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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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

02:00:47 pm , 255 words, 2308 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game review list

Read a great piece yesterday in the latest issue of Kyoto Journal by William R. Stimson talking about Durians. My curiosity is piqued. I've seen them around, too (we're blessed in Vancouver with tons of Asian markets of all stripes). I wonder if they're in season? In the meantime I bought some strawberries yesterday that are absolutely scrumptuous. Why is it that whenever I try to peel a mango, I wind up getting more of it on my hands than in the bowl? Is there some trick to it that I don't know?

Onto today's topic.

Mind Game Official SiteI thought I'd throw together a list of sites mentioning Masaaki Yuasa's upcoming film Mind Game. Apologies to readers who cannot read Japanese, because most of them are currently Japanese sites. The film has only been seen in test screenings in Japan. What's incredible is how everyone who went to those test screenings, without exception, praises it higher than heaven -- the new 金字塔 (benchmark) for animated films, the best film I've ever seen, etc. I'll probably continue to add to the list for a while as the trickle of reviews changes to a torrent once the movie finally hits our shores, probably early next year.

Monday, June 14, 2004

05:28:56 pm , 103 words, 2177 views     Categories: Animation

Portable Airport

Hideaki Anno is reported to have commented of Shinya Ohira's key animation, which is featured alongside that of other bad-boy animators like Hideki Hamasu, Shinji Hashimoto and Shinji Otsuka in ポータブル空港 (Portable Airport), the new three-minute Ghibli subsidiary short being shown before Anno's Cutey Honey film, that it was "beyond correction", ie, なおしようがない, there was no way to correct his drawings, as key animator's drawings usually are by the animation director, because of the extremity of their idiosyncrasy. Great to see Ohira getting so famous.

Feeling flaccid today after skipping weight training yesterday. Beautiful byzantine clouds. Transient showers. Helicopter in the distance against this backdrop.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

01:37:56 pm , 752 words, 2451 views     Categories: Animation

Stand-outs

It's pretty rare for me to watch a whole series from start to end. More often than not with anime, there's simply no need, because once you've seen one episode, you've seen them all - and sometimes even one episode is more than you wanted to see! The first episode is often a good place to stop, too, because it's often the best produced in the entire series. Occasionally, however, you get one-shots in the middle of a series that stand out from the rest for whatever reason - usually because of the staff that were involved in that particular episode. Today I'll point out a few such instances in recent anime to illustrate my point.

Naruto #30, #71 - The two episodes that stand head and shoulders above the rest of the series in terms of extravagant and kick-ass action animation. And what army was responsible for it all? An army of two: Atsushi Wakabayashi (storyboard, director, animation director, animator) and Norio Matsumoto (animator). (check out this site for a selection of clips from episode 30)

Popolo Crois (2004) #6 - In this much-talked-about episode, famous animator Yoshinori Kanada, using the pseudonym Isuke Togakushi, staged a sort of comeback to the genre of wild action that had made him famous in the 70s/80s after many years of absence. Alongside him were a number of animators in the Kanada "school" - animators who had grown up watching Kanada, and had become animators because of Kanada: Hiroyuki Imaishi, Masahito Yamashita, Yo Yoshinari. A very moving meeting of like-minded animators, the episode is a wild bash of kinetic freestyle animation of the sort that you just don't see anymore, which is something I for one miss. Where has this sort of freedom gone?

Rahxephon #15 - One of the great realistic animators of the last decade or so, Mitsuo Iso, mounted his directing debut in this episode, which is radically different (and better) than the rest of the episodes in terms of both directing and animation. The animation is subtle and realistic, as befitting the style Iso has pioneered. Iso himself presumably animated the absolutely spellbinding part where the rocks crumble into the water. Nobody can draw animation like this but Iso. No contest: the best episode in the series, without even having seen any of the other episodes.

Puchi Puri Yuushi #7 - Hiroyuki Imaishi turned this episode of an otherwise ordinary moe Gainaix show into an action free-for-all that stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the series.

Abenobashi Shotengai #3 & #12 - Maybe each episode of this series was purposely made in a unique style to match the gimmick of the week, but none of them were half as good as Hiroyuki Imaishi's episodes, which really stand out from the rest.

