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As I've noted in the past, the OVA format has long been the format of choice for experimentation with material and styles not suitable for the broad reach of theater or television. A few OVAs like Take the X Train experimented with unconventional design styles, but for the most part even OVAs remained within the confines of conventional anime design thinking. Twilight Theatre of 1991 is one of the most daring OVAs ever in this sense. An omnibus of four shorts by different directors, it features more adult storytelling, albeit within the context of traditional ghost/horror literature, and some truly daring design concepts reminiscent of indie animation without parallel in commercial anime. I wrote about Shinya Ohira's contribution The Antique Shop before. But I just had a chance to see the whole thing, and it was quite a nice package overall. The quality is uneven, and the content is lurid and sensational, but its bold experiments make Twilight Theatre a shining example of the OVA format. (Watch here)
Ranging in length between 10 and 17 minutes, the episodes are each based on a single short story by Yumemakura Baku. The films thus tend to be dialogue-heavy, with voice-overs or extended sequences of exposition. Ideally the films should rely more on the visuals, but for the most part this didn't bother me, partly because the stories were simply interesting, and also partly because of the variety of styles on display. Dialogue-heavy anime usually turns me off, but the writing was interesting because it has a talented writer behind it, and because it's concise and to the point, building to its climax efficiently within a short span. The episodes have a literary intelligence while yet being entertaining as horror/supernatural stories.
I've always been partial to omnibus animation like this, and still think it would be a good thing to have a long-running show like this offering different animators the chance to try more daring styles than your typical long-running show. The length of these episodes is just about right. Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi (1975-1995) was one of the pioneers of this kind of animation, and it produced some fantastically creative work. This was followed up by its even more creative if shorter-lived Madhouse imitator Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi (1976-1979), which as mentioned before featured some great episodes by Osamu Dezaki. Shin-Ei joined the fray in 1979 with The Red Bird, perhaps being the first omnibus anime based on literature, adapting different classics of children's literature. Nippon Animation made a literary omnibus in 1986 with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature.
The advent of the OVA market saw an explosion of low-quality children's lit omnibuses, but two of the better ones were Toei Animation's 6-episode Tokuma Anime Video Ehon Hanaichi Monme OVA series (1990), featuring directing by Junichi Sato and animation from Koichi Arai, among others, and Nippon Animation's Anime Art Video Collection (1993), featuring work by old masters such as Yasuji Mori and Shichiro Kobayashi. (The Jack and the Beanstalk short by Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima mentioned in the last post is part of this series.) It seems like most of the major studios of decades past have taken a stab at the animated omnibus. More recently, Studio 4C did so with Kimagure Robot (2004), based on the short shorts of Shinichi Hoshi.
Twilight Theatre is also an omnibus based on the work of one writer, and is notable perhaps for being one of the first literary omnibuses for adults. Two of the episodes include love scenes of a kind one would see in any typical Hollywood movie. Ero OVAs like Urotsuki Doji (1987-1996) quickly flourished in the new market, but the love scenes in Twilight Theatre are more matter-of-fact than explicit. Sex is treated in a mature, tactful way rather than with the giggly man-child fetishism of most other professedly mature anime. It's rare to see a truly mature treatment of sex in anime. The few anime with a truly realistic aesthetic like Jin-Roh or Omohide Poroporo aim for a general audience that precludes such frank depictions of sex. That's perhaps the most refreshing thing about this show. Beyond the sex, it's the sensibility that clearly sets the show apart. The storytelling is mature, the tone is restrained and without childish antics, and the material is sometimes downright unglamorous, as in the story of The Antique Shop, about a salaryman disappointed with his life.
The series was produced by Studio Pierrot, but two of the shorts were actually produced by Ichiro Itano's D.A.S.T. (Defence Animation Special Team). This studio was founded by Itano in December 1986 and went on to produce a number of high-quality and high-violence OVAs including Battle Royale High School (1987), Violence Jack (1988), Kujaku-oh 2 (1989) and Angel Cop (1989-1994). It's D.A.S.T.'s two episodes that make this OVA release truly noteworthy. Ichiro Itano had the generosity and vision as producer to give two young but talented realistic animators who had worked on these OVAs in the preceding years the chance to mount their directing debuts with these shorts - not to mention seemingly giving them carte blance, judging by the highly unconventional and challenging nature of their respective films.
Ephemeral Dream 夢蜉蝣
|Line Director:||青木佐恵子||Saeko Aoki|
|Art Director:||西川増水||Masumizu Nishikawa|
|Key Animation:||林千博||Chihiro Hayashi|
|Animation Production:||スタジオぴえろ||Studio Pierrot|
The opening short tells the story of a college student named Mibu who one day while taking a test in class notices a strange aura around a girl named Ayabe. He tries to find out more, but is warned off by another student named Himuro. Mibu discovers several ancient poems that speak about the ephemerality of love using the phrase Yumekagero, which is also the name of a mononoke whose aura can only be seen by a special few. Himuro also has his eyes on the girl. It turns out Ayabe may have killed Himuro's brother 10 years ago, and now Himuro wants to be next...
Essentially a horror story about a mayfly-like mononoke that serves as a metaphor for the ephemerality of love, the title as well as the story of this short are built upon a double meaning that is complicated to translate but that makes for satisfyingly layered viewing when watching. The name Yumekagero comes from Kusakagero, a damselfly-like insect that lives for only a day. The aura that surrounds Ayabe is called Udumbara, which is both the name of the flower of the Indian Fig Tree, which grows secretively inside the fruit, and the name of the larva of the Kusakagero. Ayabe was impregnated by the Yumekagero, which hatches every 10 years when the Udumbara blooms, and must quickly devour the vitality of a male victim to lay its next brood. Ayabe and Mibu are about to consummate the ritual when Himuro barges in and jumps out the window to his death with Ayabe. It's too late for Mibu, though, who withers into an old man.
The story thus has a pleasingly literary density of allusion that elevates it slightly above typical examples of the genre in anime. Such material wouldn't seem suited to animated adaptation, but it works fairly well in the short running time without being too confusing.
A mid-period piece from Yasuomi Umetsu after his debut on Robot Carnival (1987) but before his breakthrough with A Kite (1998), I enjoyed this despite it being somewhat light in the animation department, both compared with Umetsu's other work and with the other pieces in the set. There's no blistering action, or any action whatsoever for that matter, only everyday acting scenes, but I actually like that its focus is on everyday acting. It allows you to appreciate the skills of this great animator without being distracted by either overactive animation or the typical Umetsu tackiness that I find tends to mar his own films.
Umetsu is a very technical animator, and he likes to grandstand. There is less of that here, but his seemingly effortless precision draughtsmanship comes through loud and clear. He poses characters in a variety of ways, changes their expressions dynamically, and can draw their bodies in motion three-dimensionally from any complicated angle and maintain their shapes as if they were rendered by a computer.
Umetsu also has a peculiar design sensibility that I usually find off-putting, but the characters here were more restrained in their designs, so I rather enjoyed them. I thought they were light in touch and subtly stylized in a pleasing and appealing way, for example the huge angular jaw of the protagonist's bespectacled friend, or the elegant oval of Ayabe's head. His character drawings are somewhat similar to Satoru Utsunomiya in the sense that their bodies feel stiff and rigid, and are drawn with sharp lines and angular forms, but where Utsunomiya's characters tend to be minimalistic and doll-like, Umetsu riddles his characters with peculiar distinguishing features, for example the three symmetrical hairs on the end of the protagonist's eyebrows in this short.
I find this piece shows how school drama should be done. The people in this short are actually believable as college students in the way they talk and behave. The body language and interpersonal dynamics are just realistic and understated enough to be believable. The acting is also nuanced without being lushly animated per se - it's more about skilfully timing the right expression or pose with a mere few drawings. And Umetsu has his own way of making the characters act that makes sense and isn't merely following a playbook of cliched stock expressions and poses, as is the case in most anime nowadays. Some animators nowadays seem to think that making characters flail about randomly is good acting, but Umetsu shows a good example here of how to make characters act in a way that makes sense in the context and is believable, without flamboyantly using a lot of drawings.
The short is actually not directed by Umetsu but by one Saeko Aoki of Pierrot. She is only credited with line directing, but she must also have drawn the storyboard. This is also the case in the Shinichi Suzuki short. The Yasuomi Umetsu and Shinichi Suzuki shorts were produced by Pierrot, and the Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto shorts were produced by Ichiro Itano's D.A.S.T. The Pierrot episodes also feature a very small number of animators compared with the long credit rolls of the two D.A.S.T. episodes, and the nature of the films reflects this; the two D.A.S.T. films are very much about the animation, whereas the animation seems almost perfunctory in the Pierrot films, whose focus is more on the narrative. Now largely associated with shonen fighting anime, Pierrot was at this time largely associated with magical girl fare, but occasionally produced the random highly artistic OVAs like Magical Emi: Semishigure and Gosenzosama Banbanzai and then this.
