Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Saturday, January 8, 2011

11:14:18 pm , 300 words, 5536 views     Categories: Animation

Kenji Matsumoto in Yumekui Merry

I turned on Shigeyasu Yamauchi's new show for J.C. Staff called Yumekui Merry not knowing what to expect, and was amused when the very first shot seemed to be art by Kenji Matsumoto, the awesome artist he had working for him on his last show Casshern Sins. (I wrote about his involvement on that show here and here) I immediately checked the credits and indeed, Kenji Matsumoto and Yukie Yuki are the only two credited with background art. I'm guessing Yukie Yuki did the stuff in the cat world at the beginning. She was also involved in Casshern Sins and is a great background artist in her own right, one of the best. Matsumoto's paintings are for the most part fairly obvious. They have a very similar gritty feeling to what he did in Casshern Sins. There are some sections that seem to be painted over photos that don't look too great, but otherwise it's mostly very nice BG work in the episode.

The episode itself was a mixed bag of horrible stock anime character cliches, some decent animation here and there, a few creative world design ideas, all of it held together by Shigeyasu Yamauchi's usual easily identifiable peculiar directing style that keeps things constantly slightly off-kilter with odd camera angles and frequent unexpected close-ups. Will be worth enduring the annoying anime characters to see what Shigeyasu Yamauchi does with it.

Good animators in the episode include Maru Kanako (who did a solo episode in Casshern Sins), veteran ex-Giants animator Tadashi Shida, Kensuke Ishikawa (who did a solo episode on Wold Destruction ep 3), Minky Momo 2/Detective Conan CD Mari Tominaga, Casshern Sins CD/AD and regular Yamauchi partner Yoshihiko Umakoshi, Yoshihiko Umakoshi associate Terumi Nishii, ero animator and Afro Samurai CD Hiroya Iijima, and Hercules animator Ken Otsuka.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

05:04:58 pm , 1626 words, 2666 views     Categories: Animation

Shoka

Shoka (Calligrapher) was this year's Animax script contest winner. It aired a few months back, but I just watched it. The film was produced by Production I.G. Anyone who liked I.G.'s Windy Tales or the older Hamaji's Resurrection episode of The Hakkenden should check this out. It has a very strong graphical design style that seems like a cross of those two. This is an anime that you want to check out if you want to see something slightly unusual and edgy in anime. This is a show that is all about the crazy graphics.

In sharp contrast with the animation, the content of the episode is completely conventional. This script contest is clearly aimed at fostering script-writing talent who will be able to create work that does nothing whatsoever to challenge the conventions of the industry, not creating auteurs with an original vision. This episode felt like a humdrum new permutation of all of the anime tropes we've seen rehashed over and over again through the years - the basic idea of a group of badasses with special powers fighting a sinister group who throw a new set of baddies at the good guys each episode. Just between you and me, let me share with you the secret formula for coming up with this material: Choose a location; choose an era; choose between sci-fi, magic and ninjas; populate with characters making sure not to deviate from the personality template; mix thoroughly; serve; repeat. Voila. Instant hit. This was a one-off, but they even introduced the other characters at the end, as if setting up for the next episode, so it was clearly intended as a pilot and created for the purpose of series development.

Frankly, if they create a series out of this crap and it's as visually awesome as this episode was, then sign me up right now! This thing was just a blast to watch. There are shows that have more interesting concepts and actually do something original and creative with the directing and the story that are less interesting to watch than this thing was. The characters and the story are utterly conventional and uninteresting. The designs of the characters, despite the unusual lines with which they are rendered, are something of a compromise between the realistic and conventional anime characters. In essence, they are conventional anime characters. They are just drawn in a crazy and loose way.

Which brings us to what makes this episode worth watching, and that is the drawings and animation. I mentioned Hamaji's Resurrection before, and the comparison applies on a number of levels. Among the reasons Hamaji's Resurrection was such a breath of fresh air was that the characters were drawn in a realistically ugly way. This applies to an extent in Shoka, but that is clearly not the main intent. The characters here aren't nearly as 'real' as they were in Hamaji's Resurrection. In Hamaji's Resurrection the drawings were very sketchy and imperfect, with the lines all jagged and the forms of the body loose and flowing in a way not abiding by the laws of human anatomy. I think that was more of a by-product of shortness of schedule than necessarily a deliberate stylistic decision. In Shoka they're taking what was a refreshing freedom from excessively pretty drawings in Hamaji's Resurrection, and turning up the volume by 100%, making every drawing deliberately full of jagged, uneven, criss-crossing lines.

Shoka is clearly massively indebted to Hamaji's Resurrection. I could even identify certain layouts that seemed to be lifted verbatim from Hamaji's Resurrection (presumably in homage, natch).

Even the way of drawing certain things like the eyes seemed influenced by Hamaji's Resurrection. I'm not saying that as a criticism or anything; I do think the style they have adopted is facile and loses its impact fairly quickly, quite unlike Hamaji's Resurrection, but I'm glad to see them creating something raw and hard-edged where every drawing really has a lot of character and isn't so concerned about creating a saleable commodity. The whole show should be the saleable commodity, which it will be if you create something that is conceptually and stylistically unified in the way this episode is, despite the drawings looking crappy and 'off' if taken on an individual basis.

They go way further than Hamaji's Resurrection in terms of the drawings. In Shoka, every line has been scrupulously misplaced. It's like they're gleefully inverting the unwritten rule that anime drawings have to have clean lines and forms. I think I didn't see a single 'normal' line in the entire film. They even perversely have a little piece of line sticking out from the line used to draw the nose, which has the same effect on your concept of character drawings as a loose thread on a shirt that makes you want to yank it off. Maybe letting a few jagged lines through on the clothes would have been forgiven in the past, while the face would have been corrected to model, but never the face. Here they've gone the next step in even doing that on the face. The drawings here actually remind me a lot of the drawings in Hisashi Mori's animated sequences. Shinya Ohira is of course one of the first to draw like this, in Hamaji's Resurrection and even more pointedly in his later solo animation work.

