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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« AsianimationKaiba #9 »

Saturday, September 6, 2008

06:43:18 pm , 1672 words, 2631 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #10

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.



William Massie
William Massie [Visitor]  

great posts as always Mr. E

Anything on the fall roster that catches your eye, aside from Manglobe’s Michiko and Hatchin nothing fazes me.

Haven’t been watching much, only regular show is BONES’ Soul Eater. The sakuga track record is similar to their other shows in terms of hit to miss ratios. About where FMA was but below Eureka 7.

Besides 1 and 2, there was some nice work in 6, 15,16 (this one especially) and most recently 23.

Then of course there is Bonen no Xamudo; another BONES joint. I’ve only taken a peak at that one but it’s more reminicent of Eureka seven (not only in terms of design, but in terms of attention to detail) over the work there is solid as well.

Minami confirmed a new FMA anime follow up in the spring I think. Here’s hoping it’ll look at least as nice as the original.

09/08/08 @ 17:58
William Massie
William Massie [Visitor]  

update; it was rumoured that Yasuhiro Irie was to helm the new FMA project, but it will be a long time till conformation

Also to add to my Soul Eater notification ep 11 had a nice couple of shots by Nakamura.

Otherwise, I noticed for a while the URL was dropped and the site lead to a different one, everything alright?

09/15/08 @ 17:21
Ben [Member]  

Thanks for the concern, William. Things are OK now. It seems I let the domain registration run out, and it expired while I was away, so it took an international call to the registrar to fix things up. Sorry for worrying you about the site.

I think I’ve watched up to episode 22 of Soul Eater so far, and have been enjoying it all, and needless to say, Yutaka Nakamura’s work in particular. His work on this series is really amazing, among the best he’s ever done. He just keeps getting better.

I agree about the animation level of Soul Eater, though honestly I find myself enjoying Soul eater more than Eureka 7 on the animation front, if you subtract Yasushi Muraki (and Yutaka and Yoshinari) from the equation. I think all the real Bones strength is going into the show that really is meant to replace Eureka 7, and that’s Xam’d, quite obviously. Soul Eater is like a side-show.

As for the fall roster, I haven’t really had time to look what’s coming up. I’m guessing nothing much beside Michiko & Hacchin will impress me, though I’ll have a look at the new shows as usual.

I’m actually following Xam’d, just because it’s the show Bones is shoving all their best animators and budget into. I think it’s all way too reminiscent of Eureka 7, and there are too many weirdly derivative elements, like the heroine seeming too like Nausicaa etc, and I can’t get into the characters, which all never manage to go beyond typical anime behavior to seeming like real human beings, which is one thing they weren’t able to learn at Ghibli. So I haven’t really been able to get into it that much, though it’d definitely well done, as you’d expect. The staff is largely Ghibli-ex, and the show does benefit from the approach at Ghibli, where they take care to create not just a series but an entire world behind the show to give it depth. Bones is an interesting company. It’s like they’ve gone through two phases - a Sunrise phase, when most of the staff were Sunrise expats, and now they’re going through a Ghibli phase, with all these Ghibli expats coming on.

One thing I was wondering about on the animation front in the show is who did the monster attack/running away scene in episode 5. I really liked it, but I don’t recognize any of the staff and would love to know who did it. Other than that, the action in episode 2 was absolutely spectacular, particularly the portion where the Xam’d lands in the shallow water and then takes off running. But the whole first few minutes of that episode was great, really showcasing Bones’ power. There were a lot of great animators in that episode, including Hidetsugu Itoh, Yasushi Muraki, Takashi Tomioka, Shigeru Kimishima, Takaaki Wada, Fumiaki Kouta, and of course animation director Koichi Hashimoto, so it must have been shared among a number of them. The faces around where the soldier gets hit on the head by a rock were very peculiar, so presumably hadn’t been corrected. I wonder if that was by Itoh, and the landing/running by Muraki? Just a guess. Haven’t really seen them all together in any episodes since then, so hopefully they are pooling their work again into another spectacular episode. I also noticed at least two young animators who I remember started out at Ghibli not that long ago - Kosei Oda and Masashi Okumura.

09/23/08 @ 16:34
huw_m [Member]

Welcome back! Hope you enjoyed China. Good to see you got the domain sorted.

I have been wondering who did that landing/running on water bit in Xam’d ever since I saw it in one of those compilation Sakuga MADs (haven’t had a chance to watch the show properly yet). I was gonna ask about that bit on the BBS, too, so I’m glad it caught your eye. My guess at the time was Tatsuzou Nishida because of the smooth shapes of the waves and the weird blending shapes in the running, but he wasn’t credited, and it was a pretty out-there guess anyways. Interesting that you think it might be Yasushi Muraki…I would probably have figured it for some young gun, maybe one of those two young Ghibli expats, showing off and stretching out stylistically (in exactly the way that would not have been allowed at Ghibli).

I was especially impressed with the way the animation of the legs blended together into a bunch of weird shapes. I remember being really impressed when Hiroyuki Imaishi used that technique in the climax of Hosoda’s One Piece movie with the main pirate guy spinning around in the air…

09/24/08 @ 02:19
Ben [Member]  

Thanks, Huw. Good to be back.

One of my reasons for guessing Muraki is simply that he’s listed second, after Itoh, followed by Tomioka and then Kouta. Usually the height of listing is to some extent an indicator of the level of importance of work they’ve done. After Itoh’s impressive section, that bit was the most impressive extended sequence in the episode, and substantial in terms of number of shots, which is why Muraki seemed likely to me. Also, Muraki is well-known to be a mecha specialist. But then again, stylistically, Muraki has focused so long on missile shots that I don’t know what he would do in another context, and I don’t remember seeing this sort of very free animation from him before, with the sort of weird blending together of shapes that you describe, which is why I can only speculate for the moment. Tomioka seems another likely candidate.

I was right about Itoh’s section, though, which makes sense. I didn’t think they would correct his work. And the feeling of the timing struck me as very him. You can see the ‘gensatsu’ or photographs of the key animation for one of his shots from this episode on the official site at

09/24/08 @ 11:21
BluWacky [Visitor]  

One thing I think that Kaiba and Xamd share is nuanced characters. I personally don’t think Kaiba is very subtle about this - the Popo nose thing is highlighted waaaay too obviously, for instance - but in both shows every character has a very distinct way of moving. It’s not as obvious in Xamd because it’s not so stylish (and it’s all so Ghibli) but there’s never a moment where I feel that Haru isn’t Haru or Akiyuki isn’t Akiyuki.

Glad to hear Yuasa’s already at work on his next show. I felt Kaiba was immeasurably better than Kemonozume, and I hope he sticks with the TV length format as I think he’s ALMOST got the pacing down for 13 episodes, but I don’t know how many different stories he can come up with that will let his imagination run free so spectacularly.

You’ve got a visual treat in store when you eventually finish Kaiba, Ben. Just don’t expect it necessarily to make a whole lot of sense :p

09/29/08 @ 13:35