Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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« Moving PictureMamoru Hosoda and the Secret Island »

Sunday, August 21, 2005

03:43:26 pm , 1792 words, 2818 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Rambling about Toei animation

I've finally started reading Yasuo Otsuka's book on Nemo, and so far I've gotten up to the founding of Telecom, about which he goes into more detail than I've seen anywhere yet. It's probably the most interesting part of the book. For a long time I've had this conflict in me. Japan has developed a unique style of animation that, at its best, is interesting in a way no animation anywhere else is, allowing animator individuality to shine through in studio productions. On the other hand, I often find myself wishing they had the system of the west that would allow them to achieve greater density of movement, simply because the good stuff goes by so fast, since it's always left up to a single individual. That's simultaneously its strength and its weak point. Watching Hosoda's film I felt this particularly strongly. The scenes that move move, but the vast majority felt more still than I would have liked. It was a little concerning to see the single-drawing crowd scenes. I guess it's what you'd call meri-hari in Japanese. Variety, pacing, spacing the still versus the active to create an interesting flow and texture. Not having the entire film moving constantly makes the good scenes more satisfying. But at the same time I realize that the reason for this style is not really a question of taste, it's a question of systemic limitations, of the history of the evolution of the studio system. They simply can't create more movement than that on that limited a schedule with the system of animation that has developed in Japan. Otsuka touches on this in his explanation of the founding of Telecom.

TMS head Yutaka Fujioka approached Otsuka about helping to head training of animators at the new studio he was founding for the purpose of eventually animating Little Nemo. Otsuka gave it a lot of thought and layed out what would have to be done in close detail. Fujioka wanted the film to be a hit in the US, so he had a vague notion that things had to be done in the American style, but no idea what achieving that would entail. One night Otsuka sat down and explained all that would be required, but it seemed to go in one ear and out the other, and when Otsuka finally heard back from Fujioka in the fall of 1978 after finishing Conan, he found out that Fujioka had completely ignored every suggestion he had made, and had already had all the hiring and training done by Sadao Tsukioka. Tsukioka was probably hired because he started out at Toei Doga alongside Otsuka, but if Fujioka had bothered to look at Tsukioka's resume he would have realized that after starting out at Toei, Tsukioka went independent and focused on a completely different style of animation. The training the animators had received turned out to be completely useless for the purpose for which they had been hired. Nemo eventually got made after a decade and tons of wasted money and effort, but it was far from the hit Fujioka had hoped. Maybe it would have been a different story if he had listened to Otsuka. It's hard to understand what Fujioka was thinking.

On rewatching Hosoda's film recently, I felt it provided a good snapshot of the animation system that's come to dominate Japan. Toei Doga was supposedly founded on the Disney mold, but their style was completely different. They didn't have a streamlined methodology, where anybody could learn to animate in the Toei Doga style if they just learned the system. Animators were simply thrown in as inbetweeners and expected to watch how the key animators worked to eventually move up to key animation, which is basically the system we have today. Animators are left to develop how they might, influenced by seniors or favorite animators. The result is that a small number who are driven enough develop individual styles. Those who are interested in creating movement are forced to draw most of the key animation themselves, since there's no system of assistant animators and the like in Japan. This winds up limiting the amount any one animator can do for films like Hosoda's that have a short schedule (I think there was about 5 months for the animation), so you get very short sequences by a lot of animators, which accounts for the large number of key animators and the variety of styles.

If the animation director system pioneered by Yasuji Mori was created because there was no system in place to allow animators to all draw the same way, then in a sense we seem to have realized it wasn't necessary to go that far, and have gone back and integrated a little of the Akira Daikubara way of doing things, which was all about allowing animator individuality. Otsuka, who trained under Daikubara and not Mori, carried on that way of doing things in Horus, where he didn't correct Horus throughout the film, so that it contrasts sharply with Hilda's unified look throughout. But who's bothered by that? It fits the character, and makes him seem all the more full of vitality. I've always liked that feeling of barbarism you get from Horus, which is all thanks to the way he was animated. Kazuo Komatsubara seemed to have carried on that tradition in his Toei movies with the way he handled the work of Yoshinori Kanada and Tomonaga Kazuhide. This is probably what Shinji Hashimoto is talking about in that Animatrix interview when he says how he thinks you don't need an animation director if all of the animators are good. He also says he thinks of his work not as something new but as fitting within the continuity of the traditional 'rough' way of drawing things, which presumably refers to the rough style that can be seen in first Daikubara's and then Otsuka's work, though of course there's also the whole tradition of gekiga and so on.

