Android Kikaider – The Animation (Tensai Okamura)
Angelic Layer (Hiroshi Nishikiori)
Animation Runner Kuromi (Akitaro Daichi)
The Apple Incident (Kunio Kato)
Banner of the Stars II (Yasuchika Nagaoka)
Brand New Day (Koichi Arai)
Cat Soup (Masaaki Yuasa)
Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Shinichiro Watanabe)
Crayon Shin-chan: The Storm Called: The Adult Empire Strikes Back (Keiichi Hara)
FLCL (Kazuya Tsurumaki)
Fruits Basket (Akitaro Daichi)
Haré+Guu (Tsutomu Mizushima)
Hiwou War Chronicles (Tetsuro Amino)
Hunter x Hunter (Kazuhiro Furuhashi)
Kai Doh Maru (Kanji Wakabayashi)
Kikumana (Yasuhiro Yoshiura)
Kindness (Koji Nanke)
Kogepan (Hidekazu Ohara)
Mezzo Forte (Yasuomi Umetsu)
Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon)
Ojamajo Doremi # (Takuya Igarashi)
Princess Arete (Sunao Katabuchi)
Project ARMS First Chapter (Hirotoshi Takaya)
Puni Puni Poemy (Shinichi “Nabeshin” Watanabe)
Read or Die OVA (Koji Masunari)
s-CRY-ed (Goro Taniguchi)
Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars (Tatsuo Sato)
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
Spirit of Wonder: Scientific Boys Club (Takashi Anno)
The SoulTaker (Akiyuki Shinbo)
Umacha (Osamu Tanabe)
Virgin Night (Hiroyuki Okuno)
Samurai Girl Real Bout High School; Episode 7 (Shinichi “Nabeshin” Watanabe)
The Art of the Fugue (Takashi Ishida)
Breath of Window (Keiichi Tanaami)
Kujiratori (Hayao Miyazaki)
Memory (Tomoyasu Murata)
One of the most significant events in the world of anime in 2001 wasn’t the release of a film, or a TV show, or an OVA of any form, but the first North American tour of Superflat. Superflat was a concept/pop art movement started by painter Takashi Murakami that was heavily influenced by anime, manga, and otaku culture. Along with leading Superflat artists, works by such anime and manga luminaries as Yoshinori Kanada, Henmaru Machino, Koji Morimoto, and Hitoshi Tomizawa were exhibited (Murakami himself originally studied to become an animator before turning to the fine arts). According to cultural critic Hiroki Azuma, Superflat’s interpretation of otaku art is that it captures the bastardized, reappropriated quality of Japanese pop culture, and Azuma argues it is this international and postmodern character to anime’s artistic development that gives it global appeal. Though Murakami is an unexceptional artist and the influence of Superflat on anime has been minimal (Mamoru Hosoda worked with Murakami on a Louis Vutton ad, and the computer world Oz in his later film Summer Wars was Murakami-inspired, but that’s about it), the movement was indicative of anime and manga’s rising prestige worldwide. Robert Ebert and Gene Siskel’s praise of films like The Wings of the Honneamise and Princess Mononoke augured Miyazaki’s Oscar win. American filmmakers were already freely borrowing from anime, including Perfect Blue (Requiem for a Dream), Cowboy Bebop (Firefly), and Ghost in the Shell (The Matrix). In the latter case, a big budget anime side project for The Matrix was only a couple years off. James Cameron even bought the rights to adapt Battle Angel Alita, being a fan of the original manga. It’s clear that anime culture had a higher critical profile now than perhaps in any other time in its history. 2001 was the perfect year for it to happen; the sheer number of masterpieces released this year, especially on the film and OVA front, made it hard to ignore the medium.
The biggest anime film to release in 2001 and the biggest film in Hayao Miyazaki’s career was Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. An Alice in Wonderland story about a girl who gets trapped in an antique bathhouse full of mythological creatures, Spirited Away can be better described as a film about childhood rather than a children’s film outright. Shiro Yoshioka notes that among fans of the studio Spirited Away’s reputation has suffered in comparison to Miyazaki’s earlier films, partly because Spirited Away exchanges Miyazaki’s singular aesthetic for a more complex subtextual undercurrent. According to him, “The key to understanding Spirited Away is Miyazaki’s attitude toward Japanese history and tradition, especially his idea of “Japaneseness.” Spirited Away is an attempt to use fantasy to establish a link between contemporary and traditional Japanese culture” ["Heart of Japaneseness History and Nostalgia in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away"]. Yoshioka points out that Miyazaki had an ambivalent relationship to Japan growing up, hearing about the war crimes committed in greater Asia by the Japanese military while his father operated a business selling aircraft parts to the army. This is why, Yoshioka claims, Miyazaki sought to make a film about the experience of Japanese culture from an outsider perspective, in this case the newer generation. Yoshioka distinguishes Miyazaki’s affection towards the Taisho era from his contemporaries in that “While the works of other artists treat the interwar years with affection, theirs is nothing but a wistful longing for a romanticized past. Miyazaki’s affection, on the other hand, is based on personal experience, springing from childhood memories and from a more recent encounter with the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum.” As such, the history of Japanese culture is intertwined with the present in Spirited Away, and specters of things like Japan’s bubble economy of the late 80’s, environmental pollution and the decline of the traditional family structure appear in the script. Some of the references are more subtle, like Yubaba’s office being decorated in “an extravagant-mishmash-nouveau riche-East Asian style” with reappropriated Western architecture (Yubaba’s dress is also plainly European), commenting upon Japan’s history of cultural contact with the West. Yoshioka brings up that in Miyazaki’s production notes, Chihiro’s final glance into the tunnel causes her to forget everything that occured in the film, almost as if to a new generation Japan’s lengthy history is but a mirage. I think Yoshioka is on point when he says that “Spirited Away can be called a folktale for the twenty-first century.” In my view, the thematic charge of Spirited Away is far less didactic than that of Princess Mononoke, making it a more compelling package overall.
Spirited Away is also the first Miyazaki film to employ the newer generation of Ghibli’s animator talent. You might not believe it, but Shinya Ohira, Shinji Hashimoto and Hisashi Mori all had scenes in Spirited Away. They cloak their style in Miyazaki’s designs, but it’s difficult not to notice when they show up (here is one of Shinya Ohira’s scenes, for reference. Ohira does some other shots during the boiler scene too, and his cuts along with Hashimoto’s depiction of Yubaba are probably the best ‘sakuga’ moments of the film). Spirited Away continues Miyazaki’s tradition of at least one big action scene per film with the exhilarating Kaonashi chase sequence by Kenichi Konishi. The spiderlike legs of the Kaonashi crawling over the balustrade and his bulbous mass charging after Chihiro form what is perhaps the most frightening image in all of Miyazaki’s works. Kazuo Oga’s impressionistic background art is excellent as always, especially in the beginning where the desolation of the ghost town is beautifully conveyed. Why, then, are some Ghibli fans not sold on Spirited Away? Most of it comes down to changes in Miyazaki’s storyboards. Miyazaki’s strength has always been in quiet, understated moments, and while Spirited Away has quite a few of those, it’s also full of grandiose set pieces that can risk becoming emotionally hollow. Spirited Away also features the least amount of bucolic landscape shots for any Miyazaki film, a specialty of his, although it is interesting to see Miyazaki’s command of vertical space applied to interiors. Joe Hisashi’s score is more intrusive than ever and the climatic flying scene is stuck with an unbearably kitschy track. Like his past films, Spirited Away was written in conjunction with the storyboards, but it feels more pristine and tidy than any of his previous works, Mononoke included. A lot of these complaints might seem like nitpicking, but Miyazaki’s older films are classics and any change is inevitably going to be met with opposition. His older style is also demonstrably more nuanced in its depiction of space, even if the writing in Spirited Away is more substantive. Spirited Away is a great career summary film, but it’s not hard to understand how Miyazaki’s comparatively rawer works can inspire more devotion.
