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The last few days I've been doing some catch-up on what's new lately. I haven't watched much anime the last few months, so I missed out on a quite a bit of the little bits of good animation that have been done here and there, of which apparently there's been quite a bit. It's a shame that so much good work is done in shows that otherwise are of otherwise little interest to me, much less to a non-anime watching audience. The talented animators deserve a bigger audience. I'm beyond tired of seeing good work buried in crap shows that I wince having to watch just to see some good animation. I pretty much can't bring myself to write about it anymore. Luckily there are a lot of you guys out there tweeting or blogging about this kind of news, so it's easier than ever to catch wind of a good bit of animation in some crap show or other.
A-1 Pictures' iDolm@aster is a case in point. Tadashi Hiramatsu did animation in the opening of this show that I had to mute to be able to endure watching for two minutes and it still made me vomit in my mouth a little. Such a great animator relegated to doing this crap. So much for A-1 Pictures being the new ambitious studio on the block. A lot of Gainax people staffing this one. With that and the news of Trigger's formation, it seems there's a big exodus from Gainax going on right now. I'm not terribly crushed. I've been wanting some of the talented people working at Gainax to go elsewhere to have opportunity to do work that is not dictated by the bizarre whims of this studio, which admittedly did get a lot of fine work produced. But I obviously was not the only one feeling it was time for them to move on.
Hiroyuki Imaishi directed a five-minute sequence in the latest episode, episode 15, which is worth checking out if you're not tired of his style yet.
In other disappointing news, a great animator whose work I used to really like, Susumu Yamaguchi, is directing Sunrise's new Gundam show, Gundam AGE, and it looks really stupid. Normally it should be considered a pretty big prop to be appointed to direct the latest sally in one of anime's biggest franchises, but personally I think his talent is completely wasted here. Without his personal stamp on the work, what's the point? There are other people who can competently helm yet another humdrum Gundam. Susumu Yamaguchi is about more than that. It must be a cushy position, so I can't blame him. How much of a living could he have made just sticking it out as a lowly animator doing awesome but unrewarding animation?
The answer to that seems to be hinted at by Kiyoshi Tateishi, who occasionally goes by the name Takashi Shiwasu (see his home page): not much. Tateishi is an animator who's been active since about 2000. Recently he was animator in the opening of Bones' No. 6 and just-started Un-Go. He blogged at some length five days ago about "escaping" the anime industry, stating that he decided to take a break from the "mire" of working in the anime industry, complaining about bad working conditions (though his wording was pretty vague, so I'm not sure exactly what he was talking about).
The sad thing is that when I hear about all these talented people working in the industry, the only thing I can ask them is: Why bother? You could make a way better living, and probably live a happier life, doing something else. Which is the last thing I want to have to say to them, since I enjoy their work. But it's the hard truth. The answer will probably be because they love animation, and that's the right answer, but there's clearly something wrong when people that are pretty talented like Kiyoshi Tateishi (he's got some solid drawing skills that make him a good layout man) can't take it anymore and up and quit.
There was some good work in the otherwise bland and generic new IG outing Guilty Crown. Notably the fight looked like Yutaka Nakamura, but he's not credited, so I don't know who it was. Could it be Toru Okubo? Has he gotten that good since his already pretty good action scene in Tsubasa Chronicle in 2006? Admittedly that's a long time to improve, but I haven't really followed his work closely, so I don't know.
Bones' No. 6 episode 10 had some animation from one of the more appealing of the younger hot-shot animators working today, Yoshimichi Kameda, who did a lot of similar work on Bones' second Fullmetal Alchemist TV show. I find his style a little forced and striving for effect, but I still like his work better than a lot of today's young animators. At least it feels like he's devised his own approach rather than just mimicking Yoshinori Kanada or something. I'll have to check out this show to see if there was any other good work. Bones has been so prolific since I took a break.
Naruto Shippuden's new opening starting with episode 231 is a typically wacky piece by Akitaro Daichi. What an odd idea to get this guy to do a Naruto opening. Either they forgot to look at his CV or they wanted to inject some absurdity into the absurdly long-running show. It's got some enjoyably crazy animation in it. Animators include Hiromi Ishigami, Tokuyuki Matsutake, Hiroyuki Yamashita and Yu Yamashita.
Bones' Un-go is the latest Noitamina show. I suppose the fact that it's distantly inspired by Ango Sakaguchi is supposed to make it edgy, but so far it just looks like anime. It's the Fullmetal Alchemist team, so perhaps that's why they've got Yun Koga doing designs. FMA was huge with the HS girls apparently. Seiji Shimizu seems like the one they turn to to make them a long, talky, story-based pan-gender hit. The one thing I liked about the show was the two shots of the guy flipping around the in the opening, and the ending, which is uncredited for some reason but fairly screams Norimitsu Suzuki. I've no idea who did that flipping part - Yasuyuki Noda? Yuki Komatsu?
Speaking of openings, Gundam AGE's had Yasushi Muraki, but there was nothing in the opening that was really good. I suppose he did the part where the two giant robots fight each other with light sabers, but it wasn't particularly enjoyable to watch if it was him, which is unusual. Ken Otsuka, Akira Amemiya, Shingo Abe and Iwao Teraoka presumably drew the other mecha parts of the op.
Whatever happened to Yasuhiro Aoki? He seemed poised to take off as a director. Now he's animating fights in Madhouse's latest Marvel superhero anime Blade? Way to go, anime. That's how to use talent. He animated some part of the fight in episode 9 together with Satoru Utsunomiya. Extraordinarily considering the talent involved, the animation is totally uninteresting.
The most satisfying episode animation-wise that I've seen during my catch-up has been Bleach episode 341. It's the closest thing to a Naruto 133 that I've seen in the show. Animators involved include Hironori Tanaka, Fumiaki Kota, Hiroshi Kamogawa, Yuki Hayashi, Takaaki Wada, Shinichi Kurita and Yoshimichi Kameda. There are two big explosions in the episode at around the 1/3 mark (image 1 above) and 2/3 mark (image 2 above). Both are really beautiful and in a totally different style. The second one is obviously Hideki Kakita. The first one I'm not so sure. The whole action scene around the first explosion is really amazing. I suppose it must have been the work of Hironori Tanaka and/or Shinichi Kurita. The fight at the beginning was also nice, though it pales in comparison to the insanity of the animation around the first explosion. The explosion fan in me was satiated after watching this. Some of the best explosion work in recent memory.
