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Denno Coil ended about a week ago, so I thought I would post my thoughts on how the series progressed since the last episode I blogged, episode 12. I try to avoid discussing anything remotely specific about the plot when I blog something, for one because it would be a spoiler, but more importantly because I find there to be no point. So I wind up trying to analyze what's being done with the directing or what is interesting stylistically.
There was enough going on stylistically and in terms of the directing in the first season to make blogging each episode rewarding. With the second season the nature of the show began to change. It was like the expository portion was over, and we were now moving into the main body, where we would finally get serious and explore the theme that Iso had hinted at in the beginning as being the driving force - namely, the theme of the interconnectedness of people. I found that I could probably not productively blog each episode anymore, since most of what was happening was happening mostly on the level of the plot and the character interrelations. It's best for everyone to make up their own minds about the story. It's boring reading about that sort of thing anyway. Best to just watch it. So I stopped blogging it.
The first 14 episodes had been entirely written by Mitsuo Iso. Starting with episode 15, the credit was shared. My guess is that Iso maybe provided the rough draft and someone else fleshed it out. All of the work must have caught up with him, preventing him from writing the rest, which is a shame. Much of the catchy quality of the show came from his writing, so losing that made a difference. The tone of the show seemed to change a bit. Suddenly the focus was quite clear, without the silliness and imaginative touches of the early episodes. That was an appealing part to me. Things also became a little repetitive. It seemed like we were going nowhere for a long time, stalling for time, and there was nothing really new being presented in terms of the cyber world or in terms of plot. I got the impression that things were being drawn out to fill in the space, when this climactic portion might better have been fit within a few episodes.
The quality of the show nonetheless remained at the same level, which in itself is a remarkable achievement. It may have gone down ever so slightly, but they put up a really strong fight throughout - the regulars like Toshiyuki Inoue, Kumiko Kawana, Kazutaka Ozaki, Yoshimi Itatsu, et al. Hiroyuki Aoyama even re-appeared a few times, as did Ayako Hata, Takashi Mukoda and Masashi Ando. At the very least, Denno Coil achieved an unusually high average level of quality for a TV anime. Real quality, as in interesting and nuanced movement by good animators, not just frame count or pretty drawings. The last episode unsurprisingly featured an impressive array of big-name animators, and I was happy to see young Shin-Ei animator Ryotaro Makihara (who I mentioned before) in ep 25. Tetsuro Karai appeared several times, so perhaps he pulled Makihara in. I was surprised that character designer Takeshi Honda never reappeared as an animator after episode 1, but I'm guessing there's a lot of tug-of-war going on among the big directors for someone of his caliber.
I quite enjoyed the second, more focused half for what it was trying to do, but it wasn't as captivating to me as the first half, where each episode was fresh and full of new ideas. My main problem was that the plot suddenly seemed to get stuck in third gear, rather than gradually ratcheting up. Also, the concept driving the plot became somewhat murky near the end as the explanations behind the cyber self seemed to push plausibility and border on philosophy. I really like how Iso used the concept to discuss issues of identity and mortality, but by the time the climax arrived, the balance felt out of whack and the climax came across as kind of forced and sudden, with lots of explanations suddenly falling from the sky. Perhaps the padding had drawn things out for too long. Dropping lots of mysteries at the beginning only to answer them all right at the end is a style of plotting that has never done much for me. I don't think the climax should have relied on sudden revelations, at least not so much. The characters' motivations should have been enough. Maybe things would have been different if Iso had written every episode, or if they could have done it all in 18 episodes or 20 episodes instead of having to adhere to these fixed numbers - 13, 26. Who knows.
