Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Monday, July 30, 2007

11:40:11 am , 878 words, 3716 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Mononoke

I've been stuck in a wilderness chalet for the past week, so I've been unable to post here. I've had a chance to watch the first arc (i.e. the first two episodes) of the new series Mononoke directed by Kenji Nakamura as a follow-up to his acclaimed Bakeneko segment of the horror omnibus Ayakashi. I was simultaneously pleased and disappointed when I heard the news that they were making the series. I was glad that we were going to be able to see an entire series directed by Nakamura, who already has an original style despite not having many years under his belt as a director (which makes it particularly nice that the producers gave him a spinoff just because his segment was so popular), but honestly I would have preferred to see him do something new instead of just re-hashing what he'd done in Bakeneko. Bakeneko was great because it was so unexpected and new. But at the same time, I thought it would be interesting to see in what new directions he might push this material. Even if weren't anything new, it would still probably be tremendously watchable stuff, so it seemed like a win-win situation.

Well, this series maintains the same level of quality as Bakeneko in terms of directing and animation and storytelling, so it is no disappointment. Beyond the newness of the directing and the use of the CGI interior, the story of Bakeneko was powerful and interesting in its own right, which was undoubtedly an important part of what made it so watchable. Vivid directing combined with appealing characters and an unusual situation, and the results were great. The story here is also very interesting, reinterpreting the traditional idea of the 'bakemono' with a historically informed perspective. What happened to the women who worked in the red light districts of Edo Japan who happened to get pregnant through their line of work? It had to have happened a lot. What happened to the children? This series opens with an unexpectedly moving story that touches on this topic. This historically informed background makes it all the more engaging.

I was holding out judgment until I saw more than episode 1, which was done by Kenji Nakamura himself, because I wasn't so sure how well the material would hold up in anyone else's hands. Shinbo Akiyuki's work is interesting when he's the one doing the storyboarding and directing, but in a series his style is watered down and completely loses its appeal, and I thought the same thing might happen here. But no, episode 2, which was done by a different team and indeed by a very small team of animators, was almost up to the level of the first. The first built on what made Bakeneko so fresh and new, that use of CGI mapped interiors to create a strong feeling of the characters moving through and inhabiting this vast mazelike space, with the camera zooming around and being moved around into all sorts of different locations constantly. The scene with the camera moving up the stairs here retained that feeling, and generally the camera moved very freely and unexpectedly around the space as before, creating that bewildering feeling of disjointed time and space that Nakamura is so good at creating, mixing the past with the present and the imagined with the real, so that the fabric of the narrative is full of logical gaps and question marks that you have to fill in for yourself, making the experience much more enriching.

I think using the CGI space as the defining concept of the story is a savvy idea, too, since it permits even a small team to create that unique feeling that defines the show without putting too much of an onus on the frames. You just move the camera around to create an interesting spatial feeling. In the end, that's been the defining strategy of anime since the beginning (focus on interesting story and directing to distract from the technical limitations), so it's an interesting update on that.

The animation is allocated like in the original - very spare throughout until being unleashed during climactic moments when the camera whirls around like crazy throughout the CGI space as the monster reveals itself. Takashi Hashimoto has admitted that people tend to turn to him when they need some kind of 'special animation', such as smokes or explosions. In this case the monsters are animated in a very tactile and expressive way when they finally appear on screen. The slow buildup of tension to this burst of interesting animation has great effect. Also typically Japanese is the way that playing around with the shots draws attention away from the lack of animation drawings. All of the action occurs off-screen, and shots shift disjointedly without explanation revealing unexpected sights. We're supposed to piece together what's just happened, keeping the viewer guessing and engaged. I noticed even all of the the 'zashiki warashi' were usually cut-'n'-paste copies colored differently, which was a good method - time-saving and visually satisfying.

Just before this Nakamura would have done episode 10 of Kemonozume, and a while back the first episode of Karas, which are worth checking out alongside Bakeneko to get a picture of this interesting new director's emerging style.

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7 comments

Andrew Cunningham
Andrew Cunningham [Visitor]  

This is definitely looking like the find of the summer season. Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei and Baccano both look to do the original works justice, but Mononoke just blew me away.

07/30/07 @ 11:56
Random person
Random person [Visitor]  

Nice comments on Mononoke! In terms of storytelling I somehow felt Bakeneko was a bit better, though this is probably just because then it came along with the whole amazement that so much effort and quality was in just three episodes of an otherwise mediocre omnibus. And Bakeneko was 3 episodes while the first story of Mononoke was 2 so it’s not really a fair comparison. The second arc is interestingly storyboarded entirely by Kazuhiro Furuhashi and scripted by Chiaki Konaka (Lain etc.), but I felt the writing was better in the first… although I’ve only seen one episode of the second arc so it’s not fair to judge.

I’m definitely interested to see where Nakamura will go after this though. His ep of Kemonozume was my favourite in the series and I’m sure he’s gone further than Shinbo (whom I am still hoping - in vein? - will do something “serious” and non-fanservicey again before he fizzles out too much.)

On an unrelated note I happened to notice that Koji Yamamura’s in the midst of making a new 5-min animation due to be completed by the end of the year.

08/01/07 @ 18:29
Ben [Member]  

Thanks, RP. I thought the third ep had some very beautiful visuals and interesting new ideas, like the expression of the wind and the use of western paintings, but I agree that the script felt a little windy for the first time, and the characters went through paces a little too ordinary. Not bad by a long shot, as the visuals are an endless delight. I actually got to wondering if he’d been influenced by Michel Ocelot with this episode. The distant shot of the ship was so beautiful.

Shinbo’s become a mystery to me… How he could devolve so quickly baffles me. Thanks for the note about Yamamura’s new short! Didn’t know about it.

08/01/07 @ 21:42
Andrew Cunningham
Andrew Cunningham [Visitor]  

Have you watched Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei yet? I hated the first episode of Soul Taker enough to avoid everything Shinbo was involved with until now, but he’s really nailed the tone of the manga, capturing the stylistic quirks and using his more surreal techniques to enhance the humor.

08/02/07 @ 13:25
Random person
Random person [Visitor]  

Yes, you’re right. I do think the script has improved by episode 2 of Umibouzu, and a re-watch of episode 1 in better quality reminded me how very watchable and enjoyable this show is. I realise that it is also best to comment after each arc has finished after all… What would have seemed mundane in the beginning turns out to have a shadow behind it, and more often than not it’s more interesting than I would normally expect.

There was also this particular bit of animation I was very taken up with in that episode, and it was when Hyoue was struggling in the grasp of his inner monster. That whole sequence really appealed to me in terms of movement, at least. I wonder who did it… Matsuda?

08/03/07 @ 04:53
Random person
Random person [Visitor]  

Sorry to butt in again, but I must just say oh my god! You should watch the last episode of the Umibouzu arc whenever possible. There’s some lovely stuff not just by the usual guys but Hisashi Mori as well!

08/09/07 @ 22:13
Ben [Member]  

Can’t wait to see it. So far I’ve watched part two of Umibozu, episode 4. I wasn’t much pleased at all with the episode. But the last part sounds incredible… particularly the Hisashi Mori part! What a great gift - Hisashi Mori in an already awesome show like this. He did start out at Toei, so it kind of makes sense. It always gets me excited to hear that Mori has popped up somewhere new, and it’s an real treat when it’s a show I’m really into like this. About episode 4, I do remember that part you mention, as it was the only part of the episode that caught my attention animation-wise, so you could very well be right. I’ll have to re-watch it to double-check.

08/14/07 @ 16:28