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I've been watching Kenji Nakamura's latest show C for Tatsunoko, and have mixed feelings about it. I appreciate it in the moments grounded in reality that communicate something about how money governs and steers our lives in various ways, but it loses me when it begins to hide behind the fantasy elements about the 'financial world', though there are creative elements in there. The real financial world would have provided sufficient material to make a far more interesting story. Down-to-earth moments like the scenes of dialogue between the protagonist and the older convenience store clerk were nice.
The character designs are less interesting than Kenji Nakamura's previous shows, though some characters are drawn in Takashi Hashimoto's unique style, as in previous shows, like the politicians, but the protagonist and his 'asset' are all drawn in a cute anime style that's an obvious compromise to sell the show. I'm not even that bothered by the way the characters in random shots will be CG animated all of a sudden. It's not a show that's about the animation. Despite my reservations, I'm still watching because the story has an intriguing complexity and does say something about the intersection between money and power, albeit less directly than I would have liked.
Also toned down is what attracted me to Kenji Nakamura's work to begin with - the extreme stylization of the various aspects of show from the idiosyncratic directing featuring jarring and frenetic shot framing to the colorful visuals with the wall-paintings and surreal non-naturalistic backgrounds. There's a clear distinction this time between the naturalistic real world and the more Nakamura-esque visual of the 'financial world'.
Episode 6 had some of the better directing I've seen in the show yet. It was storyboarded and directed by one Hiroshi Kobayashi 小林寛, which smacks of a pen name, because this person seems to have only done two things prior: the recent episode 7 of Tiger and Bunny and the slightly older episode 1 of the Yozakura Quartet OAD that was Ryochimo's directing (kantoku) debut (also Tatsunoko) (storyboard + director (enshutsu) in both cases), and it'd be surprising for someone to both storyboard & direct right from the beginning, much less do it so well.
The episode also features some nice animation for once - running by Sushio (?) at the beginning followed by some obvious Ryochimo fireballs and at the end some easy to spot Hideki Kakita explosions. Was that Yuuki Hayashi at the end with the black blood part? I'm not familiar enough with his work to be sure. (It's funny how they can do all sorts of violent things but they have to blacken the blood in TV anime.)
A remarkable new animated music video for Wagon Christ's track Chunkothy is a 3-minute headlong journey through a bewildering array of everchanging abstract yet symmetrical transformations. The video for Ninja Tune comes courtesy London-based Nexus Productions. The director and animator and mastermind behind the film is Celyn Brazier, who has just uploaded the video to his Vimeo account. Watch it now here.
Then you can go to Celyn's own web site and spend some happy moments browsing through a collection of some of his remarkable, retro-styled but utterly original illustrations. I'm kind of reminded of Manabe Hiroshi with the whole retro-futuristic vibe with clean lines and flat colors and delightful bending of lines and body shape vectors. I'd love to have a huge poster of one of those illustrations on my wall. There's a carnal pleasure in the way those sharp meandering lines slash white space from solids.
About the video, this amazing piece of 2D animation was created in Photoshop. The timing with the music is great, and there's so much detail in there I can imagine spotting something new every time. Apparently it took 6 weeks to make and was inspired in some regard by a certain Norman McLaren film.
I just discovered a little film called The River of Brightness made by indie animator Yosuke Oomomo, which you can watch on his Youtube channel along with most of his other films. (Yosuke Oomomo's web site)
It's a pleasantly simple, colorful cutout animation. I don't much like the film overall - it's a little too precious and earnest - but I like the creative and skilled use of cutouts shot through multiple layers of backlit colored glass to achieve the hazy underwater effect. It's sumptuous and convincing piece of animation boldly done the old school way - with stuff - considering it's from a relatively new animator.
The River of Brightness was Yosuke Oomomo's 2009 graduation project from GEIDAI. He started animating in 2006. Like Ryu Kato, this indie animator also graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts. GEIDAI is clearly a major source of new animated talent in Japan. Yosuke Oomomo was born in 1985 and entered GEIDAI in 2005, acceding to the graduate school thereof in 2009.
The professional sound design and score back up the solid visuals well, making for a film that's unusually viewer-friendly for Japanese indie animation, which more often than not tends to be more raw and emotionally distancing. By contrast, The River of Brightness is polished and creates a nuanced emotional flow with the help of the music. It comes as no surprise that the film won numerous awards upon its release in late 2009, as well as being selected by indie animator Tomoyasu Murata on NHK's Digista.