Another episode done in a similar style was one of Yasuhiro Aoki's Tweeny Witches OVAs, the one with drawings by Hideki Nagamachi.

Masaaki Yuasa's animation actually has a similar 'wavy' style to the line, even looking as far back as his Chibi Maruko-chan pieces - one that is intentional, stylistic, as opposed to the product of haste. You also see the same sort of crossed lines in Yuasa's layouts, but very rarely in the finished product. I like the idea of drawing crossed and trailing lines in the finished product, although I find the degree to which they made each and every single little line crossed and trailing to be a bit pedantic and self-defeating.

The storyboarder and director of this film was Makoto Yamada, one of the founding members of Studio Hercules, who in recent years has been working a lot of the video game animation cuts for the Tales series. He has been active since the early 90s, having been involved as an animator on many projects with high-quality animation like Steam Boy, Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet, to say nothing of Otaku no Bideo, Macross Plus and Sound Insect Noiseman.

The character designer and animation director was Hirokazu Kojima, a younger face who drew one of his first genga in 2002 on Haibane Renmei, then went on to work on UFOTable shows like Dokkoida, Futakoi Alternative and The Coyote Ragtime Show before moving on to Gainax shows like Guren Lagan and Shikabane Hime.

But enough about the drawings. The animation was quite lively throughout thanks to a strong animator roster that includes many young faces who have been active on a famous Gainax show and elsewhere, including Matsuo Yusuke (ex-Kyoto Animation, did the animation for the impressive Black Rock Shooter pilot), Hiroyuki Imaishi (Daruma?), Atsuko Nakajima (famous veteran animator and illustrator who has been involved in most Rumiko Takahashi anime since Maison Ikkoku down to the present day), Shinichi Kurita (has worked alongside ex-gif animators Kenichi Kutsuna and Shingo Yamashita), Yasuyuki Kai (did lots of work on Soul Eater), Ayumu Kotake (Gainax animator heavily involved in GL), Ron Kamiya (ex-gif animator), Yasuomi Umetsu, Tokuyuki Matsutake and even Ko Yoshinari. Yasunori Miyazawa was there, too, of course, this being an I.G. Production production. Presumably he again handled the climax involving a giant creature, as he always does. The effects of the explosion at the end were beautifully stylized in the typical Miyazawa style.

Okay, maybe a little more about the drawings. I found the drawings of the old man at the end of the episode to be among the strongest in the episode, even though it's just one shot. The lines are thicker, but each and every line on the face works to establish the character's gruff visage, though you can't tell if some of them are supposed to indicate a beard or wrinkles. I find this to be one of the more real and believable designs in the episode. The combination of not-so-original designs with sketchy lines felt a bit mismatched in the other characters, whereas the combination works better in the more realistic old man here. Or maybe I've just got an old man fetish. I remember feeling the same way about the drawings of the old man in Street Fighter Alpha Generations.

This film is by no means as revolutionary and conceptually unified as Hamaji's Resurrection, which feels more, not less, of an achievement with every passing year in which the industry becomes increasingly inbred and hostile to creative thinking. But it's still a good direction. It shows that today there is a young generation of animators who are interested in experimenting graphically, and who are not under the misconception that animation is all about erotic drawings, but rather about creating exciting movement, and that maybe, just maybe, there are other styles out there, other ways of drawing, other than the same old way that everybody draws in the industry. Too bad there aren't many studios out there that are daring enough to try out novel approaches. We're lucky that at least there are three or four studios that consistently put out work that pushes the boundaries on conventional design thinking, but I think there should be more. So much more creative work is done in the field of motion graphics advertising and music videos. We need to start seeing some of that innovation and creativity in anime.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

11:51:26 am , 1099 words, 3931 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Stranger

I had a chance to watch Masahiro Ando's Sword of the Stranger. Overall I would say it was pretty much what I was expecting, although I was hoping it would hold up a little better as a film and not just as a great action film, which I already knew it would. The premise of the story, once it was finally revealed near the end, was laughable, if not insulting, and considerably took away from any potential dramatic impact. I thought it was sad that this is the best they could come up with, because Japanese culture owes a good deal to Chinese culture, and I see interesting potential in a film that examines a clash of the two cultures, and how they had diverged by that point in history. It's a shame, because everything technically seemed to be spot on. The directing was tight, the characters were interesting (though I was not taken by the designs), the script was quite good in the little details of dialogue and in the way the story moves from scene to scene, and of course the animation was full of exciting action set pieces that gave several talented Bones regulars the chance to strut their stuff. But we seem to have hit an invisible wall attempting to go anything beyond that.

That said, we come away with several very nice action pieces, so who's complaining. Most are from Bones regulars, with a few exceptions from outsiders. It comes as no surprise that the best bit comes from Yutaka Nakamura, the studio's 'kanban' animator, who consistently manages to one-up his previous work, which is saying a lot. He remains one of the most consistently amazing animators out there, a real animator superstar. Takashi Tomioka is another of the best Bones animators, and I've been following his work for a while now, having seen several great examples of his work over the last few years. His main contribution here would be the fight with the whip guy. He also did a good deal at the end around the point where the stranger finally unsheathes his sword. I love the feeling of richness and weight that I always get from his work, with its slow and powerful movements with lots of follow-through. This film probably provides a denser dose of his work than any previous production, so it's a great intro to his work.

