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: August 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

06:23:00 pm , 577 words, 4697 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #19

Scarlet falls into the hands of a rare dandy gentleman alien, while Honey gets kidnapped by Dr. Gel, and Dandy comes running... for the reward money.

We return to the more conventional style with this episode. Which is not to say it's a bad episode. It's a perfectly fun and diverting episode, just not offering up the sort of auteur spectacle of the previous ep. It takes a while to re-adjust, but it would admittedly get tedious if the whole show were an auteur-fest.

Scarlet and Honey are the main characters this time around, joined by a guest associate of Scarlet, voiced by Megumi Hayashibara. This is the first episode with more of a focus on the show's women side characters, who have been pretty one-dimensional diversions prior to now. It took writer Keiko Nobumoto to try to elevate them beyond pretty comic relief and invest them with a little personality. Honey is quite the changed person. Instead of an airheaded bimbo, she's turned into a sharp-witted, pile-driving, chopper-riding Fujiko - an actually interesting character who you'd like to see more of. She's also conveniently revealed to be the sister of the episode's guest alien.

As usual with Keiko Nobumoto, this is a more thematic episode than the usual Dandy zombie or racing episode. If Dandy is all about brainless boobies-chasing, this time we see the other side of the coin and look at what women want from a man. This episode brings a bit more of a woman's perspective into the proceedings. The city girl dynamic between Scarlet and her associate is enjoyable to watch and ever so slightly more nuanced for the show - they banter about the difficulty of meeting decent guys and head out to a mixer after work to try their luck (apparently in a neighborhood that looks a lot like Times Square).

The so-called Cloud Alien who picks Scarlet up is an interesting character. He's both a gentleman with noble intentions and a pickup artist who preys on girls in distress. His spaceship - a giant castle enshrouded in a floating pink cloud that travels around the universe picking up signals from distressed women - is a bit silly even for this show, but the cloud is an interesting concept blending cloud computing and contemporary social media culture with the irresistible spell of mystification that he casts over women.

Hiroshi Shimizu returns as storyboarder/director/sakkan. It's the same team that made episode 8, although there are a few more animators this time around, including more French animators. Yapiko animators Eddie Mehong and Cedric Hérole return and are joined by Achille Bibard and Antoine Antin. Also present are Hiroyuki Aoyama, Kazumi Inadome, Kazutaka Ozaki, Kumiko Kawana and Kenji Hachizaki. The opening scene of Dandy in his underwear is a standout scene, but overall there isn't much flamboyant animation on display. It's more a case of fun little reaction shots here and there.

The presentation is not particularly exciting or original, but it's still entertaining. The episode has the same slightly more cartoonish drawing style than usual thanks to Hiroshi Shimizu's drawings, as in episode 8, but there are fewer scenes of well-animated character antics due to the more sentimental nature of the material. I know the opening wrestling scene is a setup for the payoff of Cutie piledriving Dr. Gel, but it reminds of the boxing scene that opens Hiroshi Shimizu's episode 11 of Kemonozume (watch), so I wonder if it wasn't either animated by him or added by him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

01:40:00 pm , 1466 words, 2240 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #18

Dandy lands on a watery planet seeking a rare alien fish, and encounters an impish little girl and an old hermit. The hermit shoos him away, but the child tells Dandy of a legend that the fish will appear on the night of a blue moon. On the foretold day, they hit the waves, and encounter the beast for the first and last time.

This episode blew me away. There have been a number of standout episodes so far, but this one is head and shoulders above the rest. It's a perfect creation in every way, a short film that stands on its own two feet thanks to its unique stylization, lush and lively animation, great directing, simple but universal story, fun guest characters, and richly fleshed out alien world. As of now, this is the show's must-see episode.