Yosuke Oomomo made his first two trial outings in animation in 2006 with Fun is There, a simple but charming film showing a boy drawing dinosaurs and having a marvelous time of it, and M'arch, a short MTV spot.
Aya from 2007 is his first longer and more ambitious piece. It's a visual poem in which the patterns on a kimono dance in the night, set to beautiful romantic violin strains by Habuka Yuri, the musical collaborator has has worked with on every project since this one.
The same year he made the briefer Present using puppets, and does an impressive job. The film reminds of old Tadahito Mochinaga puppet animation in tone and style.
That day, that time was made next in 2008 right before The River of Brightness. It's a slightly tedious and twee exercise in vapid but cute images of kids and kittens, but it has a certain visual charm. It's the film in which he first tested out cutout animation.
I'm curiously torn about this animator's work. I'm impressed by his technique, and like that he has a unique sensibility. I like his sense of atmosphere and his naive, childlike style. He makes animation for children suffused with a rare lush and tasteful artistry, and I respect that. But his films rub me the wrong way for some reason. They have an affected daintiness that's a turn-off. It's like Sanrio via Frederic Back. It's too bad, because I like that he's trying to bridge the gap between art animation and children's filmmaking. Sanrio's Little Jumbo was a film made in the same spirit, and it's one of the anime films I most cherish. Something is just a little off for me.
Anyway, I might have some issues with Yosuke Oomomo's work, but at least he's doing work that's untainted by anime, and he's trying some pretty creative and interesting new approaches to animation rather than treading the same narrative styles and expressive tools into the ground.
I had a hard time bringing myself to write a post in the middle of the unfolding tragedy in Japan right now, but felt I should push on. I hope none of my readers or their friends or loved ones have been affected.
For a while I decided to stop writing posts about awesome anime people who died because I was getting a little depressed, and there were too many to keep up, but Moribi Murano died yesterday and I just want to say a small word in homage.
I saw a neglected Madhouse film from 1982 entitled Wandering Clouds (浮浪雲 Haguregumo) a few days ago, a film I'd been wanting to see for a long time. The high point of the film was a special scene near the end of the film done in a different style. It's one of the most stylish and affecting sequences I've seen in anime.
Historical figure Sakamoto Ryoma plays a significant role in the film, befriending the protagonist boy. Sakamoto Ryoma helped bring Japan into the modern world, but his efforts earned him the enmity of the shogunate, and in 1867 he was assassinated at an inn in Kyoto while having dinner with a friend. The scene in question depicts his assassination.
This is how the scene goes:
The boy runs across town frantically, arrives home, runs to his mother and, sobbing, announces that his beloved mentor Sakamoto Ryoma has been assassinated. Fade to black. Red leaves blow across the screen. The style is sketchy, the only color is red against the black background. Dimly lit figures are revealed by a faint touch of red light shining on the shoulder and across half of the face. They begin running, to a horrible grating, scraping sound. They enter an inn, kill the innkeeper who appears at the door, and rush into the building, where they find Sakamoto Ryoma and his associate. Sakamoto Ryoma barely has time to draw his sword before he's cut down. They slash him dozens of time to make sure the job is done.
From the unsettling animation, which shifts between extreme stillness to extremely fast movement, to the use of only blood red coloring, to the grating sounds that scrape at your ears, it's a jarring and unexpected but totally convincing and powerful scene that does the material justice. It's all the more powerful because it's so different from the style of the rest of the film. It's one of the most stylish sequences of samurai action I've seen. It's quintessential anime in that it achieves its effect through artistic styling rather than detailed animation.
The scene was directed by Moribi Murano and animated by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. I can't claim to have seen much of Moribi Murano's work as an animator, but this is undoubtedly one of his most impressive contributions in animation and deserves to be seen by fans. He was more than a manga-ka. What little work he did in animation is almost all unique and creative. This scene and Unico on the Magic Island are classic examples of anime - nay, animation - at its best.
Moribi Murano was specially appointed to direct the sequence by Madhouse producer Masao Maruyama, who knew Moribi would bring the right tone and style to the scene. Though nowadays more known for his manga of a very different sort like Hoero Bunbun, Moribi began his career in animation and was one of the main figures behind the gekiga-styled 1968 adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori's Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae, a seminal series that was one of the first narrative anime expressly intended for a more mature audience. Moribi's scene in Wandering Clouds could be said to be something of an encore, a modern updating, of the style of Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae.
Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae was arguably one of the seminal shows behind the anime aesthetic, in the sense that it compensated for the lack of movement with shortcuts like every one else, but it did so with much more creativity and artistic flair. It made an art out of the stillness inherent in limited animation, consciously and deliberately using stillness as an expressive tool. In a way it was the birth of the Madhouse style, which champions artistic and idiosyncratic directing and more mature and sophisticated animated storytelling. Working alongside Moribi were Rintaro and Mamoru Masaki. Mamoru Masaki directed Wandering Clouds and wrote the classic Madhouse flick Dagger of Kamui, which Rintaro directed and Moribi designed. Sabu to Ichi Torimonohikae is one of Moribi's less well-known works, but also one of his most impressive and historic.
I'd noticed a few months ago that Moribi's web site was no longer up and wondered what was going on. Supposedly he had been hospitalized since January. It's a shame it's gone, because it had a lot of nice samples of his manga and things. I was kind of hoping that he was secretly working on some personal project all this time, as suggested by a tantalizing concept image on his site, but I guess not. I've never had the chance to actually read any of his manga. I'd like to rectify that.
Add this young yet remarkably prolific indie animator the ranks of the synaesthete audiovisual creators who can make their own musical as well as video art. Despite only having been active since 2006, he's got more than 90 minutes of animation under his belt in the form of shorts of varying length plus one 25-minute mini feature, much of it scored by himself.
Ryu Kato's animation wordlessly explores a symbolically dense landscape of the mind that's by turns menacing, twisted, haunting and delicate. The animation is tactile and richly conceptualized, without superficial polish, even crude at times, but never for a moment anything less than convincing. His images speak to your subconscious rather than your rational mind. In this respect he's in good company among his peers. The emerging generation of indies seem steeped in a tone of whimsical skepticism and oneiric irony, and share the same grainy tactility and unabashed crudity of expression. There's beauty aplenty in his films, but it's not the pretty beauty of anime. Ryu Kato is a great exemplar of today's indie scene: a weaver of surreal visions of modern life.
Thankfully, Ryu Kato just started his own website and Youtube channel, so you can see many of his films online. Visit his site at ryukato.net.
You can't go wrong wherever you decide to bite into his body of work. He got off to a running start with Recorder in 2006, an abstract cascade of random objects, charts and paint splashes without narrative or characters - an endless succession of butterflies transforming into guitars transforming into beetles. Animation in its purest form showing that right from the beginning you knew that this was an animator to look out for because he wasn't in thrall to the symbols and narrative forms that lure so many of his generation. The overload of information reminds of Powers of Ten while the whimsically menacing inky doodles and creative transformations remind of Koji Yamamura and the strobing news clippings and diagrams remind of Paul Glabicki. All of it is tied together into a pleasing audiovisual flow by catchy pulsing music presumably of his own hand.
There's a certain sensuous pleasure to be had in watching his films that I think comes out well in his next film, Calm of 2006. Some films are interesting artistically but perhaps not a pleasure to watch the way this film is, with its blurry, dreamlike images and erratic but harmonious music blending glitchy electronic tones, tinkling bells and downbeat washes of guitar. A girl with no face takes on the form of a bird, a fish and a dolphin and flies around her environment. "Have you ever seen the color of the mind?" the film asks us at one point. Less a story than a visual poem, the film is at all moments gorgeous and enrapturing, with lush animation and beautiful if deliberately muted and muddied textures, and leaves a great aftertaste. The dreamlike imagery and tone (even the timing of the animation) remind of Naoyuki Tsuji. The technique appears to be paint on glass, like Aleksanr Petrov, but much more ephemeral in execution and not as naturalistic and technically minded. There are also occasional wiry line drawings. As the title implies, it's a delightfully calming film to watch.
The shorter Around from 2007 is anything but. For his next film Kato runs at a full-tilt sprint in the opposite direction on a tour-de-force of constant movement and shifting perspectives that's a relentless onslaught of shocking and bizarre imagery. It's a thrilling ride of a film. Each of his films so far shows him to be a consummate animator. Not only does he shift to a different media with each film, the tone and form of the films are all different. Even if his drawings aren't particularly good, he puts a lot of work into making the animation rich and dynamic. This film is the best showcase of Ryu Kato as a powerhouse animator. This film perhaps more than any of his other reminds me of Koji Yamamura, in his more frenzied and wildly animated moments (more Mt. Head and less The Old Crocodile). There's even a hint of Priit Parn and Phil Mulloy, with the grotesque scrawled figures providing a darkly humorous commentary on brutality and violence in modern life. I know it's ludicrous to go on namedropping, but this film even reminds me a bit of Georges Schwizgebel in the way it relentlessly moves forward through the landscape, creating a perpetual first-person perspective metamorphosis sequence.
