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, April 10, 2012

12:26:00 am , 1878 words, 3519 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

The first five Lupin III TV specials

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

Special #2 1990 Hemingway's Papers

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

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

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

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

Special #3 1991 Napoleon's Dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special #4 1992 From Russia With Love

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

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

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

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

Special #5 1993 Order to Assassinate Lupin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

10:07:00 pm , 992 words, 5055 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III

Lupin III: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine #1

Say hello to the new face of Lupin III.

It's been 27 years since the last Lupin III TV series, during which time the various productions seem to have gotten further and further away from what originally made Lupin III anime entertaining. I was hoping that a new TV series would be made rebooting all the mediocre intervening years and bring the show back to something more Monkey Punch-esque.

That has happened. In a way. The first episodes of the new TV series directed by Sayo Yamamoto certainly does reboot things, just not in the way I was hoping. The biggest change is that it's about Fujiko, not Lupin. It's certainly more 'adult' if your understanding of the term 'adult' means lots and lots of boobs. It certainly takes the characters back to a more lanky and aggressively stylized look that is somewhat, kinda sorta, reminiscent of Monkey Punch. But something about it doesn't gel for me. I was really looking forward to this, but I'm not convinced by what I've seen so far.

Technically, it's a well made episode. The visuals are lush and highly worked. They obviously put a lot of effort into the drawings and animation. The directing is strong and detail-oriented. The show has a stylish verve and edgy atmosphere. The script is witty and fleshes out Fujiko's and Lupin's personalities more sensitively than usual all while keeping the action moving forward. The episode feels cinematic in a way that's rare for a TV episode due to the clever presentation of the action through artful cutting and framing. The episode isn't boring for a moment, and has good suspense and tension, especially in terms of the battle of wits between Fujiko and Lupin.

The show starts off with a bang with a nice caper story that pits Lupin and Fujiko against one another in an interesting way that serves to introduce the new spin on their personalities while also showing off their skills. The plot is reminiscent of at least one previous Lupin III story - Lupin stealing a treasure from a cult leader, Fujiko already being in on the action - but that didn't bother me. At least the story keeps things on familiar ground, because everything else is a different beast altogether from any previous Lupin III.

On the downside, I think the show strives a little too hard for an adult atmosphere. There's a kind of affected artsy sensibility that rubs me the wrong way, and strikes me as out of place in Lupin III. I've long wanted to see a more adult Lupin III with the violence and sexuality of Monkey Punch's manga. And they do revel in the nudity in this episode. Fujiko is naked or nearly so pretty much the whole episode, and she shows her breasts constantly. But it's so overdone that it feels tacky. Gratuitous nudity does not equal adult. The entire opening has her naked, with her huge nipples shoved in your face. Fujiko was a little more circumspect in the old days. There is a long, meticulously animated French kiss at the beginning that is kind of nasty and unpleasant to watch. As much as I love French kisses, I don't think I want to see them in such detail in a cartoon.

In general they've made the characters more hard-boiled and toned down the light-heartedness, in the process sapping the show of a lot of what made it so fun. I'd like the show to be adult, but that doesn't mean it has to be humorless and dour. Zenigata seems to have a completely different personality. That would be fine, except that he's just kind of boring now. He was such an entertaining and endearing character before. Now he's static and stone-faced. Instead they seem to hint at some kind of homoerotic subtext with his bizarrely designed aide straight out of a yaoi manga that felt really tasteless and out of place.

Takeshi Koike is great, but I'm not really impressed by the animation or drawings here. I much prefer the simpler drawings of almost every previous Lupin III outing I've ever seen. Fujiko's design seems pretty bland to me considering she's the main character. As meticulously and realistically as Fujiko's flesh is elaborated here, I found the more cartoony Fujiko of previous outings more sexy because it left more to the imagination, and the drawings felt good as a design. It's not just about drawing flesh in the most lascivious way possible. The simplicity of the older drawings made the animators strengthen their overall form. Here the drawings don't feel particularly compelling as drawings, just more detailed and realistically drawn.

Lupin is a little more successful. They play around with his expressions a little. But there's not nearly enough fun character animation. They waste too much time filling in details rather than coming up with fun ways of posing and moving the characters. It's weird, because even when Lupin is doing all these crazy poses, it still feels like they're over-drawing him. Takeshi Koike is a genius, no doubt about that, but he's got his own style, and I'm not convinced it mixes well with Lupin III. There are several action scenes that are nicely animated, but for some reason none of them felt exhilarating.

The voices are all different now. I had a problem with Kanichi Kurita as Lupin in everything I've seen so far, but here he didn't bother me as much because the whole show didn't really feel like Lupin III. I'd have a hard time accepting new voices for all the characters if the show didn't already feel so different.

I look forward to watching the rest of the show to see how it changes when the rest of the cast is introduced. It's not exactly what I wanted to see in a reboot, but it's not badly done. You just have to accept that the show is not about Lupin, it's about Sayo Yamamoto.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

11:34:00 pm , 987 words, 3141 views     Categories: Animation, Masaaki Yuasa

Masaaki Yuasa's Buriburizaemon

Crayon Shin-chan has a strong fantasy/parody aspect, with frequent appearances by parody characters like Kantamu Robo and Action Kamen. They carve out a place for fantasy and adventure in Shin-chan's prosaic reality. My favorite of these is Buriburizaemon, the hero pig.

Buriburizaemon is a unique kind of hero who'll come running when someone calls for his help, but immediately defect to the other side if he's outnumbered, and then ask you for a $10 million "rescue fee" (he takes loans).

Born from a scribble in an episode from 1992, Buriburizaemon made a few cameo appearances in the first few years, and soon became a regular on the show. In 1994 he got the first in a series of his own special episodes called "The Adventures of Buriburizaemon", which feature him not-quite-rescuing damsels in distress in samurai movie scenarios. He was even the star of that year's yearly Shin-chan movie.

Part of the character's appeal was that he was voiced by Kaneto Shiozawa, whose distinct sultry loverboy voice made for a hilarious contrast with this tiny craven pig character. When Shiozawa passed away in 2000, such was the respect in which he was held, and the attachment to the character, that rather than replace him with another voice actor, or bury Buriburizaemon forever, they chose to make Buriburizaemon a silent character from that point forward.

Testament to the character's enduring power, a DVD was just released collecting the various episodes featuring Buriburizaemon between 1992 and 2000. None of the other cameo characters got their own DVD. Buriburizaemon has always been one of my favorite Shin-chan characters, so it's nice to finally be able to see all of his episodes.

But really, there's one reason to get this DVD: Masaaki Yuasa's four Adventures of Buriburizaemon episodes from 1994-1995. They are classic Yuasa. I first saw them many years ago before I had even heard of Masaaki Yuasa, and thought they were absolutely amazing. They're a big part of the reason I sensed there to be something different about the Shin-chan TV series. Years later when I tried to track them down again, I had to buy two random Japanese Shin-chan VHS releases to get them all, so it's nice to have them all gathered together like this in one place. I watched those Yuasa episodes over and over and couldn't get enough of them back then. Re-watching them again on this DVD for the first time in many years, I laughed just as hard at every single scene, even knowing what was coming.

They're just four tiny 7-minute episodes, but they're jam-packed with Yuasa goodness. Yuasa was animation director of all four episodes, and he wrote and storyboarded the last three. This was actually Yuasa's scriptwriting and storyboarding debut. He was offered the chance to do the episodes by Mitsuru Hongo, who was the series director at the time. The rest is history.

Everything about the episodes is great. The jokes come fast and furious. The animation is incredibly lively and unpredictable. There are tons of great character designs and playful design ideas, all drawn in that patented Yuasa style where the body is reduced to a few angular lines and shapes. The story is a hilarious jidaigeki parody with wacky incongruous ideas like a trained ostrich instead of a trained falcon, ninjas with Mickey Mouse ears, and a building with a giant face on it. Surprisingly, the chambara action sequences are really well done, with detailed and surprisingly realistically timed choreography that is all the more hilarious for being so out of place. It's like a joke version of Hamaji's Resurrection, which was released the same year. And at the very end, Buriburizaemon delivers probably the single most hilarious pun I've ever heard. Yuasa was heavily influenced by cartoons, and that's what his Buriburizaemon specials feel like: Yuasa cartoons.

The first arc climaxes with a segment involving a zany building full of trap doors that seems like a study for the exhilarating chase through the castle ramparts that he drew for the climax of the 1996 Shin-chan movie, one of his best segments. Yuasa even drew the hilarious Buriburizaemon instructional video segment in the 1998 movie, which features an army of Buriburizaemons wreaking all sorts of mayhem, including farting in the face of a shocked Bill Clinton lookalike after sneaking into the oval office and giving the command to launch the country's nuclear arsenal.

The problem is that after watching Yuasa's episodes, the other episodes pale in comparison. It becomes glaringly obvious that the reason the Buriburizaemon specials were so funny was Yuasa and Yuasa alone. Yuasa did a bunch of other Shin-chan episodes. I've seen a number of them, and they're just as good as you'd expect. Two of his earliest are included on this DVD (since they happen to involve Buriburizaemon).

