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Here is a brief roundup of the little bits of news and rumours that have thus far managed to float through the cracks in the secretive aura that veils this project since it was officially announced more than half a year ago. Very little has been announced since then, which has led to much eager speculation. The most significant item of legitimate news came recently when Tokuma Shoten posted an ad in their magazine Animage outlining the scale of their ambition with the series -- Tokuma Shoten, of course, being the publisher of the seminal anime magazine Animage, which published Nausicaa, parent of Studio Ghibli, and otherwise one of the biggest corporate guns in the industry. After subsidizing the film version of Nausicaa in 1984, they then helped found Studio Ghibli, and funded a number of other films in the coming years including 1985's Angel's Egg. Denno Coil marks their first foray onto television. With the recent split from Ghibli, Denno Coil could be interpreted as the project that comes to fill in the gap left by Ghibli.
Adding to the already big enough news of Tokuma Shoten's involvement is a new piece of information in this ad that raises the stakes even higher: The series will be broadcast on NHK. I have doubts that this actually means "NHK", as in the terrestrial station. It seems more likely that they mean their satellite station, BS2, which is where most of their anime is broadcast. If they truly mean the terrestrial station, that would be unprecedented, and would mean a huge viewership. NHK has a long history of involvement in significant TV anime projects dating back thirty years to the likes of Future Boy Conan and Nadia and more recently Planetes. In short, the two entities that, separately, gave Miyazaki the opportunity to create his two very first personal creations, are now coming together to allow Mitsuo Iso to do the same. I knew to expect something remarkable from Iso's debut, regardless of who else was involved, but the fact that the hitherto parent of Ghibli, Japan's public broadcaster and Bandai Visual have teamed up to back the project annihilates worries about the show not getting the production backing it deserves. Giving credence to this are rumours I've been hearing that, very unusually for an anime TV series, the first season is almost completed already, even though an official broadcast date hasn't even been mentioned yet. (though at this rate next year seems pretty likely) That suggests they had a nice, long production schedule, and won't have to rush anything to meet a broadcast.
Rumours of staff involvement have been all over the place. Since the beginning I assumed that many of the people behind the quality of the big anime films of the last decade like Takeshi Honda and Toshiyuki Inoue would be involved. Takeshi Honda is rumoured to be the character designer. Tadashi Hiramatsu has posted on his home page that he storyboarded/directed episode 10. It can be assumed that Kazuto Nakazawa will probably be involved, considering the praise he received from Iso for his work on Childhood's End. A freelance animator named Igajiro, who is now working on Chevalier, reports on his home page that he did a little work on the show, to which end he visited the production floor, where he got to meet Inoue - confirming that the original karisuma animator is indeed involved.
With only a week remaining, among the best films I've seen so far at the Vancouver International Film Festival was the new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda: Hana (Hana yori mo nao). I knew it would be good, but it was totally different from what I was expecting. Koreeda was one of my favorites of that wave of minimalist filmmaking that swept Japan in the late 90s, of which his brooding Maboroshi no Hikari seemed to be the harbinger, but here he sets out to show that minimalist mood isn't all there is to his palette with a rollicking period comedy that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and trenchantly revisionist. If anything, it felt like I was watching a soft-edged Shohei Imamura. I never imagined he had it in him, and was expecting something closer to 2004's Nobody Knows. The humor was always dead on, as if it had been written by someone who'd been writing comedy films professionally for all his life, so I assumed panderingly that there was no way he could have written the film, and he was finally resorting to falling back directing other people's films, but I was impressed to see that it was written, directed and produced by himself. A real genius. The film is a long-needed re-interpretation of the cliched story of the "47 loyal retainers", recasting it into what it really was - a gruesome, anachronistic fiasco that gave the lie to the whole notion of bushido and signalled the end of a barbaric era.
