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, May 5, 2012

07:28:00 pm , 1985 words, 5412 views     Categories: OVA, Studio: Anime R, 1980s

Black Magic M-66

One of the classics of the golden age of OVAs is Black Magic M-66 from 1987. It was one of my favorites back when I was getting into anime, with its violent, exciting action and hard-boiled, no-nonsense story. It was a superb high-quality one-off - exactly what I wanted to see in an anime OVA - although in the end it felt a little slight and undeveloped.

I just re-watched it for the first time in many years, and the quality was far better than I'd remembered, probably because I didn't have the ability to appreciate good animation back then. The animation has impressive tension and energy.

As a film it's a bit problematic. It seems like it would make a strong film in theory, and it maintains interest at every moment due to the cinematic pacing and high-quality animation, but something about it feels off overall. But in the end it's a nice OVA with some uniquely detailed directing and animation, and is well worth re-visiting.

The film was co-directed by the author of the original manga, Shirow Masamune, and Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Shirow Masamune drew the storyboard himself, so this is probably the highest-grade Shirow Masamune anime. Later films like Ghost in the Shell bear the heavy imprint of their director.

I'm not sure exactly how the work was divided between the two directors apart from this, but perhaps Kitakubo was something of a line director on the project, Shirow Masamune providing the skeleton and details and Kitakubo putting them together, i.e. handling the technical matters of anime production about which the manga creator would have been ignorant. From Blood: The Last Vampire to Rojin Z, Kitakubo is unsurpassed at making highly dense short entertainment packages, and this film is no exception.

This was Shirow Masamune's first time ever drawing a storyboard, so he used the recently published storyboard for Miyazaki's Nausicaa as a reference on how to draw the storyboard. This certainly accounts for the film's unique feeling. His storyboard is extremely detailed, like his manga (see some examples here), so very little in the final product was left up to chance. No person acquainted with anime production would have storyboarded the film in the way he did; they would certainly have taken an easier way out, according to what they understood by experience could be achieved within the given deadline. The film apparently wound up many months over schedule, presumably due to the demands of the storyboard, resulting in its release being delayed by almost a year. The Gundress debacle is testament to how much of a generous concession this was on the part of the production company. But Masamune Shirow's direct input was simultaneously the film's liability and its greatest asset, because he brought an outsider's approach untainted by conventional anime thinking to the task of presenting the story.

But what was bad for the production company is good for us, as in the end it's because they were able to lavish such detail on the animation that the film still holds up after all these years. This unusually long production period resulted in a tight film in which each shot is highly worked, there is no wasted moment, and the action and effects animation is truly impressive. At around 45 minutes, it has the pacing and atmosphere of a film, but the length of a slightly longer-than-usual direct-to-video release. In that respect it's reminiscent of Hiroyuki Kitakubo's later Blood: The Last Vampire.

The narrative is satisfying because it's driven by visual storytelling rather than wordy explanations. They do an impressive job of visually conveying a future (yet familiar) world of believable cybernetic military sci-fi trappings. The storytelling is lean, the script is pleasingly serious and no-nonsense, consisting mostly of authentic-sounding terse and cryptic military exchanges. The action scenes are long and meaty, with each physical action depicted in convincing detail. The coloring palette of the film is toned down in a way that helps make it feel more realistic.

That's not to say it's dead serious. The films balances seriousness with fan-service. The film opens (predictably for an AIC production) with a nude scene that is saved from being in poor taste only by the fact that it's quite funny and isn't played up for lurid fetishism. The shot where Sibelle picks the sheet from the bottom of the pile and the pile topples over but she doesn't even notice because she's so intent gives the scene a pleasingly tongue-in-cheek tone. Kitakubo's only previous directing credit was Cream Lemon: Pop Chaser, which despite being the pioneering adult anime was more funny and exciting than titillating. Kitakubo also gives the film an edge of cleverness through directing tricks, for example when he cuts from a photo of the professor in the newspaper to the headlights of a vehicle where his eyes were. Rintaro did a similar gag in Download.

Despite the effort put into the details, the cumulative effect of the film is underwhelming for some reason. It feels sluggish and lacking in tension. But the serious-minded story, detail-oriented directing and powerful action scenes more than make up for this, and in the end, it may not be a Great Film, but it's closer to being one than most OVAs. At the very least, it's a damn sight better than the boring Appleseed OVA that came out one year later. It's a satisfying and entertaining little action film.

The animation

The quality of the film is strangely uneven. The animation is very high quality, but the backgrounds are not very good overall, and flat-out bad in some shots. Even the animation, which is quite strong, feels somehow rough. It feels in essence like highly polished TV animation, rather than the movie-caliber animation of Akira from the next year, for example. Despite striving for cinematic feeling, the film's layouts are fairly standard, without the careful simulation of camera lens focal length that is one of the subtle but important ways Akira and other films achieve a feeling of reality. To be fair, there aren't many OVAs that top this one in terms of animation quality. And most importantly, the animation is very satisfying. The action is good, and the drawings feel good at every moment.

Hiroyuki Okiua, Toru Yoshida and the other animators of Osaka subcontractor Anime R are to thank for the quality of the animation. Hiroyuki Okiura oversaw the characters and Toru Yoshida oversaw the mecha. This was Okiura's first job as sakkan. He had just debuted a few years before, mostly drawing impressive mecha animation on a few Sunrise shows like SPT Layzner (1985-1986), and very quickly made a name for himself at a very young age. Astoundingly, he turned 20 during production of Black Magic M-66. Toru Yoshida, meanwhile, had debuted not long before Okiura, first coming to prominence on Armor Trooper Votoms (1983-1984), on which Okiura worked as an inbetweener. Okiura drew what is one of his first genga in the last episode, uncredited, while Yoshida was still being credited as an inbetweener early on in the series despite the fact that he was drawing genga, so they debuted very close together.

The character animation is strong throughout thanks to Okiura's laborious work as sakkan. Despite having been pegged a mecha animator in his first few years, Okiura didn't view himself as such. He just wanted to draw detailed animation like one of his idols Takashi Nakamura, and in anime at the time the mecha animation was one of the places where there were fewer restrictions on the number of drawings you were allowed to use. That's the reason many 'mover' type animators like Okiura - and Shinya Ohira - started out as mecha animators. This was Okiura's first step towards becoming a character animator. Even at this early stage, you can sense Okiura's uncommon skills. The character animation feels unusually rich, even in throwaway shots like the shot at the beginning where Sibelle is writing something down, although this is no doubt also in part thanks to Shirow Masamune's detailed storyboard and Kitakubo's detail-oriented style of directing.

The key animation credits are divided between Anime R, Atelier Giga and AIC/freelance animators. I wrote about Atelier Giga before in my post on Cool Cool Bye and Relic Armor Legaciam. It was an informal gathering of ex-Bebow animators. Although Atelier Giga did not survive long past 1987, many of its animators stayed on at AIC for years to come. The impressive names in the AIC/freelance grouping are Shinya Ohira and Satoru Utsunomiya. I suspect Utsunomiya handled the scene in the restaurant, though I'm not positive.

Anime R receives a prominent spot in the credits, and its animators were responsible for many of the best parts in the film. This is in essence an Anime R film in terms of the actual drawings, although the production company was AIC/Animate. The big battle that is the highlight of the first half of the film was animated by Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida and Kazuaki Mouri of Anime R. Okiura handled the beginning in the forest up until the impressive turning shot where the robot hurls the vehicle (pic 3 at top), and the rest was animated by Yoshida and Mouri. Mouri in particular did the impressive shots where the robot wields the metal pipe in beautiful acrobatic action (pic 4). Okiura also drew the climactic scene on the rooftop (pic 1). Shinya Ohira helped Okiura out with this section by animating a few shots where the building crumbles (pic 2). This is the same year that Ohira worked on the effects extravaganza that is the Captain Power home shooter game, and Toru Yoshida was the other big figure behind the animation of Captain Power, so Toru Yoshida may have been an influence on Ohira's development into an effects animator. This scene in Black Magic M-66 is also presumably what led to Ohira animating the smoke and building crumbling in Akira. Amusingly enough, right after Akira, Ohira animated another crumbling building in an episode of Peter Pan sakkan'd by Okiura. Ohira was an animator in Okiura's sakkan debut, and he is an animator in Okiura's latest film.

