Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: February 2014, 16

Sunday, February 16, 2014

06:54:00 pm , 901 words, 6898 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #7

Dandy joins a no-holds-barred space race out of petty jealousy and winds up getting transported into the distant future...

Packed head to toe with nonstop hilarity and action, this was one of the best episodes yet. This episode provides exactly what I want to see from Space Dandy: Solid entertainment, sheer idiocy, and irreproachable quality.

Redline and Wacky Races spring to mind as comparisons, but there are no shortage of predecessors in the venerable crazy racing genre, and this episode delivers everything you could want in such an episode. A parade of colorful enemies battle it out with one outrageous-looking racecar after another along a perilous racecourse offering a variety of different obstacles. Solid production values keep this episode afloat, with strong animation and visuals generally, and solid directing that keep things racing through to the end with plenty of twists and turns. With its ludicrous designs like a giant flying heel and a rocket in the shape of an enormous boob, it also reminds the tastelessly silly mecha in classic Tatsunoko shows.

Goro Taniguchi storyboards and So Toyama directs. Taniguchi's first big job as a director was in 1999 at Sunrise with Infinite Ryvius, an underappreciated sci-fi Lord of the Flies, before he went on to direct the excellent Planetes in 2003, and then Code Geass, which I haven't seen but is presumably what he's best known for now. (The whole Planetes/Geass team is present here, if you add Ichiro Okochi from the previous episode.) He appears to have been storyboarding mostly in the last few years, and he shows off his chops here. I'm not as familiar with Toyama, but the episode has great polish, so he did an impeccable job bringing Taniguchi's board to life.

Writer Kimiko Ueno is putting in quite an impressive showing. This is her third script to date. I loved the twist she pulled at the end by turning the heartthrob bidanshi cliche on its head and making the prince fall for Dandy. She was a good choice for this episode, as there are lots of other fun bits that prove she's Dai Sato's spiritual successor. When the S&M racer girl begins demonstrating what seems to be various sex positions, the announcer rushes in to tell the kiddies that she's just demonstrating her "combat moves". She nails Dandy's lovable but craven showoff personality - he goes for his "last resort" right at the beginning of the race. Was that an Ideon reference when the planet gets split in half near the end?

Topping a crazy and silly episode off is one of the more trippy and mind-bending endings yet, with Dandy traveling into the future after having a homoerotic space collision only to encounter a Dandy Buddha?! The episode ends with a "The End" credit, again implying that the story starts anew with each episode. Although it would be entertaining if all of these tantalizing clues being dropped about parallel universes or whatever turned out to be nothing but MacGuffins there just to yank the chain of speculation-prone viewers, I'm curious to see if the show begins to tie all of these threads at some point later in the series in a way that makes sense.

All of the characters had their moments to shine, even the baddies, and the episode is filled with amusing touches. The most obvious was the periodic title card with singsong "Dandy" cutting between scenes in the style of a classic cartoon, which was a great touch in the spirit of the show.

Chiba Yuriko, designer of Planetes, acts as sakkan, and does a great job, as the drawings of the characters throughout are flawless. The prince was rendered immaculately beautiful, befitting his sparkles, and Dandy's yankee attitude came out particularly nicely in his various expressions. Series designer Yoshiyuki Ito was brought in to design the character, which makes sense, as he is good at creating bikei characters like this where delicacy of line is of the essence. Bones regular and mecha specialist Eiji Nakata is co-credited as sakkan, so he presumably oversaw the mecha. I was thinking he probably did the shot in the opening with the mecha of increasing size, and that we'd probably be seeing him appear in the inevitable mecha-themed episode.

The episode featured an even bigger designer cast than usual due to the requirements to design so many vehicles and racers. One surprise name was Hiroyuki Imaishi, who took time off from his own show to design some hilariously ridiculous spaceships, like the one with a truck for a nipple/cockpit, and the waitress's nudemobile with boobs for headlights and butt for a fender. It appears that his rough designs weren't used as is, though, but were cleaned up by mecha designer Fumihiro Katagai. Takuhito Kusanagi designed the flower announcer alien this time around, which is an amusing blend of sunflower and flamenco dancer. He had quite a bit of screen time this time.

