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I've been looking forward to this episode, the penultimate one, because one of my favorite new animators of recent years, and an animator who has been doing a lot of great work on this series, has mounted his debut as an animation director on the episode - Ryotaro Makihara. Makihara first came to my attention for the work he did on the various Shin-Ei feature productions that showed him to be one of the best new animators at the studio. Masaaki Yuasa, of course, had done a lot of work on Shin-Ei's Crayon Shin-chan, so there is a deep-rooted connection, and it's perhaps less surprising to see Makihara coming to work under Yuasa now that he is presumably freelance, but it's nonetheless great to see.
Makihara's work is unique because he has a certain delicacy of touch that I haven't seen anywhere. He brings the characters' actions alive in a way none of the other animators do, not just in the movement but in the attention to detail in the acting, and in the expressions and posing, which are quite free and lively while always seeming just right and not sloppy or overdone. His animation convinces, while also feeling great in terms of the timing. His work emanates a kind of playful seriousness of purpose. He's one of the few of the new generation of animators over there who strikes me as approaching animation from a fundamental perspective, without being preoccupied by fads in terms of the approach to the timing or to the style of drawing. In Makihara and in general, Shin-Ei's legacy is obviously a focus on packing in as much movement as possible into this type of simple character rather than uselessly packing detail into the drawing to sell the character as a product, which goes rather against the dominant trend of the industry. I think any number of great scenes in Kaiba were as vivid and convincing as they were due to his ability to bring a character to life. Makihara is one of the few of the scads of new animators out there of whom I fully expect to see great things to come judging by what he's up to already. Makihara on the animation side and Akitoshi Yokoyama on the directing side are in my estimation the two biggest up-and-coming stars of this show. I could see their styles complementing one another, too, if they ever get together to do work, which would be great to see.
The episode was written and storyboarded by Masaaki Yuasa, and processed (directed) by Masahiko Kubo, who has handled a lot of the effects animation throughout the series. The animation of this episode was rich not only due to Makihara but due to the great list of animators on the episode, including Michio Mihara, Choi Eunyoung, Hideki Kakita, Jamie Vickers, Takayuki Hamada, et al, to say nothing of that core of women animators present throughout almost the whole series. This series has been characterized by the way a small team centered mostly on these figures have been behind the animation, maintaining a uniform level of quality and a feeling of unity.
As is usual in Yuasa's productions, you can never guess where things are going, particularly near the end, when he seems to pull one rug out from another from beneath you. In the second-to-last episode, the story still drives ahead satisfyingly, feeling like many of the threads are coming together and the narrative is coming to a head rather than just wheeling unpredictably out of control. I wouldn't claim to say I understand everything, but I'm actually OK not understanding everything when it's all as interesting as it is here, and there's too much that would need explanation anyway. He's elided and hinted just enough to get you by, although there are definitely things that can be hard to catch sometimes. I think Yuasa will probably continue down the road of simplifying his storytelling the way he has been, if just because he's heard a lot of people asking for precisely that, but I just hope he doesn't go too far, because that's the aspect that makes his storytelling so unique, compelling and refreshing.
The episode featured a great albeit short action sequence, and was otherwise exciting and satisfying. I'm delighted that Yuasa managed to create a series with such a feeling of unity to almost every episode, and look forward to seeing how it will wrap up.
This episode was one of the most emotionally compelling and convincing in the series, focusing as it does squarely on the past of the protagonists that has been hinted at here and there throughout the series. Finally, everything is laid bare - although what makes Yuasa's directing so unique is fully evident in this episode: Even while revealing everything that we've been curious about the past of the characters, he manages to do so without laying things on too thick, without filling in all the details, still leaving room for the imagination. Sometimes it's dissatisfying to be told everything. The lacunae are sometimes more telling.
Yuasa was writer, storyboarder and director of the episode for the first time since the first episode, and he had the luxury of having brilliant animator Masahiko Kubo as his animation director here. Not only that, but this episode is a perfect example of how a tiny team of well-chosen members can create something far superior to work by a large team working more disparately. Simply put, a total of five people were responsible for the main tasks. Kubo headed the animators, of which there were only three others, and each of them is a great animator - Ryotaro Makihara, Takayuki Hamada and Kenichi Yamaguchi. I know less about Yamaguchi, but Hamada and Makihara are each brilliant animators in their own right, so this episode was, needless to say, fantastically well animated and nuanced for such a small team. Not a stroke was out of place, and the acting planned by Yuasa was brought vividly to life by the animators in the wonderfully intimate scenes that make this episode so special and convincing.
Incidentally, Hamada and Makihara were both originally trained at Telecom, a studio that was considered something of the mecca for full-styled animation in Japan in the 80s, and which has put out any number of great animators, including some of the most interesting animators active today in Japan such as Shojiro Nishimi and Hiroyuki Aoyama. That training comes through vividly in both of their animation, which is at a basic level very fluid, but fluid in a nuanced way, and in a dynamic way. I don't know how Telecom does it, but they inherit precisely what it is that I so loved about Yasuo Otsuka's animation - a sort of loose, rough dynamism where every little movement is full of spunk and fire, without being sloppy. Their animation somehow provides a thrill exciting and broad, yet nuanced and delicate.
Yuasa started out as an animator, and even before that he was a fan of great animators. He still is, quite clearly. He has constantly kept an eye out for great animators, and in his work he is always getting people who are great animators, whom he knows will be a good match for the particular demands of what he is doing. This episode is a classic example of this. From Yuichiro Sueyoshi to Nobutake Ito to Ryotaro Makihara to Masahiko Kubo, the animators Yuasa chooses for his projects are each very different in their styles, yet they always seem a perfect match for what he is doing, and it's in his projects that they deliver what seems like the most incredible work they've yet done, not least because their compelling animation is part of a whole that is already so tremendously compelling. It's the ideal in animation - great animators bringing interesting ideas and stories to life. The story here would be interesting without their work, but it would not be as rich or nuanced. They're an indispensable part of the finished product. They've made a genuine artistic contribution in their own roles. My favorite classical form is the string quartet, because it provides the ideal balance between solo and large group, and the form can be both expansive and intimate at times. You can clearly follow how the four different players are contributing at each moment, each allowed to speak in their own voice, yet coming together to speak as one. This episode is something close to that - a virtuoso animation quintet. Of course, there are always a lot of other people involved in animation in addition to the people responsible for the core elements. The backgrounds in particular continued to be wonderful to look at.