Ayaka Nakata's Cornelis (2008) is an enigma. A man dressed in a red blazer, red pants, red hat and red suit stands motionless at the center of the screen. He shushes the viewer a few times, as if to silence an unruly audience before his performance begins. His finger still to his mouth, suddenly he slides to the floor, his finger suspended in mid air above his body. A strange dance begins. His blazer seems to take on a life of its own. It peels off him, inverts itself to its white interior, and gives birth to an identical copy of Cornelis - adorned in white blazer, white pants, white hat and white suit. Cornelis and Cornelis' converse peer at each other warily across opposite shoulders, in sync, as if across a twisted mirror. Then they hug each other and begin a strange dance in which their peeled off clothes give birth to more and more Cornelis clones. The dance escalates to a swirl of bodies that finally implodes into the kernel of the orignal red Cornelis.
I was baffled at first, but then came to realize that trying to dig for some deeper meaning is probably beside point. I suspect this film is meant to be enjoyed as a pure exploration of dance and motion. It's like a beautiful modern dance piece, heightened to the fifth dimension of animation where you can contort and transform the human body in ways not possible in real life. It's like George Schwizgebel via Erica Russell - an abstract dance in celebration of the freedom of animation.
Every moment of the animation is packed with nuance. The expressions and body movements of the man at each juncture all seem to betray some unknown emotion - joy, surprise, anguish - at which has just transpired, as if he were miming out a dramatic story. The way he holds his hat above him, inverted, at just such an angle, with such an expression of conviction and purpose, seems to have some obvious meaning to him that we just don't grasp. The man's deliberate poses and expressions make the whole affair seem simultaneously amusing and deadly serious.
The film was supposedly originally conceived without sound, as a pure exercise in abstract body motion. Ayaka Nakata states in an interview that, after every action, she would ask her character Cornelis what he wanted to do next, and would animate the next movement that came to mind. Thus the film evolved in an unpredictable new direction after every juncture, purely as a way of following the inner logic of the character.
All I know is that it's an enjoyable film, and a well made one. It's a beautiful abstract dance of bodies that's never boring or predictable. At every turn you're surprised by some new way that the bodies intertwine and invert and swirl around. The animation work is strong in its spareness and deliberatness. Nothing is wasted. It does what it needs to do in 3 minutes without dragging it out, and feels like it says what it wants to say. The bodies are well drawn in all sorts of configurations, without being over-animated.
I like this film because it feels pure and assured. There's no pretense of attempting to convey a deep message or emotion, or striving for effect, like there is in a lot of films by young Japanese indies. The style is well controlled, showing an effortless ability to come up with creative new ideas that don't feel predictable. A look at the illustrations on her web site confirms that she has a fresh and rich imagination. Each illustration is completely different in its style and concept, but presents some creative new blending of concepts.
As it says in her profile, Ayaka Nakata has been working on commercial ad work since her graduation. Cornelis was the first film she made after graduating from Tokyo Zokei University. Earlier during her studies she made three films: The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared (2004), Grandma's Needlework Room (2005), and Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors (2007).
The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared (watch here) is her first film, and she didn't do most of the animation. It's obviously more rough around the edges, but still a pretty good execution of an interesting concept. A man wakes up one morning to find a bird on his head. The bird clicks its tongue "tsk" every time something annoying happens to the man. Every time it does so, it gets bigger and bigger. The next morning, he finds the bird gone, but finds that other people have been infected by the bird's irritated clicking, and have become irritable clicking birds themselves. The cutting is fast and controlled, and she develops the story at just the right pace for its meaning to come through loud and clear. The bird is the little demon of impatience in all of us. Urban alienation and anomie only propagates more of the same.
Grandma's Needlework Room (watch here) is completely different in style and tone, but even more assured and well executed than the previous film. It's a brief but moving remeniscence about a little girl's experience in her grandmother's needlework room. In a short span, thanks to its warm, lamplight palette, the tender images of this film make us feel the weight of emotion of the narrator's memory. The film is remarkably not schmaltzy or excessively sentimental. The film accurately conveys how magical and grand certain things seemed when we were children, that when revisited seem prosaic. The farm where I spent summers in France growing up had shrunk in both grandeur and magic when I re-visited it many years later. Through something very specific and personal she manages to tap the universal. The only problem is the sound design, which could use polishing. Cornelis has a perfect accompaniment that complements every little movement.
I haven't seen her graduation film, Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors, but I assume it must be worth seeing. I like that you can see the artist improving with each film. Since making Cornelis Ayaka Nakata has been working mostly on advertising animation, but she also recently did an episode of Rita et Machin, a series based on the French picture books of the same name that also featured episodes directed by an unusual assortment of indie and industry talent such as Toshio Hirata, Hideki Futamura and Hiroco Ichinose.
中田彩郁 Ayaka Nakata filmography
2004: 舌打ち鳥が鳴いた日 The Day When a Tongue-Clicking Bird Appeared
2005: おばあちゃんの作業部屋 Grandma's Needlework Room
2007: 聞耳 第2幕 鏡 Kikimimi, Act 2: Mirrors
2009: コルネリス Cornelis
2011: リタとナントカ「ナントカのおたんじょうび」Rita et Machin: L'anniversaire de Machin
About two years ago animator Aaron Long (Youtube page) wrote on his blog a three-part post about a particular episode of the second TV series of Lupin III that began airing in 1978 and ran for 178 episodes. You can read his posts here:
I just recently discovered Aaron's posts and loved the drawings he'd posted. I hadn't seen the episode in question, but I could tell he had indeed struck upon one of the more interesting episodes in the second series. The drawings are just great, with crazy and loose posing and expression the likes of which you rarely see in anime. Yet the drawings are solid and look good, not sloppy. They have a great sense of stylization. Most people focus on the closing Miyazaki episodes, but there was a lot of other good work done in the second series.
