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Garaga (1989) is an interesting obscurity from the late 1980s. I had never heard of it before looking into it recently while pursuing Anime R's filmography, but it's a rather interesting project for a number of reasons.
Initially planned as an OVA, it was extended to movie length and had a limited theatrical run before being released on video - so in a way it's both a movie and an OVA. The texture of the film is indeed a mix between the two - it has the pacing of a film, but the quality feels more like an OVA.
It is one of the few big theatrical projects that brought together the Anime R animators of the Votoms-Layzner period (or most of them; Kazuaki Mouri and Fumiko Kishi are missing) in one place, headlined by Moriyasu Taniguchi handling the characters and Toru Yoshida handling the mecha.
Garaga was based on a manga by Satomi Mikuriya, who had previously directed (and written and storyboarded and designed) an adaptation of her manga Nora in 1985. She earned a place in anime history for a different reason as the director of the CGI part of the Golgo 13 movie.
The director was Hidemi Kubo, whose career prior to this consisted almost entirely of animation work on the classic Topcraft co-productions like The Last Unicorn and The Hobbit. Hidemi Kubo is actually the younger brother of Tsuguyuki Kubo, the lead character designer during the Topcraft era. I wrote a bit about Topcraft previously here.
By 1985, when Topcraft had disbanded after the production of Nausicaa (1984) and been replaced by Ghibli, many of the ex-Topcraft staff moved to a company called PAC (Pacific Animation Corporation). It's here that Hidemi Kubo, as one of the directors of Thundercats (1985), switched tracks to directing.
Garaga from a few years later was Hidemi Kubo's first big job as a director of an entire project. It's his directing that actually makes me like this project. His directing is very different from anything I've seen in anime before. You sense that there's something 'foreign' about it, something alien to the rhythms and conventions of anime film language. The pacing is more leisurely and relaxed. Scenes of character interaction unfold in a way that catches you by surprise. Watching anime, you come to know how certain characters will respond in certain situations. Kubo's directing is one of the few places I've seen a Japanese director who undermines those expectations, probably quite unintentionally. It's clear that his training at Topcraft is what forms the basis for this unique rhythm.
Even the action doesn't feel like typical anime. In anime you typically have set-pieces that arrive at a set point, and suddenly the program switches gears into 'action scene' mode. That's not the case here. Here everything unfolds as a seamless whole. Occasionally there will be a moment of action that goes on for 30 seconds, but is then subsumed back within the unfolding narrative without any particular shift in rhythm.
The choreography and layout also doesn't have the visuals-centric feeling of most anime. What sets anime apart from commercial productions in the rest of the world is its sense of style and edginess in the presentation of the images. Topcraft was unique for evolving in a vacuum, as it were, uninfluenced by, for example, the very tightly controlled drawing and timing of the A Pro animators in the 1970s. With virtually no limitation on the number of drawings they could use, they didn't develop that very image-based approach to animation that was the result of those limitations that most animators working on Japanese TV shows had to work within. The downside to this is that the storytelling could equally well be criticized for being somewhat bland and monotone and sluggish. It's true that it lacks somewhat in dynamism. But it's such a refreshing change that I think it offers an interesting counter-argument to the typical anime style.
One thing I particularly like about this show is how the frailty of life is well expressed. Often in anime people will receive blow after blow and be fine in a way that would not be possible in real life, or fall from a great height without incurring almost any injury because it would inconvenience the plot for an injury to occur at that point. In Garaga at one point a character is bear-hugged by a bad guy and winds up dying. In any other anime he would have been fine. In another scene, a character falls from his aircraft and another character goes out of her way to pad his fall with a psychic beam. In any other anime, he would have fallen to the ground and been stunned temporarily but gotten up afterwards as if nothing had happened, whereas in reality that fall would have resulted in death or broken bones.
The story itself is rather pleasant story about how a group of space travellers crash-land on a planet and find themselves caught in the middle of a power struggle between three sides - two indigenous populations and a foreign power. The dynamics of manipulation between the different powers were compelling and believable and the film kept me interested the whole time. I liked how the character dynamics felt different from the usual anime. One downside is that there wasn't a very strong single main character for the audience to invest in, but I personally liked that. I like group-based movies like this.
