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, March 15, 2007

02:50:52 pm , 559 words, 1980 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, OVA, Indie, Music Video, Movie, TV

Birds etc

Thanks to Stephen for writing about the web site Pleix, where you can see the incredible video "Birds", which is easily the coolest music video I've seen in a good while. Everything else I've sampled on there is without exception terrific and inspiring. Apparently the videos on there are the work of a Paris-based collective of artists of various persuasions.

Seems Genius Party is scheduled for two parts. The first part announced for this summer comprises seven shorts, conspicuously not including those of Shinya Ohira, Koji Morimoto, or Tatsuyuki Tanaka, three notoriously slow and maniacal animators. At least Masaaki Yuasa's and Atsuko Fukushima's pieces are in there. If I recall correctly, Yuasa's piece was in fact finished more than a year ago(?!). I was wondering how they were possibly going to fit all of those shorts into the span of a full-length feature. It makes sense that they'd split it in two. They've even already scheduled the world premiere for next February in New York.

Watched a bit of Bartender when it first came out and I actually really enjoyed it and thought it was a great example of "anime", in both the positive and negative connotations of the term. Positive in that it's amazing that they can create an entire series about the art of making cocktails, and negative in that it feels like you're just watching manga with a soundtrack. I've been getting into making cocktails recently, so maybe that helps too. I love how they manage to inject this vein or romanticism and fantasy into the whole idea of going to a bar and having a drink. Maybe it's a Japanese thing, or maybe I just don't frequent the right circles, but my image of bars and the people who go to them has been considerably less pretty, and rather more chintzy. Of course the real story here is undoubtedly how fascinating it is that animation in Japan is able to act as a bridge between customers and an industry that would normally be at the farthest end of sober associations with the medium of Disney. Manga has always been about anything and everything, and manga has always been a prime source of material for anime, so I guess there's nothing really new about it.

Watched the fan restoration of To-Y. First of all, bravo on a job well done to the restorers. That was breathtaking image quality. Oddly, as I began watching, I realized that I had in fact seen it long ago, even though I thought I'd never seen it. Deja vu indeed. I distinctly remembered the opening segments with those wonderful zooms, and especially the accompanying music. (Deja entendu?) Ahh, what joy to waft along on the torrent of suits with padded shoulders and narrow ties and large hair. The 80s. This anime really embodies the 80s seen through the lens of Japan, which oddly seems alarmingly like the 80s seen through the lens of MTV. Albeit therefore sometimes chuckle-inducing, it's still a finely crafted film of its period, a prime example of that OVA genre that flourished in the 80s and produced some real gems. The animation of Onda Naoyuki, who must have been fresh from Gundam ZZ, is undoubtedly one of his best achievements. For an 80s pop anime overdose, this would make a cool double-feature revival pairing with Bobby's Girl.

Monday, March 12, 2007

07:03:44 pm , 733 words, 2044 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Director

Masami Hata's Mouse Story

As Manuloz pointed out, there is now a site for Masami Hata's upcoming film, now titled Nezumi Monogatari or Mouse Story: The Adventures of George and Gerald. The designs are quite lively and unique for a Japanese feature, and feel like a breath of fresh air in the lately somewhat stylistically stale and cramped range of the industry, really harkening back to the days of the old movies of Sanrio Films. And it goes to reason. We see here many of the key figures behind the old Sanrio Films movies. I knew the film was a Sanrio production from the moment it was mentioned that Sanrio president Shintaro Tsuji was the creator of the story, as he was for all of the classic Sanrio Films productions. And so it turns out to be. But make no mistake, this is definitely a Madhouse production in terms of all aspects of the actual animation. The animation studio Sanrio Films disbanded in 1985 after production of Fairy Florence, and I get the impression that all subsequent Sanrio productions have been outsourced like this one. Madhouse was in fact the studio that produced Sanrio's two Unico features that followed the pilot, so it makes sense for Madhouse to provide the stage for this reunion of all of the old Sanrio Films gang. (Hata, of course, started out at Mushi Pro, where he worked along side Dezaki, who later formed Madhouse, in whose early productions like Aim for the Ace Hata was involved.)