The episode in question is Episode 78, which aired on April 9, 1979. I looked into it and found the staff behind the episode rather easily. The head animator of this episode is Yoshio Kabashima, one of the great ex-A Production animators. The storyboarder of this episode was also an ex-A Pro animator: Yuzo Aoki. Both of them acted as the animation directors of the Mamo movie released in 1978, the same year the second TV series started. Neither of them are well known in the west, but both were among the best animators of their time in Japan, with supple character drawings and dynamic movement that were a pure product of their A Pro heritage
I was really impressed by Aaron's post, because without even knowing the names of the people responsible for either episode 78 or the Mamo movie, he manages to connect the two. He realized that the same guy (or guys) had to have been responsible for the two. And he's exactly right.
Yoshio Kabashima is better known for being the animation director behind Osamu Dezaki's Gamba's Adventure, one of the great classics of anime. He was also the animation director of Yasuo Otsuka's Tenguri and animated the scenes with the calf. I'd actually mentioned Yoshio Kabashima's involvement in this episode of Lupin way back in 2004 in a post on the staff behind the New Lupin series.
Yuzo Aoki in the 70s was one of the wildest and most flamboyant animators you've never heard of. His episodes of Lupin III stood out from the others, and I'm sure it's these that Aaron is thinking of when he talks about the animator behind this episode, even though Kabashima happens to have been responsible for a lot of the good drawings here, like that pictured above. Even in Hajime Ningen Gyators, a few years earlier in 1975, a show in which everything is so individualistic and outrageously drawn, Yuzo Aoki stands out. He's one of the few animators I've been able to identify on the show. In Mamo he's best known for animation the insane car chase with that massive truck, but he also animated much of the scene with the helicopter at the beginning.
These two ex-A Pro animators together acted as the animation directors of the Mamo film a year before episode 78 of New Lupin, giving that films its distinctive character styling, with its lanky characters and very flexible and loose approach to character drawing that is so at odds with Yasuo Otsuka's work on the first Lupin III show from 1972, to say nothing of Cagliostro from 1979. If Cagliostro seemed like a throwback to the earlier show, Mamo was the companion piece to Part II, with its wacky, unpredictable, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink atmosphere of cartoonish anarchy and very loose drawings.
Yoshio Kabashima unfortunately didn't do much else in the New Lupin III series, but Yuzo Aoki did much great work both as a storyboarder and an animator. His episodes are worth seeking out on their own, as even seen today they have a very unique character. Here is a list of what episodes he worked on in New Lupin III:
青木悠三 Yuzo Aoki's work on New Lupin III (1978)
30: Key animation (solo)
35: Key animation (half episode)
69: Key animation
74: Key animation
(85: Uncredited key animation?)
96: Storyboard and key animation
124: Storyboard (and uncredited key animation?)
129: Storyboard (and uncredited key animation?)
138: Storyboard (and uncredited key animation?)
146: (Uncredited key animation?)
149: Storyboard (and uncredited key animation?)
Episode 78 is actually the first episode in what's known colloquially among Japanese fans as the Broadway series. The Broadway series refers to four episodes storyboarded by Yuzo Aoki and written by Yoshio Urasawa that take place on Broadway and are mostly pure slapstick episodes: episodes 78, 106, 117 and 128.
Here are a few snapshots from episode 69, the episode where Zenigata falls in love but his girl gets killed by the gangster Cabane. Yuzo Aoki animated most of the second half, and his style comes through very well in this episode. The drawings of Cabane and his gangsters near the end in particular are high proof Yuzo Aoki.
Rag dolls, roots, plastic bags and clumps of string come alive and go on a journey of the imagination in Jan Svěrák's wonderful new fantasy film Kooky (2010). Not animated by stop-motion in the traditional way, the film is rather a combination of live-action and puppetry. Technically, it's not animation at all. But it belongs firmly within the great tradition of Czech stop-motion filmmaking, from Jiri Trnka's Midsummer Night's Dream (1959) to Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988) to Jiří Barta's In the Attic (2009).
The story concerns a little boy whose old, unsanitary pink plush doll gets thrown away by his hygienically obsessive mother. The boy dreams of the little pink doll's adventures as it journeys trying to get back home to him.
Kooky, as he's named, travels through the forest that borders the landfill on the outskirts of town, where he meets an assortment of the gods who inhabit the forest, some good and some not so good. What ensues combines action movie thrills with the intrigue of a power struggle as the elder of the forest helps Kooky evade his pursuers while also struggling to maintain power. For a puppet film, the production values are high. The puppets are finely crafted, the pacing is tightly controlled, and the scenes are precisely lighted, staged and shot. And the whole is balanced by a tone of easy, lighthearted humor that never strives too hard for laughs.
The heart of the film is in the wonderful variety of creatures that they come up with to inhabit the forest. In this pantheistic world, each of these fabulous creatures is a little god representing one of the living materials of the forest - conks, roots, mushrooms, acorns, antlers, etc. They're the pantheistic representatives of the forest ecosystem. The puppets are each different from one another and lovingly crafted from found material. Each comes across as having its own unique personality. Just like Jiří Barta's In the Attic, much of the delight of the film comes in just sitting back and enjoying the parade of strange creatures made of bits and pieces of of inanimate objects.
Each character's mode of existence is tied to its substrate. Kooky knows he's a teddy, and knows that he can't get wet because it takes three days for him to dry. When he does get wet, he takes his own stuffing out to allow himself to dry. With his fake pink fur, he's out of place in the forest and coveted by a rapacious burnt plastic bag and crumpled soda bottle who scavenge the forest for man-made materials to bring back to their rightful home in the dump.
