Anime for the Season – 12 Days of Anime(tion)

Rita and Whatsit

Nobaddy: Rita and Whatsit is an anime adaption of a series of french children’s books, and stars a girl named Rita and her talking pet dog Whatsit. Rita is decorating a tree for christmas, a concept Whatsit is unfamiliar with. Rita tells Whatsit about a couple of christmas traditions, and also about Santa which gets him excited to receive presents, however after ending up eating the cookies and carrots left for Santa, Whatsit gets worried he’s not getting any presents.

The visuals keep a faithful resemblance to children’s book art, and the execution of both art and stories are very reminiscent of Weston Woods and similar kids book adaptations. The art and animation are pleasant and delicately crafted. It’s a nice cartoon, but I do not have much to say about it, but it does fill me with a very joyous emotion of waking up early on christmas day to watch random christmas related cartoon on morning television.

animegolem: For my money Rita and Whatsit is one of the most lovely anime adaptations ever made and a model for what I’d like to see more of in anime. Quite a few episodes of the series have notable staff but this one directed and storyboard by Masaaki Kidokoro largely doesn’t. Animation was handled by Yoshiaki Fukamachi and Saya Takamatsu with animation direction by Yasuko Sakuma. 

The thing is –any staff related “limitations” don’t show on screen or at least hidden by the intrinsic appeal of the simple characters. It’s a simple cartoon that perfectly captures the anticipation of christmas eve going into christmas morning. Staying up all night despite trying to sleep.

And who knew Santa liked carrots?

ibcf: It’s a familiar story: a child eagerly awaits the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas eve, and celebrates, stresses, and loses sleep over the jolly fat man’s imminent arrival. This isn’t one of the solo auteur Rita and Whatsit episodes, but the show’s irresistibly pleasant style and high quality of art across the board make it an enjoyable watch regardless. The background art merits special mention—sketchy lines and blotches of paint that fade into the edges like a minimalist picture book, only showing as much detail as needed. I like the Christmas tree that consists mainly of green squiggly pencil lines.

Whatsit is a fun character, he’s basically a chubbier and slightly dimmer version of Snoopy with an adult man’s voice. The red circle around his eye invites comparisons to the Target dog mascot. He also gets the funniest acting and expressions. I think that element of slight weirdness helps keep the show from getting too cutesy and sappy.

Urusei Yatsura Episode 79

Nobaddy: While technically not a christmas episode, it does deal with a christmas tree so it’s great viewing for the holiday season. The Mendous invite the extended cast of Urusei Yatsura for “Summer Christmas”, which involves climbing a giant christmas tree.

If you’re aware of Urusei Yatsura, you should know what to expect. If not, this episode is a rollercoaster ride of hilarious gags, entertaining characters and out there ideas. A race up a giant christmas tree is such a goofy idea, and with the passionate cast of Urusei Yatsura it’s a race to remember. Great animation, gags, beautiful backgrounds and paintings reminds us that Urusei Yatsura is indeed great. If you’ve never seen Urusei Yatsura before, this episode will probably convince you to do so. Urusei Yatsura just has a level of energy powering it that’s unheard within television animation and even when it comes to theatrical and independent animation very few films compare, and Urusei Yatsura Episode 79 is an excellent example. 

animegolem: This episodes opens like all good Christmas toons, in a barrage of gunfire. The opening scene is full of Kanada-ish poses and effects, Yamashita?

Generally the episode is indicative of the Hayashi episodes in this era. It’s jam packed with great drawings and has a pace that bounces back and forth between calm and madcap at a moments notice. The number of unique background characters and gags the show packs in are impressive. 
I want an octopus pond and christmas in space sounds cool.

ibcf: “Patently ridiculous concepts taken dead seriously” might as well be Urusei Yatsura’s motto. To be clear, the show itself and its characters are well aware of how silly a life-and-death contest to climb a 68-story tall indoor Christmas tree is. What is remarkable is the effort that the artists and animators are willing to commit to what amounts to a visual pun. Wild downshots effectively convey the dizzying height of the monster conifer rising out of the abyss into which the characters frequently plummet. Action sequences are animated with a greater flair and technical proficiency than many serious anime achieve. The characters seem to get caught up in the inspired craziness, even after having shared the audience’s incredulousness a few scenes prior. Even relatively serious cast members like Sakura soon find themselves committed to ascending the outsized holiday decoration.

Takafumi Hayashi’s animation direction puts this particular episode over the top, in a quite literal sense. More than any other Urusei Yatsura director, he is willing to allow the characters to veer wildly off-model for the sake of funny faces and strong expression. I want to highlight the scene where Megane and Chibi (the pair of high school twerps who cheat their way in) are losing their balance on the railing—their faces deform into nearly abstract shapes; their jaws coming unhinged and their eyes squinting into slivers. Their expressions are entirely removed from the realm of anatomical possibility, yet they are graphically pleasing and perfectly communicate real human feelings, and moreover they are hilarious.

Needless to say, this episode is an absolute classic and I highly recommend watching Urusei Yatsura, the Hayashi episodes in particular.

