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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« A Country DoctorKaiba #6 »

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

04:27:04 pm , 1263 words, 4625 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #7

This episode marks a return of the tone and quality of the first three episodes, and what a welcome return it is. The intervening episodes have been fascinating vivid individualistic excursions into the wild worlds of Kaiba, but I have to confess to being delighted to be back in the ether of that earlier tone, with that touch of line and style of directing that got me hooked at the beginning. I don't think it will be a straight line in this style from here on out judging from what I've seen before, but I have to confess to being partial to what the team here has done with the material. Quite simply, this was a stunning episode that did everything I had wanted from the series - showing off fascinating design ideas in the characters and world through vivid, rich, colorful animation that danced around the screen, combined with brilliant directing tying together the various threads of the narrative into a tightly wound whole.

The team to thank is the venerable duo responsible for episode 3 - storyboarder, director and co-writer (w/Yuasa) Akitoshi Yokoyama and animation director Nobutake Ito. I'd been girding my loins for this episode, and it did not disappoint. Building up slowly, the second half of this episode gradually ratchets up the tension until exploding in one of the most hair-raising, moving, deftly constructed climaxes of the series. I am deeply impressed with how Yokoyama seems to add to his directing powers with each new episode I've seen from him over the last few years. Watching Yokoyama grow with each episode of Kaiba reminds me of watching Tweeny Witches eagerly looking forward to Yasuhiro Aoki's next episode to see how he would continue to extend his directing powers. I hope Yokoyama continues to build on what he's achieved as a director so far, as I think he shows tremendous potential. I know of few people working in anime today with a directing sensibility as finely tuned as his.

Yokoyama again interweaves flashbacks into the narrative, in the process revealing a lot about the relationships between the various characters. He hints at other elements of the back story, deftly treading the fine line between giving too much and too little away. I thought was the first time the various narrative threads had been effectively woven into the fabric of the narrative since episode 2. The presentation of the various flashbacks in the second half made for visuals of tremendous richness and variety, showing Yokoyama again putting a great deal of thought into how to present the material so as to make every moment full of surprises and thereby maintain strong forward momentum and visual interest. Not a shot passes that doesn't show the care of the director either in the form of interesting visuals or great animation. Testifying to his attention to detail, I notice a new significant hidden element almost every time I rewatch this episode.

The drawings of this episode were very strong thanks to the work of the animation director. The designs had the aloof, clean simplicity of the early episodes that Ito is so good at, and the world of this episode was particularly well rendered. It really felt like the characters inhabited this unusual world, rather than the characters simply having been placed over a drawing of an unusual planet. Care was given to creating a feeling of depth, which was clearly important for an underwater world, as the characters literally have to swim through their environment, rather than walk on a flat plane. This came through particularly well in the action sequence preceding the climax, which was easily the most riveting action sequence since the chase at the beginning of the first episode.

I'd venture to say this was the most powerful action sequence in the series because of the brilliant way the action was tied into the tragic progression of the story. Exciting animation + moving story = brilliant animated filmmaking. Even with the sound off watching this climax is quite something, with the rich animation of the ships flying around the screen, and the way what is happening is clearly communicated through the drawings. Beyond being great animated filmmaking, it's great visual storytelling. Through this series Yokoyama has revealed his gift for creating highly moving drama. I'm rarely moved by anime that is supposed to be moving, and find the majority of tear-jerker anime simply manipulative. Yokoyama's work is the rare exception that is powerfully moving, as intended. Yokoyama elegantly brings a sense of closure to the arc of the girl who was introduced in episode 3, which he handled, by capping her final moments with a reference to the pink rubber boots that played a big role in her previous life. His love comes through particularly clearly in the gorgeous visuals that cap the climax, which he obviously put a tremendous amount of work into in terms of the colors and processing. The climax of this episode is unmistakably one of the most striking scenes in the series, or of any anime I've seen in recent years for that matter.

This episode by this core duo was backed up by a bevy of good animators, headlined by Ryotaro Makihara, who is turning out to be one of the pillars of Kaiba's animation. I'm almost tempted to call him Kaiba's main animator due to the frequency of his appearances and the amount of work he has obviously put into his animation. I couldn't be happier to see him doing so much great work under Yuasa. I wonder if he wasn't responsible for a big part of the chase at the end, and by inference also the action scene at the beginning of episode 1. I'm not really sure, though. Other animators of note in this episode include Ikuo Kuwana, of SFA Generations fame, Akira Honma and Akira Amemiya. Chuji Nakajima is apparently known for his action scenes, although I don't know his work at all so I can't speculate what he might have done.