We also have in this episode the show's first true solo animator episode (although there are seconds, and Michio Mihara nearly drew episode 6 by himself). This is one of those periodic one-man-show episodes that rolls around every few years announcing the arrival of a particularly talented individual. The individual in question this time is Oshiyama Kiyotaka, whose prior appearance in the show was as sakkan of Eunyoung Choi's episode 9 (plus designing a few things). I'm impressed that he had enough time to sakkan Eunyoung Choi's episode in addition to handling most of the tasks on this episode. Not surprising that he helped bring alive my previous favorite episode in the show.

Here, Oshiyama Kiyotaka wrote, did scene and character designs, storyboarded, directed, drew all of the key animation, and sakkan'd (the seconds I guess). As is often the case when someone is given the opportunity of total creative control like this, the results aren't just bluster; he had it in him to make it work. This is a rare case when one dude is oozing so much talent that he can single-handedly produce something far superior to what a big team could. It's a beautiful, satisfying, entertaining and creative piece of animation in many ways. What's best about it is that it has an open-ended, malleable, personal touch in its sensibility and style, which to me shows a creator with the potential for greatness.

The funny thing is that I knew his name before from Denno Coil among other places, but I had never known him to have such a strong personal style, nor to be capable of creating a film from the ground up like this. It appears that he created this style out of nowhere for the episode, which is very impressive. But you can also sense that what he's done in the preceding years has molded him into who he is today. Over the last seven years he's been involved in a number of films with a strong animated component, and I think it's transformed him from a talent with potential to a potent force.

First there's the unjustly neglected Doraemon: Nobita and the Legend of the Green Giant film from 2008, which he worked on after Denno Coil. It's probably the most impressive film in the whole Doraemon franchise in terms of creativity and sheer force of animation, thanks to the combined forces of director Ayumu Watanabe and animation director Shizue Kaneko, who carries on the tradition of Kenichi Konishi's Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 reboot. It deserves to be better known.

After that, he became sporadically involved at Ghibli, working on Arietty and the remarkably animated Mr. Dough and the Egg short in 2010 and The Wind Rises in 2013. Inbetween these he did animation on Letter to Momo and worked as animation director on the FMA: Milos film, which was probably one of the major formative experiences of the period. Not coincidentally, he worked under Space Dandy director Shingo Natsume on the FMA movie. Natsume himself had worked previously as assistant animation director on the Green Giant movie as well as doing key animation on the Nobita's Dinosaur 2006, so all of these folks fall under the Konishi umbrella. I think this core Konishi tribe and its various other associated people like Ryotaro Makihara are the most interesting people in the industry at the moment. If they got together, they could create a really amazing film. I could easily have seen Oshiyama going Ghibli if the studio hadn't taken its recent lamentable turn. When will we see a truly great movie from a studio other than Ghibli? It seems like it's been too long.

His style feels like a blending of the best parts of Moebius and Miyazaki. The gruff old man and bubbly kid with popping features seem torn straight from a page of Miyazaki's playbook, while the various designs have the loopy, organic madness of Moebius. The animation has amazing flexibility and variety. He can switch from the realistic timing of the old man gripping the slipping rope to the abstract undulations of the waves. The thick, uneven lines have a lovely analog, tactile feeling that seems to harken back to Konishi. The coloring, animation, designs and characterizations combine to create an epic, fun, thrilling and immersive mood in the best Ghibli tradition. We switch from beautiful, still, bucolic scenes that dazzle with their natural eye for simple natural beauty, to dynamic action that soars through space in virtuosic animation. Along the way, we get to know a few colorful inhabitants like the gruff old fisherman Rudori and the Ponyo-like peppy androgynous Eshime who we fall in love with immediately. You come away wishing you could go on watching these people's adventures forever.

The underwater dream sequence reminds of the Yoshiaki Kawajiri-animated shark sequence in the first episode of Future Boy Conan, the child's home looks like Howl's moving castle, and the abstract waves in the climax remind simultaneously of Ponyo and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. The episode comes across as the show's "fairly tale" episode, and indeed they explicitly mention the word "mukashibanashi" in the episode. I've often lamented the lack of a modern-day version of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi to give animators a regular opportunity to flex their muscles in more creative concepts and freer animation, and I think this episode gives a taste of what an episode from such a show could and should look like.

