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I've always wanted to see more from Yasuo Otsuka. I never feel like I can get enough. Having seen most of his major work, I'm left to dig up obscurities from his filmography.
Though flawed, the late-career Fuma from 1987 is one of his best works. His style comes through in it very clearly, as he drew or corrected all of the layouts and checked the animation of every shot in the movie. The long-delayed Nemo occupied Telecom for the next year, and presumably Otsuka was involved in that for its duration, although his personality doesn't come through much in the film.
After that comes an obscurity I'd long wondered about, an OVA with the long and unwieldy title FAR EAST OF EDEN 天外魔境 ZIRIA 自来也 おぼろ変, released in two 45-minute installments in July and August 1990. In it, Otsuka is credited as animation supervisor 作画監修. Otsuka was credited as simply supervisor in Fuma and the earlier Mamo movie, but presumably the two titles signify a similar role.
This was released to follow up a computer RPG of the same name released not long before. In fact, it had originally been planned as an anime, but the computer game wound up coming out first. It's set in medieval Japan re-imagined as if through the eyes of a westerner who had never set eyes on the place but only heard fantastic tales about the faraway land. It's a fairly fun, harmless fantasy adventure that would otherwise have been a good ride if the quality were only a little better.
In filmographies put together with Otsuka's assistance, Otsuka has asked that Ziria not be included, presumably because he is not proud of the work. This suggested there had been some problems with the production that led to him not wanting to be associated with the OVA.
I've finally seen the first episode, and I can understand why he feels that way. This is not a film that is up to his standards. It clearly could have been much better. It's sad because you can see that he was clearly involved throughout, yet factors beyond his control keep it from rising to his level.
Although it's not terrible, it's clear that the film is a washout on the animation front. The movement is flimsy and spare, like a crappy TV episode. You can feel Otsuka's hand throughout, as he seems to have drawn or corrected the layouts for every shot. The layouts feel nice, but you really have to squint to see it through the shoddy drawings. At almost no time does the animation have the speedy, fun, cleverly choreographed action sensibility of Fuma or other classic Telecom productions. It's as if the film was produced in a rush. The foundation is strong enough, but they botched the execution.
There are a few names I recognize in the animation credits, but most of them like Kei Hyodo and Masao Okubo were at the beginning of their careers and hadn't developed their styles yet. For some reason, Telecom clearly didn't put their best animators on this project.
Despite it turning out to be a sub-par production, this was Yasuo Otsuka's last major involvement in a film, so I'm happy to have finally been able to see it. He had retired long before, and even his involvement in Fuma seems to have been more out of necessity to save the production than because he was scheduled to. The same must be the case here.
Tatsunoko released a TV-episode-length one-shot OVA called Ippatsu Hicchuu!! Devander at the end of last year to mark their 50th anniversary. It was headlined by two figures who have been mainstays of Tatsunoko since their founding: Director Hiroshi Sasagawa and mecha designer Kunio Okawara.
It's a gag sci-fi mecha action show for kids in the spirit of their Time Bokan series. It exhibits the same outlandish concept and over-the-top, tasteless design sensibility as those shows, with the horse mecha and silly hero suit complete with spurs, and the whole concept of the hero having to pedal the mechanical horse to get a new lotto ball out that turns into a robot to fight the enemy mecha.
It references their past work and features brief cameos by a number of well-known Tatsunoko characters like Hakushon Daimao and Kerokko Demetan - and even the studio's own mascot, the sea horse or baby dragon. It would be an uninteresting, self-serving trifle of an advertisement for the studio it weren't for the quality of the production.
Jun Arai acted as the mecha sakkan, and he turned the show into an all-out bash of Kanada-school mecha action and effects. Most of the smoke and other assorted effects scream his hand, while an array of well-known Kanada-school animators or otherwise talented mecha animators fill out the mecha animation and make it interesting at every moment.
Most of these names need no introduction. They've been mainstays of mecha shows for decades. Amazing to see Masahito Yamashita still working on the front lines in a show like this more than 30 years since he drew his most famous bits that made him a legend as the #1 Kanada-school animator in the early 80s. I thought I saw a scene with the 'Yamashita run' and wondered who could be imitating him. It was most likely the man himself.
The more realistic explosions near the end were presumably courtesy of Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita, who actually aren't very Kanada school at all. The only one that seems out of place is Yusuke Yamamoto, since he's a director. The other mystery is Kentaro Mikazuki - obviously a pen name.
Shin Matsuo was the line director as well as co-storyboarder. I remember him primarily for KO Century Beast, one of the shows that got me into anime back in the day, with its zany, cartoonish sensibility and hyper-deformed designs. His work isn't always identifiable to me, but when he shifts gears into Kanada mode, it's quite obvious what he's trying to do.
The main mystery is why they chose this style for this show. Yoshinori Kanada was never a name associated with Tatsunoko's animation. In fact, he seemed to represent the diametric opposite of what Tatsunoko animation stood for. Happenstance seems to have led to this pairing, but I find it bizarre that for their 50th anniversary they go with this style, as much as I enjoy getting the opportunity to see 25 minutes of nice animation by talented animators. Well, I won't look the gift mecha horse in the mouth.
The Kanada school has gone through many phases, and if Arai's work is any indication, it is now in its decadent phase. It's all carefully polished stylization, where the master was all about dynamism at the expense of polish. The style is just what resulted; it wasn't the goal. Miyazaki's words from 30 years ago about the man and his imitators still ring true today. To be fair, this isn't a new trend. Yamashita Masahito and the 80s followers were the ones who first pushed Kanada's stylization to its decadent extreme, with geometrical smoke and insanely detailed shadows. Arai just updates the tradition. It's not unpleasant to watch. It's just predictable. It was fun back then because it was like they were sneaking it in.
The opening in particular felt like they were deliberately trying to imitate how Kanada might have done it. I know it sounds weird to say that, since the whole show seems Kanada inspired, but it's as if they weren't just doing Kanada-school animation but actually rendering an homage to the man himself with the opening. Maybe that's because it was storyboarded by Masahito Yamashita. It additionally featured a few other nice names: Yoshimichi Kameda, Yasuhiro Seo, Shingo Fujii, Morifumi Naka.
OVAs are that great format that permitted indulgence of the kind unsuited to the big or small screen. The golden age of OVAs is long past, but luckily there is still a trickle of interesting OVAs coming out with a more underground vibe or adventurous design style not suited to mainstream TV production.
Saint Young Men is one of the latest. It was adapted from the manga of the same name by A-1 Pictures last December into a 30-minute OVA. It was actually released as an extra with Volume 8 of the manga, apparently as advance publicity for a full-length movie by the same studio and staff released in May of this year. I haven't seen the movie yet but I've seen the OVA and assume the movie is more of the same. (apparently there's also another even shorter followup OVA)
I enjoyed it and look forward to seeing the movie. It's the story of an odd couple named Jesus and Buddha living in a tiny apartment complex in suburban Japan run by a domineering old landlady named Sachiyo Matsuda. Jesus and Buddha are just visiting Japan for some sightseeing, but they spend most of their time ineptly trying to hide their identities from the surrounding mortals.
It makes for amusing viewing, although they never go anywhere remotely satirical or controversial with the setup. That's somewhat disappointing, as the situation seems ripe for some biting satire of the two big religions, but it's still pleasant and well made. It's a refreshing anomaly of an OVA with an ever-so-slightly edgier and more indie feel to it in terms of the drawings and humor. The humor isn't overdone like in a lot of anime these days. The directing is downright laid back and gentle compared to the manic and bold directing style of recent underground manga adaptations like Detroit Metal City, although that was certainly a brilliant adaptation.
But the drawings are what really make me like the show. There's nothing extraordinary in the animation, but all of the animation is a pleasure to watch thanks to that great animator Naoyuki Asano, who adapted the characters from the manga with his usual verve as character designer and sakkan (and head animator). I've done a cursory comparison, and his characters are definitely an adaptation rather than a literal copy of the manga, which seems more roughly and less skilfully drawn. Asano stylizes them in his own way, not to mention designing them in a way more suited to movement and making them more visually three-dimensional.
The old landlady in particular seems to receive the most love from the animators. She's the real star of the show. Where Jesus and Buddha react more broadly, Sachiyo is the character you come away liking the most because she seems so rounded and filled out as a character thanks to the animation, not to mention the good voice-acting. Every twist and turn of her thought and emotion is vividly but subtly conveyed by the nuanced and delicate character animation, without even using many drawings. They don't overdo her sour prune character, and you come away understanding and liking her. I love her permanent skeptical, suspicious expression.
That's Asano's genius. He must have done this soon after Minding My Own Business, and it's testament to his versatility that the shows are stylistically poles apart and yet he's adapted himself perfectly to the material, and you can still sense his touch in the line and the unusual expressiveness of the characters. They're expressive without undue exaggeration. The visibly analog, pencil-drawn line reminds me of Kenichi Konishi's work on Doraemon: Nobita's Dinosaur, which perhaps makes sense since Asano picked up where Konishi left off a few movies later in the Doraemon movie series. I look forward to seeing where Asano goes.
Kaname Production is one of the legendary studios of the 1980s. Their two films Birth and Windaria are classics that embody some of the best aspects of the decade. They made a few other OVAs during their short life, and Bavi Stock (1985) is one of the lesser known ones, not without reason.