I kind of wish that instead of releasing a DVD of Buriburizaemon episodes, they had just released a DVD of Yuasa episodes. Or even better, a collection of the best-animated episodes by the good Shin-chan animators - Masaaki Yuasa, Yuichiro Sueyoshi, Masami Otsuka, Shizuka Hayashi, etc. I'm sure there are episodes by people not on my radar that are well animated. It would be nice to get a 'best of Shin-chan animation' disc. There was one episode on the disc from 1999 with drawings by this guy called Masahiko Matsuyama who I'd never heard of, but the drawings were incredible - angular and really wild. I wish the vast body of TV Shin-chan was more easily accessible. The movies are easy to explore, but there's lots of goodness hidden in the TV show.

The good news is that, after many years' absence, Yuasa is back working on the Shin-chan TV show. He directed a few episodes in a new sub-segment called SHIN MEN, about a bunch of superheroes with various superpowers. I've seen a bit and it's incredible stuff. Later episodes appear to have a different director, so I'm not sure if he's still working on it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

03:46:00 pm , 921 words, 4321 views     Categories: Animation, Lupin III, Book

Lupin III 40th anniversary books

A new Lupin III series is starting soon, which I'm looking forward to seeing. This is presumably part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of TMS's anime version of Lupin III. They're releasing a number of items looking back at the show's long history, including a special DVD and two books, which I just received: Yasuo Otsuka's Illustration Works "Lupin III" and All the Animation Histories "LUPIN The Third" (sic).

The Yasuo Otsuka book I was very excited about, but I was pretty stunned upon receiving it to find that it doesn't contain a single key animation drawing. No layouts, no character sheets - none of his actual production drawings. All the book contains is illustrations he has drawn for CD covers and the like, plus a parody manga he drew featuring the Lupin gang. I now feel stupid for assuming that it would, since the book is, after all, called Yasuo Otsuka's Illustrated Works. But it seemed to me like a no-brainer.

Yasuo Otsuka is one of the central figures responsible for making Lupin III such a classic. He has been kind of the guiding spirit of the show, its patron saint. He is incredibly insightful and informed about the behind-the-scenes history of the period. It could have been amazingly interesting to have him be our guide through the history of the show, since he was, after all, the one who originally shopped the anime version around, and his home studio Telecom has been involved in the show on and off ever since.

The 40th anniversary of the show was the perfect opportunity to release a book looking back in depth on his involvement in the show at various junctures. They could have had a long interview with him delving into the many juicy stories I'm sure he could tell about the behind-the-scenes aspects of the production of the first series, Cagliostro, Fuma Clan, etc. Not to mention it would have been nice to hear what he thinks of the other outings. They could have included any number of different kinds of production drawings. He's one of the great animators of all time in Japan. His animation deserves to be better known and researched. With all of the genga collections there are out there nowadays, it's sad that we don't have a single collections of the genga of this master.

Nothing. None of this. This book is a huge wasted opportunity. Nice as it is to get a book full of Yasuo Otsuka drawings.

Looking through Otsuka's drawings makes me realize we didn't get nearly enough Lupin III drawn by Otsuka. He should have done way more. His Lupin III is too delicious. The characters' expressions and posing are fun and lively in a way they aren't in anybody else's hands, even if not in a way that's necessarily true to Monkey Punch's original drawing style. Simply put, he's so friggin good. Yasuo Otsuka was just the best. He retired too soon.

I'm almost as dissatisfied with the other book, which is just a collection of the basic info on each of the Lupin III anime productions - staff listing, episode listings, synopses, descriptions of characters. There isn't a single interview with any of the many people who have been involved in the show over the years. No key animation drawings. The only production material included is one or two character design drawings for each episode, which is nice as far as it goes. It's stupid, because they devote hundreds of pages to the various TV episodes, but they don't even provide the key animation credits anywhere. And the only text is a lengthy synopsis, which is an utter and complete waste of paper, not to mention being even more of a wasted opportunity than the Otsuka book, considering how much material they're covering here. Instead they have a bunch of stupid sections like one listing the things Lupin has stolen at various times in the show, and one listing the various disguises Lupin has assumed. The people who put these books together have their head up their ass. They should have hired someone who actually cares about the show and then maybe we would have gotten something more substantial and insightful. It's kind of fitting that the book's official publication date was yesterday. I wish it were all an April fools joke and they are actually going to release some good books to mark the 40th anniversary of one of anime's most iconic series.

It's such a waste, because there was so much good animation produced in the various Lupin III outings over the years, but nobody has ever released any production materials for any of these, and these books do nothing to remedy this. It would have been interesting to explore how each TV series, TV special and movie took a different approach in terms of the characters, situations and drawings. It's almost as if there was so much interesting material to mine that they just threw up their hands in despair and said, "Screw it."

One of the few nice things about the book is the section where they do a side-by-side comparison between certain episodes that were based on the manga. It's also nice having line drawings of each character from each of the outings to see how different the characters' faces looked in each one. It was great seeing Tsutomu Shibayama's character drawings for the pilot. It's ironic that the guy who became known for Doraemon drew the most Monkey Punch-esque drawings for the show in its history.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

11:53:00 pm , 2120 words, 5449 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa

On the evening of August 22, 1944, 767 schoolchildren perished when a US submarine mistakenly sank the transport ship Tsushima Maru in the waters of Okinawa as it was evacuating the children from Naha in southern Okinawa to Nagasaki.

Of the vessel's 1661 passengers, only 156 survived, 56 of them children.

Many years later, the survivors of the incident approached Group Tac to produce an animated film retelling the events of the incident. The result was a film entitled Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa (1982) based in part on a book by Akutagawa Prize-winning author and Okinawan history expert Tatsuhiro Oshiro.

An animated documentary in spirit, the film faithfully retraces the events of the sinking. It uses survivor testimony to recreate the events through the eyes of a young boy, a female teacher and a male teacher who survived to tell what happened. The female teacher, named only Hiroko in the film, is obviously modeled on Hiroko Ishikawa, who in testimony on the site of the Tsushimamaru Memorial Museum relates that she was attending to a child with appendicitis at the time of the attack, exactly as occurs in the film. The other characters also have their real-life analogues.

Visually, the film does not strive for assiduous visual realism like Grave of the Fireflies. The characters are drawn in a uniquely pared down, loose style that is cartoony and caricatural. But it succeeds well in evoking the paraphernalia and atmosphere of the period and of the locale through a more stylized kind of realism that is quite appealing in its own way.

Neither is the film as multilayered and complex in its treatment of its subject as the more sophisticated Grave of the Fireflies (which Takahata has stated is not an anti-war film). But the unsentimental, truthful script of Tsushima Maru makes it one of the more compelling examples of the genre of anti-war children's anime. It lets the harrowing event speak for itself rather than attempting to wring tears from the audience by unnecessarily manipulative tactics.

Without being gory, the film is unflinching in depicting what makes this such a difficult incident to think about, much less watch: the violent death of hundreds of children. Even knowing what is coming, the sequence depicting the sinking of the Tsushima Maru is gut-wrenching.

Japan's troubling history of denying its crimes looms as specter over this and all anti-war anime, but the children here are a proxy for victims of war everywhere - doubly innocent as children and civilians - and the film treads carefully around blame.

The deftness with which the narrative has been woven from shards of survivor testimony is the film's greatest asset. The two screenwriters - both writers for live-action films - keep the film true and real without falling back on anime storytelling conventions. Innumerable animated films have been made in Japan on the subject of W.W.II to teach children of the horrors of war, including The Song of Liang Chu Li, Zoo without an Elephant, and Who's Left Behind. But Tsushima Maru feels distinct from these.

The lightness with which the material is handled visually surprisingly doesn't feel like it is doing a disservice to this inherently very troubling material. Nowhere else in the world would it have been acceptable to make a cartoon out of such a tragedy. But it's the survivors who led the project. They clearly felt this to be a legitimate way of telling their story to future generations. Japan indeed has a very different conception of what stories are acceptable in animation. War, bartending, office life, motorcross racing, mahjong, ping pong - just about every conceivable human occupation, vice, sport or hobby has been dramatized in anime.

The film's unique visuals come courtesy of Ajia-Do, whose trademark simple but lively and pleasingly stylized animation is surprisingly convincing in a more realistic context. Ajia-Do appears to have been sub-contracted by Tac to handle the actual animation. Atsumi Tashiro is the only Tac name in the credits. More specifically, the film was directed and presumably designed by Ajia-Do co-founder Osamu Kobayashi. The characters have the distinct lumpy, pared down approach to form as his contemporaneous New Dokonjo Gaeru (op). The animation was supervised by co-founders Michishiro Yamada, Tsutomu Shibayama and Hideo Kawauchi. The animators are all Ajia-Do staff. It's likely that Tac was approached due to their work on the children's anti-war film Zoo without an Elephant (1982), while Tac probably approached Ajia-Do due to their previous work for Tac on Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi.

