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Hyperkinetic action animation so fast it blurs the outlines of its characters into an abstract painting. You might expect to see this in one of the latest Street Fighter outings, not in a family show. But that's what makes Kizuna Ichigeki so unique. The tagline phrases it well: "Hard-boiled action comedy for the whole family".
This deceptively diminutive, densely packed little 25-minute gem is one of the films produced under the auspices of the so-called "Project A" or Young Animator Training Project being run by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Bunkacho. The Bunkacho has done much to support their native animation industry over the last decade or so, most notably running the Japan Media Arts Festival that has rewarded exceptional productions like Mind Game, Summer with Coo and most recently Tatami Galaxy.
The action is hard-boiled, and the family fun is quite soft and fuzzy. It sounds like a guaranteed disaster, but it actually works fairly well thanks to the two veterans helming this unique project: Director Mitsuru Hongo and Animation Director/Character Designer Yuichiro Sueyoshi.
The director does a good job of fleshing out each character as an individual and creating an appealing and fun atmosphere of a family that works together as a unit. The animation director meanwhile keeps the visuals interesting at all times with his creative approach to character designs, with heads and bodies drawn in all sorts of delightfully odd shapes.
The action scenes are truly thrilling to watch. They're intricately animated, full of interesting poses as the characters attack and parry, and the camera zooms around following the action. Fights never drag on to the point of self-indulgence, but always feel satisfying, without being gory or bloody. It's a clean, safe kind of action that's nonetheless extremely satisfying for action fans.
The film segues seamlessly between family drama and truly hardcore martial arts action as the little Kizuna has to participate in title fights to pay to keep the family together. A tiny little whisp of a girl, she deals out whoop-ass with an assurance and skill well beyond her years and size. The scenes where she stands off men three times her size (literally) are amazing for not being completely laughable. The magic of animation makes you believe she could do it. The show has an effortless and genuine atmosphere of whimsical fun.
Mitsuru Hongo was the one who made the Crayon Shin-chan film series into the long-running hit it's become. His Shin-chan films were suprisingly sophisticated packages of oddball fantasy, witty whimsy, exciting action and believably handled drama that attracted adults and children equally. The glue holding together this bizarre melange was the unexpected inventiveness and creativeness of the visuals and the animation, the product of the imagination of a brilliant animator and designer who would soon afterwards go on to make a name for himself: Masaaki Yuasa.
Yuichiro Sueyoshi started out as an animator in Shin-chan TV series and movies, and has in recent years been involved in several notable feature films: first Mind Game under the self-same Yuasa, and then in a very different turn, Summer with Coo under Shin-Ei compatriot Keiichi Hara. Keiichi Hara himself got his start under Mitsuru Hongo storyboarding Hongo's Shin-chan movies until finally graduating to directing them himself. Hongo is a remarkable director for not only his own work but also for his fostering of talent.
Kizuna Ichigeki's success comes in large part because it follows something of the same pattern of creative seeding as the early Shin-chan films. The visual concept is laid down by a talented animator, and Hongo then comes in and builds a drama around the visuals. Yuichiro Sueyoshi is credited with "gensaku", meaning "Created by Yuichiro Sueyoshi". Hence this project was his concept. It's a project created by a great animator, obviously intended to be a vehicle for producing interesting animation.
A one-off like this is nice, but what would be better would be if this would lead to a TV series. We need a TV series like this that creates a simple framework of a story and situation, and provides the animators with pliable and easy-to-animate designs that predispose towards more freedom and fun in the animation. You sense that different animators would have the freedom to do each episode in their own way without worrying too much about adhering to model or atmosphere. That's what makes this concept really interesting: It's carefully crafted to be open-ended and to inherently promote more exciting and adventurous animation. Providing such a platform on a long-term basis would be the best way of fostering the young animators of Japan.
Although of course Kizuna Ichigeki was intended to foster young animators, the key animation credits are headlined by three veteran animators: Masahiro Sato, Hideo Hariganeya and Nobuhiro Osugi. They are presumably there as the guiding spirits of the animation, the lead animators. The remaining six, who are credited separately, are presumably the young animators who were being 'trained' on the project. I don't know to what extent the veterans were involved in the training of the young animators, or whether they just did their own thing like usual and weren't actually involved in any training, which isn't their job normally anyway.
The three veterans have been involved in the Shin-chan movies over the years. Masahiro Sato in particular has come to prominence as one of the great action animators of our time. Masahiro Sato's section here is easily identifiable for its excellent draftsmanship, choreography and sense of assurance - the fight with the redhead. I'm not sure what the other two did, but there were two nice sections: the fight with the red-coated guy, and the amusing section where the grandfather tells stories that turn out to have nothing to do with Kizuna - one of them a clear parody of K-On and the other a parody of generic robot shows, with its dramatically anguished protagonist piloting a mobile suit against his will.
What's nice about this show is how each of these sections display a distinctly different approach to animation in terms of the timing and the choreography and even the drawings, yet they all blend together beautifully in the final product, and the heterogeneous styles even lend the film strength. Masahiro Sato's section isn't drawn all sketchy like the rest of the episode, and the animation is much more straight-through and fluid. The fight with the red-coated guy is quite different yet equally enjoyable - sparer and not as weighty, full of sprightly poses of Kizuna and more Yuasa-esque loose, angular character drawing. Hongo and Sueyoshi have created a framework in which animators can work freely in their own style, and it not only doesn't wreck the atmosphere, it fits in perfectly.
One of the things that jumps out at you about the animation is the sketchy style. It's kind of reminiscent of Tweeny Witches OVA 3 done by Yasuhiro Aoki, as well as Windy Tales, Kemonozume, and most recently Shoka. The finished animation is drawn in a way that deliberately looks unfinished and sketchy. Yet the drawings are strong and the characters are well drawn from all sorts of angles. I like the variety of the faces in the crowds. The crowd scenes were very fun to watch.
I like the cat character. That's something I think they did a good job in getting the audience to want to see more of. He looks and behaves very much like Kotetsu in Jarinko Chie. At certain moments he stands up on his hind legs and strikes some wicked-looking karate poses. I left the episode wanting to see more stories about the cat in action.
The production studio behind this film is a new kid on the block: Ascension. The producer heading the studio is one Hitoshi Shigeki. Although Sunrise was the studio that produced Keiichi Hara's latest film Colorful, the animation was actually outsourced to Ascension. They have two home-runs with their first two productions, let's hope they can keep that record up. They're a studio worth looking out for. They don't have an official home page yet, only a Twitter feed and a Facebook page.
You can see some cleaned up key animation alongside the finished image on the Janica page for Kizuna Ichigeki. It's quite interesting to compare the corrected keys with the finished picture. You can see what kind of work an inbetweener has to do in terms of cleaning up the lines, removing stray marks, etc.
Kizuna Ichigeki (25 minutes, 2010, Ascension)
Producer: Hitoshi Shigeki
Created by, Animation Director, Character Design: Yuichiro Sueyoshi
Written by, Storyboard, Director: Mitsuru Hongo
Ho Yeong Park, Keiko Tamaki
Hidekazu Ebina, Satohiko Sano
Ryota Sakaguchi, Norifumi Kugai
Ah so that’s who Ascension is, I was trying to figure out who they were in relation to Sunrise a while back, but couldn’t come up with anything.
Ben and everybody else. check out also Kung Fu Cooking Girls, it looks similar in style to this in animation though I did not like it as much. But it was much shorter.