Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

01:08:00 am , 1243 words, 6451 views     Categories: Animation

Panty & Stocking #5 part B

Osamu Kobayashi directed the second half of this episode. Merely knowing this fact should be enough to tell you that something is afoot. We've become used Osamu Kobayashi showing up every year or so in a nice animated television program from Japan, and proceeding to create an episode that clashes with the rest of the show. His latest does not disappoint in that regard.

Before reading this, if you have any intention of watching this series, or if you want to truly appreciate what Osamu Kobayashi has done with this episode, I'd advise that you watch the series in sequence up to this episode before reading this post or anything else about this episode on the web. Otherwise it'll ruin the impact of something special.

So watch it first. Or if you don't care, go right ahead. I don't use jumps often, but this time I will. My impressions after the jump.


Osamu Kobayashi just punked every viewer of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, that's what.

He gleefully dismantled the saccharine, stylized, cute, sexy, facile cartoon edifice of this show and replaced it with a bunch of sad, ugly, miserable Japanese men and women working in a drab, rust-stained slab of an office in the middle of Tokyo.

Welcome to the real world, people.

I love the way this show reels you in for five episodes with animation that epitomizes everything escapist and entertaining and fun about animation, and then punches you in the face with reality right when you've gotten comfortable.

I laughed quite a bit watching this episode. There's the whole suddenness of it all that's funny, of course. But once you look past that, it's actually very nicely done besides that. It's a fairly well done satire of office politics in Japan, grounded in real human behavior in a real human situation. The biggest irony is that, for all the work they put into packing every garish and hyperactive second of the previous episodes with all sorts of visual and linguistic gags, the understated irony of this episode comes across as funnier.

What makes this whole thing delightful is that it will probably get people up in arms. It would actually be disappointing if it didn't. It's pretty clear this episode is 100% troll.

The drawings are how they are on purpose - not because Osamu Kobayashi can't draw or whatever it is he's usually criticized for. The whole thing is clearly an elaborate joke, and I'm positive Hiroyuki Imaishi is totally onboard with it.

What's the joke here? The joke is quite simply: This is Hamaji's Resurrection.

Back when it came out in 1995, Shinya Ohira's episode of The Hakkenden shocked and dismayed the viewers of that OVA series by suddenly abandoning the sleek, conventional drawings that came before in favor of ultra-realistic, ugly characters with distinctly Japanese features. The drawings here are closely modeled after the drawings in Hamaji.

Hence it's both a visual homage and a play on the sudden stylistic contrast that so shocked viewers. The joke is immediately apparent to anyone who's seen that episode. Except that Shinya Ohira was simply doing what he wanted to do - create more raw and powerful human drama, to do which he had to re-design the characters into realistic and believable human beings so that the drama would feel real - whereas this episode sets out to mimic that impact in a playful and ironic way. Actually not too surprising coming from this studio, and from a show with such a sassy sense of humor.

This episode may well be able to replicate the impact of Hamaji to an extent, since many, if not most, people who watch this show will never have heard of Ohira or any of this stuff. So they may react quite naturally in dismay to what they're seeing. I hope so. But it should be pretty obvious that it's a joke to most people, because the stylistic contrast is so extreme - taking the whole impact of Hamaji and ratchets it up to the logical extreme.

"What if we suddenly had an episode that was ultra-realistic in the middle of this super-cartoony show, like Hamaji's Resurrection?" You can just picture Kobayashi and Imaishi tittering away at the idea as they hatched their secret plot in the back rooms of the studio.

They could have gone even farther by completely divorcing the whole thing from the show. But they even were nice enough to integrate it all with the running concept of the show - that there is a ghost that Panty & Stocking have to come along and defeat. And they did it in a surprisingly poetic and meaningful way.

The old guy turns out to be a ghost, transformed by years of pent-up anger at the persecution and goading of his crass co-workers. When he's plied against his will with a tower of beers as humiliation by his boss, the geyser of projectile-vomited beer that he unleashes is a metaphor for his breaking point - all the anger and punishment he's bottled up behind the meek facade, finally coming out. He's the kind of guy who's always been used as a doormat by everyone he meets, gliding through life like a ghost invisible to everyone, until one day everyone learns what his name was when they see him on the news for going on a shooting spree.

So beyond the obvious visual parody aspect of this episode, it's actually got some teeth - it's a realistic satire on contemporary Japanese social mores that wouldn't have been out of place on Paranoia Agent.

But the sweet thing about this episode is that it's got a happy ending. Nobody notices it was him who was the ghost, ironically, and he got those signatures to make his little girl happy. He goes back to work to pretty much the same afterwards, though his coworkers maybe don't quite look down on him as much as before now that he's shown he can flip if pushed too far.

The episode has a lot of hilarious Kobayashi touches throughout - the little UFO at the beginning, the poster for an old period drama called Showa Zannyo-den, the hilarious little girl who acts naughty at the dinner table because of the bad influence of a cartoon called Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, the ultra-realistic taxidermied sea turtle, etc. It's great because it actually doesn't look like Kobayashi - but it's clearly something only he could have done. In a way that's even better, because it shows off what he's really good at. In particular, the extended shots during of the dinner scene and the bar scene were really great. I love shots like this where he keeps the camera still and just observes all the little antics these characters go through.

Kobayashi, man, I love you. This was great. I'm so glad he's still getting to do his thing like this.

On the staff side of things, it should be mentioned that Osamu Kobayashi directed and stoyboarded and Takashi Mukoda was the animation director. Both were animators. Thus it's talented animator Takashi Mukoda whom we have to thank for the recreation of the look of Hamaji. Ayako Hata is present as an animator - she's well known for being good at doing scenes of nuanced everyday life acting, so her skills would have been put to good use here.

Animator list:

Masashi Karino, Emi Uehara, Chiaki Nakashima
Ayako Hata, Naoyuki Asano

Takashi Mukoda, Osamu Kobayashi

Groundwork: Osamu Kobayashi, Takashi Mukoda

Saturday, October 30, 2010

11:00:00 pm , 4176 words, 9246 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Yamato 2520

One of the most ambitious train-wrecks in OVA history, Yamato 2520 was released between 1994 and 1996 in an attempt to revive the Yamato franchise. Originally planned for seven episodes, only the first three were ever released. Episode 3 ends as if everything were on course, leading into a next episode. Only silence followed.

It was an ambitious project. The Yamato was re-designed by Syd Mead (Blade Runner) in a sleek, angular, futuristic style breaking with the old Japanese battleship look. Mead also provided reams of beautiful conceptual art that hinted at a new visual approach for anime. For the soundtrack, they traveled all the way to New York to get David Matthews to compose the score. (the one from the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, not the Dave Matthews Band) He composed more than 100 different songs. It was thus an international collaboration. And on the Japanese side, they got some of Japan's best artists onboard - Mahiro Maeda, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Takashi Hashimoto and Shoichi Masuo. It was poised to be something great.

Why did they stop after 3 episodes? Supposedly, the production studio went out of business. But clearly there has to be more to the story that that, because you sense trouble in the waters even as you're watching the three episodes that were released. Despite all of the wonderful animation that was made, much of the show feels awkward and strained.

Yamato 2520 thus joins the ranks of other glorious failures from the battleground of 1990s OVAs: 3x3 Eyes (which ended prematurely on episode 4, although I don't know for sure if it was cancelled) and I'm a Space Miner (which ended after its second episode, definitely prematurely). 4 episodes, 3 episodes, 2 episodes. Even earllier, Relic Armor Legaciam ended prematurely after only one episode. There are probably other examples. Ironically, many of these incomplete OVAs are among my favorite OVAs ever produced. It's strange how the best projects seem to invite disaster.

When Yamato 2520 started coming out, another ambitious 7-part OVA was almost through its run: Giant Robo. 5 episodes had already come out. I watched this show in real time, and I recall distinctly how the space between episode releases became longer and longer, until the last episode took almost two years to come out, leaving many fearing it never would. Yamato 2520 didn't even have that luxury. As it happens, there is a lot of staff overlap between the two projects, so perhaps the resemblance isn't coincidence.

Giant Robo turned out to be one of the best OVA series ever released. Finally, an OVA series that did everything right: Epic sci-fi action-adventure that actually felt epic, a variety of interesting characters, great sense of style, high production values. Would Yamato 2520 have been a similar success had everything gone according to plan? I have my doubts. The first three episodes give a good indication what kind of story we were dealing with. Although for the most part it had good production quality, the story feels too regimented: An introductory first episode, a second episode spent entirely building the ship, the third episode with the crew discovering how to pilot the ship. Too little happens, and what happens is not interesting or surprising. There is none of the constant surprises, twists and excitement of Giant Robo. And the characters feel like cyphers. None of them are developed into interesting characters. They just seem to tag along to man the controls.

But watching it for the first time a few days ago, that's not what I felt was the real problem. It seems clear that there were behind-the-scenes staff issues well before the studio went out of business. After episode 1, some of the best members of the team left the project. The changes impacted the quality of episode 2 and 3, suggesting the studio was already struggling during the production of those episodes. Heck, there are signs of struggle since before the release of the first episode.

In February 1994, fully a year before episode 1 came out, they put out an hour-long documentary on the inception of the project. It showed tantalizing footage of Syd Mead at work drawing designs. Ten months later in December 1994, another documentary was released, labelled episode 0, as if to buy them some more time because they hadn't been able to make as much progress as intended, and it was taking too long so they had to put something out. Episode 0 contained a lot of nice footage of space battles. Episode 1 finally came out in February 1995. Incidentally, the first concept images for the project actually appeared way back in 1988, so the project had a very long inception period.

Syd Mead concept art (click for more)

The interesting thing is that, in episode 0, Mahiro Maeda is credited as the director (kantoku), Shoichi Masuo as the line director (enshutsu) and Takeshi Shirato as the chief director (soukantoku). Shirato Takeshi maintained that credit in episode 1. Mahiro Maeda, however, wound up only drawing the storyboard. There is no credit for director. Three other line directors and one assistant line director were responsible for processing Maeda's storyboard, rather than he himself doing it. This suggests that for some reason he had to step away from the project after having completed the storyboard, rather than seeing his storyboard through to completion himself as the director.

As for Shoichi Masuo, in episode 1 he is credited with visual effect director (enshutsu). The "enshutsu" credit in episode 0 is presumably a shorthand for this. Shoichi Masuo did stay on throughout the project in the same capacity. It's primarily for his and Takashi Hashimoto's special effects that I like this series and find it worth re-visiting.

Episode 1 is an interesting beast in many ways. There's a great structure, but the execution feels wobbly. Maeda's storyboard is excellent, but it's like it's not properly carried out. Sometimes the pauses are just a little bit too long, and it overall feels awkward, clearly a product of someone other than the storyboarder having processed his own storyboard. Not only this, there are no less than four line directors, which is clearly a bad sign.

That's another of the problematic aspects of this show: There are too many cooks in the kitchen. There's a project supervisor, a supervisor, a chief director, a director, a storyboarder, several line directors, and four people working on the script. It seems symptomatic of underlying issues.

If it weren't for the issues with the directing of episode 1, it could have been a nice little film. Maeda's storyboard is great. Every beat is spot on, and he creates a great flow. He's got a good sense for how to present drama in terms of the framing of shots and the choreography of action. It's unfortunate that he wasn't able to process his storyboard on this one.

The character animation is handled by Toshiyuki Kubooka, who coincidentally was the character designer of Giant Robo, not to mention the character designer and chief animation director Anno Hideaki's Aim for the Top! (1988). The combination of Shoichi Masuo, Mahiro Maeda and Toshiyuki Kubooka obviously brings to mind one thing: Nadia of the Blue Water. They were three of the indispensable figures behind the show. Maeda storyboarded episodes 10, 16, 22 and 35 in addition to being the show's main concept artist. Kubooka storyboarded episodes 12, 31 and 39 and sakkan'd episodes 2, 20 and 36. Masuo I wrote about before. Masuo and Kubooka together worked on episode 2 of Nadia, so you can see the two of them together in action years before. Kubooka and Maeda would work together a few more times over the years on Origin: Spirits of the Past and Maeda's own Gankutsuoh TV series and Gala short.

Watching episode 1 of Yamato 2520 feels like a flashback to Nadia, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment. All the main aspects were done by one of the main Nadia guys - directing, character animation and effect animation. It felt like, if it had been done well, it could have been the next step in the evolution of that style. I particularly like Kubooka's design work on the show - the simple, universal character style is appealing in itself, and it's well suited to this kind of epic story and facilitates more active character movement.

