|<< <||> >>|
As I've noted in the past, the OVA format has long been the format of choice for experimentation with material and styles not suitable for the broad reach of theater or television. A few OVAs like Take the X Train experimented with unconventional design styles, but for the most part even OVAs remained within the confines of conventional anime design thinking. Twilight Theatre of 1991 is one of the most daring OVAs ever in this sense. An omnibus of four shorts by different directors, it features more adult storytelling, albeit within the context of traditional ghost/horror literature, and some truly daring design concepts reminiscent of indie animation without parallel in commercial anime. I wrote about Shinya Ohira's contribution The Antique Shop before. But I just had a chance to see the whole thing, and it was quite a nice package overall. The quality is uneven, and the content is lurid and sensational, but its bold experiments make Twilight Theatre a shining example of the OVA format. (Watch here)
Ranging in length between 10 and 17 minutes, the episodes are each based on a single short story by Yumemakura Baku. The films thus tend to be dialogue-heavy, with voice-overs or extended sequences of exposition. Ideally the films should rely more on the visuals, but for the most part this didn't bother me, partly because the stories were simply interesting, and also partly because of the variety of styles on display. Dialogue-heavy anime usually turns me off, but the writing was interesting because it has a talented writer behind it, and because it's concise and to the point, building to its climax efficiently within a short span. The episodes have a literary intelligence while yet being entertaining as horror/supernatural stories.
I've always been partial to omnibus animation like this, and still think it would be a good thing to have a long-running show like this offering different animators the chance to try more daring styles than your typical long-running show. The length of these episodes is just about right. Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi (1975-1995) was one of the pioneers of this kind of animation, and it produced some fantastically creative work. This was followed up by its even more creative if shorter-lived Madhouse imitator Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi (1976-1979), which as mentioned before featured some great episodes by Osamu Dezaki. Shin-Ei joined the fray in 1979 with The Red Bird, perhaps being the first omnibus anime based on literature, adapting different classics of children's literature. Nippon Animation made a literary omnibus in 1986 with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature.
The advent of the OVA market saw an explosion of low-quality children's lit omnibuses, but two of the better ones were Toei Animation's 6-episode Tokuma Anime Video Ehon Hanaichi Monme OVA series (1990), featuring directing by Junichi Sato and animation from Koichi Arai, among others, and Nippon Animation's Anime Art Video Collection (1993), featuring work by old masters such as Yasuji Mori and Shichiro Kobayashi. (The Jack and the Beanstalk short by Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima mentioned in the last post is part of this series.) It seems like most of the major studios of decades past have taken a stab at the animated omnibus. More recently, Studio 4C did so with Kimagure Robot (2004), based on the short shorts of Shinichi Hoshi.
Twilight Theatre is also an omnibus based on the work of one writer, and is notable perhaps for being one of the first literary omnibuses for adults. Two of the episodes include love scenes of a kind one would see in any typical Hollywood movie. Ero OVAs like Urotsuki Doji (1987-1996) quickly flourished in the new market, but the love scenes in Twilight Theatre are more matter-of-fact than explicit. Sex is treated in a mature, tactful way rather than with the giggly man-child fetishism of most other professedly mature anime. It's rare to see a truly mature treatment of sex in anime. The few anime with a truly realistic aesthetic like Jin-Roh or Omohide Poroporo aim for a general audience that precludes such frank depictions of sex. That's perhaps the most refreshing thing about this show. Beyond the sex, it's the sensibility that clearly sets the show apart. The storytelling is mature, the tone is restrained and without childish antics, and the material is sometimes downright unglamorous, as in the story of The Antique Shop, about a salaryman disappointed with his life.
The series was produced by Studio Pierrot, but two of the shorts were actually produced by Ichiro Itano's D.A.S.T. (Defence Animation Special Team). This studio was founded by Itano in December 1986 and went on to produce a number of high-quality and high-violence OVAs including Battle Royale High School (1987), Violence Jack (1988), Kujaku-oh 2 (1989) and Angel Cop (1989-1994). It's D.A.S.T.'s two episodes that make this OVA release truly noteworthy. Ichiro Itano had the generosity and vision as producer to give two young but talented realistic animators who had worked on these OVAs in the preceding years the chance to mount their directing debuts with these shorts - not to mention seemingly giving them carte blance, judging by the highly unconventional and challenging nature of their respective films.
Ephemeral Dream 夢蜉蝣
|Line Director:||青木佐恵子||Saeko Aoki|
|Art Director:||西川増水||Masumizu Nishikawa|
|Key Animation:||林千博||Chihiro Hayashi|
|Animation Production:||スタジオぴえろ||Studio Pierrot|
The opening short tells the story of a college student named Mibu who one day while taking a test in class notices a strange aura around a girl named Ayabe. He tries to find out more, but is warned off by another student named Himuro. Mibu discovers several ancient poems that speak about the ephemerality of love using the phrase Yumekagero, which is also the name of a mononoke whose aura can only be seen by a special few. Himuro also has his eyes on the girl. It turns out Ayabe may have killed Himuro's brother 10 years ago, and now Himuro wants to be next...
Essentially a horror story about a mayfly-like mononoke that serves as a metaphor for the ephemerality of love, the title as well as the story of this short are built upon a double meaning that is complicated to translate but that makes for satisfyingly layered viewing when watching. The name Yumekagero comes from Kusakagero, a damselfly-like insect that lives for only a day. The aura that surrounds Ayabe is called Udumbara, which is both the name of the flower of the Indian Fig Tree, which grows secretively inside the fruit, and the name of the larva of the Kusakagero. Ayabe was impregnated by the Yumekagero, which hatches every 10 years when the Udumbara blooms, and must quickly devour the vitality of a male victim to lay its next brood. Ayabe and Mibu are about to consummate the ritual when Himuro barges in and jumps out the window to his death with Ayabe. It's too late for Mibu, though, who withers into an old man.
The story thus has a pleasingly literary density of allusion that elevates it slightly above typical examples of the genre in anime. Such material wouldn't seem suited to animated adaptation, but it works fairly well in the short running time without being too confusing.
A mid-period piece from Yasuomi Umetsu after his debut on Robot Carnival (1987) but before his breakthrough with A Kite (1998), I enjoyed this despite it being somewhat light in the animation department, both compared with Umetsu's other work and with the other pieces in the set. There's no blistering action, or any action whatsoever for that matter, only everyday acting scenes, but I actually like that its focus is on everyday acting. It allows you to appreciate the skills of this great animator without being distracted by either overactive animation or the typical Umetsu tackiness that I find tends to mar his own films.
Umetsu is a very technical animator, and he likes to grandstand. There is less of that here, but his seemingly effortless precision draughtsmanship comes through loud and clear. He poses characters in a variety of ways, changes their expressions dynamically, and can draw their bodies in motion three-dimensionally from any complicated angle and maintain their shapes as if they were rendered by a computer.
Umetsu also has a peculiar design sensibility that I usually find off-putting, but the characters here were more restrained in their designs, so I rather enjoyed them. I thought they were light in touch and subtly stylized in a pleasing and appealing way, for example the huge angular jaw of the protagonist's bespectacled friend, or the elegant oval of Ayabe's head. His character drawings are somewhat similar to Satoru Utsunomiya in the sense that their bodies feel stiff and rigid, and are drawn with sharp lines and angular forms, but where Utsunomiya's characters tend to be minimalistic and doll-like, Umetsu riddles his characters with peculiar distinguishing features, for example the three symmetrical hairs on the end of the protagonist's eyebrows in this short.
I find this piece shows how school drama should be done. The people in this short are actually believable as college students in the way they talk and behave. The body language and interpersonal dynamics are just realistic and understated enough to be believable. The acting is also nuanced without being lushly animated per se - it's more about skilfully timing the right expression or pose with a mere few drawings. And Umetsu has his own way of making the characters act that makes sense and isn't merely following a playbook of cliched stock expressions and poses, as is the case in most anime nowadays. Some animators nowadays seem to think that making characters flail about randomly is good acting, but Umetsu shows a good example here of how to make characters act in a way that makes sense in the context and is believable, without flamboyantly using a lot of drawings.
The short is actually not directed by Umetsu but by one Saeko Aoki of Pierrot. She is only credited with line directing, but she must also have drawn the storyboard. This is also the case in the Shinichi Suzuki short. The Yasuomi Umetsu and Shinichi Suzuki shorts were produced by Pierrot, and the Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto shorts were produced by Ichiro Itano's D.A.S.T. The Pierrot episodes also feature a very small number of animators compared with the long credit rolls of the two D.A.S.T. episodes, and the nature of the films reflects this; the two D.A.S.T. films are very much about the animation, whereas the animation seems almost perfunctory in the Pierrot films, whose focus is more on the narrative. Now largely associated with shonen fighting anime, Pierrot was at this time largely associated with magical girl fare, but occasionally produced the random highly artistic OVAs like Magical Emi: Semishigure and Gosenzosama Banbanzai and then this.
