Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Saturday, August 9, 2014

01:10:00 pm , 1097 words, 1121 views     Categories: TV, Masaaki Yuasa, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #16

Dandy & co. go shopping for dinner, but instead come back with a teleporting flashlight that takes them on a roundabout adventure that eventually leads back to... dinner.

The much-awaited Masaaki Yuasa episode is here, and it's a clever little puzzle of a confection of a kind that only Yuasa could create. Stylistically it doesn't stick out as much as you would expect. The drawings are pretty on-model. I was initially a little disappointed in that regard, although the quality of the episode more than made up for that. I was hoping it to be a bash of Yuasa drawings. But I'm heartened to see how professional Yuasa can be. You don't have to totally ignore model to create something completely original and captivating, which he has here while creating an episode that fits perfectly into the show.

What makes Yuasa Yuasa is that he creates little hermetically constructed worlds that give rise to drama. Characters aren't plopped down somewhere; they're part and parcel of the mechanics of a universe, which sets the wheels of fate in motion. That's what makes it a Yuasa creation; the drawings don't have to be his, as they weren't in Kaiba.

Here the mechanics of astral bodies are the actual driving force of the narrative. An alien earth inhabited by intelligent fish is about to be engulfed by a sun as its orbit brings it too close. The schematic explanation of the phenomenon is very Yuasa in how efficiently and simply it boils down a complicated situation. There are also a lot of layers to the story that tie together in a satisfying way. The fish astronaut has a complicated name that by chance ends with 'carpaccio' - he's both a tragic figure who set out to save his people, and in the end the crew's grilled fish dinner. The moment where the famished/concerned Meow runs to save Carpaccio and grabs the grill on the door to rescue him from the flames, and we see a shot of him as a grilled fish is just brilliant in a way that's hard to express.

Small-scale yet epic, comic yet tragic, it's simultaneously the story of one man's struggle to save his people, a civilization's destruction, and delicious grilled fish. You come away feeling for Carpaccio's plight, but also for the famished Meow. It's also a grandiose enactment of the titular saying "isogaba mawaru", which doesn't have an exact equivalent in English but basically means "take the long way around if you're in a hurry". At one point this is expressed in miniature in the episode: there's a big hole in the flounder on which Meow and Dandy are zooming over the landscape. Dandy attempts to walk straight towards Meow, but falls in the hole. He should have taken the long way around. Always take the long way around. It's a fitting motto for the character.

Yuasa makes good use of the sci-fi setting. He plays with gravity and space, pushing the narrative forward using the astrophysics aspects of the setting. He upends our expectations of physicality in a way that ties into the whole theme of going around versus straight. The entire sequence on the moon is full of delightfully disorienting moments - when the crew suddenly start sliding across the surface for some mysterious reason... Dandy falling into one of the holes all of a sudden, only to suddenly stop in mid-air, grab hold of the wall and climb in the other direction towards the surface... The crew riding a column of water towards the other planet.

Yuasa even managed to involve Dr. Gel in the proceedings. It's a quick but perfect weekly appearance - he lands his ship and utters his usual catchphrase, in the process providing Dandy with the shadow he needed to grab the transporter and beam out, just before getting annihilated by the sun. I like the droll pun where Carpaccio utters the expression of surprise "gyo!" when he sees Dandy, which also happens to mean fish. Yuasa's mascot character even makes an appearance in the food court at the beginning in the guise of one of the food items.

On the animation side of things, the unique aspect of this episode is that Yuasa himself recruited foreign animators for the episode via social media, and the episode features animation work by the eight foreign animators who were recruited. Their animation doesn't stick out as much as you would expect and gives the episode a nice richness. Several of them have been nice enough to indicate which parts they did on their blogs: Ben Li the part where Meow tries to grab Carpaccio as he parachutes up to the surface of his earth; William Gibbons various shots of the crew after they land on Carpaccio's home planet; and Jeremy Polgar Meow lunging at Carpaccio. Apparently Faouzi Hammadi animated the crew running from the sun. It would be great to find out what the other people did.

Other than these guys, Shinya Ohira provided the standout scene in his usual style - Dandy revving the engine on the boat as it rides up the column of water. Classic Ohira and reminds of various shots he's done in the past - not least similar material in Slime Adventures, the tidal wave in Otogizoushi ep 6 and the flood in the Tsubasa Chronicle movie. But his work continues to evolve and feels more dense and more stylized than before. The close-ups of Dandy in the scene are quite fun, with his Kabuki jaw. And you can see the pencil strokes very clearly in the final product, something you couldn't in earlier years before the technology facilitated this sort of thing. It's all super chaotic and Wanwa hyper-expressive with its perspective zooming around constantly, and yet when the ship bounds on the waves it feels believable and weighty. Michio Mihara and Hiroyuki Aoyama also provided some animation. The bit where Dandy falls into the hole looks like Yuasa himself. Meow's yahoo at the end also looked very Yuasa.

The backgrounds are usually pretty interesting in a Yuasa production, and the backgrounds here are no exception. They seem to have been mostly done in watercolor by a person named Eriko Shibayama. I don't know the name, but she seems to hail from either Shin-Ei or Ajia-Do in view of her past work, which makes the connection obvious. Perhaps she's part of the new crew at Science Saru. I liked how some of the buildings on Carpaccio's home planet looked like a woman lying on her back with her legs open (and a transport tube sticking straight into her...).

Monday, July 21, 2014

07:39:00 pm , 879 words, 2691 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #15

Dandy gets lured to a faraway planet by the prospect of partying with a hot alien, but winds up in the sights of a bizarre smile-hunting puppet.