It's unfortunate that this first episode feels somehow hobbled by the shoddy way Maeda's storyboard was processed. It would have been nice to at least have one perfect episode. As it stands, episode 1 has a lot of very nice work, and if you squint your eyes, you can see the faint outline of a potential classic.

Episode 1 opens with an action sequence involving two kids racing their jets in the sky. The scene where the boy ejects from his jet is tense and exciting thanks to the animation and directing. Masami Goto was an animator in this episode, so I assume he must have been responsible for animating most of this section. It was right around the same time that he did animation on Macross Plus, another great OVA from this era, and the style of the action in episode 1 is reminiscent of the type of jet fighter action you see in Macross Plus. It's a pleasingly earthy and unexpected way to open a show about giant battleships in space - it's reminiscent of the way they opened the Star Trek reboot.

It's actually one of the most memorable parts of the episode. It suggests the magic that could have sparked if the talent of all those involved had had the chance to coalesce perfectly into something beyond the sum of its parts. Maeda did a pilot for a film called R20 Galactic Airport in 1991, but it never got off the ground. It feels like episode 1 gives a basic sense of how it might have felt if he'd had the chance to do it.

It's a shame that pilot didn't come through. I would like to see a feature directed by Maeda Mahiro. His storyboards reveal rare cinematic instinct. It's amazing that, for all of the work he's done in the industry over the years, and all of the talent he's obviously oozing, he never had the chance to direct a feature-length film. At least with his own Blue No. 6 of 1998-2000 he got to do a proper sci-fi action OVA series.

Kubooka's character design work reminds me of yet another great OVA series from this period - Green Legend Ran, whose characters were designed by Toshimitsu Ohashi. Both are among my favorite of this period. It's my ideal style in many ways.

In episode 2, Takeshi Shirato handles the storyboard and enshutsu, and Kubooka is no longer present as character designer or sakkan. He's now credited with "original character design", the ultimate insult. The pacing/directing feels very different from episode 1. Simply put, it's boring and insensitive. It doesn't have the intelligence and the sophistication of Maeda's storyboard. Shirato is one of the figures who worked on the original Yamato, and it shows. The directing feels old-fashioned and bland.

Episode 3 was storyboarded by Shigenori Kageyama and is a scant improvement over episode 2. The animation quality of episodes 2 and 3 is very uneven. Combined with the boring story, which feels like nothing more than filler leading up to the actual events to follow in episodes 4-7, there isn't much that makes episodes 2 and 3 worth watching. It's ludicrous to pace a 7 episode series in such a way that the first three episodes are throwaway introductory episodes. They at least have to be interesting. Things might have been considerably more watchable had they maintained the staff of episode 1 on throughout the rest of the show.

Another issue is the music. The music itself is decent, but badly incorporated. It doesn't match what's going on most of the time. The music is too declamatory, seeming to narrate events that aren't happening on the screen. Either that, or they did a bad job of choosing when to play which piece. The mix is also uneven. Often the music is so loud that I can't hear what people are saying. Getting basic things like this wrong is a sign that there were some fundamental issues with the handling of this series. They had their priorities wrong. They go to New York to get this music, but they don't even bother to make sure it fits the show. They get these great staff to work on episode one, then they get rid of all the good people in episode 2 and 3.

Other little gripes: After seeing Syd Mead's concept art in the preview documentaries, I felt kind of let down by the ordinary look of the show itself. It didn't seem to bring alive Syd Mead's vision. Apart from the battleships, obviously. Also not enough world-building: They didn't show enough scenes of life in this future world to create a feeling of a thoroughly conceptualized fantasy city and society. They instead focus almost exclusively on the character drama. Also too much verbal exposition: Too much information is thrown at us in boring monologues about what happened before this, and who so-and-so is.

A Shoichi Masuo explosion (click to enlarge)

Only the mecha and effect animation maintains a constant level of quality throughout the series. And ultimately, it's primarily for the mecha/FX animation by Takashi Hashimoto and Shoichi Masuo and that I think this series was actually successful as an endeavor (not to mention being the main thing that makes Yamato 2520 worth seeking out 15 years later). The space battles are beautiful and epic as befitting the material. The human sections may or may not work, depending on the viewer.

Takashi Hashimoto is credited as chief animation director while Shoichi Masuo is credited as effect animation director. Hashimoto didn't correct drawings, as the credit implies. He was given that title out of deference for his work by producer Yamazaki. As a condition for working on the show, Hashimoto asked that he have direct access to Yamazaki to give advice as to what to do and not to do, and that he have permission to alter the storyboards of his parts if necessary. Thus he not only drew and corrected a lot of the animation himself, he also made sure the storyboards for the battle sequences were right, and even drew some of the storyboards himself.

I mentioned Macross Plus before. As it turns out, Hashimoto was heavily influenced by Yasushi Muraki's work on Macross Plus. Both knew each other before, and considered each others rivals of sorts. Muraki had even been invited to work on Yamato 2520, but he chose to work on Macross Plus. When Hashimoto saw the amazing work Muraki was doing on that show, it prompted him to do the best he could on Yamato 2520. And that's undoubtedly the reason the space battle sequences have such an incredible feeling of power. Hashimoto worked on overdrive to make them as realistic and impressive as possible. There were no limits on the number of drawings he could use, so he packed those scenes with tons of movement. Incidentally, Hashimoto also did a lot of work on Giant Robo prior to working on Yamato 2520.

You can see a lot of clips from the show on YouTube. This one shows a good selection of the work of Takashi Hashimoto and Shoichi Masuo. Hashimoto would have done the various shots of ships fighting starting here, including the ship getting hit by a laser beam and exploding and the ship on fire falling downwards towards the sun. Masuo would have done the planets exploding at the beginning and the ships exploding later on.

Another Masuo explosion (click to enlarge)

The shot shown above, which you can see in motion here, seems like a shot that would have been handled by Masuo. What gives it away is the style of the explosion mainly, although ironically the layout seems identical to one he drew for a shot of the Nautilus exploding, which I described as an example in my post on Masuo. Masuo's explosions for some reason usually have this pink color, and he adds these specks you see around the rim of the explosion, something he presumably learned from Hideaki Anno. The reason for his credit as special effect director, besides the fact that he drew a lot of the explosions, is because he provided a lot of instructions in terms of how to process the animation - such as what kind of mask to use in certain situations. He had a lot of specialized knowledge of that kind that he put to use.

Hashimoto's explosions look different. They don't have the same color, and their forms are different. Hashimoto also focused on a different kind of movement. Masuo drew mainly the static shots of explosions, whereas Hashimoto drew the scenes with more tricky movement, such as the very cool first-person perspective shot here of an enemy fighter flying over one of the ships and dropping a bomb on it. But clearly Hashimoto learned a lot of technical tricks from Masuo during his experience working on Yamato 2520.

Makoto Kobayashi, the great mecha designer, was one of the few figures who stayed on throughout the duration of the production. Hashimoto also learned a lot of tricks from Kobayashi about spatial concepts - for example if a ship is in perspective, you can use a flat color for the bit further out to make it seem further out, or you can omit certain lines from a drawing to make a ship look suitably huge. He's undoubtedly one of the other figures who helped elevate the show's production values to the next level. As the mecha designer, he would have been responsible for adapting Sys Mead's drawings. It was a good choice. I can't think of many other people in Japan as close in sensibility. He's very prolific as a designer and has a style like nobody else - realistic yet bizarre.

Mecha specialist Kunihiro Abe joined the team for episodes 2 and 3. He has worked on things like Silent Mobius, Steam Boy, the new Gundam Z movies and Gundam 00. He alternated with Takashi Hashimoto doing the mecha work on the 6 episodes of the Orguss 02 OVA series, which came out just afterwards and thus probably shares some similarity in the mecha style with this series. (The opening of Orguss 02 was incidentally animated entirely by Takashi Hashimoto.)

Other notable faces in the animator list include Koji Sugiura, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Norimoto Tokura and Keisuke Masunaga in episode 1, Yasuhiro Irie in episode 2 and Toshie Sugiharu as an inbetweener in all episodes. Sugiura, Irie and Sugiharu are of course now Bones regulars. This shot in episode 2 looks like Tokura's work, but he's only credited in episode 1, so I'm not sure if it is.

Although this project was wobbly on other fronts, they assembled a strong team to support the quality of the drawings of the spaceships. After all, this is a show entirely set in space. The protagonists really are the spaceships, and there are a ton of those. Atsushi Takeuchi is another talented mecha animator who worked on the show. (albeit only episode 1) It would have felt pointless to even bother reviving Yamato if you didn't really update it, and in that sense they did a good job. The mecha animation, at least, was the state of the art for its day. (It looks way better than the mecha in last year's movie.)

Judged overall, Yamato 2520 appears to fail to appeal to Yamato fans, as it's far too removed from the original show, as well as to outsiders like me who never watched the show before and just want to enjoy a good show, as it's beset by technical problems and doesn't gel into good entertainment. What does make it genuinely worth revisiting after all these years, though, is all the hard work put into the show by the mecha staff, led by Takashi Hashimoto, Shoichi Masuo and Kobayashi Makoto. Thanks to their intricate mecha and effects animation, giant battleships combating in space has never been more majestic and epic.

Yoshinobu Nishizaki is the producer and mastermind behind all this Yamato stuff. He has shown a single-minded dedication to Yamato that defies all bounds. He was engaged in an acrimonious lawsuit with the creator of Yamato, Leiji Matsumoto. He won, and now he seems to be devoting his life to creating as many sequels as possible. Apparently the four movies and three TV series made from 1974 to 1983 were not enough. In 1985 he attempted to push the space opera genre pioneered by Yamato in a new direction with the movie Odin, but it flopped. So he made Yamato 2520. And now he's back at it again. Last year he released a film entitled Rebirth Yamato (trailer) helmed by many of the same staff as the original Yamato and the Odin movie - director Takeshi Shirato, supervisor Masuda Toshio, animation directors Kazuhiko Utagawa, Shinya Takahashi and Tomonori Kogawa. Yet another is due for release in December of this year: a live-action/CGI action drama entitled simply Space Battleship Yamato (trailer). You can be sure that if this one is successful (and it stars Kimutaku), that will just be the beginning of the sequel frenzy.

Brief aside about Eiichi Yamamoto's involvement in Yamato: Writing this reminded me that I've always wondered how he came to be involved as a fixture of the series, so I just checked his fictional memoir Mushi Pro Koboki and found passing mention of Yamato at the very end. In the last days of Mushi Pro, Nishizaki had been hired as acting president at Mushi Pro Shoji, the trading firm that managed the Mushi Pro Copyrights. That's how the two got to know each other. Nishizaki soon went freelance and asked Yamamoto for help. Nishizaki wanted to get into anime, so he presumably asked Yamamoto for his help because he was an experienced animation director and he was newly free from Mushi Pro. The two of them put together the original Proposal document for Yamato that started the whole franchise. He helped supervise, structure and write the original series and helped put together the TV compilation movie. Indeed, aside from Yamamoto, many of the staff who worked on the show were ex-Mushi Pro folks.

You can see more images from the show and from Syd Mead's concept art and also get a good run-down of the content of each episode at this site.

