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I just re-watched Rojin Z (1991) for the first time in probably over a decade, and it was much better than I remembered. I knew looking at the staff that it must be quite nice, but it's been a long time, so my memory was hazy. Now that I've re-watched it, I'd almost say I like the animation here as much as in Akira. They're very different styles of animation, so it's probably not right to compare the two. But I find the more limited and rough style of the drawings and movement here, with its thick and obvious lines and rich and fun but not overly fluid or nuanced acting, more appealing somehow.
One interesting thing about re-watching Rojin Z 18 years after it was made is that almost every single solitary person involved in there has gone on to make a name for him or herself, although some may have already been more or less well known. The staff is just incredible, and I can't think of a better-endowed film: Mecha design by Mitsuo Iso, art concepts by Satoshi Kon, storyboard by line director Toshiaki Hontani, Tatsuyuki Tanaka and chief director Hiroyuki Kitakubo, and animation by Hiroyuki Okiura, Koichi Arai, Manabu Ohashi, Satoshi Kon, Kazuchika Kise, Toshiyuki Inoue, Hiroyuki Morita, Takeshi Honda, Koji Morimoto, Kazuto Nakazawa, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Michio Mihara, Atsuko Fukushima, Norio Matsumoto and Koichi Hashimoto... to name but the most obvious. It reads like a who's who of the best Japanese animators of the last 20 years.
And it shows up in the film. There is no end to the great shots of animation in there. One of the aspects of Japanese animation I've come to realize that I most like is the combination of spareness, interesting drawing and fun acting, as opposed to spending an inordinate amount of time and money to make things extremely smooth and polished. I can certainly appreciate finely worked animation, but it's only in Japan that you can find the former style honed to the sort of perfection it has been in the hands of a handful of great animators. This film is a classic example of how it's still possible to create animation that is interesting and alive enough to work in the context of a theatrical film, where normally one would expect more fluidity and cleanness, with an approach at the opposite end of the scale, using a spare number of drawings with more personality, although of course great work can be done with all sorts of different approaches. But it's just that this is the kind of animation that Japan is good at, and like how it's made an asset in this film. I just love the kind of animation such as that here where you can savor every drawing in a movement. It's a theatrical production, and I'm sure they used a ton of drawings, but the animation comes across as lighter and more in line with the typical concept of Japanese animation. Clearly this was a film to let loose and have fun with after Akira for Otomo, and I think that answers for the style of animation to some extent.
Be it the character acting in the first half or the crazy mecha morphing in the second half, I find that the animated element is always an inordinate pleasure to watch in this film, and clearly it's because the animators are good, not because an inordinate amount of time was spent on the animation - although I'm sure some of the animation in the second half must have taken quite a bit of work. I like the clarity and directness of the character designs apart from the heroine, with each of the old men having his own very unique wrinkly features and the various Japanese characters throughout the film drawn in a very appealing caricatural way that doesn't require them to be drawn in a distinctly Japanese manner for them to be nationally identifiable. That's something Otomo was very good at in his manga, coming up with new ways of rendering the Japanese face in a way that was realistic yet stylized in his own unique voice. And that's something we've seen virtually no one take up in anime.
In that respect, and in respect to the subject matter, with its focus on an issue of relevance in contemporary Japanese politics and culture - in other words, on a concept of reality that anyone outside of a particular Japanese sub-culture could comprehend - I find this film to be a beacon. It handles this subject not in a preachy in-your-face moralizing manner, but while being riotously entertaining and action-packed. I wish more films would be made like this, dealing with something of relevance to real life, especially with anime these days seemingly increasingly dominated by visual schemes and stories that bear little relation to most people's concept of reality. After he made the great Memories, rather than embarking on a 10-year Snark hunt that turned him into the Axl Rose of the animation world, I wish that Otomo had continued making films like this based on his innumerable interesting stories and idea concepts, using different crews to bring his work to life.
I was also very happy to find that Fumio Iida, AKA Suezen, was the animation director, as I've been a fan of his ever since the adorable Yadamon series he did for NHK back in 1992, right after this film. He's got a unique style of drawing that beguiled me back in the day, and that looking back over today I still think was exemplary for back then and should serve as an example to designers today that, yes, it's possible to create designs that are both cute and appealing and actually creative and original, without necessarily being too scary a departure from what people are used to seeing, and without simply falling back on cliches that most so-called designers adopt for lack of ideas.
Until a year or so ago I didn't care much for Hiroyuki Kitakubo as a director, but I've come to rather admire his skills now that I've re-visited most of his major works over the last few years. Before directing Rojin Z he had a long career as an animator, having debuted at age 15, straight out of middle school, as an inbetweener on Gundam - as auspicious a place to debut as you could find. He hasn't done much in the last few years, but he's done animation, which shows that he still has an animator's blood in him. His first job as director came in 1985 with one of the classic OVAs of the 80s, the Pop Chaser episode of Cream Lemon, which he didn't only direct - he created, wrote, directed, designed, and was animation director. Watched today it's still quite entertaining, to say nothing of featuring great work by a number of famous animators working under ludicrous pseudonyms.
In 1987 he directed Black Magic M-66, which I haven't re-watched in over 15 years, so I can't comment much on, but the next year he directed the episode of Robot Carnival with the giant mechanical robot, which is very typical of Kitakubo, and even somewhat reminiscent of Rojin Z, with its highly worked and entertaining animation and fun, raucous atmosphere and imaginative twist on the giant robot genre. After Rojin Z in 1991, throughout much of the 90s he was occupied with directing two long-running OVA series that both benefited from very high quality production, Golden Boy and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. Consistently throughout both shows, he packs tremendous nuance into the screen in every shot, from the background to the animation.
He's very detail-oriented, and never leaves a shot behind, filling every shot with some new nuance of humor, action or visual interest. He puts in the effort to make sure that every shot connects into a strong thread. My impression of him is: He's a master craftsman of entertainment who gathers the best staff around him to create the highest quality entertainment possible. He's the diametric opposite of an auteur. It's not about him; it's all about the audience. There aren't many directors who I find so consistently entertaining. Before then going on to do his most famous gig, the Blood movie, he did the opening of the GITS video game, which is a perhaps too-little seen gem that again benefits from some tremendous production quality in its short run-time.
Great post. I love Roujin Z, its such an underrated classic :). Man, I wish otomo would do something good again, he keeps attaching his name to mediocre products (if you’ve seen Freedom, bleh, not worth the ridiculous price its selling for in the US.) Don’t get me started on Steam Boy either, which if he didn’t compromise with Hollywood so much on (who in the long run gave him no where near the release he was hoping for), it would have been a much much better film (cough cough Cannon Fodder in memories cough cough).
Its also a shame that Otomo isn’t really promoting awesome talent like he did in the 90s either. He jumpstarted Satoshi Kon’s career, I really wish he had done similar things with other associates of his.
I might also add that Kitakubo directed Blood the Last Vampire, which while way too short, was immensely entertaining and showcased some amazing animation and visuals. I wish the TV series was on its level, because I really wanted the same sort of stuff, but with a bit more plot.
Roujin Z was a awesome anime….I watched it 5 years ago….I can’t rememver everything. I didn’t knew that Mitsuo Iso was in the stuff too?! Thanks.
I hope the HD Version will release soon.
I know this isn’t an article about him, but on the subject of Satoshi Kon showing up on unusual staffs for unusual anime films, he also worked on layout for Patlabor 2. Looking back at the wintry austerity of Tokyo in that movie, maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
The irony is that WXIII ended up being animated by Madhouse rather than I.G. You wonder what might have become of that installment had Kon been picked as director. “Wasted” indeed.
Nice Post as always Mr. E,
I had recently read your contribution to Anime News Network’s Chicks on Anime when you described sakuga to the columnists.
You had identified your self as a translator (Japanese to English) and my eyes lit up as that is something that I am persuing (3rd year in college) needless to say I have many questions to ask you, but I felt that this BBS would be inappropriate to do so.
Is it possible to contact you via email?
Ben, you’re the second person who described Hiroyuki Kitokubo as master craftsman focused on highest quality of entertainment.
I wonder what Kitakubo is up to. With all these TV series coming out and we don’t see him taking directorial helm.
He does seem conspicuously absent all of a sudden. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that he’s working on a movie at the moment. I hope so.