The Mike Toole Show
Anime Gets Sloppy
by Michael Toole,
I'm really enjoying watching Samurai Flamenco on Crunchyroll. It's a surprising little series that started off as a wry takeoff of self-styled hero vigilante stories like Kick-Ass, as naive model and actor Masayoshi Hazama moonlights as a costumed hero, bringing justice to the people by reminding them not to smoke, litter, or start fights in public. Hazama gamely hides his secret from the public and his prying boss-- but not from unlikely friend Hidenori Goto, a police officer who haplessly tries his best to keep the antics of Samurai Flamenco, ally of justice and Hazama's alter-ego, from getting out of hand. As the series progresses, the narrative shifts from an inspiring tale of one man's push for a better society to a gleeful exploration of the history of tokusatsu and super sentai shows, with tropes like mad scientists, costume upgrades, color-coded teammates, and (of course) a combining super robot introduced in recent weeks.
The thing is, I'll frequently let out a surprised bray of laughter at Samurai Flamenco, for reasons that have nothing to do with the show's humor. It's because of a phenomenon that the show's adherents dryly refer to as “Samurai Quality,” and it tends to look like this:
Faces distort. Details and highlight effects vanish. Smart composition falls by the wayside, and the show's visuals abruptly turn to mush. Because, you see, as a twitter pal puts it, Samurai Quality will never redraw errors, never double check key frames, never stay on model. If you consume a lot of anime, you're probably accustomed to seeing this phenomenon come up from time to time. But in Samurai Flamenco's case, this seems to happen several times per episode. This is pretty surprising, as the show's credentials are better than average - we know and love animation producer Manglobe for favorites like Samurai Champloo and Michiko & Hatchin, and director Takahiro Omori delivered us Baccano!, one of the most well-liked anime TV shows of the 2000s. We'll talk a bit about how problems like this happen, but first, let's enjoy some famous examples of what anime nerds like to call 作画崩壊 - “sakuga hokai,” or “drawing collapse.”
Look closely enough, and you'll notice even famous shows that sometimes go hilariously awry. Back in the era of cel-based animation, part of the team turning in rushed, weird-looking work was the nature of the business. Just look at these famous shots from Mobile Suit Gundam.
The wall-eyed guy on the right is Doan, as in the infamous Doan's Island episode that wasn't included in the U.S. release of the series. The episode looks pretty awful, but the funny thing is, several episodes of Gundam looked crummy, so it's still a mystery as to why this particular episode is omitted. I wouldn't feel to guilty about having a look at it on Youtube - it's there, of course. At least, it is at the time of this writing!
Another fun collapsed drawing phenomenon is what I like to call “flat face.” You can see some of it in the Samurai Flamenco picture, but it's way more obvious in this classic anime.
If you truly love Fist of the North Star, you know damn well that it was as low-budget as they come, with Kenshiro and company sometimes looking radically different from shot to shot. But despite quality differences, Toei's animators were generally able to make Kenshiro look scary from shot to shot-- here, though, he just looks… flat-faced. I don't know what Lynn is smiling about, that's not funny! Shonen anime heroes tend to have this affliction from time to time, though.
A more recent example of popular anime visuals going all wrong is depicted in episode five of Yes! PreCure 5, one of the multitude of awesome magical girl shows by Toei and their resident super genius, Izumi Todo. This is a particularly interesting one, because it's a wonderful, hilarious image that comes out of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sequence of the Precure team catching and tossing aside a giant spherical enemy. The problem becomes evident when you pause the action and take a look at the girls, mid-throw:
Look at that hotness. For one brief, shining moment, Mint, Rouge, Lemonade, Aqua, and Mint all have the same weird, pinched-looking face. Their arms grow to the size of stovepipes. Their hands, or at least the parts that are visible, become deformed claws. Moments like these can be galling for the animation staff, no doubt, but they turn dodgy episodes of anime into amazing treasure hunts.
The thing is, not every famous instance of anime looking “wrong” is down to mistakes or rushed work. We've had several years of Naruto fans puzzling over this amazing sequence:
…but the episode in question, Naruto Shippuden 167, is handled by a technical director named Atsushi Wakabayashi, a storied and talented action animator who rose to prominence on the back of excellent work in the likes of Yu Yu Hakusho, Ninku, and the first Naruto series. In this sequence, he and his staff aren't screwing around, they're depicting Naruto's primal anger in a very stylish and novel way. If you put aside the weird-looking screencap and watch the entire sequence, you'll see the magic. This is by no means the only time that fans have misconstrued a director's intent or style, either. Many otaku were so upset by the following imagery that they took to 2ch to vociferously complain.
