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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Sunday, January 2, 2004

07:26:29 pm , 3633 words, 5253 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Gisaburo Sugii vs. Hiroshi Masumura

Below is a conversation between Gisaburo Sugii and Hiroshi Masumura about the 1985 movie Night on the Galactic Railroad. Masumura is a manga artist who has created a large body of work set in a fantasy land called "Atagoul" (the title of a short CG pilot by Mamoru Hosoda), where the inhabitants are primarily anthropomorphic cats. Around 1983 Masumura began adapting several of poet Kenji Miyazawa's short children's stories in manga form, transposing the characters into the anthropormphic cats that are his forté. The stories he adapted include Matasaburo the Wind Imp, The Cat's Office, Snow Crossing, The Biography of Budori Gusko and Night on the Galactic Railroad, a vast undertaking that took him several years, indicating just how important Kenji's oeuvre must have been to Masumura, which is also made clear in the discussion below. For Night, Kenji's magnum opus, he went so far as to draw two different versions of the story - one at the beginning of his trek across Kenji's Iihatov, of the last extant version of Kenji's manuscript for Night, and one at the end of his journey, of the earliest extant version of the manuscript.

It was based on Masumura's idea of transposing the characters into anthropomorphic cats that the same was done for the characters in the movie version that was in planning at the time at anime studio Group Tac, to be directed by studio co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, whose career had run the gamut from the avant-garde adult masterpiece Belladonna in 1972 to the musical fantasy Jack in the Beanstalk in 1974 and the anthology-format TV series Tales from Old Japan over the years that followed. Night on the Galactic Railroad was to become one of his most significant achievements, an unclassifiable film whose every element combines perfectly to create a transcendent experience like no other animated film. YMO co-founder Haruomi Hosono provides music of incredible emotive power, while the voice actors breath every syllable with a degree of sensitivity and clarity that brings out the poetic power of Kenji's language to the greatest possible extent, and every background recreates the untranslatable poetry of Kenji's original in a compellingly stylized and unrealistic fashion that puts the spotlight on all the right details. Further, in a move that is rather exceptional for an anime film, seminal 60s avant-garde theater playwright Minoru Betsuyaku was brought onboard to adapt the story to the screen. A dream team in every sense of the word. It's one of the greatest anime films of all time, based on one of the greatest Japanese books of all time.

How did Gisaburo approach the making of this film? There remains much to be said, but this conversation sheds some light on this question. Little has been said about this film elsewhere, so I wanted to present it here. There are a few items that differed from my own intuitive understanding of the film from years of viewings, so it's instructive. For example, I took the humans to have been inserted simply as a way of mirroring the inverse distanciation effect Kenji seemed to have intended by naming the main characters with unfamiliar Italianate names, only to name the victims of the sinking of the Titanic with familiar Japanese names. This isn't mentioned by Gisaburo, so that may not have been the case at all.

This conversion was translated from the mook released by Asahi Sonorama in August 1985, two months after the film hit the theaters.


Gisaburo Sugii: Did you intend to use cats from the start when you were thinking of adapting Night on the Galactic Railroad?

Hiroshi Masumura: I wanted to do it with people at first, but I'm not very good at drawing people... (laughs) But I don't think I would have done it with people even if I could draw people. The second you set down a human face to this story, it changes the feeling of the story entirely, defining it around your own image, and I wanted to avoid that. I wouldn't have bothered to give it this much thought if the story didn't mean as much to me as it does.

GS: People have tried to animate Night on the Galactic Railroad before. It's a pretty common project. But it never works out. The projects always go belly-up midway. One of the reasons is that Kenji's descriptions of the landscape and colors are extremely specific, which surprisingly makes it more difficult to adapt. They try to reproduce those colors and details, and it never works. When Atsumi Tashiro (producer of Night) first talked to me about the idea eight years ago, I re-read the story, and the first thing I did was to try to put a face on Giovanni and Campanella, like you did. But I just couldn't come up with anything. If you try to force your own image onto those characters, it winds up changing what Kenji was trying to get across by this story through the characters. This time around I had a look at your manga when the project was in planning, and honestly, it was an incredible shock. I had never even dreamed of drawing the characters as animals. It was the obvious answer. It solved all the problems. I don't have a hard time visualizing the characters as cats now, thanks to your original, but I imagine it must have taken real courage to take that step.

HM: Deep down the reason I've set my manga in the land of Atagoul, where cats and people are on equal terms, is basically because of Kenji. The Acorn and the Wildcats is where I got the idea in the first place. So I don't think I'm doing Kenji any disrespect. One thing, though, is that there's a line in one of Kenji's poems where he says "I hate cats," so I was afraid people might be opposed to the idea because of that. (laughs)

GS: Kenji didn't draw any pictures for the original story; the pictures are the text. So, just the opposite, I think it would be nonsensical to try to adapt it literally and not take some freedoms with it. Your book is a perfectly valid creation. You've taken the mood of his story and transformed it into an extremely emphatic visual equivalent that brings out the mood of the original.

HM: The reason I drew a manga based on the story in the first place was because there was a lot I could identify with in the feelings of the characters. Also, Kenji's descriptions of the scenery are extremely vivid visually, so they come across as very realistic. His descriptions are both beautiful and opaque at the same time: "Dipping his finger in the invisible river of the sky." Then there are the various mysterious neologisms scattered throughout the text like tenkirin ("Heaven Wheel") and sankakuhyou ("Triangle Scope") and sekitanbukuro ("Coal sack"), which are so visually evocative and rich. It was a strangely pleasurable experience, coming up with concrete images of these objects and then putting them down on paper, only to be disappointed by my own lack in skill, and surprised at the incredible difference between the finished drawing and the object as I'd imagined it.

GS: My biggest problem in the film was the question of culture. The names are Italian-sounding - Giovanni, Campanella - but the feelings described seem pretty obviously Japanese. When you read these names it brings up this image of people in an imaginary European-like land somewhere, but my interpretation is that it's basically Kenji's feelings as a Japanese poet that we see in the characters and the landscape. So the question of culture is obviously a major issue for making a movie version. The landscape in your own manga version is your own personal vision of that world. I had trouble deciding whether to go with your own image of the world, or to put together a vision of Giovanni's life and environment more suited to a movie.

