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Category: post-Akira

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

05:15:00 am , 2489 words, 19802 views     Categories: post-Akira, Studio: Group Tac, Studio Curtain, 1990s

Yadamon and Studio Curtain

Many years on from Manga Kodomo Bunko and Manga Ijin Monogatari, Group Tac produced an unusual magical girls show called Yadamon (1992-1993). The show was produced for NHK, and was hence a somewhat high-profile gig with more personality and verve than your usual template majokko anime. It injected a bit of style and cool into the genre, which gave it broader appeal.

The show announces itself as different right from the opening (watch), with its appealing, somewhat international character designs and driving alt rock song by Lindberg. The show's name also drops the lengthy, cliche'd "Mahou no..." format for a more cool and succinct impact. Although different from the work produced by Group Tac in its early years, the show still had their patented cleverness and personality.

Set in the near future, the show has an optimistic vision of the future in which man uses science to establish a harmonic balance with nature. A boy named Jean lives in a man-made ecological preserve called only the "Land" with his parents Maria and Eddie, scientists and veterinarians who run the preserve. There are mild sci-fi elements that are not too outlandish to be unbelievable. The structure of the show starts off with standalone 5-episode-long arcs, later moves to standalone episodes, and in the latter half gradually becomes serial leading towards the cataclysmic climax. This apocalyptic and openly interpretable climax is also somewhat novel, perhaps reflecting the greater freedom of creators not tied to source material. Yadamon is a great example of a show not based on source material.

The concept for "a new kind of magical girl show" originated in 1991 with NHK production arm Sogovision producer Hiroshi Kubota and screenwriter Minami Oi. Kubota in particular devised the idea of inverting the standard setup of magical girls shows. Instead of a magical girl who lives among ordinary humans but has to keep her abilities secret, the mischievous Yadamon tells everyone she's a witch, but nobody believes her.

In early October 1991 NHK began seeking production companies by competitive bidding. They did this by providing production concept documentation and asking for each company to visualize the characters and their environment in a few illustrations. Group Tac submitted illustrations by Suezen and won the bidding in mid-October. Group Tac producer Kenjiro Kawando is the one who chose Suezen, having worked with him on The Tale of Genji (1987) and then met him in various places since.

I enjoyed the show back when it first aired for its nice style and western atmosphere. It was also one of the first anime I saw in the 10-minute format. (It was aired Monday through Friday in 10 minute chunks.) Revisiting it recently, I found that it's a pleasant show if far from perfect. The animation is a base tone of lackluster with occasional spikes of awesome. The characters and stories are endearing if simplistic and childish.

Although on the surface the show follows the template of a magical girl from a magical land who visits the earth and engages in adventures there, the show's underlying theme is notable for being more based on child psychology. Rather than taking the child's perspective and projecting a fantasy life onto reality, Yadamon seems to take an adult's perspective by placing the crux of the drama on Yadamon's emotional growth from pure self-interest to empathy.

Helping to maintain interest are Suezen's designs. Suezen is the pen name of Fumio Iida, who just prior had acted as animation director of Rojin Z (1991). He's a great animator, and he animated the opening. His designs go a long way to making the show watchable, if just because they're so refreshing. Unfortunately he didn't animate anything else in the show.

Luckily there were spurts of good animation in the show, most of it from subcontractors. To be able to produce so much animation, Group Tac outsourced much of the production work to around 30 different subcontractors. Roughly 20 in-house and outside directors handled the task of storyboarding and episode directing.

Although the subcontractors are not credited in the show, the Roman Album provides a rare glimpse into the specifics of how the contracts were doled out, so it's worth reproducing here. I've often managed to piece together the various subcontractors involved in a show, but I've never seen it laid out explicitly like this. This is a great artifact highlighting the subcontractor-heavy nature of anime.

Group Tac essentially doled the work out to 9 production coordinators, including an in-house team, and these 9 subcontractors either handled the directing/animation tasks themselves or in turn sub-subcontracted the work out to another studio. Inbetweening and finishing was then handled by an inbetweening studio chosen by the subcontractor, except in the case of studios like Anime Spot that handled their own inbetweens.

1. Group Tac (53 eps)In-house
Directors: Koichi Takada, Takuya Sato
Sakkans: Masahiko Murata, Yoshiko Imano
Fantasia
Sakkan: Morio Hitoshi, Akira Takeuchi
Anime Spot
Director: Shigeru Ueda
Sakkan: Masami Abe, Masatoshi Isshi
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house
Studio Takuranke
Sakkan:Hiroyuki Yamada
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house
Studio Koa
Sakkan: Toyami Sugiyama
Key Animation: In-house
Studio Curtain
Sakkan: Hiroko Kazui
Key animation: In-house
Individual
Sakkan: Kazuaki Mouri, Tadashi Abiru, Kahoru Hirata, Rie Nishino

2. Aubeck (43 eps)Group Zen
Director: Hiroshi Ishiodori
Sakkans: Masayuki Fujita, Yasuyuki Noda
Studio Mu
Directors: Johei Matsuura, Masashi Ikeda
Sakkans: Harumi Muranaka, Yasuhiro Ohshima
Studio Curtain
Director: Noriyuki Nakamura
Sakkan: Kenichi Shimizu
Individual
Sakkan: Shinichi Shoji

3. Tanasawa Office (12 eps)In-house team A
Director: Takashi Tanasawa
Sakkan: Daijiro Sakamoto
In-house team B
Director/Sakkan: Yoshiko Sasaki
In-house team C
Director/Sakkan: Toshiaki Kamihara

4. Jupiter Film (9 eps)Individual
Director: Takuo Suzuki, Kenichi Kuroki
Sakkan: Kanji Hara
Studio Curtain
Director: Hitoshi Namba
Sakkan: Keiko Hattori

5. Ajia-do (12 eps)In-house
Director: Kazuhiro Sasaki
Sakkan: Masayuki Sekine
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house

6. Sunshine (3 eps)In-house
Directors: Shigeru Ohmachi
Sakkan: Isao Kaneko
Key Animation, Inbetweens & Finishing: In-house

7. Project Team Sara (13 eps)Studio Liberty
Director: Akitaro Daichi
Sakkans: Chuji Nakajima, Ryoko Hata

8. Doga Kobo (8 eps)In-house
Director: Kiyoshi Fukumoto
Sakkans: Yuji Takahashi, Tadashi Tsubokawa
Key Animation & Inbetweens: In-house

9. Mu Film (14 eps)In-house + Animatronics
Director: Takashi Yamazaki
Sakkans: Akihiko Yamashita, Miho Shimogasa, Takashi Yamazaki, Hiroki Umeda, Chikayo Nakamura
Inbetweens & Finishing: In-house & Animatronics (Philippines subsidiary)

I wrote about Aubec in my posts on Garaga (1989) and Capricorn (1991). They outsourced everything except finishing (which I noted as being the weakest link in Aubec's productions), which they sent to their subsidiary Studio Bogie.

Yadamon pre-dates the concept of the chief animation director, so one of the things that makes the show nice to watch is seeing what different touch each subcontractor brings to the drawings. The drawings look pretty different from episode to episode.

Studio Curtain

One of the show's best subcontractors was Studio Curtain, the informal gathering of animators active 1990-1995 about which I talked in my posts on Sukeban Deka (1991) and Dragon Slayer (1992). Directors Noriyuki Nakamura, Hitoshi Namba and Kazuaki Mouri and animators Tadashi Hiramatsu and Kenichi Shimizu each did very nice work in the show. The fast-paced directing that made Noriyuki Nakamura's Dragon Slayer so memorable is on full display here. I'm not sure why Kazuaki Mouri is credited separately from Studio Curtain, as I'm pretty sure he was at Curtain during this time. Kazuaki Mouri and a few other Curtain people actually moved to Group Tac in the years after Yadamon. Many of the same people who worked on Yadamon went on to work on Group Tac's later Earth Defense Family (2001).

I was aware that Studio Curtain was involved in the show, but not that there were so many other sub-contractors. The two-stage subcontracting system also surprised me. I imagined Curtain had been contracted entirely by Tac, but according to this they were contracted by different groups.

As best I've been able to gather, here is a list of the projects Studio Curtain worked on and the staff who were definitely involved with the studio (there may have been more).

Studio Curtain projects
Dragon Quest (1989-1991) TV eps & op/ed for part 2 aired 1991
Gatapishi (1990) TV (Mon-Fri 10 min format)
Nadia of the Blue Water (1990) TV ep 11 & 15
Yusha Exkaiser (1990-1991) TV ed (Kazuaki Mouri, watch), eps 24, 30, 35, 40, 43
Pigmario (1990-1991) TV op 2 (watch)
The Two Lottes (1991) TV op/ed (watch)
Sukeban Deka (1991) OVA (production assistance credit)
Jarinko Chie Funsenki (1991-1992) TV op/ed (watch)
Tanoshii Moomin Ikka Bouken Nikki (1991-1992) Mouri chief sakkan, sakkan 1, 12, 18, 22, 26 / Hiramatsu genga 10, 16, 22
Dragon Slayer (1992) OVA
Calimero (1992-1993) TV op (Kazuaki Mouri, watch) & ed (Yuka Kudo)
Yadamon (1992-1993) TV (Mon-Fri 10 min format)
TwinBee: WinBee's 1/8 Panic (1993) game video (Kazuaki Mouri, watch)
Jungle no Oja Taa-chan (1993) TV
Moldiver (1993) OVA ep 1 (production assistance credit)
Metal Fighter Miku (1994) TV ep 2
Tobe! Isami (1995) TV
Alice Investigative Bureau (1995-1997) TV

Studio Curtain staff
加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
灘波日登志 (三條なみみ) Hitoshi Namba (Namimi Sanjo)
中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura
毛利和昭 Kazuaki Mouri
平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu
清水健一 Kenichi Shimizu
奥野浩行 Hiroyuki Okuno
工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo
宮崎なぎさ Nagisa Miyazaki
数井浩子 Hiroko Kazui
山本直子 Naoko Yamamoto
小川瑞恵 Mizue Ogawa
田口広一 Koichi Taguchi
服部圭子 Keiko Hattori

Other animators who did good work on the show were Shoji Shinichi and Rie Nishino, contracted on an individual basis, and ex-Bebow animator Akihiko Yamashita, who around that time was working on Giant Robo. Masao Okubo did some of his patented Kanda-style effects in episode 52. Satoru Utsunomiya even makes a surprise appearance in episode 164. The climactic last three episodes are quite well animated, but seem to have been made by people from various studios in the final dash.

