Letting a Creator’s Personality Shine Through, More Crap About Shinbou

I realize this post will probably reek of BS and seem completely obvious, but I feel I should qualify my judgments when I say “such and such sucks” and “such and such owns.” Hopefully this post will give you a look into how I break things down.

While watching Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels the other night, I came to a startling realization: I really like it when a director goes balls out, bucks convention, and just makes whatever he thinks is cool. I suppose this is something I’ve always known, but I just realize it every now and again. I can’t say I’m much of a film buff, but I find I like movies like Smoking Barrels a lot. Movies with lots of guts, attitude, and wit. Incidentally, I’m also a fan of (surprise, surprise) Quentin Tarantino. However, I can’t talk about Guy Ritchie or Tarantino in the same way I can talk about anime directors, since I’m just don’t know much about them outside of what I see in their movies–and I haven’t seen all of their movies. I’m too busy watching anime!

But yeah, bucking convention. I suppose lots of directors want to make what they think is cool, but that doesn’t always mean bucking convention, nor does it mean always making something I think is cool. So we’re down to a very specific slice of entertainment that really scratches my weird itches here: Stuff that goes out of its way to not conform to established conventions, and has an attitude I can dig. This type of attitude usually involves just being up front about a lot of things, throwing subtly to the side, and doing things with a lot of style. A distinct sense of style. But that alone doesn’t cut it; the director also has to have some real obvious interests that are placed front and center throughout. They have to be passionate about their interests, and by making something awesome around this passion, they have to convince you that it’s awesome as well.

Here are some examples:

  • The aforementioned Tarantino and Ritchie. Taratino is a big film nerd and pop-culture junkie, and it shows in his movies. Ritchie clearly grew up in the midst of Lock Stock and Snatch, and that authenticity shines through. Dude also has a killer taste in music.
  • Eva’s early episodes are filled with not-at-all subtle homages to old tokusatsu shows, and it’s that passion and attitude that gives the first half its charm. Of course, everyone knows the second half is a big throwback to classic anime mindfucks the likes of Gundam, Devilman and Ideon.
  • Pizzicato Five’s music is all about paying homage to and sampling (sometimes outright copying) music Konishi Yasuharu digs, and remixing it into something energetic and fun.

So I was thinking about all these things I like, and wondered: How does my ol’ buddy Shinbou fit in? I think what strikes anyone about Shinbou’s work at first glance is a very clean and keen sense of design. The man is a trained designer, so this isn’t a surprise. But when you look even further you begin to see an appreciation for all manner of strange things: Complex metal structures, antique furniture, abstract art, and when he was younger he really liked skulls and crosses. We all have that phase, I guess. But he also has a keen ear for music, especially when it comes to old pop, as heard in seiyuu covers of Showa-era j-pop that runs in the background of Natsu no Arashi.

Shinbou’s works have their ups and downs, and these elements don’t shine as strongly in some works as they do in others (mostly by virtue of the works they’re adapted from) but these motifs are part of why I enjoy the man’s work. When he joined SHAFT, I think his work took an astronomical step upwards due to the mixture of the studio’s liberal attitude towards animation, the types of works they were handling, as well as the creative talent there. Bringing people like Oishi Tatsuya in to do their own thing along side Shinbou and all the other staff there (even inbetweeners) results in a very creatively diverse body of work in which multiple passions shine through. Bakemonogatari is particularly great because SHAFT’s prowess is matched against Nisioisin’s mad scripts, the result being a show bursting with different artists asserting their ideas of what’s cool.

I enjoy work like this because it’s extremely personal, and the personalities happen to be off-kilter people. I’m an off-kilter guy, so I can relate to them. Seeing them push their passions forward through their work establishes a personal link between me and the work, more so than work that is “safe,” and works within established conventions. Sure, I can enjoy works like these as well, but weirder stuff will always have the edge up.

One should make art for themselves–and if someone else happens to like it, that’s great, too.

