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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« Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #6Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #5 »

Saturday, May 5, 2012

07:28:00 pm , 1985 words, 5387 views     Categories: OVA, Studio: Anime R, 1980s

Black Magic M-66

One of the classics of the golden age of OVAs is Black Magic M-66 from 1987. It was one of my favorites back when I was getting into anime, with its violent, exciting action and hard-boiled, no-nonsense story. It was a superb high-quality one-off - exactly what I wanted to see in an anime OVA - although in the end it felt a little slight and undeveloped.

I just re-watched it for the first time in many years, and the quality was far better than I'd remembered, probably because I didn't have the ability to appreciate good animation back then. The animation has impressive tension and energy.

As a film it's a bit problematic. It seems like it would make a strong film in theory, and it maintains interest at every moment due to the cinematic pacing and high-quality animation, but something about it feels off overall. But in the end it's a nice OVA with some uniquely detailed directing and animation, and is well worth re-visiting.

The film was co-directed by the author of the original manga, Shirow Masamune, and Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Shirow Masamune drew the storyboard himself, so this is probably the highest-grade Shirow Masamune anime. Later films like Ghost in the Shell bear the heavy imprint of their director.

I'm not sure exactly how the work was divided between the two directors apart from this, but perhaps Kitakubo was something of a line director on the project, Shirow Masamune providing the skeleton and details and Kitakubo putting them together, i.e. handling the technical matters of anime production about which the manga creator would have been ignorant. From Blood: The Last Vampire to Rojin Z, Kitakubo is unsurpassed at making highly dense short entertainment packages, and this film is no exception.

This was Shirow Masamune's first time ever drawing a storyboard, so he used the recently published storyboard for Miyazaki's Nausicaa as a reference on how to draw the storyboard. This certainly accounts for the film's unique feeling. His storyboard is extremely detailed, like his manga (see some examples here), so very little in the final product was left up to chance. No person acquainted with anime production would have storyboarded the film in the way he did; they would certainly have taken an easier way out, according to what they understood by experience could be achieved within the given deadline. The film apparently wound up many months over schedule, presumably due to the demands of the storyboard, resulting in its release being delayed by almost a year. The Gundress debacle is testament to how much of a generous concession this was on the part of the production company. But Masamune Shirow's direct input was simultaneously the film's liability and its greatest asset, because he brought an outsider's approach untainted by conventional anime thinking to the task of presenting the story.

But what was bad for the production company is good for us, as in the end it's because they were able to lavish such detail on the animation that the film still holds up after all these years. This unusually long production period resulted in a tight film in which each shot is highly worked, there is no wasted moment, and the action and effects animation is truly impressive. At around 45 minutes, it has the pacing and atmosphere of a film, but the length of a slightly longer-than-usual direct-to-video release. In that respect it's reminiscent of Hiroyuki Kitakubo's later Blood: The Last Vampire.

The narrative is satisfying because it's driven by visual storytelling rather than wordy explanations. They do an impressive job of visually conveying a future (yet familiar) world of believable cybernetic military sci-fi trappings. The storytelling is lean, the script is pleasingly serious and no-nonsense, consisting mostly of authentic-sounding terse and cryptic military exchanges. The action scenes are long and meaty, with each physical action depicted in convincing detail. The coloring palette of the film is toned down in a way that helps make it feel more realistic.

That's not to say it's dead serious. The films balances seriousness with fan-service. The film opens (predictably for an AIC production) with a nude scene that is saved from being in poor taste only by the fact that it's quite funny and isn't played up for lurid fetishism. The shot where Sibelle picks the sheet from the bottom of the pile and the pile topples over but she doesn't even notice because she's so intent gives the scene a pleasingly tongue-in-cheek tone. Kitakubo's only previous directing credit was Cream Lemon: Pop Chaser, which despite being the pioneering adult anime was more funny and exciting than titillating. Kitakubo also gives the film an edge of cleverness through directing tricks, for example when he cuts from a photo of the professor in the newspaper to the headlights of a vehicle where his eyes were. Rintaro did a similar gag in Download.

Despite the effort put into the details, the cumulative effect of the film is underwhelming for some reason. It feels sluggish and lacking in tension. But the serious-minded story, detail-oriented directing and powerful action scenes more than make up for this, and in the end, it may not be a Great Film, but it's closer to being one than most OVAs. At the very least, it's a damn sight better than the boring Appleseed OVA that came out one year later. It's a satisfying and entertaining little action film.