What seems obvious is that forcing one animator to draw everything has had the effect of reducing the amount of acting, even in film animation. That's why people who actually do draw detailed acting, like Shinji Otsuka or Hideki Hamasu, wind up seeming so exceptional. When moving at all, there's a tendency to draw flashy eye-catching motions that have an impressive effect. It's rarer to see a character subtly reacting in a detailed way from moment to moment. This is probably also linked to the typical style of directing. In Hosoda's film Hideki Hamasu was given the scenes involving the captains making dramatically pivotal decisions. His scenes were full of subtle acting, but again they pass by very fast. There were other good scenes, but none of them had this feeling of watching a character on the screen being animated in such a detailed way from moment to moment, which is sad considering the history of the studio. I'm reminded of an anecdote made by Otsuka in his book. Around 1980 three pilot films made by three different studios were ranked to see which would get the job of animating Disney's Wuzzles. Toei's pilot got a 5, Telecom's got a 9, and the Korean studio got a 1. As I've mentioned before, by this time the real animator talent had long gone from Toei and moved elsewhere like A Pro and Telecom. As soon as they lost their great animators, they lost that force, because the quality of the classic Toei Doga films came from individuals, not from any system in place. I know it started right from the moment Atom hit the air, but I've never been exactly clear on why Toei shifted from focusing on creating quality films to just pumping out adaptations of the popular manga of the day.

Only one other scene in the film seems to stand apart from the rest of the animation as focusing on creating nuance rather than flash, that pictured above. Hosoda has gone into detail about all of the animators in the film, but he said he couldn't name this one. The animator is probably not credited. The only animator who would fit the bill stylistically, who's gone uncredited fairly often, and who's been involved with Hosoda in the past is Mitsuo Iso, though my first thought was Shinji Hashimoto. It's a sequence that passes by without leaving much of an impression at first, but on rewatching it grows on you and you begin to see just how nuanced the movement is. It gave me goosebumps, and just about the only other time I've gotten goosebumps watching a bit of animation was watching another Iso sequence. Explaining what's good about it is difficult - it just feels good as animation in a way none of the other parts do. It's this style of movement that feels like Japan's great achievement of the last decade or so. Other than that I learned that the sequence I was wondering about earlier, where Zoro repeatedly cuts a character, was done by Takaaki Wada. Yo Yoshinari did the flower transformation and Hiroyuki Imaishi did the bit with Rufy flying about. Takashi Hashimoto, of course, did the absolutely wonderful explosion effects from the arrows. It was also confirmed that Hisashi Mori = Hisashi Nakayama, although I was already fairly certain that this was the case based on the available evidence.

I suppose without a long schedule this would be impossible, but I'd love to see a film that brings together together two dozen or so really good animators doing three minutes or so of animation, rather than having those same two dozen do only thirty seconds interspersed over long spaces like here. Since most of the people are freelance and highly in-demand, and as the saying goes there are probably only about 50 animators in Japan up to the level of feature animation, the most difficult thing about doing that would probably be arranging the schedules in such a way as to make it possible, or I suppose it would already have been done. Tokyo Godfathers is probably the film that's come closest to this style in recent years, though Birth is probably the best example, with only about eight key animators for the whole film, if I remember correctly, which is quite something considering how much it was moving.

From Otsuka's book I learned that Otsuka animated most of the water and the goblins, so I'd like to have another look at the film with that in mind, since this was Otsuka's last work as a key animator, almost exactly thirty years after he did his first inbetween under Yasuji Mori on Kitty's Graffiti. It's fitting that he would animate monsters and water for his last job, since that's what he was so famous for at Toei Doga.



jay smith
jay smith [Visitor]

would you happen to know if there are any artbooks on Toei/Doga films available?

08/22/05 @ 15:43
Ben [Visitor]

None specifically on Toei Doga. The closest would be the ‘Zenbo’ book I mention in this post.

08/22/05 @ 17:14
jay smith
jay smith [Visitor]

that “zenbo” book looks mighty fine, the “yasuji mori: master animator” book sounds great as well.

nearly died when i saw the “brat prince” figurines!!

cant tell if the “anido” site ships internationaly though?

thanks for your help :)

08/22/05 @ 19:15
Ben [Visitor]

I don’t know either. That’s what’s been keeping me from placing an order. I should just give it a shot one day and see what they say. There are a few things I’ve wanted for a while now.

08/23/05 @ 05:29
neilworms [Visitor]

this might be of interest to you guys, a new american anime distributor has picked up the rights to several old toei films you can read about it here:

08/30/05 @ 12:54
Ben [Visitor]

Animal Treasure Island is such a fun film. I’m glad people over here will finally be able to see it. Animation-wise it contains many of my favorite bits of any of the Toei Doga films. Miya’s section is an absolute must-see.

08/31/05 @ 13:15