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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Thursday, February 16, 2012

03:27:00 pm , 1322 words, 6556 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Submarine 707R


I sought out the two-part Submarine 707R OVA series from 2003-2004 because it was directed by Shoichi Masuo, one of the great effects animators of the last thirty years in Japan. I wrote a post about him before. The latter post was mainly about his work on Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, in which he animated numerous scenes involving submarines. Directing a whole OVA of submarine action was an obvious next step for this animator. I assumed that the direct-to-video format and intervening decade-plus of advances in production knowhow would have allowed him the technical means, schedule and budget to create even better underwater sub action and visual effects than he was able under the constraints of the TV format.

I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, but I certainly wasn't expecting the unmitigated disaster that greeted me. There was so much wrong with this show that I had a hard time fathoming how it came to be produced. It just goes to show that you can't reason quality. There is no guarantee that a good animator will make a good director, even when the show seems like the perfect fit for a particular animator's talent. For every Masaaki Yuasa or a Takeshi Koike, there must be 10 Shoichi Masuos. I love the guy as an animator, and perhaps there were factors beyond his control during the production of this show that led to these results, but there is just no silver lining in this cloud.

What's even more amazing is that there isn't even very much compelling effects work in Submarine 707R. I'm the kind of geeky viewer who will gladly watch a show I otherwise despise if it features good animation by an animator I like. I would have been happy if it turned out to be a vapid, trite, sloppily-directed effects extravaganza. But there were barely 5 good explosions in the whole thing. What happened?

Shoichi Masuo clearly elected to adapt this manga into an anime because it would allow him to create exciting underwater sub action in the vein of the wonderful, classic scenes of that ilk in Nadia. As if to reinforce the comparison, Hideaki Anno directed the opening sequence, which depicts the 707 being assembled in the style of sepia-colored retro footage. We've seen the same sort of thing from Anno numerous times before; it's one of his stock tricks. But Nadia worked because it had a good directing team; advances in technology do not equate to better anime. Quite the opposite: The ease with which CGI can be deployed seems to have the effect of emboldening second-rate directors who do not have the attention to detail or the director's instinct to realize when a particular visual is simply not working. Back then a hack wouldn't have had the ability to animate such an arduous scene.

The scenes of the submarines in this OVA had the bland, half-hearted, amateurish quality of early CGI adopters from the 1990s - those shows that were brave enough to dare to combine hand-drawn animation with CGI mecha. They didn't know how to do it well, and it looked like crap, but it was kind of expected that CG anime had to go through growing pains. They had to start somewhere. I watched this OVA assuming, based on the evidence, that it was produced in the 1990s. I was shocked to learn it was such a recent project.

The CGI in this OVA is the perfect example of how paper-thin bad CGI feels. It entirely lacks the tactility and weightiness of hand-drawn animation. Even bad hand-drawn animation would have been better. The irony is that CGI was presumably adopted to animate the submarines as a way to make the underwater scenes feel more "real". But the hand-drawn submarines of Nadia felt infinitely more realistic. It's fascinating that the person responsible for those scenes, when working in the context of CGI, seems blind to the fact that the animation of the CGI subs is totally unconvincing. Merely being consistently on-model and easier to move isn't sufficient to impart a feeling of reality. The subs in Submarine 707R feel completely weightless -- and not because they're in the water. Masuo's animation in Nadia was the result of very precise calculations in terms of the drawing and the timing of the movement. The reliance on CGI appears to have short-circuited the most important faculty of animators.

But that's not even the worst thing about this OVA. The directing is a textbook example of bad directing in almost every imaginable way. The pace is astoundingly slow. It's like you're watching it in slo-mo. It feels suspiciously like they drew out 30 minutes' worth of material to 50 minutes. Characters appear in a context suggesting their reappearance, only to disappear. Narrative threads begin, only to be abruptly and capriciously replaced by entirely different narrative threads.

