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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Category: Movie

Monday, December 15, 2014

05:39:00 pm , 1092 words, 36850 views     Categories: Movie, Lupin III, Studio: Telecom, Studio: Tokyo Movie

Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone

The news came out a few months back that Tomonaga Kazuhide heads a new Lupin III TV series starting this spring. The show seems poised to be a return to the sensibility of Cagliostro-era Lupin, with its breathless car chases, lighthearted atmosphere, good-guy Lupin and caper-centric stories. Visually, too, as the Japanese like to word it, it's monkey-headed Lupin (Fuma Clan) rather than horse-head Lupin (Part III).

Acting as a kind of bridge between the Takeshi Koike-designed Fujiko Mine TV show of a few years back and the upcoming reboot is a recent movie entitled Daisuke Jigen's Gravestone. In two 30-minute parts, it feels less like a movie and more like an OVA, or two gussied up TV episodes. The story feels lifted straight out of the second TV series in sensibility. It feels much closer to the Lupin of old than Fujiko Mine, feeling like a lead-in to the upcoming TV series, yet finally does justice to Takeshi Koike's unique interpretation of the characters thanks to some truly excellent animation quality, which the previous TV show was lacking due presumably to bad scheduling.

Telecom handles the animation, so it can be assumed to be a preview of what's to come from the TV series, in terms of the animation if not the designs. It's an odd pairing: Takeshi Koike and Telecom. But it works great. We finally get to see Koike's designs animated properly. I'm not sure what happened between Fujiko Mine and this movie in terms of Takeshi Koike's involvement, but it feels like he wanted to make this movie so that he could vindicate himself and show how his Lupin should have looked. Because here he's involved full-bore, in classic Koike style, handling character design, storyboarding, directing and even sakkaning (with no assistance).

The animation pops thanks to some very talented folks, both in-house and outside animators. Hisao Yokobori and Kazuhide Tomonaga head the animator list as the star in-house animators, while presumably Takeshi Koike brought in folks like Takefumi Hori, Kanako Maru, Satoru Utsunomiya, Hiroshi Shimizu, Kenichi Shimizu and Toshiaki Hontani. I was surprised to see such faces in a Telecom production, but I hope that the upcoming TV show will continue to use talented outsiders, because otherwise I don't see how they can fill the show with good animation just with in-house staff.

The car action in episode 1 was spectacular, if slightly different in feeling from the classic car chases. Takeshi Koike's genius shines through in this spot, whereas otherwise the show felt pretty restrained for him - less him showboating than doing the material justice. The Telecom chases favored long shots regaling you with characters plowing through scenery, whereas here it's all fast cutting and dynamic camera angles. It would be pretty cool if Tomonaga Kazuhide animated a car chase storyboarded by Takeshi Koike. I couldn't identify who did what, except for Satoru Utsunomiya's scene, but the whole episode felt tight animation-wise, with Takeshi Koike's drawings filling in the more quiet scenes nicely. Incidentally, great to see Satoru Utsunomiya. He always seems on the verge of disappearing and then shows up in some random show. Hard to believe that in the 10 years since I started this blog he never had an opportunity to helm a big project. But that goes for a lot of talented people (e.g. Yasuhiro Aoki)...

In sensibility the two episodes felt like they could have been taken straight out of the early Lupin (perhaps why the new jacket is a color that seems midway between blue and green), from the way Fujiko shows up and interacts with the Lupin gang to the combination of assassin bad guy and international intrigue and fanciful spy tech. The bad guy assembling the gun was animated in loving detail as befitting classic Lupin, and Lupin's car this time around was different from any before but also a charming but punchy mid-range classic car - the Alfa Romeo GTV? The only thing that felt a little uncomfortably weird and closer to Fujiko in spirit was the bizarro sexbot scene with Fujiko scampering around completely naked avoiding an enormous drillbit penis. It's like they want to have the sex aspect in the show, but they've divorced it from the character of Lupin and pinned it on the bad guys. The juvenile bit between Lupin and Fujiko on the motorcycle captured Monkey Punch's jokey attitude towards matters sexual, but even then it still feels toned down, albeit still farther than they'd go in the early shows.

The scriptwriter Yuuya Takahashi did a good job recreating the spirit of the old Lupin, although his experience predominantly as a mystery screenplay writer comes through in the somewhat excessively expository denouement, which consists of about 10 minutes straight of 'tane-akashi' explanation. Even the way it was obvious that there's no way Jigen was dead felt true to the transparent ploys of early Lupin. My favorite bit in the movie may have been the part where Lupin walks off screen from his table and then, after a pause, drops some coins on the table. Now that's the classy wit I like to see in Lupin. I liked the Broadway joke - perhaps it's a stretch to imagine this as a reference to the Yoshio Urasawa Broadway series in red jacket Lupin. Also true to old Lupin is the fact that there's no unnecessary killing. Even the assassin gets off with just a shot to the arm. And the Lupin gang comes away empty-handed save for the satisfaction of having done the right thing according to their rules.

The only problem was the complete omission of Goemon and Zenigata. Is it because they didn't know whether to go with the new personalities or the old? Or to save the trouble of writing them into the story? Seems a bit lazy. They even credited Zenigata's voice actor in the credits even though he doesn't have any role, much less dialogue.

SPOILERS: But the ultimate kicker of the movie was the last sequence, which had my jaw dropped. Is this setting things up for Mamo to be a player in the TV series? Or just a treat for fans of the first movie? (considered by many to be the best of the bunch) It seems a bit capricious and random to be the latter, so I'm guessing the former. I can't get enough of Mamo, so I'm all for more. But if you bring Mamo back, come on, you've got to bring back either Yuzo Aoki or Yoshio Kabashima, or preferably both. You want to see a grown man beg?

Friday, October 3, 2014

08:58:00 pm , 2450 words, 15592 views     Categories: Movie, Studio: Ghibli, Director: Isao Takahata, Animator: Osamu Tanabe

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

I got to see Isao Takahata's latest film on the big screen a week or so ago and wanted to get down some impressions before I forget.

On the surface, Kaguya Hime no Monogatari is a gorgeous film that carries on where My Neighbors The Yamadas left off, doing for ancient Japan what the previous movie did for modern Japan. But deep down, it's more of an enigma.

I've been immersed in Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi for weeks now, so it was inevitable for me to compare the two. This story has in fact been told not only in MNMB but elsewhere in movies and shorts. But the idea to make the movie isn't new. Takahata came up with the original idea for the film way back in the Toei Doga days, and in retrospect it does look like the kind of film that would not have been out of place beside Anju and Zushiomaru and Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon.

Kaguya Hime or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter as it's alternately known is believed to be Japan's oldest story - it's even referenced in The Tale of Genji. It's known as "the ancestor of stories" in Japan. The story itself, like many folktales, is fantastical and obviously not realistic. Gisaburo Sugii's approach to the conundrums and non-sequiturs of Japan's folktales seemed to be to embrace them, not to try to bridge their logical gaps. The MNMB version of Kaguya Hime (watch), which is directed by Takao Kodama with animation by Masakazu Higuchi and art by Koji Abe, is a truly beautiful rendition of the story, but faithful to the bare-bones original and much more closely stylzed after scroll paintings.

Isao Takahata is a very different filmmaker. His entire ethos towards filmmaking is based on logic. Every element of his films is meticulously conceived to achieve a particular end within the whole. So it was intriguing to wonder how such a filmmaker would not only tackle a story as enigmatic and illogical as Kaguya Hime but turn its brief length into a 2+ hour movie.

Takahata's logical approach produces a curious beast - a folktale that attempts to make up for the inherent illogic of the original story by making its characters as believable as possible, and yet at every moment reminds of you that it is not real.

The uncomfortably weird, if beautifully animated, early segment depicting Kaguya Hime having literal 'growth spurts' is the product of Takahata visualizing what was only a vague sentence in the original story. Myths and folktales are full of stock situations and characters not meant to be taken at face value. MNMB features dozens of stories about childless elderly couples who find a child, or a pot of gold, or a child who turns into a pot of gold, by supernatural agency. By their very nature these stories seem meant to be taken metaphorically, which is at odds with the way this film pedantically fleshes everything out.

On the other hand, this tactic of blending unnatural moments seamlessly into the flow of things harkens back to Pompoko (1994) with its tanuki who switch forms between realistic raccoons, cartoon raccoons and humans, and even further back to Jarinko Chie (1981), with its cats that occasionally get up to walk on their hind legs like humans. If the secret to anime's success is in the blank faces of its static anime characters, which prompt viewers to read the appropriate emotion and hence experience the character's world vicariously, Takahata seems to deliberately push you out of the characters to force you to view them from an objective remove.

In the broad strokes, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the original story. It doesn't cheat by being "based on" the story. It basically just pads it out with a tremendous amount of padding in the form of incredibly beautiful character animation and scenes of natural beauty.

Certain elements of the original story didn't make sense, and the movie fills in the holes as best it can. The movie's key contribution is in explaining the reason why Kaguya Hime was banished to the earth in the first place, something the original story conveniently forgot to explain. It's not like she was sent to save us from our sins. Or maybe it is. The heavenly abode on the moon is interpreted with historical verisimilitude as a Buddhist paradise devoid of the suffering and color and emotion and pleasure. Kaguya Hime's sin was to wonder, an enlightened soul, what it was like on earth. Her punishment was to be sent there in order to experience life firsthand - and to become attached to the people she loved, only to be torn away from them. This simple tweak completely changes the meaning of the story, and turns it into a tragic affirmation the whole complicated mess of human experience, including, love, joy and beauty, but also pain and suffering.

The padding isn't just padding, then. It's the whole point of the movie, both thematically and technically. If the padding gives the ending the requisite weight, having an animator like Osamu Tanabe makes it possible to bring it to life. The whole point of this movie is basically to give Osamu Tanabe something to do. That something is what he does best: create realistic character animation in an unrealistic shell.

I wrote a post about Osamu Tanabe in 2007 in the period after Yamadas, when he was pumping out one wonderful short after the next. It certainly took a lot longer than I was hoping for his next project to appear.

Isao Takahata had apparently been struggling to get Osamu Tanabe excited about a theatrical project around that time. Yoshiyuki Momose had drawn lots of image boards for Grave of the Fireflies, as did Shinji Otuska for Ponpoko, in the pre-production stage, so Takahata was apparently expecting Tanabe to do the same. First he tried with a project based on a Ainu 'Yukar' folktale (Hols was originally conceived based on an Ainu Yukar, and was supposed to be an Ainu story, but Toei Doga didn't allow that, so this was obviously a follow-up), and then for a version of the Tale of the Heike, and then a story called The Birth of the Lullabye about babysitters in pre-war Japan, but to no avail. Only after another producer introduced Tanabe to a 1964 book by Shugoro Yamamoto entitled Yanagibashi Monogatari, a love story set among the lower classes in Edo-period Japan, did he begin drawing. Takahata essentially captured that creative momentum and veered it towards Kaguya Hime.

Even in the early stages of production on Kaguya Hime things didn't go smoothly, as apparently a pilot film was produced that was so avant-garde that they had to start all over and go in a new direction. Takahata has written books about scroll paintings, positing them as the ancestors of animation, so I would love to have seen what Takahata could have done with this story in short form, in a style more closely patterned after scroll paintings. For example this image just begs to be brought to life. Perhaps this pilot went in that direction. All this to say that the film had a protracted pre-production stage, even by the standards of the uncompromising Takahata.

One of the key technical details that helped define the film's visuals was devised by Tanabe: draw everything small and enlarge it. He did this for the characters, and art director Kazuo Oga followed suit with the art. What this did is to create lines whose grain is visible, and produce lots of white space. Kaguya Hime's realism captures the beauty of the natural world in a few quick strokes rather than through overwhelming detail.

Although known as a realistic director, Takahata's wisdom is knowing that merely adding more detail and trying for photorealism isn't the answer. Inspired partly by his encounter with Frederic Back, he has since at least Only Yesterday (1991) been working towards a kind of haiku realism, a realism of omission. This started with the flashback segments of Omohide Poroporo, with their white space that highlighted the superficiality of the moment rather than attempting to deceive the audience with overwhelming verisimilitude, and culminated with his actual haiku in Winter Days (2003). The defining trait of Takahata's work is that it is anti-fantasy, and the fascinating thing is that this comes through loud and clear in this film adaptation of Japan's oldest fantasy.

