Akiyuki Shinbo in the 90s [Part 2]

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This video is a continuation of Shinbo in the 90s Part 1, so watch that video first if you haven’t yet.

Shinbo’s next project would see him returning to work with Studio Madhouse for a fifty-minute OVA called Twilight of the Dark Master. This one is a quintessentially 90s dark urban fantasy, rife with gory violence, nudity, demons, and badasses with psychic powers. It feels like a Yoshiaki Kawajiri OVA by way of X/1999 if that makes sense to anyone. Sparse on plot, dialog, and anything happening, this OVA is mostly just a collection of really nice-looking vaporwave aesthetic backgrounds and cool imagery; weirdly enough, however, not much of it is all that Shinbo-like. There’s plenty of bold color and framing choices, as well as some inventive aspect ratio changes, and even another scene of a character’s face appearing on many surfaces at once; but for the most part this OVA is far more tame than Shinbo’s standard fare–perhaps because it was able to achieve aesthetic beauty anyways without having to do anything all that weird. Still, I can’t really recommend this as much of a vehicle for Shinbo appreciation, and on its own merits I could only recommend it to the most hardcore fans of violent 90s anime schlock.

Over the next couple of years, Shinbo’s rate of production would seem to slow down a bit–but he’d also start popping up in small ways in other people’s work on the side. There are four different cases of Shinbo working as an animation checker under the pseudonym Futoshi Shiiya in 1998 and 1999; first on the Silent Mobius TV series, and then on three different shows by studio Triangle Staff: Aoi & Mutsuki, Magic User’s Club, and Space Pirate Mito. In all of these cases, several of the staff members whom Shinbo had worked with on previous shows were among the main creative staff on the series, so it seems likely that Shinbo was brought on via connections to help out with their production, if not to offer any creative input.

In 1998, Shinbo would also turn up as a storyboarder for episode 12 of Saber Marionette J to X; a show whose director, Masami Shimoda, had worked with Shinbo on five different shows across his career dating all the way back to Urusei Yatsura, as well as whose writer had written most of Yamamoto Yohko and Detatoko Princess; those, among plenty of other shared staff between Shinbo’s other work going back to Yuu Yuu Hakusho. While this episode isn’t particularly Shinbo-like, besides in the inclusion of some single-color shots and weird picture-in-picture framing, the editing style of the episode is nonetheless incredibly bizarre. It seems to come from the early days of digital cell manipulation, and for whatever reason the team thought it would be a good idea to have images constantly sliding all over the place and on top of one-another. It’s honestly kind of nauseating and horrible to look at, and not something I’ve ever seen Shinbo do elsewhere; but this episode is weird enough, and different enough from what I could tell by looking at other episodes of the show, that I still think it’s worth mentioning. Don’t watch it, though.

1999 would see the debut of Shinbo’s biggest project yet and the last one that he’d do with J.C. Staff–a full-blown 26-episode TV version of Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko. While retaining the basic character and plot aspects of the OVA series, this TV version takes a lot more time to flesh out its characters and to tell a more straightforward, long-form story, with a lot less emphasis on adventure, and a greater emphasis on interpersonal melodrama and starship battles. Like the OVAs, it uses Shinbo’s stylistic trappings more as window-dressing than as a constant focus, though the sheer length of the series allows for most of his techniques to make an appearance by the end, and even for a large handful of new ones to emerge.

The most prominent Shinbo-isms throughout this series are the harsh lighting and bold monochromatic frames that he’s best known for, which are persistent to the point that at times they can actually feel oppressive. Given the relatively lighthearted nature of the series, it can feel strange at times that the visuals are so dark for such long stretches of time, and I can’t help but think, even as a fan of Shinbo’s style, that he overreached a bit in this case. His bizarre choices of aspect ratio and windowed framing also come up a lot of times throughout the series. Besides those things, we can find at least one example of each of the following:

Harsh hallway lighting, cool lightning effects, a face appearing in multiple reflective surfaces, inventive transitions all over the place, a bath scene, a character looking into a fisheye lens, that thing where we go into a character’s eyeball to what they’re looking at, and crucifixions.

