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.

 

Ping Pong 7 Thoughts

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I really feel like Ping Pong raised the bar to new heights with its latest offering

Ping Pong presents a surging, heaving swell of grudges, lifelong dreams, responsibilities, love, passion,  and pride being stirred up by its entire cast, just waiting to break into uninhibited conflict. Although there have been minor clashes along the way, for example the upsets of Wenge vs Kazuma and Peco vs Sakuma, so far these motivations have mostly peacefully coexisted. Kazuma has been devotedly honing his skills and shouldering the ever increasing burden of redeeming his family name; Wenge has cast his pride aside and has put himself back to the hard work of training up; Peco has rekindled his childhood dream to make gold at the Olympics and is on an extreme up-skill regime; and Smile is silently honing his talent and reconciling his own reasons for winning. And it’s not just the players, the coaches behind them have their own hangups they’re fighting for. Exploring all these characters and what they’ve put on the line with ping pong has been the goal of this anime so far, and there’s an intensifying sense that something is brewing. Things are starting to gain a direction – they’re on a course for collision. Ping Pong has has had suspense and drama all throughout, but this episode sharply brings into focus the fact that the true meaning of the show will all be in the final meeting of these players across the net.

The episode also puts something else under the spotlight – that the core of this series is the friendship and inevitable rivalry between Smile and Peco. The other characters certainly flesh it out and explore the themes of what motivates people, but at the end of the day they’re more of a side-story. The narrative of Ping Ping has made itself clear – Smile will face Peco in an important career match and have to make a choice between listening to his coach and his friends and do whats necessary to win, or standing aside to let Peco go on towards his goal. The parallel’s drawn between Smile and his coach were undeniable, as was the flag of Peco having his leg wrapped. History will repeat itself, and Peco will be injured when he’s matched with Smile. That choice facing Smile is the crux of this series and the morale of the story will be about the meaning of winning. What I can’t predict is what Smile will choose: to win or to lose. If I had to guess at this point it would be ‘to win’, simply because it would feel too predictable otherwise.

  • We’re seeing real pay-off here from Yuasa’s hands-on, DIY approach to writing/storyboarding each episode. Far from getting tired, he seems to be improving with every episode. This week felt like it had more visual depth and precise pacing than ever before. Every scene had a bite of humour, emotion or tension to it, and there was a pervasive atmosphere throughout. It felt like there were less incongruous moments of animation and more coherency to the rough art style. Combined with the sleek, emotive music, the show’s production was punchier than ever, and as close to beauty as it has ever been. I can now put my concerns about the schedule aside, it’s kept up. But I am hoping to see some animator big guns to come out for the final matches of the show

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  • I thought this was interesting -this is the color script for the first episode. Every episode has its own color script and the intention is to guide the flow of color throughout the episode. Masaaki Yuasa’s works have always had a strong focus on color and this is definitely a major part of that. I think it’s rare for an anime to use this pre-production step, but it seems to be a signature of his. The color scripts for Kick Heart were posted online on the kickstarter page https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/production-ig/masaaki-yuasas-kick-heart/posts/330918. As with Kick Heart, they would have been painted, based on Yuasa’s storyboard, by the series art director and close collaborator Kevin Aymeric. He recently gained attention for drawing every single background in Yuasa’s episode of Space Dandy (episode 9) himself. It’s clear that he’s a creative force to be reckoned with and a valuable addition to the Yuasa ‘team’.
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Aymeric signature – the ping pong building

Wixoss 8 – Be Careful What You Wish For

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So I just watched Selector Infected Wixoss 8 and I think I now need professional help. 10 years from now you might find me in some creepy, out-of-the-way mental asylum for the irredeemably damaged screaming “NO YUZUKI. STOP, JUST STOP!!”. But I’ll at least finish this blog post before I admit myself.

I mentioned last week that watching Wixoss was like being a morbidly curious onlooker of a train crash about to happen. Well now the train crashed actually happened and I’ve gone from perverse curiosity to abject horror as I’m lift staring at the twisted, smoldering remains. And let’s not be coy about this, those remains are Yuzuki. Poor Yuzuki! After taking a backseat last week to the fall of Aki-out-of-lucky, she is thrust back to center stage from the very start of the episode. The first half of the episode was unsettling with its foreboding tone as Yuzuki ran around raising bad-outcome flags left right and center (see above screencap), and the latter half of the episode bought her storyline to a head, pitting her in a make or break selector battoru. At this point in the episode I was seriously panicking. I expected to suffer alongside Yuzuki for a good few more episodes as she slowly grappled with her soul-crushing tainted love, and yet all of a sudden there we were, on the brink of her wish coming true! Wixoss is proving to be full of surprises, and the breakneck pace at which it throws its characters into turmoil is truly amazing.

