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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Friday, October 18, 2013

07:39:00 pm , 2099 words, 10880 views     Categories: OVA, Anime R, Dove, Toshifumi Takizawa

New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine

In this day and age when every other anime is fantasy anime, it's hard to conceive of a time when there was no fantasy anime. But such was the case around the time of Aura Battler Dunbine in 1983.

Created and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino at Sunrise in 1983, Dunbine was one of the pioneer fantasy anime. Tomino pumped out one classic show after another during these years when he came unto his own as a creator and director. Just the year before in 1982, he directed the classic Xabungle TV series and Ideon: Be Invoked movie. His work prior to Dunbine was basically sci-fi robot anime, but with Dunbine he went in a new direction.

Largely influenced by Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga (the movie wasn't released until the year after), Dunbine was one of the groundbreaking fantasy anime, made at a time when audiences weren't used to fantasy anime, and the show paid the price for it. With its daring insectoid mecha designs, kids hated the toys. This placed pressures on the show's toy sponsor, Clover, that appear to have led to Clover shortly going out of business. The show was forced to switch the setting from the fantasy world of Byson Well to modern-day Tokyo in the second half.

Despite this shaky start, Dunbine continued to live on in various media, most notably the novel format. The 1980s were the auteur boom in anime, and Tomino attempted to blossom into an auteur. He penned novels to flesh out the world of Byston Well, two of which eventually got adapted into anime: Garzey's Wing (3 eps, 1996) and The Wings of Rean (6 eps, 2005-2006).

But the very first anime continuation actually came just a few years after the TV show: the 3-episode New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine. Tomino had a habit of releasing compilations of every TV show he directed, and Dunbine was no exception. A novel approach explored with the Dunbine collection was to include a new 30-minute OVA with each compilation.

New Story takes place 700 years after the events of the TV series, and tells the story of a young boy and girl who fight a group of so-called "Black Knights" seeking to recover a legendary Aura Battler to conquer the land of Byston Well. The characters are mostly new, but apparently the boy and girl are a resurrection of the protagonists of the TV series, and the evil mummy who seeks to re-open the door connecting Byston Well to our world is a character who was doomed to eternal life at the end of the TV show. It's actually all rather confusing because you are just plunged right into the action without any explanation. A basic knowledge of the premise of the Aura Battler mecha is obviously assumed, since these OVAs appended compilations of the TV show.

The story progresses quite quickly and without any undue exposition, not wasting a minute of its meager three episode allotment. The fantasy world is richly expressed, with many colorful creatures and settings. The whole story evolves over one quick arc of action, with the tables turning several times leading up to the cataclysmic denouement that you expect of a Tomino production. The influence of Nausicaa is quite palpable in the overall world view, style, and monster designs. A millipede-like underground monster immediately reminds of the flying millipede monster that attacked Nausicaa underground. For good or ill, however, the story avoids the thematic complexity of Nausicaa, opting instead for stock heroism and nonstop battle.

Directed by erstwhile Tomino associate Toshifumi Takizawa, New Story is a visually unique and intense fantasy that for all its cacophany of constant action comes across as underwhelming somehow. What New Story has going for it is that it's a tautly directed sprint across the land of Byston Well, with far more of a focus on the hardcore fantasy elements than the original TV series. Cramming in so much story into three episodes is a risky endeavor that I can't say pays off completely, but it's an intense ride that grips you from start to finish. Tomino regretted not having started the TV show out with more of a bang, and felt the show never recovered from starting on the wrong foot, so perhaps this is what led to the peremptory dash of New Story.

By 1988 Takizawa was a great talent in his own right, but he never had pretensions of auteur-dom like Tomino, so he didn't have the sort of identifiable traits that help make such directors popular, but rather remained a pliable craftsman, adapting himself to whatever he worked on to invest it with his own brand of taut cinematic storytelling. In New Story, Takizawa does a good job of emulating a Tomino-esque style of directing. The show has all of the breakneck pacing and manic cutting that are staples of Tomino's work - the cinematic framing with characters engaging in actions while talking rather than straight shots of talking heads, the sequences of pans and zooms to maintain a feeling of forward narrative momentum. The presentation is so determinedly oblique and frenetic, in fact, that it renders the story somewhat hard to follow at times, true to the Tomino aesthetic.

What sets the series apart and makes it notable is its production style: The mecha are mostly drawn with background drawings rather than animation drawings. Typically in anime you have the animation drawings, drawn on cels with flat colors, overlaid over the backgrounds drawn by the art department. Sometimes if you need a bush or something "in front of" a character, you will have something called a "book" - basically a piece of background art drawn by the art department, but with its outline cut out so that it can be placed on top of the animation drawing. This makes it seem like the background surrounds the characters.

What seems to be happening in New Story is that they've drawn all the mecha as books. Either this, or they invented some new technique to allow them to paint on cels the way Tadanari Okamodo did in The Soba Flower of Mt. Oni (which I obviously doubt). So you basically have the mecha drawn as background art in the midst of a shot in which all of the rest of the character and effect animation is drawn on cels, which have a completely different color scheme that makes the difference quite stark. It actually contributes well to giving the OVA a more fantastical atmosphere befitting the material. We're accustomed to seeing mecha in the simplified forms and flat colors of cel animation, so it feels sumptuous to see the mecha rendered this way. Rather than a toy advertisement, it actually feels like a fantasy world. The monolithic, plodding movement that results from having to use a single drawing also contributes to imparting a feeling of the vast size of the mecha.

Above you can see some examples of the art mecha drawings interacting with the cel drawings. It makes for a slightly unsettling experience, as it upturns how we've been trained through experience to parse the animation screen. Normally the cel drawings can affect the backgrounds, but not vice-versa. Here, the background drawings are affecting the background drawings. For example, in the left drawing, the art mecha crashes into the art wall, producing cel bricks and dust.

This is an unusual choice for a mecha show, since the whole point of using animated drawings is so that you can simplify the drawings to complete the animation in a shorter time. It's not unprecedented, though. Nausicaa was the show's big influence in many ways, so it's possible that the Ohmu were the inspiration behind this technique. It also brings to mind the way the castle in Howl was animated with patches of background art to give it that special look. Coincidentally or not, the photography director of most of the great Sunrise OVAs of this period, including New Story, was Atsushi Okui, the guy who went on to come up with that special way of animating the castle in Howl.

This technique must have been adopted in order to bring alive the unique mecha art drawn by Yutaka Izubuchi. The original mecha designer of the TV show was Miyatake Kazutaka, and he is the one who pioneered the more daring, organic, non-linear designs that make Dunbine unique, but Izubuchi gradually wound up taking over as designer on the TV show. A book of his artwork called Aura Fhantasm pushed this design aesthetic even further, featuring far more organic and daring drawings than the original TV show, really bringing out the insectoid nature of the designs.

Above is an example showing the contrast. The only way to bring these drawings alive would be to draw them as background art, and I assume that is what led to this approach being adopted for this OVA series. This would have been impossible in a TV show, but perhaps the OVA format allowed them more liberties. I'm curious whether this would have had the effect of lengthening or shortening the production process, since it cuts down on the number of drawings but conversely requires more complicated drawings.

There are actually some shots where the mecha are drawn as usual on cels, which is confusing. I'm guessing that rather than this being a time constraint thing, there were simply occasional shots that required actual movement to convey the action, which wouldn't be possible with a single art drawing panning across the screen. Apparently the stylistic mismatch didn't bother them - it's actually confusing when suddenly, from one shot to the next, the mecha look completely different, with the flat colors of cel shading. This highlights the fact that, although visually sumptuous, the downside of this technique of using bg art for the mecha is that it is somewhat static and lacking in dynamism. No sprightly mecha fights when the mecha are art drawings - only looming pans.

The staff side of things is fairly different from the TV series, which contributes to making the OVA feel distinct. The character designer is Takehiko Ito (under the pen name Hiroyuki Hataike) rather than Bebow's Tomonori Kogawa, and the mecha designer is Yutaka Izubuchi rather than Miyatake Kazutaka. The music is by Reijiro Koroku rather than Tsubonou Katsuhiro. (Koroku was a student of Koichi Sugiyama, who did the music for Ideon) And of course, the storyboarder/director is Tomonori Kogawa rather than Tomino. I'm rather fond of the music, which has a stridently modernist sound that reminds of a contemporary composer like Wolfgang Rihm.

The animation is the product of the same studios I talked about last time: Anime R and Dove. Not surprising given how constant a presence they are in (non-Tomino) Sunrise productions of this era. Anime R basically sakkans Dove's animation. Moriyasu Taniguchi is the sakkan and Toru Yoshida is the mecha sakkan, while the animators are the main Dove animators in Mellowlink: Hiroshi Koizumi, Nobuyoshi Nishimura, Misao Nakano and Shinichi Sakuma. Mellowlink was produced by this same team immediately after New Story. Of course, due to the nature of the production, that doesn't leave Toru Yoshida much to do, but perhaps the mecha animation wasn't entirely handled by the background department, but rather done like a Dezaki 'harmony' shot, in which they key animator draws a drawing, and this is painted over by the art department. Perhaps Yutaka Izubuchi himself even helped with the mecha drawings. The credits are unhelpful in this regard.

The annoying thing is that something went wrong with the animation and the character drawings are not up to the level that they should be in view of this staffing. There is some decent animation, but much of it is marred by sub-par drawings in which the proportions seems to be wavering dangerously close to falling apart. The drawings are wobbly and weak in a way that reminds me of Good Morning Althea, which leads me to suspect that the inbetweens are the problem. But the inbetweens are by Dove, so I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, this is not nearly as good a showcase of Anime R and Dove as their next project Mellowlink.


New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine (OVA, 3 eps, 1988, Sunrise)

Creator & Supervisor:富野由悠季Yoshiyuki Tomino
Director & Storyboard:滝沢敏文Toshifumi Takizawa
Line Director:篠幸裕Yukihiro Shino
Script:五武冬史Fuyunori Gobu
Character Design:幡池裕行Hiroyuki Hataike
Mechanical Design & Special Advisor:出渕裕Yutaka Izubuchi
Animation Director:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Mecha Animation Director:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Music:小六禮次郎Reijiro Koroku
Key Animation:(ep 1)スタジオ・ダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
(ep 2)スタジオ・ダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
(ep 3)スタジオ・ダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
 佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
 アニメ・アールAnime R
 吉田徹Toru Yoshida
 糸島雅彦Masahiko Itojima
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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

05:48:00 pm , 3249 words, 10132 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Anime R, Dove, Toshifumi Takizawa

Armor Hunter Mellowlink

I've already written about the canonical analog outings of Armored Trooper Votoms: the TV show, the three early one-shot OVAs, and Radiant Heretic. The only show from the early period I didn't cover in that post was Armor Hunter Mellowlink, which is a side-story not involving the main characters in the rest of the Votoms productions. I just had the chance to watch it, and it was every bit as good as I was expecting. As much as I love the Votoms saga, it's a huge endeavor to get into it. Mellowlink is a dense, high-quality, 12-episode summation of what makes Votoms best in a one-shot series format that doesn't require piecing together a long, complicated story. It might be the best place to start for newcomers.

Mellowlink is a more unmitigatedly serious story than it might seem at first sight from the bland, boyish character design of its protagonist, who looks like a young Shirotzugh. It makes for nice viewing because it focuses largely on pushing forward with its uncomplicated linear narrative arc without wasting too much breath on side-stories or world building or other genre conventions. It's mostly a straight-up hardcore military revenge flick. Despite being borne of a robot show, it's largely devoid of robots. It's more realistic, if not completely realistic per se, with a more down-to-earth, unglamorous style of storytelling. I've always wanted to see this kind of show done in an unmitigatedly realistic style for once, without the token hijinx and predictable storytelling elements, and this show comes closer than most shows, though it still inevitably falls victim to many genre conventions. It's not purely hard-boiled and has some moments of predictably jarring comic relief. However, for a Sunrise production, it's largely devoid of mecha robo tomfoolery, and its tone is for the most part quite serious-minded and unadorned in a pleasing way.

