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As I always have, I'll be blogging Masaaki Yuasa's new show Ping Pong, but this time I was offered the chance to do so on Cartoon Brew by Amid Amidi, so that is where you will be finding the posts. Here is my post on the first episode:
For anyone coming from Cartoon Brew looking to know more about Masaaki Yuasa's past shows, you can find my posts about them here:
Crayon Shin-chan has a strong fantasy/parody aspect, with frequent appearances by parody characters like Kantamu Robo and Action Kamen. They carve out a place for fantasy and adventure in Shin-chan's prosaic reality. My favorite of these is Buriburizaemon, the hero pig.
Buriburizaemon is a unique kind of hero who'll come running when someone calls for his help, but immediately defect to the other side if he's outnumbered, and then ask you for a $10 million "rescue fee" (he takes loans).
Born from a scribble in an episode from 1992, Buriburizaemon made a few cameo appearances in the first few years, and soon became a regular on the show. In 1994 he got the first in a series of his own special episodes called "The Adventures of Buriburizaemon", which feature him not-quite-rescuing damsels in distress in samurai movie scenarios. He was even the star of that year's yearly Shin-chan movie.
Part of the character's appeal was that he was voiced by Kaneto Shiozawa, whose distinct sultry loverboy voice made for a hilarious contrast with this tiny craven pig character. When Shiozawa passed away in 2000, such was the respect in which he was held, and the attachment to the character, that rather than replace him with another voice actor, or bury Buriburizaemon forever, they chose to make Buriburizaemon a silent character from that point forward.
Testament to the character's enduring power, a DVD was just released collecting the various episodes featuring Buriburizaemon between 1992 and 2000. None of the other cameo characters got their own DVD. Buriburizaemon has always been one of my favorite Shin-chan characters, so it's nice to finally be able to see all of his episodes.
But really, there's one reason to get this DVD: Masaaki Yuasa's four Adventures of Buriburizaemon episodes from 1994-1995. They are classic Yuasa. I first saw them many years ago before I had even heard of Masaaki Yuasa, and thought they were absolutely amazing. They're a big part of the reason I sensed there to be something different about the Shin-chan TV series. Years later when I tried to track them down again, I had to buy two random Japanese Shin-chan VHS releases to get them all, so it's nice to have them all gathered together like this in one place. I watched those Yuasa episodes over and over and couldn't get enough of them back then. Re-watching them again on this DVD for the first time in many years, I laughed just as hard at every single scene, even knowing what was coming.
They're just four tiny 7-minute episodes, but they're jam-packed with Yuasa goodness. Yuasa was animation director of all four episodes, and he wrote and storyboarded the last three. This was actually Yuasa's scriptwriting and storyboarding debut. He was offered the chance to do the episodes by Mitsuru Hongo, who was the series director at the time. The rest is history.
Everything about the episodes is great. The jokes come fast and furious. The animation is incredibly lively and unpredictable. There are tons of great character designs and playful design ideas, all drawn in that patented Yuasa style where the body is reduced to a few angular lines and shapes. The story is a hilarious jidaigeki parody with wacky incongruous ideas like a trained ostrich instead of a trained falcon, ninjas with Mickey Mouse ears, and a building with a giant face on it. Surprisingly, the chambara action sequences are really well done, with detailed and surprisingly realistically timed choreography that is all the more hilarious for being so out of place. It's like a joke version of Hamaji's Resurrection, which was released the same year. And at the very end, Buriburizaemon delivers probably the single most hilarious pun I've ever heard. Yuasa was heavily influenced by cartoons, and that's what his Buriburizaemon specials feel like: Yuasa cartoons.
The first arc climaxes with a segment involving a zany building full of trap doors that seems like a study for the exhilarating chase through the castle ramparts that he drew for the climax of the 1996 Shin-chan movie, one of his best segments. Yuasa even drew the hilarious Buriburizaemon instructional video segment in the 1998 movie, which features an army of Buriburizaemons wreaking all sorts of mayhem, including farting in the face of a shocked Bill Clinton lookalike after sneaking into the oval office and giving the command to launch the country's nuclear arsenal.
The problem is that after watching Yuasa's episodes, the other episodes pale in comparison. It becomes glaringly obvious that the reason the Buriburizaemon specials were so funny was Yuasa and Yuasa alone. Yuasa did a bunch of other Shin-chan episodes. I've seen a number of them, and they're just as good as you'd expect. Two of his earliest are included on this DVD (since they happen to involve Buriburizaemon).
I kind of wish that instead of releasing a DVD of Buriburizaemon episodes, they had just released a DVD of Yuasa episodes. Or even better, a collection of the best-animated episodes by the good Shin-chan animators - Masaaki Yuasa, Yuichiro Sueyoshi, Masami Otsuka, Shizuka Hayashi, etc. I'm sure there are episodes by people not on my radar that are well animated. It would be nice to get a 'best of Shin-chan animation' disc. There was one episode on the disc from 1999 with drawings by this guy called Masahiko Matsuyama who I'd never heard of, but the drawings were incredible - angular and really wild. I wish the vast body of TV Shin-chan was more easily accessible. The movies are easy to explore, but there's lots of goodness hidden in the TV show.
The good news is that, after many years' absence, Yuasa is back working on the Shin-chan TV show. He directed a few episodes in a new sub-segment called SHIN MEN, about a bunch of superheroes with various superpowers. I've seen a bit and it's incredible stuff. Later episodes appear to have a different director, so I'm not sure if he's still working on it.