I’ve gotta say, I’m not usually the biggest fan of Mari Okada’s scripts, but she has really nailed it here. I think Wixoss is suited to her writing style because it’s under no pretense of being a nuanced, realistic drama, so she doesn’t have to pull any punches in packing in as much emotion as possible. But I really enjoyed the sense of doubt hanging over Yuzuki as she pursued her goal. At face value she had pulled herself together, taken command of her own destiny and was working confidently towards achieving her dream, but there was the nagging sense that she was making a mistake. We the audience had no reason to believe that her wish would not come true, but the episode still made us feel that something was off. It was a great way to maintain suspense.

And then there’s the outcome – goddamn! It all makes so much sense now! Why  they’re called ‘Eternal’ Girls, why Yuzuki’s LRIG was trying to stop her, and more. It’s actually an obvious development when you think about it, but It caught me off guard. So Yuzuki is now no longer herself – she’s split between being an LRIG and being a placeholder wish-fulfillment Yuzuki who will dubiously enact her fantasies with her brother. It’s clear that she won’t ever get to experience her wish, and, in the ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ spirit, she has also dragged her brother into a toxic relationship. Seriously, it’s like these girls haven’t seen Madoka. Losing is probably better than winning in the never-ending selector war.

I think this show is going to take the direction of Ruuko taking up the cause of ending the whole selector infected thing. Her lack of a wish might mean she’s the only one who can ever truly ‘win’. It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out, and I really hope Yuzuki’s storyline is continued somehow!

 

 

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(laughs)

Wixoss will mess you up, and I love that

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The next time I see girls playing trading card games I’m bolting! Wixoss starts of innocently enough humming along as a story of cute girls playing cards with a side helping of “please buy these cards – look how cute they are!”. But just when you start leaning back and soaking up the pleasant moe feelings it pulls you, gagging and struggling, in a different direction: by episode 3 you’re well and truly caught up in a soul crushing emotional maelstrom of forbidden love, loneliness, forlorn sadism and nihilism. It’s unrelentingly melodramatic as it throws each of its main characters into the fray and forces us to watch as their lives spiral out of control. It’s tough viewing but it’s like an imminent train wreck you just can’t look away from. If you thought Wixoss was just pretty young girls sitting around, drinking tea, fondling each others breasts and playing the occasional card game, you can think again. And if train wrecks are your thing, I fully suggest you strap in and join me for the ride. Selector Infector Wixoss will be two seasons long, so it’s not too late to jump on board the pain train!

I love this teenage angst stuff

Yep, I admit it, I’m a sucker for sappy teenage angsty stuff. I think it’s a condition that stems all the way back from my early years of watching Buffy the Vampire slayer, but it’s a guilty pleasure that’s stayed with me for life. Unfortunately it’s been a while since I’ve found an anime this heavy with it. I think the last time I was this revved up about the awry feelings of twisted young girls was Mai Hime. Back then my heart bled for Shizuru and her patently unfulfilled lesbian love for Natsuki, and for Mai’s crumbling soul beneath her happy facade. Now, with Wixoss, I can actually hear my heart cracking whenever Yuzuki starts the self-destructive talk of the love for her brother that can’t come true, and I’m glued to the screen with shock when Hitoe’s simple dream of making friends is crushed. Meanwhile, the main character seems to be harboring some strong nihilistic tendencies beneath her good girl front, while her talking card, Tama, is the cutest little bundle of adrenaline-junky sadism you’ll ever find. I know it’s all over-the-top and definitely bordering on silly, but the potency of these raw, naive feelings still guts me, and I absolutely love the unstable, flawed characterisation that hangs over all of the girls. As you might have gathered, I’m totally ensnared by Wixoss, and it’s the only other anime this season, alongside Ping Pong, that I hang out every week to see.