In any case, Denno Coil was a rare instance when someone set out with an interesting, original idea for a TV show and got it made with solid backing from a bevy of the best animators in the industry. Mitsuo Iso the animator shone through in the digital wizardry of the scenes involving the cyber-gadgets and apparitions. These scenes achieved an unusual level of depth that went beyond the flat confines of the conventional 2D look of anime. It was these scenes that made the cyber world of Denno Coil come alive and feel real and immediate. Despite any shortcomings the story might have, the concept was very stimulating and convincingly fleshed out. The characters were fun and engaging, and they developed in a fairly convincing way over the course of the show in response to the events. The show addressed some serious questions without taking itself too seriously. The animation was consistently top-notch throughout while never stooping to being an end unto itself. The animation served the material and emphasized nuanced observation and craft over eye-candy flashiness. More than anything, it was a rare instance of a TV show that succeeded in creating its own self-contained world with its own unique rules and aesthetic. It was a real success on many levels.
This episode continued in the same vein as the previous in the sense of it seeming to showcase what this series was about at heart – creating this interesting denno world concept, and coming up with intriguing and amusing possibilities for the creatures/gadgets that fill it out. This episode is a stand-alone like the previous episode showcasing the different forms of the various denno creatures. An overarching story doesn’t progress forward, but this somewhat ludicrous and fascinating ep feels truer to Iso’s whimsical cyber ethos than having some epic drama unfold. I mentioned the series reminded me of Doraemon at the beginning, and these last two episodes reinforce that impression.
Iso was the storyboarder (and writer, as always). It’s really the concept and the idea that drives things forward and maintains interest, and the idea here was hilarious and totally unexpected. This coercive-interactive Sim City-like virus also provided some interesting room for metaphorical comment on human nature with its brief history of mankind via the stand-in of sentient hair follicles… pretty impressive to be able to do that with hair follicles. It never becomes too serious that way, which is good.
The animation was toned down from the previous episode though hardly bad, with Hata Ayako as the animation director. Hiroyuki Aoyama’s part was easily identifiable here as it was in Secret of Cerulean Sand - the bit right after the midpoint, with that wonderful momentum and follow-through. What a difference that training at Telecom makes. His approach is so different from everybody else on the show, in a good way. Even people like Toshiyuki Inoue don’t seem to try to create that combination of richness and ‘good feeling’ in the motion that Aoyama can create, though Takeshi Honda is certainly closer to Aoyama in that sense. Honda’s more playful, as well as being a master mover. Toshiyuki Inoue started out on shows like Gu-Gu Ganmo in the late 80s, so a show of this nature is actually kind of a return to old territory for him after a long period doing mostly realistic stuff like Jin-Roh and Tokyo Godfathers. He’s incredibly versatile, though he doesn’t have that spark of imagination and playfulness that people like Masaaki Yuasa and Shinji Otsuka have. I think a show like this gives him a good opportunity to work on that side. In any case, it’s great to be able to see what all of these theatrical animators might do in the freer and more playful context of a TV series. Most of them probably got their start on TV stuff.
Been away from an internet connection again for a while now, though I managed to watch two more eps of Denno Coil, so I thought I'd write my thoughts about them without further ado.
This felt like one of the first episodes that fully explored the potential of the whole 'denno' world concept; the one they'd been waiting to make since the very beginning. The fish creature and the whole situation of this ep reminds of one of the concept sketches drawn by Iso that were among the first images made public. The creature isn't exactly the same, so I'm left to wonder if there might not be more coming from this idea. That was the image that really fired my imagination, so I was happy to finally see that material expounded upon on the screen. The episode felt like a really imaginative meeting of fancy and sci-fi - like they took some crazy idea you might have daydreamed one day as a kid, and played it out in the real world just to see what might happen. I like that aspect of this series.
The quality of the episode was quite high, with head animator Toshiyuki Inoue returning as the animation director together with a bevy of big-name feature animation directors like Masashi Ando (Paprika), Masashi Ishihama (ROD), Kazuchika Kise (Innocence), Hirobumi Suzuki and Tokuyuki Matsutake (Naruto) - and even Hiroyuki Aoyama, one of the animation directors of Tokikake. He's one of my favorite recent discoveries. I've talked him about in the past, particularly his great work on Secret of Cerulean Sand. Most recently he animated one of the best of the Kemonozume 'avants', and a great action scene. I was delighted to see him here, and I'm really happy to see he's in the next episode too.
