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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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

08:35:27 am , 244 words, 1745 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Choi Eunyoung

I have a correction to make to the last post regarding the Korean-born animator Choi Eunyoung, which actually by coincidence ties in to my earlier post about women animators. Today I was embarrassed to realize that Choi Eunyoung is in fact a woman. Shows how much I know. So in Kemonozume we're clearly witness to another woman animator with a strong personal style in the process of emerging. Mihara Michio revealed a few facts about her (as well as some drawings) that help to explain a little where she comes from. She was born in Korea, where she studied sculpture before travelling to the UK to study animation and then finally arriving by a long detour in Japan, where, in her first year as a professional animator, she immediately set to work as a key animator without first going through the intermediate step of inbetweening. In that first year this is the work she's done. Quite impressive. It also seems indicative of a huge gap between the sort of training animators receive overseas versus in Japan. She clearly has a strong grounding in the arts, in life drawing and so on, something most Japanese animators obviously lack, judging from the final product. I hope she gets a chance to continue to do personally-styled work like this, though I doubt she's going to run into many projects after Kemonozume that are going to allow her to draw a section as freely as she did here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

08:11:21 pm , 1669 words, 2577 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #10

After the lulling side-story of the last episode, this episode comes back to the main story with a vengeance. In a way, this episode may have had the most powerful impact on me so far. Yuasa's first episode was a fantastic ride covering a lot of ground and coming across as a perfectly honed unit, but it doesn't quite leave one with the same aftertaste. This ep leaves the viewer a little shellshocked. It similarly feels perfectly honed, but it grabs hold of the viewer and shakes her/him around in a way none of the other episodes do. Every shot feels perfectly calculated to create an unmitigated buildup of tension that keeps you frantically paying attention and keeps the story pulsing ahead. None of the other episodes felt quite this tightly honed.

All that is thanks to Kenji Nakamura, who storyboarded, co-wrote and directed the ep. Ito was back as animation director and listed at the head of the (only) three key animators, so ep 1 (or 2) is an apt comparison. We see Ito's masterly drawings on the surface, but they're driven this time by a very different director's hand. Just prior to this Nakamura did the three-episode Bakeneko, an instant classic if ever there was one. This ep shares with Bakeneko that feeling of masterfully maintained tension, of a very unique and honed directing touch. It's an interesting challenge to try to figure out what it is that makes Nakamura's directing feel so different, how it's possible for his directing to achieve the power it does, because it doesn't seem that different at first glance, but the end result achieves an impressive effect that's very far from everything else out there.

One of the first (of many) things that struck me about Bakeneko was the use of sound. Here the sound is very interesting as well. Particularly the voices. The voices will be overlaid over one another while people argue, something that doesn't seem to happen very often in anime but that does in real life. The voices will be faded to different levels as the camera jumps around different parts of a scene, so that at times he makes you actively struggle to follow the action. Maybe that's one thing that sets him apart: He's brilliant at using the tactics of the medium to reel in the audience to his ends. He'll use music incongruously in an ironic fashion, with a tune heard one place being taken up symmetrically somewhere else, or recurring at different times with different shades of meaning, since each time the music recurs it has the effect of reminding of a previous moment. Nakamura is good at building up a complex referential web of meaning like this. He also masterfully ties up the sound with the images to increase the impact of the words - such as when Ohba says "ima wa tsutsushinde iru kedo" (meaning "though they're refraining from using it now"), with the shot jumping to two Kifuuken swordsman popping the top on two of the supposedly abstained-from drinks in sync with the deliberately emphasized phrasing of the sentence: tsutsushinde.... iru kedo....

Then there is the way he positions the camera. It's as if he takes a birds' eye view of the action, jumping with the camera to various places as the main thread is unfolding, often in a surprising way, rather than keeping things focused on the main chain of events. He'll keep the shot framed statically on something while the characters are talking either out of view or obstructed, creating an intriguing distancing effect. It may seem random, but it always has the effect of heightening the drama. He keeps the camera deadpan and distant when the most dire things are happening. It's as if, as a director, he takes a step back from the action to an objective vantage point, rather than getting caught up in the events, inserting little shots at unexpected moments to add different perspectives on what's happening.

It's hard to put into words what it is that makes his work so thrilling, but it's rewarding trying to figure it out, as he seems the epitome of what it means to be a director to me - completely committed with every shot, actively thinking about a novel way of presenting the material that will maximize its impact. He has an eye for detail, and always does something to make every shot have something interesting happening. Take the shot where Ohba interrupts Toshihiko reading the magazine and asks him how things are going. In the previous shots we have a beautiful seemingly live-captured image of clouds billowing over a vast, desloate landscape that seems a metaphor for the devastation, psychological and physical, being wrought on the characters. It's a breathtakingly beautiful, yet somehow anxious image that connects with the images of clouds in the previous episodes. Well, I only noticed on a second watching that he has the reflection of the clouds ever so faintly playing across the shop window in this shot. Every shot is conscientiously calculated in this way without it ever being apparent or heavy-handed. This is the kind of directing that you have to come back to several times before discovering everything that he's packed into it.

On a second watching I caught a lot of stuff I didn't catch the first time. It was interesting to focus on the different ways that flower appeared throughout the episode. Another thing I caught was in the background - the book with the pair of glasses placed over it. The backgrounds throughout the series have been interesting, taking an approach unlike any other anime series I've seen before. It would seem that many, though obviously not all, of the backgrounds were made by sending out someone to take a photograph of some scene somewhere, say a pharmacy, which they then took and processed in varying degrees to create the image seen in the series. The book on the jukensei's desk was apparently taken from a photograph of an English vocabulary cram-book called "Genius Eitango 2500" or Genius English Vocabulary 2500, amusingly retitled to the (in Japanese) similar sounding "Near Miss Eitango 2500", presumably in an echo of Hobari's comment in episode 8. It's an interesting technique that probably offers some time savings, but more than anything is very beautiful and effective as a complement to Yuasa's emphatically hand-drawn style.

But to get back to Nakamura, what I came away from this episode feeling was just how precious a figure Mamoru Hosoda is - not as a director, which he is, but as the mentor figure who obvioulsy had such an important role in helping Kenji Nakamura develop into the great director he has. To say nothing of Takuya Igarashi.

