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, September 22, 2004

03:08:58 pm , 443 words, 2437 views     Categories: Animation

B sides

Anyone who doesn't believe a storyboard can have that great an effect on the final product need only look to episode 5 of Jacky the Bearcub. This series is quite a nice series. In Europe people have seen it on TV, but here it's unknown. It's like WMT lite, basically. This series is probably one of the two or three best early TV series by Nippon Animation beside the WMT. A large proportion of their series in this early period are hits, while most of their TV series from the 80s on are misses, to make a sloppy generalization.

Well, this series features character designs by Mori that are excellent and among the best he did for a TV series. This is not just because they're pretty to look at but also because they are well animated by the animators. And that's the other thing that's good about the series: the animation. Toshiyasu Okada I mentioned before, and the episodes he single-handedly animated turn out to be the ones that have long impressed me for the incredible degree of detail and accuracy achieved in the animation of the body movement of the animals, considering the limits of the medium. In fact, this is probably among the best animation of any of the early NA series, WMT included.

The first few episodes really get you into the feeling of the series. It's eminently watchable. But then we get episode five, and it's like we're plunged into Heidi or Marco. Suddenly we're in the realm of brilliant human drama after the rather simplistic but pleasant children's fare that came before. What caused the change? The storyboard by Isao Takahata. There's really no better example of the incredible difference that a storyboarder can make.

Seeing this really makes one want to catch all the other little odds and ends he did on the side of his major projects - and there are quite a few. There's an old 2-LD set of his Wolf Boy Ken episodes. I've seen one of his Gegege no Kitaro episodes. Also, I've always wondered why Hustle Punch hasn't been released on DVD. Is it no good? Maybe it's because it's in b&w. The staff involvement makes it an obvious candidate for release. Besides Mori's designs, and Takahata's op, all the major animators worked on it - Miyazaki, Otsuka, Kotabe. I've seen a few sequences from the series, and one of them was obviously animated by Miyazaki because it was very reminiscent of the scene in the stairwell of the Sovereign Gold Coins episode of Sherlock Hound. The all-animal Hustle Punch was an obvious early incarnation of/inspiration for Sherlock Hound.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

11:37:34 pm , 1294 words, 16338 views     Categories: Animation, Indie, Avant-Garde, Movie

Midori

The Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival rolls around this year again between October 14 and 17 at the Shinjuku Milano-za. Besides the standard sci-fi and fantasy fare, they'll be showing three anime features.

Yoshiyuki Tomino is at it again. The festival will be showing part one of his Mobile Suit Z Gundam: A New Translation, a trilogy scheduled for theatrical release next year. Like the trilogy he made two decades ago from the original 1979 Gundam series, released in 1982 in theaters, this one will be a re-edited version of the followup TV series, Zeta Gundam, which aired three years after the trilogy in 1985 as a followup to the popular original. And the rest is history. I thought it was unimpressive enough for him to go on making one Gundam series after the next, but he's reached new heights of shameless self-recycling here.

Perhaps more interestingly, the festival will feature a screening of Kakurenbo, a 25-minute independent feature made by the three-man team at Yamato-Works, comprising Shuhei Morita (director), Daisuke Sajiki (designer) and Shiro Kuro (writer). The film's visual style brings to mind Studio 4°C, with 3D animation made to look and feel like 2D animation. The film had its first major screening at a festival in Stockholm last month.

But the real centerpiece of the festival for anime fans is the screening of what is surely one of the most bizarre and mystery-shrouded anime features of the last decade: Midori. The name will probably not be familiar, but the comic on which the film was based has been released here under the title Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. Yes, this film is an adaptation of a comic by the uncontested king of ero-guro, Maruo Suehiro. It's remarkable enough that a Maruo Suehiro anime exists in the first place, but no less remarkable are the circumstances surrounding the film's origin and presentation to the public.

Where to begin? First of all, Midori is a rather hard film to classify. It's anime, but it's not. Anime is known for being rather limited, but this film takes limited to a whole new level. It's closer to a kami shibai or paper play, a type of one-man entertainment that was popular in pre-WWII Japan. Maruo's original comic is in fact an adaptation of a kami shibai, so it's an appropriate analogy. And the remarkable thing is that this anime version really is a one-man entertainment: every drawing you see in the 52 minute film was drawn by one person, thereby making it true to the spirit of the original - a modern kami shibai. Attempting such a thing is pretty much pure insanity. It wound up taking this person five years to make the film. The madman in question is one Hiroshi Harada 原田浩.

Who is this guy, and what inspired him to do such a thing? Apparently he got a regular start in the anime industry in the 70s, but became fed up with the conservatism of the establishment, in which animators are trained to be unthinking cogs in a machine who churn out whatever the TV stations and sponsors tell them to, and decided to go independent to make the sort of films that he would never have been able to make working from inside the industry. His first film was 1979's City Nocturne, and his next two came out in 1985: Eternal Paradise and Lullaby to the Big Sleep. Lullaby turned out to be his big break, because underground filmmaker Ishii Sogo, who was on the judging panel at the Pia Film Festival where the film was screened, loved it and gave it his endorsement, which got Harada instant recognition and made it possible for him to get started on his next project: Midori.

