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Not every AIC anime is about cute girls, mecha and guns. There's one exception: Mikeneko Holmes no Yuurei Joushu, a one-shot mystery OVA based on the novels of mystery legend Jiro Akagawa. No tentacles or lesbian aliens are to be found in this unostentatious and low-key outing. It's maybe the least AIC-looking of the OVAs from the golden age of AIC OVAs.
It's decent, but not undeservedly overlooked. The characters are competently drawn, if not particularly dynamic or exciting to watch. The mystery takes too long to arrive and isn't satisfying, and the directing is bland and lacking in spark, although you could say it's more watchable than many of their better produced outings because of that lightness and lack of fetishism. It's interesting perhaps most of all for being one of the earliest mystery anime, precursor of hit shows like Kindaichi and Conan. Once again, AIC was on the money in terms of sniffing out potential new formats.
This OVA was released in 1992, which is smack in the middle of one of my favorite periods in anime, the post-Akira period that produced OVAs like Crimson Wolf, Hakkenden and Sukeban Deka. The animation of this period gets my juices flowing like that of no other period in anime history. Like most AIC OVAs, this one has a smattering of good animation, and it's in the early 90s style that I love. Most of the animation in the film is not that exciting, but there are bits here and there in the first ten minutes that I really enjoyed.
The breakfast scene is perhaps the best. The acting in this scene is subtly nuanced and believable, but not lavish or flamboyant by any means. Take the shot where the protagonist reads the note while eating toast. Normally an animator would just have had the protagonist pick up the note and read it. But there's an added little touch here that makes it feel more real and life-like: he flips back the note to straighten it so that he can read it. It passes by so quickly it almost doesn't register. It's not flamboyant and in-your-face screaming "Sakugaaaaa!" Yet it feels really good as acting and as movement. Most of the time nowadays when you run across animation that is above average, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Not many animators are capable of this kind of subtle quality. I like animation like this that flies under the radar yet is very well done. The timing of the bit where the protagonist's buddy pats his chest at the front door is also exceptional. Have a look for yourself.
Animators in the credits include Tatsuya Tomaru, Jiro Kanai, Fumihide Sai and Osamu Tanabe. The breakfast scene is almost without a doubt the work of Osamu Tanabe, who I wrote a post about before. This was before he became famous for his work at Ghibli, right around the time he did such amazing but as-of-yet unrecognized work on miscellaneous shows like Hakkenden, Junkers Come Here, Lassie and Golden Boy. His work in all of these shows is also similarly notable for its subtle but realistic and believable acting.
There are some other spots during the first ten minutes that are also quite nice, like the dream scene at the beginning and the shot where the protagonist's buddy gets worked up after the play and the protagonist has to restrain him. The latter shot is quite nice and feels very 'post-Akira' in the style of the mouth and the exaggerated movement of the limbs. I like how the limbs and hands are very communicative in animation at this period.
三毛猫ホームズの幽霊城主 Mikeneko Holmes no Yuurei Joushu (1992, OVA, 45 mins, AIC)
Based on the novels by Jiro Akagawa
Produced by AIC
Director, Character Design: Nobuyuki Kitajima
Animation Directors: Noboru Furuse, Nobuyuki Kitajima
Assistant Animation Director: Atsushi Okuda
Art Director: Kenji Kamiyama
Script: Arii Emu
Music: Kentaro Haneda
Technical Director: Takeshi Aoki
|Tatsuya Tomaru||Jiro Kanai|
|Kado Tomoaki||Osamu Tanabe|
|Tomoo Ikeuchi||Tadayuki Iwai|
|Fumihide Sai||Masahiro Kase|
|Harumi Izawa||Koichi Ishihara|
|Miko Nakajima||Kenichi Ogawa|
|Satomi Tanaka||Koichi Nakaya|
|Masashi Yagishita||Masamitsu Outa|
|Keiji Goto||Naoko Ozawa|
Here's a list of some of my favorite early 1990s OVAs (and one movie) where you can sample the style of animation that's unique to the immediate post-Akira period:
Gosenzosama Banbanzai (1989)
Explorer Woman Ray episode 1 (1989)
Hakkenden episode 1 (1990)
The Antique Shop (1991)
Sukeban Deka (1991)
Rojin Z (1991)
Green Legend Ran episode 1 (1992)
Ai Monogatari: Lion and Pelican (1993)
Crimson Wolf (1993)
Tomoyoshi Joko and Hiroco Ichinose, who work together as the unit Decovocal, just put up a new short animation entitled Coffee Tadaiku on their Youtube channel in honor of their mentor Taku Furukawa, who turned 70 on September 25. Watch it here. The film is a lovingly crafted homage to what's perhaps Taku Furukawa's most iconic piece, Coffee Break from 1977.
