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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Thursday, August 14, 2008

09:53:26 am , 1982 words, 3110 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Gotham Knight

I'm behind on everything these days, but I finally had the chance to watch this omnibus last night. It was what I was expecting, nothing more, nothing less. It was interesting seeing what would result from crossing an English script with several different Japanese production teams. It's as if there are two different approaches to storytelling struggling to co-exist in each short, which certainly makes for an interesting kind of tension. At a more basic level, there is only so much you can do with this sort of material, and you have to push certain buttons or there is no point in even doing it, so the material is all quite self-limiting, and to me is of no interest save to see what the directors bring to it. A film can be great no matter the material. It just depends on the directing. The films in this omnibus serve as good contrasts to illustrate this point, some succeeding within their short allotted time span, others not. Personally, totally irrespective of the material or whether the film works as a whole, this omnibus is welcome to me simply for having provided two great up-and-coming anime directors the opportunity to show off their skills in a project that will actually be seen by a wide audience over here - Yasuhiro Aoki and Shojiro Nishimi.

Nishimi came at the head of the film with Have I Got a Story For You, which was tremendously well produced, as expected, as well as having by far the most unorthodox look of the film in view of the material. The look of the characters, with their pointy heads and loosely drawn freely criss-crossing lines, goes against the typical flatly stylized, shadowy look that seems to be be the branded image for this franchise, the goth machismo of which has never done anything for me anyway, so I found Nishimi's inventions appealing. The action was all excellently done, the movement all full of the nuance of Tekkon Kinkreet. Shinji Kimura was the animation director, to boot, so the short felt quite similar. Yasuhiro Aoki made his first appearance in this short as an animator, second only to Jamie Vickers. He also helped out with the animation on Toshiyuki Kubooka's film later in addition to doing his own film, so he put in quite the effort here. Masahiko Kubo was another animator in Nishimi's film, so these guys must have been the ones behind a good portion of the action. Interestingly, this short actually represent a return to old territory for Nishimi, as he and Aoyama and Tomonaga et al at Telecom handled many of the best episodes of the old Batman TV series back in the 90s. The story was quite light and insubstantial, but this is a good example of good animation and quality production carrying a film.

Nishimi's film got me to thinking about style, and why style is homogenous in the west and in Japan. Nishimi is a great example of a guy who has come up with his own style that feels fully conceived and is a sheer delight to look at. He is a tremendous animator with solid training who breathes amazing life into his characters, yet his designs are entirely his own and full of edgy inventiveness that beats just about anything else out there. I wish more animators would do what he's done rather than just buy into the dominant style of the industry. So much of what I see in the west seems over-focused on creating hyper-clean, retro-looking, over-stylized designs, whereas it's the reverse in Japan, with too few people bothering to think deeply about novelty of design. Nishimi strikes me as achieving a good balance in terms of this, which he did by coming up with his own peculiar style of drawing. It's the roughness of his drawings that's so appealing to me. They feel alive and never the same. It's not that they're sloppy. It's that he's come up with an interesting way of drawing the characters with these peculiar angles and shapes that he knows will allow him to move the characters however he wants without having to worry about getting every detail of the design right. The designs looking fantastic in motion, a great hybrid of realistic core and eminently line-drawn style.

One of Nishimi's main influences is obviously his old friend Masaaki Yuasa, but like Yuichiro Sueyoshi, Nishimi is no mere imitator. With some twenty years under his belt in the industry, he's developed his own very personal style that is quite different from where Yuasa's own style has evolved over the years. His is more realistically influenced, focused on bringing characters to life, whereas Yuasa remains, as ever, focused on bewildering, freewheeling designs and movement. Like branches of the same tree, Yuasa, Sueyoshi and Nishimi, not to mention Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto, all share a certain spiritual affinity while having budded into their own personal styles. This school of animators represent perhaps one of the richest veins of creativity in Japanese animation today.

Futoshi Higashide's Crossfire had moments when it felt like it was sort of working, but never gelled, and wound up feeling like a mess. Not helping were the weak drawings of animation director Shinobu Tagashira. This is exactly the feeling I've gotten from much of Higashide's work over the years, of never quite being able to focus his talent in the right direction. Yasunori Miyazawa did some animation in the short that's easy to spot. There was some decent action afterwards that ironically stood out as being better drawn than the rest of the short, which I thought might have been drawn by Anime R animator Fumiaki Kouta, though I don't know his work enough to be sure. Now that's bad, when a scene drawn by one animator stands out as being better drawn than the drawings of the animation director, particularly in a short such as this where you would expect the quality to be higher throughout. Litmus animator Koichi Arai was there with "conceptual character design". I'd love to see what his designs were before they were maligned in this short.

Morioka Hiroshi's Field Test was mostly notable to me for having been animated by a single person - Toshiharu Murata. I'd never heard of him before, and in fact the animation is nothing to jump up and down about, as it only moves here and there and consists mostly of static close-ups of characters, but as a lover of solo episodes it was a nice surprise. Solos turn up in the most unexpected places. I'm very curious to know whether the credits are accurate and the director was the animation director as opposed to Murata himself, as that would change the whole dynamic of Murata's effort. It actually took me a few minutes to realize that the anime character up there on the screen was supposed to be Bruce Wayne.

No surprise to me, Yasuhiro Aoki's In Darkness Dwells blew me away. It was by far the most solid short in the film, the only one that stood on its own as a perfectly crafted creation with a feeling of dramatic weight that managed to overcome the limitations of the material. I was expecting no less of Aoki, but the quality he turned in here surprised even me. I knew Aoki was a great director, but his short here has the power of a feature crammed into a mere 10 minutes, which got me to dreaming about what the results would be if he focused that cinematic brilliance onto an actual feature-length film one day. What's most impressive is that, beyond being a great director, Aoki's drawings are awesome. He and Nishimi were the only directors here who were their own animation directors, and they clearly stand in a league of their own in terms of technical skill and talent. Like Nishimi, Aoki started out as an animator, and he musters all his talent as a drawer and a creator of great movement in everything he directs, so that whatever he does is a seamless whole where every bit of the image serves his bidding as director, communicating something at every moment through the animation or the image. It's in the little details that directing comes alive, and Aoki has a brilliant eye for detail in everything he does. It's not about packing in detail so much as emphasizing the right detail, which is something Aoki is great at. The action scene in Aoki's short was easily the most exciting in the film in terms of the choreography and creating a thrilling flow of dramatic tension, confirming Aoki's place as one of the best action animators in Japan. But Aoki isn't just an action animator. This short to me only confirms that he has the potential to go much further.

Toshiyuki Kubooka's Working Through Pain was interesting for the animation to me. Without Naoyuki Onda's meticulous drawings guiding the eye at every moment with some slight nuance, I don't think the film would have worked at all. It's not that I'm a fan; I don't even particularly like his drawings. But Onda is one of the more meticulous and maniacal animation directors out there, and when he does a project, he clearly takes control of every shot and fills it with his own nuance. I respect his skill, and admire that he can draw animals properly, which is something few animators seem to have the ability to do in Japan. The fight scene was nicely animated, but I have no idea who might have done it. I found the last short, Deadshot, interesting mostly for having been animated entirely by two Korean animators, with only three inbetweeners, showing how different the training is over there. With only five people they're able to make a film that moves so smoothly. That said, the animation isn't particularly interesting or nice to look at, nor was the story or directing particularly compelling. Boy would I have loved to see this one done by Kang Won Young instead.

I was a little confused by the credits. They seem kind of messed up. For the first film, for example, it says Shinji Kimura did the storyboard, the layout, the character design, animation supervising, and, oh yeah... art director too! Is that humanly possible? Isn't that not even what he does? Surely it's Nishimi who did all those things apart from the art directing? There are several other spots that don't make sense like this, and disturbingly, it's for credits of major importance. For Aoki's film, Inoda Kaoru is listed as the character designer and the art director. Now that is an odd combination I have never seen before, except maybe for Shinji Kimura's piece for Genius Party. I would have thought that Aoki did the designs, since he was the animation director of his own piece. For Kubooka's piece, again, Shuichi Hirata is credited as animation supervisor and art director, and the director is credited as animation director. I'm not sure what the specific meaning of these credits is, but surely it was character designer Naoyuki Onda who was the animation director, and not the art director or director? For the same film Tatsuyuki Tanaka is credited as as storyboard supervisor and conceptual designer. I can see conceptual designer, but why would he be storyboarding Kubooka's film? In Morioka's film, it strikes me as odd that Morioka would be the animation director, and Toshiharu Murata would be storyboarder and character designer. Surely Morioka did storyboard, and Murata did animation directing? If I am wrong on all counts (which I hope), then this film adopted a strange production style the likes of which I've never seen before. If I'm right, then it strikes me as being egregiously disrespectful of the supposedly "revered animation filmmakers" that they couldn't even be bothered to list their credits right.



