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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Friday, October 25, 2013

06:55:00 pm , 4350 words, 27888 views     Categories: OVA, Animator: Shinya Ohira, Short, 1990s

Yumemakura Baku's Twilight Theatre

As I've noted in the past, the OVA format has long been the format of choice for experimentation with material and styles not suitable for the broad reach of theater or television. A few OVAs like Take the X Train experimented with unconventional design styles, but for the most part even OVAs remained within the confines of conventional anime design thinking. Twilight Theatre of 1991 is one of the most daring OVAs ever in this sense. An omnibus of four shorts by different directors, it features more adult storytelling, albeit within the context of traditional ghost/horror literature, and some truly daring design concepts reminiscent of indie animation without parallel in commercial anime. I wrote about Shinya Ohira's contribution The Antique Shop before. But I just had a chance to see the whole thing, and it was quite a nice package overall. The quality is uneven, and the content is lurid and sensational, but its bold experiments make Twilight Theatre a shining example of the OVA format. (Watch here)

Ranging in length between 10 and 17 minutes, the episodes are each based on a single short story by Yumemakura Baku. The films thus tend to be dialogue-heavy, with voice-overs or extended sequences of exposition. Ideally the films should rely more on the visuals, but for the most part this didn't bother me, partly because the stories were simply interesting, and also partly because of the variety of styles on display. Dialogue-heavy anime usually turns me off, but the writing was interesting because it has a talented writer behind it, and because it's concise and to the point, building to its climax efficiently within a short span. The episodes have a literary intelligence while yet being entertaining as horror/supernatural stories.

I've always been partial to omnibus animation like this, and still think it would be a good thing to have a long-running show like this offering different animators the chance to try more daring styles than your typical long-running show. The length of these episodes is just about right. Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi (1975-1995) was one of the pioneers of this kind of animation, and it produced some fantastically creative work. This was followed up by its even more creative if shorter-lived Madhouse imitator Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi (1976-1979), which as mentioned before featured some great episodes by Osamu Dezaki. Shin-Ei joined the fray in 1979 with The Red Bird, perhaps being the first omnibus anime based on literature, adapting different classics of children's literature. Nippon Animation made a literary omnibus in 1986 with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature.

The advent of the OVA market saw an explosion of low-quality children's lit omnibuses, but two of the better ones were Toei Animation's 6-episode Tokuma Anime Video Ehon Hanaichi Monme OVA series (1990), featuring directing by Junichi Sato and animation from Koichi Arai, among others, and Nippon Animation's Anime Art Video Collection (1993), featuring work by old masters such as Yasuji Mori and Shichiro Kobayashi. (The Jack and the Beanstalk short by Koji Morimoto and Atsuko Fukushima mentioned in the last post is part of this series.) It seems like most of the major studios of decades past have taken a stab at the animated omnibus. More recently, Studio 4C did so with Kimagure Robot (2004), based on the short shorts of Shinichi Hoshi.

Twilight Theatre is also an omnibus based on the work of one writer, and is notable perhaps for being one of the first literary omnibuses for adults. Two of the episodes include love scenes of a kind one would see in any typical Hollywood movie. Ero OVAs like Urotsuki Doji (1987-1996) quickly flourished in the new market, but the love scenes in Twilight Theatre are more matter-of-fact than explicit. Sex is treated in a mature, tactful way rather than with the giggly man-child fetishism of most other professedly mature anime. It's rare to see a truly mature treatment of sex in anime. The few anime with a truly realistic aesthetic like Jin-Roh or Omohide Poroporo aim for a general audience that precludes such frank depictions of sex. That's perhaps the most refreshing thing about this show. Beyond the sex, it's the sensibility that clearly sets the show apart. The storytelling is mature, the tone is restrained and without childish antics, and the material is sometimes downright unglamorous, as in the story of The Antique Shop, about a salaryman disappointed with his life.

The series was produced by Studio Pierrot, but two of the shorts were actually produced by Ichiro Itano's D.A.S.T. (Defence Animation Special Team). This studio was founded by Itano in December 1986 and went on to produce a number of high-quality and high-violence OVAs including Battle Royale High School (1987), Violence Jack (1988), Kujaku-oh 2 (1989) and Angel Cop (1989-1994). It's D.A.S.T.'s two episodes that make this OVA release truly noteworthy. Ichiro Itano had the generosity and vision as producer to give two young but talented realistic animators who had worked on these OVAs in the preceding years the chance to mount their directing debuts with these shorts - not to mention seemingly giving them carte blance, judging by the highly unconventional and challenging nature of their respective films.

Ephemeral Dream 夢蜉蝣

Character Design
Animation Director
Key Animation
梅津泰臣Yasuomi Umetsu
Line Director:青木佐恵子Saeko Aoki
Art Director:西川増水Masumizu Nishikawa
Key Animation:林千博Chihiro Hayashi
細山正樹Masaki Hosoyama
Animation Production:スタジオぴえろStudio Pierrot

The opening short tells the story of a college student named Mibu who one day while taking a test in class notices a strange aura around a girl named Ayabe. He tries to find out more, but is warned off by another student named Himuro. Mibu discovers several ancient poems that speak about the ephemerality of love using the phrase Yumekagero, which is also the name of a mononoke whose aura can only be seen by a special few. Himuro also has his eyes on the girl. It turns out Ayabe may have killed Himuro's brother 10 years ago, and now Himuro wants to be next...

Essentially a horror story about a mayfly-like mononoke that serves as a metaphor for the ephemerality of love, the title as well as the story of this short are built upon a double meaning that is complicated to translate but that makes for satisfyingly layered viewing when watching. The name Yumekagero comes from Kusakagero, a damselfly-like insect that lives for only a day. The aura that surrounds Ayabe is called Udumbara, which is both the name of the flower of the Indian Fig Tree, which grows secretively inside the fruit, and the name of the larva of the Kusakagero. Ayabe was impregnated by the Yumekagero, which hatches every 10 years when the Udumbara blooms, and must quickly devour the vitality of a male victim to lay its next brood. Ayabe and Mibu are about to consummate the ritual when Himuro barges in and jumps out the window to his death with Ayabe. It's too late for Mibu, though, who withers into an old man.

The story thus has a pleasingly literary density of allusion that elevates it slightly above typical examples of the genre in anime. Such material wouldn't seem suited to animated adaptation, but it works fairly well in the short running time without being too confusing.

A mid-period piece from Yasuomi Umetsu after his debut on Robot Carnival (1987) but before his breakthrough with A Kite (1998), I enjoyed this despite it being somewhat light in the animation department, both compared with Umetsu's other work and with the other pieces in the set. There's no blistering action, or any action whatsoever for that matter, only everyday acting scenes, but I actually like that its focus is on everyday acting. It allows you to appreciate the skills of this great animator without being distracted by either overactive animation or the typical Umetsu tackiness that I find tends to mar his own films.

Umetsu is a very technical animator, and he likes to grandstand. There is less of that here, but his seemingly effortless precision draughtsmanship comes through loud and clear. He poses characters in a variety of ways, changes their expressions dynamically, and can draw their bodies in motion three-dimensionally from any complicated angle and maintain their shapes as if they were rendered by a computer.

Umetsu also has a peculiar design sensibility that I usually find off-putting, but the characters here were more restrained in their designs, so I rather enjoyed them. I thought they were light in touch and subtly stylized in a pleasing and appealing way, for example the huge angular jaw of the protagonist's bespectacled friend, or the elegant oval of Ayabe's head. His character drawings are somewhat similar to Satoru Utsunomiya in the sense that their bodies feel stiff and rigid, and are drawn with sharp lines and angular forms, but where Utsunomiya's characters tend to be minimalistic and doll-like, Umetsu riddles his characters with peculiar distinguishing features, for example the three symmetrical hairs on the end of the protagonist's eyebrows in this short.

I find this piece shows how school drama should be done. The people in this short are actually believable as college students in the way they talk and behave. The body language and interpersonal dynamics are just realistic and understated enough to be believable. The acting is also nuanced without being lushly animated per se - it's more about skilfully timing the right expression or pose with a mere few drawings. And Umetsu has his own way of making the characters act that makes sense and isn't merely following a playbook of cliched stock expressions and poses, as is the case in most anime nowadays. Some animators nowadays seem to think that making characters flail about randomly is good acting, but Umetsu shows a good example here of how to make characters act in a way that makes sense in the context and is believable, without flamboyantly using a lot of drawings.

The short is actually not directed by Umetsu but by one Saeko Aoki of Pierrot. She is only credited with line directing, but she must also have drawn the storyboard. This is also the case in the Shinichi Suzuki short. The Yasuomi Umetsu and Shinichi Suzuki shorts were produced by Pierrot, and the Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto shorts were produced by Ichiro Itano's D.A.S.T. The Pierrot episodes also feature a very small number of animators compared with the long credit rolls of the two D.A.S.T. episodes, and the nature of the films reflects this; the two D.A.S.T. films are very much about the animation, whereas the animation seems almost perfunctory in the Pierrot films, whose focus is more on the narrative. Now largely associated with shonen fighting anime, Pierrot was at this time largely associated with magical girl fare, but occasionally produced the random highly artistic OVAs like Magical Emi: Semishigure and Gosenzosama Banbanzai and then this.

Tatami Voyage 四畳半漂流記

Character Design
Animation Director
橋本晋治Shinji Hashimoto
Supervisor:板野一郎Ichiro Itano
Art Director:石垣努Tsutomu Ishigaki
Key Animation:橋本浩一Koichi Hashimoto
柿田英樹Hideki Kakita
清水勝祐Katsuhiro Shimizu
二村秀樹Hideki Futamura
青木真理子Mariko Aoki
友田政晴Masaharu Tomoda
阿部美佐緒Misao Abe
馬場俊子Toshiko Baba
桜実勝志Masashi Oumi
橋本晋治Shinji Hashimoto
Animation Production:D.A.S.T

A guy named Shimada is on his way to meet his crush, Saori, when he has a run-in with a thug and gets beaten up. A mysterious passer-by rescues Shimada and asks for a favor in return. Saori happens by the scene, and together the two go back to Shimada's apartment to hear the stranger's request. The stranger informs them that he's looking for a certain something called "Pemu". Shimada hesitatingly accepts, and the stranger tells them their journey has already begun. Confused, they look out the window, and realize they got more than they bargained for, and the stranger is no mere mortal...

The directing debut of animator Shinji Hashimoto, this is by far the most striking of the four shorts. It's not often at my jaded age that I'm caught off guard by animation, but this thing shocked even me. This short is nothing less than a well-deserved bullet to the head of conventional anime character design. My jaw was literally dropped throughout much of the runtime. It has a style like nothing else that has ever been made in anime. The drawings at first sight appear to be deliberately ugly, but I find them quite appealing, in an extremely offbeat kind of way. Hashimoto attests to having been inspired by a 1990 manga called Bunpuku Chagama Daimaoh, the debut of Tokyo Tribe mangaka Santa Inoue, The drawings of this manga are by no means identical to the designs of this short, but you can see how they might have inspired Hashimoto to go in the direction he did.

What he got from the designs was the idea of freely, loosely drawn forms drawn with quick, firm, assured strokes. In anime, you usually have to draw a character exactly on model and get all the shapes and details just right. Otherwise it's off-model. The designs here represent an overturning of this fundamental rule of animation drawing, at least in anime. Rather than drawing outlines first, then filling in the details, and getting everything just so, these designs can still be properly drawn even if the details are not all the same in each shot. The forms are drawn as a series of bulges whose shapes can vary in relation to one another and still feel like the design is maintained. The characters have something of the character of blobs. This is somewhat reminiscent of the cartoon aesthetic of the west, with its stretch and squash, but it's not quite the same. There's no stretch and squash here. Hashimoto invented his own unique approach that was basically more suited to his own temperament and personality, and made the process of animating fun for himself, rather than the tedious chore it can become if you have to spend a lot of time on getting the details of a design just right. I'm not an animator because I'm too impatient. I think I would enjoy drawing Hashimoto's characters because they wouldn't be a pain in the butt.

The designs have almost a naif feeling, as if they were drawn by a child or an outsider artist. But clearly that is not the case, as the animation is at times extremely rich and nuanced, and of course Shinji Hashimoto is an ex-Telecom animator. Santa Inoue is related to Taiyo Matsumoto, as is his style, and the style here seems indebted to the whole indie manga aesthetic. This episode is a prime example of how the pair of Shinya Ohira and Shinji Hashimoto injected an indie and punk feeling into anime, subverting the industry from the inside out. I wish animators in the anime industry would come up with their own approaches like this. There is the whole heta-uma movement started by Shiriagari Kotobuki, with its anime analogues in a few shows like Manga Biyori, but Hashimoto's film is totally different from that; it's quite sincere rather than sarcastic.

The animation is very strong in certain spots, and at all times nothing short of mesmerizing due to the design choices. Every drawing fascinates, because you can see the animators actually having to think, to come up with an answer to the question of how to draw these characters. The animation where the guy transforms in front of the monster near the end is particularly impressive, and may have been the work of an uncredited Satoru Utsunomiya. For some reason many animators in this and Shinya Ohira's short went uncredited.

The animation at times has the feeling of Takashi Nakamura, particularly with the way the monster's face is drawn with these big, deeply sculpted nose and lips. Apparently this short was made by essentially the same team of animators as The Antique Shop, but The Antique Shop was done first, and by the time of this short, they were all really pooped and didn't have much energy left. It still looks pretty impressive, considering the very short schedule in which they made it. Just goes to show that it's not budget and schedule that make for compelling animation, it's the overwhelming desire to make something incredible, consequences be damned.

