Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Thursday, August 12, 2004

05:01:45 pm , 478 words, 2286 views     Categories: Animation

My animation creed

I wanted to clarify my stand on anime and animation. To me, animation is about movement. If you go back to the beginning, Gerty wasn't well drawn. What was interesting about Gerty was that she (he?) moved. Animation is about breathing life into drawings. The rest of the world became familiar with anime from the picture-book TV shows that were exported in the 70s due to Tezuka's famous invention, but there were always people in Japan who kept in mind that animation was about animation, and went on creating interesting movement. An interesting story can be told with a picture book, but a picture book shouldn't be confused with animation. A beautiful picture is fine and good, but it isn't animation. It's grueling work to create animation, I gather, and I admire people who can somehow magically turn drawings into interesting movement. That's why I'm interested in animators. To me, animators are the heart of animation. Everything else is decoration. Or more accurately, the substrate. They're what keep me watching animation: ever seeking the enchantment of a thrilling movement. Someone once said the animator is an actor. In other words, the task of the animator is to get into the mind of a character; the quality of the performance we see on the screen depends on what kind of interesting ideas the animator can come up with given a situation and a character. Could you imagine a live-action movie where they didn't bother to credit the actors? And yet I've seen anime releases over here that didn't bother to translate the names of the animators! It's just strange to me that people think anime is produced by feeding a story into a computer, and voila, out comes animation. No, it's all done by people, folks. They're called animators. No animators, no anime. That's why I'm so interested in animators. There's no greater pleasure than being surprised by a new kind of movement that you could never have imagined. Given the absurd overproliferation of anime these days, it's understandable that most of it is junk. But there are a few animators out there who have maintained the flame and keep on surprising us with new ideas about what is possible in animation. The pleasure of being able to see the work of this handful of interesting animators is pretty much the only thing that keeps me watching anime, which is frankly more often than not rather thin on original thinking in other areas. And every person is an individual; therefore so is every animator. And right now, ironically enough, just about the only place in the world that seems to be producing (commercial) animation in which the individuality of every animator is clearly reflected in his or her work, is Japan. Everywhere else it's a homogeneous, flat surface of unified movement, which to me is the epitome of boring.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

08:13:20 pm , 863 words, 2563 views     Categories: Animation


First, spend a moment of pure happiness by browsing through the Kodomo no Kuni exhibit.

Thanks to Pravin for bringing an interesting Indian development to my attention. A station called Animax has begun broadcasting anime nonstop in India. Several years ago I was informed by another Indian contact that Heidi was being shown on TV in English over there. Well, World Masterpiece Theater fans will be interested to know Little Princess Sara and Little Women have been airing as part of the inaugural programming. All anime shown on the station is dubbed in English. Animax appears to offer services in various countries already.

Since its founding in 1967, Anido, Japan's oldest and most venerable animation society, has published a vast body of literature on Japanese and world animation in its organ publication Film 1/30, in addition to innumerable books (including a deluxe art book of Yasuji Mori illustrations and a 367 pp book on the history of world animation), as well as holding more than 400 screenings of rarely seen classic anime. They played an instrumental role in providing films and documentation for the original Yuri Norstein Tale of Tales and Jiri Trnka Midsummer Night's Dream Animation Animation LDs released by Pioneer. A few years ago they released Isao Takahata's Gauche the Cellist on DVD in association with the animation studio that planned and produced the film entirely as a labor of love between 1977 and 1982, Oh Production. That sumptuous and affordable set included an extra DVD with an impressive 80 minutes of interview material.

Now they have just released a 2-DVD set of the works of one of the founding fathers of Japanese animation, Kenzo Masaoka. With one exception, none of the films in this set has been available to the general public in any format before now (if you'll overlook the Japan Art Animation Movie Collection, which really wasn't aimed at the general public), making this an exciting event for fans of the history of anime. Kenzo Masaoka was one of the most important figures of the pre-war period, producing extremely well-crafted shorts that still hold up after all these years (something that cannot be said for much of the period's production according to certain visitors to the MOMAT film screening series). He was the founder of Nihon Doga (Nichido), the studio that went on to become Toei Doga, and was the one who coined the term doga (動画) as a translation for "animation". ("Anime" is thought to have been coined by Animage as an abbreviation for the more sophisticated-sounding gairaigo "Animeeshon".) His films combine sophisticated animation technique with artistic refinement and appealing character delineation, as exemplified by his film The Spider and the Tulip, which is widely considered to be the greatest of the early Japanese shorts. Miraculous is that this serene gem full of delicate natural animation was produced in the midst of the worst of the Tokyo firebombing in 1943. Unfortunately, unlike the Gauche disc, this one is available only through their site, and I don't think Anido ships outside of Japan.

Gauche is one of the major films of my anime viewing life. It had an immense impact on me when I first saw it, and remained with me since then. I was already aware of Toshitsugu Saida's major role in this film as the character designer and animation director as well as the layout man, but upon reading Oh Pro's page on the film on their site, I was astonished to read that he even drew all the key animation. This I've never heard of in any anime film (though I remember hearing something similar about Tomonori Kogawa and the Ideon: Be Invoked movie, the one where everyone dies). So that's what it is about the animation that makes this film so stunning and unforgettable (besides Takahata's genius): The incredible sense of unity wrought by having this one animator handle all the animation elements. I also learned that Kazuo Komatsubara, one of the founding members of Oh Production, was one of the major figures behind this film, providing guidance and support that proved invaluable to shepherding the full forces of the studio on the project.