It's not just that the animation is pretty to look at, it's that this episode was all about character psychology and characterization, and in order to succeed in bringing the characters to life so that their stories can seem convincing, they have to be brought to life in the little details of the way they behave, which is where the animators come in. The episode would have been less successful as a whole had life not been breathed into the little nuances of the behavior of the characters the way it was. This episode reminded me of episode 2 of Kemonozume, where we get an intimate look at the budding love of Toshihiko and Yuka. It's the most amorphous of the episodes in many ways, having been extemporaneously storyboarded by Yuasa without a script. It's animation in its purest form as a visual medium - the story in the mind of the creator coming alive not through the intermediary of words but directly into visual form.
This episode had that kind of spontaneous feeling, and also that same feeling of intimacy that was so moving and convincing about that episode of Kemonozume. You were really convinced that these were two people in love, and it was the seemingly throwaway scenes like the scene in the fountain or the scene on the rooftop, where you just see them hanging around talking, that this came through most powerfully. Here the scene on the bed was the salient scene in this sense, and one of the most memorable scenes of the series, with an honest, believable feeling of intimacy that I've only seen in animation in the work of Yuasa. It was a short episode to try to cram the entire back-story into, but I was amazed how he managed to create a feeling of welling emotion in the viewer heading towards the end, establishing their back-stories and personalities while still finding the time to create scenes of meandering beauty like the bedroom scene that in their honesty melt the heart of the viewer, all in such a short span.
Kemonozume was a fantastic series, but I find that Yuasa has really made progress as a creator with Kaiba. Although I'm not finished with the series, I'm happy to see that he has achieved what I was hoping he would at the outset - a feeling of stronger forward momentum and unity, both visual and narrative, than that of Kemonozume. He has created a perfectly honed arc, without any throwaway episodes, and he has integrated strong characterization into a simultaneously more complex but also more coherent and thoroughly conceived story and world.
I'll be away for the next two weeks exploring the caves of Dunhuang, so unfortunately I'll be in suspense about the ending for a while to come. To make up for my negligence of the blog during that time, here's a little parting tidbit that should please fans of Kaiba: Yuasa is right now working his next project at Madhouse. The producer of Kaiba mentioned it in the column on Madhouse's site. Yuasa has gotten to do so much fantastic work already thanks to Madhouse, far more than I would have expected - two whole highly unusual and experimental TV series. I'm grateful that Madhouse gave him and continues to give him opportunities. This particular column is about episode 10, where Yuasa mentions he had to do the storyboard for this episode faster than he would have liked. He also mentions something interesting - he meant to be more thorough in giving each character a particular habit or tic that would identify them from body to body, but wasn't able to do it as thoroughly as originally intended. But the signs are there if you pay close attention. As with everything Yuasa does, it's quite subtle - Popo wiping his nose, etc.
Also, as a big fan of Akitoshi Yokoyama's work, I was very happy to see that he was given the chance to write one of the columns. Not only is it great to see his raw drawings (he started as an animator), but in his comments about his work on the series, he reveals himself to be just as thoughtful and intelligent as his episodes suggested, truly thinking about what it means to be working in animation, to be working in film. A conscientious director who puts his all into everything he does, and asks himself hard questions. Like I have many times over the years, he ponders the question of whether animation is truly up to the level of cinema, and also, whether his job is to create art or entertainment. Tough questions that can't easily be answered. The experience of working on Kaiba seems to have given him a shot of courage to believe that the answer to the former question, whether animation can really achieve the level of cinema, can indeed be: Yes. In my opinion, he has created work that, by functioning at the highest level as entertainment, manages to cross over into the realm of art. There's great value in lacking a sense of certainty about the meaning of your work, whatever that work may be, and continuing to ask yourself tough questions. It's the only way good art can be made. Yokoyama makes the intriguing comments that even he isn't sure what the characters were thinking when they said what they did. As it is in real life, sometimes what we say isn't what we really mean, and sometimes there are important things about ourselves that we can never say even to those closest to us. For having thought as deeply as he did about the characters and the meaning of their actions, Yokoyama was one of this series' greatest assets.
Akitoshi Yokoyama had me glued to the screen through the white-hot intense plot developments of this episode, which he handled with his usual brilliance as storyboarder and director. With the exception of Michio Mihara's episode 4, the more expository and episodic episodes 2 through 7 were all co-written written by the episode directors with chief director Masaaki Yuasa, while from episode 8 onwards each episode is written exclusively by Yuasa as we turn the focus on the meat of the plot involving the large cast of characters, the particulars of which clearly only the creator himself would be able to manipulate the right way. I find that this shifting structure lends the series strength. It has a feeling of richness and doesn't get old, with a varied tone and approach to the material as we progress, while even the episodes that are not driving the plot forward contribute to building up the show's unique atmosphere and visual ethos. Holding out by building things up for the first half also winds up creating a great feeling of payoff when we finally approach the climax and are rewarded by being plunged into the intense and intricately crafted plot.
I don't know quite what to say about this episode, as Yokoyama's directing speaks for itself, and what is interesting is now really the plot and how it progresses. Everything here works as a hermetically sealed unit, the ideal in animation, creating a feeling of dramatic intensity that is found rarely in anime but for the films of the best directors. I found myself dreaming of seeing a feature-length film with this level of intensity and imagination. Many anime strive to create this sort of intensity, to give their plot developments powerful impact, and otherwise get the audience involved in the characters and the goings on, but at least personally, I find that it rarely works, and I wind up kind of feeling alienated and watching from the sidelines as things kind of go off on their own. Here I find myself carried along, engaged, really into what's happening. I think that's because in most cases there is just too much reliance on convention in the various elements, so that it feels like something I've seen before and lacks the surprise to get me to want to watch - like we're riding along on the same old rails. It doesn't feel like things are developing of their own momentum the way things do in Kaiba, but that rather they're following the textbook pattern for dramatic structure. It's when you break beyond that that things become interesting.