I haven't seen Thundercats since it aired (I watched it in real time) but I suspect if I had a chance to re-watch it I would notice a similarity to the pacing. The only criticism I might have was that in the second half I got very confused and had a hard time following what was going on because there were so many different sides to the conflict and it was difficult keeping them all straight with their similar-sounding names. (well, that, and the big reveal at the end that the android was the bad guy was a little disappointing)
On the animation side of things, the film is almost 100% Anime R. 18 out of the 23 key animators are Anime R people, and the two sakkans are the usual Anime R sakkans. The films does have a very strong Anime R vibe, with many scenes of exciting action, good mecha and effects animation, and character drawings that are clearly identifiable as Taniguchi. Taniguchi designed the characters presumably based on the manga, but he made them his and the designs are pleasing to look at, although they're not as stylized as his Layzner designs. Taniguchi also receives the novel credit of "Total Visual Director" (in English). I'm not sure what it means, but it clearly suggests that Taniguchi had a role that went beyond merely that of a face corrector. Perhaps he did something in the vein of the more holistic work that Tomonori Kogawa did on Ideon, in which Kogawa also designed the colors of the characters, among other things.
Toru Yoshida designed the mecha as well as acting as the mecha sakkan, and his mecha are very cool. The designs are very different from the designs of, say, Kunio Okawara, who was behind most of the Sunrise shows on which Toru Yoshida acted as mecha sakkan. His designs feel slightly more futuristic and realistic, with sleek and minimalistic and curvy shapes as opposed to the showy and flamboyant designs of many Sunrise shows. The mecha aren't animated with quite as much verve as they were in Yoshida's episodes of Layzner, but there are moments where you can see his great sense of stylized effects work, like the elegantly arced smoke trail pictured above.
The only caveat is that for some reasons the drawings feel a little flimsy. The inbetweening was not done by Anime R, so maybe this is part of the reason. It's not nearly as bad as Althea, but it's still noticeable that the drawings are not quite up to the level that the should be considering how much effort has clearly been put into the animation, and that it's not the sakkan's fault.
There are several nice action scenes, but I can't attribute them to a particular animator. The chase with the helicopter seems to have the style of character drawing I noticed during the arcade scene in Sukeban Deka, though since Kazuaki Mouri isn't credited, if it's the same animator, that would mean it's someone other than Mouri who had that style. The good action animators at Anime R at this period would be Hiroshi Osaka from the generation that debuted on Votoms and Takahiro Kimura and Takahiro Komori from the slightly younger generation that debuted a few years later. I suppose the heli scene was of the hand of one of these guys.
The only scene I was able to identify with certainty is Hiroyuki Okiura's. He almost certainly drew the scene in the ruined building (the first pic atop). Everything including the timing, the acting and the drawings point to Okiura. The style of the gestures seems clearly influenced by Akira, which Okiura had just worked on, while the drawings have a vague Takashi Nakamura influence, and the movement has a richness and a style of movement that is simply the pure product of Okiura's genius. The animation in this scene feels wonderful, but it's a little disappointing because it's a pretty low-key scene and doesn't show off his talent for action very well. There are only about two or three action shots and the rest is mostly talking heads. But even in the talking heads shots, Okiura's unique style of timing and drawing is unmistakable.
There were only five non-Anime R animators involved in the film. They are credited in two separate groupings at the bottom below the big Anime R grouping, suggesting two different studios. The Soichiro Matsuda and Shunichi Matsumoto grouping I suspect to have been Studio Mark (which also once featured Yoshiharu Ashino). The Isamu Utsuki, Kenichi Ishimaru and Toyoaki Fukushima grouping I'm not so sure about, but I suspect to be Animation 501. Yuji Yatabe, who is here responsible for the 'structure', was the head of Animation 501, and Isamu Utsuki is credited under Animation 501 in pink jacket Lupin. I've noticed that Hidemi Kubo worked together with Kenichi Ishimaru and Toyoaki Fukushima together on Wataru the year before in 1988, so perhaps he brought them on himself.
Incidentally, I was wondering how the combo of Hidemi Kubo + Anime R came about. It's an odd combination I wouldn't have expected. It seems Moriyasu Taniguchi worked as an animation director on Thundercats and likely met Hidemi Kubo there.
HYPER-PSYCHIC-GEO GARAGA ギャラガ (movie/OVA, 1989, 100min, Aubec/Anime R)
|Director, Script, Storyboard:||窪秀己||Hidemi Kubo|
by Satomi Mikuriya
|Total Visual Director:||谷口守泰||Moriyasu Taniguchi|
|Character Design, Animation Director:||谷口守泰||Moriyasu Taniguchi|
|Mecha Design, Mecha Anim. Director:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key animation:||木村貴宏||Takahiro Kimura|