The remarkable thing is that this is nothing even remotely like the style with which Shinji Hashimoto is typically associated. It's a complete one-off. There must be so many other talented animators out there who, if given the chance like Hashimoto was here, would be able to produce novel visual schemes of a kind we would never have expected, but they just haven't been given the chance. OVAs like this were a precious opportunity to try new things. Hashimoto hasn't directed anything since, except for one opening. OVAs haven't gotten any more daring.

A Mountain Ghost Story 深山幻想譚

Character Design
Animation Director
Key Animation
鈴木信一Shinichi Suzuki
Line Director:青木佐恵子Saeko Aoki
Art Director:伊藤主計Kazue Ito
Key Animation:竹山稔Minoru Takeyama
Animation Production:スタジオぴえろStudio Pierrot

A mountaineer sits alone with his thoughts, warming himself to the fire and sipping coffee while reminiscing about what drove him to seek the mountain he enjoyed hiking as a youth, now, in his advanced age: The failure of his small business, and the avalanche of responsibility that followed... His wife, screaming in anger... The life insurance that would take care of his debts and his wife if something were to happen to him.... Yes, he has come to the mountain to die. His dark thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected visitor, who begins talking about strange things like mountain spirits.

Featuring drawings by Shinichi Suzuki of The Life of Gusko Budori, this is the most static and minimalistic short in the set, but also the longest, clocking in at 17 minutes. (By contrast, Shinji Hashimoto's vividly animated episode is understandably the shortest, at 10 minutes.) Most of the episode consists of two people sitting around a fire talking. In terms of both directing and animation, it's very restrained. The directing and animation serve mainly to narrate the story about this man's past and the mysterious stranger. You could criticize this short, as well as Umetsu's, for being a little too reliant on the source material and not creating an emphatic visual analogue to the script, but honestly the story is interesting enough that I didn't mind this at all. It makes for a good balance in tone to have one more static short like this in the set, so the film should more rightfully be judged within its original context.

Despite having very little to it, the story kept me interested throughout. You can feel the pain of the protagonist, who has gone through hard times and has retreated to the solitude of the mountains to gather his thoughts and potentially even end his own life. I can certainly relate to this feeling of wanting to give up, one we've probably all felt at some time or another. I felt the long shots focused on the protagonist did a good job of establishing the atmosphere of this section. [SPOILER] Perhaps I'm just naive not to have seen it coming, but I was genuinely surprised by the ending, and it provided the poignant final touch to an already poignant setup. After the stillness of the entire episode, suddenly the interloper walks forward and stands into the fire, to the shock of the protagonist, and then violently grabs the protagonist's face and shoves him into the bottle. Dramatically and visually it makes for quite a sucker punch after all that calm and stillness. He was a ghost all along, having long since died on the mountain.

Although not up to the level of an animator like Yasuomi Umetsu, Shinichi Suzuki nevertheless does a decent job here as the near-solo animator of the whole episode. He's less technically accomplished than Umetsu, but has a cartoonish and exaggerated way of animating the characters using very few drawings that is appealing in its own way. I particularly like the detail lavished on depicting how he opens up the package of coffee. Little details like this conveys the reality of the situation well. The interloper appears to be designed in a way reminiscent of Buddha, with his long-lobed ears and paunch, which is an interesting choice. His animation is rather lively and fun. Once you've seen the episode, everything takes on a different meaning on a second watching, as you understand the subtext of the protagonist's words and body language.

I don't know much else about Suzuki other than that he was one of the founding members of Animaru-ya in 1982, having done sakkan work on Sasuga no Sarutobi that same year, and is still very much active, having founded his own subcontracting studio Anime Kobo Basara アニメ工房婆娑羅 in 1997. Incidentally, this Shinichi Suzuki is written 鈴木信一 and is unrelated to the Shinichi Suzuki who was an animator at Otogi Pro in the 1950s, whose name is written 鈴木伸一. His studio is one of the few subcontractors who do work for Kyoto Animation productions, presumably due to the fact that Kyoto Animation's Kigami Yoshiji is a fellow Animaru-ya expat.

The Antique Shop 骨董屋

Character Design
Animation Director
大平晋也Shinya Ohira
Supervisor:板野一郎Ichiro Itano
Art Director:長尾仁Jin Nagao
Key Animation:佐々木守Mamoru Sasaki
田中達之Tatsuyuki Tanaka
黒沢守Mamoru Kurosawa
二村秀樹Hideki Futamura
本猪木浩明Hiroaki Motoigi
工藤正明Masaaki Kudo
高橋信也Shinya Takahashi
吉田英俊Hidetoshi Yoshida
橋本晋治Shinji Hashimoto
青木真理子Mariko Aoki
Animation Production:D.A.S.T.

The lost protagonist of The Antique Shop is going through a bit of an early mid-life crisis. Once an aspiring painter with a beautiful girlfriend, he had a falling out with his girlfriend and now lives a boring life as a salaryman. A night out drinking with his old buddies turns sour as they regale him with stories of their success. He slips away into the night, pondering the point of his life, when his eyes fall on a strange antique shop. He slips in on a whim, and takes a metaphysical journey down memory lane, in the process discovering the suppressed memory of a tragic mistake that led to his downfall.

Shinya Ohira's directing debut is still beautiful to look at after all these years, and probably the best film in the set. It's the only of the four shorts that actually feels cinematic. Ohira tells this universal story of frustration, disappointment and dashed hopes through the lens of a harsh but loving realism that was unprecedented in its time. Even later realistic works don't quite adopt a tone as gritty and drably honest as this. And he did so in his directing debut, under extremely adverse production conditions that rendered the film technically somewhat of a mess, replete with photography mistakes and rushed animation.

There's an attention to detail here that's on a different level from the other shorts. Every shot is thoroughly creatively designed and conceived to create a dynamic flow as well as translate the psychology of the protagonist at each juncture. Early on, in the streets, the urban electrical wiring seems to entangle the man like a spiderweb as he falls to the ground and vomits on the sidewalk. Laughter echoes from somewhere, as if the city and life were laughing at his misery.

In the curio shop, as the protagonist walks through the doors, he passes by a mirrored dresser, and you can see his shadow passing in two directions at once as the image of his face briefly slides through the mirror, creating a disorienting effect mirroring the chaos of the interior of the shop and his mental state. The next shot is another disorienting shot in which we peer at the protagonist from above through the ticking and whirring guts of some kind of antique cuckoo clock. This cuts to a shot facing the protagonist as he looks around the interior, which in turn cuts to a POV shot of his eyes scanning the interior, which is depicted in intricate detail that makes you appreciate his wonder.

The objects in the shop actual feel very used and personal, which is essential to convey to the audience, as this sets up the reveal that they are in fact relics of his own childhood. He also uses a variety of directing techniques to achieve his ends, for example a panning shot with different parts of the shop moving at different speeds across the screen on different 'book' layers, followed by an animated 'mawarikomi' or rotating shot of the protagonist.

I like the story of this film for one because I can relate to the protagonist, but also because the supernatural element is there as the agency to help narrate a man's story, rather than being the main narrative thrust, as it usually is in this genre of story, and as it is in all of the other stories in the set.

I would love to see a full-length TV show done in this pared down realistic style, although I know it will never happen. There have been full-length features made in a completely realistic vein, but those are different. I want to see something that is more like 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in the sense that entire episodes are just devoted to depicting everyday life in its minutiae, minus the dramatic pretenses. I don't even mind the roughness of The Antique Shop, as you can see past that to the realistic core of the episode, so considering how short a schedule such a realistic film was produced on, I don't think it's unreasonable to think it would be possible to produce a TV show in this style.

Many of the shots have a lovely simplicity and subtlety to them thanks either to Ohira, who corrected some of the shots (like the late close-ups in the shop), as well as the talented group of animators he managed to scrounge up. For some reason, several of the best animators went uncredited. Confirmed uncredited animators are Akihiro Yuki, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma and Mitsuo Iso. Akihiro Yuki of Oh Pro animated the first few shots of the reminiscence where Keiko is working at the cash register, drinking tea, and where the protagonist is painting with Keiko looking on. I'm quite fond of his work. He again worked with Ohira on the Junkers pilot and then the film itself. Iso meanwhile animated the two shots of the protagonist smoking, while Yaginuma animated the scene immediately following where Keiko rushes to the sink to throw up. I wonder if maybe Masatsugu Arakawa also didn't draw a few uncredited shots. Some early shots in the film look like his style.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

10:32:00 am , 298 words, 2291 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie

Interviewing the indies

Stefan Nutz is currently engaged in a very interesting one-man project. He is going around interviewing Japan's indie animators on video for the purpose of eventually putting together a documentary about Japanese indie animation.

You can see the progress of his project, and perhaps provide him support and ideas for questions, on his web page at:

Stefan is based in Austria, and has been dealing with Japanese film for about a decade now in his capacity as a director, editor and sometimes DP for the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Agency). He is hoping to put together a 60 minute documentary possibly to be supplemented with 30 minutes of animation highlighting the work of the creators he interviewed.

Stefan's purview is not limited to indies, however, as witness the latest post on his blog, in which he reveals that he will be visiting Studio 4C later this month. Great news. Studio 4C is not just the studio we all love. They act as something of a missing link between the industry and the indie scene, working within the industry but with the mentality of independence of an indie. I wouldn't have thought to include them in a documentary about indie animation in Japan, but let's face it, they've produced some of the most creative and appealing animation in Japan, and this is one of the few times they'll have been covered for a foreign audience, so it's a great idea to balance out the project and shed light on the various facets of 'being indie' in Japan.

The image above shows Naoyuki Niiya, director of the old classic indie film Squid Festival that I wrote about in 2005, whom Stefan has interviewed already. Also interviewed will be Hiroshi Harada (Midori), Keita Kurosaka (Midori-ko), Mirai Mizue, Tomoyasu Murata and Atsushi Wada, among others.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

10:38:48 pm , 994 words, 4405 views     Categories: Animation, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Honey Tokyo

Yasuhiro Aoki is one of my great weaknesses. Something about his sensibility as a director just strikes a chord in me. I love each new film he produces. He's got a very particular style of humor that's all his own - wry, subtle and sophisticated without being over-the-top and without resorting to lowbrow humor - and it blends seamlessly with his directing. The framing of the shots is always interesting, every little movement on the screen is always communicating something, he inserts a lot of very clever ideas in every little shot, his designs are new and interesting without being too crazy and still seeming pretty accessible. He started out as an animator, and that shows up in his work. The drawings are consistently beautiful, with elegant lines and forms, and the motion is nuanced and fun. He has his own approach to movement, and isn't just some follower of a school. I like the fact that he's come up with a style that feels very much his own, without that style being alienating or artsy or artificial or weird for the sake of being weird the way some auteur anime directors feel. He's got a welcoming style that I think everyone can get. It's not the in-jokey or template-based humor of most anime. I sense he's the kind of director who has broad appeal beyond the anime crowd. He's definitely got a peculiar style that might not work for everybody, but he packs his films with so much that it feels like everybody gets something from them. He's both a director's director AND an accessible director.

I think it highlights this broader appeal that he was given the job of doing the commission for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, a 10-minute animated short entitled Honey Tokyo featuring a girl from the future who lands in Tokyo with the intention of taking away the color in the city, but winds up falling in love with the place instead. It's a quirky story idea, and it's a quirky film. Par for the course for Aoki. I'd be very curious to find out how his involvement in this project came about. It's ironic and telling that Studio 4C, of all studios - that renegade band of uncompromisingly artsy animators - were honored with this prestigious commission. Tokyo clearly sees anime as a very important cultural export to have used an anime film for this purpose, and of all the studios in Japan, 4C and Aoki were chosen to represent that culture and sell Tokyo to the world.

From a technical standpoint, it's pure Aoki - the directing, the animation, the humor. All those crazy oblique angles, the realistic but caricatural style for the bystanders, the way the guy casually starts trying to walk past the flying saucer thing at the beginning after his initial confusion. And the typically quirky humor of putting that tic-tac-toe on the back of the flying saucer thing right when they're talking about how Tokyo will disappear in the future. Why is there a tic-tac-toe there anyway?!

It's a very Aoki film, but at the same time it's very clearly a tourist film and a promotional film. He's an auteur, but a professional foremost, and he does the material justice. It's an interesting tightrope act, balancing serving as a tourism film and telling a story. The intensity and density of ideas is actually pretty toned down from his previous films. This isn't the place to show off, and he knows it. He efficiently packs photos and illustrations and even live-action footage of the various locales of Tokyo into the flow of the story, conveying the beauty and venerable history of Tokyo, while still managing to create a whimsical story arc filled with his ironic sense of humor and directing sensibility. There's a lot packed into this 10 minute film. The combination of live-action footage and animated characters works pretty well here.

One of the things I like about Aoki is kind of hard to put into words - it's his spontaneous essence. He creates moments that feel spontaneous and natural. In this film I think of the scenes with the guys playing shogi on the porch and the kids in the street. In his previous work I think of one of his Fluximation shorts, the one that consists entirely of a sequence of quick shots of people in various situations that are alternately prosaic, dramatic and ironic. Each shot feels like a casual snapshot of a larger arc of action. (The last shot in that Fluximation vid is one of the funniest things ever)

Another thing I like is related to his past as an animator. He knows when to make things more detailed. Certain shots suddenly feature very rich or subtle motion because it's necessary to express the material. It's the ideal in animation of having a director who knows animation inside out and hence knows how to use the various possible approaches to animation appropriately in different instances to achieve the ends of each particular scene. I'm thinking in particular of the slow, nuanced movement of the procession at Meiji Jingu, and at the opposite end of the scale, the shot of the rocket attached to the feet, with its fast, almost comically realistic motion.