Mellowlink is essentially a story of revenge. Mellowlink Arity was a member of a platoon that was sent to certain death to cover the theft of a military arsenal by a band of corrupt military commanders. The skilled platoon fights valiantly but is eventually overcome, and all but Mellow are killed. Mellow's unexpected survival throws a wrench in the plans, so Mellow is made the scapegoat in a show trial to deflect blame for the scandal. However, he escapes and vows to hunt down the men responsible for the death of his comrades. The series is essentially broken down into two halves. Each of the first six episodes are stand-alone episodes in which Mellow hunts down a military commander involved in the scandal, while the second half is a continuous story that gradually ties all the threads together and reveals the sordid machinations of the military.

Mellowlink is set in the same universe as the rest of Votoms, but features a completely different cast, and presumably takes place on the sidelines of the main show. Whereas Votoms features sci-fi trappings like spaceships and teleportation in addition to more realistic Vietnam-style stories, Mellowlink omits the sci-fi and hones things down to the (IMO more appealing and characteristic) realistic war-story facet of the saga embodied by the 2nd arc of the original TV show, the Kumen Arc. Indeed, the Kumen jungle features in episode 3 of Mellowlink, while episode 2 of Mellowlink harkens back to the first arc of the TV show, the Udo arc, with its dystopian future city and AT battling arena.

Directed by Takeyuki Kanda rather than Ryosuke Takahashi, Mellowlink does for Votoms what The 08th MS Platoon later did for Gundam: explore the down and dirty world of the grunts of their respective universes in a high-quality OVA side-story. Kanda had helped Ryosuke Takahashi direct his first robot show Dougram from 1981 to 1983 and later worked with Takahashi on the two sub OVAs Silent Service and Deep Blue Fleet. He died midway through production of The 08th MS Team. He is perhaps best known for Round Vernan Vifam, a classic 1980s Sunrise robot show.

Despite being set in the far future, Mellowlink feels cut from the cloth of a WWII film in design and atmosphere. Mellowlink rides around in a motorcycle-sidecar combination, and the outfits and architecture seem to be a mix of Victorian and mid-20th century. If Votoms attempts to eliminate the yuusha/heroic element from the robo anime genre by making the robots nothing but mechanized weapons in the form of mass-produced bipedal tanks, Mellowlink seems to go one step further by creating a robot anime in which the hero doesn't even pilot a robot. The hero specializes in killing ATs with nothing more than his wits and an anti-AT rifle, the robo anime equivalent of an anti-tank rifle.

Mellow studiously avoids killing anyone except his intended victims, namely the ranking commanders who ordered his platoon's death. He never kills any underlings, only targeting the higher-ups who use foot soldiers such as himself as throwaway pawns. In true kataki-uchi samurai movie fashion, before killing his victim, he hands them the dog tag of one of his fallen comrades to drive home the justice of his revenge. He is a stoic combination of commando and MacGyver. Overwhelmingly outgunned, he he uses his wits, his surroundings, and his foot soldier training to outwit his opponents. At the final moment, he smears his face with blood, oil or whatever liquid is available and makes it a point to kill his victim not with a bullet but with the bayonet-like Pile Bunker on the end of his anti-AT rifle. This is critical to his revenge. His platoon was stripped of its ATs and sent to certain death armed with nothing but these archaic weapons, so Mellow makes it a point of pride to kill his enemies in the overwhelmingly outgunned state in which they left him.

Mellow is a simple character both in design and script. His expression is one of permanent glowering, he never smiles, and on the rare occasion that he speaks, it only in relation to his cause. His personality is not very complex, and we don't learn much about him beyond his single-minded quest. He is a no-nonsense revenge machine deliberately pared down to steely sinew and purpose. The show fills the void of personality with the mysterious side characters whose significance is revealed apace. Mellow is there as a vehicle to tell a story about military corruption and to provide for a charismatic hero in the spirit of Chirico Cuvie, his obvious model. Mellow is a more likeable character because he is not a superhuman like Chirico. His wits and military training are what keep him alive, not some supernatural agency. A tragic sense of purpose lies behind Mellow's strong, silent personality, but deep down he's a sensitive kid who can get flustered by a beautiful girl.

The series feels tight and well structured. Its pacing feels just right for the story it tells. It's entertaining, with nice action sequences, and the plot about military cover-ups that gradually unfolds is satisfyingly believable, perhaps having vaguely been inspired by the recent Iran-Contra affair. It's not a space opera with battling heroes, but a grimy story about the dirty underbelly of political machinations within military organizations, which see soldiers as nothing more than cannon fodder. Mellowlink is the kind of anti-hero who we want to root for: simple and oblivious to political intrigue, he is only out to do what is right by his sense of basic human justice, and single-handedly faces down the powers that be with the ingenuity and determination of a lone wolf.

The recurring character Kiek is interesting, as he develops into an important plot element later on, but to the end the female sidekick/romantic interest Lulucy felt as superfluous and distracting as the side-characters in Votoms. The story of a girl of royal lineage who ran away to become a roving card dealer seems thrown in and poorly developed, and it never feels believable for a girl like her to be tagging along with Mellow as he sprints around killing ATs with a giant rifle. That aspect feels like one of the show's weakest points.

The episodic nature of the show makes each episode a surprise by providing Mellowlink with new terrain in which to work his battle tactics. The pithy one-word English episode naming seems appropriate to the terse atmosphere, and also serves to indicate the new battlefield of each episode. It's very entertaining watching how a lone individual can outgun an AT using the most basic of technologies (an AT rifle and mines) through clever tactics. In episode 1 he infiltrates a military base and lures out its commander, engaging in a one-on-one in desert-like terrain. In episode 2 he fights in the jungle. In episode 3 he battles it out in the arena.

Episode 4 is perhaps my favorite in the series. Storyboarded by series director Takeyuki Kanda and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe in one of his earliest jobs as director, it's a masterful example of visual storytelling. Most of the episode transpires without dialogue. The hunter becomes the hunted as Mellow is lured by one of his targets into the interior of a wrecked battleship with its nose rammed into the earth. The ship is tilted at an angle, so all of the action in the episode takes place at an angle, creating a disorienting effect that makes the action all the more tense and unpredictable, as the characters are struggling at every moment to maintain their balance in their surroundings. The best part is that no mecha whatsoever are present in the episode (except as physical obstacles). This seems like the ultimate expression of the whole Votoms universe to me. First you turn the heroic mecha robo into nothing but war machines, then you have the hero not even pilot a robo, then you strip away the robos altogether, and you get to what, deep down, the show was about all along: a tense, realistic, detail-oriented action-heavy hard-sci-fi thriller, devoid of the MacGuffins.

Episode 5 is a flashback episode that fills us in on the background. Written by Ryosuke Takahashi himself to get the details of this important setup episode right, it avoids being a straight "flashback" episode by having Mellowlink wandering through the desert and supposedly hallucinate a dream in which he re-lives the events that led to his platoon getting massacred. The death of Mellowlink's platoon doesn't have much emotional impact because we had never seen the characters until a minute before they're killed, but I don't mind this. It was obviously done this way due to length constraints, but I prefer this to being regaled with episode after episode of meaningless character development that is obviously merely there to manipulate me into feeling for characters whose fate is to die. The flashback ends just as Mellowlink escapes from the courtroom, cleverly avoiding the task of fleshing out precisely how he achieved such an improbable feat, surrounded as he was by armed soldiers.

Set in a prison, episode 6 is one of the weaker episodes, although there's nothing technically wrong with it. I just don't like its ill-conceived mix of brutality and cutesiness. It has some powerful torture scenes that set a heavy tone for the episode, only to be followed up immediately by scenes of cute anime girls dancing on a stage. It's like going from Violence Jack to Creamy Mami in the same episode. Obviously it wasn't possible for Takahashi to excise all of the conventions and create something of a truly uniform tone until later with Pailsen Files, although Takahashi is an entertainer first and foremost, and has himself said that he doesn't want to make dark stories, so I'm sure he signed off on the lighter elements in Votoms as well as here. I obviously have expectations of Votoms not on par with those of the creator.

The episodes from 7 onward continue with a continuing story that comes to a head with the gradual revelation of the truth behind the scandal.

The animation

Mellowlink is the summum opus of the two studios behind the best of Votoms: Anime R and Dove. This is the ultimate expression of their work on the show, as the two never worked on the show again in such a solo fashion, although Toru Yoshida did act as mecha sakkan on Radiant Heretic along with a few scattered R/Dove animators. The combination of good storytelling and animation by R and Dove make Mellowlink a supreme pleasure to watch, one of the best OVAs of the period that nobody has seen.

The mecha action scenes that are the calling card of the show are thrilling and dense. There's a style of hand-drawn mecha action here that was a product of the age and can no longer be seen anywhere. Even within a few years on a show like Gundam 0083 the style of the mecha action is already very different - heavier, more laborious, less dynamic and pliable. The years around 1988-1989 are among my favorite years for mecha animation.

Moriyasu Taniguchi's characters meanwhile are appealingly designed without being quite as idiosyncratic as SPT Layzner. Character animation was never the forte of Dove or R, per se, but the characters are for the most part satisfyingly animated due to Taniguchi's stylish corrections, even if sometimes you wish the expressions and body language were a little more dynamic. R seems to invest the characters with a little more spontaneity and verve that is the product of the studio's culture that was more forgiving of personality and play than Dove. That comes through in the animation. Dove's animation remains solid and professional, while R's is more willful and nuanced.

R and Dove essentially alternate handling an episode, although there is a lot of overlap, some of which is due to the extenuating circumstance of the death of Hiroshi Koizumi midway through production. This is the last Votoms outing featuring the two studios that defined the show up until that point. The next outing, Radiant Heretic, switches up the staff.

The main differences between Mellowlink and the rest of Votoms is: the characters here are designed by Moriyasu Taniguchi of Anime R, rather than Norio Shioyama, and the director is not Takahashi Ryosuke but Takeyuki Kanda (who also storyboards episodes 2, 5, 8 and 11 under the pen name Yuichiro Yokoyama). Also, Soji Yoshikawa is not involved as a writer. Otherwise, Ryosuke Takahashi handles the series structure and writes two episodes, episode 5 and 11. Hiroki Inui provides another lovely noodling avant-jazz score, and Kunio Okawara designs the mecha, as in the rest of Votoms.

Toru Yoshida of Anime R is the mecha sakkan for the Anime R episodes, and his mecha and effects are beautiful. At this period of time Anime R still had most of its best animators, and they put their all into their episodes here. Hiroyuki Okiura even shows up for a bit in the last episode. Dove, meanwhile, was at the height of its powers, and Hiroshi Koizumi did the last work of his tragically brief life in episode 6. It seems the show was originally supposed to be produced entirely by these two studios, but this changed with the death of Hiroshi Koizumi, and they had to start calling in other studios from episode 6 onwards to finish the episodes on time. Studio Dove is credited as mecha sakkan in episodes 2 and 4, but this actually means Hiroshi Koizumi.

Apparently the reason for this is that the president of Dove, Tadashi Yahata, had this thing against any single individual gaining attention at Dove; he wanted the studio as a whole to receive credit. Yahata had no need for star animators or individuality, and he placed arduous demands on his animators and was the first to open the door for them to leave if they complained. This is just one aspect of the unforgiving, hard-nosed atmosphere at Dove that drove many animators away from the studio. It's also why you could get talented animators like Hiroshi Koizumi toiling away there and yet not receiving much recognition for their work in their time. It's a philosophy that's the antithesis of a more easygoing and artist-centric studio like Anime R, where play was not just permitted but understood to be the driving force of creativity. And yet the two studios produced magnificent animation that blends perfectly together on a string of Ryosuke Takahashi shows in the late 1980s. It's a strange and beautiful mystery.

The Dove mecha sakkan credit in episode 6 stands for Nobuyoshi Nishimura, who stepped in as pinch hitter to fill in the void left by Hiroshi Koizumi. Toru Yoshida acted as the mecha sakkan on all of the remaining episodes, in which Dove was mostly involved in piecemeal fashion alongside other subcontractors, obviously under considerable systemic stress due to the loss of their lead animator.

