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Past the Checkered Flag 2

Some of the shows in the upcoming seasons look interesting on paper, but soon taper off after a third of the episodes begin airing. Things that appear neat and entertaining soon devolve into boring and tedious fare, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth–which is why I don’t really try my hand at investigating whatever comes next in the world of anime and just take whatever they put out and see if I like them after actually trying them. But still there are shows which I can’t help but keep an eye out for, because there’s something in it that catches my attention or something like that. Which is the case, I would say, for that new Production IG show Guilty Crown, slated to air in the fall of this year.

Why I happen to be cautiously expectant for that show boils down to one thing, really: it’s the director, Tetsuro Araki. After doing some jobs directing TV anime (Death Note, 4 eps of Blue Literature [No Longer Human], Highschool of the Dead) over at Madhouse, he’d apparently gone freelance together with some other talented TV directors (Ryosuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Hamasaki) at the studio, last I heard. Hamasaki has since then worked on Steins;Gate, while Nakamura is supposedly doing work on a new project, studio as of yet unknown. Anyway, Araki’s presence on the aforementioned show gives me reason to expect good things because I like how he handles the material handed to him. He’s got this keen eye for theatrics, as he gives generous doses of intensely exaggerated orchestrations to certain scenes almost to the point of comedy, but still he manages to avoid getting too obnoxious in doing so. The scenes are inherently serious, but he adds another personalized dimension to them, thus making them stick and stand out. There are many scenes that benefited from that approach: from the potato-chip eating scene to Light’s death scene in DN to the bullet-dodging breasts in HSotD. Understandably, he toned it down in the arc of Blue Lit he was in charge of, but even then he showed his ability of manipulating the mood and tone of a scene through the capable use of color and layout. Araki strikes me as being somewhat similar in style to Nakamura, though the latter is more rhythmical, even melodic, in how he plays his scenes out. It’s also nice to know that Araki is aided by quite like-minded people in this new original show (a noitaminA show at that), so it would be quite a treat finding out what kind of shenanigans he’s going to pull next.

 

welcome to the future

 

Redline (Takeshi Koike, Madhouse)

If I was asked why I like to watch animation–anime, in this case–even today, I’d probably be fumbling around trying to pin it down to one exact reason. Fundamentally speaking, though, I guess it stems from the intriguing appeal of watching drawings move in all sorts of different ways. That hasn’t changed from the time I was a wee little brat to now, when I’m growing older. Watching a drawing twisting and turning and doing all kinds of things without any limitation brings a certain rush and thrill, especially when you realize that it all comes from the hands of one guy sitting at his desk somewhere. I had always been amazed at how they can do these crazy stuff just by putting them down on paper. Animation is great because it isn’t bound by anything–as long as you can imagine it, you can do it–unlike live-action stuff where the inherent constraint called reality is always lurking around the corner.

It also doesn’t help that I’ve witnessed some scenes that I believe are only possible in anime, animation that emits a powerful and immutable magnetic force precisely because it is animated, and animation that has presence, all in sync with the fact that it’s in 2D. Trying to replicate them in the context of real life would only be a fruitless exercise, sad to say. From Hideaki Anno/Gainax‘s  impressively lush Daicon shorts to Mitsuo Iso’s brilliantly hilarious swimming in Golden Boy to Shinya Ohira‘s impossibly crafted scenes in the many anime he’s been involved in at present (xxxHolic, Genius Party, Innocence) to, of course, the irrepressibly visceral and raw animation on the climactic scene in Yuasa’s Mind Game (where the gang make an almighty dash out of the giant whale–animated by Nobutake Ito), there are many instances in anime where it manages to blow the viewers out of their seats merely because of the supreme effect it achieves and the primal thrill it evokes due to its nature as animation. Moments like these are part of what keeps me hooked on the stuff even now as I grow older.

Thus it made me happy to see another such instance in anime again, where the animation blows my face away, also made all the better because it’s stretched quite evenly throughout a 100-minute feature film. Redline was a source of a lot of hype among fans right from the release of the worldwide trailer some years ago for its refreshingly stylized look and for the incredible animation work it boasted. There was also the much-touted spiel about how it’s the last film of its kind, where every image is laboriously drawn by hand, in a time where 3DCG technology is prevalent more than ever before, and also for the length of time the film was in production: 7 years (Steamboy took 10 years and most probably billions of yen to make, so I wonder how the hype for it was back then). With all this hype coming with it, it’s understandable if people may go into it on their toes preparing for a massive letdown, but that”s simply not the case for this film. It totally deserves all the hype that went with it, and then some. Quite simply, Redline is one of the most incredible animated spectacles I have seen in recent memory.

