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 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

11:45:00 pm , 1237 words, 9946 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #4

With this episode the quality has picked itself back up after the tumble of episode 3. The animation is obviously at the intended level, the directing is assured, and the story is well enough put together, with the twists and turns you expect of a Lupin III caper.

The story is a permutation of the phantom of the opera myth. While hardly novel, it's well enough put together, and the characters come alive well. The plot advances through the varying viewpoints of Fujiko, Lupin and Zenigata in a satisfying way, although the writing seems to deliberately keep Lupin in the shadows in an active attempt to downplay his spotlight-stealing character.

I was expecting the series to proceed to bring the team together by this point, but not yet. I didn't quite realize it while watching, but this episode was probably intended to to be the Zenigata episode to the preceding Jigen and Goemon episodes. Zenigata got only a token appearance in episode 1. Indeed, Zenigata has more screentime than Lupin in this episode.

This episode lays out Zenigata's character quite clearly: This is not the Zenigata of old. Jigen and Goemon seem essentially the same characters, but Zenigata is an altogether different character from any previous anime version. I'm not familiar enough with the manga to say whether he was like this in the manga. Here, he almost appears to be a corrupt cop driven by a twisted obsession with killing Lupin. He tries to - not arrest - but shoot Lupin.

But that's nothing compared to the opening scene, which is by far the most shocking scene in the series so far - and it shocks without even needing to show any nudity. Don't read the rest of this paragraph unless you've watched the ep or intend to. I couldn't believe what I'd seen, partly because they didn't actually show anything and only implied it verbally in the aftermath, but Fujiko appears to have had sex with Zenigata to buy her freedom from the slammer. It's a scene that appears specifically calculated to shock viewers accustomed to the old image of Zenigata, who before was a sexless, naive, even goofy borderline Inspector Clouseau caricature of the by-the-book, rules-following Good Cop. It makes it clear that they've thrown out the old Zenigata and rewritten him from scratch. I got a sense that this was the case from the snippets in episode 1, but this is even more of a change than I expected.

Whatever my personal reservations, the first episode did a good job of conveying the fact that Fujiko was a different character in this series, more 'liberated', and the series was not taking the coy approach to sexuality of the old Lupin III, which hinted and suggested more than ever doing anything sexual. This episode did the same for Zenigata. The show's more open sexuality brings it closer to Monkey Punch in a sense, but it seems to me a more real and pragmatic approach to sexuality than the jokey cartoonified way it was treated by Monkey Punch (at least from what little I've seen of his original manga). On the other hand, they use the whole Mars symbol/Venus symbol schtick that Monkey Punch always used in sex scenes, as they did in Mankatsu, and that's something we never saw before in the anime version of Lupin III.

The writing of the story was fairly intricate and the dialogue was full of witty, ironic barbs thanks to writer and series structure supervisor Mari Okada. Her style of humor seems a good match with Sayo Yamamoto's sensibility. My only complaint is that the big reveal at the end was a little predictable as well as lame and implausible.

The episode's structure is provided by storyboarder Atsushi Takahashi, who directed two of the more visually compelling episodes of Masaaki Yuasa's Kemonozume (episodes #3 & #12). He seems a candidate ideally suited to bringing to life the decadent, erotic, sumptuous visual atmosphere this series is aiming for, and indeed the episode is filled with shadowy, cavernous interiors, though unfortunately he doesn't go nearly as far with the creative presentation as he did in Kemonozume. The enigmatic flashback, pictured above, was drawn in a more stylized and extravagantly detailed, almost storybook, style. Along with the opening, this scene seems to capture the atmosphere of wanton eroticism that sets the show apart. Unfortunately, this vision seems watered down too much of the time and never comes through forcefully enough for my taste. The opening seems like it's trying to evoke Belladonna, but they never go nearly as far as that movie did.

The episode takes place in Paris, but aside from a few opening shots, this potentially interesting setting was not exploited at all, as the entire episode takes place in the bowels of an opera house. There were a few shots of the streets of Paris early on where I noticed they actually drew a Citroen accurately, which was nice to see, because on the car front the show has been a little lacking so far.

Incidentally, several French animators have been heavily involved in the show so far - Eddie Mehong, Cédric Hérole, and Christophe Ferreira - and all three worked as key animators in this episode. Christophe Ferreira was once working at Telecom on Buta. Eddie Mehong has put up a reel of his work on Japanese productions on his blog. Cédric Hérole made a beautiful short film entitled Mimi Carina: Emilie au pays des Morts in 2005.

The animation director was Hiroshi Shimizu, who was also involved in Kemonozume and of course was the character designer of Sayo Yamamoto's breakout series Michiko & Hatchin. Shimizu Hiroshi is an ex-Oh Pro animator - he worked on episode 49 of Part 3, which is the Oh Pro episode I recommended in my post on Part 3. He is a great animator/sakkan in his own right and his involvement no doubt goes a long way to accounting for the quality of the episode.

I can't help but find it ironic how the second Lupin III series managed to produce so many episodes packed with interesting movement using minuscule regular rotation teams of as few as one or two animators, whereas here they require almost 20 animators and virtually none of the movement is particularly interesting. I doubt they had any less schedule than the second series animators did. That's not an observation unique to this show particularly. Back then animators just seemed better about being able to draw volume as well as quality. It's not just the second Lupin III series that had tiny rotation teams of between 1 and 4 people. Most anime was made that way back then. Usually it's for the best that we have more people working on an average anime episode today, because those small teams usually did crappy work - not surprising considering the pressure they were under. But the good animators, under the same pressure to produce way more shots of animation, developed in a way that made them hone their shots down to the essence, all while having more fun with the work and drawing freer and more playful drawings. While the animation back then viewed today seems less detailed and cruder, in the hands of the good animators it was often more successful and pleasing as animation. Obviously, that's not to say that there aren't plenty of animators doing great work on TV schedules today, but sadly they haven't been able to get many of them for this show.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

11:57:00 pm , 810 words, 6780 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #3

The next candidate for introduction after the previous episode was obvious: Goemon. And so it turned out. Now all the players have been introduced. How will they converge?

