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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Sunday, August 15, 2004

11:35:05 pm , 1963 words, 6191 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Spotlight on Satoru Utsunomiya

The more I think about Mind Game, the more it reminds me, in spirit, in theme, of Nokto de la Galaksia Fervojo (I like the Esperanto title). Two more different films I could not have chosen in terms of every other aspect - animation, directing, mood. Yet I like that complementary yin-yang pairing.


I was just rewatching one of my favorite anime, Popolo Crois. No, neither of the TV series. The anime part of the first game. I haven't played an RPG game since I was like fifteen years old, but I played through this one not long ago just to see the anime parts, and it was worth the effort. (It was kind of fun, I admit. It sent me back to my youth spent playing games just like this one.) It's a shame this piece isn't more well known. Although it lasts under ten minutes in total, and consists of disconnected sequences, it's probably my favorite "film" featuring animation by Satoru Utsunomiya (宇都宮理・うつのみやさとる・うつのみや理), because it's the one where he first had the chance to go all the way with the unique style of animation he had perfected by that point.

Who is Satoru Utsunomiya? To certain animators like Toshiyuki Inoue, Tetsuya Nishio and Shinya Ohira, three of the figures responsible for some of the best Japanese animation work of the 90s, he was a major influence and inspiration. To anime fans like me, he is one of the most interesting animators of the last twenty years, whose inimitable work is a constant source of delight. Personally, he is one of the animators who embodies what it is that I love about Japanese animation. He ripened within the system of the commercial animation industry to eventually discover and elaborate his own completely original and individual style. There are a lot of animators I admire, but Utsunomiya is one I can say is truly a passion.

Many people over here will have discovered Utsunomiya with Paranoia Agent episode 8, which seems to be getting the appreciation it deserves from fans, even if they don't know he did it. He was the director, animation director and storyboarder of this episode. He even drew key animation. Simply put, what you see in this episode is Utsunomiya from tip to toe. It's a Satoru Utsunomiya film buried in a Satoshi Kon TV series. The appearance of this major new piece by Utsunomiya offers a good opportunity to turn back and examine his past work.

One of the main things that prompted Utsunomiya to decide to try to become an animator was having seen bits of Toei Doga films broadcast on TV. Later on a friend showed him flip-book of animation by Sadao Tsukioka for the scene where Susanoo is fighting an animal in Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon, which, he said, combined realism and stretch-and-squash in a way that stunned him like nothing he'd ever seen and seemed to speak to him of the wonderful possibilites of animation. He was so bewitched by the beauty of what he saw that he decided he would try to learn the ropes from the people who created those movements.

Initially he went to Telecom just for a visit, to meet one of his idols, Yasuo Otsuka, and maybe get an autograph. Instead he wound up getting hired and staying for a year and a half learning the basics of animation. After this apprenticeship, already endowed with a firm sense of the direction he wanted to go -- dynamic visuals based strongly on reality -- he was disappointed to learn of the tremendous technical limits of the medium, and considered giving up animation altogether. But after then tasting the pleasures of animation in his first key animation for The Yearling in 1983, he changed his mind and decided to stay, continuing on at Madhouse for a few years before going freelance. Rin Taro recalls that Utsunomiya's animation even at this early stage was already extremely good.

It was during this period that he had the stimulating opportunity to work alongside people like Takashi Nakamura, Koji Morimoto and Yasuomi Umetsu, each a skilled animator with his own unique aesthetic and approach to animation. This experience greatly influenced his development, and leads to the first sequence that stands out as a truly unique personal creation, the opening fight of Battle Royale High School (1987), with its dynamic camera movements and extremely fast kung-fu style action unlike anything anyone else was doing at the time. His experience working on The Yearling had taught him that he wanted to do action, and his first opportunity to animate an action scene totally as he wanted came in 1985 with episodes 8 and 13 of the foreign co-production Around the World in 80 Days.

After this he participated in Akira in 1988, the major turning point of the era, which joined together many of the realistic-school animators who would go on to lead the next generation, most notably Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto. The one extremely important realist-school animator who was not there was Mitsuo Iso, who was instead launching his own career in Char's Counterattack at the time, subsequently going on to invent his own highly influential approach to realistic animation that would be one of the other major sources of inspiration for Utsunomiya over the next few years.