At the behest of Takahata, Tanabe played a particularly large part in defining the film's animation style as the lead animator, rather than merely as the sakkan there to correct animators' drawings. Animators were instructed to adapt to his style so it could seem like the whole film was animated by Tanabe. The beauty is that you can still identify certain animators' sections (Norio Matsumoto, Shinji Otsuka, Shinji Hashimoto, Hideki Hamasu) through the nature of their movement, but the film overall feels unified in its movement style despite featuring work by many different talented animators.

Shinji Hashimoto's powerful section of Kaguya Hime running was featured in the preview and is indeed the film's animation highlight. He also animated a few other shots of Kaguya Hime spinning around. A spattered brushstroke style was adopted for the running sequence that gives it its impact. This was actually a style originally devised for the climactic battle sequence of The Tale of the Heike, but when that project fell through Takahata adapted it here, indicating how determined he was to create this kind of animation. The brush stroke style not only expresses Kaguya Hime's emotions well, but is a match with the ancient setting, and the very visible grain of the strokes in the rest of the movie resulting from magnification.

Takahata's basic approach of keeping the audience at an objective remove can best be seen in the film's final moments. Kaguya Hime is being taken away to the moon, and her parents are bawling because the girl they raised from a child is being taken away. Kaguya Hime has become attached to life in the world, having experienced all the beauty and emotion that it offers, and doesn't want to leave. Precisely at the moment when the audience instinctively wants to feel emotional catharsis, Takahata wrenches us out of the false reality of film with the loudly joyous music of the heavens. The clash is discomfiting and captures the ironic tragedy of the situation, prompting us to think more than feel.

Another defining trait of Takahata's approach to realistic directing is the emphasis on long shots of character acting to make the characters feel real, rather than necessarily trying to be realistic per se by drawing things photorealistically. This film is without doubt the summum opus of this aspect of Takahata's filmmaking language thanks to the synergy of Osamu Tanabe & co.'s remarkably rich character animation. Kaguya Hime's rapid aging is very odd to observe, but it is lovingly depicted by the animation. The original story is terse about why Kaguya Hime was exiled to earth, and almost entirely omits the every detail of her life on earth. All of a sudden, she's being taken away, and her parents are bawling. There's no weight there because we haven't followed her life closely enough to know what led to those feelings. Presented with this, Takahata made the decision to meticulously depict Kaguya Hime's life on earth as a way of giving weight to her and her adopted parents' unwillingness to part. Osamu Tanabe's animation bears the entire burden of this task and makes the character's plight believable.

Takahata has experience directing adaptations of stories about children growing up, most notably Heidi (1974), although Anne of Green Gables (1979) is perhaps the most obvious reference point for its actual depiction of Anne's physical maturation over the course of the series. Here that maturation is depicted on fast-forward in the span of a few minutes. Another reference point is 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976), the intermediate step between these two, and the first place where Takahata took steps towards his mature style of objective realism. Heidi still depicted an idealized world, whereas 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother was a documentary in spirit.

It could be in a nod to this that Takahata quotes himself in Kaguya Hime. The scene where Sutemaru gets beaten up is lifted verbatim from episode 45 of 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, in which Marco watches in silent horror from the train on which he has snuck as his friend Pablo runs out to divert the driver, and winds up getting beaten up and left stranded in the middle of the pampas. It's definitely the most powerful scene in an already powerful series, but the scene must have had special meaning to him beyond that for him to quote it in this way. Maybe it's that this scene, which forces the protagonist to become the observer of events beyond his or her control, is meant to remind us of our own position as spectators.

The beautiful art courtesy of Kazuo Oga and his team of background artists is another major draw of the film. Oga is a master of painting the natural world, and with Kaguya Hime he's created one of the most vivid depictions of the natural world yet in anime. He used watercolor to help create the feeling of a living picture scroll. Enlarging the paintings created white spaces that add to the impression by emphasizing the white base. This was his first time as art director for a major film since Pompoko in 1994. He now works mainly as an illustrator, also doing anime background art on a solo basis. The film is thus welcome for getting this great artist to do one more big job.

This approach of having one talented animator and one talented background artist spearhead their respective sections in a very individualistic way goes back at least to Gauche the Cellist (1982), in which animator Toshitsugu Saida drew all of the key animation and artist Takamura Mukuo drew all of the background art.

Although I found the movie somewhat less satisfying than previous Takahata outings, it is still a superbly beautiful film and I am eager to rewatch it again as soon as possible. It's sad that this may be the last major film by this genius, but it's a blessing we have it, as it was a long time coming. Good on Ghibli for being patient over its reported 7 years of production. I'm glad to find with this film that he stayed true to his guns to the last, continuing with his hand-crafted, lushly traditionally animated, anti-heroic, anti-epic brand of animated filmmaking. It's films like this that show that hand-drawn animation still has plenty of life left in it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

11:39:00 pm , 3156 words, 13428 views     Categories: Movie, 1980s

Penguin's Memory

Under the Mirabeau Bridge runs the Seine
And our love
I must bring to mind once again
That joy always came after pain
 —Guillaume Apollinaire, 1912

A penetrating examination of the impact of the Vietnam war on American soldiers who returned home and were forced to face the demons of their wartime experience alone, to the anguish of their loved ones, who were reunited with their sons physically only to watch them slip away in spirit. Would you believe this synopsis describes a film about cartoon penguins? For such are the mysteries of Japanese animation, which in 1985 gave birth to the conundrum that is Penguin's Memory. (watch)

This film is one of the mysteries of anime. On the surface, it depicts cute anthropomorphic penguins going through some kind of drama in some kind of generic country town. Think Maple Town. If you watched the film without understanding the dialogue, you could be forgiven for believing it to be a film for children. And you would not be entirely mistaken. But beneath the cutesy penguins and the occasional random song and dance number lies a story that seems flagrantly inappropriate for a children's film.

Penguin's Memory is essentially The Deer Hunter via Sanrio. The Deer Hunter is the film's obvious influence in many ways, not least the basic story about three buddies from small-town America who ship off to Vietnam, only one of whom returns with scars more emotional than physical. (The Delta War in this movie is clearly a stand-in for the Vietnam War.) The protagonist is named Mike. He watches his buddy fall to his death after the two of them grabbed hold of the skids of a helicopter in the midst of battle. He returns home only to shy away from the unwelcome attention of his family. Many other parts of the script have obviously been created for the film, but The Deer Hunter clearly provided the skeleton and the spirit for the journey of this film's protagonist.

At first it is quite confusing to watch the cartoon penguins and slowly realize that the story is in fact deadly serious in intent. It's a feeling remotely akin to that watching a film like When the Wind Blow, in which cartoonish visuals belie a deadly serious message. A more appropriate analogy might be Night on the Galactic Railroad, in which cartoon cats were used to tell a story with complex spiritual and philosophical undertones. They look like children's films, but are far more than that. I think this is the case with Penguin's Memory. The main problem is that in the case of Penguin's Memory the artistry is frankly not up to the level of the material. The cartoon penguins initially seem a baffling visual choice to tell such a story, and that feeling never goes away. There is no sync between the artistry and the narrative. The penguins are nothing more than symbols for humans, no doubt partially to sidestep the challenges inherent in portraying (and animating) humans acting out such a challenging script. The penguin designs are completely arbitrary. The film is essentially a live-action film with cartoon penguins overlaid over the humans.

How did such a film come about? The basic details are clear, although they do little to belay the radiant bizarreness of the final product. It all started with a series of 30-second animated TV ads for Suntory beer, depicting a cute cartoon penguin who each time invariably sheds a tear after reminiscing of lost love watching a girl penguin with a flower bow (watch), or being brought a beer by the girl penguin with the flower bow after losing a boxing match (watch), or some variation thereof. One of these ads featured the boy penguin watching the girl penguin with the flower bow singing a song in a dimly lit jazz bar. (watch) This particular ad may have provided the seed for the movie.

The Japanese love using cute cartoon characters to sell anything and everything, apparently including alcoholic beverages. The ads were such a success for Suntory that they decided to make a movie out of the series. Seems like a great idea, right? A beer company wants a cartoon movie about penguins, so obviously it has to be for adults, but kids still need to be able to watch it. What could possibly go wrong? I don't know the particulars of how the movie was conceived, but presumably what happened is that they decided to flesh out the short set in the bar by giving the boy and girl penguin a back story. The scene with the girl singing in the bar makes an appearance at the halfway point in the movie (watch).

So essentially a movie was constructed around this short ad, by coming up with a story to explain how the boy and girl got into that particular situation. The boy was turned into a Vietnam vet who returned home, but left his hometown for a small town to get away from everyone he knew and live life in peace. He went to work at a library and met a girl named Jill who turns out to be an aspiring singer. She wants to move to the big city with Mike to pursue a career as a singer, but Mike wants nothing of it and tries to leave Jill. The second half of the film deals with the conflict of their romance, which involves a jealous fiance who is a skilled surgeon and a greedy promoter who has a lot of money invested in Jill. Jill's story was obviously concocted to play into the popularity of the song in the CM by the then-rising idol singer Seiko Matsuda.

Thus, rather than a cohesive concept, the film is a Frankenstein's monster of various disparate forces: cartoon penguins shoehorned into a rudimentary Deer Hunter story with a tacked on idol singer plot, coerced at gunpoint into an animated film by a beer company. Meanwhile, the film is crippled by its attempt to reconcile its dual impulse as a child-friendly story for adults, unable to fully invest itself in either. The film entirely lacks the Russian roulette metaphor and other elements that made The Deer Hunter work as a film, borrowing casually without much thought to thematic integrity. This flattened visual and moral world assumes an audience that will not be thrown out of the narrative zone by penguin dance sequences, habituated as they are to seeing animated penguins selling beer. For the rest of us, it's just an improbable mish-mash.

Then there is the title. What devious mind named the film? The film's full title is: Penguin's Memory: A Story of Happiness. This is obviously dark irony. This Story of Happiness is one of the most deeply unhappy animated films ever made, pre-dating Todd Solondz's Happiness by 13 years. Audiences lured by this deceptive subtitle must have assumed they were to see a light-hearted romp in the spirit of the harmless, adorable ads, but were greeted instead by a dark, nuanced meditation about one veteran's struggle to re-gain happiness. This is not a happy film; it's a film about happiness. This film takes place during the dark night of the soul before happiness is, perhaps, eventually found. It is in this spirit that the film at one point quotes the Apollinaire poem "Mirabeau Bridge".

There are three people credited with the script, one director, and one "animation kantoku" or animation director (not to be confused with "sakuga kantoku", which the film also has). Clearly it must have been one of these people who made the decision to borrow heavily from The Deer Hunter and otherwise go in this daring direction with the film. While obviously derivative and watered down, it is nonetheless pleasant to see such hard-hitting material in anime, and I would like to see more like it. But the idea to do such material came from people who don't work in the industry. I suspect the main brains behind the film were the same people behind the ads.

The director of the film is one Shunji Kimura, director of the penguin Suntory beer ad campaign, about whom it is difficult to find much information, despite the fact that he has directed no less than 800 television ads over the course of a 30-some-year career. I assume the writers worked in advertising as well, as it is impossible to find almost any information about them. Funny how easy it is to find info about anime staff, yet how impossible it is to find any info about advertising staff. Yet again, it's a case of outsiders bringing fresh storytelling ideas into commercial animation. A number of films were directed or written by outsiders like this around the period of the late 1970s/early 1980s.

The "animation kantoku" meanwhile is Studio Junio's Akinori Nagaoka (Anpanman, Diary of Anne Frank, Tetsuko no Tabi). Junio head Takao Kosai is also present, but I'm not sure if the production was spearheaded by Junio or was more of a collaborative effort, as the only studio credited is Animation Staff Room, and the film gathers animators and staff from diverse studios, with notable names including Yoshiyuki Momose, Yoshinori Kanemori, Megumi Kagawa, Toyoaki Emura, Yusaku Yamamoto, Masami Suda, Sachiko Kamimura and Yoichi Kotabe. Yasunori Miyazawa can be seen as an inbetweener.