This is one of the things that anime is supposed to be so good at, these vast epic stories. I think a lot of people seek that from anime. Lots of anime attempt to do this, with a large casts of characters and complex stories, trying to create a sense of a vast scale with a large cast. But more often than not, either the characters are just the same set of stereotypical characters, or the story and directing are all things we've seen before in different settings, and it just doesn't work. Kaiba, particularly in the last few episodes, is impressive to me because it succeeds in constructing a plot that is epic, involves a large cast, is full of imaginative elements in the design and world setting, and more than anything, perhaps, the characterizations are layered, believable, and convincing. This is clearly a different beast from Kemonozume. Yuasa has really thought about how to present this story in a way that paints a vast canvas by way of the brushstrokes of the stories of the individual characters. The previous series was small-scale, focused on the plights of individuals in a situation beyond their control, whereas this one seems large-scale, more of a historical epic, albeit in a fantasy context. Obviously, Kaiba is a very short series, but I think they've achieved an impressively expansive scale in such a short span. It's more about how the material is handled than about the quantity of material.
The animation director of this episode was the main character designer, Nobutake Ito, so together with the directing by Yokoyama and the script by Yuasa, this was a dream team episode. We often have surprise guests in each episode, and in this episode we find Hideki Hamasu, that amazing animator of vivid and rich movement, and mainstay of Satoshi Kon's films. The other animators were all familiar from previous episodes, including the group of women animators and the Madhouse mainstays Takuo Noda and Nobumasa Arakawa. At the bottom there was a mysterious person credited only as "ROSE". The animation came together nicely in the climax of the episode, as it tends to in episodes directed by Yokoyama. He creates these thrilling climaxes filled with great animation and cathartic explosions of vivid colors.
Another thing I like about Kaiba is that it succeeds in using space in a very effective way. The characters fly around through their environment, the camera zooming around following them, really interacting with the strange worlds that make Kaiba so unique instead of just using them as static background props. This is an issue I've always had with anime and wanted to see attacked more forcefully. There seems to be too much willingness to fall back on a conventional plane mentality when it comes to staging and layout, which I suppose is partly due to the material, which is usually essentially based on real-world physics, partly the realistically proportioned designs, and partly the nature of the medium, which doesn't particularly make flying around through an environment an easy thing to animate. I guess that's why I've always had a special place in my heart for animators who do background animation, and directors who effectively integrate it. It's as if the knowledge of how difficult it is to do, combined with the simple thrill of how cool it looks, creates an impact that flying through a CGI environment can't touch. Kaiba uses that innate potential of animation effectively in many sequences, including the climax of this episode.
I'm so behind on Kaiba it's not even funny. The series finished broadcasting weeks ago, but I didn't have time to write my thoughts about this episode, which I actually watched for the first time over a month back, so I got stuck and couldn't watch the rest. With only four more to go after this one, I'm going to slowly make my way through to the end, savoring each episode.
I just watched this episode several times, which is what it took to finally get to the point where I felt I knew what had happened. The script is actually brilliant, this time written solo by Yuasa. The details of every line are fantastic in the Japanese, full of that great ellipsis of details that Yuasa is so good at. Through the script here he carefully presents particular pieces of the puzzle one by one, here and there, slowly bringing the big picture to light, creating a great feeling of building tension, and masterfully weaving the various players into the converging unfolding narrative. This episode creates a great feeling of excitement and anticipation, as you sense that things are going to start really moving. Things almost go too fast to be able to follow what's happening, but it makes for a richer experience the way he does it. Watching this episode I actually thought this was perhaps the first TV anime I'd seen that achieved something of the feeling of epic scale of Future Boy Conan, as different as the two shows are in the details.
Choi Eunyoung of episode 5 backs Yuasa's brilliant script up perfectly as storyboarder, director and animation director, confirming the smart and sophisticated sensibility we discovered in the wildness of episode 5, which is here focused to the task of revving the engine on the story heading into the final lap. It's as if we've gear-shifted from the middle transitional portion where we explored side-stories that fleshed out the world of Kaiba, into the meat of the overarching story.
This was Popo's episode, and the early parts at the meeting where we're first given budding insight into Popo's past and consequent conflicted position in the group were very well handled by the directing, with the tripartite mental image of Dada merging with the image of a youthful Popo - a touch subtle enough to not give anything away blatantly, but clear enough to deepen the meaning and impact of the scene upon repeated viewings. The color sensibility of this episode was also as exceptional as episode 5, with a different color palette seeming to accent the tone of each major scene, ranging from the blue of the opening where the atmosphere is heavy to the yellow of the ending where the mood is ascendant and prospects are opening up for the characters.
Choi's drawings litter the episode in a patchwork fashion that works wonderfully to give the episode visual richness, interspersed as they are with great work from all the regulars including that maniac Michio Mihara, who apparently hadn't done enough doing a whole episode himself, and here provides numerous bits in various places. Rather than big chunks being done by one person, the style here is more scattered. The great scene at the dinner table with Jakuchu and Neiro seemed maybe like the work of Ryotaro Makihara, though I'm not sure. Also the scene of the two near the end of the underground museum scene (the rest being Choi). Just a guess tho. Masahiko Kubo was there too, though I don't have a good enough sense of his style to say what he did. He's too versatile. (as if that were an insult) Maybe the memory sections - the pre-op & wrestling memory? I remember a bit of rich, fluid animation of Vanilla running at the end of episode 2 reminding me of some running in here. It's funny that Choi's listed as animation director, because it doesn't look like she corrects anything. Her shots jump out, and they're fantastic as usual. Who needs to when the animators are this good?
The names of the characters are interesting. I just figured out that Jakuchu is named after a wonderful Japanese painter of the 18th century. I wasn't aware of him at all, but upon looking at some paintings, I was stunned by their masterful formal stylization. I didn't think anyone had done this kind of painting back then. His paintings of birds in particular are magnificent, a sophisticated blend of realism with meticulous stylization. I can see why Yuasa would admire his work, if that's what it is. A nod of respect to a great sempai.