He knocked on doors everywhere conceivable looking for sponsors, but no company was willing to back the overly daring project. So he did the only thing he could: he broke open his piggy bank and threw his life savings into the project. Having been decisively refused by the establishment for the last time, he finally did the obvious, and turned to the underground, which is where his audience had been all along. By gathering support from various sectors including avant-garde theater, his film became a sort of emblem of the 80s subculture scene. The music was contributed by J. A. Caesar, who had taken over as the leading figure of the underground theater after the death of guru Shuji Terayama. He started in 1987, worked from home, and drew everything himself. Only finishing was done elsewhere. Five years later, the incredible task was done, and Midori, the sad, strange story of a young girl sold to a travelling freak circus, was premièred in 1992.

But this is where things get interesting. Harada had already shown that he wasn't satisfied with going the normal route as a creator, and perhaps it was taking inspiration from the underground theater that he now went in a really new direction. Rather than doing regular advertising to attract the public to see the film, and holding an ordinary screening somewhere, Harada instead kept things hush hush and staged the screening as a fantastic show complete with tent, strange exhibits, music and theater -- just like the freak show in the story -- with the film as the centerpiece of the event. To accentuate the mood of the film, smoke machines filled the room with an eerie fog and fans blew cherry blossom petals through the air. At another screening, people who had reserved tickets were given maps providing directions to a secret location, where people were then individually separated and sent through a series of mazes and rooms in order to arrive at the screening room. The audience, no passive spectators, had to make considerable efforts to take part in the experience.

Rather than a mere night at the movies, then, going to see the film thus became a new kind of theatrical experience, bringing together various underground arts and artists under one three ring tent. Harada has in fact refused to allow the film to be screened without a number of these theatrical devices, nor to allow it to be released on video. So the film also comes across as a statement against the behind-closed-doors consumerism represented by the video. It is an event to be experienced in public among others on a special occasion only. For all anybody knows, the screening at the FFF, which will be a full-fledged kosher screening with attractions and all, could very well be the last. Every instance thus takes on an incredible immediacy because it is (for now) shut off from this on-demand media age. In the end, all these clever theatrical ploys have only succeeded in adding to the film's eerie mystique.

Of course, there's also the fact that the film contains graphic depictions of animals being killed, pubic hair, taboo sexual acts, and discriminatory language, which would probably be enough to prevent the film from being shown in almost any regular theater without considerable cuts even if Harada hadn't taken steps that happen to keep that from becoming an issue. The film also contains direct depiction of the emperor Hirohito, which, unless I'm mistaken, was illegal while he was still alive. The complete, original film was in fact confiscated and banned from being shown in theaters in Japan by Narita Customs (though full video prints still exist), but apparently this doesn't hold any force, since the film is still being shown, albeit presumably in censored form. Even if one never gets to see the film, as is quite likely, it's still a film that fires the imagination, and it almost beckons one to try to come up with it in one's own head, which is perhaps what was intended from the start.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

03:26:02 pm , 334 words, 2548 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Inosensu

It was worth sitting through the mind-numbingly pretentious train wreck that is Innocence just to see the last scene, which was as impressive as I was expecting it to be judging from the lineup. If there's one thing I like about Shinya Ohira, it's that he can be relied on to blow your mind every time. He's one of the few animators active today whose scenes consistently thrill and push the envelope of animation. Since coming back to animation a few years ago after having left the animation world out of disgust with the slap in the face that was Hakkenden episode 10, he seems to have found a new, almost messianic sense of purpose, like a voice in the wilderness shouting the unlimited potention of animation to a world gone deaf to that potential.

Ohira's work, always maniacal, now emanates a ferocious, almost terrifying energy. Every piece he does is more impressive than the last and reaches new heights of raw power and assuredness. He seems to have outgrown his phase of experimentation and searching, and finally returned to his original calling as an animator. After seeing the crescendo of his work in recent years, one begins to wonder: How far will Shinya Ohira go? He has already left behind the entire industry. He's one of the few creators who is sure to go on surprising us for some time to come. After experiencing the indescribable thrill of his work, who can ever be satisfied with boring, normal animation?

Satoru Utsunomiya and Takeshi Honda also do some damned incredible work in their sections, but unsurprisingly, Shinji Hashimoto, Ohira's friend and longtime collaborator, provides the the most identifiable and thrillingly individual performance after Ohira's. I really have to hand it to Hiroyuki Okiura. He pulled off the feat of getting great work out of these brilliant but highly idiosyncratic animators by casting them each in the spot where their respective stylistic quirks would be drawn out to the maximum and still work within the film.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

06:20:24 pm , 1015 words, 1455 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game news

It's gray and rainy so I spent the day listening to Bach organ music.

Watching those 1969 Moomin eps I realized I was right about The Golden Bird - the problem is the screenwriter. From the first time I saw Junji Tashiro's episode of Moomin, #5, it rubbed me the wrong way, and The Golden Bird rubbed me the same way. The drama is sloppy and the characterisation mean-spirited and unbelievable. I can see perfectly why Yoshiaki Yoshida, on the other hand, went on to become one of the three writers of Heidi. His episodes are dramatically balanced, believable and engaging.