The big surprise was to find that the designs are by the hand of none other than Toshio Hirata! Hirata has never done character designs as far as I'm aware, so this is an exciting development. Exciting particularly because this is the first time we'll have seen Hata and Hirata working together since the 1979 Unico pilot, where Hata was one of the three animators (alongside Shigeru Yamamoto and Mikiharu Akabori) and Hirata was the director. Almost thirty years later they're back, and now the roles are reversed. And this time their film won't be shelved for a decade, either. The film is due to hit theaters this winter. Interestingly enough, we even have the art director of the old Sanrio Films movies, Yukio Abe, who more recently did the wonderfully retro art of Stormy Night, so it really is the old Sanrio Films team come back together again for one big final bash. I doubt it will achieve the level of those films, which were made by a unique studio at the height of its powers, but I'm really excited that we're going to see another film by the same crew, and I'm hoping that it will be imbued with at least some of that unique atmosphere and feeling that I've so missed in those films. I've long wished Hata would do one more big project, a serious effort like Sirius or Florence, and it looks like this is that film.

Just about the only person missing to complete the team is Shigeru Yamamoto, the chief character animator in the old Sanrio Films days. After the closing of Sanrio Films, he moved to Disney Japan, where he worked on all of the studio's productions all the way until 2003, a year before the studio closed. Hopefully he will be there as an animator. He also, of course, worked alongside Hata at Mushi Pro in the early days. Sadly, their comrade Mikiharu Akabori, the chief effects animator at Sanrio Films, passed away a few years ago, so the team can never be fully complete again. I've always been curious to know what happened to the other animators at the Sanrio Films studios like Shinmi Taga, Maya Matsuyama and Haruo Takahashi. From what I can gather, some of them transferred to Disney Japan or other studios, some must have gone freelance, while yet others formed their own studios like Grouper and Circus. I don't know specifically who founded and worked at each of these studios, what else they did, or how long they lasted, but we can see many of the major Sanrio Films figures there in the early productions in the aftermath of the closing of Sanrio Films. In 1986, Circus produced Nayuta and Grouper produced the Super Mario Bros film. In both we can see familiar names like Maya Matsuyama as animator (Nayuta) or animation director (SMB), Yukio Abe as art director, and of course Hata as director.

Friday, March 9, 2007

08:24:11 pm , 296 words, 1237 views     Categories: Animation

Samurai7 no Mori

I picked up the Samurai7 fanbook to see if there might be some of Hisashi Mori's designs in there, but zilch, nada. So I still don't know what the nature of "design works" is. I was really looking forward to seeing some of his designs in the raw, too. Takuhito Kusanagi did the original designs for the main characters, and Makoto Kobayashi the mecha and setting design work, so perhaps Mori handled the sub-characters. Kusanagi's designs were quite wonderful, as expected, very true to the flavor of what I remember seeing in his Shanghai Kaijinzoku manga more than a decade ago. The tragedy is that none of that flavor whatsoever comes through in the final designs. In the final product they look like your average humdrum designs. It's an amazing feat to be able to sap such seemingly irrepresible character completely dry. I didn't know Makoto Kobayashi, but his ornate, organic mecha designs are quite nice, somewhat Giger-ish. I haven't seen enough of the anime to say whether that character comes through in the final product. I'm reminded here of Little Nemo, which shared a similar fate of having a lot of great looking, imaginative pre-production stuff by a huge array of talent, but having very little of that flavor in the final product. To be fair, it's probably too much to ask to transfer his delicately toned style to a flat-toned medium like this. One thing I like about Gonzo is that they use interesting figures like Kusanagi, but I often find that they don't manage to figure out a way to reflect what makes those figures good in the first place in the final product, so it winds up being kind of a waste. I think I'll hit up the Speed Grapher book next.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

03:22:53 am , 560 words, 2577 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Warring States

Today I finally managed to see Keiichi Hara's last Shin-chan film (and the last film he made period until this year's Kappa), Warring States from 2002, and it was just as good as I expected. It's not just a good Shin-chan film, but a good film, something none of the subsequent films are. Hara's pared down aesthetic reaches its peak here. Hara doesn't make even the pretense of attempting to beguile his audience with unnecessary frippery or gimmickry. When the family time shifts, he does it without a single effect. In one shot they're in the present day, and in the next shot they're in the past. It's almost shocking in its unflinching bareness.

The contrast with Mitsuru Hongo's gimmick-rich fantasy adventures is greatest in this film, especially in comparison to Hongo's own version of the warring states movie, Unkokusai, which involved strange looking time machines, giant robots, a mad foreigner out to control history, and a talking dog. In contrast, the core of Hara's film lies in his loving focus on the little everyday things. We come away feeling for the people because he's gone out of his way to show how people would really have lived back them. When one castle's army attacks another castle city, the attackers first take the time to destroy the crop fields around the castle, which the warriors in the castle had up until that point been working. The fighting moves through various stages as the armies close, from long-range bombardment, to spears, to swords, in a well defined strategic procession that Hara clearly researched and puts great effort into depicting accurately on the screen. It's like an Akira Kurosawa movie, animated.

