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I haven't been watching much lately, but Mononoke has continued to impress and entertain me in various ways. None of the subsequent episodes have been directed by Kenji Nakamura, but many of them have been truly excellent and up to the level of his work, so either he has a tight grasp over things or he has some good people who know what he's trying to do. Koji Yamazaki was in charge of the latest arc, Nue, and his work was full of enthusiasm. I felt the script for this arc better showcased Chiaki Konaka's talents than the one he did for Umibozu, which came across to me as merely windy and cleaving with the spirit of Nakamura's original (also due to the directing). He tends to try to take control of things with the script, and it doesn't always work, but it did in this arc. This one had a pleasantly informed literary flavor, with all of the little details of the game. Manabu Ishikawa, whom I've never heard of, also wrote a very nice script for the previous arc, Nopperabou, that was possibly my favorite so far, byzantine in its logical twists and turns like all of the rest of the episodes but nonetheless somehow followable and creating a deeper feeling of pathos, with a situation not too beyond the pale of historical reality, like the first arc.
The series seems basically founded on murder mystery structure, but it goes further with that genre than any anime I've seen, seamlessly blending it with a twist of supernatural and a shake of historical, peppered with plenty of stylistic experimentation. The snowflakes in the Nue arc and the wind in the Umibozu arc are great examples of what I think are a great innovation of this series - the unexpected artistic rendering and twisting of these little touches that otherwise would be relegated to thoughtlessly naturalistic treatment elsewhere. These little touches give the show its unique flair. All of the elements of the screen are subject to original thinking like this, which is what I liked about Kenji Nakamura's previous work, so I'm very happy to see that he's using this series as an opportunity to continue to build on that, with lots of creative thinking and innovation put into the presentation of the material. This show has been one of the most mentally challenging and engaging I've seen in a good while. It really engages the viewer. The basic structure is always the same, but the way it's elaborated is always unique and a delight to behold, like the patterns on a Persian rug. I can't say that I understand everything at all times, but the web of meaning is always conscientiously weaved like a good murder mystery, and I find it to be pleasantly intellectually stimulating watching.
Even without great animation it always remains thoroughly engaging, which is a triumph for the director. With great animation it becomes riveting, achieving the ideal - great directing combined with great animation. Several episodes have benefited from work by the great Toei animators of recent years, including Hideki Kakita, Hisashi Mori and Soichiro Matsuda, to say nothing of Takashi Hashimoto himself. Seeing stretches by these great animators on the fabric of a compelling dramatic structure shows that great animation can exist without great directing, but in the end it's more satisfying with, when a great interpretation of acting or motion breathes life into the argument being made by the director.
The first episode started off with a bang, with work from the great Masahiko Kubo, Takaaki Yamashita and protege Tatsuzo Nishita, Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita. Hashimoto was the AD, and the characters are alive in their rendering in a way they are not quite in later episodes thanks to the supervision of the designer. Soichiro Matsuda I presume to have provided a nice bit in part 2 of Umibozu, episode 4. The finale of the second arc was perhaps the most spectacular episode yet so far in terms of the animation, with work again by Matsuda, Hashimoto, Nishita, Yamashita and Kakita, along with Ken Otsuka (Studio Hercules mecha man who did lots of good work for Toei's recent Gaiking; another Hercules member is also in the series occasionally - Ishino Satoshi), Futoshi Higashide and even Hisashi Mori. The thing that impresses me most, though, is that the embellishments on the screen throughout this episode wind up being just as breathtaking as the breathtaking movement created by these great animators - the contrast of the beautiful movement of the black-silhouetted fish with the CGI goldfish floating in the air, the CGI space covered in a curious mash of paintings and abstract patterns, the bold use of colors. The first part of Nue featured some more work by Matsuda. Matsuda is quickly becoming one of my favorite new faces. I assume he must have done the memorable and daring opening sequence. Explosion master Hideki Kakita was in the latest ep, 9. The characters were very nice in this ep, and the climax was one of the more visually dazzling. I liked the quality of this climax because it occurred at the intersection between directing and animation.
The art of this series is just as boldly confrontational as the directing, and is a huge and indispensable part of the show's success. The art of the Umibozu arc remains with me in particular - the stylization of the ship, of the clouds, the wind, the colors. This is some of the most beautiful image-making I've seen in an anime. It was a style of visual that seemed alien to the genre, and indeed even characters as original as Hashimoto's struck me as fly in the ointment. The art went beyond the confines of the typical, creating an atmosphere that demanded a new approach to the characters that would inhabit those new spaces, but the characters remained a relic of conventional anime presentation in proportion and behavior. I'm playing devil's advocate when I say that, because I love Hashimoto's characters and find them to be among the most genuinely original and watchable designs I've seen in many years in a TV anime (aside from Kemonozume). They went so far with everything else, and it makes me want to know if they could go that next step. It would be a healthy step for the industry. I can't help but find it ironic that such a show would come from Toei Animation, of all places, although it does fit within the recent highly formal Ikuhara-Hosoda tradition in a certain way.