Mind Game Official SiteIt's fun to read the reviews of Mind Game. The enthusiasm is infectious. Predictably, there's the odd scrooge who refuses to get it, but the majority bow down before its majesty, from the guy who saw it for the sixth time and wants to see it two more times, to the one who attained satori after seeing it, to a guy called Toshiyuki Inoue who says he hasn't laughed so much in years and wishes he could draw like that, and one Hiroyuki Imaishi, who says he almost broke out in tears within the first five minutes. Most telling was the fact that Imaishi, a hard-core anime otaku accustomed to hunting and pecking for good animated bits, confesses that he was so engrossed by the film from start to finish that "who did what" became irrelevant. A good analogy is with Miyazaki's films, in which Miyazaki's deft manipulation of exactly the right details in every aspect of the production succeeds in imparting the illusion that the whole film was drawn by Miyazaki. That's the mystery about the film: it's unclassifiable as either "popular"-style TV anime or "big-time" movie anime, with its implausible structure and artistic bent, yet Yuasa's careful adaptation of the original story and meticulous editing and layout succeed in not only making the whole thing work as a film, but also in infusing the film with his own personal taste and positive spirit and making what could easily have devolved into an self-indulgent art-house bore accessible to audiences of all stripes, which really is an achievement.

Although Mind Game has finished its run in most of the big metropolitan centers like Tokyo and Osaka, it's still showing in a few spots like Yamanashi and Niigata. And in addition to the Baus Theater, which will be holding late-night screenings as an adjunct to the "Anime Wonderland 2004" festival, yet another art-house theater has announced plans to program Mind Game in the near future: Shimotakaido Cinema in Setagaya, Tokyo. A month in the theaters is really not a long time for a première, so this sort of thing is great news for the many people over there who got wind of the movie too late to see it on the big screen, which is where it should be seen. Some even say it deserves to be shown on an Imax screen.

On the dub front, rumors of the involvement of several famous Hollywood actors seems to suggest that the producers of the dub have got big ambitions for the US distribution of the film.

The latest installation of the Madhouse Institute for Mind Game Studies features a cartoon by Hiroaki Sakurai, the popular director of spoof shows like Excel Saga and Di Gi Charat. I wasn't a fan before, but I kind of like him now.

As mentioned, the final screening of Mind Game at Shibuya's small Cine Quinto was one week ago, and it featured a surprise guest, Gisaburo Sugii. If there's any single film in the entire world that can hold a candle to the revolutionary spirit of Mind Game, it's Sugii's 1973 film Belladonna, which in its day also shook up the idea of what an animated film could be. Due to the hitherto poor turnout and the rainy weather on the final day, Gisaburo fully expected to be talking to a half-empty theater, but was surprised and deeply moved to be greeted by a standing-room-only turnout.

It has long been a mystery to fans of Gisaburo's early work what happened over the last thirty years to have caused him to drift so far from his roots. Although he has been prolific since then, he never again produced similarly challenging fare. Was it because it no longer interested him? Or because nobody would give him the chance? I long suspected the latter, and Gisaburo's appearance here would certainly have been enough to suggest the truth of that interpretation, had his words left no doubt at all. To paraphrase his words, the answer is: yes. This is the kind of film he'd like to be making. But the problem is, after years in the business, the business end tends to take over, and it gets harder and harder to find a producer willing to support this sort of project. That's why you wind up getting the sort of film we see a lot of today: very carefully made films that are at least guaranteed to return your investment. While they certainly have their appeal, Gisaburo himself was starting to get tired of the routine. And that's when he encountered Mind Game. It was a shock. It's easy to see why. He must have been reminded what he should have been doing all these years; long after he'd lost hope that it was possible to do it anymore.

Suffice it to say, Gisaburo couldn't restrain the words of praise throughout the talk, and he finally had to be forcibly removed from the stage so that the film could start. What will happen after the film? It'll be interesting to see. Will Gisaburo make a comeback? While I'm fantasizing, why doesn't Studio 4°C let him make a film? The Japanese première was not exactly a bang-up success at the box office, and without that success to back it up, will Yuasa be given another chance to make a film? That's the most important issue at stake. The expectation now is that the international première will play some part in determining if that will happen.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

02:20:39 pm , 675 words, 956 views     Categories: Animation

Fujin Monogatari

Shinji Arakawa 荒川眞嗣 and Shichiro Kobayashi 小林七郎 create visuals that are among the most original I've seen in a TV anime in years. Everything melds perfectly. Kobayashi is one of the super-veteran art directors who has done so much good work it's impossible to remember it all. And he continues to be prolific. Last I heard he was working on no less than three TV series. It's been a while since I was so struck by his work, at least since his work with Dezaki in the late 70s. I haven't followed his recent work, but here we get the rough-hewn quality that is what I think he excels at, and it perfectly suits the animation.

