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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Monday, August 26, 2013

06:04:00 pm , 2131 words, 8444 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Short, Studio: Telecom

Anime Mirai 2011

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.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

05:35:00 pm , 642 words, 7690 views     Categories: Short, Director: Gisaburo Sugii, 1980s

Gisaburo Sugii's Kakurenbo

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.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

11:57:00 am , 373 words, 33882 views     Categories: Site News, Misc

I'm back

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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

04:41:00 pm , 1921 words, 32756 views     Categories: TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #13

I'm a little late in wrapping this show up, and other people have written better overviews of the good and bad aspects of the show than I probably can (notably Colony Drop and Analog Housou), but I've just seen the last episode so here are my thoughts.

I'd read the reviews, so I knew what was coming. All of the flashbacks we were presented as gradually building up to some big reveal about Fujiko's past turn out to have been planted in her brain by someone. They weren't Fujiko's memories at all. The whole show was a MacGuffin. Purporting to tell the story of Fujiko's origins, it does no such thing, and closes laughing in your face as the characters ride off into the sunset. Perhaps that is a fitting origin story for characters as protean as the Lupin III characters. There can be no origin story, and every purported origin story should be taken with a grain of salt.

The beauty of Lupin III is that its characters are so malleable. They've been re-invented constantly over the years. Everyone has a different notion of who Lupin really is in terms of his personality and visual rendering. The roundly drawn gentleman thief of Cagliostro couldn't be further from the rubbery, horse-faced schmoozer of Part 3, but both are Lupin. The characters have an amazing resilience to inhabit different personalities and situations, and that is undoubtedly part of the franchise's undying appeal. The Lupin characters here are as different as each previous Lupin III outing has been from its predecessors, but in their own way they are valid.

The problem here is that some of the changes they've made simply don't add up. My initial impression after watching episode 1 was that Zenigata's personality change didn't contribute anything and deadened the character for no reason, and Oscar was a useless add-on. I expected that impression to change as the show progressed. It didn't. Zenigata was never much of a serious opponent to Lupin or Fujiko, and Oscar was nothing more than an annoying concession to female fanservice. Fujiko, the main character, never takes anything like a leading role in her own show. She seems more of a trembling victim most of the time, which I think does her character a disservice.

In a show that was already lacking in a sufficiently strong running story, it seems doubly problematic to not only basically throw the whole story at you in the last episode, but then basically go on to say that everything that happened in the show prior to now was just BS. It comes across as saying to the audience that you're an idiot for having invested in the story and expected things to lead where the storyteller made it seem like it was leading. There's a difference between surprising the audience with an unexpected twist, and simply being capricious and taunting. The ending doesn't satisfy, it merely jerks around spasmodically in a way you didn't expect, then stops. The show had already failed to build any cohesive characters for you to invest in, and the ending doesn't offer any catharsis.

The show was extremely ambitious, and I'm almost willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for that reason. Few shows made these days can lay claim to attempting to go against the grain of the industry the way this show has, and it deserves praise for that. It almost comes across as an anti-moe anime, a morbid deconstuction of the idea of the lolita. With its feminist spin, adult themes and sophisticated writing, it was a more serious-minded and intellectualized Lupin III than has probably ever been seen. Maybe the Lupin III characters weren't enough to support such an experiment, but at the same time, who is to say what the real Lupin III is? There is no one Lupin III. Every Lupin III outing is the product of a particular team of people working at a particular time in anime history, and therefore putting the unique stamp that only they are capable of putting on the characters.

But it seems it was overweeningly ambitious, because the writers were not up to the task of putting the package together in a satisfying way. A haltingly successful deconstruction of narrative more tantalizing than convincing, it fell short as good storytelling. They clearly attempted to divide the story up over the allocated 13-episode span in a way that would provide variety and unpredictability and maintain suspense, with a different character highlighted early on, an action episode here and a story episode there, and the story gradually unfolding throughout. But the narrative merely wound up feeling disjointed and random and lacking in a cohesive central thread, and the story was not enough to support a whole series, as it could not be told in enough detail to make sense until the very last moment. I completely agree with Analog Housou that this story would have been much better suited to being told in a 90-minute TV special format.

Initially the show seemed to suggest that youthful physical and sexual abuse led to Fujiko's present day personality. It's good that that turned out not to be the case, but on the flipside, we never come away with any insight into Fujiko's personality or past. Fujiko didn't evolve out of the experience into the liberated, confident, sex-hungry lady she is today through the pain of the experience of being controlled by and overcoming her oppressor. She wasn't changed by the whole experience. She was that way to begin with. That is certainly more satisfying and less condescending than what the show seemed to be building towards, but at the same time it obviates the whole point of the story.

Ironically, filler episodes with no relation to the main story like episode 5 turned out to be the most memorable episodes in the series, largely due to the prowess of the team behind that particular episode. The moments of the show that felt best were not when the new characters like Oscar were on the screen, but when the old team dynamics began to fall into place and we could see the old characters we knew and loved beginning to emerge. The show simultaneously failed to work on the merit of its experiments, nor to usurp the musty old elements of the show. It felt like it only begrudgingly allowed the characters to be themselves, and it was those moments that shined.

The quality of the show did little to help. The animation was stolid and lacking in spark for the most part, save a few episodes or scenes where the animation stood up due to a talented person. That said, in view of the fact that they were clearly at a disadvantage in terms of schedule, I would have been willing to overlook the inferior quality of the animation, and judge them by what should have completely been in their control, namely the story. They should have made absolutely sure they had a rock-solid story even if they could not get the schedule to make each episode look perfect. The story should be the foundation. Their failure in this regard is where I can't bring myself to give the show a pass. At the same time, I can't believe that this show had that much less schedule than a show like Kemonozume or Kaiba, also one-season auteur-driven outings, and those shows were far more solid in terms of both animation and storytelling.

The big hype at the beginning of the show was that Takeshi Koike was designing the characters. That turned out to be a huge deception. I and probably others foolishly expected that he would be there behind the animation throughout the series, perhaps the way Kazuto Nakazawa was such a whirlwind force raising the quality of Samurai Champloo throughout the show. That did not turn out to be the case at all, either due to the much slower nature of Takeshi Koike's style or, more likely, because he simply didn't want to invest himself too much in the project for whatever reason. Either he was busy with other work or didn't have much faith in the project. After some work in the first episode, he was absent until the final episode, in which he drew some animation of the slo-mo bullet sequence.

The problem with the failure of the Takeshi Koike promise is that it also spelled out a failure in the animation department in general. Having his name attached led to expectations of extravagant animation, even if not of his hand, to bring alive his character designs, but the character animation was barely functional more often than not. As with many aspects of this project, enlisting Takeshi Koike seems to have been done capriciously and without sufficient thought in terms of what that required in terms of the animation, and whether his designs were appropriate to the limitations of the schedule. Obviously Redline could not have been produced in Fujiko's schedule, so perhaps Koike's efforts would have been futile anyway. Basically, despite them having gotten Takeshi Koike onboard as character designer, the characters didn't feel like his because they were so badly drawn most of the time.

On the visuals side, the show did carve out its own stylistic niche, with its moody compositions, obsessive character hatching, creative flourishes like the silhouette sequence and boat ride in episode 11, and the determinedly hand-drawn feeling of the drawings. I wasn't convinced by some of the decisions, though, especially the hatching, which felt unnecessary to the end. The obsessive depiction of owls of different kinds also felt somewhat self-indulgent and artsy rather than artistic. Aside from the affected pseudo-literary writing, that's my lingering problem with this show: it attempts to be artistic, but winds up being merely sophomorically artsy.

I want to see a Lupin III that's relevant to our world today - that addresses issues of relevance to the very different world we live in. There's no point in wallowing in old-fashioned stories of the kind that were told in the 1970s and 1980s outings. I know that, even though it's those Lupin III outings that I feel worked the best overall. Later Lupin III outings felt like hollow mimicry. At least this show is no half-hearted copy of a template. It's a bold new vision, albeit a deeply flawed one. I like that this show attempted to create a contemporary Lupin III. This show seemed somehow distantly inspired by various edgy topics in today's society - from Bhopal to child trafficking - and for that I appreciate what it tried to do, although I think they were too oblique about it still. While it's not a show I ended up liking, it's a show I very much wanted to like.

