|<< <||> >>|
Yasuhiro Aoki is one of my great weaknesses. Something about his sensibility as a director just strikes a chord in me. I love each new film he produces. He's got a very particular style of humor that's all his own - wry, subtle and sophisticated without being over-the-top and without resorting to lowbrow humor - and it blends seamlessly with his directing. The framing of the shots is always interesting, every little movement on the screen is always communicating something, he inserts a lot of very clever ideas in every little shot, his designs are new and interesting without being too crazy and still seeming pretty accessible. He started out as an animator, and that shows up in his work. The drawings are consistently beautiful, with elegant lines and forms, and the motion is nuanced and fun. He has his own approach to movement, and isn't just some follower of a school. I like the fact that he's come up with a style that feels very much his own, without that style being alienating or artsy or artificial or weird for the sake of being weird the way some auteur anime directors feel. He's got a welcoming style that I think everyone can get. It's not the in-jokey or template-based humor of most anime. I sense he's the kind of director who has broad appeal beyond the anime crowd. He's definitely got a peculiar style that might not work for everybody, but he packs his films with so much that it feels like everybody gets something from them. He's both a director's director AND an accessible director.
I think it highlights this broader appeal that he was given the job of doing the commission for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, a 10-minute animated short entitled Honey Tokyo featuring a girl from the future who lands in Tokyo with the intention of taking away the color in the city, but winds up falling in love with the place instead. It's a quirky story idea, and it's a quirky film. Par for the course for Aoki. I'd be very curious to find out how his involvement in this project came about. It's ironic and telling that Studio 4C, of all studios - that renegade band of uncompromisingly artsy animators - were honored with this prestigious commission. Tokyo clearly sees anime as a very important cultural export to have used an anime film for this purpose, and of all the studios in Japan, 4C and Aoki were chosen to represent that culture and sell Tokyo to the world.
From a technical standpoint, it's pure Aoki - the directing, the animation, the humor. All those crazy oblique angles, the realistic but caricatural style for the bystanders, the way the guy casually starts trying to walk past the flying saucer thing at the beginning after his initial confusion. And the typically quirky humor of putting that tic-tac-toe on the back of the flying saucer thing right when they're talking about how Tokyo will disappear in the future. Why is there a tic-tac-toe there anyway?!
It's a very Aoki film, but at the same time it's very clearly a tourist film and a promotional film. He's an auteur, but a professional foremost, and he does the material justice. It's an interesting tightrope act, balancing serving as a tourism film and telling a story. The intensity and density of ideas is actually pretty toned down from his previous films. This isn't the place to show off, and he knows it. He efficiently packs photos and illustrations and even live-action footage of the various locales of Tokyo into the flow of the story, conveying the beauty and venerable history of Tokyo, while still managing to create a whimsical story arc filled with his ironic sense of humor and directing sensibility. There's a lot packed into this 10 minute film. The combination of live-action footage and animated characters works pretty well here.
One of the things I like about Aoki is kind of hard to put into words - it's his spontaneous essence. He creates moments that feel spontaneous and natural. In this film I think of the scenes with the guys playing shogi on the porch and the kids in the street. In his previous work I think of one of his Fluximation shorts, the one that consists entirely of a sequence of quick shots of people in various situations that are alternately prosaic, dramatic and ironic. Each shot feels like a casual snapshot of a larger arc of action. (The last shot in that Fluximation vid is one of the funniest things ever)
Another thing I like is related to his past as an animator. He knows when to make things more detailed. Certain shots suddenly feature very rich or subtle motion because it's necessary to express the material. It's the ideal in animation of having a director who knows animation inside out and hence knows how to use the various possible approaches to animation appropriately in different instances to achieve the ends of each particular scene. I'm thinking in particular of the slow, nuanced movement of the procession at Meiji Jingu, and at the opposite end of the scale, the shot of the rocket attached to the feet, with its fast, almost comically realistic motion.