After the bolt of originality that was Perfect Blue, Satoshi Kon’s second film is more assured, seeing him gradually improve and toy with his cinematic aesthetic. Millennium Actress, produced by Madhouse, tells the story of retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara and the documentary crew covering her life. The film features a panoramic look into the history of Japanese cinema, what Kon calls “our image of history”, by presenting the different stages of Chiyoko’s career and personal life through lushly depicted cinematic references. Chiyoko becomes inseparable from the characters she plays throughout the years and the boundary between reality and performance is frequently blurred. The head of the documentary project, a professed fan of Chiyoko’s work, and his assistant have varying levels of involvement in the ‘film stories’ themselves, further complicating the role of admirer and admired. These ‘film stories’ invoke everything from Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood to Godzilla, and as the film and Chiyoko’s career progress we move from 1930’s propaganda films and period pieces to the postwar melodrama of Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Imamura. The film was co-written by Sadayuki Murai and Satoshi Kon with Kon responsible for the lion’s share of the script. To those that have seen Perfect Blue, this is familiar territory. Kon has even called Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress “two sides of the same coin”. Describing the conception of Millennium Actress Kon said:
“To be honest, I care very little about the idea of the stalker in Perfect Blue. The storytelling aspects interest me much more. Looking at things objectively or subjectively gives two very different images. For an outsider, the dreams and the film within a film are easy to separate from the real world. But for the person who is experiencing them, everything is real. I wanted to describe that kind of situation, so I applied it in Perfect Blue. The producer was very interested in that type of concept and he proposed making another film which would emphasise that aspect. He said he wanted to make a film that was like a trompe l’oeil and from there we made the story of Millennium Actress. So for Perfect Blue, in the beginning there was a story and to tell that story we applied this method. Whereas with Millennium Actress, the method itself is the aim of the film.” [source]
Moreover, Satoshi Kon scholar Susan Napier notes that, while “gaze” is important to both films, Millennium Actress goes in a more positive, celebratory direction with the concept:
“Millenium Actress (2002), brings together elements of both Magnetic Rose (the power of memory, the nostalgic gaze) and Perfect Blue (the audience and the idol, the power of illusion), but embodies them in one of the most original films ever to come from the Japanese animation industry, what the New York Times calls a “headlong cartoon love letter to the grand tradition of post–World War II live-action Japanese cinema, from samurai epics to urban domestic dramas to Godzilla.” As with Perfect Blue, the film is also a cineaste’s dream, telegraphing themes in a highly self-reflexive manner, and, with its stunning visuals totally mediated through an admiring gaze, embodying even more than Perfect Blue, the sheer pleasure of looking. In many ways, in fact, the film is the mirror image of Perfect Blue. Whereas in the previous film Rumi and Mimania collaborated to create a destructive and pathological gaze, Millenium Actress depicts the creation of a positive collaborative gaze between two men and a woman.” [“Excuse Me, Who Are You?”: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Satoshi Kon]
All of this would be for naught if Kon wasn’t sensitive to the constituent elements of his films. As in Perfect Blue, there is pervasive use of match cuts and match exposures for transitions. This isn’t used merely as an adhesive between the “real world” sections and the “film” sections, but as an essential part of Kon’s filmic syntax (I recommend watching this video where editor Tony Zhou explains the nuances of Kon’s method). There are some brilliant virtuoso sequences where this technique is shown in full, like a series of shots where Chiyoko navigates through still pictures (class photos, photographs of post-war markets, movie posters) before settling into her “place” in the picture and an extraordinary montage towards the end of an older Chiyoko racing towards Hokkaido with shots from earlier in the film intercut to match her general arc of motion. All this comes together to give Millennium Actress the trompe l’oeil effect Kon was hoping for. Millennium Actress was also the first film to see Kon’s core group of animators together: Toshiyuki Inoue, Kenichi Konishi, Shinji Otsuka, Hideki Hamasu, and Takeshi Honda. A number of these guys come from Ghibli, and part of the broader success of Kon’s films has to be attributed to them. I’m going to have to disagree with Ben Ettinger when he writes that, excepting Yasunori Miyazawa’s scene of Chiyoko trudging through the snow, “There were very few scenes in Millennium Actress that stood out stylistically”. Many shots, like Inoue’s cuts of Chiyoko running to the train station to return the key to the mysterious painter and later riding on a horse during one of her historical films, Otsuka’s scene of Chiyoko and the documentarians escaping from a burning building in a war drama shoot, Michio Mihara’s cut of the ghost woman during the Throne of Blood homage, Hamasu’s scene of the director pulling Chiyoko in a rickshaw and Konishi’s shot of the film crew saving Chiyoko from the collapsing rocket set are just as distinctive in their naturalistic use of motion (though you could argue it’s thanks to Kon’s tight staging that they accomplish that effect). I also quite enjoyed Tetsuya Nishio’s cut of the ninja Chiyoko fighting since it reminded me of his action scenes from Ninku or Yu Yu Hakusho but on a bigger budget. The rest of the production is similarly high caliber, from Satoshi Kon’s individualistic character designs to Susumu Hirasawa’s whimsical soundtrack (Kon is a fan of Hirasawa, so it’s unsurprising that his music would be used so extensively). A masterpiece of auteur cinema, Millennium Actress is the film Kon wanted to make, not the film he had to make. It reflects not only a love of traditional filmmaking and animation, but a belief in the moving image as a vector for creativity.
Studio Madhouse owes a lot of its success to Osamu Tezuka; the studio was founded by former directors and animators from Tezuka’s Mushi Productions, and a similar mindset to Tezuka’s galvanized Madhouse and their unorthodox bent thanks to producer Masao Maruyama. It was inevitable that Madhouse would pay tribute to Tezuka’s influence and in 2001 they did with the film Metropolis. Directed by Mushi Pro vet Rintaro, written by Katsuhiro Otomo (whose manga Tezuka publicly recommended to his fans late in life), and based on Tezuka’s 1949 manga of the same name, Metropolis feels like the ultimate celebration of the man’s career. Rintaro has said in interview that the film took 5 years to make and Madhouse definitely pulled out all the stops; Yasuhiro Nakura of Angel’s Egg and Moomin fame was character designer and AD, and the film looks outstanding (sans some iffy CG buildings and blimps). It’s a peculiar trait of Madhouse films that they allow their animators stylistic freedom but still manage to produce a singular ‘look’ to the film. You can see this in scenes by Hiroyuki Okiura (link), Yoshinori Kanada (link), and Shinji Hashimoto (link). Despite the radical differences in how they draw, there is enough continuity between their shots that the film doesn’t lose its aesthetic consistency. The standout is definitely Yasushi Muraki’s debris during this scene backed by Ray Charles’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, the falling chunks of metal and steel girders mimicking the apocalyptic tone of the movie’s end. Rintaro was a great choice for director, as his love of wild camera use and jazz music syncs up well with Metropolis’s setting; Metropolis is set in a 1920’s retro futuristic cityscape and Rintaro shoots the many crowd scenes with lots of independently moving parts while emphasizing their architectural surroundings. In addition to frequent long shots, he’s also included many older film techniques like wipes, iris wipes, and tactful use of shallow focus (all of these can be found in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). The character animation is like that of silent cinema too, with nonverbal acting through exaggerated gestures (it has silent cinema’s tell, dramatic arm movements, in nearly every extended scene of dialog). The tetradic color scheme might be anachronistic, but feels in line with the art deco set design. It’s the perfect mix of paying tribute to tradition and building towards something new, a quintessentially Tezuka quality.
And yet, praise from James Cameron and Roger Ebert aside, Metropolis has suffered critically since its release. Everyone seems to agree that it’s a dazzling film, but most critics believe there’s nothing else to it. However, when examined thoroughly, Metropolis is a surprisingly acute film. Architect and architecture scholar Lawrence Bird in his essay “Serial Cities: The Politics of Metropolis from Lang to Rintaro” attempts a critical resuscitation: speaking of Rintaro’s film he states “The connection of the city with apocalypse goes back in cinema until at least the 1920s, and one of the more intriguing pieces of apocalyptic anime finds its origins ultimately in that era.” Architecture is central to an understanding of Metropolis, as the film explicitly references everything from Albert Speer’s scenotographic designs to the Mesopotamian Ziggurats, just as Lang’s film superimposed the Tower of Babel and the Gothic cathedral over the contemporary German urban landscape. Bird notices a crucial reference in the movie’s backgrounds, saying that “Nowhere in print do the filmmakers admit to this, and they have manipulated it somewhat, but with its central core dominated by tall buildings, wide divided boulevard, triumphal arch (now orientalized and emblazoned with half of a rising sun), raised elliptical platform in the centre, and surrounding blocks of medium-rise modernist housing – this is starkly reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s City for Three Million Inhabitants, an unrealized urban project from 1923. It appears here perhaps refracted through the form of Stuyvesant Town in New York City (the film-makers did visual research in Manhattan). The City for Three Million epitomizes the utopian striving typical of modernism in architecture, and the filmmakers make use of it here in their depiction of a future city gone terribly wrong.” Modernism’s assimilation of the past into its overly ambitious projects is the spirit animating Metropolis and Bird argues that “The overlaying of images might be dismissed as just a well-informed pastiche of sources contemporary to Lang and Tezuka, employed as fodder for the animators’ imagination. But it is more than that, for the content of the animated film concerns political overthrown, global domination, citizens divided by ontological status, problematisation of identity, and apocalyptic conflict – in short, a discourse of political crises related to notions of community, identity, and sovereignty.” Metropolis is thus a meditation on how architecture reflects political and ontological crises; the film details an attempt by an industrialist to rule over the city and supersede God, but the decentralized nature of the city and almost everything in Rintaro’s cinematic arsenal (the exception being the occasional statuesque low angle shot of some of the bigger personalities, which caricature more often than empower) argues against any dominant authority. This is what makes the opening quote by Romantic historian Jules Michelet so illuminating; “Every epoch dreams its successor.” In Metropolis’s anime version of Modernism, all factions, fascists, communists, capitalists and the like can never obtain lasting power. Less a moral edict, Metropolis presents this as a physical law; all towering structures will eventually cave in. That Duke Red names his attempt the Ziggurat, a palace where an exclusive priest class communicated with the Gods in secret, is the height of irony. Metropolis is a much smarter film than the critics have given credit for and I’m sure that if Osamu Tezuka were alive to see it he would be proud of animation coming this far.
