Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Friday, May 11, 2012

08:50:00 pm , 1808 words, 6962 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Hermes, Wings of Love

"Let's create a new history of the Gods."

So ends this re-imagineering of the myths of ancient Greece through the all-seeing eyes of Ryuho Okawa, the "founder and spiritual leader" of Happy Science, a "new global spiritual movement" with "over 12 million followers in 70 plus countries" (according to Happy Science Atlanta).

And so this lavish, two-hour animated feature does. Based on a book by the great leader, it remixes the ancient Greek gods into a wildly imaginative, largely incoherent, entirely anachronistic mish-mash of Christian, Muslim, Confucian and Buddhist spiritual teachings.

This is by far the most beautifully animated piece of religious propaganda I've seen. The good animation comes courtesy of Ajia-Do animator Yoshiaki Yanagida and his team of animators. The ancient trappings are re-created in surprisingly authentic detail. The film feels only a step down from Run Melos as a realistic animated re-creation of ancient Greece.

Unless you knew otherwise, the film actually doesn't come across as blatantly pushing a religious agenda. Watching the film without any knowledge of the subtext, it would probably just come across as a pleasing historical epic interrupted occasionally by some baffling spiritual interludes.

Even during these sequences when the film switches to outlining the belief system of the Happies, it's all so incoherent and outlandish that it's hard to make sense of it. I actually came away from the film wishing the belief system had been laid out more clearly. It probably can't be expressed convincingly because it's inherently loony.

The scenes of the spiritual world are beautifully rendered and pleasing to watch, with vivid coloring, atmospheric lighting, and highly worked animation. The scene where El Cantare appears in the clouds has some impressively animated clouds, and when Hermes visits heaven later in the film, he flies through canyons in laboriously animated background animation. The animators clearly reveled in the opportunity of this big-budget production to draw a more 'cinematic' style of animation than they are usually able.

It's fairly easy to watch the film with the aim of appreciating the nice animation while ignoring the religious subtext. It's basically set up as a piece of grand entertainment, with a hidden message, rather than flat-out preaching. The film suffers less from the lunacy of later films in the Happy Science saga. It has no demon Hitler or re-incarnation of Edison, and no anime Shoko Asahara raining terror on Tokyo. Just ancient Greeks, over which some fairly transparent Christian and Buddhist themes are overlaid.

That's the clever and insidious thing about the movie: it's eminently watchable. Like L. Ron Hubbard's pulpy Battlefield Earth books, this film brings people into a religious mythology through entertainment. The film was released in the theater like any normal film. Happy Science is known for using the big marketing company Dentsu, so these films are obviously the product of a highly sophisticated marketing strategy.

Repugnant but beautiful, Hermes entrances you with its high production quality and leaves you shaking your head at its lunacy. It's essentially two films mashed into one. One film is a nice animated swords and sandals epic, and the other is a ludicrous new age freak-out. One moment we're watching a fairly engaging story about a hero fighting against a mad tyrant in ancient Greece, and the next minute we're flying in the spiritual realm being regaled matter-of-factly with snippets of spiritual wisdom such as: Fish in heaven glow a golden color because they're happy to return to heaven. The color and shape of each flower is determined by its governing spirit fairy.

The story

The Hermes in this film is not the herald of the gods in ancient Greek mythology; he's a regular human. He's a Christ-like messianic figure who grows up to lead the people of the Aegean to freedom from under the tyrannical rule of Cretan King Minos and to pass on his divine revelations. Along the way, Minos's daughter Ariadne helps him defeat the Minotaur in the labyrinth using the legendary Ariadne's thread, so some aspects of the story are more faithful to the Greek myths.

Similarly, Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, is re-imagined as a princess locked in a tower on the isolated island of Delos whom Hermes rescues and marries, as foretold by prophecy. With a little help from Okawa's Supreme Being El Cantare, who appears in a cloud to bestow a magic scepter, the godly King and Queen lead their people to prosperity.

The whole point of this story is that, in Okawa's world, Okawa and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite. The tactic is as old as the Kojiki of ancient Japan: establish a heavenly mandate by crafting a godly lineage and disseminating it as dogma. It's astounding that it's still possible to use the same centuries-old tactics in the 21st century.

It's not clear to me exactly how much of the outlandish story in this film is meant to be taken at face value, but it's known that Ryuho Okawa professes that he is literally the re-incarnation of Buddha, and he has heard the voice of Kim Jong-Il and Jesus, among other feats, so presumably we are meant to believe that he and his wife are the re-incarnation of Hermes and Aphrodite.

According to this film, it's thanks to El Cantare's intervention that the people of the Aegean learned commerce. All the basic social and technological advances were god-given. Basically every aspect of human progress can be traced back to the good will of El Cantare, who wants us to be happy. It must require special effort to ignore several millenia of human scientific and social progress.

The film is presented as fiction ("It's time to create a new mythology"), but in the implicit understanding that you're supposed to believe it as factual truth. There is a deliberate ambiguity as to how much of this one is expected to accept as truth. Happy Science obviously thrives in this ambiguous zone between fantasy and reality.

The film has an extended sequence that depicts heaven, and much of it looks suspiciously like earth. The retort offered is: that's because earth is just a reflection of heaven. The irony is apparently lost on them that heaven is being represented by animated drawings, each of which was invented and drawn according to the whim of a human being.

The Happy Science saga

Okawa is aptly named. He is the Disney not of the East but of religious propaganda cartoons. Since releasing Hermes, Wings of Love in 1997, he has released a new lavish full-length adaptation of one of his many books every three years, and each one is as impressively produced as this film.

Hermes, Wings of Love ヘルメス 愛は風の如く (1997) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of the Sun 太陽の法 エル・カンターレへの道 (2000) (watch from part 1)
The Golden Laws 黄金の法 エル・カンターレの歴史観 (2003) (watch from part 1)
The Laws of Eternity 永遠の法 エル・カンターレの世界観 (2006) (watch from part 1)
The Rebirth of Buddha 仏陀再誕 (2009) (watch from part 1)

Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, while the rest of the films were produced by Group Tac. They were actually the last films the studio produced apart from A Stormy Night. From what little I've seen skimming through the films, they're each visually quite impressive, with beautiful compositions and coloring that makes sense coming from Group Tac, but the style doesn't have the sort of realistic-school feeling of Hermes, and the stories are far more crazy.

The animators

Like The Fox of Chironup, Hermes was produced by Studio Junio, directed by Tetsuo Imazawa, and features a sequence of sea animation from Toshiyuki Inoue (misspelled in the credits) that is worth looking at as a nice piece of Toshiyuki Inoue animation even if you don't watch the film. The overhead shot of the waves in particular is amazing. The acting on the ship in this scene stands out starkly from the animation in the rest of the show, clearly because it was so good as handed in that it didn't need correction and hence you can see Inoue's touch quite clearly in things like the acting and the folds of the clothing.

Yoshiaki Yanagida's characters are beefy and three-dimensional in a way that reminds of Okiura's characters in Run Melos, if slightly less expressive in terms of facial expression and stiffer in terms of physical dexterity. The layouts are realistic if stolid and somewhat monotone, and the animation often seems to be struggling with the realistic angles. It gives you a newfound appreciation for how much Satoshi Kon's meticulous layouts contributed to the realism of Run Melos. Yanagida is a lifelong Ajia-Do animator who has been behind some richly animated shows in the past including Spirit of Wonder (1992), Ruin Explorers (1995) and The House of Acorns (1997). More recently, he was behind the OVAs Kujibiki Unbalance (2004) and Genshiken (2006).

There are numerous other good animators besides Inoue, which accounts for the high quality: Yoshiyuki Hane, Shinya Takahashi, Masami Suda (all Toei), Shigeo Akabori (Studio Junio), Takayuki Goto (I.G. co-founder), Yumi Chiba (4C), Tetsuro Kaku (Shin-Ei), Michiyo Suzuki (Madhouse), Atsuo Tobe (Sunrise). Masami Suda was one of the great Toei animators of the 1980s, and he went on to be one of the main figures behind the animation of the rest of the Happy Science films. Yoshiyuki Hane is a great veteran animator who is still very active. He did a lot of work on the classic Takahata TV shows. He single-handedly animated the beautiful opening of Nils Holgerson.

