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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Thursday, March 20, 2014

04:18:00 am , 1018 words, 4398 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, 3689 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.

Monday, March 3, 2014

12:30:00 pm , 1083 words, 4853 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, 5437 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.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

06:54:00 pm , 901 words, 4787 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #7

Dandy joins a no-holds-barred space race out of petty jealousy and winds up getting transported into the distant future...

Packed head to toe with nonstop hilarity and action, this was one of the best episodes yet. This episode provides exactly what I want to see from Space Dandy: Solid entertainment, sheer idiocy, and irreproachable quality.

Redline and Wacky Races spring to mind as comparisons, but there are no shortage of predecessors in the venerable crazy racing genre, and this episode delivers everything you could want in such an episode. A parade of colorful enemies battle it out with one outrageous-looking racecar after another along a perilous racecourse offering a variety of different obstacles. Solid production values keep this episode afloat, with strong animation and visuals generally, and solid directing that keep things racing through to the end with plenty of twists and turns. With its ludicrous designs like a giant flying heel and a rocket in the shape of an enormous boob, it also reminds the tastelessly silly mecha in classic Tatsunoko shows.

Goro Taniguchi storyboards and So Toyama directs. Taniguchi's first big job as a director was in 1999 at Sunrise with Infinite Ryvius, an underappreciated sci-fi Lord of the Flies, before he went on to direct the excellent Planetes in 2003, and then Code Geass, which I haven't seen but is presumably what he's best known for now. (The whole Planetes/Geass team is present here, if you add Ichiro Okochi from the previous episode.) He appears to have been storyboarding mostly in the last few years, and he shows off his chops here. I'm not as familiar with Toyama, but the episode has great polish, so he did an impeccable job bringing Taniguchi's board to life.

Writer Kimiko Ueno is putting in quite an impressive showing. This is her third script to date. I loved the twist she pulled at the end by turning the heartthrob bidanshi cliche on its head and making the prince fall for Dandy. She was a good choice for this episode, as there are lots of other fun bits that prove she's Dai Sato's spiritual successor. When the S&M racer girl begins demonstrating what seems to be various sex positions, the announcer rushes in to tell the kiddies that she's just demonstrating her "combat moves". She nails Dandy's lovable but craven showoff personality - he goes for his "last resort" right at the beginning of the race. Was that an Ideon reference when the planet gets split in half near the end?

Topping a crazy and silly episode off is one of the more trippy and mind-bending endings yet, with Dandy traveling into the future after having a homoerotic space collision only to encounter a Dandy Buddha?! The episode ends with a "The End" credit, again implying that the story starts anew with each episode. Although it would be entertaining if all of these tantalizing clues being dropped about parallel universes or whatever turned out to be nothing but MacGuffins there just to yank the chain of speculation-prone viewers, I'm curious to see if the show begins to tie all of these threads at some point later in the series in a way that makes sense.

All of the characters had their moments to shine, even the baddies, and the episode is filled with amusing touches. The most obvious was the periodic title card with singsong "Dandy" cutting between scenes in the style of a classic cartoon, which was a great touch in the spirit of the show.

Chiba Yuriko, designer of Planetes, acts as sakkan, and does a great job, as the drawings of the characters throughout are flawless. The prince was rendered immaculately beautiful, befitting his sparkles, and Dandy's yankee attitude came out particularly nicely in his various expressions. Series designer Yoshiyuki Ito was brought in to design the character, which makes sense, as he is good at creating bikei characters like this where delicacy of line is of the essence. Bones regular and mecha specialist Eiji Nakata is co-credited as sakkan, so he presumably oversaw the mecha. I was thinking he probably did the shot in the opening with the mecha of increasing size, and that we'd probably be seeing him appear in the inevitable mecha-themed episode.