It's a pleasure being able to see a new Aoki film. This was good, but it wasn't exactly hard-core Aoki. I liked the density of Kung-Fu Love and hope he can eventually produce something a little longer in that vein, even if it's probably no longer appropriate or worthwhile to go back to that one. (I still find it disgusting to think of all the crap that gets produced and nobody wanted to touch Kung Fu Love, especially considering the overwhelmingly positive response the film would have received from fans, if the hundreds of comments on Youtube asking for the show to be made are anything to go by. Great judgment there, conservative-ass Japanese sponsors. Nice going.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

05:52:32 pm , 9474 words, 13722 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Animator: Shinya Ohira

Genius Party

Japan has a lot of good talent working in animation. Most people just don't know it, because without knowing what you're looking for, it's hard to locate the good work amongst the flood of productions released every year. In Japan, as anywhere, the nature of this talent is multifaceted. The focus of this blog, of course, has been mostly on talented animators, though I've also quite often talked about directors, artists, etc. who caught my eye. (I talk about basically anyone who I feel is doing standout work.) But talent is speckled around in every facet of production in anime. From one project to the next, you might find some talented people doing good work in one or another aspect of the production, while you might not be particularly satisfied with the whole. Ideally, the talent will come together to realize a project in which every aspect of the production is top-notch, creating a perfect whole.

Genius Party, a two-part omnibus of animated shorts from Japan's Studio 4C, strikes me as being an effort to bring together some of the best representatives of talent in Japanese animation under one roof to show off the multifaceted nature, and the unique range of predilections, of animated talent in Japan. Although my own personal assessment of each particular film varies, as I feel that some are more successful than others, I think the set achieves the goal of showcasing, to whatever extent is possible within the span of a two-plus-hour omnibus, a fairly broad swath of the variety of talent that exists in commercial Japanese animation. It's mainly for this reason that I think the set is not only successful, but important - because it represents an effort to bring attention to the existence of this multifaceted array of talent, and to get it to work together in a way that truly does it justice and allows it to achieve its true potential, rather than allowing the talent out there to be diffused over the vast galaxy of industry productions. I think that it's important to recognize talent in this way by singling out what makes it special, and to me that is one of the functions of this project.

There are various approaches as to how to go about doing this, but Genius Party is the most prominent such project in many years. Its most obvious predecessor is A.P.P.P.'s 1987 omnibus Robot Carnival, which came along at the tail end of a decade in which the anime industry rewired itself into a more creator-centric mindset, with the name value of talented creators like Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Dezaki becoming the driving force behind projects. Genius Party seems to pick up that torch, spotlighting the new generation of talented creators, but allowing them complete freedom this time around, rather than being bound to any particular theme or style.

There is an even more direct and intentional way in which the two films are connected: Atsuko Fukushima, who animated the opening sequence of Genius Party, animated the opening and ending sequences of Robot Carnival. The same year as Robot Carnival, Madhouse released a three-part omnibus entitled Manie Manie: Labyrinth Tales. A few years later, Studio 4C similarly released a three-part omnibus entitled Memories. Each of these omnibuses features some of the best work by many of the creators involved. Of course, there are innumerable examples of the omnibus form outside of Japan, and the approach to the anthology can vary dramatically in both intent and style of execution.

I think this focus on highlighting creators and allowing them to do work in the mode best suited to their talents has long been one of Studio 4C's defining traits, and fortes. It's this mindset that resulted in the creation of my own favorite animated movie, Mind Game, in which a talented animator who had never directed a film before was given the opportunity to direct his first film based on the merit of his past work, and based on the gamble that his particular talents would be a match for the material in question, and the results were spectacular.

Studio 4C has left behind any number of other projects of different lengths and styles that are clearly endowed of that mindset. So Studio 4C seems ideally suited to finally bring to the world a new omnibus that really represents the best of the best of Japanese talent to the world, because that seems to have been their driving purpose in many ways from the beginning. In that sense, Studio 4C acts more like a nexus of talent for this project, rather than this being a showcase of a particular studio's talent. Although of course, a good proportion of the staff involved, including several of the directors, are 4C staff. I would certainly have come up with a different selection of directors if I were putting together such a set, but it's a representative selection in its own way. (open question to readers - who would you have liked to have seen make a short here who wasn't invited?)

Another thing that this project seems to drive home to the viewer is that, in animation, talent comes in many forms. It can be in the animation, the directing, the art, the CGI - you name it. Genius Party is interesting because it gathers together talent in various fields, and gets them each to make a film. As a result, each of the films have different approaches that arise from the particular nature of their talent. For example, flamboyantly individualistic animator Shinya Ohira's film is all about the exhilaration of animated movement, whereas art director Shinji Kimura's film is more about the fantastic mood created by his evocative art, and director Shinichiro Watanabe's film is more about creating a pregnant atmosphere and eliciting an emotional response from the viewer.

Studio 4C goes into considerable detail about the production of each short in the extras on the DVD set and in accompanying publications. The coverage is by no means limited to the directors. Every aspect of each production is covered, revealing how the production environment of each film was dramatically different due to the working style of the creators and their material. Besides shedding some welcome light on the working methods of some of Japan's best talent, more fundamentally, the broad-ranging nature of the coverage illuminates the unique nature of each creator, and the considerable expressive freedom afforded by the medium of animation.

I get the impression that this is where the word genius in the title fits in. I think what they meant by 'genius party' was really 'talent celebration' - as in, a celebration of the many forms of talent in Japanese animation. It was an unfortunate choice of words, as the wording makes you think they're calling the directors of the shorts geniuses, and nothing is more laughable than self-proclaimed genius. But actually, in many of the interviews with the directors, they go out of their way to make the caveat that they by no means consider themselves geniuses. I think most of the directors here are extremely talented - some of them even what I might quality as downright effing brilliant - and they each have a genius for what they do, and in that sense the word fits. If you go back to the root meaning of the term genius, it's more of a general term for the innate skills that each of us has. The Webster definition puts it thus:

The peculiar structure of mind with which each individual is endowed by nature; that disposition or aptitude of mind which is peculiar to each man, and which qualifies him for certain kinds of action or special success in any pursuit; special taste, inclination, or disposition; as, a genius for history, for poetry, or painting.

I look at Genius Party in the light of this definition: as a celebration of the unique talent lying dormant within each of us, rather than an elitist attempt to demarcate a set of directors as geniuses.

And genius in animation isn't necessarily about being flamboyantly individualistic. That's a narrow definition of the concept. Some of the films in the set are stylized or animated in a way quite different from most anime, while some have a more conventional anime aesthetic. It's more about doing something well in a way that only you can do it - which is one of the few running threads throughout the 12 wildly divergent short films that happen to sit side by side under the banner of Genius Party.

One of the things I feel from this set is a sense of community. Animation in Japan has something unique at the present time: a group of artists who are flourishing and developing in a way that seems uniquely informed by their own history, as opposed to global trends. Many of these artists have worked together on the same projects in the past, and there has undoubtedly been a lot of mutual influencing over the years. It feels like a self-contained artistic culture. This set comes across as a snapshot of this very particular community of human creation, at its best. There is a certain base aesthetic that can be said to underlie most of the films, but I think the impression that most general audiences would come away with is the sheer variety of the set. Every film is very different, attesting to the way the Japanese animation industry has nurtured some truly individualistic creators over the last few decades in the shadow of the vast majority of anime production. That's something to be celebrated, and that's exactly what this set does.

I think the thing that sets this omnibus apart is not some kind of superficial stylistic difference, or that the content is more cutting edge or something. Several of the pieces were in a style I wouldn't normally associate with Studio 4C. It's the underlying conception driving the project - to give industry animators a rare chance to create what they want for once - that seems to give Genius Party its character. Such a stance is an inversion of the conventional procedure in commercial animation, where 'in the beginning is the project', and after is the staff, which has to adapt itself to the project at hand. I'm not saying it's a bad method - real pros should undoubtedly be able to pride themselves on being able to handle different commissions. But it's important to have an outlet from the conventions on occasion to allow talent to really express themselves. Genius Party, then, is unique because it's basically putting commercial animators in an indie framework, and seeing what they can do. The results are interesting in this sense, showing that some animators, even in a framework of total freedom, remain tied to the conventions of commercial Japanese animation or their own style that they have developed over the years, while others explore a new direction for them and create something they would never have the opportunity to create in a commercial environment.

Without further ado, here is a rundown of my impressions on each piece.

Genius Party ~ Atsuko Fukushima

Kicking off the party is an eponymous opener by Atsuko Fukushima, one of the animator legends of the last two decades or so in Japan. Fukushima has been anything but prolific since creating the masterful animation in Labyrinth Labyrinthos, which opened Manie Manie: Labyrinth Tales, and the opening and closing segments of Robot Carnival in the late 80s. One of the rare more recent pieces in which her style comes through is Jack and the Beanstalk. It's wonderful to finally see another piece from her in her own unique style - especially here, as her prior work sort of embodies the whole spirit of the endeavor, with its fertile imagination backed up by solid animation skills, and the set would have been incomplete without her presence.

Her short piece succinctly evokes the themes of the project: imagination, creativity, and inspiration. Visually, the piece is one of the most satisfying in the set. The images are lush and highly worked, the movement throughout rich and exciting. The drawings achieves a very handmade look due the considerable effort that was put into transferring the feeling of the pencil-drawn keys into the final product. The combination of CGI with hand-drawn animation is seamless and achieves a beautiful effect. The interaction of the creatures is lovingly portrayed in the little details of their behavior, convincing you of the veracity of mysterious natural laws at work.

But more importantly, the piece is formally elegant and works on several levels. What at first sight looks like a nature program about the mating rituals of some strange creatures on an imaginary alien planet, gradually transforms into a beautiful metaphor about creation and inspiration, and the miracle of the human brain, with its array of neurons activating one another. All of that is achieved without the message being forced down your throat in a preachy way. Thus it serves as a perfect opener for the set. It's great to see that she hasn't lost her touch after all these years. I just wish she would get back into production full-time. She's without a doubt one of the best talents Japanese animation's got, and we could use more good work like this. There are a lot of talented people in animation in Japan, but too few with her combination of fecund imagination and animation savvy.

Like Tatsuyuki Tanaka, Fukushima originally wanted to animate her piece entirely herself. Both are great animators, so I would have liked to see that happen. But as it happens, they didn't have time, so they had to get other animators to animate their films, although both did some of the animation, and Tanaka served as the sakkan (animation director) for his own film. Fukushima was aided by several excellent animators, and it shows up in the results, whereas Tanaka's piece comes across as slightly weaker on the animation front, which is quite disappointing, as he himself is a superb animator. Here's a full list of the animators in Fukushima's piece: Yumi Chiba, Takase Nishimura, Tokuyuki Matsutake, Shojiro Nishimi, Hideki Hamasu, Jamie Vickers, Atsuko Fukushima.

Shanghai Dragon ~ Shoji Kawamori

This piece perhaps best captures the mixed feelings I have for the particular combination of films in Genius Party. I respect Kawamori's particular talent, and I enjoy his work for what it is. He has a unique voice, and he is indisputably one of the major figures in anime history since the 80s. He represents much of what anime stands for. This piece is well enough made and entertaining. I think that the inclusion of more conventionally styled films like Kawamori's Shanghai Dragon and Shinichiro Watanabe's Baby Blue is consistent with the objective of Genius Party (at least as I interpret it), namely to spotlight the various forms of talent in the Japanese animation industry, insofar as those directors are among the most talented directors working in the industry, and they have an individual voice and vision. It's just that, in style and concept, their work is comparatively conventional compared with most of the other films in the set.

Is that jarring contrast an asset or a liability? That will depend on each viewer. But personally, while watching it, all I could feel was that it was out of place, and that it was kind of embarrassing to watch. I screened the whole set with a non-anime-watching person to get a neutral third-party opinion, and this film was the only one in the entire set that this person found really irritating. My impression is that most of the other films in the set spoke on the authority of their creators' unique vision - be it Shinji Kimura's unique art, or Shinya Ohira's thrilling animation - and thus their works are exciting and interesting in their own right, whereas to a person judging the film entirely on its own merits, this one migth feel a little too plain jane anime, with a directing style and story that aren't especially unusual in their own right.

The piece wasn't 'pure' Shoji Kawamori, anyway. Kawamori wrote the script and was the director, of course, but Toshiyuki Kubooka did the storyboard and 'enshutsu' or actual processing/line directing, so the details of the directing are of someone else's hand. Shingo Suzuki was character designer/animation director. The key animation was by the small team of Hiroshi Okubo, Jiro Kanai, Shingo Suzuki and Tomoyuki Niho. Okubo also did mecha design together with Kawamori, and Niho did object design. I know Okubo did the chase over the rooftops in the 3-wheeler, and presumably Shingo Suzuki handled the character scenes and Niho did the dragon, as Niho designed the dragon.

It's a shame that the publisher of the Genius Party Beyond mook, Geibun Mook, didn't do the one for Genius Party, because Geibun Genius Party mook is far better arranged and laid out and contains a lot more interesting materials and notes and things than the mook for Genius Party. If they had, I might know a bit more about who did what for Shanghai Dragon and the other films in the first volley (i.e. Genius Party as opposed to Genius Party Beyond) with good animation for which I'd love to have a detailed breakdown (mostly Happy Machine). The Geibun mook contains lots of genga and other raw materials, with good descriptions. Heck, even the printing of the first mook is shoddy - mine's coming apart at the seams already, and I treat my books pretty carefully.