I suspect that the animators chose to work on this film in an attempt to try their hand at the sort of realistic-school animation that had been created prior in films like Run Melos and Junkers Come Here. The style of the film seems to fall deliberately into that tradition. The later films in the series have nothing whatsoever of this character.

All of the subsequent films were directed by Takaaki Ishiyama and produced by Group Tac, with Yoshiyuki Hane and Masami Suda as character designers/sakkans. Isamu Imakake and Koichi Ohata also contribute designs in each film. Shoichi Masuo is even one of the animators.

The director at the very least is a professed Happy, involved in the films as a believer (just look how happy he looks in this interview), but I'm inclined to believe (hope) that most of the people worked on this film not as believers but because work is work, and there aren't many opportunities to revel in big-budget-style animation.

I assume that Group Tac took on these projects in desperation, in a doomed last effort to stave off insolvency. It's a sad thing when great studios are so starved for work that they are forced to turn to producing this kind of material - AND it still doesn't save them from going bankrupt.

Here is a good post on The Rebirth of Buddha that gives you more of a sense of the lunacy of the rest of the Happy Science saga after Hermes and the cultural context.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

09:57:00 pm , 837 words, 3503 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #6


Don't watch this episode with grandma.

Episode 5 was an anomaly in this show - a straightforward but cleverly written caper unfolding through dynamic action, in the spirit of the old Lupin III. That's not what this show is really about. Episode 6 is what this show is really about. To my eyes, this episode is the most dense expression yet of the show's purpose.

It's doing the show a disservice to simply view it as a prequel. It's something different from that. It seems to me a deeply revisionist outing that aims to undermine the male-centric sensibility of the old franchise.

The name of the show was the first provocation. For the 40th anniversary of Lupin III, they scored the sly coup of dethroning the protagonist right in his glory moment in the guise of a side-story about one of the sub-characters, in the process reversing the dynamics of the old show and making the erstwhile protagonists an afterthought, as Fujiko was often treated.

Fujiko, despite being depicted as a cunning foe in the old show, was basically the product of a male gaze in terms of her visual rendering and sexual meaning. The remarkable thing about the new show is that, despite Fujiko being naked much of the time, she isn't erotic. I'm almost reminded of the anti-eroticism of the nude scene in Godard's Contempt. The nudity doesn't come across as titillating. Fujiko seems to feel contempt for anyone who would lust after her. Despite the prevalence of mammaries, the show will be of little 'practical use' to fans of Seikon no Quaser. The nude drawings are pleasing for not being fan-servicey in the traditional sense, not the lust-filled products of male fantasy. The drawings (and spirit of the show) remind me of Kazuko Nakamura's curvy, feminime, de-eroticized Cleopatra.

They have chutzpah, and I have to hand it to them for that, at least. It almost seems to be missing the point to complain that the characters are too different, there isn't enough action, the animation isn't good enough, though I can't deny that those are the first things that spring to my mind while watching this show, since it's the early Lupin III that made me a fan of this show, and this is essentially a different beast altogether. It seems like a different audience.

As for this episode, it's basically Lupin III via Brother, Dear Brother, with its bizarre girls' school in which apparently every girl has a lesbian crush on their teacher - which in turn reminded me why I couldn't get past episode 1 of that show. Instead of a male fantasy, now it's a female fantasy, and I'm not sure it's much of an improvement. I just didn't find the episode particularly interesting or entertaining. All of the characters were ridiculous to me, especially Oscar (a nod to Rose of Versailles?).

The episode was written by Mari Okada and storyboarded/directed by Shoko Nakamura, so it's a thoroughly female gaze episode. You know it's girly when they call in Tadashi Hiramatsu, who presumably did the scene near the end that refreshingly had some sprightly drawings/movement for once.

We've been seeing flashbacks to Fujiko's childhood for a while now, usually drawn in a bizarro byzantine style, and there was a particularly bizarro one this time around, with Fujiko eating mice while owl men experiment on her, interspersed with borderline illegibly florid Gothic type-on-steroids doggerel and avant garde background noise. The flashbacks seem to be building towards a revelation of some new sexual, druggy, disturbing vision of Fujiko's childhood.

There was a curious moment where they reference the famous line near the end of Cagliostro where Zenigata says to Clarissa that Lupin has stolen the worst thing of all... your heart. The suggestion is treated as nothing so much as a joke. Aside from being a playful reference to one of the movies that established the franchise, it seems to poke fun at the naive romanticism of Miyazaki's Lupin to underline how much more rooted in frank sexuality and psychology this series is.

They gleefully revel in the prurient stuff in this episode, with Fujiko deep-tonguing schoolgirls and being doused with wine while strapped naked to a bench, which bothered me less than the pretentiousness and literary affectations of the script. Kemonozume had a much more sexually frank shower love scene that I found quite beautiful, so the sexual material is not what bothers me. If anything, what bothers me is that all of the characters seem sadistic for no good reason, and the script is weirdly eager to devise cruel turns of phrase, i.e. calling Fujiko a "spitpot". A spitpot? Huh? The writing is way overbaked. Belladonna is one of my favorite films, and Borowczyk one of my favorite directors. I wanted to see more adult material in Lupin III, so I find it ironic that I'm disappointed by what I'm seeing. I also found the episode needlessly confusing in terms of the directing. Confusing directing isn't artistic, it's just confusing.

At least the squirrels were funny.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

07:28:00 pm , 1985 words, 3296 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Anime R

Black Magic M-66

One of the classics of the golden age of OVAs is Black Magic M-66 from 1987. It was one of my favorites back when I was getting into anime, with its violent, exciting action and hard-boiled, no-nonsense story. It was a superb high-quality one-off - exactly what I wanted to see in an anime OVA - although in the end it felt a little slight and undeveloped.

I just re-watched it for the first time in many years, and the quality was far better than I'd remembered, probably because I didn't have the ability to appreciate good animation back then. The animation has impressive tension and energy.

As a film it's a bit problematic. It seems like it would make a strong film in theory, and it maintains interest at every moment due to the cinematic pacing and high-quality animation, but something about it feels off overall. But in the end it's a nice OVA with some uniquely detailed directing and animation, and is well worth re-visiting.

The film was co-directed by the author of the original manga, Shirow Masamune, and Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Shirow Masamune drew the storyboard himself, so this is probably the highest-grade Shirow Masamune anime. Later films like Ghost in the Shell bear the heavy imprint of their director.

I'm not sure exactly how the work was divided between the two directors apart from this, but perhaps Kitakubo was something of a line director on the project, Shirow Masamune providing the skeleton and details and Kitakubo putting them together, i.e. handling the technical matters of anime production about which the manga creator would have been ignorant. From Blood: The Last Vampire to Rojin Z, Kitakubo is unsurpassed at making highly dense short entertainment packages, and this film is no exception.

This was Shirow Masamune's first time ever drawing a storyboard, so he used the recently published storyboard for Miyazaki's Nausicaa as a reference on how to draw the storyboard. This certainly accounts for the film's unique feeling. His storyboard is extremely detailed, like his manga (see some examples here), so very little in the final product was left up to chance. No person acquainted with anime production would have storyboarded the film in the way he did; they would certainly have taken an easier way out, according to what they understood by experience could be achieved within the given deadline. The film apparently wound up many months over schedule, presumably due to the demands of the storyboard, resulting in its release being delayed by almost a year. The Gundress debacle is testament to how much of a generous concession this was on the part of the production company. But Masamune Shirow's direct input was simultaneously the film's liability and its greatest asset, because he brought an outsider's approach untainted by conventional anime thinking to the task of presenting the story.