As a side note, I think Shinbou is like Konishi when it comes to output: Konishi put out a ton of Pizzicato Five songs, and not all of them were great. In fact, a lot of them outright sucked, but he always put the same edge on his music, and managed to pump out a ton of hits along with his stinkers. Shinbou’s similar: He makes a lot of things, and while some of them aren’t that great (most of his 2010 work, really) each work still has a distinct edge to it that you don’t see elsewhere. And his batting average is pretty good as well.

Yamakan? He’s Nakata Yasutaka, of course… Well, that doesn’t really work, I guess.

10 thoughts on “Letting a Creator’s Personality Shine Through, More Crap About Shinbou

  1. Bear in mind that;

    – Shinbo’s style has evolved to work within severe budget constraints, moreso than most anime directors. His ability to work under these conditions is impressive, but his style has evolved to cope with them.. is he really pushing himself creatively anymore? Madoka and Bakemonogatari are the most “unconventional” Shinbo anime I can recall in a while, but aside from a few tongue-in-cheek stylistic choices, Bakemonogatari wasn’t very different from his usual work.

    – Shinbo and the Shaft animators often appear to be over-worked. It is difficult to tell whether they’re managing to pull off the effect you mention, or just falling back into their respective “comfort zones”. Regardless, the results sometimes “feel” less like they’re being lazy/rushed and more like genuine creativity.. who can tell anymore? The results are, again, sometimes very nice, but still run-of-the-mill Shino+Shaft works.

    – Shinbo relies VERY heavily on source material for just about everything except adding his own unique visual style. I’d argue that’s his contribution to the anime, but given that aspect of it one can again question whether he’s really being given the chance to push himself creatively. Everything from storyboard techniques to the same choices of voice actors tends to make his anime bleed together rather than stand apart in my mind.. and yes, that includes Bakemonogatari, which for many only stood out because of the relatively unique personality of the source material and the length of time it took to complete the project.

    Many directors and artists fall into their own niches and don’t challenge themselves, however. So don’t think I’m picking on Shinbo, I just wanted to present a couple of ideas. Madoka is the first anime in a long time where he has a chance to buck his own conventions and exercise his strengths (without it being purely superficial), and the results are speaking for themselves.

    1. Yeah, Madoka’s pretty boring, isn’t it? The direction is pretty good, I suppose–more in the tradition of what he did on The Soultaker and Yamamoto Yohko (Madoka would benefit from Watanabe Akio designs…), with the only distinct SHAFT touches being the storyboarders (which involve some outside hands as well) and the Gekidan Inu Curry parts, which aren’t even SHAFT proper, just some doujin group. What holds that show down the most is the writing, I suppose. But I’m not terribly impressed, honestly.

      Tsukuyomi and Zetsubou Sensei (!?) had better action scenes, too.

      I think budget constraints or no, Shinbou’s sense of design and visual motifs have stayed consistent over the last 20 years. Heck, compare his Yuu Yuu Hakusho episode (his directorial debut) to SoreMachi, and you’ll find more similarities than you’d imagine! At SHAFT he did have to adapt to budget constraints more than he was used to (and it was rough going at first, just take a look at the TV cut for Tsukuyomi), but I think his actual style didn’t change too heavily.

      That said, at SHAFT, him and the staff were forced to use more creative shortcuts, like the use of photographs, on-screen text, and simple but design conscious framing. I’m not sure if he’s specifically pushing just himself creatively, but at least in the golden years (2004-2008, in my opinion) both him and SHAFT were pushing themselves to find ways to make something cheap but interesting looking. What I’m saying is that at SHAFT it seems like there’s way more group collaboration when it comes to productions (this is the impression I get from reading interviews and the like) as opposed to his work at other studios (Yamamoto Yohko at JC STAFF, Soultaker at Tatsunoko, Cossette at Doume) where it was clearly just Shinbou calling the shots.

      I think his work (that is, work with his name it–take notice of the “series director” credit for most SHAFT shows then try to figure out if the show is more Shinbou or the “series director”) has really improved with the help of other creative people by his side. So yes, under the budget constraints, I feel Shinbou and SHAFT are actually pushing themselves creatively, at least they were during those golden years.

