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, May 14, 2006

10:28:00 pm , 1431 words, 4615 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Revisiting 3x3 Eyes

I recently had the chance to rewatch an old favorite of mine, 3x3 Eyes. This was one of the shows that I watched in the very early days alongside Akira and Warriors of the Wind that lured me into anime. I remember not only buying the soundtrack(s) but also buying the original Japanese manga and attempting to read it with my then-rudimentary (nonexistent) Japanese skills. Mostly I just marvelled at Yuzo Takada's art.

I had completely forgotten what each of the 4 eps in the 1991 OVA series was about in the intervening decade, but as soon as I started watching, it all came back to me. The music in particular. The music is by the composer Kaoru Wada, and I'm surprised to find that my appreciation of it hasn't changed too much in the intervening years. It's still great, driving, exciting stuff, greatly contributing to the epic aura, and so much more musically substantial than most anime soundtracks. It's a big part of why the show had such an impact on me. I'd recommend seeking out his orchestral compositions to anyone who liked the soundtrack and wanted to hear more music like it. What I've heard is similar, and even better, in that it stands alone as drama-in-music. He's another great Japanese orchestral composer who also happens to have done soundtracks, like Akira "Godzilla" Ifukube.

Apart from that, I'm glad to say that my evaluation hasn't diminished. This is still a very memorable and enjoyable series watched today, and in fact I found it more genuinely engaging than most of what I see being made nowadays. It succeeds in creating a convincing feeling of adventure and epic grandeur, which seems to have become a lost art today. Here the spirit of adventure is natural and unforced and unselfconscious, which is unbelievably refreshing to see today. The people behind the unique feeling of the show, apart from Takada Yuzo, who wrote the original manga on which it's based, are director Nishio Daisuke and animation director Koichi Arai. Watching it you really feel that the directing and animation are working together as a unit to create this unique feeling.

Nishio went on to direct lots of Dragonball and more recently Kindaichi and a number of other shows with the Himeno/Araki animation director duo. What I like about the directing here is that the characters don't feel like they're going through paces. Each development is truly unexpected, and you're actually watching wondering what's going to happen next. A lot of things are elided over, unfortunately, and go unexplained, which leaves you scratching your head in spots, presumably because of the need to compress the massive original comic, but he manages to do it in a way that it seems natural, so it doesn't feel like the show has holes. Just the opposite, it feels good to watch something that doesn't feel like it has to fill in every little detail. It keeps moving to new places instead. Nishio's directing doesn't feel insulting or pandering, and never gets boring. It's truly balanced stuff. It's unfortunate that I haven't seen much from him since then.

What I came away from upon rewatching the OVAs was a feeling of a promise unfulfilled. I'm not talking about the fact that the series gets cut off right when it's getting good. I may sound perverse for saying so, but I kind of liked that things remained open that way. It's sad to see a story you like come to an end. I always found that unresolved mystery of what was going to happen somehow pleasant. What I'm talking about, rather, is that this show had a certain feeling of expansive adventure convincingly directed that I expected to find in all anime, and haven't. That's the downside to starting high. It's downhill from there. Most anime I've seen since then is predictable in story and characters and never succeeds in creating a genuine feeling of dramatic scale. That feeling of truly enjoying each moment of a long saga, of getting into the characters, isn't something I've gotten very often since then from anime, which is surprising since so much anime has attempted to create that sort of thing.

Last but not least, the other element is Koichi Arai. It's through his pen that those characters come alive. Not only are his designs a great interpretation of the original manga, I really feel that it's because of his drawings that interest is maintained constantly. Naturally it wouldn't work without Nishio's directing, but they work perfectly in sync. Right before this Arai drew all of the animation for an episode in an OVA series called Hanaichi Monme, and Nishio was the director of the episode. I've heard good things both about Arai's animation of the episode and the potent, realistic directing of Nishio, and so it's clear they had a wonderful symbiosis going. That's the sort of thing I most like to find - a great director/animator team. Nishio and Arai were the best together. I can't think of any other show on which Arai's style has been featured so prominently, as since then he's gone back to focusing on working as a solo animator. It's good in a sense, because I'd rather see him work as an animator, but part of me would like to see another short assay like 3x3 Eyes from Arai, to see what he'd do with it today.

