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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Thursday, June 24, 2010

11:37:08 am , 777 words, 1843 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #4

I'm writing this from the middle of a park where I'd come out to hike six years ago when I first started writing this blog. Ah, nostalgia. I was writing about Mind Game back then, now it's Yuasa's third TV series. Six years changes people a lot. I wonder how many of my readers back at the beginning are still reading, or even watching anime...

With episode 4 it's back to the style of episode 2 - a tight, hermetically crafted overload of the senses. It's Akitoshi Yokoyama at the helm again, which was immediately apparent. He's all sharp turns and rapid-fire creative embellishment. He's one of those directors who's been directing for a good while now, so he has a good grasp of the mechanics of the job, and doing it the easy way would be too boring, so he tries to come up with more challenging and exciting tricks with the directing every time, creating these masterfully edited torrents of crazy images interpreting the story rather than just telling them in a straightforward way using lengthy shots of staged character acting.

I think it's quite brilliant, judged purely from a directing point of view. But on the other hand, it was really bewildering and kind of hard to follow. It feels like a visual analogue of the superfast narration. He creates a barrage of wild images that mirror the fevered rantings of the protagonist, rather than just showing what's going on in the boring old real world. But yeah, really hard to follow. Every shot is highly calculated and precisely timed to create just the right flow. It's a virtuoso display to be sure. It forces you to give up trying to make sense of it all - you've got to relinquish control and be carried along with the flow, sensing what you can. Our brains will piece it together as best they can. It's remarkable how creative he is at coming up with so many and so varied an array of images interpreting the narrative. The vertical line of ancestors above the characters symbolizing the ancestors at the end of the episode in particular was an incredible idea and well executed.

Each episode so far seems to have focused on one of the sub-characters, presenting an alternate potential path through university for the protagonist in which that character plays the lead role in dragging the protagonist down the primrose path. This time the protagonist joins not a tennis club (Ozu) or film club (Jogasaki) or a biking club (Akashi) but a cult club. Mysterious big-chin man Higuchi is the cult leader, and "I"'s duties are to protect and worship the master. The gallery of other sub-characters play supporting roles, dropping hints of their previous roles and behaving in the new situation in a manner consistent with their personalities. Memories of the past episodes seem to float up like fragments of a dream remembered or deja vu.

I was a little confused watching this episode, but I was completely impressed. I'm still not too convinced about the series' gimmick, but I find that I'm enjoying the show more now that I'm getting used to the characters and the narrative style. Now the show feels like a (temporally) cubist vision of the many possible iterations of oneself that might have intersected with all the other possible iterations of one's acquaintances in university. It explores personality not linearly but by running the same characters though different situations and seeing how they react. Though it's not so simple, since in a Pirandellian or otherwise pomo twist the characters seem aware of their situation to an extent.

Character designer and chief animation director Nobutake Ito is in charge of the drawings here. He actually played a supervisory role in episodes 2 and 3, so he has been there making sure the drawings were right the whole time. He's joined by Takayuki Hamada and Hironori Tanaka, who lead the animators. Shimizu Natsuko and Shoko Nishigaki from ep 1 are back. The other animators I've never heard of, but it's still a very strong team, and the results are not an iota diminished from what came before. I think I recognized Tanaka's hand in some of the smoke FX near the end. Kemonozume and even Kaiba had stylistic variation, and the directing tone changed a lot, but so far this series has been pretty smooth in terms of the tone of the directing and the storytelling style.

Storyboard & director: Akitoshi Yokoyama

Animation director: Nobutake Ito

Co-animation directors: Takayuki Hamada, Hironori Tanaka

Takayuki Hamada, Hironori Tanaka
Natsuko Shimizu, Shoko Nishigaki
Satomi Higuchi, Mai Tsutsumi
Kenichi Fujisawa, Fuminori Tsukita
Ippei Ichii, Kana Harufuji
Masahiro Iwasaki

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

12:43:40 am , 764 words, 2102 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #3

This was a sweet episode. Sweet in both senses - kick-ass and tender. The sharp directing of Akitoshi Yokoyama's episode 2 was replaced with something a little smoother and less frenetic, but as always, the episode was packed to the brim with constantly shifting scenes and perspectives and richly realized animation.

This time we rewound to a world in which the protagonist joined a biking club on his peril-fraught journey through the first year at university. The mere idea of doing an episode about biking in a TV show is preposterous. Even if it were done in another show by another studio, it's easy to envision all the gliding stills we'd be privy to. I was astounded how much this episode moved. Every bike scene was moving constantly, and the motion was true to the actual movement of a biker on a bike, on all sorts of different slopes, from all sorts of crazy angles and camera positions. That is quite amazing. Nobody else would have refused to compromise to this extent. I imagine they approached this episode as a kind of self-challenge to see how much actual biking animation they could pack in. Who the hell could have been responsible for so much work, I wondered?

Ryotaro Makihara, that's who - the amazing ex-Shinei animator who did so much great work on Kaiba (to say nothing of elsewhere). So there we have it. In the first three episodes, my two favorite new faces from Kaiba both responsible for an episode each - Akitoshi Yokoyama and now Ryotaro Makihara. I could not think of a better example proving the importance of careful staff selection. Though it was a no-brainer, I'm delighted to see that Yuasa indeed saw how massively talented they were, and made sure to get them involved in his new show big time.

To be specific, Makihara storyboarded, directed, was animation director (with Naoyuki Asano) and tops the list of animators. Obviously a labor of love. Or rather, here is a guy oozing talent who hasn't really had an opportunity to put that talent to good use, who when finally given that chance, puts his all into work about which he can justly feel conviction. That's what it felt like to me. There is real love in the work here. Ryotaro Makihara and Akitoshi Yokoyama are special because, in addition to doing technically exceptional work, you can feel the love in both of their work.