I'm on the road unable to post (anything long) right now, and will be for the next few days, so I just thought I'd point out that Aaron Long, who was the one who inspired me on all these Lupin posts with his post about episode 78 of the second TV series, just wrote a nice little piece about the Gold of Babylon movie that featured some of the best work by Yuzo Aoki in his whole career. The film is full of inspired posing and character animation. It's the culmination of his many years of working with the Lupin designs. Sadly, the movie has fallen into obscurity after all these years, buried under an avalanche of less interesting films and TV specials. It's basically the craziest, most slapstick and raucous Lupin ever made, with some of the most Monkey Punch-esque drawings. Check it out if you have a chance.
Sadahiko Sakamaki is an animator who's been active since the late 1970s. He appears frequently in the Tokyo Movie episodes of the second Lupin III series, having even done a few half-half episodes with Yuzo Aoki. In the ensuing years he worked as an animator on various shows like Belle and Sebastian and Cobra before moving to Nippon Animation, where he remained for many years, notably doing character designs for Spaceship Sagittarius and Jungle Book. Spaceship Sagittarius was a great show due to the script and Sakamaki's simple but appealing and out-there designs of the various aliens. He reportedly drew a lot of rough key animation in the show as well. His style comes through well in Jungle Book, with its simple and appealing animal character designs well-suited to creating active movement.
One of the last things Sakamaki did at Nippon Animation was a 24-episode show called Taiga Adventure that ran from October 1999 to April 2000. This show was unfortunately neglected due presumably to the fact that the producers made the greedy and unfortunate decision to attempt to associate the show with Hayao Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan by calling it Future Boy Conan II: Taiga Adventure instead of just Taiga Adventure, even though the show had absolutely nothing to do with Future Boy Conan. They just wanted to capitalize on one of their hottest properties. I myself dismissed the show out of hand because of that fact when it came out. I regret having done so now, because it looks like Sakamaki put a lot of sweat and tears into this project, and it doesn't look that bad, but the show is pretty much impossible to find now, having only been released on VHS many years back.
Sakamaki was the brain behind the whole show. He came up with the concept and the story, drew the character designs, and drew storyboards for almost every episode - not ekonte, but storyboards in the western sense of the word, as in a series of drawings to give a sense of the flow of the story, based upon which a proper ekonte was presumably drawn afterwards. The director of the show wasn't him but Keiji Hayakawa, who I wrote a post about before because of his excellent storyboarding work on Spaceship Sagittarius. The two had worked together even before Spaceship Sagittarius: Keiji Hayakawa was the chief director of Belle & Sebastian. They continue to work together even today. They recently teamed up on several episodes of The Galaxy Railways and Kyou Kara Maou, Hayakawa doing storyboard and directing and Sakamaki acting as sakkan.
His storyboard videos are very nice to look at. At a basic level, it's just nice to savor his appealing rough drawings, as he's a master with the pencil, able to quickly sketch out all sorts of characters in all sorts of dynamic poses. But more than that, watching these animatics gave me a newfound appreciation for a side of Sadahiko Sakamaki I didn't know before - that of an all-powerful anime creator who can conceptualize a whole show from the ground up, including mapping out every shot in almost every episode. He's able to come up with, string together and convincingly draw so many characters and situations (I'm sure he could animate them too if he had time). Not many people have done that in anime except for Hayao Miyazaki. They make me want to see the actual show, although I suspect the actual show won't have the very nice flavor of Sakamaki's lively and skillful rough drawings.
Sadahiko Sakamaki also uploaded three 7-minute animatics for a new show he's working on called Go, Lesser!. The subject is interesting. It's about animals left behind by their owners after a nuclear disaster. It's inspired by true stories of such events that played in the news after the Fukushima disaster. I'm not quite sure whether he's doing this on the side, by himself, or whether this is a project that's actually under production somewhere.
It's a real pleasure to watch his animatics. I like his whole aesthetic and visual style. He feels like an emissary from an older time in anime, with his simply drawn but lively characters going on grand adventures. There's something in his work that reminds me of what it is that attracted me to anime in the first place, but that's been lost today. It does remind me of Future Boy Conan, but not because it mimics that style. It's because he seems one of the last living people able to create that kind of sprawling, fun, sci-fi action-adventure on a large scale.
Sadahiko Sakamaki is still active full-time as an animator and animation director. He now has his own small subcontractor production studio called Delta Peak Production, which has done the animation for episodes of many shows including Metal Fighter Miku, Ayakashi, The Galaxy Railways and Akikan. Sakamaki always acts as the sakkan for the episodes outsourced to his studio. Sakamaki even drew solo episodes in episode 2 and 8 of Akikan.
