Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Category: Space Dandy

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

12:41:00 pm , 606 words, 8874 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #24

An old flame from the fourth dimension warps into Dandy's life, bringing with her some baggage from the second dimension.

Writer Toh Enjo of episode 11 returns with another cerebral and high-concept episode. The appeal of his script this time around is in how he makes the conceptual leap between animation, with its 2D and 3D modes of expression, and the theory of the multiverse, with its many different taxonomies of universes. These theories can be difficult to wrap your head around, and Toh Enjoh is the only writer on the show who seems to have a grasp of them and is able to integrate them into the Dandyverse. Which is a shame, since that's the whole concept of the show. It would have been nice to get a more detailed exploration of the numerous multiverse hypotheses. They inherently suggest so many dramatic possibilities.

Visually, I felt the episode was a little lacking. I think it would have required more ingenious and experimental animation to adequately explore this subject of 1D vs 2D vs 3D vs 4D than the TV anime format permits. Hidekazu Ohara did a good job with this subject matter in his Professor Dan Petry's Blues short by mixing all sorts of techniques. But that's not to say there weren't a lot of interesting visuals. It was clever expressing the four-dimensional Catherine as a tesseract (The Avengers didn't invent that), and it was an amusing idea to create a melodrama out of the love triangle between the two-dimensional Paul, the three-dimensional Dandy and the four-dimensional Catherine - and to imagine the repercussions of the meeting of their universes. Expressing the clash as a real-life Life Force-esque Konami scroller (with a bit of Space Invader thrown in) was a clever touch, especially as someone who grew up on those, although I would have preferred something more serious and less metatextual.

After Dr. Gel and his ship were transported into the 2D world, they look the same, but can only slide around like sprites. Shadows are lost, like they entered the Hosoda dimension. The layouts suddenly seem very flat and compressed because it's a world without perspective. Maybe this is what it would look like if Michel Ocelot directed a space opera. It's an interesting attempt to convey that they were transformed into 2D, but it felt a little half-hearted. I started to feel sorry for Bii, who is doomed to die every episode due to Dr. Gel's fanatical determination to uncover the secrets of the universe, no matter the personal cost. The denouement where they turn into lines was an elegant expression of one-dimensionality using the historical building block of animation, the line. Dandy, despite heading out like a hero, wound up having zero effect on the outcome, which is perhaps appropriate.

The animation side of things was fairly restrained overall, without any real standout scenes, which is maybe a first for the series. Luckily the script was able to maintain interest throughout, although as a result the episode wound up coming across as a bit talky. This is probably the last we'll see of Toh Enjo in this series, but I hope we get to see more of him some other time in anime. He's got exactly the sort of sensibility anime needs. He brings in some fresh ideas and unusual narrative concepts from outside the anime industry. He's been the big discovery of the series for me. Literary works have been adapted before in anime, but it's a good idea to actually bring such a writer onto a creative team to see what they can come up with expressly for the medium of animation.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

08:11:00 am , 643 words, 7443 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #23

Dandy becomes Scarlet's pretend boyfriend to help her ward off a stalker ex.

This is the romance episode. Shinichiro Watanabe usually has at least one such more mellow and sentimental episode in his shows, and this is the one. I can understand why they buried it late in the show, because it's perhaps the least remarkable episode of the lot. It doesn't have the over-the-top gag humor of the usual episodes, nor the interesting artistry of the auteur episodes. I personally would have preferred to watch a whole episode about the romance of the two aliens pictured above.

Kimiko Ueno's humor is much more subtle this time around, as she focuses instead on creating a conventional dramatic arc evoking the feelings between two characters. As usual with this kind of setup, Scarlet and Dandy predictably begin hitting it off and then when the week is over there's almost a budding spark there. Just when you think they're too cowardly to try to do something about it, they try, but annoying circumstances keep them apart. It nails that irritating cliche setup that was so common in 1980s romance anime. Kimiko Ueno's touch comes through in little spots here and there: What brings them together is realizing they're both otaku after they discover the tape in the rubble and begin bantering about embarrassing nerd stuff. I like the fact that it's a VHS tape. Even in the far future the hardcore nerds still cling to their rare VHS collections. (I've still got a few tubs of those lying around somewhere)

The fact that it's still a parody of a romance episode and not a romance episode comes through in the sporadic incongruous moment of absurdly over-the-top action. It's like they planted little bombs of good animation throughout the episode as gifts to animation fans for being patient. The first was the skiing bit where Dandy is chased by a group of rare aliens including a giant Santa Claus and snowman, presumably by Akira Amemiya. There's a bit more Kanada-school animation where Dolph Lundgren goes berserk, so maybe he did that too. I suspected Chiharu Sato at first, as Chiharu Sato is a veteran Studio Z animator, but apparently there's another person with the same name, so maybe the person credited here is the other one. (edit: Chiharu Sato did the skiing, so Amemiya presumably did berserk Dolph)

There's the sudden Itano circus, which really had no reason to happen and was never even rationalized and was promply forgotten by the narrative. Not sure who did this; maybe this episode's sakkan himself, Chikashi Kubota. Aside from being good at drawing character acting, he's long been an Itano circus fan (he drew the Itano circus in Dead Leaves). And then there's the human-faced spider bit by Bahi JD. Bahi's bit was certainly the most enjoyable part of the episode, the only place that I actually laughed. He even designed the spider character. Bahi seems to have learned a bit from his associates working at Bones, as his animation is becoming more catchy and controlled. I see he's integrated Yutaka Nakamura's tactic of inserting a 'subliminal' black and white frame to emphasize explosions.