I think it's commendable to have such strong women voices as Mariko Okada and Sayo Yamamoto leading the way with a show like this. There have been women directors previously, but this is one of the first shows that was clearly a showcause of an auteur vision rather than merely a workmanlike production in which feminine and personal identity did not play a part. Their personalities come through loud and clear in the material, for good or ill. I can't bring myself to let my overwhelmingly negative opinion of the show overshadow the fact that they clearly put themselves on the line with this show and tried some daring things - some of which succeeded and others didn't - and for that they command respect and show a positive example.

Monday, July 16, 2012

09:47:00 am , 6028 words, 33505 views     Categories: Animation, Interview

Interview with Bahi JD

Today I have the privilege of bringing you an interview with our very own homegrown pro animator, Bahi JD, who in a matter of a few years has gone from drawing gifs on the forum for fun to animating in high-profile anime productions like Kids on the Slope. Bahi's achievement is unique. Foreigners have infiltrated the ranks for a while now, but Bahi is a telecommuting animator in Austria who, with no formal training, managed to find a place for himself in the industry essentially through the infectious force of his enthusiasm for animation. I think part of the reason for Bahi's success is that he's inspired by the fundamental power of movement that pulses through the veins of all of the master animators of Japan, not a slavish copier of surface anime features. He's an inspiration showing that it can be done if you have the talent and just sit down and animate and show that you can do it.

Ben: How did you first become interested in animation?

Bahi: Hehe, this question pulls me back into my first childhood memories. XD I don't have any clear memories from that time, but I'm sure this process started before my school time. At the time I enjoyed lots of Japanese cartoons like Nippon Animation's "World Masterpiece Theater" shows as example and all the other cartoons from the west and east that many kids were watching.

But the key for me to understanding and getting interested in animation even more came when my parents gave me a flipbook with a car on it. By flipping it over and over and watching all the pictures make that car move, I started to kind of think about the process behind cartoons and I really enjoyed making this car move, so I became interested in making my own flipbook and making my own characters move and tell a story. I was already drawing a lot at that time and it was very exciting for me to make my drawings move, they would feel more alive.

I did my first flipbook on the side of my maths book during boring school lessons. It was a simple animation with a character on the bottom and a 10 ton heavy Weight above his head bound on a string, and you know how this was going to end up. But while the string was detaching, the character was trying to eat a fly like a frog. The book had over 200 pages, so I had a lot of fun with it and each year they added 50 more pages to the new books.

Ben: So we have your parents to thank for getting you interested in animation. Tell me a little bit about how you went from drawing your first flipbook to creating your first gif animation, the famous Shithead Action. Were you creating flipbooks the whole time up until you created Shithead Action?

Bahi: Ah! No, actually after the flipbooks in my school books, nothing was really happening. I was just drawing around and creating some crappy animations on paper. But I had discovered animation like Akira, Jin-Roh, Ghost in the Shell and Mononoke Hime so I was still highly interested in animation, only problem was that I knew nothing about anything. The real revolution and progress began in 2007 for me when I was 16. At that time I discovered this video on Youtube about an animator named Shinya Ohira.

After that, my whole view about animation changed into someting way bigger. I still consider Ohira one of the greatest animators in the history of commercial animation. After I discovered "sakuga MADs" through Ohira's video, it was like a huge explosion full of awesome animators. Mitsuo Iso, Toshiyuki Inoue, Yutaka Nakamura... etc etc (the list goes on) And right after I discovered sakuga, I discovered Anipages, where I finally find out about these genius people behind all the wonderful animations. haha it's kind of crazy and funny how we are doing this interview exactly on the place where everything began for me with the gifs XD.

The gif-animations and Shithead Action began with an article you wrote called Looking for gif animators (where you also mentioned Ryo-Chimo) and on this thread opened by Huw Millar.

You can just scroll down through the pages and see how Shithead Action was born, (; ^0^) lol. After I was introduced to easy toon through Huw M's thread, I couldn't stop animating with this software! Inspired by many great animators, we started creating lots of fun and experimental animations on Anipages. Then I started working on Shithead Action without any plans. I just drew frame by frame and I had so much fun that I couldn't stop working on this gif.

Suddenly it became over 2 minutes long and the software couldn't handle it anymore XD, so I had to end the story. Shithead Action gif-animation opened lots of doors for me, animators all around the world were inspired by the animation & enjoyed it a lot, I was really happy about it. At that time, I also met many young Japanese animators through the web who are still very close friends of mine, and I worked with some of them recently on Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku".

Ben: Considering it was one of your first attempts at animation, and your first gif animation, Shithead Action blew us away with all of the good FX animation, complex camerawork and nascent storytelling... Not to mention how ass-kickingly fun it was. Who/what were your influences with Shithead Action, and in general? And how did you animate it? Straight-through, right? Were you studying your favorite animators?

Bahi: Thanks Ben, I really appreciate it to hear that from you. Talking about the influences, I can't really count them.....every sakuga clip that I had seen was floating around in my mind. From FLCL animators to Mitsuo Iso's End of Evangelion scenes to Yoshihiko Umakoshi and Imaishi's scenes in Mamoru Hosoda's One Piece movie to Shinji Hashimoto and Ohira's dynamic camera angles and any other exciting animation work that was produced until that time. The amount of Japanese sakuga influence in this gif animation was really high.

But I didn't want to copy their work, nor to look at them while I was working, although I'm sure I had a lot of these scenes in my mind and I was mixing them all with my own imagination to create something new and exciting. Watching a sakuga mad before starting to work on Shithead Action was like an energy drink for me. Not to mention that I was listening a lot to The Pillows' "Advice (instrumental)" track during work. It was really crazy and I did what I really enjoyed the most and I had lots of time for it. It was summer, I was a teenager with no big responsibilities and nothing was disturbing me in my environment.

Most of it was done straight through. I just jumped into the action, especially on the FX scenes. On some more complex cuts, I had to add or remove drawings. Easytoon was too simple for any complex process. It's just a tool to practice animation. If I thought that the timing wasn't right, I removed or added a drawing. At that time, key animation wasn't bothering me, and I wasn't confronted with issues like full frame, 2s or 3s either. I hadn't read or heard anything about animation and all the definitions, techniques and the process behind it. I hadn't even heard about Richard Williams' "Animator's Survival Kit" at that time... all my knowledge about animating was based on sakuga mads when I worked on Shithead Action. I didn't even know what timing and spacing was, there was only this software and lots of animation material that I watched frame by frame and tried to understand how the movements would work for the viewer.

Ben: It wasn't long after this that you went pro. Was Skullgirls your first professional job? It's a fascinating project - a western fighting game inspired by anime, built of incredibly rich sprite animation. What was it like working on that? Also, what did you animate/how many shots?

Bahi: Yes, Skullgirls was my first professional job that I started in 2011. The team was looking for animators and I contacted them without any big expectations. I knew nothing about the project at that time and when I started, I got really fascinated by the talents being involved in this project. The creative director & designer of Skullgirls, Alex Ahad, had a great response to my email when I applied for the job, because he had already seen Shithead Action, so we were both really happy to get started. But before starting with the work, I did an animation test, which everyone did when they applied for the job. It was a small animation move based on the Character "Filia".

I had a great time working with the Skullgirls team and the team was sharing their ideas altogether. Sometimes we even had Oekaki Chats where we drew concepts for the characters together. Alex Ahad himself is a huge fan of Imaishi and Gainax, so I introduced him more to the individual Japanese animators and Yoshinori Kanada's amazing FX designs.

Game sprite animation is different in many aspects from animating for an animation film, so at the beginning I had to do some research because I'm not a pro in fighting games. There are no cuts, but moves, and each move has a fixed amount of frames/drawings that are split into "Start Up"/"Active"/"End frames". For example, the start up has, let's say, 3 drawings where the character is preparing to punch, active is when the punch hits the opponent, and end frames are the recovery or basically the frames that go back into the idle standard character pose (or just the pulling back of the punch). And sprite animation is usually very quick and fast. There is usually no time to animate reality based Hiroyuki Okiura moves for fighting games, but rather something like Yutaka Nakamura & Kanada or even quicker than that. Fighting games are fast, the characters are mainly fast and so is the animation.