Below is a selection of some of the animation by the show's best animators. Rie Nishino and Kenichi Shimizu's personality comes through in their eccentric drawings, whereas Tadashi Hiramatsu and Akihiko Yamashita are more about the movement, although their exceptional drafting abilities come through in the drawings.

Tadashi Hiramatsu #27, 55, 90, 114, 135

One of Tadashi Hiramatsu's earliest pieces at Studio Curtain was the crazy animation of King eating a spicy fish in Nadia in 1990. He returns to work on another Tac-NHK production here, and this time turns in some very nice effects and action animation. He worked mostly under director Namba Hitoshi. His uncommon drafting skills come through in the delectable hand drawings in episode 135, which is a good episode overall featuring work by Kazuaki Mouri and Hitoshi Namba. His strong layout skills and detail-oriented sensibility comes through well in this episode. Hiramatsu has admitted to joining Nakamura Pro in the hope of getting to draw Lupin III, and in episode 55 here he draws some action with the canoe dirigible that seems clearly inspired by Kazuhide Tomonaga's work in red jacket Lupin.

Kenichi Shimizu #11, 26, 46, 68, 76, 90, 105

The first appearance of "data thief" brothers Eddie and Butch in episode 26 is one of the best eps in the show thanks to the combination of Noriyuki Nakamura's fast-paced directing and Kenichi Shimizu's eccentric and dynamic drawings that meet the demands of the fast storyboard with some extreme ghosting and deformation and fast actions. The directing was so fast, in fact, that it reportedly gave the voice actors trouble timing their dialogue during the dubbing session. Episode 68 features some of his most fun animation of the family as they're trapped in the grampa's spaceship and start going crazy. You can see some extreme stretching/ghosting above that reminds of the extreme stretch and squash in Dragon Slayer, so those parts of Dragon Slayer may have been of Shimizu's hand. The hands are a dead giveaway in anime when uncorrected, and Shimizu's way of drawing hands is as distinctive as Hiramatsu. Shimizu's hands are blocky and roughly drawn, and he draws the knuckles as a single line. He draws some of the funniest faces in the show.

Shimizu and Hiramatsu recently teamed up again after many years and produced some wonderful work in episode 1 of Parasyte.

The year after Yadamon Curtain director Hitoshi Namba directed Jungle no Oja Taa-chan at Group Tac with largely the same team as Yadamon, including a few episodes featuring the power combo of Noriyuki Nakamura + Tadashi Hiramatsu.

Kazuaki Mouri #68, 92, 135, 159

Episode 92 is a solo episode entirely storyboarded/directed/animated by Curtain's Kazuaki Mouri and is hence the best spot to get a sense of his style. His drawings aren't idiosyncratic like Kenichi Shimizu, but he can draw some extreme deformation/ghosting as in the sequence of Eddie on the table above, or the cartoonishly exaggerated drawings of Shinui. He can also draw very strong traditional straight-through movement with a great sense of body weight as in the sequence of Yadamon doing a triple lutz above. Mouri is one of those all-powerful animators who can do anything, as evidenced by his huge filmography. Mouri did a lot of openings/endings as well as other special projects like Time Gal (1985) and Pony Metal U-Gaim (1986). He settled at Group Tac for a few years after Yadamon.

Rie Nishino #67, 83, 131

Rie Nishino didn't do much in the show but her few episodes feature some tremendously fun drawings and over-acting. The shot of Yadamon at top from around the 8:30 mark in episode 131 is pretty innocuous, and you can't tell how good the movement is from the still drawings, but it's possibly my single favorite shot from the whole series. Yadamon is basically saying "That's not true!" and she does a full-body swing of the arms to emphasize the words. It's some of the best acting in the show, capturing her stubborn, willful personality and emotion perfectly through believable and realistic body movement. And it does so pretty efficiently, with just a few drawings. The episode where we're introduced to Jean's grandfather, #67, is packed to the brim with very fun exaggerated reaction shots.

I'd never heard of Rie Nishino before this, but her work here makes me want to see more. She was animator in Tatsuyuki Tanaka's Tojin Kit, which gives some indication of her skills - not to mention Arietty. It's not clear if she was at Studio Curtain, but she was involved in a lot of projects alongside Kazuaki Mouri over the 1990-1995 time period, designing Carimero with an opening animated by Kazuaki Mouri as well as Jungle no Oja Taa-chan. Many years later she even directed a few episodes of the cute show Zumomo & Nupepe directed by Curtain star director Noriyuki Nakamura.

Akihiko Yamashita #65, 80, 98

Ex-Bebow animator Akihiko Yamashita did some of the show's most virtuosic animation. He didn't do many episodes in the show, but each one features a certain amount of very impressive animation. Ep 65 features some skating animation that has Yadamon and Eddie dashing around the screen with great energy. Yamashita uses a lot of drawings and moves the characters through screen in a three-dimensional way. His action has the thrill of classic Telecom. Ep 80 meanwhile features almost Hakkenden-inspired molten animation of the sand monster Bagdo zooming around the screen with a transforming silhouette, and some of the most 'kakkoii' Yadamon action scenes in the show. Ep 98 is less impressive but features a few shots of effects work, notably a sand explosion and a splash of water that although short are impressively executed, with an almost Toshiyuki Inoue-esque realistic style.

Kumiko Takahashi? #133

Episode 133 featured some of the most boldly deformed drawings and extreme ghosting of any episode in the show. I can't identify the work based on the style, but if I'd have to guess based on the credits, I would guess maybe Kumiko Takahashi, if only because she's immensely talented and I wouldn't put it past her to have this kind of range. She's an animator whose other work at this period I'd like to explore. I've seen her Tetsuwan Birdy OVA series from this period and it's quite lovely.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

03:20:00 pm , 2022 words, 21263 views     Categories: OVA, post-Akira, 1990s

Ys

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.

Adol by Hiroyuki Nishimura

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.


Other 'post-Akira' OVAs:

Explorer Woman Ray (1989)
The Hakkenden (1990-1991)
Sukeban Deka (1991)
3x3 Eyes (1991)
The Antique Shop (1991)
Dragon Slayer (1992)
Green Legend Ran (1992-1993)
Crimson Wolf (1993)


イース Ys (OVA, 7 eps, 1989-1991)

Script:早川正Tadashi Hayakawa
Director:神谷純Jun Kamiya (1-4)
渡部高志Takashi Watanabe (5-7)
Character Design:石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Episode 1
Animation Director:石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Key Animation:菊地晃Akira Kikuchi
松本勝次Katsuji Matsumoto
岡本稔Minoru Okamoto
藤田佳三Keizo Fujita
井上鋭Ei Inoue
唐沢紀江Norie Karasawa
藤井裕子Hiroko Fujii
石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Episode 2
Animation Director:石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Key Animation:氏家章雄Ujie Akio
鉄羅紀明Noriaki Tetsura
きのプロダクションKino Production
Episode 3
Animation Director:菅原浩喜Hiroki Sugawara
Key Animation:久保川美明Mia Kubokawa
矢木正之Masayuki Yaki
小丸敏之Toshiyuki Komaru
佐々木守Mamoru Sasaki
清水保之Yasuyuki Shimizu
山本正文Masafumi Yamamoto
井尻博之Hiroyuki Ijiri
山内真紀子Makiko Yamauchi
榊原文Fumi Sakakibara
Episode 4
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Key Animation:篠田章Akira Shinoda
松山光治Koji Matsuyama
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
Episode 5
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Assistant A.D.:松山光治Koji Matsuyama
Key Animation:篠田章Akira Shinoda
松山光治Koji Matsuyama
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
川崎浩充Hiromitsu Kawasaki
吉田仁Hitoshi Yoshida
佐藤英二Eiji Sato
松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Episode 6
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Key Animation:じゃんぐるじむJungle Gym
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
原勝徳Katsunori Hara
こばやしたかしTakashi Kobayashi
佐々木敏子Toshiko Sasaki
佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
吉田仁Hitoshi Yoshida
小山りょうRyo Koyama
永野由美Yumi Nagano
栗井重紀Shigenori Kurii
Episode 7
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Key Animation:じゃんぐるじむJungle Gym
こばやしたかしTakashi Kobayashi
佐々木敏子Toshiko Sasaki
佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
吉田仁Hitoshi Yoshida
小山りょうRyo Koyama
中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa

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)

Script:千葉克彦Katsuhiko Chiba
Director:渡部高志Takashi Watanabe
Character Design:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Episode 1
Animation Director:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Key Animation:箕輪悟Satoru Minowa
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
森可渡士Watashi Morika
栗井重紀Shigenori Kurii
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Episode 2
Animation Director:中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Monster A.D.:箕輪悟Satoru Minowa
Key Animation:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
久保博志Tadashi Kubo
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
箕輪悟Satoru Minowa
鈴木仁史Hitoshi Suzuki
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
森可渡士Watashi Morika
中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
Episode 3
Animation Director:中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
Assistant A.D.:秋山充治Mitsuharu Akiyama
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
Key Animation:熊澤英樹Hideki Kumazawa
岡野幸男Yukio Okano
小林多加志Takashi Kobayashi
井上みゆきMiyuki Inoue
佐々木敏子Toshiko Sasaki
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
森可渡士Watashi Morika
鈴木仁史Hitoshi Suzuki
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
春日井浩之Hiroyuki Kasugai
百瀬恵美子Emiko Momose
祝浩司Hiroshi Iwai
Episode 4
Animation Director:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Effect Animation:佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
Key Animation:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
斉藤卓也Takuya Saito
岡本圭一郎Keiichiro Okamoto
武内宣之Noriyuki Takeuchi
祝浩司Hiroshi Iwai
加藤興治Koji Kato
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
細山正樹Masaki Hosoyama
木場田実Minoru Kibata

Thursday, March 8, 2012

06:19:00 pm , 1663 words, 5310 views     Categories: OVA, Studio: Anime R, post-Akira, Studio Curtain, 1990s

Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes

I wrote about Toei's fantasy adventure OVA Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu (1988) before. It was a slight outing redeemed by early work from Koichi Arai and ex-Bebow animators.

Well, a few years later, a two-episode OVA with a confusingly similar title was released: Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes (1992). It never seems to have made it over to the west like other good OVAs of the period, and you'd be forgiven for assuming that to have been because it was a crummy video game tie-in. But despite its obscurity, it's an impressively well-made action piece with a unique style. It might be the best fantasy/action OVA of the period that nobody has ever heard of.

A Wizardry OVA was released one year earlier in 1991 as a tie-in with the popular dungeoner video games, but it was boring and uninspired. Despite the talent at TMS's disposal, and despite TMS staple Kenji Kodama's storyboard, it was nothing more than a walk through a dungeon straight out of the game, with disappointingly staid animation.