This episode was super weak. I may have been dissatisfied with the first episode for whatever reason, but at least it was technically well made. This one had the weakest animation so far, and even the directing and story weren't very compelling. The first episode was filled with Sayo Yamamoto touches, the second had great tension and atmosphere, but this one is just kind of bland and safe. It sadly seems to suggest the project didn't have as long a schedule as I was hoping. They were clearly struggling with the drawings on this one. Five sakkans, and they even outsourced 2nd key animation. Some of the drawings in there were painful to see. I don't mean to pick on them, because I'm sure they wanted to do better, but I wish they'd have spent less time putting hatch marks on the characters and more time animating them.

I wouldn't have minded so much that the animation wasn't great - episode 2's animation wasn't that great - but the story and directing didn't make up for that shortfall. I was surprised to find the story to be somewhat tame because I'd heard Sato Dai was writing it and expected something with the irreverent humor and unpredictability of his Samurai Champloo episodes, or at least something to distinguish it as a Sato Dai episode, but there wasn't much. The team of Sato Dai and Sayo Yamamoto did amazing work on that show. It's their episodes I liked best in the show, and it's seeing those episodes that I knew Sayo Yamamoto was a name to watch.

The story isn't bad per se, but it just didn't have many surprises. There was a good train episode early on in the 2nd Lupin III series with some great animation from Kazuhide Tomonaga, so I couldn't help but compare the two and find this one lacking. This episode felt basically like a standard episode from the second series - okay, but nothing remarkable. As a way of introducing Goemon it didn't really tell us anything we didn't know already. The good thing about the episode is that Goemon's character was pretty well captured. He really felt like Goemon. I also liked how Fujiko was never called by name until the very end of the episode. It took me a few minutes into the episode to figure out that she was the tutor and hence was up to something. (partly because her face wasn't recognizable from the poor drawings) The episode felt true to the spirit of Goemon and the old Lupin III - hard-boiled in that Goemon is a hired killer, but not cold-blooded, because he has a personal sense of justice and won't cross a certain line. And of course, we got to hear the first historical instance of his trademark line - "mata tsumaranai mono wo kitta".

For Goemon's introduction I was hoping they would do something special to fill it with good samurai action, dare I hope even perhaps invite Kazuto Nakazawa to sakkan the episode? You know, a reunion tour from the Samurai Champloo team - Sato Dai, Sayo Yamamoto, Nakazawa. But it was not to be. There was one short scene where Goemon does his bullet-cutting trick where suddenly - bizarrely, even - the animation gets extremely fluid. It's decent (albeit short), but honestly the movement isn't particularly interesting. It's nice that they tried, but it only goes to show how amazing the old animators were. With just a few drawings Yasuo Otsuka could have Goemon whip his sword around in a way that felt infinitely better and more convincing. There are tons of contemporary animators who I'm sure could have done some good samurai action. It's sad that they didn't have the budget/schedule to get them.

The weird thing to me about this show so far is... Where's Takeshi Koike? I was expecting the show to be rife with his touch, but for the most part in this episode I couldn't even tell he was the character designer. It seems odd to call him in and then create a show that had nothing whatsoever of his style. I know he's just the character designer, but I guess I was hoping that he would be involved on the same level that Kazuto Nakazawa was involved in Samurai Champloo. Nakazawa made that show his by his amazing and voluminous work as a sakkan/animator on the show. Different directors have different styles and priorities, I guess. Perhaps that will happen in future episodes, but it's a pretty short show, so I hope it happens soon if it's going to happen.

The joke with the European city names was weird - Poris, Dinajon, etc. I didn't quite see the point in doing that.

Monday, April 16, 2012

02:51:00 pm , 1000 words, 5268 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Eureka Seven AO & Tsuritama

Aside from Lupin III: Fujiko and Kids on the Slope, the two other quality shows that just started are a continuation of Bones' Eureka Seven called Eureka Seven AO and a new show from Kenji Nakamura of Mononoke & C.

Smoke and water were my haul from these two first eps. Both featured some wonderful effects animation.

It seems kind of weird to me doing a continuation of Eureka Seven now after all this time. I didn't realize it was that popular. Unsurprisingly, Eureka Seven AO ep 1 was very high quality stuff. I tried following the first series, but after a while I gave up on it because it was a little long and the characters and the writing weren't really that interesting to me, as much work as they obviously put into the trappings and animation. This show is in exactly the same style, and picks up where the previous show left off. They don't explain the basics of the world, which I've forgotten in the meantime (what's a scub coral again?), especially not having watched the first show in full. I'll try to follow it as much as I can, because it is well made technically. It will be nice to see some more nice traditional hand-drawn mecha animation and a traditional grand-scaled sci-fi story with careful world-building.

Whenever I tried to get into the first show I had little niggles about the directing and the character writing that kind of threw me out of the zone, and I got the same feeling here. It was weird how calmly the kids stood there watching these huge explosions occurring on the other side of the hill right in front of them. I would have been pissing my pants. And the dialogue is occasionally weird and laughably theatrical sounding. My reaction was often, "Who would say that in that situation?!"

Visually it's quite beautiful - background and animation are detailed and nuanced. The character drawings are strong, and there are bits of nice character animation, and stunning effects animation. Shinichi Kurita, Hidetsugu Ito and Kakita Hideki drew nice effects in the ep. The smoke effects after the appearance of the second scub coral were particularly impressive. The long shot of the smoke rising was amazingly detailed, reminding me of Toshiaki Hontani's smoke in Akira. It's nice to see such detailed animation in TV work. The way the smoke overcame the running protagonist felt realistic and convincing. Hideki Kakita's subsequent explosions were easily identifiable from their shape, timing and coloring, though I'm not so sure about the other two sections. Maybe Ito did the part where the flying car almost hits the protagonist on the beach & Kurita the second scub coral? I don't know Kurita's work well enough to say for sure. The zigzagging laser effect from the monster was curious. It reminded me of Ito's zigzagging lasers in the recent Doraemon movie, though the timing didn't strike me as having a strong Ito feeling.