It's a pleasure being able to see a new Aoki film. This was good, but it wasn't exactly hard-core Aoki. I liked the density of Kung-Fu Love and hope he can eventually produce something a little longer in that vein, even if it's probably no longer appropriate or worthwhile to go back to that one. (I still find it disgusting to think of all the crap that gets produced and nobody wanted to touch Kung Fu Love, especially considering the overwhelmingly positive response the film would have received from fans, if the hundreds of comments on Youtube asking for the show to be made are anything to go by. Great judgment there, conservative-ass Japanese sponsors. Nice going.)
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'm behind on everything these days, but I finally had the chance to watch this omnibus last night. It was what I was expecting, nothing more, nothing less. It was interesting seeing what would result from crossing an English script with several different Japanese production teams. It's as if there are two different approaches to storytelling struggling to co-exist in each short, which certainly makes for an interesting kind of tension. At a more basic level, there is only so much you can do with this sort of material, and you have to push certain buttons or there is no point in even doing it, so the material is all quite self-limiting, and to me is of no interest save to see what the directors bring to it. A film can be great no matter the material. It just depends on the directing. The films in this omnibus serve as good contrasts to illustrate this point, some succeeding within their short allotted time span, others not. Personally, totally irrespective of the material or whether the film works as a whole, this omnibus is welcome to me simply for having provided two great up-and-coming anime directors the opportunity to show off their skills in a project that will actually be seen by a wide audience over here - Yasuhiro Aoki and Shojiro Nishimi.
Nishimi came at the head of the film with Have I Got a Story For You, which was tremendously well produced, as expected, as well as having by far the most unorthodox look of the film in view of the material. The look of the characters, with their pointy heads and loosely drawn freely criss-crossing lines, goes against the typical flatly stylized, shadowy look that seems to be be the branded image for this franchise, the goth machismo of which has never done anything for me anyway, so I found Nishimi's inventions appealing. The action was all excellently done, the movement all full of the nuance of Tekkon Kinkreet. Shinji Kimura was the animation director, to boot, so the short felt quite similar. Yasuhiro Aoki made his first appearance in this short as an animator, second only to Jamie Vickers. He also helped out with the animation on Toshiyuki Kubooka's film later in addition to doing his own film, so he put in quite the effort here. Masahiko Kubo was another animator in Nishimi's film, so these guys must have been the ones behind a good portion of the action. Interestingly, this short actually represent a return to old territory for Nishimi, as he and Aoyama and Tomonaga et al at Telecom handled many of the best episodes of the old Batman TV series back in the 90s. The story was quite light and insubstantial, but this is a good example of good animation and quality production carrying a film.
Nishimi's film got me to thinking about style, and why style is homogenous in the west and in Japan. Nishimi is a great example of a guy who has come up with his own style that feels fully conceived and is a sheer delight to look at. He is a tremendous animator with solid training who breathes amazing life into his characters, yet his designs are entirely his own and full of edgy inventiveness that beats just about anything else out there. I wish more animators would do what he's done rather than just buy into the dominant style of the industry. So much of what I see in the west seems over-focused on creating hyper-clean, retro-looking, over-stylized designs, whereas it's the reverse in Japan, with too few people bothering to think deeply about novelty of design. Nishimi strikes me as achieving a good balance in terms of this, which he did by coming up with his own peculiar style of drawing. It's the roughness of his drawings that's so appealing to me. They feel alive and never the same. It's not that they're sloppy. It's that he's come up with an interesting way of drawing the characters with these peculiar angles and shapes that he knows will allow him to move the characters however he wants without having to worry about getting every detail of the design right. The designs looking fantastic in motion, a great hybrid of realistic core and eminently line-drawn style.
One of Nishimi's main influences is obviously his old friend Masaaki Yuasa, but like Yuichiro Sueyoshi, Nishimi is no mere imitator. With some twenty years under his belt in the industry, he's developed his own very personal style that is quite different from where Yuasa's own style has evolved over the years. His is more realistically influenced, focused on bringing characters to life, whereas Yuasa remains, as ever, focused on bewildering, freewheeling designs and movement. Like branches of the same tree, Yuasa, Sueyoshi and Nishimi, not to mention Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto, all share a certain spiritual affinity while having budded into their own personal styles. This school of animators represent perhaps one of the richest veins of creativity in Japanese animation today.
