Please Give Occultic;Nine a Second Chance

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A murder scene seemingly foretold by the events depicted in a Boys Love doujinshi; a mysterious, prescient voice that talks through a radio; a key without a lock; an unexplained mass-suicide; a conspiracy to manipulate the human race with global mind control; a young girl who enacts black magic through an invisible man – if any of this is grabbing your attention then this may be the anime for you. A dark, twisted and irreverently convoluted science-fiction mystery, Occultic;Nine is a wild ride that is well worth your precious time. However, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking otherwise if you had only seen the first episode or two.

Occultic;Nine is probably the most polarising and under-appreciated anime of the current season, and it has nothing to blame but itself. Yes, the rumors are true. The series is very hard to watch in its early stages. The characters are either dry or deeply annoying (especially boob girl and talk boy), and the show drowns you in what feels like a barrage of nonsense. In its first two episodes the series hits its audience with layer upon layer of detail and obscurity. Because it’s so fast an frenetic with how it lays the groundwork of its story, it doesn’t feel like it will ever calm down and reach any kind of cogent ‘point’. I’m here to tell you that it does.

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It gets better

Once all the pieces are put into place, the show very quickly starts to unravel itself, and when it does it hits a glorious stride. Plot thread after plot thread are harmonized in a coalescing symphony, building a really gripping momentum. Since about episode 5, I have been hooked, with each episode revealing another exciting turn of events and bringing characters together into a single plotline. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling anything, but it’s certainly true that a lot of the stuff in the first couple of episodes I thought were pointless drivel are turning out to be really interesting. Every detail in this show has significance.

There’s something really unique about the way this show tells its story. It’s not the often gaudy visual style it leans on, the unusually fast dialogue, or the offbeat sense of humour – it sits deeper than all of that. Occultic;Nine hits a rare sweet-spot of answering burning questions in its patchwork of mysteries at the same time as throwing a kink into the story, a twist that adds a whole new dimension to it all. Being able to unravel a mystery at the same time as building it is the storytelling magic that makes Occultic;Nine so enjoyable. This series is written by the author of Steins;Gate, but the way it unfolds actually reminded me more of a different author’s work – Baccano. I loved Baccano for much the same reason – there’s such an energy in stories that feel like they’re ever expanding while also gaining focus.

Accolades for this go to the light novel author and Steins;Gate creator, Chiyomaru Shikura and company MAGES., namely ‘Morita to Junpei‘ 森田と純平 (real name: Junpei Morita ). This is not, would you believe, the 60+ year old voice actor no prior writing or production credits, as ANN has concluded, but a wholly different person of the same name (born in 1981). Morita to Junpei has, at a high level, done a stellar job unwinding this tightly packed story into a short anime series, although he will certainly regret the info-dump approach of the first episode. I say ‘at a high level‘ because the story is often let down by is script.

It’s a good thing voice actors aren’t paid per word, or this series would never have got off the ground. It makes no apologies for being an absolute talk-fest at times, cramming in an obscene amount of high-speed dialogue. When the show gets in the talking groove for too long you quickly zone out and eventually the words all blur together into this kind of distant, screeching background noise. The scenes in the cafe are particularly guilty of this. In that godforsaken cafe, conversations seem doomed to end up as competing, inane monologues.

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When these guys get together they create a perfect talk-storm

 

Fortunately, when the show isn’t being a talk-a-thon, it’s delivery is absolutely top-notch. Despite it’s overall mystery notes, it has a real penchant for its scary scenes and can quickly make you think you’re watching a top-tier horror anime (if such a thing exists). As a horror buff I really appreciated how these scenes got under my skin. The fear didn’t come from over-the-top violence, jump-scares or ridiculous monsters  but from genuinely unsettling situations and ideas. Everything to do with the ‘kotoribako’ is just awesome. I’ll never look at a box the same way again.

Again, these frightening sequences were delivered with well-honed aural and visual production deisgn. This sequence in episode 6 was my favorite example of this. The creepy squeaking noise of the box, the way the luminescence of the torch sways realistically, the way the kotoribako slightly shifts its form, oozing blood as it does, barely able to contain the atrocities within.

Moreover the suddenness of the whole situation is deeply unnerving – in plain sight in the middle of Tokyo such a horrific thing is transpiring. This episode was the effort of Masashi Ishihama, well known as the director of Shinsekai Yori. An excellent post about his style and talents has already been written over here, so I won’t digress. Other director/creator highlights include:

Noriko Takao (高雄 統子) on episode 7 ( former kyo-Ani now Idol M@ster director), who made the brief psychometry scenes leave a lasting impact with a rush of rich, intriguing and creative visuals.

And Mamoru Kanbe (神戸 守), the director of Elfen Lied and So Ra No Wo To, who took the idea of being edgy and experimental a little too far. This is an unfortunate example of when the visual voice of a production shouts over the top of its content instead of supporting it.

On the whole, Occultic;Nine’s visuals trade nuance for impact, creating a world with rich colours, lavish detail and unpredictable cinematography. The animation from A-1 Pictures is unfailing in quality, though rarely becomes the star of the scene. The storyboard, layout, and finishing touches often come together to make the show deeply engaging and a thing of beauty.

Occultic;Nine seems to be doing a very good job of alienating its potential audience, thrusting itself to the very fringes of the late night TV fandom. That’s why I felt compelled to tell as many people I can that it has a lot to offer if you can look past its first impressions and persevere through some of its more inane moments. If you enjoy a good mystery, or even just an intricate plot, this is well worth forging ahead with.

 

Kabaneri’s ‘Make-Up Animation’

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If you’ve seen Koutetsu no Kabaneri I think it’s safe to assume you noticed that a few times every episode, a particular shot would rear its head as particularly beautiful and well-drawn. I know a lot of people, myself included, found the effect a little jarring – in addition to blowing me away with those special shots it made me realise how bland it looked the rest of the time. That said, it got me wondering, how did they achieve the effect, and perhaps more importantly, why? I did a bit of digging, and what I found has given me a lot more respect for what they were trying to achieve and the skill and effort that went into these ‘make-up animation’ shots.

The story of Kabaneri’s animation style all starts with the drawings of one man, Haruhiko Mikimoto. Mikimoto was a major formative player in the 80s anime aesthetic, working extensively alongside Shoji Kawamori, he was responsible for the character design work for the original Macross and the subsequent sequels up until the Macross 7 series. He also designed the characters for GAINAX’s seminal Gunbuster OVA.  As a designer who is pure illustrator rather than of animator origins, the degree to which he was embedded in the anime look during the 80s was certainly unusual. He was even credited with animation director (Character Director, specifically) on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which is definitely rare for a non-animator, and kind of unheard of nowadays. He has a gentle art style that lends itself to beautiful girls, with an element of realism and a soft beauty, his designs stand the test of time.

Since his heyday he has bowed out of the anime industry to some degree, but has remained active as an illustrator and manga artist. Fleeting chances at a major comeback have slipped by over the years, the most recent being the designer for the adaptation of his manga, Tytania. Sadly, that series fell far short of being a grand success. He had previously stated that he thought he may not get any more opportunities to design in anime due to the fact that he pursues the use of shadow and delicate line-work to express his characters which runs counter to the direction of the industry, tending to favour simple designs with crisp lines.

This all changed, however, when the director of Kabaneri, Tetsurou Araki, reached out to him for his individual style to mark a triumphant return to the medium. To help his revival of his classic look, he discussed with director Araki what they could do on Kabaneri and came up with the idea of not using the standard 1 or 2 grade shadows but instead using ‘0.5 grade shadows’. Before getting into the hype ‘0.5 grade shadows’ buzz term, let me quickly touch on what shadow grades mean.