The episode featured an even bigger designer cast than usual due to the requirements to design so many vehicles and racers. One surprise name was Hiroyuki Imaishi, who took time off from his own show to design some hilariously ridiculous spaceships, like the one with a truck for a nipple/cockpit, and the waitress's nudemobile with boobs for headlights and butt for a fender. It appears that his rough designs weren't used as is, though, but were cleaned up by mecha designer Fumihiro Katagai. Takuhito Kusanagi designed the flower announcer alien this time around, which is an amusing blend of sunflower and flamenco dancer. He had quite a bit of screen time this time.

I couldn't pin down much of the animation, but there was plenty of nice work. Yutaka Nakamura is the most prominent name in the credits, but there are other talented animators - Jun Okuda, Mamoru Yasuhiko, Koichi Shimoda, Kazumi Inadome, Johei Ohara, and Tetsuro Tamaki. They're names I see often but I don't know their work well enough to identify it. Hiroyuki Mori, Yuichi Nakazawa and Tomohiro Takayama presumably worked on the mecha. Johei Ohara goes way back, having been a designer on Birth in 1984.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

12:05:00 am , 1152 words, 3974 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #6

On a lonely planet somewhere, an old war has raged for centuries. Down to only one on each side, they battle on, even though they can't even remember the reason why the war started. Dandy tries to bring peace, but it's in vain - their ideological differences prove too great. Dandy surfs off into the sunset on a space wave as the planet explodes into a million pieces.

This is easily the most offbeat episode the show has given us so far. Previous episodes fell generally within the norm in terms of character behavior and storytelling styles, but this episode is more out there, more indie, more handmade. Darkly humorous, deadpan but goofy, with weird drawings and a weirder story, it's a classic Michio Mihara episode.

It's almost a tradition for there to be a Michio Mihara episode in each Masaaki Yuasa's TV shows - Kemonozume #12 (2006), Kaiba #4 (2008), Tatami Galaxy #10 (2010) - but this episode breaks the tradition by coming in a non-Yuasa show. All of those shows were produced by Madhouse, and I mentioned before how ex-Madhouse people were heavily involved here, so perhaps it makes sense that Mihara's next solo show would come in Space Dandy. Yuasa himself will be doing an episode later on.

Mihara didn't actually animate the whole thing, but he did do most of it. The only other animator credited is the talented Hironori Tanaka, who obviously animated the surfing at the end. It's an odd pairing - they have totally different styles - but the surfing bit is really beautiful, even if it doesn't really match Mihara's style. Mihara storyboarded, directed, was sakkan (which doesn't mean anything since he was the only animator and he obviously didn't correct Tanaka's part), came up with the story, and did the concept art for the episode, not to mention designing the two guest aliens. He didn't inbetween this time. Dai Sato wrote the script based on Mihara's idea. Mihara is a self-admitted idol singer fanatic, and I'm assuming it was his idea to get two girls from LinQ to supervise the lyrics of the song that plays over the surfing bit at the end of the episode. So all in all, definitely another big job from Mihara, even if he didn't technically animate everything. It's got his fingerprints on everything and feels like a wonderfully high-proof Mihara short.

This is a weird episode in every sense, matching Mihara's weird sensibility. The underwear zealot aliens, the space surfing. Borderline unsettling was the part where Dandy and the alien lie in bed in their underwear - not too sure what to make of that. It's not entertaining in a conventional sense, but that's what makes it appealing - it's more quirky and cult.

The neighbor feud setup is classic and simple, and universal. It doesn't lampoon any specific conflict, but it captures the absurdity of many of them, especially the prominent religious-fueled ones. The moment where the two aliens can barely contain their revulsion as they're struggling to put on the other's item of clothing, while Dandy looks on bemused, was particularly well observed. Entire nations wage wars against one another for things that, to the rest of the world, seem utterly trivial and meaningless. The two aliens waging war over whether they should wear underwear or vests is a ridiculous and silly concept, until you think about the real world and realize that people kill one another every day over absurd things that would make two aliens fighting over underwear seem utterly banal. In that sense this episode has a nice satirical bite to it that makes the episode feel a little more beefy and three-dimensional and relevant. That's something the other episodes have been lacking. I also like that this episode isn't afraid to have a bit more of a dark and cynical edge while still being funny about it and not taking itself seriously.