HM: I know what you mean. I didn't go into detail about things like how to draw the walls. You'd have to give them texture, add details to the interior scenes. And what color is their hair? Do they wear pants? There's a lot that isn't defined in my version.


GS: One of the things that occurred to me while making the film is that what probably motivated this story, besides the obvious motivation of Kenji wanting to convey to kids a certain message, was nothing so much as the simple fact that Kenji saw the milky way one night and was inspired to write a wonderful fantasy that would interweave the beauty of the milky way together with his view of humanity. If you don't bother to read any of the research that's been done on the book, and you just read through it in one sitting, I think what comes across first is just how clear and beautiful a story it is. I had to do a lot of research to make the film, but I think it would probably be more conducive to producing an honest reading of the story as Kenji intended it to forget all the research and just go with that feeling of clarity that comes across on that unprepared first reading.

HM: I tried to approach the story without any set preconceptions about what it meant when I drew my manga. Overall I think I have a fairly good picture of the original, but it's full of all these wonderful holes that you just can't fill in no matter what you do, which are part of the appeal to me personally.

GS: Things like the tenkirin and sankakuhyou.

HM: Luckily nobody seemed to have paid any attention to my sankakuhyou, because I drew it wrong and nobody said a thing. (laughs)

GS: For the movie we went with the theory of Tsuneo Maeda (animation director) that the sankakuhyou might have been just a triangular device planted in the ground to map mountains, which Kenji might have been acquainted with since he loved the mountains. Tenkirin is probably a neologism, but it's fairly obvious that's it's primarily a symbolic object. Kenji's reasons for using these incomprehensible objects is probably simply for the feeling of mystery they inspire in the reader. In the movie I've taken the liberty of interpreting the tenkirin as the milky way. My own view of these objects is that they're Kenji's way of saying to the reader: use your imagination, interpret however you want. His ability to fire the imagination is one of his greatest skills as a poet. I think it's being truer to Kenji's intentions if you don't dig too deeply into the parts that Kenji has deliberately blurred over for us.

HM: There's a poem called "Refractive Index" at the beginning of Spring and Chaos. It's full of all sorts of difficult terms. It's like Night, with all these semantic holes added to make it impossible to understand. But I think it's better to leave those blank spaces as they are rather than to try to force out some kind of labored understanding.

GS: In the movie we read the introduction to Spring and Chaos aloud over the final sequence where Giovanni is running home. It fits perfectly. It's amazing how unified Kenji's view of humanity, the universe and nature is throughout his work. That poem very clearly captures Kenji's overall philosophy. You might say Night is the story version of Spring and Chaos.

HM: I had to read Kenji's poems every day for a TV program earlier this year. When you read a poem enough times to be able to recite it from memory, it tends to pop into your head every once in a while. So for kicks sometimes I'd recite Spring and Chaos over and over and over. After a while it finally starts to sink in that the message is the same as Night. It sounds like something Kenji would do anyway - repeating something over and over like a sutra. So I think you did the right thing using the poem at the end of the film. People might leave the theater wondering what that crazy poem was, but unconsciously kind of getting how it relates to the film's message.


HM: I noticed you left out the religious conversation between the boy and Giovanni.

GS: I considered cutting out every reference to religion. My own interpretation of Night is that it was Kenji's attempt to construct his own personal cosmogony. Kenji had his own interpretation of Buddhism and Christianity that he wanted to convey, but gradually blurred over the explicit references as he worked on polishing the manuscript over the years. I thought it was best to not deal with Kenji's blurring tendency, which is why I mostly eliminated the entire "true God" conversation scene.

HM: Instead Giovanni just goes right to the heart of the matter with one line.

GS: That line was important because it's Kenji himself posing the big question to himself.

HM: The original story doesn't talk about Giovanni as having this overwhelming evangelical urge or anything. He doesn't try to force himself on anybody. None of his lines in the original story come across as evangelical.

GS: I might be reading too much into the story, but the way I read it, here's Kenji, who already had a fair number of years of experience looking for the path to true happiness, saying to people younger than him with less of that experience, "Look, I'll leave you a hint, but I can't do any more than that. You'll have to figure out the path to happiness on your own." Giovanni would therefore in effect be Kenji saying, "It's up to you to look for the path to true happiness." Which is why I cut out the scene where Giovanni attains enlightenment after the Scorpion Fire scene. Instead I have him say "I'll become like that scorpion" at the end of the film when he learns that Campanella is dead. Giovanni learns the truth about life through Campanella's sacrifice of himself to save Zanelli. My perception of Kenji's religious stance is less that of a firmly established Christian god than an abstract deity standing for the natural world, represented by the void of the coal sack. In his later years I get the distinct impression of Kenji's religious evolution towards a view of god as the universe itself, this dark, unfathomable coal sack of nothingness that's the ultimate destination of everything and everyone.

HM: But don't forget that Kenji asked in his last will to "distribute sutras" on his death. I agree that religion is less prominent in his later work, but when you read his later work you nonetheless really get the impression that it was written by a person who's no longer afraid of death. You get the sense of someone with truly ironclad spiritual readiness.


HM: What was the purpose of adding the blind wireless operator? He wasn't in the original story.

GS: He was screenwriter Minoru Betsuyaku's idea: a blind wireless operator who hears all of the misery in the world. My idea of the train was that it probably has all sorts of characters like this. Minoru must have been on that train at some time in his life to come up with a character like that. (laughs) Night encompasses all sorts of possibilites. That's its breadth.

HM: Is this approach the result of your years working in animation?

GS: You could say that. I worked on Tales of Old Japan (Nihon Mukashibanashi) for many years before this. Folk tales are a perfect example of an idea with the breadth to encompass different interpretations, just like Night. Ordinary stories created by someone are finely honed in a way that's extremely precise to the author's intent, so there's not a lot of room for interpretive freedom, whereas folk tales are so basic and loose that every person can bring their own interpretation to each story. Night is like that in that it invites each person to come up with their own interpretation. You can read it as a pleasant folk tale-like story, or you can read it as a philosophical text with religious overtones. You can also read it a scientist's literary homage to astronomy. What's amazing is that this breadth didn't come from a simple folk tale but from a poet with a very unique and delicately fine-tuned poetic sensibility. So I think adding a blind wireless operator shouldn't have any adverse effect on the mood of the story.

