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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Category: Kemonozume

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

09:37:18 pm , 3440 words, 8169 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #13

It's been almost a year since I saw the first episode of Kemonozume. I saw the last episode at the end of last year, more than half a year ago, yet I never blogged it. Why? I just didn't know how to write about the last episode, or about the series as a whole, so I kind of pushed it to the back of my mind. After this healthy span of a half year I've now looked back over the series and read some interviews with the main staff in the DVD box, and I think I'm ready to finally do this thing. A hell of a long incubation period for a simple blog entry, I know, but I wanted to do this one justice. I still don't think I'll be able to do that, but I want to get down my thoughts once and for all. That's what this post is - ruminations about an interesting series that gave me a lot of stimulation.

Firstly, this episode. Seen as a stand-alone piece of work, it's a fantastic episode. Yuasa is in the house, and in the house with him are a lot of great animators including the ubiquitous Takashi Hashimoto, who provides the opening fight; Koichi Arai, the ending parachute sequence; Nobutoshi Ogura, the bit where Yuka is trying to cut off her own arm; Yasunori Miyazawa, the bit where Ohba transforms hideously in a very sketchy graphic style; even Masahiko Kubo from Mind Game, who recently did great work on Tekkon Kinkreet, etc. It's all orchestrated and smoothed by Ito, whose workload is eased by the fact that so much of the animation is already so awesome. Together, they create an episode that is one of the most alive and exciting of the whole series in terms of the animation. Much of the series felt a little restrained in terms of providing the sort of animated excitement I associate with Yuasa, but this episode does that very well. This episode seethes energy and fury, building unrelentingly in a spiral of escalating madness that leads to a satisfyingly climactic conclusion. The characters are given plenty of room to fight their fights and create a feeling of catharsis in the conclusion.

I think my first vague impression was just bewilderment at the unexpectedness of the developments and the quality of the production, which is what I expect of Yuasa. But at the same time, I wasn't sure how I felt about the ending. It was dissatisfying somehow. The developments were certainly unexpected and interesting, but something felt unanswered. I don't know what I'd been expecting. I think maybe I was expecting a conclusion that focused more on the whole issue of the relationship between Toshihiko and Yuka, or that tied up the threads that were left untied. I know it's not Yuasa's style to tie things up neatly and provide every answer on a silver platter, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but I got the feeling that we were far from where we started with that ending.

I admire Yuasa because with this series he deliberately challenged himself to focus on an area that wasn't his area of expertise - story and character development. He was a genius at creating vivid and uninhibited animation, but he'd never had a chance to focus on the story side of things. He could have just gone on doing the sort of material he knows he's good at, but instead here he took a leap to try to create something new. This series shows a lot of new facets to Yuasa that can only benefit him in the future. In retrospect, Kemonozume seems like the first step towards something greater. Inevitably, that means that a lot of the things he tried didn't quite gel yet, for whatever reason. I think a lot of that has to do with the history of the project, which had a bit of a rough start and saw input from many people, which seems to have had both positive and negative effects, judging by the conclusion.

Interviews in the DVD box set provide some insight into the somewhat troubled development process, which led the overall plot through a number of stages of conception during which a number of different people added ideas or modified the structure or the characters or the themes in various ways. Planning started in late 2004, with an overall plot sketched out and Yuasa drawing reams of concept sketches upon which the story would be fleshed out. Yuasa was busy with Genius Party during the first half of 2005, so he only got started in earnest on Kemonozume in August 2005, at which time they began finalizing the story arc with the assistance of Paranoia Agent writer Kiyoshi Mizukami. Mizukami dropped out shortly after Yuasa began making changes to the structure, and Yuasa wound up finalizing the overall arc himself. Mizukami had wanted the mafia to turn up at the end of the series distributing a strange new drug, and this is what eventually evolved into Ohba and Ohba Corporation.

Yuasa then began writing the script for the first episode, and finally began the storyboard for episode 1 at the end of 2005. Character design by Nobutake Ito only commenced in March of 2006, because prior to then Ito had been busy working on Denno Coil. (meaning that Ito actually did Denno Coil first, even though his later work on Kemonozume was broadcast before Denno Coil) It was around this time that the series was announced publicly. It was decided that the rest of the scripts were to be written by the episode directors, as much as possible, with Yuasa helping to fill in the holes. Episodes 3, 7, 10, 11 and 12 were each written by their respective directors, while Yuasa wrote 1 and 13, storyboarded 2 without a script, and co-wrote 6 and 8.

Surprisingly, the animation provided to be an area of difficulty. Quite simply, they couldn't find people. It's often said that there is a shortage of good animators in Japan, and this series seems to have fallen victim to that shortage. This is why the first few episodes were animated mostly by the same team of in-house animators such as Eriko Kubokawa and Akira Honma, along with a few talented regular outsiders like Choi Eunyoung and Soichiro Matsuda. Of course, the animation quality of the first four episodes was high in spite of this in large part thanks to the superhuman efforts put in by Nobutake Ito.

Yuasa was particularly pleased when he saw Matsuda's animation of the opening battle of episode 1 because very few of the animation turned in prior to Matsuda's had quite the feeling Yuasa had been looking for. Yuasa had never worked with Matsuda, a Bones regular, but he was very happy with the results and Matsuda became a regular on the show. The show started broadcasting about 5 months after Yuasa had started the storyboard for the first episode, so it seems that they had under 5 months for the animation. Talented animators finally started coming onboard a little later.

Madhouse is known for outsourcing to Korean studio Dr. Movie, but only one episode in Kemonozume was outsourced to a Korean studio - episode 4. Episode 9 featuring animation director Kayoko Nabeta was the only fully outsourced episode. It was outsourced to MSC, a Japanese subcontracting studio. They did a good job, as I would have been hard-pressed to tell. It looked rather different from the other episodes, but it was still pretty close to the spirit of the other episodes for a team not on the same production floor. The rest of the episodes were produced in-house.

***

Kemonozume was an innovative show for a reason that might not be immediately obvious: the backgrounds. In Mind Game Yuasa had integrated live-action clips every once in a while, and he carried on that approach in Kemonozume, both for aesthetic reasons and because it would save the trouble of animating particularly onerous shots. He had also used photographs for the backgrounds occasionally for aesthetic reasons in addition to traditionally drawn backgrounds. For Kemonozume he decided to use photo backgrounds as the basic approach.

A photographer took most of the photographs used throughout the series, and a coterie of art students were rounded up through auditions to help process them into the backgrounds. First a handful of the students would handle the cutting and pasting the photos according to the layouts drawn by the key animators. Next, another group would trace lines over the photos to make them look hand-drawn. Finally, a third group would come in to digitally color the traced photos into the final product. One exception was episode 12. Michio Mihara, maniac that he is, not content with having drawn all of the key animation and more than half of the inbetweens for his episode, traced the photos for his episode himself, presumably to be able achieve just the right visual balance between the animation and the background lines. Apparently he was working more than 70 hours a week during the course of his work on the show.

This unique approach to the backgrounds gives the series a very unique atmosphere and visual texture. It's simultaneously more real and more hand-drawn, in sync with the rough aesthetic of the animation. It's a series of rare visual daring and sumptuousness. The live-action video we see occasionally was also traced and processed, frame by frame, like the backgrounds. The video was shot and integrated by the director of each episode as he saw fit.

