Saturday, December 22, 2007

A tale of two studios: Bones and Gonzo - An analysis

For me, it really is the best of times and the worst of times. It isn't Madhouse or manglobe or even Production I.G. that epitomize anime for me. I realize that they're all good production companies, but when I pick up one of their boxes I don't know what I'm going to get. Each of their series are too divergent from each other. I don't see any central vision to their stories. No similarities between their series. They are all good studios, but to me there are only two studios that will make me buy a series without thinking about it: Bones and Gonzo.

The funny thing is that no two studios could be more disimiliar. Bones focuses on telling an intricate story, revolving around a central theme or two. The characters are all rich and tend to walk on that moral tightrope between good and evil. I've never watched a Bones series with a true villian. Even Darcia at his most insane is completely understandable in Wolf's Rain. The Peacekeepers in Scrapped Princess defend their positions with a cold logic that is both understandable and actually empathetic.

The animation and artwork seems to focus on this. Generally the characters remain central to the story. It's rare that we get and epic scene of ships approaching each other in a Bones series. Even in the establishing shots, we see the characters moving through the landscape, whether it's a city street or a snowy wasteland. Armies never stand face to face, milling over a muddy hillside, instead we see the generals agonizing over their decisions, hoping that they were the right ones. No matter how epic the series should be, the directors will find a way to make it intensely personal.

Of course, that's why Bones sucks at epics. Their style simply can't capture the vastness of the struggle. It's one of the reasons why Scrapped Princess was good but not great. Instead of focusing on this monumental struggle between man and their alien occupiers, it shows that struggle through Shannon and CZ. The war is too personalized to really feel that the stakes are high enough for it to be truly epic.

Gonzo on the other hand, up and to recently, could do an epic like no other. Mostly it's due to how beautiful their animation is. I still get chills thinking about Vincent standing on the bridge of the Urbanis as it's pinned to Exile. The snow blowing in as he shouts up at the Sylvana to "give them hell." The villians are truly atrocious. The good guys may be flawed, but are generally noble and heroic (or at least fighting on the side of good and right).

Even their more personal shows, like Gantz, Kiddy Grade and even Shana manage to capture that sense of epic so well that it causes a visceral response in me. The heroes seem like they're in real danger. The stakes seem like they could be the end of the world. Even the establishing shots in The Count of Monte Cristo move away from the main characters, showing the grand vistas and the true immensity of it all. They're more inclined to show the thousands of soliders on the muddy hill shuffling around rather than the generals. They will show dozens of ships squaring off, rather than one or two piloted by a particular character.

But even a show like Last Exile has soft spots when it comes to characters. In most Gonzo shows, the characters tend to be more flat. They're pretty divided into good and evil. Even a show like Gantz, with its social commentary, is a show about epic characters doing epic things.

The problem is that one of them knows what they're good at and the other studio doesn't. Bones seems to always comes out with projects that are suited for their style. Even Scrapped Princess fits their style in a way, since the majority of the story focuses on Pacifica, Shannon and Raquel's journey rather than any epic war. There are a few exceptions like Mars Daybreak, but generally they produce solid character driven shows.

But for Gonzo, they seem to be forgetting what makes them good (epic shows about epic people) and trying to diversify. The problem is that the work comes out uneven. Granted both Speed Grapher and Solty Rei had their high points and overall were good series. But they weren't as good as they could have been.

On top of that, Gonzo seems to be losing their edge when it comes to artwork. While some of their shows are still good, a lot more of them are just okay and a few of them are really bad. I don't know if their losing their talent pool, or if they just have been bringing in new directors. But it seems like they're becoming just another studio.

And if you'll pardon another literary reference, is enough to try my soul.

5 comments:

omo said...

1. Seen Eureka 7?
2. How does Rahxephon factor into all of this? Or Glass Fleet (I'm just kidding about this one)?

I sort of see what you mean about the sense of scale, but I disbelieve it entirely regarding Gonzo's ability to pull it off. I suppose they may be better than Bones in terms of that, but I feel it's only because of the source material. They really are all over the place.

I think while animation studios in charge of the primary creative team do tend to use the same selected pools of people, it might be a little more sensible to talk about planning and writers and original creators rather than studios. It is those people who determines a lot of the factors you are talking about, such as scope of the narrative, the focus of the series, etc.

Cameron Probert said...

Yeah, actually I've seen about half of Eureka 7 and again it's another fairly personal scale story. The story focuses on Renton and Eureka and Holland. The bad guys are fairly well fleshed out and particularly gray.

RahXephon is tougher. To be honest though, there aren't any bad guys in it. But it is a lot more epic in scale. And I think in this case you're right that it would be more sensible to talk about the creator than the studio on that one.

Honestly, in most cases I would agree that it would be smarter to talk about the actual creative team, in these two cases I find that the material that comes out from these two studios is similiar enough. Or rather they share the same good traits and the same bad traits.

Anonymous said...

You're right about BONES. Pretty much all of their series are very personal and character driven series, though Eureka Seven is probably the most epic in scope of all the series they have done while still being a rather personal story. You're also right in that the vast majority of villains in BONES stories are gray, I havent seen many people pick up on this but it's been fairly consistently true. I feel Bones is one of the most consistent studios in Japan, not only in art and animation, but also in the stories and themes they choose to tell, and I like that very much.

However I have to disagree with you about Gonzo. A lot of their shows have the *potential* to be epics, but simply fail to be so due to so many reasons. From lack of writing talent to poor animation. Even Last Exile, obviously their most epic series in scope falls flat on it's face in the end (imo of course) and ends it on a whimper. For me Gonzo is all about Potential being squandered. They have so many good ideas for shows but the majority of the time they don't have the talent to back it up. The only Gonzo anime that didn't leave me disappointed in some way or another was Gankutsuou I think.

Iknight said...

Eureka 7's second half gets more epic. According to Wikipedia (hmm) the director consciously planned to make the first half build a story on a very human scale, and the second half widen its vision.

I, perhaps like omo, tend to follow directors more than studios (Warning: Goro Taniguchi fanboy) but you may have a point in saying that Bones and Gonzo are the only studios where you can pick a coherent thread in (most of) their works.

I found that Last Exile's ending left a little to be desired, but I think it was a problem with the animation and mechanical design rather than the storytelling.

Michael said...

Gonzo not only must be more picky with regard to the anime they choose, their quality must also rise with the new anime they will produce. Their bad choices have left a lot of anime fans with bad tastes on their mouths, and despite some gems like Welcome to the NHK most of their productions have been somewhat subpar.