Mind Game (2004) may be considered Masaaki Yuasa's debut as a feature film director, but in fact he had directed various short featurettes prior to that. Indeed, his first director credit came 12 years earlier in 1992 with a short film in an obscure little 6-volume direct-to-video series called Anime Rakugokan. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese live storytelling/comedy entertainment. Each volume in this series features a performance by a famous rakugo practitioner set to animation.
Back then Yuasa was at a studio called Ajia-do. Yuasa had joined the studio because it was run by two of his idols in animation - Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, who had been the figures behind some of the series that most influenced Yuasa over the years, namely the 1970s shows produced by Tokyo Movie with animation from A Production like Dokonjo Gaeru and Tensai Bakabon.
Yuasa directed the third volume of Anime Rakugokan in a style that was an intentional homage to the style of the masters who had influenced him. As a result, the film isn't immediately recognizable as Yuasa. It feels more A Pro than anything else he's since done. But the genius of the character design and animation are something only Yuasa could have created.
The video is currently up on Youtube. (search for かぼちゃ屋) Watch it while you can. Unfortunately it doesn't have subs so you won't be able to get the humor if you don't understand Japanese, but the fact is that every second of this film is a delight to watch just for the character animation, so it's well worth watching anyway.
I'd personally been looking for this film for years, and I just got the chance to see it today for the first time, and I was excited to discover how great a film it is. I've never seen this kind of character animation from Yuasa, but it's amazing. The character designs are great, and the way they're animated is constantly interesting. There isn't a single shot that I don't love in this film.
The character drawings in particular are really out there, but they work. The floating eyebrows on the squash seller are really something. I adore the way the hands are drawn with these big blocky forms. The hands are very emotive in this film. The faces are so supple and squishy. There's some new fun expression in almost every shot. There's even a tinge of caricature in the old man who hires the squash seller that reminds me of the great Japanese caricaturist Shoji Yamafuji. And the animation has a sense of split-second timing that's unique to Yuasa. The guy with the five o'clock shadow the squash seller pisses off in the street is the most obvious throwback to the A Pro style. He looks like he could have come straight out of Dokonjo Gaeru.
I even love the very flat, simple layouts of the film. The characters are right up there in your face, filling the screen in every shot. There's no pretense of realism or perspective or other mimetic fakery. It's a proudly cartoony film. At the same time, despite the simple layouts, more effort is put into the animation than many shows nowadays that consist mostly of close-ups of characters. Every character drawing is full of life and vitality. No two drawings of the characters are the same.
What's best about it is that its 'cartooniness' has nothing to do with western cartoons, which I have a hard time appreciating. It's a cartoon aesthetic that was essentially invented by the Japanese TV animators who forged their own approach to the medium in the 1960s and 1970s. It's inspired by the work of the A Pro animators, which itself was something truly new and unlike anything ever done before, but completely re-invented through Yuasa's pen.
The impressive thing about Yuasa is that even obscure shorts like Slime Adventures and the Nanchatte Vampiyan pilot that for years remained unseen and unobtainable turned out, when I finally saw them, to be great little films exploding with just the sort of incredible animation and visual creativity you'd expect of Yuasa. The same applies to The Squash Seller, in its own unique way.
Yuasa himself has said in an interview that he's embarrased about the film and wishes people wouldn't watch it, but that's just typical Yuasa humbleness. This is an awesome little gem that looks and moves like no other anime out there. The character style is obviously inspired by the classic A Pro shows, but Yuasa creates a look and feel that is uniquely his own. He learns from and surpasses the masters. I honestly wish he would do more stuff like this. We need an A Pro-style long-running slapstick comedy TV series directed by Masaaki Yuasa in the spirit of Tensai Bakabon or Dokonjo Gaeru.
This lost gem proves once again what a unique and multifaceted talent Masaaki Yuasa is. Thanks to Charles Brubaker for pointing this video out to me.
One of the other films in the series is also up on Youtube, but the contrast is instructive. It's the first volume, directed by Osamu Kobayashi. Kobayashi's character designs are appealingly oddball in a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi-kind of way, but the animation is totally uninteresting compared with the electric and dynamic character animation of Yuasa's outing.
The other one I'm curious to see is the second episode, because it's animated by Masaya Fujimori, who is perhaps the best animator to emerge from Ajia-Do in the 1990s after Masaaki Yuasa. The second episode also features nicely stylized designs by Tsutomu Shibayama.
Bask in the delightful character drawings of Masaaki Yuasa's The Squash Seller:
A college kid finally works up the guts to approach that girl he's had his eye on in class, and moves out of his dorm to an tiny studio apartment. Insignificant events from an outsider's perspective. But an epic of introspection and obsessive weighing of possibilities paved the way for those little steps on the way to becoming a more secure, independent and mature person.
In the case of this series, this equates to the protagonist escaping from the maze of eponymous 4 1/2-mat rooms he was stuck in, like Rip Van Winkle, for an eternity that was actually just the blink of an eye. The whole series boils down to the protagonist making the decision to take that first step of leaving his room and going out there and approaching the girl he has a crush on. All of the introspection in the world doesn't weigh as much as a single step in real life. Every episode seems in retrospect like a circuitous route towards that goal, a fabulous invention of the brain that flashed by in a split second about what might have been if this-or-that had happened.
The beauty of this series is that it has no clear-cut explanation, but everyone will have their own explanation. The puzzle pieces do fit together. Notwithstanding the overwhelming cascade of seemingly unconnected images, it isn't random. If you choose to look hard enough, everything falls into place. It would take someone pedantically noting all of the various meanings suggested by the images - the various permutations of the dialogue that recurs with slight changes in nuance, the characters whose roles change constantly, the way the different stories intersect and diverge with each succeeding episode, the way the meaning of each episode changes with each succeeding episode - to do justice to the huge amount of thought obvious put into ensuring that all of the pieces fit together, but the size of the task seems intentionally to discourage any such attempt. And doing so may be besides the point.