Dragon Slayer bears little resemblance to the latter. It doesn't even feel like conventional fantasy anime. The fantasy plot seem like merely an excuse for the director to string together a series of action scenes of hair-raising intensity. With its frenetic pacing and expressionistic drawings, its post-Akira pedigree is obvious. The animation is lively and intense and highly worked. If anything, it feels closer in spirit to the manic Crimson Wolf (1993), with its speedy and dynamic animation and breakneck momentum. Another reference point is Sukeban Deka (1991), which featured thrilling, wildly deformed action animation by Masayuki Kobayashi. The action in Dragon Slayer is similar in style to Kobayashi's animation in Sukeban Deka - the timing ultra-fast and the drawings laden with deformed insertions to heighten the impact of the movement.

The film actually has had something of a cult reputation among Japanese fans due to its unusually fast pacing and animation. The animation at times seems excessively fast, as if the timing on the animation sheet had actually been kicked up a notch at the processing stage to give it more punch. Even the overall directing is unexpectedly fast. Scenes proceed at such a breakneck pace that dramatic moments like the boy's separation from his mother at the beginning border on the comical. That said, it's not badly done. It actually works. Sure, the budget is obviously not extremely high, and the drawings have a rough edge, but this isn't one of those shows that you would watch to laugh at it. The action sequences are creatively and excitingly choreographed, and the lightning-fast pacing of the narrative makes the otherwise generic fantasy plot far more entertaining than it rightfully should be.

The OVA was apparently not well received by fans of the game because the story was extensively overhauled for the anime. But who outside of a handful of Japanese fans from 1992 remembers (much less still plays) the game? They did the right thing to make the anime stand on its own two legs rather than make a faithful but impotent anime adaptation like Wizardry. As a result, twenty years on, Dragon Slayer still holds up pretty well.

Adding to the film's atmosphere are the character designs, which have a nice 'angry' feeling to them courtesy of onetime Nagai Go associate Ken Ishikawa, who also gave us the delightfully fierce and bloody Majuu Sensen AKA Beast Fighter. Yes indeed, this is anime as the lord intended it: fast, dynamic, and brutal.

Stretch and squash indeed

The Curtain-R-Nakamura connection

So, what studio produced this OVA? You'd be hard-pressed to say going by the credits. A variety of big corporate entities like King Records and Amuse Video are cited in production roles, but none of them are actual animation production studios. It takes some knowledge of the staff to extrapolate that informal artist gathering Studio Curtain was probably the 'brain' behind the show, and animation subcontractor Nakamura Production was probably the main production floor of the show's animation. One other subcontractor was also involved: Anime R. (The earlier comparison with Sukeban Deka is even more apt because Anime R was behind Sukeban Deka.)

What ties all of these together seems to be the old Sunrise cooking anime Mister Ajikko, which aired from 1987 to 1989. Most of the main staff of Dragon Slayer worked on (and presumably met one another working on) Mister Ajikko. The style of Dragon Slayer may even be indebted to the directing style of Mister Ajikko.

Dragon Slayer director Noriyuki Nakamura (no relation to Nakamura Production) may not be very well known, but he's a veteran who has been directing since at least 1980 and who continues to be very active on the front line storyboarding TV episodes.

Noriyuki Nakamura was the chief episode director of Mister Ajikko. By the time of Dragon Slayer in 1992, Noriyuki Nakamura was part of an informal animation studio called Studio Curtain, run by Masahiro Kase. Studio Curtain receives a "Special Thanks" credit in Dragon Slayer. Masahiro Kase, an animator in Dragon Slayer, was the chief animation director of the first 3/4 of Mister Ajikko. Masahiro Kase was at Osaka subcontractor Anime R at the time. Kazuaki Mouri, one of Anime R's hotshot animators, was the chief animation director of the last 1/4. Mouri is co-storyboarder and combat sequence supervisor of Dragon Slayer.

Perhaps the most recognizable name in Dragon Slayer is Tadashi Hiramatsu. He co-storyboarded and animated. I already wrote a bit about his early years in my post on Sukeban Deka: He started out at Nakamura Pro and eventually moved to Studio Curtain. Hiramatsu met Kase while working on Mister Ajikko. It's during Hiramatsu's period at Kase's Curtain that Dragon Slayer was produced. Hiramatsu relates that he learned a lot about directing from Noriyuki Nakamura.

The Nakamura Pro team of Tadashi Hiramatsu, Hiroyuki Okuno, Hisashi Hirai and Tetsuya Yanagisawa is credited together in Mister Ajikko episodes 38, 43, 48, 53. These four animators are present in Dragon Slayer. Hiroyuki Okuno is an animator, Tetsuya Yanagisawa is the monster character designer, and Hisashi Hirai is the character designer and animation director.

There's even a tangential Nippon Animation connection. Noriyuki Nakamura and Masahiro Kase both started out at Nippon Animation in the early 1980s, so it's possible they met there or at least recognized one another from that period. Meanwhile, Tadashi Hiramatsu wound up working on several Nippon Animation productions in the early 1990s after he joined Noriyuki Nakamura and Masahiro Kase at Studio Curtain.

Nakamura Pro

As I wrote in my post on Dirty Pair (1985), Sunrise has always made heavy use of subcontractors for their animation, ever since their founding in the early 1970s. Several other subcontractors helped with the animation side of Mister Ajikko, including Studio Live and Animaru-ya. But Nakamura Pro has always had a particularly close relationship with Sunrise, due to their shared origins.

Nakamura Pro was founded in 1974 by Kazuo Nakamura, who had started out at Mushi Pro. His studio was one of many, like Sunrise, founded in the aftermath of Mushi Pro's failure in what I've referred to as the Mushi Pro diaspora. It's ironic to think that Mushi Pro inadvertently influenced the course of anime history in probably exactly the opposite way they intended: Sunrise learned from Mushi Pro's mistake and did not let the artists run the studio. They instead turned to toy tie-ups as a way to ensure the studio's continued prosperity. This resulted in their becoming a robot anime studio. Nakamura Pro did most of its work for the robot shows of Sunrise and Toei in the early days, resulting in a whole generation of animators trained there and elsewhere becoming specialists in a sub-genre of animation that is unique to Japan. Some of the more famous animators turned out by Nakamura Pro include Ken Otsuka, Eiji Nakata, Shuko Murase and Hiroyuki Kitakubo.

Nakamura Pro has its own official web site, where they say they are hiring. Both Nakamura and Anime R are still alive and well doing subcontract animation work on today's TV shows.

It's all very complicated, but here is a basic breakdown of the studios and their animators in Dragon Slayer:
Curtain: Noriyuki Nakamura, Masahiro Kase, Tadashi Hiramatsu
Nakamura Pro: Hisashi Hirai, Michinori Chiba, Ken Otsuka, Hiroyuki Okuno, Shuko Murase, Yasuhiro Irie, Akira Nakamura, Tetsuya Yanagisawa, Kazuhiro Itakura
Anime R: Kazuaki Mouri, Masahide Yanagisawa, Takahiro Kimura, Takahiro Komori

Aside: Although Noriyuki Nakamura bears no relation to Nakamura Pro, the other Nakamura credited in the show - Akira Nakamura, who is credited as enemy character designer - is the younger brother of Nakamura Pro founder Kazuo Nakamura.

Just to further confuse you, I'll close by briefly evoking another of the artist collectives that were so popular in the early 1990s - Gabo Miyabi (画房雅). It was founded by Masahide Yanagisawa after he left Anime R and moved to Tokyo. I don't know whether or not the group existed at the time of Dragon Slayer, but four animators credited in Dragon Slayer were part of the group: Masahide Yanagisawa, Shinya Takahashi, Takahiro Komori, and Yasuhiro Irie. The Sukeban Deka animator I mentioned before, Masayuki Kobayashi, was also part of the group. Other animators involved in the group include Kenichiro Katsura and Tatsuya Tomaru.

Other notable names in the credits include Masami Obari and Masashi Ishihama.


Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes ドラゴンスレイヤー英雄伝説 (1992, OVA, 2x25 mins, dir. Noriyuki Nakamura)

Director & Story Framework:中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura
Script:松崎健一 Kenichi Matsuzaki
Art Director:脇威志 Takeshi Waki
Original Character Design:石川賢 Ken Ishikawa
Animation C.D. & Animation Director:平井久司 Hisashi Hirai
Storyboards:中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura
難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri
平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu
Combat Supervisor:毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri
Enemy Character Design:中村明 Akira Nakamura
Monster Character Design:柳沢哲也 Tetsuya Yanagisawa

Key Animation:中村プロ Nakamura Pro:
柳沢哲也 Tetsuya Yanagisawa
板倉和弘 Kazuhiro Itakura
2nd Key Animation:千葉道徳 Michinori Chiba
大塚健 Ken Otsuka
石塚貴之 Takayuki Ishizuka
Key Animation:加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu
奥野浩行 Hiroyuki Okuno
竹内昭 Akira Takeuchi
柳沢まさひで Masahide Yanagisawa
高橋しんや Shinya Takahashi
大張正己 Masami Obari
村瀬修功 Shuko Murase
毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri
山川瑞恵 Mizue Yamakawa
入江泰浩 Yasuhiro Irie
工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo
数井浩子 Hiroko Kazui
青木哲郎 Tetsuro Aoki
灘波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
清水健一 Kenichi Shimizu
木村貴宏 Takahiro Kimura
重田智 Satoshi Shigeta
石浜真史 Masashi Ishihama
小森高博 Takahiro Komori
亀井隆 Takashi Kamei

Cover of LD Vol. 1

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

11:51:00 pm , 2465 words, 4505 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Studio, Studio: Anime R, post-Akira, Studio Curtain

Sukeban Deka and Anime R

The manga Sukeban Deka about the yo-yo-wielding delinquent detective was adapted into a two-episode OVA in 1991 after having been adapted into live-action movies in the late 80s. The live-action stuff appears to have been done by Toei, but the OVAs seem to have been the product of a consortium that outsourced much of the work to different studios, among them chiefly Osaka's Anime R.

Anime R is a subcontracting studio founded in Osaka in the late 1970s by Moriyasu Taniguchi and Hiromi Muranaka. It was one of the first Japanese animation studios to be located outside of Tokyo. They are best remembered for their contribution to raising the quality of Ryosuke Takahashi's first two 'real robot' shows for Sunrise Dougram and Votoms. They had a unique style in the 1980s, with exciting and detailed animation like no other studio. They were one of the most relied-upon studios for mecha animation. That flavor receded in the 1990s, after many of the 1980s staff left, but they're still a prolific and relied-upon studio.

The credits don't mention Anime R. But it's obvious that they're involved if you read between the lines. There are a bunch of Anime R animators involved.