Haibane Renmei #8 & #13 - This series (an instant classic, to be sure) had a stable but rather monotone animation style, whereas for some reason these two episodes were conspicuously better animated - although some actually complained about this because they found the stylistic change jarring. Rumors have it that Norio Matsumoto, the most important TV animator of the last decade, was responsible, though he isn't listed in the credits. Take particular note of the short but superb cut of the crow alighting from the windmill around 15 minutes in to episode #8. To say nothing of the shot of flying into the well, and the extraordinary animation of the climactic train scene in the last episode.

Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo #19 - The infamous paper cutout episode by Hiroyuki Imaishi needs no explanation.

Digimon #21 - Although not a stand-out in terms of the animation, this episode is definitely one of the more famous stand-outs of recent years in terms of the directing, by up-and-coming director Mamoru Hosoda (the guy who declined Ghibli's invitation to direct Howl's Moving Castle, and who went on to direct the first two Digimon movies, which I intent to write about later). The sense of stasis and distanciation created by the frequent framing of shots using a wide-angle lens (or its animated simulacrum), the sense of rhythm created by staccato cuts between slow pans, the characteristic use of photorealistic backgrounds modeled directly on existing housing projects, the pervasive silence and background buzz of ambient sounds, the focus on everyday life, the minute attention to detail - all of these things, so unexpected within the context of Digimon, make this episode a classic instance of a stand-out episode, for which reason our picture of the day comes from here.

I think that'll do for now.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

10:38:21 pm , 460 words, 1773 views     Categories: Animation

Yasuo Otsuka Documentary

I'm exhausted from a thorny legal translation, so I'll keep things short. I'll just mention a DVD that's being released at the end of the month: a documentary about Yasuo Otsuka, one of the greatest Japanese animators of the last 50 years. It's unfortunate (though understandable) that he isn't just as well known as his longtime comrades who went on to form Studio Ghibli, while he stayed on at Telecom as a teacher spreading his knowledge about animation to a whole generation of eager students, because he is with no exaggeration one of the most important and influential animators currently alive in Japan. Otsuka possesses a knowledge of the history of the anime industry during the period in which he was active that is quite simply second to none, so a documentary like this is sure to be equally informative as a capsule history of that period of anime. And with his avuncular demeanor and open and likeable personality, it's the ideal medium for presenting Otsuka's work to a wider public, simultaneously serving as a timely followup to Otsuka's autobiography, Sakuga Ase Mamire, which was released in a revised edition three years ago. While essential reading in itself, the book can now serve as an ideal next step for people coming from the DVD looking to learn more about the master.

(drop me a line if you're thinking of publishing it in English and you're looking for a translator ;D)

Here's a short list of his scenes in the Toei films:

  • Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke - the salamander monster
  • Saiyuki - the bull monster
  • Anju & Zushiomaru - the crab monster
  • Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon - the dragon
  • Hols, Prince of the Sun - the fish monster

Notice a trend? Otsuka always animated the big ugly monsters.

After leaving Toei in 1969, Otsuka did animation for a number of TV series at TMS animation subsidiary A Pro - Tensai Bakabon, Dokonjo Gaeru, Ore wa Teppei, Gamba no Boken, Samurai Giants - before going on to focus on animation directing. His animation of the opening of Samurai Giants remains particularly renowned. His work as an animation director is more widely known, but I'll just mention in passing one that isn't as well known: the 1969 TMS version of Moomin. Although the material was highly unusual for Otsuka, and he wasn't too keen on it (too fluffy), this series should not be overlooked, because Otsuka was never one to take the easy way out, and the level of quality is just as high as anything else Otsuka ever did.

I should also mention that the DVD is relatively inexpensive as Japanese DVDs go, like Yanagawa Horiwari Monogatari, which was released a few months ago, so kudos to Ghibli for continuing to release essential non-animated fare like this on DVD.

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Friday, June 11, 2004

06:27:05 pm , 1770 words, 3575 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

Recent TV anime

No particular Shinichiro W fan, but I'm finding Samurai Champloo to be diverting enough to watch. No particular Kazuto Nakazawa fan either, but I was impressed by the amount of detail and hustle he crammed into episode 1, so I'm rethinking my opinion of him. But the best thing about the show is the op by Takeshi Koike, which is just what you'd hope and expect it to be. The movement! And the drawings! Watch some of those cuts in slo-mo to see the drawings that are in there. This is animation. Of a kind only Koike can do.