Saint tail ep 12 

Nobaddy: Sometimes, in this commercial, capitalized holiday season it can be easy to forget why so many of us get together and celebrate. The reason of course being when God gave Meimi the power to become Saint Tail, who steals back stolen goods and gives them back to their original owner. A girl gets her pet stolen by another kid, and it’s up to Saint Tail to rescue her. You might wonder, what does this have to do with christmas? Well she has to save the pet by christmas! Can she do it?

A thrilling cartoon, filled with stunning drama. Not only is Saint Tail having issues facing her toughest task yet, but Saint Tail forgetting to send a note to kid detective Asuka Jr. leads to severe consequences.

My favorite part of this cartoon is the skies. The night sky here might be the most beautiful in anime, just a wonderful. The colors and backgrounds are beautiful, with Saint Tail having to pull her heist during a snowy christmas night. In the end, the viewer of the cartoon is rewarded with the sight of Lizard Santa, giving presents to all good boys and girls on christmas eve. Including giving the girl back her beloved pet. Saint Tail has once again saved the day, with both God and Lizard Santa on her side.

animegolem: I enjoyed this well enough but didn’t come out with a ton to say about it. The standout for me was the lovely background art. I like that Santa is a Lizard and the kids are cute, particularly in the closing scenes when “santa” comes to town.

The show had some great impact frames.The conversation over the phone with Saint Tail hiding her identity was well framed.

Honestly the biggest standout really is all of the great Hirotoshi Takaya cuts in the OP. Beyond his particular timing there is a very specific approach he has to hands that’s quite appealing. Arms loose, wrist bent slightly forward with curved and almost blocky fingers. He was the ace animator on Detective Conan for years and it’s always fun to put a name to a face you already knew.

ibcf: For those who aren’t aware, Saint Tail is a cute magical girl thief who commits virtuous heists in service of the church. In this episode she saves a little girl’s Christmas by returning her stolen pet, which happens to be a lizard. What’s not to love?

I have a soft spot for the 90’s shojo aesthetic. It seems like Japanese character designers got cuteness down to a science at this point—more stylish angles, more even proportions of the heads, ample use of negative space on the faces (with the noses often reduced to dots), and increasingly obsessive detail in the eyes and hair. Saint Tail falls right in the middle of the decade, and its very 90’s look carries a lot of its appeal for me, along with its goofy concept. My one issue with this style is that it seems to often tend towards stiffness, in expression if not in action. I’m not sure if the aesthetic drove a change of approach to acting or if they both simply happened to be trends at the same time; perhaps the more graphically defined and settled-upon look demanded correspondingly rigid symbols of emotion? But anyhow, back to the episode.

“Stiffness” notwithstanding, there are some moments of nice character animation here, particularly when Saint Tail backs across the room in shock after coming face to face with the lizard. Neat stylized motion and lots of fun poses. This being a heartwarming Christmas episode, much of the runtime is devoted to mood and largely static shots rather than action, but the character drawings are always appealing. The backgrounds are also consistently gorgeous. I love the night shots of the city covered by snow during the whole phone booth sequence. Of course the highlight of the episode is Lizard Santa, soaring majestically across the night sky on his party balloons, dropping an impossible quantity of presents from his tiny sack to the grateful townspeople below. Props to whoever came up with this truly left turn ending.

Hidamari Sketch Episode 12

Nobaddy:  Hidamari Sketch is always a joy to watch, as it’s many elements build up to a very pleasant experience to watch. The show stars an ensemble of art school students, namely Yuno, Miyako, Sae and Hiro. There is a lot to enjoy here, such as it’s clever use of graphic design elements. A studio Shaft production, who are known for using graphic design in an “artsy” way, Hidamari Sketch remains one of the more clever implementations, using it’s design to enhance the mood of the show. Especially this first season often feels like the product of the characters artistic ambitions. In the end the anime adapts the manga from Ume Aoki in a unique way which stands out, while respecting the characters and the world they inhabit.

Episode 12 of the series, which is the christmas episode of course, is the last of the series (Excluding OVAs). As thus, it can be tricky to discuss it as a standalone episode, but I’ll try. The episode starts out with the girls anxiously awaiting the arrival of Sae’s sister, who is coming for christmas, which who turns out is already knocking on the door. The rest of the episode deals with the girls celebration of christmas. Hidamari Sketch is considered a slice of life show, and it couldn’t be more true for this series. The series really does feel like you’re watching slices of peoples’ lives.  Screw Disney bringing their characters to life with elaborate character animation, the structure of Hidamari Sketch brings it’s characters to life. When it comes the episodes art, immediately noticeable as you reach the halfway point is Akiyuki Shinbo himself storyboarding the second half of the episode. A rare direct contribution from the studio head, the layouts of the scenes are often elaborate and creative. I find Hidamari Sketch extraordinarily hard to write about (this is my third draft of what’s supposed to just be quickly written down thoughts!) but I really do like this cartoon. It’s a nice cartoon.

animegolem: Watching the final episode of a series out of context was probably a poor idea so I feel bad judging it harshly.