Futoshi Higashide's Crossfire had moments when it felt like it was sort of working, but never gelled, and wound up feeling like a mess. Not helping were the weak drawings of animation director Shinobu Tagashira. This is exactly the feeling I've gotten from much of Higashide's work over the years, of never quite being able to focus his talent in the right direction. Yasunori Miyazawa did some animation in the short that's easy to spot. There was some decent action afterwards that ironically stood out as being better drawn than the rest of the short, which I thought might have been drawn by Anime R animator Fumiaki Kouta, though I don't know his work enough to be sure. Now that's bad, when a scene drawn by one animator stands out as being better drawn than the drawings of the animation director, particularly in a short such as this where you would expect the quality to be higher throughout. Litmus animator Koichi Arai was there with "conceptual character design". I'd love to see what his designs were before they were maligned in this short.
Morioka Hiroshi's Field Test was mostly notable to me for having been animated by a single person - Toshiharu Murata. I'd never heard of him before, and in fact the animation is nothing to jump up and down about, as it only moves here and there and consists mostly of static close-ups of characters, but as a lover of solo episodes it was a nice surprise. Solos turn up in the most unexpected places. I'm very curious to know whether the credits are accurate and the director was the animation director as opposed to Murata himself, as that would change the whole dynamic of Murata's effort. It actually took me a few minutes to realize that the anime character up there on the screen was supposed to be Bruce Wayne.
No surprise to me, Yasuhiro Aoki's In Darkness Dwells blew me away. It was by far the most solid short in the film, the only one that stood on its own as a perfectly crafted creation with a feeling of dramatic weight that managed to overcome the limitations of the material. I was expecting no less of Aoki, but the quality he turned in here surprised even me. I knew Aoki was a great director, but his short here has the power of a feature crammed into a mere 10 minutes, which got me to dreaming about what the results would be if he focused that cinematic brilliance onto an actual feature-length film one day. What's most impressive is that, beyond being a great director, Aoki's drawings are awesome. He and Nishimi were the only directors here who were their own animation directors, and they clearly stand in a league of their own in terms of technical skill and talent. Like Nishimi, Aoki started out as an animator, and he musters all his talent as a drawer and a creator of great movement in everything he directs, so that whatever he does is a seamless whole where every bit of the image serves his bidding as director, communicating something at every moment through the animation or the image. It's in the little details that directing comes alive, and Aoki has a brilliant eye for detail in everything he does. It's not about packing in detail so much as emphasizing the right detail, which is something Aoki is great at. The action scene in Aoki's short was easily the most exciting in the film in terms of the choreography and creating a thrilling flow of dramatic tension, confirming Aoki's place as one of the best action animators in Japan. But Aoki isn't just an action animator. This short to me only confirms that he has the potential to go much further.
Toshiyuki Kubooka's Working Through Pain was interesting for the animation to me. Without Naoyuki Onda's meticulous drawings guiding the eye at every moment with some slight nuance, I don't think the film would have worked at all. It's not that I'm a fan; I don't even particularly like his drawings. But Onda is one of the more meticulous and maniacal animation directors out there, and when he does a project, he clearly takes control of every shot and fills it with his own nuance. I respect his skill, and admire that he can draw animals properly, which is something few animators seem to have the ability to do in Japan. The fight scene was nicely animated, but I have no idea who might have done it. I found the last short, Deadshot, interesting mostly for having been animated entirely by two Korean animators, with only three inbetweeners, showing how different the training is over there. With only five people they're able to make a film that moves so smoothly. That said, the animation isn't particularly interesting or nice to look at, nor was the story or directing particularly compelling. Boy would I have loved to see this one done by Kang Won Young instead.
