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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Category: Animation

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

09:05:00 am , 118 words, 8075 views     Categories: Animation

Santa Company making

I haven't seen the actual show, and it doesn't look very interesting visually, but someone brought to my attention an interesting Kickstarter project that will be probably one of the most meticulous making-ofs ever:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1287579779/art-of-making-santa-company-a-complete-guide

Luckily it looks well on its way to being funded. I also noticed that Japanese indie animator Ryo Hirano is crowdfunding his latest film, except this one is on a Japanese site:

https://motion-gallery.net/projects/TIMH

Am I reading this wrong though or is the Blu-Ray only available at the 50K Yen level? That's pretty absurd. Otherwise a talented indie creator worth supporting.

Urbance though is the most interesting currently-running crowdfund animation and I hope it gets funded:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2088672139/urbance

Index of Crowdfunded Animation in the forum.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

05:48:00 pm , 3236 words, 13598 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Studio: Anime R, Studio: Dove, Director: Toshifumi Takizawa, 1980s

Armor Hunter Mellowlink

I've already written about the canonical analog outings of Armored Trooper Votoms: the TV show, the three early one-shot OVAs, and Radiant Heretic. The only show from the early period I didn't cover in that post was Armor Hunter Mellowlink, which is a side-story not involving the main characters in the rest of the Votoms productions. I just had the chance to watch it, and it was every bit as good as I was expecting. As much as I love the Votoms saga, it's a huge endeavor to get into it. Mellowlink is a dense, high-quality, 12-episode summation of what makes Votoms best in a one-shot series format that doesn't require piecing together a long, complicated story. It might be the best place to start for newcomers.

Mellowlink is a more unmitigatedly serious story than it might seem at first sight from the bland, boyish character design of its protagonist, who looks like a young Shirotzugh. It makes for nice viewing because it focuses largely on pushing forward with its uncomplicated linear narrative arc without wasting too much breath on side-stories or world building or other genre conventions. It's mostly a straight-up hardcore military revenge flick. Despite being borne of a robot show, it's largely devoid of robots. It's more realistic, if not completely realistic per se, with a more down-to-earth, unglamorous style of storytelling. I've always wanted to see this kind of show done in an unmitigatedly realistic style for once, without the token hijinx and predictable storytelling elements, and this show comes closer than most shows, though it still inevitably falls victim to many genre conventions. It's not purely hard-boiled and has some moments of predictably jarring comic relief. However, for a Sunrise production, it's largely devoid of mecha robo tomfoolery, and its tone is for the most part quite serious-minded and unadorned in a pleasing way.

Mellowlink is essentially a story of revenge. Mellowlink Arity was a member of a platoon that was sent to certain death to cover the theft of a military arsenal by a band of corrupt military commanders. The skilled platoon fights valiantly but is eventually overcome, and all but Mellow are killed. Mellow's unexpected survival throws a wrench in the plans, so Mellow is made the scapegoat in a show trial to deflect blame for the scandal. However, he escapes and vows to hunt down the men responsible for the death of his comrades. The series is essentially broken down into two halves. Each of the first six episodes are stand-alone episodes in which Mellow hunts down a military commander involved in the scandal, while the second half is a continuous story that gradually ties all the threads together and reveals the sordid machinations of the military.

Mellowlink is set in the same universe as the rest of Votoms, but features a completely different cast, and presumably takes place on the sidelines of the main show. Whereas Votoms features sci-fi trappings like spaceships and teleportation in addition to more realistic Vietnam-style stories, Mellowlink omits the sci-fi and hones things down to the (IMO more appealing and characteristic) realistic war-story facet of the saga embodied by the 2nd arc of the original TV show, the Kumen Arc. Indeed, the Kumen jungle features in episode 3 of Mellowlink, while episode 2 of Mellowlink harkens back to the first arc of the TV show, the Udo arc, with its dystopian future city and AT battling arena.

Directed by Takeyuki Kanda rather than Ryosuke Takahashi, Mellowlink does for Votoms what The 08th MS Platoon later did for Gundam: explore the down and dirty world of the grunts of their respective universes in a high-quality OVA side-story. Kanda had helped Ryosuke Takahashi direct his first robot show Dougram from 1981 to 1983 and later worked with Takahashi on the two sub OVAs Silent Service and Deep Blue Fleet. He died midway through production of The 08th MS Team. He is perhaps best known for Round Vernan Vifam, a classic 1980s Sunrise robot show.

Despite being set in the far future, Mellowlink feels cut from the cloth of a WWII film in design and atmosphere. Mellowlink rides around in a motorcycle-sidecar combination, and the outfits and architecture seem to be a mix of Victorian and mid-20th century. If Votoms attempts to eliminate the yuusha/heroic element from the robo anime genre by making the robots nothing but mechanized weapons in the form of mass-produced bipedal tanks, Mellowlink seems to go one step further by creating a robot anime in which the hero doesn't even pilot a robot. The hero specializes in killing ATs with nothing more than his wits and an anti-AT rifle, the robo anime equivalent of an anti-tank rifle.

Mellow studiously avoids killing anyone except his intended victims, namely the ranking commanders who ordered his platoon's death. He never kills any underlings, only targeting the higher-ups who use foot soldiers such as himself as throwaway pawns. In true kataki-uchi samurai movie fashion, before killing his victim, he hands them the dog tag of one of his fallen comrades to drive home the justice of his revenge. He is a stoic combination of commando and MacGyver. Overwhelmingly outgunned, he he uses his wits, his surroundings, and his foot soldier training to outwit his opponents. At the final moment, he smears his face with blood, oil or whatever liquid is available and makes it a point to kill his victim not with a bullet but with the bayonet-like Pile Bunker on the end of his anti-AT rifle. This is critical to his revenge. His platoon was stripped of its ATs and sent to certain death armed with nothing but these archaic weapons, so Mellow makes it a point of pride to kill his enemies in the overwhelmingly outgunned state in which they left him.

Mellow is a simple character both in design and script. His expression is one of permanent glowering, he never smiles, and on the rare occasion that he speaks, it only in relation to his cause. His personality is not very complex, and we don't learn much about him beyond his single-minded quest. He is a no-nonsense revenge machine deliberately pared down to steely sinew and purpose. The show fills the void of personality with the mysterious side characters whose significance is revealed apace. Mellow is there as a vehicle to tell a story about military corruption and to provide for a charismatic hero in the spirit of Chirico Cuvie, his obvious model. Mellow is a more likeable character because he is not a superhuman like Chirico. His wits and military training are what keep him alive, not some supernatural agency. A tragic sense of purpose lies behind Mellow's strong, silent personality, but deep down he's a sensitive kid who can get flustered by a beautiful girl.

The series feels tight and well structured. Its pacing feels just right for the story it tells. It's entertaining, with nice action sequences, and the plot about military cover-ups that gradually unfolds is satisfyingly believable, perhaps having vaguely been inspired by the recent Iran-Contra affair. It's not a space opera with battling heroes, but a grimy story about the dirty underbelly of political machinations within military organizations, which see soldiers as nothing more than cannon fodder. Mellowlink is the kind of anti-hero who we want to root for: simple and oblivious to political intrigue, he is only out to do what is right by his sense of basic human justice, and single-handedly faces down the powers that be with the ingenuity and determination of a lone wolf.

The recurring character Kiek is interesting, as he develops into an important plot element later on, but to the end the female sidekick/romantic interest Lulucy felt as superfluous and distracting as the side-characters in Votoms. The story of a girl of royal lineage who ran away to become a roving card dealer seems thrown in and poorly developed, and it never feels believable for a girl like her to be tagging along with Mellow as he sprints around killing ATs with a giant rifle. That aspect feels like one of the show's weakest points.

The episodic nature of the show makes each episode a surprise by providing Mellowlink with new terrain in which to work his battle tactics. The pithy one-word English episode naming seems appropriate to the terse atmosphere, and also serves to indicate the new battlefield of each episode. It's very entertaining watching how a lone individual can outgun an AT using the most basic of technologies (an AT rifle and mines) through clever tactics. In episode 1 he infiltrates a military base and lures out its commander, engaging in a one-on-one in desert-like terrain. In episode 2 he fights in the jungle. In episode 3 he battles it out in the arena.

Episode 4 is perhaps my favorite in the series. Storyboarded and directed by Shinji Takamatsu, it's a masterful example of visual storytelling. Most of the episode transpires without dialogue. The hunter becomes the hunted as Mellow is lured by one of his targets into the interior of a wrecked battleship with its nose rammed into the earth. The ship is tilted at an angle, so all of the action in the episode takes place at an angle, creating a disorienting effect that makes the action all the more tense and unpredictable, as the characters are struggling at every moment to maintain their balance in their surroundings. The best part is that no mecha whatsoever are present in the episode (except as physical obstacles). This seems like the ultimate expression of the whole Votoms universe to me. First you turn the heroic mecha robo into nothing but war machines, then you have the hero not even pilot a robo, then you strip away the robos altogether, and you get to what, deep down, the show was about all along: a tense, realistic, detail-oriented action-heavy hard-sci-fi thriller, devoid of the MacGuffins.

Episode 5 is a flashback episode that fills us in on the background. Written by Ryosuke Takahashi himself to get the details of this important setup episode right, it avoids being a straight "flashback" episode by having Mellowlink wandering through the desert and supposedly hallucinate a dream in which he re-lives the events that led to his platoon getting massacred. The death of Mellowlink's platoon doesn't have much emotional impact because we had never seen the characters until a minute before they're killed, but I don't mind this. It was obviously done this way due to length constraints, but I prefer this to being regaled with episode after episode of meaningless character development that is obviously merely there to manipulate me into feeling for characters whose fate is to die. The flashback ends just as Mellowlink escapes from the courtroom, cleverly avoiding the task of fleshing out precisely how he achieved such an improbable feat, surrounded as he was by armed soldiers.

Set in a prison, episode 6 is one of the weaker episodes, although there's nothing technically wrong with it. I just don't like its ill-conceived mix of brutality and cutesiness. It has some powerful torture scenes that set a heavy tone for the episode, only to be followed up immediately by scenes of cute anime girls dancing on a stage. It's like going from Violence Jack to Creamy Mami in the same episode. Obviously it wasn't possible for Takahashi to excise all of the conventions and create something of a truly uniform tone until later with Pailsen Files, although Takahashi is an entertainer first and foremost, and has himself said that he doesn't want to make dark stories, so I'm sure he signed off on the lighter elements in Votoms as well as here. I obviously have expectations of Votoms not on par with those of the creator.

The episodes from 7 onward continue with a continuing story that comes to a head with the gradual revelation of the truth behind the scandal.

The animation

Mellowlink is the summum opus of the two studios behind the best of Votoms: Anime R and Dove. This is the ultimate expression of their work on the show, as the two never worked on the show again in such a solo fashion, although Toru Yoshida did act as mecha sakkan on Radiant Heretic along with a few scattered R/Dove animators. The combination of good storytelling and animation by R and Dove make Mellowlink a supreme pleasure to watch, one of the best OVAs of the period that nobody has seen.

The mecha action scenes that are the calling card of the show are thrilling and dense. There's a style of hand-drawn mecha action here that was a product of the age and can no longer be seen anywhere. Even within a few years on a show like Gundam 0083 the style of the mecha action is already very different - heavier, more laborious, less dynamic and pliable. The years around 1988-1989 are among my favorite years for mecha animation.

Moriyasu Taniguchi's characters meanwhile are appealingly designed without being quite as idiosyncratic as SPT Layzner. Character animation was never the forte of Dove or R, per se, but the characters are for the most part satisfyingly animated due to Taniguchi's stylish corrections, even if sometimes you wish the expressions and body language were a little more dynamic. R seems to invest the characters with a little more spontaneity and verve that is the product of the studio's culture that was more forgiving of personality and play than Dove. That comes through in the animation. Dove's animation remains solid and professional, while R's is more willful and nuanced.

R and Dove essentially alternate handling an episode, although there is a lot of overlap, some of which is due to the extenuating circumstance of the death of Hiroshi Koizumi midway through production. This is the last Votoms outing featuring the two studios that defined the show up until that point. The next outing, Radiant Heretic, switches up the staff.

The main differences between Mellowlink and the rest of Votoms is: the characters here are designed by Moriyasu Taniguchi of Anime R, rather than Norio Shioyama, and the director is not Takahashi Ryosuke but Takeyuki Kanda (who also storyboards episodes 2, 5, 8 and 11 under the pen name Yuichiro Yokoyama). Also, Soji Yoshikawa is not involved as a writer. Otherwise, Ryosuke Takahashi handles the series structure and writes two episodes, episode 5 and 11. Hiroki Inui provides another lovely noodling avant-jazz score, and Kunio Okawara designs the mecha, as in the rest of Votoms.

Toru Yoshida of Anime R is the mecha sakkan for the Anime R episodes, and his mecha and effects are beautiful. At this period of time Anime R still had most of its best animators, and they put their all into their episodes here. Hiroyuki Okiura even shows up for a bit in the last episode. Dove, meanwhile, was at the height of its powers, and Hiroshi Koizumi did the last work of his tragically brief life in episode 6. It seems the show was originally supposed to be produced entirely by these two studios, but this changed with the death of Hiroshi Koizumi, and they had to start calling in other studios from episode 6 onwards to finish the episodes on time. Studio Dove is credited as mecha sakkan in episodes 2 and 4, but this actually means Hiroshi Koizumi.