Basically most anime is done with 1-grade shadows, back in the 80s and the 90s to some degree, the design work and aesthetic was such that it was popular to ramp that up to 2-grade shadows. This means you have 3 dimensions of shading that the key animators have to apply to their drawings. 1 grade usually means a character can have one shade of shadow, 2 grades means they can have a deeper level of shadow within a shadow. These grades have different predefined coloured lines/shading within the genga.

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In this image, you can see that the character is drawn to 2-grade shadows. There is a shadow shading on the hair (1影) and then a deeper shade (2影). They have also used a highlight shade (ハイライト).

You might be confused then as to what 0.5 grade means. How can you have half a grade? Apparently, so was Mikimoto, who originally thought that shadow would be used sparsely and with somewhat faint colours so as to not make them too bold. However, the idea was to diminish the clear definition of shadow lines altogether. Put very simply, the concept of 0.5 grade shadow is that instead of producing anime with rigid, line-defined areas of shadow, the animation would have the feel of an illustration, using soft gradients and brushes to apply shading.

As you might imagine, this is a massively ambitious shift in the production norm and very difficult to apply. If you are familiar with the work of a key animator you would know that their work is taken by someone else to be digitised into computer format before being coloured. The lines of the animators guide the colouring staff as to how the shading and highlight should be applied. This means that the key animator cannot simply apply gradient and brush shading directly in their key-frames. To tackle this approach, director Araki had to reform the production process itself with the creation of a brand new production credit, the ‘make-up animator’

A kind-of similar credit already exists, and is also used in Kabaneri, called Special Effect (特殊効果). Special effects also involves touching up the digitised drawings but is generally used for mechanical objects such as guns or mecha. Director Araki allowed Kabaneri’s special effects artist, Chiemi Irisa (入佐芽詠美) to share some examples of her work on twitter, offering a rare glance of the position at work. What a different show Kabaneri would have been without this!

But the make-up animator credit is different in a number of ways. The most obvious distinction is that it’s being applied to characters, sometimes in motion, rather than static objects. As you can imagine, illustrating people and mechanical detail require a very different skillset. However,the differences aren’t purely cosmetic (pardon the pun) – the make-up animator has a much bigger part in the animation production process.

Normally, the key animator’s drawings are in-betweened and digitised and then passed on to touch-up and colouring. Once the colouring is done, the Special Effects role steps in and adds detail, as seen in the above picture. The make-up animator, however, takes the reigns from the in-betweening stage, being responsible for the digitisation, colouring and then their own brand of beautification. Various techniques are applied to transform a normal cut into more of an illustration following the ‘0.5 grade shading’ philosophy. Brushes, special linework, and gradient colouring are digitally painted to evoke the gentle, delicate artistry of Mikimoto’s original illustrations.

The example below shows this being applied.

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In this case, you can see that the genga is already quite detailed and uses 2-grade shadows, plus highlights. These shadows and highlight lines defined by the genga are strictly coloured in the next section by the make-up animator. The final image shows the completed frame with the ‘make-up’ effects applied.

This example clearly shows the application of digitally painted brush, shine and soft lines on the face, hair and eyes. They really are applying make-up to bring out the beauty of the character and the 0.5 grade shading is a clear part of that. In the final image, the shadows are no longer clear-cut levels but naturally gradient. The result is quite stunning and does reflect the soft beauty in some of Mikimoto’s illustrations.

This work was done buy a team of Make-Up Animators led by Sachiko Matsumoto  with a series-wide credit of chief make-up animator. Sachiko has been thriving in a the photography/compositing area of production for some time, doing great work on Guilty Crown back before WIT was spawned from from I.G. The surprising shift to a more drawing-based role that even involves work with in-between drawing is made possible by her original fondness for drawing and her art school graduation.

Sachiko looked deeply into Mikimoto’s illustrations, observing the radiance that comes from his blurred colours and the soulful highlight in his pupils, and the way his hair feels like one long, gentle stream. She also drew inspiration from Osamu Dezaki’s harmony cuts, where the shot turns into a painting with cel and background seamlessly coming together into one artwork. This inspiration is very clear in some of the made-up shots.

If anyone remembers the remarkable, completely over-promising trailer for Kabaneri? If not, I’ve inserted it below. The extensive use of make-up animation and special effects in every shot of this trailer was a massive part of its wow-factor (and subsequent over-hype).

The studio invested in a new piece of software called 「TVPaint Animation」for this work on the trailer. The software is for digital genga, providing a lot of advanced tools including a range of brush effects.Only a small team of people with digital genga experience were at WIT studio and they had a lot of trial an error with learning the software. When the production started on the full show, they were pulled together to form the make-up animator team.

Kabaneri’s Make-up Animators

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中愛夏 (from episode 9 onward)

The limitations of the make-up animator approach is that it would be a prohibitively expensive undertaking to do it frame-by-frame for whole sequences. Where the trailer could afford to deliver a concentrated, uninterrupted hit of highly touched-up animation, the series fell well short of this. Despite the hype surrounding this new credit, the reality was that it could only be applied to certain key moments, mainly money shots of the characters. The team worked on about 10 cuts per episode.

While those cuts certainly look fantastic, I think the overall experience for a lot of people was a jarring one. Those spotlight moments, it turns out, also tend to illuminate how bland and flat the show looks like without its make-up on. I have no doubt that, especially given it’s poor production values further into the series, their workload would have been better refocused on the basics of dynamic and expressive animation. That said, I cannot fault it as a marketing technique – the trailer certainly rammed this series into many people’s ‘must-watch’ baskets, and I have no doubt that those made-up ‘money-shots’ of Mumei did a lot for her bishoujo marketability.

Director Araki is guilty of putting hype and sales pitch over making a good anime, but he’s also guilty of boldly trying something new in the production lifecycle, and trying something new for all the right reasons. The make-up animation wasn’t thought-up to make production easier or more efficient, it was dreamed up to take the look and feel of 2D animation to a new level of beauty and prowess and to conjure the tender beauty of an old pro’s illustration work. Sometimes in the anime medium, whether an attempt like this was a technical success or not is far less important than the fact that people cared enough to try.

And who knows, maybe make-up animation may well become another staple weapon in the young Wit Studio and director Araki’s arsenal when they tackle their next big project.

 

 

Interviews Read:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode Spotlight: Needless 13

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Storyboard & Director: 沼田誠也 (Seiya Numata)

Animation Director: 坂井久太 (Kyuuta Sakai)

Animation: 沼田誠也 (Seiya Numata), 坂井久太 (Kyuuta Sakai)


It was late at night after a long week. Lying on the couch with my partner powering through a few episodes of anime,  my eyes were starting to close on their own as sleep overcame me. It was at this point that I was introduced to the 13th episode of the boisterous TV anime adaptation of Needless. Suddenly I was wide awake, eyes pried open and fixated to the screen. Right off the bat, there was something very different about this episode, something uniquely exhilarating.

I didn’t know this going in, but when I looked up the staff after the episode finished I was astounded to see that the episode was pretty much the handiwork of just two people, and those creators were none other than the devious duo of Seiya Numata and  Kyuuta Sakai!

Before Seiya Numata was swallowed into the eternal pit of no escape that is Milky Holmes, he was a star animator making waves across the industry with attention-grabbing cuts on a myriad of works such as Tora Dora, Gurren Lagann and Higurashi. His ability to pull of dynamic action made him a popular choice for handling fight sequences. His scenes often divided opinions due to his unusual style, but he certainly made a name for himself. His fight from Toradora turned a lot of heads.

