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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Saturday, December 6, 2008

01:54:08 am , 1022 words, 6507 views     Categories: Animation

Kenji Matsumoto: Background artist of Casshern Sins #9

I remember quite liking the art in episode 7 of Casshern Sins, and the basic feeling of the art in the series overall, but the art in episode 9 truly stood out to me as among the most pleasing and compelling I'd seen in recent memory. Usually the background doesn't jump out at me, but here it stood out as among the most memorable part of an otherwise fine episode. You could feel there was real love put into the work.

I was surprised to find that the backgrounds in the episode were all drawn by a single person - Kenji Matsumoto. I've talked about solo-animator episodes in the past, but I didn't know there were actually solo-background episodes. I'm used to seeing quite a number of people credited with the backgrounds of any given episode, including other studios, which usually makes it hard to identify background artists I like, so this time around it really stood out to see only one name credited with background here. And it was great, because for once I can say with certainty exactly whose work it was I liked.

The most obvious thing that I liked about it is the way he mixes bright oranges, yellows and reds to create this dense texture that, surprisingly despite the associations with gaiety of the colors he's using, create a convincing feeling of death and decay. In the ultimate phase of the death of a boat's hull after it has sunk to its grave on the ocean floor, I imagine, it takes on just the sort of almost fleshy mix of reds and oranges that Matsumoto uses here to depict the texture of decomposition of the plague-afflicted robots. The texture is beautiful to look at, densely scarred and pocked and blotched. It's not naturalistic, either. He leaves each stroke of color quite obvious. But it has a marvelous impact.

I also found the compositions to also be very strong, downright gripping to look at, which rarely happens to me. It doesn't quite go to the lengths of something like Kemonozume, but there is more freedom here than usual. It achieves something of a fine balance between the artist being able to indulge his passions a little more than usual, while still delivering a product that works within the usual framework of nominal realism. The passion he puts into the images in fact benefits the film greatly. The shot of the robot with the flower by his side pictured above is absolutely gorgeous to look at, fit for framing, and seems to emanate a rare passion for the material that I don't know how to account for, but that helps to gives the scene and the episode its power. This is the power that backgrounds can have in the best hands.

I actually think that having had one person do it all might account for why there is a feeling of more passion there. Instead of people scattered all around the place geographically doing a shot here and there on contract, with no real stake in the production, the artist here was there throughout the entire episode. He had to understand what the episode was about, what needed to be conveyed, and he was able to think through what would best serve each particular shot of the episode, and render all the little details himself. It's the same as when you have a solo animator episode like Mihara's. You feel that the artist has more of a personal stake in the issue, and the passion is obvious.

Kenji Matsumoto was actually one of the background artists of episode 7, so I have to wonder if he wasn't the one responsible for the shots of the tower that I so liked in that episode. Also, episode 8 also happened to be a solo-background episode, by another artist named Shinzo Yuki.

This is where it becomes clear how this came about. Shinzo Yuki and his wife, Yukie Yuki, have worked as art directors/background artists on Toei Animation productions for years, as has Kenji Matsumoto. Shigeyasu Yamauchi's Toei lineage at work. I've been able to find a credit for Kenji Matsumoto as background artist dating as far back as 1972's Puss 'n Boots II, so he is not only a veteran Toei artist, but a veteran of the industry with the same amount of experience as his more well-known contemporaries like Shichiro Kobayashi, Nizo Yamamoto and Isamu Tsuchida. I thought that perhaps I was witnessing something new, a young face trying new things, but what I was seeing was in fact a the assured hand of a master.

It's rare that I write about background artists for one because it's animators who usually catch my eye, and it's animation and directing that usually interest me, but also for two because I don't know nearly enough about art to pretend to be able to talk about it. But mostly the latter. I've seen lots of great background artists in the past whose work I love. One of my all-time favorite series, Isao Takahata's Marco, would be unthinkable without Takamura Mukuo's brilliant, spot-on depictions of the vertiginous, mazelike alleyways and chalk-white seaside facade of Genoa, or later the beautiful desolation of the Argentinian pampas. His work is an indispensable part of Gauche the Cellist. The Red Shoes episode Osamu Dezaki did for the old Sekai Mukashibanashi series would not have the amazing impact and storybook beauty it does without Shichiro Kobayashi's distinctively bold approach to form, line and color. The latter is a great case of perfect symbiosis between director, animator and background artist, with each standing out for their personal style yet everything fitting together as a perfect whole.

I can't find that much info, but Kenji Matsumoto seems to have been involved in a large number of mostly Toei Animation TV productions since 1972. It seems like if you've watched a Toei production, you've probably seen his backgrounds. He seems to have been involved in a 'studio' named Atelier Robin alongside another Toei mainstay, Kazuo Ebisawa, who is regularly credited beside him, so he has presumably worked for Toei from his own studio all these years.



bahi [Visitor]  

Wasn’t Shinji Kimura a solo backround artist too for Tekkon Kinkreet???