But what was bad for the production company is good for us, as in the end it's because they were able to lavish such detail on the animation that the film still holds up after all these years. This unusually long production period resulted in a tight film in which each shot is highly worked, there is no wasted moment, and the action and effects animation is truly impressive. At around 45 minutes, it has the pacing and atmosphere of a film, but the length of a slightly longer-than-usual direct-to-video release. In that respect it's reminiscent of Hiroyuki Kitakubo's later Blood: The Last Vampire.

The narrative is satisfying because it's driven by visual storytelling rather than wordy explanations. They do an impressive job of visually conveying a future (yet familiar) world of believable cybernetic military sci-fi trappings. The storytelling is lean, the script is pleasingly serious and no-nonsense, consisting mostly of authentic-sounding terse and cryptic military exchanges. The action scenes are long and meaty, with each physical action depicted in convincing detail. The coloring palette of the film is toned down in a way that helps make it feel more realistic.

That's not to say it's dead serious. The films balances seriousness with fan-service. The film opens (predictably for an AIC production) with a nude scene that is saved from being in poor taste only by the fact that it's quite funny and isn't played up for lurid fetishism. The shot where Sibelle picks the sheet from the bottom of the pile and the pile topples over but she doesn't even notice because she's so intent gives the scene a pleasingly tongue-in-cheek tone. Kitakubo's only previous directing credit was Cream Lemon: Pop Chaser, which despite being the pioneering adult anime was more funny and exciting than titillating. Kitakubo also gives the film an edge of cleverness through directing tricks, for example when he cuts from a photo of the professor in the newspaper to the headlights of a vehicle where his eyes were. Rintaro did a similar gag in Download.

Despite the effort put into the details, the cumulative effect of the film is underwhelming for some reason. It feels sluggish and lacking in tension. But the serious-minded story, detail-oriented directing and powerful action scenes more than make up for this, and in the end, it may not be a Great Film, but it's closer to being one than most OVAs. At the very least, it's a damn sight better than the boring Appleseed OVA that came out one year later. It's a satisfying and entertaining little action film.

The animation

The quality of the film is strangely uneven. The animation is very high quality, but the backgrounds are not very good overall, and flat-out bad in some shots. Even the animation, which is quite strong, feels somehow rough. It feels in essence like highly polished TV animation, rather than the movie-caliber animation of Akira from the next year, for example. Despite striving for cinematic feeling, the film's layouts are fairly standard, without the careful simulation of camera lens focal length that is one of the subtle but important ways Akira and other films achieve a feeling of reality. To be fair, there aren't many OVAs that top this one in terms of animation quality. And most importantly, the animation is very satisfying. The action is good, and the drawings feel good at every moment.

Hiroyuki Okiua, Toru Yoshida and the other animators of Osaka subcontractor Anime R are to thank for the quality of the animation. Hiroyuki Okiura oversaw the characters and Toru Yoshida oversaw the mecha. This was Okiura's first job as sakkan. He had just debuted a few years before, mostly drawing impressive mecha animation on a few Sunrise shows like SPT Layzner (1985-1986), and very quickly made a name for himself at a very young age. Astoundingly, he turned 20 during production of Black Magic M-66. Toru Yoshida, meanwhile, had debuted not long before Okiura, first coming to prominence on Armor Trooper Votoms (1983-1984), on which Okiura worked as an inbetweener. Okiura drew what is one of his first genga in the last episode, uncredited, while Yoshida was still being credited as an inbetweener early on in the series despite the fact that he was drawing genga, so they debuted very close together.

The character animation is strong throughout thanks to Okiura's laborious work as sakkan. Despite having been pegged a mecha animator in his first few years, Okiura didn't view himself as such. He just wanted to draw detailed animation like one of his idols Takashi Nakamura, and in anime at the time the mecha animation was one of the places where there were fewer restrictions on the number of drawings you were allowed to use. That's the reason many 'mover' type animators like Okiura - and Shinya Ohira - started out as mecha animators. This was Okiura's first step towards becoming a character animator. Even at this early stage, you can sense Okiura's uncommon skills. The character animation feels unusually rich, even in throwaway shots like the shot at the beginning where Sibelle is writing something down, although this is no doubt also in part thanks to Shirow Masamune's detailed storyboard and Kitakubo's detail-oriented style of directing.

The key animation credits are divided between Anime R, Atelier Giga and AIC/freelance animators. I wrote about Atelier Giga before in my post on Cool Cool Bye and Relic Armor Legaciam. It was an informal gathering of ex-Bebow animators. Although Atelier Giga did not survive long past 1987, many of its animators stayed on at AIC for years to come. The impressive names in the AIC/freelance grouping are Shinya Ohira and Satoru Utsunomiya. I suspect Utsunomiya handled the scene in the restaurant, though I'm not positive.

Anime R receives a prominent spot in the credits, and its animators were responsible for many of the best parts in the film. This is in essence an Anime R film in terms of the actual drawings, although the production company was AIC/Animate. The big battle that is the highlight of the first half of the film was animated by Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida and Kazuaki Mouri of Anime R. Okiura handled the beginning in the forest up until the impressive turning shot where the robot hurls the vehicle (pic 3 at top), and the rest was animated by Yoshida and Mouri. Mouri in particular did the impressive shots where the robot wields the metal pipe in beautiful acrobatic action (pic 4). Okiura also drew the climactic scene on the rooftop (pic 1). Shinya Ohira helped Okiura out with this section by animating a few shots where the building crumbles (pic 2). This is the same year that Ohira worked on the effects extravaganza that is the Captain Power home shooter game, and Toru Yoshida was the other big figure behind the animation of Captain Power, so Toru Yoshida may have been an influence on Ohira's development into an effects animator. This scene in Black Magic M-66 is also presumably what led to Ohira animating the smoke and building crumbling in Akira. Amusingly enough, right after Akira, Ohira animated another crumbling building in an episode of Peter Pan sakkan'd by Okiura. Ohira was an animator in Okiura's sakkan debut, and he is an animator in Okiura's latest film.

Black Magic M-66 came out a year before Akira, and in fact it feels reminiscent of Akira in various subtle ways. It almost feels like a dry run for Akira. The basic elements are similar - gruff general and crazy scientist after a rogue experimental subject with superhuman powers on a killing spree - and the military elements are depicted (visually and by the script) very realistically and methodically, and even the gestures sometimes feel similar. It's presumably seeing Okiura's work on Black Magic M-66 that prompted Katsuhiro Otomo to invite Hiroyuki Okiura to work on Akira. After working under Nakamura on Akira, Okiura went on to provide great animation under Nakamura again in Peter Pan and Catnapped, not to mention becoming one of the key figures behind the two Ghost in the Shell films alongside fellow (ex-)Anime R animator Kazuchika Kise, who is also present as an animator here (though he was technically at Anime R sister studio Mu).

Incidentally, the impressively nuanced animation in the elevator just before the climax was animated by two animators who aren't credited. It was animated by Yoshiyuki Ichikawa 市川吉幸 based on roughs by Yuji Moriyama 森山ゆうじ. Both were members of Studio MIN, formed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo himself in 1982. MIN was one of the many artist collectives euphemistically known as a studio that were formed in the 1980s. MIN disbanded in 1991, immediately after production of Kitakubo's Rojin Z.


Black Magic M-66 ブラックマジックM-66 (Animate Film/AIC, OVA, 1987, 47 mins)

Created by:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
 
Director/Script/Storyboard:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
Director/Structure/Character Design:北久保弘之Hiroyuki Kitakubo
 
Animation Director:沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
Mechanic Animation Director:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
 
Art Director:本田修Osamu Honda
Music:片柳譲陽Yoshiharu Katayanagi
 
Key Animation: アニメアール Anime R
 吉田徹Toru Yoshida黄瀬和哉Kazuchika Kise
浜川修二郎Shujiro Hamakawa谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
柳沢まさひでMasahide Yanagisawa寺田浩之Hiroyuki Terada
逢坂浩司Hiroshi Ousaka沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
 アトリエ戯雅 Atelier Giga
 宇佐美皓一Koichi Usami
岩瀧智Satoshi Iwataki
ところともかずTomokazu Tokoro
小曽根正美Masami Kosone
さとうけいいちKeiichi Sato
仲盛文Morifumi Naka
林宏樹 Hiroki Hayashi
田中正弘 Masahiro Tanaka
宇都宮智 Satoru Utsunimiya
橋本浩一 Koichi Hashimoto
清水義治 Yoshiharu Shimizu
大平晋也 Shinya Ohira

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

11:33:00 pm , 1365 words, 3018 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #5

I've been meaning to post something other than about this show, but I've been a little too busy... At least this show forces me to write something once a week.