Apparently the reason for this is that the president of Dove, Tadashi Yahata, had this thing against any single individual gaining attention at Dove; he wanted the studio as a whole to receive credit. Yahata had no need for star animators or individuality, and he placed arduous demands on his animators and was the first to open the door for them to leave if they complained. This is just one aspect of the unforgiving, hard-nosed atmosphere at Dove that drove many animators away from the studio. It's also why you could get talented animators like Hiroshi Koizumi toiling away there and yet not receiving much recognition for their work in their time. It's a philosophy that's the antithesis of a more easygoing and artist-centric studio like Anime R, where play was not just permitted but understood to be the driving force of creativity. And yet the two studios produced magnificent animation that blends perfectly together on a string of Ryosuke Takahashi shows in the late 1980s. It's a strange and beautiful mystery.

The Dove mecha sakkan credit in episode 6 stands for Nobuyoshi Nishimura, who stepped in as pinch hitter to fill in the void left by Hiroshi Koizumi. Toru Yoshida acted as the mecha sakkan on all of the remaining episodes, in which Dove was mostly involved in piecemeal fashion alongside other subcontractors, obviously under considerable systemic stress due to the loss of their lead animator.

On the directing side of things, Takizawa Toshifumi storyboards episode 1, but Takashi Imanishi, Shinji Takamatsu and Shinichiro Watanabe/Takeyuki Kanda take over from there on out, and for the most part do a very fine job indeed. I'm particularly impressed by the Watanabe/Kanda episodes for a reason I find hard to pin down. They have a feeling of more deliberate cinematic presentation. This was only Watanabe's second job as episode director after the Dirty Pair OVAs the previous year. He drew his first storyboard immediately after Mellowlink in 1990.


Armor Hunter Mellowlink 機甲猟兵メロウリンク
(OVA, 12 eps, 1988-1989, Sunrise)

Director:神田武幸Takeyuki Kanda
Created by/Series Structure:高橋良輔Ryosuke Takahashi
Character Design/Sakkan:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Mechanic Design:大河原邦男Kunio Okawara
Music:乾裕樹Hiroki Inui
Art:平川英治Eiji Hirakawa


Episode 1: Wilderness

Storyboard:滝沢敏文Toshifumi Takizawa
Director:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
アニメアールAnime R
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi
糸島雅彦Masahiko Itojima
浜川修二郎Shujiro Hamakawa
小森高博Takahiro Komori
小川瑞恵Mizue Ogawa
福江光恵Mitsue Fukue
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
能地清Kiyoshi Noji


Episode 2: Colosseum

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 3: Jungle

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:アニメ・アールAnime R
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
小森高博Takahiro Komori
福江光恵Mitsue Fukue
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
 
スタジオ・ムーStudio Mu
黄瀬和哉Kazuchika Kise
山本佐和子Sawako Yamamoto
大島康弘Yasuhiro Oshima


Episode 4: Leaning Tower

Storyboard:高松信司Shinji Takamatsu
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 5: Battlefield

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:アニメ・アールAnime R
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi
小森高博Takahiro Komori
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
吉本拓二Takuji Yoshimoto
 
スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 6: Prison

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
堀沢聡志Satoshi Horisawa
武藤照美Terumi Muto
筱雅律Masanori Shino
河村佳江Yoshie Kawamura


Episode 7: Railway

Storyboard:高松信司Shinji Takamatsu
Director:
 
Asst Sakkan:八幡正Tadashi Yahata
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 8: Ghost Town

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
小森高博Takahiro Komori
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
福江光恵Mitsue Fukue
吉本拓二Takuji Yoshimoto
光岡玲子Reiko Mitsuoka


Episode 9: Forest

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Asst Sakkan:山田きさらかKisaraka Yamada
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオマークStudio Mark
中西賢治Kenji Nakanishi
林伸昌Nobumasa Hayashi
森脇賢治Kenji Moriwaki
高梨光Hikaru Takanashi
 
グループゼンGroup Zen
野田康行Yasuyuki Noda
福原惠次Keiji Fukuhara
藤田正幸Masayuki Fujita
 
武藤照美Terumi Muto
筱雅律Masanori Shino
中沢登Noboru Nakazawa


Episode 10: Castle

Storyboard:高松信司Shinji Takamatsu
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
タイガープロダクションTiger Production
宮崎龍四郎Tatsushiro Miyazaki
本間正Tadashi Honma
大戸幸子Yukiko Oe
鈴木佐智子Sachiko Suzuki


Episode 11: Base

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
藁谷均Hitoshi Waratani
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
津幡佳明Yoshiaki Tsubata


Episode 12: Last Stage

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:アニメ・アールAnime R
沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
河村佳江Yoshie Kawamura
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
小森高博Takahiro Komori
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
吉本拓二Takuji Yoshimoto
 
スタジオダブStudio Dove
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
福井享子Ryoko Fukui
1 commentPermalink

Monday, September 16, 2013

04:55:00 pm , 5181 words, 14087 views     Categories: Animation, Studio, TV, Studio: A Pro, Studio: Tokyo Movie, Animator: Yuzo Aoki, Studio: Oh Pro, 1970s

Wild West Boy Isamu

While just about every movie genre has its sub-genre in anime, there is a distinct lack of westerns in anime. The reason is obvious enough. The western is a quintessentially American genre and doesn't lend itself well to transplanation to Japan (recent exceptions like Sukiyaki Django Western notwithstanding). One of the few movies or TV shows obviously modeled on the western and adhering to most of the genre's conventions is Toei's Puss 'n Boots II from 1972. However, this film was hardly a hardcore western, but rather a spirited, playful children's film populated by anthropomorphic animals as well as humans.

There is only one real, full-fledged western in anime, and that is Koya no Shonen Isamu 荒野の少年イサム, a 52-episode TV series produced by Tokyo Movie aired April 1973 to March 1974, presumably inspired by Toei's recent foray into the western.

Adapted from a manga by Noboru Kawasaki based on a 1952 novel by prolific pulp fiction writer Soji Yamakawa, Isamu tells the story of a samurai named Katsunoshin who in late 1800s crosses the ocean to study western ways in America. He falls in love with a native American girl who gives birth to his child, Isamu. When Isamu is 4, the mother is killed and Katsunoshin becomes separated from his son. Katsunoshin spends the next ten years of his life searching for his son. Isamu, meanwhile, is raised by a community of gold miners until one day he is kidnapped by a gang of outlaws named the Wingates. They teach him the ways of the west and train him into a skilled gunman in the hope of using him to commit their crimes. However, the naturally just-minded Isamu resists and eventually escapes from them and begins a journey to find his father. Along the way, he puts his unparalleled gunmanship to the task of helping innocent settlers fight against outlaws and bring law and order to the wild west.

The golden age of westerns was in fact not that long past when this show came out. The spaghetti westerns of the 1960s like Serge Leone's Fistfull of Dollars (1964) establish the pattern that comes to rule the series in the second half after Isamu parts ways with the Wingates. Isamu will wander into a new town, only to find it secretly ruled by a gang of ruthless thugs who brutally repress the townspeople. After a bit of investigative work, he discovers the big boss running the town. The boss plays a dastardly and underhanded trick in an attempt to kill Isamu, but Isamu's unparalleled skills with the six shooter and unflagging sense of justice finally win the day.

The series also manages to weave in just about every western convention you can think of. There are stories about migrants making their way to the west in covered wagon trains, Mexican outlaws, high-speed stagecoach robberies, an undercover US Marshall investigating a weapons smuggling ring, cattle rustlers, villainous landowners trying to drive innocent farmers off their land, and life on the ranch. The show briefly touches on the topic of slavery with a story of shotgun-blast delicacy reminiscent of Django Unchained: a child slave became an outlaw named Big Stone after witnessing his mother gunned down by the Wingates, and killing his master in retaliation for doing nothing to help her and then adding insult to injury by insulting her corpse. Big Stone spends the first half of the series hunting the Wingates, leading to a big dramatic showdown with Isamu. The series stays away from the delicate issue of native Americans for the most part, save for one episode in which a native seeks to expose an arms dealer who secretly assaults stagecoaches in the guise of natives in order to incite the local townspeople to rise up in war against the natives.

I had seen the first episode many years ago, but I just had the opportunity to watch this series in its entirety for the first time. As a show from the heart of Tokyo Movie's golden age, I enjoyed watching it, but I must say that objectively speaking it's a mixed bag and it's hard to recommend that people flock to see it. There is some good drama and some good animation, and the characters are interesting enough, if not particularly deeply written. The hardcore nature of the show makes it more enjoyable to watch than a pansy kiddy adaptation neutering the brutality of the wild west. It has its virtues, but overall it was a slog to get through, due primarily to the unevenness of the animation work and the cliche'd and repetitive writing.

Despite being set in the real world, Isamu almost never takes a breath to say something down to earth and believable, and that is the main thing that makes it tiring to watch from a modern perspective. Episode after episode, it's the same thing: Isamu discovers a new gang of brutal bandits terrorizing a town that he drives off before riding off into the sunset. It's a spaghetti western drawn out to Lone Ranger serial length. Isao Takahata had yet to pioneer the idea of neorealism in anime, which he did immediately after at Zuiyo with Heidi. There is no attempt to portray psychological subtlety of character, or to create bad guys who have complex motivations and are anything more than paper thin pure evil, or to enact the kind of detail-oriented realistic directing required to make the events depicted feel believable. It feels this show comes at the historical juncture when the time for more realism was ripe.

As it happens, Isao Takahata storyboarded two episodes of Isamu, and these stand out from the series for their more competent filmmaking language, even if due to the constraints of the material they depict the same world of brute animals in the clothes of cowboys shooting it out as if that's the only way they know how to communicate. This could well be the last thing Takahata did before departing for Zuiyo to direct Heidi.

The show is certainly pleasant for being unflinching on the brutality front, something that was fairly novel and no doubt exciting for the period in which it was aired. Although Isamu attempts as best he can to avoid killing, in the end he does seem to wind up killing a dozen people or so per episode, even though the victims are always depicted as evil, bloodthirsty scoundrels who deserve the fate. The show is not afraid to show people getting shot, including women and children. Even the show's black and white moral vision of the world, which seems to divide the west clean in half into good, peaceful citizens and evil, murderous outlaws, is actually somewhat satisfying, in that it's what you expect of a western. They set about making a pulp serial western in which Isamu encounters and overcomes a new gang of baddies in each episode, and they succeeded eminently in that regard.

Original book with drawings by Soji Yamakawa / Page from manga by Noboru Kawasaki

Noboru Kawasaki was responsible for the manga Kyojin no Hoshi that was adapted into a hit series by Tokyo Movie over the years of 1968-1971. Tokyo Movie was in some financial trouble at the time Kyojin no Hoshi started, and the success of this show along with their concurrently running shoujo version of the 'spokon' genre Attack No. 1 (1969-1971) provided the studio with a windfall. This prompted them to continue to pump out similar shows for the next few years in the hope of continuing to milk this newfound popularity for 'spokon' anime. A Production studio head Daikichiro Kusube is credited as the animation supervisor in all of these shows, up until Karate Baka Ichidai (1973-1974) and then Judo Sanka (1974). Most of Tokyo Movie's spokon shows apart from Kyojin no Hoshi are based on the work of Ikki Kajiwara, who himself was reportedly inspired by an earlier boxing novel by Soji Yamakawa when he wrote the original manga for Ashita no Joe, another one of the big hits of the spokon boom around 1968-1970.

It was presumably due to the success of Kyojin no Hoshi, combined with the recent Toei Doga movie, that Fujioka Yutaka decided to give Noboru Kawasaki's "Japanese Western" Koya no Shonen Isamu a go as a TV show.

The Animation

Playful self-references inserted by Junio's Takao Kosai and Oh Pro's Koichi Murata

The animation was produced essentially by six studios: Oh Pro, Studio Junio, Studio Z, Studio Mates, Studio Neo Media and A Pro. None of these subcontractors are credited, but the breakdown is clear if you know a bit about the animators in the credits.

A Pro founder Daikichiro Kusube acted as the animation supervisor to oversee the very different styles of these studios, although in the end my impression is that he didn't really do much to unify the style, as each studio's style comes through seemingly unmediated by correction. Roughly same group of six subcontractors was also behind the animation of the more 'realistic' shows produced by Tokyo Movie in the surrounding years (as opposed to the more deformed gag shows like Dokonjo Gaeru, which featured a different team), including Lupin III (1971), Akado Suzunosuke (1972) and Judo Sanka (1974).

There are a few mixed episodes in which two different studios worked on part A and part B, but for the most part one studio handled the animation of a single episode, with two of the studio's animators handling respectively part A and part B. One of these animators is credited as sakkan, presumably because he was in charge of maintaining consistency over the episode delivered to Tokyo Movie, but again, it's doubtful how much correcting they actually did. Below is a breakdown of the animators for each studio. Names in bold are the studio's sakkans.

Oh Pro:Koichi Murata, Toshitsugu Saida
Studio Junio:Takao Kosai, Tetsuo Imazawa, Minoru Maeda
Studio Mates:Koizumi Kenzo, Akiko Hoshino, Teruo Handa, Akio Yoshihara, Masayuki Ohseki
Studio Neo Media:Keiichiro Kimura, Yasuhiro Yamaguchi, Yoshiyuki Momose, Masayuki Uchiyama
A Pro:Hideo Kawauchi, Eiichi Nakamura, Yuzo Aoki
Studio Z:Shingo Araki, Tsugefumi Nuno

The interesting thing about this show is that it's a great example of how shows of yore used to vary considerably in drawing style from episode to episode. Below is an overview of the four main studios' drawing styles to give a sense of this. (I won't include A Pro and Neo Media because they play a smaller part)

Oh Pro: 1, 4, 7 12, 16, 22, 26, 27, 30, 34, 38, 42, 46, 51

(click to enlarge)

Oh Pro is the standout studio in this show, and studio head Koichi Murata is the star. Koichi Murata animated 11 episodes half-half with Toshitsugu Saida. I believe Murata animated the first half and Saida animated the second half in each episode. This series thus provides a good place to become acquainted with Koichi Murata's style. He's a name I was familiar with for a long time as the head of Oh Pro and a major contributor to classics like Lupin III, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Future Boy Conan and Anne of Green Gables, but not until watching Isamu did I know how to identify his work.