This is one of the less slapstick episodes, which is not to say one of the more serious. Dandy doesn't have serious episode like Champloo did to contrast with the silly episodes. What Dandy has is weird episodes, and this is one of them alongside episode 11 about the library book. I don't mind weird, but the problem with this episode is that it doesn't quite gel. It doesn't have a clear thrust, and leaves a weak impression, even though technically it's quite well produced.

The writer is Nobumoto Keiko from episode 8 about Laika the dog. Her style is notably different from her junior and the show's dominant writing force, Kimiko Ueno. She's more old school, sometimes even a little stuffy, weaving complex themes into her stories rather than merely pumping out lighthearted comedy. When it works, it works, but here it feels like a bit of a jumble, combining things arbitrarily to suit the plot. The river of time in the climax seems a little underdeveloped and casually thrown in. The buildings appearing out of the river at the climax only felt nonsensical and forced, whereas a similar tactic in the climax of Mind Game was convincing visually and metaphorically.

The main alien in the show, the Ukelele Man, is one of the show's first dark characters, but he seems burdened with a bit too much thematic striving on the part of the writing. An entertainer trapped in a rigid, emotionless mask - a tragic creature, the only one of his race, he seeks out other creatures to steal their smiles. It's oddly portentious in the company of zombies and boobies. I was a little reminded of the pierrot episode of Cowboy Bebop written by Sadayuki Murai.

That doesn't mean the episode is horrible. It's enjoyable enough to watch. I like the idea of an episode about masks, and this episode is interesting in that it latches onto that strange disturbing tension that makes masks fascinating, with their frozen expressions of glee or fear or what have you. A spirit seems to inhabit them, which is probably why they've been used in religious rituals the world over.

The luxurious schedule of the show also guarantees that there will be no low-quality episodes. There's no struggling with deadlines here like in Ping Pong, and it shows. Everything is almost too well polished. The storyboard is by Masashi Ikeda, who I remember as the director of episode 29 of Votoms, although obviously he's gone on to do much work as series director for which he's better remembered now. It doesn't have a lot of quirks, but it gets the job done well enough.

I had a hard time figuring out what the crew were arguing about at the beginning, and then I realized it's a band called Shakatak that apparently only people in Japan still care about. The show manages to drum up some pretty obscure old music references every once in a while.

Yurkio Chiba sakkans the characters and Bones regular mecha man Eiji Nakata presumably handles the mecha. I'm quite fond of Yuriko Chiba's rendition of Dandy - more lanky and angular but with some great expressions, and an almost Lupin-esque elfin quality. There was some nice lavish surfing animation at the climax. I'm guessing Eiji Nakata himself handled this, since surfing robots were his thing in Eureka 7, and Yutaka Nakamura handled the Ukelele Man burning up at the end. His amazing rendering of the flames and quick timing are distinctive. My favorite bit in the ep was the handful of shots where the Ukelele Man comes alive from the tree, but I don't know who did those. Maybe Chikashi Kubota?

On the design side of things, we got another cool design from Takuhito Kusanagi - the mailman - but as usual it was on the screen for literally 3 seconds and had about as many drawings as the design. The Ukelele Man was designed by manga-ka Sho Tajima, who I remember back in the day from the manga Madara. There wasn't much animation in the episode that really brought the character alive in a way that did justice to the movement of a puppet. The opening scene probably moved him best. I would have liked to see some animation in the style of that old episode of Ninku with puppet-fu animation by Tetsuya Nishio.

Kiyotaka Oshiyama designed the guitar player at the beginning, Shingo Natsume the praying mantis aliens, and main character designer Yoshiyuki Ito the capybara alien. As usual, they throw in alien designs from a variety of people with very different styles into one episode, making for a pleasing variety. Hideyasu Narita of the art studio Kusanagi designed some very nice scenery for the alien planet. I'm assuming Takuhito Kusanagi is unrelated to the art studio, though I've always wondered about that. (their names are written differently)

The episodes often have special guest voice actors in addition to guest designers, and this time around the big name was Toshio "Ataru" Furukawa. He must be getting up there in years, but his voice is still youthful enough, if without the high-pitched intensity of his old role.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

04:38:00 pm , 813 words, 1593 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #14

Dandy & co are back after a few months' absence with another season. I missed the show and I'm glad to get to see more. It's got a nicely balanced combination of silliness and creative animation and design work that makes it easy to watch. It's space opera via the cartoon. I can't get enough.

The show comes back with a bang. Writer Kimiko Ueno delivers one the most absurd episodes yet: Dandy & co. are beset by a horde of parallel universe doppelgangers. Storyboarding this material into great entertainment is Goro Taniguchi, who gave us the racing episode, one of the other most entertaining episodes in the show.

The episode plays up the parallel universe aspect that has been hinted at since the beginning, revealing the truth in one go without any real fanfare, almost like an afterthought. Which is perfect for this show.

Dandy seems to remember being a truck driver in a past life, and it turns out he was actually remembering an alternative universe version of himself. The episode regales us with a bunch of different visions of how Bones' Space Dandy could have gone. We could have had a typical cheesy anime version where he's a cool bidanshi and Honey is an annoying sqeaky-voiced anime babe hanging off his neck. Or the Osamu Tezuka version where QT speaks in autotune. The afro-haired Ideon Dandy with a Ganga Rubu QT. Space Ninja Dandy headed by Char Dandy. Space Cop Dandy starring Cobra Dandy. Essentially the episode lets Dandy play dress-up as all of the classic space anime heroes of yore. We even get an Attack on Titan Dandy. I mentioned being reminded of Schrodinger's Cat in a previous episode, and one of Meow's incarnation here is a Schrodinger's Alien.