Black Magic M-66 came out a year before Akira, and in fact it feels reminiscent of Akira in various subtle ways. It almost feels like a dry run for Akira. The basic elements are similar - gruff general and crazy scientist after a rogue experimental subject with superhuman powers on a killing spree - and the military elements are depicted (visually and by the script) very realistically and methodically, and even the gestures sometimes feel similar. It's presumably seeing Okiura's work on Black Magic M-66 that prompted Katsuhiro Otomo to invite Hiroyuki Okiura to work on Akira. After working under Nakamura on Akira, Okiura went on to provide great animation under Nakamura again in Peter Pan and Catnapped, not to mention becoming one of the key figures behind the two Ghost in the Shell films alongside fellow (ex-)Anime R animator Kazuchika Kise, who is also present as an animator here (though he was technically at Anime R sister studio Mu).

Incidentally, the impressively nuanced animation in the elevator just before the climax was animated by two animators who aren't credited. It was animated by Yoshiyuki Ichikawa 市川吉幸 based on roughs by Yuji Moriyama 森山ゆうじ. Both were members of Studio MIN, formed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo himself in 1982. MIN was one of the many artist collectives euphemistically known as a studio that were formed in the 1980s. MIN disbanded in 1991, immediately after production of Kitakubo's Rojin Z.

Black Magic M-66 ブラックマジックM-66 (Animate Film/AIC, OVA, 1987, 47 mins)

Created by:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
Director/Script/Storyboard:士郎正宗Masamune Shirow
Director/Structure/Character Design:北久保弘之Hiroyuki Kitakubo
Animation Director:沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
Mechanic Animation Director:吉田徹Toru Yoshida
Art Director:本田修Osamu Honda
Music:片柳譲陽Yoshiharu Katayanagi
Key Animation: アニメアール Anime R
 吉田徹Toru Yoshida黄瀬和哉Kazuchika Kise
浜川修二郎Shujiro Hamakawa谷口守泰Moriyasu Taniguchi
貴志夫美子Fumiko Kishi毛利和昭Kazuaki Mouri
柳沢まさひでMasahide Yanagisawa寺田浩之Hiroyuki Terada
逢坂浩司Hiroshi Ousaka沖浦啓之Hiroyuki Okiura
 アトリエ戯雅 Atelier Giga
 宇佐美皓一Koichi Usami
岩瀧智Satoshi Iwataki
ところともかずTomokazu Tokoro
小曽根正美Masami Kosone
さとうけいいちKeiichi Sato
仲盛文Morifumi Naka
林宏樹 Hiroki Hayashi
田中正弘 Masahiro Tanaka
宇都宮智 Satoru Utsunimiya
橋本浩一 Koichi Hashimoto
清水義治 Yoshiharu Shimizu
大平晋也 Shinya Ohira

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

11:51:00 pm , 2465 words, 4656 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Studio, Studio: Anime R, post-Akira, Studio Curtain

Sukeban Deka and Anime R

The manga Sukeban Deka about the yo-yo-wielding delinquent detective was adapted into a two-episode OVA in 1991 after having been adapted into live-action movies in the late 80s. The live-action stuff appears to have been done by Toei, but the OVAs seem to have been the product of a consortium that outsourced much of the work to different studios, among them chiefly Osaka's Anime R.

Anime R is a subcontracting studio founded in Osaka in the late 1970s by Moriyasu Taniguchi and Hiromi Muranaka. It was one of the first Japanese animation studios to be located outside of Tokyo. They are best remembered for their contribution to raising the quality of Ryosuke Takahashi's first two 'real robot' shows for Sunrise Dougram and Votoms. They had a unique style in the 1980s, with exciting and detailed animation like no other studio. They were one of the most relied-upon studios for mecha animation. That flavor receded in the 1990s, after many of the 1980s staff left, but they're still a prolific and relied-upon studio.

The credits don't mention Anime R. But it's obvious that they're involved if you read between the lines. There are a bunch of Anime R animators involved.

Anime R president Moriyasu Taniguchi is credited as an animator in Sukeban Deka alongside Anime R animators Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida, Takahiro Komori, Takashi Fumiko, Masahide Yanagisawa, Hiroshi Osaka, Hiromi Muranaka, Masahiko Itojima, Takahiro Kimura and Kazuchika Kise. Masahiro Kase, another Anime R member at the time, is the sub-character designer and the main animation director (sakkan).

This OVA thus seems like a good place to get a sense of what kind of work Anime R was doing at this mid-period in their history, after their most famous period but before all of the cool animators had quite left. I've heard of Anime R forever and known who was involved there, but I couldn't put my thumb on their defining look.

Nobuteru Yuuki is the character designer of Sukeban Deka, but he's not the sakkan, so it doesn't have that patented Nobuteru Yuuki density of animation and highly worked drawings. Masahiro Kase was the sakkan of episode 1, assisted by Yuka Kudo and Hiroyuki Okuno. All three are credited as sakkans in episode 2.

The drawings in Sukeban Deka are actually all over the place, maybe not as much as Hakkenden, but still pretty uneven. That's actually one of the things I most liked about these two OVAs. The story is otherwise quite stupid and obviously not meant to be taken seriously. It's a kind of shoujo action mystery, and it's mildly entertaining, but nothing about the characters or story ever grips you. It's about a cute girl in a sailor fuku kicking ass, and hey, that's enough for me. It's a shoujo anime, but it feels more like a shounen anime. The action scenes are actually fairly nice, with an appealing looseness and rawness appropriate to the style of this period, so it's a pretty decent action show.

The main characters aren't drawn in a particularly interesting way, but the crowd drawings I really like. The faces have a surprisingly appealing, quasi-realistic style that kind of comes out of nowhere. They look nothing like the protagonists. They seem to have had more freedom with the sub-characters. The bystanders vaguely remind me of the bystanders by Koichi Arai in 3x3 Eyes from the same year. I like that they don't look like the sort of cliche'd anime/shoujo designs you'd expect in an adaptation of a shoujo manga. I don't know who would have been responsible for these. I thought maybe Masahiro Kase, since he's credited as the sub character designer in episode 2, but he's not credited with that in ep 1.

I know Masahiro Kase had started out at Nippon Animation in 1978 and worked on Pelline (1978), Anne (1979), Tom Sawyer (1980) and Lucy (1982) before leaving to join Anime R. While there, Kase was one of the main animators of Votoms alongside Anime R animator Mouri Kazuaki. Kase left Anime R around 1990 to form his own subcontracting 'studio' called Studio Curtain, from which he went on to continue to be involved in Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater shows. He was character designer of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair as well as Mahoujin Guruguru.

Tadashi Hiramatsu had joined animation subcontractor Nakamura Production sometime around 1986 and done his first key animation in 1987 in Mister Ajikko, where he met Masahiro Kase, who was the character designer and chief sakkan of the show. Hiramatsu joined Studio Curtain when it was founded in 1990 and from there worked on the WMT for a bit. I suppose that's the reason Hiramatsu is involved, because he never worked at Anime R. Normally, Kase was at Curtain by the time this was done, so presumably he got the work because of his Anime R connections. Strangely, Studio Curtain gets a small 'assistance' mention in the credits, but there's no mention whatsoever of Anime R.