The forest elder who takes Kooky under his wing looks like nothing so much as a wizened old tuber, replete with rhizomes as a wirebrush and taproots as limbs. He's nicknamed Godam because of his foul mouth. Another creature is made of an amalgamation of tangled ropes and strings. He stands between the natural world and the world of man: he's neither purely natural nor purely man made, and hence his personality is neutral chaotic. He's scheming but craven, siding with whomever will permit him to act out his natural compulsion to entangle hapless victims in his web.
Intertwined into the simple narrative about Kooky trying to get home are various themes that give the narrative heft and depth and that make the film more than merely 'kooky' kids fare. It's also about struggling with corruption, group identity, nature vs man, and the importance of imagination. Kooky is a prime example of how to make a children's film. The story and struggle are simple and mythical like a children's book. But at the same time, it's subtly witty, its visuals are gritty and unprettified, its themes are complex and ambiguous, and its tone is grounded and realistic. No cute characters, crude jokes, lazy pratfalls, and pop culture references in a desperate attempt to maintain children's attention.
The beauty of the film is how it's all based on existing reality. You have a metropolitan area bordered by a forest, and beyond that you have the dump where we deposit the detritus of civilization. Those are the basic terms of the deal most developed countries have struck with nature in this day and age. Nature acts like a buffer to guard us from the horrors of our excess consumption, all while the detritus continues to infiltrate and destroy nature in the form of pollution and development. This film merely brings the existing tension between nature and man into tangible form by way of a story and characters that embody the various facets of that tension. And it does so elegantly and implicitly, masquerading as a children's story, rather than trumpet it aloud. It appears simple at first sight, but has a deceptive thematic complexity if you choose to pull it apart.
At first when I saw the pink doll come alive at the beginning of the movie, my heart sank. It felt cheap; a lame gimmick. But very soon you forget that you're watching puppets. Your mind adapts to the surreality of the situation, and it's then that the puppets truly come alive. Deep down, animation is about the suspension of disbelief. Kooky is no different from Grave of the Fireflies in the sense that both films work their magic on our emotions because their art invests dead matter with life. It's just that we rarely experience a moment of dislocation in anime because we're not reminded of its artificiality the way we are in Kooky or in other recent films in the Czech tradition. Perhaps the intent was precisely to create a moment of dislocation that would make us aware of the fact that suspension of disbelief is an implicit part of creativity and imagination, and to remind us of what comes naturally to children, but most adults have lost.
It's only when Kooky switches back to reality and the little boy that we're reminded of the unreality of the situation. The fact that there are no scenes combining live actors and puppetry is telling of the fact that the puppets are creatures of the boy's imagination. And we might not have truly believed in these creatures had there been humans right next to them. Combining the two would have wrecked the fantasy. It would have turned into a cheap Muppets movie. Which Kooky emphatically is not. With its dark overtones and grimy, gritty visuals that never shy away from the inherent ugliness of life, this is a unique type of deeply satisfying children's film that could only have been made in the Czech Republic.
The only animation program at this year's VIFF was a program called Animation Nation. It featured shorts mostly from the US and Europe. It's disappointing that the VIFF hasn't continued their 'alternative anime' series. That should be a staple at the festival. Animation doesn't seem high enough on their priorities. And Animation Nation was - without exaggeration - the worst collection of animated shorts I've ever seen.
The whole affair was a failure in my opinion, even though I know from the roars of laughter in the hall and the hearty applause that most of the other theatergoers disagree with me. The selection was IMO uninteresting, lopsided (without any Asian or other films from outside the big western nations), and the unprofessional presentation was not befitting a major world festival. There was a one minute gap between each short, and boxes kept popping up on the screen throughout the show as they tinkered ceaselessly with the brightness and zoom. This all should have been handled before the screening. It was like watching a few videos at a friend's house, not a screening.
The selection felt like it was put together by someone who didn't really understand animation. The contrast with the Ottawa 'best of' selections is instructive. There, each film seemed to represent some different aspect of animation, some different approach. Each was different and valid in its own way. Many different narrative styles and techniques were represented. Films weren't selected based on superficial criteria or the extent to which they were crowd pleasing.
The most telling thing about this selection is that many of the films barely had any animation at all. They were mostly live action, with a few spare touches added in post pro. It would be fine to have one film like this in a selection, but half of the running time devoted to this kind of film? A quarter of the remaining half was uninspired CGI. One of the films, Brick Novax's Diary, wasn't animation at all; it was puppets and sets filmed without virtually any movement. It was clearly chosen solely for its MTV style sarcastically retro, pop-reference humor. And it went on for 16 minutes. It would have been fine viewed on its own, but it felt out of place.
What's left is about 20 or so minutes of decent work in a 95 minute screening. Bike Race by Tom Schroeder was more than decent. You can watch it online, and I heartily recommend doing so. It's a fine short well-deserving of being seen by more people. It's a sort of documentary animation, the visuals expounding on an audio track of two men and a woman narrating a recollection of their experiences with a bike race and the romance that budded unexpectedly. Though it looks rudimentary in style, the animation is rich and creative and very witty and meaningful in how it responds to and interprets the narration. It's essentially the only item in the whole selection that was a good animated short.
The music video Lose This Child (which obviously you can also watch online) was a very good animated music video, and it's perfectly fine to include a music video in such a selection, a good idea even, but it's not a difficult task to include a good animated music video; many are made each year. It's just weird that there was only one really good narrative animated short in the whole selection. Lose This Child is impressive technically, because supposedly it was all shot over the span of one night. It's so lushly animated and sophisticated in structure that it's almost hard to believe. I guess they must have meticulously planned out everything to the smallest detail beforehand.
The Man With the Stolen Heart was a decent film, but it was marred by a too-wordy voice-over. It would have been twice as strong without any words. It's the only other item in the selection that came close to being a good animated short. Advanced Cybernetics was the only abstract short in the selection, which underlines the populist bent of the selection. It was visually arresting, but it felt too short.
The festival will be showing two feature-length animated features. I missed seeing Tatsumi, the panel-by-panel adaptation of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Floating Life, partly because I wasn't sure it was worth seeing. I feel like I should give it a chance. I'll be seeing the Czech film Kooky tomorrow and look forward to it.