Other good animators included Kouno Megumi, Kenji Mizuhata and Sato Masahiro. I liked the bit where the protagonist runs towards the camera as the camera is panning upwards. Had detailed movement that reminded me of Yasuo Muroi's running in Xam'd. I also liked the acting on the beach where the scub burst appears and the guy grabs the kid's arm and yells at him to run away.

I'm hoping they'll put up a section analyzing choice bits of animation like they did for Xam'd.

Kenji Nakamura's Tsuritama was a slippery one. A splash of cold water in the face. I've been a Kenji Nakamura cheerleader since day 1 with Bakeneko, but I feel like each successive TV series has been a step downwards from what he achieved at the very beginning, each one transforming what was such a unique voice willing to go against anime conventions and do his own thing, into yet another ordinary anime director, albeit a slightly more edgy one.

The episode was well directed and animated. The water effects animation (mostly from FX sakkan Takashi Hashimoto I suppose) were splendiferous and a great new addition to the venerable history of Japanese water FX animation through the years from Yasuo Otsuka in Sinbad to Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island to Mikiharu Akabori in Sirius to Toshiyuki Inoue in Peak the Whale to Norio Matsumoto in Popolocrois to Yasunori Miyazawa in Moomin, etc. The water shots during the scene on the pier at the end were particularly nice. The water here is more about feeling good than being realistic. It feels great as animation. Though the shot of the fish skipping across the water and sending out ripples and splashes was incredibly realistic with some very precise timing. Good animators in the ep included Takashi Hashimoto himself, Toshiyuki Sato, Yuki Hayashi, Takaaki Wada, Hironori Tanaka.

It's just the show irritated the hell out of me. I couldn't stand the super cutesy twee chirpy music or the super-annoying characters, especially the one saying he's an alien. I kind of liked the neurotic protagonist. It's a shame because there's some very careful and interesting directing packed in here. The bright pastel coloring of the show is appealing and well done. Visually, it has the Nakamura touch. The screen is pleasingly stylized. The storybook coloring almost makes it looks like a Toei girl's show like Ojamajo Doremi, but with sharper more realistic designs rather than that show's storybook visuals. A lot of shots here looked to be based on photos.

I'm sure the show will have some interesting surprises in store and some great animation and directing, so even though I find it annoying for now, as a Kenji Nakamura fan, I want to follow it and give it a chance. But we're far from a show like Mononoke that made me really excited and I felt I could recommend to watch to anyone without hesitation because it was so extremely interesting in every way, from the wildly unique visual sensibility to the powerful, densely layered stories.

Friday, April 13, 2012

11:38:00 pm , 1119 words, 3791 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Kids on the Slope

This is one of the more impressive seasons in a while. In addition to two or three other interesting shows, Shinichiro Watanabe returns with his first show since Samurai Champloo in this adaptation of a shoujo manga about high school kids playing jazz.

I'm not a particular fan of either Shinichiro Watanabe or shoujo anime, so I approached the show without any expectations, but I found it to be a good first episode by any measure, and it immediately made me want to follow these characters. The directing is identifiable as Shinichiro Watanabe, but it's far less demonstrative than his previous work. It's really just a nice, low-key high-school drama with a bit more psychological edge and without too many anime cliches. And with lots of awesome jazz music.

The directing did a good job of capturing the feelings of the newly transferred protagonist. Often I find that these shoujo school stories are overly laden with silliness or manic directing, but I liked how the directing here played it fairly straight, and yet managed not to be boring. I like that they don't try to make it too comical.

I didn't much care for Shinichiro Watanabe's outing in Genius Party, but that was admittedly perhaps because of the context. This episode feels like a continuation of that style, and I found it enjoyable on its own terms in this episode.

The characters are designed by Yuki Nobuteru, an animator with a fluid and sumptuous style, although he was not in charge of the animation of the episode itself. Erstwhile Kaname Pro and Madhouse animator Cindy H. Yamauchi was the sakkan here, and in her hands the drawings were very nice throughout without feeling excessively 'shoujo'.

The characters in the opening, animated singlehandedly by the always impressive Kazuto Nakazawa, looked far more 'shoujo' than the drawings of the first episode. The bizarrely elongated faces that characterize shoujo manga today (which were faithfully recreated recently in the anime adaptation of House of Five Leaves) can be discomfiting unless you are used to them, and Yamauchi's drawings strike a professional neutral balance between the original and a more accessible look. It appears Kazuto Nakazawa drew the opening in a way that was closer to the look of the characters in the original manga rather than in the way they're drawn in the anime. I liked the slightly more realistic way the father's features were drawn. In comparison, the other characters had the flat facial contours of anime characters.

The Noitamina block seems to alternate between more oddball outings aimed at audiences more into outre material like Thermae Romae and Mononoke, and outings aimed more specifically at young women. Kids on the Slope is a fine example of the latter category. What's nice about Noitamina's shoujo anime is that even the more lady-oriented shows like this are still quite watchable even if you do not fall into the lady category. They do a good job of taking the sensitive character examination of shoujo manga while softening some of the genre's more generic and less appealing aspects.

This being a show about jazz, the obvious question is how are they going to animate the music scenes? In Beck they rotoscoped actual musicians and used CG characters for the live music scenes, and it was pretty ugly. Here, the close-up shot of the hands playing the piano seemed to be CG, but the drum solo here was fairly lavishly animated with actual drawings, although it was probably rotoscoped, so perhaps they're going for a mix of the two. The added layer of actual drawings in the drum solo made the rotoscoping easier to swallow. It was a beautiful scene, actually, thanks to the powerful animation. Ideally it would have been nice if they could have drawn the scenes without rotoscoping, but perhaps they didn't have time or they couldn't gamble on being able to get animators up to the task of doing a good job of it in each episode. At least here the animation was really faithful to the actual sounds we are hearing.

