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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 , 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 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.
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.
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|
|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|
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.
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
(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
|1||Yasuyuki Suzuki||Fumio Maezono||Shinichi Suzuki|
|2||Yasuyuki Suzuki||Fumio Maezono||Shinichi Suzuki|
|3||Atsushi Muroga||Kenji Kodama||Kiyoshi Fukumoto||Shinichi Yoshikawa, Yuuki Kinoshita|
|4||Hiroshi Kashiwabara||Hiroshi Ishiodori||Katsuji Matsumoto|
|5||Nobuo Ogisawa||Kenji Kodama||Daisuke Tsuji||Taido Hanafusa|
|6||Hirohisa Soda||Yoshio Takeuchi||Kazuhisa Takeda|
|7||Atsushi Muroyoshi||Kenji Kodama||Kiyoshi Fukumoto||Shinichi Yoshikawa, Yuuki Kinoshita|
|8||Takeo Ono||Masaharu Okuwaki||Katsuyoshi Yatabe||Kenji Yazaki|
|9||Nobuo Ogisawa||Hiroshi Ishiodori||Katsuji Matsumoto|
|10||Takeo Ono||Masayuki Sakoi||Masayuki Sakoi, Hiromi Yokoyama||Kimiko Tamai|
|11||Toshimichi Okawa||Noriaki Saito||Kiyoshi Fukumoto||Shinichi Yoshikawa, Yuuki Kinoshita|
|12||Hiroshi Kashiwabara||Hirofumi Ogura||Toshihiko Masuda|
|1||Kenji Kodama||Daisuke Tsuji||Shinichi Yoshikawa|
|2||Takeo Ono||Yoshio Takeuchi||Shunji Oga, Takeyuki Satohara||Ichiro Ogawa|
|3||Yasuyuki Suzuki||Fumio Maezono||Shinichi Suzuki|
|4||Haruhisa Soda||Yoshio Takehisa||Kazuhisa Takeda|
|5||Haruhisa Soda||Yoshio Takeuchi||Tenshi Yamamoto, Kazuhisa Takeda|
|6||Toshimichi Okawa||Masaharu Okuwaki||Shunji Oga||Ichiro Ogawa|
|7||Junichi Miyashita||Kenji Kodama||Toshiharu Sato||Kimiko Tamai|
|8||Junichi Miyashita||Kenji Kodama||Mitsutoshi Sato||Kimiko Tamai|
|9||Junichi Miyashita||Kenji Kodama||Mitsutoshi Sato||Kimiko Tamai|
|10||Junichi Miyashita||Kenji Kodama||Daisuke Tsuji||Kazuhisa Takeda|
|11||Junichi Miyashita||Kenji Kodama||Takanori Jinbo||Kazuhisa Takeda|
|12||Junichi Miyashita||Kenji Kodama||Daisuke Tsuji||Kazuhisa 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)|
|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|
|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|
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.
I wrote about Toei's fantasy adventure OVA Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu (1988) before. It was a slight outing redeemed by early work from Koichi Arai and ex-Bebow animators.
Well, a few years later, a two-episode OVA with a confusingly similar title was released: Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes (1992). It never seems to have made it over to the west like other good OVAs of the period, and you'd be forgiven for assuming that to have been because it was a crummy video game tie-in. But despite its obscurity, it's an impressively well-made action piece with a unique style. It might be the best fantasy/action OVA of the period that nobody has ever heard of.
A Wizardry OVA was released one year earlier in 1991 as a tie-in with the popular dungeoner video games, but it was boring and uninspired. Despite the talent at TMS's disposal, and despite TMS staple Kenji Kodama's storyboard, it was nothing more than a walk through a dungeon straight out of the game, with disappointingly staid animation.
Dragon Slayer bears little resemblance to the latter. It doesn't even feel like conventional fantasy anime. The fantasy plot seem like merely an excuse for the director to string together a series of action scenes of hair-raising intensity. With its frenetic pacing and expressionistic drawings, its post-Akira pedigree is obvious. The animation is lively and intense and highly worked. If anything, it feels closer in spirit to the manic Crimson Wolf (1993), with its speedy and dynamic animation and breakneck momentum. Another reference point is Sukeban Deka (1991), which featured thrilling, wildly deformed action animation by Masayuki Kobayashi. The action in Dragon Slayer is similar in style to Kobayashi's animation in Sukeban Deka - the timing ultra-fast and the drawings laden with deformed insertions to heighten the impact of the movement.
The film actually has had something of a cult reputation among Japanese fans due to its unusually fast pacing and animation. The animation at times seems excessively fast, as if the timing on the animation sheet had actually been kicked up a notch at the processing stage to give it more punch. Even the overall directing is unexpectedly fast. Scenes proceed at such a breakneck pace that dramatic moments like the boy's separation from his mother at the beginning border on the comical. That said, it's not badly done. It actually works. Sure, the budget is obviously not extremely high, and the drawings have a rough edge, but this isn't one of those shows that you would watch to laugh at it. The action sequences are creatively and excitingly choreographed, and the lightning-fast pacing of the narrative makes the otherwise generic fantasy plot far more entertaining than it rightfully should be.
The OVA was apparently not well received by fans of the game because the story was extensively overhauled for the anime. But who outside of a handful of Japanese fans from 1992 remembers (much less still plays) the game? They did the right thing to make the anime stand on its own two legs rather than make a faithful but impotent anime adaptation like Wizardry. As a result, twenty years on, Dragon Slayer still holds up pretty well.
Adding to the film's atmosphere are the character designs, which have a nice 'angry' feeling to them courtesy of onetime Nagai Go associate Ken Ishikawa, who also gave us the delightfully fierce and bloody Majuu Sensen AKA Beast Fighter. Yes indeed, this is anime as the lord intended it: fast, dynamic, and brutal.
|Stretch and squash indeed|
So, what studio produced this OVA? You'd be hard-pressed to say going by the credits. A variety of big corporate entities like King Records and Amuse Video are cited in production roles, but none of them are actual animation production studios. It takes some knowledge of the staff to extrapolate that informal artist gathering Studio Curtain was probably the 'brain' behind the show, and animation subcontractor Nakamura Production was probably the main production floor of the show's animation. One other subcontractor was also involved: Anime R. (The earlier comparison with Sukeban Deka is even more apt because Anime R was behind Sukeban Deka.)
What ties all of these together seems to be the old Sunrise cooking anime Mister Ajikko, which aired from 1987 to 1989. Most of the main staff of Dragon Slayer worked on (and presumably met one another working on) Mister Ajikko. The style of Dragon Slayer may even be indebted to the directing style of Mister Ajikko.
Dragon Slayer director Noriyuki Nakamura (no relation to Nakamura Production) may not be very well known, but he's a veteran who has been directing since at least 1980 and who continues to be very active on the front line storyboarding TV episodes.
Noriyuki Nakamura was the chief episode director of Mister Ajikko. By the time of Dragon Slayer in 1992, Noriyuki Nakamura was part of an informal animation studio called , run by Masahiro Kase. Studio Curtain receives a "Special Thanks" credit in Dragon Slayer. Masahiro Kase, an animator in Dragon Slayer, was the chief animation director of the first 3/4 of Mister Ajikko. Masahiro Kase was at Osaka subcontractor at the time. Kazuaki Mouri, one of Anime R's hotshot animators, was the chief animation director of the last 1/4. Mouri is co-storyboarder and combat sequence supervisor of Dragon Slayer.
Perhaps the most recognizable name in Dragon Slayer is Tadashi Hiramatsu. He co-storyboarded and animated. I already wrote a bit about his early years in my post on Sukeban Deka: He started out at and eventually moved to Studio Curtain. Hiramatsu met Kase while working on Mister Ajikko. It's during Hiramatsu's period at Kase's Curtain that Dragon Slayer was produced. Hiramatsu relates that he learned a lot about directing from Noriyuki Nakamura.
The Nakamura Pro team of Tadashi Hiramatsu, Hiroyuki Okuno, Hisashi Hirai and Tetsuya Yanagisawa is credited together in Mister Ajikko episodes 38, 43, 48, 53. These four animators are present in Dragon Slayer. Hiroyuki Okuno is an animator, Tetsuya Yanagisawa is the monster character designer, and Hisashi Hirai is the character designer and animation director.
There's even a tangential connection. Noriyuki Nakamura and Masahiro Kase both started out at Nippon Animation in the early 1980s, so it's possible they met there or at least recognized one another from that period. Meanwhile, Tadashi Hiramatsu wound up working on several Nippon Animation productions in the early 1990s after he joined Noriyuki Nakamura and Masahiro Kase at Studio Curtain.
As I wrote in my post on Dirty Pair (1985), Sunrise has always made heavy use of subcontractors for their animation, ever since their founding in the early 1970s. Several other subcontractors helped with the animation side of Mister Ajikko, including Studio Live and Animaru-ya. But Nakamura Pro has always had a particularly close relationship with Sunrise, due to their shared origins.
Nakamura Pro was founded in 1974 by Kazuo Nakamura, who had started out at Mushi Pro. His studio was one of many, like Sunrise, founded in the aftermath of Mushi Pro's failure in what I've referred to as the Mushi Pro diaspora. It's ironic to think that Mushi Pro inadvertently influenced the course of anime history in probably exactly the opposite way they intended: Sunrise learned from Mushi Pro's mistake and did not let the artists run the studio. They instead turned to toy tie-ups as a way to ensure the studio's continued prosperity. This resulted in their becoming a robot anime studio. Nakamura Pro did most of its work for the robot shows of Sunrise and Toei in the early days, resulting in a whole generation of animators trained there and elsewhere becoming specialists in a sub-genre of animation that is unique to Japan. Some of the more famous animators turned out by Nakamura Pro include Ken Otsuka, Eiji Nakata, Shuko Murase and Hiroyuki Kitakubo.
Nakamura Pro has its own official web site, where they say they are hiring. Both Nakamura and Anime R are still alive and well doing subcontract animation work on today's TV shows.
