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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« What do you want to see in anime?Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #9 »

Monday, July 5, 2010

01:13:51 am , 1537 words, 7796 views     Categories: Animation

Naruto Shippuuden #167

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

Key animators:
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
Kasumi Wada
Go Hands



boldegg [Visitor]  

I guess I just don’t have your knowledge when it comes to animation, but I personally enjoyed the episode greatly. The rush of animation was incredible to watch. You talked about some of the animation being sloppy or outright bad, but to me that kind of “creative” and unpolished animation worked perfectly in the context of the episode. I didn’t even mind the sketchy shot, I thought it was something unique and hilarious. The only thing that stood out as bad to me were some of the still shots during the talking scenes. There was no reason for those to look that bad.

About your list of impressive action episode in Naruto, I think you’re missing Naruto Shippuuden #26. It’s not as incredible as some of the others, but it deserves to be watched just as much as #143.

07/05/10 @ 04:49
hellohue [Visitor]  

Brilliant post, Ben, I totally agree that Wakabayashi is ultimately wasted on a show like this, and that it’s a feat to ignore that you’re actually watching Naruto..

I don’t quite follow your term ‘gif’ however. Though I agree with your saying certain animators don’t seem to have mastered fundamentals as well as they perhaps should have.

Very interesting point made about ‘wobbly’ movement to make things feel more realistic. I always saw this sort of thing in Shinya Ohira’s more memorable scenes, especially the boiler room in Spirited Away. I always felt it was a by-product of his search for something that feels like realistic movement, and not something too conscious or even intentional. The instances of this wobbly movement in this episode felt like less than considered timing on part of the animator which ultimately spoils the weight conveyed.

07/05/10 @ 05:33
hellohue [Visitor]  

Also let’s not forget other reactions to this episode, such as this, salvaged from the bowels of the internet:

“hahahhaaahaha looney tones and billy and Mandy have better graphics to naruto XD”

some people will never accept this type of animation

07/05/10 @ 05:53
togora [Visitor]  

you forget some episodes
like shippuden 166 and also shippuden 82 ,no action but in maybe in my opinion th e best episode after 133

07/05/10 @ 09:43
Ben [Member]  

boldegg -

Well I’m glad to hear that most people seem to have enjoyed the episode. Maybe I came off too critical sounding. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the hell out of it. But unlike in previous instances, for once I can see both sides of the argument, whereas before I just shrugged the criticism off as sheer ignorance. It’s still a no-brainer to me that this episode is light-years more interesting than the rest of the show or most anime out there.

This is a great episode because hopefully it can spark the interest of people who don’t watch anime, not to mention people who do know a lot about animation but deride anime as being nothing but fancy drawings.

I like the ambition of that sketchy shot, and I like what it tried to do as far as exaggerating the guy’s expression to heighten the impact, but I’m just not too sure about the execution. I wish there would be more shots of animation that were so expressive and as full of life as that one is, rather than just still drawings with flapping mouths that the teenage fans of this series seems to prefer.

And finally, thanks for reminding me of Shippuuden 26. I did forget about that one. It’s another Atsushi Nigorikawa episode, and it was indeed quite an ambitious episode. He clearly set out to try to achieve the action density of the other Atsushi’s episodes. Though unfortunately the results are mostly lackluster with the occasional spark of fire. But definitely it’s worth a look to see what the local team (the Pierrot animators) were able to do when they put all their effort in. Hiroyuki Yamashita and Sesshagoro are there.

That’s another thing about this show… there are the tier-1 episodes like Wakabayashi’s and Toshiyuki Tsuru’s, then there are numerous other episodes like Shippuuden 26 that are fairly good if not outstanding, e.g. Naruto 19 was a Tsuru episode with a bit of nice work by Tetsuya Takeuchi, Shippuuden 4 had decent action work by Tsutomu Oshiro and Kiyomu Fukuda. Then there are all the little bits here and there by Hiroyuki Yamashita, and miscellaneous as-of-yet unidentified sequences of nice action such as that in Shippuuden 135, one of my favorites, etc etc.

hellohue -

Yeah, the Ohira boiler room scene totally worked for me the very first time I saw it, whereas this stuff… doesn’t. It feels stale and imitative. It’s just as you say - Ohira was just going where his instincts took him as an artist, and he made that movement work, whereas I get the feeling a lot of these young animators have too much reference material available, and are doing too much mere surface imitation rather than attempting to come to their own style. I assume that will happen eventually, given enough time. That’s why I like Ryotaro Makihara so much - he’s a relatively young face who is a great animator with a very strong voice and individual style. That’s what I want to see more of, not mere Kanada or Ohira copies.

