Two, maybe three weeks ago I finally managed to rewatch one of the earliest highlight episodes of the Kenshin TV anime, situated in the first few eps of the famed Kyoto arc (around the time when Saito is first introduced)–the episode in question being the one in which Kenshin decides to leave his home to do battle with his nemesis, Shishio, after the set of events put in motion by the introduction of a new character. Of course, the prior episode was good as well (Saito vs. Kenshin), with some deliciously intense action, bits of which contributed by no less than Norio Matsumoto himself (series chara designer Hideki Hamasu was there as animator as well), but it’s in the next one where the quality is upped to a higher level. Surprisingly, it’s not even an action-packed episode; rather it was the direct opposite, as instead it was an ep focused entirely on drama and character emotion.
Kenshin’s farewell, to my mind, was indeed one of the best episodes of the series because it successfully combined powerfully acted emotion and drama with the subtle, foreboding sense of dread and trouble of the slowly unfolding events of the plot in the span of only 24 minutes–ordinary TV episode length. It’s markedly different from the rest of the eps prior to it. The surrounding chain of events leading to our hero’s departure were masterfully spaced and greatly condensed with the clear sense of trouble and disaster looming on the horizon, steadily building up to the emotionally charged farewell scene between Kenshin and Kaoru, which served as a great, cinematic climax for the episode. The ep had more tension and impact than usual. Even the drawings themselves are of a higher quality than usual (aside from Yasuhiro Aoki’s eps as AD). It’s a testament to the effective work by the main team of the ep–Kazuhiro Furuhashi/Norio Matsumoto for storyboards, Kazuhiro Furuhashi direction, Masahide Yanagisawa animation direction (Yanagisawa also came to provide the designs for the subsequent Trust & Betrayal OVAs, whose designs I believe are the best in the series). I bet it was Matsumoto himself who’d composed the storyboards for his own section, the actual farewell scene at the end, which was a showcase of his skill as a great animator, not only in terms of action, but also in his handling of believable human acting. He had complete control over the entirety of the scene, which shows in the end result. Delicate drawings coupled with sensitive animation made the scene as rich as it was. It is another proof that anime is, in fact, capable of transmitting genuine human emotion to the viewer despite its different look; it only depends on the men behind the scenes.
eh, i expected better...way better
Persona 4 the Animation #1
All of that, then, brings me to this post about another of the newest fall TV anime to grace the fans: Persona 4. I understand that this is a direct adaptation of a widely popular video game, which ultimately comes with almost an unfair level of hype and expectation, especially from die-hard fans of the game drooling for a good translation of the original material to another medium. The anime is also a good chance to attract people who have not played the game yet to do so, if done right. I also thought the transfer of the game into anime wouldn’t be that hard to do reasonably well, since the game’s aesthetic borrows quite a bit from anime, so it should have been a no-brainer for the resulting animation to be good, right? Especially considering first episodes are usually the best ones? Well, no, apparently not. For me, the hype came crashing down in the first episode–or if not, at least started falling apart. It’s a wonder how they managed to make something so flat and uninteresting out of admittedly promising material.
The characters were flat, the background art lifeless, the animation bland, the overall episode work boring–to think they had a somewhat stylishly quirky original material to go from, the colorful, pop art even reminiscent of the flavorful approach Tite Kubo once applied generously in early Bleach. Even that was only relegated to the OP/ED and trickled down onto the minor bits within the episode (the date shifts, running true to the format of the game). As far as first episodes go–first episodes of well-hyped series, that is–P4’s opening episode sucked. Maybe they realized that the name value of the anime was going to be enough to sell itself, so they skimped out on making the leader episode good, or is that assessment too harsh? I don’t want to rail on the episode too excessively, but it was just really disappointing. Especially when compared to the other leader episodes I’ve sampled recently, which are more low-key and disregarded, insofar as commercial value and appeal are concerned. Sad to say, but they were far more interesting to me. I mean, really, you avail yourself a huge name-branded franchise to adapt as animation, it’s expected that you at least put in the necessary amount of skill and effort to make it stand up to its mother product. But then you drop the ball, on the very first episode, no less.
