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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Friday, April 13, 2012

11:38:00 pm , 1119 words, 3762 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Kids on the Slope

This is one of the more impressive seasons in a while. In addition to two or three other interesting shows, Shinichiro Watanabe returns with his first show since Samurai Champloo in this adaptation of a shoujo manga about high school kids playing jazz.

I'm not a particular fan of either Shinichiro Watanabe or shoujo anime, so I approached the show without any expectations, but I found it to be a good first episode by any measure, and it immediately made me want to follow these characters. The directing is identifiable as Shinichiro Watanabe, but it's far less demonstrative than his previous work. It's really just a nice, low-key high-school drama with a bit more psychological edge and without too many anime cliches. And with lots of awesome jazz music.

The directing did a good job of capturing the feelings of the newly transferred protagonist. Often I find that these shoujo school stories are overly laden with silliness or manic directing, but I liked how the directing here played it fairly straight, and yet managed not to be boring. I like that they don't try to make it too comical.

I didn't much care for Shinichiro Watanabe's outing in Genius Party, but that was admittedly perhaps because of the context. This episode feels like a continuation of that style, and I found it enjoyable on its own terms in this episode.

The characters are designed by Yuki Nobuteru, an animator with a fluid and sumptuous style, although he was not in charge of the animation of the episode itself. Erstwhile Kaname Pro and Madhouse animator Cindy H. Yamauchi was the sakkan here, and in her hands the drawings were very nice throughout without feeling excessively 'shoujo'.

The characters in the opening, animated singlehandedly by the always impressive Kazuto Nakazawa, looked far more 'shoujo' than the drawings of the first episode. The bizarrely elongated faces that characterize shoujo manga today (which were faithfully recreated recently in the anime adaptation of House of Five Leaves) can be discomfiting unless you are used to them, and Yamauchi's drawings strike a professional neutral balance between the original and a more accessible look. It appears Kazuto Nakazawa drew the opening in a way that was closer to the look of the characters in the original manga rather than in the way they're drawn in the anime. I liked the slightly more realistic way the father's features were drawn. In comparison, the other characters had the flat facial contours of anime characters.

The Noitamina block seems to alternate between more oddball outings aimed at audiences more into outre material like Thermae Romae and Mononoke, and outings aimed more specifically at young women. Kids on the Slope is a fine example of the latter category. What's nice about Noitamina's shoujo anime is that even the more lady-oriented shows like this are still quite watchable even if you do not fall into the lady category. They do a good job of taking the sensitive character examination of shoujo manga while softening some of the genre's more generic and less appealing aspects.

This being a show about jazz, the obvious question is how are they going to animate the music scenes? In Beck they rotoscoped actual musicians and used CG characters for the live music scenes, and it was pretty ugly. Here, the close-up shot of the hands playing the piano seemed to be CG, but the drum solo here was fairly lavishly animated with actual drawings, although it was probably rotoscoped, so perhaps they're going for a mix of the two. The added layer of actual drawings in the drum solo made the rotoscoping easier to swallow. It was a beautiful scene, actually, thanks to the powerful animation. Ideally it would have been nice if they could have drawn the scenes without rotoscoping, but perhaps they didn't have time or they couldn't gamble on being able to get animators up to the task of doing a good job of it in each episode. At least here the animation was really faithful to the actual sounds we are hearing.

There aren't many music anime where the musical performances have been traditionally animated without rotoscoping. Gauche the Cellist is the most obvious example - perhaps that's part of the reason why the film took 7 years to complete. Yoshifumi Kondo's scene in Whisper of the Heart is one of the few other such scenes I can think of, although I can't recall how closely the animation matched the music.

Besides the obvious reason for this, namely that TV anime schedules preclude being able to animate such laborious material (which by definition requires constant movement), there's probably the added factor that most animators don't like animating material that is so low-key and subtle. Basically, it's a lot of work for nothing. Far more rewarding is a wild action scene that catches the audience's eye. Or better yet, a static shot of a character (since animation is paid by the shot). But there is something to be said for nuanced and subtle animation. Jin-Roh wouldn't be such a great film without its mind-numbingly subtle realistic character animation. Not many animators are skilled enough to animate well in that style, either.

It's a shame that a show like this is shunted off into a late-night slot, even though ironically it's probably only Noitamina that would have produced this show. I can understand if it was a bizarro erotic anime like Lupin III: Fujiko, but this show seems so wholesome and sincere and harmless. It's the kind of quality storytelling anime for teens that the industry should be making an effort to get kids to watch.

