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I talked about Nippon Animation's Jacky the Bearcub before. It was a 26-episode show about a bearcub raised by a native american boy in the Sierra Nevadas at the end of the 19th century. It aired June 7 to December 6, 1977. Despite being neglected compared with its more famous World Masterpiece Theater cousins, it had some quality work in it that made it worth revisiting - most notably character designs by Yasuji Mori, animation by Toshiyasu Okada, art by Nizo Yamamoto and Kazue Ito, and even some storyboarding by Isao Takahata.
Well, Nippon Animation came back with another sally in the Seton Animal Chronicles series two years later. This time they adapted Seton's Bannertail, the Story of a Gray Squirrel. It was another 26-episode show that aired April 7 to September 29, 1979, also on TV Asahi as opposed to Fuji TV, the home of the WMT, where Anne of Green Gables was airing concurrently.
I just had the opportunity to watch the first episode of Bannertail for the first time, and it was a very nice piece of work fully the equal of Jacky - as it should be; the production staff is nearly identical. The story is about a boy in the northeastern U.S. in the late 19th century who finds baby squirrel abandoned in the forest one day. Back home, their housecat just gave birth, but her kittens were given away, so she takes to Banner and raises him as her own. Banner grows up thinking he's a cat until one day he's forced to return to the wild and re-discover his natural instincts.
Though aimed at a younger demographic, this episode had some quality production that makes it far more enjoyable than shows of a similar ilk, whose crude production makes them of zero interest to older animation fans such as myself. The episode mostly consists of Banner running around being a silly little baby squirrel, harassing the dog, playing with a frog, discovering fire, etc. - the squirrel version of what happened in episode 1 of Jacky the Bearcub. But there's something endearing and enjoyable about the whole thing. It's like a kid's version of the World Masterpiece Theater, with the same realistic style of the directing, which doesn't play up the antics for cuteness, rather playing it more straight than the designs seem to suggest; fluid and nuanced animation; and realistic background art.
I didn't expect to enjoy the show. Judging by the designs, I was anticipating something with the token realism and plain animation of the tepid outings of this ilk that Nippon Animation produced in the 1980s. But in style and sensibility this episode felt similar to the early classic shows in the World Masterpiece Theater.
During the first few years after its founding, between 1974 and about 1980, Nippon Animation was at the height of its powers. It's the shows they made during this period that made them such a unique studio. Those shows are unique because of the particular combination of talent working at the studio at the time. It's not just Takahata and Miyazaki, though they undoubtedly were the magnets attracting the good staff. Their work also clearly had an influence on Nippon Animation's other shows.
The two Seton shows are also quintessential Nippon Animation shows in that they have the same basic sensibility as the World Masterpiece Theater shows: a faithful, reverential portrayal of nature; a progressive but humanistic sense of morality; and a narrative always driven by natural events that could believably occur in the natural world.
The aesthetics are the same, too. The background art and layouts are pared down due to the constraints of the TV format, but naturalistic and believable just like the World Masterpiece Theater. While watching the first episode of Bannertail, I was surprised to find that, despite the talking animals and the cartoony designs, the basic world view felt the same as the WMT.
The way Bannertail is animated is surprisingly accurate, if you go beyond the design. He zips around on the ground in a way that's unexpectedly precisely timed for effect. Finely tuned movement is not what one would expect based on the designs, but that's precisely what Yasuji Mori was about: investing those simple round designs with delicately nuanced personality. Most of Nippon Animation's post-1980 work in the same vein is indeed far more perfunctory and uninspired in its movement. The animation in Bannertail has a feeling similar to Yoichi Kotabe's animation - deceptively simple in its form, but surprisingly nuanced, elegant and refined in its sense of timing. During the first few years of Nippon Animation, even the minor shows like the Seton shows felt great to watch because there was this unique sensibility in the animation. Contemporaneous Toei staff didn't develop in this direction at all.
The movement reminds me slightly of the way the animals move in Gauche the Cellist - pared down but fundamentally true to their species. When you see the mother cat galloping away, you recognize it because you've seen cats running that way. When the house is burning, the flames have a way of flickering and roving that feels familiar and real. It's a style of animating that evolved around this time in the natural course of things through the WMT, and disappeared because there were no shows on which it was needed, or the times called for new styles of animation. It's probably because the material and the characters were so simple here that the animation was able to be made so nuanced. There's no need to waste energy on needless details. You can imagine that each cel in the ep has just one little blob of drawing.
Nippon Animation's basic approach during these years eventually evolved into the Ghibli movies. This series, though not directly touched by either Takahata or Miyazaki, feels inevitably influenced by what they did on the WMT. That's what makes the early Nippon Animation work special - they did all this finely observed realistic work within the confines of TV schedules, which if anything makes it an even more impressive achievement than the more permissive schedule of a big-budget movie.
Yoshio Kabashima came up with a very different way of moving little creatures in Osamu Dezaki's Gamba's Adventure from 1975 that serves as a nice contrast: Kabashima's creatures move in a more dynamic, expressive, limited, staccato way, whereas the animals in the Seton shows more in a more fluid and realistic way. Both are well-realized approaches in their own right.
I've only seen episode 1, and I have my doubts as to whether the rest of the show remains as impressively detailed in its animation, because there's one person to thank for what makes the animation of episode 1 so good: Toshiyasu Okada. Without his touch, this should could very easily fall into the mire of being merely a cutesy kid's show.
