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, January 11, 2007

09:15:59 pm , 3953 words, 5760 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Hisashi Mori

Samurai Seven #23

First off, a belated happy new year to readers. Today I thought I would do something I've been meaning to do for a long time: collect my thoughts about one of my favorite animators of recent years, Hisashi Mori 森久司. I've written about him often in the past in passing, but the unique nature of what he is doing begs a closer and more considered look, which I will try to do here.

I first became aware of Mori not that long ago, just two years ago when a reader inquired who had done episode 7 of Samurai Seven. I watched the episode totally unprepared for what lay in wait. The episode - more specifically, the first half of the episode - turned out to be one of the more awesome displays of animated idiosyncrasy that I've ever seen in an anime TV episode. The characters in this first half were bereft of all sleek convention, cleft of rough, jagged, meandering lines and deliciously aberrant shapes that reminded me more of something I might see from a European art animator than anime. But more importantly, the movement was thrilling, with a fascinating approach to timing that I'd never seen before. The screen felt alive, pulsing with animated energy. Every moment of movement spoke, establishing a strange rhythm all its own. It was a form of expression totally unexpected in the context, one of those rare moments when I couldn't believe my eyes. I live to be surprised by new possibilities in animation, and this episode had done that.

The question remained who could have done it. The highly distinctive style of animation - realistic in a hyper-expressive and very self-aware kind of way - instantly narrowed down the field of possibility in my mind to two figures: Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto, the two maverick animators who essentially invented their own style of expressionistic realism over the last decade or so and have been the prime proponents of that style ever since in their increasingly rarefied and brilliant work. Very few animators have followed in their footsteps, so I immediately assumed it must have been one of them, although it seemed unusual for both, based on their history. They tended not to do TV work. Hence my assumption that one of the two people credited with key animation had to be a pen name. Hiroyuki Okuno turned up numerous hits, so it obviously wasn't him, while Hisashi Mori turned up very few, which is usually a good indicator of a pen name.

It turned out that Hisashi Mori was indeed a pen name, or an assumed name of some kind - but just not of the person I had thought. For whatever reason (I never found out why), animator Hisashi Nakayama, most well known up until that point for his work as an animator and then animation director/character designer for Mamoru Hosoda's two Digimon films (1999, 2000), has been credited as Hisashi Mori since 2003. Although he had been active as an animator for more than a decade by that point, he had only participated in two titles prior to Samurai Seven since rechristening himself, which accounted for the small number of hits. It was a somewhat thrilling thing to be able to bear witness, live, right as the history was unfolding, to a relatively unknown new animator dropping an animated bombshell the way Mori did, creating exactly the kind of gutsy, unruly animation I've been hoping more animators would become interested in. It's always exciting to be able to bear witness to a the birth of a film like this borne of an animator's verve and conviction, and thankfully since then there has been no shortage of animators following down this path, not just churning it out but struggling to pull out the unique approach to animation lying dormant within themselves. Be it Tatsuzo Nishita or Tetsuya Takeuchi or Shingo Natsume, I can think of any number of interesting young animators who have appeared on the scene with an assured and individual approach just in the last two years.

The mystery elucidated, I was curious to see more from this new face and began to investigate his back-catalogue. I had already seen and was very fond of Mamoru Hosoda's two Digimon films, both for Hosoda's brilliant directing as well as for the unusual style of animation, with its ruffled lines, no shadows, and appealing movement full of everyday nuance. But I remained unsure what his animation was like at this early period, either in the first film or in any of his prior work. The next major piece that could be studied as Mori's work was Virgin Night, a highly personal film from 2001 that Mori made with longtime colleague Hiroyuki Okuno. With its slow pacing, realistic layout and uneventful, documentary-like narrative, it seemed to tentatively hint at an affinity with the realistic school. Or at the very least, it comes across as a bold statement by a couple of young upstarts saying they have new ideas about how to do things. It's an oddity in the genre, shunning titillation in favor of cinema verite. It's been some time since I've seen it, but I recall noting interesting movement near the "climax", so it would seem probable that Mori's mature style was beginning to emerge around this time.

