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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Category: Director

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

09:56:00 am , 2843 words, 21181 views     Categories: OVA, Movie, Animator, Director, Short

The Twin Stars and early Ryutaro Nakamura

Ryutaro Nakamura, one of the great directors of the last 20 years, passed away earlier this year. I was a big fan, so it was a shock. He was a director of breadth and deep talent, but I don't have the energy or knowledge to do a full retrospective, so for now I thought I would start by highlighting one of his obscure early films. Serial Experiments Lain (1998) had a huge impact on me when it came out, and since then I always looked forward to his new productions, which never failed to surprise. But he produced several great films before Lain that people over here aren't familiar with.

Ryutaro Nakamura directed The Twin Stars (双子の星) in 1995 at Triangle Staff. It was part of an omnibus of Kenji Miyazawa stories called Kenji's Trunk marking the centenary of Kenji's birth, and featured two other 30-minute shorts. It's a quiet, unassuming, lovely little film. (Watch here)

The Twin Stars reveals a side of Ryutaro Nakamura that might not be familiar to most people who are used to the more hard-boiled and philosophically dense Nakamura of Lain and Kino: the creator of a lush, colorful children's fantasy. The first few films directed by Nakamura were in this mold, and most of them merit re-discovery, as they are very well made films with a big heart and excellent technique.

The Twin Stars tells the story of a pair of stars whose role is to play a silver flute to the tune of the Song of the Turning Stars / 星めぐりの歌 throughout the night to help guide the stars on their journey across the sky. One morning, the twins awaken and descend from their crystal towers to go to the river to play. There they encounter the rival stars Scorpius and the Crow, who get into a fight. The Twin Stars revive the Crow but are forced to hurriedly carry the injured Scorpius back to his home before the night returns, for they all run the risk of being banished to the sea floor as starfish if they fail to return to their appointed place in time. Scorpius and the Crow regret their thoughtless intolerance and vow to abandon violence and be more like the selfless twins. Just before time runs out, a whirlwind is sent to spirit the trio back to their appointed place at the bidding of the King, who has been watching all along and is moved by their change of heart and the generosity of the twins that brought it about.

The story is one of Kenji Miyazawa's key stories, combining as it does into a poetic and mythical package his intimate knowledge of astronomy, his pantheistic view of the world, and his sense of moral obligation to help others.

The film is eminently graphical and visual, with bright, colorful pastels and simply stylized shapes. Its pace is leisurely and measured, with long shots that let you absorb the visuals on the screen. The first three minutes are a gorgeous entryway to the story that seems perfectly conceived for this gentle, ethereal story. We are guided into this world of light and sound, where whirlwinds and stars are living beings, to the tune of the actual Song of the Turning Stars, written by Kenji himself, in a beautiful flute concerto-like arrangement by composer Yoshihiro Kanno. (Listen to the original song)

Nakamura grounds the film in our world by showing a father and son strolling by the ocean under the vast expanse of the Milky Way. We then slowly transition across hazy vistas of constellations and pastel clouds into the land of the stars where the Twins reign over the night sky from their towers as they play on their silver flutes. Stars arc across the sky until the sun peeks over the horizon and the birds begin chirping, announcing the end of the starry procession.

The film has the quality of the old Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi with its simple characters, mythical story and emphasis on creative design work. The Twin Stars even has the same solo approach, with the animation and art each respectively done entirely by one person. Takahiro Kishida animates the whole film, and Shinji Kimura does the art. Kishida does a masterful job handling the different kinds of animation, from the realistic humans, which move more fluidly, to the more limited movement and stylized designs of the Twin Stars and the Crow, to the ghostly effects of the whirlwind. Kimura, meanwhile, creates a lush fantasy land that is beautiful sight to behold, although different from his recent work painting cacophonous city backdrops. Here he creates the airy pastel firmament of the sky, lending the film the watercolor texture of a picture book. The film is thus a great showcase of the skill of a group of artists - director, animator, background painter - acting in unison like a great string trio, in the spirit of the classic Madhouse productions.

If this feels like a Madhouse film, the reason is obvious. Triangle Staff was founded by an ex-member of Madhouse, and Madhouse is where Ryutaro Nakamura got his start. His experience at Madhouse obviously laid his foundation as an artist, accounting for the Madhouse vibe of this short. In particular, The Twin Stars feels close in spirit to the one-shot Osamu Dezaki episodes of the 1970s like Fire G-Men or his episodes of Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, which also tended to feature daring, wild backgrounds by the likes of Shichiro Kobayashi and cute but highly stylized and playful character animation by animators like Manabu Ohashi and Akio Sugino. The reason for this similarity is simple: Ryutaro Nakamura learned the ropes under Dezaki, and developed a directing style heavily influenced by the master, yet all his own. Ryutaro Nakamura was one of the best of Dezaki's students.

Ryutaro Nakamura's start in animation was almost accidental. In 1977, he went to get an autograph from Moribi Murano, the manga-ka and sometimes animator behind Unico in the Magic Island and the assassination scene in Wandering Clouds. Nakamura wound up helping Murano make a deadline on a manga he was working on, and Murano immediately spotted Nakamura's potential as an animator, advising him to give Madhouse a visit. Nakamura did so, and after only a cursory period as an inbetweener wound up setting to work as a key animator on Dezaki's "3D animation" Sans Famille. That was his start in animation. Dezaki raved about his new animator, calling him the "new Akio Sugino". But this pressure proved to be too much for Nakamura, who after working under Dezaki for a few more years eventually wound up switching to directing around 1983 after working on Dezaki's Space Cobra TV show alongside the likes of Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima. Nakamura had been drawing a manga for an in-house Madhouse fanzine, so he clearly had the inclinations of a director from the beginning.

Incidentally, Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima themselves two years earlier produced a short, Jack and the Beanstalk (1993), that, like The Twin Stars, has a tactile picture book quality that seems clearly to hearken back to the colorful and stylized 1970s shorts of Dezaki.

It's probably not that well known that Nakamura started out as an animator, but that's clearly a fact that laid the foundation for his style as a director. As a person who could draw, and who could visually conceptualize and express his intentions in the storyboard, he brought a strong visual sensibility to his productions. This shows up clearly in The Twin Stars, which is an eminently visual film despite being based on a work of literature (and a particularly ephemeral and difficult to visualize one at that). He was also influenced by Dezaki in the way he took liberties with the material to achieve his own expressive means, and brought an artistic, poetic sensibility to the craft of directing, experimenting with new ways of presentation in each production rather than falling into an certain expressive rut out of habit. It's hard to find many directors in anime with such expressive breadth. In terms of specific technique, one of Dezaki's trademarks was using tokako 透過光, or backlighting through a mask, to create a bright hazy effect on the screen, and you can see a lot of bright lighting of this kind in The Twin Stars.

It was sometime around 1985 that he went freelance and began working as a roving storyboarder/episode director on various projects, accumulating skill as a director. Not long after this, in 1987, Yoshimi Asari left Madhouse to form Triangle Staff. Nakamura was obviously invited there soon after, because he set to work on his debut directing feature in 1988, just a year after the studio's founding. That project was Tomcat's Big Adventure (ちびねこトムの大冒険).

The project was initially conceived as an educational OVA to teach children English, but after Nakamura drew the first storyboard in 1988, the project evolved into a feature length film that was finally completed in 1992.

Tomcat's Big Adventure was a massive undertaking featuring a bewildering array of talent including character designer/animation director Manabu Ohashi, music composer Kenji Kawai, art director Hiromasa Ogura and animators such as Toshiyuki Inoue, Hiroyuki Okiura, Koichi Arai and Makiko Futaki. Even Koji Morimoto was tangentially involved early on. With a remarkable 60,000 animation drawings in 82 minutes, it's a modern-day manga eiga in the spirit of the great Toei action-adventure flick Animal Treasure Island.

The tragedy is that, for some reason, it was shelved without even being released theatrically. Five years of intense work by some of the most talented faces in the industry essentially just disappeared without being seen by anyone. It's a tragedy that hopefully will get redressed soon with a DVD release. Once it finally gets a long-overdue DVD release, it will no doubt be revealed to be one of his greatest works and a bona-fide buried treasure. You can see the first five minutes here. This was a big blockbuster of a children's film clearly meant to launch Nakamura's career as a director. Who knows, had it gotten a proper release, and the world recognized his special talent for this type of material, Nakamura's career might have evolved differently.

Like Nakamura, Hiromasa Ogura in fact also got his start on Dezaki's Sans Famille, but working under art director Shichiro Kobayashi, the art director who was a staple of Dezaki's work in the 1970s, which is perhaps why Nakamura wound up coming back to Ogura for this film. The two both have deep roots in the Madhouse-Dezaki school. Another touchstone is The Golden Bird, that earlier Madhouse masterpiece that presaged Tomcat's Big Adventure not only stylistically (Ohashi was the character designer) but also in how it, too, was unjustly buried for many years before being released on home video.