I was fooled by the catalog description into believing the film The Green Wave was an animated feature film in the style of Waltz with Bashir, but was disappointed when it turned out to be a 'mere' documentary with the occasional sequences of recollection rendered in drawings (not animation). That said, it was a good, heartbreaking documentary about the recent Iranian uprising that was mercilessly crushed by the regime.
Annoyingly, there are actually a few Asian animated shorts being screened at the festival, but they're scattered around everywhere, being shown before a live-action feature here and there, rather than together as one unit. There is even a new animation battle by Nobuhiro Aihara and Tanaami Keiichi, which I really want to see. They even have Koji Yamamura's new short Muybridge's Strings, and yet instead of having that as the highlight of an animated short collection, as it deserves, they've lumped it together with a bunch of random live-action Canadian short films. This is inept and disappointing. The small theater was pretty near full at the Animation Nation screening, so I know there's enough of a geek and/or animator community in Vancouver to have supported at least one collection of Asian shorts.
I checked out the web page of NHK's Digista program the other day to catch up on their recent programming and see if I could find any interesting films, and found that they have changed their name and their format since I first wrote about them in 2004. It's now called Digista Teens and they don't seem to do things like they used to, inviting guest hosts like Satoshi Kon. It looks kind of cheesy now, slightly watered down, and far less interesting. But I found one film that stood out to me, so at least it seems they still do feature some interesting talent.
The film was Masaki Okuda's Kuchao, made in 2010 as his first-year film at Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). (Watch a clip here). That clip is unfortunately all I've been able to find. The full film is over 3 minutes long.
Even not having seen the full film, the powerful and appealing animation in this clip is enough to tell me Masaki Okuda is a name I'll be looking out for. Kuchao is not infected by anime influence and has an original look and feel. For a 'mere' 3 minute film, it's densely packed. There's something happening every second. It's dynamic, fun and exciting, stylistically mature and controlled, creative, constantly shifting, with shifts in speed and perspective coming quick and constant, and tells a simple story with verve and humor.
Kuchao seems vaguely influenced by Koji Yamamura and perhaps even Tadanari Okamoto (Kuchao brings to mind Okamoto's three Ningen Ijime shorts, which also featured a quick-talking narrator and fast-paced marker animation), but it's not just copying. Masaki Okuda has digested the influences well and seems to have stylistic flexibility and openness. He shows that he has a good understanding of what makes animation interesting and isn't superficially stuck on one style.
Okuda's previous film was Orchestra (watch on Youtube), a delightful 6-minute animation from 2008 made by Okuda together with Ryo Ookawara and Yutaro Ogawa earlier, I think during his third year at Tama Art University. The stylistic contrast with Kuchao is sharp - this film is black and white, all squiggly lines. But this film has the same dynamism and fire as Kuchao, the same basic interest in reaching to the roots of animation.
Yutaro Ogawa is the illustrator of the group, and it's his interesting drawings based on disconnected squiggly lines that the film is based on. It was Yutaro Okuda's idea to bring Ogawa's drawings to life in a piece of animation. They chose the fourth movement of Beethoven's 2nd symphony because of the variation it offered in tempo and mood, which would allow them to explore different ideas within a short span, and because of its playful tone that goes against the typical notion of classical as being stiff and musty museum music. The animation closely follows every up or down in Beethoven's score, the squiggly lines flying around and bending and re-configuring themselves unpredictably into different faces and shapes at every moment. The team is creative at coming up with different ideas for how to respond to the music, and the film is never boring or repetitive.
In an interview, Okuda mentions that it was an encounter with Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales many years ago as a child that got him interested in animation - not anime. And it's this that led to him getting into animation in university. Thus his influences have been indie world animation since the very beginning, which clearly accounts for the fundamental difference in his work compared with that of so many of his generation - not just in terms of how his work looks, but in his attitude towards animation. That animation isn't about superficial beauty or following trendy design ideas to cater to a wide audience. Animation shouldn't be limited to one style or one narrative mode; everyone has it in them to come up with something nobody has seen before. Indeed, it should be the animator's duty to challenge themselves to do something creative and new with each new film. He follows in the footsteps of other Japanese indies who made a virtue of constant creative renewal and experimentation like Tadanari Okamoto, Koji Yamamura and Tomoyasu Murata.
It's heartening to see that there are still young animators with a more open view of animation turning up on the scene in Japan. I enjoy seeing work from new animators like this willing to try to explore new stylistic approaches we haven't seen before, to do things with animation that can only be done with animation rather than being stylistically hidebound to naturalistic storytelling mimicking live-action. Tama Art University and Geidai in particularly seem to have done a lot to foster talented new indie animators in the last few years.
Born in Yokohama in 1985, Masaki Okuda studied at Tama Art University and then Tokyo University of the Arts. He made his first film, Garden of Pleasure (快楽の園) in 2007. He just completed his second-year film at Tama Art University, the 12-minute Uncapturable Ideas (アイデアが捕まらない。). He has already won numerous awards for Kuchao at festivals around the world. Masaki Okuda has a blog where he provides updates on his work.
Masaki Okuda 奥田昌輝 filmography
Garden of Pleasure 快楽の園 (2:30, 2007)
Orchestra (6:40, 2008)
Kuchao くちゃお (3:48, 2010)
Uncapturable ideas アイデアが捕まらない。 (11:52, 2011)
I just skimmed through IG's recent Blood C at someone's recommendation. I couldn't bring myself to sit down and watch every episode of the show, because it's essentially just splatter porn, and there's nothing unique about the visuals or characters that would otherwise have pulled me in. But if you have the stomach for it, some decent effort was put into the action sequences in each episode.
Director Tsutomu Mizushima is an odd choice for this material at first sight, since in my mind he's a gag anime director. (He showed he still has the touch with Yondemasu Yo Azazel-san just recently.) But deep down he's an acutely visual director. Blood C is for the most part conventional, with too much talking and expository dialogue, but despite the material, in many spots his visual side shines through.
