We all debate about what anime is, but regardless of where you fall in the argument it's undeniable that animation goes beyond traditional 2D artwork. This week the team is highlighting animation that goes off the beaten path, be it stop-motion, sand art, and even puppetry. Here's to a celebration of anime in all of its forms.
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Nicky, today on TWIA we're going to take a little detour away from how we usually do this column, and away from anime as we typically know it. There's a big, weird, and wonderful world out there stuffed with all kinds of animation and expression, and thankfully, I know the perfect vehicle to carry us through it.
Yes! In our current era, we spend an increasing amount of time struggling to define what properties earn the right to be called "anime." But rarely do we ever see the opposite question proposed of “What can anime be?” Can anime be short? Is stop-motion considered anime, too? Who is anime for? But, anime is not something that should so strictly defined by length, tools, or demographic. By strict definition, "anime" is just a word short for "animation." But what lies underneath is a whole spectrum of different genres, artforms, and emotions and some of them just happen to involve incredibly cute guinea pigs that evolved into cars or a dino.
And honestly, we just really wanted to cover Pui Pui Molcar, but it's hard to sustain a whole column on 12 three-minute dialogue-free episodes, so here we are! We're gonna do a not-at-all comprehensive survey of "alternative" animation in recent anime history, and try to wrap our brains around Molcar anatomy at the same time.
God help us.
Rather than talking about what we will refer to as traditional 2D animation or CGI, we're going to be focus more on the experimental side of things. Stuff like stop-motion, mixed art mediums, and yes, even puppetry. Also more importantly, trying to highlight the creative studios and their other work in and outside of anime.
And hey, we might as well start with Pop Team Epic, which is in itself one big potpourri of different animators and styles, blended together into a hilarious nightmare kaleidoscope. I mean, I still think about "Let's Pop Together" all the time, and the very fuzzy Popuko and Pipimi figures courtesy of UchuPeople.
And like, it's not even an adaption of any particular comic strip from the manga. They just made a music video parodying Earth, Wind & Fire and slammed it into an episode. I love it so much.
UchuuPeople is actually a team compromised of a singular married couple who specialize in stop-motion via felt-needled dolls. They also did the wonderful ED for the spiritual-sequel series Gal & Dino. They're super charming and colorful and impressive given that it's really only two people.
Making these kinds of dolls takes an incredible amount of time and care! Hana Ono also notably did some work on Pui Pui Molcar which we'll get to later.
One of the qualities that draws me towards stop-motion animation in particular is a tactile sensory experience that reaches across the screen. When I see those figures in motion, it's like I get a sense of them as real objects I can hold and touch. I still feel some childlike wonder out of that, and I think that's part of why I've liked stop-motion ever since I was really little.
Of course, the nice thing about being a grown-up is now I can watch stop-motion animation with swear words.
All animation takes a painstakingly amount of effort but this is doubly so for stop-motion as it requires a lot more incremental movements, filming time, and design in order to make even a little of it. There doesn't really seem to be a good way to cut corners but that also means that anyone that does it is definitely set on making a labor of love and even these silly segments are no exception! In the end we get a really fun and memorable product.
Yeah, behind-the-scenes footage of stop-motion stuff is always fascinating to watch. Definitely shares a kinship and similar sort of magic with practical special effects, with all the care and artisanal know-how it takes to make a finished product that looks good. Also, the scale of the figures is always a fun surprise. You tend to imagine them as these small toys, but you can have sprawling stop-motion sets, and figures bigger than a person. It's so cool.
Different styles and mediums can make anime stand-out. I'd say one of the other notable elements of the Pop Team Epic is the work from Studio AC-bu. You might recognize them most from the strangely grotesque "Bob Team Epic" segments to the electrifying Hellshake Yano that I'm always thinking about. Their fingerprints are recognizable by their intentionally off-putting style and humor.
They were a perfect fit for Pop Team Epic's inherent irreverence. I haven't seen any other artist poke fun at "moe" as simply and viscerally as they do. And I've never looked at a :3 mouth the same since.
