Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Saturday, September 16, 2006

11:23:07 pm , 227 words, 1026 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Third AA session

I was looking forward to this year's VIFF to see if there would be any interesting animated fare (and to seeing a lot of great new films from around the world, of course), but this year seems to be a bit of a fallow year after a fecund last couple of years for foreign animated features. The only big one I see is Renaissance. I was holding out hope that Denmark's Princess would make it over this year. It's nice that we seem to be seeing more and more sophisticated animated features like these coming from out of the woodworks all over the world these days. Luckily there's another sally in their Alternative Anime series to save the day. This'll be my third time seeing the set after just as many years living here. Curiously, though, most of the items are South Korean this time around. Alternative but not exactly anime. I'm looking forward to it all the more. It'll be undiscovered territory for me. I'd noticed South Korean shorts making the rounds at festivals recently, and was dying to see more beyond Lee Sung-Gang to see what it was all about. Seems like South Korea's been going through a real renaissance in filmmaking in the last few years, and it sounds like animation has been keeping up. I hope to see more in the coming days.

Friday, September 15, 2006

12:12:30 am , 1164 words, 2484 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Movie

Legend of Crystania

A while back I ran across a trailer that got me really intrigued and excited. But not a trailer for a new film. A trailer for a ten year old film: the 1995 Legend of Crystania film. I knew nothing about what I was seeing, but couldn't believe that an entire feature film had been made in the style of what I was seeing in the trailer. The quality was simply too high, and stylistically not something I thought would have been acceptable for a full-length feature. I could imagine how much time had gone into the few minutes of the trailer. But a full movie at that quality was unimaginable. But yes, it turns out they really did make a full-length feature in that style. For some reason I appear to have skipped over it when it first came out, although I followed the first piece in the franchise. In a way I'm glad I did skip it, because I was leaving a very nice present for myself ten years down the line. There's nothing nicer than discovering hidden gems like this. And this one was a fantastic little gem.

The first thing I thought when I saw the trailer was: Why don't I have this in my Satoru Utsunomiya filmography? Although I had no proof that he was involved, from the first few seconds and through to the end the entire thing simply screamed Satoru Utsunomiya. And this was obviously no small-scale job, either, but a major effort. If it wasn't Utsunomiya, it was a really good imitation, and I don't know who would have been up to doing that. Most likely was that he was involved, maybe alongside some Utsunomiya disciples. I didn't think he'd have AD'd another film so soon after Peek.

Well, I've now seen the film, and I was delighted to see that it really was a full-length film animated in the style of the trailer. The film fully lived up to what the trailer had promised, which was more than I could have dreamed. It was an entire film done in the Utsunomiya style, and done quite well, with due effort put in to make it work. Seeing the credits revealed that Utsunomiya was indeed involved, though only as one of the animators, under his pen-name Satoru Mizuguchi. (mistranslated Mizugushi, in one of many spellings gaffes to come) I found that hard to believe. It seems clear that if he wasn't involved as at least one of the ADs, he must have had some kind of spiritual or guiding influence on the look of the film at some point, somehow. The whole style of movement and drawing in the film was a style he had invented. Of course, he had his own influences, one of whom was also present as an animator here... Takashi Nakamura. So it it felt like maybe we were seeing a number of generations of mutually influenced creators getting together. For some reason the situation reminds me of the way Yasuji Mori acted as the guiding spirit in the nascent days of the AD system on Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon.

Looking at the credits is in fact very revealing. The film was directed by Ryutaro Nakamura. Character design and chief animation director was Katsumi Matsuda (misspelled Terumi). Animation directors were Yasuyuki Shimizu (misspelled Noriyuki), Yoshio Mizumura and Yasunori Miyazawa (miraculously not misspelled). Animators include a mysterious individual named Koji Ishihama. Mmm-hmm. Koji -> Masashi. Add all of those names together and what do you get? Another Utsunomiya production from a year later: The first Popolo Crois game. Every one of those folks, except for Shimizu, was involved in the animated parts of the game, made right after the Crystania film, and directed again by Nakamura. The style of movement is very similar in both, as is the whole RPG situation, although the characters & style couldn't be more different. Another name I wondered about in the credits was the first - Michiki Mihara. Could this be Michio Mihara? Just about the only name they didn't misspell was Takashi Nakamura, because he writes his name in hiragana.

The animation was sumptuous, a feast for the eyes. The characters were typically pared down in order to facilitate filling out every moment with interesting movement. They moved freely in a natural and three-dimensional way, rather than on the flat posing plane of typical anime. The acting had richness and nuance that set it apart from most other productions. The character drawings were very typical of Utsunomiya in the spareness of lines, and the particular way hands and joints and so on were drawn. Certain sections stood out as looking particularly Utsunomiya, and these may have been the bits he actually animated. In other places, I could clearly see that there were other people at work. The designs were clearly not his work, though they were in his spirit in the spareness of lines. It would be interesting to find out the background behind the animation - why the staff decided on this particular style, and to what extent Utsunomiya was involved in shaping it.