The two seem to have been conceptualized together, and it's a truly happy result on the screen. Arakawa's credits hints at just how original an approach they take: not only CD but also "visual concept". There's a shot where there are three or four layers of background swirling around on the screen, and it just sent shivers down my spine. Art and animation are working towards the same end, and it's like nothing else I've seen in anime. Needless to say, the animation is the most interesting thing for me. And the names are there to back it up: Koichi Arai, Yasunori Miyazawa, Hiroyuki Imaishi, Nobutoshi Ogura. The op alone features Ohira, Nishio, Honda, Arai, Miyazawa.

What surprises me is that I find myself with curiously mixed feelings about the obviously Ohira-inspired designs and overall concept. Lest there be any doubt, Ohira is in the op. His shots are easy to pick out: The whole screen explodes in movement. Why mixed? Well, I've always had the impression of Ohira as this volatile force playing with the conventional designs and animation to see just where it might lead him. Yet here we have a whole series based on his approach. I love it, and it's a dream come true for an Ohira fan like me, but it's just kind of strange to see his style transformed into a pattern, when in fact it's always seemed to be kind of a rebellion against pattern. I was half hoping he'd play against expectation and draw really clean characters.

But I enjoyed it very much. This is just what I've been wanting to see. Someone picking up Ohira's thread and taking it in an interesting new direction. Every shot is incredibly pleasing. For one, the deliberately "sketchy"-looking design is refreshing for being out of the norm, and makes it easier to move the characters. Rather than trying to get every little detail right, the animators can spend time actually animating. Interesting ideas abound in the representation of wind, both in the animation and in the art. The wind is graphically expressed with bold lines, a throwback to the era before Miyazaki when lines were widely-used expressive tools and not the bogeyman of so-called realism. Lines in animation? The very thought!

Kobayashi has always seemed like the antipode of the photorealisic art directors like Nizo Yamamoto, and it's a something of a stroke of genius to have matched him up with the new rough school of animation as represented by Ohira and now Ogura. His color sense in particular comes through wonderfully in things like those flags. The story is nothing revolutionary, and the directing is slightly more leisurely than I would like, but it's eminently watchable and a huge cut above par. While we're at it, the music leaves me less than ambivalent, but it can be said to work in the context.

I was rewatching the 1969 Moomin, and for some reason this time around I awoke to the brilliance of Hisashi Inoue. Rather than quality going up and down due to the director or AD (in this case every episode had the same director and AD team), the best episodes are the ones he wrote - 2, 3, 6, etc. His gag sense is on par with Goku. This series also happens to feature Shichiro Kobayashi as a background painter, probably one of his earliest jobs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

07:09:42 pm , 401 words, 1103 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Shinei Doga and Asia-Do

Earlier this year a series called Kaiketsu Zorori started. It's animated principally by Asia-Do, a studio perhaps best known for Chibi Maruko-chan. It's the studio where Masaaki Yuasa got his start as an animator. After a few years working there, Yuasa went freelance and spent the next 8 years working on Crayon Shin-chan for studio Shinei Doga, while also doing various projects on the side. These two studios can be considered the descendent of A Pro. Both Shinei Doga and Asia-Do were founded by ex-members of A Pro in the late 70s. The Shin-chan films in particular are among the few films of the last decade that really feel like they've carried on the legacy of the A Pro style. Shinei (which means "New A") does both planning and animation, and has focused on anime by Fujio Fujiko since it was founded (eg, Doraemon). Asia-Do, on the other hand, is purely an animation studio, and they don't get involved in the production side.

Though obviously Mind Game is a Studio 4°C film, Yuasa is probably the best representative of the A Pro school today, which, as unlikely as it may seem at first sight, could be said to put Mind Game on the same timeline as the A Pro classics like Dokonjo Gaeru. It's well known that he joined Asia-Do precisely because he was a fan of the old A Pro series like Dokonjo Gaeru, the animation directors of which, Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, were the people who founded Asia-Do. Perusal of the scenes he animated over the years will clearly show the influence of the animation of Yoshifumi Kondo and particularly Yoshiyuki Momose, with his more fluid style, from Dokonjo Gaeru. Yuasa says he studied their animation in this series actively over the years. Curious what other influences are behind Mind Game? Would you believe Tom & Jerry and Tex Avery? Two of Yuasa's favorite films are Blue Cat Blues, with its poignant comedy and film-like atmosphere, and Rock-a-bye Bear, with its brilliantly timed and hilarious gags. I'll just say that fans of the Piano Concerto episode of Tom & Jerry are in for a special treat in Mind Game. Yuasa truly brings together a range of influences unlike any other creator active in anime today, and that is certainly one of the factors that made it possible for him to create a movie as singular as Mind Game.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

09:10:57 pm , 103 words, 950 views     Categories: Animation

Tadanori Yokoo

Another figure from the Animation Festival I should probably mention is Tadanori Yokoo 横尾忠則, since he was one of the first to take part. But the fact is, the three shorts he contributed to the first and second festivals -- Kiss Kiss Kiss and Anthology No. 1 in 1964 and Kachi Kachi Yama 堅々獄夫婦庭訓 in 1965 -- are the only three he ever made. He is mainly known as a designer of psychedelic/collage-type posters, which have been shown in galleries everywhere including the Guggenheim and the Centre Pompidou. But he's a well-known enough figure due to the latter that the three films (totaling 17 minutes) were recently released on DVD.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

09:20:34 pm , 1986 words, 6034 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Spotlight on Toshio Hirata

One of the few Mushi Pro figures who did not settle down at any of the obvious places was Toshio Hirata 平田敏夫, who over the last thirty years has left behind a highly varied body of work for a large number of animation studios. Hirata is easily one of my favorite anime directors, even though I've only seen a small fraction of his oeuvre. The little I've seen is enough to reveal just how special a figure he is.