On the directing side of things, Takizawa Toshifumi storyboards episode 1, but Takashi Imanishi, Shinji Takamatsu and Shinichiro Watanabe/Takeyuki Kanda take over from there on out, and for the most part do a very fine job indeed. I'm particularly impressed by the Watanabe/Kanda episodes for a reason I find hard to pin down. They have a feeling of more deliberate cinematic presentation. This was only Watanabe's second job as episode director after the Dirty Pair OVAs the previous year. He drew his first storyboard immediately after Mellowlink in 1990.


Armor Hunter Mellowlink 機甲猟兵メロウリンク
(OVA, 12 eps, 1988-1989, Sunrise)

Director:神田武幸Takeyuki Kanda
Created by/Series Structure:高橋良輔Ryosuke Takahashi
Character Design/Sakkan:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Mechanic Design:大河原邦男Kunio Okawara
Music:乾裕樹Hiroki Inui
Art:平川英治Eiji Hirakawa


Episode 1: Wilderness

Storyboard:滝沢敏文Toshifumi Takizawa
Director:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
アニメアールAnime R
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi
糸島雅彦Masahiko Itojima
浜川修二郎Shujiro Hamakawa
小森高博Takahiro Komori
小川瑞恵Mizue Ogawa
福江光恵Mitsue Fukue
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
能地清Kiyoshi Noji


Episode 2: Colosseum

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 3: Jungle

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:アニメ・アールAnime R
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
小森高博Takahiro Komori
福江光恵Mitsue Fukue
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
 
スタジオ・ムーStudio Mu
黄瀬和哉Kazuchika Kise
山本佐和子Sawako Yamamoto
大島康弘Yasuhiro Oshima


Episode 4: Leaning Tower

Storyboard:高松信司Shinji Takamatsu
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 5: Battlefield

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:アニメ・アールAnime R
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi
小森高博Takahiro Komori
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
吉本拓二Takuji Yoshimoto
 
スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 6: Prison

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
古泉浩司Hiroshi Koizumi
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
堀沢聡志Satoshi Horisawa
武藤照美Terumi Muto
筱雅律Masanori Shino
河村佳江Yoshie Kawamura


Episode 7: Railway

Storyboard:高松信司Shinji Takamatsu
Director:
 
Asst Sakkan:八幡正Tadashi Yahata
Mecha Sakkan:スタジオダブStudio Dove
Key Animators:西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi


Episode 8: Ghost Town

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
小森高博Takahiro Komori
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
福江光恵Mitsue Fukue
吉本拓二Takuji Yoshimoto
光岡玲子Reiko Mitsuoka


Episode 9: Forest

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Asst Sakkan:山田きさらかKisaraka Yamada
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオマークStudio Mark
中西賢治Kenji Nakanishi
林伸昌Nobumasa Hayashi
森脇賢治Kenji Moriwaki
高梨光Hikaru Takanashi
 
グループゼンGroup Zen
野田康行Yasuyuki Noda
福原惠次Keiji Fukuhara
藤田正幸Masayuki Fujita
 
武藤照美Terumi Muto
筱雅律Masanori Shino
中沢登Noboru Nakazawa


Episode 10: Castle

Storyboard:高松信司Shinji Takamatsu
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
タイガープロダクションTiger Production
宮崎龍四郎Tatsushiro Miyazaki
本間正Tadashi Honma
大戸幸子Yukiko Oe
鈴木佐智子Sachiko Suzuki


Episode 11: Base

Storyboard:横山裕一朗Yuichiro Yokoyama
Director:渡辺信一郎Shinichiro Watanabe
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:スタジオダブStudio Dove
西村誠芳Nobuyoshi Nishimura
藁谷均Hitoshi Waratani
中野美佐緒Misao Nakano
佐久間信一Shinichi Sakuma
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
津幡佳明Yoshiaki Tsubata


Episode 12: Last Stage

Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Director:
 
Mecha Sakkan:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animators:アニメ・アールAnime R
沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
河村佳江Yoshie Kawamura
木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
小森高博Takahiro Komori
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
吉本拓二Takuji Yoshimoto
 
スタジオダブStudio Dove
木口寿恵子Sueko Kiguchi
 
福井享子Ryoko Fukui
1 commentPermalink

Thursday, September 19, 2013

03:20:00 pm , 2022 words, 17910 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Ys

There seems to have been something of a boom in fantasy anime OVAs between the years 1988-1992. Just to name some of the better produced entries, there was Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu (1988), The Hakkenden (1990-1991), Record of Lodoss War (1990-1991), 3x3 Eyes (1991), and Dragon Slayer (1992).

One that slipped through the cracks in my case is Ys (pronounced like "east" without the "t"). It's a more pure D&D-style fantasy outings in the vein of Dragon Slayer, as it's closely based on a video game. I only caught a glimpse of one scene back in the day, and it left a vivid impression on me. I finally had the chance to watch it in full recently, and I was happy to discover that it's a pretty good show - at least in part. When it's bad, it's dreck, but when it's good, it's awesome.

Two series were released: Ys was released in 7 episodes between 1989 and 1991, and its continuation Ys: The Heavenly Shrine ~Adol Christin's Adventure~ was released in 4 episodes between 1992 and 1993.

The contrast between the two series is stark, both in terms of directing and visuals. Ys I is essentially a by-the-books video game adaptation. It feels stiff and uninspired, with nary a feeling of tension or peril even at climactic moments. The drawings are slack and clean and lacking dynamism. Even the script is weak, creating cyphers who go lifelessly through the motions of a video game and utter dialogue that is embarrassingly facile and lacking in personality.

To be fair, I actually enjoyed even the first series. I'm just judging it objectively. It hits just the right spot when you're in the mood for some mindless but serious (i.e. not postmodern or gag-filled) fantasy anime that pushes all the buttons you want pushed in that kind of material. One of the few animation highlights comes in the second half of episode 2, which was animated by the late Noriaki Tetsura.

Ys II is a continuation that picks up exactly where the first series left off, but suddenly it's like a completely different show. The characters look and move differently, and the directing is much more compelling. The drawings are sharp and stylized, with lots of dynamic compositions that work great as illustrations. The characters are written in a more believable way, not just uttering expository dialogue. They're hot-blooded and tempestuous, with distinct personalities. They're also animated more dynamically, with vivid expressions, and they move through the screen in a three-dimensional way during the action scenes. The effects work is very impressive. The directing creates an epic and tense atmosphere, with quick cutting in the action scenes and exciting choreography that relies heavily on the animation. Even the music feels appropriately hardcore.

Rather than merely reading a script, the characters act out an inner world of thought and emotion, doing things that don't necessarily advance plot but rather make them seem human. For example, when one of the characters' girlfriend is trapped and about to be sacrificed, after first trying to slash through the barrier imprisoning her, he finally gives up, only to start madly punching the barrier in frustration.

All in all, the second series is an impressively powerful and entertaining OVA. Blistering, brutal and angry, its animation feels slightly unhinged and explodes off the screen with raw energy. Even its occasionally sloppiness is endearing. It's everything I love about anime and immediately ranks as one of my favorite OVAs of the post-Akira period alongside all the other post-Akira OVAs I've talked about in the past. It's a kindred spirit to madcap, wildly animated OVAs like Dragon Slayer (1992) and Crimson Wolf (1993).

Ys II feels very similar to Dragon Slayer in its tense atmosphere and speedy directing, although the animation of Ys II doesn't contain nearly as much stretch and squash of the kind used profusely in Dragon Slayer. The characters are loosely drawn but for the most part solid. With only a few exceptions, the movement here is conveyed by arcs of movement, not deformation. That's something that unifies most of the work in the 'post-Akira' school - that it's decidedly not Kanada-school, without much ghosting or stretch and squash and more follow-through.

Adol by Hiroyuki Nishimura

The sudden shift in style between the two series is really bizarre, and it makes you wonder what happened: why the drastic change? Perhaps they rightly felt the first series was on the wrong path and called in some new people to shake things up. That seems to be what happened, because the staff is very different between the two shows. First Jun Kamiya was replaced as director midway through the first series by Takashi Watanabe. He went on to direct the second series. Then the character design changed from Tetsuya Ishikawa to Hiroyuki Nishimura. Finally, the writer changed from Tadashi Hayakawa to Katsuhiko Chiba. Then the animation staff is completely different. All of this adds up to a completely different show.

The most important change was bringing in the talented and versatile Asia-do animator Hiroyuki Nishimura, who redesigned the characters in a more appealing and interesting way. I don't know how the animators were found for the project, but obviously this is a much more talented team than the first show, as every moment of the second series for the most part is a pleasure to watch in terms of the drawings. Even the quieter scenes have careful character animation. The action scenes, meanwhile, are plentiful and thrilling.

The biggest name after Hiroyuki Nishimura is Kazuto Nakazawa, who animated and co-sakkan'd episodes 2 and 3. This was still early in his career, but his immense skill as a mover comes through loud and clear and I suspect plays a big role in making the show so enjoyable. Episodes 2 and 3 have a looser drawing style than episodes 1 and 4. It seems clear to me that Nakazawa was heavily influenced by Satoru Utsunomiya and maybe even other stuff like the work of Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto in Hakkenden episode 1 from 1990. After all, he has admitted to watching the later Hamaji's Resurrection episode literally 30 times a week after it came out, so he must have been following the previous outings from this school of animators. Nakazawa's characters have bulky forms and enormous hands, and swing their limbs around the screen violently in a way that seems clearly indebted to Hakkenden, particularly the scenes animated by Shinji Hashimoto and Tatsuyuki Tanaka. The Utsunomiya-influenced style of the character animation and the unusual amount of work put into the magic effects reminds me of Legend of Crystania (1995) from a few years after.

Whether it's Nishimura or Nakazawa or a combination of other team members who were responsible for pushing things in this direction, it seems clear that the overall production must have been influenced by the recent post-Akira OVAs in some form or another. Animators in Japan all know one another, far more than we realize, and are being influenced by one another all the time, so it doesn't take long for a certain style or approach to virally spread throughout the industry.

As it happens, Hiroyuki Nishimura actually was an animator on Shinya Ohira's epoch-making Hamaji's Resurrection episode of the second Hakkenden series released just a year after Ys II. There are lots of obvious connections behind this. Hiroyuki Nishimura was, at the time, together with Yoshihiko Takakura, part of Mitsuru Hongo's Megaten "studio", which was basically a workspace for the three animators. Hiroyuki Nishimura and Mitsuru Hongo both started out at Asia-do, as did Masaaki Yuasa, animation director of Hamaji's Resurrection, and had by that point been working together on the Shin-chan films under Hongo.

Hiroyuki Nishimura continued to have a close working relationship with Mitsuru Hongo, culminating with Deltora Quest (2007-2008). Hiroyuki Nishimura is a mutli-talented guy who has, at various points in his career, done just about everything - animating, storyboarding, directing a series, character design, animation director, even scriptwriting. Like ex-Asia-do compatriot Toshihisa Kaiya, he even did work for IG on IGPX, which with its CG robots reminds of his more recent effort Danboru Senki. I still remember him best for his excellent combat animation sequences in the Shin-chan movies. He and Yuasa have frequently helped each other out: Yuasa did layout under Nishimura for Ruin Explorers and Nishimura was an animator in Yuasa's Nanchatte Vampiyan pilot and Slime Adventures pilot, as well as animating the climactic part of Mind Game where Nishi et al. row out of the whale.

Another factor that might play a role is the fact that Haruki Kadokawa is involved as producer. This was apparently one of the very last things he produced before being sent to jail for 4 years for smuggling cocaine and embezzling. Whatever the faults of his productions, Kadokawa anime were a staple of my anime diet back in the day and represented a certain kind of quality. They were always lavishly produced, epic in scope and memorable, if in the end they were largely flawed as films. The first Arslan Wars movie from 1991 is one of my favorite anime from this period. Kadokawa followed this up with another fantasy epic: Weathering Continent (1992). Perhaps Kadokawa's involvement was a factor pushing the quality of the production in the right way.

