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Lucky Number Nine

I’ve been in a sort of funk in the past week, so I’d been more than a little out of it in terms of the goings-on around the world of anime, and it’s also why I hadn’t been paying all that much attention to blogging anything. It happens every once in a while. I don’t go after anime news on my own anyway.

Well, I’ve just readjusted the wiring and returned to the swing of things recently, and I’ve almost caught up to the anime I was keeping up with for the past months (I almost wish I didn’t pick up all the anime that I did; catching up is so troublesome). Notably, I finally had the chance to sample the first episode of Bones‘ film series Towa no Quon, the posthumous work dedicated to director Umanosuke Iida (Tide-Line Blue) who passed away a year ago. It was supposed to be his latest original work, and it was continued by the studio after his unfortunate death. After watching the first film (out of 6), I’m sorry to say that I was markedly underwhelmed. The 47-minute film felt more like your ordinary 24-minute episode of an ordinary TV anime stretched to twice its length instead of a strong and effective, stand-alone film. Rather tedious fare, the film was. I’d expected something even a tad bit more engaging, not just a bland film acted out by flat characters amidst a typical sci-fi story. Granted it was the first movie out of 6, it’s not that bad of a job, but when asked to stand on its own as a singular film, it doesn’t really hold up well.

What did save the film for me, though, were the exciting action sequences, as expected of Bones (and the film staff). Since I didn’t know any better, I had expected the battle in the first few minutes of the film to establish the tone and direction of the rest of the anime, but unfortunately, whatever flashes of greatness those few minutes had gradually dissipated in the course of the piece. There were some nice action bits at the tail-end of the film, for sure, but they just weren’t able to measure up to the excellence of the opening battle. For that we have to thank, first of all, the master action animator Yutaka Nakamura, and the guys who’d helped him out in between, Masahiro Sato and Hironori Tanaka. Nakamura’s patented style of organically furious action animation was in full-force in his section, which is easily identifiable (he was the very first animator I became aware of when I began getting further into anime), and it was satisfying, as expected, as it was filled with wonderful choreography, kinetic speed, and beautiful drawings. In between his work came, supposedly, Masahiro Sato, who I guess animated the parts with the long-haired woman zipping across the background toward the boy, with all the zooming lines and fast action. Tanaka did the initial scene where the mutant boy was running away from the guys chasing him. The flattened backgrounds and brisk, exciting movement give him away. The three of them combined to create very thrilling action in the span of a few minutes.

It’s quite surprising for me not to have heard of Tanaka appearing in a lot of TV anime lately. He did some work on the second OP of Sacred Seven and the fourth Bleach film, but other than that I’ve seen nothing else. It could be that I’m just not watching enough anime, but it still seems weird to me, especially since just some months ago the guy had appeared in upwards of four TV anime in the same season…I wonder what’s going on.

 

i wouldn't complain if the rest of the series looked like this

Dantalian no Shoka #9

Nine is a lucky number–at least for two series currently airing. One is known for the abrupt shift from the standard style of the show into a more personalized approach, and the other caused buzz because of its production as a solo episode. With great individual TV episodes becoming more and more of a rarity these days, it was a treat being able to see talented creators given the chance to strut their stuff and allowed to do what they feel is right for the show they’re working under. There are a truckload of TV anime being released every year, so it’s baffling why people like them aren’t made to do their usual work.

Considering the turmoil and uproar caused among the fans by the rumored staff departures that went down at Gainax, it was a pleasant surprise to see the Dantalian people ask for the services of Osamu Kobayashi to direct an episode of their show. The guy’s a noted buddy of Hiroyuki Imaishi, one of the main Gainax people who had supposedly jumped ship some months back (last I heard, he’d joined Anno at Khara), so it was probably only a matter of time before he’d work on this show, but I hadn’t really expected him to be given a whole ep on a non-Imaishi series (especially now that he’s reportedly gone). Imaishi had actually done storyboard for episode 5, but that was it. Even his usual frenetically paced style didn’t do much for me in that episode, though. Anyway, when it was confirmed that Kobayashi was going to be on board for an episode, I knew I was in for something good. You can always expect the guy to freshen things up in an otherwise lackluster anime due to his unflinchingly individualistic vision as a director. He does whatever he feels is good for his work, no matter what.