Feels like we've been blessed with continuous airtime of intersting shows lately. Looking backwards:

Planetes

There's a lot to be said about a sci-fi anime that doesn't have recourse to giant robots and gun battles. There's a lot to be said about Planetes, a truly original and finely crafted anime that painted the picture of regular people going through the sort of struggles we can all relate to. Perhaps the drama was melodramatic. This is indisputable. The screaming and shouting is truly overboard. But let's overlook that.

The directing by Goro Taniguchi was truly satisfying. The character designs by Yuriko Chiba were very nice, a compromise between the popular and the realistic. The key to what makes this series great and unique, however, lies not in these things but in the script. The whole thing - every episode - was written by Hitosakura Okawauchi (whose name I apologize if I'm misspelling, because it's a doozy). You just don't get this sort of luxury anymore these days in anime. The last time I remember was Marco back in '76. What a sense of unity it brings! And the stuff is good. The variety of drama and themes he brings to every episodes is truly impressive. Hats off, ladies and gentlemen, to a herculean task well done.

In the final count I think this was a series aimed squarely at my generation (people now in their 20s). I found I could relate to its picture of the world, and there was a genuine attachment to the characters that made the denoument uncommonly moving - why? Because the characters changed. That's the key. The characters changed in response to their experiences in unexpected ways, changed their plans about their future, changed their outlook. The only other anime I've seen that succeeded in showing how people change and grow old - a formidable task in a medium as unsuited to mimesis as animation - was Takahata's Anne of Green Gables, which succeeds in garnering an intense emotional response from the viewer, if it does, only because it actually puts great effort into depicting the physical and mental changes that visit the characters over time, ie, the aging process. Doesn't that play a part in forging emotional bonds in real life? Knowing a loved one is growing older and will die one day?

The animation. The animation is generally very stable, and the visuals are of the highest order imaginable, which comes as no surprise from the formidable Sunrise. That said, there was rarely anything astounding in the animation. It was more a case of enjoying the wonderfully stable level of animation. However, there was one figure who I consistently noticed in the credits whenever the level of quality in the animation of the episode I'd just seen somehow felt higher than normal, and that's Seiichi Hashimoto (7, 11, 13, 16, 17, 21, 26). He was one of the figures who pushed the animation of Planetes just beyond good into very good. Two others whom I noticed appeared to help maintain that high level of quality are Shuji Sakamoto and Ken'ichi Yoshida. Yoshida joined Hashimoto in animating the ending sequence. Rarely do I watch an op/ed every episode unless it's really good. I watched this one every time. The assiduous attention to detail and obvious love and craftsmanship that went into the ending makes it a truly outstanding piece that deserves the highest praise.

As soon as Planetes ended, we got...

Paranoia Agent

Opinions will vary widely about this one, but it's a success in my book. Animation-wise there's lots of interest. In fact, this series represents probably the biggest assemblage of big-name animators to grace any TV anime in many years. Leading them all was Toshiyuki Inoue, who appears to have singlehandedly done so much to support the animation of this series. His effects animation for the last episode is really unparalleled in anything I've ever seen in a TV anime.

In the first several episodes we get Masashi Ando, Ken'ichi Konishi, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Hiroyuki Oguro... which is pleasant enough, but then we get to the crowning jewel of the series, episode 8, and things really start to take off. This is undoubtedly Satoru Utsunomiya's most glorious acheivement yet, a chef d'oeuvre, an episode that proves decisively that he has what it takes to become a great director if he'd only be given the chance.

It features the most astonishing lineup of animators yet: Toshiyuki Inoue, Tetsuya Nishio, Norio Matsumoto, Hiroyuki Okiura, Kazuchika Kise, Takeshi Honda... Seriously, if you expect to find better anywhere else, you're loopy. The discovery of the series for me was Michio Mihara - the teeth man. He did half the KA in episode 4 and that baseball vignette with the guys all talking through their teeth in the v/a episode 9.