It's all very complicated, but here is a basic breakdown of the studios and their animators in Dragon Slayer:
► Curtain: Noriyuki Nakamura, Masahiro Kase, Tadashi Hiramatsu
► Nakamura Pro: Hisashi Hirai, Michinori Chiba, Ken Otsuka, Hiroyuki Okuno, Shuko Murase, Yasuhiro Irie, Akira Nakamura, Tetsuya Yanagisawa, Kazuhiro Itakura
► Anime R: Kazuaki Mouri, Masahide Yanagisawa, Takahiro Kimura, Takahiro Komori
Aside: Although Noriyuki Nakamura bears no relation to Nakamura Pro, the other Nakamura credited in the show - Akira Nakamura, who is credited as enemy character designer - is the younger brother of Nakamura Pro founder Kazuo Nakamura.
Just to further confuse you, I'll close by briefly evoking another of the artist collectives that were so popular in the early 1990s - Gabo Miyabi (画房雅). It was founded by Masahide Yanagisawa after he left Anime R and moved to Tokyo. I don't know whether or not the group existed at the time of Dragon Slayer, but four animators credited in Dragon Slayer were part of the group: Masahide Yanagisawa, Shinya Takahashi, Takahiro Komori, and Yasuhiro Irie. The Sukeban Deka animator I mentioned before, Masayuki Kobayashi, was also part of the group. Other animators involved in the group include Kenichiro Katsura and Tatsuya Tomaru.
Other notable names in the credits include Masami Obari and Masashi Ishihama.
Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes ドラゴンスレイヤー英雄伝説 (1992, OVA, 2x25 mins, dir. Noriyuki Nakamura)
|Director & Story Framework:||中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura|
|Script:||松崎健一 Kenichi Matsuzaki|
|Art Director:||脇威志 Takeshi Waki|
|Original Character Design:||石川賢 Ken Ishikawa|
|Animation C.D. & Animation Director:||平井久司 Hisashi Hirai|
|Storyboards:||中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura|
難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri
平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu
|Combat Supervisor:||毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri|
|Enemy Character Design:||中村明 Akira Nakamura|
|Monster Character Design:||柳沢哲也 Tetsuya Yanagisawa|
|Key Animation:||中村プロ Nakamura Pro:|
|柳沢哲也 Tetsuya Yanagisawa|
|板倉和弘 Kazuhiro Itakura|
|2nd Key Animation:||千葉道徳 Michinori Chiba|
|大塚健 Ken Otsuka|
|石塚貴之 Takayuki Ishizuka|
|Key Animation:||加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase|
|平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu|
|奥野浩行 Hiroyuki Okuno|
|竹内昭 Akira Takeuchi|
|柳沢まさひで Masahide Yanagisawa|
|高橋しんや Shinya Takahashi|
|大張正己 Masami Obari|
|村瀬修功 Shuko Murase|
|毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri|
|山川瑞恵 Mizue Yamakawa|
|入江泰浩 Yasuhiro Irie|
|工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo|
|数井浩子 Hiroko Kazui|
|青木哲郎 Tetsuro Aoki|
|灘波日登志 Hitoshi Namba|
|清水健一 Kenichi Shimizu|
|木村貴宏 Takahiro Kimura|
|重田智 Satoshi Shigeta|
|石浜真史 Masashi Ishihama|
|小森高博 Takahiro Komori|
|亀井隆 Takashi Kamei|
|Cover of LD Vol. 1|
|UNDERSEA SILENCE REVORUTION|
I sought out the two-part Submarine 707R OVA series from 2003-2004 because it was directed by Shoichi Masuo, one of the great effects animators of the last thirty years in Japan. I wrote a post about him before. The latter post was mainly about his work on Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, in which he animated numerous scenes involving submarines. Directing a whole OVA of submarine action was an obvious next step for this animator. I assumed that the direct-to-video format and intervening decade-plus of advances in production knowhow would have allowed him the technical means, schedule and budget to create even better underwater sub action and visual effects than he was able under the constraints of the TV format.
I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, but I certainly wasn't expecting the unmitigated disaster that greeted me. There was so much wrong with this show that I had a hard time fathoming how it came to be produced. It just goes to show that you can't reason quality. There is no guarantee that a good animator will make a good director, even when the show seems like the perfect fit for a particular animator's talent. For every Masaaki Yuasa or a Takeshi Koike, there must be 10 Shoichi Masuos. I love the guy as an animator, and perhaps there were factors beyond his control during the production of this show that led to these results, but there is just no silver lining in this cloud.
What's even more amazing is that there isn't even very much compelling effects work in Submarine 707R. I'm the kind of geeky viewer who will gladly watch a show I otherwise despise if it features good animation by an animator I like. I would have been happy if it turned out to be a vapid, trite, sloppily-directed effects extravaganza. But there were barely 5 good explosions in the whole thing. What happened?
Shoichi Masuo clearly elected to adapt this manga into an anime because it would allow him to create exciting underwater sub action in the vein of the wonderful, classic scenes of that ilk in Nadia. As if to reinforce the comparison, Hideaki Anno directed the opening sequence, which depicts the 707 being assembled in the style of sepia-colored retro footage. We've seen the same sort of thing from Anno numerous times before; it's one of his stock tricks. But Nadia worked because it had a good directing team; advances in technology do not equate to better anime. Quite the opposite: The ease with which CGI can be deployed seems to have the effect of emboldening second-rate directors who do not have the attention to detail or the director's instinct to realize when a particular visual is simply not working. Back then a hack wouldn't have had the ability to animate such an arduous scene.
The scenes of the submarines in this OVA had the bland, half-hearted, amateurish quality of early CGI adopters from the 1990s - those shows that were brave enough to dare to combine hand-drawn animation with CGI mecha. They didn't know how to do it well, and it looked like crap, but it was kind of expected that CG anime had to go through growing pains. They had to start somewhere. I watched this OVA assuming, based on the evidence, that it was produced in the 1990s. I was shocked to learn it was such a recent project.
The CGI in this OVA is the perfect example of how paper-thin bad CGI feels. It entirely lacks the tactility and weightiness of hand-drawn animation. Even bad hand-drawn animation would have been better. The irony is that CGI was presumably adopted to animate the submarines as a way to make the underwater scenes feel more "real". But the hand-drawn submarines of Nadia felt infinitely more realistic. It's fascinating that the person responsible for those scenes, when working in the context of CGI, seems blind to the fact that the animation of the CGI subs is totally unconvincing. Merely being consistently on-model and easier to move isn't sufficient to impart a feeling of reality. The subs in Submarine 707R feel completely weightless -- and not because they're in the water. Masuo's animation in Nadia was the result of very precise calculations in terms of the drawing and the timing of the movement. The reliance on CGI appears to have short-circuited the most important faculty of animators.
But that's not even the worst thing about this OVA. The directing is a textbook example of bad directing in almost every imaginable way. The pace is astoundingly slow. It's like you're watching it in slo-mo. It feels suspiciously like they drew out 30 minutes' worth of material to 50 minutes. Characters appear in a context suggesting their reappearance, only to disappear. Narrative threads begin, only to be abruptly and capriciously replaced by entirely different narrative threads.
The character designs are a nonsensical mishmash of anime moeblobs, retro-styled characters straight out of an Osamu Tezuka manga from the 1950s, and just plain badly drawn characters. The character animation is nonexistent. The first fifteen minutes of episode 2 are a surreal succession of excruciatingly slow pans over sound effects, in a bald-faced scrabble to fill in the space left until the climactic sequence, which was obviously animated first. The rest of the show isn't much of an improvement.
The CGI floats against the hand-drawn animation like a sub does in the water - or more accurately, like a healthy turd does in the toilet. The two are bad in their own right, and they don't mix well at all. The music was awful generic tinny synth that did absolutely nothing to accentuate the drama and everything to accentuate the awful lack of budget. On the other hand, hollow-sounding orchestral synth renditions of W.W.II Japanese naval marches is the perfect musical expression of this show's awful subtext of jingoistic naval pride masquerading as action movie bombast.
The plot is a complete disaster. Most fundamentally, the motivation of the bad guy is never clearly explained, even though they drop vague hints in certain spots. He's the most transparent "madman bent on world domination" cypher ever - the dollar-store version of the bad guy in Mahiro Maeda's very similar and comparably successful Submarine No. 6, who was actually somewhat compelling because his motivation was thoroughly explored.
Skipping through it post-fact to remind myself what it looked like, I started to think, "It doesn't look that bad. Maybe I was being a little harsh." But sitting through both episodes was nothing less than agony. I don't mean to be mean-spirited. I usually focus on describing good shows to try to see what makes them good, but it can be equally educational about what makes a good anime to look at what makes a bad anime.
About the animation, it's sad that there was not more good animation. A few spots that stood out as having nice FX animation were probably the work of the late Toshiaki Tetsura, a talented mecha animator who died a premature death. Makoto Kobayashi, who is a great mecha designer with a unique style, is also present. In addition to helping out with layouts, he appears to have drawn various shots in the show, most notably the massive carrier seen at the beginning, pictured above. His style comes through clearly in the byzantine detailing of the deck of the carrier and the more 'melty' texture of the strokes. Soichiro Matsuda was also involved as an animator, so he may have done some of the good bits. The ubiquitous Kazutaka Miyatake was the mecha designer, and Hiromasa Ogura was the art director, though this is not one of his shining moments.
My disappointment stems primarily from the fact that I hold Shoichi Masuo in such high regard, and I would have liked to see an action-focused OVA that served as a dense summation of the great work Masuo had done in various places over the preceding decade and a half.
After finishing the second Lupin III series a while back, I dived right into the third TV series aired March 3, 1984 to November 6, 1985. Whereas the second series felt like a bit of a slog, the 50-episode third series ended way too soon and left me wanting to see much more.
I think it's probably the most unjustly overlooked and underappreciated outing in the Lupin III franchise. It was underappreciated both at the time of its airing - constantly delayed by baseball broadcasts, because of which people probably forgot it was even airing and it wound up not being nearly as long-lived as the second series - as well as in the aftermath, when fans shied away from the most visually uninhibited and playfully designed and animated outing in the franchise, and the clean and ruly look and more conventional atmosphere and storytelling of the first series became unofficial canon.