If the show's gimmick has been its variety of designs by different folks, this episode is the biggest bash of that aspect yet. It featured one-shot designs by no less than 8 folks, all in completely different styles befitting completely different shows. Apparently the reason for this large number of designs is this: the designs were not actually made for this episode but were the early pre-production design ideas for what direction to go with the show. So the parallel universes we're seeing are actually, not metaphorically, different versions of the show that might have been. That's a clever way of utilizing pre-production work that would otherwise have gone unused.

I'm particularly partial to Naoyuki Asano's heta-uma Space Ninja team, but there's lots of great fun designs in there. Yoshimichi Kameda's sex doll girl looks like an homage to Lasa from Birth. What was that white substance on her face supposed to be? It didn't look like tears to me. Kameda also designed the seemingly Tezuka manga-inspired Goku Dandy & crew. Talented designer Shigeto Koyama, who most recently worked on Kill La Kill, provided some very stylish designs for the blue-haired Dandy crew. Yutaka Nakamura, of all people, provided some designs - a first for the animator as far as I'm aware. There are so many new designs that they didn't even show all the designs on the home page this time around. I don't know who designed the Ideon crew, but I appreciate the thought that went into the design: Dandy looks like he has Lupin's face and Cosmo's hair. Add that to the growing list of Ideon references in the show.

On the animator side of things, there's a lot of fun work in there in disparate styles befitting the different designs. I'm assuming Naoyuki Asano animated his own Space Ninja team, which moves with the same heta-uma aesthetic as the music video he did recently. I think the attack of Meow in the blue-haired bidanshi Dandy scene was animated by Kanada-school animator Toshiyuki Sato, who provided the scene in the hallway in the zombie episode. I like the drawings of the slot machine scene, but I can't ID the animator. Stepping through the drawings, I was surprised to find some subliminal advertising for Pocari Sweat and Domino's Pizza.

Yoshimichi Kameda's Goku characters were animated with verve first by Norifumi Kugai and then Bahi JD. Bahi's section is shorter this time but just as densely packed as the bit he did in episode 1, with the crew being tossed around in the air by an attacking enemy, in the process doing a bunch of quick actions in mid-air such as Dandy attempting to surf on Meow. Goku Dandy is a Michael Jackson wannabe, so he does the moves, but they're not quite right. His moonwalk looks like him running backwards. Eagle-eyed Jackson fans will spot some typical 90s Jackson moves packed into Bahi's brief but dense attack shot. I think I would have liked to see this Dandy with a show of his own. Gosei Oda and Shintaro Doge are there, too, but I couldn't ID their work this time around.

Friday, April 11, 2014

07:02:00 pm , 76 words, 11540 views     Categories: TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Ping Pong

As I always have, I'll be blogging Masaaki Yuasa's new show Ping Pong, but this time I was offered the chance to do so on Cartoon Brew by Amid Amidi, so that is where you will be finding the posts. Here is my post on the first episode:

For anyone coming from Cartoon Brew looking to know more about Masaaki Yuasa's past shows, you can find my posts about them here:

Tatami Galaxy

Sunday, April 6, 2014

12:19:00 am , 1425 words, 3466 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #13

QT takes center stage when he discovers love in a beautiful coffee machine...

The first season comes to a close in the show's most sedate and cinematic episode. This time the slapstick takes a back seat for a tongue-in-cheek love story. The pacing is deliberate and the narrative arc is crystal clear and obvious from the get-go. This is possibly the most straightly played episode yet.

At first glance I found the episode to be even a little too straight, bordering on boring, but in retrospect it's a nice change of tone. It's yet another twist and turn in the fabric of the show for it to take a left turn and veer into robo romcom territory like this. It's also in line with Shinichiro Watanabe's approach to injecting a show with variety: As in all of his past shows, there will be different episodes with different tones and subject matter, and this is the serene love story episode, with a twist. The show would quickly become rote if every episode were a gag-fest.

The episode manages to maintain interest despite its straightforward story by dint of its solid presentation and controlled pacing that hits all the beats you expect in a story of this kind. Although not a story about hunting rare aliens for once, the episode nevertheless manages to serve up a nice big dose of fun guest creature designs in the form of a planet full of sentient appliances. The episode was written by Dai Sato and storyboarded/directed by series director Shingo Natsume.

It's a bit of a surprise that the few Dai Sato episodes in the show have been the more sedate ones like this. Rather than straight comedy episodes, if anything, his episodes have tended to favor thematic treatment and character development. His touch remains identifiable in the subversive transformation of conventional vehicles. Some of the episodes seem to be inspired by or reference prior films, and this one makes an obvious reference to The Matrix with its army of oppressed home appliances who rise up for a giant rave party before their final battle against their oppressor-father, mankind. Dai Sato's topical sense of humor comes out in the early jokes involving Dandy and Meow's escalation in taste for women: Dandy evolves in his pickup targets from bars to cooking classes to married women, and Meow evolves from dating sites to 2D love sims to idol singers. Also, the heart of the episode is a pun elegant in its simplicity: AI means love in Japanese. How does an artificial intelligence experience love?

Shingo Natsume meanwhile returns after storyboarding/directing the first episode. It's a more sedate appearance than I would have hoped for an animator with such a strong and personal voice, and one of the people behind the impressively animated Full Metal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos movie. On the other hand, it shows his maturation as a director who has evolved out of purely focusing on animation. It tells a simple love story well. Impressive is that it makes you feel the love story of a vacuum cleaner and a coffee machine. With almost no animation of expressions or gestures to convey emotion, the episode boils human traits down to a set of symbols, which is the defining trait of anime at its core. The Daft Punk-inspired retro vocoder slowdance music was a nice touch. The structure and impact is remarkably similar to episode 1 - quiet, deliberate buildup to an explosively animated climax. He also happens to have used two of the same animators in both climaxes.