Anido's latest publication is a book accompanying the MOMAT screening series Nihon Manga Eiga no Zenbo. It contains an awesome array of riches including comments by numerous people including Otsuka and Takahata, interviews with Kotabe and Daikubara and many others, and most of all a smattering of character designs and storyboards by Kotabe, Miyazaki, Otsuka, Saida, Mori, etc. from Horus, Animal Treasure Island, Puss 'n Boots, Puss 'n Boots II, Gauche the Cellist and other important films, published here for the first time. Other publications include Kondo Yoshifumi no Shigoto, a book published after the famous animator's death, currently out of print; a book of Kazuo Komatsubara's art; and a book of art director Mukuo Takamura's art (Genma Taisen, Marco, etc.).

Finally, the documentary I talked about appears not to be the old 29-minute 1970 film 日本漫画映画発達史 漫画誕生 (Nihon Manga Eiga Hattatsushi: Manga Tanjo / The Evolution of the Japanese Animated Film) directed by Taiji Yabushita, which is what I thought they were showing, but a new film created by Anido for the event that has the exact same title, just in hiragana: にほんまんがえいがはったつし.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

02:57:25 pm , 2015 words, 3544 views     Categories: Animation

The Otsuka School

For those of you looking to learn about the animation that came after Toei Doga from the people who were influenced by the style pioneered by Otsuka, here is a rudimentary outline of what could be termed the "Otsuka School", which is centered around shows that represent what is usually termed the "A Pro Style".

The studio progression can be summarized:

Toei Doga -> A Pro -> Telecom -> Ghibli

The representative anime are:

Moomin (1969)
Lupin III (1971)
Dokonjo Gaeru (1972)
Ganso Tensai Bakabon (1975)
New Lupin III (1977-80) Telecom eps (72, 77, 82, 84, 99, 105, 143, 145, 151, 153, 155)
Sugata Sanshiro (1981)

Moomin (1969)

Before I can go on, first I have to mention how A Pro came about. First, Yutaka Fujioka formed the anime studio Tokyo Movie in 1964. After years of various problems including a bad production system and the company changing hands several times, in 1966 Fujioka decided to form an alliance with A Production, a small independent studio recently formed by Daikichiro Kusube after he quit from Toei Doga, to stabilize the animation. From here on out Tokyo Movie would have only a few animators, and would focus on production and planning, leaving directing and animation up to A Production. A Pro was a tiny company without the vast heirarchy of superiors at Toei Doga, and it was in this atmosphere that Yasuo Otsuka did his first job as animation director outside of Toei Doga, having quit the previous year immediately after Puss 'n Boots.

After years of doing full animation (2 frames/cel) at Toei Doga, the limited animation of a TV series (3 frames/cel) was a big change for Otsuka, but he discovered the special appeal of limited animation, which Japanese audiences almost seemed to prefer to full animation, with the ability to appreciate every drawing it affords, and the special clunky but catchy type of movement it can allow you to create. But there was still that part of him that missed the full style, and here and there he would revert to full where he felt it was justified, such as in action scenes. This is one of the characteristics that would have a major influence on later Japanese animation, this modulation. Otsuka had done the reverse in Horus: He hit on the idea of using 3 frames/cel for the Golem and Mammoth scenes to heighten the sense of massiveness. Interesting to note is that the maximum cel count for anime at this period was between 6000 and 8000, whereas the average nowadays is between 3000 and 5000. TV anime was much 'fuller' then than it is now.

In terms of the content, despite disputes with Zuiyo producer Shigeto Takahashi about how to do the adaptation (Takahashi wanted "No guns, no money, no fights" to be able to sell it overseas - he only got the "no money" part), the animators did it their own way and adapted the story to Japanese tastes by putting in elements they felt would be necessary to allow the series to compete with the action and thrills of standard TV anime fare. The result was a series quite different in tone from Tove's original, and it was never sold overseas. Nonetheless, the series paved the way for anime that would eventually prove that it was possible to do attract audiences with an interesting story without necessarily having to throw in superficial frills. Takahata and Miyazaki, who were still working at Toei at the time, and were highly skeptical that someone like Otsuka could do a series like this, were the ones most surprised and inspired by the final product, and it was one of the main factors that led them to leave Toei Doga.

Two people who helped Otsuka maintain a high level of quality were Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama, who are the central figures behind the two anime that are considered the embodiment of the A Pro style: Dokonjo Gaeru and Ganso Tensai Bakabon, about which more later. So what we have in this series is really still pure Otsuka, albeit different from everything we had seen from him up until now, and it paves the way for the A Pro style to come, which makes a virtue of the limits of TV anime to create some of the most appealing movement to have come out of Japan.

Lupin III (1971)

The reason Otsuka had quit Toei in the first place was to make a Lupin movie. To that end he and Masaaki Osumi, a person who was until then known mainly as a puppet theater director (an interesting figure who recurs at several points in anime history, about whom I'll say a bit more in a later post), had made a pilot and been going around trying to find interested parties. Not finding any, they did Moomin together. After two seasons it was transferred to Mushi Pro, and Otsuka then did various things including teaching the first Taiwanese animators and helping on the pilot episode of Tensai Bakabon (later broadcast as alternatively episode 1 or 32) until finally Lupin was picked up -- not as a movie, but as a TV series.

