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.
After working primarily as teaching assistant at Toei Animation, he assumed the position of ‘assistant director’ on Utena due to Ikuhara. Kaneko didn’t have that much practical experience as director at that time, so his work on Utena certainly shaped his style a lot. Once you go through his work, Ikuhara‘s influence on him is easily noticable, particularly in his visual language. Compared to Ikuhara, he’s much more of a comedy director, though. There’s a lot in his directorial style that reminds me of the typical (romantic) comedy direction of the 1990s (along the lines of Hiroaki Sakurai), and naturally there are also Utena vibes. The other staff members on Utena apparently called him ‘ChuChu Director’ since he was supervising the scenes with ChuChu on all episodes, so the more light-hearted ones. After Utena (TV), he went on to direct two TV Series for J.C.STAFF, namely ‘Alice SOS’ and ‘Spiral’, both of which had openings directed by Mamoru Hosoda (the connection should be obvious). From 2004 onwards he’s been mainly involved in Bones productions, including the series of his former Utena co-staff member Takuya Igarashi (Ouran High School Host Club, Soul Eater, Star Driver), of course. This year, he reunited with Ikuhara to help him out on his new show ‘Mawaru Penguindrum’, where Kaneko directed/storyboarded the comedy-centric #4 & #16 and did some storyboarding for #11. In latter episode he obviously was in charge of storyboarding Ringo’s fantasy world, since that kind of sequence is a typical stylistic trait of his and episode 4 was full of it.
His usual way of directing comedy scenes includes deformed characters, on-screen elements (such as writing or bubbles with the characters’ faces), visualized thoughts (often in glorious shoujo manga aesthetics) and letting the characters delve into in their own fantasy worlds. Some examples from his ‘Darker than Black’, ‘Ouran High School Host Club’ and ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ episodes:
Another newcomer at Utena’s time – even more so than Shingo Kaneko – yet Ikuhara appointed him as assistant director. According to an Animage interview (Animage 06/97 supplement about Utena), Takahashi was originally invited by Shinya Hasegawa (whom he had known from vocational school) to participate as key animator, but when Ikuhara asked him what he wanted to do, he said he would like to direct in future. That was enough for Ikuhara to entrust him with the position of assistant director and director of crucial episodes like the first and last one. Just like Kaneko, he remained at J.C.STAFF after Utena and directed his first TV series there (Orphen: The Revenge). Later on, he left J.C.STAFF and joined Madhouse, where he’s been involved in many of their TV series as a rotation episode director ever since. Like nearly all of the ‘Ikuhara school‘ directors, he’s very good at framing the going-ons on the screen in an interesting way and puts considerable emphasis on the envirmonment/backgrounds as well. Especially episode 22 of ‘Orphen: The Revenge’ (directed/storyboarded by Takahashi himself) is a good place to check out his style, the wide horizontal compositions embellished with Shichiro Kobayashi‘s backgrounds of surreal architecture make it feel a lot like Utena:
Takuya Igarashi, being one of the three major ‘Sailor Moon’ directors, had been a close associate of Ikuhara since their time together at Toei Animation. As Igarashi was still a member of Toei Animation back then, he used an alias (Jūgo Kazayama) for his work on Utena. Both Ikuhara & Igarashi started out in the same environment, which is certainly one of the reasons for their similar styles, but especially when you have a look at Igarashi‘s post-Utena work, it’s impossible to miss how much stimulation he received from Ikuhara. Igarashi‘s directing is very close in spirit to Ikuhara‘s, his reunion work with Sailor Moon & Utena screenwriter Enokido (‘Ouran High School Host Club’) is probably the best example. Particularly the episodes directed by Igarashi himself are framed in a typical Ikuhara kind of way with classic Utena shots all over the place:
Igarashi is certainly a shoujo anime director through and through, but he’s a bit less metaphorical in his approach than Ikuhara. So in a sense, he is ‘Ikuhara light’ with a somewhat more approachable style of directing for people who aren’t into shoujo stuff (Ikuhara went further into that direction with Penguindrum, though).