I could go on and on about the directing - I was also impressed how he weaved Rie, who hasn't had much of a role in the action up until now, into the fabric of the episode without even using any lines of dialogue - but the story itself was quite exciting, revealing an important mystery and finally getting the plot really rolling somewhere. Nakamura, who co-wrote the episode, also did a great job of weaving all of the other characters with their different situations together into the unfolding plot. He did more to flesh out and put a human face on one of my favorite characters - the brother - than any of the other episodes has done yet. A few simple shots showing him looking on as Rie carefully does the accounts ties in to the narration about the Kifuuken's money problems and hints at the feelings that have developed between the two. It was the first time we saw a compassionate expression on Kazuma's face.

One of the other hilights of the episode had to be Kenji Naikai's brilliant, unhinged acting as Ohba. It really is insane, doing all sorts of bizarre vocal acrobatics that are just hilarious to listen to but also give a good sense of the unstable, insane nature of the character.

Then there was the avant. The avants have undoubtedly been among the most interesting inventions of this series. In each episode the avant has worked as a stand-alone piece of animation, and a showcase for the style of a particular animator who is given free reign to his thing the way he wants. There was Utsunomiya, there was Nobutoshi Ogura, Hiroyuki Aoyama, Koichi Arai... and now Choi Eunyoung. I quite enjoyed the episode on which he was animation director, but it didn't prepare me at all for the explosion of art animation on display from him in the avant of this episode. It was easily the most flamboyant and unabashedly personal piece of animation in the series, which is saying a lot. Here there really was no pretext of playing close to the look of the series, except in the most basic sense that it consisted of rough, spontaneous drawings directly from the hands of the animator. It would be interesting to hear his influences, as a quick glance would suggest any number of people, but particularly Ohira, with the scraggly line and pencil touch.

Finally, I feel like I have to go back and single out Ito again. It seems like there's no end of things to say about this ep... I thought this ep was a good showcase for his interesting character designs. The first two eps also had their share of tasty, bizarrely-shaped characters, but the intervening episodes seemed a little lacking in the imaginative designs (or at least their effective rendering) that contributed to making those eps so interesting, so it was nice to finally get to see a lot of those really interesting designs in Ito's actual hand again. The old Kifuuken members felt really nice in this ep. Apart from that, it was good to have the solid posing and touch of line of Ito back in the show, as interesting as it was to see his style interpreted in various ways throughout the show.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

12:53:24 am , 3594 words, 8121 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Two pioneer women animators

Kazuko Nakamura

To continue in the spirit of the last post, I thought I would take the time to do something that I've been meaning to do for a long time - write about two of the most important female animators of the early period. I've actually been intending to do this for two years now, ever since I wrote this prelude, titled such in a nod to Debussy's famous piece because I never actually expected to get around to it...

Women play a fairly big role in animation, and they have since the beginning of commercial production in the late 50s/early 60s. However, their tasks have usually been limited to the lower echelons of production like tracing and painting, rather than tasks demanding creativity such as animating or directing. In the last few decades, it seems to have become more common to see female animators, episode directors, animation directors, character designers and so on, and there have been a number of female animators who have achieved a degree of recognition on the basis of their unique talent as animators, such as Atsuko Fukushima, or more recently, Shizuka Hayashi. But it remains rare to see women directors, and overall it still seems like a male-dominated field, so there is obviously still considerable room for improvement.

Two women active in the early years of commercial anime played a big part in helping to achieve the progress that has been made. They showed by their example that it was possible for women to excel in the same creative positions as men. Their names: Reiko Okuyama and Kazuko Nakamura. Both were trained at Toei Doga working on the early features in the late 50s/early 60s, and went on to be among the first women in the industry to occupy a leading position as animators in their respective workplaces.

Many of the gains that have been made today can be definitively traced back to their efforts to improve the lot of women in the animation workplace. Toei Doga reflected much of Japanese society, and presumably the rest of the world at the time, in that women were paid less to do exactly the same work, and otherwise had to endure a sexist double standard that manifested itself in a variety of ways. For example, women at the studio would be told that key animation was too hard for them. Some were even forced to sign a contract stating that they would retire once they got married. Through courage and determination, both of these women managed to make a successful career for themselves inside this system despite its problems, in the process helping to combat those very problems.

Reiko Okuyama working on
Wan Wan Chushingura in 1963

Reiko Okuyama    奥山玲子

A sickly child, Reiko Okuyama spent most of her formative years confined to her bedroom reading. She consequently developed uncommonly fast reading skills, and by the fourth grade was breezing through the complete works of Shakespeare. To pass the time, she would write plays and put them on with neighborhood kids, designing and creating her own costumes for each play. When the war ended, she was shocked and dismayed by the contradictions and compromises she saw in the adults around her. Transferred to mission school, she became a precocious rebel, asking the nuns, "If god exists, why is there war?" Soon enough she became an avid Sartre reader, and idolized Simone de Beauvoir.

After running away to Tokyo from the country university her parents wished her to attend, Okuyama received word from her grandfather about a job offer he had run across in the newspaper - a company called "Toei Doga" was recruiting. In search of secure employment, she applied, misunderstanding the "doga" part of the company's name for the homonym meaning "children's drawings". Under the impression that she was applying for a company that created picture books, she arrived at the company office only to be asked to "inbetween" drawings of a boy raising a mallet and striking a post. Baffled, she nonetheless completed the task, and was miraculously accepted. This early period is full of amusing anecdotes like this about how many of the luminaries of later decades just happened to stumble into animation purely by chance.

When she arrived at her new job, however, the fighter in Okuyama awoke in the face of the sexist problems she saw all around her. Seeing women all around her pressured into quitting after becoming mothers, or forced to put off marriage in order to hang onto their jobs, she vowed to raise a family and continue working on the front line. After her first job as an inbetweener on Hakujaden (Legend of the White Snake Enchantress) (1958) inbetweening Yasuji Mori's keys cleaned up by second key animator Masatake Kita (she was an inbetweener of the famous animal brawl, one of Mori's greatest pieces), she was raised to second on the second Toei Doga feature, Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke (Magic boy) (1959). This uncommonly fast accession came after she had worked furiously on a throwaway short entitled Tanuki-san Ooatari (Mr. Tanuki Strikes it Rich) under Masao Kumagawa to prove herself to the company. The company already had its eye on her as a troublemaker, and had assigned her the piece to keep her out of trouble, but in fact it wound up working to her advantage.

