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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« Tomonori Kogawa's Cool Cool ByeHommage à Kanada-san »

‹ Tuesday, August 11, 2009 ›

11:57:58 pm , 860 words, 2049 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Dragon's Heaven

I remember trying to watch Dragon's Heaven (1988) way back when but being unable to get past the atrocious and pointless tokusatsu opening. I braved it again today because I was curious to see Shinya Ohira's work on it, and it was worth it. To anyone who wishes to see some very unique visuals for anime, or to see some good early Ohira, I recommend just skipping past the baffling section and proceeding right to the animation. The film itself is an absurd little confection utterly devoid of dramatic weight, a pure product of the 80s OVA boom, but it's of interest today for its visual style, which remains even after all this time very unusual if not unprecedented in anime, and more saliently, for its strong effects and mecha animation.

I first became aware of Makoto Kobayashi's name not that long ago when I got to see some of his conceptual designs for Samurai Seven and was quite impressed by his style and imagination. As a director and storyteller I'm not so convinced, at least going by this OVA, but as a designer and artist he's got a very nice voice that is especially welcome in the context of Japanese design sensibility. It's a breath of fresh air, despite the work here seeming kind of a Moebius knockoff (elements of Nausicaa are also an obvious inspiration). What I found deeply disconcerting about this OVA was the conventionally stylized anime character heroine plopped right in the middle of all these beautifully byzantine robot and scenery designs that look straight out of a European comic. It's curious how they could be so creative with everything else but hit a wall when it comes to the characters. If you cut out all of the shots of the heroine, it's a good looking little short, but together they're amazingly mismatched. They had all the talent there; it's unfortunate that they weren't able to make a film more conceptually unified. I could have envisioned this being a a great little film in the manner of Cannon Fodder. The dialogue, directing and story were all equally weak.

It's sad that this is the case, because the drawings are of a high caliber. This short OVA maintains an even tone and quality throughout thanks in large part to the work of Shinya Ohira as the mecha animation director. (Although I've heard that Makoto Kobayashi was heavily involved in the drawing side of things, so I'm not sure to what extent the strength of the drawings is thanks to Ohira.) Ohira has said how Masahito Yamashita was his main influence in his early years, and this film is important because it features the two working side by side. Yamashita animated the opening sequence, and it's probably the most impressive single sequence in the film, with its geometrically shaped arcs of flames animated in lush detail. It's a good place to see how the baton-touch between Yamashita and Ohira occurred. Ohira brought a maniacal level of detail and brilliant draftsmanship to the mecha. The designs of the robots were actually done by Makoto Kobayashi's little brother, Osamu Kobayashi. Yes, it's apparently THAT Osamu Kobayashi, in what is possibly the earliest anime gig I've seen from him. Ohira does a great job of bringing the robots to life with his masterful drawings, which are precisely but tastefully rendered. Without Ohira's drawings, there would be fairly little of interest in this film.

Besides acting as the mecha sakkan, though, Ohira also did key animation in the film, and from what I'm able to tell it looks like he would have done some of the shots of the smoke and explosions and so on. The shape of the smoke as the ship descends into the cloud and the smoke rising from the ground as the tanks land reminds me of the jagged swirling clouds he did in Akira the same year, not to mention his earlier Captain Power work. Seeing the two side by side helps to understand in what way Ohira was influenced by Yamashita. Yamashita created effects animation packed with exaggerated detail, weird shapes, distorted perspective and unusual timing. He had a very strong sense of line, creating animation that really spoke through the movement of lines. Building on Yoshinori Kanada's legacy in stuff like the fire dragon of Harmageddon, he created effects that pushed the stylization further, creating an undulating mass of geometric patterns that felt great as animation. Ohira seems to have built on that approach to effects by pushing it in a more realistic direction. Even his more realistic effects work of this period feels deeply indebted to Masahito Yamashita in spirit. The goal doesn't seem to be just to recreate nature; it's more about creating animation that is thrilling to watch, with richly nuanced, complex forms and timing, and an intricately detailed mass of pulsating lines, which is what Yamashita's effects animation was about. These are the people who made an art out of effects animation. Ohira's work has changed a lot in the intervening decades, but his artistic underpinning seems to remain the same: creating dense, idiosyncratic, relentlessly expressive animation that thrills purely through movement.



Régis [Visitor]  

At times I wonder if it’s just a coincidence or if a lot of animation artists of the late 1980’s just developed a similar aesthetic to their craft. While I haven’t watched or even heard of Dragon’s Heaven, your descriptions made me really think of one of the Dirty Pair movie openings (is it Project Eden, maybe?) I just wish more fansubbers would read your articles so they could be inspired to sub these rare works.

08/13/09 @ 01:34
Leedar [Visitor]  

Ha ha, this film is bizarre.

Concerning the female character, that was most likely necessary to get the film made. One by the financiers, and two by the animators. You know how many of them just want to draw pretty girls, etc. Artists like Ohira can’t draw everything.

08/13/09 @ 15:45
ialda [Member]

Ah ah, funnily enough I wrote some words on this OAV myself some months ago, too.

Glad to see that I wasn’t much off !

For the female character, Makoto Kobayashi’s original manga design was sketchy and hazy (the artist visibly prefer to spend his time on his mecha designs). So there was a need for some work for the anime adaptation, and Hirano’s work on pretty girls during the 80s seem well estimated ^^

08/16/09 @ 11:27
Ben [Member]  

Thank you for pointing out your article! I hadn’t seen it. It’s a great article, much more in-depth than mine. (I’m somewhat impatient and tend to get right to the part that interests me) I appreciated all the points you make relating the OVA to Moebius, about whom I’m unfortunately fairly ignorant beyond having a vague notion of his work and obvious influence.

I was intrigued to see the images from the manga published the year before the OVA, on which the OVA is based. It confirms what I suspected - that the female character in the OVA is a sad corruption of the original vision. I wish they had gone 100% with the look and style of the manga (including the fractured, wordless storytelling), and it would have been so much better a piece.

And good job spotting the Ohira smoke. Funny that we both came to the same conclusion - although, of course, the resemblance to his work in Akira is quite striking. I was kind of afraid I might be wrong in my guess, but it’s great to see someone else came to the same conclusion.

And Régis - You’re right that there’s a certain aesthetic that defines each age in anime, particularly he 80s. The Dirty Pair opening movie would have been done by Koji Morimoto, and the style is somewhat different, but I can see what you’re talking about. It would be interesting to try to evoke in words the essence of this late-80s aesthetic that gave rise to some of these really interesting pieces of animation that feel very much of their time.

08/16/09 @ 21:27