Aside from the obviously very high quality of the animation, it was very well directed. Makihara actually directed his first episode last year for a silly Sato Junichi mermaid shoujo anime, which I was kind of disappointed to see, because despite his and many talented animators' presence, the episode was insufferable to anyone above the age of 13 thanks to the material.

With this episode, Makihara finally has the chance to try his hand at directing material that is intelligent and interesting, and I think he did an impressive job. The episode has a more cinematic feeling than the previous episodes, you might say, with characters actually acting out scenes rather than just going through a series of montages, true to his origins at Shin-Ei.

The animation wasn't the star-studded affair of last episode, but it's clear that Makihara was there supporting the animation throughout. The climax in particular with the glider was moving quite vividly, so I assume he must have been the animator responsible. I'm sure his hand is a little bit everywhere in this episode.

So the question at this point boils down to: Are you digging the repetitive structure? Are you able to enjoy it, or if not, see past it to enjoy the technical mastery on display? I'm finally starting to enjoy the series' unique structure, though I think it's also one of its main liabilities. I don't want to shortchange the sophistication of what is being done through this somewhat obvious pattern; embedded in each seemingly unchanging reiteration of the situation are subtle developments in the characters' personalities. They do a pretty impressive job of filling out all the little details in which each iteration differs. The characters aren't just ciphers; they feel pretty well fleshed out in a lot of ways. It's just that most people want to see a linear narrative being told, with characters developing with each episode, and this series is far too sophisticated for anything so pat and easy.

Main staff for this episode:

Storyboard / Director / Animation Director (w/Naoyuki Asano): Ryotaro Makihara
Ryotaro Makihara, Naoyuki Asano
Kenichi Shima, Shingo Okano
Takeo Oda, Sawako Miyamoto
Ryo Nishikawa

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

05:04:00 pm , 1620 words, 2772 views     Categories: Animation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 14, 2010

07:35:02 pm , 857 words, 2367 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #2

Back from the dead I am and I've just watched the second episode of Tatami Galaxy, my first anime in a good month. How ludicrous to be blogging episode 2 when episode 8 is already out, you say. Episode 2 is ancient news now! Even yesterday's tweets about the latest episode are already old news. Nothing is fast enough anymore. I want the latest updates YESTERDAY, damn it, that way I can be the first kid on the block with the new dose of info crack. Welcome to the slow boat called Anipages.

Anyway, damn fine stuff, this, at least technically. There is some massively tight and accomplished directing on display here, to say nothing of quality animation, cool design work, great colors, and nice music. Even if you can't get into the story or the characters or even the style of the narrative, which I can't, there's too much good stuff here not to give it at least a one-over. I'm just disappointed that so much good work is going into material that inherently will never attract anyone but existing anime fans.

So, no. I'm still not feeling the show after the second episode. But for the quality of the production I will keep watching, and because I don't want to abandon a Masaaki Yuasa show. Yuasa never does a hack job, and this is very high proof Yuasa. The work here is just as sophisticated and accomplished as anything he's done before. It's probably the most dense and complex narrative he's ever done. At every moment throughout each episode we are regaled with some form of relevant detail regarding the characters and their thoughts and actions in the form of a playful and creative animated embellishment. Things are constantly shifting and fast-forwarding and rewinding and jumping around. It's quite an exhausting ride - one that I don't think would appeal to any casual viewer who might happen across this show. Kaiba had far more audience appeal. The problem for me isn't that it isn't audience-friendly, but that I think it might be trying too hard. I miss the down-to-earth human warmth of his previous work.

If anybody cares about the staff who were behind this quality work, I'll be giving a run-down of the main folks for each episode, as usual.

Storyboarder and director: Akitoshi Yokoyama. Look up my posts on Kaiba to read up on all the great work he did on that show. (Specifically, he was involved in episodes 2, 3, 7 and 9.)

Animation director: Shoko Nishigaki. This appears to be her debut as animation director of a TV episode. I remember her from Kaiba, where she worked as a key animator. I don't keep up with who has done what that much anymore, but a cursory search suggests that she's a young animator who started out in the last few years.

Animators: This episode was a dream team on the animation front. I felt that the animation was really stellar while I was watching the episode, but I didn't suspect it to have been this good a lineup. There were only three key animators: Norio Matsumoto, Hirokinori Tanaka and Shingo Yamashita. (though there were some 'second key animators') Norio Matsumoto is of course the great maestro from whom it seems much of the young generation to emerge in the last five years has learned. Hirokinori Tanaka is a wildly prolific animator who in the last two years has revealed an incredible talent for creating exciting movement on a very short schedule, having done work on innumerable episodes (probably over 100), to say nothing of movies, much of it quite exciting as animation. Shingo Yamashita is another precocious upstart who has rapidly developed his own voice. He's one of the many new animators who came into the industry from the gif animator community. He notably did a lot of good work on the second Birdy TV show.

There were a lot of great bits. I loved the part at the beginning with the guys holding the strings and the part with the protagonist changing clothes. I think these were by Norio Matsumoto. Later on the blob fx from the paper balls was nice.

I don't have much to say about this content this time. I can't relate to the behavior or thought patterns of these characters, which is the main impediment for me to enjoying this show. I'm left to watch their crazy antics and enjoy the craftsmanship. The directing is very impressive. Structurally this was a tight, flawlessly constructed episode, as Yokoyama's episodes always are.