There aren't many music anime where the musical performances have been traditionally animated without rotoscoping. Gauche the Cellist is the most obvious example - perhaps that's part of the reason why the film took 7 years to complete. Yoshifumi Kondo's scene in Whisper of the Heart is one of the few other such scenes I can think of, although I can't recall how closely the animation matched the music.

Besides the obvious reason for this, namely that TV anime schedules preclude being able to animate such laborious material (which by definition requires constant movement), there's probably the added factor that most animators don't like animating material that is so low-key and subtle. Basically, it's a lot of work for nothing. Far more rewarding is a wild action scene that catches the audience's eye. Or better yet, a static shot of a character (since animation is paid by the shot). But there is something to be said for nuanced and subtle animation. Jin-Roh wouldn't be such a great film without its mind-numbingly subtle realistic character animation. Not many animators are skilled enough to animate well in that style, either.

It's a shame that a show like this is shunted off into a late-night slot, even though ironically it's probably only Noitamina that would have produced this show. I can understand if it was a bizarro erotic anime like Lupin III: Fujiko, but this show seems so wholesome and sincere and harmless. It's the kind of quality storytelling anime for teens that the industry should be making an effort to get kids to watch.

The big news about this show is that it's the first production of a brand-spanking-new studio called MAPPA formed recently by Masao Maruyama. It's difficult to believe that Masao Maruyama left Madhouse, but it seems quite true. It's hard to imagine Madhouse without its guiding spirit. What will become of the once great studio? More importantly, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Maruyama will be doing at his new studio in the days to come. I can't help but be reminded of the recent exodus from Gainax and founding of Trigger. We have two new studios founded by some of the best talent in the industry for the purpose of producing the kind of daring programming that they were not able to produce at their once bold and brash but now somewhat stultified alma maters. Two such studios appearing at once (there's also the less-talked-about Ascension) is great news. I hope this show is successful enough for them that they can go on to producing more ambitious and daring projects of the kind that made Madhouse so unique.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

11:25:00 pm , 932 words, 7756 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #2

It was a rocky start for me, but this episode converted me to a believer. No nitpicking from me this time. I loved this episode. They did just about everything right in this episode, both as a standalone episode and as an episode true to the spirit of Lupin III. Simply put, this was pure awesomeness.

Episode 1 showed the first meeting between Lupin and Fujiko. This time it's the first meeting between Jigen Daisuke and Fujiko. Jigen has always been my favorite character. I love his gruff stoicism, the way he always has a witty one-liner ready for every situation, the way he seems cold and uncaring but has the biggest heart of the bunch. He's the ultimate badass lone-wolf. He doesn't reveal much, but his depth comes through slowly. He's defined by simple, classically manly things - the magnum, the beard, the suit, the fedora. When Jigen got an occasional solo episode in the old TV shows, it was always a special treat. Suddenly we were plunged into a world of dark and deep-felt drama like an old Hollywood film noir starring Bogie, full of fog, intrigue and betrayal.

The story here was very reminiscent of a past story in either the second or third series, I can't remember which. It was a great story exactly in the vein of the classic Lupin III, except far more visually stylish. Best of all, they nailed Jigen's character here better than even most previous Lupin III outings have, as the directing in the TV outings tended to be a little vague due to the short schedule and low budget. Here every shot was carefully groomed, and we could follow Jigen's subtly expressed emotions and reactions in detail at every juncture.

Jigen taking the fall for the girl after she kills her mob boss boyfriend was classic Jigen, and Jigen putting his cigarette into the tea cup offered by the would-be seductress is exactly the sort of subtle wit I expect from this character. We even got to hear him say his classic line - "Ore wa onna girai de na". The only thing missing to make it the perfect Jigen episode was Jigen drinking a glass of bourbon. I'm happy to see that the person who wrote the episode did their homework.

Visually, I think they did a good job with his design. His hat covers his eyes, but you can actually see them peeking through a bit in certain shots. He hasn't had such a deliciously lean head and pointy chin since the pilot. It's amusing how his beard aaaalmost touches the brim of his hat in certain shots.

All of the original voice actors are now gone. Except one. Jigen alone is still played by the same voice-actor, Kiyoshi Kobayashi. He is now 79 years old. He could have retired like the rest of them, and I have no idea why he didn't, but good god I'm so glad he didn't. It just wouldn't be the same with all of the old voices gone, especially Jigen. I was strangely moved watching this episode to see the same old Jigen I've loved all these years still alive and well, if sounding a little wizened now. It was like seeing an old friend again. I'm so happy he's still there. He provides such a vital element of continuity with the old Lupin III.

Incidentally, Jigen is the only character who has been voiced by the same voice-actor in every single Lupin III outing (except Fuma Clan, when they changed all the voice-actors). Even Lupin was voiced by a different person in the pilot, and of course Lupin was the first of the old voices to disappear with the passing of Yasuo Yamada.

The thing I liked about this episode was that it wasn't about the animation or the directing. Both the animation and directing were functional, but not so exceptional as to eclipse the story. No, what made this episode so entertaining was the story and the characters, as it's supposed to be but far too seldom is. It shouldn't be about obsessively chasing directors or animators. It should just be about enjoying a nice story with well-fleshed-out characters. But anime fails to deliver in that arena more often than not, so I usually wind up ignoring the story and focusing on the animation and directing in a last-ditch effort to salvage what enjoyment I can.

This episode was great to watch because the characters were sensitively portrayed at every juncture and it was a great simple story grounded in the basic dramatic elements. They didn't use Macguffins like bad guys or action sequences or gags to distract from the lack of good writing. They kept it squarely focused on telling a story through compelling character drama. The episode had the atmosphere of a good old Hollywood movie from the 50s like the old solo Jigen episodes usually did.