The Deathtic Four ~ Shinji Kimura

From the beginning Genius Party sounded like it would be an interesting project because they had invited such a disparate array of people onto the project - including an art director, a manga-ka, and foreign animators. I appreciate the willingness to approach individuals in different fields to create a piece of animation, because I like seeing creations by people who haven't been inculcated into the conventions of industry practice. There's a certain freshness in their work, even if it's pretty rough around the edges and not entirely successful. That's the feeling I got from the film that was made by a screenwriter for one of Studio 4C's previous omnibus productions, Amazing Nuts.

Well, it's somewhat the same feeling I get here. It's a very fun and interesting piece, but I wouldn't call it the most successful or convincing. Shinji Kimura is a fantastic art director with amazing breadth, running the gamut from the realistic baroque detail of Steam Boy to the wild, byzantine coloring of Tekkonkinkreet. The Deathtic Four has him directing his first film, and creating it from the ground up for that matter. His characters and the design of the world are quite appealing. The most successful part of the film strikes me as being the shots where we fly over and through the CGI maps of his art over the city. There is a very nice atmosphere in those shots. It feels like a silly-creepy gothic horror version of the city in Tekkonkinkreet.

What I didn't find as convincing was the CGI movement, or the style of the dialogue. For some mysterious reason he made the characters speak Swedish with Japanese subtitles. It doesn't feel necessary, and it's distracting having to read the text the whole time. I would have preferred to see a piece that showed off his skills as an artist, rather than a CGI film, as CGI isn't his area of 'genius', it's art, and I felt that the CGI distracts from his art more than it contributes here.

That said, I think it's a fit within the set, and it's an enjoyable enough piece with a style all its own, which is what I wanted to see, regardless of whether it works completely. There was a little bit of animation in the film, and that was done by Tomonori Murata and Takayuki Hamada. Besides his major contribution to Masaaki Yuasa's Happy Machine, Hamada seems to have lent a helping hand here and there in various other films in the set.

Door Chime ~ Yoji Fukuyama

Yoji Fukuyama is unmistakably a creator with a 'genius' for his particular niche - namely, manga with an exactingly rendered caricatural style somewhat similar in sensibility to early Katsuhiro Otomo. (Otomo seems to have been influenced by Fukuyama.) His droll sense of humor and predilection for 'dajare' (bad puns) can get old, I find, but his drawings are always a real pleasure to look at, and his humor is very well suited to the one-panel comics he publishes in newspapers, in which he skewers Japanese politics and culture.

For that reason, I can see why he was invited, and I think it was a very interesting choice to invite him. It's not rare to see manga adapted into anime, obviously, but Fukuyama's particular style is quite far from what you typically see adapted into anime - and far more interesting in many ways. And of course, although manga are adapted fairly often into anime, having the creator given carte blanche over every aspect of the production, as Fukuyama was here, is far rarer. He has a style of rendering faces that, if adapted carefully by a team of artists of real talent, could result in some very interesting character animation of a kind we've never seen before in anime. So I was excited when I heard that Fukuyama had been invited.

The film that was produced unfortunately does not do what I would have hoped they would try to do given the opportunity of having such a great manga-ka onboard. Rather than focusing on his drawings and creating a film that adapted those drawings into an animated mode of expression, the locus of interest in the film that was made is the mildly interesting story of an anonymous young male character who finds himself dogged by a doppelganger in modern-day Japan. Fukuyama, who of course had never been involved in animation before, was given the opportunity to draw the storyboard. Takahiro Tanaka helped him fill out the storyboard with the requisite timing, special effects markings and so on, and designed the characters for animation and acted as sakkan. The problem is that the pacing is somewhat slow, the visuals bland, and the story not affecting or interesting enough to really pull it off and make it work. I wonder what other approach could have been adopted to result in a more successful adaptation of Fukuyama's unique style into animation.

Limit Cycle ~ Hideki Futamura

The person who came up with what I think is the most interesting interpretation of the concept of the project, and on top of that managed to make by far the most genuinely surprising film in the entire set, is Hideki Futamura. It's kind of shocking, considering the rare opportunity each of these creators were given - to create literally anything they wanted "without any restrictions" (the catchphrase of the project was "seiyaku zero", which means zero restrictions) - that Limit Cycle was the only film in the set that really went outside of the bounds of conventional anime expression, with a visual ethos verging on the abstract and consisting mostly of CGI and processed footage, rather than conventional animation, and a narrative style verging on pure visual poetry. I understand that it makes perfect sense for most the creators here to have done work in the style for which they've become known, and in which they are the undisputed masters. I would have been disappointed if Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Yuasa hadn't made films in their patented style, and their films are films only they could have made. But it just strikes me as food for thought that, given literally zero limitations, this is the set of films that resulted. Obviously, this is a commercial endeavor, and it would merely have alienated audiences to create films that ignored the audience altogether. In that sense, I greatly admire Futamura's film, because it treads the fine line between experimentation and entertainment in a way that few of the other films do.

The mystery to me about Limit Cycle is not what it's about - it's why the film is so damn fascinating despite me not knowing what it's about. I've watched it three times, and I've enjoyed it just as much every time. I think this is the film with the most rewatch value in the set. I can envision myself revisiting it over the coming months to bask in the lush cascade of glowing images, and probably discover something new that I hadn't seen on a previous viewing. It's easy enough to layer random images on top of one another, but Futamura's film seems to have a method to the madness, hidden somewhere in the chaos, like good poetry, or like a model of a complex molecule.

Limit Cycle has no dialogue, and no obvious narrative. At first sight it appears to be simply a visual poem with random quotes narrated quietly over a rich medley of glowing visuals, and random numbers projected across the screen. In fact, the quotes are from 17th century French mathematician/philosopher Blaise Pascal's Pensées, and the numbers indicate the passage in the Pensées. There is no one-to-one correlation between text and visuals. Occasionally you will notice a clear correlation between a spoken word and something that has just happened on the screen, but for the most part the nature of the nominal protagonist's journey is left intentionally murky and nonliteral. Mostly the viewer has to surrender to the images and extrapolate as best they can what is happening to the protagonist, who appears to embark on a metaphysical journey through time and space.

Pascal, of course, is one of the true 'geniuses' of western history. I like how Futamura undermines the assumption that the films are supposed to be directed by creators of genius, by instead making a film where the genius is the subject of the film. Futamura is one of the ones who, in the mook interview, goes out of his way to say that he doesn't look at himself as a genius, contrary to what the title of the project might imply.

If you've ever tried to educate yourself a little about advanced sciences like chaos theory or quantum mechanics, maybe you'll have had the same experience I have of feeling that you've run headlong into a wall of impenetrably dense verbiage vaguely reminiscent of old philosophical or religious texts. Something of that ilk seems to have been the epiphany that led Hideki Futamura to meld Pascal's religious treatise with cybernetics and the mathematical concept of the limit cycle. (viz. Wiki entry) The concepts mesh surprisingly well, creating a philosophical echo chamber where scientific and religious, past and future bleed into and amplify one another.

Futamura Hideki has had a decent-sized career, during most of which he was active as a conventional 2D animator. Among his more notable work would be animation director of Second Renaissance. It's in the last few years that he seems to have veered in a different and very interesting direction, blending lush digital effects with hand-drawn animation. The first time I saw this new tack of his was in the two clips he did for Studio 4C's Fluximation music videos. In these and Limit Cycle I find that Futamura shows himself to be good with non-narrative work, at creating a flow of abstract digital images that holds the viewer's interest. The rather lengthy film doesn't grow tiring, remaining engaging at all moments, with a clear sense of development and progress, although the exact nature of that development may not be clear. The music by Fennesz is the perfect aural analogue for the images, with its dense buzz of electronic sounds and harmonic shards. The bewildered-looking James Dean-like protagonist serves as a good surrogate for viewers to latch on to. Without him, it might indeed be a bit of a daunting piece. And even the narration by actor Hiroshi Mikami (Swallowtail) is spot-on and a perfect choice for the film. I find that every aspect of his film works and benefits the whole.

Happy Machine ~ Masaaki Yuasa

There are two standout films in Genius Party for me. I don't think it will surprise many readers to learn that those two films are Happy Machine and Wanwa. Neither film afforded me the surprise of Futamura's piece, because I fully expected them to be incredible, and they were. They afforded instead the intense pleasure of being able to see among the most perfect creations yet by two of the very best creators working in animation in Japan today.

Both pieces have a very different and equally inimitable style. Yuasa's minimalistic Happy Machine is the yin to the yang of Shinya Ohira's hyperkinetic Wanwa. But both share the trait that they are filled head to toe with incredible animation that at every moment is the voice by which both films communicate, albeit in their very different ways. These creators represent to me the pinnacle of the rare 'genius' of being able create animated films that are able to communicate a clear story and thrill and move viewers purely by dint of the visuals.

Although Masaaki Yuasa was already known for his incredible talent as an animator and an imaginative concept artist, since directing Mind Game he has gone on to direct two TV series that each revealed a new side of his multifaceted talent. They revealed that he has the ability to create unpredictable, edgy, moving stories and imaginative, never-before-seen worlds populated by lots of interesting characters. I've come to admire how Yuasa always challenges himself to take a new approach with each new project. With Happy Machine he's again created a film unlike anything he's done before, not to mention unlike anything else out there.

Happy Machine is a spare film whose light touch conceals a somber core. On the surface it plays out a fantasy full of odd creatures, while underneath boils a psychologically complex rumination on the theme of the human need for companionship. The film is highly formal in its shape and in the deliberate spareness of its presentation. At every moment our attention is focused on only one object on the screen, with very little in the background to distract us. The theme is also focused, leaving the viewer with a clear but complex and potent emotional aftertaste of a kind that raises Yuasa's work above mere visual playfulness. The scene where the protagonist realizes that his latest animal companion has just left him and is floating away towards certain death, prompting the protagonist to overcome all logic and physical laws and put on wings and fly towards him, is almost overwhelming in its emotional power.

At the most basic level, the film is the ultimate in wordless storytelling, with a considerable amount of goings on conveyed exclusively through the animation, background, music and sound effects. It's striking how Yuasa is able to create a story that comes across as having so many layers of meaning out of something so deliberately pared down in every way. But moving the film is - it's by far the most moving film in the set, and really gets you thinking. It's not that the story is hard to figure out. Quite the opposite. The story is the epitome of clarity, and every little element has a profound significance that you grasp immediately. Rather, I find that Happy Machine gets you thinking about the most basic and important things in life, though I can't figure out why that is.

I find Yuasa's work amazing because he can evoke so many different complex emotions without even seeming to try, and in such a short span. And on top of that, he does so by way of a seamless unity of imaginative designs, ingenious concepts and rich animation. He creates a momentum of visual storytelling that at every moment is alternately and/or simultaneously beautiful, wildly imaginative, deeply felt, terrifying, moving, funny, and unpredictable. It's a cliched expression, but this film really feels like a small diamond, for the way there isn't anything extraneous, and it achieves so much in such a small package.

The animation of Happy Machine was done by only four people, headlined by the talented ex-Telecom animator Takayuki Hamada: Takayuki Hamada, Takamasa Ishikawa, Yasuyuki Shimizu, Nobutake Ito. I don't know much about Takamasa Ishikawa, although he was in Tekkonkinkreet, but Ito and Shimizu need no introduction - they were regulars in Yuasa's two TV series. There were so many animation drawings for some shots in the scene with the fire creature, for example, that a single shot had to be divided up for storage in two separate cardboard boxes. This is a classic example of a small, talented team of animators providing a film with a uniform high level of quality.

Baby Blue ~ Shinichiro Watanabe

Shinichiro Watanabe has done a lot of great work in anime over the last decade or so - as a music producer. He also happens to have directed a considerable amount of anime, usually supported by very talented staff. I think he did a bang-up job choosing the music for the films in Genius Party.

Watanabe's film was a fairly enjoyable, if somewhat cliche, youth drama, capped by a touching sequence at the climax that plays out in strobe effect over a Chopin Etude. Watanabe is particularly good with moments like this. I would have been prepared to enjoy this short were it stand-alone, but to be brief, it felt unnecessary. It's not what I was looking for in this set. I think Watanabe chose to create a film in this style because he knew that many of the other films would be vivid, fantastically-inclined films, and wanted to do something different, in a more atmospheric, realistic style, perhaps to give the audience a breather. Personally, I didn't feel that a breather was needed or called for.

More importantly, perhaps, I felt that the characters were dead and boring to look at. Eiji Yasuhiko was the character designer and animation director, and I think the characters in the film are its main liability. They look amateurish and bland, and there wasn't a moment where I felt that the characters had a facial expression or an instance of body language that communicated a living, breathing character I could believe in, which would have helped if I was supposed to empathize with their emotions and plight. I think that is what would have been called for to make a minimalistic, low-key story like this work, entirely focused as it is on two characters.

The brief moments of absurd humor that intersperse the film came across as lame-brained, forced attempts at levity. The casting of two famous actors in the role of the two characters struck me as nothing more than opportunistic, because I didn't find their performances apt or nuanced, merely flat-toned and seemingly deliberately drab. I love atmospheric films. This one did have its moments, but unfortunately, atmosphere alone does not necessarily make a great film. I guess mainly it bothers me that space was taken up by a film like this when there are any number of other creators with a more unusual and interesting style who could have made a more compelling film.

Gala ~ Mahiro Maeda

Mahiro Maeda is one of the most talented people in anime, and I have tremendous respect for him as a creator, so I was happy to see a film from him in the set. At first sight, the film seems more conventionally styled than the most interesting films in the set, and so I was a little hesitant going in, but once I sat down and watched it, and listened to Maeda's words about his film, I was very happy with the result. If you can make a film as satisfying and layered as Maeda has, then I find that lack of a particularly idiosyncratic visual concept isn't necessarily a death blow.