I'm fascinated by films like this in which there is overweening ambition that fails to coalesce. There are elements of genius, but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. The story is one that is genuinely moving and compelling, and is actually surprisingly sensitively told by the script and the directing, but the necessary nuance feels blunted by the childish drawings rather than assisted, as it were, by the distancing patina of animation, as is the case in analogues like Night on the Galactic Railroad.

Anthropomorphic anime were nothing unusual at the time, and I myself never bothered to look into this obscure film until Bahi pointed it out to me just recently, because I fully expected to find nothing more than another Hello Kitty or Maple Town story about cuddly animals engaged in adorable antics. But the opener of Penguin's Memory dispels that notion immediately: You are plunged headlong into a Vietnam battle straight out of Platoon.

At first I took the scene for some kind of a parody, expecting the scene to shift at any moment back to the lighthearted real world of the anthropomorphic penguins, whatever that might be. But that shift never occurs. After the battle sequence, the same story grinds on, chronicling in depressing, painstaking detail the soldier's homecoming and attendant feelings of estrangement from the peaceful world that greets him on his return. A brief synopsis will indicate the level of attention to detail that makes the scene somewhat remarkable for its careful directing.

A lone harmonica sings plaintively over the opening credits, creating a deceptively peaceful mood. The screen fades slowly in from black, revealing the outlines of several Iroquois helicopters flying through the pitch black night. The peaceful mood is shattered as they launch their rockets onto the dark landscape, and unscathed enemy forces on the ground immediately respond with a spray of tracer bullets. On the ground, meanwhile, behind the cover of trees in the jungle, three soldier penguins fire towards an unseen enemy. Al is the burly penguin firing an M60 (favorite of Rambo and Heisenberg), Tom is the scrawny penguin with glasses, and Mike is the hero of the story. First one of the helicopters is hit by a rocket, and next Mike gets thrown in the river by the explosion of a rocket. Mike runs to his aid as Al covers him. The battle ends in stalemate as the helis retreat, and the three soldiers make camp to take care of Tom's wounds.

That night, Mike tends to Tom's bandages around a campfire when Al returns from a reconnaissance mission. As they sit talking around the campfire, we learn that the three are buddies who hail from the same small town, and they hope to start up a business when they get back home. Al jokes that he's got a busty blonde waiting for him when he gets back, but she just doesn't know he exists yet. Mike always carries with him a book of poems by his favorite poet, Randall James, and Al ribs him for it: "How can you read a book at a time like this, with bullets flying everywhere?" "That's exactly why I need it." "I don't get it. Are you going to hide behind that book when a bullet comes flying at your head?" Mike is too busy reading to respond.

The next morning, the three trudge their way warily through the jungle when they encounter a train of refugees, including women and children. Allied helis show up and, to Mike's horror, begin firing on the refugees, presumably assuming them to be Vietcong. Mike runs out and is injured, and Tom runs out to save Mike only to be fatally shot. Mike attempts to revive Tom while Al covers the two. As the enemy encroaches, the heli comes in to pick them up, and Al forces Mike onto the heli's skids, although not before Mike is able to grab Tom's harmonica. Almost on their way to freedom, a rocket hits one of the helis, and the blast causes Al to lose his grip and fall to his death. Mike can do nothing but watch.

The opening scene is exemplary of the film's assiduous 'realism-apart-from-the-penguins' approach. Every little detail of the Vietnam-era paraphernalia is meticulously accurate, from the Iroquois helis to the M1 helmets to the M1910 water bottles to the M60 machine gun to the M16 rifle. Even the flak jacket identifies the characters as Marines. This is a scene that, except for the penguins, could have played out in Platoon. Perhaps the true nature of the war came to light in the intervening years, as instead of NVA killing civilians as in The Deer Hunter, it's the Americans killing civilians that trips Mike's outrage.

One of my favorite parts in the film is the 5-minute wordless montage sequence of Mike wandering the countryside after leaving his home in the dead of the night. (watch) It's a beautiful visual storytelling scene by any measure, showcasing the film's tasteful and subdued sense of realistic filmmaking. The countryside is believably American and rural, with its wheat fields, barns, dirt roads, beat-up Ford trucks, lonely gas stations, and picturesque lines of mailboxes. After some wandering, eventually, to the strains of a jazzy harmonica, he wanders into a mid-century town whose neon signs, gruff industrial sector and steel girder underpasses believably convey a small American working class town. A street boxing den meanwhile reminds of the parts of Ashita no Joe where the downtrodden Joe lets himself be beaten, but also of the gambling den of The Deer Hunter.

The meeting between Mike and Jill symbolically occurs in the library where Mike has taken refuge. As during the war, when the book of poems by his favorite poet offered him refuge, so now the monastery silence of the library offers him refuge. She comes seeking a book of poetry by Apollinaire, a French poet who fought in World War I. She begins reciting Mirabeau Bridge, only to have Mike finish it for her. The book Mike reads is by one Randall James, but the title of his book "Ma Boheme" indicates that this is really Rimbaud, an earlier French poet. For some reason they changed the name to a more American sounding name, perhaps because it doesn't make sense for a lower class American boy with no education to be reading Rimbaud.

After Mike meets Jill, the story settles into romantic mode for a while as Mike and Jill go on dates and get to know each other. Mike saves an injured bird, and light begins to trickle into his closed heart. We discover that Jill is in fact engaged to a skilled surgeon at her father's hospital, but the surgeon is having affair with a nurse. In one scene, the jealous but two-timing surgeon phones Jill from his bedroom with his mistress in his bed behind him. The film can be quite adult in its understanding of affairs of the heart. He seems like a scumbag at first, but the film satisfyingly avoids pinning the crux of the drama on a simplistic arch-rival setup when the surgeon eventually admits that he has the mistress and 'gives' Jill to Mike.

The story then boils down to the question of what Jill and Mike truly want: Does Mike really want Jill? Still emotionally blunted, he reject her offer of redemption for the comfort of solitude. What about Jill? Jill is forced to sacrifice her ambitions for Mike, and this may be the key to saving Mike. When the promoter learns that Jill wants to abandon her career, he brings his thugs to convince Mike to make her change her mind. In the ensuing scuffle, they kill his bird, causing a dam to finally bursts in Mike. He erupts in violence, almost killing the promoter in a fit of blind rage. Mike is sentenced to 3 years probation for the crime, which signals both his low point and his emotional breakthrough.

The story is surprisingly delicate and genuinely moving in the second half with this setup and climax, and makes me wish that all of this were not marred by the visuals, which will prevent most people from appreciating a good, approachable story. Mike parts ways with Jill in a moving letter that reads in part: "My dear Jill, I'm sorry it came to this. I can never repay you for all you've done for me. You opened my heart and made me realize all the things that I've held inside. Maybe I've taken life too much for granted. I'm probably just a weak guy who lost his fight with a monster called war. But I wonder if there's really anybody who wins in a war."

For all that's odd and wrong about the film, it got a lot of things right, and represents a rare kind of humane, real-life based storytelling that I wish we could see more in anime.

Penguin's Memory: A Story of Happiness ペンギンズメモリー 幸福物語
(movie, 1985, 101 mins, Animation Staff Room)

Animation Producer:香西隆男Takao Kosai
Director ("Kantoku"):木村俊士Shunji Kimura
"Animation Kantoku":永丘昭典Akinori Nagaoka
Akinori Nagaoka
Hiroshi Fukutomi
Tetsuo Imazawa
Makoto Moriwaki
Norio Hikone
Art Director:高野正道Masamichi Takano
Supervisor & Original Character Design:ひこねのりおNorio Hikone
Character Design & Sakkan:鈴木欽一郎
Kinichiro Suzuki
Yoshinori Kanemori
Asst Sakkan:平田かほる
Kaoru Hirata
Megumi Kagawa
Key animation:小田部洋一Yoichi Kotabe
山本福雄Fukuo Yamamoto
伊東誠Makoto Ito
星野絵美Emi Hoshino
北島信幸Nobuyuki Kitajima
富沢和雄Kazuo Tomizawa
須田正己Masami Suda
青嶋克己Katsumi Aoshima
百瀬義行Yoshiyuki Momose
坂本雄作Yusaku Sakamoto
木下ゆうきYuuki Kinoshita
松田?之_yuki Matsuda
槌田幸一Koichi Tsuchida
鳥居愛緒Ao Torii
椙目八男Hachio Suginome
河村信道Nobumichi Kawamura
兵頭敬Kei Hyodo
平田かほるKaoru Hirata
古川達也Tatsuya Furukawa
賀川愛Megumi Kagawa
小山善考Yoshitaka Koyama
西山里枝Rie Nishiyama
高橋明信Akinobu Takahashi
神村幸子Sachiko Kamimura
川越洋Hiroshi Kawagoe
江村豊秋Toyoaki Emura
荒牧園美Sonomi Aramaki
辻村武Takeshi Tsujimura
梅津美幸Miyuki Umetsu
なかじまちゅうじChuji Nakajima
小堤一明Kazuaki Kozutsumi
向中野義雄Yoshio Mukainakano
高木美和子Miwako Takagi

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

09:56:00 am , 2843 words, 21181 views     Categories: OVA, Movie, Animator, Director, Short

The Twin Stars and early Ryutaro Nakamura

Ryutaro Nakamura, one of the great directors of the last 20 years, passed away earlier this year. I was a big fan, so it was a shock. He was a director of breadth and deep talent, but I don't have the energy or knowledge to do a full retrospective, so for now I thought I would start by highlighting one of his obscure early films. Serial Experiments Lain (1998) had a huge impact on me when it came out, and since then I always looked forward to his new productions, which never failed to surprise. But he produced several great films before Lain that people over here aren't familiar with.

Ryutaro Nakamura directed The Twin Stars (双子の星) in 1995 at Triangle Staff. It was part of an omnibus of Kenji Miyazawa stories called Kenji's Trunk marking the centenary of Kenji's birth, and featured two other 30-minute shorts. It's a quiet, unassuming, lovely little film. (Watch here)

The Twin Stars reveals a side of Ryutaro Nakamura that might not be familiar to most people who are used to the more hard-boiled and philosophically dense Nakamura of Lain and Kino: the creator of a lush, colorful children's fantasy. The first few films directed by Nakamura were in this mold, and most of them merit re-discovery, as they are very well made films with a big heart and excellent technique.

The Twin Stars tells the story of a pair of stars whose role is to play a silver flute to the tune of the Song of the Turning Stars / 星めぐりの歌 throughout the night to help guide the stars on their journey across the sky. One morning, the twins awaken and descend from their crystal towers to go to the river to play. There they encounter the rival stars Scorpius and the Crow, who get into a fight. The Twin Stars revive the Crow but are forced to hurriedly carry the injured Scorpius back to his home before the night returns, for they all run the risk of being banished to the sea floor as starfish if they fail to return to their appointed place in time. Scorpius and the Crow regret their thoughtless intolerance and vow to abandon violence and be more like the selfless twins. Just before time runs out, a whirlwind is sent to spirit the trio back to their appointed place at the bidding of the King, who has been watching all along and is moved by their change of heart and the generosity of the twins that brought it about.

The story is one of Kenji Miyazawa's key stories, combining as it does into a poetic and mythical package his intimate knowledge of astronomy, his pantheistic view of the world, and his sense of moral obligation to help others.

The film is eminently graphical and visual, with bright, colorful pastels and simply stylized shapes. Its pace is leisurely and measured, with long shots that let you absorb the visuals on the screen. The first three minutes are a gorgeous entryway to the story that seems perfectly conceived for this gentle, ethereal story. We are guided into this world of light and sound, where whirlwinds and stars are living beings, to the tune of the actual Song of the Turning Stars, written by Kenji himself, in a beautiful flute concerto-like arrangement by composer Yoshihiro Kanno. (Listen to the original song)

Nakamura grounds the film in our world by showing a father and son strolling by the ocean under the vast expanse of the Milky Way. We then slowly transition across hazy vistas of constellations and pastel clouds into the land of the stars where the Twins reign over the night sky from their towers as they play on their silver flutes. Stars arc across the sky until the sun peeks over the horizon and the birds begin chirping, announcing the end of the starry procession.