But the third and last Lupin III TV series is in fact an entertaining show with some of the most interesting animation in the entire franchise. Yuzo Aoki, the great animator who had been a central figure behind every Lupin III outing prior to then, acted as the animation supervisor, designing the characters in a way that brought them closer than they'd ever been to Monkey Punch's manga, through the lens of his own unique sensibility.
The drawings of the second series were different from the first, simpler and more cartoonish. But the drawings in the third series are so different from the second that they're a shock to the system at first. It's like the characters are made of rubber bands. Everything is wobbly. Their limbs bend in all sorts of weird configurations. The clothing is full of curves and ruffles. The face is elongated in that patent Monkey Punch style much more prominently, and the expressions on the faces are more exaggerated and playful than ever.
The best place to get a quick feeling for just how different the character animation is from every other Lupin III outing is the second opening.
The series had two openings, both set to the same song. (Apparently they couldn't get the rights to the classic Lupin III theme song, so they had to use a new song.) The first opening was decent, but it's the second opening that captures the essence of Aoki's drawings in the show. It starts with "Lupin" spelled out using actual Lupins (pictured above), and ends with Goemon slicing up a rocket. From the rubbery-limbed Zenigata running through the door at the beginning to the lanky, banana-headed Lupin in the last shot as the chassis of his car roars off without him... this is an opening that immediately tells the viewer: this a different beast.
The second series had its share of crazy drawings and stories, but nothing this extreme. This series is the high point in experimentation with the drawings in the Lupin III franchise. Once you get used to the style, though, it's hard to go back. The cleaner drawings of the rest of the franchise look boring to me now. In every episode, you can sense how much fun the animators are having drawing the characters, and that's a large part of why the show is fun to watch, as the stories can often be pretty repetitive and predictable.
Apart from the character animation, the tone of the show is rather unique, too. It strikes a kind of middle ground between the first series and the second series - still playful and silly, but not as over-the-top as the second series, grounded by a more adult sensibility and heist/intrigue stories that aren't merely excuses for 25 minutes of cartoonish antics. The quality is far more even than the second series, which had many episodes that could easily be skipped. The directing is consistent and the animation is... albeit not consistent, consistently interesting.
Which leads to another interesting facet of this series: The characters look drastically different from one episode to the next. Characters look different from episode to episode in all anime, of course, but on the continuum of the scale of drawing variation, Lupin III Part 3 lies at one extreme.
Apart from having laid down a basic framework in the form of a set of character designs, Yuzo Aoki appears to have given the various subcontracting studios who handled many of the show's episodes almost complete freedom when it comes to drawing the characters. Even within a single episode, the characters will often look different from shot to shot due to the different styles of the animators.
Of course, what this show is best known for is the pink jacket. This is the Pink Jacket series. The pink jacket seems to capture the ambivalence people feel towards this show, without even having given it a chance - it evokes vague terrors of cheesy 80s coloring and J-pop hijinx that are really quite unwarranted. The pink was supposedly a compromise suggested by Yuzo Aoki. He originally wanted white, but they thought that was too radical, so he suggested pink as a compromise between the white jacket and the red jacket. Lupin sometimes has an afro that feels a little embarrassing, but at other times is drawn in a totally different style. For the most part, the series doesn't feel dated. Its playful animation feels as fresh as when it was made. For good or ill, there were no precedents and no followers, so there's nothing else quite like this series out there, and it's still quite interesting to re-visit today.
Besides the unusual jacket color, most of the main characters look quite different, in a way that took me some getting used to. Jigen's eyes aren't covered by his hat most of the time, and his beard is long and scruffy. They play it fast and loose with the conventions of the show. It's telling that none of the later TV specials or movies ever used the pink jacket - always the red jacket or green jacket. The third series is the crazy uncle who you've heard rumors used to be in the Hell's Angels and snort cocaine and has illegitimate children he's never met in Algeria. He's the bad boy of the family.
If I had any disappointment with this series, it would be with the stories, which fall into a predictable pattern. It's always about stealing some kind of treasure that, when stolen, turns out to be a fake. Zenigata always turns up, only to turn out to have been Lupin in disguise. Fujiko always winds up betraying Lupin. If a guest character is introduced as a good guy, he always turns out to be the bad guy.
I don't mind some patterns in Lupin. It wouldn't be Lupin if Goemon didn't split things clean in half with Zantetsuken, if Fujiko wasn't a backstabbing cocktease, and if Zenigata didn't show up every episode shouting, "I'll get you this time!" Those aren't what bother me. What was disappointing is the writing of the stories. There was never a moment where the drama felt sophisticated or surprising, or where there was any complexity to a character or to an emotion. This series was clearly aiming for a more adult feeling, while still retaining the playfulness of the second series, but it feels like they missed both marks as a result. It's a terrible shame; it feels like they never really explored the potential inherent in Lupin III for more sophisticated and adult storytelling. If this remains a gripe, not a fatal flaw, it's thanks to the quality of the animation.
Finally, it's fascinating to note that this series did not have a director. At least, none is credited. This occurred before: Tokyo Movie's own Gyators did not have a director; only episode directors. And yet it maintains a uniform tone admirably. It holds together as a series just fine. Ironically, it has an animation supervisor, yet he did not use role to make the animation of the series more uniform, as is expected of a chief animation director - just the opposite.
|Studio Iruka's private sub|
As I noted in my post on the second series, several subcontractors were actually involved in the production of the show, even though they are not credited. In Part 3, subcontractors played an even bigger role. I'd say that the majority of the episodes were produced by subcontractors. And the number of subcontractors is greater. It's easier to figure out who did what this time because the studios are actually credited.
Here is a breakdown of the studios that worked on Part 3. (See the bottom of this post for full episode credits.)
|► Araki Production: 1, 7|
|, Michi Himeno, Kenichi Araki, Satoshi Sasaki, Makoto Takahoko, Yuji Yamada|
|► Animation 501: 2, 9, 23 (14)|
|, Isamu Utsugi, Joji Suzuki, Ikuko Ito, Taku Nakaya, Yoshiko Arai, Hiroshi Suzuki|
|► Ari Production: 3 (13, 17)|
|, Yukiko Michishita, Sayuri Matsumoto, Mariko Saito|
|► Studio Iruka: 6, 10, 16, 19|
|, Jun Kawagoe, Junko Abe, Hinako Komatsu, Takahiko Ayame|
|► AIC: 8 (5, 13, 17)|
|Hiromitsu Ohta, Eiji Yamanaka, Nobuyuki Kanejima|
|► Kusama Art: 40 (5, 11, 18, 22, 26, 27, 30, 32, 33, 36, 47, 48, 50)|
|, Shoji Furuta, Yukihiro Makino, Michitaka Kikuchi|
|► Studio Unicorn: 29 (35, 48)|
|, Yuji Hamano|
|► Oh Production: 31, 34, 39, 43 (11, 14, 18, 21, 41, 49, 50)|
|, Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Hirotsugu Kawasaki, Kitaro Kosaka, Hiroshi Shimizu|
|► Studio Gallop: 42, 46|
|, Toshio Yamauchi, Taku Nakaya, Hideaki Matsuoka, Jiro Tanaka, Takaya Ono, Yoshitaka Nishijima, Yoko Konishi, Miyuki Umetsu|
Numbers in parenthesis indicate uncredited episodes. In a lot of cases, the episodes are actually a mix of studios - you have one or two animators from one studio working alongside one or two animators from another studio. In these episodes, they didn't bother to credit the animators by their respective studio.
There was one studio or family of studios that played a big role in the series, but that didn't get any credit for some reason: Studio Z5 and Studio Number 1. They are part of a long, complicated continuity of studios founded by people who at one time worked under or were otherwise affiliated with Yoshinori Kanada in the late 70s/early 80s at his Studio Z. Other studios affiliated with this group include Studio Oz, One Pattern, Studio Tome, and Studio Nonmaruto. It's hard to determine exactly who was at which studio when in the case of this group, as membership was very fluid, but here is a rough breakdown of their involvement in Lupin III Part 3. For some reason or other, they are not credited as a studio.
|► Studio No. 1: (4, 12, 15, 20, 24, 28, 32, 33, 38, 44, 45, 48)|
|(storyboard/director), (sakkan), Shigenobu Nagasaki, Yasuchika Nagaoka, Masakatsu Iijima, Kazuhiro Ochi|
|► Studio Z5: (15, 20, 24, 44)|
|(storyboard/director), (sakkan), Fujiko Ito, Seiji Muta|
The Studio Number 1/Z5 episodes are one of the few places in Part 3 where you can find Kanada school animation. I'm really not fond of this style in the Lupin III context, so although the episodes aren't badly done, they're not the ones I like. But it's true that they did a lot to support the quality of the show.
The remainder of the animators not listed above were presumably working from TMS's home studio, Tokyo Movie, which is never credited explicitly since doing so would be redundant. This presumably includes Yuzo Aoki, Toshiyuki Omori, Yumi Machida, Hitoshi Hasegawa, etc.
Oh Pro is obviously the one studio from the 2nd series that came back in the 3rd series, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they do some of the best work on the show. The Oh Pro animators are totally different, however.
Considering the six year gap between part 2 and 3, it would be interesting to have seen more people who worked on the second show working on part 3, to see how they evolved over the intervening years. But there aren't many. It's mostly new faces. Yuzo Aoki is the biggest element of staff continuity. Aoki himself sadly didn't wind up drawing much on the show, except for a few stints as animation director, but the few spots he did are very reminiscent of his work on the second show in terms of the timing of the animation. Even amidst the crazy work done by a handful of the other animators, his work feels distinct. Of course, his template can be seen in the second opening, which he presumably animated by himself. The interesting thing is that not many animators drew the characters quite the way he did. It's like he allowed them to come up with their own interpretation of his designs, rather than forcing them to draw the characters the way he did. Which is smart, because that is probably largely why so much of the animation feels so good.
Sachiko Kamimura worked on the second series as a key animator under the name Sachiko Kodama because she had just married director Kenji Kodama. By the time of the third series, the two had started their own subcontracting studio, Studio Iruka, and Sachiko had reverted to using her maiden name when working under her husband. Studio Iruka's work is quite lively and pleasant to watch, although the drawings are somewhat sleeker and more conventional.