I never mentioned the music, but the music is quite remarkable. It's a tall order to top Yuji Ono in the same mold, but they've found someone who is up to the task in the person of Naruyoshi Kikuchi. Cool and breezy but with just the right touch of free jazz weirdness. The opening in particular is an amazing piece of music like no other anime opening song I've heard.

The ending changed. The ending in the first episode felt incomplete to me, like they just quickly threw those drawings up because they hadn't finished the ending yet, and this seems to confirm that. It would answer why they didn't credit the ending in the first episode.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

12:26:00 am , 1878 words, 6282 views     Categories: TV, Lupin III, Studio: Tokyo Movie, 1980s, Director: Osamu Dezaki

The first five Lupin III TV specials

I already wrote about the first Lupin III TV special, Bye Bye Liberty Crisis, which was better than I'd remembered the TV specials being thanks to Osamu Dezaki's sharp directing. Dezaki directed the next few on and off, so I was curious if they were as good. I checked them out, and as expected, it's a mixed bag.

Special #2 1990 Hemingway's Papers

Lupin finds himself up against an army as he tries to find Ernest Hemingway's buried treasure.

The second special retains the Dezaki touch in terms of the presentation of the material, with layouts that feel distinctly Dezaki, but the visuals aren't as highly worked and pleasing. The drawings feel looser and lighter. It's like they didn't have as much time to do this one as the first one. It still holds together well enough thanks to the pleasing directing by Dezaki and the good script by Hiroshi Kashiwabara, but it's not quite as strong as the first TV special.

This time, it feels like a TV special. You can sense that the quality is starting to slip a bit. The drawings of the characters hold up throughout thanks to Noboru Furuse's nice lanky and well-balanced designs. The guest protagonist Maria is designed in a pleasantly cute way that's not obnoxious. This was his second and, alas, last Lupin III TV special.

There are bits of nice animation here and there. The part where Maria runs away from the two soldiers on the hillside has some splendid movement - some of my favorite in any Lupin III, in fact. I like every drawing and every little movement in this sequence. It's very different from the movement in any past Lupin III. It's a style of movement that's distinctly the product of this period in its sense of timing and the style of the drawings. I thought maybe it might be Seiji Muta, since he worked on Akira a few years earlier and the movement seems influenced by that whole Nakamura/Utsunomiya post-Akira style with the doll-like treatment of limbs and sharp sense of form, but it seems more likely to just be the obvious first guess, Masahiro Ando, since he's known for action animation.

Special #3 1991 Napoleon's Dictionary

Lupin is hunted down by the G7, who hope his grandfather's treasure will pay for their recent Gulf War misadventure.

Despite a witty story skewering recent global events, the third special is rendered nigh unwatchable by its unprecedentedly bad production values. It is hands down the worst animated Lupin III I've seen. It's remarkable how consistently badly drawn it is. Many of the shots look like bad fan art. It's the Yashigani of Lupin III. Not even the throwaway episodes of the second series, which had some substantial ups and downs in quality, were ever this badly drawn.

The film is a shambles. I don't know what happened, but it feels like TMS forgot they had to do another TV special and only remembered a month before airing. Shots feel wrong in every way: the drawings, the layout, the coloring. The drawings ruin what might otherwise have been a fairly fun treasure race story that feels like an updated and more sociopolitical version of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Hiroshi Kashiwabara writes again. Kashiwabara is good at creating plots that are international in scale, placing the characters within a grander scheme that gives the proceedings more weight than a mere caper. His competing factions are often based on obvious real-life analogues, giving his work a satirical edge.

Surprisingly, there is a brief movement when it looks like good animation is trying to peek through. It's the bit where Lupin looks up the word impossible in Napoleon's dictionary and splits the car in half. I think the same animator might have done the next scene, but it's a fascinating mess. Occasionally there will be one shot that has a little bit of nicely timed movement, but the next shot will revert back to horrid drawings. The chaos of the animation in this scene seems to hint at chaos on the production floor. The timing of the animation of Jigen's hand in this scene for some reason reminds me of the timing of the movement in the scene in special #3 I mentioned above, so I wonder if it might not be the same animator.

It's sad that this TV special is such a disaster, because it's one of the few that featured Yasuo Otsuka in any capacity. He was the 'Mecha Design Supervisor'. Obviously he was brought in because of his love of cars. There are a huge variety of classic cars in the film, but sadly although they are drawn accurately to the makes, they are not particularly well drawn, and there isn't anything remotely resembling a good action scene. It would have been nice to have one special allowing Yasuo Otsuka to really revel in his love of classic cars.

Interestingly, this special doesn't have a director. Only a supervisor (Dezaki). There are five storyboarders and two enshutsu or technical directors. I'm sure there's an interesting story behind why this special turned out the way it did.

Incidentally, by way of contrast, Dezaki storyboarded the first two specials himself, as he usually does when he directs something. There is no enshutsu credit on these films (only assistant enshutsu), so presumably Dezkai did his own processing.

It's surprising how bad the animation of this special is when you see names like Takashi Hashimoto, Masahiro Kase and Tadashi Hiramatsu at the top of the key animation credits. Studio Curtain receives a credit at the end of the key animation credits. Plus, Ryutaro Nakamura was one of the storyboarders.

Special #4 1992 From Russia With Love

Lupin finds himself pitted against Rasputin's grandson, a mystic with a magic finger he has a habit of putting into strange places, in a contest to uncover the hidden treasure of the Romanovs.

This time Dezaki returns to directing and storyboarding, though there are now two enshutsu. The film is one more step down from special #2 - vaguer directing and weaker drawings. There are still lots of Dezaki touches, but they feel a little more sloppy and less convincing. There are a few too many triple-takes and harmony shots. The film doesn't really come together as a film. The characters aren't particularly compelling or interesting. It doesn't leave much of an impression. Putting aside the disaster of special #3, it feels like the quality declined steadily until by this point we're getting close to the forgettable feeling that seems to characterize most of the specials.