***

One of the things that makes Kemonozume an interesting series is that you can clearly see the hands of all the people whose work went into it. All of the work has a strongly personal stamp on it. They didn't attempt to impose a strictly unified look or directing tone throughout. That goes especially for the animation, but also for everything else from the directing to the art to the scripts. As a result, the tone varies dramatically from episode to episode. To an extent, that sort of thing is inevitable in TV work, because Yuasa couldn't direct every episode himself. But Yuasa has said that he welcomes that sort of variety of ideas and interpretation. And I think that gives the series a richness that few other shows have. The richness of personality.

I think the different directing styles - some more poetic and image-oriented like Atsushi Takahashi's, some more ironic and incisive and precise like Kenji Nakamura's - made the series tremendously watchable, telling the same story in different voices as it were. The style of these two episodes, for example, differed greatly from what Yuasa was aiming for, Nakamura's with its sophisticated tone and irony, Takahashi's with its serious tone, but wound up being among the more memorable, and benefited the series.

At the same time, I also wondered if the zig-zagging both stylistic and narrative might have had the side-effect of reducing the forward momentum that might have benefited a story of lovers on the run. I wondered if perhaps a tighter grip on just the script might have benefited the series. I would have liked the focus to remain on the brothers and the reason behind their rivalry; on the historical evolution of the kifuuken in response to the changing times, which I thought was very interesting; and especially on Toshihiko and Yuka, and the issues of trust and caring and responsibility and love and desire about which the series spoke through the vehicle of the 'flesh eater' metaphor.

Many of the composite elements of the basic story were in fact suggested by other people. That's what defines this series. It's truly the product of a vast collaboration. In that sense it's a different beast from Mind Game, which really was Yuasa's baby. So it's interesting that even though this time it's an original concept by Yuasa, it's actually less 'purely' Yuasa than Mind Game in a certain sense. With Kemonozume Yuasa was more interested in soliciting interesting ideas from everyone around him, kind of in the old Toei Doga style, but apparently fewer people than Yuasa had hoped were forthcoming with ideas, perhaps because people aren't used to that way of doing things anymore.

***

In the interviews, Yuasa mentions that during the course of production he came to realize that there had to be a 'theme' to the story, otherwise he wouldn't know how to end it. The theme he came up with was: "Life never turns out how you expected". However, Yuasa was adverse to creating a series where everything was strictly governed by this theme. He preferred to let things be a little haphazard and all over the place, throwing in lots of interesting ideas without necessarily tying them together neatly, in keeping with the spirit of the 'planned randomness' of Mind Game. But he also realized that you have to know where the story is headed in order to bring it to a meaningful conclusion, which is perhaps what led him to the conclusion we have, where nothing really changes in the end. The world doesn't change. The only thing that can change is how you choose to face the world. In the end, Toshihiko discards his guarded self and throws himself from the plane without a parachute into Yuka's arms. It's not quite as overt as in Mind Game, but the theme is quite similar. It's Yuasa's perennial theme. Maybe the problem is that it was a little obscured by the size of the villain.

Yuka and Toshihiko are headed towards this place where, throughout the length of the series, they are convinced that they will find the solution to all of their problems. They have this idea how life is going to be at some hazy distant point in the future. But life isn't that simple. Life happens inbetween the plans we make for it, as they say. The 'palace' turns out to have been a fantasy, a ruse. It's a totally different ending from the one they were expecting. I can see how that jives with the theme Yuasa had in mind.

Perhaps part of the reason for the ending having turned out the way it did is that, in a first for Yuasa, he didn't plan out the ending ahead. He did it Miyazaki-style, waiting until he got there to figure out how it ended. So I get the feeling that, in a way, the ending was the product of inertia; the inertia of the Ohba character in the preceding few episodes. He also mentions that he wound up relying on Ohba for the climax because the Yuka-Toshihiko story seemed to be going nowhere. The strange shape of the story is also at least partly accountable to the fact that the plot passed through various hands, evolving in different directions along the way.

The last episode felt more typical of the Yuasa of yore, with lots of frenzied action expressed with powerful, energetic, imaginative animation. That was good for the climax, but what Yuasa really wanted to do with this series was to challenge himself to create interesting drama and story, and it feels like that was something he did best in episode 2. I think the way the ending refused to answer every question or to tie things up neatly is part of why the ending felt a little dissatisfying, but at the same time I like the aloofness of this slapdash ending. It jives with the spirit of the show, which was all over the place and emphasized energy and variety over consistency. What I like about Yuasa is that he does connect the dots, if you look carefully. He just doesn't overemphasize things. He answers just enough of the questions to make it satisfying while leaving the others for you to speculate about. I liked how, like in Mind Game, innocuous moments from previous episodes are brought back for a moment and invested with significance. In one shot near the end we get to see what Toshihiko did with Yuka's present in episode 7, and the ring Toshihiko found on the ground at the end of episode 9 makes a satisfying reappearance at the very end. Any stronger a tying of the threads would have been dissatisfying.

Even though I can't help wondering what the ending would have been like without a villain, I did like the character of Ohba and found him appealing. He expressed a lot of the things I and perhaps others think in their darkest moments but try to forget - love is nothing but a chemical reaction, memory is nothing but a smattering of ultimately meaningless data. It was like he was a reincarnation of the despair of Cat Soup, and Toshihiko of the hope of Mind Game. He was the incarnation of realism and materialism, and Toshihiko of idealism. Neither are good in extremes, but they represent the extreme poles of humanity.

***

Animation director Nobutake Ito had a different approach than Masaaki Yuasa, but he was a great animator in his own right, and Yuasa's decision to bring him in was the right decision. He was trepidous about Yuasa's very freely deformed designs at first, but the combination of his more realistically rendered protagonists with the oddly shaped side-characters creates a great balance. These were characters the likes of which we'd never seen before. This was the first place where we got to see Ito given the opportunity to draw characters to his heart's delight and entirely in his own manner, and his work throughout was fiery and full of spirit, with a striving to fill out the personalities of each of the characters through body language and gesture. The argument and love scene in episode 1 showed him at his best right from the start.

Ito held the show for the early episodes with his efforts, until a few interesting outside animators on the more idiosyncratic side of the spectrum such as Hisashi Mori and Yasunori Miyazawa came in a little later to help bring some welcome variety and energy to the animation. The show would even have benefited from more work from figures like this, but the schedule was very tight on the show, and they probably weren't able to find as many like-minded animators as they wanted. I actually find that the urgency with which the series was made comes through in the final product, and to some extent gives it some of its vitality. The two solo episodes were undoubtedly planned more for reasons related to the tightness of the schedule, but I think that stylistically they were a real boon to the show. It's rare to be able to see a single animator given such an opportunity in commercial projects like this. The solo animator episode has been around for a long time in Japanese TV animation, but these episodes update that tradition into a more deliberate, strategic vehicle for stylistic expression for ambitious animators looking for a challenge.