HM: Did you not consider making him a character like Dr. Vulcanilo? (a character in the early version of the original story)

GS: For this movie I decided that I didn't want any character representing god like Dr. Vulcanilo to be there telling people, "Do this and that, and you'll find true happiness." I wanted to make a movie that would have the same effect as reading one of Kenji's poems does - to make you feel what Kenji is trying to say, rather than understand it, rather than trying to explain it in words. So for example Giovanni's feelings of loneliness are conveyed through the landscape, instead being explained through drama. I didn't want to use words to express what it was that Giovanni learned from Campanella's death. You follow him along on his journey through the stars, and feel the complexity of his emotions when he woke up and learned that his companion on the journey, Campanella, was dead. I felt that the best way to convey that complexity was through silence, by not verbalizing it.


HM: Why did you make all the people on the Titanic humans?

GS: I wanted to make the point that it doesn't matter whether they were humans or animals.

HM: But it clashes with the rest of the film. Won't it confuse people and get them to wondering what it's supposed to mean? Here everyone they've seen is a cat, and suddenly they're presented with a boatload of people. I think it's the most jarring moment in the film.

GS: My feeling is that people won't be that bothered by it. Having the two side by side goes to the root of Kenji's world view: cats, people, insects and rocks alike - everything is one despite any outward differences. I wanted to emphasize that position of his in the film. Also important were the abstract images like the sankakuhyou that flies past the window. If you asked me to draw my image of Night in one drawing, I'd have the pampas grass in the foreground releasing crystal spores into the air with bizarre geometrical objects floating around behind them and a photograph of mars in the background - very much a collage of disparate elements. I wanted to bring out that heterogeneity in the film somehow. The film is put together in such a way that you can throw in various elements and it would still hold together. I guess it's a habit of mine to make films like that. I've got an aversion to making films that are nice and tidy. (laughs)


HM: I can personally relate to Giovanni's feelings. What are you trying to say to Giovanni?

GS: What I'm saying to Giovanni through this film is this: If you want to find true happiness, go back to the city.

HM: What do you think happens to Giovanni after this?

GS: I don't know whether Giovanni was crying or burning with hope as he was running home at the end; only that his heart was so full of emotions that he broke out running. That's why I said that "Everything starts here" at the end. Back in the city he'll go on living life one day at a time with the memory of a dear friend called Campanella in his heart, and one day I think he'll find something.

HM: Kenji's sister Toshi died before he started writing the story. I think it's acknowledged as one of his motives for writing it. It was his way of asking the question: where do we go when we die? If Giovanni is Kenji, then Campanella is Toshi. He had to find a way of getting over Toshi's death to be able to go on living. So he goes on a journey through the heavens with his sister, meeting all sorts of people along the way. But he can't fool himself into saying Toshi has gone to heaven and now she's happy. So he puts all his scientific knowledge to the task of looking for the heaven that he's always believed in. I think this process of searching overshadows all of Kenji's late work. But if he really loved his sister, he'd let her go. The way I see it, that's what Dr. Vulcanilo and Giovanni's ticket is about. The answer he found was that Giovanni (Kenji), left behind by Campanella (Toshi), has to go on living in the city to make up for the life s/he wasn't able to live. Which is the same as your ending.

GS: The nature of the medium requires some kind of feeling of identification with the main character, something universal that people can grasp, so I had to melt down the complex themes of the original to focus on Giovanni. You can read the original in a variety of ways. You can take a personal line and read it as a requiem for Kenji's sister. But insofar as Kenji broaches issues that reach far beyond the personal, it would be a contradiction to treat the story purely as a personal allegory. That's why this movie version does not take that kind of personal line, to remain truer to the spirit of Kenji's story.

Saturday, January 1, 2004

06:42:56 pm , 2249 words, 1866 views     Categories: Mind Game, Translation, Interview, Director: Masaaki Yuasa

Animeister Masaaki Yuasa Interview


 1  I was a Teenage Frame-Stepper

First off, congratulations on Mind Game winning the Animation Division Grand Prize at this year's Japan Media Arts Festival.

Thank you.

How does it feel?

It feels good. The film was well received critically, but I don't think very many people got to see it in the theaters, so I hope this prize will do something about that and help to get more people to see the film. I want to emphasize that I myself am only here as a representative. Mind Game would never have been able to win this prize were it not for the work of all the people involved in its production, particularly the author of the original manga, Robin Nishi, and the producer. I consider myself just one of the people who was involved. So on the part of the entire staff, thank you for choosing Mind Game.

How did you become interested in animation?

I was in the seventh grade when I saw Hayao Miyazaki's Cagliostro's Castle, which is what caused me to become interested in the idea of making pictures move. During high school I watched Gold Lightan, particularly Takashi Nakamura's episodes - not for the designs, but purely for the animation; for the quality of the drawings and movements. Anime was mass produced back then, so there wasn't a lot that moved very well. But Gold Lightan was different. It had great drawings and incredible movement. Video decks having just come along, during high school I'd go around to different shops renting anime videos that looked as if they might have the kind of movement that interested me based on the package art - although, needless to say, the cover art didn't always match what was inside. I also recorded anime that I liked off of TV and watched it over and over again. Again, not so much for the anime itself, but just to see the parts done by my favorite animators. When I got to college I kept doing more of the same, and started playing the movements in slo-mo, one frame at a time, to understand the sequence better. After I went pro I learned that people looked down on that sort of thing, but I loved doing it back then. After graduating from college I joined animation studio Asia-Do. I picked Asia-Do first of all because it was run by Tsutomu Shibayama, who had done Dokonjo Gaeru, whose drawings and movements I absolutely loved, but also because I was interested in children's literature at the time, and Asia-Do did a lot of one-off releases based on that kind of material.

 2  From Animator to Director

You started as an animator. How did you come to work as a director?