Nakamura, Ohashi et al. actually very much wanted to do a continuation of Tomcat, but that never materialized. It's obvious that this is a style that is deeply ingrained in Nakamura's fibre from the fact that his last job, Adventure on Pirate Island (海賊島DE!大冒険) (hp), a children's CGI animation scheduled for release later this year, is stylistically a clear throwback to Tomcat. The film unfortunately does not look good due to the poor CG animation, but when you peruse Nakamura's storyboard you sense that this could have been a nice little film in the spirit of Tomcat if they had a good traditional animation team to bring alive the characters.

It's after this that Nakamura set to work on Kenji Miyazawa's The Life of Budori Gusko. The film was produced by Animaru-ya and released in 1994. The simple, blocky character designs of Shinichi Suzuki are in line with the feeling of Tomcat and The Twin Stars. The animation is much more spare than Tomcat, and Nakamura uses the opportunity of the story's complex themes to experiment with more expressive directing. While being aimed at children, the film has an underlying feeling of darkness and heaviness appropriate to the subject matter, and this Passion of the Budori has a romantic intensity that is irresistible, particularly combined with the emotionally intense orchestral score of Yoshihiro Kanno, who returned the year after for an encore with The Twin Stars. Other than these two productions, Kanno's only involvement in the anime industry was Angel's Egg, which boasts one of the all-time greatest anime soundtracks.

Around this time, Nakamura directed an OVA of Junkers Come Here in 1994 that preceded the film adaptation by Junichi Sato and Kazuo Komatsubara. (Watch here) Junio's Minoru Maeda is the character designer, so the style is completely different, much more lightweight and goofy, lacking the intricate acting and cinematic compositions of the film version. The story is rather ridiculous and played purely for laughs, undermining the dramatic intent. Here it's about four sisters whose mother disappeared and father died afterwards. Junkers appears one day, and they all know he can talk. The mother turns up in France, and it turns out she lost her memory and now has a new family in France. It's not one of Nakamura's best works, but it certainly shows his stylistic flexibility and innate sense for effortlessly combining comedy and drama.

The Twin Stars came after this, giving Nakamura the opportunity to explore Kenji Miyazawa's world in a very different, more playful and imaginative way.

Nakamura then veered in a very different direction for the first time with the masterful Legend of Crystania (1995), first as a movie and then as a 3-episode OVA. This is one of the great fantasy anime, using incredibly rich and creative animation to weave an epic fantasy yarn that actually feels epic. The character animation is exciting, and the effects animation is downright phenomenal. Nakamura had the great idea to give Yasunori Miyazawa free rein to design and animate the effects, and this helped define the film's visual scheme.

A constant of his early works during this period - and less so during his later works - is a 'star animator' system in which the style of one talented animator plays a primary role in defining a film's look. Manabu Ohashi defines Tomcat, Takahiro Kishida animates all of The Twin Stars in his own inimitable style, Shinichi Suzuki's characters in Gusko Budori are very distinctive and unforgettable with their graphic, hand-drawn touch. Crystania also feels more tactile and distinctively animated than most fantasy anime.

Such is the case for Nakamura's final project before his breakthrough with Lain - the cut scene animation of the game Popolo Crois (1996). (Watch here) This time Nakamura had the king of idiosyncratic animators, Satoru Utsunomiya, head the animation, assisted by other talented animators including Yasunori Miyazawa and Mitsuo Iso - each highly idiosyncratic animators who created their own completely unique styles of animation. It's clear that these choices were no coincidence, and as an animator himself, Nakamura chose the best of the best for this project. Yasunori Miyazawa of course was brought back after his stint in Crystania. Takahiro Kishida would similarly return to work with Nakamura again in Colorful. Similarly, much of the Popolo Crois team was in fact carried on from Crystania, including Utsunomiya and Miyazawa, but also Yoshio Mizumura and Katsumi Matsuda. Some of these were even holdovers from Tomcat.

The Popolo Crois animation team produced what is still one of my favorite anime ever, even though it's only short excerpts of a story adding up to just 10 minutes of animation, rather than a continuous story. Even those little shards of narrative create more of a feeling of an expansive and fully developed fantasy world than most fantasy anime, thanks in large part to the overwhelming power of Utsunomiya et al.'s nuanced full animation. The screen has a feeling of tremendous depth in each section - the flight section where the boat skips across the water by Utsumoniya, the space section where the whale files through vast expanses of space chased by the giant monster by Iso, and the final battle between the baddie and the dragon, whose vast size is well conveyed by Miyazawa's strangely timed animation. The character designs of Popolocrois have the same round simplicity as the designs of Gusko Budori and Tomcat, and Popolocrois seems to be a dense summation of the exciting children's fantasy side of Nakamura's work, perhaps having been made in part to vent his pent up ideas for more animation in the spirit of Tomcat.

The first few years of his career as a director were a period of intense creativity in which he explored many different and exciting visual styles very different from his later work. His early work is less challenging, but has a wider appeal and is visually more sumptuous. I personally wish Nakamura could have continued in this direction of intensely animated children's fantasy epics, but he seems to have wanted to force himself to try different material and styles from this point in his career, beginning with his emergence as an artist of dark commentary on net culture with Lain, and continuing with the twisted adult comedy of Colorful. But that spirit of self-challenge is just as much a defining trait of Ryutaro Nakamura. Like all great directors, he left us with much great work, but also wishing for more.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

03:14:33 am , 841 words, 3830 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Director

Moribi Murano

Koji Yamamura's latest short, The Principal and the Whale, made for Greenpeace, is up for viewing on the site Whale Love, which seems to have been set up expressly for this purpose. According to an interview on the site, the 2-minute film took him 5 months to make and comprises 1700 drawings, which was 300 drawings over his initial estimate.

I've long been a big fan of the Unico pilot produced by director Toshio Hirata and animators Masami Hata, Shigeru Yamamoto and Mikiharu Akabori at Sanrio Films in 1979, but thought Hirata's feature version of 1981 at Madhouse a step down from the pilot, and thus naively didn't bother to check the last film in the series, 1983's Unico in the Magic Island, expecting it to be a further step down. In fact, the opposite was true, as I've just discovered, having recently seen the film for the first time. It's a step up - a film full of vitality and imaginative ideas, quite different from the first (and the pilot) in tone and style. Whereas it doesn't have the rich and nuanced animation and loving attention to detail of the pilot, it successfully goes in a different direction with a more limited and looser approach to the animation and a focus on lively directing and imaginative design ideas. It feels much closer to the Mushi Pro/Madhouse tradition than the pilot. The freedom with the forms and geometric designs reminds me of another film they did around the same period, this time for Toei - The Golden Bird. The directing betrays a great instinct for timing and camera movement, with lots of zooming around to great effect. Action scenes are imaginatively choreographed, with zippy movement, utilizing large spaces effectively like the chase at the end of Puss 'n Boots. The designs remind me mildly of Masaaki Yuasa, with real variety in the forms, minimal use of lines, and balancing cute with bizarre and slightly disturbing. The mechanical dragon that zooms past at lightning speed in the castle was a fantastic idea and a delight to watch, and the memorably designed villain's shapeshifting was quite imaginative. The castle made of living puppets was also a great idea, and the music scenes were pleasing and didn't rub the wrong way.

Considering how well balanced each element of the film is, and the imaginative ideas on display, I was surprised that a figure as obscure as Moribi Murano had directed such a gem. I didn't remember seeing his name very often, and indeed, this is the only feature he has ever directed. His main area of activity is manga, although he had also been active as an animator for a long time, and still is occasionally.

Murano was born in 1941 in Dalian, China, a city on the coast near Korea. He debuted in 1957 as a manga-ka, and went on to be very prolific in that form. According to Arashi Ishizu, who worked at Mushi Pro in the early days as a production assistant, and who wrote a book about the Mushi Pro figures, Murano had problems with his legs, and was an extremely strong-willed person who didn't get along very well working in a studio structure, which is presumably what led to him striking out on his own as a manga-ka. Among his more well-known works are Hoero Bunbun, which was adapted into a TV series in 1980 and then into a film directed by Toshio Hirata at Madhouse in 1986. There is a fan page on the web where you can read through a number of his manga shorts such as Dokugan Sakon and Chinchiririn. After starting out at Mushi Pro on Atom in 1963, Murano went on to work on many of the Mushi Pro productions of the decade that followed, including Jungle Taitei, Goku no Daiboken (Murano was an inbetweener in eps 13, 14, 23, 31, 32, 35, 38 and 39 and a key animator in 28) and the Animerama films.

Probably the one for which he is best remembered is the adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori's Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae, which is important in that it was the first TV anime expressly for adults. Murano designed the main characters, was animation director, and directed a few episodes. The animation was unique, drawn in rough bold strokes at Murano's initiative, cleaving with the clean look of previous Mushi Pro productions. In the 1980s, aside from having directed the second Unico film, Murano was involved in a number of other Madhouse productions, animating the special assassination scene in Floating Clouds in 1982, as well as working on Lensman in 1984 and Dagger of Kamui in 1985. Most recently, he directed a 22-minute animated adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori's Stream Minnow at Madhouse that won the excellence prize at the 2003 edition of the Japan Media Arts Festival. On his site here there is an intriguing image of a gigantic flying vessel that looks like a cross between Moebius and Miyazaki. Above it there is the text "Roger Bacon's The Flying Machine Anime DVD Plan", but no other explanatory text. It would be nice if Murano were working on this as his next animation project.