Seijun Suzuki, who supervised the latter half of the second series, wrote a single episode in Part 3: episode 13. There aren't many episodes that stand out in terms of the story in Part 3, but episode 13 is a true oddity, perhaps even the strangest Lupin III episode ever made thanks to Seijun Suzuki's script, with its erratic shifts in tone, non-sequitur of a plot, surreal scenes, and baffling ending. It seems like the closest he ever came to making an anime version of his cult classic Branded to Kill.
It's actually difficult to grasp what the title of this episode means, or how it relates to the episode in any way. 悪のり変装曲 Warunori Hensokyoku loosely translates as 'Variations on Getting Carried Away'. Warunori means getting caught up in whatever you're saying or doing and going too far with it without realizing it. The episode strikes me as a bizarre, dreamlike remembrance of all things Lupin III, a hallucinogenic vision in the vein of Branded to Kill. My theory/interpretation is that Seijun Suzuki was slyly poking fun at the Lupin III anime and its conventions, by creating a story that did not make any sense or adhere to any of those conventions.
Episode 13 was directed by Shigetsugu Yoshida, who directed several of the best episodes of the second series. Yoshida only directed one other episode in Part 3: episode 7. Right after doing episode 13, Shigetsugu Yoshida and Seijun Suzuki together set to the task of directing the Gold of Babylon movie that served as the cinematic companion piece to Part 3.
Hatsuki Tsuji, one of the most prolific animators in the second series, returned as the animation director of one episode, this time from the studio where he new found himself, Studio Gallop. It was nice to see Hatsuki again, as he was one of the best animators in the second show, but his animation wasn't particularly exciting this time around.
Yoshio Urasawa, who wrote several of the most entertaining episodes in the second series, here returned to write two episodes - 26 and 49 - but these unfortunately had almost none of the wit and loony unpredictability that made his earlier work so fun.
Tateo Kitahara, the character designer and main animation director of the second series, paid an honorary visit in episode 36 under the name Takumi Kitahara. I rarely enjoy the work of a sakkan, because I find the job to be fundamentally problematic (I want to see a good animator's work as close to the raw as possible), but there is no denying that a good sakkan is indispensable, especially if you are not blessed with good animators or schedule, and I know that a lot of the nice drawings in the second series (except the Telecom episodes) were of the hand of the hard-working Kitahara.
The animator I most would have liked to see come back in Part 3 is Junzaburo Takahata, but it was not to be. Kazuhide Tomonaga, too, was obviously quite busy by this time working for Telecom. Most of the animators had moved on to very different places in the intervening 6 years.
The second series is long enough and uneven enough in quality that it's not worth watching the whole thing unless you REALLY like Lupin III. The third series, however, is worth watching from beginning to end. It's short enough and consistent enough that doing so isn't a chore, and there's good work here and there in every episode.
There aren't really any episodes in the third series that stand out as much as the Telecom episodes do in the second series, but there are a few animators and studios whose work is more worth checking out if your time is at a premium and you just want to sample the Pink Jacket series at its best.
Yuzo Aoki of course is the guiding spirit of Part 3, but ironically Part 3 doesn't seem to contain as much pure Aoki animation as the second series. It's other animators who wind up bathing in the spotlight.
Tatsuo Ryuno and Oh Production in my mind encapsulate the opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum of Lupin III Part 3: the one with more playful animation and heavily stylized drawings in the spirit of the Yuzo Aoki animation in the 2nd series, the other with more of a focus on exciting action animation in the spirit of the Telecom episodes of the 2nd series.
My favorite animator in the series is Tatsuo Ryuno, a person I'd never even heard of before watching the show. Ryuno is credited once alongside Shoji Furuta under a studio called Kusama Art, a mysterious studio about which I haven't been able to find any other information. He occupies the spot Yuzo Aoki occupied in the second series: He's the animator with the most deliciously idiosyncratic style in the show.
He has a very peculiar drawing style that can't be mistaken for anybody else. His style doesn't even resemble Yuzo Aoki's drawing style that much, but it's a perfect fit within the template Aoki laid down. I think he's the animator who best grasped and brought to life the direction Aoki was trying to go with this series.
He draws Lupin's face as a long curved arc in a way that reminds me of Monkey Punch's original. None of the other animators go nearly as far in drawing Lupin or the characters in this way, but that's exactly what I want to see in an anime adaptation of a Monkey Punch manga. Even Yuzo Aoki, who brought the drawings closer to Monkey Punch's original style, didn't go quite as far as Ryuno does.
Ryuno's drawings are full of creative poses. His animation is playful, sometimes excessively so. His characters become extremely deformed and exaggerated. He uses a lot of drawings. The animation is very active, and all of the poses in a movement are fun and interesting. Here are some examples of Tatsuo Ryuno sequences packed with lots of funny poses.
He often animates characters in distant shots like this, where the whole character's body is in the shot, so that there's less of a focus on the details of the features, allowing him to focus his energy on coming up with fun poses. There are lots of sequences like these where the characters react to things in a way that is so much more fun and full of playful drawings. He's a genius at packing a reaction shot with lots of comical poses - where most animators would probably have stopped at a single drawing, he puts in 10.
Ryuno's drawings feel effortless. I don't like animation that feels laborious. Despite moving so much, it feels like Ryuno is just pumping out the drawings without much pre-planning or agonizing. Sometimes they can be a little too rough around the edges and spontaneous, to the point that it feels out of control, but that's the kind of animator Ryuno is. His animation is controlled chaos.
Despite feeling very off-hand, the drawings are usually well stylized and laid out on the screen. He angles the limbs and bends the features just so in a way that feels great as a drawing. It's in that sense that he's the same kind of animator as Yuzo Aoki, and I can see why Ryuno was such an important figure under Aoki during this period.
I don't know of many other animators in the spirit of Yuzo Aoki, but Ryuno is one for sure. I wish there were more. There are lots of Kanada school animators who can draw characters in crazy poses, but what I like about Aoki and Ryuno is that they've got their own style totally uninfluenced by Yoshinori Kanada and his school. There are even animators who draw interesting drawings, but there aren't many like these two who seem to have an effortless command of body drawings. They draw the body in all these crazy poses so effortlessly. It's quintessentially Japanese in its focus on speed over cleanness and its disregard for model.
Oh Pro was one of the major studios behind the second series, and they return in the third to play an equally big part. Only this time, they occupy the space left empty by Telecom.
Oh Pro's episodes are the perfect contrast with Ryuno's episodes, just as Yuzo Aoki's episodes were with the Telecom episodes in the second series. Where Ryuno is all about wild drawings, the Oh Pro episodes are all about sleek, exciting action in the vein of Cagliostro. The weird thing is, Oh Pro is clearly emulating Telecom. The Telecom episodes in the second series are their model in terms of the drawings, the action, everything. They even have Lupin riding in a Fiat. The Oh Pro episodes are the only episodes in the third series that consistently depict Lupin riding in a Fiat. It sticks out that Oh Pro goes out of their way to draw Lupin in a Fiat when most of the other episodes don't care about the cars and draw him in whatever.
It's very peculiar, but the results are great. Oh Pro doesn't quite measure up to their model, but the amount of animation they pack into their episodes, and the glee with which they move their characters, is a delight to behold. And it's impressive that a completely different studio was able to create such a good simulacrum when even Telecom's recent Lupin III specials pale in comparison to the Oh Pro episodes.
The Oh Pro episodes are always storyboarded (using the pen name Kogaden) and sakkan'd by Hidetoshi Owashi and directed by Tsutomu Iida, with animation by four people: Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida and Hirotsugu Kawasaki. People today may not realize who Tsutomu Iida is: It's the late Umanosuke Iida. Umanosuke Iida started out at Oh Pro concurrently animating and directing.
|Hop onto the Oh! Pro express|
I don't know who was responsible for the good action in the Oh Pro episodes, or even if it was just a single individual, but I suspect Hirotsugu Kawasaki to have been the main action animator in the Oh Pro episodes, because very soon after Part 3 he was involved in Laputa as the animator of the action scene on the raised railway, one of the best action scenes in the film, followed by the baby room scene in Akira. And of course, he went on to become the director of the action film Spriggan and the just-released Onigamiden. It's amazing how much talent the Oh Pro Express has sent out into the world.
My only disappointment with the Oh Pro episodes is that the story and storyboarding aren't up to the level of the animation. You sense that these animators have the potential to explode if they just had a talented storyboarder and director on the level of Miyazaki to guide them. As it stands, due to the somewhat lackluster directing and stories, the animation is fun to watch, but never quite gels into the cathartic action of the Telecom episodes.
If you only watch two episodes, you could do worse than just watching the last two episodes, episodes 49 and 50. There is no continuing storyline, and the last two episodes don't tie anything up or ruin anything. They're standalone episode just like any of the others, with the added bonus of being the culmination of all of the experience of their respective animators on part 3.
Episode 49 is by Oh Pro and episode 50 features work by Tatsuo Ryuno and Yuzo Aoki. Episode 49 is definitely Oh Pro's best episode. You sense that they pulled out all the stops on this one. The directing and story are still underwhelming, but it's downright moving how much effort the animators are putting into the animation. The regular team of four this time is supplemented by no less than Kitaro Kosaka and Hiroshi Shimizu, which no doubt helps push this episode to the next level. You have in this episode animation where a story is depicted as unfolding by means of actions performed by the characters, not by a script, as was the case in the Miyazaki Lupin III episodes.
Episode 50 is actually a fairly interesting story as far as Part 3 goes. The Lupin gang steals a nuclear submarine from the Soviets, and a scramble ensues with various spy agencies from around the world trying to out-compete and out-bid one another in purchasing the sub from Lupin et al on the sly. It's got the sort of geopolitical sting and topicality and serious edge to the story that I wish more of the stories in this series had. The stories are too often ludicrous and silly. On top of this, the animation is tremendously fun, the ultimate (literally) example of what Yuzo Aoki set out to achieve with his radical but ultimately doomed re-visioning of the visuals of Lupin III. Ryuno animated the entire first half of the episode, so it's obvious in what regard Aoki held Ryuno. This episode is a good place to start to get a sense of his style. Aoki himself did some animation in the second half.