There is, in fact, no single unifying style to even the great Bones animators. What makes Japanese animators unique applies even to animators who work at the same studio. Tomioka is as different as can be from Nakamura in the approach to timing, form and acting. The starkest contrast of all, though, is surely with Hidetsugu Ito and Tomioka. Hidetsugu Ito did the opening fight, which moves quite a lot, but in a very different way, much more jumpy, without a strong feeling of weight, but with lots of drawings thrown in to create this constantly moving, chaotic, spontaneous feeling. The drawings are a lot less calculated and refined. My main discovery in this film was an animator named Masahiro Sato. He's apparently been quite prolific over the last decade since doing some early work alongside Yutaka Nakamura on Sunrise's Lodoss Wars, which was made shortly before Bones was founded by Sunrise expats. Here he does the fight on the bridge and the shots of the fighting between the main Chinese baddie and the main Japanese baddie at the climax. His work is closer to Tomioka than Ito, perhaps, in the way we get more of a clean follow-through to the fighting and a feeling of weight in each little movement that makes the fighting more convincing.

One of my favorite animators, and one who turns up in just about every major new production, no matter the studio (he's almost like a litmus test), is Koichi Arai, who here does a bit of fighting - the bit with the arrows where the younger samurai gets knocked off his horse. Another one of my favorite animators, Shuichi Kaneko, is here handling the fire effects - first the temple at the very beginning, and then the flaming arrows during the climax. Alongside Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita (and Mitsuo Iso and Hisashi Ezura on the digital side), Kaneko is one of the small handful of great FX animators active today. I recall first becoming a fan from his mecha work on an episode of Eureka Seven, as well as his work as mecha AD on the FMA movie. He is a master who can handle everything from mecha to natural phenomena. It's not just that his FX are realistic - there's this unexplainable great feeling there in the timing that sets him apart.

Finally, we see animator Hiroyuki Nishimura doing a nice bit - the fight on the stairwell near the end. I know Nishimura primarily from the great action pieces he drew for the early-to-mid-period Shin-chan films. Nishimura had originally started out as an Ajia-Do animator, but soon went freelance and formed a 'pseudo-studio' called Megaten with Shin-chan director Mitsuru Hongo and Shin-chan animator Yoshihiko Takakura (husband of Hayashi Shizuka). Megaten, like Studio Hercules or Studio Torapezoid, is a studio only in the sense that its members are a bunch of friends who are working together in the same place on their own projects. Nishimura's involvement on the Shin-chan films can presumably be traced to his being part of Megaten. Hongo and Nishimura worked together big-time on last year's Deltora Quest, just before Nishimura left Megaten. Interestingly, Mitsuru Hongo came back to Shin-Ei to direct the latest Shin-chan film that just came out not long ago, and Yuasa was involved as set designer again, so it would be surprising if Nishimura were not involved as an animator. The film represents a reunion of the great staff of the early period, when the Shin-chan films were at their most vibrant, and comes at a time when the movie series seemed to be in terminal decline under a succession of short-lived directors. It strikes me as a great move to get him back, and for once I'm looking forward to the new Shin-chan film.

Very quickly the second ep of Bones' Soul Eater featured work by that animator I'd been wondering about, Kazumi Inadome. I don't know what she did, but there was a nice sense of timing in some of the action, so it would make sense to me if she did that part. The third ep wasn't too exciting on the animation front, but the preview of the next ep looked nice.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

07:03:38 pm , 1091 words, 7583 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Watching Mononoke

I haven't been watching much lately, but Mononoke has continued to impress and entertain me in various ways. None of the subsequent episodes have been directed by Kenji Nakamura, but many of them have been truly excellent and up to the level of his work, so either he has a tight grasp over things or he has some good people who know what he's trying to do. Koji Yamazaki was in charge of the latest arc, Nue, and his work was full of enthusiasm. I felt the script for this arc better showcased Chiaki Konaka's talents than the one he did for Umibozu, which came across to me as merely windy and cleaving with the spirit of Nakamura's original (also due to the directing). He tends to try to take control of things with the script, and it doesn't always work, but it did in this arc. This one had a pleasantly informed literary flavor, with all of the little details of the game. Manabu Ishikawa, whom I've never heard of, also wrote a very nice script for the previous arc, Nopperabou, that was possibly my favorite so far, byzantine in its logical twists and turns like all of the rest of the episodes but nonetheless somehow followable and creating a deeper feeling of pathos, with a situation not too beyond the pale of historical reality, like the first arc.

The series seems basically founded on murder mystery structure, but it goes further with that genre than any anime I've seen, seamlessly blending it with a twist of supernatural and a shake of historical, peppered with plenty of stylistic experimentation. The snowflakes in the Nue arc and the wind in the Umibozu arc are great examples of what I think are a great innovation of this series - the unexpected artistic rendering and twisting of these little touches that otherwise would be relegated to thoughtlessly naturalistic treatment elsewhere. These little touches give the show its unique flair. All of the elements of the screen are subject to original thinking like this, which is what I liked about Kenji Nakamura's previous work, so I'm very happy to see that he's using this series as an opportunity to continue to build on that, with lots of creative thinking and innovation put into the presentation of the material. This show has been one of the most mentally challenging and engaging I've seen in a good while. It really engages the viewer. The basic structure is always the same, but the way it's elaborated is always unique and a delight to behold, like the patterns on a Persian rug. I can't say that I understand everything at all times, but the web of meaning is always conscientiously weaved like a good murder mystery, and I find it to be pleasantly intellectually stimulating watching.

Even without great animation it always remains thoroughly engaging, which is a triumph for the director. With great animation it becomes riveting, achieving the ideal - great directing combined with great animation. Several episodes have benefited from work by the great Toei animators of recent years, including Hideki Kakita, Hisashi Mori and Soichiro Matsuda, to say nothing of Takashi Hashimoto himself. Seeing stretches by these great animators on the fabric of a compelling dramatic structure shows that great animation can exist without great directing, but in the end it's more satisfying with, when a great interpretation of acting or motion breathes life into the argument being made by the director.