Ever since the third TV series of 1984-1985, Lupin III has lived on mostly in yearly TV specials of uneven quality that were often disappointing despite frequently ambitious staff casting. The very first TV special was Bye Bye Liberty Crisis, directed by Osamu Dezaki and aired on April 1, 1989. Dezaki went on to direct the first few TV specials before they were handed on to a succession of different directors.
I just saw this film for the first time today, and I was impressed by it. I'm used to disappointment with these TV specials, but I'd easily rank Bye Bye Liberty Crisis as the best post-Fuma Clan Lupin III film I've seen.
It's clear why TMS turned to Osamu Dezaki when they wanted to revive the franchise in TV special form. He had the stylistic flair and directing prowess to make a Lupin III film that was satisfying as a film.
Dezaki's Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is cinematic in a way that most of the later TV specials I've seen aren't. It's adult in atmosphere without taking itself seriously, as Lupin III should be, and it segues between action sequences and drama in a way that's stylish and believable. Each of the main characters shine and communicate their unique personalities. Jigen and Goemon have their own vignettes, and you come away feeling like you understand their personalities and motivations. Goemon especially gets a lot of play and his character comes through very nicely. The atmosphere is romantic and moody in a classy way at the right moments, with jazz, cigarette smoke and city lights, while the action sequences are excitingly directed through clever and artistic staging despite not being fluidly animated and choreographed like the Telecom action sequences.
Dezaki was an auteur with brilliant instinct for how to string together scenes in a way that was both entertaining and full of artistic flair. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is sprinkled here and there with personal trademarks that you can see in most of his productions like harmony, back-lighting and triple-takes, but it's more subtle and under wraps here than in many other productions. It doesn't feel like he's showing off stylistically. Harmony is the thing where an animated image suddenly turns into a painted image. You see this in almost every Dezaki production. It's done by sending the last cel in a shot to the art department and having them add painted touches directly onto the cel to give it a more hand-drawn and painterly feeling.
An example of Osamu Dezaki's 'harmony' effect
The action scene early on where the baddies kill Jigen's friend and then Jigen shoots one of them and he falls into the river is a textbook example of Dezaki's unique genius for directing of action sequences in a way that is visually beautiful as well as cleverly choreographed. During the climactic last few seconds, diegetic sound is replaced by the sound of a subway train passing in the background, and the bad guy with a bullet in his shoulder falls backwards in slow motion towards an image of the train passing that suddenly disappears with a splash as it turns out to have been the reflection of the train passing by above in the river. Dezaki's action sequences are exciting to watch because he always comes up with clever and artistic ways of presenting actions by a mix of unexpected cutting and framing, sound design and art, rather than just presenting a sequence of naturalistically staged shots.
Osamu Dezaki's creative visual presentation
The second Lupin III TV series established a trend for outlandishly improbable and unrealistic escapades and action sequences. While these were quite fun to watch, it felt like Lupin lite in a way. Without being grounded in reality, Lupin loses a lot of its impact. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is nice because the action sequences all feel grounded. That in turn creates tension that makes the scenes exciting to watch. The recent special called The Last Job was extremely unpleasant to watch because its action sequences were so over-the-top and unbelievable. They completely ignored physics and turned the characters into meaningless symbols flying all over the screen. There was no sense of imminent danger. Lupin could do anything he wanted, when he wanted. The Lupin of Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is bounded by the rules of physics and gravity, and his action sequences have tension because of it.
It's not just the action sequences where realistic touches make the film more believable. Cars are arguably one of the most important elements of the Lupin III franchise. The defining trait of the show - what set it apart - was how they drew the cars realistically, based on actual models. That was completely abandoned in The Last Job, which was also unpleasant to see. Bye Bye Liberty Crisis is filled with beautifully drawn cars, including an awesome Cadillac Deville that's lovingly drawn in every shot. All of the shots of the cars in this film, even the ones that aren't moving, are a pleasure to watch.
What's Lupin III without some beautifully drawn cars?
One of my favorite parts in the whole film is the scene where the Cadillac Deville taxi drives through the Nevada desert, kicking up a cloud of dust as it swerves around in a 180. It's impressive how realistic the images are in this scene, from the rendering of the car to the camera lens to the dust cloud that obscures the image momentarily. The scene where the enemy cars parachute in later on and start attacking the Lupin gang with guns installed under the chassis is also really well drawn. There's one shot of Lupin running with the kid on his back mixed into this sequence that stands out as having a nice feeling in the timing. Jigen has an awesome moment when he shoots the missile and is blown back by the explosion. This whole sequence is well executed in terms of the animation and the directing. It's a great Lupin III action sequence. The early scene with Lupin driving around the snowplow is also well done. Even Jigen's magnum is lovingly drawn in many shots, down to the "Smith & Wesson" insignia.