Incest is best

Probably the biggest hook that this show has stuck into me is Yuzuki’s totally obsessive crush on her brother. Her actual brother; none of that not-blood-related cop out crap. It’s not because I have boner for the idea of two people with the same mother getting it on, not at all. The reason I love stories like this is because they’re forbidden love. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book of how to make the audience have feelings, but it works on me every time. If you’ve ever experienced unrequited love, you should be able to sympathise with poor little Yuzuki. Sure, loving her brother is creepy and not really the best idea, but love is illogical and notoriously unwilling to compromise for the people who are infected with misdirected feelings. Beyond all reason and responsibility, Yuzuki is bound by her aching heart to wish for the impossible – a normal relationship with her brother. Of all the wishes seen so far hers is the one with the most at stake – wixoss is the only way she can make it happen.

I don’t know if I support her wish, but I sympathise with her the most of all the girls.

Welcome to Fight Club

The main character of the series is another interesting piece of work. She’s probably the most atypical character in the show in the sense that she’s a girl drifting through life without a sense of purpose, almost detached from her own existence. Once she’s thrust into the combative arena of Wixoss, she realises she has nothing to lose, and she even starts to find a rare flicker of joy in the heat of battle. Her motivations for battling with the dreams of girls hanging in the balance is purely that it’s fun. I can’t really remember another female anime character with this kind of nonchalant, nihilistic bent, and it’s kind of exciting to see how far down this path she’s going to go by the end of the series.

Episode 7 was good

I watched episode 7 yesterday morning and it delivered all the things I love about this show. Yuzuki is wandering the streets looking for girls to start battles with, Ruuko is finally goaded into doing battle with Aki-lucky’s utterly evil and deeply perceptive colleague. While previous battles have lacked suspense, this one had a great energy and was probably the high point of the episode. This was partly because the dynamic between Ruuko and Iona really electric – they’re both a match for each other and they’re both in it for the thrill of the hunt. I see a really fun rivalry brewing here. Feeding off this energy, Tama’s thirst for battle was more irrepressible than ever!

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She was so fierce this episode that sparks could’ve been bursting from the sides of my computer monitor. I could feel the heat of her excitement!

Another contributing factor was that Hiroshi Tomioka did a significant amount of drawings for it. His effect animation made things visually exhilarating, while the music and sound effects also held up their end to produce a bold and stimulating action sequence. The importance of the effect animation can’t be overlooked in Wixoss; since the card girls don’t actually make physical contact, there’s no actual choreography. It’s up to the flashy sparks, flames and beams of light to make things fun.

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The episode ends on a really sharp cliffhanger, with a resurgent Akira taunting Yuzuki and Ruuko into an inevitable showdown in an abandoned warehouse. By the look of it, Akira is now off the rails with no hope of return. She was an intimidating figure before, but I expect to see her reach new levels of psychopathy now that her pride has been ripped to shreds. Her finally ‘Aki-raki’ of the episode literally sent shivers down my spine!

 

Space Dandy – Just go with the flow, baby

Believe it or not, it’s actually been about 4 weeks since I started writing this post. Every time I get a sliver of free time coinciding with a surge in self-motivation, I’ve been trying to get it finished. The problem is, everytime a new episode comes out, I have to go back to the drawing board and totally rethink my feelings toward the show. But I’m finally starting to get it – there’s no point in trying to form an overall opinion. Space Dandy is that kind of series.

In the same way that Dandy himself is aimlessly and nonchalantly drifting through space, the show has a free-spirited approach that isn’t hampered by things like character development, overarching plot or even basic continuity. It’s looser than your average standalone episode series; in Space Dandy, the episode creators have the freedom to completely change the tone, style and character of the series week-to-week. As a result, we’ve gone from the hyperactive, frivolous stupidity of episode 1, to the more subdued, sentimental notes of the fifth installment, and then bouncing straight into the good old-fashioned episodic fun in episode 6. Space Dandy is all over the place, and there’s no point trying to pin down its fluid nature.

I was disappointed in the first two episodes, because I felt like the show had set itself up as purely silly, hamfisted comedy series. The first episode was a freefalling mess of unrelenting flamboyant nonsense that was more annoying than entertaining. But I’ve enjoyed every episode since then for different reasons, and now I’ve decided to just embrace the unpredictability of the show and take each episode as it comes. It’s like a lucky dip – part of the fun is not knowing what kind of episode you’re going to get!