Yamato 2520 main credits

All episodes
Future concept design: Syd Mead
Yamato original design: Leiji Matsumoto
Chief director: Takeshi Shirato
Supervisor: Toshio Masuda
Score and arrangement: David Matthews
Music director: Kentaro Haneda
Script producer and supervisor: Eiichi Yamamoto
Script: Yasushi Hirano, Eiichi Yamamoto, Yoshinobu Nishizaki

Episode 1 (released Feb 1995)

Storyboard: Mahiro Maeda
Art director: Yusuke Takeda
Character designer: Toshiyuki Kubooka
Mechanic designer: Makoto Kobayashi, Atsushi Takeuchi, Takashi Hashimoto
SF groundwork assistance: Aigaki Toyoda, Jun Fukue, Masanobu Endo, Hitoshi Nozaki
Layout sakkan: Mahiro Maeda, Toshiyuki Kubooka, Atsushi Takeuchi, Takashi Hashimoto, Masahiko Ookura, Koji Sugiura, Hidetoshi Yoshida
Visual effect director: Shoichi Masuo
Chief sakkan: Kazuhiko Utagawa
Sakkans: Shinya Takahashi, Takashi Hashimoto, Shoichi Masuo
Mahiro Maeda, Jun Matsumoto, Yotoaki Fukushima
Joji Kikuchi
Key animators: Michiyo Sakurai, Shizuo Kawai, Takao Yoshino
Shinji Morohashi, Takashi Koizumi, Masahiro Sekiguchi
Tsutomu Murakami, Koji Kataoka, Tadashi Hiramatsu
Takashi Hyodo, Norimoto Tokura, Kazuhiro Itakura
Jun Matsumoto, Hiroyuki Yokota, Tatsuya Abe
Shigetaka Kiyoyama, Yoshitaka Kato, Masami Goto
Izumi Shimura, Sadatoshi Matsuzaka, Keisuke Masunaga
Masaaki Iwane
Inbetween check: Kazuo Tanaka, Kaname Wakabayashi, Futoshi Higashide
Inbetweeners: Toshiharu Sugie et al.
Line directors: Hideki Takayama
Ryo Yasumura, Shigeto Makino
Assistant line director: Kiyotaka Isako

Episode 2 (released Dec 1995)

Storyboard & line director: Takeshi Shirato
Art director: Yusuke Takeda
Original character design: Toshiyuki Kubooka, Hiroyuki Kitazume
Character design: Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano
Art groundwork design: Hiroshi Sasaki
Mechanic design and groundwork design: Kobayashi Makoto
SF groundwork assistance: Arigaki Toyoda, Chiaki Kawamata, Jun Fukue
Masanobu Endo, Hitoshi Nozaki
Literary production assistance: Koji Miura
Chief sakkan: Takashi Hashimoto
Character sakkans: Shinya Takahashi [elder], Shinya Takahashi [younger], Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano
Mechanic sakkans: Jun Matsumoto, Ryuji Shiromae, Kunihiro Abe
Special and mechanic genga: Shoichi Masuo
Key animation: Yasuhiro Irie, Shizuo Kawai, Masahiro Sekiguchi
Takashi Sogabe, Kiyotaka Nakahara, Tsunenaka Nozaki
Takashi Hashimoto, Futoshi Higashide, Akihiro Fukui
Shoichi Masuo, Hajime Matsuzaki, Shinichiro Minami
Satoru Minowa, Tatsuo Yanagiya
(Anime Spot)
Kazunori Hirota, Takeyuki Suzuki
(K Production)
Shigenobu Nagasaki, Shirotsugu Ohshima
Masaaki Iwane, Hisao Muramatsu, Toshio Mori
(Studio Yamato)
Mikine Kuwahara, Futoshi Higashide, Shinji Morohashi
Takao Yoshino
Inbetweeners: Toshiharu Sugie et al.

Episode 3 (released Aug 1996)

Storyboard: Shigenori Kageyama
Art director: Kazushige Takato
Original character design: Toshiyuki Kubooka, Hiroyuki Kitazume
Character design: Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano, Kazuhiko Utagawa
Art groundwork design: Hiroshi Sasaki, Makoto Kobayashi
Mechanic design and groundwork design: Kobayashi Makoto
SF groundwork assistance: Arigaki Toyoda, Chiaki Kawamata, Jun Fukue
Masanobu Endo, Hitoshi Nozaki
Assistant director: Makoto Kobayashi
Chief sakkan: Takashi Hashimoto
Character chief sakkan: Aki Tsunaki
Sakkans: Kazuhiko Utagawa, Shinya Takahashi, Takeshi Shirato,
Nobuaki Nagano, Ryuji Shiromae
Animation supervisor: Tatsuo Yanagiya
Key animation: Kunihiro Abe, Keiji Ishihara, Minoru Kobata,
Takashi Koizumi, Kobayashi Makoto, Hisashi Saito,
Ryuji Shiromae, Masahiro Sekiguchi, Hikaru Takanashi
Aki Tsunaki, Nobuaki Nagano, Tsunenaka Nozaki
Takashi Hashimoto, Akihiro Fukui, Shoichi Masuo,
Hajime Matsuzaki, Shinichiro Minami, Satoru Minowa
Masaki Yamada
(Anime Spot)
Kazunori Hirota, Takeyuki Suzuki
(Studio Cockpit)
Masaaki Iwane, Hisao Muramatsu, Toshio Mori
(Studio Yamato)
Futoshi Higashide, Mikine Kuwahara, Toshiharu Sugie
Shinji Morohashi
Inbetweeners: Toshiharu Sugie et al.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

11:42:46 pm , 400 words, 2425 views     Categories: Animation

Lei Lei wins best narrative short at OIAF

Chinese indie animator Lei Lei (AKA Ray), whom I've mentioned several times previously, just won the award for best narrative short at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. You can see the short (I'm assuming it to be the full short) on his Vimeo account here. Congratulations to Lei Lei and nice to see him getting recognition.

Phil Mulloy's Goodbye Mister Christie won for best feature animation while David O'Reilly's The External World won for best independent short. I haven't seen either film, but both are undoubtedly well deserving of the win based on their past work. As a fan of Ruth Lingford, I was happy to see her latest film Little Deaths win the prize for best experimental/abstract animation.

Full list of OIAF 2010 winners

I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm disappointed Midori-ko didn't win. But then again, not having seen either film yet, I can't judge which is more deserving. It would have been a great coup for Kurosaka to come out of nowhere and win. Oh well. I was hoping to read some reviews of Midori-ko by people who saw the film at the festival, but I haven't found anything yet. I doubt the film's going to come to Vancouver anytime, so I'm left to hope it gets a DVD release sooner rather than later.

The official site for Midori-ko has been up for a while now, and they just posted a trailer for the film, which gives the first real glimpse into what to expect. It looks amazing. It mentions this remarkable statistic: It took him 13 years to make and 30,000 drawings.

In an unrelated note, I just discovered the trailer for the movie Magical Hanja: Stopping the Resurrection of the Great Devil, produced by DNA Productions of South Korea and featuring Kang Won Young as the animation director. I wrote a post about it back in April, as I like Kang Won Young's work and the film promises to be his biggest statement to date. It apparently came out on August 19, 2010. Did any readers in South Korea see this film? The trailer shows some nice looking animation, some of the best I've seen from Korea. It feels influenced by Japanese styles of movement yet unique and original. It looks even better than I was hoping, at least in terms of the animation, so I look forward to seeing this, even if just for the animation.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

11:53:00 pm , 2206 words, 7346 views     Categories: Animation, OVA


(Cue Jaws theme)

Tatakae!! Iczer-1 is one of the classic OVAs of the early days of direct-to-video anime in the mid-80s. I don't remember if I saw it back in the day, so if I did, it didn't leave much of an impression on me. I just re-visited the three-episode series and found it to be a fairly pleasant time-capsule from that era of anime history - a dense summation of the predilections of fandom at that time.

One of the pioneer releases in the nascent direct-to-video format, Iczer-1 brims with youthful enthusiasm and energy. You can sense that the young director and animators were excited about the newfound freedom the OVA format offered, because they reveled in drawing their favorite things. The OVA amps up the volume on all of the things that were obviously the main fetishes in the fan community of the day - cute girls, first and foremost, but also mecha action, FX animation and gruesome monsters. All of those things are animated and drawn in a more loving, fetishistic way than ever before.

From a strictly technical point of view, there is a lot of nice animation in Iczer-1, which makes the series hold up pretty well despite its 25 years. OVAs became known for having higher production values (midway between TV work and movie work), and Iczer-1 was one of the shows that pioneered that impression.

As an FX fan, I'm particularly impressed by the volume of realistic, ornate natural FX animation of scenes of destruction. Kanada-style timing and effects abound when the characters fight one another, and it's some of the more richly realized of the era. The robots are drawn and animated with verve by a young Masami Obari in one of his earliest gigs. The monsters designed and presumably animated by Junichi Watanabe possess the requisite ick factor - they're revolting, in a deliberate, horror-movie kind of way, with insectoid features and appendages that look like brightly colored internal organs.

The story itself is not much to write home about, but it's not meant to be groundbreaking. It uses all of the tropes of fandom to create an entertaining package aimed strictly at contemporary anime fans. They weren't aiming to make films for the ages with these OVAs. They were testing the waters of a new market to see if they could find a way of selling anime directly to fans. Thus the content of OVAs was tailored towards the taste of fans. That said, even separated by a gulf of time and culture, I still enjoyed watching this OVA, because there's a lot more to it than just cute girls. The staff were obviously really into what they were doing, and that enthusiasm elevates the material. You sense that they're excited at the thought that they're exploring new territory, doing something nobody else has done. This series probably did set a certain kind of standard for everything that followed.

AIC, who produced Iczer-1, went on to continue building on this model with other OVAs in the ensuing years, becoming the pioneer of this kind of fanservice-based production. Their work in the 80s holds a morbid fascination for me: Consistently impressive in execution and artist-driven, always featuring good work from an array of talented animators and designers, but championing the worst tendencies in anime. I can't lie: When I first began watching anime, I enjoyed watching many an AIC OVA. They pushed all the buttons I wanted pushed. The cute girls, the wild action, the gore - everything I loved about anime was studiously jam-packed into those OVAs. Many years later, older and more cynical, their work strikes me as a fascinating combination of genuine love of animation and blind business opportunism.

Director Toshihiro Hirano was also behind several other memorable OVA series at AIC in the following years. It's undoubtedly his enthusiasm for the material that pushed this production to the next level. Unsurprisingly, the original story came from an ero manga, but it was considerably changed by Hirano, presumably toning down the erotic element, to the extent that the anime is probably more 'inspired' by it than a strict adaptation.

Hirano had originally started out studying at design school to become an illustrator, but was depressed when he realized that everyone around him was more talented than him, so he turned to anime. He wasn't serious about the whole anime thing for the first few years while doing subcontract animation for various studies like Studio Number 1 (the studio where Yoshinori Kanada was employed at the time with other like-minded animators) and Tomonori Kogawa's Bebow on shows like Dr. Slump and Urusei Yatsura.

This changed slightly when he worked on Macross and became something of a star of the show. He was interviewed and drew illustrations for magazines. He became less casual about anime after that. It was while Hirano was working at Noboru Ishiguro's Artland on their new OVA/movie Megazone 23 that he met Toru Miura, president of AIC, who was temporarily at Artland working as the film's producer. Hirano was dissatisfied with the film, and Miura offered him the chance to do a new project he was considering doing at AIC, so Hirano jumped at the chance and left Artland for AIC.

Iczer-1 was Hirano's baby. He not only wrote, storyboarded and directed, he was also character designer and an animator. He put his everything into the show, and even interviewed many years later he maintains the conviction that he achieved everything he set out to achieve with this anime. Iczer-1 is what Toshihiro Hirano is all about. Take that however you will.

I can't quite put my finger on what it is that defines this as a Toshihiro Hirano Production. What is that he feels with such conviction that he achieved with this film? Perhaps it's its pioneering combination of erotic with sci-fi trappings: Naked teenage girl piloting giant robot wards off invasion of lesbian aliens. It's probably a combination of this basic idea - cute girls piloting robots in skimpy clothes - and the epic yet self-consciously frivolous plot and tone, combined with his particular design style and the unprecedented, maniacal level detail in the drawings and the animation. The characters take their story quite seriously, but you're obviously not meant to. Also, Iczer-1 seems delicately attuned to cover the range of anime subgenres, providing something for every otaku taste - something for the cute girl fans, the robot/tokusatsu fans, the military freaks, the Kanada-style animation fans, etc. OVAs were the Cambrian explosion of otaku pandering. (Bonus question: Was Iczer-1 the father of tentacle porn anime?)

Examples of the different styles of effects that occur throughout the show

What I find genuinely appealing about Iczer-1 is its dense packaging of action and storytelling. Iczer-1 is certainly more entertaining than Megazone 23, so in that regard he did achieve his goal of improving on the film. He also undoubtedly achieved his goal of ratcheting up the fetishism, which he probably felt lacking in Megazone 23. Regardless of the merits of the material, Iczer-1 pulses forward at every moment and packs a lot of entertainingly choreographed action, highly worked drawings and animation, and entertainingly tongue-in-cheek splatter and melodrama.