Anyway, the only sequence that I felt right away I could pin down to an animator was the opening scene of episode 1, where the girl is chased through the market and into the alleyway by the group of thugs. I'm guessing this part was done by Hiroyuki Okiura. What makes me think so is first of all just the skill of the drawings, layouts and movements. It's not super-detailed like his more recent work, but every detail is just right - the folds of the clothes, the way the girl's shoulders arch up realistically when she's struggling. Little things like this just show the hand of someone who has an uncommon skill at accurately visualizing the body in motion and being able to execute it in a way that feels nice as animation.

Opening scene in episode 1 by Hiroyuki Okiura?

Also, I get the feeling I sense a bit of a distant echo of both Akira and Peter Pan in the way the baddies are drawn - their mouth, their expression, the way they gesticulate - which Okiura had just participated in recently. There's even an overhead shot here that has a similar layout as a shot in the mob scene he did in Akira. The smirk of the baddies and the way of drawing the eyes reminds me of Peter Pan, while Akira comes through in the more detailed folds of the clothing, the Takashi Nakamura-esque faces and hands, and the more realistic poses. It actually doesn't feel much like the great action sequence he did in The Hakkenden OVA 1 around the same time, but it's the only sequence in the episode that stands out to me as having good enough animation that seems a fit for him.

I can't pin down any other sequences to any particular animator - except for one. It's the main reason I sought out this episode. Discovering the Anime R connection was actually a surprise and a bonus. The sequence in question sticks out something incredible. I've seen a lot of crazy animation from Japan in my day, but this one was up there with the craziest. And it's ironic because up until a while ago I'd never heard of the animator who did it.

It's the action sequence on the school grounds, which you can see here. It was animated by an animator named Masayuki Kobayashi, who did a lot of similarly styled action in Ranma 1/2 around the same time.

Action scene in episode 1 by Masayuki Kobayashi

Just look at these drawings. You don't notice that they're this insanely deformed when the animation is in motion - all you notice is the incredibly awesome effect the drawings achieve. Like many good animators, Masayuki Kobayashi is a great action animator who knows how to effectively insert deformed images at the right moment to heighten the impact of the animation. People have criticized Norio Matsumoto's animation on Naruto by picking out a single drawing that seems deformed out of an amazing shot of animation, and criticizing him for not being able to draw. Not only is it not true - he can draw really well - it betrays astounding ignorance of how animation is made. The skilled use of deformation within a movement like this is something not many animators can pull off. All the more so when it comes to really extreme deformation of the kind Masayuki Kobayashi busts out here.

As soon as Masayuki Kobayashi's action scene starts, it's like a different show. Everything is suddenly extremely fast and fluid - and rubbery. I love the way the characters limbs seem to bend under the very momentum of their superhuman leaps and lunges. The characters leap and stretch something incredible. It's really exciting to watch, as an action sequence should be. It's full of verve, momentum, punch, and insanity. It's the kind of action that made me fall in love with anime in the first place. You don't find this kind of action animation anywhere else in the world.

And the particular style of Masayuki Kobayashi's animation seems like something that couldn't have emerged at any other period. It seems the product of the various tendencies floating around in the air at the time. You've got a bit of Akira-esque realism, leavened with Satoru Utsunomiya's elastic style, multiplied by the wackiness of mid-80s TV action animation from wild children like Masayuki and Hideki Tamura. I like that it's not just a mere copy of Yoshinori Kanada or Satoru Utsunomiya - he's cooked together all these various tendencies into his own crazy stew. We're seeing a resurgence of the influence of Yoshinori Kanada these days among young animators like Jun Arai, but what I don't like is that it feels like they're just imitating him outright instead of coming up with their own style like Masayuki Kobayashi did.

I don't know where he came from or where he went. This is all I've been able to find that he's done:

Ranma 1/2 Nettohen 2, 4, 6, 10, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 31, 39 (1990)
The Hakkenden 2, 3, 5 (1990-92)
Sukeban Deka 1 (1991)
Rojin Z (1991)
Run, Melos! (1992)
Gunm (1993)
Nana Toshi Monogatari (1994)
X2 (1999)
Jin-Roh (2000)

Action scene at the end of episode 1

Another scene I liked was the brawl in the arcade near the end of episode 1. The drawing style is really distinctive and totally unlike everything else in the episode, but I can't identify who did it.

It had some fast, fluid and excitingly animated action, without being wildly deformed like the Masayuki Kobayashi scene. It's a classic example of the sort of animation I most like in the productions of this early 90s period like Hakkenden. In fact, the movement seems suspiciously similar to the demon army scene animated by Hiroyuki Okiura in episode 1 of Hakkenden. It's got the same style of pared down drawings combined with really quick action with lots of movement constantly going on. I started wondering, maybe Okiura did this part?? But I notice the same kind of movement near the end of episode 2, and Okiura isn't credited in that episode, so I suspect both may have been done by the same animator.

This is another good example of the unique style of movement that so many animators were doing at this time. Realistic, but not Jin-Roh realistic - more fun and exciting and action-packed. Everyone seemed to be trying their hand at this style. One of the things I remember seeing pretty often in the early 1990s was this thing where the arms kind of hung down limply and wobbled around, as if they were asleep. I loved that. This whole style faded away pretty quickly moving into the mid-90s.

The reason I checked this out was to see Masayuki Kobayashi's work, because I'd heard he was involved. But when I checked the credits on the AD Vision release, I didn't find his name. I found only one "Masanori Kobayashi". I figured it had to be him and the translator just goofed a little. Then I noticed other names that seemed suspiciously familiar. Hironori Okuno? That couldn't be Hiroyuki Okuno, could it? Satoshi Hiramatsu? I only know one Hiramatsu, and that's Tadashi Hiramatsu. I was really curious to know what was going on, so I got my hands on the Japanese credits and did a comparison.

My jaw dropped at what I found. Now, Japanese names are a pain to translate. Often, if you don't have information directly from the person in question, you can't know for sure how a name is read. After all these years, there are still names I'm not sure of. And there are names that I thought I knew how to read for many years that turned out to be read differently. So in that sense, I don't really blame the translator. But on the other hand, there are some names whose readings are clear. The translator who did these credits didn't just goof, he f*ed up big time. In the case of 'Hironori Okuno', "Nori" isn't even a possible reading of that character. Worse than that, Tadashi Hiramatsu appears in both episodes, and is translated differently in each episode - Satoshi Hiramatsu in the first episode and Eiji Hiramatsu in the second episode.

Here are the credits, with corrections, to serve as an example of how important it is to properly translate credits, and how misleading and useless a bad translation can be. Who would have known that Koji Ayazaka was in fact Hiroshi Osaka? But hey, at least they translated the credits and didn't omit the key animators. That's already better than most releases I've seen.

Sukeban Deka Episode 1 main credits

Created & Supervised by:和田慎二 Shinji Wada
Chief Director & Script:ひろた たけし Takeshi Hirota
Character Design:結城信輝 Nobuteru Yuki
"Animation Director":難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
"Sakuga Kantoku":加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase

Sukeban Deka Episode 2 main credits

Created & Supervised by:和田慎二 Shinji Wada
Chief Director & Script:ひろた たけし Takeshi Hirota
Storyboard:三條なみみ Namimi Sanjo
"Animation Director":難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
Character Design:結城信輝 Nobuteru Yuki
Sub-Character Design:加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
"Sakuga Kantoku":加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo
奥野浩之 Hiroyuki Okuno