Now this is more like it! This episode had pretty much everything I've been wanting to see in this show the whole time: a story with adult themes and wit, packaged in stylish drawings and fun, engaging directing. None of the previous episodes were up to this level. Either the episode had a good story but weak animation or something else felt missing. This one hit every note just right. Extremely fun to watch from start to finish, with a witty script and adventure story pitting the main characters against one another, while still managing to do a lot of great visual storytelling. The good (and surprising) staffing of this episode makes me more optimistic about the future episodes.

Shin Itagaki was the storyboarder, director as well as one of the animation directors and even top spot in the key animation credits, so he's the big man behind this episode. He's done by far the work with the strongest personality on the show so far. He has done a lot of work on action style shows in a TV context over the last few years, so he has obviously gained a lot of experience in how to make an exciting episode on a short schedule/budget. This episode is a prime example proving the idea that even on a short budget with no schedule, it's possible to do good work; it's just about the staff. The old Lupin III animators were really good, but technically speaking I think the really good staff today are even better than those guys were back then in terms of raw power and in terms of knowing little techniques to make every shot they draw feel good, and Itagaki is a prime example of such an animator. (though he didn't draw this whole episode; there were 15 other key animators) He knows how to maintain interest through the directing, for example sliding the background slowly in still shots to maintain momentum (something he probably learned from Imaishi).

I liked how the episode had that good old Indiana Jones adventure story action, all of it done with satisfyingly exciting animation. Itagaki worked alongside Imaishi in the past, and you can sense the Kanada influence in his work here. He brought on other Kanada-influenced animators like Anime R animator Fumiaki Kouta and Futoshi Higashide. The part with the fire pictured above felt like Kouta with its heavily stylized Kanada-school effects. Higashide I first became aware of from his crazy work on Dead Leaves. He also drew a nice solo episode of Dokkoida. He's done a lot of work since then, but I haven't followed him closely. He's not a pure Kanada-school animator. He's something more unique. There were some really wacky and fun drawings around where the scorpions show up, so I wonder if he didn't do that part.

Either way, these two animators no doubt helped Itagaki bring alive the action scenes. There were lots of shots that felt really nice as animation around the part where Jigen and Lupin are facing off against one another and Jigen is running around evading the traps. This was the first episode that delivered the kind of action rush I expect of Lupin III. Appropriately enough, Itagaki started out at Telecom, which is perhaps why he snuck a cameo of Yasuo Otsuka riding a jeep into the episode. That was nice to see. He has often mentioned Otsuka from his days at Telecom in one of his columns. He worked at Telecom for almost 7 years before going freelance, so he's an honest to goodness Telecom animator. You can see a few drawings he drew of himself grinning happily while he's learning from Otsuka here.

Shin Itagaki also has a good sense of humor. It's the sort of visual humor you associate with Imaishi. He knows how to time and stage shots in a way that is playful and fun. The shot where Jigen can't quite get his zippo to spark up was a great gag lead-in to the fire booby trap, for example. I liked the live-action Jigen-Lupin face-off shot at midway. I wonder whose face that was. Itagaki also has a good sense for getting the important little details we associate with the show right, like the accurate drawings of the guns - you can see the writing on the bullets when Jigen loads his Magnum. There were also plenty of cool and stylish shots. I particularly liked the angled layouts and long shadows in the closing scene.

The Kanada school was in full swing with all sorts of followers by the time of the third Lupin III show in the mid-80s, so there were inevitably moments of Kanada-school animation in that show, though for the most part the show felt more A Pro than Kanada thanks to supervisor Yuzo Aoki. Many years later, Itagaki is an interesting hybrid - Telecom yet Kanada, he has exactly the sort of touch it would take to make Lupin III episodes as fun and free as the old episodes. He's not alone; there are plenty of other animators who could do work up to his level. Perhaps they should have focused on going in that direction. If they had managed to get the right animators, the shortage of staff wouldn't have been such an issue. That's one of the nice things about how so many animators today are freelance. I would assume it facilitates getting someone onboard if you're a producer looking for good staff and you want them on your show. I'd love to see a show where an animator like Itagaki is forced to draw a whole episode or half episode in a fairly short schedule, the way the animators of the old shows undoubtedly were. I like the idea of a talented animator forced to whip out the shots in a more quick and spontaneous style rather than laboring over the shots. Even rough-around-the-edges animation from a great animator is preferable to mediocre animation that's detailed but without spark.

Story-wise, we're in Egypt again. Lupin got possessed by the mask of Tutankhamun in red jacket episode 7 and visited Egypt again in Mamo, while he made excursions to nearby Algeria in red jacket episode 30 and then Iraq in Gold of Babylon. In a desert connection, there was good desert action in Bye Bye Liberty in Death Valley.

Finally, we're past the introductory episodes and we've got several of the main characters together. Only Zenigata and Goemon are missing. I have to admit it's nice not having Zenigata predictably showing up every episode shouting "Taiho da~~~!" I felt they adhered way too strictly to that convention in the old show and the stories would have benefited from a little variety.

There was nice tension between Lupin and Jigen as they tested one another while dodging the various death traps, with Fujiko the cunning trickster manipulating the both of them towards her own ends all the while. That dynamic was just right. All of the character had something of a harder and more serious edge than they did before. The clash of these three personalities is honestly more interesting than the bland camaraderie of much previous Lupin. Lupin, Jigen and Goemon are the same old characters we knew, but a little more hard-edged, while Zenigata has a new personality, and Fujiko is the same character, but far more layered and complex than before. And now she's a nudist.

There was one instance of staff continuity in this episode: Hideyuki Motohashi. He is one of the former Z5 animators I wrote about in my post on the pink jacket series. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s as an animator equally at home drawing mecha action and bikei characters on the TMS robot action show Tetsujin 28. It's nice to see this veteran still working on the front lines as an animator after all these years. It's fascinating that an old school animator like this can even adapt himself to drawing more modern cute characters with the recent Kamisama Dolls.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

11:45:00 pm , 1237 words, 5827 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #4

With this episode the quality has picked itself back up after the tumble of episode 3. The animation is obviously at the intended level, the directing is assured, and the story is well enough put together, with the twists and turns you expect of a Lupin III caper.

The story is a permutation of the phantom of the opera myth. While hardly novel, it's well enough put together, and the characters come alive well. The plot advances through the varying viewpoints of Fujiko, Lupin and Zenigata in a satisfying way, although the writing seems to deliberately keep Lupin in the shadows in an active attempt to downplay his spotlight-stealing character.

I was expecting the series to proceed to bring the team together by this point, but not yet. I didn't quite realize it while watching, but this episode was probably intended to to be the Zenigata episode to the preceding Jigen and Goemon episodes. Zenigata got only a token appearance in episode 1. Indeed, Zenigata has more screentime than Lupin in this episode.

This episode lays out Zenigata's character quite clearly: This is not the Zenigata of old. Jigen and Goemon seem essentially the same characters, but Zenigata is an altogether different character from any previous anime version. I'm not familiar enough with the manga to say whether he was like this in the manga. Here, he almost appears to be a corrupt cop driven by a twisted obsession with killing Lupin. He tries to - not arrest - but shoot Lupin.