Aside from those, the series also introduces a bunch of new techniques which will come up in Shinbo’s future work–most especially in his long-form comedies which he’d make with studio SHAFT in the mid-2000s. Firstly is the near-constant gag of drawing attention to the size of one character’s forehead in all kinds of unique ways. This gag was used in the original OVAs, but not nearly to the extent that it is in the show, which pushes it to the extreme. This would be done again with a big-foreheaded character in Pani Poni Dash in 2005. This show also introduces the use of eyecatches during which the character depicted says the name of the show in different ways every time, as well as the first instance wherein eyecatches are used after nearly every scene throughout a certain episode, which both become common Shinbo trademarks later on.

Episode two has the first instance of a super-long shot wherein the characters in the foreground are talking about one thing, while an unrelated scene is happening behind them, which Shinbo does in a lot of his comedy shows. This is also an example of a lengthy wide shot which repeatedly cuts to close-ups of a character’s face and then back out to the wide, which we’ll be seeing used in the next thing that Shinbo directed as well. Later episodes introduce a repeated animation that we see many times throughout the series, which is something Shinbo would use in most of his longer-running TV series. Finally, towards the back end of the show, we start to get a bunch of random cut-aways to a relatively unimportant older side-character who fills a sort of mentor position in the story, just going about their everyday life and doing random stuff. This is, once again, something that persists in all of Shinbo’s comedy shows in the mid-2000s. In fact, the general pacing and editing style of Yamamoto Yohko grows to increasingly resemble the feeling of SHAFT’s work in the later part of the series, and gives much more of the vibe that I best know Shinbo for than any of his other work up to this point.

This series was also the first time that Shinbo worked with one of my favorite character designers, Akio Watanabe, who would not only provide the character designs for the SoulTaker, but also, much more famously, for the entire Monogatari series. It’s kind of trippy to see his very cutesy and modern design sense applied to a cel-animated 90s series, especially since the designs have been modified from the much more era-indicative designs of the OVAs. Also worth mentioning is the mechanical designer, Noriaki Tetsura, who would do the same job on Shinbo’s next two projects, and had previously worked as a key animator on Yuu Yuu Hakusho.

As for whether or not I’d recommend Yamamoto Yohko, it’s kind of a tough one. The storyline is incredibly bizarre and takes more than half of the series to really take off; and I could see a lot of viewers being turned off by its frequent tonal shifts. This series definitely leans into bathos territory as it goes, with scenes of high melodrama sometimes punctuated by weird slapstick humor. It’s also very, very slow, and feels like it wastes a lot of time, especially in the first half. There’s a decent handful of really trippy and esoteric scenes and episodes, but none of them are trippy in a way that screams Shinbo, so much as just generally weird and even sometimes incoherent. It’s definitely the kind of story that asks you not to think too hard about its mechanics and is more dedicated to the moment-to-moment enjoyment of watching its story unfold. I can’t say that the characters were interesting enough for me to form an attachment with them and I didn’t care for the setting at all, but it would be hard for me to say that the story is without merit, or that I couldn’t easily imagine other viewers buying into it more than I could. If you dig the show’s aesthetic, or you’re just easily won over by 90s shows that are set in space and by cute, earnest characters who feel lots of big emotions, then by all means, give this one a shot.

Shinbo’s next OVA, Tenamonya Voyagers, is a lot easier to recommend. Produced by studio Pierrot, whom you’ll remember as the Yuu Yuu Hakusho guys that started this whole journey, and released over the course of 1999, this comedy space adventure series is lavishly designed and produced, with its first episode being among the nicest-looking things that Shinbo’s ever been involved with. I really got a Cowboy Bebop vibe from the visuals of this series, with its highly detailed and lived-in cities on other alien planets, and the utterly gorgeous character designs from Masashi Ishihama, who would later design for the much more famous Read or Die OVA.