Tatami Voyage 四畳半漂流記
|Art Director:||石垣努||Tsutomu Ishigaki|
|Key Animation:||橋本浩一||Koichi Hashimoto|
A guy named Shimada is on his way to meet his crush, Saori, when he has a run-in with a thug and gets beaten up. A mysterious passer-by rescues Shimada and asks for a favor in return. Saori happens by the scene, and together the two go back to Shimada's apartment to hear the stranger's request. The stranger informs them that he's looking for a certain something called "Pemu". Shimada hesitatingly accepts, and the stranger tells them their journey has already begun. Confused, they look out the window, and realize they got more than they bargained for, and the stranger is no mere mortal...
The directing debut of animator Shinji Hashimoto, this is by far the most striking of the four shorts. It's not often at my jaded age that I'm caught off guard by animation, but this thing shocked even me. This short is nothing less than a well-deserved bullet to the head of conventional anime character design. My jaw was literally dropped throughout much of the runtime. It has a style like nothing else that has ever been made in anime. The drawings at first sight appear to be deliberately ugly, but I find them quite appealing, in an extremely offbeat kind of way. Hashimoto attests to having been inspired by a 1990 manga called Bunpuku Chagama Daimaoh, the debut of Tokyo Tribe mangaka Santa Inoue, The drawings of this manga are by no means identical to the designs of this short, but you can see how they might have inspired Hashimoto to go in the direction he did.
What he got from the designs was the idea of freely, loosely drawn forms drawn with quick, firm, assured strokes. In anime, you usually have to draw a character exactly on model and get all the shapes and details just right. Otherwise it's off-model. The designs here represent an overturning of this fundamental rule of animation drawing, at least in anime. Rather than drawing outlines first, then filling in the details, and getting everything just so, these designs can still be properly drawn even if the details are not all the same in each shot. The forms are drawn as a series of bulges whose shapes can vary in relation to one another and still feel like the design is maintained. The characters have something of the character of blobs. This is somewhat reminiscent of the cartoon aesthetic of the west, with its stretch and squash, but it's not quite the same. There's no stretch and squash here. Hashimoto invented his own unique approach that was basically more suited to his own temperament and personality, and made the process of animating fun for himself, rather than the tedious chore it can become if you have to spend a lot of time on getting the details of a design just right. I'm not an animator because I'm too impatient. I think I would enjoy drawing Hashimoto's characters because they wouldn't be a pain in the butt.
The designs have almost a naif feeling, as if they were drawn by a child or an outsider artist. But clearly that is not the case, as the animation is at times extremely rich and nuanced, and of course Shinji Hashimoto is an ex-Telecom animator. Santa Inoue is related to Taiyo Matsumoto, as is his style, and the style here seems indebted to the whole indie manga aesthetic. This episode is a prime example of how the pair of Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto injected an indie and punk feeling into anime, subverting the industry from the inside out. I wish animators in the anime industry would come up with their own approaches like this. There is the whole heta-uma movement started by Shiriagari Kotobuki, with its anime analogues in a few shows like Manga Biyori, but Hashimoto's film is totally different from that; it's quite sincere rather than sarcastic.
The animation is very strong in certain spots, and at all times nothing short of mesmerizing due to the design choices. Every drawing fascinates, because you can see the animators actually having to think, to come up with an answer to the question of how to draw these characters. The animation where the guy transforms in front of the monster near the end is particularly impressive, and may have been the work of an uncredited Satoru Utsunomiya. For some reason many animators in this and Shinya Ohira's short went uncredited.
The animation at times has the feeling of Takashi Nakamura, particularly with the way the monster's face is drawn with these big, deeply sculpted nose and lips. Apparently this short was made by essentially the same team of animators as The Antique Shop, but The Antique Shop was done first, and by the time of this short, they were all really pooped and didn't have much energy left. It still looks pretty impressive, considering the very short schedule in which they made it. Just goes to show that it's not budget and schedule that make for compelling animation, it's the overwhelming desire to make something incredible, consequences be damned.
The remarkable thing is that this is nothing even remotely like the style with which Shinji Hashimoto is typically associated. It's a complete one-off. There must be so many other talented animators out there who, if given the chance like Hashimoto was here, would be able to produce novel visual schemes of a kind we would never have expected, but they just haven't been given the chance. OVAs like this were a precious opportunity to try new things. Hashimoto hasn't directed anything since, except for one opening. OVAs haven't gotten any more daring.
A Mountain Ghost Story 深山幻想譚
|Line Director:||青木佐恵子||Saeko Aoki|
|Art Director:||伊藤主計||Kazue Ito|
|Key Animation:||竹山稔||Minoru Takeyama|
|Animation Production:||スタジオぴえろ||Studio Pierrot|
A mountaineer sits alone with his thoughts, warming himself to the fire and sipping coffee while reminiscing about what drove him to seek the mountain he enjoyed hiking as a youth, now, in his advanced age: The failure of his small business, and the avalanche of responsibility that followed... His wife, screaming in anger... The life insurance that would take care of his debts and his wife if something were to happen to him.... Yes, he has come to the mountain to die. His dark thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected visitor, who begins talking about strange things like mountain spirits.
Featuring drawings by Shinichi Suzuki of The Life of Gusko Budori, this is the most static and minimalistic short in the set, but also the longest, clocking in at 17 minutes. (By contrast, Shinji Hashimoto's vividly animated episode is understandably the shortest, at 10 minutes.) Most of the episode consists of two people sitting around a fire talking. In terms of both directing and animation, it's very restrained. The directing and animation serve mainly to narrate the story about this man's past and the mysterious stranger. You could criticize this short, as well as Umetsu's, for being a little too reliant on the source material and not creating an emphatic visual analogue to the script, but honestly the story is interesting enough that I didn't mind this at all. It makes for a good balance in tone to have one more static short like this in the set, so the film should more rightfully be judged within its original context.
Despite having very little to it, the story kept me interested throughout. You can feel the pain of the protagonist, who has gone through hard times and has retreated to the solitude of the mountains to gather his thoughts and potentially even end his own life. I can certainly relate to this feeling of wanting to give up, one we've probably all felt at some time or another. I felt the long shots focused on the protagonist did a good job of establishing the atmosphere of this section. [SPOILER] Perhaps I'm just naive not to have seen it coming, but I was genuinely surprised by the ending, and it provided the poignant final touch to an already poignant setup. After the stillness of the entire episode, suddenly the interloper walks forward and stands into the fire, to the shock of the protagonist, and then violently grabs the protagonist's face and shoves him into the bottle. Dramatically and visually it makes for quite a sucker punch after all that calm and stillness. He was a ghost all along, having long since died on the mountain.
Although not up to the level of an animator like Yasuomi Umetsu, Shinichi Suzuki nevertheless does a decent job here as the near-solo animator of the whole episode. He's less technically accomplished than Umetsu, but has a cartoonish and exaggerated way of animating the characters using very few drawings that is appealing in its own way. I particularly like the detail lavished on depicting how he opens up the package of coffee. Little details like this conveys the reality of the situation well. The interloper appears to be designed in a way reminiscent of Buddha, with his long-lobed ears and paunch, which is an interesting choice. His animation is rather lively and fun. Once you've seen the episode, everything takes on a different meaning on a second watching, as you understand the subtext of the protagonist's words and body language.
I don't know much else about Suzuki other than that he was one of the founding members of Animaru-ya in 1982, having done sakkan work on Sasuga no Sarutobi that same year, and is still very much active, having founded his own subcontracting studio Anime Kobo Basara アニメ工房婆娑羅 in 1997. Incidentally, this Shinichi Suzuki is written 鈴木信一 and is unrelated to the Shinichi Suzuki who was an animator at Otogi Pro in the 1950s, whose name is written 鈴木伸一. His studio is one of the few subcontractors who do work for Kyoto Animation productions, presumably due to the fact that Kyoto Animation's Kigami Yoshiji is a fellow Animaru-ya expat.
The Antique Shop 骨董屋
|Art Director:||長尾仁||Jin Nagao|
|Key Animation:||佐々木守||Mamoru Sasaki|
The lost protagonist of The Antique Shop is going through a bit of an early mid-life crisis. Once an aspiring painter with a beautiful girlfriend, he had a falling out with his girlfriend and now lives a boring life as a salaryman. A night out drinking with his old buddies turns sour as they regale him with stories of their success. He slips away into the night, pondering the point of his life, when his eyes fall on a strange antique shop. He slips in on a whim, and takes a metaphysical journey down memory lane, in the process discovering the suppressed memory of a tragic mistake that led to his downfall.
Shinya Ohira's directing debut is still beautiful to look at after all these years, and probably the best film in the set. It's the only of the four shorts that actually feels cinematic. Ohira tells this universal story of frustration, disappointment and dashed hopes through the lens of a harsh but loving realism that was unprecedented in its time. Even later realistic works don't quite adopt a tone as gritty and drably honest as this. And he did so in his directing debut, under extremely adverse production conditions that rendered the film technically somewhat of a mess, replete with photography mistakes and rushed animation.
There's an attention to detail here that's on a different level from the other shorts. Every shot is thoroughly creatively designed and conceived to create a dynamic flow as well as translate the psychology of the protagonist at each juncture. Early on, in the streets, the urban electrical wiring seems to entangle the man like a spiderweb as he falls to the ground and vomits on the sidewalk. Laughter echoes from somewhere, as if the city and life were laughing at his misery.
