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Ajia-Do, the studio founded by ex-A Pro animators Shibayama Tsutomu and Osamu Kobayashi in 1978, produced an interesting series in the early 90s based on toy maker Takara's Licca-chan doll.
Licca-chan, despite being presumably aimed at little girls, was a quality production with a unique style of low-key, imaginative fantasy that I found very appealing for being so different in nature from all other anime out there.
I looked back on it recently and found that there's still a lot to appreciate in the series. Beyond its conventional blandly cute anime style character designs, and despite its intended demographic, it's packed with creative ideas in the world design.
Just take a look at some of the design ideas that grace the first outing in the series, the two-part Yunia OVA series released in 1990:
It's a breath of fresh air from most anime. Fantasy anime is pretty common, but few anime look anything like this. This anime is about pure imagination. This is a more primordial kind of fantasy in the vein of Little Nemo, or Alice in Wonderland via M. C. Escher, rather than yet another dungeons and dragons anime.
The story is of little consequence, but is obviously inspired by Alice in Wonderland, with Licca-chan finding herself transported to this fantasy land where she travels around various bizarre locales meeting the strange denizens of an illogical world. Clues are littered here and there suggesting it's all a dream and the various elements (like the nefarious cat) are inspired by her own life.
In recent days there have been a few shorts by Shigeru Tamura - notably Glassy Ocean and Ursa Blue Minor - that are similarly pure fantasy creations, where the the world is dictated not by logic but by whimsy, but it's rare to see something in anime that is so pure in spirit.
I wondered who could have been behind this approach, and figured it must have been the two people credited with "concept art and creature design": Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto.
A quick search turned up a web site that answered the question succinctly: The two of them appear to have worked as partners under the moniker Studio Burabura since the 80s.
The many wonderful illustrations by Hiroyuki Kato featured on this web site (which is presumably run by himself, as he also has a diary there) are exactly in the same style and spirit as all the elements in the Yunia OVAs that I most liked. And he's got many drawings of fanciful bikes that look just like the flying bike that features at the end of the Ring OVAs. So this is the guy. It was gratifying to be able to single out the brain responsible for all those wonderful ideas.
Hiroyuki Kato is still very productive and has refined his style considerably over the years. I've spent hours enjoying his illustrations. He appears to hold several exhibitions of his recent work at galleries and cafes every year. Here are two of the recent ones: Platypus Government in Exile and Ringing Flowers, Trembling Stars.
Hence, Yunia represents exactly the kind of collaboration that I think produces the best results in anime: Someone of talent from outside of the industry bringing in fresh new ideas.
The Yunia OVAs were followed by two more OVAs next year in 1991: the two Magic Ring OVAs. This time the setting is Licca-chan's real life in Japan, but she finds a magic ring that allows her to see the creatures that lurk in the night when everyone is sleeping. The inspiration this time is clearly Peter Pan, as Licca-chan flies above the nighttime city with the aid of a strange visitor.
The visuals for these two OVAs were more low-key, without the wild imagination of the Yunia OVAs, but they did a great job of creating an atmosphere of mysterious nighttime in this arc, which takes place entirely at night.
I actually preferred this outing to Yunia when I originally saw the set many years ago, because this episode creates a beautiful, delicate atmosphere with the spare, tinkling soundtrack (by a young Kenji Kawai) and the quiet, empty urban nightscapes through which Licca-chan travels.
The atmosphere is one of eerie excitement. Strange ghostly animals go around gobbling up stars, and a dark miasma lurks waiting to pounce on unwitting visitors. When we were children, the darkness of the night inspired in us dreams of adventures and strange creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to be discovered. I liked this episode because it captured exactly how I used to feel about the night as a child.
Looking back on both now, I still appreciate the Ring arc for its atmosphere, but I prefer the Yunia arc for all the many creative ideas that were packed into it by Hiroyuki Kato.
Another thing I admire both arcs for is how they make a virtue of having very few animators. They don't feel cheap even though they have very few animators and don't move all that much. The Ring arc in particular only has four animators in each episode. Akemi Takada's characters retain an air of stately grace throughout. Akemi Takada is incidentally the one who invited Hiroyuki Kato to work on the show.