Piled on top of the pleasure of finding an entire film in this style was another, unexpected, and even greater pleasure. I was happy when I saw Yasunori Miyazawa's name in the credits as one of the ADs, but nothing could have prepared me for the wonderfulness of what lay in store inside. This film provided some of the best work I've seen from the man, all of it very dense, very clearly of his hand, and all absolutely stunning work. To me, he flat out stole the show. I was reminded of his work in the Popolo Crois game, on the last segment, which had a huge impact on me when I first saw it. Miyazawa is amazing now, but he has been amazing for more than a decade now. Miyazawa was only credited as an animation director, but he was obviously in charge of the magic effects in the film. He brought the magical flames and bubbling, pulsating forms to life, filling the screen with an array of forms and flat colors moving and interacting organically. It was easy to know what Miyazawa did. As soon as his work came on the screen, I got goosebumps and my jaw dropped in awe. The animation was already wonderful as it is, but Miyazawa occupies his own unique realm of wonder. His sections gave the animation just the push of the unexpected and uncontrolled that was needed to make it all feel complete.

I think the time is ripe for another film like this, either with Utsunomiya at the head or somehow involved in shaping the style of animation. With perhaps a slightly more original story to tell and no franchise strings attached it might result in a film that would open people's eyes to a new old sort of beauty - the beauty of animation.

Related: Spotlight on Satoru Utsunomiya

Thursday, August 31, 2006

11:49:11 am , 878 words, 1863 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #4

I'd been wondering how Madhouse was possibly going to manage to push so many productions through to completion while keeping the quality at a reasonable level. Mostly I was worried about whether their having taken on too many projects would adversely affect Iso's and Yuasa's series. I had forgotten all about Madhouse's situation watching the fabulous first three episodes. Watching episode 4 brought it all back. It appears that it was indeed asking a bit too much to hope for every episode to have the incredible level of quality of the first three episodes. For a thirteen episode series, I would say that it would be an acceptable compromise to have two, max three, episodes like this, if the alternative were no episodes at all. Though more than that would be a little painful too. There probably wouldn't be any other way to get this show produced otherwise. I still think it's a miracle they're even making it. I think maybe that's where Madhouse's secret lies. This ability to take a big chance with a crazy idea and figure out how to get it produced by being willing to compromise in certain areas. It seems like kind of a rough and dirty approach that doesn't go for perfection but favors just getting in there and trying and seeing the best they can do. It won't be perfect, but there'll be moments of perfection.

Where this episode comes in is laying the groundwork for those moments of perfection. To put a positive spin on it, episode four can serve quite well to remind just how brilliant the first three episodes were. To show how those episodes might have looked in any other hands. (shudder) It lacked most everything that made the first few episodes so amazing. The drawings themselves weren't bad. No studio was credited, but this is Madhouse we're talking about, so clearly the animation has to have been the work of Dr Movie. Madhouse uses Dr Movie effectively, if at times a little excessively to my taste, throughout their productions. Mostly for inbetweening, not key animation. Here they're doing the key animation, and while it doesn't move a lot or in a very interesting fashion, it's at a passable level. The drawings are right. It's ordinary animation. Madhouse has been working with Dr Movie for a long time, and Dr Movie has clearly come a long way. Their work on average is probably slightly above the average in Japan. But the real problem is that the average doesn't even remotely compare with the level of what was done in the first few eps by geniuses like Masaaki Yuasa, Nobutake Ito and Nobutoshi Ogura. It hurts when you hit the ground from that height. I honestly don't think this ep is the Dr's fault, though. The writing and directing felt much more fishy to me. An episode can be incredible with great animation and crap directing/story, and vice-versa. Here both were way too average. The one scene that stood out in terms of the animation was the little fight at the beginning. I liked the drawings and movement there. The drawings were really crazy, very free and energetic, you could just feel the guy's pencil flying, which is what the spirit of this visual style is supposed to be about.

I never quite understood the concept of co-productions. It seems to me like everything that's interesting about animation comes about from the artistic sparks that fly when people are working on a team with other people, in the flesh, exchanging ideas and brainstorming and bouncing ideas off other people. I could never understand the concept of getting a bunch of people scattered around the world to work on the same film and expect to see results. I'm sure there are examples where people have managed to get it to work, but it seems like a bit of a lost cause, like a lot of effort for comparatively little result. What this ep suggests to me is that, no matter how long you cultivate a relationship with another studio somewhere else, in the end, if you're not working with a team on the same production floor, then you're just not going to get that 'sync' that is what produces the real magic in animation. But it's late and I'm just rambling so never mind. I don't know what I'm talking about, just venting a feeling.

The thing that perhaps most surprised me about this episode was to discover that the story is set in 1980. This backgrounder episode takes place in 1956, during the youth of the father and mother, thus fleshing out the roots the family tree. I can't help but be reminded of Mind Game, where Yuasa went out of his way to come up with a background story and string of important life events for every one of the characters, even the ones with very little screentime. Think of the yakuza's story. These little snatches of memories, littered throughout the film, helped to give the film its feeling of depth. Also, Yuasa is always very conscientious in his use of color, sometimes even boldly changing the color of the screen to match the tone of a certain scene, and I enjoyed the appropriate sepia tone of this episode.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

09:14:44 pm , 847 words, 877 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Welcome to the NHK #8

While I've been patiently waiting for the new Doraemon movie to come out on DVD, I'd been starving for some new Hisashi Mori, so I was happy to see him in the latest ep of Welcome to the NHK. I actually didn't think he'd work on the show, even though longtime bud Hiroyuki Okuno was involved, so it was a good surprise to see him there.