When I started working on Skullgirls, Alex was looking for cool FX animation and he thought I could handle that because he liked the FX on Shithead Action so he gave me the complete responsibility for all the FX animation. I did much FX animation of sparks, dust, smoke and that kind of thing, and the team later worked on them and even did new FX based on my work. When I finished all the FX work, Alex and Mike Z (the programmer and game designer of Skullgirls) decided to give me total freedom on the character Double, a transforming monster with lots of liquid and crazy movements. So I was assigned to animate all of Double's moves, but due to schedule, we split the moves among other animators. The amount of freedom of creativity I had on this character was really huge. Alex gave me 4~5 drawings of Double and some notes about the moves I was assigned to, but everything else was up to me. I really had tremendous fun animating this shape-shifting crazy character. I'm also very glad that they gave me the permission to upload my work, so you can check out my Skullgirls sprites at this link.

Ben: After this I think your next job was Takuya Hosogane's music video "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", right? This is a very surprising project - a cute but quirky anime-style music video directed by an indie PV director and animated by the young generation of sakuga stars. How on earth did this strange thing come about? How did you get involved, what did you animate, and what was it like working on this project?

Bahi: Oh, haha, how I got involved.... Long story. I was friends with Rapparu, Yotube (aka Naoki Yoshibe, aka Luckgaki) and some of the others, I found Takuya Hosogane-san's motion reel on Vimeo and I was really impressed by his work and reblogged it on my Tumblr. So somehow Hosogane found out about my Tumblr and somehow we came in contact. He also worked on the Tatami Galaxy ED, you've probably seen it. And surprisingly, Hosogane was also a good friend of Rapparu XD, we live in a small world! And that's how I met the director of "R".

Some months later, Hosogane and the producer of "R" Yuya Yamaguchi (who's also a nice motion graphics artist) contacted me and asked me if I was interested in working on an animated music video they were planning to do, and that Rapparu, Yotube and Hidessu were also involved. What could be better than working on a project with friends?

Hidessu was the animation supervisor of the project. He's also a very talented young artist. Some might have seen his short film recently on Youtube. So I got involved and there was again a big surprise: Ryo-Chimo and Shingo Yamashita were also participating in the project. So we worked on this music video which was based on the IA Vocaloid character, designed by Ryunosuke-san's Maxilla Team, and composer Jin was working on a new Album, and the team was planning to put the music video as a bonus on the album disk. The song is now Top 10 in some Japanese charts. The character design was originally done by Aka Akasaka but illustrator Name created another new version of the character. It's cool and it fits in my opinion.

Yama-san was our executive advisor the whole time, but he also did key-animation and really gave lots of advice during production. I think Rapparu was in contact with Yama-san, so that's how everyone got involved in this project. Friends asked other friends to participate and it happened. Some other people I knew from earlier that I didn't even know were animators were also involved in the project, as well as many other very great young talents that I had heard about. So it was a great collaboration of the new generation of web-animators. I think some people were still missing haha. There are a lot more people in this circle of animators. Some might also think of Kenichi Kutsuna. Hosogane was inspired by MAD clips on this project, so the more animators, the more fun.

Now let's talk about the real work, I was the only animator outside Japan, but that made no difficulties during work thanks to the power of the internet. My Japanese is still terrible but Yuya and Hosogane speak good English, and Ryunosuke from Maxilla speaks great too, so we had no communication problems. We worked through Skype and Dropbox every day, and everything worked great. We had all our stuff on the web, and we also shared an online time-sheet, which was amazing, because sometimes I could see who was writing his time-sheet on the document live.

The fact that we shared everything together helped me understand the animation process much more, and I really learned a lot during the production, because this was the first animation project I worked on with a professional team. Well, some were rookies, including me, but Yama's knowledge helped me make a lot of improvement. Yama-san had made a layout sheet file in Flash, which almost everyone was doing the key animation on. We mostly did everything digitally in Flash. Sugimoto was one of the few that worked analog. The last cut was done by him, for example. He also made a beautiful short recently, check it out.

For more details about the animators, there is a making of version of the music video which also includes the animator list. And here are the rough versions of my cuts and everything else I did for the music video.

As you can see, there are also some layouts. As usual, the animators also drew the layout/background and final composition for their scenes. I was also in charge of two other layouts that I didn't animate. Hosogane asked me to do them, and it was my pleasure. Zajirogh, the background designer of the project, also did great work. He changed some elements in some of my layouts, and I like his version better.

I animated 4 cuts and each one brings back some fun memories. Especially the grilled sea shell "Hamaguri" (ハマグリ) cut. I was in charge of animating this hamaguri thing, and I really knew nothing about seafood. Seriously, I don't get the chance to eat seafood, and I had never ever eaten or seen hamaguri before. So I was talking with the team and they told me that Hamaguri pops up by itself when it's ready to eat, and I was like "Are they alive while they get grilled?!" and I still don't know the answer. So basically, I went totally retarded when it was about this hamaguri cut, and I just had no idea how to animate it so that it would look believable to the Japanese audience. I went to get some of these and grill them to understand the animation (grill for the sake of animation LOL), but didn't find any that day XD so I wound up animating this hamaguri from my fantasy, and I hope it didn't end up too unreal. XD

But yeah, the Hamaguri scene still gets mentioned in my friends circle XD and Hosogane also talked about it in interviews haha. I just call it the "yoyo fantasy hamaguri". So yup, for me, it was a great pleasure and an honor to work with these great talents and we had lots of fun working on "Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku", because everyone was just cool and yoyo, we shared all our ideas together and created this music video with Hosogane-san's vision & passion for sakuga mad/amv and I hope that the audience also had fun watching the music video.

Ben: That brings us to your recent and much-talked-about official TV anime debut: Shinichiro Watanabe's Kids on the Slope for MAPPA. You've come a long way in just two years. A prestigious debut by any measure, made all the more remarkable by the fact that you have never inbetweened, and are not even located in Japan. How did you get involved, what shots did you animate, and what was it like working on an actual anime project for the first time?

Bahi: Hmmm, actually the fact that I didn't start as an inbetweener felt at the beginning like a disadvantage for me because, as a key animator, you are cooperating with the inbetween (doga) artist. They have to understand your work to be able to work on it later, so you have to understand them too. But later on, I realized that in my situation it was not a big problem that I had no experience as an inbetweener.

I informed myself about the whole doga process even though I wound up drawing both key animation and inbetweens for Apollon. I just wanted to make sure I knew who was responsible for the inbetween, cleanup and tracing processes, in what kind of environment, and in which studio, because it's always an advantage to know about that before you start with your work. There is a lot to say about the doga process, but let's get started with the main questions haha.

So how did I get involved? Some people say that sometimes things just happen suddenly, but I think nothing happens suddenly. Everything has a long process, and needs some time to happen. This again brings me back to 2009. If I hadn't contacted Cindy Yamauchi-san in 2009, I'm not sure I would be where I am right now. Somehow in 2009 I came across her blog where she talked about very interesting issues about working in the anime industry. I thought that nothing could be better than to get advice about my future career plan as a freelance key animator from an experienced senior animator like her, so I wrote to her and asked basic stuff like, "Is it possible to get a job as a freelancer even if you live in another country?" She replied to me very kindly, and it was the greatest advice that anyone ever gave me, that the simple answer was: "no".

At that time, I was a high school student who was lacking both the social and professional skills needed to survive in such a risky environment. So yup, I needed a lot of experience for this and I went for it. Honestly, I didn't really have high hopes of getting a job the way I have now. I thought it would take much longer than it did. But I still went for it. I just knew someday it would happen if I would continue.

So in 2011 after I was done with my work on Konami's Skullgirls, I was like, "OK, what do I do now?" I was also working on my own animated short film at that time but I needed and wanted a new job to gain more experience among a team of professional artists. So I contacted Yamauchi-san again (I hadn't talked to her since 2009) and she was very happy with my progress during the intervening years. So she decided to give me a chance, and showed my portfolio to producer Masao Morosawa-san, who was also impressed. I was just so happy and excited that it had finally happened.

