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: February 2012, 16

Thursday, February 16, 2012

03:27:00 pm , 1322 words, 11132 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Submarine 707R


I sought out the two-part Submarine 707R OVA series from 2003-2004 because it was directed by Shoichi Masuo, one of the great effects animators of the last thirty years in Japan. I wrote a post about him before. The latter post was mainly about his work on Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, in which he animated numerous scenes involving submarines. Directing a whole OVA of submarine action was an obvious next step for this animator. I assumed that the direct-to-video format and intervening decade-plus of advances in production knowhow would have allowed him the technical means, schedule and budget to create even better underwater sub action and visual effects than he was able under the constraints of the TV format.

I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, but I certainly wasn't expecting the unmitigated disaster that greeted me. There was so much wrong with this show that I had a hard time fathoming how it came to be produced. It just goes to show that you can't reason quality. There is no guarantee that a good animator will make a good director, even when the show seems like the perfect fit for a particular animator's talent. For every Masaaki Yuasa or a Takeshi Koike, there must be 10 Shoichi Masuos. I love the guy as an animator, and perhaps there were factors beyond his control during the production of this show that led to these results, but there is just no silver lining in this cloud.

What's even more amazing is that there isn't even very much compelling effects work in Submarine 707R. I'm the kind of geeky viewer who will gladly watch a show I otherwise despise if it features good animation by an animator I like. I would have been happy if it turned out to be a vapid, trite, sloppily-directed effects extravaganza. But there were barely 5 good explosions in the whole thing. What happened?

Shoichi Masuo clearly elected to adapt this manga into an anime because it would allow him to create exciting underwater sub action in the vein of the wonderful, classic scenes of that ilk in Nadia. As if to reinforce the comparison, Hideaki Anno directed the opening sequence, which depicts the 707 being assembled in the style of sepia-colored retro footage. We've seen the same sort of thing from Anno numerous times before; it's one of his stock tricks. But Nadia worked because it had a good directing team; advances in technology do not equate to better anime. Quite the opposite: The ease with which CGI can be deployed seems to have the effect of emboldening second-rate directors who do not have the attention to detail or the director's instinct to realize when a particular visual is simply not working. Back then a hack wouldn't have had the ability to animate such an arduous scene.

The scenes of the submarines in this OVA had the bland, half-hearted, amateurish quality of early CGI adopters from the 1990s - those shows that were brave enough to dare to combine hand-drawn animation with CGI mecha. They didn't know how to do it well, and it looked like crap, but it was kind of expected that CG anime had to go through growing pains. They had to start somewhere. I watched this OVA assuming, based on the evidence, that it was produced in the 1990s. I was shocked to learn it was such a recent project.

The CGI in this OVA is the perfect example of how paper-thin bad CGI feels. It entirely lacks the tactility and weightiness of hand-drawn animation. Even bad hand-drawn animation would have been better. The irony is that CGI was presumably adopted to animate the submarines as a way to make the underwater scenes feel more "real". But the hand-drawn submarines of Nadia felt infinitely more realistic. It's fascinating that the person responsible for those scenes, when working in the context of CGI, seems blind to the fact that the animation of the CGI subs is totally unconvincing. Merely being consistently on-model and easier to move isn't sufficient to impart a feeling of reality. The subs in Submarine 707R feel completely weightless -- and not because they're in the water. Masuo's animation in Nadia was the result of very precise calculations in terms of the drawing and the timing of the movement. The reliance on CGI appears to have short-circuited the most important faculty of animators.

But that's not even the worst thing about this OVA. The directing is a textbook example of bad directing in almost every imaginable way. The pace is astoundingly slow. It's like you're watching it in slo-mo. It feels suspiciously like they drew out 30 minutes' worth of material to 50 minutes. Characters appear in a context suggesting their reappearance, only to disappear. Narrative threads begin, only to be abruptly and capriciously replaced by entirely different narrative threads.

The character designs are a nonsensical mishmash of anime moeblobs, retro-styled characters straight out of an Osamu Tezuka manga from the 1950s, and just plain badly drawn characters. The character animation is nonexistent. The first fifteen minutes of episode 2 are a surreal succession of excruciatingly slow pans over sound effects, in a bald-faced scrabble to fill in the space left until the climactic sequence, which was obviously animated first. The rest of the show isn't much of an improvement.

The CGI floats against the hand-drawn animation like a sub does in the water - or more accurately, like a healthy turd does in the toilet. The two are bad in their own right, and they don't mix well at all. The music was awful generic tinny synth that did absolutely nothing to accentuate the drama and everything to accentuate the awful lack of budget. On the other hand, hollow-sounding orchestral synth renditions of W.W.II Japanese naval marches is the perfect musical expression of this show's awful subtext of jingoistic naval pride masquerading as action movie bombast.

The plot is a complete disaster. Most fundamentally, the motivation of the bad guy is never clearly explained, even though they drop vague hints in certain spots. He's the most transparent "madman bent on world domination" cypher ever - the dollar-store version of the bad guy in Mahiro Maeda's very similar and comparably successful Submarine No. 6, who was actually somewhat compelling because his motivation was thoroughly explored.

Skipping through it post-fact to remind myself what it looked like, I started to think, "It doesn't look that bad. Maybe I was being a little harsh." But sitting through both episodes was nothing less than agony. I don't mean to be mean-spirited. I usually focus on describing good shows to try to see what makes them good, but it can be equally educational about what makes a good anime to look at what makes a bad anime.

About the animation, it's sad that there was not more good animation. A few spots that stood out as having nice FX animation were probably the work of the late Toshiaki Tetsura, a talented mecha animator who died a premature death. Makoto Kobayashi, who is a great mecha designer with a unique style, is also present. In addition to helping out with layouts, he appears to have drawn various shots in the show, most notably the massive carrier seen at the beginning, pictured above. His style comes through clearly in the byzantine detailing of the deck of the carrier and the more 'melty' texture of the strokes. Soichiro Matsuda was also involved as an animator, so he may have done some of the good bits. The ubiquitous Kazutaka Miyatake was the mecha designer, and Hiromasa Ogura was the art director, though this is not one of his shining moments.

My disappointment stems primarily from the fact that I hold Shoichi Masuo in such high regard, and I would have liked to see an action-focused OVA that served as a dense summation of the great work Masuo had done in various places over the preceding decade and a half.