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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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

09:21:33 pm , 1116 words, 11729 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Toshiaki Hontani 本谷利明

There are often times when I become a fan of a certain animator after having seen just one piece of his work, even though I don't know of any other work by the same animator. Takeuchi Kazuyoshi is one such case. There was another such case in Akira - Toshiaki Hontani. He animated a few shots where the capsule containing the remnants of Akira breaks open near the end, spewing out massive clouds of smoke. Akira had its share of great FX animation - notably by Shinya Ohira and Masaaki Endo - but Hontani's stood out as particularly exceptional even among all that great work, and I've often looked back on the shots and pondered what made them so great. Personally, those few shots of animation represent everything that attracts me to FX animation - the power that FX animation can have in the best hands. I've long wanted to try to verbalize what it is about these shot that I like so much, though I haven't had the confidence to do it up until now. Not helping was the fact that I don't really know almost anything else he's done since then, though I've seen his name in various places, which made identifying a trend and getting an idea for what motivates him more difficult.

Well, I recently ran across an interview with the man on the subject of a more recent project, which reminded me that I wanted to write about this work. The interview was about a game called Grandia. A search for his name in fact turns up scads of hits for Grandia, and very little for anything else, indicating the importance of the project to him. The linked site presents a selection (!) of Hontani's drawings for the development of the project. I was impressed by the depth of imagination on display in the drawings, and the appealing style that is as far as possible from what I knew of him from that smoke. It was a surprise to see that he had talent going in such a different direction. But then again, more than a decade spanned Akira and Grandia, so he obviously had time to develop. In retrospect, the quality of that smoke seems to point to that future potential.

Anyway, in that interview, he made a comment that caught my attention when asked about his principles as a creator: "First, respect the project I'm working on. Second, think carefully - which does not mean think slowly." May seem kind of ephemeral, but I thought it actually provided the key to explain the unique nature of what I was seeing in his Akira smoke. I remember reading that animators working on the film didn't understand what he was doing when they saw him working on the animation. Nobody could quite grasp why he was bothering creating drawing upon detailed drawing that to casual eyes looked almost identical. It was only when they saw the finished product that they realized the impact he had been striving to achieve with those painstaking drawings. He had set out to raise the film's bar of realism, and worked patiently to achieve that effect despite the incomprehension of his co-workers. That is what struck me about his smoke animation: He had thought deeply about the problem of how to animate the smoke, found the answer that would most benefit the project, and did what it took to achieve his intended effect. His interview comment seemed to directly reflect this spirit. His animation displayed a level of dedication that pointed towards the sort of maniacal animation Mitsuo Iso would go on to do in the 1990s in GITS and Eva and so on.

To examine the smoke itself, looking at the keys reveals that he is controlloing most of the movement. In other words, it's DENSE. Lots of incredibly detailed keys spaced very closely for just a few seconds of animation. Nothing left up to chance. The movement from drawing to drawing is miniscule and precise. Like Hiroyuki Okiura's mob scene, it's hard to conceive how he could manage so many different vectors of movement at the same time. Seems like the drawing equivalent of playing four games of chess at the same time. Looking closer, we see the voluptuous forms of the clouds of smoke that make the clouds so beautiful to look at. Rather than whipping out haphazardly, they slowly ooze out the way smoke from a smokestack gradually changes form when observed from a distance. The clouds throughout the scene have a unified outline - a sort of regularly undulating bumpy form. The shadows seem to be the element that gives the clouds a feeling of three-dimensionality. A few simple hooks (they kind of remind me of Hokusai's "big wave") drawn across the center of the cloud manage to create a convincing semblance of three-dimensionality. This is a way of drawing smoke that seems to have been invented around this time: Instead of using shading gradations, a single line is used. I remember Toshiyuki Inoue saying how he got a hint as to how to create three-dimensional clouds from looking at Iso's smoke, so maybe this is what he was referring to. Besides the magnificent smoke, more convincing than any in the film apart from Ohira's, probably the most memorable part of Hontani's section is the moment where that rogue bit of piping rises up from the smoke to yawn across the screen spewing a trail of smoke. That one action conveys the massive scale of what has just happened very powerfully, in a way that only animation could, and for that reason Hontani is one of my favorite animators - for putting in the tremendous effort needed to create this amazing bit of animation that remains seared in the imagination long after the movie has finished.

Probably Hontani's most famous gig between Akira and Grandia would be as storyboarder/director of Roujin Z. Most recently, he worked as an animator on Gonzo's Agito movie alongside two other renowned smoke animators: Hideki Kakita and Takashi Hashimoto, though I don't know what he animated. What he did apart from that throughout the 90s is a mystery to me. I don't remember whether he was involved in Steam Boy or not, but if he was that would explain a bit of the vast gap in the following filmography, which I'll fill in as I find items.