To the major animators of the era, and many anime fans in Japan, however, the anime of this period that had the most impact was not Akira but Utsunomiya's Gosenzosama Banbanzai!, a 6-episode OVA series directed by Mamoru Oshii released in 1989. Where Akira's animation seemed to point backwards to Disney and a forced fluidity alien to much of Japanese animation up until then, Gosenzo seemed to point forward to a new realism full of possibility, with its highly realistic movements based on strict joint dynamics, and the radically simplified character designs. If when rewatched today the animation does not seem to have as much of an impact as people relate that it had when they first saw it when it was released, perhaps that's because of the wide-ranging influence it has had on a lot of the anime that followed. Its innovations have in effect been integrated into the fabric of anime in much the same way as Otsuka's have, making them hard to discern.

This series' credit screen basically reads like a roll-call of the most important animators of the period: Mitsuo Iso, Shinya Ohira, Shinji Hashimoto, Matsumoto Norio, Tatsuyuki Tanaka, Masahito Yamashita, Osamu Tanabe, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, Hidekazu Ohara, Kazuchika Kise... This is the film that made Utsunomiya's name, and it remains the one for which he is most well known (which unforunately speaks more than anything to the regrettable fact that he has not had an opportunity to create a major work of the scale of this OVA series since then).

In the immediate aftermath of this film he made one of his other major efforts, Peek the Whale, directed by Koji Morimoto. Utsunomiya considers this film a failure in terms of his own work on the film due numerous factors that proved inconducive to motivating his enthusiasm for the project, including his inability to exert complete control over the character designs and a style of directing that put major limits on his freedom of movement. Although it's clear, watching the film, that it could have been more, it's still an amazing film like no other then or now, one of those unfairly neglected full-length features that deserves to be seen by more people, and the sheer pleasure of seeing Utsunomiya's characters move about is truly something special. There's a particularly great sequence animated by Toshiyuki Inoue right at the very beginning. What makes Utsunomiya unique is that every moment is a joy to watch when he is the animation director, regardless of who is animating. You sense that his unique theoretical approach is the underpinning structure behind every bit of animation.

After providing animation for Run, Melos the next year, in 1994 he made his debut as a director with episode 9 of the Hakkenden OVA series, which paved the way for Ohira's revolutionary episode 10. Although again Utsunomiya, nothing if not self-critical, considers this episode a failure, it is again a truly masterful film, and the next most interesting episode in the series after 10 and 1. There was something of a disconnect in terms of getting across what he wanted with the episode to animation director Shinji Hashimoto, and although the result is quite amazing to behold, full of wonderful realism and minute attention to detail, it subtly but decisively veers a bit off the trajectory indicated by Gosenzo and Peek. But that isn't really Hashimoto's fault. He did great work, he's just not Utsunomiya. Where we see what Utsunomiya undoubtedly wanted for the film is in his own animation of the woman outside of the house.

After then providing two great action sequences for Yugen Kaisha, Utsunomiya finally provided animation for the Popolo Crois game. I'll list a few credits here, because it's pretty impressive.

Character Design: Atsuko Fukushima
Director, Storyboard: Ryutaro Nakamura
Character Supervisor: Kune Motoki
Key Animation: Satoru Mizuguchi (Satoru Utsunomiya), Mitsuo Iso, Katsumi Matsuda, Yasunori Miyazawa, Masashi Ishihama, Ken'ichi Yamaguchi, Miyahiro Magari, Hitoshi Haga, Yoshio Mizumura, Kenji Mizuhata

Of particular interest besides Utsunomiya's animation for the second section (of a total four) is Iso's (or alternately Yasunori Miyazawa's, according to Masaaki Yuasa) animation of the giant in the fourth section.

Miyazawa also provides animation and draws storyboard for the animation part of the second game, which features IG regulars Tetsuya Nishio as character designer and animation director and Kenji Kamiyama as director/storyboarder. I'm not familiar with Miyazawa's work, but I'm told he animated the psychedelic and very impressive climax sequence with the larva at the end of Dead Leaves.

There's also the Popolo Crois pilot, the first animated Popolo Crois film, which is a very impressive film in its own right, done in a completely different but compelling style, with very high production values.

And then in the first TV series Norio Matsumoto did some great work in two episodes, and in the second series Yoshinori Kanada made that famous comeback episode. Overall, this curious history of various small Popolo Crois ventures produced a lot of good animation over the course of the 90s that people over here pretty much never saw. And all of it was designed by Atsuko Fukushima, probably the female animator with the most individual style of the last twenty years in Japan, who has left behind all too little work since her still unsurpassed masterwork Labyrinth Labyrinthos (which also featured work by Ohashi Manabu, who was deeply involved in several of the Popolo Crois games).