The other hilight so far was the Taiwanese Cheng Yu-Chieh's amazingly accomplished debut feature Do Over. It was kind of like Magnolia, but without the schmaltz. Cinematography, sound design and directing were sophisticated and flawless. The very ambitious interlocking structure seemed to be teetering on the brink of spinning out of control at every moment, but he managed to retain control over every moment, creating a thrilling, stimulating, ever-evolving interlocking web of significance. A tremendous debut. The Moroccan Heaven's Doors was a similarly ambitious debut by a young brother directing team weaving together various narratives, but here there was less a feeling of control, with shaky acting, excessive length and inflection a bit too Hollywood. Climates by Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan also felt like a step down from his Distant, which I had greatly appreciated while noting a twinge of stylstic stretching thin. Here it felt like we were seeing more of the bad parts of of Distant, with long takes that didn't seem to hold up and a feeling of dreariness for dreariness's sake. There were a few years when Abbas Kiarostami's influence seemed to have injected a fresh vein of simplicity into filmmaking around the world, resulting in some excellent, sparely styled films in the early 2000s, but it's starting to feel like it's time to be moving on. Like Kanada's animation and the league of imitators, only the master can do it right. The Indonesian Love for Share was an unexpectedly delightful comedy of polygamist manners. Oku Shutaro's indie Cain's Children may have read well in the script, but it was a disappointment on the screen. In another disappointment, there were no guest appearances at the Alternative Anime screening, but as if by way of compensation, our patience was rewarded by a Q&A with the one redeeming feature of Cain's Children - its lead actor, Kazushi Watanabe - Visitor Q in the flesh! He's a great actor, and it was painful to see him saddled with the mediocre cast of this indie film. I hope he has a chance to act in some better films in the coming days.
This year's Alternative Anime felt very different from the last. Probably this was largely because most of the films this time around came from a different country. What was perhaps most interesting was to see the contrast in tendencies between student animation in Japan and Korea - if you can even identify a 'tendency'. Japanese student films seems generally more esoteric and inward-turned and abstract, Korean (from what I've seen here) more narrative-focused and linear and emotive. Because most of the films were student films, there was a sort of youthful 'haze' there, a feeling of still groping to figure out how to express oneself. The films had the freshness and lack of stale polish that I appreciate in student films, but also the lack of direction and purpose that can either be an asset or a liability in student films, and I can't say that many of them grabbed me except for possibly Act 1, Chapter 2, a bizarre retelling of the creation that worked on some visceral level but felt like it strove too much for shock effect. Notably, the music was excellent throughout. The schools must have been involved in the music somehow. One film stood apart from the rest in a league of its own - Space Paradise by Lee Myung-Ha. I actually dismissed the film while watching it because I thought it was not fair to compare the creation of students to the creation of a professional animation studio. I was shocked on seeing the credits to realize Lee had animated the entire film himself. I don't know if he's still a student or not, but what a difference genius makes! His film simply blew away everything else in the selection. I can definitely see Lee Myung-Ha going places. Lee's film was perfectly balanced entertainment, showing a level of technical refinement and narrative assuredness that I thought only a team of professionals could have achieved. A question that remains with me is how on earth he animated the film. Did he map the movement of the robot from CG? If he did, the results are wonderful and don't feel like CG; if he didn't, he's an amazing prodigy of an animator.
The entries from Japan were in the minority this time around, but had a better batting average. The experimental CG short Suzie No-Name was way, way too bizarre for its own good, but otherwise Yoshinao Sato's Desktop took a simple enough idea - how would you animate the desktop? - and did a convincing job of discovering a method of animation that stays true to the nature of the material, unleashing the hidden potential movement in the familiar play of windows splayed across all of our desktops by moving them around in an ingenious and mesmerizing dance of resizing, scrolling, and zooming. The third and last of the Japanese entries and of the selection was the one that struck me at the deepest level, Mitsuo Toyama's Trot. Toyama is a name I discovered on Digital Stadium, a peculiar and intriguing figure who is possibly even more interesting as a person than the animation he creates, which is saying a lot. I mentioned that the lack of polish of student films can be either an asset or a liability, and Toyama is one of the rare cases where it is an asset. In fact, it seems to be intrinsically tied to what makes his films great - that evanescent, delicate awkwardness of youth that will disappear with time. Toyama seems to be a true visionary - a poet whose poem is his life. I don't know what he is doing with his life now, but when his first film hit Digital Stadium in 2005 - You and I, and the Wind - he was working in a factory assembling cell phones by night and reading poetry to his own musical accompaniment like a Tokyo troubadour in city parks by day. His animation is an extension of that spirit of living in the now, steeped in a language and a mood entirely his own - the language of the cold wind striking your face on a walk in the dark of the night. Whereas most animation is as if squeezed out because the creators don't have anything to say, Toyama isn't squeezing. He's channelling. His films feel like a stethoscope to the soul. Watching his films you find yourself floating along on his mystical wavelength without even needing to understand what is going on. There are different ways an animated film can 'work', and his work fantastically well on the level of mood. I see now that Toyama came back to Digital Stadium with another film just last month - Celestial Observations.