The drawings of this special aren't bad per se, but they're not particularly impressive. There are four sakkans, and the drawings feel very half-hearted, without any conviction. It's as if, lacking someone with a distinct design sensibility like Noboru Furuse to lead them anymore, they fell back to doing a pale imitation of his template.

The name Hidekazu Kamemoto 亀本秀一 at the end of the key animation credits is probably a hybrid of Hajime Kamegaki 亀垣一 and Hideyuki Motohashi 本橋秀之, the Studio Z5 animators who worked on Part 3. Hajime Kamegaki would go on to be the mecha sakkan of the next special. Hisashi Eguchi (NOT the manga artist) did his first Lupin III work here as an animator. Thus the team behind the animation of the next special came together here.

Special #5 1993 Order to Assassinate Lupin

Lupin steals a nuclear sub in an attempt to bring down an arms smuggler.

This special shook up the pattern of the first four specials. This one feels nothing like the specials up until this point. The director is different, the designs are different, and the tone of the film is different. Despite that, it's a pretty successful little film. In fact, this film is responsible for keeping the TV specials going. The specials were going to be canceled due to declining ratings, but the success of this special ensured their survival.

The director is Masaaki Osumi, who directed the seminal first Lupin III TV series in 1971 before regrettably being replaced by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata due to low ratings. Here TMS pays him the long overdue respect of bringing him back to direct Lupin III again, and allowing him to do it the way he wanted.

The previous TV specials kept the atmosphere and characterizations pretty well close to the feeling of the TV series that had came before - serious but silly, never getting too heavy. Osumi here takes things back to the feeling of the early episodes he directed, when the characters were more ambiguous, not just lovable rogues, and the atmosphere was more serious and less goofy. Osumi's Lupin III stories were erratic like the original and not smoothed over and adapted to conventional anime storytelling rhythms. For this special, Osumi ordered Yasuo Yamada not to ham it up, to play Lupin more straight. Yamada's playful improvisations were a big part of what made the show so much fun, but they were out of place in Osumi's more hard-edged vision of Lupin III. No lecherous googly-eyed Lupin here.

The film has the feeling of a classic James Bond film. The protagonists must play a game of wits to defeat a formidable and cunning opponent with dastardly geopolitical aims. We slowly learn the truth behind this history between Jigen and the beautiful nuclear scientist kidnapped to drive Lupin's sub. And all the while, a ruthless hired killer tracks down the Lupin gang. All of the characters have well-defined and believably played personalities.

The directing is detail-oriented. When Karen tries Jigen's magnum, Jigen advises Karen not to shoot single action, but to cock it first, because otherwise the aim may stray. When Karen takes the magnum, it's so heavy she has a hard time holding it.

Studio Z5 animator Hajime Kamegaki is the mecha designer, and under his guidance, the weapons and vehicles are meticulously drawn and animated, giving the film a realistic feeling. He was involved in four episodes of Part 3. Episode 15 in particular was storyboarded, directed and sakkan'd by Kamegaki.

After floundering for a few years, they decided to be decisive and try a completely new designer. Hisashi Eguchi's character designs abandon the elongated Lupin face of the previous specials and return to the more rounded Lupin of Cagliostro and Fuma. The guest character designs are a bit strange, with the mouth placed close to the nose, and not particularly appealing or well animated, but the character acting feels stronger, probably because of Masaaki Osumi's unique style of directing. Like Takahata, he doesn't draw, but provides instructions to a storyboarder/director. The characters are more grounded and their emotional palette is more subtle. Osumi's roots outside of the anime industry help him create characters who behave in a more self-consistent way free from anime conventions.

The screenplay is again by Hiroshi Kashiwabara. It's obviously a re-working of the story he wrote for episode 50 of Part III, which also involved Lupin stealing a nuclear sub. He has added characters and otherwise reworked the story for feature length. The story was originally conceived for a feature film, so perhaps this is closer to his original idea. The sub is not as central a component this time. Rather than spy agencies competing over the Russian sub Ivanov, Lupin competes against smuggling ring Shot Shell.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

10:07:00 pm , 992 words, 6547 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #1

Say hello to the new face of Lupin III.

It's been 27 years since the last Lupin III TV series, during which time the various productions seem to have gotten further and further away from what originally made Lupin III anime entertaining. I was hoping that a new TV series would be made rebooting all the mediocre intervening years and bring the show back to something more Monkey Punch-esque.

That has happened. In a way. The first episodes of the new TV series directed by Sayo Yamamoto certainly does reboot things, just not in the way I was hoping. The biggest change is that it's about Fujiko, not Lupin. It's certainly more 'adult' if your understanding of the term 'adult' means lots and lots of boobs. It certainly takes the characters back to a more lanky and aggressively stylized look that is somewhat, kinda sorta, reminiscent of Monkey Punch. But something about it doesn't gel for me. I was really looking forward to this, but I'm not convinced by what I've seen so far.

Technically, it's a well made episode. The visuals are lush and highly worked. They obviously put a lot of effort into the drawings and animation. The directing is strong and detail-oriented. The show has a stylish verve and edgy atmosphere. The script is witty and fleshes out Fujiko's and Lupin's personalities more sensitively than usual all while keeping the action moving forward. The episode feels cinematic in a way that's rare for a TV episode due to the clever presentation of the action through artful cutting and framing. The episode isn't boring for a moment, and has good suspense and tension, especially in terms of the battle of wits between Fujiko and Lupin.

The show starts off with a bang with a nice caper story that pits Lupin and Fujiko against one another in an interesting way that serves to introduce the new spin on their personalities while also showing off their skills. The plot is reminiscent of at least one previous Lupin III story - Lupin stealing a treasure from a cult leader, Fujiko already being in on the action - but that didn't bother me. At least the story keeps things on familiar ground, because everything else is a different beast altogether from any previous Lupin III.