As a second on Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, she occuppied an unusual position. The only two experienced animators at Toei Doga initially were Yasuji Mori and Akira Daikubara, the main animators from Nippon Dogasha (AKA Nichido), the company that the big Toei movie studio had acquired to lay the foundation for its new animation department, Toei Doga (i.e. Toei Animation). Nichido being a small studio with few animators, Toei Doga needed to hire more animators before they could set to the task of animating a feature length film, which is why the studio had been formed in the first place. There not being many experienced animators in Japan, they had to resort to sending out a public call for prospective animators. Okuyama was one of those who responded to this call. Consequently, with complete amateurs on their hands for the first few films, Mori and Daikubara were forced to draw all of the keys and guide the trainees in the fundamentals of animation. However, both men had very different styles - Mori extremely clean and polished and demanding with his drawings, Daikubara extremely loose and free and accepting with his - and consequently subordinates wound up being assigned to one or the other based on their particular stylistic inclinations. As a result, two very distinct types of animators developed. Yasuo Otsuka, for example, worked under Daikubara, which is at the root of that very free and rough approach that makes his work so great, whereas Kotabe worked under Mori, from whom Kotabe inherited his delicacy of touch and clean, refined drawings. Okuyama was unique in that she worked for both. This goes to suggest that, quite early on, she began to occupy an important position at the studio as a versatile animator valued for her exceptional drafting skills and go-getter attitude.

For the third film, Saiyuki (Alakazam the Great) (1960), Okuyama continued vaulting between these two stylistic poles, seconding Daikubara's scene where Chohakkai eats a plate, and another of Mori's most famous shots, the full-body shot where Rinrin trudges through the snow in a snowstorm and finally topples over into the snow. With each new film she continued to rise in position: In Anju & Zushiomaru (1961) she became an assistant key animator, and in Sinbad's Adventures (1962) she finally acceded to key animation. Over the next few years, she worked furiously on Toei's first two forays onto the Braun tube. She also was one of the many who contributed designs to Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon in 1963, designing and animating the scene in the underground palace with Susanoo's brother, Tsukuyomi.

Around this time, Okuyama married Yoichi Kotabe, and became a mother. Kotabe had joined the studio a few years after Okuyama, drawing his first inbetweens in 1960 in Saiyuki. Upon returning from maternity leave, Okuyama was approached by the company and asked to switch from being an employee to working on a contract basis. As a way of improving the lot of the company's workers, a union had been created around this time at the company following underground organizational efforts by people like Otsuka and Takahata. Going contract would have essentially meant leaving those people behind after all they had done to organize the animators, so she refused, opting to stick with the struggle. In response, the company yanked her bonus pay and rank, and went after her husband, threatening him with a pink slip, citing a pretext of absenteeism. Work usually kept both of them busy throughout the day and late into the night, so Kotabe had been taking driving lessons in the morning in order to be able to drive his child to day care, and had consequently been arriving late to work. Takahata and others in the union, including a lawyer, came to their aid, and Kotabe was only demoted. It's now common for couples to work while raising a family this way, but back then they were among the first to dare to do this, and paid the price for it.

Next came the union's big film, Horus, Prince of the Sun (1965-68), in which Okuyama played a major part second only to Miyazaki in coming up with designs and drawing animation. She designed many of the female characters in the film, as well as their clothes, such as the little girl Mauni and the bride Pyria. She also animated numerous sequences, including the part where Coro arrives in the village and is chased by a lot of children, the scheming village chief, and even scenes of Hilda, such as Hilda in the rocking chair, Hilda holding Mauni in the meadow, and Hilda pushing Horus over the cliff. Mori did not correct her sections, so it should be possible to note some difference in Mori's and Okuyama's Hilda. Mori would have handled Hilda when she was experiencing complex, conflicting emotions, which he expressed masterfully in her expression, such as Hilda by the lake with Horus, whereas Okuyama handled Hilda when her expression could be more straightforward, such as Hilda throwing the axe at the village chief.

In the next film, Puss and Boots (1969), she handled the early antics in the house and the scene with the suitors early on. She then drew a considerable amount for her husband's first job as animation director, Flying Ghost Ship (1969). She became the first woman animation director ever in 30,000 Leagues under the Sea (1969). She was in fact co-animation director with three others under the collective pen name Okuta Sadahiro, which borrowed a piece of each of their names. Work was divided by character. Okuyama handled the two protagonists. Finally, in Animal Treasure Island Okuyama handled the memorable scene at the beginning at the Benbow.

It was around the time of the second Puss 'n Boots movie (1971) that things began to change for good at Toei Doga. Miyazaki, Takahata and with them Kotabe left to join Yasuo Otsuka at A Production in the middle of preparations for the continuation, leaving Okuyama and animation director Mori out in the cold. Most of the good staff were gone, and work conditions quickly worsened, with trouble between the union and the company resulting in a lockout and massive layoffs. Around this time, surprisingly, she actually helped out on Belladonna under the pen name Reiko Kitagawa, as she had been chafing under the constraints of the children's format at Toei and found the more mature nature of the material appealing. After doing work on numerous of Toei's new manga adaptations like Mazinger Z, Okuyama was forced to take up the task of animation director on The Little Mermaid in 1975 under very adverse conditions, with no staff up to the task. Her final job before finally leaving was as head animator of the third Puss 'n Boots film in 1976.