Two episodes were released, one in late 1985 and one in late 1986. The first, jointly produced by Kaname and Studio Giants, features some decent work, while the second, produced by Studio Unicorn, is bottom-of-the-barrel OVA dreck with no redeeming value. (Unicorn produced the least well-animated episodes of Pink Jacket Lupin around the same time)
Bavi Stock is not a lost treasure by any means. Apart from an exciting opening chase scene, the 45 minutes of this OVA drag on without ever getting interesting or exciting. The story is messy and not compelling, the characters stereotypes, and the directing is halting and clumsy.
The animation is mostly unremarkable other than the opening chase. Ostensibly a sci-fi racing anime a la Redline, the racing scene isn't very satisfying - all of the racers except the protagonist and the baddie get wiped out at the start without regaling us with any entertaining racing antics. And from what I could tell (I couldn't stand to watch it all), the second OVA takes a completely different tack, dropping the racing premise. The drawings are fairly decent throughout episode 1 (episode 2 is unwatchable) thanks to the Giants sakkans, but it's not quite enough to save the OVA.
This OVA is only worth revisiting for Kaname completists and to see a bit of lively work by the Giants animators.
Studio Giants was another good studio of this period, training a number of talented animators who went on to work at Gainax when it was founded a few years later. Their presence adds a slightly different touch to the distinctive Kaname style that makes this OVA look a little different from the other Kaname OVAs.
Masayuki animated the opening chase, which is the best bit in the episode. It gives a good picture of what kind of crazy animator Masayuki was at this period - part Masahito Yamashita with his breakneck background animation and part Yoshinori Kanada with the playful insertions and madcap posing, but mixed up into a very convincing and pleasingly original style. Masayuki was undeniably one of the most exciting animators of the 1983-1986 period, and his work on the TV shows Sasuga no Sarutobi (1982-1984), Rampo (1984) and Gu-Gu Ganmo (1984-1985) is worth discovering.
Kaname was a short-lived studio founded in 1982 and closed in 1988. They were founded by expats of Ashi Pro including animator Mutsumi Inomata and animator-turned-director Shigenori Kageyama. Inomata became something of a fan favorite of the period with her cute, twee character design style showcased throughout most of Kaname's productions. Shigenori Kageyama switched to directing at Kaname, and Bavi Stock was his debut. He also designed the characters with the assistance of Inomata. Inomata has since retired from animation. Kageyama remains active as a director is likely to blame for the mediocre outcome of this OVA; his later credits include Zeguy, Yamato 2520 and Queen's Blade. Other Kaname outings benefited from Ashi Pro veteran Kunihiko Yuyama's directing.
Kaname started their life working as a subcontractor on the TV shows Acrobunch (1982) and Sasuga no Sarutobi (1982-1984) and went on to create their own show Plawres Sanshiro (1983-1984) before moving into the OVA market with Birth (1984) after their TV project for this story failed to materialize. Thereon out they continued to focus on OVAs. These include Leda (1985), Fandora (1985-1986), Windaria (1986), The Humanoid (1986) and Watt Poe (1988).
It's presumably working on Sarutobi where they became acquainted with Studio Giants, as Studio Giants produced some crazy animation on the show courtesy of their animators like Masayuki and Masahiro Shida. Kaname essentially handled the creative aspects of this OVA while Giants for the most part handled the animation, with their animators Masahiro Shida and Naoto Takahashi (using the pen name Ryunosuke Otonashi) acting as sakkans.
Masuo Shoichi, though not involved here, was another member of Studio Giants at the time, working on different shows from Masayuki et al. Even this early in his career you can see very good work by him in Orguss (1983-1984) featuring the sort of tricky, three-dimensional mecha action that he became known for.
After working on Bavi Stock, Masayuki migrated to Gainax to work on Honneamise (1987) together with Shunji Suzuki, so this OVA is a snapshot of where these animators were at stylistically immediately prior to them becoming amalgamated into the Gainax style. Kazuya Tsurumaki, who initially joined Studio Giants due to his admiration for Masayuki, quit Giants to join Gainax after being denied the opportunity to work on Gainax productions from Giants. Shoichi Masuo also eventually became a regular participant in Gainax productions.
I also found this OVA interesting because the credits are all in (somewhat mangled) English, and the translations they use for the main roles are different from those that have become standard today. Rather than key animator and inbetweener, they refer to animator and assistant animator. These are terms used in western animation that roughly approximate the role of genga and doga. It's not just the credits that are western; the whole production appears to deliberately emulate western sci-fi/action movies in a very self-conscious way. Episode 2 features Ewok lookalikes and spaceships that are a clear knock-off of Star Wars. Writing the credits (and title) in English just completes the impression.
Vol. 1 released December 20, 1985, produced by Kaname Production & Studio Giants
Vol. 2 released November 25, 1986, produced by Studio Unicorn
Episode 1 main credits
(The following is an excerpt of the credits transcribed as-is from the credit roll. The only difference is that, for reference purposes, I've added the studio to which each name belonged in parentheses, to the best of my knowledge.)
|Planned by:||Hiro Media Associates Inc.|
|Kaname Production Co.|
|General producer:||Hiromasa Shibazaki|
|Script by:||Kenji Terada|
|Directed, designed character by:||Shigenori Kageyama (Kaname)|
|Guest character designed by:||Mutsumi Inomata (Kaname)|
|Production designer:||Takahiro Toyomasu (Kaname)|
|Sub mechanical designer:||Masanori Nishii|
|Art director:||Geki Katsumata|
|Production coordinator:||Tetsuo Kadoya (Giants)|
|Animation directors:||Masahiro Shida (Giants)|
|Ryunosuke Otonashi (Giants)|
|Shuji Suzuki (=Shunji Suzuki) (Giants)|
|Kouji Fukasawa (Giants)|
|Akira Sai (Giants)|
|Shinetsu Andou (Giants)|
|Takeshi Itoh (Giants)|
|Takuya Wada (Kaname)|
|Mayumi Watanabe (Kaname)|
|Hideko Yamauchi (Cindy H. Yamauchi) (Kaname)|
|Miyuki Nakano (Kaname)|
|Assistant animator:||Atsuko Ishida (Kaname)|
|Toshiyuki Tsuru (Giants)|
|Kazuya Tsurumaki (Giants)|
|Co Production Coopereted By:||Studio Giants|
|Produced by:||Hiro Media Associates Inc.|
|Kaname Production Co.|
|Nikkatsu Video Films Co.|
Six years on since Stormy Night, after many tribulations including the closure of his studio Group Tac, Gisaburo Sugii has returned to the big screen with The Life of Gusko Budori. A gloriously beautiful if opaque and perplexing followup to his earlier masterpiece Night on the Galactic Railroad, the film is a return to form for the veteran director and poetic visionary. The vistas of Kenji Miyazawa's imaginary land of Iihatov allow Sugii to soar to his greatest heights of imagination once again after so many intervening decades in which he made many disappointing directing choices to fans of his more challenging work.
Iihatov is that place where Japan of the early 20th century meets the spiritual but scientific mind of Kenji Miyazawa: Inhospitable, primordial and supernatural, where farmers pit futuristic technology against inclement weather and exploding volcanoes while electrical poles walk when you're not looking and acorns commune in night court in the forest. It's a world where rational and mythical, west and the east, past and future, do not contend but co-exist in a glorious chaotic meeting of nature and man.
While many of Kenji's other stories read like fables, Gusko is one of his more realistic and autobiographical stories, directly addressing his own trials and tribulations as a farmer and student of science attempting to improve the lot of his fellows in Iwate Prefecture, the notoriously inclement and rugged rural northeastern fringe of Japan.
The story tells of Gusko Budori, a boy raised on a small farm in the mountains with his mother, father and little sister Nelly. When a cold snap and the resultant famine (possibly based on real events that occurred in Iwate around 1905) rends apart the family, Gusko is forced to strike out on his own. He wanders into town and finds a life purpose in the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, the scientific body devoted to engineering the environment to benefit man.
This only begins to describe Sugii's film version of the story, however, because the director has taken considerable liberties with the material. He has incorporated elements from an earlier version of the story as well as from other stories by Kenji Miyazawa to create a vastly different impression. Notably, the fiery cat character who appears at pivotal moments to bring Gusco into the fantasy world of Iihatov populated by bizarre creatures appears to be the World Judge of the early version, although he also seems to be a stand-in for the Wildcat judge of The Wildcat and the Acorns. The interludes with him lend the film a whole new level of meaning.
He uses Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters again, but doesn't stop at that. I could be mistaken, but it appears that he is using the same exact character designs from Night, transposed onto the characters of this story. Giovanni is Gusko; the bread seller is the binocular vendor; the printer boss is the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau boss; the same blind man appears; the family drowned in the Titanic show up in the elevator; etc. It's beyond coincidence. Sugii isn't merely lazily using cats again, as I initially thought. He's using the designs as a character system a la Tezuka. This raises a whole slew of implications about how to interpret the film.