But that's where my mixed feelings about this series lie: That to truly appreciate its beautiful and unprecedentedly layered and nuanced message about simply going out there and living your life, and not shutting yourself up in a 4 1/2 tatami galaxy of prevarication, you have to hole yourself up in an ivory tower to figure it out. It's simultaneously one of the most humane anime series ever made, one of the most technically accomplished, original and sophisticated in construction, and one of the most daunting and unapproachable. In the sheep's clothing of a more approachable style aimed at bringing in the fans, Yuasa has created his most impenetrable and avant-garde anime yet.
But that's not exactly accurate. The genius of the series is that it's a meticulously and deliberately constructed jumble. As you're watching it, it makes exactly as much sense as the director wants it to make - just enough for you to be able to suspect there's a way it all ties together, but holding back just enough that it doesn't all quite gel. You're not necessarily meant to connect all of the dots, at least not immediately. It's the indistinct picture the speed-talking narrator and rapid-fire visuals paint in your mind that is the point.
You wouldn't guess it from what's been written about the show, because everyone who's bothered to write about it loved it, but I think this is a polarizing series - you're either going to love every second, or you're not going to be able to finish the first episode. I don't think you can reach any meaningful conclusion just by comparing the number of people who viewed the first episode and last episode on YouTube, but for reference, it's 14,000 views for the first episode and 2000 for the last. Rather than getting depressed by this statistic, I'm heartened by the thought that there are actually even 2000 fans of sophisticated, experimental, progressive anime in the world.
You pretty much knew what you were in for once you saw the first episode. The series admirably maintained the tone and level of production quality you saw in episode 1 through every single episode. The series didn't feel either too long or too short for what it set out to accomplish. It achieved a remarkable degree of character development, and its characters were well fleshed out and interesting. They were somewhat tinged by the conventions of anime, moreso than Yuasa's previous outings, but they were still individuals with unique personalities, and not merely cardboard cutouts neatly fitting into one of the of stereotypical character types that you usually see in anime.
Rather than an ordinary drama about the trials and tribulations of campus life, that most exciting and scary time in our lives when life begins to open up for us, the likes of which we've all seen done to death already, this story is college life viewed through the kaleidoscope of Masaaki Yuasa's mind - a brilliant animator bursting with visual ideas, and a sophisticated storyteller who always pays his audience the ultimate respect of challenging them with new dramatic forms.
I wonder how many people who made it to the end of the series had this nagging feeling that I had. I was won over by the technical brilliance of the directing and the animation, and I like to think I got much of what it was trying to say, but I wasn't really hooked or that moved overall. I can see how well constructed it is, and I understand that the visual style does justice to the writing style of the original novel. But what worked as literature might not necessarily work as animation. It's not just that the narrator talks too fast; everything is too fast. There isn't enough of a rhythm. The headlong sprint of the visuals doesn't let up for an instant. But my biggest problem is that the characters didn't feel real to me. They were richly developed and fleshed out, but also smothered by the (intentional) pseudo-literary affectations of the script.
The tone of the show is fascinating: It's not meant to be LOL funny, but it's quite funny in its own quirky, understated, smirk-inducing way. Much of the humor stems from the visuals, i.e. not from the script, but from how the directors have interpreted the script. This is the plus alpha of the show. The visuals are creative and smart. They're cool looking in themselves, stylized and distorted in a constantly shifting and always appealing way as is the hallmark of Masaaki Yuasa, and they add another dimension to the script by fleshing out the story with visual clues. They're what makes this show so rewarding to watch, even if, like me, you're not completely hooked by the material. Tremendous thought obviously went into every moment of every episode. Single images often hint at a fully conceived situation that adds another dimension to a particular character's back story. Flashing by in quick succession, the parade of colorful, imaginative, meaningful images add a tremendous amount to the richness of the characters and story. The show is visual storytelling at its finest. This is the aspect of the show that I find irresistible.
Sometimes the images don't even have any obvious correlation with what's going on, as in the case of the brief image that graces the screen for just a second in the last episode in which an exhausted Johnny is prodded awake for another go. They just add weight to the reality of the situation, in a very roundabout way. It's hilarious because it's so subtle that it takes a brief moment for you to realize what it is you just saw, and it's meaningful because it says a lot about what the protagonist has been doing to while away the time while stuck in his room for all that time.
In other cases, as with the moths in the image above, you have a visual image that is a constant throughout the series and that has a variety of different connotations. In the last episode, you don't need any sort of verbal explanation as to what the giant cloud of moths flocking out of the window are supposed to mean; the image obviously symbolizes the narrator's escape, the knowledge accrued over a multitude of lives lived in the 4 1/2 mat room, and whatever else you might be able to read into it.
Despite my reservations, I don't think anyone else could have adapted this material in such a convincing way. In these difficult times, when ambitious studios with the balls to produce work that doesn't pander to fans are going out of business left and right, it's impressive that a series so out in left field, not even remotely close to anything else out there, even got produced. The show is intellectual in the extreme, hardly the sort of thing that will go down with fans - or general audiences, for that matter. It's even challenging for fans like me who tend to like more ambitious fare.
It's a tough time to be creative in the industry, but as long as there are studios like Madhouse willing to champion creators with talent, there will always be a trickle of good work coming out. But it shouldn't be a trickle. It boggles the mind that, with one of the world's largest animation industries, populated by a huge array of incredibly talented artists with all sorts of different styles, and dozens of new TV series being produced every season, a creator-driven series like this that does something even slightly different is such a rarity.