I’m a big fan of UPA and design driven cartoons generally so I’ve always struggled to figure out why I don’t get much out of Shaft’s aesthetic. In theory design forward anime should appeal right?

The driving idea behind the 50’s modernist style was unification. What can be done to bring all the elements on screen onto a single plane? Several people in the UPA studio talked about animation made as if off a printing press.

While both are “design forward” the mid 2000’s Shaft idea seems to be one much more playing with clashing styles. In one scene we are in a largely normal room and then for the next cut the characters in the same room but the background is just screentones.

I’m left asking myself, why? The imagery often looks compelling enough on its own but taken as a whole I don’t understand what motivates the choices. What relation does their presence or absence have to the ongoing scene? I could understand if it was a constant choice but the shifting just left me confused.

My favorite shots in the episode were the characters laid out on what almost looks like an architectural blueprint and shot from the sky. I also like the very wide face cut aways.

Maybe if I took the series as a whole or looked at more of the filmography I would come to understand the aesthetic choices but in a vacuum much of this episode felt like more for the sake of more and I was left very cold. 

ibcf: Most of my favorite cartoons are noteworthy as showcases for distinctive or impressive animation. This episode of Hidamari Sketch takes the opposite approach: the animation is very much secondary to the highly stylized direction. Just about every scene is punctuated by jarring cuts, closeups, live-action elements, and constantly shifting backgrounds of abstract patterns and Ben-Day dots. The characters, while generally static, are often stretched into ludicrous degrees of super-deformity, not as much acting as a bag of quirky visual shorthands. Rarely a scene goes by without some offbeat camera angles or layout ideas.

The overall effect of all this is a flamboyant, artsy vibe that drives the episode at least as much as the actual characters and story. My initial impression was that the heavy-handed style belied (or made irrelevant) any sort of substance, though on subsequent viewings, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. To be sure the characters amount to little more than moe ciphers, but there seems to be an earnest theme of friendship and independent living. It’s hard to deny the eccentric directing often feels weird for the sake of being weird, but there’s a consistency to it that gives it a certain rhythm and logic. At any rate, I find it more interesting than a straight approach would have been.

Title basically translates to “A Really Fun Christmas” or “Fun Christmas for good boys and girls”

Nobaddy: A 25 minute christmas special of the “From All of Us” category, with 2 bears presenting cartoon shorts. Essentially a collection of christmas-related music videos, with traditional christmas songs sung in Japanese. If “Julesangen” from the earlier dampened the christmas mood, then these cartoons from Oh Pro are sure to make you the jolliest christmas fan, singing christmas songs to your pets and spending 100s of dollars on christmas decorations. The shorts are diverse, but always beautifully crafted. The two bears presenting the shorts between the skits give the special a unified feeling. Had this been released outside of Japan, I think it could have become a yearly christmas favorite for many.

My favorite shorts include the opening segment, which is just beautiful. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town features a crowd of santas (who seem to have the ability to turn other people into more santas) running around town delivering gifts. It’s a lot of fun. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” features beautiful paintings of woodland creatures celebrating christmas. Despite me noting favorites, every cartoon here is fun and great to watch. I recommend watching this every year together with other great Japanese christmas cartoons, like MOM Productions Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Mushi Pro Frosty the Snowman.

animegolem: This VHS special was produced by the animation studio Oh Production. While the studio is not really a major name anymore they were one of the great background studios throughout anime history supporting projects from Toei to Ghibli.

The first short in this package is animated by Toshitsugu Saida, famous for providing all Key Animation for the classic film Gauche the Cellist. The film is a great blend of simple characters over scratched out backgrounds.

Jingle Bells is animated by studio founder Koichi Murata, who was an essential element to almost all of the early world masterpiece theater series. Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer by Junko Ikeda is also a favorite.

Kazuo Komatsubara was an essential part of basically every Go Nagai related Toei anime in the 1970s as well as the designer of Matsumoto series like Yamato, Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. Komatsubara was active from Tiger Mask until Junkers come home. He animated Awatenbou no Santa Claus.

That’s just a small sampling but should give the idea. This package is unarguably full of childlike and often limited shorts but it gives a unique chance to see some great animators work in a completely different register. 

ibcf: Delightful cartoon package featuring well-known Christmas songs animated by some of Oh Pro’s greatest talents. One of my favorite bits is the “Ode to Joy” segment that introduces the film, a beautifully illustrated and understated piece in which animals row boats across a lake at night. I also like the cute Tadahiko Horiguchi-esque rendition of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (apparently they wanted Horiguchi but weren’t able to fit him in due to time constraints) and the dancing bunnies of the soft and lovely still illustrations in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The multitudinous Santas in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” are fun to watch, and I like the cartoony kid designs that look like throwbacks to the sort of shows Oh Pro worked on in the 70’s. All the segments are worth seeing, and the film as a whole is a thoroughly fun and festive way to celebrate the holiday season.

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