In the curio shop, as the protagonist walks through the doors, he passes by a mirrored dresser, and you can see his shadow passing in two directions at once as the image of his face briefly slides through the mirror, creating a disorienting effect mirroring the chaos of the interior of the shop and his mental state. The next shot is another disorienting shot in which we peer at the protagonist from above through the ticking and whirring guts of some kind of antique cuckoo clock. This cuts to a shot facing the protagonist as he looks around the interior, which in turn cuts to a POV shot of his eyes scanning the interior, which is depicted in intricate detail that makes you appreciate his wonder.
The objects in the shop actual feel very used and personal, which is essential to convey to the audience, as this sets up the reveal that they are in fact relics of his own childhood. He also uses a variety of directing techniques to achieve his ends, for example a panning shot with different parts of the shop moving at different speeds across the screen on different 'book' layers, followed by an animated 'mawarikomi' or rotating shot of the protagonist.
I like the story of this film for one because I can relate to the protagonist, but also because the supernatural element is there as the agency to help narrate a man's story, rather than being the main narrative thrust, as it usually is in this genre of story, and as it is in all of the other stories in the set.
I would love to see a full-length TV show done in this pared down realistic style, although I know it will never happen. There have been full-length features made in a completely realistic vein, but those are different. I want to see something that is more like 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in the sense that entire episodes are just devoted to depicting everyday life in its minutiae, minus the dramatic pretenses. I don't even mind the roughness of The Antique Shop, as you can see past that to the realistic core of the episode, so considering how short a schedule such a realistic film was produced on, I don't think it's unreasonable to think it would be possible to produce a TV show in this style.
Many of the shots have a lovely simplicity and subtlety to them thanks either to Ohira, who corrected some of the shots (like the late close-ups in the shop), as well as the talented group of animators he managed to scrounge up. For some reason, several of the best animators went uncredited. Confirmed uncredited animators are Akihiro Yuki, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma and Mitsuo Iso. Akihiro Yuki of Oh Pro animated the first few shots of the reminiscence where Keiko is working at the cash register, drinking tea, and where the protagonist is painting with Keiko looking on. I'm quite fond of his work. He again worked with Ohira on the Junkers pilot and then the film itself. Iso meanwhile animated the two shots of the protagonist smoking, while Yaginuma animated the scene immediately following where Keiko rushes to the sink to throw up. I wonder if maybe Masatsugu Arakawa also didn't draw a few uncredited shots. Some early shots in the film look like his style.
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.
In this day and age when every other anime is fantasy anime, it's hard to conceive of a time when there was no fantasy anime. But such was the case around the time of Aura Battler Dunbine in 1983.
Created and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino at Sunrise in 1983, Dunbine was one of the pioneer fantasy anime. Tomino pumped out one classic show after another during these years when he came unto his own as a creator and director. Just the year before in 1982, he directed the classic Xabungle TV series and Ideon: Be Invoked movie. His work prior to Dunbine was basically sci-fi robot anime, but with Dunbine he went in a new direction.
Largely influenced by Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga (the movie wasn't released until the year after), Dunbine was one of the groundbreaking fantasy anime, made at a time when audiences weren't used to fantasy anime, and the show paid the price for it. With its daring insectoid mecha designs, kids hated the toys. This placed pressures on the show's toy sponsor, Clover, that appear to have led to Clover shortly going out of business. The show was forced to switch the setting from the fantasy world of Byson Well to modern-day Tokyo in the second half.
Despite this shaky start, Dunbine continued to live on in various media, most notably the novel format. The 1980s were the auteur boom in anime, and Tomino attempted to blossom into an auteur. He penned novels to flesh out the world of Byston Well, two of which eventually got adapted into anime: Garzey's Wing (3 eps, 1996) and The Wings of Rean (6 eps, 2005-2006).
But the very first anime continuation actually came just a few years after the TV show: the 3-episode New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine. Tomino had a habit of releasing compilations of every TV show he directed, and Dunbine was no exception. A novel approach explored with the Dunbine collection was to include a new 30-minute OVA with each compilation.
New Story takes place 700 years after the events of the TV series, and tells the story of a young boy and girl who fight a group of so-called "Black Knights" seeking to recover a legendary Aura Battler to conquer the land of Byston Well. The characters are mostly new, but apparently the boy and girl are a resurrection of the protagonists of the TV series, and the evil mummy who seeks to re-open the door connecting Byston Well to our world is a character who was doomed to eternal life at the end of the TV show. It's actually all rather confusing because you are just plunged right into the action without any explanation. A basic knowledge of the premise of the Aura Battler mecha is obviously assumed, since these OVAs appended compilations of the TV show.
The story progresses quite quickly and without any undue exposition, not wasting a minute of its meager three episode allotment. The fantasy world is richly expressed, with many colorful creatures and settings. The whole story evolves over one quick arc of action, with the tables turning several times leading up to the cataclysmic denouement that you expect of a Tomino production. The influence of Nausicaa is quite palpable in the overall world view, style, and monster designs. A millipede-like underground monster immediately reminds of the flying millipede monster that attacked Nausicaa underground. For good or ill, however, the story avoids the thematic complexity of Nausicaa, opting instead for stock heroism and nonstop battle.
Directed by erstwhile Tomino associate Toshifumi Takizawa, New Story is a visually unique and intense fantasy that for all its cacophany of constant action comes across as underwhelming somehow. What New Story has going for it is that it's a tautly directed sprint across the land of Byston Well, with far more of a focus on the hardcore fantasy elements than the original TV series. Cramming in so much story into three episodes is a risky endeavor that I can't say pays off completely, but it's an intense ride that grips you from start to finish. Tomino regretted not having started the TV show out with more of a bang, and felt the show never recovered from starting on the wrong foot, so perhaps this is what led to the peremptory dash of New Story.
By 1988 Takizawa was a great talent in his own right, but he never had pretensions of auteur-dom like Tomino, so he didn't have the sort of identifiable traits that help make such directors popular, but rather remained a pliable craftsman, adapting himself to whatever he worked on to invest it with his own brand of taut cinematic storytelling. In New Story, Takizawa does a good job of emulating a Tomino-esque style of directing. The show has all of the breakneck pacing and manic cutting that are staples of Tomino's work - the cinematic framing with characters engaging in actions while talking rather than straight shots of talking heads, the sequences of pans and zooms to maintain a feeling of forward narrative momentum. The presentation is so determinedly oblique and frenetic, in fact, that it renders the story somewhat hard to follow at times, true to the Tomino aesthetic.
What sets the series apart and makes it notable is its production style: The mecha are mostly drawn with background drawings rather than animation drawings. Typically in anime you have the animation drawings, drawn on cels with flat colors, overlaid over the backgrounds drawn by the art department. Sometimes if you need a bush or something "in front of" a character, you will have something called a "book" - basically a piece of background art drawn by the art department, but with its outline cut out so that it can be placed on top of the animation drawing. This makes it seem like the background surrounds the characters.
What seems to be happening in New Story is that they've drawn all the mecha as books. Either this, or they invented some new technique to allow them to paint on cels the way Tadanari Okamodo did in The Soba Flower of Mt. Oni (which I obviously doubt). So you basically have the mecha drawn as background art in the midst of a shot in which all of the rest of the character and effect animation is drawn on cels, which have a completely different color scheme that makes the difference quite stark. It actually contributes well to giving the OVA a more fantastical atmosphere befitting the material. We're accustomed to seeing mecha in the simplified forms and flat colors of cel animation, so it feels sumptuous to see the mecha rendered this way. Rather than a toy advertisement, it actually feels like a fantasy world. The monolithic, plodding movement that results from having to use a single drawing also contributes to imparting a feeling of the vast size of the mecha.
Above you can see some examples of the art mecha drawings interacting with the cel drawings. It makes for a slightly unsettling experience, as it upturns how we've been trained through experience to parse the animation screen. Normally the cel drawings can affect the backgrounds, but not vice-versa. Here, the background drawings are affecting the background drawings. For example, in the left drawing, the art mecha crashes into the art wall, producing cel bricks and dust.
This is an unusual choice for a mecha show, since the whole point of using animated drawings is so that you can simplify the drawings to complete the animation in a shorter time. It's not unprecedented, though. Nausicaa was the show's big influence in many ways, so it's possible that the Ohmu were the inspiration behind this technique. It also brings to mind the way the castle in Howl was animated with patches of background art to give it that special look. Coincidentally or not, the photography director of most of the great Sunrise OVAs of this period, including New Story, was Atsushi Okui, the guy who went on to come up with that special way of animating the castle in Howl.
This technique must have been adopted in order to bring alive the unique mecha art drawn by Yutaka Izubuchi. The original mecha designer of the TV show was Miyatake Kazutaka, and he is the one who pioneered the more daring, organic, non-linear designs that make Dunbine unique, but Izubuchi gradually wound up taking over as designer on the TV show. A book of his artwork called Aura Fhantasm pushed this design aesthetic even further, featuring far more organic and daring drawings than the original TV show, really bringing out the insectoid nature of the designs.
