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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.