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

Friday, April 11, 2014

07:02:00 pm , 76 words, 13830 views     Categories: TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Ping Pong

As I always have, I'll be blogging Masaaki Yuasa's new show Ping Pong, but this time I was offered the chance to do so on Cartoon Brew by Amid Amidi, so that is where you will be finding the posts. Here is my post on the first episode:

For anyone coming from Cartoon Brew looking to know more about Masaaki Yuasa's past shows, you can find my posts about them here:

Tatami Galaxy

Sunday, April 6, 2014

12:19:00 am , 1425 words, 4362 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #13

QT takes center stage when he discovers love in a beautiful coffee machine...

The first season comes to a close in the show's most sedate and cinematic episode. This time the slapstick takes a back seat for a tongue-in-cheek love story. The pacing is deliberate and the narrative arc is crystal clear and obvious from the get-go. This is possibly the most straightly played episode yet.

At first glance I found the episode to be even a little too straight, bordering on boring, but in retrospect it's a nice change of tone. It's yet another twist and turn in the fabric of the show for it to take a left turn and veer into robo romcom territory like this. It's also in line with Shinichiro Watanabe's approach to injecting a show with variety: As in all of his past shows, there will be different episodes with different tones and subject matter, and this is the serene love story episode, with a twist. The show would quickly become rote if every episode were a gag-fest.

The episode manages to maintain interest despite its straightforward story by dint of its solid presentation and controlled pacing that hits all the beats you expect in a story of this kind. Although not a story about hunting rare aliens for once, the episode nevertheless manages to serve up a nice big dose of fun guest creature designs in the form of a planet full of sentient appliances. The episode was written by Dai Sato and storyboarded/directed by series director Shingo Natsume.

It's a bit of a surprise that the few Dai Sato episodes in the show have been the more sedate ones like this. Rather than straight comedy episodes, if anything, his episodes have tended to favor thematic treatment and character development. His touch remains identifiable in the subversive transformation of conventional vehicles. Some of the episodes seem to be inspired by or reference prior films, and this one makes an obvious reference to The Matrix with its army of oppressed home appliances who rise up for a giant rave party before their final battle against their oppressor-father, mankind. Dai Sato's topical sense of humor comes out in the early jokes involving Dandy and Meow's escalation in taste for women: Dandy evolves in his pickup targets from bars to cooking classes to married women, and Meow evolves from dating sites to 2D love sims to idol singers. Also, the heart of the episode is a pun elegant in its simplicity: AI means love in Japanese. How does an artificial intelligence experience love?

Shingo Natsume meanwhile returns after storyboarding/directing the first episode. It's a more sedate appearance than I would have hoped for an animator with such a strong and personal voice, and one of the people behind the impressively animated Full Metal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos movie. On the other hand, it shows his maturation as a director who has evolved out of purely focusing on animation. It tells a simple love story well. Impressive is that it makes you feel the love story of a vacuum cleaner and a coffee machine. With almost no animation of expressions or gestures to convey emotion, the episode boils human traits down to a set of symbols, which is the defining trait of anime at its core. The Daft Punk-inspired retro vocoder slowdance music was a nice touch. The structure and impact is remarkably similar to episode 1 - quiet, deliberate buildup to an explosively animated climax. He also happens to have used two of the same animators in both climaxes.

The animator side of Shingo Natsume comes through in the climax, which features a sudden, dense dose of powerful animation by talented animators. He knows good animation, and he knows how to use it effectively. The whole episode reels you into a serene zone with its minimal animation and slow pace, and then punches things into high gear in a split second right at the moment of the emotional climax.

The climax was animated by several animators: Yutaka Nakamura, Kugai Norifumi and Shingo Natsume himself (also possibly Gosei Oda, but I can't ID his part). It's here that you see his attention to detail in the animation, which is what sets him apart: The dynamism and reality of the action, the copious effects animation, the cinematic layouts. Just look at the beautiful depth in that shot above. If I had to hazard a guess as to the breakdown, I'd say Shingo Natsume did tiny QT attacking the giant robo, Yutaka Nakamura did the giant robo destroying the city, and Kugai Norifumi did giant QT attacking the giant robo after getting smacked in the visor.

On the design side of things, series designer Yoshiyuki Ito handled the main appliance protagonists while Tomohisa Shimoyama handled the riff-raff. You can tell the difference in their designs: Ito's are more refined and clean, more carefully designed, more intricate and three-dimensional. Shimoyama's designs are more rough and broad and loosely drawn.

The guest star this time around was Macross designer Kazutaka Miyatake. Along with the previously-featured Kunio Okawara, then, the show has featured guest appearances by two of the most illustrious mecha designers in anime history. They're trivial roles in the show, but they're clearly honorary appearances. The details of Kazutaka Miyatake's designs of the giant robo are really beautiful to look at. It's remarkable to think - this guy has been designing mecha since Mazinger Z in 1972.

The other guest is Abdul Qadim Haqq. The show has been great about sporadically but regularly using foreign talent - Bahi JD, Choi Eun Young, Kevin Aymeric, and the surprise name this episode is one Abdul Qadim Haqq, who is apparently best known as an art designer for the Detroit music scene. His techno-inspired retro robot cool is an interesting choice for this show. It's great to see artists from completely different scenes pulled into anime like this. Clearly Abdul Qadim Haqq was a guest brought in by Shinichiro Watanabe, who is quite savvy about the music side of things. He provided the concept art for the dreadlocked flesh and blood aliens who built the sentient appliances that rise up against their masters. This was then finalized into use for animation by Tomohisa Shimoyama.

