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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Thursday, March 22, 2012

06:31:00 pm , 3182 words, 6440 views     Categories: OVA, Studio: Oh Pro, Studio: Ghibli, 1980s

Oh Pro's Devilman

Animation subcontracting studio Oh Production is perhaps best remembered for their classic Gauche the Cellist (1982), although they were a prolific subcontractor who provided some great animation to many shows over the years while receiving little recognition for it. They later produced another in-house show called Little Twins (1992), which I wrote about before. Between these two there was one other major Oh Pro production that I only just recently had the chance to discover.

First adapted in 1972 by Toei (opening), Oh Pro re-made Go Nagai's classic manga Devilman into two high-quality OVAs released in 1987 and 1990. (Another Devilman OVA was released many years later, but it was made by Studio Live, not Oh Pro, and is in a completely different style.)

The most interesting and surprising thing about these OVAs is that the animation was in large part done by Ghibli animators, so it has a distinctly Ghibli inflection. Oh Pro had lent its animators to Miyazaki for years, and it seems he paid back the favor in this OVA.

These are well made OVAs with very nice animation and lush visuals. Especially the first volume features some of the most impressive sequences of animation of any production in that era, OVA or movie. The visuals are clean and refined and the directing measured and controlled in a way I wouldn't have expected for this material. It feels different from your typical OVA, in both directing and animation. It feels more cinematic. I don't even like Go Nagai that much, but I enjoyed these OVAs because of the good production quality.

The basic premise of Devilman is that demons inhabited the world in prehistoric times, but they were vanquished by the angels. Fast-forward to modern Tokyo, where the demons are trying to find their way back into our world. (Since when Tokyo isn't busy being blown up in anime, it's being taken over by demons.) The protagonist is enlisted to fight the demons by an old friend whose father was a demon researcher. He does so by channeling an old demon called Amon and becoming Devilman.

Most of the first episode is devoted to the buildup, as the protagonist learns about this secret history of the world, in the end finally becoming Devilman and killing a room full of demons who possess the body of a club full of revelers. But sprinkled between these basically realistic sequences are two sequences that depict the prehistoric monster world. These sequences are my favorite part of these OVAs. The monster world was a place where dinosaurs and demons inhabited the same hellish plane of reality, playing out an endless sequence of bloody battles, each more bizarrely horrific than the next. The sequences are masterfully animated and packed full of ideas. Rather than your typical goblins and ghouls, the monsters are horrible yet somehow believable mish-mashes of animals and insects living, ancient and imaginary, and their battles play out like a grotesque nature channel program.

The rest of the OVA apart from these sequences is nice, too, although I came away wishing the entire OVA had looked like those two sequences. The visuals are sleek and clean, and the scenes are carefully directed. The only problem is that the story structure is somewhat odd, with a huge proportion of episode 1 being devoted to buildup, and the second episode completely abandoning any kind of theme or story and going with long, drawn-out monster battles.

The first episode is more satisfying than the second in part because the animation feels a little better, but also because of the material. The first episode has a dramatic arc that builds to a surprise ending. The protagonist starts as a regular boy, and with the arrival of his mysterious friend, the tension builds and builds until the climax, which explodes into an orgy of violence as the protagonist transforms into Devilman. By the second episode, the premise has been established, and all that remains is for Devilman to battle one opponent after another. Episode 2 is split evenly in half between two opponent battles, and other than this doesn't really feature any dramatic tension.

I wouldn't say that I think this is the most faithful adaptation of Go Nagai in style and spirit, though I'm not exactly an expert on his work. I would think something with a more rough and graphic touch would be needed to do him justice. But this OVA works in its own way, and Go Nagai was apparently supervising the project, so he obviously approved.

Even though the material here is inherently gory, the tasteful drawings and understated directing make it seem less gratuitously so than it might have been in the hands of a lesser director. Even at its most violent, this OVA remains somehow restrained and polite. It's an interesting contrast with the contemporary Go Nagai OVA adaptations of Violence Jack, which felt much more authentically exploitative.