Apart from the animation, in terms of the story I think Kemonozume was a novel update of the Romeo & Juliet formula. More than anything it provided a refreshingly true and mature portrait of two people in love, which is rare to see in animation. At its best the story balanced horror, drama and comedy in a way that I'd never seen done before in animation, achieving a truly unique atmosphere - serious yet whimsical, hard-boiled yet not too gruesome. It was a good showcase of the potential of original projects not based on existing manga or stories. While perhaps it didn't quite achieve the perfection and profound resonance of Mind Game, it was free from the relentless, exhausting flood of repelling cliches that plague the industry, and had a broad audience appeal and smart sensibility that is rare for an anime TV series.

In the end, Kemonozume strikes me as a series that tried out new approaches to production and style. Some worked, some didn't, but it was a short 13 episodes packed with incredible variety, heart and originality. It carved out its own small path within the industry and did something rare within the monolith of the industry - it kept the scale human at all times. It retained an aura of independence throughout. It gave the staff involved the opportunity to create something that was honest and true to themselves. It cleaved deliberately from the clean-and-polished tendency of the industry today to showcase the appeal of drawings drawn with imagination straight from the gut. They did things their own way without catering to fashion. They didn't always know where they were going because they were trying to go somewhere new, but the journey sure as hell was interesting.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

01:36:56 am , 1016 words, 2221 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume DVD box extras

For anyone who hasn't seen it, there's an interesting site featuring a single shot of one interesting animated sequence from each episode of Gainax's current TV show Guren Lagan here. It's a nice idea for a feature, and is what one would expect from a series directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, who used to put out fanzines of his own key animation. He's the quintissential animation otaku, so it's nice to see him delighting in all the great work people are turning in for the show. He's managed to pull together great animators from all over the industry, even Norio Matsumoto and Takaaki Yamashita not long ago, and each episode has had tons of interesting work. It's been a real explosion of animated frenzy, even more than I was expecting from the man. The quality is amazing. I just wish I found myself enjoying the show more. Interesting to note that a shot by Tadashi Hiramatsu from episode 15 was the latest installment. (They also have a shot of his from ep 2) I was particularly happy to be able to see a shot by Hisashi Mori from ep 4.

Speaking of whom, I was again happy to find that the shot that Hisashi Mori drew for Kemonozume was included in the selection of key animation that is part of the extras to the recently released box set, as I'd hoped it would be. Mori reportedly drew 125 drawings for the 7-second shot, so they only included about the last 40, which is a bit of a shame, but it's still nice to be able to see. Mori's drawings are incredibly loose and unpolished, functioning as rough tiny slices of a movement so fast that from frame to frame the character is an indistinguishable blob, but in the final animated sequence he comes alive in spectacularly kinetic movement.

I'm a big fan of seeing the drawings up close to be able to get a feeling for the line of the animator, and these extras provided a great tool for doing that. You can page through each drawing of the shot at screen size, which is the best method I've yet seen for presenting full sequences of key animation - better than books, where entire shots often have to be crammed onto a single page due to space considerations. This is an ideal way of dealing with this sort of material, and I wish we'd see more stuff like this. I can't complain, but I do wish they had included more, since they went to the trouble of doing it. There was so much other great work in the show. I would have liked to see Hiroyuki Aoyama's keys, or more of Michio Mihara's keys. They apparently wanted to include a shot by Koichi Arai from episode 3, but the keys had disappeared, so they weren't able to do so.

They included one nice sequence from the fight between Kazuma and the monkey in episode 1, where Kazuma swings at the monkey. It's a particularly interesting shot because it's very educational about the difference in line between animators - how much of a difference subtle differences in line-drawing style can make in the impact of the final drawing. The shot was originally animated by Hiroshi Shimizu, who later did episode 11, but each of his drawings was completely redrawn by Nobutake Ito. The nice thing is that, for this sequence, they present both Shimizu's original drawing and the correction by Ito right afterwards, so that you can see the original line of the animator and how the animation director re-interpreted it. Shimizu's drawings are about as far as possible as you could get from Ito's. The degree of difference is surprising. Ito left virtually none of Shimizu's lines intact, but basically traced over the character. Shimizu provided just the backbone of this sequence. It shows that Ito was maniacally thorough with the work on this episode, and all of his other episodes for that matter.

Another thing in the extras was the 'animatic' style video put together from alternating bits of raw key animation and storyboard for the voice-recording session, or 'afureco' as it's called. This was easily one of the coolest things on the set. They included the one for episode 13. It was fascinating viewing, letting you see in one go all of the materials that went into the polished version in their raw state. What it means is that it's a lot easier to see just how dramatically each animator's drawings differ. You see bits of Yuasa's storyboard, with its distinctive simple forms, followed by bits of corrected animation by Ito, with his very different but equally unmistakable style of rendering facial features, then some animation by an animator, such as the opening animation by Takashi Hashimoto, and so on, which I almost found more satisfying than the final product. Watching it this way I realized immediately when suddenly we entered a sequence drawn by Nobutoshi Ogura, for example - the one on top of the building where Yuka tries to chop off her arm. His style was much more obvious in the raw state like this.

I came away wishing they'd included this for every episode. Instead, they have a commentary for four random episodes by the voice actors that I'm sorry to say is just lame. Why the voice actors? Their comments bring absolutely zero insight into the production of each episode. It's an unfortunately wasted opportunity. It would have been great to hear commentary from Ito, Yuasa, Takahashi, Nakamura et al. on the episodes they did. They could have provided insight into the production style for a show that had an incredibly unique production style that we haven't really gotten much insight into yet. There was an interview with Ito in the booklet that was very interesting to read. Ito is a really interesting guy full of genuine enthusiasm for his work, a real dynamo of an animator willing to push the envelope to create animation with raw power. Otherwise, also included were storyboards and image boards by Yuasa and the standard character sheets by Ito, which were all very welcome.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

05:26:13 pm , 253 words, 3553 views     Categories: Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume on DVD 6/22

It's been more than three months since Kemonozume ended, and for a while I was hearing that there were no plans to release a DVD. I sort of dismissed that, because I couldn't conceive of any major anime TV series not coming out on DVD eventually, much less one of the level of Kemonozume. It seems a date has finally been set for the DVD release. In a happy coincidence, it will be coming out on my birthday, June 22. I couldn't imagine a better birthday present, so thank you in advance! I'm just happy that it will finally be possible for me to put my money where my mouth is and directly support the people who created a show that gave me such pleasure. It will be coming out as a single box set loaded with extras, including an audio commentary, booklet and soundtrack. I personally would love for them to reproduce a selection of the keys for the amazing animation that graced this show (ideally with time sheets). I remember Satelight generously did this for the Noein DVDs. The interesting thing with Kemonozume was how each animator had such a radically different and individual approach - compare Masaaki Yuasa to Satoru Utsunomiya to Hisashi Mori to Hiroyuki Aoyama to Choi Eunyoung - so I think seeing the blueprint for their animation side by side would be not only incredibly stimulating, but also instructive about the richness and variety of the animation, which is one of the things that made Kemonozume so unique.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

01:03:44 am , 1768 words, 3603 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #12

I've finally arrived at the episode that I've been looking forward to seeing since the very beginning, and actually probably the only episode about which I had expectations going in (just because I knew nothing about the rest). I'm happy to say that it was just as good as I was expecting. Even better. It's been tough mustering the energy to blog a whole series, but the lure of getting to this ep has actually been a powerful incentive getting me off my duff.

