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A while back I ran across a trailer that got me really intrigued and excited. But not a trailer for a new film. A trailer for a ten year old film: the 1995 Legend of Crystania film. I knew nothing about what I was seeing, but couldn't believe that an entire feature film had been made in the style of what I was seeing in the trailer. The quality was simply too high, and stylistically not something I thought would have been acceptable for a full-length feature. I could imagine how much time had gone into the few minutes of the trailer. But a full movie at that quality was unimaginable. But yes, it turns out they really did make a full-length feature in that style. For some reason I appear to have skipped over it when it first came out, although I followed the first piece in the franchise. In a way I'm glad I did skip it, because I was leaving a very nice present for myself ten years down the line. There's nothing nicer than discovering hidden gems like this. And this one was a fantastic little gem.
The first thing I thought when I saw the trailer was: Why don't I have this in my Satoru Utsunomiya filmography? Although I had no proof that he was involved, from the first few seconds and through to the end the entire thing simply screamed Satoru Utsunomiya. And this was obviously no small-scale job, either, but a major effort. If it wasn't Utsunomiya, it was a really good imitation, and I don't know who would have been up to doing that. Most likely was that he was involved, maybe alongside some Utsunomiya disciples. I didn't think he'd have AD'd another film so soon after Peek.
Well, I've now seen the film, and I was delighted to see that it really was a full-length film animated in the style of the trailer. The film fully lived up to what the trailer had promised, which was more than I could have dreamed. It was an entire film done in the Utsunomiya style, and done quite well, with due effort put in to make it work. Seeing the credits revealed that Utsunomiya was indeed involved, though only as one of the animators, under his pen-name Satoru Mizuguchi. (mistranslated Mizugushi, in one of many spellings gaffes to come) I found that hard to believe. It seems clear that if he wasn't involved as at least one of the ADs, he must have had some kind of spiritual or guiding influence on the look of the film at some point, somehow. The whole style of movement and drawing in the film was a style he had invented. Of course, he had his own influences, one of whom was also present as an animator here... Takashi Nakamura. So it it felt like maybe we were seeing a number of generations of mutually influenced creators getting together. For some reason the situation reminds me of the way Yasuji Mori acted as the guiding spirit in the nascent days of the AD system on Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon.
Looking at the credits is in fact very revealing. The film was directed by Ryutaro Nakamura. Character design and chief animation director was Katsumi Matsuda (misspelled Terumi). Animation directors were Yasuyuki Shimizu (misspelled Noriyuki), Yoshio Mizumura and Yasunori Miyazawa (miraculously not misspelled). Animators include a mysterious individual named Koji Ishihama. Mmm-hmm. Koji -> Masashi. Add all of those names together and what do you get? Another Utsunomiya production from a year later: The first Popolo Crois game. Every one of those folks, except for Shimizu, was involved in the animated parts of the game, made right after the Crystania film, and directed again by Nakamura. The style of movement is very similar in both, as is the whole RPG situation, although the characters & style couldn't be more different. Another name I wondered about in the credits was the first - Michiki Mihara. Could this be Michio Mihara? Just about the only name they didn't misspell was Takashi Nakamura, because he writes his name in hiragana.
The animation was sumptuous, a feast for the eyes. The characters were typically pared down in order to facilitate filling out every moment with interesting movement. They moved freely in a natural and three-dimensional way, rather than on the flat posing plane of typical anime. The acting had richness and nuance that set it apart from most other productions. The character drawings were very typical of Utsunomiya in the spareness of lines, and the particular way hands and joints and so on were drawn. Certain sections stood out as looking particularly Utsunomiya, and these may have been the bits he actually animated. In other places, I could clearly see that there were other people at work. The designs were clearly not his work, though they were in his spirit in the spareness of lines. It would be interesting to find out the background behind the animation - why the staff decided on this particular style, and to what extent Utsunomiya was involved in shaping it.
Piled on top of the pleasure of finding an entire film in this style was another, unexpected, and even greater pleasure. I was happy when I saw Yasunori Miyazawa's name in the credits as one of the ADs, but nothing could have prepared me for the wonderfulness of what lay in store inside. This film provided some of the best work I've seen from the man, all of it very dense, very clearly of his hand, and all absolutely stunning work. To me, he flat out stole the show. I was reminded of his work in the Popolo Crois game, on the last segment, which had a huge impact on me when I first saw it. Miyazawa is amazing now, but he has been amazing for more than a decade now. Miyazawa was only credited as an animation director, but he was obviously in charge of the magic effects in the film. He brought the magical flames and bubbling, pulsating forms to life, filling the screen with an array of forms and flat colors moving and interacting organically. It was easy to know what Miyazawa did. As soon as his work came on the screen, I got goosebumps and my jaw dropped in awe. The animation was already wonderful as it is, but Miyazawa occupies his own unique realm of wonder. His sections gave the animation just the push of the unexpected and uncontrolled that was needed to make it all feel complete.
I think the time is ripe for another film like this, either with Utsunomiya at the head or somehow involved in shaping the style of animation. With perhaps a slightly more original story to tell and no franchise strings attached it might result in a film that would open people's eyes to a new old sort of beauty - the beauty of animation.
Related: Spotlight on Satoru Utsunomiya