The film has the quality of the old Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi with its simple characters, mythical story and emphasis on creative design work. The Twin Stars even has the same solo approach, with the animation and art each respectively done entirely by one person. Takahiro Kishida animates the whole film, and Shinji Kimura does the art. Kishida does a masterful job handling the different kinds of animation, from the realistic humans, which move more fluidly, to the more limited movement and stylized designs of the Twin Stars and the Crow, to the ghostly effects of the whirlwind. Kimura, meanwhile, creates a lush fantasy land that is beautiful sight to behold, although different from his recent work painting cacophonous city backdrops. Here he creates the airy pastel firmament of the sky, lending the film the watercolor texture of a picture book. The film is thus a great showcase of the skill of a group of artists - director, animator, background painter - acting in unison like a great string trio, in the spirit of the classic Madhouse productions.

If this feels like a Madhouse film, the reason is obvious. Triangle Staff was founded by an ex-member of Madhouse, and Madhouse is where Ryutaro Nakamura got his start. His experience at Madhouse obviously laid his foundation as an artist, accounting for the Madhouse vibe of this short. In particular, The Twin Stars feels close in spirit to the one-shot Osamu Dezaki episodes of the 1970s like Fire G-Men or his episodes of Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, which also tended to feature daring, wild backgrounds by the likes of Shichiro Kobayashi and cute but highly stylized and playful character animation by animators like Manabu Ohashi and Akio Sugino. The reason for this similarity is simple: Ryutaro Nakamura learned the ropes under Dezaki, and developed a directing style heavily influenced by the master, yet all his own. Ryutaro Nakamura was one of the best of Dezaki's students.

Ryutaro Nakamura's start in animation was almost accidental. In 1977, he went to get an autograph from Moribi Murano, the manga-ka and sometimes animator behind Unico in the Magic Island and the assassination scene in Wandering Clouds. Nakamura wound up helping Murano make a deadline on a manga he was working on, and Murano immediately spotted Nakamura's potential as an animator, advising him to give Madhouse a visit. Nakamura did so, and after only a cursory period as an inbetweener wound up setting to work as a key animator on Dezaki's "3D animation" Sans Famille. That was his start in animation. Dezaki raved about his new animator, calling him the "new Akio Sugino". But this pressure proved to be too much for Nakamura, who after working under Dezaki for a few more years eventually wound up switching to directing around 1983 after working on Dezaki's Space Cobra TV show alongside the likes of Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima. Nakamura had been drawing a manga for an in-house Madhouse fanzine, so he clearly had the inclinations of a director from the beginning.

Incidentally, Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima themselves two years earlier produced a short, Jack and the Beanstalk (1993), that, like The Twin Stars, has a tactile picture book quality that seems clearly to hearken back to the colorful and stylized 1970s shorts of Dezaki.

It's probably not that well known that Nakamura started out as an animator, but that's clearly a fact that laid the foundation for his style as a director. As a person who could draw, and who could visually conceptualize and express his intentions in the storyboard, he brought a strong visual sensibility to his productions. This shows up clearly in The Twin Stars, which is an eminently visual film despite being based on a work of literature (and a particularly ephemeral and difficult to visualize one at that). He was also influenced by Dezaki in the way he took liberties with the material to achieve his own expressive means, and brought an artistic, poetic sensibility to the craft of directing, experimenting with new ways of presentation in each production rather than falling into an certain expressive rut out of habit. It's hard to find many directors in anime with such expressive breadth. In terms of specific technique, one of Dezaki's trademarks was using tokako 透過光, or backlighting through a mask, to create a bright hazy effect on the screen, and you can see a lot of bright lighting of this kind in The Twin Stars.

It was sometime around 1985 that he went freelance and began working as a roving storyboarder/episode director on various projects, accumulating skill as a director. Not long after this, in 1987, Yoshimi Asari left Madhouse to form Triangle Staff. Nakamura was obviously invited there soon after, because he set to work on his debut directing feature in 1988, just a year after the studio's founding. That project was Tomcat's Big Adventure (ちびねこトムの大冒険).

The project was initially conceived as an educational OVA to teach children English, but after Nakamura drew the first storyboard in 1988, the project evolved into a feature length film that was finally completed in 1992.

Tomcat's Big Adventure was a massive undertaking featuring a bewildering array of talent including character designer/animation director Manabu Ohashi, music composer Kenji Kawai, art director Hiromasa Ogura and animators such as Toshiyuki Inoue, Hiroyuki Okiura, Koichi Arai and Makiko Futaki. Even Koji Morimoto was tangentially involved early on. With a remarkable 60,000 animation drawings in 82 minutes, it's a modern-day manga eiga in the spirit of the great Toei action-adventure flick Animal Treasure Island.

The tragedy is that, for some reason, it was shelved without even being released theatrically. Five years of intense work by some of the most talented faces in the industry essentially just disappeared without being seen by anyone. It's a tragedy that hopefully will get redressed soon with a DVD release. Once it finally gets a long-overdue DVD release, it will no doubt be revealed to be one of his greatest works and a bona-fide buried treasure. You can see the first five minutes here. This was a big blockbuster of a children's film clearly meant to launch Nakamura's career as a director. Who knows, had it gotten a proper release, and the world recognized his special talent for this type of material, Nakamura's career might have evolved differently.

Like Nakamura, Hiromasa Ogura in fact also got his start on Dezaki's Sans Famille, but working under art director Shichiro Kobayashi, the art director who was a staple of Dezaki's work in the 1970s, which is perhaps why Nakamura wound up coming back to Ogura for this film. The two both have deep roots in the Madhouse-Dezaki school. Another touchstone is The Golden Bird, that earlier Madhouse masterpiece that presaged Tomcat's Big Adventure not only stylistically (Ohashi was the character designer) but also in how it, too, was unjustly buried for many years before being released on home video.

Nakamura, Ohashi et al. actually very much wanted to do a continuation of Tomcat, but that never materialized. It's obvious that this is a style that is deeply ingrained in Nakamura's fibre from the fact that his last job, Adventure on Pirate Island (海賊島DE!大冒険) (hp), a children's CGI animation scheduled for release later this year, is stylistically a clear throwback to Tomcat. The film unfortunately does not look good due to the poor CG animation, but when you peruse Nakamura's storyboard you sense that this could have been a nice little film in the spirit of Tomcat if they had a good traditional animation team to bring alive the characters.

It's after this that Nakamura set to work on Kenji Miyazawa's The Life of Budori Gusko. The film was produced by Animaru-ya and released in 1994. The simple, blocky character designs of Shinichi Suzuki are in line with the feeling of Tomcat and The Twin Stars. The animation is much more spare than Tomcat, and Nakamura uses the opportunity of the story's complex themes to experiment with more expressive directing. While being aimed at children, the film has an underlying feeling of darkness and heaviness appropriate to the subject matter, and this Passion of the Budori has a romantic intensity that is irresistible, particularly combined with the emotionally intense orchestral score of Yoshihiro Kanno, who returned the year after for an encore with The Twin Stars. Other than these two productions, Kanno's only involvement in the anime industry was Angel's Egg, which boasts one of the all-time greatest anime soundtracks.

Around this time, Nakamura directed an OVA of Junkers Come Here in 1994 that preceded the film adaptation by Junichi Sato and Kazuo Komatsubara. (Watch here) Junio's Minoru Maeda is the character designer, so the style is completely different, much more lightweight and goofy, lacking the intricate acting and cinematic compositions of the film version. The story is rather ridiculous and played purely for laughs, undermining the dramatic intent. Here it's about four sisters whose mother disappeared and father died afterwards. Junkers appears one day, and they all know he can talk. The mother turns up in France, and it turns out she lost her memory and now has a new family in France. It's not one of Nakamura's best works, but it certainly shows his stylistic flexibility and innate sense for effortlessly combining comedy and drama.

The Twin Stars came after this, giving Nakamura the opportunity to explore Kenji Miyazawa's world in a very different, more playful and imaginative way.

Nakamura then veered in a very different direction for the first time with the masterful Legend of Crystania (1995), first as a movie and then as a 3-episode OVA. This is one of the great fantasy anime, using incredibly rich and creative animation to weave an epic fantasy yarn that actually feels epic. The character animation is exciting, and the effects animation is downright phenomenal. Nakamura had the great idea to give Yasunori Miyazawa free rein to design and animate the effects, and this helped define the film's visual scheme.

A constant of his early works during this period - and less so during his later works - is a 'star animator' system in which the style of one talented animator plays a primary role in defining a film's look. Manabu Ohashi defines Tomcat, Takahiro Kishida animates all of The Twin Stars in his own inimitable style, Shinichi Suzuki's characters in Gusko Budori are very distinctive and unforgettable with their graphic, hand-drawn touch. Crystania also feels more tactile and distinctively animated than most fantasy anime.

Such is the case for Nakamura's final project before his breakthrough with Lain - the cut scene animation of the game Popolo Crois (1996). (Watch here) This time Nakamura had the king of idiosyncratic animators, Satoru Utsunomiya, head the animation, assisted by other talented animators including Yasunori Miyazawa and Mitsuo Iso - each highly idiosyncratic animators who created their own completely unique styles of animation. It's clear that these choices were no coincidence, and as an animator himself, Nakamura chose the best of the best for this project. Yasunori Miyazawa of course was brought back after his stint in Crystania. Takahiro Kishida would similarly return to work with Nakamura again in Colorful. Similarly, much of the Popolo Crois team was in fact carried on from Crystania, including Utsunomiya and Miyazawa, but also Yoshio Mizumura and Katsumi Matsuda. Some of these were even holdovers from Tomcat.

The Popolo Crois animation team produced what is still one of my favorite anime ever, even though it's only short excerpts of a story adding up to just 10 minutes of animation, rather than a continuous story. Even those little shards of narrative create more of a feeling of an expansive and fully developed fantasy world than most fantasy anime, thanks in large part to the overwhelming power of Utsunomiya et al.'s nuanced full animation. The screen has a feeling of tremendous depth in each section - the flight section where the boat skips across the water by Utsumoniya, the space section where the whale files through vast expanses of space chased by the giant monster by Iso, and the final battle between the baddie and the dragon, whose vast size is well conveyed by Miyazawa's strangely timed animation. The character designs of Popolocrois have the same round simplicity as the designs of Gusko Budori and Tomcat, and Popolocrois seems to be a dense summation of the exciting children's fantasy side of Nakamura's work, perhaps having been made in part to vent his pent up ideas for more animation in the spirit of Tomcat.

The first few years of his career as a director were a period of intense creativity in which he explored many different and exciting visual styles very different from his later work. His early work is less challenging, but has a wider appeal and is visually more sumptuous. I personally wish Nakamura could have continued in this direction of intensely animated children's fantasy epics, but he seems to have wanted to force himself to try different material and styles from this point in his career, beginning with his emergence as an artist of dark commentary on net culture with Lain, and continuing with the twisted adult comedy of Colorful. But that spirit of self-challenge is just as much a defining trait of Ryutaro Nakamura. Like all great directors, he left us with much great work, but also wishing for more.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

09:05:00 pm , 1286 words, 13551 views     Categories: OVA, Indie, Movie, Live-action, Short

C (299,792 km/s)

Anime-inspired live-action retro sci-fi space-opera, C (299,792 km/s) is many things. This gorgeous new short film from first-time director Derek Van Gorder seems tailor made for those, like me, who grew up loving a seemingly antithetical blend of elements from hard science to sci-fi adventure to arthouse cinema to Japanese cartoons.

Primarily influenced by the aesthetic of 1980s OVAs and the space operas of Yoshiyuki Tomino, C successfully blends wide-ranging influences from The Man With the Movie Camera to Yo Soy Cuba to Stanley Kubrick into a convincing package that is visually beautiful and thematically satisfying.

Essentially two films in one, C adopts a novel retro-futuristic dual scheme: A Cosmos-inspired science reel that could have come straight from the vaults of your 1970s high school science class provides the underlying thematic motivation for a visually sleek tale about mutiny onboard a military spaceship.

Played with cool aplomb by Caroline Winterson, mysterious mutineer Maleck makes a compelling anti-hero: at first glance a cold, calculating, ruthless ideologue, she in fact is out to save humanity. Her motivation is hinted at briefly at the opening in snippets of overheard news about dire interstellar strife. Rather than an aggressive Hans Gruber out for ideological glory, we instead have a grandmother who seems driven by love and motherly instinct. An Anno-esque historical montage explains how science has been perverted for military means since time immemorial; Maleck seeks to reverse that dynamic by co-opting a tool of destruction to achieve a peaceful end.

