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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.