She immediately set to work helping her husband out on Marco as co-animation director. She in fact designed numerous memorable characters in the series, such as the homeless native american boy and girl Marco befriends. She didn't stay long at Nippon Animation before going freelance, in which capacity she worked on a number of TV series before finally helping her husband out on Toei's last great film, Taro the Dragon Boy (1979). From there on out she finally began to drift away from commercial animation, which had never really suited her character or satisfied her. Starting in 1979, she illustrated numerous children books, and from 1985 on she taught animation at the Tokyo Designer Academy. Around this time she also became interested in copperplate engraving, helping Tadanari Okamoto on his last film, The Restaurant of Many Orders. She says that from now on she would like to focus on artistic animation of the kind she most recently contributed to Winter Days. Hopefully we will be able to see another short film from her in this vein. Next year will mark fifty years since Reiko Okuyama entered Toei Doga and began working in animation.

Kazuko Nakamura working on
Saiyuki in 1960

Kazuko Nakamura    中村和子

Reiko Okuyama entered Toei Doga in the second wave of public recruitment. She had in fact been preceded by another woman, Kazuko Nakamura, who joined Nichido in 1956, one year prior to Okuyama, right before the company was absorbed into Toei and renamed to Toei Doga. In the transitional period between this and the first wave of public recruitment to find animators for Hakujaden, Kazuko Nakamura was trained as an inbetweener on two of the early shorts produced at this time - Kappa no Pataro (Pataro the Kappa) (1957) and Yumemi Doji (1958). Yasuo Otsuka, who had joined Nichido not long before Nakamura, can also be seen credited as an inbetweener in Yumemi Doji.

Nakamura worked alongside Okuyama as an inbetweener on the first three Toei Doga features, but soon went down a very different path. It would seem that Osamu Tezuka, while visiting the studio to work on Saiyuki in 1960, noted Nakamura's skills and effectively 'stole' her for himself, as she left the studio after her involvement in the film and transferred to Mushi Pro. Tezuka's experience working on that film had obviously been a way of not only learning about the animation process, but also finding some interesting faces to help out with the formation of his own studio, as numerous of the early Toei Doga trainees defected to that studio when it was formed in 1961-62. Nakamura was merely one of the earliest to do so.

Nakamura participated in the very first Mushi Pro production - Tale of a Streetcorner (1962) - and would go on to play an important role in many of the Mushi Pro productions of the next decade. She worked first as an animation director on several of the TV series that were the raison d'etre of the studio in the 60s, and then worked as a head animator on the first two adult Animerama features. Reiko Okuyama had been one of the first women to play the role of animation director for TV episodes in Wolf Boy Ken (1963) and then Hustle Punch (1965) at Toei Doga. In 1967, Kazuko Nakamura probably became the first woman to play that role for every episode of a TV series in Mushi Pro's first shoujo anime, Ribon no Kishi (Knight of the Ribbon).

Typical of Mushi Pro's unusual, ad hoc way of assigning tasks - very different from the strictly regimented ranks at Toei Doga - was the almost random order of her various roles at the new studio. Although she had only drawn inbetweens up until moving to Mushi Pro, she immediately started out drawing key animation at the new studio in Tale of a Streetcorner. Yet then she returned to inbetweening for Tetsuwan Atom. She then went back to drawing key animation for the pilot of Knight of the Ribbon, moved up to animation director for the TV series of the same, and then came back to key animation for the Animerama films.

Perhaps this freedom was something that attracted her to the new studio. The sexism of the Toei Doga system must also have been a factor that drove her away. Many of even the best Toei Doga animators chafed under the constraints of the studio's corporate mindset, so clearly Mushi Pro's more animator-centric approach must have appealed to them. Even Okuyama couldn't resist and participated in one of their productions while she was still an employee at Toei Doga and therefore not technically allowed to do so.

In any case, it's clear that Nakamura was one of the more important animators at Mushi Pro throughout the decade or so of its existence. From what I can gather, the reason for this would appear to have been not just her skill at drawing appealing characters and bringing them to life in lively animation, but also more simply her personality. She was one of the most hard-working animators at the studio. Having been trained at Toei Doga, she brought to Mushi Pro a precious commodity - an approach grounded in the fundamentals of how to move characters. She was a role model both as a powerhouse animator and as a strong female figure in the workplace.

After her early work on Tale of a Streetcorner, her main contribution in the following years was to help bring the first TV anime to life, and act as animation director of Knight of the Ribbon. But it's in the first two Animerama movies that came at the end of the 60s - 1001 Nights and Cleopatra - that we can get the clearest picture of what kind of an animator Kazuko Nakamura was. In both films she contributed the most animation, and the 'character system' was used to animate the characters, so it is easy to get a feel for her style, as she animates the same character throughout.

In 1001 Nights, she animated Miriam, the girlfriend of Aldin who we see in the first half of the film, and then Jalis and Aslan, the two lovers who we encounter in the second half of the film. The climactic love scene of the latter two was animated with the assistance of another ex-Toei animator - Sadao Tsukioka of Wolf Boy Ken fame. Despite not even being the animator of the protagonist, she took the top spot for the volume of her work. In Cleopatra, she animated the heroine. She also animated another love scene in cooperation with another ex-Toei animator, Mikiharu Akabori, who would go on to be the natural FX man at Sanrio Films. Akabori animated the waves while Nakamura animated the figures in the memorable scene, which takes place in a bathtub. The otherworldly colors and spare, undulating lines create one of the more vivid and genuinely sensual moments in the film.

What can be seen stylistically in these films is that she is very strong in creating emotive characters, and in bringing a sense of femininity to her characters that no one else could have achieved, despite not necessarily being very strong in movement or drawing. Her women convince as women in their poses and expressions. You can sense the conviction of the animator in every one of her drawings. The drawings themselves are very distinctive, with a heavy line and faces elegantly stylized. The designs of both films set the films apart as looking nothing like the anime of later years, and the same can be said of Nakamura's drawings. The chins and jaws are well defined, the noses very distinctly drawn with nostrils and a projecting ridge. The way the characters are stylized in 1001 Nights seems closer to folk motifs than to anything I've ever seen in anime. In Cleopatra, her drawings of the female form are very honestly feminine - round with ample curves, completely devoid of the male fantasies and erotic overtones they would have had at the hands of a man. It creates a fascinating kind of unerotic eroticism that I've never seen in animation before.