I love Yasuji Mori's work both as an animator and designer/illustrator - even his more kiddy later stuff - but his designs for Jacky and Bannertail go in a very different direction from Seton's original. It's testament perhaps to the flexibility and the deceptive richness of his designs that, despite looking so kiddy on the outside, when they're brought alive properly in animation, they feel very realistic. Even if you haven't seen these two series you can imagine what I'm talking about by thinking of the rich movement of his animals in the classic Toei films of the late 50s/early 60s.
Of course, by this time Yasuji Mori wasn't animating anymore. Who is it that brought his animals alive here? Toshiyasu Okada. He wasn't the only person animating the two shows, of course; that would be impossible. But he did a tremendous amount of work, and he did numerous solo episodes, and his episodes are the ones that bring the characters alive in a way that you can never forget.
Toshiyasu Okada is one of the unjustly forgotten animators of yesteryear. He had a genius for rich, realistic movement in the realm of limited TV animation that was quite unlike any other. It's thanks to his animation that Jacky and Bannertail feel like real animals despite their cartoonish designs.
Like episode 1 of Jacky, episode 1 of Bannertail was animated solo by Toshiyasu Okada. His animation lays the framework for Bannertail's style of movement: zippy and fun to watch, but surprisingly nuanced and infused with a realistic sense of timing at the right moment, depending on the shot. It's a different kind of quality from what we're used to seeing today, but just as valid, if not more. The closest current analogue to Okada's style I can think of is Okiura. He uses lots of drawings to create minute acting instead of falling back on inserting deformed drawings to achieve an effect. Much of today's animation by younger hotshot animators feels too self-consciously 'sakuga', striving above all for cool effect. Looking cool has replaced solid acting skills. Flash is in (in both senses of the term), traditional animation knowhow is out. I think Okada's animation has a lot to teach young animators in the Japanese animation industry today.
Also impressive is how Okada manages to do the entire episode himself and there isn't a moment that feels like a throwaway. And he uses a lot of drawings. It's very fluid and rich animation, considering the context.
Toshiyasu Okada was primarily active as an animator in the 1970s, and as a designer in the early 1980s.
Okada started out at Toei, eventually quitting and moving to a subcontracting studio called Ad 5, where he continued to work on Toei shows. He quit Ad 5 in 1973 after doing a lot of sakkan work on Babel II in order to go work under Takahata and Miyazaki on Heidi at Zuiyo. From there, he presumably moved straight to Nippon Animation when it was founded soon thereafter, as he can be seen working on most of the 'big' Nippon Animation productions that followed.
Many people the world over will know Okada, if not by name, from his character designs for the beloved show The Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982-83). He was also the character designer of The Fantastic Adventure of Nils (1980-81).
But personally, it's for his work as an animator that I wish he would be remembered. He isn't necessarily easily identifiable like Yoshinori Kanada (also an ex-Toei animator who developed over pretty much the same period), but he's also a very talented animator, just of a very different kind. His work stands out in the way that I think good animation should stand out: not because it has a self-indulgent, flamboyant visual style. It stands out because of its fundamental quality of movement, his ability to breathe life into characters, not just draw crazy drawings. That's one thing I particularly like about him: he found a completely different and equally valid answer to the question of how to create good animation in a limited TV environment, and his answer bore no resemblance whatsoever to that of the Kanada school. No jagged lines, silly poses, split-second insertions, or effects just for the sake of looking cool - just solid character animation. Deformation is used way too often nowadays to cover up for lack of animation skills or simple impatience to sit down and do the work of animating a character in great detail. This is one of the things I appreciated about Kaiba. Its use of simple, pared-down character designs, intentionally or not, forced more nuanced character animation. Ryotaro Makihara is a rare example of a latter-day animator skilled in this kind of animation.
Episode 1 of Jacky and Bannertail are probably the best place to start to begin to appreciate Toshiyasu Okada's work. I'm not sure if he worked on any other episodes in the rest of the shows. Other places to see work by Okada: He did animation in episodes 1-4 and 9 of Heidi in 1974, even-numbered episodes between 6 and 34 on 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in 1976, and episode 7 of Future Boy Conan, and he alternated as sakkan on A Dog of Flanders in 1975.
Ernest Thompson Seton in Japan
Ernest Thompson Seton was a great naturalist and writer who published books about animals in the early decades of the 20th century. His stories explained the workings of the natural world to children through the seasoned eyes of a naturalist. He achieved the remarkable feat of conveying the rich personality of his animal protagonists entirely through stories built around their natural behaviors. They speak human because Seton was human, but you can sense that it's just a translation for convenience. He illustrated his own books with lively and realistic drawings that make his books a pleasure to read even now, more than 100 years since their publishing. You can read Bannertail, the Story of a Gray Squirrel online on the Internet Archive, as well as other Seton books including Monarch, the Big Bear of Tallac, which formed the basis of Jacky the Bearcub. Monarch was one of his early books, from 1904, while Bannertail was one of his later, from 1922.