The scene design for the space colony was done by a person named Junichiro Tamamori with a pretty impressive pedigree as a hard sci-fi conceptual artist/set designer (Yamato 2199). The weird thing is, his designs are impressive to look at on paper, but they don't have much of an impact in the final product. I guess it wasn't necessary to emphasize the sci-fi setting; it was just meant to be there as a background. Still, it feels like a bit of a waste. It was completely unnecessary for the stalker ex to be a Gundam pilot, too; it's just funnier that way. The Gundam mecha was designed again by Kunio Okawara, so it looks pretty convincing.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

08:38:00 am , 776 words, 6506 views     Categories: Animator: Yoshinori Kanada, TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #22

Dandy heads to planet Grease to enter a dance competition, which predictably winds up bringing about the apocalypse.

This is the disco episode. Retro Italodisco being where it's at in the world of pop music right now, it makes sense for the show to have such an episode. Luckily the staffing is strong, so it's an entertaining and well-animated episode. In fact, this episode probably has the most dynamic and playful animation in the whole show, which is saying a lot.

The animation comes courtesy of Yoshimichi Kameda, who acts as sakkan and the character designer of most of the episode's aliens. Kameda brings in a more Kanada-school touch to this material than has been seen before, which means characters flying all over the screen in strange poses. But the nice thing is that he mixes it up with the styles a bit, and doesn't go as extreme as someone like Hiroyuki Imaishi, so it still sits well within the Dandy universe. The dance animation is fun and well animated without relying on reference material as in the previous dancing episode. We get to see hand-drawn animation of the Aloha Oe ship.

Kameda's Kanada-school lineage wasn't as obvious in his previous gigs such as FMA because the material was a little more serious, and his animation correspondingly more sharp and ferocious, but it's nice to see him let his hair down and have a go at more silly material for once. You can see the sporadic brush ink drawings that are something of his trademark here and there in this episode.

I like that Kameda's Kanada-school influence seems to harken back to the original. This feels like the good old Kanada, not so much the Gainax version. So you get character designs like Miranda, who looks like a character straight out of some Kanada's 1980s anime like Don De La Mancha episode 6. And things like a face drawn on the tonsils when Dandy screams, which is just generally a very 1980s gag. The dancing meanwhile reminds of the dance scene Kanada drew for Devilman episode 1. Other little details get the feeling right. For example, there's one shot around the midpoint where we see Miranda from the back looking at Ton Jravolta, and the way her hand is drawn really nails the way Kanada or Masahito Yamashita would have drawn it. It's one of their classic identifying traits.

Other characters are designed in a totally different way that's amusingly random. For some reason the head of the planet and his wife look like Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert from Isao Takahata's Anne of Green Gables (though they looked like Dokonjo Gaeru characters when the rejuvenated), while the record shop owner is the weird kid from Yoshiharu Tsuge's classic Neji-Shiki. They even put the word 'memekurage' on the record label in the ident. The three-headed bikini-clad dragon seems to be a Ghidora reference, so maybe he's a classic Godzilla fan to boot. And it's funny how every planet they seem to go to, even the ones light years away in some backwater of the universe, seem to wind up looking exactly like Japan. Matthew Cuthbert even wears geta.

The episode features a slew of playful animators drawing things in their own style - Kiyotaka Oshiyama, Michio Mihara, Toshiyuki Sato, Shingo Fujii, Hokuto Sakiyama, Yutaka Nakamura. I'm guessing Mihara drew at least part of the first meeting between Dandy & the Cuthberts, Oshiyama the record store scene, Nakamura the handful of crazy fast weird dance moves right before the Akira-esque apocalypse, Hokuto the black and white bits afterwards. Not sure about Toshiyuki Sato but maybe the dancing in the ring?

The weirdest part of the episode is the fact that Katsuhiro Otomo was involved. He came up with the whole concept of the seaweed-like organisms whose growth is accelerated to form the rings of light that destroy the planet. He's easily the biggest guest name yet, but the irony is that you would never have been able to guess that it was him based solely on the final product. He seems to have written at considerable length about the whole process in the design sheets posted on the home page, although they're too small to read. It's a weirdly earnest sci-fi concept sitting next to the silliness of Kameda's animation.

I suppose writer Nobumoto Keiko was saddled with the job of wrangling the two together and she did the best she could. Storyboarder Yoshitomo Yonetani does a great job cooking the episode into an entertaining stew. He previously did episode 9 of Lupin III: Fujiko. His trademark of always having a foreigner speaking bad Japanese is present in dancing alien Ton Jravolta.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

08:24:00 am , 1098 words, 5065 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #21

Dandy wakes up on a strange planet and can't remember how he got there. He meets a clown-like creature and a mysterious girl who reveal to him the truth about the planet and his own fate...

This episode is basically a visual poem about death, and features some of the series' more surreal and enigmatic imagery. It's very different from any other episode, with its dark mood, disjointed storytelling and almost total absence of all the side-characters. Dark yet creative, melancholy yet whimsical, it's my kind of episode. The impenetrable imagery also happens to make it one of the more rewarding episodes to re-watch and try to figure out.

The great Yasuhiro Nakura is the force behind this delightfully aberrant vision of Dandy as character designer, storyboarder and director, although the episode was written by series director Shinichiro Watanabe. Yasuhiro Nakura was one of the first animation artists about whom I dedicated a whole post in this blog way back in 2004, as I was a huge fan of his work, particularly on less-well-known outings like Moomin, Memole (I translated the movie years before), The Acorns and the Wildcat and the Rampo short.