As for what happened in the episode... Here I was expecting to begin to see a linear narrative begin to unfold and characters begin to be fleshed out, but it seems we are dealing with a more meta affair. The events of the first episode have been revisioned in a different situation, and the protagonist throws hints of having a recollection of the previous version, like we're seeing a dream interpretation of the previous day's experiences. A lot of other meta stuff going on, with names like Godard being dropped and the protagonists creating a meta narrative about their rival director's Hollywood-inspired historical epic.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

07:56:00 pm , 2199 words, 7786 views     Categories: Animation, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei

Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei #1

Before I begin with my impressions, head over to YouTube and view the first episode for yourself - here - if you haven't already. Funimation uploaded it officially with good subs, and based on the number of views, the show might get a video release. So try to spread the word. This is the first time a Masaaki Yuasa TV series has gotten this kind of official treatment in the west AFAIK, to say nothing of a free web release right off the bat like this. (One gripe: The title is hard to translate, but I don't see the logic behind the translation they've used for the title, Tatami Galaxy. Taikei does not mean galaxy.)

Masaaki Yuasa returns with his third TV series at Madhouse. As before, he's again taken a sharp left turn from everything he's done before. How he can do so many left turns without retreading the same ground is a mystery. First there was Kemonozume, with its realistic but edgy designs and loose and scratchy animation, bizarre atmosphere of lighthearted horror, collage art aesthetic and patchwork narrative. Then there was Kaiba, so polished and unified in comparison, an epic retro-styled sci-fi fantasy with simple, clean, cute designs hearkening back to the early days of animation. Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei is set in modern-day Japan like Mind Game and Kemonozume, but it looks and feels different from everything else that came before.

Nobutake Ito is again the character designer, but the designs are based off of someone else's designs, in this case an illustrator named Yusuke Nakamura, and they're a strange mix of interesting shapes and conventional feeling anime characters. For the first time, the material isn't Yuasa's. He's adapting a novel. For the first time it feels like work by Yuasa the professional rather than Yuasa the auteur, although he's certainly put his stamp on the material.

Because of these things, I was a little puzzled and disappointed by the first episode. It's the first time I felt things were a little forced, that he was really having to struggle to make it work, that I wasn't completely 100% convinced and irresistibly drawn in by the leader into his TV series. There's a lot of extremely creative and skilled work in the episode, but it feels strange seeing something that doesn't feel Yuasa to the core. He made Mind Game his through his adaptation, but here you can sense how much of a challenge it was for him to adapt this material into animation. The material just isn't inherently interesting enough or suited to animation, and he has to do so much to make it worth adapting into animation. You've got to salute him for making a valiant effort.

I think this show is telling of the times the industry is in. You know it's bad when even Masaaki Yuasa can't get to produce his own material, but has to adapt material with tie-in value. Even the designs are from outside of the usual circle. According to an interview, the material came second. It's not like this project was being shopped around and Yuasa got the job. Yuasa was going to do a show, but they just didn't know what. There was a long period when they were trying to figure out what to do next as a project, and eventually they came across this book and decided on it, presumably because it was deemed bankable.

I haven't read the novel, but Yuasa has gone to considerable lengths to be faithful to it, which is testament to his professionalism. When I watched the first episode, I felt the nonstop stream of ultrafast narration to be extremely distracting and detrimental to the episode. I thought it would have worked better without any of it. It wasn't necessary. But in retrospect, I suspect that's kind of the point. You're not really meant to catch it all. Yuasa says he did this to capture the way the novel is full of the constant stream of thoughts passing through the protagonist's head. I don't think he achieved his goal, unfortunately. It would be fine to do that, but I felt that you'd have to make it sound like he was really talking to himself, with a bit of variance of the intonation and speed or a little hesitation sometimes, something to indicate that this is a human and not a robot spouting a diarrhetic stream of incomprehensible verbiage. I think people are getting confused and think they're supposed to try to catch it all for the story to make sense, when that is obviously not what he intended. The problem is compounded when the audience doesn't understand Japanese and has to rely on subtitles, which impart more value to each line than it really has. When you're just listening to it, it feels a little more clear that you're not really supposed to catch everything, you're just supposed to bathe in this guy's constant array of crazy thoughts. So, basically, it was a challenge to figure out how to do justice to that aspect of the material, and this was an interesting attempt at doing so, though I'm not sure it works completely.

The material itself so far really isn't inherently interesting or different from anything we've seen before, although it lays a tantalizing groundwork and makes you curious to see where it will go. What does stand out and make the episode a pleasure to watch despite all my gripes is the usual brilliance of Yuasa's directing and expert manipulation of the animation and visuals generally. The animation is very lively and there are lots of different approaches on display in different scenes, the colors are dazzling and varied, the art is an excellent stylized rendering of real locations in Kyoto, where the story is set, and the characters are animated in a variety of ways, with a lot of the usual surprising approaches to character animation that Yuasa and chief animation director Nobutake Ito can always be relied upon to devise. He really puts the animation to work throughout in a lot of different ways, interpreting many of the things spoken about a character's past or something that happened with little flights of illustrative animation that spice up the visuals and enrich the narrative flow.

That aspect reminds me of Mind Game - there is a lot of visual information thrown at you, but it isn't gratuitous or there just for stylistic grandstanding, or just to fill in for lack of ideas and to fill up the episode. It doesn't feel in your face or ironic or blase or in-jokey. It's there to do what animation is supposed to do - narrate visually. The various flights of animated fancy are there to visually expound on what's happening in a boundless variety of entertaining ways.