The character drawings are also among my favorite in the whole franchise. Noboru Furuse is the character designer and animation director, and I think he did an excellent job putting his own spin on the characters while keeping true to the spirit of the original. The faces are long, the chins dimpled, the hands big and hairy, but it doesn't go as far as Yuzo Aoki in the third series. The characters remain cute and appealing. Best of all, their animation is very lively and supple. The many guest characters are all nicely designed and a pleasure to watch in movement. The slender-faced baddie character especially is nice to watch. It feels like Noboru Furuse's spin on the lanky character designs of Mystery of Mamo, which probably remains my favorite rendering of the characters in the franchise. The opening scene where Zenigata and Lupin wrestle in the elevator shows off the character designs well, with the well-timed animation as their lanky limbs tangle in the cramped space, and the way Lupin's face stretches impishly.
Even the women like Fujiko and Goemon's love interest are lovely and sexy in a way that's in the spirit of Lupin III - bodaceous and foxy in a classy, stylized way. The women in recent Lupin III aren't sultry and sexy the way they used to be, even though sometimes they're better drawn. I prefer the way the women were drawn in the old Lupin III shows because they were stylized in a way that was sexy and beautiful without trying to be pedantically realistic about it. Today's animators don't seem to be as good at appealing stylization as in the old days. Too many animators nowadays seem to default to the same homogeneous drawing style.
The film had a lot of talented animators working on it, which accounts for why so much of the movement and drawings throughout the film are such a pleasure to watch. Talented animators in the credits include Jiro Kanai, Hiroyuki Morita, Masatsugu Arakawa, Osamu Tanabe, Seiji Muta and Kazuyoshi Takeuchi. It's interesting to note the presence of Osamu Tanabe in particular, as he's not associated with this kind of material anymore. Also present is Takahiko Shobu of Studio Iruka, who did a lot of work on the third series a few years earlier.
There was one section in particular that I really liked in terms of the animation. It's the sequence where Zenigata steps off the train with the kid and sits on the bench. There's something about the drawings and movement here that's like none of the other sequences in the film. It's quite clear what it is: It's Akira-esque. It's got a Takashi Nakamura inflection. The shot where the guy gesticulates with his hands makes it obvious. The hands are clearly the product of working under Takashi Nakamura. You only see this kind of gesticulation animation in the years following Akira. Seiji Muta and Jiro Kanai are the two animators in the credits who worked on Akira, so I wonder if it was one of them. Seiji Muta went on to become a regular in the specials.
Whoever it was who animated this sequence appears to have inserted two animator cameos into it: Someone wearing Yasuo Otsuka's trademark driver cap steps off the train before Zenigata (I think it's tradition to have a Yasuo Otsuka reference in each film), and director Osamu Dezaki himself passes behind disguised Lupin as he's gesticulating. That's something I miss about the old days. Animators had more freedom to insert little jokes here and there into their sequences. Many anime nowadays are so straightlaced that they have no tolerance for this kind of playfulness. Animators used to play around and have fun drawing bystanders when they were given a crowd scene. Nowadays the faces in crowds are boring because they're so professionally lacking in idiosyncrasy.
Mind Game (2004) may be considered Masaaki Yuasa's debut as a feature film director, but in fact he had directed various short featurettes prior to that. Indeed, his first director credit came 12 years earlier in 1992 with a short film in an obscure little 6-volume direct-to-video series called Anime Rakugokan. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese live storytelling/comedy entertainment. Each volume in this series features a performance by a famous rakugo practitioner set to animation.
Back then Yuasa was at a studio called Ajia-do. Yuasa had joined the studio because it was run by two of his idols in animation - Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, who had been the figures behind some of the series that most influenced Yuasa over the years, namely the 1970s shows produced by Tokyo Movie with animation from A Production like Dokonjo Gaeru and Tensai Bakabon.
Yuasa directed the third volume of Anime Rakugokan in a style that was an intentional homage to the style of the masters who had influenced him. As a result, the film isn't immediately recognizable as Yuasa. It feels more A Pro than anything else he's since done. But the genius of the character design and animation are something only Yuasa could have created.
The video is currently up on Youtube. (search for かぼちゃ屋) Watch it while you can. Unfortunately it doesn't have subs so you won't be able to get the humor if you don't understand Japanese, but the fact is that every second of this film is a delight to watch just for the character animation, so it's well worth watching anyway.
I'd personally been looking for this film for years, and I just got the chance to see it today for the first time, and I was excited to discover how great a film it is. I've never seen this kind of character animation from Yuasa, but it's amazing. The character designs are great, and the way they're animated is constantly interesting. There isn't a single shot that I don't love in this film.
The character drawings in particular are really out there, but they work. The floating eyebrows on the squash seller are really something. I adore the way the hands are drawn with these big blocky forms. The hands are very emotive in this film. The faces are so supple and squishy. There's some new fun expression in almost every shot. There's even a tinge of caricature in the old man who hires the squash seller that reminds me of the great Japanese caricaturist Shoji Yamafuji. And the animation has a sense of split-second timing that's unique to Yuasa. The guy with the five o'clock shadow the squash seller pisses off in the street is the most obvious throwback to the A Pro style. He looks like he could have come straight out of Dokonjo Gaeru.