      I will concur with you on your point about comfort zones, but I think it’s easy to pick out the crap from the good stuff. Kind of like how PIZZICATO FIVE’s album version of Mata Koi Ni Ochiteshimatta is way better compared to the one on their best of album. They both have his same unique spin put on them, just one is actually thought out and well composed while the other one is just lazy. Kind of like how Maria Holic, Arakawa Under The Bridge and (sigh) DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND are just kind of thrown together with the usual SHAFT trimmings, while Tsukuyomi, Zetsubou Sensei, Bakemonogatari, and SoreMachi are well thought out and use those techniques effectively as opposed to just whenever.

      And yes, upon reading the original works some SHAFT things are based on, he has been leaning heavily on the originals a lot… lately. Tsukuyomi is visually very different from its manga counterpart, and Pani Poni Dash is completely different from the Pani Poni manga. NEGIMA!? is also very different, but it was supposed to be. But even in shows like Zetsubou Sensei which are pretty faithful, he can really mix things up, as seen throughout most of Zoku and some of Zan. Bakemonogatari is a novel, and the only visual ques taken from the illustrations were the backgrounds, the rest was Watanabe Akio, Shinbou and Oishi working their magic, and I felt the directorial style there was the perfect evolution of SHAFT and Shinbou’s work up until that point, and it complemented the work perfectly. But unlike you, his work–at least his good works–are all really distinct in my mind. Heck, all three seasons of Zetsubou Sensei are distinct in my mind. And yeah, he uses a lot of the same voice actors. I like it. Whatever.

      So what I’m saying is that SHAFT and Shinbou are truly creative–even if a lot of it is putting their own visual spin on already strong source material… until a point. A lot of their later work falls back on their old conventions, and I honestly want to see them break out of this pattern. At least Madoka’s going to back to the style of Shinbou’s pre-SHAFT work, but the characters are just so boring…

      1. Agreed.. my criticism was really just that Shinbo hasn’t been as creative now as he was many years ago – although you see flashes of creativity, there are reasons why he’s not being very creative anymore (at least he still gets good people to do the OP/ED for his shows).

        There’s no denying that Shinbo and Shaft are “creative”, I just wonder how much of that creativity stems from the source material (especially these days), as well as how much of it is simply old creativity being recycled. But that’s really neither here nor there, is it? My standards for creativity are much higher than most, and let’s face it: you don’t have to try very hard to look creative compared to the average anime :)

        Personally, I suppose my real beef with Shinbo is that all the stuff he works on tends to feel eerily similar to me, like I’ve been watching the same show over and over with only minor variations. True, the source material and shows are often very different in mood and tone. But once Shinbo sinks into it, it seems to be put through a filter that makes it the same as every other show he’s worked on. It bugs me, and I’m not entirely sure why.

        As for Madoka, it may be dull to an experienced viewer or one who wasn’t craving a “dark” mahou-shoujo as much as most of the fandom did (apparently). I do however find it’s visual and audio dynamics quite creative at times, even if they aren’t unexpected or particularly original. And that’s really what the fandom wanted, so Shinbo certainly has a winner on his hands.

        1. I think it’s just a matter of you not liking his style. That’s what people with a distinct style do… they use it. But I will admit that after THE GOLDEN YEARS things kind of fell apart. Natsu no Arashi is p. laid back and is probably more akin to a low budget Tenamonya Voyagers as far as its style goes (though Tenamonya Voyagers is 90s as fuck) and Bakemonogatari improved upon old techniques and threw some new ones into the works. But Maria Holic, Arakawa and Vampire Bund (sigh) don’t bring anything new to the table. Especially Arakawa, which is just a waste of time. I mean, I watched it all, but I wasn’t happy about it. I actually like Maria Holic a bit near the end, and Vampire Bund is okay, since if you squint you can almost see something like Cossette crossed with Soultaker with a helping of cheesy B-movies on top.

          SoreMachi is more a return to classic 90’s era Shinbou. That doesn’t really bring anything new, but it’s well done.