The episode was such a pleasure to watch that it's hard to know where to begin. Basically, what we have here was an episode drawn entirely by a single person, in this case Michio Mihara, as I mentioned before. Osamu Kobayashi happens to have preceded Mihara in this bold initiative in a previous episode, but I'm under the impression that his decision to animate everything himself was partly inspired by witnessing the fervor with which Mihara had already undertaken this challenge in his own episode. As far as the results go, as I expected, the contrast couldn't be more stark. Yet despite the differences, I appreciate both instances because they provide a rare opportunity - in a TV anime setting, at least - to see a great animator's imagination tapped to the fullest extent, completely unmediated by correction, for an entire episode, with his idiosyncratic touch of line left intact throughout. Like a painter's brushstroke, this is a vital element to fully exploring an animator's style, revealing how he places his lines to create his forms in response to the given action or situation. But it's an element that almost without exception usually winds up being obscured by the conventional animation process. It's not necessarily always an important component, but with some animators it's clearly part of their appeal. Mihara's work here benefits tremendously from being seen in the raw, as he has a great knack for stark, powerfully raw drawings.

In the past it was more common to see single individuals animating entire TV episodes, whatever the reason (it probably had more to do with budgets), but today it's become something of a rarity. The demands of fans for increased quality of drawing has probably contributed to this. Yet even when the quality is not particularly high today, as it isn't on average, the credits can fill up an entire page. In an ironic twist, the rare times that we see solo episodes today is when a peculiar breed of superanimator, as if driven by an obsession with polishing his craft, steps up to the bat to give the challenge a go, as if it were some rite of passage to becoming a True Animator, a trial by fire leading to a higher plane of animator satori. Norio Matsumoto comes to mind, and Tetsuya Takeuchi, but that's it. There are still shows where small, veteran crews do this on a regular basis - notably in Yuasa's alma mater Crayon Shin-chan - but these are shows where the demands on movement and intricate drawing are not paricularly high. What people like Matsumoto and Takeuchi are doing is really attempting to do the entire Herculean - Sisyphean? - task of burdening the work of an entire crew of your typical episode. So usually if an animator is given that opportunity, it's not for no reason, and the results speak for themselves.

Michio Mihara adds himself to those elite ranks with this episode. The basic thrill of Matsumoto's and Takeuchi's recent work was, essentially, that they maintained an amazing level of quality over an incredibly long span, applying their unique genius as movers to every moment of animation. They showed us how thrilling animation can be in the hands of the right animator. As for Mihara, I was familiar with some of his previous work. I was a particular fan of his unique drawing style, with its wonderful offhand nuance in little touches of expression that made characters feel very alive and individual. His characters felt beautiful because their imperfections were wisely and lovingly rendered. However, I'm actually not that familiar with him as a mover, though I knew he was a pillar of Satoshi Kon's films, and that he was one of the small handful of serious animator craftsmen in Japan. This episode was a delight not just because it gave him free reign to do as he liked, but because he utilized the opportunity fully to fill the ep not only with his own delectable drawings of each of the various characters, and apply his every ounce to bringing those characters alive with his own unique style of movement. You feel how committed he is to the work. His enthusiasm is contagious. I live to see the sort of enthusiasm Mihara puts into his animation.

Mihara is unique among the Japanese animators I'm familiar with in that he has a predilection for anatomical observation. In other words, the drawings he draws in his free time aren't anime characters but taken from life. His eye has been honed by observing reality around him. That is precisely what Yasuo Otsuka has advocated for decades, but it seems to be becoming less and less common among Japanese animators. Well, in this episode, Mihara's talent for caricature and for drawing the human body is fully exploited. I was worried that my favorite character, Kazuma, had left the stage permanently after the last episode, but was pleased to see him not only alive but take the stage as the main character in this episode, compounding the delight of seeing Mihara take the stage. My favorite character, animated in the most vivid fashion possible. It doesn't get any better than that. Kazuma is in fact completely naked for much of the episode, dashing around and doing lots of vigorous action. I can't imagine many other Japanese animators who would have been up to the task of animating the naked human body in as convincing and thrilling a fashion as he has here, and I can't imagine any who would have dared trying to do it for a whole episode.

In every other respect Mihara's animation is heads and shoulders above most of the rest in the series. It's clear why he's such an important pillar of Satoshi Kon's films. Mihara is technically accomplished, able to draw and move a character from any direction not just correctly but also create motion that feels good and is full of interesting ideas. In terms of all the fundamentals of animation, he is possibly the only animator in the series aside from Ito who has bothered to invest the effort needed to fill out the movements with real nuance. Aside from Mihara's animation, it was really only in Ito's hands that it felt like there was substantial acting going on. Testifying to Mihara's intent to invest his movements with as much nuance as possible is the fact that he also went back after he had finished the keys and proceeded to inbetween his own animation. Of the handful of inbetweeners, he tops the list. That's certainly unprecedented to my knowledge in anime. There are rails laid in the process of animation production, and by jumping over them by doing that in order to perfect his task, he's providing service beyond the call of duty. This is obviously in an attempt to fill out his animation with the intended nuance, and in the Japanese system there's probably not many other ways of doing it, short of drawing "full limited" like Mitsuo Iso in order to excise the iffy middleman.

What pleased me most was to see that Mihara's work was fully backed up by the directing. The director is series assistant director Atsushi Takahashi, who did Nobutoshi Ogura's ep 3. I love his poetic sensibility and brilliant eye for assembling beautiful visual images from unlikely sources. The background images in this episode are some of the most striking in the entire series, particularly the view from the elevator. The tone of the screen is rich and colorful, full of texture while never going overboard, keeping things balanced and focused, pushing this series' unique approach to backgrounds to a sort of culmination. Takahashi's directing style is all his own, but just as accomplished as Kenji Nakamura's. Takahashi's directing would seem to be about exploring the inner psyche of the characters through rich, dreamlike images. It is slower and more deliberate, never feeling forced. This episode came across as having considerably more psychological depth and resonance than usual. Takahashi wrote, storyboarded and directed the episode, so like the previous two episodes, yet again we get to see an episode of unusually honed and unified proportions. There's no feeling of compromise. Takahashi's very strong vision of how to tell this story is unsullied. Interestingly, then, the last four episodes of this series will have been one-man-shows in this way, showcasing four unique directing approaches. I'm eager to see how Yuasa will wrap things up.

Finally, the avant is also worth note. It's animated in a very memorable way, full of interesting realistic gestures with those flailing arms. In fact it's an interesting hybrid, an animation experiment asking the question: what is real in animation? They actually had an actor play out the part and filmed it. Mihara went back and took poses from the film that he thought he could use in the animation, and then drew his drawings making reference to those poses, pieced together as he saw fit, unrelated to the original. So it's real, yet it's animated. Mihara's dedication to creating interesing and never seen before animation shines through yet again in this inventive little animated puzzle. The subject also happens to be rather baffling and thought-provoking, hinting at an entire situation that we have to try to piece together with just the few clues provided in those thirty seconds.