Gala is interesting and satisfying for all the right reasons. Maeda strikes me as an intellectual filmmaker in the good sense. He's intellectual not in the sense of making highbrow art films only he can understand, but in the sense of having a healthy curiosity about everything out there in the world, and effectively applying what he's learned to create films that are worldly and informed and come across as very respectful of the viewer's intelligence.

Maeda's brilliance as an 'animated filmmaker' comes through well in the very cinematic Gala, which speaks not in the language of dialogue, but through the pacing and the actions of its characters. He maintains a seamless arc of building tension right through to the exhilarating climax. The very satisfying conclusion makes you see everything that came before in a new light without coming across as a cheap trick.

Maeda's intelligence comes through in the way he is able to take old Japanese gods and other motifs and put them into this new context of the various bacteria and other small microorganisms that inhabit the soil. He pulls off an interpretation of the animist gods of old Japan that is new and interesting, and that makes sense logically (the old Shinto beliefs seem prescient of modern discoveries about the microorganisms and bacteria that inhabit the soil) and conveys a spiritual reverence for the miracle of life. It's a blend of concepts and ideas from far-flung corners that make a wonderful metaphor for the ether of life that surrounds us. Maeda's genius is to do all this and wrap it up in a very entertaining package.

Another major element in the film is the music. After having already drawn the storyboard, Maeda ran across composer Akira Ifukube's symphonic poem Rhythmica Ostinata for piano and orchestra, which struck him as just what he needed. The piece was rearranged a bit to fit, but in the final product lends the film a unique sound world that immediately sets the film apart, as well as a providing a strong driving beat during the frenetic climax. The film also achieves a nice match between image and music, which was one of the challenges that Maeda set himself for Gala. The instruments in Japanese composer Ifukube's piece are all western, but the instruments shown on the screen all Eastern. Maeda did this deliberately, and draws interesting parallels between the two by showing, for example, a koto being played when the piano is heard playing in the music, since the piano is, after all, just a big harp. I really like how Maeda layers interesting concepts and ideas into every aspect of the production.

The importance of music to Maeda can be glimpsed in the fact that during his school days, Maeda participated in the famous Geinoh Yamashirogumi folk music collective. He designed all the instruments himself based on traditional instruments from around the world. This gives another glimpse into his multifaceted talent. I've had the opportunity to glimpse quite a lot of his designs and image boards for various series over the years, and I'm continuously impressed by the richness of his imagination.

Moondrive ~ Kazuto Nakazawa

This film serves as a good contrast with Gala - it's all style and no substance. And I mean that as a compliment. This film oozes style, and it's great fun to watch. Nakazawa has a unique talent as an animator and an illustrator, and that comes through perfectly here. I would have liked to see more films like this in the set, by creators with an interesting visual or animation style.

Nakazawa drew all the key animation himself. As that suggests, this is an animator's film first and foremost. What story there is is merely a coathanger for Nakazawa's silly gags, snazzy animation and intricate drawings. This is perhaps emphasized by the way that Nakazawa doesn't bother to hide the borders for each background painting, and he leaves in the borders on the layout sheets he drew the backgrounds on (you even see written instructions on some of them). Nakazawa seems like quite a character, and this was apparently a late-game decision he made after having first done so by mistake. He though the results looked cool, so he left it in. His wierd gag sense comes through in this and in the playfulness of the backgrounds, which are packed with little details that make them fun to pore over.

The film is essentially a road movie showing the band of inept bandits travelling from one location to another in search of a treasure map. One of the unifying techniques he adopts for some reason is to use a flat stage layout for most of the shots, and to have the characters arrayed accordingly. The screen is still most of the time, plastered with the detailed backgrounds that fully occupy your attention and maintain interest, while the animation bursts out here and there in quick flashes. Another thing is that the exterior of the buildings are always done in this crazy, fantasyland style, while the interior of the buildings have a more realistic old musty look. He maintains a sense of unity through the odd little rules like this.

Wanwa ~ Shinya Ohira

What we have with Wanwa is also, in its own very different way, an animator's film. This film is a paean to everything that animation stands for, an explosion of animated energy like none I've ever seen before. It's by far the most awe-inspiring achievement of the entire set, both technically and artistically. There are good films in this set, and there are even some great films, but if you only see one film from this set, this is the one. This is animated filmmaking that makes me want to shout my love of animation from the rooftops. I hesitate to call anyone a genius, but if anyone fits the bill, it's Ohira.

This is one of the few films in the set that is more of an 'experience' than it is simply a film. That's due largely to the unremitting intensity, volume and quality of the animation, which blasts by at a hundred miles an hour almost non-stop throughout the film. Single shots of this film reportedly contain several thousand animation drawings - the amount of animation in an average TV episode. The film is a fascinating contradiction in that it's a simple story for children, about a little boy who one day wanders off, led by his puppy, into a fantasy land inhabited by the red and blue demons of his imagination, yet at its peak it achieves such a density of expression that it comes across less like a children's film and more like a Jackson Pollock painting come to life.

Which is not to say that the film is nothing but animated energy. All of that animated energy is channeled into a film with a very big heart, and Ohira achieves what is very hard to do, namely creating a film that feels borne of real, unfeigned innocence. It doesn't feel like an adult making a film pandering to children, so much as a film made by an adult who retains something of the unbridled imagination and freedom of a child as a creator. The images are modeled after his son's drawings, and the story development has the random-walk aspect of a child's fantasies. The only other film I've seen that achieved such an unfeigned, honest childlike tone was Kitty's Graffiti of 1957 by the late great Yasuji Mori. The film is conceptually united around the theme of a child's unbridled imagination in every sense.

Wanwa is a special achievement because it doesn't feel like a mere 2D animated film. It is combined with CGI in some places, of course, but that's not what I mean. It's more that by sheer will power, Ohira somehow manages to create animation that seems to explode the bounds of 2D animation, while at the same time remaining quintissentially hand-drawn, with its constant shapeshifting. Ohira also created many of the film's backgrounds by using yarn, crayons and other materials that his young son used to make his own art, and for some of the closeups of the boy he went through a laborious process to achieve a style that looked as if it had been colored by crayons. Ohira thus truly made a film in which every single aspect of the production seems to be imbued of a child's touch. All of the images in the film are magnificent compositions in their own right, like a living and breathing painting, with every scene designed with its own uniquely dazzling color scheme.

The animator list of Wanwa reads like a list of my favorite animators: Shinji Hashimoto, Kenichi Konishi, Masaaki Yuasa, Ko Yoshinari, Hisashi Mori, Shinsaku Kozuma, Osamu Tanabe, Atsuko Fukushima and Shuya Ohira. Every one is a top-notch animator of the highest order. If you've never heard of the last one, it's Ohira's son. His drawings are featured in the film somewhere. He even lent his voice to Gala and Tojin Kit. Hashimoto did the part around the appearance of the red oni in the candy shop, Yoshinari did the part around the appearance of the blue oni later on, and Fukushima just helped out a little with the shots with the father near the end. Hashimoto, Tanabe and Yuasa, of course, are regulars with Ohira, but it was Ohira's first time working with Yoshinari. Yoshinari's shots were among the densest turned in, and greatly impressed Ohira, which is saying a lot. This small but superb selection of animators goes a long way to explaining why the animation in the film was so amazing. Each one of these animators is a highly talented, individualistic, maniacal animator in his or her own right.

Good news: In the interview in the mook, Ohira says he's interested in creating another film for children, this time a full-length feature. I'll be able to sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that another Ohira film may be forthcoming, and finally a full-length feature at that. Knowing his working pace, that may be many years down the line, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I want him to spend as much time as he needs to create something that the world has never seen before. His films are a treasure, and he keeps evolving and getting better.

Tojin Kit ~ Tatsuyuki Tanaka

Tojin Kit is interesting to me because, intentionally or not, it raises some interesting questions about the process of creation in animation. It seems to embody a contradiction inherent in animation: Animation is necessarily a pure product of the artist's imagination, but the amount of work implied requires diffusion of duties, which seems to inherently place a limit on the control any single artist can have on the result. Tatsuyuki Tanaka's long odyssey with Tojin Kit, the legendary short that he's supposed to have been toiling away at singlehandedly for so many years trying to complete (although it turns out that wasn't really the case), seems to represent the sisyphean struggle that results when you try to rail against that imposed limit. (which of course is vaguely reminiscent of Norstein's latest decades-long effort, although obviously their work methods, philosophy and style are very different)

An artist with a style and vision as seemingly self-consistent as Tanaka's has been over the last decade or so of his activity as an illustrator and occasional creator of animated shorts doesn't just happen across his style. It's the result of a clear set of underlying goals and concepts he is exploring. I don't normally like artists who are limited to a certain style or look, because more often than not it's just indicative of a lack of curiosity and flexibility, or worse, of superficiality. But I don't feel that way with Tanaka. I get the feeling that his work isn't just about style; there's a underlying structure there. Structure is what separates good contemporary classical music from random noise.

In a way very different from Happy Machine and Wanwa, Tojin Kit is also a film that could only exist in animation. It's an animated film first and foremost. The lavishly intricate sepia backgrounds that make Tanaka's work so distinctive, with their characteristic reek of decay and dark humor, are the ultimate products of the imagination, despite their extreme level of detail. Backgrounds in animation are quite often based on material gathered by scouting actual locations in the real world. In extreme cases, and surprisingly often (due presumably to the tight schedules in anime) backgrounds are faithful reproductions of photographs. In other cases, backgrounds are products of the imagination, but helped along by lots of reference material. Tanaka's art is different. Tanaka's only reference material, he asserts, is his memory multiplied by imagination. One of the structural elements underpinning Tojin Kit is that the decorations are assembled strictly from his memories of the little details of the tenements in which he grew up as a kid. The backgrounds are assembled, to be precise, from his memory of the little details that people would generally overlook, out of habit, or out of human instinct - the way we overlook a shattered corner of pavement, the unfinished underside of the sink over which we arrange ourselves in the mirror every day. This is what seems to give his backgrounds their particular character - they're confusing in that they seem familiar, yet obviously are products of the imagination. At first it just seems like he just likes drawing decay, but there's a pattern there, and it's conceptually interesting.

Tanaka has no illusions in his assessment of the results of his film. As was expected of the digital revolution, it has provided individual artists with the ability to control more of the tasks, resulting in animated films in which the various tasks were handled by the same person. Tojin Kit represents the problems that can result from getting what you wished for. In Tanaka's case, the ability to handle the backgrounds for his own films meant that, in addition to being able to spend more time on the animation, he spends more time drawing the backgrounds in order to achieve exactly the effect he is aiming for, being very much the perfectionist. This has the ironic consequence of slowing his productivity to such an extent that he's forced, at the last minute, to enlist other staff to help him complete the animation and backgrounds, which goes against what he was trying to achieve. Of course, given much more time, he could probably have made the entire film himself, and it would have had more unity than it does. His work is so distinctive and precisely imagined that work by another hand, even good work, stands out, which is what I find happened with the animation of this film.

One of the reasons I feel this deficiency hurt the film is partially that one of the themes of the film is to create the feeling of a living and breathing illustration. To that end, the backgrounds are not supposed to be 'backgrounds'. They're supposed to be an extension of the animation. I know I'm being nitpicky when I say this, but it's only because I admire the work so much and would have liked the film to succeed to the greatest possible extent. Needless to say, much work was put into the animation, and the film has some of the best animation in the set. The animators who aided him are no hacks - Koichi Arai, Takaaki Yamashita, Takaaki Wada, Yasuhiro Aoki, to name but the most obvious. The film lacks any music, and making a film in which the lack of music is as successful as this one at creating rather than detracting from the atmosphere is no mean feat. The film achieves exactly the unique atmosphere it sets out to achieve, and Tanaka's smart, precise directing, superb layout skills and the mysterious and evocative story unmistakably make this one of the main reasons to watch Genius Party. At least Tanaka the perfectionist will be relieved to know that he isn't allowed to rest yet in his goal of achieving perfection. He needs to keep trying, and make even more amazing films that only he can make.

Dimension Bomb ~ Koji Morimoto

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to the collaborative art of animation - provide animators lots of freedom to create, or use the animators to realize the vision of the director. Tatsuyuki Tanaka obviously falls at one end of the scale. Despite Koji Morimoto seeming to logically fall at the same end of the scale, since he's such a unique artist, I find that he actually falls on the opposite end of the scale, the good team worker end. His very particular vision is paramount in his films, of course, but I like how he always enlists great animators to realize his worlds, and he provides them with freedom for a degree of interpretation that undoubtedly makes it a more rewarding effort for them, but more importantly, enriches the results. It can be hard to make a film with an excessively unified tone and look that doesn't feel brittle as opposed to strong.

I don't know quite where else to start with this film, which is enigmatic even by Morimoto's standards, which is why I start with that. I find that perhaps this gives a clue to the essence of this film - that he wants his collaborators to have a degree of interpretive freedom, and the audience too. There is probably a very simple love story hidden beneath the chaotic but extremely beautiful storm of images that comprise this film, but it was shattered in time and space by the dimension bomb of Morimoto's wonderfully mad mind, and the audience has to reconstruct it as best they can. That's my interpretation. Morimoto is the main creative force behind Studio 4C, and in this way perhaps his film best encapsulates what this set should have been about - the explosive atomic power of the imagination unleashed through animation.

