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The first Lupin III TV special from 1989 Bye Bye Lady Liberty had nice elongated designs harkening back to the more stylized designs of Mamo-era Yoshio Kabashima, who did way less work on the series than he should have.
Noboru Furuse was the designer. In looking into his filmography I didn't find much else as pleasingly designed as Bye Bye Lady Liberty, but I did discover a different facet of him that I wasn't aware of: racing anime maestro.
Turns out he was behind some of the nicest racing anime OVAs of the high OVA era between 1985-1990:
Bari Bari Densetsu (1986, 2x50min)
Character Designer, Animation Director
Kaze wo Nuke! (1988, 40min)
Director, Character Designer, Animation Director
Goddamn (1990, 2x30min)
Director, Character Designer, Animation Director
His designs are easily identified by the sleek, elongated faces, which are a constant from project to project.
Each of these is about a different kind of racing: Motorcycle racing in Bari Bari Densetsu, motorcross in Kaze wo Nuke! and rallying in Goddamn. Apparently he couldn't get enough: he returned to racing in 1995 with Initial D, about street racing.
Each of them is surprisingly watchable. They put a lot of effort into the films in terms of the drawings of the vehicles and the directing.
Racing anime being merely a sub-genre of that most anime of genres, sports anime, it usually follows the template: beginner rider works his way up through the ranks, is challenged along the way by arrogant veteran with whom a bond of friendship is eventually formed before his inevitable and tragic death or maiming, and hero goes on to finally win the championship. The complexities of the race are boiled down to a samurai duel between rivals who can read each other's every move. A motorcross race becomes a space odyssey and Greek epic rolled into one.
There were many other motorcycle anime, like Pelican Road and Shonan Bakusozoku, but they weren't racing anime, and the biking in these was just a setting for the drama. Here, the racing is the protagonist, and we come away from the anime understanding the intricacies of the sport from the perspective of a pro. Or so the anime makes us feel. It's a dramatization of the sports in a way that is tailored to excite the mind of the manga's intended 13-year-old audience.
The sports anime kinship of Noboru Furuse's racing anime is underlined by the fact that starting around the same time (1988 onwards) he directed the Aim for the Ace! 2 OVA series, a continuation of Osamu Dezaki's quintessential sports anime.
All three of these racing anime are based on manga, so they feel somewhat compressed, but they focus the plot well on the character's growth by reproducing in geekishly obsessive detail the minutiae of his chosen sport, in this case cars and motorcycles. The vehicles are drawn and animated in detail from many angles. Considerable effort is expended in animating the vehicles. Back then it was a given that this would need to be done, so they set to the task with that goal in mind. But it's refreshing because we won't ever see hand-drawn racing anime anymore (Redline being a glorious exception). Even just five years on from Goddamn they used CG for the cars in Initial D.
These are OVAs as the OVA was intended, rather than the cop-out that many OVAs turned out to be: a format for lavish presentation of subjects too specialized (in subject, audience) for the big screen. Though the subject is not very glamorous, and people in the west have probably shied away from them because of it (like spokon anime), these are well made OVAs.
The last OVA directed by Furuse was Goddamn, which has the best title of any anime, ever. The story is the most interesting of the three. It takes a more adult perspective rather than follow the spokon template: The protagonist is merely a cog in the wheel of a big corporation that has aims to expand overseas into certain markets, and doing a rally race is just a means of achieving that goal. The car action is well directed and the plot moves along briskly in the adult world, without the usual silly high school antics or rival melodrama. There's nothing particularly impressive about the animation, but it works well with little budget. Noboru Furuse's drawings are simple but clean, and they're an improvement over the amateurish drawings of the manga.
The height of the animation in the three Noboru Furuse racing OVAs is the practice race in the first volume of Bari Bari Densetsu, with its driver POV shots that put you right in the action (pictured above). They're impressive because they're long shots and they're animated on 1s. It must have taken a very analytic mind to calculate all the different vectors of movement and align them properly, and hundreds of drawings for just a few shots. This could be done more easily with CG now, but what makes it such a bravura performance seen even today is that back then it was a real challenge.
It's clear that the animator who did it must have been Toyoaki Emura. He's one of the unsung heroes of 80s background animation. His chase through the tunnel in Akira (watch) is one of the film's iconic moments. Compare it with the animation of the biking scenes in Bari Bari Densetsu (watch), which was released two years before Akira. Just as Toshiaki Hontani made more realistic smoke FX animation than ever in Akira, Toyoaki Emura pushed background animation to its realistic extreme. Koji Morimoto and Takashi Nakamura did a nice motorcycle POV shot in the even earlier Bobby's In Deep (1985), but it was more dynamic than realistic. (watch)
Toyoaki Emura has his own web site. He has since apparently transition to working with CGI, a move that perhaps makes sense considering the nature of his animation prior to then. I can't help but feel it a shame, though, because he was really good. He went on to work on Venus Wars, Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor 2, Like a Cloud, Like the Wind, Catnapped, Spriggan, Jin-Roh, and Innocence. Incidentally, in Akira, Emura was also responsible for the battle between Tetsuo and the soldiers in the hallway after he escapes his chamber, as well as the following scene where he attacks the 'kids' (up until #27 zooms away in his flying wheelchair). In Like a Cloud, Like the Wind he animated the very first 20 or so shots as well as the battle on the grass around the midway point. He was clearly relied upon for complicated shots that required solid skills and patience.
I’m such a sucker for BG and vehicle animation. I know deep down that part of it is simply admiration for the difficulty involved.
Great article as usual, and big plus having the videos linked up right there!