By the ninth Shin-chan film, Keiichi Hara was getting tired of going through the motions. “I was wondering what to make. And then, as I was making it, it became gradually not for children, but just what I wanted to make” [source]. Hara already had ideas for his future film Summer Days with Coo, but at the time his only outlet was yet another Shin-chan franchise film. What he ended up making, Crayon Shin-chan: The Storm Called: The Adult Empire Strikes Back, stands out as the most thematically rich of the series. Adult Empire sees the parents of the Shin-chan world regressing to a childlike, nostalgia-obsessed state when a museum of the 20th century opens in Kasukabe. When the adults abdicate all their duties, Shin-chan and his friends are forced to snap them out of it. Of course this is a Shin-chan movie, so there are plenty of lighthearted set-pieces including a car chase homage to The Castle of Cagliostro, but it is far weightier in its implications than any of the previous films. Hara’s ideas here are on point, since the Shin-chan TV show is broadly popular with adults in Japan in the same way The Simpsons was in America during the 90’s, so the message about romanticizing the past wasn’t going to fall on deaf ears. The production matches the ambition thanks to the work of the Shin-chan School animators. Masami Otsuka’s scene of the old 1960’s town is well timed and lively, especially the vendor’s exaggerated, caricaturized guffaw. Shizuka Hayashi’s scene of Shin-chan and his family balancing on top of a steel girder will be terrifying to anyone with a fear of heights, as more than a few times they nearly fall off. However, it’s Yuichiro Sueyoshi who steals the spotlight yet again with the shot of Shin-chan running up the stairs of the tower, desperately trying to keep up with the camera. Sueyoshi’s line work becomes rougher and rougher the more the shot goes on, matching the frenzied state of the scene itself. Sueyoshi’s mock kaiju fight at the beginning was also fun, but too traditional for an animator of his disposition. Make no mistake; Adult Empire is still a franchise film and certain elements, like the ultimately superfluous John Lennon/Yoko Ono villains and the hokey montage with the father’s stinky shoes, will work only if you are tuned in to Shin-chan’s wavelength. However, Adult Empire suffers little as a result and comes recommended even to those with no interest in the series.
With all due respect to the movies above, the best anime film released this year is a little known Studio 4C joint called Princess Arete. An adaptation of Diana Coles’ The Clever Princess, one of the most widely read examples of feminist children’s literature in Japan, Arete was much talked about at the time of its release, managing to garner an Excellence award at the first Tokyo International Anime Fair (Spirited Away and Metropolis being the two others to win in the film category). It was the first feature film of director Sunao Katabuchi, a former Ghibli employee who would later find himself closely associated with Madhouse. Arete is set in medieval Europe; not the fantasy image of medieval Europe as envisioned in shows like Escaflowne, but the historic era of trade guilds and feudalism. Though it has elements of folk tales and the supernatural, the narrative is surprisingly direct; the young princess Arete wishes to escape her safe existence waiting for an arranged marriage she has no say in and explore the real world and, after a lengthy detour being imprisoned by the sorcerer Boax, her wish comes true. Much of the film is set inside Boax’s castle, with Arete fighting both mental and physical constraints before realizing her own self-autonomy. On a scene-by-scene basis, Arete evokes Italian neorealist cinema, in that the general style of “acting” as it were is unprofessional and non-theatrical, and there’s a persistent focus on the labor class. Yet the ambitions of the work are more in line with the artsier post-neorealist films of a Pasolini, especially given the premodern setting. This is evident in Katabuchi’s approach to the storyboards; longer average shot duration, long shots with faint dialog, enclosed spaces and overhead framings, with the human figure depicted as insignificant next to the edifices of their making. In a way that conjures up Paul Grimault’s timeless Le Roi et l’oiseau, Katabuchi is able to make walking against architectural backdrops into an act of contemplation itself. It’s minimalism writ large, like the ‘New Hollywood’ blockbuster art films of a Malick or an Antonioni, where decidedly arthouse filmmaker were given funding far beyond their wildest dreams. However, the advantage of animation meant the staff at Studio 4C could render towering castles and exotic settings with comparative ease (the opening crane shot gives you an idea of Arete‘s scale right off the bat). Katabuchi, worried about reappropriation of the story’s themes by a male director, generalized its content. He thus “includes the story of Boax’s self-recognition and self-empowerment, that is, he, like Arete, should realize that his rescue is in his hands, not in others’, and should determine his own fate. In this respect, Boax is the double of Arete, and we can see the director generalizes, or blurs, the feminist theme into the search into the theme of humanity. The catch phrase for the animation, “A story of a girl who has found the hidden powers of the heart” clearly shows its message” [“The Reception and the Adaptation of Diana Coles’ The Clever Princess in Japan”, Hideko Taniguchi]. It’s unfortunate that Arete is all but forgotten when it deserves to be called a masterpiece akin to Millennium Actress and Spirited Away. In the portfolios of both Studio 4C and Katabuchi, Arete is utterly unique.
After the broadcast of Kare Kano, Gainax set their sights on a new project. Taking money set aside for a full 26 episode series, they teamed up with Production I.G to create a 6 episode OVA. FLCL (or “Fooly Cooly”/“Furi Kuri” as it’s pronounced) is, at a basic level, the story of a young boy Naota and his encounters with an eccentric twenty-something woman Haruko Haruhara while living in a small country town. FLCL is also a coming of age story with the various characters around Naota symbols of his gradual maturation (representing puberty as a crazy woman who comes out of nowhere and hits you in the head with a guitar is pretty genius). The majority of the storytelling in FLCL is visual in nature, using recurring sight gags and animation test originality, so it was fitting that Kazuya Tsurumaki was chosen to direct. Tsurumaki assisted Hideaki Anno with Kare Kano, and there his storyboards demonstrated a proficiency at juggling a variety of moods and genres in a single episode. For a project that would have a wide breadth of animator styles, Tsurumaki was a good choice to keep everything together. He helped bring a thematic clarity to writer Yoji Enokido’s zaniness too; not only is FLCL a bildungsroman (albeit a particularly Japanese one), it’s also the story of studio Gainax itself, and the six episodes were designed with this in mind (Tsurumaki has stated the first episode represents Kare Kano, the second Evangelion, and the fifth the Daicon IV animation). It’s not surprising many consider FLCL to be the pinnacle of Gainax as a studio, with its best talent past and present coming together to work on a single magnum opus.
As a product of its method of storytelling, FLCL is often accused of being ‘random’ and ‘meaningless’. However, any serious examination shows that there’s a lot of careful construction at play. The director’s commentary by Tsurumaki is revelatory and reveals how much care and attention went into the final product. Some select tidbits:
*Tsurumaki grouped characters based on their dominant hands; Naota/Mamimi are right-handed, Haruko/Naota’s brother are left-handed. The former are acted upon by the latter, and the grouping is further reinforced by the fact that Haruko sleeps in Naota’s brother’s bunk.
*The left hand that comes out of Naota’s head in the first episode belongs to the robot from the second episode, whose left arm is a bandaged stub. Tsurumaki wanted the robots to be modeled after hands (pitcher bomb in episode 4, trenchcoat robot in episode 5). The only exception is the robot from episode 3 that comes out of Ninamori’s head, which has a motif of legs.