Not only this, other elements from Night recur, and sometimes even scenes seem to harken back to Night. The way Gusko runs through the night into town and into the classroom at the beginning echoes the beginning of Night. Triangles of light flash past in the fantasy world the way they did on the night train. Moths congregate into a column like the cranes in Night. Late in the film Gusco even recites wrenching, emotional vows that echo Giovanni's closing monologue to Night. The shot of Gusco dozing off in the train compartment looks lifted almost verbatim from Night, down to the shape of the chairs and the grain of the wood.
Most significantly, Sugii has chosen to interweave extended fantasy interludes into the fabric of the otherwise mundane occurrences depicted in the novel. Some of these are adapted from events in the novel, while others are invented or adapted from other stories. For example, the silkworm sequence takes place in the real world in the novel, but Sugii has interpreted it to be part of Gusko's ongoing hallucination/fever dream; and the courtroom sequence is from The Acorns and the Wildcat. The effect of these sequences is to add a narrative element to the story whereby the supernatural side of Iihatov - a colorful fantasy world inhabited by strange creatures and magical implements - seems to chase and haunt Gusko, appearing at key moments in his life like a fever dream, goading him onwards in his journey.
These fantastical sequences add depth to Budori's journey, but also seem to turn the film into something more than a mere adaptation. The film seems to render homage to the whole of Kenji's oeuvre by presenting us a dreamscape in which all of his imaginings coalesce, as if we were witnessing Kenji himself dream up the creatures that he would bring to life in his writings.
This is not the first animated adaptation of The Life of Budori Gusko. The late, great Ryutaro Nakamura adapted the story into a film in 1994. It was commissioned by Iwate Prefecture to mark the 60th anniversary of Kenji Miyazawa's death. It's an unjustly neglected film, one of Nakamura's best works. Despite having far inferior production values, and being somewhat rough around the edges in terms of the storytelling, I actually find it to be the better film.
Nakamura's version is essentially a faithful adaptation of the story. For example, in Sugii's version the silkworm sequence is rendered as part of the fever dream, but in Nakamura's version it is an actual occurrence. In Sugii's version, Budori never re-discovers his sister, whereas in Nakamura's version he finds her again in the city. ENDING SPOILER: In both versions, Gusko sacrifices himself to blow up the volcano, but in Nakamura's version this is done as part of a project with the Ihatov Vulcanology Bureau, whereas Sugii turns it into a solo mystical event in which he is transported there by the godlike World Judge.
Aside from adaptation differences, the films are also very different in terms of style. Most obviously, Nakamura uses people. The real world of Iihatov is depicted in the style of 1920s Japan in Nakamura's version, rather than the Jules Verne-esque vision of the future replete with steampunk flying machines of Sugii's film. Nakamura's film has flatter and leaner visuals compared with the lush, digitally-enhanced visuals of Sugii's version.
Not knowing where the story ends and Sugii's interpolations begin renders his version a bit problematic in terms of telling Kenji's story. It's a beautiful hazy cloud rather than the lean narrative machine of Nakamura. His flourishes are beautiful and could be said to add a poetic dimension to the story, but on the other hand could be said to needlessly detract from the narrative, which is already compelling in its own right.
I've long been a champion of Nakamura's film. I wrote a review many years ago, even before beginning this blog. I hope that the appearance of this new version will not deter people from seeing Nakamura's version, because they are very different beasts, and to be honest, if I had to recommend one, I would say go with Nakamura's version, because it is an eminently beautiful and moving film that tells the story both artfully and faithfully. Stylistically, Sugii's version is very close to Night. It seems a little redundant to see another film made in the same mold. When I heard about the project, I was doubly dismayed: Why step on Nakamura's toes, and why use the same designs? Even after seeing and appreciating what Sugii has done, and remaining a huge Sugii fan, I am still dismayed by those two points.
That said, this new Gusko is an eminently beautiful film, and represents the side of Sugii I most appreciate: oddball poet of animation. I am delighted to have it to savor, and I hope we can see more from Sugii, even though under the circumstances the chances of that seem slimmer than ever. He's a precious talent. There's no other voice like his.
Like Night, the heart of the film is its beautiful, poetic images rather than in its story. In this telling, the sequence of powerful images like the World Judge on his bench judging Gusco, or the column of moths, or the monsters shuffling about in the fantasy sequences, leave a more powerful impression than the story or characters, and are all the more satisfying for not having an obvious explanation. Like the machine that churns behind the World Judge, some mysterious logic or impulse seems to drive the seeming illogic and chaos of the fantasy world, and it remains tantalizingly beyond reach. Sugii is in his element creating images that speak to the subconscious, with no immediate obvious interpretation, and yet don't come across as grandstanding or facile artsiness.
The production quality of the film is overall very nice. Sanrio veteran art director Yukio Abe returns after his stint on Stormy Night, and produces spectacular imagery of staggering lushness and density, aided in the task by a bevy of talented artists including one Nizo Yamamoto. The intricate paintings of the lush forest greenery, the byzantine streets of Ihatov city, glowing San Mutri city at night, and the craggy surface of the volcanoes are remarkable to behold.
The music by bandoneon player Ryota Komatsu is elegant, breezy, enrapturing - as unique and perfect an accompaniment as Haruomi Hosono's soundtrack to Night. Marisuke Eguchi again supervises Hiroshi Masumura's cat characters, while Tsuneo Maeda again presumably handles the digital tinkering, and Night art director and Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular Mihoko Magoori handles the color design. The film'ss glowing, iridescent color scheme makes the images really pop. Shuichi Hirata (Noiseman, Metropolis) designed the wonderful flying machines as well as handling the art of the fantasy world scenes.
The animation is entirely satisfactory and at no point does it feel like it is lacking, despite the film having a very different animation ethos from any other animation out there. Sugii creates a meditative space that allows these characters to feel and breathe and seem incredibly alive without requiring them to engage in acting calisthenics. Yoshiyuki Hane and Shinichi Tsuji head the animators again, as in Stormy Night.
The film had a traumatic birth and I'm grateful that we have it. Initially announced in 2008, I was afraid it would not see the light of day after Tac went belly up in 2010. However, the Bunkacho stepped in to provide funding on the condition of a 2012 deadline and international collaboration. This is presumably the reason why Tezuka Productions was chosen, and most of the animation was produced by Tezuka's Chinese partners in Beijing, Shanghai and Wuxi. drop studio is also present.
I wrote about Grampa's Lamp before. I just watched the next quartet of shorts in the Bunkacho's program to support the growth of the next generation of animators, now christened Anime Mirai rather than Project A: Minding My Own Business, Dudu the Floatie, Buta and Wasurenagumo. These were released 2011. Another set of four came out in 2012. I will probably get to those eventually, although they look awful.
This is a good set in the sense that each film takes a very different tack in terms of style and story. It's a healthy variety, from the socially conscious and more artistically inclined sketch animation Minding My Own Business to the kiddy, colorful, wildly animated Dudu the Floatie to the supernatural anime rom-com Wasurenagumo to the old-school anthropomorphic swashbuckler BUTA. This seems like a better variety than the more recent set.
That said, Minding My Own Business seems to me the clear winner. It's the only film that comes together as a satisfying whole. The other films may have their qualities, but overall they feel imperfect. They work to target a certain demographic, say, which in terms of functioning as a product is fine, but they don't hold up as films. If this is the best these big studios can do, that is a big red flag that the problem isn't with the dearth of animators. I think they should be far more concerned in Japan about raising the quality of their creative thinking and storytelling than the animators. They have tons of good animators. What they don't have is studios willing to do anything other than make the same thing over and over again, or creators capable of thinking outside of the box.
It's disappointing to me that big animation studios, given the freedom to come up with animation free of the shackles of commercial constraints for once, show themselves entirely content to stay shackled to those constraints, like the elephant tied with a string. I suppose the reasoning is that this is more about vocational training, and short-sighted artistic adventuring would do the young trainees a disservice by not prepping them in the tools of the trade. I think the studios act too beholden to what they consider to be demanded by their viewers. Creative new visions should be the driving force. Among them all, only Shirogumi, a major force in advertising animation, has the moxie to create real animation and not just more of the same exact typical anime we've all seen done to death. Yes, anime is inherently entertainment, i.e. there to help us waste our time, but animation can and should aspire to more than that.
しらんぷり Minding My Own Business d. Shimpei Miyashita, ad. Naoyuki Asano
An elementary school child witnesses his classmates being bullied but feels powerless to intervene. Based on a picture book, this film skilfully explores the psychology of children both on the bullied and the bullying side in Japanese elementary schools. The vivid, raw, freewheeling, unabashedly hand-drawn animation transforms what could have been a preachy story into a tremendously entertaining, clever, moving, powerful, and even funny social parable that makes you understand the psychology of not only the bullied child but even the bully. The film is never dour or full of itself even at its most intense moments, instead telling the story through a veil of irony and wit.
I thought the director was indie animator PON Kozutsumi, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi regular and director of Rita and Whatsit, but apparently he only did the pilot and seems to have dropped out of the project afterwards. This is disappointing, but the film thankfully turned out fine despite this. The director is instead Nippon Animation/Disney Japan stalwart Shimpei Miyashita, with the animation headed by the immensely talented Naoyuki Asano with assistance by a very talented young animator named Shintaro Doge. Asano is a name to watch. I've seen him prior in Doraemon and Tatami Galaxy.
