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I'm going to try to catch up on the episodes here to keep up with the rest of the show.
The second episode was leaps and bounds better than the first, which apart from some animation highlights fell a little flat. This episode is perfectly crafted entertainment. I can only wish every episode would be this good. I like variety, but that also opens the door to occasional lower-quality episodes. I'm guessing this show is going to be very uneven due to the big variation in staffing.
The team behind the episode is to thank for the outcome, first and foremost storyboarder/episode director Sayo Yamamoto. She's paired with writer Dai Sato. It's the return of the dream team that produced the best episodes of Samurai Champloo under Shinichiro Watanabe 10 years ago. That's where I first discovered the two, and I haven't seen anything by either of them since then that topped those episodes for me. It's like working under Shinichiro Watanabe brought out the best in them.
Sayo Yamamoto remains stellar when handling the details of a particular episode. I still like her better as an episode director than a series director, though there's no denying she's one of the few people who can bring real personality and creativity to either. She also storyboarded/directed the ending. From the macro to the micro, the episode feels good - there's variety in scenes and great rhythm overall that makes the episode flow cohesively. She injects clever touches through her storyboarding like the seeming 2001 parody where the sun rises behind the choker ball on the Statue of Liberty.
The highlight of this episode was seeing all the crazy ideas for ramen that they could cook up. Sato Dai meanwhile provides topical parody touches like the sophisticated searching tool used by Dr. Gel in locate Dandy - Street Ginga View. Also the space twitter that Meow uses to inadvertently broadcast Dandy's location to Dr. Gel - ending each tweet with 'nau' as they do on twitter these days whenever they're describing what they were just eating.
I feel like this episode also gives a better better sense of Meow's personality. It's the classic odd-couple pairing: Meow the waifu-hugging slovenly otaku yang to Dandy's disaffected hipster yankee Leisure Suit Larry yin.
The series thus far is obviously a mystery meant to keep the audience guessing. Why the jarring narrative resets and discontinuities? The ending seems to play on this suggestion of episodic parallel universes with its soup of mathematical formulae and quantum physics diagrams.
The animation was fully the equal of the directing and story, which is what made the episode such a pleasure to watch. Ex-Telecom animator and latter-day Mamoru Hosoda associate Hiroyuki Aoyama is sakkan. I don't know to what extent he was involved - i.e. just correcting drawings or correcting/drawing animation himself - but the whole episode moves a bunch in a way that has a clear Telecom vibe.
A number of ex-Telecom animators are also involved, so he must have called them in himself. The most prominent of these is Atsuko Tanaka. She's only been working on Ghibli films for the last ten years, with the exception of a few appearances in Telecom TV shows, so this is a rare treat. Certain scenes in particular exude a certain Telecom je ne sais quois. I'm wondering if she wasn't involved in the later scene with the old alien reminiscing about his past. The movement has that weightiness and fullness I associate with her. Also the way the ramen guy hunches over the counter reminds me of something I'd see in classic Lupin. It's also appropriate because one of the well-known stories about her is how Miyazaki/Takahata always cast her animating the eating scenes in Jarinko Chie, Cagliostro, etc. because she was so good at it. The old alien scarfing down the ramen definitely fits the bill. Not to mention those jello Ghibli tears.
The opening scene with the alien exam had a more modern Telecom vibe, so I was wondering if that might not be Kenji Hachizaki, but I don't know his style well enough to say for sure. I love the acting in this scene. The shot of Dandy arguing with Scarlet has some awesome exaggerated acting a la Shinji Otsuka, while the wrestling with Meow has cartoonish flavor with the repeated drawings instead of actually drawing the action out in specific detail. Hachizaki is one of the great Telecom animators, but he doesn't seem as well known as the others. He debuted on Fuma and then Akira and has been involved prolifically in all of the foreign co-productions since then, not to mention a lot of big recent movies like Hosoda's.
One of the other big guests is Tadashi Hiramatsu. He's quite pliable and I've never found his style to jump out obviously like some animators, so I'm not positive what he did here. Perhaps the scene where Dandy asks Scarlet for money immediately before being attacked by the minions? The movement as Dandy approaches Scarlet there is quite nice, with quick flourishes of Michael Jackson-inspired dance moves. The scene immediately afterwards was the most easily identifiable in the episode - Takashi Mukoda. His kung-fu is unmistakable and remarkable as always. The simplified, flat drawings also give him away. I'm guessing Gosei Oda must have done the psychedelic wobbly animation where Dandy and Meow are pulled into the ramen dimension. It seems like every episode of the show is going to have a psychedelic scene like this. One thing I didn't understand was why the shop was empty when they returned via the ramen wormhole. Was that intentional, something whose significance we can't grasp yet? The show seems littered with unexplained ellipses like this that are elided over in silence.
The nice thing about the fact that the show is being simulcast is that, for once in anime, non-Japanese speakers are able to read the full genga staff listing right at the end of each episode as it is aired. That information used to be more difficult to find, and hence limited appreciation of animators' work, since you have to know the staff to be able to break down an episode's animation. That also makes it easier for me since I don't have to translate the genga credits for each ep.
Finally, it was a treat getting another performance from Ichiro Nagai as the old alien. Ichiro Nagai is synonymous with television anime in my mind. He is the embodiment of TV anime. From the very first two classic shows - Tetsuwan Atom and Wolf Boy Ken - he has been there as a voice actor in countless TV shows, classic and obscure, over the decades. He is one of the defining voices of anime, one of the voices we all have heard countless times and recognize immediately. It's comforting to find Ichiro Nagai in an anime. He voiced so many of my favorite characters that I can't even remember them all. Last year marked 50 years of TV anime, and hence 50 years of Ichiro Nagai voice acting. I raise my cup to the man for his service to the craft.
Good of you to point out the empty shop at the end. It’s easier for me to think it’s a hiccup in the writing.
This my favorite episode as of now. It’s just really fun, and it finds a sweet spot between the humorous and the weighty. Most importantly it does it in a way that feels right for a comedy show: the Nagai alien’s story has some ridiculous touches to keep it from getting too dour or hokey, but it’s still treated with all the dignity and pathos of a more serious show. I like empathy in humor, and it’s something I wish I saw more of.
And yes, the animators should be commended for bringing to life food that looks both mouth-watering, and also really, really bizarre. As it should, since the ramen is the centerpiece of the episode. It reads like a testament to all the work that goes into creating something, as well as the accumulation of emotions, experiences, whole lifetimes that are often invisible but still felt by strangers. The writers also get to build on Dandy’s more cultured side (outside of his expertise on Boobies).
That inspector lady also needs another episode. She got a half before not appearing again.
This is also rather off-topic, but have you heard that Yuasa is getting a new show? This time it’s an adaptation of Taiyo Matsumoto’s manga, Ping Pong. Here’s the teaser trailer if you haven’t seen it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmZVuMDlw-w
Well put about Sayo Yamamoto’s ability to deftly balance the humorous with the weighty. This may be a bit of a stretch as far as comparisons go, but it reminds me a bit of the Son of Stimpy episode of Ren & Stimpy - it tells a ridiculous story completely straight-faced, and is all the more funny for it. She has more range and flexibility in her tone than most directors.
The show seems deliberately slapdash in how it doles out screen time to the players, as you note with Scarlet, even killing them off randomly.
I have heard of Yuasa’s new show. I avoided looking at the trailer to not spoil the surprise, but I had a look at it just now and it seems like a match made in heaven. Although honestly I would have preferred to see Yuasa adapt one of his more fantastical stories like Number Five.