The mutiny unfolds in tense and fast-paced intercutting between the various parties that has all the virtues of the hair-raising boarding climax of The Ideon: Be Invoked, Yoshiyuki Tomino's masterpiece, but rendered in glorious glowing neons through a detached, formalistic composition style reminding of Kubrick. Meanwhile, the first shot of the science film by the narrator Newman (Newtype?) seems to evoke the live-action ending of that cataclysmic movie, in which the stardust to which the protagonists were reduced now plant the seed of life in an alien planet's ocean.

The film has a reverential love for the great virtue of science taught by the likes of Carl Sagan: the thirst for ultimate knowledge. This is embodied perhaps by the Kepler probe, referenced in the film, which has so far discovered roughly 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy. Using the fruits of Kepler, Maleck seeks to restore science to its place in the service of ensuring humanity's long-term survival.

What is remarkable is that, somewhat ironically, C's accomplished visuals are entirely analog - no digital effects were used. The spaceship is a model shot in stop motion, and every element from the lighting to the touch panels was produced in-camera, and with very little budget at that. Even the laser flash was produced by a simple trick effectively used in anime since time immemorial: inserting a few frames of a flashlight against a black background.

C has a succinctness that works well by excising all personal elements from the narrative and focusing exclusively on the visuals and tense atmosphere, but it also comes across as a trailer for a larger concept. I hope Derek will have the chance to expand this seed into something bigger.

I had the opportunity to ask Derek by email to tell me more about his influences, and he kindly sent me the following response:

I've got a lot of varied and possibly eccentric influences, from Stanley Kubrick, to Ed Wood, to early Soviet cinema and post-revolutionary Cuban films. But my favorite sci-fi filmmakers are Japanese anime directors Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, and Yoshiyuki Tomino. 1980s anime in general I find completely fascinating for its imagination and attention to detail.

Tomino's a really interesting director. At first glance it's easy to dismiss his films as routine TV genre pieces, and certainly his storytelling is occasionally muddled and a little strange. But he's a master of ensemble casts and wide-stroke world building, and has a completely unique style that stands out from his contemporaries. There is a matter-of-factness to his work, he rarely lingers on anything unnecessarily, holding your attention with rapid-fire plotting, quick cuts, and (when the budget allows) highly clean & effective shot composition. The Ideon: Be Invoked completely blew me away in this regard. The final Buff Clan boarding attack on the Solo Ship is a beautiful example of cutting between simultaneous action in a multitude of locations, while maintaining a very clear sense of physical space and the sequence of events. I'm sure he achieves this by storyboarding the film himself, and he has the depth of imagination to make even props and costumes relevant to the story and contribute to emotional impact and action scenes. I've never seen so much action packed with so much tragedy and pathos in a film. With a quick cutaway he can make you feel for the fate of a side character that had previously been little more than a background extra.

Mobile Suit Gundam created an entire genre, and with Ideon he foresaw the future of what that genre would become. It's really astounding how influential he was. Unfortunately I think these films might always remain inaccessible to Western audiences, because they happen to be tie-ins with large, complex franchises; that demands a lot of commitment from a foreign viewer. Oshii's Patlabor 2: The Movie is another example of this. I personally think it is one of the most beautifully "shot" films of all time, and possibly the most philosophical political thriller ever. But unfortunately, it's also a sequel... to a movie... based on a miniseries... that's a parody of a subgenre of science-fiction (yikes!). So it will always have a very limited audience. Since C is space opera it has more in common with Tomino's work, but Oshii is really my favorite director of all time. He's totally fearless, he makes philosophical experimental films disguised as narrative movies, and imbues all of his shots with meaning.

In general the Japanese use of cinematic techniques in their animation inspired what I want to try with live-action. Unlike many Western animations, there's often an extreme attention to movement and composition that simply translates into good filmmaking instead of just good cartoon-drawing. In this way it helped me understand films as 2D art. Many audiences and filmmakers confuse a movie screen as being a little window into real life, into 3-dimensional space, and this encourages visual sloppiness. In reality movies are highly constructed, artificial, 2D moving photographs arranged in a sequence. So I want to try and arrange movement that draws the audience's attention to the visual art instead of deflecting it all to the story and characters.

The movie I ended up making has a lot in common with 1980s one-off OVAs; it's a brief snapshot of a story and a world, hastily wrapped up. Part of this is because almost half the movie was cut out, since I wasn't satisfied with how it turned out, but this had the benefit of streamlining the plot in a very Tomino-esque way. For better or for worse it's like a compilation movie of a series that was never filmed. I learned a lot of hard lessons making it; in terms of budget and production it was really still a student film. But I hope people saw what I was trying to do and can appreciate it for what it is.

If you haven't already, go see the short right away and let Derek know if you like what you see. The official web site can be found at and I highly recommend reading Derek's Director's Statement to hear the director himself eloquently describe his goals, as well as this interview that goes into detail about the technical aspects of the film.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

09:50:00 pm , 1021 words, 6158 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Blue Exorcist movie

I watched this 2012 movie on the recommendation of commenter shergal, and I'm glad I did. I enjoyed it. Although essentially simplistic children's fare populated by conventional anime characters going through the same ropes we've seen many times before, it's all well done in a nice little package. It's a solidly produced, atmospherically directed, well animated franchise film. And most of all, it has stunning background art. It's a movie worth seeing for the background art alone. If there's "sakuga anime", then this is "haikei anime".

A sequel to A-1 Pictures' Blue Exorcist TV series from 2011, which I never saw, it's a standalone followup featuring the same characters but in a one-shot situation. It's a pure franchise movie in that it presupposes knowledge of the show's story, characters, and basic gimmick. I was confused on a lot of points, most notably the relationship between the grandfather and the two brothers, which presumably lends this story its emotional resonance.

That said, it's crafted in such a way as to basically stand on its own. The actual narrative is extremely simple. In a world where demon hunters are organized like law enforcement to protect the town from stray demons, a novice unwittingly releases a demon and domesticates it like a pet/little brother, until finally discovering that its true nature puts the town at risk of destruction.

Despite not having seen the original material, there were two draws to this that made watching it a no-brainer: director Atsushi Takahashi and art director Shinji Kimura. Both help raise this movie above the level of a 'mere' franchise movie. The solid animation work doesn't hurt, either.

Art director Shinji Kimura makes this movie. The backgrounds here are every bit the equal of his work on Tekkon Kinkreet, something I never expected myself to say. His art is breathtaking: an anarchic mishmash of dirty billboards, old neon, brightly colored kitch, and urban decay that creates the impression of a tremendous amount of life boiling beneath the surface, even if the movie otherwise doesn't really delve into fleshing out the workings of the city itself, rather focusing exclusively on the main characters and narrative. Many of the images are so gorgeous I wanted to just pause the movie and stare at them.

What's nice about his art is that there's a depth to it at the same time, an irony. Shots like the one pictured above, in addition to being absurdly densely packed in an obviously supra-realistic way rather than merely realistic, almost have a satirical bite. There's an element of gaudy satire, Logorama-like reveling in the absurd superficiality of urban life and its overproliferation of signage. Sadly, there is little in the film that echoes or explores any such themes. I would like to see Kimura for once given the chance to try out original subject matter, free of the constraints of source material, that would directly address the underlying themes in his work.

Director Atsushi Takahashi meanwhile knows how to showcase Kimura's art in a way that doesn't just sideline it as a backdrop to the action, but makes the city one of the film's living, breathing protagonists, as it was in Tekkon Kinkreet. Takahashi's directing tends to favor slow pacing, long shots, and atmosphere, although he does a great job shifting in the action scenes to a vernacular that is closer to spectacular Hollywood blockbuster than art house. That directing style works perfectly with the art by Kimura.

The film opens in grand style by immediately announcing its powerful vision of the city. The camera slowly pans up from the protagonist at the bottom of the staircase, nearly invisible amidst the chaos of claustrophobically cluttered, dun-colored hilliside homes, gradually revealing one grander and grander opulent construction after another, extending up and up in a seemingly endless vertical ascent, cranes resting gingerly like cleaner birds on the hide of some giant golem-like beast, finally reaching its resting point at the tip of a strange Tower-of-Babel-like structure at the heart of the city. It's an appropriately cinematic opening showing that Takahashi knows how to create a sense of scale befitting a feature film, something lacking in a lot of franchise films.

I'm not very familiar with Atsushi Takahashi's resume, but in my mind his name is synonymous with episode 12 of Kemonozume, which is the standout episode of the show, and probably one of the greatest TV anime episodes ever. He is one of the few directors I've seen who brings something different to his animation - not just a more poetic sensibility, but the technical grounding (borne of experience at Ghibli under Miyazaki) to execute it convincingly and cinematically. His style is artistic and stylish, but without the in-your-face formalistic flourishes of Toei-school directors such as Mamoru Hosoda. Style seems subservient to creating a feeling of the reality of the world inhabited by the characters.

The film is unsurprisingly bookended by two very exciting and well-animated action scenes. Although this feels like rote film structure, it's hard to imagine something more satisfying for a good entertainment movie than opening and ending with a bang, and this movie does that well. The opening chase with the eyeball blob comes across as something of a reprise of the chase through the corridors with Kaonashi in Spirited Away. It's a scene that makes good use of the large scale of the city, with the protagonist and the beast eventually falling from the tracks down, down, down through an endless vast expanse of space and crashing down into firmament that seems only to have been built on older parts of the city. It's in this forgotten precinct where the protagonist unleashes the Baku-like beast who eats bad memories rather than dreams.

The eyeball blob returns for the finale, which features even more impressive animation. His defeat is followed by a second climax. The first climax provides the action catharsis while the second provides the dramatic and emotional catharsis. Any number of talented animators were involved, and presumably these were responsible for the action scenes: Masahiko Kubo, Cedric Herole, Takaaki Wada, Hitoshi Ueda, Keisuke Watabe, Tadashi Itazaki, Masao Okubo, Soichiro Matsuda, Shingo Ogiso, etc.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

07:46:00 pm , 1821 words, 13582 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Director: Gisaburo Sugii

The Life of Gusko Budori

Six years on since Stormy Night, after many tribulations including the closure of his studio Group Tac, Gisaburo Sugii has returned to the big screen with The Life of Gusko Budori. A gloriously beautiful if opaque and perplexing followup to his earlier masterpiece Night on the Galactic Railroad, the film is a return to form for the veteran director and poetic visionary. The vistas of Kenji Miyazawa's imaginary land of Iihatov allow Sugii to soar to his greatest heights of imagination once again after so many intervening decades in which he made many disappointing directing choices to fans of his more challenging work.

Iihatov is that place where Japan of the early 20th century meets the spiritual but scientific mind of Kenji Miyazawa: Inhospitable, primordial and supernatural, where farmers pit futuristic technology against inclement weather and exploding volcanoes while electrical poles walk when you're not looking and acorns commune in night court in the forest. It's a world where rational and mythical, west and the east, past and future, do not contend but co-exist in a glorious chaotic meeting of nature and man.

While many of Kenji's other stories read like fables, Gusko is one of his more realistic and autobiographical stories, directly addressing his own trials and tribulations as a farmer and student of science attempting to improve the lot of his fellows in Iwate Prefecture, the notoriously inclement and rugged rural northeastern fringe of Japan.

The story tells of Gusko Budori, a boy raised on a small farm in the mountains with his mother, father and little sister Nelly. When a cold snap and the resultant famine (possibly based on real events that occurred in Iwate around 1905) rends apart the family, Gusko is forced to strike out on his own. He wanders into town and finds a life purpose in the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, the scientific body devoted to engineering the environment to benefit man.

This only begins to describe Sugii's film version of the story, however, because the director has taken considerable liberties with the material. He has incorporated elements from an earlier version of the story as well as from other stories by Kenji Miyazawa to create a vastly different impression. Notably, the fiery cat character who appears at pivotal moments to bring Gusco into the fantasy world of Iihatov populated by bizarre creatures appears to be the World Judge of the early version, although he also seems to be a stand-in for the Wildcat judge of The Wildcat and the Acorns. The interludes with him lend the film a whole new level of meaning.