Murata's animation is by far the most lively and entertaining in the show. The rest of the animation frankly looks sloppy and amateurish in comparison. Not only are his drawings technically better, he actually makes his characters act out their emotions. None of the other animators in the show are up to the task of character acting. They're struggling just to draw the characters. Murata effortlessly renders the characters in a few simple shapes and modulates their expressions and posing freely in a way reminiscent of Yasuo Otsuka or Osamu Kobayashi. It's possible he was influenced by Yasuo Otsuka working on the original Lupin III show under Otsuka two years before.

If you look at the second row above, you'll see just how pliable his character acting is. In one shot you can follow the flow of the character's thought patterns purely through the drawings. He had passed out trying to save a girl and just came to his senses. At first he's disoriented, then he finally remembers what happened to him and is relieved to know he's fine. Then he remembers something: he was trying to catch a bag of gold dust. He becomes alarmed and asks what happened to it. The other party tells him to look at his own hand, because he's been holding it the whole time, and his expression changes to one of surprise. Disorientation, relief, sudden recollection, anxious questioning, disbelief.

Only in Murata's hands do the characters feel alive like this. And that's actually one of the problems with the series. The rest of the series would be fine if only the character acting was up to the level of Murata's animation. The reason the show feels stale and cheesy is less because of the unimaginative script than because poor character acting renders the filmmaking flat and lifeless. It's patently obvious why Murata became a staple of Takahata and Miyazaki's work in the 1970s - because he was one of the few animators of the day with the skill to create nuanced and believable character animation with only a few quickly executed perfunctory drawings, as was necessary in the TV format. His animation also happens to be tremendously fun in terms of the movement, with lots of lively and unexpected little gestures and expressions.

One of Murata's little tricks he invented is to draw the eyes as two little black blobs when they're closed, for example when a character laughs as in the image above. I'd seen this in various shows from the 1970s but never realized until now that this was the mark of Murata. Episodes 26 and 38 are particularly good Koichi Murata episodes.

He participated in most of the World Masterpiece Theater series as an animator, and never got distracted by directing or character designing like many animators eventually do. He remained a pure animator to the end. In addition to being a prolific animator while running Oh Pro, one of the industry's most trusted subcontracting studios, he was also active behind the scenes working to improve the conditions of animators in the industry, acting as Vice Chairman of the Animation Business Association since 1990, which had other notable animation figures on its board from other major studios in the industry including Noboru Ishiguro (Artland) and Tsutomu Shibayama (Ajia-do).

Studio Junio: 1, 4, 8, 13, 19, 24, 29, 33, 37, 41, 45, 50

(click to enlarge)

The Studio Junio episodes feature studio head Takao Kosai as sakkan and part A animator and Tetsuo Imazawa as storyboarder and part B animator. Kosai's style is a great contrast with that of Koichi Murata. His figures are lean and elongated, roughly drawn and mean looking. The faces look very bony and gaunt and frankly unattractive. The noses are usually big and pointy. His hands are easily identified - long and lean, very different from the plump and round drawings of Studio Z's Shingo Araki or the curled, almost deformed hands of the characters drawn by Studio Mates' Kenzo Koizumi. Takao Kosai's movement can be rather dynamic in the action scenes, but it's never very realistic or believably timed, and his acting is pretty much limited to either sinister sneering or looking worried.

Takao Kosai began his career at Toei Doga in 1960 and spent 4 years there before leaving in 1964 with several other animators including Kenzo Koizumi and Azuma Hiroshi to form a studio called Hatena Pro. Hatena Pro is not a very well known studio, but it's actually one of the more important 'seed' studios of the period, in that what it produced is less important than the studios that sprung up in its wake. When the studio finally closed 5 years later in 1969, Takao Kosai and Tetsuo Imazawa formed Studio Junio while Kenzo Koizumi and Hiroshi Azuma formed Studio Mates. Kazuo Komatsubara, who joined in 1969, the year the studio closed, formed Oh Pro together with Koshin Yonekawa and Koichi Murata in 1970. Hiroshi Azuma defected from Mates to Junio in 1972, while Minoru Maeda, who would become one of the studio's most important animators, joined in 1972. (Way later when Junio closed around 2000, Azuma, Okazaki and Maeda left when things started getting bad in 1998 to form Synergy SP.)

Tetsuo Imazawa would go on to be Studio Junio's lead director, doing much work TMS including directing The White Whale of Mu (1980), Iron Man 28 (1980) and God Mars (1981). He went on to direct some notable films including The Fox of Chironup (1987), Coo from the Distant Ocean (1993) and Hermes, Wings of Love (1997) for Junio before the studio went out of business around 2000.

Other animators turned out by the studio include Toshiyuki Inoue, Hisashi Eguchi, Fumitoshi Oizaki, Tetsuya Kumagai, Mamoru Kanbe and Masaki Kajishima.

Studio Mates: 3, 5, 9, 14, 20, 21, 25, 28, 32, 36, 40, 44, 49, 52

(click to enlarge)

The Studio Mates episodes feature studio head Kenzo Koizumi as sakkan and part animator. These are my least favorite drawings in the show. Koizumi's characters are amateurishly drawn, with extremely static and unchanging posing and expression. The poses are constricted and unnatural. No character ever seems to evince the appropriate emotion in any given scene, rather adopting an awkward template expression no matter the circumstances. He spends most of his energy drawing evil expressions on the baddies. The deformed-looking hands in particular are very characteristic and easily give away Koizumi's presence.

The drawing above of the baddie holding a rifle is exemplary of the problem with his drawings. What on earth is his left hand doing? The fingers are splayed in odd directions and seem to be floating daintily above the barrel rather than gripping it, and the angle at which the gun is inclined seems very unnatural. The action scenes are embarrassing to watch, as the character don't so much move as hurl themselves around unnaturally and float improbably against the background due to the poor layouts.

Kenzo Koizumi also started out at Toei Doga in 1962 before joining Hatena Pro in 1964. I can only assume that he improved with time, because he continued to get work as an animator down to the year of his death in 2008.

Animators who began their careers at Studio Mates include Watanabe Ayumu and Hiroshi Harada. If for nothing else, Mates can be said to have played a positive role in anime history for guiding Watanabe Ayumu to Shin-Ei and prompting Hiroshi Harada leave the industry to make Midori.

Studio Z: 2, 6, 18, 21, 25, 27, 31, 35, 39, 43, 48, 52

(click to enlarge)

The Studio Z episodes feature Shingo Araki as sakkan and part A animator with Tsugefumi Nuno as part B animator. Araki's drawings are perhaps the most skillful in the series in terms of the actual drawings, with well stylized expressions and a very distinctive rounded drawing style. This is presumably due to the fact that he started out as a manga-ka, and was hence used to drawing stylized characters in exaggerated poses. This wound up providing the foundation for his style, because as an animator, he is inferior to Koichi Murata, who is more pliable and dynamic with the drawings. Araki's characters are cartoonish and mannered rather than expressive and nuanced. The hands are again an easy place to identify this animator - rounded and puffy fingers drawn in a very symmetrical way.

Shingo Araki started out as a manga-ka before switching to animation because he wasn't earning a living. He joined Mushi Pro in 1964 and then switched to a little-known studio called Jaggard in 1966. It was here working alongside Hiroshi Saito that Araki really learned about animation. Jaggard was involved in several earlier Tokyo Movie productions including Tensai Bakabon before they disbanded in 1972, immediately before Isamu. Araki meanwhile had quit a little earlier in 1971 to found his own small artist workspace called Studio Z. It was here that Yoshinori Kanada, after being first rejected by Oh Pro (where he went because he liked Koichi Murata's drawings), began to learn animation as an inbetweener under Shingo Araki. You can see Kanada's name in the inbetween credits for each Studio Z episode, alongside Kazuo Tomizawa and Shinya Sadamitsu, who would continue to be associated with Kanada for years.

Araki of course is known for his work on Toei shows of the 1970s and then primarily Saint Saiya. It was the same year as Isamu that Araki got his taste designing characters for the first time for Cutie Honey, and it was right after working on Isamu that he founded his own actual legitimate studio, Araki Pro, to focus on this work. Kanada, meanwhile, started out at Toei between 1970-1972 on Maho no Mako-chan, Sarutobi Ecchan, Gegege no Kitaro and Mahotsukai Chappy before switching to Araki's Studio Z, where he worked between 1972-1973 on Gekko Kamen, Akado Suzunosuke and Isamu. Kanada did not follow Araki to Araki Pro, but rather went to work under Takuo Noda in 1974 at Studio No. 1. It was the next year in 1975 that Yoshinori Kanada himself founded his own artist collective/studio called Studio Z, totally unrelated to the previous Studio Z, where he worked until 1980, when he founded yet another studio called Studio No. 1. Studio Z went through several other incarnations at the hands of other animators before the founding of Studio Z5 around 1980 by Hideyuki Motohashi.

Other studios and notable names

A Pro doesn't play as big a role in this show because their most important animators like Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama were busy working on the concurrently running Dokonjo Gaeru, which was still in the midst of its long run, and anyway were not typically put to work on the gekiga-styled Tokyo Movie shows like Isamu but rather the cartoony gag shows. Still, Yuzo Aoki and Eiichi Nakamura do show up for a few episodes in the first half drawing half episodes under sakkan Hideo Furusawa. However, their work doesn't shine on this material. Aoki's distinctive style has not yet emerged at this period. That said, the A Pro team does provide the animation for the first of the two episodes storyboarded by Isao Takahata (15 and 19), and their animation almost certainly helps to make Takahata's episode memorable thanks to its precisely timed and exciting action. The reason for the pairing is obvious: Takahata was at A Pro at the time.

Takahata's episode 15 is entirely devoted to the showdown between Isamu and his frenemy Big Stone. Big Stone is actually out to kill the Wingates for murdering his mother, but Isamu is still caught in their web and winds up having to duel Big Stone. The showdown in the ghost town occupies the entire episode as they run around in the dark of the night in a long, drawn out battle that lasts until dawn. It's a fantastic episode that has great tension and does what you want a western anime to do. Takahata's skill as a director comes through loud and clear even though he only storyboarded the episode and didn't direct it, as was the case with Jacky the Bearcub episode 5. Each shot features very precise character actions, and sequences of action play out in a very logical and believable way. Tension builds through long stretches of prowling around the dark streets until it explodes in fast action sequences featuring precisely timed movements by the characters courtesy of Aoki and quick cutting between shots. It goes without saying that if the other episodes were directed in such a masterly fashion, the show would be a classic. We have plenty of realistic slice-of-life shows from Takahata, but it would be nice to have a whole action show like this from Takahata. He shows with this episode that he can do even action better than anyone else.

Ex-Mushi Pro animator Masami Hata at this period was presumably employed at the recently-formed Madhouse, which provided its animators to Tokyo Movie over the course of the 1970s in thanks to Yutaka Fujioka for having provided Dezaki et al. with the seed money needed to found their studio. He was a great storyboarder and produced some of the finest episodes of this period through his storyboards, including the first episode of this show, which no doubt benefits from his instinct for dramatic storytelling. The first episode is definitely the best place to start with this show thanks to its combinatinon of Hata's storyboard and the powerful animation. Part A was done by Studio Junio and part B by Oh Pro, but really their styles don't come through particularly clearly in this episode. The style if well smoothed out over the course of the episode. The characters faces are deeply etched and well drawn, and the gunplay animation is smooth and thrilling. It's a great example of gekiga anime.

The last studio in the rotation is Neo Media, the studio founded in 1969 by Keiichiro Kimura. Kimura had worked under Kusube at Toei, which seems to clearly show the reason Neo Media became a mainstay in Tokyo Movie shows. (That, and there were presumably not that many studios for Tokyo Movie to turn to at that juncture, so they gathered all the forces they could by turning to the ex-Toei buddies known to Kusube.) The drawings and movement in these episodes aren't quite as crazy and rough as you would expect.

Neo Media did two half-episodes and two full episodes in the first half before disappearing and coming back to do an episode near the end and the last episode. Studio head Kimura himself acted as sakkan early on while Yasuhiro Yamaguchi replaced him in the last two Neo Media episodes. Yoshiyuki Momose and his animation partner Masayuki Uchiyama join the team at this point. Momose's style is for the most part not as obvious as it was on Dokonjo Gaeru at the same period, but the very ending of the last episode does have the kind of hustle you would expect to see from Momose. Momose was in the middle of working on Dokonjo Gaeru from Neo Media, so he wasn't used to the style. He relates that he had a hard time re-adjusting to the drawing style of Dokonjo Gaeru after his brief experience on Isamu, which admittedly has the diametric opposite style. Momose did a good job adapting himself to his mentor's drawing style, though, and the Neo Media episodes have that rough and dirty line drawing that you would expect from the man behind Tiger Mask, even moreso than the early episodes by Kimura himself. Incidentally, the name Yoshiyuki Momoyama in the last episode is obviously an amalgam of Yoshiyuki Momose and Masayuki Uchiyama.

