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.

 

Yoshinori Kanada’s Fire Dragon and Homages

If you’ve been to my blog before, you’ve probably heard me mention the name Yoshinori Kanada. I’m not going to write another biography on the guy, but I will say he died in 2009 as a legend to the anime industry and its fans. His charismatic approach to his work as animator broke down many barriers and showed that animators could stand-out and express their own styles in their work.

You can read a good overview of this guy here (I do recommend it). But I’m going to focus on just one of his many achievements: his immortal fire dragon from the move Harmaggedon (anime adaptation of the manga Genma Taisen). Perhaps not the most iconic product of his career, it is probably his most remarkable from an animation point of view, and certainly a milestone in the history of anime.

The fire dragon carried on the spirit of his stand-out sequence from Adieu Galaxy Express 999 (1981), which depicted a ghost formed from liquid and smoke. That ghost already impressed audiences and animators, but the style of effects animation would be pushed to a new level just a couple of years later in Harmaggedon (1983).

The fire dragon, the climax of the film, perfected a thrilling new form of effects animation, which combined a sense of stylism and abstraction with an organic approach to motion. The dragon moves as a visual cacophony of wildly undulating lines and swirling, churning, leaping geometries which depicts a body of fire in a very natural and enthralling way. It’s an achievement in animation, the magic of which probably won’t be captured again elsewhere.

The abstraction is to do with the use of a few colors, and a lack of shading which simplistically but beautifully captures an image in a 2-dimensional space. Kanada’s Adieu Galaxy Express ghost and Harmaggedon fire dragon featured in Takashi Murakami’s Superflat, where he compared it to the style seen in traditional Japanese wood paintings by Katsushika Hokusai. I’m far from being an expert on art, but what I like about it is how it elegantly represents reality as forms of overlapping color.

While I don’t think the glory of this dragon can be replicated, it is a tribute to its persevering influence among animators that it is often paid homage to in their works. This video contains a collection of homages and similar effects dragons (and also the original!).

I thought it might be worth having a look at a few of these (and I would love if someone else can help me identify the ones I don’t know).

Appropriately, the very first homage is undoubtedly the work or idea of Imaishi Hiroyuki. I say appropriately because, as you probably all know, Imaishi is a devout follower of Kanada’s style and someone with a great deal of respect for him. He has adopted, and exaggerated further, Kanada’s extreme perspectives, crazy character poses, and heavy usage of effects animation. Gurren Lagann is a massive throwback, with love, to the super robot genre that Kanada was such a pivotal influence upon. But before Gurren Lagann, Imaishi got his Kanada on when he was episode director/storyboarder/animation director for the crazy GAINAX comedy Abenobashi, which is where this clip comes from.

It was a riotous episode, and Imaishi got some great animators on board to play with his brand of Kanada (Keisuke Watabe, You Yoshinari (and Kou Yoshinari), Sushio, Tokoyuki Matsutake). The episode felt like the precursor to Gurren Lagann.

Actually, Imaishi worked on a more subtle reference to the fire dragon in episode 7 of the just-finished Black Rock Shooter. I sadly haven’t seen the episode yet, but a friend of mine pointed it out to me.

Imaishi Hiroyuki storyboarded and directed the other-world scenes in most episodes of BRS. In episode 7 it was alongside one of his main animators on Gurren Lagann, and probably someone who he has influenced/mentored a lot himself: Akira Amemiya. One of them had the cheek to sneak it in there!

But going back to the video. The dragon that bursts from the cooking pot at 00.48 is the animation work of Seiya Numata (working on 2×2=Shinobuden), another big Kanada fan.

Although his style isn’t so directly reminiscent of Kanada’s as Imaishi’s, Kanada’s rebellious and experimental spirit has definitely been picked up by him. he has a big impact on an anime when he’s involved, and always leaves a footprint. Check out this article on Ani no Miyako for more on this guy.

But funnily enough, he too appears to have worked in a fire dragon reference into his new season of Milky Holmes. Being character designer, he is heavily involved in that show, and often in a more behind-the-scenes capacity. He was animation director on episode 7, which means he was especially involved in this episode. Whether he animated it uncredited or not, there’s a good chance it was his idea!

I haven’t actually seen the other anime in this video, so if anyone wants to enlighten us as to their origins, that would be great! A friend identified the clip with multiple dragons in space at ~3.10 as being from X (and an earlier clip with a pure-red dragon attacking a guy in a ball). It would be cool to know the story behind these ones.

Actually, I could keep this post linked in the sidebar and updated whenever we see another fire dragon pop up in anime or can unearth one of these older ones! Please contribute or just share your thoughts!

2010 December Sakuga MAD Notes

Youtube user, Animeblue has been doing great work for the the last year composing highlight animation sequences from anime for each month! I’m genuinely impressed by his comprehensiveness – I don’t think I’ve noticed anything notable he’s missed or disagree with his choices. So, here’s the latest entry, for the month of December! I can’t d embed it (thanks to Sony’s anal copyright attitude), but you can view the original on twitvid here. Here are some quick thoughts on the video”

December marked the end of a season, and so bought with it a few climactic moments!

⚫ The first clip is from Milky Holmes episode 12, and I can almost guarantee that it was the key animation work of Seiya Numata. He is of course credited with key animation that episode, and his style is very obvious. I’ve been a fan of Seiya Numata for a while now, especially for the episodes he was animation director on of Kannagi (episode 2) and Toradora (episode 16). He’s a pretty famous young animator, and he lives by the code of his inspiration, Yoshinori Kanada (who I write about here), with varied and individual animation styles. I like this clip, and the big trail of fiery smoke is a clear throwback to Yoshinori Kanda’s animation on Genma Taisen (the famous fire-dragon sequence). As was noted in the NHK documentary on Yoshinori Kanada, which actually profiled Seiya Numata, he’s already slipped in a reference to that sequence, with a segment on 2×2=Shinobuden (see this blog for details). The other Milky Holmes clips also look like his work, except:

⚫ The clip at 3.28 looks like it is the work of Tatsuya Yoshihara, who I’ve discussed on this blog before (he was animation director on episode 6!). I’m not sure if this is from episode 12 though (any Milky Holmes watchers here?)

⚫ At the 1.40 mark we have a clip from Sora no Otoshimono episode 11, which I talked about in an earlier blog post. At least the first half of the clip included in this MAD is from the prolific and talented Hironori Tanaka. As usual, his high-framerate and distinctive way of drawing hair give him away! It’s not his best work, but it gave Sora no Otoshimono at least a little impact to its action scene!

⚫ I’m surprised to see some of the best stuff from December was from Soredemo by studio SHAFT. I haven’t been following that anime, so unfortunately I’m a bit out of the loop. I’ve also fallen behind on Star Driver, which continues to provide excellent animation for its mecha battle sequences.