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The first episode of Brain's Base's new show directed by Shoujo Kakumei Utena's Kunihiko Ikuhara is as well produced as you'd expect, with colorful, artistic visuals, idiosyncratic but sharp directing, and lush sound design, but it may be a hard slog if you are not willing to put up with the peculiarities of this auteur's approach to storytelling and the shoujo manga atmosphere, complete with twinkling stars, androgynous boys and an obsessively animated magical transformation sequence.
I for one never watched Shoujo Kakumei Utena, or rather was never able to watch more than an episode or two, because the style of the directing and the extreme shoujo manga-ness of it all, with the bizarre, byzantine gender and inter-character relations, was just too much for me. Rather than realistic drama, it's expressionistic psycho-drama with events presented in a stylized and metaphorical way. It's sophisticated and assured, but also off-putting if you're not capable of switching to a more 'shoujo manga' mindset.
This show isn't as intense as Utena narratively or stylistically, but Ikuhara's basic stance as a storyteller is unchanged. This is a far more approachable show, and the quality is good, so I'm going to see how far I can get into it.
I find Ikuhara to be one of the best 'shoujo anime' directors after the late Osamu Dezaki. He seems to be able to tap into the mindset of heightened emotion that defines the genre, over the length of a series fleshing out and delving into the various characters' complex emotions in a way few other directors can. Visually, he uses the background art effectively to extend the emotional palette the way Dezaki did in a show like Aim for the Ace!. He's a theatrical director in the sense of the staging as well as the acting.
What I most like about the show isn't the directing or the animation. It's the art. The vivid color schemes, symmetrical layouts, and density of detail in the backgrounds like the shot pictured above, are immediately compelling. Even if nothing else in the show attracts you, it's hard to resist the wonderful art of the show.
That color genius Kunio Tsujita is again the one behind the colors after his work on Casshern Sins and Tatami Galaxy. The art directing team is Kentaro Akiyama and Chieko Nakayama. Chieko Nakayama was art director of episode 1 and the art was done by four people at a place called Studio Pablo.
I didn't like was that the characters and humor and general trappings of the show are otherwise conventional, just through the lens of Ikuhara's more exacting directing style. There isn't much anything tremendously new here, or that would attract a non-anime-watcher. The transformation sequence to me seems like a pointless self-indulgence to gratify the director's fe tish for Sailor Moon-style intricate transformation sequences. Also, drawing all of the bystanders except for the main characters as cardboard cutouts comes across as less quirky and creative than lazy and obvious. It felt more convincing and meaningful when Kenji Nakamura did it in Trapeze.
Ikuhara's visual storytelling style has some surface similarities to that of two other ex-Toei directors who learned the ropes at Toei Animation around the same time in the 1990s: Mamoru Hosoda and Takuya Igarashi. Takuya Igarashi is more quirky and visually playful, while Mamoru Hosoda is more classical and holistic, but their film grammar seems like it evolved from the same place. They like symmetrical layouts lush with detail, always using talented art directors to flesh out their intricate layouts; they're good at incorporating CG and animation and storyboarding in such a way as to achieve much with little, switching to lush animation in sections but mostly making due with little movement by regaling the viewer with mesmerizing background art or theatrically heightened emotional storytelling.
The numerous Toei connections in the show betray Ikuhara's origins: Shinya Hasegawa (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was character designer of Utena (and also worked a lot on Sailor Moon); Masahiro Aizawa (animator in the opening) was a sakkan/animator in Utena and was associated with Takaaki Yamashita; Yoshihiko Umakoshi (animator in the opening) worked on the Utena movie in addition to being a Toei pillar; Takahiro Kagami (animator in episode 1 and the opening) was a regular Toei animator and in recent years worked under Umakoshi on Mushishi (2005) and Casshern Sins (2008); Keiji Goto (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was an animator in Utena; etc.
The show has a lot of women in main staff roles besides the art director: art director Chieko Nakayama, character designer Terumi Nishii, assistant director Mitsue Yamazaki, and Gainax animator Shoko Nakamura. Shoko Nakamura wears several hats on the show as "chief director" of the show under "kantoku" Ikuhara in addition to being one of the two concept designers, being an animator in episode 1 and the opening, being line director of ep 1, and drawing the ending. There are a few other Gainax faces present: Akemi Hayashi was an animator in the opening, episode 1 and the crystal world section. Sushio was an animator in episode 1.
I didn’t like was that the characters and humor and general trappings of the show are otherwise conventional
I don’t actually agree with this. Especially the humor I find to be very surreal and absurd and not something I see often in anime. You have all these crazy things going on in the background (with the penguins) that seems to have nothing to do with what is going on in the foreground. But if you pay attention the stuff in the background seems to be telling us something about the main story. I just really like the literary device and don’t find it conventional at all.
And while the characters might be conventional from first glance; isn’t it too early to judge them? Even at episode 12 I am not sure I know all the characters fully yet.
Of course I am not saying there are no cliches in Penguindrum but sometimes I feel originality is less important than how a story is told.
However I should also say thanks for your interesting post about the staff behind the show.
Yeah, I have to agree with Kim. The humor in this show is refreshingly oddball, especially in some of the later episodes where the crazy Oginome Ringo has hysterically over-the-top visions in the style of Rose of Versailles/Oniisama e. The characters too are slowly but surely revealing their complexities as well.
I knew some people would disagree with me on that one. I’ll keep watching and see if my opinion changes. But it’s true that originality is not always necessarily paramount. Creativity is always important; originality less so. Great things can be done with styles that are at first appearance conventional. Casshern Sins was a good example of that IMO.