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Only a decade behind everyone else, today I had the opportunity to see Mitsuo Iso's part in End of Eva. This was reportedly the sequence that got many interested in Iso specifically and in animation generally, but ironically it's among the last of his mature pieces that I've seen.
In short, it was spectacular. Seeing it, I realized that that memorable bit of animated mecha action in Aquarion 19 was an homage to Iso's bit, with the way the spear flies through the air from the background to crash into the earth directly in front of the camera, throwing up clumps of dirt in the style that made Iso so unique.
There is much other great animation here, but Iso's stands out from the rest of the action fundamentally in some way. It just moves differently. Having a close look at it reveals that he alternates between 3s and 2s. None of the other sections have that unique impact that 3s can have in the hands of a master, which is what Iso is. Drawing every drawing the way he does and leaving it all open requires conviction, because he lays himself bare by doing so.
And then there is the movement itself. Iso knows how to create movement that is real but that simultaneously feels incredible. This is a classic instance of movement based on reality that achieves an effect far surpassing any that could be achieved in real life with the same movement. There are legends about how he captured a spider in a glass and observed it for hours in order to get down the movement of the spider tank in GITS. Similarly, there are stories about how there were days when people heard all sorts of loud crashes and thumps coming from upstairs, as if people were brawling or throwing the furniture around, from the room where Iso was animating this section.
Having seen most of the rest of his work, I'm familiar with the approach on display here, so it didn't have the effect of surprise it probably would have had if I had seen it when it was made, but rather it just made sense and fit within his evolution as I've been able to look back on it. It's certainly one of his best pieces. You can tell he really put his all into it. It's animation where you can almost see the blood of the animator that went into it. Here is a person, you sense, who literally became what he was animating. It's animation that can be hard to get to the heart of just by describing how it was made. Without even knowing about that, it grabs something in you the way only animation can at its best, and that's what makes it great. Iso is the one who awakened many to this approach in Japan. Figures as diverse and Toshiyuki Inoue, Yoshifumi Kondo and Tatsuyuki Tanaka were awestruck by the revolutionary nature of his work when he appeared on the scene. Since then there have appeared people who have similarly rethought the entire concept of what animation should be the way Iso did, but none of them quite reach the elemental level that Iso's work does. Iso really helped to redefine the idea of animated movement in Japan.
To begin an appreciation of Iso's work, it might be best just to start at the beginning. Not quite the very beginning, ie, when Iso was working at studio Zaendo on various TV shows, but a few years into his career around 1989 when he did the first piece that really brought him to the attention of other animators and serious anime enthusiasts: the first episode of Gundam 0080, specifically the attack on the base at the beginning. One of the things that set Iso apart was that his animation was all about creating a flow of movement, not going from pose to pose, as had been the norm in anime up until that point. Like animators like Yoshifumi Kondo before him, Iso also went to the extreme length of drawing most of the drawings in his sequences himself in order to retain as much control over the movement as possible. Both of these traits can be seen in this famous sequence, where he manages to create a convincing feeling of weight in the movement of the mobile suits. Afer all, these are humongous mechanical contraptions. They can't just fly around like birds. Iso was one of the first to bring things back down to reality and assess systematically how the various parts of the objects he was animating would move in real life, and to put in the considerable effort required to translate that into animation.
Soon afterwards Iso did two sequences in Satoru Utsunomiya's Gosenzosama Banbanzai, and here we can see different application of Iso's approach to creating through-conceived movement. In one of these he turns what might otherwise have been handled as a static shot of monologue into a scene full of dynamic acting that showcases his skill at coming up with movement that is realistic as well as interesting as animation. The way Iso conceptualized the acting in the scene seemed fundamentally different somehow. Over the next few years he continued to evolve and explore his approach to movement. In Like a Cloud, Like the Wind he created some nice wobbly movement that seemed to have taken in a bit of Utsunomiya, in Hakkenden 1 he created characteristcally realistic movement like the corpse toppling over, in Hashire Melos and Jojo's Bizarre Adventures he created dynamic action, and in Junkers Come Here he created a one of his most powerful sequences of realistic human acting, with a character doing a monologue in a static shot over the length of thirty seconds.