He can usually be relied on to put in a few visually interesting scenes, whatever he's directing. If he's got a good animator, he'll choreograph the scene in such a way that it really showcases that animator's work - think of the scenes by Yasunori Miyazawa and Shinya Ohira in the XXHolic movie. In his old gag anime he made frequent use of talented animators to spice up his dramatic climaxes with exciting action sequences, like the Dama chase in Hare Nochi Guu.
The fight scenes in this monster-of-the-week horror show aren't cop-outs with pretty stills and close-ups. They're quite beefy and long, with wide-angle shots, and feature tricky body movement that requires work and skill to animate. As he always does, Mizushima got his animators to put a lot of work into the animation of the action scenes. The rest of the show looks more like a typical anime, with mostly stills and only perfunctory movement, but in the action sequences it comes alive.
The battle with the jizo statue at the beginning of episode one is a good opener. I like the drawings of the statue here. I'm not sure who did it, but Kazuchika Kise was assistant sakkan, so perhaps he was involved. There's an unusually long pause right before the battle that's quite striking. It's classic Mizushima. Timing is a key element in all of his shows. He's adept at timing shots just so to achieve precisely the intended effect. His debut Hare Nochi Guu was known for its super-fast humor.
IG perennial Yasunori Miyazawa appears twice in the show: In episode 2 he animates the train monster and in episode 12 he animates part of the climax with the bunny monsters. He's a regular in Mizushima anime. He did a lot of work on the XXHolic show. He's ideally suited to animating monsters.
The armor monster in episode 8 was nicely drawn. I don't know who it could be, but animators Takuro Jinbo and Mamoru Kurosawa are present.
Episode 9 is the most impressive in terms of animation, but also one of the most gruesome. It puts me in the difficult position of not liking the material being animated, but admiring the technique with which it's animated. Most of the scenes with the spider monster are well animated. The layouts are strong and three-dimensional and the line work stands out. The monster feels very alive. A lot of relish was put into animating it.
Youngish IG animators Shin Itadaki and Takayoshi Katagiri are the sakkans of this episode, and they're credited separately at the top of the genga credits together with Takuya Saito and Kazuchika Kise, so presumably this group handled the good parts of this episode.
The climactic episode 12 also features some nice animation at the climax with the bunny monsters, but it's also the most gory and distasteful scene in the show. Animators include Tetsuya Nishio, Minoru Maeda, Shuichi Kaneko and Yasunori Miyazawa. I could only pick out Miyazawa's section.
Ajia-Do, the studio founded by ex-A Pro animators Shibayama Tsutomu and Osamu Kobayashi in 1978, produced an interesting series in the early 90s based on toy maker Takara's Licca-chan doll.
Licca-chan, despite being presumably aimed at little girls, was a quality production with a unique style of low-key, imaginative fantasy that I found very appealing for being so different in nature from all other anime out there.
I looked back on it recently and found that there's still a lot to appreciate in the series. Beyond its conventional blandly cute anime style character designs, and despite its intended demographic, it's packed with creative ideas in the world design.
Just take a look at some of the design ideas that grace the first outing in the series, the two-part Yunia OVA series released in 1990:
It's a breath of fresh air from most anime. Fantasy anime is pretty common, but few anime look anything like this. This anime is about pure imagination. This is a more primordial kind of fantasy in the vein of Little Nemo, or Alice in Wonderland via M. C. Escher, rather than yet another dungeons and dragons anime.
The story is of little consequence, but is obviously inspired by Alice in Wonderland, with Licca-chan finding herself transported to this fantasy land where she travels around various bizarre locales meeting the strange denizens of an illogical world. Clues are littered here and there suggesting it's all a dream and the various elements (like the nefarious cat) are inspired by her own life.
In recent days there have been a few shorts by Shigeru Tamura - notably Glassy Ocean and Ursa Blue Minor - that are similarly pure fantasy creations, where the the world is dictated not by logic but by whimsy, but it's rare to see something in anime that is so pure in spirit.
I wondered who could have been behind this approach, and figured it must have been the two people credited with "concept art and creature design": Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto.
A quick search turned up a web site that answered the question succinctly: The two of them appear to have worked as partners under the moniker Studio Burabura since the 80s.
The many wonderful illustrations by Hiroyuki Kato featured on this web site (which is presumably run by himself, as he also has a diary there) are exactly in the same style and spirit as all the elements in the Yunia OVAs that I most liked. And he's got many drawings of fanciful bikes that look just like the flying bike that features at the end of the Ring OVAs. So this is the guy. It was gratifying to be able to single out the brain responsible for all those wonderful ideas.
Hiroyuki Kato is still very productive and has refined his style considerably over the years. I've spent hours enjoying his illustrations. He appears to hold several exhibitions of his recent work at galleries and cafes every year. Here are two of the recent ones: Platypus Government in Exile and Ringing Flowers, Trembling Stars.
Hence, Yunia represents exactly the kind of collaboration that I think produces the best results in anime: Someone of talent from outside of the industry bringing in fresh new ideas.
The Yunia OVAs were followed by two more OVAs next year in 1991: the two Magic Ring OVAs. This time the setting is Licca-chan's real life in Japan, but she finds a magic ring that allows her to see the creatures that lurk in the night when everyone is sleeping. The inspiration this time is clearly Peter Pan, as Licca-chan flies above the nighttime city with the aid of a strange visitor.
The visuals for these two OVAs were more low-key, without the wild imagination of the Yunia OVAs, but they did a great job of creating an atmosphere of mysterious nighttime in this arc, which takes place entirely at night.
I actually preferred this outing to Yunia when I originally saw the set many years ago, because this episode creates a beautiful, delicate atmosphere with the spare, tinkling soundtrack (by a young Kenji Kawai) and the quiet, empty urban nightscapes through which Licca-chan travels.
The atmosphere is one of eerie excitement. Strange ghostly animals go around gobbling up stars, and a dark miasma lurks waiting to pounce on unwitting visitors. When we were children, the darkness of the night inspired in us dreams of adventures and strange creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to be discovered. I liked this episode because it captured exactly how I used to feel about the night as a child.
