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: May 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

11:49:00 pm , 880 words, 10400 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #7

Despite mediocre animation and barely functional directing, this was a good episode due to the clever script by Dai Sato. I'd even go so far as to say this is the best episode yet due to the script. I was wondering what had happened with the previous Dai Sato episode, which was a boring trifle, but the man shows that he is still a master with this episode.

Lupin III was a product of the cold war, with its James Bond-inspired sexy spy action and intrigue, and this episode tells an alternative version of one of the pivotal events of the cold war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete with Kennedy, Castro and Khruschev lookalikes in analogous roles.

The episode is true to the spirit of the old Lupin III while being smarter and packing much more of a sting. With the old shows I often felt like they were never quite reaching the full potential of the material. When not about bank heists, the stories were often inspired by the real-life geopolitics, but more often than not the satire was blunted in favor of coy and facile slapstick. The writing was never smart or edgy enough.

Dai Sato here writes exactly the kind of story I wished I could have seen in the old shows. I wonder if he might not have been inspired by the recent spate of revolutionary biographical films like The Motorcycle Diaries and Carlos. Without glorifying the revolutionary, he casts a somewhat cynical eye on all the parties. He has the Castro stand-in drop a reference to a Japanese revolutionary who was his inspiration, presumably in reference to the late 19th century revolutionary and leader of the Shinsengumi Toshizo Hijikata, so that Japan winds up retroactively laying claim to the revolution. Classic subversive Dai Sato. Don't forget that Japan had its own red revolutionaries in the 60s with the Asama Sanso Jiken. Too bad he was unable to work in some reference to that.

The story is a bit needlessly convoluted, with several confusing time shifts to explain how Fujiko and Goemon got involved, but the story is full of smart touches and keeps you on the edge of your seat with its recreation of the tension of the Cuban missile crisis.

The revolutionary figure at the head of the story at one point is greeted by a chanting crowd, prompting Fujiko to call him a "rock star", which feels like a commentary on how pop culture today has turned onetime revolutionaries like Che Guevara into nothing more than empty icons on t-shirts. Fujiko asks him what his real motivation is - world revolution or merely the thrill of causing chaos - and his ambiguous answer that he just wants to keep dancing is satisfying for having a human ring rather than sounding like pat propaganda.

Fujiko comments on the hidden motivations of geopolitics of the cold war and beyond in the more cynical and informed voice of a denizen of the post-2000 era when she remarks that the reason for all the interest in the revolution on a puny Caribbean country isn't ideology but rumored oil reserves. The comment clearly is meant to evoke Iraq and inspire a healthy skeptical view of history.

Fujiko plays a fascinating combination of roles here, a regular Cassandra representing in a single individual the conflicting hidden currents of the powers at work behind the scenes. Journalist covering the Cuban revolution on the surface, she was in fact hired to assassinate the pseudo Castro, as we know the US attempted to do, while underneath she has her own motivations that remain tantalizingly murky to the end. This may very well be one of Fujiko's best roles ever.

The only disappointment is that none of the other cast members except Goemon play a role, and Goemon's role is a bit thin and underdeveloped. He seems to have been cast only so that he could serve in the climax. The absence of Lupin and Jigen seems to confirm this - they weren't needed for this story. The climax is admittedly quite brilliant in true Sato Dai fashion. It's the craziest and most fitting thing imaginable for a samurai cutting the missiles in half to solve something as insane as the Cuban missile crisis.

The drawings were weak. There isn't much good to be said about the animation. At some points the drawings were downright bad. Castro's hand was bigger than his head in one of the early shots, and in several other places the animators were clearly having difficulty rendering the character designs. That would have been less of an issue had the sakkans had more schedule to correct the drawings. Koike may draw cool characters, but clearly drawing cool characters is different from good character design, if the object of character design is to facilitate drawing by the range of drawing skill levels likely to be encountered by a given production.

At the very end Fujiko yet again bares her inhumanly firm tits for seemingly no reason whatsoever, which seems symptomatic of why the nudity bothers me - not because I don't like nudity as much as the next guy, but because it just doesn't make any sense and seems thrown in for no reason but to meet some kind of tit quota per episode.

Friday, May 11, 2012

08:50:00 pm , 1808 words, 13001 views     Categories: Movie, 1990s

Hermes, Wings of Love

"Let's create a new history of the Gods."