What is it about his characters that I like so much? It's that they're expressive, and their expressions don't feel hackneyed, taken from the repertoire. They feel genuine. They feel like his own work. That's another broken promise - most anime I've seen since then can't be said to have that feeling of uniqueness. I find the difference especially stark in comparison with the bulk of anime being made now. There are very few times when I feel an animation director has come up with his own set of expressions and his own approach to form and so on. In Arai's hands each drawing feels right. Even in cases where drawings have been extensively corrected nowadays, I still don't get that feeling. It's a question of whether you have that touch or not. It also may have been a product of the era. Utsunomiya Satoru's Gosenzosama Banbanzai had just come out the year or two previously, so perhaps we're seeing the early influence of its unique approach to character animation in 3x3 Eyes. There's a strong feeling of three-dimensionality in the characters that seems similar, and a different basic approach towards what to move and when. The faces are modeled in a realistic fashion that reminds a bit of Otomo, so Akira may also have been a recent memory.

I also had a chance to watch the continuation that was made about four years later, this time three 45-minute eps. Perhaps nostalgia is a factor in there somewhere, but the continuation didn't have the magic of the first series for me. It was simply anime. It was Arai and Nishio who made the first series so unique, and without them it was just anime. Even Kaoru Wada's soundtrack seemed a little limp this time around, almost like a watered down version of the first. Exemplary of the stark difference are the designs, which did very little for me. There wasn't that feeling of enjoying the drawings throughout that there was under Arai. The contrast is actually helpful since it throws into relief the unique nature of Arai's drawings.

What's interesting is that the second series had about three times more animators per episode, yet it didn't have that feeling. The first series had Hideki Hamasu in each episode, clearly acting as the unspoken "main animator". I couldn't pick out his work, but he presumably must have done the main action sequences. Each episode of the second series had a number of interesting figures, and the action scenes were fairly good quality. The best was easily the bit around the 30-minute mark of ep 1, from the point where Yakumo summons Tochao to where he's stabbed, about thirty seconds in total. Toshiyuki Inoue is in the credits, and going by the date of production, 1995, I think it jives with the sort of movement Inoue would have been creating by that time. I also rather enjoyed the gesticulation around the point where the little girl is hit by the car in the second episode. To list interesting names I noted: ep 1 has Toshiyuki Inoue, Yasuhiro Aoki; ep 2 has Jiro Kanai, Yasuhiro Aoki, Aoki Mariko, Masami Goto; and ep 3 has Tatsuya Tomaru, Masahiko Kubo, Keisuke Watabe.



Muffin [Visitor]

Thank you so much. What a terrific and insightful review of the series. You really nail it in a way that I think no-one else could. Very good of you to mention Nishio’s directing as well. As there’s a great sense of unity to all the elements of the film. And Wada’s soundtrack is indeed amazing. Mysterious and epic in a way that I have rarely heard elsewhere.

Speaking of the second OAV, I perfectly understand how you feel. I’m very ambivalent about it as well, though I think a great number of good things can be said about it. It certainly has good dynamism and consistency as an unfolding drama and adventure story. And the story itself is certainly an imaginative follow-up, with one of the most affecting twist-endings I’ve seen(thanks mostly to Takada).

What really seem to drag it down are the unevenness in its overall sense of design and mood. Particulary the handling of the charachters. CD/AD Kumagai really misses the mark on the look and feel of the charachters(and perhaps we should blame the director as well). While superficially resembling the overall design approach of Takada. It’s basically a simplified cartoon-representation of his very flexible and impressionistic style.

Arai not only seemed to “get it” but made it entirely his own. Kumagai seems like a skilled technician, but lacking in imagination and going for the obvious.

And indeed, there was something unique about the brooding, low-key approach of the original.

One of my favourite sequences from the original was Pai/Sanjiyan telling her story at the gravesite of Takuhi. The mood of the scene, the implications of her story, the ominious image of the villains and the expression of the charachters couldn’t possibly have been more right.