So again we have in the episode an artist-driven episode like Eunyoung Choi's episode 9, Masaaki Yuasa's episode 16 and Oshiyama Kiyotaka's episode 18. The series has a fantastic approach to delivering variety: the base pattern of Kimiko Ueno-style gag episodes is occasionally interspersed with more artist-driven episodes. It's the best of both worlds - an accessible show that nonetheless gives a handful of talented animators free rein.

The overarching story is relatively easy to parse, but the words (images) with which it's told are poetically opaque and impenetrable. Dandy was killed when the ship shifted and he hit his head as they approached planet Limbo, which is inhabited by the souls of the dead killed many centuries ago in a global war that wiped out the population. The girl he (his soul) meets is the incarnation of the world. The rest of the details are murky and probably aren't meant to be logically explained. Why does Dandy find himself floating down a river in a boat? Who are the two mysterious figures discussing how everything is headed towards destruction? The lutenist with no mouth who instead speaks through her instrument? What does that shell necklace represent? There were many fascinating scenes, but the one in the desert where Dandy's face is replaced by a skull and his boat goes up in flames was particularly striking.

I like that none of these have an explicit explanation but are more there to contribute to the lugubrious, oneiric atmosphere. In this sense it reminds me of the Licca-chan: Wondrous Yunia Story (1990) by Ajia-Do, whose fantastical and creative images don't need (indeed don't have) explanation. It's a rare treat to find an episode based purely on fanciful visual storytelling in a conventional studio-produced series.

The series has had its fair share of enigmatic endings, and this episode's ending is among the more memorable, with Dandy's ghost resigning itself to being dead and settling down on the planet, while his doppelgangers continue on their merry way in another dimension (another episode).

I liked that the song played by the lutenist is Pavane pour une enfant défunte by Ravel, which ties in perfectly to the theme of the episode not only musically but even in its inspiration. Also, since this is technically a sci-fi show, I appreciate when the episodes of Space Dandy have something of a sci-fi aspect, and aren't just slapstick parody episodes. This episode could be said to fall into that category, more or less, in the sense that it's about an advanced alien civilization that destroyed itself, and what happened to the world afterwards. It plays out as something of a bleak cautionary tale, on a scale far grander than the Mihara episode.

Of special note are the backgrounds, headed by immensely talented French artist Santiago Montiel, who recently worked as background artist for a film entitled Giovanni's Island that was released earlier this year. I can't think of another anime that has made better use of international talent. From the mysterious spires that are like antennae of a long-lost civilization, to the beautiful purple clouds rising above a red desert, his backgrounds create an incredibly vast and fantastical otherworldy space that you don't want to leave. He was kind enough to post a few of the backgrounds on his blog. I can't wait to see his work in Giovanni's Island. This is one of the standout episodes in the series in terms of background art. The importance of the background art makes sense for Nakura, who made a short entitled The Acorns and the Wildcat consisting entirely of background art and who in his latter years focused on illustration.

The episode would not achieve half its impact without his incredible images, as the animation is somewhat less convincing. The animation does not seem as creatively conceived as the background art. Yasuhiro Nakura is best known for his amazing work on Angel's Egg (1985) and then to a lesser extent The Tale of Genji (1987), but there is not much of the delicate grace of those films here, as he was not in charge of the animation. Nonetheless the episode is filled head to toe with beautifully immersive images, and the episode is the closest he's come to re-capturing the feeling of his brilliant Rampo short in the intervening 20 years. It's criminal negligence on the part of the anime industry to allow an animator as talented as Yasuhiro Nakura to languish for decades without a project into which to funnel his incredible imagination.

In terms of the animation, notable names included Hiroyuki Aoyama, Kenichi Fujisawa, Chikashi Kubota and Eddie Mehong, but the animation of the episode was for the most part fairly low-key without any real standout sections. It's probably for the best that the episode was lacking in animation grandstanding, as it would have been inappropriate for the episode's somber tone. I felt that Dandy looked different in this episode for some reason. Of course, he was given an expression of dead exhaustion presumably to mirror his mortal state, but he's also not very recognizable without his hair and clothes as identifiers.

I didn't notice this until now, but the music credits get switched up in every episode to indicate the contributors to that particular episode. That's something I've never seen before. Credit in this case should also go to Ogre You Asshole for the fantastic Popol Vuh-esque reverb-laden solo guitar music that helps give this episode its serene and chill atmosphere.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

09:22:00 pm , 936 words, 2662 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #20

Dandy forms a rock band with his new friend Johnny (the Dropkix because they're always drop-kicking each other) and sets out to become the #1 rock star in the universe.

This is the rock episode. There really doesn't need to be much more to the synopsis than that. It does exactly what you'd expect such an episode to do. That said, it's terrific fun and the quality is as good as ever.

Sayo Yamamoto storyboards and directs and Kimiko Ueno writes. It seems like almost a no-brainer that the team of Yamamoto & Watanbe should produce a rock episode. Their very attitude towards anime is rock - Watanabe with his rock star sunglasses, Bebop's affected cool and various western influences, not to mention the actual music. Watanabe is known for going to special lengths for the music side of his productions, bringing in actually interesting musicians from various corners, rather than just falling back on whatever generic J-Pop is being produced by the parent corporation. Yamamoto carried on the cool factor in her Michiko & Hacchin, with exotic locales and flamboyant fashion displays. The show had a general air of urbane hipness that is the antithesis of anime. The two seem to be on a lonely mission to inject a little cool into the image of anime in the eyes of the world.