1 commentPermalink

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

08:07:21 pm , 989 words, 1501 views     Categories: Animation, Live-action, Director

Kon Ichikawa

I was visiting China for the last two weeks, and had the chance to drop into some video stores over there. I picked up a DVD of La Prophetie Des Grenouilles for the equivalent of $1. I'd seen the tail end of the movie on TV late one night in Quebec a while back and wanted to see the whole thing. Seems to be a very good film. More interestingly, I also found a few bits of local animated fare that I'd never heard of and would probably never have been able to find outside of the country - things like Xiao Heshang (Little Priest?), a TV series from 2006 that seems rather lackluster; Grandma and her Ghosts, a 2000 movie from Taiwan that seems to have a passable script but rudimentary animation; and a movie version of Tsai Chih Chung's comic of Laozi's teachings. I remember reading a translation of his comic version of Zhuangzi a long time ago. There were also a number of other films adapted from his other classics-based comics.

I also picked up a DVD of Kon Ichikawa's Taketori Monogatari (1987), which is a retelling of the folktale about a baby girl who is found in a bamboo grove by an old farmer couple only to turn out to be a girl from the moon. The main innovation of the film is that the old folktale is re-read as an ET story, the girl really being from space. Other than that the film seems an ordinary set piece from Heian Japan. Kon Ichikawa has been a director about whom I've been interested in seeing more films for years. His films seem to straddle every conceivable genre, often at the same time. I saw the handful of his films that were available in the west many years ago, but unfortunately that's merely the tip of the iceberg, as he actually made more than 80 films, the latest being last year's remake of Inugami no Ichizoku. Not all of the films are reportedly that great, so perhaps that's reason we haven't seen more. He started working in films at age 18 in 1933 - quite a career.

What really interested me about Ichikawa, though, was the fact that he started out as an animator. I'd forgotten about this fact until watching Taketori Monogatari, which brought it back. Watching the film I couldn't help but think it felt very animation-like. The framing, the lighting, the pacing all seemed to be like something that would come from the mind of an animator. Or in other words, it felt like you could very well have taken each frame of the film and animated it and it would have worked equally well, if not better. Only after I finished watching the film and thought about this did I remember about his past as an animator. It took some digging to re-discover the name of the only one of his animated films I remember having read about - Shinsetsu Kachikachi Yama, which is often translated as The Hare Gets Revenge Over the Raccoon. It dates from 1936, so it's one of the earliest things in his filmography.

I haven't run across this anywhere on the web, but apparently Kon Ichikawa's real name is Yoshikazu Ichikawa. He started using the pen name only after he began working in live-action. So the animated films were made by Yoshikazu Ichikawa. It seems Ichikawa saw some Disney animation on the big screen and was so enamored with what he saw - because it combined all of the arts that interested him - that he immediately decided to become an animator. In 1933, at age 18, he joined the recently formed animation branch of movie studio JO Talkie. There were only 6 or 7 other employees at the studio, and after about two or three years the studio gradually lost interest in animation, so that by the end, Ichikawa, the only one still interested in animation, was the only one there to do all of the tasks.

The 8-minute Shinsetu Kachikachi Yama is presumably one of the last of their films, and Ichikawa is credited with having done almost everything on the film, including script, animation, photography and editing. Ichikawa's love of Disney apparently comes through in the film, which is closely modeled after the Silly Symphonies in terms of structure, motion and designs. The film even features a Mickey lookalike. In 1978 Ichikawa directed a live-action adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Firebird, which features some animation by Tezuka himself, and he apparently often stated that animated thinking tinged all of his storyboards for his films. That definitely comes through in Taketori Monogatari. I'd like to have the chance to see more of his less well-known films like this to see more of his fascinating animation-tinged directing. I've long been particularly curious to see Topo Gigio and the Missile War from 1967, which as far as I've been able to figure out is some kind of combination of puppetry and live action. One of Ichikawa's earliest films, Musume Dojoji (1946) - incidentally the one he considers his best - was also a puppet film. Not stop-motion puppetry, but actual puppets.

I guess one of the things that strikes me as seeming very animation-like about his thinking as a director is that he conceives of scenes that you just can't do in live-action, so often there are miniatures like the boat in a storm scene in this film, and lots of SFX. The framing and positioning of the characters on the screen also seems very artificial and theatrical rather than naturalistic. The lighting is another thing. The colors on the screen are emphasized and exaggerated, in a way that reminds me of the way colors were used in Mind Game. He controls all of the parameters of the screen in a way it seems only an animator would feel the need to. I can't help but wonder what might have happened if Ichikawa had continued working in animation instead of moving to live-action.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

01:48:28 am , 2434 words, 4205 views     Categories: Animation, Animator, Director

Osamu Tanabe

I was pleasantly surprised the other day to see that Osamu Tanabe had worked on the opening of fellow ex-Ghibli animator Hiroyuki Morita's Bokurano at Gonzo. It was surprising because for the last six or seven years Tanabe has been exclusively devoted to an extended train of animated thought over at Ghibli in the form of a handful of fascinating, stylistically interlinked animated experiments, the most recent being the music video Doredore no Uta. I thought his work to be among the most interesting I saw coming out of the studio over that period. I didn't expect to see him doing work elsewhere, much less on TV, now. I've been wanting to get down my thoughts about Tanabe for quite a while now, so I thought I would take this opportunity to do so.

The story behind Tanabe's work of recent years seems to begin with My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. Isao Takahata, of course, was director, but Takahata not being a director who draws, the actual, specific animation side of Takahata's work is always handled by talented animators. That's Takahata's genius - that he always orchestrates the best talent of the moment in the most perfect fashion imaginable in the various sections. In Yamadas, the faces behind the animation side were Yoshiyuki Momose, who storyboarded/directed the first half with the bobsledding, and Osamu Tanabe, who storyboarded/directed the rest, the portion based on the comics. Over the next few years after Yamadas, Tanabe created a few TV ads for the studio that continued to build on the cartoonish-yet-realistic, pared down style of Yamadas. Yoshiyuki Momose, on the other hand, continued to build on the rich, lively, colorful style seen in the first half of Yamadas first in the two Ghiblies films and most recently in a trio of shorts set to music by Capsule. So Yamadas is particularly interesting to look back on now, now that these two talented creators with their own unique vision have each slowly but surely advanced the ideas they began tinkering with in that film.

If Momose's work seemed to be all about the joy of motion, about swimming around and exploring a three-dimensional space with lots of imaginative ideas, Osamu Tanabe's work was all about delicate nuance, about the beauty of the little details in everyday life that any other animator would have overlooked. Tanabe's pacing of scenes and timing of actions seemed realistic like nobody else's animation. The characters were highly stylized and cartoonish, consisting only of a few simple lines and colors, but they came across as very real and alive, moreso even than more realistically drawn characters might have. If at some fundamental level the film feels different, I think it's because of Tanabe's great innate sense for slow-burn realistic timing and his imagination for nuanced and richly elaborated realistic movement.

Things didn't start with Yamadas for Tanabe, of course. Tanabe's interest in realism in animation goes back many years. Tanabe has been a close associate of the two most important figures behind the realistic approach in Japan throughout the decade that preceded Yamadas - Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto. Tracing his history also traces theirs, as they worked together on many of their most important and memorable projects, all the way from Akira in 1988 down to Yamadas in 1999 and Space Station No. 9 in 2005. Each has gone on to develop in his own very different direction, but their work together during this period defines their approach, and today more than ever the spirit of their work sets them apart from other animators.

Although Tanabe's name doesn't turn up in the credits of Akira, Hiroyuki Morita says it's working as an inbetweener on Akira where he met and became friends with Tanabe. In 1988 Tanabe also drew inbetweens for Grave of the Fireflies, so it would make sense that Tanabe had worked on the film, despite his name not being listed in the credits. After all, Hiroyuki Morita isn't listed either. Ohira and Hashimoto, of course, worked on the same film, and the three would go on to work together very quickly afterwards, so they must have met either while working on Akira or very soon afterwards.

Tanabe's debut comes the next year, in 1989, working on the TV show that featured many of the staff who had just come from from working on Akira - Nippon Animation's Peter Pan. He animated a bit in ep 21. Hard to guess what he might have drawn at such an early stage, but the scene at the table strikes me as a possible candidate judging by Wendy's characterful acting. In any case, it would be his focus on just this kind of nuanced acting animation that would set Tanabe apart as an animator in the projects in which he was involved over the next few years.

In Like the Wind, Like a Cloud, he animated the memorable walk through the tunnel, where the old lady pinches the girl and they're flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. What makes this little bit of animation so fun and memorable is that it is underpinned by a feeling of reality in the timing, so that it really looks like two people are flailing their hands about trying to grab one another. It's comical yet believable. The very feminine way she grabs the lapel of her kimono right after this seems typical of Tanabe's delicacy. Tanabe animated several memorable scenes over the years involving delicate feminine acting starting with this.