I haven't had time to post much of anything in here recently (as usual), so I thought I would fill in the blank by posting this thing I threw together for my own reference some time ago - a simple list of some of the animators I've hilighted over the last two years, to see who's been covered and who remains to be... This might serve as a sort of extension of the Karisuma Animators page.
Mitsuo Iso 磯光雄
Mitsuo Iso Interview
Iso Fun Pack
Satoru Utsunomiya うつのみや理
Leading up to Aquarion 19
Yoshinori Kanada 金田伊功
The Kanada School
Koichi Arai 新井浩一
Hisashi Mori 森久司
Yasunori Miyazawa 宮沢康紀
Michio Mihara 三原三千夫
Nobutake Ito 伊東伸高
Takaaki Wada 和田高明
Ko Yoshinari 吉成鋼
Hideki Hamasu 濱洲英喜
Kazuo Komatsubara 小松原一男
Norimoto Tokura 戸倉紀元
Yasuhiro Nakura 名倉靖博
Ichiro Itano 板野一郎
Tomonori Kogawa 湖川友謙
Yasuhiro Aoki 青木康浩
Shinsaku Kozuma 上妻晋作
Hiroshi Okubo 大久保宏
Susumu Yamaguchi 山口晋
Tadashi Hiramatsu 平松禎史
Tadashi Hiramatsu interview
Toshiyuki Inoue 井上俊之
Toshiyuki Inoue interview
Toshiyuki Inoue interview - Part 2
Most of the time I've tried to focus on names that haven't received as much attention as I feel they deserve, while avoiding the more well-known names. But there are a few more well known figures I'd like to write about sometime. For one, I'd like to write a post about Takeshi Honda. Rumor has it that he is the CD of Denno Coil, so I thought it was a good time to look back on his work. I bet he's a pretty familiar name to many of you. What do you think of Honda? What do you think about any of the animators I've hilighted here? Who are your favorites? Why? Who do you think deserves to be written about that I haven't covered here? There are plenty of great animators I haven't covered here, so the future is full of possibility.
For some reason I forgot to mention one of the items that I've been most looking forward to at the VIFF this year: Tokyo Loop. It was in the back of my mind when I noticed it on the lineup, so it was a nice surprise. I was expecting to have to wait to get it on DVD, but instead I got to see it on the big screen first. This is one of the rare times I felt like I might have been better off seeing it on DVD the first time, in the comfort and safe solitude of my room. Having heard Koji Yamamura was heading the project, I was expecting an 'animation omnibus', but Koji Yamamura's Fig was in fact the only piece in the collection that struck me as being deeply satisfying as animation. I hate making pedantic distinctions between what's animated and what's not, so I won't. I think each of the pieces do work as animation at a fundamental level. You just have to approach it with an open mind. As an omnibus of cool new artsy shorts from a number of great Japanese artists, it was great film. It should have been obvious that it would emphasize the experimental side from the fact that many of the creators involved aren't animators, but experimental filmmakers or artists or the like.
A big pull of the film was the music by Seiichi Yamamoto. I was delighted to see that apparently his awesome work on Mind Game got some attention and he was being tapped for another hour & a half of film music. Masaaki Yuasa's comment about the amazing variety of the music he provided for Mind Game popped into my head during the screening. From one piece to the next you really do not know what to expect, and it's hard to believe a single guy came up with all of those different pieces, which ranged from Zeni Geva-inspired noise to Zoviet France-esque loops to driving drum solos to sweet medolies. This guy can do it all. My one complaint was that I felt that perhaps some of the shorts weren't as fairly served by the music as they could have been, while others benefited from extravagantly labored scores. I think this is an impression that might change watching it on DVD. The simple loops some of the films had seemed appropriate, but the audience was getting restless during some of them, which made it hard to appreciate the piece as it should have been. The experience reminded me of just how important an element music is in animation, how much the score can change your impression of a piece.