The animation is nothing less than a supreme delight from start to finish. Drawn with rough and quick pencil lines with the calm confidence of a master's hand, the characters are full of life at every moment, their expressions vivid and their movements heightened with imaginative flourishes. Every line is visible, and lines do not play within the shapes. In the climactic wrestling scene, the characters transform into a mess of squiggles as they twirl around one another and the camera swirls around in response. Scenes segue into other scenes deftly, creating an irresistible flow that takes you through to the end. At no point does the animation feel like it is struggling technically to convince you of something beyond the animators' capabilities. They are comfortable that the handful of scribbled lines they have placed on the screen create a beautiful visual scheme. Simplicity is deceptively challenging.
Kosuke Ito's delectable piano-clarinet-violin trio creates a lovely lilting, classical but jaunty soundtrack that is the perfect accompaniment to the film's ups and downs.
Shirogumi's film is a three-dimensional film that satisfies every criteria of what both animation and filmmaking should be. Its characters ring true; the story sensitively and insightfully explores a real-life issue facing children in Japan; the film language is creative and original as well as dynamic and exciting; and the animation is top-notch without relying on conventional notions of quality such as cool and stylish drawings, twee character antics, industry-template expressive symbols, or massively inbetweened animation. It's just good, smart filmmaking that cleverly and efficiently uses the means of animation to find an emphatic and visually novel and appealing way to tell its story. It is a prime example of visual storytelling.
ぷかぷかジュジュ Dudu the Floatie d. Hiroshi Kawamata, ad. Miho Suzuki
A little girl dreams of an adventure with her dugong floatie at the beach where she rescues her father from a giant fish. The unfortunately named Dudu the Floatie is a vividly animated and honest children's film that shows the power of Answer Studio as one of the few 'full animation' studios carrying on a more western style of animation in Japan today. Telecom is another such studio - they have been behind much WB animation for decades - but their BUTA short in this set shows how different even these two studios are. Telecom seems to be struggling to regain something lost, while Answer seems to be attempting to mold their past into something new and find a way towards the future.
This is a film purely for children, unlike Minding My Own Business, which is more of a film about children. There's little pretext of realism anywhere, not least in the dialogue or diction of the little girl, which is brassy, grating, rehearsed, and entirely unbelievable. An adult can appreciate the subtle psychological turns and social commentary of Minding My Own Business, but here the directing is deliberately exaggerated and simplified, the shapes and colors bright and flat. From my perspective everything is too flat and simplified, which makes it cloying, but as a film for children this is no doubt an asset.
There is little sense of art in the film. The ugly, blobby characters float uncomfortably over the conservative, unimaginatively realistic backgrounds. The heads and features are tactlessly huge. The father's face is a round balloon with no human features. Perhaps this is how infants see the world. But with the realistic setting and satirical golfing interlude, the film seems unable to decide whether it wants to go for a conventional anime aesthetic or a more freewheeling and cartoonish children's look. I could see them making a good film in the spirit of Catnapped if they found someone with a more holistic visual concept.
That said, the animation is incredibly exciting and lively. It was easily the most entertainingly animated film in the set. They do a good job of adapting the fluid western-inspired 'full animation' (though it's not really anything remotely close to Disney style animation) aesthetic of their past, with its stretch and squash and anticipation and follow-through, to the dynamic pacing, cutting and composition conventions of Japanese commercial animation. I preferred Flag as a film for obvious reasons, but Dudu the Floatie is a much better showcase of Answer's undeniable power on the animation front. They're creating dynamic action animation of the kind that Telecom should be.
BUTA d. Kazuhide Tomonaga, ad. Shirai Yumiko
BUTA was the biggest disappointment of the set to me because I had the highest hopes for it. I knew a while back that the film would be a disappointment when I heard the creator, Christophe Ferreira, was no longer involved in his own project, whatever the internal reasons were. Had the film been made in the spirit of the pilot, it would have been a triumph, but it seems to have rather been assembled from the exploded shards of the concept, and is a failure. The difference between this film and the sort of short film being made today in France by students is stark. Japan has lost the edge in my opinion.
It should have been a fun, playful action-adventure-comedy starring sprightly anthropomorphic characters in a swashbuckling adventure in the mold of that classic of animated swashbuckling anime, Animal Treasure Island, which was the project's obvious inspiration. Instead, it's a lifeless, dull, insincere slog with nary a bit of excitement or spark. This is shocking because it was directed by Kazuhide Tomonaga and produced by Telecom - the animator and studio synonymous with the best breathless action-adventure animation moments in Lupin III. This should have been the team capable of creating that sort of excitement and reviving the spirit of the manga eiga of yore, which is something I for one would really, really love to see happen. This is the film I most wanted to love in the set, and see it take off into a franchise.
The animation didn't have to be brilliant for the action to work; the action scenes just weren't excitingly choreographed. The pacing was odd, with long stretches of nothing happening at moments when it felt more hustle was dramatically called for. There was way too much emphasis on the drama, and it didn't make sense. The whole scene on the boat after the escape felt off. All momentum suddenly disappears, and the pig is suddenly insistent on the kid throwing away the map for no reason. None of that felt necessary. Lightning striking the water afterwards, creating a big wave, just didn't even make any sense at all. The climax was anti-climactic. Instead of a big battle pitting the good guy against the bad guy, the baddie essentially flops around and defeats himself. The pig character was interesting and had potential as an interesting protagonist, although he felt a little borrowed from Crayon Shin-chan's Buriburizaemon - self-centered, shiftless, diminutive, begrudgingly good pig hero for hire.
Wasted potential, but this is the kind of anime I would like to see done right. As it stands it's too close to an anodyne kids show like Kaiketsu Zorori. It would need more action and punch to make it work.
わすれなぐも Wasurenagumo d. Toshihisa Kaiya, ad. Hideki Takahashi
An antiquarian bookseller releases an ancient spider monster curse and becomes beguiled by the creature. This outing by IG was by far the most pedestrian and conventional in the set. Visually it offers nothing new or interesting whatsoever. That said, I actually enjoyed it, much to my surprise. While all of the visual elements grated on me, particularly the antics of the spider character with her agonizingly painful anime girl face, the humor was subtle and amusing, and it felt like a bit of a lighthearted parody of past IG supernatural anime.
Director Toshihisa Kaiya finds himself at IG now, but he came from Ajia-do, like Masaaki Yuasa, where he worked under the masters, among other things, on a few episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. He had less of an individual style than his mentors, rather showing himself versatile at adapting to the respective inimitable style of Osamu Kobayashi in Ookami Choja (watch) and Tsutomu Shibayama in Sarukani Gassen (watch), for example. He's more of a professional than an auteur; which is no swipe. Moving to IG makes sense for him.
In Wasurenagumo, little vestige of Ajia-do stylization is visible. The versatile, prolific, professional Kaiya deftly deploys a character design style and visual scheme that are entirely contemporary and unadventurous to tell an amusing ghost story interweaving past and present Japan.
Visually the style was classic IG realism lite, with body movement physics a bit more weighty than your usual anime, but passed through the sieve of anime expressive and acting conventions. The scene at the end where the characters run through the abandoned building, with its extremely angled perspectives, was apparently the work of a young animator named Shingo Takenaka. He has obviously studied Hiroyuki Okiura very closely.
I thought I'd start easy with a warm-up post on a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi episode that I discovered recently. I've written about this show often, but even after all these years I'm still going through unwatched episodes and discovering gems.
The episode entitled Kakurenbo or Hide and Seek was aired on March 12, 1983. (watch) It's written and directed by Gisaburo Sugii, with animation by longtime Mushi Pro/Tac associate Teruto Kamiguchi and art by Minoru Aoki. Teruto Kamiguchi and Minoru Aoki were the animator/art team behind The 11 Cats three years before.
This is an odd episode. It's not a folk tale like the rest of the series. Gisaburo Sugii may have made the story up himself. An old couple decide to play hide and seek in their old house. That's it. No moral, no story. Atmosphere is paramount. It's all shadowy corners and slow pans.
It seems innocuous and whimsical enough at first, but as the old man seeks his way in the dark, silence envelops him and panic sets in. The quiet of the house is overwhelming and echoes the solitude after one's life partner has died. He sees his wife being taken away by a demon and shouts at her not to go. In the end, he finds her asleep in the cauldron. Reassured, they go on playing hide and seek to while away the time, innocent as bored children on a rainy day once again.
Why is this old couple playing hide and seek? Is the old man in the grips of dementia? Are they ghosts? Or is it all innocent nonsense? In the spirit of Maeterlinck, it comes across as a dark metaphor for death and loss masquerading as a children's story about an eccentric old couple.
The episode has more in common with the shadowy realms of Night on the Galactic Railroad than the dynamic, colorful The 11 Cats. Gisaburo was the master of atmospheric directing, blending silence and minimal animation and camera movement to create a visceral sense of time's ticking clock. Gisaburo never strives to fake reality; he revels in the incongruity of using cartoons to evoke slowly dying time. He has a predilection for wide layouts, in which characters seem dwarfed by their surroundings, and compositions with either a deadpan symmetry or discomfiting obliqueness. The brooding oddity of Gisaburo's directing creates a fascinating contrast between the cartoony characters and the dark subtext.