Directed by Takeshi Koike and scripted by his comrade Katsuhito Ishii, the film undoubtedly throws the art and animation onto the forefront and makes them the stars of the film. Every moment is jam-packed with either great drawings or impressive animation, with pure pleasure overloading the senses until the very end. The visuals of the movie is also underscored by catchy tunes courtesy of James Shimoji, who brings in the auditory side to the equation. The pulsing beats of the music intertwine with the non-stop surge of the animation, rounding out the experience and thus making it a true audiovisual show of force. The film is Koike‘s debut at directing a feature, but he’s no stranger to heading an anime project. He was previously in charge of the short OVA Trava: Fist Planet, also produced at Madhouse, with Ishii joining him in a similar capacity. The OVA was an example of Koike‘s personal style at work, for it offered generous helpings of his deftly shaded and hip drawings together with expressive and lush animation. Redline feels like an extension of that, but this time the production quality has been pushed further and has been refined to its purest. He and his army of animators had set out to make an unforgettable spectacle out of this film, and boy did they succeed.

The very first shot of the film establishes the basic look of the film, and the first twelve or so minutes expands on that and blasts you away with supremely varied and individual drawings to the relentlessly energetic animation itself that peppers the first race. Every drawing shown on screen betrays the sheer amount of effort and the close attention to detail invested in them, for not a single one of those drawings are the same as another. All the characters have a defining trait either in his body type to his clothes to everything else in between that separates each of them from the other–in the group shots, for example, every alien spectator is different from the other, from their body types to the clothes they are wearing. They closely observed the finest details in each shot to get the look right. From the drawings alone you could sense that even the background characters have his or her own distinct personality and you get the feeling that all of them are good enough to have their own spin-offs made. And that’s only for the miscellaneous characters. From the alien kid and his dad with the camera in the first race to the old alien who sold JP his cigarettes to the four alien kids who tried to harass him into buying tickets to watch the Redline race to the alien waiter at the restaurant, all of the characters in the film feel as if they have their own personal back stories behind them just by looking at them. Obviously the level of care put into the major characters, i.e the actual racers themselves, is of a much higher degree, and watching them play around on the screen only makes that clearer. The pure lavish care put into the simple drawings already puts the film on a notch higher than ordinary anime in my book.

The animation is the other star of this film, and it makes an impact straight from the get-go. Marvelous, heart-pounding animation lines the screen when it came time for the races, pushing them forward with an unstoppable flurry of animated (hand-drawn) fury that’s just a pure pleasure to watch. There’s good animation that’s pleasing to the eyes, and then there’s great animation. Animation that not only catches the eye because of how it good it looks, but animation that has strength and effect that’s all its own. The sections with the cars zooming past the screen at tremendous speeds successfully evoke the feeling and thrill of pure speed from the viewer and nails his attention to the film at every second. It’s a powerful and immediate sort of rush that’s possible due to the nature of animation. The film gets its ceaseless forward momentum due to moments like that. Redline’s FX animation is also wondrously superb, transmitting a great sense of impact through their great rendering on-screen. Explosions, smoke, laser fire, missiles–everything in the film flows perfectly in sync with the other animated elements on screen. And even during the movie’s slow sequences, the fantastic drawings compensate and keeps the viewer constantly alert.

Though if I have to nitpick, I’d have to say that I found some of the scenes disruptive of the momentum the prior scenes have built up. The Roboworld scenes come off as too scattered and too abrupt, especially during the first part of the main race, thus starting the primary section of the film in a halting fashion. You can have one great cut of racing action here, then out of the blue it shifts to a scene where the Roboworld government are talking about how to destroy all the racers, then it suddenly changes again to the race. It doesn’t take that much away from the enjoyment of the film, but I guess I just wanted the action to flow more smoothly. The middle parts of the film I also saw as being quite disjointed, switching from scene to scene with sudden stops-and-goes. There’s a cool scene with Sonoshee in the kitchen, which then cuts to a scene on Roboworld TV, then goes back.  It makes the thing feel as if they were filling for time until the main event. But who am I to complain? The scenes focusing on the side characters in the Redline race as shown on their segments for Roboworld TV are all so hilarious and fun that they don’t hamper anything at all. Of course, that is made possible by the brilliantly individualistic character designs. The Redline racers are so full of life and character that the film could easily change focus from JP/Sonoshee to Lynchman & JohnnyBoya, the Superboins, Miki & Todoroki, Gori-Rider, Trava & Shinkai to Machine Head and still don’t harm the film. You could make interesting spin-off anime on any of these characters; that’s how great and fun they are.

