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Animation can be any number of things. It all depends on the viewer. Movement, directing, story, color, form - any single element or combination of these elements can create sparks in a viewer's mind. There's no one right answer. This particular viewer happens to see greatness when someone displays a mastery of their own interpretation of what animation should be, regardless of how much it might diverge from the answer of another artist. How do you know it's the right answer? You know it when you see it.
I recently had the pleasure of discovering an animator who displays the calm confidence and mastery of her approach that I associate with a great artist. Her name: Florence Miailhe. I'd never heard of her until seeing her films, which were released on DVD in Japan in the New Animation Animation series, but they immediately rank among my favorite bodies of work by any artist in recent years. Florence Miailhe has created a series of films that at any given moment are immediately identifiable as hers, and only hers, and that immediately capture you with not just their consistent and unflaggingly lush beauty, but by her fundamentally personal approach. She strikes me as someone who approaches the form from a mindset that is somewhat at odds with that of most animators. She doesn't strike me as an animator, so much as a painter who animates. It seems like a subtle nuance, but it's quite important. It's a difference that goes to the core of what makes viewing her work such a pleasure, and what makes her work so great.
Miailhe's first major work, and the work that to me seems to represent her painterly approach in its purest form to some extent, is Hammam (1991). This film was my first exposure to Miailhe, so I came to it knowing little what to expect, and as a result, viewing it was a genuinely surprising and enthralling experience. With no perceptible narrative, the film appears to be what one might describe as a painter's stroll through a women's bathhouse, showing nude women alternately bathing, being massaged, reclining, talking, walking, and so on. But the women are drawn not realistically but in a style that vaguely recalls the great painters of the early 20th century, with a few quick, bold strokes describing the figures arrayed before the painter concisely and elegantly in simple, exaggerated forms.
Watching the film becomes a multileveled experience - Miailhe capturing a moment in the life of the bathhouse with her animator's easel, before standing up and walking to another room to paint another scene. Us following along, wondering where we are and what we're doing here. She's as surprised as we are, but taken also by the incredible beauty of the sight, which she is determined to capture. We share those feelings, following her along with a voyeuristic blush. The gaze is playful by moments, as when she observes with humor the massive hips of the elder women being massaged flat into the form of a young woman. When she gets home, she feels something is missing - life. Movement. Thus the film is born, as she invests the painting with little touches of life and interesting transformations.
The style of animation in Miailhe's films is itself quite interesting. It shares something with the style of Tsuji Naoyuki in the sense that each shot comprises a single sheet upon which she paints with pastels, one frame at a time, in a continuous line until only the last frame of the shot is left on the sheet. Each shot is a painting unfolding in time, a time-lapse photography of the painter in the progress of painting. The previous set of strokes is modified by the current, so that you can see the previous strokes on the screen, and movement creates a trail of itself.
In that sense the film also reminds me of the last and one of the greatest of Oskar Fischinger's films, Motion Painting No. 1 (1947). The subject matter is different, with Fischinger's being pure abstraction, but Miailhe's films are just that - motion painting. In later films Miailhe comes up with a technique of creating beautiful patterns in the wake of the movement of characters to both mask and enhance the characteristic feature of this style of animation. As with any great painting, appreciating the strokes of the painter is important, and here you can see those strokes in the process of their being made. I'm a fan of rougher styled animation for its greater spontaneity, and the rough bold strokes she uses here have a very tactile, visceral, spontaneous beauty.
Hammam is, first and foremost, a magnificently beautiful film to watch. Miailhe is a painter, and this is a film in which each image can be appreciated like a good painting. The forms, the colors, the strokes of the brush and the framing of the image are always unfailingly fresh, impeccably handled, delightful to behold. The animation acts first and foremost to enhance the beauty of the images, rather than to attempt to create the illusion that they are alive in the way that Alexander Petrov's work does. In her two next films, on the other hand, the animation by necessity becomes a bit more more naturalistic and active.
The simplicity of the film is one of its assets. Hammam has the formal purity and strength of a musical exploration of variations on a theme. An old artistic staple that has gone by the wayside of living art - the nude - is revived in a very appealing way by bringing it into the dimension of time and movement. While Miailhe's later films are all fully the equal of Hammam on a painterly level, they have a narrative framework that is lacking here and gives Hammam the appeal of being perhaps the most rigorous and simple expression of her approach.
If it wasn't obvious enough from her first film, there's a very strong erotic element in all of Miailhe's work. In retrospect, Hammam even comes across as a sort of unashamed declaration of her preoccupations as an artist - namely, with femininity, the human body, and desire. Miailhe doesn't strike me as a beginning animator in her first film. She strikes me as an artist with a clear grasp of her goals, whose vision remains firm and consistent over the next few years of her production.
The two films that followed Hammam are adaptations of stories from the 1001 Nights - both being her longest films to date, clocking in at 16 minutes each, and both featuring an overriding element of sexuality. The first is Scheherazade (1995), which tells the framing story of the woman who through her cunning and ingenuity curbed the murderous fury of a cuckolded prince by telling him a new story every night for 1001 nights. A year later followed one of the stories told, legend has it, by Scheherazade to the prince - the story of The Prince who Lost an Eye and Became a Beggar (1996).
The films first of all bring a new element to Miailhe's work - that of narrative. The setting in ancient Arabia seems the perfect element in which for Miailhe to revel in the sort of baroque, lushly colored scenery that makes her painting such a delight to behold. At the most basic level, both 1001 Nights films are beautiful and entertaining works that make you wish there were more in the series. While obviously functioning on the surface as lush, beautiful tales of the exotic and fantastic for Miailhe to regale us with her gorgeous images, they also serve to provide modern insight into the relationship between sexuality, behavior and violence. This aspect makes these films much stronger than conventional retellings of these already famous stories.
The way the films examine the relationship between sexual drive and violence reminds me of a similar preoccupation in the films of Walerian Borowczyk. His early masterpiece Blanche (1971) is an excellent historical drama whose outcome hinges on this dynamic. An aged feudal lord is driven mad for vengeance when a paige of the king makes overtures at his wife, leading to a downward spiral of escalating violence that leads to the death of most involved. The film acts as an examination of the ways in which desires underlies and drives every aspect of human behavior, in extremis turning love into its opposite and driving people to irrationally commit heinous acts of violence.
In Scheherazade, a prince discovers that he has been deceived by his wife, who holds wild orgies every night with her entourage. After murdering everyone involved, he seeks revenge upon womanhood as a whole by taking a new virgin to his bed every night, and killing her that very night to ensure that he will never again be cheated upon by a woman. A young woman named Scheherazade seeks to curb his reign of terror in an odd way - by marrying him. To save her own life, she tells him a new story every night, withholding the conclusion until the next evening. She does this for 1001 nights, until he finally falls in love with her and vows to stop his murderous spree.