It was just awesome when I later found out that the project I would be working was being directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, because I'm a huge fan of Samurai Champloo and Animatrix: Kid's Story, they are just one of my all time favorites. It was not the typical Watanabe-san project, but it showed that he really is talented and capable of handling and coming up with great results in any genre. And he has great taste in music. I listen to the Samurai Champloo soundtrack all the time when I'm working. Nujabe's music especially is very relaxing.

I was signed up for episode 7, which featured Yamauchi-san as animation supervisor. I had two options for which cuts to work on: There was one with less action, and less work, and there was a challenging crowd scene. I asked them if it was possible to give me as much action as possible. I chose to work on the crowd scene that was part of the climax of the episode, interspersed with Sentaro and Kaoru's jazz session. It was the most interesting part to me and I thought I would get more experience out of it because I had never done anything like that.

So Nobutaka Ito and I (he animated Sentaro on the drums) were involved in the climactic scene. It was great to see Ito-san's work between my own. This might sound awkward, but I was really proud and honored, because he is such a great artist. Sadly I'm not sure who worked on Kaoru's piano. You can see the whole scene and find some more info about it here. I animated 3 shots, and drew the layout for all 9 of the crowd shots where the students are running and telling each other to come check out the jam session. I will upload the rough animation work and layouts later on my Tumblr blog when I get permission.

I gained so much experience from my first time working on an anime project. It was amazing. You have to be really fast, especially me because I was doing both genga & doga - the full animation - and I was the only animator working digitally. But it didn't make any difference in the end. Everything worked out great through the internet with my line-producer and coordinator Tanaka-san. Tanaka-san and Yamauchi-san gave me lots of freedom on my shots.

But actually, when I finished my first shot, it was too Shinji Hashimoto/Shinya Ohira'ish, i.e. loose and too much myself and off-model. I did it on purpose, to be honest, because I wanted the shots to stand out, but I now realize that this kind of behavior can sometimes be very selfish and very risky for a project. The whole project could take a hit because of this kind off stuff. I got that shot back and fixed it as quickly as possible. Otherwise the animation supervisor would have fixed and changed it. It all depends on the project whether you can go crazy and stylish with the animation. You can do stuff like that on projects like FLCL or Mind Game, for example, but not on most the TV shows.

But that didn't stop me from putting my creative energy into the shots. I could still animate the characters the way I wanted. If there is a limit that you'd better not go beyond because doing so would be playing with the other team members' time and livelihoods, you have to find a way to move forward and not just stand there and complain that you can't do this or that. You have to try something else that could open new doors. So there was still another way to make the shots stand out. I drew the characters clean and followed the rules and totally focused on the movement.

Something that stood out to some Japanese viewers who emailed me was the way the students called the other students. The way they move their hand to call the students is totally not Japanese. Someone who saw the episode emailed me and told me that she was really surprised by the calling gesture and enjoyed it, but thought it looked very European/western, so since I was the only one in the credits with a non-Japanese name, she was sure it was me who did those cuts LOL. I didn't do this on purpose; the problem was my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture. We would have fixed it if there was more time to make the gesture more Japanese, but it's not such a huge disaster actually since it's an anime focused on the music and friendship, so I think people will be OK about those shots haha. But I animated the gestures the way they looked to me in the storyboard.

What I learned from this was to always discuss even the tiniest details in the storyboard with the director, and send a few rough sketches of the movements before starting, or just put a few more character drawings into the layout. Also, another thing I struggled with at the beginning was the material of the school uniforms. The uniforms are apparently much thicker than I initially thought they were. This was while I was working on the first shot. In later shots I animated them thicker. Also, I tried to animate the skirts better than I usually do, so I hope the viewers like the way the skirts of the running girls move. But yes, generally, I wanted the cuts to feel both light and realistic, and I hope the audience enjoyed them.

The 3 cuts I animated can also be viewed on my website as small gifs, but I will try to get permission to upload the rough genga soon.

Ben: Did you design the characters in your shots in Kids on the Slope?

Bahi: Partly. Nobuteru Yuuki-san already had drawn some samples for the random students, so while I was drawing them, I used the settei as a guide. Some of the haircuts are based on them. But yes, I just drew them the way I wanted mainly. It was just important to make them look casual and similar to the settei.

Ben: You mentioned that you were the only animator animating digitally on Kids on the Slope. Is animation in the anime industry drawn mostly digitally or still on paper? Also, how does the animation process differ between the two methods?

Bahi: Hmmm, I would say that digital animation is growing but the majority still works analog. I know many young digital animators but also many that animate on paper. It really doesn't make any difference for the production company. They can handle both digital and analog work. They will print your digital work on paper when they hand it over to the sakuga kantoku. So, the process doesn't change. The sakuga kantoku will fix some little details (usually analog) to make it fit to the main design and then your work gets traced (digitally) no matter what, it makes the lines look more solid. It depends on the production but that's the usual process. I can imagine that animators like Hisashi Mori get more involved in the further production to keep their line style in the final rendering.

Ben: What programs do you use to animate?

Bahi: Currently, Flash, to be more specific, Adobe Flash CS5. Shingo Yamashita, Ryo-Chimo and many other also use Flash. Some people think that you can't really draw in Flash, and at the beginning it's true, but you get used to it after some practice and get to the point where you can draw any line you want like you can in Photoshop. Of course, Photoshop's lines are way more accurate, but Flash is a better tool for animation.

Ben: Don't you use a special custom layout file?

Bahi: Actually, maybe I overreacted about this file, but for me it is really great. I asked Yama-san for permission before I started to continue using the file for other projects of course. It looks like a normal layout sheet, with pegbar holes and stuff but the good thing is that it has a simple script that shows the timer in both frames and seconds, which is set to 24fps. It's really good when you want to quickly synch the time on the storyboard or the time-sheet with your key-animation work. Flash itself also shows the current frame number, but this layout file is more specific and looks like this. Looks simple, and it is simple, but for me it's huge.

Ben: You drew layouts in Apollon, but some of the shots had CG backgrounds, so how were the layouts for these shots handled?

Bahi: Unfortunately, I can only guess on this part because I wasn't put in charge of scenes with CG Backgrounds. But it's nothing complex, they just treat them like normal layouts. The only advantage is that you don't have to spend much time drawing them. It's a nice method to save time. For example, a classroom is very useful when it's done in CG, because it's the same classroom in each episode. So why draw it over and over again if you can build it once and use it for reference for all the shots? It's a good time saver in my opinion and also useful when you want to do complex camera movements; they first animate the background animation with the CG BG, then the animator fits his animation to that. The 3D CG backgrounds that have movement get treated like finished BG animation by the animator. A very nice example would be Norio Matsumoto's CG BG cut from BLOOD movie. They rendered the shot in wireframes for him because it's easier to synch the character like that.

Ben: Some people wondered whether your shots in Apollon were rotoscoped (though some said they weren't rotoscoped enough, go figure). What do you think about rotoscoping?

Bahi: Well, first of all, my shots were not rotoscope. I view this kind of audience reaction in both a positive and negative way. Positive because I'm glad it looked that realistic for them that they call it roto XD. But also kind of sad of course when they don't see/appreciate the "animation". But an artist should not get offended when people don't understand his work. People have different opinions & thoughts and I can't just explain it to all of them. My goal was to achieve my own realism in this work. Satoru Utsunomiya and Mitsuo Iso are a nice example, their animation is believable in their own way. I personally don't like to rotoscope, but there are some animators in the industry that do it often and some that mix it with animation, and some people just roto because there is not enough time and etc. I have no problem with all these but it's not my thing. I personally want my mind to do the movement and not the video-material. Our world is full of beautiful and dynamic movements, but they are only my reference, inspiration and motivation.

Ben: What do you think about the current state of the anime industry?

