The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
Did I ever tell you all how I myself became an animator? It's true! I am totally someone who has made original animation that has appeared on television. If you follow me on twitter or keep tabs on my incessant nerd behavior in general (lately: playing Super Robot Wars OG!), you'll remember that last winter I made a Christmas special for Crunchyroll. I didn't do it without lots and lots of help, obviously – I had support and collaboration from my good buddies at CR, plus a top-notch production team to handle direction, filming, and editing.
But here's a fun wrinkle: one skit I pitched for the special involved me talking to Crunchyroll-hime, the site's mascot. The comedy aspect was pretty basic – it'd be interview style, and I'd be obnoxious, and in return she'd be just plain rude to me. The pitch went over well, and I figured I'd be able to enlist someone on the production side to actually create the animation, which would be deliberately crude and weird. Only there wasn't anyone around with those skills, so I rolled up my sleeves and did it myself, using a deceptively simple tool that's been an essential ingredient of some of my favorite anime series of the past decade – MikuMikuDance!
If you're at all engaged with Japanese online culture, you've encountered media created with MikuMikuDance, a freeware 3D animation tool created by Yu Higuchi. True to its name, MMD's development and subsequent popularity was driven in large part by the seemingly endless appeal of Hatsune Miku, Crypton Media's aqua-haired, synth-singing, open-source diva. (Miku's “open source” in that fans are free to create and share songs and pictures using software like MMD and Vocaloid; if you want to make some money with Miku, however, you're gonna have to make a deal with Crypton.) The software is designed to import 3D models created with programs like Blender, and using a related program to ‘rig’ them up with realistic joints and pivot points (‘bones’), it suddenly became possible for fans to make their own sketches and music videos starring Miku, her vocaloid pals like the Kagamine siblings and Megurine Luka, and pretty much any other character that could be cooked up using the appropriate tools.
A quick, funny MMD meme would be “Backstreet's Back,” a simple, 90-second musical interlude featuring the song and a trio of MMD models. ANY MMD models you desire, like, say, the Attack on Titan protagonists, or for something a little more contemporary, the heroines of Overwatch. This is just one example of the endless firehose-blast of songs, jokes, and other detritus that MMD and its passionate userbase has wrought on the public for years. It gets more interesting, though, because MikuMikuDance is actually good enough to create anime. One of my favorite anime, in fact, a series called gdgd Fairies.
I touched on gdgd Fairies before, and I actually used the special I made to highlight a segment from the show. This wasn't merely incidental – I sincerely believe that this weird, cheap-looking CG cartoon is one of the best comedy shows of the past decade, animated or otherwise. Its formula is deceptively simple – three cute little fairies live in a forest, where they learn how to use their magical powers. Only the fairies – cutie-pie pkpk, loudmouthed shrshr, and dour krkr—do this by cooking up a variety of bizarre scenarios involving old guys, gorillas, and a middle-aged woman in sexy lingerie. Each episode is capped off by “Dubbing Lake,” a bit where the actresses playing the fairies break character in order to come up with humorous descriptions of a strange CG tableau.
It's in these sequences that the genius of the show really comes out. The showrunners, Kōtarō Ishidate and Sōta Sugahara, come up with some genuinely bizarre visuals, and fairy voices Suzuko Mimori, Kaoru Mizuhara, and Satomi Akesaka are generally hilarious in their struggles to explain what they're seeing. Mimori is probably the best-known of the fairy voices, but Akesaka's my favorite-- despite the dour face and downbeat voice, she tells the funniest jokes, and when something is funny enough to make her laugh, it's the best. As for the visuals, it's obvious that the production team uses MikuMikuDance to stage things, and for some of the finished shots. But you can tell that some other gdgd Fairies segments are made in more traditional animation tools—the quality is a little too good-- and the lighting filters and special effects appear to be layered on with Adobe Aftereffects. Still, it's incredibly cool that they took a freeware application and just ran with it.
gdgd Fairies was by no means that last we'd hear of Ishidate or Sugahara, but the show and its approach to comedy didn't just appear out of nowhere. I'd trace its sense of style and comedy back to two sources – Peeping Life, an almost entirely dialogue-driven CG comedy series – and The World of GOLDEN EGGS, a bizarre sitcom about life in the idyllic American town of Turkey's Hill. Ever heard of GOLDEN EGGS? It ran with English subtitles on its Japanese broadcast, though the subtitles are only sometimes accurate (that's part of the joke). What's interesting is that it was hugely popular; it and its spinoffs sold in the six figures on DVD. I'd never heard of it until I started investigating gdgd Fairies, and read about how Fairies' production team pointed to GOLDEN EGGS as an influence.
One example of GOLDEN EGGS' genius: a sketch that uses the typical “tsukkomi/boke” model of Japanese comedy, where an uptight straight man tries to deal with a comical idiot. Only in this sequence, a French lesson, both characters are bokes; the French teacher is a gormless fool who doesn't seem to be teaching anything comprehensible, and the student is incredibly impressed with herself and sincerely believes she's mastering the language, despite comical mispronunciations. (She keeps saying “croissant” as “kusai,” or “stinky.”) Episodes are topped off by a brief broadcast from THBC, the news station of Turkey's Hill, complete with fake commercials starring local superhero Turkey Ranger. It's funny, it's really bizarre-looking (even by mid-2000s standards, GOLDEN EGGS is ugly), and it's yet another part of the enormous swath of mainstream-friendly Japanese -animated content that doesn't seem to travel as well as more obvious anime shows.