Not only that, but the mecha design work on the film bears the same mark of quality as the people. The cars all look defined and distinct, brimming with their own brand of character from the cars of the minor racers in Yellow Line to the cars of the racers in the Redline. Their cars are an inextricable part of their characters, and without the machines, they would lose a vital part of what makes them who they are. It’s funny to me, though, that the main character himself, of all people, has one of the simplest designs, down to the car he’s driving. Not that it’s a bad thing. Then we also have the mechas of the Roboworld faction, which has a more streamlined appearance and smoother feel. It’s clear as day how much effort they had to put into crafting every visible element of the Redline universe, that it makes my head spin. Truly it does seem like they spent 7 years of their time creating them from scratch. Add to that the fantastic, glorious, mouth-watering racing animation that radiates that primal sensation of speed and non-stop momentum, and you have a great film on your hands.

Redline wouldn’t have been possible without an army of great animators working on it, but it surprises me to know only a few of the staff listed on it. Certainly the result of ignorance on my part, but I was thinking that the credits would be filled from head-to-toe with the biggest names in the industry going by the looks of things. Still, the film is evenly incredible enough on all fronts related to animation that it ultimately doesn’t matter who-did-what, so ID’ing them is just a bonus for the die-hard fans. Animators I can recognize but not know include Norimoto Tokura, Koji Sugiura, Kanako Maru. Kanako Maru I remember from the Madhouse TV anime she’s worked on; I think she’d appeared in a Yuasa show here and there, plus she did a solo ep on Casshern. Tokura I also recall on Tokikake, but not much else (he was listed first in this film, so not a few cuts were by him). Then there’s Sugiura who I’ve heard was a great mecha animator. Surely one of the impressive scenes in the film were by his hand.

Then we have the more popular guys, guys like Sushio, Hiroyuki Imaishi and Shinya Ohira himself. Sushio was listed fairly highly, and I recall hearing that he was in charge of the Superboin dance among other things. I also bet he was responsible for the explosions in the Yellow Line race–where the dog alien fires his missiles. Imaishi’s section was pretty easy to spot, the section being the introduction of  Lynchman & JohnnyBoya in their segment on Roboworld TV. Hiroyuki Imaishi and Takeshi Koike have worked on each other’s shows in the years past and they have similar basic artistic styles–Imaishi on Trava and Koike on Dead Leaves–so it only makes sense for the latter to call on Imaishi again for his breakout film. Then we have the one and only Shinya Ohira himself, one of the best Japanese animators active today, animating that unmistakable section with the remnants of Funky Boy going berserk right to the part where Volton transforms into a gigantic monster and fights the humongous blob. His section is the easiest to identify in the entire film, for it was animated with the same sort of undulating, pulsating movement that changes form every second he’d exhibited in his latter-day efforts. Amazing work, as expected from the man. People have decried the inclusion of the giant monster battle between Volton and Funky Boy (hell, make that Funky Boy  himself) because of how unnecessary it is, but I liked it just the same. When you’ve got a terrifically skilled man such as Ohira working on your film, why wouldn’t you give him something hairy like that to animate? It seems to me that the entire sequence was included solely to make room for Ohira’s animation, though that’s just me.

Hiroyuki Aoyama was also in the film, alongside Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Hiroshi Hamasaki (?). Aoyama had done quite a bit of work on a few Madhouse anime in the last few years, and it comes as no surprise that they tapped him to do some work again on a new production of theirs. I quite liked those first few shots with Funky Boy emerging from the underground facility and laying waste to the surrounding landscape, as the FX work there was great and looked markedly different from the rest. There also was the scene with the satellite laser weapon firing at Funky Boy and devastating everything in the immediate vicinity which gave off the same vibe as that earlier scene I mentioned. Kawajiri, the renowned director of such anime as Wicked City and Ninja Scroll, once had Koike under his wing, so it’s a gesture of acknowledgment from the director to bring out some animation from the old master for his debut. I had thought Kawajiri had already retired, but here he is, still at work. Hamasaki I don’t know much about, but he’d apparently started out as an animator, as I remember catching his name in that episode of  Memories that was animated by Madhouse (Stink Bomb). Since then of course, he’d made his transition to becoming a director, but he still comes back to animating every now and again, it seems.

Ohira‘s sequence didn’t stand out as much as I would have expected coming from the man, and it’s due to the clean-up efforts made by one guy named Hokuto Sakiyama. He was listed as one of the seconds in the film, and he’s also slowly making a name for himself due to the heavily Ohira-influenced animation he’s been doing in recent times–the latest example I can remember being that short shot he did in Star Driver #25 where the giant mecha slowly rises up–so it’s highly plausible that he was called in precisely one job: to clean up Ohira‘s animation and make it match the look of the rest of the film. I imagine that the task is an extremely difficult one to do, but Sakiyama did a good job here because of his own style of animation. Places like Ghibli have succeeded at taming Shinya Ohira‘s wild animation (see Howl’s for a recent example), but their work somehow feels more neutered. Here the staff had some good sense to bring in a guy with similar inclinations to his craft, thus making the seemingly thankless job feel more balanced and distinct.

