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: June 2012, 07

Thursday, June 7, 2012

04:23:00 pm , 680 words, 9589 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #9

Lupin and Jigen save a mute tattooed girl from the inexplicable wrath of a possessed Fujiko as the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. They're in no rush to disclose the gimmick too quickly, though, and we don't learn much new information in this episode aside from seeing just how deeply disturbed and disturbing a character Fujiko is in this version, seemingly driven mad by her inner demons. The script even makes a joke about how slow the revelation is coming, when Jigen, voicing the audience's impatience, asks Lupin to confess what he knows about Fujiko, but Lupin rejoinders tauntingly in the voice of the writers, "I'm not going to give it away that easily."

Aside from more of the same disturbing flashback sequences, I fairly enjoyed this episode. The whole episode proceeded in the form of an extended action sequence that was fairly well paced and choreographed and entertaining to watch. The production values remained stolid at best, but were probably above average for this series.

Lupin and Jigen got a lot of screentime and exchanged entertaining banter. The dynamic felt good, like in the old Lupin. Their behavior and actions also brought alive their personalities well. The sequence at the beginning with a disheartened Jigen trying and failing to win a prize at the shooting gallery was funny in the spirit of the old Lupin, and the story about the freak show actually being a pretense for a secret auction reminded of a similar setup in an episode in the first series. Not to mention there were several smuggled goods auction plots in the second series. The script was written by main writer Mari Okada.

The only odd thing about the episode was Fujiko, unsurprisingly, who behaved like a bizarre stone-faced zombie the whole time, like a sexy Terminator out to kill the girl for some unknown reason. We never even find out why in the end. The trauma of some kind of sexual or physical assault is hinted to underpin her personality in this show, a serious subject that sits uncomfortably beside the old Lupin gang antics.

The storyboarder was Yoshitomo Yonetani. He's a veteran from the 1980s who started out at Toei and did a lot of work for Shin-Ei, but I'm not very familiar with his work. I haven't seen almost any of his work until this, but in looking him up I read that one of the recurring motifs in his work is foreigners speaking bad Japanese, and what do you know, there are foreigners speaking bad Japanese in this episode. There isn't really any narrative need for that scene to have been there, so it's obviously his trademark that he wanted to insert. Kind of a lame trademark, if you ask me. I like how he managed to create fairly interesting action throughout the episode. The action scene on the gondola was pretty nice. It's a great idea for an action scene. It's just that the scene lacks tension for some reason, perhaps because he didn't process his own storyboard, or because the animation of those scenes isn't very dynamic. I particularly liked how during the chase at the onsen in the second half Lupin is constantly making wisecracks and pulling faces, never taking it all seriously. Also, the avant jazz music complemented this scene very well.

There was one bit of animation that caught my eye. It's where the movement suddenly turns to ones in slo-mo as Lupin, Jigen and the girl run away from Fujiko in the room. It was strangely out of place and unexpected, although Yonetani did storyboard much of the action in this episode using slo-mos. That seems to be his style. Their run down the corridor right afterwards also had a nice feeling to the timing. Yonetani even inserted one more joke about gaijins in Japan during this chase, as the group leaps into a room where a gaijin is dancing with a geisha. This guy really has a weird obsession with making fun of gaijins in Japan. Which I can't really fault him.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

01:49:00 am , 1886 words, 7547 views     Categories: Studio: Anime R, 1980s, 1990s

Anime games

I don't play games anymore, but I'm interested in the dynamic between animation and games. Games owe a lot to animation. Yoichi Kotabe brought Mario alive. Animated openings to games remain common, and many narrative-style games incorporate cut-scene animation (Popolocrois IMO being the crowning example), but most interesting to me are games where the actual game play consists of hand-drawn animation. LD games were the first of this kind.

After the release of Don Bluth's groundbreaking Dragon's Lair laserdisc arcade game in 1983, there was a brief fad for this new format up until about 1985, when it fizzled out due presumably to the limitations of the gameplay. Between 1983 and 1985, several Japanese games were made in the same mold as Dragon's Lair using LD technology. Although obviously none of them were anything near the level of the amazing animation in Bluth's game, some of them had impressive animation.

Initially, in 1983, the releases were hacked together from previously extisting movies: Cliffhanger from bits of Cagliostro (and also Yuzo Aoki's car chase scene from Mamo) and Bega's Battle from Harmageddon (Yamato and Galaxy Express 999 also later got this treatment), but in 1984 they started putting out original titles. Some of these like Ninja Hayate and Badlands had bad animation and generally sloppy production of the kind you'd expect from a cheap knockoff made as a quick cash-in, but Cobra Command, Road Blaster and Time Gal had impressive animation.