*The manga page scenes and the 3D scenes were actually the most expensive parts of the production. Not only did Tsurumaki insist on them, he deliberately placed them in narratively unimportant scenes.
*That vespa in the credits is Tsurumaki’s vespa. Ditto with the photographed hand in episode 6. A lot of smaller details, like the brands used for the soda/juice cans, came from Tsurumaki’s preferences too.
*Each eyecatch was unique and Tsurumaki used actual film stock and avant garde modifications to create them.
*The VA for the Takkun cat is the same as Naota’s VA. The cat symbolized Naota’s relationship with Mamimi, in that when they aren’t getting along in episode 6 the cat disappears from Mamimi’s side and is later seen flirting with a female stray.
*The Gainax team scanned in real nori for Amarao’s eyebrows
*Tsurumaki spent considerable time fussing over the VAs. He chose to go with first timers, many of whom, like the VAs for Amarao and Ninamori, were stage actors
*The coffee shop in episode 5 was modeled after a local love hotel
*Tsurumaki consulted his friend and fellow anime director Hiroaki Sakurai on all the guitar choices. Sakurai is a guitar collector and his input lent believability to the selections.
*Atomsk’s symbol is an upside-down stylized version of the Kanji for “adult”
*Many of the more ‘crazier’ elements had an internal logic to them. Haruko speaking to the fat cat Miyu Miyu was a telephone to her alien superiors (incidentally Miyu Miyu was voiced by Hideaki Anno, uncredited). In scenes of cartoon violence, guitars were interchangeable with bats and later guns, but nothing else. Majority of the alien technology, like Canti and the Medical Mechanica building, was based on domestic appliances.
*There are overt references to Ashita no Joe (opening dialogue in episode 1), Sazae-san (Canti’s housewife dress), John Woo’s films (the random doves exploding out of the TV at the beginning of episode 5), the recent Metal Bat Murder Cases (Naota’s “murder” of his father in episode 4), the 1999 Nostradamus prediction urban legend popular in Japan (Mamimi’s quote in episode 4), and a host of old postwar Japanese car and scooter models.
FLCL was Tsurumaki’s beast, but it’s thanks to the rest of the staff that his vision was realized. Two of the episodes weren’t storyboarded by Tsurumaki. Episode 4 was done by Nobutoshi Ogura, who Tsurumaki says is a fan of the 1960’s avant garde and his episode is what I’d imagine a cartoon done by Hiroshi Teshigahara would look like. Episode 5 was done by Hiroyuki Imaishi and is a crash course in Kanada school aesthetics. They add their own charisma to the production without negating Tsurumaki’s vision. But the main allure in FLCL is the animation. Even among those who are ignorant about sakuga, FLCL is rightfully known as a stylistic free-for-all, where our characters can go jump between manga stills, Ohira expressionism, heta uma reaction faces, South Park cutouts, and 3D bathos without breaking a sweat. FLCL is the one anime where random cuts by Shinya Ohira and Mitsuo Iso are not a surprise, but a necessity. Tsurumaki wanted the animation to be as unconventional as possible, and as the episodes progress the stylization becomes more and more pronounced. Also, thanks to input from writer Yoji Enokido sexual imagery was often incorporated, giving the animators a patchwork of Freudian symbols to play with. The three stars are definitely Yoh Yoshinari, whose Daicon IV tribute in episode 5 is legendary (although I always preferred his fights from episode 1 and episode 3), Hiroyuki Imaishi, who really outdoes himself here especially this cut in episode 4 and this cut from his own episode, and surprisingly Tetsuya Nishio. I wouldn’t expect Nishio to stand out in a lineup of top tier Gainax animators, but his character animation really gives the more visually subdued scenes their impact. It’s almost pointless singling out them though, since even the more minor talent is among the best: Sushio, Kenichi Konishi, Yusuke Yoshigaki, Keisuke Watabe, Tadashi Hiramatsu, Shinji Otsuka, and Masayuki (I’ll always cherish this hilariously phallic shot in episode 5 as a personal favorite). Tsurumaki treats his animators as would a skilled live action director their actors, assigning them the roles to most make them shine.
Despite its deliberate execution, FLCL is still something of an artistic Rorschach test for its viewers. Like a cartoon version of Finnegans Wake, Enokido’s and Tsurumaki’s dense semiotics allow the viewer to construct their own understanding of the show’s meaning. The question “What is Furi Kuri?” is asked by a few characters in the show itself but they never receive a steady answer. Brian Ruh’s article “The Robots from Takkun’s Head: Cyborg Adolescence in FLCL” highlights this perfectly when he says that “As a postmodern work of art, FLCL allows for a multitude of interpretations.[…] Although my interpretation of FLCL is not what the director states he had in mind when he created the series, the nature of the text itself allows various strands of meaning to be threaded through the series and does not confine meaning to one narrow frame, even that of the work’s creator.” Ruh’s own interpretation, which combines analysis of Cronenberg’s Videodrome with Susan Napier’s categories of the “magical girlfriend” and “monstrous adolescence”, shows how much ground FLCL’s visual melting pot can cover. I think this approach is consonant with what Tsurumaki has said about the show himself; FLCL is “imagination being made physical and tangible, just as it is for me when I take whatever is in my head and draw it.” Like every true work of art, FLCL has an immediate thrust (don’t deceive yourself, growing up is more than confirming society’s expectations of you, the boundary between adolescence and adulthood isn’t clean cut) while still rewarding those that dig deeper.
On the other hand, Mahoromatic showed us another side of Gainax, one we wish we didn’t need to see. Nominally directed by Hiroyuki Yamaga, the show was mainly produced by a pre-Shinbo studio SHAFT. It’s pretty light on staff; in fact, I don’t think anyone would’ve remembered this show if not for the scant action scenes by Yoh Yoshinari. Mahoromatic is a harem show and what that entails should be obvious to the reader (if you need proof that Love Hina opened a Pandora’s box, look no further than Mahoromatic’s 14k per volume sales). It has some fanservice which was probably pretty novel for the time (bare nipples! maids!) but not much else. FLCL is sometimes accused of being a harem since the three main female characters are in varying ways involved with Naota, but there’s an ocean of difference between FLCL and this. FLCL’s relationships are messy and often end in disaster (Haruko selfishly abandons Naota, Mamimi is using Naota as a replacement for his brother, etc.) whereas in Mahoromatic any conflict is consigned to cheap jokes. It’s onanistic, pathetic, wordy non-porn and Mahoromatic’s poor reputation in contrast to FLCL’s canonicity is proof that chasing after trends will get you nowhere (bare nipples are hardly provocative now and Mahoromatic will seem tame to a modern audience). Maybe the problem isn’t the harem genre itself, but that those who work with it are usually only concerned with the transient.
The art of the OVA will never die as long as stuff like Studio DEEN’s Read or Die OVA still get produced. R.O.D is a spy thriller about a secret British intelligence organization, The Library, and their attempts to keep large scale existential threats at bay. The story is based off a series of novels by Hideyuki Kurata (who also scripted the OVA) and, as always, Kurata blends elements from genre fiction, airport literature, and manga into an exciting final product: in this installment, The Library is forced to deal with a gang of resurrected historical figures who are planning to use Beethoven’s lost “Death Symphony” to force the world to commit mass suicide. Two of The Library’s agents, Yomiko and Nancy, are sent in to take them out. The OVA’s plot is a thin excuse for ridiculous matchup fights. Ever wonder who would win, a mutant Jean Henri Fabre or a woman with telekinetic control of paper? Of course not, but R.O.D hopes to settle that all the same. And the fights do look great. One might be confused how Studio DEEN could put out something as cutting edge as R.O.D in 2001, but the answer lies with its director Koji Masunari. Masunari is a director who knows how to whip second rate animator talent into shape, as evidenced in last year’s Omishi Magical Theater Risky/Safety. Masunari always likes to use a lot of drawn elements in backgrounds so that there’s less disconnect between the characters and their surroundings and, like Risky/Safety, Masunari went with shallow shading to emphasize motion over photographic verisimilitude (although credit should also go to the multi-talented Masashi Ishihama for his character designs pulling this off). The final effect is that the safer animators in R.O.D produce work that’s outside their comfort zones. I wouldn’t expect Seiichi Nakatani, for example, to be great with water animation, but his cut in episode 2 proved otherwise. Hirofumi Suzuki is known mainly for scenes with a lot of bold movement, which makes his shots of Yomiko navigating her messy apartment a treat. Some of the sequences are what you’d expect, like Nobutoshi Ogura’s bloody suicide of three radio operators or Tokuyuki Matsutake’s shot of Yomiko using her coworker’s money as a paper sword, both in episode 3, but overall it looks very modern for a group of animators which I previously assumed were a bit conservative. Though some of the earlier sequences like Akira Matsushima’s Xuanzang fight are superb, the third episode is where the animation really shines, the KA credits ballooning to double their size. I particularly liked Yasuomi Umetsu’s cut of Yomiko escaping from manacles using her paper abilities, but many of the actions scenes by Shinya Hasegawa, Shingo Suzuki, and Eiji Suganuma were impressive as well. When it comes down to it, R.O.D may be little more than a sakuga bomb, but it’s the type of unpretentious action-packed sakuga bomb that no longer exists on the OVA market. I think Tokuyuki Matsutake’s suave James Bondish OP will tell you all you need to know before diving in.