The fantastical The Prince who Lost an Eye and Became a Beggar is a version of a story from the anthology proper, and provides a great example of the timeless fascination of the stories from the 1001 Nights. A prince leaves his country on a boat in search of adventure, only to find himself plunged into a series of unlikely adventures involving everything from a magical bronze horse that transports our hero to a faraway land, to a gigantic monster holding a beautiful princess captive. The forces of lust and death are forever intertwined, leading the prince to his inevitable downfall.
Miailhe's next film dates from several years later - White Bird, Black Bird (2002). It is very different from her previous films in many ways, and seems to mark a different stage in her artistic life. It's a short film, clocking in at only four minutes, and also concise and simple. A narrator recites what appears to be a traditional proverb from some African nation about black birds and white birds. Every person has a series of nests in their soul - a black nest and a white nest. The black nest roosts black birds, evil thoughts sent by an enemy, while the white nest roosts white birds, good thoughts sent by a friend. The solution when an enemy sends you a black bird? Don't let it in, and send a white bird back in return.
It's a simple metaphor with a strong message about human aggression that seems particularly apt in light of the year it was released. The film appears to be animated using a different technique from her previous films, which were animated using pastels. It appears to be sand animation. I don't know what Miailhe was up to in the intervening years, but she undoubtedly continued to be active in other areas as an artist, presumably painting. I get the impression that she felt the world needed to hear this proverb at that moment in time. The theme of the passions leading humans to engage in irrational violence against one another is one that runs throughout her work, and is here expressed in a new and more direct way.
Miailhe's next film shows her continuing to explore new facets of her art. With the quite recent Neighborhood Stories (2006) she is back to the longer length of the 1001 Nights films, but now she is telling a story firmly set in the contemporary western world, not in some faraway fantasy land. Despite this, the film retains something of the atmosphere of her previous films by telling a strange and fantastic story that doesn't seem of this world, despite having all of the appearances of taking place in the everyday world we know.
A lone acrobat in purple checkered tights practices on a trapeze. A lion escapes its cage and prowls the streets with a doll in its maw. A little boy searches for his lost doll. All of these strange things are happening right there, outside your window, in the old neighborhood you know so well. The world is a place where we are all seeking something, prowling on the streets like animals in a jungle. The world is full of menace and danger. But life goes on. Pedestrians saunter by, pianos are unloaded from moving trucks, and homeless bums sleep in metal cannisters outside of the apartment construction site on the corner of the street. The story swirls around and gradually all of the players become intertwined in this world where we all live together.
The film comes off brilliantly considering how much of a divergence it represents in style from Miailhe's earlier films. The images are still lush and painterly, but without that Matisse-like richness. The world here is all shades of gray and straight lines and angles, with only the billboards shouting colorful pornographic advertising at us from every wall. The film is also different in that it was the product of a larger team, from what I can gather from the credits. Several people other than Miailhe are credited with animation. The film was clearly created in a digital environment, with some incongruous movements every once in a while, and loses some of the stylistic uniformity and elegance that her earlier films had because they were all painted in the same analog way. Nonetheless it is one of the most thematically challenging and compelling of her films, and is certainly one of the best short animated films of the last few years. I hope that we can continue to see more of Florence Miailhe's animation in the future.
I think I've often mentioned in the past how I wished I knew of some new Korean animators with a distinctive style. I don't know anything about how things are done over there, but I figured there had to be at least a few industry animators developing an individual style like in Japan. As I said in the previous post, I saw some animation in Lee Sung-Gang's Yobi that definitely fit the bill - the part where the adult version of the girl pinches the cheek of the alien, and the other parts with the lady. I had absolutely no clue who could have done it, though, as the ability to guess such a thing comes from prior knowledge of an animator's work, which I didn't have for any Korean animation. Peter Chung was kind enough to point out in the BBS that those scenes were done by Kang Won Young. He's listed first in the credits, so I should have suspected as much. Peter also noted that Kang did the first 50 shots of Peter's Tomb Raider Re\Visioned. Fantastic, I thought. Here we have a positive ID of two scenes from a great new animator with just as distinctive a style and as brilliant a sense of timing as any I've seen in Japan. So I just had to share this with anyone who missed it.
Peter's Tomb Raider Re\Visioned is a brilliantly dense 3x5-minute mini-series packed with enough material to fill a movie. The economy of storytelling is typical of Peter, every moment conveying something of significance that keeps things pulsing ahead, juggling between various points of view and keeping us constantly surprised with bizarrely unexpected twists and turns. All the while, he crafts a delightful satire of the endless mire of Family Feud-style antagonism between the plethora of mankind's organized religions, which would be as hilarious as it is here if it weren't so depressing. Holy warriors indeed, with their cross-branded uzis. With Peter's usual understated but spot-on humor there, the only thing missing is Peter's own fantastic animation. Thankfully, we have Kang Won Young there to help fill in the gap with some brilliant action animation of his own. I don't know how Kang developed, but he has a sense of timing that seems very unique in the sense that it has a kind of jumpiness and freeness with the drawings that feels atypical of Korean (much less Western) animation and closer to the spareness of Japanese animation. Yet at the same time I couldn't picture anything quite so richly acted coming from Japan. Although I probably haven't seen enough Korean animation to judge fairly.
There was much animation in another recent Korean feature, Aachi and Ssipak, that caught my eye as being among the most excitingly choreographed I've seen in any Korean animation so far. The very simple character designs they adopted for the film seemed calculated for this purpose, to allow them to focus on moving the characters around freely without having to rely as much on making pretty drawings. The film is a lot of fun and refuses to take itself seriously for a moment, delivering just what it sets out to deliver - bad-ass action, violence, silliness, funny satire, and poo. I much preferred the home-grown insanity of this film to the anime-inspired look and feel of Wonderful Days. Scenes like the fight on the staircase were very exciting to watch, although I wasn't sure whether that was accountable to the animation so much as simply to the choreography, as I'm not sure where the line is drawn between the two in Korea.
One of the luminaries who shaped the face of commercial animation in Japan is no longer with us. I was late to learn that Reiko Okuyama, whom I profiled at the end of last year in a post on two pioneer women animators, passed away last May. I had great respect for Reiko Okuyama both as a pioneering animator and as a person, so I'm deeply saddened to hear the news. I think it's a great loss for animation.
