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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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

10:21:19 pm , 737 words, 2849 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, TV

Recent stuff

Speaking of Patrick Bokanowski in my last post, by sheer coincidence I just noticed that the great Aurora festival in Norwich, UK, which will be running a mere month from now from November 12 to 16, has a retrospective of the work of Bokanowski lined up on its program. I sure wish I could go. It would be great to see L'Ange on a big screen, and get to see his other shorts as well.

Just a few desultory comments about recent viewing. Episode 11 of Bones' Xam'd struck me as being among the more convincing so far in terms of the animation of the characters, the quality of directing, and simply the overall feel of the show, though it's a subtle difference. The credits revealed the reason: It was a Denno Coil episode. The director was one of the main rotation directors, Kazuya Nomura, and the animation directors were two of the main rotation animators, Yoshimi Itatsu and Kiyotaka Oshiyama. The episode also featured other Coil regulars like Ayako Hata and Akira Honma.

Of the new season of shows, Casshern Sins stands out for the moment for the work of veteran Toei director Shigeyasu Yamauchi and veteran Toei animation director Yoshihiko Umakoshi. I remember this team from the Digimon Hurricane Touchdown movie they worked on together in 2000, right after Mamoru Hosoda's two films. It wasn't quite up to the level of Hosoda's films, but it had an unexpectedly artsy style. Mamoru Hosoda's style was artsy to begin with, but this was artsy in a different way, more gritty and moody, and more personal feeling, all within the context of kids' fare like Digimon - a quintessentially Toei phenomenon. He struck me as someone who had worked long and hard to establish his style of directing, not just some newcomer trying unusual things, which is apparently the case, as he's been known for his artsy work for many years. The two (Yamauchi & Umakoshi) have actually worked together on a number of projects for Toei like Hana Yori Dango and Ojamajo Doremi, so they're a time-tested team. Umakoshi is a strong baseline animator with a huge range, having handled lots of greatly contrasting material ranging from Jubei-chan to Marmalade Boy to Mushishi to Gag Manga Biyori. He continues to pop up as a lone animator in various places every year, and his animation is always great. This series features the sort of slow, moody directing that Yamauchi is known for, combined with Umakoshi's typically rich, dynamic, exciting animation, which here is tinted with a sort of old-school Toei rough style that is very nice to watch. Yamauchi likes to process the screen heavily to create a hazy texture, and uses these odd angles and slow camera movement, which together with Umakoshi's animation makes for nice visuals that keep you engaged. It's a great combination that works well. The odd thing is that Casshern was a Tatsunoko show, Yamauchi and Umakoshi were Toei people, and this show is produced by Madhouse. And what do you know, the combination is gold. Madhouse continues to bring together people from all over the industry to create interesting projects.

Case in point, one of the Madhouse projects I've been curious about is their upcoming Stitch, as it represents an unprecedented situation, with a Disney movie being re-versioned into a Japanese TV series. Masao Maruyama seemed quite enthusiastic about the project, having even gone so far as to say that the Stitch movie was his favorite animated movie of all time. It was nice to discover that the person he turned to to direct the show based on his favorite movie is Masami Hata. I'm just happy to see Hata, who's approaching 70, finally back in the driver's seat with a big project, as it's been ages since he did any major projects, and I was starting to lose hope that I'd ever see another from him. (I still need to see his Mouse film from a few years back to see what kind of work he can turn in now.) So yet again, I have to be grateful to Maruyama for giving one of my favorite creators a chance to do a project. The choice makes obvious sense, as the latter half of Hata's career was almost entirely devoted to working on material of a Western bent in some form or another, or at least quite aloof in tone and look from the dominant industry style.



LainEverliving [Visitor]  

Well, I got a chance to look at the first episode of ‘Casshern Sins’ last night, and I can safely say already that it will be worth not only watching, but taking quite seriously. I love Umakoshi’s work, and getting a chance to see more of it here is wonderful. He did animation direction on the first episode, and his super-stylized character designs look great under the corrections of his pen. I just hope that he’ll either do AD for all the episodes, or that whoever else Madhouse has fill the task can keep everything that polished.

I’m also looking forward to ‘Stitch!’, but I haven’t seen it yet. From the clips I saw at Otakon earlier this year (Maruyama brought a package of previews with him), there’s nothing too impressive about the animation, but the idea that Disney and Madhouse are now working together (and that Madhouse’s animation quality level sadly puts Disney’s TV animation to shame) makes ‘Stitch!’ pretty noteworthy. I’m also really interested to see what Hata did with it.

Besides these series, though, I’m also looking to check out Madhouse’s other main titles (’Chaos;HEAd,’ ‘Kurozuka,’ and ‘Môryô no Hako’), as well as their sports show, ‘One Outs.’ I met the character designer, Takahiro Umehara, a while back, and I’m rather fond of him despite not seeing too much of his work. I also am planning on watching ‘Shikabane Hime: Aka.’ I have high hopes for GAINAX on that series, but am rather worried that they’re partnered with the studio Feel to complete the second half. Feel thusfar hasn’t done anything too noteworthy, so I fear that ‘Shikabane’ will have a great first half (the part GAINAX is doing) and then fall apart on the second half (the part Feel is doing). So basically, just like in seasons past, I’m paying attention to Madhouse, GAINAX, and basically no one else.