Bahi: The current state is something medium. It's ok, looking good. It's not really the most glorious years of anime currently, but it's not the dark ages either. There have been many ups and downs lately, but I think things will be finding their balance again soon. The payment situation could stand improvement compared to other industries, but few complain about it seriously, so nothing is likely to change soon. It could all collapse if they were to change something or increase payment. It's a very difficult issue. We just continue because we love animation. Some friends gave up their animation career because they couldn't work for a living as animators in Japan. But some friends are also growing bigger and bigger as gengaman. The anime industry is a very tough place, and I respect the people who survive in it and keep the animation spirit alive in these difficult working conditions.

Ben: Do you sketch?

Bahi: I sketch a lot, it's fun to just doodle around some stuff I have in my imagination. Random doodling wherever and whenever I can since childhood. XD It's always good to sketch around to stay on the road. And sometimes, the sketches are worth something more maybe to continue work on or use as concept/inspiration.

Ben: Any advice to young (or not so young) prospective animators thinking of getting into animation generally or the anime industry specifically?

Bahi: The portfolio is very important. But it's not only about your animation skills, what the companies want to see are your layout skills too if you want to work as key animator. So practice as much as possible, both animation and layout/characters and generally everything! Your portfolio should be able to present that you are capable to do anything. Get in touch with the people in the industry, like producers/managers. You need to build a good connection and network with the people in the industry. Be friendly, patient and nice to people, lol this is like some general advice that everyone knows ( ^ 0^)b Make gif animations or short-films and put them on web. The people have to know you and trust you and your work. If people are already familar with you and your work, you might have better chances. But the most important thing is the communication. If there is a communication barrier, nothing is going to work out. If you can afford it, fly to Japan and live there for a while (I haven't done this yet but it's a great advantage!) My advice is to be careful with your decision first of all when you want to seriously enter the industry. First give it a try and see if you can continue in those conditions you are faced with. An animators life can be very hard in Japan, you have to sacrifice a lot to survive in the industry, especially at the beginning. But if you really want to do this and love working on anime more than anything else, nothing can stop you, seriously. Passion, hard work and pursuit will bring you forward. Sometimes it can be really hard, but nevermind, just continue if it's your dream. Just go for it, have fun and break the limits. I have no idea if all these are helpful but I hope someone finds it useful as an advice somehow XD. The best and simplest advice is, do animation with fun! ( ^0^)/

Ben: Last, but not least: Yoyoyo.

Bahi: YoYoYO!! It was a great pleasure and honor for me to do this interview Ben! And I hope people enjoyed it and hopefully it wasn't too long and boring and somehow useful XD


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

02:21:00 pm , 1380 words, 6646 views     Categories: OVA, Studio: Anime R, 1990s


Capricorn (1991) was the next OVA produced by Aubeck after Garaga. This time it's a real OVA, only 47 minutes long. I just watched this for the first time, and can report that it is not worth revisiting. It has nothing of the quality or charm of Garaga. It's just a sloppy, quickly made adaptation of a manga that doesn't work as a story and has virtually no animation of interest to rescue it. The only reason I write about it here is because it involves Anime R, and the reason why it turned out so crappy is more interesting than the OVA itself.

Due to the relative success of Garaga, the production company Aubeck had intended to use the same staff to produce their next project, an adaptation of the mangaka Joji Manabe's Capricorn. Hidemi Kubo was scheduled to be the director and Anime R was to do the animation again. After Hidemi Kubo drew the storyboard, though, for some reason he had to duck out of the project. That was the first blow. Then, due to scheduling problems, Anime R was not able to devote their full energy to the project. In the end, aside from being headlined by animation director Moriyasu Taniguchi and mecha animation director Toru Yoshida, there are just a few second-tier R animators (none of the stars like Hiroshi Osaka or Hiroyuki Okiura) and the rest of the animator team was apparently thrown together in a rush.

After Hidemi Kubo left, Taniguchi took on the job of animation director on the condition of being able to choose who was to direct the project. The person he chose is Takashi Imanishi, whom Taniguchi had worked under recently on the Sunrise projects Votoms, City Hunter and Armor Hunter Mellowlink. Imanishi was still young but Taniguchi was impressed with his work on these projects. Taniguchi also apparently chose Shinichiro Watanabe, who had begun to make the transition to director, but the credits do not show any trace of his presence if he was indeed involved. Imanishi wound up re-drawing the storyboard based on Kubo's storyboard, so sadly there is probably only scant trace of Kubo's touch left. Perhaps another major reason the project feels rushed is that Takashi Imanishi, Toru Yoshida et al. were concurrently putting most of their effort into the big OVA project Gundam 0083. Rather than being a big effort on their part, it feels like they were just pinch hitters brought in to bring the project to completion.

The results really show that this project was made in a rush. The animation is TV quality for the most part. Even the few bits where the animation is somewhat lively, like the scene in the house at the beginning, where the animator draws the character going through some fun posing, and the scene where the dragon girl escapes her captors a little later, don't really feel that impressive. The very loose drawings reminiscent of Urusei Yatsura show that they were trying for a looser style of animation that would enable more playing around, but even in this department the animation does not feel particularly nice. Any random episode of Urusei Yatsura did that kind of animation better. The drawings don't look bad in the same way as Good Morning Althea. They don't feel like they look wrong because of bad inbetweening. They just feel like the animators didn't have time to draw the animation.

The animation doesn't even feel like it bears the very strong imprint of a sakkan, much less one with such an identifiable style as Moriyasu Taniguchi. Either by this time he wasn't drawing things in such an idiosyncratic way as he did on Votoms many years earlier, or he just didn't actually do that many corrections here. Similarly, I don't feel the very strong impression of Toru Yoshida in the mecha. The only times when I feel his imprint are in a few shots of the grub-looking ships flying by. They were clearly his design and probably drawn by him. So all in all, it's pretty disappointing from an Anime R anime. Not the best showcase of Anime R's style. But then again, they were involved in a ton of projects, and I'm sure that most of them are not that impressive.

I'd be inclined to give the show a pass despite the lackluster animation because I'm actually kind of partial to this style of lighthearted, gag-filled, playful anime. But it just doesn't work. The story is too compressed, first of all, so it doesn't work as a film. But more importantly, even the character animation and drawing aren't that great. The characters just aren't funny or fun to watch they way they are supposed to be. Normally I love this kind of fun and playful character designs, with its many wacky characters based on animals with chicken, frog, cat heads, etc. I love shows like Kaiketsu Zorori that have simple kiddie designs that allow the animators to have more fun moving them. But somehow that equation didn't work in favor of Capricorn. They seem to have set out to make it a simple carefree romp giving the animators room to fill it out with playful animation, but perhaps because of the short schedule, it just wound up feeling cheap, without the playfulness that would have been necessary to make the simple design aesthetic work. Incidentally, the show seems to have ripped off another with the same aesthetic, Spaceship Sagittarius, which is also a lighthearted science fiction romp populated by anthropomorphic animals featuring an anthropomorphic frog character who speaks in Osaka-ben.

Incidentally the mangaka Joji Manabe is NOT the same person as the Oh Pro animator Joji Manabe. They are two different people. For a long time I was confused about this and thought they were the same person, assuming the animator had eventually given up animating and switched to drawing manga or something. The name is actually spelled slightly differently: Joji Manabe spelled 真鍋譲治 is the mangaka who debuted in 1984, whereas Joji Manabe spelled 真鍋譲二 is the Oh Pro animator from the 1970s who worked on such things as Lupin series 1 (1971) and 2 (1977-80), Dokonjo Gaeru (1972-74), Heidi (1974) and Galaxy Express 999 (1978-1981).

When I saw the animation of Capricorn, it made me think of Urusei Yatsura, so the first person that came to mind was Yuji Morikawa, the guy whose name is synonymous with pioneering the wildly exaggerated reaction animation with huge mouth and eyes that defines Urusei Yatsura. There are several shots with huge-mouthed reactions in that style here. But no, surprisingly, he isn't involved. I think I've also long found myself mixing up Yuji Morikawa and Joji Manabe, too, for some reason.

A note about the credits: I've done something novel this time and placed a note by the key animators identifying which studio they belonged to. I thought it would be an interesting way of showing how the key animation credits (in Capricorn and generally) are a mix of animators from different studios. Whereas in Garaga the only studio credited with "Production Assistance" (which is a credit that is often used to credit the subcontracting studio that produced the actual animation), in Capricorn about a dozen studios are mentioned, so with a little research I was able to figure out who belonged to which one.