Yamamoto's presence was felt mainly in the episode's more graphical sensibility, not least the manga-like onomatopoeia for musical sounds that appear on the screen during dramatic 'kime' poses. She even uses halftone dots to accentuate the 80s rock manga parody aspect of the episode. Her episodes tend to have a strong visual flair like this, as well as beautiful and stylishly dressed protagonists, in this case Johnny. She also makes striking use of colors, and does a lot of digital processing with faux lens flares and the like to make the screen feel richer and to bring alive the whole rock concert feel.

Kimiko Ueno's humor is unmistakable. I couldn't imagine the episode working without her touch. Dandy's pathetic wannabe rock band mimics everything about rock greats - the squabbling over contracts, the self-serving interviews - except the music, and winds up saving the universe from intergalactic war, unbeknownst to all. There were any number of memorable elements. When they were squabbling over drugs, it was actually a drug store... The quip about Dandy not having washed his hands when he grabs Johnny by the scruff of his neck... Johnny and Dandy hitting it off because they visit the same shrine on New Years Eve. Meow had a lot of memorable 'tsukkomi'-style comments, though he and QT were otherwise relegated to the sidelines. The best part was that Dandy & co never figured out Johnny's real identity, even after he outright told them. They just thought he had become the manager of his convenience store. There were so many other nice touches. Dandy setting his hair on fire with a ray gun. The Ideon giant turning out to have a Voltron-like lion's face. The hilariously forced Honey fanservice. The episode just kept on giving.

All in all, an awesome episode by an all-female creative team.

Initially I thought the episode reminded me vaguely of To-Y in terms of the character design as well as the setup about two beautiful biseinen struggling to put together a rock band, right down to the final concert where one of them has said he won't go but arrives at the last minute to join in the concert. Even the whole storyline about a scout is there, though here it's a dude. It had been a while since I'd seen To-Y, so I thought maybe I was imagining things. But I started to re-watch it and finally realized that it was intentional: the character designer of Johnny is in fact the guy who made the To-Y manga, Atsushi Kamijo. Now that is typical of the extra mile that the Space Dandy staff will go. They will get the original designer of whatever they're parodying to draw the parody design.

The episode featured lots of alien designs by other folks, as usual, but they played second fiddle to the rockers and were relegated to a drawing or two. Takuhito Kusanagi regularly provides these wild and intricate designs that look amazing but only turn up as a crude still drawing totally lacking the feeling of his original design. This is no doubt partly because his designs are pretty damn intricate and would be difficult to move. Johnny's design, on the other hand, is mostly white space, which makes it easier to move and render the features correctly. I liked the extra touch of giving the the record company president (by main character designer Yoshiyuki Ito) devil's horns.

The drawings throughout were nice thanks to Yamamoto's good visual sense, and there were even a few spots giving the animators a chance to play around - the human bowling scene where Johnny and Dandy first meet had some great drawings. The final concert scene had plenty of nice movement. I particularly liked the part from where we see Dandy's six pack (accompanied by screams from the female fans) to where the two get into a fencing match. I suppose it was by Norifumi Kugai and/or Gosei Oda.

More Pocari Sweat product placement near the end of the episode when the crew is waiting backstage. And more Ideon. I love the scene where the Ideon giant takes off from the Solo Ship (I'll just assume that's what it's called) while laser beams are firing every which way. Looks like a scene ripped straight out of the original show.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

06:23:00 pm , 577 words, 4486 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #19

Scarlet falls into the hands of a rare dandy gentleman alien, while Honey gets kidnapped by Dr. Gel, and Dandy comes running... for the reward money.

We return to the more conventional style with this episode. Which is not to say it's a bad episode. It's a perfectly fun and diverting episode, just not offering up the sort of auteur spectacle of the previous ep. It takes a while to re-adjust, but it would admittedly get tedious if the whole show were an auteur-fest.

Scarlet and Honey are the main characters this time around, joined by a guest associate of Scarlet, voiced by Megumi Hayashibara. This is the first episode with more of a focus on the show's women side characters, who have been pretty one-dimensional diversions prior to now. It took writer Keiko Nobumoto to try to elevate them beyond pretty comic relief and invest them with a little personality. Honey is quite the changed person. Instead of an airheaded bimbo, she's turned into a sharp-witted, pile-driving, chopper-riding Fujiko - an actually interesting character who you'd like to see more of. She's also conveniently revealed to be the sister of the episode's guest alien.

As usual with Keiko Nobumoto, this is a more thematic episode than the usual Dandy zombie or racing episode. If Dandy is all about brainless boobies-chasing, this time we see the other side of the coin and look at what women want from a man. This episode brings a bit more of a woman's perspective into the proceedings. The city girl dynamic between Scarlet and her associate is enjoyable to watch and ever so slightly more nuanced for the show - they banter about the difficulty of meeting decent guys and head out to a mixer after work to try their luck (apparently in a neighborhood that looks a lot like Times Square).

The so-called Cloud Alien who picks Scarlet up is an interesting character. He's both a gentleman with noble intentions and a pickup artist who preys on girls in distress. His spaceship - a giant castle enshrouded in a floating pink cloud that travels around the universe picking up signals from distressed women - is a bit silly even for this show, but the cloud is an interesting concept blending cloud computing and contemporary social media culture with the irresistible spell of mystification that he casts over women.