So ends this re-imagineering of the myths of ancient Greece through the all-seeing eyes of Ryuho Okawa, the "founder and spiritual leader" of Happy Science, a "new global spiritual movement" with "over 12 million followers in 70 plus countries" (according to Happy Science Atlanta).

And so this lavish, two-hour animated feature does. Based on a book by the great leader, it remixes the ancient Greek gods into a wildly imaginative, largely incoherent, entirely anachronistic mish-mash of Christian, Muslim, Confucian and Buddhist spiritual teachings.

This is by far the most beautifully animated piece of religious propaganda I've seen. The good animation comes courtesy of Ajia-Do animator Yoshiaki Yanagida and his team of animators. The ancient trappings are re-created in surprisingly authentic detail. The film feels only a step down from Run Melos as a realistic animated re-creation of ancient Greece.

Unless you knew otherwise, the film actually doesn't come across as blatantly pushing a religious agenda. Watching the film without any knowledge of the subtext, it would probably just come across as a pleasing historical epic interrupted occasionally by some baffling spiritual interludes.

Even during these sequences when the film switches to outlining the belief system of the Happies, it's all so incoherent and outlandish that it's hard to make sense of it. I actually came away from the film wishing the belief system had been laid out more clearly. It probably can't be expressed convincingly because it's inherently loony.

The scenes of the spiritual world are beautifully rendered and pleasing to watch, with vivid coloring, atmospheric lighting, and highly worked animation. The scene where El Cantare appears in the clouds has some impressively animated clouds, and when Hermes visits heaven later in the film, he flies through canyons in laboriously animated background animation. The animators clearly reveled in the opportunity of this big-budget production to draw a more 'cinematic' style of animation than they are usually able.

It's fairly easy to watch the film with the aim of appreciating the nice animation while ignoring the religious subtext. It's basically set up as a piece of grand entertainment, with a hidden message, rather than flat-out preaching. The film suffers less from the lunacy of later films in the Happy Science saga. It has no demon Hitler or re-incarnation of Edison, and no anime Shoko Asahara raining terror on Tokyo. Just ancient Greeks, over which some fairly transparent Christian and Buddhist themes are overlaid.

That's the clever and insidious thing about the movie: it's eminently watchable. Like L. Ron Hubbard's pulpy Battlefield Earth books, this film brings people into a religious mythology through entertainment. The film was released in the theater like any normal film. Happy Science is known for using the big marketing company Dentsu, so these films are obviously the product of a highly sophisticated marketing strategy.

Repugnant but beautiful, Hermes entrances you with its high production quality and leaves you shaking your head at its lunacy. It's essentially two films mashed into one. One film is a nice animated swords and sandals epic, and the other is a ludicrous new age freak-out. One moment we're watching a fairly engaging story about a hero fighting against a mad tyrant in ancient Greece, and the next minute we're flying in the spiritual realm being regaled matter-of-factly with snippets of spiritual wisdom such as: Fish in heaven glow a golden color because they're happy to return to heaven. The color and shape of each flower is determined by its governing spirit fairy.

The story

The Hermes in this film is not the herald of the gods in ancient Greek mythology; he's a regular human. He's a Christ-like messianic figure who grows up to lead the people of the Aegean to freedom from under the tyrannical rule of Cretan King Minos and to pass on his divine revelations. Along the way, Minos's daughter Ariadne helps him defeat the Minotaur in the labyrinth using the legendary Ariadne's thread, so some aspects of the story are more faithful to the Greek myths.

Similarly, Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, is re-imagined as a princess locked in a tower on the isolated island of Delos whom Hermes rescues and marries, as foretold by prophecy. With a little help from Okawa's Supreme Being El Cantare, who appears in a cloud to bestow a magic scepter, the godly King and Queen lead their people to prosperity.

The whole point of this story is that, in Okawa's world, Okawa and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite. The tactic is as old as the Kojiki of ancient Japan: establish a heavenly mandate by crafting a godly lineage and disseminating it as dogma. It's astounding that it's still possible to use the same centuries-old tactics in the 21st century.

It's not clear to me exactly how much of the outlandish story in this film is meant to be taken at face value, but it's known that Ryuho Okawa professes that he is literally the re-incarnation of Buddha, and he has heard the voice of Kim Jong-Il and Jesus, among other feats, so presumably we are meant to believe that he and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite.