Whatever it is, it set the tone for the next few years in OVAs, and seems to have sold pretty well, so it obviously achieved its goal. It's an impressive achievement in a business sense. The idea of releasing something direct to video was new - they didn't even know how much they should charge for the videos, how much people would be willing to pay. They entered a new market with an informed hunch that they knew how to exploit the advantages the new medium offered and target fans more directly. They did so by producing content tailored to what fans wanted to see, but that couldn't be done on TV or theater productions. They not only pulled it off, they were a big hit. They continued building on this approach over the years and developed a thriving business centered around selling characters. That's why they got so pissed at Shinya Ohira for what he did on the Hamaji's Resurrection episode of Hakkenden - the realistically ugly people he drew weren't marketable characters. At a very basic level, moe is about selling characters, and AIC were the early masters of that game.

OVAs exploded after Iczer-1. AIC alone produced dozens of different OVA series in the 80s. It was easy to get projects greenlighted, unlike today. All you had to do was tweak what had proven successful. Let's do a giant robo version of Iczer-1 = Dangaioh, Hirano's equally impressive follow-up. Let's do a more realistic robot show = Zeorymer. Let's do a monster show = Vampire Princess Miyu. AIC expanded full-force into the character business with games and goods. They added more studios, redoubling their productivity in the process. To date they have seven studios, two of which started up just this year. AIC has since shifted from OVAs to TV work. Far from fighting against the ascendancy of moe, they paved the way for it. AIC is very much in their element in today's TV industry and have been prolific over the last decade, with any number of shows on air in any given season.

As for the animation of Iczer-1, Hirano Toshihiro's wife Narumi Kakinouchi is a strong presence throughout every episode as the character animation director and one of the animators. She would later go on to make a name for herself at AIC with Vampire Princess Miyu and Ryokunohara Labyrinth. On the mecha side of things, Shinji Aramaki and Hiroaki Motoigi designed the mecha together with Masami Obari, while Obari oversaw their actual animation as sakkan. This was one of the first shows on which Obari's unique style of drawing mecha began to emerge and gain popularity. He loved drawing faces on the mecha, drawing them posed in very human poses, and drawing pieces on the arms and legs that mimic the look of muscles.

The first episode features a credit for a studio called "Pack", one of the few times I've ever seen it credited. Pack was a short-lived studio co-founded by Hiroyuki Kitazume. It was active from fall of 1984, when Hiroyuki Kitazume left Bebow to form his own studio, to March 1987. Other members included Hiroyuki Ochi, Hiroaki Motoigi, Satoshi Iwataki, Junichi Watanabe - all credited here - as well as Sai Morifumi. In 1987, Hidetoshi Omori joined them and they changed their name to Atelier Giga and produced Relic Armor Legaciam before disbanding. I'm not sure who the "Gengataro" person credited in episode 1 is. This seems to be the only place such a name occurs. Hiruko Nuruchi also appears to be a pen name - it appears in Pop Chaser, another AIC classic.

Kitazume's section is easily identified in episode one. He was doing sakkan work on Zeta Gundam at the time, and there's a shot in episode 1 that appears to depict Kamille and his girlfriend Fa from Zeta Gundam watching Iczer-1's battle, with what appears to be Tetsuo from Akira in the background, right next to a character from Shonan Bakusozoku Mirao Kyao from L Gaim, which Kitazume also worked on. A playful adlib by Kitazume, no doubt. The animation of the crowds running away right afterwards has an appealing Bebow flavor to the movement and drawings that clearly betrays Kitazume's hand.

Talented animators like Naoyuki Onda, Toshimitsu Kobayashi, Koji Ito, Hiroaki Goda, Hirotoshi Sano and even Koichi Arai join the fray in episodes 2 and 3. Most of these would go on to become regulars at AIC in the following years. I assume it must be largely these people whom we have to thank for the action scenes and FX animation in these episodes. I suspect Hiroaki Goda must have done the insanely intricate spaceship drawings like the one at right, since he is the one responsible for the maniacally detailed mecha drawings for which Metal Skin Panic Madox-01 from 1988 is best remembered. I'm not sure what mecha action specialist Koji Ito did, but it must have been either the robot fighting action or the natural destruction FX. The style of much of the FX animation looked to me like the work of Shoichi Masuo or Toshiaki Hontani, who were both involved in later AIC productions, so I was surprised to find neither of them credited. So I'm not exactly sure, if it's not Ito and not them, who did all that cool natural destruction FX animation.

There's a short section in episode 2 and in episode 3 that suddenly shifts to a totally different and much more appealing, very realistic drawing style that just screams Bebow. I'm guessing these to have been the work of Naoyuki Onda, who would go on to become a major player at AIC. His style evolved a lot over the years. I prefer his early work like this here.

Tatakae!! Iczer-1 animator list

Episode 1 (released October 1985)
Narumi Kakinouchi

Hiroyuki Kitazume

Junichi Watanabe
Satoshi Iwataki
Hiroyuki Ochi

Yoshiharu Fukushima
Hiruko Nuruchi
Koichiro Toda

Episode 2 (released July 1986)
Naoyuki Onda
Toshimitsu Kobayashi
Yoshiharu Fukushima
Koji Ito
Tenshi Yamamoto
Ken Ueno
Shin Matsuo

Narumi Kakinouchi
Masami Obari

Toshihiro Hirano

Episode 3 (released March 1987)
Naoyuki Onda
Michitaka Kikuchi
Hiroaki Goda
Osamu Tsuruyama
Hiruko Nuruchi
Hirotoshi Sano
Kenichi Onuki
Yuu Tadaka
Koichi Arai
Junichi Watanabe

Narumi Kakinouchi
Masami Obari

Monday, October 25, 2010

11:50:00 pm , 1827 words, 7594 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #11


A college kid finally works up the guts to approach that girl he's had his eye on in class, and moves out of his dorm to an tiny studio apartment. Insignificant events from an outsider's perspective. But an epic of introspection and obsessive weighing of possibilities paved the way for those little steps on the way to becoming a more secure, independent and mature person.

In the case of this series, this equates to the protagonist escaping from the maze of eponymous 4 1/2-mat rooms he was stuck in, like Rip Van Winkle, for an eternity that was actually just the blink of an eye. The whole series boils down to the protagonist making the decision to take that first step of leaving his room and going out there and approaching the girl he has a crush on. All of the introspection in the world doesn't weigh as much as a single step in real life. Every episode seems in retrospect like a circuitous route towards that goal, a fabulous invention of the brain that flashed by in a split second about what might have been if this-or-that had happened.

The beauty of this series is that it has no clear-cut explanation, but everyone will have their own explanation. The puzzle pieces do fit together. Notwithstanding the overwhelming cascade of seemingly unconnected images, it isn't random. If you choose to look hard enough, everything falls into place. It would take someone pedantically noting all of the various meanings suggested by the images - the various permutations of the dialogue that recurs with slight changes in nuance, the characters whose roles change constantly, the way the different stories intersect and diverge with each succeeding episode, the way the meaning of each episode changes with each succeeding episode - to do justice to the huge amount of thought obvious put into ensuring that all of the pieces fit together, but the size of the task seems intentionally to discourage any such attempt. And doing so may be besides the point.

But that's where my mixed feelings about this series lie: That to truly appreciate its beautiful and unprecedentedly layered and nuanced message about simply going out there and living your life, and not shutting yourself up in a 4 1/2 tatami galaxy of prevarication, you have to hole yourself up in an ivory tower to figure it out. It's simultaneously one of the most humane anime series ever made, one of the most technically accomplished, original and sophisticated in construction, and one of the most daunting and unapproachable. In the sheep's clothing of a more approachable style aimed at bringing in the fans, Yuasa has created his most impenetrable and avant-garde anime yet.

But that's not exactly accurate. The genius of the series is that it's a meticulously and deliberately constructed jumble. As you're watching it, it makes exactly as much sense as the director wants it to make - just enough for you to be able to suspect there's a way it all ties together, but holding back just enough that it doesn't all quite gel. You're not necessarily meant to connect all of the dots, at least not immediately. It's the indistinct picture the speed-talking narrator and rapid-fire visuals paint in your mind that is the point.

You wouldn't guess it from what's been written about the show, because everyone who's bothered to write about it loved it, but I think this is a polarizing series - you're either going to love every second, or you're not going to be able to finish the first episode. I don't think you can reach any meaningful conclusion just by comparing the number of people who viewed the first episode and last episode on YouTube, but for reference, it's 14,000 views for the first episode and 2000 for the last. Rather than getting depressed by this statistic, I'm heartened by the thought that there are actually even 2000 fans of sophisticated, experimental, progressive anime in the world.

You pretty much knew what you were in for once you saw the first episode. The series admirably maintained the tone and level of production quality you saw in episode 1 through every single episode. The series didn't feel either too long or too short for what it set out to accomplish. It achieved a remarkable degree of character development, and its characters were well fleshed out and interesting. They were somewhat tinged by the conventions of anime, moreso than Yuasa's previous outings, but they were still individuals with unique personalities, and not merely cardboard cutouts neatly fitting into one of the of stereotypical character types that you usually see in anime.

Rather than an ordinary drama about the trials and tribulations of campus life, that most exciting and scary time in our lives when life begins to open up for us, the likes of which we've all seen done to death already, this story is college life viewed through the kaleidoscope of Masaaki Yuasa's mind - a brilliant animator bursting with visual ideas, and a sophisticated storyteller who always pays his audience the ultimate respect of challenging them with new dramatic forms.

I wonder how many people who made it to the end of the series had this nagging feeling that I had. I was won over by the technical brilliance of the directing and the animation, and I like to think I got much of what it was trying to say, but I wasn't really hooked or that moved overall. I can see how well constructed it is, and I understand that the visual style does justice to the writing style of the original novel. But what worked as literature might not necessarily work as animation. It's not just that the narrator talks too fast; everything is too fast. There isn't enough of a rhythm. The headlong sprint of the visuals doesn't let up for an instant. But my biggest problem is that the characters didn't feel real to me. They were richly developed and fleshed out, but also smothered by the (intentional) pseudo-literary affectations of the script.

The tone of the show is fascinating: It's not meant to be LOL funny, but it's quite funny in its own quirky, understated, smirk-inducing way. Much of the humor stems from the visuals, i.e. not from the script, but from how the directors have interpreted the script. This is the plus alpha of the show. The visuals are creative and smart. They're cool looking in themselves, stylized and distorted in a constantly shifting and always appealing way as is the hallmark of Masaaki Yuasa, and they add another dimension to the script by fleshing out the story with visual clues. They're what makes this show so rewarding to watch, even if, like me, you're not completely hooked by the material. Tremendous thought obviously went into every moment of every episode. Single images often hint at a fully conceived situation that adds another dimension to a particular character's back story. Flashing by in quick succession, the parade of colorful, imaginative, meaningful images add a tremendous amount to the richness of the characters and story. The show is visual storytelling at its finest. This is the aspect of the show that I find irresistible.

Sometimes the images don't even have any obvious correlation with what's going on, as in the case of the brief image that graces the screen for just a second in the last episode in which an exhausted Johnny is prodded awake for another go. They just add weight to the reality of the situation, in a very roundabout way. It's hilarious because it's so subtle that it takes a brief moment for you to realize what it is you just saw, and it's meaningful because it says a lot about what the protagonist has been doing to while away the time while stuck in his room for all that time.

In other cases, as with the moths in the image above, you have a visual image that is a constant throughout the series and that has a variety of different connotations. In the last episode, you don't need any sort of verbal explanation as to what the giant cloud of moths flocking out of the window are supposed to mean; the image obviously symbolizes the narrator's escape, the knowledge accrued over a multitude of lives lived in the 4 1/2 mat room, and whatever else you might be able to read into it.

Despite my reservations, I don't think anyone else could have adapted this material in such a convincing way. In these difficult times, when ambitious studios with the balls to produce work that doesn't pander to fans are going out of business left and right, it's impressive that a series so out in left field, not even remotely close to anything else out there, even got produced. The show is intellectual in the extreme, hardly the sort of thing that will go down with fans - or general audiences, for that matter. It's even challenging for fans like me who tend to like more ambitious fare.

It's a tough time to be creative in the industry, but as long as there are studios like Madhouse willing to champion creators with talent, there will always be a trickle of good work coming out. But it shouldn't be a trickle. It boggles the mind that, with one of the world's largest animation industries, populated by a huge array of incredibly talented artists with all sorts of different styles, and dozens of new TV series being produced every season, a creator-driven series like this that does something even slightly different is such a rarity.