Hiroshi Shimizu returns as storyboarder/director/sakkan. It's the same team that made episode 8, although there are a few more animators this time around, including more French animators. Yapiko animators Eddie Mehong and Cedric Hérole return and are joined by Achille Bibard and Antoine Antin. Also present are Hiroyuki Aoyama, Kazumi Inadome, Kazutaka Ozaki, Kumiko Kawana and Kenji Hachizaki. The opening scene of Dandy in his underwear is a standout scene, but overall there isn't much flamboyant animation on display. It's more a case of fun little reaction shots here and there.

The presentation is not particularly exciting or original, but it's still entertaining. The episode has the same slightly more cartoonish drawing style than usual thanks to Hiroshi Shimizu's drawings, as in episode 8, but there are fewer scenes of well-animated character antics due to the more sentimental nature of the material. I know the opening wrestling scene is a setup for the payoff of Cutie piledriving Dr. Gel, but it reminds of the boxing scene that opens Hiroshi Shimizu's episode 11 of Kemonozume (watch), so I wonder if it wasn't either animated by him or added by him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

01:40:00 pm , 1466 words, 2097 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #18

Dandy lands on a watery planet seeking a rare alien fish, and encounters an impish little girl and an old hermit. The hermit shoos him away, but the child tells Dandy of a legend that the fish will appear on the night of a blue moon. On the foretold day, they hit the waves, and encounter the beast for the first and last time.

This episode blew me away. There have been a number of standout episodes so far, but this one is head and shoulders above the rest. It's a perfect creation in every way, a short film that stands on its own two feet thanks to its unique stylization, lush and lively animation, great directing, simple but universal story, fun guest characters, and richly fleshed out alien world. As of now, this is the show's must-see episode.

We also have in this episode the show's first true solo animator episode (although there are seconds, and Michio Mihara nearly drew episode 6 by himself). This is one of those periodic one-man-show episodes that rolls around every few years announcing the arrival of a particularly talented individual. The individual in question this time is Oshiyama Kiyotaka, whose prior appearance in the show was as sakkan of Eunyoung Choi's episode 9 (plus designing a few things). I'm impressed that he had enough time to sakkan Eunyoung Choi's episode in addition to handling most of the tasks on this episode. Not surprising that he helped bring alive my previous favorite episode in the show.

Here, Oshiyama Kiyotaka wrote, did scene and character designs, storyboarded, directed, drew all of the key animation, and sakkan'd (the seconds I guess). As is often the case when someone is given the opportunity of total creative control like this, the results aren't just bluster; he had it in him to make it work. This is a rare case when one dude is oozing so much talent that he can single-handedly produce something far superior to what a big team could. It's a beautiful, satisfying, entertaining and creative piece of animation in many ways. What's best about it is that it has an open-ended, malleable, personal touch in its sensibility and style, which to me shows a creator with the potential for greatness.

The funny thing is that I knew his name before from Denno Coil among other places, but I had never known him to have such a strong personal style, nor to be capable of creating a film from the ground up like this. It appears that he created this style out of nowhere for the episode, which is very impressive. But you can also sense that what he's done in the preceding years has molded him into who he is today. Over the last seven years he's been involved in a number of films with a strong animated component, and I think it's transformed him from a talent with potential to a potent force.

First there's the unjustly neglected Doraemon: Nobita and the Legend of the Green Giant film from 2008, which he worked on after Denno Coil. It's probably the most impressive film in the whole Doraemon franchise in terms of creativity and sheer force of animation, thanks to the combined forces of director Ayumu Watanabe and animation director Shizue Kaneko, who carries on the tradition of Kenichi Konishi's Nobita's Dinosaur 2006 reboot. It deserves to be better known.

After that, he became sporadically involved at Ghibli, working on Arietty and the remarkably animated Mr. Dough and the Egg short in 2010 and The Wind Rises in 2013. Inbetween these he did animation on Letter to Momo and worked as animation director on the FMA: Milos film, which was probably one of the major formative experiences of the period. Not coincidentally, he worked under Space Dandy director Shingo Natsume on the FMA movie. Natsume himself had worked previously as assistant animation director on the Green Giant movie as well as doing key animation on the Nobita's Dinosaur 2006, so all of these folks fall under the Konishi umbrella. I think this core Konishi tribe and its various other associated people like Ryotaro Makihara are the most interesting people in the industry at the moment. If they got together, they could create a really amazing film. I could easily have seen Oshiyama going Ghibli if the studio hadn't taken its recent lamentable turn. When will we see a truly great movie from a studio other than Ghibli? It seems like it's been too long.

His style feels like a blending of the best parts of Moebius and Miyazaki. The gruff old man and bubbly kid with popping features seem torn straight from a page of Miyazaki's playbook, while the various designs have the loopy, organic madness of Moebius. The animation has amazing flexibility and variety. He can switch from the realistic timing of the old man gripping the slipping rope to the abstract undulations of the waves. The thick, uneven lines have a lovely analog, tactile feeling that seems to harken back to Konishi. The coloring, animation, designs and characterizations combine to create an epic, fun, thrilling and immersive mood in the best Ghibli tradition. We switch from beautiful, still, bucolic scenes that dazzle with their natural eye for simple natural beauty, to dynamic action that soars through space in virtuosic animation. Along the way, we get to know a few colorful inhabitants like the gruff old fisherman Rudori and the Ponyo-like peppy androgynous Eshime who we fall in love with immediately. You come away wishing you could go on watching these people's adventures forever.