According to this film, it's thanks to El Cantare's intervention that the people of the Aegean learned commerce. All the basic social and technological advances were god-given. Basically every aspect of human progress can be traced back to the good will of El Cantare, who wants us to be happy. It must require special effort to ignore several millenia of human scientific and social progress.

The film is presented as fiction ("It's time to create a new mythology"), but in the implicit understanding that you're supposed to believe it as factual truth. There is a deliberate ambiguity as to how much of this one is expected to accept as truth. Happy Science obviously thrives in this ambiguous zone between fantasy and reality.

The film has an extended sequence that depicts heaven, and much of it looks suspiciously like earth. The retort offered is: that's because earth is just a reflection of heaven. The irony is apparently lost on them that heaven is being represented by animated drawings, each of which was invented and drawn according to the whim of a human being.

The Happy Science saga

Okawa is aptly named. He is the Disney not of the East but of religious propaganda cartoons. Since releasing Hermes, Wings of Love in 1997, he has released a new lavish full-length adaptation of one of his many books every three years, and each one is as impressively produced as this film.

Hermes, Wings of Love ヘルメス 愛は風の如く (1997) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of the Sun 太陽の法 エル・カンターレへの道 (2000) (watch from part 1)
The Golden Laws 黄金の法 エル・カンターレの歴史観 (2003) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of Eternity 永遠の法 エル・カンターレの世界観 (2006) (watch from part 1)
The Rebirth of Buddha 仏陀再誕 (2009) (watch from part 1)

Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, while the rest of the films were produced by Group Tac. They were actually the last films the studio produced apart from A Stormy Night. From what little I've seen skimming through the films, they're each visually quite impressive, with beautiful compositions and coloring that makes sense coming from Group Tac, but the style doesn't have the sort of realistic-school feeling of Hermes, and the stories are far more crazy.

The animators

Like The Fox of Chironup, Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, directed by Tetsuo Imazawa, and features a sequence of sea animation from Toshiyuki Inoue (misspelled in the credits) that is worth looking at as a nice piece of Toshiyuki Inoue animation even if you don't watch the film. The overhead shot of the waves in particular is amazing. The acting on the ship in this scene stands out starkly from the animation in the rest of the show, clearly because it was so good as handed in that it didn't need correction and hence you can see Inoue's touch quite clearly in things like the acting and the folds of the clothing.

Yoshiaki Yanagida's characters are beefy and three-dimensional in a way that reminds of Okiura's characters in Run Melos, if slightly less expressive in terms of facial expression and stiffer in terms of physical dexterity. The layouts are realistic if stolid and somewhat monotone, and the animation often seems to be struggling with the realistic angles. It gives you a newfound appreciation for how much Satoshi Kon's meticulous layouts contributed to the realism of Run Melos. Yanagida is a lifelong Ajia-Do animator who has been behind some richly animated shows in the past including Spirit of Wonder (1992), Ruin Explorers (1995) and The House of Acorns (1997). More recently, he was behind the OVAs Kujibiki Unbalance (2004) and Genshiken (2006).

There are numerous other good animators besides Inoue, which accounts for the high quality: Yoshiyuki Hane, Shinya Takahashi, Masami Suda (all Toei), Shigeo Akabori (Studio Junio), Takayuki Goto (I.G. co-founder), Yumi Chiba (4C), Tetsuro Kaku (Shin-Ei), Michiyo Suzuki (Madhouse), Atsuo Tobe (Sunrise). Masami Suda was one of the great Toei animators of the 1980s, and he went on to be one of the main figures behind the animation of the rest of the Happy Science films. Yoshiyuki Hane is a great veteran animator who is still very active. He did a lot of work on the classic Takahata TV shows. He single-handedly animated the beautiful opening of Nils Holgerson.

I suspect that the animators chose to work on this film in an attempt to try their hand at the sort of realistic-school animation that had been created prior in films like Run Melos and Junkers Come Here. The style of the film seems to fall deliberately into that tradition. The later films in the series have nothing whatsoever of this character.

All of the subsequent films were directed by Takaaki Ishiyama and produced by Group Tac, with Yoshiyuki Hane and Masami Suda as character designers/sakkans. Isamu Imakake and Koichi Ohata also contribute designs in each film. Shoichi Masuo is even one of the animators.

The director at the very least is a professed Happy, involved in the films as a believer (just look how happy he looks in this interview), but I'm inclined to believe (hope) that most of the people worked on this film not as believers but because work is work, and there aren't many opportunities to revel in big-budget-style animation.