This episode marks a return of the tone and quality of the first three episodes, and what a welcome return it is. The intervening episodes have been fascinating vivid individualistic excursions into the wild worlds of Kaiba, but I have to confess to being delighted to be back in the ether of that earlier tone, with that touch of line and style of directing that got me hooked at the beginning. I don't think it will be a straight line in this style from here on out judging from what I've seen before, but I have to confess to being partial to what the team here has done with the material. Quite simply, this was a stunning episode that did everything I had wanted from the series - showing off fascinating design ideas in the characters and world through vivid, rich, colorful animation that danced around the screen, combined with brilliant directing tying together the various threads of the narrative into a tightly wound whole.
The team to thank is the venerable duo responsible for episode 3 - storyboarder, director and co-writer (w/Yuasa) Akitoshi Yokoyama and animation director Nobutake Ito. I'd been girding my loins for this episode, and it did not disappoint. Building up slowly, the second half of this episode gradually ratchets up the tension until exploding in one of the most hair-raising, moving, deftly constructed climaxes of the series. I am deeply impressed with how Yokoyama seems to add to his directing powers with each new episode I've seen from him over the last few years. Watching Yokoyama grow with each episode of Kaiba reminds me of watching Tweeny Witches eagerly looking forward to Yasuhiro Aoki's next episode to see how he would continue to extend his directing powers. I hope Yokoyama continues to build on what he's achieved as a director so far, as I think he shows tremendous potential. I know of few people working in anime today with a directing sensibility as finely tuned as his.
Yokoyama again interweaves flashbacks into the narrative, in the process revealing a lot about the relationships between the various characters. He hints at other elements of the back story, deftly treading the fine line between giving too much and too little away. I thought was the first time the various narrative threads had been effectively woven into the fabric of the narrative since episode 2. The presentation of the various flashbacks in the second half made for visuals of tremendous richness and variety, showing Yokoyama again putting a great deal of thought into how to present the material so as to make every moment full of surprises and thereby maintain strong forward momentum and visual interest. Not a shot passes that doesn't show the care of the director either in the form of interesting visuals or great animation. Testifying to his attention to detail, I notice a new significant hidden element almost every time I rewatch this episode.
The drawings of this episode were very strong thanks to the work of the animation director. The designs had the aloof, clean simplicity of the early episodes that Ito is so good at, and the world of this episode was particularly well rendered. It really felt like the characters inhabited this unusual world, rather than the characters simply having been placed over a drawing of an unusual planet. Care was given to creating a feeling of depth, which was clearly important for an underwater world, as the characters literally have to swim through their environment, rather than walk on a flat plane. This came through particularly well in the action sequence preceding the climax, which was easily the most riveting action sequence since the chase at the beginning of the first episode.
I'd venture to say this was the most powerful action sequence in the series because of the brilliant way the action was tied into the tragic progression of the story. Exciting animation + moving story = brilliant animated filmmaking. Even with the sound off watching this climax is quite something, with the rich animation of the ships flying around the screen, and the way what is happening is clearly communicated through the drawings. Beyond being great animated filmmaking, it's great visual storytelling. Through this series Yokoyama has revealed his gift for creating highly moving drama. I'm rarely moved by anime that is supposed to be moving, and find the majority of tear-jerker anime simply manipulative. Yokoyama's work is the rare exception that is powerfully moving, as intended. Yokoyama elegantly brings a sense of closure to the arc of the girl who was introduced in episode 3, which he handled, by capping her final moments with a reference to the pink rubber boots that played a big role in her previous life. His love comes through particularly clearly in the gorgeous visuals that cap the climax, which he obviously put a tremendous amount of work into in terms of the colors and processing. The climax of this episode is unmistakably one of the most striking scenes in the series, or of any anime I've seen in recent years for that matter.
This episode by this core duo was backed up by a bevy of good animators, headlined by Ryotaro Makihara, who is turning out to be one of the pillars of Kaiba's animation. I'm almost tempted to call him Kaiba's main animator due to the frequency of his appearances and the amount of work he has obviously put into his animation. I couldn't be happier to see him doing so much great work under Yuasa. I wonder if he wasn't responsible for a big part of the chase at the end, and by inference also the action scene at the beginning of episode 1. I'm not really sure, though. Other animators of note in this episode include Ikuo Kuwana, of SFA Generations fame, Akira Honma and Akira Amemiya. Chuji Nakajima is apparently known for his action scenes, although I don't know his work at all so I can't speculate what he might have done.
Even apart from the action scenes, this episode's drawings were a delight from start to finish. For some reason I got a vibe of Osamu Tanabe from a number of scenes, especially the scene at the airport. The funny drawings of the bystanders reminded me of his Doredore no Uta. The feeling of the ship as it jumped out of the water at the climax was particularly nice, with great momentum making it exciting to watch and being very organic, like a flying fish jumping out of the water flapping its body around. It almost seemed like an homage to the flying fish in the great scene animated by Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island. The editing of the director and the combination of the animation with the CGI also went a long way to providing this scene with real immediacy.
There was some interesting acting where Vanilla goes all heart-eyed, reminding of a similar scene in episode 3, which are the only two places I can recall Vanilla doing that kind of very distinctive exaggerated cartoon acting. Perhaps they were done by the same person, as there is a lot of overlap between this episode and episode 3 - namely Akira Amemiya, Nagisa Nagashima, Shoko Nishigaki, Aiko Wakatsuki, Natsuko Shimizu and Miki Wasada. The latter four have actually been involved throughout the series, I just noticed. Natsuko Shimizu in particular has been in every single episode except for Mihara's episode 4. Ditto for Miki Wasada, minus one episode. These four women must be among the core key animators at Madhouse supporting the animation of Kaiba.
I don't think I'd be able to come up with something to say about each and every episode of a TV series if it didn't feature the unflagging richness and relentless stylistic unpredictability of Masaaki Yuasa's TV shows. Each episode is filled with an abundance of things that make it stand out as a unique creation, rather than just one in a line of identically manufactured products. In that sense it almost reminds me of Group Tac's long-running Tales of Old Japan omnibus of Japanese folktales, where every episode was done in a different and very imaginative style by a different team, with many of the episodes by single individuals. There are more differences than similarities, obviously, notably in terms of the amount of work packed into those solo episodes in the case of Yuasa's shows, but they share something of the same dedication to filling the screen with ideas that are interesting as animation. There's not a moment where we fall back on the crutches of convention. It's almost exhausting to see work that remains so defiantly fresh at every moment.
