Sakuga Week in Review #12: 4/1/2020-4/1/2020

Vampire Kiss episode #09
Key Animation: Keiji Niikura (新倉圭司)

kbnet: The rumors have finally come true. Industry legend Keiji Niikura is here to aid his friend Haruka Kadowaki in her quest for uncompromising character acting in a TV anime context, and in the process, provides yet another excellent example of a scene that could only possibly work in animation.

Niikura’s sequence comes at the climax of the episode, which is exactly where you’d expect it. Loew’s vampire psychosis has finally made him not just terrifying and abusive, but outright dangerous – both to others and himself. He’s been badgering his secretary Alva about a missing file for episodes. She’s finally found it, but as Niikura’s cut begins, Loew tells her that it’s “just too late.”

Kadowaki loves drapery like a classical Greek sculptor, and her designs give Niikura plenty to work with to make Loew look disheveled. His suit is ill fitting and wrinkled – a fact highlighted by his hunched over pose. His comb-over falls in front of his face – a sentence that I never thought I’d say about an anime character design. The color and lighting in this production has frankly never been remarkable (or even good), but the use of low-key light – almost as if it were filmed as a live action movie – creates a sense of eeriness which has been missing from so many other scenes. Episode director Shuichi Yoneda – a fellow Studio Krasota alum – likely had something to do with it.

Loew closes in; Alva steps back. He begins chasing her through the office, chanting “TOO-LATE-TOO-LATE!” So begins a tracking shot with background animation of the sort that 3DCG has made incredibly rare – especially in as cluttered an environment as an office. Niikura’s construct and dedication to detail here is absolutely heroic. Every single book and file is being redrawn on the 1s in perfect perspective. “Is this really necessary?” you ask. Is any art really necessary? And yet here we are.

Loew violently swings his head back and forth: a metronome keeping time to his chant. “TOO-LATE-TOO-LATE!” Niikura’s timing and spacing is absolutely spot on to sell Loew’s particular visceral brand of crazy. As he passes from left to right in front of the camera, he does this weird flapping motion: just one of the many little things which characterize his body language. That said, while it is his body language that’s the most flashy part of this cut, Alva’s panicked run is just as good, if significantly more subdued and grounded than Loew’s amazing, broad, cartoony character acting. It’s almost as if Niikura animated them with two entirely different approaches to character animation.

The next cut has Loew and Alva running down a hall, showing off Loew’s amazing bird-like run-cycle, ending as Loew slips and struggles against his own momentum as he rounds the corner and follows Alva through the door. I’d like nothing better than to break down all the little pieces that sell this motion, but it’s just so dense, we’d be here all day. All I’ll say is that here’s where we can see Shinya Ohira’s influence on Niikura the most clearly. One is reminded very strongly of Ohira’s work on The Animatrix.

The following cuts as they run down the stairs would be impressive in any other context, but feel less so following the preceding two tracking shots. The composition focuses on hands and feet: a very common tool in the animator’s kit for showing personality. Yet ironically, these are some of the least expressive shots of the whole sequence.

The sequence ends with Alva holding Loew at bay with a pocket pistol. The acting here is mostly in the posing, with Alva bent over, clutching her pistol, and Loew leaning back, at the end of his rope, arms inviting her to shoot him. “Alva, do it, or I’ll fire you; do you understand? Unemployment. Can you live with that?” Inagaki confirmed on twitter that this part was Niikura working off his own layouts too, but for the final part of this scene, Tomoe Sugita takes over.

People often ask why non-sci-fi/fantasy anime are animated at all. Why can’t Liz & the Blue Bird be live action? Why can’t Vampire Kiss? After all, as Miyazaki himself said, even the greatest animator alive can’t equal a community theater actor if all that counts is how detailed the performance is. The answer is a little different every time, but the answer here is particularly poignant. This entire scene hinges on Keiji Niikura’s outlandish, cartoony, yet highly evocative and frightening character animation. For him, the question is reversed: there is no real actor who could possibly pull off such an exaggerated yet highly specific and focused performance. If they tried, it’d look absolutely hilarious and ridiculous. As a bad movie fan, I’d absolutely love to watch some poor, brave fool try this in live action. However, that is not the world we live in. Are we blessed, or are we cursed? I don’t know. All I know is, I thank my lucky stars every night for Keiji Niikura.

Supposedly he’s going to be the chief animation director on a theatrical anime next year called Wicker Man. I can’t wait.

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