Seton's work has had a lasting appeal in Japan starting around the time of his late books in the 1930s, when his books finally began to be translated into Japanese. None other than Shirato Sanpei made a good gekiga-style manga version of his stories in the 1960s, and an omnibus anime adaptation was made by Eiken in 1989. The Eiken version appears to be drawn in a more realistic style closer to Seton's original drawings than the two Nippon Animation adaptations. But comparing the opening of the Eiken version with the movement in the two Nippon Animation versions is a good lesson in the dynamics of realism in animation: you can have realistically drawn animation that doesn't feel real, and cartoonish drawings that feel real. The more realistic and studied animation of the Nippon Animation shows makes them feel more real than the literal but empty surface realism of the Eiken show.
A Japanese-produced adaptation of the French picture book series Rita et Machin aired one year ago on NHK. It's about the adventures of an energetic little girl and her lazy pet dog. The pictures are appealingly spare and simple and the stories have an easy and genteel understated humor that makes them enjoyable even for an adult.
Considering how many good studios France has, I'm surprised they chose to do this in Japan. But they did a good job adapting it in a way that remains true to the atmosphere and look of the original, without 'animefying' it.
The 26-episode show was co-produced by Nippon Animation and French studio Planet Nemo, but it seems to have been mostly done in Japan. And many of the episodes were not done by Nippon Animation staff. That's what makes the show so good, actually. They got some surprising outside faces to do episodes. From Madhouse they got Toshio Hirata, Hirotsugu Hamazaki, Manabu Ohashi, Hideki Futamura and Hiroshi Shimizu. From Studio Live they got Kojina Hiroshi and Hiroaki Yoshikawa.
But the most interesting thing about the show is that someone on the show took the bold initiative of crossing the indie/industry divide to invite several indie animators I've talked about before on the blog to each do a solo episode. Ayaka Nakata, Yosuke Oomomo, Hiroco Ichinose and Tomoyoshi Joko of Decovocal, Oswald Kato and Hotchi Kazuhiro each did a solo episode. The show was co-directed by indie animator PON Kozutsumi, whose short Organic I just tweeted, and I suspect it may have been him who invited these people.
It's vindicating of the talent of today's new generation of indie animators, and suggests how much richer anime could be if there were more mixing between indie and industry, that their episodes are easily the best episodes in the show.
Episode 7 by Hotchi Kazuhiro has some of the most distinctive and pleasing animation in the show. Hotchi Kazuhiro also drew backgrounds for a few episodes. He's been active now for about 10 years as an independent animator. He has a unique graphic style with lush, densely drawn images. See his web site for some examples. Doudou from 2002 is probably my favorite short he's done.
Episode 9 by Tomoyoshi Joko of Decovocal has rich animation and clever ideas, with spoons competing over strawberries turning into a bear and dragon with horns locked. Episode 18 by Ayaka Nakata was perhaps the most impressive of the show, full of great compositions, lovely drawings, detailed animation and imaginative transformations. Episode 19 by Yosuke Oomomo was a delightful musical episode with toys that come alive and a couch that turns into a piano.
Even the episodes that didn't stand out like these were enjoyable to watch because the characters are fun and the humor isn't overdone. The show is for children but it's not kiddy and inane. That's perhaps what has made the original such a best-seller internationally. The humor translates in every language.
I like the 5-minute format of the show because, first of all, it's easy to watch. Many anime episodes feel needlessly long. Each episode here felt the perfect length. The short length also allows a talented creator to hone the episode more.
It's great to see anime creators set to the task of animating something so different like this. It can only help broaden their horizons and show that there are lots more styles out there to explore. They need to make more home-grown shows that are as visually unique as this. They've got picture books that are just as nice - viz The 11 Cats.
Planet Nemo offers one episode of the UK English dub up for viewing on their web site. It's episode 21 in the Japanese ordering, by Madhouse veteran Manabu Ohashi. Manabu Ohashi also happens to have headed the animation of the actual episode 1 that introduces the characters, and the episode stands out for its more nuanced and observed movement. His work in Little Twins similarly stood out in a subtle way.
Episode 10 headed by Madhouse animator/director Hirotsugu Hamazaki had some of the most expert animation in the show. It was restrained but you could sense the technical expertise with the complicated shots of the fishing. It was nice to see one of my favorite Madhouse figures, Toshio Hirata (whom I wrote about long ago) here with an episode, as this material is eminently suited to his temperament, with its languid pacing and gentle humor. The person who did episode 20, incidentally, Hiroshi Kojina, is a longtime Studio Live animator who replaced the late great Toyoo Ashida as president of the company upon his recent death. It was a nice surprise to see Hideki Futamura here, as I'm a fan of his work, but I don't know what his presence signifies; is he at Madhouse now too?