I couldn't pin down much of the animation, but there was plenty of nice work. Yutaka Nakamura is the most prominent name in the credits, but there are other talented animators - Jun Okuda, Mamoru Yasuhiko, Koichi Shimoda, Kazumi Inadome, Johei Ohara, and Tetsuro Tamaki. They're names I see often but I don't know their work well enough to identify it. Hiroyuki Mori, Yuichi Nakazawa and Tomohiro Takayama presumably worked on the mecha. Johei Ohara goes way back, having been a designer on Birth in 1984.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

12:05:00 am , 1152 words, 6440 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #6

On a lonely planet somewhere, an old war has raged for centuries. Down to only one on each side, they battle on, even though they can't even remember the reason why the war started. Dandy tries to bring peace, but it's in vain - their ideological differences prove too great. Dandy surfs off into the sunset on a space wave as the planet explodes into a million pieces.

This is easily the most offbeat episode the show has given us so far. Previous episodes fell generally within the norm in terms of character behavior and storytelling styles, but this episode is more out there, more indie, more handmade. Darkly humorous, deadpan but goofy, with weird drawings and a weirder story, it's a classic Michio Mihara episode.

It's almost a tradition for there to be a Michio Mihara episode in each Masaaki Yuasa's TV shows - Kemonozume #12 (2006), Kaiba #4 (2008), Tatami Galaxy #10 (2010) - but this episode breaks the tradition by coming in a non-Yuasa show. All of those shows were produced by Madhouse, and I mentioned before how ex-Madhouse people were heavily involved here, so perhaps it makes sense that Mihara's next solo show would come in Space Dandy. Yuasa himself will be doing an episode later on.

Mihara didn't actually animate the whole thing, but he did do most of it. The only other animator credited is the talented Hironori Tanaka, who obviously animated the surfing at the end. It's an odd pairing - they have totally different styles - but the surfing bit is really beautiful, even if it doesn't really match Mihara's style. Mihara storyboarded, directed, was sakkan (which doesn't mean anything since he was the only animator and he obviously didn't correct Tanaka's part), came up with the story, and did the concept art for the episode, not to mention designing the two guest aliens. He didn't inbetween this time. Dai Sato wrote the script based on Mihara's idea. Mihara is a self-admitted idol singer fanatic, and I'm assuming it was his idea to get two girls from LinQ to supervise the lyrics of the song that plays over the surfing bit at the end of the episode. So all in all, definitely another big job from Mihara, even if he didn't technically animate everything. It's got his fingerprints on everything and feels like a wonderfully high-proof Mihara short.

This is a weird episode in every sense, matching Mihara's weird sensibility. The underwear zealot aliens, the space surfing. Borderline unsettling was the part where Dandy and the alien lie in bed in their underwear - not too sure what to make of that. It's not entertaining in a conventional sense, but that's what makes it appealing - it's more quirky and cult.

The neighbor feud setup is classic and simple, and universal. It doesn't lampoon any specific conflict, but it captures the absurdity of many of them, especially the prominent religious-fueled ones. The moment where the two aliens can barely contain their revulsion as they're struggling to put on the other's item of clothing, while Dandy looks on bemused, was particularly well observed. Entire nations wage wars against one another for things that, to the rest of the world, seem utterly trivial and meaningless. The two aliens waging war over whether they should wear underwear or vests is a ridiculous and silly concept, until you think about the real world and realize that people kill one another every day over absurd things that would make two aliens fighting over underwear seem utterly banal. In that sense this episode has a nice satirical bite to it that makes the episode feel a little more beefy and three-dimensional and relevant. That's something the other episodes have been lacking. I also like that this episode isn't afraid to have a bit more of a dark and cynical edge while still being funny about it and not taking itself seriously.

Mihara's drawings aren't quite as distinctive here as they sometimes are, so he was obviously keeping things toned down a bit. Dandy looks surprisingly on-model if you don't scrutinize the lines too closely, although you can still identify Mihara's touch in the characteristic crooked gape and thick lips his characters always have. His characters feel more three-dimensional and meaty, with all sorts of bulges and crevices that shift as a character moves around, all done using a minimum of lines. Dandy is in nothing but shorts the whole episode, which reminds of his episode of Kemonozume, where he showed off his skill at animating the naked (male) physical form in all sorts of configurations.

Mihara's characters act out their emotions like actors in silent movies, pulling all sorts of faces, tilting their head back when taken aback, puckering their lips when perplexed. It's a very fun and melodramatic kind of character animation so different from any other animator in Japan or elsewhere. It's an odd combination of realism in the drawing/movement and theatricality in the acting. The movement is recognizable as Mihara - using few drawings, but moving the body more creative and humorously flexible manner than the usual animator. He's got quirks in his acting, such as this way of tilting of the head back while talking, that identify him even when his drawings don't as much. The backgrounds had a very hand-drawn feeling to them, but Mihara isn't credited with actual background art, only for "bijutsu settei", so I'm not sure how it was done. They definitely look like his drawings.