It was an interesting ep for various reasons. First of all, I've been really enjoying the show so far. The story is going in a more interesting direction than it seemed to be going early on, and it's one of the few series where I find myself genuinely looking forward to each episode. The whole situation with the mother here was pretty well handled. It felt like they got down the dynamic pretty well, though it's all done in passing and they never really dig into things to create depth. It's rare these days that I can actually watch a series with as low an average as this in terms of the animation. It's not that I don't notice it. Watching the animation is like having a stick poked in your eye every few seconds, so it's hard not to notice. But you can turn that around and say it's a good way of getting a nice, lengthy look at just what happens when you have more than a hundred shows being produced at the same time...

I think watching this ep I finally 'got' Hiroyuki Okuno's drawings, after having seen a few of his Speed Grapher eps. Seeing him work on different characters made it possible to bridge the gap, to connect the stylistic dots. I can't say I'm terribly impressed by his drawings, but he did a one-man orchestra job here, so you can't blame him too much. And he's clearly being killed by the animators. He also seems to be moving away from pure animation towards directing. I guess I'm more disappointed that his directing didn't do much for me either. The whole situation was kind of a flashback to that old Mori/Okuno classic Virgin Night, with the protagonists just shown walking around silently together for a while. He does a good job of capturing the awkward, tense, exciting silence of that situation. I guess what Okuno is interested in doing is creating this sort of realistic situation where you can get into the skin of two people through the toned-down atmosphere and pacing. He brings out the slowness and dullness and awkwardness of reality. I remember being struck by how slow Virgin Night was. I thought it was actually a fascinating approach. Life IS slow. Animation compresses so much into such a short span. It was like he was trying to bring that slowness to animation. I can't say it worked perfectly, but it's something I'd like to see well done more often, so it would be nice to see him get better at it. The atmosphere in the second half of the episode was quite nice.

The parts that weren't corrected by Okuno were as bad as ever, but it almost gets to the point where it's kind of endearing, like you can see beginner animators making efforts to get ahead... or not, probably. I wondered what Mori would give us, and watching the episode the shot that most impressed me was the one where the two characters are walking by the port with the seagulls flying by. It's a fantastic shot. I could watch it for hours. I assumed it was Mori. But I'm now less convinced. The guy who's been doing probably the best work on the show is Shingo Natsume, who did ep 4, and he was here. I thought I could spot a few of his shots. And the more I look at that seagull shot, the more I think it's him who did it, if you compare with his drawings elsewhere. I pray to God he keeps going in this direction, because if he does he's on my short-list of new faves. It actually is really reminiscent of Ohira, so I have to wonder if there isn't some kind of conscious influencing going on, or if Mori's prescence influence him in some way. As for Mori, I remember perking up at something or other in the airplane landing that caught my eye... a certain timing that screamed Mori, the manipulation of different frame speeds, so perhaps Mori did that shot. When I give it some thought, timing-wise the airplane shot does seem more Mori than the seagull shot. Curious development to see Shingo steal the show in a Mori ep. Hopefully Mori will be better used next time. The best thing is that this gives hope that maybe there will be a next time in this show. I figure a show with lax oversight like this would actually be a good chance for some ambitious animator to turn the situation on its head and have some fun with it, try out some interesting moves you wouldn't be able to try elsewhere.

Monday, August 21, 2006

10:15:19 pm , 754 words, 1025 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #3

The question of whether they were going to be able to maintain the look and feel of the early episodes over the span of the entire series was answered by this ep in a satisfactory way. It seems that we are instead to see a handful of interesting individuals called in who have their own style that is a 'fit' within the framework of Yuasa's and Ito's stylistic base.

This episode was again tremendously satisfying, but completely different from what has come before in both directing and animation. Yet it remains Kemonozume. It works on its own and is a different interpretation of how to approach telling this story.

Director Atsushi Takahashi (who is also the assistant to the director here, and was heavily involved on PA) has a style here that is much slower, more lyrical and about savoring moments rather than creating the sort of strong drive that I would have expected for the urgent situation in which the protagonists find themselves. I found that the scene with the umbrellas best captured his talent for the creation of wondrous moments when you are carried along by a feeling rather than a naturalistically presented dramatic situation. A mood that says more than words could. The malevolent voice of the furious Kazuma overlaid over the moody rain-soaked nightscape made the scene literally hair-raising. It's a very different approach but one that is welcome. It fills out the world in a different direction, giving it more breadth. That is exactly what I wanted to see. Interesting takes on Yuasa's world by talented remixers.

It was a wonderful surprise to see that Nobutoshi Ogura was the animation director. And indeed, it was as if an episode of Windy Tales had wandered into the series. Ogura flexed his muscle throughout the ep, which was filled with his unique, tasty drawings. He hasn't so much adapted himself to what Ito was doing in the first ep as simply done what comes naturally to him, and what do you know, he winds up fitting in just fine. It's a very different look, but I recall loving precisely the "sketchy", loose-limbed feeling of what he did in Windy Tales, and so he was clearly a natural candidate to join the team here. His characters are not about the gritty drawing and powerfully observed gestures of Ito. They're much more cartoonish and warm, little doll-like figures with clean, plump forms with tapered limbs. It's not a style I would actually have associated with Yuasa, but he's certainly not far in degrees of separation considering how obviously influenced by Ohira he has to have been. It's an intricate web that all comes together beautifully. It's a no-brainer. He had to join the party.