Mihara's drawings aren't quite as distinctive here as they sometimes are, so he was obviously keeping things toned down a bit. Dandy looks surprisingly on-model if you don't scrutinize the lines too closely, although you can still identify Mihara's touch in the characteristic crooked gape and thick lips his characters always have. His characters feel more three-dimensional and meaty, with all sorts of bulges and crevices that shift as a character moves around, all done using a minimum of lines. Dandy is in nothing but shorts the whole episode, which reminds of his episode of Kemonozume, where he showed off his skill at animating the naked (male) physical form in all sorts of configurations.

Mihara's characters act out their emotions like actors in silent movies, pulling all sorts of faces, tilting their head back when taken aback, puckering their lips when perplexed. It's a very fun and melodramatic kind of character animation so different from any other animator in Japan or elsewhere. It's an odd combination of realism in the drawing/movement and theatricality in the acting. The movement is recognizable as Mihara - using few drawings, but moving the body more creative and humorously flexible manner than the usual animator. He's got quirks in his acting, such as this way of tilting of the head back while talking, that identify him even when his drawings don't as much. The backgrounds had a very hand-drawn feeling to them, but Mihara isn't credited with actual background art, only for "bijutsu settei", so I'm not sure how it was done. They definitely look like his drawings.

The alien designs remind slightly of the alien he designed in the ramen episode. They're typical Mihara in that they're a bizarre combination of cute and ugly. They're sinewy, like bodies with the skin removed, but with these big lobster eyes and batty eyelashes. They hate each other, but they look like nothing more than an alien Abbott and Costello, so right up until the point that they bludgeon one another to death, it's hard to take them seriously. The design isn't that creative per se - they're basically bipedal beings, like us, rather than some weird new kind of creature - but the tentacle arms and the rest of the details that make the designs alien and unique are actually depicted at some length in animation, so the creatures come away feeling more alive and believable. Not many of the aliens in the show have benefited from such generous animated treatment.

The ending with Dandy surfing away from the exploding planet was downright cartoonish in its complete abandonment of even a facade of realism. Nerds who nitpicked Gravity would surely have an aneurysm. It doesn't make any sense, but it sure as hell looks cool. Now that is the kind of sublime idiocy I expect of the great Dai Sato.

If they can do a Michio Mihara episode and it still feels like Space Dandy, it would be nice to see an equally raw and unfiltered episode by Osamu Kobayashi, but he wasn't announced, so that's probably not in the cards.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

12:05:00 am , 697 words, 3555 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #5

Dandy begrudgingly plays babysitter to a little girl alien and turns out to be a softie after all.

Mappa produced this episode as well as ep 3, but this one is very different in that it doesn't scream Madhouse pedigree at all. Instead it's headed by Akemi Hayashi. Ichiro Okochi writes. I associate Akemi Hayashi mostly with Gainax although she's done lots of other stuff. The reason for using Mappa is obvious, since Watanabe produced his previous TV show there, and it's nice to see them getting to do more creative work, as Kids on the Slope was nice but hardly a showcase of outlandish creative ideas. That's one nice thing about Space Dandy: it gives animators a whole new set of designs/situations in each episode to be creative with, even if the base characters are the same.

This ep is different from what came before because, for good or ill, it bears the strong imprint of its director. The good thing about Space Dandy is that it clearly offers its episode directors a little more freedom than usual in doing their thing, but the downside is that sometimes a director's style will just not be your cup of tea. That was the case for me here. This was hands down my least favorite ep so far. I appreciated the Paris, Texas vibe it had going, but overall it just didn't work for me. The wit and unpredictability of the previous scripts was replaced with a sequence of predictable setups of the two goofing off and bonding in an that attempts to tug at the heartstrings, but I just found it rote and empty. I didn't find it moving or cute at all, mostly because the kid just seemed like an empty cipher without any real personality. It's ironic because I was just starting to think the show needed to inject some heart and feelings into the proceedings. The action scene at the end was also weak and unconvincing.