There was a resurgence in the OVA format during the early aughts, not only in high-energy projects like FLCL and R.O.D, but also in more subdued works like Ajia-do’s Spirit of Wonder: Scientific Boys Club. The Spirit of Wonder manga is an ecchi about two inventors and their attractive landlord China-san, and the OVAs Mitsuru Hongo did for Ajia-do in the 90’s follows the material’s lead closely. Scientific Boys Club, however, is a standalone story set in the backdrop of the turn of the century English countryside about a young married couple, both former college professors, and how they get roped into a scheme to travel to Mars by an eccentric group of old men who call themselves the ‘Scientific Boys Club’. Understated character drama is where Ajia-do is most comfortable, and the little moments between the wife and the husband are a greater focus in the plot than the Jules Verne twist. What’s interesting is how Scientific Boys Club retains some elements of its ecchi origins without coming across as puerile. Characters have the imperfections of real people and the “fanservice” as it were has an impact on the narrative. The story’s protagonist is the wife, not the husband, and her husband’s negligence and occasional harassment by a lecherous member of the club underscore how her transition from scientist to housewife has left her unfulfilled. The second act of the story sees her being recruited by the club (she’s the only one who knows the science behind their strange rocketship) and taking a more proactive role, and in the end she reconciles with her husband, making for a surprisingly feel-good ending. Though not the best Ajia-do OVA, it is an interesting curiosity that ought not to be passed up.
Kai Doh Maru, a forty minute OVA by Production I.G, seemed as if it was trying to be as visually repulsive as possible: washed-out color palette, irrational lighting scheme, 3D backgrounds, jerky motion, garish color choices. It’s the worst excesses of digital tech compressed into a half hour gauntlet. Any given shot feels painful on the eyes, but the deliberateness in the layouts, editing, and direction suggest that this was not by accident. Yasunori Miyazawa and Chikashi Kubota spice up the busier scenes too, so it wasn’t done for animator convenience either. Kai Doh Maru depicts a warped version of Heian era mythology, where cities are beset by plague and superstition while factions betray one another for meager gain. The OVA’s visual unpleasantness is great at communicating the disturbing qualities underlying its script without spending much time on exposition. The twisted folklore premise is enlivened by this aesthetic commitment, making the spiritual discomfort of the narrative equivalent to the visceral discomfort the viewer incurs while watching. It goes to show that even ugliness can be a viable artistic asset if used properly. Though not all of its experiments were successes, I appreciate that Production I.G could deliver experimental works like this on a regular basis back in the early 00’s.
Chiyomi Hashiguchi, pen name Nekojiru, was an eccentric woman. She never ordered anything other than soup at restauraunts and would eat whole avocados for snacks. Despite having free access to them, she never did any hallucinogenic drugs, preferring the “natural acid” of her own mind. She had a crush on Aphex Twin frontman Richard D James. She was prone to extreme bouts of neurosis and could never tell a lie. In hindsight, her obsession with death and cruelty in her manga might’ve been a warning sign for her suicide at age 31. Overnight her comics had exploded in popularity and the stress of deadlines got to her. A true rockstar of a mangaka, her work became ever more famous after her death and the abunakawaii (“cute but dangerous”) charm of her art left an impression on many of those in the artistic community. One such artist was Masaaki Yuasa, who no doubt read the anecdotal accounts of Nekojiru’s personality being published at the time. In timely fashion, J.C. Staff bankrolled an OVA adaptation of her most popular manga Cat Soup. Though Tatsuo Sato is listed as director, it was Yuasa who storyboarded the OVA. Yuasa’s directorial works had thus far been limited in scope and, recognizing Yuasa’s talent, Sato allowed Yuasa to go all out with this project. Yuasa injected his own perspective into Nekojiru’s darkly comic landscape: “The original manga is a vitriolic satire of all the brutality that exists in the world. Personally there’s a lot I can’t follow in there. So what I did was to pick out one vignette that seemed to offer a shred of hope, and mold the story around that. So instead of brutality for bruality’s sake, the brutality is there to give a realistic weight to the message of hope that lies at the core” [source]. This doesn’t result in a comprise in either format or tone though, as Cat Soup The Animation is still full of the sardonic wit and wanton sociopathy of Cat Soup The Manga, but sutured by a basic story of sibling affection. Fate is as blunt as it is in Nekojiru’s original manga, like in a particularly black scene where God reverses the flow of time to grab hold of a fallen coconut causing several deaths by guillotine, car crash, and firing squad to temporarily play backwards. In a sense it’s an anti-cartoon, where the acts of violence commonplace in a Tex Avery or a Chuck Jones is given philosophical weight. As with his prior projects, Yuasa spares no expense with the animation either. Cat Soup opens with what I’ve been calling ‘Sueyoshi walls’, characteristic of Yuichiro Sueyoshi’s squirming, hallucinogenic background animation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sueyoshi did the other moving background shots either, like the bedridden sister cat staring at the distorted ceiling. Yoh Yoshinari drew the water balloon creature, and it seems his talent for explosions and smoke clouds translated well to drawing fluids. Some other solid animators worked on it too like Shuichi Kaneko, Hiroshi Shimizu, Hidenori Fukuoka, and Osamu Tanabe (the latter apparently did a few shots of the creepy old man living in the desert mansion), but this was Yuasa’s show first and foremost. Everything in Yuasa’s later works can find reference here, and his talent for spatially bizarre, yet legible framings and general psychedelic cant are shown to full effect. The best piece of filmic originality comes at the very end when the mom, dad, and sister cat all disappear into the static of their TV, with the brother cat returning to find them gone. We join him in blankly staring at the static, a formless texture of white and black, one of the most evocative images in an OVA full of them.
Tatsuo Sato’s lack of creative input in Cat Soup shouldn’t be seen as evidence of insipidity. Though not a fan of anime before entering the industry, Sato takes the job of storyboarding seriously (he even used to write an editorial column about storyboarding anime for the monthly publication Hoso Bunka). While his show Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars is nowhere near as good as his best work, much less something like Cat Soup, it’s still a very solid product. Shingu tells the story of a small Japanese town, Tenmo, which, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, is the ‘galactic representative’ of Earth to the rest of the universe. Anime has always had a glut of shows set in a school setting for a variety of reasons (target demographic, unfulfilling nature of work life in Japan breeding nostalgia, many animators/directors joining the industry straight out of high school), so to call Shingu a different type of school anime seems like damning it with faint praise, but the difference greatly impacts the tone. The show is very laid back, placing the positive aspects of school, the feeling of community, at the center rather than wallowing in introversion like most school anime. Given that the show covers the greater community of Tenmo itself, not just the school, this theme isn’t in place for nostalgia’s sake alone. As a director Sato mostly has his priorities straight, understanding that the backstory about the mystical Shingu spirit is far less entertaining than seeing, for example, a group of expat space aliens go drinking and partying every night. Unfortunately, the final three or so episodes go all in with the scifi devices and much of the drama there feels like wasted energy. Shingu is frequently cited as the last traditionally cel animated anime, but this might mislead expectations; while it doesn’t look bad, Madhouse didn’t use their better animators on this project and the animation is at best ‘regular’. Sato introduces flashes of bizarre visuals here and there, but overall it’s merely comely. Having watched this, I’m glad Sato deferred control of Cat Soup over to Yuasa. At the same time, while Shingu is never fantastic, the relaxed demeanor of the work meant it didn’t need to be.
