Black Rock Shooter, Trigger, Imaishi Hiroyuki

So, as promised, here’s my first new post. Be warned, this one might be a little over-informative. I’ve also changed the layout because something in the other layout changed and made it more difficult to read.

So one of the few shows I have been watching and enjoying this season is Black Rock Shooter. I have to admit, I’m one of the many out there who was swept up in the hype frenzy of BRS around the time the first OVA came out. But I also have to admit I’m not one of the many who were subsequently disappointed when the OVA didn’t meet their monumental expectations. It wasn’t all it could have been, but I enjoyed it. This series might have me in the same position.

While I haven’t exactly been running polls on this or anything, it seems to me that this new Black Rock Shooter also has had a divided response among fans. It expands upon the high-school drama side of things from the OVA that some people seem to detest, but gives it a more melodramatic and dark flavour. Me? I’m lapping it up! I don’t know why people can’t seem to get behind the high-school part of Black Rock Shooter. Some fans just wanted a monotonous, grim and dialogue-free action fest I guess. Although I feel that it’s much too fast paced in this series (a symptom of only having 8 episodes to work with), I’m still a sucker for melodrama. Especially when it’s so well presented.

Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I’m enjoying the animation work on BRS. Raito-kun at Ani no Miyako clearly isn’t liking the anime from a technical (or any other) perspective. He also discusses the state of Ordet, which is an interesting read. Let’s put the 3DCG work aside for the moment. Certainly, purely in terms of the 2D animation, it hasn’t offered anything particularly great. To my memory there hasn’t really been any charismatic character animation, or anything technically impressive. But, personally, I’m fond of the storyboard and layout work on most of the episodes. Subtlety isn’t one of its flavours, but the way this series is framed keeps the visuals feeling fresh and engaging at every turn and serves to give the emotional moments a real kick. Episode 4 stood out for me in this department.

But, and I didn’t think I would ever say this, the highlights are the CG battle sequences. The reason I can say that about BRS is because of the work of Hiroyuki Imaishi.

Imaishi at the brand new Studio Trigger

You should know Imaishi as the director of Gurren Lagann and Panty & Stocking. After being an impressive animator at Gainax since Evangelion, he recently left and started his own new studio (or rather joined Masahiko Otsuka and Kazuya Masumoto in starting it): Studio Trigger. Check out the very cool-looking official website. It’s interesting that his departure coincides with the commercial failure of Panty & Stocking. I definitely get the feeling that, even despite his role as a premier director, Imaishi’s creative instincts were somewhat curtailed at Gainax (and money probably had a part to play too). He also took Yoshinori Yoh with him, definitely one of GAINAX’s most valuable assets as an animator.

Masahiko Otsuka, co-founder and the director, describes the motivations for starting it in this translated interview, and also confirms that they are already working on an original animation project (I can’t wait to see it previewed!). There’s an implication that they could do more Panty & Stocking if they liked (just like Khara did with Evangelion). But it’s clear that Studio Trigger was formed to create original and ambitious works, as well as in response to what the founders see as a shift in the industry’s approach to creating animation. I’m not too sure what they are getting at with that last part, but it should become clear in their future works.

Imaishi’s illustration to celebrate their work on IM@S 17

So far, the studio has done an episode of Idol M@ster (17), sub-contracted from A-1 Pictures (yet more GAINAX – or Ex-GAINAX influence on that anime!). Sushio, who was also a member of Gainax until relatively recently (he’s now freelance) was animation director on that episode too. And now Imaishi has also cooperated with Ordet, who are actually an affiliated company now, on Black Rock Shooter in an unexpected capacity: as CG Battle Director.

Unlike in the original OVA, the other-world battles are done entirely in CG (except for 2D effect animation), even the characters themselves. You might notice Imaishi is also co-credited with storyboard and direction in episodes. What this clearly means is that he explicitly directed and storyboarded the CG battle sequences – he had control of them. The staff of BRS seem to be pretty discretely split between the real-world and imaginary world content.