I find that I don't really want to try to parse every little detail into sense. The film is perfectly constructed in its ambiguity as it is, although honestly I found it slightly frustrating on my first viewing. I thought maybe it was striving a little too hard for incomprehensibilty. But in retrospect, I think we need more films in animation that aren't linear, that aren't easily comprehensible, films that make the audience work a little. Or rather, films that are an experience the way this film and Wanwa are. Films like that are often more rewarding, just as it can be more rewarding for animators to have a little freedom of interpretation.

Rather than trying in vain to figure out the story, I prefer to simply revel in the richness and intensity of Morimoto's imagination. He's got that knack animators-turned-directors have for thinking visually, in a language of gorgeous, imaginative, never-before-seen designs and narrative forms. I don't think it would be possible to succeed in creating such images without the help of equally talented animators, and as it happens, Yasuhiro Aoki played a major role in the animation of Dimension Bomb. There were plenty of others, including Takayuki Hamada, Shojiro Nishimi and Jamie Vickers, but apparently Aoki played a particularly important role. Aoki did a lot of the animation in Morimoto's Fluximation music video, so he's obviously a figure Morimoto feels he can trust to come up with interesting ideas to fill in the deliberate ellipsis in his storyboard.

Morimoto is a real creator of his age, though, in that this film is not merely a showcase of traditional animation. CGI plays an important part, and not just functional - he uses it as an expressive tool. His powerful images are equal parts CGI, background painting and animation. He's one of the best directors in Japan at coming up with aesthetically interesting rather than merely functional uses of CGI. The driving techno music is really well used, too. It doesn't just go full-bore throughout. The music ebbs and flows in sync with the hills and valleys of the dramatic pacing. Another thing I found very appealing in his film was the combination of meticulously rendered realistic backgrounds with the strange imagery. The film contains any number of memorable images, such as the body floating across various random everyday scenes, and the character transformed into pure energy. The juxtaposition of these images with the shots of the boy and girl interacting, which emanate a believable youthful sexual tension, makes for a satisfying balance.

Anyway, I think that'll do. Turned out a lot longer than I expected it to. And I was trying to keep things brief.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

10:22:51 pm , 1583 words, 2065 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Tweeny Witches OVAs

Studio 4C's Tweeny Witches was one of the most enjoyable and memorable series I've seen in the last few years. It was filled to the brim with imaginative ideas the likes of which have never been really tried in this kind of material in Japan before, even though material involving witches and magic is pretty common. This is the first time it felt like this kind of material was done justice.

Besides that, the production of the series was really interesting, with each episode often being handled by a single individual, so that from episode to episode you could clearly identify each animation director or director's style, which in turn gave the show a great richness and variety that was equally if not more appealing to me than the imagination on display in the story, paraphernalia and designs. Most important of all, this series was the series on which Yasuhiro Aoki came out as a great director. I don't know whether it was technically his debut as an episode director or not, but without a doubt this is the show on which his powers first became clearly evident. And through his work on this show, he clearly developed tremendously as a director, so that this series was a key step in his development leading directly to the work we've seen from him afterwards - first directing the great Kung Fu Love, and most recently directing In Darkness Dwells, both of which show him continuing the same process of incremental development I recall being so impressed by as I watched each new episode of Tweeny Witches from him.

I'd long wished I could see more of the show, as nothing else was quite like it. In a curious development, it came to light last year that the studio had produced a 6-episode offshoot right after the end of the TV show, but that it was never broadcast or released in any form until just recently, presumably related to rights issues. Imagine my delight to discover that Aoki had done one of the episodes. He storyboard and directed the third episode. I was cautious going in, not sure how much time or budget they might have had to produce it, but was amazed at the quality. This episode is perhaps the best stand-alone episode he did for the show, partly because it's a one-off, like all of the OVA episodes, but also because there's a clear sense of development. So it turns out there'd been one more push by him with this show. He'd done one last volley, pushing his skills to the next level. It was great to be able to re-discover this episode to see that.

Again, each episode has a different set of staff, and each group brings a different flavor to their work, but Aoki's work towers above the rest in terms of entertainment value, humor, visual good sense, and thrill of animation. The other episodes are well enough drawn, but lifeless, and the directing has no character or edge to it. It feels like they're just riding along on dramatic rails, and everything is quite predictable and conventional feeling. Only Aoki seems to have the instinct of a good director, willing to try to push beyond that and experiment with tactics for maintaining audience interest of his own devising, such as displacing the timing or the framing a bit or using unusual and fun compositions to show the action unfolding from an intriguing perspective. The drawings and animation also speak at all moments, creating great compositions throughout. And most of all, the characters feel alive in his hands. The situation is a conventional one that has been done countless times in the past, but it feels completely convincing in his hands, and he gives its message an emotional resonance you wouldn't expect. The show itself definitely got across a subversive message about how societies are all based on different levels of power and subjugation, thanks to writer Shinji Obara, and similarly, without any sort of overbearing emphasis, this episode weaves a similar message into the fabric of the story, adding a level of thematic depth that makes the emotions of the characters in response to the events that much more convincing.

Unlike in the TV series, the animation direction was not done by Aoki but by an individual named Hideki Nagamachi, whom I've never heard of. I only realized this fact afterwards upon seeing the credits, but while watching it was unmistakable that the drawings looked very different from the usual Aoki drawings. The style was very sketchy, almost reminding of Yuasa in terms of the oddly angular lines used, for example the way the fingers are drawn as these blocky rectangles. Yet the characters clearly are those of Aoki. In the TV series you could clearly identify each animation director by comparing their different ways of drawing the eyes and other facial features of each of the characters, and Aoki's stood out as being among the more realistically rendered and meticulously drawn, contrasting, for example, with the more cartoony drawings of Yumi Chiba. In this new episode, it's as if Nagamachi is drawing the characters based on Aoki's designs, but in his own sketchy style. Either that, or Aoki corrected the drawings. I'm not too sure. I'd be very curious to know more about how this episode was produced.

Either way, the animation is stupendous - very nuanced and rich, yet very spontaneous and tactile. It's easily the richest and most satisfying of the episodes he did, which is saying a lot, and it complements the directing perfectly. The characters' expressions are varied and complex, expressing a great range of emotions. It's a very simple story, of course, self-contained, without the drama and weight he brought to his episodes of the TV series, but it has a great range in terms of tone that does an even better job of giving him room to try different things as a director - hilarious in the first half, and with slowly building power in the second half that has a surprising potential for depth and emotional resonance. It acts as a kind of summary of his work on the show.

Another great discovery of these new episodes was a solo episode done entirely by Shogo Furuya, who had already handled a number of episodes in the TV series in his own distinctive style. Here he storyboarded, directed, and singlehandedly animated the fourth episode. His more realistic style isn't as pronounced in this episode, but the work is very heavily worked, with the same approach to solid layouts and strong drawings, and a slow, measured pace, that was seen in his work on the TV episodes. It easily stands alongside Michio Mihara's solos as one of the most impressive solos of recent years. I have to wonder how much time he took to do it. He didn't do quite as much as Mihara, so it doesn't seem like it would have taken him quite as long - a few months perhaps.

It's great seeing solo animator episodes also directed by the animator, because it's an opportunity to see a fully-formed approach to telling a story through visuals. It's not the animator just handling his animation in a compartmentalized fashion. He has to figure out how to present every single solitary element, from the pacing of the scenes to the layout to the specific nuances of every second of animation. It's a tremendous amount of work, so it makes sense to split up those tasks, but in talented hands, in the hands of someone who has a vision unified enough to make it worth the work, the results can be quite impressive. Shogo is incredibly talented, although the directing doesn't jump out at you the way Aoki's does. It's much more low-key, but he's clearly a workhorse who can create a film from the floor up. There's almost a whiff of Satoshi Kon in his very meticulous approach to the elements of the screen and slow pace. I knew who did the main tasks of the TV series, but I'd never seen the animation credits for each episode, so it's entirely possible that one of Furuya's episodes was a solo episode without me knowing it.

The rest of the episodes were well produced, as is to be expected of this studio, and each featured interesting ideas that had been developed specifically for each episode, but the directing was never able to go beyond the level of the ordinary. Faces involved were basically all familiar from the TV show. (see the TV series staff list I made) Producer Eiko Tanaka and co-founder Katabuchi Sunao even wrote some of the episodes. The last episode was handled by Toru Yoshida of Osaka animation studio Anime R, who was also involved in the TV series. They are known for handling Sunrise material, which is probably why the episode features a giant robot, of all things. You can see a bunch of Anime R animators in the credits, including Taiki Harada and Fumiaki Kouta, the latter of whom I just mentioned as being in Crossfire. As talented as I'm sure Yoshida is, his drawings struck me as far too conventional anime character for this particular show. It was particularly dismaying to see stock expressive symbols appear for the first time in the series, as one thing that had made the characters of the show appealing was that they did not rely on any such crutch to express emotions.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

10:23:37 pm , 1200 words, 2087 views     Categories: Animation, Kaiba, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kaiba #6

I don't think I'd be able to come up with something to say about each and every episode of a TV series if it didn't feature the unflagging richness and relentless stylistic unpredictability of Masaaki Yuasa's TV shows. Each episode is filled with an abundance of things that make it stand out as a unique creation, rather than just one in a line of identically manufactured products. In that sense it almost reminds me of Group Tac's long-running Tales of Old Japan omnibus of Japanese folktales, where every episode was done in a different and very imaginative style by a different team, with many of the episodes by single individuals. There are more differences than similarities, obviously, notably in terms of the amount of work packed into those solo episodes in the case of Yuasa's shows, but they share something of the same dedication to filling the screen with ideas that are interesting as animation. There's not a moment where we fall back on the crutches of convention. It's almost exhausting to see work that remains so defiantly fresh at every moment.

I watched this episode a while back, but just re-watched it, and I liked it a lot more this time around. I felt that it was a bit jumbled the first time around, with a bit of shakiness in the dramatic line, but this time around I didn't feel bothered by that at all, and felt quite moved by the episode for some reason. The episode wasn't necessarily setting out to be a tearjerker or anything. I suppose it's just that, as before, it manages to evoke these profound veins of resonance in the viewer in the course of the narrative.

This episode is somewhat of a mirror to episode 9 of Kemonozume in the sense that it's another episode about an aged couple traveling around in their twilight years. There were a number of elements that moved me about it. First and foremost is the turn of events that takes this seemingly content and satisfied elderly couple enjoying their last few years together, and shatters their illusion of happiness into a million pieces. Kaiba is nothing if not brutal and brutally honest about the human condition and the frailty and flaws of memory. It's a devastating moment that speaks volumes about the unknowable depths of the mind and the thoughts and memories we keep hidden from ourselves and our loved ones to maintain a semblance of happiness. Most devastating was to see the old man continue on his way with his brain-dead wife because her body was still "alive and well".

This series at heart is all about the question of what defines us as human beings - our memories, our bodies? Both? Neither?? To some extent it is our memories, but who we are is without any doubt molded by our bodies. There's a sublime sense of identity confusion created by having the protagonist, who is male but currently occupies a female body, in this episode encounter his onetime lover, a female who currently occupies a male body. Their actions (and hence feelings and thoughts) are driven by the lusts of their bodies. It's a situation that's simple but also ingenious and thought-provoking. It takes a while to wrap your head around the mix of genders and identities, but the confused feelings of the protagonists in the odd circumstances are convincingly portrayed. The amusement park where you can peer into the disembodied memories of the deceased was one of the more chilling and biting moments of the episode. One shot near the end showed a wall of round picture frames on the wall of the old couple's ship, shaped like the memory blobs. It seemed a deft ironic comment on how the old woman came to the planet to peer into other people's memories, but instead wound up losing her own. So as usual, there is a lot to be discovered in each shot of the episode. It's densely packed, meaningful storytelling.

In terms of the staff, one of the main figures behind this episode is another emigree animator, like last episode's Choi Eunyoung, who has been making a name for himself in the last few years in an industry otherwise dominated by natives - Jamie Vickers. Jamie was co-storyboarder and animation director. Tomoya Takahashi was co-storyboarder, director and co-writer (with Yuasa). If the episode felt a little mixed up, perhaps it's because there were so many hands at work. Jamie's drawing style is not as unmistakable as Choi's, but there is definitely a unique sense of timing and drawing at work here that sets this episode apart, particularly so the scenes involving Vanilla. I wonder if he might not have been handled by Jamie. Vanilla is a useful character for getting a sense of each animation director's style. Stylistic differences from one episode to the next seem to show up most clearly in him for some reason. So one of the significant aspects of this series is that it represents one of the most visible recent instances of foreigners taking a lead role as creators within a totally Japanese production. Studio 4C, of course, led the way with Tekkon Kinkreet, and I noticed that Jamie provided animation in the opening segment of Genius Party by Atsuko Fukushima, so it's interesting to see the two most creatively fecund studios in Japan sharing many of the same talented faces, both foreign and local.

This episode featured a number of veteran animators, most notably Takuo Noda, who will be 70 next year and has a huge list of work to his credit dating back to 1967 when he first started out at Toei Doga. Among his more well known jobs was animation director of Genma Taisen. He continues working hard as a regular Madhouse animator, having recently animated the nice scene in Mamoru Hosoda's Tokikake where Makoto talks to the old woman. We also find Nobumasa Arakawa, another veteran who has been active for decades and continues to work on the front line. He was one of the main animators behind Future Boy Conan, and if I recall correctly, he animated one of my favorite bits in Tokikake, where Makoto leaps from the riverbank. In addition, we again find litmus animator Koichi Arai and Takayuki Hamada, both in the top spots. There was some very nice movement around where the old lady's memory is sucked out, so I'd suspect one of these guys, possibly Arai.