God, it's absolutely disgusting to look at and I love it.
Hellshake Yano though...that is a true work of art in the most sincere sense of the word. A combination comic and live performance utilizing multiple notepads in motion. Nothing else like it. Exquisite and—naturally—unforgettable. I'm chanting "Hellshake!" forever in my heart.
Apparently, later they started performing the Hellshake Yano skits in front of a live audience...and filled a whole stadium!! What I wouldn't give to be there.
But actually, AC-bu's legacy on the internet existed far before Pop Team Epic. I am actually a bit of a hipster in this regard because I was a big fan of them before they were cool. Other than anime, I'm actually a big fan of watching cool and weird animated videos, and AC-bu has produced many fascinating stuff! Some people might recognize these as internet memes without ever knowing where they came from, like the guitar rift from ZAMAGI's "It's So Good Now"
But they also have a lot of other music videos that stem from being parodic, dramatic, and just downright weird. I'm also a big fan of their work for Group_Inou as it truly shows a lot of heart despite the purposefully off-beat style.
They're also a good example why you can't (and shouldn't) draw simple delineations between what you consider "good" and "bad" animation. AC-bu draw ugly and janky stuff, but towards a purposeful aesthetic end. And you can always tell it's them. That's no small feat.
In a recent documentary they noted that none of them even have any experience in traditional style animation and everything they do is simply trying to recreate images they think are the most striking without the conventions of regular training. Even so, they're able to create complex, and exciting works. Last year they just put out animation for the band BATTLES where everyone combines forces in order to defeat meteors (shaped strikingly like the COVID-19 virus)
Finally, a marriage of the two things that got me through college: weird anime and indie rock.
I'm linking the videos over simply just taking screencaps or gifs of these cuz truly for some of these things, they've just have to be seen to be experienced. There's no way to fully enjoy them secondhand. Also, they're all treats.
Honestly, we could do a whole column on Pop Team Epic-adjacent artists. Sure, the anime is just one big shitpost, but it's one big shitpost made with a lot of talent in all kinds of mediums: pixel art, sand art, claymation, Shouta Aoi, etc.
Pretty sure Shouta Aoi is just one big anime come to life. You can't make me think he's real.
I mean he's as real as Dino.
True, and dnosaurs are definitely Real and Also My Friends.
Like Pop Team Epic, Gal & Dino also has a lot of these mixed segments, but the use of more live-action stuff, lack of dialogue, and a more "friendly" vibe make it less of a shitpost and more like a PBS program for adults.
Gal & Dino is maybe the most underwatched and underrated masterpiece from last year. It's one of my favorite anime from 2020, and it's a more than worthy successor to Pop Team Epic. It also has some wonderfully idiosyncratic pieces of animation, from regular features like Dino Channel to irregular avant-garde stuff. There's one scene in particular where the power goes out, and we're treated to a cacophony of freeform jazz and abstract shapes as Kaede and Dino fumble around for the circuit breaker. It's brilliant.
It's also generally super chill and sweet. It's a much easier watch if you're not totally down with the complete anarchy of Pop Team Epic but want to experience the same sort of creativity and variety. I think it helps that the straight adaptions of the source manga are also very nice. There's very little objectionable about it. Definitely one of my pure comfort shows of last year.
I mean, some things are objectionable. These are the Pop Team Epic people after all.
But overall much more wholesome yes.
Look,I tried erase the weird comedian cameos from my mind in order to cram in more pictures of the cute Dino.
Also the cute Dino Channel segments are animated by the same French guy who did the Japan Mignon segments in PTE. Thanks, Thibault Tresca!
Fun fact: they never told him what Pop Team Epic is and I think now he's too afraid to find out.
Even more anime have been branching out to include more variety. Some anime might contract a certain artist or studio to do specialty work, like the oil-on-glass style painting used in Mob Psycho 100 done by the astounding Miyo Sato. Other times they may try to do something different for just the OP or the ED. Miyo Sato also did the ED for season 1 entirely in this style as well as many astounding and flashbacks where she used sand in addition to oil paint.