I was moved and inspired when Reiko Okuyama returned to animation after a long absence with a short for the Winter Days omnibus in 2003. Okuyama had distanced herself from animation in the 1980s after two decades of working in the industry, focusing instead on her passion for copperplate engraving. Since 1991 she held numerous exhibitions of her work in galleries. In 1989, Okuyama was called upon by indie animator Tadanari Okamoto to help on a piece he was doing in the style of a copperplate engraving. Working with Tadanari Okamoto on The Restaurant of Many Orders re-awoke an interest in animation in Okuyama, revealing to her a new kind of animation that was different from everything she had done before, and more artistically fulfilling. This fortuitous encounter with indie animation is what eventually led to her creating the evocative and heartfelt piece featured in Winter Days, an ode to motherhood and bereavement that appears to be an animated elaboration of some of the themes addressed in her copperplate engravings over the preceding years. To me the piece seemed to represent a kind of reconciliation between Okuyama and animation following years of estrangement, the re-discovery of new possibilities for animation in an artist at a later stage in life. Okuyama appeared to be poised to create more pieces in this vein, and I was eager to behold a new stage in her creative life, but it seems that this piece was her parting gift to animation. Okuyama storyboarded the piece, and her husband animated the movement, after which she gave Kotabe's drawings a copperplate engraved finish. The piece can be seen here. I hope that a book of her engravings will be published so that we can have a picture of the artist Reiko Okuyama who emerged out of the shell of the great Toei Doga animator.
An animator I've mentioned a few times in the past in passing is going to be making his debut as a feature director pretty soon - Masahiro Ando 安藤真裕. (I include the kanji here to avoid confusion, as there is another well-known animator named Masahiro Ando, spelled 安藤正浩.) Ando is directing a film called Sword of the Stranger for Bones.
I became a fan of Masahiro Ando the animator mainly through his work on the Shin-chan films. Along with Masaaki Yuasa and Hiroyuki Nishimura, he provided some of the most exciting animation in the first handful of films, including the swordfight in the field in Mitsuru Hongo's 1995 Unkokusai movie and the hand-to-hand combat with the woman at the end of Keiichi Hara's 1998 Buta no Hizume movie. He was also involved in all of the other films (apart from the first) up until 2000's Jungle film, though I can't recall what he did in the others as it's been years since I've seen them.
Occasionally since then I've run across his name in other things and found the work to be equally enjoyable, such as the first episode of the IG OVA Bakuen Campus Guardres, or Osamu Dezaki's Hemingway Lupin TV special, and I've noticed that he was involved in a number of other projects where I had seen his great work without realizing it, such as Jin-Roh, where he animated some of the gunfights in the film, and the Cowboy Bebop film, where he animated the latter half of the climactic fight in the tower, which scene I had previously thought to be entirely the work of Yutaka Nakamura. Apparently he animated the basketball sequence in episode 1 of Oniisama he, and the scene with the Spear of Longinus in the Eva movie. He was in Memories and Metropolis. He even worked on Masaaki Yuasa's Slime Adventure pilot film, which was perhaps a legacy of their work together on the movies. He's been pretty active.
Masahiro Ando was clearly one of the great animators of the period, but didn't seem to get that much recognition until recently. He seemed born to create action animation, with great instinct for thrilling choreography, and the patience to fill his scenes with lots of dense, hairpin precise, nuanced movement. The action felt realistic, with a great sense for weight making the punches and lunges feel convincing, but at the same time the sheer variety of the moves outdid a Jackie Chan film and did things you could only have done in animation.
I kind of lost track of Masahiro Ando the animator in recent years, and the reason apparently was that he had been making the transition to directing. He hasn't animated much in the last few years, instead mainly working as an episode director and storyboarder on a lot of things, primarily for Bones, such as the Full Metal Alchemist movie and TV series, Eureka Seven, Rahxephon and Wolf's Rain, even as far back as King Gainer. Not having watched much of these shows, Masahiro Ando the director was unknown to me, but I'm guessing there is probably some stuff worth discovering in there. I've mentioned in the past how often it seems like the best animators turn into the best directors somewhere down the line, creating films that work first and foremost on the visual level and on the animated level, and Ando is yet another animator who seems likely to head down that road, in his own particular way.
I wasn't aware of this until recently, but Ando also has a few openings to his credit that show off a more polished side to Ando that I wasn't aware of. He animated and directed the Orphen and Hariken Polymer openings, and co-animated the Monster Rancher and Medarot openings. I was particularly happy to find out that he was an animator on the opening of Telecom's Monster Rancher, because it has long been a favorite of mine and I wanted to know who had done it. I thought it showcased Telecom at its best, with that fluid and tricky through-conceived motion. I don't know to what extent he was involved in Telecom, but perhaps he trained there. He apparently started out at Osamu Dezaki's Annapuru Studio.
I'm looking forward to the film because I'm sure it will be an explosion of great action animation up to the level of everything Ando himself has done as an animator up until now. It would be shocking if Yutaka Nakamura weren't involved, and indeed it seems he's in for a large chunk. It will be interesting to see the results of this meeting of two of the best action animators of the last decade. And more simply, it will be interesting to see what kind of a film this great animator makes. These decisive turning points in an animator's career are filled with suspense and anticipation.
I was pleasantly surprised the other day to see that Osamu Tanabe had worked on the opening of fellow ex-Ghibli animator Hiroyuki Morita's Bokurano at Gonzo. It was surprising because for the last six or seven years Tanabe has been exclusively devoted to an extended train of animated thought over at Ghibli in the form of a handful of fascinating, stylistically interlinked animated experiments, the most recent being the music video Doredore no Uta. I thought his work to be among the most interesting I saw coming out of the studio over that period. I didn't expect to see him doing work elsewhere, much less on TV, now. I've been wanting to get down my thoughts about Tanabe for quite a while now, so I thought I would take this opportunity to do so.
The story behind Tanabe's work of recent years seems to begin with My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. Isao Takahata, of course, was director, but Takahata not being a director who draws, the actual, specific animation side of Takahata's work is always handled by talented animators. That's Takahata's genius - that he always orchestrates the best talent of the moment in the most perfect fashion imaginable in the various sections. In Yamadas, the faces behind the animation side were Yoshiyuki Momose, who storyboarded/directed the first half with the bobsledding, and Osamu Tanabe, who storyboarded/directed the rest, the portion based on the comics. Over the next few years after Yamadas, Tanabe created a few TV ads for the studio that continued to build on the cartoonish-yet-realistic, pared down style of Yamadas. Yoshiyuki Momose, on the other hand, continued to build on the rich, lively, colorful style seen in the first half of Yamadas first in the two Ghiblies films and most recently in a trio of shorts set to music by Capsule. So Yamadas is particularly interesting to look back on now, now that these two talented creators with their own unique vision have each slowly but surely advanced the ideas they began tinkering with in that film.
If Momose's work seemed to be all about the joy of motion, about swimming around and exploring a three-dimensional space with lots of imaginative ideas, Osamu Tanabe's work was all about delicate nuance, about the beauty of the little details in everyday life that any other animator would have overlooked. Tanabe's pacing of scenes and timing of actions seemed realistic like nobody else's animation. The characters were highly stylized and cartoonish, consisting only of a few simple lines and colors, but they came across as very real and alive, moreso even than more realistically drawn characters might have. If at some fundamental level the film feels different, I think it's because of Tanabe's great innate sense for slow-burn realistic timing and his imagination for nuanced and richly elaborated realistic movement.