In Jojo's Bizarre Adventures there is one particularly memorable shot where the camera is following a running character from a distance away, and various objects lying on the ground zoom by, appearing in the frame for single drawings, which for some reason creates an uncanny feeling of reality in the sequence of actions. Iso knew how to create a feeling of reality using the bare minimum of material. In Hashire Melos he animated a sequence back to back with Satoru Utsunomiya, the other great figure who helped to revolutionize the way people conceptualized movement at this period, and there must surely have been some mutual influencing going both ways.
Finally we come to one of the most laboriously animated pieces of his career up until this point, the climax of Ghost in the Shell with the tank. Around this time he begins to do other things like designing and script writing, and we begin to see his style gradually changing, becoming more and more all-encompassing in his handling of all of the phenomena on the screen. Next, in Eva he did the beginning of 1 and the end of 19, as well as writing script for the first time, which he has since only done once. His work in 19 is particularly striking and what makes it unique easier to grasp compared with some of his other work. The beastly way the robot moves is closely observed and very convincing in the timing and in the particular actions taken, for example the timing of the way he raises his head and looks around blinking. The close-up shot of the robot biting off a piece of flesh is a classic example of the concept of "full limited" animation that Iso developed, whereby he draws every drawing in a shot in order to maintain control over the movement. Every single drawing contributes to the movement, which jerks dramatically every which way over the screen the way such a shot would undoubtedly look zoomed in with a camera lens from far away.
Continuing in the direction of this work comes his action in the film, which brings together everything that had been seen in his work in the past: drawing everything himself, realistic movement that is full of dynamism as animation, moving everything on the screen. Besides the awe-inspiring way the figures move on the screen, with an almost balletic beauty and an incredible feeling of presence and weight, the unique way he drew the earth being thrown up as clumps was apparently influential and widely imitated. Here we see the entire screen utilized, with a great feeling for depth, and the characters move all over the screen, as if the camera were barely keeping up with the action. In just the short span between his work on 19 and the film it feels like you can see a huge evolution in the quality of his work.
From here on out, in all of the little shots he did here and there, in the swimming in Golden Boy, the water in Blue No 6 and the clouds in FLCL, his work is unmistakable and has a new feeling of assurance. Particularly notable is his scene in Voogie's Angel 3, which is one of his most hair-raising and powerful in effect, combining his genius for effects animation with his nuanced approach to character animation. Finally we come to the hangar scene in Blood, which signaled the beginning of a new phase in his work, with its seamless combination of his realistic style of animation and digital processing. This finally led to Rahxephon 15, in which he combined all of his preoccupations into this one film that stood out as a unique and powerful creation within the series, with its memorably subdued tone and measured pacing. The combination of realistic digital processing and traditional animation in this episode seems to be the culmination of what Iso had been working towards since Blood. The episode was also his directing debut. In view of the fact that he's been virtually out of sight for the last three years, it seems likely that he's working on a big project, probably directing, so it seems just a question of time until his name becomes more well known.
Didn’t he also work on Paranoia agent and the Naruto movie?
I remember seeing such realistic action in episode 8 of paranoia and it struck me as almost rotoscoped but not quite. I was amazed at how fluid working with 3 frames (and less when needed) really works. Another instance of such fluidity was in the first Naruto movie: The bar scene. (in my mind the best and only good bit of the whole movie)
Now that I think of it, I remember seeing the same style on one of Studio 4C’s psychadellic music videos.
If this is another animator, then the style’s very similar.
Either way, I really do admire how lifelike his stuff is.
He’s right up there with Norio Matsumoto in my book.
Paranoia Agent 8 would be Satoru Utsunomiya, and that scene in the Naruto film would be Takeshi Honda. Utsunomiya actually did animation in both Survival and 4-Day Weekend, so that may be what you’re referring to. Well spotted.
Do you think Iso is the leading light when it comes to the subtleties of character acting, as witnessed in his Junkers scene? It strikes me that such scenes pose a very different and perhaps more difficult challenge to the animators you regularly highlight.