The story of the Tsushima Maru incident

The story begins in a place far removed in culture and history from the center of the country: at the southern end of Okinawa. The film unfortunately does not place much emphasis on the specifics of the locale. One of the few signs of the Okinawan setting comes when we see a circle of girls singing a song in Okinawan on the Tsushima Maru. Okinawa's deep-rooted history in opposition to the dominant Japanese culture could have enriched the film's treatment of the incident, but perhaps it was felt that losing the focus on the story of the survivors would have done the tragedy a disservice.

In the town of Naha, a boy named Kiyoshi plays in the ocean with his friends. A teacher urges his students to evacuate to help support their country, and visits Kiyoshi's home to convince his parents.

The allies are encroaching on the mainland after victory in Saipan, and the army has ordered all women, children and elderly - anyone unable to fight - evacuated to the mainland to make way for looming full-scale combat. The army is pressuring local officials to evacuate everyone, so the officials in turn pressure teachers to convince parents to let their children leave. Parents resist, worried about the safety of the waters, and ask for their children to be transported by battleship. The navy is strained, however, and can only obtain a transport vessel.

The male teacher urging the pupils to evacuate in the name of the war is conflicted: patriotic, but honestly believing that he is acting the best interests of the children - to move them to a place where they can be educated in safety - not out of patriotism. Hiroko is more troubled and skeptical. Hiroko Ishikawa recalls, "I've always regretted the fact that all thirteen of the children who applied to be evacuated on my recommendation lost their lives on the Tsushima Maru."

Most of the children have never been on the mainland, and Kiyoshi (inspired by Kiyoshi Uehara, who relates the same anecdote) is excited about the prospect of seeing snow for the first time. He treats the evacuation as a vacation.

People were only informed where to gather on the day before departure. The next day, thousands of parents sat waiting in the scorching sun for hours before finally ushering their children onboard the giant ship.

Mitsuko Ishikawa recalls, "It was the middle of summer, and several children collapsed with heat exhaustion. It was such a miserable experience, especially for those who were about to be separated from their families. It was terrible that they had to say good-bye to their children in such awful circumstances."

Even the dizzying staircase leading to the deck of the Tsushima Maru reflects survivor accounts. The chaos is such that, amid all these people, a man falls into the water and disappears, but nobody notices.

Onboard, conditions are squalid. Children are crammed into bunks and huddle against one another on deck, sleep deprived and hungry.

The incident occurred only two days after the Tsushima Maru set sail. There are controversies surrounding the cause, one regarding the course of the ship. The captain of the Tsushima Maru wanted to tack a zig-zag on the perilous last stretch to Nagasaki, but the commanding officer overruled him because it would waste too much time. The other is regarding whether the US sub knew that children were onboard. Hinting at this, Kiyoshi appears to spot the sub's periscope observing him.

After the first torpedo hit, the ship tilted on its side. Teachers threw rafts overboard and screamed at children to jump in, but many children clung to the boat and refused to jump. Teachers resorted to throwing children overboard. Many children fell to their death against the railing or were swept out to sea as the water rushed in. The film depicts this whole sequence in harrowing detail.

Rescue didn't arrive for days. Mitsuko Ishikawa was rescued after a day drifting at sea, but Kiyoshi Uehara drifted for six days before being rescued. He recalls seeing sharks circling his raft and hallucinating from dehydration and hunger. The film shows an old woman fainting after days on the raft and slipping off the raft and being devoured by sharks.

Those who survived and returned to their homes were warned that they would face a firing squad if they spoke of what had occurred. Kiyoshi Uehara recalls, "When I got back to Naha, I was taken to the police station and was again told to keep my mouth shut. I got back home from experiencing the war at sea, and then experience war on land."

Traumatized and harried by neighbors demanding to know their children's whereabouts, Kiyoshi takes to hiding in the closet. Many of those who returned were killed in air raids that soon overtook Okinawa. Kiyoshi's father is killed in the first air raid, and Kiyoshi barely escapes with his life. The innocent civilians of Okinawa were in a hopeless position, caught between forces greater than them.

The film closes with a list of the names of every one of the children who died on the Tsushima Maru. The magnitude of the death toll sinks in as the names scroll by for a full minute.

Osamu Kobayashi's directing debut

This movie marked the directing debut of Osamu Kobayashi and simultaneously, sadly, the end of a great career as an animator. He had been the figure behind the exhilirating, influential and timeless animation of Dokonjo Gaeru from 1972 to 1974. The updated New Dokonjo Gaeru he worked on right before this movie in 1981 proved to be his last big job as a designer/animator/animation director. After Tsushimamaru he focused on directing TV shows, mostly for Pierrot. He never returned to this kind of hard-core material, however. He directed Creamy Mami (1983-1984), Onegai! Samia-don (1985-1986) (clip), Kimagure Orange Road (1987-1988), Moeru Oniisan (1988) (clip), and Nontan to Issho (1992-1993) (op), as well as the movie Kakkun Cafe (1984).

There is nothing particularly outstanding in terms of the animation, but every shot of this film is a pleasure to watch in terms of the drawings because of Osamu Kobayashi's delectably loose style, put for once to a more realistic and serious purpose. He has a great instinct for drawing characters, and a style like nobody else. His loose drawings work surprisingly well in a realistic setting, even though the characters features are stylized in an extreme way, to the point that some of the characters' heads are a huge cube or sphere. They seem more realistic than more detailed characters drawn in a more stereotypical style. They have the simplicity of a good caricature. The shapes of the characters look random and slapdash, but they're a fascinating blend of exaggeration and delicate nuance. They strike me as designs that make great use of negative space.

Probing deeper than the animation, one of the things that makes the Ajia-Do team's work feel so good is the layouts. Tsutomu Shibayama in particular was great at layouts. The early parts of the film have a great flat style of layout that feels like his work. The layouts are never very complicated or flamboyantly artsy - they mostly straight up frame a character's torso - but the drawings are so spontaneous and organic and the movement so honest and free of cliche that each shot is gorgeous. This is one of the last pieces by Ajia-Do that retains the stylistic spirit of the A Pro days.

Several scenes that pass by as stills may have been a victim of schedule. Notable names in the credits include Yumiko Suda, who went on to direct Chibi Maruko-chan, and Masako Goto, whose did nice work on Licca-chan. Two Ajia-Do graduates who went on to make a name for themselves as directors can be seen in an early inbetweening credit here: Mitsuru Hongo and Tomomi Mochizuki. Incidentally, it's on Osamu Kobayashi's shows that Mochizuki learned directing and began to establish his unique style. And Mochizuki later married Masako Goto.

Tsushimamaru: Sayonara Okinawa 対馬丸 ―さようなら沖縄― (1982, movie, 75min, Group Tac/Ajia-Do)

Director:小林治 Osamu Kobayashi
Script:大久保昌一良 Shoichiro Okubo
千野皓司 Koji Chino
Music:槌田靖識 Yasunori Tsuchida
Animation Directors:芝山努 Tsutomu Shibayama
河内日出夫 Hideo Kawauchi
山田みちしろ Michishiro Yamada
Art:清水一利 Kazutoshi Shimizu
Color Design:渋谷瑠美子 Rumiko Shibuya
Audio Director:田代敦巳 Atsumi Tashiro
Key Animation:須田裕美子 Yumiko Suda
吉本桂子 Keiko Yoshimoto
後藤真砂子 Masako Goto
大塚典子 Noriko Otsuka
若山佳幸 Yoshiyuki Wakayama
若山佳治 Yoshiharu Wakayama
志村宣子 Nobuko Shimura
鏡子加藤 Kyoko Kato

Saturday, March 24, 2012

07:35:00 pm , 1401 words, 3315 views     Categories: Animation, Book

Yoshiyuki Momose Studio Ghibli Works

I've long felt Yoshiyuki Momose to be the person doing the most interesting and creative work at Studio Ghibli for years now - both in his many lovely and original shorts of recent years and, prior to that, as one of the unsung heroes of Takahata's films. Without his technical mastery in the layouts and concept design, those films would not have half their impact.

He is one of the few creators involved in the studio who seems to have it all: the ability to come up with interesting stories and engaging characters and bring them alive in a compelling and original visual concept. He has the technical knowhow of a 40 year career during which he has touched on just about every aspect of animation, from traditional animation to CG animation to directing to concept illustration. In my mind, he is the obvious and only candidate to helm a Ghibli feature post M&T.

A retrospective book of Momose's artwork was just released at the end of last year ( In nearly 200 beautiful color pages, it covers everything from his early days at Studio Neo Media working on Dokonjo Gaeru and Hajime Ningen Gyatorus, through his first Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies, down to the Capsule trilogy.

Yoshiyuki Momose has drawn just about everything that it's possible for someone to draw in the animation process, including key animation drawings, concept drawings, layouts, character designs, and storyboards. This book features a small selection of his drawings in all of these various roles.

I was already familiar with pretty much everything he has done throughout his career, so I thought I had a pretty good sense of how important his role has been, and hence didn't expect to be surprised by this book. But it still blew me away. Being able to see with my own eyes the actual drawings that he contributed to these productions brought alive the sheer breadth of his creativity and his unique voice.

