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Studio 4C's Tweeny Witches was one of the most enjoyable and memorable series I've seen in the last few years. It was filled to the brim with imaginative ideas the likes of which have never been really tried in this kind of material in Japan before, even though material involving witches and magic is pretty common. This is the first time it felt like this kind of material was done justice.
Besides that, the production of the series was really interesting, with each episode often being handled by a single individual, so that from episode to episode you could clearly identify each animation director or director's style, which in turn gave the show a great richness and variety that was equally if not more appealing to me than the imagination on display in the story, paraphernalia and designs. Most important of all, this series was the series on which Yasuhiro Aoki came out as a great director. I don't know whether it was technically his debut as an episode director or not, but without a doubt this is the show on which his powers first became clearly evident. And through his work on this show, he clearly developed tremendously as a director, so that this series was a key step in his development leading directly to the work we've seen from him afterwards - first directing the great Kung Fu Love, and most recently directing In Darkness Dwells, both of which show him continuing the same process of incremental development I recall being so impressed by as I watched each new episode of Tweeny Witches from him.
I'd long wished I could see more of the show, as nothing else was quite like it. In a curious development, it came to light last year that the studio had produced a 6-episode offshoot right after the end of the TV show, but that it was never broadcast or released in any form until just recently, presumably related to rights issues. Imagine my delight to discover that Aoki had done one of the episodes. He storyboard and directed the third episode. I was cautious going in, not sure how much time or budget they might have had to produce it, but was amazed at the quality. This episode is perhaps the best stand-alone episode he did for the show, partly because it's a one-off, like all of the OVA episodes, but also because there's a clear sense of development. So it turns out there'd been one more push by him with this show. He'd done one last volley, pushing his skills to the next level. It was great to be able to re-discover this episode to see that.
Again, each episode has a different set of staff, and each group brings a different flavor to their work, but Aoki's work towers above the rest in terms of entertainment value, humor, visual good sense, and thrill of animation. The other episodes are well enough drawn, but lifeless, and the directing has no character or edge to it. It feels like they're just riding along on dramatic rails, and everything is quite predictable and conventional feeling. Only Aoki seems to have the instinct of a good director, willing to try to push beyond that and experiment with tactics for maintaining audience interest of his own devising, such as displacing the timing or the framing a bit or using unusual and fun compositions to show the action unfolding from an intriguing perspective. The drawings and animation also speak at all moments, creating great compositions throughout. And most of all, the characters feel alive in his hands. The situation is a conventional one that has been done countless times in the past, but it feels completely convincing in his hands, and he gives its message an emotional resonance you wouldn't expect. The show itself definitely got across a subversive message about how societies are all based on different levels of power and subjugation, thanks to writer Shinji Obara, and similarly, without any sort of overbearing emphasis, this episode weaves a similar message into the fabric of the story, adding a level of thematic depth that makes the emotions of the characters in response to the events that much more convincing.
Unlike in the TV series, the animation direction was not done by Aoki but by an individual named Hideki Nagamachi, whom I've never heard of. I only realized this fact afterwards upon seeing the credits, but while watching it was unmistakable that the drawings looked very different from the usual Aoki drawings. The style was very sketchy, almost reminding of Yuasa in terms of the oddly angular lines used, for example the way the fingers are drawn as these blocky rectangles. Yet the characters clearly are those of Aoki. In the TV series you could clearly identify each animation director by comparing their different ways of drawing the eyes and other facial features of each of the characters, and Aoki's stood out as being among the more realistically rendered and meticulously drawn, contrasting, for example, with the more cartoony drawings of Yumi Chiba. In this new episode, it's as if Nagamachi is drawing the characters based on Aoki's designs, but in his own sketchy style. Either that, or Aoki corrected the drawings. I'm not too sure. I'd be very curious to know more about how this episode was produced.
Either way, the animation is stupendous - very nuanced and rich, yet very spontaneous and tactile. It's easily the richest and most satisfying of the episodes he did, which is saying a lot, and it complements the directing perfectly. The characters' expressions are varied and complex, expressing a great range of emotions. It's a very simple story, of course, self-contained, without the drama and weight he brought to his episodes of the TV series, but it has a great range in terms of tone that does an even better job of giving him room to try different things as a director - hilarious in the first half, and with slowly building power in the second half that has a surprising potential for depth and emotional resonance. It acts as a kind of summary of his work on the show.
Another great discovery of these new episodes was a solo episode done entirely by Shogo Furuya, who had already handled a number of episodes in the TV series in his own distinctive style. Here he storyboarded, directed, and singlehandedly animated the fourth episode. His more realistic style isn't as pronounced in this episode, but the work is very heavily worked, with the same approach to solid layouts and strong drawings, and a slow, measured pace, that was seen in his work on the TV episodes. It easily stands alongside Michio Mihara's solos as one of the most impressive solos of recent years. I have to wonder how much time he took to do it. He didn't do quite as much as Mihara, so it doesn't seem like it would have taken him quite as long - a few months perhaps.
It's great seeing solo animator episodes also directed by the animator, because it's an opportunity to see a fully-formed approach to telling a story through visuals. It's not the animator just handling his animation in a compartmentalized fashion. He has to figure out how to present every single solitary element, from the pacing of the scenes to the layout to the specific nuances of every second of animation. It's a tremendous amount of work, so it makes sense to split up those tasks, but in talented hands, in the hands of someone who has a vision unified enough to make it worth the work, the results can be quite impressive. Shogo is incredibly talented, although the directing doesn't jump out at you the way Aoki's does. It's much more low-key, but he's clearly a workhorse who can create a film from the floor up. There's almost a whiff of Satoshi Kon in his very meticulous approach to the elements of the screen and slow pace. I knew who did the main tasks of the TV series, but I'd never seen the animation credits for each episode, so it's entirely possible that one of Furuya's episodes was a solo episode without me knowing it.
The rest of the episodes were well produced, as is to be expected of this studio, and each featured interesting ideas that had been developed specifically for each episode, but the directing was never able to go beyond the level of the ordinary. Faces involved were basically all familiar from the TV show. (see the TV series staff list I made) Producer Eiko Tanaka and co-founder Katabuchi Sunao even wrote some of the episodes. The last episode was handled by Toru Yoshida of Osaka animation studio Anime R, who was also involved in the TV series. They are known for handling Sunrise material, which is probably why the episode features a giant robot, of all things. You can see a bunch of Anime R animators in the credits, including Taiki Harada and Fumiaki Kouta, the latter of whom I just mentioned as being in Crossfire. As talented as I'm sure Yoshida is, his drawings struck me as far too conventional anime character for this particular show. It was particularly dismaying to see stock expressive symbols appear for the first time in the series, as one thing that had made the characters of the show appealing was that they did not rely on any such crutch to express emotions.
I both love and hate the Tweeny Witches TV series because you can tell that there’s a lot of talent behind the animation but it uses a lot of “budget” techniques and shortcuts. It also scarifies animation for the sake of storyline, which I never thought the story was a particularly good one. But you constantly see glimmers of enormous artistic talent in every episode; unfortunately they never fully materialize. I haven’t seen the OVAs though, I’ll check them out if I get a chance.