Director Takashi Watanabe was at the start of his career when he took over Ys in 1990. I didn't know anything about him before watching this, and upon looking into his career, I can't say I'm a fan. He has been very prolific as a series director since then, directing TV shows such Slayers, Shakugan no Shana, Boogiepop Phantom, and Mito no Daiboken, among many other shows, his most recent being Senran Kagura and Freezing Vibration. He seems to specialize in shows featuring fighting bishojo. I enjoyed Mito, but that's about it apart from Ys. He was also the director of Lost Universe, episode 4 of which is the greatest anime TV episode of all time: Yashigani Hofuru. Following that debacle, he apparently felt bad, because he put up a web site explaining the challenges facing a director in the anime industry, presumably to explain the circumstances that led to the production of the infamous episode.

One mystery to me is why there are drawings in episode 1 of Ys II that seem like they came straight out of Nadia of the Blue Water. There is some slight staff overlap, but not enough to explain the overt stylistic similarity.


Other 'post-Akira' OVAs:

Explorer Woman Ray (1989)
The Hakkenden (1990-1991)
Sukeban Deka (1991)
3x3 Eyes (1991)
The Antique Shop (1991)
Dragon Slayer (1992)
Green Legend Ran (1992-1993)
Crimson Wolf (1993)


イース Ys (OVA, 7 eps, 1989-1991)

Script:早川正Tadashi Hayakawa
Director:神谷純Jun Kamiya (1-4)
渡部高志Takashi Watanabe (5-7)
Character Design:石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Episode 1
Animation Director:石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Key Animation:菊地晃Akira Kikuchi
松本勝次Katsuji Matsumoto
岡本稔Minoru Okamoto
藤田佳三Keizo Fujita
井上鋭Ei Inoue
唐沢紀江Norie Karasawa
藤井裕子Hiroko Fujii
石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Episode 2
Animation Director:石川哲也Tetsuya Ishikawa
Key Animation:氏家章雄Ujie Akio
鉄羅紀明Noriaki Tetsura
きのプロダクションKino Production
Episode 3
Animation Director:菅原浩喜Hiroki Sugawara
Key Animation:久保川美明Mia Kubokawa
矢木正之Masayuki Yaki
小丸敏之Toshiyuki Komaru
佐々木守Mamoru Sasaki
清水保之Yasuyuki Shimizu
山本正文Masafumi Yamamoto
井尻博之Hiroyuki Ijiri
山内真紀子Makiko Yamauchi
榊原文Fumi Sakakibara
Episode 4
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Key Animation:篠田章Akira Shinoda
松山光治Koji Matsuyama
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
Episode 5
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Assistant A.D.:松山光治Koji Matsuyama
Key Animation:篠田章Akira Shinoda
松山光治Koji Matsuyama
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
川崎浩充Hiromitsu Kawasaki
吉田仁Hitoshi Yoshida
佐藤英二Eiji Sato
松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Episode 6
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Key Animation:じゃんぐるじむJungle Gym
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
原勝徳Katsunori Hara
こばやしたかしTakashi Kobayashi
佐々木敏子Toshiko Sasaki
佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
吉田仁Hitoshi Yoshida
小山りょうRyo Koyama
永野由美Yumi Nagano
栗井重紀Shigenori Kurii
Episode 7
Animation Director:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Key Animation:じゃんぐるじむJungle Gym
こばやしたかしTakashi Kobayashi
佐々木敏子Toshiko Sasaki
佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
吉田仁Hitoshi Yoshida
小山りょうRyo Koyama
中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa

イース 天空の神殿 〜アドル・クリスティンの冒険〜
Ys: The Heavenly Shrine ~Adol Christin's Adventure~
(OVA, 4 eps, 1992-1993)

Script:千葉克彦Katsuhiko Chiba
Director:渡部高志Takashi Watanabe
Character Design:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Episode 1
Animation Director:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Key Animation:箕輪悟Satoru Minowa
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
森可渡士Watashi Morika
栗井重紀Shigenori Kurii
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
Episode 2
Animation Director:中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Monster A.D.:箕輪悟Satoru Minowa
Key Animation:松岡秀明Hideaki Matsuoka
久保博志Tadashi Kubo
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
箕輪悟Satoru Minowa
鈴木仁史Hitoshi Suzuki
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
森可渡士Watashi Morika
中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
Episode 3
Animation Director:中沢一登Kazuto Nakazawa
Assistant A.D.:秋山充治Mitsuharu Akiyama
水畑健二Kenji Mizuhata
Key Animation:熊澤英樹Hideki Kumazawa
岡野幸男Yukio Okano
小林多加志Takashi Kobayashi
井上みゆきMiyuki Inoue
佐々木敏子Toshiko Sasaki
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
森可渡士Watashi Morika
鈴木仁史Hitoshi Suzuki
宮田奈保美Naomi Miyata
佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
春日井浩之Hiroyuki Kasugai
百瀬恵美子Emiko Momose
祝浩司Hiroshi Iwai
Episode 4
Animation Director:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
Effect Animation:佐藤英一Eiichi Sato
Key Animation:西村博之Hiroyuki Nishimura
斉藤卓也Takuya Saito
岡本圭一郎Keiichiro Okamoto
武内宣之Noriyuki Takeuchi
祝浩司Hiroshi Iwai
加藤興治Koji Kato
熊沢英樹Hideki Kumazawa
久保博志Hiroshi Kubo
細山正樹Masaki Hosoyama
木場田実Minoru Kibata

Monday, September 16, 2013

04:55:00 pm , 5181 words, 10107 views     Categories: Animation, Studio, TV, A Pro, TMS, Yuzo Aoki, Oh Pro

Wild West Boy Isamu

While just about every movie genre has its sub-genre in anime, there is a distinct lack of westerns in anime. The reason is obvious enough. The western is a quintessentially American genre and doesn't lend itself well to transplanation to Japan (recent exceptions like Sukiyaki Django Western notwithstanding). One of the few movies or TV shows obviously modeled on the western and adhering to most of the genre's conventions is Toei's Puss 'n Boots II from 1972. However, this film was hardly a hardcore western, but rather a spirited, playful children's film populated by anthropomorphic animals as well as humans.

There is only one real, full-fledged western in anime, and that is Koya no Shonen Isamu 荒野の少年イサム, a 52-episode TV series produced by Tokyo Movie aired April 1973 to March 1974, presumably inspired by Toei's recent foray into the western.

Adapted from a manga by Noboru Kawasaki based on a 1952 novel by prolific pulp fiction writer Soji Yamakawa, Isamu tells the story of a samurai named Katsunoshin who in late 1800s crosses the ocean to study western ways in America. He falls in love with a native American girl who gives birth to his child, Isamu. When Isamu is 4, the mother is killed and Katsunoshin becomes separated from his son. Katsunoshin spends the next ten years of his life searching for his son. Isamu, meanwhile, is raised by a community of gold miners until one day he is kidnapped by a gang of outlaws named the Wingates. They teach him the ways of the west and train him into a skilled gunman in the hope of using him to commit their crimes. However, the naturally just-minded Isamu resists and eventually escapes from them and begins a journey to find his father. Along the way, he puts his unparalleled gunmanship to the task of helping innocent settlers fight against outlaws and bring law and order to the wild west.

The golden age of westerns was in fact not that long past when this show came out. The spaghetti westerns of the 1960s like Serge Leone's Fistfull of Dollars (1964) establish the pattern that comes to rule the series in the second half after Isamu parts ways with the Wingates. Isamu will wander into a new town, only to find it secretly ruled by a gang of ruthless thugs who brutally repress the townspeople. After a bit of investigative work, he discovers the big boss running the town. The boss plays a dastardly and underhanded trick in an attempt to kill Isamu, but Isamu's unparalleled skills with the six shooter and unflagging sense of justice finally win the day.

The series also manages to weave in just about every western convention you can think of. There are stories about migrants making their way to the west in covered wagon trains, Mexican outlaws, high-speed stagecoach robberies, an undercover US Marshall investigating a weapons smuggling ring, cattle rustlers, villainous landowners trying to drive innocent farmers off their land, and life on the ranch. The show briefly touches on the topic of slavery with a story of shotgun-blast delicacy reminiscent of Django Unchained: a child slave became an outlaw named Big Stone after witnessing his mother gunned down by the Wingates, and killing his master in retaliation for doing nothing to help her and then adding insult to injury by insulting her corpse. Big Stone spends the first half of the series hunting the Wingates, leading to a big dramatic showdown with Isamu. The series stays away from the delicate issue of native Americans for the most part, save for one episode in which a native seeks to expose an arms dealer who secretly assaults stagecoaches in the guise of natives in order to incite the local townspeople to rise up in war against the natives.

I had seen the first episode many years ago, but I just had the opportunity to watch this series in its entirety for the first time. As a show from the heart of Tokyo Movie's golden age, I enjoyed watching it, but I must say that objectively speaking it's a mixed bag and it's hard to recommend that people flock to see it. There is some good drama and some good animation, and the characters are interesting enough, if not particularly deeply written. The hardcore nature of the show makes it more enjoyable to watch than a pansy kiddy adaptation neutering the brutality of the wild west. It has its virtues, but overall it was a slog to get through, due primarily to the unevenness of the animation work and the cliche'd and repetitive writing.

Despite being set in the real world, Isamu almost never takes a breath to say something down to earth and believable, and that is the main thing that makes it tiring to watch from a modern perspective. Episode after episode, it's the same thing: Isamu discovers a new gang of brutal bandits terrorizing a town that he drives off before riding off into the sunset. It's a spaghetti western drawn out to Lone Ranger serial length. Isao Takahata had yet to pioneer the idea of neorealism in anime, which he did immediately after at Zuiyo with Heidi. There is no attempt to portray psychological subtlety of character, or to create bad guys who have complex motivations and are anything more than paper thin pure evil, or to enact the kind of detail-oriented realistic directing required to make the events depicted feel believable. It feels this show comes at the historical juncture when the time for more realism was ripe.

As it happens, Isao Takahata storyboarded two episodes of Isamu, and these stand out from the series for their more competent filmmaking language, even if due to the constraints of the material they depict the same world of brute animals in the clothes of cowboys shooting it out as if that's the only way they know how to communicate. This could well be the last thing Takahata did before departing for Zuiyo to direct Heidi.

The show is certainly pleasant for being unflinching on the brutality front, something that was fairly novel and no doubt exciting for the period in which it was aired. Although Isamu attempts as best he can to avoid killing, in the end he does seem to wind up killing a dozen people or so per episode, even though the victims are always depicted as evil, bloodthirsty scoundrels who deserve the fate. The show is not afraid to show people getting shot, including women and children. Even the show's black and white moral vision of the world, which seems to divide the west clean in half into good, peaceful citizens and evil, murderous outlaws, is actually somewhat satisfying, in that it's what you expect of a western. They set about making a pulp serial western in which Isamu encounters and overcomes a new gang of baddies in each episode, and they succeeded eminently in that regard.

Original book with drawings by Soji Yamakawa / Page from manga by Noboru Kawasaki

Noboru Kawasaki was responsible for the manga Kyojin no Hoshi that was adapted into a hit series by Tokyo Movie over the years of 1968-1971. Tokyo Movie was in some financial trouble at the time Kyojin no Hoshi started, and the success of this show along with their concurrently running shoujo version of the 'spokon' genre Attack No. 1 (1969-1971) provided the studio with a windfall. This prompted them to continue to pump out similar shows for the next few years in the hope of continuing to milk this newfound popularity for 'spokon' anime. A Production studio head Daikichiro Kusube is credited as the animation supervisor in all of these shows, up until Karate Baka Ichidai (1973-1974) and then Judo Sanka (1974). Most of Tokyo Movie's spokon shows apart from Kyojin no Hoshi are based on the work of Ikki Kajiwara, who himself was reportedly inspired by an earlier boxing novel by Soji Yamakawa when he wrote the original manga for Ashita no Joe, another one of the big hits of the spokon boom around 1968-1970.

It was presumably due to the success of Kyojin no Hoshi, combined with the recent Toei Doga movie, that Fujioka Yutaka decided to give Noboru Kawasaki's "Japanese Western" Koya no Shonen Isamu a go as a TV show.