Toshio Hirata is a perfect instance of a director whose fame is inversely proportional to his talent. His body of work is one of the most unique and admirable of the last thirty years, yet nobody has heard of him. Why? Because his work has never been ego-driven; because, indeed, the defining attribute of his directing style is its very lack of ostentation. His style is the diametric opposite of the flamboyantly individualistic auteur style that has been the hallmark of ex-Mushi Pro figures, perhaps best represented by Rin Taro. Hirata Toshio the director never shouts, never gesticulates wildly; he is all nuance and simplicity -- Continental as opposed to Hollywood, Le Roi et L'Oiseau as opposed to Disney.

Hirata's best work is characterised by its visual richness and invention, and by directing that is always cool and aloof, without the neuroses and the striving for effect of other anime auteurs. You'll never find in his films the sort of overwrought drama that is typical of the large proportion of conventional anime projects -- even when he's involved in one of those projects -- because he hates that sort of thing. He maintains his integrity and individuality as a creator without needing to bash people over the head with it.

Hirata's approach to directing is uniformly meta: unlike many, he is not under the misconception that animation can be nothing more than a second-rate copy of live-action cinema; his animation is always animation first and foremost. The pleasure of watching his films comes precisely from seeing the various elements only possible in animation coming together to form a beautiful and satisfying whole. Hirata is also balanced as a filmmaker: His work exhibits artistic flair that sets it apart from conventional anime, and yet it fits entirely within the framework of commercial animation, being completely devoid of the sort of avant-garde posturing that can be found in the work other, better-known directors.

Like many of the figures of this period, Hirata started his career as an animator at Toei Doga as an inbetweener in the features made from 1960 to 1963: Journey to the West, Anju, Sinbad, Little Prince. Specifically, he was under the tutelage of Yasuji Mori. Hirata still speaks extremely highly of the experience and of Mori in particular, going so far as to say that if it hadn't been for Mori, he probably wouldn't be in animation today. Mori was a major influence on Hirata -- as well as many of those who worked with him like Miyazaki and Takahata -- not only because he was a great teacher and animator himself, but also because he was a gentle person who, legend has it, never got angry at anyone. He took animation seriously, and approached it with rigor and love. Mori's legacy is clearly at the root of Hirata's pliant, honest, soulful approach to animation.

One of the things that is unique about this early period is the variety of origins of the animators. In other words, today people come to anime because they've seen anime; but back then, during the early Toei Doga period, there was no TV anime, so many of the people who entered Toei Doga did so because they had seen a few Disney pics in the theater, or animated ads on TV, or Hakujaden, etc.. Yet other people simply happened to wander in almost by accident, having studied art at school, and maybe having casually seen an animated film or two, but otherwise knowing nothing about animation. Toshio Hirata falls into the latter group.

Anime then was not yet anime; it was a bunch of young people making tentative steps to figure out what they could do with animation. They were blissfully free of the burdensome history that nowadays blinkers many in the anime industry. Thus could we get films like Little Prince & the 8-Headed Dragon and Gulliver's Space Travels that are full of inventive artistic ideas. Hirata was one of the many people just out of art school who happened to find their way to Toei Doga for whatever reason. Together with a lot of those people, he was drawn to the Animation Sannin no Kai during his Toei Doga period, 1960-1963. If he learned the traditional approach to animation at Toei Doga, the experience of seeing those films broadened his understanding of animation and added an artistic side to his approach. The graphically-oriented aspect of his subsequent output can definitively be traced to this experience.

Hirata began his Mushi Pro period in 1966 directing episodes of Jungle Taitei immediately after his involvement in Ken the Wolf Boy at Toei Doga in 1965. His experience at Mushi Pro was a fateful one for him, second to his experience at Toei Doga only in chronological order. Interestingly enough, at Mushi Pro he was automatically started out as a key animator, and the very next year, for Jungle Taitei in 1966, he was bumped up to directing! Ironically, when he helped out on Toei Doga's Gulliver around the same time in 1965, he was bumped back to inbetweening. Apparently credit wasn't transferrable between studios. This is basically attributable to the rather unique system at Mushi Pro that reflected Tezuka's creator-based approach. Tasks weren't clear-cut and heirarchically organized the way they were at Toei Doga; people did various things as necessary, and consequently accession to key animation and directing could be absurdly fast (though, really, the reason for the ad-hoc nature of the studio basically comes down to the shortage of staff).