I watched this episode a while back, but just re-watched it, and I liked it a lot more this time around. I felt that it was a bit jumbled the first time around, with a bit of shakiness in the dramatic line, but this time around I didn't feel bothered by that at all, and felt quite moved by the episode for some reason. The episode wasn't necessarily setting out to be a tearjerker or anything. I suppose it's just that, as before, it manages to evoke these profound veins of resonance in the viewer in the course of the narrative.
This episode is somewhat of a mirror to episode 9 of Kemonozume in the sense that it's another episode about an aged couple traveling around in their twilight years. There were a number of elements that moved me about it. First and foremost is the turn of events that takes this seemingly content and satisfied elderly couple enjoying their last few years together, and shatters their illusion of happiness into a million pieces. Kaiba is nothing if not brutal and brutally honest about the human condition and the frailty and flaws of memory. It's a devastating moment that speaks volumes about the unknowable depths of the mind and the thoughts and memories we keep hidden from ourselves and our loved ones to maintain a semblance of happiness. Most devastating was to see the old man continue on his way with his brain-dead wife because her body was still "alive and well".
This series at heart is all about the question of what defines us as human beings - our memories, our bodies? Both? Neither?? To some extent it is our memories, but who we are is without any doubt molded by our bodies. There's a sublime sense of identity confusion created by having the protagonist, who is male but currently occupies a female body, in this episode encounter his onetime lover, a female who currently occupies a male body. Their actions (and hence feelings and thoughts) are driven by the lusts of their bodies. It's a situation that's simple but also ingenious and thought-provoking. It takes a while to wrap your head around the mix of genders and identities, but the confused feelings of the protagonists in the odd circumstances are convincingly portrayed. The amusement park where you can peer into the disembodied memories of the deceased was one of the more chilling and biting moments of the episode. One shot near the end showed a wall of round picture frames on the wall of the old couple's ship, shaped like the memory blobs. It seemed a deft ironic comment on how the old woman came to the planet to peer into other people's memories, but instead wound up losing her own. So as usual, there is a lot to be discovered in each shot of the episode. It's densely packed, meaningful storytelling.
In terms of the staff, one of the main figures behind this episode is another emigree animator, like last episode's Choi Eunyoung, who has been making a name for himself in the last few years in an industry otherwise dominated by natives - Jamie Vickers. Jamie was co-storyboarder and animation director. Tomoya Takahashi was co-storyboarder, director and co-writer (with Yuasa). If the episode felt a little mixed up, perhaps it's because there were so many hands at work. Jamie's drawing style is not as unmistakable as Choi's, but there is definitely a unique sense of timing and drawing at work here that sets this episode apart, particularly so the scenes involving Vanilla. I wonder if he might not have been handled by Jamie. Vanilla is a useful character for getting a sense of each animation director's style. Stylistic differences from one episode to the next seem to show up most clearly in him for some reason. So one of the significant aspects of this series is that it represents one of the most visible recent instances of foreigners taking a lead role as creators within a totally Japanese production. Studio 4C, of course, led the way with Tekkon Kinkreet, and I noticed that Jamie provided animation in the opening segment of Genius Party by Atsuko Fukushima, so it's interesting to see the two most creatively fecund studios in Japan sharing many of the same talented faces, both foreign and local.
This episode featured a number of veteran animators, most notably Takuo Noda, who will be 70 next year and has a huge list of work to his credit dating back to 1967 when he first started out at Toei Doga. Among his more well known jobs was animation director of Genma Taisen. He continues working hard as a regular Madhouse animator, having recently animated the nice scene in Mamoru Hosoda's Tokikake where Makoto talks to the old woman. We also find Nobumasa Arakawa, another veteran who has been active for decades and continues to work on the front line. He was one of the main animators behind Future Boy Conan, and if I recall correctly, he animated one of my favorite bits in Tokikake, where Makoto leaps from the riverbank. In addition, we again find litmus animator Koichi Arai and Takayuki Hamada, both in the top spots. There was some very nice movement around where the old lady's memory is sucked out, so I'd suspect one of these guys, possibly Arai.
The designs of this episode really stood out with their extreme shapes sticking out every which way, and I assume them to have been created by Nobutake Ito. Every episode provides crazy new designs for not just the characters but also the features of the planet. The soft organic shapes of the buildings make for rich background images that are always a pleasure to gaze at. I have to re-emphasize the backgrounds, as the backgrounds of this series are such a pleasure to look at and really help define the show's unique visual atmosphere. I also like the way smoke and clouds are animated throughout the series, using these elegant round globular forms. I can remember seeing similarly shaped effects as far back as Cat Soup.
I'm falling way behind on Kaiba, so without further ado, I've now seen the fifth episode twice, and what a great episode it was. This episode is packed to the brim with punch and verve. For all its roughshod stylings, the episode is so vibrant and full of life that it makes you forget how different it looks from what came before. That's what Kemonozume was so great for - for shifting between all these different styles, but doing such a good job of it that it felt altogether natural. I started out expecting a different tack, a more evenly styled one, but with this episode I'm finally starting to get into the rhythm of the series, and to accept that it works quite well.
This was obviously the freest and most spontaneous feeling episode of the bunch in terms of the drawings - which isn't hard, because what came before was quite different, with a far more unified and clean look to the drawings. But I found the drawings and animation a sheer delight, and the episode won me over within seconds and maintained that tension through to the very end. I actually thought this episode felt closest in spirit to Yuasa's sensibility in terms of throwing off reams of interesting, colorful ideas in a torrent of off-the-cuff drawings.
The person to thank is Choi Eunyoung, the emigree animator who handled episode 6 of Kemonozume. In that episode of Kemonozume I felt Choi had done a great job of 'getting' what Yuasa was trying to do with that show, the direction he was trying to go with the drawings, with all those extraneous lines, and had done a better job than any of the other animation directors bringing that unique approach to life. Well, I think this time she's done an even better job. The drawings here are quite different from the previous episodes, but at the same time they strike me as being closer to Yuasa's spirit than any of the previous episodes, which made this feel like the most authentically 'Yuasa' episode yet.
