One of the things that made Production I.G’s 2000 feature film Jin – Roh the most successful realistic anime in the past decade is indeed the unflinching approach to detail combined with the painstakingly methodical direction and production. Add to that Mamoru Oshii’s gritty and hard-hitting script which set the basis for the rest of the staff to work with, and the result is something special which admittedly, not a whole lot of anime directors can pull off. The type of film Jin – Roh was could only have been handled by someone who himself has an eye and a thing for the details within animation, and who also is capable enough of taking that focus and stretching that into an hour-long feature. It turns out that the man for the job was Hiroyuki Okiura, who as an animator was well-known for his insanely detailed and finely worked pieces of animation (an example of which would be the crowd scene in Akira). His directorial work for Jin – Roh saw his signature style in animation ported off into direction. Jin – Roh wouldn’t have been Jin – Roh without Okiura.
So you could just imagine the approach he must have taken during the seven years of production for his latest film, Momo e no Tegami, which is slated to open for next year. This time, Okiura took control of the important parts of production (direction, script/screenplay, storyboarding) of the film which appears to be a departure from the brooding, gritty, and heavy atmospheric presence of his 2000 anime. The staff of his latest feature are a few of the foremost feature animators still active in Japan today. Masashi Ando (character designer for Satoshi Kon’s Paprika and Paranoia Agent) directs the animation for Momo, and he is accompanied by no less than Toshiyuki Inoue (Tree of Palme, Peek the Whale), Takeshi Honda (Dennou Coil, Millennium Actress), IG regular Tetsuya Nishio (Naruto character designer, Innocence), and Hiroyuki Aoyama (Summer Wars, Kemonozume). What’s also interesting is that this is going to be Okiura’s first true solo job. Momo promises to be one of the highlight movies of 2012, and thus is worth looking forward to.
PS: The fabulously fabulous director of Utena, Kunihiko Ikuhara, returns to TV anime this year. Yet another return we all should prepare ourselves for.
Summer Days with Coo (Shin – Ei Animation, Keiichi Hara)
As far as realism in animation goes, there have been a few such films to be released in the past decade. Surely, they were hardly the technically sound and detail-oriented films that was Jin – Roh (which is kind of expected, anyway), but they still followed the realistic mold as far as characterization and direction goes. Their character acting was not as methodical as Jin – Roh, instead opting for the more natural approach, grounding them in the everyday scenery of life amid the far-reaching premises they worked with. The directing is also hardly flashy. I’d say Mamoru Hosoda is one of the proponents of the said style, which itself was mastered by a certain Isao Takahata (whose work on Grave of the Fireflies remains one of the best instances of realistically rendered and directed anime). There also exists one such director who may not be as well known to the overseas fandom as the former two, but regardless is one of the major movie directors active in Japan today: Keiichi Hara.
Not a lot of people may know of Hara’s directorial work in anime, but in actuality he is one of the more popular anime directors in Japan, mainly because he first made his name through his work on the many Crayon Shin-chan films. His work on Shin – Ei Animation’s timeless franchise earned him the respect and admiration of the Japanese through his style of mixing mature themes into the anime’s signature cartoon-ish flair and childish image; a style made visible through his 2002 Shin-chan feature, The Adult Empire Strikes Back. I’m not sure whether or not it was Adult Empire or Warring States that culminated his run at directing franchise films for Shin – Ei, but nevertheless his work there remains one of the more memorable movies for the ever-popular anime icon.
His work for Shin-chan over, Hara returned to the big screen in 2007 with his feature film Summer Days with Coo. The movie was greeted by nigh-unanimous positive response from the Japanese audience; his departure from the commercial franchise films welcomed with more admiration for his skill as a director–not only as a director of anime, but as a director in general. As we all know, 2007 was littered with numerous high-profile anime (TV series and others), which made it a challenge for any work to stand out among the crowd (I consider that year as one of the best years in anime in the past decade). Hara proved he could rise on his own by winning the Grand Prize for the 2007 Japan Media Arts Festival, beating out Mitsuo Iso’s coming-out party Dennou Coil, Hiroyuki Imaishi’s love song to mecha Gurren Lagann, and Koji Yamamura’s latest independent work, A Country Doctor. Watching the film made it clear that the prize really was a well-deserved one.