When we're watching Pompoko, for example, it's not possible for us to realize the extent to which Momose was responsible for the film's unique visual ethos. The script was written after Momose drew his concept drawings, and incorporated many of the ideas in his concept drawings. The film is funny on a level that runs far deeper than mere visual gags: it's funny because of the clever way it combines flat imagery inspired by early Japanese art over the real world, blending the ancient, the cartoonish and the realistic into one complex whole. Momose was in large part the brain behind the multilayered visual side of the film's genius.

Similarly, I think few people grasp how important a role he played in bringing alive the realism of Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday. In Grave of the Fireflies, he drew the image boards that depicted Seita in Setsuko in various situations, many of which went straight into the film, and he drew the storyboard that established the visuals for the entire film based on Takahata's script. For Only Yesterday Momose had to create a massively detailed storyboard to account for the nuanced acting and setting. He laid down much of the acting at the storyboard stage. The film was a rare case of presco (voices recorded first), and he went to the length of shooting video of the voice actors speaking their parts so that he could incorporate the little tics of how they spoke their lines into the acting to make it more realistic.

That's just the tip of the iceberg of what he did for these two films. This book does a good job of shedding light on the incredible amount of work that he put into the films, by looking at the drawings he did at each step of the way, from image boards to storyboards to layouts.

Momose's defining characteristic is his curiosity. He's always looking for some new technique or form of expression. He's been one of the people the most open to CGI at Ghibli. The bobsledding scene at the beginning of Yamadas is perhaps the most memorable early implementation of CGI in a Ghibli film. His recent Capsule videos and House Foods ads have featured an impressively seamless combination of CGI with hand-drawn elements. In the House Foods ads, Momose plunges us into a lush hand-drawn world re-creating the warmth of Showa-era Japan by using CG grids rendered with hand-painted art to permit first-person POV shots.

There's also a thorough look at his latest work, Ni no Kuni. He was the director of the animation portion of this Nintendo DS game. The game developer provided a few basic concept drawings and a story outline, but beyond that gave pretty much carte blance to Momose, and he used the opportunity to create some incredibly lush and creative animated imagery that seems like Ghibli at its purest. It's a shame that many people (like me) will probably not be able to see the great animation work he did for this game. The book goes through the character design, storyboarding, layout and animation processes for a number of shots, showing how the animated parts came together.

I like to see storyboards by my favorite directors to be able to see into their thought process a little, and the book is generous with the storyboards, providing many pages of the storyboards Momose drew for his recent Capsule trilogy, House Foods ads, Piece music video and Ghiblies 2.

It was also nice to be able to see his debut character design work on the obscure Nippon Animation TV specials Maxmouse and Maegami Taro.

I was particularly happy to see the selection of his key drawings from his days at Keiichiro Kimura's Studio Neo Media for the early A Pro series Dokonjo Gaeru, Tensai Bakabon and Hajime Ningen Gyatorsu, because I'm a huge fan of these shows and in particular Momose's work on these shows. My only disappointment was that there wasn't enough. It's great that they published what they did, but I just wish they had included a little more than one page's worth of each. Also, they didn't include anything from his period as the animation director of The Yearling or Belle and Sebastian. But the book is called "Studio Ghibli Works", so I guess I should be happy they included as much of his early work as they did.

His first decade working as a subcontract animator was an important period for him not just because it gave him his foundation, but also because it's during this time that he became acquainted with the work of (then) A Pro animator Yoshifumi Kondo, who is the one who recommended Momose when Takahata was struggling to find people to help him produce Grave of the Fireflies.

One more minor, nerdy gripe. I wish his works list was more complete. They didn't list any episode numbers for the TV shows he worked on, making it useless for practical purposes. And it doesn't seem complete. I know for one they left off
Fox of Chironup.

Finally, the book also sheds light on another new facet of the constantly evolving Momose: illustrator. It's only a small step to go from concept art and storyboarding to picture books, and Momose recently took that step with the delightful Pitty of the Frozen Star, a 64-page picture book released in 2010. The style is freer and more wildly imaginative and uninhibited than anything I've seen from him before, with loosely drawn creatures and densely elaborated alien landscapes. The drawings have an almost Masaaki Yuasa-ish quality. I could see the two of them doing good work together. I know Momose is fond of Shinya Ohira. Momose is the one who invited Ohira to do the dance sequence in Ghiblies 2.

The book tantalizingly closes with a short full-page story-in-pictures called Night in Nirvana about an alien world that sees the night sky for the first time in 2000 years, adapted from Isaac Asimov's Nightfall. The short ends just as it seems like it's about to begin, so I hope this means this is just a teaser for a longer project Momose is working on. It would be great if he could create an original sci-fi film in this style. Whether or not this particular story idea is developed into a film, I'm hoping that this long-deserved recognition of Momose's achievement is in preparation for his finally getting to direct a film at Ghibli.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

06:31:00 pm , 3182 words, 4363 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Oh Pro's Devilman

Animation subcontracting studio Oh Production is perhaps best remembered for their classic Gauche the Cellist (1982), although they were a prolific subcontractor who provided some great animation to many shows over the years while receiving little recognition for it. They later produced another in-house show called Little Twins (1992), which I wrote about before. Between these two there was one other major Oh Pro production that I only just recently had the chance to discover.

First adapted in 1972 by Toei (opening), Oh Pro re-made Go Nagai's classic manga Devilman into two high-quality OVAs released in 1987 and 1990. (Another Devilman OVA was released many years later, but it was made by Studio Live, not Oh Pro, and is in a completely different style.)

The most interesting and surprising thing about these OVAs is that the animation was in large part done by Ghibli animators, so it has a distinctly Ghibli inflection. Oh Pro had lent its animators to Miyazaki for years, and it seems he paid back the favor in this OVA.

These are well made OVAs with very nice animation and lush visuals. Especially the first volume features some of the most impressive sequences of animation of any production in that era, OVA or movie. The visuals are clean and refined and the directing measured and controlled in a way I wouldn't have expected for this material. It feels different from your typical OVA, in both directing and animation. It feels more cinematic. I don't even like Go Nagai that much, but I enjoyed these OVAs because of the good production quality.

The basic premise of Devilman is that demons inhabited the world in prehistoric times, but they were vanquished by the angels. Fast-forward to modern Tokyo, where the demons are trying to find their way back into our world. (Since when Tokyo isn't busy being blown up in anime, it's being taken over by demons.) The protagonist is enlisted to fight the demons by an old friend whose father was a demon researcher. He does so by channeling an old demon called Amon and becoming Devilman.

Most of the first episode is devoted to the buildup, as the protagonist learns about this secret history of the world, in the end finally becoming Devilman and killing a room full of demons who possess the body of a club full of revelers. But sprinkled between these basically realistic sequences are two sequences that depict the prehistoric monster world. These sequences are my favorite part of these OVAs. The monster world was a place where dinosaurs and demons inhabited the same hellish plane of reality, playing out an endless sequence of bloody battles, each more bizarrely horrific than the next. The sequences are masterfully animated and packed full of ideas. Rather than your typical goblins and ghouls, the monsters are horrible yet somehow believable mish-mashes of animals and insects living, ancient and imaginary, and their battles play out like a grotesque nature channel program.

The rest of the OVA apart from these sequences is nice, too, although I came away wishing the entire OVA had looked like those two sequences. The visuals are sleek and clean, and the scenes are carefully directed. The only problem is that the story structure is somewhat odd, with a huge proportion of episode 1 being devoted to buildup, and the second episode completely abandoning any kind of theme or story and going with long, drawn-out monster battles.

The first episode is more satisfying than the second in part because the animation feels a little better, but also because of the material. The first episode has a dramatic arc that builds to a surprise ending. The protagonist starts as a regular boy, and with the arrival of his mysterious friend, the tension builds and builds until the climax, which explodes into an orgy of violence as the protagonist transforms into Devilman. By the second episode, the premise has been established, and all that remains is for Devilman to battle one opponent after another. Episode 2 is split evenly in half between two opponent battles, and other than this doesn't really feature any dramatic tension.

I wouldn't say that I think this is the most faithful adaptation of Go Nagai in style and spirit, though I'm not exactly an expert on his work. I would think something with a more rough and graphic touch would be needed to do him justice. But this OVA works in its own way, and Go Nagai was apparently supervising the project, so he obviously approved.

Even though the material here is inherently gory, the tasteful drawings and understated directing make it seem less gratuitously so than it might have been in the hands of a lesser director. Even at its most violent, this OVA remains somehow restrained and polite. It's an interesting contrast with the contemporary Go Nagai OVA adaptations of Violence Jack, which felt much more authentically exploitative.

These OVAs are impressive perhaps because they are strong as pieces of visual directing. The opening sequence of episode 1 is a good example. The first few minutes are entirely wordless, depicting the early struggle between the demons and the angels. This sequence is epic in tone and quite lovely. It reminds of the opening of Nausicaa. Even the music, by a young Kenji Kawai, sounds like it was influenced by Joe Hisaishi's score for Nausicaa. (By the time of episode 2 in 1990, his score had acquired that patented Kenji Kawai sound.) Episode 2, meanwhile, features a long battle in the air that is almost entirely wordless - pure visual directing.

