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There are often times when I become a fan of a certain animator after having seen just one piece of his work, even though I don't know of any other work by the same animator. Takeuchi Kazuyoshi is one such case. There was another such case in Akira - Toshiaki Hontani. He animated a few shots where the capsule containing the remnants of Akira breaks open near the end, spewing out massive clouds of smoke. Akira had its share of great FX animation - notably by Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Endo - but Hontani's stood out as particularly exceptional even among all that great work, and I've often looked back on the shots and pondered what made them so great. Personally, those few shots of animation represent everything that attracts me to FX animation - the power that FX animation can have in the best hands. I've long wanted to try to verbalize what it is about these shot that I like so much, though I haven't had the confidence to do it up until now. Not helping was the fact that I don't really know almost anything else he's done since then, though I've seen his name in various places, which made identifying a trend and getting an idea for what motivates him more difficult.
Well, I recently ran across an interview with the man on the subject of a more recent project, which reminded me that I wanted to write about this work. The interview was about a game called Grandia. A search for his name in fact turns up scads of hits for Grandia, and very little for anything else, indicating the importance of the project to him. The linked site presents a selection (!) of Hontani's drawings for the development of the project. I was impressed by the depth of imagination on display in the drawings, and the appealing style that is as far as possible from what I knew of him from that smoke. It was a surprise to see that he had talent going in such a different direction. But then again, more than a decade spanned Akira and Grandia, so he obviously had time to develop. In retrospect, the quality of that smoke seems to point to that future potential.
Anyway, in that interview, he made a comment that caught my attention when asked about his principles as a creator: "First, respect the project I'm working on. Second, think carefully - which does not mean think slowly." May seem kind of ephemeral, but I thought it actually provided the key to explain the unique nature of what I was seeing in his Akira smoke. I remember reading that animators working on the film didn't understand what he was doing when they saw him working on the animation. Nobody could quite grasp why he was bothering creating drawing upon detailed drawing that to casual eyes looked almost identical. It was only when they saw the finished product that they realized the impact he had been striving to achieve with those painstaking drawings. He had set out to raise the film's bar of realism, and worked patiently to achieve that effect despite the incomprehension of his co-workers. That is what struck me about his smoke animation: He had thought deeply about the problem of how to animate the smoke, found the answer that would most benefit the project, and did what it took to achieve his intended effect. His interview comment seemed to directly reflect this spirit. His animation displayed a level of dedication that pointed towards the sort of maniacal animation Mitsuo Iso would go on to do in the 1990s in GITS and Eva and so on.
To examine the smoke itself, looking at the keys reveals that he is controlloing most of the movement. In other words, it's DENSE. Lots of incredibly detailed keys spaced very closely for just a few seconds of animation. Nothing left up to chance. The movement from drawing to drawing is miniscule and precise. Like Hiroyuki Okiura's mob scene, it's hard to conceive how he could manage so many different vectors of movement at the same time. Seems like the drawing equivalent of playing four games of chess at the same time. Looking closer, we see the voluptuous forms of the clouds of smoke that make the clouds so beautiful to look at. Rather than whipping out haphazardly, they slowly ooze out the way smoke from a smokestack gradually changes form when observed from a distance. The clouds throughout the scene have a unified outline - a sort of regularly undulating bumpy form. The shadows seem to be the element that gives the clouds a feeling of three-dimensionality. A few simple hooks (they kind of remind me of Hokusai's "big wave") drawn across the center of the cloud manage to create a convincing semblance of three-dimensionality. This is a way of drawing smoke that seems to have been invented around this time: Instead of using shading gradations, a single line is used. I remember Toshiyuki Inoue saying how he got a hint as to how to create three-dimensional clouds from looking at Iso's smoke, so maybe this is what he was referring to. Besides the magnificent smoke, more convincing than any in the film apart from Ohira's, probably the most memorable part of Hontani's section is the moment where that rogue bit of piping rises up from the smoke to yawn across the screen spewing a trail of smoke. That one action conveys the massive scale of what has just happened very powerfully, in a way that only animation could, and for that reason Hontani is one of my favorite animators - for putting in the tremendous effort needed to create this amazing bit of animation that remains seared in the imagination long after the movie has finished.
Probably Hontani's most famous gig between Akira and Grandia would be as storyboarder/director of Roujin Z. Most recently, he worked as an animator on Gonzo's Agito movie alongside two other renowned smoke animators: Hideki Kakita and Takashi Hashimoto, though I don't know what he animated. What he did apart from that throughout the 90s is a mystery to me. I don't remember whether he was involved in Steam Boy or not, but if he was that would explain a bit of the vast gap in the following filmography, which I'll fill in as I find items.
This is making me all nostalgic. Indeed I vividly remember the bit with the tube rising up from the underground spewing smoke all around. another part that also stuck in my mind was the cut where we see an incredibly detailed shot of a tube breaking free from the capsule, then cutting to a fairly pedestrian looking shot of the tube hitting a vehicle on the ground. I remember always wondering why there would be such a difference in quality…
On a somewhat related note, seeing Steamboy has actually made me go back and appreciate the AKIRA film a great deal more. As messy a work as it may be, watching it you really do sense a lot of uninhibited ambition and expressive power from it. Amongst other things, I was rather disappointed how Otomo abandoned the grungy full-animation of AKIRA for the rather half-baked, polished non-style in Steamboy. At least in AKIRA, there was the feeling he was trying to go somewhere, or do something that no-one else in japan was doing.
Yeah, I’m not sure what accounts for that change. Whenever I watch the sequence I’m always amused at the bit where we jump from Hontani’s animation to a shot of the colonel staring with mouth agape. It’s like he’s a stand-in for the audience (or me at least), who are also staring slack-jawed in amazement at Hontani’s insanely intricate animation. And I agree; I find myself returning to the character animation in Akira fairly often, but not at all to that in the later film. It’s definitely aged a bit now, and hardly feels ‘real’ anymore the way it used to, but it still radiates a kind of energy that is totally lacking in the later film. It has a kind of tension to it. You can sense how big the project was to each of the young animators involved, and the effort they put into it.
More works and data of Toshiaki Hontani:
Hontani is one of the much animators who passes to D.A.S.T founded by Itano from Artland
83_Orguss (TMS) eps 2, 7 and others_key
anim (for St. Hibari or Arttland?)
84_Hokuto no Ken (Toei) ep 49_key anim
(with Nobuteru Yuuki other member of
Artland and character designer of Lodoss
Artland Years (II):
85_Maho no Rushio Lip Stick (?)_key anim
85_Megazone 2 3 I (AIC)_key
86_Grey (Ashi Pro)_key anim
86_Megazone 2 3 II (AIC)_key
86_Wanna Be’s_key anim (for DAST)
87_Battle Royal High School (DAST)_key anim (his name appears in the tablets of fighters of the final of first scene with Sadami Morikawa other Artland/DAST animator.
87_Cream Lemon OVA 21: “…Bunny"_Character Designer!!!!!!!!
87_Steel Demon (AIC)_key anim.
89_Explorer Woman Ray OVA 1 (AIC)_key anim
88?_Vampire Princess Miyu OVA 1_key anim
Yes, he is extremely talented and worked on Cuts 12221-1342 and 1691-1730 of Akira according to the Akira Animation Archives page 83.