Two of those were animated by Ando Masashi - the betting one and the spaceship one. He also did animation in three other episodes and AD of one, in addition to being the main character designer. What a talent. It's no wonder he's so big at Ghibli. Then there's Shinji Hashimoto, who did animation in two episodes, Maromi in 10 and the battles in 12. Episode 10, masterfully storyboarded by Tatsuo Sato, is a real stand-out, probably the most perfectly crafted in the series after Utsunomiya's.

But the contrast is interesting: I can rewatch Utsunomiya's and never tire of it and discover new things, but I wouldn't rewatch episode 10. Once you've seen it, it isn't satisfying to rewatch because you already know what happens and it doesn't offer any more rewards. I think Utsunomiya's episode is different because there is some deep, poetic power there in the pacing of the episode, in the framing of the shots, that just can't be mimiced by anyone, no matter how good; Utsunomiya is the real thing, a poet of sorts.

OK, while we're at it, let's pick out the important animators and good bits in each episode.

1. Hideki Hamasu, Toshiyuki Inoue, Norio Matsumoto. Great episode. Kon storyboarded this and the last episode. Good bits: Tsukiko running by Inoue, Maromi coming alive by Matsumoto (?). Love the lecherous storyboarding of the ice-cream scene.

2. Masashi Ando. Very stable level of animation overall, but nothing that grabs the attention.

3. Steep drop in animation quality.

4. Stable level of animation maintained by Michio Mihara, but nothing particularly phenomenal.

5. Very peculiar drawing style by Mamoru Sasaki that I didn't care for at all. One good animated bit: the big fish by Ken'ichi Konishi. Konishi is a recent discovery for me. He animated the scene in Jin-Roh near the end where a character in the sewer slides down a wall through some water, and my favorite scene in the Digimon War Game movie, where the kid goes to the bathroom because he drank too much tea, in addition to recently doing a great job as AD of Tokyo Godfathers, keeping the look even while maintaining the individuality of the animators - no mean feat.

6. Not at all happy with the animation here.

7. Masashi Ando. Memory loss...

8. The masterpiece of the series. Good bits are everywhere. The whole thing qualifies as one extended good bit. Absolutely wonderful. In particular my favorite is Okiura's part right at the beginning where the old man turns away and starts running from the girl. Inoue probably did the part where the three are trying to hang themselves, because it's one of the best animated bits in the episode. Don't really know what parts the others did... (Matsumoto, Nishio, Honda)

9. A great episode. Is there any other TV anime episode anywhere that has deliberately put together a variety of clashing animation styles like this episode? Inoue did the test part. Mihara did the baseball and the castaway parts. Inoue and Hamasu on the boxing part. Ando did the betting and rocket parts, as mentioned.

10. I think Shinji Hashimoto did Maromi. Amazingly unified animation from AD Masashi Ando.

11. Not my cup of tea - Mamoru Sasaki again.

12. Michio Mihara, Shinji Hashimoto, Hiroyuki Ogura. Hashimoto's action scenes.

13. Toshiyuki Inoue, Masashi Ando, Hiroyuki Okiura, Hideki Hamasu, Takeshi Honda, Michio Mihara. THE EFFECTS! Unparalled catastrophe animation. There's a quick series of very short cuts that is absolutely jaw-dropping near the end when the amorphous mass is retreating. Okiura?

=> The moral is: If there were more interesting projects like this, perhaps we'd see Japan's good animators doing more stuff on TV and not just in films all the time.

As soon as Paranoia Agent ended, we got...

Tweeny Witches

A pleasant surprise from the professionals at surprising you, Studio 4C. This update of the maho shojo genre feels like a success to me thanks to the hip contemporary humor and the great balance that makes it appealing to all ages, and the production style is actually an innovation: Four people alternate handling all aspects of an episode (though this is not always the case). Yasuhiro Aoki, who did episodes 2, 6 (storyboard only) and 9 so far, is my current favorite, with a wonderfully convincing and fresh new style full of insanely elliptical shots (like the 20 second-long extreeeeme closup of that scary-looking guy's face while a bunch of characters were talking off-screen in episode 2) that he somehow manages to pull off, seemingly with the utmost ease. There are very nice bits of animation here and there in the series (though I've never seen any credits to figure out who did what), like the explosion in episode 5, the witch shooting a blast six minutes into episode 6, the LOTL funny animation of Arusu seven minutes into episode 9...