One of the main rotation directors is Soji Yoshikawa, who started out as a director at Mushi Pro and then moved to Art Fresh with Gisaburo Sugii & Osamu Dezaki when they founded this studio around 1967. Soji Yoshikawa is perhaps best remembered as the writer/director of the first Lupin III movie about the clones, which to many more hardcore Lupin III fans is the best of the animated statements on Lupin III. Episode 38 is a particularly good example of Soji Yoshikawa's directing in this show, as it features animation by Oh Pro that fills out the nuances in Yoshikawa's storyboard. Yoshikawa soon switched to focusing on writing, and the only other movie he directed was the anime adaptation of White Fang (1982) with designs by Yasuhiko Yoshikazu. One of his more recent big project was Hoshi no Kirby (2001), which was an early integrator of CGI.

Series director Shigetsugu Yoshida began in animation at Toei Doga, where he worked between the years of 1959-1969 before joining A Pro. After working at A Pro in the 1970s presumably most only Tokyo Movie shows, he finally just moved to TMS. He retired from animation sometime after drawing one storyboard for Nippon Animation's Peter Pan in 1989.

Finally, one amusing thing I noticed was that the episode preview at the end of episode 44 includes animation from a completely unrelated episode. In other words, episode 45 is drawn entirely by Studio Junio, but the preview for that episode is mostly animation by Shingo Araki from a completely unrelated episode. I assume this was done by the episode director because the animation for episode 45 wasn't done at the time and he needed to put something together. This certainly gives you a good feeling for how tight the schedule was on these old shows.

Choice episodes

To sum up, here are some choice episodes if you want to sample the show without having to deal with the drudgery of the mediocre-quality episodes.

#1: Great intro to the show with powerful storyboard by Masami Hata and strong gekiga drawings
#15: Exciting showdown action courtesy of Isao Takahata storyboard and Yuzo Aoki animation
#38: Good storyboard by Soji Yoshikawa and animation by Oh Pro


Koya no Shonen Isamu 荒野の少年イサム full episode listing
52 episodes, Tokyo Movie, April 4, 1973 - March 27, 1974

StoryboardDirectorSakkanKey Animators
1波多正美
Masami Hata
御厨恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
香西隆男、村田耕一
Takao Kosai, Koichi Murata
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
2御厨恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
河内日出夫、荒木伸吾
Hideo Kawauchi, Shingo Araki
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
3岡部英二
Eiji Okabe
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
小泉謙三、木村圭市郎
Kenzo Koizumi, Keiichiro Kimura
半田輝夫 Teruo Handa
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
4黒田昌郎
Masao Kuroda
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
村田耕一、香西隆男
Koichi Murata, Takao Kosai
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
5吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
小泉謙三、河内日出夫
Kenzo Koizumi, Hideo Kawauchi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
吉原章雄 Akio Yoshihara
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
6波多正美
Masami Hata
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
木村圭市郎、河内日出夫、荒木伸吾
Keiichiro Kimura, Hideo Kawauchi, Shingo Araki
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
7御厨恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
8今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
9黒田昌郎
Masao Kuroda
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
半田輝夫 Teruo Handa
10吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
河内日出夫
Hideo Kawauchi
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
11みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
木村圭市郎
Keiichiro Kimura
木村圭市郎 Keiichiro Kimura
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
12新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
13今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
14みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
15高畠勲
Isao Takahata
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
河内日出夫
Hideo Kawauchi
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
16新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
17吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
木村圭市郎
Keiichiro Kimura
木村圭市郎 Keiichiro Kimura
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
18高畠勲
Isao Takahata
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
河内日出夫、荒木伸吾
Hideo Kawauchi, Shingo Araki
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
19今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
20吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
21新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
小泉謙三、荒木伸吾
Kenzo Koizumi, Shingo Araki
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
22みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
23吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
木村圭市郎
Keiichiro Kimura
木村圭市郎 Keiichiro Kimura
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
24今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
25新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
小泉謙三、荒木伸吾
Kenzo Koizumi, Shingo Araki
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
26吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
27みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一、荒木伸吾
Koichi Murata, Shingo Araki
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
28小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
29今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
30みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
31新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
荒木伸吾
Araki Shingo
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
32吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
33今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
34新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
35みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
36小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
37今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
38吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
39中村真
Makoto Nakamura
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
40みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
大関政幸 Masayuki Ohseki
41今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
42吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
43みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
44中村真
Makoto Nakamura
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
大関政幸 Masayuki Ohseki
45今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
46上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
麻岡上夫
Kamio Maoka
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
47石黒昇石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
山口泰弘
Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
百瀬義行 Yoshiyuki Momose
内山正幸 Masayuki Uchiyama
48中村 真
Makoto Nakamura
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
49みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
大関政幸 Masayuki Ohseki
50今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
51石黒昇
Noboru Ishiguro
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
52小泉謙三、御厨恭輔
Kenzo Koizumi, Kyosuke Mikuriya
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
荒木伸吾、山口泰弘
Shingo Araki, Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
百山義幸 Yoshiyuki Momoyama
1 commentPermalink

Friday, September 13, 2013

07:04:00 pm , 1114 words, 8983 views     Categories: Animation

Ghost Stories

A collective of animators called the Late Night Work Club has just released a nearly 40-minute anthology of shorts called Ghost Stories, available for free viewing online on Vimeo. Entirely produced without funding, during off-time from work, it's a very well-produced package that rivals any of the pro anthologies I've seen doing the rounds at the festivals in the last few years.

As evinced by the title, the stories all deal with somewhat dark subject matter, and do so in a variety of different styles and techniques. Some are more serious and some more facetious, but they each tell a story of a different kind of ghost in a very contemporary style and context.

I Will Miss You by Dave Prosser uses computer-drawn clean lines and simple shapes and a flat red-blue-yellow color scheme to explore the idea of online identity. A man's online doppelganger comes alive and documents his own life. The way he expresses the familiar using highly formalistic, stylized shapes reminds slightly of David O'Reilly. It's ironic, clever stuff that defies simple explanation. This is a ghost story for the iPhone generation.

The Jump by Charles Huettner witnesses a boy and girl playing in an urban wasteland by hopping onto the ghosts of the dead as they fly by to vicariously experience their death. Unfortunately, one of the ghosts turns out to be the boy's own, and he falls to his death. It's a bleak humor that goes well with the lovely style and animated transformations.

The American Dream by Sean Buckelew is one of the most unique films in the set - no CG, unlike all of the other shorts. All hand-drawn and with a very analog aesthetic. A woman narrates the circumstances leading to her death. It's an ironic comment on the aimlessness of today's young adults, who never seem to want to grow up and face the world. By the time she's ready to find out what she wants to do, it's already too late.

Mountain Ash by Jake Armstrong & Erin Kilkenny is a tragic tale about a woodcutter and his symbiotic relationship with the forest animals. It has a circular rhythm and cute animal designs that give it the feel of a picture book. This somewhat alleviates the blow of witnessing their slow death by starvation. Its lush visual ethos and fun characterizations of the animals make it a pleasure to watch.

Rat Trap by Caleb Wood is the most visually experimental film of the set. With its largely black and white color scheme, scratchy lines and a noisy soundtrack, it's a bleak visual expression of the idea of being trapped in a dark, dank place. It's a big contrast with the clean CG animation aesthetic that seems to dominate today. It's also the most abstract film in the set narrative-wise, coming across as closer to visual poetry than a narrative.

Loose Ends by Louise Bagnall returns to the clean CG visuals that dominate the set. Swirling ghost drops gradually gather around the head of the protagonist, seeming to represent the little stresses that accumulate little by little from the many things that we have to deal with in our modern daily lives. The story is economically told with no words using a clean and spare visual style. Its narrative is pleasantly lacking in drama, only showing slices of a day in the life of the protagonist, and the conclusion comes elegantly and effortlessly as she discards the trash.

Phantom Limb by Alex Grigg tells the story of a man's guilt about causing his girlfriend to lose her arm. Emotionally affecting, delicate, humane, and visually gorgeous, it's hands down my favorite film in the set. It has great character animation that wordlessly conveys the protagonist's emotional state at every moment. The directing visualizes his growing sense of guilt, and the resultant hairline cracks in their relationship, through the metaphor of a literal phantom limb that haunts him. I look forward to seeing more from Alex Grigg.

Asshole by Conor Finnegan tells the tragic tale of an asshole who just wanted to be loved. The most Spike and Mike outing in the set, the film is a gory but funny gag. The asshole in question comes alive after eating its owner's towel, but the owner shits it out and then cuts its throat in terror. It's plenty fun to watch as an absurdist horror.

Ombilda by Ciaran Duffy tells the story of a mysterious tree that consumes the creatures around it on a desolate shore that seems hewn out of an old Bergman film. Animated in richly textured black and white, it's an atmospheric horror story economically told in a quick arc, from the time the man sees ominous mist descending the hill until it engulfs the house.

Post Personal by Eamonn O'Neill is a seemingly random sequence of odd character sketches involving death and technology. A kid at a computer codes a digital doppelganger who when completed kills the original, while another kid plays a video game on his smartphone, oblivious to the death of those around him - until death overtakes him, too, to the apparent joy of his sentient smartphone. I'm reminded a bit of the dark humor of Don Hertzfeldt in this pleasantly unpredictable and absurd commentary on modern technology.

Last Lives by Scott Benson is an incredibly dense sci-fi story that in a mere few minutes evokes a complex story about the hunt for a cyber ghost that nonetheless feels epic in scale. Through busy cutting and dense animation, he manages to convey the sense of a future world in which we are all cyber-connected, waving our hands about oblivious to the outside world like so many wearers of Google Glass, exploring inner worlds as we zoom around our dome city on a hyperfast rail. This is tremendous stuff: fantastic storytelling, and visually very accomplished, with consistently gorgeous visuals that each convey the feeling of a living world with more depth to explore. I would love to see a longer piece in this vein. It's somewhat abstract stylistically but deep down it seems like a great hard sci-fi story like Bladerunner.

All in all, a great little omnibus put together purely for the love of the art by some incredibly talented and generous folks. Don't forget to check out the links to each artists' web site, because many of these guys and gals have produced other shorts that are very much worth exploring. For example, Dave Prosser has produced four other amazing shorts that you can watch on his web site. And Jake Armstrong is of course the talented animator who several years ago produced the lovely retro-sci-fi short The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

09:50:00 pm , 1021 words, 5829 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Blue Exorcist movie

I watched this 2012 movie on the recommendation of commenter shergal, and I'm glad I did. I enjoyed it. Although essentially simplistic children's fare populated by conventional anime characters going through the same ropes we've seen many times before, it's all well done in a nice little package. It's a solidly produced, atmospherically directed, well animated franchise film. And most of all, it has stunning background art. It's a movie worth seeing for the background art alone. If there's "sakuga anime", then this is "haikei anime".

A sequel to A-1 Pictures' Blue Exorcist TV series from 2011, which I never saw, it's a standalone followup featuring the same characters but in a one-shot situation. It's a pure franchise movie in that it presupposes knowledge of the show's story, characters, and basic gimmick. I was confused on a lot of points, most notably the relationship between the grandfather and the two brothers, which presumably lends this story its emotional resonance.

That said, it's crafted in such a way as to basically stand on its own. The actual narrative is extremely simple. In a world where demon hunters are organized like law enforcement to protect the town from stray demons, a novice unwittingly releases a demon and domesticates it like a pet/little brother, until finally discovering that its true nature puts the town at risk of destruction.

Despite not having seen the original material, there were two draws to this that made watching it a no-brainer: director Atsushi Takahashi and art director Shinji Kimura. Both help raise this movie above the level of a 'mere' franchise movie. The solid animation work doesn't hurt, either.

Art director Shinji Kimura makes this movie. The backgrounds here are every bit the equal of his work on Tekkon Kinkreet, something I never expected myself to say. His art is breathtaking: an anarchic mishmash of dirty billboards, old neon, brightly colored kitch, and urban decay that creates the impression of a tremendous amount of life boiling beneath the surface, even if the movie otherwise doesn't really delve into fleshing out the workings of the city itself, rather focusing exclusively on the main characters and narrative. Many of the images are so gorgeous I wanted to just pause the movie and stare at them.

What's nice about his art is that there's a depth to it at the same time, an irony. Shots like the one pictured above, in addition to being absurdly densely packed in an obviously supra-realistic way rather than merely realistic, almost have a satirical bite. There's an element of gaudy satire, Logorama-like reveling in the absurd superficiality of urban life and its overproliferation of signage. Sadly, there is little in the film that echoes or explores any such themes. I would like to see Kimura for once given the chance to try out original subject matter, free of the constraints of source material, that would directly address the underlying themes in his work.

Director Atsushi Takahashi meanwhile knows how to showcase Kimura's art in a way that doesn't just sideline it as a backdrop to the action, but makes the city one of the film's living, breathing protagonists, as it was in Tekkon Kinkreet. Takahashi's directing tends to favor slow pacing, long shots, and atmosphere, although he does a great job shifting in the action scenes to a vernacular that is closer to spectacular Hollywood blockbuster than art house. That directing style works perfectly with the art by Kimura.