Anime R president Moriyasu Taniguchi is credited as an animator in Sukeban Deka alongside Anime R animators Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida, Takahiro Komori, Takashi Fumiko, Masahide Yanagisawa, Hiroshi Osaka, Hiromi Muranaka, Masahiko Itojima, Takahiro Kimura and Kazuchika Kise. Masahiro Kase, another Anime R member at the time, is the sub-character designer and the main animation director (sakkan).

This OVA thus seems like a good place to get a sense of what kind of work Anime R was doing at this mid-period in their history, after their most famous period but before all of the cool animators had quite left. I've heard of Anime R forever and known who was involved there, but I couldn't put my thumb on their defining look.

Nobuteru Yuuki is the character designer of Sukeban Deka, but he's not the sakkan, so it doesn't have that patented Nobuteru Yuuki density of animation and highly worked drawings. Masahiro Kase was the sakkan of episode 1, assisted by Yuka Kudo and Hiroyuki Okuno. All three are credited as sakkans in episode 2.

The drawings in Sukeban Deka are actually all over the place, maybe not as much as Hakkenden, but still pretty uneven. That's actually one of the things I most liked about these two OVAs. The story is otherwise quite stupid and obviously not meant to be taken seriously. It's a kind of shoujo action mystery, and it's mildly entertaining, but nothing about the characters or story ever grips you. It's about a cute girl in a sailor fuku kicking ass, and hey, that's enough for me. It's a shoujo anime, but it feels more like a shounen anime. The action scenes are actually fairly nice, with an appealing looseness and rawness appropriate to the style of this period, so it's a pretty decent action show.

The main characters aren't drawn in a particularly interesting way, but the crowd drawings I really like. The faces have a surprisingly appealing, quasi-realistic style that kind of comes out of nowhere. They look nothing like the protagonists. They seem to have had more freedom with the sub-characters. The bystanders vaguely remind me of the bystanders by Koichi Arai in 3x3 Eyes from the same year. I like that they don't look like the sort of cliche'd anime/shoujo designs you'd expect in an adaptation of a shoujo manga. I don't know who would have been responsible for these. I thought maybe Masahiro Kase, since he's credited as the sub character designer in episode 2, but he's not credited with that in ep 1.

I know Masahiro Kase had started out at Nippon Animation in 1978 and worked on Pelline (1978), Anne (1979), Tom Sawyer (1980) and Lucy (1982) before leaving to join Anime R. While there, Kase was one of the main animators of Votoms alongside Anime R animator Mouri Kazuaki. Kase left Anime R around 1990 to form his own subcontracting 'studio' called Studio Curtain, from which he went on to continue to be involved in Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater shows. He was character designer of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair as well as Mahoujin Guruguru.

Tadashi Hiramatsu had joined animation subcontractor Nakamura Production sometime around 1986 and done his first key animation in 1987 in Mister Ajikko, where he met Masahiro Kase, who was the character designer and chief sakkan of the show. Hiramatsu joined Studio Curtain when it was founded in 1990 and from there worked on the WMT for a bit. I suppose that's the reason Hiramatsu is involved, because he never worked at Anime R. Normally, Kase was at Curtain by the time this was done, so presumably he got the work because of his Anime R connections. Strangely, Studio Curtain gets a small 'assistance' mention in the credits, but there's no mention whatsoever of Anime R.

Anyway, the only sequence that I felt right away I could pin down to an animator was the opening scene of episode 1, where the girl is chased through the market and into the alleyway by the group of thugs. I'm guessing this part was done by Hiroyuki Okiura. What makes me think so is first of all just the skill of the drawings, layouts and movements. It's not super-detailed like his more recent work, but every detail is just right - the folds of the clothes, the way the girl's shoulders arch up realistically when she's struggling. Little things like this just show the hand of someone who has an uncommon skill at accurately visualizing the body in motion and being able to execute it in a way that feels nice as animation.

Opening scene in episode 1 by Hiroyuki Okiura?

Also, I get the feeling I sense a bit of a distant echo of both Akira and Peter Pan in the way the baddies are drawn - their mouth, their expression, the way they gesticulate - which Okiura had just participated in recently. There's even an overhead shot here that has a similar layout as a shot in the mob scene he did in Akira. The smirk of the baddies and the way of drawing the eyes reminds me of Peter Pan, while Akira comes through in the more detailed folds of the clothing, the Takashi Nakamura-esque faces and hands, and the more realistic poses. It actually doesn't feel much like the great action sequence he did in The Hakkenden OVA 1 around the same time, but it's the only sequence in the episode that stands out to me as having good enough animation that seems a fit for him.

I can't pin down any other sequences to any particular animator - except for one. It's the main reason I sought out this episode. Discovering the Anime R connection was actually a surprise and a bonus. The sequence in question sticks out something incredible. I've seen a lot of crazy animation from Japan in my day, but this one was up there with the craziest. And it's ironic because up until a while ago I'd never heard of the animator who did it.

It's the action sequence on the school grounds, which you can see here. It was animated by an animator named Masayuki Kobayashi, who did a lot of similarly styled action in Ranma 1/2 around the same time.

Action scene in episode 1 by Masayuki Kobayashi

Just look at these drawings. You don't notice that they're this insanely deformed when the animation is in motion - all you notice is the incredibly awesome effect the drawings achieve. Like many good animators, Masayuki Kobayashi is a great action animator who knows how to effectively insert deformed images at the right moment to heighten the impact of the animation. People have criticized Norio Matsumoto's animation on Naruto by picking out a single drawing that seems deformed out of an amazing shot of animation, and criticizing him for not being able to draw. Not only is it not true - he can draw really well - it betrays astounding ignorance of how animation is made. The skilled use of deformation within a movement like this is something not many animators can pull off. All the more so when it comes to really extreme deformation of the kind Masayuki Kobayashi busts out here.

As soon as Masayuki Kobayashi's action scene starts, it's like a different show. Everything is suddenly extremely fast and fluid - and rubbery. I love the way the characters limbs seem to bend under the very momentum of their superhuman leaps and lunges. The characters leap and stretch something incredible. It's really exciting to watch, as an action sequence should be. It's full of verve, momentum, punch, and insanity. It's the kind of action that made me fall in love with anime in the first place. You don't find this kind of action animation anywhere else in the world.

And the particular style of Masayuki Kobayashi's animation seems like something that couldn't have emerged at any other period. It seems the product of the various tendencies floating around in the air at the time. You've got a bit of Akira-esque realism, leavened with Satoru Utsunomiya's elastic style, multiplied by the wackiness of mid-80s TV action animation from wild children like Masayuki and Hideki Tamura. I like that it's not just a mere copy of Yoshinori Kanada or Satoru Utsunomiya - he's cooked together all these various tendencies into his own crazy stew. We're seeing a resurgence of the influence of Yoshinori Kanada these days among young animators like Jun Arai, but what I don't like is that it feels like they're just imitating him outright instead of coming up with their own style like Masayuki Kobayashi did.

I don't know where he came from or where he went. This is all I've been able to find that he's done:

Ranma 1/2 Nettohen 2, 4, 6, 10, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 31, 39 (1990)
The Hakkenden 2, 3, 5 (1990-92)
Sukeban Deka 1 (1991)
Rojin Z (1991)
Run, Melos! (1992)
Gunm (1993)
Nana Toshi Monogatari (1994)
X2 (1999)
Jin-Roh (2000)

Action scene at the end of episode 1

Another scene I liked was the brawl in the arcade near the end of episode 1. The drawing style is really distinctive and totally unlike everything else in the episode, but I can't identify who did it.

It had some fast, fluid and excitingly animated action, without being wildly deformed like the Masayuki Kobayashi scene. It's a classic example of the sort of animation I most like in the productions of this early 90s period like Hakkenden. In fact, the movement seems suspiciously similar to the demon army scene animated by Hiroyuki Okiura in episode 1 of Hakkenden. It's got the same style of pared down drawings combined with really quick action with lots of movement constantly going on. I started wondering, maybe Okiura did this part?? But I notice the same kind of movement near the end of episode 2, and Okiura isn't credited in that episode, so I suspect both may have been done by the same animator.

This is another good example of the unique style of movement that so many animators were doing at this time. Realistic, but not Jin-Roh realistic - more fun and exciting and action-packed. Everyone seemed to be trying their hand at this style. One of the things I remember seeing pretty often in the early 1990s was this thing where the arms kind of hung down limply and wobbled around, as if they were asleep. I loved that. This whole style faded away pretty quickly moving into the mid-90s.


The reason I checked this out was to see Masayuki Kobayashi's work, because I'd heard he was involved. But when I checked the credits on the AD Vision release, I didn't find his name. I found only one "Masanori Kobayashi". I figured it had to be him and the translator just goofed a little. Then I noticed other names that seemed suspiciously familiar. Hironori Okuno? That couldn't be Hiroyuki Okuno, could it? Satoshi Hiramatsu? I only know one Hiramatsu, and that's Tadashi Hiramatsu. I was really curious to know what was going on, so I got my hands on the Japanese credits and did a comparison.

My jaw dropped at what I found. Now, Japanese names are a pain to translate. Often, if you don't have information directly from the person in question, you can't know for sure how a name is read. After all these years, there are still names I'm not sure of. And there are names that I thought I knew how to read for many years that turned out to be read differently. So in that sense, I don't really blame the translator. But on the other hand, there are some names whose readings are clear. The translator who did these credits didn't just goof, he f*ed up big time. In the case of 'Hironori Okuno', "Nori" isn't even a possible reading of that character. Worse than that, Tadashi Hiramatsu appears in both episodes, and is translated differently in each episode - Satoshi Hiramatsu in the first episode and Eiji Hiramatsu in the second episode.

Here are the credits, with corrections, to serve as an example of how important it is to properly translate credits, and how misleading and useless a bad translation can be. Who would have known that Koji Ayazaka was in fact Hiroshi Osaka? But hey, at least they translated the credits and didn't omit the key animators. That's already better than most releases I've seen.


