Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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« Eternal FamilyOnly two more days till Mind Game! »

‹ Thursday, August 5, 2004 ›

05:55:22 pm , 1041 words, 1798 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Yasuo Otsuka documentary

First of all, thanks to Cartoon Brew and Alan for really nice write-ups of my blog!

My ship came in from the Amazon a few days ago, and so far I've had a chance to watch Eternal Family and the Yasuo Otsuka documentary I talked about in a previous post. Seeing as I'd mentioned a lot of Otsuka's animation in the Toei Doga posts, I thought I'd start with the latter. Everyone with an interest in either Toei Doga or Ghibli or anime history or even just animation in general should pick up this documentary if it's tempting. It's got English subs, and it's a solidly-made documentary offering a good look into how a master animator animates.

The film progresses in simple chronological order, beginning with Otsuka's childhood sketching steam locomotives, and ending with his latest endeavor as the head of Telecom Animation's online animation school Anime Juku. For me the most moving part of the film was seeing Otsuka in action drawing Goemon. I was impressed by the speed with which his pencil flies through the drawings, and the perfect clarity with which he explains how he comes up with the movements. This is what makes him a great teacher -- a knack for knowing how to clearly articulate his methods, and showing you exactly how to do it. It was also really neat to see him flipping through his old childhood sketchbooks. I already knew that he had taught himself how to draw by continually sketching jeeps and trains and things from an early age, but they were far more impressive than I'd imagined. It makes you realize that certain talents really are more nature than nurture.

As a fan of Otsuka, it was nice to finally get to see the real live Otsuka, after having reading so much about him and seen just about everything he's done. He comes across as just the sort of warm and effusive person you would imagine from his work. Maybe that's something that can be said about most great animators -- that their personality comes through in their work. It can certainly be said about Mori (viz Otsuka's interesting comments about Mori's "introverted" and Daikubara's "extroverted" drawings) and about Toei Doga-era Miyazaki, with all his barely restrained energy and free-flowing ideas.

As I thought, the film also doubles as a good capsule history of Toei Doga, covering a lot of the basics covered in Otsuka's autobiography (and my posts), even delving quite deeply into Yasuji Mori's importance. Also, watching this film really makes you want to try your hand at animation. Otsuka's openness is very encouraging. The way the film steps you through the process of animation, one drawing at a time, at various moments throughout -- particularly so the scene where Otsuka goes through the entire process of conceptualizing and drawing Goemon drawing his sword -- really gives you a feeling for the rush of creating movement from still drawings; or, as the film's title is cleverly translated, JOY IN MOTION. It was so nice to see those students tittering in innocent glee upon seeing the sequence they just drew move, "My drawings moved!" and to hear Otsuka respond "That's the reaction we all had when we started out as animators."

One thing that I learned from the film was that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Gainax regular and CD of Evangelion) got into animation due to Otsuka, having joined Telecom circa 1984 as a student in order to study under Otsuka (they showed his impressive student pieces), which creates an intriguing link between Otsuka and the animation in Honneamise.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is the one where Otsuka is giving a lecture at the Multimedia Art Institute. What he says in this scene captures one of the things I like about Otsuka's approach, and conversely, what I dislike about most anime, so I'm going to transcribe the english subs for the scene here.

While drawing on a white board to explain how most people draw characters in Japan:

Everyone tries for perfection. Nine out of ten draw these beautiful characters. They put in a lot of details with a fine pen. You've all seen this kind of character. They add pretty highlights to the eyes. They pick a hair style. The person at the next desk is doing the same. Maybe ponytails, or parted in the middle. Here's what I do with a character like this. I just fill in the eyes. Add a nose, eyebrows and a mouth. Takes a few seconds to draw. That's a character too. If you follow the crowd, you won't think of this. Everyone in Japan draws the same big eyes. Cute hairstyles with lots of detail. Maybe this looks like heresy. But it's original. It stands out.

It's funnier when you're watching it.

Finally, listening to Otsuka urging students at Ghibli to learn to draw things roughly, quickly, freely -- to learn not only the virtues but the appeal of rough drawings -- I got to wondering what Otsuka will think of Mind Game. Because I can't think of a Japanese animated film in the last decade that better embodies the ideas Otsuka talks about in this film. At least, that's my interpretation. Mind Game goes much further than Otsuka would, admittedly, and towards altogether different horizons, but I think the fundamental idea behind the film -- the thrill of animation that effectively integrates kinetics -- comes from Otsuka, if you go to the fountainhead. Yes, I've heard of Disney, but, as this documentary reveals, Otsuka was an assiduous student of animation techniques who, while learning the ropes at Toei Doga, slowly and carefully studied and digested everything that came before him (he copied out by Preston Blair's Animation by hand as a mnemonic aid!), thereby gradually discovering his own very distinctive and personal approach to animation -- sparer yet more realistic, rougher yet more thrilling -- that was to go on to exert a major influence on all Japanese animation that followed. So, if you go out on a limb with me here, it's not too difficult to see in Mind Game merely another stage in the evolution of the style pioneered by Otsuka. But I'll leave that thought in the interrogative.

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2 comments

Régis
Régis [Visitor]

Hi Ben,

I would just like to thank you for all the work you are doing on the type of animation that I appreciate the most. As an animation student I am appalled that information and awareness about the early days at Toei Douga is rarely talked about at schools or internet forums. Perhaps the misleading labels such as “anime” or “japanimation” may be what causes so many people to veer away from such beautiful artwork as well as artists. In fact, what amazes me the most is that at the decline of the American Golden Age of animation, we see the rise of a fantastic group of animators (i.e. Miyazaki, Takahata, Otsuka, Kondo, etc) that created a whole new aesthetic for animation in Japan; and yet, (outside of Japan) very few seem to care!
So, for that I admire your posts greatly because there are very few of you out there with the knowledge and appreciation for the animation that emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Japan, and the consequences that it had on Japanese animation from then on.

Thank You Very Much Ben!

Régis

08/09/04 @ 18:13
Ben
Ben [Visitor]

Apologies for not responding sooner. Thank you for this wonderful and insightful comment. I absolutely agree! Something incredible happened in the 60s and 70s in animation in Japan, and I think it deserves to be talked about and seen. It’s at the root of everything we see today in anime, and looking back on it is helpful for realizing what has been lost in the transition, and how anime could be better.

08/12/04 @ 10:52