I’ve been hearing a lot of exaggerated statements such as “anime is dead” or “so-and-so-trend is killing the industry” from fans or by the industry people themselves (supposedly) from time to time. People also say that creativity in anime is dying, and that there’s nothing good that would come from it, aside from the more well-known creators that put out work. It’s an exaggeration, sure, but sometimes I get the feeling that some of us fans are underestimating the creative powers of the industry. Understandable (I’ve felt that way sometimes), but after thinking about it for a while, I find this thinking to be quite narrow. Say what you want about the conventions within anime, but there is also great, highly creative work being done outside their spheres. Good animation work can still be found in the traditional framework of anime; it’s just depends on where you look.
In TV anime alone, there is the talented Ryosuke Nakamura who has taken control of mystery anime Mouryou no Hako and stamped his inventive personality into it which made it a great show. There’s also Kenji Nakamura who transformed Mononoke and Trapeze into highly energetic and psychedelic pieces of animated films. Some great animators-turned-directors also made some great productions in the recent years, such as Mitsuo Iso (Dennou Coil). There is a rich supply of talent hidden deep within the anime industry, but it seems as if they just aren’t given the chances they deserve. Only a peep into their real capabilities are oftentimes shown, as if teasing people. Shinya Ohira, for example, has shown that he not only has amazing talent and skill as an animator, but he also seems to have talent as a director, as shown by Genius Party Beyond‘s Wanwa the Doggy. As one of the best and most individualistic animators in Japan, he should be given a larger chance to fully express himself. But he hasn’t. This is also true for one of Studio 4C’s best directors Yasuhiro Aoki. I’ve mentioned him in passing in my rambling a week ago, but this time I wanted to highlight him and his work (the few that I’ve seen, anyway).
Kung – Fu Love (Studio 4C, Yasuhiro Aoki)
This film, had it been fully realized, would have been one of the best animated feature films in a very long time. I would even venture to say that this would have been on the same level as Yuasa’s masterwork Mind Game. But alas, that did not happen. Knowing the supposed circumstances behind this short only depresses me nowadays, especially after watching it more than a couple of times. Apparently Kung Fu–alongside Daisuke Nakayama’s Global Astroliner–was planned to be a full-length feature film, with completed storyboards and script and all (Aoki completed the storyboard for the entire film), and this short was its pilot. Unfortunately, some problems arose (most likely they didn’t find any willing sponsor) and the film never left the ground. As such, both this and Global Astroliner were crammed into another 4C omnibus, Amazing Nuts. Yet another injustice has happened. This was a legitimately great film, which had a ton of creativity and quirky fun infused into its short run time of 10 minutes.
What’s amazing about the pilot was the sheer imagination put behind it. From the colorful, vibrant art design, the unorthodox character designs, to the excellent animation, anyone could tell how deeply conceived this film was. In just 10 minutes, Yasuhiro Aoki has shown that he has the talent, and the creativity to handle directing a full feature film skillfully and capably. It never falters for even a second. It feels as if he was trying to juggle a lot of things–romance and action–and actually succeeding at both. Watching it reminded me of the actual, unadulterated fun that seems to be missing in most Japanese animation today. Aoki manages to pummel viewers with excitement and exhilaration which also provides ample room for mellow beats here and there. Did I say he does all this in just ten minutes?
The first things to probably jump at people while watching the short would be the art and the characters. The art, firstly, is highly unusual and rare, even. To me it sits between the mellow and simple art in normal anime and the other end of the spectrum, the heavily stylized art that borders on abstract, which is seen in more artsy types of production. There is an atmosphere of pure color and vibrance that lends enough energy to the film which complements the great animation work done in it. I’m no connoisseur of art, but the orange-reddish tint just works and is very fun to look at. It seems as if this is the trademark of Aoki’s. This gives the film a large watchability factor. I could watch the short for hundreds of times without getting bored of it even once.
I also had a lot of fun watching the characters move about in their own tinted world. I presume Aoki did the whole key stuff in this thing–directing, animation directing, and character designing–and perhaps this design work is part of his defining traits. He creates characters that fuse conventional anime character designs and his own artistic take on it which ultimately works on its own. His characters are cute, fun to watch, and very personalized. They just ooze style at every moment. Hanako’s many costumes within the anime also reflect this quirky flavor. They are widely varied, and every piece of clothing is amusing and nice to look at.
