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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Saturday, October 16, 2004

01:29:43 pm , 207 words, 890 views     Categories: Animation

Two new eps

Episode 2 of Beck was again done by Osamu Kobayashi himself. Will he be doing every episode? Even if it is based on a manga, it would be unprecedented for one person to write/direct/storyboard every episode of an anime TV series. Gainax animator Yusuke Yoshigaki, who was in the op, contributed a nice FLCLish sequence. What's good about this series is that the work of an individualistic animator like Yoshigaki can go in seemingly unmodified even though it's way different from the rest.

Episode 21 of Tweeny Witches was done by Shogo Furuya, who was the director (enshutsu, not kantoku) of Tokyo Godfathers, one of the animation directors of Millennium Actress, animator in Spirited Away, etc. It was extremely well done, with a movielike atmosphere, lots of effective framing with extreme perspective, really nice drawings just slightly more realistic than usual for this series, and movement incorporating Ohira-like drift 'n wobble. The characters felt a lot more three-dimensional than usual, and bodies were drawn with subtle touches that gave a more realistic impression. Walking and running were especially good. He did episodes 10 and 13, but he wasn't the AD on those, as he was on this one, so they're not as unified and honed as this one is.

Monday, October 11, 2004

07:12:49 am , 930 words, 2035 views     Categories: Animation, Misc

New shows

The fall lineup has hit the air, and the hilight for me turns out to be Beck ep 1, in which Osamu Kobayashi puts on an amazing one-man show: writer/director/storyboarder of ep 1, in addition to series director, character designer, animator, opening storyboarder/director/animation director, and ending illustrator. Not surprisingly a number of good animators are involved. The first three listed are Ken'ichi Konishi, Norio Matsumoto and Yasunori Miyazawa. The op is nice, with lip-syncing, which is unusual in anime, and it features Takeshi Honda, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Yusuke Yoshigaki. I hope this trend continues throughout the rest of the series. This is a nice followup to Paranoia Agent for Madhouse. It's good to see them continuing to use good home-grown animators rather than just outsourcing everything.

As far as I know this is Osamu Kobayashi's directing debut, and it has that unpolished feeling of youth and inexperience. But that's not a bad thing. By no means. It feels great to see someone actually spreading his wings and trying to find himself in anime rather than just following the crowd and pumping out cookie-cutter characters and situations. This is an auspicious debut. I can't think of another series in recent memory that had one man behind the visuals and the directing like this, and that gives it a real sense of unity. Also it's very rare for an anime director to also go to the trouble of writing an episode like Kobayashi has done here. That reveals the depth of his devotion to the task of making this thing good. Apparently he event did the "location hunting" himself, basing a lot of the scenes on actual places around Tokyo (like the ramen booth) that he went around and photographed himself. He probably felt this was his chance to prove himself to the world, and I'm impressed with the result. It's this sort of love that's missing most from anime these days.

The rest of the shows I had the misfortune to sample are depressing proof of the poverty of imagination in anime these days, with most virtually indistinguishable from one another. I'm eager for this moe fad to pass. Akiyuki Shinbo even did one, strangely enough: Nanoha. It's worth mentioning only becuase Ko Yoshinari did animation in the first episode. I think I remember hearing that in his section in the opening of FMA he handled the CG effects for his shots, and it looks like he did the same thing here. It's an impressive few shots, in what appears to be hitokoma or 1 cel/frame, clashing nicely with the rest of the episode. Yet another series by Shinbo started at the same time, Moon Phase, this time another vampire type thing more in line with his past work, but he didn't do anything in either first eps, so they're rather forgettable.

One of the series I was looking forward to somewhat but that has left me a little dissatisfied so far (if not disappointed, because I was half expecting it, and there's still room for improvement) is Takashi Nakamura's Fantastic Children. Again it's hard to understand why he feels he has to go through all those contortions, especially right at the beginning. If it's an attempt to pull the viewers in, it doesn't work, because it just leaves one in the lurch, dangling carrots the whole way without providing any satisfaction. Learn from Miyazaki. He didn't have to do that in Conan. Also, he jumps right into the deep end with the drama, which is a bad gamble, because without knowing what's going on it's impossible to empathise with what any of the characters are experiencing, so it's just kind of uncomfortable. One interesting thing I noticed was the use of hitokoma in certain transitional shots. I wonder whose idea this was? It creates a nice feeling of luxury, when in fact the animation is otherwise rather bland. It might be a Nippon Animation thing. I noticed that in a few of the late WMT series.