Again Otsuka was the main figure behind one of the pivotal anime series that affected everything that came afterwards. The first anime TV series with sophisticated storylines that could be appreciated by adults, it was so far ahead of its time that nobody knew what to make of it, and it failed dismally and was cancelled after two seasons. Not long afterwards it built up a huge cult following that resulted in another TV series and then a movie etc. etc. etc. and paved the way for the "anime boom" of the late 70s, which was the period when anime began to attract huge numbers of fans and became a social phenomenon worthy of being talked about in the news due to the overwhelming response to shows like Heidi and Yamato.

Needless to say, Lupin was a series much better suited to Otsuka's predilections for machinery and realism, and it's in this series that we have the first chance to see him fully putting his talents to use. Naturally there are many things going for the series -- appealing characters, stylish directing, variety of stories -- both in the early hardboiled, sexy Osumi episodes and the lighter but more dramatic late Miyazaki/Takahata episodes.

But in terms of the animation, in addition to the never-before-seen precision with which vehicles and weapons are drawn, there was a true feeling of newness there, something totally different from Moomin or any other anime up until that point: the way every drawing speaks and works on its own as well as within a movement; the attention to detail in every drawing; the improbable yet refreshingly new and convincing character movement; the rollicking, thrillingly choreographed action. Here we have animators finally doing something because they feel it's right, because it's how they'd do it, not just drawing characters because the character chart says that's how to draw them. That's one of the main things that makes the series feel convincing even after all these years. The animator lineup is one of the best of any anime in that period, including Toshitsugu Saida (head animator of Gauche), Osamu Kobayashi, Toshiyuki Honda (later to form studio Animaruya), Keiichi Kimura (Tiger Mask), and a still young Yoshifumi Kondo. Many of these animators would go on to work on the famous A Pro series of the next few years.

Dokonjo Gaeru (1972)

This was the series in which Osamu Kobayashi, who worked as a key animator on Tensai Bakabon over the preceding year, established his unique style of extremely simplified drawings and vigorous movement that would come to define the A Pro style. Key animators who provided great work in this series include Kune Motoki, Yoshifumi Kondo and Yoshiyuki Momose. The limits of the medium here are fully turned to an advantage, with the animators producing some of the most interesting and variety-filled limited animation ever seen in TV anime. Many of today's major animators, including Hiroyuki Imaishi, cite this as one of the anime that decisively influenced their decision to go into animation, and find it to be a continued source of inspiration. Kobayashi's co-animation director Tsutomu Shibayama would go on to perfect his own take on the A Pro style a few years later in the series Gamba no Boken, where he created an original and dynamic way of expressing the speedy movement of the small protagonist animals. One of the great classic episodes of the series is #146, Kan Kan Akikan no Maki, which reportedly combines artistic directing and the A Pro animation style to great effect.

Ganso Tensai Bakabon (1975)

The old Bakabon series had been affected by station demands in such a way that the gags, which were the heart of the series, were edged out to make way for more conventional drama as the series progressed. Dissatisfaction with this dénouement on the part of the animators as well as creator Fujio Akatsuka, combined with the popularity of Dokonjo Gaeru, led to this continuation, which is the other anime that is considered exemplary of the A Pro style. This series went further with the gags than ever before, replacing the fun but rather harmless slapstick of Dokonjo with absurdist humor often bordering on black and surrealistic. The animators really got a free hand on this series, with veteran Ohashi Manabu providing a lot of his most memorable work, including one of the true cult classic episodes of this period, the infamous "Gekika Bakabon" episode, where he decided to draw all the characters in super-realistic yakuza-manga style.

New Lupin (1977-80)

The studio Telecom was formed in 1978 by Yutaka Fujioka for the purpose of eventually animating a full-length feature adaptation of Little Nemo. They hired animators by placing major ads in the newspapers, and Veteran Sadao Tsukioka went through hundreds and hundreds of applicants, weeding out anime fans, whom he considered "tainted". They started training these inexperienced animators by having them help out on the animation of the first Lupin movie, and in 1978 Telecom started handling some episodes of TMS's New Lupin series, overseen by Otsuka. The first of these, #72, Otsuka says flat out is the worst animated film he's ever been involved in. Horrified by the quality, he started recruiting people with experience, and gradually with each episode great animators -- most of them A Pro veterans -- came into the studio to work on these episodes, which get better as time goes by, culminating in the famous Miyazaki episodes. First Atsuko Tanaka and Eiko Hara came in, then Kazuhide Tomonaga, Nobuo Tomizawa, Tsukasa Tannai, raising the bar higher and higher... These would stay on to help turn Cagliostro, produced immediately after these episodes in the still record-holding span of four months, into the classic it is, in which Tomonaga handled the opening car chase, Tanaka the famous rooftop leap and the spaghetti scene, and Tomizawa the appearance of the assassins. In the TV series, besides the animation at the beginning of the last episode, Tomonaga also provided animation for episode 143.