Sukeban Deka Episode 1 main credits

Created & Supervised by:和田慎二 Shinji Wada
Chief Director & Script:ひろた たけし Takeshi Hirota
Character Design:結城信輝 Nobuteru Yuki
"Animation Director":難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
"Sakuga Kantoku":加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase

Sukeban Deka Episode 2 main credits

Created & Supervised by:和田慎二 Shinji Wada
Chief Director & Script:ひろた たけし Takeshi Hirota
Storyboard:三條なみみ Namimi Sanjo
"Animation Director":難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
Character Design:結城信輝 Nobuteru Yuki
Sub-Character Design:加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
"Sakuga Kantoku":加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo
奥野浩之 Hiroyuki Okuno

Episode 1 animators

Koji Ayazaka Hiroshi OsakaHironori Terada Hiroyuki Terada
Yasunori Okiura Hiroyuki OkiuraToru Yoshida
Takahiro KomoriTakanori Kimura Takayuki Kimura
Tenshi Yamamoto Takashi YamamotoHironori Okuno Hiroyuki Okuno
Makoto YoshidaMegumi Abe
Sanae Ohe Sanae ChikanagaToshiki Yamazaki
Yuka KudoTabae Ogawa Mizue Ogawa
Kinuko Waizumi Kinuko IzumiNagisa Miyazaki
Takao YoshinoSatoshi Hiramatsu Tadashi Hiramatsu
Asami Kondo Asami EndoSumomo Okamoto
Masanori Kobayashi Masayuki KobayashiShinya Takahashi
Satoshi Murase Shuko MuraseTerumi Muto
Yukio NishimuraNaoko Yamamoto
Kei TakeuchiMasahiko Itojima
Yoko Kadowaki Yoko KadogamiFumiko Takashi Fumiko Kishi
Shinichi Tokairin Shinichi ShoujiKazuaki Mouri
Masahide YanagisawaYukio Iwata
Haruo OgawaraHidenori Matsubara
Keichi IshiharaKazuya Ose Kazuchika Kise
Atsuko Nakajima

Episode 2 animators

Masahiko ItojimaShinji Ishihama Masashi Ishihama
Kinuko Kazumi Kinuko IzumiKazue Ogawa Mizue Ogawa
Sumomo OkamotoHiroyuki Okuno
Hiroko KazuiKeiichiro Katsura
Fumiko Takashi Fumiko KishiNorifumi Kiyozumi
Yuka KudoTakahiro Komori
Ken SatoTakuya Saito
Hirohide ShikijimaMitsuru Shigeta Satoshi Shigeta
Kenichi Kiyomizu Kenichi ShimizuKazuhiro Sasaki
Moriyasu TaniguchiShinya Takahashi
Noriko Nakajima Atsuko NakajimaEiji Hiramatsu Tadashi Hiramatsu
Makoto FurutaMiki Furukawa
Kazuhiro FuruhashiAkiichi Masuo Shoichi Masuo
Nagisa MiyazakiHiroaki Maroki Hiroaki Korogi?
Terumi MutoTakashi Murase Shuko Murase
Hiromi MuranakaMasahide Yanagisawa
Akihiro Ketsushiro Akihiro YukiHitsuji

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

12:03:00 am , 1233 words, 2797 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Explorer Woman Ray

Another noteworthy OVA relic from the post-Akira period of 1989 to the early 90s is Explorer Woman Ray from 1989, which I just picked up out of curiosity. I'd seen it often on the shelves of video stores 15 years ago when I rented anime regularly, but the package failed to impress me, so I'd never seen it until today.

Like the best OVAs from this period, the range of quality in these two 30-minute OVAs is all over the place. This applies mainly to the first OVA; the second OVA features an admirably even level of execrable quality. It's not worth wasting any further words on. The first OVA, though, is an interesting little companion piece to the best OVAs from this period like Green Legend Ran and Hakkenden, with which it shares its unevenness of tone, overweening ambition, and handful of notable animators. Ran is similarly of interest mainly for its first episode.

The film is actually rather fun to watch. It's got that feeling of expansive adventure that was done so well in the OVAs of this period like 3x3 Eyes, although in this case it's not very successful. And the quality is fairly high overall, although it alternates randomly between very strong work and very weak work, presumably because of shortness of schedule. What's good here is quite good, and it feels like if they'd had more time it might have been better. But the source material is a major problem, so I'm dubious on that point. Overall it's a terrible film, a grab bag of cliches from adventure films like Indiana Jones, each poorly developed and carelessly integrated.

And yet, I actually really enjoyed the film. The opening sequence seems exemplary of why that is. The opening sequence alone is a must-see. The animation is excellent, the drawings are awesome, and the choreography of the action is superb. If the entire film had been made at this level of quality, it would be a masterpiece. I'm guessing it was animated by Tatsuyuki Tanaka, because this would have been the first thing he did after Akira, and being a young animator it wouldn't surprise me that he was still under the influence of the drawings in that film. But influence can't possibly account for how ridiculously Akira-esque the drawings here are. I'm inclined to suspect he was doing it on purpose and having fun with it, drawing everything Otomo-style for laughs. In any case, it's an awesome scene, like the opening gunfight in Green Legend Ran 1, and one of the great action scenes of this period of OVA history.

It's talent like this that accounts for what makes great animation interesting, and I'm guessing it's mostly the presence of talent like him in the production that accounts for why this otherwise irredeemable story and directing work to an extent. Toshiaki Hontani was co-storyboarder along with director Yasuo Hasegawa, and there were actually three dedicated layout men (line director Hiroki Hayashi, Atsushi Okuda and Hideaki Matsuoka) which was more the exception than the rule at this time, and I'm guessing helped with the quality. And there were six sakkans (animation directors).

This is the only thing Toshiaki Hontani ever storyboarded apart from Rojin Z, so it's something of a precious film for a Hontani fan like me. In my post on Crimson Wolf I wondered aloud where else Hontani might have done some good effects work like the dragon climax in that film. Well, that place turns out to be Explorer Woman Ray. There are some spectacular effects sequences in the film, mostly in the second half, involving a hydrofoil skimming across the water outrunning a giant tidal wave crashing behind it, which I'm presuming he storyboarded. I'm not sure who animated the sequences, although I've heard that Mitsuo Iso (who isn't credited) may have been responsible, which wouldn't surprise me. The water here is truly among the best of the period. And it's not just well animated; it's well choreographed. The great animation is the tool that drives the action sequence forward and gives it its impact, for which reason it's among the better I've ever seen.

Kazuyoshi Yaginuma was also involved in the film as an animator, and I suspect he may have done some of the action sequences involving the hovercraft being chased by some of the bad guys due to the highly detailed and fluid animation and very peculiar feeling to the movement. Yaginuma, like Tanaka, had just come from working on Akira, and the influence of that film is palpable in this animation as well as many little elements of Explorer Woman Ray, be it a piece of animation here or a drawing or layout there. In Akira Yaginuma animated the sequence where Tetsuo walks supported by Kaori, right before the arm transformation sequence by Tatsuyuki Tanaka. The latter bit is my favorite shot by him. I love how much work he puts into making the two bodies move in a delicately nuanced manner in this seemingly throwaway shot. He also animated the scene in the kitchen in Shinya Ohira's Antique Shop (again right before the bit by Tanaka - apparently they were close friends), as well as the part where Ran wakes up in the clinic in Ran, so he's one of the key figures of what you might call the 'realistic group' of this period.

Though there are six animation directors, it still feels like you're seeing the animators' work in the raw apart from the close-ups of the main characters. Tanaka's scene is obviously uncorrected, as is presumably Yaginuma's. Even the badly animated scenes don't feel corrected. So it's a representative piece of the trends of this period in that sense, in that it's a film steeped in animator personality.

The designs of the characters are a mixed bag of sharply defined, appealing simplicity on the one hand, and offensive, badly drawn 'westerner' stereotypes on the other. One of the things I like about animation of this period is the character drawn with very few lines like Ran in Ran and the twins here in Explorer Woman Ray. There's the feeling that these designs were made with animation in mind. They're cute, but that's not their entire raison d'etre. It's a good example of the aesthetic appeal of a functional design. There's a certain beauty and elegance borne of simplicity - when it's handled right. Some of the liveliest character drawing and animation I've seen in anime is from OVAs from this period. The character designer and chief animation director is Hiroyuki Ochi, yet another Bebow alumni. A lot of ex-Bebow staff seem to have moved to AIC after leaving Bebow. A number of spots felt like they looked like Naoyuki Onda or Hiroyuki Kitazume, but their names weren't in the credits, so I guess it was my imagination.

Overall, despite logically knowing it's a terrible film in any number of ways, there's still something I find appealing about this OVA's combination of simple designs that move in a lively and inventively choreographed way, and fun and quick-tempo adventure story. Along with the other OVAs from this period that I've mentioned, it's got an atmosphere, animated energy and broadly appealing content that stands apart from that of any other age and that seems to have been lost these days. I would have not only liked to see it done better, but to see more films like this.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

09:28:00 pm , 1149 words, 4007 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Crimson Wolf

Each era in the history of anime has its distinguishing qualities. One of my favorite periods is 1990-1995, when you get OVAs with a sort of crazed energy in the directing and storytelling, and realistically tinged yet fun and manic animation. Unlike in the late 80s, one of the things in the air at this period was realism, presumably influenced by things like Akira, and a lot of animators were producing realistic yet highly expressive and individualistic animation that after all these years remains extremely appealing, sitting as it does comfortably in the zone between pure, stale realism and over-the-top Kanada-school chaos.

The pinnacle of this kind of OVA is probably Hakkenden, which is representative of this era in its very unbalanced approach to the animation in the way a lot of good animators with very different styles are thrown together into a single film without being unified. The result was a film with a lot of variety in the style of animation, to say nothing of the characters' faces, which seem to look different in every shot. 3x3 Eyes is another OVA from this period with a similar sort of epic but hyperactive storytelling and realistically influenced but very expressive animated energy. The OVA has been an important outlet for the more outre urges in anime, offering unique freedoms in storytelling and animation, and there is a lot of good animation buried here and there over the years.

I just ran across a fairly obscure OVA from 1993 entitled Crimson Wolf, directed by FX animator Shoichi Masuo, that seems like another good representative of this period of OVA history. It reminds of Hakkenden in its frenzied directing and raw and extremely uneven but frequently exciting animation. I actually sought this thing out because I saw it in his filmography and was curious to see what an OVA directed by this great animator might look like, and more importantly, if it might not have some good animation. Even if they are often not very good, I find that the very first few films directed by great animators are often fun and crazy and full of great animation. Ichiro Itano's Battle Royale High School comes to mind as just such an example from the previous period in OVA history - insane and ridiculous fun with lots of fighting and very uneven but always lively and occasionally awesome animation. Much to my delight, such indeed turned out to be the case with this film.

Crimson Wolf is about as manic and crazed as they come, and I mean that as a compliment. This OVA exemplifies many of the qualities that first attracted me to anime, with its breakneck pace and story cramming in way too much information for its own good. It's an unpredictable and implausible mishmash of car chases, shower scenes, kung-fu fighting, sex, political intrigue, and cybernetic reincarnations of Genghis Khan out to take over the world. In other words, everything that makes anime great.