Personally I’ve never really been a huge fan of his brand of animation style with its gelatinous warping and stretching, but I admire his magnetism as an animator. He is a devotee of the original charisma animator Yoshinori Kanada, frequently referencing his work and chasing a kindred creative freedom. Alongside Jun Arai, he forms a central pillar to Needless’s aesthetic, which is an uninhibited ode to Kanada and his epoch. Numata exerted a lot of influence with the role of ‘Design Works’ throughout the show as well as ‘Technical Director’.

And it’s difficult to talk about Numata without mentioning Kyuuta Sakai, his sister-in-arms who he brought into most of his projects around this time and has a strong personal friendship with. Sakai is probably a name fresh in most people’s minds as she is the accomplished character designer for the brand new hit Re:Zero. She is now pretty much exclusively a character designer/chief animation director and thrives as an illustrator.

Probably a key uniting factor between the two is their shared fondness for drawing sexy young girls, and the term ‘lolimator’ was coined for them during their days together. If you don’t believe me, the first Needless ED, also featured in this episode is their work and one of the most carnal, intoxicating hits of fanservice I have ever been fortunate enough to witness.

Before Sakai went to White Fox with her work on Steins;Gate, these two were inseparable, and this episode of Needless is one of the best things to come from their early union. The episode is directed and storyboarded by Numata, and, excluding oversight from the chief animation director, entirely and exclusively key-animated by the two of them. It’s a concentrated hit of the Numata and Sakai pair!

As a result, the episode stands out clearly from all the others. Numata’s storyboard and direction immediately make an impact, forgoing convention to deliver an episode that is uniquely tense and weirdly intimate. Numata takes the idea of a stage-play approach and runs with it, focusing on the dialogue and expressions of the characters to the exclusion of all else. There’s no attempt to hide this approach – the episode opens with the room darkened like a stage and all the characters placed under a literal spotlight. Many cuts are plane with an audience line of site, and dramatic lighting is abused like nothing else.

The style actually reminds me of early Akiyuki Shinbou with it’s Ikuhara-esque shots and focus on striking colour design. Numata applied bold neon colouring to many of his sense to deliver the sense of exaggerated drama and also a cool-factor. Some of the shots definitely delivered.

In addition to the darkness enshrouding the scene and the striking lighting, Numata applies a focus on intense facial expressions in close-up which includes detail such as sweat forming and rolling down people’s faces. This all makes for a potent sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the vast open room the events occur within. The moment in which the main villain makes his entrance in particular casts a palpable sense of dread making for one of the most suspenseful moments Needless ever had.

The animation itself is surprisingly active given the fact that it was only key animated by the two of them. Numata works his usual magic with the action highlight that features frenetic movement, spinning camerawork and distorted drawings to ram-home a sense of force. The portion of the fight that is completely upside down is one of those quirky moments that really defines Needless.

One of his most memorable cuts from the episode is not from an action scene but rather this pretty inexplicable cut of Setsuna’s nose bursting into a nosebleed with the intense rage overcoming her. This is an example of Numata’s contorted style works really well as her face twists into this sharp glare of focused fury. I challenge you to find my an anime character looking more angry than this.

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The cuts that were presumably handled by Sakai meanwhile were simple fluid animation. The smooth moments stood out to help build up the sense of excitement and differentiate the episode from the normal limited kanada-school style of the rest of the series. There’s also this indescribable sense of style to her movements. Stepping up to being a prolific animation director indicates that she was a powerhouse animator back in her day on the front lines. She apparently has a special skill where she holds both pencil and colour pencil in the one hand and can swiftly use the colour pencil to add shadow lines.

My rewatch of Needless has been an enjoyable affair on the whole, but this episode turned it up a notch, from mildly bemusing to genuinely exciting. Seiya Numata’s unconventional design sense and bold stage-play approach combined with the animation goods delivered by partner-in-crime Sakai make this a grandstand episode.

This episode is not only one of the most condensed examples of Numata and Sakai working together, especially when you include the ED that was exclusively handled by them, but it also appears to be the climax of Numata’s extensive involvement in the series with no major credits on any episode thereafter. He is technical director and a design contributor on the show throughout, but no front-line involvement as an animator. Beyond just Needless this is the most interesting work I have seen of Numata’s in terms of storytelling and direction.

 

Anime Snapshots: Mob Psycho #10 Fire Scene

Sometimes an anime struts along that is charismatic from beginning to end, a complete package that is so much more than the some of its parts . And sometimes a more run-of-the-mill series can break form and produce a wondrous episode that you can neatly lift out and up onto a pedestal. But once in a while this glory lasts only a fleeting moment – a shot, a cut or a scene that punches through and reaches a short-lived apex. These posts are dedicated to those honorary instants.

I have already lauded the animation power of Mob Pscyho through my reviews of its standout episodes 1 and 8, but there was a particular beat in episode 10 that stretched my jaw to the floor. I’m talking, of course, about the fire scene. Fire is one of those raw, innate pillars of effect animation that we have all been exposed to many times over our years of service in the anime fandom. Alongside water, lightning and smoke, fire has been the pursuit of many a talented animator and it’s tempting to think it’s been rendered in every possible way already. From the sparse and boldly coloured forms of Yoshinori Kanada and Masahito Yamsahita’s flames to the intense realism of Mitsuo Iso’s carefully crafted billowing fire, this is a field with a rich creative history. Yoshinori Kanada’s fire dragon is one of the most iconic, oft-homaged pieces of animation ever created.

So it’s rare that quality fire animation can jump out and make an impression these days. It certainly did here. This sequence, lasting only a couple of minutes, stole the show! The roaring, intense heat of the fire enveloping the characters, and at times the whole screen, could really be felt. And it’s not just the way the fire looked and moved in any conventional sense – it’s the way it really felt like it was sucking the characters in to this epicenter of unimaginable inferno, whipping around them and blasting them like a furious storm.

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The opening cut, handled by animator Kazuto Arai exemplifies this, with the fire bursting down the hallway and washing over Terada drowning him, and soon the audience, in a sea of heat. The aqueous movement of the fire was very deliberate, with the animator using shots of the crashing waves of the ocean for reference.

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Straight after that we’re into the more sketchy style with more conventional flickering flame motion. After being awash with flames we’re now in the hearth, surrounding by burning flame. This part is more conventional but straddles a good balance between realism and animation abstraction and has a more classically ‘mob psycho’ feel to it with its rough pencil lines.

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The next shot is distinctly digital genga apparently from web-gen animator, Shin Ogasawara. I have always had a soft-spot for web-gen effects animation. The fact that is is digitally drawn means that it is not drawn with lines forming shapes but directly painted with digital brushes. This means that it’s so much easier to create fluid and intricate effects animation such as splashing colours and leaping sparks. This strength of digital animation is used to good effect here creating a layered and fast shot of the fire that helps to convey its intensity.

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And finally the inferno retreats to a fireball as Terada entraps his opponent. This is the best animation of the scene, with fine, detailed linework and a swirling, pulsating movement that’s so reminiscent of Hironori Tanaka that it’s thought to be uncredited work from him. He has a habit of going credit bare on many series, so it would not surprise me for him to turn up here. The tail end of this fireball scene raises the bar again, however, with a segment that is a cut above the rest in terms of intensity.