Tatami Voyage 四畳半漂流記
|Art Director:||石垣努||Tsutomu Ishigaki|
|Key Animation:||橋本浩一||Koichi Hashimoto|
A guy named Shimada is on his way to meet his crush, Saori, when he has a run-in with a thug and gets beaten up. A mysterious passer-by rescues Shimada and asks for a favor in return. Saori happens by the scene, and together the two go back to Shimada's apartment to hear the stranger's request. The stranger informs them that he's looking for a certain something called "Pemu". Shimada hesitatingly accepts, and the stranger tells them their journey has already begun. Confused, they look out the window, and realize they got more than they bargained for, and the stranger is no mere mortal...
The directing debut of animator Shinji Hashimoto, this is by far the most striking of the four shorts. It's not often at my jaded age that I'm caught off guard by animation, but this thing shocked even me. This short is nothing less than a well-deserved bullet to the head of conventional anime character design. My jaw was literally dropped throughout much of the runtime. It has a style like nothing else that has ever been made in anime. The drawings at first sight appear to be deliberately ugly, but I find them quite appealing, in an extremely offbeat kind of way. Hashimoto attests to having been inspired by a 1990 manga called Bunpuku Chagama Daimaoh, the debut of Tokyo Tribe mangaka Santa Inoue, The drawings of this manga are by no means identical to the designs of this short, but you can see how they might have inspired Hashimoto to go in the direction he did.
What he got from the designs was the idea of freely, loosely drawn forms drawn with quick, firm, assured strokes. In anime, you usually have to draw a character exactly on model and get all the shapes and details just right. Otherwise it's off-model. The designs here represent an overturning of this fundamental rule of animation drawing, at least in anime. Rather than drawing outlines first, then filling in the details, and getting everything just so, these designs can still be properly drawn even if the details are not all the same in each shot. The forms are drawn as a series of bulges whose shapes can vary in relation to one another and still feel like the design is maintained. The characters have something of the character of blobs. This is somewhat reminiscent of the cartoon aesthetic of the west, with its stretch and squash, but it's not quite the same. There's no stretch and squash here. Hashimoto invented his own unique approach that was basically more suited to his own temperament and personality, and made the process of animating fun for himself, rather than the tedious chore it can become if you have to spend a lot of time on getting the details of a design just right. I'm not an animator because I'm too impatient. I think I would enjoy drawing Hashimoto's characters because they wouldn't be a pain in the butt.
The designs have almost a naif feeling, as if they were drawn by a child or an outsider artist. But clearly that is not the case, as the animation is at times extremely rich and nuanced, and of course Shinji Hashimoto is an ex-Telecom animator. Santa Inoue is related to Taiyo Matsumoto, as is his style, and the style here seems indebted to the whole indie manga aesthetic. This episode is a prime example of how the pair of Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto injected an indie and punk feeling into anime, subverting the industry from the inside out. I wish animators in the anime industry would come up with their own approaches like this. There is the whole heta-uma movement started by Shiriagari Kotobuki, with its anime analogues in a few shows like Manga Biyori, but Hashimoto's film is totally different from that; it's quite sincere rather than sarcastic.
The animation is very strong in certain spots, and at all times nothing short of mesmerizing due to the design choices. Every drawing fascinates, because you can see the animators actually having to think, to come up with an answer to the question of how to draw these characters. The animation where the guy transforms in front of the monster near the end is particularly impressive, and may have been the work of an uncredited Satoru Utsunomiya. For some reason many animators in this and Shinya Ohira's short went uncredited.
The animation at times has the feeling of Takashi Nakamura, particularly with the way the monster's face is drawn with these big, deeply sculpted nose and lips. Apparently this short was made by essentially the same team of animators as The Antique Shop, but The Antique Shop was done first, and by the time of this short, they were all really pooped and didn't have much energy left. It still looks pretty impressive, considering the very short schedule in which they made it. Just goes to show that it's not budget and schedule that make for compelling animation, it's the overwhelming desire to make something incredible, consequences be damned.
The remarkable thing is that this is nothing even remotely like the style with which Shinji Hashimoto is typically associated. It's a complete one-off. There must be so many other talented animators out there who, if given the chance like Hashimoto was here, would be able to produce novel visual schemes of a kind we would never have expected, but they just haven't been given the chance. OVAs like this were a precious opportunity to try new things. Hashimoto hasn't directed anything since, except for one opening. OVAs haven't gotten any more daring.
A Mountain Ghost Story 深山幻想譚
|Line Director:||青木佐恵子||Saeko Aoki|
|Art Director:||伊藤主計||Kazue Ito|
|Key Animation:||竹山稔||Minoru Takeyama|
|Animation Production:||スタジオぴえろ||Studio Pierrot|
A mountaineer sits alone with his thoughts, warming himself to the fire and sipping coffee while reminiscing about what drove him to seek the mountain he enjoyed hiking as a youth, now, in his advanced age: The failure of his small business, and the avalanche of responsibility that followed... His wife, screaming in anger... The life insurance that would take care of his debts and his wife if something were to happen to him.... Yes, he has come to the mountain to die. His dark thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected visitor, who begins talking about strange things like mountain spirits.
Featuring drawings by Shinichi Suzuki of The Life of Gusko Budori, this is the most static and minimalistic short in the set, but also the longest, clocking in at 17 minutes. (By contrast, Shinji Hashimoto's vividly animated episode is understandably the shortest, at 10 minutes.) Most of the episode consists of two people sitting around a fire talking. In terms of both directing and animation, it's very restrained. The directing and animation serve mainly to narrate the story about this man's past and the mysterious stranger. You could criticize this short, as well as Umetsu's, for being a little too reliant on the source material and not creating an emphatic visual analogue to the script, but honestly the story is interesting enough that I didn't mind this at all. It makes for a good balance in tone to have one more static short like this in the set, so the film should more rightfully be judged within its original context.
Despite having very little to it, the story kept me interested throughout. You can feel the pain of the protagonist, who has gone through hard times and has retreated to the solitude of the mountains to gather his thoughts and potentially even end his own life. I can certainly relate to this feeling of wanting to give up, one we've probably all felt at some time or another. I felt the long shots focused on the protagonist did a good job of establishing the atmosphere of this section. [SPOILER] Perhaps I'm just naive not to have seen it coming, but I was genuinely surprised by the ending, and it provided the poignant final touch to an already poignant setup. After the stillness of the entire episode, suddenly the interloper walks forward and stands into the fire, to the shock of the protagonist, and then violently grabs the protagonist's face and shoves him into the bottle. Dramatically and visually it makes for quite a sucker punch after all that calm and stillness. He was a ghost all along, having long since died on the mountain.
Although not up to the level of an animator like Yasuomi Umetsu, Shinichi Suzuki nevertheless does a decent job here as the near-solo animator of the whole episode. He's less technically accomplished than Umetsu, but has a cartoonish and exaggerated way of animating the characters using very few drawings that is appealing in its own way. I particularly like the detail lavished on depicting how he opens up the package of coffee. Little details like this conveys the reality of the situation well. The interloper appears to be designed in a way reminiscent of Buddha, with his long-lobed ears and paunch, which is an interesting choice. His animation is rather lively and fun. Once you've seen the episode, everything takes on a different meaning on a second watching, as you understand the subtext of the protagonist's words and body language.
I don't know much else about Suzuki other than that he was one of the founding members of Animaru-ya in 1982, having done sakkan work on Sasuga no Sarutobi that same year, and is still very much active, having founded his own subcontracting studio Anime Kobo Basara アニメ工房婆娑羅 in 1997. Incidentally, this Shinichi Suzuki is written 鈴木信一 and is unrelated to the Shinichi Suzuki who was an animator at Otogi Pro in the 1950s, whose name is written 鈴木伸一. His studio is one of the few subcontractors who do work for Kyoto Animation productions, presumably due to the fact that Kyoto Animation's Kigami Yoshiji is a fellow Animaru-ya expat.
The Antique Shop 骨董屋
|Art Director:||長尾仁||Jin Nagao|
|Key Animation:||佐々木守||Mamoru Sasaki|
The lost protagonist of The Antique Shop is going through a bit of an early mid-life crisis. Once an aspiring painter with a beautiful girlfriend, he had a falling out with his girlfriend and now lives a boring life as a salaryman. A night out drinking with his old buddies turns sour as they regale him with stories of their success. He slips away into the night, pondering the point of his life, when his eyes fall on a strange antique shop. He slips in on a whim, and takes a metaphysical journey down memory lane, in the process discovering the suppressed memory of a tragic mistake that led to his downfall.
Shinya Ohira's directing debut is still beautiful to look at after all these years, and probably the best film in the set. It's the only of the four shorts that actually feels cinematic. Ohira tells this universal story of frustration, disappointment and dashed hopes through the lens of a harsh but loving realism that was unprecedented in its time. Even later realistic works don't quite adopt a tone as gritty and drably honest as this. And he did so in his directing debut, under extremely adverse production conditions that rendered the film technically somewhat of a mess, replete with photography mistakes and rushed animation.