As a followup to last year’s Excel Saga, Shinichi Watanabe, Yousuke Kuroda, and JC Staff reassembled to make Puni Puni Poemy. Pitched as a spiritual successor to Excel Saga, it might be more accurately called a spiritual successor to Excel Saga episode 26; unlike the bulk of Excel Saga, Poemy is actually storyboarded by Nabeshin and the OVA format avoids the fluctuating production quality of the original series. While I wouldn’t call Nabeshin an exceptional storyboarder, his work here is among his best and demonstrates an almost experimental playfulness in form. It’s everything Excel Saga should’ve been: fast-paced visually-oriented humor, shamelessly obscene content (it was even banned in some countries), references out the ass and centered around a virtuoso seiyuu performance, in this case Yumiko Kobayashi, who somehow manages to one-up Mitsuishi’s Excel. There’s a greater use of intertextuality in Poemy as well, as the story of Poemi, Excel, and the voice actress Kobayashi herself blend together and the many callbacks to Excel Saga make it an ideal ‘meta-text’ to be read in conjunction with the original. Poemy gives you no time to breathe, which is ideal for a comedy of this style.
Yasuomi Umetsu and ARMS released another porno thriller this year, Mezzo Forte. Umetsu’s career trajectory could be compared to Masami Obari’s in that both went from being highly idiosyncratic mecha animators to directing hardcore pornography (and a few Obari influenced animators like Kazuto Nakazawa, Fumihide Sai, and Masashi Ishihama take part in Mezzo). They could be compared, but I find that unfair in Umetsu’s case. While Obari’s porn has little pretense otherwise, Umetsu crafts his smut with a grindhouse mentality. There are only two explicit sex scenes, and much of the running time is comprised of high octane set pieces and gallows humor. Like Tarantino without the gab, essentially. Umetsu definitely has a dirty mind (he did animate the sex scenes himself after all) but that doesn’t prevent him from making an enjoyable mulligan stew out of exploitation tropes. He was supported by some skilled action animators like Kenichi Yamaguchi and the above mentioned Nakazawa, Sai, and Ishihama, plus the FX animation for the explosions closing out each episode is way better than it ought to be thanks to Shuichi Kaneko. The narrative thread of Mezzo (ex-cop and pals use robotics to pull off heists) is a good deal sillier than A Kite’s story of child prostitution, and the audio mixing is inexplicably worse than A Kite too, but for a thoughtless burst of adrenaline you could do much worse.
Not all anime dealing with sex are trashy. Take for instance the hentai Virgin Night. Virgin Night distinguishes itself from its peers for its documentary realism and delicate treatment of the subject matter. Far from exploitative, the way this OVA deals with the topic of one’s loss of virginity is surprisingly mature and plausible. In fact, the actual fucking only takes up a few minutes of the running time with most of it spent on the couple’s hesitations and anxieties. The color palette is refreshingly low key, in contrast to the oversaturated quality of most ecchi/hentai titles. If you’re wondering how something artsy could emerge from this register, the answer lies in two names: Hiroyuki Okuno and Hisashi Mori, the director and main key animator respectively. Before Virgin Night, Hiroyuki Okuno often served as AD on episodes of TV shows where Mori did KA, and likely noticed Mori’s talent early on. In directing Virgin Night, Okuno places Mori’s animation at the forefront, making this one of the most aesthetically individualistic hentais ever produced. Mori has a street artist’s mindset when it comes to KA, so seeing him handle subtle body language seems out of character, but Mori pulls it off with ease. I applaud Okuno for assembling this project and taking it above and beyond the normal demands of hentai.
Not content to rest on their laurels, BONES produced two 26 episode TV shows and a feature length midquel to Cowboy Bebop in the year following Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea. Their first TV show and first completely independent production was Hiwou War Chronicles. Something of a black sheep in BONES’s catalog, this would be their only children’s show for over a decade. Instead of selling toys, the primary purpose of Hiwou is educational. The show takes place during the Meiji Restoration and the show frequently reminds you of such: each episode begins with a historical anecdote, and famous figures of the era intermingle with the cast. It’s a good thing Shou Aikawa handles the script, since he’s adept at interweaving the historical past into fantasy settings. Though a children’s show at heart, BONES didn’t bowdlerize the violence (a decapitated head on a sword is shown at the beginning of episode 3, and sights such as this aren’t uncommon) and the narrative itself concerns a group of kids fleeing from a clan which is trying to wipe out their bloodline. Aikawa does a good job capturing the tumultuousness of the period, with different factions clashing with one another, despite most holding equally morally defensible positions. The chief director is Tetsuro Amino, but most of the episode directors are those who were or would be associated with BONES; Hiroshi Nishikiori, Kazuki Akane, Seiji Mizushima, Kunihiro Mori, and Shinsaku Sasaki. The only real standout episode is the tenth, directed by Nobutake Ito. Though it doesn’t best his wonderful Dai-Guard episode from last year, he still displays a proclivity for wide-angle photography of interior spaces that makes every shot voluminous. The clockwork and steam powered automaton designs are imaginative, there’s a high density of Dezaki postcards and Hiroshi Yamaguchi’s No Wave/noise rock/folk fusion OST is a good example of how to properly create a score out genre music, so even outside of Ito’s episode the show is generally pleasant to watch. Like BONES’s lesser projects, even if the characters and storytelling is passé, Hiwou had enough effort put in it to make it enjoyable.
BONES other, more otaku-friendly TV anime from this year was their adaptation of CLAMP’s Angelic Layer. From the onset, Angelic Layer invites comparisons to Cardcaptor Sakura; there’s a similar setup of a young girl enlisted into a strange pastime (fighting miniature robots vs collecting magical cards) while the writers use that pastime to explore the various cast members’ backstories. Many of the characters even look similar to those in Sakura, likely because CLAMP subscribes to Osamu Tezuka’s Star System. One of the major reasons to watch Angelic Layer today is to see how early BONES distributes their animation talent across twenty-six episodes (Hiwou is somewhat sakuga poor). In comparison to most TV anime at the time, Angelic Layer is well-animated, if not up to the caliber of Studio 2’s best. Takashi Tomioka gets a brief cut during the final Angelic Layer match between Misaki and her mother in episode 26 when they fight on a field of roses, and the episodes storyboarded by Yasushi Muraki employ some of BONES’s better talent, but overall Angelic Layer is little more than consistent. Strangely, a veritable army of animators worked on the OP, including Yoshiyuki Ito, Kenichi Yoshida, Yoshihiro Kawamoto, Masami Goto, Takahiro Kimuta, and Hiroshi Osaka, many of whom did nothing else for the show itself. Storyboards are similarly adequate but plain, to be expected in anything directed by Hiroshi Nishikiori. The only slight exception might be Masayuki Yoshihara’s episode 20, which directly references his Medarot episode 47, but is otherwise a fairly standard affair. Angelic Layer is worth watching as a spiritual sequel to Cardcaptor Sakura and is recommended to those who can appreciate the novelty of CLAMP writing a story with an unambiguously jubilant ending, but ultimately it’s one of BONES’s lesser works.
If Cowboy Bebop was a modern take on Lupin III, is Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door its Castle of Cagliostro? It’s said that Bebop was so well-scripted that each episode could’ve supplied an entire movie with content, and this was more or less a test of that hypothesis. The major figures from Bebop TV return: Kimitoshi Yamane, Keiko Nobumoto, many Sunrise Studio 2 animators and of course Shinichiro Watanabe. The multicultural, multiethnic quality of the Bebop universe is what sets Watanabe’s scifi apart, and as his approach to the TV series carries over to the film: a different theme for every episode. This time, the art of the Arab world is the aesthetic motif, and there’s a shockingly prescient story about terrorism given that it released shortly before the 9/11 attacks. Furthermore, Watanabe delegated certain sections of the film to other directors as one might individual episodes in a TV anime; the western film-within-a-film Jett watches with his cop buddy was Tensai Okamura, the lifelike opening credits segment was Hiroyuki Okiura (who animated most of it with some help from Tetsuya Nishio), Masami Goto and Yutaka Izubuchi did the spaceship dogfight towards the end, and Yutaka Nakamura handled the final Spike and Vincent fisticuffs. Watanabe pushed for a live action look in every shot and BONES’s talented animation staff really delivered in that respect. There’s great crowd animation by Akitoshi Yokoyama (the Halloween parade scene) and Kenichi Yoshida (Rasheed and Spike walking through the Moroccan quarter). Goto’s dogfight is a spectacular Itano circus thanks to Yasushi Muraki, Ichiro Itano, and Goto himself, never becoming too gaudy for Watanabe’s needs. As a fan of the man’s work, I loved Yoshihiko Umakoshi’s rhythmic fist fight between Elektra and Spike in the hospital, but it’s Nakamura’s fight scene at the end that’s the centerpiece of the entire film, as Hisashi Eguchi, Yoshiyuki Ito, and especially Masahiro Ando succeed in conveying the motions of close quarters combat realistically and lethally. It even manages to outshine the monorail fight earlier in the film animated by Nakamura himself. The film looks great, that much is certain, but as the years have passed Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’s reputation has wavered somewhat. It’s true that as a conclusion to the series it doesn’t hold a candle to the original, but I think this apathy is more a product of faulty expectations than a fundamental problem with the film itself. The Bebop movie is closer in spirit to the gloomier, detached episodes of the original, like ‘Ballad of Fallen Angels’, than the freewheeling, crowd-pleasing ones like ‘Mushroom Samba’. In that respect Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is a resounding success of translating Watanabe’s arthouse ambitions to the big screen, even if at times it can feel little more than an extended episode of the series.