The result of this approach was that, rather than animation based on the fundamentals taught at Toei Doga, the Mushi Pro figures learned the ropes themselves, and went on to make animation how they wanted, which accounts for the extreme individuality of Mushi Pro expats like Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Rin Taro. Hirata is individual in a different, less obvious, more mature fashion. While Yasuji Mori was Hirata's major influence at Toei Doga, Eiichi Yamamoto was his main influence at Mushi Pro. It was working with Yamamoto that Hirata learned that meta approach to animation filmmaking.

After Goku and 1001 Nights, things started to get a bit tight at Mushi Pro, so Hirata left the studio for the freedom of commercial animation, where he was able to indulge in the artistic side that he had tasted at the Animation Sannin no Kai. The four years he worked on commercials were the next major learning experience of his early period. The creative gains of the experience can be seen in the unusual story structures and visual ideas of films like Bobby's Girl, The Acorns and the Wildcat and The Golden Bird.

During this period he also participated in various anime, notably Jack and the Beanstalk, where he animated the mice. He then embarked at Sanrio for a few years. Hirata was director or animator on what I consider the three best films of the early Sanrio period: Little Jumbo, Ringing Bell and the Unico pilot. He himself considers the pilot a youthful mistake, but I find it hard to understand why. It's one of the most perfectly honed anime films I've seen, with nothing in excess, reaching great depths of drama and emotion in under half an hour. He did Jumbo just before, and although a wonderful film as well, it was co-directed with Takashi Yanase and Masami Hata, so the Unico pilot serves as a good starting point for his mature period as a director.

Before the first full-length Unico film he played an interesting role in Sanrio's offbeat stop-motion film The Nutcracker. He's given the unusual credit of settei kyoryoku, which can roughly be translated "development assistance". What it essentially means is that he provided image boards and ideas for the film. Over the next few years at Madhouse (the Unico film was actually animated by Madhouse although produced by Sanrio) he was involved in a similar capacity in films like Floating Clouds and The Door to Summer, for which he drew storyboard for only a few scenes. This rather unique approach to film production is attributable to producer Masao Maruyama, who tended to set the basic framework of the films he was involved in by this sort of hand-picking of people according to the needs of the moment.

It was at Madhouse in the 1980s, starting with Unico in 1981, that Hirata came unto his own and gave us some of his best and most personal films: The Golden Bird (1984), A Small Love Story (1984), Bobby's Girl (1985), The Acorns and the Wildcat (1988), Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988).

Bobby's Girl can perhaps be singled out as the film that best captures what makes Hirata unique. It is a dense summation of Hirata's experimental visual proclivities, although on the other hand it is perhaps not representative of the more reserved side of Hirata that dominates his oeuvre. Given a short allotted running time and a rather conventional adaptation that filled out the mundane details of the elliptical, poetic original story, Hirata decided to scrap the adaptation and stick to the original story, which he felt could be interesting as is if adapted with flair. And that it was, as story takes a back seat in favor of a succession of imaginative visual sequences incorporating music-video-like montages of photographs and sketchy illustrations.

The Golden Bird in particular is one of the most interesting films of the decade. Hirata managed to create a film that successfully preserves the individual character of the various talented staff members who provide the film's visuals: designer Manabu Ohashi, who created wonderful SD characters with deliberately disconnected lines; animator Atsuko Fukushima, who animated the spindly witch; and artistic director Yamako Ishikawa, joined by famous background painters like Nizo Yamamoto and Kazuo Oga, who provide the incredibly intricate and lush fantasy backgrounds that define the film. His unique visual sense and predilection for graphic experimentation also comes through in the way he called in independent animator Koji Nanke for one of the musical scenes and gave him carte blanche to animate it. The result is a film of incredibly visual richness that is like nothing else seen in Japan.

The personality of the animators comes through in a lot of Hirata's other films like Hadashi no Gen 2, where apparently certain good animators were given a degree of liberty with their scenes that would be unheard of with most other directors. Yoshiaki Kawajiri was one of those animators, as was Yoshinori Kanemori. Kanemori has been a regular in many of Hirata's films, including Twilight of the Cockroaches and Anne's Diary. Most recently, for the memorable opening of Hanada Shonen Shi, Kanemori provided the animation drawings, which were then colored by Hirata, who drew the storyboard and took the photographs seen in the op. Hirata has always done unusual things like this; in Azuki-chan a few years back he provided the illustrations shown at the end of each episode, even though he refused to allow himself to be credited because he considered it an insignificant contribution.

Hirata is incredibly prolific, and he directed or storyboarded more than twenty films and TV series in the last decade alone, so I could go on and on, but I'll close by just mentioning two other films that could be sought out to see Hirata at his most individual, namely: Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988), which is another one of those films that acts as a vehicle for the animator in charge, Kazuo Komatsubara; and A Small Love Story (1984), with its unusual four-season structure and illustration-composed musical sequences.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

07:16:46 pm , 821 words, 1584 views     Categories: Animation, Studio

Cleopatra and the Mushi Pro diaspora

Within the first minute of ep 18 of Tweeny Witches I knew it was a Yasuhiro Aoki episode, and sure enough, he did the storyboard. Still, only the storyboard, and it was that obvious! This guy is great. Of course, the storyboard determines about 76.7% of the final product, give or take some depending on the director, so it only makes sense.