The animator side of Shingo Natsume comes through in the climax, which features a sudden, dense dose of powerful animation by talented animators. He knows good animation, and he knows how to use it effectively. The whole episode reels you into a serene zone with its minimal animation and slow pace, and then punches things into high gear in a split second right at the moment of the emotional climax.

The climax was animated by several animators: Yutaka Nakamura, Kugai Norifumi and Shingo Natsume himself (also possibly Gosei Oda, but I can't ID his part). It's here that you see his attention to detail in the animation, which is what sets him apart: The dynamism and reality of the action, the copious effects animation, the cinematic layouts. Just look at the beautiful depth in that shot above. If I had to hazard a guess as to the breakdown, I'd say Shingo Natsume did tiny QT attacking the giant robo, Yutaka Nakamura did the giant robo destroying the city, and Kugai Norifumi did giant QT attacking the giant robo after getting smacked in the visor.

On the design side of things, series designer Yoshiyuki Ito handled the main appliance protagonists while Tomohisa Shimoyama handled the riff-raff. You can tell the difference in their designs: Ito's are more refined and clean, more carefully designed, more intricate and three-dimensional. Shimoyama's designs are more rough and broad and loosely drawn.

The guest star this time around was Macross designer Kazutaka Miyatake. Along with the previously-featured Kunio Okawara, then, the show has featured guest appearances by two of the most illustrious mecha designers in anime history. They're trivial roles in the show, but they're clearly honorary appearances. The details of Kazutaka Miyatake's designs of the giant robo are really beautiful to look at. It's remarkable to think - this guy has been designing mecha since Mazinger Z in 1972.

The other guest is Abdul Qadim Haqq. The show has been great about sporadically but regularly using foreign talent - Bahi JD, Choi Eun Young, Kevin Aymeric, and the surprise name this episode is one Abdul Qadim Haqq, who is apparently best known as an art designer for the Detroit music scene. His techno-inspired retro robot cool is an interesting choice for this show. It's great to see artists from completely different scenes pulled into anime like this. Clearly Abdul Qadim Haqq was a guest brought in by Shinichiro Watanabe, who is quite savvy about the music side of things. He provided the concept art for the dreadlocked flesh and blood aliens who built the sentient appliances that rise up against their masters. This was then finalized into use for animation by Tomohisa Shimoyama.

The art is a little small on the web site (hopefully this will be rectified with a large-format art book collecting both the designs and key animation at a later date) but it seems the artist wrote a blurb on his sheet even describing the details about this race of aliens he created. Kazutaka Miyatake's world design and Abdul Qadim Haqq's alien designs together create a feeling of a living world with its own history and culture. I wish this side could have been explored a little more, as it would have helped give the climax more of an impact if we knew more about the history that led to this big conflict.

This concludes the first season of Space Dandy. It's an open secret now, but the show has another season coming up. Masaaki Yuasa's episode will be one of the big attractors, but I'm sure there will be plenty of other fine work. Considering that the show is completely open-ended, I can't help but wish there were even more than two seasons so they could bring in some of the other talented directors and animators out there in the industry to do some episodes.

Wrapping up, it's hardly been groundbreaking, but that's not a bad thing. It's deliberately small-scale and un-cute. The show is a throwback for the future of anime - showing that sometimes it can be healthy to take a deep breath and step back from the current fads and go back to something more basic. The show refuses to take itself seriously, but is artistically serious about how it does it. For a lighthearted parody romp, it's got some highminded concepts that it plays around with, without getting too full of itself. It's done a great job of letting talented directors, designers and animators loose to have fun with the material and create some of the more refreshing anime episodes in quite a while. Most importantly, it's all original material not tied into a manga or light novel franchise, letting people really dig into their creativity and show what they've got rather than just tracing someone else's imagination. Its audience is anyone who likes animation, in Japan or outside, and not just a small subset of otaku. I'm pretty satisfied with what they've done so far and can't wait to see the rest.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

12:03:00 pm , 849 words, 3425 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #12

Dandy searches for a rare chameleon alien, but the doppelganger wreaks havoc on the crew...

This episode launches back into slapstick entertainment mode. The show is reliably satisfying when it doesn't take itself seriously, and this episode was one of the silliest yet. It almost feels like a cartoon, both in terms of the unusual looseness of the drawings as well as the absurd silliness of the proceedings.

Unsurprisingly, the episode was penned by Kimiko Ueno. It was fairly obvious watching the episode that it must have been her work. She's in top form, delivering inane absurdity fully the equal of her past episodes. The show is safe in her hands. Her sense of humor comes through in things like the takoyaki-flavored Kari Kari-kun, a parody of the popular Gari Gari-kun ice cream bar, and QT getting pissed because people were looking at porn sites on his/her cell phone in the middle of the night. QT also becomes an avid fisher and uploads photos of his catch to his fishing blog. The episode has little to no plot, instead focusing squarely on the situational comedy aspect. It's a string of gags rather than a dramatic arc. In this and the style of many of the gags - the characters all fighting in a cloud of dust, etc. - the episode seems like an overt homage to cartoons.

The story seemed unified around the theme of fishing, including the secret weapon designed by Dr. Gel that provides for an amusing climax. I wonder what this was a reference to. I thought it was Tsurikichi Sanpei at first, but maybe not.