The Animation

Playful self-references inserted by Junio's Takao Kosai and Oh Pro's Koichi Murata

The animation was produced essentially by six studios: Oh Pro, Studio Junio, Studio Z, Studio Mates, Studio Neo Media and A Pro. None of these subcontractors are credited, but the breakdown is clear if you know a bit about the animators in the credits.

A Pro founder Daikichiro Kusube acted as the animation supervisor to oversee the very different styles of these studios, although in the end my impression is that he didn't really do much to unify the style, as each studio's style comes through seemingly unmediated by correction. Roughly same group of six subcontractors was also behind the animation of the more 'realistic' shows produced by Tokyo Movie in the surrounding years (as opposed to the more deformed gag shows like Dokonjo Gaeru, which featured a different team), including Lupin III (1971), Akado Suzunosuke (1972) and Judo Sanka (1974).

There are a few mixed episodes in which two different studios worked on part A and part B, but for the most part one studio handled the animation of a single episode, with two of the studio's animators handling respectively part A and part B. One of these animators is credited as sakkan, presumably because he was in charge of maintaining consistency over the episode delivered to Tokyo Movie, but again, it's doubtful how much correcting they actually did. Below is a breakdown of the animators for each studio. Names in bold are the studio's sakkans.

Oh Pro:Koichi Murata, Toshitsugu Saida
Studio Junio:Takao Kosai, Tetsuo Imazawa, Minoru Maeda
Studio Mates:Koizumi Kenzo, Akiko Hoshino, Teruo Handa, Akio Yoshihara, Masayuki Ohseki
Studio Neo Media:Keiichiro Kimura, Yasuhiro Yamaguchi, Yoshiyuki Momose, Masayuki Uchiyama
A Pro:Hideo Kawauchi, Eiichi Nakamura, Yuzo Aoki
Studio Z:Shingo Araki, Tsugefumi Nuno

The interesting thing about this show is that it's a great example of how shows of yore used to vary considerably in drawing style from episode to episode. Below is an overview of the four main studios' drawing styles to give a sense of this. (I won't include A Pro and Neo Media because they play a smaller part)

Oh Pro: 1, 4, 7 12, 16, 22, 26, 27, 30, 34, 38, 42, 46, 51

(click to enlarge)

Oh Pro is the standout studio in this show, and studio head Koichi Murata is the star. Koichi Murata animated 11 episodes half-half with Toshitsugu Saida. I believe Murata animated the first half and Saida animated the second half in each episode. This series thus provides a good place to become acquainted with Koichi Murata's style. He's a name I was familiar with for a long time as the head of Oh Pro and a major contributor to classics like Lupin III, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Future Boy Conan and Anne of Green Gables, but not until watching Isamu did I know how to identify his work.

Murata's animation is by far the most lively and entertaining in the show. The rest of the animation frankly looks sloppy and amateurish in comparison. Not only are his drawings technically better, he actually makes his characters act out their emotions. None of the other animators in the show are up to the task of character acting. They're struggling just to draw the characters. Murata effortlessly renders the characters in a few simple shapes and modulates their expressions and posing freely in a way reminiscent of Yasuo Otsuka or Osamu Kobayashi. It's possible he was influenced by Yasuo Otsuka working on the original Lupin III show under Otsuka two years before.

If you look at the second row above, you'll see just how pliable his character acting is. In one shot you can follow the flow of the character's thought patterns purely through the drawings. He had passed out trying to save a girl and just came to his senses. At first he's disoriented, then he finally remembers what happened to him and is relieved to know he's fine. Then he remembers something: he was trying to catch a bag of gold dust. He becomes alarmed and asks what happened to it. The other party tells him to look at his own hand, because he's been holding it the whole time, and his expression changes to one of surprise. Disorientation, relief, sudden recollection, anxious questioning, disbelief.

Only in Murata's hands do the characters feel alive like this. And that's actually one of the problems with the series. The rest of the series would be fine if only the character acting was up to the level of Murata's animation. The reason the show feels stale and cheesy is less because of the unimaginative script than because poor character acting renders the filmmaking flat and lifeless. It's patently obvious why Murata became a staple of Takahata and Miyazaki's work in the 1970s - because he was one of the few animators of the day with the skill to create nuanced and believable character animation with only a few quickly executed perfunctory drawings, as was necessary in the TV format. His animation also happens to be tremendously fun in terms of the movement, with lots of lively and unexpected little gestures and expressions.

One of Murata's little tricks he invented is to draw the eyes as two little black blobs when they're closed, for example when a character laughs as in the image above. I'd seen this in various shows from the 1970s but never realized until now that this was the mark of Murata. Episodes 26 and 38 are particularly good Koichi Murata episodes.

He participated in most of the World Masterpiece Theater series as an animator, and never got distracted by directing or character designing like many animators eventually do. He remained a pure animator to the end. In addition to being a prolific animator while running Oh Pro, one of the industry's most trusted subcontracting studios, he was also active behind the scenes working to improve the conditions of animators in the industry, acting as Vice Chairman of the Animation Business Association since 1990, which had other notable animation figures on its board from other major studios in the industry including Noboru Ishiguro (Artland) and Tsutomu Shibayama (Ajia-do).

Studio Junio: 1, 4, 8, 13, 19, 24, 29, 33, 37, 41, 45, 50

(click to enlarge)

The Studio Junio episodes feature studio head Takao Kosai as sakkan and part A animator and Tetsuo Imazawa as storyboarder and part B animator. Kosai's style is a great contrast with that of Koichi Murata. His figures are lean and elongated, roughly drawn and mean looking. The faces look very bony and gaunt and frankly unattractive. The noses are usually big and pointy. His hands are easily identified - long and lean, very different from the plump and round drawings of Studio Z's Shingo Araki or the curled, almost deformed hands of the characters drawn by Studio Mates' Kenzo Koizumi. Takao Kosai's movement can be rather dynamic in the action scenes, but it's never very realistic or believably timed, and his acting is pretty much limited to either sinister sneering or looking worried.

Takao Kosai began his career at Toei Doga in 1960 and spent 4 years there before leaving in 1964 with several other animators including Kenzo Koizumi and Azuma Hiroshi to form a studio called Hatena Pro. Hatena Pro is not a very well known studio, but it's actually one of the more important 'seed' studios of the period, in that what it produced is less important than the studios that sprung up in its wake. When the studio finally closed 5 years later in 1969, Takao Kosai and Tetsuo Imazawa formed Studio Junio while Kenzo Koizumi and Hiroshi Azuma formed Studio Mates. Kazuo Komatsubara, who joined in 1969, the year the studio closed, formed Oh Pro together with Koshin Yonekawa and Koichi Murata in 1970. Hiroshi Azuma defected from Mates to Junio in 1972, while Minoru Maeda, who would become one of the studio's most important animators, joined in 1972. (Way later when Junio closed around 2000, Azuma, Okazaki and Maeda left when things started getting bad in 1998 to form Synergy SP.)

Tetsuo Imazawa would go on to be Studio Junio's lead director, doing much work TMS including directing The White Whale of Mu (1980), Iron Man 28 (1980) and God Mars (1981). He went on to direct some notable films including The Fox of Chironup (1987), Coo from the Distant Ocean (1993) and Hermes, Wings of Love (1997) for Junio before the studio went out of business around 2000.

Other animators turned out by the studio include Toshiyuki Inoue, Hisashi Eguchi, Fumitoshi Oizaki, Tetsuya Kumagai, Mamoru Kanbe and Masaki Kajishima.

Studio Mates: 3, 5, 9, 14, 20, 21, 25, 28, 32, 36, 40, 44, 49, 52

(click to enlarge)

The Studio Mates episodes feature studio head Kenzo Koizumi as sakkan and part animator. These are my least favorite drawings in the show. Koizumi's characters are amateurishly drawn, with extremely static and unchanging posing and expression. The poses are constricted and unnatural. No character ever seems to evince the appropriate emotion in any given scene, rather adopting an awkward template expression no matter the circumstances. He spends most of his energy drawing evil expressions on the baddies. The deformed-looking hands in particular are very characteristic and easily give away Koizumi's presence.

The drawing above of the baddie holding a rifle is exemplary of the problem with his drawings. What on earth is his left hand doing? The fingers are splayed in odd directions and seem to be floating daintily above the barrel rather than gripping it, and the angle at which the gun is inclined seems very unnatural. The action scenes are embarrassing to watch, as the character don't so much move as hurl themselves around unnaturally and float improbably against the background due to the poor layouts.

Kenzo Koizumi also started out at Toei Doga in 1962 before joining Hatena Pro in 1964. I can only assume that he improved with time, because he continued to get work as an animator down to the year of his death in 2008.

Animators who began their careers at Studio Mates include Watanabe Ayumu and Hiroshi Harada. If for nothing else, Mates can be said to have played a positive role in anime history for guiding Watanabe Ayumu to Shin-Ei and prompting Hiroshi Harada leave the industry to make Midori.

Studio Z: 2, 6, 18, 21, 25, 27, 31, 35, 39, 43, 48, 52

(click to enlarge)

The Studio Z episodes feature Shingo Araki as sakkan and part A animator with Tsugefumi Nuno as part B animator. Araki's drawings are perhaps the most skillful in the series in terms of the actual drawings, with well stylized expressions and a very distinctive rounded drawing style. This is presumably due to the fact that he started out as a manga-ka, and was hence used to drawing stylized characters in exaggerated poses. This wound up providing the foundation for his style, because as an animator, he is inferior to Koichi Murata, who is more pliable and dynamic with the drawings. Araki's characters are cartoonish and mannered rather than expressive and nuanced. The hands are again an easy place to identify this animator - rounded and puffy fingers drawn in a very symmetrical way.

Shingo Araki started out as a manga-ka before switching to animation because he wasn't earning a living. He joined Mushi Pro in 1964 and then switched to a little-known studio called Jaggard in 1966. It was here working alongside Hiroshi Saito that Araki really learned about animation. Jaggard was involved in several earlier Tokyo Movie productions including Tensai Bakabon before they disbanded in 1972, immediately before Isamu. Araki meanwhile had quit a little earlier in 1971 to found his own small artist workspace called Studio Z. It was here that Yoshinori Kanada, after being first rejected by Oh Pro (where he went because he liked Koichi Murata's drawings), began to learn animation as an inbetweener under Shingo Araki. You can see Kanada's name in the inbetween credits for each Studio Z episode, alongside Kazuo Tomizawa and Shinya Sadamitsu, who would continue to be associated with Kanada for years.

Araki of course is known for his work on Toei shows of the 1970s and then primarily Saint Saiya. It was the same year as Isamu that Araki got his taste designing characters for the first time for Cutie Honey, and it was right after working on Isamu that he founded his own actual legitimate studio, Araki Pro, to focus on this work. Kanada, meanwhile, started out at Toei between 1970-1972 on Maho no Mako-chan, Sarutobi Ecchan, Gegege no Kitaro and Mahotsukai Chappy before switching to Araki's Studio Z, where he worked between 1972-1973 on Gekko Kamen, Akado Suzunosuke and Isamu. Kanada did not follow Araki to Araki Pro, but rather went to work under Takuo Noda in 1974 at Studio No. 1. It was the next year in 1975 that Yoshinori Kanada himself founded his own artist collective/studio called Studio Z, totally unrelated to the previous Studio Z, where he worked until 1980, when he founded yet another studio called Studio No. 1. Studio Z went through several other incarnations at the hands of other animators before the founding of Studio Z5 around 1980 by Hideyuki Motohashi.

Other studios and notable names

A Pro doesn't play as big a role in this show because their most important animators like Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama were busy working on the concurrently running Dokonjo Gaeru, which was still in the midst of its long run, and anyway were not typically put to work on the gekiga-styled Tokyo Movie shows like Isamu but rather the cartoony gag shows. Still, Yuzo Aoki and Eiichi Nakamura do show up for a few episodes in the first half drawing half episodes under sakkan Hideo Furusawa. However, their work doesn't shine on this material. Aoki's distinctive style has not yet emerged at this period. That said, the A Pro team does provide the animation for the first of the two episodes storyboarded by Isao Takahata (15 and 19), and their animation almost certainly helps to make Takahata's episode memorable thanks to its precisely timed and exciting action. The reason for the pairing is obvious: Takahata was at A Pro at the time.

