Year in Review: Shafting of the Shrewd

This is really a two-fer (or three-fer): ef, Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei and Hidamari Sketch; and anime as animation, doing what it is suppose to do.

Not long ago I finished the last episode of ef – a tale of memories. It’s by far the most impressive anime of 2007. Sadly that’s just my impression and not a lasting opinion tested with time, but it was hard to deny that ef was a gimmick intended to impress. Much like Zetsubo Sensei and Hidamari Sketch, ef is the product of SHAFT, the same studio and pretty close to the same production team.

Well, except Shin Oumura, the credited director. He gave ef that touch that reminded me why Makoto Shinkai’s film will probably never break into the mainstream. Akiyuki Shinbo being the “supervising” director only contributed to how some of the scenes look. Can we say red and black railroad crossings? The other two works are Shinbo’s direct results, probably, with him labeled as the director (and who can forget his happy mug in the OP for Zetsubo Sensei?).

I can also really care much less about Sunshine Sketch’s healing properties. The serendipitous 4-koma original stuff is, I’m sure, good on its own. But that’s not here or there. The TV animation series is brilliant in how it transforms your typical manga adaptation into something unexpected, clever, but all the more expressive. And the stuff it expresses are not merely words from a book or plot points in an outline, but feelings and perspectives and attitudes. And you know Sunshine Sketch is good because, I guess, what was good to the animation staff has been transmitted through the show and to your soul! L33t haxxorz they are.

In fact, with all three series there’s this kind of connection that I see with the anime and its viewer. It’s a bridge, a protocol that transmits the beyond-mere-words content of a story to its viewer. Sure, it’s not unusual for anime to achieve this, but so few bridges are so weird and daring yet charming at the same time. It was fun.

Well. That’s that. But in the context of what’s notable in 2007, we should compare these three shows with stuff like like Denno Coil and Seirei no Moribito.

Because, lol, can you say SHOESTRING BUDGET?

Fancy ruler

In the case of Seirei no Moribito, it was honestly pre-licensed as the flagship show kicking off Production IG’s 10th anniversary (IG is already one badass animation studio in Japan, not to mention the show is based on an acclaimed novel series to as well). In the case for Dennou Coil, it’s a primetime NHK project with 8 years in the making and a lot of anticipation (and no hype!). It bugs the hell out of me simply because I see what’s so good about those two shows, yet neither manages to make me care about them very much; yet I can’t stop talking about crappy shows like these SHAFT offerings.

One of the earliest thing I caught on regarding anime on the whole is that it’s cheap. It looks cheap half the time, and unless we’re talking about some high budget OAV or original film, it’s not really anything to write home visually. Lots of show have great designs, but that only goes so far as an attraction as episodes after episodes the quality of the animation falls slowly….and sometimes really fast. Reading some of the numbers back in late 90-early 2000’s said that the typical episode of anime is made on a budget around 100k-200k USD. Considering it takes Pixar like, 150,000,000 USD to produce one of their feature films… it’s not a surprise that anime looks so cheap. A show like Ghost in the Shell SAC, which took like 7M USD to produce, it held up rather well. And it was one of the most expensive TV anime ever.

It’s not much of a surprise Ratatouille turned out to be a great film. Imagine what Japan can do with that kind of money? Well, I’ll take that back–I don’t really want more Seirei no Moribito or Denno Coil. Maybe more Paprika or more Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo instead, but no Afro Samurai, or any of that silly nonsense that doesn’t sell beyond the adage of “you can sell anything with the right marketing.”

But Japan is doing well enough to rob my wallet of monies with silly trick like ef episode 10. Heck, I think if Tenmon were to just release random soundtrack-type CDs, I’d buy them. No need for the dramatic voice drama or even the “video” that went with it. Maybe I’ll feel less cheated about how lame it is, and how I’m falling so hard for it. Or maybe they can just sell the OP and ED to Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei as omake to the manga, and it’ll probably boost the sales of the manga by many folds. And it’ll work just as well as the anime. I can see another special bonus item being a CD with just a bunch of lines read by Akiko Yajima (Chie-sensei), if you know what I mean.

Or you know, they could spend their additional budget on massive seiyuu power ala Claymore. I’m fine with your standard fare seinen fighting storylines if they have such an epic voice cast. Just kidding.

Sigh. What can cure me of my ailment/niche for cheap anime? Maybe I should try to rewatch something like, lol, Night Wizard or Ninomiya-kun as shock treatment. But that’ll just remind me how out-of-the-box these three SHAFT shows are. It would remind me how they stretch my viewing experience beyond the boring norm, and makes me sad as the result. Maybe that’s what truly shines about these three shows.

