I think now – while ‘Mawaru Penguindrum’ is getting a lot of attention – is a good time to do a post on how Kunihiko Ikuhara and his previous anime (‘Shoujo Kakumei Utena’) have left a mark on the industry. When I saw this blog post from ghostlightning a while ago, I thought I might do something similar, but focus on the directors and the way they were influenced by Ikuhara‘s approach to directing/staging instead. Ikuhara‘s style might not be everyone’s cup of tea due to the shoujo (manga) aesthetics, but those who can get over that are in for a real treat. His directing is tricky, fun, original, and he also knows well how to capture the audience’s attention and interest. Ikuhara‘s usual stylistic & narrative devices include pretense and bluffs as well as metafiction and, above all, metaphors. His enthusiasm for theatre led to one of the most apparent stylistic traits of his work, namely a stage play-like presentation with a mise-en-scène policy of showing only what really needs to be shown, maintaining a tight control over the screen at any time. So in other words, he doesn’t aim to make a ‘live-action’-like anime that orients itself more or less by reality, but one where the images themselves become a strong narrative tool (which is especially true for Utena).
Once you grow accustomed to Ikuhara‘s staging, the direction of many other anime might look pretty superficial all of a sudden. His way of presentation has still a rather unconsumed aura even to this day, even though many of his ideas were adapted by his disciples and other directors. Of course, Ikuhara didn’t establish his style out of nothing, but he obviously took Osamu Dezaki‘s anime as a reference point for his own work, just have a look at anime like ‘Oniisama e…’ or ‘The Rose of Versailles’. Ikuhara himself has mentioned that he had gotten stimulated/influenced by Dezaki, even as recently as April this year, when Dezaki died. Most anime directors were influenced by Dezaki in some way, but in Ikuhara‘s work the influence is especially strong, and that’s certainly not just due to the surface resemblance. Their directing is similar in a more profound way, like how they bring about feelings and emotions in the viewer. One common instrument of both is ‘obliqueness’, something that’s quite uncomfortable for humans, just think of a picture hanging on the wall at an oblique angle, there’s a visceral feeling that something’s wrong. Similarly, the use of obliqueness in the scene/layout direction leads to a feeling that something is not right and consequently to an odd atmosphere:
Even if the influence from Dezaki is still very obvious in Ikuhara‘s work (in fact on the narrative side of things as well), he took this foundation and added his own traits and sensibility to it. And Dezaki wasn’t the only one who shaped his style, he started out working under Junichi Sato at Toei Animation after all. The way Ikuhara handles comedy, in particular, has a very Sato-ish feeling. And considering what Mamoru Hosoda points out in this interview, Sato wasn’t the only mentor of Ikuhara. I was kind of surprised when I first read this, but apparently Shigeyasu Yamauchi (Casshern Sins, Yumekui Merry) was Ikuhara‘s mentor (as well), which makes sense once you think about it. In the same interview, Hosoda declares that Ikuhara was his own mentor – which is pretty obvious once you compare their styles. Overall, I feel Yamauchi vibes much more strongly in Hosoda‘s anime (his One Piece movie being the first example that comes to mind) than in Ikuhara‘s. Well, back when Hosoda was an animator at Toei Animation, Yamauchi was still a big shot and an influential figure there, and Hosoda said himself that he had been influenced by Yamauchi. As Yamauchi directed ‘Penguindrum’ #18, the connection to Ikuhara seems still to be there even if they haven’t worked on anything together for a long, long time (since 1991 when Ikuhara was assistant director on Yamauchi‘s ‘Magical Taruruuto-kun’ movie if I’m not mistaken).
To come back to Utena and its legacy, I’ll list below the directors whose works were most influenced by Utena/Ikuhara and who could be more or less described as Ikuhara‘s disciples or followers. Utena was a hotbed for talent due to Ikuhara giving most major staff members the freedom to incorporate their own ideas, which gave many of those young directors the chance to try out new things and shape their style in an environment of (relative) creative freedom. Many of them turned out to be great directors, with some even becoming real stars of the anime industry. Ikuhara‘s influence has reached even far beyond his co-staff members on Utena, he has always had a good eye for talent and has openend the path into the anime industry for many gifted creators, such as his friend from high school days and scriptwriter of Utena, Yoji Enokido, or Ichiro Okouchi, who is most famous for writing Sunrise shows like ‘Planetes’ and ‘Code Geass’. Just like on ‘Penguindrum’ with young talents such as Shouko Nakamura, Mitsue Yamazaki and Katsunori Shibata, Ikuhara put many up-and-coming creators in charge of crucial positions on Utena as well. I’m aware that some of the directors listed below had been influenced by Ikuhara even before Utena (such as Takuya Igarashi), but I’ll still concentrate on their roles on Utena since it was the first anime where Ikuhara really went all out; he left Toei Animation due to the insufficient creative freedom there after all.