I was a little confused by the credits. They seem kind of messed up. For the first film, for example, it says Shinji Kimura did the storyboard, the layout, the character design, animation supervising, and, oh yeah... art director too! Is that humanly possible? Isn't that not even what he does? Surely it's Nishimi who did all those things apart from the art directing? There are several other spots that don't make sense like this, and disturbingly, it's for credits of major importance. For Aoki's film, Inoda Kaoru is listed as the character designer and the art director. Now that is an odd combination I have never seen before, except maybe for Shinji Kimura's piece for Genius Party. I would have thought that Aoki did the designs, since he was the animation director of his own piece. For Kubooka's piece, again, Shuichi Hirata is credited as animation supervisor and art director, and the director is credited as animation director. I'm not sure what the specific meaning of these credits is, but surely it was character designer Naoyuki Onda who was the animation director, and not the art director or director? For the same film Tatsuyuki Tanaka is credited as as storyboard supervisor and conceptual designer. I can see conceptual designer, but why would he be storyboarding Kubooka's film? In Morioka's film, it strikes me as odd that Morioka would be the animation director, and Toshiharu Murata would be storyboarder and character designer. Surely Morioka did storyboard, and Murata did animation directing? If I am wrong on all counts (which I hope), then this film adopted a strange production style the likes of which I've never seen before. If I'm right, then it strikes me as being egregiously disrespectful of the supposedly "revered animation filmmakers" that they couldn't even be bothered to list their credits right.
I finally had a chance to watch Studio 4C's latest project, Amazing Nuts!, and it was very interesting in a lot of ways, not least the actual shorts. But even moreso it was interesting to see how Studio 4C continues to come up with new approaches to creation and distribution. As producer Eiko Tanaka describes it, this project was about killing three birds with one stone: Each short is (1) a standalone music video, (2) a promo pilot for a series or film, and (3) part of a standalone DVD release. Rather than just making standalone shorts as they always have, here they're making a wise investment in their future by trying to tie in their shorts to a future project. I admire that Tanaka is willing to take a chance on a risky project like this. It seems to suggest a possible way for people in the industry to free themselves from the endless mire of having to adapt popular manga in order to get the backing to make anything. Give talented creators a chance to create original works like this and see the results. Use the talent that's there rather than relying so much on another unrelated field. Having seen the shorts, I can say that they are all interesting in their own way. Two are entertainment, one is artsy, one is for (weird) children. They each work as a unit, and each seem to have their own future potential. The two traditionally animated shorts are full of interesting ideas and are the obvious major candidates for future expansion. I could see those two becoming popular TV shows. Another aspect of Tanaka's gambit is directly involving fans by the DVD method, so that they can make their voice heard in terms of what they would like to see. I remember how the results of the online Mind Game questionnaire were directly applied to the DVD release.
I was also impressed by the DVD package. The set comes in two version, a basic version and a full version. The full version comes with a big book containing lots of interviews as well as the full storyboard for the two shorts that had a storyboard, and a long interview DVD. Personally I came into this almost solely to see Yasuhiro Aoki's film. I was very happy with Studio 4C for giving him the chance to make his own film, and was eager to see the result. The result did not disappoint, but I also came away with not just that but an interview with the man as well as his full storyboard for the film, so as a fan I couldn't be happier. Studio 4C obviously understands that, and created a package that is very rewarding to fans who truly love the act of creation that is animation, want to know more about its every step, and want to support their favorite creators. Connecting the creators to the fans in this way is one of the things I most like about Studio 4C. I remember Tadanari Okamoto talking about how a similar idea of tying fans into the creation-support loop.
As a producer, Tanaka appears to be starting to try to take more control of things. I get the distinct impression that she mistakenly blames the studio's director-centric approach for Mind Game's not having become a big hit (how could it have become a megahit playing in three theaters and nobody knowing it even existed?), and is trying to take a more active part in the projects now, as she did in the studio's recent Black & White film, where she had direct input into the film in the American style. This also feels the case here, where Tanaka's concept is the driving force. Nonetheless in each project we still get to see a talented creator's voice very clearly and distinctly expressed, so the studio's major appeal has thankfully not changed.