I assume that Group Tac took on these projects in desperation, in a doomed last effort to stave off insolvency. It's a sad thing when great studios are so starved for work that they are forced to turn to producing this kind of material - AND it still doesn't save them from going bankrupt.

Here is a good post on The Rebirth of Buddha that gives you more of a sense of the lunacy of the rest of the Happy Science saga after Hermes and the cultural context.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

09:57:00 pm , 837 words, 6972 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #6

Don't watch this episode with grandma.

Episode 5 was an anomaly in this show - a straightforward but cleverly written caper unfolding through dynamic action, in the spirit of the old Lupin III. That's not what this show is really about. Episode 6 is what this show is really about. To my eyes, this episode is the most dense expression yet of the show's purpose.

It's doing the show a disservice to simply view it as a prequel. It's something different from that. It seems to me a deeply revisionist outing that aims to undermine the male-centric sensibility of the old franchise.

The name of the show was the first provocation. For the 40th anniversary of Lupin III, they scored the sly coup of dethroning the protagonist right in his glory moment in the guise of a side-story about one of the sub-characters, in the process reversing the dynamics of the old show and making the erstwhile protagonists an afterthought, as Fujiko was often treated.

Fujiko, despite being depicted as a cunning foe in the old show, was basically the product of a male gaze in terms of her visual rendering and sexual meaning. The remarkable thing about the new show is that, despite Fujiko being naked much of the time, she isn't erotic. I'm almost reminded of the anti-eroticism of the nude scene in Godard's Contempt. The nudity doesn't come across as titillating. Fujiko seems to feel contempt for anyone who would lust after her. Despite the prevalence of mammaries, the show will be of little 'practical use' to fans of Seikon no Quaser. The nude drawings are pleasing for not being fan-servicey in the traditional sense, not the lust-filled products of male fantasy. The drawings (and spirit of the show) remind me of Kazuko Nakamura's curvy, feminine, de-eroticized Cleopatra.

They have chutzpah, and I have to hand it to them for that, at least. It almost seems to be missing the point to complain that the characters are too different, there isn't enough action, the animation isn't good enough, though I can't deny that those are the first things that spring to my mind while watching this show, since it's the early Lupin III that made me a fan of this show, and this is essentially a different beast altogether. It seems like a different audience.

As for this episode, it's basically Lupin III via Brother, Dear Brother, with its bizarre girls' school in which apparently every girl has a lesbian crush on their teacher - which in turn reminded me why I couldn't get past episode 1 of that show. Instead of a male fantasy, now it's a female fantasy, and I'm not sure it's much of an improvement. I just didn't find the episode particularly interesting or entertaining. All of the characters were ridiculous to me, especially Oscar (a nod to Rose of Versailles?).

The episode was written by Mari Okada and storyboarded/directed by Shoko Nakamura, so it's a thoroughly female gaze episode. You know it's girly when they call in Tadashi Hiramatsu, who presumably did the scene near the end that refreshingly had some sprightly drawings/movement for once.

We've been seeing flashbacks to Fujiko's childhood for a while now, usually drawn in a bizarro byzantine style, and there was a particularly bizarro one this time around, with Fujiko eating mice while owl men experiment on her, interspersed with borderline illegibly florid Gothic type-on-steroids doggerel and avant garde background noise. The flashbacks seem to be building towards a revelation of some new sexual, druggy, disturbing vision of Fujiko's childhood.

There was a curious moment where they reference the famous line near the end of Cagliostro where Zenigata says to Clarissa that Lupin has stolen the worst thing of all... your heart. The suggestion is treated as nothing so much as a joke. Aside from being a playful reference to one of the movies that established the franchise, it seems to poke fun at the naive romanticism of Miyazaki's Lupin to underline how much more rooted in frank sexuality and psychology this series is.

They gleefully revel in the prurient stuff in this episode, with Fujiko deep-tonguing schoolgirls and being doused with wine while strapped naked to a bench, which bothered me less than the pretentiousness and literary affectations of the script. Kemonozume had a much more sexually frank shower love scene that I found quite beautiful, so the sexual material is not what bothers me. If anything, what bothers me is that all of the characters seem sadistic for no good reason, and the script is weirdly eager to devise cruel turns of phrase, i.e. calling Fujiko a "spitpot". A spitpot? Huh? The writing is way overbaked. Belladonna is one of my favorite films, and Borowczyk one of my favorite directors. I wanted to see more adult material in Lupin III, so I find it ironic that I'm disappointed by what I'm seeing. I also found the episode needlessly confusing in terms of the directing. Confusing directing isn't artistic, it's just confusing.