The character designs are a nonsensical mishmash of anime moeblobs, retro-styled characters straight out of an Osamu Tezuka manga from the 1950s, and just plain badly drawn characters. The character animation is nonexistent. The first fifteen minutes of episode 2 are a surreal succession of excruciatingly slow pans over sound effects, in a bald-faced scrabble to fill in the space left until the climactic sequence, which was obviously animated first. The rest of the show isn't much of an improvement.

The CGI floats against the hand-drawn animation like a sub does in the water - or more accurately, like a healthy turd does in the toilet. The two are bad in their own right, and they don't mix well at all. The music was awful generic tinny synth that did absolutely nothing to accentuate the drama and everything to accentuate the awful lack of budget. On the other hand, hollow-sounding orchestral synth renditions of W.W.II Japanese naval marches is the perfect musical expression of this show's awful subtext of jingoistic naval pride masquerading as action movie bombast.

The plot is a complete disaster. Most fundamentally, the motivation of the bad guy is never clearly explained, even though they drop vague hints in certain spots. He's the most transparent "madman bent on world domination" cypher ever - the dollar-store version of the bad guy in Mahiro Maeda's very similar and comparably successful Submarine No. 6, who was actually somewhat compelling because his motivation was thoroughly explored.

Skipping through it post-fact to remind myself what it looked like, I started to think, "It doesn't look that bad. Maybe I was being a little harsh." But sitting through both episodes was nothing less than agony. I don't mean to be mean-spirited. I usually focus on describing good shows to try to see what makes them good, but it can be equally educational about what makes a good anime to look at what makes a bad anime.

About the animation, it's sad that there was not more good animation. A few spots that stood out as having nice FX animation were probably the work of the late Toshiaki Tetsura, a talented mecha animator who died a premature death. Makoto Kobayashi, who is a great mecha designer with a unique style, is also present. In addition to helping out with layouts, he appears to have drawn various shots in the show, most notably the massive carrier seen at the beginning, pictured above. His style comes through clearly in the byzantine detailing of the deck of the carrier and the more 'melty' texture of the strokes. Soichiro Matsuda was also involved as an animator, so he may have done some of the good bits. The ubiquitous Kazutaka Miyatake was the mecha designer, and Hiromasa Ogura was the art director, though this is not one of his shining moments.

My disappointment stems primarily from the fact that I hold Shoichi Masuo in such high regard, and I would have liked to see an action-focused OVA that served as a dense summation of the great work Masuo had done in various places over the preceding decade and a half.



h_park [Member]

This post somewhat echoes Anipage Forum’s sentiment on Berserk movie.

I’ve defended Japanese animation industry’s painfully slow research and development of CG. Their CG is slowly improving on background elements and mechanical objects. As matter of fact, I just finished watching FREEDOM, which tries to blend hand drawn crowd with CG cast. It’s not perfect, but it has to start from somewhere. It’s going to take a while for CG to blend harmoniously with traditional 2D. Also it make me wonder how do Japanese fans feel about crappy CG on anime while video game has better 2D CG cinematics.

To me, what Japanese animation industry needs right now is constant exchange of knowledge among animators, CG artists, and art directors. Katsuhiro Otomo made art dept and CG dept to work together on Steamboy. As result, CG doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The final CG steam frost looked good when it blended well with background art.

It’s sad that your favorite animator wasn’t cut out to be a good director. Doesn’t it make you wonder exactly why things didn’t go well when the director has all the skills and credentials?

02/17/12 @ 01:53
Ben [Member]  

I think you get bad CG animation when you don’t respect CG animation the way Pixar et al do, and you just see it as a time- and money-saving means. That seems to be the problem with the CG animation in Submarine 707R: it’s nothing more than a shortcut to save them the menial labor of repeatedly drawing hard and difficult-to-draw objects from various angles. It’s just as labor-intensive a process to get good CG animation as it is to produce good traditional animation, so I see a fundamental flaw in relegating CG to a corner-cutting measure. Of course it’s going to look like crap. It’s ironic to me that they understand that it takes animators of talent and experience to make good traditional animation, but they don’t realize that the same applies to CG animation. They think they can just throw together some CG animation in their basement over a few weeks, and the audience won’t notice that it looks like crap. They have a ‘good enough’ attitude where they should be much more demanding.