The battle scenes that bookend the film really steal the show and have a more powerful effect than any other sequences of this kind I've seen in animation, not because of any spectacular animation, but because of Hara's honesty and earnest enthusiasm with the material. He clearly loved what he was doing, and the film reflects his personality. What's nice is that, with the limited resources available at Shinei, and within the confines of a franchise film, Hara managed to make a great film that doesn't feel cramped by the technical limitations, though I do wonder how it might have looked at another studio with more means available. For example, he had to cut one ambitious crane shot that looked like it could have come straight out of Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace from the storyboard because, not surprisingly, he was told that it would be too hard to produce. Shinei produces one of these films a year, along with a new episode a week - with the same staff - so I don't really blame them.

This film shows what it is that makes Hara unique - his ability to tell a story, bring characters alive, and involve the audience. It's perhaps the most straightforward but also the most assured and convincing of his films. Whereas all of the previous films caused him considerable birth pains, the knowledge that this would probably wind up being his last film (much to his own relief) seemed to free him from creative tethers and allow him to create the film straight through in one go without any hesitation. You can feel that assuredness in the smooth flow of the story to its moving conclusion.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

02:23:46 am , 427 words, 1745 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Masayuki Yoshihara

A long time ago I talked about how Masayuki Yoshihara's ep 41 of Ninku had had a big impact on me. That remains his most powerful creation as far as I know, but since then I found that he had also done some nice work in the Shin-chan movies, namely the 5th and 6th from 1997 and 1998, the first two directed by Keiichi Hara. I'm not quite sure how he came to work on Shin-chan of all things, as his work on Ninku epitomized the realistic school of the period, but that's the thing about the movies - you found unexpected people every once in a while, like Hiroyuki Nishimura and Masahiro Ando, obviously because they were great animators and had been brought in to help bring to life the action that filled out the movies. And so they did. These three created many of the most memorable scenes in the mid-period films. I don't know what Yoshihara did in the 1997 film, but I remember that he animated the opening sequence of 1998's Buta no Hizume, and it was a great idea, because his more realistic style of animation worked perfectly for the more realistic and hard-boiled direction Hara wanted to go with the film. Strangely enough, it seems Yoshihara had even done a few eps of the TV series. He animated two eps in 1997 - #237B and #241B - and storyboarded about three others the next year. The ones he animated were a real revelation, just what one would expect from an outsider like him - subtly different from the regulars, with extreme angles, a wilder and more unpredictable approach to timing, close attention to little details of movement, realistic weight, and lots of hilarious, bizarre movement throughout. You'd think he'd been animating Shin-chan for years, but then there are unexpected touches here and there, like the one shot where he puts incredible effort into animating beautiful clouds flowing past for some reason. He must have had fun with the work. It's certainly very different from what he did in the movies, and closer to the spirit of the show. I don't really know much about what else he's done, apart from a bunch of episodes of Yu Yu Hakusho in 1992-1994 (1, 3, 7, 13, 19, 27, 33, 35, 39, 42, 48, 54, 58, 73), which is where Nishio Tetsuya met his mentor and was greatly influenced by him, and Ninku 41 in 1995. Over the last few years he's been working at IG subcontractor PA Works, where he's mainly been storyboarding, first for the GITS series and movie and now apparently for the upcoming Seirei no Moribito. Here's an interview with him.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

11:58:59 pm , 576 words, 902 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Denno Coil, Movie, Animator

Denno, Kappa, Tsuru

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 3, 2007

05:58:34 pm , 840 words, 974 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Movie, Animator

Hiroyuki Aoyama & Telecom & TokiKake

I remember in episode 11 of Kemonozume wondering whether Tadashi Hiramatsu or Hiroyuki Aoyama had done that action sequence, and apparently it was Hiroyuki Aoyama. I didn't think Hiramatsu that likely a candidate, as action sequences aren't really his thing, but I wasn't at all familar with Aoyama except for the avant he did for episode 5. It was great, but didn't seem that similar to the style of animation I was seeing in the action sequence in question (except maybe for one or two of the shots of the midair jump that do indeed have that same flavor). I've heard a rumor that the mystery figure behind the climactic sequence in Mamoru Hosoda's One Piece movie, which I wondered about in this post, might be Aoyama, though I haven't been able to confirm this. Stylistically it seems like it might be a fit, as there's a bit of similarity to the feeling of that Kemonozume avant. But who knows. The rumor seems to have arisen due to the fact that Hosoda talked about the scene having been done by "saiko no/the best animator", and then Aoyama was announced as one of the ADs of Hosoda's next film.