Another piece by Tanabe from the same year came in the classic ep 1 of the Hakkenden OVA series by Shinya Ohira & Shinji Hashimoto. Tanabe animated the bit where Princess Fuse and the dog are hiding out at the cave near the end. The dog here moves more realistically and convincingly than he does anywhere else in the episode, but more importantly the animation of Fuse stands out for its more delicate approach to realism. Here the action is very low-key, played out at a distance, with what movement there is subtle and without any sort of exaggeration, which contrasts sharply with the rest of the animation in the episode. It's clear that Tanabe was thinking about the idea of realism in animation just as deeply as were Hashimoto and Ohira, but coming to his own conclusion. The particularly fine bit where Fuse covers her mouth by the river in particular shows off Tanabe's skill for getting into the mind of a female character and coming up with convincingly feminine behavior.

The culmination of Tanabe's early work comes in 1993 with Junkers Come Here. Working under Shinya Ohira alongside Shinji Hashimoto, Tanabe helped to animate the 3-minute pilot that Ohira spent six months on. Tanabe animated the three shots where the girl and the dog run past and the girl stops to rest on the bench. Each shot of this pilot is full of tremendous nuance, and takes a more realistic approach to timing that seems to build on the realism of Omohide Poroporo, on which both Ohira and Tanabe had worked right before, and seems to take it in a new direction, one where the movement is rawer and even more closely based on reality. Tanabe's section seems to best represent what the pilot could have become had it been developed into a film. As it stands, a different animation director was brought in, and the animation of the film itself did not wind up living up to the exciting pioneering spirit of the pilot. However, Tanabe's section in the film carries on the nuanced feminine acting we saw him do in Hakkenden. He animated the scene at the dinner table early on after Hiromi finishes talking to her mom on the phone. The way she walks from the phone to the table swinging her arms brings alive the feelings of the young girl quite nicely. Rather than the sort of dense flow of realistically observed motion of Shinji Hashimoto, who animated the scene before where Hiromi and Keisuke are studying together, Tanabe's is a more lilting and lyrical kind of realism where each tiny movement is very carefully thought out and calculated for effect.

Tanabe then participated in Ohira's parting slap to the face of the industry, Hamaji's Resurrection, although I'm not certain what section he animated. The scene on the porch has always been a favorite of mine, and it seems like one of the few sequences in the episode endowed with the kind of nuanced feminine acting I would expect of him, but who knows. In the meantime, he participated in yet another Takahata film, Ponpoko, as well as overseeing the layout for Nippon Animation's movie remake of their first World Masterpiece Theater show, A Dog of Flanders. Tanabe's deftness with realistic layout is another element that makes his work stand out, so I can see why he was picked for the job. Finally in 1998 he did a bit of animation for Golden Boy 3 that stands out as perhaps his best in the nuanced feminine acting vein, where the girl tells Kintaro that she's planning on marrying the other guy. The shots where she waves her hand and where she pulls her pigtail back while talking capture her girlish nature and her feelings of uncertainty in the situation particularly well. Tanabe is good at coming up with little gestures like this that make a movement feel not just real but good and succinctly bring alive a character. Just before doing this he did a little segment for Masaaki Yuasa's Cat Soup, the part where the S&M Mickey Mouse cosplayer gets cut up and thrown into the eponymous soup. He also helped out Shinji Hashimoto on the opening to Kacho O~ji. I'd be surprised if he hadn't also helped out on Shinya Ohira's opening to Sci-Fi Harry the next year.

Finally we come to Yamadas. Momose had already helmed a Takahata feature before, drawing the storyboard for Only Yesterday in 1991. He was called in again, and time was joined by Tanabe, who had presumably by that time gained Takahata's trust after having worked on all of his most recent films. Afterwards, Takahata would turn to Tanabe to animate the short segment Takahata directed for the omnibus Winter Days in 2003. The film turned out to be a turning point in his career. Over the next few years he worked almost exclusively on ads and other shorts derived from the look of Yamada-kun, with the spare background, pastel colors, wobbly line, and highly pared down, cartoonish characters moving incongruously realistically.

At the beginning he carried forward a more realistic inflection, in the two Umacha ads of 2001, while in 2002 in Yoshiyuki Momose's Ghiblies 2 he created a look that seemed to cleave with everything he'd done before, as if he was striking out in a new direction. He animated the strange bit at the end with the people all drawn like bugs of different sorts. After this, he returned briefly to a more spare and realistic vein with the Takahata segment of Winter Days in 2003 and Shinji Hashimoto's Kid's Story segment in Animatrix, where my guess is that he animated the section where Kid climbs to the top of the water drain. In 2004 he animated the first of another set of ads, this time for the Yomiuri newspaper. The first features a crowd from the Edo period shuffling densely by in a realistic style slightly different from the Umacha ads but with the same evocative, washed out, pastel look of all of his work of the period, while the second features the company's mascot character Doredore, and is animated in a much simpler style, with a very pared down hand-drawn aesthetic featuring a few simple lines moving over a pure white background. In his latest creation from 2005 he went back to the odd creatures of Ghiblies 2 and created a wonderful music video, Doredore no Uta, that pushes forward the idea of the previous piece in a way that makes the concept much more satisfying. If the previous piece seemed like an experiment where he wasn't quite sure what he was doing with it yet, here the elements all feel like they fit in place. The characters move just as realistically as the characters in Yamadas, but they're all bugs. It's an interesting new tack for the realistic school. Making the characters pure symbols like this has the uncanny effect of emphasizing the realism of the movement even more than when the characters are styled as humans. The film acts as a nice little allegory about human society, full of warmth and sly humor and keen observation.

Finally we come to Tanabe's latest piece. There is much nice work in the Bokurano opening, but there was one shot that emitted a kind of aura that set it apart from the rest, the shot of the character running. The shot consists of nothing more than a loop of 13 drawings of one of the most common of animated actions, a side follow of a person running, yet it eloquently and hair-raisingly conveys the urgency of the character's situation, without you even needing to know what that situation is. Tanabe is an animator who has devoted his entire career to making motion the vehicle of communication, and this shot of his is a perfect example of the power of animation - that a few well chosen drawings can create a movement that speaks more than a thousand words. Apparently Tanabe recently founded his own studio called Studio 4, and this shot was done there. The unique style he invented for himself in the Ghibli shorts stands out as an unexpected and interesting revivifying new direction for the realistic school of thought, so I'll be interested to see what Osamu Tanabe's next move will be - whether he continues to build on this or again decides to go in an utterly new direction.

Osamu Tanabe filmography

1988  Grave of the Fireflies [inbetweener]
          Akira [inbetweener]
1989  Peter Pan 21 [KA]
          Gosenzosama Banbanzai! 4, 6 [KA]
1990  Like the Wind, Like a Cloud [KA]
          Hakkenden OVA 1 [KA]
1991  Omohide Poroporo [KA]
1993  Junkers Come Here Pilot [KA]
          Junkers Come Here [KA]
1994  Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko [KA]
          Hakkenden OVA 10, 13 [KA]
1996  A Dog of Flanders [Layout Check]
1998  Golden Boy 3 [KA]
1999  My Neighbors the Yamadas [D & S of second half]
2000  Nekojiru-So [KA]
          Kacho O~ji OP [KA]
2001  Umacha TV ad [2 x 15 seconds]
          Lawson/Spirited Away TV ad [1 x 15 seconds, 3 versions]
2002  Rakugaki Oukoku game [director of animated segments]
          Ghiblies 2 [KA]
2003  Winter Days Takahata segment [1 minute; animation]
          Animatrix: Kid's Story [KA]
2004  First Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
          Portable Airport [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
2005  Second Yomiuri ad [15 seconds; S/D/animation]
          Space Station No. 9 [Yoshiyuki Momose; KA]
          Doredore no Uta [3 minutes; S/D]
2007  Bokurano OP [KA]

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

11:37:28 pm , 4101 words, 17949 views     Categories: Animation, Interview, Director

Michael Arias interview

Studio 4°C's latest feature, Tekkon Kinkreet, which screened in theaters in Japan last winter, will be receiving its North American premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York just one week from today. Screenings are also planned for the near future in Los Angeles and Hawaii. Details are provided at the bottom of this post for anyone who wishes to attend. The opportunity to see this film on the big screen, where it deserves to be seen, is something that may not roll around again for quite some time, so fans of animation of all stripes, don't miss this opportunity. I haven't seen the film, but I have no doubt that it will be an unforgettable experience.

Like the studio's previous film, this film is also based on a cult manga with a fiercely devoted following. I imagine there must have been considerable pressure to make a film that lived up to the original. All press and viewer reviews I've read for the film suggest that Tekkon Kinkreet is a triumph that does just that, and then some, and is nothing less than what one would expect from the studio that produced Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game. The film has generated a bit of press about the fact that its director, Michael Arias, is the first westerner to direct a Japanese animated feature. Michael was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email, so I'm proud to be able to present a short interview with the director on the occasion of the North American premiere of his film.

What was it that attracted you to Taiyo Matsumoto's manga Tekkon Kinkreet in the first place and compelled you to want to make it into a film?