Of course, the Japanese compete on much smaller budgets and schedules. It’s always been about squeezing blood from a stone in anime. I can easily imagine that CG was adopted here both because Masuo wanted to challenge himself to a new technology, and because schedule and budget required that CG be used in order to complete the film on time. It would undoubtedly have taken way longer and cost much more to hire animators to draw hundreds of shots’ worth of submarines moving from various angles. Hand-drawing the submarines was probably felt to be a lot of trouble for nothing, because it wouldn’t add much to the work expressively anyway. I think that’s the reason for the technical stinkery here, but it’s still hard to account for the horribly botched directing without knowing what went on behind the scenes. Let’s face it, animating and directing are two completely different things. Just like animation, directing requires a combination of natural talent and experience. Masuo at the very least didn’t have much of the latter (in terms of directing).

I’ll just add that some directors who started out as talented animators evolve to not be particularly attached to hand-drawn animation, despite what we would assume as fans of their early work. We see them as animators, but they’ve grown beyond that narrow focus and now have to account for a whole production. They see hand-drawn animation as just another means, and a needlessly time-consuming one at that. That’s exactly the case with Ichiro Itano. We love his early hand-drawn animation and wish he would make more, but he never wants to draw animation ever again now that he has CGI. We’re projecting our own wishes onto them in assuming that they should set out to achieve a particular aesthetic quality of animation. Their main focus is telling the story. There are some animators who develop into directors whose productions maintain a strong animator aesthetic (Yuasa etc.), and then there are others who leave all that sakuga-centric thinking behind and view it as a distraction from the critical element of storytelling.

02/17/12 @ 06:17
pete [Member]

H Park, I’d also add programmers since a lot of CGI depends on mathematics, informatics, physics etc. I mean if you want CGI to be as realistic as possible. It would be usefull if the CG artist has also some computer background. Eg how can you animate in CGI the sea or a storm without knowing some mathematical modelling or animate a plane without knowing some aeronautics? This is why video games are more successful, because there programmers and artists collaborate much better in that regard.

Haven’t seen that OVA and judging from your comments, I probably wont. Blue submarine is much better, though Yellow Submarine is still the best!.

Zipang, a similar series produced 2 years later used also cheap CGI for the naval and aerial battles but at least it had a good plot. But it ended with a cliffhanger due to the unfinished manga.

Personally I regard Yukikaze the pinnacle of blending CGI and traditional animation in OVA in a way that makes you marvel at both.

Now that you mentioned Nadia, I watched recently the Blue Ray version of the series and the submarine scenes you described look even better. Whole series looks just like watching for the first time. Just like Denno Coil, I liked that series even more, even the deserted island scenes.

02/18/12 @ 00:50
h_park [Member]

Those programmers are needed for repetitive and cumbersome aspect of realistic FX shots which remain “invisible” to audiences’ attention. Knowing Math and science to program certain FX CG is important, but they’re just cost and time-saving knowledge so that animators don’t have to spend too much time on animating every little cumbersome FX that audience won’t pay much attention to.

Speaking of Yukikaze, animation staff had to ride real fighter jet to experience what is it like. I don’t think they had to know aeronautics to animate CG airplanes. They did good job on research too.

I do acknowledge that Japanese are using CG to make cheaper and faster animation, which is the source of bad CG in many Anime. CG on Yukikaze is great. It worked because production staff focused it only on mechanical objects and some FX with great care. One thing that I want to see from Japanese is that they should try to use more CG for new artistic challenge. Things are not going to change as long as they’re being content with what they can do. Creators has to push the envelop while producers find more opportunity to fund experimentation.

When it comes to CG on cel shading and minor BG paintings, anime is doing all right. I wish they should do more on experimentation rather than being content with what they have. Anime stood out because they did something different despite their meager resource. I’m hoping for some daring Japanese CG artists to come up with something daring like their 2D predecessors with whatever they have.

03/27/12 @ 19:38