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Although the movement and linework is similar to the previous gif, can you feel the difference in animation power? There’s just something more visceral and violent about this fire; it burns brighter and with more fury.  Although there’s definitely still clear defined grades of colour, the linework is less crisp, instead the colours flow into each other in an undulating blur of heat. This is probably as close as you can get to actually being burnt watching anime. The depiction of the figure within the flames is also different, less fine lines and more thick, dirty graphite flickering out of form. I sense the magic of Kameda here. Although he’s not credited with genga this episode, there’s something about the scrawled figure and the ashy debri after the fireball dissipates that makes me wonder! Perhaps he just supervised this part of Tanaka’s (or whoever it was) work.

But what is so interesting about this is that this furnace was depicted by so many animators. In your typical anime this whole sequence would be probably be given to an effects animator specialist and that one animator would create the whole feel of the fire. But Mob Psycho’s mantra is to use different anime styles and techniques to keep the audience on their toes, never knowing what the visuals are going to do next. I suspect the choice to split this up and let several animators realise their own creative ideas of how the fire should look was very deliberate.

Arai gave the feeling of suddenly being overwhelmed with his crashing wave of heat, Ogasawara depicted its powerful speed while the animators of the fireball sequence, whoever these nameless heroes may be, really ramped the intensity up to the next level.

 

Episode Spotlight: Mob Psycho 100 #8

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Director: 立川譲 (Toshiyuki Takei)

Storyboard: 立川譲 重原克也 (Yuzuru Tachikawa  Katsuya Shigehara )

Animation Director: 亀田祥倫 (Yoshimichi Kameda)

Yoshimichi Kameda is undoubtedly the pedestal animation force behind this series. Although he was responsible for the character design, he did not take up the credit of chief animation director that usually accompanies this. Generally the chief animation director is the single overruling source of truth for close-ups and facial shots of their character designs so they spend their time furiously correcting and supervising the work of the episode animation supervisors below them throughout the whole show. For a series like New Game, the precise appeal of the beautiful characters is a major selling point, making this role critical. Mob Psycho has no such aspiration, instead Kameda’s drive for the series was to allow it to thrive on chaos and disorder, whipping a cacophony of different animation styles into a charismatic chorus, a heaving, messy swell of excitement. He is best placed to do this closer to the front lines; serving as animation director for an episode allows him to supervise the animation, not just the drawings.

Episode 8 is the only episode since the first that he taken up arms, to orchestrate the animation of a Mob Psycho episode. The results are astounding. Much like the greatest of the great charismatic animators before him, Kameda has again surpassed expectations, blowing to pieces the conventional anime style and making it his toy.

Kameda has proven himself a great animation director because he has been able to weave each of the animator’s individual styles into a cohesive tapestry of animation. In my view, there is no one grand-standing piece of animation – all of the more prominent animators’ styles are celebrated with equal gusto. Usually when you get a charismatic animator on an episode, their segment stands out like a sore thumb. This episode makes it into my list of greats because only a show like Mob Psycho with an animation director like Yoshimichi Kameda could we get an episode so invigoratingly animated that the individuality of the animation doesn’t feel at all idiosyncratic.

Both in terms of his drawings and his movements, Kameda’s animation style is rough, gritty and visceral. In his break-out work on Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, that grit, that rawness made the sequence where Roy Mustang incinerated a certain character (spoiler dodge!) unforgettable. It took the glamour out of death and perfectly reflected his vengeful frame of mind. In Mob Psycho, Kameda’s roughness both compliments the playfully dirty design manifesto of the series but also, more importantly, takes the glamour out of his battle sequences. While other shows portray sleek, cool fights, Mob Psycho degrades and brutalises those involved in the skirmishes. This plays nicely into Mob’s stand-point of not wanting to fight and hurt others.

Kameda obtains this roughness in his work through a variety of techniques, including the use of an Ukiyo-e brush and rough pencil work. One thing is for sure, his genga are the anything but clean:

This style has clearly been imparted to the key animators who worked on this episode, who have implemented it in different ways. Bold, brush-like lines, sketchy pencil marks, scraggly linework and dirty smears are pervasive throughout the episode. There are several moments that nail the style so perfectly that you get the sense that Kameda made divine intervention as supervisor and roughed up the genga himself. Such moments are fleeting but very carefully interspersed at impact moments throughout the action so that you feel the force of Kameda without him betraying the style of the key animator.

Probably the tidbit of animation that grabbed me the most this episode was this:

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The way the hackled lines undulate with a kind of electric energy, as if yearning to explode into formless scrawl is a powerful statement of Mob’s wrath. Again, I feel Kameda’s hand in this but I’d love to know how this cut turned out this way! Sakugabooru has it included as part of Yutaka Nakamura’s scene, but I can’t be sure.

I was fascinated to see Yuuto Kaneko at the top of the genga list for the episode (meaning he contributed the most). Kaneko is one of the most ascendant young animators associated with studio Trigger who came onboard as part of the Little Witch Academia training project after jumping ship from GAINAX. He proved himself by becoming a core animator on Kill la Kill, and reaching the status of a stand-out animator on Kiznaiver and Luluco. He also contributed to episode 3, but this is in my view his best work to date. In particular, this sequence was astounding.

Although much noise has been made about Yutaka Nakamura’s piece at the climax of the fight, this segment was perhaps more interesting animation wise, the rough deformation and sketchiness of it being classically Mob Psycho. Kaneko has adopted a strength from his Trigger brethren Akira Amemiya and Imaishi that plays neatly into Kameda’s aesthetic – the crayon-like thick lines, chalky effect dashes and pencil scrawled smears are incorporated into his animation to spectacular effect this episode.

Another segment that caught my eye was likely by Akira Yamashita (presumed so because he tweeted about drawing the delinquents with a picture of a particular pose). If this is is indeed his work, it’s also very impressive and revels well in the dirty feel of the episode. The crass contortions of the faces is so fun to watch in motion and his drawings feature a lot of rough line detail and charcoal style.

Of course, I can’t forget to mention the climactic finish to the sequence, handled by none other than Bones resident star animator Yutaka Nakamura. Nakamura rarely fails to produce exhilarating animation, and this is far from an exception, with some smooth background animation, an explosion of effects and weighty, realistic kinetics as Mob throws his opponent down. To top it off there’s a fade to formless sketch as  mob’s fury hits its pinnacle.

Topping the web-generation episode 5, this takes the cake for being the best animated episode of Mob Psycho and even managed to squeeze in our first taste of legitimate plot with the introduction of the evil organisation, Claw. I am not expecting that crown to be passed on until the final episode, which will almost certainly be spearheaded by Kameda again and sit in BONES’ all-out sakuga finale hall of fame.
Key Animation

金子雄人 篠田知宏 宇佐美萌 宗圓祐輔 武藤信宏
増田伸孝 前田義宏 鈴木優太郎 島田佳 舛田裕美
宮島直樹 加藤滉介 五十嵐祐貴 石橋翔祐

光田史亮 わしお 山下滉 長坂慶太 工藤糸織
佐藤由貴 阿部尚人 高山朋浩 佐藤利幸 中村豊

ボンズ作画部
橋本治奈 平田有加

 

Art Direction: Illya vs Orange

In simple terms, what you see when watching an anime is the culmination of two different visual elements – the animation, which is the things that move, and the art, which is the static backdrop. After the director approves the layout for a cut, which is like the rough blueprint of how each shot will look, the anime production model generally splits these elements into two separate streams, with both the animation production and the art department using the layout as the basis to develop their side of it. The person responsible for delivering the art is credited as Art Director, usually a series-wide role. The art is often hand-painted on large sheets using a variety of techniques or is sometimes drawn digitally.