The animation is quite an interesting beast. Most of the time the drawings are nothing more than functional, but in quite a few spots the quality suddenly jumps, as the baton has obviously been handed to a great animator with a great sense of timing and drawing. The fighting scenes usually have a dynamic and heavy feeling to the movement reminiscent of Tatsuyuki Tanaka's dojo fight in episode 9 of Hakkenden, with its huge hands and limbs flailing about wildly in an exaggerated but tremendously entertaining fashion.

Typical of this period, many of these scenes just scream a particular animator in the idiosyncrasy of the drawing and movement. The most prominent such scene is the scene that takes place in the woman's apartment, where she is attacked in the shower. The drawings and movement here just scream Norimoto Tokura. I've long wanted to see more from Tokura in the style and quality of the work he did in the Lion and Pelican short in the Ai Monogatari omnibus film that was released the same year as Crimson Wolf. It had a rich and dynamic approach to the animation that seemed like one of the best representatives of this era's unique animation mindset. The scene in the apartment here is probably the best thing I've seen from him after Lion and Pelican. It's a bit rougher around the edges, but it's got the same very fluid and detailed body movement and distinctive aggressive, bulky way of rendering the form of the face. I've attached a pic from the two at right for reference. I know the similarity is not that obvious from these pictures, but these are the best comparison shots I could find.

The most impressive scene in the film in terms of the animation, unsurprisingly, is the climax, with its extremely fluid and well rendered dragons flying through the air. It's the best dragon climax I've seen since the climax with the little prince fighting the hydras in Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon, animated by Yasuo Otsuka with the help of Sadao Tsukioka. It seems clearly like the work of Toshiaki Hontani, another great FX animator. It's not surprising that a film directed by Shoichi Masuo would be brought to a climax by an extravaganza of great FX animation, and Hontani was the perfect animator to use to give this scene its requisite gravitas and power. Nobody knows how to integrate good FX like a good FX animator.

What makes me suspect the climax to have been done by Hontani is the similarity of the smoke to the smoke he did in the capsule breaking open scene in Akira, with its heavy, deliberate movement of each bulge in the cloud. The dragon is also animated with the same minute attention to detail that contrasts dramatically with the more crudely expressive animation in the rest of the film. The animation convincingly portrays the scale of the scene and the massiveness of the dragon, and is one of the better examples in anime of how proper casting of a great animator can make a scene have a strong impact on the viewer. This definitely feels like the best thing I've seen from Hontani after his work in Akira. I'd like to see what other animation he did around this period, to see if he did anything else in this vein.

There were also a number of explosions here and there throughout the film that were drawn in a distinctive pink, hazy style that is the distinguishing trademark of a talented but little-known FX animator named Hideaki Anno. Compare the effects drawn by Shinya Ohira, Toshiaki Hontani and Hideaki Anno to see just how dramatically even effects animators differ. Every animator can come up with a different way of expressing even the exact same natural phenomenon. That's what makes animation beautiful. Hiroyuki Kitakubo is also there as an animator, although I have no idea what his style was like.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

12:27:00 am , 3775 words, 82690 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Animator: Shinya Ohira, post-Akira

The Antique Shop

One of the things that most attracts me to animation is that animation can tell us things about real life that live-action cinema cannot. Like a quick pencil sketch that, with a minimum of lines, captures the spontaneity of a pose, or a haiku that captures with laser precision the outlines of a moment in life, animation has the power of summation, of poetic emphasis. Rather than giving the filmmaker options, as cinema does, animation forces the filmmaker to create every element from a blank slate. Every single decision the filmmaker makes, from the placement of a line to the timing of a movement, dramatically alters the impression of the final product. In the best of hands, the results can create a profound viewing experience that gives deep insight into the human condition.

One of the films that probably first comes to mind when you think of realism in anime is Grave of the Fireflies, or Only Yesterday. Takahata is one of the greatest practitioners of realism in animation the world has seen because he doesn't fall into the trap of mistaking realism with photorealism. Realism in animation shouldn't be just about about mimicking life, but about using that inherent feature of animation - selectivity - and combining it with the infinite expressive possibility of animation, to create something new. Grave would probably not have the impact it does if Setsuko were photorealistically designed. A great animator, Yoshifumi Kondo, came up with a design and a style of movement all his own that was based on shards of reality, rather than being photorealistic or rotoscoped, that itself went a long way to giving the film its impact, by convincing us that those were living people, but through the veil of animation, as it were. The insight of Japan into realism in animation seems to have been that less is more.

Throughout his career, with his various animator collaborators, Takahata created films that gave deep insights into life, not only through the stories, but through the directing and the willingness to discover new dramatic structures that gave room for life to play out the way it would in the real world, languorous pauses and all. Heidi in 1974 can be considered his breakthrough in that it was the film (series) on which he pioneered this approach. You can, of course, speak of a sort of breakthrough psychological realism in Horus from 1967, but Heidi (and even moreso Marco in 1976) went beyond that and went to considerable pains to paint the mundane beauty of everyday life, rather than merely using realism opportunistically for sensationalistic ends. Of course, Takahata was not the first to appropriate shards of reality in animation, in Japan or elsewhere. Just in Japan you can find assiduous realism of movement as far back as W.W. II, in the realistic flight scenes of Seo Mitsuyo's Momotaro and the realistic natural effects of Kenzo Masaoka's The Spider and the Tulip. There are certainly countless other ways that reality has been interpreted in Japanese animation throughout the decades, but Takahata was one of the few in whose work you felt a true love of life.

A new generation is carrying the torch of realism in animation in Japan, and if they're succeeding in creating insightful and meaningful work, it's because they're coming up with new approaches to the task the way Takahata did. Although, in this case, they are animators who evolved into directors. This generation is represented by a handful of talented animators who, each developing in their own particular way, came to different conclusions about how to go about representing the real world in animation. Most of this new generation can be traced back to the late 1980s, when Katsuhiro Otomo was influencing people with his own realistic approach in a different field. That eventually seeped into animation with The Order to Stop Construction and Akira, after which you can see a sort of evolution of realistic animation in Japan through a handful of figures in a succession of mutual influencing. Takashi Nakamura was the leading animation figure behind these two films, and many of the realistic figures of the next generation worked under him, in the process learning from the approach to realistic movement of those films.

The three main figures - the animators who developed a style of animation truly their own - who either became directors or whose vision set them apart in a class of their own, might be said to be Satoru Utsunomiya, Hiroyuki Okiura and Shinya Ohira. There were other people who had their own interesting approach to realism, but these three represent something of the spectrum and diversity of realism of this period - Utsunomiya with his rounded, simple designs and focus on full, rich, exaggerated movement; Okiura with his more technical and detail-oriented approach and focus on more of a surface realism; and Ohira with a more artistic and rough-edged approach.

Right after Akira, Satoru Utsunomiya created Gosenzosama Banbanzai in 1989 with many of the same animators, and soon afterward, the film Peek the Whale in 1991, which together are his two most significant efforts in scale and duration. He seems to have had a hard time finding larger-scale projects afterwards, and has focused mainly on his work as an animator. However, he came back and made a splash recently with Paranoia Agent episode 8 and Aquarion episode 19, and has been mostly out of sight for a while since then, so perhaps we will finally see another big project from him. Around the same time that Utsunomiya was doing Peek, Hiroyuki Okiura crafted the animation of Run, Melos in 1992, and then Ghost in the Shell in 1995, which marked his major early efforts in the realistic style, eventually leading to his directing one of the landmarks of the new realistic school, Jin-Roh, in 2000, with animation director Tetsuya Nishio, who had been staking his own territory as a realistic animator somewhat similar in spirit to Okiura over the preceding decade.

One of the few projects that saw these three animators working together in the aftermath of Akira was Hakkenden, produced by AIC intermittently over the span of several years starting in 1990. Afterwards they went their own way, and each continued developing in a very different direction. They wouldn't be reunited until more than a decade later in the climax of Innocence. Significantly, Hakkenden even featured work by Mitsuo Iso, that other major realistic animator of the period. So after Akira, Hakkenden (or at least portions of it) can be considered one of the launching pads of the current realistic school. Prior to Akira, Shinya Ohira had done a lot of work for AIC as an animator, which is why after Akira and Gosenzosama Banbanzai he was fatefully offered work as animation director of the first episode of Hakkenden in 1990. Notably, Ohira had been animation director of Riding Bean in 1989, as well as having animated a scene in Angel Cop episode 2. His work on these two projects gives a good picture of the type of animator Shinya Ohira was around 1991, when he was finally given the opportunity to make his debut as a director.

Ohira's early period can be said to span from about 1985 to 1990. Ohira has continued to evolve since then, but this period was when he discovered the basic mindset of dense and expressive animation that continues to define his work, albeit in very different form. One of Ohira's main influences, and one of the factors that led him to choose animation as a career, was witnessing the work of Masahito Yamashita in the TV broadcast of Urusei Yatsura as a teenager in the early 80s. Ohira recalls nearly choking on his dinner when Yamashita's animation came on the screen. Right from the start, Ohira had the eye of an animator. What attracted him was the extreme and visually thrilling animation created by this highly idiosyncratic animator. Until several years ago, Ohira still maintained that Yamashita remained one his prime inspirations to this day. It's clear enough how Ohira's animation today carries on the spirit of that early encounter. Ohira began as an animator overtly imitating the style of Yamashita, but very quickly began discovering his own voice, and today continues to create animation that provides the sort of visceral animated thrill that Yamashita first taught him way back then. Surprisingly, Ohira was also greatly influenced by the animation of Disney, and you can see the sheer oddity of Yamashita's approach to timing and posing tempered by the richness of Disney animation and Ohira's own inherently realistic bent.

At some point in his early career, something began to change in Ohira. He began adding more and more details to his animation, more layers, creating denser and denser animation. The earliest and most salient example would probably be Gall Force, for which he spent a month animating a single three-second shot of a laser beam. Similar things happened in other shows. Around the same time, while still at AIC, he animated the animated portions of a foreign shoot-em-up console game called Captain Power, which essentially consisted of an endless sequence of scrolling scenery through which the player, imagining himself piloting a ship, flew while being attacked by enemies of various forms. It is here that we first find animation that clearly displays the approach to timing and form that can be seen in the classic effects work that Ohira did one year later in Akira in 1988, where he animated the collapsing building and swirling clouds in the sky, among other shots, all of them effects shots. Whether willingly or not, due to the type of work he was doing, Ohira was beginning to pay closer and closer attention to the little details in order to increase the power of his effects work, which meant abandoning the stylized manner of his early work in favor of making the effects more realistic. This seems to be the beginning of his realistic period.