The first episode started off with a bang, with work from the great Masahiko Kubo, Takaaki Yamashita and protege Tatsuzo Nishita, Takashi Hashimoto and Hideki Kakita. Hashimoto was the AD, and the characters are alive in their rendering in a way they are not quite in later episodes thanks to the supervision of the designer. Soichiro Matsuda I presume to have provided a nice bit in part 2 of Umibozu, episode 4. The finale of the second arc was perhaps the most spectacular episode yet so far in terms of the animation, with work again by Matsuda, Hashimoto, Nishita, Yamashita and Kakita, along with Ken Otsuka (Studio Hercules mecha man who did lots of good work for Toei's recent Gaiking; another Hercules member is also in the series occasionally - Ishino Satoshi), Futoshi Higashide and even Hisashi Mori. The thing that impresses me most, though, is that the embellishments on the screen throughout this episode wind up being just as breathtaking as the breathtaking movement created by these great animators - the contrast of the beautiful movement of the black-silhouetted fish with the CGI goldfish floating in the air, the CGI space covered in a curious mash of paintings and abstract patterns, the bold use of colors. The first part of Nue featured some more work by Matsuda. Matsuda is quickly becoming one of my favorite new faces. I assume he must have done the memorable and daring opening sequence. Explosion master Hideki Kakita was in the latest ep, 9. The characters were very nice in this ep, and the climax was one of the more visually dazzling. I liked the quality of this climax because it occurred at the intersection between directing and animation.

The art of this series is just as boldly confrontational as the directing, and is a huge and indispensable part of the show's success. The art of the Umibozu arc remains with me in particular - the stylization of the ship, of the clouds, the wind, the colors. This is some of the most beautiful image-making I've seen in an anime. It was a style of visual that seemed alien to the genre, and indeed even characters as original as Hashimoto's struck me as fly in the ointment. The art went beyond the confines of the typical, creating an atmosphere that demanded a new approach to the characters that would inhabit those new spaces, but the characters remained a relic of conventional anime presentation in proportion and behavior. I'm playing devil's advocate when I say that, because I love Hashimoto's characters and find them to be among the most genuinely original and watchable designs I've seen in many years in a TV anime (aside from Kemonozume). They went so far with everything else, and it makes me want to know if they could go that next step. It would be a healthy step for the industry. I can't help but find it ironic that such a show would come from Toei Animation, of all places, although it does fit within the recent highly formal Ikuhara-Hosoda tradition in a certain way.

Friday, December 29, 2006

01:09:44 am , 1151 words, 6680 views     Categories: Animation, Studio, Animator

Koichi Murata & Oh Pro

I found another rather nice Koji Nanke video I'd never seen before: the second ending for Studio Pierrot's 1987 TV series Norakuro-kun. It's interesting to have Nanke take his place in the line of various adaptations, which span the entire history of anime. The manga dates from 1931, and the first animated adaptation was a theatrical short made only four years later by Japanese animation great Mitsuyo Seo (best known for the first full-length anime feature, 1945's Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors). He also made two other Norakuro shorts in the next three years. The second adaptation was a TV series by Eiken dating from 1970, and the third was Pierrot's version. A year prior to this Nanke also designed and animated the opening/ending for Pierrot's Anmitsu Hime.

About a month and a half ago, one of the more significant Japanese animators of the last forty years passed away: Koichi Murata 村田耕一. He died at age 67 on November 7, 2006. Koichi Murata probably isn't as well known to westerners as fellow Oh Production co-founder Kazuo Komatsubara, who was the man behind the animation of such films as Galaxy Express 999, Nausicaa and, near the end of his life, Junkers Come Here. However, both animators, as the resident masters at subcontracting studio Oh Production alongside the younger Toshitsugu Saida, were leading figures behind many of the TV series that graced European TV screens in the 70s and beyond. These series were produced by other studios, but Oh Pro was behind much of their animation. I remember watching both Harlock and Heidi growing up as a kid in France - both series in which the two men, respectively, played a large part. Koichi Murata was an animator in almost every episode of Nippon Animation's Future Boy Conan and literally every other episode of Marco.

I later became a fan of Nippon Animation's long-running World Masterpiece Theater, of which Koichi Murata remained one of the central pillars right up until the very end, for over 20 years helping to provide the stable quality for which the series was known. If that weren't enough, Oh Production produced one of the true great animated films of the last half-century in Japan: Gauche the Cellist. Koichi Murata was the driving force behind getting the film made over the six years it was in production (entirely pro bono, on the side, as a labor of love). Although I'm not too familiar with the specifics of his history or work, I know that we've lost one of the great animators of our day, one of the anonymous craftsmen behind a good number of the more memorable shows many of us grew up watching. Oh Production stood for something unique in animation in Japan, and Murata was the guiding light behind this unique studio. At least in my eyes, Murata stood for Oh Production, and I mourn his passing.

Unlike Kazuo Komatsubara and many other animators of his generation, Koichi Murata didn't start out at Toei Doga, but instead at an unknown studio called Anaguma (Badger) Production, proceeding through various small studios before founding Oh Production with Komatsubara, Norio Shioyama and Koshin Yonekawa in 1970. Toshitsugu Saida came in soon afterwards and became one of the studio's star animators. (Gauche was in part a vehicle for his skills. He singlehandedly drew all of the key animation for the 63-minute film.) The first projects at the studio were Tiger Mask for Toei Doga and Attack No1 for A Production (for TMS). Komatsubara worked on Tiger Mask and Murata on Attack No1, which became the set pattern at the studio - Komatsubara leading half of the studio on the Toei shows, Murata leading the other half on the A Production shows. In 1973 they did work on Rocky Chuck for Nippon Animation back when they were still Zuiyo, after which the A Pro section animators all went to work for Takahata on Heidi. From then on out Murata et al. devoted themselves to Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater and other shows.