If anything, the best TV episode in recent weeks was episode 20 of Tweeny Witches, another one-man-orchestra episode by Yasuhiro Aoki. I'd say it's his best episode yet. He tries out all sorts of interesting ideas in the directing. I can't think of another figure striving to do more new and interesting things with directing on TV right now than him. Aside from that, Sunrise's Mai Hime was a dreadful concession to moe, and Haruka naru toki no naka de was an utterly pedestrian shojo anime, but done with amazing zeal and energy by the women at Yumeta Co. Not TV but new is the first ep of Gainax's revival of Aim for the Top, by Kazuya Tsurumaki. I was a little wary after seeing the trailer, hoping the actual episode wouldn't be like that, but it was, and frankly it left me puzzled. It seemed like a mess. There was no dramatic drive whatsoever. The animation was certainly spectacular and on par with FLCL in certain spots (which only makes sense because it's largely the same production staff) but I wasn't convinced by the directing or the writing. I don't know what they were trying to do, but it just felt clunky and meandering. Still, there's no way to know what's going to happen from here on out, so it's not a lost cause.

I don't know if it's record-breaking or not, but more than 20 different TV series starting within about the same week (to say nothing of those still running) seems indicative of the anime industry being spread out way too thin.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

02:20:30 pm , 463 words, 1179 views     Categories: Mind Game

Japanese Animation Horizons

A new book on the current state of animation in Japan came out in August. It's called Animation no Genzai: Japanese Animation Horizon (sic). It sports an image from Mind Game on the cover, but the coverage of Mind Game is presumably limited to the first section, a discussion of this year's deluge of major new anime films. The rest of the book's 126 pages are devoted to interviews and essays on a range of subjects, from trends in digital technology to independent animators to the state of anime studies overseas. Mind Game's place on the cover of such a book shows that the film is rightly viewed as the vanguard of animation in Japan among scholars over there. Other, more ballyhooed films take a more high-tech but also a more conventional approach, where Mind Game goes in truly new directions with everything that's been done up until now, blending different media in a bold new way, and taking traditional animation to a whole new level that ridicules the myth that 2D animation is dead.

The first revival screening at the Baus Theater was a success, so they've decided to screen the film for another several weeks. The screening was held in the biggest hall in the theater, a 70-seater, and was sold out, with people standing in the aisles. The response to Yuasa's question as to how many had already seen the film revealed the presence of a number of repeat offenders, apparently some on their fourth count. Yuasa and Hosoda made some observations about each others' work, and to add a tempering note to Hosoda's copious praise for his film, Yuasa noted that not everyone felt the same way, and that opinions varied dramatically about the film (though he has often hinted that he himself is truly satisfied with the way the film came out, something directors often are not). He revealed that he himself was an avid film buff, seeing more than 70 films a year in the theaters, but that his own favorite picks rarely overlapped with prevalent opinion, with some of his favorites even being trounced in online reviews. But isn't it like that for any film? I don't even bother to read reviews for some of my favorite films, because I can predict the negative things people are going to say. We all run along different rails and like films for different, unpredictable reasons. It should be interesting to see the reaction to Mind Game because, as Mark Schilling noted in his review, the film seems to sweep aside the sort of critical quibbles that usually divide people. Yuasa said the film was like a work-in-progress: incomplete, a smattering of random parts, assembly required. The essential thing is for everyone to assemble in their mind however they see fit.

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Friday, October 1, 2004

08:40:28 pm , 68 words, 1439 views     Categories: Misc

Stepping out

I saw Hirokazu Koreeda's new film Nobody Knows, and for a while it vaguely reminded me of Takahata, until by the end it literally felt like a modern-day parody of Grave of the Fireflies. Probably just my imagination.

I'll be out of town for the next two months, so I won't be able to post much in here, but I'll try to write something every now and then.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

05:40:42 pm , 443 words, 4555 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Imagination Practice

Nobuhiro Aihara; Ten Nights' Dreams (Tanaami); Memory of Red (Aihara)Probably my favorite discovery from Imagination Practice was Nobuhiro Aihara, who was represented by the solo short Memory of Red and an animation battle with Keiichi Tanaami, 10 Nights' Dreams. Kentaro Onitsuka's Blooming Ink Tale was the surprise of the selection for me - imaginative concept executed with sophistication and flair. It was the only film there that went outside of the boundaries of animation-as-drawings. I felt distant echoes of Norman McLaren's stop motion films. I like that no CG was used here; they used good old-fashioned paint. Kentaro Onitsuka was present and said a few words before the screening, as was current Kyoto U animation student Suwami Nogami, whose amusing loop film opened the screening.