10/11/08 @ 15:43
Ben [Member]  

I’ve now seen the second episode of Casshern Sins, and I think you’ll be happy to find out (as I was) that it was also done by Yamauchi and Umakoshi, and that it’s up to the same standard as the first episode. That was a real treat and a surprise. The question now is how long they’ll be able to do that, and whether whoever replaces them will be up to their level. I hope this suggests at the very least that they’ll be a frequent presence in the rotation. It was a fantastic episode in terms of the mood, quite moving, and I don’t think the other folks are going to be able to live up to that, unless they’re really good, because Yamauchi balances his effect on the head of a pin, and it can’t be easy to make it work without his skills.

I have to go out of my way to concur - Umakoshi’s characters are fantastic. Particularly that opening, which he drew himself. What dynamic lines! Love it. Right now I’m thinking Takashi Hashimoto would be a great guy to bring onboard for the show. He’s surprisingly good at doing rough stuff like this, judging by that opening fight for episode 12 of Kemonozume he did, among other things. I’m curious to see who they’re going to be bringing on to maintain the level of the show in the coming episode. Big boots to fill.

I’ve seen the first two episodes of Stitch, and you’re absolutely right about the animation. Nothing there, really, although the animation for Stitch is solid enough. It’s all DR, I think. Don’t go in expecting anything revolutionary. There is, of course, only so far you can go with Disney material. They’re not going to make Gokuu again. But personally I enjoyed the heck out of it, particularly the first episode, which I presume Hata to have storyboarded because it has these absurdist moments of Hata humor all over the place (like Mickey’s underpants floating into the black hole) that I found quite funny, although I don’t think the material is emphatic enough to mark this as a comeback or anything. Which is a real shame. I wanted Hata to do something that will let the edgy side of his humor shine through more, though I don’t think he has the interest in that anymore.

I’ve checked out the first episode of most of the other shows you mentioned, and I have to come to the conclusion that I am irreconcilable to cookie-cutter anime designs, because I just can’t get beyond the character designs of most of these shows to be able to enjoy them, although on occasion there are things that are moderately well done and/or entertaining here and there. The Kyogoku Natsuhiko-based Mouryou no Hako, for example, I actually watched in its entirety and kind of enjoyed. The dancing scene was really nicely done (Kanemori??), although ironically the drawings remained completely lifeless and humdrum, which seemed symptomatic about what bothered me about the show and most others. Chaos Head was decently interesting for the conception that combined and twisted up various genres like moe and bishojo into a show with a bit of an edge, but… the designs… Couldn’t deal with the designs. And honestly, it was interesting, but there wasn’t enough in the concept or execution to make me want to follow it.

Shikabane Hime Aka somehow just didn’t do much for me. This is obviously not Guren Lagan tier-1 Gainax, but the sort of stuff they spend most of their time doing inbetween tier-1 productions, but then again, I don’t think you or anyone else must have been expecting otherwise, so that isn’t necessarily a big deal if you’re not expecting too much. There were decent technical moments, which is about the only thing I came in expecting, as was the case most of their shows in recent years, but even those were pretty thin and not enough to catch my interest. Of course, I’m kind of hard to please, and it might turn out to be a great series, so don’t put too much stock in what I say. Your instincts as to who to follow (Gainax-Madhouse) are otherwise on the mark. Madhouse in particular has been wildly prolific this season. It literally felt like I was seeing Masao Maruyama’s name in almost every series I watched. (I think I even spotted his name in another studio’s production)

Surprisingly, one of my favorite ep 1s this season was Toradora, though don’t go around repeating that. The directing was sharp, with some actually (!) funny and well-observed moments, the animation was nuanced and without too much of the fetishism this material usually trails along, and the layout was strong and cinematic. I watched episode 2 and went ‘meh’, though, so I think it was just a fluke.

10/11/08 @ 16:19
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

It’s amusing you should mention ‘Toradora,’ as I’ve seen the episode in question and was somewhat impressed. I’ve sadly gotten to the point where, as I have limitted time (and limitted funds), I just automatically disregard basically all TV anime not made by my tiny handful of “approved” studios (they are, in case you are curious, Madhouse, Bones, GAINAX, and Kyoto Animation). I personally don’t feel right watching something online that I know I’m not going to buy later, so rather than allowing me to see a lot of different things, the internet has actually been a kind of curse when it comes to new seasons releases. So, when I watched ‘Toradora,’ I actually was a little ashamed to acknowledge that it was well done. My mind has unfortunately gotten so twisted by intense anime restriction that it’s hard for me to admit quality when it comes from a studio that isn’t among my “chosen few.” So I was sitting there, watching incredulously, thinking to myself, “who are J.C. Staff to do this to me?! They’re supposed to be an ‘average’ studio!” So, if anything, my shame at ‘Toradora’ beats yours. But yes, it was a good first episode, so maybe I’ll try to be a little more kind and broaden my horizons.