The driving drum solo in question came in the first piece, by Masahiko Sato, who is one of Japan's more famous TV advertisement directors. (you can see a number of his spots here) The music provided the perfect rhythm to jump-start the film, and great accompaniment to the pared-down screen, which consists simply of a series of dots representing a stick figure's joints in the process of walking across the screen, with lines dancing out from the joints in various configurations. Like most of the shorts in the film, there was no story. I've noticed a healthy trend of getting away from simple narrative in recent years in Japanese shorts. The opener worked perfect as an opener and as a film - a straightforward exploration of a simple concept: what happens on the screen when you connect the dots in various ways? It was one of my favorites of the movie, doing what I like best - taking a very simple concept and 'running' with it farther than you would have thought possible with such simple means. Watching it I felt digital was the future. I've never been a fan of what I've seen done with 3DCG so far, but it's in conceptually ingenious pieces like this and other shorts I've seen from Japanese students and elsewhere around the world over the last few years, like Robert Seidel's _grau, that I really felt the future of digital.
The indomitably frisky Keiichi Tanaami was here with a piece that was typical of what I've seen from his recent collaborations with the mystic Nobuhiro Aihara, who was also present with a new dose of psychedelia. It felt like Aihara was taking a break from the painstakingly detailed animated mandalas I've seen from him in the last few years and tapping a more primitive root of the animated family tree, with a bewildering three minutes of subliminal flashing imagery straight to your cortex from the land of dreams. I found it a bit exhausting, honestly.
I was glad to see Koji Yamamura accompanied by the latest young sprout on the hale trunk of the great tree: Kei Oyama, who was here with another repulsively beautiful examination of closeups of skin and the approach of consciousness of mortality in youth after his great and ever so upbeat Examination Room. I love his work. I look forward to seeing the kind of films he'll make when discovers the currently very foreign notion of happiness.
Not difficult to identify the most fun had in the film. I knew what to expect when I heard Shiriagari Kotobuki was to be involved, even though the man isn't even an animator: Something extremely bizarre and odd, and somehow funny. I had a foretaste in his strangely entrancing (and addictive) Minna no Uta short Tonosama Gaeru, and this film was close in spirit to that. Shiriagari's heta-uma drawings moving around: What more could you want? The story of a dog on a quest for a bone progressed with video game logic like a metaphor for our neverending hunt for the latest newfangled 'bone', be it the iPod Nano or the next rung on the ladder of all of our careers. I have the impression that Japanese indies in the last few years have been exploring the primitive appeal of children's drawings to explore deep states of consciousness, be it Naoyuki Tsuji with his charcoal angels or Atsushi Wada with his carefully crafted crummy drawings going through absurd yet somehow uncomfortably familiar rituals. I came away from Wada's latest sally on the folly of societally ingrained habit asking myself this question: Would it destroy him or open up new possibilities if he gained technical skill, which he seemed to be doing with this piece. I'm curious to see where he will go. I've never seen such a mismatch - such bad drawings combined with such a feeling of being completely conscious of how bad his drawings are and knowing exactly what he's doing.
The current doyen of indie Japanese animation Yamamura was joined by two other unshakable indie pillars - Taku Sugiyama and none other than the original Japanese indie, Yoji Kuri. I've still not had the chance to see as much of Taku's work as I would like, but the piece here was wonderful and confirmed my suspicion that I direly need to discover his work sometime soon. One of the few of his pieces I'd seen before is his Minna no Uta piece Let's communicate. I loved the execution of the piece, which seems to be about the mental bond that ties two people across the space of time and distance throughout hectic lives using a series of flipbook-like loops with no color or anything extravagant, just Taku's typical simple drawings. The numbers written in the corner of each of page show exactly how many drawings were used for each of the little loops, which adds a great dimension to the piece, emphasising the medium, making it impossible to forget at any moment that what we are watching is animation. The ingenuity of how he plays with this simple concept is what animation is all about to me, and I thought it showed well why he was one of the most famous indies of the last few decades. His piece in this film was a fantastic little fable-like story about the hidden nature of people. I don't know how active he is now, but he sure as heck still has the touch. He's been one of the precious few indies over the last few decades alongside Yamamura who has actively tried to explore the possibilities of animation from his own personal angle, without allowing himself the luxury of getting stuck in the rut of a single approach to the form.