Even apart from the action scenes, this episode's drawings were a delight from start to finish. For some reason I got a vibe of Osamu Tanabe from a number of scenes, especially the scene at the airport. The funny drawings of the bystanders reminded me of his Doredore no Uta. The feeling of the ship as it jumped out of the water at the climax was particularly nice, with great momentum making it exciting to watch and being very organic, like a flying fish jumping out of the water flapping its body around. It almost seemed like an homage to the flying fish in the great scene animated by Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island. The editing of the director and the combination of the animation with the CGI also went a long way to providing this scene with real immediacy.

There was some interesting acting where Vanilla goes all heart-eyed, reminding of a similar scene in episode 3, which are the only two places I can recall Vanilla doing that kind of very distinctive exaggerated cartoon acting. Perhaps they were done by the same person, as there is a lot of overlap between this episode and episode 3 - namely Akira Amemiya, Nagisa Nagashima, Shoko Nishigaki, Aiko Wakatsuki, Natsuko Shimizu and Miki Wasada. The latter four have actually been involved throughout the series, I just noticed. Natsuko Shimizu in particular has been in every single episode except for Mihara's episode 4. Ditto for Miki Wasada, minus one episode. These four women must be among the core key animators at Madhouse supporting the animation of Kaiba.



LainEverliving [Visitor]  

Since I’m a bit of a Madhouse fan, I figured I’d post information about the women you mentioned. I wasn’t able to find any matches for Shoko Nishigaki, though… are you sure that’s the right reading of her kanji? AnimeNewsNetwork’s database doesn’t have anything on her…

Anyway, here’s some of the work of the others (not including Kaiba), listed in chronological order (for the purposes of following their careers).

Aiko Wakatsuki:

Aiko’s been with Madhouse for a while now, having started as an inbetweener. She’s moved up from doing inbetweening on movies to key animation in TV, and now finally key animation on a new bunch of films. She’s one of the people who I’ve been following in credits for a while now, even though I don’t yet know her work. She was also profiled in the Madhouse People File a while back.

Millennium Actress (2001) - inbetween animator
Metropolis (2001) - inbetween animator
Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars - key animator (episodes unknown)
Trava (2003) - key animator (episodes unknown)
Paranoia Agent (2004) - key animator (episodes 3, 6, 8)
Samurai Champloo (2004) - secondary key animator (episode 5)
Kemonozume (2006) - key animator (episode 1)
Toki wo Kakeru Shojo (2006) - key animator
Piano no Mori (2007) - key animator

Natsuko Shimizu:

I don’t really know much of anything about her, save for that she’s kind of appeared lately. Kaiba seems to be her first major stab at greatness.

Tales of Agriculture (2007) - inbetween animator (episodes unknown)
MapleStory (2007) - key animator (episodes unknown)

Miki Wasada:

She’s been around for a few years, but has kind of skipped about between different studios (she was at Satelight
for a stint, and that seems to be where she got her start). I’m not sure if she’s now staff at Madhouse or not, but maybe she’s joined on recently and Kaiba is the first big project they’ve given her.

Aquarion (2005) - key animator (episode 19)
Noein (2005) - secondary key animator (episode 1)
Paprika (2006) - inbetween animator
Red Garden (2006) - key animator (episodes unknown)

There seem to be more women moving up at Madhouse these days, so hopefully we’ll be seeing more from them (particularly Aiko Wakatsuki) in the future.

06/26/08 @ 01:43
Random person
Random person [Visitor]  

Just wanted to say that your excellent Kaiba posts are not going unappreciated. I do a little happy dance inside whenever I see a new post from your blog on my RSS reader, add a few backflips when it’s Kaiba. Thanks for this post as well. It’s particularly great reading while waiting for yet another hateful sports-induced 2-week broadcast break.

I’ve been really impressed by Yokoyama since his work on Dennou Coil and Kaiba’s just reinforcing that. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that he gets certain animators on his episodes too, I suppose, but somehow the directing… pacing and and climax-building seems a lot more confidently achieved than in the other episodes. To be honest though, I can’t say they are my favourite episodes exactly - I have to admit I am thoroughly entertained and more than satisfied with it, but I suppose it feels a bit more… ガチ (kindly pardon the abrupt Japanese that I can’t find the English equivalent of currently)

I guess I simply find myself enjoying episodes like 4 and 5 more because it feels like I’m watching something I’ve hardly seen (not that 3, 7 etc. are rehashed or cliche in any way, but… I don’t quite know how to express it). It works both ways of course; I think many who were unsure of episodes 1 and 2 were captured by episode 3 because it was much easier to get a grasp of and relate to, even when retrospectively compared to the other standalone episodes.