12/06/08 @ 12:58
Ben [Member]  

Who ever said that? The credits for Tekkon Kinkreet list 16 people under bijutsu ("art").

12/06/08 @ 13:06
h_park [Member]

Finally, Ben. You opened the subject of BG artists. I watched Casshern Sins from Youtube, so I can’t say much about richness of colors and details. However, I really enjoyed the design of bleak, decaying, and alien world of the show. BG doing solo work…and I thought animators are having tough times. That’s like pumping 200 to 300 paintings in few months excluding rough BG paitings.

Bahi, Shinji Kimura served as art director of Tekkon. So he had to establish overall look of the film. Probably that’s why you assumed he did solo work. Here’s somewhat hilarious description of Anime art director.

Kimura worked for Shichiro Kobayashi before he became freelance.

Right now, Kinokunia bookstore in SF is selling Takamura Mukuo artbook by a stack, but not too many people are buying them due to high price($77) and lack of popularity in older anime titles. The book is really nice.

I think I understand why Ben is praising the works of Mukuo. His work is very graphical and color tone is more water colored. I believe it gives stronger unity with cel paintings. Please correctly me if I made highly subjective assessment.
Nowadays current most BG painting are either in highly saturated colors or photo realistic grays. I really don’t like photo-realistic palette because it defeats the purpose of painting. Kusanagi studio is infamous for it.

I’m working on kobayashi’s painting techniques. I hope to post it soon with pictures.

12/08/08 @ 02:34
Leedar [Visitor]  

I’m confused a bit. Don’t the animators at least do fairly final rough background drawings as part of layout? If the background painter diverged too much, depending on the scene, the animation would mismatch the scenery.

12/08/08 @ 18:55
Ben [Member]  

H Park:
Yes, simply in terms of amount of work it’s already quite a feat in itself. On top of that, they’re some of the most compelling backgrounds I’ve seen for a TV show. Here’s another shot from this episode that I liked a lot. You don’t even need to see it in stupendous detail to see how it stands out.

As for Mukuo, honestly I’m no expert. I’m sure I’ve seen his other work, but I’m not that versed on his style or anything. But at the very least, what I liked specifically about his work on Marco (I talked about it and put up shots of his backgrounds more than 10 years ago on that Marco page I made) is that he conveyed a feeling of authentic ethnicity, of authentic Italian and Argentinian locality, through his depictions of the colorful facade of the port of Genoa, or the winding alleyways or rooftops that are characteristic of the city, and so on. Many of the images that remain imprinted on your mind from the series are his backgrounds, such as the big red wall Marco encounters in his dreams. Part of this is accountable to the fact that he actually went to Genoa and Argentina, with Takahata, and spent some time there absorbing the sights and painting and taking down ideas. The vast red wall, for example, was based on an actual wall he saw. But there’s more than that. He injected his own interpretations there too. He uses bold, flat colors effectively in places, and his work is realistic without being photorealistic in terms of shades and colors. I’d have to have a close look at his work again, though, to comment more precisely. It’s been years since I’ve seen it.

I’ve actually long been interested in Shichiro Kobayashi in particular and would have loved to write a post about him, but my collection of art books is quite thin (actually nonexistent), and I just don’t know enough, so I never have. I look forward to reading what you have to say about him, H Park.

The amount of detail in the layout will vary depending on the animator and other factors, but I think in most cases there is still ample room for the background artist to stand out. I do remember hearing stories about Takaaki Yamashita drawing layouts for TV episodes directed by Mamoru Hosoda that were so detailed that the art director actually complained that it required too much work for a TV episode background. However, I’m inclined to suspect that the reverse situation is the more common. It’s true that the basic composition comes from the layout, but I doubt I would have been so excited just looking at the layout. It’s in Nakamura’s rendering that I feel the composition came alive. Perhaps I’m wrong. There’s no way of saying without comparing all of the original materials, to see if he changed the composition, or if the layout was already detailed, or how he interpreted the layout, etc. Really, I’m not too sure. Good question tho.

12/10/08 @ 10:30
Tim Merks
Tim Merks [Visitor]  

I’m watching both Casshern Sins and Mitchiko & Hatchin and both these shows I’m sold on the background art. That bell tower was amazing in Casshern.

One thing I love about Casshern is in the composition. They find some great shots with the simple design style of these characters.

I also love in the opening titles the frames of Casshern up close. Such a simple idea and a very bold one since it wouldn’t be a first choice when putting together an eyecatching opening sequence. Reminds me of some of Amano’s studies on his Vampire Hunter D stuff.

12/11/08 @ 09:38
manuloz [Visitor]  

Kenji Matsumoto did again an excelent work with episde 18, this time he was backed up by a solo animator named Kanako Maru.

By the way Eunyoug Choi is working on episode 20 :)

02/09/09 @ 23:08