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Japan has a lot of good talent working in animation. Most people just don't know it, because without knowing what you're looking for, it's hard to locate the good work amongst the flood of productions released every year. In Japan, as anywhere, the nature of this talent is multifaceted. The focus of this blog, of course, has been mostly on talented animators, though I've also quite often talked about directors, artists, etc. who caught my eye. (I talk about basically anyone who I feel is doing standout work.) But talent is speckled around in every facet of production in anime. From one project to the next, you might find some talented people doing good work in one or another aspect of the production, while you might not be particularly satisfied with the whole. Ideally, the talent will come together to realize a project in which every aspect of the production is top-notch, creating a perfect whole.
Genius Party, a two-part omnibus of animated shorts from Japan's Studio 4C, strikes me as being an effort to bring together some of the best representatives of talent in Japanese animation under one roof to show off the multifaceted nature, and the unique range of predilections, of animated talent in Japan. Although my own personal assessment of each particular film varies, as I feel that some are more successful than others, I think the set achieves the goal of showcasing, to whatever extent is possible within the span of a two-plus-hour omnibus, a fairly broad swath of the variety of talent that exists in commercial Japanese animation. It's mainly for this reason that I think the set is not only successful, but important - because it represents an effort to bring attention to the existence of this multifaceted array of talent, and to get it to work together in a way that truly does it justice and allows it to achieve its true potential, rather than allowing the talent out there to be diffused over the vast galaxy of industry productions. I think that it's important to recognize talent in this way by singling out what makes it special, and to me that is one of the functions of this project.
There are various approaches as to how to go about doing this, but Genius Party is the most prominent such project in many years. Its most obvious predecessor is A.P.P.P.'s 1987 omnibus Robot Carnival, which came along at the tail end of a decade in which the anime industry rewired itself into a more creator-centric mindset, with the name value of talented creators like Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Dezaki becoming the driving force behind projects. Genius Party seems to pick up that torch, spotlighting the new generation of talented creators, but allowing them complete freedom this time around, rather than being bound to any particular theme or style.
There is an even more direct and intentional way in which the two films are connected: Atsuko Fukushima, who animated the opening sequence of Genius Party, animated the opening and ending sequences of Robot Carnival. The same year as Robot Carnival, Madhouse released a three-part omnibus entitled Manie Manie: Labyrinth Tales. A few years later, Studio 4C similarly released a three-part omnibus entitled Memories. Each of these omnibuses features some of the best work by many of the creators involved. Of course, there are innumerable examples of the omnibus form outside of Japan, and the approach to the anthology can vary dramatically in both intent and style of execution.
I think this focus on highlighting creators and allowing them to do work in the mode best suited to their talents has long been one of Studio 4C's defining traits, and fortes. It's this mindset that resulted in the creation of my own favorite animated movie, Mind Game, in which a talented animator who had never directed a film before was given the opportunity to direct his first film based on the merit of his past work, and based on the gamble that his particular talents would be a match for the material in question, and the results were spectacular.
Studio 4C has left behind any number of other projects of different lengths and styles that are clearly endowed of that mindset. So Studio 4C seems ideally suited to finally bring to the world a new omnibus that really represents the best of the best of Japanese talent to the world, because that seems to have been their driving purpose in many ways from the beginning. In that sense, Studio 4C acts more like a nexus of talent for this project, rather than this being a showcase of a particular studio's talent. Although of course, a good proportion of the staff involved, including several of the directors, are 4C staff. I would certainly have come up with a different selection of directors if I were putting together such a set, but it's a representative selection in its own way. (open question to readers - who would you have liked to have seen make a short here who wasn't invited?)
Another thing that this project seems to drive home to the viewer is that, in animation, talent comes in many forms. It can be in the animation, the directing, the art, the CGI - you name it. Genius Party is interesting because it gathers together talent in various fields, and gets them each to make a film. As a result, each of the films have different approaches that arise from the particular nature of their talent. For example, flamboyantly individualistic animator Shinya Ohira's film is all about the exhilaration of animated movement, whereas art director Shinji Kimura's film is more about the fantastic mood created by his evocative art, and director Shinichiro Watanabe's film is more about creating a pregnant atmosphere and eliciting an emotional response from the viewer.
Studio 4C goes into considerable detail about the production of each short in the extras on the DVD set and in accompanying publications. The coverage is by no means limited to the directors. Every aspect of each production is covered, revealing how the production environment of each film was dramatically different due to the working style of the creators and their material. Besides shedding some welcome light on the working methods of some of Japan's best talent, more fundamentally, the broad-ranging nature of the coverage illuminates the unique nature of each creator, and the considerable expressive freedom afforded by the medium of animation.
I get the impression that this is where the word genius in the title fits in. I think what they meant by 'genius party' was really 'talent celebration' - as in, a celebration of the many forms of talent in Japanese animation. It was an unfortunate choice of words, as the wording makes you think they're calling the directors of the shorts geniuses, and nothing is more laughable than self-proclaimed genius. But actually, in many of the interviews with the directors, they go out of their way to make the caveat that they by no means consider themselves geniuses. I think most of the directors here are extremely talented - some of them even what I might quality as downright effing brilliant - and they each have a genius for what they do, and in that sense the word fits. If you go back to the root meaning of the term genius, it's more of a general term for the innate skills that each of us has. The Webster definition puts it thus:
The peculiar structure of mind with which each individual is endowed by nature; that disposition or aptitude of mind which is peculiar to each man, and which qualifies him for certain kinds of action or special success in any pursuit; special taste, inclination, or disposition; as, a genius for history, for poetry, or painting.
I look at Genius Party in the light of this definition: as a celebration of the unique talent lying dormant within each of us, rather than an elitist attempt to demarcate a set of directors as geniuses.