As for the films, the first thing that strikes you is that each short looks and feels nothing like any of the others. It doesn't feel like they're just changing the look and style in a narrow stylistic sense for variety's sake, but rather that each director's unique approach and the unique nature of the material give rise to a different set of production methods. That is also something the studio has been known for. One film might demand detailed CG set, one might demand intricate and lively cel animation, one might demand a blend of CG and live action. Interestingly, apparently this is just the first sally in the series, and several other shorts are in different stages of production at the moment.
I came in aware of only two of the creators working on this set - Yasuhiro Aoki and Daisuke Nakayama. I knew their films would be interesting, but wasn't sure about the rest. Glass Eye was an interesting poetic meditation that I liked because it felt distinct from anything else I've seen from the studio. A writer with no experience in animation was brought in to direct the film because they had liked the very visual nature of a script he had written. I've often felt that some of the more refreshing and unexpected approaches to animation have come from people with no experience in animation like this. The other film was a much more commercial full-CGI film about a diva, but even this I could see finding its own niche on morning TV. Daisuke Nakayama's film was a revelation about the man's vivid and assured style. We'd seen design work from him before, but it feels like this is what he's been really wanting to do the whole time - wild, fun, somewhat western-influence cartoony mayhem, like a hip-hop version of Imaishi. I could see this being popular in the west.
But by far the film that appealed the most to me, personally, was . It was a very accomplished film for a mere 10 minutes, full of the subtle humour and inventive directing I've come to expect from Aoki, with lots of excitingly choreographed and lovingly animated action, a very original approach to color full of radiant hues that make for consistently ravishing viewing, fun and catchy characters, a great story setup with lots of little subversive touches here and there courtesy of writer Shinji Obara, all of it gelling perfectly into compellingly unique whole that tantalizingly hints at a vast canvas that you come away hungering to know more about. Very successful both as a pilot and a short film. I hope we can see this hint of greatness given the chance to flower that it deserves. Apparently Aoki had in fact drawn enough storyboard and other background material to fill a full-length feature, but had to whittle all that down to a mere 10 minutes. I hope that one day we can see the full-length film that Aoki already had conceived fully-formed in his head. I could also see this working just as well as a TV series. Aoki has an intrinsically filmic approach - every shot is perfectly composed and thought out, every element of the screen communicates something interesting, and the rhythm is masterfully controlled. Aoki is a great entertainer. I could see him becoming a great director.
The timing and the forms of the animation in the short are also distinctive and hint at the huge amount of research and work Aoki obviously put into coming up with an original style of animation for the action that is at the heart of the film. Taking a hint from Hong Kong action flicks, the action shifts between very precise and fast action and extremely detailed and fluidly animated slo-mo shots that give the viewer a lingering and detailed look at the speedy moves that just flashed before our eyes. Testament to the effort that went into the animation is the fact that roughly 8000 drawings were used in the 10-minute film, which is about 5 times the volume of an average TV episode. I recall there was a slo-mo shot of Shiela cooking a pancake near the end of the last episodes of Tweeny Witches that Aoki did, #38, which in retrospect seems to point towards the slo-mo aesthetic in Kung-Fu Love. Aoki's surreal, somewhat meta sense of humor comes through pretty well in certain scenes, such as the scene where the two lovers argue in the ryokan. There's always an unexpected little amusing element somewhere livening things up. Sometimes he has a cunning strategy of tricking the viewer into focusing on a main action and then having something strange going on somewhere else on the screen, sort of in the spirit of the ball experiment by Daniel Simons. Revealing about Aoki's approach is a comment in the storyboard to the animator of the scene where the two lovers are sitting on the beach: "Put more effort into making the cat do things". We see the two protagonists sitting there without moving too much, but the cat is doing all these funny antics beside them. It's an intriguing method of hilighting the main action. Of course, a big part of this project is the collaboration with Japanese pop artists, and Aoki's protagonist was lovingly modeled after the singer of the song, Kumi Koda. Aoki is a real pro who approaches his work with sincerity and tremendous gusto. It feels like he's just reaching the peak of his powers, and I hope we get to see that energy put to good use in the coming years.
