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I've long felt Yoshiyuki Momose to be the person doing the most interesting and creative work at Studio Ghibli for years now - both in his many lovely and original shorts of recent years and, prior to that, as one of the unsung heroes of Takahata's films. Without his technical mastery in the layouts and concept design, those films would not have half their impact.
He is one of the few creators involved in the studio who seems to have it all: the ability to come up with interesting stories and engaging characters and bring them alive in a compelling and original visual concept. He has the technical knowhow of a 40 year career during which he has touched on just about every aspect of animation, from traditional animation to CG animation to directing to concept illustration. In my mind, he is the obvious and only candidate to helm a Ghibli feature post M&T.
A retrospective book of Momose's artwork was just released at the end of last year (Amazon.jp). In nearly 200 beautiful color pages, it covers everything from his early days at Studio Neo Media working on Dokonjo Gaeru and Hajime Ningen Gyatorus, through his first Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies, down to the Capsule trilogy.
Yoshiyuki Momose has drawn just about everything that it's possible for someone to draw in the animation process, including key animation drawings, concept drawings, layouts, character designs, and storyboards. This book features a small selection of his drawings in all of these various roles.
I was already familiar with pretty much everything he has done throughout his career, so I thought I had a pretty good sense of how important his role has been, and hence didn't expect to be surprised by this book. But it still blew me away. Being able to see with my own eyes the actual drawings that he contributed to these productions brought alive the sheer breadth of his creativity and his unique voice.
When we're watching Pompoko, for example, it's not possible for us to realize the extent to which Momose was responsible for the film's unique visual ethos. The script was written after Momose drew his concept drawings, and incorporated many of the ideas in his concept drawings. The film is funny on a level that runs far deeper than mere visual gags: it's funny because of the clever way it combines flat imagery inspired by early Japanese art over the real world, blending the ancient, the cartoonish and the realistic into one complex whole. Momose was in large part the brain behind the multilayered visual side of the film's genius.
Similarly, I think few people grasp how important a role he played in bringing alive the realism of Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. In Grave of the Fireflies, he drew the image boards that depicted Seita in Setsuko in various situations, many of which went straight into the film, and he drew the storyboard that established the visuals for the entire film based on Takahata's script. For Only Yesterday Momose had to create a massively detailed storyboard to account for the nuanced acting and setting. He laid down much of the acting at the storyboard stage. The film was a rare case of presco (voices recorded first), and he went to the length of shooting video of the voice actors speaking their parts so that he could incorporate the little tics of how they spoke their lines into the acting to make it more realistic.
That's just the tip of the iceberg of what he did for these two films. This book does a good job of shedding light on the incredible amount of work that he put into the films, by looking at the drawings he did at each step of the way, from image boards to storyboards to layouts.
Momose's defining characteristic is his curiosity. He's always looking for some new technique or form of expression. He's been one of the people the most open to CGI at Ghibli. The bobsledding scene at the beginning of Yamadas is perhaps the most memorable early implementation of CGI in a Ghibli film. His recent Capsule videos and House Foods ads have featured an impressively seamless combination of CGI with hand-drawn elements. In the House Foods ads, Momose plunges us into a lush hand-drawn world re-creating the warmth of Showa-era Japan by using CG grids rendered with hand-painted art to permit first-person POV shots.
There's also a thorough look at his latest work, Ni no Kuni. He was the director of the animation portion of this Nintendo DS game. The game developer provided a few basic concept drawings and a story outline, but beyond that gave pretty much carte blance to Momose, and he used the opportunity to create some incredibly lush and creative animated imagery that seems like Ghibli at its purest. It's a shame that many people (like me) will probably not be able to see the great animation work he did for this game. The book goes through the character design, storyboarding, layout and animation processes for a number of shots, showing how the animated parts came together.
I like to see storyboards by my favorite directors to be able to see into their thought process a little, and the book is generous with the storyboards, providing many pages of the storyboards Momose drew for his recent Capsule trilogy, House Foods ads, Piece music video and Ghiblies 2.
It was also nice to be able to see his debut character design work on the obscure Nippon Animation TV specials Maxmouse and Maegami Taro.
I was particularly happy to see the selection of his key drawings from his days at Keiichiro Kimura's Studio Neo Media for the early A Pro series Dokonjo Gaeru, Tensai Bakabon and Hajime Ningen Gyatorsu, because I'm a huge fan of these shows and in particular Momose's work on these shows. My only disappointment was that there wasn't enough. It's great that they published what they did, but I just wish they had included a little more than one page's worth of each. Also, they didn't include anything from his period as the animation director of The Yearling or Belle and Sebastian. But the book is called "Studio Ghibli Works", so I guess I should be happy they included as much of his early work as they did.
His first decade working as a subcontract animator was an important period for him not just because it gave him his foundation, but also because it's during this time that he became acquainted with the work of (then) A Pro animator Yoshifumi Kondo, who is the one who recommended Momose when Takahata was struggling to find people to help him produce Grave of the Fireflies.
One more minor, nerdy gripe. I wish his works list was more complete. They didn't list any episode numbers for the TV shows he worked on, making it useless for practical purposes. And it doesn't seem complete. I know for one they left off
Fox of Chironup.
Finally, the book also sheds light on another new facet of the constantly evolving Momose: illustrator. It's only a small step to go from concept art and storyboarding to picture books, and Momose recently took that step with the delightful Pitty of the Frozen Star, a 64-page picture book released in 2010. The style is freer and more wildly imaginative and uninhibited than anything I've seen from him before, with loosely drawn creatures and densely elaborated alien landscapes. The drawings have an almost Masaaki Yuasa-ish quality. I could see the two of them doing good work together. I know Momose is fond of Shinya Ohira. Momose is the one who invited Ohira to do the dance sequence in Ghiblies 2.
The book tantalizingly closes with a short full-page story-in-pictures called Night in Nirvana about an alien world that sees the night sky for the first time in 2000 years, adapted from Isaac Asimov's Nightfall. The short ends just as it seems like it's about to begin, so I hope this means this is just a teaser for a longer project Momose is working on. It would be great if he could create an original sci-fi film in this style. Whether or not this particular story idea is developed into a film, I'm hoping that this long-deserved recognition of Momose's achievement is in preparation for his finally getting to direct a film at Ghibli.