   Wings of Honneamise
   Battle Royale High School

   Mister Ajikko #33, 37

   Akira - pipe action

   Roujin Z [storyboard, director]

   JoJo's Bizarre Adventure #13 - Joe throwing tower

   Last Exile #15 [ka], 26 [storyboard]

Sunday, October 29, 2006

11:13:19 pm , 775 words, 10067 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #7

SEXYIt's time to jump off the wagon of Kemonozume abstention. Several weeks have passed and Michio Mihara's episode just aired, so I need to do some serious catching up. I actually watched Osamu Kobayashi's episode a few weeks back, but honestly wasn't quite sure how to write about it, so I kind of let it drag. Re-watching it today mainly confirms most of the feelings I had about it when I first watched it. First of all, I commend Kobayashi on a great job. He directed and animated the entire ep singe-handedly, and it's no small task to do that. It's always a treat to see Kobayashi's work, and it was a treat here too. I can't think of many commercial TV projects where someone with a style as un-commercial as Kobayashi's - and as seemingly unsuited to the series in question - would be given free reign for an entire episode, totally uncorrected. It would have been cowardly and redundant to call in Kobayashi and then correct him, so it's good that they saw this through the right way. We'll be seeing a very different kind of one-man-show in the just-aired episode 12 with Mihara, who unless I'm mistaken just before this would have handled the much-talked-about climactic sequence of Satoshi Kon's latest film. Kobayashi and Mihara are about as different a couple of animators as you could find, and I love that about the show - that it embraces a diverse range of possible interpretations. What unites them them is a sense of adventure and bravado as animators. Whoever it is who works on the show, we see their work in the raw. We see the real face of a certain animator. It feels like this placing of animators who have a passion for their work over stylistic unity redresses a fundamental imbalance in the conventional approach to TV animation.

As for Kobayashi's work, it's basically what one would expect. Kobayashi strikes me as tremendously great when working as a series director, and when working at the opposite end of the scale, on wild fantasy shorts of his own creation, but he doesn't seem very well suited to working within the system as a cog in a machine. Needless to say, I mean that as a compliment. But in a sense, that is what he is having to do here, even though Kemonozume provides him with absolute freedom. It's just that, while watching the episode, I wasn't sure that it really worked. I had my doubts as to whether his style was really suited to this show, which is ironic since this show has embraced such a wide range of styles so far. Here they went even further than they've gone before by having Kobayashi do the ep, as if to see just how far they could push this concept, and in the end perhaps that's what makes the episode interesting. In a sense there is some similarity to what we see in Ito's episodes - Kobayashi's drawings also have that rough touch. His drawings feel alive and honest. In that sense they're similar, and Kobayashi's work fits within the spirit of the show. But in the end Kobayashi is not a mover like Ito. Ito creates beauty through drawings in motion. Kobayashi works on a different level. Kobayashi seems in his element when creating a fantastic world full of zany ideas of his own creation, not when having to move someone else's characters. Actually, I found that I really liked the way little bits of his animation were injected subversively into the fabric of Nobuteru Yuuki's sleek drawings in the first episode of Paradise Kiss. His style seemed well suited to use in a subversive capacity like that.

As for the episode itself, it was probably the most sexual episode so far. Each episode has usually had its share of erotic happenings, but here the whole pivot of the episode was the issue of Toshihiko's ability (or inability, as it were) to get off with his gal. It's an interesting situation: They're uncontrollably attracted to each other, yet sexual arousal triggers transformation, preventing sexual consummation - one hell of a vicious circle. The catfight was fun, and there were a few shocking revelations that kept things quite interesting. The main thing I came away with from this episode was just how adult this series is - 'adult' in the sense that it delivers ero without moe. It's only on watching this episode that it occurred to me how rare a thing it is to see sex portrayed in an honest fashion like this and not played up for titillation or as fan service.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

02:40:14 pm , 231 words, 1198 views     Categories: Animation

Kotabe & Shinei

In an interesting addendum to the last post, I just realized that Yoichi Kotabe had actually been involved in the Red Bird. He was in fact supposed to have been the one to do the first episode about the Crying Red Oni I talked about, but he had to stop in the middle of preparations because he was invited by Toei to do that other folktale-styled film I mentioned, Taro the Dragon Boy, which also has a red oni character... so we got to see Kotabe's red oni after all, but just in a different place. He relates that he still regrets having done that to Kusube. He was also invited to work on Conan, but had to refuse for the same reason. It's interesting to speculate about what Conan might have looked like in his hands. He also mentions that he worked on Tenguri at Otsuka's invitation, and the work was all done from home - he didn't even go to the studio. This came right after he had quit Nippon Animation following Marco and gone freelance. This seems like one of those periods in a person's life when the future was uncertain, and things could have gone any of several directions. I can't help but wish things had gone in a direction that saw Kotabe working for a bit longer as an animator instead of going to game production.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