Studio 4°C seems to have a new omnibus coming out next month: Amazing Nuts. The main reason I'm interested is that Yasuhiro Aoki has done one of the four segments. I was disappointed that he wasn't involved in Genius Party, so it's good to see him here. The stills from his piece look amazingly beautiful. Can't wait to see it. It's written by Shinji Obara, main writer of Champloo and Tweeny Witches, which bodes well. They were a killer team in Tweeny Witches. Daisuke Nakayama, who's been doing a lot of interesting work there recently, also did one of the segments.
On rewatching Soultaker 1 today it popped into my head that Yasuhiro Aoki's recent artistic coming out in Arusu reminds me of the appearance of Akiyuki Shinbo on the scene 13 years ago in Yu Yu Hakusho. I hope Aoki has the chance to go as far as Shinbo has in Le Portrait de Petite Cossette, which, as unlikely as it may seem, was probably my favorite item from last year after a certain film. The subject matter isn't really the point. It's all about the style. I don't think I've seen anything in a long, long time, much less in anime, that was such a virtuosic and unrelenting onslaught of unpredictable shots and gorgeously baroque composition, and I applaud the producer who gave him the chance to finally do something 100% his own way. Shinbo is one of the most talented directors that nobody's ever heard of in anime, though there are plenty of those.
One obvious quality Aoki shares with Shinbo is the predilection for stringing together unpredictable compositions in a way that some might say distracts from the story but to me enhances it. A story can be told entirely via dialogue, but as Tadashi Hiramatsu mentioned in this interview, the locus of excitment in directing is the space between the shots, and the compositions. Aoki knows that, and that's what sets him apart. It nagged me for a while what it was that made his work feel different, why the work of the other people in the show felt boring in comparison and worse animated, and finally I hit on the simple fact that he always avoids having a character doing the goldfish on the screen. He plays around with the angles while they're talking in order to avert one of the most common and unsuspected mistakes in anime. Nobody thinks it's a mistake, but he noticed that it was, and figured out a way around it, which shows that he's thinking about his art and not just churning it out on automatic. That small invention immediately hides the quantitative limits of the animation, as he saves his resources for one of those quintissentially anime bursts of full animation that give his episodes a truly powerful feeling of buildup.
Rumour has it that Tadashi Hiramatsu and Mamoru Hosoda are involved in the upcoming Genius Party, in addition to maybe Satoshi Kon and definitely Masaaki Yuasa. (I wish they'd change that embarrassing title.) It's curious how many of my favorite figures seem to gravitate towards 4°C. Hiramatsu is a real surprise. This will be his directing (kantoku) debut. He was talking about moving towards directing in that interview, but I didn't expect to see something so soon. Similarly, a year ago I read a piece by Hosoda commenting on Animatrix, which together with his appearance at a panel for Mind Game seems kind of a lead-in to this development. If Yasuhiro Aoki and maybe Furuya Shogo take part as well, I'll be happy as a pig in mud.
Word further has it that the film is inspired by or based on the works of Yasutaka Tsutsui. Yasutaka Tsutsui was one of the main writers of what the Japanese called "alternative sci-fi" around the 70s. Blending social satire with science and anything else that came to mind, Tsutsui is one of the few Japanese writers I've read for whom the word "genius" really seems like the bon mot - not a great writer in the literary sense, but a great explorer of ideas via the written word. About five years ago I discovered his books and devoured everything I could. I was in the UK at the time, and I'd make trips to London just to buy bagfulls of his books at 50p/pop. Another writer of this ilk is Shin'ichi Hoshi, the Japanese king of the short-short, whom Studio 4°C just turned to for a recent omnibus-format TV series. The anime industry has been rather thin on ideas of late; these writers offer some good ideas to help shake up tired anime thinking.
