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I've always considered fighting anime the low road to success as a studio, and Pierrot the king of that road, but at the same time can't deny that these long-running hit shounen shows have been a good training ground for directors and animators. Action and FX animation is one of the few indisputable strengths of anime, and every once in a while on these shows an episode with genuinely interesting animation crops up (it'd be way beyond the means available to do such quality anything but sporadically over such a long-running show).
The most recent episode in Pierrot's Naruto franchise has one of the mainstays of the shounen fighting anime, Atsushi Wakabayashi, who cut his chops on Pierrot's first hit show in the genre, Yu Yu Hakusho (1992-1995), returning to prime form with another action-packed episode that moves something crazy from almost start to finish.
It's nice to have Wakabayashi back in the director's seat on the show. It's been 5 years since his last episode. Love him or hate him, he's one of the most unique and unmistakable voices in the genre. I never expected to see him back. There has been the occasional action extravaganza episode, in which after a span of a few dozen episodes we finally get some animation, but none of them have had the impact of the legendary Naruto episode #133 by Atsushi Wakabayashi. This one is every bit the equal of Wakabayashi's previous episodes. However, due to the different staff involved, it doesn't feel quite as polished. What it lacks in polish it makes for in an exciting, densely packed onslaught of kinetic action animation.
It wouldn't be an Atsushi Wakabayashi episode without Norio Matsumoto, and indeed he again leads the animators. For once, though, Norio Matsumoto is not the only talented action animator involved. He is joined by Shingo Yamashita and Kenichi Kutsuna, two young ex-gif animators who have been associated with Norio Matsumoto and Satoru Utsunomiya since they started working. Yamashita in particular has been doing some very impressive action lately. They in turn are joined by an army of seconds, which complicates making a straight breakdown of scenes, although I felt pretty sure about Norio Matsumoto's sections. In a strange coincidence, many of the seconds here were involved in the Shingo Natsume episode of Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei that just aired.
The shots with the explosions were quite beautiful, and there was a lot of action choreography on water that felt similar to #133, which I suspect to have been the work of Norio Matsumoto. Overall I'd say this episode hasn't overtaken #133 in my heart, because #133 felt better balanced overall, and had a larger proportion of Matsumoto animation. Though I was impressed by most of the animation in the episode when I watched it for the first time, on rewatching this episode, I find myself less and less convinced by much of the animation, with the notable exception of the sections obviously by Norio Matsumoto.
For a while now one of my favorite shots by Shingo Yamashita - or what I've assumed to be so - has been the one of Naruto transforming into a beast in the previous Naruto Shippuuden opening, so it's interesting to see him here animating that very material. Maybe they were already working on this episode at the time that opening was done, and they did that as kind of an easter egg. Although I don't have a total grasp of Yamashita's style, he seems to manage a decent level of draftsmanship, unlike some of the ex gif animators I've seen. One problem I have with these ex-gif animators is that they overuse wobbly body movement, as if making the character wobble around were sufficient to make a movement look realistic. I find it surprising that they haven't learned from Matsumoto how to use drawings more efficiently.
There were a number of shots that stood out in a bad way, unfortunately. I think it's great that there is a generation of younger animators who got into the industry because they want to make things move, but I've been of mixed feelings about the sort of work they've been doing over the last few years, notably on certain episodes of Birdy. Rather than developing into a certain style, the way Norio Matsumoto did, I feel that they're striving to mimic a certain feeling in the movement that they've seen in the work of the great mover animators like Norio Matsumoto, without having the patience to do what's necessary to acquire the knowhow underpinning that talent over many years of hard work. It feels like they're putting the cart before the horse.