There's an attention to detail here that's on a different level from the other shorts. Every shot is thoroughly creatively designed and conceived to create a dynamic flow as well as translate the psychology of the protagonist at each juncture. Early on, in the streets, the urban electrical wiring seems to entangle the man like a spiderweb as he falls to the ground and vomits on the sidewalk. Laughter echoes from somewhere, as if the city and life were laughing at his misery.
In the curio shop, as the protagonist walks through the doors, he passes by a mirrored dresser, and you can see his shadow passing in two directions at once as the image of his face briefly slides through the mirror, creating a disorienting effect mirroring the chaos of the interior of the shop and his mental state. The next shot is another disorienting shot in which we peer at the protagonist from above through the ticking and whirring guts of some kind of antique cuckoo clock. This cuts to a shot facing the protagonist as he looks around the interior, which in turn cuts to a POV shot of his eyes scanning the interior, which is depicted in intricate detail that makes you appreciate his wonder.
The objects in the shop actual feel very used and personal, which is essential to convey to the audience, as this sets up the reveal that they are in fact relics of his own childhood. He also uses a variety of directing techniques to achieve his ends, for example a panning shot with different parts of the shop moving at different speeds across the screen on different 'book' layers, followed by an animated 'mawarikomi' or rotating shot of the protagonist.
I like the story of this film for one because I can relate to the protagonist, but also because the supernatural element is there as the agency to help narrate a man's story, rather than being the main narrative thrust, as it usually is in this genre of story, and as it is in all of the other stories in the set.
I would love to see a full-length TV show done in this pared down realistic style, although I know it will never happen. There have been full-length features made in a completely realistic vein, but those are different. I want to see something that is more like 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in the sense that entire episodes are just devoted to depicting everyday life in its minutiae, minus the dramatic pretenses. I don't even mind the roughness of The Antique Shop, as you can see past that to the realistic core of the episode, so considering how short a schedule such a realistic film was produced on, I don't think it's unreasonable to think it would be possible to produce a TV show in this style.
Many of the shots have a lovely simplicity and subtlety to them thanks either to Ohira, who corrected some of the shots (like the late close-ups in the shop), as well as the talented group of animators he managed to scrounge up. For some reason, several of the best animators went uncredited. Confirmed uncredited animators are Akihiro Yuki, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma and Mitsuo Iso. Akihiro Yuki of Oh Pro animated the first few shots of the reminiscence where Keiko is working at the cash register, drinking tea, and where the protagonist is painting with Keiko looking on. I'm quite fond of his work. He again worked with Ohira on the Junkers pilot and then the film itself. Iso meanwhile animated the two shots of the protagonist smoking, while Yaginuma animated the scene immediately following where Keiko rushes to the sink to throw up. I wonder if maybe Masatsugu Arakawa also didn't draw a few uncredited shots. Some early shots in the film look like his style.
Ryutaro Nakamura, one of the great directors of the last 20 years, passed away earlier this year. I was a big fan, so it was a shock. He was a director of breadth and deep talent, but I don't have the energy or knowledge to do a full retrospective, so for now I thought I would start by highlighting one of his obscure early films. Serial Experiments Lain (1998) had a huge impact on me when it came out, and since then I always looked forward to his new productions, which never failed to surprise. But he produced several great films before Lain that people over here aren't familiar with.
Ryutaro Nakamura directed The Twin Stars (双子の星) in 1995 at Triangle Staff. It was part of an omnibus of Kenji Miyazawa stories called Kenji's Trunk marking the centenary of Kenji's birth, and featured two other 30-minute shorts. It's a quiet, unassuming, lovely little film. (Watch here)
The Twin Stars reveals a side of Ryutaro Nakamura that might not be familiar to most people who are used to the more hard-boiled and philosophically dense Nakamura of Lain and Kino: the creator of a lush, colorful children's fantasy. The first few films directed by Nakamura were in this mold, and most of them merit re-discovery, as they are very well made films with a big heart and excellent technique.
The Twin Stars tells the story of a pair of stars whose role is to play a silver flute to the tune of the Song of the Turning Stars / 星めぐりの歌 throughout the night to help guide the stars on their journey across the sky. One morning, the twins awaken and descend from their crystal towers to go to the river to play. There they encounter the rival stars Scorpius and the Crow, who get into a fight. The Twin Stars revive the Crow but are forced to hurriedly carry the injured Scorpius back to his home before the night returns, for they all run the risk of being banished to the sea floor as starfish if they fail to return to their appointed place in time. Scorpius and the Crow regret their thoughtless intolerance and vow to abandon violence and be more like the selfless twins. Just before time runs out, a whirlwind is sent to spirit the trio back to their appointed place at the bidding of the King, who has been watching all along and is moved by their change of heart and the generosity of the twins that brought it about.
The story is one of Kenji Miyazawa's key stories, combining as it does into a poetic and mythical package his intimate knowledge of astronomy, his pantheistic view of the world, and his sense of moral obligation to help others.
The film is eminently graphical and visual, with bright, colorful pastels and simply stylized shapes. Its pace is leisurely and measured, with long shots that let you absorb the visuals on the screen. The first three minutes are a gorgeous entryway to the story that seems perfectly conceived for this gentle, ethereal story. We are guided into this world of light and sound, where whirlwinds and stars are living beings, to the tune of the actual Song of the Turning Stars, written by Kenji himself, in a beautiful flute concerto-like arrangement by composer Yoshihiro Kanno. (Listen to the original song)
Nakamura grounds the film in our world by showing a father and son strolling by the ocean under the vast expanse of the Milky Way. We then slowly transition across hazy vistas of constellations and pastel clouds into the land of the stars where the Twins reign over the night sky from their towers as they play on their silver flutes. Stars arc across the sky until the sun peeks over the horizon and the birds begin chirping, announcing the end of the starry procession.
The film has the quality of the old Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi with its simple characters, mythical story and emphasis on creative design work. The Twin Stars even has the same solo approach, with the animation and art each respectively done entirely by one person. Takahiro Kishida animates the whole film, and Shinji Kimura does the art. Kishida does a masterful job handling the different kinds of animation, from the realistic humans, which move more fluidly, to the more limited movement and stylized designs of the Twin Stars and the Crow, to the ghostly effects of the whirlwind. Kimura, meanwhile, creates a lush fantasy land that is beautiful sight to behold, although different from his recent work painting cacophonous city backdrops. Here he creates the airy pastel firmament of the sky, lending the film the watercolor texture of a picture book. The film is thus a great showcase of the skill of a group of artists - director, animator, background painter - acting in unison like a great string trio, in the spirit of the classic Madhouse productions.
If this feels like a Madhouse film, the reason is obvious. Triangle Staff was founded by an ex-member of Madhouse, and Madhouse is where Ryutaro Nakamura got his start. His experience at Madhouse obviously laid his foundation as an artist, accounting for the Madhouse vibe of this short. In particular, The Twin Stars feels close in spirit to the one-shot Osamu Dezaki episodes of the 1970s like Fire G-Men or his episodes of Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi, which also tended to feature daring, wild backgrounds by the likes of Shichiro Kobayashi and cute but highly stylized and playful character animation by animators like Manabu Ohashi and Akio Sugino. The reason for this similarity is simple: Ryutaro Nakamura learned the ropes under Dezaki, and developed a directing style heavily influenced by the master, yet all his own. Ryutaro Nakamura was one of the best of Dezaki's students.
Ryutaro Nakamura's start in animation was almost accidental. In 1977, he went to get an autograph from Moribi Murano, the manga-ka and sometimes animator behind Unico in the Magic Island and the assassination scene in Wandering Clouds. Nakamura wound up helping Murano make a deadline on a manga he was working on, and Murano immediately spotted Nakamura's potential as an animator, advising him to give Madhouse a visit. Nakamura did so, and after only a cursory period as an inbetweener wound up setting to work as a key animator on Dezaki's "3D animation" Sans Famille. That was his start in animation. Dezaki raved about his new animator, calling him the "new Akio Sugino". But this pressure proved to be too much for Nakamura, who after working under Dezaki for a few more years eventually wound up switching to directing around 1983 after working on Dezaki's Space Cobra TV show alongside the likes of Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima. Nakamura had been drawing a manga for an in-house Madhouse fanzine, so he clearly had the inclinations of a director from the beginning.
Incidentally, Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima themselves two years earlier produced a short, Jack and the Beanstalk (1993), that, like The Twin Stars, has a tactile picture book quality that seems clearly to hearken back to the colorful and stylized 1970s shorts of Dezaki.
It's probably not that well known that Nakamura started out as an animator, but that's clearly a fact that laid the foundation for his style as a director. As a person who could draw, and who could visually conceptualize and express his intentions in the storyboard, he brought a strong visual sensibility to his productions. This shows up clearly in The Twin Stars, which is an eminently visual film despite being based on a work of literature (and a particularly ephemeral and difficult to visualize one at that). He was also influenced by Dezaki in the way he took liberties with the material to achieve his own expressive means, and brought an artistic, poetic sensibility to the craft of directing, experimenting with new ways of presentation in each production rather than falling into an certain expressive rut out of habit. It's hard to find many directors in anime with such expressive breadth. In terms of specific technique, one of Dezaki's trademarks was using tokako 透過光, or backlighting through a mask, to create a bright hazy effect on the screen, and you can see a lot of bright lighting of this kind in The Twin Stars.