I salute Madhouse for providing the space to produce another remarkable TV series, and I salute Masaaki Yuasa and his staff for making it. It's criminal that work this good is relegated to a late-night slot and will never get a wide audience, even though I feel that the nature of the material limits its reach. It shouldn't only be seen by a handful of otaku. It's of a high enough artistic caliber that it deserves an audience of the general public.
I have to admit that I still hold out hope that Masaaki Yuasa will make another movie someday. I can't help but feel that his genius is better suited to the movie format. And a movie would get a wider audience. The TV format allows him to experiment with a lot of things, but his TV shows seem too hidden from view. Also, his TV series feel like they're not 100% pure Yuasa. They're more of a patchwork. Some things work, some don't. When he makes things with everything under his control I find it works a lot better, although admittedly this series felt remarkably uniform in tone and quality.
Episode 11 main credits
Animation director: Nobutake Ito
Takayuki Hamada, Ryotaro Makihara
Natsuko Shimizu, Sawako Miyamoto
Shouko Nishigaki, Toshiharu Sugie
Kanako Maru, Akitoshi Yokoyama
Second key animators:
Mai Tsutsumi, Kenichi Fujisawa
Satomi Higuchi, Sayaka Toda
Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for Shintaro Asanuma.
He's been giving an unforgettable performance throughout the show so far as the fast-talking narrator, but he pulled off literally a one-man voice actor episode in this one, so hats off. (not to mention talking even faster than before, if that's possible) I've heard of solo animator and solo background episodes, but this is the first time I've heard of a solo voice actor episode.
Not to sound repetitive, but this episode was again brilliant. I'm not just saying this as a Masaaki Yuasa fan. I came back to the show with this episode tonight after a two week absence not too excited, but the work won me over entirely on the merits of the directing.
I appreciated how aggressively the live-action was integrated into this episode, far more than in any previous episode (or even in Kemonozume for that matter) and how flawlessly it was pulled off. It's the latest and in many ways most extreme expression of the unique approach to blending animation and live-action that Yuasa first busted out in Mind Game. And on top of that the animation here had some of the most fun and loose work I've seen in the whole show, which made for a great contrast. Color work was amazing as usual. Animation, directing, coloring etc. all worked together to keep the viewer riveted throughout an episode that was otherwise intentionally pared down in so many ways - single voice, single setting. This material could have been monotonous and boring if not properly directed, but instead it was filled at every moment with interesting new ideas that were very inventive and kept the momentum going.
Thank Choi Eunyoung for the awesome directing of this episode. She showed exceptional talent as an animator and animation director in her very first job on Kemonozume, and proved she could direct just as well her first time directing on Kaiba. I suspect her special gift to be the product of inner talent multiplied by multicultural perspective and experience, something most Japanese animators lack. She clearly put a lot of effort into ensuring that the live action-animation dynamic here was properly handled. (Masahiko Kubo is credited as having helped with the live action) She recently directed another item associated with Yuasa, so she seems poised to take off on a directing career of her own.
Story-wise, we finally learn the basic premise. The English title Tatami Galaxy now makes some sense. I'll leave it in hands far more capable than mine to write a lengthy exegesis parsing the intricacies of the significance of the various plot devices, namely the blogger at the blog anime/otaku, who rather than assessing the technical merits of the episodes like me, tackles the admittedly more challenging task of parsing the show's tangled narrative and figuring out what it all means. It's beyond the capability of my feeble brain to pick apart the intricacies of this show the way this blogger has. At the same time, I don't think it's necessary to catch every little thing to appreciate the show. But considering the jumble of info being thrown at you and mixed up into different configurations, it is impressive to realize just how meaningful and painstakingly put together it all is. Far more than Yuasa's previous shows, Tatami Galaxy seems tailor made to get people talking about it and analyzing it.
Yuasa's third series really isn't so much about style as it as about the content. The show is full of great work in every facet, including the animation, but the technical aspects of the production seem more subservient to the story this time around. Tatami Galaxy could arguably be considered Yuasa's most tonally controlled and structurally solid TV series to date. But on the other hand, the effect would probably have been the same plus or minus x number of episodes, since it's not like every episode was essential to pushing the plot forward. There may be some ways in which this show is more honed and intricate and carefully constructed than Yuasa's previous work, but I actually like the looseness of his previous work. Tatami Galaxy is an awesome achievement as a complex, postmodern narrative, but as a matter of preference, I find myself more attracted to the graphic unpredictability and rawness and humanity of Kemonozume and the visually sumptuous and imaginative world-creation and drama of Kaiba, imperfect in terms of structure and visual consistency though they might be in comparison.
Storyboard and director: Choi Eunyoung
Animation directors: Nobutake Ito, Masashi Ishihama
Assistant animation director: Shouko Nishigaki
Hiromi Hata, Takashi Muratani
Takayuki Hamada, Sawako Miyamoto
Yumi Oka, Tomoya Nakayama
Sayaka Toda, Choi Eunyoung
Second key animators:
Natsuko Shimizu, Kenichi Fujisawa
This episode blew me away. It was possibly the most impressive episode in the series so far. Stunning on every level. I can't think of enough superlatives to describe this episode. Weird how it's episode 9 that has gotten me really excited, rather than the first episode. I got a glimpse of genius in this episode, and it rekindled that old flame I haven't felt in a long time for the medium of animation. Yes, folks. This is what's possible in anime. The pure brilliance of this episode wipes away any feelings of ambivalence I might have had about the concept up until this point.