From about 1975 onwards, work at Oh Production was split about halfway between Toei and Nippon Animation. Around 1980, after helping out on Conan and Miyazaki's Lupin eps, some animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga defected to Telecom. Oh Pro helped out on the early Telecom (TMS) productions like Jarinko Chie and Sherlock Hound. From the mid-1980s onwards, Oh Pro then started helping out on the Ghibli films. Obviously a relationship had formed with the two founders because of all the work they'd done together over the preceding decade. Oh Pro has been involved in almost every Ghibli film since, along with the core Telecom members. From the 1990s onwards, they continued to do work for Nippon Animation and Toei, but had diversified and were no longer split down the middle. The original team effort style of the studio seems to have given way to a more atomized approach, with each member working on his own project, a la Studio Hercules.

Besides their great work as an animation studio, Oh Pro has also been an important training ground, sending out into the world a number of great animators like Kazuhide Tomonaga. In 1970, a teenage inbetweener named Yoshinori Kanada came knocking on the doors of Oh Pro to ask Koichi Murata for an autograph because he adored Murata's way of drawing the protagonist of Attack No1. The first studio Masahito Yamashita applied to was Oh Pro. Fatefully, the person he met there was Kazuhide Tomonaga, who instead directed Yamashita over to Studio Z to work alongside Yoshinori Kanada.

Oh Pro was one of the more prominent success stories among the small studios that began popping up in the 1970s to feed on the abundant subcontracting work. Many came and went, but Oh Pro are still around and kicking. They've left behind lots of great work. But sadly, due to the nature of the work, they remain obscure. Gauche was conceived precisely for this reason - to escape from obscurity. They had pride in their work, and wanted something definitively of their own creation to be able to proclaim to the world as their calling card. The results were fantastic. I only wish they had continued on that tack and built on the success of the project to continue to make personal films of that sort on the side of their subcontracting work, as did another small studio, Animaru-ya. Little Twins is one example of them having done this, but I can't get enough and wish there were more.

Among the last places I remember seeing Murata Koichi's name was in Stormy Night. He had a full and extremely prolific career as an animator spanning three and a half decades, each and every year chock full of work, but I still can't help but feel that he died too young and had more work in him. I admire the way he worked right up until the very end. He was the picture of a lifelong animator.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

10:56:00 am , 1412 words, 3060 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Shizuka Hayashi

It's kind of nice that Crayon Shin-chan is finally going to hit North America, although it seems like they're pushing the envelope a litte with the humor. I was curious which episodes they would pick - i.e. if they would pick at least one of the interesting ones - and, as if in answer to that question, the very first clip I see when I open the home page (shinchanshow.com) is by none other than... guess who?

After being impressed by the good sense of the folks who got Koji Nanke to animate the second opening of Kyoro-chan, I was curious to see the others, and I was equally impressed, though in a different way, by the first opening, which had some absolutely thrilling and incredible movement in it. Curious to know who did it, I looked at the credits only to see a name that seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite put my finger on who it was: Shizuka Takakura. Beside her was listed one of the Crayon Shin-chan mainstays, Yoshihiko Takakura. This suggested that they must be married. I then thought about the only animator Shizuka I know, and finally put two and two together. Takakura is the married name of Shizuka Hayashi, easily my favorite currently active female animator. Bingo. Explained perfectly why the movement in the opening was so incredible.

It appears that Shizuka Hayashi reverts to her husband's name on the rare occasion that she is working on a project in which her husband is not involved. (although he did help a little on the op) For Kyoro-chan, she is also credited as the main character designer, and what little I've seen of the characters from the op looks very interesting. She also appears to have worked as an animator on the show, meaning that she moved her own characters. I'm used to seeing her moving Shin-chan & gang, so I would love to be able to see her finally moving characters of her own creation. The new characters gave her the freedom to try her hand at moving a different kind of character than what she was used to with Shin-chan, which she had been working on for 8 years by that time and no doubt started becoming a little tired of (Kyoro-chan dates from 2000). Judging by her work on the opening, it seems like she revelled in the opportunity, pushing her unique style of movement to new heights that weren't possible within the vehicle of Shin-chan, so I would indeed be very curious to see the show itself.

The show was directed by Mitsuru Hongo, director of the early Shin-chan films. There is an even more specific connection. First of all, Shizuka and Yoshihiko started out working at the subcontracting studio Jungle Gym, founded in 1976. Jungle Gym is currently home to Takatoshi Omori and Hideo Hariganeya, two of the main Shin-chan animators. Shizuka and her husband left Jungle Gym to go freelance, and joined the so-called "Studio" Megaten, founded in 1992. Like Studio Hercules, Studio Megaten is not an actual studio, but simply a casual nexus for the gathering of a handful of friends/like-minded creators. Mitsuru Hongo was one of the founding members of the collective, which also counts among its members animator Hiroyuki Nishimura, currently writer of IGPX. I know Nishimura more as an animator who provided a number of memorable action scenes for the Shin-chan films, including the fight in the early Unkokusai movie where adult Shin-chan battles the robot.

Hongo and Shizuka actually go back to the days before Shin-chan. Hongo had been impressed with Shizuka's animation of one of the episodes of the Fujiko F Fujio series Chinpui, and in the years immediately afterwards both set to work on the Shin-chan films and TV series, Hongo as director and Shizuka as one of the main rotating animators. Shizuka also provided animation for Casmin, the TV series Hongo directed the year after Kyoro-chan, on which another Shin-chan pillar from the early days, Masaaki Yuasa, could also be seen acting in the novel role of set designer. Yuasa himself has stated that he prefers Shizuka's Buriburizaemon to his own. Shizuka presumably must have animated the original Buriburizaemon episode, when he comes to life from one of Shin-chan's scribbles.