It was sometime around 1985 that he went freelance and began working as a roving storyboarder/episode director on various projects, accumulating skill as a director. Not long after this, in 1987, Yoshimi Asari left Madhouse to form Triangle Staff. Nakamura was obviously invited there soon after, because he set to work on his debut directing feature in 1988, just a year after the studio's founding. That project was Tomcat's Big Adventure (ちびねこトムの大冒険).
The project was initially conceived as an educational OVA to teach children English, but after Nakamura drew the first storyboard in 1988, the project evolved into a feature length film that was finally completed in 1992.
Tomcat's Big Adventure was a massive undertaking featuring a bewildering array of talent including character designer/animation director Manabu Ohashi, music composer Kenji Kawai, art director Hiromasa Ogura and animators such as Toshiyuki Inoue, Hiroyuki Okiura, Koichi Arai and Makiko Futaki. Even Koji Morimoto was tangentially involved early on. With a remarkable 60,000 animation drawings in 82 minutes, it's a modern-day manga eiga in the spirit of the great Toei action-adventure flick Animal Treasure Island.
The tragedy is that, for some reason, it was shelved without even being released theatrically. Five years of intense work by some of the most talented faces in the industry essentially just disappeared without being seen by anyone. It's a tragedy that hopefully will get redressed soon with a DVD release. Once it finally gets a long-overdue DVD release, it will no doubt be revealed to be one of his greatest works and a bona-fide buried treasure. You can see the first five minutes here. This was a big blockbuster of a children's film clearly meant to launch Nakamura's career as a director. Who knows, had it gotten a proper release, and the world recognized his special talent for this type of material, Nakamura's career might have evolved differently.
Like Nakamura, Hiromasa Ogura in fact also got his start on Dezaki's Sans Famille, but working under art director Shichiro Kobayashi, the art director who was a staple of Dezaki's work in the 1970s, which is perhaps why Nakamura wound up coming back to Ogura for this film. The two both have deep roots in the Madhouse-Dezaki school. Another touchstone is The Golden Bird, that earlier Madhouse masterpiece that presaged Tomcat's Big Adventure not only stylistically (Ohashi was the character designer) but also in how it, too, was unjustly buried for many years before being released on home video.
Nakamura, Ohashi et al. actually very much wanted to do a continuation of Tomcat, but that never materialized. It's obvious that this is a style that is deeply ingrained in Nakamura's fibre from the fact that his last job, Adventure on Pirate Island (海賊島DE!大冒険) (hp), a children's CGI animation scheduled for release later this year, is stylistically a clear throwback to Tomcat. The film unfortunately does not look good due to the poor CG animation, but when you peruse Nakamura's storyboard you sense that this could have been a nice little film in the spirit of Tomcat if they had a good traditional animation team to bring alive the characters.
It's after this that Nakamura set to work on Kenji Miyazawa's The Life of Budori Gusko. The film was produced by Animaru-ya and released in 1994. The simple, blocky character designs of Shinichi Suzuki are in line with the feeling of Tomcat and The Twin Stars. The animation is much more spare than Tomcat, and Nakamura uses the opportunity of the story's complex themes to experiment with more expressive directing. While being aimed at children, the film has an underlying feeling of darkness and heaviness appropriate to the subject matter, and this Passion of the Budori has a romantic intensity that is irresistible, particularly combined with the emotionally intense orchestral score of Yoshihiro Kanno, who returned the year after for an encore with The Twin Stars. Other than these two productions, Kanno's only involvement in the anime industry was Angel's Egg, which boasts one of the all-time greatest anime soundtracks.
Around this time, Nakamura directed an OVA of Junkers Come Here in 1994 that preceded the film adaptation by Junichi Sato and Kazuo Komatsubara. (Watch here) Junio's Minoru Maeda is the character designer, so the style is completely different, much more lightweight and goofy, lacking the intricate acting and cinematic compositions of the film version. The story is rather ridiculous and played purely for laughs, undermining the dramatic intent. Here it's about four sisters whose mother disappeared and father died afterwards. Junkers appears one day, and they all know he can talk. The mother turns up in France, and it turns out she lost her memory and now has a new family in France. It's not one of Nakamura's best works, but it certainly shows his stylistic flexibility and innate sense for effortlessly combining comedy and drama.
The Twin Stars came after this, giving Nakamura the opportunity to explore Kenji Miyazawa's world in a very different, more playful and imaginative way.
Nakamura then veered in a very different direction for the first time with the masterful Legend of Crystania (1995), first as a movie and then as a 3-episode OVA. This is one of the great fantasy anime, using incredibly rich and creative animation to weave an epic fantasy yarn that actually feels epic. The character animation is exciting, and the effects animation is downright phenomenal. Nakamura had the great idea to give Yasunori Miyazawa free rein to design and animate the effects, and this helped define the film's visual scheme.
A constant of his early works during this period - and less so during his later works - is a 'star animator' system in which the style of one talented animator plays a primary role in defining a film's look. Manabu Ohashi defines Tomcat, Takahiro Kishida animates all of The Twin Stars in his own inimitable style, Shinichi Suzuki's characters in Gusko Budori are very distinctive and unforgettable with their graphic, hand-drawn touch. Crystania also feels more tactile and distinctively animated than most fantasy anime.
Such is the case for Nakamura's final project before his breakthrough with Lain - the cut scene animation of the game Popolo Crois (1996). (Watch here) This time Nakamura had the king of idiosyncratic animators, Satoru Utsunomiya, head the animation, assisted by other talented animators including Yasunori Miyazawa and Mitsuo Iso - each highly idiosyncratic animators who created their own completely unique styles of animation. It's clear that these choices were no coincidence, and as an animator himself, Nakamura chose the best of the best for this project. Yasunori Miyazawa of course was brought back after his stint in Crystania. Takahiro Kishida would similarly return to work with Nakamura again in Colorful. Similarly, much of the Popolo Crois team was in fact carried on from Crystania, including Utsunomiya and Miyazawa, but also Yoshio Mizumura and Katsumi Matsuda. Some of these were even holdovers from Tomcat.
The Popolo Crois animation team produced what is still one of my favorite anime ever, even though it's only short excerpts of a story adding up to just 10 minutes of animation, rather than a continuous story. Even those little shards of narrative create more of a feeling of an expansive and fully developed fantasy world than most fantasy anime, thanks in large part to the overwhelming power of Utsunomiya et al.'s nuanced full animation. The screen has a feeling of tremendous depth in each section - the flight section where the boat skips across the water by Utsumoniya, the space section where the whale files through vast expanses of space chased by the giant monster by Iso, and the final battle between the baddie and the dragon, whose vast size is well conveyed by Miyazawa's strangely timed animation. The character designs of Popolocrois have the same round simplicity as the designs of Gusko Budori and Tomcat, and Popolocrois seems to be a dense summation of the exciting children's fantasy side of Nakamura's work, perhaps having been made in part to vent his pent up ideas for more animation in the spirit of Tomcat.
The first few years of his career as a director were a period of intense creativity in which he explored many different and exciting visual styles very different from his later work. His early work is less challenging, but has a wider appeal and is visually more sumptuous. I personally wish Nakamura could have continued in this direction of intensely animated children's fantasy epics, but he seems to have wanted to force himself to try different material and styles from this point in his career, beginning with his emergence as an artist of dark commentary on net culture with Lain, and continuing with the twisted adult comedy of Colorful. But that spirit of self-challenge is just as much a defining trait of Ryutaro Nakamura. Like all great directors, he left us with much great work, but also wishing for more.
Anime-inspired live-action retro sci-fi space-opera, C (299,792 km/s) is many things. This gorgeous new short film from first-time director Derek Van Gorder seems tailor made for those, like me, who grew up loving a seemingly antithetical blend of elements from hard science to sci-fi adventure to arthouse cinema to Japanese cartoons.
Primarily influenced by the aesthetic of 1980s OVAs and the space operas of Yoshiyuki Tomino, C successfully blends wide-ranging influences from The Man With the Movie Camera to Yo Soy Cuba to Stanley Kubrick into a convincing package that is visually beautiful and thematically satisfying.
Essentially two films in one, C adopts a novel retro-futuristic dual scheme: A Cosmos-inspired science reel that could have come straight from the vaults of your 1970s high school science class provides the underlying thematic motivation for a visually sleek tale about mutiny onboard a military spaceship.