And now Samurai Champloo. It's a pretty good time for TV anime, all in all, though there's always room for improvement. But is there really a need to have 30 new shows coming out every season? At last count I think the number of TV anime airing was like 100. Isn't that a little overboard? The funny thing is, there are people who actually watch it all. I'm glad they do, so I don't have to. They can pick out the good bits for me. Because I know they're few and far between.

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Friday, June 11, 2004

11:36:39 am , 97 words, 756 views     Categories: Animation

Hataddendum

I guess the reason I was only middling happy with the Hata Firebird episode was because I've always had this nagging feeling that he's always had it in him to be making stuff just as good as Goku, and if he had he'd be famous by now, but for whatever reason he just never has. Just check out this episode of Tamagocchi, the mini-mini-series he did a few years ago. The wry humor, the warm mood, the perfect pacing of the gags -- this is what Hata excels at, and he should have done more of it.

Friday, June 11, 2004

08:14:51 am , 283 words, 987 views     Categories: Animation

Hinotori final

Shinji Hashimoto in #7 and Manabu Ohashi in #5. Both listed at the top of the list yet I couldn't tell what they did! Hashimoto probably did the one cut of Sakon stepping towards Bikuni, the only cut in the whole episode that was actually animated. Hata's storyboard was very Hata, so it felt good to see him being himself, but not much more than that.

Watching Hinotori convinced me that Tezuka's character designs are simply not suited to animation. Which is ironic, since they arose from animation. It perfectly encapsulates how bass-ackwards his whole understanding of animation was. Take animation designs, turn them into manga, then turn them back into animation - should work perfectly as animation, right? Wrong. They just look like cardboard cutouts on the screen. This could probably more fairly be blamed on the animators of this particular series, who either didn't try very hard or just are too damn reverent with his designs, and Sugino's actual CD, which just feels stilted and mannered by now. Goku is the real way these designs should be treated - with freedom and fun. It's about the only successful Tezuka anime I've seen that actually works as animation. It's the perfect example of what could have been achieved with the limited Mushi Pro style. All in all--animation, story, ideas--embarrassingly passé. This firebird is fowl all right, but it's a turkey.

Mossafer. This movie pops into my head every once in a while, spontaneously, just like that. It occupies that large a place in my psyche. Today's image is from this movie. This kid is the Huck of Iranian cinema. The scene where he makes fun of the skinny marathoner cracks me up every time.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

10:45:50 am , 246 words, 1184 views     Categories: Animation

Hinotori

Link: http://www3.nhk.or.jp/anime/hinotori/

I was delighted to discover that Masami Hata did the storyboard for episode 5 of the recent anime adaptation of Tezuka's "life work", produced by NHK, and upon investigating, I noticed that none other than Gisaburo Sugii did script & storyboard for episode 7. Despite being a onetime fan of Tezuka the manga-ka, I have my reservations about whether there is really any need to resurrect Tezuka's dubious anime legacy in this day and age, but just from those two names, without further ado I decided this series was worth investigating from the beginning. Here we have two of the big Mushi Pro vets approaching retirement age working on the Master's magnum opus - plus of course other expat luminaries like character designer Akio Sugino (who else?) and director Takahashi "Votoms" Ryosuke. It's kind of touching. The end of an era. I thought they were reserving the best chapter, Hououhen, for last, but I now realize they're not going to do it?! Hello? To me, Hinotori is synonymous with Hououhen. When I sold off my set of Hinotori books, I only kept Hououhen. What are they thinking? Oh well. Production quality is said to be high, as befitting the material, and if you're going to animate a new Tezuka piece, it's the obvious choice, but despite that, for some reason I still just find the whole idea extremely nonplussing. I'll be content just to finally be able to see two great animators back in action on their home turf.