And genius in animation isn't necessarily about being flamboyantly individualistic. That's a narrow definition of the concept. Some of the films in the set are stylized or animated in a way quite different from most anime, while some have a more conventional anime aesthetic. It's more about doing something well in a way that only you can do it - which is one of the few running threads throughout the 12 wildly divergent short films that happen to sit side by side under the banner of Genius Party.
One of the things I feel from this set is a sense of community. Animation in Japan has something unique at the present time: a group of artists who are flourishing and developing in a way that seems uniquely informed by their own history, as opposed to global trends. Many of these artists have worked together on the same projects in the past, and there has undoubtedly been a lot of mutual influencing over the years. It feels like a self-contained artistic culture. This set comes across as a snapshot of this very particular community of human creation, at its best. There is a certain base aesthetic that can be said to underlie most of the films, but I think the impression that most general audiences would come away with is the sheer variety of the set. Every film is very different, attesting to the way the Japanese animation industry has nurtured some truly individualistic creators over the last few decades in the shadow of the vast majority of anime production. That's something to be celebrated, and that's exactly what this set does.
I think the thing that sets this omnibus apart is not some kind of superficial stylistic difference, or that the content is more cutting edge or something. Several of the pieces were in a style I wouldn't normally associate with Studio 4C. It's the underlying conception driving the project - to give industry animators a rare chance to create what they want for once - that seems to give Genius Party its character. Such a stance is an inversion of the conventional procedure in commercial animation, where 'in the beginning is the project', and after is the staff, which has to adapt itself to the project at hand. I'm not saying it's a bad method - real pros should undoubtedly be able to pride themselves on being able to handle different commissions. But it's important to have an outlet from the conventions on occasion to allow talent to really express themselves. Genius Party, then, is unique because it's basically putting commercial animators in an indie framework, and seeing what they can do. The results are interesting in this sense, showing that some animators, even in a framework of total freedom, remain tied to the conventions of commercial Japanese animation or their own style that they have developed over the years, while others explore a new direction for them and create something they would never have the opportunity to create in a commercial environment.
Without further ado, here is a rundown of my impressions on each piece.
Kicking off the party is an eponymous opener by Atsuko Fukushima, one of the animator legends of the last two decades or so in Japan. Fukushima has been anything but prolific since creating the masterful animation in Labyrinth Labyrinthos, which opened Manie Manie: Labyrinth Tales, and the opening and closing segments of Robot Carnival in the late 80s. One of the rare more recent pieces in which her style comes through is Jack and the Beanstalk. It's wonderful to finally see another piece from her in her own unique style - especially here, as her prior work sort of embodies the whole spirit of the endeavor, with its fertile imagination backed up by solid animation skills, and the set would have been incomplete without her presence.
Her short piece succinctly evokes the themes of the project: imagination, creativity, and inspiration. Visually, the piece is one of the most satisfying in the set. The images are lush and highly worked, the movement throughout rich and exciting. The drawings achieves a very handmade look due the considerable effort that was put into transferring the feeling of the pencil-drawn keys into the final product. The combination of CGI with hand-drawn animation is seamless and achieves a beautiful effect. The interaction of the creatures is lovingly portrayed in the little details of their behavior, convincing you of the veracity of mysterious natural laws at work.
But more importantly, the piece is formally elegant and works on several levels. What at first sight looks like a nature program about the mating rituals of some strange creatures on an imaginary alien planet, gradually transforms into a beautiful metaphor about creation and inspiration, and the miracle of the human brain, with its array of neurons activating one another. All of that is achieved without the message being forced down your throat in a preachy way. Thus it serves as a perfect opener for the set. It's great to see that she hasn't lost her touch after all these years. I just wish she would get back into production full-time. She's without a doubt one of the best talents Japanese animation's got, and we could use more good work like this. There are a lot of talented people in animation in Japan, but too few with her combination of fecund imagination and animation savvy.
Like Tatsuyuki Tanaka, Fukushima originally wanted to animate her piece entirely herself. Both are great animators, so I would have liked to see that happen. But as it happens, they didn't have time, so they had to get other animators to animate their films, although both did some of the animation, and Tanaka served as the sakkan (animation director) for his own film. Fukushima was aided by several excellent animators, and it shows up in the results, whereas Tanaka's piece comes across as slightly weaker on the animation front, which is quite disappointing, as he himself is a superb animator. Here's a full list of the animators in Fukushima's piece: Yumi Chiba, Takase Nishimura, Tokuyuki Matsutake, Shojiro Nishimi, Hideki Hamasu, Jamie Vickers, Atsuko Fukushima.
This piece perhaps best captures the mixed feelings I have for the particular combination of films in Genius Party. I respect Kawamori's particular talent, and I enjoy his work for what it is. He has a unique voice, and he is indisputably one of the major figures in anime history since the 80s. He represents much of what anime stands for. This piece is well enough made and entertaining. I think that the inclusion of more conventionally styled films like Kawamori's Shanghai Dragon and Shinichiro Watanabe's Baby Blue is consistent with the objective of Genius Party (at least as I interpret it), namely to spotlight the various forms of talent in the Japanese animation industry, insofar as those directors are among the most talented directors working in the industry, and they have an individual voice and vision. It's just that, in style and concept, their work is comparatively conventional compared with most of the other films in the set.
Is that jarring contrast an asset or a liability? That will depend on each viewer. But personally, while watching it, all I could feel was that it was out of place, and that it was kind of embarrassing to watch. I screened the whole set with a non-anime-watching person to get a neutral third-party opinion, and this film was the only one in the entire set that this person found really irritating. My impression is that most of the other films in the set spoke on the authority of their creators' unique vision - be it Shinji Kimura's unique art, or Shinya Ohira's thrilling animation - and thus their works are exciting and interesting in their own right, whereas to a person judging the film entirely on its own merits, this one migth feel a little too plain jane anime, with a directing style and story that aren't especially unusual in their own right.