I can’t wait to check out episode 2 of ‘Casshern Sins,’ especially with the star treatment continuing on the staff front. I was so impressed with the initial episode that I really am going to make a special effort to watch it, at least up to my self-imposed fansub limit (which will, unfortunately, cut me off after episode 2). I’ve also been convinced to check out the first episode of ‘Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maidens,’ which I know is under the radar of most sakuga fans, but which I still feel a need to see thanks to the involvement of a key ex-Kyoto Animation person, Yutaka Yamamoto. While there are lots of assorted rumors as to why he was bounced from KyoAni, there’s no denying his skill with direction, at least when he has the right material, so I’m holding out some hope for it. The first episode also has a lot of KyoAni people doing KA (I’m not sure if they left with Yamamoto, or just are doing him a favor by chipping in here), and they’ve even got Satoshi Kadowaki doing chief animation direction for the series (a real vet at KyoAni). Probably has pretty limitted appeal for you, as I know you don’t much go for the Kyoto Animation style, but nevertheless, I’m hoping for a treat. I also would watch ‘Clannad After Story,’ but as I’ve never finished the first series (and won’t until it is licensed), my hands are somewhat tied on that one.

I still haven’t been able to see any of the rest of what I want to. I’m not so much bothered by character designs if I feel they allow for decent expression and movement, so I’m rather hesitant to judge based on that. That said, I’ve only seen the opening credits for ‘Kurozuka’ and ‘Chaos;HEAd,’ so my sense of the character designs in a more complex fashion than initial impression hasn’t been formed yet, but I’m not too bothered by what I’ve seen. With me, designs are rarely in my “prefered” or “favorite” style (the CLAMP ‘X’ style, which is basically un-animatable anyway), so it’s more a question of getting used to them than anything else. At any rate, I’ll post more in-depth thoughts on the other episodes when I get around to them.

I do hope you’ll do a write-up of some of the new series, even if you don’t blog any of them. Your write-ups have led me to a number of interesting shows, including ‘Noein’ and ‘Kaiba,’ so I’m always up for hearing your insights.

10/12/08 @ 02:19
manuloz [Visitor]  

I actually rather enjoyed Toradora #1 myself, i suppose it’s thanks to the chara designer/animation director Masayoshi Tanaka who has done a great work on the framing of the episode. Like you said it was sort of gone by epiusode 2, but i had a smile on my face for one split second when they made an hommage to Tokikake ^^

Next episode of Casshern will have Terumi nishii as animation director, then the team Yamauchi/Umakoshi comes back. And then Yoshiro Okuda as AD for 2 episodes.
If i had a small complain, it would be on the fight sequence, there’s sort of an erratic flow on the cutting, and with those close up, it’s hard to follow. I actually thought it was a good idea on the first episode to keep Casshern abilities mysterious, but i hope, well to see something like the work of Atsushi Wakabayashi in the future.

It’s no coincidence if i droped Wakabayashi’s name here, i wanted to share this bit of info, he is directing is first show next year at Satelight, Guin Saga it’s called :

Shikabane Hime is exactly what you saiys it is, a small project to train Gainax young animators. Yamaga was at Connichi this year, and that’s sort of what he said. I think my good pal from manganimation did not get around to ask about Tadashi Hiramatsu movie, but apparently Yamaga his still planning on making Aoki Uru, he hopes to get the budget by 2009… well we will see.

Next episode of shikabane hime is the first directing.stoyboarding effort of Ayumu Kotake one of Gainax young animator, i hope it will turn out good. Hirokazu Kojima will be AD.

I’m also expecting Gainax episode of Michiko to Hatchin, with Hitomi Hasegawa as AD, episode 8 it is. If i’m correct Shin Itagaki will work as the director/storyboard.
I also heard Bones will work on 3 (?), at least Toshihiro Kawamoto is the AD. And if there is still some pperson not convinced to give a shot to this show, Masaaki Yuasa will do the ED.

I should also recommend “Kyou no go no ni” opening animated by Shingo Adashi (Xebec).

10/12/08 @ 03:09
Ben [Member]  

LainEverliving -
I guess the lesson of Toradora is that you never know where to expect the quality. Especially on the rare occasion when there’s someone talented involved, but you’ve just never heard of him/her. You just have to try things blind sometimes. It’s more about the staff than necessarily just the studio - just look at the broad range of Madhouse’s work. I guess Toradora represents an ‘ordinary’ studio trying to take a bite of the moe/whatever you call it now market, in the process creating something more ‘centrist’, you might say; less extreme in the idiosyncrasies of the genre, which makes it slightly more approachable.

I actually did watch Kannagi, as I know Yamamoto is a talented director, so I was curious to see his work. The quality was indeed not bad at all, and I can definitely see his technical skills shine through, but it also confirmed that I don’t really go for the type of material he likes to handle.