Episode 1 animators

Koji Ayazaka Hiroshi OsakaHironori Terada Hiroyuki Terada
Yasunori Okiura Hiroyuki OkiuraToru Yoshida
Takahiro KomoriTakanori Kimura Takayuki Kimura
Tenshi Yamamoto Takashi YamamotoHironori Okuno Hiroyuki Okuno
Makoto YoshidaMegumi Abe
Sanae Ohe Sanae ChikanagaToshiki Yamazaki
Yuka KudoTabae Ogawa Mizue Ogawa
Kinuko Waizumi Kinuko IzumiNagisa Miyazaki
Takao YoshinoSatoshi Hiramatsu Tadashi Hiramatsu
Asami Kondo Asami EndoSumomo Okamoto
Masanori Kobayashi Masayuki KobayashiShinya Takahashi
Satoshi Murase Shuko MuraseTerumi Muto
Yukio NishimuraNaoko Yamamoto
Kei TakeuchiMasahiko Itojima
Yoko Kadowaki Yoko KadogamiFumiko Takashi Fumiko Kishi
Shinichi Tokairin Shinichi ShoujiKazuaki Mouri
Masahide YanagisawaYukio Iwata
Haruo OgawaraHidenori Matsubara
Keichi IshiharaKazuya Ose Kazuchika Kise
Atsuko Nakajima

Episode 2 animators

Masahiko ItojimaShinji Ishihama Masashi Ishihama
Kinuko Kazumi Kinuko IzumiKazue Ogawa Mizue Ogawa
Sumomo OkamotoHiroyuki Okuno
Hiroko KazuiKeiichiro Katsura
Fumiko Takashi Fumiko KishiNorifumi Kiyozumi
Yuka KudoTakahiro Komori
Ken SatoTakuya Saito
Hirohide ShikijimaMitsuru Shigeta Satoshi Shigeta
Kenichi Kiyomizu Kenichi ShimizuKazuhiro Sasaki
Moriyasu TaniguchiShinya Takahashi
Noriko Nakajima Atsuko NakajimaEiji Hiramatsu Tadashi Hiramatsu
Makoto FurutaMiki Furukawa
Kazuhiro FuruhashiAkiichi Masuo Shoichi Masuo
Nagisa MiyazakiHiroaki Maroki Hiroaki Korogi?
Terumi MutoTakashi Murase Shuko Murase
Hiromi MuranakaMasahide Yanagisawa
Akihiro Ketsushiro Akihiro YukiHitsuji

Saturday, November 13, 2010

04:57:00 pm , 4634 words, 10127 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Koichi Motohashi and Nippon Animation

There's been a spate of more deaths in the industry. I don't know whether it's because we are more informed in this day and age about these things or because it's been a particularly bad year for luminaries in the anime industry, but I'm getting tired of hearing about people who died.

Two producers who had a major impact on the industry have died.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki (1934-2010), the controversial producer of the Yamato series, died after falling off his yacht and drowning. This comes just before the release of the live-action remake of Yamato. I just wrote about his first attempt to revive the franchise with Yamato 2520.

Koichi Motohashi (1930-2010), the president of Nippon Animation and executive producer of Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater series, died of MDS, a bone marrow disease. Nippon Animation and its pre-incarnation Zuiyo Eizo pioneered the yearlong animated literary adaptation concept in Japan, which was quite unheard of and revolutionary at the time.

The World Masterpiece Theater was instrumental in getting me back into anime fandom as an adult, so it has special meaning to me. One of the first things I ever wrote about anime was about the WMT. I doubt I would have gotten into anime as much without the WMT. Other obituaries merely recite a list of shows produced by Nippon Animation, so I thought I would go into a little more detail about why I felt Koichi Motohashi's studio was significant.

I don't know much about Koichi Motohashi himself. All I know is that without his studio, many of my favorite anime wouldn't have gotten produced. On top of that, his studio represented something unique in anime, something no other studio was doing.

Their productions were different from that of any other studio, with a more international and family-oriented bent deliberately tailored to make them safe for audiences the world over. Their productions were intended from the start for a global audience, which is why most of their shows like Maya the Honeybee (1975, German op) were aired in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. They also collaborated with Europe on numerous productions. Maya the Honeybee was a co-production with Germany and Little El Cid (1984, French op) was a co-production with Spain. Where most studios' productions feel very much like anime no matter what they're doing, most of Nippon Animation's productions felt very deliberately un-Japanese and international.

Their shows seemed deliberately aloof from the trends of the industry, at least in the 70s and 80s (their policy seems to have changed in the 1990s). They followed their own muse. Their shows were somehow kinder and gentler than anything else being produced at the time. They had a kind of European sensibility in the look and feel. The designs weren't as anime influenced. The directing was laid back and easygoing. Their shows weren't about heavy drama or robot action or saving the world. They were lighthearted and easy to watch, with a breezy charm.

Their early work shared a particular styling that is still appealing today, with these simple designs and basic layouts. Sindbad's Adventures (1975, German op) seems to be a good example of the early Nippon Animation style, with the spare, simple characters reminiscent of Yoichi Kotabe's drawing style. Sindbad was designed by Shuichi Seki, who would go on to be one of the studio's main character designers. It's partly his design sensibility that created that Nippon Animation look.

Future Boy Conan (1978) / Spaceship Sagittarius (1986) / Dorataro the Hobo (1981)

Jacky the Bearcub (1977) is another good show from their early period. (French opening with animation by Toshiyasu Okada from ep 1) It was designed by Yasuji Mori, also with these simple designs. It couldn't have been produced by any other studio, with its realistic yet adorable bearcubs animated in a realistic way and shown as actual wild animals, not anthropomorphized bears. A young Indian boy befriends the bear cub, but the story remains realistic in concept - the cub is a wild animal who eventually has to return to nature. Rascal did this material in an even more realistic way. It wasn't just a happy-go-lucky fantasy land; it taught youngsters about the tension between human society and the natural world of the animals. Nippon Animation's shows were wholesome but grounded and realistic about the world.

Among mid-period works, Spaceship Sagittarius (1986) was memorable, and a new direction for the studio. It was like nothing else out there, yet somehow still quintessentially Nippon Animation. The odd and homely alien designs were kind of refreshing for not looking like typical anime. The humor of the show was subtle and witty, the stories smart satire like a bizarro version of the real world. It was a quirky, fun kind of sci-fi that's never been seen before or after - not about pitched battles and space operatics, but sci-fi as whimsical fantasy and a satirical lens on our world.

Chibi Maruko-chan (1990) was another one of their more memorable productions. It signaled a change for one because it was based on a manga. Momoko Sakura's manga was about the everyday life of a grade-schooler growing up in Japan, but told with wry, ironic humor from the perspective of an adult reminiscing about the experience. It had a certain something that belied the childish style and made it appealing to the whole family. It was simultaneously realistic in the details of the specifically Japanese experience of growing up, which made it appealing to me, and stylized in the designs and look in a unique way, not a typical anime way.

Chibi Maruko-chan was produced with the assistance of Ajia-do, which is the studio that then employed the person who did many of Chibi Maruko-chan's creative opening and ending sequences - Masaaki Yuasa. Nippon Animation capitalized on the show's success by producing two Chibi Maruko-chan films around the same time. Another subcontracting studio long affiliated with Nippon Animation was Oh Production.

The 90s saw them shifting in style, keeping up with the times, adopting more popular styles and doing more obviously Japan-centric work based on manga and the like. The range was much broader than before. There was fantasy adventure like Pigmalio (1990, op) and Yamato Takeru (1994, op) and Mahoujin Guruguru (1994, op), cute shows about daily life in Japan like Mikan Enikki (1992, op) and Mama Likes Poyopoyosaurus (1995, op) and then unclassifiable oddball slapstick shows like Shonen Papuwa-kun (1992, op) and Tonde Boorin (1994, op) and Hanasaka Tenshi-kun (2000, op).

I watched a lot of their shows that came out in the early 1990s. They were actually quite original and different and appealing. Poyopoyosaurus is one I particularly remember liking - a family drama with a fun, hip contemporary vibe and style. Mahoujin Guruguru was also fun, a crazy slapstick fantasy adventure with cute SD characters. Tonde Boorin was just strange - a bizarre story about a superhero pig. Nippon Animation had clearly changed their policy in a very drastic way, striving to create series that would appeal to young viewers in Japan by following the stylistic trends of the day rather than being conceived for international audiences. I think a lot of these shows were quite fun and appealing, so in a way it was an improvement, while in other aspects they lost something that set them apart. It was still Nippon Animation in that the shows were good family entertainment. The style was just more trendy.