There is one form of consistency in this series, and that’s the quality of the production. Of course, we would expect no less given that its overseen by one of the arch good-guys of the anime industry, Shinichiro Watanabe. Watanabe pushed Sunrise to their limit with the astounding Cowboy Bebop, whipped up the top-shelf Samurai Champloo with the help of studio Manglobe, and more recently oversaw the nuanced high-school jazz anime, Kids on the Slope. Prior to these large projects, he’s had his hand in a lot of excellent anime work (including co-director of Macross Plus). It’s so nice to see him actively back in the directors role for TV anime again, after being mostly AWOL since Champloo, other than a few collaborative efforts and production assistance.

Combine his presence with the premium talent at Studio BONES, and you have a recipe for sure-fire quality! While I definitely don’t rate Space Dandy among his other greats in these terms, it definitely excels in many ways, and in a different kind of way.

In my mind, there’s an uncommon creative vision behind this series, spearheaded by Shinichiro Watanabe – instead of gathering the staff he’s needed to tell a particular story, he’s assembled a whole bunch of quite passionate creators and given them a loose canvas to showcase their skills. While this certainly isn’t unheard of, it’s cool to see it happen in the context of a big-budget commercial series!

The Animation

The animation is awesome at times. The first episode alone set the bar well above where most studios or directors could hope to reach, putting aside a good few minutes to showcase some truly jaw-dropping action animation.

With the clout Shinichiro brings to a project, I imagine pulling sponsorship is a lot easier, as his anime always have the privilege to push the limits of TV-anime budget. This is nothing to speak of his talents in pulling together some of the best animators in the business and then getting them to produce some of their best work. The list of names involved has been really strong so far, and I’m thrilled to see what we’ll see further down the track. Some notables so far:

As Ben from anipages discusses at length, BahiJD’s sequence from the first episode is just awesome, and was the saving grace of episode 1 for me. BahiJD worked on Shinichiro’s last anime, Kids on the Slope, and raised eyebrows with the individuality he poured into his cut (arguably too much in that case). But he proved his animating abilities and was bought back for this high-profile segment (which goes from when they are launched into space by an alien through to them being zapped while inside the water alien).

I loved his use of effects lines and many layers to convey speed and a fun kind of arbitrary three-dimensional space through which the characters were flung. The scene brings a smile to my face because of the over-the-top, extraneous movements of Meow and Dandy as the flail through space. It has a rough , cartoony charm while still feeling like real human movement and momentum at its core. It’s truly unique and exhilarating animation. I hope he does more in this anime!

Not to be outdone, Yutaka Nakamura’s following sequence presents the same thrilling speed and action-humour but with a smoother and more polished spin. That BahiJD can work alongside Nakamura in a star-animator capacity, at his young age, as a foreigner, is a testament to his hard work and talent!

Episode 5 is the episode that stands out from the crowd the most, bringing a more serious, and character-focused tone. As a result, the design work and animation was more based on realism than comical exaggeration. High-level animator Takeshi Honda , who usually now only works on movie anime, made an appearance this week and brought some strong, expressive acting animation with him.

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I don’t know a lot about the other animators involved, but these particular cuts caught my eye (as well as others since they made their way onto the sakuga booru)  with its difficult layering and 3D camera movement: [1][2]. While it definitely jumps out as limited animation against the rest of the episode, it definitely added a nice touch of action.

But episode 6 is probably my favourite so far.

Most of the work on the episode was handled by a single person, Michio Mihara. He’s credited with doing the story draft, storyboard, animation direction, direction, and did the bulk of the cuts for key animation himself! He even designed the two featured aliens himself! The actual screenplay is credited to the veteran Dai Satou, and the very tight, focused standalone storytelling must be credited to him, but Mihara did come up with the concept it seems.

Mihara, as far as I see, isn’t so well known, but has many achievements to his name as an animator. He has been working in the industry for some time. He worked on some classics like Jin-Roh, where he apparently impressed Okiura with his handling of some of the difficult crowd shots from the riot sequence. He’s one of few animators able to handle large mob scenes like that. He has also done a few anime shorts.