Dandy looks totally different, but I like the new Dandy. It's the same one we saw in Choi Eunyoung's episode - his pompadour is a tower, he's more lanky, simplified, his lines thicker, drawn more loosely and roughly. He'd look out of place if he wasn't different. He wears a fisherman's fundoshi without any advance warning, in the style of traditional fishermen, as he would in a Mukashibanashi episode.

As in the case of Choi Eunyoung's episode, the music is more beautiful and well-integrated than usual. It feels scored exclusively for this episode, with fewer of the regular tunes that recur in each episode. The eerie percussive bass guitar playing with spacey electronic sounds zooming in and out during the fishing scene was particularly nice and effective. I like that the art has plenty of opportunities to shine. Many of the shots of Dandy and the kid on the fishing boat alone during the first half create a lovely, delicate moment entirely thanks to the art.

On top of all that, animating waves and people in boats on the waves in such convincing detail for a TV episode is quite impressive. The whole last few minutes are basically constant motion, so I can envision he must have spent at least 7000 drawings on the episode. At the same time, it doesn't feel like he's just throwing drawings out there randomly.

The "moonagi" seems to be a cross between moon and unagi, since it comes to the surface when the moon approaches. It's somehow mythical and godlike yet deeply organic and animalistic in a way that reminds of the Daidarabocchi in Mononoke Hime, particularly the scene where it rises enshrouded by its kind into the sky.

The fairy tale/fishing episode ends on nice, roundly satisfying thematic note that ties things together. Like many legends, it turns out the legend of the moonagi was a folk explanation of misunderstood animal behavior - an interstellar version of eel behavior in this case. Every few thousand years, the moonagi cross over to Eshime's planet to spawn, and when their freshwater planet returns after after eons on its elliptical orbit, they climb a water ladder (hence the Japanese phrase unaginobori) to return to the fresh water of their home planet to mature. It's a pleasingly seamless combination of folk tale and sci-fi.

I hope to see more from Oshiyama Kiyotaka, but I'm thankful to team Watanabe for letting this talented guy make an episode just the way he wanted. I honestly would never have expected to see artistic work of this kind from Bones of all places.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

02:50:00 pm , 906 words, 1879 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #17

Dandy transfers into the Beverly Hills-like Andromeda Academy for rich aliens in an attempt to find a rare alien, but winds up in High School Musical hell...

This is the Space Dandy musical episode. Mover-school animator Takaaki Wada helms as storyboarder/director, accompanied by a bevy of similarly talented animators who bring the animation side of things to life in an impressive way under the aegis of sakkan Hiroyuki Aoyama. Wada does a great job translating the dramatic conventions of western musicals into the language of Japanese song & dance idol culture, but it makes for an almost lethal combo punch of cheese if you're allergic to both, as I am, so I found the episode more of a slog. The generous schedule really shows in this high-quality episode, which has a large cast of guest alien characters that are vividly animated. On the other hand, it feels like one of the more conventionally 'anime' episodes in its sensibility.

Wada has a track record of working on song and dance style material, from Kaleido Star to Aria the Natural, so it doesn't surprise me that he'd helm this episode. He's obviously into this material, and good for him. He does a great job bringing it to life. I know Space Dandy as a show is going for a variety show style, but I'm curious whether it was Shinichiro Watanabe's idea to do a high school musical episode or Wada suggested it. I used to bemoan the fact that a talented animator was working on so and so show because I thought it was beneath him or her, until I came to realize that Japanese animators are people, too, and have different tastes, and some are perfectly happy working on material that I personally don't care for. After all these years I still forget that you can't use the same yardstick to judge all art or animation. It can be a challenge determining to what extent, if at all, you need to forego your personal tastes when evaluating the quality of an anime.