One more OVA entitled Licca-chan's Sunday was released in 1992, but it's less appealing than these two arcs. It's set in the real world without any fantasy elements, so it doesn't feature any creative ideas on the design side from Hiroyuki Kato. The story is cute and it comes across as a polished version of the classic Pierrot magical girl shows like Emi and Pelsha. But there's little of interest from a technical point of view except for the solid but unremarkable layouts and drawings.
I recently discovered that Ajia-do even produced a full-length feature released in 1994 under the name Licca-chan and the Wildcats: Journey to the Stars. It was nice discovering this because it's a return to the standards of the first four OVAs with its imaginative designs.
It has a strong staff right from the top with Tsutomu Mizushima and Tatsuo Sato directing, concept work from Fujimori Masaya, key animation supervisors including Yoshiaki Yanagita, a story by Tomomi Mochizuki and some animation by Masaaki Yuasa. Despite the impressive staff list, it's not a masterpiece, but it's an enjoyable if slightly underwhelming and uneven film. But it's very different in tone and style from the earlier OVAs.
Most of the creative work comes at the climax, which features a battle between the wildcats of the title and a miasmatic adversary. Unlike the previous OVAs, this movie features some impressive names on the animator front, including Masaaki Yuasa, Susumu Yamaguchi and Hiroyuki Morita. Yuasa's work clearly comes in the climax, which has a lot of exciting fast-paced and imaginative shots. For example, the shot with the horses pictured above seem like his work.
I think Ajia-do was at something of its peak in the early 90s with this series plus Chibi Maruko-chan and a number of one-shot OVAs where they gave staff a lot of creative freedom like the Rakugokan series of which Yuasa directed an episode.
I'd love to see Hiroyuki Kato do some more work in animation, but he's primarily an illustrator. The only anime he ever worked on after Licca-chan was Zettai Shonen (not coincidentally also at Ajia-do under Tomomi Mochizuki), for which he designed the mecha. I'd like to see something that's a pure animated expression of the lovely, creative illustrations up on his site.
More generally, I'd like to see more anime in the spirit of pure fantasy of the Yunia OVAs. Cat Soup comes to mind as being the sort of thing I'm talking about: Something where the driving force isn't character-driven narrative but visual creativity.
Licca-chan: Wondrous Yunia Story (OVA, 1990, 2 x 30 mins)
Script: Kazunori Ito
Storyboard & Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Masako Goto
Concept Art and Creature Design: Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto
Art Director: Satoshi Miura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Music: Norio Maeda
Licca-chan: The Wondrous Magic Ring (OVA, 1991, 2 x 30 mins)
Script: Kazunori Ito, Michiko Yokote
Storyboard & Director: Fumiko Ishii
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Takuya Saito
Concept Art and Creature Design: Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto
Art Director: Mitsuki Nakamura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Music: Kenji Kawai
Supervisor: Tsutomu Shibayama
Licca-chan's Sunday (OVA, 1992, 30 mins)
Animation Production: Ajia-Do
Director: Tatsuo Sato
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Masako Goto
Script: Yumiko Koda
Music: Kohei Tanaka
Art Director: Satoshi Miura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Supervisor: Tsutomu Shibayama
Layout: Hiroyuki Nishimura
Takeko Mori? (杜孟子)
Licca-chan and the Wildcats: Journey to the Stars (movie, 1994, 78 mins)
Produced by: Ajia-do
Animation production assistance: Group Tac
Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Art Director: Shichiro Kobayashi
Music: Kohei Tanaka
Animation Director (アニメーション監督): Tatsuo Sato
Storyboard/Line Director/Dialogue: Tatsuo Sato
Scenario: Tomomi Mochizuki
Key Animation Supervisors (作画監督): Yoshiaki Yanagita, Hiroki Takagi, Ikuko Kusumoto
Concept work: Masaya Fujimori
Sub-character Design: Yoshiaki Yanagita
Ending animation: Kazushige Yusa
In what's rapidly on its way to becoming a tradition, Osamu Kobayashi directed an episode in the latest show from Gainax, this time one of their less interesting ones between the good ones. His longtime associate Hori Motonobu, acting as sakkan, provides the episode with his usual simple, clean, cute but not cloying character drawings. It definitely feels like Kobayashi in the way it's directed, with the many static shots and close-ups and the style of the acting, but it's not as jarring as his previous work.
