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The IdolM@ster #18
I was wondering whether or not Makoto Kobayashi was involved in the newest Last Exile anime out of Gonzo, because I didn’t catch his name in the credits for episode 1, so I looked more closely as I watched the next episodes, and sure enough, there he was: credited under “production design” (or at least, I think that was him). And then, after I’d given the matter some more thought, I realized that I shouldn’t have been wondering about the matter in the first place, and I was made aware once more of my stupidity. The general aesthetic and design sensibilities of the new Last Exile anime is pretty much a straight extension of the style seen in the first series, back in 2003. Imaginative and creative world design is a big part of the mixture that makes for an effective fantasy story, and this is the highlight of both Last Exile series. I imagine the role of a production designer was to provide the basic framework and imagery of the world and the elements inhabiting that world–from clothes to buildings to environments to ships–and once more, Kobayashi exhibits his skill at crafting a beautiful landscape in which the characters move about. It’s just too bad for me that the overall quality of the work (as far as LE: Fam is concerned) doesn’t quite match up to its design brilliance. Without an equally imaginative and talented director holding things together at the top, the resulting anime remains rather insubstantial and lacking.
The anniversary post I’ve made some days ago only made it clearer to me how important a good staff is to producing a good episode of a TV anime (or an OVA, a film, whatever). Samurai Champloo, on the whole, was a fairly consistent TV anime in terms of its tone and appeal, the almost exceedingly hip and deeply anachronistic version of an otherwise traditional period piece, but if inspected in some degree of closer detail, you can see that there is a visible level of unevenness and some differences in each of the 26 episodes when put side by side. Some episodes have better drawings than others, some have better animation than others, while some episodes just are plain better than all the others in every way. These episodes, to me, are the ones which best encapsulate and embody the various flavors governing the series: whimsical, absurd stories, zinging animation, surprisingly well-handled drama. And, perhaps not so surprisingly, these very same episodes were the ones headed by the best people on that show.
Dai Sato and Sayo Yamamoto, as a writer/director tag-team, collaborated on some of the most absurdly flavorful episodes of the show, deliberately throwing away any semblances of realism of plot and setting, running away with the deeply rooted anachronism that was the foundation of the whole show. Guest directors Tensai Okamura (Darker than Black, Memories’ Stink Bomb) and Hiroyuki Imaishi also injected their own brand of fun and basically ran amok on the series, contributing the storyboards to perhaps the two craziest episodes of them all (#9, #23). Director Sayo Yamamoto (Michiko e Hatchin) also showed that she was perfectly able to craft scenes of deliciously meaningful emotion in some of her episodes (#11, for one), revealing a side of the series that lay on the extreme opposite end of the storytelling spectrum. And then there was, of course, chief director Shinichiro Watanabe helping move things along, writing scripts here, directing episodes there.
There was also another director who’d made a splash over the course of Champloo. His name: Akitoshi Yokoyama. He teamed up with animation director Nobutake Ito to create what was perhaps the most balanced, the most unified, and the most powerfully climactic episode in the whole series, episode 21. In it there was a tight balance among the things that defined the show: lighthearted antics, intense action, and affecting human drama, all rolled up neatly together in a thoroughly entertaining blitz of an episode. Same as when I first watched Champloo years before (I streamed it, sue me), Yokoyama’s Champloo 21 was the episode that stuck to my mind as I was catching the episodes of the show as they were re-ran on TV where I live. The episode capably juggled all aforementioned disparate moods, never letting one take control of the affair, resulting in an episode whose quality is enough for it to stand on its own. Of course, Ito’s contribution as animation director was also crucial. If you ever wondered why the characters in that episode looked so different from the rest, that was because of Ito. He gave the drawings a much more markedly realistic flavor, almost discarding Kazuto Nakazawa’s cool and sassy designs, and opting for a rawer, more visceral look. The animation itself was far removed from the kind of frenetic and zippy action that was common in the show, rather #21’s animation was more flowing, and had more of a feeling of weight.
(A year or so later, Yokoyama and Ito both joined Masaaki Yuasa’s team at Madhouse for the production of Kemonozume. Ito had previously worked on Mind Game, and Yuasa had contributed animation for Champloo #9. Perhaps this series was also where Yuasa got acquainted with Yokoyama, I don’t know.)