Thanks for the suggestion to blog some of the other new shows. It hadn’t really occurred to me, because I usually try to focus only on the stuff that I really really like. But I’ll try to give it a shot. It’s always worth sifting through what you think worked and didn’t work in any particular show.

Manuloz -
Thanks for reminding me about Kyou no go no ni… I’d actually watched that one too, but had forgotten about it. I was pleased with the style of the animation in the show, though not necessarily the content, and came out really thinking it had to be someone I know… maybe a Toei animator, I figured, judging by the style of lines… only to be dismayed to find that yet another animator I’d never heard of was doing semi-decent work. It’s actually kind of aggravating. There are all these young animators popping up doing work that isn’t too bad, from seemingly out of nowhere. It makes it hard to know where you stand. Not to mention hard to follow.

The director was enough to convince me to watch Hacchin, but the staff lineup you mention is definitely a little extra convincing if anybody needed it. Manglobe productions are interesting for how they get this similar group of people from various parts of the industry to do the main tasks like storyboarding and animation directing. Unlike Madhouse, who also does that sort of thing occasionally (such as on Yuasa’s shows), though, they actually seem to have a semi-decent production schedule. I think things were improved for Kaiba, but I’d like to see Yuasa given the chance to really spend time on the production for once, perhaps for his next project.

Yes, I’d heard about the Wakabayashi series. I’m quite looking forward to it. Can we be so bold as to expect something even better than his Naruto episodes? (The answer to that is obviously: only if Matsumoto is in the house)

10/12/08 @ 11:05
Zerozaki Ishiki
Zerozaki Ishiki [Visitor]  

I’d read the novel Mouryou no Hako is adapting, and was pleasantly surprised by how well the shojo melodrama tone fit the work. I’m never going to be a fan of CLAMP’s art style, but they really captured the tone of the novel’s prologue (the main cast has yet to appear) and there were some really spectacular moments.

The other thing worth looking at it To Aru Majutsu no Index; the character designs will do nothing for you, and the novels are strictly a B-level guilty pleasure, but they really animated the shit out of the fire magic in episode two.

10/12/08 @ 13:31
h_park [Member]

I just want to comment on Laineverliving’s statement on Disney TV and Stitch. According to my instructor who happens to be a visual Dev. artist in Hollywood, Disney TV is the one who is making real bucks for Disney media when it comes to animation. To me, it’s really shame not to use its feature animation division for TV animation production due to high cost, slow turnaround, ingrained studio culture that views TV animation as inferior. I just watched clips of above mentioned anime titles, and their character animations are getting better than ever. This makes me frustrating from time to time because we’re wasting talents and technical superiority on worthless projects, while other side’s getting better.

10/17/08 @ 03:26
huw_m [Member]

Thanks for going through the arduous task of sorting through all the new shows to find the good stuff Ben. If it wasn’t for your recommendation I would not have ever watched the first episode of Toradora. I was impressed by how strong the sense of perspective was in a lot of the shots. And I watched it from start to finish and sort of enjoyed it? I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.

Kannagi was ‘interesting’ in that it looked exactly like Birdy. That whole nu-moe style that guys like Ryotimo seem to have popularised…with the bulbous forms and appropriating the lines together in places…maybe they have been sharing some of the same staff, or maybe its just all the rage amongst young animators. I know the AD for Kannagi is an Ex-Kyoto person and they do that a lot. Same with that Kyo no go no ni OP, same style…Although I found the problem to be with the animation of Kannagi is that although they seemed to try and throw a lot of interesting shapes and movement into the animation it just came off as…not interesting at all. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Didn’t help that the show was so trite.

I loved Casshern SINS as well, and it was a breath of fresh air after having watched Kannagi. The directing grabbed me the whole way through and I really dug the setting and background artwork and the cinematic framing. Not to mention Umakoshi’s brilliant work on the show. I watched a fair amount of Xenosaga the TV when it was on, and often wondered why it was any good…Shigeyasu Yamaguchi must have been why. Although I don’t think I’ll be at all interested in the episodes he doesn’t handle himself…

Oh, and there is a new Naruto OP out:

with some badass action animation…I am just guessing here but I think Hiroyuki Yamashita did the shot of Naruto doing the Rasengan? Looks like his work…He’s turning out to be a great animator if so. And the later action stuff looks a bit Matsumoto-esque, especially Asuma’s face. I don’t have any dodgy MAD’s or suspect Sakuga wiki entries to back me up this time though…all guesswork.

Looking forward to your thoughts on Michiko to Hatchin and any other new shows…I also like hearing what you have to say about the less-than-stellar stuff even if its just in the comments section.

10/18/08 @ 08:16
manuloz [Visitor]  

On Naruto new OP.

Well that’s what i thought on yamashita’s part, but i’m still wondering why he is not ranked higher on the staff credit since i think some of his shot that survived the last OP are still there (the fighting at the end with the 3D circus). Like Matsumoto’s part that where already featured on the 3rd OP when it changed (the fight between Asuma and the Akatsuki guy).