I would love to know if Ohira has ever used his idiosyncratic talents to tackle such a restrained and emotional scene, It strikes me that his pursuit of the energy in animation that breaks out would go against such work, but I wonder. I think maybe he could do something truly original in that area if given a chance.
I know Hashimoto has pulled it off with Yamada’s (the banana scene is beautiful), and did he also do the scene in Tokyo Godfathers at the boyfriends house?
I need to see more of Iso’s work, what I’ve managed to track down so far is wonderfully complex and varied.
That’s indeed Shinji hashimoto who animated this sequence on TGF.
As for Ohira, I don’t know much, but for some closup animation you can check FLCL #2, which feature nice animation from him… that was this animation that got me hooked on his work ^^
for more emotional work you can check his Hakkenden episode, the 4th OAV on the second serie.
I think that’s exactly right. Iso showed the way with his work, and in a sense everything that came afterwards in the realistic vein has if not followed then at least benefited from what he did. There are people now who are interested in trying to create scenes of intricate character acting, but I’ve never seen anything that manages to achieve the sort of impact Iso’s work does, particularly in that Junkers scene. The work of Toshiyuki Inoue or Takeshi Honda or Hiroyuki Okiura may be incredibly detailed in a way Iso’s work isn’t, but it comes across as attacking the problem from the surface rather than the root as Iso did.
On the other hand, with Hashimoto and Ohira you get the feeling that they’ve also tried, in their own way, to go back to the root of movement. Most of what they do tends to focus on creating expressive body movements, but I agree that if they tried to put this skill to the task of creating some nuanced character acting they could create something incredible that we’ve never seen before. Hashimoto’s work has actually tended in this direction more than Ohira’s lately, but I think Ohira still has it in him. I honestly can’t think of anything from Ohira like this Junkers scene (except maybe bits of The Antique Shop or Hamaji’s Resurrection), but Hashimoto’s scene in Tokyo Godfathers kind of feels like the best example so far of how they might apply the dynamic realism of their work to a natural acting situation.
One thing about Iso is that each of his pieces is quite different, as you noted. There’s an incredible variety there when you look at each piece side by side. So the kind of character acting in Junkers is just one of the various types of movement he’s tried his hand at. Though the variety itself makes his achievement that much more impressive, I personally wish he had done more in the Junkers vein, because there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a successful piece of nuanced acting like that, and I can’t think of any other examples that really measure up to it.
Osamu Tanabe has also created a few scenes of delicate realistic character acting, namely the dinner scene in Junkers and particularly the scene in Golden Boy 3, and in other places like the Ghibli ads he’s created his own unique take on the realistic style.
I get the feeling Okiura and Inoue are too logical to come up with the sort of instinctive acting that sets Iso apart, though what they achieved in Jin-Roh was unparalleled in terms of their own take on realism. Shinji Otsuka also has the imagination to create nuanced character acting, and there are a few scenes where you can see this clearly, but again overall it feels lacking in the subtlety of Iso’s scene in Junkers. Just once I’d like to see Norio Matsumoto do some totally realistic, focused character acting full of that kind of nuance. I think he could create something really good in that style if he tried.
In the end, Iso is special and there’s nothing else quite like his work out there.
I remember almost falling out of my chair when I saw Ohira’s part in FLCL 2. I thought they had gone a little too far by letting him do that, in fact, but I was impressed by their cojones. I think Ohira’s great achievement since Hamaji’s Resurrection has been staring down the anime industry into subservience to his own ends in this way, which I don’t think anybody has even managed to do before. Even Kanada was neutered in his Ghibli work, but nobody can stand up to Ohira.
Lately I’ve been seeking out as much of Iso’s work as possible, and in doing so I can now appreciate your past writings on him even more (It’s a great feeling when everything clicks - and I’ve been getting that a lot lately when reading your articles) - I can understand why you are so passionate about his work.