While I was at Asia-Do I was given the chance to do things like draw storyboard for song scenes¹, or set rakugo to pictures². But that was all in the capacity of an animator. After that I started working under Mitsuru Hongo on Crayon Shin-chan. As a director his stance was to remain open to suggestions; if anyone had a good idea, he would use it. In the first film, Action Kamen vs. Haigure Mao, he used an idea I came up with. He drew the storyboard for the scene, and I animated it. When I saw the finished product I felt it was the best thing I'd done since I started working in the industry. It was an incredible feeling to see something I'd come up with moving up there on the screen. It made me really happy. After that, I was invited to draw storyboard on the Shin-chan TV series, and I'd do about one episode a month. Back when I was working as an animator directors would often tell me that I didn't get this or that about their directing, which I found extremely frustrating. It made me want to respond, 'Okay then, why don't you give me a chance to show you that I do get it.' Besides, I was curious to test my own abilities, and felt that the experience of directing might prove helpful to my animation. But even more than that, I wondered what I was going to to do in the future if I was still working as an animator at 40 or 50. I've been lucky so far to work under good directors like Mitsuru Hongo and Keiichi Hara, but I knew I'd find it stressful to have to work under a director with a style that I couldn't get into. If I knew how to direct, then I could avoid that. I worked as the designer for the films, so I drew lots of things, but of course not all of them got used. Another thing I like about directing is being able to see all of my ideas go directly into the final product.

 3  Mind Game

And so we come to your directing debut, Mind Game, in which you use a variety of experimental techniques such as inserting photographs of the faces of the voice-actors. What were you seeking to acheive with this approach?

I wanted to give the film a 'rough' feeling. I felt mixing together different media would be the best way of conveying the rushed feeling of Robin Nishi's drawings. In live-action films CG is often used in combination with live-action footage because otherwise the CG lacks a feeling of reality; it feels kind of predictable. I felt that the same applied to this film: sticking to one media throughout - CG or drawings - would have led to a feeling of predictability. So I wanted to jump around between lots of different styles, almost randomly, throwing in photos every now and then to add some reality, to make the whole thing feel rather bizarre. I'm hoping it comes together like a collage, with all sorts of things thrown together, but nonetheless with a feeling of unity. When the characters feel kind of out of touch with the world around them, the background looks a little more rough to reflect that. I thought that was the more interesting way of doing it. So long as there's a clear story to follow, people seem forgiving if drawings are a little rough on the edges and lacking in unity. On the other hand, the project came about because of this manga, so I had no intention of veering away from the manga. But to be perfectly honest the manga lost be a bit in the second half, so that part I handled in a way that made more sense to me personally. If you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, the results can be disastrous. Take for example Cat Soup. The original manga is a vitriolic satire of all the brutality that exists in the world. Personally there's a lot I can't follow in there. So what I did was to pick out one vignette that seemed to offer a shred of hope, and mold the story around that. So instead of brutality for bruality's sake, the brutality is there to give a realistic weight to the message of hope that lies at the core. In that way I was able to find an approach that made sense to me personally. In the case of Mind Game, that message isn't hidden at all, it's spoken aloud - quite vocally, in fact. In this case I thought it was important to be loud and clear. There are lots of things in life that can't be accomplished unless you take them head on like that.

 4  Animation in the Digital Age

With the transformation from cel-based analog animation to computer-based digital animation, how have things changed on the workfloor, both technically, in terms of how animation is produced, as well as mentally, in terms of how animators approach this new situation?

It's easier to draw storyboards now, because you can draw shots that would have been impossible to animate before. On the other hand, digital can also be a pain in the ass. Before you could draw everything on one cel, but now you have to split one drawing into a whole bunch of different layers for the character and the effects and try to keep all of them straight in your head. That's the major disadvantage. But again, you can do a lot more now with digital. You can add sketchy effects to create a drawing that feels more analog than what you would have been able to acheive before in analog. That's what I'd like to pursue. I want to achieve a freer digital line to see if I can overcome the hard-to-avoid stiffness of digital drawings. Anything is possibile in digital, but that can also be a handicap, because there's so much freedom that it's hard to figure out what should be done. The good thing is that you can play it by ear and try out different things pretty easily. Before it was a real hassle and you had to re-shoot everything, but in digital you can fix it with one click, so you can test something out as many times as you want. Everything is data, so making changes is easy. Editing, coloring, everything is a lot easier, which I think accounts for why you see so much anime being made nowdays in spite of the fact that production conditions have actually worsened. Digital is what made that possible.

But the most interesting thing about digital is that anybody can use it. Even amateurs can make high-quality animation on their PC if they have the right software. The hurdle has thus been greatly lowered. However, a danger of this new freedom is that people seem more prone to settle for less; for good enough. Overall quality has improved, but what seems to have been lost in the equation is the movement. People seem less attracted to the idea of creating movement. Most anime seems to focus on the pictures and the directing. The quality of the drawings has risen so high that moving them has become extremely difficult. Personally, I'm not bothered if a drawing isn't very good. I just want to make it move. I love it when a character runs and the background moves. I love that feeling. It's like I'm in there running with him. That's why you see a lot of eye-perspective shots in my work. That's me in there. Also, subsequent DVD sales are an important part of the picture nowadays, so you have to make an anime that will look good on repeated viewings, which has had this adverse side-effect. The pictures are nice, but the movement is boring. There isn't much there that excites as animation.

As digitization continues to make it easier to do certain things, I think it will start to become more obvious when a project would be more suited to, for example, live action or 3DCG. In the same way, my goal is to continue to pursue the sort of animation that's only possible in 2D. Right now, I personally feel that live action is more interesting. The advent of digital has added a breadth to live-action filmmaking that literally makes it possible to create anything. But I want to try to continue to explore the virtues inherent to the flat medium of animation; to create animation that could only be done because it is animation.