This episode brings everything to a head and puts things in perspective, without really revealing anything, which is kind of interesting. It feels like we're reaching a sort of saturation point where the jumble of alternate narratives is reaching critical mass. It crystallizes what I was feeling from all the previous episodes. It's like each new episode has reinterpreted the whole basic situation of the protagonist's association with all of these characters during his first few years at university through the lens of what happened in the previous episodes. Hence things get progressively more jumbled and crazy as time goes on. The amazing feat of this episode is that it manages to convey a tangle of ideas, mixing and remixing what came before, picking a bit from from one situation and then throwing in a bit from another, in a way that for some reason doesn't feel jumbled, even though he's deliberately creating narrative contradictions. You get exactly the point it's trying to make, but it's so complex it's difficult to pin down to one statement.
For the first time in this series, the heart feels an emotional tug. The climax is a beautiful, emotional ride combining tour-de-force directing with superb animation of the kind that reminds of Yokoyama's work in Kaiba. A lot of hints about what might be happening are dropped here and there, but nothing concrete. Something human begins to emerge behind the impenetrable facade of intellectual play that dominated the proceedings up until now, with nary an emotion peeking through. I'm reminded of the montage at the end of Mind Game, with its beautiful display of all the possible futures of each character, representing a sort of acceptance of all the world has to offer, good or ill, and the privilege we each have of being able to create our own narrative in this world.
Such is the genius of Akitoshi Yokoyama. Once again, he's outdone himself. I don't mean to pat myself on the back, but I managed to guess while watching that he was the director and that it was probably Ryotaro Makihara helming the animation. Such is the force of their respective visions that there is no mistaking them for anyone else. With Makihara it isn't even a particular way of drawing things. There are some stylistic hallmarks, but it's more simply the fact that the animation suddenly moves a lot more, and more convincingly. The characters act out actions, rather than simply sitting there. With Yokoyama, it's the absolute hairpin precision with which every shot and every sound is manipulated to create an inexorable forward momentum. It's the torrent of interesting visual ideas. It's the stellar use of animation to create excitement and bolster the emotional impact of the story, notably in the climax, with all its beautiful flowing abstract animation. This is really the pinnacle of animated filmmaking - every shot perfectly honed, a theme develops towards the climax under the surface of the various goings on, and every drawing and movement delectable and exciting.
Thematically there's so much happening in the episode. In essence, you could say it's a would-be love story - if the protagonist would only do the right thing for once. It's like the cumulative detritus of needless imaginings of possible outcomes has gradually shunted aside the one thing that was obvious from the outset - the little Mochigumon doll - and its significance has grown gradually dimmer to the protagonist until in this episode it's no longer him who even found the doll. That leads to the emotional breakthrough.
It's a shame that people who did not have the patience to put up with the first eight episodes leading to this will be able to appreciate what Yokoyama achieved with this episode, because he does finally bring some emotional catharsis to what felt in many ways like an intellectual exercise up until now. In a way, with this episode I start to feel like it was all worth it. Never have I seen such a complexly recursive and densely packed so-called narrative in anime.
That emotional resonance is one of the hallmarks of Masaaki Yuasa's work. It's not just about the wildly imaginative technical wizardry of a master animator. It's the way he combines that with stories that aren't mere fictions and character tropes removed from any reality we can relate to, but that involve basic truths and emotions and behavior that apply to everybody in the world - even those who don't watch anime. It's about groping your way through life and figuring out how to face both the beauty and the ugliness in life. That's what I liked about Mind Game, and there's a lot of that deep, simple mulling over the stuff of our lives in his other work. Finally, I'm starting to get that feeling from Tatami Galaxy.
On the animator side of things, lots of regulars this time around, with the additional presence of one new face, Kanako Maru, whom I remember did a very nice solo episode of Casshern Sins, which I wrote about briefly before, though I haven't really followed her since then. Nice to see her turn up here.
Storyboard / Director: Akitoshi Yokoyama
Animation director: Ryotaro Makihara
Assistant animation directors: Tsutsumi Mai, Shouko Nishigaki
Ryotaro Makihara, Tsutsumi Mai
Natsuko Shimizu, Satomi Higuchi
Shouko Nishigaki, Hiroshi Shimizu
Kanako Maru, Kenichi Shima
Tetsuo Moronuki, Takeo Oda
Kana Harufuji, Akitoshi Yokoyama
Takayuki Hamada, Sawako Miyamoto
Sayaka Toda, Kenichi Fujisawa
This episode felt like one of the less mind-bending and more straightforward of the bunch so far. It almost felt too pat how cleanly it explained what had happened in the previous two episodes (not to spoil it). It's easy to say now, but I actually kind of suspected this might not be the case about Keiko.
I see now that this and the previous two episodes form a unit; one for each girl, and one for each of the three clubs that the protagonist decided to join to maximize his efficiency. So the only loose ends that were tied here were those for this trilogy. The reason for the repetition has yet to be explained, something I expect will happen eventually. One thing I admire about what they've done, despite finding the repetitive structure somewhat tedious, is that it feels cumulative. It doesn't feel like they're starting from scratch each time. You sense that aspects of previous episodes have a subtle impact on the new situation, so that it's neither purely repetitive nor purely linear. It's like a dream being re-dreamt. The basics are the same, but the details vary, and echoes of the previous version peep through here and again. It feels like they've carefully woven a painstakingly complex web of meaning.
In regards to the directing, this episode felt functional at best. Many of the episodes have their own special character due to the director in question, but this one felt kind of generic. It didn't feel particularly unique. It felt like it simply did what was necessary to push the plot forward and bring the plot threads from the previous two episodes to a clear conclusion, without any unique approach being presented in terms of the directing or mood. Perhaps it's because storyboarding, directing and animation directing weren't all done by one person like some of those previous episodes.