I also like that the battles are actual physical battles, not just two Super Saiyans blasting each other with psychic beams. Usually this kind of monster battling in anime is boring because when someone is finally cornered, they just power up and make up some new, even stronger psychic power to blast away the opponent. At least here, there's no powering up or other cheap tricks: it's just straight physical battling, with the same set of powers they started out with.

Oh Pro's Devilman was the directing debut of Tsutomu Iida, who later changed his name to Umanosuke Iida. Devilman benefits from the attention to detail that helped make his later Space Miners (1994) such a delight. The pacing is quite slow, even sluggish, yet it holds your interest because every shot feels clean and deliberately presented. The pacing is slow because it's grounded in reality, and that gives it more impact when supernatural things occur in this otherwise realistically paced story. There are no shots that feel like throwaway shots between important scenes. What the film lacks in dynamism it makes up for in unflagging tension and assiduously pleasing drawings.

Attention to detail is one of the things that makes it feel cinematic. The protagonist's father's house is a stately and high-class estate with expensive furniture and paintings on the wall. In one shot, in the middle of all the opulence, a corner of the wall bears the scar of a shotgun blast, testament to the father's descent into madness. It's nice because it's totally understated. No mention is actually made of it. It's a higher level of storytelling than the usual OVA when they put little touches like this in the background as a subtle way of augmenting the narrative.

I appreciated the little innocuous details like the way each of the bikes was individuated in the following shot of an ordinary sidewalk in the city (in front of the suspiciously named Iida Bookstore). It's not flamboyant and passes by unnoticed while watching, but it helps make the film feel more authentic and believable. Everyday nuance like this is something you associate with the Ghibli films. This OVA has many examples of nice details like this.

The lighting is another aspect showing the unusual level of attention to detail that Iida brought to his work. There's one particular shot that impressed me for its stylish and creative presentation. While the protagonists are driving in a car, at one point they stop at a red light. The camera is positioned as if it was facing the driver of the car, just above the hood. The windshield of protagonists' car is bathed in the red light of the taillights of the truck in front of them, obscuring the driver. After a few seconds, the truck driver steps off the brake pedal, turning the taillights off, and the red cloak disappears and the protagonist becomes visible.

In a later shot, we see the facade of the protagonist's father's home shown at an oblique angle. After a few seconds, headlights appear behind the bushes in the distance. We can't see the car, only the mansion and the big tree in the courtyard, but we know the car is moving off screen because the shadows of the tree's branches run across the face of the mansion in a believably rendered play of black shapes. Only after the shapes stop moving does the camera slowly pan right towards the driveway, where the car has stopped in front of the gate. It's an innocuous and unimportant shot, but it's so satisfying and interesting to watch.

The staging of the shots also feels cinematic. Shots are positioned in such a way that the action moves through the shot in a creative and unexpected way, the way it does in Miyazaki's films. It's quite possible that Iida was in fact directly influenced by Miyazaki's style in this regard, because just after his involvement in the Oh Pro episodes of Lupin III Part 3 (1984-1985), he served as assistant director on Laputa (1986).

The Ghibli connection

The animation fully backs up Tsutomu Iida's cinematic directing, and it's no surprise why: the animators almost all just came from Laputa. It seems that having worked as the assistant director of Laputa gave Iida the leverage to be able to invite many of the animators who worked on Laputa to work on Devilman. That, and Oh Pro's long history of having worked with Takahata and Miyazaki, ever since the days of Heidi. Miyazaki's previous film, Nausicaa (1984), featured Oh Pro animators Tadashi Fukuda, Kitaro Kosaka and Toshitsugu Saida. Tsutomu Iida's very first job in animation was as an inbetweener on Nausicaa. Before that, Future Boy Conan (1978) featured Oh Pro animators Koichi Murata, Toshitsugu Saida, Joji Manabe, and Toshio Yamauchi.

The character designer/animation director of Devilman is Oh Pro co-founder Kazuo Komatsubara. Komatsubara himself had of course been animation director of Nausicaa, as well as having been the planner of Gauche, so there are many ties between Oh Pro and Ghibli. At a deeper level, Komatsubara had started out at Toei Doga in 1964, just one year after Miyazaki, although the two never wound up working together on the same projects there. After Komatsubara left Toei, he worked on the famous Go Nagai productions of the 1970s for Toei, most notably Devilman, which is presumably what led Go Nagai to choose Komatsubara and Oh Pro for this remake.

There is no other OVA that features an animator list like this: Katsuya Kondo, Shinji Otsuka, Makiko Futaki, Yoshinori Kanada, Toshio Kawaguchi, Masaaki Endo. And that's just the first episode. This is probably the reason why many of the drawings have a distinctly Miyazaki-esque feeling.

The second episode came several years later in 1990, and features many of the animators who worked on the intervening two Ghibli films, Totoro (1988) and Kiki (1989) - Yoshiharu Sato, Shinji Otsuka, Masaaki Endo, Toshio Kawaguchi, Yoshinori Kanada, Katsuya Kondo, Makiko Futaki, Hiroomi Yamakawa, Sachiko Sugino, Hiroshi Watanabe. Oh Pro animator Hiroshi Shimizu, who worked on episode 2, became a regular in Ghibli films starting the year after with Only Yesterday (1991). The second episode features a few other impressive outside names: Yasuomi Umetsu, Hiroyuki Okiura, Norimoto Tokura.

Apart from the animation, there are other Ghibli connections that help account for the Ghibli feeling. The color designer of the first episode is Michiyo Yasuda, who has been the color designer of every Miyazaki film since Nausicaa. I think this is one of the few non-Miyazaki films she's worked on. The art director of the first episode is Takamura Mukuo, a veteran art director from the early days of anime who was the art director of Gauche the Cellist. He was art director of many a classic anime, from Galaxy Express 999 to Harmageddon, to say nothing of the classic Takahata/Miyazaki TV series Heidi and 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. Anido released a retrospective book of his art.

The animation

There's something about the drawings in this OVA that I really love. Just as every age has its distinguishing style of drawing that eventually disappears, the drawings in these OVAs have a certain quality that you don't find in anime anymore. Komatsubara's drawings are graceful and clean, the girls cute without going overboard with the cuteness like people do today. Even when the animation isn't particularly interesting, the drawings maintain your interest because they're consistently pleasing to the eye.

The most impressive scene in terms of the animation is the 4-minute segment in episode 1 after the protagonist puts on the monster mask, where he sees a vision of world of the demons, pictured above. This segment is a beautiful standalone piece of animation, obviously done by one person, depicting a slyly humorous sequence of monsters eating one another. One monster devours another, only to be devoured by another bigger monster, only for that one to be devoured by an even bigger monster, etc, etc, ad infinitum - the demon version of what happens in the natural world.

The designs in this segment are beautiful and well drawn. The animation isn't impressive in an obvious way, but it's incredibly nuanced and well executed. The only equivalent I've seen is animation in the Ghibli films, so it's obvious this segment was done by one of the Ghibli animators - I'm guessing either Katsuya Kondo, Shinji Otsuka or Makiko Futaki.

Episode 1 features plenty of other very nice segments. Yoshinori Kanada obviously animated the delectable disco scene at the end of the first episode, with its riotous rainbow colors and wild dancing by nubile bacchantes in leotards and panties. The drawings in this scene look like they came straight out of Birth. There are some nice Kanada-school effects where the protagonists are attacked by the car monster, perhaps by Kanada associate Osamu Nabeshima. The scattered shots of the monsters in the mansion early on are each quite well done.

Episode 2 is less impressive in terms of the animation, but is still quite solidly animated. The episode is capped by a tour-de-force 15-minute-long extended aerial combat sequence. It's consistently well drawn and creatively choreographed, although the only disappointment is that it is somewhat lacking in dynamism and is a little boring. What is impressive is how consistently well drawn the characters are from various angles as they grapple with one another mid-air. It's also nice how the sequence evolves naturally according to the surroundings, first in the city, flying around and bouncing off buildings, then zooming over a river past a bridge out to the forest on the outskirts of the city, then using the trees in the forest to attack the opponent either as projectiles or camouflage.

The animation highlight in episode 2 is the segment in the house where the protagonist saves the nude girl from the monster. This sequence was obviously drawn by Hiroyuki Okiura. It's easily identifiable by comparing it with the great segment he animated in episode 1 of The Hakkenden the same year, which is one of my favorite sequences ever. Okiura's animation changed a lot in later years, becoming much more impressively nuanced, but there's something about the raw power and excitement of his early work at this period that I find I miss. I prefer the more dynamic and expressive early Okiura at the tail end of his Anime R period, and this scene is a great example of his work from this period.

Tsutomu Iida

Sadly, Tsutomu Iida passed away two years ago from lung cancer. It cut short a career that I was always hoping would take off. After Devilman, he was involved in a number of projects, but none of them seemed to me to quite provide him with the opportunity to show just how great a director he was. Space Miners is perhaps the best showcase of his talent. I think he was one of the few people out there with the instincts of a director. He was detail-oriented, able to create fun and engaging stories and characters, good at world-building. I wanted to see him get the chance to do that in a feature context. He was directing the Towa no Quon (2011) movie series for Bones when death interrupted him, but I haven't seen these yet. Ironic that when he finally got to direct a movie, he should die in the middle of it.