The piece wasn't 'pure' Shoji Kawamori, anyway. Kawamori wrote the script and was the director, of course, but Toshiyuki Kubooka did the storyboard and 'enshutsu' or actual processing/line directing, so the details of the directing are of someone else's hand. Shingo Suzuki was character designer/animation director. The key animation was by the small team of Hiroshi Okubo, Jiro Kanai, Shingo Suzuki and Tomoyuki Niho. Okubo also did mecha design together with Kawamori, and Niho did object design. I know Okubo did the chase over the rooftops in the 3-wheeler, and presumably Shingo Suzuki handled the character scenes and Niho did the dragon, as Niho designed the dragon.
It's a shame that the publisher of the Genius Party Beyond mook, Geibun Mook, didn't do the one for Genius Party, because Geibun Genius Party mook is far better arranged and laid out and contains a lot more interesting materials and notes and things than the mook for Genius Party. If they had, I might know a bit more about who did what for Shanghai Dragon and the other films in the first volley (i.e. Genius Party as opposed to Genius Party Beyond) with good animation for which I'd love to have a detailed breakdown (mostly Happy Machine). The Geibun mook contains lots of genga and other raw materials, with good descriptions. Heck, even the printing of the first mook is shoddy - mine's coming apart at the seams already, and I treat my books pretty carefully.
From the beginning Genius Party sounded like it would be an interesting project because they had invited such a disparate array of people onto the project - including an art director, a manga-ka, and foreign animators. I appreciate the willingness to approach individuals in different fields to create a piece of animation, because I like seeing creations by people who haven't been inculcated into the conventions of industry practice. There's a certain freshness in their work, even if it's pretty rough around the edges and not entirely successful. That's the feeling I got from the film that was made by a screenwriter for one of Studio 4C's previous omnibus productions, Amazing Nuts.
Well, it's somewhat the same feeling I get here. It's a very fun and interesting piece, but I wouldn't call it the most successful or convincing. Shinji Kimura is a fantastic art director with amazing breadth, running the gamut from the realistic baroque detail of Steam Boy to the wild, byzantine coloring of Tekkonkinkreet. The Deathtic Four has him directing his first film, and creating it from the ground up for that matter. His characters and the design of the world are quite appealing. The most successful part of the film strikes me as being the shots where we fly over and through the CGI maps of his art over the city. There is a very nice atmosphere in those shots. It feels like a silly-creepy gothic horror version of the city in Tekkonkinkreet.
What I didn't find as convincing was the CGI movement, or the style of the dialogue. For some mysterious reason he made the characters speak Swedish with Japanese subtitles. It doesn't feel necessary, and it's distracting having to read the text the whole time. I would have preferred to see a piece that showed off his skills as an artist, rather than a CGI film, as CGI isn't his area of 'genius', it's art, and I felt that the CGI distracts from his art more than it contributes here.
That said, I think it's a fit within the set, and it's an enjoyable enough piece with a style all its own, which is what I wanted to see, regardless of whether it works completely. There was a little bit of animation in the film, and that was done by Tomonori Murata and Takayuki Hamada. Besides his major contribution to Masaaki Yuasa's Happy Machine, Hamada seems to have lent a helping hand here and there in various other films in the set.
Yoji Fukuyama is unmistakably a creator with a 'genius' for his particular niche - namely, manga with an exactingly rendered caricatural style somewhat similar in sensibility to early Katsuhiro Otomo. (Otomo seems to have been influenced by Fukuyama.) His droll sense of humor and predilection for 'dajare' (bad puns) can get old, I find, but his drawings are always a real pleasure to look at, and his humor is very well suited to the one-panel comics he publishes in newspapers, in which he skewers Japanese politics and culture.
For that reason, I can see why he was invited, and I think it was a very interesting choice to invite him. It's not rare to see manga adapted into anime, obviously, but Fukuyama's particular style is quite far from what you typically see adapted into anime - and far more interesting in many ways. And of course, although manga are adapted fairly often into anime, having the creator given carte blanche over every aspect of the production, as Fukuyama was here, is far rarer. He has a style of rendering faces that, if adapted carefully by a team of artists of real talent, could result in some very interesting character animation of a kind we've never seen before in anime. So I was excited when I heard that Fukuyama had been invited.
The film that was produced unfortunately does not do what I would have hoped they would try to do given the opportunity of having such a great manga-ka onboard. Rather than focusing on his drawings and creating a film that adapted those drawings into an animated mode of expression, the locus of interest in the film that was made is the mildly interesting story of an anonymous young male character who finds himself dogged by a doppelganger in modern-day Japan. Fukuyama, who of course had never been involved in animation before, was given the opportunity to draw the storyboard. Takahiro Tanaka helped him fill out the storyboard with the requisite timing, special effects markings and so on, and designed the characters for animation and acted as sakkan. The problem is that the pacing is somewhat slow, the visuals bland, and the story not affecting or interesting enough to really pull it off and make it work. I wonder what other approach could have been adopted to result in a more successful adaptation of Fukuyama's unique style into animation.
The person who came up with what I think is the most interesting interpretation of the concept of the project, and on top of that managed to make by far the most genuinely surprising film in the entire set, is Hideki Futamura. It's kind of shocking, considering the rare opportunity each of these creators were given - to create literally anything they wanted "without any restrictions" (the catchphrase of the project was "seiyaku zero", which means zero restrictions) - that Limit Cycle was the only film in the set that really went outside of the bounds of conventional anime expression, with a visual ethos verging on the abstract and consisting mostly of CGI and processed footage, rather than conventional animation, and a narrative style verging on pure visual poetry. I understand that it makes perfect sense for most the creators here to have done work in the style for which they've become known, and in which they are the undisputed masters. I would have been disappointed if Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa hadn't made films in their patented style, and their films are films only they could have made. But it just strikes me as food for thought that, given literally zero limitations, this is the set of films that resulted. Obviously, this is a commercial endeavor, and it would merely have alienated audiences to create films that ignored the audience altogether. In that sense, I greatly admire Futamura's film, because it treads the fine line between experimentation and entertainment in a way that few of the other films do.