リタとナントカ Rita and Whatsit staff list
|Title||Storyboard||Director||Animation Director||Key animation|
|#1: Rita and Whatsit||Masaaki Kidokoro||Manabu Ohashi|
|#2: Rita and Whatsit go to the ocean||Jun Takagi||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Yasuko Sakuma||Yujiro Moriyama, Noboru Takeuchi|
|#3: Rita and Whatsit have a guest||PON Kozutsumi||Saya Takamatsu|
|#4: Whatsit's house||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#5: Rita and Whatsit play soccer||Oswald Kato (+composite)|
|#6: Rita and Whatsit go to the pool||Kazuma Fujimori||Yuki Hishinuma|
|#7: Rita and Whatsit on Sunday||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Yasuko Sakuma||Miho Higashi|
|#8: Rita and Whatsit go on a trip||Hotchi Kazuhiro|
|#9: Rita and Whatsit have an argument||Tomoyoshi Joko||Decovocal (+finishing & composite)|
|#10: Rita and Whatsit go fishing||Hirotsugu Hamazaki|
|#11: Rita and Whatsit's secret hiding place||Toshio Hirata|
|#12: Rita and Whatsit and the lost baby duck||Hiroco Ichinose||Decovocal (+finishing & composite)|
|#13: Rita and Whatsit go on a picnic||Kazuma Fujimori||Hideaki Uehara||Hiroki Fujiwara||Moe Usami |
|#14: Rita and Whatsit's masquerade party||Hiroaki Yoshikawa|
|#15: Rita's new bike||Hiroshi Shimizu|
|#16: Rita and Whatsit go to Paris||Kazuma Fujimori||Masaru Yasukawa||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#17: Rita and Whatsit go shopping||Kazuma Fujimori||Yuki Hishinuma|
|#18: Whatsit's birthday||Ayaka Nakata|
|#19: Rita and Whatsit put on a concert||Yosuke Oomomo|
|#20: Rita becomes a detective||Hiroshi Kojina|
|#21: Rita and Whatsit go to school||Masaaki Kidokoro||Manabu Ohashi|
|#22: Rita and Whatsit gardening||PON Kozutsumi|
|#23: Whatsit catches a cold||Hideki Futamura||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#24: Rita and Whatsit wish upon a star||Teppei Tani|
|#25: Rita and Whatsit go for a walk||Yuki Hishinuma||PON Kozutsumi||Saya Takamatsu|
|#26: Rita and Whatsit's Christmas||Masaaki Kidokoro||Yasuko Sakuma||Yoshiaki Fukamachi|
Toei has produced another little gem of highly stylized directing and visuals in their just-released OVA Kyoso Giga. The film is a fast-paced romp full of bright colors, highly deformed and active animation, and constantly surprising angles and layouts.
The directing is in the willful and flamboyant mold that characterizes all the great Toei directors of the last two decades, of which there is quite a long list, most notably Shigeyasu Yamauchi, Kenji Nakamura, Mamoru Hosoda, Takuya Igarashi and Kunihiko Ikuhara. They tell a story not by plopping characters in the middle of the screen and letting them talk, but cutting in an unpredictable rapid-fire between elliptical shots in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and coming up with new approaches to visual presentation and stylization and pleasing new ways of combining the CGI and hand drawn elements. The director here pushes this style to such a breakneck extreme that I had a hard time following it and it left me dizzy and hoping it would stop soon, though I still enjoyed every moment. It feels very much of the Toei lineage, but it's directed by a director I've never heard of: Rie Matsumoto. Turns out she's a new face who has only come to prominence in the last few years. She apparently got interested in animation after being impressed by Mamoru Hosoda's Children's War Game, and decided to join Toei for that reason. She's been mostly active directing Toei's franchise for little girls Precure.
There isn't a moment that lets you rest in the 30-minute outing thanks to the constantly creative visual presentation, the beautiful background art with a nice stylized rendering of old Kyoto, and the edgy and high-energy animation. The designs of the characters and especially the monsters are fluid and full of unexpected angles. The monsters in particular are drawn in a loosely appealing way with flowing and jagged forms. The action scenes move something crazy thanks to a handful of powerful young animators working on the show, but even in the non-action scenes the director maintains interest through a mix of Hosoda-styled densely layered formalistic shots with different things happened on different layers, shifting unexpectedly between realistic images of the characters in the real world and highly stylized images of the characters walking through some kind of alternative universe of the imagination full of colorful decorations hanging from strings and eye-poppingly colorful geometrical patterns.
The animation director and character designer is Yuki Hayashi, who has made a name for himself in the last few years as an interesting animator with a sense for well-timed action that uses a minimum of means. Not coincidentally he also did most of his work on Precure. I like his youkai (monster) characters in particular. They're drawn with long, loose, flowing forms. But even the cute protagonists are cute in a way that isn't annoying for trying too hard to look cute. Their drawing style is clearly identifiable as recent Toei. Working under him are other talented animators like freelance ex-gif animator Shinichi Kurita, Toei regular and FX specialist Takashi Hashimoto and even Tate Naoki, the flamboyant animator from Toei's franchise for little boys One Piece. Hopefully Toei will rope in Hisashi Mori for some good work in a future episode. Tatsuzo Nishita would be nice too. Haven't seen him in a while.
The script by Miho Maruo is witty if a little frustrating in its deliberate ellipsis. You're obviously meant to not understand what the heck is going on in this episode - one of the characters even speaks for the audience: "I have no idea what the heck is going on." But it's well done, for what it is, juggling a lot of characters while keeping the story pulsing forward.
I opened a Twitter account recently: https://twitter.com/Anipages. Originally I didn't intend to tweet; I just wanted to follow some people. But I decided I'll go ahead and use it to post quick links or news or blurbs that are too short for a full post on the blog. I'm honestly still unsure about the whole thing but I figure I should give it a shot. It's remarkable how many Japanese animators are on Twitter. (though it's mostly just chit-chat)
Not every AIC anime is about cute girls, mecha and guns. There's one exception: Mikeneko Holmes no Yuurei Joushu, a one-shot mystery OVA based on the novels of mystery legend Jiro Akagawa. No tentacles or lesbian aliens are to be found in this unostentatious and low-key outing. It's maybe the least AIC-looking of the OVAs from the golden age of AIC OVAs.