          I don’t consider myself experienced, I just think the characters totally lack impact. I mean, compare a character from Bakemonogatari to a character from Madoka. Sure, Madoka’s overall story is probably stronger than any of Bakemonogatari’s individual arcs (those arcs are more clever thus far, though) since it’s drawn out, but what’s the point of a good story if the characters aren’t good? Of course, it’s not like Shinbou has any control over that…

          But yeah the technical part of it is okay. I don’t really like the designs.

          I think people only like Madoka because it’s straight forward and not as tongue-in-cheek or fast paced like the types of works I enjoy.

          1. The thing is, I like Shinbo’s style. Otherwise I wouldn’t watch his anime – many of them have little merit beyond a bit of visual flair, after all. But as you’ve pointed out, he really hasn’t done much past the “golden age” to stand out, despite working on so many titles. I can only stand so much novelty before it wears off.

            If I have to try to pinpoint “why” his style irks me, it’s just that – I’ve grown tired of it. These days I only like his anime when the source material is strong (Natsu no Arashi’s first season), or when he has enough time and budget to really improve the anime with his style (as in Soredemo).

            I pick Bakemonogatari as an example, because to me it’s the same old Shinbo style I’ve seen for years. He just tried to distract us, by adding in a ton of kanji/animation frames, so we won’t notice how un-animated the show really is. Yet I still like it.. not because of Shinbo, but because NisioisiN’s dialogue carries it. If you rob of that dialogue there is not much left to like, and you might as well compare it to the likes of Bund.

            So while I criticize Shinbo, it’s because I wish he was given the chance to do better. I know he has a lot more potential to explore his creative side, and I’ve love to see it. It’s clear that hasn’t got that much talent for anime-original shows, but given a strong manga, and a high enough budget to support his style, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could create a proper masterpiece.

            I don’t think Madoka will be that masterpiece, but at least while I watch it I get less of that “this is a Shinbo anime” feeling the I usually do.. maybe that’s why I don’t mind it as much as usual.

  2. @Hogart (the comment thread is getting kind of silly as far as formatting goes)

    It’s getting to the point where we’re splitting hairs simply over taste, but I think getting on Bakemonogatari’s case for being fairly static is kind of cheap, since, like, it’s a dialogue driven show. People seem to have this idea that cheap=bad and lavishly animated=good… which is wrong. I don’t think those techniques distract, but instead enhance the work. The kanji specifically does well to complement the wordplay prevalent in the dialogue. And it looks cool.

    I will concede that the least interesting part of Bakemonogatari was Kanabru’s arc, but I think the rest is quite good.

    I kind of agree with you, I just think the reason you and others like Madoka is because it’s reining back and going more mainstream, which I think is a step below what SHAFT can do. Also someone liking Madoka over Bakemonogatari kind of just makes me mad. ‘Cause I’m a nerd.

    1. Hey now, I don’t hate Bakemonogatari :) Nor do I think Madoka is any better (but it’s no worse so far, despite it’s more mainstream structure).

      My criticism for Bakemonogatari is simply a disappointment in Shinbo’s performance. I don’t fault him for it, since they clearly had time and money trouble on that project from day one. Although it’s tough to know what else he could have done for such a dialogue-heavy anime with his budget, just relying on kanji-cards doesn’t really spell “creativity” to me.. it was cute at first, but quickly got old (others will disagree, but that’s fine).

      I wouldn’t use the word “like” to describe my enjoyment of Madoka. It’s too early to tell if I truly “like” it, but so far it’s enjoyable enough.. right up there with the likes of Merry and Zombie. Whether I enjoy it as much as Bakemonogatari is up to the rest of the series, but artistically it seems to be aiming lower but trying a lot harder than Bakemonogatari did.. whether that’s a good thing or not is beyond me.

      1. I think it only seems like it’s trying harder because Aniplex put more ¥¥¥ and outside staff behind its production. I’m under the impression Bakemonogatari was SHAFT’s usual “oh, we only have 20 guys in this building and a tight schedule” deal. I think it tries hard, it’s just a lack of resources.

        Re: Kanji: I have a typography fetish, so…

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