01:19:28 am , 958 words, 2427 views     Categories: Animation, TV

The Red Bird

A while back I mentioned the first series produced by Shinei Doga, Akai Tori no Kokoro (1979). Well, I ran across a copy in the public libary, of all places, so I can finally say that I've seen it, or at least a bit of it. I was excited to be able to see the piece just because it's the missing link between the A Production period and the Shinei Doga period. I was curious whether there would be the patented dynamism of movement of the classic A Production stuff, and was hoping there might be some interesting figures. Unfortunately, there wasn't much of either. The series is basically what I expected - a pale imitation of Group Tac's Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi. Madhouse's Manga Sekai Mukashibanashi seemed a bit more successful an imitation, with more daring abstraction and excitement. Here things are somewhat tame and soft, talking down to the children. I think part of the problem is also the format - rather than keeping the stories short with the two-story format of Group Tac's series, each episode of Akai Tori is one story. For the most part it doesn't feel like the directing is up to the task of holding the stories up for that long. Also, I recognized very few of the staff. At the most we can see names like Shigetsugu Yoshida and Hideo Nishimaki. It was actually nice to see something by Nishimaki from this period. I'd wondered what happened to him after his work on Goku in 1967. Here he did the episode I was most curious about, Akutagawa's Spider's Thread. As lackluster as his work may have seemed placed side by side with genius like Dezaki and Hata, placed side by side with lesser figures he shines. He's among the few who manages to invest his episode with enough rhythm and drive to sustain interest, though only barely. I'd expect nothing less from someone who'd worked under Gisaburo Sugii. The way the designs change with each episode is one of the series' main assets. The clean simplicity of the designs is refreshing, especially seen in this day an age when there seems so little freedom to design out of the box.

Among the few people I recognized from A Pro was Osamu Kobayashi, in the first episode about the red oni. The avant was animated in a style very different from the episode itself, so I assume it must have been by him, although the credits are confusing and don't help to clarify things. The avant features catchy, stylized drawing and dynamic, exciting movement, while after this the episode suddenly and jarringly shifts to dull, uninspired movement of a kind that I would not expect to see from a master of limited like Kobayashi. The drawings are done in a brush style. It's impressive that they tried to do this on a TV episode. This was the same period as Taro the Dragon Boy and Tadanari Okamoto's Onigakureyama no Soba no Hana, so brush-styled animation was in the air something serious at the time. Unfortunately after the first episode I don't see any of the A Pro luminaries from the old shows like Dokonjo Gaeru (Kusube notes wryly how Yoshifumi Kondo left to help out on Conan in 1978 and never came back), and the first episode is representative of the rest of the episodes in terms of the dull movement and drawn out content. It seems to suggest that Shinei made the right choice in focusing on long-runners like Doraemon and Shin-chan from there on out rather than going in a more stylistically varied direction, as that is the format in which they were in their element.

We also see the head of the studio himself, Daikichiro Kusube, stepping in to do one of the episodes. Perhaps not coincidentally, the episode in question is an episode about children on the Mongolian steppes, like the Tenguri pilot Shinei produced around the same time with the last of the good A Pro staff. Too bad none of them stayed on for this show. Perhaps not surprisingly, the episode feels very meisaku, in terms of the pacing and storytelling, and even in terms of the drawings. It feels like Kusube might even have been influenced by Yoichi Kotabe's drawings. (I thought Kotabe was much younger, but he's only two years younger. Kotabe was born in 1936, Kusube in 1934.) There was no credit for key animation, so Kusube must have omitted it to be humble. It was nice to see this veteran of early limited animation stepping up to the plate again after a decade and a half to show he could still do it. In all probability this was the last thing animated by Kusube, so it's of considerable value. (After his landmark work on Kyojin no Hoshi in 1969 he is almost exclusively vaguely attributed as "animation supervisor", as he is here.) Being quite late in his career, the ep doesn't have the sort of vigor I bet there was in his early Toei TV animation. Instead we see the steady, balanced hand of a veteran. His focus isn't on packing in as much movement as possible, like Otsuka would have done, but rather the opposite - showing how to draw an episode by yourself using the least amount of drawings possible. The results convince, though in the end it's hardly Marco, as Kusube is neither Kotabe nor Takahata. But that's not what A Pro/Shinei is about anyway. In the end this is a fascinating little outing for the studio, and I'd be curious to see what would be made of a folktale omnibus setup like this today. I get the feeling it might tap some of the imagination that's being left untapped today in the industry.

Monday, October 23, 2006

08:05:11 pm , 579 words, 1403 views     Categories: Animation, Denno Coil, TV

Denno Coil news

Here is a brief roundup of the little bits of news and rumours that have thus far managed to float through the cracks in the secretive aura that veils this project since it was officially announced more than half a year ago. Very little has been announced since then, which has led to much eager speculation. The most significant item of legitimate news came recently when Tokuma Shoten posted an ad in their magazine Animage outlining the scale of their ambition with the series -- Tokuma Shoten, of course, being the publisher of the seminal anime magazine Animage, which published Nausicaa, parent of Studio Ghibli, and otherwise one of the biggest corporate guns in the industry. After subsidizing the film version of Nausicaa in 1984, they then helped found Studio Ghibli, and funded a number of other films in the coming years including 1985's Angel's Egg. Denno Coil marks their first foray onto television. With the recent split from Ghibli, Denno Coil could be interpreted as the project that comes to fill in the gap left by Ghibli.