All in all, I didn't think the impact of ep 1 or 10 would be surpassed, but the duo of Atsushi Takahashi and Michio Mihara have created a real gem in this episode, which stands on its own as a perfect little film that is also tremendously stimulating as animation. Notably, the characters look quite different in this episode - Mihara gave them all his own unmistakable interpretation - yet the characters remain the characters, and are in fact more alive than in most of the other episodes. If for nothing else, Kemonozume will have been valuable for showing that it is possible to encompass a wide variety of touch without losing a sense of unity, while gaining a hell of a lot of richness in the process.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

01:03:24 am , 984 words, 2316 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #11

With this ep we find ourself racing headlong towards the finale, and bad, bad things begin happening to all of the protagonists. One of the things that makes this series unique is that it keeps you guessing in interesting new ways - not just in terms of the story, but also in terms of the way the story is told (to say nothing of the stylistic variety). The sudden, unprompted flashback in ep 4, the side-story in ep 5, the lyrical beauty of ep 9 right after the shock of ep 8. As soon as you try to pin it down, it squirms out in another direction. I'm not sure whether it's worked in all cases, or how much of it was premeditated, but it's always been an exciting ride.

It's been particularly interesting how the series has juggled the serious/comic aspect. In Yuasa's template in episode 1 we can see the ideal balance the director was obviously aiming at, seguing from horror to comedy or blending the two in the same moment to create a curious hybrid, neither pure comedy nor pure horror, with an atmosphere and a visual approach that immediately set the series apart. Most of the rest of the series has been endowed with this atmosphere to an extent, but ultimately Yuasa's rare genius is what accounts for that delicate balancing act on display in the first episode, and consequently few of the other episodes, over which he didn't have complete control, quite manage to provide the tremendous satisfaction that the first ep did because of the way it balanced all of those various elements.

What the series has turned out to be about, instead, is seeing how different people adapt themselves to Yuasa's seemingly inimitable approach. The TV format all but precludes the level of control we saw in Mind Game. So instead of fighting against this, it feels like they've gone with the flow and successfully adapted their approach to the format. My first instinct was to wish that the whole series could have been like episode 1, and I was a little put off by the lack of unity, but after thinking about it, I appreciate the results. Yuasa has always taken a kaleidoscopic approach, throwing in unepected elements at unexpected times, surprising us with high-velocity animation one moment and jumping to live-action footage, or jumping from hair-raising scenes to hilarity in a way that seems only natural, as he did in Mind Game. This series seems to do that on a macro level, examining a different mood and style in each episode. Partly this is intentional, but it also cunningly uses the inescapable unevenness of a TV series to its advantage. The avants are a further extension of this. They add a dash of unique animation to the mix. On the surface seem like they have nothing to do with the main story, but they also help flesh out the setting with little snippets of a day in the life of various flesheaters. Reportedly they decided to use the avants to show how nasty the flesheaters are, which they felt they hadn't done enough in the series itself.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's too early to make an assessment yet. I got to thinking about this because the pacing and tone was so different in this ep. This and the previous ep were each written/storyboarded/directed by one person, so the particular director's style comes across as all the more than eps where the tasks are split up. The ep feels more unified when it's all done by one person, but by the same token it also feels all the more different from the surrounding eps.

The director here was Hiroshi Shimizu, who up until recently worked alongside Yuasa as an animator on all of the Shin-chan films, his last being Yakiniku Road in 2003. He also happens to have worked on pretty much all of the Ghibli films of the 90s. Here he also animated the avant, which provides a welcome opportunity to get down his style, as he doesn't have nearly as individual a style as Sueyoshi or Yuasa, so I've never been able to pick out his Shin-chan work. In this episode he places the focus squarely on that villain we've grown to love to hate, Ohba, who hams it up with some wonderful and horribly insane antics. With Kenji Naikai as the voice actor, he's a diabolically fun character to watch. Shimizu's style is to singlemindedly stick with the flow of action, which is very different from Kenji Nakamura's roving eye. Though Shimizu also comes from Shinei, he seems very different from Yuasa. He strikes me as having a good sense of his own style already, with a cleaner line and more of a traditional approach than Yuasa. What the two share is a passion for creating animation driven by motion.

The animation in this ep struck me as significantly cleaner feeling than much of what I've seen elsewhere, particularly Shimizu's own avant. It was still possible to identify different styles at work, since Ohba was the main character throughout, giving different people the opportunity to move him, but the basic approach felt different. The expressions and poses were more cartoonish and exaggerated than what I've come to expect of Ito, but nonetheless lively and interesting, and brought the character alive nicely. There were a few interesting faces in the credits, including Tadashi Hiramatsu and Hiroyuki Aoyama, and one scene stood out from the rest - the brief fight between the two flesheaters. Perhaps it was by one of them. I also rather liked the bit with the secret police in the tubes. The interesting timing and more geometric forms kind of felt like Nobutoshi Ogura. Interesting also to see Sayo Yamamoto as one of the assistants to Shimizu. I liked his Champloo work but haven't seen anything since, though I'm sure he's been active.

Monday, November 13, 2006

08:11:21 pm , 1669 words, 2582 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #10

After the lulling side-story of the last episode, this episode comes back to the main story with a vengeance. In a way, this episode may have had the most powerful impact on me so far. Yuasa's first episode was a fantastic ride covering a lot of ground and coming across as a perfectly honed unit, but it doesn't quite leave one with the same aftertaste. This ep leaves the viewer a little shellshocked. It similarly feels perfectly honed, but it grabs hold of the viewer and shakes her/him around in a way none of the other episodes do. Every shot feels perfectly calculated to create an unmitigated buildup of tension that keeps you frantically paying attention and keeps the story pulsing ahead. None of the other episodes felt quite this tightly honed.

All that is thanks to Kenji Nakamura, who storyboarded, co-wrote and directed the ep. Ito was back as animation director and listed at the head of the (only) three key animators, so ep 1 (or 2) is an apt comparison. We see Ito's masterly drawings on the surface, but they're driven this time by a very different director's hand. Just prior to this Nakamura did the three-episode Bakeneko, an instant classic if ever there was one. This ep shares with Bakeneko that feeling of masterfully maintained tension, of a very unique and honed directing touch. It's an interesting challenge to try to figure out what it is that makes Nakamura's directing feel so different, how it's possible for his directing to achieve the power it does, because it doesn't seem that different at first glance, but the end result achieves an impressive effect that's very far from everything else out there.

One of the first (of many) things that struck me about Bakeneko was the use of sound. Here the sound is very interesting as well. Particularly the voices. The voices will be overlaid over one another while people argue, something that doesn't seem to happen very often in anime but that does in real life. The voices will be faded to different levels as the camera jumps around different parts of a scene, so that at times he makes you actively struggle to follow the action. Maybe that's one thing that sets him apart: He's brilliant at using the tactics of the medium to reel in the audience to his ends. He'll use music incongruously in an ironic fashion, with a tune heard one place being taken up symmetrically somewhere else, or recurring at different times with different shades of meaning, since each time the music recurs it has the effect of reminding of a previous moment. Nakamura is good at building up a complex referential web of meaning like this. He also masterfully ties up the sound with the images to increase the impact of the words - such as when Ohba says "ima wa tsutsushinde iru kedo" (meaning "though they're refraining from using it now"), with the shot jumping to two Kifuuken swordsman popping the top on two of the supposedly abstained-from drinks in sync with the deliberately emphasized phrasing of the sentence: tsutsushinde.... iru kedo....