The animation was done by a small team of five key animators - Takayuki Hamada, Shingo Suzuki, Kenichi Yamaguchi, Yasunori Miyazawa, and Natsuko Shimizu. Yasunori Miyazawa needs no introduction, and his scenes are easily identifiable. Takayuki Hamada and Kenichi Yamaguchi were regulars in Kaiba. Natsuko Shimizu I didn't recognize, but I see now that she was also in almost every episode of Kaiba, according to my post on ep 7. I've been a fan of Shingo Natsume ever since seeing his work in Welcome to the NHK, so it's good to finally see him appear in a Yuasa show. There were a lot of great shots - pretty much the whole thing is a delight in terms of the animation - but the fireworks scene stood out in particular.

As usual, Yuasa combines live-action footage, but it's less predominant here. It's quite expertly inserted and doesn't even feel heterogeneous anymore. For example the transition from the first-person POV of the protagonist walking up the stairs in processed live-action to the same in animation of him knocking on the door felt quite seamless and pleasant. It does help to give the feeling that you're in the modern-day city of Kyoto, especially considering Yuasa stayed there for a month for location hunting. The city of Kyoto is one of the protagonists of this show, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it features in the coming episodes. I also liked the first-person POV at the end where the protagonist is walking determinedly across the bridge. One nice thing about this episode is that you feel a sense of dramatic development. It isn't all just static meta playfulness there to sell characters. There is a clear story that is unfolding, and you get into the head of the protagonist. Yuasa is by now a master at doing human drama that is always developing and is engaging to follow, so it's more than just a visual explosion.

The character animation is far less detailed than in Kaiba, the emphasis being more on variety of interesting shots and the visual impact of the art. Here everything seems baroquely detailed and erratic compared with the simple, clean colors and shapes of Kaiba. But there were still a lot of interesting little things done in every shot with the characters, for example the way the girl's body bulges with that little squishy sound effect when she swallows the meat. And the layouts, that element that is the groundwork for all animation, are typically superb and varied, with the sort of realistic but distorted perspective that Yuasa is so good at. The shot at the top is exemplary of the unique layouts in this and all of Yuasa's work. Every inch of that screen is interesting.

I actually didn't understand the story that well on the first viewing. I didn't get that they were trying to break up all those budding loves to exact their own brand of petty revenge on the world for their girlfriendless existence. The dialogue explaining it all passes by so quickly. But the sequence after the fireworks scene showing the various ways the two mischief-makers go about nipping the proverbial red thread in the bud is exhilarating. The variety of visual schemes they come up with to illustrate this section is exemplary of what a tremendous job they've done of using the animation to communicate the material. The narration is garrulous, but it's not like they're just letting the narration do everything for them. I don't think even Mind Game was this densely packed with a variety of unpredictable animated ideas from one second to the next. The animation certainly accurately reflects the material in that sense. It's a daring and dangerous experiment - deliberately overload the senses of your audience.

This accounts for the problem people are complaining about. I thought people were exaggerating when they said they had difficulty choosing whether to read the subs or look at the show because it moved so fast, but it's true. It kind of works if you understand Japanese and can focus on the images and let the dialogue wash over you and get a vague sense of what's being said, but relying on subs sabotages the effect.

One of the things in this show is the weird mix of archaic and modern. The narrator speaks like a literati from the Taisho period, but it's set in modern-day Kyoto, the old capital of Heian era Japan, and the designs harken back to Taisho or early Showa. I personally don't find the script funny or the characters interesting, although how they are brought alive by the animation and directing certainly is. It's the first time I've felt Yuasa was having to create characters with a tinge of the stereotypical. The characters in Kaiba and Kemonozume were each so individualistic and real and believable. The script here has the kind of unremittingly asinine meta humor that turns me off to light novel based material, noting moreso than the pretentious oldspeak.

Though I'm of mixed feelings about the first episode, it did a bang-up job of one thing, and that's getting me curious to see where the heck it's going - I have no idea after the first episode. I'm even more curious after seeing the sort of typically loopy and creative image sketches Yuasa did for the show. How those square with this material I'm very curious to see. Man, how much happier I would be if the whole show looked and felt like those drawings. (though that's not to denigrate the awesome work done by the background artists and Nobutake Ito and his animators)

On the voice-actor side, it's nice to see the voice actor of Kemonozume's Kazuma, Hiroyuki Yoshino, back playing Ozu. He's one of the few seiyuu whose work I actively enjoy. Oh, and the way they styled the first character in the title is really clever. The title means a traditional room made of "four and a half tatami mats", so they geometrically fashioned the Chinese character for "four", 四, to look like such a room. I also enjoyed the sensation of traveling through an endless sequence of tatami rooms in the opening, which Yuasa himself directed.

For good or ill, one thing is for sure, watching this episode is an overwhelming and intense experience. It's an odd beast. I fear it to be excessively eccentric to pull in channel surfers, but insufficiently stereotypical for the anime flock.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

01:13:00 pm , 2411 words, 8653 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview, Indie

Keita Kurosaka's Midori-ko this year?

There's an enigmatic figure in Japanese independent animation. One who's always lurking there in the background, ready to pounce, or so it seems. It's Keita Kurosaka. Since the beginning of time, if time is measured according to when I started writing this blog, I've been wondering about the full-length feature that Kurosaka has been reported to be working on entitled Midori-ko. I mentioned it in the blog five years ago. I apparently thought its release was imminent back then! Well, five years later, and no word.

But I have hope that we'll be seeing what purports to be the major statement by one of Japan's most important indie animators - and heck, really the only major thing he's made in the last ten years - either this year or next. I found on the web page of young audiovisual artist Ayumi Kawamura mention that she is working as an assistant on Keita Kurosaka's Midori-ko, and that it is due for release in 2010. April already and I haven't seen word anywhere. Same deal?