Adding to the already big enough news of Tokuma Shoten's involvement is a new piece of information in this ad that raises the stakes even higher: The series will be broadcast on NHK. I have doubts that this actually means "NHK", as in the terrestrial station. It seems more likely that they mean their satellite station, BS2, which is where most of their anime is broadcast. If they truly mean the terrestrial station, that would be unprecedented, and would mean a huge viewership. NHK has a long history of involvement in significant TV anime projects dating back thirty years to the likes of Future Boy Conan and Nadia and more recently Planetes. In short, the two entities that, separately, gave Miyazaki the opportunity to create his two very first personal creations, are now coming together to allow Mitsuo Iso to do the same. I knew to expect something remarkable from Iso's debut, regardless of who else was involved, but the fact that the hitherto parent of Ghibli, Japan's public broadcaster and Bandai Visual have teamed up to back the project annihilates worries about the show not getting the production backing it deserves. Giving credence to this are rumours I've been hearing that, very unusually for an anime TV series, the first season is almost completed already, even though an official broadcast date hasn't even been mentioned yet. (though at this rate next year seems pretty likely) That suggests they had a nice, long production schedule, and won't have to rush anything to meet a broadcast.

Rumours of staff involvement have been all over the place. Since the beginning I assumed that many of the people behind the quality of the big anime films of the last decade like Takeshi Honda and Toshiyuki Inoue would be involved. Takeshi Honda is rumoured to be the character designer. Tadashi Hiramatsu has posted on his home page that he storyboarded/directed episode 10. It can be assumed that Kazuto Nakazawa will probably be involved, considering the praise he received from Iso for his work on Childhood's End. A freelance animator named Igajiro, who is now working on Chevalier, reports on his home page that he did a little work on the show, to which end he visited the production floor, where he got to meet Inoue - confirming that the original karisuma animator is indeed involved.

About Mitsuo Iso | Filmography | Interview | Iso Fun Pack | Denno Coil posts

Saturday, October 7, 2006

10:16:59 pm , 1388 words, 1969 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie, Live-action

VIFF & Crossing Borders

Kazushi "Visitor Q" Watanabe at the premiere of Cain's ChildrenWith only a week remaining, among the best films I've seen so far at the Vancouver International Film Festival was the new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda: Hana (Hana yori mo nao). I knew it would be good, but it was totally different from what I was expecting. Koreeda was one of my favorites of that wave of minimalist filmmaking that swept Japan in the late 90s, of which his brooding Maboroshi no Hikari seemed to be the harbinger, but here he sets out to show that minimalist mood isn't all there is to his palette with a rollicking period comedy that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and trenchantly revisionist. If anything, it felt like I was watching a soft-edged Shohei Imamura. I never imagined he had it in him, and was expecting something closer to 2004's Nobody Knows. The humor was always dead on, as if it had been written by someone who'd been writing comedy films professionally for all his life, so I assumed panderingly that there was no way he could have written the film, and he was finally resorting to falling back directing other people's films, but I was impressed to see that it was written, directed and produced by himself. A real genius. The film is a long-needed re-interpretation of the cliched story of the "47 loyal retainers", recasting it into what it really was - a gruesome, anachronistic fiasco that gave the lie to the whole notion of bushido and signalled the end of a barbaric era.

The other hilight so far was the Taiwanese Cheng Yu-Chieh's amazingly accomplished debut feature Do Over. It was kind of like Magnolia, but without the schmaltz. Cinematography, sound design and directing were sophisticated and flawless. The very ambitious interlocking structure seemed to be teetering on the brink of spinning out of control at every moment, but he managed to retain control over every moment, creating a thrilling, stimulating, ever-evolving interlocking web of significance. A tremendous debut. The Moroccan Heaven's Doors was a similarly ambitious debut by a young brother directing team weaving together various narratives, but here there was less a feeling of control, with shaky acting, excessive length and inflection a bit too Hollywood. Climates by Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan also felt like a step down from his Distant, which I had greatly appreciated while noting a twinge of stylstic stretching thin. Here it felt like we were seeing more of the bad parts of of Distant, with long takes that didn't seem to hold up and a feeling of dreariness for dreariness's sake. There were a few years when Abbas Kiarostami's influence seemed to have injected a fresh vein of simplicity into filmmaking around the world, resulting in some excellent, sparely styled films in the early 2000s, but it's starting to feel like it's time to be moving on. Like Kanada's animation and the league of imitators, only the master can do it right. The Indonesian Love for Share was an unexpectedly delightful comedy of polygamist manners. Oku Shutaro's indie Cain's Children may have read well in the script, but it was a disappointment on the screen. In another disappointment, there were no guest appearances at the Alternative Anime screening, but as if by way of compensation, our patience was rewarded by a Q&A with the one redeeming feature of Cain's Children - its lead actor, Kazushi Watanabe - Visitor Q in the flesh! He's a great actor, and it was painful to see him saddled with the mediocre cast of this indie film. I hope he has a chance to act in some better films in the coming days.