In 1983, Gisaburo was just coming to the end of a period in his life where he was actually not working in the industry but rather traveling around the country living a wanderer's life. He subsisted mainly on selling paintings, and mailed in the occasional Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi storyboard just to help him get by. The murky, inky backgrounds here hint at his painterly disposition. I traveled around India earlier this year, and found the lifestyle and the separation from everything familiar intoxicating, so I can relate to his wanderlust. I wonder how this extended traveling changed him and led to the distinctive film language on display in his work from this period like Touch, Night and Genji.
Teruto Kamiguchi's animation is deceptively deft. Despite having forms like a cross between Shigeru Sugiura and Sazae-san, his characters move with careful timing, grace, and even elegance. The forms stay firm, with only subtle deformation and minimal expressions, but they communicate their emotions through body language. His lanky characters were distinctive and appealing. He deserves more recognition as having developed a unique style of character animation in Japan of pretty much no school.
Teruto Kamiguchi was in fact the animator (with Higuchi Masakazu) of the very first episode of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi aired January 7, 1975, Kasajizo. (watch) In later years Kamiguchi tried out different styles, as evidenced by the pleasantly stylized 1992 episode The Sky God and the Sea God, again with art by Minoru Aoki. (watch) A stellar team.
Hello world. Remember me?
I have to begin with an apology to everyone out there for dropping off the face of the planet for a year. I didn't explain myself because I actually expected to begin blogging again at any minute. It's just that, with other matters intervening, it kept not happening.
To be honest, it was nice taking a break. After 8 years straight of anime watching and blogging, I was feeling burned out on animation generally, and wanted a break. Most of all, I was tired of my own voice. I felt like I was repeating myself, and had little more insight to offer, and the community was mature enough that I was now superfluous. Does anybody even blog anymore? Blogging was the new thing when I started in 2004, but now it seems so old school.
Long story short, I miss writing here, so I'm going to rev things up here again. It might take me a while to get back into the swing of things, so bear with me. I'm not sure I'm any more enchanted with the current state of anime, but I'm sure there are still lots of nice pieces of animation being made here and there (you guys in the sakuga community are amazing at covering that stuff now), and interesting projects seeping through the cracks (I'm looking forward to blogging Space Dandy), and there's still lots in the back-catalog I want to explore or re-visit.
I haven't been paying any attention to anime news, so I have a question for everyone: What have I missed over the last year?
The only thing I've been watching has been Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi, because there are always more episodes I haven't watched, and it's the best TV anime ever. And re-watching Hajime Ningen Gyatorus from the beginning again, because it's just awesome and never gets old. I know there are a number of notable movies I have yet to check out, top of the list being Hisashi Mori's Rainbow Fireflies.
I am, of course, aware of Kick Heart, and intend to get to that soon.
Oh, and I wrote a little piece on Pop Chaser for Colony Drop fanzine #2. It's terrible compared to the other fine articles in the issue.
I'm a little late in wrapping this show up, and other people have written better overviews of the good and bad aspects of the show than I probably can (notably Colony Drop and Analog Housou), but I've just seen the last episode so here are my thoughts.
I'd read the reviews, so I knew what was coming. All of the flashbacks we were presented as gradually building up to some big reveal about Fujiko's past turn out to have been planted in her brain by someone. They weren't Fujiko's memories at all. The whole show was a MacGuffin. Purporting to tell the story of Fujiko's origins, it does no such thing, and closes laughing in your face as the characters ride off into the sunset. Perhaps that is a fitting origin story for characters as protean as the Lupin III characters. There can be no origin story, and every purported origin story should be taken with a grain of salt.
The beauty of Lupin III is that its characters are so malleable. They've been re-invented constantly over the years. Everyone has a different notion of who Lupin really is in terms of his personality and visual rendering. The roundly drawn gentleman thief of Cagliostro couldn't be further from the rubbery, horse-faced schmoozer of Part 3, but both are Lupin. The characters have an amazing resilience to inhabit different personalities and situations, and that is undoubtedly part of the franchise's undying appeal. The Lupin characters here are as different as each previous Lupin III outing has been from its predecessors, but in their own way they are valid.
The problem here is that some of the changes they've made simply don't add up. My initial impression after watching episode 1 was that Zenigata's personality change didn't contribute anything and deadened the character for no reason, and Oscar was a useless add-on. I expected that impression to change as the show progressed. It didn't. Zenigata was never much of a serious opponent to Lupin or Fujiko, and Oscar was nothing more than an annoying concession to female fanservice. Fujiko, the main character, never takes anything like a leading role in her own show. She seems more of a trembling victim most of the time, which I think does her character a disservice.
In a show that was already lacking in a sufficiently strong running story, it seems doubly problematic to not only basically throw the whole story at you in the last episode, but then basically go on to say that everything that happened in the show prior to now was just BS. It comes across as saying to the audience that you're an idiot for having invested in the story and expected things to lead where the storyteller made it seem like it was leading. There's a difference between surprising the audience with an unexpected twist, and simply being capricious and taunting. The ending doesn't satisfy, it merely jerks around spasmodically in a way you didn't expect, then stops. The show had already failed to build any cohesive characters for you to invest in, and the ending doesn't offer any catharsis.
The show was extremely ambitious, and I'm almost willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for that reason. Few shows made these days can lay claim to attempting to go against the grain of the industry the way this show has, and it deserves praise for that. It almost comes across as an anti-moe anime, a morbid deconstuction of the idea of the lolita. With its feminist spin, adult themes and sophisticated writing, it was a more serious-minded and intellectualized Lupin III than has probably ever been seen. Maybe the Lupin III characters weren't enough to support such an experiment, but at the same time, who is to say what the real Lupin III is? There is no one Lupin III. Every Lupin III outing is the product of a particular team of people working at a particular time in anime history, and therefore putting the unique stamp that only they are capable of putting on the characters.
But it seems it was overweeningly ambitious, because the writers were not up to the task of putting the package together in a satisfying way. A haltingly successful deconstruction of narrative more tantalizing than convincing, it fell short as good storytelling. They clearly attempted to divide the story up over the allocated 13-episode span in a way that would provide variety and unpredictability and maintain suspense, with a different character highlighted early on, an action episode here and a story episode there, and the story gradually unfolding throughout. But the narrative merely wound up feeling disjointed and random and lacking in a cohesive central thread, and the story was not enough to support a whole series, as it could not be told in enough detail to make sense until the very last moment. I completely agree with Analog Housou that this story would have been much better suited to being told in a 90-minute TV special format.
Initially the show seemed to suggest that youthful physical and sexual abuse led to Fujiko's present day personality. It's good that that turned out not to be the case, but on the flipside, we never come away with any insight into Fujiko's personality or past. Fujiko didn't evolve out of the experience into the liberated, confident, sex-hungry lady she is today through the pain of the experience of being controlled by and overcoming her oppressor. She wasn't changed by the whole experience. She was that way to begin with. That is certainly more satisfying and less condescending than what the show seemed to be building towards, but at the same time it obviates the whole point of the story.
Ironically, filler episodes with no relation to the main story like episode 5 turned out to be the most memorable episodes in the series, largely due to the prowess of the team behind that particular episode. The moments of the show that felt best were not when the new characters like Oscar were on the screen, but when the old team dynamics began to fall into place and we could see the old characters we knew and loved beginning to emerge. The show simultaneously failed to work on the merit of its experiments, nor to usurp the musty old elements of the show. It felt like it only begrudgingly allowed the characters to be themselves, and it was those moments that shined.
The quality of the show did little to help. The animation was stolid and lacking in spark for the most part, save a few episodes or scenes where the animation stood up due to a talented person. That said, in view of the fact that they were clearly at a disadvantage in terms of schedule, I would have been willing to overlook the inferior quality of the animation, and judge them by what should have completely been in their control, namely the story. They should have made absolutely sure they had a rock-solid story even if they could not get the schedule to make each episode look perfect. The story should be the foundation. Their failure in this regard is where I can't bring myself to give the show a pass. At the same time, I can't believe that this show had that much less schedule than a show like Kemonozume or Kaiba, also one-season auteur-driven outings, and those shows were far more solid in terms of both animation and storytelling.
The big hype at the beginning of the show was that Takeshi Koike was designing the characters. That turned out to be a huge deception. I and probably others foolishly expected that he would be there behind the animation throughout the series, perhaps the way Kazuto Nakazawa was such a whirlwind force raising the quality of Samurai Champloo throughout the show. That did not turn out to be the case at all, either due to the much slower nature of Takeshi Koike's style or, more likely, because he simply didn't want to invest himself too much in the project for whatever reason. Either he was busy with other work or didn't have much faith in the project. After some work in the first episode, he was absent until the final episode, in which he drew some animation of the slo-mo bullet sequence.
The problem with the failure of the Takeshi Koike promise is that it also spelled out a failure in the animation department in general. Having his name attached led to expectations of extravagant animation, even if not of his hand, to bring alive his character designs, but the character animation was barely functional more often than not. As with many aspects of this project, enlisting Takeshi Koike seems to have been done capriciously and without sufficient thought in terms of what that required in terms of the animation, and whether his designs were appropriate to the limitations of the schedule. Obviously Redline could not have been produced in Fujiko's schedule, so perhaps Koike's efforts would have been futile anyway. Basically, despite them having gotten Takeshi Koike onboard as character designer, the characters didn't feel like his because they were so badly drawn most of the time.