It's decent, but not undeservedly overlooked. The characters are competently drawn, if not particularly dynamic or exciting to watch. The mystery takes too long to arrive and isn't satisfying, and the directing is bland and lacking in spark, although you could say it's more watchable than many of their better produced outings because of that lightness and lack of fetishism. It's interesting perhaps most of all for being one of the earliest mystery anime, precursor of hit shows like Kindaichi and Conan. Once again, AIC was on the money in terms of sniffing out potential new formats.
This OVA was released in 1992, which is smack in the middle of one of my favorite periods in anime, the post-Akira period that produced OVAs like Crimson Wolf, Hakkenden and Sukeban Deka. The animation of this period gets my juices flowing like that of no other period in anime history. Like most AIC OVAs, this one has a smattering of good animation, and it's in the early 90s style that I love. Most of the animation in the film is not that exciting, but there are bits here and there in the first ten minutes that I really enjoyed.
The breakfast scene is perhaps the best. The acting in this scene is subtly nuanced and believable, but not lavish or flamboyant by any means. Take the shot where the protagonist reads the note while eating toast. Normally an animator would just have had the protagonist pick up the note and read it. But there's an added little touch here that makes it feel more real and life-like: he flips back the note to straighten it so that he can read it. It passes by so quickly it almost doesn't register. It's not flamboyant and in-your-face screaming "Sakugaaaaa!" Yet it feels really good as acting and as movement. Most of the time nowadays when you run across animation that is above average, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Not many animators are capable of this kind of subtle quality. I like animation like this that flies under the radar yet is very well done. The timing of the bit where the protagonist's buddy pats his chest at the front door is also exceptional. Have a look for yourself.
Animators in the credits include Tatsuya Tomaru, Jiro Kanai, Fumihide Sai and Osamu Tanabe. The breakfast scene is almost without a doubt the work of Osamu Tanabe, who I wrote a post about before. This was before he became famous for his work at Ghibli, right around the time he did such amazing but as-of-yet unrecognized work on miscellaneous shows like Hakkenden, Junkers Come Here, Lassie and Golden Boy. His work in all of these shows is also similarly notable for its subtle but realistic and believable acting.
There are some other spots during the first ten minutes that are also quite nice, like the dream scene at the beginning and the shot where the protagonist's buddy gets worked up after the play and the protagonist has to restrain him. The latter shot is quite nice and feels very 'post-Akira' in the style of the mouth and the exaggerated movement of the limbs. I like how the limbs and hands are very communicative in animation at this period.
三毛猫ホームズの幽霊城主 Mikeneko Holmes no Yuurei Joushu (1992, OVA, 45 mins, AIC)
Based on the novels by Jiro Akagawa
Produced by AIC
Director, Character Design: Nobuyuki Kitajima
Animation Directors: Noboru Furuse, Nobuyuki Kitajima
Assistant Animation Director: Atsushi Okuda
Art Director: Kenji Kamiyama
Script: Arii Emu
Music: Kentaro Haneda
Technical Director: Takeshi Aoki
|Tatsuya Tomaru||Jiro Kanai|
|Kado Tomoaki||Osamu Tanabe|
|Tomoo Ikeuchi||Tadayuki Iwai|
|Fumihide Sai||Masahiro Kase|
|Harumi Izawa||Koichi Ishihara|
|Miko Nakajima||Kenichi Ogawa|
|Satomi Tanaka||Koichi Nakaya|
|Masashi Yagishita||Masamitsu Outa|
|Keiji Goto||Naoko Ozawa|
Here's a list of some of my favorite early 1990s OVAs (and one movie) where you can sample the style of animation that's unique to the immediate post-Akira period:
Gosenzosama Banbanzai (1989)
Explorer Woman Ray episode 1 (1989)
Hakkenden episode 1 (1990)
The Antique Shop (1991)
Sukeban Deka (1991)
Rojin Z (1991)
Green Legend Ran episode 1 (1992)
Ai Monogatari: Lion and Pelican (1993)
Crimson Wolf (1993)
Tomoyoshi Joko and Hiroco Ichinose, who work together as the unit Decovocal, just put up a new short animation entitled Coffee Tadaiku on their Youtube channel in honor of their mentor Taku Furukawa, who turned 70 on September 25. Watch it here. The film is a lovingly crafted homage to what's perhaps Taku Furukawa's most iconic piece, Coffee Break from 1977.
I'm on the road unable to post (anything long) right now, and will be for the next few days, so I just thought I'd point out that Aaron Long, who was the one who inspired me on all these Lupin posts with his post about episode 78 of the second TV series, just wrote a nice little piece about the Gold of Babylon movie that featured some of the best work by Yuzo Aoki in his whole career. The film is full of inspired posing and character animation. It's the culmination of his many years of working with the Lupin designs. Sadly, the movie has fallen into obscurity after all these years, buried under an avalanche of less interesting films and TV specials. It's basically the craziest, most slapstick and raucous Lupin ever made, with some of the most Monkey Punch-esque drawings. Check it out if you have a chance.