When complete and scanned digitally, the two streams are reunited by the photography/compositing stage of production which will then lead into any finishing effects work. Why am I telling you this? Because this season two anime in particular made me break my usual focus on animation appreciation and made me take a good hard look at the other side of the fence. They made me, dammit!

The two anime in question are Orange and Prisma Ilya 3rei Hertz, and their art snatched my attention for totally opposite reasons. Put frankly, those reasons are that Illya was utterly pathetic while Orange is very good. But before I get into kicking heads and patting backs on these two, I want to speak more generally on how anime uses background art.

Anime has been traditionally known as being geared towards effective layouts rather than pure animation and one of the ways this manifests is in a strong focus on the art stream. Anime considered to be ‘high quality’ and anime with large budgets also tend to have high-quality background art. Movies such as Miyazaki’s Ghibli outings, down to television anime like Attack on Titan or even Kill la Kill create rich, attractive works of art as a canvas for their animation. If you want to ogle at such high-grade backgrounds, head over to http://anime-backgrounds.tumblr.com/, from which I pinched some examples:

In some cases, the background art is given even more attention, becoming a driving artistic component of the series. A good example of this is Ghost in the Shell, where Mamoru Oshii ensured that every deeply detailed background helped build the richly textured and absorbing near-future world of the story. In Revolutionary Girl Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara’s entangled his backgrounds with his narrative, using abstraction, architecture and visual metaphor to speak to the audience.  This striking use of background art has become a defining trait of his.

Generally speaking, anime can at least put out settings and background art that act as an unobtrusive back-drop. Mediocre series from several prolific studios take this route, producing basic, bland still art that’s almost schematic in nature. When they need a house in the background it’s just a house; the backgrounds are technically not lacking but do not portray a lived-in and realistic feeling or any sense of artistic beauty or creativity. This kind of art direction is doing its job if you don’t notice it at all.

I’ve only rarely seen anime with art poor enough to actually make itself jump out at you for the wrong reasons, and when it happens it’s like a rude slap in the face, totally taking you out of the scene. The anime slapping me without restraint this season is Illya. It first hit me when Illya and friends walk into Miyu’s beachside ‘mansion’.

[HorribleSubs] Fate Kaleid Liner PRISMA ILLYA 3rei!! - 01 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_02.33_[2016.07.28_22.48.08]

I say mansion, but it actually looks like more of a repurposed storage warehouse decorated by a photoshop artist. This is the kind of ugly monstrosity of a house I probably designed in The Sims when I was a kid. This  vast, empty entrance hall with its absolutely illogical design and awkward symmetry actually gave off an unsettling surreal feeling. For what purpose would such a room have been designed? An amphitheatre-like internal balcony, spare of all furniture save for a single cupboard, the lack of decoration, the fact there are no supporting columns, the placement of the rooms, it’s all so unnatural. I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one would build a house like this.

It’s also clear that the artist who did it copied and pasted objects into some kind of 3D schematic instead of drawing it. The windows, doors and railing posts are all identical, even down to the shading. That process isn’t intrinsically a bad thing, but it is when it is so glaringly evident as this. The castle of the Ainsworth family is just as bad, only on a much grander scale:

[HorribleSubs] Fate Kaleid Liner PRISMA ILLYA 3rei!! - 04 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_03.54_[2016.07.28_22.49.55]

Every part of it looks like it’s been copied from another part and I don’t believe for a second that anyone with such extreme wealth would build a castle so ugly and lacking in any kind of architectural personality. Maybe they could only afford a kit-home castle. Gross.

By the time later episodes introduced the snow-laden abandoned school I was legitimately disturbed by what I saw:

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You’ll need to click through to the full size images for these ones to see the problems:

 

On top of that, the layouts are totally dull and uninspired, seemingly framing scenes in such a way as to make the background art and composition job as simple as possible. Wherever they can, scenes are made flat, straight and symmetrical, often lined up with one or more structural geometries in the backgrounds. There is a clear attempt to avoid any difficult three-dimensional perspectives.

The composition and touch-up in post-production also seems intent on doing as little work as possible, with no interesting shadow, glare, glint or transparency effects being used. Illya has wowed me with its action animation in the past, and it usually animates itself passably, but if you look past the cute girls for a moment you’ll realise it’s a very ugly series.

Fortunately, the anime Orange achieved the opposite, bringing genuine beauty to the realistic setting of mountain-straddling urban Japan that borders on breathtaking at times.

Orange is also set in and around a Japanese school, which makes it all the more easy to compare and contrast with Illya’s abominable attempt.The difference is gobsmacking because Orange’s setting actually looks like a school rather than an unfinished soviet war prison.

Notice a few key points on Orange’s art:

  • You can see through the windows into the room detail.
  • The windows show reflection and glare.
  • The curtains are actually slightly transparent and they are all drawn at slightly different positions, kind of like how they would be IN REALITY.
  • The ground isn’t just a flat concrete texture as far as the eye can see but has stains, marks, manholes, joints, etc.
  • There is glare of harsh sunlight and shadows cast naturally throughout all of the background objects rather than starkly applied only when a cel or object clearly calls for it. The absence of sun or shadow in Illya’s world is a big part of how lifeless it feels.
  • All of the signs, noticeboards etc are not copied in from some other templates but drawn as part of the background.
  • The scenes are often shot at interesting angles not aligned dead-on with building edges and faces.
  • The blackboards have clear chalk-rub smears.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Orange good, Illya bad.

The man in charge of Illya’s art is Hiroshi Morikawa, associated with Studio Kaimu, who has an extensive history generating backgrounds but is brand new to the role of art director. This is a change – Takeshi Tateishi, associated with the preferable Studio Tulip, handled the previous two seasons. A note on Takeshi – he has two ANN entries (1 , 2) but is actually the one person.

The change is certainly noticeable – although IIlya has always had the same kind of approach to art direction, in this latest season it has demonstrably fallen in terms of quality. The episode credits for background art reveal that it’s largely handled by three studios, the aforementioned Kaimu, and the Korean companies DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION. The involvement of DR MOVIE and GACHI PRODUCTION doesn’t say a lot in and of itself, as they are widespread in the industry and are secondary artists supporting Kaimu (GACHI PRODUCTION even had a hand in production art on an Orange episode). However, the last time Morikawa, Kaimu and these two companies comprised the art department for a series was Subete ga F ni Naru and that show had similarly bland background work.

This time, Morikawa has been elevated from just a background artist to the art director. I also suspect that, as Illya’s Studio Kaimu credits lists no names under it, it largely refers to Morikawa himself. A stretched one-man lead background artist with no experienced art director oversight and only offshore companies to back him up is a recipe for disaster.

Was the change in art direction to try and tackle the alternate winter world in a different way? Maybe. To be fair to Morikawa, the few ‘money-shot’ depictions of snow-covered forests didn’t look too shabby. Or perhaps it was an economic measure. I suspect Morikawa comes cheap, given his obvious skill for copying and pasting objects, stretching textures and using few staff. This would certainly save a lot of effort and time compared to hand painted artworks such as those used on Orange. Whatever the reason, it backfired and  it’s a bad look for directors Masato Jinbo and Shin Oonuma. The higher-ups of the Illya franchise need to have a good hard think about whether they still care about the series or not, because it sure looks like they don’t.

