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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.
Glad you liked it, and you’re right, this is pure background-driven anime (not to downplay the directing either, but as you say it’s fairly subservient to Kimura).
There are a lot of different animators with their own particular brand of movement in Japan’s commercial scene, but I’m not all that familiar with many art directors displaying such levels of individuality and creating their own cohesive ethos with their backgrounds. Kimura’s art is a breath of fresh air in that sense and I think that aspect shines brightly on a less idiosyncratic, more commercial film like this (compared to Tekkon, or Deatthic 4). It’s a testament to his talent that he can produce such excellence in this environment, similar to how the great animators can captivate you with a brief sequence in any show, of any quality.
I haven’t seen the movie, but Shinji Kimura’s art is always recognizable. To me, all those dirty urban setting since Tekkon Kinkreet has become his signature look.
Come to think of it, we never talked much about art director in Japanese animation. It would be nice if we can talk more about their style, techniques, and thought process.
When you brought up the animator named Cedric Herole, I thought it was a pen name. It sounds so similar to a character from Little Lord Fauntleroy when it was written in Katakana. So he is real deal.
“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…. 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.”
I’m baffled. I just watched Kemonozume 12 after reading this post. I’d earlier given up on the series after about episode 7.
I’m sorry, but your glowing description of the directing is the exact antithesis of what I experienced. At every moment, involvement in the story and characters was being undermined by very in-your-face stylistic showboating. The drawing never lets you forget that there’s an animator furiously scribbling the shapes on screen. In fact, after sitting through the first 6 minutes, I had to start again from the beginning because I was getting so distracted by the style that I couldn’t understand what was happening. Then I saw that 90 percent of the copious dialogue consists of exposition - descriptions of people and events that we don’t get to witness ourselves. Motivations are bluntly declaimed, nothing is allowed to be understood through context. There were moments of intense violence during which I felt not a thing. To round out my summary, I’ll try to cut this short– multiple flashbacks, non sequiturs, and histrionic voice acting. This was not a well directed episode by any objective standard. There was some very nice character and background drawing and certainly expressive movement– but in the context of the whole, it didn’t matter.
I’m happy to see you enjoyed this. Kimura’s work is certainly the standout. I must say, though, I don’t detect any hint of irony or satire in him. He obviously revels in lush, rich, colorful urban landscapes full of life and personality, which perfectly meshes with the festival setting. When the city is damaged, whether after the opening battle or during the climax, it is a painful wound that needs to be healed, not a victory against the superficiality of urban life. The crowded image of street signs you post speaks to me of magic, the city as a purveyor of a million wonders. Now I’ve been in Times Square in New York and felt distaste at the garish neon lights lit everywhere, but I don’t get that same feeling from Kimura’s art, in contrast to, say, Blade Runner. It’s difficult for me to believe that someone who obviously takes so much pleasure in fleshing out a city is secretly condemning it.
I don’t like Kemonozume 12 either, but I wouldn’t blame Takahashi for that. The story and the series were already too far gone by that point for him to salvage.
Shocking to hear such statements about a great series like Kemonozume, my second favorite show of the last ten years behind only Paranoia Agent. I remember being totally thrilled and enchanted by that episode along with the entire series and its story.
I’ll definitely be watching this at some point because of that.
Great write up, and I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. I was surprised by how self contained it felt too, since I didn’t know anything about Blue Exorcist before watching it.
Regarding the discussion about Art Direction in anime, I too feel that it’s a subject which is often not given much attention because people prefer discussion animation and character/mechanical design. It’s understandable though, since those are usually the main visual elements people notice and relate to.
I personally really like the work by Shigemi Ikeda from Atelier Musa, and Kentaro Akiyama from Studio Pablo. Ikeda has been in the industry for a long time, but it was the work on the backgrounds of the X-Men anime which really got my attention. It had a lot of nice hand drawn backgrounds which was a bit unusual considering the quality of the other Marvel Anime series. Studio Pablo probably doesn’t need much introduction though, since they’ve done fantastic work on Penguindrum, Sengoku Collection, and more recently Flowers of Evil.
Another Shinji Kimura work which I don’t see mentioned muched is the Gotham Knight short he worked on, where he also did the character designs, storyboards, and layouts for. It’s very distinctly Kimura, and has some pretty cool variations on Batman’s design as well as Gotham’s design in general. :)
I visited your blog occasionally for quite some time and I’m glad that you’re back after your long break. Also good to see that you’re talking about other things too. (Great) animation is still a factor which made me really happy, but I “discovered” direction and writing too. When it’s done right, you can have wonderful things.
Anyway, I watched the Blue Exorcist movie and it was quite nice. Shounen in general or such simple stories are usually not something I would watch or even like, but it helped that the writing wasn’t that bad as it is normally the case with such movies. Reiko Yoshida has experience with easygoing stories and it showed here. The action parts were quite typical for it’s kind, but otherwise it was a decent-written calm and charming plot - especially when you compare it to other fellows. Though as you and the comments section already said, the true highlight were the backgrounds. Absolute fantastic work from Shinji Kimura. Been a long time since I saw backgrounds of that level, if ever. My first reaction was: With such a talent it would be possible to make a Blame! anime (lol).
As duckroll said it already, I also usually don’t give much attention to backgrounds, unless it’s really good or noticeable. And Shinji Kimura’s work is the first thing you would notice in the Blue Exorcist movie. It’s unbelievable. For the direction I would agree that Atsushi Takahashi’s style fits very well with that art. There are many good shots and camera positions which not only shows off the art, but are also a sign that Atsushi Takahashi was the right man for that job. Aside from the movie I don’t know much of him (can’t remember his Kemonozume work), but it seems he has a knack for the right shots. The action wasn’t bad, but not as good as from some proved and/or talented action directors. Above average thanks to some scenes would be the right choice of words I think. The movie had a good budget as it seems, therefore he could do what he wanted - if he was the Storyboarder of course.
Last but not least a great article. :)
I guess by its nature background art is meant to be in the background and not the focus of attention, so most of the time it rightfully doesn’t receive much focus from fans. An artist like Kimura whose vision is compelling enough to stand on its own feet is more the exception. There are probably many good artists doing quality work on backgrounds that aren’t necessarily interesting in their own right like Kimura’s more eyecatching style. I also think most anime today don’t require particularly artsy backgrounds, or don’t have the interest in exploring novel visual concepts in the background art. In the 70s there were artists like Shichiro Kobayashi creating very hand-drawn, expressive art almost by default on each production they worked on.
Thanks for pointing out those artists. I myself don’t watch enough new shows to be able to say who is interesting today, but I’m sure there must be a lot of noteworthy art directors and background painters that deserve more recognition. I will bring the subject up if I see an anime with art direction that strikes me as particularly good, but I’ll admit it doesn’t happen that often to me.
The Gotham Knight short is very nice, but the credits seem a little off to me… maybe I’m wrong.
Thanks, that’s very nice to hear. It’s good to be back writing again. I’ve actually written about things other than the animation since the very beginning, but I guess the animation part gets focused on. I try to give an overall picture including the writing, directing, art and animation, though I guess in the end my main interest is the animation. What I most like to see is a production where all these elements are compelling. I don’t much go in for great animation in a show I don’t like anymore like I did in the old days. I just don’t have the time/patience any more.
Yes, the writing of the Blue Exorcist movie was charming and pleasant without straying far from formula, which I don’t particularly mind. I’m the same, it’s not unless a background really sticks out like this that I pay attention to it, which is perhaps doing a disservice to the talented background artists out there who slave away producing beautiful and meticulous art that functions as a part of the whole rather than being more expressive than the rest of the production like Kimura’s art is here. I still think 80s Madhouse productions struck an ideal balance between art, animation and directing in which each is expressive in its own right while contributing to the whole. I don’t see that many anime these days that feel that way. There’s too much focus on getting all the little details right and people lose sight of the forest for the trees. Any random roughly drawn/lightly animated ep of Manga Nihon/Sekai Mukashibanashi seems more appealing to me.