Alright, two things are going on here. One of them is that the quality is definitely substandard – Gurren Lagann episode 4 has some cut corners, corners which are still sharp and dangerous in the home video version. But at the same time, the episode was helmed by the director Osamu Kobayashi, and if you've seen his other works—in particular, Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad—you'll recognize his idiosyncratic style immediately. But fans of the show weren't happy with the direction, and the entire furor led to Gainax producer Takami Akai resigning after getting caught saying some pretty disparaging things about the complainers. Anime is serious business, gang!
If you're a committed animation nerd—a “sakuga otaku,” if you will—you'll remember and treasure weird anime happenings like these. Another good one is a sequence from Brighter than the Dawning Blue, which some fans have given the ominous title of “the Cabbage Incident.”
Nice cabbage, huh? Looks like a giant green-tinted onion. The funny thing is, if you pop your Sentai Filmworks DVD in and go looking for the segment in question, you'll see this.
Errors like these are fairly often caught at or after the deadline, and are simply fixed for the home video release. This is partly to reward fans who buy the home video version, and partly to avoid lasting embarrassment. Shows that do particularly well often receive surprisingly lavish home video corrections like this; if you're an Attack on Titan fan, you've probably spent some time looking at the comparison shots of the broadcast version versus the home video. Some sequences add details or change the composition slightly, while others are almost completely redrawn. I think Attack on Titan looked pretty good on TV, but it was plagued by a variety of production problems, so home video fixes for it aren't that surprising.
There's one particular anime episode that lives in absolute infamy, because it was just so awful that it had to be re-animated almost entirely for home video. It's part of the Lost Universe series, which is pretty telling because, in general, Lost Universe looks fairly terrible anyway. But when this particular episode aired, all hell broke loose. Fans were genuinely incredulous at the work on display, and broadcaster TV Tokyo had to post an apology. It turns out that the settei – the character model sheets, which tell the animators what the characters are supposed to look like, complete with multiple poses, costumes, and notes on scale, had been lost on the way to the South Korean in-between studio. With only a tiny stack of key frame cels for reference, the studio had to wing it, and the results were breathtaking.
Try and watch it on home video, and all you'll see is Lost Universe’s workmanlike but not dreadful production values, because they redid it—almost all of it. But the episode, entitled “Yashigani hofuru,” or “Coconut Crabs Kill!,” has become so famous over the years that fans in Japan tend to look at really crappy-looking cartoons and dub them “yashigani anime.” Not every mediocre show can be yashigani anime, though. I mean, this might look kind of bad:
…but Kamichama Karin was designed by Koge Donbo, whose characters tend to have those goggle-eyed, E.T.-looking faces. The character looks like a damn space alien, but her eyes only occasionally appear to be way too far apart. Yashigani anime? Never! One actual “yashigani anime” would be the theatrical cut of Gundress, which isn't actually finished, and therefore full of janky, awful-looking segments. Another is the famous Gundoh Musashi, which fearlessly mixes unbelievably bad animation, distorted character models, and impossible physics with the finest in stock background photography.
Musashi Gundoh was renowned for its poorness to the point that the Japanese DVD box set sold briskly upon release. But not everyone was happy about this – when creator Monkey Punch was questioned about the show by eager fans at Metrocon 2006 (the series was something of a fansub sensation, in that “oh my god, you have GOT to see this!” way), he disavowed knowledge of it completely. But even Musashi Gundoh pales in comparison to this rare beauty:
School City Valanoir is so obscure and awful that I couldn't actually locate it in ANN's encyclopedia. I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but a listing error or something has left this 2002 OVA, a video game tie-in from Idea Factory, in near-complete obscurity. That's a shame, really—Valanoir has flat faces, it's got recycled stock footage, and it's so full of dirty little animation-saving tricks, especially concealed mouths, that it reminds me of that ridiculously bad 1950s Dick Tracy cartoon where he's almost always shown from behind, so they don't have to animate his mouth moving. (The Valanoir version of this trick is the grandpa, who talks through the cheeseburger he's perpetually eating.) Best of all, Valanoir uses the exact same gag—heroine Miu bending over to pick up a coin and accidentally dodging a sword attack – multiple times in its sprawling two-episode arc. The actress who played Miu, Ai Nonaka, was at Otakon a couple of years ago. I briefly entertained the notion of asking her about this project, but that would have been rude, of me, don't you think?