The film opens in grand style by immediately announcing its powerful vision of the city. The camera slowly pans up from the protagonist at the bottom of the staircase, nearly invisible amidst the chaos of claustrophobically cluttered, dun-colored hilliside homes, gradually revealing one grander and grander opulent construction after another, extending up and up in a seemingly endless vertical ascent, cranes resting gingerly like cleaner birds on the hide of some giant golem-like beast, finally reaching its resting point at the tip of a strange Tower-of-Babel-like structure at the heart of the city. It's an appropriately cinematic opening showing that Takahashi knows how to create a sense of scale befitting a feature film, something lacking in a lot of franchise films.

I'm not very familiar with Atsushi Takahashi's resume, but in my mind his name is synonymous with episode 12 of Kemonozume, which is the standout episode of the show, and probably one of the greatest TV anime episodes ever. He is one of the few directors I've seen who brings something different to his animation - not just a more poetic sensibility, but the technical grounding (borne of experience at Ghibli under Miyazaki) to execute it convincingly and cinematically. His style is artistic and stylish, but without the in-your-face formalistic flourishes of Toei-school directors such as Mamoru Hosoda. Style seems subservient to creating a feeling of the reality of the world inhabited by the characters.

The film is unsurprisingly bookended by two very exciting and well-animated action scenes. Although this feels like rote film structure, it's hard to imagine something more satisfying for a good entertainment movie than opening and ending with a bang, and this movie does that well. The opening chase with the eyeball blob comes across as something of a reprise of the chase through the corridors with Kaonashi in Spirited Away. It's a scene that makes good use of the large scale of the city, with the protagonist and the beast eventually falling from the tracks down, down, down through an endless vast expanse of space and crashing down into firmament that seems only to have been built on older parts of the city. It's in this forgotten precinct where the protagonist unleashes the Baku-like beast who eats bad memories rather than dreams.

The eyeball blob returns for the finale, which features even more impressive animation. His defeat is followed by a second climax. The first climax provides the action catharsis while the second provides the dramatic and emotional catharsis. Any number of talented animators were involved, and presumably these were responsible for the action scenes: Masahiko Kubo, Cedric Herole, Takaaki Wada, Hitoshi Ueda, Keisuke Watabe, Tadashi Itazaki, Masao Okubo, Soichiro Matsuda, Shingo Ogiso, etc.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

10:39:00 pm , 726 words, 4293 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada

Ippatsu Hicchuu!! Devander

Tatsunoko released a TV-episode-length one-shot OVA called Ippatsu Hicchuu!! Devander at the end of last year to mark their 50th anniversary. It was headlined by two figures who have been mainstays of Tatsunoko since their founding: Director Hiroshi Sasagawa and mecha designer Kunio Okawara.

It's a gag sci-fi mecha action show for kids in the spirit of their Time Bokan series. It exhibits the same outlandish concept and over-the-top, tasteless design sensibility as those shows, with the horse mecha and silly hero suit complete with spurs, and the whole concept of the hero having to pedal the mechanical horse to get a new lotto ball out that turns into a robot to fight the enemy mecha.

It references their past work and features brief cameos by a number of well-known Tatsunoko characters like Hakushon Daimao and Kerokko Demetan - and even the studio's own mascot, the sea horse or baby dragon. It would be an uninteresting, self-serving trifle of an advertisement for the studio it weren't for the quality of the production.

Jun Arai acted as the mecha sakkan, and he turned the show into an all-out bash of Kanada-school mecha action and effects. Most of the smoke and other assorted effects scream his hand, while an array of well-known Kanada-school animators or otherwise talented mecha animators fill out the mecha animation and make it interesting at every moment.

山下将仁
Masahito Yamashita
橋本敬史
Takashi Hashimoto
大張正己
Masami Obari
城前龍治
Ryuji Shiromae
鈴木勤
Tsutomu Suzuki
柿田英樹
Hideki Kakita
三日月顯太朗
Kentaro Mikazuki
山本裕介
Yusuke Yamamoto
工原しげき
Shigeki Kuhara
新井淳
Jun Arai
松尾慎
Shin Matsuo

Most of these names need no introduction. They've been mainstays of mecha shows for decades. Amazing to see Masahito Yamashita still working on the front lines in a show like this more than 30 years since he drew his most famous bits that made him a legend as the #1 Kanada-school animator in the early 80s. I thought I saw a scene with the 'Yamashita run' and wondered who could be imitating him. It was most likely the man himself.

The more realistic explosions near the end were presumably courtesy of Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita, who actually aren't very Kanada school at all. The only one that seems out of place is Yusuke Yamamoto, since he's a director. The other mystery is Kentaro Mikazuki - obviously a pen name.

Shin Matsuo was the line director as well as co-storyboarder. I remember him primarily for KO Century Beast, one of the shows that got me into anime back in the day, with its zany, cartoonish sensibility and hyper-deformed designs. His work isn't always identifiable to me, but when he shifts gears into Kanada mode, it's quite obvious what he's trying to do.

The main mystery is why they chose this style for this show. Yoshinori Kanada was never a name associated with Tatsunoko's animation. In fact, he seemed to represent the diametric opposite of what Tatsunoko animation stood for. Happenstance seems to have led to this pairing, but I find it bizarre that for their 50th anniversary they go with this style, as much as I enjoy getting the opportunity to see 25 minutes of nice animation by talented animators. Well, I won't look the gift mecha horse in the mouth.

The Kanada school has gone through many phases, and if Arai's work is any indication, it is now in its decadent phase. It's all carefully polished stylization, where the master was all about dynamism at the expense of polish. The style is just what resulted; it wasn't the goal. Miyazaki's words from 30 years ago about the man and his imitators still ring true today. To be fair, this isn't a new trend. Yamashita Masahito and the 80s followers were the ones who first pushed Kanada's stylization to its decadent extreme, with geometrical smoke and insanely detailed shadows. Arai just updates the tradition. It's not unpleasant to watch. It's just predictable. It was fun back then because it was like they were sneaking it in.

The opening in particular felt like they were deliberately trying to imitate how Kanada might have done it. I know it sounds weird to say that, since the whole show seems Kanada inspired, but it's as if they weren't just doing Kanada-school animation but actually rendering an homage to the man himself with the opening. Maybe that's because it was storyboarded by Masahito Yamashita. It additionally featured a few other nice names: Yoshimichi Kameda, Yasuhiro Seo, Shingo Fujii, Morifumi Naka.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

10:47:00 pm , 630 words, 9101 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Saint Young Men

OVAs are that great format that permitted indulgence of the kind unsuited to the big or small screen. The golden age of OVAs is long past, but luckily there is still a trickle of interesting OVAs coming out with a more underground vibe or adventurous design style not suited to mainstream TV production.

Saint Young Men is one of the latest. It was adapted from the manga of the same name by A-1 Pictures last December into a 30-minute OVA. It was actually released as an extra with Volume 8 of the manga, apparently as advance publicity for a full-length movie by the same studio and staff released in May of this year. I haven't seen the movie yet but I've seen the OVA and assume the movie is more of the same. (apparently there's also another even shorter followup OVA)

I enjoyed it and look forward to seeing the movie. It's the story of an odd couple named Jesus and Buddha living in a tiny apartment complex in suburban Japan run by a domineering old landlady named Sachiyo Matsuda. Jesus and Buddha are just visiting Japan for some sightseeing, but they spend most of their time ineptly trying to hide their identities from the surrounding mortals.

It makes for amusing viewing, although they never go anywhere remotely satirical or controversial with the setup. That's somewhat disappointing, as the situation seems ripe for some biting satire of the two big religions, but it's still pleasant and well made. It's a refreshing anomaly of an OVA with an ever-so-slightly edgier and more indie feel to it in terms of the drawings and humor. The humor isn't overdone like in a lot of anime these days. The directing is downright laid back and gentle compared to the manic and bold directing style of recent underground manga adaptations like Detroit Metal City, although that was certainly a brilliant adaptation.

But the drawings are what really make me like the show. There's nothing extraordinary in the animation, but all of the animation is a pleasure to watch thanks to that great animator Naoyuki Asano, who adapted the characters from the manga with his usual verve as character designer and sakkan (and head animator). I've done a cursory comparison, and his characters are definitely an adaptation rather than a literal copy of the manga, which seems more roughly and less skilfully drawn. Asano stylizes them in his own way, not to mention designing them in a way more suited to movement and making them more visually three-dimensional.

The old landlady in particular seems to receive the most love from the animators. She's the real star of the show. Where Jesus and Buddha react more broadly, Sachiyo is the character you come away liking the most because she seems so rounded and filled out as a character thanks to the animation, not to mention the good voice-acting. Every twist and turn of her thought and emotion is vividly but subtly conveyed by the nuanced and delicate character animation, without even using many drawings. They don't overdo her sour prune character, and you come away understanding and liking her. I love her permanent skeptical, suspicious expression.

That's Asano's genius. He must have done this soon after Minding My Own Business, and it's testament to his versatility that the shows are stylistically poles apart and yet he's adapted himself perfectly to the material, and you can still sense his touch in the line and the unusual expressiveness of the characters. They're expressive without undue exaggeration. The visibly analog, pencil-drawn line reminds me of Kenichi Konishi's work on Doraemon: Nobita's Dinosaur, which perhaps makes sense since Asano picked up where Konishi left off a few movies later in the Doraemon movie series. I look forward to seeing where Asano goes.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

07:46:00 pm , 1821 words, 12509 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Director: Gisaburo Sugii

The Life of Gusko Budori

Six years on since Stormy Night, after many tribulations including the closure of his studio Group Tac, Gisaburo Sugii has returned to the big screen with The Life of Gusko Budori. A gloriously beautiful if opaque and perplexing followup to his earlier masterpiece Night on the Galactic Railroad, the film is a return to form for the veteran director and poetic visionary. The vistas of Kenji Miyazawa's imaginary land of Iihatov allow Sugii to soar to his greatest heights of imagination once again after so many intervening decades in which he made many disappointing directing choices to fans of his more challenging work.

Iihatov is that place where Japan of the early 20th century meets the spiritual but scientific mind of Kenji Miyazawa: Inhospitable, primordial and supernatural, where farmers pit futuristic technology against inclement weather and exploding volcanoes while electrical poles walk when you're not looking and acorns commune in night court in the forest. It's a world where rational and mythical, west and the east, past and future, do not contend but co-exist in a glorious chaotic meeting of nature and man.

While many of Kenji's other stories read like fables, Gusko is one of his more realistic and autobiographical stories, directly addressing his own trials and tribulations as a farmer and student of science attempting to improve the lot of his fellows in Iwate Prefecture, the notoriously inclement and rugged rural northeastern fringe of Japan.

The story tells of Gusko Budori, a boy raised on a small farm in the mountains with his mother, father and little sister Nelly. When a cold snap and the resultant famine (possibly based on real events that occurred in Iwate around 1905) rends apart the family, Gusko is forced to strike out on his own. He wanders into town and finds a life purpose in the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, the scientific body devoted to engineering the environment to benefit man.

This only begins to describe Sugii's film version of the story, however, because the director has taken considerable liberties with the material. He has incorporated elements from an earlier version of the story as well as from other stories by Kenji Miyazawa to create a vastly different impression. Notably, the fiery cat character who appears at pivotal moments to bring Gusco into the fantasy world of Iihatov populated by bizarre creatures appears to be the World Judge of the early version, although he also seems to be a stand-in for the Wildcat judge of The Wildcat and the Acorns. The interludes with him lend the film a whole new level of meaning.

He uses Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters again, but doesn't stop at that. I could be mistaken, but it appears that he is using the same exact character designs from Night, transposed onto the characters of this story. Giovanni is Gusko; the bread seller is the binocular vendor; the printer boss is the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau boss; the same blind man appears; the family drowned in the Titanic show up in the elevator; etc. It's beyond coincidence. Sugii isn't merely lazily using cats again, as I initially thought. He's using the designs as a character system a la Tezuka. This raises a whole slew of implications about how to interpret the film.

Not only this, other elements from Night recur, and sometimes even scenes seem to harken back to Night. The way Gusko runs through the night into town and into the classroom at the beginning echoes the beginning of Night. Triangles of light flash past in the fantasy world the way they did on the night train. Moths congregate into a column like the cranes in Night. Late in the film Gusco even recites wrenching, emotional vows that echo Giovanni's closing monologue to Night. The shot of Gusco dozing off in the train compartment looks lifted almost verbatim from Night, down to the shape of the chairs and the grain of the wood.

Most significantly, Sugii has chosen to interweave extended fantasy interludes into the fabric of the otherwise mundane occurrences depicted in the novel. Some of these are adapted from events in the novel, while others are invented or adapted from other stories. For example, the silkworm sequence takes place in the real world in the novel, but Sugii has interpreted it to be part of Gusko's ongoing hallucination/fever dream; and the courtroom sequence is from The Acorns and the Wildcat. The effect of these sequences is to add a narrative element to the story whereby the supernatural side of Iihatov - a colorful fantasy world inhabited by strange creatures and magical implements - seems to chase and haunt Gusko, appearing at key moments in his life like a fever dream, goading him onwards in his journey.

These fantastical sequences add depth to Budori's journey, but also seem to turn the film into something more than a mere adaptation. The film seems to render homage to the whole of Kenji's oeuvre by presenting us a dreamscape in which all of his imaginings coalesce, as if we were witnessing Kenji himself dream up the creatures that he would bring to life in his writings.

This is not the first animated adaptation of The Life of Budori Gusko. The late, great Ryutaro Nakamura adapted the story into a film in 1994. It was commissioned by Iwate Prefecture to mark the 60th anniversary of Kenji Miyazawa's death. It's an unjustly neglected film, one of Nakamura's best works. Despite having far inferior production values, and being somewhat rough around the edges in terms of the storytelling, I actually find it to be the better film.