Osamu Tezuka appears to have held Kazuko Nakamura in particularly high esteem among all of his animators. Nakamura was one of the people Tezuka turned to after Mushi Pro had disbanded and he was setting out to make a full-length feature out of his life work, Hi no Tori. As animation director, Nakamura handled the character Olga throughout the film, a film notable for having reinterpreted (intentionally or not) the idea of 'full animation' to mean that the characters have to move at a constant 24 cels/second, always, even when standing still. Nakamura was also involved in animating the animated portions of a live-action version of this story that was made around the same time.

Although, as the creator of the idea of limited animation, Mushi Pro was just about as far as you could possibly get from Disney, it was ironically about the only place in Japan where the character system had been used (apart from maybe Group Tac in Jack and the Beanstalk and Sanrio Films), so Nakamura's animation in this film and in the Animerama films remains a precious relic of an unusual approach to animation that hasn't been seen in Japan since. Whatever the flaws in this approach, her work is an interesting case study in how different the results are when a woman animator is consciously assigned the task of exclusively animating a particular female character.

Jalis & Aslan

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

06:26:29 pm , 998 words, 1602 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #9

Rather than there being a sort of fundamental tone from which there's the occasional key change, it seems like every episode of this series is in a different key. Each episode has its own particular style thanks to the animation director, and a unique atmosphere and thematic approach. Nobutoshi Ogura's ep 3 seems the nearest kin to this lyrical and heartfelt ep, which comes across as a deep breath taken before we take the big dive into the climax.

I enjoyed this ep much more on the second watching. On the first, I wanted more to be happening and found myself bored. On the second, I was able to attune myself to the pacing and finally appreciate all of the various aspects of this episode.

First of all, this episode is quite notable for a reason that might not be immediately apparent: Every single animation drawing was drawn by a woman. I'm not just talking key animators - the animation director, all four key animators, all second key animators, and all inbetweeners were women. That's unprecedented as far as I know, and it seems highly unlikely to be a coincidence, so it's clear that this episode was intended as the Women's Episode. Kayoko Nabeta has in fact been an animator I've wanted to find out more about since seeing her name in various places after Cat Soup, and from what I see here she has a very appealing style, so I can see why Yuasa keeps coming back to her. She appears to have finished her inbetweening days after GITS in 1995, and then gone on to work on various IG productions, including, notably, Yuasa's Vampiyan Kids pilot, on which she adapted the designs for animation.

What most impressed me about Nabeta from this episode was not necessarily her own style on display, but more her approach as an animation director. She seems to approach the task like Kenichi Konishi, restricting corrections to touches here and there in order to retain each animator's particular flavor, rather than thoroughly correcting everything to impose a homogenous look. As a result, I could identify several distinct styles at work throughout the episode, for which reason I nicknamed the episode "the four Yukas" in my head. I don't know who did what, but I found it a good opportunity to study style. I went from one section to the other and noted clear differences in the styles on display. I found that looking at unmoving shapes like eyebrows and noses helped to make it easier to identify different approaches to line/form. For a while Toshihiko will look decidedly cute and cartoonish, with a bigger nose and eyes than usual, then later on he'll look closer to Ito's designs, with the small eyes and flatter nose. The end in paricular looked very much like Ito. A few closeups at the very end I would have mistaken for Ito.

Then there were the two guest characters. Their designs were wonderful. I don't know who designed them, but presumably it was Ito. On the second watching I found that I very much appreciated that they had taken pause to dedicate an entire episode to two such characters. An aged couple, one physically disabled, the other blind. If Kemonozume has been a story about a persecuted minority, then this seemed an extension of that - this episode focuses on, not a minority, but a vast group of humanity that tends to get slighted by society, shunted off into a corner, because we would rather not have to deal with them. We'll all reach this stage one day, and a day not that far off, so that's our fate too. This episode was a long and loving look at that group, and I found that moving. Perhaps that's another sense in which I found this to be the Women's Episode. Not to stereotype, but it had the sensitive, caring touch that I associate with some of my favorite films by women filmmakers - particularly so the last scene on the shore. Throughout the episode dialogue took the fore. The old couple described in detail the little things that happened in their lives leading to the present - words brought alive by Hisako Kyoda's wonderful delivery, with its breezy, mischevious tone - convincingly establishing two nuanced and human characters in a short span. On the shore, the dialogue between Toshihiko and Yuka, at a younger stage on the same path, was possibly the most moving heart-to-heart I've yet seen between the two, convincingly capturing the tone of two (comparatively) young lovers anxious about the future but basking in the simple happiness of being with one another. It was a very nice scene. Many of the most beautiful scenes in the series have been the scenes of calm romance between the two protagonists.

Stylistically, we saw more integration of live-action than anywhere before. Or at least, its presence was felt more. It seemed to be used mostly for short close-ups of hands in action, as with the cooking. In terms of plot developments, the entire episode was exclusively devoted to this side-story, so very little progress was made in the big picture, but there was one important plot point that seemed to be hinted at, though I don't want to go into detail. All will be revealed in the end, so I'll wait eagerly for the answer. Yuasa has been slowly spinning an intricate web of clues. Many things that I paid no heed before are now beginning to make a bit more sense. Like most of Yuasa's work, I have no idea where things are headed, which keeps things interesting. Other little bits... Nobutoshi Ogura drew an amusing little avant this time around, in his patented pointy-limbed style. There were a number of very beautiful images in the ep, most notably the image of the car driving across the shallow lake, as if in the sky... though I found myself wondering where in Japan there's a place like that.

Monday, November 6, 2006

02:12:52 am , 999 words, 1539 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #8

It seems like it all happened so fast. It was only a few months ago that I was surprised to hear about Yuasa's new series, and now the last episode just aired. I originally thought 13 episodes was probably a good safe number, but now that I'm halfway into the series I find myself wishing they had two seasons. For one, just because I don't want the wonderfulness to end so soon, but another part of me is feeling they might have used an extra season to make things flow a little smoother. I noticed that each episode leaps considerably in time. I like that approach, actually, but sometimes it feels a little too sudden. It's hard to tell how much time, if any, has expired between one ep and the next. But to an extent I think that's just Yuasa's style. He avoids overemphasizing anything, sometimes to an extreme degree.

