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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.