I was in Tokyo to take care of a friend whose wife had recently died. My work wasn't busy and he was unable to work, so we spent most of our time sitting in his flat - an apartment on the eighth floor of an old building - on the balcony, smoking cigarettes, and watching the traffic below. It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum's sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon and said "You have to read this. It's going to make you cry." And that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city - it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days. And of course, I cried many times reading it, also a new experience for me to be moved to tears by a manga.

What was it like directing your first feature-length animated film? Had you aspired to becoming a director prior to directing Tekkon?

Never wanted to direct before. I'd been doing special effects and CG animation and software development for several years before encountering Tekkon, and I was pretty happy just focusing on details. I'd seen several directors go through painful experiences getting their movies made and really didn't think that was for me.

Tekkon really began as an extra-curricular thing for me. I was writing some software for integrating CG and traditional animation - the Softimage Toon Shaders. Studio Ghibli and Dreamworks Animation were both using it on feature films (Princess Mononoke and Prince of Egypt, respectively), and I needed a test bed for my work, something to help me test and demonstrate the software's features. So I modeled a scene from Tekkon, nothing too great to look at actually. But a producer friend of mine looked at it and offered to show it to Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkon's author. Taiyo liked what he saw enough to encourage me to do something more with it. And that was the beginning of the Tekkon pilot project. This was originally seen as a demo for a planned Tekkon feature, with me supervising the production and directing the CG and Koji Morimoto, my mentor in traditional animation, storyboarding and directing. I'm really proud of the 4-minute CG pilot we did, but our sponsorship fell through after we finished, Morimoto went back to his home base, Studio 4°C, and I found myself without any way to pursue Tekkon.

Then Animatrix came along. The producer of the Tekkon pilot and I, with Eiko Tanaka, president of 4°C, produced that project together. But I was still thinking about Tekkon, all the time. My best friend from college, Anthony, who was doing some writing for me on Animatrix, responded very strongly to the Tekkon manga and offered to write a screenplay on spec. That really got my juices flowing. But when Animatrix wrapped it was clear that Morimoto had lost interest in directing Tekkon. And by this point Morimoto, Anthony, and others around were encouraging me to direct, perhaps just to shut me up because I was really obsessing! And then I showed the script to Eiko (she had read the original) and she and I decided that she would produce Tekkon and I would direct, all at 4°C. That was really the start of the movie we have now.

The script was originally written in English based on the French and English translation of the original manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, and was translated back to Japanese on the occasion of starting production on the film. Aside from the language difficulties inherent in doing this, which you've talked about elsewhere, how did the film evolve at this point in terms of content?

A script, insofar as it expresses the mood, timbre, and tempo of the film to be made, is the foundation on which all else is constructed. And I felt very strongly that Anthony's script described the movie I wanted to make. In a way, the structure of Anthony's script was more important to me than the fine details - and, structurally, it is a pretty big departure from the original. He really got it right - the story of Treasure Town, the sense of doom, the action in Kiddie Kastle all fit together very seamlessly. That was the stuff that I wanted to get in the movie that wasn't obvious from reading the original.

But I had amazing collaborators: to begin with, Shinji Kimura (art director) and Shojiro Nishimi (animation supervisor). And they both had some very definite ideas about how to execute. On "set" I really tried to remain as flexible as possible. I didn't come to work with every frame finished in my head (though I know other directors who are able to do that). We all agreed that we needed to make Tekkon as dense and immersive an experience as possible, and we could see that there was a great deal of whitespace to be filled in in order to get there. So nearly everything after we began working together at 4°C was additive. We weren't replacing sequences from the script with those of our devising (as many have imagined), so much as adding layers: visual details, actions, etc. So there is certainly a great deal of material in the film that emerged from my collaboration with Kimura and Nishimi (and the rest of the staff for that matter) but anyone can read our script and see that it was our blueprint.

What was producer Eiko Tanaka's role? She was involved in creative aspects of the film, namely working on the script, which was not the case for the studio's previous feature, Mind Game. Why the change in policy?

After Anthony, Nishimi, and Kimura, Eiko was the next person I'd go to for an opinion. And in the early days, when I was still getting a feel for the dynamics of the job, she was often the first person I'd want to talk things over with. Her sense of what's right and wrong for a project and her ability to brainstorm with artists is what makes her a great producer.

And she certainly was very involved in Mind Game's creative process as well. That has always been her role (perhaps Tekkon is the first time she's got screen credit for it). To my knowledge she's worked that way on everything after Spriggan, starting with Princess Arete.

There certainly are producers who are content to focus just on budget and schedule but that's not her style. Not mine either. On Animatrix, both Eiko and I were very involved in the creative side of the film, much to the project's benefit.

Many of the staff members are faces that are somewhat new to Studio 4°C, unless I'm mistaken. Who brought the team together? How were they chosen? I've heard many of the staff came on because they were fans of the original manga. Do you think that energy benefited the film?

I did want to get as many on my staff who were familiar with, if not fans, of the manga. So much of my work was about explaining the movie we were making, and I thought, insofar as I was trying to remain faithful to the manga, having people who knew where I was coming from would be a good first step.

Nishimi was at 4°C when I started Tekkon - his high-school buddy Yuasa had invited him on for Mind Game and he'd stuck around to direct a couple of shorts. I found a stack of his drawings lying around and was intrigued enough to stay late and snoop around his desk. An amazing talent like that hidden away inside Telecom for 20 years. Who'd have thought? Kimura was at the studio to return some equipment he'd taken with him when Steam Boy moved to Sunrise, when Eiko asked him to meet with me. We got along from the beginning. I recognized Kubo and Uratani when Eiko suggested them for Tekkon - they'd worked as animators on Animatrix and were both 4°C perennials in a sense.

Eiko and her assistants brought a great many animators on to the show, Tatsuya Tomaru (Steam Boy animation supervisor) and Masashi Ando (Paprika animation supervisor), among them. Many animators came on because of Nishimi's or Kimura's involvement, or because they were fans of the manga. It's a pretty small community, with everyone working on everyone else's films, so word gets out pretty quickly. I think the first animators who came on the show might have been a bit circumspect but, once we had finished shots to show off, getting talented animators was not a problem.

Later, I cast the movie and also brought Plaid on to compose and Mitch Osias on for sound design.

What is your impression of Studio 4°C?

Eiko's place! A great place to work. A tough business but I wouldn't want to do this kind of thing anywhere else.

How does final film compare to your original vision?

Visually, it's much more complex than I'd imagined. Just the level of detail is far beyond what I thought we could pull off with painted backgrounds. But, by and large, it's what I wanted. The music and the voice performances and sound design are also elements I'm very proud of. Plaid's soundtrack is their best work so far I think.

We did much more "creative" work in the final stages of production than you might normally see done on an animated feature. Not just editing but storyboarding and animation as well (the whole Minotaur sequence was very last-minute). In that sense, we didn't really know what we had until it was finished.

Could you talk about the background art, and of art director Shinji Kimura's contribution? From the shots I've seen, the imaginary Asian city of Takaramachi appears to be one of the most vivid and imaginative depictions of a city I've ever seen in an animated feature. What were the influences that informed the visual conception of the city?

The first discussion I had with Kimura was about making the city the star of the movie. What I meant by that was that I wanted us to be as involved in the life of Treasure Town (Takaramachi) as we would be in any of the characters. The city has its own cycle of evolution that we follow - the early images of the movie are designed to make us feel intrigued, comfortable, and nostalgic. And when the city grows into something darker, more modern, we should feel pain at the loss of the dear old town, some apprehension about the city changing. That is the big "arc" of the movie. The characters' dramas are smaller arcs drawn within Treasure Town, rather than in the "foreground". Kimura and I wanted to make the city as solid and three-dimensional as possible (while still looking hand-crafted) and that influenced every decision we made about its design.

I wanted the city to evoke some nostalgic associations with a previous, less hurried, more peaceful age, so Kimura and our colorist Miyuki Ito and I looked at printing from 50s and 60s Japan (also a bit of India and China) - children's books, matchboxes, billboard advertising. The film shows a great deal of that graphic sensibility in our choice of color. I liked something very evocative Taiyo said about Treasure Town was that he imagined it like a box of toys spilled out on the floor.

One more purely selfish explanation for our background design: Kimura had just finished 10 years as art director of Otomo's Steam Boy and he definitely wasn't content to do more shades of gray! He really wanted to use color freely and I couldn't deny him that impulse.

Could you talk about the use of CGI in the film? I've heard you were particularly adamant about simulated handheld camera shots.

Japanese animation - limited animation - evolved a certain way because of various practical concerns and economic limitations. But, to a large extent, I think those are no longer relevant. We don't ink and paint cels the old way, and we don't use a down-shooter anymore. I remember those days very well - in college I had a night-shift job operating an Oxberry at a small animation house in New York. Blecch. But having digital tools at one's disposal really opens up a great deal of untried territory for hand-drawn animation.

I love hand-held camera work (for certain subject matter). City of God and some other recent movies really affected me with their mixture of hand-held camera and dolly work. Those techniques have always been considered off-limits for traditional animation. They're tough to storyboard meaningfully, let alone animate. But I had some ideas for executing these kinds of shots; not just hand-held, but also dolly, aerial, time-lapse, and underwater shots (just to mention some of the techniques we've played with on Tekkon).

