.

The final minute or so of the episode is obviously the work of Shingo Yamashita, the guy who recently did so much interesting (if occasionally controversial) gif-animator inspired work on Noein and then Birdy and then Naruto etc. Everyone in the anime industry now seems to have a Twitter account, Shingo Yamashita included, and one of his tweets, if I'm reading it correctly, seems to suggest that he re-used about 90% of the animation from his past work. I hope I'm not misunderstanding. If that's true, it's kind of a surprising admission. Instinctively I assumed this sort of thing was frowned upon. Normally I'd say it's wrong to re-use your own past work, but if it's done creatively and molded to the show at hand, then does it matter? In a sense, isn't all work built on what you've done before? It certainly felt similar to what he's done in the past, though I would never have noticed he used mostly the same raw material as previous segments he animated if he hadn't said so. That issue aside, objectively speaking, the results are definitely viscerally impressive, but more flashy than necessarily convincingly realistic. That's one problem I have with the gif animator generation - they skipped the step of fundamental training, and went straight for the jugular with animation that feels good to watch - animation that sakuga otaku want to watch. I just wonder if that establishes a proper foundation for growth.

Not surprisingly, Kenichi Kutsuna, who is usually present alongside Shingo Yamashita, was also there in this episode, though listed near the bottom so he probably didn't do many shots.

I'm going to go through the rest of the show, not just to see Muroi's work but to see if there's any other good work there, though I will find it hard to endure the characters and totally unoriginal story that seems like yet another Gundam/Eva permutation, updated with a moe cast.

The image at the top is actually from the opening, which features work by Kota Fumiaki, Yasushi Shingo, Shigereu Kimishima and Kazuhiro Miwa. There were a few nice bits in that op, especially the hydra section, pictured above. I suspect Kota Fumiaki did the hydra section, but I haven't seen much of his work lately so I'm not positive what his style looks like. It seems he did "special animation" in the new Ikuhara show, which I'll be checking out soon, so I'll see if that helps confirm anything. Anyway, whoever it is, I like the lines and shapes of the smoke and debris in this section. They're kind of reminiscent of Hisashi Mori with the shadows represented as flat black blobs surrounded by erratic, sketchy forms.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

11:09:00 am , 220 words, 2905 views     Categories: Site News, Misc

Site update & logo design contest

I know I've been quiet for a few months, but things may be sputtering back to life in the coming days. I've been busy with personal stuff, and haven't really been watching any anime or animation, but I'd like to slowly start posting again. The VIFF is starting this week, so I'll probably be posting about the movies I see there to get back into the habit of blogging.

I just ditched my old server, Ion Web, because the site was constantly down over the last month for no given reason, and they offered no support of any kind. In porting everything over, I spruced up the face of the blog a little bit, but it should be mostly the same as before.

I'd like to use this opportunity to change the site logo. I'm tired of the old logos. It's been 7 years since I started writing Anipages. I want something fresh and new to shake things up a bit. A year ago on the forum I held a logo design contest to solicit ideas for logos that reflect the spirit of the blog, but I dropped the ball on that (sorry). I really loved what Huw, Bahi et al. submitted, so I'd like to see if I can revive that and get an awesome new Anipages mascot/logo from someone.