The mystery to me about Limit Cycle is not what it's about - it's why the film is so damn fascinating despite me not knowing what it's about. I've watched it three times, and I've enjoyed it just as much every time. I think this is the film with the most rewatch value in the set. I can envision myself revisiting it over the coming months to bask in the lush cascade of glowing images, and probably discover something new that I hadn't seen on a previous viewing. It's easy enough to layer random images on top of one another, but Futamura's film seems to have a method to the madness, hidden somewhere in the chaos, like good poetry, or like a model of a complex molecule.
Limit Cycle has no dialogue, and no obvious narrative. At first sight it appears to be simply a visual poem with random quotes narrated quietly over a rich medley of glowing visuals, and random numbers projected across the screen. In fact, the quotes are from 17th century French mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal's Pensées, and the numbers indicate the passage in the Pensées. There is no one-to-one correlation between text and visuals. Occasionally you will notice a clear correlation between a spoken word and something that has just happened on the screen, but for the most part the nature of the nominal protagonist's journey is left intentionally murky and nonliteral. Mostly the viewer has to surrender to the images and extrapolate as best they can what is happening to the protagonist, who appears to embark on a metaphysical journey through time and space.
Pascal, of course, is one of the true 'geniuses' of western history. I like how Futamura undermines the assumption that the films are supposed to be directed by creators of genius, by instead making a film where the genius is the subject of the film. Futamura is one of the ones who, in the mook interview, goes out of his way to say that he doesn't look at himself as a genius, contrary to what the title of the project might imply.
If you've ever tried to educate yourself a little about advanced sciences like chaos theory or quantum mechanics, maybe you'll have had the same experience I have of feeling that you've run headlong into a wall of impenetrably dense verbiage vaguely reminiscent of old philosophical or religious texts. Something of that ilk seems to have been the epiphany that led Hideki Futamura to meld Pascal's religious treatise with cybernetics and the mathematical concept of the limit cycle. (viz. Wiki entry) The concepts mesh surprisingly well, creating a philosophical echo chamber where scientific and religious, past and future bleed into and amplify one another.
Futamura Hideki has had a decent-sized career, during most of which he was active as a conventional 2D animator. Among his more notable work would be animation director of Second Renaissance. It's in the last few years that he seems to have veered in a different and very interesting direction, blending lush digital effects with hand-drawn animation. The first time I saw this new tack of his was in the two clips he did for Studio 4C's Fluximation music videos. In these and Limit Cycle I find that Futamura shows himself to be good with non-narrative work, at creating a flow of abstract digital images that holds the viewer's interest. The rather lengthy film doesn't grow tiring, remaining engaging at all moments, with a clear sense of development and progress, although the exact nature of that development may not be clear. The music by Fennesz is the perfect aural analogue for the images, with its dense buzz of electronic sounds and harmonic shards. The bewildered-looking James Dean-like protagonist serves as a good surrogate for viewers to latch on to. Without him, it might indeed be a bit of a daunting piece. And even the narration by actor Hiroshi Mikami (Swallowtail) is spot-on and a perfect choice for the film. I find that every aspect of his film works and benefits the whole.
There are two standout films in Genius Party for me. I don't think it will surprise many readers to learn that those two films are Happy Machine and Wanwa. Neither film afforded me the surprise of Futamura's piece, because I fully expected them to be incredible, and they were. They afforded instead the intense pleasure of being able to see among the most perfect creations yet by two of the very best creators working in animation in Japan today.
Both pieces have a very different and equally inimitable style. Yuasa's minimalistic Happy Machine is the yin to the yang of Shinya Ohira's hyperkinetic Wanwa. But both share the trait that they are filled head to toe with incredible animation that at every moment is the voice by which both films communicate, albeit in their very different ways. These creators represent to me the pinnacle of the rare 'genius' of being able create animated films that are able to communicate a clear story and thrill and move viewers purely by dint of the visuals.
Although Masaaki Yuasa was already known for his incredible talent as an animator and an imaginative concept artist, since directing Mind Game he has gone on to direct two TV series that each revealed a new side of his multifaceted talent. They revealed that he has the ability to create unpredictable, edgy, moving stories and imaginative, never-before-seen worlds populated by lots of interesting characters. I've come to admire how Yuasa always challenges himself to take a new approach with each new project. With Happy Machine he's again created a film unlike anything he's done before, not to mention unlike anything else out there.
Happy Machine is a spare film whose light touch conceals a somber core. On the surface it plays out a fantasy full of odd creatures, while underneath boils a psychologically complex rumination on the theme of the human need for companionship. The film is highly formal in its shape and in the deliberate spareness of its presentation. At every moment our attention is focused on only one object on the screen, with very little in the background to distract us. The theme is also focused, leaving the viewer with a clear but complex and potent emotional aftertaste of a kind that raises Yuasa's work above mere visual playfulness. The scene where the protagonist realizes that his latest animal companion has just left him and is floating away towards certain death, prompting the protagonist to overcome all logic and physical laws and put on wings and fly towards him, is almost overwhelming in its emotional power.
At the most basic level, the film is the ultimate in wordless storytelling, with a considerable amount of goings on conveyed exclusively through the animation, background, music and sound effects. It's striking how Yuasa is able to create a story that comes across as having so many layers of meaning out of something so deliberately pared down in every way. But moving the film is - it's by far the most moving film in the set, and really gets you thinking. It's not that the story is hard to figure out. Quite the opposite. The story is the epitome of clarity, and every little element has a profound significance that you grasp immediately. Rather, I find that Happy Machine gets you thinking about the most basic and important things in life, though I can't figure out why that is.