Keita Kurosaka teaches at the Musashino Art University, and on his home page for the university, it states that Midori-ko was in the final production stages as of March 2009 and due for completion within the year. Whether it was finished last year or is still in the finishing stage, that at least leaves no doubt that it is imminent. We even know that the production company is Mistral Japan, the company that released a 3-VHS set of his work, and the producer is Akira Mizuyoshi, who is an audiovisual artist himself. (filmography on his blog)

You can see compelling stills from Keita Kurosaka's films on his Musashino page. At the top of the page the images are from his 2005 film My Face, and below it you can see images from Agitated Screams of Maggots and Midori-ko. You can see Agitated Screams of Maggots, an awesome little music video for the alt metal band Dir en Grey, in full, and it being his most recent film, I think it gives a sense of what to expect, stylistically, from Midori-ko. It's very painterly and grotesque and surreal, but utterly engrossing despite being, well, gross. It also features little people-like creatures, which Midori-ko is purported to feature, so maybe it seems to be an esquisse of the larger work. Imagine 60 minutes like Agitated Screams of Maggots. (What a lovely title. Just makes you want to repeat it. Agitated Screams of Maggots.) Midori-ko is going to kick ass. Keita Kurosaka is like Bill Plympton via Jan Svankmajer via Francisco Goya via Francis Bacon. I think this film has the potential to be a new landmark in Japanese indie animation, beyond the mere fact of its length and laborious 10-year production mostly by a single man.

It's time for his work to be better known over here, though inevitably it'll probably be too experimental for the animation crowd and too animated for the experimental crowd. Hopefully this film will get him better known and maybe see a release of his work in the west. I've been struggling to obtain copies of those three tapes for years but never been able to.

Below that are some image sketches, which are really neat and showcase his very peculiar style that is like nothing else out there - classical in their painterly aesthetic, but warped and disturbing. I like that Kurosaka is unlike most animators in Japan, even the indie kind. He's closer in spirit to someone like Florence Milhaile. Below those sketches you can see images from some live animation events Kurosaka did in 2008. Animation for him, like Milhaile, is just an extension in time of his painting work, as you will discover reading the interview with him dating from 2006 that I've just translated below, very roughly and quickly.

Why animation?

I'm asked that a lot, but it's a tough question to answer. For one, I don't really think of myself as an 'animation artist'. I originally got my start in the contemporary art world. I was always trying to come up with a way of injecting the dimension of time into my work. Once I embedded an actual motor into a painting to try to add some motion. It took me a while to realize that a form more suited to achieving my artistic goals would be video. But even then, the thought of doing animation never crossed my mind.

My biggest problem as an artist was finding a form of artistic expression that would have the same effect as music, but in the realm of painting - the impact of sharing the same time space and physical space among a large number of people. That just happened to turn out to be video, and in terms of specific technique within that framework, animation, but for me animation has never been anything but an extension of my painting work. My films started out abstract, but after a few films they began to evolve in a more concrete direction, until eventually there were even what you'd call dialogue and stories starting to appear in the films, and eventually even characters. So on the surface, my films began to look more and more like what you'd typically call 'animation films', but it feels really off and wrong when I hear people call me an animation artist.

I don't see myself as inhabiting any particular genre, and I don't even have any particular stance on my work - like I'm an indie versus an industry animator. What drives me a artist is an amorphous motivation, or inspiration, and my biggest problem is finding a vessel for that inspiration to inhabit that will best bring it to life.

Kurosaka Keita and the notion of the grotesque

What exactly qualifies as 'grotesque'? Generally not hard things or dry things, right? Usually when people think of something grotesque, they think of things that are soft and wet and gooey. And to be perfectly honest, that's the sort of thing that interests me most. It's a matter of personal preference. It's like a kid who enjoys playing in mud - I enjoy playing with the philosophical notion of the moist and squishy.

The way I see it, there are two basic meanings behind the notion of the grotesque. One is the common notion of something fleshy and tactile. The other harbors political nuances. The fleshy aspect would be spilled guts and blood stains, the stuff you see in a splatter film. But you find another kind of grotesque in European films, grotesque with a sociopolitical undertone - for example, showing an actual dog getting killed, or someone breaking the neck of a chicken.

So you can divide the concept of the grotesque into two sub-concepts, roughly speaking - the brutal, and the revolting. Personally I'm not a big fan of brutality - I wouldn't hurt a fly, literally. Some movies show animals being killed, for example, but personally I can't take that, I can't watch a movie that does that. My work exists purely on the conceptual level, it has to be pure fiction, and that's something that's never changed.

When I depict something grotesque, I take pains to ensure that it isn't disgusting. The more revolting the image, the more beautifully I render it. It has to be aesthetically refined. I think when people see my work they have a hard time seeing beyond the grotesque images on the surface below to that aesthetic beauty, because I think there's an ingrained bias amongst general viewers against any depiction of things grotesque. There are many films out there that are far more grotesque on a fundamental level, without even having grotesque visuals like in my films. Apart from the purely visual aspect, my films really aren't that grotesque at all. To borrow the words of a mangaka who reviewed my works once, "Keita Kurosaka approaches the act of creating visuals like a kid playing with a box of toys spilled over the floor. The word grotesque is leveled at him by adults disturbed by a display of pure playfulness that they can no longer hope to relive." I thought he captured it really well.

Are you dissatisfied about how people view your work?

Not so much dissatisfied as disappointed at the thought that this is all my work is capable of. In other words, I wonder if there's even any point in me working in a genre in which there are people far more talented than me who are specialized in that genre. It's an interesting position to be in in many ways, but I suspect that what I have to say isn't enough for viewers, that they want to see other worlds.