Things didn't start with Yamadas for Tanabe, of course. Tanabe's interest in realism in animation goes back many years. Tanabe has been a close associate of the two most important figures behind the realistic approach in Japan throughout the decade that preceded Yamadas - Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto. Tracing his history also traces theirs, as they worked together on many of their most important and memorable projects, all the way from Akira in 1988 down to Yamadas in 1999 and Space Station No. 9 in 2005. Each has gone on to develop in his own very different direction, but their work together during this period defines their approach, and today more than ever the spirit of their work sets them apart from other animators.
Although Tanabe's name doesn't turn up in the credits of Akira, Hiroyuki Morita says it's working as an inbetweener on Akira where he met and became friends with Tanabe. In 1988 Tanabe also drew inbetweens for Grave of the Fireflies, so it would make sense that Tanabe had worked on the film, despite his name not being listed in the credits. After all, Hiroyuki Morita isn't listed either. Ohira and Hashimoto, of course, worked on the same film, and the three would go on to work together very quickly afterwards, so they must have met either while working on Akira or very soon afterwards.
Tanabe's debut comes the next year, in 1989, working on the TV show that featured many of the staff who had just come from from working on Akira - Nippon Animation's Peter Pan. He animated a bit in ep 21. Hard to guess what he might have drawn at such an early stage, but the scene at the table strikes me as a possible candidate judging by Wendy's characterful acting. In any case, it would be his focus on just this kind of nuanced acting animation that would set Tanabe apart as an animator in the projects in which he was involved over the next few years.
In Like the Wind, Like a Cloud, he animated the memorable walk through the tunnel, where the old lady pinches the girl and they're flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. What makes this little bit of animation so fun and memorable is that it is underpinned by a feeling of reality in the timing, so that it really looks like two people are flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. It's comical yet believable. The very feminine way she grabs the lapel of her kimono right after this seems typical of Tanabe's delicacy. Tanabe animated several memorable scenes over the years involving delicate feminine acting starting with this.
Another piece by Tanabe from the same year came in the classic ep 1 of the Hakkenden OVA series by Shinya Ohira & Shinji Hashimoto. Tanabe animated the bit where Princess Fuse and the dog are hiding out at the cave near the end. The dog here moves more realistically and convincingly than he does anywhere else in the episode, but more importantly the animation of Fuse stands out for its more delicate approach to realism. Here the action is very low-key, played out at a distance, with what movement there is subtle and without any sort of exaggeration, which contrasts sharply with the rest of the animation in the episode. It's clear that Tanabe was thinking about the idea of realism in animation just as deeply as were Hashimoto and Ohira, but coming to his own conclusion. The particularly fine bit where Fuse covers her mouth by the river in particular shows off Tanabe's skill for getting into the mind of a female character and coming up with convincingly feminine behavior.
The culmination of Tanabe's early work comes in 1993 with Junkers Come Here. Working under Shinya Ohira alongside Shinji Hashimoto, Tanabe helped to animate the 3-minute pilot that Ohira spent six months on. Tanabe animated the three shots where the girl and the dog run past and the girl stops to rest on the bench. Each shot of this pilot is full of tremendous nuance, and takes a more realistic approach to timing that seems to build on the realism of Omohide Poroporo, on which both Ohira and Tanabe had worked right before, and seems to take it in a new direction, one where the movement is rawer and even more closely based on reality. Tanabe's section seems to best represent what the pilot could have become had it been developed into a film. As it stands, a different animation director was brought in, and the animation of the film itself did not wind up living up to the exciting pioneering spirit of the pilot. However, Tanabe's section in the film carries on the nuanced feminine acting we saw him do in Hakkenden. He animated the scene at the dinner table early on after Hiromi finishes talking to her mom on the phone. The way she walks from the phone to the table swinging her arms brings alive the feelings of the young girl quite nicely. Rather than the sort of dense flow of realistically observed motion of Shinji Hashimoto, who animated the scene before where Hiromi and Keisuke are studying together, Tanabe's is a more lilting and lyrical kind of realism where each tiny movement is very carefully thought out and calculated for effect.
Tanabe then participated in Ohira's parting slap to the face of the industry, Hamaji's Resurrection, although I'm not certain what section he animated. The scene on the porch has always been a favorite of mine, and it seems like one of the few sequences in the episode endowed with the kind of nuanced feminine acting I would expect of him, but who knows. In the meantime, he participated in yet another Takahata film, Ponpoko, as well as overseeing the layout for Nippon Animation's movie remake of their first World Masterpiece Theater show, A Dog of Flanders. Tanabe's deftness with realistic layout is another element that makes his work stand out, so I can see why he was picked for the job. Finally in 1998 he did a bit of animation for Golden Boy 3 that stands out as perhaps his best in the nuanced feminine acting vein, where the girl tells Kintaro that she's planning on marrying the other guy. The shots where she waves her hand and where she pulls her pigtail back while talking capture her girlish nature and her feelings of uncertainty in the situation particularly well. Tanabe is good at coming up with little gestures like this that make a movement feel not just real but good and succinctly bring alive a character. Just before doing this he did a little segment for Masaaki Yuasa's Cat Soup, the part where the S&M Mickey Mouse cosplayer gets cut up and thrown into the eponymous soup. He also helped out Shinji Hashimoto on the opening to Kacho O~ji. I'd be surprised if he hadn't also helped out on Shinya Ohira's opening to Sci-Fi Harry the next year.
Finally we come to Yamadas. Momose had already helmed a Takahata feature before, drawing the storyboard for Only Yesterday in 1991. He was called in again, and time was joined by Tanabe, who had presumably by that time gained Takahata's trust after having worked on all of his most recent films. Afterwards, Takahata would turn to Tanabe to animate the short segment Takahata directed for the omnibus Winter Days in 2003. The film turned out to be a turning point in his career. Over the next few years he worked almost exclusively on ads and other shorts derived from the look of Yamada-kun, with the spare background, pastel colors, wobbly line, and highly pared down, cartoonish characters moving incongruously realistically.
At the beginning he carried forward a more realistic inflection, in the two Umacha ads of 2001, while in 2002 in Yoshiyuki Momose's Ghiblies 2 he created a look that seemed to cleave with everything he'd done before, as if he was striking out in a new direction. He animated the strange bit at the end with the people all drawn like bugs of different sorts. After this, he returned briefly to a more spare and realistic vein with the Takahata segment of Winter Days in 2003 and Shinji Hashimoto's Kid's Story segment in Animatrix, where my guess is that he animated the section where Kid climbs to the top of the water drain. In 2004 he animated the first of another set of ads, this time for the Yomiuri newspaper. The first features a crowd from the Edo period shuffling densely by in a realistic style slightly different from the Umacha ads but with the same evocative, washed out, pastel look of all of his work of the period, while the second features the company's mascot character Doredore, and is animated in a much simpler style, with a very pared down hand-drawn aesthetic featuring a few simple lines moving over a pure white background. In his latest creation from 2005 he went back to the odd creatures of Ghiblies 2 and created a wonderful music video, Doredore no Uta, that pushes forward the idea of the previous piece in a way that makes the concept much more satisfying. If the previous piece seemed like an experiment where he wasn't quite sure what he was doing with it yet, here the elements all feel like they fit in place. The characters move just as realistically as the characters in Yamadas, but they're all bugs. It's an interesting new tack for the realistic school. Making the characters pure symbols like this has the uncanny effect of emphasizing the realism of the movement even more than when the characters are styled as humans. The film acts as a nice little allegory about human society, full of warmth and sly humor and keen observation.
Finally we come to Tanabe's latest piece. There is much nice work in the Bokurano opening, but there was one shot that emitted a kind of aura that set it apart from the rest, the shot of the character running. The shot consists of nothing more than a loop of 13 drawings of one of the most common of animated actions, a side follow of a person running, yet it eloquently and hair-raisingly conveys the urgency of the character's situation, without you even needing to know what that situation is. Tanabe is an animator who has devoted his entire career to making motion the vehicle of communication, and this shot of his is a perfect example of the power of animation - that a few well chosen drawings can create a movement that speaks more than a thousand words. Apparently Tanabe recently founded his own studio called Studio 4, and this shot was done there. The unique style he invented for himself in the Ghibli shorts stands out as an unexpected and interesting revivifying new direction for the realistic school of thought, so I'll be interested to see what Osamu Tanabe's next move will be - whether he continues to build on this or again decides to go in an utterly new direction.
Osamu Tanabe filmography
1988 Grave of the Fireflies [inbetweener]
1989 Peter Pan 21 [KA]
Gosenzosama Banbanzai! 4, 6 [KA]
1990 Like the Wind, Like a Cloud [KA]
Hakkenden OVA 1 [KA]
1991 Omohide Poroporo [KA]
1993 Junkers Come Here Pilot [KA]
Junkers Come Here [KA]
1994 Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko [KA]
Hakkenden OVA 10, 13 [KA]
1996 A Dog of Flanders [Layout Check]
1998 Golden Boy 3 [KA]
1999 My Neighbors the Yamadas [D & S of second half]
2000 Nekojiru-So [KA]
Kacho O~ji OP [KA]
2001 Umacha TV ad [2 x 15 seconds]
Lawson/Spirited Away TV ad [1 x 15 seconds, 3 versions]
2002 Rakugaki Oukoku game [director of animated segments]
Ghiblies 2 [KA]
2003 Winter Days Takahata segment [1 minute; animation]
Animatrix: Kid's Story [KA]
2004 First Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
Portable Airport [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
2005 Second Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
Space Station No. 9 [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
Doredore no Uta [3 minutes; S/D]
2007 Bokurano OP [KA]
Animators like Yoshinori Kanada or Shinji Otsuka often seem to receive most of the attention for the animation in the Ghibli films, but behind the scenes a handful of women animators have been there helping to maintain the high level of quality of the studio's animation over the years. Several of these animators also happen to be among the few figures who have seen it all at the studio - they've been there since the very beginning, and remain there today, working on every film. Despite not receiving much recognition for their work, they were responsible for many of the more memorable scenes in the various films. I thought I would throw together a short overview of some of the scenes done by four of the main Ghibli women animators: Makiko Futaki, Atsuko Tanaka, Masako Shinohara, and Megumi Kagawa.
Perhaps my favorite of Ghibli's women animators, Makiko Futaki tends to be given scenes that demand an eye for intricate and delicate motion, and she packs tremendous nuance into her scenes with lush and fluid animation. Futaki's history with animation predates her professional debut. She was in fact famous for "cine-calligraph" films she made for the amateur PAF Animation Festival. (Cine-calligraph was a technique pioneered by Norman McLaren in which the animator scratches directly onto a small strip of 8mm film - my favorite McLaren film, Blinkity Blank, is a cine-calligraph film.) Her films were considered to have surpassed the limitations of the form due to their incredible craftsmanship, bespoken by reports that she damaged her eyesight making the films. She began her professional career at Telecom as an inbetweener on Lupin Part 2 #153 in 1979, but soon went freelance, in which capacity she went on to work on virtually every Ghibli film as well as other classic films like Angel's Egg and Night on the Galactic Railroad. She is one of the major feature animators of the last few decades.
Futaki loves birds and is famous for drawing scenes involving birds. The most famous of these is perhaps the scene in Laputa where Pazu sets free and feeds the doves. There's also the scene in Kiki with Kiki flying alongside the geese and falling into the crow's nest. In Kiki she also drew the opening scene where Kiki makes the decision to leave. Here you can see her skill at minutely detailed animation in the grass that sways gorgeously in the wind at the beginning. In Totoro she also animated detailed natural scenes, including the scene with the tadpoles, and the scene where the giant tree spurts up. In Mononoke she drew the scene where San enters the forest with Ashitaka on Yakkuru, all the way until the Shishigami walks up to Ashitaka lying on the ground. Here her characteristic skill for minutely detailed natural animation shines through in those incredible shots of the vegetation sprouting and withering. Most recently, Futaki was assistant animation director of the latest film.
This Telecom animator and action specialist has created some of the most memorable action sequences in anime in recent decades. A prime example of Atsuko Tanaka's unique genius for action can be seen in the famous car chase of Plot of the Fuma Clan, which, clocking in at more than 5 minutes, is surely of the most exhilarating and idea-packed chase sequences ever animated. She conceived, storyboarded and animated the sequence herself. Tanaka started out at Telecom working with Miyazaki (alongside Futaki and Shinohara), animating the famous leap and spaghetti eating in Cagliostro and a large chunk of the chase at the end of Blue Carbuncle, among other things. She stayed on at Telecom, and was involved primarily in Telecom co-productions throughout the 80s, including a number of episodes of Batman. In the 90s she finally became a regular in the Ghibli films, although she remains a Telecom animator. Recently she did storyboard and animation for the studio's Secret of Cerulean Sand, namely eps 12, 22 and 26.