The first person listed, Ayaka Gun, is probably a pen name. The only other place the name appears is in Pop Chaser, which also featured one other Anime R animator, Kazuaki Mouri, so obviously it's one of the better Anime R animators. I understand why s/he used the name in Pop Chaser - everyone was doing it almost as a joke - but I don't know why they felt the need to use a pen name here. I wonder if it might not be Toru Yoshida himself, because he's from Kagawa prefecture, which contains a district called Ayaka-gun.

Capricorn カプリコン (OVA, 1991, 47mins, Aubeck)

Planning:谷田部雄次Yuji Yatabe
Director:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
Created by & Structure:真鍋譲治Joji Manabe
Script & Storyboard:今西隆志Takashi Imanishi
真鍋譲治Joji Manabe
Char. Design & Anim. Director:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Mecha Design & Mecha A.D.:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key Animation:綾歌軍Ayaka Gun(Anime R)
吉本拓二Takuji Yoshimoto
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
能地清Kiyoshi Noji
河野利幸Toshiyuki Kono
村中博美Hiromi Muranaka(Studio Mu)
山本佐和子Sawako Yamamoto
大島康弘Yasuhiro Ojima
井藤誠Makoto Ifuji(Animation 501?)
飯飼一幸Kazuyuki Igai
福島豊明Toyoaki Fukushima
小倉康治Yasuharu Ogura(Atelier Fukuro)
川島達矢Tatsuya Kawajima
大城勉Tsutomu Oshiro(Studio Emu)
安藤義信Yoshinobu Ando
阿部正実Masami Abe
木村光雅Mitsumasa Kimura(D.A.S.T.)
中平晴也Haruya Nakahira

Monday, July 2, 2012

04:28:00 pm , 709 words, 4323 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #12

The second-to-last episode begins the descent to the climax on the roller-coaster ride that has been Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Appropriately, this episode takes place in a creepy abandoned amusement park, with an extended action scene on a roller-coaster. Fujiko and Zenigata embark on a not-so-fun ride through a funhouse that plays out like a sick version of Disney's It's a Small World ride (the holiday season display in particular appears to have been directly copied), replete with creepy children's choirs, replaying through imaginatively twisted imagery the disturbing history of Fujiko.

The episode is full of reveals and explanations, without quite making everything clear. Some things we could piece together without being told: Fujiko tried to kill the tattoo girl because she was being controlled by someone else, as Fujiko had been, and Fujiko wanted to 'kill her own past'. Others are news to me: The experimental drug research was not limited to Fujiko but also involved kidnapping little girls the world over. Fujiko gives Zenigata the key to linking a recent string of disappearances around the world. All the players are present in the same episode for the first time - Lupin, Goemon, Jigen, Zenigata and Fujiko. My problem with the show is that it doesn't really have a story; it just teases you for 10 episodes and then tells you what happened at the end, rather than providing a story that unfolds throughout the show.

I appreciate that the show is attempting to create a heady and edgy mixture of blunt sexuality, dark imagery and psychological drama aimed at adult viewers, and it's great to have a show that is at least attempting to do something sophisticated and smart in anime. It's one of the few Lupin shows that is genuinely for adults. But something that turns me off about it is the way the show rubs your face in the anguish, cruelty and masochism, for example the gag about the doll that screams 'More!' as it's being shot, rather than being a little more subtle about it.

The strange thing about the story to me is that, even as they're revealing things gradually, and you begin to understand the pieces of the puzzle, it's still hard to make sense of it in your head. It remains a blur, rather than feeling like it at comes into focus. It feels like needlessly confusing and jumbled storytelling.

When Jigen comments that this whole thing has nothing to do with him, and asks why he has to be involved, Lupin comments that he and Jigen are nothing but unwitting cast members pulled into the story of Fujiko Mine. Meaning to say, all of the later stories would not exist if it weren't for this story of Fujiko.

The episode is satisfying due to the storyboard by Yokoyama Akitoshi, which makes the rather jumbled storytelling clear while watching, and switches seamlessly between drama, action and visual storytelling. I particularly liked some of the background drawings like the drawing of the mansion pictured above. Perhaps they had reference material, but if not, it's an impressively creative design. The whole funhouse scene had a lot of nice visuals. It was a clever way of representing Fujiko's history, with the three stages of Fujiko's growth from infancy to adolescence to adulthood embodied by the different dolls of the funhouse. Overall the episode created a dense narrative texture that is impressive for being so layered. The scene with the tickets was pretty funny.

The animation was slightly stronger than usual, but still uneven. There were several surprise faces - Masaaki Yuasa and Hiroyuki Imaishi and other talented names like Osamu Nabeshima, Hiroshi Shimizu and Yoshio Mizumura. There was even Hirotoshi Takaya as one of the four co-sakkans under the four sakkans. On top of having no less than 8 sakkans, there was a slew of seconds, showing that right down to the end it was a battle. Imaishi's scene was patently obvious - falling into the water - as was Yuasa's - the dolls with huge boobs. Lupin running down the building reminded a bit of the scene in Cagliostro where Lupin runs vertically down a wall to save Clarissa as she's falling. The whole scene on the roller coaster prior to Imaishi's scene was also pretty nice.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

04:04:00 pm , 1847 words, 6961 views     Categories: OVA, Movie, Studio: Anime R, 1980s

Hyper-Psychic-Geo Garaga

Garaga (1989) is an interesting obscurity from the late 1980s. I had never heard of it before looking into it recently while pursuing Anime R's filmography, but it's a rather interesting project for a number of reasons.

Initially planned as an OVA, it was extended to movie length and had a limited theatrical run before being released on video - so in a way it's both a movie and an OVA. The texture of the film is indeed a mix between the two - it has the pacing of a film, but the quality feels more like an OVA.

It is one of the few big theatrical projects that brought together the Anime R animators of the Votoms-Layzner period (or most of them; Kazuaki Mouri and Fumiko Kishi are missing) in one place, headlined by Moriyasu Taniguchi handling the characters and Toru Yoshida handling the mecha.

Garaga was based on a manga by Satomi Mikuriya, who had previously directed (and written and storyboarded and designed) an adaptation of her manga Nora in 1985. She earned a place in anime history for a different reason as the director of the CGI part of the Golgo 13 movie.

The director was Hidemi Kubo, whose career prior to this consisted almost entirely of animation work on the classic Topcraft co-productions like The Last Unicorn and The Hobbit. Hidemi Kubo is actually the younger brother of Tsuguyuki Kubo, the lead character designer during the Topcraft era. I wrote a bit about Topcraft previously here.

By 1985, when Topcraft had disbanded after the production of Nausicaa (1984) and been replaced by Ghibli, many of the ex-Topcraft staff moved to a company called PAC (Pacific Animation Corporation). It's here that Hidemi Kubo, as one of the directors of Thundercats (1985), switched tracks to directing.

Garaga from a few years later was Hidemi Kubo's first big job as a director of an entire project. It's his directing that actually makes me like this project. His directing is very different from anything I've seen in anime before. You sense that there's something 'foreign' about it, something alien to the rhythms and conventions of anime film language. The pacing is more leisurely and relaxed. Scenes of character interaction unfold in a way that catches you by surprise. Watching anime, you come to know how certain characters will respond in certain situations. Kubo's directing is one of the few places I've seen a Japanese director who undermines those expectations, probably quite unintentionally. It's clear that his training at Topcraft is what forms the basis for this unique rhythm.

Even the action doesn't feel like typical anime. In anime you typically have set-pieces that arrive at a set point, and suddenly the program switches gears into 'action scene' mode. That's not the case here. Here everything unfolds as a seamless whole. Occasionally there will be a moment of action that goes on for 30 seconds, but is then subsumed back within the unfolding narrative without any particular shift in rhythm.