I guess there's different ways of looking at animation. The purist approach would be a locked-off camera on a static painted background with characters moving around in the frame. Great for some material but not what I wanted for Tekkon: immediate, frenetic, and off-the-cuff.

There was some resistance at first. Hard to tell Kimura that you're going to blur one of his paintings after he's spent a couple days on it! There's part of me that says, "yes, motion blur and depth-of-field effects are gimmicks". But then who's to say they're not valid in the hand-drawn world? That's the thing, it's all hand-crafted in the end. The computer doesn't actually do anything for you, just makes it easier to fix mistakes (I exaggerate). Everything's changed since we started using computers to composite or paint cels. Very few, if any, even draw on cels (acetate) anymore, for that matter. The borders of "traditional" filmcraft are being redrawn every day here.

The storyboard wound up being drawn by four people. According to Tekkon's official site, the rough breakdown is as follows. Shojiro Nishimi handled the scenes involving Kuro and the action scenes; Chie Uratani handled the scenes involving Shiro; Masahiko Kubo handled the scenes involving Hebi and the yakuza; and Hiroaki Ando handled the "image scene". Why was the storyboard split up this way? Do you feel splitting up the storyboard added richness to the film?

I did two sets of boards for the whole film, one before the project had officially started, and another during pre-production, while Nishimi was doing his character designs and Kimura was designing sets and doing concept art. These were both rough things, thumbnails really, but they were very useful in explaining the project to my main staff. I'm a terrible draftsman so they were not so useful from a production standpoint, but they were a step forward from the script. As soon as you start thinking visually you begin to look at a project in very practical terms - how many shots, what has to be drawn, alternate approaches to staging. But I knew these boards would have to be done "properly" before we started our layouts.

There were a couple of reasons for splitting up the production boards.

First, we had spent more time designing than expected - everything about the project, from the color scheme, to the planned use of CG for backgrounds, vehicles, and crowds, had to be tested thoroughly before bringing more people on. And splitting the storyboard workload seemed a natural time-saving move.

Next, I wanted to emphasize the contrast between White (Shiro) and Black (Kuro), and I thought asking Nishimi and Uratani to work in parallel on those two sides of the story would naturally give us something akin to having two camera operators shooting different sequences. Even though I discussed everything in great detail with each of them before beginning a particular sequence, their opposing sensibilities would show in their their framing, etc. Nishimi really has a great feel for action and big set pieces, but Uratani has the most delicate touch of all when it comes to character drama, dialog, the subtle and quiet (she really is incredible).

Kubo came on, like Uratani, as an assistant animation supervisor, and it seemed like a waste of his talent just to have him doing vehicle and mecha design while the others were storyboarding. He's kind of a hardboiled stoic character himself, so giving him the yakuza and Snake sequences was perfect. Those sequences do, in fact, comprise their own subplot.

Ando's storyboarding, unfortunately, didn't really get much play. I had initially asked him to storyboard the first of White's underwater sequences and a couple of other odds and ends. But the underwater sequence he did ended up being cut together from the other underwater sequence (Uratani storyboards), and most of his other scenes dropped from the film. Only the scene of the yakuza meeting up with the police in Tekkon's first reel is based on his boards. He's a powerhouse though. I initially asked him to come on as CG supervisor when his wife, our original CG super, found out she was pregnant. But I think he was a bit fried from Steam Boy's CG duties and wanted to concentrate on the animation side of the project. He did so much work in so many different departments I asked that he be credited as co-director. He's extremely talented, and a great fellow. And our eventual CG supervisor, Sakamoto, worked out wonderfully as well.

I boarded a few scenes myself - some special-effects-heavy shots and then, of course, the Minotaur "hell" sequence, though that wasn't my original intention. I had first asked Morimoto to come in as a special guest and direct that entire sequence. But we waited a year and got only a few pieces of concept art. And the clock was ticking - very much down to the wire at this point and still no ending for the movie! In the end, he was just too busy on other projects and, I suspect, didn't feel like working on someone else's film. But to his credit, I used all of the art he did as jumping-off points for my boards. He really does have a unique vision and an amazing imagination.

I guess storyboarding like this violates everyone's expectations of a director of animation. Miyazaki, Kon, Otomo, and Morimoto, among others, work all the problems out before stepping into the studio. At least people imagine they do (the reality being more complex). But I wanted to do something differently here, something that would take advantage of these talents, rather than confining them to animation supervisor work - a crucial element in making a film like this but also, as it happens, a very tedious job (correcting others' mistakes, redrawing characters one keyframe at a time). Uratani went as far as to say that the storyboarding was her favorite part of the job. And I asked Kubo to animate the Minotaur sequence in part because he seemed so frustrated doing his supervisor job.

I wanted to do things differently. And, because it was my first time, but also because I had such willing co-conspirators, it was easy for me to break rules (with storyboards but certainly also with our camera work). You have that freedom, that challenge, on a feature film (television has very different constraints of course). Otomo once said to me and Nishimi, "if you're not doing things differently you shouldn't even bother". He was a great inspiration to us in a very practical sense: every time Nishimi and I were feeling down we'd go have a drink with him, and he was never short of pearls like that.

Incidentally, Uratani, Nishimi, and Kubo, all did quite a bit of key animation on top of their work as supervisors. Kubo animated the final Minotaur "hell" sequence as well as the fight in the yakuza office. And Uratani, in the end, was our most prolific animator.

Tekkon was seen by a lot of people in Japan. How did you feel about this, and how did Japanese audiences react to the film?

It's great. The movie was a great success here and I'm sure the DVD will do well also. Very gratifying.

Do you think you could have gotten Tekkon made into a feature-length animated feature anywhere else?

No. Believe me, I thought about it. Certainly from a technical standpoint, Japan is the only place to make a movie like this. But I think Japanese audiences are particularly receptive to this kind of film. People here, even "average" movie audiences, are really very sophisticated in their appreciation of animated cinema. At one point I shopped the project around Hollywood and, though everyone liked the pilot, I got some very strange suggestions: change White to a girl, make the characters older and make the story a romance, etc.

What do you want audiences to get from the film?

Tekkon has an important (and obvious) message about the power of creation and imagination over destruction. That message is both eternal and particularly relevant in the times we live in. Like Black, so many young people today are looking for something solid to hold on to, something to believe in. But if we can each find meaning in our love for another, even someone like White, then I think there's hope for the world.

It's been 12 years since you first read Tekkon Kinkreet. What are your future plans now that your long odyssey with Tekkon Kinkreet is winding down?

Hard to say what I'll be doing next. If the powers that be see fit, I'd like to make a live-action film and try out some of things I did with Tekkon that way. The time and money at stake when one's doing animation make experimentation a challenge. But then, if that goes well, I think another animated feature. But that's thinking way ahead and I've never been good at foreseeing where I'll be and what I'll be doing years down the line.

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art
Roy and Nita Titus Theaters 1 & 2
Wed 4/25 (T1), Thurs 4/26 (T2), Fri 4/27 (T2) - 8:30 pm
Sat 4/28 (T2), Sun 4/29 (T2) - 2:00 pm
Mon 4/30 (T2) - 8:30 pm

Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival
Laemmle’s Sunset 5
Sun 5/6 - 5:00 pm

Hawaii International Film Festival
Dole Cannery
Thurs 4/26 2007 - 8:45 pm

› Tekkon Kinkreet Official Website
› PingMag Interview with Eiko Tanaka (22 Nov 2006)
› Animation Insider article

TEKKONKINKREET © Aniplex, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Shogakukan, Beyond C., Dentsu, Tokyo MX

Monday, March 12, 2007

07:03:44 pm , 733 words, 2024 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Director

Masami Hata's Mouse Story

As Manuloz pointed out, there is now a site for Masami Hata's upcoming film, now titled Nezumi Monogatari or Mouse Story: The Adventures of George and Gerald. The designs are quite lively and unique for a Japanese feature, and feel like a breath of fresh air in the lately somewhat stylistically stale and cramped range of the industry, really harkening back to the days of the old movies of Sanrio Films. And it goes to reason. We see here many of the key figures behind the old Sanrio Films movies. I knew the film was a Sanrio production from the moment it was mentioned that Sanrio president Shintaro Tsuji was the creator of the story, as he was for all of the classic Sanrio Films productions. And so it turns out to be. But make no mistake, this is definitely a Madhouse production in terms of all aspects of the actual animation. The animation studio Sanrio Films disbanded in 1985 after production of Fairy Florence, and I get the impression that all subsequent Sanrio productions have been outsourced like this one. Madhouse was in fact the studio that produced Sanrio's two Unico features that followed the pilot, so it makes sense for Madhouse to provide the stage for this reunion of all of the old Sanrio Films gang. (Hata, of course, started out at Mushi Pro, where he worked along side Dezaki, who later formed Madhouse, in whose early productions like Aim for the Ace Hata was involved.)

