Animator Expo Season Three: What's Worth Watching

by Kevin Cirugeda,

The end of Animator Expo's free online distribution is quickly approaching, possibly marking the last time this animated anthology will be easily available. Khara's project to put to use all the fascinating yet unused talent the studio possessed had a huge scope, which is undoubtedly positive yet I imagine scares people who have yet to give it a try. Checking them all out is advised, but if you need some guidance then I recommend checking the previous post covering the first two seasons. Following the same pattern, here is my guide on the third and final season of Animator Expo, arguably the strongest of them all.

Season 3

HAMMERHEAD
A dark and crude antihero tale as experienced by the daughter of a criminal with superpowers, fighting against evil but not for justice. Just like in the very first Animator Expo, Otaro Maijo came up with the concept and helmed the film assisted by another Khara veteran, the ever-present Mahiro Maeda. They depicted Hammerhead like a force of nature gone wild, but also sought the beauty in the contrast between his gruesome quest and the intimate father-daughter moments.

The animation perfectly encapsulates what the film is like – visceral and nasty action, but also enough finesse to have touching character acting. Add to it the spectacular effects and debris work plus some detailed morphing cuts, and you get one of the most impressive productions in this anthology. It's a high bar, but HAMMERHEAD has enough energy to easily clear it.

Recommended: Without a doubt. It's a concept that could easily be expanded into a full length work, but that still was compelling with the limited narrative beats a short film allows. Maijo might very well be Animator Expo's biggest triumph; a novelist whose directional debut has shown more dexterity and understanding of the medium than some creators ever achieve, who is now acquainted with fascinating Khara auteurs. Anime as a whole could do with further collaborations between them.

COMEDY SKIT 1989
“Two assassins walk into a bar and…” is the premise of this long gag, a type of sketch unlike most anime comedy. Pretty much a one-man performance by Kazuto Nakazawa, who wrote, directed, storyboarded, designed and even key animated it all. It doesn't have the high motion animation he's known for, but at least he spiced it up with some visual gags and controlled loose drawings.

Recommended: COMEDY SKIT 1989 is a needlessly long joke your friend would tell you, with a punchline that you know is coming but still makes you smile a bit in the end. I would say it overstays its welcome since the set-up is rather long, so you might want to give it a low priority.

BUBU & BUBULINA
The bossy Bubulina and her younger sister Bubu find a pair of cursed dancing shoes and the tragic ghost who inhabits them. Studio Colorido have been gaining recognition for their work in pieces with a very specific aesthetic like Typhoon Noruda and noitaminA's intro, but their collaborations with Takashi Nakamura sport entirely different styles. The Ghibli-esque clean art is dropped in this case for rough strokes, both for the backgrounds and the lineart. Every character and element feels like it belongs to a mad circus, creating a perfect stage for the deceased dancer to give the final performance she wasn't able to before. The delicate character animation for the dancing cuts contrasts with the overall rough look, making it all the more alluring.

Recommended: Yes. It's sweet yet can have a surprisingly somber tone for such a colorful film, and the fascinating design work will make you wish you could revisit their world.

ENDLESS NIGHT
A boy chasing his dream, tracing the steps of his figure skating idol. Fans acquainted with Sayo Yamamoto's oeuvre might immediately recognize her involvement, since this B&W with scarce color highlights style is something she's used multiple times, like in Space Dandy's Viva Namida or the recent Houkago Girls Tribe game opening. It leads to many gorgeous shots, but that's far from the only visual highlight; perhaps the most impressive aspect is the seamless flow, a mix of expert editing and the skating bodies moving across the screen making for excellent wipe transitions. It's also noteworthy how that motion is constant throughout the film, quite the animation endeavor. All the moves are choreographed by a professional skater as well, it's a sight to behold.

Recommended: For sure. Animator Expo's music videos have consistently been the easiest recommendations – short enough that no one can could complain about wasted time, and all visually striking. ENDLESS NIGHT might be the most stylish of them all, definitely worth a watch.

BUREAU OF PROTO SOCIETY
SciFi anime fan favorite Yasuhiro Yoshiura reappears with an offering totally unlike his previous Expo. BUREAU OF PROTO SOCIETY is set in a presumably post-apocalyptic future, starring a committee trying to investigate the downfall of our civilization… by looking at our current fiction and entertainment. It's not particularly poignant, and it doesn't try to be, but it pokes fun at modern and popular media quite a bit. The presentation helps carry the concept as well, with a fun portrayal of the parodied pieces and by framing the confused and terrified members of the bureau in a very dramatic fashion. Studio Rikka once again made use of the Ultra Super Pictures industry connections and collaborated with Trigger to animate it, and the result was more than satisfactory.

Recommended: The entire gag is obvious within the first few minutes, but the execution keeps it fresh up until the final punchline. It's good to see that Yoshiura isn't constrained by serious SciFi narratives and has a good sense of humor.

The Ultraman
The Ultra Brothers face their old foe Demon King Jackal, who plans to take over the entire universe. Mostly an action piece, with quite a bit to offer in that regard. The introductory battle already takes advantage of Akitoshi Yokoyama's usual complex camerawork, turning space into an actual three-dimensional battleground. It's rare for flat animation to genuinely feel like it exists on a volumetric space, but Yokoyama's got a knack at that. Both the excellent FX and Studio Pablo's hand painted backgrounds help The Ultraman, but what gives it the visual charisma it has is Hisashi Mori's designs and supervision; it's not as wild as his work sometimes gets, but his rough pencil-like lines are everywhere.