At least the squirrels were funny.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

07:28:00 pm , 1985 words, 5391 views     Categories: OVA, Studio: Anime R, 1980s

Black Magic M-66

One of the classics of the golden age of OVAs is Black Magic M-66 from 1987. It was one of my favorites back when I was getting into anime, with its violent, exciting action and hard-boiled, no-nonsense story. It was a superb high-quality one-off - exactly what I wanted to see in an anime OVA - although in the end it felt a little slight and undeveloped.

I just re-watched it for the first time in many years, and the quality was far better than I'd remembered, probably because I didn't have the ability to appreciate good animation back then. The animation has impressive tension and energy.

As a film it's a bit problematic. It seems like it would make a strong film in theory, and it maintains interest at every moment due to the cinematic pacing and high-quality animation, but something about it feels off overall. But in the end it's a nice OVA with some uniquely detailed directing and animation, and is well worth re-visiting.

The film was co-directed by the author of the original manga, Shirow Masamune, and Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Shirow Masamune drew the storyboard himself, so this is probably the highest-grade Shirow Masamune anime. Later films like Ghost in the Shell bear the heavy imprint of their director.

I'm not sure exactly how the work was divided between the two directors apart from this, but perhaps Kitakubo was something of a line director on the project, Shirow Masamune providing the skeleton and details and Kitakubo putting them together, i.e. handling the technical matters of anime production about which the manga creator would have been ignorant. From Blood: The Last Vampire to Rojin Z, Kitakubo is unsurpassed at making highly dense short entertainment packages, and this film is no exception.

This was Shirow Masamune's first time ever drawing a storyboard, so he used the recently published storyboard for Miyazaki's Nausicaa as a reference on how to draw the storyboard. This certainly accounts for the film's unique feeling. His storyboard is extremely detailed, like his manga (see some examples here), so very little in the final product was left up to chance. No person acquainted with anime production would have storyboarded the film in the way he did; they would certainly have taken an easier way out, according to what they understood by experience could be achieved within the given deadline. The film apparently wound up many months over schedule, presumably due to the demands of the storyboard, resulting in its release being delayed by almost a year. The Gundress debacle is testament to how much of a generous concession this was on the part of the production company. But Masamune Shirow's direct input was simultaneously the film's liability and its greatest asset, because he brought an outsider's approach untainted by conventional anime thinking to the task of presenting the story.

But what was bad for the production company is good for us, as in the end it's because they were able to lavish such detail on the animation that the film still holds up after all these years. This unusually long production period resulted in a tight film in which each shot is highly worked, there is no wasted moment, and the action and effects animation is truly impressive. At around 45 minutes, it has the pacing and atmosphere of a film, but the length of a slightly longer-than-usual direct-to-video release. In that respect it's reminiscent of Hiroyuki Kitakubo's later Blood: The Last Vampire.

The narrative is satisfying because it's driven by visual storytelling rather than wordy explanations. They do an impressive job of visually conveying a future (yet familiar) world of believable cybernetic military sci-fi trappings. The storytelling is lean, the script is pleasingly serious and no-nonsense, consisting mostly of authentic-sounding terse and cryptic military exchanges. The action scenes are long and meaty, with each physical action depicted in convincing detail. The coloring palette of the film is toned down in a way that helps make it feel more realistic.

That's not to say it's dead serious. The films balances seriousness with fan-service. The film opens (predictably for an AIC production) with a nude scene that is saved from being in poor taste only by the fact that it's quite funny and isn't played up for lurid fetishism. The shot where Sibelle picks the sheet from the bottom of the pile and the pile topples over but she doesn't even notice because she's so intent gives the scene a pleasingly tongue-in-cheek tone. Kitakubo's only previous directing credit was Cream Lemon: Pop Chaser, which despite being the pioneering adult anime was more funny and exciting than titillating. Kitakubo also gives the film an edge of cleverness through directing tricks, for example when he cuts from a photo of the professor in the newspaper to the headlights of a vehicle where his eyes were. Rintaro did a similar gag in Download.