Yoji Kuri's piece was typical of his earlier work in terms of the style and the humor, as was his piece on Winter Days, but here it felt much more successful. It seems like his humor wasn't able to breathe fully under the constraints of that literary-inspired omnibus, but here with more freedom he was in his element. It was a great relief to see this great old master - one of the founding fathers of the indie animation scene in Japan - still up to his wonderful old tricks almost half a century after the original, seminal Animation Festival. His little story about dog poop worked nicely as a arch protest against an aspect of city life with which we're all too familiar. It was actually moving to see him still in action. Long live the king of sukebe oyaji!
I'm being reminded of my old write-up of Winter Days in terms of how I'm starting to run out of steam and consequently won't be able to cover each of the 16 entries... so I'll skip the ones that didn't impress me too much. The surprise of the selection came with Tomoyasu Murata's film. The surprise? It wasn't a puppet film. It was absolutely as far as possible as you could get from a puppet film - treated photos of the Tokyo nightscape. The colored dots of light from the landscape were transformed into a beautiful abstract dance of shapes and colors. What unifies this with his previous work is the brilliant handling of light, shadow, atmosphere and space. These are precisely the elements I remember impressing me most in Tomoyasu's puppet films. Again, a film where very rudimentary means were used to create a film that feels self-contained and whole.
The short that caps this fascinating and not necessarily easy journey across the back alleys of modern-day Tokyo and the possibilities of animation is a digital bookend by technical wizard Iwai Toshio. I remember being impressed by his invention, the Tenori-on, or more specifically, the way that he manipulates the simple electronic device like some kind of an emissary from another planet, a Mozart from Mars speaking a symphony of bleeps and blinks. Here he returns to the deepest of the deep roots of the family tree, exploring the concept of the Phenakistiscope through entrancing digital shapeshifting loops. Amid the frenzy of Tokyo as seen through the lens of the bustle of different approaches on display in this omnibus, some of them successful, some still seeming to be struggling to find a direction, this was another of the pieces that seemed to clear the fog and point, beacon-like, towards the future. The clock ticks endlessly ahead.
If one thing disappointed me about the screening, it's that none of the creators were in attendance. Perhaps I'm spoiled from last year's AA screening attended by three of the young creators. I'm crossing my fingers that one of the AAs tomorrow or the day after will have some guest speakers. If not, no big deal. I'll have seen some great new indie animation on the big screen. What more could I ask?
The fact that I can't watch the next episode until I write about the current episode incites me to get off my ass and write my post before things get any more backed up.
I've seen this ep three times now, and it's grown on me each time. The episode brings some welcome humor to the proceedings. The last few episodes seemed a little lacking in one of the things that most distinguishes Yuasa - his humor - and this episode makes up for that very nicely. It was hilarious the first time, and on the third watching I still laugh at the parts that made me laugh out loud the first time. This is definitely the funniest episode since the first episode, and the one where Yuasa's brand of humour comes out the best since the first. Yuasa co-wrote the script, which explains why. At the same time the episode weaves in a nice, touching story, and a fantastic action scene involving none other than the monkey - whom I've been dying to see in action again - so it was a really fun and enjoyable ep to watch. That's what I came away with from this episode - how nice this series is. In other words, how good it makes you feel just watching it. The show has heart. Despite the gruesome premise and occasional shocking image, it never feels morbid or repellant. There have been well produced series that I've enjoyed in the past, but beyond the technical aspect, there haven't been many series that I've simply enjoyed immersing myself in the way I do this one. And each episode is so different from the previous. There haven't been two episodes that are alike, either in terms of narrative style or animation style. This actually took me a little while getting used to, and I found myself wishing they tried a more linear tack, but now that I'm starting to get used to it, the approach is growing on me, and I can see how it's effective for telling this story.
Unusually, the animation director of this episode was a Korean whom I've seen in several of the episodes so far, Choi Eunyoung, with backup from Ito. He's clearly been one of the main folks behind the animation of the series along with a few other people I've seen regularly in the same eps but otherwise never heard of - Akira Honma, Mariko Aikawa, Masahiko Ouchi, etc. I suppose he must have come from Dr Movie originally. The animation was if anything even more sharp stylistically than some of the other episodes, with very daring and rough drawings full of wonderfully characterful ruffles and ridges. It was nice work and very pleasant to look at. He clearly understands Yuasa's approach, and does a great job of interpreting that approach through the lens of his own style. I'd be curious to know what parts he did in the previous episodes. The beginning of the action scene had a nice feeling to the moment, with some daring perspectives and leaping around. I liked the use of the "ghost" effect when Toshihiko was dodging the acorns.