Sugata Sanshiro (1981)

Yoshifumi Kondo, who got his start way back in 1972 with Dokonjo Gaeru and then contributed greatly to the original Lupin series as well as Panda Kopanda (which certainly fits within this flow, but is already quite well known) and then Future Boy Conan, was one of the figures who continued to breathe new life into the style he'd learned at A Pro as he moved from first Nippon Animation and then to Telecom. His animation in Tom Sawyer is perhaps the ultimate acheivement of this evolution. Immediately afterwards he provided one of the last examples of work that can be clearly placed on the A Pro evolutionary timeline, his animation for the TV special Sugata Sanshiro, which can be said to have pushed the A Pro style to its culmination. Afterwards he changed direction, and the age of A Pro, which was appropriately renamed to Shinei or "New A Pro" around this time, came to an end. This film also features animation directing by another of the great Telecom figures, Nobuo Tomizawa, and so it seems an appropriate punctuation mark for this sketch.

Monday, August 9, 2004

04:54:55 pm , 282 words, 1005 views     Categories: Animation

Fantastic Children

I talked about Nippon Animation's Peter Pan a while back. Well, Takashi Nakamura returns to NA starting next month with a new series, Fantastic Children. This time it's a purely Nakamura project, directed by Nakamura, based on an idea by Nakamura, designed by Nakamura. One interesting staff member to note is Nizo Yamamoto, the art director of Ghibli films like Laputa and Grave of the Fireflies.

I will remain skeptical so as not to be let down. Palme no Ki was a very mixed bag that left me longing for the good old days of Nakamura the animator. It had a lot of elements that I really appreciated -- the convincing sense of trauma and pathology motivating the actions of many of the characters -- but was overwhelmed by the hopelessly confusing story (repeated watchings do not help to figure things out) and the patchwork nature of the story. Take a little from Akira, Angel's Egg, Gandahar, Pinocchio and voila! Palme no Ki. Influences are fine, but they were not digested enough to make them work.

The animation was of a very high order, with quite a few excellent spots (key animators included Toshiyuki Inoue, Nobutake Ito, Michio Mihara, Hisashi Nakayama, Hideki Hamasu and Ohashi Manabu) but overall it just didn't have the sense of wonder or the unique bite of the early animation drawn by Nakamura himself, which is perhaps what disappointed me the most. All that said, there are better films that I don't like as much. I still enjoy the film, however incredibly flawed it is. Nakamura's valiant attempt should be saluted. Also, I loved the use of the Ondes Martenot in the soundtrack, and found it very affecting.

Monday, August 9, 2004

04:42:16 pm , 518 words, 7242 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

The Killing Stone

Here's an anime I'm willing to bet money nobody reading this will ever have heard of, much less seen: The Killing Stone (殺生石, Sesshoseki), an 81-minute film produced in 1968. There's not a single mention of it on the internet in English or Japanese. Okay, maybe it's mentioned in one of the English-language anime encyclopedia type books, so all bets are off. In any case, here's a film that never gets talked about, that failed at the box office and was promptly tossed in the dustbin of anime history. You would have to make serious efforts to uncover this one. There are a number of early anime curiosities like this that don't quite fit into the usual anime history narrative. Neither Toei nor Tezuka, they tend to be overlooked. For the most part they probably deserve to be forgotten. But still, one is curious. This one is rather intriguing.

The film was adapted from a novel by Kido Okamoto based on a legend surrounding a sterile patch of land at the foot of Mt. Chausu, an active volcano located in Tochigi Prefecture. Since the Heian period the spot has been known to exude poisonous gas (hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, arsenic) that has killed animals and people who happened to wander near the area. A legend arose at one time that long ago in China a kitsune transformed itself into a beautiful maiden, seduced the emperor and caused numerous misfortunes to befall the kingdom, then found her way to Japan, transformed herself into a beautiful maiden called Tamamo, and seduced the emperor etc., before finally being unmasked and killed. Upon her death she cursed her killers and transformed herself on this spot into a poisonous stone called Sesshoseki.

The film was produced by a studio called Nihon Doga, headed by one Gentaro NAKAJIMA, who also happened to be the president of Fuji Heavy Industries(?!). It was originally proposed to film studio Daiei as a live-action film starring Fujiko YAMAMOTO. Adaptated by two famous live-action screenwriters, Hideo Suzuki and Yasuzo Masumura, the film apparently benefited enormously from the considerable efforts put into the screenplay, which went through no less than seven versions before being finalized. The drawings were hand-traced with extreme care, and the film featured highly stylized visuals inspired by old Japanese emaki picture-scrolls.

The animation director and character designer was Taku SUGIYAMA. Makoto NAGASAWA, one of the more important Toei animators from Hakujaden to Gulliver, was also involved as the animation supervisor. (The credit is unusual, one I've never run across: 作画主任, which means "person in charge of drawings".) Latter-day World Masterpiece Theater character designer Shuichi SEKI was here as one of the animators, probably one of his first credits, as was Norio HIKONE, who was in the Toei films from Magic Boy to Doggie March.

The whole reason I even wrote all this was because I discovered that Masami HATA was one of the animators, a fact that had totally slipped by me until now, and which got me to want to look into this production. It'd be nice to see this one day, though I won't hold my breath.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

10:52:01 am , 1100 words, 5655 views     Categories: Animation, Animator

Kazuo Komatsubara

Galaxy Express 999 Movie climaxToday I just had a few things to say about Kazuo Komatsubara (小松原一男). I apologize, this is a pretty rambling post. I'm hardly an expert on him, so if anyone who knows more than me spots any mistakes or can provide a better overview, feel free to post a comment.

