Saturday, 12 December 2009

The rumours of my death have etc. etc.

It has come to my attention that all my friends think this blog is a big angry ranting platform and I am a big angry ranter who doesn't like anything. This isn't true at all! I think it might be because my reviews of Waltz with Bashir and Up somehow became infamous amongst my colleagues. Also everyone I know who has a blog uses theirs just to post their own work, so maybe people think I'm a weirdo for writing in mine instead, but that's another issue.

Anyway, I like plenty of things! It's just that they're things nobody else gives a shit about.

So I'm going to make another post about Hidamari Sketch. Sorry.

Since that last entry the second special aired, and we got subs for both of them, and then they were released on DVD so we didn't have to put up with TBS's hilarious HD upscaled broadcast quality. The second episode didn't have such obviously distinct art direction or colours as the first, but I think it was quite a bit better. It also became obvious fairly quickly why the animation quality was a bit dodgy in the first special, since more money was clearly spent on this one (though I think it wasn't always spent well: more on that as I continue writing).

We start with a fanciful little dream sequence, which begins with this crazy pan down a big grey halftone pattern. Crazy because, due to an unfortunate coincidence of the speed of the pan, the resolution of the pattern, and the frame-rate of the video, it strobes horribly. Which is a real shame because I think it's a nice idea.
Right from here the animation is quite a bit fuller than we're used to. It's pretty small and there's not much to it, but it's still nice looking. The first of many signs of where the animation budget for these two episodes went!
I like how the water as Yuno scoops it out is this very subtle, icey blue, and the raindrops have a very slight indigo tint. It works really well with the otherwise pure greys and contrasts nicely with the orange umbrella.

It's nice how one segment of the umbrella's lighter, too. It may or may not have any intended significance (it's hard to tell with SHAFT sometimes), but it stops it looking too plain. Also, given that I've now posted a picture of a naked underage fictional girl I think I am technically a paedophile and guilty of a victimless sex crime according to current British law. So are you for looking at it.

Things go almost black, but then the warm flesh-tone comes in, then the blues become warmer too. The animation on Yuno's hair in that fourth shot is very watery and pleasing. Then we're back to normal colours, but even then they're atmospheric: this looks exactly like the inside of my room on a brisk morning.
By the way, this cinemascope thing was only for the intros of these two special episodes. It felt a bit cramped and weird the way it was used the first one, but I think it works much better here.

I quite like bits of the sequence that follows, too.
Rushing for school, Miyako slips on the wet stairs and Yuno catches her by her strap, which tears, thus setting up the plot for the first half of the episode (gripping stuff, folks). This shot is simple but the timing is really nice, a great combination of "surprise" and "oh shit saw that one coming"

I'm not always sure what I think of bright blue skys like this but I like it here: it's a reasonably clear day but still feels kind of chilly. I also like the big pure white space in front of Miyako in the second image. Incidentally, that shot's in-betweened on ones, which I think is a bit wasteful as they could've spent the time and money just doing it on twos and made the drawings better (but, then again, being on ones does give it a rushed, hasty, tense feel, which is appropriate for the situation). There's a few instances of this throughout the episode.

Really nice use of spot-colour for emphasis here.

Later, in school:
More emoting backgrounds.

Remember those shots of Hiro's buns in the last episode? Here's some more "establishing shot of a character with a close-up on their hairstyle" (because that's the only way you can tell character designs like these apart, hohoho). I'm geeking out a little more than usual by knowing this but this girl is a recurring extra called Mami (one of at least two who appear much more often in the manga than they do in the anime).

Yuno's floaty hair here is another example of "inbetweening on ones rather than just doing better individual drawings".
This little graphic sequence is very cute. The arrow stops as it hits the bottom edge, accompanied by a little squeak from Yuno and the text changing (presumably to "Ow!" or some reasonable equivalent).
Some weird-looking flat-faced boys here. But I do like their inclusion because it removes us a little bit from the usual girls-only world of the moe SoL genre. And I like how that sparkly pink graphic is apparently what Shinbo thinks an abstract representation of "teenage boys trying to see a girl's bra through her shirt" should look like (or maybe it's not Shinbo himself, I'd love to know what the actual creative process for this show is).
Also, note the way the extras are represented in the second image. Other episodes have rendered them differently.

(this from the first episode of season 2, by the way, which I will have to do a post on because it's great)

It's great how they mix things up like this, just for its own sake. A few more scattered examples from this episode.
I like how Yuno's been blanked out in the third one but still has her X's. That shot is also one of many elaborate, wobbly, fully animated camera moves in this episode, more evidence of where the budget went.