For some reason watching this episode also reminded me of something I'd been wondering about since the beginning of the series - the meaning of the kemono. The way it is tied to sexual arousal seems to suggest some kind of a metaphor for human desire, though I'm not exactly sure how to interpret it. In this episode Yuka speaks about a doctor who performs free operations to cure the "persecuted" shokujinki. That single word puts a very different spin on things, suggesting that we may have been deliberately fooled into instinctively taking the wrong side in the presented power play of society at large versus the shokujinki in order to remind us how easy it is for us to unwittingly do the same thing in real life - how everything is relative. Certainties can be arbitrary and conditioned. Truth depends on your perspective and your willingness to empathise and try to understand.
Something I forgot to mention about the last episode was that "subway" scene. I didn't realize until afterwards that there really are places like that in Japan, where you can go and stand in a room designed to look like a subway and fondle a woman like some kind of a subway pervert if you get off on that sort of thing but would prefer to avoid the occupational hazards of the real thing. Great idea to use that to add some topical spice to the material. I remember a few spots of Paranoia Agent offering a glimpse into similar facets of the "fuuzoku" subculture of Japan, which seems to get more and more bizarre every year. Last ep I also noticed someone credited as "Mizuhata-san", which was amusing. Presumably we're talking about Kenji Mizuhata, whose name I see often enough, though I don't know anything about his style.
I'm a little late with the next ep, which I've by now had the chance to watch a few times. I usually try to write out my comments after the second watching. Impressions are most vivid after the first, but more balanced after the second. The fifth episode provided a number of happy surprises. First of all, it was nice to see things back at a high level in terms of the animation and directing. This was an entirely satisfying episode. Animation was solid and interesting throughout, with several great little bits. The story in particular was interesting, veering away from what I had assumed would be the main narrative to focus on the changes undertaking the Kifuken dojo. Instead of a linear story of love on the run, we see the story developing from various perspectives, shedding light from different angles. It's almost as if, rather than characters being the protagonists, the era the characters inhabit is the main subject. With this episode we can begin to see the historical allegory aspect of the series a little more clearly. Since the beginning of the series it was clear that they were setting out to make a series that felt very ... Showa. I don't know how else to put it. Literally Showa is the period from 1925-1989, but really Showa is more about the feeling of the times during the middle of the last century - it's the atmosphere the hippies in the Adult Empire Shin-chan film were out to recapture. The soft texture of the screen, the old placards, the street-oriented feeling of life - it feels like something you'd see in an old movie starring Tora-san or something. The transformation of the traditional institution of the Kifuken into a private company is a great parallel for all of the deep-rooted changes that overtook the country during that period. The grungy, handmade background art also helps bring out the whole Showa atmosphere quite nicely.
In terms of the animation, the big surprise was to find none other than Hisashi Mori in the ep, providing a stupefying shot that was everything I've wanted to see from the man and more - just not quite in the show I expected to see it in. I should have seen it coming. With Mori's indomitably personal approach to line and timing, I can't think of anyone else doing regular TV work who seems a better candidate stylistically for working on this show. Looking at his shot here, it's clear that Mori is going the way of Ohira. Mori's growth over the last few years has been amazing. Yuasa obviously did not miss this new face doing work right up his alley. Seeing some of my favorite animators whom I've never seen work on the same show before working here side by side is thrilling and moving. A face I wasn't familiar with did the pre-opening animation - Hiroyuki Aoyama. It was completely different from everything else I've seen in the show, but truly excellent, with just the nuance and delicacy and craftsmanly skill I would have expected from one of the animation directors of Mamoru Hosoda's latest film. I don't think I would have been able to pick out his work had I seen it elsewhere - and I probably have - so it was great to be able to see him given the chance to a discrete scene completely in his own style like this. The "avants" are turning out to pack great little surprises in each episode. Watching Crystania got me to fantasizing about Yasunori Miyazawa participating in the series. He would be a perfect fit. And I was surprised to hear that apparently the ep by Osamu Kobayashi (#7) might be a solo ep like Mihara's. On his site Kobayashi mentioned something I'd been wondering about for a while - who animated the awesome bit of prestidigitation with the coin in #1. It was by none other than Yuasa himself.
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.
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
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.
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.