It seems to me like he got side-tracked with fluff projects after Devilman. First there was the Chibi Go Nagai World OVAs. He directed 3 45-minute OVAs for this series. Apparently it all came about when Go Nagai saw his chibi drawings for the Devilman characters during production of Devilman and Go Nagai so loved them that he asked for an anime version to be produced. The anime is certainly entertaining and well made, with animation from Oh Pro animators, helmed again by character designer/animation director Kazuo Komatsubara. But it feels like nothing so much as a waste of his talent. He later did a similar side-show for the main event of Giant Robo in the Gin-Rei OVA.

Iida also directed one of the episodes of Oh Pro's Little Twins, which I mentioned above, as well as one of the short segments in a two-volume OVA series made by Oh Pro adapting traditional Japanese horror stories, in the more cartoony style of Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. His major projects of later years Gundam: The 08th MS Team (1996-1999), Hellsing (2001-2002), Tide-Line Blue (2005) and Towa no Quon (2011).

Finally, Iida directed a pilot for a movie called Spirit that obviously never got beyond the pilot stage. I haven't been able to find any information about this. Hopefully some day this can be released so we can see everything this talented director left us. Alongside Mahiro Maeda's R20 Galactic Airport, this is another pilot for a feature-length film that I wish would have gotten off the ground.

Devilman: Birth (Oh Pro, 1987, OVA, 50min)

Director:飯田つとむ Tsutomu Iida
Script:永井豪 Go Nagai
飯田つとむ Tsutomu Iida
Character Design:小松原一男 Kazuo Komatsubara
Animation Director:安藤正浩 Masahiro Ando
Art Director:椋尾篁 Takamura Mukuo
Music:川井憲次 Kenji Kawai
Color Design:保田道世 Michiyo Yasuda

Key Animation:安藤正浩 Masahiro Ando
金田伊功 Yoshinori Kanada
鍋島修 Osamu Nabeshima
松原京子 Kyoko Matsubara
森友典子 Noriko Moritomo
矢吹勉 Tsutomu Yabuki
川崎博嗣 Hirotsugu Kawasaki
東京モモンガ Tokyo Momonga
二木真希子 Makiko Futaki
遠藤正明 Masaaki Endo
近藤勝也 Katsuya Kondo
河口俊夫 Toshio Kawaguchi
大塚伸治 Shinji Otsuka
小松原一男 Kazuo Komatsubara

Devilman: Demon Bird (Oh Pro, 1990, OVA, 57min)

Director:飯田つとむ Tsutomu Iida
Character Design & A.D.:小松原一男 Kazuo Komatsubara
Animation Director:安藤正浩 Masahiro Ando
Art Director:宮前光春 Mitsuharu Miyamae
海老沢一男 Kazuo Ebisawa
Music:川井憲次 Kenji Kawai

Key Animation:清水洋 Hiroshi Shimizu
遠藤正明 Masaaki Endo
沖浦啓之 Hiroyuki Okiura
佐藤雄三 Yuzo Sato
梅津泰臣 Yasuomi Umetsu
河口俊夫 Toshio Kawaguchi
鍋島修 Osamu Nabeshima
松原京子 Kyoko Matsubara
金田伊功 Yoshinori Kanada
近藤勝也 Katsuya Kondo
杉野左秩子 Sachiko Sugino
練木正宏 Masahiro Neriki
諸橋伸司 Shinji Morohashi
渡辺浩 Hiroshi Watanabe
宮本英子 Eiko Miyamoto
大竹紀子 Noriko Otake
加藤茂 Shigeru Kato
佐藤好春 Yoshiharu Sato
黒沢守 Mamoru Kurosawa
山川浩臣 Hiroomi Yamakawa
戸倉紀元 Norimoto Tokura

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

02:14:00 pm , 1103 words, 4612 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Noboru Furuse's racing anime

The first Lupin III TV special from 1989 Bye Bye Lady Liberty had nice elongated designs harkening back to the more stylized designs of Mamo-era Yoshio Kabashima, who did way less work on the series than he should have.

Noboru Furuse was the designer. In looking into his filmography I didn't find much else as pleasingly designed as Bye Bye Lady Liberty, but I did discover a different facet of him that I wasn't aware of: racing anime maestro.

Turns out he was behind some of the nicest racing anime OVAs of the high OVA era between 1985-1990:

Bari Bari Densetsu (1986, 2x50min)
  Character Designer, Animation Director
Kaze wo Nuke! (1988, 40min)
  Director, Character Designer, Animation Director
Goddamn (1990, 2x30min)
  Director, Character Designer, Animation Director

His designs are easily identified by the sleek, elongated faces, which are a constant from project to project.

Each of these is about a different kind of racing: Motorcycle racing in Bari Bari Densetsu, motorcross in Kaze wo Nuke! and rallying in Goddamn. Apparently he couldn't get enough: he returned to racing in 1995 with Initial D, about street racing.

Each of them is surprisingly watchable. They put a lot of effort into the films in terms of the drawings of the vehicles and the directing.

Racing anime being merely a sub-genre of that most anime of genres, sports anime, it usually follows the template: beginner rider works his way up through the ranks, is challenged along the way by arrogant veteran with whom a bond of friendship is eventually formed before his inevitable and tragic death or maiming, and hero goes on to finally win the championship. The complexities of the race are boiled down to a samurai duel between rivals who can read each other's every move. A motorcross race becomes a space odyssey and Greek epic rolled into one.

There were many other motorcycle anime, like Pelican Road and Shonan Bakusozoku, but they weren't racing anime, and the biking in these was just a setting for the drama. Here, the racing is the protagonist, and we come away from the anime understanding the intricacies of the sport from the perspective of a pro. Or so the anime makes us feel. It's a dramatization of the sports in a way that is tailored to excite the mind of the manga's intended 13-year-old audience.

The sports anime kinship of Noboru Furuse's racing anime is underlined by the fact that starting around the same time (1988 onwards) he directed the Aim for the Ace! 2 OVA series, a continuation of Osamu Dezaki's quintessential sports anime.

All three of these racing anime are based on manga, so they feel somewhat compressed, but they focus the plot well on the character's growth by reproducing in geekishly obsessive detail the minutiae of his chosen sport, in this case cars and motorcycles. The vehicles are drawn and animated in detail from many angles. Considerable effort is expended in animating the vehicles. Back then it was a given that this would need to be done, so they set to the task with that goal in mind. But it's refreshing because we won't ever see hand-drawn racing anime anymore (Redline being a glorious exception). Even just five years on from Goddamn they used CG for the cars in Initial D.

These are OVAs as the OVA was intended, rather than the cop-out that many OVAs turned out to be: a format for lavish presentation of subjects too specialized (in subject, audience) for the big screen. Though the subject is not very glamorous, and people in the west have probably shied away from them because of it (like spokon anime), these are well made OVAs.

The last OVA directed by Furuse was Goddamn, which has the best title of any anime, ever. The story is the most interesting of the three. It takes a more adult perspective rather than follow the spokon template: The protagonist is merely a cog in the wheel of a big corporation that has aims to expand overseas into certain markets, and doing a rally race is just a means of achieving that goal. The car action is well directed and the plot moves along briskly in the adult world, without the usual silly high school antics or rival melodrama. There's nothing particularly impressive about the animation, but it works well with little budget. Noboru Furuse's drawings are simple but clean, and they're an improvement over the amateurish drawings of the manga.

The height of the animation in the three Noboru Furuse racing OVAs is the practice race in the first volume of Bari Bari Densetsu, with its driver POV shots that put you right in the action (pictured above). They're impressive because they're long shots and they're animated on 1s. It must have taken a very analytic mind to calculate all the different vectors of movement and align them properly, and hundreds of drawings for just a few shots. This could be done more easily with CG now, but what makes it such a bravura performance seen even today is that back then it was a real challenge.

It's clear that the animator who did it must have been Toyoaki Emura. He's one of the unsung heroes of 80s background animation. His chase through the tunnel in Akira (watch) is one of the film's iconic moments. Compare it with the animation of the biking scenes in Bari Bari Densetsu (watch), which was released two years before Akira. Just as Toshiaki Hontani made more realistic smoke FX animation than ever in Akira, Toyoaki Emura pushed background animation to its realistic extreme. Koji Morimoto and Takashi Nakamura did a nice motorcycle POV shot in the even earlier Bobby's In Deep (1985), but it was more dynamic than realistic. (watch)

Toyoaki Emura has his own web site. He has since apparently transition to working with CGI, a move that perhaps makes sense considering the nature of his animation prior to then. I can't help but feel it a shame, though, because he was really good. He went on to work on Venus Wars, Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor 2, Like a Cloud, Like the Wind, Catnapped, Spriggan, Jin-Roh, and Innocence. Incidentally, in Akira, Emura was also responsible for the battle between Tetsuo and the soldiers in the hallway after he escapes his chamber, as well as the following scene where he attacks the 'kids' (up until #27 zooms away in his flying wheelchair). In Like a Cloud, Like the Wind he animated the very first 20 or so shots as well as the battle on the grass around the midway point. He was clearly relied upon for complicated shots that required solid skills and patience.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

05:02:00 pm , 1543 words, 2899 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Lupin III


Way back when I first started writing this blog in 2004 I wrote about Mankatsu, an omnibus of Monkey Punch shorts with an interesting format. It took 8 years but I finally got to see some of the show, and it's pretty fun and pleasant to watch, if not phenomenal.