In fact, any scene with the Sanjiyan was a highlight.

A somewhat obscure sequence I also liked was the credit sequence of ep 1. where we are treated to an incredibly shadowy and atmospheric image of Kaiyanwangs tomb as the camera slowly zooms out to reveal the ruins of the Sanjiyan temple. I really dug the simple mystery of the image as we had no idea what it was supposed to mean at this point. but I could go on…

And I have no sympathy for people who bitch about the story lacking a conclusion. I couldn’t imagine a better (open)ending than what we were given.

I like how you talk about “enjoying the drawings throughout". Which is indeed true for this series. As well as being exactly the sort of thing I want from anime at its very best. The feeling that every single drawing/composition moves the story forward, always building on the image before it while creating a whole new world for you to discover with each passing step. 3x3 eyes certainly achieves this, both in story and style.

I think my lingering fondness for the flexibility of the OAV format to tell a epic story comes dirctly from my appreciation of 3x3 Eyes.

I don’t know about you, but one of my other favourites in this sense is none other than the Urotsukidoji series.

What annoys me about most so-called epic anime, often done as tv series these days, is the overfamiliarity and uncinematic episodic feeling you get. Like you’re *wading* your way through a lot of information in order to piece together an appreciation of the story or charachters.

05/15/06 @ 04:10
Ben [Member]  

And a big thanks to you for prompting me to revisit the show. I’m very glad I did. Much agreement all around to your further comments, which are also very good. Nishio had a knack for knowing how to let simple images and moments speak for themselves without having to overdo anything. I get the feeling that’s part of what made those little moments throughout the show so memorable.

I’m mostly being tripped up by the disappointing drawings of the second sally, as you’re definitely right that it has its merits. It managed the feat of simultaneously acting as a continuation, standing on its own even if you hadn’t seen the original, and bringing closure to the story. Also, I did feel that it may have benefited from tighter directing. I came away feeling 30 minutes would have been amply sufficient to achieve what they wanted in each ep.

05/16/06 @ 18:09
Muffin [Visitor]

Just happy to find someone who genuinely seem to appreciate the series qualities. Particulary since it isn’t the sort of thing that’s getting much recognition. No doubt because its merits or virtues are well…less obviously evident, or self-consciously advertised.

And it has the kind of sensibility that feels unique to the medium(and as it turned out, pretty unique *within* the medium as well…).

The second OAV is probably one of the best examples of a genuine love/hate-matter for me. And I really do tend to fantasize how it would have turned out in different hands. If not Arai, I would have loved to see someone of the caliber of Takahiro Kishida or Atsushi Yamagata handling the designs…

I’m not sure btw, if tighter pacing was what the series needed. While the middle episode did feel a bit more drawn-out. I tend to think it mostly goes back to the basic lack of interest in the designs.

05/18/06 @ 15:16
Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

Thanks for this article Ben, I’ve given it a massive big-up on my

05/24/06 @ 07:07
Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

that would be “on my blog".

Sorry, bad html encoding in post.

05/24/06 @ 07:09
Ben [Member]  

Cool, thanks Tony!

05/24/06 @ 21:05
Tony Mines
Tony Mines [Visitor]

Great article by the way.
I’ve got a couple of those animanga picture book thingies of the first OVA, and still get them out from time to time when I’m looking for inspiration. Not many animations stand up to the scrutiny of having their individual frames studied in that way, and those animanga are usualy artisticaly redundant - but the 3x3 eyes ones are lovely to look at.

Its all about the quality of the frames in that show. Its actualy animated in a slightly weird way, with quite a low frame count. A lot of it looks like threes.

The UK release was incorrectly transfered from NTSC by good ol Manga Video, and consequently sufferes from terrible frame blending. I remember that in my youthful enthusiasm and naivety, I actualy used to take it for an intentional tween saving technique.

I know better these days…

05/25/06 @ 07:36
Muffin [Visitor]

Looking through the series, one sequence that particulary stood out for me was the bit at the end of eps 3 where Yakumo jumps out of the helicopter to go search for Pai. The drawings seem to have a sketchier feel, looking a bit like it was done by a single person. The stark lighting and jerky, expressive movements look great. And Yakumo removing his headband is one of my favourite images from the series.