In Mononoke Hime she animated the hair-raising portion of the climactic sequence where Eboshi's arm is torn off, and the scene with Eboshi and Jikobo in Tataraba. In Spirited Away, Tanaka was the Yubaba specialist, animating an impressive 100+ shots of the character. She was largely responsible for giving her the fiery character and dynamic movement that makes her so memorable. In both of the more recent films Tanaka tops the list of animators, meaning she again delivered the same level of volume. She is a true powerhouse of an animator. In Howl she animated the part where Howl is cooking eggs, the part where Howl is moping in his room, and the part at the end where Howl's house is being bombed and Howl comes to rescue Sophie. The latter section in particular shows Tanaka at her best in creating exciting, tricky, dynamic movement. Tanaka occupies a special place at Ghibli even though she's not even an employee, testified by the fact that she was turned to for some of the Museum films. In 2001 she created the lush animation that graces the set of six one-minute shorts entitled Film Guruguru. Most recently, 2006 saw the release of a new a 15-minute short animated by Tanaka for the Museum, Mon-Mon the Water Spider. Also, I'd long wondered who had animated the animated sequences of Isao Takahata's 1987 documentary The Story of the Yanagawa Canals. It turns out that the figures responsible were none other than Atsuko Tanaka and Makiko Futaki.
House animator who tends to focus on scenes of everyday life and crowd scenes rather than on action scenes, Masako Shinohara is in fact one of the elder stateswomen animators of the studio. She is the only one of the four animators profiled here to have actually started out working on the classic Toei Doga films, like Miyazaki. She began there in 1967 as an inbetweener in Jack and the Witch, only a few years after Miyazaki, and drew her first key animation in Puss 'n Boots II in 1972. After leaving Toei Doga in 1972, she worked as an inbetween checker in Heidi in 1974 and has been involved in virtually every Miyazaki project since, first spending a period as a freelancer before finally settling down at Ghibli.
In Laputa she drew the scene on the Tiger Moth, giving her ample room to breathe life into everyday actions. In Kiki she drew the scene of Osono telling Kiki to deliver package to Tombo, and Kiki laughing after she and Tombo are thrown off the bike (after the exciting bike ride by Toshiyuki Inoue), scenes that are exemplary perhaps for the delicate mix of emotions conveyed by the characters. She also worked on the laborious crowd scene at the end (alongside Toshio Kawaguchi and Yoshinori Kanada), animating the part where Kiki catches Tombo. In Mononoke she drew the scene where San discovers Ashitaka lying in the forest and feeds him, and the section where Ashitaka catches the bow and arrow from Koroku. In Howl she animated the scene where Sophie is cleaning up Howl's house.
One of the only animators who has been in virtually every Ghibli film, Megumi Kagawa began her career as an animator at studio Doga Kobo in the early 80s. When she heard they were looking for staff for Nausicaa, she asked someone at Doga Kobo who had connections to get her in because she was a big Miyazaki fan, and the rest is history. She's been one of the lead animators in almost every Ghibli film since, right down to Gedo. In addition, she was co-animation director of Porco Rosso, Pompoko and Spirited Away.
For her first job, Nausicaa, she drew the scene of Nausicaa listening to Yupa in Jiru's room, and also Nausicaa trying to save the old men in barge, and Nausicaa pushing the gunship to its limit near the end. In Kiki she drew the 50-60 shots of Kiki encountering Ursula at her log house. In Mononoke she drew the scene where the wolf is rescued from under the boars. In Whisper of the Heart she drew the scene that takes place in the rain. In Spirited Away, she wanted to participate more as an animator, but was forced to help out AD Masashi Ando after only having drawn a little animation, namely the scene at the beginning where Sen walks out of the tunnel. The subtle change in her expression when the wind blows past her expresses her feelings well. In Howl she was able to come back full force as an animator, and indeed she is listed second only to Tanaka in both Howl and the more recent film, having done numerous big chunks. In Howl she animated the part at the beginning where Sophie is making hats, the part where Howl gets all green goopy, and the part where Sophie is running while crying towards that door near the end.
A long time ago I talked about how Masayuki Yoshihara's ep 41 of Ninku had had a big impact on me. That remains his most powerful creation as far as I know, but since then I found that he had also done some nice work in the Shin-chan movies, namely the 5th and 6th from 1997 and 1998, the first two directed by Keiichi Hara. I'm not quite sure how he came to work on Shin-chan of all things, as his work on Ninku epitomized the realistic school of the period, but that's the thing about the movies - you found unexpected people every once in a while, like Hiroyuki Nishimura and Masahiro Ando, obviously because they were great animators and had been brought in to help bring to life the action that filled out the movies. And so they did. These three created many of the most memorable scenes in the mid-period films. I don't know what Yoshihara did in the 1997 film, but I remember that he animated the opening sequence of 1998's Buta no Hizume, and it was a great idea, because his more realistic style of animation worked perfectly for the more realistic and hard-boiled direction Hara wanted to go with the film. Strangely enough, it seems Yoshihara had even done a few eps of the TV series. He animated two eps in 1997 - #237B and #241B - and storyboarded about three others the next year. The ones he animated were a real revelation, just what one would expect from an outsider like him - subtly different from the regulars, with extreme angles, a wilder and more unpredictable approach to timing, close attention to little details of movement, realistic weight, and lots of hilarious, bizarre movement throughout. You'd think he'd been animating Shin-chan for years, but then there are unexpected touches here and there, like the one shot where he puts incredible effort into animating beautiful clouds flowing past for some reason. He must have had fun with the work. It's certainly very different from what he did in the movies, and closer to the spirit of the show. I don't really know much about what else he's done, apart from a bunch of episodes of Yu Yu Hakusho in 1992-1994 (1, 3, 7, 13, 19, 27, 33, 35, 39, 42, 48, 54, 58, 73), which is where Nishio Tetsuya met his mentor and was greatly influenced by him, and Ninku 41 in 1995. Over the last few years he's been working at IG subcontractor PA Works, where he's mainly been storyboarding, first for the GITS series and movie and now apparently for the upcoming Seirei no Moribito. Here's an interview with him.
Today's link for inspiration goes back to a poet I discovered three years ago through the blog: Santoka Taneda. I was feeling in a particularly Santoka mood today for some reason.
I discovered the official site for Keiichi Hara's new film, , though it's apparently not supposed to be open until March 17 - www.kappa-coo.com. It's coming out on July 28. Good to see some more images. I was looking forward to seeing the film not just for Hara's directing but for Yuichiro Sueyoshi's characters. It looks like it's going to be toned down and not quite as aggressively styled as Mind Game (even his recent Shin-chan film work is incredibly aggressive), but still identifiably Sueyoshi. The images and reactions to the test screening seem to suggest that it's going to be a nice, quiet, moving film full of the slow, deliberate, meandering feeling that I so enjoyed in his past work. I like that he always goes at his own pace no matter what, never feeling like he has to cram things in to keep things exciting, or unnaturally mold the story to fit a conventional framework, yet his films remain consummately entertaining. I'm thinking it's going to have something of that down-to-earth, serene, honest feeling I've been wanting to see in a film ever since re-watching Animaru-ya's The Biography of Budori Gusko a year ago. Oh, and the 30-second ad found its way back online.