He uses Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters again, but doesn't stop at that. I could be mistaken, but it appears that he is using the same exact character designs from Night, transposed onto the characters of this story. Giovanni is Gusko; the bread seller is the binocular vendor; the printer boss is the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau boss; the same blind man appears; the family drowned in the Titanic show up in the elevator; etc. It's beyond coincidence. Sugii isn't merely lazily using cats again, as I initially thought. He's using the designs as a character system a la Tezuka. This raises a whole slew of implications about how to interpret the film.

Not only this, other elements from Night recur, and sometimes even scenes seem to harken back to Night. The way Gusko runs through the night into town and into the classroom at the beginning echoes the beginning of Night. Triangles of light flash past in the fantasy world the way they did on the night train. Moths congregate into a column like the cranes in Night. Late in the film Gusco even recites wrenching, emotional vows that echo Giovanni's closing monologue to Night. The shot of Gusco dozing off in the train compartment looks lifted almost verbatim from Night, down to the shape of the chairs and the grain of the wood.

Most significantly, Sugii has chosen to interweave extended fantasy interludes into the fabric of the otherwise mundane occurrences depicted in the novel. Some of these are adapted from events in the novel, while others are invented or adapted from other stories. For example, the silkworm sequence takes place in the real world in the novel, but Sugii has interpreted it to be part of Gusko's ongoing hallucination/fever dream; and the courtroom sequence is from The Acorns and the Wildcat. The effect of these sequences is to add a narrative element to the story whereby the supernatural side of Iihatov - a colorful fantasy world inhabited by strange creatures and magical implements - seems to chase and haunt Gusko, appearing at key moments in his life like a fever dream, goading him onwards in his journey.

These fantastical sequences add depth to Budori's journey, but also seem to turn the film into something more than a mere adaptation. The film seems to render homage to the whole of Kenji's oeuvre by presenting us a dreamscape in which all of his imaginings coalesce, as if we were witnessing Kenji himself dream up the creatures that he would bring to life in his writings.

This is not the first animated adaptation of The Life of Budori Gusko. The late, great Ryutaro Nakamura adapted the story into a film in 1994. It was commissioned by Iwate Prefecture to mark the 60th anniversary of Kenji Miyazawa's death. It's an unjustly neglected film, one of Nakamura's best works. Despite having far inferior production values, and being somewhat rough around the edges in terms of the storytelling, I actually find it to be the better film.

Nakamura's version is essentially a faithful adaptation of the story. For example, in Sugii's version the silkworm sequence is rendered as part of the fever dream, but in Nakamura's version it is an actual occurrence. In Sugii's version, Budori never re-discovers his sister, whereas in Nakamura's version he finds her again in the city. ENDING SPOILER: In both versions, Gusko sacrifices himself to blow up the volcano, but in Nakamura's version this is done as part of a project with the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, whereas Sugii turns it into a solo mystical event in which he is transported there by the godlike World Judge.

Aside from adaptation differences, the films are also very different in terms of style. Most obviously, Nakamura uses people. The real world of Iihatov is depicted in the style of 1920s Japan in Nakamura's version, rather than the Jules Verne-esque vision of the future replete with steampunk flying machines of Sugii's film. Nakamura's film has flatter and leaner visuals compared with the lush, digitally-enhanced visuals of Sugii's version.

Not knowing where the story ends and Sugii's interpolations begin renders his version a bit problematic in terms of telling Kenji's story. It's a beautiful hazy cloud rather than the lean narrative machine of Nakamura. His flourishes are beautiful and could be said to add a poetic dimension to the story, but on the other hand could be said to needlessly detract from the narrative, which is already compelling in its own right.

I've long been a champion of Nakamura's film. I wrote a review many years ago, even before beginning this blog. I hope that the appearance of this new version will not deter people from seeing Nakamura's version, because they are very different beasts, and to be honest, if I had to recommend one, I would say go with Nakamura's version, because it is an eminently beautiful and moving film that tells the story both artfully and faithfully. Stylistically, Sugii's version is very close to Night. It seems a little redundant to see another film made in the same mold. When I heard about the project, I was doubly dismayed: Why step on Nakamura's toes, and why use the same designs? Even after seeing and appreciating what Sugii has done, and remaining a huge Sugii fan, I am still dismayed by those two points.

That said, this new Gusko is an eminently beautiful film, and represents the side of Sugii I most appreciate: oddball poet of animation. I am delighted to have it to savor, and I hope we can see more from Sugii, even though under the circumstances the chances of that seem slimmer than ever. He's a precious talent. There's no other voice like his.

Like Night, the heart of the film is its beautiful, poetic images rather than in its story. In this telling, the sequence of powerful images like the World Judge on his bench judging Gusco, or the column of moths, or the monsters shuffling about in the fantasy sequences, leave a more powerful impression than the story or characters, and are all the more satisfying for not having an obvious explanation. Like the machine that churns behind the World Judge, some mysterious logic or impulse seems to drive the seeming illogic and chaos of the fantasy world, and it remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Sugii is in his element creating images that speak to the subconscious, with no immediate obvious interpretation, and yet don't come across as grandstanding or facile artsiness.

The production quality of the film is overall very nice. Sanrio veteran art director Yukio Abe returns after his stint on Stormy Night, and produces spectacular imagery of staggering lushness and density, aided in the task by a bevy of talented artists including one Nizo Yamamoto. The intricate paintings of the lush forest greenery, the byzantine streets of Ihatov city, glowing San Mutri city at night, and the craggy surface of the volcanoes are remarkable to behold.

The music by bandoneon player Ryota Komatsu is elegant, breezy, enrapturing - as unique and perfect an accompaniment as Haruomi Hosono's soundtrack to Night. Marisuke Eguchi again supervises Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters, while Tsuneo Maeda again presumably handles the digital tinkering, and Night art director and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular Mihoko Magoori handles the color design. The film'ss glowing, iridescent color scheme makes the images really pop. Shuichi Hirata (Noiseman, Metropolis) designed the wonderful flying machines as well as handling the art of the fantasy world scenes.

The animation is entirely satisfactory and at no point does it feel like it is lacking, despite the film having a very different animation ethos from any other animation out there. Sugii creates a meditative space that allows these characters to feel and breathe and seem incredibly alive without requiring them to engage in acting calisthenics. Yoshiyuki Hane and Shinichi Tsuji head the animators again, as in Stormy Night.

The film had a traumatic birth and I'm grateful that we have it. Initially announced in 2008, I was afraid it would not see the light of day after Tac went belly up in 2010. However, the Bunkacho stepped in to provide funding on the condition of a 2012 deadline and international collaboration. This is presumably the reason why Tezuka Productions was chosen, and most of the animation was produced by Tezuka's Chinese partners in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuxi. drop studio is also present.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

04:04:00 pm , 1847 words, 6962 views     Categories: OVA, Movie, Studio: Anime R, 1980s

Hyper-Psychic-Geo Garaga

Garaga (1989) is an interesting obscurity from the late 1980s. I had never heard of it before looking into it recently while pursuing Anime R's filmography, but it's a rather interesting project for a number of reasons.

Initially planned as an OVA, it was extended to movie length and had a limited theatrical run before being released on video - so in a way it's both a movie and an OVA. The texture of the film is indeed a mix between the two - it has the pacing of a film, but the quality feels more like an OVA.

It is one of the few big theatrical projects that brought together the Anime R animators of the Votoms-Layzner period (or most of them; Kazuaki Mouri and Fumiko Kishi are missing) in one place, headlined by Moriyasu Taniguchi handling the characters and Toru Yoshida handling the mecha.

Garaga was based on a manga by Satomi Mikuriya, who had previously directed (and written and storyboarded and designed) an adaptation of her manga Nora in 1985. She earned a place in anime history for a different reason as the director of the CGI part of the Golgo 13 movie.

The director was Hidemi Kubo, whose career prior to this consisted almost entirely of animation work on the classic Topcraft co-productions like The Last Unicorn and The Hobbit. Hidemi Kubo is actually the younger brother of Tsuguyuki Kubo, the lead character designer during the Topcraft era. I wrote a bit about Topcraft previously here.

By 1985, when Topcraft had disbanded after the production of Nausicaa (1984) and been replaced by Ghibli, many of the ex-Topcraft staff moved to a company called PAC (Pacific Animation Corporation). It's here that Hidemi Kubo, as one of the directors of Thundercats (1985), switched tracks to directing.

Garaga from a few years later was Hidemi Kubo's first big job as a director of an entire project. It's his directing that actually makes me like this project. His directing is very different from anything I've seen in anime before. You sense that there's something 'foreign' about it, something alien to the rhythms and conventions of anime film language. The pacing is more leisurely and relaxed. Scenes of character interaction unfold in a way that catches you by surprise. Watching anime, you come to know how certain characters will respond in certain situations. Kubo's directing is one of the few places I've seen a Japanese director who undermines those expectations, probably quite unintentionally. It's clear that his training at Topcraft is what forms the basis for this unique rhythm.

Even the action doesn't feel like typical anime. In anime you typically have set-pieces that arrive at a set point, and suddenly the program switches gears into 'action scene' mode. That's not the case here. Here everything unfolds as a seamless whole. Occasionally there will be a moment of action that goes on for 30 seconds, but is then subsumed back within the unfolding narrative without any particular shift in rhythm.

The choreography and layout also doesn't have the visuals-centric feeling of most anime. What sets anime apart from commercial productions in the rest of the world is its sense of style and edginess in the presentation of the images. Topcraft was unique for evolving in a vacuum, as it were, uninfluenced by, for example, the very tightly controlled drawing and timing of the A Pro animators in the 1970s. With virtually no limitation on the number of drawings they could use, they didn't develop that very image-based approach to animation that was the result of those limitations that most animators working on Japanese TV shows had to work within. The downside to this is that the storytelling could equally well be criticized for being somewhat bland and monotone and sluggish. It's true that it lacks somewhat in dynamism. But it's such a refreshing change that I think it offers an interesting counter-argument to the typical anime style.

One thing I particularly like about this show is how the frailty of life is well expressed. Often in anime people will receive blow after blow and be fine in a way that would not be possible in real life, or fall from a great height without incurring almost any injury because it would inconvenience the plot for an injury to occur at that point. In Garaga at one point a character is bear-hugged by a bad guy and winds up dying. In any other anime he would have been fine. In another scene, a character falls from his aircraft and another character goes out of her way to pad his fall with a psychic beam. In any other anime, he would have fallen to the ground and been stunned temporarily but gotten up afterwards as if nothing had happened, whereas in reality that fall would have resulted in death or broken bones.

The story itself is rather pleasant story about how a group of space travellers crash-land on a planet and find themselves caught in the middle of a power struggle between three sides - two indigenous populations and a foreign power. The dynamics of manipulation between the different powers were compelling and believable and the film kept me interested the whole time. I liked how the character dynamics felt different from the usual anime. One downside is that there wasn't a very strong single main character for the audience to invest in, but I personally liked that. I like group-based movies like this.

I haven't seen Thundercats since it aired (I watched it in real time) but I suspect if I had a chance to re-watch it I would notice a similarity to the pacing. The only criticism I might have was that in the second half I got very confused and had a hard time following what was going on because there were so many different sides to the conflict and it was difficult keeping them all straight with their similar-sounding names. (well, that, and the big reveal at the end that the android was the bad guy was a little disappointing)

On the animation side of things, the film is almost 100% Anime R. 18 out of the 23 key animators are Anime R people, and the two sakkans are the usual Anime R sakkans. The films does have a very strong Anime R vibe, with many scenes of exciting action, good mecha and effects animation, and character drawings that are clearly identifiable as Taniguchi. Taniguchi designed the characters presumably based on the manga, but he made them his and the designs are pleasing to look at, although they're not as stylized as his Layzner designs. Taniguchi also receives the novel credit of "Total Visual Director" (in English). I'm not sure what it means, but it clearly suggests that Taniguchi had a role that went beyond merely that of a face corrector. Perhaps he did something in the vein of the more holistic work that Tomonori Kogawa did on Ideon, in which Kogawa also designed the colors of the characters, among other things.