 5  Animation for Whom?

I think animation is an excellent tool for opening kids' eyes to the interesting things in the world around us. Children who manage to grow up into adults who fit into the world are extremely lucky - the boy who grows up to do what he dreamed as child. When I was a boy, I was more interested in anime and manga than I was in the real world. The real world was a complicated and incomprehensible place. I didn't see where I fit in. That's a very painful thing for a child. Right now I get a lot of enjoyment out of looking up stuff for my animation, in encyclopedias and so on. For example, the way rain falls on mountains, which flows down to make a river, which creates sandbanks that change the landscape. Once you know that, it changes the way you look at the world around you, and leads to learning about other things. Animation is a good tool for transmitting this sort of knowledge in a fun and easy way. If you tried to do the same thing in live action, it would take a tremendous amount of work, to set up the shots and so on, and you'd pick up lots of irrelevant information in the shots. Animation is nothing but pictures, so it's easy to draw precisely what you want to convey in a way that's easy to follow for kids. Of course, that said, Mind Game was aimed at something more like the 20-up age range. (laughs)

I'm working on a short right now, but I'd like to do a TV series eventually. Directing, this time. Mind Game was based on someone else's story, but I'd like to get to the point where I can make up my own stories. It's easier to get approval for adult projects, but I'd eventually like to do a kids show. Something like the shows I enjoyed watching as a kid - Doraemon, Obake no Q-Taro, Hana no Pyun-Pyun-Maru. ◊

¹ Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song ちびまる子ちゃん わたしの好きな歌, movie, 1992.
² Anime Rakugokan アニメ落語館, 3 OVAs, 1992.

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Friday, December 31, 2004

03:14:51 pm , 141 words, 3604 views     Categories: Misc

Happy new year

Just wanted to wish everyone a happy new year, and thank all the people who have read this blog since I started it last summer, on a whim, without really knowing where it'd go. Your comments have been extremely encouraging. I woke up a bit sick today, and there's nothing like sickness to remind you of your mortality, so I'll just say to people to do what you want while you can. Things can change quickly. I was inspired to write to a dear cousin I haven't spoken to in too long. I've been a bit lazy with posts in here lately, but I'm sure there's lots more that deserves to be written about, so I'll try to keep going, while also trying to find some new creative outlet in this new year. Best of luck to everyone in their endeavors.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

07:10:33 pm , 391 words, 1776 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

On watching the animation battles

Found an interesting connection. I knew Nobuhiro Aihara had a start in commercial animation, but I spotted his name in the credits of Gauche the Cellist of all things on a recent re-watching. Love the guy even more now. Wish a DVD of his works would be released. I just got to rewatch Memory of Red alongside his animation battles with Keiichi Tanaami, and was again pleasantly struck by the incredible contrast in style. You see Aihara's origins in classical animation in his work, abstract though it is, in his ability to create intricate movement that excites as animation, whereas Tanaami's work is clearly the work of a painter, who expresses using sharp, staccato images presented boldly. Their erotic preoccupations are brought to the fore in Fetish Doll, which prominently features the finger-in-ear motif that also made an appearance in this year's animation action, Animactions!!!!, which I also had a chance to see. I think the latter could have been a more impressive piece if worked a little bit more in the studio afterwards to add some effects to the ghostly afterimages, but as it is it's an exciting and inspiring experiment. It was filmed with 5 different cameras, so theoretically you can see it unfolding differently each time. The earliest battle in the set, Scrap Diary, was in black and white, and represents a return to the fundamental movements: up-down, rotating, sliding, etc, which were the only givens at the beginning. Without the distraction of color, the eye becomes attuned to the visual richness created by their differing styles - the speed and weight of the brush strokes - as they intertwine on the screen. I found Landscape perhaps the most inspiring personally as a stimulating study of memory, of the landscapes seen for an instant from a moving train or car, never to be seen again; how these are remembered by different persons, and how they change in the mind with time. This boundlessly rich 30 minutes of visuals was all made in the last two years, so it's comforting to know that there are still people making this sort of down-to-earth analog animation these days - though it also seems to represent a nostalgic, bygone age, namely that of these now nearly septuagenarian master animators, whose art seem the most youthful of any of the independents I've seen working today.

Monday, December 27, 2004

08:57:35 pm , 417 words, 1469 views     Categories: Animation

TV Toei

The Image Forum theatre in Tokyo is showing two Karel Zeman films. Would be ultra-cool if the V Cinematheque would do the same. Two Generators in their schedule sounds like a pleasantly masochistic experience. It matches my feelings towards cinema at the moment. Though at the same time, I feel I would enjoy sitting through a restored 80s Hollywood behemoth on the big screen, to taste once more that innocent pleasure my youth. I'll probably go to their Best of Ottawa selection, because it's animation, though I feel I could pass on a lot of the items on the docket.

Aru Tabibito no Nikki (A Traveller's Diary) is a wonderful Flash animation series drawn by Kunio Kato. It has a good old fashioned hand-drawn feel, and great music. There are some panels in Japanese but they're not necessary to an understanding of the stories. The series is soon to be released on DVD.

Speaking of soon-to-be-released DVDs, fans of classic anime will be interested to hear about an upcoming series of DVD releases of classic 60s Toei TV anime. The "Toei Anime Monochrome Masterpieces" DVD series to be released early next year will consist of a total three volumes, with three DVDs per volume. Each DVD will contain a selection of 4 to 6 of the best episodes of one of Toei's black and white TV series, plus an interview with a person involved in the series.

Vol. 1
- Wolf Boy Ken - Isao Takahata (director) + Yasuo Otsuka (animator)
- Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru - Daisaku Shirakawa (director)
- Hustle Punch - Yoichi + Reiko Kotabe (animators)
Vol. 2
- Uchu Patrol Hopper - Toru Hara (producer)
- Rainbow Sentai Robin - Keiichi Kimura (animator)
- Kaizoku Oji - Toru Furuya (voice actor)
Vol. 3
- Mahotsukai Sally - Akiyoshi Hane (animator)
- Cyborg 009 - Masaki Tsuji (writer)
- Akane-chan - Tomoharu Katsumata (director)

This marks the first time several of the shows in the set will have been available in any format as far as I know. Interestingly, Ghibli, not Toei Animation, is the one releasing these. The most notable thing about this release, and which doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere, is that purchasers will be able to vote for their favorite series in the set, and the most popular series will be released in full on DVD, in a limited pre-order only set. It would be great if this made it possible to finally see all of Hustle Punch or Wolf Boy Ken, classics that nobody has seen.

Friday, December 24, 2004

08:47:51 pm , 761 words, 1296 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game: More thoughts

Carollers singing something in... Russian? Romanian? Ironically, I don't think it was intended for my ears, whatever it was.