The big news about this show is that it's the first production of a brand-spanking-new studio called MAPPA formed recently by Masao Maruyama. It's difficult to believe that Masao Maruyama left Madhouse, but it seems quite true. It's hard to imagine Madhouse without its guiding spirit. What will become of the once great studio? More importantly, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Maruyama will be doing at his new studio in the days to come. I can't help but be reminded of the recent exodus from Gainax and founding of Trigger. We have two new studios founded by some of the best talent in the industry for the purpose of producing the kind of daring programming that they were not able to produce at their once bold and brash but now somewhat stultified alma maters. Two such studios appearing at once (there's also the less-talked-about Ascension) is great news. I hope this show is successful enough for them that they can go on to producing more ambitious and daring projects of the kind that made Madhouse so unique.



Adrian [Visitor]

I was kind of disappointed they couldn’t get proper songs for the OP/ED and instead had to sell them out to some pop singers. Not that the songs are bad but both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo had great opening songs that fitted well with the series’ musical theme. That made them so iconic and a joy to watch for each episode.

04/14/12 @ 02:57
busterbeam [Visitor]

The thing is that Kids on the Slope is a josei manga, not a shoujo one; that’s why I didn’t have the usual shoujo cute wackiness to it, or an excessively ’shoujo-esque’ type of design.

It does often bother me how a lot of anime seems to go by the logic that good animation skill is for fast action scenes and subtle scenes are for saving money and time. I think one of the reasons why people equate animation quality in anime to pretty explosions in live action films is that it’s often used that way in super popular stuff, rarely as a way to subtly showcase a character’s emotions. There are some animators that are great when it comes to visual acting and yet they really only seem to be given over the top action scenes to animate. But really, good character animation and art can only make a cast more relatable and likable; I doubt Spirited Away would have been as hugely accepted and praised by the mainstream if Chiriro was a wooden anime puppet with a flapping mouth and pupils that took up 99% of her eyeball.

This show and its more accurate portrayal of instrument use are also interesting because it gives me an excuse to recommend Gauche the Cellist to everyone.

04/14/12 @ 05:25
pete [Member]

Ben probably means shojo similar to the approach of Akage no Anne. Realistic plot and characters.

Overall nice episode, though some PC manga omissions irritated me. Eg kids smoking in school, Kaoru being snobbier towards others and jazz, Sentarou butting the heads of Kaoru and Ritsuko etc

04/14/12 @ 05:51
Mihai Luchian
Mihai Luchian [Visitor]

At first i didn’t believe that the hands playing the piano were CG, but the more you look at them the “faker” they look. In the end, it’s the reflections that betray the trick. I doubt that anyone would spend time and money animating unimportont, very complex and barely seen reflections.
I wonder how they did it. Certainly they used PSOFT’s Pencil filter to obtain a more graphical look, but in the end you could always tell right away if they used 2D,CG or a mixture of the both.
The shot reminded me of a few sequnces from “[C] Money of Soul and Possibility Control". There, they used extensively 2Dfied CG characters and it looked pretty strange, but from time to time a practically “perfect” shot would pop up.

04/14/12 @ 10:52
hosanna [Member]

It’s been clear that Madhouse is on the way out since last year, when Maruyama announced he had left. The last interesting work they did was Chihayafuru (another josei manga adaptation from the reliable Morio Asaka), and you could see the talent getting siphoned out of the studio during the second half of that show. Now the only things Madhouse has on their plate are an ongoing by-the-numbers remake of Hunter X Hunter and an upcoming collaboration with the fanservice-oriented Studio Gokumi on another dumb gender-swapped Sengoku show. They’re not even working on Hosoda’s new film, now that he’s formed Studio Chizu. At this point, Madhouse exists in name only.

While it’s sad to see a once powerful studio dwindle away, Kids on the Slope is a good first effort for Mappa, and gives hope it’ll be a suitable replacement. This season actually has a number of promising signs for the future: Ayumu Watanabe getting to flex his muscles outside Doraemon in Space Brothers and Mysterious Girlfriend X, Ei Aoki continuing his emergence as a director of note after last year’s Wandering Son with the second half of Fate/Zero, A-1 Pictures putting their resources behind artistically interesting shows like the aforementioned Space Brothers and Nakamura’s Tsuritama (their future production of From the New World with Ishihama also looks promising), and on a lesser note someone with such an unimpressive resume as Shinichi Omata showing a surprising amount of directing skill on the usually painfully mediocre DEEN’s production of Sankarea. At a time when old stalwarts such as Gainax and Madhouse have passed away, it’s good to see that talent in the industry hasn’t passed away with them.

04/14/12 @ 11:56
melchizedek [Visitor]

Ah thank you for this review. I’ve been meaning to watch this show myself, and it’s good to hear how it’s done for it’s first episode.