This year's Alternative Anime felt very different from the last. Probably this was largely because most of the films this time around came from a different country. What was perhaps most interesting was to see the contrast in tendencies between student animation in Japan and Korea - if you can even identify a 'tendency'. Japanese student films seems generally more esoteric and inward-turned and abstract, Korean (from what I've seen here) more narrative-focused and linear and emotive. Because most of the films were student films, there was a sort of youthful 'haze' there, a feeling of still groping to figure out how to express oneself. The films had the freshness and lack of stale polish that I appreciate in student films, but also the lack of direction and purpose that can either be an asset or a liability in student films, and I can't say that many of them grabbed me except for possibly Act 1, Chapter 2, a bizarre retelling of the creation that worked on some visceral level but felt like it strove too much for shock effect. Notably, the music was excellent throughout. The schools must have been involved in the music somehow. One film stood apart from the rest in a league of its own - Space Paradise by Lee Myung-Ha. I actually dismissed the film while watching it because I thought it was not fair to compare the creation of students to the creation of a professional animation studio. I was shocked on seeing the credits to realize Lee had animated the entire film himself. I don't know if he's still a student or not, but what a difference genius makes! His film simply blew away everything else in the selection. I can definitely see Lee Myung-Ha going places. Lee's film was perfectly balanced entertainment, showing a level of technical refinement and narrative assuredness that I thought only a team of professionals could have achieved. A question that remains with me is how on earth he animated the film. Did he map the movement of the robot from CG? If he did, the results are wonderful and don't feel like CG; if he didn't, he's an amazing prodigy of an animator.

The entries from Japan were in the minority this time around, but had a better batting average. The experimental CG short Suzie No-Name was way, way too bizarre for its own good, but otherwise Yoshinao Sato's Desktop took a simple enough idea - how would you animate the desktop? - and did a convincing job of discovering a method of animation that stays true to the nature of the material, unleashing the hidden potential movement in the familiar play of windows splayed across all of our desktops by moving them around in an ingenious and mesmerizing dance of resizing, scrolling, and zooming. The third and last of the Japanese entries and of the selection was the one that struck me at the deepest level, Mitsuo Toyama's Trot. Toyama is a name I discovered on Digital Stadium, a peculiar and intriguing figure who is possibly even more interesting as a person than the animation he creates, which is saying a lot. I mentioned that the lack of polish of student films can be either an asset or a liability, and Toyama is one of the rare cases where it is an asset. In fact, it seems to be intrinsically tied to what makes his films great - that evanescent, delicate awkwardness of youth that will disappear with time. Toyama seems to be a true visionary - a poet whose poem is his life. I don't know what he is doing with his life now, but when his first film hit Digital Stadium in 2005 - You and I, and the Wind - he was working in a factory assembling cell phones by night and reading poetry to his own musical accompaniment like a Tokyo troubadour in city parks by day. His animation is an extension of that spirit of living in the now, steeped in a language and a mood entirely his own - the language of the cold wind striking your face on a walk in the dark of the night. Whereas most animation is as if squeezed out because the creators don't have anything to say, Toyama isn't squeezing. He's channelling. His films feel like a stethoscope to the soul. Watching his films you find yourself floating along on his mystical wavelength without even needing to understand what is going on. There are different ways an animated film can 'work', and his work fantastically well on the level of mood. I see now that Toyama came back to Digital Stadium with another film just last month - Celestial Observations.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

11:26:29 am , 354 words, 1399 views     Categories: Animation

Animator yearbook

I haven't had time to post much of anything in here recently (as usual), so I thought I would fill in the blank by posting this thing I threw together for my own reference some time ago - a simple list of some of the animators I've hilighted over the last two years, to see who's been covered and who remains to be... This might serve as a sort of extension of the Karisuma Animators page.

Mitsuo Iso 磯光雄
     Mitsuo Iso Interview
     Iso Fun Pack
     Denno Coil
Satoru Utsunomiya うつのみや理
     Gosenzosama Banbanzai
     Leading up to Aquarion 19
     Aquarion 19
Yoshinori Kanada 金田伊功
     The Kanada School
Koichi Arai 新井浩一
     3x3 Eyes
Hisashi Mori 森久司
Yasunori Miyazawa 宮沢康紀
Michio Mihara 三原三千夫
Nobutake Ito 伊東伸高
Takaaki Wada 和田高明
Ko Yoshinari 吉成鋼
Hideki Hamasu 濱洲英喜
Kazuo Komatsubara 小松原一男
Norimoto Tokura 戸倉紀元
Yasuhiro Nakura 名倉靖博
Ichiro Itano 板野一郎
Tomonori Kogawa 湖川友謙
Yasuhiro Aoki 青木康浩
Shinsaku Kozuma 上妻晋作
Hiroshi Okubo 大久保宏
Susumu Yamaguchi 山口晋
     Studio Torapezoid
Tadashi Hiramatsu 平松禎史
     Tadashi Hiramatsu interview
Toshiyuki Inoue 井上俊之
     Toshiyuki Inoue interview
     Toshiyuki Inoue interview - Part 2

Most of the time I've tried to focus on names that haven't received as much attention as I feel they deserve, while avoiding the more well-known names. But there are a few more well known figures I'd like to write about sometime. For one, I'd like to write a post about Takeshi Honda. Rumor has it that he is the CD of Denno Coil, so I thought it was a good time to look back on his work. I bet he's a pretty familiar name to many of you. What do you think of Honda? What do you think about any of the animators I've hilighted here? Who are your favorites? Why? Who do you think deserves to be written about that I haven't covered here? There are plenty of great animators I haven't covered here, so the future is full of possibility.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