On the visuals side, the show did carve out its own stylistic niche, with its moody compositions, obsessive character hatching, creative flourishes like the silhouette sequence and boat ride in episode 11, and the determinedly hand-drawn feeling of the drawings. I wasn't convinced by some of the decisions, though, especially the hatching, which felt unnecessary to the end. The obsessive depiction of owls of different kinds also felt somewhat self-indulgent and artsy rather than artistic. Aside from the affected pseudo-literary writing, that's my lingering problem with this show: it attempts to be artistic, but winds up being merely sophomorically artsy.
I want to see a Lupin III that's relevant to our world today - that addresses issues of relevance to the very different world we live in. There's no point in wallowing in old-fashioned stories of the kind that were told in the 1970s and 1980s outings. I know that, even though it's those Lupin III outings that I feel worked the best overall. Later Lupin III outings felt like hollow mimicry. At least this show is no half-hearted copy of a template. It's a bold new vision, albeit a deeply flawed one. I like that this show attempted to create a contemporary Lupin III. This show seemed somehow distantly inspired by various edgy topics in today's society - from Bhopal to child trafficking - and for that I appreciate what it tried to do, although I think they were too oblique about it still. While it's not a show I ended up liking, it's a show I very much wanted to like.
I think it's commendable to have such strong women voices as Mariko Okada and Sayo Yamamoto leading the way with a show like this. There have been women directors previously, but this is one of the first shows that was clearly a showcause of an auteur vision rather than merely a workmanlike production in which feminine and personal identity did not play a part. Their personalities come through loud and clear in the material, for good or ill. I can't bring myself to let my overwhelmingly negative opinion of the show overshadow the fact that they clearly put themselves on the line with this show and tried some daring things - some of which succeeded and others didn't - and for that they command respect and show a positive example.
Today I have the privilege of bringing you an interview with our very own homegrown pro animator, Bahi JD, who in a matter of a few years has gone from drawing gifs on the forum for fun to animating in high-profile anime productions like Kids on the Slope. Bahi's achievement is unique. Foreigners have infiltrated the ranks for a while now, but Bahi is a telecommuting animator in Austria who, with no formal training, managed to find a place for himself in the industry essentially through the infectious force of his enthusiasm for animation. I think part of the reason for Bahi's success is that he's inspired by the fundamental power of movement that pulses through the veins of all of the master animators of Japan, not a slavish copier of surface anime features. He's an inspiration showing that it can be done if you have the talent and just sit down and animate and show that you can do it.
Ben: How did you first become interested in animation?
Bahi: Hehe, this question pulls me back into my first childhood memories. XD I don't have any clear memories from that time, but I'm sure this process started before my school time. At the time I enjoyed lots of Japanese cartoons like Nippon Animation's "World Masterpiece Theater" shows as example and all the other cartoons from the west and east that many kids were watching.
But the key for me to understanding and getting interested in animation even more came when my parents gave me a flipbook with a car on it. By flipping it over and over and watching all the pictures make that car move, I started to kind of think about the process behind cartoons and I really enjoyed making this car move, so I became interested in making my own flipbook and making my own characters move and tell a story. I was already drawing a lot at that time and it was very exciting for me to make my drawings move, they would feel more alive.
I did my first flipbook on the side of my maths book during boring school lessons. It was a simple animation with a character on the bottom and a 10 ton heavy Weight above his head bound on a string, and you know how this was going to end up. But while the string was detaching, the character was trying to eat a fly like a frog. The book had over 200 pages, so I had a lot of fun with it and each year they added 50 more pages to the new books.
Ben: So we have your parents to thank for getting you interested in animation. Tell me a little bit about how you went from drawing your first flipbook to creating your first gif animation, the famous Shithead Action. Were you creating flipbooks the whole time up until you created Shithead Action?
Bahi: Ah! No, actually after the flipbooks in my school books, nothing was really happening. I was just drawing around and creating some crappy animations on paper. But I had discovered animation like Akira, Jin-Roh, Ghost in the Shell and Mononoke Hime so I was still highly interested in animation, only problem was that I knew nothing about anything. The real revolution and progress began in 2007 for me when I was 16. At that time I discovered this video on Youtube about an animator named Shinya Ohira.
After that, my whole view about animation changed into someting way bigger. I still consider Ohira one of the greatest animators in the history of commercial animation. After I discovered "sakuga MADs" through Ohira's video, it was like a huge explosion full of awesome animators. Mitsuo Iso, Toshiyuki Inoue, Yutaka Nakamura... etc etc (the list goes on) And right after I discovered sakuga, I discovered Anipages, where I finally find out about these genius people behind all the wonderful animations. haha it's kind of crazy and funny how we are doing this interview exactly on the place where everything began for me with the gifs XD.
You can just scroll down through the pages and see how Shithead Action was born, (; ^0^) lol. After I was introduced to easy toon through Huw M's thread, I couldn't stop animating with this software! Inspired by many great animators, we started creating lots of fun and experimental animations on Anipages. Then I started working on Shithead Action without any plans. I just drew frame by frame and I had so much fun that I couldn't stop working on this gif.
Suddenly it became over 2 minutes long and the software couldn't handle it anymore XD, so I had to end the story. Shithead Action gif-animation opened lots of doors for me, animators all around the world were inspired by the animation & enjoyed it a lot, I was really happy about it. At that time, I also met many young Japanese animators through the web who are still very close friends of mine, and I worked with some of them recently on Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku".
Ben: Considering it was one of your first attempts at animation, and your first gif animation, Shithead Action blew us away with all of the good FX animation, complex camerawork and nascent storytelling... Not to mention how ass-kickingly fun it was. Who/what were your influences with Shithead Action, and in general? And how did you animate it? Straight-through, right? Were you studying your favorite animators?
Bahi: Thanks Ben, I really appreciate it to hear that from you. Talking about the influences, I can't really count them.....every sakuga clip that I had seen was floating around in my mind. From FLCL animators to Mitsuo Iso's End of Evangelion scenes to Yoshihiko Umakoshi and Imaishi's scenes in Mamoru Hosoda's One Piece movie to Shinji Hashimoto and Ohira's dynamic camera angles and any other exciting animation work that was produced until that time. The amount of Japanese sakuga influence in this gif animation was really high.
But I didn't want to copy their work, nor to look at them while I was working, although I'm sure I had a lot of these scenes in my mind and I was mixing them all with my own imagination to create something new and exciting. Watching a sakuga mad before starting to work on Shithead Action was like an energy drink for me. Not to mention that I was listening a lot to The Pillows' "Advice (instrumental)" track during work. It was really crazy and I did what I really enjoyed the most and I had lots of time for it. It was summer, I was a teenager with no big responsibilities and nothing was disturbing me in my environment.
Most of it was done straight through. I just jumped into the action, especially on the FX scenes. On some more complex cuts, I had to add or remove drawings. Easytoon was too simple for any complex process. It's just a tool to practice animation. If I thought that the timing wasn't right, I removed or added a drawing. At that time, key animation wasn't bothering me, and I wasn't confronted with issues like full frame, 2s or 3s either. I hadn't read or heard anything about animation and all the definitions, techniques and the process behind it. I hadn't even heard about Richard Williams' "Animator's Survival Kit" at that time... all my knowledge about animating was based on sakuga mads when I worked on Shithead Action. I didn't even know what timing and spacing was, there was only this software and lots of animation material that I watched frame by frame and tried to understand how the movements would work for the viewer.
Ben: It wasn't long after this that you went pro. Was Skullgirls your first professional job? It's a fascinating project - a western fighting game inspired by anime, built of incredibly rich sprite animation. What was it like working on that? Also, what did you animate/how many shots?
Bahi: Yes, Skullgirls was my first professional job that I started in 2011. The team was looking for animators and I contacted them without any big expectations. I knew nothing about the project at that time and when I started, I got really fascinated by the talents being involved in this project. The creative director & designer of Skullgirls, Alex Ahad, had a great response to my email when I applied for the job, because he had already seen Shithead Action, so we were both really happy to get started. But before starting with the work, I did an animation test, which everyone did when they applied for the job. It was a small animation move based on the Character "Filia".
I had a great time working with the Skullgirls team and the team was sharing their ideas altogether. Sometimes we even had Oekaki Chats where we drew concepts for the characters together. Alex Ahad himself is a huge fan of Imaishi and Gainax, so I introduced him more to the individual Japanese animators and Yoshinori Kanada's amazing FX designs.
Game sprite animation is different in many aspects from animating for an animation film, so at the beginning I had to do some research because I'm not a pro in fighting games. There are no cuts, but moves, and each move has a fixed amount of frames/drawings that are split into "Start Up"/"Active"/"End frames". For example, the start up has, let's say, 3 drawings where the character is preparing to punch, active is when the punch hits the opponent, and end frames are the recovery or basically the frames that go back into the idle standard character pose (or just the pulling back of the punch). And sprite animation is usually very quick and fast. There is usually no time to animate reality based Hiroyuki Okiura moves for fighting games, but rather something like Yutaka Nakamura & Kanada or even quicker than that. Fighting games are fast, the characters are mainly fast and so is the animation.