And look who else dropped in. Satoru Utsunomiya. Fantastic seeing the opening drawn by him. I wonder who decided on that particular casting? Yuasa or someone from this ep? Again a perfect opening jab. No burying him in the middle of an episode or correcting his drawings so that maybe, just hopefully, they won't notice it looks a little different. Wham. Utsunomiya. Also just the length to allow him to get the scene down perfectly to his taste so that hopefully he won't go back and correct it afterwards... This series strikes me as having the vigor of a rough sketch, so I wouldn't want to see that vigor erased by cleaning it up. Utsunomiya's style is again entirely his own, but the variety of styles somehow doesn't jar at all in this series. They've created the perfect ether in which to allow the best animators to cohabit uncompromised. I was holding out hope that maybe he'd do a whole ep later on, but that seems a little less likely now.

Another great surprise was to see Koichi Arai in there. I have to wonder if he's not the one who did that video game. Who else might come in, I'm starting to wonder now. I don't want to start naming names, so I'll just savor the suspense and the possibilities. Never has there been a series in which each episode seemed so filled with the promise of an awesome surprise.

The story progressed lingeringly, dropping bewildering clues. A giant wandering the streets?! Expect the unexpected. Was that a dream? It was amusing to see Yuka's grandfather's house lined with sadoerotic paraphernalia, reminding of both jii-chan from Mind Game and that Mickey cosplayer from Cat Soup. And that guy in the train sure as heck reminded me of someone.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

12:08:14 am , 739 words, 1309 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #2

The second episode was a very satisfying followup to the first, going in a slightly different direction, but remaining unpredictable and spontaneous. It feels like with the second episode we can start to see a bit of the direction things are headed, in terms not just of the story but of the tone. The first episode was so hard to pin down in tone, and so much ground was covered. It was difficult to have time to get into any of the happenings before we were moving along. Now, with the exposition out of the way, it feels like we have finally shifted gears into the gritty buildup of the story. I'm rubbing my hands in anticipation.

The second ep was thrilling, but in a different way than the first. I would even say that, finally, with this episode, I'm seeing what I truly wanted to see from the series. Gripping drama. It was inevitable that Yuasa had to do exposition in the first episode, and he did an incredible job of it, but finally getting past that has allowed him to rip his teeth into the meat. And boy has he done it with gusto.

The episode was written, storyboarded and directed by Yuasa - pure Yuasa. No co-writer this time. If the episode feels more focused, maybe that has something to do with it. The focus is on showing the developing love between the two protagonists, and I found this part of the episode to be convincing and moving. It's difficult to pin down what it is that makes Yuasa's directing unique, but it has something to do with his handling of the timing of the little things that are happening in each shot, the way things simply flow naturally in a way that feels right. The scene on the rooftop is a prime example. Yuka speaks a line laden with meaning to Toshihiko, who remains oblivious to its true significance. She then playfully dips backwards over the ledge. It's a moment filled with tension. That tension is resolved in a wonderful stroke when Toshihiko gently extends his hand behind her back and brings her back up. The timing of the movement is perfect, and it simply feels "right". It's a perfect moment. It provides satisfying resolution to that moment of tension, all in a brief, elegant gesture that responds with its own metaphoric answer.

But the part of the episode that had the most impact on me was the last ten minutes. It's rare that I am able to become so engaged in a story that my heart begins to pound, but it happened with the fantastic scene at the funeral. I was immediately reminded of the scene in the Yakitori shop with the yakuza at the beginning of Mind Game. Here there was that same incredible, creeping, hair-raising buildup of tension. You sense that each of the characters has a serious stake in what is unfolding, so you feel for each of them, because you understand their motivation. All of those conflicting motivations combine in the scene to create a complex web of resonance. Oh, I almost forgot - my 'other' favorite part of the episode was the very first shot, which was just a great sucker punch of an opening shot, and also wordlessly conveyed that headlong feeling of 'falling' in love. That was another thing that struck me - again we see Yuasa's great skill at telling a story without needing words.

The animation was interesting. Nobutake Ito was again the animation director, but here it seemed clear that he didn't have time to put the tremendous amount of effort he obviously put into the first episode. There wasn't that croquis-like quality to the drawings, with those great gestures. It was still good, but the drawings felt cleaner and less alive. It felt like we could see the animators' touch more clearly, and the animators seemed to be getting used to the characters, with the faces looking more consistent. The acting was still well observed and the drawings spontaneous and free as before, but Yuasa the storyteller seemed to take the fore. Yuasa and Ito were also credited as animators. Yuasa probably did the action scene with the monster at the beginning. With news of a Mihara episode coming up and probably other interesting names, I'm very curious to see what other people are going to bring to the animation of the show.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

10:56:00 am , 1412 words, 2145 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Shizuka Hayashi

It's kind of nice that Crayon Shin-chan is finally going to hit North America, although it seems like they're pushing the envelope a litte with the humor. I was curious which episodes they would pick - i.e. if they would pick at least one of the interesting ones - and, as if in answer to that question, the very first clip I see when I open the home page (shinchanshow.com) is by none other than... guess who?