The interesting thing about this episode, as most people will probably immediately notice, is the backgrounds. Kobayashi is an interesting creator because he always tries something new, and this is no exception. Kobayashi has in the past done a solo animator episode on Kemonozume, but this time he's done something I don't think I've ever heard of before: he's drawn most of the backgrounds. And it's not just done on a whim; his sketchy, moody backgrounds help establish the fantasyland atmosphere for the episode. I haven't watched the rest of the show, so I'm not sure, but this episode seems to take place in a different 'world', literally a storybook land. The sketchy background drawings aren't just a stylistic choice; they're as intrinsic to the story as the characters.
I like it when situations like this are devised in anime. It's the best of both worlds: You allow a talented creator whose style is not to the liking of many fans because he doesn't bother to try to make his work blend in with the rest of the show, to make an episode set in an alternative reality so that he can do what he does best, and yet it'll jibe stylistically and won't wreck the show. That's just what happened with Satoru Utsunomiya's episode of Aquarion. Usually I have no problem with a single episode sticking out stylistically from the rest of a show as long as the work is of genuine quality. But on the other hand, sometimes even I've found myself on the other side of the fence, arguing that some shows need more stylistic unity and not more idiosyncrasy, so I can see both sides.
The drawings are lovely and establish a moody atmosphere. I particularly like the beautiful long shot of the characters walking with their backs to the camera in the ruins of a church pictured above. In certain moments, this episode has the atmosphere of a film noir and the black and white sensibility of a classic movie from the 30s or 40s like The Edge of the World, which is set in a similarly desolate land - the remote Orkney Isles. Kobayashi is heavily influenced by the French new wave and other oldies, so perhaps that's intentional.
The beautiful draftsmanship of the drawings of the town in the distance and the beautiful stone masonry of the streets show a side of Kobayashi I wasn't familiar with. The drawings are loose and have a reduced palette, but they're realistic somehow. It doesn't feel like something you'd see in a typical anime. I like that Kobayashi can be a joker but he can be serious when he wants to. Parts of the world seem obviously inspired by medieval architecture, while other parts are obvious original creations, but he does a good job blending the two. In large part it's the details in the backgrounds that tell you a lot about the world and make you believe in the world the characters inhabit.
To me, whether it's a sketchy drawing or a unique shot of animation or a skillful layout, what I find I react to is when I sense someone's hand behind the work - when there's a personal touch. Commercial animation is arguably the antithesis of personal creation, but what's unique about anime is that occasionally it allows you to see the personal touch of the creator in the work, and oftentimes it's those moments when a creator is able to express themselves without inhibition, without having to adapt themselves to fit in, that the greatest art is made.
The first episode of Brain's Base's new show directed by Shoujo Kakumei Utena's Kunihiko Ikuhara is as well produced as you'd expect, with colorful, artistic visuals, idiosyncratic but sharp directing, and lush sound design, but it may be a hard slog if you are not willing to put up with the peculiarities of this auteur's approach to storytelling and the shoujo manga atmosphere, complete with twinkling stars, androgynous boys and an obsessively animated magical transformation sequence.
I for one never watched Shoujo Kakumei Utena, or rather was never able to watch more than an episode or two, because the style of the directing and the extreme shoujo manga-ness of it all, with the bizarre, byzantine gender and inter-character relations, was just too much for me. Rather than realistic drama, it's expressionistic psycho-drama with events presented in a stylized and metaphorical way. It's sophisticated and assured, but also off-putting if you're not capable of switching to a more 'shoujo manga' mindset.
This show isn't as intense as Utena narratively or stylistically, but Ikuhara's basic stance as a storyteller is unchanged. This is a far more approachable show, and the quality is good, so I'm going to see how far I can get into it.