Choi strikes me as the person who best brings alive the look and feel of Yuasa's conceptual drawings, which is something that you don't see very often, as in recent years the drawing side of things has been handled by other people. Choi's unique drawing style comes through very clearly in the early part of the episode, where she revels in creating the many oddly shaped characters who populate the city, and yet it feels like a perfect match with Yuasa's drawings. She has the talent to be able to create a balance that brings out the best of the underlying material, through her voice as it were.
Choi was, as per habit, co-writer (with Yuasa), storyboarder, director and animation director of the episode, and she handled a good chunk of the animation herself as well. This episode was in every sense her baby, although she didn't do everything herself. (there were five other animators) And what a beautiful baby. Every element of the episode was terrifically fun and convincingly handled. The directing was satisfying at every moment, briskly conveying this interesting side-story with its whacked out characters. The timing and angles of the shots were consistently excellent, far better than I would have expected, deftly balancing fun & free drawings with the typical seriousness of the story and underlying message.
The colors were very striking and had great impact in the early parts of the episode in particular, where snapshots of the city's strange scribbly denizens flash before our eyes in image after strikingly colored image, immediately establishing a unique atmosphere for this episode and its planet. I'm guessing this section was all drawn by Choi. The music was a perfect match, too, creating a sort of carnivaleque atmosphere that well suited the sinister and cynical mood of a planet where the value of life has been completely debased, and people discard their bodies at the drop of a hat when they become yesteryear's fashion. Overall, I can't say enough good about this episode.
A big part of the fun and unique atmosphere of this episode came from the madcap show put on by Shigeru Nagashima (a.k.a. "Cho"), who did an amazing job of bringing alive the character of Patch. Kenji Naikai similarly did a brilliant job bringing alive the insane antics of Ohba in episode 10 of Kemonozume. Yuasa is good at casting these great voice actors in these fun roles where they can go crazy and let loose, applying all their years of experience to the task, engaging in all these entertaining vocal acrobatics and improvisations. For some reason I couldn't get Kenichi Endo out of my head while watching this episode, thinking how great he would be if let loose on this kind of voice-acting role.
There were only a few animators other than Choi, but they included Ryotaro Makihara and Koichi Arai, two of my very favorite animators, who are turning up quite frequently. I'm not sure what Arai may have done, but that great close-up shot where Patch goes on a mad, saliva-spitting rant directly into the camera strikes me as looking like Makihara's work. Makihara exhibited a similarly overt Ohira influence in the chase scene he did for the Coo film, although that influence wasn't as obvious in his work on Doraemon. Here it's like he revels in the opportunity to finally be able to draw how he wants, creating this fantastically dense and thrilling shot. That other Madhouse emigree, Jamie Vickers, was also there, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he did in his own episode, which comes up next.
This series continues to surprise. Although I learned about it prior to watching the episode, the surprise this time around was to learn that Michio Mihara was back in the driver's seat with another solo episode. That's something I really wasn't expecting, even though Mihara did the same thing in episode 12 of Kemonozume. I didn't think Yuasa was going to be going in quite the same direction as his previous show in terms of delegating tasks in such way as to allow for wide variety of visual and directing styles between episodes, but the last two episodes have made me re-think my appraisal of the show's direction and character.
In an age of tight schedules and thinly stretched talent, the open displays of personality, devotion to craft and concentration of effort on display in this episode and in Mihara's previous solo episodes are certainly a refreshing aberration. Mihara is a unique animator who clearly has his own vision of what makes animation interesting. His work has an endearing earnestness about it, with these challenges he seems to pose himself time and again to keep on developing. The look and feel of his work is distinct from any other industry animator out there, with its rough-edged lines, grotesque caricature and weighty movement that brings out the physical tics that make a character unique. I think he sets a good example for other animators in terms of the way he thinks out of the box of typical stratified production roles and typical industry ideas and styles.
I've noticed an endemic ignorance about foreign animation among many animators and fans in Japan from interviews I've read here and there, with many people quite unaware of many foreign classics, but Mihara gives the appearance through his work of remaining open to ideas and approaches to art and animation from spheres far and wide. I find often that it's animators who absorb unusual influences who come up with the most interesting new ideas. Although Mihara hasn't done much other than animating prior to now, he's got a budding personal voice that seems to be struggling to emerge from the surface of his animation, having even gone so far as to produce a couple of quirky shorts on the side.
His recent shorts seem similar in spirit to what he's done in this episode, like two faces of the same coin. There seems to be a clear continuum of development from that early first attempt at a solo episode in Paranoia Agent to his first successful attempt in Kemonozume to those shorts and now to this solo-in-extremis episode of Kaiba. I'm reminded of old Toei animator Sadao Tsukioka, who traveled much the same path some forty years ago, drawing entire episodes of Wolf Boy Ken by himself only to get hooked on it and strike out on his own to create everything himself as an indie animator.
Much of Kemonozume had an indie animation feel to it. Mihara has achieved a similar hybrid/conundrum in terms of the production style here, having essentially made an animated film entirely on his own within a studio-produced series - an industry indie. He's upped the ante from his last solo effort, Kemonozume #12, in which he drew all of the key animation and most of the inbetweens. This time he did everything himself. He wrote, storyboarded, directed and drew all of the key animation and inbetweens - a total of 5170 animation drawings - by himself, over the span of 9 months. Mihara himself has jokingly wondered if it might get him into the Guinness Book of World Records. It's certainly an industry first as far as I know, and brings new meaning to the idea of the solo episode.
The feat itself makes the episode interesting, but you don't need to make concessions based on backstage knowledge to appreciate the episode. The results are solid and the episode stands on its own quite well. Mihara's innate talent for expressing character through facial or body tics is well showcased through this episode's simple characters, who act out their personalities in fun, nuanced movement. Not only does he draw it all himself - it doesn't sit still for a moment, and all of the motion is consistently full of his characteristic swagger and bounce, drawn with what almost seems like instinct in a few spare drawings. He doesn't waste the opportunity by chickening out, but faces it full bore and fills the episode with animation. The drawings themselves have that unmistakable Mihara look, although it's more subtle than his work on Kemonozume, so it doesn't risk wrecking the continuity of the characters. I find that's more important this time around. I don't know what procedure they've adopted in terms of finishing and cleanup, but the texture of Mihara's lines remains visible in the final product as it did in Kemonozume.