The episode was storyboarded by Toshio Hirata and directed by Satoshi Saga. It's a delight to find Toshio Hirata at the helm. He's one of the great, if unsung, directors of anime history. One of my first major posts in 2004 was about him. He started out at Toei Doga in its heyday, and worked on seminal TV anime like Wolf Boy Ken and Jungle Emperor - straddling both Toei Doga and Mushi Pro. In his mature period in the 1980s, he brought a more zen and restrained style of auterdom to Madhouse OVAs of the period. Toshio Hirata has many great films to his credit, including the great underrated gem The Golden Bird (1984), which is notable for bringing a unique kind of cartoonish sensibility to anime. This episode of Dandy is a great return to this kind of cartoonish material - a great show of youthful silliness from such an old master. Thus this episode features a veteran director bringing to life the ideas of a young new writer.

Satoshi Saga I'm not as familiar with, but I see that he storyboarded and directed the first episode of Green Legend Ran, one of my favorite OVAs, not to mention directing the series overall (the other episodes aren't as good). He started out as an animator and moved on to storyboarding and directing episodes. He seems relied upon as an enshutsu, often handling the directing aspect alone.

The drawings are among the most fascinating in the show so far, because of the incredible variation in style. The animation director is Gainax stalwart Chikashi Kubota, but I didn't get a strong sense of Kubota's style dominating the proceedings. For the first time, we also have several assistant animation directors, and it seems like they each throw their own style into the mix rather than backing up the episode's sakkan. In a normal show, the assistants would just blend into the main sakkan's work, but here they each seem to act as their own individual sakkan. On top of this, it seems like some of the animator's sections weren't corrected at all. The end result is some of the most wild variation in drawing style in the entire show. Almost every minute we seem to be witness to an animator with a new style, even if we can't necessarily identify who it is, which makes this one of the show's most delightful and freewheeling episodes. This more loose approach to visual uniformity is perfectly suited to the cartoony material.

For example, Hiroyuki Aoyama is one of the assistant sakkans. I think we all know his drawings well by now. His section stands out - the Dandy-Dandy face-off. Similarly, one of the animators is the highly idiosyncratic Shintaro Doge, and it seems likely that he animated the extended fishing scene, which was clearly not corrected and jumps out glaringly with its wildly deformed drawings and loosely hand-drawn style. This section is also typical of Toshio Hirata's directing. A feature of his work is that he always goes out of his way to provide sections where an individual animator can shine. This can be seen in the musical interlude in The Golden Bird by Koji Nanke (watch) or even the ending animation of Bobby's Girl (1985) by Takashi Nakamura and Koji Morimoto (watch). Mamoru Sasaki's section also seemed pretty obvious - where doppelganger Dandy appears.

All in all one of the more pleasant episodes due to the crazily uneven (in a good way) animation and basically the sheer slackness of it all.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

04:18:00 am , 1018 words, 4288 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #11

Dandy et al. get caught up with a rare alien that erases memories, while Professer Gel discovers the secret of the universe, and pays the price...

This series will remain interesting to me as long as it keeps switching directions like it has been lately. This episode is devoid of the silly humor of the previous episodes, going in a completely different direction - more intellectual and sophisticated, exploring the hinted-at metaphysical laws that govern Dandy's universe. What remains the same is that it has its own unique character in terms of the drawings and story, and you can satisfyingly identify the work of the staff that are responsible.

This was easily the most interesting script of the series thus far. A person named Enjo Toh writes for the first time in the show. I wasn't familiar with him, but after watching the episode I was almost positive he had to be a sci-fi writer rather than a typical anime writer due to the decidedly more intellectual and literary bent of the script, and that turned out to be on the mark. The episode wasn't just mind-bending in a facile way, it was perplexing and opaque in a way that reminds of a writer like Yasutaka Tsutsui, who was a master of combining science fiction speculation with metafiction experiments. The episode also share's Tsutsui's peculiar combination of sophisticated literary experimentation with lowbrow humor. The story here leaves you scratching your head but feeling there's a vast depth there if you know how to read between the lines.

At the heart of the episode is a mysterious red box that, when opened, erases the memory of those around it. This seems to suggest that something akin to the Schrodinger's cat paradox lies at the heart of the show's conundrums - Dandy & co are either alive or dead at the end of an episode depending on different courses of events, all repeating in an endless loop set off by some quantum physics mishap. Much was left satisfyingly unexplained, leaving the viewer to piece things together.

Professor Gel, we find out for the first time, is a genius scientist befitting his name, and not merely an ape in a pimp costume. He spends the episode amusingly ignoring the chaos around him, wrapped up in working out formulas in an attempt to discover the dark matter-like substance that explains the universe.

Literary devices literally govern Dandy's universe - a sentient book metaphorically possesses Dandy and guides his actions, after first convincing Dr. Gel that he needed to check it out. All to what end? Because the sentient book wanted to have an adventure. The books guided Dandy, but he still had free will, and they enjoyed watching The Adventures of Space Dandy, like an author who enjoys watching his characters "write themselves".

Narrative artifacts like Dr. Gel's handwriting and the writing on the card move around as if to change the course of events. It's as if Dandy & everyone in his universe were nothing more than living words written and altered arbitrarily by some master librarian, in this case a scriptwriter named Toh Enjo. When Admiral Perry resists the library planet's overdue notices, the omnipotent power of the literary creator devises a narrative twist where Dandy teleports in and destroys the fleet with a whirlwind beam in a turn of events reminding of the deus ex machina climax of Ideon: Be Invoked. This is somewhat bolstered by the names of the head librarians: different pronunciations of Idea.

Dandy is the only one who resists his literary enclosure. Bemoaning the lack of physical food on the literary planet, he turns a well-known saying on its head in a manner befitting his impulsive and straightforwardly carnal nature: "Man cannot live on data alone".

The storyboard is by Atsushi Takahashi, while Hiroyuki Okuno directs and acts as character sakkan. He is the lead animator and the only other animator listed is Hisashi Mori, who is also credited as mecha sakkan. Apart from Atsushi Takahashi, this is the same pairing as in the legendary episode 7 of Samurai Seven, which is where I first discovered Hisashi Mori (here and here - I even wrote a post about him) some ten years ago now.