At the end of the day here, the real difference is that the art direction in Orange is geared toward a fine art approach, which is probably considered to be the norm for anime. It’s particularly good at it, but it’s not the talent of the artists behind this show that so starkly differentiates it from Illya – the fact is that Illya takes a wholly different approach. Illya’s art direction is about constructing a perfunctory back-drop – it just has to be a place with the requisite details and objects present. The episode director asks for a scene in a school and he gets the bare-bones recognition level school we see. There’s no art in it at all, it does not portray a world or support the atmosphere of the show, it’s just there. However this season of Illya is even worse – it’s not ‘just there’, it’s glaringly, overwhelmingly bad.

 

 

 

On the Postponement of Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars

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Phew, that was close! I was almost a tragic victim of irony. You see, I was just about to sit down and polish off a new blog post extolling the 2D hand-drawn mecha animation and surprising levels of enjoyment I was getting out of Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars when BAM, the show’s production committee dropped the bomb. They announced that they are taking the extreme measure of suspending the broadcast of the series after episode 4, delaying the release of the blu-ray and planning to re-air the series from the beginning again in September. Their reason? They didn’t feel that the show was meeting the quality that they wanted to deliver. If even the show’s own production committee gave their show a bad review, I’d feel a bit silly holding a favourable opinion.

That said, I thought I’d have a look around Japanese blogs and see if they were as scathing as the series’ sponsors. I found a lot of comments about the story being confusing, sure, but there was no chorus of controversy, no outrage. Fans of moe were responding amicably to the cute girls of the series, and fans of mecha animation seemed to be quite impressed by the fact that they were pulling off hand-drawn mecha. I don’t think anyone had delusions that this was more than a mediocre outing, but it seemed to entertain. It entertained me for the same reasons: cute girls and cool mecha. There are certainly worse shows airing right now both in terms of animation quality (D Gray man Hollow) and writing (QUALDEA CODE).

The fact that this wasn’t a response to any backlash from fans makes the already rare move of intervention from the committee all the more surprising. To be sure, there were signs of a schedule that was beginning to falter, a danger flag this early in the series. The series is split quite neatly into two streams, character animation helmed by Kimitake Nishio and Kentaro Tokiwa and mecha animation handled by Kanta Suzuki. While the mecha animation appeared to be going strong, and I’ll get into that a bit more later, the character animation was showing the symptoms: jittery movement belying a lack of in-between animation, occasional poor drawings slipping into the key animation, bad compositing and lazy layouts. The signs were there but it hadn’t yet hit the tipping point into the dark place of missing cuts and glaringly unfinished animation.

The only way I can reconcile this play by the committee is that the symptoms didn’t fully indicate the extent of the problem. Perhaps they bent over backwards just to get this episode complete and the schedule ran away from them to the point where the next few episodes would have been rendered unairable. But even then, schedule hell is not a rare thing in the unforgiving world of TV anime.

Most anime in this situation take the hit of one or two very bad episodes to try scramble back into a feasible timeline. Even big-name shows like Shingeki no Kyoujin suffered this fate, with many cuts in important action sequences replaced by shots of background art. Ping Pong aired an episode with several missing cuts, and there are many other examples of this happening. But they usually fight tooth and nail to get the episode on air and make it work somehow. This is probably because TV timeslots in Japan cost money – skipping a week isn’t just an inconvenience to the audience, it’s a hit to the proverbial wallet of the sponsors. Regalia may have been able to wrangle a less disastrous deal with the TV stations, but it’s still a very big decision to take it off air, especially for this amount of time.

Given that so many other series have continued to linger on television blissfully unaware of the fact that they’re terrible, why the punitive measures from the committee, and why go so far as to blame the poor quality of the episodes aired to date? If I put my cynicism aside for a moment I wonder if there is some sincerity behind the announcement, perhaps the production committee had high hopes for a great anime and their pride forced their hand. It’s probably the right decision, but it’s certainly a brave one and almost certainly an expensive one.

There’s another mystery here and that is, where did it all go wrong? Sure, anime schedules often end up on a knife’s edge, but this looks more like a fundamental quality issue rather than a lack of time – something is not working right in the core production staff. The main producer, 永谷敬之 (Takayuki Nagatani) went to twitter to clarify the committee’s vague comments about ‘poor quality’ and revealed the following:

  • The issue is not with the story, which will remain fundamentally the same aside from some new scenes
  • The problems are in the quality control of the animation quality, the production area, and the sound direction.

I think this sort to clear up a general confusion among fans that perhaps the story was to blame, since it seemed confusing and many of those fans weren’t too phased over the animation standard. It’s interesting that sound direction was specifically called out – I noticed a number of viewers found the sound effects a bit of an earful. They certainly leaped out at you more than many other series, with loud, offensive scraping and crushing noises being slung around during the action sequences. Personally I thought they were refreshing as they really sounded like unnatural, giant contorting hunks of metal. I think I might be alone on that, just me and the sound effects creator Yasumasu Koyama, or sound director Yoshikazu Iwanami. Oddly enough, these two guys are some of the most pervasive sound staff in the business, so much so that they were both given cameos in Shirobako.

Untitled-33Untitled-17

I think the key point he wanted to make is that this isn’t about being punitive and playing the blame game – there is an overarching problem with the production not one staff member.

One person who definitely can’t be blamed and can walk away from the show with his head held high: mechanical designer/animation director Kanta Suzuki. With a background as a notable action animator and successful mecha designer/animator, Suzuki has an increasingly rare gift in handling hand-drawn mecha. His mecha sequences in the first three episodes have all been exhilarating and brought some new to the table. Seeped in homages, and even bringing in some old-school talent such as the superb Masahito Yamashita, he has well and truly tackled the task of animating hand-drawn mecha and pinned it to the ground in forceful submission.

There is the possibility that he spent too long on these first few episodes and thereby doomed the schedule, but I see no evidence of that.

Of course, the director is ultimately responsible for the work. I suspect that Director Susumo Tosaka lacked the experience or talent to bring a show to life that had ambitious elements like 2D mecha. His only previous work at the show-wide level was ‘Series Director’ on Infinite Stratos 2. I thought Infinite Stratos 2 was terrible, and he wasn’t even the highest ranked director for the series with oversight by Yasuhito Kikuchi. With such a limited resume, it’s a wonder how he was given the opportunity to direct an original anime like this.

It’s pure speculation, but my guess is that the two chief animation directors were at the very least perfunctory in their roles but the director did not handle the reigns of communication, collaboration and organisation inherit in animation production. The lack of in-between animation, and poor polish in post-production are, to my mind, signs of a director without control. It may be telling that the director did not make comment or announcement himself, perhaps suggesting that it is not a decision he made or pushed for.

At the end of the day though, Regalia was not a show that was a failure in the eyes of many viewers, so I can only see the decision from the producers to postpone and revise it as a bold move to save the show born out of a want to make it a good anime rather than a mediocre one. I’ll raise my glass to that! Although I only mildly enjoyed the show thus far, I will definitely be awaiting its return in September, with corrected animation, improved production values and, probably some changes to production/direction staff. When it comes back, I’ll write about the mecha animation!

 

Episode Spotlight: Mob Pycho 100 #1

Staff:

Director & Storyboard: 立川譲 (Yuzuru Tachikawa) [Series Director]

Writer: 瀬古浩司 (Hiroshi Seko) [Series Composition]

Animation Director: 亀田祥倫 (Yoshimichi Kameda) [Series Chief Animation Director]

If you have an appreciation of animation, Mob Psycho will grab your attention and mercilessly pound it into absolute submission. I’m still in intensive care, but they’re letting me write this post under heavy sedation and monitoring. If you don’t appreciate animation you might see it as an anime with a ‘weird art style’ that’s still somehow awesome. But whatever your background, I think we can all agree that Mob Psycho 100 has a certain kick to it that perhaps no other anime does, and the force behind that kick comes from its animation production.