Aoyama is a Telecom animator. I remember seeing his name in Farewell to Nostradamus and some Doraemon movies, among other places, even as far back as Akira. I'm not too familiar with his work, but from what little I've seen he's truly a great animator. He's got that Telecom vibe of creating dense and nuanced realistic movement that at the same time feels very good using lots of drawings. Actually, Aoyama is apparently now freelance. In an interview during the making of TokiKake he seems to have been itching to leave Telecom over the last few years to be able to try different kind of work from the kind of work he was limited to doing at Telecom. He says he spent a week animating the smoke where Luffy walks towards the camera dodging those arrows near the end of the Baron movie as a favor to AD Chikashi Kubota, co-AD of Hosoda's latest film alongside Aoyama, and presumably that's what led to him finally leaving Telecom to work on TokiKake. (Unfortunately he doesn't mention anything about having done the later bit.) He must presumably have been tapped for those two great Kemonozume sequences because he was close at hand at Madhouse. It's interesting how Telecom seems to have lost a number of their good animators just in the last year or two, with Shojiro Nishimi and now Hiroyuki Aoyama leaving the studio.

The Kemonozume avant must have been done either right after Aoyama had completed his work on TokiKake or near the end, and it seems like it's a good foretaste of the sort of nuanced low-key acting we're going to see from him in Hosoda's film. He apparently focused on the classroom scenes in the first half of the film. He's animated and storyboarded before, but I'm not sure how much ADing he's done. Hosoda always manages to get people who are great at creating nuanced and rich animation for his animation directors, first and foremost Takaaki Yamashita. And now Masashi Ishihama, who apparently handled the later parts of the film around the climax. I was wondering how he'd gotten involved, but I remember now seeing his name in the Digimon movies, and he confirms in an interview that that is how it came about. He was doing something at Pierrot when he was invited by Fumihide Sai to come to an animation meeting for the first Digimon movie, where Yamashita invited him, and the rest is history. He apparently did the part where Hikari is running around looking for Koromon, and in the second movie the part right before Taiichi enters the PC.

Ishihama was originally just going to draw animation again, but wound up one of the ADs. I was surprised to learn that Ishihama started out at Oh Production. He's been freelance for a number of years now, at least since ROD. Hosoda's films have always been balanced out by the best freelancers out there. Ishihama also talks about how he felt lucky with his part because the burden of his job was alleviated by the fact that so many great animators were working on that section... Looking over the list of animators again gets me salivating - the usual suspects like Hisashi Mori, Takaaki Yamashita, Tatsuzo Nishita, and also Norimoto Tokura, Hitoshi Ueda, Takaaki Wada, Akira Takada, and even Ryochimo and Yasunori Miyazawa. I was originally a little disappointed that Yamashita wasn't the AD, which is a first in a Hosoda feature, but on second thought it will be even better to be able to see him do some concentrated work as an animator. Seeing his work in Kemonozume got me hungering for some more. I'm hugely in love with his work. For some reason we even see Yasuhiro Nakura as one of the assistant ADs. The DVD for Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo comes out on April 20.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

05:26:13 pm , 253 words, 4404 views     Categories: Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume on DVD 6/22

It's been more than three months since Kemonozume ended, and for a while I was hearing that there were no plans to release a DVD. I sort of dismissed that, because I couldn't conceive of any major anime TV series not coming out on DVD eventually, much less one of the level of Kemonozume. It seems a date has finally been set for the DVD release. In a happy coincidence, it will be coming out on my birthday, June 22. I couldn't imagine a better birthday present, so thank you in advance! I'm just happy that it will finally be possible for me to put my money where my mouth is and directly support the people who created a show that gave me such pleasure. It will be coming out as a single box set loaded with extras, including an audio commentary, booklet and soundtrack. I personally would love for them to reproduce a selection of the keys for the amazing animation that graced this show (ideally with time sheets). I remember Satelight generously did this for the Noein DVDs. The interesting thing with Kemonozume was how each animator had such a radically different and individual approach - compare Masaaki Yuasa to Satoru Utsunomiya to Hisashi Mori to Hiroyuki Aoyama to Choi Eunyoung - so I think seeing the blueprint for their animation side by side would be not only incredibly stimulating, but also instructive about the richness and variety of the animation, which is one of the things that made Kemonozume so unique.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