Okuno's characters have not changed that much in ten years. It's Mori's work, as usual, that is the main attractor. Mori has changed stylistically a bit, but overall his style and spirit are the same. He has the same uncompromising approach that sets Shinya Ohira apart - he somehow manages to animate things entirely in the way he wants in commercial productions, despite a style that goes against the grain of industry popularity with its brutal, raw, organic line. It was exactly what set that episode of Samurai Seven apart, and in the intervening 10 years he has built a body of animation that continued to build on that. He recently even acted as character design/sakkan on a movie, and for a studio as major as Toei Animation, which is a real surprise.

The episode has a nice texture overall. The character drawings are unremarkable, but the mecha scenes scintillate excitingly in typical Mori fashion, and the backgrounds are uniformly drawn with what appears to be pencil lines. I thought at first the backgrounds were also drawn by Mori, but he is not credited with the backgrounds. In places like the alien planet, the background drawings have an extremely sketch-like quality, with every wanton pencil stroke clearly visible in the final product. The backgrounds are beautiful, and it adds a strangely evocative layer to an already fascinating episode, as if emphasizing that Dandy's world is a creation both literary and graphic. This background style was perhaps adopted to match Mori's animation.

The great illustrator Katsuya Terada returns to design the librarian creatures, while animator Shintaro Doge designs the drone box. Background artist Kevin Aymeric meanwhile provides the concept art for the library planet, although his drawings are far more intricate than the final sketchy product. In the voice-actor department, the great Kappei Yamaguchi made a guest appearance, although his voice was unrecognizable (to me) as the library robot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

05:43:00 am , 1001 words, 3643 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #10

Dandy & gang visit Meow's home planet and get caught in a time loop. Meow uses the opportunity to work on his feelings of guilt for not having taken over the family business...

Another bang-up episode. This time we're back to an entertainment style more in line with the norm for this show rather than an auteur production like last time, but the episode satisfies in every way, and also brings its own unique touch to the drawings.

Xam'd director Masayuki Miyaji storyboards/directs and brings a breezy charm to the material. Kimiko Ueno returns yet again to write a simple Groundhog Day-inspired story about a day repeating itself, and does a nice job with the concept. I'm beginning to get a sense of Kimiko Ueno's sense of humor, and I like it. Her fingerprints were all over the episode, particularly the denouement with Meow's crush, and yet the episode was not 100% high camp concept episode like the zombie episode. It had a heart and was fairly convincing, if cursory, in evoking the complicated feelings between a father and son. It's just a plain cute episode, and nice getting to know Meow a bit better.

The Groundhog Day aspect is entertaining. They don't delve quite as much into the fun time paradox stuff like Groundhog Day did, due to constraints of time, but they hit all the beats that make it satisfying. When the idiot trio begin to notice that they seem to know what's about to happen, they initially think they've gained superpowers until the narrator sets them straight. At first they despair, but one day it occurs to Meow to try to catch the glass dropped by his crush, and begins to use his knowledge of the day's events to his advantage to win the girl, a la Bill Murray. He begins to think maybe it's not all bad being caught in a time loop, and even warms to the idea of taking over his father's business.

My favorite thing about the episode, though, is that we come away understanding the unspoken feelings that underlie the complicated relationship between Meow and his father. For a brief moment, he was reconciled thanks to the time loop, but in the end he has to go his own way as his own person. It's a nice, heartwarming portrait of a good father who supported his son even when it meant allowing his son to abandon family tradition to follow his own path.

Apart from feline inhabitants, Meow's home planet is a doppelganger for Japan, and the episode goes to respectable length to depict the paraphernalia of everyday Japanese life in its detailed layouts. I like little details like how the various different shoes of the house's various inhabitants are laid out on the threshold. The details make it feel real. It gives the episode a distinct tone that's quite different from the other episodes - intimate indie home drama.

It also reminds of Mamoru Hosoda's Japanese home drama, perhaps because one of the key players in the episode is a Hosoda regular. Two sakkans are credited - Seiichi Hashimoto and Hiroyuki Aoyama. Clearly the former did the first half and the latter did the second half. The series itself is notable for opting to not use the "chief animation director" system to iron out drawing inconsistency from episode to episode, and this episode goes one step further in this regard . Not only does the episode have a unique look, each half has a unique look. These two guys have completely different styles, and it's clear in the finished product. It's nothing jarring - quite the opposite. It's a delight to see that they are going 100% in the direction of standing by their sakkans and allowing them to express themselves, even on a half-episode basis.

Seiichi Hashimoto's drawings are plump and fluffy and cartoony, his lines thick. His Dandy has some delightfully silly and fun expressions that look nothing like anything we've seen before. Hiroyuki Aoyama's lines are thin and his expressions more subtle and the movement more subtly nuanced, the acting not as broad. His Dandy looks like he walked out of a Hosoda movie. I love his expression when he is attempting to pry open the calendar. The part where he confronts the calendar, delinquent-style, makes me laugh out loud every time I re-watch it.

Numerous talented animators were involved: Kazutaka Ozaki, Shigeru Kimishima, Kumiko Kawana, Tatsuzo Nishita. Many of these are Hosoda regulars, so were probably called in by Aoyama. Kenji Hachizaki and Maru Kanako also return. The episode is quite a pleasure in the acting department. Ironically, though, while sakkan idiosyncrasy is strong, animator idiosyncrasy is more ironed out. I suspect they both thoroughly corrected the animation, for the most part, because the half-episodes each have a uniform look, with the exception of a few scenes.