Tenamonya’s rather strange opening video, set to a tune that sounds like a marching band, bears a lot of resemblance to the style of the early Pani Poni Dash openings–and this brand of bizarre imagery in a comedy OP is something which studio SHAFT would later be known for. Early on, we also get an example of these walls of one repeated image, which also showed up a few times in Yamamoto Yohko, but I hadn’t picked up on the trend until now. Monochromatic frames and strange aspect ratios are here as you’d expect; and the first episode also features a scene wherein a car’s headlights are used to cast harsh lighting over a scene, which we’ll be seeing again in the SoulTaker. Framing through foreground objects, background animation, and flame effects all show up throughout, as well as the return of the going-through-an-eye thing, stained glass, candles, cutting back and forth between a long wide-shot and close-ups of the characters’ faces, and even the use of cut-aways to a support character doing a bunch of random stuff, particularly in the last episode. The only technique which is more or less introduced by this series is depicting a group of faceless individuals, which will be more prominent in future series.

Tenamonya Voyagers doesn’t lean all too heavily on Shinbo-isms until its final episode, which uses them very effectively to create the wackiest and funniest episode of the show. Whether Shinbo-y or not, the series is consistently visually engaging thanks to its strong animation and designs, which allow it to flow from normal-looking scenes into Shinbo-looking scenes without the transition feeling jarring, cause everything just always looks cool as hell. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with this OVA is that it’s woefully truncated. By the end, the characters have only barely gotten off their feet on the start of a big adventure, and the series just kinda ends unceremoniously without any semblance of an ending. This really feels like the first four episodes of a very fun 26-episode series that just never was. It’s more than a bit of a shame, and the overall feeling of this OVA is bittersweet, as it starts so strongly, but doesn’t really go anywhere by the end.

So at this point, we’ve covered every single thing that Shinbo worked on up through the end of the 90s–but there’s still one more show that I feel the need to talk about in order to put the capstone on this era of Shinbo’s career; I am of course referring to the one that I’ve been making reference to throughout this entire video: The SoulTaker.

The SoulTaker represents a kind of integral turning point in Shinbo’s career. Released in 2001 by Tatsunoko Productions, it would be the last series that Shinbo did with many of his returning staff members from the other 90s shows, as well as the last thing that he did with any of the studios that I’ve talked about so far. Immediately following this series, Shinbo would seemingly blink off the map for three years before returning with an OVA and another TV series in 2004, and then finally joining studio SHAFT–but we’ll have to get into what he was really doing for those three years if and when I get around to making Akiyuki Shinbo in the 2000s. As for why these things happened, I have no idea–but more importantly, The SoulTaker makes the perfect capstone for this part of Shinbo’s career because it’s just the most thoroughly SHINBO thing ever made.

It wouldn’t feel fair to say that The SoulTaker uses a lot of the bold, monochromatic coloring and harsh lighting that we’ve gotten used to, so much as to question if the show even has a base color palette to begin with. At no point does the series ever settle on one look, and it goes a lot farther than ever before on making this coloring style look sleek and stylish. The move to digital coloring seems to work wonders with Shinbo’s style, as does the use of 16:9 aspect ratio which gives a lot more breathing room for these esoteric shots to feel coherent. Suffice it to say that this series elevates the techniques that we’ve gotten used to into really coming into their own, and actually working as the basic look of the show instead of as window-dressing to certain shots.

Up until this point, I’ve tried to show you the majority of the Shinbo-centric shots in each of the shows that he worked on, and to present each of his stylistic trappings therein; but doing so here would just about require me to play the entire show. Whereas some of these techniques would’ve shown up once or twice in previous shows, here they are all used continuously. Remember how Shinbo used to work in a crucifixion scene maybe once every-other show? Now, one of his transforming hero’s main special attacks literally allows him to crucify his opponents in mid-air before impaling them through the chest. Remember those cross-shaped grave markers that he slipped into Hurricane Polymar? Now, the show’s first major action scene takes place in a graveyard; fighting against a doctor, with one of his eyes covered by a shining object; and using constant background animation. The SoulTaker doesn’t so much feature the occasional gothic environment, as it is simply that the world it takes place in is inherently gothic in nature. The color design of this series actually reminds me a lot of the comic series Hellboy, which Shinbo would later pay outright homage to in one of the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei ending themes, leading me to wonder if it wasn’t a big influence on his style.