I salute Madhouse for providing the space to produce another remarkable TV series, and I salute Masaaki Yuasa and his staff for making it. It's criminal that work this good is relegated to a late-night slot and will never get a wide audience, even though I feel that the nature of the material limits its reach. It shouldn't only be seen by a handful of otaku. It's of a high enough artistic caliber that it deserves an audience of the general public.

I have to admit that I still hold out hope that Masaaki Yuasa will make another movie someday. I can't help but feel that his genius is better suited to the movie format. And a movie would get a wider audience. The TV format allows him to experiment with a lot of things, but his TV shows seem too hidden from view. Also, his TV series feel like they're not 100% pure Yuasa. They're more of a patchwork. Some things work, some don't. When he makes things with everything under his control I find it works a lot better, although admittedly this series felt remarkably uniform in tone and quality.

Episode 11 main credits

Animation director: Nobutake Ito

Key animators:
Takayuki Hamada, Ryotaro Makihara
Natsuko Shimizu, Sawako Miyamoto
Kenichi Yamaguchi

Shouko Nishigaki, Toshiharu Sugie
Kanako Maru, Akitoshi Yokoyama
Nobutake Ito

Second key animators:
Mai Tsutsumi, Kenichi Fujisawa
Satomi Higuchi, Sayaka Toda
Keita Nagasaka

Saturday, October 23, 2010

11:18:34 am , 1069 words, 4218 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Movie, TV

Ranma 1/2 animators

Over the last few days I've been re-acquainting myself with Ranma 1/2, another show I watched when I first got into anime. It wasn't my favorite, but it was quite popular with other fans. I remember the show making me uncomfortable back then, and now I can pinpoint why. It was the on vanguard of the tendencies that have come to dominate the airwaves today. Yet at the same time the animation has something appealing about it. The show is a product of the early 1990s, when you begin to see a pared down but three-dimensional style of drawing emerge, with an emphasis on sharp and stylized line, create and zippy timing, and de-emphasis on shadow, together with newfound skill at drawing the body in all sorts of athletic poses and vigorous movements. Animators like Norio Matsumoto, Tokuyuki Matsutake and Masakatsu Sasaki developed their skill animating exciting body movement on this show.

The second movie seems to me to distill the show's contradictions. It's Ranma simultaneously at its best and worst. The drawings and movement are the sharpest and most refined they ever would be. It's the pinnacle of the show's visual style in many ways. It has great line art and catchy movement that's still impressive seen today. And at the same time it's pure fan service. It takes fan service to the level of softcore porn, with its barely clothed girls and erotic layouts and drawings. I think it's around that time that I started to have serious doubts about the direction anime was going, as well as about anime fandom, because it seemed like this was exactly the direction in which the fans I saw around me wanted anime to go.

The show featured early work by a lot of animators who later became better known for very different things. It's enjoyable to revisit their early work to see if you can catch a whiff of their personality. Norio Matsumoto did a lot of early work on here. I wasn't as excited about the show as many of my fellow fans, so I didn't watch that much of the TV series back then beyond the original 18 episode show (which was immediately followed by the 143 episode Nettohen continuation), so I might not even have seen much of his work. But I've seen clips in the last few years and it's actually very good - just as good and identifiable as you'd expect the work of Norio Matsumoto to be. This was 20 years ago, probably one of the first shows where his work started standing out - even before Tylor, which was the first place I became aware of Matsumoto.

In looking up the credits I noticed the names of a lot of other talented animators, and was impressed by how many people besides Norio Matsumoto this show seems to have fostered, so I wanted to just make a note of some of the names that stand out to me for reference. Here's a select list of some of the more noteworthy names involved in the first and second TV series.

Ranma 1/2 TV series (1989)
Norio Matsumoto (9)
Hiroyuki Nishimura (2, 7, 10, 14, 15)
Norimoto Tokura (3)
Akitoshi Yokoyama (6, 11)
Yutaka Minowa (6, 12, 17)
Takayuki Hamana (2, 7, 10, 14)
Hiroki Kanno (6, 12, 17)
Takuya Saito (2, 7, 10)

Ranma 1/2 Nettohen TV series (1989-1992)
Norio Matsumoto (8, 16, 19, 24, 28, 31, 35, 50)
Masayuki Kobayashi (2, 4, 6, 10, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28, 31, 39)
Tadashi Hiramatsu (30, 33, 86, 91, 97, 108, 116, 121, 132)
Masakatsu Sasaki (24, 27)
Masaaki Endo (4, 10, 11)
Akitoshi Yokoyama (9)
Koichi Hashimoto (13)
Yasuhiro Irie (102)
Toshihiro Yamane (60, 95, 100, 107, 111, 117, 124)
Yasushi Shingo (84, 92, 96, 101, 106, 113, 118, 123, 128, 133, 143)
Masanori Shino (95, 100, 107, 111, 117, 124, 129, 134, 139)
Tokuyuki Matsutake & Hirobumi Suzuki (101, 106, 113, 118, 123, 138, 143)

Both Tokuyuki Matsutake and Hirobumi Suzuki actually started out as inbetweeners on this show working under Atsuko Nakajima, and very quickly were bumped up to drawing genga. Hirobumi Suzuki was an inbetweener on episodes 8, 13 and 16 of the first show while Tokuyuki Matsutake was an inbetweener on episodes 3, 6, 12 and 16 of the first show. And in the second show they're always credited together. It's interesting to see that they've had a close relationship from the very beginning. I even spotted Masami Goto as an inbetweener on episode 9 of the first show. Ranma was an early training ground for many cool animators who developed in the 1990s.

The TV show was immediately followed by 3 movies from 1991 to 1993 and bunch of OVAs from 1993 to 1996. Atsuko Nakajima's drawing style defined most of these, while the storyboarding and directing was mostly done by Kazuhiro Furuhashi, even though Junji Nishimura was technically the director.

Movie 1 (1991, 75 min) featured Yoshihiko Umakoshi, Tatsufumi Tamakawa, Norio Matsumoto and Atsushi Shigeta. It wasn't directed/storyboarded by Kazuhiro Furuhashi, so it's very different in feel from the second movie and later OVAs. It's much more conventional feeling than the second movie, almost like an Urusei Yatsura film of yore, lacking the hallmarks of Furuhashi's work like the predilection for conventionally framed close-ups showing off the character drawings. From what I can tell, Matsumoto did this part. Other than this, there aren't many particularly impressive bits here, though presumably some of the climactic fights with the various guardians were done by Umakoshi and Tamakawa. Only Matsumoto's animation really stands out. Even viewed today there's a budding something in the little gestures and poses that makes the movement in his brief scene irresistible.

Movie 2 (1992, 60 min) featured the staff that would go on to work on the first six OVAs - Kazuhiro Furuhashi storyboard/director, Atsuko Nakajima sakkan, and animation from Masakatsu Sasaki, Tokuyuki Matsutake and Hirobumi Suzuki (not to mention Masami Obari, Kazunobu Hoshi and Atsuko Ishida). So it's very similar to these in atmosphere and directing as well as drawing style. Movie 3 (1993, 25 min) was a slight outing compared to the previous two, featuring only the likes of Yasushi Shingo and Shin Matsuo. The others were probably working on the OVAs.

The original 6 OVA series (1993-1994) featured work by Hirobumi Suzuki, Tokuyuki Matsutake, Masakatsu Sasaki and Yasushi Shingo. Masakatsu Sasaki and Tokuyuki Matsutake seem to have been the animators responsible for many of the more exciting bits in these OVAs. Although there's nothing that compares to Matsumoto's work in these OVAs, there are numerous brief spots throughout most episodes except the 5th where an animator with an obviously great sense of timing is at work. I'm assuming these to have been Masakatsu Sasaki and/or Tokuyuki Matsutake. Two "Special" OVAs (1994-1995) followed, episode 2 having work by Tadashi Hiramatsu, Yasushi Shingo and Shin Matsuo. Nothing really remarkable here, but the climax with the 8-headed dragon has a bit of action with a brief flicker of interesting movement. Three "Super" OVAs (1995-1996) followed, but only episode 3 featured work by Tokuyuki Matsutake and Hirobumi Suzuki.

Friday, October 22, 2010

11:25:50 pm , 4016 words, 2853 views     Categories: Movie, Live-action, Foreign

VIFF 2010 thoughts part 3

Fortune Teller (China, 2009, 157 min, Xu Tong)

One of the best documentaries I saw this year was this raw, unfiltered, unsettling look at the lives of a pair of outsiders eking out an existence on the streets against all odds in a modern China that doesn't want the likes of them anymore.

The film's main subject is a crippled but fleet-minded and street-wise fortune teller who struggles in the face of police crackdowns to go on making a living telling the fortune of the desperate people who come to visit him hoping for an augury of a better future. What harm he's doing for the police to waste so much money and effort on bullying a cripple is a point implicit in the film, a finger pointed at an opaque and unthinking bureaucracy that makes a facade of taking care of its citizens while actually treading the unfortunate into the ground.

The fortune teller is a relic of a pre-modern past when fortune tellers like him were common and were part of the social fabric, a link in the chain of philosophy and religion underlying a civilization. He recites arcane chants and mathematical formulae like a character out of a Tang epic. His erudition in the vast body of literature and techniques of his profession is remarkable and moving and makes him feel like a living treasure, the last torchbearer of a tradition seemingly doomed to extinction by the government's arbitrary decision that it is a relic of feudal times to be eradicated.

Crippled and unable to do anything else to make a living, he's forced to work in the shadows, living in fear that the next police raid will land him in jail, throwing his mentally retarded spouse onto the street. His situation is heartbreaking to the point of making you angry. The scene in which he visits the government center for the disabled only to be screamed and yelled at by the unfeeling functionary who refuses to listen to his pleas for help made me livid like nothing I've seen in a long time.

The real depth of the film comes not in some kind of facile finger-pointing at the government, but in the resilient and deeply humane character of the protagonist. You begin to see in him something of a living bodhisattva walking through a hellish life while seeking only to help others. He took in a mentally retarded woman as his wife both to save her from the cruelty of her treatment at home (when he found her, she was living in a doghouse-like shed outside of the family home) and to have a companion. He cares equally for the stray cats around his home, and goes on regular rounds to visit the people of the streets, with many of whom he's on a first-name basis. Through the fortune teller we get to speak with these hobos and beggars and learn that they, too, are people with personalities. Through him you begin to realize the true meaning of compassion.

The film also follows another marginal figure, a lady of the streets who runs her own establishment. She's had to move from one province to another to escape the scrutiny of the police, and before we're even halfway into the film we visit her establishment one day only to find that it has closed and she has mysteriously vanished - thrown in jail, killed, or fled to another province? Nobody will ever know. Such is the fate of the people living on the margins of society in China. Like most people in her situation, she has a heartbreaking back-story, sending almost all of her earnings to her kid in another province. She and all of the people depicted in this film come across as economic victims, people who fell through the cracks of the great leap forward to consumerism.

My only criticism of the film would be that the last thirty-minute segment felt unnecessary and made the film feel too long. It would be perfect at 2 hours. Otherwise, everything prior to that was immediate, candid, and gripping. This was a remarkable piece of work - both a cry for social justice, a look at street life in China, and an intimate portrait of a fascinating person.

Chantrapas (Georgia/France, 2010, 122 min, Otar Iosseliani)

This was my least favorite film from the festival, even though there were films that were probably technically worse. It's a slow, monotone drama about a film director in the midst of a film shoot who finds that he's oppressed in his native Georgia, where the authorities are constantly meddling with the editing process. So he flees to France, where he finds he's oppressed by the studio system, because he has to hob nob, which he doesn't like, and the studio is constantly meddling with the editing process. In the end, he returns to Georgia and gives up on the whole process to go fishing with his friends.

I found the film disappointing. It seemed to be striving for a kind of wry, deadpan irony about the whole situation, but it missed the mark by a wide margin. The story and characters mostly seemed to wander aimlessly, listessly in world-weary atmosphere of dread and boredom. I wasn't sure whether the film was trying to be funny, serious, or both at the same time. It felt muddled and incoherent and lazy. If it was trying to be witty and funny, it failed. If it was trying to be a wry commentary on the act of filmmaking, it failed.