Nakamura's version is essentially a faithful adaptation of the story. For example, in Sugii's version the silkworm sequence is rendered as part of the fever dream, but in Nakamura's version it is an actual occurrence. In Sugii's version, Budori never re-discovers his sister, whereas in Nakamura's version he finds her again in the city. ENDING SPOILER: In both versions, Gusko sacrifices himself to blow up the volcano, but in Nakamura's version this is done as part of a project with the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, whereas Sugii turns it into a solo mystical event in which he is transported there by the godlike World Judge.

Aside from adaptation differences, the films are also very different in terms of style. Most obviously, Nakamura uses people. The real world of Iihatov is depicted in the style of 1920s Japan in Nakamura's version, rather than the Jules Verne-esque vision of the future replete with steampunk flying machines of Sugii's film. Nakamura's film has flatter and leaner visuals compared with the lush, digitally-enhanced visuals of Sugii's version.

Not knowing where the story ends and Sugii's interpolations begin renders his version a bit problematic in terms of telling Kenji's story. It's a beautiful hazy cloud rather than the lean narrative machine of Nakamura. His flourishes are beautiful and could be said to add a poetic dimension to the story, but on the other hand could be said to needlessly detract from the narrative, which is already compelling in its own right.

I've long been a champion of Nakamura's film. I wrote a review many years ago, even before beginning this blog. I hope that the appearance of this new version will not deter people from seeing Nakamura's version, because they are very different beasts, and to be honest, if I had to recommend one, I would say go with Nakamura's version, because it is an eminently beautiful and moving film that tells the story both artfully and faithfully. Stylistically, Sugii's version is very close to Night. It seems a little redundant to see another film made in the same mold. When I heard about the project, I was doubly dismayed: Why step on Nakamura's toes, and why use the same designs? Even after seeing and appreciating what Sugii has done, and remaining a huge Sugii fan, I am still dismayed by those two points.

That said, this new Gusko is an eminently beautiful film, and represents the side of Sugii I most appreciate: oddball poet of animation. I am delighted to have it to savor, and I hope we can see more from Sugii, even though under the circumstances the chances of that seem slimmer than ever. He's a precious talent. There's no other voice like his.

Like Night, the heart of the film is its beautiful, poetic images rather than in its story. In this telling, the sequence of powerful images like the World Judge on his bench judging Gusco, or the column of moths, or the monsters shuffling about in the fantasy sequences, leave a more powerful impression than the story or characters, and are all the more satisfying for not having an obvious explanation. Like the machine that churns behind the World Judge, some mysterious logic or impulse seems to drive the seeming illogic and chaos of the fantasy world, and it remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Sugii is in his element creating images that speak to the subconscious, with no immediate obvious interpretation, and yet don't come across as grandstanding or facile artsiness.

The production quality of the film is overall very nice. Sanrio veteran art director Yukio Abe returns after his stint on Stormy Night, and produces spectacular imagery of staggering lushness and density, aided in the task by a bevy of talented artists including one Nizo Yamamoto. The intricate paintings of the lush forest greenery, the byzantine streets of Ihatov city, glowing San Mutri city at night, and the craggy surface of the volcanoes are remarkable to behold.

The music by bandoneon player Ryota Komatsu is elegant, breezy, enrapturing - as unique and perfect an accompaniment as Haruomi Hosono's soundtrack to Night. Marisuke Eguchi again supervises Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters, while Tsuneo Maeda again presumably handles the digital tinkering, and Night art director and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular Mihoko Magoori handles the color design. The film'ss glowing, iridescent color scheme makes the images really pop. Shuichi Hirata (Noiseman, Metropolis) designed the wonderful flying machines as well as handling the art of the fantasy world scenes.

The animation is entirely satisfactory and at no point does it feel like it is lacking, despite the film having a very different animation ethos from any other animation out there. Sugii creates a meditative space that allows these characters to feel and breathe and seem incredibly alive without requiring them to engage in acting calisthenics. Yoshiyuki Hane and Shinichi Tsuji head the animators again, as in Stormy Night.

The film had a traumatic birth and I'm grateful that we have it. Initially announced in 2008, I was afraid it would not see the light of day after Tac went belly up in 2010. However, the Bunkacho stepped in to provide funding on the condition of a 2012 deadline and international collaboration. This is presumably the reason why Tezuka Productions was chosen, and most of the animation was produced by Tezuka's Chinese partners in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuxi. drop studio is also present.

Monday, August 26, 2013

06:04:00 pm , 2131 words, 7722 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Short, Studio: Telecom

Anime Mirai 2011

I wrote about Grampa's Lamp before. I just watched the next quartet of shorts in the Bunkacho's program to support the growth of the next generation of animators, now christened Anime Mirai rather than Project A: Minding My Own Business, Dudu the Floatie, Buta and Wasurenagumo. These were released 2011. Another set of four came out in 2012. I will probably get to those eventually, although they look awful.

This is a good set in the sense that each film takes a very different tack in terms of style and story. It's a healthy variety, from the socially conscious and more artistically inclined sketch animation Minding My Own Business to the kiddy, colorful, wildly animated Dudu the Floatie to the supernatural anime rom-com Wasurenagumo to the old-school anthropomorphic swashbuckler BUTA. This seems like a better variety than the more recent set.

That said, Minding My Own Business seems to me the clear winner. It's the only film that comes together as a satisfying whole. The other films may have their qualities, but overall they feel imperfect. They work to target a certain demographic, say, which in terms of functioning as a product is fine, but they don't hold up as films. If this is the best these big studios can do, that is a big red flag that the problem isn't with the dearth of animators. I think they should be far more concerned in Japan about raising the quality of their creative thinking and storytelling than the animators. They have tons of good animators. What they don't have is studios willing to do anything other than make the same thing over and over again, or creators capable of thinking outside of the box.

It's disappointing to me that big animation studios, given the freedom to come up with animation free of the shackles of commercial constraints for once, show themselves entirely content to stay shackled to those constraints, like the elephant tied with a string. I suppose the reasoning is that this is more about vocational training, and short-sighted artistic adventuring would do the young trainees a disservice by not prepping them in the tools of the trade. I think the studios act too beholden to what they consider to be demanded by their viewers. Creative new visions should be the driving force. Among them all, only Shirogumi, a major force in advertising animation, has the moxie to create real animation and not just more of the same exact typical anime we've all seen done to death. Yes, anime is inherently entertainment, i.e. there to help us waste our time, but animation can and should aspire to more than that.

しらんぷり Minding My Own Business d. Shimpei Miyashita, ad. Naoyuki Asano

An elementary school child witnesses his classmates being bullied but feels powerless to intervene. Based on a picture book, this film skilfully explores the psychology of children both on the bullied and the bullying side in Japanese elementary schools. The vivid, raw, freewheeling, unabashedly hand-drawn animation transforms what could have been a preachy story into a tremendously entertaining, clever, moving, powerful, and even funny social parable that makes you understand the psychology of not only the bullied child but even the bully. The film is never dour or full of itself even at its most intense moments, instead telling the story through a veil of irony and wit.

I thought the director was indie animator PON Kozutsumi, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular and director of Rita and Whatsit, but apparently he only did the pilot and seems to have dropped out of the project afterwards. This is disappointing, but the film thankfully turned out fine despite this. The director is instead Nippon Animation/Disney Japan stalwart Shimpei Miyashita, with the animation headed by the immensely talented Naoyuki Asano with assistance by a very talented young animator named Shintaro Doge. Asano is a name to watch. I've seen him prior in Doraemon and Tatami Galaxy.

The animation is nothing less than a supreme delight from start to finish. Drawn with rough and quick pencil lines with the calm confidence of a master's hand, the characters are full of life at every moment, their expressions vivid and their movements heightened with imaginative flourishes. Every line is visible, and lines do not play within the shapes. In the climactic wrestling scene, the characters transform into a mess of squiggles as they twirl around one another and the camera swirls around in response. Scenes segue into other scenes deftly, creating an irresistible flow that takes you through to the end. At no point does the animation feel like it is struggling technically to convince you of something beyond the animators' capabilities. They are comfortable that the handful of scribbled lines they have placed on the screen create a beautiful visual scheme. Simplicity is deceptively challenging.

Kosuke Ito's delectable piano-clarinet-violin trio creates a lovely lilting, classical but jaunty soundtrack that is the perfect accompaniment to the film's ups and downs.

Shirogumi's film is a three-dimensional film that satisfies every criteria of what both animation and filmmaking should be. Its characters ring true; the story sensitively and insightfully explores a real-life issue facing children in Japan; the film language is creative and original as well as dynamic and exciting; and the animation is top-notch without relying on conventional notions of quality such as cool and stylish drawings, twee character antics, industry-template expressive symbols, or massively inbetweened animation. It's just good, smart filmmaking that cleverly and efficiently uses the means of animation to find an emphatic and visually novel and appealing way to tell its story. It is a prime example of visual storytelling.

ぷかぷかジュジュ Dudu the Floatie d. Hiroshi Kawamata, ad. Miho Suzuki

A little girl dreams of an adventure with her dugong floatie at the beach where she rescues her father from a giant fish. The unfortunately named Dudu the Floatie is a vividly animated and honest children's film that shows the power of Answer Studio as one of the few 'full animation' studios carrying on a more western style of animation in Japan today. Telecom is another such studio - they have been behind much WB animation for decades - but their BUTA short in this set shows how different even these two studios are. Telecom seems to be struggling to regain something lost, while Answer seems to be attempting to mold their past into something new and find a way towards the future.

This is a film purely for children, unlike Minding My Own Business, which is more of a film about children. There's little pretext of realism anywhere, not least in the dialogue or diction of the little girl, which is brassy, grating, rehearsed, and entirely unbelievable. An adult can appreciate the subtle psychological turns and social commentary of Minding My Own Business, but here the directing is deliberately exaggerated and simplified, the shapes and colors bright and flat. From my perspective everything is too flat and simplified, which makes it cloying, but as a film for children this is no doubt an asset.

There is little sense of art in the film. The ugly, blobby characters float uncomfortably over the conservative, unimaginatively realistic backgrounds. The heads and features are tactlessly huge. The father's face is a round balloon with no human features. Perhaps this is how infants see the world. But with the realistic setting and satirical golfing interlude, the film seems unable to decide whether it wants to go for a conventional anime aesthetic or a more freewheeling and cartoonish children's look. I could see them making a good film in the spirit of Catnapped if they found someone with a more holistic visual concept.

That said, the animation is incredibly exciting and lively. It was easily the most entertainingly animated film in the set. They do a good job of adapting the fluid western-inspired 'full animation' (though it's not really anything remotely close to Disney style animation) aesthetic of their past, with its stretch and squash and anticipation and follow-through, to the dynamic pacing, cutting and composition conventions of Japanese commercial animation. I preferred Flag as a film for obvious reasons, but Dudu the Floatie is a much better showcase of Answer's undeniable power on the animation front. They're creating dynamic action animation of the kind that Telecom should be.

BUTA d. Kazuhide Tomonaga, ad. Shirai Yumiko

BUTA was the biggest disappointment of the set to me because I had the highest hopes for it. I knew a while back that the film would be a disappointment when I heard the creator, Christophe Ferreira, was no longer involved in his own project, whatever the internal reasons were. Had the film been made in the spirit of the pilot, it would have been a triumph, but it seems to have rather been assembled from the exploded shards of the concept, and is a failure. The difference between this film and the sort of short film being made today in France by students is stark. Japan has lost the edge in my opinion.

It should have been a fun, playful action-adventure-comedy starring sprightly anthropomorphic characters in a swashbuckling adventure in the mold of that classic of animated swashbuckling anime, Animal Treasure Island, which was the project's obvious inspiration. Instead, it's a lifeless, dull, insincere slog with nary a bit of excitement or spark. This is shocking because it was directed by Kazuhide Tomonaga and produced by Telecom - the animator and studio synonymous with the best breathless action-adventure animation moments in Lupin III. This should have been the team capable of creating that sort of excitement and reviving the spirit of the manga eiga of yore, which is something I for one would really, really love to see happen. This is the film I most wanted to love in the set, and see it take off into a franchise.

The animation didn't have to be brilliant for the action to work; the action scenes just weren't excitingly choreographed. The pacing was odd, with long stretches of nothing happening at moments when it felt more hustle was dramatically called for. There was way too much emphasis on the drama, and it didn't make sense. The whole scene on the boat after the escape felt off. All momentum suddenly disappears, and the pig is suddenly insistent on the kid throwing away the map for no reason. None of that felt necessary. Lightning striking the water afterwards, creating a big wave, just didn't even make any sense at all. The climax was anti-climactic. Instead of a big battle pitting the good guy against the bad guy, the baddie essentially flops around and defeats himself. The pig character was interesting and had potential as an interesting protagonist, although he felt a little borrowed from Crayon Shin-chan's Buriburizaemon - self-centered, shiftless, diminutive, begrudgingly good pig hero for hire.

Wasted potential, but this is the kind of anime I would like to see done right. As it stands it's too close to an anodyne kids show like Kaiketsu Zorori. It would need more action and punch to make it work.

わすれなぐも Wasurenagumo d. Toshihisa Kaiya, ad. Hideki Takahashi

An antiquarian bookseller releases an ancient spider monster curse and becomes beguiled by the creature. This outing by IG was by far the most pedestrian and conventional in the set. Visually it offers nothing new or interesting whatsoever. That said, I actually enjoyed it, much to my surprise. While all of the visual elements grated on me, particularly the antics of the spider character with her agonizingly painful anime girl face, the humor was subtle and amusing, and it felt like a bit of a lighthearted parody of past IG supernatural anime.