In addition to all the regulars, a few unexpected names pop up once in a while. Masahito Yamashita, best known as one of the earliest Yoshinori Kanada followers to make a name for himself in the early 80s for his strange and exciting animation full of odd, improbable posing and lushly animated angular effects, makes an appearance in two episodes: 20 and 27. In both episodes, there's no missing his work, which is in exactly the style for which he is known, with no concessions made to the show whatsoever. It's saying a lot when your work sticks out on a show as permissive of animator freedom as Lupin III Part 3.
|Masahito Yamashita's unmistakable drawings|
Satoru Utsunomiya made an early appearance in episode 48, many years before he became known for his own unique brand of animation. The work here isn't as identifiable as his later work, but it's still distinguishable from its very different sense of timing, and even some of the drawings that have a more rounded and solid feeling to them than the others in the show.
Studio Iruka stopped working on the show rather quickly, appearing only in the first half, but one Iruka animator remained on through the rest of the show: Shobu Takahiko. I'm not positive, but I suspect that many of the parts I most enjoyed in the show were drawn by this animator. After considerable effort to figure out who did the parts I enjoyed, I've been unable to conclusively narrow it down to him, but he's my best guess going by the circumstantial evidence of his having been such a recurring face. He was even brought on in the last episode, with its small but strong cast of animators. The scene I'm most wondering about is the chase that starts in the park near the end of episode 44. The drawings and timing of the movement there are so good and unlike that of any other animator in the show. The part where Zenigata drives his car vertically through a two-foot-wide alleyway is totally insane and awesome.
Looking at the inbetween credits, you will find latter-day director Akitoshi Yokoyama in episode 46. Yokoyama started out as an animator, and this must have been one of his earliest gigs. Norimoto Tokura is an inbetweener in episode 4.
One of my favorite writers in the series is Hiroshi Kashiwabara, who wrote episodes 32, 34, 44 and 50. His scripts were more witty and believable than many of the others. I can't think of many other writers on the show who stood out to me as being particularly good. His script for episode 50 was supposedly based on a story idea that had originally been submitted as a replacement idea for the Lupin III movie that Mamoru Oshii had dropped out on. Perhaps that's what makes that episode feel a cut above the rest with its clever satirical tone.
A movie version was in planning around the time the third series began airing. It would have been the third movie. Hayao Miyazaki had recommended Mamoru Oshii for the role of director, but Oshii submitted a story idea that was so outlandish and bizarre that it scared off the producers and got him fired. The shards of ideas I've heard include a strange figure reminiscent of the girl in Angel's Egg holed up in a tower, and Lupin having lost his purpose in life because there is nothing left in the world to steal, which brings to mind the strange vision of a depopulated world in Beautiful Dreamer.
Shigetsugu Yoshida was quickly hired as a replacement, assisted by Seijun Suzuki, and Yoshio Urasawa was hired to write the script. This happened while Part 3 was airing, and many of the staff who were working on Part 3 had to leave to work on the film. This is why there seems to be something of a dip in quality around the middle of Part 3, where it feels like they are scrabbling to find the people to make the episodes. Yuzo Aoki is conspicuously absent around the middle of the show.
Released on July 13, 1985, near the end of the unusually extended broadcast run of Part 3, the Gold of Babylon movie is the craziest and most unpredictable and unhinged of the Lupin III movies, both in terms of its animation and its story. Yuzo Aoki is the head of animation, and the animation is close in spirit to Part 3, with Lupin wearing a pink jacket, although all of the main characters other than Lupin are designed in a way that is more of a throwback to the second series. The film had to be produced in a short schedule due to the debacle with Oshii dropping out, and consequently it's rough around the edges in terms of the animation, and the story is half baked, but it's still a memorable film and a great companion piece to Part 3. It's one of the few places where you can find more animation in the spirit of Part 3.
Despite having technically nothing to do with Lupin III, this obscure OVA released in 1991 adapting an old one-shot manga by Monkey Punch is very close in spirit to Part 3 due to the fact that it was directed by Yuzo Aoki and features Tatsuo Ryuno as the animator/animation director. Although much ill has been said about this bizarre, disjointed and in some ways deliberately ugly piece of animation, it has an abrasive power like no other anime. It's the only anime I've ever seen that felt like a faithful adaptation of Monkey Punch in all of his psychosexual, violent, anarchic glory.
The story is so crazy that it's worth describing. A mad scientist was in love with a girl named Alice, but Alice runs off with another guy, so the mad scientist shoots the both of them up with a machine gun as they're trying to drive off together. To take revenge on Alice for not being faithful to him (since killing her was not enough), the mad scientist proceeds to create a cyborg version of Alice who will be his faithful sexual slave. But as fate has it, the lovemaking kills him. When his son, a mafioso boss, hears news that his pop has been killed by a girl named Alice who was great in the sack, he sends out a call to all the Alices he can find and holds an audition to find the one who's best in the sack so he can kill her and exact his revenge. After nearly wearing off his implement auditioning every conceivable species of Alice including a Martian Alice, a lesbian Alice, and a giant Alice, he finally finds his sex goddess, but right when he attempts to blow her brains out with his dad's gun, the cyborg Alice steps in and saves the girl. After his various attempts to off Alice fail because of her superhuman strength, he clones himself and modifies his clone into an ultra-powerful cyborg capable of taking on Alice. Just as the cyborg is about to defeat Alice and rape her, the Don steps in and saves Alice, realizing he has fallen in love with her. Unable to accept his conflicting emotions, he departs, vowing one day to exact his revenge on his love, Alice.
Don't try to understand it. It's not meant to be understood. It's meant to be experienced.
The combo of Aoki and Ryuno proved that they were the team who understood Monkey Punch best of all the people who have worked on the franchise over the years first in Part 3 and then in Alice. Alice is as a far-removed encore to Part 3 and an upping of the ante. This time it is no holds barred: the OVA format allows them to draw imagery that does justice to the story's nonstop parade of crazy but hilarious sex and violence. The animation is rough around the edges but very lively and fun, the drawings full of wild poses and expressions. The real Monkey Punch in his full glory was too much for the air waves, much less the silver screen. Only in the OVA format was it possible to go as far as was necessary in depicting sex to be faithful to Monkey Punch.
The sexual aspect that played such a large part in the Lupin III manga in defining Lupin's character, with Lupin screwing and/or shooting broads in his patented insanely over-the-top drawings, was completely played down in the anime - to say nothing of the Miyazaki version. Alice, for all the ill you can say about it, is one of the few anime adaptations that did not dumb down the crazed sexuality that was the essence of Monkey Punch. I for one found the story quite entertaining in its wildness. It's a little too episodic, and the story a little too crazy to be able to take seriously, but it wouldn't be Monkey Punch if that weren't the case. It's a rare glimpse into the darkness of what could have been if Lupin III had been made for a more adult audience.
The gold bullion calls to Lupin
姫野美智 荒木賢一 高鉾誠 山田雄二
Michi Himeno, Kenichi Araki, Makoto Takahoko, Yuji Yamada
Break through the big trap
宇都木勇 鈴木丈司 伊藤郁子
Isamu Utsugi, Joji Suzuki, Ikuko Ito
Hello, angel from hell
道下有希子 松本小百合 斉藤真理子
Yukiko Michishita, Sayuri Matsumoto, Mariko Saito
Telepathy is love's signal
|鍋島修 松原京子 飯島正勝 長岡康史 伊藤富士子|
Osamu Nabeshima, Kyoko Matsubara, Masakatsu Iijima, Yasuchika Nagaoka, Fujiko Ito
Goemon the invincible
|古田詔治 太田博光 鈴木秀司 山中英治 牧野行洋|
Shoji Furuta, Hiromitsu Outa, Hideshi Suzuki, Hideji Nakayama, Yukihiro Makino
Saburo Takada, Tatsuo Ryuno
Lupan arrived in a tank
川越ジュン あべじゅん子 小松ひな子 菖蒲隆彦
Jun Kawagoe, Junko Abe, Hinako Komatsu, Takahiko Ayame
The man called Garb the God of Death
姫野美智 荒木賢一 佐々木聡 高鉾誠
Michi Himeno, Kenichi Araki, Satoshi Sasaki, Makoto Takahoko
Plan to free Holy Mary
太田博光 山中英治 兼島信幸
Hiromitsu Outa, Eiji Yamanaka, Nobuyuki Kanejima
Copied people are expensive
小川博司 宇都木勇 鈴木大司
Hiroshi Ogawa, Isamu Utsugi, Hiroshi Suzuki
Hidden treasure smells of conspiracy
川越ジュン あべじゅん子 小松ひな子 菖蒲隆彦
Jun Kawagoe, Junko Abe, Hinako Komatsu, Takahiko Ayame
The ruby sweats blood
|牧野行洋 ふくだ忠 古田詔治 あべどん 青村悦子 飯田つとむ|
Yukihiro Makino, Tadashi Fukuda, Shoji Furuta, Don Abe, Etsuko Aomura, Tsutomu Iida
Tatsuo Ryuno, Hidetoshi Owashi
Prisoner of Baltan House
|飯島正勝 長岡康史 伊藤富士子 長崎重信 松原京子|
Masakatsu Iijima, Yasuchika Nagaoka, Fujiko Ito, Shigenobu Nagasaki, Kyoko Matsubara
Variations on a bad joke
|道下有希子 高田三郎 松本小百合 太田博光 斉藤真理子|
Yukiko Michishita, Saburo Takada, Sayuri Matsumoto, Hiromitsu Outa, Mariko Saito
Heihachiro Tanaka, Saburo Takada
Let's play the kidnapping game
|小川博司 川崎博嗣 宇都木勇 阿部どん 鈴木大司 飯田つとむ|
Hiroshi Ogawa, Hirotsugu Kawasaki, Isamu Utsuki, Don Abe, Hiroshi Suzuki, Tsutomu Iida
Hiroshi Ogawa, Hidetoshi Owashi
Death comes quietly
|飯島正勝 長岡康史 伊藤富士子 長崎重信 道下有希子 高田三郎|
Masakatsu Iijima, Yasuchika Nagaoka, Fujiko Ito, Shigenobu Nagasaki, Yukiko Michishita, Saburo Takada
Golden apples are poisonous
神村幸子 川越ジュン あべじゅん子 菖蒲隆彦
Sachiko Kamimura, Jun Kawagoe, Junko Abe, Takahiko Ayame
Are you really getting married?