Shizuka not only worked on the Shin-chan films and TV episodes; she also animated several of the openings, namely the third and fourth. The first two were animated by the main character designer, Hiroshi Ogawa. The contrast is interesting. In the first two we have the staid look of the early episodes, with the movement somewhat sparse and lacking in character. In come the third and fourth openings, and we have an explosion of wild movement from Shizuka Hayashi coming up with her own approach to animating these characters, and in the process laying down the basic approach that would go on to define aspects of the animation in the show. For example, she is the one who came up with the idea for that undulating movement in 1s when Shin-chan does his butt dance.

Shizuka remained one of the pillars of both the films and TV series throughout the years, and unlike some of the other animators, she seemed to have a strong sense for her own personal style of movement right from the very beginning. If Masami Otsuka influenced Masaaki Yuasa, and Masaaki Yuasa in turn influenced Yuichiro Sueyoshi, then Shizuka was probably in there right from the beginning as a root inspiration and influence on this sequence of idiosyncratic animators who discovered their styles through working on Shin-chan. Speaking personally, I've always been partial to Shizuka's Ora wa Ninkimono. It's actually the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Shin-chan. Everything in it from the movement to the lyrics to Shin-chan's singing seems to capture the essence of the show.

Kyoro-chan feels like the show in which, after this long history of seeing Shizuka's impressive work as an animator, Hongo finally put her at the head of the team where she deserved to be. The second ending is interesting in this respect. Hongo directed and Shizuka animated the ending. Most interestingly, Hongo also wrote the lyrics. The song begins, "Nice weather today... I'm bored... Maybe I'll draw something..." We then go through the process of drawing a series of dissociated circles, bubbles and zig-zags, after having done which we flip the paper over to see all of these pencil lines come alive into the living character we've just created - Kyoro-chan. The ending closes with the line, "Drawing that made me feel a little happier." It's a moving way of expressing that mysterious attraction of drawing and animating - how just putting down some lines on paper can somehow make us feel better in a cold world. At the same time it seems to be Hongo's way of expressing his admiration for Shizuka's art, and saluting the animators who had provided the raw material behind his work as director for so many years.

In an aside, to complement my earlier post, you can also see stylistic evolution in Shin-chan in microcosm by looking at the sequence of openings, animated by the major animators of the show. We start with main character designer Hiroshi Ogawa for the first two openings, and see none of the manic movement or extreme drawings that we see in the later work. Apparently even Ogawa himself evolves into a more accentuated style over the years, as if to match the evolution going on around him. Then comes Shizuka's work in opening 3 and 4, still somewhat close to Ogawa's style of drawing than to her own later style full of extreme deformations, but already at this early stage showing her own highly developed personal style of movement. Then we get Yuasa, who himself also had his own personal approach right from the very beginning, but seemed to take in a bit from Shizuka and Otsuka from working on the show. Sueyoshi had a very subdued style in his early work, but after a few years he begins to show Yuasa's clear influence. In his later work he finally managed to go beyond this influence to come to his own valid personal style.

OP 1: Doubutusen wa Taihen Da (Hiroshi Ogawa)
OP 2: Yume no End (Hiroshi Ogawa)
OP 3: Ora wa Ninkimono (Shizuka Hayashi)
OP 4: Pakappa de Go (Shizuka Hayashi)
ED 3: Do-shite (Masaaki Yuasa & Masami Otsuka?)
ED 5: Parijona Daisakusen (Masaaki Yuasa)
OP 7: Damedame no Uta (Yuichiro Sueyoshi)

Monday, July 17, 2006

09:43:10 pm , 434 words, 3468 views     Categories: Animation, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada, TV

Kanada revisits Gaiking

from Gaiking #21Yoshinori Kanada is back on TV again for the first time since ep 6 of the new Popolo Crois, which I wrote about long ago. This time he's Saburo Togakushi instead of Isuke Togakushi, and he's animated a bit at the end of the new op for Toei's Gaiking, a remake of one of their own classic giant robot show of the same name of 1976. It's not by chance. Kanada spent the 70s cutting his teeth on giant robot TV shows, and in fact he did a lot of animation throughout the original Gaiking that remains among his most well regarded work of his early period. Many of the animators who are now working on the new Gaiking count Kanada as one of their major influences, so it's full of meaning to have him here doing animation in this op now, exactly thirty years later.

Keisuke Watabe of Studio Hercules did some decidedly Kanada-esque animation recently in ep 28, and indeed the entire 'studio' was present in the ep. Ken Otsuka has been a major force behind the show as one of the mecha ADs, as he was on Bones' Eureka 7. He also storyboarded both 13 and 28.

Among the animators working on the show whom I wouldn't normally have associated with Kanada is Takaaki Yamashita, the man behind the animation side of most of Mamoru Hosoda's early work. After doing the book scene in 13, I noticed he was also in 21 and 28. 21 featured two minutes of excellent work at the end, and in 28 the main female enemy seems to have been animated by the same person throughout, judging by the style, and I have to wonder if Yamashita wasn't the one behind these sections. Or perhaps his protege, Tatsuzo Nishita. I've never associated Yamashita with such vigorous movement, so I can't be sure, but the level of minute detail put into the movement where first Gaiking's hand and then body breaks through the wall of stone, pictured above, was thrilling and the work of a great animator trained in the sort of through-conceived movement I associate with Yamashita and with none of the other animators listed here. Also, the loose, slightly wobbly lines are something I associate with Yamashita. The whole section was quite nice. The last half of 28 was also quite nice overall. It was like the Hercules version of ep 13.

Mitsuru Obunai was among the members credited under Studio Hercules, though I'm a bit confused as to his present location, since he's currently acting as the main animator on UFO Table's new show Coyote Ragtime Show, where he's done some good through brief work so far.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

10:38:52 pm , 782 words, 2146 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Studio Torapezoid

As I was taking out the trash today I saw a spiral of birds in the distance, like the cranes in Night on the Galactic Railroad, soaring on a warm updraft. It was a rather bathetic moment.

