Unlike most of other shorts where the experimentation takes place more in looking for completely new forms and styles than in the techniques themselves, this is an exercise in the ability and experimentation within the already industry-established forms(1) of paper 2d animation. And my God what an experiment it is. Doing away with the usual in-betweening and Sakkan(2) work to let some of Japan’s most distinguished animators run wild, this has surpassed a lackluster initial impression to become easily one of my favorite shorts in the whole 35 entries expo. But in order to convey just how great this short was sakuga-wise, i’ll need to elaborate on some animation terminology and tricks-of-the-trade, so let’s get into it(3):
Ok, you likely know that there are a number of drawings for each second of animation in order to create a sense of movement or life(4). Walt Disney defined this average as 24 drawings and frames per second after a lot of independent research, but anime went with 12 due to various historical factors of which Osamu Tezuka (5) was a significant one. Now, the way things are done in Japanese animation have the key animator at its base, he draws the keys (6) or vital parts of the movement. The vast majority(7) of KAs only draw key frames (the extremely tight work schedule of animu simply doesn’t allow the time for them to focus on the rest) but that’s alright their expertise just isn’t needed there… the keys are the vital parts which make the animation good or bad. In-betweening the movement between the keys (occasionally with annotated instructions from the KAs themselves) can be done with the relatively grunt labor of the in-betweener. Usually not as skilled as the key-animator, in-betweening is mostly an entry-level job through which aspiring animators get started in the industry.
When this rough animation goes through all the processes necessary to make it look like the animu bread we’re used to (digital composition, coloring, etc.) you get an inevitable result of when something goes through an industrialized process: the essence or mise-en-scene of the animation gets… a bit lost. Having seen this polishing-out of the draftsman’s original energy first hand in both personal and professional works, it’s something I can personally confirm.
And that is what made the short so notable. They did away with as much of that conveyor belt so they didn’t have to worry about deadlines or market/publisher demands or inter-department communication or streamlining… just unfiltered animation and coloring for a marvelous tour de force where each cut assigned to them was theirs alone, and the animator led the wheel. The “true” story of the short: The idea of animators being free to do what they love the most: Movement and life, free of any constraints.
Not to say that the plot side of things left anything to be desired. In fact it felt almost like a Japanese take of old cartoon classics like Disney’s Silly Symphonies. I must also confess I was quite won over by all the cute/sweet stuff such as the color pallette, little designs (the stars when he falls) among many other things. That said if you’re a fan of sakuga like me, then not only was the animation a huge treat for you i’m sure, but also the list of animators:
First off, it was directed by shishi-o(8) Takeshi Honda and Mahiro Maeda, two really important characters of GAINAX(9). And they’re not alone! Some of Japan’s greatest animators worked on this short. Masashi Ando, Toshiyuki Inoue, Shinya Ohira, Hiroyuki Okiura, Shinji Hashimoto, and the aforementioned due are only some of the names that appear in this distinguished piece of work.
Some of these names I know and some I don’t recognize that much outside repeat mentions in other shorts of this expo, perhaps rising talents within Khara. In any case, it’s a treat like always to see Shinya Ohira bring his wobbly craziness into the short. I also recognized a cut that has to be Toshiyuki Inoue (around 4th minute mark during the cupboard chase), that or Masashi Ando but i know it has to be one of them. Okiura I think I saw him a few times before they get to the cellphone… And Takeshi Honda and Mahiro Maeda i noticed they had to be some of the running sequences.
I’d also like to make a special note to the curious kind of energy that Shinya Ohira (his cut starts right after the boyfriend looks into the bag) has. It’s almost like the very drawing can’t contain the energy of his animation, and then they break into that wobbly overdrive. Maybe it is both the years of experience (he has done some of the most complex cuts of animation history) and his spark of genius that let him look so right even when he detaches so much from natural realism to his own style. Not only that, but he’s a great example of animation’s unique characteristics as a medium. You just can’t twist and shape the form in film, or almost any other medium really, like Ohira does.
I believe most sakuga fans get an additional joy from anime compared to “mere” spectators. When you develop a personal awareness of both the variety and effort that goes into making anime (as well as a sort of distant relationship with the animators themselves) anime takes a very particular flavor, almost like a passion. Instead of assuming a contracted director decides every aspect of the anime, you become attuned to the dozens of smaller people who did the grunt work of cut-by-cut, and eventually you even see the small traces of personality that get throught the sakkan and make Shinya Ohira distinct from Takeshi Honda, Masashi Ando different from Mahiro Maeda, or the lively movement of Megumi Kouno. It’s this small highlighting of the people behind the pencils (along with the musicians or scripwriters) one of the main aspects that make being a sakuga fan such an unique passion.
Not much more to say about this animated tour-de-force, so I’d like to highlight the last scene of the cut as a note to end this on:
After the woman (Rika) wakes up, there begins this silent concert of faces. The profound spiritual happiness of her post-dream realization, and the innocent cruelty of her boyfriend who simply hasn’t gone through the spiritual passage she just had, the shocked horror that he can’t see this “weight of life” within even these ugly or dirty things, and finally the resigned understanding that he did it not of malice but ignorance (“forgive them Father, for they do not know what they do”) and finally her attempt to conciliate the truth she now knows with her boyfriend’s spiritual blindness through a forgiving smile…
I think that is quite a testament to what can a purely visual medium do with it’s unique components. I think it’s a beautiful sort of duet that resonates on a very deep level. There was really so much, thematically and emotionally, in those expressions to the point this scene really stuck with me.
When you’re seeing an outstanding animator’s work, you can really feel it with everything you have.
(1) That sense of traditionalism is reflected (or a reflection of?) in the staff list as well, at least half of the KAs are industry veterans of elite reknown.
(2) Sakuga-Kantoku, or Animation Director. Better term would be corrector, he checks the drawings of both in-betweeners and KAs to ensure all frames hold a certain level of consistency, usually anchoring the animators’s different drawing quirks into a common style according to his own or what the show needs more in some of the previous links. If necessary, he also outlines corrections so the animator fixes it or does it himself. There’s more in the links of other notes, as well.
(4) And both his animated adaptation of his own manga Astro Boy and his attempts to become the “Japanese Disney”
(5) Anima (root) is the latin word for instilling with life, or life/breath itself. It can also mean courage or boldness.
(6) The ones that define it the most… When someone is jumping, the kneeling or mid-air whoosh are possible keys. Also have a link.
(7) (In fact, Mitsuo Iso is the only exception i’m aware of)
(8) Means “master”.
(9) Legendary animation studio, you might know them by either the animes they did (Evangelion, Nadia, Gunbuster, etc.) or by some of their staff (Hideaki Anno, Hiroyuki Imaishi, Yoh Yoshinari, etc.).