On the downside, I think the show strives a little too hard for an adult atmosphere. There's a kind of affected artsy sensibility that rubs me the wrong way, and strikes me as out of place in Lupin III. I've long wanted to see a more adult Lupin III with the violence and sexuality of Monkey Punch's manga. And they do revel in the nudity in this episode. Fujiko is naked or nearly so pretty much the whole episode, and she shows her breasts constantly. But it's so overdone that it feels tacky. Gratuitous nudity does not equal adult. The entire opening has her naked, with her huge nipples shoved in your face. Fujiko was a little more circumspect in the old days. There is a long, meticulously animated French kiss at the beginning that is kind of nasty and unpleasant to watch. As much as I love French kisses, I don't think I want to see them in such detail in a cartoon.

In general they've made the characters more hard-boiled and toned down the light-heartedness, in the process sapping the show of a lot of what made it so fun. I'd like the show to be adult, but that doesn't mean it has to be humorless and dour. Zenigata seems to have a completely different personality. That would be fine, except that he's just kind of boring now. He was such an entertaining and endearing character before. Now he's static and stone-faced. Instead they seem to hint at some kind of homoerotic subtext with his bizarrely designed aide straight out of a yaoi manga that felt really tasteless and out of place.

Takeshi Koike is great, but I'm not really impressed by the animation or drawings here. I much prefer the simpler drawings of almost every previous Lupin III outing I've ever seen. Fujiko's design seems pretty bland to me considering she's the main character. As meticulously and realistically as Fujiko's flesh is elaborated here, I found the more cartoony Fujiko of previous outings more sexy because it left more to the imagination, and the drawings felt good as a design. It's not just about drawing flesh in the most lascivious way possible. The simplicity of the older drawings made the animators strengthen their overall form. Here the drawings don't feel particularly compelling as drawings, just more detailed and realistically drawn.

Lupin is a little more successful. They play around with his expressions a little. But there's not nearly enough fun character animation. They waste too much time filling in details rather than coming up with fun ways of posing and moving the characters. It's weird, because even when Lupin is doing all these crazy poses, it still feels like they're over-drawing him. Takeshi Koike is a genius, no doubt about that, but he's got his own style, and I'm not convinced it mixes well with Lupin III. There are several action scenes that are nicely animated, but for some reason none of them felt exhilarating.

The voices are all different now. I had a problem with Kanichi Kurita as Lupin in everything I've seen so far, but here he didn't bother me as much because the whole show didn't really feel like Lupin III. I'd have a hard time accepting new voices for all the characters if the show didn't already feel so different.

I look forward to watching the rest of the show to see how it changes when the rest of the cast is introduced. It's not exactly what I wanted to see in a reboot, but it's not badly done. You just have to accept that the show is not about Lupin, it's about Sayo Yamamoto.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

11:34:00 pm , 987 words, 4406 views     Categories: Director: Masaaki Yuasa, 1990s

Masaaki Yuasa's Buriburizaemon

Crayon Shin-chan has a strong fantasy/parody aspect, with frequent appearances by parody characters like Kantamu Robo and Action Kamen. They carve out a place for fantasy and adventure in Shin-chan's prosaic reality. My favorite of these is Buriburizaemon, the hero pig.

Buriburizaemon is a unique kind of hero who'll come running when someone calls for his help, but immediately defect to the other side if he's outnumbered, and then ask you for a $10 million "rescue fee" (he takes loans).

Born from a scribble in an episode from 1992, Buriburizaemon made a few cameo appearances in the first few years, and soon became a regular on the show. In 1994 he got the first in a series of his own special episodes called "The Adventures of Buriburizaemon", which feature him not-quite-rescuing damsels in distress in samurai movie scenarios. He was even the star of that year's yearly Shin-chan movie.

Part of the character's appeal was that he was voiced by Kaneto Shiozawa, whose distinct sultry loverboy voice made for a hilarious contrast with this tiny craven pig character. When Shiozawa passed away in 2000, such was the respect in which he was held, and the attachment to the character, that rather than replace him with another voice actor, or bury Buriburizaemon forever, they chose to make Buriburizaemon a silent character from that point forward.

Testament to the character's enduring power, a DVD was just released collecting the various episodes featuring Buriburizaemon between 1992 and 2000. None of the other cameo characters got their own DVD. Buriburizaemon has always been one of my favorite Shin-chan characters, so it's nice to finally be able to see all of his episodes.

But really, there's one reason to get this DVD: Masaaki Yuasa's four Adventures of Buriburizaemon episodes from 1994-1995. They are classic Yuasa. I first saw them many years ago before I had even heard of Masaaki Yuasa, and thought they were absolutely amazing. They're a big part of the reason I sensed there to be something different about the Shin-chan TV series. Years later when I tried to track them down again, I had to buy two random Japanese Shin-chan VHS releases to get them all, so it's nice to have them all gathered together like this in one place. I watched those Yuasa episodes over and over and couldn't get enough of them back then. Re-watching them again on this DVD for the first time in many years, I laughed just as hard at every single scene, even knowing what was coming.

They're just four tiny 7-minute episodes, but they're jam-packed with Yuasa goodness. Yuasa was animation director of all four episodes, and he wrote and storyboarded the last three. This was actually Yuasa's scriptwriting and storyboarding debut. He was offered the chance to do the episodes by Mitsuru Hongo, who was the series director at the time. The rest is history.

Everything about the episodes is great. The jokes come fast and furious. The animation is incredibly lively and unpredictable. There are tons of great character designs and playful design ideas, all drawn in that patented Yuasa style where the body is reduced to a few angular lines and shapes. The story is a hilarious jidaigeki parody with wacky incongruous ideas like a trained ostrich instead of a trained falcon, ninjas with Mickey Mouse ears, and a building with a giant face on it. Surprisingly, the chambara action sequences are really well done, with detailed and surprisingly realistically timed choreography that is all the more hilarious for being so out of place. It's like a joke version of Hamaji's Resurrection, which was released the same year. And at the very end, Buriburizaemon delivers probably the single most hilarious pun I've ever heard. Yuasa was heavily influenced by cartoons, and that's what his Buriburizaemon specials feel like: Yuasa cartoons.