I couldn't resist having a look at the creds for the final ep, and was amazed by the lineup - Takashi Hashimoto, Masahiko Kubo, Koichi Arai, Nobutoshi Ogura, Yasunori Miyazawa, and Soichiro Matsuda, plus all the best of the regulars. But now that I've watched ep 8, I see that this alignment of the stars had actually occured before. The staff roll is even more eyepopping in ep 8 to an extent - Nobutoshi Ogura, Yasunori Miyazawa, Soichiro Matsuda, Takaaki Yamashita, Tatsuzo Nishita, Coosan, Hiroyuki Okuno and even Hirotsugu Kawasaki (director of the second Naruto movie). Great lineup, and surprising. I would never have expected to see Yamashita and his protege here. From what I can tell it looks like maybe Yamashita did part of the torture session and Nishida the start of the attack, though surprisingly I wasn't able to ID many other sections. I also liked the bit at the end of the bathtub scene where Hobari languorously draws his hand across Yuka's claw. Even more of a surprise was to see Miyazawa make an appearance. I had wished out loud before that he would appear in the show. I'm looking forward to seeing what he did in the last ep.

But most of all, I was delighted to see Koichi Arai take the stage as the episode's animation director and animator of the "avant". (the segment 'before' the theme song) Arai had appeared before in the show, but it was an unexpected delight to see him given his own ep. Could this be the first time I've seen him working as animation director since 3x3 Eyes? Ah, actually, there's the Koikaze op, but that's it. That aside, then, Yuasa managed to do what nobody else has managed to do in the intervening decade and a half - get a whole ep out of Arai again, which I'd been hoping someone would do so I could see what his work might look like now. Stylistically it looks very little like what I saw in 3x3 Eyes. But I've never associated Arai with a paritcular style, and in fact I've always thought that he was a great specimen of a highly versatile neutral animator able to adapt to any style without allowing his own touch to seep in too much. Here, the part that really felt Arai was the avant. He's clearly evolved a bit since then, and there wasn't so much of the wonderful touch that I so appreciated in 3x3 Eyes, but there were moments when I thought I could sense a distant echo of that touch in the flashback stills. The girl looked like Pai in certain shots. In the ep itself, it seems like he did a great job of adapting himself to a style closer to that of Ito/Yuasa while investing the faces with his own more nuanced expressions.

Strangely enough, the episode wasn't exploding with the sort of animated frenzy I would have expected of such an all-star cast. There were moments that felt great, but overall the situation didn't seem that conducive to providing many opportunities to create vivid movement - though of course there was the attack scene at the end, which did have some nice work. The good bits there were were more nuanced and less kinetic.

It was a riveting episode, both in terms of what was happening and how it was presented. The storyboarder/director was Yuichi Tanaka, who I'm not too familiar with, though I see he was an animator on a few recent Ghibli films. Yuasa co-wrote the script. The script was really powerful, and the directing fully backed it up, doing a good job of creating an atmosphere of painfully intense claustrophobia. The first few minutes in particular were quite hair-raising. Live-action was effectively used again. Using live-action for only that particular object was a wonderful touch. It seemed like doing so kind of provided the key that was needed to make the situation feel vivid and real to the audience, which it might not have had it consisted only of animation. It's like when you're watching a horror film - you know it's fake, so it doesn't shock. With animation sometimes, you know it's animated, so it doesn't strike you as real. Using that piece of live-action seemed to step over that line and make the scene take hold of you the way animation rarely is able to alone. That texture evoked all the sweat, fear, and cold of being confined in the dark as a prisoner. This episode felt like it brought to the fore the theme of terrorism/resistance that has been a kind of undercurrent throughout the show so far. It had moments that were genuinely shocking in a way that few other gory or violent anime are. The avant, on the other hand, showcased the gruesome humour that is unique to this show. If I had one complaint, it's that I would have liked there to have been a little more effort put into conveying what Yuka was thinking/feeling that whole time, even just little hints here and there.

Friday, November 3, 2006

09:09:34 pm , 102 words, 979 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Yasuhiro Aoki

Yasuhiro Aoki's Amazing Nuts

Studio 4°C seems to have a new omnibus coming out next month: Amazing Nuts. The main reason I'm interested is that Yasuhiro Aoki has done one of the four segments. I was disappointed that he wasn't involved in Genius Party, so it's good to see him here. The stills from his piece look amazingly beautiful. Can't wait to see it. It's written by Shinji Obara, main writer of Champloo and Tweeny Witches, which bodes well. They were a killer team in Tweeny Witches. Daisuke Nakayama, who's been doing a lot of interesting work there recently, also did one of the segments.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

09:21:33 pm , 1116 words, 6072 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Toshiaki Hontani 本谷利明

There are often times when I become a fan of a certain animator after having seen just one piece of his work, even though I don't know of any other work by the same animator. Takeuchi Kazuyoshi is one such case. There was another such case in Akira - Toshiaki Hontani. He animated a few shots where the capsule containing the remnants of Akira breaks open near the end, spewing out massive clouds of smoke. Akira had its share of great FX animation - notably by Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Endo - but Hontani's stood out as particularly exceptional even among all that great work, and I've often looked back on the shots and pondered what made them so great. Personally, those few shots of animation represent everything that attracts me to FX animation - the power that FX animation can have in the best hands. I've long wanted to try to verbalize what it is about these shot that I like so much, though I haven't had the confidence to do it up until now. Not helping was the fact that I don't really know almost anything else he's done since then, though I've seen his name in various places, which made identifying a trend and getting an idea for what motivates him more difficult.

Well, I recently ran across an interview with the man on the subject of a more recent project, which reminded me that I wanted to write about this work. The interview was about a game called Grandia. A search for his name in fact turns up scads of hits for Grandia, and very little for anything else, indicating the importance of the project to him. The linked site presents a selection (!) of Hontani's drawings for the development of the project. I was impressed by the depth of imagination on display in the drawings, and the appealing style that is as far as possible from what I knew of him from that smoke. It was a surprise to see that he had talent going in such a different direction. But then again, more than a decade spanned Akira and Grandia, so he obviously had time to develop. In retrospect, the quality of that smoke seems to point to that future potential.