Still, I didn’t entirely appreciate the boss’s exposition on the new funky planet (maybe I would have preferred visual cues, not that I have any good ideas of how to really do it)
And I suppose the climatic scene with Vanilla felt a little bit overblown, although I feel sort of… immoral criticizing it (the sparkly tears really didn’t matter the second time I watched it, plus I loved how the last expression on Chroniko’s body was a puckered-up mouth)
Anyway, I’m unsure if anyone shares this opinion, but that’s my raw feelings anyway. I think I’m nitpicking.

For what it’s worth, I too found myself rewatching 7 a lot and kicking myself for not paying attention to neat little details like Hyo-hyo inputting Kichi’s address and so on. And I honestly felt like I had just watched something really good after everything was done, to be precise at the scene where those police bosses zoom off the island to the somewhat cosmic-sounding BGM. II absolutely dig those yellow cat-things’ unflinching grins and the clack-clack of their little companions; also I think I have a developed a renewed appreciation for Wasabi Mizuta. And the Kaiba plant ominously crunching on an ex-planet was a perfect way to end the episode.

And for all my extended lack of effort to go learn more about individual animators, I’m still somewhat curious to hear more about those female animators providing pillars of support in shows like this (and didn’t Kemonozume have a mostly female-created episode?) But apart from stalking diary sites like mixi or spending inordinate amounts of time on certain anonymous BBSes (which I’ve largely lost the will to keep doing), I have sadly only the excuse of possessing no skills with which to find more readable information on female anime staff, aside from their dominance in colouring sections and equal (I think?) share of appearance in in-between and BG credits. Why, for example, does there seem to be so few women doing storyboarding and episode directing?

Also, LainEverliving, I’ve been enjoying your lengthy dialogue with Ben on that Tadanari Okamoto post and other places, and I really have to worship your excellent information-gathering abilities and inspiring enthusiasm to learn about animation. I have a lot to learn from that. And it’s really amazing to get to meet up with actual staff members; I would love to hear more of that if it were possible, I was wondering if you might happen to have a blog I could visit.
But just as an unnecessary side-mention, I have a feeling Ben is probably also very capable of using google to look up the work done by animators as listed on English sites such as ANN, as well as the considerable Japanese staff list databases that the aforementioned site’s contributors might owe a few lives to (I should know).
I would like to offer my sincerest apologies if I come across as rude and sycophantic, and please disregard me if you were already aware of it and simply wanted to collect the information in one spot.

06/26/08 @ 06:56
Ben [Member]  

It’s always great having another comment from you, RP. You’ve been my most diligent commenter over the years, and I have to thank you for it. I always look forward to hearing what you might say, because your comments always make total sense to me, even when taking a different viewpoint, which shows that you’re thinking about these things truly honestly, and I have to say I really appreciate that.

In fact, I totally agree with what you say, surprising as it may be, me being a Yokoyama fanboy and all. Why it didn’t occur to me to say those things I don’t know, but there were a number of aspects about this episode and episode 3 that nagged me, but I didn’t quite know how to express it. Well, you hit the nail on the head. I think Yokoyama has a tendency to overdo the climaxes, to strive a little too much to get the tears from the viewers. It’s a shame, really, because it’s so good already. He doesn’t need to push so hard, especially not at the last moment like that. He needs to let things flow a little more subtly I think. I felt exactly the same thing in both episodes - he didn’t have to have the sister yell at the end of episode three, or go quite so far with the climax of this episode. He went just one step too far in each case, and it felt a little cringe-inducing.

All that said, I still do think he’s a brilliant director, and I really admire him because it’s very obvious how much effort and thought he has put into his directing, which is perhaps why I’m less prone to sweat the details like this in my posts on him. I really want to support him.

And at the same time, I can totally see where you’re coming from in terms of that je-ne-sais-quois about this episode, which you aptly worded as its “gachi” feeling. I totally see what you mean, and again, you put into words something that had been nagging at the back of my head but that I hadn’t quite given enough thought about. It’s this feeling that, basically, the directing style is conventional, even though it’s brilliantly done. It’s following the dramatic conventions of anime directing, in the broadest sense. It’s really rare to see something that goes totally in its own direction, ignoring those conventions, willing to take that risk, and episodes 4 and 5 were the episodes that did that the most. (although I think Yuasa’s episode 1 also did that) I think you put it perfectly that episodes 4 and 5 are more interesting in the sense that they’re something we haven’t really seen before. They’re the episodes you would almost certainly never find in any other series, although you can find well-constructed episodes like Yokoyama’s in other series. It feels like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders finally figuring out what it was that was nagging me about this feeling, so thank you.