Then there is the way he positions the camera. It's as if he takes a birds' eye view of the action, jumping with the camera to various places as the main thread is unfolding, often in a surprising way, rather than keeping things focused on the main chain of events. He'll keep the shot framed statically on something while the characters are talking either out of view or obstructed, creating an intriguing distancing effect. It may seem random, but it always has the effect of heightening the drama. He keeps the camera deadpan and distant when the most dire things are happening. It's as if, as a director, he takes a step back from the action to an objective vantage point, rather than getting caught up in the events, inserting little shots at unexpected moments to add different perspectives on what's happening.

It's hard to put into words what it is that makes his work so thrilling, but it's rewarding trying to figure it out, as he seems the epitome of what it means to be a director to me - completely committed with every shot, actively thinking about a novel way of presenting the material that will maximize its impact. He has an eye for detail, and always does something to make every shot have something interesting happening. Take the shot where Ohba interrupts Toshihiko reading the magazine and asks him how things are going. In the previous shots we have a beautiful seemingly live-captured image of clouds billowing over a vast, desloate landscape that seems a metaphor for the devastation, psychological and physical, being wrought on the characters. It's a breathtakingly beautiful, yet somehow anxious image that connects with the images of clouds in the previous episodes. Well, I only noticed on a second watching that he has the reflection of the clouds ever so faintly playing across the shop window in this shot. Every shot is conscientiously calculated in this way without it ever being apparent or heavy-handed. This is the kind of directing that you have to come back to several times before discovering everything that he's packed into it.

On a second watching I caught a lot of stuff I didn't catch the first time. It was interesting to focus on the different ways that flower appeared throughout the episode. Another thing I caught was in the background - the book with the pair of glasses placed over it. The backgrounds throughout the series have been interesting, taking an approach unlike any other anime series I've seen before. It would seem that many, though obviously not all, of the backgrounds were made by sending out someone to take a photograph of some scene somewhere, say a pharmacy, which they then took and processed in varying degrees to create the image seen in the series. The book on the jukensei's desk was apparently taken from a photograph of an English vocabulary cram-book called "Genius Eitango 2500" or Genius English Vocabulary 2500, amusingly retitled to the (in Japanese) similar sounding "Near Miss Eitango 2500", presumably in an echo of Hobari's comment in episode 8. It's an interesting technique that probably offers some time savings, but more than anything is very beautiful and effective as a complement to Yuasa's emphatically hand-drawn style.

But to get back to Nakamura, what I came away from this episode feeling was just how precious a figure Mamoru Hosoda is - not as a director, which he is, but as the mentor figure who obvioulsy had such an important role in helping Kenji Nakamura develop into the great director he has. To say nothing of Takuya Igarashi.

I could go on and on about the directing - I was also impressed how he weaved Rie, who hasn't had much of a role in the action up until now, into the fabric of the episode without even using any lines of dialogue - but the story itself was quite exciting, revealing an important mystery and finally getting the plot really rolling somewhere. Nakamura, who co-wrote the episode, also did a great job of weaving all of the other characters with their different situations together into the unfolding plot. He did more to flesh out and put a human face on one of my favorite characters - the brother - than any of the other episodes has done yet. A few simple shots showing him looking on as Rie carefully does the accounts ties in to the narration about the Kifuuken's money problems and hints at the feelings that have developed between the two. It was the first time we saw a compassionate expression on Kazuma's face.

One of the other hilights of the episode had to be Kenji Naikai's brilliant, unhinged acting as Ohba. It really is insane, doing all sorts of bizarre vocal acrobatics that are just hilarious to listen to but also give a good sense of the unstable, insane nature of the character.

Then there was the avant. The avants have undoubtedly been among the most interesting inventions of this series. In each episode the avant has worked as a stand-alone piece of animation, and a showcase for the style of a particular animator who is given free reign to his thing the way he wants. There was Utsunomiya, there was Nobutoshi Ogura, Hiroyuki Aoyama, Koichi Arai... and now Choi Eunyoung. I quite enjoyed the episode on which he was animation director, but it didn't prepare me at all for the explosion of art animation on display from him in the avant of this episode. It was easily the most flamboyant and unabashedly personal piece of animation in the series, which is saying a lot. Here there really was no pretext of playing close to the look of the series, except in the most basic sense that it consisted of rough, spontaneous drawings directly from the hands of the animator. It would be interesting to hear his influences, as a quick glance would suggest any number of people, but particularly Ohira, with the scraggly line and pencil touch.

Finally, I feel like I have to go back and single out Ito again. It seems like there's no end of things to say about this ep... I thought this ep was a good showcase for his interesting character designs. The first two eps also had their share of tasty, bizarrely-shaped characters, but the intervening episodes seemed a little lacking in the imaginative designs (or at least their effective rendering) that contributed to making those eps so interesting, so it was nice to finally get to see a lot of those really interesting designs in Ito's actual hand again. The old Kifuuken members felt really nice in this ep. Apart from that, it was good to have the solid posing and touch of line of Ito back in the show, as interesting as it was to see his style interpreted in various ways throughout the show.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2006

06:26:29 pm , 998 words, 1606 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #9

Rather than there being a sort of fundamental tone from which there's the occasional key change, it seems like every episode of this series is in a different key. Each episode has its own particular style thanks to the animation director, and a unique atmosphere and thematic approach. Nobutoshi Ogura's ep 3 seems the nearest kin to this lyrical and heartfelt ep, which comes across as a deep breath taken before we take the big dive into the climax.

I enjoyed this ep much more on the second watching. On the first, I wanted more to be happening and found myself bored. On the second, I was able to attune myself to the pacing and finally appreciate all of the various aspects of this episode.

First of all, this episode is quite notable for a reason that might not be immediately apparent: Every single animation drawing was drawn by a woman. I'm not just talking key animators - the animation director, all four key animators, all second key animators, and all inbetweeners were women. That's unprecedented as far as I know, and it seems highly unlikely to be a coincidence, so it's clear that this episode was intended as the Women's Episode. Kayoko Nabeta has in fact been an animator I've wanted to find out more about since seeing her name in various places after Cat Soup, and from what I see here she has a very appealing style, so I can see why Yuasa keeps coming back to her. She appears to have finished her inbetweening days after GITS in 1995, and then gone on to work on various IG productions, including, notably, Yuasa's Vampiyan Kids pilot, on which she adapted the designs for animation.

What most impressed me about Nabeta from this episode was not necessarily her own style on display, but more her approach as an animation director. She seems to approach the task like Kenichi Konishi, restricting corrections to touches here and there in order to retain each animator's particular flavor, rather than thoroughly correcting everything to impose a homogenous look. As a result, I could identify several distinct styles at work throughout the episode, for which reason I nicknamed the episode "the four Yukas" in my head. I don't know who did what, but I found it a good opportunity to study style. I went from one section to the other and noted clear differences in the styles on display. I found that looking at unmoving shapes like eyebrows and noses helped to make it easier to identify different approaches to line/form. For a while Toshihiko will look decidedly cute and cartoonish, with a bigger nose and eyes than usual, then later on he'll look closer to Ito's designs, with the small eyes and flatter nose. The end in paricular looked very much like Ito. A few closeups at the very end I would have mistaken for Ito.