After an illustrious career spanning three decades, Komatsubara passed away in 2000. His death was a second blow to the anime world, coming as it did two years after the equally premature death of Yoshifumi Kondo, whose career overlapped almost exactly with that of Komatsubara.

To summarize his career, during the seventies he focused on giant robot shows like Go Nagai's Mazinger and Grendaizer (1975) and then on Leiji Matsumoto series like Captain Harlock (1978). At the end of the decade he did one of his most famous series, the TV and movie version of Galaxy Express 999. In the eighties he was involved in a variety of projects, notably Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (1984), Tongari Boushi no Memoru (1984), and Hare Tokidoki Buta (1988), while in the nineties he was less prolific, his main works being Junkers Come Here (1995) and Chinese Ghost Story (1998). His last work was Dynamic Robot Taisen (1999), apparently some sort of homage to those early robot shows.

The early robot shows were big in France for a long time, and must have left their mark on French animation fans, because there was an exhibit of his key animation in Toulon, France in 1995, and another in April 2001 as a memorial, and there's a French web site that provides a detailed biography.

To most people Komatsubara is perhaps best known as the animation director of Nausicaa. Among Japanese animation buffs, however, his fame rests perhaps even moreso on his work as the animation director of these 70s anime, particularly Galaxy Express 999, especially the film version of 1979. The latter is perhaps one of the earliest and best crystallisations of the Komatsubara style, with its rough and dynamic lines and delicate attention to detail in the animation, and therefore presents a truer picture than Nausicaa of what it was that made Komatsubara unique and great as an animation director.

In addition, this film features one of the best pieces of animation by two of the best animators of the period: Yoshinori Kanada and Kazuhide Tomonaga. Together they animated the catastrophic climax. Kanada was perhaps the most influential animator of his generation, and would go on to work under Komatsubara as one of the animators in Nausicaa. Tomonaga, on the other hand, while a fellow animator of Komatsubara's at animation studio Oh Production, went in a very different direction, and there is little overlap of their careers other than this.

Komatsubara had the ability to bring out the best in an animator like Kanada, because he understood how to integrate Kanada's idiosyncratic style into the fabric of the film's animation without compromising the unique flavor of Kanada's drawings and motion. During his time at Toei Doga apparently Komatsubara had been taught by Yasuo Otsuka, which is where this ability may have sprung from. Otsuka also taught Komatsubara the value of variety, of forcing yourself to do lots of different projects with different styles so as not to grow moribund in your little niche, and the large variety of the projects in which he was involved in the 80s and 90s is certainly indicative of his continued efforts towards this end.

Komatsubara's name will perhaps be remembered among western fans due to one of his last jobs as an animation director, Junkers Come Here (1995), directed by Jun'ichi Sato, with whom Komatsubara has been associated at least since Tongari Boushi no Memoru (1984). Personally I have mixed feelings about the film due to certain aspects of its production history, but Komatsubara provided the film with a compellingly universal character design and an incredibly even level of animation, showing that he retained his magisterial skills right up until the end, so it would be ridiculous to dismiss the film, which is a very good film with solid directing and a good story and deserves to be seen. The film was lost in obscurity for too long and fully deserves the attention it's finally getting.

Junkers Come Here Pilot

My problem was that this film could have been the feature debut of Shinya Ohira, who did the pilot. Ohira was removed from the job and replaced by Komatsubara because he spent too long on the pilot and was deemed unfit for the job. If Ohira had had the chance, this film would almost certainly not have been merely the good film that it is now, but instead might have become downright revolutionary. But you never know when misfortune may lead to fortune, and as it happens, this misfortune gave Ohira the opportunity to create one of the most important films of the 90s, episode 10 of the Hakkenden OVA series, and afterwards to go on exploring the new frontier of realism that he had pioneered in the pilot. Instead, we are left with a truly worthy parting gift from one of the great masters of the last 30 years. And that's good enough for me.

The film's animation is obviously altogether different from that of the pilot due to the different animation director, but it nevertheless features all of the animators from the pilot providing high quality work: Osamu Tanabe (dinner scene), Shinji Hashimoto (Hiromi coming home from school), Mitsuo Iso (Hiromi confessing on the beach), Manabu Ohashi (flying over the city) -- even Shinya Ohira himself is there (the extremely detailed animation of Hiromi riding the bike that accompanies the credits). Oddly enough, I noticed that Takashi Nakamura is listed as one of the animators. How did he get involved in this??

There used to be a really cool page at that provided a bunch of key animation scans, including yellow-paper corrected key animation by Komatsubara. It was a really great site, but it seems to be gone now, perhaps due to the intervening release of the DVD in Japan about a year ago. Up until that it was a fairly unknown film. It had been badly treated on its original release, with just a few weeks in the theaters and virtually no publicity, so almost nobody had seen it, which was a shame considering the high quality work that went into it. Because of that there was a big fan movement behind the film right up until the DVD release, with lots of web pages devoted to getting the film better known, fans holding screening of the film, petitioning for its release on DVD and so on, which I guess finally bore fruit.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

06:29:46 pm , 441 words, 952 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Mind Game: Day One

Mind Game Official SiteSpent a lazy Saturday enjoying a cool breeze and listening to John Dowland songs.