To put it another way, there are some things that are meant for the broad daylight, and some things that are better appreciated by being glimpsed under the moonlight rather than seen fully, face on. Not to put too self-deprecating a spin on it, but I feel like my work falls more into the latter category. It's not necessarily a negative thing. Like two sides of the same coin, or the wheels on a car, you have to have both. Without the dark side, the world would be out of balance.

I'll leave the bright side to the folks who specialize in that sort of thing. I see myself as one of the last remaining guardians of the dark side of the coin, you might say. I'm kind of an unsung hero, actually. (laughs)

Surrealism is at the core of your and Svankmajer's work. What is surrealism?

Again, the way I see it, there are two types of surrealism. One is surrealism as a means of conveying a sort of parody of the world that goes beyond the real word and brings life to things that lurk just beneath the surface. This type of surrealism can be used as a means to convey political meaning by way of metaphor. In Svankmajer's case, that was part of it - there are times when an artist is unable to produce certain films due to political pressure. Surrealism was once used as a cover of sorts in times like this when you could get hung for saying certain things directly, like a tool in the arsenal of the resistance, but you didn't want to compromise by merely saying things indirectly. You speak by way of images that could be interpreted differently depending on how you look at them. I think that historically this was one of the major components of classical surrealism.

I grew up in the first nonpolitical generation in Japan, so for us, rather than using surrealism to talk about the outside world, surrealism was aimed inwards. In other words, we use surrealism to talk about the self. Underpinning this approach to surrealism are often basic aspects of identity such as our dreams and our formative experiences as children. I've got an interesting story related to this subject. The first time Svankmajer visited Japan, someone from a museum set up a meeting between Svankmajer and I, so that he could critique my work. Both the museum person and I were convinced that Svankmajer would be happy to find someone in Japan who was aiming for something similar, so we were both surprised when, instead, Svankmajer said that as artists he and I were aiming for something completely different at a fundamental level beyond the question of technique, so he was unable to critique my work. I think that experience underscores the decisive difference between the two types of surrealism.

Svankmajer is probably the single artist I most respect, and I view him as my 'master' deep down, but there's one thing I dislike about his work. It's the fact that you can categorically pin down what it is that he's trying to say. I think this becomes particularly noticeable in his later work. In other words, his work is like a translation of his political or philosophical ideals about how things should be. Of course, some people think that's precisely what makes his work good, so in the end it's a question of personal preference, but whenever I encounter something like that in his work, I find it to be a real turn-off. What really excites me is when he creates something that has no obvious interpretation, something completely insane and unhinged, when he goes crazy and creates a world that can't be explained, that's filled with contractions and refuses easy translation. I can't stand it when some meaning you're trying to express is clearly visible when you shine a light on it from the back. We humans aren't built in such a tidy package. But I suspect most viewers don't enjoy things that are excessively ambiguous, because they are legitimately difficult to assess. That's probably the reason why nobody's heard of my favorite films. (laughs)

When a film isn't completely rooted in the individual, it allows viewers to be more objective, which I think is what makes such films easier for most viewers to appreciate. I suspect that the reason Svankmajer is able to go on creating films with images that are so astounding on the surface and still reach a large audience is because, underneath, they convey a meaning that is clearly understood. I find that he tends to hide what's deep inside him and create work aimed towards the outside world. This is only bolstered by his intensely private gaze and his very exacting approach as an artist.

The sun and the moon

In other words, what I was trying to get across with the metaphor about the wheels on a car is that, insofar as you live in today's world, it's impossible to remain completely aloof from the world. Whether you view the outside world according to secondary sources like the newspapers and television, or you come up with your own interpretation of the world from the perspective of a lone member of that society, that society remains the same.

For example, child abuse is a major problem today in Japan. If you wanted to tackle that issue, you could adopt two different approaches. On the one hand, you could take inspiration from the way the issue is reported in the media. On the other, you could take a more individual perspective and look at it from the perspective of the parent or the child. I this this applies not only to surrealism but to any creative activity.

November 15, 2006 at Keita Kurosaka's office
Interviewer: Hiroki Kawai

Friday, April 9, 2010

02:51:00 pm , 867 words, 3052 views     Categories: Animation, TV

The new season

The two Fuji TV Noitamina shows coming up over the next two weeks by Masaaki Yuasa and Mochizuki Tomomi are both going to be well worth a look, particularly the Yuasa one of course. The producer of Noitamina is a savvy guy with a keen sense for how to balance daring new programming with accessibility, and what he's trying to do is truly praiseworthy. Noitamina has thus far provided a space for the production of some genuinely impressive and daring programming - notably Mononoke and the same director's Trapeze - balanced out with anime of a more people-friendly, shojo-ish bent such as Honey & Clover. Which is not to say the latter are forgettable. Every show has stood out as having mature stories and directing and being refreshingly bereft of the hardcore pandering that plagues anime today, in line with the goals of the producer to reach out to audiences who otherwise would not watch anime. That's exactly what anime needs, so I hope the producer's daring gambit pays off, although unfortunately there is an inherent contradicting in attempting to do cutting-edge programming that the general populace will embrace. The double feature that commences this month provides a clever solution to this problem - air one that is a more creatively aggressive production that will cater to non-users looking for something different and new, and another that is backed by a popular manga with an original edge that will appeal to a broader audience. Perhaps some in the broader audience will be pulled in by the unabashed creativity the more daring show.

A newer contender in the late-night arena is TV Tokyo's Anime no Chikara. It purports something similar - slightly more daring, creator-centric productions than you'd see on regular daytime programming. But slightly is the operable term. The first show, So Ra No Wo To showed promise and technical proficiency that was torpedoed by cowardly adherence to the moe template.