08:12:53 pm , 1927 words, 3675 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Tokyo Loop

For some reason I forgot to mention one of the items that I've been most looking forward to at the VIFF this year: Tokyo Loop. It was in the back of my mind when I noticed it on the lineup, so it was a nice surprise. I was expecting to have to wait to get it on DVD, but instead I got to see it on the big screen first. This is one of the rare times I felt like I might have been better off seeing it on DVD the first time, in the comfort and safe solitude of my room. Having heard Koji Yamamura was heading the project, I was expecting an 'animation omnibus', but Koji Yamamura's Fig was in fact the only piece in the collection that struck me as being deeply satisfying as animation. I hate making pedantic distinctions between what's animated and what's not, so I won't. I think each of the pieces do work as animation at a fundamental level. You just have to approach it with an open mind. As an omnibus of cool new artsy shorts from a number of great Japanese artists, it was great film. It should have been obvious that it would emphasize the experimental side from the fact that many of the creators involved aren't animators, but experimental filmmakers or artists or the like.

A big pull of the film was the music by Seiichi Yamamoto. I was delighted to see that apparently his awesome work on Mind Game got some attention and he was being tapped for another hour & a half of film music. Masaaki Yuasa's comment about the amazing variety of the music he provided for Mind Game popped into my head during the screening. From one piece to the next you really do not know what to expect, and it's hard to believe a single guy came up with all of those different pieces, which ranged from Zeni Geva-inspired noise to Zoviet France-esque loops to driving drum solos to sweet medolies. This guy can do it all. My one complaint was that I felt that perhaps some of the shorts weren't as fairly served by the music as they could have been, while others benefited from extravagantly labored scores. I think this is an impression that might change watching it on DVD. The simple loops some of the films had seemed appropriate, but the audience was getting restless during some of them, which made it hard to appreciate the piece as it should have been. The experience reminded me of just how important an element music is in animation, how much the score can change your impression of a piece.

The driving drum solo in question came in the first piece, by Masahiko Sato, who is one of Japan's more famous TV advertisement directors. (you can see a number of his spots here) The music provided the perfect rhythm to jump-start the film, and great accompaniment to the pared-down screen, which consists simply of a series of dots representing a stick figure's joints in the process of walking across the screen, with lines dancing out from the joints in various configurations. Like most of the shorts in the film, there was no story. I've noticed a healthy trend of getting away from simple narrative in recent years in Japanese shorts. The opener worked perfect as an opener and as a film - a straightforward exploration of a simple concept: what happens on the screen when you connect the dots in various ways? It was one of my favorites of the movie, doing what I like best - taking a very simple concept and 'running' with it farther than you would have thought possible with such simple means. Watching it I felt digital was the future. I've never been a fan of what I've seen done with 3DCG so far, but it's in conceptually ingenious pieces like this and other shorts I've seen from Japanese students and elsewhere around the world over the last few years, like Robert Seidel's _grau, that I really felt the future of digital.

The indomitably frisky Keiichi Tanaami was here with a piece that was typical of what I've seen from his recent collaborations with the mystic Nobuhiro Aihara, who was also present with a new dose of psychedelia. It felt like Aihara was taking a break from the painstakingly detailed animated mandalas I've seen from him in the last few years and tapping a more primitive root of the animated family tree, with a bewildering three minutes of subliminal flashing imagery straight to your cortex from the land of dreams. I found it a bit exhausting, honestly.

I was glad to see Koji Yamamura accompanied by the latest young sprout on the hale trunk of the great tree: Kei Oyama, who was here with another repulsively beautiful examination of closeups of skin and the approach of consciousness of mortality in youth after his great and ever so upbeat Examination Room. I love his work. I look forward to seeing the kind of films he'll make when discovers the currently very foreign notion of happiness.

Not difficult to identify the most fun had in the film. I knew what to expect when I heard Shiriagari Kotobuki was to be involved, even though the man isn't even an animator: Something extremely bizarre and odd, and somehow funny. I had a foretaste in his strangely entrancing (and addictive) Minna no Uta short Tonosama Gaeru, and this film was close in spirit to that. Shiriagari's heta-uma drawings moving around: What more could you want? The story of a dog on a quest for a bone progressed with video game logic like a metaphor for our neverending hunt for the latest newfangled 'bone', be it the iPod Nano or the next rung on the ladder of all of our careers. I have the impression that Japanese indies in the last few years have been exploring the primitive appeal of children's drawings to explore deep states of consciousness, be it Naoyuki Tsuji with his charcoal angels or Atsushi Wada with his carefully crafted crummy drawings going through absurd yet somehow uncomfortably familiar rituals. I came away from Wada's latest sally on the folly of societally ingrained habit asking myself this question: Would it destroy him or open up new possibilities if he gained technical skill, which he seemed to be doing with this piece. I'm curious to see where he will go. I've never seen such a mismatch - such bad drawings combined with such a feeling of being completely conscious of how bad his drawings are and knowing exactly what he's doing.

