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A collective of animators called the Late Night Work Club has just released a nearly 40-minute anthology of shorts called Ghost Stories, available for free viewing online on Vimeo. Entirely produced without funding, during off-time from work, it's a very well-produced package that rivals any of the pro anthologies I've seen doing the rounds at the festivals in the last few years.
As evinced by the title, the stories all deal with somewhat dark subject matter, and do so in a variety of different styles and techniques. Some are more serious and some more facetious, but they each tell a story of a different kind of ghost in a very contemporary style and context.
I Will Miss You by Dave Prosser uses computer-drawn clean lines and simple shapes and a flat red-blue-yellow color scheme to explore the idea of online identity. A man's online doppelganger comes alive and documents his own life. The way he expresses the familiar using highly formalistic, stylized shapes reminds slightly of David O'Reilly. It's ironic, clever stuff that defies simple explanation. This is a ghost story for the iPhone generation.
The Jump by Charles Huettner witnesses a boy and girl playing in an urban wasteland by hopping onto the ghosts of the dead as they fly by to vicariously experience their death. Unfortunately, one of the ghosts turns out to be the boy's own, and he falls to his death. It's a bleak humor that goes well with the lovely style and animated transformations.
The American Dream by Sean Buckelew is one of the most unique films in the set - no CG, unlike all of the other shorts. All hand-drawn and with a very analog aesthetic. A woman narrates the circumstances leading to her death. It's an ironic comment on the aimlessness of today's young adults, who never seem to want to grow up and face the world. By the time she's ready to find out what she wants to do, it's already too late.
Mountain Ash by Jake Armstrong & Erin Kilkenny is a tragic tale about a woodcutter and his symbiotic relationship with the forest animals. It has a circular rhythm and cute animal designs that give it the feel of a picture book. This somewhat alleviates the blow of witnessing their slow death by starvation. Its lush visual ethos and fun characterizations of the animals make it a pleasure to watch.
Rat Trap by Caleb Wood is the most visually experimental film of the set. With its largely black and white color scheme, scratchy lines and a noisy soundtrack, it's a bleak visual expression of the idea of being trapped in a dark, dank place. It's a big contrast with the clean CG animation aesthetic that seems to dominate today. It's also the most abstract film in the set narrative-wise, coming across as closer to visual poetry than a narrative.
Loose Ends by Louise Bagnall returns to the clean CG visuals that dominate the set. Swirling ghost drops gradually gather around the head of the protagonist, seeming to represent the little stresses that accumulate little by little from the many things that we have to deal with in our modern daily lives. The story is economically told with no words using a clean and spare visual style. Its narrative is pleasantly lacking in drama, only showing slices of a day in the life of the protagonist, and the conclusion comes elegantly and effortlessly as she discards the trash.
Phantom Limb by Alex Grigg tells the story of a man's guilt about causing his girlfriend to lose her arm. Emotionally affecting, delicate, humane, and visually gorgeous, it's hands down my favorite film in the set. It has great character animation that wordlessly conveys the protagonist's emotional state at every moment. The directing visualizes his growing sense of guilt, and the resultant hairline cracks in their relationship, through the metaphor of a literal phantom limb that haunts him. I look forward to seeing more from Alex Grigg.
Asshole by Conor Finnegan tells the tragic tale of an asshole who just wanted to be loved. The most Spike and Mike outing in the set, the film is a gory but funny gag. The asshole in question comes alive after eating its owner's towel, but the owner shits it out and then cuts its throat in terror. It's plenty fun to watch as an absurdist horror.
Ombilda by Ciaran Duffy tells the story of a mysterious tree that consumes the creatures around it on a desolate shore that seems hewn out of an old Bergman film. Animated in richly textured black and white, it's an atmospheric horror story economically told in a quick arc, from the time the man sees ominous mist descending the hill until it engulfs the house.
Post Personal by Eamonn O'Neill is a seemingly random sequence of odd character sketches involving death and technology. A kid at a computer codes a digital doppelganger who when completed kills the original, while another kid plays a video game on his smartphone, oblivious to the death of those around him - until death overtakes him, too, to the apparent joy of his sentient smartphone. I'm reminded a bit of the dark humor of Don Hertzfeldt in this pleasantly unpredictable and absurd commentary on modern technology.
Last Lives by Scott Benson is an incredibly dense sci-fi story that in a mere few minutes evokes a complex story about the hunt for a cyber ghost that nonetheless feels epic in scale. Through busy cutting and dense animation, he manages to convey the sense of a future world in which we are all cyber-connected, waving our hands about oblivious to the outside world like so many wearers of Google Glass, exploring inner worlds as we zoom around our dome city on a hyperfast rail. This is tremendous stuff: fantastic storytelling, and visually very accomplished, with consistently gorgeous visuals that each convey the feeling of a living world with more depth to explore. I would love to see a longer piece in this vein. It's somewhat abstract stylistically but deep down it seems like a great hard sci-fi story like Bladerunner.
All in all, a great little omnibus put together purely for the love of the art by some incredibly talented and generous folks. Don't forget to check out the links to each artists' web site, because many of these guys and gals have produced other shorts that are very much worth exploring. For example, Dave Prosser has produced four other amazing shorts that you can watch on his web site. And Jake Armstrong is of course the talented animator who several years ago produced the lovely retro-sci-fi short The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9.