Keiichi Hara is known for his indistinct direction and for his penchant for down-to-earth storytelling, and Coo is perhaps the best example for that style in action. His predilections came out in full force in this film, as he had no more ties to existing commercial moneymakers. Everything in Coo is saturated with subtlety and low-key directing. The fantasy elements did not take away from the realistic effect of the film, rather, they even worked really well within the anime. It feels similar to a Hosoda movie in a way, but instead of working beside the grand fantasies presented by the plot, Hara bends his fantasy to his own will. He seamlessly melds the myths and legends attached to Coo into his own signature brand of storytelling, giving them a human characteristic. There is a definite sense of realism present in Hara’s work, as if the stuff of folklore and myth existed within the human dimension all along, and are factual, natural parts of human life. It’s impressive how he does these things seemingly with little effort. Keiichi Hara makes it look easy.
I recall reading some interview where Hara says he wanted to portray the mythological creatures in Coo as not strictly supernatural entities, but more of ethnic minorities. I felt that he did achieve this effect through his personal directing choice, but what’s more interesting is that this aspect contributed to the overall effect of the film. The viewers felt an attachment to the creatures (more specifically the titular character Coo), not primarily because of the exoticism naturally exuding from beings like them, but more so because they felt real and human. Coo the kappa acted more like a human who lost his place in time and environment rather than a stereotypical portrait of a kappa lifted straight out of folk tales. The other supernatural presences, despite being real legendary creatures, acted more natural and human. They looked like they were already adjusted to the modern world where humans reign supreme, and as such stayed true to Hara’s original intention with his characters.
Myths aside, the human characters in Coo also were part of the highlights in the film. This being an anime, you would expect the trademark cartoony tricks at portraying emotion prevalent in the medium (especially in a Shin – Ei work), but incredibly, Coo does away with those entirely. The film stays true to its original nature of realistic, subtle character-driven drama all throughout its impressive 120-minute run. Hara’s characters didn’t stretch their acting capacity to give room for cliche anime stunts, but they acted how people would normally expect them to act. Even when faced with the impossible scenario of unearthing a being like Coo, the family never wavered, and worked themselves naturally into the situations naturally resulting from that discovery. In what seems like an example of complete synergy, the characters treated Coo as just another pet (if a bit weird), while Coo himself acted like a lost kid. This is another strength of the film–the characters almost stubbornly acted naturally, guided by Hara’s skilled hands.
Another strength of the film is the way it paced itself through two hours. Crafting a compelling, well-paced story to fit in an ordinary hour-long stint is hard enough to do on its own, but Coo manages to do that for an hour longer. Hara did a great job at establishing a uniformly consistent pace; the information within the film divided up wisely through well-planned scenes at a measured speed. The movie doesn’t rush matters, and there isn’t a moment in the film where things felt like they were going too slowly, either. For a story as laid-back as Coo, not one part in the film felt boring and not one scene in the film felt expendable. Not one cut in the film was a waste. Additionally, not one sequence in Coo felt like they went on for too long. Every scene, cut, moment or shot in the movie contributed to achieving Hara’s goal of making an entertaining yet enthralling movie for all ages, all the while holding fast to his unflinching approach to serious animated film making. Hara mentioned that he planned on extending the film for much longer until he was forced to cut some scenes to fit the two-hour running time. Considering how well he planned the contents of the film, it would be very interesting indeed to see those scenes he cut put back into the film. I would watch it, no matter how long it may be.