10/18/08 @ 08:26
LainEverliving [Visitor]  

H park -
I totally agree with you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of American animation and especially Disney, so it pains me beyond words to see great animators and directors like Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, Gaëtan and Paul Brizzi, and James Baxter not working (or not working as much as they should be). The US has a very unfortunate prejudice against TV animation, and the whole production culture holds feature animation and TV completely apart, as if there’s some invisible line that can’t under any circumstances be crossed. If you look at Japanese production style, of course you realize very quickly that such a notion is completely bogus. Consider someone like Yutaka Nakamura (who I would rank as being in the same category as any of the Americans / Brits that I named above) doing both TV and feature films with equal justice, and switching back and forth without any trouble. Or Koichi Arai. Or Yoshinori Kanemori. The US has it, in my mind, completely backwards. I think the main reason for this is the obsession with character animation that exists in this artistic culture, where (under Disney rules) animators get assigned to specific characters, versus specific scenes. There isn’t ability to cross over from one character to another, much less draw effects animation or experiment. And, because fluidity of movement is so emphasized, designs have to be kept simple, and there’s essentially no room for experimentation in timing or unusual movement. It’s endlessly frustrating. Not to mention, the kinds of productions that are undertaken in the US are either child-friendly or irreverent, without any real middle ground. There used to be options for people who wanted to do other things, back when Don Bluth was making films, but since he’s been unfairly shut out of the game, there just isn’t anywhere to go. I’ve often wondered how many of the Disney animators just want to blow something up once in a while, or let loose with a real burst of action, but can’t do it due to the constraints on content. I know for sure, from talking to an ex-Disney animator who worked on ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ that he wanted to draw the heroine in a more sexy fashion (and even have her naked) in the scenes he was handling (it did make sense within the story, by the way) but that the animation supervisors changed his work and made him draw effects covering the character’s curves. So clearly, at least in that case, the lack of content freedom was definitely the case.

TV animation makes money for Disney because almost all of the actual animation is outsourced, mostly to Korea. There isn’t hardly any American talent involved in the actual animation, just in storyboarding and direction. This is acceptable to the usually quality-minded Disney because, the mentality is, these are just “kids cartoons.” They don’t have the same artistic merit. Well, personally I think that’s part of the whole problem. If they don’t have merit, then why are they being made? Why not focus on something else? I can understand the need to pay the bills, but reaping huge profits while letting the artistic quality slide ever further is a real shame. Besides, Madhouse outsources the animation on ‘Stitch!’ to Korea (to DR Movie), and yet *their* animation is better than what Disney is getting for its US TV releases. So, what gives? Why do you have to go to Japan, who then will go to Korea, to get a quality product for the US? None of it adds up, especially when there are amazing US animators who really need work that are wasting away while Disney and the rest of Hollywood waffle on the whole “is hand-drawn animation dead?” boondoggle. If it is dead, it’s only because *you* killed it, Hollywood! Just like with the economy, people lose faith, and it’s all over. This may all be a little far from what you originally said, but nevertheless, I think it relates. What is going on here is a fundamental loss of American prestige, just like what happened in the auto and electronics manufacturing sectors decades ago. Japan did it better and cheaper, and so the US just gave up. Now, we just outsource everything, and accept cheap junk. Don’t get me wrong, I completely believe that if Japan keeps up *their* outsourcing, Korea will end up surpassing them in time. Japan only got dominant because, for decades, the US companies like Hanna Barbara outsourced to there. In essence, the US gave Japan the basic animation infrastructure, and impetus for job training, that made anime possible. Now, Japan and the US are doing the same for Korea. So, it’s probably only a matter of time. But, for goodness sakes, I have enough national pride to want to demand that the US not just completely roll over and give up. I want to see a vibrant animation industry in *both* countries! Why can’t the US do good work? The artists are here, and certainly there are good ideas in existence. You don’t have to be Japanese to be creative, after all. But, animation people in the US don’t yet appreciate anime, and the clash of cultures (specifically work cultures, as in how productions are handled) keeps the two separate. People on both sides of the pacific need to acknowledge the virtuosity of their international peers. Until people here just come around and realize it, I suspect we will be stuck in basically a dark period for the US business.

Ben -
I’ve now been able to watch everything I wanted to, save for ‘Shikabane Hime,’ which I will be checking out on either Sunday or Monday when Funimation makes it available legally. So, I can post my promised first impressions (or in the case of ‘Casshern Sins,’ second impressions).