The animation

The quality of the film is strangely uneven. The animation is very high quality, but the backgrounds are not very good overall, and flat-out bad in some shots. Even the animation, which is quite strong, feels somehow rough. It feels in essence like highly polished TV animation, rather than the movie-caliber animation of Akira from the next year, for example. Despite striving for cinematic feeling, the film's layouts are fairly standard, without the careful simulation of camera lens focal length that is one of the subtle but important ways Akira and other films achieve a feeling of reality. To be fair, there aren't many OVAs that top this one in terms of animation quality. And most importantly, the animation is very satisfying. The action is good, and the drawings feel good at every moment.

Hiroyuki Okiua, Toru Yoshida and the other animators of Osaka subcontractor Anime R are to thank for the quality of the animation. Hiroyuki Okiura oversaw the characters and Toru Yoshida oversaw the mecha. This was Okiura's first job as sakkan. He had just debuted a few years before, mostly drawing impressive mecha animation on a few Sunrise shows like SPT Layzner (1985-1986), and very quickly made a name for himself at a very young age. Astoundingly, he turned 20 during production of Black Magic M-66. Toru Yoshida, meanwhile, had debuted not long before Okiura, first coming to prominence on Armor Trooper Votoms (1983-1984), on which Okiura worked as an inbetweener. Okiura drew what is one of his first genga in the last episode, uncredited, while Yoshida was still being credited as an inbetweener early on in the series despite the fact that he was drawing genga, so they debuted very close together.

The character animation is strong throughout thanks to Okiura's laborious work as sakkan. Despite having been pegged a mecha animator in his first few years, Okiura didn't view himself as such. He just wanted to draw detailed animation like one of his idols Takashi Nakamura, and in anime at the time the mecha animation was one of the places where there were fewer restrictions on the number of drawings you were allowed to use. That's the reason many 'mover' type animators like Okiura - and Shinya Ohira - started out as mecha animators. This was Okiura's first step towards becoming a character animator. Even at this early stage, you can sense Okiura's uncommon skills. The character animation feels unusually rich, even in throwaway shots like the shot at the beginning where Sibelle is writing something down, although this is no doubt also in part thanks to Shirow Masamune's detailed storyboard and Kitakubo's detail-oriented style of directing.

The key animation credits are divided between Anime R, Atelier Giga and AIC/freelance animators. I wrote about Atelier Giga before in my post on Cool Cool Bye and Relic Armor Legaciam. It was an informal gathering of ex-Bebow animators. Although Atelier Giga did not survive long past 1987, many of its animators stayed on at AIC for years to come. The impressive names in the AIC/freelance grouping are Shinya Ohira and Satoru Utsunomiya. I suspect Utsunomiya handled the scene in the restaurant, though I'm not positive.

Anime R receives a prominent spot in the credits, and its animators were responsible for many of the best parts in the film. This is in essence an Anime R film in terms of the actual drawings, although the production company was AIC/Animate. The big battle that is the highlight of the first half of the film was animated by Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida and Kazuaki Mouri of Anime R. Okiura handled the beginning in the forest up until the impressive turning shot where the robot hurls the vehicle (pic 3 at top), and the rest was animated by Yoshida and Mouri. Mouri in particular did the impressive shots where the robot wields the metal pipe in beautiful acrobatic action (pic 4). Okiura also drew the climactic scene on the rooftop (pic 1). Shinya Ohira helped Okiura out with this section by animating a few shots where the building crumbles (pic 2). This is the same year that Ohira worked on the effects extravaganza that is the Captain Power home shooter game, and Toru Yoshida was the other big figure behind the animation of Captain Power, so Toru Yoshida may have been an influence on Ohira's development into an effects animator. This scene in Black Magic M-66 is also presumably what led to Ohira animating the smoke and building crumbling in Akira. Amusingly enough, right after Akira, Ohira animated another crumbling building in an episode of Peter Pan sakkan'd by Okiura. Ohira was an animator in Okiura's sakkan debut, and he is an animator in Okiura's latest film.

Black Magic M-66 came out a year before Akira, and in fact it feels reminiscent of Akira in various subtle ways. It almost feels like a dry run for Akira. The basic elements are similar - gruff general and crazy scientist after a rogue experimental subject with superhuman powers on a killing spree - and the military elements are depicted (visually and by the script) very realistically and methodically, and even the gestures sometimes feel similar. It's presumably seeing Okiura's work on Black Magic M-66 that prompted Katsuhiro Otomo to invite Hiroyuki Okiura to work on Akira. After working under Nakamura on Akira, Okiura went on to provide great animation under Nakamura again in Peter Pan and Catnapped, not to mention becoming one of the key figures behind the two Ghost in the Shell films alongside fellow (ex-)Anime R animator Kazuchika Kise, who is also present as an animator here (though he was technically at Anime R sister studio Mu).