I find Ikuhara to be one of the best 'shoujo anime' directors after the late Osamu Dezaki. He seems to be able to tap into the mindset of heightened emotion that defines the genre, over the length of a series fleshing out and delving into the various characters' complex emotions in a way few other directors can. Visually, he uses the background art effectively to extend the emotional palette the way Dezaki did in a show like Aim for the Ace!. He's a theatrical director in the sense of the staging as well as the acting.
What I most like about the show isn't the directing or the animation. It's the art. The vivid color schemes, symmetrical layouts, and density of detail in the backgrounds like the shot pictured above, are immediately compelling. Even if nothing else in the show attracts you, it's hard to resist the wonderful art of the show.
That color genius Kunio Tsujita is again the one behind the colors after his work on Casshern Sins and Tatami Galaxy. The art directing team is Kentaro Akiyama and Chieko Nakayama. Chieko Nakayama was art director of episode 1 and the art was done by four people at a place called Studio Pablo.
I didn't like was that the characters and humor and general trappings of the show are otherwise conventional, just through the lens of Ikuhara's more exacting directing style. There isn't much anything tremendously new here, or that would attract a non-anime-watcher. The transformation sequence to me seems like a pointless self-indulgence to gratify the director's fe tish for Sailor Moon-style intricate transformation sequences. Also, drawing all of the bystanders except for the main characters as cardboard cutouts comes across as less quirky and creative than lazy and obvious. It felt more convincing and meaningful when Kenji Nakamura did it in Trapeze.
Ikuhara's visual storytelling style has some surface similarities to that of two other ex-Toei directors who learned the ropes at Toei Animation around the same time in the 1990s: Mamoru Hosoda and Takuya Igarashi. Takuya Igarashi is more quirky and visually playful, while Mamoru Hosoda is more classical and holistic, but their film grammar seems like it evolved from the same place. They like symmetrical layouts lush with detail, always using talented art directors to flesh out their intricate layouts; they're good at incorporating CG and animation and storyboarding in such a way as to achieve much with little, switching to lush animation in sections but mostly making due with little movement by regaling the viewer with mesmerizing background art or theatrically heightened emotional storytelling.
The numerous Toei connections in the show betray Ikuhara's origins: Shinya Hasegawa (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was character designer of Utena (and also worked a lot on Sailor Moon); Masahiro Aizawa (animator in the opening) was a sakkan/animator in Utena and was associated with Takaaki Yamashita; Yoshihiko Umakoshi (animator in the opening) worked on the Utena movie in addition to being a Toei pillar; Takahiro Kagami (animator in episode 1 and the opening) was a regular Toei animator and in recent years worked under Umakoshi on Mushishi (2005) and Casshern Sins (2008); Keiji Goto (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was an animator in Utena; etc.
The show has a lot of women in main staff roles besides the art director: art director Chieko Nakayama, character designer Terumi Nishii, assistant director Mitsue Yamazaki, and Gainax animator Shoko Nakamura. Shoko Nakamura wears several hats on the show as "chief director" of the show under "kantoku" Ikuhara in addition to being one of the two concept designers, being an animator in episode 1 and the opening, being line director of ep 1, and drawing the ending. There are a few other Gainax faces present: Akemi Hayashi was an animator in the opening, episode 1 and the crystal world section. Sushio was an animator in episode 1.
I'm always on the lookout for new names that strike me as having potential for greatness, and Yasuo Muroi struck me as one of them from the few bits I glimpsed of his work, notably his animation work on Xam'd. There are a lot of new animators appearing seemingly out of nowhere with a unique style these days, far more than ever before, but most of them don't bowl me over. They're all impressive, but few of them seem to bring something really new to the table. I thought Ryotaro Makihara was one of the more notable new faces who did just that, and Yasuo Muroi also seemed to be one of them, because he didn't just fall into the trap of mimicking the usual suspects that seem to serve as the template for most young new animators these days.