The director, Takeshi Koike, himself started out as an animator, and this mindset is clear in Redline. Compared to other directors–those people like to call “auteurs”–Koike doesn’t consciously manipulate every element of the scene in his capacity as a director, instead choosing to let his animators do the talking for him. He doesn’t use fast-paced cutting or exercise complete control over the mood and the staging. Rather he makes the scenes flow with the bare minimum of personalized creative flourish, and lets the animation act itself out with the animators at the driver’s seat. That’s what I felt while watching the film. Probably this had something to do with my nitpicks earlier, but that doesn’t matter in the least because of the leeway he’d afforded his crew. They filled the scenes with a lot of extra frills and had fun adding in lots of flourishes in the drawings and the actions. Even the simple act of walking has that undeniable swagger and personality, and that extends to the  minor characters as well. The animation is the star of this film, to begin with, so it’s only sensible for the animators to take the lead.

Though most of the credit for the film is attributed to the director, Katsuhito Ishii’s input for the film cannot be denied as being one of the major driving forces that enabled the film to attain its wondrous stylishness and appeal. Indeed the movie credits him as the “creative director” aside from scriptwriter, which means that his presence was more or less invaluable in the production of this film. The making-of special that came with the DVD/BD sheds some more light in this regard. Ishii was responsible for conception of the film, and his initial proposals for the characters and the setting and the story laid the groundwork for Koike and his gang to work their magic. He also was the guy who pushed for the rich, luscious animation that graced this movie, mentioning that he wanted there to be a lot of extra motions and sounds to be added in every scene so as to make the anime more entertaining, also because he wanted to separate the film from the rest of anime.

Ishii had too many ideas that he had wanted to include in the film that he needed the help of two other people to refine what was in his head in order for the story to fit the allotted time frame. He says that he had to seek the services of Yoshiki Sakurai of Production IG and one guy called Yoji Enokido to assist him in cutting out the unnecessary parts and polish the film into what was shown in cinemas. The special feature did indeed offer a glimpse at some of his initial ideas for the characters, and his level of imagination is apparent in them–JP  at first was supposed to be this gangster-type with 26 kids, while Sonoshee was originally supposed to be a dumb broad with a pet robot named Freco. Afterward it was Koike’s job to use his own amazingly rich imagination to continually refine the characters into what they are today. He’d also taken the task of designing the cars and the backgrounds of the Redline universe, as an effect smattering his unmistakable fingerprints everywhere in the film. All the major jobs were credited to Koike (director, storyboard, character/machine/background designer, animation director).

Madhouse is a studio I have tremendous respect for because of their good sense to give talented creators from everywhere in the industry sizable chances to express their creativity through substantial projects. They were the ones who gave Masaaki Yuasa not one, not two, but three TV projects after the widespread industry-wide acclaim he’d earned from Mind Game. The studio gave Mamoru Hosoda a shot to make a full-length feature completely free from franchise tie-ins with Tokikake, after his leaving Toei and after apparently being snubbed by Ghibli. Madhouse handed Mitsuo Iso his debut as a director in Dennou Coil, despite the man being known mostly, if not only, for his incredible body of work in animation. Now the studio rewarded one of their stalwarts and their amazing talents, Takeshi Koike, by giving him his feature film debut, which was basically a shot of putting together a film from scratch. They recognized his skill, and probably saw him as being the one guy who can best handle producing a movie from the ground-up and making it an amazingly fun piece of entertainment (indeed, Koike jokingly mentions in the DVD/BD special feature of how the studio head just told him to do whatever he wanted with the film and to take however much time he needed for it).

The film’s tagline is “Witness the future of animation”. In other hands this may sound like a baseless show of arrogance, but in Redline’s case, it clearly deserves using an ambitious slogan like that. Animation, I think, has a lot more ways to go from here, and honestly speaking, Redline is quite possibly five steps in the right direction.

2 responses to “Past the Checkered Flag 2

  1. bateszi August 22, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Fascinating post. Thanks for highlighting all of the names involved in Redline, particularly Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Something about his involvement just brings home to me how much of a celebration it must’ve been to make this. Now I just hope it makes some money through DVD/BD sales.

    • ananimas August 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm

      They really did pull out all the stops and did everything they could with the film, and the overall effort is clearly visible while watching. I didn’t want to go over the subject of sales since it might depress me, but I hope they can at least get something back so they can continue putting out superb pieces of work.

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