Takahata's episode 15 is entirely devoted to the showdown between Isamu and his frenemy Big Stone. Big Stone is actually out to kill the Wingates for murdering his mother, but Isamu is still caught in their web and winds up having to duel Big Stone. The showdown in the ghost town occupies the entire episode as they run around in the dark of the night in a long, drawn out battle that lasts until dawn. It's a fantastic episode that has great tension and does what you want a western anime to do. Takahata's skill as a director comes through loud and clear even though he only storyboarded the episode and didn't direct it, as was the case with Jacky the Bearcub episode 5. Each shot features very precise character actions, and sequences of action play out in a very logical and believable way. Tension builds through long stretches of prowling around the dark streets until it explodes in fast action sequences featuring precisely timed movements by the characters courtesy of Aoki and quick cutting between shots. It goes without saying that if the other episodes were directed in such a masterly fashion, the show would be a classic. We have plenty of realistic slice-of-life shows from Takahata, but it would be nice to have a whole action show like this from Takahata. He shows with this episode that he can do even action better than anyone else.

Ex-Mushi Pro animator Masami Hata at this period was presumably employed at the recently-formed Madhouse, which provided its animators to Tokyo Movie over the course of the 1970s in thanks to Yutaka Fujioka for having provided Dezaki et al. with the seed money needed to found their studio. He was a great storyboarder and produced some of the finest episodes of this period through his storyboards, including the first episode of this show, which no doubt benefits from his instinct for dramatic storytelling. The first episode is definitely the best place to start with this show thanks to its combinatinon of Hata's storyboard and the powerful animation. Part A was done by Studio Junio and part B by Oh Pro, but really their styles don't come through particularly clearly in this episode. The style if well smoothed out over the course of the episode. The characters faces are deeply etched and well drawn, and the gunplay animation is smooth and thrilling. It's a great example of gekiga anime.

The last studio in the rotation is Neo Media, the studio founded in 1969 by Keiichiro Kimura. Kimura had worked under Kusube at Toei, which seems to clearly show the reason Neo Media became a mainstay in Tokyo Movie shows. (That, and there were presumably not that many studios for Tokyo Movie to turn to at that juncture, so they gathered all the forces they could by turning to the ex-Toei buddies known to Kusube.) The drawings and movement in these episodes aren't quite as crazy and rough as you would expect.

Neo Media did two half-episodes and two full episodes in the first half before disappearing and coming back to do an episode near the end and the last episode. Studio head Kimura himself acted as sakkan early on while Yasuhiro Yamaguchi replaced him in the last two Neo Media episodes. Yoshiyuki Momose and his animation partner Masayuki Uchiyama join the team at this point. Momose's style is for the most part not as obvious as it was on Dokonjo Gaeru at the same period, but the very ending of the last episode does have the kind of hustle you would expect to see from Momose. Momose was in the middle of working on Dokonjo Gaeru from Neo Media, so he wasn't used to the style. He relates that he had a hard time re-adjusting to the drawing style of Dokonjo Gaeru after his brief experience on Isamu, which admittedly has the diametric opposite style. Momose did a good job adapting himself to his mentor's drawing style, though, and the Neo Media episodes have that rough and dirty line drawing that you would expect from the man behind Tiger Mask, even moreso than the early episodes by Kimura himself. Incidentally, the name Yoshiyuki Momoyama in the last episode is obviously an amalgam of Yoshiyuki Momose and Masayuki Uchiyama.

One of the main rotation directors is Soji Yoshikawa, who started out as a director at Mushi Pro and then moved to Art Fresh with Gisaburo Sugii & Osamu Dezaki when they founded this studio around 1967. Soji Yoshikawa is perhaps best remembered as the writer/director of the first Lupin III movie about the clones, which to many more hardcore Lupin III fans is the best of the animated statements on Lupin III. Episode 38 is a particularly good example of Soji Yoshikawa's directing in this show, as it features animation by Oh Pro that fills out the nuances in Yoshikawa's storyboard. Yoshikawa soon switched to focusing on writing, and the only other movie he directed was the anime adaptation of White Fang (1982) with designs by Yasuhiko Yoshikazu. One of his more recent big project was Hoshi no Kirby (2001), which was an early integrator of CGI.

Series director Shigetsugu Yoshida began in animation at Toei Doga, where he worked between the years of 1959-1969 before joining A Pro. After working at A Pro in the 1970s presumably most only Tokyo Movie shows, he finally just moved to TMS. He retired from animation sometime after drawing one storyboard for Nippon Animation's Peter Pan in 1989.

Finally, one amusing thing I noticed was that the episode preview at the end of episode 44 includes animation from a completely unrelated episode. In other words, episode 45 is drawn entirely by Studio Junio, but the preview for that episode is mostly animation by Shingo Araki from a completely unrelated episode. I assume this was done by the episode director because the animation for episode 45 wasn't done at the time and he needed to put something together. This certainly gives you a good feeling for how tight the schedule was on these old shows.

Choice episodes

To sum up, here are some choice episodes if you want to sample the show without having to deal with the drudgery of the mediocre-quality episodes.

#1: Great intro to the show with powerful storyboard by Masami Hata and strong gekiga drawings
#15: Exciting showdown action courtesy of Isao Takahata storyboard and Yuzo Aoki animation
#38: Good storyboard by Soji Yoshikawa and animation by Oh Pro


Koya no Shonen Isamu 荒野の少年イサム full episode listing
52 episodes, Tokyo Movie, April 4, 1973 - March 27, 1974

StoryboardDirectorSakkanKey Animators
1波多正美
Masami Hata
御厨恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
香西隆男、村田耕一
Takao Kosai, Koichi Murata
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
2御厨恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
河内日出夫、荒木伸吾
Hideo Kawauchi, Shingo Araki
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
3岡部英二
Eiji Okabe
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
小泉謙三、木村圭市郎
Kenzo Koizumi, Keiichiro Kimura
半田輝夫 Teruo Handa
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
4黒田昌郎
Masao Kuroda
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
村田耕一、香西隆男
Koichi Murata, Takao Kosai
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
5吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
小泉謙三、河内日出夫
Kenzo Koizumi, Hideo Kawauchi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
吉原章雄 Akio Yoshihara
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
6波多正美
Masami Hata
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
木村圭市郎、河内日出夫、荒木伸吾
Keiichiro Kimura, Hideo Kawauchi, Shingo Araki
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
7御厨恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
8今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
9黒田昌郎
Masao Kuroda
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
半田輝夫 Teruo Handa
10吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
河内日出夫
Hideo Kawauchi
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
11みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
木村圭市郎
Keiichiro Kimura
木村圭市郎 Keiichiro Kimura
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
12新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
13今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
14みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
15高畠勲
Isao Takahata
井上 一
Hajime Inoue
河内日出夫
Hideo Kawauchi
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
16新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
17吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
木村圭市郎
Keiichiro Kimura
木村圭市郎 Keiichiro Kimura
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
18高畠勲
Isao Takahata
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
河内日出夫、荒木伸吾
Hideo Kawauchi, Shingo Araki
中村英一 Eiichi Nakamura
青木雄三 Yuzo Aoki
19今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
20吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
21新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
小泉謙三、荒木伸吾
Kenzo Koizumi, Shingo Araki
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
22みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
23吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
木村圭市郎
Keiichiro Kimura
木村圭市郎 Keiichiro Kimura
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
24今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
25新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
小泉謙三、荒木伸吾
Kenzo Koizumi, Shingo Araki
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
26吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
27みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一、荒木伸吾
Koichi Murata, Shingo Araki
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
28小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
29今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
30みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
31新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
荒木伸吾
Araki Shingo
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
32吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
33今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
今沢哲男 Tetsuo Imazawa
34新田義方
Yoshikata Arata
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
35みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
36小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
37今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
38吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
39中村真
Makoto Nakamura
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
40みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
大関政幸 Masayuki Ohseki
41今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
42吉川惣司
Soji Yoshikawa
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
43みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
44中村真
Makoto Nakamura
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
星野赫子 Akiko Hoshino
大関政幸 Masayuki Ohseki
45今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
46上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
麻岡上夫
Kamio Maoka
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
47石黒昇石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
山口泰弘
Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
山口泰弘 Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
百瀬義行 Yoshiyuki Momose
内山正幸 Masayuki Uchiyama
48中村 真
Makoto Nakamura
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
荒木伸吾
Shingo Araki
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
布 告文 Tsugefumi Nuno
49みくりや恭輔
Kyosuke Mikuriya
小泉謙三
Kenzo Koizumi
小泉謙三 Kenzo Koizumi
大関政幸 Masayuki Ohseki
50今沢哲男
Tetsuo Imazawa
上窪健之
Takeyuki Kamikubo
香西隆男
Takao Kosai
香西隆男 Takao Kosai
前田 実 Minoru Maeda
51石黒昇
Noboru Ishiguro
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
村田耕一
Koichi Murata
村田耕一 Koichi Murata
才田俊次 Toshitsugu Saida
52小泉謙三、御厨恭輔
Kenzo Koizumi, Kyosuke Mikuriya
石川輝夫
Teruo Ishikawa
荒木伸吾、山口泰弘
Shingo Araki, Yasuhiro Yamaguchi
荒木伸吾 Shingo Araki
百山義幸 Yoshiyuki Momoyama
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Saturday, September 14, 2013

09:05:00 pm , 1286 words, 10153 views     Categories: OVA, Indie, Movie, Live-action, Short

C (299,792 km/s)

Anime-inspired live-action retro sci-fi space-opera, C (299,792 km/s) is many things. This gorgeous new short film from first-time director Derek Van Gorder seems tailor made for those, like me, who grew up loving a seemingly antithetical blend of elements from hard science to sci-fi adventure to arthouse cinema to Japanese cartoons.

Primarily influenced by the aesthetic of 1980s OVAs and the space operas of Yoshiyuki Tomino, C successfully blends wide-ranging influences from The Man With the Movie Camera to Yo Soy Cuba to Stanley Kubrick into a convincing package that is visually beautiful and thematically satisfying.

Essentially two films in one, C adopts a novel retro-futuristic dual scheme: A Cosmos-inspired science reel that could have come straight from the vaults of your 1970s high school science class provides the underlying thematic motivation for a visually sleek tale about mutiny onboard a military spaceship.

Played with cool aplomb by Caroline Winterson, mysterious mutineer Maleck makes a compelling anti-hero: at first glance a cold, calculating, ruthless ideologue, she in fact is out to save humanity. Her motivation is hinted at briefly at the opening in snippets of overheard news about dire interstellar strife. Rather than an aggressive Hans Gruber out for ideological glory, we instead have a grandmother who seems driven by love and motherly instinct. An Anno-esque historical montage explains how science has been perverted for military means since time immemorial; Maleck seeks to reverse that dynamic by co-opting a tool of destruction to achieve a peaceful end.

The mutiny unfolds in tense and fast-paced intercutting between the various parties that has all the virtues of the hair-raising boarding climax of The Ideon: Be Invoked, Yoshiyuki Tomino's masterpiece, but rendered in glorious glowing neons through a detached, formalistic composition style reminding of Kubrick. Meanwhile, the first shot of the science film by the narrator Newman (Newtype?) seems to evoke the live-action ending of that cataclysmic movie, in which the stardust to which the protagonists were reduced now plant the seed of life in an alien planet's ocean.

The film has a reverential love for the great virtue of science taught by the likes of Carl Sagan: the thirst for ultimate knowledge. This is embodied perhaps by the Kepler probe, referenced in the film, which has so far discovered roughly 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy. Using the fruits of Kepler, Maleck seeks to restore science to its place in the service of ensuring humanity's long-term survival.

What is remarkable is that, somewhat ironically, C's accomplished visuals are entirely analog - no digital effects were used. The spaceship is a model shot in stop motion, and every element from the lighting to the touch panels was produced in-camera, and with very little budget at that. Even the laser flash was produced by a simple trick effectively used in anime since time immemorial: inserting a few frames of a flashlight against a black background.