Anyway, after having done miscellaneous animation on various shows since Xam'd (unfortunately most of which I didn't see), it seems he's staged his episode storyboard/directing debut on Sunrise's new show Sacred Seven. The show itself seems hardly notable, but Sunrise shows often have interesting staff, and Muroi seems to have done a lot of work on the show.
I've only watched episode 9 so far, but there was a lot of nice vigorous and lively movement throughout the episode, mostly during the fight between the hero and that lamp-headed creature (I like how he didn't waste any energy on moving the uninteresting moe characters), and Muroi is listed second in the genga credits after erstwhile Champloo action scene stalwart Takuya Suzuki (frere of Tatsuya), so he presumably handled a good chunk of it. It's not quite as refined as what I saw in Xam'd, but this is a different endeavor; he choreographed the whole episode and animated its action. It's a whole different thing when you're storyboarding and directing and not just animating. The significance here is that he's moved on to a whole new stage of his career, and it will be interesting to see where he decides to go from here on out. Ryotaro Makihara hit a similar stage about a year or so ago with his own directing debut.
The final minute or so of the episode is obviously the work of Shingo Yamashita, the guy who recently did so much interesting (if occasionally controversial) gif-animator inspired work on Noein and then Birdy and then Naruto etc. Everyone in the anime industry now seems to have a Twitter account, Shingo Yamashita included, and one of his tweets, if I'm reading it correctly, seems to suggest that he re-used about 90% of the animation from his past work. I hope I'm not misunderstanding. If that's true, it's kind of a surprising admission. Instinctively I assumed this sort of thing was frowned upon. Normally I'd say it's wrong to re-use your own past work, but if it's done creatively and molded to the show at hand, then does it matter? In a sense, isn't all work built on what you've done before? It certainly felt similar to what he's done in the past, though I would never have noticed he used mostly the same raw material as previous segments he animated if he hadn't said so. That issue aside, objectively speaking, the results are definitely viscerally impressive, but more flashy than necessarily convincingly realistic. That's one problem I have with the gif animator generation - they skipped the step of fundamental training, and went straight for the jugular with animation that feels good to watch - animation that sakuga otaku want to watch. I just wonder if that establishes a proper foundation for growth.
Not surprisingly, Kenichi Kutsuna, who is usually present alongside Shingo Yamashita, was also there in this episode, though listed near the bottom so he probably didn't do many shots.
I'm going to go through the rest of the show, not just to see Muroi's work but to see if there's any other good work there, though I will find it hard to endure the characters and totally unoriginal story that seems like yet another Gundam/Eva permutation, updated with a moe cast.
The image at the top is actually from the opening, which features work by Kota Fumiaki, Yasushi Shingo, Shigereu Kimishima and Kazuhiro Miwa. There were a few nice bits in that op, especially the hydra section, pictured above. I suspect Kota Fumiaki did the hydra section, but I haven't seen much of his work lately so I'm not positive what his style looks like. It seems he did "special animation" in the new Ikuhara show, which I'll be checking out soon, so I'll see if that helps confirm anything. Anyway, whoever it is, I like the lines and shapes of the smoke and debris in this section. They're kind of reminiscent of Hisashi Mori with the shadows represented as flat black blobs surrounded by erratic, sketchy forms.
I know I've been quiet for a few months, but things may be sputtering back to life in the coming days. I've been busy with personal stuff, and haven't really been watching any anime or animation, but I'd like to slowly start posting again. The VIFF is starting this week, so I'll probably be posting about the movies I see there to get back into the habit of blogging.
I just ditched my old server, Ion Web, because the site was constantly down over the last month for no given reason, and they offered no support of any kind. In porting everything over, I spruced up the face of the blog a little bit, but it should be mostly the same as before.
I'd like to use this opportunity to change the site logo. I'm tired of the old logos. It's been 7 years since I started writing Anipages. I want something fresh and new to shake things up a bit. A year ago on the forum I held a logo design contest to solicit ideas for logos that reflect the spirit of the blog, but I dropped the ball on that (sorry). I really loved what Huw, Bahi et al. submitted, so I'd like to see if I can revive that and get an awesome new Anipages mascot/logo from someone.
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.