Also incredible was the way Hara intertwined the subplots within the film (Kouichi’s maturity and Ossan’s relationship with humans) into the main thrust of the movie, which was to find a home for Coo. They didn’t steal the limelight from the film’s main subject and worked well behind and alongside it. Of course, all according to the director’s very specific way of storytelling. Hara’s way of handling the drama arising throughout the film was also fantastic. He never overplays it, instead keeping the drama subtle. The film never does grand orchestrations, flashy presentations, or intentionally off-center direction. As an example, the final moments in the film (where the family decides Coo’s eventual fate) would have been done in a hugely different way by other directors. The scene would have been filled with unnecessary monologues, sappy attempts at dramatic dialogue, needlessly cinematic composition and presentation, and overly long and overly wrought scenes of character acting had the movie been directed by a lesser man. Fortunately, Keiichi Hara is not one of those lesser directors. He knows what he wants out of his film and his characters, and thus assuredly manipulates them in a very convincing, genuinely dramatic, and truly heartfelt manner. As such, he keeps every second in that sequence really simple, subtle, yet every said second is filled with more genuine human drama than 24 episodes of supposedly dramatic tear-jerkers. Hara warms your heart without burning it.
Normally, films like this would have moments of powerfully presented emotion, but they are hard to find in Coo. Except for a single climactic sequence, the movie never emphasizes strong dramatic moments (even the climactic sequence didn’t feel as climactic as other such scenes in other such films). While normally that would be a flaw, it is otherwise made into a strength here in Coo. Hara stubbornly keeps everything in his film uniform, refusing to focus on one or two particular moments of drama that others would typically do. He doesn’t allow a single scene to take over the film. Instead, he lets the moment play itself out to draw emotion from the viewers, and he does it well. Hara doesn’t tell you straight to your face to feel a certain emotion at a certain scene, but he lets his characters do the talking for him. The naturalistic sense of the film lets the characters to act within their own means, thereby not breaking the tone set by Hara’s stubbornly precise style. Everything adds up to a single, effective whole.
There are apparent environmentalist themes arising from the film (but that’s just natural for films like this), but Hara has noted that he didn’t want to deal with those expressly. Which is all the better, since Coo works best as a character-driven drama about finding a place in a world which has taken that away. But still, they exist in the film, and I was glad to see that it was handled in a way that does not come off as cheaply tacky and preachy. Hara doesn’t hammer stuff into your head. He leaves it up to you to think what you will about his film, and I like him for that. His directing style is reminiscent of the assiduous manner perfected by Ghibli’s Isao Takahata (it’s kind of sad how everyone seems to associate Ghibli only with Miyazaki nowadays) and Coo is the finest example of that approach so far. It has underlying mature themes that exist within the family-friendly exterior, making the film easily entertaining to everyone of all ages, and easily relatable to all ages.
Another aspect of the film which I felt was important to its success was the character designs. The raw, simple designs contributed to enhance Hara’s very specific approach to the film. The characters were drawn with little to no detail, but they managed to express a considerable array of emotion nonetheless. Coo himself was very cute (in fact one of the cutest kappas I’ve seen) but he also doesn’t look too childish. For that we have to thank Yuichiro Sueyoshi for his great work. He is one of Shin – Ei’s foremost animators, and who also was closely associated with Masaaki Yuasa during the latter’s time working on Shin-chan (both of them also worked on Mind Game, with Sueyoshi acting as animation character designer/animation director). Not surprisingly, he was heavily influenced by Yuasa (he even was called his protege), but his work does not feel or look like a rip-off at all. Sueyoshi‘s designs have their own flavor and charm to them; he certainly is not a Yuasa-clone. His animation work looks and feels like his own too, as can be seen here. His sequence there is easily recognizable. Other notable staff involved in the film (which I can recognize) is Masami Otsuka, a Shin – Ei regular who still does work for Shin-chan and Doraemon. The heavily stylized angular and wacky designs interspersed through the film should be done by him.
Keiichi Hara has won the affection of his Japanese audience through his personal, specific approach to realism in anime, and has also proven himself as one of the major talents operating within the industry at present with his movie, Coo. He is one of the best anime directors working in Japan today, no question, and I am eager to see more from him. Luckily, he hasn’t been idle. 2010 saw the release of his latest film Colorful, another novel adaptation, this time produced under Sunrise. While it seems weird for him to go to Sunrise of all places, I don’t think his style should be changed because of that studio’s preoccupations. I’d like to believe he’s too stubborn for that. While not nearly as unanimously well-received as Coo–from what I heard–it still appears to be one of the highlight films of 2010, and as such something to look forward to. April really can’t come soon enough.