When I started working on Skullgirls, Alex was looking for cool FX animation and he thought I could handle that because he liked the FX on Shithead Action so he gave me the complete responsibility for all the FX animation. I did much FX animation of sparks, dust, smoke and that kind of thing, and the team later worked on them and even did new FX based on my work. When I finished all the FX work, Alex and Mike Z (the programmer and game designer of Skullgirls) decided to give me total freedom on the character Double, a transforming monster with lots of liquid and crazy movements. So I was assigned to animate all of Double's moves, but due to schedule, we split the moves among other animators. The amount of freedom of creativity I had on this character was really huge. Alex gave me 4~5 drawings of Double and some notes about the moves I was assigned to, but everything else was up to me. I really had tremendous fun animating this shape-shifting crazy character. I'm also very glad that they gave me the permission to upload my work, so you can check out my Skullgirls sprites at this link.
Ben: After this I think your next job was Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", right? This is a very surprising project - a cute but quirky anime-style music video directed by an indie PV director and animated by the young generation of sakuga stars. How on earth did this strange thing come about? How did you get involved, what did you animate, and what was it like working on this project?
Bahi: Oh, haha, how I got involved.... Long story. I was friends with Rapparu, Yotube (aka Naoki Yoshibe, aka Luckgaki) and some of the others, I found Takuya Hosogane-san's motion reel on Vimeo and I was really impressed by his work and reblogged it on my Tumblr. So somehow Hosogane found out about my Tumblr and somehow we came in contact. He also worked on the Tatami Galaxy ED, you've probably seen it. And surprisingly, Hosogane was also a good friend of Rapparu XD, we live in a small world! And that's how I met the director of "R".
Some months later, Hosogane and the producer of "R" Yuya Yamaguchi (who's also a nice motion graphics artist) contacted me and asked me if I was interested in working on an animated music video they were planning to do, and that Rapparu, Yotube and Hidessu were also involved. What could be better than working on a project with friends?
Hidessu was the animation supervisor of the project. He's also a very talented young artist. Some might have seen his short film recently on Youtube. So I got involved and there was again a big surprise: Ryo-Chimo and Shingo Yamashita were also participating in the project. So we worked on this music video which was based on the IA Vocaloid character, designed by Ryunosuke-san's Maxilla Team, and composer Jin was working on a new Album, and the team was planning to put the music video as a bonus on the album disk. The song is now Top 10 in some Japanese charts. The character design was originally done by Aka Akasaka but illustrator Name created another new version of the character. It's cool and it fits in my opinion.
Yama-san was our executive advisor the whole time, but he also did key-animation and really gave lots of advice during production. I think Rapparu was in contact with Yama-san, so that's how everyone got involved in this project. Friends asked other friends to participate and it happened. Some other people I knew from earlier that I didn't even know were animators were also involved in the project, as well as many other very great young talents that I had heard about. So it was a great collaboration of the new generation of web-animators. I think some people were still missing haha. There are a lot more people in this circle of animators. Some might also think of Kenichi Kutsuna. Hosogane was inspired by MAD clips on this project, so the more animators, the more fun.
Now let's talk about the real work, I was the only animator outside Japan, but that made no difficulties during work thanks to the power of the internet. My Japanese is still terrible but Yuya and Hosogane speak good English, and Ryunosuke from Maxilla speaks great too, so we had no communication problems. We worked through Skype and Dropbox every day, and everything worked great. We had all our stuff on the web, and we also shared an online time-sheet, which was amazing, because sometimes I could see who was writing his time-sheet on the document live.
The fact that we shared everything together helped me understand the animation process much more, and I really learned a lot during the production, because this was the first animation project I worked on with a professional team. Well, some were rookies, including me, but Yama's knowledge helped me make a lot of improvement. Yama-san had made a layout sheet file in Flash, which almost everyone was doing the key animation on. We mostly did everything digitally in Flash. Sugimoto was one of the few that worked analog. The last cut was done by him, for example. He also made a beautiful short recently, check it out.
For more details about the animators, there is a making of version of the music video which also includes the animator list. And here are the rough versions of my cuts and everything else I did for the music video.
As you can see, there are also some layouts. As usual, the animators also drew the layout/background and final composition for their scenes. I was also in charge of two other layouts that I didn't animate. Hosogane asked me to do them, and it was my pleasure. Zajirogh, the background designer of the project, also did great work. He changed some elements in some of my layouts, and I like his version better.
I animated 4 cuts and each one brings back some fun memories. Especially the grilled sea shell "Hamaguri" (ハマグリ) cut. I was in charge of animating this hamaguri thing, and I really knew nothing about seafood. Seriously, I don't get the chance to eat seafood, and I had never ever eaten or seen hamaguri before. So I was talking with the team and they told me that Hamaguri pops up by itself when it's ready to eat, and I was like "Are they alive while they get grilled?!" and I still don't know the answer. So basically, I went totally retarded when it was about this hamaguri cut, and I just had no idea how to animate it so that it would look believable to the Japanese audience. I went to get some of these and grill them to understand the animation (grill for the sake of animation LOL), but didn't find any that day XD so I wound up animating this hamaguri from my fantasy, and I hope it didn't end up too unreal. XD
But yeah, the Hamaguri scene still gets mentioned in my friends circle XD and Hosogane also talked about it in interviews haha. I just call it the "yoyo fantasy hamaguri". So yup, for me, it was a great pleasure and an honor to work with these great talents and we had lots of fun working on "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", because everyone was just cool and yoyo, we shared all our ideas together and created this music video with Hosogane-san's vision & passion for sakuga mad/amv and I hope that the audience also had fun watching the music video.
Ben: That brings us to your recent and much-talked-about official TV anime debut: Shinichiro Watanabe's Kids on the Slope for MAPPA. You've come a long way in just two years. A prestigious debut by any measure, made all the more remarkable by the fact that you have never inbetweened, and are not even located in Japan. How did you get involved, what shots did you animate, and what was it like working on an actual anime project for the first time?
Bahi: Hmmm, actually the fact that I didn't start as an inbetweener felt at the beginning like a disadvantage for me because, as a key animator, you are cooperating with the inbetween (doga) artist. They have to understand your work to be able to work on it later, so you have to understand them too. But later on, I realized that in my situation it was not a big problem that I had no experience as an inbetweener.
I informed myself about the whole doga process even though I wound up drawing both key animation and inbetweens for Apollon. I just wanted to make sure I knew who was responsible for the inbetween, cleanup and tracing processes, in what kind of environment, and in which studio, because it's always an advantage to know about that before you start with your work. There is a lot to say about the doga process, but let's get started with the main questions haha.
So how did I get involved? Some people say that sometimes things just happen suddenly, but I think nothing happens suddenly. Everything has a long process, and needs some time to happen. This again brings me back to 2009. If I hadn't contacted Cindy Yamauchi-san in 2009, I'm not sure I would be where I am right now. Somehow in 2009 I came across her blog where she talked about very interesting issues about working in the anime industry. I thought that nothing could be better than to get advice about my future career plan as a freelance key animator from an experienced senior animator like her, so I wrote to her and asked basic stuff like, "Is it possible to get a job as a freelancer even if you live in another country?" She replied to me very kindly, and it was the greatest advice that anyone ever gave me, that the simple answer was: "no".
At that time, I was a high school student who was lacking both the social and professional skills needed to survive in such a risky environment. So yup, I needed a lot of experience for this and I went for it. Honestly, I didn't really have high hopes of getting a job the way I have now. I thought it would take much longer than it did. But I still went for it. I just knew someday it would happen if I would continue.
So in 2011 after I was done with my work on Konami's Skullgirls, I was like, "OK, what do I do now?" I was also working on my own animated short film at that time but I needed and wanted a new job to gain more experience among a team of professional artists. So I contacted Yamauchi-san again (I hadn't talked to her since 2009) and she was very happy with my progress during the intervening years. So she decided to give me a chance, and showed my portfolio to producer Masao Morosawa-san, who was also impressed. I was just so happy and excited that it had finally happened.
It was just awesome when I later found out that the project I would be working was being directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, because I'm a huge fan of Samurai Champloo and Animatrix: Kid's Story, they are just one of my all time favorites. It was not the typical Watanabe-san project, but it showed that he really is talented and capable of handling and coming up with great results in any genre. And he has great taste in music. I listen to the Samurai Champloo soundtrack all the time when I'm working. Nujabe's music especially is very relaxing.
I was signed up for episode 7, which featured Yamauchi-san as animation supervisor. I had two options for which cuts to work on: There was one with less action, and less work, and there was a challenging crowd scene. I asked them if it was possible to give me as much action as possible. I chose to work on the crowd scene that was part of the climax of the episode, interspersed with Sentaro and Kaoru's jazz session. It was the most interesting part to me and I thought I would get more experience out of it because I had never done anything like that.
So Nobutaka Ito and I (he animated Sentaro on the drums) were involved in the climactic scene. It was great to see Ito-san's work between my own. This might sound awkward, but I was really proud and honored, because he is such a great artist. Sadly I'm not sure who worked on Kaoru's piano. You can see the whole scene and find some more info about it here. I animated 3 shots, and drew the layout for all 9 of the crowd shots where the students are running and telling each other to come check out the jam session. I will upload the rough animation work and layouts later on my Tumblr blog when I get permission.