The animation throughout was nuanced and rich, not surprisingly. The animation of the water was particularly nice. Toshiyuki Inoue animated some incredible water in Peek the Whale that has something of the same texture as the water here, as well as the amorphous mass in Paranoia Agent ep 13, and other assorted effects, so it's not surprising that he'd handle an episode where water plays an integral part. I'd always been wanting to see him do more effects animation, so the effects animation fan in me was happy with this ep. (Read this interview to hear him on FX animation.)
I really liked the bits where Daichi is explaining how he goes about grabbing little meta-bugs from the neighborhood. You can tell Iso loves that kind of stuff, the little maniacal cyber details that give the world its semblance of reality. It’s fascinating, but always humorous at the same time. The fish creature also has this amusing combination of scariness and silliness as it bulges up a size in its floating fish tank. I was happy to see my favorite character, Kyoko, tag along as an interloper in the action throughout the episode. My only complaint about this episode would be that it seemed to lose momentum at the climax. Other than that it was a great episode. Some amusing and imaginative ideas delivered at top-notch quality. The storyboarder was Akitoshi Yokoyama, who did episode 3.
This was one of the most finely crafted episodes in the series. Everything felt more nuanced than usual, almost to the extent of feeling like a different approach altogether. You really felt 'in the moment' while watching each scene. Things flowed in a way that was very natural and spontaneous. The episode looked the same as the others on the surface, but felt fundamentally different somehow. It has a much more refined sensibility. The director was much more sensitive to how the different characters would be feeling at each juncture of the story, and how to present each scene and each moment in such a way as to best complement the buildup of the various elements in the episode. You could feel the love and work he put into the episode. It felt like great craftsmanship.
Tadashi Hiramatsu is the one to thank. Hiramatsu has long been known as a great animator, but he was unique as an animator in that, whereas well-known animators tend to become well-known simply because they have a flamboyant style that anyone can identify whenever they see it, Hiramatsu was the opposite - all subtlety and refinement, without a flamboyant style. His animation was low-key but highly worked and with a rare feeling for bringing alive characters with everyday behavior. A craftsman as opposed to an auteur.
In the last few years he has begun the transition to directing after a long time as an animator, and his directing seems to be a logical extension of what we were seeing from Hiramatsu the animator. He now creates extremely sensitive drama with a lot of thought put into the presentation and into getting into the mind of the characters. The drama he creates is both convincing and moving, coming across as polished yet spontaneous. The layout, i.e. the position of the characters in the frame, is always extremely pleasant to look at and studied for naturalness and elegance. He uses the camera subtly and effectively to control the rhythm from moment to moment.
Hiramatsu's sensible directing is here supported by an animation director who's somewhat new but also proving to be a name worth keeping an eye on, Takashi Mukoda, who recently did some nice work on Guren Lagan. Mukoda is free with the expressions and poses in a way that reminds of Takeshi Honda, but he definitely has his own line and style. His drawings are very effective during both the comic and the more heartfelt moments. I don't know to what extent Hiramatsu was involved in the drawings, as many moments felt like Hiramatsu had to have been involved somehow - either his storyboard was very precise, or he provided layout or something - but Mukoda seems to be very talented and flexible, and the two were a great match.
One of the things that I've liked the most about Denno Coil, besides the imaginativeness of the ideas, is simply being able to watch nuanced characters given room to act out their personalities, and the fact that body language plays a large part in this. This episode excels in this arena. The characters came alive wonderfully here, felt revivified. They really inhabit the spaces on the screen. Scenes like the one where Yasako is lounging on her back in her room (on an oyaji beanbag?) bring the characters alive nicely with very natural and unforced behavior. There's a sense of physicality, of presence, that I haven't gotten before now.
We were back to the level of quality of the early eps here, with feature AD Ei Inoue, another storyboard by Shinsaku Sasaki (ep 4), and more than anything the animation headed by Toshiyuki Inoue and Takeshi Honda again, joined by Kazutaka Ozaki and Yoshikazu Honma. They'd been absent for a while, and the difference was quite noticeable.