But probably his biggest claim to fame is that he’s one of very few animators who does solo episodes in recent times, since anime required so much more staff to complete. He is particularly famous for Kaiba episode 4, where he handled storyboarding, directing, writing and did all the animation (every key frame and in-between) by himself. That’s one man doing 5170 drawings for the episode by himself. Also of note is his Kemonozume episode 12.

Usually when we talk about stand-out, sakuga animators, we discuss how they express themselves through the movements and idiosyncrasies they apply to the content they’re given to work with. But Mihara seems to be an animator who is creatively driven at a storytelling level. It’s so rare for an animator in commercial anime to have the opportunity to come up with a plot, plan how it should look and play out, and then actually get to enact it to the most precise personal detail. And he doesn’t let the opportunity go to waste.

In a way, there’s probably a different feeling to an episode that’s directed and storyboarded by someone who is also actively an animator as well because they’ll have a more natural focus for what can and will be expressed via animation, not just camera angles and composition.

Here, his overarching presence gives us a tighter narrative and visual coherency than Space Dandy usually provides. In my view, the episode is the most solid entry in the series so far. Despite the unapologetically silly premise of two dying alien species fighting over whether wearing underwear or vests is better, it was surprisingly entertaining and held my attention throughout. This was definitely attributable to his work all the way through. The backbone of the episode, the storyboard, provided a fun pace, interesting layouts and gave the episode its own unique visual flare. Colours were also important to creating such an attractive episode, with the aqua-blue and brown hues of the asteroid planet set against the sharp black void of space, and the red/blue themes of the opposed aliens. I’m sure Mihara at least had a hand in this, as he also has a separate ‘Set Design’ credit for the episode listed alongside the other core staff roles.

His animation seems to be marked by a strong feel for anatomy and thin, scraggly lines, which was evident here. I actually quite liked how his gas clouds looked due to these lines, despite being simple they have a very natural feel to them. But the episode culminated in a really stunning animation sequence of Dandy surfing the gas eruption of the destroyed planet. The flowing movements were mesmerising and suave, as animated by sakuga fan-favourite Hironori Tanaka. He and Mihara were the only two key animators who worked on the episode.

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The segment is very Tanaka, his movement style is naturally very rhythmic in a wavey kind of way, if that makes any sense. What I mean is his characters kind of lurch smoothly from one pose to another. I used to feel that it was actually a weak point of his because it sometimes made his fight sequences feel like they were fought by puppets. But it’s a rythmn of movement perfectly suited to space surfing and results in a great end to the episode. You can really see the difference between his gas clouds (left) and Mihara’s (right).

Of course the scene still benefits from the vision of Mihara, conveyed well in his storyboards.

There’s actually another interesting point to the credits. Apparently Michio Mihara is a fan of the idol duo LinQ, and it seems as though he actually got their help on the episode. He tweeted a screencap of the credits after it aired,  which showed them as Speech Supervisors, and thanked them.

I wondered exactly what a speech supervisor did, and he later clarified with a photo of the storyboard showing their revisions to his dialogue:

I find it so weird and kind of amusing that an idol duo helped him with his storyboard dialogue! I guess idols have a better idea of how ancient underwear-obsessed aliens would communicate!? What a weird collaboration. I also don’t quite understand how their contributions gel with Dai Satou’s work on the screenplay.

The Music

Watanabe also seems to have a strong affinity with music – all of his anime series have put a heavy emphasis on excellent, grabbing music. His collaboration with Yoko Kanno on Bebop remains one of the best musical efforts put into an anime series, and Samurai Champloo wouldn’t have been the same without its juxtapositional instrumental hip-hop sound. The theme of Space Dandy’s music seems to be to not have a theme, and the show’s soundscape is lit up with an eclectic range of collaborating and featured artists, including Yoko Kanno (who arranged the ED).

The soundtrack has been so fun and playful and is an essential ingredient in Space Dandy’s energy. My favourite music moment so far has to be during the action highlight of episode 1. Overall this has got to be one of the best-sounding anime I’ve heard in a long time and I can’t wait for the OST!

The Future

I look forward to what animation and design work future episodes will give us! In particular, I’m really keen to see Keiko Nobumoto’s episode 8. Although her name isn’t well known, she’s essentially the writer behind the Spike story episodes of Bebop, as well as the creator of Wolfs’ Rain. Her storytelling has been absent from the realm of anime for too long now! I hope she delivers an interesting return!