I even love the very flat, simple layouts of the film. The characters are right up there in your face, filling the screen in every shot. There's no pretense of realism or perspective or other mimetic fakery. It's a proudly cartoony film. At the same time, despite the simple layouts, more effort is put into the animation than many shows nowadays that consist mostly of close-ups of characters. Every character drawing is full of life and vitality. No two drawings of the characters are the same.
What's best about it is that its 'cartooniness' has nothing to do with western cartoons, which I have a hard time appreciating. It's a cartoon aesthetic that was essentially invented by the Japanese TV animators who forged their own approach to the medium in the 1960s and 1970s. It's inspired by the work of the A Pro animators, which itself was something truly new and unlike anything ever done before, but completely re-invented through Yuasa's pen.
The impressive thing about Yuasa is that even obscure shorts like Slime Adventures and the Nanchatte Vampiyan pilot that for years remained unseen and unobtainable turned out, when I finally saw them, to be great little films exploding with just the sort of incredible animation and visual creativity you'd expect of Yuasa. The same applies to The Squash Seller, in its own unique way.
Yuasa himself has said in an interview that he's embarrased about the film and wishes people wouldn't watch it, but that's just typical Yuasa humbleness. This is an awesome little gem that looks and moves like no other anime out there. The character style is obviously inspired by the classic A Pro shows, but Yuasa creates a look and feel that is uniquely his own. He learns from and surpasses the masters. I honestly wish he would do more stuff like this. We need an A Pro-style long-running slapstick comedy TV series directed by Masaaki Yuasa in the spirit of Tensai Bakabon or Dokonjo Gaeru.
This lost gem proves once again what a unique and multifaceted talent Masaaki Yuasa is. Thanks to Charles Brubaker for pointing this video out to me.
One of the other films in the series is also up on Youtube, but the contrast is instructive. It's the first volume, directed by Osamu Kobayashi. Kobayashi's character designs are appealingly oddball in a Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi-kind of way, but the animation is totally uninteresting compared with the electric and dynamic character animation of Yuasa's outing.
The other one I'm curious to see is the second episode, because it's animated by Masaya Fujimori, who is perhaps the best animator to emerge from Ajia-Do in the 1990s after Masaaki Yuasa. The second episode also features nicely stylized designs by Tsutomu Shibayama.
Bask in the delightful character drawings of Masaaki Yuasa's The Squash Seller:
We've gotten a new Telecom Lupin III film roughly once per decade so far, but that rule is soon to be broken. After doing the 2007 Elusive Mist TV special, Telecom is back with a new TV special next month: Seal of Blood: The Eternal Mermaid.
This time Teiichi Takiguchi of Grampa's Lamp directs and Satoshi Hirayama is replaced as the character designer by ex-Nippon Animation animator (and Studio 4°C co-founder) Yoshiharu Sato.
I'm reassured to see Teiichi Takiguchi at the helm, as he did a good job with Grampa's Lamp, but I can't help but feel apprehensive about whether it won't be another disappointment. I don't know whether Telecom has it in them anymore to make good Lupin like the old days. I don't expect it to be as good as Plot of the Fuma Clan, but I wish they could at least come close. At least the character designer has changed, although I suppose you can't entirely blame Satoshi Hirayama for the lack of good movement in The Elusive Mist.
Personally I'd love to see Yuzo Aoki come back to the show and bring on a bunch of today's wild young animators to make another Lupin film in the spirit of Mystery of Mamo or Gold of Babylon. But I doubt the TV station or the sponsors would be willing to accept such looseness anymore.
This month marks 40 years since the first Lupin III series produced by A Production began airing. Eternal Mermaid is thus going to be the 40th anniversary film. It would be a nice touch if some of the staff who worked on the original Lupin III TV series could make an appearance in Eternal Mermaid, although Otsuka already made a cameo appearance in The Elusive Mist. Rumors are circulating of a possible new TV series being produced in conjunction with the 40th anniversary, so perhaps we will see even more Telecom Lupin in the months to come.
30 years after Telecom worked on the second Lupin III TV series, they returned in 2007 with a TV special of their own production, with their own logo capping the end roll: The Elusive Fog. Dozens of TV specials and movies have been made in the intervening 30 years, but this was only Telecom's fourth Lupin film after Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Plot of the Fuma Clan (1987) and Farewell to Nostradamus (1995). This film harkens back to a character from the very first Lupin series: Mamo Kyosuke, the time-traveler who has it in for Lupin for some mysterious reason.