Beneath the surface of the drawings, the story continues in the vein of the previous episode, with another simple but moving story that gets across some universal truths about love, loss and memory. We move to a small backwater planet, where the protagonist stumbles across a diminutive grandmother living alone with her two grandsons in the middle of nowhere, and discovers a memory she's been suppressing all these years. I appreciated the episode for its exploration of issues related to growing old, notably the way denial becomes our defense mechanism in the face of the unbearable experience of losing your lifelong partner. It's a universal issue to which most of us will be able to relate to some degree. Episode 9 of Kemonozume was similarly an episode that painted the picture of an elderly couple, each with their burden of the debilities of old age. I appreciate that Yuasa continues to explore such unglamorous issues throughout his work.
The plot mechanism of being able to literally crawl into other peoples' memories makes for novel ways of presenting the material each episode, and Mihara does that well here. I'm pretty sure this is his first time storyboarding/directing an entire episode (he did bits of that ETC episode in Paranoia Agent), but I think he's done a pretty good job for a first effort. There's some interesting presentation during the inner psyche scene where the old lady explores the memories of her past. Yuasa himself started out working exclusively as an animator for a few years before Mitsuru Hongo suggested he give storyboarding a try. That escalated to writing and designing, and the rest is history. You've got to start somewhere. I wonder if this means we'll be seeing more storyboarding from Mihara in the days to come.
Viewing this episode in terms of the numbers - one man, 9 months, 5170 drawings - helped remind me of the vast amount of labor that is represented by each minute of animation that we consume and discard so casually. It renews my respect for anybody who, working in as challenging and financially unrewarding a line of work as animation, is willing to not just churn out the work but to go the extra mile of pushing the limits of their skills to pursue new animated possibilities they have yet to explore. That inevitably translates into long hours of tedious labor to which we on the other side remain oblivious. Maybe I'm overdoing it, but there's no getting around the fact that, in animation, we don't see the sweat and tears that had to go into the final product to stir our emotions, which is why I find it important to recognize the people behind the work. The people who have that special devotion like Mihara are the ones who create the special work.
Overall, Kaiba is turning out differently than I had imagined. After viewing the first two episodes, I was given to the impression that they were going to be sticking to a core team of craftsmen staff for the rest of the show rather than going the way of Kemonozume with a different small team handling each episode much the way they wanted. I thought they were going to be trying to maintain something of the same tone and quality of the first two episodes. But in fact, the production style seems to be veering closer to the Kemonozume model, as several upcoming episodes similarly seem to be one-person affairs in some form or another.
Episodes 3 and 4 were excellently made in their own way, but at the same time they seem quite different from the first two episodes. I liked the way in the first two episodes the various threads and main movers of the story were effortlessly juggled into the fabric of the narrative, hinting at things to come (you'll notice things already if you rewatch episode one now), while simultaneously providing many new and interesting visual and conceptual ideas around every corner, and fleshing out the workings of the world in which Kaiba found himself. The series was kicked into high gear by communicating many things on many levels right from the start. Yuasa is a great director because he has the rare ability to do this. I was surprised to see those threads abruptly dropped afterwards, with this exclusive focus on guest characters. The atmosphere of the show felt somewhat changed, with the rather different directing styles of the directors helming eps 3 & 4, which I found unfortunate, as it threw a wrench into that great forward momentum. Still, each episode continues to be filled with a tremendous amount of interesting stuff going on at every level, from directing to story to animation, so I think it's silly to complain. My initial expectations based on the first two episodes were probably a little too rigid. As I've said before, expectations are there to be betrayed. I'm looking forward to seeing where the story continues to go from here.
This episode surprised me a little bit at first, but won me over in the end. This is an exceptionally well crafted episode that stands up to repeated viewing thanks to the tight directing of exactly the person I spoke of in my previous post - Akitoshi Yokoyama, who is this time credited as co-writer (w/Yuasa), storyboarder and director of the episode. Character designer Nobutake Ito returns as the animation director. Hence, we have another tag-team from that duo who have created a string of the best episodes in recent memory, including Champloo 21 to Denno Coil 3.
This episode is clearly Yokoyama's baby, and watching the episode you can sense the amount of work he must have put into getting the balance of each shot and scene just right to achieve the overall dramatic effect he was striving for. A tremendous amount of information is covered and conveyed in the episode without any surfeit of dialogue, and without the episode feeling overburdened. It seemed to me that Yokoyama was here doing something similar to what Yuasa had done in Mind Game in the frequent flashbacks that litter the film and fill out the background stories of each of the characters. Yokoyama has clearly thought up an extensive background story for the characters of this episode, and he conveys that story elliptically through a series of flashbacks that nevertheless leave room for the imagination, requiring you to do a little work to figure out how things fit together. I watched the episode twice, and I found the episode more moving on the second viewing, when I felt like I was beginning to understand the characters. I remember experiencing something similar with Mind Game, as with repeated viewings the stories of the characters begin to gel in your mind.
On my first viewing I felt that the episode was a little too sharply episodic, and lacked something of the sense of the wonder of the first episode. At the same time, with this episode I finally felt like I understood the basic structure of the series: a shishkabob. Each episode a piece of meat further along the stick, a new body for the protagonist, a new background story further illuminating the nature of the curious world of Kaiba. I felt that the second episode rounded that episodic nature in a way that seemed more successful in the big picture by keeping the forward momentum strong, and by deliberately keeping the focus a little hazy, keeping you off-balance as to where the gravitational center of things stood.
That said, the quality of the episode is unimpeachable and Yokoyama makes it work. This episode sensitively explores the deeply human themes that underpin this series - the nature of the self, of what it is that makes us us - our bodies, or our memories? And it does so through a very simple, accessible mini-drama about a poor family. If I find myself so attracted to Yuasa's work, it's not just because of his incredible talent as an imaginative animator, designer and director - it's that whatever he is doing, and however different it might look from what came before, you know that he is exploring serious issues that matter to all of us humans. And he does it in a way that always resonates deeply with me, making me think about life and not take it for granted. Yuasa never puts his heart on his sleeve, and that's why I respect him. It's also precisely what makes his work is so convincing.