06:27:59 pm , 2892 words, 6343 views     Categories: Animation, TV

Hajime Ningen Gyators

For a long time I thought I'd probably never see anything that would top the impact of Gisaburo Sugii's Goku's Big Adventure (1967), or even come close. It's a series that, forty years later, retains its impact and remains one-of-a-kind. Perhaps that's because it was a product of its era. The medium was still somewhat in its infancy, with few conventions yet and lots of room for stylistic exploration, and those conditions proved to be fertile ground for a certain group of talented young folks who happened to come along at the time with some radical ideas about where they wanted to try to push the medium. At its height they created animation that was and remains unrivaled in its wanton playfulness and uninhibited inventiveness, and they went probably about as far as possible within the bounds of broadcastability (as suggested by the fact that one of the episodes didn't make the cut).

Jump seven years ahead to 1974. Mushi Pro had gone out of business and the staff had scattered to the four winds, some going freelance and some forming their own small studios and now working in a subcontracting capacity. Gisaburo Sugii helped found Group Tac in 1969, and Osamu Dezaki helped found Madhouse in 1972. A similar diaspora occurred from Toei as a number of key figures quit in the 1960s. Daikichiro Kusube left to found A Production in 1965, and Takao Kosai left to help found Studio Junio in 1969. (Sugii of course had left Toei for Mushi Pro originally) From these various studios, many of the ex-Mushi Pro staff who worked on Goku found themselves working on shows for Tokyo Movie (later TMS). Among these, the two who did by far the most memorable work on the series - Osamu Dezaki and Masami Hata - worked together on many Tokyo Movie shows in the early 1970s. In October 1974, a new Tokyo Movie TV series begins: Hajime Ningen Gyators, or Early Man Gyators. Working on this series we see a smattering of both ex-Mushi Pro and ex-Toei figures, now working for various small subcontracting studios: First and foremost, Osamu Kobayashi, Tsutomu Shibayama, Yoshio Kabashima, Yoshifumi Kondo, Hiroshi Fukutomi and Yuzo Aoki at A Production, the studio that was the subcontracting backbone of Tokyo Movie's situation comedies in the early 1970s, and indeed provides the backbone of Gyators; but also Yoshiyuki Momose at Studio Neo Media, run by Keiichi Kimura (Tiger Mask), and Minoru Maeda and Minoru Okazaki at Takao Kosai's Studio Junio, as well as possibly a few other small studios I'm not aware of.

But enough with the history. If I began by talking about Goku, it's because I wanted to get across the point that in the last few weeks it has been my unending delight to realize that there is indeed another series out there that was made with the some of that same spirit of freedom and playfulness as Goku - and that series is Gyators. (which I talked about long ago)

Gyators is a simple show. It couldn't get simpler. It's based on a manga by Shunji Sonoyama (1935-1993) that was first serialized in 1965 and ended a decade later in 1975, right after the anime adaptation had just finished its roughly year-and-a-half run. The manga was a gag manga for adults depicting a family of cavemen going through everyday travails, drawn in a somewhat primitive style with an unostentatious and simple but free and deliberate line. Although I haven't seen much of the manga, from what I can gather Sonoyama had a very distinct voice, cool and distant and understated, yet decidedly silly and playful, with an undercurrent of pathos and satire, using the situation to make pithy observations on human nature and modern society. His primitive man acts on his urges if he sees a woman, eats a mammoth on the spot in the raw when he makes a kill, reminding us of a time when people were free of the burden of modern living and its repression of the animalistic, instinctive side of man. By chance, Sonoyama happened to be the next-door neighbor of none other than Yutaka Fujioka, head of Tokyo Movie, so it's not difficult to figure out how his long-running hit manga came to be adapted by Tokyo Movie. A few months after Gyators ended, TMS adapted another manga by Sonoyama, Hana no Kakarichou, though it wasn't nearly as long-lived as Gyators.

The anime adaptation of Gyators retains the simplicity of the manga, both in terms of the focus on gags and the look. The structure is episodic, although we follow the seasons. Essentially, the series is an opportunity for the animators to revel in gags and animated fun. The protagonists are a stone-age nuclear family. The father spends his days hunting for mammoth and the mother takes care of the five-some infants strapped to her back at home (and a raccoon), while the adolescent boy Gon plays outside with his pet gorilla. The series shifts between episodes that focus on the father and are close in spirit to the adult Gyators manga, and episodes that focus on the son, a character who was actually interpolated from another manga in order to make the show more family-oriented. So the show is not quite as adult as the original manga, but retains a lot of its edginess.