Thus we have scenes of action that are actually quite ambitious in their choreography, but are rendered nearly unwatchable due to their poor draftsmanship. Simply put, I think this generation is missing training in fundamentals. That, and I find there to be a slight unproffesionalism in their work. It's like they're just playing around making gif loops as usual, without the cognizance that they are in a group effort situation that demands at least some level of adaptation to the circumstance. I feel very torn to say this, because up until these guys appeared, unhinged exuberance of this kind is something I always used to welcome unconditionally in anime episodes, even if it didn't really work, and even if it worked against the episode that contained it. With these guys, for once, for some reason, I feel it crosses a line. It's simply not good or interesting enough to pull it off.
Wakabayashi's episodes have have been criticized for having poor drawings in the past. Mostly the criticisms have been laughably ignorant of the nature of animation - picking a split-second inbetween from a very fast motion that the eye doesn't even register discretely unless you pause it. Matsumoto's drawings in 133 were deformed a certain way to achieve an effect in motion, and the effect when viewed as intended is flawless. Take any of those drawings out and the animation would lose its intended impact.
This case is different. Some of the shots in here attempt to convey the feeling of a character doing an intense action by using excessively deformed drawings, but the animator doesn't have the skill to pull it off, and it just looks sloppy. That sketchy shot in particular was very hard to watch. And the shot of the guy getting punched in the face seemed like a pale attempt to imitate the very well executed and memorable face-punch in episode 71 of the original Naruto series. It's unfortunate that this time I can't deny that some of those drawings are misfires that probably shouldn't have made it into the final product, and not all of the movements are flawless Norio Matsumoto creations. There were a lot of seconds, so I wonder how the work is broken down.
One thing that I find amusing and does not bother me in the slightest is how little effort was apparently put into some of the still shots that are interspersed between the action scenes - it looks like Wakabayashi spent exactly three seconds on them (three seconds that he would have preferred devoting to the action scenes). Those drawings are about the only moments this episode resembled the usual Naruto. Sure, Wakabayashi has an odd drawing style, but I find it's not Wakabayashi's drawings that are criticized in his episodes so much as the drawings taken out of context in a movement. If it weren't for the legitimately bad drawings in this episode in particular, I'd say it wasn't the drawings so much as the fact that there is a lot more animation than usual that strikes the regular viewers as being incongruous in Wakabayashi's episodes. Though of course he does change the material a bit and isn't as concerned with mimicking the style of the manga. Production studio Pierrot is obviously proud of the work Wakabayashi does for their show if they keep inviting him to do episodes again.
I'd like to see an episode like this from Wakabayashi not in Naruto for once - something with an interesting universe, creative designs and a self-contained story. Here the action just sort of trails off due to the necessity to process the material he's been provided from his alloted section of the manga. And I don't really feel that Wakabayashi's very idiosyncratic drawings are best suited to mimicing someone else's drawings. I'd like to see his exaggerated style of drawing allowed to come through more. In Naruto he has to suppress the unique flavor of his drawings way too much, which is a complete waste.
Here's a list of some of the more notable Naruto action episodes over the years:
Naruto #30 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2003)
Naruto #48 (dir. Toshiyuki Tsuru, 2003)
Naruto #71 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2004)
Naruto #133 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2005)
Naruto Shippuuden #85 (dir. Toshiyuki Tsuru, 2008)
Naruto Shippuuden #123 (dir. Toshiyuki Tsuru, 2009)
Naruto Shippuuden #131 (dir. Akitoshi Yokoyama, 2009)
Naruto Shippuuden #143 (dir. Atsushi Nigorikawa, 2010)
Naruto Shippuuden #167 (dir. Atsushi Wakabayashi, 2010)
Staff for Naruto Shippuuden #167
Storyboard, Director and Animation Director: Atsushi Wakabayashi
Norio Matsumoto, Shingo Yamashita, Kenichi Kutsuna, Atsushi Wakabayashi
Second key animators:
Tomoyuki Niho, Kenichi Fujisawa, Shintaro Douge, Yasuyuki Kai
Takeo Oda, Shingo Natsume, Miyako Matsumoto, Atsuko Yamazaki