Director Toshihisa Kaiya finds himself at IG now, but he came from Ajia-do, like Masaaki Yuasa, where he worked under the masters, among other things, on a few episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. He had less of an individual style than his mentors, rather showing himself versatile at adapting to the respective inimitable style of Osamu Kobayashi in Ookami Choja (watch) and Tsutomu Shibayama in Sarukani Gassen (watch), for example. He's more of a professional than an auteur; which is no swipe. Moving to IG makes sense for him.

In Wasurenagumo, little vestige of Ajia-do stylization is visible. The versatile, prolific, professional Kaiya deftly deploys a character design style and visual scheme that are entirely contemporary and unadventurous to tell an amusing ghost story interweaving past and present Japan.

Visually the style was classic IG realism lite, with body movement physics a bit more weighty than your usual anime, but passed through the sieve of anime expressive and acting conventions. The scene at the end where the characters run through the abandoned building, with its extremely angled perspectives, was apparently the work of a young animator named Shingo Takenaka. He has obviously studied Hiroyuki Okiura very closely.

Monday, July 16, 2012

09:47:00 am , 6028 words, 27050 views     Categories: Animation, Interview

Interview with Bahi JD

Today I have the privilege of bringing you an interview with our very own homegrown pro animator, Bahi JD, who in a matter of a few years has gone from drawing gifs on the forum for fun to animating in high-profile anime productions like Kids on the Slope. Bahi's achievement is unique. Foreigners have infiltrated the ranks for a while now, but Bahi is a telecommuting animator in Austria who, with no formal training, managed to find a place for himself in the industry essentially through the infectious force of his enthusiasm for animation. I think part of the reason for Bahi's success is that he's inspired by the fundamental power of movement that pulses through the veins of all of the master animators of Japan, not a slavish copier of surface anime features. He's an inspiration showing that it can be done if you have the talent and just sit down and animate and show that you can do it.


Ben: How did you first become interested in animation?

Bahi: Hehe, this question pulls me back into my first childhood memories. XD I don't have any clear memories from that time, but I'm sure this process started before my school time. At the time I enjoyed lots of Japanese cartoons like Nippon Animation's "World Masterpiece Theater" shows as example and all the other cartoons from the west and east that many kids were watching.

But the key for me to understanding and getting interested in animation even more came when my parents gave me a flipbook with a car on it. By flipping it over and over and watching all the pictures make that car move, I started to kind of think about the process behind cartoons and I really enjoyed making this car move, so I became interested in making my own flipbook and making my own characters move and tell a story. I was already drawing a lot at that time and it was very exciting for me to make my drawings move, they would feel more alive.

I did my first flipbook on the side of my maths book during boring school lessons. It was a simple animation with a character on the bottom and a 10 ton heavy Weight above his head bound on a string, and you know how this was going to end up. But while the string was detaching, the character was trying to eat a fly like a frog. The book had over 200 pages, so I had a lot of fun with it and each year they added 50 more pages to the new books.

Ben: So we have your parents to thank for getting you interested in animation. Tell me a little bit about how you went from drawing your first flipbook to creating your first gif animation, the famous Shithead Action. Were you creating flipbooks the whole time up until you created Shithead Action?

Bahi: Ah! No, actually after the flipbooks in my school books, nothing was really happening. I was just drawing around and creating some crappy animations on paper. But I had discovered animation like Akira, Jin-Roh, Ghost in the Shell and Mononoke Hime so I was still highly interested in animation, only problem was that I knew nothing about anything. The real revolution and progress began in 2007 for me when I was 16. At that time I discovered this video on Youtube about an animator named Shinya Ohira.

After that, my whole view about animation changed into someting way bigger. I still consider Ohira one of the greatest animators in the history of commercial animation. After I discovered "sakuga MADs" through Ohira's video, it was like a huge explosion full of awesome animators. Mitsuo Iso, Toshiyuki Inoue, Yutaka Nakamura... etc etc (the list goes on) And right after I discovered sakuga, I discovered Anipages, where I finally find out about these genius people behind all the wonderful animations. haha it's kind of crazy and funny how we are doing this interview exactly on the place where everything began for me with the gifs XD.

The gif-animations and Shithead Action began with an article you wrote called Looking for gif animators (where you also mentioned Ryo-Chimo) and on this thread opened by Huw Millar.

You can just scroll down through the pages and see how Shithead Action was born, (; ^0^) lol. After I was introduced to easy toon through Huw M's thread, I couldn't stop animating with this software! Inspired by many great animators, we started creating lots of fun and experimental animations on Anipages. Then I started working on Shithead Action without any plans. I just drew frame by frame and I had so much fun that I couldn't stop working on this gif.

Suddenly it became over 2 minutes long and the software couldn't handle it anymore XD, so I had to end the story. Shithead Action gif-animation opened lots of doors for me, animators all around the world were inspired by the animation & enjoyed it a lot, I was really happy about it. At that time, I also met many young Japanese animators through the web who are still very close friends of mine, and I worked with some of them recently on Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku".

Ben: Considering it was one of your first attempts at animation, and your first gif animation, Shithead Action blew us away with all of the good FX animation, complex camerawork and nascent storytelling... Not to mention how ass-kickingly fun it was. Who/what were your influences with Shithead Action, and in general? And how did you animate it? Straight-through, right? Were you studying your favorite animators?

Bahi: Thanks Ben, I really appreciate it to hear that from you. Talking about the influences, I can't really count them.....every sakuga clip that I had seen was floating around in my mind. From FLCL animators to Mitsuo Iso's End of Evangelion scenes to Yoshihiko Umakoshi and Imaishi's scenes in Mamoru Hosoda's One Piece movie to Shinji Hashimoto and Ohira's dynamic camera angles and any other exciting animation work that was produced until that time. The amount of Japanese sakuga influence in this gif animation was really high.

But I didn't want to copy their work, nor to look at them while I was working, although I'm sure I had a lot of these scenes in my mind and I was mixing them all with my own imagination to create something new and exciting. Watching a sakuga mad before starting to work on Shithead Action was like an energy drink for me. Not to mention that I was listening a lot to The Pillows' "Advice (instrumental)" track during work. It was really crazy and I did what I really enjoyed the most and I had lots of time for it. It was summer, I was a teenager with no big responsibilities and nothing was disturbing me in my environment.

Most of it was done straight through. I just jumped into the action, especially on the FX scenes. On some more complex cuts, I had to add or remove drawings. Easytoon was too simple for any complex process. It's just a tool to practice animation. If I thought that the timing wasn't right, I removed or added a drawing. At that time, key animation wasn't bothering me, and I wasn't confronted with issues like full frame, 2s or 3s either. I hadn't read or heard anything about animation and all the definitions, techniques and the process behind it. I hadn't even heard about Richard Williams' "Animator's Survival Kit" at that time... all my knowledge about animating was based on sakuga mads when I worked on Shithead Action. I didn't even know what timing and spacing was, there was only this software and lots of animation material that I watched frame by frame and tried to understand how the movements would work for the viewer.

Ben: It wasn't long after this that you went pro. Was Skullgirls your first professional job? It's a fascinating project - a western fighting game inspired by anime, built of incredibly rich sprite animation. What was it like working on that? Also, what did you animate/how many shots?

Bahi: Yes, Skullgirls was my first professional job that I started in 2011. The team was looking for animators and I contacted them without any big expectations. I knew nothing about the project at that time and when I started, I got really fascinated by the talents being involved in this project. The creative director & designer of Skullgirls, Alex Ahad, had a great response to my email when I applied for the job, because he had already seen Shithead Action, so we were both really happy to get started. But before starting with the work, I did an animation test, which everyone did when they applied for the job. It was a small animation move based on the Character "Filia".

I had a great time working with the Skullgirls team and the team was sharing their ideas altogether. Sometimes we even had Oekaki Chats where we drew concepts for the characters together. Alex Ahad himself is a huge fan of Imaishi and Gainax, so I introduced him more to the individual Japanese animators and Yoshinori Kanada's amazing FX designs.

Game sprite animation is different in many aspects from animating for an animation film, so at the beginning I had to do some research because I'm not a pro in fighting games. There are no cuts, but moves, and each move has a fixed amount of frames/drawings that are split into "Start Up"/"Active"/"End frames". For example, the start up has, let's say, 3 drawings where the character is preparing to punch, active is when the punch hits the opponent, and end frames are the recovery or basically the frames that go back into the idle standard character pose (or just the pulling back of the punch). And sprite animation is usually very quick and fast. There is usually no time to animate reality based Hiroyuki Okiura moves for fighting games, but rather something like Yutaka Nakamura & Kanada or even quicker than that. Fighting games are fast, the characters are mainly fast and so is the animation.

When I started working on Skullgirls, Alex was looking for cool FX animation and he thought I could handle that because he liked the FX on Shithead Action so he gave me the complete responsibility for all the FX animation. I did much FX animation of sparks, dust, smoke and that kind of thing, and the team later worked on them and even did new FX based on my work. When I finished all the FX work, Alex and Mike Z (the programmer and game designer of Skullgirls) decided to give me total freedom on the character Double, a transforming monster with lots of liquid and crazy movements. So I was assigned to animate all of Double's moves, but due to schedule, we split the moves among other animators. The amount of freedom of creativity I had on this character was really huge. Alex gave me 4~5 drawings of Double and some notes about the moves I was assigned to, but everything else was up to me. I really had tremendous fun animating this shape-shifting crazy character. I'm also very glad that they gave me the permission to upload my work, so you can check out my Skullgirls sprites at this link.

Ben: After this I think your next job was Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", right? This is a very surprising project - a cute but quirky anime-style music video directed by an indie PV director and animated by the young generation of sakuga stars. How on earth did this strange thing come about? How did you get involved, what did you animate, and what was it like working on this project?

Bahi: Oh, haha, how I got involved.... Long story. I was friends with Rapparu, Yotube (aka Naoki Yoshibe, aka Luckgaki) and some of the others, I found Takuya Hosogane-san's motion reel on Vimeo and I was really impressed by his work and reblogged it on my Tumblr. So somehow Hosogane found out about my Tumblr and somehow we came in contact. He also worked on the Tatami Galaxy ED, you've probably seen it. And surprisingly, Hosogane was also a good friend of Rapparu XD, we live in a small world! And that's how I met the director of "R".

Some months later, Hosogane and the producer of "R" Yuya Yamaguchi (who's also a nice motion graphics artist) contacted me and asked me if I was interested in working on an animated music video they were planning to do, and that Rapparu, Yotube and Hidessu were also involved. What could be better than working on a project with friends?

Hidessu was the animation supervisor of the project. He's also a very talented young artist. Some might have seen his short film recently on Youtube. So I got involved and there was again a big surprise: Ryo-Chimo and Shingo Yamashita were also participating in the project. So we worked on this music video which was based on the IA Vocaloid character, designed by Ryunosuke-san's Maxilla Team, and composer Jin was working on a new Album, and the team was planning to put the music video as a bonus on the album disk. The song is now Top 10 in some Japanese charts. The character design was originally done by Aka Akasaka but illustrator Name created another new version of the character. It's cool and it fits in my opinion.

Yama-san was our executive advisor the whole time, but he also did key-animation and really gave lots of advice during production. I think Rapparu was in contact with Yama-san, so that's how everyone got involved in this project. Friends asked other friends to participate and it happened. Some other people I knew from earlier that I didn't even know were animators were also involved in the project, as well as many other very great young talents that I had heard about. So it was a great collaboration of the new generation of web-animators. I think some people were still missing haha. There are a lot more people in this circle of animators. Some might also think of Kenichi Kutsuna. Hosogane was inspired by MAD clips on this project, so the more animators, the more fun.

Now let's talk about the real work, I was the only animator outside Japan, but that made no difficulties during work thanks to the power of the internet. My Japanese is still terrible but Yuya and Hosogane speak good English, and Ryunosuke from Maxilla speaks great too, so we had no communication problems. We worked through Skype and Dropbox every day, and everything worked great. We had all our stuff on the web, and we also shared an online time-sheet, which was amazing, because sometimes I could see who was writing his time-sheet on the document live.

The fact that we shared everything together helped me understand the animation process much more, and I really learned a lot during the production, because this was the first animation project I worked on with a professional team. Well, some were rookies, including me, but Yama's knowledge helped me make a lot of improvement. Yama-san had made a layout sheet file in Flash, which almost everyone was doing the key animation on. We mostly did everything digitally in Flash. Sugimoto was one of the few that worked analog. The last cut was done by him, for example. He also made a beautiful short recently, check it out.

For more details about the animators, there is a making of version of the music video which also includes the animator list. And here are the rough versions of my cuts and everything else I did for the music video.

As you can see, there are also some layouts. As usual, the animators also drew the layout/background and final composition for their scenes. I was also in charge of two other layouts that I didn't animate. Hosogane asked me to do them, and it was my pleasure. Zajirogh, the background designer of the project, also did great work. He changed some elements in some of my layouts, and I like his version better.

