Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

11:44:22 pm , 1144 words, 2698 views     Categories: Animation

Casshern sings

Watched up to episode 19 of Casshern Sins so far, and for a show with such a uniform tone and pace from episode to episode, it's never gotten boring or repetitive. Every episode has been satisfying, some tremendously so. I'd come back to it after a while not too keen on it because I pretty much knew what to expect, but every single time, the quality of the production, particularly the directing, would win me over. The atmosphere is uniform, but it rarely tumbles into the monotone, largely thanks to the directing prowess of Shigeyasu Yamauchi. This strikes me as one of the rare cases when it's a uniformity of tone that works, gives the show a feeling of solidity. It's all driving forward ineluctably, like the additional few seconds of the tragedy that we're given before each episode heading towards revelation.

There's something similar in spirit to the Masaaki Yuasa titles Madhouse produced just prior in terms of the narrative texture and work that highlights its creators, but it's done more in line with tradition, most obviously in terms of material, but also in a more subtle way that's hard to pinpoint. When I watch Casshern Sins, it feels like I'm watching anime. And this is one of the rare times when I mean that as the ultimate compliment. "This is what anime is about," I find myself thinking. It strikes me as a highly personal summation of many of the best aspects that attracted so many over the world to anime.

I like the particulars of the production, and I like the whole. It's rare that I can add that second part. The recently-completed Xam'd was one of the more common instances of the first half of that sentence applying, but not the second. The very peculiar and personal directing style of director Shigeyasu Yamauchi is obviously the most salient thing about this series, and it's what has given it its backbone. But it's not just about the way the storyboard is written, although that's a big part. It's also obviously about emotion, and emotionally involving the audience, not by tricks or manipulation, but by making the struggle at the core of the show one we can all relate to, despite the metaphoric buffer provided by the characters being robots. The director makes incredibly effective use of the trappings of the world to create an emotionally resonant Seventh Seal in which the characters are all dancing towards death, whether they be fighting against their fate or accepting it. This is the aspect of the show that has kept me convinced, beyond mere technical appreciation of directing prowess. Yamauchi has made me feel for the characters, which is a rare achievement. It's not even that the characters are three-dimensional and believable. But the whole - directing, writing, music, animation, background art - combine to create a whole that brings the situation to life and makes it work.

The background art in particular, beyond being beautiful in and of itself, strikes me as carrying an important part of the thematic burden of the show, mirroring as it does the inner wasteland of characters as emotionally shattered as the landscape in the picture atop. That picture comes from episode 19. Kenji Matsumoto, whom I wrote about before, has again done a solo episode. Strike me blind, he did two more - episodes 18 and 19. (there's a studio credited below him in 19, but he obviously did most of it) I was surprised enough to find him doing another one, but two in a row... Even if the show didn't have as much going for it as it does, it would still be notable for Kenji Matsumoto's achievement with these three sublimely beautiful solo background episodes. Madhouse has done some truly interesting and innovative things in the background art over the course of Yuasa's shows and now this show. Obviously, there have been plenty of other great background artists in the past, but the deliberateness and the forcefulness of the work that Matsumoto has done here is really remarkable. In its looseness of line and expressionism, it falls more in line with the work of a Shichiro Kobayashi than with the typical blandly photorealistic style that has come to dominate backgrounds. As was the background art of Kemonozume, the backgrounds here feel like a nice match with the deliberately disjointed and quickly, simply drawn characters of Umakoshi. So it's an interesting hybrid of Toei-style characters with Madhouse-style backgrounds, among other interesting interconnections. In short, the art in this series is one of its most appealing aspects. There's no end to the things I'd want to say about the art, which is refreshing.

Episode 18 struck me as one of the most perfect creations in the series. It was incidentally not only a solo background episode by Kenji Matsumoto, but even a solo animator episode by an animator named Kanako Maru, who did a wonderful job, ranging from rich and dynamic animation to expressive rendering of the characters. It's like Madhouse is trying to corner the market on solo episodes or something, covering all the conceivable configurations. The episode was storyboarded and directed by the chief director. With very little plot, like many of the episodes, the episode nonetheless remains gripping at all moments thanks to the directing, the background art and the animation. And the story has a very appealing simplicity that allows us to focus on the emotional journey of the character. This show is basically a road movie, and each episode strikes me as a psychological mini road movie about the emotional journey of the characters. The episodes I most like in this series are the ones where very little happens like this one, dropping the dramatic MacGuffins and allowing us to come closer to the minds and feelings of the characters, through virtuoso directing where not a moment feels wasted and every moment guides us along the way. Of course, that doesn't mean we have to do without a fight scene or two to liven things up.

Episode 15 was another one of these perfect little gems that makes me so love this series, where the chief director is the storyboarder/director, the chief animation director Umakoshi is in charge, and we have some magnificent background art from the husband-wife team of Shinzo and Yukie Yuki, who've been the other big hitters in the art department on this show besides Matsumoto. Episode 19 wasn't quite the perfection of these two, but it featured a nice animated texture, with folks like Norio Matsumoto and Madhouse animator Yutaka Minowa and recently crazy prolific Takaaki Wada again. This show would have been good without Yamauchi storyboarding/directing episodes as he's done, but I wouldn't have been this excited about it. It's the occasional Yamauchi episode that really pumps me up and achieves the perfect tension of art and theme that they're aiming for.

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