Mori's case is interesting because his stylistic awakening happens so fast. It's one of those rare times when you can almost put your finger on the moment when something changed, as if something clicked in his mind, and he began to consciously will his evolution in a new direction. Whereas I find it hard to identify his work before 2002, from there on out every one of his pieces has been endowed with his unmistakable personal stamp, which grows increasingly intense and concentrated with each new piece. You can palpably sense that he is consciously trying to push his style ahead every time. I'm reminded of Tadashi Hiramatsu's comment about how there's a moment in an animator's life when everything just "clicks" and suddenly you are in control. It feels like this eureka moment visited Mori some time around 2002. I don't know what it it was, but his assumption of a new name one year later, right around the time his stylistic awakening reaches a head, seems to suggest it had something to do with this newfound conviction. Like a warrior christened with a new "nom de guerre", Mori charged ahead with renewed purpose. (Or maybe he just got sick of his old name? Married into a new family? Who knows.)

One Piece: Baron Omatsuri

The piece that strikes me as signaling the arrival of the mature Hisashi Mori is Square of the Moon #2 of 2002 (of which you can see an excerpt here). I can't identify much of his work prior to this, but suddenly here, out of the blue, wham, the mature Hisashi Mori appears fully formed in an instant, regaling us with all of his defining stylistic traits in full force. It's as if he had been biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to let it all out and stage his triumphant arrival. Since then there's been no stopping him. It's also possible that this simply has to do with the fact that Hiroyuki Okuno was director. He did a lot of other work around this time, but under different directors, so perhaps his buddy was the only one who allowed his work to pass uncorrected, as happened later in Samurai 7.

Mori's animation feels unique, but why? What are his stylistic traits? In a nutshell, it has to do with FX, timing and form. One of his defining traits is that he uses FX aplenty, and has a unique approach to their use. You can see line-drawn effects in every piece, from Square of the Moon right down to his latest. Another identifiable trait is that he often uses the 'sawtooth' effect to express speed. Mori seems to lie at the crossroads between Yoshinori Kanada-esque hyperactive cartoonishness and the punk realism of Ohira, creating movement with a realistic core but a surface scrawled with a graffiti of ecstatic touches expressing the movement in heightened form. The effects at :46 and 1:07 in the clip are exemplary of Mori's effects animation. The effects appear suddenly and move extremely rapidly, faster than the eye can follow, creating an intensely thrilling moment. They are full of unexpected drawings that you do not see when watching but that serve to enhance the overall visual effect. He often uses odd drawings that don't make any sense when looked at individually but serve to create a pulsing, flashing texture that rivets attention - a single frame in red, a bold yellow zigzag here, a blinking gleam of white light there. All of it flashing past so quickly that everything blurs together into an exquisite moment of riveting movement. He flattens the screen in terms of colors, often uses a swath of one or two bold primary colors. In recent years, he's been adding to this effect by piling layer upon layer of different vectors of movement on the screen at the same time. The movement is less layered in the early days, but you can sense that he's working towards increasing the density of the action on the screen.

Shinya Ohira has also been moving towards that kind of aesthetic in recent years, though it's interesting to note the differences in their approach. In an image by Ohira, everything will be moving as a complex whole, whereas in an image by Mori, everything on the screen will be moving as a handful of distinct elements moving in their own vectors, often at different frame rates.

Watching Mori's animation, I find myself asking the same question I did watching Masahito Yamashita's early animation: What's going on in his head? How did he come up with such illogical movement? Mori's animation often moves in a manner I can only think to describe as spastic, going slow one moment and then suddenly speeding up tremendously, then slowing down again, then jerking back ahead, like a kid learning how to drive. The poses are often improbable, the limbs stretched and bent, like Yamashita's early work, but more importantly the timing of people's movement often feel willfully deranged. He conceives grand movements that have a realistic weight and feeling, but leaves vast spaces between the drawings, blending realism with Kaneda-esque point-based timing. He'll jump from limited shots to shots so intricate and complex and rapid that I wonder how a human could conceive them, much less follow them. My feeling watching his work is that, like Ohira, Mori has lapped the people who are still struggling to conceptualize a movement, and has gone on to a higher level of playing with the very idea of movement. He has it all mapped out in his head, and is now focusing on heightening the pure thrill of observing lines in motion by manipulating the parameters of the medium like timing and layers and colors. He is out to create nothing short of animated ecstasy, orgasmic visual rhythm. Maybe that's what sets his work apart - it's a fully conceptualized whole unto itself, rather than merely a functional component.