The underwater dream sequence reminds of the Yoshiaki Kawajiri-animated shark sequence in the first episode of Future Boy Conan, the child's home looks like Howl's moving castle, and the abstract waves in the climax remind simultaneously of Ponyo and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. The episode comes across as the show's "fairly tale" episode, and indeed they explicitly mention the word "mukashibanashi" in the episode. I've often lamented the lack of a modern-day version of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi to give animators a regular opportunity to flex their muscles in more creative concepts and freer animation, and I think this episode gives a taste of what an episode from such a show could and should look like.

Dandy looks totally different, but I like the new Dandy. It's the same one we saw in Choi Eunyoung's episode - his pompadour is a tower, he's more lanky, simplified, his lines thicker, drawn more loosely and roughly. He'd look out of place if he wasn't different. He wears a fisherman's fundoshi without any advance warning, in the style of traditional fishermen, as he would in a Mukashibanashi episode.

As in the case of Choi Eunyoung's episode, the music is more beautiful and well-integrated than usual. It feels scored exclusively for this episode, with fewer of the regular tunes that recur in each episode. The eerie percussive bass guitar playing with spacey electronic sounds zooming in and out during the fishing scene was particularly nice and effective. I like that the art has plenty of opportunities to shine. Many of the shots of Dandy and the kid on the fishing boat alone during the first half create a lovely, delicate moment entirely thanks to the art.

On top of all that, animating waves and people in boats on the waves in such convincing detail for a TV episode is quite impressive. The whole last few minutes are basically constant motion, so I can envision he must have spent at least 7000 drawings on the episode. At the same time, it doesn't feel like he's just throwing drawings out there randomly.

The "moonagi" seems to be a cross between moon and unagi, since it comes to the surface when the moon approaches. It's somehow mythical and godlike yet deeply organic and animalistic in a way that reminds of the Daidarabocchi in Mononoke Hime, particularly the scene where it rises enshrouded by its kind into the sky.

The fairy tale/fishing episode ends on nice, roundly satisfying thematic note that ties things together. Like many legends, it turns out the legend of the moonagi was a folk explanation of misunderstood animal behavior - an interstellar version of eel behavior in this case. Every few thousand years, the moonagi cross over to Eshime's planet to spawn, and when their freshwater planet returns after after eons on its elliptical orbit, they climb a water ladder (hence the Japanese phrase unaginobori) to return to the fresh water of their home planet to mature. It's a pleasingly seamless combination of folk tale and sci-fi.

I hope to see more from Oshiyama Kiyotaka, but I'm thankful to team Watanabe for letting this talented guy make an episode just the way he wanted. I honestly would never have expected to see artistic work of this kind from Bones of all places.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

02:50:00 pm , 906 words, 1729 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #17

Dandy transfers into the Beverly Hills-like Andromeda Academy for rich aliens in an attempt to find a rare alien, but winds up in High School Musical hell...

This is the Space Dandy musical episode. Mover-school animator Takaaki Wada helms as storyboarder/director, accompanied by a bevy of similarly talented animators who bring the animation side of things to life in an impressive way under the aegis of sakkan Hiroyuki Aoyama. Wada does a great job translating the dramatic conventions of western musicals into the language of Japanese song & dance idol culture, but it makes for an almost lethal combo punch of cheese if you're allergic to both, as I am, so I found the episode more of a slog. The generous schedule really shows in this high-quality episode, which has a large cast of guest alien characters that are vividly animated. On the other hand, it feels like one of the more conventionally 'anime' episodes in its sensibility.

Wada has a track record of working on song and dance style material, from Kaleido Star to Aria the Natural, so it doesn't surprise me that he'd helm this episode. He's obviously into this material, and good for him. He does a great job bringing it to life. I know Space Dandy as a show is going for a variety show style, but I'm curious whether it was Shinichiro Watanabe's idea to do a high school musical episode or Wada suggested it. I used to bemoan the fact that a talented animator was working on so and so show because I thought it was beneath him or her, until I came to realize that Japanese animators are people, too, and have different tastes, and some are perfectly happy working on material that I personally don't care for. After all these years I still forget that you can't use the same yardstick to judge all art or animation. It can be a challenge determining to what extent, if at all, you need to forego your personal tastes when evaluating the quality of an anime.

They went to considerable lengths to make the episode work, hiring dorama writer Hayashi Mori to write the lyric-heavy episode as well as using dance footage of two street dance performers as reference for the dancing in the episode's finale. I can't say I'm very fond of referenced animation in general or here in particular, as I find it kind of lifeless, but I understand how hard it must be to create an episode full of dance animation without it. The episode also references in the other sense of the term, which probably reduces my appreciation of the episode as I just don't get a lot of the references (except for things like Slimer and ET, which seem kind of randomly thrown-in). One thing that nagged me was that, apart from an early shot showing the high school space ship, there is nothing in the episode that makes use of the trappings of the Space Dandy universe, which seems both lazy and a waste. This episode could have been part of any random anime show.

I personally prefer seeing more unusual styles in the show like Masaaki Yuasa and Choi Eunyoung, but it wouldn't be a good variety show if it was entirely focused on more artistic styles - it would get too one-note. At least this way you really feel like each episode's creators are actually doing what they personally want to do.

Wada doesn't head the animation as he often does in episodes he storyboards/directs, and as he famously did in Kaleido Star. Instead, Mamoru Hosoda regular Hiroyuki Aoyama does a great job on that front. His characters are minimally drawn and move a lot, and his acting is inventive without relying on idiosyncratic drawings or other crutches. It's just good, solid acting. Dandy has little reaction shots throughout the episode that are particularly tasty in that regard, like the shot just before the training montage where he says "Sometimes a man needs to dance even when he knows he's going to lose." Aoyama also animated the training montage.