Then there were the two guest characters. Their designs were wonderful. I don't know who designed them, but presumably it was Ito. On the second watching I found that I very much appreciated that they had taken pause to dedicate an entire episode to two such characters. An aged couple, one physically disabled, the other blind. If Kemonozume has been a story about a persecuted minority, then this seemed an extension of that - this episode focuses on, not a minority, but a vast group of humanity that tends to get slighted by society, shunted off into a corner, because we would rather not have to deal with them. We'll all reach this stage one day, and a day not that far off, so that's our fate too. This episode was a long and loving look at that group, and I found that moving. Perhaps that's another sense in which I found this to be the Women's Episode. Not to stereotype, but it had the sensitive, caring touch that I associate with some of my favorite films by women filmmakers - particularly so the last scene on the shore. Throughout the episode dialogue took the fore. The old couple described in detail the little things that happened in their lives leading to the present - words brought alive by Hisako Kyoda's wonderful delivery, with its breezy, mischevious tone - convincingly establishing two nuanced and human characters in a short span. On the shore, the dialogue between Toshihiko and Yuka, at a younger stage on the same path, was possibly the most moving heart-to-heart I've yet seen between the two, convincingly capturing the tone of two (comparatively) young lovers anxious about the future but basking in the simple happiness of being with one another. It was a very nice scene. Many of the most beautiful scenes in the series have been the scenes of calm romance between the two protagonists.

Stylistically, we saw more integration of live-action than anywhere before. Or at least, its presence was felt more. It seemed to be used mostly for short close-ups of hands in action, as with the cooking. In terms of plot developments, the entire episode was exclusively devoted to this side-story, so very little progress was made in the big picture, but there was one important plot point that seemed to be hinted at, though I don't want to go into detail. All will be revealed in the end, so I'll wait eagerly for the answer. Yuasa has been slowly spinning an intricate web of clues. Many things that I paid no heed before are now beginning to make a bit more sense. Like most of Yuasa's work, I have no idea where things are headed, which keeps things interesting. Other little bits... Nobutoshi Ogura drew an amusing little avant this time around, in his patented pointy-limbed style. There were a number of very beautiful images in the ep, most notably the image of the car driving across the shallow lake, as if in the sky... though I found myself wondering where in Japan there's a place like that.

Monday, November 6, 2006

02:12:52 am , 999 words, 1540 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #8

It seems like it all happened so fast. It was only a few months ago that I was surprised to hear about Yuasa's new series, and now the last episode just aired. I originally thought 13 episodes was probably a good safe number, but now that I'm halfway into the series I find myself wishing they had two seasons. For one, just because I don't want the wonderfulness to end so soon, but another part of me is feeling they might have used an extra season to make things flow a little smoother. I noticed that each episode leaps considerably in time. I like that approach, actually, but sometimes it feels a little too sudden. It's hard to tell how much time, if any, has expired between one ep and the next. But to an extent I think that's just Yuasa's style. He avoids overemphasizing anything, sometimes to an extreme degree.

I couldn't resist having a look at the creds for the final ep, and was amazed by the lineup - Takashi Hashimoto, Masahiko Kubo, Koichi Arai, Nobutoshi Ogura, Yasunori Miyazawa, and Soichiro Matsuda, plus all the best of the regulars. But now that I've watched ep 8, I see that this alignment of the stars had actually occured before. The staff roll is even more eyepopping in ep 8 to an extent - Nobutoshi Ogura, Yasunori Miyazawa, Soichiro Matsuda, Takaaki Yamashita, Tatsuzo Nishita, Coosan, Hiroyuki Okuno and even Hirotsugu Kawasaki (director of the second Naruto movie). Great lineup, and surprising. I would never have expected to see Yamashita and his protege here. From what I can tell it looks like maybe Yamashita did part of the torture session and Nishida the start of the attack, though surprisingly I wasn't able to ID many other sections. I also liked the bit at the end of the bathtub scene where Hobari languorously draws his hand across Yuka's claw. Even more of a surprise was to see Miyazawa make an appearance. I had wished out loud before that he would appear in the show. I'm looking forward to seeing what he did in the last ep.

But most of all, I was delighted to see Koichi Arai take the stage as the episode's animation director and animator of the "avant". (the segment 'before' the theme song) Arai had appeared before in the show, but it was an unexpected delight to see him given his own ep. Could this be the first time I've seen him working as animation director since 3x3 Eyes? Ah, actually, there's the Koikaze op, but that's it. That aside, then, Yuasa managed to do what nobody else has managed to do in the intervening decade and a half - get a whole ep out of Arai again, which I'd been hoping someone would do so I could see what his work might look like now. Stylistically it looks very little like what I saw in 3x3 Eyes. But I've never associated Arai with a paritcular style, and in fact I've always thought that he was a great specimen of a highly versatile neutral animator able to adapt to any style without allowing his own touch to seep in too much. Here, the part that really felt Arai was the avant. He's clearly evolved a bit since then, and there wasn't so much of the wonderful touch that I so appreciated in 3x3 Eyes, but there were moments when I thought I could sense a distant echo of that touch in the flashback stills. The girl looked like Pai in certain shots. In the ep itself, it seems like he did a great job of adapting himself to a style closer to that of Ito/Yuasa while investing the faces with his own more nuanced expressions.

Strangely enough, the episode wasn't exploding with the sort of animated frenzy I would have expected of such an all-star cast. There were moments that felt great, but overall the situation didn't seem that conducive to providing many opportunities to create vivid movement - though of course there was the attack scene at the end, which did have some nice work. The good bits there were were more nuanced and less kinetic.

It was a riveting episode, both in terms of what was happening and how it was presented. The storyboarder/director was Yuichi Tanaka, who I'm not too familiar with, though I see he was an animator on a few recent Ghibli films. Yuasa co-wrote the script. The script was really powerful, and the directing fully backed it up, doing a good job of creating an atmosphere of painfully intense claustrophobia. The first few minutes in particular were quite hair-raising. Live-action was effectively used again. Using live-action for only that particular object was a wonderful touch. It seemed like doing so kind of provided the key that was needed to make the situation feel vivid and real to the audience, which it might not have had it consisted only of animation. It's like when you're watching a horror film - you know it's fake, so it doesn't shock. With animation sometimes, you know it's animated, so it doesn't strike you as real. Using that piece of live-action seemed to step over that line and make the scene take hold of you the way animation rarely is able to alone. That texture evoked all the sweat, fear, and cold of being confined in the dark as a prisoner. This episode felt like it brought to the fore the theme of terrorism/resistance that has been a kind of undercurrent throughout the show so far. It had moments that were genuinely shocking in a way that few other gory or violent anime are. The avant, on the other hand, showcased the gruesome humour that is unique to this show. If I had one complaint, it's that I would have liked there to have been a little more effort put into conveying what Yuka was thinking/feeling that whole time, even just little hints here and there.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