Oh yeah, the Mob Psycho 100 team was really good at using the series' psychic conceit to fuel some psychedelic animation. That kind of thinking outside the box of "normal" anime helped make both seasons as remarkable as they are.
I'd argue the ED also deeply contributed to the and I quote "internet sex symbol" aspect of Reigen, as the whole ED is from the perspective of his morning routine in a way that provides a lot of subtle characterization.
...I'm never gonna live down the "internet sex symbol Reigen" thing, am I?
But moving on there are other anime that like to shake things up for the ED. While I generally tuned out after the first season, Mr. Osomatsu has some lovely EDs that are worth checking out. They often use stop-motion to bring everyday objects to life and there's many of them! My favorite is this one where the characters are represented as pieces of The Game of Life, but there's a lot more like it.
I also like this ED from the first season as it's done by the notable company, dwarf studios. They're kind of the big leagues when it comes to doing stop-motion, having produced many works from the Domo-kun shorts to Netflix's Rilakkuma and Kaoru.
Rilakkuma and Kaoru still gets my recommendation if you want a cuddly stop-motion series aimed squarely at exhausted millennials.
It's a weird line to tread, I'll admit, but the show is a treat to watch, and impeccable on the craft level. dwarf studios know their way around a large teddy bear. And a slightly smaller teddy bear. And a very small bird.
The fluffy freeloaders definitely warmed a way into my heart and that's much thanks to animation being able to both capture the ennui of life in contrast to just being the epitome of chill.
dwarf studios are also behind the considerably less chill (but undeniably boppin') BEASTARS season 1 OP.
Ah yes, the best anime OP of 2020 and 2019 depending on how you treat the Netflix release. The storytelling in this OP alone is impeccable. It quickly delineates all the elements of what makes BEASTARS compelling as a story that mixes both allegory and psychology. The dreamy but also stage-like structure making the audience question the true outcome of the relationship between the main characters. Also, it's both cute and creepy as shit.
I don't think there's anything on the planet that can adequately prepare you for the experience that is watching BEASTARS' story and characters develop, but this OP comes about as close as you can.
banging my fist on the table Hand over Season 2 NETFLIX!! FREE THE FURRIES!!
ANN has a good interview from last year, if you want to read a bit more about how the fuzzy sausage gets made.
Callum's work is always a treat if you want to learn more about animation in general too, especially for some of the stuff that we've already talked about.
Also, since you made me think about sex symbols—or at least consistently nude ones—another recent showcase of unique animation styles that comes to mind is Rinshi!! Ekoda-chan. Basically, 12 different veteran directors each made a 3-minute short adapting a different part of the manga. But it's a full-length show, so the rest of the runtime of each episode is spent interviewing the directors and voice actors about the creative process. It's a strange, but fascinating look behind the industry's curtain.
Oh god there's even more that we can say about Ekoda-chan cuz every episode has extremely different visions. Episode 11 definitely has one of my favorite interviews with Osamu Kobayashi just because his style was so cool and his personality really reflects that.
I also mention this because as of recording this, he has passed at the young age of 57, so it's extra worth it to go check it out while you can.
I just rewatched it today, and despite how sad it made me, it was nice to see him exude such vibrancy and warmth in his interview. He also spends the whole time downing beer and just loving life. What a guy.
His short is so good at capturing the dingy beauty of darkened restaurants and dive bars, too. You can feel the fondness he had for these spaces.
I think it just goes to show that if you love a creator or their work you should really just try to appreciate them as much as you can. No one or their work is ever gonna be around forever and some people don't get recognized before it's too late. I think that's a big motivator for why we decided to do this particular column the way it is. There's tons of people making cool stuff all the time and trying our best to highlight them to others is the only thing we can do.
