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I just wrote about Telecom's very early work on Lupin. Well, they're still very active as both a subcontractor doing animation work on other people's shows and producing their own projects. Their latest was one of the other four Project A films released in 2010: Grampa's Lamp.
Set in the early decades of Japan's period of modernization around 1900, Grampa's Lamp traces the advent of modernity to Japan during its so-called "bunmei kaika" period in the late 1800s. It does so through the story of a boy growing up during those times. He begins by embracing the flood of changes entering his country, only to soon find himself irresistibly overtaken by that same flood. With surprising subtlety it paints a picture of the double-edged sword of modernization: for every step towards the future, something else is irretrievably lost.
Historical anime for children of this ilk is often heavy-handed and reductive, presenting an anti-war or other message in a way that is lacking the complexity and subtlety of real life, but I found Grampa's Lamp did a better job than most other period anime in balancing narrative clarity and simplicity with moral ambiguity and psychological complexity. I enjoyed it and found its characters believable. My only disappointment is that the drama leading towards the climax felt forced and unnecessary. It's like they felt obliged to create a dramatic climax but couldn't figure out how to do it.
Grampa's Lamp is pretty much unrecognizable as Telecom if you're looking for the hallmarks of late 70s Telecom like high-energy car chases and exhiliratingly improbable character calisthenics. The studio itself has gone through much over the intervening years, and this project itself much more low-key and down-to-earth in its goals. The film is more Only Yesterday than Cagliostro.
But what hasn't changed is the studio's philosophy of creating rich character animation. Everything moves, and moves in an interesting or meaningful way. The characters act out their emotions and personalities, and the way they behave is more realistic and believable than in typical anime, where the animators often fall back on stock movements. They behave like people, not anime characters. The directing isn't geared towards creating pretty images, but rather towards bringing the characters to life in animation.
Crowd scenes actually have moving people, not just a single drawing. Kids playing cops and robbers zip around adopting all sorts of poses. The old lady running the shop moves differently from the way the middle-aged waitress moves. When the protagonist assembles a lamp, each component of the action is meticulously depicted - pouring the lamp oil through the sieve into the body, wiping off the sieve, replacing the ladle into its bin, screwing back on the lamp, twisting the knob to raise the thread. And he does all these things with an ease and fluidity that clearly is the product of many years of experience. That's what it means for animation to communicate personality.
Kazuhide Tomonaga, who after his work on the second Lupin series went on to become one of Telecom's most important members through the decades, was the "Acting Supervisor" in Grampa's Lamp. This is a role I've never before seen in anime, and the presence of this role goes a long way to accounting for the quality of the character animation.
Unlike in a typical production, prior to drawing the layout and the genga, each animator was first obliged to draw a thumbnail outline of the action they intended for a shot. Only after Tomonaga inspected the thumbnails and approved them was the key animator allowed to move ahead with drawing the actual key animation. It might seem at first sight like adding this extra step might slow down production, but it probably actually has the opposite effect. It also avoids waste by making sure there's no need for retakes after the key animator has begun drawing a more finalized key animation drawing. On top of that, it increases the overall quality of the movements by forcing the animators to think about the movement first, separate from the drawings.
Drawing thumbnails was one of the tasks the animators of Grampa's Lamp were assigned as a part of Project A. The idea of using thumbnails was apparently something recommended by Yasuo Otsuka. He finds that many young animators today are unable to create everyday character acting. People draw cool poses or drawings, but forget the bigger picture. He suggested using thumbnails as a way to train their skill at conceptualizing movement. Having a thumbnail sketch of a movement also makes it easy to get input from superiors or colleagues about how to improve an action.
The first person credited in the key animation credits is Hisao Yokobori, who is a veteran Telecom animator who has done much good work in recent years. Presumably many of the names under him are the new faces who were being trained on the project.
I also had a chance to watch Production I.G.'s outing, Wardrobe Dwellers, but it was excruciatingly boring and uninteresting. I was looking forward to it to see what Kazuchika Kise would do as a director, as he's a fine animator, but the material just wasn't interesting enough to support the slow pace.
Earlier this year it was announced that four more films in the series will be released together next year under the moniker "Anime Mirai". Luckily Telecom is back with another film next year, and I was surprised to find out which film it is they're producing:
Telecom: Buta (d. Kazuhide Tomonaga)
Production I.G.: Wasurenagumo (d. Toshihisa Kaiya)
Shirokumi: Feigned Ignorance (d. PON Kozutsumi)
Answer Studio: Juju of the South Seas (d. Hiroshi Kawamata)
Six years ago I wrote a post about a project called Buta headed by a Frenchman named Christophe Ferreira. It would appear that the project had a rough time getting off the ground, and sadly Christophe is only credited with "Created by" in this particular film, so it is not the vision that he had originally been working towards. But it is nonetheless Telecom, and directed by Kazuhide Tomonaga no less, so it looks like it will be an exciting and fun action piece going back to the roots of what made Telecom so great.
You can see some images from the episode up on the official page at animemirai.jp. Apparently the project is now called Anime Mirai (Anime Future).
It would be nice if this could lead to an ongoing project that would foster the production of more episodes in that vein of freewheeling action adventure. I find it hard to believe they'll be able to revive the brilliance of the early Telecom films, but it's great to see they're trying to go in that direction. Interesting to note is that this film is presumably serving as on-hands training for several younger animators - which is basically what the early New Lupin III Telecom episodes were.
Speaking of which, supposedly a new Lupin III series is in production, so with any luck we may be able to see some new Telecom Lupin III episodes.
I must say I'm also quite curious about the Shirokumi film. It looks very beautiful, with its pared down black-and-white sketchy aesthetic. It's the only film in the project so far that doesn't look like regular anime. I'm glad they're greenlighting more visually unorthodox and creative projects like this too. The director directed many episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi under his real name, Kazuaki Kozutsumi, so he's a good choice for this kind of visual material. I'd like to see more Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi OBs given the chance to do this kind of higher-quality production. More recently he did an amusing series of super-short animation inserts about a monk and his cat. I love what he's able to do with so little. Just a few drawings in three seconds and each one tells a little story.
I was hoping to see Kazuyoshi Takeuchi's name when I saw that Answer Studio had done one of the films, as I liked what he did in Flag, but he's not involved. I'm still quite looking forward to it. Production I.G.'s film looks the least interesting, though I'm sure it will be competently done.