Anyway, in that interview, he made a comment that caught my attention when asked about his principles as a creator: "First, respect the project I'm working on. Second, think carefully - which does not mean think slowly." May seem kind of ephemeral, but I thought it actually provided the key to explain the unique nature of what I was seeing in his Akira smoke. I remember reading that animators working on the film didn't understand what he was doing when they saw him working on the animation. Nobody could quite grasp why he was bothering creating drawing upon detailed drawing that to casual eyes looked almost identical. It was only when they saw the finished product that they realized the impact he had been striving to achieve with those painstaking drawings. He had set out to raise the film's bar of realism, and worked patiently to achieve that effect despite the incomprehension of his co-workers. That is what struck me about his smoke animation: He had thought deeply about the problem of how to animate the smoke, found the answer that would most benefit the project, and did what it took to achieve his intended effect. His interview comment seemed to directly reflect this spirit. His animation displayed a level of dedication that pointed towards the sort of maniacal animation Mitsuo Iso would go on to do in the 1990s in GITS and Eva and so on.

To examine the smoke itself, looking at the keys reveals that he is controlloing most of the movement. In other words, it's DENSE. Lots of incredibly detailed keys spaced very closely for just a few seconds of animation. Nothing left up to chance. The movement from drawing to drawing is miniscule and precise. Like Hiroyuki Okiura's mob scene, it's hard to conceive how he could manage so many different vectors of movement at the same time. Seems like the drawing equivalent of playing four games of chess at the same time. Looking closer, we see the voluptuous forms of the clouds of smoke that make the clouds so beautiful to look at. Rather than whipping out haphazardly, they slowly ooze out the way smoke from a smokestack gradually changes form when observed from a distance. The clouds throughout the scene have a unified outline - a sort of regularly undulating bumpy form. The shadows seem to be the element that gives the clouds a feeling of three-dimensionality. A few simple hooks (they kind of remind me of Hokusai's "big wave") drawn across the center of the cloud manage to create a convincing semblance of three-dimensionality. This is a way of drawing smoke that seems to have been invented around this time: Instead of using shading gradations, a single line is used. I remember Toshiyuki Inoue saying how he got a hint as to how to create three-dimensional clouds from looking at Iso's smoke, so maybe this is what he was referring to. Besides the magnificent smoke, more convincing than any in the film apart from Ohira's, probably the most memorable part of Hontani's section is the moment where that rogue bit of piping rises up from the smoke to yawn across the screen spewing a trail of smoke. That one action conveys the massive scale of what has just happened very powerfully, in a way that only animation could, and for that reason Hontani is one of my favorite animators - for putting in the tremendous effort needed to create this amazing bit of animation that remains seared in the imagination long after the movie has finished.

Probably Hontani's most famous gig between Akira and Grandia would be as storyboarder/director of Roujin Z. Most recently, he worked as an animator on Gonzo's Agito movie alongside two other renowned smoke animators: Hideki Kakita and Takashi Hashimoto, though I don't know what he animated. What he did apart from that throughout the 90s is a mystery to me. I don't remember whether he was involved in Steam Boy or not, but if he was that would explain a bit of the vast gap in the following filmography, which I'll fill in as I find items.

1987
   Wings of Honneamise
   Battle Royale High School

1988
   Mister Ajikko #33, 37

1989
   Akira - pipe action

1991
   Roujin Z [storyboard, director]

1993
   JoJo's Bizarre Adventure #13 - Joe throwing tower

2003
   Last Exile #15 [ka], 26 [storyboard]

Sunday, October 29, 2006

11:13:19 pm , 775 words, 3490 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #7

SEXYIt's time to jump off the wagon of Kemonozume abstention. Several weeks have passed and Michio Mihara's episode just aired, so I need to do some serious catching up. I actually watched Osamu Kobayashi's episode a few weeks back, but honestly wasn't quite sure how to write about it, so I kind of let it drag. Re-watching it today mainly confirms most of the feelings I had about it when I first watched it. First of all, I commend Kobayashi on a great job. He directed and animated the entire ep singe-handedly, and it's no small task to do that. It's always a treat to see Kobayashi's work, and it was a treat here too. I can't think of many commercial TV projects where someone with a style as un-commercial as Kobayashi's - and as seemingly unsuited to the series in question - would be given free reign for an entire episode, totally uncorrected. It would have been cowardly and redundant to call in Kobayashi and then correct him, so it's good that they saw this through the right way. We'll be seeing a very different kind of one-man-show in the just-aired episode 12 with Mihara, who unless I'm mistaken just before this would have handled the much-talked-about climactic sequence of Satoshi Kon's latest film. Kobayashi and Mihara are about as different a couple of animators as you could find, and I love that about the show - that it embraces a diverse range of possible interpretations. What unites them them is a sense of adventure and bravado as animators. Whoever it is who works on the show, we see their work in the raw. We see the real face of a certain animator. It feels like this placing of animators who have a passion for their work over stylistic unity redresses a fundamental imbalance in the conventional approach to TV animation.

As for Kobayashi's work, it's basically what one would expect. Kobayashi strikes me as tremendously great when working as a series director, and when working at the opposite end of the scale, on wild fantasy shorts of his own creation, but he doesn't seem very well suited to working within the system as a cog in a machine. Needless to say, I mean that as a compliment. But in a sense, that is what he is having to do here, even though Kemonozume provides him with absolute freedom. It's just that, while watching the episode, I wasn't sure that it really worked. I had my doubts as to whether his style was really suited to this show, which is ironic since this show has embraced such a wide range of styles so far. Here they went even further than they've gone before by having Kobayashi do the ep, as if to see just how far they could push this concept, and in the end perhaps that's what makes the episode interesting. In a sense there is some similarity to what we see in Ito's episodes - Kobayashi's drawings also have that rough touch. His drawings feel alive and honest. In that sense they're similar, and Kobayashi's work fits within the spirit of the show. But in the end Kobayashi is not a mover like Ito. Ito creates beauty through drawings in motion. Kobayashi works on a different level. Kobayashi seems in his element when creating a fantastic world full of zany ideas of his own creation, not when having to move someone else's characters. Actually, I found that I really liked the way little bits of his animation were injected subversively into the fabric of Nobuteru Yuuki's sleek drawings in the first episode of Paradise Kiss. His style seemed well suited to use in a subversive capacity like that.