‘Casshern Sins’ episode 2:

Animation: 4.5 out of 5
Artistic Merit: 5 out of 5
Character Designs: 5 out of 5
Direction: 5 out of 5
Story: 4.5 out of 5

Thoughts: ‘Casshern Sins,’ much to my shock, really is among the best shows of the year (including the spring season). It’s sort of the anime equivalent of ‘On The Beach,’ if anyone is familiar with that film (in short, it’s a very depressing movie about people waiting to die from the fall-out of a nuclear war). More than anything else, the style, direction, and animation just reinforce the idea of utter hopelessness that pervades everything of this world. It’s really kind of a horrible show to watch, simply because of that. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling sort of dread and gloom that draws you in, and certainly the attention to detail and the lovingly-crafted look of the ruined world makes it a beautiful desolation to behold. As was the case in episode 1, Umakoshi dominates with not only excellent animation direction, but good KA as well. The motion is well-timed and beautifully sold, with the weight of every punch, the hopeless sorrow of every look, perfectly conveyed. If I mark the episode slightly less than perfection, it is only in comparison to the bravura of episode 1. And the backgrounds are artful without being overly realistic, filled in well with the endlessly blowing debris of decay. Style is so dominant (a word I have to use a lot when describing this show) here that the story, which is amazing in and of itself, is nearly overshadowed. Yet, it never is, thanks to the quality of the writing. Even without having much of a clue as to the mystery of Casshern’s world, it’s still completely compelling. I just can’t rave enough about this show, and I’m terribly excited to keep following it.

‘Chaos;HEAd’ episode 1:

Animation: 2.5 out of 5
Artistic Merit: 3 out of 5
Character Designs: 2.5 out of 5
Direction: 3 out of 5
Story: 3.5 out of 5

Thoughts: This is Madhouse’s outsource show of the season, being a partnership not only with the small studio IMAGIN, but also several Korean companies (including, interestingly enough, G&G Direction, which is G&G Entertainment’s Tokyo branch). On the whole, it’s pretty much middle-of-the-road as far as anime goes, with not a lot outside the story thus far to distinguish it. I’m more forgiving of character designs, so I wasn’t bothered too much by the look, but the style is certainly not my choice look for characters, so it ranks kind of low on that scale for me. Likewise, the animation is okay, with a few minor moments of better quality (such as the delusional scene of the woman across the street), but nothing really to get too excited about. What I did like was the overall artistic merit (by which I mean the combination of color choice, backgrounds, and non-character art designs), which helped give a good twisted feeling to the first episode. The whole “moe gone wrong” look I think can be sufficiently exploited in future episodes to be interesting. The direction also had a few interesting touches in setting up the mystery, so I’m moderately pleased with that. The strongest element going for ‘Chaos;HEAd,’ though, is the story. I don’t know where it will go yet, but I think it has the potential to be good. So, with that spirit of trust in mind, I’ll keep watching.

‘Kannagi’ episode 1:

Animation: 5 out of 5
Artistic Merit: 4.5 out of 5
Character Designs: 4 out of 5
Direction: 5 out of 5
Story: 4 out of 5

Thoughts: Well-crafted is the term that most comes to mind when watching this first episode of ‘Kannagi.’ Yutaka Yamamoto shows his obvious talent, from the good choreography of the OP to the fine sense of timing, humor, and character that pervades the episode. Really, it’s all his show. Backing him up on the artistic end are Satoshi Kadowaki and a whole bunch of quality Kyoto Animation key animators, who do their job with arguably more polish and good spirits than on a typical KyoAni premiere. This debut was important to Yamamoto, as there are still doubters lingering from his firing and the disaster of ‘Lucky Star,’ but I think with this episode, he completely puts the concerns to rest that he has slipped from being among the top talent for character-driven moe. Kadowaki’s character designs are very pleasing to the eye, not overly stylish, and not revolutionary in the sense of Umakoshi’s ‘Casshern Sins’ revival, but they certainly get the job done. More importantly, they allow for the range of expression that is so necessary for making them endearing. Huw M pointed out that there’s a lot of interesting shapes and movement, but that it came off as uninteresting. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. What makes the show interesting isn’t the animation taken on its own and completely divorced from the characters, it’s how the characters are inhabited via the animation. In this sense, ‘Kannagi’ has achieved, at least at this early stage, a shadow of the “illusion of life” that Disney prides itself on so much. You can see perfectly set-up anticipation, understand what the character will do before he does it, and delight in their reactions and discoveries as they do. Of course, being able to make that leap requires an enjoyment of the subject matter, and unfortunately, this is what will keep most sakuga fans away. Huw M also compared ‘Kannagi’ to ‘Birdy the Mighty DECODE’ (perhaps unsurprising, since it’s the same production studio, A-1 Pictures), but while ‘Birdy’ went for a more obviously sakuga style, with highlight fights and distinctive movement patterns that varied from scene to scene, ‘Kannagi’ places more attention on continuous character creation, with the motion serving only to sell personality. In other words, it isn’t movement for movement’s sake, but movement for moe’s sake. And therein lays the problem. Moe remains tarnished with a bad image, and the more hard-core self-described animation and animator fans won’t take it up due to the connotations and associations with triteness. This, I think, is a horrible loss. Not only is fine work being done in this field by Kyoto Animation and their assorted off-shoots (such as Yamamoto and his Studio Ordet), but the stories are occasionally even compelling, especially when they are mixed with tragedy. I don’t personally foresee that in ‘Kannagi,’ which is like KyoAni in style only, but I also don’t think that it’s worth throwing the quality work out with the moe bathwater. Setting aside even the animation, the artistic merits are very high, with beautiful attention to backgrounds and color choice, and the script is tightly controlled and frequently funny. There’s a stronger tendency towards echi humor than in KyoAni’s normal work, which doesn’t entirely agree with me, but if it’s sold well by the direction, then who am I to fault it? My general feeling on ‘Kannagi’ is, this first episode will probably be better than the rest, due to the involvement of so many KyoAni and ex-KyoAni animators, who may not return for future outings. But even if it was a one-off, it’s a case study of effective character animation, not so stylistically outrageous as to make itself obvious (such as in ‘Kemonozume’ or ‘Kaiba’), but completely in the service of the characters, working as a breath of fresh life to make them exciting, youthful, and real.

‘Kurozuka’ episode 1:

Animation: 5 out of 5
Artistic Merit: 5 out of 5
Character Designs: 5 out of 5
Direction: 5 out of 5
Story: 4.5 out of 5

Thoughts: Spectacular is really the only word that comes to mind with ‘Kurozuka.’ I’m perhaps a little biased in that I met the director, Tetsuro Araki (of ‘Death Note’ fame) two years ago, but I think he’s surpassed himself here. Knowing already that ‘Kurozuka’ is going to cover numerous historical eras with a range of different designs throws the challenge of such a project into stark relief, and in a way, it seems almost impossible that the show could be extended, based on this first episode, beyond the 12 episode target. Nevertheless, in that short run, it is clear Araki and Madhouse aren’t planning on pulling any punches. The movement in this first episode is graceful and stately, even when all that is happening is conversation or pointed glances. The lines are flowing and beautiful, yet deadly sharp and stinging to the eye. In total contrast to the comforting round shapes of ‘Kannagi,’ one gets a sense that you could cut yourself open on any of the characters, and for this subject matter, that can’t help but be a good thing. Moreover, the attention to the overall art presentation, from the masterly backgrounds to the affecting darkness of the color pallet (interrupted with horrific reds and electric blues at an opportune moment of terrifying discovery), cloaks everything in a shroud of gloom waiting to be ripped apart in a display of graphic expression. Everything in ‘Kurozuka’ has the sense of hidden terror lingering just below the surface, waiting to leap forth and grab you. And when the animation comes into play, what leaps they are! Use of computer enhancement and remarkable action animation make this a feature-quality production, especially in the stunning 360 degree revolve during the final fight. These tricks have of course been used in anime movies before, but rarely do they make appearances in TV anime, and even more rarely are they so well executed. In fact, ‘Kurozuka’ has an overall feeling of being lavished with satellite TV cash, money which, in the current economic downturn, will probably after this season be substantially dried up. If, however, the ravishing display of funds can be enjoyed for the moment, it’s a remarkable show indeed. The seductive arc that a severed limb sails through the air with captures the imagination with a suitably disgusting lustful ickiness, a perfect mix of the sensual death. Everything is perfectly handled, from an artistic, direction, and screenwriting position. All that remains is for the mystery to reveal itself, and with promises of immortality and journeys to the future, I couldn’t be more happily onboard. This is a must-see for action fans, and I think will likely be the showcase series for Madhouse’s signature action style for some time to come.

‘Moryo no Hako’ episode 1:

Animation: 5 out of 5
Artistic Merit: 5 out of 5
Character Designs: 5 out of 5
Direction: 5 out of 5
Story: 5 out of 5