Played with cool aplomb by Caroline Winterson, mysterious mutineer Maleck makes a compelling anti-hero: at first glance a cold, calculating, ruthless ideologue, she in fact is out to save humanity. Her motivation is hinted at briefly at the opening in snippets of overheard news about dire interstellar strife. Rather than an aggressive Hans Gruber out for ideological glory, we instead have a grandmother who seems driven by love and motherly instinct. An Anno-esque historical montage explains how science has been perverted for military means since time immemorial; Maleck seeks to reverse that dynamic by co-opting a tool of destruction to achieve a peaceful end.
The mutiny unfolds in tense and fast-paced intercutting between the various parties that has all the virtues of the hair-raising boarding climax of The Ideon: Be Invoked, Yoshiyuki Tomino's masterpiece, but rendered in glorious glowing neons through a detached, formalistic composition style reminding of Kubrick. Meanwhile, the first shot of the science film by the narrator Newman (Newtype?) seems to evoke the live-action ending of that cataclysmic movie, in which the stardust to which the protagonists were reduced now plant the seed of life in an alien planet's ocean.
The film has a reverential love for the great virtue of science taught by the likes of Carl Sagan: the thirst for ultimate knowledge. This is embodied perhaps by the Kepler probe, referenced in the film, which has so far discovered roughly 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy. Using the fruits of Kepler, Maleck seeks to restore science to its place in the service of ensuring humanity's long-term survival.
What is remarkable is that, somewhat ironically, C's accomplished visuals are entirely analog - no digital effects were used. The spaceship is a model shot in stop motion, and every element from the lighting to the touch panels was produced in-camera, and with very little budget at that. Even the laser flash was produced by a simple trick effectively used in anime since time immemorial: inserting a few frames of a flashlight against a black background.
C has a succinctness that works well by excising all personal elements from the narrative and focusing exclusively on the visuals and tense atmosphere, but it also comes across as a trailer for a larger concept. I hope Derek will have the chance to expand this seed into something bigger.
I had the opportunity to ask Derek by email to tell me more about his influences, and he kindly sent me the following response:
I've got a lot of varied and possibly eccentric influences, from Stanley Kubrick, to Ed Wood, to early Soviet cinema and post-revolutionary Cuban films. But my favorite sci-fi filmmakers are Japanese anime directors Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, and Yoshiyuki Tomino. 1980s anime in general I find completely fascinating for its imagination and attention to detail.
Tomino's a really interesting director. At first glance it's easy to dismiss his films as routine TV genre pieces, and certainly his storytelling is occasionally muddled and a little strange. But he's a master of ensemble casts and wide-stroke world building, and has a completely unique style that stands out from his contemporaries. There is a matter-of-factness to his work, he rarely lingers on anything unnecessarily, holding your attention with rapid-fire plotting, quick cuts, and (when the budget allows) highly clean & effective shot composition. The Ideon: Be Invoked completely blew me away in this regard. The final Buff Clan boarding attack on the Solo Ship is a beautiful example of cutting between simultaneous action in a multitude of locations, while maintaining a very clear sense of physical space and the sequence of events. I'm sure he achieves this by storyboarding the film himself, and he has the depth of imagination to make even props and costumes relevant to the story and contribute to emotional impact and action scenes. I've never seen so much action packed with so much tragedy and pathos in a film. With a quick cutaway he can make you feel for the fate of a side character that had previously been little more than a background extra.
Mobile Suit Gundam created an entire genre, and with Ideon he foresaw the future of what that genre would become. It's really astounding how influential he was. Unfortunately I think these films might always remain inaccessible to Western audiences, because they happen to be tie-ins with large, complex franchises; that demands a lot of commitment from a foreign viewer. Oshii's Patlabor 2: The Movie is another example of this. I personally think it is one of the most beautifully "shot" films of all time, and possibly the most philosophical political thriller ever. But unfortunately, it's also a sequel... to a movie... based on a miniseries... that's a parody of a subgenre of science-fiction (yikes!). So it will always have a very limited audience. Since C is space opera it has more in common with Tomino's work, but Oshii is really my favorite director of all time. He's totally fearless, he makes philosophical experimental films disguised as narrative movies, and imbues all of his shots with meaning.
In general the Japanese use of cinematic techniques in their animation inspired what I want to try with live-action. Unlike many Western animations, there's often an extreme attention to movement and composition that simply translates into good filmmaking instead of just good cartoon-drawing. In this way it helped me understand films as 2D art. Many audiences and filmmakers confuse a movie screen as being a little window into real life, into 3-dimensional space, and this encourages visual sloppiness. In reality movies are highly constructed, artificial, 2D moving photographs arranged in a sequence. So I want to try and arrange movement that draws the audience's attention to the visual art instead of deflecting it all to the story and characters.
The movie I ended up making has a lot in common with 1980s one-off OVAs; it's a brief snapshot of a story and a world, hastily wrapped up. Part of this is because almost half the movie was cut out, since I wasn't satisfied with how it turned out, but this had the benefit of streamlining the plot in a very Tomino-esque way. For better or for worse it's like a compilation movie of a series that was never filmed. I learned a lot of hard lessons making it; in terms of budget and production it was really still a student film. But I hope people saw what I was trying to do and can appreciate it for what it is.
If you haven't already, go see the short right away and let Derek know if you like what you see. The official web site can be found at http://www.c-themovie.com/ and I highly recommend reading Derek's Director's Statement to hear the director himself eloquently describe his goals, as well as this interview that goes into detail about the technical aspects of the film.
I wrote about Grampa's Lamp before. I just watched the next quartet of shorts in the Bunkacho's program to support the growth of the next generation of animators, now christened Anime Mirai rather than Project A: Minding My Own Business, Dudu the Floatie, Buta and Wasurenagumo. These were released 2011. Another set of four came out in 2012. I will probably get to those eventually, although they look awful.
This is a good set in the sense that each film takes a very different tack in terms of style and story. It's a healthy variety, from the socially conscious and more artistically inclined sketch animation Minding My Own Business to the kiddy, colorful, wildly animated Dudu the Floatie to the supernatural anime rom-com Wasurenagumo to the old-school anthropomorphic swashbuckler BUTA. This seems like a better variety than the more recent set.
That said, Minding My Own Business seems to me the clear winner. It's the only film that comes together as a satisfying whole. The other films may have their qualities, but overall they feel imperfect. They work to target a certain demographic, say, which in terms of functioning as a product is fine, but they don't hold up as films. If this is the best these big studios can do, that is a big red flag that the problem isn't with the dearth of animators. I think they should be far more concerned in Japan about raising the quality of their creative thinking and storytelling than the animators. They have tons of good animators. What they don't have is studios willing to do anything other than make the same thing over and over again, or creators capable of thinking outside of the box.
It's disappointing to me that big animation studios, given the freedom to come up with animation free of the shackles of commercial constraints for once, show themselves entirely content to stay shackled to those constraints, like the elephant tied with a string. I suppose the reasoning is that this is more about vocational training, and short-sighted artistic adventuring would do the young trainees a disservice by not prepping them in the tools of the trade. I think the studios act too beholden to what they consider to be demanded by their viewers. Creative new visions should be the driving force. Among them all, only Shirogumi, a major force in advertising animation, has the moxie to create real animation and not just more of the same exact typical anime we've all seen done to death. Yes, anime is inherently entertainment, i.e. there to help us waste our time, but animation can and should aspire to more than that.
しらんぷり Minding My Own Business d. Shimpei Miyashita, ad. Naoyuki Asano
An elementary school child witnesses his classmates being bullied but feels powerless to intervene. Based on a picture book, this film skilfully explores the psychology of children both on the bullied and the bullying side in Japanese elementary schools. The vivid, raw, freewheeling, unabashedly hand-drawn animation transforms what could have been a preachy story into a tremendously entertaining, clever, moving, powerful, and even funny social parable that makes you understand the psychology of not only the bullied child but even the bully. The film is never dour or full of itself even at its most intense moments, instead telling the story through a veil of irony and wit.
I thought the director was indie animator PON Kozutsumi, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular and director of Rita and Whatsit, but apparently he only did the pilot and seems to have dropped out of the project afterwards. This is disappointing, but the film thankfully turned out fine despite this. The director is instead Nippon Animation/Disney Japan stalwart Shimpei Miyashita, with the animation headed by the immensely talented Naoyuki Asano with assistance by a very talented young animator named Shintaro Doge. Asano is a name to watch. I've seen him prior in Doraemon and Tatami Galaxy.
The animation is nothing less than a supreme delight from start to finish. Drawn with rough and quick pencil lines with the calm confidence of a master's hand, the characters are full of life at every moment, their expressions vivid and their movements heightened with imaginative flourishes. Every line is visible, and lines do not play within the shapes. In the climactic wrestling scene, the characters transform into a mess of squiggles as they twirl around one another and the camera swirls around in response. Scenes segue into other scenes deftly, creating an irresistible flow that takes you through to the end. At no point does the animation feel like it is struggling technically to convince you of something beyond the animators' capabilities. They are comfortable that the handful of scribbled lines they have placed on the screen create a beautiful visual scheme. Simplicity is deceptively challenging.
Kosuke Ito's delectable piano-clarinet-violin trio creates a lovely lilting, classical but jaunty soundtrack that is the perfect accompaniment to the film's ups and downs.