The first arc climaxes with a segment involving a zany building full of trap doors that seems like a study for the exhilarating chase through the castle ramparts that he drew for the climax of the 1996 Shin-chan movie, one of his best segments. Yuasa even drew the hilarious Buriburizaemon instructional video segment in the 1998 movie, which features an army of Buriburizaemons wreaking all sorts of mayhem, including farting in the face of a shocked Bill Clinton lookalike after sneaking into the oval office and giving the command to launch the country's nuclear arsenal.

The problem is that after watching Yuasa's episodes, the other episodes pale in comparison. It becomes glaringly obvious that the reason the Buriburizaemon specials were so funny was Yuasa and Yuasa alone. Yuasa did a bunch of other Shin-chan episodes. I've seen a number of them, and they're just as good as you'd expect. Two of his earliest are included on this DVD (since they happen to involve Buriburizaemon).

I kind of wish that instead of releasing a DVD of Buriburizaemon episodes, they had just released a DVD of Yuasa episodes. Or even better, a collection of the best-animated episodes by the good Shin-chan animators - Masaaki Yuasa, Yuichiro Sueyoshi, Masami Otsuka, Shizuka Hayashi, etc. I'm sure there are episodes by people not on my radar that are well animated. It would be nice to get a 'best of Shin-chan animation' disc. There was one episode on the disc from 1999 with drawings by this guy called Masahiko Matsuyama who I'd never heard of, but the drawings were incredible - angular and really wild. I wish the vast body of TV Shin-chan was more easily accessible. The movies are easy to explore, but there's lots of goodness hidden in the TV show.

The good news is that, after many years' absence, Yuasa is back working on the Shin-chan TV show. He directed a few episodes in a new sub-segment called SHIN MEN, about a bunch of superheroes with various superpowers. I've seen a bit and it's incredible stuff. Later episodes appear to have a different director, so I'm not sure if he's still working on it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

03:46:00 pm , 921 words, 7682 views     Categories: Animation, Lupin III, Book

Lupin III 40th anniversary books

A new Lupin III series is starting soon, which I'm looking forward to seeing. This is presumably part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of TMS's anime version of Lupin III. They're releasing a number of items looking back at the show's long history, including a special DVD and two books, which I just received: Yasuo Otsuka's Illustration Works "Lupin III" and All the Animation Histories "LUPIN The Third" (sic).

The Yasuo Otsuka book I was very excited about, but I was pretty stunned upon receiving it to find that it doesn't contain a single key animation drawing. No layouts, no character sheets - none of his actual production drawings. All the book contains is illustrations he has drawn for CD covers and the like, plus a parody manga he drew featuring the Lupin gang. I now feel stupid for assuming that it would, since the book is, after all, called Yasuo Otsuka's Illustrated Works. But it seemed to me like a no-brainer.

Yasuo Otsuka is one of the central figures responsible for making Lupin III such a classic. He has been kind of the guiding spirit of the show, its patron saint. He is incredibly insightful and informed about the behind-the-scenes history of the period. It could have been amazingly interesting to have him be our guide through the history of the show, since he was, after all, the one who originally shopped the anime version around, and his home studio Telecom has been involved in the show on and off ever since.

The 40th anniversary of the show was the perfect opportunity to release a book looking back in depth on his involvement in the show at various junctures. They could have had a long interview with him delving into the many juicy stories I'm sure he could tell about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production of the first series, Cagliostro, Fuma Clan, etc. Not to mention it would have been nice to hear what he thinks of the other outings. They could have included any number of different kinds of production drawings. He's one of the great animators of all time in Japan. His animation deserves to be better known and researched. With all of the genga collections there are out there nowadays, it's sad that we don't have a single collections of the genga of this master.

Nothing. None of this. This book is a huge wasted opportunity. Nice as it is to get a book full of Yasuo Otsuka drawings.

Looking through Otsuka's drawings makes me realize we didn't get nearly enough Lupin III drawn by Otsuka. He should have done way more. His Lupin III is too delicious. The characters' expressions and posing are fun and lively in a way they aren't in anybody else's hands, even if not in a way that's necessarily true to Monkey Punch's original drawing style. Simply put, he's so friggin good. Yasuo Otsuka was just the best. He retired too soon.

I'm almost as dissatisfied with the other book, which is just a collection of the basic info on each of the Lupin III anime productions - staff listing, episode listings, synopses, descriptions of characters. There isn't a single interview with any of the many people who have been involved in the show over the years. No key animation drawings. The only production material included is one or two character design drawings for each episode, which is nice as far as it goes. It's stupid, because they devote hundreds of pages to the various TV episodes, but they don't even provide the key animation credits anywhere. And the only text is a lengthy synopsis, which is an utter and complete waste of paper, not to mention being even more of a wasted opportunity than the Otsuka book, considering how much material they're covering here. Instead they have a bunch of stupid sections like one listing the things Lupin has stolen at various times in the show, and one listing the various disguises Lupin has assumed. The people who put these books together have their head up their ass. They should have hired someone who actually cares about the show and then maybe we would have gotten something more substantial and insightful. It's kind of fitting that the book's official publication date was yesterday. I wish it were all an April fools joke and they are actually going to release some good books to mark the 40th anniversary of one of anime's most iconic series.

It's such a waste, because there was so much good animation produced in the various Lupin III outings over the years, but nobody has ever released any production materials for any of these, and these books do nothing to remedy this. It would have been interesting to explore how each TV series, TV special and movie took a different approach in terms of the characters, situations and drawings. It's almost as if there was so much interesting material to mine that they just threw up their hands in despair and said, "Screw it."

One of the few nice things about the book is the section where they do a side-by-side comparison between certain episodes that were based on the manga. It's also nice having line drawings of each character from each of the outings to see how different the characters' faces looked in each one. It was great seeing Tsutomu Shibayama's character drawings for the pilot. It's ironic that the guy who became known for Doraemon drew the most Monkey Punch-esque drawings for the show in its history.