Yeah, the part at the end where Chroniko is smiling was one of the things I only noticed on a second viewing, and I thought that was a really nice touch, showing how much thought Yokoyama put into every single shot - when she’s on the left side her expression is blank, but after she passes to the right side we see her (my interpretation) as Vanilla sees her in that moment in his mind, or as he wishes he could see her. So even if the tears were a little much (and I’m not sure they explored Vanilla’s personality quite enough to make the climax completely as resonant as it could have been) I thought it was a nice, subtle touch that was heartfelt and sensitive and showed the director’s ability to get into the mind of the characters.

I don’t really have that many more resources than you do to find out about staff and so on, RP, and neither do I make as much effort as I used to in terms of scouring the dregs of the web (aforesaid anonymous BBS) for little bits of info, so I think we’re in something of the same boat. I’m not that up on all the recent animators people talk about, either, because frankly most of the new animators people talk about I don’t find particularly good. I prefer just to discover what I discover in the course of watching what I watch and make up my own mind about who I think is good, instead of desperately trying to keep up with all the new people by reading all sorts of things.

I think it’s a very good question why we still don’t see as many women episode storyboarders and directors. We see so many great female animators now and even episode animation directors. There seems to be some kind of a glass ceiling there. Choi Eunyoung and Sayo Yamamoto are hugely talented and far better than the average male storyboarder/director out there, but still it’s odd that, apart from the really talented ones that are obviously given the chance because they’re talented, you just don’t see that many, on average, even mediocre ones. I wish I knew the reason for that, other than simply the fact that that’s how things have been for a long time, and they’re slowly changing.

Oh, and for identification purposes, I just found out that Shoko Nishigaki (I’m not sure if that’s the correct reading - it might be Atsuko or Masako) animated the portion of the climax of episode 26 of Guren Lagan where the black shadow thing grabs Nia’s head, and Iko Kuwana animated the section right afterwards with the crazy-detailed shot of the robot and the flowing cape… though unfortunately it doesn’t really help much for ID purposes in this episode, as I still have no idea what they might have done. Suffice it to say they’re both good animators. Kuwana in particular is a name I’ll be keeping an eye out for.

06/26/08 @ 10:02
manuloz [Visitor]  

Yep it’s Shouko Nishigaki.I think she is one of the new Gainax animator who started around the time of Gurren Lagann.

Apparently there’s a good amount of female animator at Gainax (or staffer) that’s what i read from some blog on the Gainax staff trip at Fanimecon.
You can see some picture here :

I also read that Hitomi Hasegawa will be AD soon. Here she is drawing GL4s Kamina :

06/26/08 @ 10:48
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

With regards to the question of women directors / storyboard artists, I think the answer is probably the same as to why there aren’t very many female directors working in Hollywood… prejudice, and male control. Honestly, since the business is dominated by male producers and studio heads (I know there are some exceptions, but on a sheer numbers basis, I think this is the rule), it’s not a big surprise. That doesn’t make it right, of course, but really, we haven’t had many high-ranking female animators or directors on the American end of the business. Brenda Chapman is, in fact, the only woman that I can think of who’s directed a major American animated film (The Prince of Egypt, and that was with two male co-directors), and the number of main animators and animation directors over in the States is small. Japan is actually many steps ahead of America on this issue. But they’re far from perfect, hence the very, very few women who’ve been given the chance. I have been assuming that Atsuko Ishizuka will become the first female staff director at Madhouse (she’s kind of been heir apparent for a while now, and has gotten as far as assistant director on a TV series), but that’s still taken about four years (when she was first hired). I know there are maybe two or three female directors of regular release TV series in Japan right now, but as far as I know, there hasn’t been a movie director yet. Clearly, there are talented women out there who deserve the shot, but just like in any system where prejudice exists, they’re going to have to be twice as good (if not more) than their male counterparts in order to get the chance. Once those first few pioneers break through and really show off, the gates will hopefully open to more. But it’s going to take a lot of time, and as we probably all know, Japan isn’t the most open place for change. Fortunately, it seems as though the animation industry is among the more liberal places that exist, particularly certain studios that hire lots of women and give foreigners a chance (and I think we all know which studios I’m talking about). But even at a lot of those companies, there still is a limit (at least right now) on how far you can advance as a woman, based either on things following the old patriarchal code or on less sexually-oriented grounds (like the company doesn’t want or can’t afford to employ another full-time director). I guess if I was pressed I could give a list of the more forward-looking studios (for both gender and country of origin), but as that’s really kind of off-topic and subjective anyway, I’ll leave it be unless people actually want my opinion on it. Otherwise, I don’t want to go off on a rant and ruin this otherwise good discussion.

At any rate, I do have some hope, despite my critical words. I kind of get the sense that these days, animation is like jazz: it doesn’t matter who you are, what gender, color, creed, or orientation you are… so long as you can play, you’re welcome. If that’s the case, then talent will be the tool to change minds, and hopefully they’ll start changing sooner rather than later.

06/26/08 @ 23:55