|田中平八郎 高田三郎 松本小百合 太田博光 斎藤真理子|
Heihachiro Tanaka, Saburo Takada, Sayuri Matsumoto, Hiromitsu Outa, Mariko Saito
Heihachiro Tanaka, Saburo Takada
Showtime smells like death
|古田詔治 川崎博嗣 青海房子 あべどん 菊池通隆 ふくだ忠|
Shoji Furuta, Hirotsugu Kawasaki, Fusako Oume, Don Abe, Michitaka Kikuchi, Tadashi Fukuda
Tatsuo Ryuno, Hidetoshi Owashi
Run across the wasteland of betrayal
神村幸子 川越ジュン あべじゅん子 菖蒲隆彦
Sachiko Kamimura, Jun Kawagoe, Junko Abe, Takahiko Ayame
The man with no past
|長岡康史 長崎重信 伊藤富士子 越智一裕 道下有希子 山下将仁|
Yasuchika Nagaoka, Shigenobu Nagasaki, Fujiko Ito, Kazuhiro Ochi, Yukiko Michishita, Masahito Yamashita
Kyoko Matsubara, Hideyuki Motohashi
Farewell, legendary gold
|ふくだ忠 阿部どん 飯田つとむ 川崎博嗣 北川美樹 佐藤真人|
Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Hirotsugu Kawasaki, Miki Kitagawa, Masato Sato
Flames don't suit diamonds
|飯島正勝 牧野行洋 道下有希子 古田詔治 北川美樹 佐藤真人|
Masakatsu Iijima, Yukihiro Makino, Yukiko Michishita, Shoji Furuta, Miki Kitagawa, Masato Sato
Beirut moving bank heist plan
鈴木大司 宇都木勇 中矢卓 新井淑子
Hiroshi Suzuki, Isamu Utsuki, Taku Nakaya, Yoshiko Arai
Sleep deeply, my friend
|長岡康史 伊藤富士子 飯島正勝 道下有希子 北川美樹 佐藤真人|
Yasuchika Nagaoka, Fujiko Ito, Masakatsu Iijima, Yukiko Michishita, Miki Kitagawa, Masato Sato
We ain't no angels
ふくだ忠 阿部どん 飯田つとむ 川崎博嗣
Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Ghost of New York
|柳野龍男 佐藤真人 青海房子 北川美樹|
Tatsuo Ryuno, Masato Sato, Fusako Oume, Miki Kitagawa
Yuzo Aoki, Tatsuo Ryuno
Codeword: Alaskan star
|山下将仁 柳野龍男 道下有希子 北川美樹 青梅房子 佐藤真|
Masahito Yamashita, Tatsuo Ryuno, Yukiko Michishita, Miki Kitagawa, Fusako Oume, Makoto Sato
Alaska's stars are payment from hell
|道下有希子 飯島正勝 佐藤真人 細谷満 北川美樹 三浦嘉友|
Yukiko Michishita, Masakatsu Iijima, Masato Sato, Mitsuru Hosotani, Miki Kitagawa, Yoshitomo Miura
Let's go on a honeymoon to the moon
Masaharu Morinaka, Yuji Hamano
The name of the cocktail is revenge
|山崎理 柳野龍男 曽我部孝 青梅房子 蒲木伸男 佐久間清明|
Osamu Yamasaki, Tatsuo Ryuno, Takashi Sogabe, Fusako Oume, Nobuo Kamaki, Kiyoaki Sakuma
Yuzo Aoki, Tatsuo Ryuno
|31||逆転 逆転 また逆転|
One turn of events after another
ふくだ忠 阿部どん 飯田つとむ 川崎博嗣
Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Hirotsugu Kawasaki
The $10-million key
|柳野龍男 曽我部孝 青梅房子 佐藤真人 道下有希子 北川美樹|
Tatsuo Ryuno, Takashi Sogabe, Fusako Oume, Masato Sato, Yukiko Michishita, Miki Kitagawa
Dangerous games of a boy genius
|柳野龍男 佐藤真人 青梅房子 道下有希子 北川美樹 飯島正勝|
Tatsuo Ryuno, Masato Sato, Fusako Oume, Yukiko Michishita, Miki Kitagawa, Masakatsu Iijima
Tatsuo Ryuno, Takashi Sogabe
ふくだ忠 阿部どん 飯田つとむ 川崎博嗣
Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Hirotsugu Kawasaki
The target at the far edge of the snow
|森中正春 曽我部孝 浜野裕治 佐藤真人 道下有希子 北川美樹|
Masaharu Morinaka, Takashi Sogabe, Yuji Hamano, Masato Sato, Yukiko Michishita, Miki Kitagawa
Masaharu Morinaka, Yuzo Aoki
When the eagle descends
|柳野龍男 大森利之 古田詔治 長谷川仁 町田由美 斉藤弘行|
Tatsuo Ryuno, Toshiyuki Omori, Shoji Furukawa, Hitoshi Hasegawa, Yumi Machida, Hiroyuki Saito
Takumi Kitahara, Tatsuo Ryuno
Pops gets really mad
|丸山政次 佐藤真人 山岸宏 道下有希子 北川美樹 菖蒲隆彦|
Masatsugu Maruyama, Masato Sato, Hiroshi Yamagishi, Yukiko Michishita, Miki Kitagawa, Takahiko Ayame
Masatoshi Kobayashi, Takashi Sogabe
Leticia who loved me
|大森利之 佐藤真人 長谷川仁 道下有希子 町田由美 菖蒲隆彦|
Toshiyuki Omori, Masato Sato, Hitoshi Hasegawa, Yukiko Michishita, Yumi Machida, Takahiko Ayame
Takumi Kitagawa, Yuzo Aoki
Gold to the rival
ふくだ忠 阿部どん 飯田つとむ 川崎博嗣
Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Free-for-all over a single piece of treasure
Tatsuo Ryuno, Shoji Yoshida
Night of martial order
|長谷川仁 町田由美 牟田清司 道下有希子 菖蒲隆彦 佐藤真人|
Hitoshi Hasegawa, Yumi Machida, Seiji Muta, Yukiko Michishita, Takahiko Ayame, Masato Sato
Grab the pyramid insurance money
山内昇寿郎 中矢卓 松岡秀明 田中二郎
Toshio Yamauchi, Taku Nakaya, Hideaki Matsuoka, Jiro Tanaka
Farewell to Cinderella
ふくだ忠 阿部どん 飯田つとむ 川崎博嗣
Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Our dad's a thief
|大森利之 道下有希子 長谷川仁 佐藤真人 町田由美 菖蒲隆彦|
Toshiyuki Omori, Yukiko Michishita, Hitoshi Hasegawa, Masato Sato, Yumi Machida, Takahiko Ayame
Salud to the con game
|佐藤真人 佐藤雪絵 道下有希子 井上昭子 菖蒲隆彦 長岡康史|
Masato Sato, Yukie Sato, Yukiko Michishita, Shoko Inoue, Takahiko Ayame, Yasuchika Nagaoka
My wings are scrap
小野隆哉 西島義隆 小西洋子 梅津美幸
Takaya Ono, Yoshitaka Nishijima, Yoko Konishi, Miyuki Umetsu
A famous painting
|兵頭敬 柳野龍男 高橋明信 古田詔治 須貝美佳|
Takashi Hyodo, Tatsuo Ryuno, Akinobu Takahashi, Shoji Furuta, Mika Sugai
|菖蒲隆彦 柳野龍男 宇都宮智 長岡康史 道下有希子 飯島正勝|
Takahiko Ayame, Tatsuo Ryuno, Satoru Utsunomiya, Yasuchika Nagaoka, Yukiko Michishita, Masakatsu Iijima
The day pops was adopted
|川崎博嗣 福田忠 あべどん 飯田つとむ 高坂希太郎 清水洋|
Hirotsugu Kawasaki, Tadashi Fukuda, Don Abe, Tsutomu Iida, Kitaro Kosaka, Hiroshi Shimizu
Order to destroy nuclear submarine Ivanov
|柳野龍男 青木悠三 菖蒲隆彦 柳田勤 高坂希太郎 尾鷲英俊|
Tatsuo Ryuno, Yuzo Aoki, Takahiko Ayame, Tsutomu Yagita, Kitaro Kosaka, Hidetoshi Owashi
A selection of random images from the series:
Whew, it took a lot of work, but I finally finished watching the entire Lupin III part 2 series. It was enjoyable, even when the episodes weren't particularly brilliant. I kept a brief diary of the episodes in the comments of the original post. I wanted to make sure I hadn't missed anything really notable in my original post, to make sure it was comprehensive. For the most part, my original post covered all the bases, but I thought I'd add a few little things I discovered along the way.
→ Must-watch episodes
There weren't that many notable episodes I forgot to mention, but I found one episode that wasn't on my radar at all and is a must-see: Episode 73 is a great racing episode full of insane antics and great directing. If you only watch a few episodes in the show, watch this episode alongside the good Telecom episodes and a few Yuzo Aoki episodes and Kazuhide Tomonaga episodes. Usually you can narrow down who was responsible for making an episode good in this show - usually it's either an animator or a director. But in this case it's hard to pin down exactly who is responsible for making this episode so good. The writer, the storyboarder and the director all did OK work throughout the show, but nothing quite like this episode. (While I'm at it, I talked about the Aoki-Urasawa Broadway episodes before, but episode 117 is the best one after the Kabashima episode (78) and the Telecom episode (143).)
→ Seijun Suzuki
The great Nikkatsu yakuza film director became the 'supervisor' of this show around the episode 50 mark, and his imprint can clearly be felt in the increasing nonsensical/crazy tone. I suspect that it's the influence of Seijun Suzuki, if anything, that is to thank for the craziness of episode 73. Seijun Suzuki also co-directed the Babylon movie together with Shigetsugu Yoshida, which gives clear indication of his style.