The choreography and layout also doesn't have the visuals-centric feeling of most anime. What sets anime apart from commercial productions in the rest of the world is its sense of style and edginess in the presentation of the images. Topcraft was unique for evolving in a vacuum, as it were, uninfluenced by, for example, the very tightly controlled drawing and timing of the A Pro animators in the 1970s. With virtually no limitation on the number of drawings they could use, they didn't develop that very image-based approach to animation that was the result of those limitations that most animators working on Japanese TV shows had to work within. The downside to this is that the storytelling could equally well be criticized for being somewhat bland and monotone and sluggish. It's true that it lacks somewhat in dynamism. But it's such a refreshing change that I think it offers an interesting counter-argument to the typical anime style.

One thing I particularly like about this show is how the frailty of life is well expressed. Often in anime people will receive blow after blow and be fine in a way that would not be possible in real life, or fall from a great height without incurring almost any injury because it would inconvenience the plot for an injury to occur at that point. In Garaga at one point a character is bear-hugged by a bad guy and winds up dying. In any other anime he would have been fine. In another scene, a character falls from his aircraft and another character goes out of her way to pad his fall with a psychic beam. In any other anime, he would have fallen to the ground and been stunned temporarily but gotten up afterwards as if nothing had happened, whereas in reality that fall would have resulted in death or broken bones.

The story itself is rather pleasant story about how a group of space travellers crash-land on a planet and find themselves caught in the middle of a power struggle between three sides - two indigenous populations and a foreign power. The dynamics of manipulation between the different powers were compelling and believable and the film kept me interested the whole time. I liked how the character dynamics felt different from the usual anime. One downside is that there wasn't a very strong single main character for the audience to invest in, but I personally liked that. I like group-based movies like this.

I haven't seen Thundercats since it aired (I watched it in real time) but I suspect if I had a chance to re-watch it I would notice a similarity to the pacing. The only criticism I might have was that in the second half I got very confused and had a hard time following what was going on because there were so many different sides to the conflict and it was difficult keeping them all straight with their similar-sounding names. (well, that, and the big reveal at the end that the android was the bad guy was a little disappointing)

On the animation side of things, the film is almost 100% Anime R. 18 out of the 23 key animators are Anime R people, and the two sakkans are the usual Anime R sakkans. The films does have a very strong Anime R vibe, with many scenes of exciting action, good mecha and effects animation, and character drawings that are clearly identifiable as Taniguchi. Taniguchi designed the characters presumably based on the manga, but he made them his and the designs are pleasing to look at, although they're not as stylized as his Layzner designs. Taniguchi also receives the novel credit of "Total Visual Director" (in English). I'm not sure what it means, but it clearly suggests that Taniguchi had a role that went beyond merely that of a face corrector. Perhaps he did something in the vein of the more holistic work that Tomonori Kogawa did on Ideon, in which Kogawa also designed the colors of the characters, among other things.

Toru Yoshida designed the mecha as well as acting as the mecha sakkan, and his mecha are very cool. The designs are very different from the designs of, say, Kunio Okawara, who was behind most of the Sunrise shows on which Toru Yoshida acted as mecha sakkan. His designs feel slightly more futuristic and realistic, with sleek and minimalistic and curvy shapes as opposed to the showy and flamboyant designs of many Sunrise shows. The mecha aren't animated with quite as much verve as they were in Yoshida's episodes of Layzner, but there are moments where you can see his great sense of stylized effects work, like the elegantly arced smoke trail pictured above.

The only caveat is that for some reasons the drawings feel a little flimsy. The inbetweening was not done by Anime R, so maybe this is part of the reason. It's not nearly as bad as Althea, but it's still noticeable that the drawings are not quite up to the level that the should be considering how much effort has clearly been put into the animation, and that it's not the sakkan's fault.

There are several nice action scenes, but I can't attribute them to a particular animator. The chase with the helicopter seems to have the style of character drawing I noticed during the arcade scene in Sukeban Deka, though since Kazuaki Mouri isn't credited, if it's the same animator, that would mean it's someone other than Mouri who had that style. The good action animators at Anime R at this period would be Hiroshi Osaka from the generation that debuted on Votoms and Takahiro Kimura and Takahiro Komori from the slightly younger generation that debuted a few years later. I suppose the heli scene was of the hand of one of these guys.

The only scene I was able to identify with certainty is Hiroyuki Okiura's. He almost certainly drew the scene in the ruined building (the first pic atop). Everything including the timing, the acting and the drawings point to Okiura. The style of the gestures seems clearly influenced by Akira, which Okiura had just worked on, while the drawings have a vague Takashi Nakamura influence, and the movement has a richness and a style of movement that is simply the pure product of Okiura's genius. The animation in this scene feels wonderful, but it's a little disappointing because it's a pretty low-key scene and doesn't show off his talent for action very well. There are only about two or three action shots and the rest is mostly talking heads. But even in the talking heads shots, Okiura's unique style of timing and drawing is unmistakable.

There were only five non-Anime R animators involved in the film. They are credited in two separate groupings at the bottom below the big Anime R grouping, suggesting two different studios. The Soichiro Matsuda and Shunichi Matsumoto grouping I suspect to have been Studio Mark (which also once featured Yoshiharu Ashino). The Isamu Utsuki, Kenichi Ishimaru and Toyoaki Fukushima grouping I'm not so sure about, but I suspect to be Animation 501. Yuji Yatabe, who is here responsible for the 'structure', was the head of Animation 501, and Isamu Utsuki is credited under Animation 501 in pink jacket Lupin. I've noticed that Hidemi Kubo worked together with Kenichi Ishimaru and Toyoaki Fukushima together on Wataru the year before in 1988, so perhaps he brought them on himself.

Incidentally, I was wondering how the combo of Hidemi Kubo + Anime R came about. It's an odd combination I wouldn't have expected. It seems Moriyasu Taniguchi worked as an animation director on Thundercats and likely met Hidemi Kubo there.

HYPER-PSYCHIC-GEO GARAGA ギャラガ (movie/OVA, 1989, 100min, Aubec/Anime R)

Director, Script, Storyboard:窪秀己Hidemi Kubo
Based on:御厨さと美
"Planet Garaga"
by Satomi Mikuriya
Total Visual Director:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Structure:谷田部雄次Yuji Yatabe
Character Design, Animation Director:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Mecha Design, Mecha Anim. Director:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Key animation:木村貴宏Takahiro Kimura
小森高博Takahiro Komori
吉田徹Toru Yoshida
柳沢まさひでMasahide Yanagisawa
逢坂浩司Hiroshi Osaka
加瀬政広Masahiro Kase
沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
糸島雅彦Masahiko Itojima
大島康弘Yasuhiro Ojima
尾林幸男Yukio Ohayashi
井上哲Tetsu Inoue
志村直美Naomi Shimura
能地清Kiyoshi Noji
藤井満Mitsuru Fujii
上井康宣Yasunobu Kamii
岩村幸子Sachiko Iwamura
有本大作Daisaku Arimoto
谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
宇都木勇Isamu Utsuki
石丸賢一Kenichi Ishimaru
福島豊明Toyoaki Fukushima
松本俊一Shunichi Matsumoto
松田宗一郎Soichiro Matsuda

Saturday, June 30, 2012

03:01:00 pm , 662 words, 6329 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #11

Fujiko goes on a spree impersonating Lupin, Lupin cuts himself shaving, and Oscar dreams of wedding dresses. That, and lots and lots of owl men.

This episode is devoted to exploring Oscar's character with a story about how he impersonates Fujiko in an attempt to get Zenigata to try to kill Fujiko. Why he has a vendetta against the "spitpot" I'm not exactly sure, other than that she slept with his heartthrob Zenigata. A little bit of back story is finally revealed about the relationship between Oscar and Zenigata, but it feels like too little too late. The character remains just as annoying and misplaced as before, with his overplayed melodramatic screaming and shouting that don't make any sense and ridiculous costume that doesn't look like a regulation police uniform to me. (high heels?) The writers may be telling a very deep and powerful story through Oscar and Fujiko, but it's too bad they forgot to let us in on what it is.