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

07:50:38 pm , 764 words, 2330 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game Trailer

Link: http://www.mindgame.jp/

Mind Game Official Site

I just couldn't resist. I swore I wouldn't watch the trailer before the movie, to retain the impact of watching it unprepared, but the second my eye caught it on the updates page, it proved stronger than me, and I watched it. Yes, it was choppy, but GOD it was just as wonderful and mind-bending (an adjective sure to resurface regularly when the movie hits our shores) as I had surmised. Staggeringly wonderful. Sublimely terrific. My reservoir of bliss has been replenished for some time to come.

The official site informs me that, in addition to the new interview with Masaaki Yuasa printed in the June issue of Animage, there are now a handful of other media outlets doing coverage of Mind Game, including a television program that lists it among their '30 must-see' movies of the moment. Unfortunately I have not been able to find an Animage anywhere in Vancouver, so I'm still looking for that.

Fortunately, however, over at Web Anime Style--without any doubt the best anime-related publication ever--, Yuichiro Oguro, the editor, is currently in the process of putting up the old interview he did with Yuasa around 1996 for the print version of AS, and let me say, the joy hath been in abundance. It actually takes the form of a discussion between Toshiyuki Inoue and Masaaki Yuasa, and it's wonderfully fun and informative about both of their characters, as Oguro's great interviews always are. Most of my knoweldge of animators comes from AS, pretty much, with just a little 101 knowledge about Toei animators that I managed to scrounge up on way to the great learning that is AS.

The Mind Game comic, which allegedly has a major cult following in Japan (numbering among whom Koji Morimoto, who was the one who first showed the comic to Yuasa while they were working together on Noiseman), but had gone out of print so quickly due to its sheer bizarreness that during production of the movie version the entire workforce of Studio 4C had to be mobilized to comb Tokyo for copies of the by-then exceedingly rare volumes, is now slated to be reprinted in association with Oguro's company, Studio Yuu, around the end of June. Around the same time will be released the "Mind Game Remixed" DVD directed by Koji Morimoto, apparently a making-of/behind-the-scenes/preview featurette type thing. Both are pre-orderable from Amazon.jp and CD Japan. Their release happily coincides with my birthday.

As a fan of Yuasa, I've been dying to see the film since I first heard the rumours that it was in production in 2003, and the intervening months have been hard to endure, but the first signs were positive, and now everyting I've read points to only one thing: Mind Game is the movie of the year. And for me, it's the movie I've been waiting for since I first started watching anime. Sure, there's been some good stuff, but nothing really new, it always felt like they were still just playing in the sandbox, all the familiar habits and tics were there, and as endearing as they might be, what I wanted was something revolutionary and new, something like the impact of Miyazaki 25 years ago, something like what Shinya Ohira did in 1995 with his Hakkenden episode -- that's what I'd been hungering for, I now realized, the sort of movie that would really energize people, that you just couldn't look away from, uncategorizable, monstrously beautiful! I'm thinking Mind Game is going to be that movie. The movie to shatter the still of that old pond. Kaeru tobikomi, mizu no oto. BANG! As searingly unforgettable as that pivotal gunshot scene in the film.

Nekojiru-so was great, the best anime film I'd seen in years, no doubt, and it got some people's attention, but this is going to be ten times that, undiluted Yuasa, the real thing. I can't wait for the reaction over here. All the blogs I've read by people who went to the preview screenings speak of the experience using the sort of rapturous language more reminiscent of a religious experience than a mere film screening. They tell of an excitement that just wouldn't go away after seeing the film. Of literally not being able to get it out of their mind. Of being inspired to live life to its fullest, to break out of those self-imposed barriers, to charge ahead and make the most of every moment, and to be positive and only positive, nothing else, because life is too short and precious to be anything else! Mind Game is that kind of movie.

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

01:46:00 am , 108 words, 988 views     Categories: Site News

Hello and welcome!

Welcome to this new thing I've decided to do. I'll be using this space to jot down notes about animation-related stuff I see or read. I'll be keeping things very informal, as usual.

The site was just transferred to a new DNS today with my new host, Ion Web. I'm happy with the services so far, which included the cgi for this blog as well as the guestbook and BBS cgis that now grace the site. :D

It is extremely late. I must to bed.

Not anime-related, but I'm nearing completion on my first short story translation, to be posted soon on another new part of my site.

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