The roster of animators is among the show's most impressive - Gosei Oda, Yutaka Nakamura, Ayako Hata, Kenji Hachizaki, Takashi Mukoda, Hironori Tanaka, Chikashi Kubota, Hiroshi Shimizu, Takaaki Wada, Hiroyuki Aoyama... But despite all the movement, I wasn't particularly fond of the dance animation, mostly for reasons of personal taste. The only dancing bit I liked in the episode was the sequence animated by Gosei Oda where QT and Meow dance. It's the most idiosyncratic drawing in the ep, but I love the guy's style. He can bend and warp characters in a way that really works and feels kind of A Pro-school. His sequences are always a delight. Plus he shows that it's full well possible to create dance animation that's fun to watch without needing to use reference footage.

Yutaka Nakamura took a stab at reference animation for the first time - you can spot his work from the characteristic folds and swooshes during quick movements - but he's honestly better coming up with movements on his own. What an irony that movements he created entirely out of his head seem more realistic and exciting than movements referenced from actual human footage. I liked the bit where Dandy is picked up by the giant robot, but I couldn't tell who did it. Chikashi Kubota maybe? I couldn't identify much else despite the impressive list of names.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

01:10:00 pm , 1097 words, 2800 views     Categories: TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #16

Dandy & co. go shopping for dinner, but instead come back with a teleporting flashlight that takes them on a roundabout adventure that eventually leads back to... dinner.

The much-awaited Masaaki Yuasa episode is here, and it's a clever little puzzle of a confection of a kind that only Yuasa could create. Stylistically it doesn't stick out as much as you would expect. The drawings are pretty on-model. I was initially a little disappointed in that regard, although the quality of the episode more than made up for that. I was hoping it to be a bash of Yuasa drawings. But I'm heartened to see how professional Yuasa can be. You don't have to totally ignore model to create something completely original and captivating, which he has here while creating an episode that fits perfectly into the show.

What makes Yuasa Yuasa is that he creates little hermetically constructed worlds that give rise to drama. Characters aren't plopped down somewhere; they're part and parcel of the mechanics of a universe, which sets the wheels of fate in motion. That's what makes it a Yuasa creation; the drawings don't have to be his, as they weren't in Kaiba.

Here the mechanics of astral bodies are the actual driving force of the narrative. An alien earth inhabited by intelligent fish is about to be engulfed by a sun as its orbit brings it too close. The schematic explanation of the phenomenon is very Yuasa in how efficiently and simply it boils down a complicated situation. There are also a lot of layers to the story that tie together in a satisfying way. The fish astronaut has a complicated name that by chance ends with 'carpaccio' - he's both a tragic figure who set out to save his people, and in the end the crew's grilled fish dinner. The moment where the famished/concerned Meow runs to save Carpaccio and grabs the grill on the door to rescue him from the flames, and we see a shot of him as a grilled fish is just brilliant in a way that's hard to express.

Small-scale yet epic, comic yet tragic, it's simultaneously the story of one man's struggle to save his people, a civilization's destruction, and delicious grilled fish. You come away feeling for Carpaccio's plight, but also for the famished Meow. It's also a grandiose enactment of the titular saying "isogaba mawaru", which doesn't have an exact equivalent in English but basically means "take the long way around if you're in a hurry". At one point this is expressed in miniature in the episode: there's a big hole in the flounder on which Meow and Dandy are zooming over the landscape. Dandy attempts to walk straight towards Meow, but falls in the hole. He should have taken the long way around. Always take the long way around. It's a fitting motto for the character.

Yuasa makes good use of the sci-fi setting. He plays with gravity and space, pushing the narrative forward using the astrophysics aspects of the setting. He upends our expectations of physicality in a way that ties into the whole theme of going around versus straight. The entire sequence on the moon is full of delightfully disorienting moments - when the crew suddenly start sliding across the surface for some mysterious reason... Dandy falling into one of the holes all of a sudden, only to suddenly stop in mid-air, grab hold of the wall and climb in the other direction towards the surface... The crew riding a column of water towards the other planet.

Yuasa even managed to involve Dr. Gel in the proceedings. It's a quick but perfect weekly appearance - he lands his ship and utters his usual catchphrase, in the process providing Dandy with the shadow he needed to grab the transporter and beam out, just before getting annihilated by the sun. I like the droll pun where Carpaccio utters the expression of surprise "gyo!" when he sees Dandy, which also happens to mean fish. Yuasa's mascot character even makes an appearance in the food court at the beginning in the guise of one of the food items.

On the animation side of things, the unique aspect of this episode is that Yuasa himself recruited foreign animators for the episode via social media, and the episode features animation work by the eight foreign animators who were recruited. Their animation doesn't stick out as much as you would expect and gives the episode a nice richness. Several of them have been nice enough to indicate which parts they did on their blogs: Ben Li the part where Meow tries to grab Carpaccio as he parachutes up to the surface of his earth; William Gibbons various shots of the crew after they land on Carpaccio's home planet; and Jeremy Polgar Meow lunging at Carpaccio. Apparently Faouzi Hammadi animated the crew running from the sun. It would be great to find out what the other people did.