But that's nothing compared to the opening scene, which is by far the most shocking scene in the series so far - and it shocks without even needing to show any nudity. Don't read the rest of this paragraph unless you've watched the ep or intend to. I couldn't believe what I'd seen, partly because they didn't actually show anything and only implied it verbally in the aftermath, but Fujiko appears to have had sex with Zenigata to buy her freedom from the slammer. It's a scene that appears specifically calculated to shock viewers accustomed to the old image of Zenigata, who before was a sexless, naive, even goofy borderline Inspector Clouseau caricature of the by-the-book, rules-following Good Cop. It makes it clear that they've thrown out the old Zenigata and rewritten him from scratch. I got a sense that this was the case from the snippets in episode 1, but this is even more of a change than I expected.

Whatever my personal reservations, the first episode did a good job of conveying the fact that Fujiko was a different character in this series, more 'liberated', and the series was not taking the coy approach to sexuality of the old Lupin III, which hinted and suggested more than ever doing anything sexual. This episode did the same for Zenigata. The show's more open sexuality brings it closer to Monkey Punch in a sense, but it seems to me a more real and pragmatic approach to sexuality than the jokey cartoonified way it was treated by Monkey Punch (at least from what little I've seen of his original manga). On the other hand, they use the whole Mars symbol/Venus symbol schtick that Monkey Punch always used in sex scenes, as they did in Mankatsu, and that's something we never saw before in the anime version of Lupin III.

The writing of the story was fairly intricate and the dialogue was full of witty, ironic barbs thanks to writer and series structure supervisor Mari Okada. Her style of humor seems a good match with Sayo Yamamoto's sensibility. My only complaint is that the big reveal at the end was a little predictable as well as lame and implausible.

The episode's structure is provided by storyboarder Atsushi Takahashi, who directed two of the more visually compelling episodes of Masaaki Yuasa's Kemonozume (episodes #3 & #12). He seems a candidate ideally suited to bringing to life the decadent, erotic, sumptuous visual atmosphere this series is aiming for, and indeed the episode is filled with shadowy, cavernous interiors, though unfortunately he doesn't go nearly as far with the creative presentation as he did in Kemonozume. The enigmatic flashback, pictured above, was drawn in a more stylized and extravagantly detailed, almost storybook, style. Along with the opening, this scene seems to capture the atmosphere of wanton eroticism that sets the show apart. Unfortunately, this vision seems watered down too much of the time and never comes through forcefully enough for my taste. The opening seems like it's trying to evoke Belladonna, but they never go nearly as far as that movie did.

The episode takes place in Paris, but aside from a few opening shots, this potentially interesting setting was not exploited at all, as the entire episode takes place in the bowels of an opera house. There were a few shots of the streets of Paris early on where I noticed they actually drew a Citroen accurately, which was nice to see, because on the car front the show has been a little lacking so far.

Incidentally, several French animators have been heavily involved in the show so far - Eddie Mehong, Cédric Hérole, and Christophe Ferreira - and all three worked as key animators in this episode. Christophe Ferreira was once working at Telecom on Buta. Eddie Mehong has put up a reel of his work on Japanese productions on his blog. Cédric Hérole made a beautiful short film entitled Mimi Carina: Emilie au pays des Morts in 2005.

The animation director was Hiroshi Shimizu, who was also involved in Kemonozume and of course was the character designer of Sayo Yamamoto's breakout series Michiko & Hatchin. Shimizu Hiroshi is an ex-Oh Pro animator - he worked on episode 49 of Part 3, which is the Oh Pro episode I recommended in my post on Part 3. He is a great animator/sakkan in his own right and his involvement no doubt goes a long way to accounting for the quality of the episode.

I can't help but find it ironic how the second Lupin III series managed to produce so many episodes packed with interesting movement using minuscule regular rotation teams of as few as one or two animators, whereas here they require almost 20 animators and virtually none of the movement is particularly interesting. I doubt they had any less schedule than the second series animators did. That's not an observation unique to this show particularly. Back then animators just seemed better about being able to draw volume as well as quality. It's not just the second Lupin III series that had tiny rotation teams of between 1 and 4 people. Most anime was made that way back then. Usually it's for the best that we have more people working on an average anime episode today, because those small teams usually did crappy work - not surprising considering the pressure they were under. But the good animators, under the same pressure to produce way more shots of animation, developed in a way that made them hone their shots down to the essence, all while having more fun with the work and drawing freer and more playful drawings. While the animation back then viewed today seems less detailed and cruder, in the hands of the good animators it was often more successful and pleasing as animation. Obviously, that's not to say that there aren't plenty of animators doing great work on TV schedules today, but sadly they haven't been able to get many of them for this show.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

11:57:00 pm , 810 words, 5556 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #3

The next candidate for introduction after the previous episode was obvious: Goemon. And so it turned out. Now all the players have been introduced. How will they converge?

This episode was super weak. I may have been dissatisfied with the first episode for whatever reason, but at least it was technically well made. This one had the weakest animation so far, and even the directing and story weren't very compelling. The first episode was filled with Sayo Yamamoto touches, the second had great tension and atmosphere, but this one is just kind of bland and safe. It sadly seems to suggest the project didn't have as long a schedule as I was hoping. They were clearly struggling with the drawings on this one. Five sakkans, and they even outsourced 2nd key animation. Some of the drawings in there were painful to see. I don't mean to pick on them, because I'm sure they wanted to do better, but I wish they'd have spent less time putting hatch marks on the characters and more time animating them.

I wouldn't have minded so much that the animation wasn't great - episode 2's animation wasn't that great - but the story and directing didn't make up for that shortfall. I was surprised to find the story to be somewhat tame because I'd heard Sato Dai was writing it and expected something with the irreverent humor and unpredictability of his Samurai Champloo episodes, or at least something to distinguish it as a Sato Dai episode, but there wasn't much. The team of Sato Dai and Sayo Yamamoto did amazing work on that show. It's their episodes I liked best in the show, and it's seeing those episodes that I knew Sayo Yamamoto was a name to watch.

The story isn't bad per se, but it just didn't have many surprises. There was a good train episode early on in the 2nd Lupin III series with some great animation from Kazuhide Tomonaga, so I couldn't help but compare the two and find this one lacking. This episode felt basically like a standard episode from the second series - okay, but nothing remarkable. As a way of introducing Goemon it didn't really tell us anything we didn't know already. The good thing about the episode is that Goemon's character was pretty well captured. He really felt like Goemon. I also liked how Fujiko was never called by name until the very end of the episode. It took me a few minutes into the episode to figure out that she was the tutor and hence was up to something. (partly because her face wasn't recognizable from the poor drawings) The episode felt true to the spirit of Goemon and the old Lupin III - hard-boiled in that Goemon is a hired killer, but not cold-blooded, because he has a personal sense of justice and won't cross a certain line. And of course, we got to hear the first historical instance of his trademark line - "mata tsumaranai mono wo kitta".

For Goemon's introduction I was hoping they would do something special to fill it with good samurai action, dare I hope even perhaps invite Kazuto Nakazawa to sakkan the episode? You know, a reunion tour from the Samurai Champloo team - Sato Dai, Sayo Yamamoto, Nakazawa. But it was not to be. There was one short scene where Goemon does his bullet-cutting trick where suddenly - bizarrely, even - the animation gets extremely fluid. It's decent (albeit short), but honestly the movement isn't particularly interesting. It's nice that they tried, but it only goes to show how amazing the old animators were. With just a few drawings Yasuo Otsuka could have Goemon whip his sword around in a way that felt infinitely better and more convincing. There are tons of contemporary animators who I'm sure could have done some good samurai action. It's sad that they didn't have the budget/schedule to get them.

The weird thing to me about this show so far is... Where's Takeshi Koike? I was expecting the show to be rife with his touch, but for the most part in this episode I couldn't even tell he was the character designer. It seems odd to call him in and then create a show that had nothing whatsoever of his style. I know he's just the character designer, but I guess I was hoping that he would be involved on the same level that Kazuto Nakazawa was involved in Samurai Champloo. Nakazawa made that show his by his amazing and voluminous work as a sakkan/animator on the show. Different directors have different styles and priorities, I guess. Perhaps that will happen in future episodes, but it's a pretty short show, so I hope it happens soon if it's going to happen.

