Otakon 2013 Anime Mirai Interview

This is an interview with Tachikawa Yuzuru and Suwa Michihiko, both of whom are involved with the Anime Mirai project, an annual Japanese government-funded program to help teach young animators the skills they need to improve Japan’s animation industry. Tachikawa is the director of one such Anime Mirai-funded work, Death Billiards. Suwa is better known as the producer for works including Detective ConanMagic Knight Rayearth, and City Hunter, and is part of the Anime Mirai selection committee.

So the first thing I want to ask you pertaining to Anime Mirai is, because the project developed from wanting to help young animators, what is your opinion of the current state of anime for young animators in Japan? Would you like to see a future perhaps where the AnimeMirai project is no longer necessary because there are so many opportunities for young animators?

Tachikawa: So the reality is that when it comes to the number of animators versus the number of projects, the projects are greatly outnumbering the animators. The upper staff (senpai) is supposed to teach the younger (kouhai), but that’s not really happening these days. To speak bluntly, the studio doesn’t have much time or money, so it’s sort of centered around making the project. So since Anime Mirai is being funded by the country, I hope that it will be a starter for raising new hopes for the anime industry.

In the end, what would be best is if the upper staff at the studio would be able to teach the younger staff and that way Anime Mirai would no longer be needed. That would be the best future we could see.

You said the Anime Mirai project is funded by the Japanese government. What unique advantage does this provide, the fact that it is state funded?

Suwa: So the country funds Anime Mirai with I think 38 million yen, check back with me for the numbers. Sfter Anime Mirai makes a project, throughout the year the project will be shown as a movie. But after that, the movie/show will be in the hands of the companies, and it will then be a new project for the companies to get a profit out of Anime Mirai, so I think it will be a new way of doing things.

This question is about Death Billiards because it uses a lot of 3DCG in its animation of billiards. I know 3DCG has been seen in a variety of ways, such as a shortcut, a new form of animation unto itself, and as a cost-saving measure. What is your opinion of using 3D computer graphics in anime?

Tachikawa: Personally I don’t like anime becoming all 3DCG, it has to be a balance of both. The importance would be using 3DCG in the right place at the right time. The balls in Death Billiards are 3DCG, but the project had plans to teach the younger ones how to draw the more human parts, so we left the billiard balls and such to 3DCG.

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Mostly Visual Wonders: Oblivion Island

The New York International Children’s Film Festival is known for bringing some of the best and most interesting animation the world has to offer to the Big Apple, and Japanese animation is no exception. In previous years, the festival has brought great works, such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Days with Coo, but usually limited it to only one title, so it was particularly amazing that this year’s Festival had not one, not two, but three anime films.

This last film is Production I.G.’s Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror. It follows the titular 16-year old girl as she searches for her lost hand mirror, an important present she received from her mother years ago, and ends up entering a magical world inhabited by “kitsune,” fox spirits who take everything humans misplace and ignore. Humans are not allowed in the kitsune’s world, but a few unlikely companions make the journey possible.

Unlike the other two NYICFF animated films from Japan, which used some CG but still went for a primarily traditional 2D look, Oblivion Island has the unique distinction of being created almost entirely in 3DCG. While it would be easy to make the film look drab and lifeless, Production I.G. is famous for knowing how to make things look good, and Oblivion Island is no exception. The characters are nice-looking and full of life, the backgrounds are gorgeous, and the use of color as the movie switches from environment to environment are particularly notable. One unusual thing about the movie is that a lot of the backgrounds looked more hand-drawn and two-dimensional than the characters themselves, which made it almost look like the characters were “real people” interacting with a backdrop. While jarring to an extent, it gave the film a unique and welcome look. The only other sticking point might be that the faces of the human characters are somewhere between being anime-style and being humanly realistic, particularly with their mouths, and so tread the deepest regions of the uncanny valley. Overall, the look of the film, particularly the Kitsune’s world where everything is built from discarded human belongings, reminded me a little of Kon Satoshi’s Paprika, though it isn’t quite as visually splendid.

But while the visual aesthetics of the film are top-notch, the rest of the film from a storytelling perspective is nowhere near as good. Most of the characters’ motivations are simple and some hardly get characterized at all. The story is also paper-thin, developments happen too suddenly, and the film occasionally takes a very ham-fisted approach to plot exposition. An example of this heavy-handed storytelling occurs towards the beginning of the movie. The start of the film takes place years before the main story and shows Haruka with her mirror. Minutes later into the film, the now 16-year old Haruka is hanging with her friend from school and asks the friend if she had ever lost anything important to her. It then flashes back to the very scene the audience just saw of Haruka and her mirror, and if that’s not enough to tell you that she’s thinking about the mirror, Haruka then outright mentions the mirror to her friend. It was just unnecessarily excessive and would’ve benefited from better editing.