Mind Game has now opened. Here a few snapshots of the man himself on the occasion of the talk he gave before the Cine Quinto première. He's flanked by the voice-actors Koji Imada (Nishi) and Toshio Sakata (Yan's father). Love the life-sized Yan-chan! After the talk Yuasa was off to the next stop on the campaign trail -- er, I mean... you know what I mean -- to present his next talk at the Osaka première.

Mr. Sakata was reported to have made a comment regarding ambitions towards something called the "Academy Award".

I've already read tons of Japanese reviews of the film from people who saw the preview screenings. One of the common threads throughout the reviews, besides the flood of superlatives, was the way many of them stated, without embarrassment, even proudly, that they left the theater in tears. Not tears of sadness, but of joy. I cried after Grave of the Fireflies, but those weren't tears of joy. I can't think of a film that has ever made me cry tears of joy.

One of my favorite reviews also happens to be the only negative one I've read so far. Well, nominally negative. After establishing his basic stance early on in the review, the reviewer goes on to write what, for the life of me, sounds like a rave review, capping it with the comment, "Damn, I feel like I'm handing ammunition to the enemy. In any case, there's no doubt that to certain people this film is going to be one of those rare towering masterpieces that comes along maybe once a decade, if you're lucky."

I've done my civic duty and purchased the Mind Game Remixed DVD, soundtrack and original manga, but they're all up on the top shelf until after dinner. In other words, I'm waiting until I see the film to look at them. From everything I've read, and from what I've seen of the manga, it appears to be a masterpiece in its own right, so I hope it gets translated after the movie comes out. It's clear that Robin Nishi is a truly original mind, and that his comic is one of the great Japanese comics of the last fifteen years. Which makes it all the more miraculous that a movie has been made of this manga, which was languishing in obscurity for ten years, and that the movie has reached equally towering heights in its own medium. A movie masterpiece from a comic book masterpiece. That's sort of like getting all the planets perfectly aligned.

Friday, August 6, 2004

04:33:47 pm , 931 words, 1434 views     Categories: Animation, OVA

Eternal Family

Studio 4°C's mini-mini-series Eternal Family (1997-8) is finally available, and thankfully not in a limited edition like many of Studio 4°C's releases. I've watched it twice now to catch everything and figure out the story. I could accept people complaing about the story, that it's not well developed, that it's difficult to follow; but really that's like complaining that Tarkovsky is slow. That's just the nature of the beast. It certainly isn't for everyone.

It's for me, though. I loved it. For me this is probably the first piece longer than 3 minutes by Studio 4°C that I felt truly reflected the real spirit of the studio. That unchecked experimental spirit that just throws in every interesting idea. Experiencing the labyrinthine world of this anime is similar to wandering around that crazy Beyond C web site of theirs.

The way the series came to be actually is pretty easy to figure out, once you've watched it all. I suppose that beforehand they set up the basic outline, maybe some details, just to have in the back of their minds; then they just came up with funny gags and let the person in charge of each episode have fun with the characters. That's really the heart of the series: letting the animators have fun with the basic premise and set of characters. One animator draws each episode. That's what I like most about this series. That every time you get to see the personality of an animator fully expressed.

One of the big reasons I was looking forward to this was to see Tatsuyuki Tanaka in action as an animator. He's one of those animators whose reputation far outpaces the actual volume of his work. Since he drew his first key animation in Battle Royale High School (the one cut of the school exploding) he did Tetsuo's arm in Akira, then the classic smoke-through-the-nostrils scene in Download, the opening gunfight of Green Legend Ran, and the dojo fight in Hakkenden #9... but not that much else. Since then doing Eternal Family five years ago he's been busy working on his feature film debut at Studio 4°C, as well as drawing illustrations and manga. (Tanaka's fertile imagination also being the reason why he's been called on to do a lot of layout and conceptualization work for various anime, like Roujin Z.) So the fact that the total number of cuts (shots) he's animated can practically be counted on the hands and feet goes far to suggesting the special, truly outstanding quality of his animation. For animation buffs like myself, he's remained an animator first and foremost, so it's been lonely not seeing him animating, and I hope he comes back to animation one day.

Here I think he's done some of his best work. I have a list of exactly what he did in his episodes thanks to a memo on Yuichiro Oguro's diary, though his episodes are easily identifiable once you've seen the whole thing through twice.

11 - Dad apologizing to doll (animation)
13 - Mom doing aerobics (animation)
19 - Changing the lightbulb (animation)
20 - Fishtank (storyboard, directing, animation)
24 - Family in the water (animation)
29 - Children finding doll (storyboard, animation)
32 - 2 million reward offer (storyboard, animation)
38 - Dad bellydancing (storyboard, animation)
44 - This way to the bathroom (storyboard, animation)
52 - Crazy boss dance (animation)
53 - Dad running (animation)

The most conspicuous is #20, for which he did everything. The ideas, the layout, the sepia tone - everything is totally, unmistakably the work of Tatsuyuki Tanaka. It's like one of his drawings come to life. Animation-wise the most impressive are the ones where Tatsuyuki draws vigorous body motion, eg, the episodes with mom and dad dancing. I was stunned, to be honest. I knew he was incredibly good, but I wondered if his work here would measure up to his other work. Not only does it measure up, it proves decisively that he's one of the best animators of realistic physical motion in Japan. This is one of those guys who was good right from his very first key animation. After his fourth episode he storyboarded most of his episodes, and the wonderful atmosphere he creates via his storyboarding leaves one feeling one has had a tantalizing foretaste of what is to come in his film, if it ever gets done.