The animation was decent, but never stood out as extraordinary. The sakkan was Tomohiro Kishi. It looked different from the previous episodes, as if there was more of an emphasis on line and contour and folds. The animation felt like it had a more Gainax-derived style of acting and deformation. It wasn't badly done, and had considerable effort put in to bring the different shots alive, but personally I preferred the Telecom-school acting of ep 2. Takeshi Honda was the only notable animator involved. I suppose he did the part in the train station where the girl throws the doll and gets accosted by the bounty hunters, as movement of the girl walking away has that distinctive Honda swagger and bounce. The side shot of Dandy walking looking at the piece of paper was nice. It was one of the better animated shots of Dandy I've seen because, like the Ryan Larkin short, it conveyed personality entirely through gait. But other than that, most of the animation didn't do anything for me. I didn't know any of the names in the credits aside from Honda, so perhaps this was a Mappa young animator training episode, in which case I don't mind cutting them some slack.

Takuhito Kusanagi's Dune-inspired trench digger was the most interesting part of the episode for me - or it should have been, but it got literally one shot of animation, and you could barely see the design at all in that shot. Pretty disappointing, and a waste of good design work. It's great to get all these people to come up with interesting alien designs, but also somewhat disappointing that most of them just pass by in a single quick crowd shot without getting any kind of animation whatsoever. There are some fun designs in the crowd pictured above. I certainly would have preferred seeing how these characters might move than seeing the boring, cutesy alien girl in this episode for 20 minutes straight. One thing that got me wondering was: What are those things on the tips of her fingers for? The designer must have thought about it. It seems sloppy not to give the paraphernalia a semblance of usefulness if you're going to have it there.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

07:52:00 pm , 754 words, 3776 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #4

This solidly produced episode finds us in zombieland. Shinichiro Watanabe seems to like the zombie genre, because Samurai Champloo had a zombie episode. Dandy ramps up the episodic genre parodying aspect of Champloo with an even more aggressive bent and silly extremes. It's a simple structure on which to build a series but it makes for enjoyable variety.

The previous episode ended with Meow dead, and as expected, this time we start over as if nothing had happened. This episode ends with the entire world turned into zombies, and presumably we'll hit the reset button again next episode. This seems to reinforce the idea that every episode is a parallel universe or something. Not the first time this sort of thing has been done in anime, but I like how in this case it just makes the show feel more like a cartoon adventure where they're just sloppy and aren't very good at continuity, rather than some high-concept postmodern headscratcher.

The episode was goofy entertainment. Don't seek any deep message or sophisticated storytelling here. This is pure parody at its best. The episode builds in suspense until the midpoint, when it seems as if only Dandy is going to make it, and then veers in a completely different direction in the second half. What happens when everyone finally gets turned into a zombie? Universal peace. Writer Kimiko Ueno again does a great job with the material. Yogurt gives Dandy the clue he needs to turns the negative of being a zombie into a positive: He's not rotting, he's fermenting. Not sure if it works as well in English. The final card was a genuine LOL moment.

The drawings were nice and solid throughout thanks presumably to sakkan Tomohisa Shimoyama. His drawings aren't as detail-oriented or stylish as the designer Yoshiyuki Ito, but they've got a good sense of cartoonish stylization. There were a few bits of animation that stood out as being above average, namely the part where the mercenaries attack the hospital and the part immediately following where Dandy feeds QT to the zombies. I'm guessing the first part was done by Shintaro Doge due to the wobbly, loose style of drawing and movement that seems like a cross between Yasunori Miyazawa and Shinya Ohira, and the second by Toshiyuki Sato with its slightly more Kanada inspired timing. But according to the official web site, Shintaro Doge designed the zombie hunter, so maybe he animated that part instead. French animator Eddie Mehong was also involved.