In continuing with the theme of small 'studios' of the last post, this time I thought I'd mention a small studio that has done interesting work in the recent past: Studio Torapezoid. Some people may remember the impressive animation that opens episode 1 of Noein. Well, it was animated by Hiroshi Okubo, who is one of the five members of the collective, which was formed in 1998. The other members are: Takuya Saito, Susumu Yamaguchi, Manabu Ono and designer Junya Ishigaki.

Ishigaki has been very active as a designer over the last decade on many Sunrise and other shows. He's the one who designed the wonderful floating fortress in Noein. You can see more of his designs on his home page. Okubo and Ono have been associates since the beginning of both of their careers around 1990, working side by side as animators on a number of projects in the years immediately leading to the formation of the studio in 1998, including Kinnikuman 5 & 19 in 1991, Iron Leaguer 19 & 27 in 1993, Yu Yu Hakusho 67 and Hakkenden 12 in 1994, Evangelion 10 in 1995 and Cyber Formula Saga in 1997. Susumu Yamaguchi does not seem to have been involved on the same projects as the others until the formation of the studio.

The first project we see them all working together on is the show that can be seen as the studio's summum opus: 1998's Outlaw Star, directed by Mitsuru Hongo, who also gave the studio its name. I came to the show to see Okubo's work on it, but as I began watching I was surprised to find idiosyncratic and quite good work in a number of other styles obviously differing from Okubo's. It took a while to sort out who was doing what, but eventually it became clear. Okubo's animation was easily identifiable, with its sense of form and timing reminiscent of Mitsuo Iso and Yutaka Nakamura. He was obviously handling the mecha. It took a while to realize that it must be Ono who was handling the other sections of mecha that were also brilliantly animated but had a completely different, much simpler touch. What was left was a style of animation that had obvious debts to Satoru Utsunomiya and Tetsuya Nishio, and eventually I figured out that it had to be Susumu Yamaguchi. Discovering the work of these three animators was a real treat for me. The second and really the last project on which all of the members were involved together would be Angel Links from the following year. After this Torapezoid seems to have gone the way of Hercules, with each member working on his own project.

Outlaw Star offers the perfect introduction to all three of the animators' styles. The highlight of the series is undoubtedly the fast-paced mecha fights in space. The mecha, designed by Ishigaki, were brilliantly animated by Okubo and Ono, and have a rather unique flavor of their own different from the more realistic work of a Masami Goto, who played an analagous role in Bebop. The role of Nakamura in the latter - "main animator" - was played here by Yamaguchi, whose very loose line and dynamic approach to timing is obviously descended from Utsunomiya via Nishio, even though the closest related project he seems to have been involved in would be the Yu Yu Hakusho movie. For a quick intro to their work at its best, episode 20 offers a wonderful bit of acrobatics in the first half by Yamaguchi and solid chunk of work by Ono and Okubo in the second. Okubo's work in the last episode is also not to be missed. The resemblance is so strong that I would be surprised indeed if he denied having been heavily influenced by Mitsuo Iso. The next year in Angel Links you can see them continuing to develop their styles, with Okubo mostly working on beefing up his smoke and Yamaguchi's work now looking downright Utsunomiyan, viz episode 8.

After this the team starts to work on different projects. We can see Ono and Okubo working together for the last time on Risky Safety in 1999, Ono and Yamaguchi on Space Pirate Mito in 1999 and Gear Fighter Dendo in 2001, but unfortunately the animators don't seem to appear much together afterwards, which is a real shame. The teamwork they had going on in that handful of eps was really something. Ono himself actually drifted away from animation afterwards and is now focusing on directing. After this, starting with Arjuna, Okubo becomes more and more involved in Satelight productions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

11:20:02 pm , 1555 words, 6047 views     Categories: Animation, Animator, Animator: Yoshinori Kanada

The Kanada School

As I was watching ep 60 of Urusei Yatsura to see the Masahito Yamashita part, at one point I was taken by the strange feeling that I was watching Lupin. Not so much because of the fact that the scene in question was an obvious parody of the clock tower scene, but because the animation felt like it could only have been done by a Telecom animator. It turns out it was the work of Toshio Yamauchi. They went to the effort of getting an animator who had worked on Cagliostro to animate a clock tower parody. Now that is dedication.

Yamauchi seems to have started out at Oh Production along with Kazuhide Tomonaga. His first job I can find is Jacky at Nippon Animation in 1977, after which he did some New Lupin and the first movie before working on every episode of Conan after 8 in 1978. Both of them transferred to Telecom sometime after this, where they worked on Cagliostro in 1979, the Miyazaki Lupin episodes in 1980, Jarinko Chie in 1981 and finally Holmes in 1982. Finally around 1983 several Telecom people including Yamauchi and Tsukasa Tannai transferred to Gallop, from where Yamauchi later worked on Grave of the Fireflies and Tannai on several Ghibli films. I suppose it would have been after Holmes that he worked on the TV Urusei episodes. He and Tsukasa were also in the second film in 1984.

Yamauchi was also one of the other two animators in Yamashita Masahito's famous library episode, of which Oshii provided an encore performance in his Beautiful Dreamer film. I remember Shinya Ohira saying that he saw the episode on TV when it first aired and almost choked on his dinner, and it was one of the episodes that influenced his development as an animator. Seen today I think it can be hard to appreciate Yamashita's early work, but if you project yourself into the dominant style of the period you can imagine the shock that Yamashita's deranged drawings and aberrant timing must have had on fans. It's hard to imagine what he must have been thinking when he drew that animation. In any case, it was a most curious thing to see the work of a Telecom animator side by side with that of Yamashita Masahito. I suppose you could compare it to the impact of seeing Ohira's scene in Spirited Away - it's two completely different ways of visualizing movement placed side by side. If you can posit an Otsuka school, which there isn't really, then Yamauchi belongs there, and Yamashita belongs to what you could call the Kanada school.