I revisited his work in Blood recently, and aside from being utterly blown away by the sheer excellence of his animation, the digital effects work really stood out. Not just the lighting, but the digital painting he does on the characters is incredible. You can see how this is integrated in his RahXephon episode as well, where you can see a lot of his digital paintings, particularly the old butler guy, as well as the big rock thing. Denno Coil has these sort of additions, but nothing as good as RahXephon 15. I wonder if it is because Iso couldn’t mold the production system into quite what he wanted, or is the problem the fact that few are yet as skilled with digital tools to do such things? I suspect the latter. I imagine, for instance, the digital paint work in episode 8 was from Kouichi Arai, who is no stranger to such techniques if his contribution to edge is any indication. Of course, the episodes where Iso himself handles the After Effects stuff are stunning.
By the way, on your Karisuma animators page you say Iso did uncredited KA on the Bebop movie. Any ideas as to which bit? That Japanese sakuga wiki site seems to suggest he did ‘dijitaaru waakusu’ - which makes sense. Even if it’s nowhere near as dramatic as in blood you can sense a similiar feel in the handling of light. Plus, it’s Bones, so it would make sense that he worked on that, then went on to do RahXephon. The only scene in the movie that I thought he might have animated is the bit at the end where Spike is stumbling around in the rain after the big fight. It veers between 2’s and 3’s and is full of carefully considered deformations and movement.
Thank you as always for the incisive and impassioned write-up, I desperately need to track down a copy of Junkers now…
It could in fact be that Iso was merely responsible for “Digital Work” in the Cowboy Bebop movie as suggested. I just watched the film again, and saw that one Mikio Odagawa was credited with the task of Digital Work, and that is supposedly one of Iso’s pen names. But without even knowing that, right as I was watching the film, the moment those butterflies hit the screen I had a eureka moment and realized that is what Iso did on the film - the butterflies. They just screamed Iso. Before I hadn’t paid any attention to them or thought they might be his work, but now that I’ve seen RahXephon and Denno Coil, I’m quite familiar with that unmistakable digital texture all of his work has, and it’s quite obvious. I guess it goes back to what he was talking about in that interview I translated - about cutting and pasting a single element with care to achieve a good effect. This is obviously one of the first places he tried that out after his work on Blood. It’s like he’s testing the waters on that concept using a very simple idea, copies of a single butterfly animation. I think you’re quite perceptive, and probably got it right about the section he did, where Spike is stumbling around, which is part of the whole butterfly section (there were also a few other shots earlier in the film). I don’t know whether his work extended beyond the Digital Butterfly Work of those shots to include some of the animation, but those shots fairly scream Iso, to be sure.
Anyway, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I now believe it is probably correct that he simply did digital work on the film under the Mikio Odagawa pen name, and not uncredited KA as I have written (though his work might technically be called animation, depending on how you look at it). Why he used that pen name is a whole other matter…
I agree that Iso’s digital work in RahXephon is absolutely fabulous and worth seeking out on its own merits, though honestly I haven’t gone through but more than the first few episodes… It’s just as incredible as his animation work, strangely enough. It really is just an extension of his animation work. His genius as an animator shines through in whatever he does, regardless of the technique he’s using.
I didn’t even know that Koichi Arai did digital work on RahXephon, so thanks for mentioning that. I will have to go through RahXephon more closely sometime. I noticed he was in the Cowboy Bebop film. I wish I knew what section he did.
I do think Iso has continued to build on this digital expertise in Denno Coil, and he has done some of his best work yet in the series, and I’m not talking about directing or writing. There is almost always, in nearly every episode, a particular section where a lot of work has gone into the digital effects, for example the formatting of the “denno space” in the first episode, where Oyaji has Densuke in his arms and is being pulled by the line back into the real world, or the cyber battles a few episodes later. Iso pushed his digital work in those sections to new heights and achieved some of the most incredibly rich visuals I’ve seen in any recent anime. Though I can certainly see what you’re saying. Episode 15 of RahXephon is just so perfect in every way, and it’s much more worked overall than any episode of Denno Coil. Every moment has that rich Iso Digital Works texture massaging your eyes, whereas in Denno Coil those moments are a little more few and far between. I’d echo your supposition that the reason for this is probably just because Iso has such a specific idea of what he wants to do, and so few people are so specialized in such a matter, that he wound up having to do much of the work himself. In the credits for every single episode Iso is credited with “Digital Effects” alongside one other individual, Yoichi Senzui, so Iso and his new assistant has been our man on the floor churning out that gorgeous Adobe in every episode. We are seeing a big chunk of new Iso animation in every episode. Could not get any better than that.