Doraemon 2006

The last work I know Mori to have done using his old name was Big O, where he drew animation in ep 15 and was mecha animation director in ep 21. He obviously handled much of the ending fight in 15, but one shot in particular has a very strong Mori flavor, with very fast timing, lots of strong contrasting drawings passing by faster than they can be individually distinguished, to excellent effect. (3:08 here) Surprisingly, since Mori's animation is characterized by its amorphous and jagged lines that look spontaneous, almost slapdash at times, Mori's robots in ep 21 are quite clean and pristinely drawn, showing clearly that he had excellent drawing skills and could also shift to drawing in a more conventional manner. I don't know what he did exactly as the character designer and animation director of Mamoru Hosoda's Children's War Game movie, but the characters all feel distinctly like the work of the other animation director, Takaaki Yamashita, so I have to wonder if he didn't also handle the mecha monsters there as well. He does seem to have been involved in a number of robot shows over the preceding years, so perhaps we're seeing in Big O and Children's War Game the vestiges of his early years as a mecha animator. I recall that Shinya Ohira also began his career as a mecha animator, and ultimately shifted in a similar direction as Mori.

The same year as Big O, Hisashi Nakayama bows out and Hisashi Mori says hello. The first place we can see Mori credited was Tokyo Godfathers in 2003. Mori animated the short bit where the truck crashes into the building. The section appears to have been corrected, so it's not pure Mori, but it offers an opportunity to focus on Mori's unique genius for timing. It was good casting to assign Mori that particular spot, as his particular genius for extremely fast timing was ideal for the very speedy nature of the events occurring as the characters are tumbling out from the speeding vehicle through the dark building. Packing a movement with nuance even at extremely fast speeds is one of Mori's great talents.

Finally, near the end of 2003, Mori animated a bit near the end of ep 13 of the ROD TV series, which also happens to feature some nice work by Takeuchi Tetsuya. Here we see the opposite end of the scale. Rather than extremely fast movements, we see Mori handling natural phenomenon such as water and smoke seen from a distance, moving at a very slow timing, with very spare use of drawings. With Mori, whatever the action, you get the feeling that he is always consciously manipulating the frame rate, modulating it with stop-on-a-pinhead precision to achieve just the right effect. That is perhaps his real defining trait. Rather than simply taking the frame rate for granted, it is one of his primary tools, and one of the things that makes his animation feel unique. Few people mess with the frame rate in as complex and unrelenting a way as Mori.

During the year 2004 Mori was occupied working on Samurai Seven. Mori drew some of his best work to date for this series, not least the "solo" half-episode he animated (a portion of which can be viewed here). The episode acts as a condensed overview of Mori's stylistic preoccupations, from the curious, rough and very refreshing design style to the highly controlled but typically esoteric timing. The dance is a great example. He leaves a lot of space between those drawings, far more than seems prudent, but the timing and poses are so wonderfully insane that it makes for very odd but highly pleasurable watching. During the chase we can see the curious way Mori gear-shifts with his movement, going from very quick moment to slower moment to quick moment, like a pendulum swing. It's very exciting to watch as animation. The furrowed, jagged lines create a nice texture on the screen. That's another thing about Mori - his lines play an active role in his animation. They have a mind of their own. Like a magician conjuring shapes from thin air, often the screen will be filled with lines that seem to come from nowhere. People often seem to forget that animation is made of lines, but Mori is one of the rare animators who can make every single line count as an integral part of the motion, and on top of that create lines that are always beautiful and speak something of their own. Even in a shot where nothing is moving, Mori's lines alone create a thrilling visual texture.

One of my favorite pieces of animation by Mori came not in episode 7 of Samurai Seven but in episode 23, where we see a character dodging a drill-like projectile and slicing a robot in two. It's a very short segment, but one of his densest, and seems to be indicative of the direction he wants to go in. This segment consists of only a handful of shots, but it achieves a spellbinding effect through dynamic camera action with constantly shifting perspectives and unpredictable animation. If Mori has been striving to find a way to achieve the perfect feeling of rhythm in his animation, this is one of his best successes. Here each shot comes in at millisecond precise timing to create a relentlessly piled-upon forward momentum in perfect symbiosis with the animation, which is more masterfully controlled than ever. The timing varies from each moment, the images change at bewildering speed, bizarre forms and colors play across the screen. It's a very rewarding sequence to study frame by frame, each shot taking a different approach but always packed with tremendous imagination and effort.

Mori's next gig was probably Mamoru Hosoda's full-length feature debut, the One Piece: Baron Omatsuri film of 2005. His section was easily identifiable - the climactic punch (8:06 here). Again, the casting felt perfect. Hosoda is a great judge of how a drawing will fit in at any particular moment. Mori's drawings are left intact, and the strangely unstable drawings help to establish a feeling of instability and tension that heightens this cathartic moment. The Count's world is crashing down around him, and the lines seem to express that. As he is punched, the screen changes to a torrent of pure black lines on a bright white background, the count's face warping demonically. The shot breaks things down to the bare essentials of animation - pure line. No color or anything else distracts from the impact of watching Mori's lines metamorphose. It was good to see Mori working under Hosoda again for the first time in many years on the occasion of his full-length feature debut.

Mori was then involved in another TV series for Gonzo, Speed Grapher, in an unusual capacity for him: "design works". He was co-credited with his comrade Hiroyuki Okuno. What that means, I don't know, but it probably means providing all the various non-character design ideas for the show. I'd be very curious to see his designs in the raw, as that's a side of his work I've never seen, and I suspect it must be very interesting stuff indeed. The production quality on the show was so low that it feels like a bit of a waste, as I doubt whatever he designed wound up being drawn very well. Unfortunately it appears he wasn't directly involved as an animator this time. I suspected Mori would be drifting away from Gonzo since that show, but he did turn up briefly in the latest alternative Gonzo TV effort, Welcome to the NHK - very briefly, for just one shot of a plane landing as far as I can tell.

Mori's next major gig was one of the best of his career thus far, longer than any other piece he's done, and of higher quality than ever before: the Doraemon 2006 movie. It was extremely surprising to see him animating a kid's show like Doraemon so well known for its simple, clean drawings alongside other individualistic animators like Shinji Hashimoto. But what was even more surprising is that they all did work just as intensely individualistic and expressive as one would expect, and their work was all left intact - and it works perfectly in the film. The people who made this film knew what they were doing, and knew what good animation was about. They took a style of animation that you would normally never had dreamed would work in a particular series, and through sheer love and conviction made it fit in perfectly, not only benefiting the material but providing it with a never-before-seen richness, expanding its possibilities. I've been meaning to write about this movie for some time, as it was a real eye-opener.

The scene (5:39 here) showcases everything that makes Mori unique - the hyperkinetic intensity of the action, the realistic timing combined with the loose woobly line, the liberal use of effects, the modulating between different frame rates, and between very dense and fast animation and very spare animation. It's possibly the most intense and thrilling moment in a film already full of fantastic animation. The phrase that springs to mind watching it is controlled chaos. Like Ohira's recent work, Mori's work is becoming denser and denser, sometimes approaching the realm of abstract animation, yet you can always follow what is going on. It masterfully treads the line of providing an intense animated kick and remaining a comprehensible action.

One of the main things that has attracted me to Japanese animators is the fact that the anime industry has provided the more resourceful and ambitious animators out there with a rare opportunity - the opportunity to turn the disadvantage of having to work with virtually no schedule or money or resources into the advantage of relative stylistic freedom. Yoshinori Kanada was among the first to embark on the journey of discovering his own personal style of animation in the 70s working on TV shows in what were probably pretty challenging circumstances. He showed that there could be a new way not just to create and appreciate animation, but to approach one's job as an animator. He didn't look down on limited as offering no possibility, but showed that something new could be created even with limited animation, inspiring many along the way to do the same - to try to find new ways of making animation thrill viewers. Since then, many others have carved out their own unique niches in the industry, perhaps best exemplified today by Shinya Ohira, who is able to create animation pretty much as he wishes within the confines of otherwise conventionally stylized productions. The reason I respect Hisashi Mori is that he has also managed to devise his own original and fairly radical style of animation, and at the same time make it fit within the system. He's someone who has a clear idea in his mind what makes animation thrilling, and works continuously to hone his art. In the end, all that really matters is that he is creating some of the most consistently interesting animation out there, when he doesn't really have to. I have nothing but respect for that.