The designs of this episode really stood out with their extreme shapes sticking out every which way, and I assume them to have been created by Nobutake Ito. Every episode provides crazy new designs for not just the characters but also the features of the planet. The soft organic shapes of the buildings make for rich background images that are always a pleasure to gaze at. I have to re-emphasize the backgrounds, as the backgrounds of this series are such a pleasure to look at and really help define the show's unique visual atmosphere. I also like the way smoke and clouds are animated throughout the series, using these elegant round globular forms. I can remember seeing similarly shaped effects as far back as Cat Soup.

Friday, January 19, 2007

12:14:42 am , 1581 words, 16491 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Music Video, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Amazing Nuts

I finally had a chance to watch Studio 4C's latest project, Amazing Nuts!, and it was very interesting in a lot of ways, not least the actual shorts. But even moreso it was interesting to see how Studio 4C continues to come up with new approaches to creation and distribution. As producer Eiko Tanaka describes it, this project was about killing three birds with one stone: Each short is (1) a standalone music video, (2) a promo pilot for a series or film, and (3) part of a standalone DVD release. Rather than just making standalone shorts as they always have, here they're making a wise investment in their future by trying to tie in their shorts to a future project. I admire that Tanaka is willing to take a chance on a risky project like this. It seems to suggest a possible way for people in the industry to free themselves from the endless mire of having to adapt popular manga in order to get the backing to make anything. Give talented creators a chance to create original works like this and see the results. Use the talent that's there rather than relying so much on another unrelated field. Having seen the shorts, I can say that they are all interesting in their own way. Two are entertainment, one is artsy, one is for (weird) children. They each work as a unit, and each seem to have their own future potential. The two traditionally animated shorts are full of interesting ideas and are the obvious major candidates for future expansion. I could see those two becoming popular TV shows. Another aspect of Tanaka's gambit is directly involving fans by the DVD method, so that they can make their voice heard in terms of what they would like to see. I remember how the results of the online Mind Game questionnaire were directly applied to the DVD release.

I was also impressed by the DVD package. The set comes in two version, a basic version and a full version. The full version comes with a big book containing lots of interviews as well as the full storyboard for the two shorts that had a storyboard, and a long interview DVD. Personally I came into this almost solely to see Yasuhiro Aoki's film. I was very happy with Studio 4C for giving him the chance to make his own film, and was eager to see the result. The result did not disappoint, but I also came away with not just that but an interview with the man as well as his full storyboard for the film, so as a fan I couldn't be happier. Studio 4C obviously understands that, and created a package that is very rewarding to fans who truly love the act of creation that is animation, want to know more about its every step, and want to support their favorite creators. Connecting the creators to the fans in this way is one of the things I most like about Studio 4C. I remember Tadanari Okamoto talking about how a similar idea of tying fans into the creation-support loop.

As a producer, Tanaka appears to be starting to try to take more control of things. I get the distinct impression that she mistakenly blames the studio's director-centric approach for Mind Game's not having become a big hit (how could it have become a megahit playing in three theaters and nobody knowing it even existed?), and is trying to take a more active part in the projects now, as she did in the studio's recent Black & White film, where she had direct input into the film in the American style. This also feels the case here, where Tanaka's concept is the driving force. Nonetheless in each project we still get to see a talented creator's voice very clearly and distinctly expressed, so the studio's major appeal has thankfully not changed.

As for the films, the first thing that strikes you is that each short looks and feels nothing like any of the others. It doesn't feel like they're just changing the look and style in a narrow stylistic sense for variety's sake, but rather that each director's unique approach and the unique nature of the material give rise to a different set of production methods. That is also something the studio has been known for. One film might demand detailed CG set, one might demand intricate and lively cel animation, one might demand a blend of CG and live action. Interestingly, apparently this is just the first sally in the series, and several other shorts are in different stages of production at the moment.

I came in aware of only two of the creators working on this set - Yasuhiro Aoki and Daisuke Nakayama. I knew their films would be interesting, but wasn't sure about the rest. Glass Eye was an interesting poetic meditation that I liked because it felt distinct from anything else I've seen from the studio. A writer with no experience in animation was brought in to direct the film because they had liked the very visual nature of a script he had written. I've often felt that some of the more refreshing and unexpected approaches to animation have come from people with no experience in animation like this. The other film was a much more commercial full-CGI film about a diva, but even this I could see finding its own niche on morning TV. Daisuke Nakayama's film was a revelation about the man's vivid and assured style. We'd seen design work from him before, but it feels like this is what he's been really wanting to do the whole time - wild, fun, somewhat western-influence cartoony mayhem, like a hip-hop version of Imaishi. I could see this being popular in the west.

But by far the film that appealed the most to me, personally, was Yasuhiro Aoki's Kung-Fu Love. It was a very accomplished film for a mere 10 minutes, full of the subtle humour and inventive directing I've come to expect from Aoki, with lots of excitingly choreographed and lovingly animated action, a very original approach to color full of radiant hues that make for consistently ravishing viewing, fun and catchy characters, a great story setup with lots of little subversive touches here and there courtesy of writer Shinji Obara, all of it gelling perfectly into compellingly unique whole that tantalizingly hints at a vast canvas that you come away hungering to know more about. Very successful both as a pilot and a short film. I hope we can see this hint of greatness given the chance to flower that it deserves. Apparently Aoki had in fact drawn enough storyboard and other background material to fill a full-length feature, but had to whittle all that down to a mere 10 minutes. I hope that one day we can see the full-length film that Aoki already had conceived fully-formed in his head. I could also see this working just as well as a TV series. Aoki has an intrinsically filmic approach - every shot is perfectly composed and thought out, every element of the screen communicates something interesting, and the rhythm is masterfully controlled. Aoki is a great entertainer. I could see him becoming a great director.

The timing and the forms of the animation in the short are also distinctive and hint at the huge amount of research and work Aoki obviously put into coming up with an original style of animation for the action that is at the heart of the film. Taking a hint from Hong Kong action flicks, the action shifts between very precise and fast action and extremely detailed and fluidly animated slo-mo shots that give the viewer a lingering and detailed look at the speedy moves that just flashed before our eyes. Testament to the effort that went into the animation is the fact that roughly 8000 drawings were used in the 10-minute film, which is about 5 times the volume of an average TV episode. I recall there was a slo-mo shot of Shiela cooking a pancake near the end of the last episodes of Tweeny Witches that Aoki did, #38, which in retrospect seems to point towards the slo-mo aesthetic in Kung-Fu Love. Aoki's surreal, somewhat meta sense of humor comes through pretty well in certain scenes, such as the scene where the two lovers argue in the ryokan. There's always an unexpected little amusing element somewhere livening things up. Sometimes he has a cunning strategy of tricking the viewer into focusing on a main action and then having something strange going on somewhere else on the screen, sort of in the spirit of the ball experiment by Daniel Simons. Revealing about Aoki's approach is a comment in the storyboard to the animator of the scene where the two lovers are sitting on the beach: "Put more effort into making the cat do things". We see the two protagonists sitting there without moving too much, but the cat is doing all these funny antics beside them. It's an intriguing method of hilighting the main action. Of course, a big part of this project is the collaboration with Japanese pop artists, and Aoki's protagonist was lovingly modeled after the singer of the song, Kumi Koda. Aoki is a real pro who approaches his work with sincerity and tremendous gusto. It feels like he's just reaching the peak of his powers, and I hope we get to see that energy put to good use in the coming years.

Kung-Fu Love

Sunday, May 29, 2005

09:30:07 pm , 393 words, 1249 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Where's Yuasa

Philip sent me a link to a vid a while back that totally entranced me. I had no idea what it was, but I loved it. Research has proven the following. Kid Koala is this multitalented guy who makes incredible scratch music, and for two of his songs he got his cousin, who's an animator, to make some video accompaniment for him. The results are just fab and I've been watching the two vids over and over recently. You can see them here.

Some people who've seen Mind Game might be wondering what Yuasa is doing now. For people who missed the news, he's directed a short in Studio 4C's upcoming Genius Party omnibus of 10 shorts directed by 10 different people.

Here's the list of the shorts that was posted in a comment a while back when a flyer was found with the information at a con in the US:

- Dimension Bomb (Dir: Koji Morimoto)
- Twilight World (Dir: Shinichiro Watanabe)
- Nayorani (Dir: Mahiro Maeda)
- Space-Time Wars (Dir: Shoji Kawamori)
- Dream Machine (Dir: Masaaki Yuasa)
- Genius Party (Dir: Atsuko Fukushima)
- Moondrive (Dir: Kazuto Nakazawa)
- Touni (Dir: Tadashi Hiramatsu)
- Limitcycle (Dir: Hideki Futamura)
- Wanwa the Puppy (Dir: Shinosuke Harada)

I was thinking they were planning a summer theatrical run, but they're being surprisingly tight-lipped about it if they're still planning on doing that.

Obviously that's finished by now (there was a drawing held for people to attend the voice-recording session on the survey card in the Mind Game DVD, which must have been in January or so), so the question is what's next. The answer: I don't know. He supposedly wasn't involved in the latest Shin-chan film, so we'll have to wait and see.

You know it's bad when you read the sentence "Representations of foreigners were always outside the strict rules governing depictions of Egyptians, and sculptors working during the Kushite dynasty may thus have had more scope to 'create' freely" in a book of Egyptian history, in a passage discussing the possible reasons why only foreign kings were depicted realistically in sculpture while Egyptian kings were depicted in the traditional stylized fashion, and the first thing you think is, "Yeah, that's right, that would explain why Japanese in anime are always stylized the same way but foreigners are always made to look totally different."

Friday, July 30, 2004

05:33:17 pm , 3038 words, 3175 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Masaaki Yuasa interview

Mind Game Official SiteCatsuka brought to my attention two new Mind Game articles. One is the first review of the film in a language other than Japanese. It comes to us courtesy of the Japan Times, and was written by Mark Schilling, a prolific author and authority on contemporary Japanese pop culture. One warning: I suggest that you skip over his synopsis and try to remain as ignorant of the story details as you possibly can until seeing the movie to keep it all as much of a surprise as possible. Trust me, you'll enjoy it more that way. I wish reviewers didn't have this annoying habit of writing synopses!

The other is a Japanese "event report" on the 3ds max Animation Seminar: The Making of Mind Game event held at the Ochanomizu, Tokyo campus of the Digital Hollywood film school. The event was divided into three sections: (1) A discussion of how to produce 3DCG animation using 3d max; (2) an introduction to Studio 4C; and (3) a demonstration of how 3ds max was used to produce the 3DCG animation in Mind Game. Studio 4C Producer Eiko Tanaka was present, and the most interesting tidbit in the article comes from her. She relates an anecdote about how one day she had brought the film to Eirin, the Japanese censors, fully expecting it to come away with an NC-18 rating due to the graphic violence and explicit sexual content. But after seeing the film the people at Eirin were so excited by it that they decided to give it a "general audiences" rating anyway. Can you imagine?! Yes, folks, we are dealing with a phenomenon here, not a film.

And finally, one other small news item from the official site: On opening day, August 7, Masaaki Yuasa and several of the voice actors will be on location at Cine Quinto in Shibuya, and later at Paradise Square in Shinsaibashi, to say a few words for the occasion.

Oh, and Scheem Booi has opened. As I thought, it looks to be a ten ton goose. So much detail, 9 years, all that money, for what? Seems like a classic example of wrong priorities. Yippee, a sequel is in planning already. Too bad it's going to take 16 years to make.

Oh, and I just saw this: Yuichiro Sueyoshi has added his "comment" to the Staff Comment section of the Mind Game site. Here's a literal translation:

Best ever!! The first and the last!
The first Yuasa ever!
And the last Yuasa ever!
At the time, I thought it would never end...
Favorite Motto: No skill (work) without strength (health)!

I was hoping that some other people would respond to my offer, but since nobody has, I thought I'd go ahead and translate that Masaaki Yuasa interview on the official Mind Game site, as suggested by TenAJs, because it's a good, solid interview without the 3 Stooges antics of the previous one I translated, which I thought focused too much on the schtick and too little on the substance. But it's Newtype, what do you expect. Doesn't anyone have the June Animage?


Can you start by explaining how you came to direct Mind Game?

Producer Eiko Tanaka approached me in an official capacity with the original manga and asked if I would like to direct the film.

Was that the first time you'd read the original manga?

No. While I was working at Studio 4C on Sound Insect Noiseman, Koji Morimoto had recommended it to me, saying, "Check out this amazing manga". That was the first time I read it. It really is a very impressive manga; very out of the ordinary. His drawing style seems kind of crude and unrefined at first, but once you get used to it, it's extremely compelling and stylish, and really succeeds in getting across all his ideas. It's the kind of manga that's so good that it makes you wonder why it isn't more well known.

What made you decide to direct?

When I received the offer, I had been wanting to try my hand at directing something. But at Studio 4C first of all there was Morimoto who was a big fan, and so was Tatsuyuki Tanaka, so it didn't feel right for someone like me to horn in on their baby. But I went ahead and accepted the offer because I beleived I might be able to do a good job with the material.

Was this project planned for the theaters right from the start?

Yes, right from the start. They've got guts, right? That was my own first impression. Nobody's heard of the manga; I'd never directed a feature film before. You'd never expect a project like this to get off the ground. What's amazing about Studio 4C is that they not only got it off the ground but made it and got it distributed.

What was your approach to adapting the manga?