These OVAs are impressive perhaps because they are strong as pieces of visual directing. The opening sequence of episode 1 is a good example. The first few minutes are entirely wordless, depicting the early struggle between the demons and the angels. This sequence is epic in tone and quite lovely. It reminds of the opening of Nausicaa. Even the music, by a young Kenji Kawai, sounds like it was influenced by Joe Hisaishi's score for Nausicaa. (By the time of episode 2 in 1990, his score had acquired that patented Kenji Kawai sound.) Episode 2, meanwhile, features a long battle in the air that is almost entirely wordless - pure visual directing.

I also like that the battles are actual physical battles, not just two Super Saiyans blasting each other with psychic beams. Usually this kind of monster battling in anime is boring because when someone is finally cornered, they just power up and make up some new, even stronger psychic power to blast away the opponent. At least here, there's no powering up or other cheap tricks: it's just straight physical battling, with the same set of powers they started out with.

Oh Pro's Devilman was the directing debut of Tsutomu Iida, who later changed his name to Umanosuke Iida. Devilman benefits from the attention to detail that helped make his later Space Miners (1994) such a delight. The pacing is quite slow, even sluggish, yet it holds your interest because every shot feels clean and deliberately presented. The pacing is slow because it's grounded in reality, and that gives it more impact when supernatural things occur in this otherwise realistically paced story. There are no shots that feel like throwaway shots between important scenes. What the film lacks in dynamism it makes up for in unflagging tension and assiduously pleasing drawings.

Attention to detail is one of the things that makes it feel cinematic. The protagonist's father's house is a stately and high-class estate with expensive furniture and paintings on the wall. In one shot, in the middle of all the opulence, a corner of the wall bears the scar of a shotgun blast, testament to the father's descent into madness. It's nice because it's totally understated. No mention is actually made of it. It's a higher level of storytelling than the usual OVA when they put little touches like this in the background as a subtle way of augmenting the narrative.

I appreciated the little innocuous details like the way each of the bikes was individuated in the following shot of an ordinary sidewalk in the city (in front of the suspiciously named Iida Bookstore). It's not flamboyant and passes by unnoticed while watching, but it helps make the film feel more authentic and believable. Everyday nuance like this is something you associate with the Ghibli films. This OVA has many examples of nice details like this.

The lighting is another aspect showing the unusual level of attention to detail that Iida brought to his work. There's one particular shot that impressed me for its stylish and creative presentation. While the protagonists are driving in a car, at one point they stop at a red light. The camera is positioned as if it was facing the driver of the car, just above the hood. The windshield of protagonists' car is bathed in the red light of the taillights of the truck in front of them, obscuring the driver. After a few seconds, the truck driver steps off the brake pedal, turning the taillights off, and the red cloak disappears and the protagonist becomes visible.

In a later shot, we see the facade of the protagonist's father's home shown at an oblique angle. After a few seconds, headlights appear behind the bushes in the distance. We can't see the car, only the mansion and the big tree in the courtyard, but we know the car is moving off screen because the shadows of the tree's branches run across the face of the mansion in a believably rendered play of black shapes. Only after the shapes stop moving does the camera slowly pan right towards the driveway, where the car has stopped in front of the gate. It's an innocuous and unimportant shot, but it's so satisfying and interesting to watch.

The staging of the shots also feels cinematic. Shots are positioned in such a way that the action moves through the shot in a creative and unexpected way, the way it does in Miyazaki's films. It's quite possible that Iida was in fact directly influenced by Miyazaki's style in this regard, because just after his involvement in the Oh Pro episodes of Lupin III Part 3 (1984-1985), he served as assistant director on Laputa (1986).

The Ghibli connection

The animation fully backs up Tsutomu Iida's cinematic directing, and it's no surprise why: the animators almost all just came from Laputa. It seems that having worked as the assistant director of Laputa gave Iida the leverage to be able to invite many of the animators who worked on Laputa to work on Devilman. That, and Oh Pro's long history of having worked with Takahata and Miyazaki, ever since the days of Heidi. Miyazaki's previous film, Nausicaa (1984), featured Oh Pro animators Tadashi Fukuda, Kitaro Kosaka and Toshitsugu Saida. Tsutomu Iida's very first job in animation was as an inbetweener on Nausicaa. Before that, Future Boy Conan (1978) featured Oh Pro animators Koichi Murata, Toshitsugu Saida, Joji Manabe, and Toshio Yamauchi.

The character designer/animation director of Devilman is Oh Pro co-founder Kazuo Komatsubara. Komatsubara himself had of course been animation director of Nausicaa, as well as having been the planner of Gauche, so there are many ties between Oh Pro and Ghibli. At a deeper level, Komatsubara had started out at Toei Doga in 1964, just one year after Miyazaki, although the two never wound up working together on the same projects there. After Komatsubara left Toei, he worked on the famous Go Nagai productions of the 1970s for Toei, most notably Devilman, which is presumably what led Go Nagai to choose Komatsubara and Oh Pro for this remake.

There is no other OVA that features an animator list like this: Katsuya Kondo, Shinji Otsuka, Makiko Futaki, Yoshinori Kanada, Toshio Kawaguchi, Masaaki Endo. And that's just the first episode. This is probably the reason why many of the drawings have a distinctly Miyazaki-esque feeling.

The second episode came several years later in 1990, and features many of the animators who worked on the intervening two Ghibli films, Totoro (1988) and Kiki (1989) - Yoshiharu Sato, Shinji Otsuka, Masaaki Endo, Toshio Kawaguchi, Yoshinori Kanada, Katsuya Kondo, Makiko Futaki, Hiroomi Yamakawa, Sachiko Sugino, Hiroshi Watanabe. Oh Pro animator Hiroshi Shimizu, who worked on episode 2, became a regular in Ghibli films starting the year after with Only Yesterday (1991). The second episode features a few other impressive outside names: Yasuomi Umetsu, Hiroyuki Okiura, Norimoto Tokura.

Apart from the animation, there are other Ghibli connections that help account for the Ghibli feeling. The color designer of the first episode is Michiyo Yasuda, who has been the color designer of every Miyazaki film since Nausicaa. I think this is one of the few non-Miyazaki films she's worked on. The art director of the first episode is Takamura Mukuo, a veteran art director from the early days of anime who was the art director of Gauche the Cellist. He was art director of many a classic anime, from Galaxy Express 999 to Harmageddon, to say nothing of the classic Takahata/Miyazaki TV series Heidi and 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. Anido released a retrospective book of his art.

The animation

There's something about the drawings in this OVA that I really love. Just as every age has its distinguishing style of drawing that eventually disappears, the drawings in these OVAs have a certain quality that you don't find in anime anymore. Komatsubara's drawings are graceful and clean, the girls cute without going overboard with the cuteness like people do today. Even when the animation isn't particularly interesting, the drawings maintain your interest because they're consistently pleasing to the eye.

The most impressive scene in terms of the animation is the 4-minute segment in episode 1 after the protagonist puts on the monster mask, where he sees a vision of world of the demons, pictured above. This segment is a beautiful standalone piece of animation, obviously done by one person, depicting a slyly humorous sequence of monsters eating one another. One monster devours another, only to be devoured by another bigger monster, only for that one to be devoured by an even bigger monster, etc, etc, ad infinitum - the demon version of what happens in the natural world.

The designs in this segment are beautiful and well drawn. The animation isn't impressive in an obvious way, but it's incredibly nuanced and well executed. The only equivalent I've seen is animation in the Ghibli films, so it's obvious this segment was done by one of the Ghibli animators - I'm guessing either Katsuya Kondo, Shinji Otsuka or Makiko Futaki.