What’s the result of this unusual involvement from Imaishi? Well, I find myself enjoying those action scenes a lot, when I’m normally totally opposed to CG for animating anything other than mecha (and even then give me 2D any day please). If you look at Strike Witches and the new Last Exile, the use of CG for the characters is really awkward – it sticks out immediately, looks ugly and doesn’t move the same way as the rest of the animation. When I heard this I was curious to see what Imaishi could bring to the table when his background is clearly in 2D-animation, and a very “anime” kind of animation at that.

Imaishi has over-come all of this. Not only are the action scenes great because his storyboards are as awesome as ever, with plenty of cool angles and interesting action shots, but he has bought a 2D limited animation approach to the CG sequences. Limited animation refers to animating at lower that full-framerate and is the style that classically defines the anime medium since TV-anime came about. Anime uses it to good effect by making the framerate dynamic – fast at key moments that need an impact and more choppy in others. Imaishi is known for using limited animation in the Yoshinori Kanada vein – with a focus on cool poses and drawings and varying the framerate a lot.

Imaishi’s Storyboards looking as crazy as usual!

This is reflected in the CG battle scenes here, which, at some points, have a very purposefully dynamic framerate to create the same interesting kind of moment that you would see in a Gurren Lagann action scene, for example. Limiting the framerate of CG in anime definitely isn’t new. Of course, there’s no limit to the framerate you can animate CG as, but when it’s left at full-framerate it not only looks more unnatural, it does not fit alongside traditional 2D animation, with its limited frames. Ghost in the Shell:Stand Alone Complex very effectively animated the Tachikomas at a limited framerate so that they would blend in with the 2D ‘cels’. But it’s taken a step further here and done very well.

It’d be nice if I could upload a clip to illustrate this, but I can’t think of a good place to put videos these days.

Perhaps the biggest thing is he adds to these sequences is a lot of well-blended 2D effects. With smoke, fragments of dust, lighting effects and other grit flying across the scene, the CG doesn’t feel too clean and the shots are much more exciting to watch. I’m really impressed by these sequences.

Imaishi handled them for episodes 1-4, and I guess he bought on the other person who would handle the next couple (at least): GAINAX animator Amemiya Akira.

Akira Amemiya (left), Sushio (right)

Funnily enough, Akira is one of the main animators at GAINAX that people are keenly watching in the void that Imaishi left behind. He is best known for his mecha work, and he was one of the top animators who worked on Gurren Lagann ( and recently Gundam Age). He was also called in on both Idol M@ster (which was overrun with Gainax and Ex-Gainax staff at some points!) and Boku ha Tomodachi ga Sukunai to handle their mecha parody segments.

Like Imaishi his animation is very much in the Kanada School class, with the style of his effects and frivilous cool ‘poses’ that are awesome to watch. That should be pretty clear in this MAD of some of his work.

He has done a lot of work both as a key animator and as an animation director, and I think it won’t be long until we see him take on more of a director’s role. In many ways, his involvement in BRS is a step towards that. His credits so far are:

Storyboard/Assistant Director: 5,6
Layout: 1,5
Key Animation: 6 (CG-Part)

Episode 5
Episode 6

So he storyboarded and directed the CG battle scenes in 5 and 6 (and it looks like Imaishi got him to draw some layouts for him in episode 1 too). His work carries on what Imaishi started without dropping the ball at all. His storyboards/layouts create really exciting action sequences here, and the CG is handled in the same way, by approaching it more as a style of 2D animation.

Black Rock Shooter is an interesting step in a new way of looking at CG, which lends BRS’s fight sequences a kind of gravitas that I would not have expected from CG in a TV-anime. Of course, CG can never replace 2D animation. The kinds of interesting distortions, movements and linework that can come from a charismatic animator with a pencil in hand can’t be replicated. But perhaps there is a place for it.

But, all this aside, I also think it’s enjoyable in its own right, even if it’s a bit quick to turn its characters into psychopaths. Luckily, believably isn’t one of my make-or-break criteria for anime (or I wouldn’t be watching much!).