The alien designs remind slightly of the alien he designed in the ramen episode. They're typical Mihara in that they're a bizarre combination of cute and ugly. They're sinewy, like bodies with the skin removed, but with these big lobster eyes and batty eyelashes. They hate each other, but they look like nothing more than an alien Abbott and Costello, so right up until the point that they bludgeon one another to death, it's hard to take them seriously. The design isn't that creative per se - they're basically bipedal beings, like us, rather than some weird new kind of creature - but the tentacle arms and the rest of the details that make the designs alien and unique are actually depicted at some length in animation, so the creatures come away feeling more alive and believable. Not many of the aliens in the show have benefited from such generous animated treatment.

The ending with Dandy surfing away from the exploding planet was downright cartoonish in its complete abandonment of even a facade of realism. Nerds who nitpicked Gravity would surely have an aneurysm. It doesn't make any sense, but it sure as hell looks cool. Now that is the kind of sublime idiocy I expect of the great Dai Sato.

If they can do a Michio Mihara episode and it still feels like Space Dandy, it would be nice to see an equally raw and unfiltered episode by Osamu Kobayashi, but he wasn't announced, so that's probably not in the cards.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

12:05:00 am , 697 words, 5368 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #5

Dandy begrudgingly plays babysitter to a little girl alien and turns out to be a softie after all.

Mappa produced this episode as well as ep 3, but this one is very different in that it doesn't scream Madhouse pedigree at all. Instead it's headed by Akemi Hayashi. Ichiro Okochi writes. I associate Akemi Hayashi mostly with Gainax although she's done lots of other stuff. The reason for using Mappa is obvious, since Watanabe produced his previous TV show there, and it's nice to see them getting to do more creative work, as Kids on the Slope was nice but hardly a showcase of outlandish creative ideas. That's one nice thing about Space Dandy: it gives animators a whole new set of designs/situations in each episode to be creative with, even if the base characters are the same.

This ep is different from what came before because, for good or ill, it bears the strong imprint of its director. The good thing about Space Dandy is that it clearly offers its episode directors a little more freedom than usual in doing their thing, but the downside is that sometimes a director's style will just not be your cup of tea. That was the case for me here. This was hands down my least favorite ep so far. I appreciated the Paris, Texas vibe it had going, but overall it just didn't work for me. The wit and unpredictability of the previous scripts was replaced with a sequence of predictable setups of the two goofing off and bonding in an that attempts to tug at the heartstrings, but I just found it rote and empty. I didn't find it moving or cute at all, mostly because the kid just seemed like an empty cipher without any real personality. It's ironic because I was just starting to think the show needed to inject some heart and feelings into the proceedings. The action scene at the end was also weak and unconvincing.

The animation was decent, but never stood out as extraordinary. The sakkan was Tomohiro Kishi. It looked different from the previous episodes, as if there was more of an emphasis on line and contour and folds. The animation felt like it had a more Gainax-derived style of acting and deformation. It wasn't badly done, and had considerable effort put in to bring the different shots alive, but personally I preferred the Telecom-school acting of ep 2. Takeshi Honda was the only notable animator involved. I suppose he did the part in the train station where the girl throws the doll and gets accosted by the bounty hunters, as movement of the girl walking away has that distinctive Honda swagger and bounce. The side shot of Dandy walking looking at the piece of paper was nice. It was one of the better animated shots of Dandy I've seen because, like the Ryan Larkin short, it conveyed personality entirely through gait. But other than that, most of the animation didn't do anything for me. I didn't know any of the names in the credits aside from Honda, so perhaps this was a Mappa young animator training episode, in which case I don't mind cutting them some slack.

Takuhito Kusanagi's Dune-inspired trench digger was the most interesting part of the episode for me - or it should have been, but it got literally one shot of animation, and you could barely see the design at all in that shot. Pretty disappointing, and a waste of good design work. It's great to get all these people to come up with interesting alien designs, but also somewhat disappointing that most of them just pass by in a single quick crowd shot without getting any kind of animation whatsoever. There are some fun designs in the crowd pictured above. I certainly would have preferred seeing how these characters might move than seeing the boring, cutesy alien girl in this episode for 20 minutes straight. One thing that got me wondering was: What are those things on the tips of her fingers for? The designer must have thought about it. It seems sloppy not to give the paraphernalia a semblance of usefulness if you're going to have it there.