Unable to get to sleep last night for some reason, I spent the night out on a driveabout in the snowy mountains and got back nearly dead from exhaustion earlier today around noon. I have to thank Mind Game for reminding me that I'm still alive.

As I mentioned in the previous post, one of the aspects of Mind Game that most impressed me was the storytelling; the way the drama is presented. Yuasa has mentioned that he wants to focus on storytelling in the future (over action or what have you) and it seems likely that there will be a next production, possibly an original TV series, so I very much look forward to seeing him develop this aspect of his skills. I only say that because I was amazed how good he already is, and I'd like to see him get better, which I think he could if working on his own material.

I wanted to get down my various thoughts before I see the film again because Mind Game seems like a film that evokes different things as you get to know it better, and the first impression is quite unforgettable. I think I didn't emphasize enough the impact of seeing the film for the very first time in my first post. My jaw was open much of the time throughout the movie. Few films I've ever seen combined artistic experimentation and comprehensibility in as thought-provoking and mind-bogglingly imaginative a package as this one. I'd heard this before, but I can confirm it now: This is a film that feels spontaneous. It's hard to imagine how it all could have been planned out beforehand. It goes all out until the finish in a beautiful Olympian arc, but still has the time to paint a huge canvas of characters and background information.

Yuasa talks about wanting to capture the way the original manga feels like it was written in one go, without a blueprint, and that's exactly how it feels when watching the film - even though I have 550 pages of proof as to how much meticulous planning went into every single movement of every shot (Yuasa reportedly provided roughs for much of the film's movement). I think what I like about Yuasa's directing is that I can understand the theory behind it, and I can relate to it, which is a first for me. Other directing styles impress but alienate; Yuasa's seems unpretentious and honest in comparison. Yuasa already had a reputation as an animator, but it's clear that his directing talent is equally uncommon, and he has what it takes to become a great storyteller. Also, I noticed similarities to Cat Soup - the circular storytelling, the reliance on conveying of narrative information via the visuals rather than dialogue.

I've zoomed in on the less obvious qualities like the truly profound human element because the animation (or I should say the visual element due to the huge variety of media and styles that come into play) is the most obvious of the film's unique features. I can think of few films that come close to Mind Game in terms of exactly the qualities I value most in animation - movement, velocity, freedom with form. Never have I seen animation that was simultaneously so constantly interesting and exciting and that served a greater purpose than mere surface-level titillation. It all works together perfectly, and every moment has surprises. The variety and quality of the ideas is astounding, the deformation so extreme that it seems to bend the very fabric of the universe, but the acting is extremely nuanced exactly when and where it needs to be thanks to the precise directing. The film is "written and directed" by Yuasa, but like in the Shin-chan films, the script is in fact the storyboard.

I've been holding off on looking at any of the material that came with the set because I want to absorb the movie before looking at it in pieces, and it will take a while for that to happen. The set came with some postcards illustrated by various people. All of them were involved in the film somehow or related to someone involved in it - except one: Shinji Hashimoto. He was the only one not involved in any way. It's obvious from his work, and this gesture, that there's a spiritual kinship there, so it'd be neat if they did some work together in the future.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

09:08:33 pm , 534 words, 1020 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game: First impressions

I've watched Mind Game once, and there are several things I can say for sure. I don't think I've ever had such a dizzying experience watching a full-length animated film. I don't know how to describe it; there's like a motor in my brain somewhere that's been overheated and that doesn't want to stop - it's still revving away, driven mad, out of control, pondering this and that, imparting a pleasant warming sensation. Concretely, the volume of information in the film is so vast that it begs repeated viewings. I've never seen another film like this that managed to create such a vast and convincing panorama of the entire range of human experience within such an abbreviated span of time - and do it in a way that comes across as entirely unforced and beleivable. One knows it makes sense, even if, when watching, one doesn't quite grasp what that sense is. It's as simple as a leaf, and as complex. Most importantly, I've never seen a full-length animated film that spoke to me, personally, more eloquently and powerfully purely by means of visuals than this one did. The film is, first and foremost, animated. It's an animated Ode to Joy, whose every explosively unbridled mo(ve)ment mirrors the theme of unlimited human potential. In addition, it's a great film that holds you riveted for every minute without relying on rails laid by predecessors - indeed, it shatters any notion of conventional structure. It doesn't make it easy, but it asks you to participate in the experience, and it's that much more rewarding. It's literally a storm of images, but at the same time, at the core it feels calm.

The biggest surprise for me was perhaps the gut-wrenching power of the way the human stories in the film are conveyed by the directing. There's a feeling of depth there, of personal reality, that has to be experienced to be understood. It's literally an eye-opening film. I think back on it and my eyes open wide. I try to grab a handhold and my breath catches, I don't know where to begin. It's certainly paced and structured like no other film I've seen, animated or otherwise. I can honestly say that the scene animated by Nobutake Ito is one of the most powerful animated sequences I've ever seen. Visual adrenaline. An expression of the atomic power that lurks in the human mind, the height of animated expressive potential. I came in with quite a baggage of expectations, so naturally I found much that was different from what I'd imagined. It was not the emotionally overwhelming experience that Night on the Galactic Railroad was to me personally, but this is no doubt partly because I came to the latter with no knowledge and to this one with too much. It was overwhelming in a different way, in a way that combines the emotional resonance of said film with the visual destructive power of Belladonna. I can't speak for anyone else, because this is most certainly a film that will not leave people opinionless; I can only say that to me personally it's the sort of evolutionary step I've been waiting for in animated filmmaking.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

02:00:37 pm , 885 words, 1270 views     Categories: Mind Game

The Mind Game DVD has English subs

Mind Game Official SiteI just received the Special Box, and as it turns out, the film does have English subtitles, despite all the fretting about the word "planned". So anyone who wants to see Mind Game right away, before the remake, should jump to it and get the DVD to support this kind of animation, if you want to see more like it in the future.

To anyone who still does not know what Mind Game is, here are a few links that might help to give you some idea. You can browse through all my Mind Game-related posts here.