Recommended: Perhaps not the most approachable Expo, not because its accessibility is genuinely limited but because people might be put off by the knowledge that it's tied to a franchise they might not be acquainted with. The content is strong enough that people who aren't bothered by that should enjoy it, but it's far from a highlight in this series.

GIRL
The last full music video in the anthology, as well as the comeback of Me!Me!Me!’s creative team – Hibiki Yoshizaki's direction, accompanied by Shuichi Iseki's designs and Daoko's vocals. A stylistic departure from the previous short, despite seemingly sharing narrative universes and Yoshizaki's sexuality-driven direction staying strong. The constant titillation is abandoned however, and we instead get a succession of gorgeous shots as a lonely girl tries to make her wishes come true. Chieko Nakamura – who people might know because of her work with Ikuhara on Utena, Penguindrum and Yurikuma – is a huge factor in making this such a striking short; her feminine magical world is mesmerizing, the kind of beautiful spectacle you simply have to experience. As far as the animation goes the film's very strong as well, but I feel like anything but urging people to just go watch it is doing it a disservice. It's beautiful enough that my words are wasted on it, and your time better spent checking it out.

Recommended: An emphatic yes. It's a shame that its predecessor's viral popularity didn't seem to put much of a spotlight on this one, since I feel this is overall Hibiki Yoshizaki's strongest piece. It doesn't have Me!Me!Me!’s hypnotic transitions, but it more than makes up for it through insanely beautiful art direction.

Neon Genesis IMPACTS.
A curious peek into the Evangelion universe, framed through the eyes of a group of young girls with no control over the huge events happening. We're used to the perspectives of teens that are saving the world, but in this case we have three friends who made music together being separated by the Tokyo 3 evacuations. The last few moments of powerlessness are more powerful than you would expect.

It's a technically adequate 3DCG short, with the 2D backgrounds being easily the most beautiful element. The CG models themselves are fine, and it's definitely amusing to see Asako Nishida's very Love Live-esque designs performing music, but the character motion could use some improvements. Yuhei Sakuragi and STEVE N' STEVEN will also collaborate with Hayao Miyazaki for his upcoming CG work, so hopefully they improve in that regard.

Recommended: The most interesting Animator Expo Evangelion-related film happens to be the one not featuring any main characters or direct ties to the plot of the series. If you're going to give your time to one of those, IMPACTS seems like the best choice.

Ragnarok
While holding an international exhibition of giant robots, something goes very wrong (or very right) and those end up fighting each other. Ragnarok is a pure celebration of mecha anime, a warm, metallic hug for robot fans who now get less hand drawn mecha action than they'd like. Plenty of industry veterans and some specialized and passionate youngsters got together to animate robots brawling, firing lasers, and making everything explode.

Recommended: Depends on how much the very idea of robots fills you with joy. It's a flimsy excuse to have mechs clashing and exploding, but the “why” doesn't necessarily matter if you simply want some cool robots blowing things up. Which this film is quite good at.

Robot on the Road
The misadventures of a perverted hitchhiking robot, as it tries to creep on a beautiful girl and blog about it on the internet. Which might sound like an attempt to twist the premise and make it sound problematic, but that's exactly what it is. Having a character animation genius like Hiroyuki Okiura helming the film means it's chockfull of rich motion - mostly understated sequences with questionable intent, but the masterful craft is undeniable.

Recommended: It sadly tries to play off the robot's sleaziness as a bad but ultimately charming quirk, and the realistic character animation only makes it creepier. Unless you have voyeuristic fetishes, this is an automatic skip.

Casette Girl
On a surface level, Casette Girl is a simple story about a girl using old media to strengthen her weaponry and fight. The more you dig into it however, the more you realize how perfectly deliberate it all is; starting with the staff, composed by Khara's CGi director Hiroyasu Kobayashi, assisted by different generations of Gainax/Trigger associates like Masayuki, Shigeto Koyama and even Yoji Enokido helming the script. If the theme wasn't clear enough – and let's be honest, this short is not subtle – the final attack consists of a blatant Daicon callback, complete with forced 4:3 aspect ratio and poor video quality. Past, present and future of a family of animation studios got together to celebrate their work, with the message that remembering one's roots only makes your art stronger.

The production itself follows a similar pattern. It's a fully 3DCG production, though many people wouldn't be able to tell; the 2D-looking effects could fool anyone, and it aptly borrows many traditional animation techniques like impact frames. The character work isn't quite on that level, but overall it nails the faux 2D look better than pretty much any other CG anime. And this is all thanks to an actual 2D animator overseeing and correcting the whole process, of course. Again, it's the art of the past strengthening the future.

Recommended: Yes. It's fully committed to an idea, and as a visual experiment it succeeds. It's not an approach that would work for mass production since it requires heavy supervision, but for a one-off the results were good and even thematically appropriate. Gives nice closure to this project.

Anthologies aren't particularly common within the commercial animation space, since it's a troublesome format inherently tough to manage that doesn't even lend itself to traditional, easily marketable narratives. It's not simply scarcity that makes them valuable however, they tend to be fascinating  and unique projects in their own right; some are collections of stories set within the same universe like The Animatrix, whereas others are brought together on a meta level like Ani-Kuri 15's strict 1 minute per short restriction. Animator Expo lacks that element of cohesion, but turns that into an asset by having incredible diversity. Not just by having all sorts of unique narrative approaches as you'd expect from a project giving creatives full reign, but also in the way those stories are brought to life. Few titles can boast of having stop-motion footage, beautiful edited manga panels and fluid hand drawn animation coexisting within one project. Not every short film is a hit, but they don't need to be. With this degree of variety there's bound to be something for everyone, and that's why the anime industry is a richer place after Animator Expo.


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