Time Gal (1985, Taito/Junio, Arcade LD Game)
Director:今沢哲男Tetsuo Imazawa
Character Designer:我妻宏Hiroshi Wagatsuma
Animation Director:毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
Animators:毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
井上俊之Toshiyuki Inoue
うつのみやさとるSatoru Utsunomiya

Full Game Play: Past - Present - Future

Time Gal is my favorite of the Japanese LD games. It features a girl travelling around different eras of history, riding on the wings of Zero fighters, fighting pirates, dodging asteroids and aliens and dinosaurs and giant robots. Stylistically it's closest of the Japanese laserdisc games to the Don Bluth originals. It's a lighthearted romp starring a spunky heroine running around evading various colorful enemies, whereas the other games tend to be dry affairs without humor or personality, with you just driving or flying around shooting things. The creators admit to deliberately modeling Time Gal after Space Ace.

Time Gal also has some of the best animation of any of the Japanese LD games. The animation comes courtesy of none other than the selfsame Kazuaki Mouri I just talked about, who was the animation director. In addition, the animators include no less than Toshiyuki Inoue and Satoru Utsunomiya. The animation appears to have been produced by Studio Junio (The Fox of Chironup, Hermes, Wings of Love), although they are not credited, because the director and animation director are Junio people, and of course Toshiyuki Inoue was at Junio at the time. As it happens, so was Utsunomiya. He had apparently just joined Junio because he admired Inoue's animation on Gu-Gu Ganmo and wanted to work near Inoue. These two had an interesting rivalry going at the time. Inoue had similarly become aware of Utsunomiya at the same time. He had wondered who the amazing animator was behind the good genga he'd seen turned in on Around the World in 80 Days, whose chief animation director was Junio founder Takao Kosai, and later discovered it to be Utsunomiya.

The game has 16 stages, five each of which take place in the past, the present and the future. Satoru Utsunomiya's section is Stage 4 with the mammoth, while Toshiyuki Inoue animated Stage 7 with the god of death, as well as possibly Stage 13 with the giant robot in the tunnel and Stage 16 with the last boss.

I particularly like Inoue's stage with the giant zombie skeleton swinging a scythe. The forms are beautiful and the timing feels incredible, and the whole thing takes place in the middle of this slow animated panning effect, as if it wasn't challenging enough to just draw the action by itself and he wanted to pose himself the further challenge of maintaining proper proportion and perspective in motion. It's a great snapshot of just how amazing an animator Toshiyuki Inoue already was at this early stage in his career. (he had just debuted a year before)

Satoru Utsunomiya's brief but intense segment with the mammoth is quite an eye-opener and reveals a side of him that we're not used to seeing anymore. This was before he developed the distinctive solid style for which he's become known. At this stage he was still drawing very wild and free animation full of comically exaggerated effects and timing.

I suspect Kazuaki Mouri may have animated some of the other sections, but I don't know for sure. The very first stage with the dinosaurs, for example, has some very nice movement that was perhaps of Mouri's hand.

Cobra Command (1984, Data East/Toei, Arcade LD Game)
Director:高山秀樹Hideki Takayama
松浦錠平Johei Matsuura
Animation Director:亀垣一Hajime Kamegaki
Assistant Animation Director:今隅眞一Shinichi Imakuma
Animators:亀垣一Hajime Kamegaki
白土武Takeshi Shirato
白浦烈Baik Nam Yeul
佐々木正光Masamitsu Sasaki
大島城次Joji Ohshima
八島義孝Yoshitaka Yajima
本橋秀之Hideyuki Motohashi
青鉢芳信Yoshinobu Aohachi
Road Blaster (1985, Data East/Toei, Arcade LD Game)
Director:高山秀樹Hideki Takayama
Chief Key Animator:稲野義信Yoshinobu Inano
Background Design:Yoshiyuki Yamamoto
Animators:白浦烈Baik Nam Yeul
今隅眞一Shinichi Imakuma
的場茂夫Shigeo Matoba
金大中Kim Dae Jung
Kaoru Shinbo

Full Game Play: Cobra Command - Road Blaster

These two titles were produced by Data East, who farmed the animation out to Toei. Toei had actually prior to this been put in charge of the animation of Ninja Hayate, but they had really botched that one. These two are in a different league. Both are challenging and fast-paced games packed with nonstop action. The animation also doesn't stop in either one. There isn't a still moment - every moment is animated, because the motion of the vehicles is all depicted by hand-drawn animation.

It would have been inconceivable to animate a conventional anime production the way these are. Storyboarding long shots that go on for upwards of a minute and consist entirely of nonstop animated backgrounds would have been a sure ticket to being fired. These games were in a unique position of being able to be lavished with an unprecedented density of animation for a Japanese production. There were occasional moments in TV productions where a wild animator like Masahito Yamashita would create a crazy sequence of background animation, but these games pushed background animation to a whole new level.