Interesting to notice that here he was given another underwater scene to animate. Presumabily this is due to the excellent quality of the underwater scene he did just before in Noiseman. There's a part in the latter where there's a psychedelic, distorted zoom-in on the protagonist's eye. It looks like it could have been done by CG or camera tricks, but no, he drew it all himself. Another animator from Noiseman we find here again is Jiro Kanai, with whose work I'm not well enough versed to be able to pick it out.

And I'm happy to even see Aoki Yasuhiro! He's one of my latest discoveries, if you'll rememember my comments on his episodes of Studio 4°C's current TV show Tweeny Witches. Eternal Family is his earliest work I know of, coming as it does a few years before Animatrix, which was immediately followed by Tweeny.

Also, one of the things that makes the series work despite its very one-off, fragmentary nature, is the zaniness of the writing. Even when the jokes are really crass, they're funny because of the deftness with which they're presented. I got the same feeling from certain episodes of Samurai Champloo - which? Yes, Dai Sato's. He co-writes the series with director Koji Morimoto.

Thursday, August 5, 2004

05:55:22 pm , 1041 words, 1848 views     Categories: Animation, Movie

Yasuo Otsuka documentary

First of all, thanks to Cartoon Brew and Alan for really nice write-ups of my blog!

My ship came in from the Amazon a few days ago, and so far I've had a chance to watch Eternal Family and the Yasuo Otsuka documentary I talked about in a previous post. Seeing as I'd mentioned a lot of Otsuka's animation in the Toei Doga posts, I thought I'd start with the latter. Everyone with an interest in either Toei Doga or Ghibli or anime history or even just animation in general should pick up this documentary if it's tempting. It's got English subs, and it's a solidly-made documentary offering a good look into how a master animator animates.

The film progresses in simple chronological order, beginning with Otsuka's childhood sketching steam locomotives, and ending with his latest endeavor as the head of Telecom Animation's online animation school Anime Juku. For me the most moving part of the film was seeing Otsuka in action drawing Goemon. I was impressed by the speed with which his pencil flies through the drawings, and the perfect clarity with which he explains how he comes up with the movements. This is what makes him a great teacher -- a knack for knowing how to clearly articulate his methods, and showing you exactly how to do it. It was also really neat to see him flipping through his old childhood sketchbooks. I already knew that he had taught himself how to draw by continually sketching jeeps and trains and things from an early age, but they were far more impressive than I'd imagined. It makes you realize that certain talents really are more nature than nurture.

As a fan of Otsuka, it was nice to finally get to see the real live Otsuka, after having reading so much about him and seen just about everything he's done. He comes across as just the sort of warm and effusive person you would imagine from his work. Maybe that's something that can be said about most great animators -- that their personality comes through in their work. It can certainly be said about Mori (viz Otsuka's interesting comments about Mori's "introverted" and Daikubara's "extroverted" drawings) and about Toei Doga-era Miyazaki, with all his barely restrained energy and free-flowing ideas.

As I thought, the film also doubles as a good capsule history of Toei Doga, covering a lot of the basics covered in Otsuka's autobiography (and my posts), even delving quite deeply into Yasuji Mori's importance. Also, watching this film really makes you want to try your hand at animation. Otsuka's openness is very encouraging. The way the film steps you through the process of animation, one drawing at a time, at various moments throughout -- particularly so the scene where Otsuka goes through the entire process of conceptualizing and drawing Goemon drawing his sword -- really gives you a feeling for the rush of creating movement from still drawings; or, as the film's title is cleverly translated, JOY IN MOTION. It was so nice to see those students tittering in innocent glee upon seeing the sequence they just drew move, "My drawings moved!" and to hear Otsuka respond "That's the reaction we all had when we started out as animators."

One thing that I learned from the film was that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Gainax regular and CD of Evangelion) got into animation due to Otsuka, having joined Telecom circa 1984 as a student in order to study under Otsuka (they showed his impressive student pieces), which creates an intriguing link between Otsuka and the animation in Honneamise.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is the one where Otsuka is giving a lecture at the Multimedia Art Institute. What he says in this scene captures one of the things I like about Otsuka's approach, and conversely, what I dislike about most anime, so I'm going to transcribe the english subs for the scene here.

While drawing on a white board to explain how most people draw characters in Japan:

Everyone tries for perfection. Nine out of ten draw these beautiful characters. They put in a lot of details with a fine pen. You've all seen this kind of character. They add pretty highlights to the eyes. They pick a hair style. The person at the next desk is doing the same. Maybe ponytails, or parted in the middle. Here's what I do with a character like this. I just fill in the eyes. Add a nose, eyebrows and a mouth. Takes a few seconds to draw. That's a character too. If you follow the crowd, you won't think of this. Everyone in Japan draws the same big eyes. Cute hairstyles with lots of detail. Maybe this looks like heresy. But it's original. It stands out.