Following the trend of episode 6, that episode looks like the production of that episode will mainly be handled by one man, Hiroshi Shimizu, who originated from studio Oh Pro and has been doing prominent animation in anime for decades. His largest creative involvements have been on Michiko to Hatchin and Kemonozume. I’m expecting a strongly animated episode for Keiko Nobumoto!

Kill la Kill – Slow the hell down

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So  it’s been about an hour since I finished watching the first episode of Kill la Kill and the dizziness is just about cleared up. In a choppy, frenetic and dazzlingly colourful 20 minutes, the first episode of Kill la Kill has firmly placed the anime in the “What the hell did I just” watch genre. What I’ve yet to work out, is whether that’s a good thing or not.

On the one hand, this breed of whacky, irreverent and rapid-fire anime has produced some great titles over the years. There’s the new Cutie Honey, Excel Saga, Panty & Stocking, Kyousogiga, etc. – these all have a similar pace to them and were enjoyable. But on the other hand, there’s always a risk with this kind of anime that it will miss the mark and its hyper-activity will become tiring and monotonous instead of entertaining.

It’s often a fine line between fun and annoying. Both Panty & Stocking and Excel Saga dripped below that line sometimes, but they were rescued (mostly) by good gags and laugh-out-loud punchlines. Kill la Kill certainly wasn’t annoying, but it isn’t a comedy either. It’s not gonna make us laugh like Excel Saga, so it can’t rely on jokes as its main selling point. That means it’s going to need more than just fast-paced flashes of style to keep people hooked – it will need substance as well.

It’s obviously early days now, but I think Kill la Kill is caught between these two opposing forces – the attraction of style and the pull of substance. The first episode was probably intended to cram in as much as possible to make a big impact,  but the next few episodes will need to hit the pause button occasionally to flesh out the characters, the world and the story. I’m not saying it needs to have high-literature ambitions and become an intellectual masterpiece, but some simple gravitas of character to underpin the flambouyant look is something I’ll want.

As much as I love the company for its boisterous animation, I’ll be hoping that Trigger wants to tell a story with its animation.

I do have the sense that the anime will get a shift in tone to be a bit more serious and character driven. For a start, it’s 2 cour, and then this interview with scriptwriter Nakashima more or less confirms it:

Q: So with this major directional change, what were the effects on the story?
N: Initially we were making a battle-manga type show, but it changed to character drama. The battle-show planned for a complete story ended up becoming a work where regular characters’ development/drama will be thoroughly explored. The work coincidentally became much more interesting from there.

So beware of assuming that the feel of the first episode is all there is to Kill la Kill!

But is it at least winning on style?

Well, it’s not losing. This episode had an interesting production, which is what you should have been expecting from Trigger. And by interesting I mean it had elements I liked, and elements I didn’t. It was a little all over the place in an appealing amateurish kind of way. In the TV-anime industry today, Trigger are the antithesis to the smooth and pedantic Kyoto Animation, and I appreciate that free approach.

This is enhanced tenfold when Hiroyuki Imaishi sticks himself at the helm of a project. Say goodbye to the soft subtleties of Little Witch Academia and welcome back the exaggerated anarchy of Imaishi and his like-minded henchmen, Akira Amemiya and Sushio. The animation is fast, furious and lovingly limited.

One thing I didn’t like about the show was how much its style was a replica of Gurren Lagann, with dashes of Panty & Stocking here and there. It was just much too obvious that Imaishi liked what he did with Gurren Lagann and just wanted to do more. This anime is supposed to be Trigger’s breakout so I think Imaishi should made the effort to impress with a fresh visual flare. We’ve all seen this look before.

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Kill la Kill does have some tricks of its own, but it’s style is largely built on Imaishi’s loaded war chest of visual cliches.

Imaishi’s storyboard worked really well in some places and not in others. I really appreciated its density in some scenes, particularly all the everyday-life stuff around the city and at school. I think it’s fair to say that a lot more information and humour is crammed into these shots that you would normally expect from a TV anime.

I also like the jagged angles he applies to his scenes here, and it’s probably the biggest stylistic distinction between this and Gurren Lagann. Almost every shot in this anime is framed very confrontationally, skewed towards a target. This fits in well with its hot-blooded battle theme. But I do think this may have been used too much, to the point where every shot felt emphasised. And of course, if you emphasise everything, you end up emphasising nothing at all.