The manga has this incredible forward momentum to it. My question was, how can I translate that momentum onto film? The manga acheives that effect by means of rough, sketchy drawings. But the various processes involved in animation means that the drawings wind up coming out looking clean and polished, no matter what you do. The crucial thing for the film version in my opinion was that the drawings not look too polished. That they look kind of sloppy to the casual eye. Only on closer inspection do you realize that the drawings are in fact properly drawn. Hence the images reflect the content. That was my concept for the film.

There are a lot of experimental touches in the film, like having the characters turn into live actors occasionally.

A long time ago people would have freaked if you put in an image done in a totally different style from the rest of the film at some point. Well, nowadays people are pretty used to that sort of thing, and they wouldn't be that shocked anymore. So that's why I inserted some live action in here, some photos there. My hope is that these scenes come across to the viewer as being kind of unplanned and impromptu.

They're just there for fun.

Exactly. Personally, at this point, I don't want to see ordinary anime anymore. What I want to see is something like those music videos where you've got little bits of animation spliced into the live action footage, something comical like that. In my thinking, Mind Game is kind of the inverse. Not like a live action film where you've got little bits of animation spliced in, but like somehow little bits of live action snuck into an animated film. At first I just wanted to use photographs because that would have been easiest to shoot, but the producer, Eiko Tanaka, suggested that we hire a live action director and have him shoot half the film in live action.

But then you wouldn't have been director, you'd be just the co-director!

Exactly. So we talked it over, and she finally suggested, "Maybe you'd better do the shooting yourself," leaving it up to me to decide on the details of how much and where to put it. It wound up being just a kind of added spice to the animation.

So you also handled the filming of the live-action parts.

We hired proffessional live-action staff, and I was there during filming to give instructions and so on. But I didn't know anything about filming live-action, so it was a real learning process for me. Doing a full-fledged proffessional live-action shoot also made it easier to hire showbiz people like Koji Imada.

In the shots where there's a live-action face talking... say, Koji Imada... that's actually Koji Imada talking, and not a different voice-actor, right?

It's the same person. I considered using a different voice-actor at first, but for various reasons, in the end I opted to stick with the same person. My choice of voice-actors was in fact influenced by the knowledge that they themselves would also have to appear in the film. I think the results turned out better than using a separate person to do the faces and the rest of the voice-acting.

Prior to this you've been known for creative anime like Crayon Shin-chan and Cat Soup. Would you say that the same creativity that made these so appealing has found its way into this new film?

And then some. (laughs)

How do you feel about the quality of the animation?

I think the animation is really interesting. It goes totally against the grain of anime these days. It's not concerned with detail, just with momentum. That's the goal of the film, not being "well crafted", but being interesting. And I think it worked out pretty well. The visuals are particularly interesting, I think. There's lots of variety, there are bouts of fantasy, and the story is very unpredictable. I honestly think the visuals are unlike anything anyone has seen before.

About the story - is it basically faithful to the original?

Yes, it's basically exactly the same as the original. The plot is quite simple, it's just the details that are a bit out there. I finessed the ending a bit, but otherwise the details are unchanged. I didn't set out to keep it so close to the original; it just turned out that way. The original manga is that well done. Especially early on in the film, the framing of the shots is pretty much exactly the same as in the manga. Without looking at the manga I drew out how I wanted the framing, and afterwards when I looked at the manga to compare, they were practically exactly the same. I was kind of disappointed by how similar they turned out.

Perhaps that suggests your style was a good match to the manga.

I suppose so. Looking at the finished product, there are some minor differences, but I think overall the film is how Robin would have wanted it to be. Robin himself, after watching the film, told me he thought the film was pretty much saying the same thing as his manga.

Going back, what do you mean when you say you "finessed" the ending?

Well, in the original, in the second half, the story just keeps on going with the same feeling of "You can do anything if you try!"

That's also one of the main themes of the film.

The original manga says, "Do it! Go for it! Don't let anything stop you! You can do anything if you try!" Well, I personally don't have the confidence to go that far, so I sort of reined in the message a bit. So it's still "You can do anything if you try!" but tempered a bit; I have him slam headlong into a wall afterwards. Even if you fail, the important thing is to try. The result isn't important. The important thing is to enjoy the process of striving.

The music in the film really sticks with you.

Isn't it great? I had this incredible underground musician do it for me, Yamamoto Seiichi. I listen to a lot of CDs, but I don't know very much about who recorded what, so Shin'ichiro Watanabe was appointed the music producer and he looked into it for me, and he suggested Seiichi Yamamoto.

What did you think of the music when you finally heard it?

I was amazed by the variety of the songs that he came up with. Yamamoto-san is quite simply a brilliant composer. He's versatile and he can write an incredible variety of music. It's unpredictable, it's groovy, it's exciting, and it's got just the right tinge of oddness. I had wanted a large variety of music right from the start, so it was handy being able to get one person to do it all. On Watanabe's introduction I also had Yoko Kanno play one song on the piano. I put a tape together with examples of various spots from several classical pieces that I wanted the song to sound like. Originally we were going to get producer Tanaka's son's piano teacher to play it, but in the end Yoko Kanno took over. I was very happy with how it turned out.

How long was the film in production?

Starting from the planning stage, two years and nine months. Two years exactly from when animation was started.

How many films have you directed now?

Um... one? Before now the only things I've directed were a small TV pilot and a short for a publicity event. Mind Game is my first major project, my big-time debut, if you will.

Did that have any influence on you?

I want to make movies that can be enjoyed by as many people as possible. That's been my basic stance in everything I've done up until now, and it still is. Well, okay, right before Mind Game I worked on the directing and animation for a video anime called Cat Soup, which was aimed at a very small segment, but that's the only exception. I have to admit, I had my misgivings about doing something so cultish, but I was pleased with the results and learned a lot from it that I was able to put to use in this film.

So Cat Soup was sort of a springboard for Mind Game.

Yeah. It showed me that it was OK to do certain things. In that sense, it made it a lot easier to make Mind Game.

The characers are a little different in the movie, aren't they? For example, their backgrounds.

This was the first time I'd done anything with a story to speak of, and I found that there was a need for the characters to have a background story. Which is funny, because I've always had a thing against characters with a background story. (laughs)

The old man was supposedly in the whale's belly for 30 years, but I found that I couldn't picture that long expanse of time without some sort of visual aid, so I inserted some scenes showing him as a baby and so on, to give the audience a sense of the weight of those 30 years. Also, at my age, I knew nothing about the experiences of people the age of the main character, so I asked a bunch of the younger staff members to write down their own experiences, and I threw together a timetable of the various characters' lives based on that. What one person might have experienced as a student, another person might have experienced as a child. I got them to write down their impressions on these experiences based on their perspective at that age, to show how there can be different perspectives on the same event. I threw all that together into a little montage to show at the beginning. Only the little montage grew to more than five minutes, which was too long, so I only showed a bit at the beginning and then showed the rest at the end.

People probably won't get it when they first see it at the beginning of the film, but what didn't make sense the first time will start to make sense when you see it again at the end. It kind of mirrors the way Nishi begins to see things as he undergoes various inner changes. I wanted people watching the film to be able to understand the things Nishi is feeling.

That montage gives the film a lot of added depth.

Curiously enough, there were actually people on the staff who asked me why Nishi would want to leave the whale's belly. I thought it would be natural to want to get out. But I was surprised how many people thought it would have been more fun to stay in the whale's belly.

That really got me to wondering, to think people would ask why Nishi would want to leave the whale's belly. I don't mean to preach, but... why do we want to live in the world? Because it's interesting. I have Nishi make this pretty clear in the film. Because it's wonderful to live in a world full of different people mixing and living all sorts of different lives. Through our interactions with these people, we all take part in the act of creating the world around us. It doesn't even matter if we don't play that big a part. I think it's a wonderful thing just to take part in that process. That's one of the messages I hope comes across.

A TV superhero called Time Boy shows up a few times in the flashbacks. He has the power to turn back time. He plays a relatively small role, but I think it's a fairly emblematic one, thematically.

Yes, you're right. In the original manga, only Nishi gets a chance to start over. I thought that wasn't fair. I'm not that young anymore myself, and I thought it wasn't fair for only the young to get a chance to start over. So I wanted to give all of the rest of the characters a chance to start over, too. Just to be fair; it's obviously not the way life works. It's the way you wish it did. If you make a mistake, start over again. It's not too late. That sort of thing.


I just don't think results are that important. If you do your best, and you don't get good results, then just try again from a different angle, or look for a different path altogether. There's just something beautiful about the process of trying and failing and trying again when you're truly living your life to its maximum potential.

So it's actually a very positive movie.


Incredibly positive.

Of course.

It's a healthy film.

I'm just sick of all the gloomy movies coming out these days! I decided I'd had enough with dark stuff after Cat Soup. What I want to see is positive movies from now on. Enough turning inwards, people; let's turn outwards! What's important is right here on this earth. Not everybody's dreams come true, but only those who act have a chance of acheiving their dreams. All differences aside, it all boils down to one thing: The world is interesting!

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Thursday, July 22, 2004

08:00:08 pm , 1003 words, 1941 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Aristotle on deja-vu

And for this reason sometimes we do not know, when such stimuli occur in our soul from an earlier sensation, whether the phenomenon is due to sensation, and we are in doubt whether it is memory or not. (On Memory and Recollection)

I'm typing at you through shades because I lost my glasses while swimming in a lake today.

A few random bits before getting down to business.

It turns out Canada is about to rectify the slip of having let Japan beat them to the McLaren DVD set -- in a big way. Not three, four, five or six, but SEVEN DVDs. The NFB is going to be releasing The Master's Edition DVD set sometime in early 2005. This is going to be way better than the Japanese set. (The Japanese aren't very good with extras.)

I had a chance to watch the first episode of Soul Taker the other day, and was duly impressed. I had no idea Shinbo Akiyuki had managed to go this far with his style already. I mentioned his work in Yu Yu Hakusho in a previous post, and it was great to see that he has continued to develop his style. The first episode was fantastic. I get the impression the later episodes get a little watered down, which is only natural; he only storyboarded the first ep. The first ep was enough. At least here's a guy who's doing something moody and stylish and original on TV and it's not just another rip-off of Evangelion. I was actually disappointed to find out there was a story to the first episode upon further viewings. I so loved the bewildering randomness and colorfulness of it all that hits you on that first viewing.

As promised, here's a rough translation of that Newtype interview with Masaaki Yuasa, Koji Morimoto and Shin'ichiro Watanabe. Many thanks to Manuloz! Anyone else?

Morimoto: We'd been thinking of doing Mind Game at Studio 4C for a while when I saw Cat Soup, and I knew right then and there that Yuasa was the only man for the job. It was like a marriage made in heaven. (laughs)

Yuasa: My reaction was: Are you sure you want ME to do it?? Hey, so long as you're sure, I'll do it. But just don't come crying to me afterwards! (laughs) The original manga has a really improvised feel to it, like someone just wrote it in one sitting without thinking it out ahead of time. I wanted to transfer that feeling into the movie. To keep the images really loose and unpredictable, almost slapdash. Like I just decided to throw in some live action here, some CG there, without any thought, just for kicks. (laughs) That's what I hope the movie feels like when you're watching it, sort of unfinished, improvised, like a brainstorm in progress.

Morimoto: Rough drawings can have a lot more charm, but it's hard to make them work in a film. On the other hand, if you worry too much about how a drawing will look on the screen, it comes out looking too clean, without any life, without zip. It's hard to find the right balance between the two.

Watanabe: Just because you go and draw a half-assed picture doesn't mean it'll look "rough" on the screen. (laughs) You really have to calculate every line to get that rough feeling right.

Morimoto: The tension was palpable over in Yuasa's section. The two of us were next door working on Animatrix, and it looked like they were having so much fun over there. (laughs)

Watanabe: What with all these bizarre pictures they had pasted up all over the walls, it was like, what the heck kind of a movie are they making over there?! (laughs) I read the manga and it was great. But I thought, it would be such a shame to put just your everyday ordinary movie music for a manga like this! That would ruin it! (laughs) But nobody seemed to know who to get to do the music, so I sort of elected myself to the post of Music Producer. (laughs)

Yuasa: It's funny, I only heard about that much later. (laughs) One day they say to me, "Oh yeah, by the way, Watanabe's taking care of the music." "He is!?" (laughs) I had a certain idea of what I wanted, but I just didn't know who to turn to...

Watanabe: Yuasa-san had made a sort of compilation tape of songs to give a sense of what he wanted... and man, it was just all over the place! (laughs) From one scene to the next you'd jump from one song to something wildly different. Really not the sort of thing a normal person would request. (laughs) So I thought the only person for the job was the almighty Seiichi Yamamoto, the king of the alternative music scene. He'd done just about every sort of music imaginable. And his music has just the sort of rough-edged feeling that would fit the film. Plus they're both from Osaka! (laughs)

Morimoto: The music was perfect, it was just amazing. You know, my kids were watching the film the other day, and my wife turned it off at a certain point. It was the sex scene. She was pissed. "What the hell are you showing our kids!?" (laughs)

Yuasa: Aw, it's not that bad. (laughs)

Watanabe: That's an incredible scene.

Morimoto: I was amazed you'd reveal so much about yourself on the screen like that: "So this is the kind of sex Yuasa-san has!" (laughs)

Yuasa: No, trust me, I haven't revealed anything. (laughs) I'm much more... (pauses)

Watanabe: Not like that. (laughs)

Yuasa: I'm hoping the film is good entertainment, that's all... If people leave the theater feeling they had a good time, then I'll be satisfied. With a little luck maybe they'll see the world a little differently afterwards, but basically it's good, old-fashioned entertainment to appeal to the whole family. (all three burst out laughing)

Watanabe: I wonder... (laughs)

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