Sadahiko Sakamaki is an animator who's been active since the late 1970s. He appears frequently in the Tokyo Movie episodes of the second Lupin III series, having even done a few half-half episodes with Yuzo Aoki. In the ensuing years he worked as an animator on various shows like Belle and Sebastian and Cobra before moving to Nippon Animation, where he remained for many years, notably doing character designs for Spaceship Sagittarius and Jungle Book. Spaceship Sagittarius was a great show due to the script and Sakamaki's simple but appealing and out-there designs of the various aliens. He reportedly drew a lot of rough key animation in the show as well. His style comes through well in Jungle Book, with its simple and appealing animal character designs well-suited to creating active movement.
One of the last things Sakamaki did at Nippon Animation was a 24-episode show called Taiga Adventure that ran from October 1999 to April 2000. This show was unfortunately neglected due presumably to the fact that the producers made the greedy and unfortunate decision to attempt to associate the show with Hayao Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan by calling it Future Boy Conan II: Taiga Adventure instead of just Taiga Adventure, even though the show had absolutely nothing to do with Future Boy Conan. They just wanted to capitalize on one of their hottest properties. I myself dismissed the show out of hand because of that fact when it came out. I regret having done so now, because it looks like Sakamaki put a lot of sweat and tears into this project, and it doesn't look that bad, but the show is pretty much impossible to find now, having only been released on VHS many years back.
Sakamaki was the brain behind the whole show. He came up with the concept and the story, drew the character designs, and drew storyboards for almost every episode - not ekonte, but storyboards in the western sense of the word, as in a series of drawings to give a sense of the flow of the story, based upon which a proper ekonte was presumably drawn afterwards. The director of the show wasn't him but Keiji Hayakawa, who I wrote a post about before because of his excellent storyboarding work on Spaceship Sagittarius. The two had worked together even before Spaceship Sagittarius: Keiji Hayakawa was the chief director of Belle & Sebastian. They continue to work together even today. They recently teamed up on several episodes of The Galaxy Railways and Kyou Kara Maou, Hayakawa doing storyboard and directing and Sakamaki acting as sakkan.
His storyboard videos are very nice to look at. At a basic level, it's just nice to savor his appealing rough drawings, as he's a master with the pencil, able to quickly sketch out all sorts of characters in all sorts of dynamic poses. But more than that, watching these animatics gave me a newfound appreciation for a side of Sadahiko Sakamaki I didn't know before - that of an all-powerful anime creator who can conceptualize a whole show from the ground up, including mapping out every shot in almost every episode. He's able to come up with, string together and convincingly draw so many characters and situations (I'm sure he could animate them too if he had time). Not many people have done that in anime except for Hayao Miyazaki. They make me want to see the actual show, although I suspect the actual show won't have the very nice flavor of Sakamaki's lively and skillful rough drawings.
Sadahiko Sakamaki also uploaded three 7-minute animatics for a new show he's working on called Go, Lesser!. The subject is interesting. It's about animals left behind by their owners after a nuclear disaster. It's inspired by true stories of such events that played in the news after the Fukushima disaster. I'm not quite sure whether he's doing this on the side, by himself, or whether this is a project that's actually under production somewhere.
It's a real pleasure to watch his animatics. I like his whole aesthetic and visual style. He feels like an emissary from an older time in anime, with his simply drawn but lively characters going on grand adventures. There's something in his work that reminds me of what it is that attracted me to anime in the first place, but that's been lost today. It does remind me of Future Boy Conan, but not because it mimics that style. It's because he seems one of the last living people able to create that kind of sprawling, fun, sci-fi action-adventure on a large scale.
Sadahiko Sakamaki is still active full-time as an animator and animation director. He now has his own small subcontractor production studio called Delta Peak Production, which has done the animation for episodes of many shows including Metal Fighter Miku, Ayakashi, The Galaxy Railways and Akikan. Sakamaki always acts as the sakkan for the episodes outsourced to his studio. Sakamaki even drew solo episodes in episode 2 and 8 of Akikan.
Ever since the third TV series of 1984-1985, Lupin III has lived on mostly in yearly TV specials of uneven quality that were often disappointing despite frequently ambitious staff casting. The very first TV special was Bye Bye Liberty Crisis, directed by Osamu Dezaki and aired on April 1, 1989. Dezaki went on to direct the first few TV specials before they were handed on to a succession of different directors.
I just saw this film for the first time today, and I was impressed by it. I'm used to disappointment with these TV specials, but I'd easily rank Bye Bye Liberty Crisis as the best post-Fuma Clan Lupin III film I've seen.
It's clear why TMS turned to Osamu Dezaki when they wanted to revive the franchise in TV special form. He had the stylistic flair and directing prowess to make a Lupin III film that was satisfying as a film.
Dezaki's Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is cinematic in a way that most of the later TV specials I've seen aren't. It's adult in atmosphere without taking itself seriously, as Lupin III should be, and it segues between action sequences and drama in a way that's stylish and believable. Each of the main characters shine and communicate their unique personalities. Jigen and Goemon have their own vignettes, and you come away feeling like you understand their personalities and motivations. Goemon especially gets a lot of play and his character comes through very nicely. The atmosphere is romantic and moody in a classy way at the right moments, with jazz, cigarette smoke and city lights, while the action sequences are excitingly directed through clever and artistic staging despite not being fluidly animated and choreographed like the Telecom action sequences.