The current doyen of indie Japanese animation Yamamura was joined by two other unshakable indie pillars - Taku Sugiyama and none other than the original Japanese indie, Yoji Kuri. I've still not had the chance to see as much of Taku's work as I would like, but the piece here was wonderful and confirmed my suspicion that I direly need to discover his work sometime soon. One of the few of his pieces I'd seen before is his Minna no Uta piece Let's communicate. I loved the execution of the piece, which seems to be about the mental bond that ties two people across the space of time and distance throughout hectic lives using a series of flipbook-like loops with no color or anything extravagant, just Taku's typical simple drawings. The numbers written in the corner of each of page show exactly how many drawings were used for each of the little loops, which adds a great dimension to the piece, emphasising the medium, making it impossible to forget at any moment that what we are watching is animation. The ingenuity of how he plays with this simple concept is what animation is all about to me, and I thought it showed well why he was one of the most famous indies of the last few decades. His piece in this film was a fantastic little fable-like story about the hidden nature of people. I don't know how active he is now, but he sure as heck still has the touch. He's been one of the precious few indies over the last few decades alongside Yamamura who has actively tried to explore the possibilities of animation from his own personal angle, without allowing himself the luxury of getting stuck in the rut of a single approach to the form.

Yoji Kuri's piece was typical of his earlier work in terms of the style and the humor, as was his piece on Winter Days, but here it felt much more successful. It seems like his humor wasn't able to breathe fully under the constraints of that literary-inspired omnibus, but here with more freedom he was in his element. It was a great relief to see this great old master - one of the founding fathers of the indie animation scene in Japan - still up to his wonderful old tricks almost half a century after the original, seminal Animation Festival. His little story about dog poop worked nicely as a arch protest against an aspect of city life with which we're all too familiar. It was actually moving to see him still in action. Long live the king of sukebe oyaji!

I'm being reminded of my old write-up of Winter Days in terms of how I'm starting to run out of steam and consequently won't be able to cover each of the 16 entries... so I'll skip the ones that didn't impress me too much. The surprise of the selection came with Tomoyasu Murata's film. The surprise? It wasn't a puppet film. It was absolutely as far as possible as you could get from a puppet film - treated photos of the Tokyo nightscape. The colored dots of light from the landscape were transformed into a beautiful abstract dance of shapes and colors. What unifies this with his previous work is the brilliant handling of light, shadow, atmosphere and space. These are precisely the elements I remember impressing me most in Tomoyasu's puppet films. Again, a film where very rudimentary means were used to create a film that feels self-contained and whole.

The short that caps this fascinating and not necessarily easy journey across the back alleys of modern-day Tokyo and the possibilities of animation is a digital bookend by technical wizard Iwai Toshio. I remember being impressed by his invention, the Tenori-on, or more specifically, the way that he manipulates the simple electronic device like some kind of an emissary from another planet, a Mozart from Mars speaking a symphony of bleeps and blinks. Here he returns to the deepest of the deep roots of the family tree, exploring the concept of the Phenakistiscope through entrancing digital shapeshifting loops. Amid the frenzy of Tokyo as seen through the lens of the bustle of different approaches on display in this omnibus, some of them successful, some still seeming to be struggling to find a direction, this was another of the pieces that seemed to clear the fog and point, beacon-like, towards the future. The clock ticks endlessly ahead.

If one thing disappointed me about the screening, it's that none of the creators were in attendance. Perhaps I'm spoiled from last year's AA screening attended by three of the young creators. I'm crossing my fingers that one of the AAs tomorrow or the day after will have some guest speakers. If not, no big deal. I'll have seen some great new indie animation on the big screen. What more could I ask?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

11:47:41 pm , 828 words, 2301 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #6

The fact that I can't watch the next episode until I write about the current episode incites me to get off my ass and write my post before things get any more backed up.

I've seen this ep three times now, and it's grown on me each time. The episode brings some welcome humor to the proceedings. The last few episodes seemed a little lacking in one of the things that most distinguishes Yuasa - his humor - and this episode makes up for that very nicely. It was hilarious the first time, and on the third watching I still laugh at the parts that made me laugh out loud the first time. This is definitely the funniest episode since the first episode, and the one where Yuasa's brand of humour comes out the best since the first. Yuasa co-wrote the script, which explains why. At the same time the episode weaves in a nice, touching story, and a fantastic action scene involving none other than the monkey - whom I've been dying to see in action again - so it was a really fun and enjoyable ep to watch. That's what I came away with from this episode - how nice this series is. In other words, how good it makes you feel just watching it. The show has heart. Despite the gruesome premise and occasional shocking image, it never feels morbid or repellant. There have been well produced series that I've enjoyed in the past, but beyond the technical aspect, there haven't been many series that I've simply enjoyed immersing myself in the way I do this one. And each episode is so different from the previous. There haven't been two episodes that are alike, either in terms of narrative style or animation style. This actually took me a little while getting used to, and I found myself wishing they tried a more linear tack, but now that I'm starting to get used to it, the approach is growing on me, and I can see how it's effective for telling this story.