Toru Yoshida designed the mecha as well as acting as the mecha sakkan, and his mecha are very cool. The designs are very different from the designs of, say, Kunio Okawara, who was behind most of the Sunrise shows on which Toru Yoshida acted as mecha sakkan. His designs feel slightly more futuristic and realistic, with sleek and minimalistic and curvy shapes as opposed to the showy and flamboyant designs of many Sunrise shows. The mecha aren't animated with quite as much verve as they were in Yoshida's episodes of Layzner, but there are moments where you can see his great sense of stylized effects work, like the elegantly arced smoke trail pictured above.

The only caveat is that for some reasons the drawings feel a little flimsy. The inbetweening was not done by Anime R, so maybe this is part of the reason. It's not nearly as bad as Althea, but it's still noticeable that the drawings are not quite up to the level that the should be considering how much effort has clearly been put into the animation, and that it's not the sakkan's fault.

There are several nice action scenes, but I can't attribute them to a particular animator. The chase with the helicopter seems to have the style of character drawing I noticed during the arcade scene in Sukeban Deka, though since Kazuaki Mouri isn't credited, if it's the same animator, that would mean it's someone other than Mouri who had that style. The good action animators at Anime R at this period would be Hiroshi Osaka from the generation that debuted on Votoms and Takahiro Kimura and Takahiro Komori from the slightly younger generation that debuted a few years later. I suppose the heli scene was of the hand of one of these guys.

The only scene I was able to identify with certainty is Hiroyuki Okiura's. He almost certainly drew the scene in the ruined building (the first pic atop). Everything including the timing, the acting and the drawings point to Okiura. The style of the gestures seems clearly influenced by Akira, which Okiura had just worked on, while the drawings have a vague Takashi Nakamura influence, and the movement has a richness and a style of movement that is simply the pure product of Okiura's genius. The animation in this scene feels wonderful, but it's a little disappointing because it's a pretty low-key scene and doesn't show off his talent for action very well. There are only about two or three action shots and the rest is mostly talking heads. But even in the talking heads shots, Okiura's unique style of timing and drawing is unmistakable.

There were only five non-Anime R animators involved in the film. They are credited in two separate groupings at the bottom below the big Anime R grouping, suggesting two different studios. The Soichiro Matsuda and Shunichi Matsumoto grouping I suspect to have been Studio Mark (which also once featured Yoshiharu Ashino). The Isamu Utsuki, Kenichi Ishimaru and Toyoaki Fukushima grouping I'm not so sure about, but I suspect to be Animation 501. Yuji Yatabe, who is here responsible for the 'structure', was the head of Animation 501, and Isamu Utsuki is credited under Animation 501 in pink jacket Lupin. I've noticed that Hidemi Kubo worked together with Kenichi Ishimaru and Toyoaki Fukushima together on Wataru the year before in 1988, so perhaps he brought them on himself.

Incidentally, I was wondering how the combo of Hidemi Kubo + Anime R came about. It's an odd combination I wouldn't have expected. It seems Moriyasu Taniguchi worked as an animation director on Thundercats and likely met Hidemi Kubo there.

HYPER-PSYCHIC-GEO GARAGA ギャラガ (movie/OVA, 1989, 100min, Aubec/Anime R)

Director, Script, Storyboard:窪秀己Hidemi Kubo
Based on:御厨さと美
"Planet Garaga"
by Satomi Mikuriya
Total Visual Director:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Structure:谷田部雄次Yuji Yatabe
Character Design, Animation Director:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Mecha Design, Mecha Anim. Director:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key animation:木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
小森高博Takahiro Komori
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
柳沢まさひでMasahide Yanagisawa
逢坂浩司Hiroshi Osaka
加瀬政広Masahiro Kase
沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
糸島雅彦Masahiko Itojima
大島康弘Yasuhiro Ojima
尾林幸男Yukio Ohayashi
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
志村直美Naomi Shimura
能地清Kiyoshi Noji
藤井満Mitsuru Fujii
上井康宣Yasunobu Kamii
岩村幸子Sachiko Iwamura
有本大作Daisaku Arimoto
谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
宇都木勇Isamu Utsuki
石丸賢一Kenichi Ishimaru
福島豊明Toyoaki Fukushima
松本俊一Shunichi Matsumoto
松田宗一郎Soichiro Matsuda

Friday, May 11, 2012

08:50:00 pm , 1808 words, 12975 views     Categories: Movie, 1990s

Hermes, Wings of Love

"Let's create a new history of the Gods."

So ends this re-imagineering of the myths of ancient Greece through the all-seeing eyes of Ryuho Okawa, the "founder and spiritual leader" of Happy Science, a "new global spiritual movement" with "over 12 million followers in 70 plus countries" (according to Happy Science Atlanta).

And so this lavish, two-hour animated feature does. Based on a book by the great leader, it remixes the ancient Greek gods into a wildly imaginative, largely incoherent, entirely anachronistic mish-mash of Christian, Muslim, Confucian and Buddhist spiritual teachings.

This is by far the most beautifully animated piece of religious propaganda I've seen. The good animation comes courtesy of Ajia-Do animator Yoshiaki Yanagida and his team of animators. The ancient trappings are re-created in surprisingly authentic detail. The film feels only a step down from Run Melos as a realistic animated re-creation of ancient Greece.

Unless you knew otherwise, the film actually doesn't come across as blatantly pushing a religious agenda. Watching the film without any knowledge of the subtext, it would probably just come across as a pleasing historical epic interrupted occasionally by some baffling spiritual interludes.

Even during these sequences when the film switches to outlining the belief system of the Happies, it's all so incoherent and outlandish that it's hard to make sense of it. I actually came away from the film wishing the belief system had been laid out more clearly. It probably can't be expressed convincingly because it's inherently loony.

The scenes of the spiritual world are beautifully rendered and pleasing to watch, with vivid coloring, atmospheric lighting, and highly worked animation. The scene where El Cantare appears in the clouds has some impressively animated clouds, and when Hermes visits heaven later in the film, he flies through canyons in laboriously animated background animation. The animators clearly reveled in the opportunity of this big-budget production to draw a more 'cinematic' style of animation than they are usually able.

It's fairly easy to watch the film with the aim of appreciating the nice animation while ignoring the religious subtext. It's basically set up as a piece of grand entertainment, with a hidden message, rather than flat-out preaching. The film suffers less from the lunacy of later films in the Happy Science saga. It has no demon Hitler or re-incarnation of Edison, and no anime Shoko Asahara raining terror on Tokyo. Just ancient Greeks, over which some fairly transparent Christian and Buddhist themes are overlaid.

That's the clever and insidious thing about the movie: it's eminently watchable. Like L. Ron Hubbard's pulpy Battlefield Earth books, this film brings people into a religious mythology through entertainment. The film was released in the theater like any normal film. Happy Science is known for using the big marketing company Dentsu, so these films are obviously the product of a highly sophisticated marketing strategy.

Repugnant but beautiful, Hermes entrances you with its high production quality and leaves you shaking your head at its lunacy. It's essentially two films mashed into one. One film is a nice animated swords and sandals epic, and the other is a ludicrous new age freak-out. One moment we're watching a fairly engaging story about a hero fighting against a mad tyrant in ancient Greece, and the next minute we're flying in the spiritual realm being regaled matter-of-factly with snippets of spiritual wisdom such as: Fish in heaven glow a golden color because they're happy to return to heaven. The color and shape of each flower is determined by its governing spirit fairy.

The story

The Hermes in this film is not the herald of the gods in ancient Greek mythology; he's a regular human. He's a Christ-like messianic figure who grows up to lead the people of the Aegean to freedom from under the tyrannical rule of Cretan King Minos and to pass on his divine revelations. Along the way, Minos's daughter Ariadne helps him defeat the Minotaur in the labyrinth using the legendary Ariadne's thread, so some aspects of the story are more faithful to the Greek myths.

Similarly, Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, is re-imagined as a princess locked in a tower on the isolated island of Delos whom Hermes rescues and marries, as foretold by prophecy. With a little help from Okawa's Supreme Being El Cantare, who appears in a cloud to bestow a magic scepter, the godly King and Queen lead their people to prosperity.

The whole point of this story is that, in Okawa's world, Okawa and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite. The tactic is as old as the Kojiki of ancient Japan: establish a heavenly mandate by crafting a godly lineage and disseminating it as dogma. It's astounding that it's still possible to use the same centuries-old tactics in the 21st century.

It's not clear to me exactly how much of the outlandish story in this film is meant to be taken at face value, but it's known that Ryuho Okawa professes that he is literally the re-incarnation of Buddha, and he has heard the voice of Kim Jong-Il and Jesus, among other feats, so presumably we are meant to believe that he and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite.

According to this film, it's thanks to El Cantare's intervention that the people of the Aegean learned commerce. All the basic social and technological advances were god-given. Basically every aspect of human progress can be traced back to the good will of El Cantare, who wants us to be happy. It must require special effort to ignore several millenia of human scientific and social progress.

The film is presented as fiction ("It's time to create a new mythology"), but in the implicit understanding that you're supposed to believe it as factual truth. There is a deliberate ambiguity as to how much of this one is expected to accept as truth. Happy Science obviously thrives in this ambiguous zone between fantasy and reality.

The film has an extended sequence that depicts heaven, and much of it looks suspiciously like earth. The retort offered is: that's because earth is just a reflection of heaven. The irony is apparently lost on them that heaven is being represented by animated drawings, each of which was invented and drawn according to the whim of a human being.

The Happy Science saga

Okawa is aptly named. He is the Disney not of the East but of religious propaganda cartoons. Since releasing Hermes, Wings of Love in 1997, he has released a new lavish full-length adaptation of one of his many books every three years, and each one is as impressively produced as this film.

Hermes, Wings of Love ヘルメス 愛は風の如く (1997) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of the Sun 太陽の法 エル・カンターレへの道 (2000) (watch from part 1)
The Golden Laws 黄金の法 エル・カンターレの歴史観 (2003) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of Eternity 永遠の法 エル・カンターレの世界観 (2006) (watch from part 1)
The Rebirth of Buddha 仏陀再誕 (2009) (watch from part 1)

Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, while the rest of the films were produced by Group Tac. They were actually the last films the studio produced apart from A Stormy Night. From what little I've seen skimming through the films, they're each visually quite impressive, with beautiful compositions and coloring that makes sense coming from Group Tac, but the style doesn't have the sort of realistic-school feeling of Hermes, and the stories are far more crazy.

The animators

Like The Fox of Chironup, Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, directed by Tetsuo Imazawa, and features a sequence of sea animation from Toshiyuki Inoue (misspelled in the credits) that is worth looking at as a nice piece of Toshiyuki Inoue animation even if you don't watch the film. The overhead shot of the waves in particular is amazing. The acting on the ship in this scene stands out starkly from the animation in the rest of the show, clearly because it was so good as handed in that it didn't need correction and hence you can see Inoue's touch quite clearly in things like the acting and the folds of the clothing.

Yoshiaki Yanagida's characters are beefy and three-dimensional in a way that reminds of Okiura's characters in Run Melos, if slightly less expressive in terms of facial expression and stiffer in terms of physical dexterity. The layouts are realistic if stolid and somewhat monotone, and the animation often seems to be struggling with the realistic angles. It gives you a newfound appreciation for how much Satoshi Kon's meticulous layouts contributed to the realism of Run Melos. Yanagida is a lifelong Ajia-Do animator who has been behind some richly animated shows in the past including Spirit of Wonder (1992), Ruin Explorers (1995) and The House of Acorns (1997). More recently, he was behind the OVAs Kujibiki Unbalance (2004) and Genshiken (2006).

There are numerous other good animators besides Inoue, which accounts for the high quality: Yoshiyuki Hane, Shinya Takahashi, Masami Suda (all Toei), Shigeo Akabori (Studio Junio), Takayuki Goto (I.G. co-founder), Yumi Chiba (4C), Tetsuro Kaku (Shin-Ei), Michiyo Suzuki (Madhouse), Atsuo Tobe (Sunrise). Masami Suda was one of the great Toei animators of the 1980s, and he went on to be one of the main figures behind the animation of the rest of the Happy Science films. Yoshiyuki Hane is a great veteran animator who is still very active. He did a lot of work on the classic Takahata TV shows. He single-handedly animated the beautiful opening of Nils Holgerson.

I suspect that the animators chose to work on this film in an attempt to try their hand at the sort of realistic-school animation that had been created prior in films like Run Melos and Junkers Come Here. The style of the film seems to fall deliberately into that tradition. The later films in the series have nothing whatsoever of this character.

