Keiichi Ishida’s Dororo Action

One anime of late that I can really get behind is Dororo. What could have been a perfunctory remake of an old classic to cash in on people’s nostalgia turned out to be a winner in its own right. It deftly arranges the notes of the original into a modern composition while also running with its own vision. It hooked me from episode one, with the chemistry between the brooding Hyakkimaru and exuberant Dororo, the supernatural twist on a a war-torn feudal Japan setting and the underlying tragedy of Hyakkimaru’s story. It’s the complete package. But perhaps where it shines brightest is when the arms come off and swords start swinging: the action!

I recently watched episode 23 which was one of the most satisfying action episodes of TV anime I’ve seen in a fair while. It really struck me then that there’s something unique to Dororo’s action scenes – they’re exciting in a way that some much more lavishly produced stuff can’t seem to pull off. Then I actually went back and looked into the times when I got these wow-factor vibes from the series and it turns out it they’re pretty much all the handiwork of one particular animator: Keiichi Ishida (石田慶一).

That’s the name of the key animator behind most of the key fight scenes, such as (but not limited to!)

The battle on the bridge

 

Hyakkimaru vs soldiers

 

Hyakkimaru vs Tahomaru and company

 

Hyakkimaru vs Tahomaru in the castle

(Presumed by me, a fair assumption as he’s on the top of the genga list and it fits his mold)

 

Videos sourced from the amazing service Sakugabooru

 

A history

I was surprised that I’d never heard of him but a quick google got me up to speed. He’s been in the industry as a key animator since the mid 00’s where he rapidly came to attention as a standout animator on basketball series Eyeshield 21, even ending doing OPs and key sequences later in the series. From there he became a pretty prolific action and effect animator working extensively on Naruto and many JC Staff series. He ended up shooting more hoops for another basketball affair, Kuroko no Basket, but the next big thing on his resume was the series action animation director for GARO vanishing line – a series I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about.

It is interesting though that he went from a series AD back to just a key animation role here. The optimistic way of reading that is that his heart is more in animating than overseeing and climbing the slippery corporate ladder (by all accounts animation directing can be a punishing experience for some). In any case, I’m glad that he’s still on the frontlines of animation because I think he’s only truly hit his stride with his work here.

His animation overall could be described as being low in frame count and with relatively jerky movements. There’s a hell of a lot of implicit movement between frames that inbetween work can’t bring out which can sometimes feel rough.  There’s no doubt he’s leaning toward Kanada on the spectrum in that sense. His animation also flirts with gravity a little bit, his poses either floating longer than they should or slamming with extreme force depending on what his drawings call for.

On the upside, from the very beginning he demonstrated an ability to handle detailed anatomy in his drawings, capturing muscle definitions on the characters during basketball scenes. He also seems to have developed a good handle on animating shots with spinning or moving cameras over the years as well.

In Dororo

I can’t say whether it’s because he was afforded the freedom and responsibility he needed or simply because this kind of action is his calling, but all of his past efforts seem to have culminated in Dororo’s outstanding battle scenes.

His fights are frenetic, intricate and thrilling. While not every frame is beautified, he stays on model without sloppy blurs or contortions. Those things have their place of course, but sticking to anatomically correct human figures works well in Dororo to help the action feel more real and dangerous. His frames are still jerky, but it feels like deliberate punctuation, resulting in action that feels rough but can still accentuate the emotion in each movement. His implicit activity between frames is used to good effect in the fast and frenzied Dororo action, i.e. multiple sword slashes are suggested by the slash effect without the character posing that would normally need to accompany it – creating a sense of speed.

Perhaps one flaw that remains is the liberal use of gravity. Hyakkimaru often feels too weightless as he lingers in the air for just enough time to squeeze in a few fancy flips or extra attacks.

The camera often joins the fray, spinning and panning to keep up with the skirmish, adding a level of dynamism.

But best of all, the choreography in his sequences is extremely good. It has all the things you might expect from a good fight – it’s fast, physical and quick-witted with a lot of inventive flourishes. Things like Hyakkimaru leaning over and falling head first through a hole in the bridge, bending right over backwards into a roll to dodge an enemy swipe, or getting his sword stuck in the roof when he goes to bring it down all add an unpredictable edge. Action scenes are boring when they just go through the motions of trading blows, it’s the rapid-fire twists and turns that make it truly exciting.

Living choreography

Like pretty much all anime, the choreography is embellished at the cost of gravity and realism. But while his characters in battle don’t lunge and lean with a strictly real force and momentum, there’s an exciting strain of sentient realism that pulses through each motion.

The action is fast and furious but also lucid; the animation doesn’t just carry physical momentum in each movement but expresses the mental flow of battle between two people. He draws each frame not just as a result of the character’s last action but seems to know that in the heat of battle every beat is also a critical decision that the warriors are making on the fly. They’re always on the teetering edge of acting and reacting to the constantly changing situation. As a result, his action sequences feel charged and come alive in unique way.

In other words, the characters don’t just feel like puppets being manipulated into a precisely planned sequence of poses, but they are really driving it. It’s this sentience that seems to let him wring more emotion and tension out of fight sequences than many others.

That’s what makes me think this Keichi Ishida has a lot of talent for this avenue, and I really hope he is offered more chances to hone his skills.