I didn't watch much of what they made post-2000, but I noticed there are some very bizarre items like Hanasaka Tenshi-kun that seem inconceivable for the company that produced 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.

Then there are all of the World Masterpiece Theater shows. Nippon Animation is rightly remembered for the WMT. The concept of a serious yearlong animated literary adaptation was a real innovation and produced some of the best long-form storytelling ever made in TV animation.

The World Masterpiece Theater through the years: Marco (1976) / Annette (1983) / Tico (1994)

The WMT was a staple of Fuji TV's Sunday evening programming for more than 20 years, bringing to the screen a new classic of world literature every year. Their shows took a new approach towards animation - neither shoujo nor shounen, not just for children but also for the parents, without superheros, robots, magical girls, or ninjas. The one thing that united the WMT was that they were about everyday life: the excitement, drama, sorrow, happiness and transcendent beauty to be found in the prosaic things we tend to take for granted.

Isao Takahata directed three series that launched the WMT and set the tone for the rest of the series - Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976) and Anne of Green Gables (1979). They are also easily the best in the series, and for having produced these series alone, Koichi Motohashi's studio would have a firm place in anime history. They're unsurpassed masterpieces in the TV animation format, achieving depth of characterization, power of storytelling and realism of detail and directing that will probably never be surpassed in TV animation (if only because nobody seems willing or capable of doing down-to-earth realistic stories like these). See end of post for an ancient writeup I did on what makes Marco great.

Takahata & co. were a tough act to follow. None of the subsequent shows had quite the depth, attention to detail and assiduous realism of Takahata's shows. Despite the later shows still having the trappings of being realistic drama, the WMT evolved in a subtly different direction fairly quickly after Anne. However, the early series that followed Marco, namely Rascal Raccoon (1977) and Perrine (1978), did an admirable job of creating a similar level of quality and realism under the direction of Seiji Endo, Saito Hiroshi and Shigeo Koshi, who would become the main directing figures at Nippon Animation in the ensuing years.

Rascal Raccoon in particular, despite sounding extremely lame going by the title, was one of the most affecting real-life stories in the series. It was even more realistic than Marco in the sense that it wasn't a grandiose continent-trotting adventure. It was just a small-scale story about a boy in rural America in the early 1900s and his day-to-day experiences. It also happened to benefit from a considerable amount of animation from one Hayao Miyazaki.

Tom Sawyer hit the air in 1980. It was an entertaining romp that is actually memorable if light and insubstantial compared to the previous outings. It benefited from great animation by Yoshifumi Kondo. It was an entertaining version of Mark Twain's classic, although the satirical fire and brilliant prose was lost in translation.

The mid-80s shows that followed were more melodramatic and less hard-edged, dropping the brutal neo-realism of Marco to create more accessible and child-friendly period dramas. I've only watched one series in its entirety from this middle period - Pollyanna, which seems typical of the WMT in this middle period with its saccharine tone and overwrought, unrealistic melodrama.

In the early 90s, the tone began shifting again, presumably due to dropping ratings. The first shift was the most drastic one in the series - Peter Pan. Based on literature, maybe, but a far cry from the realistic material that was the whole purpose of the series at the beginning. Yet it turned out to be one of the best WMT shows. It had strong animation thanks to Takashi Nakamura, who was fresh from his stint on Akira and itching to do something freer and more imaginative, and the animators he brought in (viz these old posts). It also happened to stand up fairly well on its own as an entertaining adaptation of this classic story that, despite veering from the story, did its spirit justice in tone and style.

Unfortunately the later shows didn't hold up as well. They desperately tried various measures like creating an action drama that wasn't based on a work of literature with Tico of the Seven Seas (1994), going against the premise of the series, and then switching the gender of Hector Malot's Sans Famille (1996) to a girl to play up to audiences. But ratings kept dropping and the series was finally cancelled afterwards.

Tico of the Seven Seas was, in itself, a fairly entertaining and well-produced series that the whole family could enjoy. Romeo's Blue Skies (1995) came perhaps the closest in spirit to the early WMTs of the 1970s, with its historically believable story about chimney sweeps in a late 19th century Italy at the turn of the century, but zany antics and childish melodrama trumped realism to the series' detriment.

Lassie (1996) was a valiant effort directed sensitively by Sunao Katabuchi. It benefited from the appealing, Yasuji Mori-esque character designs of Satoko Morikawa and nuanced animation work by the animators under her like Osamu Tanabe and Hisashi Mori. But it was sabotaged by the station, Fuji TV, who, dissatisfied presumably by unsatisfactory ratings, kept substituting baseball shows in the show's time slot and forcing the studio to change the story of the remaining episodes accordingly.

Remi Sans Famille (1997), which followed as if in a panic, was a disaster from the start, and was cancelled fairly quickly. With its cancellation, the glorious long-running WMT franchise came to an ungraceful conclusion. You can read an embarrassing little piece I wrote 15 years ago about Lassie and the end of the WMT here.

Ten years later, Nippon Animation returned to their roots, trying to revive the World Masterpiece Theater with adaptations of Les Miserables (2007), Porfy's Trip (2008) and Before Green Gables (2009), but these had little in common with the early WMT, and I don't know if the shows were successful with audiences. A Dog of Flanders earned 22.5% ratings in 1975, while ratings declined with each year until Remi Sans Famille in 1996 earned only 8.5%. It seems to indicate that demand for this material has all but evaporated amidst growing sophistication and variety of animated programming and variety of other, more flashy and exciting, competing forms of entertainment.

Even aside from the WMT, Nippon Animation was a prolific studio since it began with A Dog of Flanders in 1975. As of this year, it has produced roughly 100 TV series, including the 26 World Masterpiece Theater shows.

Besides what they produced, Nippon Animation was important in that it had a lot of talented staff who did great work. Many of the Toei luminaries moved to Nippon Animation after leaving Toei. It was there that Hayao Miyazaki had a chance to flower as a director with Future Boy Conan in 1978.

In addition to hosting Isao Takahata, Yoichi Kotabe and Hayao Miyazaki, the most notable ex-Toei figure to grace Nippon Animation's productions in the late 1970s and 1980s was Yasuji Mori, the mentor figure of many of those same ex-Toei figures. He provided delightful character designs for many series including perhaps most notably Jacky the Bearcub, known as Bouba in Europe. Jacky is one of the few animated productions that brought Yasuji Mori's uniquely rounded characters to life in a satisfying way, as witness the delicate animation in the opening. He also designed Banner the Squirrel (German op) and Dorataro the Hobo (op) and later on acted as layout supervisor on shows like Animal Three Musketeers (op) and Alice in Wonderland (op). He was the character supervisor on the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature show. He stayed at Nippon Animation until his death in 1992.

Between his early A Pro period and his late Ghibli period, Yoshifumi Kondo did much good work for Nippon Animation. As the animation director of Anne of Green Gables, he was the person responsible for doing what has never been done (or at least done so convincingly and realistically) in a TV animation, gradually modifying Anne's design to match her physical maturation over the course of the series. In Tom Sawyer he provided lots of great animation. In Little Women he was the character designer. Nippon Animation also trained a number of producers who would go on to work at other studios, most notably Eiko Tanaka.

I'm not painting a hagiography here, just trying to point out the high points. They had plenty of lows. The World Masterpiece Theater in the 1980s was more a showcase for kitschy melodrama than for serious realism, and by the end in the 1990s, it had degenerated into something of a parody of itself. Their anodyne style could be viewed more harshly as being spineless and conservative, and most of their productions are aimed at small children and are fairly unremarkable. In the 1970s, they produced their fair share of generic spokon and shoujo manga adaptations, and even produced some forgettable robot shows. Their productions in the 1990s became much more tailored towards popular tastes in content and style, so they became kind of like every other studio out there and lost a little of what had once made them so unique. They had to survive.