The season thread actually ties in to the material, because the seasons play an intrinsic role in the family's continuous struggle to find food. That is perhaps the single most ubiquitous narrative element in the series. It's all very light-hearted, but behind the gags there's the knowledge that death lurks around the corner if food isn't found. Death in fact makes appearances in the guise of a skeleton on a skeleton horse at various times throughout the series to take away loved ones. We see the hunters killing mammoth and deer, and see the family back home tearing into huge hunks of raw meat at the dinner table. The way the primacy of food is forefronted is one of the things that lends the show its unique edginess.

In the end, though, what raised this adaptation above the ordinary level and into the realm of greatness is the absolute freedom with which it was made. Freedom was the order of the day in almost every conceivable way. First and foremost is the fact that there was no chief director. There was no single person supervising the series, which is unheard of today and was back then too. Episode directors were left to do things completely as they wanted, with no oversight. If most series are made according to a quasi-democratic process of delegation and collaboration, Gyators was, essentially, one of the rare instances of anarchy in commercial anime. Spearheading and perhaps providing the impetus for this approach was the main character designer, Takao Kosai, co-founder of Studio Junio. Kosai laid the foundation for this approach in a remarkable booklet that he put together at the beginning of production to lay down the principles by which the series was to be made. In this "Note to the animators", Kosai provided a series of sketches based closely on Sonoyama's drawing style, along with a short series of instruction that I'll translate in part here because they're so intriguing.

* Unlike the usual way of doing things, here we will not create designs for the animated version. We will use the drawings of the manga, as is.

* Therefore, please base your drawings on the poses and expressions in the manga.

* Things to keep in mind while animating:
(1) Do not draw characters three-dimensionally
(2) Do not draw clean lines or figures
(3) Movement should be clunky in following with the look of the drawings

Among the various drawings of the characters illustrating Kosai's meaning are a few negative examples illustrating what not to do. One of these drawings in particular seems to sum up the gist of Kosai's intent with this document.

In many ways this is one of the most thought-provoking and fascinating drawings I've ever seen, not limited to character designs. Truly a drawing that speaks a thousand words. Every time I look at it, I'm amazed how funny every little bit of line is in this drawing. It's like I'm seeing the true nature of line for the first time, to see how such a small difference can impart such a vastly different impression. I find looking at this drawing invigorating because it gets me to think about the meaning of the act of drawing, about the meaning of character designs, of animation. It's strange that a handful of scribbled lines should provoke so many thoughts. At first sight it seems like a somewhat facile gag, but the more I savor the drawing it seems to betray a deeper understanding about the nature of what I think of as 'the pleasure of line', i.e. the way a certain artist like Steinberg can draw a line a certain way that is just sooo delicious to look at. Kosai seems to have been one of the first to yank us back to the primitive delight of savoring line. I cannot begin describe the incredible delectable feast this series is purely in terms of the drawings due to the fact that Kosai gave the animators the freedom to draw the characters in their own line in this way. Although perhaps the drawings are sometimes cleaner than the suggestion here in the series itself, in the end the drawings in this series are all invested with the spirit of this drawing - the spirit of a drawing drawn freely and spontaneously according to the will of the animator. Kosai in fact expressly states that he didn't really want a character sheet - he wanted the animators to draw the characters freely.

I can honestly say that I can't remember ever having watched a series in which I enjoyed every single moment of animation as much as I do in this one. The animation is not polished or clean or fluid, but it is always full of life, and every little drawing is delectable. Every animator interprets the characters in his own way, and because of this the drawings are full of vitality, always being renewed with interesting new ideas. This is without any doubt because Kosai was backed up in his endeavor by a panoply of the best animators of the era, many of whom went on to become among the most famous figures in the industry, including Yoshifumi Kondo, Yoshiyuki Momose, Osamu Dezaki, Masami Hata, Yuzo Aoki, Yoshio Kabashima, Tsutomu Shibayama, Osamu Kobayashi, etc... But the animation is always interesting, even when it's by figures I'm not familiar with. I can think of few instances where individual animators were given such a degree of freedom to draw things as they pleased, and the resulting richness of styles is perhaps one of the things that makes the animation so continually rewarding. It never gets old because it's always new. One of Kosai's comments is revealing: "How can you expect kids to enjoy animation if the animators didn't enjoy drawing it?" You can always feel how much fun the animators are having drawing this series, and the fun is infectious.