So from the very first shot of Dantalian #9, it’s already obvious that I was watching a Kobayashi episode. The backgrounds looked different, the characters looked different. Gone were the 3D-processed photographs they had used in prior episodes, and here comes the traditional backgrounds handled by Kobayashi himself, and also done away with were the established cute character designs, here replaced by Kobayashi‘s signature oddly pleasant drawings. The drawings are as far as you can get from the preconceived ideas of what anime characters should look like, and as such some fans normally decry Kobayashi’s art as horrible, or say that the guy can’t draw or whatever. But the drawings are actually well-done, albeit with less detail or focus on prettiness. Dantalian #9 was a thoroughly Kobayashi episode through and through, thanks to the great combination of the art, the animation, and the directing. If I had to choose a point in which I can stop watching the show, this episode would be it. I don’t think the rest of the eps following this one could match its quality. In the past anime in which I’ve seen Kobayashi at work on an episode, normally the succeeding eps were also good ones made by other great talents, so that his episode doesn’t stick out all by its lonesome (Kemonozume #7, Gurren Lagann #4, PSG #5 B part), but here I don’t feel that would be the case. His work there in those shows was balanced by the tremendous work done in the surrounding eps.

I don’t really like the digitally processed backgrounds in the preceding episodes much, so coming back to more traditional fare was refreshing for me. Most of the backgrounds in this episode were quite imaginative, and all of the images share the rough sort of pastel texture brought about by the coloring work. The earlier backdrops felt merely pasted on scenes as obvious means of saving all that time and effort needed for actually drawing things, not really as an element to evoke a sense of three-dimensionality in the animation, and I liked how this episode did away with all that. The drawings here also feel as if they revel in the fact that they’re simply 2D backgrounds, and since they themselves were richly realized, they provided a great support for the actual animation to play out, despite the characters and stuff only pasted onto them. So it was that I got a bit disappointed when the ep returned to the normalcy of the past episodes. Oh well, it had something to do with the story of the episode, so I can’t complain too much. The fact that they went to the trouble of hiring Kobayashi to do this ep, mostly in part due to the narrative setup of the ep, is a sign that they do give enough of a shit about this show to make it good, in effect preventing the whole series from sliding into the yet-another-one-of-those-TV-series-we-shit-out-when-we-have-time territory. At least there’s one full 24 minutes of great work here, unlike in other places.

The episode was further enriched by cool animators Kobayashi brought to work on this baby. Frankly, I was watching the show mostly for the drawings rather than the animation, but whatever shots of cool animation that appeared were very pleasurable as well. Not really a smattering of highlight scenes in terms of pure animation in this ep, instead it was spaced quite evenly and inserted into the more subtle motions. Though I did sit up at the part where the bug gets burned after it got hit by a chemical bottle, as pictured up top, and I suppose that was the shot animated by Masaaki Yuasa, who made an unexpected return to TV anime as an animator. His animation is fairly easy to spot, since his work always looks different from the others before and after it. Like most other (great) directors, he’d started out as an animator on TV, and seeing him go back there was sweet. I don’t know much about the other animators with him, such as Naoyuki Asano (I assumed it was this guy, as he’d worked on Yuasa’s Tatami Galaxy before) and Yusuke Yoshigaki (who’d done work on PSG a year ago, and recently, Idolmaster), though, but I suppose the animation isn’t the main point here in this ep.

Now that I think about it, this episode seems like a reward for me managing to watch the show this long. It’s been a long time coming, man.

 

eh, kobayashi's dantalian was better

Mawaru Penguindrum #9

I was thinking of blogging this episode on its own after I watched it, but I thought better of the idea once I actually sat down and viewed it, and not helping was the fact that I had already tasted Osamu Kobayashi’s masterful work on his own ninth episode directly before this one. Perhaps it’s a product of over-inflated expectations, but somehow I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the work done in this Penguindrum ep, although technically speaking, it was superb as usual. It just felt flat and dry in comparison to Dantalian #9. Especially when the episode itself was a solo job. You don’t get to see too many of those, so it’s a nice surprise each time. Solo episodes are appreciated not only because of the supreme effort it must entail to do something as unrewarding as this, but solo eps also provide a meaty example of a specific creator’s style be it in terms of animation or directing. I have not seen a solo TV episode since Michio Mihara’s ep 7 of Tatami Galaxy (the guy has had one solo ep in all of Yuasa’s TV anime on which he worked), myself. I was told that Keiji Gotou also had one in Satelight’s Ikoku Croisee-something or other, but since I don’t watch that show, I have no idea what it was like.