But all that said, they did produce a series like Takashi Nakamura's Fantastic Children in 2004, which was a sincere attempt to create a series of genuine quality divorced of market considerations. Nakamura had previously been involved with Nippon Animation on their 1989 WMT Peter Pan, which was one of the series' late successes.

TV shows were Nippon Animation's main field of activity, but they also produced a number of TV specials sporadically up until the late 80s. In the early 90s, they produced a series of movies, most of which seem unremarkable. The second Chibi Maruko-chan movie (1992) notably featured some creative animation sequences from Ajia-do animators like Masaaki Yuasa. After the WMT ended, they even tried to revive the franchise with some fanfare by releasing remakes of Marco and A Dog of Flanders, the highest-rated shows in the series, but presumably these films didn't do so hot at the box office, because the series didn't continue afterwards.

One of their recent projects that looks intriguing is a 2007 TV special entitled Miyori no Mori (trailer). It was directed by veteran art director Nizo Yamamoto. It appears to have a more classical look indicating an attempt to return to something of the tone of their earlier work with material with a more broad appeal, an epic fantasy on the subject of ecology and nature.

The really remarkable thing about Nippon Animation is that this post doesn't even do justice to the range of their work. This post only covers a fraction of the shows they did, and briefly, and those other shows are quite wide-ranging in style, far more than almost any other Japanese studio except for maybe TMS. Over the span of 35 years, Nippon Animation has produced a handful of masterpieces and a slew of highly entertaining and unique TV series. They represented an alternative vision of anime far removed from all the cliches that have come to define Japanese animation in the imagination of the world. Many of their shows were watched and beloved by millions of kids the world over during the 1970s and 1980s. Kids of my generation grew up on Nippon Animation anime. They've been a one-of-a-kind presence in the anime industry for well over three decades. For running such a studio, Koichi Motohashi, thank you, and rest in peace.

Click on to see an old thing I wrote about 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother.

3000 Leagues in Search of Mother:
From the Appenines to the Andes

Produced by Nippon Animation, aired on Fuji TV
52 episodes, aired Jan-04-1976 to Dec-26-1976
Based on Cuore (1878) (Translated in English as: Heart: an Italian schoolboy's journal, a book for boys) by Edmondo de Amicis (1846-1908, Italian)

Executive producer: Koichi Motohashi
Producer: Nakajima Junzo, Matsudo Takaji
Director: Takahata Isao
Character design & animation director: Kotabe Yoichi
Assistant Animation Director: Okuyama Reiko
Written by: Fukazawa Kazuo
Art director: Takamura Mukuo
Music: Sakata Koichi
Layout & Scene Design: Miyazaki Hayao
Storyboards: Tomino Yoshiyuki (3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29, 33, 36, 39, 40, 42, 44, 46, 48, 50, 52), Okuta Seiji (9, 11, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 32, 34, 37, 38, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51), Kuroda Yoshio (13, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 35), Takahata Isao (1, 2, 4, 5, 7)
Assistant directors: Yokota Kazuyoshi, Baba Ken'ichi, Kageyama Yasuo
Audio director: Uragami Yasuo
Photography director: Kuroki Keishichi

Marco: Matsuo Yoshiko
Peppino (Fiolina's father): Nagai Ichiro
Conchetta (Fiolina's sister): Ohara Noriko
Fiolina: Nobusawa Mieko
Tonio (Marco's brother): Sogabe Kazuyuki
Pietro (Marco's father): Kawakubo Kiyoshi
Leonardo: Kamiyama Takuzo
Anna (Marco's mother): Nikaido Yukiko
Julietta (Fiolina's sister): Chijimatsu Sachiko
Pablo: Higashi Mie
Fana (Pablo's sister): Yokozawa Keiko
Mario: Tomiyama
Clara: Takefuji Reiko
Fernadez: Miyata Hikaru
Narrator: Tsuboi Akiko

OPENING THEME: Sogen no maruko (Marco on the Grasslands)
ENDING THEME: Kaasan ohayo (Good Morning, Mother)
Vocalist: Osugi Kumiko
Lyrics: Fukazawa Kazuo (op), Takahata Isao (ed)
Music: Sakata Koichi
Arrangement: Sakata Koichi (op), Oroku Reijiro (ed)

This TV series is an adaptation of only one tiny portion of Cuore; namely, the story for the month of May, 'From the Appenine to the Andes'. The anime resembles the original story only in outline, as most of the story elements and characters were created specifically for the anime by writer Fukazawa Kazuo (whose only other anime credits are the screenplay of Hols, Prince of the Sun and the cinematization of 1001 Nights)

A movie compiled from episodes of the TV series was released in theaters on 19 July1980 in Japan.

On the novel

Written following the Italian war for independence by a sub-leutenant who had fought in the seige of Rome in 1870, Cuore is the fictional diary of a boy's third year in a Turin municipal school. It was written to foster juvenile appreciation of the newfound Italian national unity, which the author had fought for in the recent war. The book is often highly emotional, even sentimental, but gives a vivid picture of urban Italian life at that time. A master, introducing a new pupil, tells the class, "Remember well what I am going to say. That this fact might come to pass--that a Calabrian boy might find himself at home in Turin, and that a boy of Turin might be in his own home in Calabria, our country has struggled for fifty years, and thirty thousand Italians have died." The author established a reputation as a writer in various genres after his experience as a soldier, and after having been translated into English in 1895 as Heart and then four years later as Enrico's Schooldays, the novel became internationally popular, and has been translated into over twenty-five languages.

Scattered thoughts about the anime

AnnaThis anime, the second sekai meisaku gekijo series, starts off in Genova, Italy1, and ends up far away across the Atlantic in Cordoba, Argentina2. At the beginning of the series we meet a family of four living in Genova, the Rossis: mother Anna, father Pietro, eldest son Tonio and young Marco... and Amedeo, their little pet monkey. The father runs a free clinic for the poor, as times were tough in Italy at the turn of the century, and there was a national work shortage. The Rossis find themselves in debt because Pietro's work is certainly charitable, but unprofitable. Tough times require tough measures, and Marco's parents are forced to make the difficult but obvious choice between sending mother to Argentina to find work, and starving: she agrees to go for a year. However, Anna and Pietro keep Marco in the dark about their plans until the last minute, for fear of his reaction. On the last day before Anna is to set out, the whole family spends one last idyllic day on the beach together, before revealing the truth to Marco...

Genova...And thus the series begins. After the mother's departure, the series moves on into a number of episodes about daily life in Genova. This development section introduces the father and brother and many other characters not in the book. We meet not just the Rossi family and friends, but perhaps just as importantly, the fin-de-siecle city of Genova. We're ushered through its every nook and cranny through the eyes of Marco, giving us a glimpse of daily life going on all around him. These episodes bring the city alive in a way no other anime does. For the first time in an anime, the city was not a backdrop but an active part of the story. The city of Genova has many faces: dark alleyways which only get five minutes of sunlight a day3, marble plazas where a priveleged minority lounge in the sunlight above the crowded, towering tenements of the inner city4, the splendid and colorful facade of the city looking out on the sea. This series brought documentary realism to anime, and this is a big part of what makes it so much more powerful than typical anime (as is the case with Takahata's other work). Anime dealing with such mundane subject matter, and dealing with its characters in a realistic way had never been attempted before (excepting the earlier Takahata project Heidi). But though Heidi was an anime about everyday life, Marco is more than that.