My biggest problem was that the director who is the subject of the film came across as fairly unsympathetic. Unsympathetic isn't the right word - insufferable is better. At every step of the way he acts like a spoiled brat whose first course of action when confronted with any kind of adversity is to either go hide in a corner and sulk or to simply pack up and run away. I'm sure that censorship and government coercion were/are serious issues in the country, and that aspect of the film feels like one of the few ways in which the film succeeds at communicating something meaningful about the very real tragedy of artistic censorship that was a given in in the Soviet states. Even in the west, though, the film seems to say, freedom is a relative thing. You still have to deal with the whims of the studio and the executives, financiers, etc - it's a different kind of artistic oppression. In this respect, Chantrapas makes a good point.

But the film fails at making this point sufficiently clearly or with any kind of conviction, because the director acts like such a self-absorbed dick that you don't feel sympathy for his plight. It almost feels like the film ridicules people in his situation who do genuinely feel that they are artistically oppressed and must flee for freedom. The director is portrayed not as a suffering artist but as a spoiled brat. Everywhere he goes, people fawn over him and adulate him and treat him as some god in their presence. The only moment we see people having a believable reaction to him is when, in France, he acts like a jerk to a bunch of film producers who invited him to their dinner table, and they perplexedly note the fact that, actually, he's kind of rude, isn't he.

I found that all the film succeeds at doing is perpetuating all the negative stereotypes of foreign films - boring, pretentious, dreary and incomprehensible. I asked a girl after the film what she thought, and she told me that she's Russian and "It's very Russian" and you have to be Russian to understand it. Maybe the real problem was that I'm not Russian.

Himalaya, A Path to the Sky (France, 2010, 65 min, Marianne Chaud)

This documentary was rapturously beautiful eye-candy. It follows the daily life of a little boy who, it seems, himself made the decision to join a Buddhist monastery in Pukthal, India (in other words, he wasn't coerced into it by his parents). The scenery is stunning. The monastery is perched high in the mountain on some insanely dangerous precipice. The sight of the rooms of the monastery peeking out from the mountainside like a colony of swallows' nests peeking out from a cliff, or like the cliff dwelling in Montezuma, is nothing short of breathtaking. As the little boy heads home to the monestary after visiting his onetime home and parents, breath-catching are the moments when we follow the little boy and the scared French director and cinematographer as they scamper along paths high in the mountains just a foot away from a fall that would mean certain death. "Just tell yourself you won't fall," the little boy reassures the lady old enough to be his mother. In that moment, and in many other moments, his wisdom and serenity seemed to tower over that of the director and all others around him.

The little boy is a real character, wise and mature for his age, spouting pearls of wisdom as if he'd learned them in a previous life. He claims with a toothy grin to be an old monk. You sense something otherworldly about the boy. Even his instructors are in awe. The question is asked whether he's happy there in the monastery, whether he wants to see the rest of the world. It's the question most of us must ask ourselves when we see this boy, who obviously has such promise. I know I found it heartbreaking to think that this little genius was holed away in a monastery learning religious texts, never to go to university to discover his full potential. But he's happy, he responds. His response is more succinct and more convincing than his father's to the effect that they're happier in their remote village high in the mountains than people in the west, who are so busy that they don't have time to be happy. WE don't need watches, the father concludes triumphantly, apparently having forgotten that he's wearing a digital watch.

In a rarity, I actually felt disappointed that the film finished so soon. I wanted it to go on and on. At least 20 minutes more. But I'd honestly rather have a documentary that goes in and does what it needs to do and gets out, rather than dragging things out aimlessly.

The Dreamer (Indonesia, 2009, 120 min, Riri Riza)

A highly enjoyable drama with a literary bent about boys growing up in Indonesia. The film's roots in literature becomes obvious right from the start with a somewhat cliche theatrical device we've all seen many times in films. An older version of the protagonist wanders around his old haunts on the island, pondering the good old days in voiceover, before we launch into the actual story of what led him to say what he did.

The tidy structure of the film and the predictable sequence of dramatic events betrays the fact that it's based on a book. It's not as successful a literary adaptation as The Drunkard. But that isn't enough to detract from making it an enjoyable, if obviously not completely realistic, look into life growing up on the island during that period of time. It's kind of a cross between an audience-friendly feel-good growing up drama like My Life as a Dog or Stand By Me and the more believable pared-down style of a true masterpiece made using non-actor children like The Traveler.

It's this look into the lives of the protagonist boys growing up that makes the film rewarding. The film pushes all of the buttons you're used to seeing in these films. There's the chubby, slow, stuttering friend, there's the scene where they all sneak into the adult movie theater, there's the scene where the two boys are humiliated by the mean headmaster in front of the entire school, and the obligatory doomed love interest between the charismatic lead boy and the pretty girl. And yet it's all quite enjoyable and believable enough. One of the two lead boys is the smart and ambitious one, the dreamer of the title who leads the other down the path of aspirations to escape their poverty. The other is the poor boy who becomes entranced by his friend's gallantry and intelligence. The two vow to work hard at various part-time jobs inbetween school so that they can eventually make their way to study in Europe and then become successful and rich. It's inspiring to watch them working towards this goal, even though deep down you know that it won't work out.

Predictably, misfortune hits, throwing a wrench in these aspirations. The poor boy's father works in a coal mine, and when the mine goes out of business, the boy must sacrifice everything he's worked towards in order to save his family. This aspect of the story does a good job of showing the dilemma faced by people in his situation - it seems at first as if you could just work your way out of poverty if you worked hard enough, but the precariousness of life in that situation renders it effectively impossible for most. Just as it seems as if you've climbed your way out of the hole, the slightest jolt is enough to make you slip all the way back to the bottom.

Rumination (China, 2010, 109 min, Xu Ruotao)

One of the most ambitious films I saw at the festival was this experimental film from China. It's hard to describe - not documentary and not drama and not purely experimental. It's essentially an experimental historical drama, a kind of video essay on the meaning of the cultural revolution from a person born in 1968, at the beginning of the years of madness. He is thus too young to have understood what was going on at the time, nor to have been complicit, and so this film is his attempt to look back on that history and understand it, from a personal standpoint.

The film is broken down into segments for each of the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Each segment features something different going on. One shows a bunch of red guards running around in what looks like a sort of ghost town trying to find the 'counter-revolutionary' (actually just a naughty kid) who scrawled graffiti on the wall saying "Down with Mao!". Another shows red guards harassing a poet figure who they find living alone in an abandoned building surrounded by strange poems, while he responds to their queries in riddles. Yet another shows a fat girl garbed in Communist uniform provocatively spreading apart the lapels of her vest to another man in uniform. There's no obvious narrative or even any apparent linear connection between the parts. It's obviously not meant to be taken at face value.

It's a very low budget film, the visuals shaky and not very well shot. It's not about creating images of beauty or about creating a well acted and well shot period drama recreating the way things were in those years. That's been done to death, and this film couldn't be further from that. It's obviously more of a personal experiment, a crazy dreamlike re-imagining of an event that scarred the national memory, and that has surely been talked about over and over in China without it being possible to hear the true story behind what happened. I came away wondering if the very opaque and cynical image the film leaves in your mind is a reaction to the way this generation views the official story with newfound skepticism and cynicism.

The mere fact of attempting to come to grips with this important event in Chinese history, rather than relying on the various shades of bias on either side of the divide, makes this film compelling. In execution, however, the film is excessively ambiguous and convoluted. Every scene is metaphorical and cryptic, refusing any obvious interpretation. It's an admirably opaque work of art, but it makes for rather trying viewing, especially for people like me who do not have an adequate understanding of the historical background of the events.

For example, it completely flew over my head that the film in fact depicted the events in reverse. (Why? Who knows.) After a comparatively understandable first shot in which we see a dozen youths dressed in Red Guard costumes running about frantically in an abandoned building shouting slogans and destroying everything in sight, the film then depicts the Tangshan earthquake, which occurred in 1976, and proceeds in reverse chronological order. Why this was done isn't entirely clear, and it only succeeds at completely obscuring the already tenuous grip on meaning the viewer might have had. Many of the scenes are successful at conveying something subconscious without overt meaning, while other scenes are tedious and seem to go on forever for no reason. The film feels like an ambitious experiment by a young filmmaker rather than an assured and convincing work of art.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thailand, 2010, 113 min, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

On the vanguard of the Asian art house renaissance is the director of this film, who won the Palme D'Or recently for the longest and most unpronouncable name ever. Narrative is virtually nonexistent in his films, which flow slowly from scene to scene of people sitting around quietly doing not very much save exchanging surprisingly witty and sexual banter. I'm generally all for this sort of thing, but I find his films slightly too languid for even my tastes. This film continues in this vein.

We are introduced to an uncle who can apparently recall his past lives, although we never witness the remarkable feat in flagrante delicto. Instead we find that he has a kidney problem that is slowly killing him. He runs a farm on which he employs an illegal alien from Laos. His sister is concerned for him, fearing that the alien might kill him and run off. We see them all sitting at dinner one night and witness a strange ghostly sight: The uncle's dead wife appears and tells everyone how things are going on the other side of eternity. Not long thereafter the night becomes even more spooky. We see a pair of glowing eyes coming closer. Soon the creature speaks and introduces itself as his long-lost son, who had sex with a monkey and was transformed into Chewbacca as punishment. The moment is a mixture of deliberately comical and transcendent. Suddenly in the midst of scenes of every day life we find the supernatural intruding. Nobody seems too surprised.

Then suddenly, without warning, the film shifts to something completely different: An aged princess walking through the jungle with her attendants peers into the waters of a pond and sees in her reflection a younger and more beautiful woman. A fish begins to speak to her, offering to give her the beautiful face she saw in the water if she would become his bride. It's a strange and sudden diversion, and we're offered no explanation or apology. Make of it what you will - an example of one of the Uncle's past lives? An homage to Thai folklore? Not making it clear does actually enrich the resonance of the film somewhat, although the randomness is can be a bit maddening.

The film could be criticized as a pointless exercise in atmosphere that relies entirely on your willingness to suspend your attention span, but where it succeeds is in creating an interesting atmosphere bridging the world of Thai folklore and spirits and the real world in a fairly satisfying and not cheesy way. This is something I recall from one of the director's previous films, in which a young man traveling through the Jungle becomes transformed into a tiger. The director has created an idiom that is entirely his own and that satisfyingly incorporates the spirit and ethos of his native country.

Single Man (China, 2010, 95 min, Hao Jie)

This movie was a highly entertaining bawdy comedy of manners set in rural China. Simultaneously realistic, hilarious and hard-hitting, it examines the life of people in a rural village, with an unabashed and bold emphasis on the sexual that is usually elided over in depictions of country life, or portrayed more romantically. Look no further to learn in intimate detail about the sex life of the elderly in rural China. Shocking, yes, but in a very entertaining and insightful way about the everyday nature of sexuality. It feels like a new and more honest and probing examination of village life in China.

The story pivots around the story of an old man who takes a wife way too young for himself, and the woes that ensue. Along the way it weaves in the stories of various of the other 'single men' in the village, and how it came to pass that they are single men in their 60s and 70s.

The film is great in just about every way. The dramatic arc is believable and natural while still being satisfying and providing a clear sense of purpose and arrival at the end. The acting is natural yet incredibly vivacious, to the point that it feels like a documentary at many moments, and all of the people in the film are very well fleshed out as individuals with their own unique personalities and back-stories. The actors feel like non-actors, and their performances thus have tremendous vitality. It's not the overacting of a big studio film. The cinematography is unobtrusive and naturalistic yet beautiful and candid, capturing equally well the beautiful dusty earth hues of the village and the ruffled features of its oversexed denizens.

The film begins by introducing the various characters of the village and how they're interrelated. We witness trysts of all sorts occurring on a daily basis. We learn of the back story of one of the trysting couples - they fell in love when young, but after an accident they could no longer get married, but remained in love, and after decades, well into their 60s, the woman now with several children, the flame of love still burns strong. Or so we think at first, until we see her visiting other gentlemen. In a situation where she doesn't know whether she'll be able to put her son through school, she plays a cunning game of love and lust to ensure that she will have the support of her 'friends' in times of need.

When the old man in question goes and spends his entire life savings to buy a young bride from a distant province, she's angry and jealous. Is it jealous love, or is she just afraid she'll lose a potential donor of university tuition for her son? We don't know. Probably a combination of the two. The film does a great job of depicting both the very tangled web of relationships in the village as well as the complex feelings that motivate every party involved.