The joke with the European city names was weird - Poris, Dinajon, etc. I didn't quite see the point in doing that.

Monday, April 16, 2012

02:51:00 pm , 1000 words, 3008 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Eureka Seven AO & Tsuritama

Aside from Lupin III: Fujiko and Kids on the Slope, the two other quality shows that just started are a continuation of Bones' Eureka Seven called Eureka Seven AO and a new show from Kenji Nakamura of Mononoke & C.

Smoke and water were my haul from these two first eps. Both featured some wonderful effects animation.

It seems kind of weird to me doing a continuation of Eureka Seven now after all this time. I didn't realize it was that popular. Unsurprisingly, Eureka Seven AO ep 1 was very high quality stuff. I tried following the first series, but after a while I gave up on it because it was a little long and the characters and the writing weren't really that interesting to me, as much work as they obviously put into the trappings and animation. This show is in exactly the same style, and picks up where the previous show left off. They don't explain the basics of the world, which I've forgotten in the meantime (what's a scub coral again?), especially not having watched the first show in full. I'll try to follow it as much as I can, because it is well made technically. It will be nice to see some more nice traditional hand-drawn mecha animation and a traditional grand-scaled sci-fi story with careful world-building.

Whenever I tried to get into the first show I had little niggles about the directing and the character writing that kind of threw me out of the zone, and I got the same feeling here. It was weird how calmly the kids stood there watching these huge explosions occurring on the other side of the hill right in front of them. I would have been pissing my pants. And the dialogue is occasionally weird and laughably theatrical sounding. My reaction was often, "Who would say that in that situation?!"

Visually it's quite beautiful - background and animation are detailed and nuanced. The character drawings are strong, and there are bits of nice character animation, and stunning effects animation. Shinichi Kurita, Hidetsugu Ito and Kakita Hideki drew nice effects in the ep. The smoke effects after the appearance of the second scub coral were particularly impressive. The long shot of the smoke rising was amazingly detailed, reminding me of Toshiaki Hontani's smoke in Akira. It's nice to see such detailed animation in TV work. The way the smoke overcame the running protagonist felt realistic and convincing. Hideki Kakita's subsequent explosions were easily identifiable from their shape, timing and coloring, though I'm not so sure about the other two sections. Maybe Ito did the part where the flying car almost hits the protagonist on the beach & Kurita the second scub coral? I don't know Kurita's work well enough to say for sure. The zigzagging laser effect from the monster was curious. It reminded me of Ito's zigzagging lasers in the recent Doraemon movie, though the timing didn't strike me as having a strong Ito feeling.

Other good animators included Kouno Megumi, Kenji Mizuhata and Sato Masahiro. I liked the bit where the protagonist runs towards the camera as the camera is panning upwards. Had detailed movement that reminded me of Yasuo Muroi's running in Xam'd. I also liked the acting on the beach where the scub burst appears and the guy grabs the kid's arm and yells at him to run away.

I'm hoping they'll put up a section analyzing choice bits of animation like they did for Xam'd.


Kenji Nakamura's Tsuritama was a slippery one. A splash of cold water in the face. I've been a Kenji Nakamura cheerleader since day 1 with Bakeneko, but I feel like each successive TV series has been a step downwards from what he achieved at the very beginning, each one transforming what was such a unique voice willing to go against anime conventions and do his own thing, into yet another ordinary anime director, albeit a slightly more edgy one.

The episode was well directed and animated. The water effects animation (mostly from FX sakkan Takashi Hashimoto I suppose) were splendiferous and a great new addition to the venerable history of Japanese water FX animation through the years from Yasuo Otsuka in Sinbad to Yoichi Kotabe in Animal Treasure Island to Mikiharu Akabori in Sirius to Toshiyuki Inoue in Peak the Whale to Norio Matsumoto in Popolocrois to Yasunori Miyazawa in Moomin, etc. The water shots during the scene on the pier at the end were particularly nice. The water here is more about feeling good than being realistic. It feels great as animation. Though the shot of the fish skipping across the water and sending out ripples and splashes was incredibly realistic with some very precise timing. Good animators in the ep included Takashi Hashimoto himself, Toshiyuki Sato, Yuki Hayashi, Takaaki Wada, Hironori Tanaka.

It's just the show irritated the hell out of me. I couldn't stand the super cutesy twee chirpy music or the super-annoying characters, especially the one saying he's an alien. I kind of liked the neurotic protagonist. It's a shame because there's some very careful and interesting directing packed in here. The bright pastel coloring of the show is appealing and well done. Visually, it has the Nakamura touch. The screen is pleasingly stylized. The storybook coloring almost makes it looks like a Toei girl's show like Ojamajo Doremi, but with sharper more realistic designs rather than that show's storybook visuals. A lot of shots here looked to be based on photos.

I'm sure the show will have some interesting surprises in store and some great animation and directing, so even though I find it annoying for now, as a Kenji Nakamura fan, I want to follow it and give it a chance. But we're far from a show like Mononoke that made me really excited and I felt I could recommend to watch to anyone without hesitation because it was so extremely interesting in every way, from the wildly unique visual sensibility to the powerful, densely layered stories.

Friday, April 13, 2012

11:38:00 pm , 1119 words, 2537 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Kids on the Slope

This is one of the more impressive seasons in a while. In addition to two or three other interesting shows, Shinichiro Watanabe returns with his first show since Samurai Champloo in this adaptation of a shoujo manga about high school kids playing jazz.

I'm not a particular fan of either Shinichiro Watanabe or shoujo anime, so I approached the show without any expectations, but I found it to be a good first episode by any measure, and it immediately made me want to follow these characters. The directing is identifiable as Shinichiro Watanabe, but it's far less demonstrative than his previous work. It's really just a nice, low-key high-school drama with a bit more psychological edge and without too many anime cliches. And with lots of awesome jazz music.

The directing did a good job of capturing the feelings of the newly transferred protagonist. Often I find that these shoujo school stories are overly laden with silliness or manic directing, but I liked how the directing here played it fairly straight, and yet managed not to be boring. I like that they don't try to make it too comical.

I didn't much care for Shinichiro Watanabe's outing in Genius Party, but that was admittedly perhaps because of the context. This episode feels like a continuation of that style, and I found it enjoyable on its own terms in this episode.

The characters are designed by Yuki Nobuteru, an animator with a fluid and sumptuous style, although he was not in charge of the animation of the episode itself. Erstwhile Kaname Pro and Madhouse animator Cindy H. Yamauchi was the sakkan here, and in her hands the drawings were very nice throughout without feeling excessively 'shoujo'.

The characters in the opening, animated singlehandedly by the always impressive Kazuto Nakazawa, looked far more 'shoujo' than the drawings of the first episode. The bizarrely elongated faces that characterize shoujo manga today (which were faithfully recreated recently in the anime adaptation of House of Five Leaves) can be discomfiting unless you are used to them, and Yamauchi's drawings strike a professional neutral balance between the original and a more accessible look. It appears Kazuto Nakazawa drew the opening in a way that was closer to the look of the characters in the original manga rather than in the way they're drawn in the anime. I liked the slightly more realistic way the father's features were drawn. In comparison, the other characters had the flat facial contours of anime characters.

The Noitamina block seems to alternate between more oddball outings aimed at audiences more into outre material like Thermae Romae and Mononoke, and outings aimed more specifically at young women. Kids on the Slope is a fine example of the latter category. What's nice about Noitamina's shoujo anime is that even the more lady-oriented shows like this are still quite watchable even if you do not fall into the lady category. They do a good job of taking the sensitive character examination of shoujo manga while softening some of the genre's more generic and less appealing aspects.