Attention to detail could be said to be the unifying concept of this series. Every image of the city is designed to seem as realistic as possible, and comes across as intense and vivid. The city isn't just a backdrop; rather, watching the series gives you an impression of walking around a real city you've never been in before. No part of the city exists to fill in space, unlike in other anime. Sounds in the background are also realistic. Now and then you can hear the children singing a game in the distance, or a wife calling to her husband in the distance. And instead of each episode being an adventure story, this series tells of the things which occur every day in real life. The buildings of the city seem like organic creatures affected by the rain and sunlight of the environs. Using sound and lighting, the city's people and edifices are brought alive by these many small nuances, and as a result the 'foreignness' of the city seems very authentic. The real-to-life backdrop itself makes the action seem naturalistic and spontaneous. The fact that one single person wrote the entire script, and one single person directed every episode goes a long way to accounting for this series' sense of unity... because each is an auteur. Keeping the creative power within the hands of one person seems rarer in anime these days, probably because the industry has changed. But I think this tight creative control is precisely what made it possible to create a series which is certainly as much of a masterpiece as any of the other more well-known Miyazaki or Takahata films - but on an tremendously bigger scale. However, the director was not the only person whose creative work went into on this series. Credit should go equally to the various staff members: Director Takahata Isao, screenwriter Fukazawa Kazuo, layout artist Miyazaki Hayao, music director Sakata Koichi, art director Mukuo Takamura, animation director Kotabe Yoichi, and all the storyboarders - all without whose brilliant work these disparate elements would certainly not have come together with such glorious results.

MarcoBut what about the 3000 League journey? It doesn't come until relatively late in the series, after a long exposition; so I think it's clear that the real journey is in fact one of Marco's inner growth. What is it that compels Marco to leave Genova for faraway Buenos Aires5 6, all the way across the Atlantic? In part it's his character: Marco is a stubborn little boy. But he's justifiably worried in light of the sudden lapse of communication from his mother. By the time of the departure, it's obvious to the viewer that these episodes have served to mentally prepare Marco for the real journey ahead. But it's also clear that he has a long way to go. The often heated disputes had with his father, his skipping school to work as a bottle washer - all are symptoms of acute juvenalia. When the father finds out what Marco wants to do, he only naturally refuses even the thought of putting his son alone onto a ship for someplace as far as South America. But as for Marco, the little boy, he is still immature and stubborn. A stigmatized longing for the impossible seems to have a long tradition as as one of the beauties of youth, and Marco fits in nicely in that tradition. Marco takes his anxieties to an extreme that's frightening, even downright pathological, but for all his violent outbursts, he seems like just a normal little boy going through that phase in life. I think this is where Takahata shines - in making young Marco a bona fide, authentic, flawed human being. In fact, this is the part of the series which delves most effectively into the realm of Marco's mind, I think. At certain points in these episodes Marco rebels with an intensity of emotion and mental anguish that would make Jim "Rebel" Dean/Stark quake in his boots. No other anime before this has such a powerful screenplay which put effort into realistically portraying the a child's unstable emotional state during that roller-coaster time called adolescence.

This viewer only recently had the opportunity to experience watching these episodes for the first time, and without hesitation I would say in earnest that no anime tv series has ever been more emotionally riveting to me than merely the first fifth of this tv series. (and that'snot to discount the rest of the series) One could say that 3000 Leagues is the emotional prototype for Grave of the Fireflies, Takahata's film from a decade later. In her article on Isao Takahata in Kinema Jumpo No. 1166, Emiko Okada makes it a point to draw a parallel between the indifferent and cruel adults in Grave of the Fireflies and those in 3000 Ri. While I think such a parallel is partly true, I don't feel that the characterisations of the adults in 3000 Ri were taken to the extreme to which they were taken in Grave of the Fireflies. I think Grave suffers more than anything from this problem. People who lived through this period say that people were charitable and supportive of each other during this time and that the hardship-induced greed and self-interest characteristic of most characters in this film is all wrong. 3000 Ri is more than well balanced by its share of compassionate adult characters, and doesn't suffer any such handicap. The creators of the anime would be to thank for this, because in almost all respects the anime version of this novel is an original story. (One of the more important differences being that the anime version was stripped of the patriotic undercurrent of Cuore the novel.) Whereas Grave, as Okada points out, betrays its origins inautobiography by its sometimes wooden depiction of characters. It's easy to understand that liberties would need to be kept to a minimum in a 90 minute adaptation, whereas liberties would needs be taken in abundancein order to flesh out a 52-episode adaptation.

SlumOne WMT fan at one time astutely pointed out the very noticeable and considerable decline in grittiness in the WMT as the years go by. I think this is a fairly important point, because it helps understand why the WMT was cancelled. Basically, earlier series seem to be a lot tougher and less patronizing than the later series. The harder-hitting and more sober, seminal series from the beginning of the WMT (Heidi, Marco, Flanders, Rascal, Perrine and Anne) got ratings above the 20 mark, whereas the series in the latter half (post-Sara) more light-hearted and formulaic forays into "childrens' anime" suffered a continual decline in ratings (and arguably quality), and that is what eventually led to the demise of the WMT when it was cancelled by its longtime host station, Fuji TV, due to low ratings in 1997. Suffice it to say, perhaps there's more wisdom than meets the eye to a remark made by Shudo Takeshi (creator of Minky Momo) in 1993: "We made the Minky Momo series not by pandering to the kids, but rather with a feeling that if adults could follow, then surely kids will be able to follow as well."

ImmigrantsA film which was an influence on Takahata in 3000 Ri, and seems to have exerted some influence on stylistic aspects of the series, was Vittorio De Sica's film The Bicycle Thief (1948). This movie was the origin of the Italian post-war "neo-realist" film movement, and is considered to be one of the hallmarks of western cinema. There are a number of striking similarities between 3000 Ri and The Bicycle Thief, for example the unobtrusive, longer-than-usual camera shots and scenes depicting characters going through menial daily rituals, which would usually have been skipped over in anime and film alike. The pacing in 3000 Ri is also similar: slow, but always focused and never boring. We follow Marco throughout a whole day, and get to feel as if we were in his shoes. As he goes through the streets, we see the details which make every street and building unique, and we see things from his perspective yet also simultaneously from a detatched 3rd person perspective. Whilst looming buildings are characteristic of Genova, when Marco moves from one town to another later in Argentina, what characterises the cities there is different - they're flat. The cities - and its inhabitants - come alive in both places by fleshing out these radically different conceptions of landscape. Also the director doesn't spare the cities by making them pretty and making Marco's misery into an adventure. The cities are shown to be realistically if unflatteringly dirty and shabby, where needed, and daily life no more glamorous7. Marco's journey itself is authentic, as many Italians fled Italy in search of work around the turn of the century. Oftentimes this assiduous attention to realism is tempered by symbolist touches. At one point a squalid immigrant ship upon which Marco has been forced to board is approaching Buenos Aires (the city where Marco beleives his mother to be) and a hull-level camera-shot displays an object bobbing slowly along the waves towards the ship. It bumps into the hull, then tilts over to one side, and sinks beneath the waves, revealed to be the corpse of a horse. Later on, a grimy slum is ironically juxtaposed with a pristine white city. Scenes like this with more meaning than meets the eye are not uncommon, as are rather creative expressionistic nightmare sequences revealing Marco's psychic state. On the surface these are literary devices. And while not an integral part of plot, they serve, rather, to produce a sense of foreboding, and introduce borderline surrealist elements into the story. This innovative combination of authentic, sparse background music, background art establishing realistic but sometimes symbolically desolate landscapes, and script obsessively fleshing out the psychology of a single character, results in a powerful atmosphere unique to this series. Marco's experiences on the new continent reveal to the viewer people living sad but determined lives upon the vast, flat Argentinan pampas8 9, a place where the grass is no greener than in Marco's remote and overpopulated homeland.

The series is called Marco in the German-broadcast version. It receives frequent reruns in Japan and in Europe (as do many of the World Masterpiece Theater series). However, ironically, in Argentina the series was cancelled before even a third of the series had been aired, though this apparently had more to do with fickle viewers channel-surfing for Dragonball Z than the uncompromising way Argentina is portrayed.