On the animation side, the staff was very similar to that in episode 1. The drawings were supervised by the chief animation director this time. I liked a number of the drawings here, like the drawing of the hand when the protagonist is holding the book. There were some interesting shapes and angles in there. Otherwise, the quality was good, but nothing stood out as mind-blowing.
I don't want to knock the quality, because it is just as good as ever. The layouts in particular are as fun and inventive as ever. That's an arena in which this series excels, like all Masaaki Yuasa productions. He and, presumably influenced by him, his staff are great at coming up with interesting ways of framing the shots. Even before Mind Game, Yuasa's productions stood out for all the comically angled and extremely wide shots he used so effectively. You can see a number of these angular wide shots in this episode, as in the previous episodes. I like the way the shot in the hallway of the university is framed, and that wide shot of the interior of the 'ideal' protagonist's home, with all the odd angles in there.
Layout is a pretty important fundamental element that doesn't get as much attention from fans as, say, the animation or the directing, because it's a little harder to assess. I have a hard time distinguishing between what's a quality layout and what's just there from the framing in the storyboard. I wonder to what extent Nobutake Ito was involved in the layouts. There is no separate credit, although I know that sometimes an animation director of his caliber will do most of the layouts, or at least correct them. (since usually layouts are drawn by the gengaman based on the konte) The layout policy varies from production to production, or at least it does on productions where the directors care enough about the animation like this one.
Finally, the color work in this show is remarkable. The opening credits pass by so damn fast I never really noticed, but checking it now I see that Kunio Tsujita is credited as color supervisor. He's done excellent work here. His color design does a great job of giving each shot its own unique texture, and differentiating the mood from scene to scene, from very subtle gradations in the real world to more wildly divergent coloring in the fantasy sequences. I often find myself admiring the coloring of a shot, which is something that rarely happens to me. Usually the layout or animation or art will stand out. Casshern Sins is another show that I remember had great coloring. Right after writing the previous sentence I looked it up real quick to see who the color designer of Casshern Sins was, and HOLY S*** it's Kunio Tsujita. Look for this guy's name. It's the mark of quality.
Storyboard: Hiroshi Shimizu
Director: Junichi Fujise
Animation director: Nobutake Ito
Takayuki Hamada, Shouko Nishigaki
Natsuko Shimizu, Sawako Miyamoto
Kenichi Fujisawa, Nobuhiro Takefuji
Fuminori Tsukita, Yoshihiro Maeda
I thought maybe this series would start making sense by episode 7 or so, but no. Not even close. Things have only gotten stranger, not clearer.
Suddenly we seem to have some continuity, albeit reversed. This episode lays the groundwork for what happened with the mouth fetishist Hanuki in episode 6, then proceeds forward with the as yet unnamed protagonist's attempt to elope with the mannequin Kaori. Clearly next we will be having an episode about mystery girl Keiko. Then comes Akashi?
This episode was the most insane so far, despite being the most straightforwardly dramatic. It's a simple love drama, but a completely surreal and artificial one that you know the whole time is fake. I felt I had to watch at an emotional remove and just enjoy it on an intellectual level, expecting that at a later point it would make sense. The situation isn't played up as a joke; it's played completely straight-faced, which makes it pretty fun to watch. It makes for a peculiar disconnect - the drama is so earnest and passionate, yet you are always aware the you're being toyed with. I understand that this is all a game being played in the protagonist's mind, but his apparent inability to make any decision whatsoever without agonizing melodramatically over it is frankly annoying and maddening rather than funny.
Identity seems pliable and impermanent in Tatami Galaxy. Aspects of the protagonist's identity such as his libido literally come alive and act of their own volition. There was an unexplained bit where a doppelganger appears briefly at the end of a previous episode. Hopefully that will make sense later. There are clearly lots of things throughout the show that are not meant to make sense immediately, but hopefully will fall into place by the end. So there is not really much point in speculating about what this or that means. You just have to kind of let it wash over you and say, "Okay then." You just have to observe all the layers of meaning at play in each episode, like the protagonist wearing a white Mochigumon suit and saving Akashi from the punks, mirroring Akashi's doll we've seen hanging in the protagonist's 4 1/2 tatami room in every episode so far.
I never cease to be amazed how many little details are packed in at every moment. Rewatching it now, I consciously notice for the first time, for example, the protagonist's inner libido voice saying "What's it matter?" when the protagonist wonders about his 'ideal woman' Higuchi Keiko - the libido isn't concerned with perfection; it wants release in a real woman like Hanuki. Also just noticed that he mentions that his ideal girl Keiko says she wants to meet him, but he's hesitant to meet her because he's played himself up into his ideal vision of himself in his letters.
In terms of directing, this episode was different from everything that came before, closer in spirit to Ryotaro Makihara's episode 3. It didn't have the fast-paced manic cutting and flood of colorful visual embellishment of the other episodes; it was played out using more conventional dramatic staging and pacing, letting the characters act out the drama rather than interpreting it through montages.
I could tell pretty quickly that this was the Michio Mihara episode in the series. I suspected there was probably going to be one. It would be odd if there hadn't been. It seems to be a tradition in Yuasa TV shows to have an episode by Michio Mihara. It's not actually that identifiable. For the first few minutes I didn't realize. (I think this part was done by Yasunori Miyazawa) Then I could start to tell from the way the characters acted, and particularly from the mouth and the expression. Mihara is unmistakable from the mouth. He has his own unique exaggerated forms for the various mouth shapes. You see them in everything he does. But this felt low key for Mihara. It wasn't moving like crazy like his Kaiba episode or drawn as crazy as his Kemonozume episode. The more expressive and pliable face of the protagonist is about the only place that felt a little idiosyncratic and showed his personality. He didn't animate everything this time around, not sure why. Maybe he was deliberately holding back as an animator, and letting the storyboarding do the talking. Who can blame him for not wanting to do all that work. Mihara has a unique style of subtle humor that I like. For example the moment where we see him looking in puzzlement at his gloves is subtly funny and very understated - I only figured out the comedy of the moment while rewatching.