They went to considerable lengths to make the episode work, hiring dorama writer Hayashi Mori to write the lyric-heavy episode as well as using dance footage of two street dance performers as reference for the dancing in the episode's finale. I can't say I'm very fond of referenced animation in general or here in particular, as I find it kind of lifeless, but I understand how hard it must be to create an episode full of dance animation without it. The episode also references in the other sense of the term, which probably reduces my appreciation of the episode as I just don't get a lot of the references (except for things like Slimer and ET, which seem kind of randomly thrown-in). One thing that nagged me was that, apart from an early shot showing the high school space ship, there is nothing in the episode that makes use of the trappings of the Space Dandy universe, which seems both lazy and a waste. This episode could have been part of any random anime show.

I personally prefer seeing more unusual styles in the show like Masaaki Yuasa and Choi Eunyoung, but it wouldn't be a good variety show if it was entirely focused on more artistic styles - it would get too one-note. At least this way you really feel like each episode's creators are actually doing what they personally want to do.

Wada doesn't head the animation as he often does in episodes he storyboards/directs, and as he famously did in Kaleido Star. Instead, Mamoru Hosoda regular Hiroyuki Aoyama does a great job on that front. His characters are minimally drawn and move a lot, and his acting is inventive without relying on idiosyncratic drawings or other crutches. It's just good, solid acting. Dandy has little reaction shots throughout the episode that are particularly tasty in that regard, like the shot just before the training montage where he says "Sometimes a man needs to dance even when he knows he's going to lose." Aoyama also animated the training montage.

The roster of animators is among the show's most impressive - Gosei Oda, Yutaka Nakamura, Ayako Hata, Kenji Hachizaki, Takashi Mukoda, Hironori Tanaka, Chikashi Kubota, Hiroshi Shimizu, Takaaki Wada, Hiroyuki Aoyama... But despite all the movement, I wasn't particularly fond of the dance animation, mostly for reasons of personal taste. The only dancing bit I liked in the episode was the sequence animated by Gosei Oda where QT and Meow dance. It's the most idiosyncratic drawing in the ep, but I love the guy's style. He can bend and warp characters in a way that really works and feels kind of A Pro-school. His sequences are always a delight. Plus he shows that it's full well possible to create dance animation that's fun to watch without needing to use reference footage.

Yutaka Nakamura took a stab at reference animation for the first time - you can spot his work from the characteristic folds and swooshes during quick movements - but he's honestly better coming up with movements on his own. What an irony that movements he created entirely out of his head seem more realistic and exciting than movements referenced from actual human footage. I liked the bit where Dandy is picked up by the giant robot, but I couldn't tell who did it. Chikashi Kubota maybe? I couldn't identify much else despite the impressive list of names.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

01:10:00 pm , 1097 words, 3268 views     Categories: TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #16

Dandy & co. go shopping for dinner, but instead come back with a teleporting flashlight that takes them on a roundabout adventure that eventually leads back to... dinner.

The much-awaited Masaaki Yuasa episode is here, and it's a clever little puzzle of a confection of a kind that only Yuasa could create. Stylistically it doesn't stick out as much as you would expect. The drawings are pretty on-model. I was initially a little disappointed in that regard, although the quality of the episode more than made up for that. I was hoping it to be a bash of Yuasa drawings. But I'm heartened to see how professional Yuasa can be. You don't have to totally ignore model to create something completely original and captivating, which he has here while creating an episode that fits perfectly into the show.

What makes Yuasa Yuasa is that he creates little hermetically constructed worlds that give rise to drama. Characters aren't plopped down somewhere; they're part and parcel of the mechanics of a universe, which sets the wheels of fate in motion. That's what makes it a Yuasa creation; the drawings don't have to be his, as they weren't in Kaiba.

Here the mechanics of astral bodies are the actual driving force of the narrative. An alien earth inhabited by intelligent fish is about to be engulfed by a sun as its orbit brings it too close. The schematic explanation of the phenomenon is very Yuasa in how efficiently and simply it boils down a complicated situation. There are also a lot of layers to the story that tie together in a satisfying way. The fish astronaut has a complicated name that by chance ends with 'carpaccio' - he's both a tragic figure who set out to save his people, and in the end the crew's grilled fish dinner. The moment where the famished/concerned Meow runs to save Carpaccio and grabs the grill on the door to rescue him from the flames, and we see a shot of him as a grilled fish is just brilliant in a way that's hard to express.