Above is an example showing the contrast. The only way to bring these drawings alive would be to draw them as background art, and I assume that is what led to this approach being adopted for this OVA series. This would have been impossible in a TV show, but perhaps the OVA format allowed them more liberties. I'm curious whether this would have had the effect of lengthening or shortening the production process, since it cuts down on the number of drawings but conversely requires more complicated drawings.
There are actually some shots where the mecha are drawn as usual on cels, which is confusing. I'm guessing that rather than this being a time constraint thing, there were simply occasional shots that required actual movement to convey the action, which wouldn't be possible with a single art drawing panning across the screen. Apparently the stylistic mismatch didn't bother them - it's actually confusing when suddenly, from one shot to the next, the mecha look completely different, with the flat colors of cel shading. This highlights the fact that, although visually sumptuous, the downside of this technique of using bg art for the mecha is that it is somewhat static and lacking in dynamism. No sprightly mecha fights when the mecha are art drawings - only looming pans.
The staff side of things is fairly different from the TV series, which contributes to making the OVA feel distinct. The character designer is Takehiko Ito (under the pen name Hiroyuki Hataike) rather than Bebow's Tomonori Kogawa, and the mecha designer is Yutaka Izubuchi rather than Miyatake Kazutaka. The music is by Reijiro Koroku rather than Tsubonou Katsuhiro. (Koroku was a student of Koichi Sugiyama, who did the music for Ideon) And of course, the storyboarder/director is Takizawa Toshifumi rather than Tomino. I'm rather fond of the music, which has a stridently modernist sound that reminds of a contemporary composer like Wolfgang Rihm.
The animation is the product of the same studios I talked about last time: Anime R and Dove. Not surprising given how constant a presence they are in (non-Tomino) Sunrise productions of this era. Anime R basically sakkans Dove's animation. Moriyasu Taniguchi is the sakkan and Toru Yoshida is the mecha sakkan, while the animators are the main Dove animators in Mellowlink: Hiroshi Koizumi, Nobuyoshi Nishimura, Misao Nakano and Shinichi Sakuma. Mellowlink was produced by this same team immediately after New Story. Of course, due to the nature of the production, that doesn't leave Toru Yoshida much to do, but perhaps the mecha animation wasn't entirely handled by the background department, but rather done like a Dezaki 'harmony' shot, in which they key animator draws a drawing, and this is painted over by the art department. Perhaps Yutaka Izubuchi himself even helped with the mecha drawings. The credits are unhelpful in this regard.
The annoying thing is that something went wrong with the animation and the character drawings are not up to the level that they should be in view of this staffing. There is some decent animation, but much of it is marred by sub-par drawings in which the proportions seems to be wavering dangerously close to falling apart. The drawings are wobbly and weak in a way that reminds me of Good Morning Althea, which leads me to suspect that the inbetweens are the problem. But the inbetweens are by Dove, so I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, this is not nearly as good a showcase of Anime R and Dove as their next project Mellowlink.
New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine (OVA, 3 eps, 1988, Sunrise)
|Creator & Supervisor:||富野由悠季||Yoshiyuki Tomino|
|Director & Storyboard:||滝沢敏文||Toshifumi Takizawa|
|Line Director:||篠幸裕||Yukihiro Shino|
|Character Design:||幡池裕行||Hiroyuki Hataike|
|Mechanical Design & Special Advisor:||出渕裕||Yutaka Izubuchi|
|Animation Director:||谷口守泰||Moriyasu Taniguchi|
|Mecha Animation Director:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animation:||(ep 1)||スタジオ・ダブ||Studio Dove|
|(ep 2)||スタジオ・ダブ||Studio Dove|
|(ep 3)||スタジオ・ダブ||Studio Dove|
I've already written about the canonical analog outings of Armored Trooper Votoms: the TV show, the three early one-shot OVAs, and Radiant Heretic. The only show from the early period I didn't cover in that post was Armor Hunter Mellowlink, which is a side-story not involving the main characters in the rest of the Votoms productions. I just had the chance to watch it, and it was every bit as good as I was expecting. As much as I love the Votoms saga, it's a huge endeavor to get into it. Mellowlink is a dense, high-quality, 12-episode summation of what makes Votoms best in a one-shot series format that doesn't require piecing together a long, complicated story. It might be the best place to start for newcomers.
Mellowlink is a more unmitigatedly serious story than it might seem at first sight from the bland, boyish character design of its protagonist, who looks like a young Shirotzugh. It makes for nice viewing because it focuses largely on pushing forward with its uncomplicated linear narrative arc without wasting too much breath on side-stories or world building or other genre conventions. It's mostly a straight-up hardcore military revenge flick. Despite being borne of a robot show, it's largely devoid of robots. It's more realistic, if not completely realistic per se, with a more down-to-earth, unglamorous style of storytelling. I've always wanted to see this kind of show done in an unmitigatedly realistic style for once, without the token hijinx and predictable storytelling elements, and this show comes closer than most shows, though it still inevitably falls victim to many genre conventions. It's not purely hard-boiled and has some moments of predictably jarring comic relief. However, for a Sunrise production, it's largely devoid of mecha robo tomfoolery, and its tone is for the most part quite serious-minded and unadorned in a pleasing way.
Mellowlink is essentially a story of revenge. Mellowlink Arity was a member of a platoon that was sent to certain death to cover the theft of a military arsenal by a band of corrupt military commanders. The skilled platoon fights valiantly but is eventually overcome, and all but Mellow are killed. Mellow's unexpected survival throws a wrench in the plans, so Mellow is made the scapegoat in a show trial to deflect blame for the scandal. However, he escapes and vows to hunt down the men responsible for the death of his comrades. The series is essentially broken down into two halves. Each of the first six episodes are stand-alone episodes in which Mellow hunts down a military commander involved in the scandal, while the second half is a continuous story that gradually ties all the threads together and reveals the sordid machinations of the military.
Mellowlink is set in the same universe as the rest of Votoms, but features a completely different cast, and presumably takes place on the sidelines of the main show. Whereas Votoms features sci-fi trappings like spaceships and teleportation in addition to more realistic Vietnam-style stories, Mellowlink omits the sci-fi and hones things down to the (IMO more appealing and characteristic) realistic war-story facet of the saga embodied by the 2nd arc of the original TV show, the Kumen Arc. Indeed, the Kumen jungle features in episode 3 of Mellowlink, while episode 2 of Mellowlink harkens back to the first arc of the TV show, the Udo arc, with its dystopian future city and AT battling arena.
Directed by Takeyuki Kanda rather than Ryosuke Takahashi, Mellowlink does for Votoms what The 08th MS Platoon later did for Gundam: explore the down and dirty world of the grunts of their respective universes in a high-quality OVA side-story. Kanda had helped Ryosuke Takahashi direct his first robot show Dougram from 1981 to 1983 and later worked with Takahashi on the two sub OVAs Silent Service and Deep Blue Fleet. He died midway through production of The 08th MS Team. He is perhaps best known for Round Vernan Vifam, a classic 1980s Sunrise robot show.
Despite being set in the far future, Mellowlink feels cut from the cloth of a WWII film in design and atmosphere. Mellowlink rides around in a motorcycle-sidecar combination, and the outfits and architecture seem to be a mix of Victorian and mid-20th century. If Votoms attempts to eliminate the yuusha/heroic element from the robo anime genre by making the robots nothing but mechanized weapons in the form of mass-produced bipedal tanks, Mellowlink seems to go one step further by creating a robot anime in which the hero doesn't even pilot a robot. The hero specializes in killing ATs with nothing more than his wits and an anti-AT rifle, the robo anime equivalent of an anti-tank rifle.
Mellow studiously avoids killing anyone except his intended victims, namely the ranking commanders who ordered his platoon's death. He never kills any underlings, only targeting the higher-ups who use foot soldiers such as himself as throwaway pawns. In true kataki-uchi samurai movie fashion, before killing his victim, he hands them the dog tag of one of his fallen comrades to drive home the justice of his revenge. He is a stoic combination of commando and MacGyver. Overwhelmingly outgunned, he he uses his wits, his surroundings, and his foot soldier training to outwit his opponents. At the final moment, he smears his face with blood, oil or whatever liquid is available and makes it a point to kill his victim not with a bullet but with the bayonet-like Pile Bunker on the end of his anti-AT rifle. This is critical to his revenge. His platoon was stripped of its ATs and sent to certain death armed with nothing but these archaic weapons, so Mellow makes it a point of pride to kill his enemies in the overwhelmingly outgunned state in which they left him.
Mellow is a simple character both in design and script. His expression is one of permanent glowering, he never smiles, and on the rare occasion that he speaks, it only in relation to his cause. His personality is not very complex, and we don't learn much about him beyond his single-minded quest. He is a no-nonsense revenge machine deliberately pared down to steely sinew and purpose. The show fills the void of personality with the mysterious side characters whose significance is revealed apace. Mellow is there as a vehicle to tell a story about military corruption and to provide for a charismatic hero in the spirit of Chirico Cuvie, his obvious model. Mellow is a more likeable character because he is not a superhuman like Chirico. His wits and military training are what keep him alive, not some supernatural agency. A tragic sense of purpose lies behind Mellow's strong, silent personality, but deep down he's a sensitive kid who can get flustered by a beautiful girl.