And that's actually why I really love Hiroshi Nagahama's Ekoda-chan episode. He's one of my favorite directors, and he could've done it himself, but instead he recruited an artist whose work he really liked named Yuriko Sasaoka, and let her make these pseudo-marionette monstrosities.
He used his position to highlight someone I definitely never would've heard of otherwise, and in doing so, we got one of the most bizarre and memorable segments of the whole show. That, to me, is what good animation is all about.
Well. Almost. Close enough.
Yes, puppets count as animation. I take no further question. Please watch Thunderbolt Fantasy this instant. It's starting season 3 of puppet-murder-action and it's wonderful.
I still haven't started the new season myself, regrettably, but I'm always blown away by how incredible and gnarly everything about it looks. And the way each puppet has their own distinct body language! Like, I could distinguish Shang from Lin purely from how they move their tiny puppet hands. That's artistry right there.
Puppets have already been talked about a few times here but maybe we'll be able to cover season 3 more in-depth in the future. One thing is for certain, there's not enough people watching it! But it's definitely a stand-out of watching people who've honed their very specific craft for YEARS elevated by having a great anime writer and cool designs.
Vape Wizard will return to TWIA. We guarantee it.
For now, though, we've beat around the bush long enough, so let's talk about those dang Molcars already.
Pui Pui Molcar is a series of 3-minute shorts directed by Tomoki Misato, and yes, it's anime. Here's the proof:
See? Anime. Also (controversially) this was sincerely my BEST pick for the last season and I'm ready to defend that choice against a whole zombie hoard.
You may ask yourself how a whole series about sentient giant guinea pig cars would work. I'd like to answer that question with this image.
It goes places. Seriously, though, it's a nonstop delight and cute as a button, even when it's extremely disconcerting, such as when it introduces concepts like Molcar public restrooms.
I take it over increased carbon emissions. Stop global warming, drive a guinea pig!
The series actually doesn't go into the carbon footprint of a Molcar, but it does teach us other important things: they like to party, they have a penchant for figure skating, and they can feel the existential pain of being turned into an itasha.
They also fight evil flying robot sharks and help Indiana Jones take a goddamn bath while pulling off flawless Akira-style stunts. Even within 3-minutes Molcar is just PACKED with content that you can entirely consume in about 36 minutes. I've probably watched the whole series at least four times now and it never stops being exciting, funny, and joyous.
It's a truly bonkers ride—as bonkers a ride as you'd expect seated inside of a sentient felt guinea pig. Just don't think about it too hard unless you want to experience complete Gestaltzerfall.
And since there's no dialogue in Molcar, all of it is propelled by the super stellar animation! While it initially aired on a kids block, this kind of accessibility and charm made Molcar quickly beloved throughout Japan, driving millions of views on the official YouTube channel. Now it's parked squarely into your homes via Netflix without having to worry about subtitles or anything.
Yeah, thanks as always for the absolute barebones release, guys. But it really is easy to see why it took off and why every fanartist on the planet has been eager to insert Molcars into their drawings. Love these funky little creatures.
The director, Tomoki Misato, also has a YouTube channel with some of his short student films uploaded, and they're worth checking out if you want more stop-motion goodness.
You may even find some deep Molcar lore.
He also recently did this PV for Studio WIT's new stop-motion department about a girl with a little devil living in her mouth. I have no idea what it means or why it's like this but it's definitely Cool as Heck, and almost entirely made out of "candy" aka resin.
Your last sentence there really seems to sum up his oeuvre, including Molcar.
From his YouTube channel I also really liked Look at Me Only and the trailer for his (currently unavailable) short horror-film My Little Goat. But hey these are just a few examples of all the great kinds of works out there!
Yep, there's certainly a lot more than we can cover in a single column, but considering we limited ourselves to just the past several years, that should give you an idea of how many unique artists are out there expressing themselves. Maybe some will speak to you too! You just gotta hop in your Molcar and go looking for them.
We'll be back to doing regular business next week but I hope this journey was insightful as fun for you all as it was for me! Til then we can only have pleasant dreams of what the future of anime has in store.