Perhaps one of the things that I like about the approach this drawing bespeaks is that it emphasizes the medium. It foregrounds that it's a drawing. It doesn't try to hide behind a facade of realism, but relishes the fact that it is made of lines. By keeping the drawings close to the spirit of the crudely drawn 2D original I feel Kosai gave the series its character and strength. An adaptation that would have cleaned up the original's drawings would have been meaningless, and in that sense it is one of the most interesting and successful manga adaptations I've seen. Kosai builds on the style of the original and plugs it into an animation mode of thinking, creating a unique style of animation that not only keeps alive the unique mood of the original but allows the animators to pack in interesting ideas by not wasting time on worrying excessively about conventional animation ideas like model. Merely for the way in which Kosai reconsiders the notion of character drawing Gyators seems a true landmark in TV anime. At the same time, the drawing seems to say to us: everything you know is wrong. Throw your preconceived notions out the window. This pretty drawing is ugly, and this ugly drawing is pretty. Beyond being a faithful adaptation of the spirit of the manga, it also seems to act as a sophisticated confrontational ploy.

One of the unique "rules" behind the animation of the series can be seen in one of the caps atop, the one with the father. The characters are never supposed to be drawn three-dimensionally, and to sort of aid in making the characters seem less three dimensional and more cartoony, one of the rules is that they never draw the arm behind the mouth. You'll note his arm does not appear behind his mouth, but looks like it's growing out of his head. In one episode, an animator inserted an amusing drawing at one point that plays on this by having the arm sticking out of an unexpected location, breaking the rules in an interesting way. He also happens to use some block text to visualize Gon's "Ah!!" reaction, which is another characteristic of the show. Fairly often, when a character screams or shouts, the sound will appear in the form of a stone word flying into the air and then crumble away, as in this extreme example. Whenever the characters get hit on the head by something really hard like a rock, they say the nonsense phrase "Tekkon Kinkreet", which mixes up the letters for steel and concrete. The series is full of amusing little rules like this that the animators have tremendous fun playing with and pushing into strange new configurations.

The stories and gags are thankfully on par with the inventiveness of the animation, with the situations having lots of surreal and absurd elements, even sometimes coming close to the level of Goku, though without the latter's crazed tone. Then-Tokyo Movie director Eiji Okabe's episodes tended to achieve a nice rhythm of inventive gags, while other directors like Shigetsugu Yoshida might favor more thematic treatment. In one of his episodes, the father attempts to seduce a young woman, but winds up helping a younger man win the woman instead. Most of the episode comprises a series of humorous gags on how the inept man attempts to win the woman's favor, but after the two ride off together at the end, the father breaks down in tears and murmurs, "Give it your best - you're only young once." He then wipes away his tears and returns, resigned, to the yoke of his family. The episodes that focus on the father tend to ring a more adult chord like this, packing a hidden bittersweet message for the adult viewers.

You can tell that the directors and are having just as much fun as the animators. This tendency even seems to grow as they get used to the material, as if they're trying to outdo one another. Hiroshi Fukutomi, who later helped found Animaru-ya (which incidentally recently incorporated and changed its name to Ekura Animaru), is perhaps the star director of the show in this sense. He is the one who really took the opportunity of the show's freedom to push his directing out in new, unexplored waters. Ironically, Dezaki and Hata, who were the two who were doing that sort really ambitious and even aggressive experimentation on Goku near the start of their careers, had by that time grown experienced in the industry, and had lost that edge, whereas here Fukutomi is the new face revelling in his first chance to have fun and let it all loose and see just what it's possible to do as a director. In one episode he bizarrely and inexplicably shifts between scenes by slowly zooming out the last frame of a scene into the bottom right corner and then slowly zooming in the first frame of the next scene from the top left corner, creating a surreal mechanized procession of scenes, like an animated prehistoric diorama.

Another element of the freedom comes from the music. The opening and ending are wonderful and unique songs that contribute to bridging over the unique atmosphere of the manga into animation. Sonoyama himself wrote the lyrics, and he apparently saw this rocker Hiroshi Kamayatsu in concert and talked him on the spot into doing the opening for him. The song was apparently banged out in a matter of a few hours of inspired playfulness. It's a real oddity, with its psychedelic tone, riffing guitars and screams and shouts. The ending is the perfect complement, a sort of folk lullaby with a serene but somewhat distant tone, the yang to the yin of the opening. The opening captures the raucous and dynamic side of the show, the ending the vast and empty distance of the world in pre-civilization times. A star was born in the emptiness... life came to the barren soil... the dinosaurs came and went... the clouds flowed... eventually footsteps were heard... Hidden behind the light-hearted material is the contemplation of where we came from and where we're headed.

Monday, February 26, 2007

12:44:25 am , 900 words, 1422 views     Categories: Animation, Misc, Indie, Movie

Azur et Asmar etc

Susumu Yamaguchi, Gear Fighter Dendoh #37I just came from watching Michel Ocelot's latest feature from last year, Azur et Asmar. I was a bit put off by the CG at the beginning, but quickly got used to it, and found it to be a delight typical of this director. I knew I was watching a European and not an American film from the first moments where the wetnurse alternately feeds the two babies on one and the other breast. Ocelot has a tone that is all his own and unmistakable. He was credited with some seven or eight titles at the end, basically most of the key creative tasks, so that accounts for the feeling of unity in all of his films. I love his style of narration, with its lullabye-like repetitions and simple declarations that ring with such an honest force. The film was a visual feast overflowing with the flat forms, vivid colors, lush patterns, and visual symmetries that so I appreciate in Ocelot's films. The color is always very well thought out and a source of unending delight in his films, with the bold way the screen is patterned by patches of sharply contrasted colors, betraying his lineage in paper cutout animation. He never seems to abandon that approach, and I think that lends his films their backbone. Here the CGI wasn't used for mock realism as it is in US features, but still with the same aesthetic as paper cutout animation, which I found refreshing. Exposed skin was somewhat realistically modeled, but clothes remained totally flat and unmistakably 2D in typical Ocelot style, which seemed to be the main change stylistically. The visuals were more ravishing than ever, and the story was a typical Ocelot fairytale with a moral message that didn't strike me as moralizing for a moment, something I find to be rare in animated films for children. It was a film I wish more children would see, full of genuine fantasy and beauty, naive in the good sense of the word, without the fake and obsequious humor of most animated films. I liked how the theme of racial understanding in the film was mirrored by a bit of text near the end of the credits that said something to the effect that "This film was made by a large group of people of various nationalities who got along very well."

It's interesting to see that Susumu Yamaguchi of Studio Torapezoid is the director of the second Keroro Gunso movie that comes out March 17. He only directed two episodes, so it seems unusual for him to have been chosen from among all the other folks. It seems likely that the outstanding quality of the latest of those two, #102, turned some heads and got him a quick promotion. I've always wished Yamaguchi would be able to work on projects that allowed him to not have to worry about sticking to model and such, but to really pump out that kinetic action that he's so good at. I'm thinking there will be some wonderful Yamaguchi kinetics in this film, so I'm looking forward to it, but I still kind of wish he'd leave Sunrise. I'm in the process of catching up on his work on Gear Fighter Dendoh, which appears to be the start of his approach in recent years - when he does an episode now, it's not just as an animator; he always tries to storyboard/AD/animate the episodes he does, and usually draws the big action sequences, investing them with his unique genius for thrillingly choreographed action. I also watched the third episode of the Pretty Sammy OVAs, which had a short sequence of dense action typical of 'Gucchi. I figured out watching it that his hands are an easy way of identifying his drawings, though they're pretty darn distinctive overall. His Utsunomiya blood seems to shine through, with the way the joints are sectioned off like a marionette.

Speaking of franchise films I'm looking forward to, there's the new Doraemon film coming out one week before the Keroro Gunso film on March 10. I don't know why they've embarked on remaking all of the old films instead of doing something original, but the unexpected tremendous quality of the first sally in the venture revokes any right to complain. The second feature is notable because it's the first Doraemon film directed by a woman, namely Yukiyo Teramoto. (There's a video interview with her on the official site). She's also supported by a woman animation director, Shizue Kaneko, whom I remember animated one of my favorite sequences in the last film, the one where Nobita says goodbye to the dinosaur at the end. It's rare to see such a tag team in feature animated filmmaking in Japan, so I'm eager to see the result. She talks about wanting to take a new approach to the actual animation, favoring freer drawings and forms with more expressive squashing and deformation, which sounds like it bodes well. The trailer confirms that the animation continues in the stylistically richer direction of the last film. Rather than the overwhelming animated blitzkrieg of the last film, though, with its titan animators called in from elsewhere, I think maybe here we're going to see them trying to tap the potential the younger Shinei animators, though hopefully with a few interesting faces to liven things up. The bit with Doraemon in the bedroom in particular looks nice.

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