And the old man himself, who at first seemed like an innocent victim of love, becomes something a little more sinister when we see him greedily buy a young bride many decades younger. The film shifts into a potent examination of this tragic practice that's all too common in China. Girls are persuaded to leave home to work in the city only to be deceived and sold into virtual slavery by being sold as a wife in the countryside, where women are a precious commodity, with little hope of ever seeing their family again. We see the desperation and loneliness that drives him, a single man in his old age, to this practice; we see the despicable crime being committed against the poor young girl; we see the chaos the practice causes in the village when a young man in the village falls in love with the girl and demands that she be his.

We come to understand and sympathize with the various villagers, and realize that sex isn't just sex; it's multifarious, it's ubiquitous, it's tragic, it's ecstatic, it's humdrum, and it's one of the elements of the fabric that binds us together in society.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

05:27:45 pm , 930 words, 1927 views     Categories: Animation, TV

New shows

Bones again has Takuya Igarashi heading their latest show Star Driver. The quality of everything is very high, consistently, even up to ep 3, as is typical for the director and Bones. But I find they've just given up completely on the content, choosing to rehash all the cliches in the book rather than gamble on another ambitious experiment in epic fantasy with a more broad appeal that fans probably won't even bother to get behind.

As with Eureka Seven and Xam'd, they've assembled a strong team in every facet. Their shows consistently produce the best mecha action animation seen on TV these days. And it's not just Yutaka Nakamura. Today there's no end to the list of young animators doing sharp and exciting work right off the bat. You find a combination of old veteran mecha figures like Ken Otsuka and new outside faces like Hironori Tanaka as well as relatively new though now vetted in-house faces like Yasuyuki Kai.

Ep 1 had Shingo Abe on mecha AD and animation from Yutaka Nakamura, Takahiro Shikama, Hironori Tanaka, Yasuyuki Kai, and Shingo Abe.

Ep 2 had Ken Otsuka on mecha AD and animation from Soichiro Matsuda, Shingo Fujii and Takahiro Shikama.

Ep 3 had animation from Yasushi Muraki, Shingo Abe, Jun Arai, and Yasuyuki Kai.

The nice action in ep 1 was of course by Yutaka Nakamura and preceded by Hironori Tanaka, who also did the 'eyecatch'. The designs of the robots are fairly imaginative and certainly laboriously drawn. The action in ep 2 was actually also quite nice, and though I personally couldn't identify it, supposedly it was partly the work of Takahiro Shikama and Shingo Fujii. Yasuyuki Kai and Takahiro Shikama are also credited with 'Psybody design assistance', suggesting they worked on the mecha scene in the second half of each episode.

I was wondering what the deal was with the side-scrolling in the op, because it's a clear copy of the side-scrolling Nadja opening. Then I realized that Nadja was also directed by Takuya Igarashi, so I guess it's just something Igarashi likes doing. The interesting thing, though, is that Igarashi didn't do either openings. The opening of Nadja was done by Mamoru Hosoda and the opening of Star Driver was done by Shinichiro Watanabe. I suppose maybe Igarashi gave the instruction to do the sideways scrolling thing.

I just noticed some unusual credits in that Star Driver opening. The aforesaid Takahiro Shikama is credited with layout. Usually they don't credit layout because it's supposed to be done by the gengaman, but it's interesting to see them using this system here, presumably for the purpose of unity. Shingo Abe was the mecha AD of the op, so he's obviously one of the main mecha guys on the show. He was one of the main mecha guys on Xam'd. It's pretty amazing though how ubiquitous Hironori Tanaka has become. Here he's credited with not only animation but also with the unheard credit of "motion design", which someone already pointed out and wondered about in the forum. That'll require an interview to elucidate because they're doing something new there.

Jun Arai is one of those young animators who likes to mimic Yoshinori Kanada/Masahito Yamashita, and he did a scene in that style in ep 3 that feels completely out of place and embarrassing to watch. The scene right after was really great, though. I suppose it was by Yasushi Muraki.

I'm also enjoying Hiroyuki Imaishi's latest effort Panty & Stocking. At least it's full of energy. Every shot is packed with some interesting action or joke. It seems like a return to the silly, slapstick, all-out-crazy tone of Dead Leaves. This show feels a lot more like pure Imaishi than Guren Lagan, though I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not. I'm not too keen on the 2D styling or the content, but I'm enjoying the show nonetheless. Pure silly fun, like a cross between Powerpuff Girls, Dead Leaves and Ebichu. The sperm story in episode 3 was inspired.

I find it sad that humor in anime always has to be as broad and simple-minded as possible. The jokes in this show are funny because they're more risque and adult and something of an improvement over the usual approach to sex in anime, which irritatingly pussyfoots around the subject with bloody noses and exaggerated shyness, but it's still sex and shit jokes. I want to see humor with the sort of wry, understated wit of, say, My Dog Tulip, not the adult version of preschool potty jokes. But at least Imaishi has his own brand of humor that doesn't feel like any other anime out there. Whatever you might say about the show, the fact is that Imaishi is one of the only people in the industry besides Yuasa right now who has enough talent to be the ground-up guiding vision behind a show like this. The vast majority of people in the industry lack the vision to come up with their own comprehensive visual ethos and approach to animation the way Imaishi does. That alone makes this show vastly more watchable than anything on air right now, including the above Bones show. The skilled animation in that show feels so wasted.

I kinda sorta was able to endure the first episode of Togainu no Chi and thought I might be able to watch it, but then the second episode set me straight and I felt embarrassed for having been so forgiving, because the first episode wasn't even that good and the signs were pretty obvious that it would be a typical crap show.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

08:01:38 pm , 3026 words, 1805 views     Categories: Movie, Live-action, Foreign

VIFF 2010 thoughts part 2

Chassis (Philippines, 2010, 75 min, Adolfo Alix, Jr.)

This is another instance of the trend in recent independent Asian cinema to adopt cinema verite/documentary style and to diffuse the narrative. This film was overall disappointing, but was redeemed by offering a glimpse into a way of life that I never knew existed. Apparently there are entire families of poor in the Philippines who because they can't afford housing, but do own their own semi tractor, live by the dockyards under their trucks between shifts, struggling to make ends meet in terrible conditions, right there in the middle of all the trucks in the parking lot. It's as shocking to watch as it sounds. This film follows the travails of one such family, consisting of a mother and child and the husband, who operates the rig.

Philippines is the home of Smokey Mountain, the euphemistically titled garbage dump on the outskirts of Manila that was once one of the largest slums in Asia. After it was closed down by the government in 1995, many of the thousands of families who lived there moved to another nearby dump in Quezon called Smokey Valley, which is where Hiroshi Shinomiya shot the 2002 film God's Children, which follows the life of several of the families who live in the dump in the aftermath of a storm that caused garbage avalanches that killed hundreds of the inhabitants. Even in a nightmare you couldn't conjure up the sort of images that these people experience on a daily basis. Even today some 50% of the 11 million inhabitants of Manila inhabit the slum areas.

Chassis thus continues in the tradition of God's Children by casting light on the vast poor population of the Philippines. The film does not provide much background material, leaving you wondering, is this based on fact, how many people in the Philippines live like this, where, etc. It's furthermore shot in a very low-budget way. Many of the scenes are shot at night and it is actually hard to see anything. The pacing is languid to the point of being tedious sometimes. The story is rudimentary, following the wife around as she does her best to make life for her daughter bearable, which includes prostituting herself to the corrupt lot guardsmen. In the shadow of all the horror, she spends much of the film creating an angel costume for her child, so that the little girl can participate in the school play she's so excited about. This leads to a tragic conclusion that in retrospect you can see coming from a mile away. The climax in particular is blunt and gory and sudden, the ending abrupt and dissatisfying. Too little thought obviously went into the planning of the film. The situation is inherently tragic enough, I felt, that facile manipulation of this kind was not necessary to achieve its impact. But it's true that the conclusion packs a certain painful irony, because the very livelihood that keeps the family alive winds up tearing it apart.

That said, whatever flaws the film may have, as unpolished and imperfect as it may be, it's impossible to dismiss it outright. Its documentary gaze on the life of these people is compelling and obviously truthful. The narrative is appealingly subservient to documentation of life. In other words, the film isn't story-driven as much as a story tells itself by following the day-to-day life of this family. Although fiction, it's clear that the fragments of which the fiction is built are true. The woman may be a character, but you can easily imagine the faceless many she represents. It just takes a viewing of Hiroshi Shinomiya's film to show you that there are many, many more, living in far more desperate conditions than you could have imaged. The woman in this film has it easy in comparison, and her life is tragic and heartbreaking enough as it is.

The Drunkard (Hong Kong, 2010, 106 min, Freddie Wong)

Imagine the sleek, neon visuals and dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere of 2046, but set in real-life Hong Kong in the 1960s, and you will get a sense of Freddie Wong's debut feature. We follow the life of a dissolute writer in his 50s, whose drunkenness is an outwards manifestation of a deep dread and disillusionment with the Hong Kong of his day. Once a writer of high-minded literature, he abandons his aspirations and his colleagues to write porn and kung-fu serials, but this isn't enough to staunch the emotional hemorrhaging.

Freddie Wong is no greenhorn film student. He's one of Hong Kong's leading movie figures, in his 40s or 50s (haven't been able to find his age), curator of the HK International Film Festival, and I believe also a writer or scriptwriter, I don't remember clearly. He was there to answer questions after the screening, and came across as endearingly enthusiastic and eager about the whole enterprise. The film was clearly a labor of love for him, and it shows. The film is based on one of Hong Kong's most well-known and loved works of literature from mid-century. After the screening, Freddie Wong explained that the book's fame came party from its erudition and its modernity, as well as its sharp and on-the-mark intellectual discussions of literature foreign and domestic that, even read today, come across as prescient and informed. He was forced to excise much of this for obvious reasons, altering the impression of the book. In the book, much more space was devoted to showing the protagonist's erudition and knowledge of literature. Most of this was cut, which alters our impression considerably. I personally found that the film worked at what it was trying to do. As literary adaptations go, it seems pretty passable to me. I'm curious to know what readers of the original book think of the film. (obviously "the book was better", right?)

The film does a good job of conveying the atmosphere of the book without drowning the audience in excessive narration. That is one of the pitfalls of literary adaptation. Too often films fall into the trap of narrating the book instead of translating the words into visuals. Freddie Wong did a great job of achieving a middle ground. I didn't know the movie was a literary adaptation while I was watching it, and it didn't feel like it was.

The movie's protagonist is actually a pretty unsavory and unappealing character, selfish, narcissistic, his relationships with women always seeming to find a way of ending badly, and you wonder what it is that drives him to drink and to act like such a prick, but you never hate him, which I guess is an accomplishment. You even feel like you understand, somehow, which I think is more testament to the power of cinema than anything. Somehow the magic of cinema transforms the most heinous monsters into rock stars by the magic of celluloid.

The visuals are sleek and extremely accomplished, the pacing excellent and never boring. In the Mood for Love fanboys (like me) will enjoy the film's amazing array of China-doll 'cheongsam' body-fitting dresses on display on the sultry beauties. Every scene features a new one, and the scenes are shot with unflagging style and verve. Low-budget indie feature this was not, as apparently it was the most expensive indie feature ever shot in Hong Kong. I'm guessing it's all those dresses that blew the budget, but man was it worth it! Almost all of the film was shot indoors for budget reasons, so it's pretty remarkable how much of a good job they do of bringing alive the atmosphere of 60s Hong Kong entirely through the acting, dresses, interiors, and the little details of the paraphernalia of everyday life. This film is like a velvet bathrobe, a Habano and a bottle of Courvoisier XO.

Certified Copy (France/Italy/Belgium, 2010, 106 min, Abbas Kiarostami)

One of my favorite films from the festival, unsurprisingly, was this conceptually satisfying, ingenious, mischievous puzzle of a film. Kiarostami is a bit unpredictable a director. After directing ABC Africa, a digital documentary about the AIDS crisis in Uganda, he directs Five, a film consisting of five long shots of natural scenery, then later on he directs Shirin, a film consisting entirely of close-ups of people's faces as they're watching a film. And now he throws us the ultimate curve-ball of this highly enjoyable and approachable arthouse-flick-cum-rom-com starring French darling Juliette Binoche.