It feels completely arbitrary how one of the side-characters will without fail be absent. This time Goemon and Lupin were there so Jigen had to be absent even though he and Lupin seemed to have formed a pretty close relationship already by the time of the previous episodes. Goemon's and Lupin's scenes were reminiscent of the old show, with Goemon going around splitting things and Lupin defusing a bomb, and wound up being the parts of the episode that were the most fun to watch, which is to say the least annoying. The shot where Goemon buys a falafel right before Lupin does the same was fun, reminding that they still haven't met each other. The odd thing is that Fujiko doesn't play a very big part in her own show. She's either absent or zoned out and doesn't do anything a lot of the time other than have flashbacks.

They're obviously trying to do something very postmodern with the schtick about the owl-men observing Fujiko as if they were the author of a story observing the character whose story they were writing, but it is done so repetitively without any clear meaning that it just comes across as a pretentious attempt to be artsy and sophisticated. Scenes such as the infant Fujiko being electroshocked in a room full of stuffed animals are clearly meant to, well, shock, but they occur over and over without us understanding the context, so they have no impact other than to seem like self-indulgence for shock effect on the part of the writers.

The episode was fairly competently directed and interesting otherwise, even with a cute little section done in Michel Ocelot cutout style explaining how Oscar planned to steal the wedding dress. Whoever storyboarded and directed the episode decided to use a silly pen name, so I don't know who it was. The storyboarder was 袋小路ピーチク and the co-director was 梟小路パーチク, which is a pun that's hard to translate, but basically involves cul de sac, owl, and the onomotopoeia for a bird's chirping - which is an obvious reference to the line in the episode where Oscar sits down on the stairs in despair when cornered by the owl men and asks them, "Go on, chirp away!" Clearly this suggests the point of this episode - about exploring how Oscar came to feel cornered.

The episode also featured another person using a pen name, Hiromichi Kojinanokuni, which is Tomonori Kogawa of all people. He has apparently gotten a second wind after an extended period away from the front lines and now does lots of animation on various TV shows using pen names. I'm curious what part he did, although I'm sure his style is nothing like what it used to be during the days of Ideon and Xabungle.

Another person present was Kaichiro Terada, whom I presume animated the water effects during the bridge scene at the beginning and the smoke effects during the tiara scene. I like his effects work. Motohashi Hideyuki was again present.

Friday, June 29, 2012

11:51:00 pm , 1123 words, 6713 views     Categories: OVA, Studio: Anime R, 1980s

Good Morning Althea

I tend to write about the good OVAs, but they're in the minority. Most OVAs are justly forgotten. The 1987 OVA Good Morning Althea is a prime example of an OVA misfire boasting terrible storytelling and animation. Colony Drop just recently did a write-up on exactly why this show is so bad, so I won't go into the details here, but I thought I'd write my own thoughts as I just had a look at it.

It's not the worst thing I've seen, but it doesn't have much to recommend it. The poor directing and hackneyed and jumbled story weren't even the worst part of it to me. it's the drawings. They're awful. It looked like fan anime to me. It was impossible for me to take most of the scenes seriously because the character drawings consistently had the amateurish quality of fan art, with the features of the faces and the body proportions drawn all wrong, and clumsy linework.

The directing is admittedly pretty weak. Hideki Tonokatsu doesn't do a particularly great job of making the story flow interestingly, making it coherent, making the action exciting, or making us invest in the characters and their situation. A show with a stupid story can be saved by good animation, and vice-versa. Althea boasts a lethal combination of bad drawings and bad directing.

It's not that the animation is bad, though most of the animation is lackluster. There are actually a few shots of decent mecha action, like this one. The mecha look pretty cool, and there's competently drawn most of the time. The fact is, the OVA has some pretty good staff in the credits, which makes it hard to understand why the show turned out so bad. Anime R is a strong presence: Moriyasu Taniguchi is the animation director and Hiroshi Osaka is the mecha animation director. There are a few talented people in the credits including Yasuchika Nagaoka, Hideaki Sakamoto, Atsushi Yano and Hiromitsu Ota, but for the most part it's a mixed bag. It feels like one of those shows where there were issues behind the scenes at the last minute that led to some sudden drastic staff changes. It feels like it was produced in a big scramble.

The mecha drawings are usually OK, but there's something fundamentally wrong with the character drawings here. I had a hard time placing my finger on why the drawings in this OVA feel 'off', but I've come to the conclusion it's because of the inbetweens. I have a hunch Althea is a case of animation ruined by bad inbetweening.

Most of the names in the credits of Althea are Japanese, but but presumably due to time or budget constraints, the inbetweening alone was outsourced to a South Korean studio. Anime is known for using South Korea for its inbetweens. I'm not sure when this began, but it was probably in the 1980s. Althea was made at an early stage in the industry when the quality was far worse than it is today, and even today it's common knowledge that there are tremendous limitations on what inbetweeners can or will do.

Animation drawings of a high caliber like those of Okiura or Ohira apparently require very talented inbetweeners to get the drawings right. If their keys were outsourced to a cut-rate studio, the animation would be ruined. They simplify lines and subtle actions, as you can see if you closely compare the animation of this shot by Bahi JD with the final product.

I've long heard that the inbetweening stage is a surprisingly important stage that, beyond merely being there to 'fill out' the movement drawn by the key animators, can actually kill the animation if done wrong. Inbetweening is a skill that requires talent in its own way, like key animation, and it has its share of hacks doing lackluster work. To many people, inbetweening is (understandably) a paycheck far more than it is a labor of love. At the same time, if you outsource something for very little money and want it back the next day, don't expect good quality.

In anime, you never see the lines drawn by key animators (or you do only in special cases). What you are seeing in most anime is the lines drawn by the inbetweeners. The inbetweeners re-trace the key animation drawings. They don't just shoot the key animation drawings interspersed with inbetweens; they re-draw the keys and draw the inbetweens from scratch (or from reference drawings).

I've been examining Anime R in detail over the last few weeks because in a way they embody the anime paradigm, something that has been lost in today's atomized and outsourced and freelance age: the master-student relationship of inbetweener and key animator - an animator beginning at a studio as an inbetweener, learning the ropes under talented animators, and eventually working his way up to key animation. The inbetweeners and the key animators worked together under the same roof. Anime R's episodes were always inbetweened by Anime R. Hiroyuki Okiura and Hiroshi Osaka were inbetweeners inbetweening Toru Yoshida and Kishi Fumiko's animation before they acceded to drawing key animation.

With a very small team that knew each other's skills very well, they achieved beautiful results in those Sunrise (and other) shows of the 1980s. That has been the traditional situation in Japan, and it fosters a more deep knowledge about the process, but with inbetweens more likely to be outsourced today, it feels like the unique paradigm of the craftsman-student relationship has become a victim of progress. If I'm right about Althea, it shows the perils of corrupting that relationship.

Althea was apparently pitched by Ichiro Itano, and perhaps even initially planned to be directed by Itano. After starting out as a groundbreaking mecha animator, he went on to direct or otherwise back a number of OVAs in the 1980s, starting with Megazone 23. He created a number of overweening adult epics filled with violence and action that sound cool on paper and shine briefly technically but wind up being pretty disappointing and forgettable. The thing I've noticed is that the quality of the OVAs he was involved in is consistently uneven. There are occasional moments of strong animation that bring alive the concept, but often his projects feel rushed and awkward somehow or other, not to mention being in poor taste sometimes. Good Morning Althea is the prototypical Itano production in that sense.

Good Morning Althea (OVA, Dec 1987, 50min, Animate Film)

Concept:板野一郎Ichiro Itano
Storyboard & Director:殿勝秀樹Hideki Tonokatsu
Character design:菊池みちたかMichitaka Kikuchi
Settei Design:池田一成Kazuya Ikeda
亀垣一Hajime Kamegaki
Animation Director:谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
Assistant A.D.:柳沢まさひでMasahide Yanagisawa
Mecha A.D.:逢坂浩司Hiroshi Osaka
Key animation:浜川修二郎
Shujiro Hamakawa
Hitoshi Haga
Satoru Yamashita
Katsuzo Sato
Hideaki Sakamoto
Yasuchika Nagaoka
Hiroshi Shinada
Naoki Ohira
Atsushi Yano
Koichi Wada
Hiroaki Korogi
Akira Tsukada
Mikio Tsuchiya
Hiromitsu Ohta
Toyoaki Fukushima
Shiro Okumura

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