As intended, the writing is dry, the characters unpalatable and the story, at least in this early stage, no more than a premise for shounen gags. Don’t expect to be deeply moved or intellectually engaged by this series; it knows exactly what genre it is and throws everything at being the very beast shounen comedy it can be. Being descendant from the same original creator, Mob Psycho definitely has a likeness to the previously successful One Punch Man. The shounen topic, the style of comedy and the comic faces are closely aligned. Both series also have great animation, but Mob Psycho is a very different beast in this arena.

Unlike One Punch man, the show is relentlessly kinetic. Ever since the early days of TV-anime, most anime have a status quo animation style and all the creative energy and gusto would be thrown into the ‘money shots’. One Punch man was rightly lauded for its animation quality, but it still followed that pattern, that praise almost entirely referring to its frequent but fleeting action sequences. Sure, some of Mob Psycho’s greatest moments of animation come from the scenes where Mob uses his telekenetic powers, but the difference in energy is less clear-cut.

All throughout, this episode of Mob Psycho is stylistically restless, bursting at the seems with new ideas, and raw, unfiltered animation of totally different faculties. There’s some clear strains of Kanada-esque, or even Imaishi-school limited animation, some rich set-piece movement in the vein of Hironori Tanaka, web-gen digitally drawn effect work reminiscent of Shingo Yamashita.

The crumpled, hyper-emotional gag expressions remind me of the drawings from classic comedy anime GTO or, more recently, Azazel-san.

There’s an abundance of ambitious and unfiltered key animation work on display. There’s even some animation done using oil-painting on glass.

So, in this episode at least, there’s no status-quo – it’s a complete piece of animation. But there is a stylistic presence that stitches it all together, and that is of chief animation director Yoshimichi Kameda.

Mob Psycho is yet another break-out career moment for the ascendant Kameda, the man who is the embodiment of the primal ‘charisma animator’. I have been following him intently ever since his arresting action sequences as a young key animator in Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, his rough, charcoaly lines, coarse shading and unique effects proving to be the most iconic and memorable animation from the series. False prophets have come and gone, and countless animators have emulated his style, but Kameda is the only one out there that has Yoshinori Kanada’s particular brand of charisma – the drive to push the boundaries, to constantly exceed and upend expectations and with free and flamboyant animation. Like Kanada, his animation has the power to drive the production, not the other way around.

Kameda always goes over the top. He always gives you a bit more than you ask for (Laughs). If you imply that you want him to do his absolute best, to give it 100%, he’ll go away and return with 150%. I think he works best when you ask him to operate at around 80% capacity. –director Tachikawa

That charisma approach is at the beating heart of Mob Psycho, and his pioneering sumi-e brush aesthetic is clearly in play throughout the episode.

Animation aside, director Yuzuru Tachikawa’s storyboard and layout work give this episode a fast-cut pace and rich composition that means the character cels and the background art don’t feel starkly separate. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having cels stand-out, but it’s refreshing to see an anime that follows a different path.

The dynamic, near-formless animation created under Kameda combined with Tachikawa’s layouts mean that Mob Psycho has few obvious traces of a standard TV animation production. It’s less of an anime and more of a manga that’s come to life.

The Magic of Mitsuo Iso

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Mitsuo Iso is my favourite animator – that’s an unequivocal fact. Regrettably, it hasn’t been a good decade to be a fan of Iso. Since his work as director on the commercially unsuccessful Denno Coil, he has been an elusive, enigmatic figure, making only scant appearances uncredited here and there. Recently though, we’ve had good news from abroad: Mitsuo Iso has been found alive and well and a French company has dragged him into working on a new animated feature film of theirs, Les Pirates de la Réunion, le réveil des dodos! If you saw that news article pop up on your crunchyroll or ANN feed and didn’t know what all the fuss was about, then this post is for you.

To celebrate the return of the chosen one, I thought I’d gush all over my keyboard for a couple of hours so that the world can at least know the depths of my love for this man. Rather than a detailed break-down of his style and work, it’s more of an indulgent propaganda piece.

Iso is a testament to the fact that, contrary to the frothing gibberish that many western animation purists purport, more frames does not equal better animation. Anyone out there who flatly believes that the more fluid animation is, the better it is, or the more realistic it is, needs to stop and listen to the message Iso conveys through his work.

Throughout his long and industrious career Iso has delved deeper into understanding expressing movement than any other major animator I have seen, which has given him the ability to craft animation in a way no one else in the world can, and that’s no hyperbole. The way in which he shows movement that feels both realistic and organic yet intrinsically ‘animation’ is so perfect and so difficult to break down technically that it’s nothing short of magical. There’s no doubt he has a gift that can’t be learned. When his animation craft is woven into a climactic moment of the right anime, it has the ability to take your breath away.

In my early days of anime fandom, when I didn’t even know what an animation director was, one such scene floored me: Asuka fighting the mass production Evas in the End of Evangelion movie. I actually watched it again recently and that only confirmed its uncontested status as my favourite sequence of animation. I suggest everyone give it another watch (spoiler alert):

It’s not my favourite sequence because it’s the most technically impressive, because it has the best drawing quality or the most realistic movement – I could reel off plenty of examples that best it in any one category. It’s not one quality I can put my finger on but there’s something intangible and transcendent in there.

Perhaps it’s the sense of weight and gravity of the Evas colliding and swinging their joints, the visceral power of their lunges and the way they reel back from the sheer forces involved in the battle. Maybe it’s the way, even though Evangelion is a giant ‘mecha’ its every movement evokes the cathartic willpower of Asuka’s last few breaths – it’s a desperate, violent scramble for survival on a grander scale. Or maybe it’s the fact that every detail is accounted for – the speed at which debris fall, the way leaves ripped from trees are whisked around by momentum, the uniquely real spurting and splattering of blood or the trailing wisps of smoke from the clashing swords. It’s not one of these things, it’s all of them and more. It’s Mitsuo Iso. It doesn’t matter how much money or how many animators you could throw at a movie, we have one man to thank for the animation in this sequence and it could never be done without him. Never.

Every Frame is Key

With the “full-limited” style he developed and frequently used he shuns the traditional approach of having the key animator drawing the key poses in a cut and having in-betweeners draw the frames between. Instead, he exerts complete control over his cuts, doing every drawing himself. But there’s more to it than that, he doesn’t just do away with in-between animators, he does away with the whole concept of in-between frames – by treating every drawing as key. This means he is never drawing just to get from one pose to the next, but every frame takes the movement forward in a totally organic way. This avoids any semblance of the old animation problem of characters looking as though they are awkwardly snapping into poses and revolutionises our understanding of what it means for animation to be realistic.

An army of in-betweeners could make animation that moved at real-life speeds of 60 frames per second plus, but that wouldn’t make it any more realistic if the movement wasn’t happening in a realistic way. By the same token, if the characters are moving in a realistic manner, they don’t NEED to move at 60fps for it to feel entirely real and authentic. And even if a key animator had a prodigious grasp of anatomy and movement, if the movement is being planned out by only a portion of the frame total it will never feel truly real.