Aihara's film struck me the most because watching it I was reminded why I fell in love with animation in the first place: the joy of seeing fantastic movement. Aihara and Tanaami have extremely different styles. Aihara creates abstract shapes moving through intricate metamorphoses (I was reminded simultaneously of Oskar Fischinger and Gisaburo Sugii), while Tanaami comes up with a succession of bewildering oneiric images. Both are extremely appealing, and I look forward to seeing the rest of their animation battles after seeing this one, which got the most enthusiastic applause of the whole show, and for good reason. It was not only exquisitely imaginative and consistently interesting but also fun. Adding to the pleasure was a brilliant soundtrack that was every bit the equal of the mad images created by these veteran animators. It didn't take me long to be able to pick out when Tanaami was animating and when Aihara was animating. That even added to the fun of watching the film: grasping when one was taking his turn at the canvas, responding to the rival's salvo. Aihara's constant-motion-in-stasis filigrees, seen undiluted in his solo film Memory of Red, made for a compelling contrast with Tanaami's menagerie of mad dream figures.

The head organizer of the animation selection at the VIFF stated before the Lee Sung-Gang shorts screening that he had wanted to program anime originally, but had been given the red light by the distributors. Frankly I'm glad it turned out this way. It would have been ludicrous to screen some big anime blockbuster at an international film festival like this, thus shutting off independents like those featured here, when the film was going to be released soon nationwide anyway. As for audiences, the theater was nearly full for both the Lee Sung-Gang shorts and Imagination Practice (though moreso for the latter). There were a few loudmouthed louts of the sort that make me avoid cons, but otherwise the audience seemed fairly diverse and appreciative.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

11:14:27 am , 425 words, 817 views     Categories: Mind Game

Mind Game encore

Mind Game Official SiteGisaburo Sugii was news enough, but now this! The first day of the encore screening of Mind Game at Kichijoji's Baus Theatre on October 2 will again be preceded by a talk between Masaaki Yuasa and an invited guest. Yuasa's incredible generosity and devotion to fans in presenting a pre-screening talk every week is already special enough in itself, but this time he'll be speaking with an extra-special invited guest: Mamoru Hosoda! Taking time out of his busy schedule to make an appearance will be one of the most highly sought-after directors on the anime scene today, whose two brilliantly directed Digimon films earned him not only instant respect among his peers in the industry, but also a huge fan following across the entire audience spectrum, including world-famous post-modern artist Takashi Murakami, who invited him to direct his much-talked about recent short Superflat Monogram; to say nothing of Studio Ghibli, who invited him to direct Howl's Moving Castle. Few creators active today in anime are looked to with more anticipation than the two that will be speaking on this occasion.

Although the chances look slim at the moment, I am hoping the complete video transcripts of the various pre-screening talks that took place over the length of the run will be included as a bonus on the DVD. Various other bonus ideas that are currently beating out this idea in the polls include "Mind Game remixes" by famous artists (like the one by Koji Morimoto on the Mind Game Remixed DVD), a complete reproduction of the storyboard (which I think they should release separately as a book), Mind Game drawings by famous illustrators, an audio commentary (which I think they should include regardless), 3D music clips to be viewed with included Kami-San 3D glasses (funky idea), staff interviews, and image boards. And of course, English subs, which suddenly tops the list. If they heed all these suggestions, this DVD should be quite something. It's great to see a studio that listens to fans' voices like this!

I was looking over the "Guest Comment" section on the official Mind Game site, and realized that Keiichi Tanaami had contributed a comment. I'll be seeing one of his films at the VIFF today, so I thought that was timely. "A world away from the mannerisms of most anime. Line, space, texture - everything has a wonderfully new, collage sensibility." Here's Hosoda's comment: "The film's boundless energy is literally overwhelming. Every inch is crammed with Yuasa's brilliantly creative ideas, and yet the film remains essentially and absolutely simple and positive."