Hisashi Nakayama

Sailor Moon S #37 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno KA)

Jusenshi Galkiba #18 (KA)
Ogon Yusha Goldran #28 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno AD)
Sailor Moon: Ami-chan's First Love (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita & Mamoru Hosoda KA)

Sailor Moon: Sailor Stars #17, 21, 28, 32 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno KA 126)
Dragonball movie (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita & Mamoru Hosoda KA)

Cutey Honey Flash #5, 23 (KA)
Voogie's Angel #2 (mecha AD)
Hell Teacher Nube movie (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita KA)

Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy (KA) (Mamoru Hosoda, Hideki Hamasu KA)
Giant Robo #7 (KA)
Eve the lost one game (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita & Hideki Hamasu KA)

Tenamonya Voyagers #2 (KA) (Masashi Ishihama CD/AD, H. Okuno, T. Yamashita KA)
Power Stone #20 (KA)
Kindaichi Movie 2 (KA)
Digimon Adventure (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita AD, Hiroyuki Okuno, Masashi Ishihama KA)

Mushrambo #2, 9, 20 (Hiroyuki Okuno AD)
Digimon Adventure: Children's War Game (AD/CD) (Takaaki Yamashita AD)

Virgin Night (Scene Design, Layout, KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno D/KA)
Spirited Away (KA)

Digimon Adventure 02: Hurricane Touchdown (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita AD)
Palme no Ki (KA)
Square of the Moon #2 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno director)

Crash Gear Turbo #68 (final) (KA)
The Big O #15 (KA) #21 (mecha AD) (Hiroyuki Okuno KA 26)
Interstella 5555 (KA)

Hisashi Mori

ROD TV #13 (KA)
Tokyo Godfathers (KA)

Samurai Seven (design works) #2, 7, 17, 18, 23 (KA) (Hiroyuki Okuno D/S/AD/KA)

Omatsuri Danshaku to Himitsu no Shima (KA) (Takaaki Yamashita AD)
Speed Grapher (design works) (w/Hiroyuki Okuno, Masashi Ishihama CD)

Doraemon: Nobita no Kyoryu 2006 (KA)
Kemonozume #5 (KA)



Random person
Random person [Visitor]

I can only offer cursory comments in reply to your excellent, insightful piece on a worthy animator. Thank you very much for spending the time to write such a lengthy article on Hisashi Mori - I really appreciate the effort you took in describing, in each case, what it was about Mori’s animation that made him stand out from the rest of the crowd. Seeing you trace his stylistic path from the 90s to his current self was also very insightful and an eye-opener.

Sometimes, I must admit, there have been times when I have to stretch my imagination a bit to understand what you are talking about when dissecting and appraising animators’ sequences.
Hence, it is really valuable seeing the way you describe and break down these scenes in order to understand the frame in which you view movement. For lack of a better phrase, Benkyou ni narimasu.

I really think it’s a damn pity that despite the popularity of anime, you seem to be the only one giving these animators due justice (in English, anyway) by making a breakdown of their works and showing so clearly what it is about them that deserves to be respected.

I think even when I look back on all the pieces of anime that I’ve enjoyed - much of it had to do with the unthanked, silent animators who worked their magic and brought along something that really brimmed with genuine feeling and impact… Rewatching that Square of the Moon excerpt reminded me of that.

Most people would be quick to criticize Mori on the superficial ‘ugliness’ from things like Samurai 7 - but I think it’s all the more admirable that he dared to strip off the pretty ‘outer clothing’ and bring it down to the essence of animation, playing around with the fantastic array of possible animations within his head and then drawing it out on paper. It’s those sort of things that, I think, truly move the more ‘mainstream’ good animators (Inoue, Matsumoto etc.) to infuse good movement with their drawings. And heck, it’s the movement that really makes the difference. I still remember my friends being completely flabbergasted after I showed them Aquarion 19, and then showed them presumably Utsunomiya’s part in the 4th FMA OP. If people could just shut their minds off to looking only at the prettiness of the faces, there’s so much more to be appreciated!