I gained so much experience from my first time working on an anime project. It was amazing. You have to be really fast, especially me because I was doing both genga & doga - the full animation - and I was the only animator working digitally. But it didn't make any difference in the end. Everything worked out great through the internet with my line-producer and coordinator Tanaka-san. Tanaka-san and Yamauchi-san gave me lots of freedom on my shots.
But actually, when I finished my first shot, it was too Shinji Hashimoto/Shinya Ohira'ish, i.e. loose and too much myself and off-model. I did it on purpose, to be honest, because I wanted the shots to stand out, but I now realize that this kind of behavior can sometimes be very selfish and very risky for a project. The whole project could take a hit because of this kind off stuff. I got that shot back and fixed it as quickly as possible. Otherwise the animation supervisor would have fixed and changed it. It all depends on the project whether you can go crazy and stylish with the animation. You can do stuff like that on projects like FLCL or Mind Game, for example, but not on most the TV shows.
But that didn't stop me from putting my creative energy into the shots. I could still animate the characters the way I wanted. If there is a limit that you'd better not go beyond because doing so would be playing with the other team members' time and livelihoods, you have to find a way to move forward and not just stand there and complain that you can't do this or that. You have to try something else that could open new doors. So there was still another way to make the shots stand out. I drew the characters clean and followed the rules and totally focused on the movement.
Something that stood out to some Japanese viewers who emailed me was the way the students called the other students. The way they move their hand to call the students is totally not Japanese. Someone who saw the episode emailed me and told me that she was really surprised by the calling gesture and enjoyed it, but thought it looked very European/western, so since I was the only one in the credits with a non-Japanese name, she was sure it was me who did those cuts LOL. I didn't do this on purpose; the problem was my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture. We would have fixed it if there was more time to make the gesture more Japanese, but it's not such a huge disaster actually since it's an anime focused on the music and friendship, so I think people will be OK about those shots haha. But I animated the gestures the way they looked to me in the storyboard.
What I learned from this was to always discuss even the tiniest details in the storyboard with the director, and send a few rough sketches of the movements before starting, or just put a few more character drawings into the layout. Also, another thing I struggled with at the beginning was the material of the school uniforms. The uniforms are apparently much thicker than I initially thought they were. This was while I was working on the first shot. In later shots I animated them thicker. Also, I tried to animate the skirts better than I usually do, so I hope the viewers like the way the skirts of the running girls move. But yes, generally, I wanted the cuts to feel both light and realistic, and I hope the audience enjoyed them.
The 3 cuts I animated can also be viewed on my website as small gifs, but I will try to get permission to upload the rough genga soon.
Ben: Did you design the characters in your shots in Kids on the Slope?
Bahi: Partly. Nobuteru Yuuki-san already had drawn some samples for the random students, so while I was drawing them, I used the settei as a guide. Some of the haircuts are based on them. But yes, I just drew them the way I wanted mainly. It was just important to make them look casual and similar to the settei.
Ben: You mentioned that you were the only animator animating digitally on Kids on the Slope. Is animation in the anime industry drawn mostly digitally or still on paper? Also, how does the animation process differ between the two methods?
Bahi: Hmmm, I would say that digital animation is growing but the majority still works analog. I know many young digital animators but also many that animate on paper. It really doesn't make any difference for the production company. They can handle both digital and analog work. They will print your digital work on paper when they hand it over to the sakuga kantoku. So, the process doesn't change. The sakuga kantoku will fix some little details (usually analog) to make it fit to the main design and then your work gets traced (digitally) no matter what, it makes the lines look more solid. It depends on the production but that's the usual process. I can imagine that animators like Hisashi Mori get more involved in the further production to keep their line style in the final rendering.
Ben: What programs do you use to animate?
Bahi: Currently, Flash, to be more specific, Adobe Flash CS5. Shingo Yamashita, Ryo-Chimo and many other also use Flash. Some people think that you can't really draw in Flash, and at the beginning it's true, but you get used to it after some practice and get to the point where you can draw any line you want like you can in Photoshop. Of course, Photoshop's lines are way more accurate, but Flash is a better tool for animation.
Ben: Don't you use a special custom layout file?
Bahi: Actually, maybe I overreacted about this file, but for me it is really great. I asked Yama-san for permission before I started to continue using the file for other projects of course. It looks like a normal layout sheet, with pegbar holes and stuff but the good thing is that it has a simple script that shows the timer in both frames and seconds, which is set to 24fps. It's really good when you want to quickly synch the time on the storyboard or the time-sheet with your key-animation work. Flash itself also shows the current frame number, but this layout file is more specific and looks like this. Looks simple, and it is simple, but for me it's huge.
Ben: You drew layouts in Apollon, but some of the shots had CG backgrounds, so how were the layouts for these shots handled?
Bahi: Unfortunately, I can only guess on this part because I wasn't put in charge of scenes with CG Backgrounds. But it's nothing complex, they just treat them like normal layouts. The only advantage is that you don't have to spend much time drawing them. It's a nice method to save time. For example, a classroom is very useful when it's done in CG, because it's the same classroom in each episode. So why draw it over and over again if you can build it once and use it for reference for all the shots? It's a good time saver in my opinion and also useful when you want to do complex camera movements; they first animate the background animation with the CG BG, then the animator fits his animation to that. The 3D CG backgrounds that have movement get treated like finished BG animation by the animator. A very nice example would be Norio Matsumoto's CG BG cut from BLOOD movie. They rendered the shot in wireframes for him because it's easier to synch the character like that.
Ben: Some people wondered whether your shots in Apollon were rotoscoped (though some said they weren't rotoscoped enough, go figure). What do you think about rotoscoping?
Bahi: Well, first of all, my shots were not rotoscope. I view this kind of audience reaction in both a positive and negative way. Positive because I'm glad it looked that realistic for them that they call it roto XD. But also kind of sad of course when they don't see/appreciate the "animation". But an artist should not get offended when people don't understand his work. People have different opinions & thoughts and I can't just explain it to all of them. My goal was to achieve my own realism in this work. Satoru Utsunomiya and Mitsuo Iso are a nice example, their animation is believable in their own way. I personally don't like to rotoscope, but there are some animators in the industry that do it often and some that mix it with animation, and some people just roto because there is not enough time and etc. I have no problem with all these but it's not my thing. I personally want my mind to do the movement and not the video-material. Our world is full of beautiful and dynamic movements, but they are only my reference, inspiration and motivation.
Ben: What do you think about the current state of the anime industry?
Bahi: The current state is something medium. It's ok, looking good. It's not really the most glorious years of anime currently, but it's not the dark ages either. There have been many ups and downs lately, but I think things will be finding their balance again soon. The payment situation could stand improvement compared to other industries, but few complain about it seriously, so nothing is likely to change soon. It could all collapse if they were to change something or increase payment. It's a very difficult issue. We just continue because we love animation. Some friends gave up their animation career because they couldn't work for a living as animators in Japan. But some friends are also growing bigger and bigger as gengaman. The anime industry is a very tough place, and I respect the people who survive in it and keep the animation spirit alive in these difficult working conditions.
Ben: Do you sketch?
Bahi: I sketch a lot, it's fun to just doodle around some stuff I have in my imagination. Random doodling wherever and whenever I can since childhood. XD It's always good to sketch around to stay on the road. And sometimes, the sketches are worth something more maybe to continue work on or use as concept/inspiration.
Ben: Any advice to young (or not so young) prospective animators thinking of getting into animation generally or the anime industry specifically?
Bahi: The portfolio is very important. But it's not only about your animation skills, what the companies want to see are your layout skills too if you want to work as key animator. So practice as much as possible, both animation and layout/characters and generally everything! Your portfolio should be able to present that you are capable to do anything. Get in touch with the people in the industry, like producers/managers. You need to build a good connection and network with the people in the industry. Be friendly, patient and nice to people, lol this is like some general advice that everyone knows ( ^ 0^)b Make gif animations or short-films and put them on web. The people have to know you and trust you and your work. If people are already familar with you and your work, you might have better chances. But the most important thing is the communication. If there is a communication barrier, nothing is going to work out. If you can afford it, fly to Japan and live there for a while (I haven't done this yet but it's a great advantage!) My advice is to be careful with your decision first of all when you want to seriously enter the industry. First give it a try and see if you can continue in those conditions you are faced with. An animators life can be very hard in Japan, you have to sacrifice a lot to survive in the industry, especially at the beginning. But if you really want to do this and love working on anime more than anything else, nothing can stop you, seriously. Passion, hard work and pursuit will bring you forward. Sometimes it can be really hard, but nevermind, just continue if it's your dream. Just go for it, have fun and break the limits. I have no idea if all these are helpful but I hope someone finds it useful as an advice somehow XD. The best and simplest advice is, do animation with fun! ( ^0^)/
Ben: Last, but not least: Yoyoyo.
Bahi: YoYoYO!! It was a great pleasure and honor for me to do this interview Ben! And I hope people enjoyed it and hopefully it wasn't too long and boring and somehow useful XD
ANIMATION POWER!!! (*≧▽≦)b