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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.
The sequence where the mother was playing that piano thing floored me.
Full credit to the entire animation staff for really giving these characters so much soul.
I’m kind of surprised that you didn’t mention animator Jamie Vickers (he did work on this episode, didn’t he?), as he’s one of the few American animators currently working over in Japan. I’m not entirely sure on which studio he works for (pretty sure it’s Madhouse, but he has done stuff for Studio 4°C in Genius Party), but like I said, he’s one of the few American animators who’s made the leap to anime. I know he’s going to be AD in episode 6 of Kaiba, so watch out for his work then.
Yes, he was definitely listed in the episode as a key animator, but I didn’t mention it because I’m not really too familiar with his work and have no idea what he might’ve done. I’m looking forward to seeing his upcoming episode of Kaiba so that I can finally say I have a sense of his style. Even besides that, though, you’re right that he (along with Choi Eunyoung, ep 5) is among the notable few foreigners who have actually moved over there and are working within the system. I wonder how many people like them there are working in the industry in Japan today. They even seem to be moving up the ladder in terms of roles in the action (maybe also testament to the uniqueness of Madhouse and their willingness to use talent no matter its stripe), which is great to see.
I’m following Kaiba so far with strong interest, as its themes coincide a great deal with those I’ve been developing for a long time in my own projects. I am very impressed and thankful for Yuasa’s passion and hard work in getting this very personal series on the air. So it pains me a great deal to admit that I find the end product less than satisfying in many ways, having to do probably with an inadequate preparation time. It must have gone into production with the plan that they would work out problems (of style and narrative) along the way. The series is truly experimental in that sense– it’s like watching unfinished drafts filled with bold risks which sometimes pay off spectacularly, but just as often, fall flat.
Ben, you’ve done a good job of pointing out the many good points of the series so far, so I won’t repeat those here.
There is some very nice animation in this episode, in particular, the scene of Kaiba’s revival in the girl’s body, stumbling while trying to readjust. At the same time, it seems a great opportunity has been missed in defining consistent traits of movement that we could identify as belonging to Kaiba, which would carry over to all his/her different incarnations. As it is, the individual core being that is Kaiba is largely missing, and almost irrelevant.
For me, the early part of the episode- where the guard is searching for Kaiba, is poorly storyboarded. I had to replay parts of it just to understand spatial relations and geography, as well as keeping track of who was who and even how many characters were present. It’s a mistake to compound the viewer’s confusion by using oblique staging when the content of a scene is itself loaded with novel ideas, such as the body-deflation mechanism.
Which touches on an issue that I’m not sure is recognized by the artists working on the show: The need to devise an approach to staging that matches the character designs. The type of cartoony 4-head proportions of the figures has its origins in the early Fleischer and Disney shorts which were a main influence on the Tezuka style, which is the precursor to the style Yuasa has adopted for this series. The reason for exaggerating the size of the head and the hands is to make expressions and gestures prominent WITHOUT a lot of cutting to close-ups. They are designed specifically for proscenium staging. The character silhouettes do not lend themselves well to the kinds of cropped compositions being used here. It seems that the storyboarders went about it as if they were staging Kemonozume (or, for that matter, Death Note). The point of doing simplified designs is to allow the characters to move more freely and express themselves through motion. It doesn’t make sense to hold for long extreme close-ups on flatly drawn, static eyes in the case of these characters.
Narratively, I have a deep aversion to the use of flashbacks as a device for character exploration. Film narrative, for me, is about revealing characters as they exist “in the moment". This is what is meant by integration of character to action. Flashbacks are by nature expository, and stop the narrative flow in its tracks. They are a shortcut, and for me, at least, antithetical to the whole craft of dramaturgy. I’d cite Akira and Spriggan as films which suffer from reliance on flashback to do the heavy lifting of filling in character. Millenium Actress and Magnetic Rose are built on flashbacks from the get-go, and they both suffer from a distancing effect for that reason. In live-action, the list is endless, but some of the most egregious that come to mind are Suddenly Last Summer, The Hulk and the Aeon Flux movie. Citizen Kane is the granddaddy of flashback movies, and that aspect of its influence has been unfortunately legitimizing to lesser filmmakers. It’s telling that Welles himself never went back to those methods for his subsequent, and in my opinion (his too), superior later films.
Reading my previous post, I realize I seem very harsh in my complaints. I suppose it’s a case of having high expectations and feeling disappointed. It’s a shame because I can’t shake the sense that there’s a truly great series lurking underneath, and that a bit more time spent in development could have resulted in something amazing. It’s still early, so I will continue to watch with interest. And I want to make clear that I AM enjoying it and getting a lot of inspiration.
Nice post as always, Mr. E.
Being a college student with finals it’s amazing I find anytime to breathe at this point in the year.
Still I managed to see ep 6 of Soul Eater. Kazumi Inadome handled animation direction (I couldn’t make out the names of the animators.) and there were some nice drawings there.
Of course what made the ep really great was the awesome storyboarding, (co storyboarded by Igurashi himself) lotsa nice posing and shillouetes of the characters, not to mention camera angles.
I’m glad to hear you’re following the show, Peter, and I welcome these and any further criticisms or points you might make. Your criticisms are well reasoned and instructive about the craft of directing, bringing a strong point of view backed up by a lot of thought about directing, so I couldn’t ask for more. Not being a creator myself, I tend to try to take a more neutral position, stepping into the mind of each director to try to figure out what they’re trying to do, which tends to elide the negative side of things.
Having now watched up to episode 4, I’m inclined to agree that a certain potential has somehow been missed, despite how interesting everything is. In my case, I wonder what might have happened if a little more pre-production time had been devoted to figuring out a way to maintain the feeling of the first episode by whatever means necessary, for example by having Yuasa storyboard everything. I find that the unique atmosphere and narrative style that gave the first episode its unforgettable punch seems to have disappeared amid the play of different directing styles of the subsequent episodes, dissipating that great feeling of anticipation. To me it’s not so much about any one particular approach, as seeing it through systematically. I find that Kemonozume, and now this series, exchange narrative unity for stylistic freedom and individual discretion, which has both benefits and drawbacks. But in the end I prefer to be remain open to new possibilities of storytelling that this approach might suggest than to overemphasize the drawbacks.
The staging issue you bring up is very interesting, though it’s late here so I’ll have to comment about that later.
Hello, I’m a regular reader and this is my first comment to one of your posts. Not being an animation specialist, I’m really enjoying the visuals of the series and, mostly, the underlying themes of the story. To me, the series takes a Galaxy Express-like approach to explore somewaht dark themes, and I have always found fascinating the contrast between child-like character designs and adult themes. Being a somewhat old anime fan, Yuasa keeps on bringing the most watchable series of every season for me.
“The point of doing simplified designs is to allow the characters to move more freely and express themselves through motion. It doesn’t make sense to hold for long extreme close-ups on flatly drawn, static eyes in the case of these characters.”
The static close up is used so often that I assumed that it has something to do with the whole point of the series(but don’t ask me to articulate what it is yet). It definately accentuates the fact that these character physically are essentially shells.
Also, wasn’t Tezuka guilty of the same thing? There’s hardly any motion in those early Astroboys.
As for Kaiba, he seems like nothing more than a cypher until now, but I assume that there will be some kind of pay off to this. (Otherwise I agree that it will be really unsatisfying)
About Americans working in Japan, is Jan Scott-Frazier actually the first to succeed? Because her list is quite impressive