Sunrise continued to produce shows for WOWOW, but unfortunately their output was weaker than last year. Banner of the Stars II had nearly identical staff compared to the first installment and was still solid overall, but the prison colony gone awry storyline was much less compelling than Banner I’s subversion of the Abh’s overconfidence. The slow creep of CG is more conspicuous in Banner II as well, detracting from its visual quality. Brigadoon: Marin & Melan was directed by Yoshitomo Yonetani and features a fairly conventional mecha setting; 1960’s Japan is suddenly invaded by the mysterious world Brigadoon, appearing as a labyrinth hovering in the sky. Monsters periodically fall out and start targeting orphan girl Marin, whose only line of defense is the robotic soldier Melan. Stylistically it’s Go Nagai by way of Evangelion. Where Brigadoon falters is its indecisiveness about what it wants to be, and the tonal whiplash incurred by switching from traditional mecha to perverted comedy to yuri romance and so on gets tiring. Some of the creative decisions are jarringly bizarre, like the persistent fakeouts that don’t add anything thematically, and Melan’s relationship to Marin goes from fatherly to something disturbing as the show progresses. The art direction is distinctive thanks to Takashi Nakamura, with everything having white highlights and lush color work, but the animators present (Seiichi Nakatani, Toru Yoshida, Iwao Teraoka) don’t do anything interesting with it. Equally disappointing was Argento Soma. Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama of last year’s The Big O, Soma is Frankenstein by way of Evangelion, disheartening given that Katayama was adamant about avoiding the influence of Eva in The Big O. The direction is for the most part tepid; every good bit of framing or imagery is usually sandwiched by several banal, dramatically poor scenes and the Frankenstein backdrop is never fully exploited, falling squarely into familiar anime clichés. When people disparage post-Eva mecha for unoriginality, it’s shows like Argento Soma they’re referring to. Both Soma and Brigadoon are proof that good art design and production values are no surrogates for thoughtful direction.
Akitaro Daichi doesn’t get enough credit for being an innovative director. A year after Now and Then, Here and There Daichi directed the shoujo Fruits Basket, an interesting title in many ways. It was primarily a drama, not a comedy, so like NTHT it was new ground for Daichi. It was an immense sales success at 10k per volume, proving that the female demographic still had purchasing power. Most significantly, Fruits Basket was one of the first shows to run towards digital production with open arms: there’s little motion, almost an aversion to fluid animation (the exception being Tadashi Hiramatsu’s work on his own episodes), and the presentation is like that of a slideshow with most episodes freely using slow dissolves and panning stills. This specific focus on digital production means Fruits Basket has aged surprisingly well, especially in comparison to contemporary shows which lazily plastered digital effects into traditionally animated segments. It’s on-model most of the time, the color finishing isn’t garish, and Akemi Hayashi’s designs are deceptively versatile. There’s more of an overlying aesthetic to the show than the promotional material indicates, like in the use of television rollbars and scanlines in a few brief shots (it’s as if the show is flaunting its ‘video’ quality). From a storytelling perspective, Fruits Basket has a premise which is prima facie ridiculous: highschool girl Tohru Honda is living in the woods after her mother dies in a car crash, when she stumbles onto the Sohma household, a family whose members are cursed with an affliction where every time they’re hugged by a member of the opposite sex they turn into an animal of the Chinese zodiac. Despite this, it’s mainly a bog standard shoujo with the hugging curse used as a comedic device to deflate the seriousness of the stereotypically shoujo scenes, but the implications of a life without intimacy are explored on occasion (most poignantly in episode 8, storyboarded by Hiramatsu). While I liked Fruits Basket’s take on the shoujo harem, there’s an overreliance on monologues for character development and as a result it sometimes it suffers from mawkishness (Kyon’s ‘hidden form’, revealed in the last few episodes, looks silly when the script demands that it shouldn’t). Daichi has stressed the importance of good staff in interviews, and what ‘makes’ Fruits Basket is an abundance of talented storyboarders: Tadashi Hiramatsu, Masahiko Otsuka, Hiroshi Nagahama, Shinpei Miyashita, and Daichi himself. Hiramatsu’s tearjerking episodes are great, as are Daichi’s four comedically charged episodes, but it’s Hiroshi Nagahama who once again outperforms the rest. His episode 18 is hilarious, and uses the ‘video’ effects to their fullest since most of the episode is seen through a camcorder’s viewfinder. He also uses live action footage in some shots and includes minor changes in the background as gags Ikuhara-style. The episode itself is like The Blair Witch Project for Ojousamas, with the prissy ‘Yuki Fan Club’ trying to find dirt on Tohru’s ‘witch’ friend, and is quite possibly the funniest in the series. Taken as I was with episode 18, his episode 25 is better, serving as a preview to the compositional principles that would be used in his later show Mushishi. If there’s any director who understands how to use ‘stillness’, it’s Nagahama and episode 25’s intense long takes are even more audacious than those in NTHT episode 7. Even outside of Nagahama’s episodes, Fruits Basket is a well-directed if emotionally unsuccessful show proving that popularity isn’t always negatively correlated to quality.
Animation Runner Kuromi was a more traditional work for Daichi, which is to say it’s a fast-paced visual parody in the vein of his output at Studio Gallop. Kuromi is about a novice production runner dealing with the stresses of producing an episode for a TV anime. Basically, it’s a humorous look at the world of animation production from the perspective of an outsider. It isn’t surprising that animators can make fun of themselves better than anyone and the staff at Yumeta Company clearly enjoyed riffing on the common stereotypes of the industry. The OVA is also somewhat educational, in that the various areas of production are touched upon, but the main appeal is the hyperkinetic visuals. Kuromi‘s KA is heavily slanted towards the Gallop school of dynamic comedy via Masayuki Onchi, Kazunori Takahashi, Takaaki Wada, Nagisa Miyazaki, and Hajime Watanabe (who does character designs and animation direction) so it looks quite clean and professional. In a sense, their work here is the fullest expression of the studio’s ethos since Kodocha and Lil’ Red Riding Hood Cha-Cha as I believe this is the only time all five major Gallop animators worked on a single project together. Besides some subcontracting to Dogakobo, ownership of Kuromi is fully theirs and at OVA length their visual invention is undiluted. Moreover, Hajime Watanabe’s designs have a geometric simplicity about them that makes their expressions more pointed and angular than is standard, so even when they turn up the visual cliches common to anime still manage to feel fresh. I also commend Daichi for making the two protagonists independent career women, a rarity in a comedy of this type. Kuromi in particular is a hilarious and charismatic lead as the only sane person in a studio full of eccentrics. Though the sequel would be more thematically substantive, this first entry is a great display of Daichi’s directorial abilities when coupled with Gallop school sakuga.
Shin-Ei almost exclusively works on long running franchises like Crayon Shin-chan and Doraemon, so when they do a normal TV anime it’s worth taking notice. Haré+Guu is a comedy set in the tropics about the midadventures of a native boy Haré and a strange foreign girl Guu. Frequent Shin-chan director Tsutomu Mizushima helms the project, and it turned out to be a seminal work for him; the impish Guu is a mirror image of Shin-chan, and a psychotic female lead played against a neurotic male lead would be Mizushima’s directorial signature in the coming decade. Shin-chan animators are sadly in short supply, limited to a humorous display of Sueyoshi walls in episode 18, framed to look like a first person POV shot a la Halloween, when the hairdresser Dama is pursuing the Doctor in his office. The more noteworthy production detail comes from Kyoto Animation’s subcontracted work for a handful of episodes. This is a different Kyoto Animation than the one we know today, who are freer in their use of camera angles, stylistic exaggeration and high-velocity comedy. It proves a good fit, since Yasuhiro Takemoto’s and Yutaka Yamamoto’s episodes are easily among the funniest the show has to offer besides Mizushima’s. Incidentally, working with Shin-Ei impacted Kyoto Animation’s method of handling comedy in their later shows, as illustrated in this article by Ani No Miyako. Haré+Guu is a fun little diversion, and Michiko Yokote’s script sneaks in heavier themes about broken families and growing up between the laughs, but of Mizushima’s many great comedies it might be the least consistent. The episodes not done by Mizushima or Kyoto Animation are of a generally substandard quality, making the later OVAs which are practically just Mizushima and Kyoto Animation alone a better value.