I just figured out why the ending seemed familiar. I'd seen one of Takuya Hosogane's music videos before and posted it on my animated music video blog. In fact, I chose it as one of my favorite picks - his video for Cubesato. Fantastic video & song, and great choice for a person to do the ending.
Storyboard / Director / Animation director: Michio Mihara
Supervising animation director: Nobutake Ito
This was the most youthful and energetic feeling episode. That's saying a lot. Each episode so far has been full of hustle and energy. But this one felt particularly lively and full of enthusiasm for some reason. I suspect the reason is because it's storyboarded and directed by Shingo Natsume, an animator about whom I've been quite enthusiastic since discovering him due to his work on Welcome to the NHK (another connection!). He apparently directed his first episode quite recently, on that same mermaid show where Ryotaro Makihara directed episode 11. He directed the extra, DVD-only episode 13. Apparently it involved a number of the small community of younger firebrand animators who all seem to work on each other's projects these days. A lot of them seem to have connected on Guren Lagan. Shingo Natsume worked on Guren, and a huge number of these young talented animators seem to have helped out on this episode as a favor to him. It seems to happen often that when a young talented animator does his first sakkan or enshutsu, it turns into a sakuga bash with all sorts of animator stars coming out of the woodwork to help out, like happened with Tatsuzo Nishita's episode of Gaiking
That's what this episode was - a bash of young animators, many ex-gif animators, like all those episodes on various shows directed by Hiroshi Ikehata. Coming after the very small teams of the previous episodes, this one was a huge team. The animator list filled the entire screen. And there were tons of the names we've become familiar with over the last few years in various places. I'm sure there are plenty that have done good work in places that I'm not aware of, but I recognize quite a few of them. Kikuko Sadakata is of course the well-known Gainax animator; Shingo Yamashita the ex-gif animator who's done so much great work, notably on Birdy; Yoshimichi Kameda is probably the star animator of the current FMA show; Tomoyuki Niho is the old guard of the new generation, one of the first ex-gif animators to go pro, back on those Satelight productions of a few years back like Aquarion and more recently Birdy; Tamotsu Ogawa first came to people's attention with a crazy sequence in that infamous episode 7 of Bokurano, and has since done a lot of other crazy sequences with lots of weird deformation including a nice one in the 2008 Doraemon movie (a disregard for beautiful drawings seems to be a trend among these animators); Shingo Fujii did good work on the Ikehata episode of Soul Eater; Fumiaki Kouta has done lots of great work in various places in the last few years including Prototype recently (Fujii was there too); Toshiyuki Sato is another Ikehata regular; and Akira Amemiya needs to introduction - another one of the new generation of 'mover' animators Shingo Natsume presumably met at Gainax while working on Guren.
So this would be the second episode Shingo Natsume has directed, and boy, he really put his all into it. This was an incredibly tightly directed episode, packed with so many ideas and so many different textures. It was a hilarious romp through the college student's first sexual experience - or would-be sexual experience. Personally I don't understand why he didn't do it. I found that kind of annoying in a typical anime way. That's my main gripe about this episode. Otherwise, the amazing tension that Natsume builds up in the climax is... wow. The way it was all put together cutting frantically between the cool collage cowboy Johnny, the boiling kettle about to blow its load, the various denizens of the protagonist's sexually aroused brain all communing about the emergency situation like the Cerebellum and the Noiseman-looking Parietal Lobe, and the surreal sexual advances of the dentally obsessed girl (Hanuki is a homonym for 'dental extraction')... just wow. That was some inspired and very fun directing. The tongue was just awesome. And my favorite shot? The fingers going into the (...) which at first looks like fingers going into a (...). Brilliant!
Otherwise I didn't like the whole setup with the protagonist acting like a typical anime character caught between three girls he can't choose between. Was this intentional? I think it might have been. Though I can see that each girl is probably symbolic, standing for a different kind of attraction, bla bla bla. My other gripe: The episode felt too Gainaxy. I don't know how to explain it. Too manic in a self-consciously comic way. But I don't want to press the point. It's an amazing near-debut for Shingo Natsume, and a great followup to Ryotaro Makihara's episode. I've got this fetish or obsession with seeing my favorite animators become great directors, and I just got a double serving. I love the feeling of frank sexuality that he achieves in the episode, and all the humorous metaphors and symbols he uses. So many great images, like Hanuki lasciviously embracing that phallic tower.
As usual, one of the sub-characters took the lead role again, and it was interesting seeing how the various sub-characters' roles were shuffled around, particularly how Higuchi only got mentioned peripherally by the girl making that gesture with her chin when she says she's got a date with a certain guy. The other girl who he was supposed to meet that night seems to serve a similar role as the daughter in the previous episode, the unobtainable beauty, and the doll character belonged to the protagonist this time around... quite fascinating. There's an amazingly complex web of significance being woven here and throughout the show.