So far we're only two years into his career. Very early for any artist, especially as he was still in school this whole time. Ryu Kato was born in 1980 and graduated from the Tokyo University of the Arts in 2007. And yet he's created works that are genuinely compelling if rough around the edges.
Jump two years ahead to 2009 and he produced the absolutely lovely and delicate and frankly much more sophisticated (in its restraint) installation video for fashion designer Yuima Nakazato. Light glows and dances around a veiled figure as she moves her arms about delicately while ink drifts by, to a backdrop of emotional ambient washes with an understated ticking rhythm. It's consistent with his personality in that it's evocative, densely layered and ethereal, and in that it represents another shift in technique, but it's significantly more aesthetically refined than anything he's done so far. Although his previous films were cool animation, they had the hallmarks of a cultural milieu and youth, whereas this seems like a world-class piece of audiovisual art from a much more mature artist. You wouldn't be able to track the visuals back to Ryu Kato based on superficial stylistic traits the way you could his earlier films.
I skipped quite a few films between the latter and Around because most of them aren't available for viewing online, but as you can see from his filmography, he was incredibly active between 2007 and 2009 and continues to be. Notably he created a 25-minute mini-movie entitled The Clockwork City and a series of five videos for the tour of a band called Remioromen, among others. Music clearly is important to Ryu Kato, as he's a composer himself, and one of his latest creations is a great music video for the song The Old City by the rock band People in the Box. It's an epic journey through a funhouse city of the imagination packed with his usual creative imagery and dreamlike atmosphere. There's lots more to explore from this still young artist, so hopefully the rest of his filmography will become available eventually, and surely there is much more goodness to come. Ryu Kato may not be well known yet, but that may change. He's one of many talented young indies who emerged in the last few years.
Incidentally, from March 18-21 The Tokyo University of the Arts AKA GEIDAI will be holding a screening of the short animated films made this year by second year students. Who knows what new talent will emerge from the school this year. Frankly all of the films look great to me in the trailer they've put up on their home page. (You can see more images from the making of each film on their blog.) There's a great variety - stop motion, CGI, hand-drawn, abstract, for children. I particularly like the feeling of Masaki Okuda's Uncapturable Ideas. The Tender March by Wataru Uekusa looks well animated with a sharp anime/superflat style. (Check out some of the cool art up close to see the details.) Mariko Saito's Ygg's Bird looks to have a gorgeous and unique visual scheme. I'm very curious to see Writings Fly Away by Ryo Orikasa to see if he can carry that concept for 13 minutes. It's about the intersection between words and visuals, and it's dedicated to Borges, who continued to eloquently explore labyrinthine worlds made of words even after going blind.
Stefan Nutz is currently engaged in a very interesting one-man project. He is going around interviewing Japan's indie animators on video for the purpose of eventually putting together a documentary about Japanese indie animation.
You can see the progress of his project, and perhaps provide him support and ideas for questions, on his web page at:
Stefan is based in Austria, and has been dealing with Japanese film for about a decade now in his capacity as a director, editor and sometimes DP for the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Agency). He is hoping to put together a 60 minute documentary possibly to be supplemented with 30 minutes of animation highlighting the work of the creators he interviewed.
Stefan's purview is not limited to indies, however, as witness the latest post on his blog, in which he reveals that he will be visiting Studio 4C later this month. Great news. Studio 4C is not just the studio we all love. They act as something of a missing link between the industry and the indie scene, working within the industry but with the mentality of independence of an indie. I wouldn't have thought to include them in a documentary about indie animation in Japan, but let's face it, they've produced some of the most creative and appealing animation in Japan, and this is one of the few times they'll have been covered for a foreign audience, so it's a great idea to balance out the project and shed light on the various facets of 'being indie' in Japan.
The image above shows Naoyuki Niiya, director of the old classic indie film Squid Festival that I wrote about in 2005, whom Stefan has interviewed already. Also interviewed will be Hiroshi Harada (Midori), Keita Kurosaka (Midori-ko), Mirai Mizue, Tomoyasu Murata and Atsushi Wada, among others.