Incidentally, the impressively nuanced animation in the elevator just before the climax was animated by two animators who aren't credited. It was animated by Yoshiyuki Ichikawa 市川吉幸 based on roughs by Yuji Moriyama 森山ゆうじ. Both were members of Studio MIN, formed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo himself in 1982. MIN was one of the many artist collectives euphemistically known as a studio that were formed in the 1980s. MIN disbanded in 1991, immediately after production of Kitakubo's Rojin Z.

Black Magic M-66 ブラックマジックM-66 (Animate Film/AIC, OVA, 1987, 47 mins)

Created by:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
Director/Script/Storyboard:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
Director/Structure/Character Design:北久保弘之Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Animation Director:沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
Mechanic Animation Director:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Art Director:本田修Osamu Honda
Music:片柳譲陽Yoshiharu Katayanagi
Key Animation: アニメアール Anime R
 吉田徹Toru Yoshida黄瀬和哉Kazuchika Kise
浜川修二郎Shujiro Hamakawa谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
柳沢まさひでMasahide Yanagisawa寺田浩之Hiroyuki Terada
逢坂浩司Hiroshi Ousaka沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
 アトリエ戯雅 Atelier Giga
 宇佐美皓一Koichi Usami
岩瀧智Satoshi Iwataki
ところともかずTomokazu Tokoro
小曽根正美Masami Kosone
さとうけいいちKeiichi Sato
仲盛文Morifumi Naka
林宏樹 Hiroki Hayashi
田中正弘 Masahiro Tanaka
宇都宮智 Satoru Utsunimiya
橋本浩一 Koichi Hashimoto
清水義治 Yoshiharu Shimizu
大平晋也 Shinya Ohira


tocahan [Visitor]

This is freaky. Black Magic M-66 is one the first anime I watched (back in 1991 or 92) and I too recently watched again for the first time in years. I have to agree that it has held up very well indeed. I watched Appleseed a couple of days later and Black Magic is definitely superior. The thing I’ve always found interesting about Black Magic M-66 is that it’s the adaptation that Shirow was most involved with and yet it deviates the most from the manga source.

05/05/12 @ 21:21
aaron_long [Member]

Jeez, those are some detailed storyboards!

I haven’t thought much about this since I found it years ago in a used bookstore, but I enjoyed it a lot at the time. I wasn’t expecting much, since I’d heard it was just a dumb Terminator ripoff. Which maybe it is, but it’s a lot of fun anyway. The setup scenes are kind of tedious, as I’m not a big fan of watching military officers give exposition, but once the chase starts I warmed up to it. I remember liking the scenes in the …shopping mall, I think?.. such the famous elevator scene. I’m gonna have to watch this one again, it’s been too long since I last saw it.

Weird projects like this make me wish the OVA market were still around.

05/06/12 @ 05:24
Jeff [Visitor]

Thanks for including all the staff names in kanji. I have really enjoyed your writings on various series, but until recently I had problems with the staff names (except popular ones)… or rather, I was too lazy to dig up old Roman albums out of storage boxes, or find the old episodes on VHS (or digisubs nowadays) to cross reference with the romanization. But since your awesome write ups on the 3 Lupin series, it has become that much easier. Thanks!

Without rewatching the OVA, one thing I’ve always remember about M-66 were the debris in the action scenes. I had chalked it up to Hiroyuki Kitakubo’s storybroad in the past and didn’t break it down to the other animators. Didn’t he also do the Edo segment in Robot Carnival? It had similar effect as I recall.

05/06/12 @ 09:15
Jeff W.
Jeff W. [Visitor]

oh, one more comment since I forgot in my previous post. I had the same feeling about the OVA being what it should have been (or in your word, “underwhelming"). I feel much of that fault lies with the background music. I’m not familiar with any of Yoshiharu Katayanagi’s works, but there had been many OVAs doomed by a bad, cheap, or worse inappropriate soundtrack. For no reason other than you mentioning it, I remember falling asleep when I first watched Appleseed back in the late 80s. The lethargic soundtrack played a big part in that imho, but then neither the story or animation were there to being with. I should categorize which good anime had been mauled by a bad soundtrack and which bad anime elevated by a good one.

05/06/12 @ 09:33
Ben [Member]  

tocahan -

Cool, you too huh? Synchronicity. I give credit to Shirow for putting in a strong effort. For his first (and last?) storyboard, he did a pretty good job. I guess it’s because it was the creator of the manga that he didn’t feel slavishly tied to the way he told the story originally, but changed it as he felt was necessary in the medium of film. It’s nice to know that, at least, he realized that the two mediums are completely different and require completely different tactics. It’s understandable that he didn’t entirely succeed since he was primarily a manga-ka. I think the example of Miyazaki lured many manga artists into trying their hand at directing anime in the 80s, often with interesting (if not nearly as successful) results.