T. [Visitor]  

This is terribly off-topic, but I’ve been looking for impressions of Yumemakura Baku Twilight Gekijou to absolutely no avail and am really curious about it, especially the Ohira/Hashimoto episodes. I mean, I can’t imagine that a full Ohira-episode couln’t be amazing, but I’ve seen so little about it.

I hate to be demanding, but could I have some thoughts? That I know so little about it has been bugging me for a while.

08/15/08 @ 09:36
Ben [Member]  

No problem. I’ve seen the Ohira piece, so I’ll write a review for my next post as soon as I have a chance. I’ve been meaning to do this for god knows how long. Thanks for asking about this. I haven’t seen the Hashimoto piece, though, so I won’t be able to comment on that one, as fascinating as it looks from all the stills I’ve seen.

08/15/08 @ 11:43
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

Well, as usual I’m responding to this a bit late, but oh well.

Interesting that you liked Madhouse’s short the best (they did get credited for ‘Deadshot,’ but since it was done by Madhouse Korea, otherwise known as DR Movie, I’m not really counting it). Yasuhiro Aoki has interested me quite a lot from his resume, despite me having seen vertually none of his major works. I’ve yet to actually see ‘Gotham Knight,’ as I’m waiting to pick up a Blu-Ray version, but I’ll keep your picks of the shorts in mind when I watch.

Amusingly, there was a review on AnimeNewsNetwork by Zac Bertschy that at times echoed yours… although he discounted ‘In Darkness Dwells’ for storytelling reasons. ‘Working Through Pain’ was his favorite based on the handling of the story, and ‘Deadshot’ strangely got the best review for actual animation. I think there’s a tendency to mark all smooth or obsessively inbetweened animation as ‘good’ regardless of actual quality of motion, hence why you get reviewers who rave about Disney while running down Ghibli. Nevertheless, I’m not going to complain about DR Movie, as they do try their best and have a lot of potential for doing good work. What they need in Korea now are some ‘crazy men’ who aren’t just excellent inbetweeners but wild about trying more jerky motion. When everything has to be super smooth, you tend to not try as radically to make the motion big, since otherwise you’ll not only have to inbetween the heck out of it, but it’ll take too long to move across the screen. After all, if smooth motion were the only key to successful animation, DR Movie would be the greatest studio in the world… just look at ‘Tenjo Tenge’ or the first episode of ‘Claymore’ and you’ll see what I mean. But, that isn’t the only key… there’s also innovative motion and unexpected staging and action, and without these, you won’t have something that’s as interesting. I think a lot of times people who aren’t animator freaks forget about that fundamental, or maybe aren’t aware of it, and so all the emphasis ends up on other things. Nevertheless, the obvious best solution is to combine super-smooth motion with exciting motion, like Ryoochimo’s battle shots in ‘Noein’ 12. If that sort of happy balance can be achieved, maybe for Madhouse by mixing DR Movie’s inbetweeners (who I, regardless of what anyone might yell at me, hold as among the best in the world) with the best innovative ‘crazy’ freelancers (and staff animators). Super-smooth crazy… now that’s what I think everyone would want to see.