I think Mamoru Hosoda needs no big introduction, most anime fans probably know him for movies like ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ and ‘Summer Wars’. He began his career in the anime industry as animator at Toei Animation with the intention of becoming director later on. He made his early steps into directing on Utena and working under Ikuhara, whom Hosoda considers as his mentor. The stylistic similarities between these two directors are quite obvious, even though Hosoda‘s directing is less expressionistic than Ikuhara‘s. Hosoda depicts the worlds in his anime more naturalistically, somewhat reminiscent of another anime director who had a lot of influence on him, namely Kazuhiro Furuhashi. Still, his directorial devices and cinematic technique scream ‘Ikuhara‘, beginning from horizontal screen compositions to the rhythm of his storyboarding and also the way he uses metaphors.
‘Ashita no Nadja’ #26 is probably the episode where Hosoda‘s directing is closest to Ikuhara‘s. It’s one of my favorite Hosoda episodes, emotionally powerful and beautifully crafted from beginning to end. Many of the elaborate layouts in this episode were corrected by Hosoda‘s own hand, which led to some of the most memorable scenes of the entire series and beyond.
Despite doing no actual directing on the series, Nagahama was deeply involved even in the pre-production of Utena. He was the one who gave concrete form to Utena’s world based on Ikuhara‘s mental images and ideas. Things like the dueling forest, the school building, Anthy’s garden, the student council room and most of the other architecture and environments were designed by Nagahama. In addition, he was animation director on several episodes and did some key animation as well. In the process he had certainly absorbed Ikuhara‘s approach to staging and layouts as became obvious later on. Much of Nagahama‘s post-Utena work reflects Ikuhara‘s directorial style in one way or another, although it’s often not as obvious as with, say, Hosoda and Igarashi. Apparently, Nagahama himself said in a Newtype interview (issue 05/2005) that Ikuhara had had profound influence on him, which doesn’t come as a surprise if you know his work on ‘Fruits Basket’. The two episodes he directed (#18 & #25) stand out for their Utena-like direction and the theatrical elocution, and particularly his ‘Fruits Basket’ opening is ‘Ikuhara school‘ through and through.
Nobuyuki Takeuchi is probably not as well-known as some of the above-mentioned directors since he’s more of an animator, but he’s still a very interesting artist. He’s generally associated with SHAFT, being involved in many of their projects since the mid-90s. His debut as animation director was on SHAFT‘s very first anime series (as prime contractor), namely ‘Juuni Senshi Bakuretsu Eto Rangers’ in 1995. Interestingly, Shingo Kaneko and Mamoru Hosoda (storyboard debut) also worked on that series, so SHAFT handling several episodes of Utena isn’t that surprising if you know about this link (Takeuchi was the animation director of the Utena SHAFT episodes). I think Takeuchi‘s exposure to Ikuhara is one of the reasons why SHAFT moved towards stylistically offbeat anime somewhat in Utena’s spirit. He has certainly been influential enough over the last decade to bring about such a change. Sure, Akiyuki Shinbo plays a huge role in this, too, since he apparently got stimulated a lot by Osamu Dezaki as well, so Ikuhara and Shinbo are more or less in the same tradition (Shinbo ripping off Ikuhara – like some people claim – is certainly not the case in my book). Both Shinbo‘s and Ikuhara‘s style have their roots in Dezaki‘s work and consequently in the philosophy of Tezuka Productions, which is the school of pursuing maximum effect with limited animation. Still, if you have a look at Nobuyuki Takeuchi‘s work at SHAFT, it’s apparent that his approach is much more in the fashion of Ikuhara than in anybody else’s. The stylistic devices that Ikuhara brought to anime are deeply rooted in Takeuchi‘s work, just have a look at MoonPhase or Bakemonogatari. It’s also very evident in ‘Maria Holic’, where he was in charge of concept design, storyboard (#1) and key animation. The planar screen compositions reminiscent of stage plays, the use of silhouettes and black faces, the design of the sky, the metaphorical images and empty backgrounds make it feel a lot like Ikuhara‘s work: