Sunday, January 14, 2007

The problem with Gonzo

Subject: Noir
...No, I don't mean that raspy-voiced little muppet with the chicken acts, or the journalistic stylings of the late Hunter S. Thompson. I mean the Japanese anime studio.

I'm hesitant to start "bashing" an anime studio. After all, I'm a crazed fanboy of a studio that seems to be routine target of harsh polemics and other anonymous internet ranting. So I'm not really going to bash them or anything like that.

However, their style and technique seems to be mostly incompatible with my own tastes.

It kind of gelled for me as I gave the first episode of the American TV release of "Afro Samurai" a spin. It's obvious that a lot of effort (and $$) were put into establishing a strong art direction and style, and the elaborate fight sequences and resultant blood spatterings had a lot of meticulous attention paid to them. But when it comes to animation, it really shouldn't be about the framecounts -- it's about whether or not your characters have life breathed in to them.

Keyframes aren't supposed to be just a bunch of "cool" poses strung together for the inbetweeners to fill in the gaps between -- they're the very essence of definining the timing and motion and visual cues that blur the line in our minds between a bunch of drawings and a real, live actor on the screen. However, that's what I see in most Gonzo work that I've tried to this point, a bunch of poses strung together, be they cool, shocking, or just plain cliche.

Moving manga.

It's not 100% that way, of course. I'm sure there are plenty of animators on staff that seem to "get it" and can bring a character out of it's 2D confines for a bit. I've seen it in "Samurai 7", "Last Exile", "Red Garden", heck, even in "Gankutsuou", which I've ranted over extensively. But overwhelimingly, it comes back to the fundamental characteristics of how the industry evolved: manga artists wanted to make their stuff move.

In interviews with Koichi Mashimo, he mentions that when he started back in the "Gatchaman" days, he had a difficult learning curve to overcome because he came from a film and television background, and all his peers were manga artists. So it's no wonder that his work and techniques and animators he has work for him exhibit the fundamentals of drawing-for-motion, even with an extreme economy of frames. Yeah, his stuff isn't perfect, either. But it's kind of like the opposite of what I find with Gonzo; the few good moments in a Gonzo work are about the same proportion as the rough spots I see in Mashimo's.

One thing I'll give them, for sure, is that they usually have a very strong creative energy invested in the universes and scenarios they develop. They pay great attention to details, and often strive for an epic, vast feel to their worlds. Sometimes they get a little overwrought considering the subject matter, and often, they go more for the "WTF" factor, or for the shock value, than for any intrinsic holistic intent. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that; the detailed worlds tend to etch themselves in your imagination, and sometimes it's fun to be shocked or bewildered by what happens. And, again, they're qualities that are quite prevelant in the manga (and comic book) realm. It's part of why they're so popular.

But it seems more often than not that they're just over-complicating things for the sake of being complicated. I guess most of my favorite works are more telling in their simplicity.

I'm sure if I dug a little more, I'd find more and more exceptions. After all, it's a relatively diverse studio with a large and popular library. And I could apply a lot of my observation to most of the rest of the anime industry, just as much as I'm sure I could find more gems to my liking if I keep searching. It's just that it struck me how much I tend to be dissappointed in what I see from Gonzo, as if there were wasted potential, as opposed to other shows where I just find myself bored or otherwise put off.

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