Other than these guys, Shinya Ohira provided the standout scene in his usual style - Dandy revving the engine on the boat as it rides up the column of water. Classic Ohira and reminds of various shots he's done in the past - not least similar material in Slime Adventures, the tidal wave in Otogizoushi ep 6 and the flood in the Tsubasa Chronicle movie. But his work continues to evolve and feels more dense and more stylized than before. The close-ups of Dandy in the scene are quite fun, with his Kabuki jaw. And you can see the pencil strokes very clearly in the final product, something you couldn't in earlier years before the technology facilitated this sort of thing. It's all super chaotic and Wanwa hyper-expressive with its perspective zooming around constantly, and yet when the ship bounds on the waves it feels believable and weighty. Michio Mihara and Hiroyuki Aoyama also provided some animation. The bit where Dandy falls into the hole looks like Yuasa himself. Meow's yahoo at the end also looked very Yuasa.

The backgrounds are usually pretty interesting in a Yuasa production, and the backgrounds here are no exception. They seem to have been mostly done in watercolor by a person named Eriko Shibayama. I don't know the name, but she seems to hail from either Shin-Ei or Ajia-Do in view of her past work, which makes the connection obvious. Perhaps she's part of the new crew at Science Saru. I liked how some of the buildings on Carpaccio's home planet looked like a woman lying on her back with her legs open (and a transport tube sticking straight into her...).

Monday, July 21, 2014

07:39:00 pm , 879 words, 3781 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #15

Dandy gets lured to a faraway planet by the prospect of partying with a hot alien, but winds up in the sights of a bizarre smile-hunting puppet.

This is one of the less slapstick episodes, which is not to say one of the more serious. Dandy doesn't have serious episode like Champloo did to contrast with the silly episodes. What Dandy has is weird episodes, and this is one of them alongside episode 11 about the library book. I don't mind weird, but the problem with this episode is that it doesn't quite gel. It doesn't have a clear thrust, and leaves a weak impression, even though technically it's quite well produced.

The writer is Nobumoto Keiko from episode 8 about Laika the dog. Her style is notably different from her junior and the show's dominant writing force, Kimiko Ueno. She's more old school, sometimes even a little stuffy, weaving complex themes into her stories rather than merely pumping out lighthearted comedy. When it works, it works, but here it feels like a bit of a jumble, combining things arbitrarily to suit the plot. The river of time in the climax seems a little underdeveloped and casually thrown in. The buildings appearing out of the river at the climax only felt nonsensical and forced, whereas a similar tactic in the climax of Mind Game was convincing visually and metaphorically.

The main alien in the show, the Ukelele Man, is one of the show's first dark characters, but he seems burdened with a bit too much thematic striving on the part of the writing. An entertainer trapped in a rigid, emotionless mask - a tragic creature, the only one of his race, he seeks out other creatures to steal their smiles. It's oddly portentious in the company of zombies and boobies. I was a little reminded of the pierrot episode of Cowboy Bebop written by Sadayuki Murai.

That doesn't mean the episode is horrible. It's enjoyable enough to watch. I like the idea of an episode about masks, and this episode is interesting in that it latches onto that strange disturbing tension that makes masks fascinating, with their frozen expressions of glee or fear or what have you. A spirit seems to inhabit them, which is probably why they've been used in religious rituals the world over.

The luxurious schedule of the show also guarantees that there will be no low-quality episodes. There's no struggling with deadlines here like in Ping Pong, and it shows. Everything is almost too well polished. The storyboard is by Masashi Ikeda, who I remember as the director of episode 29 of Votoms, although obviously he's gone on to do much work as series director for which he's better remembered now. It doesn't have a lot of quirks, but it gets the job done well enough.

I had a hard time figuring out what the crew were arguing about at the beginning, and then I realized it's a band called Shakatak that apparently only people in Japan still care about. The show manages to drum up some pretty obscure old music references every once in a while.

Yurkio Chiba sakkans the characters and Bones regular mecha man Eiji Nakata presumably handles the mecha. I'm quite fond of Yuriko Chiba's rendition of Dandy - more lanky and angular but with some great expressions, and an almost Lupin-esque elfin quality. There was some nice lavish surfing animation at the climax. I'm guessing Eiji Nakata himself handled this, since surfing robots were his thing in Eureka 7, and Yutaka Nakamura handled the Ukelele Man burning up at the end. His amazing rendering of the flames and quick timing are distinctive. My favorite bit in the ep was the handful of shots where the Ukelele Man comes alive from the tree, but I don't know who did those. Maybe Chikashi Kubota?

On the design side of things, we got another cool design from Takuhito Kusanagi - the mailman - but as usual it was on the screen for literally 3 seconds and had about as many drawings as the design. The Ukelele Man was designed by manga-ka Sho Tajima, who I remember back in the day from the manga Madara. There wasn't much animation in the episode that really brought the character alive in a way that did justice to the movement of a puppet. The opening scene probably moved him best. I would have liked to see some animation in the style of that old episode of Ninku with puppet-fu animation by Tetsuya Nishio.

Kiyotaka Oshiyama designed the guitar player at the beginning, Shingo Natsume the praying mantis aliens, and main character designer Yoshiyuki Ito the capybara alien. As usual, they throw in alien designs from a variety of people with very different styles into one episode, making for a pleasing variety. Hideyasu Narita of the art studio Kusanagi designed some very nice scenery for the alien planet. I'm assuming Takuhito Kusanagi is unrelated to the art studio, though I've always wondered about that. (their names are written differently)

The episodes often have special guest voice actors in addition to guest designers, and this time around the big name was Toshio "Ataru" Furukawa. He must be getting up there in years, but his voice is still youthful enough, if without the high-pitched intensity of his old role.

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