After being impressed by the good sense of the folks who got Koji Nanke to animate the second opening of Kyoro-chan, I was curious to see the others, and I was equally impressed, though in a different way, by the first opening, which had some absolutely thrilling and incredible movement in it. Curious to know who did it, I looked at the credits only to see a name that seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite put my finger on who it was: Shizuka Takakura. Beside her was listed one of the Crayon Shin-chan mainstays, Yoshihiko Takakura. This suggested that they must be married. I then thought about the only animator Shizuka I know, and finally put two and two together. Takakura is the married name of Shizuka Hayashi, easily my favorite currently active female animator. Bingo. Explained perfectly why the movement in the opening was so incredible.

It appears that Shizuka Hayashi reverts to her husband's name on the rare occasion that she is working on a project in which her husband is not involved. (although he did help a little on the op) For Kyoro-chan, she is also credited as the main character designer, and what little I've seen of the characters from the op looks very interesting. She also appears to have worked as an animator on the show, meaning that she moved her own characters. I'm used to seeing her moving Shin-chan & gang, so I would love to be able to see her finally moving characters of her own creation. The new characters gave her the freedom to try her hand at moving a different kind of character than what she was used to with Shin-chan, which she had been working on for 8 years by that time and no doubt started becoming a little tired of (Kyoro-chan dates from 2000). Judging by her work on the opening, it seems like she revelled in the opportunity, pushing her unique style of movement to new heights that weren't possible within the vehicle of Shin-chan, so I would indeed be very curious to see the show itself.

The show was directed by Mitsuru Hongo, director of the early Shin-chan films. There is an even more specific connection. First of all, Shizuka and Yoshihiko started out working at the subcontracting studio Jungle Gym, founded in 1976. Jungle Gym is currently home to Takatoshi Omori and Hideo Hariganeya, two of the main Shin-chan animators. Shizuka and her husband left Jungle Gym to go freelance, and joined the so-called "Studio" Megaten, founded in 1992. Like Studio Hercules, Studio Megaten is not an actual studio, but simply a casual nexus for the gathering of a handful of friends/like-minded creators. Mitsuru Hongo was one of the founding members of the collective, which also counts among its members animator Hiroyuki Nishimura, currently writer of IGPX. I know Nishimura more as an animator who provided a number of memorable action scenes for the Shin-chan films, including the fight in the early Unkokusai movie where adult Shin-chan battles the robot.

Hongo and Shizuka actually go back to the days before Shin-chan. Hongo had been impressed with Shizuka's animation of one of the episodes of the Fujiko F Fujio series Chinpui, and in the years immediately afterwards both set to work on the Shin-chan films and TV series, Hongo as director and Shizuka as one of the main rotating animators. Shizuka also provided animation for Casmin, the TV series Hongo directed the year after Kyoro-chan, on which another Shin-chan pillar from the early days, Masaaki Yuasa, could also be seen acting in the novel role of set designer. Yuasa himself has stated that he prefers Shizuka's Buriburizaemon to his own. Shizuka presumably must have animated the original Buriburizaemon episode, when he comes to life from one of Shin-chan's scribbles.

Shizuka not only worked on the Shin-chan films and TV episodes; she also animated several of the openings, namely the third and fourth. The first two were animated by the main character designer, Hiroshi Ogawa. The contrast is interesting. In the first two we have the staid look of the early episodes, with the movement somewhat sparse and lacking in character. In come the third and fourth openings, and we have an explosion of wild movement from Shizuka Hayashi coming up with her own approach to animating these characters, and in the process laying down the basic approach that would go on to define aspects of the animation in the show. For example, she is the one who came up with the idea for that undulating movement in 1s when Shin-chan does his butt dance.

Shizuka remained one of the pillars of both the films and TV series throughout the years, and unlike some of the other animators, she seemed to have a strong sense for her own personal style of movement right from the very beginning. If Masami Otsuka influenced Masaaki Yuasa, and Masaaki Yuasa in turn influenced Yuichiro Sueyoshi, then Shizuka was probably in there right from the beginning as a root inspiration and influence on this sequence of idiosyncratic animators who discovered their styles through working on Shin-chan. Speaking personally, I've always been partial to Shizuka's Ora wa Ninkimono. It's actually the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Shin-chan. Everything in it from the movement to the lyrics to Shin-chan's singing seems to capture the essence of the show.

Kyoro-chan feels like the show in which, after this long history of seeing Shizuka's impressive work as an animator, Hongo finally put her at the head of the team where she deserved to be. The second ending is interesting in this respect. Hongo directed and Shizuka animated the ending. Most interestingly, Hongo also wrote the lyrics. The song begins, "Nice weather today... I'm bored... Maybe I'll draw something..." We then go through the process of drawing a series of dissociated circles, bubbles and zig-zags, after having done which we flip the paper over to see all of these pencil lines come alive into the living character we've just created - Kyoro-chan. The ending closes with the line, "Drawing that made me feel a little happier." It's a moving way of expressing that mysterious attraction of drawing and animating - how just putting down some lines on paper can somehow make us feel better in a cold world. At the same time it seems to be Hongo's way of expressing his admiration for Shizuka's art, and saluting the animators who had provided the raw material behind his work as director for so many years.