I'd like to say The Elusive Fog was a return to the standards of the early Telecom episodes of the second Lupin TV series, but it is unfortunately not. Everything here is too clean, too slow, too measured. There's no spark, no excitement. For one I don't like the excessively clean way the characters are drawn. There's no personality or spontaneity in the drawings the way there was in the second series. Here the drawings are all DOA. The ironic thing is that the shortage of schedule in the early Telecom Lupin productions may have contributed to producing good work. Here it looks like they had too much time to think about what they wanted to do.
Kazuhide Tomonaga and Yoshinobu Michihata tantalizingly occupy the two top spots in the key animator credits, so they clearly put their all into this. Tomonaga happily returned to drawing a car chase. He obviously did the car chase at the beginning. It was nice to see Lupin being chased by Zenigata in the old Fiat again, and there were a few nicely done shots in there, but it didn't have the tension of his early work. It wasn't choreographed in an exciting way, but more than that, it just felt slack and plain, without the little unexpected rapidfire movements that made the early chases so exciting to watch.
It would have been great if this throwback to the early Lupin work had been a harbinger of more of the same to come, but the rest didn't live up to the opening. With very few animators they were able to create some incredible episodes back then, but here they've got more than 50 key animators and yet there is nary an exciting action sequence in the whole film.
The character animation was also too tame. There were very few sections where the characters came alive and the movement had any kind of zip and good feeling in the timing. I assume Yoshinobu Michihata was responsible for those few moments, but overall the entire approach to character animation was lacking. The movement was just dull. What made those old Telecom productions so nice to watch is that the characters were fun to watch at every single solitary moment thanks to the fun the animators had in posing and moving the characters in all sorts of ways with split-second precision. Here it feels like the characters are encased in a character design that fits them like an excessively stiff suit.
Even the storytelling of Fuma Clan, which is weaker on the story and characterization front than Cagliostro for obvious reasons, felt stronger than the storytelling and character development and directing here. Even aside from the animation aspects, it didn't feel interesting to watch as a film. The pacing was sluggish, no developments were unexpected, no characters were believable.
This outing felt a little lighter overall than their previous Nostradamus outing, which had names like Atsuko Tanaka and Hiroyuki Aoyama involved, and had a big climactic section with a lot of nice animation. Unfortunately the latter two have now left Telecom, along with many others. Among the talented animators remaining are Kazuhide Tomonaga, Yoshinobu Michihata and Hisao Yokobori. But I don't know of any young names at Telecom with the same fire that those guys had at the beginning, so we might not see a new generation of Telecom animators with the same verve as that first generation. Times have changed. In a lot of productions there just isn't the sort of freedom to draw characters however you want the way there was in the old Lupin show.
Yasuo Otsuka, the patron saint of the Lupin anime franchise, made a guest appearance. Two, actually. He drew the 'eyecatch', which uses the same sound effect as the second TV series. Instead of Lupin tripping over his Benz, this time he brakes his Fiat too hard and the whole car flips forward and spits him out the sunroof. The second appearance... well, it's not hard to spot.
Ryotaro Makihara and Akitoshi Yokoyama, two of my favorite people in the anime industry right now, both played major parts in Masaaki Yuasa's last two TV series Kaiba and Tatami Galaxy. In the absence of a Masaaki Yuasa project to work on, they haven't been idle. They both just directed a TV episode for different studios that just happened to air right around the same time. Ryotaro Makihara directed episode 4 of I.G.'s Guilty Crown and Akitoshi Yokoyama directed episode 18 of Gainax's Idolm@ster.
Guilty Crown #4
Ryotaro Makihara's episode of Guilty Crown was pretty impressive. It's a nice show of force from an up-and-coming young director. This is only his third episode storyboarded/directed. He started out as an inbetweener in 2002, did his first key animation in 2004, debuted as a sakkan in 2008 on Kaiba episode 11, debuted as an enshutsu in 2009 on Umimonogatari #11, and debuted as a storyboarder/enshutsu on Tatami Galaxy episode 3. He also acted as sakkan once more on Tatami Galaxy episode 9. It was just earlier this year that he storyboarded/directed his second episode, Fractale #7. I also talked about his animation throughout both shows in my posts on Kaiba and Tatami Galaxy. Incidentally, Makihara started out at Telecom before going freelance, which perhaps in some small measure helps account for his unique approach.
Many parts of the preceding episodes were actually rather impressive as well, but in a more stiff and sanitized way. They were technically well made, with obviously a lot of work put into the visuals, but somehow they didn't really 'wow' me the way episode 4 does. It's hard to put your finger on what it is. Makihara just has a sense for how to create a great rhythm and flow, and you can sense his personal touch in the episode in various subtle ways, without it becoming distracting.