The series feels tight and well structured. Its pacing feels just right for the story it tells. It's entertaining, with nice action sequences, and the plot about military cover-ups that gradually unfolds is satisfyingly believable, perhaps having vaguely been inspired by the recent Iran-Contra affair. It's not a space opera with battling heroes, but a grimy story about the dirty underbelly of political machinations within military organizations, which see soldiers as nothing more than cannon fodder. Mellowlink is the kind of anti-hero who we want to root for: simple and oblivious to political intrigue, he is only out to do what is right by his sense of basic human justice, and single-handedly faces down the powers that be with the ingenuity and determination of a lone wolf.
The recurring character Kiek is interesting, as he develops into an important plot element later on, but to the end the female sidekick/romantic interest Lulucy felt as superfluous and distracting as the side-characters in Votoms. The story of a girl of royal lineage who ran away to become a roving card dealer seems thrown in and poorly developed, and it never feels believable for a girl like her to be tagging along with Mellow as he sprints around killing ATs with a giant rifle. That aspect feels like one of the show's weakest points.
The episodic nature of the show makes each episode a surprise by providing Mellowlink with new terrain in which to work his battle tactics. The pithy one-word English episode naming seems appropriate to the terse atmosphere, and also serves to indicate the new battlefield of each episode. It's very entertaining watching how a lone individual can outgun an AT using the most basic of technologies (an AT rifle and mines) through clever tactics. In episode 1 he infiltrates a military base and lures out its commander, engaging in a one-on-one in desert-like terrain. In episode 2 he fights in the jungle. In episode 3 he battles it out in the arena.
Episode 4 is perhaps my favorite in the series. Storyboarded and directed by Shinji Takamatsu, it's a masterful example of visual storytelling. Most of the episode transpires without dialogue. The hunter becomes the hunted as Mellow is lured by one of his targets into the interior of a wrecked battleship with its nose rammed into the earth. The ship is tilted at an angle, so all of the action in the episode takes place at an angle, creating a disorienting effect that makes the action all the more tense and unpredictable, as the characters are struggling at every moment to maintain their balance in their surroundings. The best part is that no mecha whatsoever are present in the episode (except as physical obstacles). This seems like the ultimate expression of the whole Votoms universe to me. First you turn the heroic mecha robo into nothing but war machines, then you have the hero not even pilot a robo, then you strip away the robos altogether, and you get to what, deep down, the show was about all along: a tense, realistic, detail-oriented action-heavy hard-sci-fi thriller, devoid of the MacGuffins.
Episode 5 is a flashback episode that fills us in on the background. Written by Ryosuke Takahashi himself to get the details of this important setup episode right, it avoids being a straight "flashback" episode by having Mellowlink wandering through the desert and supposedly hallucinate a dream in which he re-lives the events that led to his platoon getting massacred. The death of Mellowlink's platoon doesn't have much emotional impact because we had never seen the characters until a minute before they're killed, but I don't mind this. It was obviously done this way due to length constraints, but I prefer this to being regaled with episode after episode of meaningless character development that is obviously merely there to manipulate me into feeling for characters whose fate is to die. The flashback ends just as Mellowlink escapes from the courtroom, cleverly avoiding the task of fleshing out precisely how he achieved such an improbable feat, surrounded as he was by armed soldiers.
Set in a prison, episode 6 is one of the weaker episodes, although there's nothing technically wrong with it. I just don't like its ill-conceived mix of brutality and cutesiness. It has some powerful torture scenes that set a heavy tone for the episode, only to be followed up immediately by scenes of cute anime girls dancing on a stage. It's like going from Violence Jack to Creamy Mami in the same episode. Obviously it wasn't possible for Takahashi to excise all of the conventions and create something of a truly uniform tone until later with Pailsen Files, although Takahashi is an entertainer first and foremost, and has himself said that he doesn't want to make dark stories, so I'm sure he signed off on the lighter elements in Votoms as well as here. I obviously have expectations of Votoms not on par with those of the creator.
The episodes from 7 onward continue with a continuing story that comes to a head with the gradual revelation of the truth behind the scandal.
Mellowlink is the summum opus of the two studios behind the best of Votoms: Anime R and Dove. This is the ultimate expression of their work on the show, as the two never worked on the show again in such a solo fashion, although Toru Yoshida did act as mecha sakkan on Radiant Heretic along with a few scattered R/Dove animators. The combination of good storytelling and animation by R and Dove make Mellowlink a supreme pleasure to watch, one of the best OVAs of the period that nobody has seen.
The mecha action scenes that are the calling card of the show are thrilling and dense. There's a style of hand-drawn mecha action here that was a product of the age and can no longer be seen anywhere. Even within a few years on a show like Gundam 0083 the style of the mecha action is already very different - heavier, more laborious, less dynamic and pliable. The years around 1988-1989 are among my favorite years for mecha animation.
Moriyasu Taniguchi's characters meanwhile are appealingly designed without being quite as idiosyncratic as SPT Layzner. Character animation was never the forte of Dove or R, per se, but the characters are for the most part satisfyingly animated due to Taniguchi's stylish corrections, even if sometimes you wish the expressions and body language were a little more dynamic. R seems to invest the characters with a little more spontaneity and verve that is the product of the studio's culture that was more forgiving of personality and play than Dove. That comes through in the animation. Dove's animation remains solid and professional, while R's is more willful and nuanced.
R and Dove essentially alternate handling an episode, although there is a lot of overlap, some of which is due to the extenuating circumstance of the death of Hiroshi Koizumi midway through production. This is the last Votoms outing featuring the two studios that defined the show up until that point. The next outing, Radiant Heretic, switches up the staff.
The main differences between Mellowlink and the rest of Votoms is: the characters here are designed by Moriyasu Taniguchi of Anime R, rather than Norio Shioyama, and the director is not Takahashi Ryosuke but Takeyuki Kanda (who also storyboards episodes 2, 5, 8 and 11 under the pen name Yuichiro Yokoyama). Also, Soji Yoshikawa is not involved as a writer. Otherwise, Ryosuke Takahashi handles the series structure and writes two episodes, episode 5 and 11. Hiroki Inui provides another lovely noodling avant-jazz score, and Kunio Okawara designs the mecha, as in the rest of Votoms.
Toru Yoshida of Anime R is the mecha sakkan for the Anime R episodes, and his mecha and effects are beautiful. At this period of time Anime R still had most of its best animators, and they put their all into their episodes here. Hiroyuki Okiura even shows up for a bit in the last episode. Dove, meanwhile, was at the height of its powers, and Hiroshi Koizumi did the last work of his tragically brief life in episode 6. It seems the show was originally supposed to be produced entirely by these two studios, but this changed with the death of Hiroshi Koizumi, and they had to start calling in other studios from episode 6 onwards to finish the episodes on time. Studio Dove is credited as mecha sakkan in episodes 2 and 4, but this actually means Hiroshi Koizumi.
Apparently the reason for this is that the president of Dove, Tadashi Yahata, had this thing against any single individual gaining attention at Dove; he wanted the studio as a whole to receive credit. Yahata had no need for star animators or individuality, and he placed arduous demands on his animators and was the first to open the door for them to leave if they complained. This is just one aspect of the unforgiving, hard-nosed atmosphere at Dove that drove many animators away from the studio. It's also why you could get talented animators like Hiroshi Koizumi toiling away there and yet not receiving much recognition for their work in their time. It's a philosophy that's the antithesis of a more easygoing and artist-centric studio like Anime R, where play was not just permitted but understood to be the driving force of creativity. And yet the two studios produced magnificent animation that blends perfectly together on a string of Ryosuke Takahashi shows in the late 1980s. It's a strange and beautiful mystery.
The Dove mecha sakkan credit in episode 6 stands for Nobuyoshi Nishimura, who stepped in as pinch hitter to fill in the void left by Hiroshi Koizumi. Toru Yoshida acted as the mecha sakkan on all of the remaining episodes, in which Dove was mostly involved in piecemeal fashion alongside other subcontractors, obviously under considerable systemic stress due to the loss of their lead animator.
On the directing side of things, Takizawa Toshifumi storyboards episode 1, but Takashi Imanishi, Shinji Takamatsu and Shinichiro Watanabe/Takeyuki Kanda take over from there on out, and for the most part do a very fine job indeed. I'm particularly impressed by the Watanabe/Kanda episodes for a reason I find hard to pin down. They have a feeling of more deliberate cinematic presentation. This was only Watanabe's second job as episode director after the Dirty Pair OVAs the previous year. He drew his first storyboard immediately after Mellowlink in 1990.
