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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
Great post. I’ve long been curious about this one since I heard it was a Ryutaro Nakamura film. I also picked up on the odd comment here and there that the animation style was quite “unique"(for better or worse).
Indeed, I was reminded of Tim’s recent comment in reading the Amazon reviews… But yeah, it was also a great surprise finding that it was a Ryutaro Nakamura film. The Ryutaro Nakamura fan in me was happy to see another feature from the man. I wish he could do more.
Speaking of Utsunomiya, I recently had the pleasure of watching the first couple of episodes of Oshii’s Gosenzosama Banbanzai. What terrific stuff! Some great Oshii-writing and directing fully supported by Utsunomiya’s animation. I really see what all the fuss is about with this one.
Ever seen the live-action “Talking Head” btw? It’s probably the Oshii-film this series reminded me the most of.
I also found Gosenzosama a good deal more engaging and fully “fleshed-out” in terms of style and content than Utsunomiya’s recent much-hyped Paranoia Agent episode(not that it was bad, mind you). But watching this made me feel all the more that Utsunomiya in PA seemed to be holding back on his unique stylized expressiveness in favor of a softer realism.(Not to say that’s a bad thing in principle)
My favourite part of his PA ep was probably around where they tried to hang themselves in the mountains btw. The colouring and mood, as well as the quirky movements of the charachters seemed particulary well-conveyed here.
I also see the connection with 3x3 Eyes you mentioned in Gosenzosama. They do seem to share a kind of similarity in the very intuitive expressiveness of the charachter-drawings.
Ah, I can totally see what you mean about Happy Family Planning. I’m a huge fan of the episode, but I’ll be the first to admit that when I first saw it, part of me couldn’t help but wish he’d managed to inject a little more of the wild ‘n crazy of his Gosenzo period into the piece. I thought it was a perfect piece as a whole, but in terms of the animation it didn’t quite serve up what I expected from Utsunomiya. It felt a little tame after his old stuff. But I think it might not have suited the material for him to not have adopted that low-key tone, for obvious reasons. Maybe with Aquarion 19 he was trying to make up for that by dipping the pendulum back towards a freer, looser style. Many of the animators in there are folks I wouldn’t really have expected to see working under Utsunomiya anyway, like Okiura or Inoue, but they were a perfect match for this more restrained style he adopted for the piece. Inoue’s bit with the hanging has always been one of my favorite parts too… The nuance that guy can create is just beyond words.
Nope, haven’t seen Talking Head… based on hearsay and Avalon I’ve always been really wary of his live-action stuff.
If you haven’t already. I’d recommend checking out Nakamura & Kishidas “Colorful". The graphic style and direction is very similar to “Lain", except it’s a slapstick comedy with dirty jokes. Kishida shows a great talent for exaggerated caricature. And as in Lain, Nakamura creates powerfully expressive imagery out of simple line-drawings and limited animation.
I saw Colorful when it first came out, and liked it because it showed a side of Ryutaro Nakamura I wasn’t familiar with. Kishida’s work was indeed great. It was also interesting to see how the sound plays a big role in the humor of the show. Nakamura obviously had a lot of fun messing around with the sound board. He almost sounds like a little kid with a new toy sometimes. I noticed he toned it down for his more recent show, but there was still a little of that playfulness with sound peeking through, as if he just couldn’t resist.
I remember you recommending I check out the Dezaki Lupin specials a while back… well, I just saw one of them, the Hemingway one. I’ve been disappointed by almost every Lupin since Fuma, but this one was easily the best post-Fuma Lupin I’ve seen. It was interesting to compare the difference in approach with the traditional Telecom/Otsuka/Tomonaga style. Dezaki creates excitement through his innate sense for pacing and cutting rather than the relentlessly piled-upon, inventively staged full animation sequences of the Telecom Lupin. Basically, the animation wasn’t the star like in the Telecom Lupin, yet it was totally engaging. Only one sequence stood out as being interesting as animation, probably by Masahiro Ando. Now I want to see the rest. I think maybe I liked it because it had more of the playful side of Dezaki that I like from his early period. I tend to prefer Dezaki when he isn’t too serious, and Lupin gives him room to play with sophisticated gags, though it never quite reaches the level of his very early Goku work.
Yeah the sound design is indeed an important element in Nakamura’s work. Lain was certainly an anime where the sound and dialogue was crucial in “completing the picture", so to speak. I admire how well he works with limited resources/detail and bold linework to create strikingly expressive, organic imagery. And he really seems to get the best out of Kishida’s designs. I often wonder if they could succesfully adapt the effective sparseness of their style to a big theatrical feature.
Glad you liked Dezaki’s Lupin. I’ve only seen the Lady liberty one. But I can certainly recognize the things you point out. I haven’t seen much of the recent Lupin films. But you do get the feeling they’re getting more slick and run-of-the-mill, lacking that feeling of genuinely creative and expansive adventure the early films like Mamo, Cagliostro or even the unfairly reviled Gold of Babylon had.
I also think I know what you mean regarding Dezaki’s more “serious” work. I recently watched his 1996 Black Jack movie. A fine film, in many ways. Dramatic and tightly paced. But where his approach to style felt so effortless and hip in Lupin, here he really indulges in heavy-handed retro-anime noir stylistics.