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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.