Not a lie.

This is the seventh post in a series reviewing some highlights of 2007. Maybe I should just write and finish post #8 instead of watching more crap cheap anime.

17 Responses to “Year in Review: Shafting of the Shrewd”

  • elvyse

    Well I for one could do with more Dennou Coil, and less SHAFT look-at-me-I-am-artsy crap, but to each his own I guess :) Although not everything is to throw at the bin in those 3 shows, I’ll give you that. Just for having a real artistic direction they are way above the likes of Night Wizard and Ninomiya-kun. But I don’t buy the whole shoestring budget story. The way I see it the cheap aspect you mention is not due to a lack of means but is rather a deliberate choice of the directors. This is a choice that fits in their vision, in the style they want to show. Heck I’m pretty sure that the impact would be smaller without the cheap look. It’s part of the shaft package, a package that is quite tempting to some (that’d be you :P) but to me the only words that come to my mind when I see it are vanity and arrogance. Of those 3 shows the only one I could bear to watch until the end was Hidamari Sketch, the other two were too much ;)

  • dm

    I think that it’s not “cheap”, it’s economy. Animation-fu. Mathematicians have this notion of “elegance” which amounts to getting a lot of non-obvious leverage out of something simple and obvious, like a flower unfolding from a bud, or a theorem unfolding from a lemma.

    Animation-aikido — letting the viewer do all the work by giving them just the right visual nudge at the right time.

    I love it.

    They’ve also done wonders in capturing the look of the source material — visually, Hidamari Sketch and Zetsubo Sensei are miles apart, but they look a lot like the original manga material. Still, you can see the animation tricks that link the several series together, and I suspect you’d know the series as SHAFT’s work just from those.

    Merry Christmas!

    PS, love the new comment edit feature.

  • digitalboy

    Very very beautiful post as I’m beginning to come to expect from you : p viva shaft!

  • omo

    elvyse: I agree with you, but to see it as arrogance is to only to call a mirror arrogant. Hey, the animation team knows their audience, and if Saimoe is any indication, the audience loves them back. It’s, as dm said, elegance. Of course it’s not for everyone. A well-put together production is respectable, as I respect Denno Coil. It’s just not something that captures my imagination. It’s a passive experience.

    dm: yeah, that comment edit thing is a nice plugin that I should’ve installed weeks ago. Finally got some time to update wordpress a little. Still thinking about going to 2.3, but that looks like a chore.

  • elvyse

    Ah, interesting. I think I’m beginning to understand what you like about those shows. Not that I agree with you of course ;-)
    I’m glad we agree on the deliberate “cheap” aspect and I think I agree with dm on the animation-aikido term. As I said earlier not everything is bad, there ARE good ideas in here, ideas that help communicate the feelings in more ways than just movements and dialogs and that help the characterization. BUT they are buried under so many layers of crap and puerile gimmicks that you really have to separate the wheat from the chaff to be able to enjoy the show. This is an effort that I was not eager to spend on eF and Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei because the content was of little interest to me. But who knows, if they mature a little bit and apply their ideas on actually interesting stories, I might just become a believer… :-)

  • omo

    If you think it’s layers of crap and puerile gimmicks then you are just blind to the equally crappy and puerile gimmicks in Denno Coil.

    I sort of hinted at the iaido (that’s a real gimmick of a martial art right there) concept in my post but I didn’t say it. Shoestring budget may or may not be a limitation but it’s a material disadvantage. There’s no way we’ll see 4M-USD-per-12-episode budget going into a show like Hidamari Sketch or any of SHAFT’s main projects. But they tell very good stories. When you dress anime up as something more, generally speaking the rest of the infrastructure gets a little shaky. You can definitely see this in Seirei (and GITS TV as well).

  • elvyse

    I agree, having more resources doesn’t necessary rise the quality of an anime. And yes Seirei is a good example: despite its awesome production values, it lacked a certain something, a spark that can be found in less budgeted works.
    On the other hand I firmly believe that tight budgets are not an excuse for bad anime, only bad directors are. Good directors are able to overcome the situation and produce interesting things whatever the conditions. SHAFT directors, I believe, are from that latter category and don’t look to me as if they’d let difficult conditions stifle their creativity. And tight budget doesn’t necessary mean that the anime will look cheap. That’s why I say that when SHAFT productions look cheap it’s intended, it’s part of a package. I’m pretty sure that despite the conditions they could (better) hide their lack of resources, but they choose not to and instead turn it into one of their selling point. And that’s fine, just (since we’re talking about eyesight) don’t be blind to it and start disliking other shows because they have more resources… Not that you’re really doing it, I just want to end this discussion about “cheapness” because I don’t see where it’s going… ^_^;;;

    There’s one thing I’d like to hear from you (if that’s ok with you) since you seem to have a better affinity with SHAFT than me. In SZS, we often see a head (probably of one of the directors) appearing on the clock of the school. How would you interpret it? For me it’s part of what I call the layers of crap and gimmicks, but what about you?