The big surprise was to find that the designs are by the hand of none other than Toshio Hirata! Hirata has never done character designs as far as I'm aware, so this is an exciting development. Exciting particularly because this is the first time we'll have seen Hata and Hirata working together since the 1979 Unico pilot, where Hata was one of the three animators (alongside Shigeru Yamamoto and Mikiharu Akabori) and Hirata was the director. Almost thirty years later they're back, and now the roles are reversed. And this time their film won't be shelved for a decade, either. The film is due to hit theaters this winter. Interestingly enough, we even have the art director of the old Sanrio Films movies, Yukio Abe, who more recently did the wonderfully retro art of Stormy Night, so it really is the old Sanrio Films team come back together again for one big final bash. I doubt it will achieve the level of those films, which were made by a unique studio at the height of its powers, but I'm really excited that we're going to see another film by the same crew, and I'm hoping that it will be imbued with at least some of that unique atmosphere and feeling that I've so missed in those films. I've long wished Hata would do one more big project, a serious effort like Sirius or Florence, and it looks like this is that film.

Just about the only person missing to complete the team is Shigeru Yamamoto, the chief character animator in the old Sanrio Films days. After the closing of Sanrio Films, he moved to Disney Japan, where he worked on all of the studio's productions all the way until 2003, a year before the studio closed. Hopefully he will be there as an animator. He also, of course, worked alongside Hata at Mushi Pro in the early days. Sadly, their comrade Mikiharu Akabori, the chief effects animator at Sanrio Films, passed away a few years ago, so the team can never be fully complete again. I've always been curious to know what happened to the other animators at the Sanrio Films studios like Shinmi Taga, Maya Matsuyama and Haruo Takahashi. From what I can gather, some of them transferred to Disney Japan or other studios, some must have gone freelance, while yet others formed their own studios like Grouper and Circus. I don't know specifically who founded and worked at each of these studios, what else they did, or how long they lasted, but we can see many of the major Sanrio Films figures there in the early productions in the aftermath of the closing of Sanrio Films. In 1986, Circus produced Nayuta and Grouper produced the Super Mario Bros film. In both we can see familiar names like Maya Matsuyama as animator (Nayuta) or animation director (SMB), Yukio Abe as art director, and of course Hata as director.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

07:25:17 pm , 694 words, 3616 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Keiichi Hara

There's been lots of news about the new upcoming films from all of the major directors, but one piece of news that's probably slipped through the cracks over here is the news that Keiichi Hara is directing a new film. Keiichi Hara directed a handful of Shin-chan films between 1998 and 2002, breathing a new life into the series with his more serious, measured, cinematic approach to filmmaking. His films didn't focus on pumping out frenzied gags but on weaving convincing human drama with complex themes. There's no mistake that the films were well balanced and appealed to both children and adults, but his philosophy seemed to be that both adults and children should be able to enjoy a film; not just children. In the last two films in particular it was becoming obvious that he was outgrowing the confines of the series. His second to last film, 2001's The Adult Empire Strikes Back, treated the themes of nostalgia and fundamentalism in an amusing way, with a story about aging hippies - who not coincidentally resemble John and Yoko - out to bring the world back to the good old days of the post-war boom period, when life was full of simple pleasures and the world was less complicated. Hara sympathetically conveys the conflicting motivations of the characters, who probably struck a chord with the parents who brought their children to see the film. It was the biggest hit in the history of the series and instantly broadened the audience for the films. The soundtrack effectively used classic folk songs of the 60s that were extremely beautiful and heightened the nostalgia effect even to someone like me who'd never heard them before. His last film, which I haven't seen, was apparently a sprawling historical drama.

A manga artist who has always been close to my heart, Hinako Sugiura, passed away last year at the unfortunately early age of 46. Apparently she had a strong influence on Keiichi Hara. He relates that the scene in his last Shin-chan film where a princess hears the sound of a flower opening in the silence of the night was influenced by Sugiura's manga. Sparing in her use of frames and tending to focus on creating beautiful spaces using a minimum of elegant lines, Sugiura had a unique genius for portraying people of the past, young and old, in all different situations and walks of life, in a way that gave them a convincing semblance of life. Midway into her career she was forced to give up manga altogether upon being diagnosed with the illness that plagued her until her death, and from then on out she focused on promulgating knowledge about the Edo period in the various media, including making appearances on TV. Of all the manga I've read, hers had a sensibility that was unique. Her work was perhaps the best artistic depiction of the Edo period I've yet seen, effortlessly combining a style of drawing based on the art of the period with moving but always somehow light and whimsical vignettes that fleshed out the lives of the people of the age and brought alive the atmosphere the era.

It's nice to hear Hara cite Hinako Sugiura as an influence, and confirms his good taste, but it doesn't come as too much of a surprise. Both share a preoccupation with the bittersweet element of life; wabi-sabi in traditional terms. A perusal of his films makes it obvious enough that his influences are not those of the average anime director. I could picture his influences as being European cinema of the 60s and 70s and independent American filmmakers. In an interview he says he's more into slow films that paint vast landscapes like Lawrence of Arabia, which probably shows up in his last film. It's been three years since that, and I've been wondering what he's been up to. I think the new film is going to be an original creation, so with any luck it will be the first film in which we can see the true face of Hara, free of any constraints imposed by material not his own. Apparently the film will also be made at Shinei.

Saturday, April 2, 2005

08:00:04 pm , 370 words, 1807 views     Categories: Animation, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki, Director

Yasuhiro Aoki's directing

On rewatching Soultaker 1 today it popped into my head that Yasuhiro Aoki's recent artistic coming out in Arusu reminds me of the appearance of Akiyuki Shinbo on the scene 13 years ago in Yu Yu Hakusho. I hope Aoki has the chance to go as far as Shinbo has in Le Portrait de Petite Cossette, which, as unlikely as it may seem, was probably my favorite item from last year after a certain film. The subject matter isn't really the point. It's all about the style. I don't think I've seen anything in a long, long time, much less in anime, that was such a virtuosic and unrelenting onslaught of unpredictable shots and gorgeously baroque composition, and I applaud the producer who gave him the chance to finally do something 100% his own way. Shinbo is one of the most talented directors that nobody's ever heard of in anime, though there are plenty of those.

One obvious quality Aoki shares with Shinbo is the predilection for stringing together unpredictable compositions in a way that some might say distracts from the story but to me enhances it. A story can be told entirely via dialogue, but as Tadashi Hiramatsu mentioned in this interview, the locus of excitment in directing is the space between the shots, and the compositions. Aoki knows that, and that's what sets him apart. It nagged me for a while what it was that made his work feel different, why the work of the other people in the show felt boring in comparison and worse animated, and finally I hit on the simple fact that he always avoids having a character doing the goldfish on the screen. He plays around with the angles while they're talking in order to avert one of the most common and unsuspected mistakes in anime. Nobody thinks it's a mistake, but he noticed that it was, and figured out a way around it, which shows that he's thinking about his art and not just churning it out on automatic. That small invention immediately hides the quantitative limits of the animation, as he saves his resources for one of those quintissentially anime bursts of full animation that give his episodes a truly powerful feeling of buildup.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

09:20:34 pm , 1986 words, 6062 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Spotlight on Toshio Hirata

One of the few Mushi Pro figures who did not settle down at any of the obvious places was Toshio Hirata 平田敏夫, who over the last thirty years has left behind a highly varied body of work for a large number of animation studios. Hirata is easily one of my favorite anime directors, even though I've only seen a small fraction of his oeuvre. The little I've seen is enough to reveal just how special a figure he is.

Toshio Hirata is a perfect instance of a director whose fame is inversely proportional to his talent. His body of work is one of the most unique and admirable of the last thirty years, yet nobody has heard of him. Why? Because his work has never been ego-driven; because, indeed, the defining attribute of his directing style is its very lack of ostentation. His style is the diametric opposite of the flamboyantly individualistic auteur style that has been the hallmark of ex-Mushi Pro figures, perhaps best represented by Rin Taro. Hirata Toshio the director never shouts, never gesticulates wildly; he is all nuance and simplicity -- Continental as opposed to Hollywood, Le Roi et L'Oiseau as opposed to Disney.

Hirata's best work is characterised by its visual richness and invention, and by directing that is always cool and aloof, without the neuroses and the striving for effect of other anime auteurs. You'll never find in his films the sort of overwrought drama that is typical of the large proportion of conventional anime projects -- even when he's involved in one of those projects -- because he hates that sort of thing. He maintains his integrity and individuality as a creator without needing to bash people over the head with it.

Hirata's approach to directing is uniformly meta: unlike many, he is not under the misconception that animation can be nothing more than a second-rate copy of live-action cinema; his animation is always animation first and foremost. The pleasure of watching his films comes precisely from seeing the various elements only possible in animation coming together to form a beautiful and satisfying whole. Hirata is also balanced as a filmmaker: His work exhibits artistic flair that sets it apart from conventional anime, and yet it fits entirely within the framework of commercial animation, being completely devoid of the sort of avant-garde posturing that can be found in the work other, better-known directors.

Like many of the figures of this period, Hirata started his career as an animator at Toei Doga as an inbetweener in the features made from 1960 to 1963: Journey to the West, Anju, Sinbad, Little Prince. Specifically, he was under the tutelage of Yasuji Mori. Hirata still speaks extremely highly of the experience and of Mori in particular, going so far as to say that if it hadn't been for Mori, he probably wouldn't be in animation today. Mori was a major influence on Hirata -- as well as many of those who worked with him like Miyazaki and Takahata -- not only because he was a great teacher and animator himself, but also because he was a gentle person who, legend has it, never got angry at anyone. He took animation seriously, and approached it with rigor and love. Mori's legacy is clearly at the root of Hirata's pliant, honest, soulful approach to animation.