Episode 1 features plenty of other very nice segments. Yoshinori Kanada obviously animated the delectable disco scene at the end of the first episode, with its riotous rainbow colors and wild dancing by nubile bacchantes in leotards and panties. The drawings in this scene look like they came straight out of Birth. There are some nice Kanada-school effects where the protagonists are attacked by the car monster, perhaps by Kanada associate Osamu Nabeshima. The scattered shots of the monsters in the mansion early on are each quite well done.

Episode 2 is less impressive in terms of the animation, but is still quite solidly animated. The episode is capped by a tour-de-force 15-minute-long extended aerial combat sequence. It's consistently well drawn and creatively choreographed, although the only disappointment is that it is somewhat lacking in dynamism and is a little boring. What is impressive is how consistently well drawn the characters are from various angles as they grapple with one another mid-air. It's also nice how the sequence evolves naturally according to the surroundings, first in the city, flying around and bouncing off buildings, then zooming over a river past a bridge out to the forest on the outskirts of the city, then using the trees in the forest to attack the opponent either as projectiles or camouflage.

The animation highlight in episode 2 is the segment in the house where the protagonist saves the nude girl from the monster. This sequence was obviously drawn by Hiroyuki Okiura. It's easily identifiable by comparing it with the great segment he animated in episode 1 of The Hakkenden the same year, which is one of my favorite sequences ever. Okiura's animation changed a lot in later years, becoming much more impressively nuanced, but there's something about the raw power and excitement of his early work at this period that I find I miss. I prefer the more dynamic and expressive early Okiura at the tail end of his Anime R period, and this scene is a great example of his work from this period.

Tsutomu Iida

Sadly, Tsutomu Iida passed away two years ago from lung cancer. It cut short a career that I was always hoping would take off. After Devilman, he was involved in a number of projects, but none of them seemed to me to quite provide him with the opportunity to show just how great a director he was. Space Miners is perhaps the best showcase of his talent. I think he was one of the few people out there with the instincts of a director. He was detail-oriented, able to create fun and engaging stories and characters, good at world-building. I wanted to see him get the chance to do that in a feature context. He was directing the Towa no Quon (2011) movie series for Bones when death interrupted him, but I haven't seen these yet. Ironic that when he finally got to direct a movie, he should die in the middle of it.

It seems to me like he got side-tracked with fluff projects after Devilman. First there was the Chibi Go Nagai World OVAs. He directed 3 45-minute OVAs for this series. Apparently it all came about when Go Nagai saw his chibi drawings for the Devilman characters during production of Devilman and Go Nagai so loved them that he asked for an anime version to be produced. The anime is certainly entertaining and well made, with animation from Oh Pro animators, helmed again by character designer/animation director Kazuo Komatsubara. But it feels like nothing so much as a waste of his talent. He later did a similar side-show for the main event of Giant Robo in the Gin-Rei OVA.

Iida also directed one of the episodes of Oh Pro's Little Twins, which I mentioned above, as well as one of the short segments in a two-volume OVA series made by Oh Pro adapting traditional Japanese horror stories, in the more cartoony style of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. His major projects of later years Gundam: The 08th MS Team (1996-1999), Hellsing (2001-2002), Tide-Line Blue (2005) and Towa no Quon (2011).

Finally, Iida directed a pilot for a movie called Spirit that obviously never got beyond the pilot stage. I haven't been able to find any information about this. Hopefully some day this can be released so we can see everything this talented director left us. Alongside Mahiro Maeda's R20 Galactic Airport, this is another pilot for a feature-length film that I wish would have gotten off the ground.

