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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.