Aoki also inserts many quirky touches to the overall directing that give the whole short a very humorous atmosphere. There’s the toilet paper roll emptying itself as Ichimoji leaves Hanako. Strangely enough, I found that whole scene to be funny, even with the heavy stuff that’s going on. It strikes a right balance, inserting just a little bit of humor into an otherwise dark sequence of events. The whole thing feels very unsuited to heavy moments of drama anyway. I also loved that short bit at the end where an “assassin audition” is held. This gives a very hilarious twist to the serious plot line they were going for throughout the story. What’s better was that it didn’t feel intrusive at all. It was integrated very seamlessly into the fabric of the film. Yasuhiro Aoki must be a natural at these kinds of things.
If this ten minute short was already great enough on its own, imagine what it would be like had it been made into a 90-minute movie. Just think about that for a second.
Honey Tokyo (Studio 4C, Yasuhiro Aoki)
*Video above was the only full version I found on youtube, so sorry for the Italian subs…watch it with English subs here.
It’s kind of funny in a weird and sad sort of way that Aoki failed to secure backing for Kung Fu Love but managed to attract the attention of the Tourism Board of Tokyo. He and 4C were hired to create a short animated video as a promotion for the tourism of the capital. I hear that the government wants to use anime and manga as ways of boosting their tourism there, and if so, then this video would be a step in the right direction. It would also be an additional step in the right direction when they decided to pick up Yasuhiro Aoki to make the video.
Having roughly the same run time as Kung Fu Love, Honey Tokyo is also infused with the typical creative and imaginative touches that only someone like Aoki could do. Sure, it isn’t as wild and energetic as the former–I don’t think it’s a really good idea to go all-out in a production like this–but it retains that distinct Aoki flavor and charm which you will know once you watch it. He does a good job at maintaining his personalized approach and melding it into this limited work. The guy is a professional, after all. I wasn’t drawn entirely into the film, but it was still a little gem.
Instead of giving us a droning, dry, and bland infomercial that is common with this kind of video, Aoki delivers something wacky. This is a story about a girl from the future who decides to take away all the color in Tokyo. The director takes that odd but funny approach and makes it work within the normal framework of a promotional video. There is also a slightly poignant message that is inserted within the short that should be common to most of us, not only the tourists. It is very impressive for a director to fuse together seemingly clashing approaches to production, and make them work as a unified whole.
Aoki decided to blend in live-action shots of the metropolis within this anime to fulfill its purpose of presenting Tokyo to the world. I would have preferred for him to do the same kind of breathlessly exhilarating animation in Kung Fu Love, but it wouldn’t have exactly worked here. If anything, it would only harm it. He does a clever enough job of inserting his characters within these shots and made them interesting. His uniquely cute designs take the cake again in Honey Tokyo. The little UFO flying around the screen acts as the virtual tour guide, interacting with the many different locales and attractions in the city. Watching that cute thing zip across the screen and do stuff in an interesting way–not just flying about mechanically–gives the short film an enjoyable and snappy touch.
And again, in a short span of eleven minutes, Aoki inserts his typical style into the characters and actually make them interesting. Normally I would expect a character roaming around Tokyo in an obviously staged and manual way, but in here things are different. The characters can make viewers actually want to go to Tokyo and experience what it is that goes on there. There’s even a little bit of romantic payoff at the end for the two main characters, which I didn’t expect. Honey Tokyo isn’t a run-of-the-mill textbook promotional tourist video. It does work on its own, even if you take away the whole Tokyo Tourism Board deal. I enjoyed watching the two characters wander the capital, taking in the various sights. Well, I enjoyed watching the whole thing.
In just eleven minutes Yasuhiro Aoki succeeds at what a few other creators did. He brought to life a strange, wacky and fun concept and made it work as a highly enjoyable, and personalized piece of animation. The promotion of Japanese tourism bent was just a bonus. He crams the short film with a lot of inventive ideas, without twisting or subverting the original purpose of the short given to him by the government. I guess that’s why I enjoy Aoki’s work: he can be a full-on original, artistic director if he wants to, but he can also work with certain constraints put on by various situations and still impart a large chunk of his own style and personality into the finished product. I really do hope that he can get a job in a much larger scale where he can fully express himself as a true director, and show the world what he can really do.
Ten, eleven minutes just isn’t enough for me. And I hope it’s the same for you too.