Getting off that tangent and going back to ‘In Darkness Dwells,’ I actually had the opportunity to look at the storyboards for that short about a year ago. I could tell, even from that early stage, that it was going to be spectacular. The strength of those drawings was really remarkable… they just completely captivated your attention and sucked you in. Often, there wasn’t too much in the way of detail, especially in the Croc battle, but all the lines stressed just the right balance of motion, to the point where even a skeleton of the characters could tell you everything. The lines were that primary and good. And, the storyboards covered each tiny detail of that first engagement, almost like keys. Later on in the boards, there was just a ton of detail, enough to appear like a full-on comic, in the shots establishing the Scarecrow’s lair. Also, I’m not sure that it made it into the final short, but the final sewer-pipe escape sequence was just wonderfully exciting, enough to make me feel completely satisfied just from the storyboards. It took me an hour and a half just to view them all on a single pass. So, even going back to that time, it was really obvious that it was going to be good from the visual standpoint. It really stood out as among the best things I’d ever seen from a storyboarding point of view. I also got to see the early boards for ‘Deadshot,’ which had a great Yutaka Minowa look (enough that I thought he might have done them), but I have no idea if they ended up getting used. Seriously though, the ‘Deadshot’ boards were comic-book quality, ready to be bound up and printed as a stand-alone piece. All you needed were the dialogue bubbles, and it was ready to go. It’s too bad that, at least based on what you said, the final product doesn’t bare that out.

On a final little note, I also would like to note that I know one of the producers of ‘In Darkness Dwells,’ and I’m glad he got a credit at last. I’m sure he’ll also be pleased to know that the short he helped contribute to is so well-loved in the animation fan community.

Thanks for reviewing everything! This has got me psyched up to actually watch the final production.

09/16/08 @ 01:50
Ben [Member]  

This reply in turn is a little late, but thanks again for the long comment… I totally agree with all of your points about the seeming misconception among casual viewers that smooth = interesting. I had run across this misconception on any numerous occasions prior to seeing Gotham Knight, so I was aware that it seems to reign supreme among many casual viewers, but I was absolutely amazed as I was looking through the web reviews of Gotham Knight how clear it was that the vast majority of the reviewers still harbored this misconception in this day and age… With remarkable consistency across the board, Deadshot was praised as having great animation, while more often than not, the animation of In Darkness Dwells would be dismissed as ugly or too stylized, without any other comment on the quality or the look of the piece, much less any sort of informed analysis of the animation and directing. Most of the reviews focused on the script, making only dismissive mention of the animation of any particular piece in passing in one sentence, if at all. Aoki’s piece was actually quite rich in the inbetweens, which seems to suggest that, when all things are equal, lay people will often pick the blander animation as being ‘better animated’. I wonder why that is. I can’t help but wonder if this instinct doesn’t account for some of the popularity of CG animation these days. Not that there isn’t well-done CG animation, of course, but quite obviously, people seem to instinctively equate quality with smoothness. Which I find to be an insult to Disney, if that’s all people have learned from the animation of Disney, because Disney’s animation was among the most interesting ever made.

I would say that Takeshi Koike might be an instance of an animator active today who combines your ideal of smooth + crazy. As for Korea, I would point you to the work of Kang Won Young if you want to see a Korean animator in the Korean industry who has a huge talent for creating brilliantly timed, exciting animation that is as far as possible as you could get from the stereotype of bland hyper-inbetweened Korean animation. I hope that there will be more animators like him, and that they will start to lead the way in the industry.

And I really have to thank you for the words about Aoki’s storyboard. As someone who is totally crazy about Aoki’s work, it was great to hear your description of his storyboard, and the excitement it conveyed, which confirms that to create something as brilliant as he did on the screen, there had to be a great storyboard behind it. It hasn’t been published anywhere, has it? I would love to get my hands on it. I’ve got Aoki’s storyboard for Kung Fu Love, and I never get tired of leafing through it. His storyboard for In Darkness Dwells sounds quite different, much more detailed - in the Kung Fu Love storyboard, he uses very few lines very effectively, so it’s wonderful to study. The look of the two films is very different, so I could understand the storyboard accounting for that. I love how Aoki is able to adapt his style to the production at hand, able to control both the look and the directing style through his storyboard.

10/12/08 @ 11:59
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

Hey Ben.

Just saw your reply to my old post, so I wanted to get back to you. No, the Aoki storyboards (or for that matter any of the ‘Gotham Knight’ storyboards) haven’t been published… let’s just say that I got lucky in being able to look at them, and leave it at that. I also only got to look at the boards from those two shorts, so I don’t know what the others ended up being like (although I did read the script for ‘Have I Got a Story For You’).

10/19/08 @ 01:45