It's funnier when you're watching it.

Finally, listening to Otsuka urging students at Ghibli to learn to draw things roughly, quickly, freely -- to learn not only the virtues but the appeal of rough drawings -- I got to wondering what Otsuka will think of Mind Game. Because I can't think of a Japanese animated film in the last decade that better embodies the ideas Otsuka talks about in this film. At least, that's my interpretation. Mind Game goes much further than Otsuka would, admittedly, and towards altogether different horizons, but I think the fundamental idea behind the film -- the thrill of animation that effectively integrates kinetics -- comes from Otsuka, if you go to the fountainhead. Yes, I've heard of Disney, but, as this documentary reveals, Otsuka was an assiduous student of animation techniques who, while learning the ropes at Toei Doga, slowly and carefully studied and digested everything that came before him (he copied out by Preston Blair's Animation by hand as a mnemonic aid!), thereby gradually discovering his own very distinctive and personal approach to animation -- sparer yet more realistic, rougher yet more thrilling -- that was to go on to exert a major influence on all Japanese animation that followed. So, if you go out on a limb with me here, it's not too difficult to see in Mind Game merely another stage in the evolution of the style pioneered by Otsuka. But I'll leave that thought in the interrogative.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

04:38:11 pm , 801 words, 747 views     Categories: Animation, Mind Game

Only two more days till Mind Game!

Mind Game Official SiteI'll be keeping an eye on things to follow people's reaction over there as Mind Game finally hits the cineplexes -- er, I mean the cinematheques. All the difference in the world, unfortunately. Let's hope word of mouth will get those seats filled. The film will almost certainly reach at least discerning moviegoers looking for the most original film of the year, but I hope it reaches much, much more people than that, because it's a movie with the scope to speak to just about anyone, not just cinephiles. Whenever the movie hits our theaters -- which it should, due to the Joel Silver thing (sometime next year hopefully?) -- I'm hoping word of mouth (well, the internet) will have done at least a bit to help towards getting people out to see the film. This is one of those rare cases when the underdog has shown that he can make a film 10 times better than the big guns, so it absolutely deserves the whole-hearted support of fans.

To help build up the excitement, I thought I'd pass along an amazing anecdote that comes to me via Anime Style; more specifically, from Dezore-san, el capitán of the Mind Game Cheerleader Squad (応援団), of which I happen to be enlistee #00001!

There he was, strolling along in the broiling heat one summer's day around Asagaya, when suddenly he remembered, "Hey, Madhouse is around here!" So he decided to head over to sneak a peek at the famous studio. As he was walking along the main road, he began to notice the festive sound of a taiko being drummed, and caught sight of a group of figures standing by the side of the road wearing matching jogging sweats, apparently rehearsing some kind of cheer routine. On each of their backs was embroidered a set of mysterious golden letters, such as "MM" and "DN" and "DH". Baffled, he continued to watch. When all eight figures finally turned their backs to him, he was finally able to see all the letters lined up properly, and he was stunned to realize what the letters said: "MADHOUSE MINDGAME".

He later learned that these madmen were Madhouse employees out on the street advertising Mind Game. Apparently a certain famous Madhouse producer had seen the test screening and been so overwhelmed and moved by the experience that he decided to start a Mind Game Cheerleader Squad!

Don't beleive me? Look at Madhouse's home page: They've put up a "SPECIAL!!" page to support Mind Game!

Do you realize? Madhouse had nothing to do with Mind Game. They were just so friggin' amazed by the film that they decided they were going to start doing tons of activities to support the film and get people to see it!! Like standing out on the road during the Tokyo summer wearing sweats with "MADHOUSE MINDGAME" written on the back!!! I'm pretty sure this is a first, folks. A studio going all out to publicize a film they had nothing to do with. Maybe now you realize the magnitude of the event at hand. I've never heard of a film that has the power to energize people this way.

Way to go, Madhouse!! Rah rah rah!

I was so moved by this that I'm going to translate the text on their page for you (I know it sounds wooden, but I'm trying to keep it literal):

Mind Game, the new movie by genius animator Masaaki Yuasa, opens shortly on August 7. What Masaaki Yuasa has created here in this film, which is staffed by the cream of the crop of today's animators and features the offbeat voice talents of the Yoshimoto Kogyo, is nothing short of a colossal masterpiece. After dying a humiliating and pointless death, the hero of our story, Nishi, ignoring God's pleas, hurtles himself back to life in a mad dash of sheer will power, vowing this time to live life to its fullest, "straight ahead, with everything I've got!" How will Nishi deal with all the hurdles thrown in his path?! Uninhibited imagination and astonishing storytelling combine with a massive impact that will invite tears of gratitude! A visual experience of super-colossal proportions awaits you!!


With that out of the way, well, there you have it: We've decided to start a Madhouse Mind Game Cheerleader Club. Nobody asked us, we just wanted to. Isn't it normal to want to support something that's good? How can I convey these feelings? We just had to express our support somehow. Even on the sidelines is fine, just please let us!! Anyway, that's all for our first column. Today was just an introduction to the film, but next time we'll start telling you about the many activities we have in store to cheer the hell out of this film, so check back in a while.

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