A month ago I started translating an that was recently published in Animage, but I've been so busy with work the last few weeks that I never got around to finishing it. Well, I've been saved the trouble by wao. The interview provides a good overview about what to expect from the situation, and corrects a misconception I had. Namely, producer Mitsugi Sanae hadn't been introduced to Mitsuo Iso by Katsuya Kondo back during the making of I Can Hear the Sea, but more recently. She had worked with Katsuya Kondo back then on that film, but it's later that he (Kondo) introduced the two around 2000. So the portfolio/project does in fact date back six years or so as I had surmised originally.
I noticed that directed and animated the latest Naruto opening along with Hirobumi Suzuki. I quite enjoyed it. It was great to be able to finally see him working as an animator, as he's already done a lot of directing on the show. I haven't seen much of his work as an animator, at least not consciously knowing it as such, but one of the few pieces I've known to be of his hand - a memorable sequence in ep 12 of Nippon Animation's Peter Pan - was enough to make me a fan of his work as an animator. This series had a lot of other great animation in it, but his felt unique even among all that, less caught up with realistic weight than Okiura or Matsumoto or Nakamura, more flexible and free and fun, and I'd wanted to see more like it, but unfortunately I haven't seen his name very often as an animator. It had a good feeling to the movement, and this opening has that same good feeling. Tsuru has done about half of the openings, one of the more memorable episodes, #48, and just before this the third film. The second opening of GTO is also a nice piece of his.
I remember in episode 11 of Kemonozume wondering whether Tadashi Hiramatsu or Hiroyuki Aoyama had done that action sequence, and apparently it was . I didn't think Hiramatsu that likely a candidate, as action sequences aren't really his thing, but I wasn't at all familar with Aoyama except for the avant he did for episode 5. It was great, but didn't seem that similar to the style of animation I was seeing in the action sequence in question (except maybe for one or two of the shots of the midair jump that do indeed have that same flavor). I've heard a rumor that the mystery figure behind the climactic sequence in Mamoru Hosoda's One Piece movie, which I wondered about in this post, might be Aoyama, though I haven't been able to confirm this. Stylistically it seems like it might be a fit, as there's a bit of similarity to the feeling of that Kemonozume avant. But who knows. The rumor seems to have arisen due to the fact that Hosoda talked about the scene having been done by "saiko no/the best animator", and then Aoyama was announced as one of the ADs of Hosoda's next film.
Aoyama is a Telecom animator. I remember seeing his name in Farewell to Nostradamus and some Doraemon movies, among other places, even as far back as Akira. I'm not too familiar with his work, but from what little I've seen he's truly a great animator. He's got that Telecom vibe of creating dense and nuanced realistic movement that at the same time feels very good using lots of drawings. Actually, Aoyama is apparently now freelance. In an interview during the making of TokiKake he seems to have been itching to leave Telecom over the last few years to be able to try different kind of work from the kind of work he was limited to doing at Telecom. He says he spent a week animating the smoke where Luffy walks towards the camera dodging those arrows near the end of the Baron movie as a favor to AD Chikashi Kubota, co-AD of Hosoda's latest film alongside Aoyama, and presumably that's what led to him finally leaving Telecom to work on TokiKake. (Unfortunately he doesn't mention anything about having done the later bit.) He must presumably have been tapped for those two great Kemonozume sequences because he was close at hand at Madhouse. It's interesting how Telecom seems to have lost a number of their good animators just in the last year or two, with Shojiro Nishimi and now Hiroyuki Aoyama leaving the studio.
The Kemonozume avant must have been done either right after Aoyama had completed his work on TokiKake or near the end, and it seems like it's a good foretaste of the sort of nuanced low-key acting we're going to see from him in Hosoda's film. He apparently focused on the classroom scenes in the first half of the film. He's animated and storyboarded before, but I'm not sure how much ADing he's done. Hosoda always manages to get people who are great at creating nuanced and rich animation for his animation directors, first and foremost Takaaki Yamashita. And now Masashi Ishihama, who apparently handled the later parts of the film around the climax. I was wondering how he'd gotten involved, but I remember now seeing his name in the Digimon movies, and he confirms in an interview that that is how it came about. He was doing something at Pierrot when he was invited by Fumihide Sai to come to an animation meeting for the first Digimon movie, where Yamashita invited him, and the rest is history. He apparently did the part where Hikari is running around looking for Koromon, and in the second movie the part right before Taiichi enters the PC.
Ishihama was originally just going to draw animation again, but wound up one of the ADs. I was surprised to learn that Ishihama started out at Oh Production. He's been freelance for a number of years now, at least since ROD. Hosoda's films have always been balanced out by the best freelancers out there. Ishihama also talks about how he felt lucky with his part because the burden of his job was alleviated by the fact that so many great animators were working on that section... Looking over the list of animators again gets me salivating - the usual suspects like Hisashi Mori, Takaaki Yamashita, Tatsuzo Nishita, and also Norimoto Tokura, Hitoshi Ueda, Takaaki Wada, Akira Takada, and even Ryochimo and Yasunori Miyazawa. I was originally a little disappointed that Yamashita wasn't the AD, which is a first in a Hosoda feature, but on second thought it will be even better to be able to see him do some concentrated work as an animator. Seeing his work in Kemonozume got me hungering for some more. I'm hugely in love with his work. For some reason we even see Yasuhiro Nakura as one of the assistant ADs. The DVD for Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo comes out on April 20.
Today I wanted to talk about one of my favorite Shin-chan animators, Masami Otsuka 大塚正実. He's been a favorite of mine for years now from the little bits and pieces I've been able to glimpse here and there, but it's only recently that I finally had the chance to see his TV work in substantial quantities, and seeing it confirmed how much I love the guy's work. Even surrounded by luminaries with their own equally unmistakable and delicious approach like Shizuka Hayashi, Yuichiro Sueyoshi and Masaaki Yuasa, Otsuka holds his ground and then some. I would even say that he's my favorite of all the Shin-chan animators. His work has a certain thrill that none of the others do.
Masami Otsuka is the quintissential studio-tied animator: He began his career at Shinei, and remains there today, more than 25 years later. To give some sense of this, he was an inbetweener in the first Doraemon movie in 1980, Nobita's Dinosaur, and drew a number of major scenes in the great remake of the same film from last year. He's seen it all at Shinei. He was a key animator in almost all of the Doraemon films throughout the 1980s as well as the TV series, and also participated in a few of Shinei's other projects like Chinpui and 21-Emon. With the start of Shin-chan in 1992, he moved there and became one of the pillars behind Shinei's new runaway hit.
Although I haven't seen any of Masami Otsuka's work pre-dating Shin-chan, judging by the style of his early Shin-chan work it would seem that his stylistic awakening began only after he entered his second decade as a key animator. I would be curious to know what it was that inspired Otsuka and each of the other great Shin-chan animators to develop such a personal style on the show. Going through their work over the years is fun and instructive about the process of stylistic maturation, as you can see their personality growing with each year.