→ Seiji Suzuki
Although Yuji Ohno is well known for making the music of Lupin III all these years, Seiji Suzuki is the music director of the show. (For some reason I thought Seiji and Seijun were brothers, but it seems that may not be the case.) The two of them have remained in these posts throughout the years. Seiji Suzuki was one of the major figures responsible for giving the show its unique flavor due to his very unusual way of arranging music. Rather than laying down tracks in the traditional way, he inserts little shards of different tracks with split-second timing, using the music almost like a sound effect. He is very playful, and he has a good sense of humor about the music, and a broad selection. Beyond arranging Yuji Ohno's amazing music, he sometimes unexpectedly inserts incongruously serious familiar classical pieces to heighten the absurdity of a situation.
→ Hatsuki Tsuji
There were a lot of 'solo' episodes in the show. Kazuhide Tomonaga, Hiromi Yokoyama, Junzaburo Takahata, Fumio Sakai, Tsukasa Tannai, Yuzo Aoki, Takeshi Yamazaki and Tanaka Atsushi each drew solo episodes at one time or another. Tsuji Hatsuki drew the most, and I found watching the show that I enjoyed his work a lot, even though it didn't move in a flamboyant way like Kazuhide Tomonaga and wasn't drawn interestingly like Yuzo Aoki. Episodes 83, 107 and 117 are good spots to get a taste for Hatsuki Tsuji at his best. He just seems like a real pro with real power.
→ Junzaburo Takahata
This guy was an animator at Tokyo Movie in the late 1970s. He was a regular throughout Gyators at the very least, but I haven't seen his name very much elsewhere. He has perhaps the most pleasing and unique drawing style of anyone in the second Lupin III series after Yuzo Aoki. The two even worked together several times on the show. His characters are very well stylized, but differently from Yuzo Aoki, more lanky and more fluidly animated, closer to Monkey Punch's original. The beginning of episodes 79 and 89 and the car crash in 85 showcase Takahata's animation style well. He uses more drawings and has a strong sense of momentum.
→ Uncredited Yuzo Aoki animation
It turns out there was uncredited Aoki animation in most of Aoki's storyboard episodes, and it's all very identifiable and as delectable as any of his credited work. He did uncredited animation in episodes 89, 117, 129, 138, 146 (not an Aoki storyboard) and 149.
→ Yasumi Mikamoto
I didn't bother translating the writing/storyboarding/directing credits for every episode for one because it would have cluttered up the credits and for two because, for the most part, there isn't that noticeable a difference from episode to episode in terms of the directing. Yasumi Mikamoto is one of the few directors on the show who did seem to elevate the directing to a slightly higher level. His episodes are often tighter and better balanced. Episodes 116, 137 and 148 are good examples of Mikamoto's directing.
I talked about Nippon Animation's Jacky the Bearcub before. It was a 26-episode show about a bearcub raised by a native american boy in the Sierra Nevadas at the end of the 19th century. It aired June 7 to December 6, 1977. Despite being neglected compared with its more famous World Masterpiece Theater cousins, it had some quality work in it that made it worth revisiting - most notably character designs by Yasuji Mori, animation by Toshiyasu Okada, art by Nizo Yamamoto and Kazue Ito, and even some storyboarding by Isao Takahata.
Well, Nippon Animation came back with another sally in the Seton Animal Chronicles series two years later. This time they adapted Seton's Bannertail, the Story of a Gray Squirrel. It was another 26-episode show that aired April 7 to September 29, 1979, also on TV Asahi as opposed to Fuji TV, the home of the WMT, where Anne of Green Gables was airing concurrently.
I just had the opportunity to watch the first episode of Bannertail for the first time, and it was a very nice piece of work fully the equal of Jacky - as it should be; the production staff is nearly identical. The story is about a boy in the northeastern U.S. in the late 19th century who finds baby squirrel abandoned in the forest one day. Back home, their housecat just gave birth, but her kittens were given away, so she takes to Banner and raises him as her own. Banner grows up thinking he's a cat until one day he's forced to return to the wild and re-discover his natural instincts.
Though aimed at a younger demographic, this episode had some quality production that makes it far more enjoyable than shows of a similar ilk, whose crude production makes them of zero interest to older animation fans such as myself. The episode mostly consists of Banner running around being a silly little baby squirrel, harassing the dog, playing with a frog, discovering fire, etc. - the squirrel version of what happened in episode 1 of Jacky the Bearcub. But there's something endearing and enjoyable about the whole thing. It's like a kid's version of the World Masterpiece Theater, with the same realistic style of the directing, which doesn't play up the antics for cuteness, rather playing it more straight than the designs seem to suggest; fluid and nuanced animation; and realistic background art.
I didn't expect to enjoy the show. Judging by the designs, I was anticipating something with the token realism and plain animation of the tepid outings of this ilk that Nippon Animation produced in the 1980s. But in style and sensibility this episode felt similar to the early classic shows in the World Masterpiece Theater.
During the first few years after its founding, between 1974 and about 1980, Nippon Animation was at the height of its powers. It's the shows they made during this period that made them such a unique studio. Those shows are unique because of the particular combination of talent working at the studio at the time. It's not just Takahata and Miyazaki, though they undoubtedly were the magnets attracting the good staff. Their work also clearly had an influence on Nippon Animation's other shows.
The two Seton shows are also quintessential Nippon Animation shows in that they have the same basic sensibility as the World Masterpiece Theater shows: a faithful, reverential portrayal of nature; a progressive but humanistic sense of morality; and a narrative always driven by natural events that could believably occur in the natural world.
The aesthetics are the same, too. The background art and layouts are pared down due to the constraints of the TV format, but naturalistic and believable just like the World Masterpiece Theater. While watching the first episode of Bannertail, I was surprised to find that, despite the talking animals and the cartoony designs, the basic world view felt the same as the WMT.
The way Bannertail is animated is surprisingly accurate, if you go beyond the design. He zips around on the ground in a way that's unexpectedly precisely timed for effect. Finely tuned movement is not what one would expect based on the designs, but that's precisely what Yasuji Mori was about: investing those simple round designs with delicately nuanced personality. Most of Nippon Animation's post-1980 work in the same vein is indeed far more perfunctory and uninspired in its movement. The animation in Bannertail has a feeling similar to Yoichi Kotabe's animation - deceptively simple in its form, but surprisingly nuanced, elegant and refined in its sense of timing. During the first few years of Nippon Animation, even the minor shows like the Seton shows felt great to watch because there was this unique sensibility in the animation. Contemporaneous Toei staff didn't develop in this direction at all.
The movement reminds me slightly of the way the animals move in Gauche the Cellist - pared down but fundamentally true to their species. When you see the mother cat galloping away, you recognize it because you've seen cats running that way. When the house is burning, the flames have a way of flickering and roving that feels familiar and real. It's a style of animating that evolved around this time in the natural course of things through the WMT, and disappeared because there were no shows on which it was needed, or the times called for new styles of animation. It's probably because the material and the characters were so simple here that the animation was able to be made so nuanced. There's no need to waste energy on needless details. You can imagine that each cel in the ep has just one little blob of drawing.
Nippon Animation's basic approach during these years eventually evolved into the Ghibli movies. This series, though not directly touched by either Takahata or Miyazaki, feels inevitably influenced by what they did on the WMT. That's what makes the early Nippon Animation work special - they did all this finely observed realistic work within the confines of TV schedules, which if anything makes it an even more impressive achievement than the more permissive schedule of a big-budget movie.
Yoshio Kabashima came up with a very different way of moving little creatures in Osamu Dezaki's Gamba's Adventure from 1975 that serves as a nice contrast: Kabashima's creatures move in a more dynamic, expressive, limited, staccato way, whereas the animals in the Seton shows more in a more fluid and realistic way. Both are well-realized approaches in their own right.
I've only seen episode 1, and I have my doubts as to whether the rest of the show remains as impressively detailed in its animation, because there's one person to thank for what makes the animation of episode 1 so good: Toshiyasu Okada. Without his touch, this should could very easily fall into the mire of being merely a cutesy kid's show.
I love Yasuji Mori's work both as an animator and designer/illustrator - even his more kiddy later stuff - but his designs for Jacky and Bannertail go in a very different direction from Seton's original. It's testament perhaps to the flexibility and the deceptive richness of his designs that, despite looking so kiddy on the outside, when they're brought alive properly in animation, they feel very realistic. Even if you haven't seen these two series you can imagine what I'm talking about by thinking of the rich movement of his animals in the classic Toei films of the late 50s/early 60s.
Of course, by this time Yasuji Mori wasn't animating anymore. Who is it that brought his animals alive here? Toshiyasu Okada. He wasn't the only person animating the two shows, of course; that would be impossible. But he did a tremendous amount of work, and he did numerous solo episodes, and his episodes are the ones that bring the characters alive in a way that you can never forget.
Toshiyasu Okada is one of the unjustly forgotten animators of yesteryear. He had a genius for rich, realistic movement in the realm of limited TV animation that was quite unlike any other. It's thanks to his animation that Jacky and Bannertail feel like real animals despite their cartoonish designs.
Like episode 1 of Jacky, episode 1 of Bannertail was animated solo by Toshiyasu Okada. His animation lays the framework for Bannertail's style of movement: zippy and fun to watch, but surprisingly nuanced and infused with a realistic sense of timing at the right moment, depending on the shot. It's a different kind of quality from what we're used to seeing today, but just as valid, if not more. The closest current analogue to Okada's style I can think of is Okiura. He uses lots of drawings to create minute acting instead of falling back on inserting deformed drawings to achieve an effect. Much of today's animation by younger hotshot animators feels too self-consciously 'sakuga', striving above all for cool effect. Looking cool has replaced solid acting skills. Flash is in (in both senses of the term), traditional animation knowhow is out. I think Okada's animation has a lot to teach young animators in the Japanese animation industry today.
Also impressive is how Okada manages to do the entire episode himself and there isn't a moment that feels like a throwaway. And he uses a lot of drawings. It's very fluid and rich animation, considering the context.