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

07:35:59 pm , 582 words, 1408 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Animator

Lee Sung-Gang retrospective

Onuri (2003)

I haven't seen much of recent Asian independent animation, but Lee Sung-Gang's shorts, which I saw today at the VIFF, are easily the most engaging and convincing I've seen anywhere in a while. Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay for the screening of My Beautiful Girl Mari later today, at which Lee was going to be present for a post-screening Q&A session. It would have been nice to be there for that. Before the shorts he said a quick hello (and I mean quick - one sentence), but it was a nice surprise to see him there, as I wasn't aware he'd be in attendance. It seems like an event when a person who was a lone independent animator until just a few years ago is now making overseas appearances at retrospectives of his work.

When I saw Mari I sensed the hand of a master at work, and knew there had to be a previous history there for someone to be able to make a film with as sure a touch as that, and I was right. His early films have all the earmarks of a one-man operation, with a very low-budget approach, including music done by Lee himself. But that's the wonderful thing about animation: it's not the budget that counts. It's the creator. And the shorts of Lee Sung-Gang are among the best proofs of that maxim I've ever run across. Better produced shorts with more going on have left me bored.

Still and mood are the keywords here, but every moment is convincing, and every frame of animation feels just right, with not a frame more than needed to express the idea at hand and establish precisely the right rhythm to carry you along in the flow. Nostalgia, loneliness, war, separation are ideas evoked successfully in the beautiful but never self-indulgent images that play across the screen - charcoal gradients and diffuse light like the faded memories depicted. This is visual poetry with raw emotional power, but not the shameless and maudlin emotion that passes for emotion in other lesser artists. These are among the best 'personal' films I've seen in the medium of animation, in that they successfully speak of personal experience to audiences rather than just the creator.

There's one amusing stylistic hiccup along the way (done in a 80s video game style) suggesting Lee's true breadth, and then after a chronological gap due due to his discovery and work on Mari, we get the short that capped, and crowned, the selection, his recent film based on a Jeju island creation myth, Onuri - a magnificent gem that alone would have been worth the price of admission. You couldn't ask for a better screening: one that starts off fabulous and only gets better. Though stylistically nothing like Mari, Onuri (or O-nu-ri) is, like his feature debut, no longer a one-man show; it's a more conventional product of many hands, without the dark subject-matter of his early shorts. But Lee's touch is unmistakable, and the film has a unique rhythm and tone that is unrivaled, with fantastic backgrounds, inventive characters and great dynamic action and pacing. The fact that he should go in such a different direction immediately after that film is a good sign. Lee is obviously no one-hit-wonder, so I very much look forward to seeing more from him in the years to come. He's one of the most promising rising animation stars in the whole Asia region as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, September 27, 2004

09:24:49 pm , 461 words, 2452 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Movie

McDull, Prince de la Bun

I enjoyed McDull, Prince de la Bun, but it felt like another serving of the same dish, which is starting to lose its appeal. This time around much of the humor flew over my head. Almost without exception, whenever the Cantonese-speakers in the hall were roaring with laughter, I was sitting there bemused. It's not so much the translation, as just that the film is so damn local. The jokes seems tailored to tickle the funny bone of just this handful of people. Not helping was the fact that the translation was just plain bad. I don't remember actually laughing a single time due to the translation, which never made the slightest attempt to translate the humor of a line, instead always sticking to its bare-bones literal meaning, more often that not in bad English. I could sense the contours of the joke from hearing the intonation of the voice, and from the few kanji that I could read, but frustratingly most of the time the humor remained just beyond my reach. What little I could catch seemed feeble. Most of all I was hoping to be served some scathing political satire, but that side of the film was disappointingly lightweight. Perhaps if I was more informed about local issues I would have gotten more out of it. Otherwise one is left to be satisfied with the story, and I actually found the story rather obscure and unconvincing this time around.