Armor Hunter Mellowlink 機甲猟兵メロウリンク
(OVA, 12 eps, 1988-1989, Sunrise)
|Created by/Series Structure:||高橋良輔||Ryosuke Takahashi|
|Character Design/Sakkan:||谷口守泰||Moriyasu Taniguchi|
|Mechanic Design:||大河原邦男||Kunio Okawara|
Episode 1: Wilderness
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
Episode 2: Colosseum
|Mecha Sakkan:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
|Key Animators:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
Episode 3: Jungle
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||アニメ・アール||Anime R|
Episode 4: Leaning Tower
|Mecha Sakkan:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
|Key Animators:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
Episode 5: Battlefield
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||アニメ・アール||Anime R|
Episode 6: Prison
|Mecha Sakkan:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
|Key Animators:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
Episode 7: Railway
|Asst Sakkan:||八幡正||Tadashi Yahata|
|Mecha Sakkan:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
|Key Animators:||西村誠芳||Nobuyoshi Nishimura|
Episode 8: Ghost Town
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
Episode 9: Forest
|Asst Sakkan:||山田きさらか||Kisaraka Yamada|
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||スタジオマーク||Studio Mark|
Episode 10: Castle
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
Episode 11: Base
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||スタジオダブ||Studio Dove|
Episode 12: Last Stage
|Mecha Sakkan:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animators:||アニメ・アール||Anime R|
There seems to have been something of a boom in fantasy anime OVAs between the years 1988-1992. Just to name some of the better produced entries, there was Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu (1988), The Hakkenden (1990-1991), Record of Lodoss War (1990-1991), 3x3 Eyes (1991), and Dragon Slayer (1992).
One that slipped through the cracks in my case is Ys (pronounced like "east" without the "t"). It's a more pure D&D-style fantasy outings in the vein of Dragon Slayer, as it's closely based on a video game. I only caught a glimpse of one scene back in the day, and it left a vivid impression on me. I finally had the chance to watch it in full recently, and I was happy to discover that it's a pretty good show - at least in part. When it's bad, it's dreck, but when it's good, it's awesome.
Two series were released: Ys was released in 7 episodes between 1989 and 1991, and its continuation Ys: The Heavenly Shrine ~Adol Christin's Adventure~ was released in 4 episodes between 1992 and 1993.
The contrast between the two series is stark, both in terms of directing and visuals. Ys I is essentially a by-the-books video game adaptation. It feels stiff and uninspired, with nary a feeling of tension or peril even at climactic moments. The drawings are slack and clean and lacking dynamism. Even the script is weak, creating cyphers who go lifelessly through the motions of a video game and utter dialogue that is embarrassingly facile and lacking in personality.
To be fair, I actually enjoyed even the first series. I'm just judging it objectively. It hits just the right spot when you're in the mood for some mindless but serious (i.e. not postmodern or gag-filled) fantasy anime that pushes all the buttons you want pushed in that kind of material. One of the few animation highlights comes in the second half of episode 2, which was animated by the late Noriaki Tetsura.
Ys II is a continuation that picks up exactly where the first series left off, but suddenly it's like a completely different show. The characters look and move differently, and the directing is much more compelling. The drawings are sharp and stylized, with lots of dynamic compositions that work great as illustrations. The characters are written in a more believable way, not just uttering expository dialogue. They're hot-blooded and tempestuous, with distinct personalities. They're also animated more dynamically, with vivid expressions, and they move through the screen in a three-dimensional way during the action scenes. The effects work is very impressive. The directing creates an epic and tense atmosphere, with quick cutting in the action scenes and exciting choreography that relies heavily on the animation. Even the music feels appropriately hardcore.
Rather than merely reading a script, the characters act out an inner world of thought and emotion, doing things that don't necessarily advance plot but rather make them seem human. For example, when one of the characters' girlfriend is trapped and about to be sacrificed, after first trying to slash through the barrier imprisoning her, he finally gives up, only to start madly punching the barrier in frustration.
All in all, the second series is an impressively powerful and entertaining OVA. Blistering, brutal and angry, its animation feels slightly unhinged and explodes off the screen with raw energy. Even its occasionally sloppiness is endearing. It's everything I love about anime and immediately ranks as one of my favorite OVAs of the post-Akira period alongside all the other post-Akira OVAs I've talked about in the past. It's a kindred spirit to madcap, wildly animated OVAs like Dragon Slayer (1992) and Crimson Wolf (1993).
Ys II feels very similar to Dragon Slayer in its tense atmosphere and speedy directing, although the animation of Ys II doesn't contain nearly as much stretch and squash of the kind used profusely in Dragon Slayer. The characters are loosely drawn but for the most part solid. With only a few exceptions, the movement here is conveyed by arcs of movement, not deformation. That's something that unifies most of the work in the 'post-Akira' school - that it's decidedly not Kanada-school, without much ghosting or stretch and squash and more follow-through.
The sudden shift in style between the two series is really bizarre, and it makes you wonder what happened: why the drastic change? Perhaps they rightly felt the first series was on the wrong path and called in some new people to shake things up. That seems to be what happened, because the staff is very different between the two shows. First Jun Kamiya was replaced as director midway through the first series by Takashi Watanabe. He went on to direct the second series. Then the character design changed from Tetsuya Ishikawa to Hiroyuki Nishimura. Finally, the writer changed from Tadashi Hayakawa to Katsuhiko Chiba. Then the animation staff is completely different. All of this adds up to a completely different show.
The most important change was bringing in the talented and versatile Asia-do animator Hiroyuki Nishimura, who redesigned the characters in a more appealing and interesting way. I don't know how the animators were found for the project, but obviously this is a much more talented team than the first show, as every moment of the second series for the most part is a pleasure to watch in terms of the drawings. Even the quieter scenes have careful character animation. The action scenes, meanwhile, are plentiful and thrilling.
The biggest name after Hiroyuki Nishimura is Kazuto Nakazawa, who animated and co-sakkan'd episodes 2 and 3. This was still early in his career, but his immense skill as a mover comes through loud and clear and I suspect plays a big role in making the show so enjoyable. Episodes 2 and 3 have a looser drawing style than episodes 1 and 4. It seems clear to me that Nakazawa was heavily influenced by Satoru Utsunomiya and maybe even other stuff like the work of Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto in Hakkenden episode 1 from 1990. After all, he has admitted to watching the later Hamaji's Resurrection episode literally 30 times a week after it came out, so he must have been following the previous outings from this school of animators. Nakazawa's characters have bulky forms and enormous hands, and swing their limbs around the screen violently in a way that seems clearly indebted to Hakkenden, particularly the scenes animated by Shinji Hashimoto and Tatsuyuki Tanaka. The Utsunomiya-influenced style of the character animation and the unusual amount of work put into the magic effects reminds me of Legend of Crystania (1995) from a few years after.
Whether it's Nishimura or Nakazawa or a combination of other team members who were responsible for pushing things in this direction, it seems clear that the overall production must have been influenced by the recent post-Akira OVAs in some form or another. Animators in Japan all know one another, far more than we realize, and are being influenced by one another all the time, so it doesn't take long for a certain style or approach to virally spread throughout the industry.
As it happens, Hiroyuki Nishimura actually was an animator on Shinya Ohira's epoch-making Hamaji's Resurrection episode of the second Hakkenden series released just a year after Ys II. There are lots of obvious connections behind this. Hiroyuki Nishimura was, at the time, together with Yoshihiko Takakura, part of Mitsuru Hongo's Megaten "studio", which was basically a workspace for the three animators. Hiroyuki Nishimura and Mitsuru Hongo both started out at Asia-do, as did Masaaki Yuasa, animation director of Hamaji's Resurrection, and had by that point been working together on the Shin-chan films under Hongo.
Hiroyuki Nishimura continued to have a close working relationship with Mitsuru Hongo, culminating with Deltora Quest (2007-2008). Hiroyuki Nishimura is a mutli-talented guy who has, at various points in his career, done just about everything - animating, storyboarding, directing a series, character design, animation director, even scriptwriting. Like ex-Asia-do compatriot Toshihisa Kaiya, he even did work for IG on IGPX, which with its CG robots reminds of his more recent effort Danboru Senki. I still remember him best for his excellent combat animation sequences in the Shin-chan movies. He and Yuasa have frequently helped each other out: Yuasa did layout under Nishimura for Ruin Explorers and Nishimura was an animator in Yuasa's Nanchatte Vampiyan pilot and Slime Adventures pilot, as well as animating the climactic part of Mind Game where Nishi et al. row out of the whale.
Another factor that might play a role is the fact that Haruki Kadokawa is involved as producer. This was apparently one of the very last things he produced before being sent to jail for 4 years for smuggling cocaine and embezzling. Whatever the faults of his productions, Kadokawa anime were a staple of my anime diet back in the day and represented a certain kind of quality. They were always lavishly produced, epic in scope and memorable, if in the end they were largely flawed as films. The first Arslan Wars movie from 1991 is one of my favorite anime from this period. Kadokawa followed this up with another fantasy epic: Weathering Continent (1992). Perhaps Kadokawa's involvement was a factor pushing the quality of the production in the right way.
Director Takashi Watanabe was at the start of his career when he took over Ys in 1990. I didn't know anything about him before watching this, and upon looking into his career, I can't say I'm a fan. He has been very prolific as a series director since then, directing TV shows such Slayers, Shakugan no Shana, Boogiepop Phantom, and Mito no Daiboken, among many other shows, his most recent being Senran Kagura and Freezing Vibration. He seems to specialize in shows featuring fighting bishojo. I enjoyed Mito, but that's about it apart from Ys. He was also the director of Lost Universe, episode 4 of which is the greatest anime TV episode of all time: Yashigani Hofuru. Following that debacle, he apparently felt bad, because he put up a web site explaining the challenges facing a director in the anime industry, presumably to explain the circumstances that led to the production of the infamous episode.