Shirogumi's film is a three-dimensional film that satisfies every criteria of what both animation and filmmaking should be. Its characters ring true; the story sensitively and insightfully explores a real-life issue facing children in Japan; the film language is creative and original as well as dynamic and exciting; and the animation is top-notch without relying on conventional notions of quality such as cool and stylish drawings, twee character antics, industry-template expressive symbols, or massively inbetweened animation. It's just good, smart filmmaking that cleverly and efficiently uses the means of animation to find an emphatic and visually novel and appealing way to tell its story. It is a prime example of visual storytelling.
ぷかぷかジュジュ Dudu the Floatie d. Hiroshi Kawamata, ad. Miho Suzuki
A little girl dreams of an adventure with her dugong floatie at the beach where she rescues her father from a giant fish. The unfortunately named Dudu the Floatie is a vividly animated and honest children's film that shows the power of Answer Studio as one of the few 'full animation' studios carrying on a more western style of animation in Japan today. Telecom is another such studio - they have been behind much WB animation for decades - but their BUTA short in this set shows how different even these two studios are. Telecom seems to be struggling to regain something lost, while Answer seems to be attempting to mold their past into something new and find a way towards the future.
This is a film purely for children, unlike Minding My Own Business, which is more of a film about children. There's little pretext of realism anywhere, not least in the dialogue or diction of the little girl, which is brassy, grating, rehearsed, and entirely unbelievable. An adult can appreciate the subtle psychological turns and social commentary of Minding My Own Business, but here the directing is deliberately exaggerated and simplified, the shapes and colors bright and flat. From my perspective everything is too flat and simplified, which makes it cloying, but as a film for children this is no doubt an asset.
There is little sense of art in the film. The ugly, blobby characters float uncomfortably over the conservative, unimaginatively realistic backgrounds. The heads and features are tactlessly huge. The father's face is a round balloon with no human features. Perhaps this is how infants see the world. But with the realistic setting and satirical golfing interlude, the film seems unable to decide whether it wants to go for a conventional anime aesthetic or a more freewheeling and cartoonish children's look. I could see them making a good film in the spirit of Catnapped if they found someone with a more holistic visual concept.
That said, the animation is incredibly exciting and lively. It was easily the most entertainingly animated film in the set. They do a good job of adapting the fluid western-inspired 'full animation' (though it's not really anything remotely close to Disney style animation) aesthetic of their past, with its stretch and squash and anticipation and follow-through, to the dynamic pacing, cutting and composition conventions of Japanese commercial animation. I preferred Flag as a film for obvious reasons, but Dudu the Floatie is a much better showcase of Answer's undeniable power on the animation front. They're creating dynamic action animation of the kind that Telecom should be.
BUTA d. Kazuhide Tomonaga, ad. Shirai Yumiko
BUTA was the biggest disappointment of the set to me because I had the highest hopes for it. I knew a while back that the film would be a disappointment when I heard the creator, Christophe Ferreira, was no longer involved in his own project, whatever the internal reasons were. Had the film been made in the spirit of the pilot, it would have been a triumph, but it seems to have rather been assembled from the exploded shards of the concept, and is a failure. The difference between this film and the sort of short film being made today in France by students is stark. Japan has lost the edge in my opinion.
It should have been a fun, playful action-adventure-comedy starring sprightly anthropomorphic characters in a swashbuckling adventure in the mold of that classic of animated swashbuckling anime, Animal Treasure Island, which was the project's obvious inspiration. Instead, it's a lifeless, dull, insincere slog with nary a bit of excitement or spark. This is shocking because it was directed by Kazuhide Tomonaga and produced by Telecom - the animator and studio synonymous with the best breathless action-adventure animation moments in Lupin III. This should have been the team capable of creating that sort of excitement and reviving the spirit of the manga eiga of yore, which is something I for one would really, really love to see happen. This is the film I most wanted to love in the set, and see it take off into a franchise.
The animation didn't have to be brilliant for the action to work; the action scenes just weren't excitingly choreographed. The pacing was odd, with long stretches of nothing happening at moments when it felt more hustle was dramatically called for. There was way too much emphasis on the drama, and it didn't make sense. The whole scene on the boat after the escape felt off. All momentum suddenly disappears, and the pig is suddenly insistent on the kid throwing away the map for no reason. None of that felt necessary. Lightning striking the water afterwards, creating a big wave, just didn't even make any sense at all. The climax was anti-climactic. Instead of a big battle pitting the good guy against the bad guy, the baddie essentially flops around and defeats himself. The pig character was interesting and had potential as an interesting protagonist, although he felt a little borrowed from Crayon Shin-chan's Buriburizaemon - self-centered, shiftless, diminutive, begrudgingly good pig hero for hire.
Wasted potential, but this is the kind of anime I would like to see done right. As it stands it's too close to an anodyne kids show like Kaiketsu Zorori. It would need more action and punch to make it work.
わすれなぐも Wasurenagumo d. Toshihisa Kaiya, ad. Hideki Takahashi
An antiquarian bookseller releases an ancient spider monster curse and becomes beguiled by the creature. This outing by IG was by far the most pedestrian and conventional in the set. Visually it offers nothing new or interesting whatsoever. That said, I actually enjoyed it, much to my surprise. While all of the visual elements grated on me, particularly the antics of the spider character with her agonizingly painful anime girl face, the humor was subtle and amusing, and it felt like a bit of a lighthearted parody of past IG supernatural anime.
Director Toshihisa Kaiya finds himself at IG now, but he came from Ajia-do, like Masaaki Yuasa, where he worked under the masters, among other things, on a few episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. He had less of an individual style than his mentors, rather showing himself versatile at adapting to the respective inimitable style of Osamu Kobayashi in Ookami Choja (watch) and Tsutomu Shibayama in Sarukani Gassen (watch), for example. He's more of a professional than an auteur; which is no swipe. Moving to IG makes sense for him.
In Wasurenagumo, little vestige of Ajia-do stylization is visible. The versatile, prolific, professional Kaiya deftly deploys a character design style and visual scheme that are entirely contemporary and unadventurous to tell an amusing ghost story interweaving past and present Japan.
Visually the style was classic IG realism lite, with body movement physics a bit more weighty than your usual anime, but passed through the sieve of anime expressive and acting conventions. The scene at the end where the characters run through the abandoned building, with its extremely angled perspectives, was apparently the work of a young animator named Shingo Takenaka. He has obviously studied Hiroyuki Okiura very closely.
I thought I'd start easy with a warm-up post on a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi episode that I discovered recently. I've written about this show often, but even after all these years I'm still going through unwatched episodes and discovering gems.
The episode entitled Kakurenbo or Hide and Seek was aired on March 12, 1983. (watch) It's written and directed by Gisaburo Sugii, with animation by longtime Mushi Pro/Tac associate Teruto Kamiguchi and art by Minoru Aoki. Teruto Kamiguchi and Minoru Aoki were the animator/art team behind The 11 Cats three years before.
This is an odd episode. It's not a folk tale like the rest of the series. Gisaburo Sugii may have made the story up himself. An old couple decide to play hide and seek in their old house. That's it. No moral, no story. Atmosphere is paramount. It's all shadowy corners and slow pans.
It seems innocuous and whimsical enough at first, but as the old man seeks his way in the dark, silence envelops him and panic sets in. The quiet of the house is overwhelming and echoes the solitude after one's life partner has died. He sees his wife being taken away by a demon and shouts at her not to go. In the end, he finds her asleep in the cauldron. Reassured, they go on playing hide and seek to while away the time, innocent as bored children on a rainy day once again.
Why is this old couple playing hide and seek? Is the old man in the grips of dementia? Are they ghosts? Or is it all innocent nonsense? In the spirit of Maeterlinck, it comes across as a dark metaphor for death and loss masquerading as a children's story about an eccentric old couple.
The episode has more in common with the shadowy realms of Night on the Galactic Railroad than the dynamic, colorful The 11 Cats. Gisaburo was the master of atmospheric directing, blending silence and minimal animation and camera movement to create a visceral sense of time's ticking clock. Gisaburo never strives to fake reality; he revels in the incongruity of using cartoons to evoke slowly dying time. He has a predilection for wide layouts, in which characters seem dwarfed by their surroundings, and compositions with either a deadpan symmetry or discomfiting obliqueness. The brooding oddity of Gisaburo's directing creates a fascinating contrast between the cartoony characters and the dark subtext.
In 1983, Gisaburo was just coming to the end of a period in his life where he was actually not working in the industry but rather traveling around the country living a wanderer's life. He subsisted mainly on selling paintings, and mailed in the occasional Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi storyboard just to help him get by. The murky, inky backgrounds here hint at his painterly disposition. I traveled around India earlier this year, and found the lifestyle and the separation from everything familiar intoxicating, so I can relate to his wanderlust. I wonder how this extended traveling changed him and led to the distinctive film language on display in his work from this period like Touch, Night and Genji.