Toshiyasu Okada was primarily active as an animator in the 1970s, and as a designer in the early 1980s.
Okada started out at Toei, eventually quitting and moving to a subcontracting studio called Ad 5, where he continued to work on Toei shows. He quit Ad 5 in 1973 after doing a lot of sakkan work on Babel II in order to go work under Takahata and Miyazaki on Heidi at Zuiyo. From there, he presumably moved straight to Nippon Animation when it was founded soon thereafter, as he can be seen working on most of the 'big' Nippon Animation productions that followed.
Many people the world over will know Okada, if not by name, from his character designs for the beloved show The Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982-83). He was also the character designer of The Fantastic Adventure of Nils (1980-81).
But personally, it's for his work as an animator that I wish he would be remembered. He isn't necessarily easily identifiable like Yoshinori Kanada (also an ex-Toei animator who developed over pretty much the same period), but he's also a very talented animator, just of a very different kind. His work stands out in the way that I think good animation should stand out: not because it has a self-indulgent, flamboyant visual style. It stands out because of its fundamental quality of movement, his ability to breathe life into characters, not just draw crazy drawings. That's one thing I particularly like about him: he found a completely different and equally valid answer to the question of how to create good animation in a limited TV environment, and his answer bore no resemblance whatsoever to that of the Kanada school. No jagged lines, silly poses, split-second insertions, or effects just for the sake of looking cool - just solid character animation. Deformation is used way too often nowadays to cover up for lack of animation skills or simple impatience to sit down and do the work of animating a character in great detail. This is one of the things I appreciated about Kaiba. Its use of simple, pared-down character designs, intentionally or not, forced more nuanced character animation. Ryotaro Makihara is a rare example of a latter-day animator skilled in this kind of animation.
Episode 1 of Jacky and Bannertail are probably the best place to start to begin to appreciate Toshiyasu Okada's work. I'm not sure if he worked on any other episodes in the rest of the shows. Other places to see work by Okada: He did animation in episodes 1-4 and 9 of Heidi in 1974, even-numbered episodes between 6 and 34 on 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in 1976, and episode 7 of Future Boy Conan, and he alternated as sakkan on A Dog of Flanders in 1975.
Ernest Thompson Seton in Japan
Ernest Thompson Seton was a great naturalist and writer who published books about animals in the early decades of the 20th century. His stories explained the workings of the natural world to children through the seasoned eyes of a naturalist. He achieved the remarkable feat of conveying the rich personality of his animal protagonists entirely through stories built around their natural behaviors. They speak human because Seton was human, but you can sense that it's just a translation for convenience. He illustrated his own books with lively and realistic drawings that make his books a pleasure to read even now, more than 100 years since their publishing. You can read Bannertail, the Story of a Gray Squirrel online on the Internet Archive, as well as other Seton books including Monarch, the Big Bear of Tallac, which formed the basis of Jacky the Bearcub. Monarch was one of his early books, from 1904, while Bannertail was one of his later, from 1922.
Seton's work has had a lasting appeal in Japan starting around the time of his late books in the 1930s, when his books finally began to be translated into Japanese. None other than Shirato Sanpei made a good gekiga-style manga version of his stories in the 1960s, and an omnibus anime adaptation was made by Eiken in 1989. The Eiken version appears to be drawn in a more realistic style closer to Seton's original drawings than the two Nippon Animation adaptations. But comparing the opening of the Eiken version with the movement in the two Nippon Animation versions is a good lesson in the dynamics of realism in animation: you can have realistically drawn animation that doesn't feel real, and cartoonish drawings that feel real. The more realistic and studied animation of the Nippon Animation shows makes them feel more real than the literal but empty surface realism of the Eiken show.
A Japanese-produced adaptation of the French picture book series Rita et Machin aired one year ago on NHK. It's about the adventures of an energetic little girl and her lazy pet dog. The pictures are appealingly spare and simple and the stories have an easy and genteel understated humor that makes them enjoyable even for an adult.
Considering how many good studios France has, I'm surprised they chose to do this in Japan. But they did a good job adapting it in a way that remains true to the atmosphere and look of the original, without 'animefying' it.
The 26-episode show was co-produced by Nippon Animation and French studio Planet Nemo, but it seems to have been mostly done in Japan. And many of the episodes were not done by Nippon Animation staff. That's what makes the show so good, actually. They got some surprising outside faces to do episodes. From Madhouse they got Toshio Hirata, Hirotsugu Hamazaki, Manabu Ohashi, Hideki Futamura and Hiroshi Shimizu. From Studio Live they got Kojina Hiroshi and Hiroaki Yoshikawa.
But the most interesting thing about the show is that someone on the show took the bold initiative of crossing the indie/industry divide to invite several indie animators I've talked about before on the blog to each do a solo episode. Ayaka Nakata, Yosuke Oomomo, Hiroco Ichinose and Tomoyoshi Joko of Decovocal, Oswald Kato and Hotchi Kazuhiro each did a solo episode. The show was co-directed by indie animator PON Kozutsumi, whose short Organic I just tweeted, and I suspect it may have been him who invited these people.
It's vindicating of the talent of today's new generation of indie animators, and suggests how much richer anime could be if there were more mixing between indie and industry, that their episodes are easily the best episodes in the show.
Episode 7 by Hotchi Kazuhiro has some of the most distinctive and pleasing animation in the show. Hotchi Kazuhiro also drew backgrounds for a few episodes. He's been active now for about 10 years as an independent animator. He has a unique graphic style with lush, densely drawn images. See his web site for some examples. Doudou from 2002 is probably my favorite short he's done.
Episode 9 by Tomoyoshi Joko of Decovocal has rich animation and clever ideas, with spoons competing over strawberries turning into a bear and dragon with horns locked. Episode 18 by Ayaka Nakata was perhaps the most impressive of the show, full of great compositions, lovely drawings, detailed animation and imaginative transformations. Episode 19 by Yosuke Oomomo was a delightful musical episode with toys that come alive and a couch that turns into a piano.
Even the episodes that didn't stand out like these were enjoyable to watch because the characters are fun and the humor isn't overdone. The show is for children but it's not kiddy and inane. That's perhaps what has made the original such a best-seller internationally. The humor translates in every language.
I like the 5-minute format of the show because, first of all, it's easy to watch. Many anime episodes feel needlessly long. Each episode here felt the perfect length. The short length also allows a talented creator to hone the episode more.
It's great to see anime creators set to the task of animating something so different like this. It can only help broaden their horizons and show that there are lots more styles out there to explore. They need to make more home-grown shows that are as visually unique as this. They've got picture books that are just as nice - viz The 11 Cats.
Planet Nemo offers one episode of the UK English dub up for viewing on their web site. It's episode 21 in the Japanese ordering, by Madhouse veteran Manabu Ohashi. Manabu Ohashi also happens to have headed the animation of the actual episode 1 that introduces the characters, and the episode stands out for its more nuanced and observed movement. His work in Little Twins similarly stood out in a subtle way.
Episode 10 headed by Madhouse animator/director Hirotsugu Hamazaki had some of the most expert animation in the show. It was restrained but you could sense the technical expertise with the complicated shots of the fishing. It was nice to see one of my favorite Madhouse figures, Toshio Hirata (whom I wrote about long ago) here with an episode, as this material is eminently suited to his temperament, with its languid pacing and gentle humor. The person who did episode 20, incidentally, Hiroshi Kojina, is a longtime Studio Live animator who replaced the late great Toyoo Ashida as president of the company upon his recent death. It was a nice surprise to see Hideki Futamura here, as I'm a fan of his work, but I don't know what his presence signifies; is he at Madhouse now too?
リタとナントカ Rita and Whatsit staff list
|Title||Storyboard||Director||Animation Director||Key animation|
|#1: Rita and Whatsit||Masaaki Kidokoro||Manabu Ohashi|
|#2: Rita and Whatsit go to the ocean||Jun Takagi||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Yasuko Sakuma||Yujiro Moriyama, Noboru Takeuchi|
|#3: Rita and Whatsit have a guest||PON Kozutsumi||Saya Takamatsu|
|#4: Whatsit's house||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#5: Rita and Whatsit play soccer||Oswald Kato (+composite)|
|#6: Rita and Whatsit go to the pool||Kazuma Fujimori||Yuki Hishinuma|
|#7: Rita and Whatsit on Sunday||Yoshiyuki Ichihashi||Yasuko Sakuma||Miho Higashi|
|#8: Rita and Whatsit go on a trip||Hotchi Kazuhiro|
|#9: Rita and Whatsit have an argument||Tomoyoshi Joko||Decovocal (+finishing & composite)|
|#10: Rita and Whatsit go fishing||Hirotsugu Hamazaki|
|#11: Rita and Whatsit's secret hiding place||Toshio Hirata|
|#12: Rita and Whatsit and the lost baby duck||Hiroco Ichinose||Decovocal (+finishing & composite)|
|#13: Rita and Whatsit go on a picnic||Kazuma Fujimori||Hideaki Uehara||Hiroki Fujiwara||Moe Usami |
|#14: Rita and Whatsit's masquerade party||Hiroaki Yoshikawa|
|#15: Rita's new bike||Hiroshi Shimizu|
|#16: Rita and Whatsit go to Paris||Kazuma Fujimori||Masaru Yasukawa||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#17: Rita and Whatsit go shopping||Kazuma Fujimori||Yuki Hishinuma|
|#18: Whatsit's birthday||Ayaka Nakata|
|#19: Rita and Whatsit put on a concert||Yosuke Oomomo|
|#20: Rita becomes a detective||Hiroshi Kojina|
|#21: Rita and Whatsit go to school||Masaaki Kidokoro||Manabu Ohashi|
|#22: Rita and Whatsit gardening||PON Kozutsumi|
|#23: Whatsit catches a cold||Hideki Futamura||Hiroki Fujiwara|
|#24: Rita and Whatsit wish upon a star||Teppei Tani|
|#25: Rita and Whatsit go for a walk||Yuki Hishinuma||PON Kozutsumi||Saya Takamatsu|
|#26: Rita and Whatsit's Christmas||Masaaki Kidokoro||Yasuko Sakuma||Yoshiaki Fukamachi|