Despite the effort put into the details, the cumulative effect of the film is underwhelming for some reason. It feels sluggish and lacking in tension. But the serious-minded story, detail-oriented directing and powerful action scenes more than make up for this, and in the end, it may not be a Great Film, but it's closer to being one than most OVAs. At the very least, it's a damn sight better than the boring Appleseed OVA that came out one year later. It's a satisfying and entertaining little action film.

The animation

The quality of the film is strangely uneven. The animation is very high quality, but the backgrounds are not very good overall, and flat-out bad in some shots. Even the animation, which is quite strong, feels somehow rough. It feels in essence like highly polished TV animation, rather than the movie-caliber animation of Akira from the next year, for example. Despite striving for cinematic feeling, the film's layouts are fairly standard, without the careful simulation of camera lens focal length that is one of the subtle but important ways Akira and other films achieve a feeling of reality. To be fair, there aren't many OVAs that top this one in terms of animation quality. And most importantly, the animation is very satisfying. The action is good, and the drawings feel good at every moment.

Hiroyuki Okiua, Toru Yoshida and the other animators of Osaka subcontractor Anime R are to thank for the quality of the animation. Hiroyuki Okiura oversaw the characters and Toru Yoshida oversaw the mecha. This was Okiura's first job as sakkan. He had just debuted a few years before, mostly drawing impressive mecha animation on a few Sunrise shows like SPT Layzner (1985-1986), and very quickly made a name for himself at a very young age. Astoundingly, he turned 20 during production of Black Magic M-66. Toru Yoshida, meanwhile, had debuted not long before Okiura, first coming to prominence on Armor Trooper Votoms (1983-1984), on which Okiura worked as an inbetweener. Okiura drew what is one of his first genga in the last episode, uncredited, while Yoshida was still being credited as an inbetweener early on in the series despite the fact that he was drawing genga, so they debuted very close together.

The character animation is strong throughout thanks to Okiura's laborious work as sakkan. Despite having been pegged a mecha animator in his first few years, Okiura didn't view himself as such. He just wanted to draw detailed animation like one of his idols Takashi Nakamura, and in anime at the time the mecha animation was one of the places where there were fewer restrictions on the number of drawings you were allowed to use. That's the reason many 'mover' type animators like Okiura - and Shinya Ohira - started out as mecha animators. This was Okiura's first step towards becoming a character animator. Even at this early stage, you can sense Okiura's uncommon skills. The character animation feels unusually rich, even in throwaway shots like the shot at the beginning where Sibelle is writing something down, although this is no doubt also in part thanks to Shirow Masamune's detailed storyboard and Kitakubo's detail-oriented style of directing.

The key animation credits are divided between Anime R, Atelier Giga and AIC/freelance animators. I wrote about Atelier Giga before in my post on Cool Cool Bye and Relic Armor Legaciam. It was an informal gathering of ex-Bebow animators. Although Atelier Giga did not survive long past 1987, many of its animators stayed on at AIC for years to come. The impressive names in the AIC/freelance grouping are Shinya Ohira and Satoru Utsunomiya. I suspect Utsunomiya handled the scene in the restaurant, though I'm not positive.

Anime R receives a prominent spot in the credits, and its animators were responsible for many of the best parts in the film. This is in essence an Anime R film in terms of the actual drawings, although the production company was AIC/Animate. The big battle that is the highlight of the first half of the film was animated by Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida and Kazuaki Mouri of Anime R. Okiura handled the beginning in the forest up until the impressive turning shot where the robot hurls the vehicle (pic 3 at top), and the rest was animated by Yoshida and Mouri. Mouri in particular did the impressive shots where the robot wields the metal pipe in beautiful acrobatic action (pic 4). Okiura also drew the climactic scene on the rooftop (pic 1). Shinya Ohira helped Okiura out with this section by animating a few shots where the building crumbles (pic 2). This is the same year that Ohira worked on the effects extravaganza that is the Captain Power home shooter game, and Toru Yoshida was the other big figure behind the animation of Captain Power, so Toru Yoshida may have been an influence on Ohira's development into an effects animator. This scene in Black Magic M-66 is also presumably what led to Ohira animating the smoke and building crumbling in Akira. Amusingly enough, right after Akira, Ohira animated another crumbling building in an episode of Peter Pan sakkan'd by Okiura. Ohira was an animator in Okiura's sakkan debut, and he is an animator in Okiura's latest film.