This being a show about jazz, the obvious question is how are they going to animate the music scenes? In Beck they rotoscoped actual musicians and used CG characters for the live music scenes, and it was pretty ugly. Here, the close-up shot of the hands playing the piano seemed to be CG, but the drum solo here was fairly lavishly animated with actual drawings, although it was probably rotoscoped, so perhaps they're going for a mix of the two. The added layer of actual drawings in the drum solo made the rotoscoping easier to swallow. It was a beautiful scene, actually, thanks to the powerful animation. Ideally it would have been nice if they could have drawn the scenes without rotoscoping, but perhaps they didn't have time or they couldn't gamble on being able to get animators up to the task of doing a good job of it in each episode. At least here the animation was really faithful to the actual sounds we are hearing.

There aren't many music anime where the musical performances have been traditionally animated without rotoscoping. Gauche the Cellist is the most obvious example - perhaps that's part of the reason why the film took 7 years to complete. Yoshifumi Kondo's scene in Whisper of the Heart is one of the few other such scenes I can think of, although I can't recall how closely the animation matched the music.

Besides the obvious reason for this, namely that TV anime schedules preclude being able to animate such laborious material (which by definition requires constant movement), there's probably the added factor that most animators don't like animating material that is so low-key and subtle. Basically, it's a lot of work for nothing. Far more rewarding is a wild action scene that catches the audience's eye. Or better yet, a static shot of a character (since animation is paid by the shot). But there is something to be said for nuanced and subtle animation. Jin-Roh wouldn't be such a great film without its mind-numbingly subtle realistic character animation. Not many animators are skilled enough to animate well in that style, either.

It's a shame that a show like this is shunted off into a late-night slot, even though ironically it's probably only Noitamina that would have produced this show. I can understand if it was a bizarro erotic anime like Lupin III: Fujiko, but this show seems so wholesome and sincere and harmless. It's the kind of quality storytelling anime for teens that the industry should be making an effort to get kids to watch.

The big news about this show is that it's the first production of a brand-spanking-new studio called MAPPA formed recently by Masao Maruyama. It's difficult to believe that Masao Maruyama left Madhouse, but it seems quite true. It's hard to imagine Madhouse without its guiding spirit. What will become of the once great studio? More importantly, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Maruyama will be doing at his new studio in the days to come. I can't help but be reminded of the recent exodus from Gainax and founding of Trigger. We have two new studios founded by some of the best talent in the industry for the purpose of producing the kind of daring programming that they were not able to produce at their once bold and brash but now somewhat stultified alma maters. Two such studios appearing at once (there's also the less-talked-about Ascension) is great news. I hope this show is successful enough for them that they can go on to producing more ambitious and daring projects of the kind that made Madhouse so unique.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

11:25:00 pm , 932 words, 4057 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #2

It was a rocky start for me, but this episode converted me to a believer. No nitpicking from me this time. I loved this episode. They did just about everything right in this episode, both as a standalone episode and as an episode true to the spirit of Lupin III. Simply put, this was pure awesomeness.

Episode 1 showed the first meeting between Lupin and Fujiko. This time it's the first meeting between Jigen Daisuke and Fujiko. Jigen has always been my favorite character. I love his gruff stoicism, the way he always has a witty one-liner ready for every situation, the way he seems cold and uncaring but has the biggest heart of the bunch. He's the ultimate badass lone-wolf. He doesn't reveal much, but his depth comes through slowly. He's defined by simple, classically manly things - the magnum, the beard, the suit, the fedora. When Jigen got an occasional solo episode in the old TV shows, it was always a special treat. Suddenly we were plunged into a world of dark and deep-felt drama like an old Hollywood film noir starring Bogie, full of fog, intrigue and betrayal.

The story here was very reminiscent of a past story in either the second or third series, I can't remember which. It was a great story exactly in the vein of the classic Lupin III, except far more visually stylish. Best of all, they nailed Jigen's character here better than even most previous Lupin III outings have, as the directing in the TV outings tended to be a little vague due to the short schedule and low budget. Here every shot was carefully groomed, and we could follow Jigen's subtly expressed emotions and reactions in detail at every juncture.

Jigen taking the fall for the girl after she kills her mob boss boyfriend was classic Jigen, and Jigen putting his cigarette into the tea cup offered by the would-be seductress is exactly the sort of subtle wit I expect from this character. We even got to hear him say his classic line - "Ore wa onna girai de na". The only thing missing to make it the perfect Jigen episode was Jigen drinking a glass of bourbon. I'm happy to see that the person who wrote the episode did their homework.

Visually, I think they did a good job with his design. His hat covers his eyes, but you can actually see them peeking through a bit in certain shots. He hasn't had such a deliciously lean head and pointy chin since the pilot. It's amusing how his beard aaaalmost touches the brim of his hat in certain shots.

All of the original voice actors are now gone. Except one. Jigen alone is still played by the same voice-actor, Kiyoshi Kobayashi. He is now 79 years old. He could have retired like the rest of them, and I have no idea why he didn't, but good god I'm so glad he didn't. It just wouldn't be the same with all of the old voices gone, especially Jigen. I was strangely moved watching this episode to see the same old Jigen I've loved all these years still alive and well, if sounding a little wizened now. It was like seeing an old friend again. I'm so happy he's still there. He provides such a vital element of continuity with the old Lupin III.

Incidentally, Jigen is the only character who has been voiced by the same voice-actor in every single Lupin III outing (except Fuma Clan, when they changed all the voice-actors). Even Lupin was voiced by a different person in the pilot, and of course Lupin was the first of the old voices to disappear with the passing of Yasuo Yamada.

The thing I liked about this episode was that it wasn't about the animation or the directing. Both the animation and directing were functional, but not so exceptional as to eclipse the story. No, what made this episode so entertaining was the story and the characters, as it's supposed to be but far too seldom is. It shouldn't be about obsessively chasing directors or animators. It should just be about enjoying a nice story with well-fleshed-out characters. But anime fails to deliver in that arena more often than not, so I usually wind up ignoring the story and focusing on the animation and directing in a last-ditch effort to salvage what enjoyment I can.

This episode was great to watch because the characters were sensitively portrayed at every juncture and it was a great simple story grounded in the basic dramatic elements. They didn't use Macguffins like bad guys or action sequences or gags to distract from the lack of good writing. They kept it squarely focused on telling a story through compelling character drama. The episode had the atmosphere of a good old Hollywood movie from the 50s like the old solo Jigen episodes usually did.

I never mentioned the music, but the music is quite remarkable. It's a tall order to top Yuji Ono in the same mold, but they've found someone who is up to the task in the person of Naruyoshi Kikuchi. Cool and breezy but with just the right touch of free jazz weirdness. The opening in particular is an amazing piece of music like no other anime opening song I've heard.

The ending changed. The ending in the first episode felt incomplete to me, like they just quickly threw those drawings up because they hadn't finished the ending yet, and this seems to confirm that. It would answer why they didn't credit the ending in the first episode.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

12:26:00 am , 1878 words, 3161 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

The first five Lupin III TV specials

I already wrote about the first Lupin III TV special, Bye Bye Liberty Crisis, which was better than I'd remembered the TV specials being thanks to Osamu Dezaki's sharp directing. Dezaki directed the next few on and off, so I was curious if they were as good. I checked them out, and as expected, it's a mixed bag.

Special #2 1990 Hemingway's Papers

Lupin finds himself up against an army as he tries to find Ernest Hemingway's buried treasure.

The second special retains the Dezaki touch in terms of the presentation of the material, with layouts that feel distinctly Dezaki, but the visuals aren't as highly worked and pleasing. The drawings feel looser and lighter. It's like they didn't have as much time to do this one as the first one. It still holds together well enough thanks to the pleasing directing by Dezaki and the good script by Hiroshi Kashiwabara, but it's not quite as strong as the first TV special.

This time, it feels like a TV special. You can sense that the quality is starting to slip a bit. The drawings of the characters hold up throughout thanks to Noboru Furuse's nice lanky and well-balanced designs. The guest protagonist Maria is designed in a pleasantly cute way that's not obnoxious. This was his second and, alas, last Lupin III TV special.