This anime tv series was based on only one chapter of Cuore, not the entire story. The original was a "story within a story", the rest of the book being but a diary-novel about the life of an Italian elementary school student. The chapter on which the anime was based, From the Appennines to the Andes, was a story read by a teacher to the students who are the main characters in Cuore. (Note that the entire story was animated by Nippon Animation five years later in 1981, was the last "Calpis Playhouse" series). On the other hand, the other WMT series which to be based on a diary-novel, Daddy Long-Legs, follows the whole of the original, fleshing the diary entries out to produce a more tangible narrative, a sort of growing-up sitcom.

This was Isao Takahata's second credit as TV series general director. His other TV series are Heidi (1974), Anne of Green Gables (1979) and Jarinko Chie (1981), the latter of which enjoys continual airtime in Kansai. The ri in the Japanese title is an antiquated nautical measure of distance, one ri being equivalent to 2.44 miles, transferring handily to our own nautical measure of distance, the league.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

11:58:59 pm , 576 words, 900 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Denno Coil, Movie, Animator

Denno, Kappa, Tsuru

Today's link for inspiration goes back to a poet I discovered three years ago through the blog: Santoka Taneda. I was feeling in a particularly Santoka mood today for some reason.

I discovered the official site for Keiichi Hara's new film, Summer with Coo the Kappa, though it's apparently not supposed to be open until March 17 - It's coming out on July 28. Good to see some more images. I was looking forward to seeing the film not just for Hara's directing but for Yuichiro Sueyoshi's characters. It looks like it's going to be toned down and not quite as aggressively styled as Mind Game (even his recent Shin-chan film work is incredibly aggressive), but still identifiably Sueyoshi. The images and reactions to the test screening seem to suggest that it's going to be a nice, quiet, moving film full of the slow, deliberate, meandering feeling that I so enjoyed in his past work. I like that he always goes at his own pace no matter what, never feeling like he has to cram things in to keep things exciting, or unnaturally mold the story to fit a conventional framework, yet his films remain consummately entertaining. I'm thinking it's going to have something of that down-to-earth, serene, honest feeling I've been wanting to see in a film ever since re-watching Animaru-ya's The Biography of Budori Gusko a year ago. Oh, and the 30-second ad found its way back online.

A month ago I started translating an interview with Mitsuo Iso that was recently published in Animage, but I've been so busy with work the last few weeks that I never got around to finishing it. Well, I've been saved the trouble by wao. The interview provides a good overview about what to expect from the situation, and corrects a misconception I had. Namely, producer Mitsugi Sanae hadn't been introduced to Mitsuo Iso by Katsuya Kondo back during the making of I Can Hear the Sea, but more recently. She had worked with Katsuya Kondo back then on that film, but it's later that he (Kondo) introduced the two around 2000. So the portfolio/project does in fact date back six years or so as I had surmised originally.

I noticed that Toshiyuki Tsuru directed and animated the latest Naruto opening along with Hirobumi Suzuki. I quite enjoyed it. It was great to be able to finally see him working as an animator, as he's already done a lot of directing on the show. I haven't seen much of his work as an animator, at least not consciously knowing it as such, but one of the few pieces I've known to be of his hand - a memorable sequence in ep 12 of Nippon Animation's Peter Pan - was enough to make me a fan of his work as an animator. This series had a lot of other great animation in it, but his felt unique even among all that, less caught up with realistic weight than Okiura or Matsumoto or Nakamura, more flexible and free and fun, and I'd wanted to see more like it, but unfortunately I haven't seen his name very often as an animator. It had a good feeling to the movement, and this opening has that same good feeling. Tsuru has done about half of the openings, one of the more memorable episodes, #48, and just before this the third film. The second opening of GTO is also a nice piece of his.

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

08:33:14 pm , 482 words, 815 views     Categories: Animation

Peter Pan #12

I've now seen the first third of Peter Pan, and easily the high point so far is episode 12, Scary Stories, featuring animation director Hiroyuki Okiura. This is the first episode where things really come together in just the way you'd expect from an anime TV series presided over by Takashi Nakamura.

Around 1989 Nippon Animation was looking to shake up the image of the World Masterpiece Theater. Ratings were down. Times were changing. They wanted to start doing more well-known stories. Their answer? Peter Pan. It was a radical change; by far the most famous story they'd done up until then. And how to design a radically different story? How else -- with a radically different design. Enter Takashi Nakamura.

Nakamura had just completed a thoroughly punishing stint as the animation director of Akira, a film in which he was deeply involved without being able to have as much creative input as he probably wanted. Nakamura had already created extremely original and idiosyncratic pieces like Chicken Man and Red Head and The Order to Stop Construction prior to his involvement in Akira, which comes across as a very dark period indeed when he talks about it in retrospect. Peter Pan gave him back the creative freedom he'd so missed. Episode 12, featuring probably the largest concentration of single-episode designs in the series, is an all-out parade of the silly-yet-creepy monsters at which Nakamura excels, a veritable closet full of zany skeletons of the sort that will look very familiar to anyone who has seen Chicken Man and Red Head.

Combine Nakamura's emblematic designs with the fluid and detailed animation stylings of Hiroyuki Okiura, the genius animator responsible for the striking animation of the mob scene in Akira, and things really take off. Indeed, the characters in this episode feel incredibly Akira-ish -- their poses, the way their hands are drawn. At times I almost thought that was Kaneda up on the screen talking rather than Peter Pan. Then there's this cut, obviously lifted directly from a scene in Akira:

It just feels really right as an episode, the symbiosis is there. It's like a few jazz musician buddies got together for a jam session. Okiura's attention to detail and innate sense for thrilling movement shines through in the black-backdrop story sequence: Witness the detailed animation of the skeleton exploding into a billion little bits, and the sprightly animation of Peter Pan flying by Toshiyuki Tsuru, a skilled action animator who later went on to create a lot of good physical movement in fighting anime like Ninku and Naruto.

It's true that we're dealing with a pull here that has very little to do with the pull of a Marco or a Heidi -- it's a one-dimensional pull rather than a 3-dimensional one. Putting that aside, there's much that can and should be appreciated here, if you just take the time to look for it.

Monday, June 28, 2004

09:00:33 pm , 293 words, 984 views     Categories: Animation

The Longest Day + Peter Pan

Today felt like the longest day ever. I walked a total of 20 kilometers with a cumulative elevation change of 2000 meters. I tried to make it to Alouette Peak over in Golden Ears Park, but I conked out just a bit before the end. I was cramping up. That's what I get for diving in the deep end. It's been months since I did any major hiking.

I'm lucky enough to have found a means of seeing the old Nippon Animation World Masterpiece Theater series Peter Pan, and I'm really looking forward to it. I was surprised to find out a short time ago just how many great animators were involved in it. Presumably they were attracted to the show because of who was in charge of the character design, 1980s Karisuma Animator No. 1, Takashi Nakamura. He animated the op too. Here's a sampling of who did what in this series:

  • Mitsuo Iso: 20 (uncredited) - the part where a character dons a cap
  • Osamu Tanabe: 21
  • Shinya Ohira: 23, 40 (the major pull for me)
  • Norio Matsumoto: 19, 22, 26, 29, 32, 35, 41 (amazing - this guy is everywhere)
  • Hiroyuki Okiura: 8, 16, 20, 22, 37, 41

Hiroyuki Okiura was also animation director on episodes 12, 20 and 28.

I have a poster on Coosun's BBS to thank for this list.

I've already seen episode 22, the climax of the first half of the series, which is a must-see for Nakamura fans. I've honestly never seen such a well animated meisaku episode. I've heard that there was an episode where the animators got into trouble for drawing more than 10,000 cels, and were forced to trim it down. I'm guessing this is the episode. Truly what I'd expect of Nakamura, who made his name drawing animation far above the norm in terms of both quality and quantity in his episodes of Gold Lightan and Urashiman.

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