In an aside, to complement my earlier post, you can also see stylistic evolution in Shin-chan in microcosm by looking at the sequence of openings, animated by the major animators of the show. We start with main character designer Hiroshi Ogawa for the first two openings, and see none of the manic movement or extreme drawings that we see in the later work. Apparently even Ogawa himself evolves into a more accentuated style over the years, as if to match the evolution going on around him. Then comes Shizuka's work in opening 3 and 4, still somewhat close to Ogawa's style of drawing than to her own later style full of extreme deformations, but already at this early stage showing her own highly developed personal style of movement. Then we get Yuasa, who himself also had his own personal approach right from the very beginning, but seemed to take in a bit from Shizuka and Otsuka from working on the show. Sueyoshi had a very subdued style in his early work, but after a few years he begins to show Yuasa's clear influence. In his later work he finally managed to go beyond this influence to come to his own valid personal style.

OP 1: Doubutusen wa Taihen Da (Hiroshi Ogawa)
OP 2: Yume no End (Hiroshi Ogawa)
OP 3: Ora wa Ninkimono (Shizuka Hayashi)
OP 4: Pakappa de Go (Shizuka Hayashi)
ED 3: Do-shite (Masaaki Yuasa & Masami Otsuka?)
ED 5: Parijona Daisakusen (Masaaki Yuasa)
OP 7: Damedame no Uta (Yuichiro Sueyoshi)

Monday, August 14, 2006

10:27:39 pm , 967 words, 2052 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Music Video, Animator

Koji Nanke's Minna no Uta videos

Koji Nanke's latest creation: Torotto

I talked about the indie animator Koji Nanke a little in an old post. I was happy to recently discover that about half of his videos for the NHK music video program Minna no Uta are available for viewing online. This provides a good chance to finally get to see the work for which Koji Nanke gained such a broad appreciation in Japan. Koji Nanke managed to reach the general public in a way few Japanese independents managed to in the 1980s. His videos were tender and lyrical, with adorably designed characters. He was very senstive with regards to the music and lyrics, always taking great care to fully absorb his source material in order to spin it out using the means of animation into a sumptuous visual form that perfectly complemented and even heightened the impact of the music. At the same time he created his own personal approach to the music video, helping to establish the soft, lulling style that has become synonymous with Minna no Uta.

Never content with his work, but always wanting to do something to push himself in new directions and strive for a new look in his animation (like his contemporary Tadanari Okamoto), Nanke did not limit himself to working in cel, but manipulated materials, sketched in pencil, and even combined these various media. He remained aloof from stylistic trends in commercial animation, instead adhering to his own personal vision and growing gradually closer and closer over the years in both style and spirit to foreign animators like Frederic Back. His videos occupied a special place on TV, softening the hearts of even people who would never otherwise have watched animation, and thus expanding the role and the possibilities for animation. He was one of the few animators in the decade of the 80s who was successful in carving out a niche for himself in this way, and in this way he was a beacon for a more artistic, personal approach in a decade when the growing monolith of commercial animation increasingly seemed to dwarf the indie animator.

Active throughout the 80s and 90s, Nanke produced more than 30 videos for the show over the span of two decades - and this in addition to the more than two dozen openings and endings he produced for Urusei Yatsura and then Maison Ikkoku and then Ranma 1/2. He is certainly unique in that almost all of his work, even outside of Minna no Uta, has been in the form of short music videos. He already displayed an unmistakable inborne genius for animation even in his early work, but this singleminded dedication to a single form has made him one of the masters of the form. He is arguably the most important and certainly the most technically adept Minna no Uta animator.

You can see an interesting evolution in Nanke's videos. The early videos were light-hearted and humorous, with more of a focus on simple but effective character animation. Nobody ever invested as much life as Nanke did into his characters. The lively dance of the old lady in his video from 1983 was filled with rich, bouncy, catchy movement of a kind unusual in anime. (Incidentally, this video was based on the animation for the opening and ending he did for the TV series Spoon Obasan or Mrs. Pepperpot, which is also the only series he ever designed) At the same time he played around with the elements of the screen, integrating the characters into a dynamic and everchanging flow of animation. Around the late 80s you can begin to see a change in his work. The tone becomes more serious, wistful, distant, and the focus shifts from the lively, vibrant character animation of his early work to abstraction and variety of technique. Nanke's animation was always skilful, but now his mastery reaches new heights. Not a frame or movement is out of place, and every sparing stroke and touch of color serves to advance the whole. Frederic Back unmistakably had a major impact on Koji Nanke, and his late work shows Back's strong influence both stylstistically, in the dynamic camera work of I am your tears and the freeflowing pastel/crayon transformations of Deja Vu and me, and in terms of the renewed focus on masterful technique at the service of a strong message. But even shorts with as urgent a message as Who owns the rivers? never come across as overbearing or preachy. Nanke's touch is always as light and gentle as a breeze, as it has always been.

From his early work to his latest, Nanke has made a string of perfect little pearls that you want to come back to again and again. He is a real gem of an animator, equally for his technical skill as a mover and designer as for his determination in continuously polishing his craft while sticking it out as an independent for three decades now.

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Bonus:

Daruma-san fell over だるまさんがころんだ
The sad mongoose 悲しきマングース
March of the big Totto デッカイトットマーチ
I woke up this morning あさ おきたん
The light blue one-piece 水色のワンピース
The kittens of apple forest リンゴの森の子猫たち
15 minutes on the dream express 夢急行で15分
Come to the ocean 海へ来て
In the projects めいわく団地
The upper classman 上級生
Shooting hero シューティング・ヒーロー
A tail's feelings しっぽのきもち
The seed of worry ナヤミの種
Rain falls on banana town バナナ村に雨がふる
The first は・じ・め・て
Always a traveler いつまでも旅人
Like a traveler 旅人のように
The day mom was a swan ママが白鳥だった日
Magic in the palm of the hand 手の中の魔法
The big thing you've forgotten 君が忘れた大きなもの
Deja Vu & Me ぼくとディジャヴ
Waterbird 水鳥
I win ボクの勝ち
Thank you ありがとう
Who owns the rivers? 川はだれのもの
Dream magic 夢のまほう
The wind-colored dragonfly 風色のとんぼ
The rice song 米の歌
I am your tears 僕は君の涙
Don't cry 泣かないで
Spring & Summer はる なつ
Kindness 優しさ
The strength of tears 涙のチカラ
The baby duck song ヒナのうた
Blue sky アオゾラ
I, the bird and a bell 私と小鳥と鈴と
The boy who fell in love with a squirrel リスに恋した少年
YELL (エール)
Go! Go! You're OK! フレ!フレ!大丈夫!

Kyoro-chan opening 2 (2000)

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

09:49:04 am , 166 words, 821 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil site update

Link: http://www.tokuma.jp/coil

The site for Iso Mitsuo's Denno Coil (www.tokuma.jp/coil) has been updated with a new visual and some info on the basic setup. The date is 202X. Sixth grader Yasako Okonogi(?) moves to the idyllic town of Daikoku with her parents and sister, but in the shadow of the venerable town's old temples and shrines, Daikoku is also home to a special administrative district equipped with cutting edge computer facilities... The project is finally confirmed to be a TV series, as I suspected. The picture is again labelled in a way that suggests it dates from April 30, 2000, which if true would underline that the project has been in the works for many years now. The novel version, written by Yuko Miyamura, is to be published this fall. They still mention that they are recruiting staff, but in fact they are now only recruiting seisaku shinko or animation runners. If only I were in Japan...


Related: Mitsuo Iso | Filmography | Interview | Iso Fun Pack | Denno Coil

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

06:57:16 pm , 1746 words, 1290 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV

Kemonozume #1

We've come a long way. Not only have we been able to see a movie by Masaaki Yuasa, but now we are being given a TV series. And a TV series entirely of Yuasa's creation at that. It's good that there are still studios out there willing to give talented creators a chance to head interesting projects, rather than simply falling back on safe patterns.

As with Mind Game preceding it, as soon as I heard about Kemonozume I began to accumulate a baggage of expectations about it, as it was just too exciting a prospect to remain ambivalent about and not wonder how it might turn out. In the case of Mind Game, my expectations were upturned in an interesting way. The visuals were as inventive and the animation as satisfying as I had anticipated, but the tone and pacing were more grounded and human and less manic than what I had expected. After seeing that, I began to suspect that Yuasa might go further in that direction in the future and try to develop the drama side of his skills, since he had already honed the surreal and slapstick side in everything that had come before. Having now watched ep 1 of Kemonozume, it feels like that was roughly on the mark. Here we can see all of Yuasa's wonderful little touches working on a base of powerful human drama. I think Yuasa realized that creating a strong, believable characters was essential when he made Mind Game, and here he's clearly building on that. I'm looking forward to seeing how far he will be able to take it, with a good solid 13 episodes to work with. He's aided in the task by the writer of Paranoia Agent, so I have a feeling that he'll be able to create a convincing and entertaining situation with well developed characters. The dialogue was especially potent during the younger brother's tirade, which seemed to achieve the perfect combination of well-written script with emotive performance. The voice-actor was Hiroyuki Yoshino, who I loved as Sigma in Tweeny Witches.

It's hard to know where to begin, as there's so much to say about the ep, which was everything I was hoping it would be, but one of the obvious features was just how similar the visuals were to Mind Game. Again we can see the same combination of live-action footage processed and blended with animation and strong color contrasts used to powerful effect. The fish at the beginning and the waves at the end created an interesting effect on the screen. We also see the same rough touch of animation used to move characters designed with that surprising combination of realism and extreme stylization that makes Yuasa so unique. If anything, the animation here is even more rough-hewn than that in Mind Game, which is saying a lot. Yet in some counterintuitive, Zenlike stroke of genius, the rough approach to the drawings seems to work to keep the look unified throughout. It's a continuation of the stylistic preoccupations of Mind Game. As Yuasa emphasized in interviews about Mind Game, it actually takes some effort to devise a process that will retain the rough vigor of the original animator's line through to the final product. Here again they've managed to keep alive the visceral feeling of the animators' original drawings.