The ep was one of the more entertaining in a while, showing how important the storyboarder is. The wittiness of the script was nice in this ep. I liked the gag about getting drunk on chocolate liquor bottles. Watching this ep I got to thinking it would have been nice if they could have gotten Shinji Otsuka to work on the show. I'd like to see him do some TV work, and he seems a good fit with the rest of the crowd. He could have brought some good humor to the animation that would have worked to the benefit of the ep. He's probably busy at work on some feature project somewhere, as usual.
This episode was a nice, slow stroll through the summer night. One of the calmest episodes so far, with a few threads working their way in the background but otherwise little happening dramatically. It was nice to see more antics from Kyoko. The real star was the animation director, Koichi Arai (filmo). He had an episode in Kemonozume, so it would make sense to expect him to turn up here. He's told horror stories about his episode of Kemonozume, how they just couldn't find animators to work on it and generally had the most production difficulties of any episode in the series, and it just barely got done in time. I remember wondering why it was that the staff on that episode was so incredible, with people like Takaaki Yamashita, but the animation didn't seem to reflect the quality staff that much. That perhaps explains why.
Here it's clear that this new Madhouse production isn't going to be running into that sort of troubled waters. They've had all the time to do what they need to do, and the episode doesn't have that rushed feeling. But again it's the same thing - great staff including Masaaki Endo, Nobutake Ito, Ayako Hata, Koji Sugiura and even Takaaki Yamashita and Nobutoshi Oguro, who were in Arai's Kemonozume ep, but nothing overwhelming in terms of the animation. Instead, the animation is full of little bits of subtly nuanced animation. The real pull is Koichi Arai's drawings, which are very appealing. He uses very few lines to create a nice expression that captures the emotion well. Arai's always good at drawing interesting crowds full of people with very individuated features, and the people in the background here were nice and felt very Arai.
This ep felt like one of the more lighthearted and comical ones. I think there were a few factors behind this. For one, this is the first episode not wholly written by Mitsuo Iso. It was co-written by Yuko Miyamura, the writer of the novel version. Perhaps this is the reason the characters felt a little different. Also, animation director Kazutaka Ozaki (his first AD in the series, though he's been in previous eps) brought a nice light & lighthearted touch to the drawings. Not a lot of nuance, and even felt like a slightly more of a conventional approach than usual, but still one of the most interesting ADs so far after Honda and Ito. Again, Shinsaku Sasaki of ep 4 was the storyboarder, and his work is very solid and creates an excellent flow, although the processing wasn't by him and felt a little lacking. The animation hilight was easy - what I presume to be Ghibli pillar Katsuya Kondo's climactic bit with Isako saving Kyoko. The movement was very weighty and measured, very different from the comic jumpy drawings of the rest of the episode, and more in keeping with the feature-styled feeling of the animation of the first few eps.
I liked the humor of this episode, though it felt a little more forced than usual. But what I really liked was that the dramatic climax came from an action in the real world and not in the denno world. Saving Kyoko in the real world had much more importance than any hunt for meta bugs could, and that goes against everything that's been built up in the series so far. I'm glad they had the courage to take that step.
So we're already up to episode 6. Time flies. This episode struck me as one of the more talky ones. It felt like the cyber nerd in Iso took the fore. It felt a little strange not seeing the continuation of the previous episode, or any of the other characters, since the previous ep climaxed with that sequence of Isako and the boys. Instead it diverged to delve into the origin of Sacchi, which was interesting enough. The quality of the animation and directing felt the most subdued and least striking of all so far. Feels like we're gear-shifting around a corner. Was a little lonely not having Toshiyuki Inoue there to regale us with his delightful moves, but the man is only human after all. Asking him to provide that sort of quality in every episode is asking a bit much even of the perfect animator.
The animation here was a good contrast with Honda's. It didn't have the ruffled lines and interesting posing of Honda's work. Ayako Hata was the animation director. I've been interested in her work since she animated a bit in Mamoru Hosoda's Tokikake that caught my eye for its nice nuance and feeling for low-key everyday acting - the bit where Makoto eats the purin in front of the fridge. The guy who animated Densuke's lovable birdseye waddle for the ending was there in this ep - Yoshikazu Honma, as well as Ei Inoue and Kazutaka Ozaki. I enjoyed hearing more from Akiko Yajima AKA Kyoko, and wish her character would be given more opportunity to take part in the action so I could hear more from her. Ditto for Densuke. He was right there but didn't do much, so I wish they had given him an opportunity or two to ham it up. He's such a nice character.