The following battle scene is also great.

It has to be said though, that the quality of the art and movement feel very consistent throughout without ever getting boring. The highlights really are highlights, rather than being the only interesting bits or some such.

As Tony Mines mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be much concern for making things look smooth in a conventional way. But rather making sure each drawing looks expressive. And by “drawing” I obviously don’t mean just the static scenes but each drawing of a movement.

And if I’m not mistaken, this was certainly the sort of thing Hamasu brought to Tokyo Godfathers…(as well as being the kind of thing I expected, or wanted to find done right in lots more anime)

On a somewhat related note. I’ve begun reading my way through the manga series, currently up to vol. 27(out of 40). An interesting ride. If also a bumpy one. I’m glad to find though, that most of my worst fears regarding the series loosing its way in the second half seemed to have been exaggerrated.

The story does get more self-indulgent with extended action-sequences and a large cast of charachters popping in and out of the narrative. Obviously loosing some of the simpler adventure-aspects of the earlier days. It also seems to turn into more of a sci-fi story with mythological underpinnings about halfway through(I sense some influence from AKIRA as well as Evangelion). I can certainly see that reading this part of the series in fairly short, weekly instalments could quickly get pretty trying. It probably wouldn’t attract too many new readers at this point either.

On the positive side, reading through it in larger chunks certainly makes it flow much better. And the frequently Otomo-esque extended cinematic sequences does add a certain visual grandeur to the story. And at least on some levels, Takada’s writing feels more mature. Particulary when he takes time out to explore some of his charachters in more intimate settings.

The most worthwhile aspects of the most recent volumes is no doubt Takada’s art, which seem to have reached a very high and consistent level of design and illustration skill.

Though I also had a particular fondness for Takada’s very fresh and ambitious artistry in the very early parts(vol.1) as well as the very stable and solidly detailed look of around vols.6-13

05/27/06 @ 13:23
Ben [Member]  

I actually remember that sequence with the helicopter as being one of the only sequences in the first series that stood out to me stylistically somehwat, although only slightly, and I couldn’t figure out who it could be or what about it was different…

Thanks for the comments about the manga. It’s been very long since I read it, so it’s nice to hear about how the style changes over the course of the manga. It makes sense that there would be an evolution there, considering how long he was drawing it. I’m still impressed at his dedication in sticking with the story for so long.

06/02/06 @ 13:18
Muffin [Visitor]

My favourite part of the manga in terms of overall look and feel is probably around vols 6-11(the third major story arc). Takada’s artistry probably reaches a kind of peak at this point in terms of being the most stylistically balanced and appealing. The writing is also very solid and tight, even if the story doesn’t move quite as much as in the first two parts(adapted into the two respective OAV series).

06/08/06 @ 15:32
Muffin [Visitor]

Was wondering who did the part in eps 1 of the sequel OAV from around where the Doll Lady starts to strangle Pai to where Yakumo is tossed up in the air and gets bitten by Fei-Oh. It’s possibly the best bit in the series. With a fantastic sense of movement as well as fluid, dramatic compositions. I had actually assumed it was Inoue, but you seem to have identified him elsewhere(though I suppose he could have done more than one scene). Funny how much better the charachters look as well.

I was kind of reminded of Takada’s art I’ve seen from the final parts of the manga. I love how he, at his best, creates some of the most striking and compelling “freestyle” manga tableaus I’ve seen:

10/24/06 @ 14:35
Ben [Member]  

Hmm, I had a look at this section to see if I could figure out who might have done it, but I’m not sure. I don’t see any names there that really jump out at me, except for maybe Yasuhiro Aoki, but I have no idea if he might have been doing that kind of animation at this period. Come to think of it, I have no idea what Aoki was doing before Arusu. The slo-mo of the blood spurting out was indeed really dramatic and effective.

11/01/06 @ 14:11
Sam [Visitor]

I think you should sell movies and put 3x3eyes back on air.

01/23/07 @ 21:17