The subtlety with which Yokoyama interweaves the layers of meaning throughout the episode is quite impressive, as many a fleeting shot offers much more meaning than might be immediately apparent. The last shot, for example, is quite a cinematic stroke, using the vehicle of the series - the modularity of memory within the empty receptacle of the body - to create a painfully ironic visual double-meaning, with what looks like the girl, who is in fact Kaiba, seeming to cry for the tragic fate of her mother, when it's actually Kaiba crying for both. The various characters each cry at a moment in the episode, and each time it carries a subtly different but important weight of meaning. Innocuous moments in this series pack an immense wallop when the implied banality of their cruelty is considered - the ease with which a person's existence is released into the ether and forever lost. And then there's the bitingly ironic visual simile of the girl's bubbles, symbols of innocence. This is intelligent, densely layered work.
On the animator front, we saw a few interesting faces involved - first and foremost Soichiro Matsuda, one of my favorite new faces in recent years, a great new animator to whom Yuasa has come back often after seeing the work he did on the barroom battle in Kemonozume ep 1. He did a lot of good work on Kenji Nakamura's Mononoke. Also present were young Gainax rising star Akira Amemiya and good old Takaaki Wada, whom I haven't seen in a while. (he's been active - I just haven't been watching the right things) The backgrounds throughout the series have been really fantastic, a number of which I would even want to put a frame around and put on my wall they're so gorgeous. (failing that, one is now my desktop) I didn't think it would be possible to achieve the look of the backgrounds of Cat Soup in a larger-scale format such as this, but they've done a remarkable job.
Okay, so it looks like I'll be blogging Kaiba. Few things I watch these days inspire me with the desire to say anything. It's refreshing to be filled with words for once by the great work being done here.
This episode did just what I was hoping: It maintained the quality of drawing of the first episode and sustained the momentum of the story and the very unique dramatic tone established by the first episode. I have this habit of checking the credits before I watch an episode, after doing which in this case I was pretty optimistic going in that such would be the case. The episode is directed/co-written (w/Yuasa) by the eminently reliable Akitoshi Yokoyama, who handled episode 5 of Kemonozume and episodes 3 and 11 of Denno Coil, each of which are among the most solid episodes of their respective series. He's also an animator, having helped animate Kenji Nakamura's episode 10 of Kemonozume, among other things. He's one of the most reliable figures I know at the moment. Whatever he touches, it works big time. Thanks to him, this episode covered a wide range of interesting happenings while maintaining great forward drive and dramatic tension from scene to scene. On top of that, we have Ryotaro Makihara and Takayuki Hamada as animators again, along with, guess who, Koichi Arai, the litmus test animator I mentioned in the last post. Thanks to these great animators, this episode, like the first, is filled with wonderfully movemented acting by the characters. So far, so great.
The drawing side of things is sustained by a very reliable figure: Akira Honma. I was afraid the quality might dip very quickly once Nobutake Ito left the podium as animation director, considering how unusual these characters are. Ito remains as supervisor here, but Akira Honma does a great job of adapting to these very unique designs. I didn't sense any discrepancy. Although apparently a relatively young face, he's been an invaluable in-house resource throughout all of the most interesting Madhouse shows of the last few years - Kemonozume and Denno Coil - showing the malleability of a great animator craftsman. If we could maintain this same level of quality through to the very end, by continuing to go with the sort of talented craftsmen animators and directors we see here, then I think this series would attain a pretty high level of perfection. I doubt it's possible to avoid some unevenness considering the constraints of TV production, but the team they have assembled so far is very reassuring.
If I'm hoping that the quality of the animation and directing are maintained, it's because I'm getting a very good feeling from the story so far, which works on any number of different levels, and I wouldn't want anything to distract from that. While on the surface the show explores the landscape of a fascinating alien world full of unexpected shapes, colors and relationships, making every moment of the show a delightful process of discovery full of new stimuli for the audience, it simultaneously, subtly gets across a number of poignant messages about the human predicament, and that's what's making me very enthusiastic about it - it's got a real sense of depth. The show has a deceptively soft and cute look to the characters and colors that is betrayed by jarringly adult and powerful moments that keep you off-balance and give the show its unique tone and dramatic strength.
I was an oversensitive and depression-prone kid, and one of the things I remember pondering morosely in my moments of angst-induced existential dread was all the people in the world who had come before me - the thought that I had been preceded by billions upon billions of people, all of whom were now dead, memory of their existence completely eradicated. I doubt it's a thought that crosses most people's minds, out of the need to stay sane, but it's a fact of our existence. The scene where we realize the meaning of the yellow clouds reminded me of all that. It's a powerful moment where many of the developing themes in the series seem to converge. And it does all this without being either heavy-handed or alienating, wordy or pretentious. It's all done seamlessly via the unfolding drama, which is the stuff of great storytelling. Without even having to think about it, the story invokes elemental issues deeply rooted in our existence, quite unobtrusively, which in my mind confirms that Yuasa continues to grow and improve as a storyteller. The one thing that bothered me, for that reason, was that they had to wordily explain the concept before the opening in this episode. I thought that was unnecessary. The storytelling here is doing an amazing job of bringing this situation, these characters alive, gradually letting us in on how it all fits together, without having to explain anything. But it certainly is a very peculiar situation that would throw new viewers for a loop if they just tuned in, so I can sort of understand. The story has been developing brilliantly so far, without revealing too much too quickly and without it feeling like they're annoyingly holding back on you, with lots of really cool and weird characters, each with a clearly defined personality. I hope it maintains this pace.
Last time I noted a palpable Shin-Ei feeling to the first episode via the animators. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but I noticed in this episode that one of the voice actors is Wasabi Mizuta, no less - the voice-actor who recently replaced Nobuyo Oyama as Doraemon. In yet another connection, this new character named Butter is obviously an homage to Bakabon Oyaji from the old A Pro show Tensai Bakabon. I'm loving all of these connections.