Masahito Yamashita is the most famous animator to have developed under the influence of Yoshinori Kanada (happy birthday), the animator active throughout the 1970s who came up with an original style all his own that combined strange posing, exaggerated perspective and an original and more dynamic approach to timing. Yamashita became interested in animation in part due to the influence of having seen Kanada's work on TV. In an age before VHS, it's a tribute to Yamashita's determination and curiosity about the art of animation that he took the initiative of filming animated films in theaters using a handheld video camera in order to be able to study it and figure out how it was made. Perhaps it's this bootstraps approach to learning animation that led to Yamashita's very personal and intuitive approach. Indeed, the work we see in his early years feels similar in spirit to work of gif-animators-turned-pros like Ryochimo in Noein who we can see appearing today. The internet has replaced the grassroots con movement that created that sort of fan ferment.

After Kanada influenced the generation of the 70s, then, Yamashita in turn influenced a whole new generation of folks, but ironically over the years he did a 180 and mostly abandoned the indiosyncratic style that had characterized his early work and attracted fans. Probably a lot of that had to do with pressure, as I'm sure there are some directors who didn't appreciate their animators changing their storyboards and designs and overanimating shots into the red. When Ohira started out he was something of a Yamashita epigone, but similarly found pressure on him to abandon that style, which is what led to him discovering his own.

Yamashita himself staged his debut as a key animator at the precocious age of 18 after a few months as an overimaginative inbetweener filling in the spaces with movements the key animators hadn't indicated. This was in 1980 at Studio No 1, a studio Yoshinori Kanada was involved in. After working there for about a year he left with Hirokazu Ochi to form his own studio, Studio Oz, in 1981, to work on Urusei Yatsura. The "studio" was in fact simply a room where the five animators/friends worked together, not necessarily on the same projects. Studio Hercules, which recently handled a large portion of the work on Basilisk, is a contemporary equivalent - not really a studio in the traditional sense but rather a handful of freelance animators with a similar mindset who work together in the same space, often not even on the same project.

Other animators at Oz included Shinbo Akiyuki (!) and Shinsaku Kozuma. They changed their name to Studio Tome (an ironic title meaning the ubiquitous "still") after they were getting too many phone calls mistaking them for another studio with the same name, and finally formed an actual company called One Pattern in 1984, where Yamashita worked for several years before joining Yoshinori Kanada's Studio Nonmaruto in 1989, rejoining many of the people he'd worked with at Studio No 1 years before. The studio actually took over the space that had up until that point been occupied by Studio 4°C, which had presumably just moved to its present location.

Another "studio" formed around this time was Kaname Production, the studio most famous for producing Birth. The studio was formed by seven young people who left Ashi Production in 1982, and worked on the animation of various shows until 1983 when they produced their own show, Plawres Sanshiro, which featured work by Kanada and Shinsaku Kozuma. The next year Kozuma worked as an animator on Kanada's Birth alongside Yamashita Masahito and Hideki Tamura, another animator who was making a name for himself at the time pushing the Kanada style in new directions. Both Kozuma and Tamura then worked on Kaname's Leda in 1985, and in 1986 Tamura did the piece that perhaps best encapsulates his approach, the opening of Prefectural Earth Defense Force. The same year Kozuma created his own summum opus in the opening of Toei's Ikkiman. A great later piece by Kozuma, and the piece that introduced me to his work, is his animation in episode 54 of Yu Yu Hakusho in 1993, where he worked under ex-Studio Oz comrade Shinbo Akiyuki.

A decade later we can still find people carrying on the style, like Keisuke Watabe, who worked at Studio Z5 for some years in the early 90s before forming his own "studio", Studio Hercules. Studio Z5 was formed in 1980 by two people who had learned the ropes inbetweening Yoshinori Kanada's keys at Studio Z - Hajime Kamegaki and Satoshi Hirayama - together with Hideyuki Hashimoto, and was one of the more famous of these small collectives/"studios" active in the 80s, working on shows like Goshogun, Baldios and Cat's Eye. After being involved in shows like Tetsujin 28 FX, Zenki, Tottemo Lucky Man (with an op by Kanada) and Ray Earth, in 1995 Watabe did some work on Idol Project, including the animation near the end of the opening, that is among his more characteristic.

That same year Hiroyuki Imaishi debuted as an animator on Evangelion, and after a whirlwind development directed his first feature film 8 years later, inviting Watabe and other like-minded animators from all over the place to take part, including... Yamashita, which brings us back full circle. Imaishi, of course, also animated the recent opening of the Musashi game storyboarded/directed by Yoshinori Kanada. So in a way the "school", which is not really a school but more a mindset, is very much still alive.

The concept can be a hard one to define, but if the Telecom school would favor a more stable form, even frame rates and realistic treatment of weight and effects, the Kanada school would favor deformation, unusual frame rates and flashy, geometric effects liberally used. Obviously not every animator is going to have the same approach, as everyone is an individual and an aggregation of influences - many seemingly Kaneda-school animators were just as influenced by Kazuhide Tomonaga, to say nothing of the plethora of other animation out there in the world - and the style has infiltrated the vocabulary of anime to such a degree that almost everyone could be called a Kaneda-school animator to an extent. You can see Kaneda touches almost everywhere now. An upside to the overproliferation of programs right now is that the sheer volume seems to give young animators room to play a little, and there are still people appearing on the scene who seem to be carrying on that playful spirit.

Though this is merely a rushed and far from a complete overview, and there are surely a lot of other people who have made their own contribution to the development of the style, hopefully this gives a sense of the interconnections.

Filmographies: Yoshinori Kanada / Masahito Yamashita / Hiroyuki Imaishi