One mystery to me is why there are drawings in episode 1 of Ys II that seem like they came straight out of Nadia of the Blue Water. There is some slight staff overlap, but not enough to explain the overt stylistic similarity.
イース Ys (OVA, 7 eps, 1989-1991)
|Director:||神谷純||Jun Kamiya (1-4)|
|渡部高志||Takashi Watanabe (5-7)|
|Character Design:||石川哲也||Tetsuya Ishikawa|
|Animation Director:||石川哲也||Tetsuya Ishikawa|
|Key Animation:||菊地晃||Akira Kikuchi|
|Animation Director:||石川哲也||Tetsuya Ishikawa|
|Key Animation:||氏家章雄||Ujie Akio|
|Animation Director:||菅原浩喜||Hiroki Sugawara|
|Key Animation:||久保川美明||Mia Kubokawa|
|Animation Director:||松岡秀明||Hideaki Matsuoka|
|Key Animation:||篠田章||Akira Shinoda|
|Animation Director:||松岡秀明||Hideaki Matsuoka|
|Assistant A.D.:||松山光治||Koji Matsuyama|
|Key Animation:||篠田章||Akira Shinoda|
|Animation Director:||松岡秀明||Hideaki Matsuoka|
|Key Animation:||じゃんぐるじむ||Jungle Gym|
|Animation Director:||松岡秀明||Hideaki Matsuoka|
|Key Animation:||じゃんぐるじむ||Jungle Gym|
イース 天空の神殿 〜アドル・クリスティンの冒険〜
Ys: The Heavenly Shrine ~Adol Christin's Adventure~
(OVA, 4 eps, 1992-1993)
|Character Design:||西村博之||Hiroyuki Nishimura|
|Animation Director:||西村博之||Hiroyuki Nishimura|
|Key Animation:||箕輪悟||Satoru Minowa|
|Animation Director:||中沢一登||Kazuto Nakazawa|
|Monster A.D.:||箕輪悟||Satoru Minowa|
|Key Animation:||松岡秀明||Hideaki Matsuoka|
|Animation Director:||中沢一登||Kazuto Nakazawa|
|Assistant A.D.:||秋山充治||Mitsuharu Akiyama|
|Key Animation:||熊澤英樹||Hideki Kumazawa|
|Animation Director:||西村博之||Hiroyuki Nishimura|
|Effect Animation:||佐藤英一||Eiichi Sato|
|Key Animation:||西村博之||Hiroyuki Nishimura|
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 http://www.c-themovie.com/ 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.
I've always wanted to see more from Yasuo Otsuka. I never feel like I can get enough. Having seen most of his major work, I'm left to dig up obscurities from his filmography.
Though flawed, the late-career Fuma from 1987 is one of his best works. His style comes through in it very clearly, as he drew or corrected all of the layouts and checked the animation of every shot in the movie. The long-delayed Nemo occupied Telecom for the next year, and presumably Otsuka was involved in that for its duration, although his personality doesn't come through much in the film.
After that comes an obscurity I'd long wondered about, an OVA with the long and unwieldy title FAR EAST OF EDEN 天外魔境 ZIRIA 自来也 おぼろ変, released in two 45-minute installments in July and August 1990. In it, Otsuka is credited as animation supervisor 作画監修. Otsuka was credited as simply supervisor in Fuma and the earlier Mamo movie, but presumably the two titles signify a similar role.
This was released to follow up a computer RPG of the same name released not long before. In fact, it had originally been planned as an anime, but the computer game wound up coming out first. It's set in medieval Japan re-imagined as if through the eyes of a westerner who had never set eyes on the place but only heard fantastic tales about the faraway land. It's a fairly fun, harmless fantasy adventure that would otherwise have been a good ride if the quality were only a little better.
In filmographies put together with Otsuka's assistance, Otsuka has asked that Ziria not be included, presumably because he is not proud of the work. This suggested there had been some problems with the production that led to him not wanting to be associated with the OVA.
I've finally seen the first episode, and I can understand why he feels that way. This is not a film that is up to his standards. It clearly could have been much better. It's sad because you can see that he was clearly involved throughout, yet factors beyond his control keep it from rising to his level.
Although it's not terrible, it's clear that the film is a washout on the animation front. The movement is flimsy and spare, like a crappy TV episode. You can feel Otsuka's hand throughout, as he seems to have drawn or corrected the layouts for every shot. The layouts feel nice, but you really have to squint to see it through the shoddy drawings. At almost no time does the animation have the speedy, fun, cleverly choreographed action sensibility of Fuma or other classic Telecom productions. It's as if the film was produced in a rush. The foundation is strong enough, but they botched the execution.
There are a few names I recognize in the animation credits, but most of them like Kei Hyodo and Masao Okubo were at the beginning of their careers and hadn't developed their styles yet. For some reason, Telecom clearly didn't put their best animators on this project.
Despite it turning out to be a sub-par production, this was Yasuo Otsuka's last major involvement in a film, so I'm happy to have finally been able to see it. He had retired long before, and even his involvement in Fuma seems to have been more out of necessity to save the production than because he was scheduled to. The same must be the case here.
Tatsunoko released a TV-episode-length one-shot OVA called Ippatsu Hicchuu!! Devander at the end of last year to mark their 50th anniversary. It was headlined by two figures who have been mainstays of Tatsunoko since their founding: Director Hiroshi Sasagawa and mecha designer Kunio Okawara.
It's a gag sci-fi mecha action show for kids in the spirit of their Time Bokan series. It exhibits the same outlandish concept and over-the-top, tasteless design sensibility as those shows, with the horse mecha and silly hero suit complete with spurs, and the whole concept of the hero having to pedal the mechanical horse to get a new lotto ball out that turns into a robot to fight the enemy mecha.
It references their past work and features brief cameos by a number of well-known Tatsunoko characters like Hakushon Daimao and Kerokko Demetan - and even the studio's own mascot, the sea horse or baby dragon. It would be an uninteresting, self-serving trifle of an advertisement for the studio it weren't for the quality of the production.
Jun Arai acted as the mecha sakkan, and he turned the show into an all-out bash of Kanada-school mecha action and effects. Most of the smoke and other assorted effects scream his hand, while an array of well-known Kanada-school animators or otherwise talented mecha animators fill out the mecha animation and make it interesting at every moment.
Most of these names need no introduction. They've been mainstays of mecha shows for decades. Amazing to see Masahito Yamashita still working on the front lines in a show like this more than 30 years since he drew his most famous bits that made him a legend as the #1 Kanada-school animator in the early 80s. I thought I saw a scene with the 'Yamashita run' and wondered who could be imitating him. It was most likely the man himself.
The more realistic explosions near the end were presumably courtesy of Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita, who actually aren't very Kanada school at all. The only one that seems out of place is Yusuke Yamamoto, since he's a director. The other mystery is Kentaro Mikazuki - obviously a pen name.
Shin Matsuo was the line director as well as co-storyboarder. I remember him primarily for KO Century Beast, one of the shows that got me into anime back in the day, with its zany, cartoonish sensibility and hyper-deformed designs. His work isn't always identifiable to me, but when he shifts gears into Kanada mode, it's quite obvious what he's trying to do.
The main mystery is why they chose this style for this show. Yoshinori Kanada was never a name associated with Tatsunoko's animation. In fact, he seemed to represent the diametric opposite of what Tatsunoko animation stood for. Happenstance seems to have led to this pairing, but I find it bizarre that for their 50th anniversary they go with this style, as much as I enjoy getting the opportunity to see 25 minutes of nice animation by talented animators. Well, I won't look the gift mecha horse in the mouth.
The Kanada school has gone through many phases, and if Arai's work is any indication, it is now in its decadent phase. It's all carefully polished stylization, where the master was all about dynamism at the expense of polish. The style is just what resulted; it wasn't the goal. Miyazaki's words from 30 years ago about the man and his imitators still ring true today. To be fair, this isn't a new trend. Yamashita Masahito and the 80s followers were the ones who first pushed Kanada's stylization to its decadent extreme, with geometrical smoke and insanely detailed shadows. Arai just updates the tradition. It's not unpleasant to watch. It's just predictable. It was fun back then because it was like they were sneaking it in.
The opening in particular felt like they were deliberately trying to imitate how Kanada might have done it. I know it sounds weird to say that, since the whole show seems Kanada inspired, but it's as if they weren't just doing Kanada-school animation but actually rendering an homage to the man himself with the opening. Maybe that's because it was storyboarded by Masahito Yamashita. It additionally featured a few other nice names: Yoshimichi Kameda, Yasuhiro Seo, Shingo Fujii, Morifumi Naka.
OVAs are that great format that permitted indulgence of the kind unsuited to the big or small screen. The golden age of OVAs is long past, but luckily there is still a trickle of interesting OVAs coming out with a more underground vibe or adventurous design style not suited to mainstream TV production.