Watching this ep I got to realizing just how much of a tightrope act this situation is, with all of the events in the world of this anime hinging on the characters wearing the glasses. Basically, just take the glasses off, and it's all over. So far Iso did a great job of not making the audience feel that invisible wall. Interesting how it was only in the extreme circumstances here that Fumie and Yasako would even have though to take off their glasses.
Learning how the whole concept of the denno/cyber world is financed by the different national ministries was the most interesting development of the episode for me. Here the names were changed from ___-sho or ministry to ___-kyoku or office, though they are presumably parallels for the real-world Japanese institutions of the Transportation Ministry, METI, MEXT, etc. Without this setup, the whole denno world was interesting, but it felt like I didn't understand something important about how it was run, by whom, for what purpose. It felt like just a playground for the kids. Linking the concept up to governmental institutions makes it more intriguing. Fumie's comment about 'tatewari gyousei', or what you might simply call government overcompartmentalization, was amusing. I will be interested to see how the relationship between the different ministries, and their respective territories, comes into play in terms of how the cyber world is run in the coming episodes.
The sequence where Fumie and Yasako were testing out the parameters of Sacchi was amusing and convincing. It's scenes like this showing the kids finding ingenious ways of lifting up the corners of acceptable behavior beyond the watchful eye of the adult world, as kids would do in this one, but within the context of the denno world, that are the most fun to watch because they ring true. It's pretty impressive that Iso has been the one singlehandedly responsible for coming up with all of the ideas in this series, and particularly for writing the script of each episode. For someone who prior to that was just an animator (albeit an amazing one), that's a hell of a storm of imaginative concepts in a very different realm of creation. For a relative beginner writer, there are a lot of interesting threads being tied together convincingly, and satisfyingly fleshed-out characters interacting in a believable fashion, all of it leavened with a great light touch of humor.
This episode feels like it left me with the most to digest. I had to watch it a few times before I felt I caught everything, not to say that it wasn't perfectly comprehensible on the first watching. But it felt like the script covered a lot more ground than usual, with lots of background about the relationships between the characters, and, unbelievably, yet more mysterious hints about revelations to come. Why the headaches? etc. The driving rhythm of the last two episodes seemed to take a back seat to exposition of the characters and their personalities. Isako's cunning power-play was a surprising development.
While not low quality by any means, this episode felt like one of the more restrained episodes so far in terms of the animation. Nonetheless Toshiyuki Inoue was present again, as he has been in every episode. The sequence following the appearance of Satchi near the end had a great feeling to the movement, and the whole closing sequence built up nicely. The storyboard was again by Akitoshi Yokoyama, who did ep 3, though directed by someone else. Last ep's AD Yoshimi Itatsu was there, and Ei Inoue, and the AD was Kiyotaka Oshiyama.
The episode did a nice job of capturing the feeling of a summer adventure among friends, wandering slowly through the streets, sweating in the heat, playing around in an abandoned lot full of old junk. I liked the feeling of specificity in the setting. It really felt like you're watching kids wandering around the streets of Japan. Passing images of the surroundings like that concrete-lined riverbed, or that winding country road surrounded by dense greenery, felt authentic and believable. Not necessarily because they were painted vividly or realistically, but just the choice of these particular images felt nice. It brought back distant memories of wandering by foot on the hottest day of the Japanese summer along a country road on the outskirts of town. Those images are the ones that stuck in my mind the most after all these years, even more than the glitter and neon of the city - old country roads, old temples in the shade, places with a bit of mystery about them. I was the kind of kid who loved just wandering around randomly in places new to me, just taking in the sights and sounds and smells, for the anticipation of an adventure or a new discovery around the corner. This series touches that inner kid in me.