The person behind the quality of Cobra Command was Hajime Kamegaki, the Kanada-school animator who together with Hideyuki Motohashi (here also present as an animator) did so much good work on TV shows in the 1980s from their legendary Studio Z5.

The person behind the quality of Road Blaster was Yoshinobu Inano, one of the greatest animators nobody has ever heard of. He was one of the most talented animators at Toei in the late 1970s/early 1980. He pioneered a unique kind of quasi-realistic animation that went on to influence many later great animators including Mitsuo Iso. You can see his style most clearly in the opening of the game where the punks wreak havoc in the city, sending bystanders running.

Captain Power: Battle Training (1988, 3 VHS tapes, AIC)
Animation Directors:大平晋也Shinya Ohira
矢野淳Atsushi Yano
Key Animators:Vol. 1
西井正典Masanori Nishii
伊藤浩二Koji Ito
田野雅祥Masayoshi Tano
生亀信幸Nobuyuki Namakame
山中英治Eiji Yamanaka
Vol. 2 & 3
逢坂浩司Hiroshi Osaka
毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
糸島雅彦Masahiko Itojima
濱川修二郎Shujiro Hamakawa
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
貴志芙美子Fumiko Kishi
太田雅三Yuzo Ohta
伊良原正也Masaya Irahara
山中英治Eiji Yamanaka

By 1988 when the three VHS tapes of this game were released, LD anime games were dead. This game is basically just straight animation without any branching or death scenes. You were supposed to aim your toy gun at the screen and a sensor in the gun would detect when you had properly targeted the flashing missiles on the screen and eject the pilot from your toy if you had not.

Captain Power: Battle Training picks up where the latter two titles left off: it's one long, extended, nonstop torrent of background animation and explosions. I'd go so far as to say it's the crowning achievement in background/effects animation in anime. Where the previous two titles were actually pretty iffy in a lot of the background animation, almost all of the BG animation here is impressive, and much of it is downright stunning. I already wrote about this a long time ago, so I won't re-hash my gushing, but I really love this thing. It's my bible of anime FX animation.

Shinya Ohira is of course the big name behind the incredible beauty and power of the animation here, but the fact is that he was backed up by some of the best mecha and effects animators of the day. Most significantly, Anime R was behind the animation of parts 2 and 3. Hiroshi Osaka, Fumiko Kishi, Masahiko Itojima, Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida, Kazuaki Mouri - all the best Anime R animators worked on parts two and three. That makes this another great introduction to the style of Anime R at their peak after U-GAIM (and SPT Layzner if you have a little more time to spare), although in this one it can be a little difficult to distinguish between the Anime R bits and the Ohira bits.

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, the entirety of Captain Power: Battle Training can be viewed online.

Yarudora series (1998-2000, 6 volumes, Production I.G, PS & PS2)

Vol. 1: Double Cast (1998, PS)
Vol. 2: Kisetsu wo Dakishimete (1998, PS)
Vol. 3: Sampaguita (1998, PS)
Vol. 4: Yukiwari no Hana (1998, PS)
Vol. 5: Scandal (2000, PS2)
Vol. 6: Blood: The Last Vampire (2000, PS2)

Many years after the LD game boom, Production I.G. picked up the torch of animated games with their Yarudora series from 1998-2000, plugging animation into the popular formula of anime-styled but illustration-based sim games. Rather than a reflex-based adventure game where you were dodging foes like in the early days, this time you were guiding your character through a complicated story. You made choices at key junctures, which led to different possible outcomes: anime via Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. The stories were alternately psychological and violent. The last two volumes Scandal and Blood were action outings as opposed to the more psychological preceding quartet.

The highlight of the series is Yukiwari no Hana, which looked very different from all of the other volumes due to the beautiful Jin-Roh-esque pared-down realistic character designs and dark-hued visual concept of Masatsugu Arakawa. I'd still like to see more anime that look like this.

The last outing in the Yarudora series was a game tie-in with Hiroyuki Kitakubo's Blood: The Last Vampire movie. In a curious coincidence, it happened to be Shinya Ohira's comeback to animation after several years of absence. He animated the scene here and his style is unmistakable. The animation is reminiscent of Hamaji, which was the last thing he had done before leaving the industry a few years earlier. Anime games have marked two significant points in Ohira's career - the peak of his FX period and the start of his current character-as-FX period.

Bringing things full-circle, Ohira was even behind the next step in the evolution of animated gaming: He directed a playable animated stage of the recent Asura's Wrath game that is not only a monumental new piece of animation in its own right (a worthy companion piece to Wanwa), but that also pushes the neglected genre of traditional animated gaming forward into the new millennium, with its more involved gameplay and the fact that it is an online download. The short seems to hark back to the LD games of yore, since it involves an extended sequence of fast action requiring quick reflexes.