Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

05:04:58 pm , 1626 words, 2677 views     Categories: Animation

Shoka

Shoka (Calligrapher) was this year's Animax script contest winner. It aired a few months back, but I just watched it. The film was produced by Production I.G. Anyone who liked I.G.'s Windy Tales or the older Hamaji's Resurrection episode of The Hakkenden should check this out. It has a very strong graphical design style that seems like a cross of those two. This is an anime that you want to check out if you want to see something slightly unusual and edgy in anime. This is a show that is all about the crazy graphics.

In sharp contrast with the animation, the content of the episode is completely conventional. This script contest is clearly aimed at fostering script-writing talent who will be able to create work that does nothing whatsoever to challenge the conventions of the industry, not creating auteurs with an original vision. This episode felt like a humdrum new permutation of all of the anime tropes we've seen rehashed over and over again through the years - the basic idea of a group of badasses with special powers fighting a sinister group who throw a new set of baddies at the good guys each episode. Just between you and me, let me share with you the secret formula for coming up with this material: Choose a location; choose an era; choose between sci-fi, magic and ninjas; populate with characters making sure not to deviate from the personality template; mix thoroughly; serve; repeat. Voila. Instant hit. This was a one-off, but they even introduced the other characters at the end, as if setting up for the next episode, so it was clearly intended as a pilot and created for the purpose of series development.

Frankly, if they create a series out of this crap and it's as visually awesome as this episode was, then sign me up right now! This thing was just a blast to watch. There are shows that have more interesting concepts and actually do something original and creative with the directing and the story that are less interesting to watch than this thing was. The characters and the story are utterly conventional and uninteresting. The designs of the characters, despite the unusual lines with which they are rendered, are something of a compromise between the realistic and conventional anime characters. In essence, they are conventional anime characters. They are just drawn in a crazy and loose way.

Which brings us to what makes this episode worth watching, and that is the drawings and animation. I mentioned Hamaji's Resurrection before, and the comparison applies on a number of levels. Among the reasons Hamaji's Resurrection was such a breath of fresh air was that the characters were drawn in a realistically ugly way. This applies to an extent in Shoka, but that is clearly not the main intent. The characters here aren't nearly as 'real' as they were in Hamaji's Resurrection. In Hamaji's Resurrection the drawings were very sketchy and imperfect, with the lines all jagged and the forms of the body loose and flowing in a way not abiding by the laws of human anatomy. I think that was more of a by-product of shortness of schedule than necessarily a deliberate stylistic decision. In Shoka they're taking what was a refreshing freedom from excessively pretty drawings in Hamaji's Resurrection, and turning up the volume by 100%, making every drawing deliberately full of jagged, uneven, criss-crossing lines.

Shoka is clearly massively indebted to Hamaji's Resurrection. I could even identify certain layouts that seemed to be lifted verbatim from Hamaji's Resurrection (presumably in homage, natch).

Even the way of drawing certain things like the eyes seemed influenced by Hamaji's Resurrection. I'm not saying that as a criticism or anything; I do think the style they have adopted is facile and loses its impact fairly quickly, quite unlike Hamaji's Resurrection, but I'm glad to see them creating something raw and hard-edged where every drawing really has a lot of character and isn't so concerned about creating a saleable commodity. The whole show should be the saleable commodity, which it will be if you create something that is conceptually and stylistically unified in the way this episode is, despite the drawings looking crappy and 'off' if taken on an individual basis.

They go way further than Hamaji's Resurrection in terms of the drawings. In Shoka, every line has been scrupulously misplaced. It's like they're gleefully inverting the unwritten rule that anime drawings have to have clean lines and forms. I think I didn't see a single 'normal' line in the entire film. They even perversely have a little piece of line sticking out from the line used to draw the nose, which has the same effect on your concept of character drawings as a loose thread on a shirt that makes you want to yank it off. Maybe letting a few jagged lines through on the clothes would have been forgiven in the past, while the face would have been corrected to model, but never the face. Here they've gone the next step in even doing that on the face. The drawings here actually remind me a lot of the drawings in Hisashi Mori's animated sequences. Shinya Ohira is of course one of the first to draw like this, in Hamaji's Resurrection and even more pointedly in his later solo animation work.

