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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.