Noitamina has a knack for airing good shows targeted at an older demographic, like Princess Jellyfish, another josei adaption and one my favorites from last year. I’m please to see more of these ‘low-key’ manga being animated and shown on tv, alongside the action packed adventure filled ones.

04/14/12 @ 13:05
miguel [Visitor]

Chihayafuru episode number 20: episode director and key animator: Atsuko Ishizuka, Storyboard: Shigeyasu Yamuchi. This doesn, t count as second half?.You can say the name of a storyboard or episode director who worked more in the first half that in the second? i only can say the own asaka who did the first and third episode and tomohiko ito who worked only in the forth(i don,t remeber it like being very strong). Is really that strange that the first episodes of a 2 cour series were stronger than the rest of the show?. In a only cour series you can done it before release it and can put a only director for each episode, it,s not that easy if it has twenty o more episodes.

As I see the problem it,s that they are lost experience doing more long manga adaptations, And the effort of release chihaya (2 cour) and HunterxHunter (without a end)at the same time was to much for their actual budget. Maybe for that they aren,t released a series this spring, it,s more wise to wait to autum and not have a series that probably felt tired.

Maruyama it,s very responsable for that, seems like since 2006 with Nana,monster, and death note, was the last time he focused in first option for the classical Madhouse style(Ken Hashimoto as color designer and internal directors) the nexts years he put external directors like Yuasa, Iso, Yamauchi in better situation than inside people(it’s not like their series weren,t masterpieces). A series done by veterans only could be at that level if the director was awesome as the case of Mouryou no hako, but the budget of that series isn,t nearly as big as casshern or kaiba. And the only NTV series with a production level similar to theese last two, Aoi bungaku,(their genius party) by ANN Maruyama isn,t credited in it.

So no, i,m not necessary see the fact that the actual madhouse it,s a subsidiary of the NTV as a bad thing, they always gave to madhouse series that fixes them, and i don,t thing that this is going to change, it,s only too soon, they had to retake the ability of release more series at time and for that need stability and hunter x hunter it,s a low cost for that it,s not i have a hight opinion of hiroshi koujina or anything (althoug i really love to see the characters desings of yoshimatsu together to the Yoshinori Horikawa coloring).

I’m glad with the division, with that seems a really good chance for both of the idological divisions of madhouse(i see BOTH of them like the real madhouse not only mappa)the Ntv and Maruyama can have their own prioritis without hurt each other(it also doesn, t seems like a definitive separation between them as Sunrise/Bones Maruyama was also credited as creative producer in chihaya and hunter). And i see that because i not feel a huge diference between the chihayafuru staff and Apollon. Asaka/watanabe. The scripwiters also worked on both .Art Shimizu/Uehara. character Design Hanada/ Nobuteru. it,s a very similar level. Apollon had the advantaje of the shortness and the facts that mappa hasn,t the problems of madhouse, and the manga it,s finisehd but even taking that into account they are very balanced between them. When both of them released a series at the same time i could tell if im being too optimistic.

Also how can anyone known in what are they working? The NTV doesn,t anounce his series that early,(they used to release series in autum and spring) and they barely releases trailers.

About that summer series, well, it felt to much like a strategy to buy time to a next autum series to me, the fact is that is if you look at the staff all the people it,s from gokumi(the director it,s a ex-gonzo and gokumi is founded for ex-gonzo people). I,m not going to blame their actual directive for a series in that at maximum are going to do storybroards, when in Maruyama time`s they released full fanservice series directed fully for them (also in summer) and he let to waste a good director like tetsuro araki(a guy like him atracts also another good directors and waste them in Tits and zombis was really painfull) in one of them. I not saying that is good only that i see like less bad.

04/14/12 @ 17:44
Alex Dubcheck
Alex Dubcheck [Visitor]

Don’t worry, Ben *.
I’ve read on the net that Maruyama didn’t really leave Madhouse but he founded Studio Mappa
mainly to fund the completing of Satoshi Kon’s
unfinished Yume miru kikai
and to produce some projects he found particularly interesting.
There’s an inteeseting italian article about it,
which I could translate for you if you wish
It seems that he considers his new studio a “pure” splinter of Madhouse, not a total farewell

*(may I call you like this or would you rather be called Mr Ettinger or Mr. Anipages?
I’m a longtime reader, but sadly didn’t find the
strength ro comment)

04/14/12 @ 20:03
Alex Dubcheck
Alex Dubcheck [Visitor]

Sorry, errata corrige.
Last phrase should be
“I’m a longtime reader,
but sadly didn’t find the strength
to comment until now”

04/14/12 @ 20:06
Ben [Member]  

Adrian -

I like the opening song, actually (rare for me), but I see what you’re saying. For a show about jazz, it’s not exactly the most fitting choice.

busterbeam -

You’re right, I was confounding josei and shoujo into one big ‘woman manga’ category. I should correct that to say the elongated faces are the classic feature of josei manga, not shoujo manga.