The story is simple enough; it's basically a prequel about McDull's absconded father. And it does have its moments. It's just that the first movie made sense on the first sitting, but the pacing this time was so fast, and full of confusing jumps and characters that didn't mean anything to me, that I really didn't understand what was going on a lot of the time. Even moreso than the first movie, the resemblance to Yamada-kun is striking here, because a lot of the time the film felt like a bunch of one-shot episodes stitched together, masquerading as a narrative. Localness is a good thing, don't get me wrong, and that's one of the big attractors of the movie to me; but another part of me wonders if a film is too local when nobody but the locals get it. I wouldn't have minded as much if the localness hadn't been so self-serving, consisting largely as it does of in-jokes and the same situation gag repeated time and again. I would have liked to have been able to find out more about the everyday life and the political issues affecting the lives of people in Hong Kong. Like an animated political cartoon. That element is there, but it's totally overwhelmed by now-familiar razzle dazzle from the director's bag of tricks.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

03:44:51 pm , 474 words, 1196 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Prelude to Reiko Okuyama

My new fave at Studio 4°C, Yasuhiro Aoki, is one of the directors of the first ten eps of Kimagure Robot. In fact, he did the most episodes: 3 in total. Namely episodes 2, 4, and 6. Masahiko Kubo did episode 3, and Nobutake Ito did episode 8. These are the two big animators from Mind Game. Should be interesting to see. The other faces are all familiar from Tweeny Witches.

I haven't read it yet, but the part I'm most looking forward to reading in the new book by Kano Tsuji I just got, Nihon no animeshon wo kizuita hitobito, is the section on Reiko Okuyama, who is the most important female animator of the early period of anime along with Kazuko Nakamura. Both got their start at Toei Doga, but Nakamura defected to Mushi Pro early on. Why I'm looking forward to it more than the sections on Otsuka or Kondo or Kotabe is simple: there's no information about her anywhere else, while there's tons of information available for Otsuka and Kondo and Kotabe. This is about the first book that's taken her up as the pivotal figure of the early Toei Doga period she really is. Perhaps stylistically her work isn't as easily identifiable or striking as the other more famous figures, like her husband Kotabe, but she has definitely always been one of the figures who contributed most to the films in various ways, with ideas or with acutal volume of animation; for example, she is listed second after Yasuji Mori in Horus, and provided animation throughout the film, even though she is never one of the animators usually talked about in discussions of the film.

I've always sensed something about her work that made it stand out for some reason, a real drive and energy, but I had no biographical details to go by, so I couldn't figure out what it was. I knew there had to be an interesting story behind her experience at Toei Doga. In fact it turns out that this image of her as a fighter was right on the mark. From a rudimentary perusal it becomes clear that she was a pioneer of the fight against sexism in the workplace in postwar Japan, in this case within the cultural mirror and microcosm that was Toei Doga, helping to eliminate sexist salary differences, showing that women could be just as creative as men, and taking on major roles hitherto tacitly reserved for men -- as in the case of The Little Mermaid, the film in which she became the first ever female animation director of an animated feature film in Japan - possibly in the world? (okay, skipping early pioneer Lotte Reininger) Once I digest the book I'll write in more detail about this, because it's a fascinating issue. Eventually I'd like to find out more about Kazuko Nakamura, too.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

03:24:18 pm , 332 words, 1979 views     Categories: Animation

Darger + Studio 4°C's latest

One of the films that opened the VIFF today was a fascinating documentary on the life of Henry Darger entitled In the Realms of the Unreal, after the now-famous recluse's magnum opus, supposedly the longest work of fiction in the world. I managed to make my way through all 2500 pages of The Story of the Stone, but 30,000 pages is asking a bit much. So banzai for the cinema! We now have a handy 80-minute condensation of the novel and man. I more or less knew the basics of his life story before seeing the film, but as a film it was a truly satisfying experience. Disturbing, yes, but dramatically presented, well-rounded and moving. Not just a documentary, but a fascinating narrative that makes interesting use of animation to bring Darger's pictures to life, weaving between his mad fantasy world and the all too dreary and depressing life from which it sprang.

On a different note, Studio 4°C yesterday announced that their next project will be a TV series entitled Kimagure Robot (Capricious Robot) consisting of adaptations of the short-short stories of famous sci-fi writer Shin'ichi Hoshi. Each episode will be two minutes long, and Seiichi Yamamoto will be providing the music. The first ten episodes will be made available for free on Yahoo! Japan, but the series will continue thereafter, and the studio hopes to be able to make at least 100 episodes - possibly even 200, depending on the response. After the first ten episodes, the rest of the episodes will be produced not only by 4°C but also by various artists from around the world, so that the series is in fact intended to eventually become a sort of showcase of a variety of animation techniques and styles, like a sci-fi version of Nihon Mukashibanashi. With most new anime projects increasingly stale and inbred, here is one that actually attempts to face the world and do something daring and original. It sounds extremely promising, so it's worth looking forward to.

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