    After that, I promise, I’ll just agree to disagree with you and let SHAFT slide out of my mind until their next show (and your next blogpost about it :P)!

    And Merry Christmas! ^_^

  • Link

    ef was the first truly original bishoujo series in, well, forever. That has to count for something.

    I hope that post #8 is on Manabi Straight, unless your constant praise of it earlier in the year already counts. :)

  • omo

    The clock in Zetsubo sensei? It’s just your typical Shinbo gag. It goes along the lines of putting jokes on the blackboard–in a normal anime, a classroom would just have random stuff on the blackboard, because it’s not important. However they’ve gone the extra mile to put something there almost every time, making use of every scene. The typical “school clock tower” scene is just that, something to tell you “hey they’re at school at what time.” But hey, no reason to make a gag with it when you can, and when it is appropriate.

    It’s a gimmick, maybe, but if it makes you laugh or sets the mood for the show correctly, then it’s achieving its job. A sketch sitcom crossed with a serious dose of dark humor and social satire seems like a good match for this kind of antics.

  • Danny Choo

    Just a quick Seasons Greetings ^o^

  • TheBigN

    Now I’m reminded of those great Miyako scenes in ef episodes 7 and 10. And I kind of wish more people would be “creative” with what they have on hand. Stuff like that certainly kept me watching ef for sure, though it’s a nice little “extra” for stuff like Hidamari Sketch and SZS. Could I say the same for Negima?! or however the punctuation is ordered? Probably fits with how I feel about ef. :3

  • elvyse

    Thanks for the answer omo. I’ll keep your points in mind next time I watch a SHAFT production to see how it affects my point of view. Until then I’ll stick to my position :-)

  • omo

    I really don’t want to rip into on Denno Coil because it’s still a fun show to watch, but the type of people who flock to it and the things they say make me wanna give it a new hole or three.

    N: I did leave out Negima!? Because it’s … Negima… I will say they are very plesant to watch compared to the original anime adaptation, but it’s not really that memorable, partly because of the style of the show wasn’t the greatest given the subject matter and content. Zetsubo Sensei was a better match for it.

  • dm

    ef has going for it more than just skilled use of technical pens and photoshop. As Link says, it’s taken a pretty tired genre — bishoujo game adaptations, a genre that has never produced anything particularly good — and produced a powerful set of stories braided together to form different views of a single theme. It’s a bit like the way Nadesico used the powered-suit genre to look at different aspects of memory (personal, cultural (fan nostalgia) and societal (history)).

    We’ve talked a lot about the visual trademarks Shaft has brought to this work, but, as Jeff said a while ago, that could just be lipstick on a pig. I think what makes the visuals work is the way the story is being put together: three intertwining stories, each reflecting on the others, each taking words from the others and using them in completely different ways (sometimes with almost opposite meanings (at least momentarily — a lot of that may get resolved in the wrap up that I haven’t seen)).

    Sort of as a continuation on my Gedo Senki remarks, I’d like to think that directors are looking at ef and learning lessons. But no one seems to have learned much from Nadesico, so I’m not too confident in that respect. I suspect we’ll see a lot of text thrown at the screen artlessly, glowing characters, and weird color palettes, without the story (and interplay of stories) that ef has employed so well. In other words, what you’d get if you watched ef with the sound off and pre-disposed to dislike the tricks. Or maybe Pani poni dash.

    I was looking at my forum remarks on this series a couple of days ago. I went from “doesn’t look very interesting, I doubt I’ll watch more of it” to “this show is brilliant” in a handful of episodes. The thing is, I think the show got even better from that point. Of course, I’ve liked the accessible experimentation that Shaft has done in a lot of their previous works (this is the only thing that kept me watching, at first), so I was pre-disposed to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  • elvyse

    Well, if anything this discussion has renewed my interest for ef. Both you (dm) and omo raised interesting points and I have this nagging feeling that I’m missing something. So I’m going to give it another shot, starting tonight (it’s a good thing I’m on vacation).

  • ibanix

    I have to say I liked Denno Coil precisely *because* the animation was unpretentious. Solid story > high CG budget.

  • omo

    Except Denno Coil has both, so…

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