After Akira, Ohira continued working as an animator doing the same sort of dense effects work, of which the animation of the scene he did in Angel Cop seems to be something of the culmination. After then having had the opportunity to try his hand in an extended fashion animating human beings as the animation director of the classic and still immensely watchable first episode of Hakkenden in 1990 for AIC (this time presumably as a freelancer), he again began to subtly change course, as he has done several times throughout his career, and as you would expect of anyone who is truly trying to create something interesting with their art. He remained focused on realism, but he now set his realistic eye to the task of portraying humans.

And so we arrive at the directing debut of Shinya Ohira: The Antique Shop.

Ichiro Itano deserves praise for having had the vision to grant not only Ohira but also his longtime friend and co-conspirator Shinji Hashimoto the opportunity to mount their directing debuts in the one-shot OVA Twilight Theatre (1991), of which Itano was the producer. Ohira's piece is one of the three constituent chapters. All three chapters, each directed by a different director, are based on stories by horror/fantasy writer Baku Yumemakura. Ohira was, to be precise, the character designer, animation director, storyboarder, scriptwriter (adapter) and director of his 13-minute piece. Ohira had never storyboarded before, nor designed characters, and with the exception of Hakkenden episode 10 (for which he secretly created his own character sheets), he has never done so again since (at least until Wanwa). This film hence occupies a unique position in Ohira's career, and is the immediate precursor to his masterpiece, Hakkenden episode 10, but it has never been released on DVD, so it remains quite obscure. That's unfortunate, because it's more than just an interesting relic from a great animator. It actually still speaks today in a voice loud and clear about the nature of realism in animation, and how it should be done, but is almost never.

The film is set in the present day, and tells the story of a lowly salaryman out drinking with his co-workers one evening after a hard day of work. After leaving the bar, he is accidentally separated from them, and while wandering the streets of the city, he happens upon a mysterious curio shop. He wanders in only to be shocked to run across relics of his own past, and embarks on a metaphysical journey through painful memories from his youth, when he had a young lover and aspired to become a painter.

Ohira himself chose this story because it struck a chord in him, as an animator who had long been hounded by the specter of being unable to survive by his art. Ohira in fact abandoned animation for five years starting in 1995 to work at the family business. This is above all a story of failed dreams and sordid reality. Ohira was a first-time director, and the film has the hesitant marks of a first-time director, yet simply by the choice of material and the degree to which Ohira himself was committed to creating a deeply felt psychological film that meant something to him, the film achieves a rare power. It's a film with conviction. The production conditions for the film were unfortunately very bad, and the film suffers from slipshod finishing and photography that is full of errors. The animation is furthermore very uneven in tone, and many portions would almost certainly have been smoothed over by Ohira had he had the time to do so. Despite being roughshod on the technical side, the film nonetheless shines through and works due to Ohira's personal attachment and innate instinct for realism.

In recent years, Ohira has achieved the feat of creating animation that is realistic while bordering on being abstract. None of that is on display in this early film, at least on the surface, but the spirit is similar. With The Antique Shop, Ohira set out to create a film that was "namanamashii", which is a difficult word to convey in translation, but that means basically - raw, visceral. He wanted to create a powerful emotional impact by portraying reality in all its sordid ugliness. He succeeded in doing so to an impressive degree for a first-time director, although it was in Hakkenden episode 10 that he achieved this effect to perfection. No other animation has ever achieved the sort of raw power that Ohira achieved in these two films. Other films have been realistic, but the realism is usually clean in look and ruly in emotion, and is rarely willing to portray reality in a truly honest way, which means being willing to show the ugly side too - both physically and emotionally. Ohira is one of the few I've seen who is willing to take a neutral stance and portray life as it really is.

One of the scenes that had the most impact on me in episode 10 of Hakkenden was the scene on the porch, where the woman shyly approaches the man and asks him if they've met before. I had never seen a woman drawn that way before in animation, much less anime. Without any sort of slow evolution, in one stroke Ohira had managed to break through the edifice of convention that dominates character design in Japan to a look truly inspired by reality. I think this is a question many must have wondered: Why is it that we can never see people who actually look like people in animation? That does not mean having to be photorealistic. It means being honest about physical features, thinking honestly how to show a face that can convince any viewer that a soul inhabits it, and not simply adhering to a style out of lack of courage to tweak convention. In the face of the woman on the porch, Ohira had created what for perhaps the first time in animation to me struck me as looking like a living, breathing human being. She was not prettified. She was homely. But she was one of the most beautiful characters I've seen in animation because it was a face I could believe in. It was as if I experienced a sense of relief finally being able to see that kind of face in animation.

Ohira took his first steps towards revolutionizing the approach to character design in The Antique Shop. The close-up shot of the face of the protagonist in the screenshot on the left side of the topmost row above is a good illustration of Ohira's unique approach. Ohira went out of his way to create a design that has a clearly Japanese ethnicity, something that seems almost taboo judging by how assiduously it is avoided in productions then and now. A telling anecdote comes from episode 10 of Hakkenden. Ohira wanted to give a character a 5-o'clock shadow - and for a good reason based on the story: The character had been wandering in the forest for days. Characters lunged around at each other, covered in mud, flailing wildly and screaming like beasts, features contorted horribly in anguish. With considerable reluctance, the producer had accepted all of that, albeit only after Ohira threatened to quit. But curiously, he wouldn't allow the 5-o'clock shadow, and refused to budge on that point alone. It seems odd, but in fact it's indicative of how Ohira's insistence on realism was picking at the edges of some deep-rooted conventions in the industry. Yet it's because Ohira roots the character in a specific location, and in a specific, individual face, that the character comes alive and achieves a semblance of three-dimensionality. It's not possible to divorce physical appearance from personality. That's not the way it is in reality, and most animation fails at a very basic level to establish personality when it fails to establish a design that speaks of personality.

Ohira invests the motion with subtle nuance that makes the action feel very real and convincing. In animation it seems rare to see expressions that have the level of nuance of everyday expressions. Everything seems exaggerated. For example, we can read a great deal in real life from a slight movement of the eyebrow, but in animation this sort of thing would tend to be wildly exaggerated, completely losing any sort of feeling of veracity or truth. It's a testament to this fact that, more than 15 years later, the film is still striking for the way there are moments when a character's expression changes in a very subtle way, and it's not possible to pinpoint any specific emotion tied to the expression or movement. It's not about expressing a black and white emotion. For example, in one shot we see a character as he absorbs what another character, now off-camera, has just said. His eyebrow are high in an expression of consternation. His head moves down slightly, almost imperceptibly, and he blinks once. That's it. It's a reaction that passes by in an instant and almost seems nonexistent, expressing nothing, but it's in Ohira's ability to see moments like this and translate them into animation that makes his work great and special.

Ohira is able to orchestrate scenes of interaction in a way that makes them feel real, and basically just does a great job of maintaining interest. He has the instincts of a director. The drama has real tension, partly because he manages to make the characters come alive in the very brief allotted time span of the film. Ohira lavishes loving detail on the paraphernalia of the curio shop that hint at the protagonist's childhood and adolescence, including a ragged antique kite and the sketchbook showing a sketch by the protagonist (=Ohira) back when he and the woman were together. In the flashback, one shot shows with realistic nuance the contents of the sink where the young woman just vomited while washing the dishes. In just a few shots he convincingly establishes the feeling that a poor college couple are living day to day in this shabby, cramped apartment.

Although the animation is a somewhat uneven affair, it is also somewhat uneven in Hakkenden episode 10, but there the unevenness works to great effect, and almost all of the animation is riveting and full of great realistic nuance. This is no doubt partly because for that episode Ohira was backed up by a bevy of fantastic animators including Osamu Tanabe and Hiroyuki Morita, headed of course by animation director Masaaki Yuasa, and he had a lot more schedule. For The Antique Shop he had less good animators, although he did have several. Shinji Hashimoto helped out with one shot, Tatsuyuki Tanaka animated a number of shots, and Mitsuo Iso even helped out with two shots, albeit uncredited for some reason. Tanaka's style kind of sticks out in an unfortunate way in terms of both the drawings and the animation, but Iso's short but dense two shots are among the best in the film, and hint at the greatness that might have been had they had more schedule to unify the film in that direction. The screengrab on the left in the bottom row is from Iso's shot. In it, we see the young protagonist hunched over reading while smoking, looking bored, then yawning and rubbing his eyes afterward, presumably to wipe away the yawn-tears. That's it. Nothing of consequence or significance, and yet it's among the most awesome and convincing moments in the film. Iso instinctively got what Ohira was trying to do - create acting that is full of realistic nuance without undue exaggeration. His timing for every single solitary frame of the shot is impeccable and perfectly captures the feeling of the character in that situation while seeming absolutely real and authentic. And it just feels great as animation.

Just as I've come back to episode 10 of Hakkenden often, this is a film I want to come back to often. That's partly because it's an animated film filled with a rare degree of human warmth that I want to revisit frequently. It has the warmth of being the product of conviction, of a young creator who was attempting to do something new, and something that he felt was true to life and true to his art. That conviction still shines through after all these years. In addition, it has the warmth of being a rare creation that, for all its imperfection, feels handmade and approachable. We're farther now than we ever have been from seeing this sort of material becoming more common. With the extremely limited resources available to him, Ohira was able to make a film that does what bigger budgets and more sophisticated storylines are unable to do - keep it real. I wish we could see more films like this.

Monday, April 16, 2007

05:53:00 pm , 1152 words, 3200 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, OVA, post-Akira

Green Legend Ran etc

Last night I had a chance to watch a selection of the Academy Award nominees (and winner) for animated shorts. The only one that left any real impression on me was the one that deservedly won the award, The Danish Poet, a witty, wistful, wise little handmade film that leaves you very satisfied. Almost all of the other films were ultra-polished CGI studio films, none of which had anything new to say, so it's all the more sweet a victory for Torill Kove. Bill Plympton's Guide Dog was fun, but it felt like a step down from Guard Dog, without the wonderful, savage satirical bite of the original. Of the CG films, the Hungarian film Maestro was surprisingly the most satisfying one. Usually CG animation seems to always be patterned after US theatrical productions, but this one was different, a formally simple film with a simple punchline, which is precisely why it was satisfying. Other films like One Rat Short were undoubtedly very well made, but I guess I tend to favor films that do much with little.

The animation of the first ep of Tsutomu Mizushima's new baseball series was typically highly worked, but what really caught my eye was all of the bits involving actual baseball playing. There was a separate post for "action animation director", so clearly they must have someone in there as the specialist working on just those scenes, studying actual baseball movement and applying that knowledge to the animation. It's nice to see that they're obviously taking the baseball animation seriously. Seeing this reminds me that I'd like to be able to see more of Samurai Giants to compare, as this was one of the more memorable takes on baseball animation of a few decades ago. I loved the animation in the op/ed by Otsuka. I'd be curious if Samurai Giants was some kind of an influence or distant memory.