Of course, the established fans of the game may be pleased with this, and I’m not going to take their enjoyment of finally seeing their beloved game transferred to the small screen away from them, but for me, the simple act of porting over something to another medium tags new responsibilities along with it: namely, to attract newer fans, to show fans who’ve never experienced the joys of the original why the said original product was loved by so many people. And the only way to achieve that is by putting in good work on the adaptation. My thinking is, you don’t just cater to the already firmly entrenched fans of the parent material (who’d probably buy the adaptation in droves, anyway), but you also try to hook in the newer generation of fans who may want to try the game for themselves after seeing the anime. TV anime is already somewhat of an infomercial to begin with, so why not take full advantage of it? Compare that to Idolmaster #1, which was a great, unique, well-produced affair, also providing the basis for how the rest of the series was going to run (cutesy negligible fluff, yet consistently high quality, cutesy negligible fluff). I don’t know which of the two is the bigger property (and I also don’t care), but it’s plain to see which anime version has had more effort, love, and care put into it.
Perhaps what happened to P4 #1 was a case of having too many cooks in the kitchen. It had 4 people in charge of storyboards (one of which included the chief director, Seiji Kishi), 4 ep animation directors, plus the 2 main ones who I presume were on hand to work on the opener. Such a number of people working on such a short episode spells trouble–their individual inputs would only hinder the resulting products when ultimately put together, fragments of good quality lost somewhere in the process of compiling all of them. And instead of making sure the drawings were appealing and prettified, having such a number of animation directors only succeeded in sucking every bit of life out of the characters, instead removing the flavor and spirit of Shigenori Soejima’s original designs. The characters looked way off to me in a lot of spots, and it’s all the more obvious when they’re moving around and acting out their scenes that clash with the drab, realistic backgrounds. I don’t mind realism, no, but when they’re as lackluster as what I’ve seen in P4 #1, then we’ve got a problem on our hands. It’s as if they took out the soul of the parent product and then promptly lost it somewhere. I wonder what’s going on over at the production team. Anyway, it’s really too bad, what happened to the first episode, since it was their best chance at striking gold with the audience, but then again, things would probably start looking up by the next episode, at least if they want to do better. It’s supposed to run for 2 cours, after all.
Still, that doesn’t mean having multiple people take charge of the storyboards (or animation direction) is a bad thing in itself, as proven in the relatively recent series, Mawaru Penguindrum (most eps had more than one person structuring the storyboard, also AD). Penguindrum ep 13 itself had two people credited for the storyboard, one of whom was Ikuhara. I guess the main problem in that approach is that you need the series director, the big cheese, the head honcho, to have a powerful, concrete, unifying vision as to where he plans to take his creation, be it stylistically, be it in terms of plot, whatever. He has to have a purposeful, strong style and the talent to see that style through to its logical conclusion, all within the framework of his overarching, permeating artistic vision. Those elements alone should be enough to rein in the other members of the team and bind them to a singular purpose and form. Achieving that desired effect just requires someone as crafty and skilled as a Kunihiko Ikuhara. And it’s also what separates the great anime directors from the merely good ones.
As far as animation goes, the action scene in the end was some kind of a saving grace, but even then it falls short of the expectations innate in first episodes of big commercially tied anime. It was flashy and smoky, but the choreography is stiff and the presentation sloppy. Even the FX wasn’t that powerful to me, as mightily explosive as those flashes of lightning and clouds of smoke seemed to be. Notable name in the credits was Hironori Tanaka, but I didn’t know where to place him in the ep. There was a nice, short cut of the three characters running from the building, so I guess that was his work. Still, I’m not too sure. In other places, his work would have been comparably easier to spot, but not here.
Just about the only thing I really liked about the episode was the voice-acting work done for Teddie, who was played by Kappei Yamaguchi, as short as his appearance was. The guy boasts some incredible acting range, and hearing him change his voice up from one anime to another is quite interesting an experience. If the anime was instead a comedy series centered entirely on his character, then I think it would have been way more entertaining.