=> Mind Game trailer

=> All about Mind Game - a primer

=> Masaaki Yuasa interview - translated from the official site

=> Movie review by Mark Schilling - spoiler alert

=> Mind Game DVD - detailed info about the three sets (photos)

=> Mind Game Bibliography - which I've been neglecting

The packaging of the box is just lovely, all drawn by Masaaki Yuasa. He reportedly drew more than 240 individual characters for the even more beautiful looking Perfect Box. The 500-page storyboard book is truly a sight to behold. I like Yuasa's stand on the book - he lays it all bare, warts and all, without correcting anything, so we really have an accurate blueprint of the film here, and not a prettified one, which I've heard happens sometimes these days when directors know their storyboard is going to be made public.

Studio 4°C and Yahoo! Japan recently linked up to present the first ten episodes of Kimagure Robot to the public, and yesterday, to commemorate the release of the DVD, they started a series of what will eventually be four charity auctions, where they'll be auctioning off various items drawn upon by Yuasa. At the same time they put up a new interview with Yuasa, which touches on aspects of his experience on the film that are familiar from other interviews, such as the rapidity with which the Yoshimoto Kogyo voice actors breezed through their task, but also a few other less familiar anecdotes, such as the one about his experience creating a musical scene for "a certain show" many years ago (the 1992 Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song movie), when he created an incredibly imaginative 3 minutes of animation that was arduously matched to a song, only to nearly die of mortification to find that the song had been changed at the last minute, and the animation no longer matched. He relates that this led to his determination to be pliant as a reed in his work as the director of Mind Game, and not get hung up on details, which accounts for the unique way he approached the job - not as an auteur handing out commandments to subordinates, but as an organizer trying to figure out how best to accomodate the various ideas offered by his talented staff, from whom many of the most memorable ideas in the film reportedly originated. This has obvious similarities with the production style of the Crayon Shin-chan films, in which he was involved as designer, animator and storyboarder for almost a decade, providing many of the most interesting ideas in the films.

In addition to this interview, a special feature on Yuasa was added to the Animeister section of the Japan Media Arts Festival site after Mind Game won the grand prize. It also includes an informative interview, which I'll soon be translating. Not long ago I talked about how a feature in said section had been devoted Keiichi Hara, director of several recent Crayon Shin-chan films. In retrospect that could well have been taken as a hint of what was to come. In each feature there is a "keyword" and "key figure" section where the person in question provides six words and individuals that can be cited as keys to their oeuvre. Masaaki Yuasa is one of Keiichi Hara's key persons, and vice-versa, which makes the similarity in the directing style of Mind Game and the Shin-chan films that much clearer. Yuasa's list is quite gratifying personally. Topping the list is Takashi Nakamura, whose legendary animation in mid-80s anime TV series like Gold Lightan and Urashiman Yuasa cites as his door to sakuga anime otakudom, definable as the state of watching anime largely for the thrill of being able to see work by individualistic "karisuma" animators like Nakamura. Second only to Nakamura in Yuasa's sise is Shinya Ohira, who since Nakamura's heyday has been one of the most uncompromisingly individual artists working in Japanese commercial animation, and whose influence on Yuasa both spiritual and stylistic is even more palpable. The other figures are Mitsuru Hongo and Keiichi Hara, directors of the Shin-chan films; Sueyoshi Yuichiro, the brilliant animator and animation director of Mind Game who is widely considered to be Yuasa's direct stylistic successor; and Tsutomu Shibayama, the great animator at the root of all the classic A Pro anime that captured Yuasa's imagination as a child, eventually leading him to become an animator at Shibayama's studio, Asia-Do. A feature on Yoshiyuki Tomino was added immediately prior to the Yuasa feature, presumably because Tomino heads the judging committee this year.

Adding to this the three hours of bonus material on the DVDs, I think it's fair to say that we've got a good beginning in terms of expository information on Mind Game.

Friday, December 17, 2004

11:50:40 am , 447 words, 6775 views     Categories: Mind Game

All together now

Mind Game Official SiteHooray! Mind Game has won the Grand Prize at this year's Japan Media Arts Festival. Akitaroh Daichi's Makasete Iruka was runner-up alongside Howl and several other films.

The prize winners have just been announced, so details have yet to be published. I had my doubts whether it would happen with Yoshiyuki Tomino at the head of the judging committee this year, but it looks like I misjudged him. We'll see if Yuasa mentions the honor in a few hours on the Maywa Denki talk live broadcast.

It's rather impressive, when you think about it, for a dark horse like Mind Game, which nobody saw in the theaters, to have beat out the entire cavalcade of major new films by all the major anime directors - and what's more, at a festival run by the Bunkacho, the Governmental Agency for Cultural Affairs.

The other big contest for Japanese animated films, the Mainichi Film Concours, will be announcing the winners of its two animation prizes on February 9: the Animation Film Prize, which generally goes to major industry films (last year's winner was Tokyo Godfathers), and Ofuji Noburo Prize, which generally goes to more artistic animated films (last year's winner was Winter Days). The Ofuji Sho is arguably the more coveted and prestigious of the two, as the list of prizewinners includes most of the great practitioners of the more artistic side of animation in Japan over last four decades.

   Osamu Tezuka: Tale of a Streetcorner
   Little Prince and the 8-Headed Dragon
   Makoto Wada: Murder
   Yoji Kuri: Human Zoo, Love, Chair, Aos
   Tadanari Okamoto: A curious medicine
   Osamu Tezuka: Pictures at an Exhibition
   Yoji Kuri: Two carps, The Room
   Kazuhiko Watanabe: The Ugly Duckling
   Takashi Yanase: The Gentle Lion
   Tadanari Okamoto: The Flower and the Mole, Home My Home
   Akikazu Kawano/Takeo Nakamura: Tenma no Torayan
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: Oni
   Tadanari Okamoto: Praise Be to Small Ills
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: The Life of a Poet
   Tadanari Okamoto: The Water Seed
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: Dojoji
   Tadanari Okamoto: Towards the Rainbow
   Cagliostro's Castle
   Taku Furukawa: Speed
   Isao Takahata: Gauche the Cellist
   Tadanari Okamoto: The Magic Ballad
   Barefoot Gen
   Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind
   Night on the Galactic Railroad
   Osamu Tezuka: Legend of the Forest
   - No award -
   Kihachiro Kawamoto: Sleeping Beauty
   Tadanari Okamoto/Kihachiro Kawamoto: The Restaurant of Many Orders
   - No award -
   Shigeru Tamura: Milky Way Fish
   - No award -
   Nozomu Nagasaki: Rusuban
   - No award -
   Shirokumi: Mizu no sei: Kappa Hyakuzu
   Alexander Petrov: The Old Man and the Sea
   Blood the last vampire
   Millennium Actress
   Winter Days

A DVD set of the winners was released in 2000, which I talked about in a previous post.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

11:45:56 pm , 1281 words, 4716 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Ichiro Itano

The first pic from Gisaburo Sugii's new film. Why am I reminded of Ringing Bell?