I like the way Makihara controls the flow of the action and the visuals. The layouts guide the eye effortlessly without being overly stylized or striving for effect. The lighting in the dark building is carefully handled in each shot to build a tense atmosphere, with the mixture of red and yellow emergency lighting. The acting is more convincing and intimate in Makihara's hands due to the way he stages and times the line delivery. The timing of the characters' reactions feels more 'right' than usual. The screen also has more depth than usual - for example, the people on the subway fade away in the distance. Even the stills that come on screen during the expository monologue about what happened in the past feel particularly nice for some reason.
The part that really blew me away is the climax, which is full of splendid animation and action choreography. The way the protagonist uses the clumps of water floating in the air to propel himself upwards was ingenious and exciting. The character animation where the protagonist plunges his hand into Kenji Kido's chest was convincing in the acting and timing, for example the way he at first stares in shock before yanking his head back with his eyes shut. I love the layout of the action of the shot where the protagonist shoots the gun for the first time and the recoil kicks him out of the fountain. The animation of the protagonist as he shoots the gun twice afterwards towards the oncoming mecha is really beautiful. The tension builds and builds until the moment when he steps on the floating globule of water and runs upwards. Quite an amazing sequence.
Animators in Guilty Crown episode 4 include: Natsuko Shimizu, Mamoru Kurosawa, Isao Hayashi, Itazu Yoshimi, Fumiaki Kota, Yasunori Miyazawa, and Ryotaro Makihara himself. Did Itazu Yoshimi perhaps do the part with Kenji Kido? It felt Denno Coil-ish.
Akitoshi Yokoyama's episode of Idolm@ster was well produced, but not really worth going out of your way to watch just for his work like Makihara's episode of Guilty Crown. I find other episodes showcase Yokoyama's prowess better (see the list below). I guess that's as it should be: This audience of this episode isn't Yokoyama fans; it's the viewers of this show.
I personally would prefer to see more personal work showcasing Yokoyama's unique vision as a director, but what I can say is that this episode showcases the consummate professional in Yokoyama. He can switch between radically different projects and deliver work that is not only true to the spirit and style of the project, but that one-ups everything else with its quality. That's simultaneously the good thing and the bad thing about Japanese anime professionals: they come in and do great work on even shows whose content isn't interesting to me. That's what I love about anime, but at the same time I can't help wishing more of them were a little more picky about what projects they did. If nobody cares what material they do, no wonder we don't see more ambitious projects. I guess putting food on your family comes first, especially when times are tough and interesting projects are few and far between.
Here's a list of episodes storyboarded and directed by Yokoyama. He also drew storyboards for many other episodes without directing them, but the ones he directed as well are the ones where his personality comes through the most so I'll just list those here. He debuted as an inbetweener at Studio Gallop in 1985, drew his first key animation in 1987, and drew his first storyboard on Turn A Gundam in 1999.
2002: Rahxephon 6, 12, 18, 24
2003: King Gainer 14
2004: Samurai Champloo 21
2006: Kemonozume 5
2007: Tenpo Ibun Ayakashi Ayashi 12
2007: Denno Coil 3
2008: Kaiba 2 3 7 9
2009: Naruto Shippuden 131
2010: Tatami Galaxy 2 4 9
2011: Deadman Wonderland 11
2011: Idolm@ster 18
I just wrote about Telecom's very early work on Lupin. Well, they're still very active as both a subcontractor doing animation work on other people's shows and producing their own projects. Their latest was one of the other four Project A films released in 2010: Grampa's Lamp.
Set in the early decades of Japan's period of modernization around 1900, Grampa's Lamp traces the advent of modernity to Japan during its so-called "bunmei kaika" period in the late 1800s. It does so through the story of a boy growing up during those times. He begins by embracing the flood of changes entering his country, only to soon find himself irresistibly overtaken by that same flood. With surprising subtlety it paints a picture of the double-edged sword of modernization: for every step towards the future, something else is irretrievably lost.
Historical anime for children of this ilk is often heavy-handed and reductive, presenting an anti-war or other message in a way that is lacking the complexity and subtlety of real life, but I found Grampa's Lamp did a better job than most other period anime in balancing narrative clarity and simplicity with moral ambiguity and psychological complexity. I enjoyed it and found its characters believable. My only disappointment is that the drama leading towards the climax felt forced and unnecessary. It's like they felt obliged to create a dramatic climax but couldn't figure out how to do it.
Grampa's Lamp is pretty much unrecognizable as Telecom if you're looking for the hallmarks of late 70s Telecom like high-energy car chases and exhiliratingly improbable character calisthenics. The studio itself has gone through much over the intervening years, and this project itself much more low-key and down-to-earth in its goals. The film is more Only Yesterday than Cagliostro.