Their second show just started, Senko no Night Raid by A-1 Productions (Ookiku Furikabutte), and I enjoyed it a lot more. I would actually be willing to follow the show despite it not doing anything new or daring with the animation, designs or overall concept. It's just very well directed, and the character acting is not repulsive, which is a refreshing change. The characters act low key, normal. There are none of the cliched expressive symbols or cliched behaviors. I found the first episode eminently watchable, which is a rare thing for me when the animation, designs or SOMETHING in the concept aren't strikingly original or creative. It's just good entertaining story anime, the way anime should be done, not perverted, pandering garbabe.

One thing I liked about the show was the fact that, for the Chinese dialogue spoken by characters who are Chinese (Shanghainese) nationals, they got actual Chinese speakers, and for the Japanese characters who are speaking Chinese, their non-native language, they got the Japanese voice-actor to speak the dialogue. So the Japanese characters' spoken Chinese has the appropriate bad accent, while the Chinese characters' spoken Chinese sounds right. (although if we're going to be anal about it (yes please) I'm not sure whether they're speaking period-appropriate Shanghainese). Anime usually never bothers with details like this, but they are crucial. So it serves as a positive sign that the director has his head on right.

I'm usually the big Bones cheerleader, but I didn't much care for Heroman. I will probably continue watching it simply because of the fact that the animation and designs are more creative and well-produced than any of the other shows this season so far, and Bones usually maintains that quality from episode to episode, but the show itself is utterly tame and unexciting compared to Soul Eater, which grabbed me from the first episode. And the concept is just so stupid and lazily conceived. They didn't even bother to provide some kind of plausible reason for why this kid's toy transformed into a big remote-controllable hero robot when lightning happened to strike it, which he apparently had guessed was going to happen because he was running towards the thing in panic mode. The pivotal scene was insultingly moronic. Of course, realistic directing is hardly the point of the hero shows that are the template here, but isn't it kind of bad if they can't be bothered to come up with something remotely believable to justify the central plot device? Or are they trying to making a smug point about the laziness of hero show plotting? Anyway... Takashi Tomioka was in the episode (presumably the action at the end) and hopefully some of the talent that graced the opening will pepper the actual show (Fumiaki Kouta, Yasuo Muroi, Kenichi Yoshida).

I checked out a bunch of other shows (when will I learn) but there wasn't anything else interesting. Shin Itagaki did do a crazy sequence at the end of the moefest Mayoi Neko Overrun, but honestly I'm not too big on his style. It feels like a copy of Imaishi, but even more jumpy and crazy, which is saying a lot. When movement reaches such an extreme level of overstylization, it ceases to be character animation and becomes incomprehensible noise.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

10:38:48 pm , 994 words, 4407 views     Categories: Animation, Director: Yasuhiro Aoki

Honey Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

10:00:38 pm , 1469 words, 9124 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Halo Legends

We live in the age of the international anime omnibus. First there was Animatrix, then there was Batman: Gotham Knight, then there was Inferno, and now there is Halo Legends. The anime omnibus is becoming a genre unto itself. It seems like everybody wants a piece of anime. Or rather, big companies want a piece of a mystique that sells itself, so they don't have to do anything.

The appeal is clear. For relatively little effort, the anime omnibus allows you to plug directly into the broad, existing base of support for anime and the variety of styles available in the industry, and convey the image of a vast mythos. The anime omnibus is the perfect accessory to expand the demographic of your aspiring cross-media hit with an injection of youthful hipness.

Animatrix was the pioneering anime omnibus, and it was pretty successful in many ways, even artistically - at least more so than any of the omnibuses that followed. If Animatrix seemed to be inspired by the more creative side of the industry, with each film being done by a creative luminary, Halo Legends seems to be more of a profit-inspired vehicle aimed at capturing the eyes of young western consumers of anime.

Instead of hiring real talent (with a few exceptions), they made some questionable choices with the directors here, presumably because the video game material didn't require all that artistic stuff.

There are quite a few creators working in the anime industry who are talented enough to compete creatively on an international level, and you could easily have found seven to fill a new omnibus, but most of the directors chosen here are not particularly good.

At least with Animatrix you walked away feeling a strong guiding vision behind the project, and feeling that each film was at least well produced and powerfully imagined by a talented creator. This project feels more opportunistic, with the quality of most of the films very questionable, and little feeling of a strong overarching guiding vision. There was a feeling of rendering homage to the auteur geniuses of anime in Animatrix that is entirely lacking here.

The focus of this project seems to be to present content tailored towards what attracts the youngsters who watch anime today. Thus we have a film full of CGI action that feels like it could have come straight out of a video game; one that feels like a cheesy anime drama that could have come straight out of a TV series in terms of quality and tone; and one that's produced by the Dragonball team, deliberately in the style of Dragonball.

As a result, this set will appeal more to very young viewers and less to viewers like me who watch anime to see quality work by talented animators and directors. I liked two of the pieces, but all of the others were either unwatchable or had nothing to distinguish them from any other anime in terms of look or feel.

Those two standout pieces were Origins and Prototype. These two films, at least, are quality productions by some of the best talents in Japan, with great visuals and animation and a style that jibes with the original subject matter.

Origins, in two parts that add up to 22 minutes, is the grand opener that sets up the mythology of the series. It's the only film in the set that I can recommend watching without any reservations. The problem is that it raises your expectations so high about what's to follow, with its grandiose imagery and epic scale, that everything else that follows is a letdown of comic proportions.