It’s always nice to find another excuse to recommend Gauche the Cellist, isn’t it. The person who comes to mind when I think of someone used way too often for action scenes when he’s really good at subtle acting scenes is Norio Matsumoto… Young animators starting out these days interested in creating nice movement are usually focused on flashy action rather than subtle character acting. Much as I like nice action and effects animation, there seems to be a bit of an excessive focus on that. There are more low-key dramas being made nowadays. I wish they would use some of these animators on these shows instead of just action scenes. Norio Matsumoto did very long sequences in numerous shows that didn’t necessary need to use a lot of drawings but that were full of nuanced acting as well as feeling wonderful as movement. I wish there were more animators who could do that.

pete -

Indeed, the episode was not free of manga cliches.. it’s based on one after all. It definitely doesn’t break free of the genre. But I do like how Shinichiro Watanabe’s directing universalizes it a bit.

Mihai -

I don’t want to be too hard on them for the obviousness of the CG or anything (I’m sure it’s not the ideal way they would have liked to do it), just thought it was interesting the different approaches they took to solving the same problem. Even in [C] I suspect the CG must have been a last resort due to lack of schedule.

Christopher -

I like how in the last few years every once in a while a particularly talented person will appear on the scene, not affiliated to any particular studio. Good to know about Shinichi Omata and Ei Aoki, I wan’t familiar with them. I didn’t know about Ayumu Watanabe’s new show, that I will have to check out. That’s exactly what I was hoping he would do, leave Doraemon. He has such potential to be a great director. I just hope he can find material that is worthy and doesn’t just wind up directing something typical that any other director could have handled.

melchizedek -

My pleasure, glad it helped. It is definitely nice to see more low-key dramatic material. A lot more of that is being done now. But honestly I’ve had mixed feelings about some of the titles in that vein that have been done in the last few years.. Usagi Drop I kind of enjoyed, but also found myself frankly bored and never managed to finish watching… Low-key is good, but not low-interest.

Alex -

Thanks for the comment, nice to hear from a long-time reader. Interesting, if Maruyama isn’t completely through with Madhouse even though he formed another studio, perhaps it’s too soon to write Madhouse off completely… I hope so.

04/15/12 @ 00:05
h_park [Member]

I watched the Kids on the Slope and I haven’t paid much attention to animation yet. Somehow main character’s strutting walking scene at the end comes into mind because it’s rare to see a walk cycle that is not usual upright, marching or hunched down run/walk cycle.

It’s always nice to see animated characters playing musical instruments. I haven’t paid much attention, so I have to watch them again.

About the rotoscope of piano hands, I think it’s better to be imperfect than perfect. I wonder if perfect movement of rotoscope makes the whole thing imperfect OR imperfect movement of hand drawn animation makes it more perfect. To me, the animation didn’t grab attention for being wrong.

Time consuming labor of drawing and not enough animators experienced enough to handle subtle motions are something that has to be resolved. It’s up to directors to decide how to present animation that fits the story. Flashy action animation is not always appropriate and itshouldn’t play for animators. But then, there is that matter of pay rate and creative freedom associated with it.

For right now, we just have to wait young animators grow their skills and develop maturity to handle boring scenes.

04/15/12 @ 07:00
Ben [Member]  

Yes, that strut at the end was really nice. The character felt much more like a real individual for a brief moment thanks to that very idiomatic strut.

Interesting point. Rotoscoping might make it *technically* more perfect, but a version of the same thing drawn from scratch by a good animator might feel more alive albeit less specifically accurate. There’s a difference in the texture of the visuals, the rhythms of the movement, as you shift from the animator-devised to rotoscoped scenes.

I’m just thinking that without active attempts to create settings for animators to gain experience with that kind of animation, the young animators of today won’t have opportunities to attempt to grow into more nuanced character acting. The style of animation most animators grow into winds up being dictated by the programming.

04/15/12 @ 20:31
Leedar [Visitor]

Especially these days, new animators have shown clearly that they can develop outside of the industry and the confines of mainstream paradigms. The subject matter of new animators is inevitably influenced by the industry, shows and animators they idolise, but ultimately it is their decision to focus on flashy bombastic animation over something more subtle and sensitive.

I think subtle animation is a delicacy for the small amount of people that have some degree of visual literacy, and studios can’t be bothered spending disproportionate time and money on such an audience.

For most people, animation is animation. Maybe it is ’smoother’ (more drawings per second), maybe it has more picture detail, maybe the explosions are bigger and amusingly coloured, but richness and subtle sensitivity in movement is basically imperceptible to them.

04/16/12 @ 21:51