Thankfully the quality stays at the same high level in this episode. Toshiyuki Inoue and Takeshi Honda yet again head the animators. These two have done an incredible amount to maintain the quality of the show so far. In tow are many of the usual names we've seen in past episodes, such as Ei Inoue and Kazutaka Ozaki and Hajime Shimomura - many of whom I've often seen working as animation directors on films prior to this. The animation director is Yoshimi(?) Itatsu, a name I'm not familiar with. He seems to be a relatively new face, having been involved in two previous Madhouse productions - Paranoia Agent and Beck - as an animator. This appears to be his first episode as AD.
The storyboard is by Shinsaku Sasaki, whom I remember for having animated the famous bit of action with the Tatarigami at the beginning of Mononoke Hime, where it's covered with all those snakelike things that look like CG but amazingly are in fact hand drawn (aside from a few close-ups). He's been very active as a storyboarder for hire in recent years since leaving Ghibli, having done work on shows like Master Keaton, Arjuna and Welcome to the NHK. The director was the same guy who directed eps 1 and 2, Masashi Yasukawa. I noticed in this episode that two students named Yasukawa and Honda were assigned the "daily chores" on the blackboard. Daily chores indeed! An amusing metaphor for all the work these guys have been doing for the show.
This episode focused on bringing to life the interplay between the protagonists at the school. I find that the various characters stand well on their own as characters, each with their own unique personalities. Daichi is fun as the bratty gang leader, and we started to learn more about Isako's personality and denno skills. I found her to be a satisfyingly layered character, like her counterpart Yasako, in that she behaves rudely in a way that makes her hard to like, but at the same time I could empathize with her behavior, as when she comments - "It's always like this. I never do anything, and they always come after me." I remember feeling that way in school growing up.
New clues were dropped here and there about the various threads lurking in the background, the biggest being the identity of Michiko. As always, the various denno devices and the way they were presented and integrated into the story were a sheer delight. The second half was an exciting virtual war between the factions featuring some more cool denno tools (not being used as they were intended) that gradually built up to a tremendously exciting and impressive bang where directing, animation and digital effects combined to great effect. It's this sort of deft balance of all the elements that most impresses me about this series. Superb talent working on every facet make for these kind of results. Again, I get the distinct impression that Iso's digital effects work in particular goes a tremendous way to giving the visuals their impact.
I got to thinking that I appreciate this series because it's the kind of sci-fi I prefer - the kind that is based in the reality that I know, with a few not too implausible fantastic embellishments to spice things up. Kind of the way I thought the first Digimon movie was a good sci-fi because of the way it kind of rethought the genre. Instead of going way overboard with the sci-fi stuff, he creates a plausible situation with real kids we can believe in, and adds a little touch of sci-fi. Seeing how the kids react to the situation is what made for fascinating viewing.
The idea of the 'imago' in this episode was interesting too - the idea of a function that the manufacturer of the device has deliberately chosen to disable and prevent users from using. Some may recall that a very similar situation occurred in real life not long ago, when cell phone manufacturers like mine, Telus, chose to deliberately disable Bluetooth functionality in Bluetooth-capable phones, and to not tell the users about this, under whatever pretext it was that they came up with. I doubt they're related, but I thought it was a good example of how plausible the little denno concepts in this series are because they're not too far-fetched and ring kind of close to home. By sheer coincidence, it even ties up to our own virtual world - Imago-Image is the name of Iso's home page.
It brought back memories of Tweeny Witches to hear Houko Kuwashima and Sachiko Kojima's voices on screen together again - Arusu and Sheila reunited. Just for reference, here's a list of some recent storyboards drawn by Shinsaku Sasaki.
Final Fantasy Unlimited 10, 15, 22
Overman King Gainer 11
Keroro Gunso 97, 100, 107
Astraea Testament 2
Full Metal Alchemist 5, 12, 18, 24
Cluster Edge 4
Shonen Onmyoji 6
Welcome to the NHK 16, 23
Death Note 18, 29
Master Keaton 5 (+director)
Angelic Layer 2, 10, 18, 25 (+director)