What's clear is that there was a certain amount of mutual influencing going on at the studio, and this probably has something to do with it. Yuasa has attested to the fact that he was influenced by Otsuka, and it's obvious how influenced Yuichiro Sueyoshi was by Yuasa. In a similar vein, I remember Tetsuya Nishio talking about how the animators of Pierrot's Yu Yu Hakusho (1992) had a sort of rivalry going on that drove the animation to higher and higher levels. One animator would see great work by a rival animator on another episode, and try to beat the pants off the rival with better and more animation in his own episode. That seems to be one of the benefits of long-running shows like this, that a sort of constructive rivalry develops among the animators, and the heat of that rivalry creates a hot-house of mutual influencing and artistic growth.
Whatever it was that happened, after about three or four years the series begins to look drastically different as a whole, almost like a different set of characters, and you can also begin to see more noticeable difference from animator to animator. Otsuka's and Hayashi's styles seem to begin to emerge more quickly than the others, followed by Yuasa and then Sueyoshi trailing a bit. For example, very little of the latter-day Otsuka style is visible in his work during the first year of the show's run, judging by #23A, The Typhoon (1992). The same can be said of the other animators, though there is some difference in the shapes right from the beginning, as can be seen in the drawings here. However, jump four years ahead and you can already clearly identify his style in #209B, The Two Grandpas (1996), especially in terms of the way he typically exaggerates lines and pushes the shapes further than any of the other animators.
This tendency continues to grow as his style advances. The shapes of the figures are exaggerated and become more angular, the lines become thrown out and longer, the eyes lose the uniformity of line and smoothness of the other animators, taking on odd shapes, becoming huge parallelograms instead of the donuts of the other animators, as if Picasso had gotten a hold of the designs. The tendency seems to have ups and downs, with times when his style isn't as strong, as in #240B, Fishing for Yo-Yos (1997), but perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he was relied upon as one of the main film animators, and was consistently turning in the most amount of animation in each of the yearly films.
This is where we come to another thing that makes Otsuka one of my favorites: his genius as a mover. In the TV series the movement has to be cut down and the focus necessarily becomes his drawings. His drawings alone are exciting enough to sustain interest entirely in their own right, but every once in a while there will be a tantalizing little movement that makes you perk up and wish you could see more. This is where the films come in. In the films, the focus is shifted from his drawings to the movement, and we see his talent as a mover take the fore.
Otsuka animated my favorite sequence in Keiichi Hara's masterpiece Adult Empire film of 2000, the sequence where Ken and Chaco walk through the old town to the accompaniment of a beautiful ballad from 1969 by Betsy & Chris. The movement of the vendor man and woman at the very beginning are great examples of Otsuka's movement. He has an eye for creating quick, fluid bursts where characters suddenly come alive in actions that are both amusing and nuanced. At the same time the angles of the characters' forms remain unmistakably Otsuka, particularly that buck-toothed vendor.
One of my favorite bits of Otsuka movement came in an episode that aired last April about Misae's sister Musae moving in. The movers were 'horse-faced', so every once in a while when they'd get mad they would rear up and whinny like a horse, and Otsuka made those movements very funny by putting great care into animating them in the manner of a horse. It was a good example one criterion of great animation: it's hilarious watched even with the sound off. (This can also be said of the animation of that other great Otsuka, Shinji Otsuka - his scene was the only scene in the latest Ghibli film that would meet that criterion.)
Otsuka's style has become even more pronounced in recent years, with his animation taking on what can perhaps be described as a sort of casual effortlessness, like a master painter who has grown beyond struggling with his brush and is now secure in what he wants to express, and simply throws off one brilliant painting after another. The drawings in Himawari Special #2 (2002) show Otsuka's style in just about its most extreme incarnation, with very long, free, protruding lines and highly tapered faces with sharp angles and proportionally huge, geometrically-shaped eyes. Misae's face in particular is quite something. One of my favorite traits of Otsuka's is his way of drawing the eyes as these two long, swooping L-shaped lines that cover half the face, with a little tiny dot for an eye somewhere in the middle. You can see these particularly clearly in the adults like Hiroshi in another episode from the same year, #441C, Midnight Snack (2002).
What makes Otsuka's animation great is that, even though sometimes it might seem like his lines are completely insane and out of control, in fact he is always in control. It's the mark of a master that he is able to go beyond the basic forms and play with their arrangement, all the while creating a his own unique style of movement that seems to flow organically from his intuitive lines.
That same year, Otsuka was invited to help animate the ending of one of the studio's rare OVAs, Hare Nochi Guu Deluxe (2002), which featured a lot of interesting animation work, notably by Yuichiro Sueyoshi, who can be seen at the beginning of this ending with the singing. Otsuka did the very last shot with the dancing guy. It's short, but it feels good as animation in a way that none of the other bits do. It's a a good place to start to get a feel for the movement side of Otsuka's genius, as opposed to the quirky drawing side. He has a unique genius for creating quick little nuanced movements that simply feel good to watch.
One of Otsuka's most recent episodes was #537B, Let's Build Stilts (2005). Otsuka's style is just as strong here, but it feels more refined and better controlled than before. The characters no longer feel like an interpretation of someone's design, but like his own characters. He comes up with subtle and amusing ways of manipulating the features that none of the animators do, and the characters come across as consistently expressive and funny. I suppose that's something that can only come with having worked with the same characters for so long. On the other hand, I didn't find Otsuka's work on the Doraemon 2006 movie to be as distinctive and personalized as his work in Shin-chan always is, though he contributed a large amount of good animation. (He animated two large sections: 2:27 here & beginning here)
The Shinei group of animators each feel unique in their own way, and at the same time fundamentally different from other animators out there. Their animation has something that's distinctively 'Shinei' about it. Perhaps it's the A Pro blood running in their veins - the focus is on creating interesting movement and very free and fun drawings, but they do it by using the least possible number of drawings. It's like a challenge to see how much of an interesting movement you can create with the least number of drawings. With just a tiny twitch of the eyebrow or move of the head, Otsuka can express an emotion or convey an idea. In every line on the screen you can feel the animator's personal touch, which is what makes the drawings so consistently interesting. The willful, exaggerated, hand-drawn feeling of Otsuka's line is one of the most appealing aspects of his animation. Nonetheless, the characters always remain true to spirit and identifiable, which is a sign of real love on the part of the animator. The animator has grown close enough to the characters that he can begin to see through their eyes, and the lines just flow freely from that state of mind. Shin-chan has been a great training ground for that approach. It's a different style of movement from that seen in Dokonjo Gaeru, but I guess it's the modern incarnation of the A Pro approach.