I find Yuasa's work amazing because he can evoke so many different complex emotions without even seeming to try, and in such a short span. And on top of that, he does so by way of a seamless unity of imaginative designs, ingenious concepts and rich animation. He creates a momentum of visual storytelling that at every moment is alternately and/or simultaneously beautiful, wildly imaginative, deeply felt, terrifying, moving, funny, and unpredictable. It's a cliched expression, but this film really feels like a small diamond, for the way there isn't anything extraneous, and it achieves so much in such a small package.
The animation of Happy Machine was done by only four people, headlined by the talented ex-Telecom animator Takayuki Hamada: Takayuki Hamada, Takamasa Ishikawa, Yasuyuki Shimizu, Nobutake Ito. I don't know much about Takamasa Ishikawa, although he was in Tekkonkinkreet, but Ito and Shimizu need no introduction - they were regulars in Yuasa's two TV series. There were so many animation drawings for some shots in the scene with the fire creature, for example, that a single shot had to be divided up for storage in two separate cardboard boxes. This is a classic example of a small, talented team of animators providing a film with a uniform high level of quality.
Shinichiro Watanabe has done a lot of great work in anime over the last decade or so - as a music producer. He also happens to have directed a considerable amount of anime, usually supported by very talented staff. I think he did a bang-up job choosing the music for the films in Genius Party.
Watanabe's film was a fairly enjoyable, if somewhat cliche, youth drama, capped by a touching sequence at the climax that plays out in strobe effect over a Chopin Etude. Watanabe is particularly good with moments like this. I would have been prepared to enjoy this short were it stand-alone, but to be brief, it felt unnecessary. It's not what I was looking for in this set. I think Watanabe chose to create a film in this style because he knew that many of the other films would be vivid, fantastically-inclined films, and wanted to do something different, in a more atmospheric, realistic style, perhaps to give the audience a breather. Personally, I didn't feel that a breather was needed or called for.
More importantly, perhaps, I felt that the characters were dead and boring to look at. Eiji Yasuhiko was the character designer and animation director, and I think the characters in the film are its main liability. They look amateurish and bland, and there wasn't a moment where I felt that the characters had a facial expression or an instance of body language that communicated a living, breathing character I could believe in, which would have helped if I was supposed to empathize with their emotions and plight. I think that is what would have been called for to make a minimalistic, low-key story like this work, entirely focused as it is on two characters.
The brief moments of absurd humor that intersperse the film came across as lame-brained, forced attempts at levity. The casting of two famous actors in the role of the two characters struck me as nothing more than opportunistic, because I didn't find their performances apt or nuanced, merely flat-toned and seemingly deliberately drab. I love atmospheric films. This one did have its moments, but unfortunately, atmosphere alone does not necessarily make a great film. I guess mainly it bothers me that space was taken up by a film like this when there are any number of other creators with a more unusual and interesting style who could have made a more compelling film.
Mahiro Maeda is one of the most talented people in anime, and I have tremendous respect for him as a creator, so I was happy to see a film from him in the set. At first sight, the film seems more conventionally styled than the most interesting films in the set, and so I was a little hesitant going in, but once I sat down and watched it, and listened to Maeda's words about his film, I was very happy with the result. If you can make a film as satisfying and layered as Maeda has, then I find that lack of a particularly idiosyncratic visual concept isn't necessarily a death blow.
Gala is interesting and satisfying for all the right reasons. Maeda strikes me as an intellectual filmmaker in the good sense. He's intellectual not in the sense of making highbrow art films only he can understand, but in the sense of having a healthy curiosity about everything out there in the world, and effectively applying what he's learned to create films that are worldly and informed and come across as very respectful of the viewer's intelligence.
Maeda's brilliance as an 'animated filmmaker' comes through well in the very cinematic Gala, which speaks not in the language of dialogue, but through the pacing and the actions of its characters. He maintains a seamless arc of building tension right through to the exhilarating climax. The very satisfying conclusion makes you see everything that came before in a new light without coming across as a cheap trick.
Maeda's intelligence comes through in the way he is able to take old Japanese gods and other motifs and put them into this new context of the various bacteria and other small microorganisms that inhabit the soil. He pulls off an interpretation of the animist gods of old Japan that is new and interesting, and that makes sense logically (the old Shinto beliefs seem prescient of modern discoveries about the microorganisms and bacteria that inhabit the soil) and conveys a spiritual reverence for the miracle of life. It's a blend of concepts and ideas from far-flung corners that make a wonderful metaphor for the ether of life that surrounds us. Maeda's genius is to do all this and wrap it up in a very entertaining package.
Another major element in the film is the music. After having already drawn the storyboard, Maeda ran across composer Akira Ifukube's symphonic poem Rhythmica Ostinata for piano and orchestra, which struck him as just what he needed. The piece was rearranged a bit to fit, but in the final product lends the film a unique sound world that immediately sets the film apart, as well as a providing a strong driving beat during the frenetic climax. The film also achieves a nice match between image and music, which was one of the challenges that Maeda set himself for Gala. The instruments in Japanese composer Ifukube's piece are all western, but the instruments shown on the screen all Eastern. Maeda did this deliberately, and draws interesting parallels between the two by showing, for example, a koto being played when the piano is heard playing in the music, since the piano is, after all, just a big harp. I really like how Maeda layers interesting concepts and ideas into every aspect of the production.
The importance of music to Maeda can be glimpsed in the fact that during his school days, Maeda participated in the famous Geinoh Yamashirogumi folk music collective. He designed all the instruments himself based on traditional instruments from around the world. This gives another glimpse into his multifaceted talent. I've had the opportunity to glimpse quite a lot of his designs and image boards for various series over the years, and I'm continuously impressed by the richness of his imagination.
This film serves as a good contrast with Gala - it's all style and no substance. And I mean that as a compliment. This film oozes style, and it's great fun to watch. Nakazawa has a unique talent as an animator and an illustrator, and that comes through perfectly here. I would have liked to see more films like this in the set, by creators with an interesting visual or animation style.
