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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« The Restaurant of Many Orders and Kenji Miyazawa animeMiyazaki on Kanada »

Sunday, August 23, 2009

09:28:00 pm , 1149 words, 4022 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Crimson Wolf

Each era in the history of anime has its distinguishing qualities. One of my favorite periods is 1990-1995, when you get OVAs with a sort of crazed energy in the directing and storytelling, and realistically tinged yet fun and manic animation. Unlike in the late 80s, one of the things in the air at this period was realism, presumably influenced by things like Akira, and a lot of animators were producing realistic yet highly expressive and individualistic animation that after all these years remains extremely appealing, sitting as it does comfortably in the zone between pure, stale realism and over-the-top Kanada-school chaos.

The pinnacle of this kind of OVA is probably Hakkenden, which is representative of this era in its very unbalanced approach to the animation in the way a lot of good animators with very different styles are thrown together into a single film without being unified. The result was a film with a lot of variety in the style of animation, to say nothing of the characters' faces, which seem to look different in every shot. 3x3 Eyes is another OVA from this period with a similar sort of epic but hyperactive storytelling and realistically influenced but very expressive animated energy. The OVA has been an important outlet for the more outre urges in anime, offering unique freedoms in storytelling and animation, and there is a lot of good animation buried here and there over the years.

I just ran across a fairly obscure OVA from 1993 entitled Crimson Wolf, directed by FX animator Shoichi Masuo, that seems like another good representative of this period of OVA history. It reminds of Hakkenden in its frenzied directing and raw and extremely uneven but frequently exciting animation. I actually sought this thing out because I saw it in his filmography and was curious to see what an OVA directed by this great animator might look like, and more importantly, if it might not have some good animation. Even if they are often not very good, I find that the very first few films directed by great animators are often fun and crazy and full of great animation. Ichiro Itano's Battle Royale High School comes to mind as just such an example from the previous period in OVA history - insane and ridiculous fun with lots of fighting and very uneven but always lively and occasionally awesome animation. Much to my delight, such indeed turned out to be the case with this film.

Crimson Wolf is about as manic and crazed as they come, and I mean that as a compliment. This OVA exemplifies many of the qualities that first attracted me to anime, with its breakneck pace and story cramming in way too much information for its own good. It's an unpredictable and implausible mishmash of car chases, shower scenes, kung-fu fighting, sex, political intrigue, and cybernetic reincarnations of Genghis Khan out to take over the world. In other words, everything that makes anime great.

The animation is quite an interesting beast. Most of the time the drawings are nothing more than functional, but in quite a few spots the quality suddenly jumps, as the baton has obviously been handed to a great animator with a great sense of timing and drawing. The fighting scenes usually have a dynamic and heavy feeling to the movement reminiscent of Tatsuyuki Tanaka's dojo fight in episode 9 of Hakkenden, with its huge hands and limbs flailing about wildly in an exaggerated but tremendously entertaining fashion.

Typical of this period, many of these scenes just scream a particular animator in the idiosyncrasy of the drawing and movement. The most prominent such scene is the scene that takes place in the woman's apartment, where she is attacked in the shower. The drawings and movement here just scream Norimoto Tokura. I've long wanted to see more from Tokura in the style and quality of the work he did in the Lion and Pelican short in the Ai Monogatari omnibus film that was released the same year as Crimson Wolf. It had a rich and dynamic approach to the animation that seemed like one of the best representatives of this era's unique animation mindset. The scene in the apartment here is probably the best thing I've seen from him after Lion and Pelican. It's a bit rougher around the edges, but it's got the same very fluid and detailed body movement and distinctive aggressive, bulky way of rendering the form of the face. I've attached a pic from the two at right for reference. I know the similarity is not that obvious from these pictures, but these are the best comparison shots I could find.

The most impressive scene in the film in terms of the animation, unsurprisingly, is the climax, with its extremely fluid and well rendered dragons flying through the air. It's the best dragon climax I've seen since the climax with the little prince fighting the hydras in Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon, animated by Yasuo Otsuka with the help of Sadao Tsukioka. It seems clearly like the work of Toshiaki Hontani, another great FX animator. It's not surprising that a film directed by Shoichi Masuo would be brought to a climax by an extravaganza of great FX animation, and Hontani was the perfect animator to use to give this scene its requisite gravitas and power. Nobody knows how to integrate good FX like a good FX animator.

What makes me suspect the climax to have been done by Hontani is the similarity of the smoke to the smoke he did in the capsule breaking open scene in Akira, with its heavy, deliberate movement of each bulge in the cloud. The dragon is also animated with the same minute attention to detail that contrasts dramatically with the more crudely expressive animation in the rest of the film. The animation convincingly portrays the scale of the scene and the massiveness of the dragon, and is one of the better examples in anime of how proper casting of a great animator can make a scene have a strong impact on the viewer. This definitely feels like the best thing I've seen from Hontani after his work in Akira. I'd like to see what other animation he did around this period, to see if he did anything else in this vein.

There were also a number of explosions here and there throughout the film that were drawn in a distinctive pink, hazy style that is the distinguishing trademark of a talented but little-known FX animator named Hideaki Anno. Compare the effects drawn by Shinya Ohira, Toshiaki Hontani and Hideaki Anno to see just how dramatically even effects animators differ. Every animator can come up with a different way of expressing even the exact same natural phenomenon. That's what makes animation beautiful. Hiroyuki Kitakubo is also there as an animator, although I have no idea what his style was like.

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