C has a succinctness that works well by excising all personal elements from the narrative and focusing exclusively on the visuals and tense atmosphere, but it also comes across as a trailer for a larger concept. I hope Derek will have the chance to expand this seed into something bigger.

I had the opportunity to ask Derek by email to tell me more about his influences, and he kindly sent me the following response:


I've got a lot of varied and possibly eccentric influences, from Stanley Kubrick, to Ed Wood, to early Soviet cinema and post-revolutionary Cuban films. But my favorite sci-fi filmmakers are Japanese anime directors Mamoru Oshii, Hideaki Anno, and Yoshiyuki Tomino. 1980s anime in general I find completely fascinating for its imagination and attention to detail.

Tomino's a really interesting director. At first glance it's easy to dismiss his films as routine TV genre pieces, and certainly his storytelling is occasionally muddled and a little strange. But he's a master of ensemble casts and wide-stroke world building, and has a completely unique style that stands out from his contemporaries. There is a matter-of-factness to his work, he rarely lingers on anything unnecessarily, holding your attention with rapid-fire plotting, quick cuts, and (when the budget allows) highly clean & effective shot composition. The Ideon: Be Invoked completely blew me away in this regard. The final Buff Clan boarding attack on the Solo Ship is a beautiful example of cutting between simultaneous action in a multitude of locations, while maintaining a very clear sense of physical space and the sequence of events. I'm sure he achieves this by storyboarding the film himself, and he has the depth of imagination to make even props and costumes relevant to the story and contribute to emotional impact and action scenes. I've never seen so much action packed with so much tragedy and pathos in a film. With a quick cutaway he can make you feel for the fate of a side character that had previously been little more than a background extra.

Mobile Suit Gundam created an entire genre, and with Ideon he foresaw the future of what that genre would become. It's really astounding how influential he was. Unfortunately I think these films might always remain inaccessible to Western audiences, because they happen to be tie-ins with large, complex franchises; that demands a lot of commitment from a foreign viewer. Oshii's Patlabor 2: The Movie is another example of this. I personally think it is one of the most beautifully "shot" films of all time, and possibly the most philosophical political thriller ever. But unfortunately, it's also a sequel... to a movie... based on a miniseries... that's a parody of a subgenre of science-fiction (yikes!). So it will always have a very limited audience. Since C is space opera it has more in common with Tomino's work, but Oshii is really my favorite director of all time. He's totally fearless, he makes philosophical experimental films disguised as narrative movies, and imbues all of his shots with meaning.

In general the Japanese use of cinematic techniques in their animation inspired what I want to try with live-action. Unlike many Western animations, there's often an extreme attention to movement and composition that simply translates into good filmmaking instead of just good cartoon-drawing. In this way it helped me understand films as 2D art. Many audiences and filmmakers confuse a movie screen as being a little window into real life, into 3-dimensional space, and this encourages visual sloppiness. In reality movies are highly constructed, artificial, 2D moving photographs arranged in a sequence. So I want to try and arrange movement that draws the audience's attention to the visual art instead of deflecting it all to the story and characters.

The movie I ended up making has a lot in common with 1980s one-off OVAs; it's a brief snapshot of a story and a world, hastily wrapped up. Part of this is because almost half the movie was cut out, since I wasn't satisfied with how it turned out, but this had the benefit of streamlining the plot in a very Tomino-esque way. For better or for worse it's like a compilation movie of a series that was never filmed. I learned a lot of hard lessons making it; in terms of budget and production it was really still a student film. But I hope people saw what I was trying to do and can appreciate it for what it is.


If you haven't already, go see the short right away and let Derek know if you like what you see. The official web site can be found at http://www.c-themovie.com/ and I highly recommend reading Derek's Director's Statement to hear the director himself eloquently describe his goals, as well as this interview that goes into detail about the technical aspects of the film.

1 commentPermalink

Friday, September 13, 2013

07:04:00 pm , 1114 words, 8448 views     Categories: Animation

Ghost Stories

A collective of animators called the Late Night Work Club has just released a nearly 40-minute anthology of shorts called Ghost Stories, available for free viewing online on Vimeo. Entirely produced without funding, during off-time from work, it's a very well-produced package that rivals any of the pro anthologies I've seen doing the rounds at the festivals in the last few years.

As evinced by the title, the stories all deal with somewhat dark subject matter, and do so in a variety of different styles and techniques. Some are more serious and some more facetious, but they each tell a story of a different kind of ghost in a very contemporary style and context.

I Will Miss You by Dave Prosser uses computer-drawn clean lines and simple shapes and a flat red-blue-yellow color scheme to explore the idea of online identity. A man's online doppelganger comes alive and documents his own life. The way he expresses the familiar using highly formalistic, stylized shapes reminds slightly of David O'Reilly. It's ironic, clever stuff that defies simple explanation. This is a ghost story for the iPhone generation.

The Jump by Charles Huettner witnesses a boy and girl playing in an urban wasteland by hopping onto the ghosts of the dead as they fly by to vicariously experience their death. Unfortunately, one of the ghosts turns out to be the boy's own, and he falls to his death. It's a bleak humor that goes well with the lovely style and animated transformations.

The American Dream by Sean Buckelew is one of the most unique films in the set - no CG, unlike all of the other shorts. All hand-drawn and with a very analog aesthetic. A woman narrates the circumstances leading to her death. It's an ironic comment on the aimlessness of today's young adults, who never seem to want to grow up and face the world. By the time she's ready to find out what she wants to do, it's already too late.

Mountain Ash by Jake Armstrong & Erin Kilkenny is a tragic tale about a woodcutter and his symbiotic relationship with the forest animals. It has a circular rhythm and cute animal designs that give it the feel of a picture book. This somewhat alleviates the blow of witnessing their slow death by starvation. Its lush visual ethos and fun characterizations of the animals make it a pleasure to watch.

Rat Trap by Caleb Wood is the most visually experimental film of the set. With its largely black and white color scheme, scratchy lines and a noisy soundtrack, it's a bleak visual expression of the idea of being trapped in a dark, dank place. It's a big contrast with the clean CG animation aesthetic that seems to dominate today. It's also the most abstract film in the set narrative-wise, coming across as closer to visual poetry than a narrative.

Loose Ends by Louise Bagnall returns to the clean CG visuals that dominate the set. Swirling ghost drops gradually gather around the head of the protagonist, seeming to represent the little stresses that accumulate little by little from the many things that we have to deal with in our modern daily lives. The story is economically told with no words using a clean and spare visual style. Its narrative is pleasantly lacking in drama, only showing slices of a day in the life of the protagonist, and the conclusion comes elegantly and effortlessly as she discards the trash.

Phantom Limb by Alex Grigg tells the story of a man's guilt about causing his girlfriend to lose her arm. Emotionally affecting, delicate, humane, and visually gorgeous, it's hands down my favorite film in the set. It has great character animation that wordlessly conveys the protagonist's emotional state at every moment. The directing visualizes his growing sense of guilt, and the resultant hairline cracks in their relationship, through the metaphor of a literal phantom limb that haunts him. I look forward to seeing more from Alex Grigg.

Asshole by Conor Finnegan tells the tragic tale of an asshole who just wanted to be loved. The most Spike and Mike outing in the set, the film is a gory but funny gag. The asshole in question comes alive after eating its owner's towel, but the owner shits it out and then cuts its throat in terror. It's plenty fun to watch as an absurdist horror.

Ombilda by Ciaran Duffy tells the story of a mysterious tree that consumes the creatures around it on a desolate shore that seems hewn out of an old Bergman film. Animated in richly textured black and white, it's an atmospheric horror story economically told in a quick arc, from the time the man sees ominous mist descending the hill until it engulfs the house.

Post Personal by Eamonn O'Neill is a seemingly random sequence of odd character sketches involving death and technology. A kid at a computer codes a digital doppelganger who when completed kills the original, while another kid plays a video game on his smartphone, oblivious to the death of those around him - until death overtakes him, too, to the apparent joy of his sentient smartphone. I'm reminded a bit of the dark humor of Don Hertzfeldt in this pleasantly unpredictable and absurd commentary on modern technology.

Last Lives by Scott Benson is an incredibly dense sci-fi story that in a mere few minutes evokes a complex story about the hunt for a cyber ghost that nonetheless feels epic in scale. Through busy cutting and dense animation, he manages to convey the sense of a future world in which we are all cyber-connected, waving our hands about oblivious to the outside world like so many wearers of Google Glass, exploring inner worlds as we zoom around our dome city on a hyperfast rail. This is tremendous stuff: fantastic storytelling, and visually very accomplished, with consistently gorgeous visuals that each convey the feeling of a living world with more depth to explore. I would love to see a longer piece in this vein. It's somewhat abstract stylistically but deep down it seems like a great hard sci-fi story like Bladerunner.

All in all, a great little omnibus put together purely for the love of the art by some incredibly talented and generous folks. Don't forget to check out the links to each artists' web site, because many of these guys and gals have produced other shorts that are very much worth exploring. For example, Dave Prosser has produced four other amazing shorts that you can watch on his web site. And Jake Armstrong is of course the talented animator who several years ago produced the lovely retro-sci-fi short The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

09:50:00 pm , 1021 words, 4982 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Blue Exorcist movie

I watched this 2012 movie on the recommendation of commenter shergal, and I'm glad I did. I enjoyed it. Although essentially simplistic children's fare populated by conventional anime characters going through the same ropes we've seen many times before, it's all well done in a nice little package. It's a solidly produced, atmospherically directed, well animated franchise film. And most of all, it has stunning background art. It's a movie worth seeing for the background art alone. If there's "sakuga anime", then this is "haikei anime".

A sequel to A-1 Pictures' Blue Exorcist TV series from 2011, which I never saw, it's a standalone followup featuring the same characters but in a one-shot situation. It's a pure franchise movie in that it presupposes knowledge of the show's story, characters, and basic gimmick. I was confused on a lot of points, most notably the relationship between the grandfather and the two brothers, which presumably lends this story its emotional resonance.

That said, it's crafted in such a way as to basically stand on its own. The actual narrative is extremely simple. In a world where demon hunters are organized like law enforcement to protect the town from stray demons, a novice unwittingly releases a demon and domesticates it like a pet/little brother, until finally discovering that its true nature puts the town at risk of destruction.

Despite not having seen the original material, there were two draws to this that made watching it a no-brainer: director Atsushi Takahashi and art director Shinji Kimura. Both help raise this movie above the level of a 'mere' franchise movie. The solid animation work doesn't hurt, either.

Art director Shinji Kimura makes this movie. The backgrounds here are every bit the equal of his work on Tekkon Kinkreet, something I never expected myself to say. His art is breathtaking: an anarchic mishmash of dirty billboards, old neon, brightly colored kitch, and urban decay that creates the impression of a tremendous amount of life boiling beneath the surface, even if the movie otherwise doesn't really delve into fleshing out the workings of the city itself, rather focusing exclusively on the main characters and narrative. Many of the images are so gorgeous I wanted to just pause the movie and stare at them.

What's nice about his art is that there's a depth to it at the same time, an irony. Shots like the one pictured above, in addition to being absurdly densely packed in an obviously supra-realistic way rather than merely realistic, almost have a satirical bite. There's an element of gaudy satire, Logorama-like reveling in the absurd superficiality of urban life and its overproliferation of signage. Sadly, there is little in the film that echoes or explores any such themes. I would like to see Kimura for once given the chance to try out original subject matter, free of the constraints of source material, that would directly address the underlying themes in his work.

Director Atsushi Takahashi meanwhile knows how to showcase Kimura's art in a way that doesn't just sideline it as a backdrop to the action, but makes the city one of the film's living, breathing protagonists, as it was in Tekkon Kinkreet. Takahashi's directing tends to favor slow pacing, long shots, and atmosphere, although he does a great job shifting in the action scenes to a vernacular that is closer to spectacular Hollywood blockbuster than art house. That directing style works perfectly with the art by Kimura.