I find it amusing to read the contortions some fans go through to explain why the animation in this and Wakabayashi’s other episodes is supposedly bad, instead of loosening up and just enjoying a spectacle that only happens once every few years. I wouldn’t put too much stock in the negative comments.

Oh, and by ‘gif’ I meant ‘gif animation’. Both Shingo Yamashita and Kenichi Kutsuna started out drawing animation using gif animation software in their free time for fun and sharing them online. This acted as their portfolio that got them into the industry.

togora -

Thanks for the additions. I did totally forget to mention 166.

I agree, 82 was a nice drama episode by Tsuru, like 166 (though 166 had some nice action too). But I didn’t forget it - it’s not an action episode. That was a list of action episodes. At least with the action episodes any random person can watch and enjoy them without needing to know anything about the story or the characters, which you kind of do to appreciate the drama episodes. They’re good ambassador episodes.

07/05/10 @ 16:44
Grant Alexander
Grant Alexander [Visitor]  

You make a great point about “having too much” material to work with. The very same thing happend at Disney. You had many aspiring animators drawing “mannered” imitations of movements or gestures by the 9 old men, so enamored with their heroes, instead of going to a mirror or heading outside and observing life.

I see no reason why Japanese animators should be any different. We all have our influences and it’s hard not to let them creep in, but guys like Kanada might have likely been reacting to something they saw missing in the animation field and wanted to explore that frontier.

I think too, as animation and comics(In the states) for that matter have become more and more about style and over-wrought designs, the animators are increasingly slaves to tight “on model” drawings that tend to kill dynamic, exuberant or fluid animation drawing.

Designing animate-able characters that can take a bit of squash and stretch, I think is a true art and necessary to make the job of animators possible.

07/06/10 @ 13:24
7Th [Visitor]  

That sketchy scene you’re talking about… I think it was animated by Yamashita himself. He animated the water afterwards, as well.

07/06/10 @ 15:54
Ben [Member]  

I wasn’t planning on doing a precise breakdown, but Yamashita just posted the breakdown on his web site, so I figured I might as well translate it in case anyone is interested.

Shingo Yamashita did the first ~100 shots, i.e. the first 7 or so minutes up to Naruto crushing his necklace.

Kenichi Kutsuna did the ~70 shots from there to until when the “camera switches to the long gate” (whatever that means).

Norio Matsumoto did the ~120 shots from there to end.

Notes: The seconds were apparently mostly for Kutsuna, who had other engagements and was only able to do “first” genga. Niho did the part where Naruto grabs the guy’s head. Natsume the part where he’s blown away. Oda the three shots where he comes above the water. Norio Matsumoto seconded a few portions here and there, and Kutsuna animated a few shots in Yamashita’s section. Finally, Yamashita spent a little over two months on his 100 shots.

Personally I was surprised to know Yamashita was the one who did that sketchy shot. Doesn’t look anything like what surrounds it. There are parts of Yamashita’s work that I think are amazing and parts that I think are a little iffy if not outright bad. Overall, though, on rewatching it again, I’m stunned how much animation - and how much exciting animation - these three guys packed into such a short time. I don’t want to shortchange their achievement. It’s a really amazing episode. Also, kudos again to Wakabayashi for some absolutely kick-ass storyboarding. He’s the one who choreographed all this shit, so it’s him we have to thank for the rich variety of action that unfolds seamlessly in this episode. Most feature-length anime films don’t have action that comes close to this level. Apparently Wakabayashi collects ideas for actions constantly and puts everything he’s collected to use in coming up with the actions in his episodes. You can really tell. Such a bounty of different kinds of action.