Much of this show will look and feel familiar to fans of Shinbo’s later work, and especially to some of his opening and ending sequences which seem to pay homage to it. Our main character practically starts the show off hanging suspended by chains in mid-air, which Shinbo will do countless times again–as he will also do with bloody teardrops, and representing characters by on-screen text instead of actually showing them. In this series, Akio Watanabe’s designs much more closely resemble those in Bakemonogatari–especially the girl in the first two episodes who is at times a dead ringer for Senjougahara. It even has moments which nearly resemble the infamous head tilt which studio SHAFT are so known for these days.

The storyline of the SoulTaker can seem nearly as abstract as its backgrounds sometimes, but the heart of it is a simple action-adventure story about a guy who gains special powers after getting stabbed by his mom, then finds out that he’s got a long-lost twin sister who’s in love with him, and she also has a bunch of pseudo-clones who also are sometimes in love with him, and all of them are being chased down by these warring factions of science and medicine corporations who use all kinds of robots and mutants to fight with him. It’s kinda weird, but the bottom line is that the best reason to watch this show is for the twenty-wallpapers-per-minute artstyle. Plus, it has the distinct honor of hosting my personal favorite anime opening of all time, by JAM Project. If you’re a fan of Akiyuki Shinbo’s aesthetic, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to watch this series; but if you’re not a fan, then there’s really not much of interest here to make it worth seeking out.

Certain aspects of this show’s Shinbo-ness are a little bit more abstract and harder to quantify. A lot of its animation and sound design has this weird, floaty feeling to it, like the show is moving slightly slower than real-time, and a lot of Shinbo’s future work will have moments like this. There’s also a stronger focus on atypical sexuality in this show, given how many of the characters are some brand of incestuous; but there have been tiny hints of this all along. Nearly every series up to this point has had at least one line of dialog which might suggest that one character was gay, and at least one case of interesting gender and sexuality dynamics in the later episodes of Yamamoto Yohko. The reason I hesitate to call this a Shinbo thing is that it would pop up at such random times and never really get explored, and it’s not as though Shinbo wrote any of these series–but in the future, there will be no shortage of gay characters and atypical romances in all of his work, from age differences to incest and all sorts of others. It also seemed as if the designs in all of his shows put some emphasis on designing really cute and realistic casual outfits for the characters, to the point that it’s hard to imagine that it was just a coincidence.

Suffice it to say that if there’s a moment wherein Shinbo really seemed to have come into his own as a director, it would be with The SoulTaker. All of the stylistic, thematic, and directorial flourish which he’d used up until this point, and would continue to use in the future, was represented in this series. From the transforming heroes, to the tragic, atypical romance, to the insane, experimental gothic visuals laced with hints of fanservice, this show had it all.

So what I’m sure a lot of you are wondering is why I would go to the trouble of cataloging Shinbo’s techniques and their histories so thoroughly (other than to show what a massive fanboy I am). The reason is that from this point onward, Shinbo’s career becomes a little bit more complicated and draped in subtle mystery. After teaming up with studio SHAFT, Shinbo would start collaborating with other, equally experimental and insane directors who would change the inherent style of the shows that he was in charge of, and even start to get his name associated with techniques that he may not have had as much to do with. In turn, his stylistic attitude would permeate the studio so thoroughly that many of his understudies would come to resemble him to the point that many viewers wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

I think that by taking a look at Shinbo’s past, and seeing which techniques he’s been prone to using from the start, or has continued to use across his entire career, we can get a better idea of which elements of his future work he was actually responsible for. I would love to eventually catalog everything which Shinbo worked on from this point forward, but that would be an even bigger project best saved for another day. For now, I hope you were able to get something out of this massive rundown of Shinbo’s career in the 90s, and that you’ll share it around to anyone whom you think would appreciate it. Support my channel on patreon if you want to see more videos like this, and check out my other channels for more frequent content. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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