I animated 4 cuts and each one brings back some fun memories. Especially the grilled sea shell "Hamaguri" (ハマグリ) cut. I was in charge of animating this hamaguri thing, and I really knew nothing about seafood. Seriously, I don't get the chance to eat seafood, and I had never ever eaten or seen hamaguri before. So I was talking with the team and they told me that Hamaguri pops up by itself when it's ready to eat, and I was like "Are they alive while they get grilled?!" and I still don't know the answer. So basically, I went totally retarded when it was about this hamaguri cut, and I just had no idea how to animate it so that it would look believable to the Japanese audience. I went to get some of these and grill them to understand the animation (grill for the sake of animation LOL), but didn't find any that day XD so I wound up animating this hamaguri from my fantasy, and I hope it didn't end up too unreal. XD

But yeah, the Hamaguri scene still gets mentioned in my friends circle XD and Hosogane also talked about it in interviews haha. I just call it the "yoyo fantasy hamaguri". So yup, for me, it was a great pleasure and an honor to work with these great talents and we had lots of fun working on "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", because everyone was just cool and yoyo, we shared all our ideas together and created this music video with Hosogane-san's vision & passion for sakuga mad/amv and I hope that the audience also had fun watching the music video.

Ben: That brings us to your recent and much-talked-about official TV anime debut: Shinichiro Watanabe's Kids on the Slope for MAPPA. You've come a long way in just two years. A prestigious debut by any measure, made all the more remarkable by the fact that you have never inbetweened, and are not even located in Japan. How did you get involved, what shots did you animate, and what was it like working on an actual anime project for the first time?

Bahi: Hmmm, actually the fact that I didn't start as an inbetweener felt at the beginning like a disadvantage for me because, as a key animator, you are cooperating with the inbetween (doga) artist. They have to understand your work to be able to work on it later, so you have to understand them too. But later on, I realized that in my situation it was not a big problem that I had no experience as an inbetweener.

I informed myself about the whole doga process even though I wound up drawing both key animation and inbetweens for Apollon. I just wanted to make sure I knew who was responsible for the inbetween, cleanup and tracing processes, in what kind of environment, and in which studio, because it's always an advantage to know about that before you start with your work. There is a lot to say about the doga process, but let's get started with the main questions haha.

So how did I get involved? Some people say that sometimes things just happen suddenly, but I think nothing happens suddenly. Everything has a long process, and needs some time to happen. This again brings me back to 2009. If I hadn't contacted Cindy Yamauchi-san in 2009, I'm not sure I would be where I am right now. Somehow in 2009 I came across her blog where she talked about very interesting issues about working in the anime industry. I thought that nothing could be better than to get advice about my future career plan as a freelance key animator from an experienced senior animator like her, so I wrote to her and asked basic stuff like, "Is it possible to get a job as a freelancer even if you live in another country?" She replied to me very kindly, and it was the greatest advice that anyone ever gave me, that the simple answer was: "no".

At that time, I was a high school student who was lacking both the social and professional skills needed to survive in such a risky environment. So yup, I needed a lot of experience for this and I went for it. Honestly, I didn't really have high hopes of getting a job the way I have now. I thought it would take much longer than it did. But I still went for it. I just knew someday it would happen if I would continue.

So in 2011 after I was done with my work on Konami's Skullgirls, I was like, "OK, what do I do now?" I was also working on my own animated short film at that time but I needed and wanted a new job to gain more experience among a team of professional artists. So I contacted Yamauchi-san again (I hadn't talked to her since 2009) and she was very happy with my progress during the intervening years. So she decided to give me a chance, and showed my portfolio to producer Masao Morosawa-san, who was also impressed. I was just so happy and excited that it had finally happened.

It was just awesome when I later found out that the project I would be working was being directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, because I'm a huge fan of Samurai Champloo and Animatrix: Kid's Story, they are just one of my all time favorites. It was not the typical Watanabe-san project, but it showed that he really is talented and capable of handling and coming up with great results in any genre. And he has great taste in music. I listen to the Samurai Champloo soundtrack all the time when I'm working. Nujabe's music especially is very relaxing.

I was signed up for episode 7, which featured Yamauchi-san as animation supervisor. I had two options for which cuts to work on: There was one with less action, and less work, and there was a challenging crowd scene. I asked them if it was possible to give me as much action as possible. I chose to work on the crowd scene that was part of the climax of the episode, interspersed with Sentaro and Kaoru's jazz session. It was the most interesting part to me and I thought I would get more experience out of it because I had never done anything like that.

So Nobutaka Ito and I (he animated Sentaro on the drums) were involved in the climactic scene. It was great to see Ito-san's work between my own. This might sound awkward, but I was really proud and honored, because he is such a great artist. Sadly I'm not sure who worked on Kaoru's piano. You can see the whole scene and find some more info about it here. I animated 3 shots, and drew the layout for all 9 of the crowd shots where the students are running and telling each other to come check out the jam session. I will upload the rough animation work and layouts later on my Tumblr blog when I get permission.

I gained so much experience from my first time working on an anime project. It was amazing. You have to be really fast, especially me because I was doing both genga & doga - the full animation - and I was the only animator working digitally. But it didn't make any difference in the end. Everything worked out great through the internet with my line-producer and coordinator Tanaka-san. Tanaka-san and Yamauchi-san gave me lots of freedom on my shots.

But actually, when I finished my first shot, it was too Shinji Hashimoto/Shinya Ohira'ish, i.e. loose and too much myself and off-model. I did it on purpose, to be honest, because I wanted the shots to stand out, but I now realize that this kind of behavior can sometimes be very selfish and very risky for a project. The whole project could take a hit because of this kind off stuff. I got that shot back and fixed it as quickly as possible. Otherwise the animation supervisor would have fixed and changed it. It all depends on the project whether you can go crazy and stylish with the animation. You can do stuff like that on projects like FLCL or Mind Game, for example, but not on most the TV shows.

But that didn't stop me from putting my creative energy into the shots. I could still animate the characters the way I wanted. If there is a limit that you'd better not go beyond because doing so would be playing with the other team members' time and livelihoods, you have to find a way to move forward and not just stand there and complain that you can't do this or that. You have to try something else that could open new doors. So there was still another way to make the shots stand out. I drew the characters clean and followed the rules and totally focused on the movement.

Something that stood out to some Japanese viewers who emailed me was the way the students called the other students. The way they move their hand to call the students is totally not Japanese. Someone who saw the episode emailed me and told me that she was really surprised by the calling gesture and enjoyed it, but thought it looked very European/western, so since I was the only one in the credits with a non-Japanese name, she was sure it was me who did those cuts LOL. I didn't do this on purpose; the problem was my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture. We would have fixed it if there was more time to make the gesture more Japanese, but it's not such a huge disaster actually since it's an anime focused on the music and friendship, so I think people will be OK about those shots haha. But I animated the gestures the way they looked to me in the storyboard.

What I learned from this was to always discuss even the tiniest details in the storyboard with the director, and send a few rough sketches of the movements before starting, or just put a few more character drawings into the layout. Also, another thing I struggled with at the beginning was the material of the school uniforms. The uniforms are apparently much thicker than I initially thought they were. This was while I was working on the first shot. In later shots I animated them thicker. Also, I tried to animate the skirts better than I usually do, so I hope the viewers like the way the skirts of the running girls move. But yes, generally, I wanted the cuts to feel both light and realistic, and I hope the audience enjoyed them.

The 3 cuts I animated can also be viewed on my website as small gifs, but I will try to get permission to upload the rough genga soon.

Ben: Did you design the characters in your shots in Kids on the Slope?

Bahi: Partly. Nobuteru Yuuki-san already had drawn some samples for the random students, so while I was drawing them, I used the settei as a guide. Some of the haircuts are based on them. But yes, I just drew them the way I wanted mainly. It was just important to make them look casual and similar to the settei.

Ben: You mentioned that you were the only animator animating digitally on Kids on the Slope. Is animation in the anime industry drawn mostly digitally or still on paper? Also, how does the animation process differ between the two methods?

Bahi: Hmmm, I would say that digital animation is growing but the majority still works analog. I know many young digital animators but also many that animate on paper. It really doesn't make any difference for the production company. They can handle both digital and analog work. They will print your digital work on paper when they hand it over to the sakuga kantoku. So, the process doesn't change. The sakuga kantoku will fix some little details (usually analog) to make it fit to the main design and then your work gets traced (digitally) no matter what, it makes the lines look more solid. It depends on the production but that's the usual process. I can imagine that animators like Hisashi Mori get more involved in the further production to keep their line style in the final rendering.

Ben: What programs do you use to animate?

Bahi: Currently, Flash, to be more specific, Adobe Flash CS5. Shingo Yamashita, Ryo-Chimo and many other also use Flash. Some people think that you can't really draw in Flash, and at the beginning it's true, but you get used to it after some practice and get to the point where you can draw any line you want like you can in Photoshop. Of course, Photoshop's lines are way more accurate, but Flash is a better tool for animation.

Ben: Don't you use a special custom layout file?

Bahi: Actually, maybe I overreacted about this file, but for me it is really great. I asked Yama-san for permission before I started to continue using the file for other projects of course. It looks like a normal layout sheet, with pegbar holes and stuff but the good thing is that it has a simple script that shows the timer in both frames and seconds, which is set to 24fps. It's really good when you want to quickly synch the time on the storyboard or the time-sheet with your key-animation work. Flash itself also shows the current frame number, but this layout file is more specific and looks like this. Looks simple, and it is simple, but for me it's huge.

Ben: You drew layouts in Apollon, but some of the shots had CG backgrounds, so how were the layouts for these shots handled?

Bahi: Unfortunately, I can only guess on this part because I wasn't put in charge of scenes with CG Backgrounds. But it's nothing complex, they just treat them like normal layouts. The only advantage is that you don't have to spend much time drawing them. It's a nice method to save time. For example, a classroom is very useful when it's done in CG, because it's the same classroom in each episode. So why draw it over and over again if you can build it once and use it for reference for all the shots? It's a good time saver in my opinion and also useful when you want to do complex camera movements; they first animate the background animation with the CG BG, then the animator fits his animation to that. The 3D CG backgrounds that have movement get treated like finished BG animation by the animator. A very nice example would be Norio Matsumoto's CG BG cut from BLOOD movie. They rendered the shot in wireframes for him because it's easier to synch the character like that.

Ben: Some people wondered whether your shots in Apollon were rotoscoped (though some said they weren't rotoscoped enough, go figure). What do you think about rotoscoping?

Bahi: Well, first of all, my shots were not rotoscope. I view this kind of audience reaction in both a positive and negative way. Positive because I'm glad it looked that realistic for them that they call it roto XD. But also kind of sad of course when they don't see/appreciate the "animation". But an artist should not get offended when people don't understand his work. People have different opinions & thoughts and I can't just explain it to all of them. My goal was to achieve my own realism in this work. Satoru Utsunomiya and Mitsuo Iso are a nice example, their animation is believable in their own way. I personally don't like to rotoscope, but there are some animators in the industry that do it often and some that mix it with animation, and some people just roto because there is not enough time and etc. I have no problem with all these but it's not my thing. I personally want my mind to do the movement and not the video-material. Our world is full of beautiful and dynamic movements, but they are only my reference, inspiration and motivation.

Ben: What do you think about the current state of the anime industry?

Bahi: The current state is something medium. It's ok, looking good. It's not really the most glorious years of anime currently, but it's not the dark ages either. There have been many ups and downs lately, but I think things will be finding their balance again soon. The payment situation could stand improvement compared to other industries, but few complain about it seriously, so nothing is likely to change soon. It could all collapse if they were to change something or increase payment. It's a very difficult issue. We just continue because we love animation. Some friends gave up their animation career because they couldn't work for a living as animators in Japan. But some friends are also growing bigger and bigger as gengaman. The anime industry is a very tough place, and I respect the people who survive in it and keep the animation spirit alive in these difficult working conditions.

Ben: Do you sketch?

Bahi: I sketch a lot, it's fun to just doodle around some stuff I have in my imagination. Random doodling wherever and whenever I can since childhood. XD It's always good to sketch around to stay on the road. And sometimes, the sketches are worth something more maybe to continue work on or use as concept/inspiration.

Ben: Any advice to young (or not so young) prospective animators thinking of getting into animation generally or the anime industry specifically?

Bahi: The portfolio is very important. But it's not only about your animation skills, what the companies want to see are your layout skills too if you want to work as key animator. So practice as much as possible, both animation and layout/characters and generally everything! Your portfolio should be able to present that you are capable to do anything. Get in touch with the people in the industry, like producers/managers. You need to build a good connection and network with the people in the industry. Be friendly, patient and nice to people, lol this is like some general advice that everyone knows ( ^ 0^)b Make gif animations or short-films and put them on web. The people have to know you and trust you and your work. If people are already familar with you and your work, you might have better chances. But the most important thing is the communication. If there is a communication barrier, nothing is going to work out. If you can afford it, fly to Japan and live there for a while (I haven't done this yet but it's a great advantage!) My advice is to be careful with your decision first of all when you want to seriously enter the industry. First give it a try and see if you can continue in those conditions you are faced with. An animators life can be very hard in Japan, you have to sacrifice a lot to survive in the industry, especially at the beginning. But if you really want to do this and love working on anime more than anything else, nothing can stop you, seriously. Passion, hard work and pursuit will bring you forward. Sometimes it can be really hard, but nevermind, just continue if it's your dream. Just go for it, have fun and break the limits. I have no idea if all these are helpful but I hope someone finds it useful as an advice somehow XD. The best and simplest advice is, do animation with fun! ( ^0^)/

Ben: Last, but not least: Yoyoyo.

Bahi: YoYoYO!! It was a great pleasure and honor for me to do this interview Ben! And I hope people enjoyed it and hopefully it wasn't too long and boring and somehow useful XD

ANIMATION POWER!!! (*≧▽≦)b

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