Again, later, after class, Yuno and Miyako head to the mystical "arts prep room" at the summons of Miss Yoshinoya, to get Miyako's strap fixed. On the way they ponder what goes on inside.
Normally I'd complain about this sort of clutter, but I think it's used cleverly here. The big circle draws your eye very strongly, and you kind of filter out the messy surroundings automatically because of it, and thus it's like the real process of letting your mind wander and reducing the outside world to background noise: it's getting the audience to do the same thing as the characters.

There's also a couple of other unrelated interludes here, one of which is this.

In this sequence Natsume, the token schoolgirl lesbian (well, the only confirmed lesbian) gets lent an umbrella by the unwitting object of her affection, Sae. As normal she puts on a typical tsundere act (look it up), though it doesn't get very far this time.

Why am I picking on this sequence? Well, I love the coloured ripples at the start. I love that long, slow, clever pan down the building (I just about shat a brick the first time I saw it). I like the shot where Hiro opens her umbrella, shown in a graphic, almost abstract way. I like the suddenly hot, bright colours about 43 seconds in. I love the way the sound of the rain fades out behind that sparkly sound effect towards the end. And overall I think it's just a nice, sweet, understated scene.

I just kind of wish that really weird-looking move from about 00:49 to 00:51 wasn't there. It's kind of clear that, rather than putting the time and effort into thinking about the acting or good drawing, it was just put into thoughtlessly in-betweening on ones, and it's a real shame. There's no consideration of timing, the in-betweens are completely even, so there's no emphasis or focus on anything, and the actual point of the shot (that she's smiling) is completely lost. The drawings don't even animate properly, as you can see from the strange morphing hair and the sliding nose. Even if they did, as I said before, animation on ones looks tenser and faster than if it's on twos or threes (especially if you can't afford cleanup good enough to avoid boiling lines), which clashes badly with the mood of this scene.

The shot before and after achieve alot more with alot less, I feel.

Anyway, there's my one mini rant. Back to the plot, Yuno and Miyako get to where they're going, and the strap gets fixed.
Nothing visually stunning here, but I am rather more amused than I should be by this: Miyako slips her uniform back on over her head whereas, when she put it back on earlier after Yuno's patch-job, she was painstakingly animated doing it up properly.
I chuckle, but this is, I think, not an entirely arbitrary decision, since each way fits the pacing of the specific scene. Of course, in order for the second time to be shorter they could've just showed us the last step of Miyako doing up the buttons after putting it on normally, but that would be no fun, and this is Miyako.

Also these desks are so wide I had to widen my blog to fit them.

The second half of the episode adapts a story that actually came from the Hidamari Sketchbook artbook, where Yuno loses her own sketchbook. Things shift more from stylised visuals to plain slice-of-life, so there's not so much to post from here, but there's still a couple of nice touches.

I love this pallette.

Thinking back to the slipping sequence, it's styled slightly differently.
This eyecatch is kind of funny because, despite looking all airy and light, it's accompanied by a hilarious "BONK" sound effect thanks to the context of the preceding scene (which I shan't tell you).

More nudity, sorry. If this offends you, don't look at it!

This is pretty much just cute. And actually, it's straight out of the manga. Well chosen in that regard, though.

Overall, despite a few slip-ups and dodgy decisions, I still feel the episode as a whole worked well, and there's constant little experiments going on. Actually, I'm inclined to think some of those things I called poor decisions might have been experiments in themselves, SHAFT seeing what results they get if they concentrate on different aspects. They did something similar way back with the second episode of the first season, where the editing style was very choppy. It was a bit jarring, but clearly it was just an experiment because it was pared back and much more pleasing in subsequent episodes.

So there you go, I only complained a bit! I promise the next entry will not only not centre around complaining, but it also won't be about anime, so people might actually want to read it.


unsummon said...

Modern anime, and /a/'s apparent relationship with it, confuses me no end. It seems like everyone has a sort of love-hate relationship with it - there are lots of reasons for people to hate it or at least dislike it (poor quality or generic writing, samey characters, ever more economic animation, etc), but people still consider themselves "fans" of the genre (although they might be a little inwardly ashamed about it) and genuinely seem to enthuse about a few shows.
For instance, what do you specifically find worth watching about Hidamari Sketch? Despite some pretty compositions and an interesting visual style, in a lot of ways it seems like yet another slice-of-life anime.

I know this is sort of spinning off-topic from your entry, but I've genuinely been curious about this for a while and as an /a/-goer yourself it'd be interesting to see what you think.

Jonathan Harris said...

No, that's actually a good question.

In most of the obvious ways, it is very similar to others in the genre. Some of the aspects that make me really like it are quite personal to me, others are subtle, slow-burning things that can't possibly be put across in screenshots (or even just from watching a single episode).