Another episode done in a similar style was one of Yasuhiro Aoki's Tweeny Witches OVAs, the one with drawings by Hideki Nagamachi.

Masaaki Yuasa's animation actually has a similar 'wavy' style to the line, even looking as far back as his Chibi Maruko-chan pieces - one that is intentional, stylistic, as opposed to the product of haste. You also see the same sort of crossed lines in Yuasa's layouts, but very rarely in the finished product. I like the idea of drawing crossed and trailing lines in the finished product, although I find the degree to which they made each and every single little line crossed and trailing to be a bit pedantic and self-defeating.

The storyboarder and director of this film was Makoto Yamada, one of the founding members of Studio Hercules, who in recent years has been working a lot of the video game animation cuts for the Tales series. He has been active since the early 90s, having been involved as an animator on many projects with high-quality animation like Steam Boy, Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet, to say nothing of Otaku no Bideo, Macross Plus and Sound Insect Noiseman.

The character designer and animation director was Hirokazu Kojima, a younger face who drew one of his first genga in 2002 on Haibane Renmei, then went on to work on UFOTable shows like Dokkoida, Futakoi Alternative and The Coyote Ragtime Show before moving on to Gainax shows like Guren Lagan and Shikabane Hime.

But enough about the drawings. The animation was quite lively throughout thanks to a strong animator roster that includes many young faces who have been active on a famous Gainax show and elsewhere, including Matsuo Yusuke (ex-Kyoto Animation, did the animation for the impressive Black Rock Shooter pilot), Hiroyuki Imaishi (Daruma?), Atsuko Nakajima (famous veteran animator and illustrator who has been involved in most Rumiko Takahashi anime since Maison Ikkoku down to the present day), Shinichi Kurita (has worked alongside ex-gif animators Kenichi Kutsuna and Shingo Yamashita), Yasuyuki Kai (did lots of work on Soul Eater), Ayumu Kotake (Gainax animator heavily involved in GL), Ron Kamiya (ex-gif animator), Yasuomi Umetsu, Tokuyuki Matsutake and even Ko Yoshinari. Yasunori Miyazawa was there, too, of course, this being an I.G. Production production. Presumably he again handled the climax involving a giant creature, as he always does. The effects of the explosion at the end were beautifully stylized in the typical Miyazawa style.

Okay, maybe a little more about the drawings. I found the drawings of the old man at the end of the episode to be among the strongest in the episode, even though it's just one shot. The lines are thicker, but each and every line on the face works to establish the character's gruff visage, though you can't tell if some of them are supposed to indicate a beard or wrinkles. I find this to be one of the more real and believable designs in the episode. The combination of not-so-original designs with sketchy lines felt a bit mismatched in the other characters, whereas the combination works better in the more realistic old man here. Or maybe I've just got an old man fetish. I remember feeling the same way about the drawings of the old man in Street Fighter Alpha Generations.

This film is by no means as revolutionary and conceptually unified as Hamaji's Resurrection, which feels more, not less, of an achievement with every passing year in which the industry becomes increasingly inbred and hostile to creative thinking. But it's still a good direction. It shows that today there is a young generation of animators who are interested in experimenting graphically, and who are not under the misconception that animation is all about erotic drawings, but rather about creating exciting movement, and that maybe, just maybe, there are other styles out there, other ways of drawing, other than the same old way that everybody draws in the industry. Too bad there aren't many studios out there that are daring enough to try out novel approaches. We're lucky that at least there are three or four studios that consistently put out work that pushes the boundaries on conventional design thinking, but I think there should be more. So much more creative work is done in the field of motion graphics advertising and music videos. We need to start seeing some of that innovation and creativity in anime.

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2 comments

dm
dm [Visitor]  

I think you’re a bit hard on the story – it’s such a clever super-power, and cleverness counts for something. It also makes for some interesting situations and scenes.

But you’re right that cleverness plus directorial skill counts for a lot more. This series had a great look, gripping action scenes, and a good deal of promise.

06/16/10 @ 16:02
Diogenes
Diogenes [Visitor]

Just watched this, 7 years late. I’m a big Hamaji’s Resurrection fan so I thought it looked fantastic. Loved the old man at the ending and this pose right here: http://i.imgur.com/Du8tRl4.png

06/03/17 @ 19:15