The opening scene with the giant robot is one of the scenes that looks different. Maybe it was the work of Hidetsugu Ito. Obviously, it's robots so it didn't need to be corrected. The scene in the field in the second half was notable because it's immediately apparent that it wasn't corrected by Aoyama. I can't identify the style, but it's a very distinct style, and obviously Aoyama didn't correct it because it was well drawn enough already, so maybe it was done by one of those sakkan-class individuals.

Incidentally, the opening scene was clearly an Ideon parody. I was surprised to find Kunio Okawara and Yuichi Higuchi in the credits, and rightly guessed that they designed the Gundam head and the Ideon robot, respectively, because they were the original designers of those robots. That is quite an involved joke to pull - getting the actual designers of Ideon and Gundam to design parody robots that battle it out against one another. That is taking parody to a downright meta level. It's an in-joke aimed straight at anime staff nerds like me. Chief designer Yoshiyuki Ito meanwhile did a nice job designing the dozen-plus cat alien guest characters.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

12:30:00 pm , 1083 words, 4643 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #9

Dandy teleports down to a planet overrun by sentient plants who have organized themselves into nations, replete with spies and aggressively guarded borders, but his search for a rare alien instead turns up the secret to the planet...

I have a new favorite episode. This episode was a very different beast from what came before, but it was a sheer delight and is easily the most consummately crafted episode of the bunch so far.

Organic, colorful, hand-drawn - all words that spring to mind for this unique episode that really feels like the creation of someone with a strong artistic vision. A delight to behold because of its riot of beautiful otherworldly visuals, it has the hand-drawn feeling of the Michio Mihara episode, and was crammed from start to finish with creative ideas and pleasing visual schemes.

The characters looked quite different in the hands of the staff here, and even the atmosphere was different from what we've grown used to; the silly gags and irony are absent and the story is told at more of a remove, both in terms of staging of shots and the more restrained style of directing. But the pacing, humor, characters, animation, music and backgrounds all work so well together that the episode that you're too busy enjoying it to care. Certain moments gave me goosebumps because of the perfectly beautiful combination of otherworldly music, colors and shapes.

Eunyoung Choi is the creative brain behind the episode, having come up with the idea for the story (which was then written by Shinichiro Watanabe), designed the aliens, done the conceptual art (settei), and storyboarded and directed. She's one of the most talented people to emerge from the Masaaki Yuasa group alongside Michio Mihara, and already proved that she can go it alone on that episode of Wakfu that I mentioned in the previous post.

The creatures in the episode are among the most fascinating in the show so far. Rather than just one or two new aliens, we're regaled with an entire planet populated by creatures that seem like a blend of plants and microorganisms. With membranes and receptors that allow passage only to certain microbes and not others, and strange creatures matter-of-factly going about their strange business, the episode feels like a cross between Fantastic Planet and Fantastic Voyage.

This episode works splendidly well because you come away feeling like it's thoroughly explored the world of the characters. It feels real. Much of the episode's runtime is devoted to depicting in meticulous detail the interaction between the planet's plant inhabitants, like some kind of alien nature channel program. It's like in Planete Sauvage - you don't know the logic underpinning the crazy interaction of all these bizarre alien life forms, but it feels like there IS some logic there, and together they form a living ecosystem.

The nice part is that these things aren't overexplained, and yet you don't feel like they're underexplained. If the goal of this series was to regale us with a bewildering array of colorful alien creatures, this episode feels like the one that delivered the best in this regard, because it creates a whole planet that feels like it is actual pulsing with various life forms that are all interconnected. The episode actually takes the time to show us snippets of this interaction in a way that evokes the bigger picture. You really feel like you're in Dandy's shoes, recoiling at a bizarre creature and gazing in awe at a beautiful scene as he explores the new world.

And in the midst of all that, Eunyoung actually achieves the unlikely feat of making us invest in the strange plant creatures like the little one and her 'father'. The ending was actually surprisingly moving. The side-story about Meow meanwhile was amusing and added some variety to the proceedings while Dandy was on his adventure learning about the planet. So the episode isn't just artsy and quirky, love it or leave it - it has humor and heart too. It's a very likeable episode.

The episode even had something of a musical interlude, though it was very well done and didn't come across as an overt Disney-style musical interlude. In fact, the music of this episode was exceptional. With lots of odd noodly electronic soundscapes and a capella warbling, it was unusually organically linked to the goings-on, as if it had been specially commissioned for this episode. This is the first episode where the music felt simultaneously so beautiful and well integrated.

When I saw the preview I originally thought it was the Masaaki Yuasa episode, and many parts of the episode remind of his style. The episode felt like it could have come straight out of Kaiba. The visual style, with its weird colors and gradients, also reminded me of Cat Soup. This is perhaps due to a combination of the fact that Eunyoung has worked with him for so long and that the backgrounds were all drawn by Kevin Aymeric (tumblr), who was the art director of Yuasa's Kick Heart and is an incredibly talented and flexible artist. Look for more from this great talent in Masaaki Yuasa's upcoming Ping Pong.

(In a side-note, as a big fan of Disasterpeace, I bought The Floor is Jelly game when it came out to support him and because it looked awesome (and is), but I was surprised to find just now that the beautiful cover art was drawn by Kevin Aymeric.)

The sakkan was Kiyotaka Oshiyama, who first came to my attention for his work on Denno Coil. I don't know his style well, but the characters here are very uniquely drawn, with the sort of meandering, organic line that I associate with Yuasa. It works very well for the plant creatures in this episode. Dandy looks quite different from previous episodes, but the drawings are fantastically well done, and if anything he looks even more yankee Elvis than before. The lines of the characters bulge and twist in different directions in a stylized way that reminds me of a Yuasa production.