Certified Copy is just as conceptually rigorous and intellectually playful a film as everything he's done before, such as Taste of Cherry, shot almost entirely from the passenger and driver seat of a car. But in this case the healthy stuff is hidden in a huge mound of whipped cream consisting of Juliette Binoche and the beautiful Italian countryside. Extras come and go, but the bulk of the film consists of dialogue between the two characters. The dialogue is almost non-stop, making this very much of a script-driven film. Kiarostami, as usual, makes up for this by having them constantly moving from one location to another, so it's not like My Dinner With Andre, which occurs entirely in one location, but rather is quite colorful and with a lot of interesting props and locations for the characters to interact with and to enrich the narrative with meaning. Not to mention making it quite easy to watch.

It's unfortunate that it would ruin the impact of the film to give away its driving conceit, and I liked the film too much to ruin it by describing it in detail, as much as I would like to. This is one of those films where the locus of interest is in the ingenious mechanism operated by the director, who performs an amazing feat of dramaturgical wizardry by playing with the concept of character, gradually transforming what at first appears to be a linear narrative but which, much to your bafflement and amazement as you become aware of the trick being foisted upon you by and by, has gradually shifted into something very different. This ingenious process of meta-shifting of character timelines makes for one of the most creative examinations of the evolution of relationships that I've ever seen put to film - from first meeting through the comfortable middle years through in the end to the years of disillusionment and ultimately parting.

The film did admittedly have its languors, and I'm sure many will not be able to enjoy such a slow and constantly talky film. It is, in a way, more of an intellectual exercise than pure entertainment. I personally think it achieves a pretty nice balance between the two. (In a side-note, the male actor is the spitting image of Homayoun Ershadi. I wonder if Kiarostami chose him because of the resemblance?? But this is too insulting to the actor, who though not up to Binoche's standards does IMO a pretty decent job.)

Poetry (South Korea, 2010, 139 min, Lee Changdong)

This film was a sensitive character study of great depth, like Lee Changdong's previous film Secret Sunshine, but Lee Changdong has upped the ante in a satisfying way in his latest film - not by ratcheting up the drama, but by going deeper and more subtle and ambiguous. The result is a film with a very potent aftertaste, made all the stronger by the ambiguity of the 'point' of the film. Some of his past films might be accused of being message films, although deep down I think that is missing the point. This film, it seems to me, makes it clear that the real running thread throughout his films is the examination of the inner world of different kinds of outsiders, how they are marginalized and exploited by society, and how they fight back to make a place for themselves in a harsh world that doesn't accept them.

This is the story of a somewhat out-of-touch, dreamy grandmother whose loopy, childlike wonder at the world around her may or may not be early signs of onset of Alzheimer's. Not sure what to do with her life, she seems to drift aimlessly through life without purpose. On a whim, one day, she joins a poetry class, and gives herself a goal, as if to attempt to accomplish one little thing in her life: write a poem. She lives with her grandson, whose mother fled to another city on some pretext to shirk her responsibilities. The grandmother is underequipped mentally and emotionally to sense the turbulence in her teenage grandson's life and guide him with stern love when he most needs it, instead spoiling him with blind love, which only incurs the son's contempt. As a result, her grandson is a spoiled brat who without adult guidance is obviously growing into an adult who will also follow his own selfish instincts to slink away from responsibility. The inner conflict of this film plays these various forms of cowardice against one another - the grandmother who slinks from confrontation and wants to float through a poetic fantasy version of the real world, the unseen mother who slinks from her motherly duties, and the son whom society has failed and consequently has failed to develop an adequate sense of right and wrong.

Coming from a guy who at one point in the past was the Minister of Culture of his country, I'm somewhat surprised and impressed by the acerbic, righteous anger you sense in his films to be directed at his culture's inherent greed, selfishness, and lack of compassion for others. He shines an inner light in his films not only at the rich inner world of his spat-upon and derided protagonists but at he inner rot of modern life.

Where this and Lee's previous films could be faulted is in the somewhat forced aspect of their narrative, in the obvious thematic conceit, and the moral intent. Some might find his films to be excessively script-driven, lengthy, and verging on monotonous. I could see that criticism being leveled against this film. It will depend on the viewer on which side it falls - whether the merits of the character study outweigh the cinematic limitations. I'm in the camp that feels the film succeeds more than it fails. Lee Changdong is to my mind one of the most authoritative and important voices working in cinema today.

Seven Days in Heaven (Taiwan, 2010, 92 min, Wang Yu-lin, Essay Liu)

The funnest movie about at Taiwanese funeral rites you'll see this year (or ever), this wryly comical film gives an in-depth glimpse into this world that we over in the west will almost certainly never see, doing for Taiwanese rites what Juzo Itami's The Funeral did for Japanese rites. At the same time, it's an examination of how we grieve, and how the sometimes ludicrously excessive religious rituals that are an inextricable part of the fabric of Eastern cultures such as Taiwan - recreated in this film in great detail and with considerable irony - help us grieve and overcome. They provide something solid and tangible in our most difficult moment: the bulwark of a long tradition and ornate mythology.

Ostensibly a drama, the film comes across as a quasi-documentary. It takes place entirely during the week-long grieving period before the loved one can actually be buried, and depicts the astounding variety of rituals that take place during that time, many quite ludicrous and arbitrary. In one of the funniest scenes, the daughter was obliged to be on call all day at the foot of her father's coffin. At certain appointed times determined by the priest in charge, she was instructed to rush to the side of her father's coffin and burst out crying and calling for her father. This happened well over a dozen times. By the end of the day, exhausted from the strain of pretending to cry, she's peacefully dozing off at the foot of the coffin when a shout from the priest spurs her into one last groggy bawl.

During the rituals, the deceased's daughter seems forced to live in a strange headspace somewhere between earnest grief and mock grief-acting. You can sense that as much good as it's doing it also must also play havoc with your emotions. You begin to wonder what is real grieving and what is forced out of you. Only at the end of the film, after the rituals have come to a close, do we see a scene in which the daughter seems to be crying real tears, as if, having finished her duties, all the genuine grief that didn't have a chance to come out during the ritual finally bubbled to the surface.

The film is also full of fascinating characters. The young cousin, a hip and connected kid from the big city, seems in it mainly for the fun of it rather than because he actually is emotionally affected by the death of an uncle he hardly knew. He sees the whole thing as a fascinating subject for a school project, and during his stay forges a close bond with the priest, a distant uncle. The latter is himself a fascinating and fun character - part-time priest, full-time chain-smoker and playboy.

The priest's wife is also employed in the same business. One of her duties is professional cryer. She's the star of the first day of the ritual. She knows how to put on a show. She hams it up to give the family their money's worth, crawling on her hands and knees, wailing in agony behind the funerary car carrying the father's body. When it's over she gets up and asks, "Who do I cry for next?" Because, you see, to be more efficient they have a whole bunch of them all booked on the same day one after another.

One of the obvious societal purposes of these rituals, and probably the only reason they still exist today, is that they serve the very real role of bringing family together and reinforcing social ties among those left behind. The death of the head of the household shakes the bonds that tie the family together, and their experience over the seven days of 'grieving' for him brings everyone closer together. We see this clearly happening in this entertaining and insightful film.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

02:58:47 pm , 1231 words, 1777 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Foreign

The Illusionist

I liked Sylvain Chomet's second film better than his first. I was surprised to find how similar they were in terms of the stylization of the characters and the basic approach to pacing and humor and so on. It felt very much an extension of the world of Les Triplettes de Belleville. Jacques Tati's mostly wordless screenplay seems a match made in heaven with Sylvain Chomet's sensibility. I'd even say that in a way this Tati film left more of an impression on me than any of the maestro's films directed by himself. I appreciated his ingenious style of physical comedy based on interaction with physical locations, but his films never connected with my heart. They were amusing and odd and quirky, but didn't really have dramatic weight. The Illusionist works great as a Tati film and has considerable emotional heft, while animation serves as the perfect tool in a wordless film to develop unique characters through different styles of character movement. He did the old master justice and then some by the rather ingenious idea of adapting a Tati script not as live-action but as animation.

The animation was very impressive. The character animation and layout style reminded of Disney films from the 50s and 60s. I imagine this is what could have been if Disney had had any taste whatsoever and wasn't just a factory of kitsch. I've always felt the animation to be wasted in their films on tasteless lowbrow humor and lame-brained stories. Here we see stately and refined but rich character animation serving an understated narrative full of heart, subtle wit and charm, without relying on famous voice-actors, eye-catching action scenes, musical sequences, dialogue crammed into every second so that audiences won't fall asleep, or pop culture references.

The animation used a character-based system just like Disney, so the resemblance makes sense. The animation of the rabbit was led by one person, the Tati character by two people, etc. Tati's animation was pretty impressive. They did a good job of conveying his prim character entirely through body language, by studying the actual Tati's unique brand of silent film-style body movement and transforming it into an even more emphatic animated equivalent. They nailed his character, with his long legs, comically rigid posture and somewhat distant and aloof but gentle expression. The rabbit was also great, and an audience favorite.

The illusionist character in this film is appealing and richly layered, a gentle soul floating through life simply trying to do his job in a modern, scientific world in which good old-fashioned magic just doesn't pack in the music halls the way it used to. In the cynical era of consumer culture, the only use for magic is as a cheap trick to sell stockings and bras to housewives. Yet he never seems bitter or hardened by his lot, always being good to the people he meets in his old-fashioned gentlemanly kind of way. When it comes time he can be firm about what's acceptable in his life and what's not, without being rude or mean, just to the point and matter-of-fact. He seems a bit out of touch, like a gentleman from a century or so ago frozen in time and thawed out in the modern world.

When the the Swedish girl tagging along with him sets her eyes on a pair of red shoes, despite being short on cash, he can't resist buying them for her to make her happy. Then she eyes a fancy white coat, and he beats a hasty retreat. But sure enough, like a good father, the thought of making her happy overcomes all common sense, and he soon surprises her with the coat. It's pleasing to watch the interaction between this odd couple. You're never quite sure what one thinks of the other or why they're together, but they seem happy with each other, at least for the moment. They're both travelers who've found a companion until they inevitably have to part ways. The ending is bittersweet and genuinely affecting because there's no big parting scene or crying or anything like that. You sense them drifting apart and it's sad because you know it has to be that way. The characters in the film accrue layers of nuance throughout the course of the film through their actions and interactions, and even seem to develop and grow up and older.

I like the loose dramatic structure of the film, which seems to just follow the illusionist around as he goes from one job to another. It focuses your attention on the personalities of the characters rather than on the particulars of the narrative.

I didn't recognize many names in the credits, but I did spot Antoine Antin, who did my favorite scene in the Wakfu: Nox short, the scene at the beginning on the beach. Some of his linetests.

This is my favorite kind of narrative in many ways: A story with no dramatic ploys. No sudden revelation, dramatic confrontation or fabricated crisis for the purpose of filling in the blanks on a template of filmmaking that really doesn't make sense but that nobody bothers to re-consider. While I might not completely understand what it was that Tati was trying to do with his films, which seem aimless to me at times, I appreciate the way they flow without going through the standard dramatic paces. Of course, you can trace a certain development between the characters, and the story comes to a climax of sorts where the girl meets the boy exactly where you'd expect it to, but that's fine. It felt like a slice of life and natural development, rather than a forced dramatic ploy. For example I appreciated that there was no big climax in this film. The climactic car chase in Les Triplettes de Belleville was so bad and so unnecessary it almost ruined the film for me.

The film does have dialogue, but only a small amount, and none of it is functional. I don't know whether this was in Tati's original screenplay, but the situation is such that language cannot be used to convey meaning, providing the perfect pretext for Tati's preferred style of storytelling in which dialogue does not play a role. Tati himself speaks French, but he's travelling in the UK and Scotland, where they only speak English, and he encounters a girl who appears to only speak Swedish. So nobody speaks each other's language. There's no need for dialogue, so everything that needs to be communicated is communicated through gestures and a few words.

Sylvain Chomet seems to like travel films, and I can understand why. They provide him with room to flex his caricatural muscles and cast an ironic light on the foibles of various cultures. He's good at distilling the essence of a people's features and personalities and comically exaggerating them. It's very impressive how each of the many characters that appear on the screen are stylized in a completely unique way and have their own unique mode of movement. The same could be said of his previous film. I was particularly fond of the floppy maitre d' in Bellevile. Anime could really use to learn from this - one film can come up with so many designs, when year after year in anime, series after series are designed with such an astoundingly paltry amount of creativity put into the design work.

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