I Can’t Think of a Good Title for Yoshihiko Umakoshi and The Owl in the Rafters

Posted on Mar 21 2012

Welcome back to the Owl in the Rafters, where I, Tyto, your host, not only can’t think of a title for the week, but also desperately need to find a better way to open this article than saying “Welcome back” every week. In other news, information on the new 2012 Saint Seiya TV series due to air this April 1st has been causing a stir around the web. The new series will be titled Saint Seiya Omega, and has thus far been met with somewhat divided but generally energetic reception from fans world wide. The main point of controversy with older Saint Seiya fans is the change in art style, something that I’ll go into greater detail with just a little bit later. For now I want to start with a short overview on the original Saint Seiya‘s history.

In English some fans may be more familiar with the title Knights of the Zodiac which is a somewhat more self descriptive title. The franchise started, as so many do, as a standard serialized manga published in Shueisa’s Weekly Shounen Jump during the mid 80s and which continued into the early 90s. The author and artist, Masami Kurumada was actually already a fairly popular and successful manga artist by the time he started on Saint Seiya in 1986, but the series would prove to be his greatest success. (to date anyhow, the man is still alive after all) It would also cement his reputation for specializing in fight series starring pretty-boy heroes, a strong diversifying factor at the time that helped keep his series popular with both boys and girls.

The series was an immediate success; it took eight months of weekly publications before the first collected volume of manga hit shelves and only one month after that the anime started airing on TV Asahi. Apart from being a Jump flagship title during the late 80s Saint Seiya also saw unexpectedly huge success overseas starting in France as Les Chevaliers du Zodiaque and swiftly followed by Italy, Spain, and South America; Latin American countries took to the series particularly well and it is still a classic title, considered a cornerstone to many anime fans’ childhoods, right along side the likes of shows like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Card Captor Sakura. In fact, as it stands France and Brazil have both already arranged to simulcast the new Saint Seiya Omega when it airs in April.

Other than the original 114 episode anime and this new Omega series there have been three OVAs, five feature length films, and a long line of internationally sold toys. Now, I mentioned that there has been a change in art style and I have also mentioned that there is a well established fan-base for this franchise; I assume you can put two and two together and know how poorly devoted fans tend to adapt to change, this is no exception. However, I would like to offer some reassurance and justification to the changes that have been made and shed some light on the history of the man responsible for the bulk of those changes. That man is Yoshihiko Umakoshi.

If the name isn’t terribly familiar to you it might be because Umakoshi is best known as a character designer and animation director, both roles that don’t see a lot of the limelight, what with attentions more often focused on overall project directors, writers, musical composers, and actors. Despite being a fairly unheard of name outside of Japan he is not a new face to the industry, as relative obscurity might normally suggest; Umakoshi has been animating since the mid 90s and has had a hand as Key Animator in dozens of popular and successful titles since then.

Like I already mentioned, Umakoshi has a long list of titles under his belt as a professional but I have no intention of going over all of them, even just in passing. Instead I’d like to focus solely on the titles in which he acted as both Character Designer and Chief Animation Director, effectively cropping out all the titles in which he either didn’t work on character designs, didn’t work as animation director, or only worked as animation director on a few episodes of a series. I will point out that, to his credit as a man well known for dynamic animation, he has directed Opening and Ending credit animation sequences for all of the following shows: Gokinjo Monogatari/ Neighborhood Story, Ashita no Nadja, Jubei-chan: The Ninja Girl 2, Otogi Zoushi, Zipang, and in more recent years Mawaru Penguindrum and Toriko.

One of Umakoshi’s first major dual roles as animation director and character designer was on the 1994 Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter OVA, based on the Baki the Grappler manga, known and sold solely on its fight scenes and a largely well received series over all. The art style held closely to its source material so the character design aspect of the job was less subject to Umakoshi’s personal flare, but the job was done with a wonderful amount of finesse. Even with his obligations to the original manga’s art and design for his framework, he manages to inject every fight scene with an incredible amount of unique style. I am actually at a real lack of words to define that one thing that sets him apart, but if I were to describe it in relative terms, it just feels like compared to other shows that have aired around the same time as his work, Umakoshi simply gives off a vibe that suggests he was the only animator working in the industry that season who know what he was doing.

Umakoshi’s attention to detail in certain fight scenes in Grappler Baki is part of what really makes his animation shine. The very fight is alive and dynamic, rather than a boring flinging of stiff limbs and prolonged dashes across four foot long distances. At no point does Umakoshi really ever avoid adding detail simply because the detail isn’t necessary and more often than not the usual “short cuts” of animation like blurred or vanishing action-line limbs is actually used to convey a real sense of speed rather than to dodge having to draw more details. What I think I’m trying to get at here is that Umakoshi is a true master of his art as an animator, and he understands how to make his animation interesting without falling pray to self-indulgence or cheap crowd pleasers. Of all Umakoshi’s work that I’ll be going over here, I can honestly say that for any fighting anime fans, Grappler Baki is an absolute must see.