Origins is directed by Hideki Futamura, the director of the abstruse but gorgeous Limit Cycle short in Genius Party. He is a masterful director. He brings his genius for assembling together a massive array of images and subject matter into an engrossing audiovisual flow that holds you entranced entirely on the strength its unflagging flow of inventive, powerful imagery.

Where Futamura differs from all of the other directors in this set is that he doesn't commit the sin of sitting on his laurels and letting the script do the talking for him. He comes up with a gorgeous new visual scheme that communicates some kind of information about the world of Halo by means of the animation or visuals in every single shot.

I'm not sure what inspired the look of this film, but the visuals remind me of the style of sci-fi novel and magazine illustrations of the 70s and 80s. I remember being mesmerized by the bewildering visions of the architecture and spatial vessels of the future in those illustrations, with their sleek, almost abstract looking shapes that set your imagination afire wondering how those shapes so divorced from reality and utility could possibly work.

The art of Futamura's film seems to harken back to that style, presenting an idealized, elegant vision of a future too beautiful to be possible. Everything here is very graphical rather than naturalistic. Instead of a building, what we see feels like a stylized representation of a building, a symmetrical mass of clean lines and subdued color gradients blending into one another.

It's not just the graphics that set this film apart. The narrative style is also striking. The film doesn't proceed with the usual narrative flow with dramatic ups and downs, camera framing following the principles of live-action cinema, protagonists being the subject and the world the backdrop. Instead, this film feels like a diorama presenting a vision of a possible future. It's like we take a step back, god-like, and observe space itself and what unfolds in that space. The action seems to unfold slowly and calmly, like some stylized theatrical performance.

The film is also full of a lot of interesting monster designs that are brought alive well by the animation. Jiro Kanai and Yasuhiro Aoki headline the animator list. The art director was Hiroshi Kato. Norimitsu Kobayashi was "line art director", whatever that is. Takashi Watabe provided design work. A compelling piece that's well worth a look.

Prototype, like most of the other films in the set, zooms down from the macro of Origins to tell a small-scale story about one batallion's mission. Framed by a weak, cliche and otherwise forgettable drama, what really sets the film apart is its battle sequence, one of the most vivid and intense animated battles in recent memory. All of the animator talent in this set is concentrated into an intense few minutes of mecha action and special effects. No CGI here, baby. Everything here is hand drawn, and it puts the lie to the western notion that mecha would be better handled by CGI. This here is the last stand from the last cowboys of hand-drawn mecha action, and it's an incredible bash of animator energy. These guys are all experts at drawing mecha, and their work here puts CGI to shame.

Unfortunately, the film as a whole is less convincing, and difficult to recommend unless you're the kind of person who would actively watch bad anime for good animation (like me). The film is emblematic of a problem I had with all of the films in this set, and in these anime omnibuses in general. The drama and storytelling are nothing but anime cliches. This is a Bones production, and it's co-directed by the director of Eureka Seven. This becomes apparent when you see the designs of the characters, and when you witness the same sort of embarrassing, clumsy, self-important drama that made that show difficult to endure. The storyboarding and directing were split between Tomoki Kyoda, who presumably handled the drama parts, and Yasushi Muraki, the action expert and erstwhile disciple of Ichiro Itano, who presumably handled the fight scenes.

Here's a list of the key animators in Prototype for reference:

Hidetsugu Ito Kaichiro Terada
Takashi Hashimoto Hirofumi Masuda
Soichiro Matsuda Hironori Tanaka
Shingo Fujii Ken Ohtsuka
Ryuji Shiromae Satoshi Mori
Kiyoshi Tateishi Yuuki Kawashima
Kenta Nozawa Kouichi Arai
Ko Yoshinari Satoshi Shigeta
Hiroyasu Oda Etsuko Kawano
Yoshiyuki Ito Takashi Tomioka
Kenji Mizuhata Yutaka Nakamura
Shiho Takeuchi Yasushi Muraki

Just some brief comments about the other films. Odd One Out was actually a decently fun little film done by the main Dragonball team, Daisuke Nishio and Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru, who have many years under their belt handling this particular approach towards fighting anime. It just felt out of place. Homecoming felt like any random episode from any random anime TV series in every aspect. I wasn't able to get past the first minute of The Duel, which consists of terrible CGI characters barely moving and some kind of cheap Photoshop paint effect processing blurring the whole image. What little I glimpsed of The Package just felt like a video game cut scene. So yeah, kind of disappointing.

Friday, April 2, 2010

08:12:53 pm , 238 words, 1484 views     Categories: Animation, Foreign

A Korean movie to look out for

Triple post threat!!!

I just wanted to direct your eyes to this page full of Korean text and two delicious drawings.

It was brought to my attention in the forum by Peter Chung. I just had to pass it along. Apparently it's for a film now under production (don't know the English title) featuring Kang Won Young as the animation supervisor. He's one of the best mover animators anywhere IMO, and that's just going by the two pieces by him I've seen, and the designs here (by him) look eminently suited to creating exciting movement, so it's something I'll be looking out for. Some serious home-grown talent coming out of the local industry in S. Korea now.

Bones' Heroman just started. Have to check that out. Finally some anime...

Holy smokes. Yasuhiro Aoki has a new short and it's a tourism piece for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. You can see it here. Quite a high-profile commission. Aoki is moving up in the world. I think this is the first thing he's done since the Gotham Knight short. For the uninitiated, prior to this, Yasuhiro Aoki directed Kung Fu Love, several one-minute pieces in the Fluximation and Kimagure Robot series, and numerous episodes of Tweeny Witches. (an old filmography)

Seems like everyone in the anime industry is using Twitter nowadays. It feels so weird to see the likes of Koji Morimoto, Mamoru Hosoda and Yutaka Nakamura twittering (tweeting?) away.

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