Now we come to the other star of the show: Nobutake Ito, character designer and animation director of the first episode. I don't know how much input Yuasa had into the characters, but it seems likely he must have had some. As in the case of Mind Game, here the characters seem a perfect combination of the unique style of the director and the animation director. (Yuichiro Sueyoshi in the case of Mind Game) Ito, of course, animated the escape sequence of Mind Game, and more recently a few wonderful eps of Samurai Champloo, showing that he had a very unique genius as a mover. His style actually seemed to announce itself as very close to Yuasa's, with its rough lines and realistic yet exciting movement. Watching his work in Champloo, I felt he was coming up with his own personal approach to the rough yet realistic approach that Ohira and Yuasa had pioneered in Hamaji's Resurrection more than a decade ago. The first episode of Kemonozume seemed to show him continuing to build on that. Here it felt like Yuasa was returning to his roots, finally getting the chance to do the sort of serious samurai drama he had tasted under Ohira in Hamaji, whereas Ito was finally getting the chance to do this kind of down and dirty realistic acting to his heart's content.

Ito's contribution was just as maniacal as what I have come to expect of Ito, and maybe even the most satisfying part of the ep to me in many ways. Yuasa has already proven himself, but it was nice to finally see Ito given the chance to create something that allowed him to live up to his real potential. Ito has always struck me as a workhorse, and here he clearly put a huge amount of effort into the drawings throughout the episode, filling the ep with the sort of nuanced yet dynamic and intuitive acting and posing that could be seen in his past work. Essentially he's playing the role Yuasa himself played under Shinya Ohira on Hamaji, although Yuasa's and Ohira's demands are very different. Having been a great animator himself, Yuasa knows how to pick the best animators out there and get the best out of them. If I were to try to pin down the difference between what Ito brings to Yuasa's style and what Sueyoshi brought to Yuasa's style, I'd have to say Sueyoshi brought his own Yuasa-derived approach to Mind Game, with wild imagination for broad forms and movements and elastic expressions, whereas Ito brings an approach slightly more interested in specific details, favoring croquis-like quickly rendered but penetrating observations of a pose, and attending closely to the nuances of body language. There was particular care given to the hands, which are notoriously difficult to animate properly. I found the bit of prestidigitation with the coin at the beginning to be astonishingly powerfully rendered. And the brother fidgeting with his cell phone. Tadashi Hiramatsu says realism in animation is achieved by capturing pieces of reality that impart an impression of realism. This shot seems a good example of that concept. And right afterwards we cut to the highly stylized character with an oval for a head. Ito balances these two extremes masterfully.

Incidentally, speaking of Ohira, Yuasa has gone out of his way to involve Ohira in most of his non-Shinei projects since Hamaji, and it seems likely that Ohira is in the op. I have to wonder if Ohira didn't also do those two great shots with the expanding circle. Yuasa's shot was easily identifiable. In the episode itself, I assume Yuasa must have been in there working on the layout and giving pointers or helping out on the animation, as in Mind Game.

As for the episode itself, it was just a blast. The criterion of a good episode in my book is if I have to look at my watch at any point in the episode, and it didn't happen once. By the time it was over, my response was, "Already?!" Yuasa was in full force, perfectly balancing the drama and the action and tempering it all with patented Yuasa surrealism. Every moment was interesting and packed with some significance. Yuasa is very low-key as a director. He doesn't like to emphasize things. Much of Yuasa's best humor passes by very quickly because Yuasa hates dwelling on a joke. After Toshihiko falls for Yuka, we see a quick shot of the monkey feeding Toshihiko's hawk in place of the preoccupied Toshihiko. Only on a second viewing did I notice a character make a subtle movement turning his head away in courtesy as Toshihiko slinked to the bathroom after the battle. We're thrown into the situation without being regaled with windy explanations, but come away unconsciously grasping the basic situation and character relations. Yuasa manages the feat of combining a gritty drama of sibling rivalry, exciting action with rampaging monsters, and an unprecdentedly steamy love scene, all in the course of the first episode. I can't recall ever having seen a more sensual kiss in anime. The catchphrase promised "violence & action & love story & comedy", and this first episode provides the obvious answer to the question that must have been on all of our minds: How on earth could he possibly combine those things? Entirely naturally, that's how.

The scene with the monkey seems exemplary of how Yuasa deftly manages to combine these disparate elements. The situation is serious, with the two brothers facing off to determine the fate of the dojo, with a lot of emotional implications, yet in drops the monkey, who just wants to get his peach back. Suddenly the scene seamlessly shifts in a completedly different direction, with the monkey unfolding some killer moves in a short but great action scene that is exciting, absolutely hilarious, and drives the plot forward in an unexpected direction. The monkey was very Yuasa, too, with its clean, simple, elegant design that contrasts nicely with the look of the rest of the show. I could sense echoes of Hamaji in the scene in the rain. Yuasa's directing was simply fantastic throughout. I particularly liked the way he kept the shot directly fixed on Yuka's face as she moved from the beach into the car to simulate Toshihiko's burning gaze.

The animation throughout was wonderful, of course, largely thanks to Ito's dedication, but the two big action scenes were clearly the work of some good animators. It's obvious that we'll be seeing some interesting people showing up in the coming episodes. The official blog just mentioned that Osamu Kobayashi of Beck fame is doing ep 7. Here the only two names I recognized were presumably also the ones responsible for the good action - Soichiro Matsuda, who I remember for his action in various places including Futakoi Alternative, Eureka 7 and Gaiking 13, and Hiroshi Shimizu, an old comrade of Yuasa's from Shinei, who also does prop design here.

Needless to say, I was happy and very impressed with the episode in every respect and look forward to the rest. I wonder whose tongue that was behind the episode title?

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