Black Magic M-66 came out a year before Akira, and in fact it feels reminiscent of Akira in various subtle ways. It almost feels like a dry run for Akira. The basic elements are similar - gruff general and crazy scientist after a rogue experimental subject with superhuman powers on a killing spree - and the military elements are depicted (visually and by the script) very realistically and methodically, and even the gestures sometimes feel similar. It's presumably seeing Okiura's work on Black Magic M-66 that prompted Katsuhiro Otomo to invite Hiroyuki Okiura to work on Akira. After working under Nakamura on Akira, Okiura went on to provide great animation under Nakamura again in Peter Pan and Catnapped, not to mention becoming one of the key figures behind the two Ghost in the Shell films alongside fellow (ex-)Anime R animator Kazuchika Kise, who is also present as an animator here (though he was technically at Anime R sister studio Mu).

Incidentally, the impressively nuanced animation in the elevator just before the climax was animated by two animators who aren't credited. It was animated by Yoshiyuki Ichikawa 市川吉幸 based on roughs by Yuji Moriyama 森山ゆうじ. Both were members of Studio MIN, formed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo himself in 1982. MIN was one of the many artist collectives euphemistically known as a studio that were formed in the 1980s. MIN disbanded in 1991, immediately after production of Kitakubo's Rojin Z.

Black Magic M-66 ブラックマジックM-66 (Animate Film/AIC, OVA, 1987, 47 mins)

Created by:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
Director/Script/Storyboard:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
Director/Structure/Character Design:北久保弘之Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Animation Director:沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
Mechanic Animation Director:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Art Director:本田修Osamu Honda
Music:片柳譲陽Yoshiharu Katayanagi
Key Animation: アニメアール Anime R
 吉田徹Toru Yoshida黄瀬和哉Kazuchika Kise
浜川修二郎Shujiro Hamakawa谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
柳沢まさひでMasahide Yanagisawa寺田浩之Hiroyuki Terada
逢坂浩司Hiroshi Ousaka沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
 アトリエ戯雅 Atelier Giga
 宇佐美皓一Koichi Usami
岩瀧智Satoshi Iwataki
ところともかずTomokazu Tokoro
小曽根正美Masami Kosone
さとうけいいちKeiichi Sato
仲盛文Morifumi Naka
林宏樹 Hiroki Hayashi
田中正弘 Masahiro Tanaka
宇都宮智 Satoru Utsunimiya
橋本浩一 Koichi Hashimoto
清水義治 Yoshiharu Shimizu
大平晋也 Shinya Ohira

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

11:33:00 pm , 1365 words, 5323 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #5

I've been meaning to post something other than about this show, but I've been a little too busy... At least this show forces me to write something once a week.

Now this is more like it! This episode had pretty much everything I've been wanting to see in this show the whole time: a story with adult themes and wit, packaged in stylish drawings and fun, engaging directing. None of the previous episodes were up to this level. Either the episode had a good story but weak animation or something else felt missing. This one hit every note just right. Extremely fun to watch from start to finish, with a witty script and adventure story pitting the main characters against one another, while still managing to do a lot of great visual storytelling. The good (and surprising) staffing of this episode makes me more optimistic about the future episodes.

Shin Itagaki was the storyboarder, director as well as one of the animation directors and even top spot in the key animation credits, so he's the big man behind this episode. He's done by far the work with the strongest personality on the show so far. He has done a lot of work on action style shows in a TV context over the last few years, so he has obviously gained a lot of experience in how to make an exciting episode on a short schedule/budget. This episode is a prime example proving the idea that even on a short budget with no schedule, it's possible to do good work; it's just about the staff. The old Lupin III animators were really good, but technically speaking I think the really good staff today are even better than those guys were back then in terms of raw power and in terms of knowing little techniques to make every shot they draw feel good, and Itagaki is a prime example of such an animator. (though he didn't draw this whole episode; there were 15 other key animators) He knows how to maintain interest through the directing, for example sliding the background slowly in still shots to maintain momentum (something he probably learned from Imaishi).