Teruto Kamiguchi's animation is deceptively deft. Despite having forms like a cross between Shigeru Sugiura and Sazae-san, his characters move with careful timing, grace, and even elegance. The forms stay firm, with only subtle deformation and minimal expressions, but they communicate their emotions through body language. His lanky characters were distinctive and appealing. He deserves more recognition as having developed a unique style of character animation in Japan of pretty much no school.
Teruto Kamiguchi was in fact the animator (with Higuchi Masakazu) of the very first episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi aired January 7, 1975, Kasajizo. (watch) In later years Kamiguchi tried out different styles, as evidenced by the pleasantly stylized 1992 episode The Sky God and the Sea God, again with art by Minoru Aoki. (watch) A stellar team.
Tomoyoshi Joko and Hiroco Ichinose, who work together as the unit Decovocal, just put up a new short animation entitled Coffee Tadaiku on their Youtube channel in honor of their mentor Taku Furukawa, who turned 70 on September 25. Watch it here. The film is a lovingly crafted homage to what's perhaps Taku Furukawa's most iconic piece, Coffee Break from 1977.
Mind Game (2004) may be considered Masaaki Yuasa's debut as a feature film director, but in fact he had directed various short featurettes prior to that. Indeed, his first director credit came 12 years earlier in 1992 with a short film in an obscure little 6-volume direct-to-video series called Anime Rakugokan. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese live storytelling/comedy entertainment. Each volume in this series features a performance by a famous rakugo practitioner set to animation.
Back then Yuasa was at a studio called Ajia-do. Yuasa had joined the studio because it was run by two of his idols in animation - Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, who had been the figures behind some of the series that most influenced Yuasa over the years, namely the 1970s shows produced by Tokyo Movie with animation from A Production like Dokonjo Gaeru and Tensai Bakabon.
Yuasa directed the third volume of Anime Rakugokan in a style that was an intentional homage to the style of the masters who had influenced him. As a result, the film isn't immediately recognizable as Yuasa. It feels more A Pro than anything else he's since done. But the genius of the character design and animation are something only Yuasa could have created.
The video is currently up on Youtube. (search for かぼちゃ屋) Watch it while you can. Unfortunately it doesn't have subs so you won't be able to get the humor if you don't understand Japanese, but the fact is that every second of this film is a delight to watch just for the character animation, so it's well worth watching anyway.
I'd personally been looking for this film for years, and I just got the chance to see it today for the first time, and I was excited to discover how great a film it is. I've never seen this kind of character animation from Yuasa, but it's amazing. The character designs are great, and the way they're animated is constantly interesting. There isn't a single shot that I don't love in this film.
The character drawings in particular are really out there, but they work. The floating eyebrows on the squash seller are really something. I adore the way the hands are drawn with these big blocky forms. The hands are very emotive in this film. The faces are so supple and squishy. There's some new fun expression in almost every shot. There's even a tinge of caricature in the old man who hires the squash seller that reminds me of the great Japanese caricaturist Shoji Yamafuji. And the animation has a sense of split-second timing that's unique to Yuasa. The guy with the five o'clock shadow the squash seller pisses off in the street is the most obvious throwback to the A Pro style. He looks like he could have come straight out of Dokonjo Gaeru.
I even love the very flat, simple layouts of the film. The characters are right up there in your face, filling the screen in every shot. There's no pretense of realism or perspective or other mimetic fakery. It's a proudly cartoony film. At the same time, despite the simple layouts, more effort is put into the animation than many shows nowadays that consist mostly of close-ups of characters. Every character drawing is full of life and vitality. No two drawings of the characters are the same.
What's best about it is that its 'cartooniness' has nothing to do with western cartoons, which I have a hard time appreciating. It's a cartoon aesthetic that was essentially invented by the Japanese TV animators who forged their own approach to the medium in the 1960s and 1970s. It's inspired by the work of the A Pro animators, which itself was something truly new and unlike anything ever done before, but completely re-invented through Yuasa's pen.
The impressive thing about Yuasa is that even obscure shorts like Slime Adventures and the Nanchatte Vampiyan pilot that for years remained unseen and unobtainable turned out, when I finally saw them, to be great little films exploding with just the sort of incredible animation and visual creativity you'd expect of Yuasa. The same applies to The Squash Seller, in its own unique way.
Yuasa himself has said in an interview that he's embarrased about the film and wishes people wouldn't watch it, but that's just typical Yuasa humbleness. This is an awesome little gem that looks and moves like no other anime out there. The character style is obviously inspired by the classic A Pro shows, but Yuasa creates a look and feel that is uniquely his own. He learns from and surpasses the masters. I honestly wish he would do more stuff like this. We need an A Pro-style long-running slapstick comedy TV series directed by Masaaki Yuasa in the spirit of Tensai Bakabon or Dokonjo Gaeru.
This lost gem proves once again what a unique and multifaceted talent Masaaki Yuasa is. Thanks to Charles Brubaker for pointing this video out to me.
One of the other films in the series is also up on Youtube, but the contrast is instructive. It's the first volume, directed by Osamu Kobayashi. Kobayashi's character designs are appealingly oddball in a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi-kind of way, but the animation is totally uninteresting compared with the electric and dynamic character animation of Yuasa's outing.
The other one I'm curious to see is the second episode, because it's animated by Masaya Fujimori, who is perhaps the best animator to emerge from Ajia-Do in the 1990s after Masaaki Yuasa. The second episode also features nicely stylized designs by Tsutomu Shibayama.
Bask in the delightful character drawings of Masaaki Yuasa's The Squash Seller:
My latest indie Japanese animator discovery is Satoshi Murai. In 2009, one year after graduating from the Graphic Design Department of Tama Art University, he animated a beautiful, dreamy music video for the song A Play by Japanese alternative electro-hop outfit ALT (ALT home page).
It's a ravishing video that doesn't scream "music video" the way most do. It comes across more like a visual poem. I didn't even realize it was a music video until after looking into it.
The video begins with a woman's voice saying, "There are an infinite number of worlds over here, over there, and inside you. But they're also nowhere. The curtain will soon fall. The journey will soon end. It's time for bed."
In a city somewhere in the world, a child is tucked into bed in. This soft, faint scene from our plane of reality then fades out, and the screen explodes into color as a bubble floats up and bursts into a dream-creature that's half television/half beetle. A male voice launches into a rambling, monotone recitation of disjointed poetic images, and the visuals echo his strange words and rhythm, morphing between abstract and identifiable forms. It's like we're witnessing the ether from which the images of dreams are created as our brain pieces together the shards of our everyday experiences into a bizarre visual collage.
Like the words, the hazy images morph quick and fast and create an intoxicating experience that evokes the fertile, poetic creativity of the brain as it cooks up dreams at night. "Nobody remembers the beginning. It's dark outside now. That day I lost something and I gained something in exchange." Sometimes the images directly mirror the words, other times go on their own trajectory: A coffee thermos hovers in mid-air pouring coffee, and morphs into the eye and beak of a bird. A fish runs with human legs. A black and white TV shows a flickering image of a pair of trousered legs walking. For just a second we catch a glimpse of a house hidden in the trees at dusk.
The video feels so unlike a regular music video because of the abstract song. Rather than a catchy pop song, it's a glitchy wash of ambient synths through which a voice swims in a monotone random-walk recitation of playfully alliterating, randomly rhyming chockablock phrases that evoke disjointed images. It's the Japanese answer to alternative hip-hop bands like Clouddead. The visuals and audio are a perfect match with one another, neither making sense but both seeming to make sense together.
The visuals occasionally remind me of Gianluigi Toccafondo, with broad splotches of paint tracing distorted renderings of familiar objects that transform into other objects by stretching and warping. But A Play is far more varied and flexible in its technique and texture. It isn't exclusively produced by painting over and transforming live-action images the way Toccafondo's work seems to be. It switches between very broad abstract painted strokes and more minutely detailed traditional animation, such as the moment where ants are meticulously drawn milling about in a grayscale pencil cross-section of the sleeping boy's head.
As it turns out, Satoshi Murai himself is part of the ALT collective, and he either did or helped with the music of this video. He also does his own solo music. Satoshi Murai's Soundcloud page features the same brand of pleasingly glitchy ambient electronica. So he's an animator-musician, like Ryu Kato. The ALT collective have a number of other visually interesting music videos available on their home page.
I don't know if Satoshi Murai is still part of ALT, but he's currently part of another collective - the Tymote collective, an 8-member group that does cutting edge creative work in motion graphics, illustration and music. You can see more work like A Play in the Palm station ID that Satoshi Murai did at Tymote for the 24-hour music station Space Shower TV. Explore Tymote's home page to see more of the outstanding visual inventiveness of this group.
Like most animators working today, Satoshi Murai has a twitter feed.
