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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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

07:21:46 pm , 942 words, 810 views     Categories: Animation

A Matsumoto runs through it

I wonder who's big in Japanese fiction right now? Ever since Kenji Nakagami died, I've felt a void, and I haven't found anyone else to replace the great novelist, the self-styled Japanese Faulkner, although Mieko Kanai continues to write and remains my favorite. Why did he have to die so young? I succeeded in mildly freaking out the employees of Vanouver's shiny new Book Off today with my scary white-person self judging from the fact that my entry there was greeted with a booming silence quite conspicuous amid the cacophany of periodic "irasshaimase konnichiwa"s called out like so many exotic bird-calls. Irritating at first, but you get used to it after a while. I wanted to find myself a new good writer, but I didn't even know where to begin, as I haven't had access to any magazines recently to look for new authors. I remember wanting to read some Gen'ichiro Takahashi a long time ago, but never getting around to it. I noticed his Goodbye, Gang had been translated.

That article in Newtype gives a nice overview of the work process behind the Atsushi Wakabayashi Naruto episodes, and gets it mostly right, though the reproductions of the materials were a little small, which I suppose can't be helped. It's nice that the article was done in the first place, properly giving credit where credit is due. If anything deserved to have an article written about it, it was Wakabayashi's episodes, which are surely among the best pieces of animation to have been shown in a TV series in a long time.

To summarize, the process starts with "image sketches", where Wakabayashi digs through his memory for ideas from various places, throwing them down in very rough sketches, coming up with the basic idea for the various actions. He then draws the storyboard, where he organizes the ideas into dramatic form, putting particular emphasis on creating flow from one shot to the next. That is probably the thing that makes his episodes so unique. Nobody else is quite as good as him at coming up with an interetsing and convincing flow of action. As he puts it, "For example, if a character starts turning in one shot, I keep that movement going without any pause into the next shot to create a feeling of continuity, which is what makes it feel good. Otherwise it just feels like one clunky move after another." Next comes the animation. Wakabayashi describes his two animators like this: "Norio Matsumoto is a person who has achieved the ultimate in the expression of natural phenomena like rocks, fire and water. Atsuko Inoue is good at expressions and emotions. Both have an excellent sense of how to make a movement feel good through the timing. You either have that or you don't, so it's a precious thing."

About Matsumoto, it's nice to hear that Wakabayashi also considers his action "sugoi". He concedes that the replica fight scene was pretty much there expressly for Matsumoto. That's another thing that makes Wakabayashi's episodes uniquely tight - that the dramatic/action flow is conceptualized based on an intimate knowledge of the capabilities of the animators. Nobody else would have been able to animate that scene, so it wouldn't have even been storyboarded were it not for Matsumoto, and he fully meets the demands of the storyboard. They mention the various scenes Matsumoto did, though this seems unnecessary as they are patently obvious when watching the episodes. I enjoy the episodes in particular because from one shot to the next you can identify the different animators, since they're so few, so I find myself going "Matsumoto, Inoue, Wakabayashi, Matsumoto, Matsutake". It winds up being a big part of the fun of the viewing experience - enjoying how each animator's drawings are played out on the chess board.

The last scene in episode 25 of Beck struck me as a similar instance of directing and animation being perfectly in balance, this time working to create drama rather than action. The good balance gave it an uncommonly moving effect. It was also animated by Matsumoto, showing his versatility. Matsumoto was even in Hosoda's One Piece movie, so he acts as the alternate linking thread between the three figures featured in the section. The discussion between Kobayashi and Hosoda mostly focuses on their explanation of their goals with their respective recent productions, though a small note answers my own question about Hosoda's upcoming plans. It mentions that he's currently working on a new film at Madhouse due to hit the theaters next summer. I don't know if that means he's moved there or working contractually, but it's nice to know. He's been stuck at Toei for a long time, so I'm hoping he does something really different from what he's done so far, a project he would never have been able to do at Toei, to make the move worth it.

The most memorable point of the discussion was their agreement that the excessive reliance on symbols like the sweat drop has led to a kind of poverty of expressive possibilities, where you can only express this basic set of emotions and nothing inbetween, nothing nuanced. Anybody who has seen Beck will have realized, consciously or not, how studiously Kobayashi avoided those symbols, which is what made the characters seem so much more emotionally expressive and realistic despite the unrealistic designs. Where Kobayashi managed to express his own personality by sticking close to the original, Hosoda has reportedly managed to express the heart of the original by turning it into something completely his own. Totally different approaches, but spiritually they seem to have much in common.



Pata [Visitor]

I was wondering, how does one learn to identify every single animator’s style just by scene?

Years of practice? Memorizing names and lists of what they worked on? Hanging out with the staff? I have no idea how I’d pick up the technique unless someone were standing over my shoulder pointing out who did what.

To me it seems to be on the same difficulty level as identifying each individual violinist in an orchestra just by listening to a symphony.

07/12/05 @ 23:06
micheal [Visitor]

I am not capable of doing that myself, though I feel it is only a matter of time. I used to be frustrated by some people who lord this ability over others like it is a show of true fandom, but there will always be people in any hobby/creative interest that will assert their elitist thoughts.

If you just stick with it, and “learn” what to look for, I am sure you will develop a taste for a given animator. I am like that with manga, which I believe to be easier to do. One thing I really enjoy is guessing the writer and director for an episode. I used to do this for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ST has a huge pool of writers it draws from). Certain themes are preferred by certain directors, and for me it feels like I know a little about them.