As for the episode itself, it was probably the most sexual episode so far. Each episode has usually had its share of erotic happenings, but here the whole pivot of the episode was the issue of Toshihiko's ability (or inability, as it were) to get off with his gal. It's an interesting situation: They're uncontrollably attracted to each other, yet sexual arousal triggers transformation, preventing sexual consummation - one hell of a vicious circle. The catfight was fun, and there were a few shocking revelations that kept things quite interesting. The main thing I came away with from this episode was just how adult this series is - 'adult' in the sense that it delivers ero without moe. It's only on watching this episode that it occurred to me how rare a thing it is to see sex portrayed in an honest fashion like this and not played up for titillation or as fan service.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

02:40:14 pm , 231 words, 899 views     Categories: Animation

Kotabe & Shinei

In an interesting addendum to the last post, I just realized that Yoichi Kotabe had actually been involved in the Red Bird. He was in fact supposed to have been the one to do the first episode about the Crying Red Oni I talked about, but he had to stop in the middle of preparations because he was invited by Toei to do that other folktale-styled film I mentioned, Taro the Dragon Boy, which also has a red oni character... so we got to see Kotabe's red oni after all, but just in a different place. He relates that he still regrets having done that to Kusube. He was also invited to work on Conan, but had to refuse for the same reason. It's interesting to speculate about what Conan might have looked like in his hands. He also mentions that he worked on Tenguri at Otsuka's invitation, and the work was all done from home - he didn't even go to the studio. This came right after he had quit Nippon Animation following Marco and gone freelance. This seems like one of those periods in a person's life when the future was uncertain, and things could have gone any of several directions. I can't help but wish things had gone in a direction that saw Kotabe working for a bit longer as an animator instead of going to game production.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

01:19:28 am , 958 words, 1959 views     Categories: Animation, TV

The Red Bird

A while back I mentioned the first series produced by Shinei Doga, Akai Tori no Kokoro (1979). Well, I ran across a copy in the public libary, of all places, so I can finally say that I've seen it, or at least a bit of it. I was excited to be able to see the piece just because it's the missing link between the A Production period and the Shinei Doga period. I was curious whether there would be the patented dynamism of movement of the classic A Production stuff, and was hoping there might be some interesting figures. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of either. The series is basically what I expected - a pale imitation of Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. Madhouse's Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi seemed a bit more successful an imitation, with more daring abstraction and excitement. Here things are somewhat tame and soft, talking down to the children. I think part of the problem is also the format - rather than keeping the stories short with the two-story format of Group Tac's series, each episode of Akai Tori is one story. For the most part it doesn't feel like the directing is up to the task of holding the stories up for that long. Also, I recognized very few of the staff. At the most we can see names like Shigetsugu Yoshida and Hideo Nishimaki. It was actually nice to see something by Nishimaki from this period. I'd wondered what happened to him after his work on Goku in 1967. Here he did the episode I was most curious about, Akutagawa's Spider's Thread. As lackluster as his work may have seemed placed side by side with genius like Dezaki and Hata, placed side by side with lesser figures he shines. He's among the few who manages to invest his episode with enough rhythm and drive to sustain interest, though only barely. I'd expect nothing less from someone who'd worked under Gisaburo Sugii. The way the designs change with each episode is one of the series' main assets. The clean simplicity of the designs is refreshing, especially seen in this day an age when there seems so little freedom to design out of the box.

Among the few people I recognized from A Pro was Osamu Kobayashi, in the first episode about the red oni. The avant was animated in a style very different from the episode itself, so I assume it must have been by him, although the credits are confusing and don't help to clarify things. The avant features catchy, stylized drawing and dynamic, exciting movement, while after this the episode suddenly and jarringly shifts to dull, uninspired movement of a kind that I would not expect to see from a master of limited like Kobayashi. The drawings are done in a brush style. It's impressive that they tried to do this on a TV episode. This was the same period as Taro the Dragon Boy and Tadanari Okamoto's Onigakureyama no Soba no Hana, so brush-styled animation was in the air something serious at the time. Unfortunately after the first episode I don't see any of the A Pro luminaries from the old shows like Dokonjo Gaeru (Kusube notes wryly how Yoshifumi Kondo left to help out on Conan in 1978 and never came back), and the first episode is representative of the rest of the episodes in terms of the dull movement and drawn out content. It seems to suggest that Shinei made the right choice in focusing on long-runners like Doraemon and Shin-chan from there on out rather than going in a more stylistically varied direction, as that is the format in which they were in their element.

We also see the head of the studio himself, Daikichiro Kusube, stepping in to do one of the episodes. Perhaps not coincidentally, the episode in question is an episode about children on the Mongolian steppes, like the Tenguri pilot Shinei produced around the same time with the last of the good A Pro staff. Too bad none of them stayed on for this show. Perhaps not surprisingly, the episode feels very meisaku, in terms of the pacing and storytelling, and even in terms of the drawings. It feels like Kusube might even have been influenced by Yoichi Kotabe's drawings. (I thought Kotabe was much younger, but he's only two years younger. Kotabe was born in 1936, Kusube in 1934.) There was no credit for key animation, so Kusube must have omitted it to be humble. It was nice to see this veteran of early limited animation stepping up to the plate again after a decade and a half to show he could still do it. In all probability this was the last thing animated by Kusube, so it's of considerable value. (After his landmark work on Kyojin no Hoshi in 1969 he is almost exclusively vaguely attributed as "animation supervisor", as he is here.) Being quite late in his career, the ep doesn't have the sort of vigor I bet there was in his early Toei TV animation. Instead we see the steady, balanced hand of a veteran. His focus isn't on packing in as much movement as possible, like Otsuka would have done, but rather the opposite - showing how to draw an episode by yourself using the least amount of drawings possible. The results convince, though in the end it's hardly Marco, as Kusube is neither Kotabe nor Takahata. But that's not what A Pro/Shinei is about anyway. In the end this is a fascinating little outing for the studio, and I'd be curious to see what would be made of a folktale omnibus setup like this today. I get the feeling it might tap some of the imagination that's being left untapped today in the industry.

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