I never knew about Mori in Afro Samurai - I haven’t been keeping up with the latest sakuga news these days - but now that you mention it, I’m definitely going to check it out. Thanks so much for the heads-up - and again, for the wonderful article as well.

All that’s left is - when will you add him to your Karisuma Animators list? If you can include Sueyoshi Yuichirou as a younger animator, I feel Hisashi Mori deserves a place as well.

01/12/07 @ 10:39
Muffin [Visitor]

And a happy new year to you. I don’t think I could put it any better than Random person. But thanks a bunch for yet another invigorating article. I’m sometimes not sure what would have become of my appreciation for anime if you hadn’t been around. I can’t think of anyone else who consistently writes with your level of unpretentious insight and clarity on the subject. And your writing certainly doesn’t limit itself to technical observations. Your level-headed(yet passionate) evaluations of the overall storytelling/filmic qualities of various films/series has consistently made more sense to me than just about any other film -or anime reviewer I’ve been reading.

01/12/07 @ 15:11
Ben [Member]  

Thanks so much, guys. I really appreciate that. And I’m glad to hear this made some sense. Gambarimasu!

RP, I’ve actually been kind of unsure how to deal with the Karisuma Animators page. I haven’t added anyone since I first created it before starting this blog. I was considering just leaving it as it is, but perhaps I should keep it up to date after all. You’re right that if Sueyoshi can be on there, any number of other great animators should be on there…

01/13/07 @ 10:59
Random person
Random person [Visitor]

Well, I just thought it would be a handy place for putting together your nicely-compiled filmographies of various animators, so that one can have one place to find all the various filmographies, with short descriptions of each animator. A Hall of Fame of sorts, if you wish.

But of course, it’s only if you have the time to get down to doing it.
It’s really just a matter of convenience and ‘niceness’ - and either way, the unlisted filmographies are available if one just learns to search a wee bit, and that’s what really matters.

01/13/07 @ 21:04
Ben [Member]  

No, you’re absolutely right. I do need something of that kind to organize everything into one place so that it is more easily accessible and clearly formatted. As it is, with everything scattered around in the back-log, I know it’s a little inconvenient. I just haven’t quite figured out what the best way to organize everything would be. It’s definitely something I’ll try to do in the near future. The ‘yearbook’ post was kind of a first step in this direction, getting a rough idea what needs better organizing.

01/14/07 @ 11:40
enrico Casarosa
enrico Casarosa [Visitor]

loved this piece … thanks so much Ben. Beautifully written too.

Amazing that he didn’t work for Kemonozume !!! He belonged in there so much!! I hope he gets to work with Yuasa.

So much fun to freeze frame the samurai 7 sequences by him … what wonderful drawings …

very inspiring …
thanks again !!!


01/18/07 @ 23:12
Ben [Member]  

Thanks, Enrico. Oh, but he did work on Kemonozume.

Sorry I forgot to mention that…

01/19/07 @ 00:09
enrico Casarosa
enrico Casarosa [Visitor]

ah ok! Seemed strange .. cool !



01/20/07 @ 11:57
Ben [Member]  

Nice call, Enrico. I was also hoping he’d turn up, and was really happy when he did in that episode.

01/21/07 @ 16:55
Dustin Softleigh
Dustin Softleigh [Visitor]  

Hi. I like your views on Hisashi Mori and I would like to say I am following in his footsteps in animation. I am a 13 year old male in the 8th grade going to 9th and I am studying animation, though lessons are only in 10th grade and higher. I have been looking for the great animator of One Piece movie 6 and Digimon Adventure: Movie 1 and 2. After all my research I found out it was Hisashi Mori and I noticed that he didn’t animate many movies. When I came across this page I finally found out why. His real name is Hisashi Nakayama and has done many movies under that name. Thanx for the info and be sure to look out for animations similar to his style by me.

05/03/07 @ 12:57