07/12/05 @ 23:31
Josh [Visitor]

It really depends on what you’re seeing them in. I can’t for the life of me pick out the animators in something like Steamboy or Millennium Actress since they’re so consistently good-looking, but if it’s some TV series chances are that said animator will do the only part that moves in an interesting way, so it’s easy to pick out. After doing this a couple times it’s easy to pick up on style. Ben’s Karisuma Animators list certainly helps things, as does rewatching FLCL - a lot of the big 90’s/00’s animators did some very distinctive looking scenes in it. But I can only identify a few animators, dunno how Ben does it.

And I’d say it’s closer to picking out an individual player in a jazz ensemble, since there’s more room for individual expression.

07/12/05 @ 23:32
Ben [Visitor]

That’s what I’m trying to do here. Stand over your shoulder and point out who did what. I think with the right pointers and practice anybody can do it. I’m not saying that it’s always possible to identify every single animator in every single anime. What I found happened with me is just that over the years I watched certain shows, and noticed that every once in a while there was this particular bit of animation that I liked. Eventually I noticed that so-and-so was in the credits each time I saw a movement that seemed kind of familiar. That led me to seek out other things done by that person, as a way of kind of confirming my hunch, and by doing that eventually I got a pretty good idea of what that person’s style was like. One thing that certainly makes it hard to take the first step is not having access to the credits. And obviously a person must have their own style, otherwise you can’t identify them, and, besides, there’s no point if it’s not something you find interesting, if it just looks like everything else. So for the most part I don’t care who did what, unless it’s interesting. In the case of the Naruto episodes the reason I can do it is because, first of all I’ve been a big fan of Matsumoto for a long time and I’ve watched tons of his work, so his style I know pat, and second, there are only two other people, so it’s pretty easy to narrow down. I’ve watched Yu-Yu Hakusho, so I know Wakabayashi’s style a bit. That leaves Atsuko Inoue. I wasn’t familiar with her work. If you know she animated the bit at the end of 71 where the character does that creepy laugh, that gives you a clue to go by to try to ID her work later.

Josh makes a good point. The work of the animation director can affect whether or not you can identify an animator. In Steam Boy the incredible degree to which every drawing was meticulously smoothed over made it nearly impossible for me to identify almost any of the animators even though there were many with whose work I’m familiar. In Millennium Actress it was harder than in Tokyo Godfathers, where there were very distinctive scenes by numerous animators. I pointed those out to help people get started. Tokyo Godfathers is a good example of another show like FLCL where you can see a lot of distinctive animators at work, often uncorrected, so it’s kind of a reference point. But again, I can’t nearly claim to know who did everything even in something as distinctive as FLCL. But Shinya Ohira’s scenes are obvious, right? In the end, just do what you want. It’s not necessary to know who did what in order to enjoy animation. It can just help in some cases.

07/12/05 @ 23:47
Tommie [Visitor]

I don’t know if he is big name in japanese fiction, but I really like the work of Haruki Murakami. You should give his work a try.

07/13/05 @ 03:56
iamNataku [Visitor]

I think that even though it’s difficult for a lot of us to identify which animator animated which scene, I believe that even a casual anime fan recognizes the various stylings at work in varies series/movies. For example:

1. I showed my friend the SUPERFLAT MONOGRAM short a few weeks ago. He immediately said it reminded him of DIGIMON. It wasn’t until he said it that I realized that Ben had pointed out here that Mamoru Hosoda was the director of both.

2. I watched the Beatbox Bandit episode of Samurai Champloo last weekend. When I saw “the sequence” I immediately thought, “Wow, that looks a lot like the trailer from Mind Game, down to the stars in Mugen’s eyes.” Turns out, again after coming back here to confirm, same animator.

I still love the “possessed/demented” way Mugen was animated as he was running through the forest in that episode. It was the first time in a while that I used the word “sick” to describe a scene.


07/13/05 @ 13:58
Jericho [Visitor]

I tried pin pointing some animators for the first time a few weeks ago, but it seems to me that one really needs to be immersed in that kind of environment in order to recognize how a certain scene feels. I couldn’t do it fluently because I’m a late bloomer with anime, and I don’t recall watching anime at a young age to the point of that product becoming nostalgic. The only one that really stood out like a nail is Hiroyuki Imaishi’s work, it is so obvious. And since he is a recent animator, I am able to follow his work more closely than some of the more old school types, which I’m sorry to say I am unable to watch due to its plethora state.

07/13/05 @ 22:57
Jericho [Visitor]

Oh yeah, Haruki Murakami is good. Many people say Norweign Wood is a good place to start with his work, although it was a tad too EMO-ish for me tastes.

07/13/05 @ 23:04
Josh [Visitor]

I was kinda reluctant to bring Murakami up since it seems translations of his books are frickin’ everywhere…but still, might as well throw my hat in. He rules.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, while not my favorite, might be a good place to start for many anime fans, since the End of the World chapters were Yoshitoshi Abe’s inspiration for Haibane Renmei. Haven’t read Norwegian Wood, I heard that something was badly lost in the translation of it, but who knows.

Nataku: I had a similar experience when I showed Hakkenden 10 to a friend - it strongly reminded him of Cat Soup (even though there isn’t that much similarity on first glance), and sure enough, Yuasa was the animation director for both.

07/13/05 @ 23:38
Random person
Random person [Visitor]

I’ve only recently gotten interested in animation per se as compared to anime (yeah, yeah…) so it’s so far impossible for me to pick out animators unless it’s blindingly obvious (e.g. Mori’s shots in SG 8, Utsunomiya in Aquarion 2, etc)

Though maybe I’ve got a sense for Kenichi Yoshida’s animation. I don’t know why I seem to have this hunch of where his bits are… though they could be sadly wrong…

07/14/05 @ 04:26