Pixar artist Grant Alexander just posted a great account of a visit that some Gainax staff recently paid to Pixar in California: Gainax at Pixar. He got to meet with none other than the great Sushio, one of my favorite animators at Gainax right now, among several other people who worked on Panty & Stocking. I can't think of two animation cultures more different, but I know the staff at Pixar are great people who are open to the influence of anime, Miyazaki and beyond, so perhaps it's not so surprising after all. It's great to see interaction between great studios across the divide, to see that creators with different working styles can still respect and admire each other.
It's fascinating observing how life changes people. What are you doing today that you never expected you'd be doing 10 years ago? Here I was listening to the 2004 album Game Boy by a chiptune artist who goes (went) by the name of Lo-Bat, and I look at his home page and find that he's evolved into a graphic novel illustrator. I like his style, too - loose, classical, whimsical with a very European vibe. I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of exercising different vectors of your brain and becoming an artist or expert in two otherwise unrelated fields.
Obviously it is much easier to experiment in different arts in the comfort of your home now just with a little software, resulting in more artists trying their hands at media seemingly unrelated to their 'home' field. But all the way back to Norman McLaren and his amazing Synchromy you've had artists crossing over the divide, so it's nothing new. There's always been the urge to try your hand at a new art; it's just easier now. I know that all it takes is giving it a try, and it's probably more manageable than it seems, but it still amazes me when I see someone who's a great musician making great visuals. I find it hard to believe they're done by the same person.
Hark fellow northwesterners: A new animation festival comes to our shores!
Festival Director Sven Bonnichsen writes me with the following:
NW ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2011: Call For Submissions
The NW Animation Festival is now accepting entries for 2011. Films from anywhere in the world are welcome. Deadline is May 1, with discounts for students and films received by April 1. The festival will be held on June 3-4-5, in the heart of downtown Portland Oregon at the historic 5th Avenue Cinema. See website for details and submission form: nwanimationfest.com
This is a festival created by animators, for animators, and all lovers of animation.
We are people who hunger to see MORE. Not just the year's top 10 shorts... We want to feast on the year's top 100!
We've thrown the door wide open for submissions. Films may come from anywhere in the world. You may submit films made at any time during your life. And you are free to simultaneously show your work online or at other festivals.
We know that great animation comes from all levels. Contributions from students, independent artists, and professional studios are all valued equally.
All types of animation are encouraged: hand-drawn, computer-generated, stop-motion... We attempt to program shorts blocks focusing on each method separately?both to educate, and to satisfy each methods' enthusiasts.
We strive to pack the weekend with as much animation as possible. But the festival is still bigger than just this. Select films go on to become part of our "Best of the NW Animation Fest" traveling show, which will tour the region during the following year.
For more, visit: nwanimationfest.com
Rainy and gloomy the rest of the year, the northwest is a lovely place during summer, so head on up. This will be a good excuse for me to visit Portland.
I turned on Shigeyasu Yamauchi's new show for J.C. Staff called Yumekui Merry not knowing what to expect, and was amused when the very first shot seemed to be art by Kenji Matsumoto, the awesome artist he had working for him on his last show Casshern Sins. (I wrote about his involvement on that show here and here) I immediately checked the credits and indeed, Kenji Matsumoto and Yukie Yuki are the only two credited with background art. I'm guessing Yukie Yuki did the stuff in the cat world at the beginning. She was also involved in Casshern Sins and is a great background artist in her own right, one of the best. Matsumoto's paintings are for the most part fairly obvious. They have a very similar gritty feeling to what he did in Casshern Sins. There are some sections that seem to be painted over photos that don't look too great, but otherwise it's mostly very nice BG work in the episode.
The episode itself was a mixed bag of horrible stock anime character cliches, some decent animation here and there, a few creative world design ideas, all of it held together by Shigeyasu Yamauchi's usual easily identifiable peculiar directing style that keeps things constantly slightly off-kilter with odd camera angles and frequent unexpected close-ups. Will be worth enduring the annoying anime characters to see what Shigeyasu Yamauchi does with it.
Good animators in the episode include Maru Kanako (who did a solo episode in Casshern Sins), veteran ex-Giants animator Tadashi Shida, Kensuke Ishikawa (who did a solo episode on Wold Destruction ep 3), Minky Momo 2/Detective Conan CD Mari Tominaga, Casshern Sins CD/AD and regular Yamauchi partner Yoshihiko Umakoshi, Yoshihiko Umakoshi associate Terumi Nishii, ero animator and Afro Samurai CD Hiroya Iijima, and Hercules animator Ken Otsuka.