Nakazawa drew all the key animation himself. As that suggests, this is an animator's film first and foremost. What story there is is merely a coathanger for Nakazawa's silly gags, snazzy animation and intricate drawings. This is perhaps emphasized by the way that Nakazawa doesn't bother to hide the borders for each background painting, and he leaves in the borders on the layout sheets he drew the backgrounds on (you even see written instructions on some of them). Nakazawa seems like quite a character, and this was apparently a late-game decision he made after having first done so by mistake. He though the results looked cool, so he left it in. His wierd gag sense comes through in this and in the playfulness of the backgrounds, which are packed with little details that make them fun to pore over.
The film is essentially a road movie showing the band of inept bandits travelling from one location to another in search of a treasure map. One of the unifying techniques he adopts for some reason is to use a flat stage layout for most of the shots, and to have the characters arrayed accordingly. The screen is still most of the time, plastered with the detailed backgrounds that fully occupy your attention and maintain interest, while the animation bursts out here and there in quick flashes. Another thing is that the exterior of the buildings are always done in this crazy, fantasyland style, while the interior of the buildings have a more realistic old musty look. He maintains a sense of unity through the odd little rules like this.
What we have with Wanwa is also, in its own very different way, an animator's film. This film is a paean to everything that animation stands for, an explosion of animated energy like none I've ever seen before. It's by far the most awe-inspiring achievement of the entire set, both technically and artistically. There are good films in this set, and there are even some great films, but if you only see one film from this set, this is the one. This is animated filmmaking that makes me want to shout my love of animation from the rooftops. I hesitate to call anyone a genius, but if anyone fits the bill, it's Ohira.
This is one of the few films in the set that is more of an 'experience' than it is simply a film. That's due largely to the unremitting intensity, volume and quality of the animation, which blasts by at a hundred miles an hour almost non-stop throughout the film. Single shots of this film reportedly contain several thousand animation drawings - the amount of animation in an average TV episode. The film is a fascinating contradiction in that it's a simple story for children, about a little boy who one day wanders off, led by his puppy, into a fantasy land inhabited by the red and blue demons of his imagination, yet at its peak it achieves such a density of expression that it comes across less like a children's film and more like a Jackson Pollock painting come to life.
Which is not to say that the film is nothing but animated energy. All of that animated energy is channeled into a film with a very big heart, and Ohira achieves what is very hard to do, namely creating a film that feels borne of real, unfeigned innocence. It doesn't feel like an adult making a film pandering to children, so much as a film made by an adult who retains something of the unbridled imagination and freedom of a child as a creator. The images are modeled after his son's drawings, and the story development has the random-walk aspect of a child's fantasies. The only other film I've seen that achieved such an unfeigned, honest childlike tone was Kitty's Graffiti of 1957 by the late great Yasuji Mori. The film is conceptually united around the theme of a child's unbridled imagination in every sense.
Wanwa is a special achievement because it doesn't feel like a mere 2D animated film. It is combined with CGI in some places, of course, but that's not what I mean. It's more that by sheer will power, Ohira somehow manages to create animation that seems to explode the bounds of 2D animation, while at the same time remaining quintissentially hand-drawn, with its constant shapeshifting. Ohira also created many of the film's backgrounds by using yarn, crayons and other materials that his young son used to make his own art, and for some of the closeups of the boy he went through a laborious process to achieve a style that looked as if it had been colored by crayons. Ohira thus truly made a film in which every single aspect of the production seems to be imbued of a child's touch. All of the images in the film are magnificent compositions in their own right, like a living and breathing painting, with every scene designed with its own uniquely dazzling color scheme.
The animator list of Wanwa reads like a list of my favorite animators: Shinji Hashimoto, Kenichi Konishi, Masaaki Yuasa, Ko Yoshinari, Hisashi Mori, Shinsaku Kozuma, Osamu Tanabe, Atsuko Fukushima and Shuya Ohira. Every one is a top-notch animator of the highest order. If you've never heard of the last one, it's Ohira's son. His drawings are featured in the film somewhere. He even lent his voice to Gala and Tojin Kit. Hashimoto did the part around the appearance of the red oni in the candy shop, Yoshinari did the part around the appearance of the blue oni later on, and Fukushima just helped out a little with the shots with the father near the end. Hashimoto, Tanabe and Yuasa, of course, are regulars with Ohira, but it was Ohira's first time working with Yoshinari. Yoshinari's shots were among the densest turned in, and greatly impressed Ohira, which is saying a lot. This small but superb selection of animators goes a long way to explaining why the animation in the film was so amazing. Each one of these animators is a highly talented, individualistic, maniacal animator in his or her own right.
Good news: In the interview in the mook, Ohira says he's interested in creating another film for children, this time a full-length feature. I'll be able to sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that another Ohira film may be forthcoming, and finally a full-length feature at that. Knowing his working pace, that may be many years down the line, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I want him to spend as much time as he needs to create something that the world has never seen before. His films are a treasure, and he keeps evolving and getting better.
Tojin Kit is interesting to me because, intentionally or not, it raises some interesting questions about the process of creation in animation. It seems to embody a contradiction inherent in animation: Animation is necessarily a pure product of the artist's imagination, but the amount of work implied requires diffusion of duties, which seems to inherently place a limit on the control any single artist can have on the result. Tatsuyuki Tanaka's long odyssey with Tojin Kit, the legendary short that he's supposed to have been toiling away at singlehandedly for so many years trying to complete (although it turns out that wasn't really the case), seems to represent the sisyphean struggle that results when you try to rail against that imposed limit. (which of course is vaguely reminiscent of Norstein's latest decades-long effort, although obviously their work methods, philosophy and style are very different)
An artist with a style and vision as seemingly self-consistent as Tanaka's has been over the last decade or so of his activity as an illustrator and occasional creator of animated shorts doesn't just happen across his style. It's the result of a clear set of underlying goals and concepts he is exploring. I don't normally like artists who are limited to a certain style or look, because more often than not it's just indicative of a lack of curiosity and flexibility, or worse, of superficiality. But I don't feel that way with Tanaka. I get the feeling that his work isn't just about style; there's a underlying structure there. Structure is what separates good contemporary classical music from random noise.