A bevy of talented animators helped bring the episode to life - Gosei Oda, Norifumi Kugai, Cedric Herole, Ikuro Kuwana - but I can't distinguish their work. Anyway it's not like in some episodes where the animation isn't particularly interesting most of the time except for certain highlights of good animation - every single shot of animation is pleasing to watch in this episode. This is a great example of an episode that is a perfectly balanced whole.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

04:47:00 pm , 1081 words, 5051 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #8

Dandy & co land on a machine planet where they find a lone dog that may or not be Laika, which gives them some unexpected stowaways when they finally leave...

The series is hitting its stride around this point, as every episode is now totally solid, with almost no room for complaint, even though each episode is quite different from the previous. Each ep is headed by a very talented creator, and the template of this series allows them to shine in a way that I haven't seen many of them shine in quite a while.

Hiroshi Shimizu puts on an impressive show as storyboarder/director/sakkan of this episode written by Cowboy Bebop/Tokyo Godfathers screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto. Both are very talented in their own right, and working together they create a fun little episode.

Hiroshi Shimizu is an underrated animator, and this episode illustrates that well. This episode had the most lively character animation of any episode thus far, although the Telecom-ish episode 2 had a lot of lively character animation. Mihara's episode 6 was more quirky and interesting than necessarily conventionally lively and entertaining the way this one was. Other episodes have had sparks of life at various moments, but this episode was full of vivid, entertaining, cartoonish character animation from start to finish.

The drawings and animation style are quite different from the usual, but the style is never jarring or unpleasant. Every episode so far has given its unique twist to the characters, like in the good old days of anime, when part of the fun of watching a show was looking out for each sakkan's style. I prefer this approach to the 'chief animation director' approach that irons out inconsistencies. The style of the movement in this episode, with the characters running around the entire frame in long shots, reminded me of classic Oh Pro/Telecom style Lupin, particularly episode 49 of pink jacket Lupin by Oh Pro, which featured Hiroshi Shimizu himself in an early gig. The last scene of this episode, with a crazed QT chasing Dandy and Meow, was the highlight in this regard.

I'd say this is my favorite episode so far, mostly because the characters are more expressive and lively than they have been, which makes them seem to have more personality than usual. I love Dandy's expressions in this episode. Even Meow and QT seem to have more personality, bounding about happily when they arrive on the surface. The story is also a little more down to earth and straightforward, without the over-the-top randomness of the other episodes. I like both approaches, but this episode was a refreshing change. The series can sometimes seem to try a little too hard for effect, and this one has a nice balance in that sense. Rather than flat-out parody like the zombie episode, or the sharp and clever storytelling of episode 2, it's a simple story with subtle charm. The plotline about the famous Laika was compelling and poignant in an understated and not overtly tearjerking kind of way. And the episode has an interesting dual structure, about the dog in the first half, and evolving out of that into something completely different in the second half.

As unique as the style is in this episode, I think Hiroshi Shimizu is not as well known as he should be because he usually doesn't have a particularly idiosyncratic style, unlike some animators whose work looks the same from project to project. All I know is that whenever he's involved, you can expect some seriously solid quality and lively animation. His versatility and professionalism as an animator has ironically meant that he doesn't get as much attention as people limited to one style. But obviously people in the industry know how good he is, because he's been in demand in a huge variety of productions for decades now, including A Tree of Palme, Cat Soup, FLCL, Jin-Roh, Millennium Actress, A Letter To Momo, Colorful, and Sword of the Stranger.

Hiroshi Shimizu started out at Oh Pro in the 1980s, and I've noted his presence in the various Oh Pro productions that I've written about such as pink jacket Lupin III (1985) and Devilman (1990). He became a regular in Ghibli movies as well as Shin-chan movies, which is presumably where he encountered Masaaki Yuasa, as he soon also became a regular in Yuasa productions, storyboarding, directing and sakkan'ing episode 11 of Kemonozume (2006) and sakkan'ing episode 8 of Tatami Galaxy (2010).

Around that time, he headed the character side of Sayo Yamamoto's TV series directing debut Michiko & Hacchin (2008), as well as working on her next production Lupin III: Mine Fujiko (2012) as sakkan of episode 4. He had also worked on Samurai Champloo, so there is a lot of connection with the staff of Space Dandy that make his involvement a no-brainer.

Since around the time of the Wakfu bonus episode headed by Choi Eunyoung at the Japanese branch of French studio Anakama, Shimizu has been working with French animators, and most recently he has been involved with a new French studio called Yapiko Animation (web site, twitter) headed by French animators but also involving some Japanese talent. Two French animators from the studio are involved in this episode - Eddie Mehong and Cédric Herole - making this something of a preview of what's to come from Yapiko Animation, which has several projects in development.

The episode is staffed by an interesting array of animators who are talented in a less flamboyant way than the animators who tend to get attention from fans. Tadashi Hiramatsu needs no introduction. He is great at lively acting as well as exciting action. Though he has been associated mostly with Gainax for a while now, he actually started out at Nakamura Pro (viz Dragon Slayer) and so his style isn't entirely defined by the Gainax Style, which I like as it gives him more versatility to work on various projects like this and not stick out. Kanako Maru I don't know much about except that the solo episode she did in episode 18 of Casshern Sins was excellent. Toru Yoshida is the great Anime R animator who debuted with a bang in Votoms and has since gone on to be impressively prolific. He is not limited to mecha/effects and even does character animation, but I'm guessing did the launch of the Sputnik lookalike, which was interesting for its wobbly trajectory befitting a DIY junk rocket. Others include Kei Hyodo and Yuichi Nakazawa. Yuichi Nakazawa is part of the post-Toru Yoshida generation of animators at Anime R.

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