Devilman: Birth (Oh Pro, 1987, OVA, 50min)

Director:飯田つとむ Tsutomu Iida
Script:永井豪 Go Nagai
飯田つとむ Tsutomu Iida
Character Design:小松原一男 Kazuo Komatsubara
Animation Director:安藤正浩 Masahiro Ando
Art Director:椋尾篁 Takamura Mukuo
Music:川井憲次 Kenji Kawai
Color Design:保田道世 Michiyo Yasuda

Key Animation:安藤正浩 Masahiro Ando
金田伊功 Yoshinori Kanada
鍋島修 Osamu Nabeshima
松原京子 Kyoko Matsubara
森友典子 Noriko Moritomo
矢吹勉 Tsutomu Yabuki
川崎博嗣 Hirotsugu Kawasaki
東京モモンガ Tokyo Momonga
二木真希子 Makiko Futaki
遠藤正明 Masaaki Endo
近藤勝也 Katsuya Kondo
河口俊夫 Toshio Kawaguchi
大塚伸治 Shinji Otsuka
小松原一男 Kazuo Komatsubara

Devilman: Demon Bird (Oh Pro, 1990, OVA, 57min)

Director:飯田つとむ Tsutomu Iida
Character Design & A.D.:小松原一男 Kazuo Komatsubara
Animation Director:安藤正浩 Masahiro Ando
Art Director:宮前光春 Mitsuharu Miyamae
海老沢一男 Kazuo Ebisawa
Music:川井憲次 Kenji Kawai

Key Animation:清水洋 Hiroshi Shimizu
遠藤正明 Masaaki Endo
沖浦啓之 Hiroyuki Okiura
佐藤雄三 Yuzo Sato
梅津泰臣 Yasuomi Umetsu
河口俊夫 Toshio Kawaguchi
鍋島修 Osamu Nabeshima
松原京子 Kyoko Matsubara
金田伊功 Yoshinori Kanada
近藤勝也 Katsuya Kondo
杉野左秩子 Sachiko Sugino
練木正宏 Masahiro Neriki
諸橋伸司 Shinji Morohashi
渡辺浩 Hiroshi Watanabe
宮本英子 Eiko Miyamoto
大竹紀子 Noriko Otake
加藤茂 Shigeru Kato
佐藤好春 Yoshiharu Sato
黒沢守 Mamoru Kurosawa
山川浩臣 Hiroomi Yamakawa
戸倉紀元 Norimoto Tokura



gingersoll [Visitor]

Awesome post. I’ve always loved these OAVs. Well rounded animation and design, plenty of running time to give the story room to breath, and enough Nagai craziness to keep the flavor of the original work. A shame the same crew didn’t have a chance to finish up the series, undoubtedly the climax would have been filled with those elegant and horrible demons wreaking all kinds of creative havoc.

Ben, have you seen “Oniisama e"? I had been meaning to get around to it for nearly two decades. Fantastic direction by Dezaki, so many touches of hands on practical animation. Tears, for example, are often done in a really cool way, shooting light through animated pin holes. Very elegant. Plenty of nice expressive movements in the drawings too.

03/26/12 @ 14:44
Ben [Member]  

Thanks! You’re right, it’s a shame that the story never gets any closure in the Oh Pro OVAs. They launch it then it just stops in the middle. I wonder if they even had plans to finish it. I guess I’m just used to this sort of thing with OVAs (Space Miners, 3x3 Eyes, Yamato 2520, Relic Armor Legaciam), so it doesn’t even faze me any more, heh.

Thanks for mentioning Oniisama e… Techno Girls subtitled Oniisama e at the time I was translating Romeo’s Blue Skies for them in the mid-90s, so yeah, I saw a bit of it back then. It was impressive to me technically, but I never could really get into it because the shoujo histrionics were a bit too much for me to swallow. But it does look like Dezaki at his best, in high drama Ace wo Nerae mode, so I should probably give it a chance sometime.

03/26/12 @ 18:47
gingersoll [Visitor]

Wow, small world! I was a big fan of the TechnoGirls back in the days of vhs. As I recall there were very few other groups interested in the World Masterpiece Theater titles and the more obscure shoujo classics.

03/28/12 @ 11:47
pete [Member]

I too couldnt stand Dear Brother from the first episode. Dezaki of the 90s has not much in common with that of the 70s. An epic shojo was Haikara-san ga Tooru, which I liked even more than I originally expected. Not this one.

Btw Technogirls have the only existing photo of Ben from many years ago!

03/29/12 @ 05:01