There are bits of nice animation here and there. The part where Maria runs away from the two soldiers on the hillside has some splendid movement - some of my favorite in any Lupin III, in fact. I like every drawing and every little movement in this sequence. It's very different from the movement in any past Lupin III. It's a style of movement that's distinctly the product of this period in its sense of timing and the style of the drawings. I thought maybe it might be Seiji Muta, since he worked on Akira a few years earlier and the movement seems influenced by that whole Nakamura/Utsunomiya post-Akira style with the doll-like treatment of limbs and sharp sense of form, but it seems more likely to just be the obvious first guess, Masahiro Ando, since he's known for action animation.

Special #3 1991 Napoleon's Dictionary

Lupin is hunted down by the G7, who hope his grandfather's treasure will pay for their recent Gulf War misadventure.

Despite a witty story skewering recent global events, the third special is rendered nigh unwatchable by its unprecedentedly bad production values. It is hands down the worst animated Lupin III I've seen. It's remarkable how consistently badly drawn it is. Many of the shots look like bad fan art. It's the Yashigani of Lupin III. Not even the throwaway episodes of the second series, which had some substantial ups and downs in quality, were ever this badly drawn.

The film is a shambles. I don't know what happened, but it feels like TMS forgot they had to do another TV special and only remembered a month before airing. Shots feel wrong in every way: the drawings, the layout, the coloring. The drawings ruin what might otherwise have been a fairly fun treasure race story that feels like an updated and more sociopolitical version of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Hiroshi Kashiwabara writes again. Kashiwabara is good at creating plots that are international in scale, placing the characters within a grander scheme that gives the proceedings more weight than a mere caper. His competing factions are often based on obvious real-life analogues, giving his work a satirical edge.

Surprisingly, there is a brief movement when it looks like good animation is trying to peek through. It's the bit where Lupin looks up the word impossible in Napoleon's dictionary and splits the car in half. I think the same animator might have done the next scene, but it's a fascinating mess. Occasionally there will be one shot that has a little bit of nicely timed movement, but the next shot will revert back to horrid drawings. The chaos of the animation in this scene seems to hint at chaos on the production floor. The timing of the animation of Jigen's hand in this scene for some reason reminds me of the timing of the movement in the scene in special #3 I mentioned above, so I wonder if it might not be the same animator.

It's sad that this TV special is such a disaster, because it's one of the few that featured Yasuo Otsuka in any capacity. He was the 'Mecha Design Supervisor'. Obviously he was brought in because of his love of cars. There are a huge variety of classic cars in the film, but sadly although they are drawn accurately to the makes, they are not particularly well drawn, and there isn't anything remotely resembling a good action scene. It would have been nice to have one special allowing Yasuo Otsuka to really revel in his love of classic cars.

Interestingly, this special doesn't have a director. Only a supervisor (Dezaki). There are five storyboarders and two enshutsu or technical directors. I'm sure there's an interesting story behind why this special turned out the way it did.

Incidentally, by way of contrast, Dezaki storyboarded the first two specials himself, as he usually does when he directs something. There is no enshutsu credit on these films (only assistant enshutsu), so presumably Dezkai did his own processing.

It's surprising how bad the animation of this special is when you see names like Takashi Hashimoto, Masahiro Kase and Tadashi Hiramatsu at the top of the key animation credits. Studio Curtain receives a credit at the end of the key animation credits. Plus, Ryutaro Nakamura was one of the storyboarders.

Special #4 1992 From Russia With Love

Lupin finds himself pitted against Rasputin's grandson, a mystic with a magic finger he has a habit of putting into strange places, in a contest to uncover the hidden treasure of the Romanovs.

This time Dezaki returns to directing and storyboarding, though there are now two enshutsu. The film is one more step down from special #2 - vaguer directing and weaker drawings. There are still lots of Dezaki touches, but they feel a little more sloppy and less convincing. There are a few too many triple-takes and harmony shots. The film doesn't really come together as a film. The characters aren't particularly compelling or interesting. It doesn't leave much of an impression. Putting aside the disaster of special #3, it feels like the quality declined steadily until by this point we're getting close to the forgettable feeling that seems to characterize most of the specials.

The drawings of this special aren't bad per se, but they're not particularly impressive. There are four sakkans, and the drawings feel very half-hearted, without any conviction. It's as if, lacking someone with a distinct design sensibility like Noboru Furuse to lead them anymore, they fell back to doing a pale imitation of his template.

The name Hidekazu Kamemoto 亀本秀一 at the end of the key animation credits is probably a hybrid of Hajime Kamegaki 亀垣一 and Hideyuki Motohashi 本橋秀之, the Studio Z5 animators who worked on Part 3. Hajime Kamegaki would go on to be the mecha sakkan of the next special. Hisashi Eguchi (NOT the manga artist) did his first Lupin III work here as an animator. Thus the team behind the animation of the next special came together here.

Special #5 1993 Order to Assassinate Lupin

Lupin steals a nuclear sub in an attempt to bring down an arms smuggler.

This special shook up the pattern of the first four specials. This one feels nothing like the specials up until this point. The director is different, the designs are different, and the tone of the film is different. Despite that, it's a pretty successful little film. In fact, this film is responsible for keeping the TV specials going. The specials were going to be canceled due to declining ratings, but the success of this special ensured their survival.

The director is Masaaki Osumi, who directed the seminal first Lupin III TV series in 1971 before regrettably being replaced by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata due to low ratings. Here TMS pays him the long overdue respect of bringing him back to direct Lupin III again, and allowing him to do it the way he wanted.

The previous TV specials kept the atmosphere and characterizations pretty well close to the feeling of the TV series that had came before - serious but silly, never getting too heavy. Osumi here takes things back to the feeling of the early episodes he directed, when the characters were more ambiguous, not just lovable rogues, and the atmosphere was more serious and less goofy. Osumi's Lupin III stories were erratic like the original and not smoothed over and adapted to conventional anime storytelling rhythms. For this special, Osumi ordered Yasuo Yamada not to ham it up, to play Lupin more straight. Yamada's playful improvisations were a big part of what made the show so much fun, but they were out of place in Osumi's more hard-edged vision of Lupin III. No lecherous googly-eyed Lupin here.

The film has the feeling of a classic James Bond film. The protagonists must play a game of wits to defeat a formidable and cunning opponent with dastardly geopolitical aims. We slowly learn the truth behind this history between Jigen and the beautiful nuclear scientist kidnapped to drive Lupin's sub. And all the while, a ruthless hired killer tracks down the Lupin gang. All of the characters have well-defined and believably played personalities.

The directing is detail-oriented. When Karen tries Jigen's magnum, Jigen advises Karen not to shoot single action, but to cock it first, because otherwise the aim may stray. When Karen takes the magnum, it's so heavy she has a hard time holding it.

Studio Z5 animator Hajime Kamegaki is the mecha designer, and under his guidance, the weapons and vehicles are meticulously drawn and animated, giving the film a realistic feeling. He was involved in four episodes of Part 3. Episode 15 in particular was storyboarded, directed and sakkan'd by Kamegaki.

After floundering for a few years, they decided to be decisive and try a completely new designer. Hisashi Eguchi's character designs abandon the elongated Lupin face of the previous specials and return to the more rounded Lupin of Cagliostro and Fuma. The guest character designs are a bit strange, with the mouth placed close to the nose, and not particularly appealing or well animated, but the character acting feels stronger, probably because of Masaaki Osumi's unique style of directing. Like Takahata, he doesn't draw, but provides instructions to a storyboarder/director. The characters are more grounded and their emotional palette is more subtle. Osumi's roots outside of the anime industry help him create characters who behave in a more self-consistent way free from anime conventions.

The screenplay is again by Hiroshi Kashiwabara. It's obviously a re-working of the story he wrote for episode 50 of Part III, which also involved Lupin stealing a nuclear sub. He has added characters and otherwise reworked the story for feature length. The story was originally conceived for a feature film, so perhaps this is closer to his original idea. The sub is not as central a component this time. Rather than spy agencies competing over the Russian sub Ivanov, Lupin competes against smuggling ring Shot Shell.

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