11:13:19 pm , 775 words, 3499 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #7

SEXYIt's time to jump off the wagon of Kemonozume abstention. Several weeks have passed and Michio Mihara's episode just aired, so I need to do some serious catching up. I actually watched Osamu Kobayashi's episode a few weeks back, but honestly wasn't quite sure how to write about it, so I kind of let it drag. Re-watching it today mainly confirms most of the feelings I had about it when I first watched it. First of all, I commend Kobayashi on a great job. He directed and animated the entire ep singe-handedly, and it's no small task to do that. It's always a treat to see Kobayashi's work, and it was a treat here too. I can't think of many commercial TV projects where someone with a style as un-commercial as Kobayashi's - and as seemingly unsuited to the series in question - would be given free reign for an entire episode, totally uncorrected. It would have been cowardly and redundant to call in Kobayashi and then correct him, so it's good that they saw this through the right way. We'll be seeing a very different kind of one-man-show in the just-aired episode 12 with Mihara, who unless I'm mistaken just before this would have handled the much-talked-about climactic sequence of Satoshi Kon's latest film. Kobayashi and Mihara are about as different a couple of animators as you could find, and I love that about the show - that it embraces a diverse range of possible interpretations. What unites them them is a sense of adventure and bravado as animators. Whoever it is who works on the show, we see their work in the raw. We see the real face of a certain animator. It feels like this placing of animators who have a passion for their work over stylistic unity redresses a fundamental imbalance in the conventional approach to TV animation.

As for Kobayashi's work, it's basically what one would expect. Kobayashi strikes me as tremendously great when working as a series director, and when working at the opposite end of the scale, on wild fantasy shorts of his own creation, but he doesn't seem very well suited to working within the system as a cog in a machine. Needless to say, I mean that as a compliment. But in a sense, that is what he is having to do here, even though Kemonozume provides him with absolute freedom. It's just that, while watching the episode, I wasn't sure that it really worked. I had my doubts as to whether his style was really suited to this show, which is ironic since this show has embraced such a wide range of styles so far. Here they went even further than they've gone before by having Kobayashi do the ep, as if to see just how far they could push this concept, and in the end perhaps that's what makes the episode interesting. In a sense there is some similarity to what we see in Ito's episodes - Kobayashi's drawings also have that rough touch. His drawings feel alive and honest. In that sense they're similar, and Kobayashi's work fits within the spirit of the show. But in the end Kobayashi is not a mover like Ito. Ito creates beauty through drawings in motion. Kobayashi works on a different level. Kobayashi seems in his element when creating a fantastic world full of zany ideas of his own creation, not when having to move someone else's characters. Actually, I found that I really liked the way little bits of his animation were injected subversively into the fabric of Nobuteru Yuuki's sleek drawings in the first episode of Paradise Kiss. His style seemed well suited to use in a subversive capacity like that.

As for the episode itself, it was probably the most sexual episode so far. Each episode has usually had its share of erotic happenings, but here the whole pivot of the episode was the issue of Toshihiko's ability (or inability, as it were) to get off with his gal. It's an interesting situation: They're uncontrollably attracted to each other, yet sexual arousal triggers transformation, preventing sexual consummation - one hell of a vicious circle. The catfight was fun, and there were a few shocking revelations that kept things quite interesting. The main thing I came away with from this episode was just how adult this series is - 'adult' in the sense that it delivers ero without moe. It's only on watching this episode that it occurred to me how rare a thing it is to see sex portrayed in an honest fashion like this and not played up for titillation or as fan service.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

11:47:41 pm , 828 words, 1794 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #6

The fact that I can't watch the next episode until I write about the current episode incites me to get off my ass and write my post before things get any more backed up.

I've seen this ep three times now, and it's grown on me each time. The episode brings some welcome humor to the proceedings. The last few episodes seemed a little lacking in one of the things that most distinguishes Yuasa - his humor - and this episode makes up for that very nicely. It was hilarious the first time, and on the third watching I still laugh at the parts that made me laugh out loud the first time. This is definitely the funniest episode since the first episode, and the one where Yuasa's brand of humour comes out the best since the first. Yuasa co-wrote the script, which explains why. At the same time the episode weaves in a nice, touching story, and a fantastic action scene involving none other than the monkey - whom I've been dying to see in action again - so it was a really fun and enjoyable ep to watch. That's what I came away with from this episode - how nice this series is. In other words, how good it makes you feel just watching it. The show has heart. Despite the gruesome premise and occasional shocking image, it never feels morbid or repellant. There have been well produced series that I've enjoyed in the past, but beyond the technical aspect, there haven't been many series that I've simply enjoyed immersing myself in the way I do this one. And each episode is so different from the previous. There haven't been two episodes that are alike, either in terms of narrative style or animation style. This actually took me a little while getting used to, and I found myself wishing they tried a more linear tack, but now that I'm starting to get used to it, the approach is growing on me, and I can see how it's effective for telling this story.

Unusually, the animation director of this episode was a Korean whom I've seen in several of the episodes so far, Choi Eunyoung, with backup from Ito. He's clearly been one of the main folks behind the animation of the series along with a few other people I've seen regularly in the same eps but otherwise never heard of - Akira Honma, Mariko Aikawa, Masahiko Ouchi, etc. I suppose he must have come from Dr Movie originally. The animation was if anything even more sharp stylistically than some of the other episodes, with very daring and rough drawings full of wonderfully characterful ruffles and ridges. It was nice work and very pleasant to look at. He clearly understands Yuasa's approach, and does a great job of interpreting that approach through the lens of his own style. I'd be curious to know what parts he did in the previous episodes. The beginning of the action scene had a nice feeling to the moment, with some daring perspectives and leaping around. I liked the use of the "ghost" effect when Toshihiko was dodging the acorns.

For some reason watching this episode also reminded me of something I'd been wondering about since the beginning of the series - the meaning of the kemono. The way it is tied to sexual arousal seems to suggest some kind of a metaphor for human desire, though I'm not exactly sure how to interpret it. In this episode Yuka speaks about a doctor who performs free operations to cure the "persecuted" shokujinki. That single word puts a very different spin on things, suggesting that we may have been deliberately fooled into instinctively taking the wrong side in the presented power play of society at large versus the shokujinki in order to remind us how easy it is for us to unwittingly do the same thing in real life - how everything is relative. Certainties can be arbitrary and conditioned. Truth depends on your perspective and your willingness to empathise and try to understand.

Something I forgot to mention about the last episode was that "subway" scene. I didn't realize until afterwards that there really are places like that in Japan, where you can go and stand in a room designed to look like a subway and fondle a woman like some kind of a subway pervert if you get off on that sort of thing but would prefer to avoid the occupational hazards of the real thing. Great idea to use that to add some topical spice to the material. I remember a few spots of Paranoia Agent offering a glimpse into similar facets of the "fuuzoku" subculture of Japan, which seems to get more and more bizarre every year. Last ep I also noticed someone credited as "Mizuhata-san", which was amusing. Presumably we're talking about Kenji Mizuhata, whose name I see often enough, though I don't know anything about his style.

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