I also recently had a chance to re-watch yet another old favorite of mine, Green Legend Ran, which I remember buying from Pioneer on LD back in the days they were among the first companies to put out good bilingual LDs in the west. I'm not sure how the staff that made this 3-OVA series got together, but it's an excellent group all around, spearheaded of course of Tatsuyuki Tanaka, who gave the world its foundation with his image boards. Animators include Shinji Hashimoto, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, Nobutoshi Ogura, Hisashi Ezura, Atsushi Wakabayashi. Apart from an underwhelming ending, it was a strong effort overall. The directing is great, the story is compelling and well told, and the animation is excellent and still exciting to watch. Watching it make me wonder how it came about that ten years later seemingly nobody wants to draw this style of animation anymore, with these simple characters and a focus on creating fun, exciting movement. It's one of the few attempts I've seen at creating an original sci-fi fantasy on a grand scale in the vein of Conan that actually worked. Telecom was obviously attempting just such a thing with Secret of Cerulean Sand, and watching Ran threw into relief why Secret of Cerulean Sand didn't work.

The animation is satisfying in each ep, though it's interesting to note how it differs from ep to ep. Ep 1 is by far the richest, with lots of nuanced work throughout. It's the one where you feel the strongest that this is a film produced by some of the young staff that just got finished working on Akira. It inherits that film's spirit of movement. This is perhaps the episode that stands up best to viewing after all these years precisely because the it's full of a kind of realistic-tinged, full, highly worked movement that was a product of that era and seems to have mostly disappeared these days. The one scene in the series that stayed imprinted in my memory over the years was the last one in ep 1, among the ruins. I wonder who did it. Perhaps Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, as I remember he did similarly nuanced full movement in Akira just before. Ran gesticulating with those huge hands seems like something he might have done. The highlight of the much more restrained and still second ep is the mecha animation. I suspected Shuichi Kaneko might have been involved, but it seems it was due to Hisashi Ezura, who was mecha AD of the ep. Makes sense. I notice he was listed top in ep 3 of Guren, so I'm looking forward to seeing that. The ep doesn't come across as being parsimonious in the animation department despite not nearly as much movement going on because the story is well told. A good positive example that you don't have to be jam-packed with great animation to leave a good impression. Good directing sprinkled with good bits of animation achieves a satisfying balance. The torture sequence was rather surprising for its time and left a strong impression on me. Ep 3 was more movemented, but differently from the first, more restrained and focused, without that flowing movement and very liberal use of drawings of the first ep. Takeshi Honda and Nobutoshi Ogura were co-ADs.

Speaking of Secret of Cerulean Sand, I just got finished watching it, and one ep stood out as noteworthy in the sense that I can't help wishing the rest of the series had been up to its level - #19, one of Hiroyuki Aoyama's episodes. I felt it showed off Aoyama's genius well, because it showed him deliberately emulating that awesome vibe of the old Telecom stuff, and doing it better than the people working alongside him who were the ones who made the best of the old Telecom stuff, like one who had learned from the master and surpassed him. I only knew him to be a great animator before this, but this seems a good example that the best animators like him often have it in them to become the best directors. Mitsuo Iso will soon add his name to those ranks. I could see Aoyama making a great film. He creates a perfect flow of action seemingly effortlessly. He feels like a natural. The framing and the timing of each shot is never haphazard, it always feels very thought out without being preoccupied with stylistics. It's a good example of directing overcoming the limitations of the material. Kazuhide Tomonaga's eps (10 15 18 25) had an exceptional feeling of flow, sprinkled with lots of moments of extremely well thought out and clever action typical of him, and Yoshinobu Michihata backed him up perfectly in each ep in bringing the action scenes to life in very free and fun animation, but in the end even the work of this golden Telecom duo doesn't quite have the impact of Aoyama's episodes. Aoyama's work oozes drama and control at every moment.

I must say I'm saddened to hear of Kurt Vonnegut's death. His books meant a lot to me.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

10:28:00 pm , 1431 words, 4594 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Revisiting 3x3 Eyes

I recently had the chance to rewatch an old favorite of mine, 3x3 Eyes. This was one of the shows that I watched in the very early days alongside Akira and Warriors of the Wind that lured me into anime. I remember not only buying the soundtrack(s) but also buying the original Japanese manga and attempting to read it with my then-rudimentary (nonexistent) Japanese skills. Mostly I just marvelled at Yuzo Takada's art.

I had completely forgotten what each of the 4 eps in the 1991 OVA series was about in the intervening decade, but as soon as I started watching, it all came back to me. The music in particular. The music is by the composer Kaoru Wada, and I'm surprised to find that my appreciation of it hasn't changed too much in the intervening years. It's still great, driving, exciting stuff, greatly contributing to the epic aura, and so much more musically substantial than most anime soundtracks. It's a big part of why the show had such an impact on me. I'd recommend seeking out his orchestral compositions to anyone who liked the soundtrack and wanted to hear more music like it. What I've heard is similar, and even better, in that it stands alone as drama-in-music. He's another great Japanese orchestral composer who also happens to have done soundtracks, like Akira "Godzilla" Ifukube.

Apart from that, I'm glad to say that my evaluation hasn't diminished. This is still a very memorable and enjoyable series watched today, and in fact I found it more genuinely engaging than most of what I see being made nowadays. It succeeds in creating a convincing feeling of adventure and epic grandeur, which seems to have become a lost art today. Here the spirit of adventure is natural and unforced and unselfconscious, which is unbelievably refreshing to see today. The people behind the unique feeling of the show, apart from Takada Yuzo, who wrote the original manga on which it's based, are director Nishio Daisuke and animation director Koichi Arai. Watching it you really feel that the directing and animation are working together as a unit to create this unique feeling.

Nishio went on to direct lots of Dragonball and more recently Kindaichi and a number of other shows with the Himeno/Araki animation director duo. What I like about the directing here is that the characters don't feel like they're going through paces. Each development is truly unexpected, and you're actually watching wondering what's going to happen next. A lot of things are elided over, unfortunately, and go unexplained, which leaves you scratching your head in spots, presumably because of the need to compress the massive original comic, but he manages to do it in a way that it seems natural, so it doesn't feel like the show has holes. Just the opposite, it feels good to watch something that doesn't feel like it has to fill in every little detail. It keeps moving to new places instead. Nishio's directing doesn't feel insulting or pandering, and never gets boring. It's truly balanced stuff. It's unfortunate that I haven't seen much from him since then.

What I came away from upon rewatching the OVAs was a feeling of a promise unfulfilled. I'm not talking about the fact that the series gets cut off right when it's getting good. I may sound perverse for saying so, but I kind of liked that things remained open that way. It's sad to see a story you like come to an end. I always found that unresolved mystery of what was going to happen somehow pleasant. What I'm talking about, rather, is that this show had a certain feeling of expansive adventure convincingly directed that I expected to find in all anime, and haven't. That's the downside to starting high. It's downhill from there. Most anime I've seen since then is predictable in story and characters and never succeeds in creating a genuine feeling of dramatic scale. That feeling of truly enjoying each moment of a long saga, of getting into the characters, isn't something I've gotten very often since then from anime, which is surprising since so much anime has attempted to create that sort of thing.

Last but not least, the other element is Koichi Arai. It's through his pen that those characters come alive. Not only are his designs a great interpretation of the original manga, I really feel that it's because of his drawings that interest is maintained constantly. Naturally it wouldn't work without Nishio's directing, but they work perfectly in sync. Right before this Arai drew all of the animation for an episode in an OVA series called Hanaichi Monme, and Nishio was the director of the episode. I've heard good things both about Arai's animation of the episode and the potent, realistic directing of Nishio, and so it's clear they had a wonderful symbiosis going. That's the sort of thing I most like to find - a great director/animator team. Nishio and Arai were the best together. I can't think of any other show on which Arai's style has been featured so prominently, as since then he's gone back to focusing on working as a solo animator. It's good in a sense, because I'd rather see him work as an animator, but part of me would like to see another short assay like 3x3 Eyes from Arai, to see what he'd do with it today.

What is it about his characters that I like so much? It's that they're expressive, and their expressions don't feel hackneyed, taken from the repertoire. They feel genuine. They feel like his own work. That's another broken promise - most anime I've seen since then can't be said to have that feeling of uniqueness. I find the difference especially stark in comparison with the bulk of anime being made now. There are very few times when I feel an animation director has come up with his own set of expressions and his own approach to form and so on. In Arai's hands each drawing feels right. Even in cases where drawings have been extensively corrected nowadays, I still don't get that feeling. It's a question of whether you have that touch or not. It also may have been a product of the era. Utsunomiya Satoru's Gosenzosama Banbanzai had just come out the year or two previously, so perhaps we're seeing the early influence of its unique approach to character animation in 3x3 Eyes. There's a strong feeling of three-dimensionality in the characters that seems similar, and a different basic approach towards what to move and when. The faces are modeled in a realistic fashion that reminds a bit of Otomo, so Akira may also have been a recent memory.

I also had a chance to watch the continuation that was made about four years later, this time three 45-minute eps. Perhaps nostalgia is a factor in there somewhere, but the continuation didn't have the magic of the first series for me. It was simply anime. It was Arai and Nishio who made the first series so unique, and without them it was just anime. Even Kaoru Wada's soundtrack seemed a little limp this time around, almost like a watered down version of the first. Exemplary of the stark difference are the designs, which did very little for me. There wasn't that feeling of enjoying the drawings throughout that there was under Arai. The contrast is actually helpful since it throws into relief the unique nature of Arai's drawings.

What's interesting is that the second series had about three times more animators per episode, yet it didn't have that feeling. The first series had Hideki Hamasu in each episode, clearly acting as the unspoken "main animator". I couldn't pick out his work, but he presumably must have done the main action sequences. Each episode of the second series had a number of interesting figures, and the action scenes were fairly good quality. The best was easily the bit around the 30-minute mark of ep 1, from the point where Yakumo summons Tochao to where he's stabbed, about thirty seconds in total. Toshiyuki Inoue is in the credits, and going by the date of production, 1995, I think it jives with the sort of movement Inoue would have been creating by that time. I also rather enjoyed the gesticulation around the point where the little girl is hit by the car in the second episode. To list interesting names I noted: ep 1 has Toshiyuki Inoue, Yasuhiro Aoki; ep 2 has Jiro Kanai, Yasuhiro Aoki, Aoki Mariko, Masami Goto; and ep 3 has Tatsuya Tomaru, Masahiko Kubo, Keisuke Watabe.