The storyboard/directing wasn't done by one person for once. The storyboard was by Namimi Sanjo, which is the pen name of Hitoshi Namba. The directing was by Ikuro Sato. I wasn't familiar with either, but I see that both have been active since the late 80s and are regulars in Bones productions every year. Hitoshi Namba debuted at Telecom as an inbetweener on Cagliostro no less. Ikuro Sato has been working exclusively as an episode director (not storyboarding) for Bones since it began, and even worked on Cowboy Bebop. The episode doesn't have the sort of idiosyncratic finish it might had a single person with a strong style done both tasks, but instead the episode has professional polish.

I've now discovered that the official website is uploading a few of the alien designs for each episode, with credits, which is great, as I was wondering with each episode who designed what. I've been a fan of Takuhito Kusanagi since his manga Shanghai Kaijinzoku came out in 1994, and it's great to see that he continues to work, even if just as a designer. I remember him being a major design contributor to Samurai Seven. His design work on Dandy is probably the most impressive of the lot from what I've seen so far, with daunting detailing and creatively conceived creatures. His design for the "trench maker" in ep 5 is particularly impressive. In this episode he designed the doctor who examines Dandy, but the character animation was more perfunctory than I would have liked. I'd like to see his organic, entangled designs get some classically detailed animation for at least a few shots. His designs look great on paper but don't fare well in the transition to the simple lines and flat colors of anime and wind up looking a little crudely rendered. He's got a great design aesthetic. I wish we could see a whole short anime done with a hand-drawn touch that did justice to his unique style, although the very nature of his style makes that difficult.

Friday, February 7, 2014

01:49:00 pm , 842 words, 2441 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #3

This episode was like a cross between a creature feature and the classic trope of space hero saving damsel in distress from hideous aliens. Dandy crash-lands on an alien planet in search of a Boobies before his stamp card expires, but instead finds a pack of ravenous aliens chasing a stranded girl. He runs to the rescue, ray gun ablaze, but all is not as it seems: She transforms into an enormous many-mammaried monster who wants to eat them. The seemingly ravenous aliens were just trying warn him. Irony begets irony as the boob monster who foiled their Boobies run turns out to be a rare alien who wins them the prize money they need to eat at Boobies.

Writer Kimiko Ueno does a nice job with the material, weaving many levels of irony and boobies into the narrative, and throwing amusing curve-balls like the sudden shift into giant robo battle mode and the horrifying looking aliens who turn out to be good guys with country bumpkin accents. I wasn't familiar with her because she just started writing a few years ago, but I see that she co-wrote last year's Shin-chan movie together with nonsense gag master Yoshio Urasawa. I haven't watched those movies in a few years, but I'd like to see that.

This episode was a bit of a step down in quality from the previous episode. There was nothing egregiously bad about it, and it was still entertaining, but it was a little less tight in terms of the directing, especially compared to Sayo Yamamoto's versatile work on ep 2. The drawings also felt a little slack, but the quality never dipped to an unacceptable level.

Hiroshi Hamasaki is the storyboarder/director, and he does a good job bring alive the horror factor around where the girl transforms into a giant boob monster, which is perhaps no surprise coming from a onetime Yoshiaki Kawajiri associate. He is also credited as guest alien designer, so perhaps he even designed the monster. I don't know who designed the girl, but she is an amusing parody of cute moe girl designs: she wears both a skirt and shorts, yet we can see everything. The directing plays up this parody of fetishistic anime designs in the shot that needlessly lingers a little too long on the butt before moving to the rest of the scene.

The animation highlight came at the end with the battle with the mammary alien, which presumably came courtesy of Takahiro Shikama. He's been working at Bones for a while now, having come to prominence for his good mecha animation in Star Driver, but he actually debuted as an inbetweener on Champloo in 2004, so perhaps it was destiny that he would work on Dandy. There wasn't much other good work that stood out. Jiro Kanai and Naoyuki Asano can be seen in the credits but I didn't spot many other good bits so I can't tell what they did.

