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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.