Shown on late-night TV on satellite station WOWOW, it's got an unusual format: 12 hour-long episodes, each one a mix of 1-minute standalone gags and two longer-format narrative stories: a 15-minute "mini stage" and a 30-minute "grand stage". The head writer of the show is gag anime writer Yoshio Urasawa, whose debut in Lupin III series 2 I wrote about before. Another writer is Hiroshi Kashiwabara, whose work in Part III I mentioned before. Kashiwabara became a staple writer of the TV specials. Both of them were ideal choices to put together this interesting show. While the humor is often more groan-inspiring and bemusing than funny, it's a densely packed grab-bag that encompasses the wild creativity of Monkey Punch better than any anime before or after.

I like this omnibus format and wish there would be more programs like it, perhaps because I'm tired of the long-running narrative form, which most anime don't do well enough to engage me. It's got a good variety of style and is adult in its humor, though not very sophisticated. Most of the gags are overtly sexual, often with a healthy streak of black humor. One of the running jokes is about people dying embarrassing deaths while engaged in bizarre sex acts. The longer format stories involve a lot of cultural crossovers - a samurai meets the three musketeers, a gunslinger joins the Shinsengumi - as well as caper stories involving variations on the Lupin gang. This show is a big, fun smorgasbord of Monkey Punch, with all of the irreverent sex, violence and silliness that entails.

The closest analogy is to Alice, which was one of the first anime adaptations of a manga other than Lupin III by the prolific Monkey Punch. The other stories are usually just as crazy and unpredictably weird. Monkey Punch's stories are a refreshing change from the usual anime stories, dark and adult but broad and silly, with a bizarre narrative sensibility entirely his own. The only thing predictable about his stories is death and sex. Otherwise, the plots are always some new, twisted mixture of sci-fi, occult, espionage and chambara. In his hands, brutal violence and sex are two faces of the same coin, and everything is a treated as a grim joke. The pace is brisk and the lines are witty and snappy. The gag shorts reveal a side of Monkey Punch I wasn't familiar with, less Mort Drucker but equally MAD.

The animation has variety because a lot of different animators handled each section. Strictly from an animation standpoint, it's pleasing to watch but not amazing. They did a good job bringing alive Monkey Punch's drawing style, but it feels a little too clean. The staging, storyboarding and timing of the animation is all staid and uninspired. There's no spark or excitement or surprise in every shot the way there is in the hands of a talented animator like Masaaki Yuasa or Hiroyuki Imaishi. It would have been nice if they had gotten animators with a little more flair. But the refreshing designs are amply sufficient to make the show watchable, and the quality is impressively even, even if the animation itself is not particularly remarkable. It's always more than functional, and there are never wince-worthy moments with bad drawings.

Incidentally, Mankatsu re-adapted Alice, and the stylistic contrast between the earlier OVA and the new version throws into relief how clean but tame and uninspired the animation of Mankatsu is in comparison with the earlier Lupin III work. While cleaner, brighter and more pleasingly drawn to current audiences, Mankatsu doesn't have the edge of the drawings of the old Lupin III adaptations of Monkey Punch. It's hard to tell whether the designs of Mankatsu, which are technically closer to Monkey Punch, feel less authentic because I'm used to seeing Monkey Punch through the lens of Lupin III anime, or because the animators of Lupin III were more talented and playful and hence their animation has more impact.

There are a few moments where the animation perks up. Windy Tales mastermind Masatsugu Arakawa animated the "Traveller" and "Reverse Aesop's Fables" segments in episode 2, and his style is incredibly interesting. I wish he had done more. Ajia-Do founders Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama storyboarded the "Reverse Aesop's Fables" and "Traveller" segments, respectively, and it's great to see more work from these two, as they are the grand masters of short-form gag anime like this, having started out in the early 1970s doing stuff like Tensai Bakabon and Dokonjo Gaeru.

Group ZEN star animator Masao Okubo animated the segment called "The Panic" in every episode. He has perhaps the most personal and identifiable style in the show. His work is identifiable from project to project in the way the work of an idiosyncratic animator like Shinya Ohira or Yoshinori Kanada is. In fact, he seems like a distant relative of the Kanada school. His work is worth exploring. His drawings are identifiable because he varies the thickness of the line in a way nobody else does, and he has a great animator's instinct for coming up with fun layouts and exaggerated movements. Some of his most characteristic work can be found in Onegai My Melody and School Rumble.

Telecom animator Toshihiko Masuda was the character designer of the show, and he animated the "Lupin Gang" segment in every episode. His drawings are free enough and the posing quite pliable, although the movement lacks zip and excitement. He's a craftsman capable of adapting to different projects and styles, rather than an animator who's very talented but only has one style. They're two completely different types of animators, but there's a time and place for both.

Lupin III series 2 & 3 episode director Kenji Kodama, better known for City Hunter and Detective Conan, here storyboards a lot of the longer-format segments.

The short gag segments aren't labelled, but they're always in the same basic format from episode to episode:

"The Lupin Gang": The Lupin gang being chased by Zenigata in various locales
"The Traveller": A traveler in medieval Japan runs across dead people
"Reverse Aesop's Fables": Nonsensical modern twists on the fable
"Riddles": Cheesy wordplay, always with an 'author' explaining the joke at the end
"Male-Female": A man and woman make sexual sounds that turn out to be something else entirely
"Mankatsu Monkey": A monkey engages in antics with the Lupin gang
"UPUP Balloon": Gags involving a guy in a hot air balloon
"The Panic": People die in the middle of sex acts

The series director is Shunji Oga, who trained under the late Osamu Dezaki. He has primarily worked at TMS. Most recently he directed the Golgo 13 TV series (he was assistant director of Dezaki's 1983 movie), although the bulk of his career has been devoted to directing slightly different material: the Anpan Man movie series. One of his more memorable pieces is the OVA adaptation of Ken Ishikawa's bloody Maju Sensen. He puts what he learned directing the comical Anpan Man to good use in Mankatsu, with its variety show format and focus on visual gags. In 2008 he directed an omnibus of stories by illustrator Takashi Yanase - Mankatsu for the author of Anpan Man.

Monkey Punch Manga Katsudo Daishashin モンキーパンチ漫画活動大写真
AKA Mankatsu
(TMS, TV series, 2004, 12x50 minutes, d. Shunji Oga)

Director: Shunji Oga
Supervisor: Junichi Ioka
Character Design: Toshihiko Masuda
Art Director: Toshiharu Mizutani
Brains: Yoshio Urasawa, Hiroshi Kashiwabara, Junichi Miyashita, Nobuo Ogisawa
Program Organizers: Yoshio Urasawa, Nobuo Ogisawa


ScriptStoryboardDirectorAnimation Director
1Yasuyuki SuzukiFumio MaezonoShinichi Suzuki
2Yasuyuki SuzukiFumio MaezonoShinichi Suzuki
3Atsushi MurogaKenji KodamaKiyoshi FukumotoShinichi Yoshikawa, Yuuki Kinoshita
4Hiroshi KashiwabaraHiroshi IshiodoriKatsuji Matsumoto
5Nobuo OgisawaKenji KodamaDaisuke TsujiTaido Hanafusa
6Hirohisa SodaYoshio TakeuchiKazuhisa Takeda
7Atsushi MuroyoshiKenji KodamaKiyoshi FukumotoShinichi Yoshikawa, Yuuki Kinoshita
8Takeo OnoMasaharu OkuwakiKatsuyoshi YatabeKenji Yazaki
9Nobuo OgisawaHiroshi IshiodoriKatsuji Matsumoto
10Takeo OnoMasayuki SakoiMasayuki Sakoi, Hiromi YokoyamaKimiko Tamai
11Toshimichi OkawaNoriaki SaitoKiyoshi FukumotoShinichi Yoshikawa, Yuuki Kinoshita
12Hiroshi KashiwabaraHirofumi OguraToshihiko Masuda