That said, Oblivion Island still has a number of good, powerful scenes  and moments of poignant character interaction and introspection which draw you into their world. It’s just that the film suffers from “things happen” syndrome and lacks the connective tissue needed to make it feel like one continuous story. It’s an all enjoyable film, but definitely had the potential to be more.

In the end, a lot of the film’s flaws can be pardoned if you just take into account that it is first and foremost a kid’s movie, but at the same time I feel somewhat reluctant to do so as the NYICFF’s other films were also for kids and still had plenty for older audiences and never felt like they were simply advancing the plot along without taking heed of everything that had happened prior. Overall, it’s decent, but it won’t go down in history as one of my favorites.

Drossel, the Best Figma

How can I make such a wild claim that the Drossel Juno Vierzehntens Heizregister Fürstin von Flügel from Disney’s Fireball is the best Figma, when she’s only just recently been announced on their site?

Simple. Drossel is a robot and also a girl.

Despite recent attempts by Goodsmile to man up the Figma line with the world’s deadliest assassin and a gay porn star, Figmas are mostly known for being a fairly girly set of toys. Girly set of toys for guys, that is. Whether it’s Haruhi, or Konata, or Konata dressed as Haruhi, the big beefin’ robots are usually left to Kaiyodo’s Revoltech line. Which is all well and good, except that when it comes to having poseable joints, giant robots tend to fare better than fleshy meatbags in terms of having elbows and knees which make sense.

But now you have Drossel who, as stated above, is both robotic and feminine. Her joints make sense, and she possesses much of the trademark cuteness that the Figma line is known for. And she’s got the twintails. In a sense she’s the first Complete Figma.

Drossel goes on sale June 2009. As I don’t actually own it, I can’t recommend it per se, but really, check out dem knees.

Fireball: Disney did WHAT now?

Fireball is a 3-D animation airing in Japan, produced in part by Disney.

Yes, that Disney.

Each episode is less than two minutes long, and it seems to be a concerted effort by Disney to make newer in-roads into Japan’s animation-watching audience. I say newer because Japan IS actually fond of Mickey Mouse and friends, not to mention the fact that Tezuka idolized Walt Disney.

The use of 3D Animation is interesting, as it’s something that Japanese animation hasn’t really been great at, so in a sense it’s using Disney’s power to its advantage, though I don’t actually know to what degree they actually help.

The main character, Drossel, appears to be at least partially designed to appeal to otaku, with her long twintails and slender robotic figure and large “eyes,” so I also get the feeling that they are trying to tap into this audience as well.

I suspect this has something to do with seeing the success of Powerpuff Girls Z in Japan.

The Anime Character in 3D Animation

Anime characters come from a 2d world. They are not only part of the world of animation but also for many characters the world of manga. Perspective is relatively fluid, and characters no matter what the angle will often look as good as possible or have the features and parts positioned in such a way that everything comes out okay.

Japanese animation has made many advances in integrating 3dcg backgrounds, vehicles (both humanoid and otherwise), and just environments with characters, but what happens when anime characters become 3d? Many of the various techniques which go into portraying characters in 2d animation simply do not work in 3d. Case in point, the standard money-saving open-close mouth animation used in so may shows looks about 10x worse when done in 3d. As advanced as 3d can become, it will always have its limitations, just like any other medium.

Actually, the more important question I should be asking is, how much of tradition are creators willing to discard in making 3d characters for a 3d environment?

There are certain qualities of character design which will be fairly universal, but when taking the example of Pixar, and comparing them to not just traditional 2d animation but their own design sketches, something changes in the addition of that extra dimension. They maintain it fairly closely, of course, but that’s I think partially due to the sheer power of Pixar. They have the money and talent to do it.

Japanese animation, of course, has never been known for its big budgets. I think various stylistic aspects of Japanese animation were born partially out of economic needs, and have been fostered in such a way that they’ve transcended their very pragmatic origins. However, 2d animation and 3d animation are fairly different beasts as I’ve pointed already, and what may have been traditionally a money saver in 2d may cost more to replicate it in 3d. I have no specific examples in mind, but just the sheer work required in creating character models, let alone everything else, means that even still 1-minute shots may take a hefty toll.

Even if a studio is willing to do all this however, I have to wonder what the fan reaction would be. I imagine it would be on a fairly case by case basis, but then I ask myself, how willing would I be to accept drastically, drastically different character designs into what I call Japanese animation? Even if I am well aware that a true 1:1 conversion from 2d to 3d may not be as simple as expanding across the Z-axis, but that various invisible elements may manifest themselves in strikingly different ways, will I be able to recognize it? Early on in this blog’s life, I talked about the possibility of an anime without characters whatsoever. It was meant to ask, to what extent do character designs and characters in general have an effect on how we define anime? I’m asking a similar question here.

Sadly, I don’t really have the answer. All I know is that the worst thing that could happen is for a studio that wanted to produce a fully 3d work to abandon it for these reasons.