Yes, you definitely need to see Junkers whenever you can. There is much very nice work in that film in addition to Iso’s awesome sequence, and it’s a very watchable film besides.
And for Blood, I should note that I’m not exactly sure how the digital effects of the explosion and so on in the hangar was handled. I’m fairly certain that Iso did the traditional animation of the section, but I don’t know whether the digital processing of the screen was done by Hisashi Ezura or by Iso or by both working together. Iso states that he got interested in this approach after watching what Ezura did on this film, so it’s possible that the texture there is largely thanks to Ezura. I was hoping Ezura would show up in Denno Coil to help fill the show with rich digital textures, but sadly he was a no-show.
Ah, Sorry, I wasn’t being very clear. The episode 8 I was referring to in terms of digital painting was of Denno Coil (on which Arai was the AD, as you know). I just thought it might have been his initiative, as I know he is skilled in that area. Although, come to think of it that could just as easily have been Iso who did it. He did the same thing for his scenes in Blood - And they are the only scenes in the film where the actual drawings have been ‘painted’, not just coloured. Like the stuff Ko Yoshinari has been doing in recent years - perhaps he got the idea while working on Blood with Iso.
I imagine ‘Digital Works’ also encompasses things like digital interfaces and HUD-style graphics - something that can be seen in the Bebop movie, Rahxephon and most especially Coil. Definitely likes his computers.
I love how Iso refuses to let traditional animation processes and formulas get in the way of making good animation. I’m sure he has something very special lined up for the last episode of Denno Coil, too…
Just to be absolutely clear on what Iso did or didn’t do, there is someone credited with “Display Design” in the Bebop movie, so it does not seem likely that Iso was the one responsible for the digital interfaces and displays in at least the Bebop movie. My impression remains that Iso’s main contribution to the Bebop movie was the butterflies. Similarly, in Denno Coil he was the creator, so obviously the unique popup menus and so on are of his creation in the conceptual sense, but I can’t be too sure whether he was the one directly responsible for the rendering of those particular aspects, at least in every case. He obviously has to have had some hand in their modeling. In the end, all I can say is that there are times when something has that particular Iso feeling to it, and other times when it doesn’t. Things like the digital distortion that affects character occasionally, or the haze that covers certain areas, or the black patchiness of the ‘nulls’, or the effects and digital textures associated with the various manners of digital weaponry and gadgetry the characters wield - most of the latter often feel like Iso might have had a direct hand in their rendering. Certain elements and extended sequences might have a certain texture to the digital paint, rendering of the screen, lighting or the like that just seems to scream Iso’s hand to me. Sorry for being pedantic on this point, but I think it’s important in the sense that it’s key to grasping Iso’s way of doing things, since his approach is very hands-on. Clearly he was personally responsible for much of the digital rendering throughout Denno Coil, and it all reflects his work to some extent, so I think it might be pointless and impossible to say where Iso’s hand begins or ends, but there are certain moments where his hand seems particularly strong and direct, and these are obviously moments that were important to him. It’s interesting to observe exactly in what aspects he was involved particularly deeply, as it seems to provides a window into his artistic priorities.
Thanks for the clarification Ben. Your observation about his artistic priorities is very astute. Hopefully we get more of an insight into such matters through a book or an interview, now that the show has finished. I’m looking forward to reading your overall thoughts when you publish them.
I got a better-than-youtube look at his work in Voogie’s Angel 3. Truly incredible stuff. I would love to see some more ‘traditional’, in the loosest sense of the word, animation from him in the future. I’m very curious as to what he’ll do next.