Small-scale yet epic, comic yet tragic, it's simultaneously the story of one man's struggle to save his people, a civilization's destruction, and delicious grilled fish. You come away feeling for Carpaccio's plight, but also for the famished Meow. It's also a grandiose enactment of the titular saying "isogaba mawaru", which doesn't have an exact equivalent in English but basically means "take the long way around if you're in a hurry". At one point this is expressed in miniature in the episode: there's a big hole in the flounder on which Meow and Dandy are zooming over the landscape. Dandy attempts to walk straight towards Meow, but falls in the hole. He should have taken the long way around. Always take the long way around. It's a fitting motto for the character.

Yuasa makes good use of the sci-fi setting. He plays with gravity and space, pushing the narrative forward using the astrophysics aspects of the setting. He upends our expectations of physicality in a way that ties into the whole theme of going around versus straight. The entire sequence on the moon is full of delightfully disorienting moments - when the crew suddenly start sliding across the surface for some mysterious reason... Dandy falling into one of the holes all of a sudden, only to suddenly stop in mid-air, grab hold of the wall and climb in the other direction towards the surface... The crew riding a column of water towards the other planet.

Yuasa even managed to involve Dr. Gel in the proceedings. It's a quick but perfect weekly appearance - he lands his ship and utters his usual catchphrase, in the process providing Dandy with the shadow he needed to grab the transporter and beam out, just before getting annihilated by the sun. I like the droll pun where Carpaccio utters the expression of surprise "gyo!" when he sees Dandy, which also happens to mean fish. Yuasa's mascot character even makes an appearance in the food court at the beginning in the guise of one of the food items.

On the animation side of things, the unique aspect of this episode is that Yuasa himself recruited foreign animators for the episode via social media, and the episode features animation work by the eight foreign animators who were recruited. Their animation doesn't stick out as much as you would expect and gives the episode a nice richness. Several of them have been nice enough to indicate which parts they did on their blogs: Ben Li the part where Meow tries to grab Carpaccio as he parachutes up to the surface of his earth; William Gibbons various shots of the crew after they land on Carpaccio's home planet; and Jeremy Polgar Meow lunging at Carpaccio. Apparently Faouzi Hammadi animated the crew running from the sun. It would be great to find out what the other people did.

Other than these guys, Shinya Ohira provided the standout scene in his usual style - Dandy revving the engine on the boat as it rides up the column of water. Classic Ohira and reminds of various shots he's done in the past - not least similar material in Slime Adventures, the tidal wave in Otogizoushi ep 6 and the flood in the Tsubasa Chronicle movie. But his work continues to evolve and feels more dense and more stylized than before. The close-ups of Dandy in the scene are quite fun, with his Kabuki jaw. And you can see the pencil strokes very clearly in the final product, something you couldn't in earlier years before the technology facilitated this sort of thing. It's all super chaotic and Wanwa hyper-expressive with its perspective zooming around constantly, and yet when the ship bounds on the waves it feels believable and weighty. Michio Mihara and Hiroyuki Aoyama also provided some animation. The bit where Dandy falls into the hole looks like Yuasa himself. Meow's yahoo at the end also looked very Yuasa.

The backgrounds are usually pretty interesting in a Yuasa production, and the backgrounds here are no exception. They seem to have been mostly done in watercolor by a person named Eriko Shibayama. I don't know the name, but she seems to hail from either Shin-Ei or Ajia-Do in view of her past work, which makes the connection obvious. Perhaps she's part of the new crew at Science Saru. I liked how some of the buildings on Carpaccio's home planet looked like a woman lying on her back with her legs open (and a transport tube sticking straight into her...).