All of the subsequent films were directed by Takaaki Ishiyama and produced by Group Tac, with Yoshiyuki Hane and Masami Suda as character designers/sakkans. Isamu Imakake and Koichi Ohata also contribute designs in each film. Shoichi Masuo is even one of the animators.

The director at the very least is a professed Happy, involved in the films as a believer (just look how happy he looks in this interview), but I'm inclined to believe (hope) that most of the people worked on this film not as believers but because work is work, and there aren't many opportunities to revel in big-budget-style animation.

I assume that Group Tac took on these projects in desperation, in a doomed last effort to stave off insolvency. It's a sad thing when great studios are so starved for work that they are forced to turn to producing this kind of material - AND it still doesn't save them from going bankrupt.

Here is a good post on The Rebirth of Buddha that gives you more of a sense of the lunacy of the rest of the Happy Science saga after Hermes and the cultural context.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

11:53:00 pm , 2120 words, 9113 views     Categories: Movie, Studio: Ajia-Do, 1980s

Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa

On the evening of August 22, 1944, 767 schoolchildren perished when a US submarine mistakenly sank the transport ship Tsushima Maru in the waters of Okinawa as it was evacuating the children from Naha in southern Okinawa to Nagasaki.

Of the vessel's 1661 passengers, only 156 survived, 56 of them children.

Many years later, the survivors of the incident approached Group Tac to produce an animated film retelling the events of the incident. The result was a film entitled Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa (1982) based in part on a book by Akutagawa Prize-winning author and Okinawan history expert Tatsuhiro Oshiro.

An animated documentary in spirit, the film faithfully retraces the events of the sinking. It uses survivor testimony to recreate the events through the eyes of a young boy, a female teacher and a male teacher who survived to tell what happened. The female teacher, named only Hiroko in the film, is obviously modeled on Hiroko Ishikawa, who in testimony on the site of the Tsushimamaru Memorial Museum relates that she was attending to a child with appendicitis at the time of the attack, exactly as occurs in the film. The other characters also have their real-life analogues.

Visually, the film does not strive for assiduous visual realism like Grave of the Fireflies. The characters are drawn in a uniquely pared down, loose style that is cartoony and caricatural. But it succeeds well in evoking the paraphernalia and atmosphere of the period and of the locale through a more stylized kind of realism that is quite appealing in its own way.

Neither is the film as multilayered and complex in its treatment of its subject as the more sophisticated Grave of the Fireflies (which Takahata has stated is not an anti-war film). But the unsentimental, truthful script of Tsushima Maru makes it one of the more compelling examples of the genre of anti-war children's anime. It lets the harrowing event speak for itself rather than attempting to wring tears from the audience by unnecessarily manipulative tactics.

Without being gory, the film is unflinching in depicting what makes this such a difficult incident to think about, much less watch: the violent death of hundreds of children. Even knowing what is coming, the sequence depicting the sinking of the Tsushima Maru is gut-wrenching.

Japan's troubling history of denying its crimes looms as specter over this and all anti-war anime, but the children here are a proxy for victims of war everywhere - doubly innocent as children and civilians - and the film treads carefully around blame.

The deftness with which the narrative has been woven from shards of survivor testimony is the film's greatest asset. The two screenwriters - both writers for live-action films - keep the film true and real without falling back on anime storytelling conventions. Innumerable animated films have been made in Japan on the subject of W.W.II to teach children of the horrors of war, including The Song of Liang Chu Li, Zoo without an Elephant, and Who's Left Behind. But Tsushima Maru feels distinct from these.

The lightness with which the material is handled visually surprisingly doesn't feel like it is doing a disservice to this inherently very troubling material. Nowhere else in the world would it have been acceptable to make a cartoon out of such a tragedy. But it's the survivors who led the project. They clearly felt this to be a legitimate way of telling their story to future generations. Japan indeed has a very different conception of what stories are acceptable in animation. War, bartending, office life, motorcross racing, mahjong, ping pong - just about every conceivable human occupation, vice, sport or hobby has been dramatized in anime.

The film's unique visuals come courtesy of Ajia-Do, whose trademark simple but lively and pleasingly stylized animation is surprisingly convincing in a more realistic context. Ajia-Do appears to have been sub-contracted by Tac to handle the actual animation. Atsumi Tashiro is the only Tac name in the credits. More specifically, the film was directed and presumably designed by Ajia-Do co-founder Osamu Kobayashi. The characters have the distinct lumpy, pared down approach to form as his contemporaneous New Dokonjo Gaeru (op). The animation was supervised by co-founders Michishiro Yamada, Tsutomu Shibayama and Hideo Kawauchi. The animators are all Ajia-Do staff. It's likely that Tac was approached due to their work on the children's anti-war film Zoo without an Elephant (1982), while Tac probably approached Ajia-Do due to their previous work for Tac on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.

The story of the Tsushima Maru incident

The story begins in a place far removed in culture and history from the center of the country: at the southern end of Okinawa. The film unfortunately does not place much emphasis on the specifics of the locale. One of the few signs of the Okinawan setting comes when we see a circle of girls singing a song in Okinawan on the Tsushima Maru. Okinawa's deep-rooted history in opposition to the dominant Japanese culture could have enriched the film's treatment of the incident, but perhaps it was felt that losing the focus on the story of the survivors would have done the tragedy a disservice.

In the town of Naha, a boy named Kiyoshi plays in the ocean with his friends. A teacher urges his students to evacuate to help support their country, and visits Kiyoshi's home to convince his parents.

The allies are encroaching on the mainland after victory in Saipan, and the army has ordered all women, children and elderly - anyone unable to fight - evacuated to the mainland to make way for looming full-scale combat. The army is pressuring local officials to evacuate everyone, so the officials in turn pressure teachers to convince parents to let their children leave. Parents resist, worried about the safety of the waters, and ask for their children to be transported by battleship. The navy is strained, however, and can only obtain a transport vessel.

The male teacher urging the pupils to evacuate in the name of the war is conflicted: patriotic, but honestly believing that he is acting the best interests of the children - to move them to a place where they can be educated in safety - not out of patriotism. Hiroko is more troubled and skeptical. Hiroko Ishikawa recalls, "I've always regretted the fact that all thirteen of the children who applied to be evacuated on my recommendation lost their lives on the Tsushima Maru."

Most of the children have never been on the mainland, and Kiyoshi (inspired by Kiyoshi Uehara, who relates the same anecdote) is excited about the prospect of seeing snow for the first time. He treats the evacuation as a vacation.

People were only informed where to gather on the day before departure. The next day, thousands of parents sat waiting in the scorching sun for hours before finally ushering their children onboard the giant ship.

Mitsuko Ishikawa recalls, "It was the middle of summer, and several children collapsed with heat exhaustion. It was such a miserable experience, especially for those who were about to be separated from their families. It was terrible that they had to say good-bye to their children in such awful circumstances."

Even the dizzying staircase leading to the deck of the Tsushima Maru reflects survivor accounts. The chaos is such that, amid all these people, a man falls into the water and disappears, but nobody notices.

Onboard, conditions are squalid. Children are crammed into bunks and huddle against one another on deck, sleep deprived and hungry.

The incident occurred only two days after the Tsushima Maru set sail. There are controversies surrounding the cause, one regarding the course of the ship. The captain of the Tsushima Maru wanted to tack a zig-zag on the perilous last stretch to Nagasaki, but the commanding officer overruled him because it would waste too much time. The other is regarding whether the US sub knew that children were onboard. Hinting at this, Kiyoshi appears to spot the sub's periscope observing him.

After the first torpedo hit, the ship tilted on its side. Teachers threw rafts overboard and screamed at children to jump in, but many children clung to the boat and refused to jump. Teachers resorted to throwing children overboard. Many children fell to their death against the railing or were swept out to sea as the water rushed in. The film depicts this whole sequence in harrowing detail.

Rescue didn't arrive for days. Mitsuko Ishikawa was rescued after a day drifting at sea, but Kiyoshi Uehara drifted for six days before being rescued. He recalls seeing sharks circling his raft and hallucinating from dehydration and hunger. The film shows an old woman fainting after days on the raft and slipping off the raft and being devoured by sharks.

Those who survived and returned to their homes were warned that they would face a firing squad if they spoke of what had occurred. Kiyoshi Uehara recalls, "When I got back to Naha, I was taken to the police station and was again told to keep my mouth shut. I got back home from experiencing the war at sea, and then experience war on land."

Traumatized and harried by neighbors demanding to know their children's whereabouts, Kiyoshi takes to hiding in the closet. Many of those who returned were killed in air raids that soon overtook Okinawa. Kiyoshi's father is killed in the first air raid, and Kiyoshi barely escapes with his life. The innocent civilians of Okinawa were in a hopeless position, caught between forces greater than them.

The film closes with a list of the names of every one of the children who died on the Tsushima Maru. The magnitude of the death toll sinks in as the names scroll by for a full minute.

Osamu Kobayashi's directing debut

This movie marked the directing debut of Osamu Kobayashi and simultaneously, sadly, the end of a great career as an animator. He had been the figure behind the exhilirating, influential and timeless animation of Dokonjo Gaeru from 1972 to 1974. The updated New Dokonjo Gaeru he worked on right before this movie in 1981 proved to be his last big job as a designer/animator/animation director. After Tsushimamaru he focused on directing TV shows, mostly for Pierrot. He never returned to this kind of hard-core material, however. He directed Creamy Mami (1983-1984), Onegai! Samia-don (1985-1986) (clip), Kimagure Orange Road (1987-1988), Moeru Oniisan (1988) (clip), and Nontan to Issho (1992-1993) (op), as well as the movie Kakkun Cafe (1984).

There is nothing particularly outstanding in terms of the animation, but every shot of this film is a pleasure to watch in terms of the drawings because of Osamu Kobayashi's delectably loose style, put for once to a more realistic and serious purpose. He has a great instinct for drawing characters, and a style like nobody else. His loose drawings work surprisingly well in a realistic setting, even though the characters features are stylized in an extreme way, to the point that some of the characters' heads are a huge cube or sphere. They seem more realistic than more detailed characters drawn in a more stereotypical style. They have the simplicity of a good caricature. The shapes of the characters look random and slapdash, but they're a fascinating blend of exaggeration and delicate nuance. They strike me as designs that make great use of negative space.

Probing deeper than the animation, one of the things that makes the Ajia-Do team's work feel so good is the layouts. Tsutomu Shibayama in particular was great at layouts. The early parts of the film have a great flat style of layout that feels like his work. The layouts are never very complicated or flamboyantly artsy - they mostly straight up frame a character's torso - but the drawings are so spontaneous and organic and the movement so honest and free of cliche that each shot is gorgeous. This is one of the last pieces by Ajia-Do that retains the stylistic spirit of the A Pro days.

Several scenes that pass by as stills may have been a victim of schedule. Notable names in the credits include Yumiko Suda, who went on to direct Chibi Maruko-chan, and Masako Goto, whose did nice work on Licca-chan. Two Ajia-Do graduates who went on to make a name for themselves as directors can be seen in an early inbetweening credit here: Mitsuru Hongo and Tomomi Mochizuki. Incidentally, it's on Osamu Kobayashi's shows that Mochizuki learned directing and began to establish his unique style. And Mochizuki later married Masako Goto.

Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa 対馬丸 ―さようなら沖縄― (1982, movie, 75min, Group Tac/Ajia-Do)

Director:小林治 Osamu Kobayashi
Script:大久保昌一良 Shoichiro Okubo
千野皓司 Koji Chino
Music:槌田靖識 Yasunori Tsuchida
Animation Directors:芝山努 Tsutomu Shibayama
河内日出夫 Hideo Kawauchi
山田みちしろ Michishiro Yamada
Art:清水一利 Kazutoshi Shimizu
Color Design:渋谷瑠美子 Rumiko Shibuya
Audio Director:田代敦巳 Atsumi Tashiro
Key Animation:須田裕美子 Yumiko Suda
吉本桂子 Keiko Yoshimoto
後藤真砂子 Masako Goto
大塚典子 Noriko Otsuka
若山佳幸 Yoshiyuki Wakayama
若山佳治 Yoshiharu Wakayama
志村宣子 Nobuko Shimura
鏡子加藤 Kyoko Kato

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