Storyboard & director: Shingo Natsume
Animation directors: Shouko Nishigaki & Naoyuki Asano
Supervising animation director: Nobutake Ito
Takao Yamagishi, Mai Tsutsumi, Kikuko Sadakata
Yosuke Okuda, Katsunori Shibata, Yuuki Komatsu
Tetsuo Moronuki, Shingo Yamashita, Keita Nagasaka
Takeo Oda, Yoshimichi Kameda, Tomoyuki Niho
Tamotsu Ogawa, Maya Segawa, Shingo Fujii
Tatsuki Kanezaki, Erukin Kawabata, Satoshi Nakura
Fumiaki Kouta, Shin Wakabayashi, Toshiyuki Sato
Shintaro Douge, Shouko Nishigaki, Shingo Natsume
Takayuki Hamada, Ryotaro Makihara, Natsuko Shimizu
Sawako Miyamoto, Satomi Higuchi, Nobuhiro Takefuji
Takeo Oda, Kenichi Fujisawa, Akira Amemiya
That's me running a Tatami Galaxy marathon. Going to see how quickly I can get through the remaining episodes.
The story of this episode had the most immediate hook for me, personally. I thought its depiction of this cult hiding behind the facade of selling health food was surprisingly believable and well done. It isn't far from reality either here or in Japan - just take a bit of the pyramid scheming madness of Amway, a pinch of the reincarnated thetans of Scientology, and the doomsday auguries of Aum Shinrikyo, and put them together, and voila - Honwaka. Not too far-fetched at all.
It's in moments like this episode that cast satirical light on actual social issues and situations in real life that get my juices running. I was really into the story this time around. Basically, the story this time felt like something anybody could watch and find interesting. The humor was genuinely funny, and the directing did a great job of pulling you in. I think it plays on the feeling of distrust we all have in those people we meet occasionally who are just a little too friendly, and you begin to feel something is a little suspicious about their motivations... The buildup was perfect, leading to the big reveal of the secluded cult headquarters, complete with blindfolds, brainwashing/affirmation sessions a la Lifespring, and an avuncular, charismatic cult leader with a Noah's Ark who plays up fears about the latest ecological and sociopolitical problems and makes even eschatological pronouncements sound so nice and comforting.
Great quality as usual. Very different staff, though. Storyboard was by the director of Texhnolyze and Shigurui, who is obviously involved because this is a Madhouse production and he was on hand, and because, well, he's quite talented. I didn't like either of the latter two shows, but he's done a splendid job adapting to this material.
As has Masashi Ishihama as animation director. I would not peg Ishihama as having the sort of stylistic penchant that would make him a candidate for a Yuasa production, but he has considerable flexibility and is able to adapt to just about anything, from Denno Coil to Welcome to the NHK, and he's been involved in just about every major project in the last ten years. (Speaking of Welcome to the NHK, the comparison with the pyramid scheme in that show is inevitable, and it's interesting that Ishihama was involved in the drawing side of both.)
There were a lot of great moments in this episode, like the cat lounging in the bowl when the narrator is talking about the rumours the ramen-ya uses cats to make his dashi was clever and subtle. And I loved those ridiculous bee antenna caps.
The colors seemed particularly well handled, with the sudden b/w gradient when the protagonist says a faux pas, the all white in the royal jelly factory, the dark blue that night, etc. I liked the visuals in the sequence on the bridge in particular. The colors of the backgrounds and passers-by are a delicately blend of muted yellows setting off the cult members and the protagonist in his bee costume. And there's the colors of the cult members at the end when they're letting out the venom against one another. That scene has great impact combined with the insane animation by Yasunori Miyazawa.
The drawings of the characters in that bridge scene felt really delicately honed and showed off Ishihama's drawings well. It's interesting that he manages to instill each of the cult members with a distinct face despite the fact that each one has the same ^_^ expression stamped on their face throughout. Ishihama is very skilled at that kind of thing. He has a subtle and delicate touch without going overboard in the detail, and he can be really loose with the forms when necessary. There's a lot of personality showing through in the drawings, too, presumably because he lets good drawings by the animators through. There were a lot of great drawings throughout that are fun to go back and step through more carefully after watching the episode, like the sketchy sequence at the end after that very strange and surprising moment that I won't mention here, and the montage of jobs the protagonist has to take to pay for his expensive pyramid scheme lifestyle.
As usual, it's fascinating to see how the characters of this episode either reference or recall select aspects of what has happened in the previous episodes, and the way certain recurring motifs like the fortuneteller and the Mochigumon are repeated almost but not quite verbatim, with subtle changes in phrasing or pacing. You feel this incredible tangle of references and lives and past and present building in your memory, and being twisted around and re-remembered and rewritten.
Good animators included Nobutoshi Ogura, Takashi Mukouda and Ryotaro Makihara. Ogura probably did the very opening section. There were a lot of nice little bits of movement, and great drawings moving in a subtle way in every shot, but no big showoff scenes. It's interesting to see Tokuyuki Matsutake there. He is ubiquitous and was bound to be involved. He is one of the most prolific animators in Japan, I'm sure. His works list is massive. Coincidentally, I just saw him in the most recent episode of Naruto Shippuuden, 166. There were a few good action bits in there and I don't know any of the other animators so I figure it might be him. Heads up: 167 will be the first Wakabayashi episode since Naruto l33t.
Was it my imagination or is the ramen stand owner wearing Mickey Mouse pants?
Storyboard: Hiroshi Hamasaki
Director: Tomoya Takahashi
Animation director: Masashi Ishihama
Supervising animation director: Nobutake Ito
Nobutoshi Ogura, Ryotaro Makihara
Tokuyuki Matsutake, Kenichi Yamaguchi
Toshiharu Sugie, Mieko Hosoi
Takashi Muratani, Kenichi Shima
Mie Kana, Ippei Ichii
Shouta Ibata, Natsuko Shimizu
Chiaki Nakajima, Masashi Kariya
Takashi Mukouda, Yasunori Miyazawa