I love Shinji Hashimoto's shot in the Sci-Fi Harry op, the way he manages to make the person all wobbly and wavy and yet retain a distinct core. There's a bit of this deforming sensation in his work of late, but here it's done quite dramatically and to great effect. I don't know who else was involved, except obviously Shinya Ohira, but it's all great, though Shinji and Shinya are the only two who take the idea of getting as much movement as possible out of the character on the screen to its maximum potential. They place the character there and see how much interesting movement they can come up with. The whole form speaks, not just the face, and there's a thrilling density there that nobody else acheives, whereas in normal animation there's a hurry to get the specified movement done and out of the way. It's really a different way of approaching the act of animating.

I had another look at Riding Bean and was surprised by the quality and the quantity of Ohira's contribution. He was one of the ADs and contributed the most animation. Last time I watched this thing it was over a decade ago and I didn't know who Ohira was, nor what good animation was. Now I see. Any suspicions about Ohira's drawing skills from people who have only seen his late work will be quickly wiped away from seeing his mid-period FX. This would have been right after Akira, when he was still focusing on FX, before moving to characters. There's an incredible density of movement and detail that has no equal in anything that was being done then or now by anyone else. I look forward to seeing Ohira's work in Howl. There's a part of me that would love to see him go independent, but another part that loves seeing him working within the system on these major studio projects, always totally doing it his own way. His presence bring a healthy feeling of tension to the final product, at least in this viewer.

One of the things that made Ohira stand out in his early years was his tendency to pack an incredible amount of detail into short sequences animated at a full frame rate. There was a span of years during which he admits that he went a little detail-crazy, doing such things as drawing a thousand drawings for five seconds of animation. One of Ohira's most famous predecessors in terms of focusing on packing in detail into short sequences of incredible power and density is Ichiro Itano, who created a sensation among fans with his animation of aerial combat sequences in a trio of early 80s TV shows.

Ichiro ItanoBorn in 1959, Itano started as an animator midway through the original Gundam series. While working on the show he came up with a new, more dynamic approach to portraying combat sequences that would wind up making him one of the most famous animators of his day.

The seed of this new approach can be traced as far back as the make-beleive games he and his friends would play out on the street mimicking their favorite TV hero, Ultraman. One day they came up with the idea of tying firework rockets to the back of a bike to spice things up, and when the rockets flew, the young Ichiro was struck by the dynamism and beauty of the unpredictable way the projectiles flew through the air.

When he began to think about the problems entailed in the combat animation he had to do on Gundam, he questioned the static way such scenes had been approached up until that point, looking back to those youthful bike rocket experiments for inspiration. Rather than letting action take place in a fixed frame and cutting between close-ups, he moved the camera into the middle of the fray, dynamically following the various bodies in the frame as they danced around each other in an elegant, intricately detailed ballet. This was like nothing that had been seen before, and it gave his scenes an incredible immediacy. You knew it right away when Itano's animation appeared on the screen, and you couldn't look away. It stood out. At a basic level this is because his scenes were (ideally) done at a full frame rate, which contrasted greatly with the limited animation that necessarily dominated the medium. (There were particularly bad episodes in Macross with literally no animators, only the character animation director and mecha animation director; Itano handled several.) But the movement itself was different in a more fundamental way - it was about the sheer joy of pure movement. Like all great animation, you could see the person behind it. It had personality. You could sense an artist communicating his vision: "This is animation!" He was an animation artisan searching for how best to work the material given him, and you could clearly see the labor that had gone into the final product. The timing of the action was millisecond-precise, the flight paths were unpredictable and full of pinhead turns in a way that convinced you of the reality and the weight of the objects. In the end, what makes his work great is that it is an example of a person pushing the medium of animation to its limit and creating the sort of visuals that are only possible in the medium of animation.

Yoshiyuki Tomino was duly impressed by his invention, and gave Itano an opportunity to continue to develop it in his next series, Ideon, in the movie version of which Itano's approach reached its first peak. Having by now acquired a reputation in his field, Itano handled most of the film's important full-frame mecha sequences (along with Yoshinobu Inano), which, combined with the highly expressive characters of animation director Tomonori Kogawa, contribute greatly to the visceral impact of this blistering, orgiastic vision of mutual assured destruction, which many (including Tomino himself) consider Tomino's peak acheivement. After this, Itano worked on Macross, where his art reached its peak in the various classic action sequences scattered throughout the series, for which he is best remembered today. It was at this time that Hideaki Anno came to work under Itano to learn professional animation skills, which he would put to use in animating the swords in Daicon IV. By this time Itano had become famous among animation fans in Japan - to the extent that they had invented a word for Itano's animation: Itano Circus. To the disappointment of animation fans, however, he soon embarked on a directing career, cutting off a promising beginning as an innovative animator. He was part of the generation right at the border of the digital age, when animation was becoming more and more detailed, and he was one of those who pushed the medium of hand-drawn animation to its height, creating incredible effects by means of arduously crafted hand-drawn animation. Much of it could easily be done on a computer now, and for the last few years that is exactly what Itano has been doing: bringing his art into the digital age, in recent work on shows such as Macross Zero.

Partial filmography
  Gundam TV - key animation
  Ideon TV - key animation
  Ideon movie - key animation
  Macross TV
    mecha animation director (w/animators): 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 31
    mecha animation director (alone): 14, 17
    key animation: 31
  Macross movie - key animation
  Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer - key animation
  Megazone 23 - action director, animation director
  Megazone 23 Part II - director, mecha animation director
  Tekkaman Blade TV - storyboard, director, animation director: 31, 36, 42, 47
  Macross Plus - action choreographer
  Macross Zero - action choreographer

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