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: March 2014

Thursday, March 20, 2014

04:18:00 am , 1018 words, 5671 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #11

Dandy et al. get caught up with a rare alien that erases memories, while Professer Gel discovers the secret of the universe, and pays the price...

This series will remain interesting to me as long as it keeps switching directions like it has been lately. This episode is devoid of the silly humor of the previous episodes, going in a completely different direction - more intellectual and sophisticated, exploring the hinted-at metaphysical laws that govern Dandy's universe. What remains the same is that it has its own unique character in terms of the drawings and story, and you can satisfyingly identify the work of the staff that are responsible.

This was easily the most interesting script of the series thus far. A person named Enjo Toh writes for the first time in the show. I wasn't familiar with him, but after watching the episode I was almost positive he had to be a sci-fi writer rather than a typical anime writer due to the decidedly more intellectual and literary bent of the script, and that turned out to be on the mark. The episode wasn't just mind-bending in a facile way, it was perplexing and opaque in a way that reminds of a writer like Yasutaka Tsutsui, who was a master of combining science fiction speculation with metafiction experiments. The episode also shares Tsutsui's peculiar combination of sophisticated literary experimentation with lowbrow humor. The story here leaves you scratching your head but feeling there's a vast depth there if you know how to read between the lines.

At the heart of the episode is a mysterious red box that, when opened, erases the memory of those around it. This seems to suggest that something akin to the Schrodinger's cat paradox lies at the heart of the show's conundrums - Dandy & co are either alive or dead at the end of an episode depending on different courses of events, all repeating in an endless loop set off by some quantum physics mishap. Much was left satisfyingly unexplained, leaving the viewer to piece things together.

Professor Gel, we find out for the first time, is a genius scientist befitting his name, and not merely an ape in a pimp costume. He spends the episode amusingly ignoring the chaos around him, wrapped up in working out formulas in an attempt to discover the dark matter-like substance that explains the universe.

Literary devices literally govern Dandy's universe - a sentient book metaphorically possesses Dandy and guides his actions, after first convincing Dr. Gel that he needed to check it out. All to what end? Because the sentient book wanted to have an adventure. The books guided Dandy, but he still had free will, and they enjoyed watching The Adventures of Space Dandy, like an author who enjoys watching his characters "write themselves".

Narrative artifacts like Dr. Gel's handwriting and the writing on the card move around as if to change the course of events. It's as if Dandy & everyone in his universe were nothing more than living words written and altered arbitrarily by some master librarian, in this case a scriptwriter named Toh Enjo. When Admiral Perry resists the library planet's overdue notices, the omnipotent power of the literary creator devises a narrative twist where Dandy teleports in and destroys the fleet with a whirlwind beam in a turn of events reminding of the deus ex machina climax of Ideon: Be Invoked. This is somewhat bolstered by the names of the head librarians: different pronunciations of Idea.

Dandy is the only one who resists his literary enclosure. Bemoaning the lack of physical food on the literary planet, he turns a well-known saying on its head in a manner befitting his impulsive and straightforwardly carnal nature: "Man cannot live on data alone".

The storyboard is by Atsushi Takahashi, while Hiroyuki Okuno directs and acts as character sakkan. He is the lead animator and the only other animator listed is Hisashi Mori, who is also credited as mecha sakkan. Apart from Atsushi Takahashi, this is the same pairing as in the legendary episode 7 of Samurai Seven, which is where I first discovered Hisashi Mori (here and here - I even wrote a post about him) some ten years ago now.

Okuno's characters have not changed that much in ten years. It's Mori's work, as usual, that is the main attractor. Mori has changed stylistically a bit, but overall his style and spirit are the same. He has the same uncompromising approach that sets Shinya Ohira apart - he somehow manages to animate things entirely in the way he wants in commercial productions, despite a style that goes against the grain of industry popularity with its brutal, raw, organic line. It was exactly what set that episode of Samurai Seven apart, and in the intervening 10 years he has built a body of animation that continued to build on that. He recently even acted as character design/sakkan on a movie, and for a studio as major as Toei Animation, which is a real surprise.

The episode has a nice texture overall. The character drawings are unremarkable, but the mecha scenes scintillate excitingly in typical Mori fashion, and the backgrounds are uniformly drawn with what appears to be pencil lines. I thought at first the backgrounds were also drawn by Mori, but he is not credited with the backgrounds. In places like the alien planet, the background drawings have an extremely sketch-like quality, with every wanton pencil stroke clearly visible in the final product. The backgrounds are beautiful, and it adds a strangely evocative layer to an already fascinating episode, as if emphasizing that Dandy's world is a creation both literary and graphic. This background style was perhaps adopted to match Mori's animation.

The great illustrator Katsuya Terada returns to design the librarian creatures, while animator Shintaro Doge designs the drone box. Background artist Kevin Aymeric meanwhile provides the concept art for the library planet, although his drawings are far more intricate than the final sketchy product. In the voice-actor department, the great Kappei Yamaguchi made a guest appearance, although his voice was unrecognizable (to me) as the library robot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

05:43:00 am , 1001 words, 4391 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #10

Dandy & gang visit Meow's home planet and get caught in a time loop. Meow uses the opportunity to work on his feelings of guilt for not having taken over the family business...