Ayaka Nakata's Cornelis (2008) is an enigma. A man dressed in a red blazer, red pants, red hat and red suit stands motionless at the center of the screen. He shushes the viewer a few times, as if to silence an unruly audience before his performance begins. His finger still to his mouth, suddenly he slides to the floor, his finger suspended in mid air above his body. A strange dance begins. His blazer seems to take on a life of its own. It peels off him, inverts itself to its white interior, and gives birth to an identical copy of Cornelis - adorned in white blazer, white pants, white hat and white suit. Cornelis and Cornelis' converse peer at each other warily across opposite shoulders, in sync, as if across a twisted mirror. Then they hug each other and begin a strange dance in which their peeled off clothes give birth to more and more Cornelis clones. The dance escalates to a swirl of bodies that finally implodes into the kernel of the orignal red Cornelis.
I was baffled at first, but then came to realize that trying to dig for some deeper meaning is probably beside point. I suspect this film is meant to be enjoyed as a pure exploration of dance and motion. It's like a beautiful modern dance piece, heightened to the fifth dimension of animation where you can contort and transform the human body in ways not possible in real life. It's like George Schwizgebel via Erica Russell - an abstract dance in celebration of the freedom of animation.
Every moment of the animation is packed with nuance. The expressions and body movements of the man at each juncture all seem to betray some unknown emotion - joy, surprise, anguish - at which has just transpired, as if he were miming out a dramatic story. The way he holds his hat above him, inverted, at just such an angle, with such an expression of conviction and purpose, seems to have some obvious meaning to him that we just don't grasp. The man's deliberate poses and expressions make the whole affair seem simultaneously amusing and deadly serious.
The film was supposedly originally conceived without sound, as a pure exercise in abstract body motion. Ayaka Nakata states in an interview that, after every action, she would ask her character Cornelis what he wanted to do next, and would animate the next movement that came to mind. Thus the film evolved in an unpredictable new direction after every juncture, purely as a way of following the inner logic of the character.
All I know is that it's an enjoyable film, and a well made one. It's a beautiful abstract dance of bodies that's never boring or predictable. At every turn you're surprised by some new way that the bodies intertwine and invert and swirl around. The animation work is strong in its spareness and deliberatness. Nothing is wasted. It does what it needs to do in 3 minutes without dragging it out, and feels like it says what it wants to say. The bodies are well drawn in all sorts of configurations, without being over-animated.
I like this film because it feels pure and assured. There's no pretense of attempting to convey a deep message or emotion, or striving for effect, like there is in a lot of films by young Japanese indies. The style is well controlled, showing an effortless ability to come up with creative new ideas that don't feel predictable. A look at the illustrations on her web site confirms that she has a fresh and rich imagination. Each illustration is completely different in its style and concept, but presents some creative new blending of concepts.
As it says in her profile, Ayaka Nakata has been working on commercial ad work since her graduation. Cornelis was the first film she made after graduating from Tokyo Zokei University. Earlier during her studies she made three films: The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared (2004), Grandma's Needlework Room (2005), and Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors (2007).
The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared (watch here) is her first film, and she didn't do most of the animation. It's obviously more rough around the edges, but still a pretty good execution of an interesting concept. A man wakes up one morning to find a bird on his head. The bird clicks its tongue "tsk" every time something annoying happens to the man. Every time it does so, it gets bigger and bigger. The next morning, he finds the bird gone, but finds that other people have been infected by the bird's irritated clicking, and have become irritable clicking birds themselves. The cutting is fast and controlled, and she develops the story at just the right pace for its meaning to come through loud and clear. The bird is the little demon of impatience in all of us. Urban alienation and anomie only propagates more of the same.
Grandma's Needlework Room (watch here) is completely different in style and tone, but even more assured and well executed than the previous film. It's a brief but moving remeniscence about a little girl's experience in her grandmother's needlework room. In a short span, thanks to its warm, lamplight palette, the tender images of this film make us feel the weight of emotion of the narrator's memory. The film is remarkably not schmaltzy or excessively sentimental. The film accurately conveys how magical and grand certain things seemed when we were children, that when revisited seem prosaic. The farm where I spent summers in France growing up had shrunk in both grandeur and magic when I re-visited it many years later. Through something very specific and personal she manages to tap the universal. The only problem is the sound design, which could use polishing. Cornelis has a perfect accompaniment that complements every little movement.
I haven't seen her graduation film, Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors, but I assume it must be worth seeing. I like that you can see the artist improving with each film. Since making Cornelis Ayaka Nakata has been working mostly on advertising animation, but she also recently did an episode of Rita et Machin, a series based on the French picture books of the same name that also featured episodes directed by an unusual assortment of indie and industry talent such as Toshio Hirata, Hideki Futamura and Hiroco Ichinose.
中田彩郁 Ayaka Nakata filmography
2004: 舌打ち鳥が鳴いた日 The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared
2005: おばあちゃんの作業部屋 Grandma's Needlework Room
2007: 聞耳 第2幕 鏡 Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors
2009: コルネリス Cornelis
2011: リタとナントカ「ナントカのおたんじょうび」Rita et Machin: L'anniversaire de Machin
The only animation program at this year's VIFF was a program called Animation Nation. It featured shorts mostly from the US and Europe. It's disappointing that the VIFF hasn't continued their 'alternative anime' series. That should be a staple at the festival. Animation doesn't seem high enough on their priorities. And Animation Nation was - without exaggeration - the worst collection of animated shorts I've ever seen.
The whole affair was a failure in my opinion, even though I know from the roars of laughter in the hall and the hearty applause that most of the other theatergoers disagree with me. The selection was IMO uninteresting, lopsided (without any Asian or other films from outside the big western nations), and the unprofessional presentation was not befitting a major world festival. There was a one minute gap between each short, and boxes kept popping up on the screen throughout the show as they tinkered ceaselessly with the brightness and zoom. This all should have been handled before the screening. It was like watching a few videos at a friend's house, not a screening.
The selection felt like it was put together by someone who didn't really understand animation. The contrast with the Ottawa 'best of' selections is instructive. There, each film seemed to represent some different aspect of animation, some different approach. Each was different and valid in its own way. Many different narrative styles and techniques were represented. Films weren't selected based on superficial criteria or the extent to which they were crowd pleasing.
The most telling thing about this selection is that many of the films barely had any animation at all. They were mostly live action, with a few spare touches added in post pro. It would be fine to have one film like this in a selection, but half of the running time devoted to this kind of film? A quarter of the remaining half was uninspired CGI. One of the films, Brick Novax's Diary, wasn't animation at all; it was puppets and sets filmed without virtually any movement. It was clearly chosen solely for its MTV style sarcastically retro, pop-reference humor. And it went on for 16 minutes. It would have been fine viewed on its own, but it felt out of place.
What's left is about 20 or so minutes of decent work in a 95 minute screening. Bike Race by Tom Schroeder was more than decent. You can watch it online, and I heartily recommend doing so. It's a fine short well-deserving of being seen by more people. It's a sort of documentary animation, the visuals expounding on an audio track of two men and a woman narrating a recollection of their experiences with a bike race and the romance that budded unexpectedly. Though it looks rudimentary in style, the animation is rich and creative and very witty and meaningful in how it responds to and interprets the narration. It's essentially the only item in the whole selection that was a good animated short.
The music video Lose This Child (which obviously you can also watch online) was a very good animated music video, and it's perfectly fine to include a music video in such a selection, a good idea even, but it's not a difficult task to include a good animated music video; many are made each year. It's just weird that there was only one really good narrative animated short in the whole selection. Lose This Child is impressive technically, because supposedly it was all shot over the span of one night. It's so lushly animated and sophisticated in structure that it's almost hard to believe. I guess they must have meticulously planned out everything to the smallest detail beforehand.
The Man With the Stolen Heart was a decent film, but it was marred by a too-wordy voice-over. It would have been twice as strong without any words. It's the only other item in the selection that came close to being a good animated short. Advanced Cybernetics was the only abstract short in the selection, which underlines the populist bent of the selection. It was visually arresting, but it felt too short.
The festival will be showing two feature-length animated features. I missed seeing Tatsumi, the panel-by-panel adaptation of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Floating Life, partly because I wasn't sure it was worth seeing. I feel like I should give it a chance. I'll be seeing the Czech film Kooky tomorrow and look forward to it.
I was fooled by the catalog description into believing the film The Green Wave was an animated feature film in the style of Waltz with Bashir, but was disappointed when it turned out to be a 'mere' documentary with the occasional sequences of recollection rendered in drawings (not animation). That said, it was a good, heartbreaking documentary about the recent Iranian uprising that was mercilessly crushed by the regime.
Annoyingly, there are actually a few Asian animated shorts being screened at the festival, but they're scattered around everywhere, being shown before a live-action feature here and there, rather than together as one unit. There is even a new animation battle by Nobuhiro Aihara and Tanaami Keiichi, which I really want to see. They even have Koji Yamamura's new short Muybridge's Strings, and yet instead of having that as the highlight of an animated short collection, as it deserves, they've lumped it together with a bunch of random live-action Canadian short films. This is inept and disappointing. The small theater was pretty near full at the Animation Nation screening, so I know there's enough of a geek and/or animator community in Vancouver to have supported at least one collection of Asian shorts.