Looking back on both now, I still appreciate the Ring arc for its atmosphere, but I prefer the Yunia arc for all the many creative ideas that were packed into it by Hiroyuki Kato.
Another thing I admire both arcs for is how they make a virtue of having very few animators. They don't feel cheap even though they have very few animators and don't move all that much. The Ring arc in particular only has four animators in each episode. Akemi Takada's characters retain an air of stately grace throughout. Akemi Takada is incidentally the one who invited Hiroyuki Kato to work on the show.
One more OVA entitled Licca-chan's Sunday was released in 1992, but it's less appealing than these two arcs. It's set in the real world without any fantasy elements, so it doesn't feature any creative ideas on the design side from Hiroyuki Kato. The story is cute and it comes across as a polished version of the classic Pierrot magical girl shows like Emi and Pelsha. But there's little of interest from a technical point of view except for the solid but unremarkable layouts and drawings.
I recently discovered that Ajia-do even produced a full-length feature released in 1994 under the name Licca-chan and the Wildcats: Journey to the Stars. It was nice discovering this because it's a return to the standards of the first four OVAs with its imaginative designs.
It has a strong staff right from the top with Tsutomu Mizushima and Tatsuo Sato directing, concept work from Fujimori Masaya, key animation supervisors including Yoshiaki Yanagita, a story by Tomomi Mochizuki and some animation by Masaaki Yuasa. Despite the impressive staff list, it's not a masterpiece, but it's an enjoyable if slightly underwhelming and uneven film. But it's very different in tone and style from the earlier OVAs.
Most of the creative work comes at the climax, which features a battle between the wildcats of the title and a miasmatic adversary. Unlike the previous OVAs, this movie features some impressive names on the animator front, including Masaaki Yuasa, Susumu Yamaguchi and Hiroyuki Morita. Yuasa's work clearly comes in the climax, which has a lot of exciting fast-paced and imaginative shots. For example, the shot with the horses pictured above seem like his work.
I think Ajia-do was at something of its peak in the early 90s with this series plus Chibi Maruko-chan and a number of one-shot OVAs where they gave staff a lot of creative freedom like the Rakugokan series of which Yuasa directed an episode.
I'd love to see Hiroyuki Kato do some more work in animation, but he's primarily an illustrator. The only anime he ever worked on after Licca-chan was Zettai Shonen (not coincidentally also at Ajia-do under Tomomi Mochizuki), for which he designed the mecha. I'd like to see something that's a pure animated expression of the lovely, creative illustrations up on his site.
More generally, I'd like to see more anime in the spirit of pure fantasy of the Yunia OVAs. Cat Soup comes to mind as being the sort of thing I'm talking about: Something where the driving force isn't character-driven narrative but visual creativity.
Licca-chan: Wondrous Yunia Story (OVA, 1990, 2 x 30 mins)
Script: Kazunori Ito
Storyboard & Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Masako Goto
Concept Art and Creature Design: Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto
Art Director: Satoshi Miura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Music: Norio Maeda
Licca-chan: The Wondrous Magic Ring (OVA, 1991, 2 x 30 mins)
Script: Kazunori Ito, Michiko Yokote
Storyboard & Director: Fumiko Ishii
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Takuya Saito
Concept Art and Creature Design: Hiroyuki Kato & Keisuke Goto
Art Director: Mitsuki Nakamura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Music: Kenji Kawai
Supervisor: Tsutomu Shibayama
Licca-chan's Sunday (OVA, 1992, 30 mins)
Animation Production: Ajia-Do
Director: Tatsuo Sato
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Animation Director: Masako Goto
Script: Yumiko Koda
Music: Kohei Tanaka
Art Director: Satoshi Miura
Concept Art: Masahiro Sato (佐藤正浩)
Supervisor: Tsutomu Shibayama
Layout: Hiroyuki Nishimura
Takeko Mori? (杜孟子)
Licca-chan and the Wildcats: Journey to the Stars (movie, 1994, 78 mins)
Produced by: Ajia-do
Animation production assistance: Group Tac
Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Character Design: Akemi Takada
Art Director: Shichiro Kobayashi
Music: Kohei Tanaka
Animation Director (アニメーション監督): Tatsuo Sato
Storyboard/Line Director/Dialogue: Tatsuo Sato
Scenario: Tomomi Mochizuki
Key Animation Supervisors (作画監督): Yoshiaki Yanagita, Hiroki Takagi, Ikuko Kusumoto
Concept work: Masaya Fujimori
Sub-character Design: Yoshiaki Yanagita
Ending animation: Kazushige Yusa
In what's rapidly on its way to becoming a tradition, Osamu Kobayashi directed an episode in the latest show from Gainax, this time one of their less interesting ones between the good ones. His longtime associate Hori Motonobu, acting as sakkan, provides the episode with his usual simple, clean, cute but not cloying character drawings. It definitely feels like Kobayashi in the way it's directed, with the many static shots and close-ups and the style of the acting, but it's not as jarring as his previous work.
The interesting thing about this episode, as most people will probably immediately notice, is the backgrounds. Kobayashi is an interesting creator because he always tries something new, and this is no exception. Kobayashi has in the past done a solo animator episode on Kemonozume, but this time he's done something I don't think I've ever heard of before: he's drawn most of the backgrounds. And it's not just done on a whim; his sketchy, moody backgrounds help establish the fantasyland atmosphere for the episode. I haven't watched the rest of the show, so I'm not sure, but this episode seems to take place in a different 'world', literally a storybook land. The sketchy background drawings aren't just a stylistic choice; they're as intrinsic to the story as the characters.
I like it when situations like this are devised in anime. It's the best of both worlds: You allow a talented creator whose style is not to the liking of many fans because he doesn't bother to try to make his work blend in with the rest of the show, to make an episode set in an alternative reality so that he can do what he does best, and yet it'll jibe stylistically and won't wreck the show. That's just what happened with Satoru Utsunomiya's episode of Aquarion. Usually I have no problem with a single episode sticking out stylistically from the rest of a show as long as the work is of genuine quality. But on the other hand, sometimes even I've found myself on the other side of the fence, arguing that some shows need more stylistic unity and not more idiosyncrasy, so I can see both sides.