Perhaps my biggest problem though was that he just had too many cuts for my liking. Just when I felt I was enjoying a scene it was chopped away into something else. He was clearly aiming to keep a running pace with this episode, but it was too much. I guess the problems with the production for Kill la Kill episode 1 can be summarised as ‘trying to cram in too much of a good thing’.

The Designs

Sushio created the character designs for this one, and I think his talent shines through quite well. I thought this was his first big gig as original character designer, but apparently he did the designs for Engage Planet Kiss Dum, which I know nothing about. Either way, this is a big break for him, and being the character designer and chief animation director on Kill la Kill is a big step in his career. There’s an interesting interview with him about it here.

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Interestingly, the anime designs are purposefully inconsistent in their style. Usually anime, especially modern anime, will give characters a similar facial structure and eye style. But here, there’s quite a bit of variation. Actually there’s sort of two strains, there’re the cool ones on the right, and the more cute and silly ones on the left- which seem to be the ordinary folk of the city. There are a lot of characters, and they all stand out well with a nice design.

The highlight for me is, as it should be, the heroine, Ryuuko Matoi. I’m not 100% behind some of the costume design choices, but I love her face and her hair. She carries herself with effortless swag and emits a ‘cool’ aura. But when her badass demeanor is compromised she can be frighteningly cute.

I’m so glad I got a 1080p version just to see that adorable blush in high-res. It’s great that they seem to have crafted a strong, hot-blooded heroine with sex appeal AND a lovely shoujo side. Ryuuko Matoi has got the lot.

Key Animation

The Key Animation was really good this episode. While I wouldn’t say there were any scenes that blew me away, there was plenty to like. The fight sequences had enough gusto with a mix of fluid choreography, and dramatic still shots while the day-to-day occurrences at school and on the streets adopted a playful limited animation approach, cramming in as many facial expressions and gesticulation as the framecount will allow. Going back to the two different ‘looks’ to the character designs – it’s almost seems as though Mako and her family will be the characters to get the comical limited animation treatment, while Ryuuko and her rivals will remain more smooth and composed!

One thing I really appreciated about the animation were some of the gags they managed to slip in. Just by the way they animated some moments made me laugh.

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Hiroyuki Imaishi worked on the episode as a Key Animator, and I dare say Sushio had his work cut out for him correcting as Animation Director. I expect there will be some big Sushio and Yoh Yoshinori cuts coming up in the future for us Sakuga fans to look forward to, but for now the rank and file Trigger animators are doing a stellar job at keeping it lively and fun. Actually, speaking of the Trigger staff, the best thing about the credits for the episode is that it included all 5 of the inexperienced animators that worked on Little Witch Academia to be trained up. It’s heartening to see that they have all stayed on and have been taken under Trigger’s wing! Keep your eye on these guys!

I should also mention the use of CG in the episode. It was contributed by Sanzigen, a company that focuses on creating 3DCG animation. Sanzigen sits alongside Trigger and Order in the holding firm Ultra Super Pictures. All three of these companies collaborated on the anime Black Rock Shooter, which I wrote about here. It was in BRS that Sanzigen matured its limited 3DCG animation approach – the CG characters in the fight sequences were made to move more in line with 2D TV-animation by selectively dropping frames from the render. Imaishi helped them craft this limited CG animation for the anime’s action sequences.

Given Imaishi’s involvement with them, it does make sense that they would make an appearance in Kill la Kill. Fortunately, most of the CG is inoffensive, because it’s not models of characters, but 3D backgrounds. That makes shots like this one far more achievable and means the animators can focus on the character acting or choreography. There were also a few times when they used 3DCG for people, but nothing that stood out enough to ruin my immersion! Honestly, despite my love for 2D animation, I think there is merit to what Sanzigen are doing – and they’re certainly good at it.

Wrap-up

Perhaps the best thing about studio Trigger is not their mark of quality, but their charisma as creators. So far, Kill la Kill has served as a platform to demonstrate this. It has the frantic, high-energy animation and flashy production we all expected, and more (perhaps a bit too much more). But for this anime to really be a hit it’s going to need to develop a bit more depth and character. I think that’s exactly, what’s going to happen, so I’m cautiously optimistic that this anime will turn out to be great.