ScriptStoryboardDirectorAnimation Director
1Kenji KodamaDaisuke TsujiShinichi Yoshikawa
2Takeo OnoYoshio TakeuchiShunji Oga, Takeyuki SatoharaIchiro Ogawa
3Yasuyuki SuzukiFumio MaezonoShinichi Suzuki
4Haruhisa SodaYoshio TakehisaKazuhisa Takeda
5Haruhisa SodaYoshio TakeuchiTenshi Yamamoto, Kazuhisa Takeda
6Toshimichi OkawaMasaharu OkuwakiShunji OgaIchiro Ogawa
7Junichi MiyashitaKenji KodamaToshiharu SatoKimiko Tamai
8Junichi MiyashitaKenji KodamaMitsutoshi SatoKimiko Tamai
9Junichi MiyashitaKenji KodamaMitsutoshi SatoKimiko Tamai
10Junichi MiyashitaKenji KodamaDaisuke TsujiKazuhisa Takeda
11Junichi MiyashitaKenji KodamaTakanori JinboKazuhisa Takeda
12Junichi MiyashitaKenji KodamaDaisuke TsujiKazuhisa Takeda


1. The Lupin Gang
Ep 1: Storyboard/Director/Animation Director: Satoshi Hirayama
Ep 2-12: Storyboard/Director/Animation Director: Toshihiko Masuda
2. The Traveler
Storyboard: Tsutomu Shibayama (Ep 2: Director: Atsushi Yano, Animation: Masatsugu Arakawa)
3. Reverse Aesop's Fables
Ep 1: Storyboard/Director: Osamu Kobayashi
Ep 2-12: Storyboard: Osamu Kobayashi, Director: Atsushi Yano, Animation Director: Masatsugu Arakawa (2), Tomoyuki Matsumoto (3-6), Yasuhiro Endo (7, 10-12), Yoshihiko Takakura (8), Masaya Fujimori (9)
4. Riddles
Ep 1: Storyboard/Director/Animation Director: Yoshinori Kanemori
Ep 2, 3, 8, 9: Storyboard/Director/Animation: Shuhei Tamura
Ep 4, 6, 11: Storyboard/Director/Animation: Toshiharu Sato
Ep 5: Storyboard/Director: Jun Shishido, Animation: Toshiharu Sato
Ep 7: Storyboard/Director/Animation: Fumio Takahashi
Ep 10: Storyboard/Director/Animation: Jun Shishido
Ep 12: Storyboard/Director/Animation: Shinya Matsui
5. Male-Female
Ep 1: Storyboard/Director: Akio Sakai, Animation Director: Kazuo Watanabe
Ep 2: Storyboard/Director/Animation: Akio Sakai, Key Animation: Midori Otsuka
Storyboard/Director/Animation: Shuhei Tamura (4-7, 10-12), Masayuki Sakoi (3, 8), Takeo Takahashi (9)
6. Mankatsu Monkey
Storyboard/Director: Shunji Oga, Animation: Minoru Maeda (1-7, 10), Shinichi Suzuki (8, 9), Yoshio Chaya (11)
7. UPUP Balloon
Storyboard/Director/Animation: Akio Hosoya
8. The Panic
Storyboard/Director/Animation: Masao Okubo

Saturday, March 10, 2012

03:03:00 pm , 1338 words, 4596 views     Categories: Animation, Movie


I saw The Secret World of Arrietty in the theater last night. I had low expectations going in, but unfortunately they were met. While on the surface this is a lush film that vividly brings alive the small world of Arrietty, it is Ghibli lite: all of the vivid coloring, enjoyable character animation, carefully pleasing scene presentation, believable if idealized characterizations, and charming atmosphere, without the substance.

Like all of their previous films not directed by the two founders, Arrietty is directed by a first-time feature director, and clearly suffers for it. Ghibli is still flopping around frantically trying to find its next generation of directors. Two decades on, it feels like we're re-treading what happened with I Can Hear the Sea (1993), when Ghibli tried to bring in a new face - Tomomi Mochizuki seemed like the perfect fit - but wound up creating a bland and forgettable teen drama that had nothing of the fire we expect from the two founders, only the shell of a Ghibli appearance.

They tried again with the very talented Hiroyuki Morita and The Cat Returns (2002), this time in the fantasy vein, but while the film was pleasing and somewhat different in style, it was paper-thin and only served to underline how few directors were even close to the level of the two founders. The next attempt in 2006 with Tales from Earthsea was in my estimation the studio's most disappointing and even repugnant chapter. Bypassing the many talented directors in the industry for Miyazaki's son was a repudiation of the philosophy of craft the studio stood for, as if they had given up on industry-fostered talent and were placing their last bet on an absurd belief in hereditary talent straight out of Francis Galton. Ironically, the most successful attempt was Whisper of the Heart (1995), whose director died not long afterwards.

Nobody will ever be able to replace or replicate Miyazaki. The sooner Ghibli realizes this, the better. Arrietty was a film that seemed perpetually on the verge: On the verge of going somewhere, and on the verge of attaining Miyazaki's level. But it never did. Given a situation with many similarities to Totoro, at no point did I feel any sort of magic or wonder as I did at every point of Miyazaki's film while the protagonists ran around exploring their new home and the surrounding forest. Everything here was sullen, dull, dreary. There was not a moment of dynamism in the film, of surprise, wonder, any sort of explosion of built-up dramatic tension. It was too one-note.

As in Totoro, youthful coming-of-age and awakening were contrasted with illness and fatality. But Totoro was spontaneous, where Arrietty feels calculated and forced. The scenes with the boy talking about his terminal illness were more awkward than moving. The backdrop of divorce and uncaring parents was hinted at in passing in a way that felt like nothing more than a backhanded attempt at a stock Ghibli storytelling convention.

The all-important animation, while lush, never felt immediate. The planning of scenes felt limp, without any unexpected or creative angles or compositions. The characters were generic Ghibli in a way I've never felt before. Ghibli characters always have a that identifiable Ghibli look, but here they were bland to look at in a way that I never felt they were in previous Ghibli outings. Take Hara, for example. Her face wasn't stylized in a way that I found interesting or believable. The old lady who bakes the cake for Kiki in Kiki's Delivery Service felt like a far better rendered and realized spinster, her design and behavior informed by reality just enough to make her feel like an individual. Hara felt too generic, without personality. She felt like a caricature without feeling real, there only because they needed a baddie to capture Homily. It wouldn't be Miyazaki if we didn't simultaneously sympathize with her, but she seemed so shallow and one-dimensional.

The only sequence of animation that stood out to me as feeling particularly interesting was the bit where Homily is captured, and I was disheartened to discover upon looking into it later that, surprise, surprise, it was done by Shinji Otsuka, the guy who in Ghibli film after Ghibli film can be relied upon to provide the one scene that stands out as having the most fun character animation. There were certainly nice enough other moments of animation, like the crow scene, but the exuberant animation felt wasted on a scene that didn't have any dramatic impact, that felt like it was just hitting a milestone in the Ghibli template of necessary pacing tempo shifts.

The whole didn't gel into a compelling world. That is Miyazaki's unique genius. He effortlessly elides elements in a way that doesn't leave you wondering. I came away from Arrietty wondering why this and that had been brought up without any followup. The pacing feels halting and the atmosphere curiously empty, whereas even throwaway scenes in Miyazaki's films always have something to pull you in and carry you along with the flow. I don't think it's unfair to compare the film to Miyazaki, because that's clearly exactly what they set out to achieve. Plus he planned and co-wrote the film.

Speaking of the crow, he was one of the threads that led nowhere. He seemed poised to be such an interesting character, with that great window attack scene (which actually dragged on a bit too long), but then he disappears without a trace. The cat was a jumble too. While hardly original, he could have been a fun character, but his character wasn't consistent at all. Why was he lunging with bloodthirsty eyes at Arrietty one moment only to suddenly turn into Lassie at the end. Also, in that close-up shot of him near the end, he was drawn as this big benevolent furry blob that bore an uncanny resemblance to Totoro. The Jimsy-like Spiller who was introduced as the Arrietty love interest never did much of anything. It's too little too late having him give Arrietty a berry during the credit sequence.

My favorite thing about the film was the backgrounds. They clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into the backgrounds. The backgrounds carry the film. They're what keep the audience interested. More than any previous Ghibli film, Arrietty seems reliant on the background art to create atmosphere and convey information about the world inhabited by the protagonists. The problem is that the backgrounds communicate more than the script and the animation, and as a result, the film feels somewhat static. Throughout the duration of the film, I found that most of my time was spent with my eyes wandering around the screen absorbing the details in the backgrounds.

But I feel like the Grinch saying all this. Believe it or not, I actually liked Arrietty. It's a hard film to dislike, unlike Earthsea. Everyone in the theater seemed rather pleased by the film. It's not bad or unpleasant at all. It's just harmless. It probably set out to be low key, and its slow pace sets it apart from the other Ghibli films in a good way; it has its own atmosphere without striving too much for the fantasy affect of Miyazaki. Perhaps that is the direction to go to eventually discover a new Ghibli voice. In tone it's perhaps closest to Kiki, but less fluffy and sentimental.

What is the right answer to the question of whether Ghibli should continue copying the Miyazaki template, or strike out in a different direction and potentially wind up doing something that nobody wants to see from Ghibli? In all fairness, the former seems like the only possible answer.

One last thing: I was disappointed by the credit sequence. They did the same thing they did in Ponyo, alphabetizing the names. Where's the progress? I expected the letters of every staff member's name to be randomly scrambled and placed into a large block of text. It's so vain of them to list the names of the people who worked on the film.

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