Now Akitoshi Yokoyama has established himself as one of the premier (episode) directors currently active in the industry. I’ve only savored much of his work on Yuasa’s TV anime, but I guess that’s enough to know just how good a director he is. His episodes in all three series are generally among the best of them all, on the level of mini-masterpieces that not only were great enough to pull their own weight as individual pieces of anime, but also were heavily instrumental in pushing their stories along and enhancing the overall quality of the shows in which they were included. Take his episodes out and I think people can still appreciate them on their own totally on the merits of the directing, but the original series would probably suffer as a result. It is a testament to the genius of Masaaki Yuasa that he was able to bring Yokoyama into the fold and has turned to him time and again to craft an episode of anime that is enjoyable on multiple levels. Great directors know other great directors when they see them.
Yokoyama’s episodes are always structurally tight, precisely constructed, carefully controlled, deliberately timed and excellently animated. Those stylistic elements have consistently stayed with his directorial work, no matter where he went, or what kind of material he worked on. It’s this trademark versatility of his that’s the main reason he’s such a reliable director, and why his involvement in a TV anime is always worthy of buzz. Which was why when he was initially rumored to direct an episode of A-1’s Idolmaster, I was excited. Giddy as a schoolgirl. And when it was confirmed and I finally got to watch it, I was pleasantly thrilled.
Prior to Yokoyama’s Idolmaster episode, people were creaming themselves over #17, which was a Gainax (or should I say, ex-Gainax) episode–with storyboards by Yuka Shibata and animation direction by Sushio–expecting an episode boasting a relentless barrage of energetic animator frenzy with cute girls, sort of like Akira Amemiya”s section in Idolmaster #15. But that didn’t turn out to be the case, as instead the action in that ep was more low-key and understated. Episode 17 was impressive, as expected, just not in the way most people expected it to be. Hype does that to people. But with Yokoyama’s episode, you knew what you were in for right when you first hear about it. It was going to be entertaining, pleasant on the whole. The only thing left to see was where he would take the existing material, and how he would go about presenting his own interpretation of the story within its context.
Idolmaster #18, then, turned out to be a rather different episode than the rest of them thus far. It toned down all the childish, fluffy, and almost annoyingly grating cutesy tone of the series and instead focused more on exposing and highlighting the natural vitality and appeal that organically surfaced and flowed from the characters within the episode. You hardly see anybody jumping around or acting all giddy or endlessly falling over themselves for effect. Instead, what you see is a somewhat serious (hah, did I just say that?) angle to the characters, in their reactions to the developments of the plot and the people themselves. Of course, Yokoyama didn’t totally remove the main selling points of the franchise and flush them down the drain. The man is a professional, after all. Idolmaster is his first foray into this type of material, and being the professional that he is, he doesn’t haphazardly and forcefully cram his own ideas into the episode, but rather cleverly manipulates the story without bending it to his will. The resulting concoction is more delicate and more convincing than any of the prior episodes.
I don’t know if other people also felt like this, but as I was watching Idolmaster #18, I was hit by a nagging feeling that it was longer–it felt longer than all the other episodes. And even though I say that, I actually mean it as a compliment. It wasn’t the slow, draggy, excruciatingly boring and uninteresting type of long–where the story takes much too long to make a point–but it’s the active, riveting, sort-of-addictive type of long. I won’t be able to explain myself very clearly here, so bear with me. What I meant when I said it was, the episode had so much delightful actions and elements packed into it that you get attached to what you’re watching, and when the eyecatch rolls around at the halfway mark, you scratch your head and ask, “What, there’s more?” It’s not so separate a feeling from the “oh, it’s already over?” sense you normally get from watching supremely thrilling shows, but it’s still basically different. Yokoyama inserts fun ideas into the episode–such as the facial expressions–but doesn’t do so in a way that bogs down the whole thing. He made the episode his own without straying too far from the original spirit of the material.
I guess the masterful way Yokoyama plays around with the visuals of the episode helped tremendously in evoking that feeling within me. He manipulates the lay-outs and changes perspectives in such a way that propels the story forward without any jarring lags or breaks, in essence preserving the fluidity and the rhythm of the passages, also emphasizing the high points of the episode wherever they pop up. The director effortlessly adapts himself to the needs of a certain scene: if he runs across an action scene, he choreographs it in such a way that successfully transmits the energy of the action to the viewer, if he comes across a dramatic scene, he directs it so as to heighten and maximize the necessary emotions and feelings that may arise from said scene, all of it without coming off as manipulative or obvious. Yokoyama knows exactly what he wants to do with any given scene and works it with the most natural of ease. This conviction is why it’s never boring watching a Yokoyama episode, even if it was lacking action like this Idolmaster episode was, because he carefully makes it a point to keep the proceedings lively and interesting, perhaps not strictly in terms of elaborate choreography or tricky movement, but at least in the staging and the little subtleties of the acting such as the minutely varying facial expressions and those little quirky poses here and there. With Akitoshi Yokoyama, even with the exacting degree with which he controls and tinkers about with the stuff we see on the screen, you never get the sense that he’s either goofing around or screwing about with his work–it’s always accomplished and assured; he never goes about it the easy way even though he obviously can, and he never does a hack job. The man is a consummate professional, in every sense of the word. He doesn’t impose his will forcefully on the show, as most other artistically inclined directors might, but he carefully molds himself to the existing framework of a material and lets his magic go from there.
Being an animator himself, Akitoshi Yokoyama has a profound understanding of just how important the animation is in telling the story he wants to tell. It is simply that if the animation isn’t convincing and powerful enough, the surrounding narrative falls apart and fails to reach its goals. There’s almost always one or two cuts of great animation in all of his episodes (at least those that I’ve seen, anyway), and not only do they serve the purpose of showcasing the skills of the animators involved, these shots of tasty animation also have the vital, integral task of fleshing out the story and bringing them to life as best as they could using the medium of animation. Yokoyama is also an expert of using space in animation, and this is what lends more heft and force to the bursts of animated energy that are the climaxes of his episodes–the best examples I can remember being Kaiba #7 and Tatami Galaxy #9 (which are among the best episodes in their respective series). The animation is the main tool with which anime directors tell their story and at the same time exercise their skills. Yokoyama understands this concept, and has it down pat to an almost exact science.
I believe it’s rather telling that the main focus of this episode wasn’t on the main idols, but was rather on Ritsuko, the erstwhile idol now turned into a producer of a new and popular idol unit. By taking away the spotlight from the heroines of the series, Yokoyama has paved the way for himself to achieve the goals I think he had set out when he accepted this job–that he wasn’t out to sell the characters so much as he was geared to share a believable, entertaining story first and foremost–if only for one episode. His priorities have been decided from the start, which led to his episode feeling slightly different from the other previous episodes in terms of both content and execution. I don’t know what he thought of the material, but I felt that he respected it plus what it was all about and just set out to carve out the best work he possibly could out of the source. Another proof of this change in direction for the episode was the fact that there wasn’t any turbocharged, bone-chillingly incredible, intensely powerful shots of animation in the climax–the actual performance wasn’t even shown–but the good animation work was evenly divided among the more seemingly superfluous parts, which were the practice sessions. Whereas most of the previous episodes released everything they had on the actual performances, in this episode the focus was on the little things before the main routines. Idolmaster #18 was more decidedly low-key and simpler than the rest, in this regard. Hironori Tanaka was involved in this episode–he’s been a constant in almost all of Yokoyama’s episodes so far–and he worked on the dancing sections, as a tag-team effort with the other animators. Akitoshi Yokoyama drew the storyboards and was his own episode director.
In this episode, Yokoyama shows his willingness to take on any kind of material and sculpt a meaningful product out of it. He strikes me as one of those creators who are not only artists with their own personal visions and creative convictions, but are also consummate professionals who are receptive and able to accept whatever is handed to them. They don’t scoff at the material or think themselves as above and beyond the law, but they respect the spirit and intent of the story and build their work around that same spirit and intent. Personally, I’d rather not see him work in this kind of production, but I also respect him all the more for doing the sort of work that he did. The man always does quality work, no matter where you put him. That versatility and adaptability is kind of a rare thing these days, and these aspects only point to the man’s overall genius.
Akitoshi Yokoyama has already cemented his place as one of the best directors presently active in the industry, and the only challenge left for him, I think, is to be the guiding light behind an original project, this time as the series/main/chief director and not just as an episode director. The greatest directors in anime all have the abilities to conceptualize an idea, to flesh out and make something substantial out of the idea, to see it through to its natural conclusion, building it from the ground up via their personal stylistic quirks and individual predilections as creators. Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Satoshi Kon, Masaaki Yuasa, Hiroyuki Imaishi, Koji Morimoto…to name the most famous examples. I want to see Yokoyama get the chance to perform as the leader of the band, to see if he does as well, if not better than directing small chunks of the whole. I want to see if his skill can be effectively, efficiently be diffused among the separate parts of a large-scale production, whether he can still indelibly imprint his hallmarks onto it just like in his episode outings.
But then again, I guess I’ll have to wait a long time before that to happen. At least for now, I’ll have his 24-minute, bite-sized masterpieces to chew on, until he is finally given the chance to bake his own cake.