After more than a month of recapping, Tweeny Witches started up again today, with ten eps till the end, to commemorate which here's an anal list.
|06||Daisuke Nakayama||Ken'ichi Yamaguchi|
|07||→||Yoshiharu Ashino||Kazuya Nomura|
|10||→||Shogo Furuya||Hideki Sekiguchi|
|11||→||Masahiko Kubo||Kazuya Nomura|
|12||Sunao Katabuchi||Toru Yoshida||←|
|13||→||Shogo Furuya||Ken'ichi Yamaguchi|
|16||→||Yoshiharu Ashino||Hideki Sekiguchi|
|17||Yasuyuki Shimizu||Hirozaku Sueyoshi||←|
|19||Toru Yoshida||Yoshiharu Ashino||Akira Tamura|
|22||→||Hiroaki Ando||Kazuya Nomura|
|24||Yoshiharu Ashino||Ken'ichi Yamaguchi||←|
|28||→||Hiroaki Ando||Kazuya Nomura|
|29||Yoshiharu Ashino||Hirokazu Sueyoshi||Akira Tamura|
|31||Yoshiharu Ashino||Yumi Chiba||←|
|34||Yoshiharu Ashino||Toru Yoshida||←|
|36||Yoshiharu Ashino||Yasuyuki Shimizu||←|
|39||Yoshiharu Ashino||Yumi Chiba||←|
|40||→||Yoshiharu Ashino||Kazuya Nomura|
|19||吉田 徹||芦野芳晴||田村 晃|
The latest episode of this series was again done by Yasuhiro Aoki, who continues to raise the stakes and go to the next level with his intensely assertive directing. His episodes are the most satisfying to me personally because in each one you get a clear sense of him trying out new techniques and attempting to push the boundaries of his abilities a bit further. There's no feeling of stasis, of knowing what to expect. He grabs you by the lapels every time, never lets go, and knows exactly where he wants to go. That sort of extremely tight directing is what I like to see people do in anime, and I haven't seen many others up to his level recently. I look forward to seeing his episodes (and the rest) in widescreen, as they were produced. (they've been snipped to 4:3 for broadcast)
Incidentally the order of the Kimagure Robot episodes was different from what had been announced previously, so here is the actual order of the eps on the site for anyone who's curious who did what. As it turns out, all three of Aoki's episodes will be contained in the second batch being posted in a few days.
1 Yoshiharu Ashino 芦野芳晴
Tweeny Witches - chief director
Azuki-chan - animation director, character design
2 Yasuyuki Shimizu 清水保行
Arjuna 6 - director, storyboard
Christania - animation director
Spriggan - animation director
3 Chie Uratani 浦谷千恵
Toshizo Hijikata - director, storyboard, animation director, character design
4 Masahiko Kubo 久保まさひこ
Hakkenden OVA 11-13 - key animation
Paranoia Agent 1 - key animation (Maromi)
Virus Buster Serge op animation
5 Yumi Chiba 千葉ゆみ
Azuki-chan 2, 14, 18, 22, 26, 30, 36 - key animation
6 Yasuhiro Aoki 青木康浩
7 Yasuhiro Aoki 青木康浩
8 Yasuyuki Shimizu 清水保行
9 Yasuhiro Aoki 青木康浩
10 Nobutake Ito 伊東伸高
Dai Guard 22 - storyboard, animation director
Yamamoto Yoko 17 - storyboard, director, animation director
Hiwou Senki 10 - storyboard, animation director
Yasuhiro Aoki Filmography
Sailor Moon R
7, 12, 18, 42: key animation
Sailor Moon S
6, 11, 16, 21, 34: key animation
Sailor Moon SS
6, 13, 18, 24, 36: key animation
9: animation director, key animation
14: animation director, key animation
22: storyboard, director, animation director, key animation
You're Under Arrest
11, 19: animation director
Ah My Goddess Movie
32: key animation
Earth Girl Arjuna
11: key animation
On a Moonlit Night
Animatrix: Second Renaissance & Beyond
opening: key animation
2, 8, 14, 20, 26: storyboard, director, animation director
1: storyboard (w/Yoshiharu Ashino)
6, 18: storyboard