The show hammers home that it isn't to be taken seriously. It's episodic in the extreme: they forget that the protagonists died at the end of the previous episode (though this is probably one of the puzzle pieces that will make sense in the end). Damaged spaceships are patched up with bandaids. Suddenly the show serves up a pompadour-sporting, aloha shirt-clad, double-barrel-ray-gun-shooting transforming robo. I enjoy it for not taking itself seriously while still feeling like there is some narrative mystery twist hiding behind the curtains.

I mistook Hiroshi Hamasaki for the animator Hirotsugu Kawasaki a while back because their names are so similar so I thought I'd jot down a few notes about him (mostly for my own edification).

Hirotsugu Kawasaki (川崎博嗣) is, of course, the ex-Oh Pro animator and director of Spriggan and Onigamiden. I wrote about his near-debut in the excellent Oh Pro episodes of pink jacket Lupin.

Hiroshi Hamasaki (浜崎博嗣), on the other hand, started out in 1980 at Tatsunoko and moved to Madhouse in 1987 and is best known for directing Shigurui and Texhnolyze. He was an associate of Yoshiaki Kawajiri for a while, acting as character designer/animation director of Cyber City OEDO808 and Midnight Eye Goku. He continued in the same Kawajiri-inspired contrasty gothic noir character drawing style with Bio Hunter, Dark Side Blues and the remake of Vampire Hunter D.

Hamasaki directed the Iron Man: Rise of Technovore direct-to-video movie for Madhouse last year, so apparently he still does work for them, despite the debacle with Madhouse's change of ownership that sent many of its more notable artists packing. But he also obviously does work for other studios now, having notably directed Steins;Gate a few years before this. He is one of those guys who can do it all. He'll draw animation, storyboard, direct episodes, and direct series.

On the subject of Madhouse, looking through the announced credits now I realize that many of the names are ex-Madhouse, so it seems Hiroshi Hamasaki is just the forerunner of a flood of former Madhouse artists involved in the show. I suppose potentially some of these are now working from Mappa.

Monday, February 3, 2014

03:12:00 pm , 1182 words, 3231 views     Categories: TV, Space Dandy

Space Dandy #2

I'm going to try to catch up on the episodes here to keep up with the rest of the show.

The second episode was leaps and bounds better than the first, which apart from some animation highlights fell a little flat. This episode is perfectly crafted entertainment. I can only wish every episode would be this good. I like variety, but that also opens the door to occasional lower-quality episodes. I'm guessing this show is going to be very uneven due to the big variation in staffing.

The team behind the episode is to thank for the outcome, first and foremost storyboarder/episode director Sayo Yamamoto. She's paired with writer Dai Sato. It's the return of the dream team that produced the best episodes of Samurai Champloo under Shinichiro Watanabe 10 years ago. That's where I first discovered the two, and I haven't seen anything by either of them since then that topped those episodes for me. It's like working under Shinichiro Watanabe brought out the best in them.

Sayo Yamamoto remains stellar when handling the details of a particular episode. I still like her better as an episode director than a series director, though there's no denying she's one of the few people who can bring real personality and creativity to either. She also storyboarded/directed the ending. From the macro to the micro, the episode feels good - there's variety in scenes and great rhythm overall that makes the episode flow cohesively. She injects clever touches through her storyboarding like the seeming 2001 parody where the sun rises behind the choker ball on the Statue of Liberty.

The highlight of this episode was seeing all the crazy ideas for ramen that they could cook up. Sato Dai meanwhile provides topical parody touches like the sophisticated searching tool used by Dr. Gel in locate Dandy - Street Ginga View. Also the space twitter that Meow uses to inadvertently broadcast Dandy's location to Dr. Gel - ending each tweet with 'nau' as they do on twitter these days whenever they're describing what they were just eating.

I feel like this episode also gives a better better sense of Meow's personality. It's the classic odd-couple pairing: Meow the waifu-hugging slovenly otaku yang to Dandy's disaffected hipster yankee Leisure Suit Larry yin.