In a way very different from Happy Machine and Wanwa, Tojin Kit is also a film that could only exist in animation. It's an animated film first and foremost. The lavishly intricate sepia backgrounds that make Tanaka's work so distinctive, with their characteristic reek of decay and dark humor, are the ultimate products of the imagination, despite their extreme level of detail. Backgrounds in animation are quite often based on material gathered by scouting actual locations in the real world. In extreme cases, and surprisingly often (due presumably to the tight schedules in anime) backgrounds are faithful reproductions of photographs. In other cases, backgrounds are products of the imagination, but helped along by lots of reference material. Tanaka's art is different. Tanaka's only reference material, he asserts, is his memory multiplied by imagination. One of the structural elements underpinning Tojin Kit is that the decorations are assembled strictly from his memories of the little details of the tenements in which he grew up as a kid. The backgrounds are assembled, to be precise, from his memory of the little details that people would generally overlook, out of habit, or out of human instinct - the way we overlook a shattered corner of pavement, the unfinished underside of the sink over which we arrange ourselves in the mirror every day. This is what seems to give his backgrounds their particular character - they're confusing in that they seem familiar, yet obviously are products of the imagination. At first it just seems like he just likes drawing decay, but there's a pattern there, and it's conceptually interesting.
Tanaka has no illusions in his assessment of the results of his film. As was expected of the digital revolution, it has provided individual artists with the ability to control more of the tasks, resulting in animated films in which the various tasks were handled by the same person. Tojin Kit represents the problems that can result from getting what you wished for. In Tanaka's case, the ability to handle the backgrounds for his own films meant that, in addition to being able to spend more time on the animation, he spends more time drawing the backgrounds in order to achieve exactly the effect he is aiming for, being very much the perfectionist. This has the ironic consequence of slowing his productivity to such an extent that he's forced, at the last minute, to enlist other staff to help him complete the animation and backgrounds, which goes against what he was trying to achieve. Of course, given much more time, he could probably have made the entire film himself, and it would have had more unity than it does. His work is so distinctive and precisely imagined that work by another hand, even good work, stands out, which is what I find happened with the animation of this film.
One of the reasons I feel this deficiency hurt the film is partially that one of the themes of the film is to create the feeling of a living and breathing illustration. To that end, the backgrounds are not supposed to be 'backgrounds'. They're supposed to be an extension of the animation. I know I'm being nitpicky when I say this, but it's only because I admire the work so much and would have liked the film to succeed to the greatest possible extent. Needless to say, much work was put into the animation, and the film has some of the best animation in the set. The animators who aided him are no hacks - Koichi Arai, Takaaki Yamashita, Takaaki Wada, Yasuhiro Aoki, to name but the most obvious. The film lacks any music, and making a film in which the lack of music is as successful as this one at creating rather than detracting from the atmosphere is no mean feat. The film achieves exactly the unique atmosphere it sets out to achieve, and Tanaka's smart, precise directing, superb layout skills and the mysterious and evocative story unmistakably make this one of the main reasons to watch Genius Party. At least Tanaka the perfectionist will be relieved to know that he isn't allowed to rest yet in his goal of achieving perfection. He needs to keep trying, and make even more amazing films that only he can make.
Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to the collaborative art of animation - provide animators lots of freedom to create, or use the animators to realize the vision of the director. Tatsuyuki Tanaka obviously falls at one end of the scale. Despite Koji Morimoto seeming to logically fall at the same end of the scale, since he's such a unique artist, I find that he actually falls on the opposite end of the scale, the good team worker end. His very particular vision is paramount in his films, of course, but I like how he always enlists great animators to realize his worlds, and he provides them with freedom for a degree of interpretation that undoubtedly makes it a more rewarding effort for them, but more importantly, enriches the results. It can be hard to make a film with an excessively unified tone and look that doesn't feel brittle as opposed to strong.
I don't know quite where else to start with this film, which is enigmatic even by Morimoto's standards, which is why I start with that. I find that perhaps this gives a clue to the essence of this film - that he wants his collaborators to have a degree of interpretive freedom, and the audience too. There is probably a very simple love story hidden beneath the chaotic but extremely beautiful storm of images that comprise this film, but it was shattered in time and space by the dimension bomb of Morimoto's wonderfully mad mind, and the audience has to reconstruct it as best they can. That's my interpretation. Morimoto is the main creative force behind Studio 4C, and in this way perhaps his film best encapsulates what this set should have been about - the explosive atomic power of the imagination unleashed through animation.
I find that I don't really want to try to parse every little detail into sense. The film is perfectly constructed in its ambiguity as it is, although honestly I found it slightly frustrating on my first viewing. I thought maybe it was striving a little too hard for incomprehensibilty. But in retrospect, I think we need more films in animation that aren't linear, that aren't easily comprehensible, films that make the audience work a little. Or rather, films that are an experience the way this film and Wanwa are. Films like that are often more rewarding, just as it can be more rewarding for animators to have a little freedom of interpretation.
Rather than trying in vain to figure out the story, I prefer to simply revel in the richness and intensity of Morimoto's imagination. He's got that knack animators-turned-directors have for thinking visually, in a language of gorgeous, imaginative, never-before-seen designs and narrative forms. I don't think it would be possible to succeed in creating such images without the help of equally talented animators, and as it happens, Yasuhiro Aoki played a major role in the animation of Dimension Bomb. There were plenty of others, including Takayuki Hamada, Shojiro Nishimi and Jamie Vickers, but apparently Aoki played a particularly important role. Aoki did a lot of the animation in Morimoto's Fluximation music video, so he's obviously a figure Morimoto feels he can trust to come up with interesting ideas to fill in the deliberate ellipsis in his storyboard.