Saint Young Men is one of the latest. It was adapted from the manga of the same name by A-1 Pictures last December into a 30-minute OVA. It was actually released as an extra with Volume 8 of the manga, apparently as advance publicity for a full-length movie by the same studio and staff released in May of this year. I haven't seen the movie yet but I've seen the OVA and assume the movie is more of the same. (apparently there's also another even shorter followup OVA)
I enjoyed it and look forward to seeing the movie. It's the story of an odd couple named Jesus and Buddha living in a tiny apartment complex in suburban Japan run by a domineering old landlady named Sachiyo Matsuda. Jesus and Buddha are just visiting Japan for some sightseeing, but they spend most of their time ineptly trying to hide their identities from the surrounding mortals.
It makes for amusing viewing, although they never go anywhere remotely satirical or controversial with the setup. That's somewhat disappointing, as the situation seems ripe for some biting satire of the two big religions, but it's still pleasant and well made. It's a refreshing anomaly of an OVA with an ever-so-slightly edgier and more indie feel to it in terms of the drawings and humor. The humor isn't overdone like in a lot of anime these days. The directing is downright laid back and gentle compared to the manic and bold directing style of recent underground manga adaptations like Detroit Metal City, although that was certainly a brilliant adaptation.
But the drawings are what really make me like the show. There's nothing extraordinary in the animation, but all of the animation is a pleasure to watch thanks to that great animator Naoyuki Asano, who adapted the characters from the manga with his usual verve as character designer and sakkan (and head animator). I've done a cursory comparison, and his characters are definitely an adaptation rather than a literal copy of the manga, which seems more roughly and less skilfully drawn. Asano stylizes them in his own way, not to mention designing them in a way more suited to movement and making them more visually three-dimensional.
The old landlady in particular seems to receive the most love from the animators. She's the real star of the show. Where Jesus and Buddha react more broadly, Sachiyo is the character you come away liking the most because she seems so rounded and filled out as a character thanks to the animation, not to mention the good voice-acting. Every twist and turn of her thought and emotion is vividly but subtly conveyed by the nuanced and delicate character animation, without even using many drawings. They don't overdo her sour prune character, and you come away understanding and liking her. I love her permanent skeptical, suspicious expression.
That's Asano's genius. He must have done this soon after Minding My Own Business, and it's testament to his versatility that the shows are stylistically poles apart and yet he's adapted himself perfectly to the material, and you can still sense his touch in the line and the unusual expressiveness of the characters. They're expressive without undue exaggeration. The visibly analog, pencil-drawn line reminds me of Kenichi Konishi's work on Doraemon: Nobita's Dinosaur, which perhaps makes sense since Asano picked up where Konishi left off a few movies later in the Doraemon movie series. I look forward to seeing where Asano goes.
Kaname Production is one of the legendary studios of the 1980s. Their two films Birth and Windaria are classics that embody some of the best aspects of the decade. They made a few other OVAs during their short life, and Bavi Stock (1985) is one of the lesser known ones, not without reason.
Two episodes were released, one in late 1985 and one in late 1986. The first, jointly produced by Kaname and Studio Giants, features some decent work, while the second, produced by Studio Unicorn, is bottom-of-the-barrel OVA dreck with no redeeming value. (Unicorn produced the least well-animated episodes of Pink Jacket Lupin around the same time)
Bavi Stock is not a lost treasure by any means. Apart from an exciting opening chase scene, the 45 minutes of this OVA drag on without ever getting interesting or exciting. The story is messy and not compelling, the characters stereotypes, and the directing is halting and clumsy.
The animation is mostly unremarkable other than the opening chase. Ostensibly a sci-fi racing anime a la Redline, the racing scene isn't very satisfying - all of the racers except the protagonist and the baddie get wiped out at the start without regaling us with any entertaining racing antics. And from what I could tell (I couldn't stand to watch it all), the second OVA takes a completely different tack, dropping the racing premise. The drawings are fairly decent throughout episode 1 (episode 2 is unwatchable) thanks to the Giants sakkans, but it's not quite enough to save the OVA.
This OVA is only worth revisiting for Kaname completists and to see a bit of lively work by the Giants animators.
Studio Giants was another good studio of this period, training a number of talented animators who went on to work at Gainax when it was founded a few years later. Their presence adds a slightly different touch to the distinctive Kaname style that makes this OVA look a little different from the other Kaname OVAs.
Masayuki animated the opening chase, which is the best bit in the episode. It gives a good picture of what kind of crazy animator Masayuki was at this period - part Masahito Yamashita with his breakneck background animation and part Yoshinori Kanada with the playful insertions and madcap posing, but mixed up into a very convincing and pleasingly original style. Masayuki was undeniably one of the most exciting animators of the 1983-1986 period, and his work on the TV shows Sasuga no Sarutobi (1982-1984), Rampo (1984) and Gu-Gu Ganmo (1984-1985) is worth discovering.
Kaname was a short-lived studio founded in 1982 and closed in 1988. They were founded by expats of Ashi Pro including animator Mutsumi Inomata and animator-turned-director Shigenori Kageyama. Inomata became something of a fan favorite of the period with her cute, twee character design style showcased throughout most of Kaname's productions. Shigenori Kageyama switched to directing at Kaname, and Bavi Stock was his debut. He also designed the characters with the assistance of Inomata. Inomata has since retired from animation. Kageyama remains active as a director is likely to blame for the mediocre outcome of this OVA; his later credits include Zeguy, Yamato 2520 and Queen's Blade. Other Kaname outings benefited from Ashi Pro veteran Kunihiko Yuyama's directing.
Kaname started their life working as a subcontractor on the TV shows Acrobunch (1982) and Sasuga no Sarutobi (1982-1984) and went on to create their own show Plawres Sanshiro (1983-1984) before moving into the OVA market with Birth (1984) after their TV project for this story failed to materialize. Thereon out they continued to focus on OVAs. These include Leda (1985), Fandora (1985-1986), Windaria (1986), The Humanoid (1986) and Watt Poe (1988).
It's presumably working on Sarutobi where they became acquainted with Studio Giants, as Studio Giants produced some crazy animation on the show courtesy of their animators like Masayuki and Masahiro Shida. Kaname essentially handled the creative aspects of this OVA while Giants for the most part handled the animation, with their animators Masahiro Shida and Naoto Takahashi (using the pen name Ryunosuke Otonashi) acting as sakkans.
Masuo Shoichi, though not involved here, was another member of Studio Giants at the time, working on different shows from Masayuki et al. Even this early in his career you can see very good work by him in Orguss (1983-1984) featuring the sort of tricky, three-dimensional mecha action that he became known for.
After working on Bavi Stock, Masayuki migrated to Gainax to work on Honneamise (1987) together with Shunji Suzuki, so this OVA is a snapshot of where these animators were at stylistically immediately prior to them becoming amalgamated into the Gainax style. Kazuya Tsurumaki, who initially joined Studio Giants due to his admiration for Masayuki, quit Giants to join Gainax after being denied the opportunity to work on Gainax productions from Giants. Shoichi Masuo also eventually became a regular participant in Gainax productions.
I also found this OVA interesting because the credits are all in (somewhat mangled) English, and the translations they use for the main roles are different from those that have become standard today. Rather than key animator and inbetweener, they refer to animator and assistant animator. These are terms used in western animation that roughly approximate the role of genga and doga. It's not just the credits that are western; the whole production appears to deliberately emulate western sci-fi/action movies in a very self-conscious way. Episode 2 features Ewok lookalikes and spaceships that are a clear knock-off of Star Wars. Writing the credits (and title) in English just completes the impression.
Vol. 1 released December 20, 1985, produced by Kaname Production & Studio Giants
Vol. 2 released November 25, 1986, produced by Studio Unicorn
Episode 1 main credits
(The following is an excerpt of the credits transcribed as-is from the credit roll. The only difference is that, for reference purposes, I've added the studio to which each name belonged in parentheses, to the best of my knowledge.)
|Planned by:||Hiro Media Associates Inc.|
|Kaname Production Co.|
|General producer:||Hiromasa Shibazaki|
|Script by:||Kenji Terada|
|Directed, designed character by:||Shigenori Kageyama (Kaname)|
|Guest character designed by:||Mutsumi Inomata (Kaname)|
|Production designer:||Takahiro Toyomasu (Kaname)|
|Sub mechanical designer:||Masanori Nishii|
|Art director:||Geki Katsumata|
|Production coordinator:||Tetsuo Kadoya (Giants)|
|Animation directors:||Masahiro Shida (Giants)|
|Ryunosuke Otonashi (Giants)|
|Shuji Suzuki (=Shunji Suzuki) (Giants)|
|Kouji Fukasawa (Giants)|
|Akira Sai (Giants)|
|Shinetsu Andou (Giants)|
|Takeshi Itoh (Giants)|
|Takuya Wada (Kaname)|
|Mayumi Watanabe (Kaname)|
|Hideko Yamauchi (Cindy H. Yamauchi) (Kaname)|
|Miyuki Nakano (Kaname)|
|Assistant animator:||Atsuko Ishida (Kaname)|
|Toshiyuki Tsuru (Giants)|
|Kazuya Tsurumaki (Giants)|
|Co Production Coopereted By:||Studio Giants|
|Produced by:||Hiro Media Associates Inc.|
|Kaname Production Co.|
|Nikkatsu Video Films Co.|