One of the things that is unique about this early period is the variety of origins of the animators. In other words, today people come to anime because they've seen anime; but back then, during the early Toei Doga period, there was no TV anime, so many of the people who entered Toei Doga did so because they had seen a few Disney pics in the theater, or animated ads on TV, or Hakujaden, etc.. Yet other people simply happened to wander in almost by accident, having studied art at school, and maybe having casually seen an animated film or two, but otherwise knowing nothing about animation. Toshio Hirata falls into the latter group.

Anime then was not yet anime; it was a bunch of young people making tentative steps to figure out what they could do with animation. They were blissfully free of the burdensome history that nowadays blinkers many in the anime industry. Thus could we get films like Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon and Gulliver's Space Travels that are full of inventive artistic ideas. Hirata was one of the many people just out of art school who happened to find their way to Toei Doga for whatever reason. Together with a lot of those people, he was drawn to the Animation Sannin no Kai during his Toei Doga period, 1960-1963. If he learned the traditional approach to animation at Toei Doga, the experience of seeing those films broadened his understanding of animation and added an artistic side to his approach. The graphically-oriented aspect of his subsequent output can definitively be traced to this experience.

Hirata began his Mushi Pro period in 1966 directing episodes of Jungle Taitei immediately after his involvement in Ken the Wolf Boy at Toei Doga in 1965. His experience at Mushi Pro was a fateful one for him, second to his experience at Toei Doga only in chronological order. Interestingly enough, at Mushi Pro he was automatically started out as a key animator, and the very next year, for Jungle Taitei in 1966, he was bumped up to directing! Ironically, when he helped out on Toei Doga's Gulliver around the same time in 1965, he was bumped back to inbetweening. Apparently credit wasn't transferrable between studios. This is basically attributable to the rather unique system at Mushi Pro that reflected Tezuka's creator-based approach. Tasks weren't clear-cut and heirarchically organized the way they were at Toei Doga; people did various things as necessary, and consequently accession to key animation and directing could be absurdly fast (though, really, the reason for the ad-hoc nature of the studio basically comes down to the shortage of staff).

The result of this approach was that, rather than animation based on the fundamentals taught at Toei Doga, the Mushi Pro figures learned the ropes themselves, and went on to make animation how they wanted, which accounts for the extreme individuality of Mushi Pro expats like Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Rin Taro. Hirata is individual in a different, less obvious, more mature fashion. While Yasuji Mori was Hirata's major influence at Toei Doga, Eiichi Yamamoto was his main influence at Mushi Pro. It was working with Yamamoto that Hirata learned that meta approach to animation filmmaking.

After Goku and 1001 Nights, things started to get a bit tight at Mushi Pro, so Hirata left the studio for the freedom of commercial animation, where he was able to indulge in the artistic side that he had tasted at the Animation Sannin no Kai. The four years he worked on commercials were the next major learning experience of his early period. The creative gains of the experience can be seen in the unusual story structures and visual ideas of films like Bobby's Girl, The Acorns and the Wildcat and The Golden Bird.

During this period he also participated in various anime, notably Jack and the Beanstalk, where he animated the mice. He then embarked at Sanrio for a few years. Hirata was director or animator on what I consider the three best films of the early Sanrio period: Little Jumbo, Ringing Bell and the Unico pilot. He himself considers the pilot a youthful mistake, but I find it hard to understand why. It's one of the most perfectly honed anime films I've seen, with nothing in excess, reaching great depths of drama and emotion in under half an hour. He did Jumbo just before, and although a wonderful film as well, it was co-directed with Takashi Yanase and Masami Hata, so the Unico pilot serves as a good starting point for his mature period as a director.

Before the first full-length Unico film he played an interesting role in Sanrio's offbeat stop-motion film The Nutcracker. He's given the unusual credit of settei kyoryoku, which can roughly be translated "development assistance". What it essentially means is that he provided image boards and ideas for the film. Over the next few years at Madhouse (the Unico film was actually animated by Madhouse although produced by Sanrio) he was involved in a similar capacity in films like Floating Clouds and The Door to Summer, for which he drew storyboard for only a few scenes. This rather unique approach to film production is attributable to producer Masao Maruyama, who tended to set the basic framework of the films he was involved in by this sort of hand-picking of people according to the needs of the moment.

It was at Madhouse in the 1980s, starting with Unico in 1981, that Hirata came unto his own and gave us some of his best and most personal films: The Golden Bird (1984), A Small Love Story (1984), Bobby's Girl (1985), The Acorns and the Wildcat (1988), Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988).

Bobby's Girl can perhaps be singled out as the film that best captures what makes Hirata unique. It is a dense summation of Hirata's experimental visual proclivities, although on the other hand it is perhaps not representative of the more reserved side of Hirata that dominates his oeuvre. Given a short allotted running time and a rather conventional adaptation that filled out the mundane details of the elliptical, poetic original story, Hirata decided to scrap the adaptation and stick to the original story, which he felt could be interesting as is if adapted with flair. And that it was, as story takes a back seat in favor of a succession of imaginative visual sequences incorporating music-video-like montages of photographs and sketchy illustrations.

The Golden Bird in particular is one of the most interesting films of the decade. Hirata managed to create a film that successfully preserves the individual character of the various talented staff members who provide the film's visuals: designer Manabu Ohashi, who created wonderful SD characters with deliberately disconnected lines; animator Atsuko Fukushima, who animated the spindly witch; and artistic director Yamako Ishikawa, joined by famous background painters like Nizo Yamamoto and Kazuo Oga, who provide the incredibly intricate and lush fantasy backgrounds that define the film. His unique visual sense and predilection for graphic experimentation also comes through in the way he called in independent animator Koji Nanke for one of the musical scenes and gave him carte blanche to animate it. The result is a film of incredibly visual richness that is like nothing else seen in Japan.

The personality of the animators comes through in a lot of Hirata's other films like Hadashi no Gen 2, where apparently certain good animators were given a degree of liberty with their scenes that would be unheard of with most other directors. Yoshiaki Kawajiri was one of those animators, as was Yoshinori Kanemori. Kanemori has been a regular in many of Hirata's films, including Twilight of the Cockroaches and Anne's Diary. Most recently, for the memorable opening of Hanada Shonen Shi, Kanemori provided the animation drawings, which were then colored by Hirata, who drew the storyboard and took the photographs seen in the op. Hirata has always done unusual things like this; in Azuki-chan a few years back he provided the illustrations shown at the end of each episode, even though he refused to allow himself to be credited because he considered it an insignificant contribution.

Hirata is incredibly prolific, and he directed or storyboarded more than twenty films and TV series in the last decade alone, so I could go on and on, but I'll close by just mentioning two other films that could be sought out to see Hirata at his most individual, namely: Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988), which is another one of those films that acts as a vehicle for the animator in charge, Kazuo Komatsubara; and A Small Love Story (1984), with its unusual four-season structure and illustration-composed musical sequences.

Friday, August 20, 2004

11:08:43 am , 388 words, 1550 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Live-action, Director

Walerian Borowczyk

Correction to an old post: Maromi coming alive was done by Masahiko Kubo (久保正彦), the person who did the much talked-about car chase in Mind Game. Another new talented animator on the scene. (Millennium Actress, X, Puchi Puri Yuushi 1, 7, 11, etc.)

Just to contradict myself, I'll go out of my way to say I'm a big fan of anime directors who consider themselves filmmakers first and foremost, who just happen to be making anime at the moment, who consider the animation subordinate, and therefore are as far as possible as you can be from the idea that anime is just about the animation. If the work is good, then I agree 100%. It goes without saying that I fully realize it's not enough to have great animation for 90 minutes if the other elements aren't there to make the experience work as a film. That said, good animation is good animation, even if it's in a bad film. There can be many approaches. If I focus on animation here, it's because nobody else does. I'm not a fan of beating dead horses.

You know what I'd like to see more than anything? A DVD of Walerian Borowczyk's animation (see also). He supposedly influenced Svankmayer and the Brothers Quay, so isn't that enough to suggest it might merit a release? A lot of it is pretty racy, which I suppose may be holding things back. Three of his shorts were released on a Japanese DVD of Goto, l'île d'amour (1968) that came out a year ago, and two of the three are indeed quite risqé, to put it mildly. It would still be worth it to be able to see his early pioneering works like Renaissance (1963) and Théâtre de M. et Mme. Kabal (1967), which lead directly up to his two great masterpieces, Goto and Blanche (1971), live-action films shot through the penetrating gaze of an animator's eye. While we're at it, it's unpardonable that Blanche is not out on DVD anywhere in the world. It's surely one of the best European films of the decade. Whatever you think about his later films (which can be pretty disturbing, though sometimes in a good way), his first two films are masterpieces. I'd personally take Borowczyk over Tarkovsky or Godard any day. Even including his later works, Boro is one of the treasures of the cinema.

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