Umakoshi was also the character designer and one of just two animation directors behind the 1999 Street Fighter Alpha movie. (aka. Street Fighter Zero) While not a fantastic movie by any means, the fights are what I’m really most concerned with and the animation in that area of the film was fantastic. Also worth noting is that while Umakoshi may have had a little more freedom with the character designs this time around, as there was no single art style for him to stick to, he made a clear point of keeping the character designs very much in the spirit of the look and feel of the games. While the film has very little merit as far as stories go, the the fights are worth watching for.

Interestingly one of the most glaring issues with the character designs in this film is the awkwardly small and wide size and setting of the eyes, creating a feeling of unusually large heads and faces. This is somewhat ironic, considering Umakoshi’s later developed personal art style is often criticized for having enormous close set eyes, just the opposite of the Street Fighter Alpha movie models. The approach to special moves also marks a prime example of Umakoshi’s approach to special effect type powers in a fight animation, something that hadn’t come up in Baki The Grappler.

I do hate to list two pretty much indisputably bad titles back to back, for fear of losing steam but working chronologically the next big Umakoshi job we run into is the 2003 TV series, Air Master. I’ll start by saying that the original Air Master manga drawn by Shibata Yokusaru was about as unattractively drawn as any manga has ever been. While the anime was in fact bad, mostly on account of the story, it could still be considered a great improvement over the manga because of Umakoshi’s work on animation. It was actually quite fortunate that Umakoshi found work on such a bizarre title because it left him artistic liberty over everything but the most basic character features and basic plot.

With the task of reworking the characters from scratch in his hands, Umakoshi began to show signs of his personal style. While the basic proportions and models were basically just cleaner more practical updates of the manga’s art style, the most noticeable difference was in the eyes. The Air Master designs showed early signs of Umakoshi’s now iconic looking eyes, which are given particular emphasis in displaying shock, fear, or occasionally various degrees of insanity.

Also worth noting is that the fights in Air Master were actually really well done despite the show’s otherwise erratic quality, drawing heavily on Umakoshi’s firm grasp of animating martial arts fights to compensate for where Yokusaru’s manga fell short on detail. The downside to the show was really just that the story and characters weren’t terribly interesting, the over all plot was outrageously nonsensical, the series got cut short and was given a last minute filler ending, and even the abundant fan-service was somehow awkward and unappealing. To be totally fair however it is fun enough to watch through once, but I wouldn’t expect to ever find it on anyone’s top ten favorites list.

In an unusual and somewhat rare change of pace, Umakoshi worked as character designer and chief animation director over a staff of more than a dozen other animators on the 2005 supernatural mystery series/drama series, Mushishi. Some of Umakoshi’s lower profile jobs both in his early career and in recent years have leaned away from the martial-arts and combat angle and turned his talents toward special effects in shows with elements of magic and/or the supernatural; typically these jobs involve magical girl series, or other shows that utilize magic and the supernatural in action scenes, but Mushishi was a special case. The original manga by Urushibara Yuki featured a very rough and sketchy but beautifully detailed art style that made the somewhat slow pace of the story feel comforting and natural. Umakoshi’s character designs were once again reserved for cleaning up and smoothing over the original art style into a more consistent, and his direction over the animation team did a fantastic job of bringing the surreal and supernatural elements to life.

So, here is where things get more interesting. In 2008 Umakoshi stepped on board a fairly big project for the animation company named Tatsunoko: Casshern SINS. As a little bit of background on Tatsunoko itself, the company is probably most recognized by a modern Western audience for the fighting game, Tatsunoko VS Capcom that was inexplicably released in the US for the Wii in 2009. I say inexplicably because Tatsunoko’s name and some of its biggest titles are virtually unknown to a Western audience, least of all a younger one, so the choice to localize the game at all seemed a poor marketing move.

Perhaps the only major Tatsunoko titles known in the US would be the classic Science Ninja Team Gatchaman aka Battle of the Planets aka G-Force: Guardians of Space aka Eagle Riders, Mach Go Go Go best known as Speed Racer, Tekkaman Blade aka Teknoman, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Mospeada, and Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross the three series used to create the American Robotech, Cat Ninja Legend Teyandee best known as Samurai Pizza Cats, The SoulTaker and its spinoff series Nurse Witch Komugi, the two Karas films. Save the Karas films, The Soul Taker, and technically Samurai Pizza Cats, these are all classic 70s and 80s shows that you probably wouldn’t expect kids today to be familiar with.

In any case the Tatsunoko company is a classic staple of the anime industry and the name behind some of the bigger classics of the 70s, and among those 70s classics is the original Shinzou Ningen Kyashaan. (Lit. “New-Human Casshern”) The original 1973 TV series was about a super powered android fighting to liberate the world from the tyranny of rampaging super robots with the help of his robotic dog companion, Friender. It is worth noting that this series is also the core inspiration to the original Rockman/Megaman games.