I liked how the episode had that good old Indiana Jones adventure story action, all of it done with satisfyingly exciting animation. Itagaki worked alongside Imaishi in the past, and you can sense the Kanada influence in his work here. He brought on other Kanada-influenced animators like Anime R animator Fumiaki Kouta and Futoshi Higashide. The part with the fire pictured above felt like Kouta with its heavily stylized Kanada-school effects. Higashide I first became aware of from his crazy work on Dead Leaves. He also drew a nice solo episode of Dokkoida. He's done a lot of work since then, but I haven't followed him closely. He's not a pure Kanada-school animator. He's something more unique. There were some really wacky and fun drawings around where the scorpions show up, so I wonder if he didn't do that part.

Either way, these two animators no doubt helped Itagaki bring alive the action scenes. There were lots of shots that felt really nice as animation around the part where Jigen and Lupin are facing off against one another and Jigen is running around evading the traps. This was the first episode that delivered the kind of action rush I expect of Lupin III. Appropriately enough, Itagaki started out at Telecom, which is perhaps why he snuck a cameo of Yasuo Otsuka riding a jeep into the episode. That was nice to see. He has often mentioned Otsuka from his days at Telecom in one of his columns. He worked at Telecom for almost 7 years before going freelance, so he's an honest to goodness Telecom animator. You can see a few drawings he drew of himself grinning happily while he's learning from Otsuka here.

Shin Itagaki also has a good sense of humor. It's the sort of visual humor you associate with Imaishi. He knows how to time and stage shots in a way that is playful and fun. The shot where Jigen can't quite get his zippo to spark up was a great gag lead-in to the fire booby trap, for example. I liked the live-action Jigen-Lupin face-off shot at midway. I wonder whose face that was. Itagaki also has a good sense for getting the important little details we associate with the show right, like the accurate drawings of the guns - you can see the writing on the bullets when Jigen loads his Magnum. There were also plenty of cool and stylish shots. I particularly liked the angled layouts and long shadows in the closing scene.

The Kanada school was in full swing with all sorts of followers by the time of the third Lupin III show in the mid-80s, so there were inevitably moments of Kanada-school animation in that show, though for the most part the show felt more A Pro than Kanada thanks to supervisor Yuzo Aoki. Many years later, Itagaki is an interesting hybrid - Telecom yet Kanada, he has exactly the sort of touch it would take to make Lupin III episodes as fun and free as the old episodes. He's not alone; there are plenty of other animators who could do work up to his level. Perhaps they should have focused on going in that direction. If they had managed to get the right animators, the shortage of staff wouldn't have been such an issue. That's one of the nice things about how so many animators today are freelance. I would assume it facilitates getting someone onboard if you're a producer looking for good staff and you want them on your show. I'd love to see a show where an animator like Itagaki is forced to draw a whole episode or half episode in a fairly short schedule, the way the animators of the old shows undoubtedly were. I like the idea of a talented animator forced to whip out the shots in a more quick and spontaneous style rather than laboring over the shots. Even rough-around-the-edges animation from a great animator is preferable to mediocre animation that's detailed but without spark.

Story-wise, we're in Egypt again. Lupin got possessed by the mask of Tutankhamun in red jacket episode 7 and visited Egypt again in Mamo, while he made excursions to nearby Algeria in red jacket episode 30 and then Iraq in Gold of Babylon. In a desert connection, there was good desert action in Bye Bye Liberty in Death Valley.

Finally, we're past the introductory episodes and we've got several of the main characters together. Only Zenigata and Goemon are missing. I have to admit it's nice not having Zenigata predictably showing up every episode shouting "Taiho da~~~!" I felt they adhered way too strictly to that convention in the old show and the stories would have benefited from a little variety.

There was nice tension between Lupin and Jigen as they tested one another while dodging the various death traps, with Fujiko the cunning trickster manipulating the both of them towards her own ends all the while. That dynamic was just right. All of the character had something of a harder and more serious edge than they did before. The clash of these three personalities is honestly more interesting than the bland camaraderie of much previous Lupin. Lupin, Jigen and Goemon are the same old characters we knew, but a little more hard-edged, while Zenigata has a new personality, and Fujiko is the same character, but far more layered and complex than before. And now she's a nudist.

There was one instance of staff continuity in this episode: Hideyuki Motohashi. He is one of the former Z5 animators I wrote about in my post on the pink jacket series. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s as an animator equally at home drawing mecha action and bikei characters on the TMS robot action show Tetsujin 28. It's nice to see this veteran still working on the front lines as an animator after all these years. It's fascinating that an old school animator like this can even adapt himself to drawing more modern cute characters with the recent Kamisama Dolls.