High school series in general are meant to appeal mostly to people who didn't have many friends at school, and this certainly applies to me, but I think the fact that Hidamari Sketch is just as much about being at home as at school is a deal breaker for me personally. Not that I had problems with my family, but (without going into details) I had a long-distance internet relationship for almost 3 years which kind of screwed me up and, specifically, rendered home a permanently lonely-feeling place for me: I spend most of my time sitting in my room on the computer, simply because it's habit now. This persisted even after I started going to university, where school, at least, was a socially happy place. I've only lived in one household where I really felt I achieved anything resembling closeness with all the people I lived with.

And it's not just that Hidamari is about the home, but that it does it well. I just got done watching a series called Minami-ke, which has a similar idea (more based around family than friends), but it didn't do much for me as it mostly relied on clich├ęd, poorly timed, dragged-out gags, and didn't get the most out of its characters. Hidamari gets listed as a comedy series but its appeal isn't so much based on gags as gradual, growing character interaction over time, shooting-the-breeze sorts of conversations, and just enjoying the ability to spend time with people you're close to.

If I'm brutally honest, I was actually severely depressed for a couple of days after finishing it because it made me come to the realisation that those things were basically all I'd wanted out of life for the past four years and had somehow completely failed to achieve.

So, of course, I am biased towards it because it appeals to my specific tastes based on my own experiences, but I do maintain that it does what it does very well. While it is slow it never feels like it's drags anything out longer than it should be (like the infamous food conversation in Lucky Star ep. 1); while the characters fit into the stock moe templates they're also carefully balanced so that they work really well as a group; when it gets into occasional sentimental subject matter it maintains a really masterful level of understatement that keeps it out of the realm of cheese (unlike, say, Aria). Actually, I think that lightness of touch applies across the board, and it's a lack of this that renders many series mediocre for me. For example, whenever Lucky Star had a "slice-of-life" bit, it felt like it was telegraphed a mile off; like it was signposted "This is a scene where Yuki's going to explain something", or "This is a scene where they're going to spend several minutes talking about one of those oh-so-normal aspects of life that we all take for granted". The build-up to everything was very ham-fisted, as was the execution, and I'd often feel myself thinking "Oh god, when is the lame punchline going to hit?". It's even lampshaded in this scene. By comparison, Hidamari never makes me feel like I'm waiting for anything: I'm just meant to enjoy what's happening now.

Jonathan Harris said...

Hidamari also feels like it has much stronger season-wide pacing than most other plotless series I've seen. The episodes are ordered anachronically, and it seems random but it's actually quite cleverly organised so that one episode feels like it leads on from the next, while also linking to others that've come before (leading to a nice feeling of "Oh, THAT'S what they were talking about in that other episode"). Most importantly, at the end of each season it feels like it's been a fulfilling, complete experience with a real structure and build-up, rather than just a collection of random disconnected stories (something else Minami-ke left me with).

Of course, all this said, it is still niche within its own niche: I've seen plenty of people on /a/ who enjoyed other moe slice-of-life shows but just found it to be too slow. By the same token, however, I know there's lots of people who genuinely enjoyed it for the pacing aspects I also like, rather than just for idealised moe-moe characters (which can't carry a series for me by themselves, hence my distaste for K-On, whose fans even admit that it is to moe anime as candy-floss is to confectionary).

As for /a/, well, /a/ is perenially bipolar. Whenever Charfag's seasonal charts are posted the thread inevitably gets filled with "I'm watching nothing because this season is shit", "This is even worse than Fall 09", "Moeshit moeshit shonenshit moeshit", etc. posts. But then today somebody posted a blog article about how anime is dead or dying, and all the replies were saying how he was spouting nonsense and anime has always had a high proportion of crap, and that ratio is no different to what it's ever been, and any perceived slump is not out of proportion to the global economic crisis.

To be honest, I think most of the people on /a/ who actually like anime (mostly oldfags) don't post much except in positive threads for series they like. I know I don't, I simply can't be bothered to engage in all the trolling and bitching. They may or may not feel that anime is in decline or whatever, but mostly they just accept whatever trends are going on, and, rather than bitching about it, just stick to discussing whatever interests them whenever they get the chance.

This leaves /a/ consisting mostly of:
* Threads raving about the current Flavour-of-the-month series.
* Threads complaining about/trolling the Flavour-of-the-month series.
* Big Three treads.
* Miscellaneous trolling.

Unfortunately, in spite of this, it's also a widely held belief that it's the only anime forum that actually has any sort of adult userbase. It won't happen often but there's probably nowhere else where it's ever possible to have an actual mature discussion about any series. There are intelligent, worthy posters there, it's just that they get drowned out by all the kiddies that always seem to have just got out of school.

Jonathan Harris said...

Hmm, one last thought about Hidamari Sketch, since I've already written alot: for some reason it's what made me start really paying attention to, and thinking about, the anime I watch. Somehow it just got my gears turning, and got me considering more what I really like and don't like to see. I've even started noticing soundtracks, since its own is pretty nice, and I never even paid attention to those outside of anime.