When the Casshern SINS series was made the story was a darker approach to the original story, similar in tone to the live-action Casshern film that had been released in 2004. Unlike all his previous character design work, Umakoshi took the opportunity to utilize his own unique art style, reworking the original designs drastically. Like with the current upcoming Saint Seiya reboot, the change of art style rattled some cages with older fans. It is true that Umakoshi’s highly stylized art can take some getting used to, especially when it is applied to a franchise with an existing image, but while its appropriateness for certain franchises is a matter of taste, his art is by no means “bad.” As I’ve been pushing the real emphasis in Umakoshi’s art and animation is, of course, in his fight scenes, which in Casshern SINS are totally original and gorgeously done with the kind of artistic flare that a lot of anime tends to lack.

Jumping ahead some more, in 2010 the ongoing magical girl franchise, Pretty Cure brought Umakoshi on board as character designer and animation director of Heartcatch Pretty Cure. The overall franchise started with Futari wa Pretty Cure in 2004 and has pumped out a new series every year since, like clockwork. The series follows fairly typical magical girl format from front to back, with the one difference being that the fights have been notably more physical, avoiding the usual sole reliance on magical trinkets and special moves in every fight. The signature moves and magical tools are still there of course, as finishing moves, but a good deal of the regular fights actually turn into punch and kick brawls between the magical girls and monsters more often than not, and that has become the franchise’s calling card.

I did mention that Umakoshi had done work in both design and animation with other magical girl titles, not the least of which was the long running Ojamajo Doremi franchise, so his mixture of experience with both fight scenes and magical special effects finally had a real excuse to walk hand in hand. Most notable is that the fights not only consisted of actually hand to hand combat on top of magical spells, special techniques, and weapons, but of totally original animation, as opposed to the more typical and cost effective recycling of stock footage. Umakoshi’s work on Heartcatch Pretty Cure has since made it one of the more notable fan favorites and a sort of gateway series into the franchise.

Now, this bring us back to 2012 and this April 1st when Saint Seiya Omega debuts. When it comes to Saint Seiya there are perhaps three major concerns about the integrity of the original series. The first concern is the action, which as a fighting series is of course first and foremost. I think it should go without saying by now that this is the one category that Umakoshi has safely covered without any room for argument, no matter what finicky Saint Seiya fanboys may have to say about it. Having Umakoshi on staff is a dream come true for a reboot of any action series.

So then the rest of the concerns come down to aspects of design. The show and its original author, Masami Kurumada, are both known for prettyboy heroes and again, given Umakoshi’s particular art style, no matter how different it may happen to be from Masami’s that core element is unchanged. There is of course plenty of room for personal taste and liking Masami’s art style and liking Umakoshi’s are totally independent things, but when you really boil down all the personal issues between the two, the heroes are still as slender and boyish as ever; Umakoshi hasn’t changed that.

So, finally this just leaves the alterations on the classic “cloth” designs. In the story the heroes and villains all wear “cloths” which are magical suits of armor, each uniquely themed after the image of a constellation, the hero being the bearer of the pegasus cloak. This is the one area where I do see some problems. While still entirely a matter of taste and in no way a objective fault on Umakoshi’s part, the cloths were an iconic feature of the original manga and anime, so much so that they were naturally the centerpiece of the internationally successful toy line. While the changes may have been minor the very idea of changing the look and feel of the iconic armor is something that has not sat well with fans, and I can’t really blame them. Umakoshi’s designs are sleek and streamlined but lack the bulk and weight of the original suits of armor, it gives off the feeling that the armor is flimsier and more fashion than function. However, I do like Umakoshi’s art style and his designs, even if they are admittedly an odd change in certain regards.

“Everything having been said in regards to Umakoshi’s history, I really hope you will all look forward to seeing this new Saint Seiya Omega series once it comes out, and when you find the time, go back over some of Yoshiko Umakoshi’s other work, and keep an eye out for his name involved with future projects.” is what I would normally say, but I also need to stop ending my articles with hoping you’ll be interested or having hoped you enjoyed things, so I won’t say that. Instead I’ll say this: Watch the Saint Seiya Omega series once it comes out this April, and when you find the time, go back over some of Yoshiko Umakoshi’s other work, and keep an eye out for his name involved with future projects! Do it! Do it because I said so!

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  • nerdwerld March 22, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    That is a rather long line of accomplishments. Someone with a track record like that should really be more respected. Not just for their series, but other accomplishments and contributions as well.

    • Tyto March 23, 2012 at 8:52 AM

      It really is a shame that not very many animators get much attention unless they also happen to be directors. With most of the big names in anime dropping like flies over the past few years someone will have to step up to the plate and it’ll most likely be these guys that no one’s paying attention to now.

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