Dezaki was an auteur with brilliant instinct for how to string together scenes in a way that was both entertaining and full of artistic flair. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is sprinkled here and there with personal trademarks that you can see in most of his productions like harmony, back-lighting and triple-takes, but it's more subtle and under wraps here than in many other productions. It doesn't feel like he's showing off stylistically. Harmony is the thing where an animated image suddenly turns into a painted image. You see this in almost every Dezaki production. It's done by sending the last cel in a shot to the art department and having them add painted touches directly onto the cel to give it a more hand-drawn and painterly feeling.
An example of Osamu Dezaki's 'harmony' effect
The action scene early on where the baddies kill Jigen's friend and then Jigen shoots one of them and he falls into the river is a textbook example of Dezaki's unique genius for directing of action sequences in a way that is visually beautiful as well as cleverly choreographed. During the climactic last few seconds, diegetic sound is replaced by the sound of a subway train passing in the background, and the bad guy with a bullet in his shoulder falls backwards in slow motion towards an image of the train passing that suddenly disappears with a splash as it turns out to have been the reflection of the train passing by above in the river. Dezaki's action sequences are exciting to watch because he always comes up with clever and artistic ways of presenting actions by a mix of unexpected cutting and framing, sound design and art, rather than just presenting a sequence of naturalistically staged shots.
Osamu Dezaki's creative visual presentation
The second Lupin III TV series established a trend for outlandishly improbable and unrealistic escapades and action sequences. While these were quite fun to watch, it felt like Lupin lite in a way. Without being grounded in reality, Lupin loses a lot of its impact. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is nice because the action sequences all feel grounded. That in turn creates tension that makes the scenes exciting to watch. The recent special called The Last Job was extremely unpleasant to watch because its action sequences were so over-the-top and unbelievable. They completely ignored physics and turned the characters into meaningless symbols flying all over the screen. There was no sense of imminent danger. Lupin could do anything he wanted, when he wanted. The Lupin of Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is bounded by the rules of physics and gravity, and his action sequences have tension because of it.
It's not just the action sequences where realistic touches make the film more believable. Cars are arguably one of the most important elements of the Lupin III franchise. The defining trait of the show - what set it apart - was how they drew the cars realistically, based on actual models. That was completely abandoned in The Last Job, which was also unpleasant to see. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is filled with beautifully drawn cars, including an awesome Cadillac Deville that's lovingly drawn in every shot. All of the shots of the cars in this film, even the ones that aren't moving, are a pleasure to watch.
What's Lupin III without some beautifully drawn cars?
One of my favorite parts in the whole film is the scene where the Cadillac Deville taxi drives through the Nevada desert, kicking up a cloud of dust as it swerves around in a 180. It's impressive how realistic the images are in this scene, from the rendering of the car to the camera lens to the dust cloud that obscures the image momentarily. The scene where the enemy cars parachute in later on and start attacking the Lupin gang with guns installed under the chassis is also really well drawn. There's one shot of Lupin running with the kid on his back mixed into this sequence that stands out as having a nice feeling in the timing. Jigen has an awesome moment when he shoots the missile and is blown back by the explosion. This whole sequence is well executed in terms of the animation and the directing. It's a great Lupin III action sequence. The early scene with Lupin driving around the snowplow is also well done. Even Jigen's magnum is lovingly drawn in many shots, down to the "Smith & Wesson" insignia.
The character drawings are also among my favorite in the whole franchise. Noboru Furuse is the character designer and animation director, and I think he did an excellent job putting his own spin on the characters while keeping true to the spirit of the original. The faces are long, the chins dimpled, the hands big and hairy, but it doesn't go as far as Yuzo Aoki in the third series. The characters remain cute and appealing. Best of all, their animation is very lively and supple. The many guest characters are all nicely designed and a pleasure to watch in movement. The slender-faced baddie character especially is nice to watch. It feels like Noboru Furuse's spin on the lanky character designs of Mystery of Mamo, which probably remains my favorite rendering of the characters in the franchise. The opening scene where Zenigata and Lupin wrestle in the elevator shows off the character designs well, with the well-timed animation as their lanky limbs tangle in the cramped space, and the way Lupin's face stretches impishly.
Even the women like Fujiko and Goemon's love interest are lovely and sexy in a way that's in the spirit of Lupin III - bodaceous and foxy in a classy, stylized way. The women in recent Lupin III aren't sultry and sexy the way they used to be, even though sometimes they're better drawn. I prefer the way the women were drawn in the old Lupin III shows because they were stylized in a way that was sexy and beautiful without trying to be pedantically realistic about it. Today's animators don't seem to be as good at appealing stylization as in the old days. Too many animators nowadays seem to default to the same homogeneous drawing style.
The film had a lot of talented animators working on it, which accounts for why so much of the movement and drawings throughout the film are such a pleasure to watch. Talented animators in the credits include Jiro Kanai, Hiroyuki Morita, Masatsugu Arakawa, Osamu Tanabe, Seiji Muta and Kazuyoshi Takeuchi. It's interesting to note the presence of Osamu Tanabe in particular, as he's not associated with this kind of material anymore. Also present is Takahiko Shobu of Studio Iruka, who did a lot of work on the third series a few years earlier.
There was one section in particular that I really liked in terms of the animation. It's the sequence where Zenigata steps off the train with the kid and sits on the bench. There's something about the drawings and movement here that's like none of the other sequences in the film. It's quite clear what it is: It's Akira-esque. It's got a Takashi Nakamura inflection. The shot where the guy gesticulates with his hands makes it obvious. The hands are clearly the product of working under Takashi Nakamura. You only see this kind of gesticulation animation in the years following Akira. Seiji Muta and Jiro Kanai are the two animators in the credits who worked on Akira, so I wonder if it was one of them. Seiji Muta went on to become a regular in the specials.