I was rewatching the Animerama films, and one thing that seemed really clear this time around was the way the films are propelled entirely by the directing, rather than by the animation. That's what differentiates them most from Toei Doga and Disney. Of course, there's the adult content, but really this directing-orented stance is the basic characteristic of most Mushi Pro anime, whether adult or not, so I think that's the thing to note.

So it's interesting that for the second Animerama film they should have taken a "character animation" approach, since it obviously comes from Disney. 1001 Nights had the typical shot-based animation approach, with key animators and inbetweeners. But Cleopatra only has animators. Kazuko Nakamura for Cleopatra; Masami Hata for Caesar and Antonius; etc.

This time I felt I was able to figure out Kazuko Nakamura's animation. I always had a hard time figuring out what I thought about it. It's not that well drawn. Yet somehow it's convincing. Why is that? It's because they made the right decision to cast a woman to animate a woman, and Nakamura's acting in the role of Cleopatra is extremely convincing in terms of her expressions and behavior in response to the various situations.

It's a rather odd thing, but one of the few anime that comes close to the depth of characterization achieved in Horus by having Yasuji Mori animate Hilda throughout the film is Cleopatra, of all things. There haven't been many anime that took this approach, to my knowledge. One of the few others is Gisaburo Sugii's Jack and the Beanstalk, from four years later (1974).

The staff of Jack is mostly from Mushi Pro (which folded a year earlier), so we have a lot of the same people who did the Animerama films: Teruto Kamiguchi, Mikiharu Akabori, Kazuko Nakamura, etc. Kazuko Nakamura animated the witch. Teruto Kamiguchi is one of the other memorable animators in Cleopatra. His Lupa is quite fun to watch and possibly the most laboriously animated character in the film.

But the thing I came away with this time was that this is Masami Hata's film. He animated Caesar and Antonius, so the reason should be obvious. Not only does he have the most screentime, but his animation is simply the most fun, interesting, skilled, convincing and flat-out funny. Where a lot of the characters in this film seem rather amateurishly penned, and usually rather static, revealing the youth of a lot of these animators (and the fact that Mushi Pro never bothered to train its animators in the sort of traditional animation skills taught at Toei Doga), his characters are always well drawn and doing some kind of funny movement.

Masami Hata went on to do Andersen for Mushi Pro afterwards (Kazuko Nakamura did one episode) and then went to TMS before going to Sanrio around 1975. The closing of Mushi Pro was one of those pivotal events that sent the various staff members working there either to Madhouse or Sunrise. As the legend goes, whoever wasn't accepted at Madhouse because they weren't good enough went to Sunrise.

The latter group includes Yoshiyuki Tomino and Ryosuke Takahashi. The Madhouse group includes Akio Sugino, Osamu Dezaki, Rin Taro. Mikiharu Akabori and Shigeru Yamamoto eventually made their way to Sanrio with Hata. These three groups account for most of the Mushi Pro diaspora.

The year after 1001 Nights, which featured Takashi Yanase so prominently (he was the designer of the film and his illustrations were used in various spots), Akabori and Nakamura and Kamiguchi were animators on The Kind Lion in 1970. Maya Matsuyama was also an animator on the film, and the same team would later move to Sanrio along with Masami Hata and Shigeru Yamamoto and create two more Takashi Yanase films: Little Jumbo and Ringing Bell (which has always sounded like a pun on Raging Bull to me).

Kazuko Nakamura and Akabori Mikiharu had a training period at Toei Doga, both moving to Mushi Pro when it was founded - perhaps out of impatience with Toei Doga's long incubation period for inbetweeners? Some talented animators like Otsuka had rapid accessions to key animation there, but others remained inbetweeners for years and years. The earliest credit I can find for Shigeru Yamamoto, on the other hand, is Tetsuwan Atom. After this he animated those two experimental shorts for Tezuka, took part in Goku, then 1001 Nights, then was one of the major players in Memol in 1971-2, before animating Jack in Jack at Tac after Mushi Pro went out of business, then finally settling down at Sanrio.

To be continued

Friday, September 10, 2004

11:05:00 pm , 857 words, 3727 views     Categories: Animation, Indie

Loose ends

I wasn't too keen on Uruma Delvi when I saw their piece within the context of Winter Days, but I admit I enjoyed the various films they've put up on the web.

I discovered a major omission in my previous post on the early independents:

Keiichi Tanaami 田名網敬一
Born 1936 in Tokyo.

He has not only been one of the most prolific creators of experimental animated films since his debut at the second Animation Festival in 1965; he is also the only one of the artists showcased in VIFF's Imagination Practice to have participated in Animactions!!the Animation Festivals, providing a link between the old and the new generation of independents, the latter of whom otherwise dominate the program.

After participating in most of the Animation Festivals with entries like 1964's Ten Nights' DreamsMasked Marionettes 仮面のマリオネットたち and 1966's Woman おんな, in 1975 he became the artistic director of the Japanese edition of Playboy, the daring and challenging artistic content of which established his renown as one of the major artists of the day. Design has since been his main area of activity -- he has done a lot of LP and now CD covers --, but he has been one of the most broad-ranging artists of his generation.

Known as the "Japanese Peter Max", he has been the major proponent of the psychedelic art school. His art is characterised by its sexy, colorful, pop-influenced designs infused with a playful, avant-garde sensibility. He got a promising start with an ambitious exhibition of "metallic art" made by scratching, coloring and using chemicals to dissolve steel plates while still studying at the Musashino Art School, and upon graduation he entered the big advertising agency Hakuhodo, only shortly to quit and embark on his personal artistic journey.

He first published a series of picture books, and immediately afterwards participated in the Animation Festival. Ever since, he has been a prolific independent animator, usually producing several films a year. His films have been shown at festivals around the world from Overhausen to Edinburgh. He has gone on to produce his own distinctive body of work in various media including painting, illustration, printing, editorial design, posters, etc. Even performance art plays a large part in his oeuvre.

In addition, Tanaami has authored numerous books; one of his latest is a collection of his lectures given at the Kyoto Plastic Arts School, where he teaches animation. His poster art and other design work has been exhibited at dozens of galleries over the years, the most recent being Disco University at Kirin Plaza Osaka, organized by omniartist Naohiro Ukawa (who has done music videos for the Boredoms, among many other things). The vibrant, youthful spirit of his work makes him a popular figure among the new generation of artists in Japan.

In recent years he has made numerous animated films in collaboration with graphic artist Nobuhiro Aihara 相原信洋, the most famous being a series of "animation battles" made by a rather original shiritori-type collaborative process wherein each takes turns at the canvas, drawing over or erasing what the other has just drawn -- a tense artistic confrontation made possible by the trust they've built up over their long friendship.

One of their more unique collaborations took place earlier this year on May 10 at a "live painting" event entitled Animactions!!, where the two in effect became the animated content as they were filmed by the aforementioned Naohiro Ukawa painting side by side with fluorescent paint on several huge black-light canvases.

The VIFF is screening not only the most recent of the aforementioned "battles", but also one of Aihara Nobuhiro's solo films. Aihara himself has had a long career as an animator. He started out in commercial animation at Studio Zero working as an animator alongside the likes of Shin'ichi Suzuki on shows like Kaibutsu-kun, and went independent in 1965. Since then he has produced more than sixty short animated films that have been shown around the world at various festivals. He has also participated in animation workshops in places like Sweden and India. Like Tanaami, he is currently a professor of animation at the Kyoto Plastic Arts School.

Along with Yoji Kuri, Keiichi Tanaami is one of the few of the early independents rather well represented on DVD. Two DVDs collecting 15 of his animated films made from 1975-2002 were released a year ago. In addition, a 2-DVD set of his films with Aihara (including Animactions!!) was released this past July. Both of the films being shown at the VIFF are available in these sets.

Partial filmography of Keiichi Tanaami:

1971 ◈ Commercial War (4 mins 30 secs)
1973 ◈ Oh! Yoko! (4 mins)
1975 ◈ Why (10 mins 30 secs)
1975 ◈ Easy Friday 優しい金曜日 (14 mins)
1975 ◈ Manmade Eden 人工の楽園 (14 mins)
1975 ◈ 4 Eyes (9 mins)
1979 ◈ Another Rainbow-Colored City もう一つの虹色都市 (17 mins 17 secs)
1979 ◈ Yoshikei (16mm, 12 mins)
2000 ◈ Memory of Darkness, Dream of Shadow 闇の記憶・夢の陰影 (4 mins)
2001 ◈ Breath of Wind 風の呼吸 (4 mins, w/Nobuhiro Aihara)
2002 ◈ Summer Gaze - 1942 夏の視線 - 1942 (6 mins)
2002 ◈ Memories (6 mins)
2002 ◈ Goldfish Fetish (8 mins)
2002 ◈ Running Man (6 mins, w/Nobuhiro Aihara)
2002 ◈ Why? Remix (video, 10 mins)
2003 ◈ Puzzle of Autumn (DV, 6 mins)

Partial filmography of Nobuhiro Aihara:

1971 ◈ Poisonous snake やまかがし
1973 ◈ Aisanka 逢仙花
1976 ◈ Cloud thread 雲の糸
1980 ◈ Water wheel 水輪
1987 ◈ Shadow 映像(かげ)
1991 ◈ Mask
1994 ◈ Air power 気動
1998 ◈ Yellow Fish
2004 ◈ Memory of Red (16mm, 4 mins)

Animation Battles:

2002 ◈ Scrap Diary (16mm, B&W, 4 mins)
2003 ◈ Fetish (16mm, 4 mins)
2004 ◈ Landscape (16mm, 4mins 25 secs)
2004 ◈ 10 Nights' Dreams (16mm, 6 mins)

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