Another bang-up episode. This time we're back to an entertainment style more in line with the norm for this show rather than an auteur production like last time, but the episode satisfies in every way, and also brings its own unique touch to the drawings.

Xam'd director Masayuki Miyaji storyboards/directs and brings a breezy charm to the material. Kimiko Ueno returns yet again to write a simple Groundhog Day-inspired story about a day repeating itself, and does a nice job with the concept. I'm beginning to get a sense of Kimiko Ueno's sense of humor, and I like it. Her fingerprints were all over the episode, particularly the denouement with Meow's crush, and yet the episode was not 100% high camp concept episode like the zombie episode. It had a heart and was fairly convincing, if cursory, in evoking the complicated feelings between a father and son. It's just a plain cute episode, and nice getting to know Meow a bit better.

The Groundhog Day aspect is entertaining. They don't delve quite as much into the fun time paradox stuff like Groundhog Day did, due to constraints of time, but they hit all the beats that make it satisfying. When the idiot trio begin to notice that they seem to know what's about to happen, they initially think they've gained superpowers until the narrator sets them straight. At first they despair, but one day it occurs to Meow to try to catch the glass dropped by his crush, and begins to use his knowledge of the day's events to his advantage to win the girl, a la Bill Murray. He begins to think maybe it's not all bad being caught in a time loop, and even warms to the idea of taking over his father's business.

My favorite thing about the episode, though, is that we come away understanding the unspoken feelings that underlie the complicated relationship between Meow and his father. For a brief moment, he was reconciled thanks to the time loop, but in the end he has to go his own way as his own person. It's a nice, heartwarming portrait of a good father who supported his son even when it meant allowing his son to abandon family tradition to follow his own path.

Apart from feline inhabitants, Meow's home planet is a doppelganger for Japan, and the episode goes to respectable length to depict the paraphernalia of everyday Japanese life in its detailed layouts. I like little details like how the various different shoes of the house's various inhabitants are laid out on the threshold. The details make it feel real. It gives the episode a distinct tone that's quite different from the other episodes - intimate indie home drama.

It also reminds of Mamoru Hosoda's Japanese home drama, perhaps because one of the key players in the episode is a Hosoda regular. Two sakkans are credited - Seiichi Hashimoto and Hiroyuki Aoyama. Clearly the former did the first half and the latter did the second half. The series itself is notable for opting to not use the "chief animation director" system to iron out drawing inconsistency from episode to episode, and this episode goes one step further in this regard . Not only does the episode have a unique look, each half has a unique look. These two guys have completely different styles, and it's clear in the finished product. It's nothing jarring - quite the opposite. It's a delight to see that they are going 100% in the direction of standing by their sakkans and allowing them to express themselves, even on a half-episode basis.

Seiichi Hashimoto's drawings are plump and fluffy and cartoony, his lines thick. His Dandy has some delightfully silly and fun expressions that look nothing like anything we've seen before. Hiroyuki Aoyama's lines are thin and his expressions more subtle and the movement more subtly nuanced, the acting not as broad. His Dandy looks like he walked out of a Hosoda movie. I love his expression when he is attempting to pry open the calendar. The part where he confronts the calendar, delinquent-style, makes me laugh out loud every time I re-watch it.

Numerous talented animators were involved: Kazutaka Ozaki, Shigeru Kimishima, Kumiko Kawana, Tatsuzo Nishita. Many of these are Hosoda regulars, so were probably called in by Aoyama. Kenji Hachizaki and Maru Kanako also return. The episode is quite a pleasure in the acting department. Ironically, though, while sakkan idiosyncrasy is strong, animator idiosyncrasy is more ironed out. I suspect they both thoroughly corrected the animation, for the most part, because the half-episodes each have a uniform look, with the exception of a few scenes.

The opening scene with the giant robot is one of the scenes that looks different. Maybe it was the work of Hidetsugu Ito. Obviously, it's robots so it didn't need to be corrected. The scene in the field in the second half was notable because it's immediately apparent that it wasn't corrected by Aoyama. I can't identify the style, but it's a very distinct style, and obviously Aoyama didn't correct it because it was well drawn enough already, so maybe it was done by one of those sakkan-class individuals.

Incidentally, the opening scene was clearly an Ideon parody. I was surprised to find Kunio Okawara and Yuichi Higuchi in the credits, and rightly guessed that they designed the Gundam head and the Ideon robot, respectively, because they were the original designers of those robots. That is quite an involved joke to pull - getting the actual designers of Ideon and Gundam to design parody robots that battle it out against one another. That is taking parody to a downright meta level. It's an in-joke aimed straight at anime staff nerds like me. Chief designer Yoshiyuki Ito meanwhile did a nice job designing the dozen-plus cat alien guest characters.