Whoever it was who animated this sequence appears to have inserted two animator cameos into it: Someone wearing Yasuo Otsuka's trademark driver cap steps off the train before Zenigata (I think it's tradition to have a Yasuo Otsuka reference in each film), and director Osamu Dezaki himself passes behind disguised Lupin as he's gesticulating. That's something I miss about the old days. Animators had more freedom to insert little jokes here and there into their sequences. Many anime nowadays are so straightlaced that they have no tolerance for this kind of playfulness. Animators used to play around and have fun drawing bystanders when they were given a crowd scene. Nowadays the faces in crowds are boring because they're so professionally lacking in idiosyncrasy.
Mind Game (2004) may be considered Masaaki Yuasa's debut as a feature film director, but in fact he had directed various short featurettes prior to that. Indeed, his first director credit came 12 years earlier in 1992 with a short film in an obscure little 6-volume direct-to-video series called Anime Rakugokan. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese live storytelling/comedy entertainment. Each volume in this series features a performance by a famous rakugo practitioner set to animation.
Back then Yuasa was at a studio called Ajia-do. Yuasa had joined the studio because it was run by two of his idols in animation - Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, who had been the figures behind some of the series that most influenced Yuasa over the years, namely the 1970s shows produced by Tokyo Movie with animation from A Production like Dokonjo Gaeru and Tensai Bakabon.
Yuasa directed the third volume of Anime Rakugokan in a style that was an intentional homage to the style of the masters who had influenced him. As a result, the film isn't immediately recognizable as Yuasa. It feels more A Pro than anything else he's since done. But the genius of the character design and animation are something only Yuasa could have created.
The video is currently up on Youtube. (search for かぼちゃ屋) Watch it while you can. Unfortunately it doesn't have subs so you won't be able to get the humor if you don't understand Japanese, but the fact is that every second of this film is a delight to watch just for the character animation, so it's well worth watching anyway.
I'd personally been looking for this film for years, and I just got the chance to see it today for the first time, and I was excited to discover how great a film it is. I've never seen this kind of character animation from Yuasa, but it's amazing. The character designs are great, and the way they're animated is constantly interesting. There isn't a single shot that I don't love in this film.
The character drawings in particular are really out there, but they work. The floating eyebrows on the squash seller are really something. I adore the way the hands are drawn with these big blocky forms. The hands are very emotive in this film. The faces are so supple and squishy. There's some new fun expression in almost every shot. There's even a tinge of caricature in the old man who hires the squash seller that reminds me of the great Japanese caricaturist Shoji Yamafuji. And the animation has a sense of split-second timing that's unique to Yuasa. The guy with the five o'clock shadow the squash seller pisses off in the street is the most obvious throwback to the A Pro style. He looks like he could have come straight out of Dokonjo Gaeru.
I even love the very flat, simple layouts of the film. The characters are right up there in your face, filling the screen in every shot. There's no pretense of realism or perspective or other mimetic fakery. It's a proudly cartoony film. At the same time, despite the simple layouts, more effort is put into the animation than many shows nowadays that consist mostly of close-ups of characters. Every character drawing is full of life and vitality. No two drawings of the characters are the same.
What's best about it is that its 'cartooniness' has nothing to do with western cartoons, which I have a hard time appreciating. It's a cartoon aesthetic that was essentially invented by the Japanese TV animators who forged their own approach to the medium in the 1960s and 1970s. It's inspired by the work of the A Pro animators, which itself was something truly new and unlike anything ever done before, but completely re-invented through Yuasa's pen.
The impressive thing about Yuasa is that even obscure shorts like Slime Adventures and the Nanchatte Vampiyan pilot that for years remained unseen and unobtainable turned out, when I finally saw them, to be great little films exploding with just the sort of incredible animation and visual creativity you'd expect of Yuasa. The same applies to The Squash Seller, in its own unique way.
Yuasa himself has said in an interview that he's embarrased about the film and wishes people wouldn't watch it, but that's just typical Yuasa humbleness. This is an awesome little gem that looks and moves like no other anime out there. The character style is obviously inspired by the classic A Pro shows, but Yuasa creates a look and feel that is uniquely his own. He learns from and surpasses the masters. I honestly wish he would do more stuff like this. We need an A Pro-style long-running slapstick comedy TV series directed by Masaaki Yuasa in the spirit of Tensai Bakabon or Dokonjo Gaeru.
This lost gem proves once again what a unique and multifaceted talent Masaaki Yuasa is. Thanks to Charles Brubaker for pointing this video out to me.
One of the other films in the series is also up on Youtube, but the contrast is instructive. It's the first volume, directed by Osamu Kobayashi. Kobayashi's character designs are appealingly oddball in a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi-kind of way, but the animation is totally uninteresting compared with the electric and dynamic character animation of Yuasa's outing.
The other one I'm curious to see is the second episode, because it's animated by Masaya Fujimori, who is perhaps the best animator to emerge from Ajia-Do in the 1990s after Masaaki Yuasa. The second episode also features nicely stylized designs by Tsutomu Shibayama.
Bask in the delightful character drawings of Masaaki Yuasa's The Squash Seller: