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Runnin’ in the 90s

my face after re-watching this episode

Rurouni Kenshin #60

Studio Pierrot may be stuck animating whatever popular manga is running in Shonen Jump for the foreseeable future, but it seems they are not averse to producing non-franchise anime every once in a while, as was seen in their recent film, Onigamiden. I admit looking out for it after watching a trailer, since it boasted a barrage of thrilling animation, and the movie itself was crewed by some of the heavyweights in the industry. What I got in the end was, more or less, true to how I had envisioned the film to play out–a severely crippled piece of animation that hinges majorly, if not solely, on the power of its visuals to propel itself, rather than a truly effective fusion of both the technical and storytelling aspects. I appreciate the delectable animation put on display in this film, so I will not say outright that it was a bad film and that you shouldn’t watch it, but I almost detested the uninspired story it brought to life. The story could just as well have been lifted straight from the pages of a woefully simplistic, tedious shonen manga (well, apparently it was adapted from a light novel), from the setting to the characters to father issues to just about everything else. Now, I can enjoy works in this vein, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. There is a difference from being enjoyably conventional to being annoyingly cliched, as subtle as it is.

 

Were it not for Shinji Hashimoto’s presence as AD and the other major animators who worked on it (Yasuhiro Aoki was even in it, listed on top), I would have just stopped watching halfway through. Many bits of animation in the film had that familiar Hashimoto flavor, even if the guy himself wasn’t credited as having done animation–most of it coming through in the opening battle scene, with the monsters. The monsters, or the oni, had the trademark Hashimoto style of movement, with undulating, wiggly lines. And the effects too. The way the rocks and the dust fly into the air looked and felt hugely different from the rest of the film. Along with the action sequence in the middle of the film–where they fight in the water temple, speaking of which, this scene could easily have had the best water effects I’ve seen in recent times–the opening section is a testament to the excellent work put into this film, which for me, merits at least a once-over. Onigamiden is not a purely terrible film per se, it’s just one of those films best watched on mute.

The fall anime season seems to be proceeding as usual, without many episodes of particular entertainment (most of the airing anime have actually fallen flat, except for a few) save for Guilty Crown ep 4, directed by Ryotaro Makihara. Previous episodes of the show have proven to be quite well-produced and technically sound, but weren’t actually blockbusting hits, as expected. It was episode 4 who turned it into a delicious treat, delighting me with truly solid construction, carefully rendered images, and cuts of dazzling action animation, especially at the climax. Say what you want about the show, but you can’t deny the praiseworthy effort Makihara had invested in his episode. It’s moments like this one that tell me it was the right decision to stick with the show as long as I have.

I believe that I mentioned in some of my past posts that I’ve been following the Kenshin TV anime as it was re-aired on (my local) TV. Well, after sitting through the duration of the series’ Kyoto arc, which I should say was the pinnacle of the TV series, I’ve finally landed on the climactic episode of the whole story-line, if not the entire series itself–episode 60. This was the culmination of the final battle between the protagonist, Kenshin, and the arc’s main villain, Shishio, in what I so fondly remembered as the most hellaciously exciting parts of the complete anime. And what a finish it was, so great was it that not a few episodes later the TV anime began its steady downward spiral into the muck of terribly conceived original content, until its unfortunate and untimely demise at ep 95. I’m not strictly against original anime content, but if they were as poorly thought-out and badly done as the Kenshin fillers were, then we have a problem.

The version I watched on TV was the horrendously overdone English dub, but I managed to plow through it and hugely enjoy myself, mangled pronunciation and all that, but it was the ED credits that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I’ve noticed that the succession of episodes aired prior to episode 60 had used exactly the same credits in each one, essentially an embarrassingly lazy copy-and-paste job that in my mind is a shameful display of neglect, if not obvious disrespect. But of course, what goof in his right mind would read the ED credits anyway? It’s not like you can read the runes inscribed there. But the producers (or who the hell was in charge of the local TV airing) should at least have the decency to show the proper names attached to their respective episodes. So it was that I hunted down the episodes in their original form, and boy, did I enjoy myself watching it, at least by an order of magnitude higher.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. There were a number of other cool episodes that appeared during the entirety of the Kyoto arc, and they honestly looked better, or more even, than episode 60, but still, I found the episode to be better than all of them. Primarily because it was the conclusion of the saga, it rightfully packed the most powerful punches, gave the most satisfying climax, and struck the most impact. The drawings were uneven, but they were great in the parts that mattered, and the animation was actually fairly short, but again it was immensely watchable in the parts that mattered. It could have been more brilliant an episode if only it had been a self-contained unit, instead of being a link in the chain of episodes detailing the final battle, but there’s simply no helping it. It was a fitting finale to an arc, and a masterful swan song for the rest of the TV series itself.

What struck me mainly about this episode is the way it managed to follow the original material to the hilt, but still managing to squeeze in a few  personal touches to the animation, thereby making the end result a much fuller and denser affair. The director had the good sense to stamp in his own fingerprints in the episode in tiny sprinkles, and only to fill in some parts to make the whole thing flow better and transpire much more artistically, as far as the material allowed him. It hit me as something that’s hugely born from experience. The original material’s integrity must be respected, of course, but that doesn’t mean that the staff couldn’t play around with the anime to some degree. I especially liked the way they added in the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, like those seen in spaghetti westerns or some action flicks, in some of the crucial parts of the ep. It imparted a high degree of dynamic tension and cinematic flair to what would normally have been an ordinary standoff between two fighters, as is common in most action TV anime. That’s one.

More of the same happened when it came time for the action to take place. Animation-wise, they are actually not the most amazingly choreographed action sequences in the world, understandably enough, but they are at least directed very capably. The first major action sequence in the episode is the best proof of this. They managed to wring out the most possible climactic impact out of a short scene consisting mostly of a character turning 360-degrees to swing his sword at his opponent, thanks to the cleverly inserted visual touches, the smart staging, and effective processing of the images. The use of music is great too, heightening the intensity of the action on-screen by starting at the right spots. It was a matter of budgeting the effort, and investing huge chunks of it in the parts where it counted, and where it benefited the entire episode the most. The angles used as Shishio flies into the air after being hit by the sword swing was fun to watch. Delightfully oblique, it capped off the already powerful sequence with a stylish flair, an animated flourish, if you will.

Ample breathing room was provided in the spaces between the heavier moments, mainly the lighter scenes depicted in the manga, but they didn’t hamper the progression of the episode in a patently obvious way. They didn’t cut the rhythm and flow established in the preceding sections, which was a definite plus in my book. I would think that adding in whimsical moments in the middle of a furious battle would have been painfully distracting, and would have resulted in a very stilted final product. But the clever insertion of these comedic scenes into the parts where they could gel well with the rest of the sections prevented that scenario from occurring. They didn’t serve to hobble the entire episode in any significant manner. Some of them even emphasized the situation the protagonist experiences at any given moment as he tries to survive his battle to the death.

I did wish that the characters didn’t talk so much, though. The constant explanations of the techniques and whatnot took away a tiny bit from my enjoyment of the episode. If only they only let the action speak for itself, and not rely on the common shonen manga tricks to carry them through, I’d been happier. But, again, it’s one of those things that just can’t be helped. They had already done a commendable effort at presenting great scenes despite that handicap.

The dramatic scene that came after Shishio is hit by a devastating sword strike is also one of the things I liked about episode 60. Again, there was fairly limited animation put in display here, but, once more, this is where the greatness of the storyboards comes to play. You squeeze out the maximum drama you possibly can out of very limited motions, all without falling into the territory of dangerously melodramatic presentation. I liked the way the character runs toward the fallen villain. It effectively transmitted the urgency of the situation only using a limited supply of movement. Then came the actual moment where she gets stabbed, which also was well-handled, and then the protagonist crumbling on his belly right afterward. The placement of the character in the shot and the angle taken, again, provided a sublime end to a masterfully executed sequence. And oh yeah, the choice of background music was also a nice touch. I’m an uncultured swine, so I forgot what the piece was called (all I know is that it’s a famous piece of classical music), but the song set forth an emotional undercurrent buffeting the drama unfolding on the screen. Come to think of it, the whole episode itself is pretty much a tightly balanced combination of the music, the drawings, and the animation to create an intensely gripping and massively engrossing whole.

The last action sequence of the episode, where the villain finally dies through spontaneous combustion, is, incidentally, where the animation takes the fore. The shot where both of the fighters’ swords meet in one final clash is clear, strong, and powerful, highlighted by the floors breaking up under their feet, with the tiles lifting into the air and all (speaking of which, that effect of the floor tiles cracking and flying up each time a powerful blow is landed, or even when they merely stomp on the ground is my favorite thing in the entire fight). The drawings in this scene are much more simplified, and I think it gives more leeway for richer animation in the actual death scene that follows. Even the flames are way simpler-looking.

I said above that the drawings here in episode 60 are quite uneven, which I assume is a conscious decision on the part of the animation director to give the animators under his command to exercise more freedom in their shots. The scenes outside of the significant and more climactic sections were more unified, but the changes can clearly be seen when the switches take place. The drawings differ slightly in many shots, some of the faces in some parts have sharper angles, some have more detail, some are simpler. The change is most stark in the ending sequence, which I assume was left to pass uncorrected, or at least underwent very minimal correction. It’s very obvious that a new animator has taken charge of animating that sequence–the drawings are much simpler, the animation much fuller.

Series director Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Le Chevalier D’eon, Real Drive, Gundam Unicorn), as expected, returned to handle the technical duties for this episode, both drawing the storyboards and acting as his own episode director. For heavily important episodes such as this one, it’s best to turn to for the actual big boss of the project to step in and work his magic. And boy did he ever. Notable animators in this episode include the highly prolific Tokuyuki Matsutake, Norio Matsumoto, and even Ken Otsuka (?). As far as identifying who-did-what is concerned though, I would say that Matsumoto animated the final section, the death scene. It just seemed to be done in his own style, richly moved actions right through to the actual flames blazing furiously. I’m not totally sure about the rest–maybe Matsutake did the section where Kenshin lands his secret technique?

Watching this episode again after such a long time only reaffirmed to me why I fell in love with this show back when I was still a kid in grade school. I used to hurry home to catch the episodes after school (subbed too, which was awesome), and I even watched the series again and again as it was continually re-aired. I would even say that I fell irreversibly in love with anime was because of the Kenshin TV anime. And now that I had watched a lot more anime since then, and now that I had acquired a considerably higher amount of knowledge about anime and the people who create it, I’d still say that I hold the TV anime in a special place inside my heart.

Though, of course, the OVA series (the first one, of course) completely blows it out of the water, but that is a story for another time.

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