The fruit of Akiyuki Shinbo’s stylistic growth in the last decade was The SoulTaker, a 13 episode show produced by Tatsunoko. SoulTaker is about the vaguely incestual quest of a young man, Kyosuke, trying to rescue his sister from a conspiracy plot and encountering her ‘flickers’, ghostlike remnants of her psyche, along the way, but the story is refracted through Shinbo’s highly idiosyncratic approach to direction and is often inseparable from it. SoulTaker was the purest expression of Shinbo’s methodology thus far, and it’s worth using this show to examine the meaning behind his stylistics. Shinbo’s aesthetic is a radical sort of psychological realism, where instead of presenting reality as it exists physically and materially, he prefers representing the cognitive states of his characters as reality. This is accomplished through a rapid editing scheme that forms a counterpoint between his characters’ words and their actions. If characters are talking about something specific, we’ll be presented with a fast cut to a still image evocative of what they’re discussing. If a character is feeling nervous, we’ll get fast cuts to them clenching their fists or sweating (or sometimes something more abstract, like falling puzzle pieces instead of tears). These techniques are in full force in SoulTaker, some of my favorite uses being the very first scene in the show when Kyosuke encounters his dead mother (a bright red screen is intercut with a close-up of an eyeball reflecting a purple liquid flowing down a stairwell) as well some of the later fights where ‘punches’ are presented as spotlights trailing over Kyosuke’s body. Shinbo’s regular stockade of cost saving tricks both help reduce workload while looking stylish in their own right, things like banded lighting, strategically cropped frames, blocking actors based on their emotions rather than a coherent sense of space and time and leveraging a unique editing scheme during still shots. Shinbo has a deep love for pulp art, especially horror, and SoulTaker‘s expanded cast is a bricolage of everything from Gothic demons to maniacal doctors straight out of a Burroughs novel. With character designs by Akio Watanabe (a future fixature at Studio SHAFT) and a superficially similar story, SoulTaker is something of a prototype for Bakemonogatari, except actually storyboarded by Shinbo. It’s a show which feels utterly contemporary despite being over a decade old, and nothing produced at Studio SHAFT under Shinbo’s tutelage has approached the rawness contained here. Kenji Nakamura even worked on it, and despite only serving in a non-storyboard capacity the influence of this show on Mononoke is palpable. If there’s a problem with SoulTaker, it’s that some episodes have less staggering visuals as a result of weaker episode direction, especially with regard to Shinbo’s harsh use of color (primaries and secondaries with nothing in between). This is prominent in the latter half, but the last episode, storyboarded by Shinbo, wraps up the show strongly. Shinbo’s approach seems to preclude dynamic animation, and although several versatile key animators worked on the project like Soichiro Matsuda, Masashi Ishihama, Satoshi Shigeta, Shuichi Kaneko, Iwao Teraoka, and Eiji Komatsu, I had difficulty identifying their parts. Shinbo’s visual impact was just too powerful. The two exceptions are episode 3 and 6, both subcontracted to Kyoto Animation. As Ani No Miyako notes, Kyoto Animation did nearly everything for these episodes, and director Yasuhiro Takemoto and animator Noriyuki Kitanohara appear in a nontrivial capacity. Kyoto Animation’s TV debut was still a few years off, but their subcontracted work was able to exceed that of a major studio like Tatsunoko.
Yu Yu Hakusho was one of the few cases where the anime adaptations of a long-running shounen rivalled the manga in quality, so Nippon Animation had big shoes to fill with their adaptation of Yoshihiro Togashi’s new serial Hunter x Hunter. Nippon Animation doesn’t usually adapt this sort of material, so the choice to allow Kazuhiro Furuhashi control over the production was prudent. Furuhashi had just finished working on Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal and a similar mindset, of looking for profoundity in traditional shounen setups, carries into Hunter x Hunter. The writing staff added in a greater dimension of character development than was in the original and entire subplots were interpolated in the first arc. Some have derided these additions as “filler”, but such complaints are frivolous in light of how Furuhashi and his team have made these episodes emotionally resonant and relevant to the story’s themes. Furuhashi understands the themes underlying Hunter x Hunter perhaps better than Togashi himself; as a recurring motif, he casts the self against an omnipresent hostile natural world. Though there are plenty of traditionally shouneny clichés about friendship and unity, the general lack of ethical prescription (Gon’s friends have no compunction with murder, the Hunter Exam itself is a cruel exercise in survival of the fittest) give the impassioned moments in Hunter x Hunter their sublimity. Furuhashi’s own storyboards are wonderful, such as episode 7’s treatment of Leorio’s character motivations (not in the manga), episode 20’s stirring battleship finale (not in the manga), and the Phantom Troupe’s slaughter of the auctioneers in episode 52. A small core team of episode direction staff composed of Katsumi Terahigashi, Yukihiro Matsushita and Tsukasa Sunaga handled the vast majority of the storyboards, but it’s clear Furuhashi kept tight control of the project. Some scenarios like Gon recovering from the poisoning in the woods in episode 24, Kurapika’s Nen training in episode 45 and the entire end of the Hunter Exam arc exude Furuhashi’s directorial signatures. Animation is average for the most part except for some standout scenes by two Trust and Betrayal animators Norio Matsumoto and Akira Matsushima (Felix Mulenga has a MAD up with their best scenes). Matsushima tends to have characters fighting close to one another, constantly switching positions. As it worked well in Trust and Betrayal, so it does during the intense Chrollo vs Zoldycks and Kurapika vs Uvogin fights. Norio Matsumoto has earned a reputation for his skillful use of deformation during action sequences, and his appearance during the final stage of the Hunter exam has Gon and Hanzo briefly disappearing into blurs of color. Unfortunately, as Togashi was still in the progress of writing the manga during production, after the Yorkshin arc the show abrubtly ends without satisfying conclusion. For the four story arcs it covers though, Hunter x Hunter is the paragon for how to handle shounen correctly.
To those that were disappointed with Studio A.P.P.P.’s mediocre adaptation of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders last year, 2001 had more than its fair share of JoJo knockoffs to compensate. Goro Taniguchi’s second TV anime, s-CRY-ed, is about individuals with stand-like ‘Alter’ powers either fighting the government or assisting in their totalitarian control. The show is something of a departure for Taniguchi: while his first show Infinite Ryvius frequently pretended to be a serious melodrama, s-CRY-ed is cheesy to the bone. Villains are unsympathetic, fights strain plausibility, and the dialog could be reduced to a well-ordered set of one-liners. Given the overabundance of haminess in Ryvius, I found this to be a more fitting role for Taniguchi. His direction is still very classical, and he gives episode directors virtually no room to improvise (I was disappointed that Tomomi Mochizuki’s episode lacked any of his personal qualities), but like in Ryvius he uses interesting filters here and there to diversify shots (my favorite being the use of CRT distortion during flashbacks to make them look like damaged VHS footage). However, the animation is a clear downgrade from Ryvius. Part of this is because not only did Hisashi Hirai do the character designs, he was also the chief character animation director. Turns out Hirai is as bad at correcting others’ drawings as he is at making them himself. As in Ryvius, Taniguchi wasn’t all that ambitious in his use of animators either and the only real standout scene comes in the last episode: an Obari punch by the man himself. In a similar vein: Project ARMS First Chapter and only the first chapter. ARMS’s stand equivalent is a system of nanomachines which turn their users into deformed approximations of the characters from Alice in Wonderland. Less self-aware than s-CRY-ed, ARMS benefits from having a sakuga animator at the helm, Hirotoshi Takaya. Without Takaya, ARMS probably would have been unwatchable, as it’s his multitoned shading and slow motion action scenes that are the main draw here. This was Takaya’s first (and only) TV series, so he doesn’t have as tight control over the shot-by-shot look of ARMS as he did in his OVAs last year. Still, ARMS is a decent actioner (there’s even an episode by Shigeyasu Yamauchi!), if an anticlimactic end to Takaya’s career in direction. Both of these shows don’t look all that great, and it can’t be denied that their content is vapid, but any fan of JoJo could probably appreciate these imitations which put posture over plot.