The film opens in grand style by immediately announcing its powerful vision of the city. The camera slowly pans up from the protagonist at the bottom of the staircase, nearly invisible amidst the chaos of claustrophobically cluttered, dun-colored hilliside homes, gradually revealing one grander and grander opulent construction after another, extending up and up in a seemingly endless vertical ascent, cranes resting gingerly like cleaner birds on the hide of some giant golem-like beast, finally reaching its resting point at the tip of a strange Tower-of-Babel-like structure at the heart of the city. It's an appropriately cinematic opening showing that Takahashi knows how to create a sense of scale befitting a feature film, something lacking in a lot of franchise films.

I'm not very familiar with Atsushi Takahashi's resume, but in my mind his name is synonymous with episode 12 of Kemonozume, which is the standout episode of the show, and probably one of the greatest TV anime episodes ever. He is one of the few directors I've seen who brings something different to his animation - not just a more poetic sensibility, but the technical grounding (borne of experience at Ghibli under Miyazaki) to execute it convincingly and cinematically. His style is artistic and stylish, but without the in-your-face formalistic flourishes of Toei-school directors such as Mamoru Hosoda. Style seems subservient to creating a feeling of the reality of the world inhabited by the characters.

The film is unsurprisingly bookended by two very exciting and well-animated action scenes. Although this feels like rote film structure, it's hard to imagine something more satisfying for a good entertainment movie than opening and ending with a bang, and this movie does that well. The opening chase with the eyeball blob comes across as something of a reprise of the chase through the corridors with Kaonashi in Spirited Away. It's a scene that makes good use of the large scale of the city, with the protagonist and the beast eventually falling from the tracks down, down, down through an endless vast expanse of space and crashing down into firmament that seems only to have been built on older parts of the city. It's in this forgotten precinct where the protagonist unleashes the Baku-like beast who eats bad memories rather than dreams.

The eyeball blob returns for the finale, which features even more impressive animation. His defeat is followed by a second climax. The first climax provides the action catharsis while the second provides the dramatic and emotional catharsis. Any number of talented animators were involved, and presumably these were responsible for the action scenes: Masahiko Kubo, Cedric Herole, Takaaki Wada, Hitoshi Ueda, Keisuke Watabe, Tadashi Itazaki, Masao Okubo, Soichiro Matsuda, Shingo Ogiso, etc.

Monday, September 9, 2013

10:59:00 pm , 573 words, 4217 views     Categories: OVA, Yasuo Otsuka

Ziria

I've always wanted to see more from Yasuo Otsuka. I never feel like I can get enough. Having seen most of his major work, I'm left to dig up obscurities from his filmography.

Though flawed, the late-career Fuma from 1987 is one of his best works. His style comes through in it very clearly, as he drew or corrected all of the layouts and checked the animation of every shot in the movie. The long-delayed Nemo occupied Telecom for the next year, and presumably Otsuka was involved in that for its duration, although his personality doesn't come through much in the film.

After that comes an obscurity I'd long wondered about, an OVA with the long and unwieldy title FAR EAST OF EDEN 天外魔境 ZIRIA 自来也 おぼろ変, released in two 45-minute installments in July and August 1990. In it, Otsuka is credited as animation supervisor 作画監修. Otsuka was credited as simply supervisor in Fuma and the earlier Mamo movie, but presumably the two titles signify a similar role.

This was released to follow up a computer RPG of the same name released not long before. In fact, it had originally been planned as an anime, but the computer game wound up coming out first. It's set in medieval Japan re-imagined as if through the eyes of a westerner who had never set eyes on the place but only heard fantastic tales about the faraway land. It's a fairly fun, harmless fantasy adventure that would otherwise have been a good ride if the quality were only a little better.

In filmographies put together with Otsuka's assistance, Otsuka has asked that Ziria not be included, presumably because he is not proud of the work. This suggested there had been some problems with the production that led to him not wanting to be associated with the OVA.

I've finally seen the first episode, and I can understand why he feels that way. This is not a film that is up to his standards. It clearly could have been much better. It's sad because you can see that he was clearly involved throughout, yet factors beyond his control keep it from rising to his level.

Although it's not terrible, it's clear that the film is a washout on the animation front. The movement is flimsy and spare, like a crappy TV episode. You can feel Otsuka's hand throughout, as he seems to have drawn or corrected the layouts for every shot. The layouts feel nice, but you really have to squint to see it through the shoddy drawings. At almost no time does the animation have the speedy, fun, cleverly choreographed action sensibility of Fuma or other classic Telecom productions. It's as if the film was produced in a rush. The foundation is strong enough, but they botched the execution.

There are a few names I recognize in the animation credits, but most of them like Kei Hyodo and Masao Okubo were at the beginning of their careers and hadn't developed their styles yet. For some reason, Telecom clearly didn't put their best animators on this project.

Despite it turning out to be a sub-par production, this was Yasuo Otsuka's last major involvement in a film, so I'm happy to have finally been able to see it. He had retired long before, and even his involvement in Fuma seems to have been more out of necessity to save the production than because he was scheduled to. The same must be the case here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

10:39:00 pm , 726 words, 3456 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Yoshinori Kanada

Ippatsu Hicchuu!! Devander

Tatsunoko released a TV-episode-length one-shot OVA called Ippatsu Hicchuu!! Devander at the end of last year to mark their 50th anniversary. It was headlined by two figures who have been mainstays of Tatsunoko since their founding: Director Hiroshi Sasagawa and mecha designer Kunio Okawara.

It's a gag sci-fi mecha action show for kids in the spirit of their Time Bokan series. It exhibits the same outlandish concept and over-the-top, tasteless design sensibility as those shows, with the horse mecha and silly hero suit complete with spurs, and the whole concept of the hero having to pedal the mechanical horse to get a new lotto ball out that turns into a robot to fight the enemy mecha.

It references their past work and features brief cameos by a number of well-known Tatsunoko characters like Hakushon Daimao and Kerokko Demetan - and even the studio's own mascot, the sea horse or baby dragon. It would be an uninteresting, self-serving trifle of an advertisement for the studio it weren't for the quality of the production.

Jun Arai acted as the mecha sakkan, and he turned the show into an all-out bash of Kanada-school mecha action and effects. Most of the smoke and other assorted effects scream his hand, while an array of well-known Kanada-school animators or otherwise talented mecha animators fill out the mecha animation and make it interesting at every moment.

山下将仁
Masahito Yamashita
橋本敬史
Takashi Hashimoto
大張正己
Masami Obari
城前龍治
Ryuji Shiromae
鈴木勤
Tsutomu Suzuki
柿田英樹
Hideki Kakita
三日月顯太朗
Kentaro Mikazuki
山本裕介
Yusuke Yamamoto
工原しげき
Shigeki Kuhara
新井淳
Jun Arai
松尾慎
Shin Matsuo

Most of these names need no introduction. They've been mainstays of mecha shows for decades. Amazing to see Masahito Yamashita still working on the front lines in a show like this more than 30 years since he drew his most famous bits that made him a legend as the #1 Kanada-school animator in the early 80s. I thought I saw a scene with the 'Yamashita run' and wondered who could be imitating him. It was most likely the man himself.

The more realistic explosions near the end were presumably courtesy of Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita, who actually aren't very Kanada school at all. The only one that seems out of place is Yusuke Yamamoto, since he's a director. The other mystery is Kentaro Mikazuki - obviously a pen name.

Shin Matsuo was the line director as well as co-storyboarder. I remember him primarily for KO Century Beast, one of the shows that got me into anime back in the day, with its zany, cartoonish sensibility and hyper-deformed designs. His work isn't always identifiable to me, but when he shifts gears into Kanada mode, it's quite obvious what he's trying to do.

The main mystery is why they chose this style for this show. Yoshinori Kanada was never a name associated with Tatsunoko's animation. In fact, he seemed to represent the diametric opposite of what Tatsunoko animation stood for. Happenstance seems to have led to this pairing, but I find it bizarre that for their 50th anniversary they go with this style, as much as I enjoy getting the opportunity to see 25 minutes of nice animation by talented animators. Well, I won't look the gift mecha horse in the mouth.

The Kanada school has gone through many phases, and if Arai's work is any indication, it is now in its decadent phase. It's all carefully polished stylization, where the master was all about dynamism at the expense of polish. The style is just what resulted; it wasn't the goal. Miyazaki's words from 30 years ago about the man and his imitators still ring true today. To be fair, this isn't a new trend. Yamashita Masahito and the 80s followers were the ones who first pushed Kanada's stylization to its decadent extreme, with geometrical smoke and insanely detailed shadows. Arai just updates the tradition. It's not unpleasant to watch. It's just predictable. It was fun back then because it was like they were sneaking it in.

The opening in particular felt like they were deliberately trying to imitate how Kanada might have done it. I know it sounds weird to say that, since the whole show seems Kanada inspired, but it's as if they weren't just doing Kanada-school animation but actually rendering an homage to the man himself with the opening. Maybe that's because it was storyboarded by Masahito Yamashita. It additionally featured a few other nice names: Yoshimichi Kameda, Yasuhiro Seo, Shingo Fujii, Morifumi Naka.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

10:47:00 pm , 630 words, 3789 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Saint Young Men

OVAs are that great format that permitted indulgence of the kind unsuited to the big or small screen. The golden age of OVAs is long past, but luckily there is still a trickle of interesting OVAs coming out with a more underground vibe or adventurous design style not suited to mainstream TV production.

Saint Young Men is one of the latest. It was adapted from the manga of the same name by A-1 Pictures last December into a 30-minute OVA. It was actually released as an extra with Volume 8 of the manga, apparently as advance publicity for a full-length movie by the same studio and staff released in May of this year. I haven't seen the movie yet but I've seen the OVA and assume the movie is more of the same. (apparently there's also another even shorter followup OVA)

I enjoyed it and look forward to seeing the movie. It's the story of an odd couple named Jesus and Buddha living in a tiny apartment complex in suburban Japan run by a domineering old landlady named Sachiyo Matsuda. Jesus and Buddha are just visiting Japan for some sightseeing, but they spend most of their time ineptly trying to hide their identities from the surrounding mortals.

It makes for amusing viewing, although they never go anywhere remotely satirical or controversial with the setup. That's somewhat disappointing, as the situation seems ripe for some biting satire of the two big religions, but it's still pleasant and well made. It's a refreshing anomaly of an OVA with an ever-so-slightly edgier and more indie feel to it in terms of the drawings and humor. The humor isn't overdone like in a lot of anime these days. The directing is downright laid back and gentle compared to the manic and bold directing style of recent underground manga adaptations like Detroit Metal City, although that was certainly a brilliant adaptation.

But the drawings are what really make me like the show. There's nothing extraordinary in the animation, but all of the animation is a pleasure to watch thanks to that great animator Naoyuki Asano, who adapted the characters from the manga with his usual verve as character designer and sakkan (and head animator). I've done a cursory comparison, and his characters are definitely an adaptation rather than a literal copy of the manga, which seems more roughly and less skilfully drawn. Asano stylizes them in his own way, not to mention designing them in a way more suited to movement and making them more visually three-dimensional.

The old landlady in particular seems to receive the most love from the animators. She's the real star of the show. Where Jesus and Buddha react more broadly, Sachiyo is the character you come away liking the most because she seems so rounded and filled out as a character thanks to the animation, not to mention the good voice-acting. Every twist and turn of her thought and emotion is vividly but subtly conveyed by the nuanced and delicate character animation, without even using many drawings. They don't overdo her sour prune character, and you come away understanding and liking her. I love her permanent skeptical, suspicious expression.

That's Asano's genius. He must have done this soon after Minding My Own Business, and it's testament to his versatility that the shows are stylistically poles apart and yet he's adapted himself perfectly to the material, and you can still sense his touch in the line and the unusual expressiveness of the characters. They're expressive without undue exaggeration. The visibly analog, pencil-drawn line reminds me of Kenichi Konishi's work on Doraemon: Nobita's Dinosaur, which perhaps makes sense since Asano picked up where Konishi left off a few movies later in the Doraemon movie series. I look forward to seeing where Asano goes.

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