Morimoto is a real creator of his age, though, in that this film is not merely a showcase of traditional animation. CGI plays an important part, and not just functional - he uses it as an expressive tool. His powerful images are equal parts CGI, background painting and animation. He's one of the best directors in Japan at coming up with aesthetically interesting rather than merely functional uses of CGI. The driving techno music is really well used, too. It doesn't just go full-bore throughout. The music ebbs and flows in sync with the hills and valleys of the dramatic pacing. Another thing I found very appealing in his film was the combination of meticulously rendered realistic backgrounds with the strange imagery. The film contains any number of memorable images, such as the body floating across various random everyday scenes, and the character transformed into pure energy. The juxtaposition of these images with the shots of the boy and girl interacting, which emanate a believable youthful sexual tension, makes for a satisfying balance.
Anyway, I think that'll do. Turned out a lot longer than I expected it to. And I was trying to keep things brief.
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.
In most cases, I suppose, the time eventually comes in an animator's life when he or she becomes a parent. I can think of at least one case of a great piece of animation having been produced as a result of the conjunction of newfound fatherhood and artistic brilliance - Panda Kopanda. It's a film that seems soaked in gentle paternal love. I'm sure there must be other instances. A film I've been looking forward to for quite some time now is apparently another such instance - Wanwa, the new short by Shinya Ohira to be included in Genius Party 2. When Ohira was asked to participate in the project three or four years ago, he apparently came up with the idea for this story, about a young boy and his puppy, because he wanted to create a film he could watch with his son, who was then 2-3 years old.
I've seen some images from the film in a recent issue of Animation Note, and it's truly stunning stuff that has little to do with anime and everything to do with great animated art. Ohira is creating the backgrounds himself in addition to doing all the animation. He's not only drawing but also gluing origami paper and string and other assorted materials directly onto the paper to create a very rich and beautiful texture. Sections of animation are even being animated using crayons. The crayoned keys will be inbetweened in a conventional manner, however, and not with crayons. The film will be made using many of the same materials that might be littered around the house of some pint-sized Picasso, in other words, extending the thematic underpinning to the materials used to make the film. It's an approach that's unusual for a studio production, to say the least. I can only say that each of the individual images he has created are of stunning beauty and seem like they would function just as well framed on a wall as photographed in sequence. Ohira continues to go to that next level with his art, and this will no doubt be his summum opus, and then some, with his unmistakable sensibility molding every parameter of the screen in a way we've never seen before.
Brother in arms Shinji Hashimoto, meanwhile, has just published a delightful picture book for small children, no less. The title can be roughly translated as Yucchu and Meppi in the Starry Playground. I can't comment on whether Hashimoto finds himself in the same situation, but it's interesting to see these two great 'realistic' animators suddenly take a left turn to create a piece for small children. As in the case of Wanwa, however, there is no question of stylistic dumbing down. The picture book is delightfully bizarre and abstract, with cute but slightly disconcerting scribbly animal characters of mysterious species zooming around in adventures in the sky. The style of drawing channels Hashimoto's very identifiable meandering line through the mind of a child, as it were, and does a remarkable job of creating a style that has the unforced authenticity of a child's drawings.
In his early years, Shinya Ohira was involved in a lot of projects that, shall we say, have not exactly stood up to the test of time. But in almost all cases his own personal contribution as an animator to those projects is still worth seeking out entirely on its own merits. One of the best examples, and surely one of the most obscure items I think I've ever managed to pull out of my hat (which is saying a lot), is an item entitled Captain Power: Battle Training Video (1987). I'm not sure how it worked, but basically it was a "video" game in three volumes, conceived to capitalize on the TV series, where you aimed a toy gun at the screen and shot different areas for points, à la Duck Hunt.
The whole game is just an extended sequence of animation, like Dragon's Lair, minus the branching. The animation was done at AIC, the same year Ohira worked there on Bubblegum Crisis and Gall Force. Shinya Ohira was the animation director along with Jun Yano, and animators include Hiroyuki Okiura and Toru Yoshida. The animation itself consists almost entirely of insanely intricate animation of backgrounds moving past, wildly baroque explosions, and scads of missiles. No story, no nothing. Effects, effects, effects. The styling of Ohira's work at this early period, with its Kaneda-esque sharp contrast and elegantly arced geometric forms (aptly likened to splashed milk by Takashi Murakami) reaches its peak in this piece, the year after which he was involved in Akira and began to gravitate towards the more realistic handling of natural phenomena, away from the eye-grabbing hattari posing that characterizes his great predecessor's work.
In his first few years Ohira took after the graphic look of Yoshinori Kanada and Yamashita Masahito, but he was already aiming in a different direction. Where the work of the former two seemed to be about exploiting the inherent possibilities of the nature of limited animation by experimenting with what sort of interesting movements and effects could be achieved by doing things like modulating the frame rate and flickering between extreme drawings, Ohira was already moving towards a more fluid style of animation that infused the elegance of the former with his own predilection for increased abstraction. At first sight it might seem merely a return to traditional fluidity, but in reality he was digging deeper. He was looking at movement in more close detail than anyone had done before, except for maybe Hideaki Anno, whose work on Honneamise from that year was another inspiration. Yamashita and Kanada showed the way, and Ohira upped the ante by pushing aside any hint of imposed anthropomorphism or emotion and focusing more intently on increasing the volume and impact of the effect at hand, as if in a mad quest to get to the core of the atom, to the core of what constitutes motion. In recent years he seems to have found a good balance by going back to being slightly more limited while retaining the same density of information. One thing he has retained from this early period is that sense of playfulness, of revelling in the inherent beauty of line, porting it over into a more realistic context.