The series thus far is obviously a mystery meant to keep the audience guessing. Why the jarring narrative resets and discontinuities? The ending seems to play on this suggestion of episodic parallel universes with its soup of mathematical formulae and quantum physics diagrams.

The animation was fully the equal of the directing and story, which is what made the episode such a pleasure to watch. Ex-Telecom animator and latter-day Mamoru Hosoda associate Hiroyuki Aoyama is sakkan. I don't know to what extent he was involved - i.e. just correcting drawings or correcting/drawing animation himself - but the whole episode moves a bunch in a way that has a clear Telecom vibe.

A number of ex-Telecom animators are also involved, so he must have called them in himself. The most prominent of these is Atsuko Tanaka. She's only been working on Ghibli films for the last ten years, with the exception of a few appearances in Telecom TV shows, so this is a rare treat. Certain scenes in particular exude a certain Telecom je ne sais quois. I'm wondering if she wasn't involved in the later scene with the old alien reminiscing about his past. The movement has that weightiness and fullness I associate with her. Also the way the ramen guy hunches over the counter reminds me of something I'd see in classic Lupin. It's also appropriate because one of the well-known stories about her is how Miyazaki/Takahata always cast her animating the eating scenes in Jarinko Chie, Cagliostro, etc. because she was so good at it. The old alien scarfing down the ramen definitely fits the bill. Not to mention those jello Ghibli tears.

The opening scene with the alien exam had a more modern Telecom vibe, so I was wondering if that might not be Kenji Hachizaki, but I don't know his style well enough to say for sure. I love the acting in this scene. The shot of Dandy arguing with Scarlet has some awesome exaggerated acting a la Shinji Otsuka, while the wrestling with Meow has cartoonish flavor with the repeated drawings instead of actually drawing the action out in specific detail. Hachizaki is one of the great Telecom animators, but he doesn't seem as well known as the others. He debuted on Fuma and then Akira and has been involved prolifically in all of the foreign co-productions since then, not to mention a lot of big recent movies like Hosoda's.

One of the other big guests is Tadashi Hiramatsu. He's quite pliable and I've never found his style to jump out obviously like some animators, so I'm not positive what he did here. Perhaps the scene where Dandy asks Scarlet for money immediately before being attacked by the minions? The movement as Dandy approaches Scarlet there is quite nice, with quick flourishes of Michael Jackson-inspired dance moves. The scene immediately afterwards was the most easily identifiable in the episode - Takashi Mukoda. His kung-fu is unmistakable and remarkable as always. The simplified, flat drawings also give him away. I'm guessing Gosei Oda must have done the psychedelic wobbly animation where Dandy and Meow are pulled into the ramen dimension. It seems like every episode of the show is going to have a psychedelic scene like this. One thing I didn't understand was why the shop was empty when they returned via the ramen wormhole. Was that intentional, something whose significance we can't grasp yet? The show seems littered with unexplained ellipses like this that are elided over in silence.

The nice thing about the fact that the show is being simulcast is that, for once in anime, non-Japanese speakers are able to read the full genga staff listing right at the end of each episode as it is aired. That information used to be more difficult to find, and hence limited appreciation of animators' work, since you have to know the staff to be able to break down an episode's animation. That also makes it easier for me since I don't have to translate the genga credits for each ep.

Finally, it was a treat getting another performance from Ichiro Nagai as the old alien. Ichiro Nagai is synonymous with television anime in my mind. He is the embodiment of TV anime. From the very first two classic shows - Tetsuwan Atom and Wolf Boy Ken - he has been there as a voice actor in countless TV shows, classic and obscure, over the decades. He is one of the defining voices of anime, one of the voices we all have heard countless times and recognize immediately. It's comforting to find Ichiro Nagai in an anime. He voiced so many of my favorite characters that I can't even remember them all. Last year marked 50 years of TV anime, and hence 50 years of Ichiro Nagai voice acting. I raise my cup to the man for his service to the craft.

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