The art is a little small on the web site (hopefully this will be rectified with a large-format art book collecting both the designs and key animation at a later date) but it seems the artist wrote a blurb on his sheet even describing the details about this race of aliens he created. Kazutaka Miyatake's world design and Abdul Qadim Haqq's alien designs together create a feeling of a living world with its own history and culture. I wish this side could have been explored a little more, as it would have helped give the climax more of an impact if we knew more about the history that led to this big conflict.

This concludes the first season of Space Dandy. It's an open secret now, but the show has another season coming up. Masaaki Yuasa's episode will be one of the big attractors, but I'm sure there will be plenty of other fine work. Considering that the show is completely open-ended, I can't help but wish there were even more than two seasons so they could bring in some of the other talented directors and animators out there in the industry to do some episodes.

Wrapping up, it's hardly been groundbreaking, but that's not a bad thing. It's deliberately small-scale and un-cute. The show is a throwback for the future of anime - showing that sometimes it can be healthy to take a deep breath and step back from the current fads and go back to something more basic. The show refuses to take itself seriously, but is artistically serious about how it does it. For a lighthearted parody romp, it's got some highminded concepts that it plays around with, without getting too full of itself. It's done a great job of letting talented directors, designers and animators loose to have fun with the material and create some of the more refreshing anime episodes in quite a while. Most importantly, it's all original material not tied into a manga or light novel franchise, letting people really dig into their creativity and show what they've got rather than just tracing someone else's imagination. Its audience is anyone who likes animation, in Japan or outside, and not just a small subset of otaku. I'm pretty satisfied with what they've done so far and can't wait to see the rest.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

12:03:00 pm , 849 words, 4511 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #12

Dandy searches for a rare chameleon alien, but the doppelganger wreaks havoc on the crew...

This episode launches back into slapstick entertainment mode. The show is reliably satisfying when it doesn't take itself seriously, and this episode was one of the silliest yet. It almost feels like a cartoon, both in terms of the unusual looseness of the drawings as well as the absurd silliness of the proceedings.

Unsurprisingly, the episode was penned by Kimiko Ueno. It was fairly obvious watching the episode that it must have been her work. She's in top form, delivering inane absurdity fully the equal of her past episodes. The show is safe in her hands. Her sense of humor comes through in things like the takoyaki-flavored Kari Kari-kun, a parody of the popular Gari Gari-kun ice cream bar, and QT getting pissed because people were looking at porn sites on his/her cell phone in the middle of the night. QT also becomes an avid fisher and uploads photos of his catch to his fishing blog. The episode has little to no plot, instead focusing squarely on the situational comedy aspect. It's a string of gags rather than a dramatic arc. In this and the style of many of the gags - the characters all fighting in a cloud of dust, etc. - the episode seems like an overt homage to cartoons.

The story seemed unified around the theme of fishing, including the secret weapon designed by Dr. Gel that provides for an amusing climax. I wonder what this was a reference to. I thought it was Tsurikichi Sanpei at first, but maybe not.

The episode was storyboarded by Toshio Hirata and directed by Satoshi Saga. It's a delight to find Toshio Hirata at the helm. He's one of the great, if unsung, directors of anime history. One of my first major posts in 2004 was about him. He started out at Toei Doga in its heyday, and worked on seminal TV anime like Wolf Boy Ken and Jungle Emperor - straddling both Toei Doga and Mushi Pro. In his mature period in the 1980s, he brought a more zen and restrained style of auterdom to Madhouse OVAs of the period. Toshio Hirata has many great films to his credit, including the great underrated gem The Golden Bird (1984), which is notable for bringing a unique kind of cartoonish sensibility to anime. This episode of Dandy is a great return to this kind of cartoonish material - a great show of youthful silliness from such an old master. Thus this episode features a veteran director bringing to life the ideas of a young new writer.

Satoshi Saga I'm not as familiar with, but I see that he storyboarded and directed the first episode of Green Legend Ran, one of my favorite OVAs, not to mention directing the series overall (the other episodes aren't as good). He started out as an animator and moved on to storyboarding and directing episodes. He seems relied upon as an enshutsu, often handling the directing aspect alone.

The drawings are among the most fascinating in the show so far, because of the incredible variation in style. The animation director is Gainax stalwart Chikashi Kubota, but I didn't get a strong sense of Kubota's style dominating the proceedings. For the first time, we also have several assistant animation directors, and it seems like they each throw their own style into the mix rather than backing up the episode's sakkan. In a normal show, the assistants would just blend into the main sakkan's work, but here they each seem to act as their own individual sakkan. On top of this, it seems like some of the animator's sections weren't corrected at all. The end result is some of the most wild variation in drawing style in the entire show. Almost every minute we seem to be witness to an animator with a new style, even if we can't necessarily identify who it is, which makes this one of the show's most delightful and freewheeling episodes. This more loose approach to visual uniformity is perfectly suited to the cartoony material.

For example, Hiroyuki Aoyama is one of the assistant sakkans. I think we all know his drawings well by now. His section stands out - the Dandy-Dandy face-off. Similarly, one of the animators is the highly idiosyncratic Shintaro Doge, and it seems likely that he animated the extended fishing scene, which was clearly not corrected and jumps out glaringly with its wildly deformed drawings and loosely hand-drawn style. This section is also typical of Toshio Hirata's directing. A feature of his work is that he always goes out of his way to provide sections where an individual animator can shine. This can be seen in the musical interlude in The Golden Bird by Koji Nanke (watch) or even the ending animation of Bobby's Girl (1985) by Takashi Nakamura and Koji Morimoto (watch). Mamoru Sasaki's section also seemed pretty obvious - where doppelganger Dandy appears.

All in all one of the more pleasant episodes due to the crazily uneven (in a good way) animation and basically the sheer slackness of it all.