Tatami Galaxy also boasts of perhaps being the only TV anime to have had a solo voice-actor performance. Anyway…

Prior to watching this Penguindrum ep, I was hyped for it because it was supposedly this big bash of animator glory, judging from the speculation I’d come across on the net. The show so far has kept up a consistently high quality of production throughout, and a supreme episode would have been the icing on a cake, but it’s not what happened. Which I guess is only to be expected. Ikuhara’s style strikes me as something that puts more emphasis on the details of the directing instead of the animation. It revels in the almost infinite number of ways it can manipulate and string together scenes in an interesting manner, and proof of this is the director’s affection for bank shots (ZETTAI UNMEI MOKUSHIROKU, SEIZON SENRYAKU). The repetition of such scenes is peppered by the endless ways in which the tiniest of details are switched up and changed around. It is a kind of hallmark of Ikuhara’s visual language.

So it only follows that, instead of a super-animator orgy, this episode was the stomping ground of an experienced veteran of a director, who places much of his stock in his skill at framing and composition. And most of all, the guy is a veteran director at Shaft, of all places. Now, I’m not much of a fan of that studio, especially after their debacle with the latest Negima movie (100 key animators and 28 ADs for a 45-minute production plagued with other organizational problems, hahaha oh wow), but when you think about it, this combination made all kinds of sense. What remained to be gleaned from this is how the guest director fares in molding himself into the existing framework of the series, and at the same time working his personal directorial magic into it. Nothing could possibly go wrong. Their styles are both related in some way, so there can’t be any problems.

Which was the case, at least technically. The directing was tight, the flow of scenes constructed with a generous flourish, and the visuals were vibrant and soundly stylized. By all means, this episode was entertaining. I could say that much. But somehow, deep inside my head, I could not completely embrace the obviously skilled work put in this ep, for some reason. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste.  I could appreciate the quick cuts from scene to scene, the cool changes in the angles, the spare and flat backgrounds, but I also felt that there was something lacking behind all that. Even I’m not exactly sure what it is. I think I’m just missing the exuberance and excitement of the past episodes and I wasn’t ready for things to fall back down to earth so abruptly after that (and there was also the super-animator bit), but I guess that’s too simple a reason to totally disregard the great work invested here, in this episode. I would have preferred a lot more inventive spark, the sort of unhinged, uninhibited, almost nonsensical blast of creative fury that I commonly associate with “auteur” directors working in anime. I’d have been a lot more entertained, especially coming after the superb Kobayashi ep of Dantalian. If you’re going to adapt your style to the work of someone who shares a similar approach as you, anyway, then go all-out with it, to hell with being subservient to the chief director or whoever. Something more daring like that, though I also could not stress the point that the episode was of unusually good quality, regardless of that. It’s just me and my misgivings mostly.

The guy in charge of everything in this episode (storyboard, ep direction, animation direction, key animation) was Nobuyuki Takeuchi, a veteran director who’d been involved in most of Shaft’s TV anime in recent years, and was the guy, alongside Shinbo, responsible for the assorted hallmarks that came to define such shows, like the trademark “Shaft head-tilt” (which is actually also present in PD #9). Aside from that, I don’t know much about him. Maybe because I’m not a huge fan to begin with. The animation clearly was not the point here, but it’s still an impressive to be able to draw all the images yourself (though he did have 2 seconds here). Michio Mihara’s Kemonozume #12 had more movement than this ep–unfair comparison, yeah, I know. If only for the fact that this episode was done by only one man, then Penguindrum #9 is a great episode. Though, if you ask me, Kobayashi’s Dantalian #9 really was the better piece.

 


2 responses to “Lucky Number Nine

  1. Scamp September 21, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    The action sequences in Towa no Quon were indeed great, but they didn’t feel ‘movie level’ great. Like, they weren’t much better than the action sequences in, say, Sacred Seven. For a movie, I felt the animation was quite bland apart from the fight sequences.

    • ananimas September 22, 2011 at 2:31 pm

      Well, if you’re watching a Bones project for anything, better make it the action animation. That’s their specialty, of sorts.

      The action in the first few minutes of TnQ #1 was cool, though I have to agree that it was far from, say Sword of the Stranger’s climactic fight (which was also done by Yutaka Nakamura). The animation of the film aside from that sequence was admittedly nothing special, which only served to highlight that great piece by Nakamura and co. Besides, I just have this raging boner for Nakamura’s animation to begin with.

      S7 has a tiny edge over it since the action is spaced out over a number of episodes, whereas that little fight only happened in the space of, what, 3 minutes? I don’t think it’s that equal of a comparison.

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