But to get back on topic, Utsunomiya then provided animation for two of Koji Morimoto's music videos before going on to do what was probably his most characteristic piece since Gosenzosama: the subway section of Ghiblies 2, which came two years before episode 8 of Paranoia Agent. The latter is in my opinion quite possibly his best overall piece because it showcases his immense directing talents in addition to his uncommon animation style. It is the culmination of all these various past assays, the one that works best as a unit, and therefore the one that will remain in people's memory the most. Brilliantly directed, with exactly the animation style Utsunomiya has been aiming for since he began with Gosenzosama, I'm guessing it is probably the first film he is satisfied with. If there's any justice in the world this will lead to him directing a film, though I wonder if Japan is capable of coming up with a project up to his level -- what we need to is a project that would be something like a Japanese Waking Life, and then we would see Utsunomiya really shine.



jay smith
jay smith [Visitor]

just had to say hi!

I’m really enjoying your daily blog.
I really don’t know were to start, as i pretty much agree with all of your point of views and your information about Japanese artists is unbelievably useful to me and my work colleges!

im also a PopoloCrois fan but for some reason (and even though I’ve owned a copy of it for years), I didn’t connect the style with peek the whale??

anyway i do have a question/recommendation, I recently watched episode 7 of “Samurai 7″. i mention this particular episode because it’s animated in a different style to the previous episodes. the thing is im sure I’ve seen this particular style somewhere else but cant quite put my finger on it. i was wondering if you had seen the series/episode and recognised the artist or style?

keep up the good work!!:)


08/16/04 @ 17:41
Ben [Visitor]

Oh man, thanks for bringing this to my attention. This is the best thing I’ve seen since ep 8 of PA. I actually spewed some rice out of my mouth watching this. I’ll write a post about it right now.

Thanks a lot for the kind words!

08/16/04 @ 20:39
jay smith
jay smith [Visitor]

yeah i’m just watching pa at the moment! episode 8 was fantastic, the whole series so far has been like an animated “Twin peaks".

08/16/04 @ 21:15
Ben [Visitor]

I forgot to address your Peek comment. There’s a definite difference between stuff animated by Utsunomiya and stuff on which he was just the animation director, for the obvious reason that he didn’t draw every drawing/come up with every movement in the latter. IMO to really get a taste of Utsunomiya you have to see his work as an animator.

08/19/04 @ 09:52
Random person
Random person [Visitor]

I was just re-going through the last set of Eureka 7 episodes when I noticed a “みずぐちさとる” in the credits and it rang a bell in my head. So it was Utsunomiya? It makes sense that he’d use a pen-name after the furore over the third opening, of course, but I totally didn’t expect him here. (Unless someone else decided to take on the same moniker)

By the way, that was episode 43, with the dancing scene you credited to Seiichi Hashimoto.

10/03/06 @ 02:27
Ben [Member]  

Good spot. I don’t know how I missed that. I had another look but nothing jumped out at me, so I can’t even guess what he might have done.

10/04/06 @ 15:49
drmecha [Visitor]  

(I post also this message in the main forum):

In the ending of an episode of Lensman TV works Nobuyuki Kitajima, Shigeru Morikawa and others animators of Studio Eight by Ten.
After this animators works in episodes of Ozu no Mahotsukai (1986_Panmedia) for Studio 8x10 (meanwhile Nobuyuki Kitajima passes to AIC).

I see Utsunomiya Works in this studio, but it’s all.

I want more data of Utsunomiya and this Studio!!!!!!!!

The japanese page animestyle mentions this Studio but no more data.


11/21/07 @ 10:58
Ben [Member]  

I’m afraid I can’t provide you with any more detailed info about this studio, Drmecha. It appears Satoru Utsunomiya did his first work as a key animator at this studio, on the side, while he was still training at Telecom, and the experience of discovering the appeal of movement through his work at the studio is what kept him (barely) working in animation, short of which apparently he was getting frustrated with the limitations of the medium and considering leaving for other pastures. So that interview says, to anyone who is interested. Short of fact, all I can do is suppose. I suppose it was a small subcontracting studio, one of the very many such that proliferated during the 1980s. And I suppose the name of the studio must have come from the size of film used in those old-school box cameras, for some reason.

11/23/07 @ 15:31