Mitsuo Iso’s animation is limited in the sense that he doesn’t draw 24 frames per second, but with a lot less drawings (limited animation) he is able to give the same impression as if it were full. He does this by having a masterful understanding of how things move at their very core. There is absolutely no redundant movement in his animation; each frame is a discrete evolution in the broader motion going on. As a result, things can constantly be accelerating, decelerating or changing course which gives his motion a sense of vitality, of being alive. That’s why his animation gives the impression of realism without moving with the same framerate.

Master of Motion

But it’s not enough to make things be constantly moving arbitrarily (as many other animators are guilty of); Mitsuo Iso also has a genius understanding of how things should move. His animation doesn’t come from repeated textbook learning but from some deeply innate knowledge of how to translate what he observes in real life into a sequence of drawings. This is where the magic of Iso comes into play.

When he animated that End of Evangelion scene, the Evas moved with weight the of giant robots and also the will of humans.

In the ghost in the shell sequence, the spider tanked crept around like an arachnid yet also moved with a robotic, mechanised purpose.

And don’t worry, he’s not just a mecha animator! His portrayal of every-day human movement is so natural it can be profound such as the crying scene in the Digimon movie, or the running in Umi ga Kikoeru.

To top it off, he is one of the best effects animators out there, portraying explosions, smoke and water with a kind of enigmatic authenticity that is hard to match. His climactic scene in FLCL or his explosion in Blood+ are good examples of this.

At the end of the day, Mitsuo Iso’s realism doesn’t mimic real life it recreates it. Instead of a dull straight-forward reproduction of real movement, he harnesses the power and potential of animation to create evocative sequences that merely use a grounding in reality to further enhance their impact and visceral beauty.

A True Creator

Like many other accomplished animators before him, Mitsuo Iso began to spread his wings to soar above the whole creative process, with a resounding effort at pretty much everything with the renowned Raxephon episode 15 where he handled production, writing, storyboard, 2D  digital effects and key animation – an unheard of feat for TV anime. He bought along the same philosophy that informed his key animation career and wanted to show that you can make a high-quality product within the confines of limited budget and schedule by cutting out the challenge of trying to interpret and execute another person’s vision. This is taking his demolishing of in-between frames to a higher level. He proved his point with an a moody, cinematic and completely satisfying episode. He also proved that he was cut out for creating stories, not just telling other people’s stories with his animation.

This change in tack for his craft led him to being in charge of his very first major project: Denno Coil. Iso came up with this one from the ground up, as creator, director and screenwriter. A fascinating blend of neighborhood-roaming childhood coming-of-age and near-future augmented-reality science fiction, Denno Coil was unique, thoroughly entertaining and richly animated. Unfortunately it was not a resounding success, failing to make an impact or garner strong sales despite a generous TV time-slot. Although mostly hearsay it also indicated that Iso may not be suited to the director’s chair, his perfectionism and instinct-driven style poorly matched to entrusting animators under him. This may have caused a falling out with the previous brother-in-arms, Takeshi Honda, who was the chief animator for the series.

It is also probably the reason he vanished into a distant myth ever since. However, with the news that he is coming back with a feature film, all heads should be turned as no one can doubt the capacity of Iso to create something amazing.

 

 

Further Reading

 

 

Episode Spotlight: Re:Zero 15

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Staff:

Director: 土屋浩幸 (Hiroyuki Tsuchiya) [9,15]

Writer: 梅原英司 (Eiji Umehara) [14,15]

Storyboard: 細田直人 (Naoto Hosoda) [10,15]

Monster Animation Director: 小柳達也 (Tatsuya Koyanagi) [Show-wide]

Last night I watched an episode of anime the visceral impact of which took the wind out of me and left me lost for words. I had to just watch the credits roll, silent and still as my spiraling thoughts slowly came back to me. After a night’s rest, I’m ready to get it off my chest: Re:Zero episode 15 was amazing!

Re:Zero has been a consistent surprise to me since it began last season. The product of famous action animator-just-turned-director Gorou Sessha and prolific yet forgettable writer Masahiro Yokotani, Re:Zero is a light-novel adaptation with a very light-novel premise: average guy ends up in a fantasy world surrounded by cute girls and a special power (the ability to restart his day when he dies). Like any healthy grown man, I was skeptical at first. But, ever since its first episode cut short the slow-burning cute and humorous antics by brutally eviscerating all the main characters it has chipped away at all of my doubts before finally obliterating them this week.

This episode kicks the latest arc of the show into gear, pitting our hero Subaru and his doting side-kick Rem against a disturbed cult and a giant ice-bringing monster who is probably the Jealous Witch herself. It’s easily the most suspenseful episode of the show, as, more than ever before, there’s a looming sense of impending doom and a true malevolent villain. On top of that, the emotion is as strong as ever, as Rem’s blooming love for Subaru and her hatred of the cult adds tragedy and yearning to the shocking events that unfold.

Re:Zero has been carefully building its characters from the start to fully capitalise on their foils, passion and drive in moments like this. It’s an anime that many other could learn from in that it has the confidence to slow down and give itself breathing space. There’s time for back-story, there’s time for Rem and Subaru to go shopping together or just talk about their day. Where other light novel series would keep Rem and Ram as cute fanservice maids, Re:Zero has let us witness them grow well beyond their archetype. Other light novel series would have their male protagonist unwavering in his resolve and personality, but Re:Zero gave Subaru a whole episode to wallow in self-pity after ruining his friendship with the heroine. And when this show needs to fire a punch it throws all the weight of its character development behind it and lands a truly crushing blow.

This week was one massive swing to the gut, a gripping ride of suspense, sorrow, fear, rage and an almost suffocating feeling of hapless despair. It hit me in a place that anime usually doesn’t even try to. I’ve seen more violent anime before, but I don’t recall many anime being so brutal to a character as sweet and cherished as Rem or going to such lengths to crush the soul of its main character.

The potency of this episode was further honed by some impressive animation work. The four main animators responsible for the episode are (listed in order of the amount of animation they contributed):

中村和久 (Kazuhisa Nakamura) [15] https://twitter.com/wfoxviper

木宮亮介 (Ryosuke Kimiya) [2,9,15]

又賀大介 (Daisuke Mataga) [3,9,13,15] https://twitter.com/matagadaisuke33

岩田景子 (Keiko Iwata) [1,8,9,15]

These guys are all  credited with both animation direction and key animation, meaning they had a great deal of responsibility and creative control over their sequences. While most of the episode was well executed, the most interesting animation-wise by far was the long scene in the cave with Subaru chained up and tormented by the maniacal cult leader.

This sequence was handled by Kazuhisa Nakamura, which is why he did the most animation on the episode. A new animation director for the show, and someone who is new to me, Nakamura displayed a strong understanding of how animation can be used to deliver atmosphere and impact.

Now I have seen my share of creepy cult anime villains waving their arms around and talking in an insane voice, but the way Nakamura crafted his movements is what made him creepy and unsettling rather than just comical. Nakamura had him cut unpredictably from jerky, nervous contortions into super-smooth, confident movements really gave credence to his vocal lunacy.

Similarly, Rem’s fury as she entered the cave and Subaru’s desperate rage as he watched her die was made so intense by the raw, visceral movements and drawings.

It’s hard to imagine 3DCG or even live-action conveying this scene with such fierce emotional power.

The closing shot of the episode was the final kick to an audience already down, a display of the monstrous power and evil Subaru is now helpless against. The staff involved knew they had made something special and gave it the ED-less credit roll, a well-earned cinematic send-off.

[HorribleSubs] Re Zero kara Hajimeru Isekai Seikatsu - 15 [1080p].mkv_snapshot_21.59_[2016.07.12_11.22.11].jpg