Monday, March 3, 2014

12:30:00 pm , 1083 words, 7224 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #9

Dandy teleports down to a planet overrun by sentient plants who have organized themselves into nations, replete with spies and aggressively guarded borders, but his search for a rare alien instead turns up the secret to the planet...

I have a new favorite episode. This episode was a very different beast from what came before, but it was a sheer delight and is easily the most consummately crafted episode of the bunch so far.

Organic, colorful, hand-drawn - all words that spring to mind for this unique episode that really feels like the creation of someone with a strong artistic vision. A delight to behold because of its riot of beautiful otherworldly visuals, it has the hand-drawn feeling of the Michio Mihara episode, and was crammed from start to finish with creative ideas and pleasing visual schemes.

The characters looked quite different in the hands of the staff here, and even the atmosphere was different from what we've grown used to; the silly gags and irony are absent and the story is told at more of a remove, both in terms of staging of shots and the more restrained style of directing. But the pacing, humor, characters, animation, music and backgrounds all work so well together that the episode that you're too busy enjoying it to care. Certain moments gave me goosebumps because of the perfectly beautiful combination of otherworldly music, colors and shapes.

Eunyoung Choi is the creative brain behind the episode, having come up with the idea for the story (which was then written by Shinichiro Watanabe), designed the aliens, done the conceptual art (settei), and storyboarded and directed. She's one of the most talented people to emerge from the Masaaki Yuasa group alongside Michio Mihara, and already proved that she can go it alone on that episode of Wakfu that I mentioned in the previous post.

The creatures in the episode are among the most fascinating in the show so far. Rather than just one or two new aliens, we're regaled with an entire planet populated by creatures that seem like a blend of plants and microorganisms. With membranes and receptors that allow passage only to certain microbes and not others, and strange creatures matter-of-factly going about their strange business, the episode feels like a cross between Fantastic Planet and Fantastic Voyage.

This episode works splendidly well because you come away feeling like it's thoroughly explored the world of the characters. It feels real. Much of the episode's runtime is devoted to depicting in meticulous detail the interaction between the planet's plant inhabitants, like some kind of alien nature channel program. It's like in Planete Sauvage - you don't know the logic underpinning the crazy interaction of all these bizarre alien life forms, but it feels like there IS some logic there, and together they form a living ecosystem.

The nice part is that these things aren't overexplained, and yet you don't feel like they're underexplained. If the goal of this series was to regale us with a bewildering array of colorful alien creatures, this episode feels like the one that delivered the best in this regard, because it creates a whole planet that feels like it is actual pulsing with various life forms that are all interconnected. The episode actually takes the time to show us snippets of this interaction in a way that evokes the bigger picture. You really feel like you're in Dandy's shoes, recoiling at a bizarre creature and gazing in awe at a beautiful scene as he explores the new world.

And in the midst of all that, Eunyoung actually achieves the unlikely feat of making us invest in the strange plant creatures like the little one and her 'father'. The ending was actually surprisingly moving. The side-story about Meow meanwhile was amusing and added some variety to the proceedings while Dandy was on his adventure learning about the planet. So the episode isn't just artsy and quirky, love it or leave it - it has humor and heart too. It's a very likeable episode.

The episode even had something of a musical interlude, though it was very well done and didn't come across as an overt Disney-style musical interlude. In fact, the music of this episode was exceptional. With lots of odd noodly electronic soundscapes and a capella warbling, it was unusually organically linked to the goings-on, as if it had been specially commissioned for this episode. This is the first episode where the music felt simultaneously so beautiful and well integrated.

When I saw the preview I originally thought it was the Masaaki Yuasa episode, and many parts of the episode remind of his style. The episode felt like it could have come straight out of Kaiba. The visual style, with its weird colors and gradients, also reminded me of Cat Soup. This is perhaps due to a combination of the fact that Eunyoung has worked with him for so long and that the backgrounds were all drawn by Kevin Aymeric (tumblr), who was the art director of Yuasa's Kick Heart and is an incredibly talented and flexible artist. Look for more from this great talent in Masaaki Yuasa's upcoming Ping Pong.

(In a side-note, as a big fan of Disasterpeace, I bought The Floor is Jelly game when it came out to support him and because it looked awesome (and is), but I was surprised to find just now that the beautiful cover art was drawn by Kevin Aymeric.)

The sakkan was Kiyotaka Oshiyama, who first came to my attention for his work on Denno Coil. I don't know his style well, but the characters here are very uniquely drawn, with the sort of meandering, organic line that I associate with Yuasa. It works very well for the plant creatures in this episode. Dandy looks quite different from previous episodes, but the drawings are fantastically well done, and if anything he looks even more yankee Elvis than before. The lines of the characters bulge and twist in different directions in a stylized way that reminds me of a Yuasa production.

A bevy of talented animators helped bring the episode to life - Gosei Oda, Norifumi Kugai, Cedric Herole, Ikuro Kuwana - but I can't distinguish their work. Anyway it's not like in some episodes where the animation isn't particularly interesting most of the time except for certain highlights of good animation - every single shot of animation is pleasing to watch in this episode. This is a great example of an episode that is a perfectly balanced whole.