07/07/10 @ 00:16
hellohue [Visitor]  

Thanks for the breakdowns Ben!

Could you link to Yamashita’s site?

Also, is there a chance the Kutsuna and Yamashita’s original gif animations are still up and around somewhere? It’d be really interesting as I’ve only seen their professional work.

07/08/10 @ 05:07
boldegg [Visitor]  

thanks Ben, much appreciated.

And I too am curious to see those gifs :)

07/08/10 @ 08:03
braves133 [Member]

Yeah, even though I’m a fan of the story, I wish that Wakabayashi would have thrown everything out the window and would have written this episode from scratch. The second half of the episode dragged a bit too much because it had to cover the manga material and it ended up not being as good as it might have been. The same thing happened with ep. 131 in my opinion. In both cases, the first half outshone the second by a mile.

In any case, I’m glad that Pierrot is willing to bring back Wakabayashi even after seeing the fan reaction to his episodes. They know they have something good here that maybe the fanbase will appreciate when they wise up….

And I second the thanks for the breakdown, Ben.

07/08/10 @ 08:05
sanafabich [Member]  

Hi Ben. Regarding the episode, I just watched it and must say it’s gorgeous, amazing animation and beautiful cinematography. As for the fans not liking this kind of animation, they are entitled to complain for sure, since it’s not your usual Naruto animation style and drawings. But then again, with a series almost 400 episodes long, you should expect stuff like this to happen.
PS: Just wondering, what are your thoughts on the FMA ending? It was a heavily emotional charged journey for me.

07/08/10 @ 17:14
Ben [Member]  



Just click around, you’ll find the gifs.

Grant -

Glad to hear that someone working in the industry feels the same dynamic to be at work in the west to an extent. Though I’m not well enough versed in western animation to comment, I’ve always wondered why I never saw in western animation the sort of individual approaches in a commercial context we see in Japan.

sanafabich -

I didn’t watch the show, though I checked out a few episodes because there was a lot of nice animation throughout. I didn’t realize it had ended already. I’ll probably check out the last few eps, as I’ve heard they have a lot of nice animation.

07/08/10 @ 21:20
sanafabich [Member]  

Ben, you should still watch the whole show since it doesn’t have that many episodes, and it has a nice story.

07/09/10 @ 04:33
pete [Member]

Ben, Western Animation is a very generic term. US, Canada, France, Italy differ a lot in their approaches.

There is also the term “Eastern Animation” which makes things even more varied.

You would need to analyze every country’s animation individually.

If you mean just American animation, then this makes things easier.

07/09/10 @ 15:14
Geg [Visitor]  

Thanks a lot for posting the translation of the breakdown; a lot of my speculation on who did what part was wrong.

Could you post a link to where Yamashita said this? It doesn’t seem to be on that site you linked. I’d like to see the Japanese text to see if it could help me figure out what “the camera switches to the long gate” means.

07/10/10 @ 01:11
Vailo [Visitor]  

yama did not mean ‘long gate’ with ‘長門’, but Nagato (Pein).

07/10/10 @ 01:31
h_park [Member]


It’s like you and I have some sort of weird vibe going on. When you wrote about looseness of GIF animators like Yamashita and Kutsuna, I was about to post the another Birdy 02 long interview from Animage Original in OCR format on the BBS. First, I gotta do some rough translation. ^_^;

I haven’t kept up with Naruto or any other anime lately, but I understand what you’re saying about the poor draftsmanship become more prevalent rather than becoming fresh and creatively free approach to making animation. I guess balance and moderation between two extremes of art can’t be avoided.

07/10/10 @ 02:32
KingofallHeroes [Visitor]  

How exactly is Wakabayashi/Matsumoto’s animation wasted on a show like Naruto?

You would think that ninja’s with the power to create basically anything with magic would be ideal for whatever crazy zany action an animator can make.

And Episode 30, 48, 71, 133 and 85 143 167 of Shippuden have been some of the best animated episodes I have ever watched in all of TV anime

09/12/12 @ 06:54
pete [Member]


Watch the show Windy Tales to see how to do this thing the right way

09/16/12 @ 09:11