Unusually, the animation director of this episode was a Korean whom I've seen in several of the episodes so far, Choi Eunyoung, with backup from Ito. He's clearly been one of the main folks behind the animation of the series along with a few other people I've seen regularly in the same eps but otherwise never heard of - Akira Honma, Mariko Aikawa, Masahiko Ouchi, etc. I suppose he must have come from Dr Movie originally. The animation was if anything even more sharp stylistically than some of the other episodes, with very daring and rough drawings full of wonderfully characterful ruffles and ridges. It was nice work and very pleasant to look at. He clearly understands Yuasa's approach, and does a great job of interpreting that approach through the lens of his own style. I'd be curious to know what parts he did in the previous episodes. The beginning of the action scene had a nice feeling to the moment, with some daring perspectives and leaping around. I liked the use of the "ghost" effect when Toshihiko was dodging the acorns.

For some reason watching this episode also reminded me of something I'd been wondering about since the beginning of the series - the meaning of the kemono. The way it is tied to sexual arousal seems to suggest some kind of a metaphor for human desire, though I'm not exactly sure how to interpret it. In this episode Yuka speaks about a doctor who performs free operations to cure the "persecuted" shokujinki. That single word puts a very different spin on things, suggesting that we may have been deliberately fooled into instinctively taking the wrong side in the presented power play of society at large versus the shokujinki in order to remind us how easy it is for us to unwittingly do the same thing in real life - how everything is relative. Certainties can be arbitrary and conditioned. Truth depends on your perspective and your willingness to empathise and try to understand.

Something I forgot to mention about the last episode was that "subway" scene. I didn't realize until afterwards that there really are places like that in Japan, where you can go and stand in a room designed to look like a subway and fondle a woman like some kind of a subway pervert if you get off on that sort of thing but would prefer to avoid the occupational hazards of the real thing. Great idea to use that to add some topical spice to the material. I remember a few spots of Paranoia Agent offering a glimpse into similar facets of the "fuuzoku" subculture of Japan, which seems to get more and more bizarre every year. Last ep I also noticed someone credited as "Mizuhata-san", which was amusing. Presumably we're talking about Kenji Mizuhata, whose name I see often enough, though I don't know anything about his style.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

12:32:30 am , 658 words, 1859 views     Categories: Animation, Kemonozume, TV, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Kemonozume #5

I'm a little late with the next ep, which I've by now had the chance to watch a few times. I usually try to write out my comments after the second watching. Impressions are most vivid after the first, but more balanced after the second. The fifth episode provided a number of happy surprises. First of all, it was nice to see things back at a high level in terms of the animation and directing. This was an entirely satisfying episode. Animation was solid and interesting throughout, with several great little bits. The story in particular was interesting, veering away from what I had assumed would be the main narrative to focus on the changes undertaking the Kifuken dojo. Instead of a linear story of love on the run, we see the story developing from various perspectives, shedding light from different angles. It's almost as if, rather than characters being the protagonists, the era the characters inhabit is the main subject. With this episode we can begin to see the historical allegory aspect of the series a little more clearly. Since the beginning of the series it was clear that they were setting out to make a series that felt very ... Showa. I don't know how else to put it. Literally Showa is the period from 1925-1989, but really Showa is more about the feeling of the times during the middle of the last century - it's the atmosphere the hippies in the Adult Empire Shin-chan film were out to recapture. The soft texture of the screen, the old placards, the street-oriented feeling of life - it feels like something you'd see in an old movie starring Tora-san or something. The transformation of the traditional institution of the Kifuken into a private company is a great parallel for all of the deep-rooted changes that overtook the country during that period. The grungy, handmade background art also helps bring out the whole Showa atmosphere quite nicely.

In terms of the animation, the big surprise was to find none other than Hisashi Mori in the ep, providing a stupefying shot that was everything I've wanted to see from the man and more - just not quite in the show I expected to see it in. I should have seen it coming. With Mori's indomitably personal approach to line and timing, I can't think of anyone else doing regular TV work who seems a better candidate stylistically for working on this show. Looking at his shot here, it's clear that Mori is going the way of Ohira. Mori's growth over the last few years has been amazing. Yuasa obviously did not miss this new face doing work right up his alley. Seeing some of my favorite animators whom I've never seen work on the same show before working here side by side is thrilling and moving. A face I wasn't familiar with did the pre-opening animation - Hiroyuki Aoyama. It was completely different from everything else I've seen in the show, but truly excellent, with just the nuance and delicacy and craftsmanly skill I would have expected from one of the animation directors of Mamoru Hosoda's latest film. I don't think I would have been able to pick out his work had I seen it elsewhere - and I probably have - so it was great to be able to see him given the chance to a discrete scene completely in his own style like this. The "avants" are turning out to pack great little surprises in each episode. Watching Crystania got me to fantasizing about Yasunori Miyazawa participating in the series. He would be a perfect fit. And I was surprised to hear that apparently the ep by Osamu Kobayashi (#7) might be a solo ep like Mihara's. On his site Kobayashi mentioned something I'd been wondering about for a while - who animated the awesome bit of prestidigitation with the coin in #1. It was by none other than Yuasa himself.

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