The drawings are lovely and establish a moody atmosphere. I particularly like the beautiful long shot of the characters walking with their backs to the camera in the ruins of a church pictured above. In certain moments, this episode has the atmosphere of a film noir and the black and white sensibility of a classic movie from the 30s or 40s like The Edge of the World, which is set in a similarly desolate land - the remote Orkney Isles. Kobayashi is heavily influenced by the French new wave and other oldies, so perhaps that's intentional.
The beautiful draftsmanship of the drawings of the town in the distance and the beautiful stone masonry of the streets show a side of Kobayashi I wasn't familiar with. The drawings are loose and have a reduced palette, but they're realistic somehow. It doesn't feel like something you'd see in a typical anime. I like that Kobayashi can be a joker but he can be serious when he wants to. Parts of the world seem obviously inspired by medieval architecture, while other parts are obvious original creations, but he does a good job blending the two. In large part it's the details in the backgrounds that tell you a lot about the world and make you believe in the world the characters inhabit.
To me, whether it's a sketchy drawing or a unique shot of animation or a skillful layout, what I find I react to is when I sense someone's hand behind the work - when there's a personal touch. Commercial animation is arguably the antithesis of personal creation, but what's unique about anime is that occasionally it allows you to see the personal touch of the creator in the work, and oftentimes it's those moments when a creator is able to express themselves without inhibition, without having to adapt themselves to fit in, that the greatest art is made.
The first episode of Brain's Base's new show directed by Shoujo Kakumei Utena's Kunihiko Ikuhara is as well produced as you'd expect, with colorful, artistic visuals, idiosyncratic but sharp directing, and lush sound design, but it may be a hard slog if you are not willing to put up with the peculiarities of this auteur's approach to storytelling and the shoujo manga atmosphere, complete with twinkling stars, androgynous boys and an obsessively animated magical transformation sequence.
I for one never watched Shoujo Kakumei Utena, or rather was never able to watch more than an episode or two, because the style of the directing and the extreme shoujo manga-ness of it all, with the bizarre, byzantine gender and inter-character relations, was just too much for me. Rather than realistic drama, it's expressionistic psycho-drama with events presented in a stylized and metaphorical way. It's sophisticated and assured, but also off-putting if you're not capable of switching to a more 'shoujo manga' mindset.
This show isn't as intense as Utena narratively or stylistically, but Ikuhara's basic stance as a storyteller is unchanged. This is a far more approachable show, and the quality is good, so I'm going to see how far I can get into it.
I find Ikuhara to be one of the best 'shoujo anime' directors after the late Osamu Dezaki. He seems to be able to tap into the mindset of heightened emotion that defines the genre, over the length of a series fleshing out and delving into the various characters' complex emotions in a way few other directors can. Visually, he uses the background art effectively to extend the emotional palette the way Dezaki did in a show like Aim for the Ace!. He's a theatrical director in the sense of the staging as well as the acting.
What I most like about the show isn't the directing or the animation. It's the art. The vivid color schemes, symmetrical layouts, and density of detail in the backgrounds like the shot pictured above, are immediately compelling. Even if nothing else in the show attracts you, it's hard to resist the wonderful art of the show.
That color genius Kunio Tsujita is again the one behind the colors after his work on Casshern Sins and Tatami Galaxy. The art directing team is Kentaro Akiyama and Chieko Nakayama. Chieko Nakayama was art director of episode 1 and the art was done by four people at a place called Studio Pablo.
I didn't like was that the characters and humor and general trappings of the show are otherwise conventional, just through the lens of Ikuhara's more exacting directing style. There isn't much anything tremendously new here, or that would attract a non-anime-watcher. The transformation sequence to me seems like a pointless self-indulgence to gratify the director's fe tish for Sailor Moon-style intricate transformation sequences. Also, drawing all of the bystanders except for the main characters as cardboard cutouts comes across as less quirky and creative than lazy and obvious. It felt more convincing and meaningful when Kenji Nakamura did it in Trapeze.
Ikuhara's visual storytelling style has some surface similarities to that of two other ex-Toei directors who learned the ropes at Toei Animation around the same time in the 1990s: Mamoru Hosoda and Takuya Igarashi. Takuya Igarashi is more quirky and visually playful, while Mamoru Hosoda is more classical and holistic, but their film grammar seems like it evolved from the same place. They like symmetrical layouts lush with detail, always using talented art directors to flesh out their intricate layouts; they're good at incorporating CG and animation and storyboarding in such a way as to achieve much with little, switching to lush animation in sections but mostly making due with little movement by regaling the viewer with mesmerizing background art or theatrically heightened emotional storytelling.
The numerous Toei connections in the show betray Ikuhara's origins: Shinya Hasegawa (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was character designer of Utena (and also worked a lot on Sailor Moon); Masahiro Aizawa (animator in the opening) was a sakkan/animator in Utena and was associated with Takaaki Yamashita; Yoshihiko Umakoshi (animator in the opening) worked on the Utena movie in addition to being a Toei pillar; Takahiro Kagami (animator in episode 1 and the opening) was a regular Toei animator and in recent years worked under Umakoshi on Mushishi (2005) and Casshern Sins (2008); Keiji Goto (animator in the opening/crystal world section) was an animator in Utena; etc.
The show has a lot of women in main staff roles besides the art director: art director Chieko Nakayama, character designer Terumi Nishii, assistant director Mitsue Yamazaki, and Gainax animator Shoko Nakamura. Shoko Nakamura wears several hats on the show as "chief director" of the show under "kantoku" Ikuhara in addition to being one of the two concept designers, being an animator in episode 1 and the opening, being line director of ep 1, and drawing the ending. There are a few other Gainax faces present: Akemi Hayashi was an animator in the opening, episode 1 and the crystal world section. Sushio was an animator in episode 1.