The gdgd Fairies duo of Sugahara and Ishidate would team up again for the following year's Yes, My Sister is an Osaka Mama. It's another brief, zippy comedy short that only really has one joke – Kyousuke's a typical cipher of an anime protagonist, only his adorable little sister actually has the personality of an “Osaka-okan,” a stereotypical loud, chatty, friendly, obnoxious lady from Osaka. The show actually tries to be cheekily informative, comparing terms from Tokyo to similar ones used in Osaka (part of why Osaka rules is the many odd ways it insists on being different from the capital; you even stand on the opposite side of the escalators there). It's pretty funny, but like I said, it's all really one joke.
On the heels of Osaka Mamma, the duo of Ishidate and Sugahara finally split up. Specifically, Ishidate wasn't asked to return for gdgd Fairies 2, which Sugahara helmed; the spurned Ishidate subsequently talked an awful lot about this, saying that he really wanted to go into detail about the separation but it would cause difficulties for the other staff, which is about as close to “those bastards froze me out” as you're gonna get. Instead, Ishidate created Straight Title Robot Anime, the first anime created entirely in MikuMikuDance.
It's with Straight Title Robot Anime that we really start to see the director's sense of formula emerge – once again, here's three heroines (female androids this time, on the backdrop of a constant war between robots) working to try and decipher and understand comedy better. I had to drop this one, simply because it was longer than it needed to be; the thing to do is to just skip to the end, where the robots Kato, Mori, and Fuji get to witness their fumbling attempts to understand comedy applied to realistic battling robots, who obligingly interrupt their endless war to bicker, smack each other with fans, and slip on banana peels. The show is, however, unquestionably made entirely in MikuMikuDance – you can tell in the way that it doesn't quite handle clipping and aliasing as well as refined professional tools. (It's gotten closer since then, though!)
Sugahara's gdgd Fairies 2 has plenty more of the first show's magic – it's not harmed by Ishidate's departure. The sequel was followed by a movie, as yet unreleased in English, and his own follow up to the formula, Narihero www. I wish I could talk about this series, but like the gdgd movie, it was never released in English. Ishidate's TV series Minara Diva also missed out on even a western streaming broadcast, despite being the first series to use MikuMikuDance in a ‘live’ setting. (I wonder how that worked out…)
Then, oddly coincidentally, both gdgd principals took a stab at working with licensed characters. Sugahara helmed the generally delightfully Hi-sCool! Seha Girls TV series, about the exploits of three girls based on Sega game consoles. (Full disclosure: I do some work with Discotek Media, who are releasing Seha Girls on DVD/BD.) If I had to criticize Seha Girls, which once again is created partly with MMD, I'd point out that it lacks the subversiveness and general strangeness of earlier shows – it's really “safe” in that way. Ishidate's Q Transformers, a 3-minute comedy show starring the famous Optimus Prime and his cohort, is way weirder. It's so weird, in fact, that it's largely untranslated, even by fans. It's not 3DCG, but rather very basic 2D animation, and almost entirely dialogue-driven. The one episode I've seen involves Prime (nee Convoy) angrily asserting that he's popular because he's the most handsome Transformer. The show was cooked up to both showcase Ishidate's comic talent and to hawk little ChoroQ-sized Transformers toys.
Since then, we haven't seen a big comedy hit from Sugahara, but maybe he's been busy – the guy also does a lot of regular TV commercial animation. Kōtarō Ishidate, on the other hand, has kept very busy. He followed up Q Transformers with Tesagure! Bukatsu-mono, a show that, once again, has seemingly gone largely unnoticed by western fandom. It's too bad – he expands on the rote “3 girls” formula by adding a fourth girl, but in doing so riffs brilliantly on stereotypical high school comedies. These 4 girls - Yua, Aoi, Hino, and the newcomer Koharu – are part of an afterschool club that meets to discuss how to make other club activities weirder. They start with baseball (let's change the sport so all the players have to dress really fashionably!), before reliably moving on to soccer (how about we make the players move the goal instead of the ball?), shogi (let's combine shogi and Twister!), and karuta (instead of poem cards, the players have to snatch embarrassing photos of themselves).
Once again, here's a show made pretty much entirely with MMD – and you can really see how the software has matured, because stuff like hair and clothing behaves much more naturally and looks better. It's intriguing to me to see this simple animation tool emerge as something hugely useful, and to see a single director kind of lock the whole ‘MMD anime’ field up. Ishidate's current show is Naria Girls, which is yet another ‘girls talk to each other’ comedy. Here, the humor comes not from the heroines' patter (a mistake; the girls in gdgd Fairies are funny, and the stars of Tesagure are hilarious) but from the fact that the show is produced using raw, uncorrected motion capture data from the actresses. So the spectacle isn't the jokes, it's the sight of the characters babbling insensately as their models gesture strangely, crash into objects, and clip through each other.
I think it's particularly interesting to watch these shows after creating my own animation with MMD. In fairness, I didn't do that much work – I altered an existing stock model with blender, changed the color palette in MMD's model editor PMD, and then just had to obsessively create and correct mouth and face movements and pose data for the character. The results are right here. After doing the work, it's easy to picture a very small team of MMD experts churning out extremely polished, funny episodes in a matter of a week or two. There are other tools that are largely exclusive to Japan, too—HexaGreat 3D (or, in Japan, “Rokkaku Daioh”) is one example, a modeling tool that is much more powerful than PMD. I think that it's important to keep shows like Naria Girls and gdgd Fairies in the anime conversation; they look more like western anime-a-like smash RWBY than traditional anime, and they arise not just from Japan's geek culture, like so much anime does, but from a weird stew of mainstream comedy, anime fandom, and online culture. And if you've got the time, you can fire up MMD and be an animator yourself!
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