Aaron -

Yes, the terminator inspiration is a little too transparent… But I figure most 80s sci-fi anime is inspired in some way or another by Blade Runner or Alien or Terminator whatever the case may be, so I prefer to see what they do with it… and I enjoyed what Shirow did with it. You’re right that the expository scene is a little tedious. Heck, even when the chase gets on, the film’s dynamics still feel a little ’stiff’… but the animation makes up for that pretty well, I think. Yeah, it’s a shopping mall… a restaurant, specifically. The animation can be kind of uneven, actually… around that point there are some great effects shots where the M-66 blows up a helicopter or something, and then there are some really crappy crowd shots that Okiura obviously didn’t have time to get around to correcting… and then in the restaurant there are a few very nicely timed shots with a somewhat peculiar feeling.. it’s where Sibelle is protecting the girl from the M-66’s laser beam… very interesting animation… that’s the bit I suspect to be by Utsunomiya. I totally agree, I wish we could see more projects like this, even if it’s not perfect. There’s so much to like about it, and I especially like that it’s way less fan-servicey and cliche’d than most OVAs of the period.

Jeff -

Yeah, ever since I did those Lupin III posts, I realized how handy it is to have the Kanji there too, and when I look back on my old posts with staff listings WITHOUT the kanji I really wish I had included the kanji; they feel incomplete to me now. I’m almost tempted to go back through them and insert the kanji. But that would be kind of a pain in the butt. From now on I’m definitely including the kanji when I do a credit listing for a show. Glad to know you appreciate me doing that. I didn’t know how many people besides me found having the kanji there useful.

You’re right, he did the Edo segment right around the same time, but I kind of assumed he did it after M-66 for some reason. But the fact is, both came out in 1987, so I’m not positive which he did first. I should re-watch that one. I haven’t seen it in a while. But I really enjoyed it. That’s a good question about the effects. It’s quite possible Kitakubo himself drew the effects. I’m still not exactly clear who did the animation for the Edo short. There is no genga credit; only three people listed as 作画協力, so I assume Kitakubo must have drawn most of it and had help from those three people. It would not be surprising if this style of drawing effects spread quickly throughout the industry around this period. Heck, it’s possible Kitakubo was influenced by the animation turned in on M-66. One of the animators credited with ‘animation assistance’ in the Edo short is actually Kazuaki Mouri, the talented Anime R animator I mentioned in the post, so there’s even the possibility it was Mouri. I need to sort all this out sometime.

About the BGM… It didn’t leave much of an impression, so I suppose it did its job and nothing more. I don’t think what’s wrong with this film is accountable to the BGM, though. But I do recall a number of shows that were hurt by bad BGM. I remember thinking the music for Cloud really hurt a very nice short.. and wondered why Joe Hisaishi turned in such crappy music. Turns out it wasn’t Joe Hisaishi. Manabu Ohashi got some other guy to do the music.

05/06/12 @ 16:18
tocahan [Visitor]

It definitely has some “uneven” animation spots. Where I really noticed it in was the sequence involving the two hikers. The woods in the back ground are nicely painted and detailed. And then they start running. The backgrounds are like half finished.
And then it goes back. That being said, I still really enjoy it.

05/07/12 @ 19:45
h_park [Member]

I’ve seen Black Magic M-66 years years ago and only thing I remember is soldiers get killed by hidden final weapon of the robot when they surrounds it.

I figured manga artists would be perfect candidate for storyboards because applying film techniques into comic storyboard has become a norm. After reading the post, I guess they do have limitation on what they can do.

I wonder what Hiroyuki Kitakubo is doing lately. He can tell exciting story with great direction and he didn’t get involved with anime since Occult Academy. I wonder if he is preparing for something good…

Anyway, putting Kanji into staff names is great idea because it makes easier for research. There are cases where two or more people with the same names. Despite what people think, not everything is in English.

05/09/12 @ 10:56
Pandadice [Visitor]

Just gave this a watch, and I’m glad I did. It was really fun and definitely had some sweet animation.

Tocahan -
I don’t know if it’s right to call the backgrounds in those spots “uneven.” Yeah, it goes from a highly detailed, painted background to a “half finished” looking background. But that’s because the backgrounds are being animated at those parts. The background is in actual motion, opposed to being panned over to create an illusion of movement. The background becomes simple shapes with minimal detail because the lines are moving along with the characters. I guess it’s all just personal opinion or preference, but I really enjoy actual background animation, as seen in that hiker cut, despite the loss of detail.

05/12/12 @ 18:19