But what hasn't changed is the studio's philosophy of creating rich character animation. Everything moves, and moves in an interesting or meaningful way. The characters act out their emotions and personalities, and the way they behave is more realistic and believable than in typical anime, where the animators often fall back on stock movements. They behave like people, not anime characters. The directing isn't geared towards creating pretty images, but rather towards bringing the characters to life in animation.
Crowd scenes actually have moving people, not just a single drawing. Kids playing cops and robbers zip around adopting all sorts of poses. The old lady running the shop moves differently from the way the middle-aged waitress moves. When the protagonist assembles a lamp, each component of the action is meticulously depicted - pouring the lamp oil through the sieve into the body, wiping off the sieve, replacing the ladle into its bin, screwing back on the lamp, twisting the knob to raise the thread. And he does all these things with an ease and fluidity that clearly is the product of many years of experience. That's what it means for animation to communicate personality.
Kazuhide Tomonaga, who after his work on the second Lupin series went on to become one of Telecom's most important members through the decades, was the "Acting Supervisor" in Grampa's Lamp. This is a role I've never before seen in anime, and the presence of this role goes a long way to accounting for the quality of the character animation.
Unlike in a typical production, prior to drawing the layout and the genga, each animator was first obliged to draw a thumbnail outline of the action they intended for a shot. Only after Tomonaga inspected the thumbnails and approved them was the key animator allowed to move ahead with drawing the actual key animation. It might seem at first sight like adding this extra step might slow down production, but it probably actually has the opposite effect. It also avoids waste by making sure there's no need for retakes after the key animator has begun drawing a more finalized key animation drawing. On top of that, it increases the overall quality of the movements by forcing the animators to think about the movement first, separate from the drawings.
Drawing thumbnails was one of the tasks the animators of Grampa's Lamp were assigned as a part of Project A. The idea of using thumbnails was apparently something recommended by Yasuo Otsuka. He finds that many young animators today are unable to create everyday character acting. People draw cool poses or drawings, but forget the bigger picture. He suggested using thumbnails as a way to train their skill at conceptualizing movement. Having a thumbnail sketch of a movement also makes it easy to get input from superiors or colleagues about how to improve an action.
The first person credited in the key animation credits is Hisao Yokobori, who is a veteran Telecom animator who has done much good work in recent years. Presumably many of the names under him are the new faces who were being trained on the project.
I also had a chance to watch Production I.G.'s outing, Wardrobe Dwellers, but it was excruciatingly boring and uninteresting. I was looking forward to it to see what Kazuchika Kise would do as a director, as he's a fine animator, but the material just wasn't interesting enough to support the slow pace.
Earlier this year it was announced that four more films in the series will be released together next year under the moniker "Anime Mirai". Luckily Telecom is back with another film next year, and I was surprised to find out which film it is they're producing:
Telecom: Buta (d. Kazuhide Tomonaga)
Production I.G.: Wasurenagumo (d. Toshihisa Kaiya)
Shirokumi: Feigned Ignorance (d. PON Kozutsumi)
Answer Studio: Juju of the South Seas (d. Hiroshi Kawamata)
Six years ago I wrote a post about a project called Buta headed by a Frenchman named Christophe Ferreira. It would appear that the project had a rough time getting off the ground, and sadly Christophe is only credited with "Created by" in this particular film, so it is not the vision that he had originally been working towards. But it is nonetheless Telecom, and directed by Kazuhide Tomonaga no less, so it looks like it will be an exciting and fun action piece going back to the roots of what made Telecom so great.
You can see some images from the episode up on the official page at animemirai.jp. Apparently the project is now called Anime Mirai (Anime Future).
It would be nice if this could lead to an ongoing project that would foster the production of more episodes in that vein of freewheeling action adventure. I find it hard to believe they'll be able to revive the brilliance of the early Telecom films, but it's great to see they're trying to go in that direction. Interesting to note is that this film is presumably serving as on-hands training for several younger animators - which is basically what the early New Lupin III Telecom episodes were.
Speaking of which, supposedly a new Lupin III series is in production, so with any luck we may be able to see some new Telecom Lupin III episodes.
I must say I'm also quite curious about the Shirokumi film. It looks very beautiful, with its pared down black-and-white sketchy aesthetic. It's the only film in the project so far that doesn't look like regular anime. I'm glad they're greenlighting more visually unorthodox and creative projects like this too. The director directed many episodes of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi under his real name, Kazuaki Kozutsumi, so he's a good choice for this kind of visual material. I'd like to see more Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi OBs given the chance to do this kind of higher-quality production. More recently he did an amusing series of super-short animation inserts about a monk and his cat. I love what he's able to do with so little. Just a few drawings in three seconds and each one tells a little story.
I was hoping to see Kazuyoshi Takeuchi's name when I saw that Answer Studio had done one of the films, as I liked what he did in Flag, but he's not involved. I'm still quite looking forward to it. Production I.G.'s film looks the least interesting, though I'm sure it will be competently done.