With “yashigani anime,” the reasons behind the bad production values seem pretty apparent—a major production mistake here, a non-existent budget there, and never enough time to fix bad or incomplete work. But how do smaller versions of these big mistakes crop up in otherwise excellent fare like Samurai Flamenco? There are a lot of talented people working their butts off on the series! Shots like the ones at the beginning indicate a serious problem somewhere on the production line, though. Maybe the producer keeps stealing the director from the chair, leaving nobody to check for mistakes. Maybe the animation runner is too swamped with work to delegate cuts to the right artists and keep the production line moving at the necessary breakneck speed. Maybe the director doesn't have enough staff, and has to play anime triage doctor by giving the least important shots to overseas contractors and newcomers. That last scenario sounds a bit preposterous, but it's common enough that, in just the last week, Wake Up Girls director Yutaka Yamamoto has taken to twitter to beg for freelance animators to come aboard and help get the show finished. (Wake Up Girls is another “will be properly finished on home video” series.)
In any event, telling mistakes likes the ones shown here have really come to fascinate me—they're fun and a bit frustrating to behold, and digging them up has taught me a lot about how anime production works and some of the persistent problems the anime business in Japan faces. I've always held creators and directors in high regard, but starting to learn which key animators are responsible for which animation cuts is helping me gain more understanding of this hobby that I spend way too much time and money on. I hope you'll join me in scrutinizing the animation a bit more closely!
Before I wrap things up, one other topic: I saw this last weekend!
After the high of seeing Madoka Magica Rebellion in theatres, I was hungry to replicate the experience. When I found out about an upcoming screening of the Anohana movie, which debuted in Japan just a couple of months ago and hasn't hit home video yet, my first question was “Great, when is it showing?” My second question was “Wait, what the hell is Anohana?” One marathon viewing of the TV series later, I found out.
If I had to draw a comparison, I'd describe Anohana as being a teensy bit similar to Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson's children's story of friendship and loss. But while Terabithia shows us an idyllic childhood friendship shattered by tragedy and the grief that immediately follows, Anohana stretches the timeline a bit – years after a tragic accident claims one of a group of young friends, that group, the bombastically named “Super Peace Busters,” has scattered, but the members are still dealing with lingering grief and sadness – and not doing a great job of it. They're shaken out of their sadness by the most unlikely thing – Menma, the departed girl herself, who seems to be appearing to one member as a ghost (or maybe just a delusion).
The Anohana TV series and movie are very nicely directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai, but the show is more closely associated with star screenwriter Mari Okada, who is responsible for the entire series script – not that common. Okada is known for scripts and stories that are bursting with emotion, be it the fiery adolescent romance of Toradora or the giddy cosmic exuberance of AKB0048. The boys and girls of Anohana are a bit more muted and realistic, but her deft touch is obvious, particularly in the painfully unspoken attraction among several of the characters.
So yeah, Anohana is the kind of thing you bring your crying towel to. The movie isn't a retelling or a sequel, exactly—it's sort of a 60/40 mix, where 60% is a digest version of the show, while the other 40% is a broad framing device, depicting each of the Super Peace Busters one by one, a year after their unexpected, weird, and poignant reunion with Menma. It's potent stuff, and I'm glad I saw it. I've got only one complaint: I wish Okada and Nagai had told us more about Menma. The viewer spends the series listening to the characters talk wistfully about how wonderful and sweet and nice Menma was, but we rarely actually see proof of this. Show, don't tell!
The biggest surprise of seeing Anohana in theatres was the turnout. I wasn't surprised to see the dokes screenings sell out, simply because that show has such a monstrous buzz. But the Anohana screening came almost completely unheralded, with very little real promotion. I headed to the venue on a frigid, snowy Saturday morning expecting maybe a few dozen people for the solitary 12:30pm screening, but the theatre ended up being more than half full. Aniplex's promotional swag ran out in short order. And I'm not the only one who had this experience – if the #anohana twitter hashtag is to be believed, screenings across the country had healthy, if not overwhelming turnouts. These were fans who watched the series streaming or via a pricey and slightly obscure collector's DVD set, and who had to look out carefully to know when the movie would be playing. That kind of engagement is rare, and very impressive. I hope Aniplex keeps doing screenings like Anohana!
So, to wrap this up: back to the mistakes! Do you have a favorite “yashigani moment?” Do you wince when your favorite show screws up, or do you smile and enjoy the revealing mistake? And who is your favorite Super Peace Buster, anyway? (Mine's Poppo, because I have an awful lot in common with a big man in a loud shirt who loves to travel.) Sound off in the comments!
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