Thoughts: Could there have been a more perfect first episode this season? ‘Moryo no Hako,’ taking of a difficult subject to say the least (involving young girls being dismembered and stuffed into boxes), completely defied my expectations and took me into a realm of shockingly touching melodrama to help set-up the world and its disturbing mysteries. If ‘Kurozuka’ amazed me, ‘Kannagi’ amused me, and ‘Casshern Sins’ depressed me, ‘Moryo no Hako’ outdid them all by capturing my attention and breaking my heart. And heart-breaking this first episode is, with one of the most convincing (and disturbing) portrayals of shoujo-ai ever put to animated film. The obsessive love between these two girls is so enthralling that, if you are not caught up in their doomed convergence, you just don’t respond to this sort of thing at all. A huge amount of this comes from the voice acting, which is the best I’ve heard this year. Aching words and shiver-inducing gasps set the viewer on edge, as though bearing witness to a desperately concealed secret life so terrible and taboo that you too would be shamed if you were caught admiring it. The scene where the submissive girl has the thread tied around her wrist, and she exhales as if on the verge of the bliss of shameful orgasm, is a particular highlight. But there is genuine love here, found in every nuance of the drawings, every line of expressive detail. CLAMP’s character designs were made for this, and these are among their best. Ben, I’ve got to disagree with you when you say that the drawings remained lifeless, since there wasn’t a line anywhere in the episode that didn’t convey longing. Nuance is the word I want to use here, as the detailed descriptive power of animation was used to full extent in capturing the personality, particularly of the girls. The submissive girl’s hair, for example, always seemed to move or fall with emotional significance, and her eyes were at every moment a complete gateway into her heart, something that so many other anime can never accomplish even with robust animation and high production values. Moreover, it wasn’t just love being conveyed, but obsession, and that dark edge of things was demonstrated at all the right moments by the dominant girl’s expression. A curve of the lips, a narrowing of the eyes, and it was all there. No other show this year has captured expression of this kind so well. If ‘Kannagi’ has mastered the expressions of humor, ‘Moryo no Hako’ has gone the other way, which is arguably far harder to do. But then, if there was any doubt left, there are the animation highlight moments. The battle scenes, towards the end of the episode, are an excellent display not only of pyrotechnics, but “mood animation” that provides character insight as well as the obsessive glances of the girls. There is also quality motion to be found here, such as the shot when the wounded soldier staggers into the train. It’s a decidedly lifelike approach, so real in that moment that it conveys horror better than any monster or shock moment. In essence, it’s frightening realism, something we don’t often see in anime. But the real showcase of the episode is the dancing scene, perfectly executed with motion blur and a twisting, delirious, sped-up feeling. This is emotional animation at its best, capturing not only beautiful movement of physical forms, but of human hearts. It took my breath away to watch it, and gave me shivers. To see these drawings as lifeless is to have missed the characters, story, and emotion. I suppose that if you simply watched them without the sound or the context, they would appear lacking in obvious stylistic imagination as the more outrageous motion that can be brought to life by others, but animation isn’t meant to be viewed that way, and not everything can be “differently unique,” to coin a phrase. If everything were done in that style, the sense of wonder it generates would be quickly lost. So, rather than arguing for ‘Moryo no Hako’ on the grounds of comparison to those types of shows, I will simply say that it exceeds all others in stylized realism, achieving remarkable motion (and emotion) with complex, detailed character designs and a tough story to tell. In fact, the greatest surprise of ‘Moryo no Hako’ may well be its director, Ryosuke Nakamura. It is, unbelievably enough, his first time handling the duties of series director. Nevertheless, his is a steady hand, backed with the conviction of one of the best TV episode scripts of recent memory from auteur author Sadayuki Murai. No one does mystery with a dash of longing better than Murai, the master screenwriter of ‘Millennium Actress,’ and his presence makes the show go from good potential to brilliant result. Even more than with the animators or director, the praise for this accomplishment is squarely with him. Good scripts are hard to find, and this was a great one, from a master craftsman and artist. But even beyond the screenplay, the mood of the show, conveyed in incessant sakura petals and haunting colors and backgrounds, shines through in an unmatched artistic display that nearly shames the entire industry’s worth of production this season, let alone Madhouse’s other works. Looking at the iridescent and largely indescribable dark beauty of it all, I can’t help but feel that we have a winner here. I don’t know where everything will go from here, but to miss out on this episode is to miss out on an excellent story, excellently told in every conceivable way. I couldn’t be more awed by the work exhibited here. Once more, Madhouse rules the day.

Needless to say, my feelings on what makes quality animation may be different from the standard sakuga fan views. I do of course respond to out-and-out displays of individuality, but I also appreciate well-crafted character animation, and “emotional animation” that can capture feeling as well as the eye. The joy of animation is that it can be used in so many different ways, and no single style or approach is inherently better or worse than any other. To those who would more narrowly define “good” animation, not merely the sakuga fans but also US animators and those who swear only by CG now, I would urge a greater awareness of the quality that exists in other venues and approaches to the medium, as well as in other genres and styles. Everyone has opinions which either broaden or limit their definition of what is “interesting,” and needless to say, no external person or force can change that. Nonetheless, I feel quite strongly in saying to everyone who reads these boards and to animation fans in general that by opening your eyes to factors beyond the narrowly-defined strict confines of “smooth” or “off-kilter” motion and seeing the quality of the line, the sensuality of the character design, even the integration of character and background and the match of voice and image, that not only will appreciation of animation increase, but it will become more strongly a story of characters, and not merely movement, to be enjoyed. It is, after all, “life” that we look for in art, and the broader our horizons, the more artful life we can look forward to and enjoy.

Lastly, I wanted to ask Ben and everyone else on here… has anyone seen ‘The Sky Crawlers’ or ‘Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea’ yet? I’m very eager to hear about how they turned out.

10/18/08 @ 14:25
Muffin [Visitor]

Thanks for the great comment, LainEverliving.

10/19/08 @ 05:45
Kei [Visitor]

Speaking of this season, was watching Akane-Iro ni Somaru Saka 3 and noticed that it was a solo by Tanaka Hiroki [Kurenai 6 - musical sequence and 12 - fight; some nice action in PreCure5 and Strike Witches]. He was responsible for both, storyboard and animation of this episode.

Well, the episode has some quality issues, a few sequences look off and it seems it has gone for the most part uncorrected but there’s still a lot of interesting character interaction going on, especially for the kind of show this one is.

Also full agreement on all sentiments regarding Casshern Sins. Apart from Kaiba and Xam’d the show I enjoy most in all regards - directing, animation, script - this year. Really curious to see how far they can go with it.

10/20/08 @ 23:37