I watched this 2012 movie on the recommendation of commenter shergal, and I'm glad I did. I enjoyed it. Although essentially simplistic children's fare populated by conventional anime characters going through the same ropes we've seen many times before, it's all well done in a nice little package. It's a solidly produced, atmospherically directed, well animated franchise film. And most of all, it has stunning background art. It's a movie worth seeing for the background art alone. If there's "sakuga anime", then this is "haikei anime".
A sequel to A-1 Pictures' Blue Exorcist TV series from 2011, which I never saw, it's a standalone followup featuring the same characters but in a one-shot situation. It's a pure franchise movie in that it presupposes knowledge of the show's story, characters, and basic gimmick. I was confused on a lot of points, most notably the relationship between the grandfather and the two brothers, which presumably lends this story its emotional resonance.
That said, it's crafted in such a way as to basically stand on its own. The actual narrative is extremely simple. In a world where demon hunters are organized like law enforcement to protect the town from stray demons, a novice unwittingly releases a demon and domesticates it like a pet/little brother, until finally discovering that its true nature puts the town at risk of destruction.
Despite not having seen the original material, there were two draws to this that made watching it a no-brainer: director Atsushi Takahashi and art director Shinji Kimura. Both help raise this movie above the level of a 'mere' franchise movie. The solid animation work doesn't hurt, either.
Art director Shinji Kimura makes this movie. The backgrounds here are every bit the equal of his work on Tekkon Kinkreet, something I never expected myself to say. His art is breathtaking: an anarchic mishmash of dirty billboards, old neon, brightly colored kitch, and urban decay that creates the impression of a tremendous amount of life boiling beneath the surface, even if the movie otherwise doesn't really delve into fleshing out the workings of the city itself, rather focusing exclusively on the main characters and narrative. Many of the images are so gorgeous I wanted to just pause the movie and stare at them.
What's nice about his art is that there's a depth to it at the same time, an irony. Shots like the one pictured above, in addition to being absurdly densely packed in an obviously supra-realistic way rather than merely realistic, almost have a satirical bite. There's an element of gaudy satire, Logorama-like reveling in the absurd superficiality of urban life and its overproliferation of signage. Sadly, there is little in the film that echoes or explores any such themes. I would like to see Kimura for once given the chance to try out original subject matter, free of the constraints of source material, that would directly address the underlying themes in his work.
Director Atsushi Takahashi meanwhile knows how to showcase Kimura's art in a way that doesn't just sideline it as a backdrop to the action, but makes the city one of the film's living, breathing protagonists, as it was in Tekkon Kinkreet. Takahashi's directing tends to favor slow pacing, long shots, and atmosphere, although he does a great job shifting in the action scenes to a vernacular that is closer to spectacular Hollywood blockbuster than art house. That directing style works perfectly with the art by Kimura.
The film opens in grand style by immediately announcing its powerful vision of the city. The camera slowly pans up from the protagonist at the bottom of the staircase, nearly invisible amidst the chaos of claustrophobically cluttered, dun-colored hilliside homes, gradually revealing one grander and grander opulent construction after another, extending up and up in a seemingly endless vertical ascent, cranes resting gingerly like cleaner birds on the hide of some giant golem-like beast, finally reaching its resting point at the tip of a strange Tower-of-Babel-like structure at the heart of the city. It's an appropriately cinematic opening showing that Takahashi knows how to create a sense of scale befitting a feature film, something lacking in a lot of franchise films.
I'm not very familiar with Atsushi Takahashi's resume, but in my mind his name is synonymous with episode 12 of Kemonozume, which is the standout episode of the show, and probably one of the greatest TV anime episodes ever. He is one of the few directors I've seen who brings something different to his animation - not just a more poetic sensibility, but the technical grounding (borne of experience at Ghibli under Miyazaki) to execute it convincingly and cinematically. His style is artistic and stylish, but without the in-your-face formalistic flourishes of Toei-school directors such as Mamoru Hosoda. Style seems subservient to creating a feeling of the reality of the world inhabited by the characters.
The film is unsurprisingly bookended by two very exciting and well-animated action scenes. Although this feels like rote film structure, it's hard to imagine something more satisfying for a good entertainment movie than opening and ending with a bang, and this movie does that well. The opening chase with the eyeball blob comes across as something of a reprise of the chase through the corridors with Kaonashi in Spirited Away. It's a scene that makes good use of the large scale of the city, with the protagonist and the beast eventually falling from the tracks down, down, down through an endless vast expanse of space and crashing down into firmament that seems only to have been built on older parts of the city. It's in this forgotten precinct where the protagonist unleashes the Baku-like beast who eats bad memories rather than dreams.
The eyeball blob returns for the finale, which features even more impressive animation. His defeat is followed by a second climax. The first climax provides the action catharsis while the second provides the dramatic and emotional catharsis. Any number of talented animators were involved, and presumably these were responsible for the action scenes: Masahiko Kubo, Cedric Herole, Takaaki Wada, Hitoshi Ueda, Keisuke Watabe, Tadashi Itazaki, Masao Okubo, Soichiro Matsuda, Shingo Ogiso, etc.
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.